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sol 1056

The Restraint of Desire

chapter 6. courageous
part 2 of The Contraries Arc

The most sublime act is to set another before you.—William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

It hadn't taken long; not soon after Mustang and Edward fell quiet, someone unlocked and opened the door, calling for Edward. Alphonse held his breath while Edward dressed and left, the clatter of shackles and subdued footsteps silenced once the door shut.

Mustang was up immediately, helping Alphonse out from under the bed.

"You need shoes," Alphonse said, and without a second thought, clapped his hands together and transmuted the bed into a pair of black work boots. He gave Mustang a worried look. "On second thought, what's your size?"

"It's—"

The door burst open. A big man with short brown hair stomped into the room. "There'll be none of that alchemy—" He stopped short at the sight of Alphonse crouched by the pair of boots. "What the—"

Alphonse immediately slapped his hands down. The floor slithered upwards to wrap around the man's legs. Mustang had his hand out, glove on, ready to snap.

"Don't say a word," Mustang warned. "You were kind when you didn't need to be, Franco. I haven't forgotten."

"Uh..." Franco swallowed visibly, paling as Alphonse slapped the floor again, withdrawing a bladed staff as tall as Franco.

"I'll watch him," Alphonse said, leveling the blade at Franco's throat. "Put the boots on."

Mustang put his feet in the boots, gave Alphonse a pleased look, and laced them up. Then he moved to stand behind Franco, a hand at the ready.

"Undo him, Halmos."

It took only Alphonse's hands on the flagstones, and the bonds slipped down Franco's legs to become stone again. He didn't move, too aware of Mustang behind him.

"Where's Hogan's husband and daughter?" Mustang's voice was sharp, and his cold expression sent chills down Alphonse's spine.

"I know where the kid is," Franco said. "Other end of this floor. But the man..." He paled. "Don't kill me, please. But...Mr Hogan is...two months now. Buried in the woods..."

Mustang sighed, and lowered his head, but never took his gaze off Franco. "Very well. I figured as much." He jerked his head towards the door. "You're going to escort us to the girl's cell."

"We'll run into other guards," Franco warned. "And they're not going to—"

"Let us take care of that," Mustang replied curtly. He snapped his fingers, and Franco flinched at the ball of flame that hovered at his shoulder before dispersing. Roy smiled, a tight-lipped expression. "Just making sure you're paying attention. Move."

Franco took a deep breath and turned slowly. Mustang followed, and then Alphonse. A chair sat by the door, a book on the floor, and Alphonse tossed both into the room before shutting the door and locking it, removing the key from the lock and pocketing it. If someone knew a guard should be sitting there, Mustang's absence would be discovered, but hopefully not as fast as an open door or empty chair would cause suspicion.

"Halmos!" Mustang's hiss echoed.

Alphonse caught up with the two men at the corner, using the staff as a crutch, and cursing silently for not thinking of a way to pad the damn thing so it didn't tap with every touch against the flagstones. Mustang peered around the edge, checking first. Franco and Alphonse followed, the long hallway and stone floors making their footsteps echo until it sounded like seven, nine, twelve people walking together.

It reminded Alphonse of another laboratory he'd seen, six years before, and he did his best not to shudder. The hallway, so far, had been deserted, but they moved quickly, pausing only at the corners so Alphonse or Mustang could confirm the coast was clear.

Alphonse checked his watch, just as Franco held up his hand.

"First door on the right, around the corner," Franco whispered. "There'll be a guard."

Mustang nodded.

"Ten minutes and counting, General," Alphonse said, and handed him the silver watch before Mustang could speak. "I doubt brother's going to wait on you."

"You sure you can handle this?"

Alphonse didn't bother to answer, waving the two men away. Franco muttered something, but Roy raised a hand and Franco fell silent. Alphonse waited until they'd made a good distance down the corridor, then poked his head around the corner. A single guard sat on a chair about sixty yards down, head back, mouth open.

Excellent, Alphonse thought gleefully, and strolled around the corner. He kept his steps as soft as he could manage on the stone floor, and the guard didn't move. Only once he was in front of the door did the guard jerk upright, startled.

"Hey," Alphonse said, and knelt, slapping his hands to the ground.

Instantly the chair was engulfed in blue light, which faded to reveal the man bound tightly in the chair arms. The chair's back wrapped around his mouth to gag his shout. Alphonse brushed off his hands, then turned the key in the door and pushed it open.

"Hello," he called, softly. "Anyone home?"

A scurrying noise came from the corner, and Alphonse squinted into the darkness. The room had no window, and he wished momentarily he'd had Mustang stay with him; at least the General's alchemy was good for lighting up dark spaces. Alphonse stepped into the room, leaving the door wide open. The dim lights from the hallway cut a swath through the darkness.

"It's okay," he whispered. "Are you Hogan's daughter? I'm going to get you out of here."

"Stay away!" The girl's response was hoarse...and terrified.

He turned towards the sound, his hands out. "It's okay. I'm a National Alchemist, like your mom."

"You're not wearing a uniform...where's your watch?"

"I gave it to..." Alphonse sighed, then slapped his hands together and pressed them against the wall. The stone melted away, revealing a second door opening, which framed the captured guard. "Does that convince you? Now, please, we've got to hurry."

Shuffling footsteps, and a young girl stepped into the light, her hand over her face to block the light. She was filthy, and her school dress hung in rags on her body.

"What's your name?" Alphonse tried to look suitably casual, and strong, like a rescuer should be. Mostly he was just wishing there were someone to punch for leaving a young girl in such horrible conditions.

"Becky," the girl said. She faltered on her feet, panting. It was almost as though it'd taken a great deal out of her to walk that far.

"I'm Alphonse Elric," he replied, startled when Becky smiled at him. Her long brown hair was grimy, but her face was pale, like the clean spot left after washing only one part of a dirty window. Alphonse caught her by the elbow when she halted in front of him; she seemed like she was about to pass out. Her stomach rumbled, and she hunched her shoulders, looking guilty.

"Sorry," she whispered.

"It's okay," Alphonse said, and did a mental check on his ankle. It'd held up well enough so far, and the brace was certainly helping. "Come stand out here," he added, guiding her into the hallway. Then he dragged the struggling guard's chair into the room, and with one clap, the wall was sealed and the door locked. Alphonse patted the door. "That'll hold, until it's time to retrieve him."

"Wow."

Alphonse laughed softly, a bit abashed. "Now we get you upstairs, to safety."

"What about my mom and dad?"

Ah...how to answer that. Alphonse gave her a smile, catching her by the hand, steadying her while they walked back the way he'd come. "My friends are taking care of everyone else."

"Oh." Becky was quiet, her bare feet padding along the corridor beside Alphonse. "What I really want," she announced, in an undertone, "is a bath. A long bath...like a two-day bath."

"I imagine so."

Alphonse smiled down at her, and she beamed up at him. One of her front teeth was chipped; there was a bruise on her cheek he'd not noticed before, and more on her shoulders and one forearm. He wondered what had happened, and then decided he wasn't sure he wanted to know. Given the way his brother and the General had argued over cruel punishments, he suspected it was probably something horrific. He wanted to be kind, but he had enough nightmares of his own — and it wasn't exactly the time for conversation, either.

At the corner, he checked first, then tugged on her hand, heading in the direction Mustang had said would be the stairs. Halfway down the hall, someone shouted from behind them.

"You! Hey, you up there!"

Alphonse bolted, dragging Becky along by the hand. Gunshots rang out, and Becky screamed, stumbling. Alphonse spun, dropping the staff to catch her by the waist and throw her over his shoulder. Ten feet, two more shots, and he ducked around the first corner. He twisted, clapping his hands and slamming them against the wall.

The hallway rumbled, stone arcing up from the floor to meet the ceiling. Becky shrieked in terror against the small of Alphonse's back, her broken fingernails digging into him through two layers of fabric. He held onto her legs, backing away from the billowing dust.

The muffled gunshots continued for a moment or two, replaced by pounding and yelling on the other side of the new wall. It wouldn't take them long to find a way around, through the dungeon's maze, he knew—and they knew the layout far better than he.

Alphonse ran as rapidly as he could manage. His ankle throbbed; the muscles complained in his good ankle, thanks to favoring the bad one. There was no way he could keep carrying Becky unless he had no other choice. He paused at the corner, setting her down, and she collapsed while he was busy checking the next hallway.

"Come on," he muttered, taking her under the arms. "Stand up. I can't carry you—"

"I can't," she said, and started to cry. "They're gonna kill you and then the bad men will come and make me..." Her words became incoherent, babbling through the tears coursing down her cheeks. She was terrified, to the point of being frozen in fear.

"Okay, okay, shhh," Alphonse replied. He took a deep breath, then turned around and knelt down slightly. "Climb on my back."

She hesitated, but when he dared to give her an annoyed look over his shoulder, she hopped on.

"Careful, careful, not so tight I can't breathe," he chided, and she dutifully moved her arms to around his shoulders. It put her as the main target to anyone behind them, but at least with her knees hooked over his elbows, his hands were free to fight.

Around the corner, as quietly as he could manage: each step shot pain up from his ankle to his hip, and he winced. His limp was probably noticeable, and if he ended up fighting anyone, they'd pinpoint that as a weakness. Assuming they didn't aim for Becky in the first place. He sighed, taking another left, counting off the turns in his head. He had no idea how long it'd been, and couldn't hear anything other than Becky's breathing against his ear and his own labored panting.

They saw no one through the warren of hallways and doorways. Alphonse wanted to laugh in relief at the sight of the stairs, carved in stone and wide enough for three grown men to walk abreast. He took a deep breath and let Becky down.

"I'm sorry, but I can't carry you up the stairs," he whispered. She whimpered, and he caught her by the hand. Standing with his back to the wall, he guided her to do the same. That freed up his other hand to support his weight on the railing every time he took a step with his injured foot. Becky stared, noting his limp; at a glance from Alphonse, she set her chin and began climbing the steps, keeping her own back to the wall as well.

They came around the bend of the stairs to find four men on the landing. The men hesitated, clearly startled, but Alphonse didn't wait. He let go of Becky. Up one step, and slammed his fist into the first man's jaw. The same instant, the second man caught Alphonse in the stomach. He doubled over, stumbling back down to the landing.

The fourth man hollered, turning around to rush back up the stairs.

"Damn it!" Alphonse dodged a second punch, and clapped his hands. Ducking under another swing, he fell to his knees and slapped his hands on the steps.

The alchemical reaction ripped between the four men, slamming them each against the wall. Two of them slumped down with groans; Alphonse leaped up the two steps to slam into the third's stomach with his shoulder. The man doubled over, choking. Al moved past to kick the fourth man in the gut; the man fell backwards, wheezing and clutching his stomach.

"Come on!" Alphonse held out his hand out to Becky. To his surprise, she didn't need to be told twice. She darted up the steps, grabbed his hand, and they ran around the corner and up the next flight of stairs.

At the top of the second flight, six men blocked their way, looking surprised at Alphonse and the skinny girl behind him. Shouts and cries echoed down the stairs, and Alphonse hoped that meant Hawkeye had arrived with reinforcements. In some part of his mind, he registered Becky stepping back to give him room — but she kept her hand on the hem of his cloak.

One man raised a gun, taking aim, and Alphonse yanked Becky down with him. In the blink of an eye, he brought his hands together, concentrated, and put his hands to the steps. No holding back, this time — the wind shear sliced across the men, ripping their clothes to shreds, slicing any part exposed. The men screamed in shock and pain, but two rallied.

Becky fell back down the stairs when Alphonse jerked away from her, clapping again as he came to his feet. He pressed his hands to the wall — a heartbeat's passage was all it took to jerk a bladed staff from the solid stone. Whipping the staff forward, he jabbed it at the first man's knees, swinging sideways and up to hamstring the man. The second got in a kick at Alphonse's shoulder, but Al twisted away, ramming the staff's blunt end into the man's neck. The man grunted, falling sideways onto the stairs, tumbling over until brought to a halt by the other men's bodies.

"Becky!" Alphonse turned, running back down the stairs to the landing, where the girl struggled to her feet. A hand under her elbow, and he pulled her up, leading her through the bodies sprawled across the steps.

At the top of the stairs, he looked both ways, trying to remember Farman's map; it sounded like fighting down the hallway. They should now be on the entrance floor, he recalled, so it was just a matter of going left or right.

Becky tugged at his coat-sleeve. "Which way is out?"

"It's..." Alphonse stared down at her, and knew he couldn't just tell her to flee on her own. He wasn't even sure going to the left was the correct way out. Instead he motioned for silence, a finger to his lips; when she nodded, he guided her to get behind him.

He sidled along the wall, surprised when it remained empty but for Becky and him. The floor was wooden, up here, and the walls were plaster. He used the staff to support his weight; every step had become unbearable. Just a little farther, he told himself, although he was fully aware he had no idea just how far he still had to go; lying to his body didn't help, but it was nice to have a body to which he could actually lie. The sound of fighting increased as they moved down the hallway.

No, he might not know what he could do, but he couldn't walk away.

Becky tiptoed behind him, her grimy fingers on the hem of his cloak. His staff clunked on the floor, and he winced at each sound. Up ahead were two doors; the right one was open. Alphonse stayed against the wall, motioning for Becky to stay out of the way. She nodded and huddled against the wall, her hands over her mouth.

He was almost across from the doors when a shout echoed, loud enough to be heard over the fighting.

"NO!" Edward — angry and desperate. It was less an order, and more of a plea.

And then—a gunshot.

Alphonse's ear rang; he froze, holding his breath. Becky threw herself against him, muffling her cry against his back. He wavered, staring at the doors.

No, no, he pleaded with anything that might listen: please, not my—

A man's voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Move, and I shoot the alchemist!"

"Fuck," Alphonse muttered, hoping that meant Edward was alive—but doubly upset that Ed was alive and now about to get himself shot anyway. He didn't care if his brother would go through six shades of apoplexy at the idea of Al swearing. It was a moment made for swearing.

Taking a deep breath, Alphonse kept his back to the wall, and sidled closer until he was opposite the closed door. A half step, a few inches, a few more, and he could see just a glimpse into the room. The tableau looked strained, tense, although he knew it hadn't been more than perhaps sixty seconds since the gunshot.

A broad-shouldered man stood with a gun pointed at Edward's head; the man's back was to Alphonse. Edward's profile was visible, gun barrel to his temple; Ed looked angry and determined, teeth bared in a snarl. Beyond them, Mustang stood over several crumpled bodies; some of the bodies were smoking. A body curled between Mustang's feet moaned softly, but didn't move. Alphonse's nose wrinkled at the smell of burnt flesh. But for Mustang and Edward, all the rest of the men looked like factory workers, or street toughs. Where was Hawkeye, and everyone else?

Alphonse set that worry aside. He had more important things to figure out. How had someone gotten the drop on Edward? A second look at Mustang answered that question: a knife was buried in Mustang's leg; the General's left hand was on the hilt. His fighting hand was out, ready to snap, but shaking badly.

Alphonse ducked to the left, out of the door's entryway, and measured the distance. Clap, kneel, slap: how long? How fast could he really work such a reaction? He'd never timed it before, though he knew his brother was incredibly fast with such maneuvers. Alphonse had never had reason to test his own speed, and he wasn't sure this was quite what he had in mind for the first time to find out.

He took a deep breath, and stepped in full view of the doorway. Al clapped his hands and dropped to his knees, right as the man spoke again.

"Kid! Make another move and I will shoot!"

Edward turned, saw Alphonse, and gave a strangled cry. Al halted, fingers only inches from the wood. Beyond them, Mustang jerked the knife from his thigh. Blood immediately darkened his pants and he dropped the knife.

"Don't even," the man spat. "You're all going to back away, slowly...slowly!...and let us out of here." He motioned with his free hand, and suddenly two of the men who'd been behind Mustang stepped forward, guns out and pointing at the General's head.

Alphonse knew then that one of them must've seen him, and warned the man with the gun. He kept his hands at the ready, hovering above the floor, in case an opening presented itself. But the man simply laughed, steering Edward towards the door.

"Make a move, kid, and the other one dies," the man told Alphonse. "We're out of here. Men!"

Six or seven men rushed from the room behind the man — Alphonse wondered if that were Creighton, or Chervaise — and the impromptu guard fell in line behind the man with the gun. They tromped past, grinning down at Alphonse just as he realized — Becky!

She was huddled against the wall, hands over her ears. The group passed her, and one of the men grabbed her, picking her up and slinging her over his shoulder. She screamed, kicking. Alphonse could only watch in horror as she was dropped, belted until she fell silent, and picked up again. Then the group swept around the corner and was gone, Edward at the lead.

Alphonse took a breath, turning to see Mustang hadn't moved, but his eyes were fixed on Alphonse. He didn't know if Mustang would get what he was doing, but he could hope. Alphonse took a deep breath, and let his shoulders slump in defeat. He bowed forward, and his hands dropped to the floor. A moment of concentration...and he pushed.

The floor rippled almost imperceptibly, the shock wave carried through the fibers of the wood. Sixty feet into the room and the wave shot upwards, slicing the men's guns to metal ribbons. They yelled in surprise.

Mustang simply smirked, and snapped his fingers.

Flame shot upwards, arcing across the room to tap the heads of the two men behind Mustang. They fell backwards, screaming and holding their burning scalps, but Mustang was already on the move.

Alphonse didn't wait, either: he clapped again and sent another shockwave to the group of workers fighting with several uniformed men just barely in his line of sight. The force sent the group flying outwards, leaving the men stunned and groaning, as if thrown by a great force. He crawled forward, until he could see more of the room. With each clap, invisible winds sliced or struck across the room — and the rush of air warped Mustang's fire into higher and stronger flame.

He took a breath and clapped again, only to realize two feet were directly in front of him. He grabbed for his staff, then saw the blood coating one leg, and looked up at Mustang, who held a woman over his shoulder.

"Alphonse," Mustang said, quietly. "It's over. Leave the rest for Captain Hawkeye to handle."

"But my brother—"

Mustang nodded, and Alphonse realized the General had one hand clasped tightly against his thigh; the white glove was crimson from blood. Alphonse raised his hands to Mustang's ankle, and pressed. The cloth rippled, moving and tightening until it was twice as thick across the wound, and pressed tight against it.

"That should hold it for a bit," Alphonse said, coming to his feet. "I've got to go after my brother." He grabbed the staff from the floor, rising with the staff's support rather than put weight on his ankle.

"Somehow, I don't think you're in much better shape than I am," Mustang observed.

"It's mutual," Al agreed, leading the way. "They went in this direction, so I'm guessing that's the nearest exit."

"Let's hope they run into Captain Hawkeye," Mustang muttered. The woman over his shoulder moaned, and he shushed her absent-mindedly.

"General!" Hawkeye's shout was desperate, but delighted, sounding altogether less than completely professional. Her gun was up, her uniform impeccable, but her eyes were flashing. Farman appeared behind her, but she didn't holster her gun. "We heard a gunshot—"

"Yes," Mustang said. "If you could—" He groaned as Farman took the woman from him, lifting her easily. Mustang's face was pale; there were beads of sweat on his brow and upper lip. He didn't seem to notice. "Thanks. She needs medical attention."

"Right on it, sir," Farman said, and was about to salute before he realized he had no free arms. He shrugged, grinning ruefully, and headed back the way he'd come.

Hawkeye slipped her arm under Mustang's shoulder, and then did the same to Alphonse, supporting them both as they hobbled forward. "Gentlemen, I expect a full report." In a single expression, she managed to look relieved, worried, and slightly annoyed. "Alphonse, you have a badly sprained ankle."

Alphonse tried to smile, ingratiatingly.

Hawkeye sniffed.

Over her head, Mustang smirked, but wiped the expression when she looked his way.

"General, it appears you jumped the gun. So to speak. We only arrived a minute or two ago."

"Ah." Mustang laughed, a barking sound. He shook his head. "Of course. I should have known Halmos' watch would be fast. Must get it from your brother."

"My..." Alphonse blinked. "Wait, if you just got here, did you see Edward and that guy?"

"Creighton," Mustang supplied.

"They left just a few minutes ago." Alphonse began walking faster, up to the main doors. "We need to find out where they went. They've got my brother and Becky."

"Becky?" Hawkeye frowned, stretching her legs to keep up. Mustang, at her side, grumbled at the increased pace but sped up as well.

"The woman alchemist's daughter," Alphonse explained. "The guys went past, and took her, too."

"Shit," Mustang said. "Why didn't you send her outside?"

"I wasn't going to without knowing who was waiting," Al retorted. "Besides," he added, begrudgingly, "I couldn't remember if outside was left, or right."

Stepping out into the gray light of pre-dawn, Alphonse blinked at the collection of men and women standing with their hands up. Six or seven uniformed soldiers encircled them, with guns out. Mustang carefully extricated from Hawkeye, straightening as though his dirty khakis weren't turning brown from the dried blood. He looked every inch the General, despite his filthy appearance, and Alphonse found himself unconsciously mimicking Mustang's actions.

Hawkeye nodded briskly. "I'll have First Lieutenant Farman interrogate the prisoners, to see where Creighton might have taken—"

"I don't know if that'll be necessary," Alphonse whispered, seeing one familiar face in with the rest of the workers. He leaned his weight on the staff, making his way down the two steps with difficulty, and strode past the uniformed officers as though he had every right to do so. At the edge of the group, he stopped. "Erin," he called, remembering Mustang's explanations.

The young man moved back, uncertain, then looked to either side at the angry faces around him. He sighed and stepped forward; the group parted.

"Yeah. I remember you," Erin said. "From the pub?"

"Right. Creighton's gone. He's taken my brother, and Becky. Any idea where they might have headed?"

"No." Erin's jaw quavered, though, and he didn't quite meet Al's gaze.

"She's twelve."

"Can't help you." Erin's expression became scared.

"She's dirty, she's starving, and she's now with a bunch of men—"

"And she has every right to fear being raped again," Mustang finished.

He stood at Alphonse's shoulder, staring at Erin with a level, impassive gaze. He didn't seem angry, or cold—but somehow amused, as though the effort to fry Erin to a crisp might bring a true smile to his face. And somehow, Alphonse thought, that was far more terrifying than anything else.

Erin paled, swallowed hard, and stepped forward again. He stared at the ground, then nodded, as if coming to a decision. "There's a place up on the pass between here and Youswell. That's where the meetings happen before every shipment. If they didn’t go there, I don't know where else they would've gone."

Another worker stepped forward, his hat in his hands. He wrung the wool nervously. "There's...there's a house down about two miles south of town, towards Hyle. I know that's a waiting place for the men hired to...to ambush Alchemists...sir." He flinched when Mustang's gaze landed on him, and shrugged half-heartedly, whispering, "I have a twelve-year old daughter, sir."

"Anywhere else that you can think of?" Mustang raised his voice to be heard throughout the factory's front yard. "Anyone know of any other locations that have been used by the ringleaders?"

Five or six more people spoke up; two knew of the waiting house, as they called it. Another three knew of locations around the town, where ammunition was held before being smuggled out of the town on the train. But other than Erin, none mentioned a halfway point in the mountains between Soswell and Youswell.

Mustang spoke with Hawkeye briefly, and with a look she'd gathered most of the staff around her. Alphonse waited, studying the people offering information and trying not to panic at the amount of time that had passed. As far as he could tell, the workers seemed nervous, yet he picked up the sense that they were pleased and relieved, almost as though Hawkeye's arrival had saved them. Perhaps they, too, were prisoners in their own ways, but he didn't have time to worry about that.

"Halmos," Mustang said from behind him, quietly. Someone had loaned him a black wool coat; the dawn breeze ruffled his dark hair and caught the hem of his coat, making it flap. "I believe Captain Hawkeye is going to tell us to go back to her hotel and wait for her to track down the locations."

"I'd rather not, sir," Alphonse replied, but kept his voice low. It was bad enough Hawkeye had eyes in the back of her head; she could probably hear clear to the next state if she wanted—and she was a crack shot.

"Erin's informed me of a path that leads from the back," Mustang added. "It's not traversable by vehicle, but it's the shortest route to the halfway point."

"Walking?" Alphonse gritted his teeth, and nodded.

"Maybe not..." Mustang narrowed his eyes at some building down at the end of the row, then glanced over his shoulder at Hawkeye. She was busy speaking with Farman and one of the local officers, and Mustang jerked his head towards the end of the factory row.

"Sir?" Alphonse sighed and fell silent when Mustang refused to answer. I was right, he thought wryly. They are a lot alike. He realized he was an inch or so taller than Mustang and added: and they're both short.

At the last building, Mustang checked over his shoulder to make sure Hawkeye hadn't registered their disappearance. "In here," he whispered, and pushed open the doors. "If I'm right..."

The large wooden door swung open, revealing a row of stalls; in the half-light of the early glimmers of dawn, Alphonse could see a stack of hay bales. He sniffed, picking up the smells of dirt, hay, and...horses?

"Wait," Alphonse said, a bit nervously. "I can't ride."

"I can," Mustang replied. He was at the first stall, whistling softly, catching the horse's nose and smiling when it whinnied. "No, not this one..."

"What are you looking for?" Alphonse watched, confused, as Mustang made his way down the row before catching a bridle from over a peg and putting it on a horse. When he opened the gate and led the horse out, Alphonse swallowed hard. He was eye-level with the horse's back. "That's...how are we supposed to get up on that?"

Mustang snorted, sounding suspiciously like the horse, who was eyeing Alphonse with a disinterested air. One ear flicked, and Alphonse gripped his bladed staff even tighter. Mustang turned, limping towards a stone block near the end of the row. He stepped up on the block, unable to hide a grimace, then vaulted gracefully onto the horse's back, before turning to give Alphonse an expectant look.

"Sir," Alphonse tried, one last time. "What if they're not at that location, but somewhere else?"

"Then I'll burn it down, on principle," Mustang growled. "And I'll keep burning everything until I find them."

Alphonse stared up at Mustang, who held out his hand. With a sigh, Al climbed up on the block, then took Mustang's hand. He kicked off with his good foot at the same instant Mustang pulled, and the next thing he knew he was straddling a horse...and the ground looked a long way away.

"Just hold on," Mustang said, and Alphonse instinctively wrapped his arms around Mustang's waist.

It was only later, once they were in the woods and following the narrow footpath, that Alphonse realized Mustang might not have been talking to him.