"I don't know why you study so hard," said Tucker. The kid looked up from his book and gave him a strange exasperated expression. "You won't pass the exam. Why not relax a little and go play with your brother and Nina."
"What do you mean I'm not going to pass the exam," The boys eyes fairly glowed at the insult.
"Oh, I don't mean the written exam," said Tucker. "I'm thinking the interview. You won't pass it. You are simply too young."
Even though his words were true, Tucker felt a cold thrill. He was glad his expression rarely reflected what he felt on the inside. If it had the kid would be running out the door by now.
"I am NOT too young!" So predictable.
Tucker walked closer, and looked sorrowfully down into the preteen's eyes. "I know it is terribly unfair, but you see, the Military is looking for MEN, Ed. Not children. They require a certain level of maturity. There will be other years. I'm sure when you are fifteen you will pass with flying colors."
"I'm not waiting until I'm fifteen," said Ed. There was desperation there. Good. Tucker liked desperation, because it meant the boy wasn't thinking quite properly. "Mustang seems to think I have a chance of passing. I trust him."
Tucker smiled. It looked friendly, he knew, he'd practiced it many times. But it wasn't. "Yes, Mustang is a big man, and he can see what other people can't. If it makes you feel better, I know you are a man, inside. But others won't see it that way."
And here was the hook. "Not unless..." and he let the words die out on his tongue.
"Not unless what."
"Well," said Tucker, kneeling down next to the child, so he could look him straight in the eye. "Adults radiate a certain maturity that comes only from experience."
"I've had plenty of experience."
"Ah yes you've had a rough life. And at times you and your brother do seem far beyond your years, but then ... you do trip up from time to time, and seem quite childlike."
"What would you suggest I do?"
Tucker smiled slowly. "Well we can practice some adult activities. I do want you to succeed. There are a number of things you can test how mature you are against."
Those gold eyes met his. "Show me."
Tucker led him to his office. There he brought out two cigars. "Adults can handle tobacco. Children can't. This is well known. If you were to have the scent of tobacco on you when you entered your interview, I'm certain it would impress at least some of your interviewers. Let them know that you've put aside the childish things and embraced the pleasures of adulthood."
Ed accepted the cigar. When he choked on the smoke, Tucker tutted. "Well, perhaps you are too young."
"No," said Ed. "Let me try that again." He held the smoke in his mouth and blew it out. "This tastes horrible."
"You mustn't let them know that. Pretend you like it."
And for a while they smoked. Tucker watched the kid struggle with the cigar, hiding his amusement behind a blandly pleasant smile.
He drew out a decanter and poured two glasses. "This is another adult pleasure."
"I shouldn't drink," said Ed.
"That's the child talking. Adults drink. As a State Alchemist you will go to affairs. It will be far more impressive if you can hold your liquor, than it would be if you were stuck drinking the punch in the children's room. This is Brandy. It is quite flavorful if you give it a try."
Ed tried it. "It's better than the cigar," he admitted.
"Talk to me about alchemy while you drink, and I will tell you if you look adult."
Ed did just that. The alcohol went down fairly quickly, and Tucker refilled the glass. The kid, distracted by his own monologue, didn't seem to notice.
"I'm an adult," said Ed. "See."
"Yes, you certainly have convinced me. But you know there are other things adults do. Truly pleasurable things. Things I'm sure you'd like."
He rose up from his seat and walked around his desk to where Ed was sitting, flush faced from the alcohol.
Tucker knelt before Ed's chair, took the boy's face between his large hands and pulled him close into a kiss. "Like this."
The boy jerked away. "I don't think I should..."
"That's what a child would say. I thought we were proving you were an adult."
"Adults do this all the time." He pulled the child close again and kissed him, more passionately. The kid's mouth just hung slack and he seemed frozen.
"This doesn't feel right," he said after a moment.
"Ah yes it wouldn't feel right ... you are just too young."
"NO!" And Ed leaned forward and kissed Tucker, fiercely, roughly, inexpertly. "I'm not too young for anything."
Tucker smiled. "I think you are right. Not too young at all."