“Neck and neck!” shouts Mish in Amestrian.
“No way!” yells Ed back - then, Winry’s camel kicks up a cloud, and she’s ahead of him. She punches the air.
Mish laughs, and shouts, “Again! I’m putting my money on Winry today.” He makes a noise at his camel, overtakes them both effortlessly, and half-turns in the saddle to observe their pace.
This is turning into a daily game. They compete and he referees. Once Ed got used to the oddly wobbly, lilting motion of the camel, it’s easier than he thought it would be to ride one-handed. This has got to be the longest Ed's spent with his arm off for years, and it’s oddly freeing, to have his shoulder so light. He hasn’t even fallen off that many times, considering. And hey, at least he’s learning a new skill.
And on that, his camel very nearly weaves right into another trader, a middle-aged woman with a heavily loaded camel. Ed’s own camel steers aside before he can correct its course. “Sorry!” he yells. “I mean, ushamisi!”
The woman tuts at him and shakes her head. Then she turns to Mish and yells to him, a long, angry-sounding stream of words. He calls back; then rides up alongside her, waving a hand. Ed and Winry drop back while they talk. The conversation is way longer than Ed would have expected from the thing itself. Ed and Winry exchange glances. Leave it, Winry mouths.
They hit their camp an hour later, in the middle of another glorious red desert sunrise. Ed’s getting to recognise what the camping spots will look like: a few scrubby trees, one of those unobtrusive desert wells.
As Ed’s camel kneels, he holds on hard to the saddle with his left hand. Mish, already dismounted, jogs over. He leans over to Ed on his right side, and slips an arm around Ed’s waist to support him as he slides down. Ed gets his balance on the right leg, then retrieves his home-made crutch from one of the camel’s side bags, tucks it under his left armpit and stands up straight.
Ed’s pretty pleased with the crutch. He’d wanted to transmute the automail, but Winry had actually stood between him and it with her arms folded, so that had been that. Mish’s cousin found him a broken tent roof pole, and the wood turned out to be hard enough and supple enough that he hardly had to mess with the molecular structure. From what he and Winry have picked up, those of the traders they’ve spoken with don’t seem too hard on alchemy. But still, he doesn’t know how much they know about him, and if this would be a bad time to mention who he is. In the end, Ed transmuted the crutch discreetly and guiltily in the quiet of their tent. After a couple of days of tinkering and redesigns, it was perfect. It even splays out at the base so as not to sink into the sand.
Getting his crutch skills back has been a longer process. But with some practice and some coaching from Winry, Ed’s getting pretty agile with it. It’s a challenge to weave his way through the hubbub of the camp, nodding to the cheeky kids who like to yell “hello” in Amestrian at him, stopping for the slow-moving old ladies to whom everyone gives way.
Mish crosses in front of them, carrying a roll of cloth on one shoulder. He turns back and waves, then points at the well where people are already lining up with pails and water bottles.
“Zanraki?” tries Ed.
“No, zahn-raki,” corrects Winry. They learnt the word for ‘well’ yesterday.
“Both wrong!” Mish shouts. “Zan-rahki!”
“Zanraki,” tries Ed, lowering his voice because he’s starting to feel like a doofus.
“Zanrahki,” says Winry.
“Better,” says Mish, and weaves off into the crowd, leaving them to it.
“So, what was up with that lady?” says Ed to Winry, a few minutes later, as he hops and kicks out the rug in their tent.
Winry shrugs and drops her bed roll onto the rug, following it up with Ed’s.
Ed nods. He’s currently biting on one end of the string tying up his bedroll so he can undo it one-handed. The knot gives; he spits out the string and starts fiddling it undone with his left hand. “I’m starting to think you’re right. Something’s up around here. Remember the railway?”
They’d passed it a couple of days ago, in the distance. Peering into the blinding glare of the sand, Ed had made out tiny figures standing on top of a bank of rocks, like a wall, a long line stretching above the dunes.
“What’s that?” Winry had called. “Is it another camp?” Ed had looked again, and saw carts on wheels on top of the line, and then, small but unmistakable, the outline of a locomotive engine.
“That’s the railway,” said Mish, and his voice was suddenly full of disgust. He leant to one side and spat. Then he urged his camel ahead in a gallop.
The next time they saw him, as they came into camp, he was laughing and joking again, as if it hadn’t happened. They didn’t mention the railway again.
And then there were incidents like today. It had taken them a while to notice: Ed longer, between his illness and the fact that these things sometimes sailed over his head. At first they’d thought it was just Mish’s fluent Amestrian that had led to him hanging out with them so much. But it was starting to seem sometimes like Mish was acting as a buffer between them and the rest of the traders.
Whatever’s going on, things around here are more complicated than they look.
He has been sitting on the same high branch of the old oak tree since before eight o' clock in the morning. It's probably unfortunate right now that his watch is still working, and so he knows just how long he's been here. After several hours of periodic experimenting, he found a position that didn't require too much effort to stay aloft. Even so, his muscles ache and his ass keeps getting numb. Staying here is no longer remotely comfortable.
He never intended to stay here so long. It seemed far more prudent to slip away from this spot as soon as the soldiers had relaxed their cordon on the woods. However, after he'd waited the two hours he judged sensible, he overheard the conversation of two men marching through the woods with a bag of rabbits. Did you see the goddamn army are still here, one hunter remarked to the other. How the hell many of them do they need anyway to hunt down one guy? They got the Stag and Horses closed, for the duration, one of them said. And I asked him, how long would that be, and he said, long as it takes, can you believe that? The men had walked on, with a few choice curses thrown at the military's closing of pubs and prevention of lunchtime beer.
For the duration. It seemed prudent to lay low a while longer. Roy couldn't leave the forest. And he couldn't hope for any better cover here than what he had right now. So here he'd stayed. All day, unfortunately, seemed like a minimum sensible period to keep himself hidden.
So here he waits. The combination of intense boredom and impending doom reminds him sharply of wartime. He supposes that it is wartime, now. Deprived of comrades, cards, and books, Roy attempts to fall back on his mind. He's run through his lists a dozen times. Every scenario he can think of, good and bad, which could be waiting for him beyond the river. Every person he loves and doesn't know the fate of: in other words, nearly all of them. Every person who's taken risks to help him in this journey. Roy's considered his plans, his debts and his options. He's thought about death; he's thought about life; he's tried to remember all the lyrics to "That's All, Brother" and only succeeded in getting the song stuck in his head.
He's watched, too. As he stays still and silent, the life of the woods began to go on around him, ignoring him. Birds of a dozen species he can't name, perching around him. Rabbits at the foot of the tree, scared away by a hunting fox. The last bees of summer buzzing in the air. Roy was quite enjoying it all. Then one of the birds shat on his jacket. Nature, Roy thinks. If we win, if it all works out, I'm going to enjoy nature from a safe distance in future. I'll take a couple of days off some time, spend them in a cottage up by the lakes. I'll watch the birds from the porch, with a cold glass of wine in my hand, and Ed sitting by me with his nose in a book. Maybe. If.
It's not until afternoon has given way to evening, the woods are darkening, and Roy's butt is numb beyond recovery, that he hears another human being.
He hears her from some distance away, because she's singing. She doesn't sound military; but still, he freezes. As she sounds closer, he leans out on his branch to peek through a small open patch. He sees a woman of at least fifty in a tweed cape, striding through the woods with a stout walking stick.
"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er," she sings. She's slightly off-key. "And neither have I wings to flyyy - But give me a booaaat, that can carry two -"
Roy realises very suddenly why she's singing. Wings to fly, that was the code phrase. It's his contact, here after all. And she's calling to him.
He doesn't call back out to her; he just takes a leap of faith, starts climbing down straight away. Twigs crack, leaves rustle. The woman looks up into the branches, her head tilted. Roy didn't realise until he started how tired his muscles are, from bracing himself so long. His legs shake as he reaches for a foothold - and then, so fast, down he goes.
He lands on his ass, in a huge drift of leaves. The woman stares at him, mouth open wide, for a moment. Then she sprints three paces to his side and kneels. "I say! Brigadier General, are you all right?"
Roy thinks to check. He shifts his butt. He's sore, but everything moves. "I - think I am," he says, looking back up at where he slipped. He looks up. It must have been at least twelve feet that he fell. "I must be peculiarly lucky today," he says, shaking his head.
"Luck!" says the woman, almost snorting. "Oh no. The good old man's looked after you, that's what!" She walks over to the old oak's thick trunk, and pats it affectionately while Roy attempts to pick himself up. "This is Old Barrowood. He's over a thousand years old, you know. These are his woods, nothing gets by him. I'm sure a thousand soldiers couldn't have found you once he'd decided to take care of you."
"Ah," Roy says, somewhat flummoxed. He picks himself up. His knees nearly buckle. Then he notices the little silver pentangle on the woman's tweed coat. Of course, she's the local priestess. "Mother?" he says. "I believe I was supposed to meet with you?"
"And so you did, after all," the woman says. "I'm Mother Olive Coburn." She drops her voice to a more discreet pitch. "How do you do, Brigadier General?" She shakes his hand vigorously. "And now, we should thank Old Barrowood and get on our way, sharp." She bows from the waist, and Roy copies her. He was raised without religion; he always gets the form wrong at times like these. "Lord Barrowood, thank you so very much for keeping the Brigadier General safe. And in turn we thank you, Great Mother, and you, Hornèd God, for watching over Old Barrowood and these woods today."
"Thank you," repeats Roy. He's thanking a tree. He feels like an idiot. But it's the right thing to do.
After nearly twelve hours up a tree, standing up straight is proving surprisingly difficult. When Mother Coburn realises he's having trouble standing upright, she hands him her stick. As soon as she seems satisfied he's not about to keel over, she sets off at a brisk trot.
Illustration by hikaru_9. Go leave her some love here.
"Yes," says Mother Coburn emphatically. "Shipped out a couple of hours ago. Still, we'd best be a little stealthy. Did they see your face?"
Roy shakes his head.
"Someone I know informed the authorities, somewhat inaccurately, that he spotted someone who looks like you hitching out of town. Nice lad, lot of nerve."
Roy nods. "And you saw the army were here and didn't meet me?"
"Yes, they were surrounding the Stag and Horses when I was walking up. I hoped at first you'd seen them too and cleared off." Roy smiles and shakes his head. "How long were you up there for?" she asks.
"Since morning," Roy says.
"Poor old you," she says. "Never fear, we've a nice fat beef and ale pie to look forward to at home."
Somehow, Roy manages to quicken his pace.
As the trees start to get more sparse at the woods' edge, they reach a broad stream boarded by stepping stones. Mother Olive stops before they cross and reaches into her cloak. She pulls out what look like a set of pyjamas and a pair of slippers, folded flat. "All right," she says, "strip off."
"You need to scrub yourself in the stream. If the army came back, I'd like a gap in the trail that would otherwise head straight to my house."
"It's all right, they had a false scent sample," Roy says. "No need."
Mother Olive gives Roy a look that reminds him vaguely of his mother. "Brigadier General," she says, "we don't take risks on supposition, do we?"
"I suppose not," Roy says.
"No need to worry," Mother Olive says. "I'm not embarrassed in the slightest!"
"That's not exactly -" Roy says, and stops. Mother Olive has already raised an eyebrow and turned her back.
The stream is, of course, freezing. Naked and mortified, Roy scrubs one limb at a time in the icy water. He thinks briefly of Ed's stories of washing in rivers in the dead of winter; at least he has the season on his side. Finished, he shakes himself like a dog, and pulls on the thin, overly large pyjamas. They're wet immediately. He feels as though he may as well be naked again.
"What about my old clothes?" Roy says, retrieving his gloves from the jacket. "It's open enough here that I could burn them. The fire would be a brief flash of light - would someone see that from here?"
"Only if we were very unfortunate," says Mother Olive. "Let's hope our good standing with Old Barrowood will help."
She gives him a reassuring smile, turns back to the wood and bows again. Roy ties his clothes and shoes into a bundle, concentrates, throws them into the air over the stream - and snaps. The blast of the heat slaps him in the face and half-dries him. The ashes wash away in the stream.
Then, very carefully, he negotiates wet stepping stones in slippers.
The village priests' house is everything Roy would have imagined from a detective novel. It's big and ramshackle, clearly built over several hundred years, and in severe need of some money spending on it. Mother Coburn hustles him in the back door, but still with far less stealth than she could have. Once inside, she toes off her walking shoes, steps into an old pair of slippers, and calls out. "William! William, is the pie in the oven yet?"
The scraping of a chair, and then a tall, gangly man in a cardigan appears from down the corridor. "Not yet, dear. I wasn't sure how long you were going to be. Alice is outraged that the revolution is delaying her supper - oh." He suddenly spies Roy, closes the gap between them in a few vigorous strides and is pumping his hand. "Brigadier General!" he says. "A real pleasure to meet you. I'm Father William Coburn. So good to see you safe, I must say -"
"Don't bother the man, William," says Mother Coburn. "He's been up a tree all day. Old Barrowood, in fact."
"Oh?" says Father Coburn. "Oh dear. I mean - how very fortunate." He chuckles. "He's a cunning old thing, isn't he?"
They're talking about the tree again. Roy tries to think of something appropriately respectful but not outrageously fake to say. He fails.
Then something occurs to him. "Listen, not to be rude, but I noticed you're sharing your names with me. I thought the protocol was that for your safety -"
"Oh, I know," says Father William. "Our feeling is that that's all rather silly. Not telling you our names might make us feel some vague sense of security, but we're still sheltering the most wanted man in Amestris. So why worry?"
"Besides," adds Mother Olive, "it seemed rude not to introduce ourselves properly. By the way, would you like a hot bath before dinner?"
Roy smiles hugely. "Yes, please. That would be marvellous." Safety, a hot bath and a hot meal. He has completely forgiven Mother Olive for the pyjamas. The Coburns are his favourite people today. They're wonderful. For them, he'll happily exchange pleasantries with a dozen trees.
He really, really hopes that helping him isn't going to be the death of them.
The hot bath is marvellous; the opportunity to shave off his scrappy and undignified two weeks' beard (attempted beard, Maes used to call it) is nearly as good. There are even clean clothes, an old shirt and pants of Father William's, rather too large for Roy but easily fixed with a clap.
The dinner table is rowdy. Along with the Coburns, there's their daughter Alice, their thirteen year old son Tom and an apprentice priest who's staying with them. Red wine is poured, beginning with a libation into a saucer. Then everyone chatters noisily and freely. Alice seems to have a lot of questions for Roy about Parliament and the Progressive Party. She tells him the party has been banned. Father William tells Roy about the hundreds of people who've been arrested at the universities. Roy thinks of his little sister Bao-Yu, a history grad student. He hopes she's managed to keep herself safe.
"I'm amazed at this business," Roy finds himself saying, as together they all clear the table and carry dishes and plates back to the kitchen. "I mean - all of you. We knew that so much of the country supported reform, but this - this movement - it's sprung up so very quickly. I wonder if you really need me at all?" says Roy with a grin. The moment after he's said it, he realises he was only half-joking.
Alice turns from the dishes, pulls something from her pocket, and puts it in his hand. It's a coin, a ten cen piece. Roy blinks, and turns it over. The stylised falcon on the back has had several crude lines chiselled on top of it: a triangle, the alchemical symbol for fire.
"A phoenix?" Roy says, at the almost the same time as Mother Olive says, "Just what do you think you're doing with that, young lady? No visible symbols, we made that rule for a reason."
Alice pouts. "Dave gave it to me," she says. Then, to Roy, "Yes, sir. It's a phoenix. People carry it, or, they graffiti it on walls and things."
"Over the last two weeks?" Roy is stunned.
He fingers the coin. "Because, alchemically speaking, it's a symbol of rebirth after destruction? Is this -"
"Of course it's a reference to you," says Father William. Roy looks down, then up. He didn't make this sign, he didn't know about it. For the last fortnight, Roy has had the impression that this movement for change he was attempting to spearhead has - not overtaken him, but that it's bearing him along, that it's at his back, the push of a vast wave. Sometimes he feels like a fragment, but he has talked enough to the people taking these risks to get him north to know that he's far more than that.
Father William says, "So, Brigadier General, we definitely need you. Is what you really mean, are you a leader to us, or just a symbol?"
"That wasn't the question I was asking -" Roy shakes his head, and laughs at himself. "But it's a good question."
"Symbols are interchangeable," Mother Olive says. "If I take Alice's coin, she can make herself another one. We can't make another you so easily."
"We went public with the plans for reform, us and our parliamentary allies. If we win, no more lifelong Fuhrers. Legislative power for parliament within two years, Presidential elections within five years. Reconstruction and home rule in Ishbal, peace talks in the East. So, 'leader' isn't really going to mean what it does now. If the people don't like me, they can kick me out without starting a revolution first."
"Well, exactly," Mother Olive says lightly.
Roy draws a breath. "I'll do my absolute best," he says, "I promise."
"You'd better," she says with a smile, "you're the first politician I've trusted in my life. Now, get some sleep. We're setting off at dawn tomorrow." Mother Olive's eyes crinkle up at the corners. "We're dropping off some gifts for a friend of ours, to use at Lady Isar's autumn equinox festival."
"Lady Isar?" Roy's ears prick up. "You mean -"
"Yes," says Mother Olive. "We're taking you to the river."
Illustration by alasse-mirimiel. Go leave her some love here.
"You okay?" he stage-whispers.
Louie just rolls his eyes and makes shoo-ing motions upwards. "Close it up already, man!" he whispers frantically.
Al nods and gives him the thumbs-up. The military have an alchemist on board. Al had better not leave a mark. He claps.
He goes a few miles in the dark like this, sitting cross-legged on the train roof, grabbing onto a couple of handholds he’s transmuted from the roof. The wind is cold, and the juddering of the train is hard on his butt, but he feels pleased with himself. They can search every corner of the mail train now, but they won't find Al - and Louie won't do anything to incriminate himself.
The train's an express. They'll go through the stations too fast for any night staff to spot Al, he decides, but he's pondering how he should get himself off the train - and abruptly he realises that ahead in the glare of the train's headlights, a hillside tunnel is rushing towards them.
"Fucking hell," Al says, because no one can hear, and because it made him feel better last time. Then he lays himself flat as he can, holds tight to his handholds, and screws his eyes shut.
“Madam Bibigul says, will you and your brother eat dinner with her tonight,” says the woman to Winry. It sounds like a statement, not a question. Madam Bibigul is Mish’s aunt, and she seems to be in charge around here. She always seems to be in her tent. Ed and Winry haven’t been invited before today.
“Thank you, we’d love to,” says Winry.
“Brother,” says Ed, after the woman is gone. Winry catches his eye and smiles wryly. Hearing brother still makes Ed feel kind of oogy. The traders had initially assumed he was Winry’s husband; Winry corrected them to ‘adopted brother’, and boy, was that weirder for being at least a quarter true.
Dinner (technically breakfast, Ed thinks, but actually dinner) begins and ends with tea - but then, what would you expect from a clan of tea traders? The woman who invited them pours black tea into little glasses on a tray from a great height, then offers it around to the room - first to Madam Bibigul, then to Winry, then Ed, then to everyone else. She crosses the room back and forth, delivering tea in some particular order that might be meaningful, but that Ed can’t work out.
The food turns out to be exactly the same as they usually eat in their own tent, sometimes alone and sometimes with Mish: sheep’s cheese, fried flat bread, sour pickled vegetables and chewy, savoury dried meat. It’s all pretty good stuff - although after weeks of the same meal twice a day, the sparkle is kind of wearing off for Ed.
Ed sits up cross-legged, or as near as you can get when one leg ends above the knee. The middle-aged guy sitting next to him keeps offering politely to tear Ed’s bread for him, and Ed keeps having to say no. He’s spent far more time with his arm off than the leg, over the years. He’s already mastered the one-handed bread tear: bottom two fingers hold the bread against the palm, index finger and thumb grab a chunk and pull.
“So,” says Ed to the guy next to him, “what’s up with that railway?”
Winry discreetly pinches him.
“The Xingese are building it,” the guy says. He doesn’t sound happy at all. Something is up with this railway, then. “It’s this new emperor, he has a thing for railways. I hear he’s building them all over Xing.”
“Like a little boy playing with trains,” says Mish. “Did you know he’s about fourteen?”
“He’s nineteen,” Ed says. “What’s the problem with it?” He can feel Winry’s disapproval radiating off her.
“We mean to say,” Winry cuts in, “we were wondering …”
From the other side of the tent, Madam Bibigul’s voice carries. Conversation in the room suddenly dies down. “The railway builders came out here from Xing, paid us to use our wells, said they were surveying, whatever that means. Now they’re building this thing. All the way to Amestris.”
“Oh,” says Ed, realising. “You think they’re going to use the railway to carry goods?”
“Of course they’ll use it to carry goods!” says Mish.
“We’re guessing,” Madam Bibigul says. “We don’t know anyone who’s managed to talk to them, but there have been a few fights. The Xingese have guards on it now. We’re not soldiers, we’re tea traders. And we’re not going to war with the biggest country in the world. But not every family agrees with us.”
Ed shuffles on his butt, starting to grasp it. The traders are nomads: the whole way they live is based around trading. The train route means the business selling tea or cinnamon or anything else to the traders could sell straight to Amestris and send their wares there by train. The traders would be cut right out.
Mish, sitting next to Winry, clears his throat. Around them, low conversation starts up again, just like that. “Look,” Mish says. “We’ve been shielding you from the worst of it, but the truth is, not everyone likes that you’re here. No offence, but you’re fugitives. We don’t want the Amestrian army on our backs as well as everything else.”
Ed says “Then why did you -“ Winry pinches him again.
Mish snorts. “No,” he says, “it’s fine. Why did we take a risk and help you?”
A lot of people in the tent are suddenly looking at Ed and Winry with interest.
“We thought you had a deal with Mr Han,” Ed says, feeling like an idiot. “I mean, I know he does this stuff, gets people in and out of the country -“
“We did have a deal with Mr Han,” Madam Bibigul says. Again, the remaining chatter dies down. “Apparently, his usual people were too nervous about the civil war in Amestris. When we return there next spring, maybe it’ll be fine. Or maybe the army will have taken Mr Han and he’ll have told them all about us. Or maybe,” she says, “there will be a new government by then.”
Everyone is still looking.
After another moment of silence, Madam Bibigul says, “You were working for Mustang. How?”
Ed says, “He’s my commanding officer. I’m in the army.” Then he thinks, screw it, be honest, and says, “I’m a State Alchemist.”
Mish says, “You’re the Fullmetal Alchemist, aren’t you?”
Winry’s breath hitches. Ed frowns. “You knew the whole time?”
Mish grins at him infuriatingly and taps his nose. “You’ve got a reputation. What about you, Winry?” he says. “How did you get into trouble?”
“Besides Ed?” she says. “I’m an automail engineer over in Rush Valley. Automail’s the fastest growing type of military tech in Amestris. Major General Hakuro tried to draft the whole industry. A lot of people I know wouldn’t work for him, so -“ She shrugs, and bites her lip for a moment. Ed squeezes her shoulder. “Some of them made it out to the mountains. They’re fighting him from there. I’m heading to Xing with Ed.”
“And what’s your business in Xing?” says Madam Bibigul.
“We’re heading to Zhongdu,” says Ed. “We’ve got contacts at the Imperial court. We’re going to do a little diplomacy.”
“You seem pretty well cut out for that,” says Mish. Madam Bibigul gives him a look, and he shuts up.
“The people we know there know we might be coming,” says Winry.
“And the people you know there, do you know that they have the Emperor’s ear?”
Winry and Ed look at each other. “Pretty much,” Ed says.
“And you’ve also got access to Mustang?”
“Pretty much,” Ed says.
“So,” says Winry, “do you want us to find out from the Palace what’s going on with the railway?”
“And have us put your case to - uh, people who can talk to the Emperor? And to Mustang?” adds Ed. “Maybe see if you can negotiate?”
“Pretty much,” says Madam Bibigul.
Ed kind of hopes Ling hasn’t changed too much.
That night, or rather, that morning, he doesn’t find it so easy to get to sleep. The sun is blazing now; the tent keeps most of the light out, but sunlight creeps in where the tent walls are hitched up a few inches from the ground, to let in the breeze. From the other side of the tent, he hears Winry sighing, shifting on her sleeping mat. He remembers how she used to wriggle around when she couldn’t sleep, back in the days they shared a bed.
“I can’t sleep,” he says quietly.
“Me either,” she says.
“Are you thinking about home?” he says.
“Yeah,” she says quietly.
“Rush Valley? And Al?” There’s no response. “Me too.”
Winry makes a very quiet sniffing sound. It tears at Ed’s chest. “I’m sorry!” he blurts. “I’m sorry we got you mixed up in this crap.”
“I’m already mixed up in this crap!” Ed startles: Winry’s voice is suddenly loud and angry. He hears her pull in a breath. “It’s my country too,” she says, more quietly. “Everyone’s mixed up in it.”
“Sorry,” Ed says. “I’m saying this wrong. What I mean is-“
She cuts him off. “Of course I’d rather be back in RV working with my patients. But -“
“I know, but -“ Ed tries.
“ - But RV is the front line, didn’t you see that?” Ed goes to open his mouth, then stops himself. When Winry needs to get something off her chest, it’s best to just let her. “Hakuro and his buddies are corrupting the whole automail industry. The scale of what they want to do with us - you know if we lose, it’s going to go the way alchemy ended up under Bradley. To have - to have something so good and so useful perverted like that, they want to turn this whole country into a war machine again. And they’re human! They’re people! That’s what gets me, there aren’t a bunch of monsters yanking their strings this time, but they’re every single bit as bad as Bradley. And my friends - ” Winry stops, suddenly, and her breathing gets loud.
That’s it for Ed. He goes over to her, strokes her back. It’s the worst thing, feeling her trying not to cry.
After a few moments, she raises her head from her bedroll. “Sorry I ranted,” she whispers.
“You don’t have to be,” he says.
“We still stop listening to each other when we get upset, huh?” she says.
“Yeah.” He chuckles wryly. After another pause, he ruffles her hair and drops his hand into his lap. “Thanks,” he says, “for being here.”
“It’s good to be doing something,” she says. “I just wish I knew what was going on back there. I hope they made it up to the mountains.” Much as Ed knows how tough they are, it’s still slightly surreal to him to imagine Winry’s crowd from Rush Valley - Mr Garfiel, Paninya, Simon, the Spitzer Clinic girls - as a bunch of guerillas hiding out in the caves. But that’s what their plan was: hide out in the mountains, sabotage the supply chain, try to stop Hakuro’s people being able to use Rush Valley’s industry.
“They’re good,” Ed says. “I’m sure they made out good.” He has no idea if they did.
“Ed?” says Winry. “I - you know I don’t regret it, right?”
He blinks in the darkness. “What do you mean?”
“Us.” Oh. “How I’d started thinking about it - I mean, before all this exploded - I’d started thinking to myself. It was lovely, and it ended, and - okay, the ending part was pretty bad, but the rest.”
Ed nods. “It was good. We had some really good times together,” he manages. They did.
Winry carries on. Apparently she’s in the mood for this. “At first,” she says, “I thought I fucked us up.”
Ed laughs. “I thought I fucked us up.”
“But now I think it’s more like - we tested it and it broke. But that’s okay, right?”
“I guess. You don’t know until you try, right? We would have been dumb not to try it out.”
“And we - I know this sounds so corny, but we’re always going to have those times, right? Like the summer before last? When we both had the month off, and we went hiking in the south?” That month is still golden in Ed’s memory. Al was better, finally well enough to go to Xing. They saw him off over the Aerugan border, on his way south to get the boat, and then spent weeks vacationing: hiking and getting brown and blowing their savings on good food and little guesthouses in the hills. And talking about a future that had never happened. But. Winry was right. That connection between them had broken, in the end, but they still had the good things they’d given each other.
“Yeah,” Ed says. “You’re right.” And - he can’t help it - thinking of love, and absence, his mind turns suddenly to Roy, and his absence, and where he is right now. His chest seizes and he clenches his hands into fists. He breathes in slow through his nose.
“He’ll make it up to Briggs, Ed.” says Winry, reading his silence. “You know he will. If anyone can, he can.”
Ed clamps a hand over his mouth, squeezes his eyes tight shut. She knows. He feels panicked, then relieved, then sad, then grateful. It’s too much. Here she is, one of his dearest people, offering him comfort about the dude he took up with after she left. Suddenly, he finds he wants to let it all pour out. But he can’t. Maybe it’s because he knows she’s trying to hold it together as bad as he is. Maybe it’s because it’s late, and they’re tired, and it’s been her night to let it out. Maybe he’s just bad at talking about this shit.
“Thanks,” he manages, when he’s breathing a bit better. “Are you doing okay now?”
“I will be,” she whispers. “We’ve just got to get there, huh?”
In the light that creeps under the tent door, Ed sees her stretch out her hand between the bedrolls. He takes it. He lies on his back, closes his eyes, breathes in. She squeezes his hand. He squeezes back. He hears her breaths slowing down, getting sleepy again; a comforting and familiar sound. He follows her under.
"Be safe," Roy says, thinking please, please get away safe.
“Lady watch and keep you,” says Mother Olive.
“Good luck!” adds Father William. Then they start the engine, and they're gone, and he and the old man hurry through the woods to the river.
He puts his gloves on as they hurry. The river is a war zone now, a frontier between two territories. He's amazed their car wasn't stopped. Well, Hakuro's an idiot. He's made a lot of mistakes: among them, allowing Roy to get this far.
The boat, when Roy finally sees it as they half-run down the bank, is a tiny motorboat, likely meant for fishing. He looks along the river: they have the cover of the woods along either side. He looks across the river, three miles wide at this point: on the other side, he can make out vehicles, gun placements. The soldiers of Briggs are guarding the frontier.
"They do know we're coming?" he says to the old man, pointing a thumb across. "They're not about to shoot us out of the water?"
The old man grunts and nods. It's the first thing he's said to Roy so far.
" And what about this lot?" Roy says. "How well guarded is it from this side?"
"Weel," the old man says slowly in a thick Northern accent, "there's a fair few of 'em."
"What's the plan, then?" says Roy. "Do I hide and you pretend to be fishing?"
"Nae, nae," says the old man. "There's nae boats allowed on the river."
"She's easy enough ta steer," the old man continues. "Pull the cord, turn the rudder." He seems confused by Roy's confusion. Then he says, "Ye'll have to fight yer way across, of course."
"All right, got it," says Roy. The old man gives him a thoughtful nod - then hikes away at an impressive pace. Roy makes his way to the little motorboat and sizes it up. He's operated one of these once or twice before. Admittedly, that was on vacation, but it’s better than nothing. He looks around, and gains no new information beyond what he was given. So, it’s likely he’s going to have to fight. Or, to put it another way, he can finally give himself permission to fight.
Well, no time like the present. He unties the boat from its mooring, pushes it into the water, and starts up the engine.
The first few moments are quiet. Roy notices that there are no military vessels beyond the water - he's presuming they must be too likely to get shot up by the opposing team. Comforting. Then the stretch of the southern bank becomes visible beyond the swell of woodland that had obscured it.
It's a wall of guns.
"Halt!" The command blares from a bullhorn somewhere on the bank. "Unauthorised vessel, turn back or we fire!"
Thanks for the warning, idiots, Roy thinks to himself. He steadies himself against the bench with his left hand, and shoves his right in his pocket to keep it dry. He has just enough time to draw a breath and to remind himself, minimal harm - then the first shell lands in the water. It misses Roy by a good distance, but the waves rock his boat hard. Roy raises one hand in the air, measures, and definitively blows his cover with a snap.
It’s as easy as it always is, like pointing a finger. The wet air yields its hydrogen easily, and Roy channels the path of the reaction straight as an arrow to the target. The relief of it, of finally, finally being able to turn and fight, is so intense, it’s almost like joy.
A second later, one of the gun placements is alight. Roy imagines the frantic response. With shells about to explode in the heat they'd have to run for their lives. Now, as whenever Roy announces himself, the ensuing panic could do half his job for him.
He's judged right: for a few moments, no one responds, and Roy ploughs through the water. The opposite bank draws closer. Then another shell hits the water, then another - Roy has to hang on hard to his boat - and then, from nowhere, one of those dizzying flashes of alchemical knowledge hits and Roy finds himself clapping, willing the formula, plunging one hand into the water -
The waves roll back and back, until they hit the southern bank in a towering wave.
Roy can't quite believe he's done that. He looks ahead again, to the northern shore, closer and closer. He's more than halfway there now. He looks back, and is too far from the southern shore to see what damage he's done. He risks another glance north.
There's someone in Briggs uniform standing on one of the tanks: slight, with a glint of blonde hair, directing the artillery with waves of her right arm.
For one hallucinatory moment Roy wonders if he's seeing ghosts, if he's truly lost it - then he realises the marvellous truth.
Hand raised and fingers poised to snap, Roy powers the little boat across the water. Let the fuckers try to hit him. He can stop them. Riza Hawkeye is on the other side of that river.
Roy's gloves are soaking wet, but it hardly matters now: he claps, and his gloves evaporate dry. The air's full of water-vapour. It takes moments to push it where he wants it.
The next heavy gun strikes its ignition in a cloud of highly flammable gas. The whole gun placement goes up, a fireball and a wave of heat. Roy keeps his fingers pressed together. The circle on his glove crackles with energy, the molecules in the air divide and push, divide and push. The next set of guns try to fire, go up in a blaze. Roy imagines the chaos - keep firing! no, cease all fire!
- there's a slight bump at his feet. Roy glances down - and sees that his boat has hit the sandy bank on the other side of the river.
Roy nearly ruins his performance with an undignified stumble as he tries to get out, but then three Briggs soldiers try to offer him a hand at once. He takes the first one he sees - and then he's on solid ground again.
They’re moving immediately, sprinting towards a low wall of sandbags that’s between them and the tanks. The guns don’t sound again.
Briggs was never exactly Roy's favourite place before, but right now he's resisting the urge to fall down and kiss the soil.
There's a sudden epidemic of saluting. There are at least forty soldiers in Briggs uniform here, and every one of the crowd is snapping a salute to Roy, standing there dazed and soaked with riverwater in Father William’s old fishing jacket. In two steps off a boat, he's gone from a hunted criminal to the leader of an army. It's dizzying.
He snaps a salute back, looking around as he does so - and there's Riza: straight-backed and saluting with the rest of them, with a smile of utter, guileless relief on her face. Next to her is Major Miles, smiling too and looking like a man in his element. They must have come up together. Thank goodness.
Roy ends his salute and strides towards them. "It's - good to see you," he manages.
"Glad you made it, sir," says Riza. "Only two weeks late."
"Who else is here?" Roy says, eager enough to let a quip go unanswered.
"Sir," Miles says, "the front line's not the safest place for a debriefing. I suggest we get moving to the Fort, we'll fill you in on the way."
"Miles, I could swear you've gotten blunter," Roy says as they hurry towards a waiting armoured car.
Miles grins. "It's the fresh air, sir."
"You call this fresh?" Roy says. "Birds drop dead in mid-flight around here."
Riza rolls their eyes at both of them as the car doors shut.
As they set off north, Roy allows himself one single moment of singing triumph and relief. He's made it to one goal, now for the next.
"Right," he says, "what's the situation?"
"Fuck," a woman's voice is saying, from outside the train. "Fuck."
"Easy," says a male voice. Al realises abruptly: it's Beth and Mario, standing on the little balcony outside the end of the train. Al's sitting on the last carriage.
Al leans closer, and through the wind he hears someone retching. "Fuck," Beth says again. "Ugh. They're going to arrest us too, they're gonna shoot us, they're gonna take us away … Did you know about this thing?"
"I swear I didn’t, I didn’t know anything!” Mario says. "Look, the best thing we can do is lay low. Just carry on doing your job, okay."
"How the fuck am I supposed to carry on doing my job?" Beth says.
Al wants to go to them, he wants to ask what the hell's going on. Something's gone wrong. Something's gone wrong - and although he knows Louie would tell him to stay on the roof, he knows the best thing he can do for everyone is to stay hidden, he knows he can't go down there - but then he doesn't have to make the decision. The roof suddenly, rapidly wrenches itself inwards, and before Al can catch himself, he falls.
He lands in an automatic crouch on the carriage floor. "Stay back!" someone shouts. He looks up and there are a half-dozen soldiers, and in front of them a uniformed man who Al doesn't know, with his hand still pressed to a chalked formula on the carriage wall. Okay, then. State Alchemist.
Al looks at him, waiting for him to make the first move. He's in his thirties, lean and fit-looking. He looks nervous. He should. The door of the carriage clangs open and shut behind them with the wind. Then he brings his hand down and moves, fast enough that he must be a fighter - he presses his gloves together. Al glimpses symbols on the palms. Then he shakes his wrists, with an odd motion - and Al gets a metal wall up so fast that the only thing he sees of the assault is the dents it leaves in his shield.
Someone shouts, a single painful cry, and the alchemist shouts, "I said stay back! The ricochet, idiots!"
Al grins wryly from behind his shield - then his shield is a flying metal fist, flinging itself forward and striking the alchemist squarely on the chin. He goes down beautifully, like something from a cartoon. Now, what to do about the soldiers? Al claps up his shield again for a moment's thinking time. He needs to get past them, get to wherever Louie is, and then - the germ of a plan starts forming - if he can separate the train in two, strand the soldiers where they are, then maybe he could get most of the way to the border and leave the train unseen. "Drop your weapons!" he yells, trying for an Ed-like growl. "You know I can kill you where you stand!" Actually, he thinks, he kind of could. He has no intention of doing so, though. Al taps the tiniest hold in his shield. Amazingly, the soldiers have put down their guns. They're infantry, he notices. There isn't an officer in this carriage apart from the alchemist groaning on the floor.
Al stands, slowly, eyeballing the soldiers and doing his best to look like a desperate man. He'll restrain them, he thinks, looking past them to the next carriage. And then he freezes for a moment, because there's blood on the floor, and a body half-hidden behind the troopers. It's Louie: Al recognises his hair. Most of his face is just blood and mess.
He's unmistakably dead.
Are his parents still alive?, Al thinks, dazedly, as his stomach scrunches itself up. Is he with someone, does he have kids, did they know he was doing this -
There's a click. Al turns. The alchemist is sitting up now, one hand holding his jaw and the other holding a pistol on Al. The alchemist jerks his head and winces and glares, and behind him the soldiers are scrambling for their weapons.
In half a second, Al's options have narrowed radically.
Well, he's not going to stay here with his firing squad. One leap backwards takes him out the open carriage door, then he vaults sideways over the railing - a brief glimpse of Beth and Mario's astonished faces - and dives straight off the train.
Illustration by a_big_apple. Go leave her some love here.
“Thank you for everything,” Winry says. “Seriously.”
“I hope we meet again,” Mish says, and he sounds like he means it. Then he hops up into his camel’s saddle. It grunts and stands up, and he waves and urges it onward, towards the departing caravan.
"Goodbye!" Ed yells after him. "Mahnak parov!"
"Mahnak parov!" shouts Winry, jumping up and down, waving an arm. "Take care!"
They watch the caravan moving away for a minute or so. It’s headed south, to a market town that deals in oolong tea.
Ed, still relishing the weight of the automail Winry reinstalled this morning, goes to stick his hands in his pockets. Then he remembers he has no pockets right now. Their old clothes had been completely impractical for the desert heat, and they’d hardly be much better for Xing. Mish’s aunt gave Ed and Winry practical travelling outfits, loose cotton pants and high-collared shirts. Ed needs to remember he owes her for those, too.
"Okay," Ed says, "where the hell are we?"
"Xing?" says Winry. "It's only the world's biggest country, how tough can it be to find our way around?"
They look around them. The caravan has dropped them at the edge of a small town. Their route to the capital from here is directly east. "Well," Ed says, "I know how to make a compass, we got that."
"I can make a compass," Winry says. "You don't need to do some big transmutation, you just need a magnet and a needle and some water." She puts her tongue out.
Ed chuckles. "Right," he says, "town."
They follow the road into town, past the fields. It’s a shock, seeing so much green after the desert. It’s noticeably cooler here, too: a balmy, comfortable warmth like a late spring day back home. Ed rolls his shoulders and wonders what the winters are like in this part of the world.
Soon, they pass the first houses: low buildings of one or two storeys, with tiled roofs that curl up at the corners. A woman washing clothes in front of her house stares at them as they pass. Ed smiles nervously.
“Wow,” Winry says. “We’re really, actually in Xing.”
Ed nods. He wants to say we made it - but they’ve a way to go yet.
There’s a hammering noise coming from the next building they pass, on the left.
Ed turns in the direction of the sound. By the side of the road, a number of men are standing under the porch of a building, operating some kind of wooden device. It’s a little like a seesaw: a man in a wide-brimmed hat pushes down one end with his foot, and the other end, which is topped off with something like a wooden hammer, rises. Then the man lets go and - smash! - the hammer end drops down hard onto a pile of white mulch. Ed and Winry stop for a moment.
“Hey, they’re making paper!” says Winry. She points: sure enough, in the courtyard in front of the roof, white sheets of paper hang drying from a lattice.
“Cool,” says Ed. “So that’s how it’s done.”
The paper-makers have started to stare back at them. One of them calls out something in a cheerful tone; the others laugh.
Winry waves; Ed just stands there feeling like a dork. After a moment, they walk on.
“Well,” says Winry, “that’s a nicer reception than a foreigner would get in Resembool. I think.”
They pass several more paper mills like this on the way in. It seems this town has a trade. Soon, they find themselves on what seems to be the town’s main drag. Shops bearing signs he can’t read line the street on either side, still busy even as the evening shadows are starting to lengthen. People give them curious looks, but no more. Winry’s got a point. This place isn’t far from the border; it clearly sees more foreigners than a place like Resembool would.
Ed sniffs the air. Something smells good.
Winry looks around. “Hey, food stands! They have fast food!”
Sure enough, ahead of them are a bunch of little stalls set up in front of the shops. Ed and Winry pass a stall with a man making noodles out of stretchy dough, the way they do at one of Roy’s favourite places in Central. There’s a place selling soup, with boiled chickens hanging from hooks out front. A couple of places are barbecuing some kind of meat on sticks. Yet another stall is stacked high with bamboo steamers, and a woman with a cloth on her head is assembling dumplings to one side.
“Holy shit,” Ed says, “I am so hungry.”
“So,” says Winry, “how’s your Xingese? Aside from a bunch of alchemical terms and some swears?”
“Don’t underestimate my skills,” Ed says. “I can also say hello, Happy New Year, and fuckin’ A. Plus, uh, a bunch of sex stuff. Which luckily includes please.”
“I can’t believe Ling didn’t teach you any food words.”
“Oh, wait! I got dumpling, noodle and bun.” Although to tell the truth, most of the food vocabulary came more recently from Roy and his show-off habit of placing take-out orders in Xingese.
“And,” says Winry, “we have the universal language here.” She pats her pocket. Another favour they owe the traders: they were happy to exchange their cens for Xingese liang.
Ed bounces up to the stall with the bamboo steamers. Some steamed buns would hit the spot right now. “Bao?" he tries.
The stallholder says something to him in Xingese and laughs in embarrassment.
Ed tries again. “Bao!” he says, pointing to the steamer. The stallholder holds his hands up, looking confused, and says something else. How is this not going well? “Bao!” Ed tries again. He points at his own mouth, tries to mime eating a bun.
“Aaaah,” says the stallholder, “bao." Ed can't even hear the difference in pronunciation. Shit, Al said this language was tough. He points at Ed and at Winry. Ed just nods enthusiastically, hoping he means buns for you two.
The stallholder checks one of the steamers, and unloads buns. Ed offers up a handful of coins, and, as the stallholder sorts through them, hopes vainly that he doesn’t feel like ripping off a couple of dumb foreigners.
Moments later, Ed and Winry have their bao: fluffy steamed buns filled with sticky, savoury meat. They eat with noisy appreciation as they walk further into town.
"So," Winry says. "Now we just gotta get to Zhongdu.”
“You know," Ed says, “when Ling, Ran Fan and Fuu came to Amestris, they rode through half of Xing first."
"Didn't they have to run away from Zhongdu in the night or something?" Winry says.
"Yeah," says Ed, "only it was the Yao clan’s palace, not the capital."
"At least we're quite far north," Winry says. "Should we let someone know we're here?"
Ed shrugs. "Maybe we should just get there first? Al was going to do the talking."
Al's name kills the mood for a moment. "I bet he's on his way here," Winry says.
"Of course he is!" Ed returns. "I bet we'll get to the palace and find him already there, kicking back and drinking fancy tea."
Winry nods firmly. "So, do you think there's somewhere round here we could hire horses?"
"There must be," Ed says. "We should get camping stuff too, if we can. If we go by the countryside, we might have to sleep outdoors. That's what Ling did. They used to sleep in shifts," Ed continues as they walk. "There were a whole bunch of people trying to assassinate them, ninja style. I guess we don't need to worry about assassins now, but Ling says there are bandits in the countryside. So, maybe we'll need to do that, one of us sleeps and the other one sits up by the fire."
"Okay," says Winry. "Or-"
"And Ling says they train the horses a different way here!" Ed continues. "You hold the reins all loose. We'll have to watch how other people do it."
"Or," Winry says. She takes Ed's shoulder and turns him to the side.
Right in front of them is a substantial, new-looking square modern building. People carrying travelling bags are rushing up and down its steps. Through its open, arched doorway, they can see right through to the other side: where a large and gleaming train stands waiting at a platform.
"Oh," Ed says. "Well. Somebody could have mentioned.”
Illustration by alasse-mirimiel. Go leave her some love here.
A splint first, to bind his foot and leg. There's iron in the earth, so he uses that, then just binds on the splint he's made by hand with his scarf. Up on the bank, in the middle distance, the train has stopped. He needs to get out of here fast. Now he makes a stick - a classic polearm, in fact. He can lean on it, and maybe fight with it if he has to. He uses it to haul himself upright, still a little hazy and shaken from his fall. Okay, he thinks, as he tries to put weight on his foot and realises he can't, maybe thinking he could fight was optimistic. Right now he needs to either go to ground or jump on the back of a moving vehicle. He'll work the rest out after.
By the time he starts limping off towards a copse of trees in the distance, small figures, more than he'd thought, are already swarming off the train. Flashlights skitter ahead of them in the dark.
This chase scene gets farcical quickly. Al is moving about as fast as a ninety year old, while the soldiers behind are sprinting at him. Al supposes they'll start shooting soon. Tunnel! he thinks abruptly. I can dig a tunnel. Bracing himself with the polearm, he drops to his knees. His head, very suddenly, is swimming. He sucks in air and tries to clear it. Patting his hair, his hand comes away a little bloody. He must have hit his head on the way down. Well -
And he's on his back and people are lifting him up. Wait. What? He seems to have lost a few seconds. His head is killing him. His hands are cuffed, with a bar between them, some kind -
When he comes back he's moving again. He's lying on the floor of a rattling vehicle. It hurts to move his head. It hurts to think. He can't figure out more than that. But before Al drifts out again, something occurs to him, a speck of clarity: they haven't shot him. They were prepared to kill, back on the train - but now they're happy to take him alive. Why?