Refugees. The townspeople of Youswell has grown used to the sight of them over the years, silent individuals and equally silent tiny families, ragged and dirty and all marked with the same lost, hopeless air. They drifted like milkpods, there one day and gone the next, Youswell just one stop on the road from nowhere to nowhere else. The miners and townsfolk didn't bother to try to ask their names any more. They took cen, if the refugees had in, in exchange for food. They gave water freely, and turned blind eyes to bodies that sometimes spent the nights in doorways or huddled at the train station. There was nothing else to be done - stretched out over rock and stone at the edge of civilization, Youswell, first and foremost, had always had to take care of its own.
The children were always the hardest to ignore, Halling thought, watching one youngster trudge through the dust of the street in the last gold light of sunset. Refugees from the east rarely had more than the clothes on their back and scavenged battered packs to their name. Families on the move couldn't afford to put able pairs of legs to waste - too often wounds or sickness had already stripped them to struggling to manage. Halling had seen too many children since the war started, boys and girls both, often barely older than his own son Kayal but struggling under the weight of packs or infant siblings or wounded parents. All of them had the same dead look to their eyes and too many had the pinched look of hunger.
It had taken Halling a long time to learn to look away. He could barely keep food on his own table for his wife and Kayal when the tax collectors came. Charity was something only the rich could indulge in. Youswell and her dwindling mines weren't rich and charity was a habit Halling couldn't afford if he wanted to keep his own family off of the streets. All the same... it was hard to watch the children.
The youngster trudging ahead of Halling couldn't have been more than five, thin and lost in a threadbare sweater that was too large for him. He didn't carry pack or sibling but he walked with a heavy limp that weighted him down; Halling shook his head with a heavy sigh. Butchers. The war was full of nothing but butchers and dead eyed children and taxes that squeezed the life from honest working men.
The boy, stepping off of the shallow curb, stumbled and went to his knees. Halling winced in the reflexive anticipation of a parent, well aware of the volume Kayal could reach when he hurt himself. The cries, however, never came - like too many children before him the refugee boy took the fall without complaint, catching himself on outstretched hands without a sound.
Hurrying his steps, Halling closed the distance between them before he could think better of it and reached down to give the boy a hand up. "Here... are you alright?"
A small, solemn face turned to look up at him. The fading light turned the boy's hair and eyes the color of molten gold beneath the patina of road dust that clung to him. Wide eyes blinked at him, then dropped to examine the boy's small hands. He brushed them against one another, dusting away grit, and started to struggle to his feet.
Halling caught at one thin arm, steadying the boy. Upright, the child barely came to the miner's hip. "Are you hurt?" The paving had torn right through the boy's wear worn pants at the knee, threads and fabric dangling. "Are you bleeding?"
The boy shook his head, hair falling into his eyes. "I'm fine," he whispered.
Halling frowned. "You're sure? That was a hard spill. Where's your family?"
The boy half shrugged, pointing; the sleeve of his sweater slid over his hand, flopping loosely. Looking in the direction he indicated, Halling saw a man who must be the boy's father coming out of the general store, a pack in one hand and an even younger child occupying the other.
Well. The store meant they must at least have money to eat with. That was a relief. Halling let the boy go, checking again to make sure that he was standing alright. "Can you walk?"
"I'm fine," the boy repeated. Indeed, his limp wasn't any worse when he set his weight on the injured leg, plodding ahead with studied determination. He hadn't taken three steps, though, when he went down again and this time the fall jarred a small, muffled cry from him.
"Careful!" Halling reached for the boy again, no more able to stop himself than he could have stopped himself from picking up Kayal when his son stumbled. Ahead of them a man's voice called out "Edward!" and moments later the boy's father arrived in a flurry of footsteps, pack dropped in favor of picking up his son.
Halling released the boy and stepped back. "He scraped his knee pretty hard back there on the curb."
The boy's father was a tall man, broad shouldered, with the same gold colored hair as the boy. He went to one knee beside his son; the younger child, another little boy, was tucked into the crook of his elbow, wrapped in a fold of dusty blanket and asleep against his shoulder. The man smoothed the older boy's hair back with his free hand. "Are you alright, Edward?"
Halling, watching, felt his jaw go loose. The man's hand picked up and reflected the dimming sunset in bright flashes that slid over precisely interlocked metal shapes.
Automail. The man's hand was automail.
Refugees were a common sight. Wounded refugees were no stranger. Halling had seen men and women swathed in dirty bandages, people with bleeding wounds or fresh scars, people with stumps where arms or legs had been. It happened, and the sight of it had long since stopped being shocking. The more fortunate had pegs and canes to take the place of missing legs, or hooks to take the place of absent arms.
Automail would give a man back his actual hand, or like enough as to make no difference. Automail took the work of a skilled mechanic to be fitted with, Halling had heard it said that it took years to master the use of it, and above all else... Automail took money.
Halling would have bet that every coin of every refugee that had gone through Youswell in the last year couldn't have bought an automail limb, not if every last cen were pooled together.
The boy was wiping his face with one dangling sleeve. He sniffled once, head hung down, voice so low that Halling could barely hear him. "Sorry. S'hurts."
The boy's father sighed, ruffling the child's hair. "I know. I'm sorry, Edward. Not much farther now, I promise. Can you walk?"
Thin shoulders straightened beneath the sweater and the boy nodded, a stiff jerk of his head. The man retrieved his pack, slinging it on his free shoulder, and then stood and reached out his hand. The boy took it in both of his, leaning heavily against his father's support. "Thank you," the man told Halling. Behind a pair of dusty and battered glasses the man's eyes were a darker shade than the boy's, framed in a network of worried lines that pulled his brows down.
"It's no trouble," Halling told him honestly. And then, not quite able to help himself, he heard his own voice adding "Where are you headed?"
It was the question the townspeople didn't ask and the refugees didn't answer. There usually wasn't an answer and it was pointless to ask, pointless to drag out the inevitable by getting involved. Halling knew better, but the gold and silver sunlight shining from the man's hand made him forget it.
The man steadied a son with each arm; encumbered, he pointed with his head, indicating the direction of the train station with a nod. "We missed the last train; we'll be staying here for the night. The shopkeep mentioned an inn... do you know where it is?"
Halling nearly grinned. The owner of the store, Rodden, knew how to keep his bar tab extended even if he hadn't paid on it in over a month. "I surely do," he told the man. "My family runs the best inn and bar in Youswell. You'll be wanting a room for yourself and your boys? Maybe some dinner?"
"That would be perfect," the man replied. His accent was flawless Amestrian, with a hint of the longer sound that could be found to the south. As ragged as either of his sons, he wore layers of travel stained and dust shrouded clothes and looked no different from any other refugee.
Except for his hand, where it supported his older son at his side. That impossible hand that would, by itself, have cost more than Halling could be assured of making in a year.
Don't count an egg until it's hatched, Halling's grandmother had been fond of saying. A man needed money to have automail. There was no reason to think that it in any way meant that he'd have money after he sprang for the replacement. No charity, Halling reminded himself. Boys Kayal's age or not, Halling's family couldn't afford charity. "100 thousand for the night, dinner included," he told the man. It was no more than any of the other inns would charge, he said to himself.
The man barely hesitated. "Alright. Is it far?"
Threadbare, dusty, dirty, but moneyed. Halling silently promised himself to cancel Rodden's whole tab. "Just up the street. I was heading back - work a shift in the mine during the day, barkeep in the evenings. Do you need some help with that?" he indicated the man's pack.
The man nodded gratefully. Pulling his hand free from his son's for a moment, he let Halling take the pack. Stooping, he scooped up his older boy, swinging the child onto his hip. The boy protested with a yelp but the man hushed him. "Just to the inn. You need to be off that leg."
Cheeks ablaze, the boy subsided, hands fisted in his father's coat as he buried his face against the man's shoulder. On the other side his brother shifted, stirring sleepily.
Halling, the pack heavy in his hands, looked the man over once more and then met his eyes. Beneath the man's coat and loose shirt, where the boy's small hands fisted in his collar, there was a flash of metallic braid that was the worse for wear, edging fabric that might once have been dark blue but was stained black in the dimming light. The sight of it stopped Halling cold and made his voice rough. "Military?"
The man's expression tightened, lines bracketing the corners of his mouth at the edges of his beard. He studied Halling. "Is it a problem?" he asked quietly.
The pieces fell into place. Of course... the military could afford to give a wounded soldier automail. They damn well ought to be able to, Halling thought bitterly, given the amount they wrung out in taxes. And soldiers, wounded or not, were the ones out in the east making refugees of families and children that limped their way through Youswell in search of a home to replace the one they'd been chased from. Something of his thought must have shown in his face because the man sighed and bent to let his older son back down. "I'm sorry for wasting your time," he told Halling tersely. "Is there any other inn nearby, or would their answer be the same?"
Afterwards, Halling wasn't quite sure what figured most prominently in his decision. 100 thousand cen was a goodly sum, a much needed windfall for his family, and Halling was well aware that morals and eating didn't need to go into the same sentence. There was that, and then there was the wince the boy tried to hide as his feet touched the ground, the wounded leg dangling heavily as his father set him down once more. He wasn't much older than Kayal, but he didn't make a sound of complaint despite the obvious pain.
Sighing, Halling shouldered the small family's pack. "Didn't say it was a problem," he said gruffly. "Your money's good, that's all I care about. Military pays you, you pay me, tomorrow you're on the train. Coming?"
The man hesitated, doubt plain in his face. Halling would have doubted his own patience with his momentary loss of morals - no one in Youswell gave more to the military than they absolutely had to - but the boy tugged at his father's wrist with both hands, his whisper small. "Papa? Can we sit soon?"
That clinched the matter. The man lifted his son back up, a tight wince of pain crossing both of their faces before the child was settled on the man's hip. "Lead on, please," the man told Halling.
Halling turned down the street, pack across one shoulder, pick resting on the other. The man fell into step beside him. The silence stretched for a block before Halling, with a sigh of resignation, broke it. "You have a name?"
The man took a moment to answer, gaze following Halling from the corner of his eyes. "Hohenheim," he said at last. "Hohenheim Elric." He inclined his head to his sons, indicating the oldest first. "My sons, Edward and Alphonse."
Military, but he didn't give his rank or advertise it. Money to spend, but threadbare, travel stained, worn and ragged, with two equally ragged children, passing through the far eastern edge of civilization. Halling, turning the puzzle over in his mind, came up with a plausible solution and shot his paying guest a second look. They walked abreast and Halling kept his voice low. "Discharged or AWOL?"
The man's head jerked up, his mouth opening. Halling shook his head, offering a small apologetic smile. "Don't answer. This far out it doesn't matter. Nobody here cares." Tugging the pack higher on his shoulder, pleased with himself for solving the answer, he quickened his pace. "Come on. My wife will have dinner ready. Those boys of yours are probably hungry."