Sitting in the far corner of the carriage, she watched the rain pour down outside and pretended hard as she could that she was anywhere but here, and with anyone but him. She had plenty of handlers from the state, lots of different faces she knew—and all of them state alchemists like him—but most of them at least tried to pretend they remembered she was only a trainee because she had to be, not because she’d chosen it.
“Lissandra. The periodic table, please.”
She squinted her eyes and ignored him. She’d made a deal with herself—she would only do what he said if he called her by the name she liked, and if not, she was going to ignore everything Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang said to her.
He sighed and tapped her knee once. “Lissandra, I need you to focus.”
“Why are we going all the way out into the middle of nowhere?” she asked, looking away from the rolling hills and meeting his gaze. He could stuff the periodic table up his ass.
Lieutenant Colonel Mustang lifted an eyebrow, bemused. “You know why. We’re visiting somebody I have a job offer for.”
“Okay, but why am I here?” she pressed him.
He leaned back into his side of the carriage, regarding her almost curiously. That was maybe what she hated most about him—he acted like she was a curiosity, something unique and interesting, but not really a person. She didn’t think he always remembered she was more than a trainee alchemist, more than something to be shaped and molded into whatever the state wanted. “I’ll tell you if you recite the first ten elements for me.”
Damn. He had her there.
Sighing, she dug her fingers into the hem of her dress and pursed her lips tight. If he’d just remember her name…
Beside him, his second-in-command Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye, a blonde woman she disliked a bit less than the Lieutenant Colonel, quirked a rare smile. “We go through this every time,” she observed, shaking her head. “Lieutenant Colonel, I’m sure she’ll answer you if you just use her nickname, the one she always corrects everyone to. It’ll be much smoother that way.”
Thank you, Lieutenant Hawkeye.
Lieutenant Colonel Mustang sighed roughly, but nodded anyway. “All right. Lissa, will you please recite the first ten elements for me?”
Lissa hid a faint smile. Finally. “Hydrogen. Helium. Lithium. Beryllium. Boron. Carbon. Nitrogen. Oxygen. Fluorine. Neon.”
He nodded once, apparently pleased. “You’re here because the people I’m looking for happen to be the same age as you. I thought you could help me talk to them, show them what we do isn’t as terrifying as it can seem at times.”
She looked up at him in surprise. There weren’t many other eleven-year-old alchemists in Amestris—that was why the military had been so interested in her from such a young age.
Lissa swallowed back a bitter comment. She knew Mustang didn’t like that sort of thing, when she let her tongue get ahead of her brain and made unhappy comments about her life. And maybe he was right. She could’ve been stuck in one of the bigger group homes outside Central City, with hundreds of kids and barely enough money to keep the doors open. Instead, her abilities had gotten her a place in the military’s institution in Central City, so they could keep an eye on what she could do, train her, and eventually have her take the exam and become a state alchemist. That was her path—her only path—in exchange for the state raising her.
From the day her parents had been killed, Lissa hadn’t been given a choice in what she wanted to do. She knew too much to be left on her own, without anyone watching over her growing alchemical abilities, considering it was too easy to scratch a transmutation circle in the dirt and cause problems. So she’d been shipped off to Central and stuck in their facility, and offered a choice. She could accept the state’s training and agree to become a state alchemist when she turned sixteen, or she could be locked away to prevent her from causing any trouble.
Who was going to choose that option? Seriously.
Lissa glanced between Hawkeye and Mustang, bewildered by the whole thing. “You mean… There’s another alchemist as young as me?”
“Two, actually,” Mustang confirmed. “Edward Elric is your age, and his brother Alphonse is one year younger than you. From what I’ve heard, they’re already quite accomplished alchemists. At least, they’re good enough to come up on our radar and earn this offer.”
“So I’m just here to make you look nicer,” Lissa snapped, crossing her arms.
Hawkeye cut off her superior before he could say something unkind, though Lissa knew she’d be in trouble later. “No, Lissa. You’re here to help these boys too. They lost their mother a while ago, and their father doesn’t seem to be around much—and you know firsthand how hard it can be, getting your abilities so young and not having much guidance with them.”
Their parents are gone? Lissa tugged at her uniform again, the facility’s blue and white dress stamped with the symbol of the Amestrian military, feeling out of place and uncomfortable. She wanted to tell these boys to run away… But what good would that do? Then they’d be as lost as she’d been.
The carriage rolled to a stop at the crest of a hill, where a rustic-looking house sat looking gloomier than it should through the rain. There wasn’t a single light on inside, no sign of anybody around, just…empty. Lissa felt something horrible twist in her stomach, and jerked away from the window, dizzy with a sudden wave of fear.
Mustang pushed the door open and stepped out into the rain, maybe not noticing the same thing Lissa had. “Odd,” he mused, looking up at the house. “Seems…empty.” He sighed and turned around, just as Hawkeye stepped out of the carriage behind him. “Right. Lissandra, you stay close to me, and be careful. Lieutenant Hawkeye, I want you to find the back door and enter that way, quiet as you can. Understood?”
Lissa grabbed up her black raincoat, stamped with the same symbol as her uniform, and tugged it on as she scrambled out. She didn’t like this place, didn’t like the way the air around them seemed sulfuric and heavy—but she didn’t want to stay out here alone either.
She followed close behind Mustang as he approached the house and tested the knob. It twisted easily, and the door swung open with a creak, opening to a yawning, dark hallway and no trace of a light anywhere. Lissa’s heart pounded in her chest and she grabbed onto one of Mustang’s coattails, fear smothering her embarrassment at clinging to him like a little baby. “L-Lieutenant Colonel Mustang,” she whispered, her voice coming out high and fearful, “something’s wrong.”
He looked back at her a moment, his expression indecisive—then he dug into his pocket and handed her a single stick of white chalk. “You know what to do if something happens, don’t you?” he asked her.
Lissa took the chalk and closed her fingers around it, stunned. Mustang rarely trusted her to do transmutations on her own. At least he was listening to her, though. “I do.”
“Good. Then stay close. We need to find the Elrics.”
They searched the whole first floor, illuminating everything just by Mustang’s single flashlight, and Lissa followed him every step of the way, taking in all the details of this home as they went. She hadn’t been in a real home since her parents were alive, and it made her heart ache to see the photos, the special homey touches, everything she’d missed at the facility in Central.
But none of it erased the horrible, acrid feeling she’d noticed as soon as she stepped out of the carriage. What was it? What had happened here?
With the first floor empty, Mustang headed up the stairs and Lissa followed him, keeping pace as he checked through a couple bedrooms—one with two beds and a whole bunch of alchemical textbooks spread around, which she guessed was the boys’ room—until finally they came upon a door that was shut tight, at the end of the hallway.
Lissa stood back as Mustang opened it, the terror in her head coalescing and rising until she pressed her back against the far wall and stood there, trembling, staring at the open door like it would eat her alive.
Unaware of her reaction, Mustang didn’t hesitate as he stepped inside. “What…what the hell?”
She darted forward and into the room, suddenly petrified to be alone—only to skid to a halt in the doorway as the harsh smell of iron assaulted her. In the glow of Mustang’s flashlight, Lissa saw blood, so much blood, streaked all over the floor. It was pooled to her right, where she could see what looked like…like drag marks, as though someone had crawled through the blood halfway across the room.
And to her left…
Lissa pressed both hands over her mouth to stifle the scream. She could see a transmutation circle, a type she’d never come across before—and at the center…
“Lissa! Dammit, don’t look!”
She did scream then, as Mustang grabbed her up and swung her away from the-
But there was nothing there.
Lissa froze, squirming with her face pressed into Mustang’s military jacket, trying to get a better look again. She’d seen something, a horrific, disfigured mass, but in the split second before he’d yanked her away she had realized there was nothing there. Just a pool of blood at the center of that strange transmutation circle.
“Stop, Lissa, it’s all right, just don’t look,” he urged, still holding her in tightly.
She gripped at his lapels and sobbed weakly, confused and afraid. This was what she’d sensed, this was the thing she’d been so afraid of outside… But why hadn’t Mustang and Hawkeye felt it? Why had nobody else sensed something was wrong?
“Lieutenant Colonel!” Hawkeye came racing in, gun drawn, her voice sounding tight and anxious. “I couldn’t find them anywhere, they aren’t out back or…” Her breath caught. “What is this?”
“Take Lissandra outside,” Mustang ordered firmly. “I want the Elrics found. Now.”
Lissa sat with her knees curled to her chest, getting mud all over the seat and her uniform, but she didn’t care. She was so confused. What had happened at the Elrics’ house? Lieutenant Colonel Mustang hadn’t answered any of her questions—he’d just made Lieutenant Hawkeye take her outside and stuff her in the carriage while he finished up inside. Then he’d come tearing back out of the house, angry and almost shaking, and insisted they were going down the road to the Elrics’ friends’ house, an automail shop nearby.
But what she’d seen…
She shivered and dug her nails into her forearms. What was that thing? And why hadn’t Mustang seen it when she did?
“Lissandra, I want you to stay in the carriage when we get there.”
She looked up at Mustang and glared. “No.”
He sighed deeply. “Lissa…”
“What happened at that house? Did those—boys do that, Edward and Alphonse? Is that was happened?” she asked, dropping her feet back to the floor.
“I don’t know,” Mustang admitted. “But I do know this is far beyond you now.”
Her heart sank. “What are you going to do to them?”
“If they’ve done…what I believe they have, then I have no choice but to censure them for their actions.” He frowned at her, looking very stern. “Which is why you need to stay outside while I handle this. You’ve seen enough today, and this won’t be easy to do, let alone witness. So stay outside. Understand? Otherwise I’ll report you to the head of your facility.”
Lissa gritted her teeth, but nodded anyway. There was no point in arguing with him, not when he got like this, pretending he was some real authority figure for her.
When the carriage stopped outside the automail shop, Mustang and Hawkeye left her there to wait on her own. Apparently this was a big enough problem to warrant them both going inside—but it was the perfect opportunity for Lissa to disobey. Did they really think she’d just sit there?
Lissa climbed out and closed the carriage door behind her, squinting through the rain at the house. This one looked nicer, warmer, and she didn’t feel any of that sulfur she’d sensed outside the Elrics’. It was well-lit inside and seemed lived-in, unlike the other one. This one felt like…metal and oil and parchment, kind of comforting and familiar, in a way. She liked it. That was enough to give her the courage to dart across the dark lawn and up the stairs to peek in the front door.
She was just in time to see Mustang go storming across the room and hear him shout, “We went to your house! We saw the floor! What was that? What did you do?!”
Breathing hard, terrified by the tone of his voice, Lissa pushed the door open just a bit further—and saw Mustang holding a small, golden-blond-haired boy aloft by the collar of his shirt over a wheelchair. He must’ve lifted the boy right out. She could see from her vantage point, crouching on the porch, that his left leg was missing, bandaged partway up his thigh, and his right arm was the same but gone all the way up to his shoulder, his sleeve hanging uselessly beside him.
Something snapped inside Lissa’s heart.
“Stop!” she shrieked, shoving past the door and racing across the room to yank hard on Mustang’s coat. “Put him down, stop it!”
He turned to look at her, his expression dark and furious. “I thought I told you to wait in the carriage.”
Lissa realized she was crying when her vision blurred, but she was too angry and upset to be embarrassed. “But you’re hurting him!” she cried, and pulled harder at his coat. She didn’t know why she felt so strongly about it, but she knew this boy needed to be treated kinder than this in the moment. “Let him go, please!”
For a moment, Mustang held her gaze, his will crashing against hers—but then he growled low in his throat and returned the boy to his wheelchair.
Lissa sniffed back her tears and darted to the boy’s side, only just now noticing the enormous suit of armor standing…behind him, upright on its own, gloves clenched around the handles of the wheelchair. And it was…trembling?
Then the suit of armor began to speak. “We…we’re sorry,” it whimpered, in the voice of a very young boy. “We didn’t mean it… We’re sorry, we’re so sorry…”
“Wait a minute… Are you…” Mustang recoiled in surprise. “Alphonse Elric?”
Lissa looked up at it, confused, trying to understand how a moving suit of armor could be a ten-year-old boy. But…it sounded like one, like a little kid. The suit of armor trembled and looked away, metal creaking as it did, but nobody denied it. Not a single person actually said this suit of armor wasn’t a little boy.
“Yes.” An old woman across the room sighed and nodded wearily. “That’s Alphonse.”
Mustang’s mouth pursed into a thin line. “Lissandra, go back outside and wait in the carriage. Now.”
She held her ground. “No.”
Hawkeye stepped away from the wall and caught Mustang’s gaze, nodding towards where Lissa stood. “Let her stay, Lieutenant Colonel. Isn’t that why you brought her along in the first place? She isn’t going to sit out there on her own, you know that.”
He glared at Lissa, who returned the look with one of her own—but he finally sighed and nodded, relenting. “Fine. Stay, if that’s what you want.” Mustang then looked across at the old woman, folding his arms over his chest. “We have a lot to discuss, it seems. I need to know everything that happened.”
The woman eyed him, suspicious, but when her eyes strayed to the silver chain visible along the side of his trousers, she seemed to slump down a bit. “All right. We’ll tell you everything, then.”
Hawkeye stepped through into another room of the house, apparently to look around, while Mustang followed the old woman to the dining room table and sat down across from her, folding his hands atop the table and looking back at the three kids expectantly. “Well?”
With what sounded like a tiny sob, the suit of armor—Alphonse—went to grab the handles of the wheelchair, but he was shaking so bad when he gripped down it made the whole chair tremble too.
“Here,” Lissa murmured softly, reaching up to take the handles herself. “Let me help you.” She ducked under Alphonse’s metal arm and dug her feet into the floorboards, pushing hard at the chair until it began to roll forward, moving at a slow pace. It was almost taller than her, so it was a bit of a struggle, but she persisted and got the boy—Edward, he had to be—across the room, turning the chair to sit facing the edge of the table. Then she hurried over and grabbed the chair from the opposite side, and dragged it back so she could sit beside the boys, on Edward’s left. Alphonse stood behind his brother’s wheelchair, not shaking so hard now but still feeling…off.
As the old woman, who introduced herself as Pinako Rockbell, began to tell what she knew, Lissa could see Edward’s shoulders slumping further and further, his head dropping almost to his chest. She looked at him, troubled, unsure how to help. Even as she listened to the story, learning what exactly had happened and what they’d done, she couldn’t be afraid or angry.
Mustang didn’t seem as angry either, though it was worse knowing, she thought. Hearing how they’d tried to bring their mother back, how in the process Edward had lost two of his limbs and Alphonse his whole body, how the scene they’d come across in that house had been the result… It just made her feel so sad for them. They both seemed almost broken, so desperately miserable and hurt, and Edward didn’t say a word through the whole thing. He didn’t even look up once, unable to do anything but stare distantly across the room, despondent.
“…Should he choose to accept the position, he’ll be required to serve the military in times of national emergency. In return, he’ll receive privileges and access to otherwise restricted research materials,” Mustang was saying, not speaking to Edward so much as at him. “Given time…he may be able to find a way to get their bodies back. Or more.”
Ms. Rockbell’s face turned stony. “Right after he came stumbling to my door, half-dead and covered in blood, I went over to their house to see for myself what had happened. What was there…” She broke off and glared up at Mustang. “Whatever that thing was, it wasn’t human. Alchemy created that abomination, and it nearly killed them! And you want to throw those boys headlong into it? Would you really have them go through that kind of hell again?!”
Mustang sighed deeply, unperturbed. “I’m merely offering one possibility. It could be a path to fixing all this, for both of them. Think it over, I urge you.” He stood up from the table and gave Lissa a pointed look. “I’m getting the Lieutenant, and then we’re leaving. Be ready.” He left the room then, heading down the hallway where Hawkeye had disappeared.
“And how did you get mixed up in all this, young lady?” Ms. Rockbell asked her, frowning over at Lissa.
“Oh, I…” She swallowed hard. “My parents died when I was younger… Because I can do alchemy I ended up at a state institution in Central City, and I go out on some missions and errands with the state alchemists sometimes. When they think I’m ready, I’ll stop being a trainee and take the exam too.”
The woman didn’t seem pleased by that. “Hm. Well, be careful, will you? I don’t trust that Mustang character.”
Lissa bit her lip and gripped onto her dress underneath the table. She didn’t like how Mustang had acted either—but she could see why he wanted Edward to take the exam and become a state alchemist, if he’d been able to do so much already. “There are worse things,” she murmured, looking down at her lap, almost ashamed of what she was saying. “Being a state alchemist wouldn’t be so bad, compared to some alternatives.”
Ms. Rockbell didn’t reply—she just got up from the table and went across to the kitchen, busying herself there.
“Um… I’m Lissa Caito,” she spoke up, turning to face the brothers hesitantly. “I already know your names. Are you…okay? Er…” She felt her face heating up. “I’m sorry, that’s a stupid question, isn’t it?”
Edward lifted his head finally, staring at her with eyes of pure gold. She’d never seen a color like that—even dull with sorrow, it was…beautiful. “So you’re gonna be a state alchemist?”
“Eventually,” she told him softly.
He looked down at his own lap and sighed. “It was a stupid question. But…thanks for asking anyway. And…and thank you for…earlier.”
When she’d defended him to Mustang. Lissa had known it, she knew it had been too harsh! She looked at Edward fiercely and grabbed his hand in both of hers, making him lift his gaze to her in surprise. “Don’t let him push you around,” she told him firmly. “I mean it. Go be a state alchemist if that’s what you want, but don’t let Mustang bully you into anything, okay? He’s used to getting his way but you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to.”
Footsteps thudded in the hall, and Lissa knew what it meant—the others were returning, which meant she’d be going back to Central City and leaving these boys behind. It made her inexplicably sad, like she wanted to drop everything and stay here to look after them. “I have to go back now,” she murmured, pushing her chair back and sliding to her feet.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Alphonse asked her softly.
“I’m always okay,” she told him, as confidently as she could, though deep inside she was afraid of what punishment might be handed down once she got back. “What about you guys, though? I mean… I heard what happened, and I just…” Lissa reached back out and grabbed Edward’s hand again. “I hope I see you again, that’s all.”
Edward nodded slowly. “Y-yeah. Us too.”
Mustang walked back in then, Hawkeye at his heels. “We’re going now, Lissandra. Come along.” He strode past her and outside, knowing full-well she’d follow him without lingering—he was her only way back, after all.
“I gotta go,” Lissa murmured, releasing Edward’s hand and stepping away. She walked all the way to the door without breaking—but then she let out a sob and ran back, flinging her arms around Edward and hugging him tight. “Be safe,” she whispered. She was too small to really hug Alphonse, so she settled for his leg, wrapping her arms as far around as she could get them. And only then did she walk away, forcing herself to ignore the soft sound of Edward crying as she closed the door behind her.