Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
It was bad enough Ed was late with the payment, three days late, in fact, but that damn stupid fucking pickpocket had to go and lift the coin purse from his belt and leave him with nothing to give to Aetous and no way to earn it back. He and Al were on borrowed time already and there was no way, no way Aetous would cut them any kind of slack. He had to get home and get to Al before anyone else could.
Ed hurried through the crowded marketplace as quickly as he could on his metal leg, pushing past people with muttered apologies and louder swears, winding through as the streets narrowed down into the rigid, square blocks that made up the slums of the city. Considering the circumstances, considering the taboo and the debt and the fact that they’d been on their own since they were kids, Ed hadn’t thought they were doing so bad. They had a roof, usually enough food to pull them through, and, most importantly, they’d been on time with their payments. It wasn’t the best life by anyone’s standards, but they’d been managing. At least until everything had gone wrong all at once. Al had been hit with a chest cold that left him gasping for breath more often than he didn’t and Ed had insisted he spend the week in bed. Ed had managed payments on his own before, so he hadn’t thought it’d be a problem. Odd jobs in Xerxes weren’t hard to find, even for a cripple, but a run-in with a pothole had jimmied the stump of his leg just so and left him unable to even shuffle a step for days and he’d been landed in bed himself. It was only by the grace of gods Ed didn’t believe in that he’d managed to land a large job that paid just what he’d need to pay off Aetous for the month, even if it meant they’d go hungry, but then that fucking pickpocket.
They were so, so screwed.
The sentiment was highlighted, underlined, and circled by the fact that Ed’s front door was currently hanging by a single hinge. He was too late.
His heart was in his throat and he pushed through the door so furiously that it gave one last pitiful creak before crashing to the floor behind him. “Al!” he cried, and, thank the gods, he was too late but he wasn’t too too late. Al was being manhandled into a pair of shackles by a man who was too large to be possible, supervised by a second large man and Aetous himself whose bulbous, red face was twisted into the most disgusting smirk he’d ever seen.
Al’s resulting cry was muffled by a large hand over his mouth, and Ed saw red. Rage overcame him and before he could even think, he was clapping his hands and preparing to drop to a knee to press his palm against the ground.
“If you want your brother to make it out of this house alive, I’d reconsider,” Aetous said coolly, nodding to the man with Al in his grasp who quickly produced a knife from seemingly thin air and pressed it against Al’s throat.
Ed’s hands froze scant centimeters away from the floor and the spark of the transmutation crackled through him and fizzled out into nothing.
“That’s what I thought.”
“Let him go,” Ed ground out through his clenched teeth. “Get your fucking hands off of him you twisted, sadistic—“
“You’re late,” Aetous said with something like glee. “You know what that means.”
“Three days! Three damn days after seven years of on-time payments!”
“You knew the terms of the contract when you signed it, pipsqueak. It’s hardly my fault you weren’t able to uphold your end.” The man paused for effect. “Unless you’ve got something for me?”
Ed felt like he was falling. This couldn’t actually be happening. “I, I don’t, but—“
“Then you know the price.” Aetous nodded at the man again and he set to work fastening the rest of the shackles around Al’s wrists and ankles.
Ed was quickly losing grasp of the situation and of his fragile sanity. It wasn’t fair, wasn’t equivalent, that after everything, after everything, that Al would have to pay again for what he’d done, or couldn’t do.
The words were leaving his mouth before he even thought them.
“Take me instead.”
“You?” Aetous’s scoff cut off Al’s sobbing objection and the firm clamp of the big man’s hand over his mouth shut it down completely. “What makes you think you’re worth what I’m owed with that metal leg weighing you down?”
“Al’s weak. He had the Wasting Sickness. He’s… he can barely work. It left him susceptible to illnesses. He had a cold and he’s been in bed for days. Look at his face, it’s, he’s not well. You’d be refunding whoever bought him before the end of the week. I have a metal leg but I’m strong. Ask anyone. My alchemy—“
“I’ve heard about your alchemy, and about how you came to possess your special skills. What reputable family would want that taint under their roof?”
“ I… I can do anything, I’ll do anything. What does it goddamn matter which of us you take anyway? We both know you’d get more for me than you’re owed regardless of my fucking leg but you wouldn’t get much more for Al because of the term limit. No one’s going to shell out for a slave they can’t keep for life. That’s bad business, and you should know about bad business.” Ed was grasping at straws but he was at his wit’s end. The sight of Al in shackles had driven him to desperation, and his muffled cries drove it higher. “Just take me instead you fucking asshole, you hate my guts anyway so don’t pretend like you won’t take some kind of perverse fucking pleasure in locking me in shackles, or are you really just so dickless that you’d rather chain up and brutalize a sick little wimp? You make me sick, you absolute fu—“
“Take him,” Aetous hissed, locking his eyes on Ed’s. “And don’t be gentle about it. If he struggles too hard, break him and take the brother instead.”
The shackles came off of Al’s wrists and ankles almost all at once and the man moved to lock them around Ed’s instead. Ed offered up his wrists and didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even blink as the large man locked the shackles onto him. It would be an easy thing to break them. A single clap could turn them to a sprinkling of dust on the floor. Aetous knew it, Al knew it, and the two brutes probably knew it, too, but Ed didn’t make a move.
“Brother, you can’t,” Al choked, making a move to go to Ed only to be stopped in his tracks by one of Aetous’s cronies. “You’re being stupid. You’re always so stupid. You don’t have to do this, I’ll be fine, it’s only thirty years and—“
“As touching as this is, I’ve got a timetable to keep and I’m not interested in long goodbyes.” Aetous snapped his fingers and the two men grabbed Ed by either arm and began ushering him out of the house.
“Al!” Ed cried, twisting his head to an almost painful angle to get one last look at his brother. “This is all my dumb fucking fault. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t come looking for me. Live your fucking life. I love you, don’t you ever forget it. I’ll coming back for you, I swear it!”
Al’s response was muffled by the men kicking the fallen door out of their way and pushing Ed out into the street. A swift blow to the back of Ed’s head forced it forward again and they rounded a corner, leaving Al behind.
Ed, as it turned out, had only been the first block on Aetous’s timetable and by late afternoon, he had been joined by five other unfortunate debtors in various states of distress. The crying he could handle, (truth be told, he felt a little bit like crying himself,) but the screaming and the endless bargaining and begging were beginning to grind on his already frayed nerves and his mood had, unsurprisingly, not improved a bit by the time they reached the slaving market on the edge of town.
He watched as the others were untangled from the long chain that had linked them all together and crammed into an over-crowded holding cell but Aetous held him back and hissed a foul-breathed warning into his ear.
“Any funny business,” he growled. “Even a hint of it, and I’ll see to it personally that you’re reunited with your precious brother well before your thirty years ends, is that understood?”
“Loud and fucking clear,” Ed growled right back. “And if I ever even hear a whisper that you’ve disturbed a hair on his golden head, there isn’t a threat in the world that will stop me from ripping you limb from limb, and I won’t need alchemy to do it. Understood?”
Ed’s answer was a sharp backhand across the face and a boot in his gut, kicking him into the cell with the others. The door clanged closed and the lock slid into place, and Aetous smiled at him through the bars. “Enjoy your stay.”
Although he doubted sleep would be possible, if it came, Ed was certain he’d murder him repeatedly in his dreams.
“…need three separate trade routes? They can’t be sure we aren’t gouging out space to funnel in troops and take over,” the translator finished, biting back a very obvious wince. The man across the table looked to his own translator who nodded, seemingly pleased with the accuracy.
Roy resisted the urge to drop his head into his hands and groan. He felt like they’d been beating the same dead horse (no pun intended, at least not yet,) for almost two weeks and he wasn’t sure how many different ways he could come up with to say that Xing had bigger fish to fry than hostile takeovers of neighboring countries, but he was sure he was running out of them.
He’d have given anything to have Hawkeye there with him, or any member of his team, really, if only for a familiar face in the sea of strangers that seemed to swallow him up in waves in every meeting he’d attended since arriving in Xerxes. He understood why they had to stay behind, why it made very little sense for the half-Amestrian ambassador from Xing to arrive with a squad of Amestrians to negotiate the future of two countries united in defense against Amestris, but their absence was jarring regardless.
“Unlike Amestris, Xing has no intention of enacting military operations on our neighbors. In fact, the emperor believes that stronger trade and travel routes between our countries will act as a means to strengthen defenses should Führer Bradley,” Roy’s face only twitched a little bit, “decide that picking fights with Drachma is a fruitless affair and turns his eye to a warmer climate. Three routes will enable aid to be funneled in more expeditiously should the worst happen, and should the worst never happen, three routes will facilitate a faster exchange of goods from all regions of Xing which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is quite large.”
The Xerxian translator made quick work of Roy’s explanation and nodded when the man across the table tumbled out another rippling flow of smooth consonants and clipped vowels that Roy wouldn’t have been able to divine the meaning of at gunpoint.
“He would like to know what sort of aid we expect in return, and urges me to remind you that Xerxes is a country of learned men, not soldiers,” the Xingese translator told him.
“Xing does not require aid from Xerxes in that regard. Our military is more than capable of defending our borders. Trade is all we’re after. Our southern region is isolated and suffered a famine two years ago that could have been, if not prevented, lessened by access to outside goods. The emperor has a vested interest in guaranteeing that, in the future, such easily avoidable disasters are, in fact, avoided.”
“He says that the emperor must be very gracious, and inquires whether we also plan to make use of their labor trade.”
It took Roy a moment to understand what ‘labor trade’ must have meant, and he had to actively work to keep the disgust from his face. Having spent his formative years in Amestris, a country that was, admittedly, not without a massive share of faults, but one that had outlawed slavery as a heinous and barbaric practice centuries ago, he always felt a bit sick to his stomach whenever he encountered it in his day-to-day. It was a common cultural aspect in Xerxes, he knew, and Xing itself, while not explicit in encouraging it, allowed it and had laws structured for the ownership and use of slaves. In the East, he was a rare and uncommon progressive, and he had long since learned to keep his opinions to himself. “When drafting the plan for the routes, we didn’t have the labor trade in mind,” he said delicately. “I suppose whether or not we allow our citizens to make use of it depends entirely on whether or not you are willing to export yours.”
The other man laughed outright as soon as his translator had finished, pounding a fist on the table mirthfully before managing a response.
“He is amused that you refer to slaves as citizens, and is even more amused by the look on your face when you spoke of them. He is impressed that you manage such cool and calm diplomacy when you clearly have such a marked interest. He inquires whether you have ever yourself had the pleasure of owning one.”
Roy clearly hadn’t managed to keep his face as carefully schooled as he had hoped, but at least his disgust had been mistaken for interest. He could feign acceptance for the sake of diplomacy. Goodness knows he’d faked worse. “I’ve never had the pleasure, no.” His skin was crawling. “I can’t deny an interest in the topic, considering slavery has been outlawed in my homeland for centuries.”
“He finds it funny that Amestrians believe themselves too high and mighty to keep slaves but are perfectly content with attempting to exterminate an entire race of people.”
“Funny isn’t the word I would use,” Roy said, a little bit of coldness creeping into his tone. That attempted extermination had cost him everything. “I think my stance on that incident has been made rather clear.”
“Very clear indeed,” the translator said after the man finished speaking again. “He says he will take this proposal to the king for review, and wishes you a good afternoon.”
That sounded a lot like progress and Roy had to resist the urge to punch the air in triumph. The talks had been dragging on for days, bouncing from one high-ranking Xerxian official to another until he was sure they were only stringing him along, only trying to see how far they could push him before he broke. This was the first assurance he’d had that the king would hear the proposal and it tasted like victory.
“Good afternoon. Thank you for your time and consideration.” He waited for the other man to stand before standing himself and offering a short bow in the Xerxian fashion, his right hand fisted and pressed to the opposite shoulder, and allowed the palace guard to escort him from the room and back to his own quarters, a short draft of the letter he would have to compose to the emperor to relay the small success already arranging itself in his head.
Sunlight was barely breaking through the barred window of the over-crowded holding cell when the door was ripped open with a jarring clang that startled a fair few of the people dozing around Ed. He hadn’t managed anything resembling a doze and was neither startled nor impressed by the interruption.
“You,” the interloper, a short but stocky man, backed up by several other taller and stronger men who seemed, from what Ed could see in the low light, to be eyeing him warily, called from the doorway, leveling a pointed finger at him. “Up.”
Ed scowled but didn’t protest, struggling to his feet and forcing his metal leg to cooperate. He hadn’t spent a night in it in years, and the hard stone floor did little to soothe the ache that was beginning to radiate from his stump to his hip. He finally managed to stagger to his feet and limp to the doorway of the little cell where he was immediately seized by the entourage.
“Aetous told me to remind you that your brother’s safety hinges on your cooperation,” the stocky man told him as he was hauled down the corridor and into a large empty room.
“For fuck’s sake, I get it, okay?” Ed snarled, actively resisting the urge to twist away from the too-tight hold on his arms that the men had as they dragged him to the very edge of a large and intricate transmutation circle, the sight of which caused Ed to fall speechless for a long moment. “What the hell is this?”
The stocky man just rolled his eyes. “What’s it look like?”
Ed’s eyes scanned the lines and the symbols quickly, trying to determine the purpose. It didn’t seem like it would kill him, but the process appeared to hinge very heavily on blood and metal and just barely brushed the edges of human transmutation. There was a pile of scrap metal, steel from the look of it, piled in one of the open circles worked within the array. “The rings,” he said suddenly, the pieces falling together all at once.
“One for every five years. You must owe a pretty penny to have earned six of them.” the stocky man said, and nodded to the men who dragged Ed to the center of the circle, careful to step over any lines and lift Ed clear of them as they moved. They planted him in the middle of the circle and beat a hasty retreat. “If I were you, I would’ve begged for a brand and saved yourself some trouble. Most slaves don’t break forty anyway. You’ll probably die before your term ends, and then all this will’ve been for nothing. If you even make it that far. I once had a man die getting five.”
“I’ll outlive you, you smug fucking—“ The rest of Ed’s words were swallowed in a cry that was ripped from his throat by a vivid, searing pain brought on by the stocky man’s activation of the array.
His blood cut through him like fire, burning and molten and acidic, pain flooding every inch of his body until it coalesced into an epicenter of hurt in his right arm. He was vaguely aware over the cadence of his own erratic pulse that he was screaming.
The pile of steel in the circle was a mass of red-hot light in Ed’s vision, pushing through the black that was seeping into it from the shock and the pain and the breath that left his body in great wailing rushes. The ball of red rose up and changed, separating out into six thick, flat stripes that flew to Ed’s right arm as if magnetized there and locked around his forearm and bicep, evenly spaced and tight around the flesh of his arm, the molten heat of the metal singeing his skin, sending his pain arcing so high that he thought, mercifully, he might pass out from the intensity of it. He was choked with the charred, acrid smell of his own flesh burning and he could barely pull in another breath to feed his body’s desperate need for air. Just as blackness began to creep over Ed’s eyes, the steel hardened and the pain died down with the bright white light of the array.
Ed was on his back, choking in stuttering breaths as little bursts of sharp, hot pain flitted through his arm beneath the still-warm steel. Even losing a leg to the Gate hadn’t hurt like this.
“They’re not actual burns, but it’ll feel like it for a few days.” The alchemist waved his hand at him and the larger men who had dragged him into the circle came and pulled him back out again. The jostling movement nearly set Ed to screaming again but he gritted his teeth and clenched them so hard he thought they might break. “The metal is blood bound, so don’t even try removing it. It shouldn’t add any extra weight to your arm, or not much, anyway. Every five years, a ring will drop off until there are none left and the labor is paid. If you live that long.”
Ed had been hauled to his feet by the alchemist’s cronies and the headrush nearly sent him into the black again but he caught the thread of consciousness at the last second and forced himself back into awareness. “Fuck you,” he managed weakly, muffling another cry as a hand locked around his still-burning right arm and yanked him back down the hallway. He was roughly deposited into the holding cell and went to the floor with something like gratefulness even as he cried out at the sharp shock of pain that radiated out from his arm when it made impact with the floor.
He turned his cheek against the stone floor, letting the coolness soothe him down into something like calm even as the alchemist’s next pick for the transmutation screamed in protest as they dragged him out after seeing the state Ed had returned in.
He’d have given anything, even the entirety of his right arm, metal rings or not, for even ten minutes on the threadbare, hay-stuffed mattress he and Al had shared on the floor of their little hut on the outskirts of the city, and it was only the thought, nebulous under the pain and vague but real, that he’d at least managed to spare Al this horror that made the burn worth it.
It was days later and fewer than twenty four hours shy of Roy’s scheduled return to Xing that he was finally called for an evening audience with the king. He could have wept for joy. It had seemed to him that his first diplomatic excursion would be his last and that all the work he’d put in to climb up from the pit he’d started out in three years before would come to naught. An audience with the king, even if it came to nothing, was enough of a start that he couldn’t be faulted for failing.
He and his translator were ushered into the throne room by a veritable battalion of guards who split to line either side of the narrow walkway leading up to the base of the dais upon which sat a gilded throne occupied by an imposingly tall man Roy knew to be King Vasyklo. The crown he wore was interwoven with braids of his golden hair and bore impressive scrollwork that Roy only recognized as intricate arrays the closer he got, though the purpose of them was lost both in distance and Roy’s own lack of knowledge. He was an impressive sight, and the raw power that radiated off of him was unmistakable and, certainly, intentional.
“Your Majesty,” Roy greeted humbly, pressing his right fist to his opposite shoulder as he bowed deeply from the waist.
His translator barely got a word out when the king waved her off. “I believe we share a common language, do we not?” he asked in Amestrian.
Roy straightened in surprise. “We do, Your Majesty. I didn’t realize you spoke my mother tongue. I admit, this is a pleasant surprise.”
“I have found that knowing exactly what it is your enemies are asking of you often pays off,” Vasyklo explained, breaking into a wide grin. “I’m pleased to have the opportunity to practice with an ally.”
The uncertainty in Roy’s chest eased at that. For a moment, he was almost certain that Vasyklo considered him to be an enemy as well. “I’m honored that you count Xing to be amongst your allies.”
“What is that saying? The enemy of my enemy is my friend, yes? Xing and Xerxes share a common enemy, one that could prove problematic for both of us. I think, more specifically, you share that enemy, too.”
“I do, Majesty. It isn’t much of a secret, I’m afraid.”
“No, your exit certainly wasn’t a quiet one,” Vasyklo chuckled. “Some leaders would say that makes you untrustworthy.”
They were in delicate territory, and Roy had never been more in his element. “An understandable position, considering the circumstances.”
“I say it makes you more trustworthy. It makes you an honest man. You wouldn’t represent an ideal you disagreed with, that much is clear, and you wouldn’t speak for a sovereign with amoral intentions.”
“I would not,” Roy agreed, tempering steel into his voice. “I will not sit idly by again and commit atrocities in someone else’s name.”
“You are a man of principle,” Vasyklo said, nodding down at him. “I don’t know your emperor, but I know enough of you to know that he must be a good man, with good intentions. I will grant Xing the trade routes, and I agree to all of the terms you have laid out.”
Roy was a little taken aback. He had expected discourse, some back and forth and ironing of terms until they both ended up with half of what they wanted from the start but certainly, certainly not today. He rapidly composed himself and fell into a deep and hasty bow. “Thank you, Your Majesty, on behalf of the emperor and on behalf of Xing.”
“I believe the trade routes will benefit both of our people, and I welcome the prosperity our partnership will bring,” Vasyklo said. “As a final gesture of good will, I have a parting gift for you.”
He gestured to someone near the door on the opposite end of the room that Roy had come through just minutes before and then even, measured steps of the palace guard came up behind him. For a single, terrifying moment Roy thought that something had gone terribly wrong but then the mass of guards came around the side of him and Roy could see two civilian men buried in the middle of them. They parted, allowing the men to step forward.
One of the men, bulbous and red despite the darkness of his complexion, yanked hard on a golden chain that was connected to a pair of golden shackles fastened on the wrists of the most arresting creature Roy had ever laid eyes on. Even in a room full of Xerxian gold, the young man’s hair shone with an eye-catching brightness. Amber eyes, alight with determination and fury, shone from his delicate face, browned from the desert sun and kissed with the lightest sprinkling of pale freckles Roy had ever seen. He was nearly a full head shorter than Roy but the strength was evident in the cut of his bare arms, although one of those arms appeared to be wrapped in six identical steel cuffs that spanned his wrist to his shoulder. The dull shine of a metal leg caught Roy’s attention next, and he spared a moment to wonder what sort of accident had befallen him before Vasyklo was speaking again.
“The advisor you met with yesterday mentioned your interest in our labor trade, and that you were disadvantaged in never having had the opportunity to partake. I have heard that your tastes are not as discerning, so to speak, as most western men, so I thought something beautiful would certainly please you.”
Roy had been so caught up in that beauty that it took him a moment to realize the implications of the chain and of Vasyklo’s words. The young man was his gift.
He felt vaguely sick to his stomach.
“Aetous here assures me that seven thirty five is strong and healthy,” Vasyklo continued. He said something to the red man and he prodded at the young man until he lifted his arms and displayed them to Roy. Then, much to his horror, the red man probed the young man’s mouth with his fingers and showed Roy his teeth like a show horse. The young man’s golden eyes shone with cold hatred, alternating between Aetous and Roy as if he’d had anything to do with this. “Additionally, he is well versed in the alchemical arts and possesses a particular skill that is not unknown to our people.”
The display that resulted from Aetous’s command was nothing short of the most spectacular power-play Roy had ever seen. The young man clapped his hands together and pressed them to the floor, sending a ripple of blue static radiating out from the point of contact. A slim column rose up from the stone floor, twisting with intricate ripples and vines that wrapped around it as if they had been carved into it by an artisan rather than an alchemist who, by all rights, should not have been able to transmute without an array and certainly shouldn’t have been able to transmute something so delicate, so intricate, without so much as breaking a sweat. If this was a common skill among Xerxian alchemists…
It occurred to Roy then that the only thing keeping the shackles around the young man’s wrists was the fact that he was allowing them to stay in place.
The column spun until it was halfway to the ceiling and then it disappeared back into the floor just as quickly as it had appeared and the young man straightened with a slight wince and a bit of difficulty, no doubt due to the metal leg. It didn’t look like automail, and while, from what he understood, automail was no walk in the park, Roy couldn’t help but to feel a bit sorry for him.
“Seven thirty five is new to the labor trade, and may require a bit of breaking in order to bend him to your will, although that is sometimes the most enjoyable part.”
The idea of breaking in anyone was nauseating and it took every bit of willpower Roy possessed to keep his expression one of neutral interest. “It seems to me he’s already broken,” he said, gesturing vaguely to the man’s leg.
“I am assured that he can work in spite of the prosthetic. It was lost in the commission of a crime but he is paying for it. You have nothing to fear from seven thirty five.”
Roy could only imagine what kind of crime would warrant slavery as a punishment. Had the young man killed someone? Tried to kill someone? He couldn’t imagine that the king of Xerxes would hide an assassination attempt in the guise of a goodwill gift and, anyway, he could hardly refuse the gift, even if he thought it might be dangerous, even if the very idea of taking possession of another human being was enough to turn his blood cold, no matter what that person had done to earn it.
The incongruity of all this was not lost on Roy. Vasyklo had just espoused the virtues of morality and principal, praised him for being a good man, and then gifted him another human life to do with and break as he pleased. Roy couldn’t rationalize the inconsistency, and he wondered what kind of man it made him for accepting the young man at all.
“You are far too gracious, Majesty,” he said, bowing in the Xerxian manner again. “I am truly in your debt, if only for the sake of my satisfied curiosity.”
Aetous offered Roy the chain and a small set of golden keys and he took both without a moment’s hesitation. The metal chain of the leash felt too hot in his hand but he curled his fingers around it anyway, drawing the young man closer to him and out of the crowd of soldiers.
“I am sure you have plenty to do in the face of your upcoming departure and that you are… eager to retire with your new acquisition. Please give your emperor my well wishes and that I hope our paths cross in person sometime soon. I will have my advisors send your treaty to my rooms and someone will deliver the signed document to you before you depart in the morning,” Vasyklo said, watching Roy and his ‘gift’ with interest. “You are free to take your leave.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Roy said, bowing deeply again and turning, pulling the young man along behind him like a dog on a leash as he quickly left the room behind him, the young man’s eyes burning veritable holes into his back the entire time.
The entourage of soldiers escorted the both of them back to his rooms and Roy ushered the young man inside before closing the door firmly behind him and dropping the leash almost immediately. He fumbled with the keys and crossed as close to the young man as he dared and made quick work of the shackles around his wrists, letting them fall to the floor with a satisfied clang.
The young man was still staring at him with an unguarded mixture of red-hot rage and pure, white hatred and, maybe, just the most trace hint of fear.
“I don’t suppose you speak Amestrian,” Roy said, putting a fair bit of distance between them as he did so. The young man’s face didn’t change. “Xingese?” he tried, and got a similar response. “Fantastic.” He scrubbed his fingers through his hair, suddenly very, very tired. He supposed he could just pawn the young man off on his servants. They were only down the hall in a smaller collection of housekeeping quarters and the young man might appreciate a bed, but that would surely lead to talk. He was meant to be ‘breaking’ him, and spurning the king’s gift felt like a recipe for disaster even though every fiber of Roy’s being yearned to spurn it.
He set to work rifling through one of his recently-repacked trunks and came away with a heavy quilt. He attempted to pass it off to the young man but he didn’t make a move to take it. Roy relented after a moment, a little spike of annoyance cutting through him, and hauled the quilt to the plush chaise in the far corner of the room. “You can sleep here,” he said, defaulting to Amestrian out of habit. It didn’t much matter, anyway. It wasn’t as if the young man could understand him. He hoped context clues would pull him through.
He crossed back to the bed and collected one of the many pillows stacked there and took it back to the chaise, making quick work of arranging the bedding into something serviceable. He looked back at the young man, still watching him furiously from the middle of the room but something like confusion had twisted itself into the glare.
“You can sleep here,” Roy said again, gesturing firmly towards the chaise. Although it was in vain, it made him feel better to speak to the young man instead of just gesticulating in silence.
He blew out a breath and set to rifling though his trunk again, pulling out a spare set of sleeping clothes and offering them to the young man who, again, refused to take them. Annoyance cut through him again, and he wondered briefly what would happen if he simply dropped them on top of him. The temptation was strong, if only to illicit a reaction, but he thought better of it and just set the clothes out on the chaise.
Roy found his own nightclothes and, casting another look at the man standing in the middle of the room before slipping off into the adjoining bathroom to change and work through his evening routine, taking a bit of extra time to give the other man some privacy.
When he thought enough time had passed, he made more noise than usual near the door and then opened it slowly, peeking out to make sure the other man was decent before coming fully into the room. He half-expected to find him still standing in the middle of the room and but he had relocated to the chaise and was perched on the edge of it, still dressed in the white tunic he’d been in before and still glaring.
Roy was starting to worry that there was a very real chance he would try to kill him in his sleep.
“I don’t know what it is you’re expecting of me but there will be no ‘breaking’ tonight, or any night,” he said, working to keep his tone gentle in the hopes that, even if the other man couldn’t understand his words, he might recognize that his tone was non-threatening. “When we return to Xing, I’ll make other arrangements for you. Quarters with the serving staff, maybe, I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with this.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair in exasperation. “I don’t even know what to call you.” They’d been calling him seven thirty five, but Roy would die before he called another man by a number rather than a name.
The young man, predictably, remained silent. It was a little unnerving, the silence paired with that raw anger and open dislike, and Roy couldn’t help but to remember both the impressive display of the young man’s alchemical skill and that he was a criminal, although the exact nature of those crimes might never be known to him. He made a mental note to approach a tutor for him when they returned to Xing. It wouldn’t do to keep the young man ignorant of communication forever. He also made a note to approach his translator tomorrow, to see if she could help facilitate some kind of conversation between the two of them in the mean time, or, at the very least, get the man’s name so Roy would have something to call him.
A nickname would do, he supposed. He wouldn’t go so far as to actually rename him. That would be dehumanizing beyond words and Roy didn’t think he could bring himself to do it, but a nickname could pull them through until morning, or maybe indefinitely. Even if he could get his translator to lend a hand, the incessant glares and the hatred that oozed out of every expressive twitch of the young man’s face rather implied he might not be particularly compliant, and he thought it was equally as likely that he would resolve to keep mute out of pure spite.
He looked the other man up and down, taking him and again he was struck by just how lovely he was. The low light of the room caught in the braid that fell over his shoulder and in his amber eyes, setting him aglow. He was molten gold and tan skin, broken up by the gleaming silver of his leg and the rings around his arm, a collection of precious metals wrapped in white cloth.
“Fullmetal,” Roy said aloud just as the thought occurred to him.
Again, Roy got no response, but the glare had grown somewhat harsher.
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair again. He’d known this excursion was going to be stressful but he hadn’t counted on something of this magnitude.
“We should both get some rest,” he said finally, shaking himself out of the beginnings of despair. He went around the room, extinguishing the lights before climbing into bed. Against his better judgment, he turned his back to his guest on the chaise but he pressed his hand into his pillow case and felt for the ignition glove he had concealed there, just in case. Contented that it was still there, he closed his eyes, breathed out a sigh, and willed his whirring mind to relax enough to let him sleep.
The journey out of the city was the most difficult trek of Ed’s life. Every step he took drew him further and further away from Al, further away from the little life they’d built for themselves, further away from the only thing he had ever had that was worth keeping. He’d never expected, even in his wildest nightmares about the horrors this new turn his life had taken would bring, that he would be shipped across the desert to Xing. It was one thing to imagine thirty years in Xerxes, knowing that Al lived and breathed a few short miles away from him at any given time, knowing that as soon as the last ring snapped off and Ed was free that he could track Al down in a matter of hours and everything would be fine again. It was another thing entirely, knowing how far he would have to go, how much more he would have to fight, just for the chance of seeing his brother again.
Even through the worst of everything that had happened, when his father had left and his mother had died and the failed transmutation and Al’s sickness and those months when they’d had to starve just to scrape together enough money to pay off Aetous, Ed had never felt hopeless. Now, with the endless yellow haze of the desert spreading out in front of him, hopelessness had settled in his chest like it had been there the whole time.
It would have been laughably, stupidly easily to snap himself out of the shackles on his wrists, make quick work of the armed Xingese that flanked the envoy, and make an escape back to Xerxes, back to Al and home and freedom, but the threat of Al’s safety still hung like a whip over his head and he didn’t dare. Getting Al in trouble for something he’d done was a more terrifying prospect than leaving him.
As if leaving hadn’t been bad enough, Bastard (Ed didn’t know his name and he didn’t fucking care even a little bit, and had steadfastly refused to speak to the translator that he’d been paraded in front of earlier that morning,) had seen fit to lock the shackles back on his wrists and hitch him to the saddle of his horse with the chain like a fucking dog on a leash, forcing Ed to walk along side him as they made their way through the desert. His metal leg and the rings on his arm, still sore from the transmutation as it was, were burning up in the sun, scorching the stump of his leg and the skin on his arm wherever they touched, and there was sand stuck in the gaps and ridges between the prosthetic that ground together with every step and, in the places where it had wedged in between the metal leg and what remained of his real one, was slowly wearing away his skin. It was misery, and they’d only just left.
Still, Ed wouldn’t give Bastard the satisfaction of complaining. Sure, he’d talked a good game the night before, (because of course Ed spoke Amestrian, his Amestrian mother had made sure of that, but damned if he’d ever let Bastard know it,) made it seem like he was halfway decent and even promised some kind of separation in the servant’s quarters of wherever the hell they were going, and even seemed to be genuinely opposed to the idea of using him for sex (even though Ed didn’t miss the way he’d been looking at him,) which was a definite, top-shelf plus as far as Ed was concerned, but he hadn’t hesitated to leash Ed to a horse and make him walk. Even the servants had horses of their own.
And sure, Bastard had done some vague, semi-apologetic mumbling about keeping up appearances and not looking like he was ungrateful for the ‘gift’ the king had bestowed upon him, but that only served to unsettle Ed more. If keeping up appearances was so important, what else would Bastard do for the sake of it? It had seemed to Ed that Bastard had genuine and negative feelings towards the concept of slavery, unsurprising given that he seemed to be an Amestrian himself, or had at least spent time there, but still unexpected. The fact that he seemed willing to compromise those feelings in favor of fitting in was worrying. Ed thought it was probably only a matter of time before his feelings changed.
The day wore on, and even frequent breaks and more frequent sips of tepid water didn’t relieve Ed’s torment and by the time they stopped for the night to set up camp, every movement sent ripples of agony through his over-taxed body.
The servants had already begun to set up the tents and were nearly finished when Bastard finally thought to unhitch Ed’s chain from his horse. He turned to converse with someone in smooth Xingese and Ed barely had time to wonder what the hell they were talking about and where the hell he was supposed to spend the night before Bastard was tugging on the chain and pulling him into one of the tents that had already been assembled and, he noticed, furnished with both a cot and a little pile of neatly folded blankets in the corner on one of the rugs that had been situated on top of the sand.
Bastard tugged on the chain again and urged Ed closer so that he could key off the shackles. His wrists were raw and blistered where the sun-heated metal had rubbed against his skin and he thought he saw a frown flit across Bastard’s face before he locked it down and schooled his expression into something cool and neutral.
“May I see?” he asked gently, reaching for Ed’s wrist but stopping just short of touching him.
Ed wanted to pull away, but that would have implied some inkling of understanding so he just stood there, still and glaring, and Bastard closed the rest of the distance, carefully closing his fingers around Ed’s wrist and pulling it closer to examine it. He brushed his fingertips lightly over the damaged, tender skin and frowned in earnest this time. “I didn’t even think…” he said, and then winced, presumably at his own stupidity which was something Ed could get behind one hundred percent.
There was another moment of hesitation and then those hands were on one of the cuffs on Ed’s right arm, pushing firmly against one of them in what was probably an attempt to move it out of the way and examine the skin beneath it.
“Motherfucking son of a bitch,” Ed swore in angry Xerxian, ripping his arm away from those probing fingers as the pressure against the cuff sent a static pulse of white-hot pain cutting through him. His arm had been throbbing all day, still not completely back to normal since the transmutation and burning from the heated metal on top of that, and even that little bit of pressure had been agony.
Bastard blinked in surprise at the outburst and backed off a little, but not nearly enough for Ed’s liking. ”I’m sorry.”
Ed only scowled, cradling his arm against his chest and doing his best to put out a vaguely threatening aura to discourage further investigation. There was a very real chance that Ed would kick him in the face if he even so much as thought about touching his leg.
As if he’d read his mind, Bastard’s eyes dropped down to the metal prosthetic, making note of the red, angry skin around the place on his thigh just above the hinge of the knee where the metal met flesh but making no move to touch.
“Stay here,” he said after a moment, and disappeared out of the tent. As if Ed had anywhere else to go. As if Ed really had a choice.
Bastard reappeared a few minutes later with a jar and what looked like a set of travel clothes.
“I managed to rustle up a spare set of clothes from some of the servants,” he said, offering Ed the little pile. He didn’t get why Bastard always insisted on talking to him if he thought he couldn’t understand him. Probably just liked the sound of his own voice; high and mighty types always did. “They may be over-large but at least they’ll keep the sun off of the metal. I’ll just… give you a bit of privacy.”
Who the fuck did Bastard think was so small that he couldn’t fit into regular clothes? Ed could have bashed in his stupid face. Lucky for the other man, he found something to busy himself with near the little cot, very pointedly keeping his back turned to Ed, which was something at least.
Ed changed quickly and it very quickly became apparent, to his absolute and total dismay, that the clothes he’d been brought must have been borrowed from a giant. The loose pants slipped off of his hips at every hint of movement and dragged the floor behind him a good several inches, and he was absolutely drowning in the shirt. He scowled down at the clothing as if it had personally and mortally offended him.
Bastard turned back around and attempted, and failed, to hide his amused snort. Ed scowled openly. Well, if it was entertainment he wanted, entertainment he’d get. He clapped his hands and in a flash of blue light, the clothes shrank to fit him, redistributing the extra fabric (it didn’t just disappear, alchemy didn’t work like that,) to pad the areas around his right arm and left leg, adding extra protection against the heat and sun in the form of a few thin layers of fabric.
Bastard was staring at him in open shock and Ed had to admit that it was incredibly gratifying. It took the man another moment to recover himself but when he did he attempted to pass off the little jar to Ed.
“For the blisters,” he said, gesturing to Ed’s wrists and leg. “The alkahestrist wouldn’t… was too busy at the moment, but this should help.
Didn’t want to waste time on a slave, most likely. Ed eyed the jar for a moment before plucking it from Bastard’s hands. He unscrewed the top and the soothing-sweet smell of mixed herbs assaulted his nose. Curiously, he dipped a finger into the ointment and spread it around one of his wrists experimentally. Within a few seconds, much to his surprise, the burn dulled down to a quiet throb. He made quick work of the other wrist and then paused, looking across the narrow little tent at Bastard, who was watching him intently.
He immediately capped the jar and slipped it into one of the pockets of his borrowed pants. He’d deal with his leg later, much later, when Bastard was asleep. Damned if he’d intentionally cripple himself, bring himself down to his weakest parts by removing the prosthetic, in front of him.
Ed turned bodily away and limped over to the pile of blankets in the corner, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from whimpering as he settled on the ground, pain bolting through his hip and leg at the movement and the already overly-raw end of what was left of his leg grinding against the sand that had gotten stuck between it and the metal. He had to take a moment to catch his breath before even attempting to curl up under one of the quilts. It was too hot beneath it, even in the cool of the desert evening, but couldn’t bear the idea of leaving himself exposed to the other man.
He heard Bastard sigh quietly behind him and some small movement followed.
“Goodnight then, Fullmetal.”