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Across the Eastern Sands

Chapter Text

Being dead was really emotionally draining.

Fu was right in the sense that it was smarter not to cry in the middle of the Great Desert, where water was scarce, and losing her bodily fluids any faster could be dangerous, even deadly, but Maria Ross can't help but think that doesn't exactly make things easier. It just means she's stopped crying. Instead, for the past few days in the desert, her jaw has ached with the tell tale cringe that came about whenever she held back tears as a child. There's sand blowing everywhere, and her eyes are red and iritated, but she doesn't weep because weeping would be pointless at the moment. She'd never been one to do something emotional or impractical. Her eyes just aren't used to the reflective glare of the sands, and she keeps her gaze low to her camel, cursing just about everything that's happened so far in her life.

The caravan isn't much for a lot of small talk during the day time, as it's too hot and too exhausting to carry on conversations, but Maria's fine with it. She has to figure she's not very good company, and it's not just because she's supposed to be dead, or because she feels bitter about being blamed for Hughes' death. It's just that she's not feeling very cheery at the moment, and sullen is probably the best way to describe how she's reacting to the misery of having sand grit between her teeth, and her clothes, and in her short, cropped hair. The desert doesn't exactly agree with her, and she's begun to resemble a peeling tomato wherever skin is left exposed for too long.

Being out in the middle of nowhere and being dead did make for some excellent contemplations however. She figured that this must be one of those signs the universe gives you that maybe you should take a step back and reevaluate your whole life for a little while, because there's really nothing better to do than complain about how sore, or hot, or tired she is. She tried not to dwell on whether or not people cried at her funeral too much. Most people hope scads of men and women - family, and friends, and maybe a few lovers - would be left behind heartbroken and desolate at the loss, but Maria figured that her parents are devastated, and everyone else thinks she murdered the nicest family man on the planet. 

She heaved a sigh on her camel.

Sergeant Denny Brosh probably cried. He was a good partner, and a little clueless at times, but unlike Armstrong, didn't get to find out what happened to her. She regretted it, but there was nothing to be done about it.

So she contemplated other things: If she liked her job as much as she thought she did, if she regretted telling her parents about her personal tastes, if she should've never broken up with the last person she dated, if she was just in the wrong line of business because really, there was something screwed up about a country willing to condemn her without a real trial. (Yes, No, Yes, and probably, but it was a little late for her to just now to be worried about the Government's corruption issues.) She began to wonder if she should've taken her week's vacation time earlier that year, if she should've spent more time cooking because it was fun, and if she should have read the newspaper more. (Yes to all of the above, but she knew she'd only skim the headlines.)

When the heat started to affect her mind, she got a little more existentialist, and even she knew that bringing it up would make for terrible company. So the former Lieutenant Ross shoved away her philosophical wonderings when night came, and campfires were made, and instead tried to be in better humor for dinner.

She started to ask about Xing.

Not philosophical questions, but real ones. Ones that would determine the rest of her life as a not-so dead woman. She had dark hair, but none of the same features as anyone Xingese - would she be eyed at strangely? Did people speak Amestrian, or was that just Fu and his men? How hard was Xingese to learn, anyways, because she'd given up on learning ancient Xerxian as a schoolgirl. (Forget trying to become an alchemist, it just wasn't her thing, and she was pretty sure dead languages were less difficult than living ones.) What was she going to do there? She'd liked her job in the military, loved investigations and internal affairs with Lieutenant Colonel Hughes and Major Armstrong, and Xing probably didn't need any of those things; she didn't even know if anyone stopped fighting with each other long enough to keep a unified military.

Besides, everyone seemed to be stealthy and in tune with the planet, and a lot of other mystical things Ross hadn't quite gotten the handle on. She was confidant in her fighting abilities, but she carried a pistol and was a quick shot - that didn't mean she was at all sneaky. She didn't know how to be 'one with the wind' and she had the distinct feeling that no one wanted someone who was used to being upfront and direct when the whole world operated in the shadows.

Somewhere on the last leg of their journey, as Ross fought the urge to mentally complain about the mess she'd wound up in, she turned to Fu, and asked: "What are we going to tell the Emperor? I mean, you can't exactly bow down and casually mention you've brought along a fugitive who's wanted for murder."

Fu, being Fu, quirked a dignified brow at her.

"I am sure that you will find the right words when we get there, Miss Ross."

Maria Ross slumped on her camel.

Being dead was more than emotionally draining, it was starting to become a real pain.

Chapter Text

She's so exhausted that by the time they get to Xing, she's not terribly excited. Maria figures it's a defense mechanism that she's so worn out that she can't bring herself to be overwhelmed at the moment. It's something like being medically in shock: she can't feel the weight of having arrived in another country, and wonders numbly when it will hit her she's the farthest away from home she's ever been without family, or friends.

Well, old friends, anyways. Eventually she's going to endear herself to someone in Xing besides Fu, who is trying not to pity her, if only because he knows there's nothing that makes a warrior more angry than pity.

The buildings of the Capital city are odd, but they're not quite real to Maria, yet. They seem funny, toy-like, and have sharp, upturned roofs that don't look like anything in Amestris. Everything looks foreign, and Maria realizes that what's different isn't what disturbs people - it's that things are so similar, but are completely unfamiliar. People eat, and drink, and sleep in Xing, but they don't eat bangers and mash, or drink ale, and while she hasn't yet seen where people sleep, she's just waiting to find out how that's different too. When she squints, everything almost looks normal, like the essence of things is visible only when the details become blurry.

Their first real stop after an exhausted attempt at eating noodles with chopsticks that ended with Maria tipping the whole bowl back and drinking her meal, is a stop at a bathhouse. Maria can hardly complain: She's not fit for anyone's company, much less Royal company in her current state. Fu fetches her a woman named Lei who speaks halting but sweet Amestrian, and she follows her quietly down a hallway.

She's grateful, but exhausted.

"First, wash up." Lei directs, opening a large wooden door. She holds out her hands for Maria's clothes, and Maria realizes that several Xingese women are sitting around, stark naked, and scrubbing down. It's not any more embarrassing than military showers, but she shifted uncomfortably before she started to strip. A day's worth of sweat and sand make it slow work to peel her shirt off, but Maria folds each grimy piece before handing it over to Lei. Her underwear is last to go, and Lei points to a bench where she can scrub everything off.

Maria sets to work, scrubbing herself raw with the brush and soapy water, finishing it all off with a momentary rinse under the shower head. It's a miracle her hair is cropped short, otherwise she's sure she'd never be able to get the sand out of her scalp. Eventually, Lei handed her a towel, and she awkwardly wrapped it around herself before turning to face the woman.

"Now, you go to the bath."

The bath turned out to be a large basin in the ground, partitioned off from other baths by a thin screen. Maria found herself chest deep in steaming hot water, and she slumped on the bench letting the frothy water rest under her chin. It smelled wonderful, and distinctly Xingese, like a sweet and exotic flower, but best of all like real soap, and Civilization. The aches in her muscles began to subside, and Maria let her head rest against the wall of the basin, arms propped against the marble floor behind her.

"I have died," Maria tested her voice against the soft echo of the water. "--and possibly gone to heaven."

The room was silent.

An hour later, Lei walked back into the room, a bundle of brightly colored fabric in her hands. "Get up," She said happily, holding out a towel. "Fu thinks you have drowned."

Lei wrinkled her nose at the thought. "Not drowned, just a wrinkled fig!" She clucked, and Maria groaned as she made to move out of the water.

"Now," Lei smiled, "-you are fresh for the Palace."

Ross toweled off with a weak nod. All things considered, drowning wouldn't have been so alarming compared to the thought of her meeting with the Emperor.