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Prologue: Catalyst

 

"Captain."

Curtis's voice cut across the fog of Kimberly's exhaustion. He turned, not liking at all how he couldn't quite feel his feet touch the ground anymore. Curtis looked in much the same state as he: road dust from head to toe, with grim lines of fatigue and determination carved around her mouth and eyes. Her braids were coming loose, her hair sticking out in frizzy spikes. The blood splashing her tunic and one cheek, however, made her look fearsome instead of comical. She nodded toward the rear. "The Archadians have stopped."

Kimberly squinted back into the setting sun, catching the movement of the returning scout, the shape of the signal her arms were waving as she made her way up through the column.. "Indeed. Will wonders never cease."

Another minute and the scout was there, dropping from a dead run to a fast march beside them. She saluted, catching her breath before reporting. "Sir. Archadians have halted pursuit and bivouaced."

Welcome news, that they wouldn't be harried into the night, at least. "How far back?"

"About a mile, sir."

That they were still much too close was less welcome. Kimberly heard Curtis sigh next to him. "We'll push on until dark," Kimberly said. "Pass the word."

The scout--Kimberly was fairly sure her name was Martel--saluted again. "Yes, sir." She stopped and allowed them to pass, falling back into the column.

They picked up the pace. There was less grumbling about that than there might have been. Martel's information passed down the line as well as Kimberly's orders. No one would complain about stealing a bit of a march on the Archadians, especially in territory like this. The rolling farmland of Amestris was picturesque enough but offered precious little cover.

Kimberly pinned his hopes of a safe camp of their own on what was over the next hill and was not disappointed. The land dipped into a small valley sheltering a few farmsteads spread out on the valley floor. The north end of the valley, Kimberly noted with interest, was cloaked in trees that climbed up the far side and disappeared into the northern mountains.

They turned north, following the road to the last farmstead. Kimberly halted the company a hundred yards or so from the house. They had seen no one since topping the rise. It was possible that the civilians had already fled, but Kimberly had been impressed in the past few weeks with the farmers' determination to stay on their land, no matter what army menaced them. He wouldn't have been surprised if there was some resistance left, and it was best to determine that before getting too comfortable.

"Curtis, you're with me," Kimberly said. "Brosche, Ross, cover us. Everyone else, keep your eyes open." He looked over at Curtis. "Let's go see if anyone's home, shall we?"

They crossed the road as light spilled into the orange-gold of true sunset. The sign at the farmhouse gate read "Rockbell", the name arching over a wrench. Kimberly reached over the gate and undid the latch.

"I feel like a walking target," Curtis muttered as they started up the walk.

"No one's shot us yet," Kimberly pointed out mildly. "Besides, an unarmed man and woman...what could be more harmless?"

Curtis snorted.

The front door opened when they were halfway to the house. "That's far enough." The voice was female, the figure framed in the doorway bundled in overalls and a bandanna, a large wrench clenched in one hand like she knew how to use it.

They stopped. Kimberly bowed. "Ma'am. Is this your land?"

"Maybe. Who are you and what do you want?"

"I'm Captain Zolf Kimberly of the Crimson Flames. This is Major Izumi Curtis, my second in command, and those are my men loitering disreputably across the road."

The girl--Kimberly was fairly certain she was young enough to qualify, maybe 16 or so--may have tried to hide a flicker of a smile at his turn of phrase. Good.

"We would like to ask permission to camp for the night in one of the fields. We won't be any trouble, and we are leaving at first light."

The girl looked at him, arms and wrench crossed against her chest. "...that's it? Just camp."

Kimberly spread his hands. "And perhaps draw from your well, but yes."

She appeared to consider this, looking over his head at, he assumed, the rest of the company. "You're mercenaries, aren't you?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Who do you fight for?"

Technically no one, after the disaster of the last week, but that wasn't what she wanted to know. Not to mention, as long as the Archadians were pursuing them (and Kimberly was not wagering that they'd seen the last of them), they might as well still be under contract. "We are out of Lea Monde, fighting for Amestris."

The girl looked back at him. He couldn't tell what she was looking for. Perhaps she was just waiting to see if he would transform into a Judge Magister. Finally she said, "None of the fields around here are ours." She pointed the wrench to the north. "These all belong to the Sillers, but they've already fled. I doubt they'd mind you using them."

Kimberly bowed. "Thank you, Miss...Rockbell?"

The girl gave a jerk of a nod, then turned back into the house, shutting the door behind her.

"Strange," Curtis said as they walked back to the others. "I'd bet the rest of the valley's fled. Why's she still here?"

None of the fields around here are ours, she'd said. Using the plural might have been habit, but perhaps not. "She must have something she needs to do," Kimberly said.

"If she's smart, she'll need to get the hell out of here, same as us," Curtis murmured.

Kimberly hmmed thoughtfully. He gave the "make stealthy camp" signal, then picked out the scout that looked the most alert and sent him to reconnoiter as much of the northern woods as he could before full dark. The scout returned to the dark camp a bit later with the heartening news that the wood did indeed seem to back into the mountains and that it was honeycombed with paths and game trails. Obviously the locals were crossing the woods to go somewhere. Hopefully a somewhere with better cover than the rolling farmland they were currently marching through. Perhaps, Kimberly thought, just perhaps, they might actually escape. The thought was cheering.

When he'd finished his rations and drunk his fill from the newly-filled canteens, Kimberly gave a cursory wash and changed clothes in an effort to look and smell a bit less like a man who'd been carrying on a running battle for three straight days. Then he approached the Rockbell house again. The curtains were all closed, light spilling around the edges on the first floor. As he climbed the porch steps, Kimberly thought he heard multiple raised voices inside. This was less surprising than the reticent Miss Rockbell probably hoped.

The voices hushed at his knock, and there was a full minute of almost-silent movement inside before Miss Rockbell (and her wrench--Kimberly had to applaud her instinct to stay armed) cracked the door open. "Yes?"

Kimberly bowed again. "Miss Rockbell. I won't take much of your time. I merely wanted to warn you that you will not be safe here probably as soon as tomorrow. We are retreating from the front, as are all the Amestrian forces."

Rockbell closed her eyes, her fingers tightening on the wrench. "So we've lost, then."

Kimberly tilted his hands in uncertainty, his head in sympathy. "I only know what I've seen. The Archadians are mere hours' march behind us and likely to continue on tomorrow."

Rockbell bit her lip, eyes straying over his shoulder, to the now-dark west, where the front used to be.

"If you have an escape route," Kimberly continued, "I suggest you take it. In numbers, if there are others left to band together for protection."

"It's...it's not that simple," she said. She looked at him for a long moment, hesitating. She seemed to be a bright girl. She'd no doubt think of the same compromise he had. He would suggest it if he had to, but it was psychologically advantageous to be the one granting the favor rather than requesting it.

If it occurred to her, though, she was not ready to voice it. She switched from defense to attack, scowling slightly, one hand on her hip. "You seem suspiciously concerned for my welfare. Suspiciously nice for a mercenary."

He spread his hands, putting on his best "I am just a harmless unarmed man" face. "Mercenaries are people, too. People who are just as likely as anyone else to care for a stranger's welfare. Perhaps you remind me of my sister."

She scowled properly at that. "The fact that you said 'perhaps' tells me that you're lying."

Kimberly chuckled. "Actually, there was something I wanted to ask you." And ah, how she tensed at that. Yes, Miss Rockbell did have secrets, didn't she? Interesting. Kimberly paused, just to see if she would betray herself, but she just looked at him, jaw set. "The woods to the north," he said finally.

She blinked, relaxing slightly. "What about them?"

Kimberly explained, and Rockbell told him that yes, there were dozens of trails in the woods. Yes, some of those trails led through the mountains to Lea Monde, and yes, one probably could move a few hundred men along them with moderate cover, though, she noted dryly, she'd never tried.

Rockbell paused, took a deep breath, and said, "The woods are old. There's lots of paths there. It's easy to get lost."

Kimberly was almost too tired to hide his smile. Three miles from an invading army, with something she desperately wanted to protect, and still the girl had the wits to try to manipulate him. He found himself hoping that this went well. He was beginning to like her. She had spirit. "Ah," was all he said, thoughtfully. "Perhaps a map?"

She pretended to think on that. "Maybe," she said, doubtfully. "It would be best to have a guide." He stayed silent for a long moment, and she was too impatient (or perhaps too desperate) a negotiator to outwait him. "I would be willing to guide you, but.... I have a few conditions."

Kimberly nodded. "Such as?"

She glanced over his shoulder again, opening the door wide enough to admit him, but no further, as if she might let in the dogs of war with him if she wasn't careful. "Maybe you'd better come in, then. So I can explain."

Kimberly nodded, and stepped inside. The autumn night was not yet cold, but the warmth of the house was welcome. Rockbell shut the door behind him and led him into a tidy kitchen. She set down her wrench, reluctantly. "Would you like some tea?"

A good sign. "Yes, please." He let his lips quirk in a smile. "We ran out a few weeks ago."

Rockbell's eyebrows raised in a sympathetic shrug. "This is the last of ours, but...there's not much reason to save it anymore, now is there?" She went about filling the kettle and putting it on to boil. As she assembled cups and sugar, she said, "It would not just be me who needs to escape." She turned, leaning back against the counter and nodding toward the closed doors leading to the rest of the house. She raised her voice, "Ed, Al, come on out."

One door opened, and two boys, both blond, both roughly Rockbell's age, came slowly into view. Both watched Kimberly warily, and something in the way they moved (carefully, with hands on doorjamb or wall for support) and their pale faces suggested injury or sickness.

"Captain Kimberly, this is Edward and Alphonse Elric. They're friends of mine. I'm Winry Rockbell, while we're doing introductions."

Kimberly bowed slightly toward the boys, a gesture they returned with nods. "A pleasure."

"Ed lost his leg and Al his arm a few weeks ago in...an accident." The pained look on the boys' faces suggested that that was a gross understatement. "I fitted them as quickly as I could," Rockbell continued, "but I only finished Al's attachment a few days ago. He's still feverish, and Ed can't walk well yet, so running away by ourselves is impossible."

Kimberly furrowed his brow in confusion. He could see the shape of both of Alphonse's arms and Edward's legs under their clothes. It was possible that she meant that they had been healed, but white magic would not work on wounds that had set for weeks....

And then Alphonse shifted, his left hand coming up to brace him against the doorjamb. The fingers shone metallic in the kitchen light.

Kimberly remembered the wrench on the sign outside, and pieces started to fall into a new, much more exciting picture. "Is that...automail?"

"Yes," Rockbell said, surprise coloring her voice. "Oh. I forgot...it's not as common in Lea Monde, is it?"

A much more exciting picture, indeed, if she didn't know how much of an understatement that was. Kimberly had heard of automail, of course. It was one of the lost Kildean technologies, half mechanical ingenuity and half magic. An articulated mechanical limb, attached to the recipient's body to replace a lost appendage, bound to the wearer's nerves and will by some truly ingenious Dark magic that University scholars were still trying to replicate. Evidently none of them had thought to comb the old Kildean lands to see if the technology had survived by oral tradition.

Kimberly chose his words carefully--polite of course, and impressed enough to excuse his interest but not so overwhelming that the girl would know how valuable she was. It wouldn't do to show one's hand, after all. "I've never seen it before in person." He looked from Rockbell to the Elrics. "I'm a mage, myself. Might I take a closer look? Out of professional curiosity."

After a complicated exchange of glances, all three nodded. Alphonse nodded to his arm and started rolling back his sleeve. "I can't move it well yet, but go ahead."

Kimberly nodded his thanks and kept his inspection short. Mechanically, the automail looked impressive. Though he was no expert, even the limited control Alphonse had over it showed that the joints moved smoothly, and the housing was heavy and substantial, with all vulnerabilities shielded. Magically, it was even moreso. The metal was etched with Dark runes that swirled and interlaced in complicated patterns. Kimberly traced them with his eyes, able to pick out the path the power took, the runes for flesh and metal and will.

It was a work of art. Incredibly useful art. Art that could make a loyal man fighting-worthy again. Kimberly's mind ticked through the casualty roster. Dorochet, Manning, Sligo...all with otherwise career-ending injuries....

When he looked up to thank Alphonse, the boy asked, "You're a battle mage, aren't you? We've never seen alchemical tattoos like yours before."

Both boys' eyes were on Kimberly's hands, where his arrays arced across his palms. He nodded, surprised that they could even identify them as alchemy. Xerxes' alchemical arts were even more "lost" than automail. He turned his palms so they could get a better look, and the boys leaned closer eagerly, which amused a smile out of Kimberly. It was not generally the reaction his tattoos got. The thought that the boys didn't know what they were evaporated when Edward said, "I recognize fire and transmutation, but this is...." His finger circled above the subject hemisphere of the array.

"Flesh," Alphonse prompted. "It's similar to some of the old white magic runes." He looked up at Kimberly. "Linked to a transformative fire array like that would be...really effective."

Kimberly smiled. Honestly, first an automail mechanic and then two boys who knew Xerian alchemy? He was beginning to think that his luck was turning. "It is. You seem quite familiar with alchemy."

"We're mages," Edward said. "We were going to join the army before...." He stopped, eyes sliding away.

"The accident," Alphonse finished.

Were they, now? Interesting. And, if this negotiation went the way Kimberly thought it might, possibly useful as well.

The boys peppered Kimberly with quiet questions about interactions, range, payload, and relative rates of exhaustion until Rockbell set the tea tray down on the table with a pointed thump. "All right, enough pestering the Captain, you two. The tea's ready."

The boys rolled their eyes but moved to the table. "Yeah, yeah," Edward muttered to Kimberly. "If you had some shiny automail she'd never seen, then we'd see who the pest was..."

The wrench hit the table next to the teapot. "What was that?" Rockbell asked sweetly.

"Nothing!"

"That's what I thought you said."

After the tea was poured and doctored with sugar and what looked to be the last of the milk, Kimberly wrapped his hands around the warm mug contentedly and waited. It didn't take long. Like most people, Rockbell was uncomfortable with silence. "So my terms are this: we'll guide you through the forest if you take us with you and leave us...somewhere safe, I guess." She gripped her cup, white-knuckled. "That way, you and your men escape and...and so do we. That's fair."

Kimberly tilted his head to the side. "Perhaps. If you assume that the Archadians will not pursue, which I do not. They have harried us for three days and will likely do so all the way back over the border. We are two hundred men...we leave a trail a blind man could follow, especially through woods. And when it comes to a fight, you three will need to be protected."

"We can--" Edward started, but was cut off by Rockbell's immediate, "No. You will not, in your condition, or I'll beat you to death myself."

Kimberly spread his hands. "So. We are not merely talking about a fair exchange, but also the hiring of bodyguard services. If you would ask my men to protect you, they should be compensated accordingly. Equivalent exchange, if you will. "

Edward and Rockbell's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "...what do you want?" Edward asked flatly.

Kimberly smiled reassuringly, "Nothing outrageous." He thought for a moment. "Perhaps we could come to a compromise. One that might benefit us both. Several of my men, Miss Rockbell, could make good use of your services. Two missing arms, a foot, and a leg, if I remember." Rockbell looked interested at that. Kimberly turned to the Elrics. "We also are looking to recruit new mages to fill our ranks. If you two stood to pass the Amestrian magecorps exams...?" Edward snorted derisively, and Alphonse nodded. "Well, then, you should be more than qualified for an entry rank."

"So...you're offering us jobs?" Rockbell asked.

"At significantly reduced pay, and assuming that Edward and Alphonse will be battle-ready by spring, but yes."

"Whoa, whoa, how little pay are we talking about here?" Edward asked.

Kimberly thought for a moment. "Thirteen hundred silvers each, for one year." It was half what an entry rank mage usually earned, and an even smaller fraction of a specialist's wage, but well...this was a negotiation. It was met with blank looks, anyway.

"And...that's how much in Amestrian coin?" Alphonse asked.

"Enough for room and board and incidentals for the year, with a bit left over." Kimberly sat back in his chair, sipping his tea. It also was a generous offer of a place to stay and job training in a new country where the three had no contacts and few prospects, but he didn't think he needed to point that out.

The Elrics shared a look, some silent communication passing between them but ending with shrugs and nods.

"And who will you fight for, next spring?" Rockbell asked Kimberly quietly, her eyes on her friends.

Bright girl, Kimberly thought. "We are mercenaries. We'll fight for whoever will pay. Right now we have no contract lined up for next season, but that is not unusual. Hiring usually happens late winter. I doubt Amestris will be hiring, but there is always someone pressing on Lea Monde's borders. Usually the Drachmans, but if Archadia pushes all the way to the border, we might be hired to discourage them."

Rockbell looked over at the Elrics. "And you're ok with that? Fighting for whoever pays you?"

Another silent look between the boys, and this time the nods were slower. Edward shrugged. "It's the same as in the army, fighting whoever you're told to."

"It's...it will be all right," Alphonse said to her, quietly. "It will give us a foothold in a new place, and...it's only for one year, right?"

Kimberly nodded. "After that year, you can do what you please." Though with a year to feed Rockbell patients and the Elrics knowledge, Kimberly hoped that that would mean them staying right where they were. Inertia, Kimberly had found, could be a very useful human trait.

"There you go," Edward said. He thumped the table restlessly. "Let's do it."

Alphonse nodded.

Rockbell still looked thoughtful. "I'm going to have to leave a lot of my tools here. They're too heavy to carry, but I'll need them to craft for anyone else." She lifted her chin, meeting Kimberly's eyes. "I'm useless to you without them."

Kimberly smiled. Yes, he definitely liked her. "And how much are we talking about?"

"...five million cenz or so."

Kimberly did the math. It was significant, but not ridiculous, and given that he was getting an automail mechanic and two mages for a song (and they all knew it, he was sure....) "Grants for outfitting new recruits is not uncommon," he said. "You'll all three need it, unless you've a treasure trove you're bringing with you. Let us say that Company funds will outfit you, to be repaid within two years should you leave the Company. Fair?"

Rockbell nodded. "Fair." A second later, a horrified look crept over her face. "Oh god. I've got to go pack the workshop."

Alphonse nudged his tea toward her helpfully.

-------------

They left at dawn, the most good-natured of Kimberly's strong men carrying Elrics and several heavy knapsacks on their backs. At the treeline, all three of the teens turned back to look once more at the valley. Kimberly watched them all, curious to see if they would have second thoughts. Their expressions were more resigned than conflicted, though. Kimberly came up to them slowly, and caught the last of their quiet conversation.

"--what she'd think," Rockbell was saying.

"She'd understand," Alphonse replied, from Heinkel's back. He had argued that he could walk just fine, but he was still visibly feverish, and Rockbell had vetoed him with a wrench and a healer's absolute authority.

Edward scowled over Jelso's shoulder, though he'd been surly all morning, and Kimberly gathered it had more to do with needing to be carried than anything else. "She wouldn't want us to get captured by the damned Archadians that's for sure."

"I know. It's just...." Rockbell sighed, looking down at something in her hands. It looked like a pipe.

Kimberly was about to say something reassuring, but Law (whose unit had lost two limbs in the fighting and who had picked up two of the heaviest packs carrying Rockbell's equipment) beat him to it. He laid a hand on Rockbell's shoulder, rumbling voice low. "You're part of the Flames now. You have to bring your home with you."

Rockbell looked up at him, surprised, then thoughtful. She looked over at the Elrics, smiling slightly. "Right." She took a deep breath, wrapping her fingers around the pipe and putting it in her breast pocket. She nodded at Kimberly as he came up beside her. "Right. This way."

Kimberly made a mental note to make Dorochet one of Rockbell's first patients.

Rockbell turned, back straight and resolute as she led the Flames north.