When spring came to Riesenburg, as it inevitably did, there was no keeping the children inside. The teachers in the small, all-ages school resigned themselves to losing their pupils' attention entirely, and turned them out on an extended lunch-research to fend for themselves. Laughing, chatting, yelling children soon filled the school grounds, often wandering off into the bordering fields to find a spot to unpack lunches, or organize into schoolyard games of byzantine complexity.
One little boy stayed by himself, though, picking a spot in the shade near the edge of the little woods at the back of the schoolyard. He set his paper-bag lunch beside him and unwrapped it dutifully, but his attention was clearly preoccupied by the large leather-bound book that he tugged out of his knapsack. Sitting cross-legged and leaning his back against the trunk of the tree, he propped the book open on his lap and immediately lost himself in it, only occasionally remembering to reach over and take a bite from his lunch.
The cool spring breeze, carrying a hint of damp, rustled the leaves above him and pushed the sunlight to dance in shifting patterns over his dark blond head, bent studiously over his book. Light and shadow flickered over the pages of the book, but the boy didn't react with much more than a frown; not until a shadow fell over the page that blocked out entirely was he shaken out of his reverie.
"Well, look what we have here," came a voice, gleeful and hard. Startled, Alphonse looked up to see three shapes towering over him, blocking out the light. One was a short, somewhat blocky redhead, and the other a lanky brunette with the embarrassing beginnings of acne. The biggest one, a tall blond boy with a bandanna tied around his forehead, crossed his arms and grinned down at Alphonse. "It's a book-worm, playing in the mud. What are you reading that's so interesting, book-worm?"
Al stuttered for a bit, not knowing how to respond. Cato and his friends were all in the fifth-years, two years older than Al's own brother. Up until now, he'd mostly been overlooked by them, and just as happy for it, because Cato and his gang were well-known as the terrors of the schoolyard. They'd had to behave themselves—mostly—when everyone was shut into the schoolroom during cold weather, but now the thaw had released them with all the other students, and Al was dismayed that he hadn't thought of that.
"I, uh, I'm just eating lunch," he mumbled, clutching his book to his chest and eyeing them nervously. The three of them had him surrounded against the tree, and he saw the fourth one lingering back in the schoolyard; no doubt keeping an eye out for teachers, but he could also collar Al even if he managed to make a break for it.
"Ha!" One of the other boys leaned forward and made a snatch—Al grabbed hard onto the edges of the book, but the older boy was going for his lunch sack, instead. "You call this lunch? It looks like worm food to me!"
"Hey!" Dismayed, Al reached up after his food, but the boy easily danced back out of reach. "Give that back!"
"Why should I?" Grinning hugely, the boy scooped up Al's nibbled-at sandwich and took a huge bite. He chewed for a moment, then made a dramatic gagging motion that set the other boys laughing, and spat the half-chewed bite back onto the ground. "Ewww, it's disgusting!" he said loudly. "Definitely worm food!"
"It's not worm food!" Al burst out. "Mother made it for me."
"Oh, yeah? It must suck to have a mom who's so terrible at cooking," Cato said, reaching into Al's bag to pull out the small pastry that Al's mother had packed in there. "Is that because she doesn't have a husband around?" He sniffed at it, then smiled slyly at Al as he dropped it on the ground, and stepped on it.
"'Mother is a great cook," Al said staunchly, glaring at the burst remains of his lunch and trying to hold back the angry tears that wanted to come. "Her cupcakes are always the best!"
"Worm food," the boy holding Al's lunch pronounced, holding the sack out at arm's length with a wrinkled nose. The other two laughed. "Wo~orm fo~od," Cato drawled out. "Hey, maybe it was your mom's awful cooking that drove your dad away!"
"You take that back!" Al climbed to his feet, bracing his back against the tree and glaring at the older boys as fiercely as he could. The woods were to the back of the schoolhouse, and most of the students didn't come here; that's why he had chosen this place as a reading spot, but it meant that there was nobody here to help him—even assuming that anyone would have dared to interfere with the swaggering boys. "Take it back!"
"Take it!" Cato yelled, in gleeful imitation. "You heard him, Stad! He said to take it!"
Before Al had time to react, the redhead shoved him hard in the shoulder, hitting his back against the trunk of the tree; the shock loosened his grip on his book, and in an instant it was gone.
"No, don't!" Frantically, Al reached for the book, but the laughing Cato held it easily out of his reach while the other two held his shoulders down. "That book is one of dad's alchemy books!"
"Your dad isn't here now, is he?" Cato sneered, holding onto one cover of the book and waving it around in a way that horrified Al to watch. "Hey, bookworm—without your book, you're just a worm, aren't you?"
"Be careful, it's old!" he cried, pushing hard against the two boys restraining him.
"What's so great about a musty old book, anyway?" Stad said contemptuously. "I bet it would be better off used to blow your nose, or wipe your butt with. Sure couldn't make it any nastier." He took the book from Cat's hands, and made an exaggerated face, holding it with only the tips of his fingers.
"Give—it—back!" He managed to fight off their grips, and pushed off against the trunk to ram his shoulder into Stad's midsection. The older boy whuffed with surprise, stumbling backwards, and Al jumped to grab the book. It was no use, though; Stad stumbled a few steps back out of reach, and Cato kicked the front of Al's shins as he moved past, tripping him hard onto the ground. He cried out as he fell, skinning his palms on the ground when he landed. Stad said something that the younger boy couldn't make out; the three of them laughed, and Cat's foot descended on his hand, stepping hard and pressing it into the mud.
"Leave my little brother alone!" A new voice broke in, and Al looked up to see a streak of blond hair and red shirt go barreling by as Edward leapt into the fray. From his vantage on the ground, he could see where the fourth boy, who had been left as a sentry, as sitting doubled over on the ground clutching his stomach. Unlike Alphonse, Edward had plenty of angry energy and no compunction against using his fists.
Unfortunately, like Alphonse, Edward was more than a year younger and considerably smaller than the big boys. He only managed to get in one good punch to the dark-haired boy's face before Stad grabbed his arms and hauled him off, and then held him while Cato hit him. Scrambling to his knees, hand throbbing, Al made a dive for Stad's ankles, and he stumbled enough to loosen his grip on Edward, who wriggled free like a cat.
Ed dropped to a crouch, and without looking stuck his hand out at Al; shakily, Al took it, and Ed gave him a fierce yank to his feet that hurt his shoulder. Ed turned to face the older boys, eyes fierce and narrowed.
"You'd better not touch Al any more," Ed said in a belligerent voice. "He's my brother, and I'm the only one who's allowed to pick on him!"
"Niichan..." Al gasped, both relieved and a little angered by Ed's words. For one thing, putting Al behind him didn't have much effect; Ed was on the small size for his age, so that even though he was a year older, he was no bigger than Alphonse. The big kids realized this too, and they gathered around again, all four of them this time, trodding on the remains of Alphonse's ruined lunch.
"There are two insects now, not just one," Cato said mockingly. "It's too bad your big brother's a girly-boy, isn't it, huh bookworm?"
Ed exploded into a rage. "Who are you calling a girly-boy who ought to be wearing pigtails and a dress?" he yelled, and Al winced.
"Niichan, look out!" Al yelled as the sentry-boy, whom Ed had punched, lunged forward with fist swinging. Al shoved his brother out of the way, but the boy clipped him instead, and Ed stumbled forward nearly into Cat's arms. He fought back like a wildcat as Cato and Stad closed on him, but he was no match for their size or their strength, and he was outnumbered. Al found himself backed up helplessly against the tree trunk.
By the time the recess bell rang over, Al could only think of one thing to be glad about; in the confusion following Edward's arrival, the boys had forgotten about the alchemy book entirely.
The late afternoon sun was at least warm, shining on their backs as they limped slowly home. Ed's face was bruised in several places, and he favored his right side when he moved, but he limped along gamely; Al's hand was swollen and throbbing, and his knee wobbled under him. He was struggling against tears as he walked, and not very successfully.
"Don't be a baby!" Ed scolded, pushing back his own upset in the face of Alphonse's. "Mom will give us snacks when we get home, and you got more than half of my lunch anyway."
"It isn't about the lunch, 'niichan," Al sniffled, and he wiped at the back of his eyes with his good hand. "The book got dirty. Mother will yell at us."
"Well, that's what you get for bringing in one of Dad's good books to school," Ed growled. "Why did you go off to read by yourself? You should have come and eaten with me and Brad and Winry."
"I wanted some time to read," Alphonse said, subdued. "I didn't know they were there. Are we going to tell Mother about this?"
Ed's mouth hardened, although he winced. "We'll tell her we were climbing a tree and we fell," he growled.
"But that isn't what happened!"
"If we tell her what happened she'd just worry, and she's too tired lately!" Ed argued. "Besides, what could she do about it? She could only tell the teachers, and then we'd be tattletales."
"But—" The tears were coming again, and Al sniffed hard to try and get them under control.
"Stupid bullies," Ed grumbled, limping for a few steps before he remembered that he wasn't supposed to be feeling it. "Call me a girl, will they?"
Al sighed unhappily. It wasn't Ed's fault, he knew; ever since their mother had become too tired and too preoccupied to cut their hair regularly, Ed's hair had been growing out shaggy and long, until it almost did look like a girl's in the front. Ed still insisted on cutting Al's hair, but he wouldn't let Al near him with the scissors.
It hadn't occurred to Al that this might single his brother out for bullying, anymore than his own love for books and reading would make him a target. But the boys had their sights on them, now, and even a new haircut or no books wouldn't change their minds now. "What will we do if they come again tomorrow?" he said, voice wavering.
Ed marched steadily on, back straight and head held high, pretending he didn't have bruises covering his face, pretending he didn't hurt for Al's sake. "If they do," he said, "we'll get them."
The next two days, it rained steadily, and all the children were cooped inside for recess. The Elric brothers, however, were nowhere to be found during those times; an innocent, smug looking Cato assured the teacher that he had no idea why those two boys would want to avoid the school. She gave them a look decidedly lacking in warmth, but what could she do? She couldn't keep an eye on all the students all the time.
Which was why, when that Friday came cool but clear and the kids were allowed out once more, the four boys managed to sidle out from under the watchful eyes of the teacher, and into the back lot once more. They spotted Alphonse right away, standing under one of the trees at the wood's edge. Grinning, Cato cracked his hands and started forward, the other boys at his back; they were a little startled, but not disappointed when the younger boy turned tail and fled into the woods.
"Come on, guys!" Cato yelled, and they gave chase. Despite the head start he had on them, Alphonse was slow; they could clearly see him ahead of them in the trees. He glanced back, flashing muddy gray eyes over his shoulder at them, and ran harder.
The woods were full of water still, and confusing; neither Cato nor the other boys had had much occasion to go under them. Branches slashed out at them, dripping water on their heads, and wet and rotting leaves made a slippery carpet under their feet until they were muttering curses even as they stumbled over hidden roots in the narrow dirt path.
Ahead of them, the boy's dark blond hair flashed once, and then vanished. Breathing heavily, Cato caught up to the place where he had last been, and looked around. The path bent to the left here, although Cato could have sworn the brat had disappeared to the right.
Panting, Stad and Geary caught up with him, Thomas trailing behind. "Where'd he go?" Stad snarled, looking around the small space. "A little shrimp like him couldn't have gotten far."
"I think he managed to slip away," Thomas said, angry and disbelieving. "The bookworm could be anywhere by now."
"Oh, fine," Cato grumbled, disappointment at the loss of his lunch entertainment welling up in him. "He gets away today. But he won't be so lucky tomorrow."
"Let's go back," Geary suggested. "He can hide out all afternoon in the woods, for all we care. Bet the little bookworm catches a cold."
"Yeah, let's head back and find someone else's lunch to steal," Thomas agreed. He was damp, and had caught a branch across the shoulder, and was annoyed. "Uh..."
They glanced around. The schoolyard was not immediately in sight.
"Well, we can't have come that far," Cato said, sounding somewhat uneasy. Somewhere in the forest, there was a loud crack, like a branch falling. "Let's just follow the path."
The four turned back, and started to trudge along the path. Maybe it was just the cooler heads talking, but more than one of them thought that the path was a lot less direct than it had been when they went in. It seemed to twist and turn a lot more, and the tree-branches overhead seemed thicker, darker.
Water dripped steadily from the branches above them, and the four boys grew steadily more uneasy as the path twisted and turned and wound on and on without any sign of the schoolyard appearing.
"Hey," Geary voiced, rubbing nervously at his elbow. "Do you think we missed a turn somewhere...?"
"How could we?" Cato snapped. "There haven't been any turns on the path, you dumbass. We were all looking out for them. This is the only way the path goes."
"How would you know?" Thomas snapped. "You've never been back here, either?"
"Why should I?" Cato's voice rung uneasily loud in the silence, and all four boys involuntarily ducked their heads and glanced around. He lowered his voice and hissed, "There's nothing back here worth seeing! Let's just get out of here already!"
Another echoing crack sounded through the woods. The boys all jumped, and glancing at each other nervously, hurried further along the path.
Before long, it turned sharply, leading farther into the gloomy woods. After a few paces, Thomas stopped short, and crossed his arm. "This isn't the way back to the school," he said with conviction. "We must have gotten turned around somehow, cause this isn't the way."
"What are you, stupid?" Cato snapped. "The path only goes both ways. Did you close your eyes and spin around or something, cause I sure didn't!"
"I don't know how, but this is wrong," Thomas argued. "I'm going back. You three can just go on getting lost!" He pivoted on his heel, and strode back along the path.
And stopped, dismayed, before he'd gone three paces. The path behind them was gone. Where the turn had been, the path simply hit a dead end, turning into moss and overgrowth.
The four boys looked at each other for a moment, dismayed and more than a little bit frightened. "What the hell," Cato began, but he was interrupted.
Something small and hard hit him on the cheek, leaving a stinging graze. Outraged, he whipped around, seeking the source of the offense, and a second projectile almost hit him in the eye. The four boys saw Edward, Alphonse's girly-boy brother, standing some way down the path, hefting a small armful of rocks. He pitched another one, that caught Stad in the neck, leaving a red welt and a smudge of dirt behind. He grinned fiercely at the resulting yelp and curse, and raised another one.
"You little creep!" Cato yelled, starting towards the smaller boy. Edward turned and took off like a shot,a nd the four boys pounded in pursuit. Nothing occurred to them other than the fact that Ed had committed a grave offense and needed to be soundly thrashed for it, and also the dim thought that he probably would lead them out of the woods again.
Like Alphonse before him, though, Edward quickly flickered and vanished among the trees. The four boys stumbled and slowed, as the path suddenly opened out before them.
They were in a large grove, an open space where the ground rose. There was no grass growing in the space, though; the trees clustered too tall and thick around, blocking out the sky. A large ditch-like depression was scooped out of the rocky hillside; cold, damp air wafted up from there to strike the boys in the face.
They paused, uncertain, and Thomas began to edge away. At that moment, though, there was a humming sound and the ground trembled under their feet; they heard the sharp crackling again, this time accompanied by a brief flash of light. They shouted as the ground suddenly gave way beneath them, dissolving like potting soil under their feet.
They didn't end up falling very far, really; maybe five or six feet, but it was still a bruising landing. The ground behind them had turned into a slope of muddy gravel; not impossible to get back up, certainly, but it would be a pain. Cato picked himself up, muttering a curse, looked up, and froze.
What had previously been the far edge of a ditch was now a small cliff looming over them. In the side of the cliff was a large, black, perfectly circular hole. Sitting at the top of the cliff on either side of the cave, legs dangling over the lip, were the Elric brothers. Al looked nervous but determined; Ed looked fierce and exultant. "Hi," he called down to them.
Behind him, Cato heard Stad curse and scramble to his feet; but there was no way they'd be able to reach the boys from here. "You little brats!" he yelled up at them. "When we get hold of you again, we're gonna pound you so good your mom won't even recognize you?"
"No," Alphonse said, sounding positive. "You won't."
He looked over at his brother, who looked back, and nodded firmly. The two brothers scrambled up over the lip of the ditch, and vanished.
Before the four boys could react, though, a sound filled the ditch. The four boys froze, staring at the mouth of the cave. It sounded like...
"Breathing," Geary said shakily. "There's some kinda animal in there..."
"No way!" Cato exclaimed, but his palms were sweating, and he had to wipe them on his dirty trousers.
"Oh my god, there really is something in there!" Thomas yelled, as the breathing escalated into growls. The dark-haired boy began scrabbling behind him, trying to get up the gravel slope; the others stared, in fascinated panic.
"Look, there's no way!" Cato repeated firmly, forcing himself to stand and sneer in the direction of the cave. "The brats are just making noise to scare us. If there was some kinda animal in these woods we woulda known about it, right?"
"But there's still—" Geary exclaimed, voice high and trembling.
"There's nothing there!" Cato yelled, and pointed towards the cave entrance. He firmed himself, and took a step towards the cave; he felt their attention on him, and took another. There was still nothing but the sounds of breathing and growling, and Cato straightened up a bit, grinning as he turned to face them. "See? Nothing there at all!"
He saw their faces riveted on him, and for a moment his confidence grew. Then their gazes switched upwards, at some point over his head, and they began screaming and scrambling at the gravel face in earnest, clawing for escape. The noises behind him intensified, and, mouth dry, Cato turned slowly around and raised his head to come nearly nose-to-nose with the multi-fanged jaws and glowing eyes of the monster that had emerged from the cave behind him.
He may or may not have screamed like a girl, the other three boys were certainly in no position to be throwing stones; but that was somehow how the tale came to be told among the other students after that. That Cato and his gang, the terrors of the schoolyard, had collectively wet their pants and run screaming from what later proved, on thorough investigation by the adults, to be an empty cave.
Stad, Geary and Thomas managed to find their way out of the woods and back to the schoolyard, shaken and muddy and disgraced, well after school had ended. Cato, on the other hand, had to be rescued by a party of searchers; and it remained an enduring mystery why he had been wearing a frilly girl's frock when they found him, especially as it had no buttons or clasps that you could use to get in and out of it.
And the chibi alchemists had their revenge.