Characters/Pairings: Roy/Ed, Riza/Miles, Havoc/Rebecca, Al, Winry, Team Mustang, Ling, Ran Fan, and more
Word Count: 5849 this chapter
Warnings: swears, violence and horror at about the same level as in the manga itself; sexytimes in one chapter
Setting: Post-manga, slightly AU from Ch 105. Set directly after my fic The Phoney War.
Summary: An infant Homunculus under the command of an idiot ruler: this can't end well. Two and a half years after the Promised Day, the struggle for Amestris goes on. The military's old guard have seized power from Roy's band of reformers, aided by a horrifically dangerous experiment: they've been growing their own Homunculus. Now, separated to the four corners of the map, Team Mustang fight to evade their enemies and reach safety, to retreat and rally their forces. Roy Mustang fights his way towards the safe territory of Briggs, where he hopes to be reunited with Hawkeye and his team; Havoc and Rebecca try to forge dubious alliances in Aerugo; Ed and Al, separated, seek help from Xing. And all of them must prepare for - well, the second-biggest battle they've ever faced.
Notes: Thanks so much to my art team a_big_apple, alasse_mirimiel, scatter_muse and hikaru_9 for their amazing art. Please go leave them some love! More thanks to a_big_apple and enemytosleep for beta stuffs, and to enemy again for her hard work on this year's fmabigbang.
How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
They travel by night - but the nights are short.
After the sun goes down, the desert becomes shockingly cold. Ed remembers that much from his last journey here, years back. Back then, they rode in the daytime, and slept - or tried to - in the freezing night. When he told that to the desert traders he's travelling with now, they laughed their heads off.
Despite himself, he finds that he enjoys the cold, dry air; the strange, moonlit landscape of dunes and stubby trees; the conversations around him in a language he doesn't understand. Just two months ago, in another world, he and Al had planned to make this very trip, after everything was over. After the right people won and the two of them could get started on their new great project: finding the roots of alchemy, to rethink it from the start.
To think victory really could be that easily won: he was so naïve. They can still win, he tells himself. Even if you have to wade through rivers of mud. They'll keep fighting. Ed just has to keep up his end of the bargain. Right now, fighting on for Ed means getting to the capital of Xing to let the Emperor know what's really going on in Amestris, how it could endanger the whole world - and to ask for his help. Which means getting to Xing first. Which means getting up every day, and doing this.
Every night, in the last few hours of their nocturnal ride through the desert, the sun will creep into the sky and slowly get going on its daily task of roasting Ed from the shoulder down. Even with every scrap of his automail covered in loose cotton, and even with only a couple of hours in full sun a day, it's bad enough. In the couple of weeks they've been travelling, it's gone from unpleasant, to downright painful, to pain so exhaustingly bad Ed can't rouse himself to complain about it any more. He doesn’t even have enough energy to fret about the potential awkwardness of travelling in close quarters with his ex-girlfriend.
Ed thinks about Al and about Roy. Did they get away? He has a vague sick feeling, and he reaches for the energy to dispel it with a firm talking to (they're okay because they have to be, Al's a genius for surviving, Roy's a cunning bastard) - but he can't summon it up. Ed hates the heat, he hates feeling this shitty, he hates the way it sucks away his mind and his energy, the determination he needs. He tries to rally himself as they break camp, helps out as he can, and is shooed off when he stumbles. Then he lies under canvas and sleeps badly.
The days pass like a fever. Then it's evening. He wakes, takes some hard sheep’s cheese and bread for breakfast, and then they ride on.
Roy's horse has a low opinion of him.
It lets him know at the earliest possible opportunity. Five minutes into their ride, it slows to a stop, ignoring the nudges of Roy's heels, and starts to steadily chomp the grass at the side of the trail.
Roy's companion tuts. "Give him a little kick," she says. Roy still doesn't know her name, or what she does for a living; she wouldn't say. Something outdoors - a farmer? A horse breeder? - he guesses. She's a stocky blonde woman in her forties with a weathered face and an impish smile.
Roy tries a gentle kick. The horse ignores him.
The woman circles around, rides alongside Roy, leans over, and gives the horse a firm slap on its flank. "Go on, Graham!"
"The horse is called Graham?" says Roy. And as if offended, the horse takes off at a canter. Roy twitches the reins to slow it down, and it responds by attempting to upgrade the canter to a gallop.
Right, thinks Roy to himself, tightens the reins, and squeezes the horse's middle with his legs. After a moment, it slows its pace to a trot, then - when Roy doesn't let up - to a walk.
"He can be a bit of a naughty one," says the woman, riding alongside him again.
"Honestly, I'm really good with horses, normally," says Roy.
"Let me guess," says the woman, "you normally only ride in military processions, yes?" Roy raises his eyebrows and nods. "Those horses are handpicked, you know, and then trained until they move like clockwork. Graham's a farmhorse. A cheeky farmhorse."
They ride on in silence for a few minutes. Every so often, Graham spots some thin grass off to the edge of the trail and attempts to take a snack break, and Roy reins him back in. The sun is low now, nearly setting. The air is crisp and clear, and they've climbed high enough to have a fine view of the whole valley and the landscape beyond: stone crags and green fells, dark lakes far below them, little villages clustering along the sides of the valley. Far below them, the lakes are almost black.
"That's Green Pike," the woman says, pointing to a ridge ahead of them. "We're headed around behind it." It's the first that Roy's been told of his destination. The people helping him seem to operate on a constant need-to-know basis, even with each other.
"This is a beautiful part of the country," Roy says. "I always meant to visit."
"It's home," the woman says. She invests the word home with a great deal of feeling.
A few minutes later, as the sun is setting red and the air is growing chilly, they reach their destination: a cottage at the edge of a meadow that's cradled between two peaks. As they ride up, a man and a dog are herding sheep into a big enclosure. The woman halloas, and the man waves.
By the cottage, Roy dismounts and the woman takes Graham's reins. Roy gives him a pat on the side of the neck, and he makes a contemptuous-sounding, snuffly horse noise. "Thank you," he says to the woman. "I'll remember."
She just nods. "Good luck to you," she says, and then she's off.
The man welcomes him into the cottage. Inside, it's tiny, it's absolutely full of children, and it smells like cooking food. Roy suddenly realises he's ravenous.
As Roy eats the leftovers they ladle out for him, the shepherd and his wife tell Roy about the year the military requisitioned half their season's mutton, told them they'd be compensated, and never delivered. It took them years to recover from the loss. The shepherd's wife tells Roy her father died of a heart attack the day after Eclipse Day. He files it all in his memory. He has lists upon lists now: the people who've helped him, the troubles this state has given them, the shape of this new movement which has seemed to spring up so suddenly. A string of people he’s never met before are staking everything on the hope of a new Amestris, and it seems they’ve decided Roy and his people are their best bet for it. Roy had enough promises to keep before all this, yet here he is, accumulating debt after debt. He hopes he’ll be in a position to pay them.
Lying exhausted in the attic bedroom they've given him, Roy marks his progress on the imaginary map he carries in his head. So much further today towards the river Isar. Beyond the great river is Briggs territory: Fort Briggs, and with it the only part of the military Hakuro hasn't yet been able to subdue. The gathering place for Amestris' government in exile. He doesn't know how many of his people have made it there, are still making their way there. Roy just has to get to the river.
In his exhaustion, Roy drifts more easily to sleep than he should do. He refuses to let himself go though, any night, without thinking of each of them, in turn. Riza. His mother. His sisters. Havoc. Breda. Fuery. Ross. Miles. Alphonse. Ed. He can hear and see them all in his head, vital and strong. But it's Ed who's a sense-presence he can't shake, a ghost in his bed. He can remember exactly how Ed's hair smells, the cool heaviness of his automail leg, the warmth of his left hand on Roy's back.
Roy drifts to sleep and imagines Ed, whole and sweet, tangled there with him, his slow breaths ruffling Roy's hair.
Al loops the scarf tighter around his neck, tucks it into his work overalls, and pulls his cap down lower. It's getting colder at night.
"Postal special!" someone calls from the train platform. The creak of the brakes drowns out everything else for a few moments as the great steam train slows to a halt.
"Thirteen minutes, five hundred mailbags, Jim!" says one of his co-workers, clapping him on the shoulder. "You'd better look lively."
Al follows the surge of mail workers to the platform, and takes up a position by one of the many carts full of mailbags. He picks one up, throws it into the opened goods car; turns, picks another, does it again. His heart hammers for reasons that have nothing to do with the exertion. From the corners of his eyes, he tries to survey the platform. He sees railway officials, a couple of local civilian police officers. He can't see any military police; but then again, if he did, it would barely be suspicious. The country is in a state of emergency, after all.
When Al tried the roads east, to the desert and to Xing, he found them blocked. They're blocked because of Brother: Al knows this for sure, because he's seen the wanted posters. A powerful relief: if they're searching for him, they don't have him. If they don't have him, he must be fine. Brother is supremely resourceful, and he's been on the run before. Al trusts in his ability to survive.
But what about everyone else? Al tries not to think of everyone else for now. The roads east are blocked. So he's heading south. South to Aerugo, where Al will hopefully find Havoc and Catalina, if they succeeded; and where he can get a ship to Xing.
This particular strategy for getting south took a while to come together. When it became obvious his planned route was impossible, he lay low for a while, and his friends tried to come up with another way round. Annoyingly enough, they did this independently of him. Leave it to us, they'd say. Just stay safe while we work it out. Al hates being passive and he hates to see other people take risks for him - but his face, too, is on those posters. The army are everywhere. If he steps out into the street, he's a dead man. So he has to trust his new friends, in this new movement that doesn't yet have a name.
So now here he is. He's Jim. Jim has dark brown hair (dyed in a bathtub) and a strong Eastern accent (Al’s own childhood voice, exaggerated), and he works on the night mail - at least for the next two days. Only one person knows who he is here: Louie, his guide. Louie is somewhere in his thirties, his parents are Aerugan immigrants, and he likes to read history. That's nearly all Al knows about him. They’ve hardly had a chance to talk, and he’s rapidly getting the sense that this new resistance movement likes to do everything on a need-to-know basis.
This way, with luck and with help, Al can smuggle himself to the border. And then? Well, either his friends have thought of something - or Al will have to look after himself, and find a way.
Al turns and hefts another mailbag, throws it into the train carriage. Turn, lift, throw. Turn, lift, throw.
Roy is running. Head down, he sprints along the edge of a field. He glances up at the horizon occasionally, to see how close he's getting to what he's aiming for: a large wood which begins up a rise. He doesn't even know if he's still being followed. Looking around would just slow him down. So - head down, thigh muscles burning, eyes on the path ahead - he runs.
At first, he ran without aim, hoping only to shake his pursuers somehow. He'd waited half an hour for his contact, in the back room of the little village pub. She was supposed to be there when he took the back way in. That's all his previous guide had told him, when he dropped Roy off at the edge of the village just after dawn. Roy could hardly leave the room - so he just waited, an unpleasant tension brewing in his stomach. After half an hour and many debates with himself, he knew beyond doubt that something had gone wrong. So he did what his last guide had warned him so severely not to do. He pushed open the room's door, and slipped out into the corridor.
From the corridor, he listened for a moment to the hubbub in the pub's front parlour - and then he realised.
At seven o'clock in the morning, a pub should be empty.
It only took a few moments more to confirm his suspicions. A few snatched words of banter told him the voices were soldiers for sure. The noise, the laughter, the indefinable air of tension told him something else: these soldiers were waiting for the call to action. Roy's mind worked fast. They couldn't know he was in this building, or they wouldn't be waiting. Were they hunting for him? Was it coincidence? Had his contact been taken, or had she realised the pub was no longer safe? In the end, none of it mattered for the next few minutes. Now, he just had to get out.
So he ran. Careful steps out the back door of the pub. A crowd of military vehicles on the road in front of the pub. How could he not have heard their arrival? He hadn't slept the previous night. He couldn't possibly have dozed off, at a time like this? This is the sort of thing Riza (who must be, must be safe) would never let him hear the end of.
He stuck to the wall of the pub, noted the building was far from surrounded, that it looked on to the fields. He ran. And, some time in the first minute, someone noticed. Shouts. Warnings to halt, which of course he ignored. Then gunfire.
Roy hates to run. The temptation to break his cover, to turn and snap and fight back, is overwhelming. He's stood alone against far more soldiers than this in his time. However, breaking his cover, he repeats to himself, might let him win this battle, but it'll also call down the entire Amestrian army. He can't stand against an entire army; and even if he could win, the thing would be monstrous. His lizard brain wants so badly to fight; but Roy won’t let it rule him. If he can get away with it, Roy doesn't want to roast even one poor fucker of a conscript. He also doesn't want to destroy his chance of getting to the river, which so many people have risked so much to make possible now. So against all his instincts, Roy continues to run.
This countryside is hilly and well-wooded. It's easy for one man to lose himself. Roy can hear shouts echoing around the fields and hills now. They may have lost his trail, but they haven't given up. Somehow, though, he's managed to reach the edge of the smallish wood on the hill.
Inside the wood, his pace slows necessarily. The trail he follows is half-overgrown with nettles, which he displaces carefully, hoping not to leave marks of his passing. His jacket snags once on a bramble; he yanks it clear, but a patch of the lining remains tangled. After a few precious seconds trying to pull it off, he has to move on. Burning the scrap would leave a still more obvious mark of his presence. So he just keeps moving. He's heading into the heart of the woods, where the air darkens. It's quieter now. Roy is hyper-aware of his own noises: his crunching of twigs and leaves underfoot; the rustling as he pushes ferns and nettles aside; his own breaths, quickened and harsh.
Roy pauses for a moment, to listen and look around him. In the green light of the woods, he can't see any sign of another human being. He can hear stray birdsong; occasional forest sounds that could be anything. And -
There are voices. He listens again. The source of the voices is to his left, and now he can hear sounds too. People: quite a few of them.
As quickly and quietly as he can, Roy moves away from the voices, listening hard as he does so. He can't shake the feeling, though, that the voices aren't getting fainter - in fact, they sound closer than ever. He stops, momentarily. Then he realises. The voices aren't just coming from behind him. There are people ahead too. Then it hits him like a sledgehammer: they've surrounded the woods. Of course they have. It's what Roy himself would do, after all.
Now what? He's cornered. To go to this much trouble, whoever's in charge of the soldiers must know or suspect by now that they've netted Roy himself. So. If he's cornered, it could be that he has no option but to blow his cover. Roy takes a breath, reaches into his jacket, and snaps the threads that separate the lining from the cloth. From inside, he takes his gloves. They're on in a moment, and he scans the woods around him warily, his finger and right thumb pressed together.
No. He's an absolute idiot. He's standing in a forest. He's standing in a forest, about to start a fire.
Oh hell. Now he really is sunk.
Roy knows fire, knows it intimately. He can start an inferno and stop it dead, under the right conditions. These aren't the right conditions. It's been dry for days, and the dying leaves on the trees are like tinder. A forest fire would blaze uncontrollably. It would move horribly fast, faster than a man could run in these dense woods.
The voices are closer. Roy looks around for cover, not that cover will buy him anything more than a very little time.
He's standing right by a huge oak tree, he realises. It's broad, old and twisted. Perhaps there's a spot in the misshapen trunk that will give him a moment? Then he looks up.
For the second time in under a minute, Roy Mustang nearly laughs at his own thickheadedness. Then, quicker and surer than he thought he could, he has started to climb the tree.
Nothing happens. Nothing happens, and as Al clambers into the carriage with his workmates around him, his heart lifts. One stage down. The train is an express. It'll get him most of the way to Dublith tonight. Then the next night, the Southern Night Mail will do the rest and take him to the border. He hopes.
Mario, whom he's only known a couple hours, claps him on the back. There seems to be a lot of back-slapping in this job. "All right there, Jim?" Then he waves a cigarette packet and indicates the end of the train carriage by nodding at it.
Al doesn't smoke, but he joins them anyway. The cool night air and the darkened countryside rush past. With Mario there's an older guy Al’s met before - Phil - and a girl he hasn’t met. She’s very short and very young indeed. When she lights up her cigarette, Al can't help but raise a scandalised eyebrow - how the hell old is she, anyway, fourteen?
"I'm fifteen," she says, scowling at him. "What?"
Al briefly wants to say, you're too young to be working nights and working the railways and smoking! Go back to school and get your certificate! Then he blinks, and snorts with laughter at himself.
"What?" says the girl.
Great, now he just looks insane. Rather than explain to the girl what he himself was doing at fifteen years old, he just says, "It's just, I'm only three years older than you. I guess I'm turning into an old man now."
"Eighteen is finished," the girl says. "Nothing to do but get married and die."
"Thanks, Beth," says Mario. Then he goes back to enjoying his smoke quietly, staring at the tracks receding behind them.
The door clangs open. Louie joins them. "Hey," says Al.
"Hey, Jim," says Louie. He pulls a leather pouch from his top pocket, takes a hand-rolled cigarette out of it, and lights up.
"There you go again, Louie," says Beth. "Why do you smoke that crap?"
"Why do you smoke that crap?" Louie counters. "You don't wanna know all the nasty stuff they stick in commercial cigarettes. This is just pure old-fashioned tobacco." He waves his little cigarette expressively. It drops from his hand, and bounces straight off Al's shin.
"Ow!" Al squeaks. He bends instinctively to clap a hand over his shin. At the same time, Louie hollers "Shit! Sorry, Jim. You okay, man?" He bends to grab the cigarette from the ground.
"I'm fine, don't worry, I'm fine," Al says (although truthfully, it stings horribly). Louie finds the cigarette and straightens just before Al does, while Al is still babbling - and on the way up, he looks straight at Al, and mouths, problem.
Roy can't remember when he last climbed a tree; but it isn't hard at all to haul and step from foothold to handhold to foothold. It's surprisingly easy to do all kinds of things when they might help you avoid getting killed.
He finds a decent, well-covered perch after a few seconds. This tree was a stroke of luck. Its branches are broad - particularly the one Roy is sitting along, back to the trunk and one hand steadying himself. It's old. Roy can only see down to the ground if he leans forward. He hopes he's equally well-hidden up here.
It's not a moment too soon. The noises of the soldiers fill the woods, from here, and in moments more, footsteps and shouts sound from directly below Roy. He hears padding and animal panting: they must have dogs. Shit.
Roy has worked with tracker dogs; he has no illusions about what this development does to his chances. He holds himself utterly still. His body is alive with the threat of battle, singing with it; but for whatever it's worth right now, he knows how to stay calm. He breathes slow and deep, and listens.
"Spread out," he catches someone call. "We need these woods combed. Keep moving, keep moving!"
Someone else says, "Whatcha got there, girl? You got something?" Something sniffs and whines below him. Through the patchwork of leaves, Roy sees a dog at the base of the tree: pacing, agitated and confused.
Shitfuckshit, he thinks, then, his first impulse, I'm not going to do it. If they try to shoot me here I'll burn the place down, better that than dying like a rat in a trap - His impulse is stupid, he realises a moment later. That doesn’t help him either.
"She got something?" says someone.
"She didn't alert," says the dog handler. "Wait up." A moment later, he sees the handler crouching below the tree. She holds out a glass jar, and the dog sniffs at it with enthusiasm. It's a sample: something with Roy's scent on it, most likely taken from his flat.
Roy's heart attempts to jump out of his throat and make a break for it.
The dog snuffles and sniffs - but somehow, unbelievably, it doesn't bark.
The handler calls other handlers over, they bring other dogs. Roy sees the dogs pacing to and fro in the area around the tree, sniffing the ground, looking. "So, the dogs aren't finding anything," says the first handler, "and we got no visible trail. I don't think that guy was him."
Roy once saw a tracking dog follow a man's scent from the edge of the suburbs to a rush hour subway platform in the heart of Central. How the hell is this possible? How can the dogs not be barking their heads off, when Roy is mere feet away and they have a sample of his scent, some scrap of material full of sweat and dead skin cells, swiped from his laundry basket or -
Ed, spending nearly every night at Roy's apartment in Central. Ed, with his aggravating habit of pulling off his socks, dropping them on the floor, and leaving them there. Roy's pointed out the laundry basket a yard away a dozen times, and Ed's gone uh-huh, and carried right on dropping his socks on the floor.
Ed was expert at slipping past the obvious spies Hakuro liked to station outside Roy's building. Hakuro can't have known Ed was sleeping with him. And now, here, half a dozen tracker dogs are sniffing at Ed's discarded socks, trying to follow the scent of a man who must, Roy hopes, be halfway to Xing by now -
"You still makin' your mind up, girl?" says one of the soldiers, sing-song.
"Don't distract a working dog, Parker," the handler says.
"Don't get your panties in a bunch," says Parker. "Why are we stuck with this stupid job anyway? Can't Trebuchet just alchemy the fucker out of the woods? If he's here. Which I bet you anything he's not."
Ah, Trebuchet. Combat alchemist, second-rater, loyal servant to whoever happens to be running the country this week. Roy dearly hopes the troops are giving him a hard time.
"It doesn't work like that," the dog handler says. "You can't just alchemy stuff, dude."
"How should I know?" says Parker. "It's all just creepy lightning bullshit. Trebuchet can hunt out Mustang, fuck me if I want to get roasted -"
"Where now?" says a new voice.
"Comb the woods," says the first handler. "We got a perimeter, our runner's in here somewhere. Even if it's not Mustang, maybe a rebel, could know something useful -"
A whistle blasts through the woods.
"We got something! Move it!" bellows the first dog handler. "That way!" The air fills itself with the sounds of trampling feet, breaking vegetation, shouted banter and complaints. What can they have found? Could it be the scrap from his jacket? So much serendipity today. A minute more, and the sounds fade out. A minute, and Roy holds himself still, keeps on holding himself still.
And then: unbelievably, incredibly, they're gone.
Roy has gotten away with it. He has gotten away with it, out of all possible reasons in the world, because Edward Elric is incapable of picking a dirty sock up off the floor.
If, please, they meet again, share a house and a bed again, then he can never tell Ed about this astonishing stroke of luck: because then Ed will never, ever again pick up a sock from the floor.
Roy wants so badly to laugh; but he doesn't risk that. Instead, he lets himself exhale.
Somewhere in the endless Eastern desert, they've just pitched camp for the day. Ed is lying around in his usual sweaty, sickened stupor, hoping to drift off to sleep, when Winry marches into the tent they share carrying her knapsack, her water bottle, and a pile of cloths.
"How do you have this much energy?" Ed manages.
"Because two of my limbs aren't roasting me alive?" says Winry, pulling things from her knapsack.
"Have some sympathy," says Ed sourly.
Winry looks at him for a moment, then shakes her head. She lays a cloth by Ed's sleeping roll, and starts pulling tools from it.
Ed frowns at it all, trying to put it together.
Winry puts her hand to his forehead for a moment, and then undoes her flask and hands it to him. Ed sips carefully. He has to school himself pretty hard not to gulp the whole thing.
Winry says, "We're camped by a well today. Were you too out of it to even notice? So you can drink it all, just do it slowly, okay?"
Waterwaterwater, says Ed's brain, and despite what she says, he drains at least half of it in the next few seconds. Then he registers Winry's full array of automail tools, laid out next to him. He blinks.
"It's coming off, Ed," she says. "It's making you sick."
"Are you sure it's gonna make a difference?" Ed says. "The brace is the worst, not the arm."
"It's all coming off. The arm, the leg, both braces. Everything but the internal stuff."
Despite himself, Ed feels blearily panicked at the thought of losing his arm and leg, even temporarily. He hates being ill, how it makes you feel like a kid, like you're helpless and want to cry. "How'm I gonna ride?" he manages.
"Mish says he reckons you could still grip okay in the saddle with only one knee,"says Winry, "and I agree. You can do most of the work with your thighs." Mish is a trader about three years old than them. He speaks good Amestrian, and they - well, mostly Winry - chat with him sometimes while Ed zombies his way through another night's ride. "We can give you a hand getting on and off the camel if you need it. Okay?"
Ed knows that tone of Winry's well enough to recognise that, despite the question and the reassuring smile, he doesn't exactly have a choice about this. Ed notices that she's already laid his arm out and started on opening it up. He feels too ill to even grumble much: so he just lays back and lets her work.
The arm's off in only a couple of minutes. It's always slightly weird to see it lying there without him. Winry wraps it neatly in a roll of cloth and lays it to one side. Then she takes a small screwdriver and leans in to work on the brace.
"You're not yourself," she says softly as she loosens the first screws. "Mish thought you were depressed. He said to me you've got plenty to be upset about, but he doesn't know you like I do."
"I'm not depressed," Ed says. "I'm just boiled."
"I know," Winry says. She takes up her wrench, and unscrews the big bolt under Ed's collarbone with a few deft twists. "No matter how bad things get - you only ever get quiet and sad like this when you're really sick. Ah - there we go."
The brace lifts under her fingers, and then it's gone.
The relief of the pressure is sudden, and astonishingly acute. Ed exhales. Then he looks at his truncated shoulder. The scar tissue looks red, sweaty and swollen, and it smells like it needs a damn good wash. He wrinkles his nose and cycles his shoulder, experimentally. It's sore and tender, but it feels so light.
"Better?" He nods enthusiastically, and Winry smiles. She takes a wet washcloth to his shoulder for a few moments, and scrutinises it. "Okay," she says after a moment, "I was right. You have burned yourself, but it's actually not so bad. This could have gotten really nasty if I'd waited longer. But if we leave the brace off until we're out of the desert, it should heal up fine."
Ed sucks down some water and cycles his shoulder some more. "Is the well from, like, an underground river?" he asks. He's thinking about maybe plunging his whole head into a bucket of water. That could be good.
"I dunno," Winry says, "but whatever it is, it's pretty much unlimited." She jerks her thumb outside the tent. "It's like a water fight out there right now."She redirects the thumb at Ed, and stage-whispers, "You could do with a good wash."
"Well, ditto," says Ed. Winry flicks the washcloth at him, and they both snort.
"Right," she says, "now let's do your leg."
Winry works fast; when someone shouts "Hello!" in Amestrian from outside the tent, five minutes later, the leg and its brace are off, and Winry is packing everything up while Ed remembers how to sit up right with one leg. He feels oddly exposed. He’s not used to people seeing him like this.
"Come on in, Mish," says Winry.
"Ed!" says Mish. "You've lost weight!"
Ed narrows his eyes. "Shut up, smartass."
Winry and Mish both burst out laughing. Ed looks from one of them to the other. "What's so funny? Jeez, kick a guy when he's down."
Winry manages to school her giggles for long enough to give Ed a quick, fierce hug. "Welcome back, Ed," she says as she lets him go. "Mish, this is Ed's actual personality, I'm afraid. Don't let him give you any crap."
"That's okay," Mish says. "Now if he's an asshole, I only need one finger to push him over."
“Oho,” says Ed, “we’ll see about that.” And he gives Winry and Mish his biggest grin.
It's a horrible wait, the next five minutes: while Beth snarks and Mario smokes quietly and Al watches Louie for cues about what the hell's going on, and what he should do next. When had they got on the train? How hadn't he known? Fuck, it must have been that stop in the middle of nowhere. It was only a couple of minutes. Louie had said it was nothing. Eventually, Mario throws his cigarette stub onto the tracks and wanders back in.
"I need to take a leak," Al announces.
"Ew," says Beth, sounding way younger than fifteen, and then she disappears inside too with a casual wave of her hand.
"Okay," says Louie, once the door's closed, "there's military police on the train."
"Okay," says Al. "Right." He pulls in a breath. "It might be nothing to do with me, you know," he says. "What do you think, I could just keep a low profile? Could you find something for me to do where I'd be out of the way?"
"Maybe," says Louie, "but seriously - I reckon they’re probably after you. There's a State Alchemist on board, at least one. Alfred says he saw one of those pocket watches."
"Okay," says Al. "So. Okay. I wonder who the alchemist is? Because you know, I can probably actually -"
"I know who you are." Louie cuts him off. "But if you blow our cover -"
Al nods. "Okay," he says, mainly to buy himself thinking time.
"You keep saying okay," Louie says. "How about fucking hell?"
"Fucking hell," Al repeats. "Hey, you're right, that felt good! Also, I just had an idea."
On to Chapter Two!