Too Close To The Sun

chapter 3. Ground Rules

"Remember this transaction is absolutely final," the man said, greedily eying the bars of gold Mustang had hefted.

"I am aware of that," Roy answered smoothly, somewhat smugly. "Now, his arm, please."

In truth, the gold was probably excessive for what use the youth would initially be, but hanging onto any portion of the freshly transmuted gold was certainly not in the best interest of the Colonel. But he glanced sideways at the sullen boy and saw the light of realization in his gaze; the boy's eyes widened slightly before his brows lowered in a scowl.

He knew. Mustang hid his smile.

"Here," the seller grabbed Roy's attention again, putting down a suitcase in front of him. "The arm's in there. The boy knows how to take care of it," he added, jerking a thumb in Edward's direction. "He screams like a motherfucker when it gets put back in, so don't be too startled."

Roy's eyes narrowed; the information was not precisely surprising, since it was common knowledge that automail did not lend itself to being gentle on the connected nerves. However, he had not quite understood the extent of the pain of reattachment, apparently. He glanced at the boy again; Edward was glaring up at his former owner, his golden eyes burning with anger. Interesting.

"Thank you for the warning," was what he said, handing over the two gold bars in his hands and hefting the suitcase; it wasn't so heavy as he had initially suspected. "Is that all?"

The man shrugged, shoving the gold into his bag. "Eh," he said noncommittally. "He don't respect anybody, but he works hard. Good luck with him, I guess." He pushed Edward forward with one large hand, neither gentle nor overly harsh. "He's yours."

The boy stumbled forward a little before catching his balance; he stood sullenly in front of Mustang, his gaze fixed on the floor. Roy resisted the urge to reach out and draw him forward; he doubted the boy would appreciate it, and bought or not, he need the child to respond positively to him. Instead, he waited for the boy's former owner to leave, then knelt down on one knee, falling a little below Edward's eye level. "Edward Elric."

Edward took the minimal effort to lift his eyes to meet Mustang's; his gaze was hot with anger, but Roy was pleased to see a certain calculating look there as well, as if he was measuring the Colonel up, trying to decide if he was worth any of the respect the boy apparently lent no one. Edward Elric was not stupid ? no one who had come as close to success at an impossible alchemy as him could be.

"I am taking you back to my room at the Homestead," Mustang continued, now that he had Edward's attention; he reached out and undid the buckle binding the boy's forearm to his waist, letting the bind fall to the ground without collecting it. "I do not want to have to incapacitate you to assure you get there. You will come with me willingly?" he asked.

The boy glanced down at the discarded restraint, looked back up at Mustang silently for a moment, then gestured towards the suitcase limply. "You've got my arm anyway," he said, smirking bitterly. "A one-armed kid would be pretty easy to find, don't you think?"

A kid with automail plating, perhaps, but missing limbs were more common than they should have been. But if the arm was insurance, so be it. "Very well." He glanced over Edward briefly. "Those are your only clothes?"

"There's some in the suitcase," the boy answered dryly as though he'd been through this too many times, and it made sense, Roy reflected, that his clothes would be given with their wearer.

"Excellent," he extemporized. He lifted the suitcase slightly. "I will return your arm back at the room. Now, this way." He straightened, gesturing for Edward to come with him as he moved towards the exit.

Edward followed.

The room was a modest one, with two beds, a dresser, and a private shower; the Colonel put down the suitcase next to one of the beds as he sat down on it, lifting his gaze to Ed lazily.

Ed met his eyes. They were dark, and calculating; Ed doubted the Colonel had ever done anything on a whim in his whole life. In truth, Mustang had him horribly confused ? and Ed was not entirely sure the Colonl didn't intend that, either. He...wasn't playing by the rules.

Ed could hardly count the questions he had, but for now, he held his tongue.

Mustang was the first person to break off their informal staring contest, turning back to the suitcase and lifting it into his lap and opening it. He pulled out Ed's arm, holding it up; all the joints flapped loosely, clacking together noisily. "It looks to be a bit small," he observed, closing the suitcase.

The Colonel seemed to often speak without preamble; that suited Ed just fine. He crossed the room, reaching out for the arm. "It's old," he explained. "I haven't seen my mechanic for a year." And the metal plating over his shoulder was beginning to pull; he really had to get it taken care of soon, or it would become difficult to move his shoulder at all.

To Ed's surprise, Mustang let him snatch the arm from his fingers. "I see," the Colonel said as Ed retreated again. "How often should you see him?"

"Her," Ed corrected, putting down the arm on the other bed so he could change his grip on it. He hefted the arm. "I see her when I need to."

"Do you want help with that?" the Colonel asked.

Edward didn't precisely start with surprise, but a shock ran through him; he looked up at Mustang, frowning, trying to figure out what to make of him. Mustang looked right back, his eyebrow slightly raised in question.

"No," he answered; he sat down on the bed, lining up the rotor with the plates and bracing himself for the coming pain. Then he pushed the arm into place.

For a moment there was white-hot pain; he couldn't see, he couldn't hear. All he could do was feel. Then the pain subsided, and a stinging, burning sensation replaced it. Ed came back to himself and realized with a start he'd bit his tongue; he gasped for breath, his clouded vision slowly clearing.

"You didn't scream," the Colonel observed calmly.

Ed swallowed the blood in his mouth and shot Mustang a glare before looking down at his metal arm, flexing the fingers as little shocks of pain assaulted his shoulder. Everything seemed to be in working order; he rotated the shoulder with a grimace and pressed his lips thin.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the Colonel stand, and he tilted his head to look up at the Colonel sideways. Mustang's eyes were cool, but not cold; his look was an even one. "Welcome to my care, Edward." A smile flickered across his face. "Let us start by laying a few ground rules."

Now, things would become clearer. Ed nodded, slightly. "Right."

That thin smile flickered across Mustang's face again. "Excellent." He crossed his arms. "I live by many rules, Edward Elric, as I am bound by my position in the military. However, I do not expect you to live up to military standards. I expect you to live up to mine, which may or may not be harder than meeting those of the military." He paused briefly. "Firstly, and perhaps obviously, the fact that you are my possession is not to be mentioned, discussed, or otherwise brought to the attention of others. You are my bondservant, due to a large debt to me left by your father. Is that story agreeable to you?"

Edward's brow lowered briefly. The Colonel was asking his permission to make up this story? "...sure," he said warily, but Mustang plowed on before he could elaborate.

"Good. Secondly, you will help me choose a suitable pseudonym for yourself. The name 'Edward Elric' is not an unfamiliar one to ranks higher than mine...and regardless, it is likely only a matter of time until someone pins you for who you are." His gaze fell to Ed's metal arm. "We will prepare for that eventuality, but in the meantime, we shall leave well enough alone.

"Thirdly, you will obey me without question, and immediately." The Colonel's eyes became colder. "Whether the reason is obscure to you or not, you will not ask 'why'. I will explain if I consider it important you know the reason for a certain action." His lips pressed together slightly, and he looked at Ed pointedly, as if expecting consent.

Edward nodded briefly, unsure whether he wanted to chafe under the rule. But he couldn't think of anything to say in reply.

Mustang's gaze softened again, and he nodded to himself. "All right." He waved a hand in a vague gesture. "I will add to those rules if need be, but I hope that I won't have to. You seem like an intelligent boy; I think you should have an idea of where your boundaries lie.

"That said...I think it is in your best interests to be gainfully employed." His mouth quirked. "Perhaps you would like to become a State Alchemist."

Edward felt his breath catch. "What?" he asked incredulously, before he could stop himself; he wasn't sure he'd heard the Colonel right.

The Colonel sat down on the opposite bed again. "You are an excellent alchemist, are you not?" he asked; Ed was saved from answering by his plowing onwards. "I will sponsor your bid for the position, and you will fall under my command when you pass." He glanced at Ed's arm again. "My understanding is that automail is expensive. You can sponsor your arm and, I presume, leg, with the salary. And you will have access to hundreds of alchemy books for your edification."

Edward caught himself before he automatically began to play devil's advocate, closing his teeth briefly and collecting his thoughts. "What's in it for you?" he asked finally.

The Colonel actually laughed at that, and his smile was wide and dangerous. "I knew you were intelligent," he said, pride in his voice. "Besides saving me an expense, it will further validate our relationship in the eyes of others. And I will be able to send you on official military business without an escort." He paused. "And now, I suppose, you want to know what is in all this for you."

Ed scowled, pinned; he nodded slightly. "Al?" he began.

"?Is a problem that I will have to work on," Mustang interrupted smoothly. "It will look decidedly suspicious if I suddenly ask for the suit of armor known as Alphonse Elric to be removed from the research rotations. In fact, I am not sure that I will be able to do so at all. And before you give me that accusatory look, Edward, know that I will do my best to see him safe and sound." He looked down at his hands for a moment, turning them over and running a finger over the vein in his wrist, before fixing Ed with another calculating look. "You will have to trust me on this. Do not jeopardize the chance of my getting him out by taking action without my permission. If you do so, you forfeit any help from me. Do you understand?"

Ed felt harangued, but he nodded; there was no other choice, he admitted to himself. The Colonel was Al's best chance at escape, no matter how Ed chafed at knowing that the chance was so close he could smell it. "I understand."

"Very well." Mustang's attention drifted back down to his hands. "Was there anything else you wanted to ask?"

It was now or never. Edward set his teeth and plowed forward. "You intend to become the Fuhrer, right?"

The Colonel lifted an eyebrow slightly. "I do," he said with an intrigued air, "as I told you. Are you uncomfortable with that?" Something about how he said it rang false, as if he was expecting an answer in the negative

Ed hardly took notice, shaking his head sharply, squelching the rising thrill in his chest. "No, no...that's not it," he said, searching for the words ? he despised himself for forgetting all the plans he'd made for how to ask the question on their way to this room. He cleared his throat. "You'll have the Philosopher's Stone at your disposal, right?"

He saw the Colonel's entire face shutter; his gaze was sharp, but Ed couldn't read anything in it. "Yes," he said briefly.

Now or never. Ed took a deep breath. "Colonel...when you become the Fuhrer, please allow me use the Stone to restore Al and myself to our original bodies." He bowed over his knees, closing his eyes, and holding his breath; everything banked on this answer.

There was an extended silence; the Colonel was the one to break it. "It may not work, Edward. You might both die, instead ? the Stone has not been used for such a purpose."

"I know," Ed answered, with a slight grimace; he had considered the possibilities ? dreamt of them ? and knew there were many other possible endings to using the Stone, including death or things worse than death. But he had to take the chance.

There wasn't anything else left but that chance.

He could feel Mustang's eyes on him, and he chafed under the silence.

"Perhaps," the Colonel said, "you will find another way to restore your brother and yourself before then." And Ed felt his heart sink; he was going to say no. "...and perhaps not." Edward hardly dared breathe. "I hope you do. But supposing you do not, I will consider it."

It was the closest thing to a yes Ed could expect, he decided. But he had realized, the moment the Colonel came to him, that Mustang was the best shot he had at the Stone.

He would take another risk on another chance.

"All right," he said, slowly.

There was a long pause, before the Colonel stood again. "We'll be going to Central City tomorrow morning," he said. "You will sleep on this bed tonight?" he indicated the bed Ed was sitting on "?and by the end of this week I want you to send for your mechanic. I will pay for whatever adjustments or repairs need to be performed on your automail. As for tonight...we are going out to eat. Put on something more appropriate to the weather, Edward."

It was stupid, Ed thought to himself, that sometime over the course of the past year, he had stopped expecting to be treated with this kind of basic respect; he fought the look of surprise off his face and nodded dutifully. He went to the suitcase and pulled out a battered old red coat ? it had practically drowned him a year ago, but now, it fit a little better ? and put it on, then found his white gloves, buried at the bottom of the suitcase. It stretched thin over his flesh hand, and slid over his mechanical one perfectly. "Like this, Colonel?"

The Colonel looked over him, and again, it was hard to read anything in his gaze. "You'll have to remove the symbol before tomorrow," he said at length, "since it was your father's crest. But it's...effective." That cryptic smile slithered over his face again. "Let's go." And with that, he turned to the door.

Ed almost actually expected it when Mustang held the door open for him before passing through himself, but it still left him with a deep feeling of satisfaction he had not felt in years.