Chapter 1: 1915
I hope you're all taking care of yourselves in this trying time, I know I am attempting to.
Excited about my first canon piece done for FMA! I'm going to update this weekly until the chapters are up, so please stay tuned!
S/o to the FMA BigBang 2020 mods for all their hardwork! Also to my teammate CosmicScraps (tumblr and twitter) for their exceptional sister art piece: https://twitter.com/CosmicScraps/status/1288517580848676866
Here's the matching playlist for this fic: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4R4Ncnzb4h5F0c4FdmLHv3?si=T44eBdzAROe3qaEZWvZbjw
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Patient Observation Chart
Patient Name: Roy Mustang
Admitted: 4/21/15, Emergency Ward
Transferred: 4/24/15, Rehab Wing
Holly Gilliam skips most of the clipboard’s content after this—the height and weight, vitals, medical history, the measurable things—the Flame Alchemist has been one of her primary patients for nearly two weeks, which means she’d gotten to know the gist of his charts well enough a few days in and like the back of her hand, by now. She’s keen to follow his recovery as closely as possible, and not just because this is her first big case in a big city hospital that she has great ambitions to work at, permanently, sometime soon. Not just because she is intelligent, smart enough to have graduated at the top of her class this spring before, well, everything, and not because she was particularly invested in the Colonel’s progress, like her fellow nurses who might swoon over the national hero’s jawline or dark eyes or disarming grin.
It's that the better she knew exactly how he purports to be doing, the easier it is to find holes in his alibis, see. And nothing gets Holly’s heart thumping these days quite like new evidence that pointed to her ongoing theory that Colonel Roy Mustang is, at the very least, hiding something.
“Gilliam, I’m telling you this as a senior, and not a friend,” Cass cuts her off with a steady hand before Holly can even begin to divulge her most recent findings over their pre-shift coffees, “you better try to rein in that nose of yours before someone above me finds out it’s been sniffing somewhere it doesn’t belong. You’re like a goddamn bloodhound.”
Holly bites her lip, another bad and nervous habit of hers that Ma back west would tell her to knock off immediately if she was here to scold her instead of Miss Cass, RN. But Cass isn’t Ma, indeed, and Ma’s probably busy right about now. She is, after all, one of hundreds of mothers keeping vigil at her bedside every night since her daughter became one of the lucky few Promised Day Angels, packing up her nursing school dorm a few weeks early and replacing her final exams with a temporary assignment at Saint Dwynwen’s Rehabilitation Wing in Central City. Holly didn’t know, quite yet, that she and her fellow fledgling nurses would be memorialized and thanked in beautiful street murals and romantic radio ballads for years to come, and when she came to find out, would sit empty with the memories of her ethereal bloody feet and the heavenly long hours and personally waiting hand and foot on the nation’s saving grace in fourteen hour shifts.
She had a long way to go, until then, when all of this would be a distant memory.
Most Responsible Diagnosis: sharp force trauma through both hands (reconstructive surgery successful 4/22/15, started PT 5/6/15). For now, Holly Gilliam has a whole lead to chase, an overheard conversation that she needs to relay to someone, anyone, who might confirm that her suspicions aren’t unfounded, and there’s only one person in this hospital she might trust with that grave responsibility, even if most of that trust is founded on similarities with her Ma back west. “Listen, I really think I caught him this time, Cass—”
“There’s nothing to catch, Gilliam,” Cass hisses, catching the ‘m’ on ‘Gilliam’ just like her mother might, too; Holly hasn’t remembered to ask Cass yet if she was a Central transplant as well, and if not from her own hometown of Durbuy, maybe Crupet? Torgny? Blankenberge? “The man can hardly write his own name, let alone see that he wrote it on the proper line afterward. What could he possibly be plotting?”
“That’s what I’m trying to explain, Cass, I think that he can see, he’s just lyi—”
Cass shushes her with a steady, stout hand again, keeping her head still as her eyes dart toward the location of every other breathing soul in the break room—a janitor asleep with his head lolled back on the ottoman, a few other girls from the nightshift clocking out with all the enthusiasm of wet rags dripping off a clothesline. “You think Roy Mustang, a man tortured by rebels defending the late Fuhrer, is lying about being blind? And for what? And what incentive might he have to lie?”
“Well, it’s less like lying and more like omitting details?” More like he’s keeping his poker hand close to his chest and playing chess across different planes at the same time, and Holly is, at best, a plastic chip or a small pawn, useful and disposable from his perspective. “And I guess I don’t know, really, what incentive he’d have to lie, but what incentive does his adjutant have to lie for him, then?”
Now that piques Cass’s attention, if reluctantly. It’s obvious how she keeps it all in her brow, the tug and pull between wanting to listen to Holly and wanting this conversation to be over, Holly could see it. Eventually, the rope snaps and Cass just shakes her head before conceding. “Fine, go ahead, tell me more. But keep quiet.”
Diagnosis: total blindness (1/60, next to no field of vision). “So this was yesterday, when I was making my final loops at the end of my shift,” Holly doesn’t mean to talk with her hands like she’s illustrating a ghost story, whispering low and soft, “I heard it straight from the mouth of that bodyguard of his, you know the one.”
Cass may not be one for ghost stories herself, but even she partook in a little patient gossip from time to time. “The lieutenant he’s definitely not sleeping with, but demanded to share a room with post-op,” she mutters, knowing and interested.
“Yes! I, uh— Rita? Is that her name?”
“Whatever. I overheard her say to him, just before I walked into his room, that she could tell he could see ‘more light than before’ based on where he turned his head adjacent to the window.”
Cass simply blinks a response, once, twice, holding her tongue while another nurse moved for the coffee pot behind them; she and Holly take a sip from their mugs in unison, and once they were safe, Cass took to spluttering a, “Wait, he can see light now?”
“Apparently!” To the knowledge of his Lieutenant, and not to, oh you know, his doctors or the eye specialists or Holly herself…
“And how long did you have to wait outside the room before getting this nugget of information, Gilliam?”
“Only about a minute or so?”
There’s more to the story than that of course. Like how she’d been putting up with the Colonel’s poorly masked impatience for weeks. Like how the hallway the Colonel’s room was in had been unusually quiet as Holly trotted down the tile yesterday, save the crackling portable radio Mustang had shmoozed off another nurse to obtain; how the song that Holly had to duck her head and listen for their conversation through was the same swooning ballad that must’ve been topping the popularity charts this week and last, given how often it seems to play.
Each night before you go to bed, my baby, whisper a little prayer for me, my baby, and tell all the stars above, this is dedicated to the one I love.
Like how she’d had a full minute to listen only because that’s how long it’d taken for the Colonel’s Lieutenant’s back to straighten out, not unlike the military’s actual watch dogs, like she’d sniffed out a foul stench. How Holly must’ve been the foul stench, and even if the pair were silent when Gilliam walked into the room, Mustang still seemed to regard her as someone who’d just interrupted a conversation he was having. And how his charts indicated no changes in his vision in either eye, from earlier in the day, the day before, the day before that, and so on, though the range of motion in both his hands was returning quite nicely.
“He’s hiding something, Cass,” concludes Holly, in the present. “Just how many people have you ever read about bouncing back from total blindness unassisted? No surgery, no exercise, no glasses?”
“You have to remember I’m not nearly as green as you, Gilliam,” Cass replies, shoulders shrugging with her catch on the Gilliam ‘m’ and a well-earned nonchalance. “I’ve seen a lot of things in these halls they didn’t write about in textbooks.”
The you’ll understand when you’re older went unspoken, of course. “But I’m in the room for his eye exams every time and nothing has changed. He answers so confidently, every time, that nothing. Has. Changed. And to be corrected in his act so casually by the Lieutenant while they’re alone? This whole thing smells fishy.”
“Fishier than anything you’ve witnessed from him before?” Cass asks knowingly, and Holly considers, with resentment, all of the evidence she collected over the last two weeks. “Worse than the secret Doctors’ visit?” Exhibit A, the unscheduled visit from two doctors unlisted in Amestris’s national registry who called themselves Mustang’s primary care physicians and sounded like they were in a gang of some kind—while one of the men certainly looked the part, stout and gentle, the other was in a wheelchair and smelled like an ash tray, and had to be lying, right? “Worse than holding up the phone line for hours at a time?” Exhibit B, from an area code in the north, an area code in Central, and area code out east that perhaps intended to help Mustang run Saint Dwynwen’s from a distance. “Worse than the strange and cryptic conversations he has with our friend, Al?” Don’t even get her started.
“They were saying ‘alka—’ darn, ‘alka—’ something?” Before that, Holly had occasionally caught on to the whispers between her patient and Cass’s primary patient, Alphonse Elric, and what she heard seemed? Cultish? Eldritch? Evil? Chilling. “Something about the healing properties of alka-something and something called a Philosopher’s Stone. The one word was like ‘alchemy’, but wasn’t, and I still have no idea what a Philosopher’s Stone is. Cass—what on God’s green earth could that possibly refer to?”
“I don’t know,” Cass admits as a smirk unfolds across her face, and it hits Holly, suddenly, how if she’d really been like her Ma or from somewhere like Torgny as Holly had projected, then ‘I don’t know’ would sound much more like ‘I d’no’. “Maybe they were trying to talk about alchemy with Drachman accents.”
“Why would they talk about alchemy with Drachman accents?”
Cass’s laugh is dry and Holly is back at square one with another strange happenstance that stunk something rotten under her nose and her nose alone. It’s not as though she’d ever been any kind of prying busybody before she’d started working in Central—goal-minded, yes, relentless, she’d been told, but not a super sleuth of any sort. But she wasn’t brought to Central to work on her own merit or passion or even due to a decent reference, she was brought here as a lifeline when a national something made everything that once was look the same at first glance, forever changed at the next. There exists two Hollys, frankly, the one who could’ve been satisfied with her assignment to nurse one of the Nation’s highest ranking military officials and the inevitable promise of employment that held, and there was one, now, waiting for her shift to start, who felt that life could hardly be as simple as words printed upon her (smarmy, insolent, bossy, sonofa) patient’s clipboard.
“Holly, kid.” Cass waved a hand in front of Holly’s eyes as she spoke; Holly must’ve zoned out too long. “Are you alright?”
Not convincing enough, however; perhaps she should ask for some pointers from her patient. “A lot of people have been ‘fine’. Most of our patients have been fine, but,” Cass swallows, face like ceramic glazing over, and maybe Holly sold Cass short, for a moment there, “you know what happened on that day, no one’s really gotten settled back to normal. So I’ll ask you again, are you alright?”
“I’m really fine, Cass.”
“It’s okay to be nervous—”
“—or lonely when you first move somewhere new, far away from home—"
“No, no, no—that’s not it at all. I just,” Holly uses her whole body to breath in air through her nose, out through her mouth, “don’t trust the Colonel. There’s something off about him, I don’t understand what he’d have to hide. And it’s hindering my responsibilities to do my best as a nurse here.”
Cass nods, though she seems more relieved that her lukewarm attempts at mentorship were over for the day. “Well, kid, I’ve certainly been there. Any nurse in this building has been there. Your love for the work, unfortunately, can’t reach every patient.” Holly knows this to be true and frowns every time she is reminded. “However, we’re all a little tepid these days, and most of us didn’t put our lives on the line to protect the city from rebels.”
But that was the thing about it that probably bothers her most, still—those who’d been closest to the wreckage at Central’s military headquarters didn’t seem quite so panicked. They seem, well, like they were just anticipating their next steps, where average civilians still walked into the ER with no symptoms, no problems, just a general, heavy knowledge that something had happened to them. Mustang, in all his dealings with Holly, certainly seemed impatient and persistent, making his civility seem forced, no matter what he said; his adjutant is quiet and scrutinous, watching Holly like she’s waiting for her to so much as breath out of line, and that’s not even considering the other survivors recuperating on the same floor…
“Does Alphonse mention him at all?” Holly asks suddenly, pretending not to notice how Cass lets out a shallow sigh, “They just hang out an awful lot, hell if I can understand why.”
“Just in passing, just in his requests to visit, if he can be bothered to ask me, what with that busybody brother of his right there to wait on his every need, twice as fast,” before Holly could press any further, however, Cass is pushing out from her seat at the table and disposing of her mug in the sink, wiping her hands on her stiff-pressed white dress, “I’ll give you credit for one thing, Gilliam, these military dogs certainly think they have their run of the place. But you’ll roll Mustang to the lounge to say hello to him, though, first thing this morning, right?”
Holly nods swiftly, absently; she’s not sure when she had time to empty her coffee mug this morning, she could’ve sworn she had just a few more sips left. “And Gilliam?” asks Cass from the doorway, just before she stepped out into the aseptic wafts of flowers and iodoform. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Comments: of sound mind and spirit, recovery on par with projected timeline
One of those deceiving afternoons that appear verdant and blue and comfortable from the window but are quickly betrayed by a bitter wind chill, Ed and Al spend some time wandering the grounds of the hospital.
That is, if “some time” meant “snuck off long enough to cause some concern between the nurses at the disappearance of not one, but two patients” and “the grounds of the hospital” meant “the five block radius that the hospital sat in the middle of, including the closest bakery and bookstore”, then sure, Ed and Al spent some time wandering the grounds of the hospital.
The Promised Day had given way to a very clear and very chilly spring, and though time passed slow in the rehab wing, it was hard not to look out at the wide open sky and not feel a sense of urgency to make something of the day. This particular afternoon in question was no exception and made for a fairly simple equation: beautiful weather, plus a schedule free of any physical therapy sessions for both brothers after one o’clock, plus Alphonse actually, really, finally having enough strength to get out of bed? All together, they’d yielded something enough to move Edward into action, because while he was deeply protective of his brother’s recovery, he’d also perhaps built up too much unexpended energy squeezing rubber balls and waiting, metal foot bouncing, at his brother’s bedside. And Al might’ve conceded in his brother’s defense, when they had snuck around hallways, down flights of stairs, and out the front doors of Saint Dwynwen’s, that these last few weeks were the longest that Ed, that the both of them, had been in one place since they set out on their journey, regardless of where one considered their story to have technically started.
They’d come an awfully long way, hadn’t they?
And in a way that anyone who they’d met along that journey might predict unprompted, a “quick walk around outside” soon turned into a trip down to Collette’s Café on the corner, and a trip to Collette’s Cafe turned into buying three different pieces of cake and strolling around the block to walk off any impending stomach aches, which turned into a short excursion to see inside the bookstore they just happened upon, to stop inside the stationary store and run their hands along the envelopes more fine and beautiful than perhaps was ever truly necessary for a letter, and so on and so forth. Al hadn’t cared much for the validity of their excuses, not when everything around him was so novel now. Wiping sugary sweet chocolate frosting off his nose and rising to his feet, walking to the end of the block, walking across the cobblestone street to a new block. Standing, assisted only by his forearm crutches for just under five minutes and feeling the sinews in his muscles tug and stretch and fold again to keep him straight and upright. What a thrill it was, to feel his own body moving.
“Zampano has a contact for getting letters across the desert,” Al had explained, speaking just above a whisper into Ed’s ear; after a while, he’d gotten to be too tired to walk, but not tired enough to resign to his hospital bed once more, and so Ed had weaved between pedestrians and through the busy Central streets carrying Al on his back. It was funny, though it didn’t warrant a laugh, how people actually stared at them less now that they were just two boys giving piggy-back rides instead of The Legendary Fullmetal Alchemist, who might’ve been whoever was inside the giant suit of armor, might’ve been the very short, very intrepid teenage boy he traveled with—who could be sure?
Still short, but with no need to be intrepid at the moment, Ed snorted something fond in response. “So when you say ‘contact’, I’m free to assume that you mean ‘shady black market business’, right?”
“Assuming will cost you a five-cenz piece.”
“Then I’ll refrain. Continue.”
Though the muscle had built up considerably, Al could still feel the difference in Ed’s weaker, newer arm, anticipating a slip before Ed even considered adjusting his hold. “Anyway, if I wanted to get in touch with Mei,” a pause, “and Ling and Lan Fan, Zampano said this guy could almost certainly get the letters to them, though it’d might take a while.”
“If that’s what you want, then I guess it’s the only option you got,” Ed agreed between nods. “But are you not worried about jumping the gun a little bit? I mean, you’ve just been in therapy this whole time, you gonna write a letter about the power of foam rollers?”
“I mean, it only makes sense to write them, right? Make sure they got home okay and everything.”
“Sure,” Ed replied, and Al could tell he was trying not to smirk. “All three of them, huh?”
Okay, so he’d meant Mei, mostly, but Ed didn’t have eyes on the back of his head and wouldn’t be able to call Al’s bluff. He’d never been good at lying, and with a whole face to betray him now, Al may never get one past his brother again.
The paper from the stationary store that Al eventually decided on was thick, the color of the cream he stirred into his tea. It smelled fresh, too, and much like the afternoon itself it seemed sewn and pressed with the wanting to write something important and worthwhile. The envelopes matched in material and shade, and if he ran his fingers over the speckled etches melded together to make one piece of parchment, he could feel the space between the fitfully patterned ridges and valleys. It’d been the cheaper, simpler version of his first choice letter set, at which the checkout clerk had taken one look at Alphonse examining the shiny gold birds that littered the edges of the paper and cheerfully asked when the date was.
“The date for what?” Al inquired, tilting his head rather innocuously.
“For your wedding, my good sir,” replied the clerk, her expression altogether jovial at his expense.
A whole entire face to betray him now, it seemed wildly unfair, didn’t it?
Now, whether or not Al was ready to spend that much time (three hours) out of his room otherwise unassisted and unaccompanied should have been up to his nurses to decide (they’d decided he was not ready, and the boys had been reckless, but that was beside the point), but more desperate than any medical professional’s recommendation was how Al’s body felt to him when he used it to its full strength and beyond, again and again, over and over, until it became too much. “Too much” was relative, obviously, to the years it’d spent doing nothing without him, but the sure feeling of satisfaction when he pushed toward a new physical feat was not. Being tired was a reward for finding a decent enough rhythm with his crutches to walk. The feeling that his legs might buckle if he tried to run, the dull comfort he felt when he held onto Ed’s back, these were motivators cumulating not in some final end goal, but to see what the next immediate stepping stone had in store for him. The list Al started many years ago of things he wanted to experience once he was corporeal again were just dominoes, infinitely knocking down more and more sensations he needed to experience for the first time once more, that he’d forgotten about when he’d been little more than a soul standing just over seven feet tall.
Come the following afternoon, Al’s nose is stuffed for the first time in about five years.
His primary nurse is a tall, round-faced woman named Cass, who wastes no time in berating Ed within an earshot of his brother’s room. Listening in, Al’s attention fades in and out, most of his notice drawn to the sensations in his fingers as they run over the pressed-stiff white sheets of his bed, the warmth of his toes under the blankets, and staying perfectly, unremarkably quiet. Al had admittedly forgotten about getting sick, as a concept. Simply overlooked how a getting a small fever might feel more like he’d stuck his head in a bucket of cotton, how no amount of sleep could chase away the hot exhaustion behind his eyelids. It was honestly fresh, maybe a little more exciting than it should have been, though Al was not so foolish to share that with his brother, who didn’t seem like he’d appreciate the thought after being called every synonym for “foolish” and “irresponsible” until Cass’s round face burned red.
“Well Al, what did we learn today about running around outside without a damn coat on?” Ed mutters, holding his calloused and tough left hand up to feel across Al’s forehead with a frown. He’s not mad, not at all. In fact, the closer he sounded to their mother, the less angry he was, usually; the only real difference today is that Al couldn’t seem to conjure the notion of his mother saying “damn”, ever.
I learned about the breeze, Ed, how it pimples the skin on my neck. About the sunshine, the electricity that passes between people on the street, the pulse that connects us all without sight. “But I wasn’t even a little bit cold. Not at all.” The point of protesting was not to fuss, the point was pulling Ed’s leg (either automail or flesh, both were fine). It’d worked well enough, and the more Ed’s pointed nose had curled at the nostrils, the more satisfied Al found himself, given the other option at stake.
As of today, Alphonse had had his body back for 29 days and had observed his brother waver between two reactions to the matter.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, but that’s how colds work, in case you forgot.” A passing stranger likely wouldn’t realize that this mordant kind of scolding is actually Ed’s way of doting—or, rather, Ed’s role as teacher in Al’s reeducation in simple bodily maintenance. “You think you’re fine but you wear a coat anyways so you don’t get sick, dummy.”
“But you weren’t wearing a coat either, Brother.”
Ed is smug as he folds his arms, leaning back in the chair he’d dragged up to Al’s bedside. “Well, I never get sick,” he replies, awfully proud of himself.
“Interesting.” Al lets him simmer before adding: “Is that a recent development, or?”
Ed’s bloated smirk deflates slowly as Al goes on to recite, with rather vivid detail, all the times in the last few years on the road that he’d gotten sick—head colds and stomach flus and migraines and an allergy to mold that’d come out of nowhere, frankly. “You’re hanging out way too much with the Colonel,” was all Ed had to say for himself at the end of it.
What they were not going to talk about this morning was the moment yesterday afternoon after they had gotten separated in the bookstore around the corner and down the street. It was simply inevitable they would pan off into different directions upon walking through the front door—Ed felt less impatient in recovery if he felt like he was learning something, and Al just wanted a story or two to read before bed at night. Time flew over their heads as they navigated the labyrinth of aisles at their own pace, and the pressure Alphonse kept on his wrists eventually grew too sharp to justify standing any longer with the assistance of his crutches, so he’d eventually found a place to sit in a musty corner, hidden within the oak shelves that contained the mystery section. He’d craned at the neck, feeling unusually small now that he couldn’t clear the top row, especially not from where he’d been sitting on a footstool left behind by some employee charged with shelving the dime novel gore. To be so small, to be enveloped in a space, Al had lost himself until he’d heard his name, whisper-shouted like a player on a stage might do. It was Edward, a little white in the face, looking for Alphonse like he’d gotten lost, like they’d really been separated. To Al’s notice, Ed’s neck was also craned at an angle like he too was still expecting to find his brother in a great knight’s armor, ducking low so as to miss the ceiling, and not within a thin, tired pile of flesh and bone.
When Ed’s eyes finally found Al, they were just short of panicked, a fear which dissipated quickly once they’d begun to well up with tears.
“Brother? Brother, I’m fine!” This was Ed’s second response, and even if they used their imaginations to pretend otherwise, there were always tears. “Hey, I’m okay.”
“I know.” Ed’s voice was wet, riddled with disbelief as he offered an arm for Al to pull himself up with. “I know.”
The sound of scissors snipping his hair short, the noticeable weight that fell from his shoulders and pooled on the ground, the fresh shear tickling the fingertips when he brushed past the nape of his neck. The smell of food—just the smell of plain bread—wafting through his nose and directly into his stomach if only to tease him and remind him, oh, he could feel hunger too, that the pangs could be satiated with something delicious or something interesting or something just enough. Closing his eyes and going to sleep was almost a disappointment if it wasn’t for the chance to dream, to watch the world as he knew it expand twice over from his mind’s eye. Was all of this really what he’d been missing? To ask Ed was to put a good deal of pressure on him—it wasn’t as though Ed didn’t have his own world to reenter in time.
It was funny—actually funny this time—to look back upon Mei Chang’s tutelage in the North where Al had tried to absorb what she could explain of Alkahestry, specifically the Dragon’s Pulse. Clear as a whistle, he could still hear Mei’s indignance at his suggestion that there had to be some tangible, measurable, scientific way to know for sure that he was reading the Pulse correctly, because they’d been trying to meditate for hours in that middle-of-nowhere house between barrels and crates and he still felt nothing. Clear your mind and think with your senses, she’d been bossy, like he was pretending not to be able to read something she’d written out in plain Amestrian, like this! See, it’s easy!
There’d been nothing easy about it at all, but it wasn’t as though their lesson hadn’t been in vain; maybe, he considered, the mere promise of a body was what made the difference in reading or not reading the Dragon’s Pulse. Alphonse wasn’t metal anymore, and perhaps those thrilling specifics in what he touched and smelled and tasted and dreamt were more than just feelings. Was all of this the Pulse? Was this what she attuned herself to and interpreted with great ease all the time? No, Al was certainly his brother’s brother, and in all of his impatience, considered maybe Mei Chang, in particular, was the person to talk to about his recovery. Not just for what he could learn, but because she would spend at least an hour trying to put words to what he didn’t understand before she lost patience, and because they hadn’t had much time to just say more than hello after, oh, you know, just transmuting his body and soul back to the mortal plane in one piece.
There was so much to do, so much to learn, so much to write about with only twelve envelopes to fill, though as of right now, Day 29, there was very little connecting his thoughts from Dear Mei, I hope you got back to Xing alright to do you ever realize how joyful it is to just walk?
Was that coming on too strong?
After sitting together for a while, Ed stood to stretch out his back with a groan, Al turning to pull out his rewards from yesterday’s endeavors from the top drawer of his bedside table—thick, cream paper and an envelope of equal quality. “I’m going down to the cafeteria to grab a sandwich,” said Edward, without a trace of his earlier concern, “do you want anything? They’re feeding you up here, right?”
“Brother, I’m fine. Thanks for asking, but I—” Digging through the drawer’s contents, Al stopped abruptly, suddenly realizing in rush, his folly. He’d had the paper, he’d had envelopes, he’d even had Amestrian flag stamps, though he didn’t know yet if he technically needed them to get illegal mail to Xing... “Actually, can you grab me a pen?”
Al held up the cardstock he’d purchased the day before, sheepish. “You know, to write with.”
Ed snorted, a wide grin spreading over his face like the daybreak. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be right back.”
“Is…” Roy shuts his eyes too tight sometimes and it’s regrettable; like the tension pooling across his nose and between his brows could ease the responsibility off of his other senses, enabling them to fill the void that would appear when he reopened his eyes once more. “Is someone pacing, Alphonse?”
Whatever he was hearing—the scuff, scuff, scuff—is too distant to be fully irritating, but is still more movement than the physical rehabilitation wing’s lounge saw at this early and usually very empty hour in the morning, making it a wholly unique phenomena that Roy couldn’t seem to piece together on his own. Instead, he awaits a reply and is met with a knowing, but amused sigh. “It’s Ed,” Al replies, all warmth and no metal. “He likes to stalk around the payphones when he wants to call Winry but can’t.”
Of course. The thought of Edward, face contorted like he’s a little red goblin in a little red coat, stomping his thick boots up and down the wall of rotary phones, bubbles up like a memory rather than something played pretend; Roy has certainly seen this before. “Well, why can’t he? If he’s missing change, it’s not as though a couple hundred patients in this building couldn’t throw him a cenz or two in gratitude.”
“It’s not that, I don’t think. He should have plenty of money. I think he’s just taking his time.”
Roy scoffs, folding his arms. “Worrying Winry sick, you mean.”
“Oh yes, absolutely.” Al is grinning; Roy can hear grins now, and Al smiles often, more often than just the time they spent making fun of his brother together, probably more than anyone else in the rehab wing, if that sort of thing were measurable. It’s the one real difference between trying to read a suit of armor based on the tone with which he spoke and trying to read an adolescent boy on the same basis while blind. He still doesn’t know what Al actually looks like yet, not after these last few weeks, let alone these last few years, but he has been told that Al both does and does not look like Edward, that he’s having a hard time gaining weight back, and that the stagnant helmet of his armored suit truly hadn’t captured even a sliver of the expressions that could paint his face.
“But also,” Al continues, his boyish voice moving through the air molecules in a way that told Roy he was looking away from the table they sat at, still watching out for his brother. “I think he’s trying to get used to everything he got back.”
Fullmetal’s footsteps plod down the tile floors, away, and Al, thoughtful and somehow even further away, chose his next words with great care.
“I think we both got used to how we were living for so long that it’ll be a little while before he looks at his arm or me and admits that we’re not going anywhere.” Al isn’t smiling anymore. “And I think it’ll be a little while after that to feel like he can tell Winry we’re actually, really back without feeling like he’s bluffing.”
Conversely, the Lieutenant had told Roy just last night that she thought that one of his nurses was suspicious of him, and while he hasn’t really been up to anything the new Fuhrer doesn’t know about, it’s not to his benefit to disobey the strict orders he was under to keep mute on his recovery, just like it might also not be to his benefit to be seen as someone strange or frightening by the hospital staff. When he asked Hawkeye to clarify whether he’s become stranger or more frightening since the Promised Day, as he hasn’t been able to check for himself, she moved on to say that it might be in his best interest to, for a few days, actually act like the patient he is, and twiddle his thumbs (the best he can, all things considered) while the rest of his team takes care of business on his behalf. When he asked, one more time, if he seemed suspicious somehow, she replied simply that he seemed like he was treading water in a situation where he could simply float on his back.
All this to say, when his nurse comes back around first thing in the morning on her rounds, he thinks about all the studying he’s been doing now that his hands were as bound as his eyes—how the people of Ishval had managed to create solid, sturdy buildings in a landscape that was constantly being swept up by the wind, but hadn’t figured out how to save the railroad that once crossed the Eastern Desert and into Xing from sinking beneath the sand. All thoughts of alkahestry and the Philsopher's stone quickly become [redacted] and [redacted] with the NDA he was under, and so he becomes his own ouroboros as he considers a back-up plan for the ever-likely outcome that he didn’t convalesce enough of his vision to return to his post, that he remained ridden with the constant feedback loop, replaying the events of the Promised Day, over and over. When his nurse finally leaves, he asks Hawkeye if she can be reassigned as someone else’s nurse, and she replies that she’d look into it.
“Do you think I’ll get in trouble if I open a window?” So Breda’s out today to assist in getting Havoc back East to his mother, Feury’s off settling his transfer back to Central from the southern border, and Hawkeye, freshly discharged from the rehab wing, is likely standing in Central HQ at the moment, taking care of—in this wild, new world they found themselves in—Fullmetal’s retirement paperwork. Due to the collusion of all his subordinates, Roy is ultimately left with an inordinate amount of time to bide with Alphonse Elric, who had been assigned the same hall of the rehab wing after the Promise Day and who took that fact as an invitation to sit with Roy at the same table in the lounge, daily, without fail.
“If one of the staff members comes and yells at you, we’ll just tell them I told you to do it,” Roy offers, as if he had any real jurisdiction here, and as if Alphonse hadn’t assisted in a government coup about a month earlier without anyone’s permission. Nonetheless Al seems satisfied enough with their plan, and Roy listens to him push back his chair and step without real pace or pattern away from the table.
“It’s a beautiful day, you can see the tops of everyone’s heads from up here,” Al proclaims, and then suddenly, the creak of a wooden window and a breeze—cold, but fresh, wafting past his face and over his eyes. “Brother and I asked Lieutenant Hawkeye yesterday if your eyesight was doing any better, but she didn’t have a lot to say about it. How is your eyesight, Colonel? Any updates?”
Today, Roy had woken up in a sweat to see the same clear tunnel as the day before, not closed yet, but shaped suspiciously like two long swords that moved as needles might, through his palms like they were only only glove and no flesh; like Lieutenant Hawkeye, looking far away from him, holding her blood-red neck closed with a shaking white hand and a strong will, over and over and over and over; like the hands of Truth, coming back for seconds. “Not really anything new, Al.”
“Oh. Well, like you said before: it should just be a matter of time, right?”
The air coming in from outside is maybe a little bit colder than should have been comfortable, but Al doesn’t say anything about it, so Roy doesn’t either.
Time passes and Al remains quiet after that, save an apology to Roy when his nurse finally does come by to close the window (neither he nor Hawkeye could seem to remember her name this morning—unfortunate, really). Typically, Al was a relay man, sharing bright descriptions of what was probably a very dull and uninteresting environment, of all the things normal people took for granted, back to Roy with a sort of precocious optimism. Roy didn’t care much whether the people out the window looked like tiny ants or whether the sky was beautiful or not, but it was a relief, he supposed, to know all this things stayed present even if he couldn’t check for himself. Today, however, instead of more jokes at Edward’s expense or long profiles of the other people who came in and out of the lounge, Roy hears nothing but a rhythmic scraping sound. “Is that?” He starts and stops, listening closely as he turns his head toward the scratches and their tune. “Are you sketching, Alphonse?”
“Good guess, Colonel, but I’m just writing a letter,” Al replies, grinning again. “Just a quick one, to my friend, Mei.”
Roy goes quiet, but continues to hear the scratching after that. It was faint and repetitive, white noise to lull him at least down to the earth, until it occurs to Roy he’d been sitting quiet and listening to scribbles for five minutes. There was nothing quick about this. Nothing at all. Alphonse Elric was in the process of writing a novel to his friend, to his, er—
“Mei is...” Roy is sheepish, embarrassed that he has to ask, “she helped us on the Promised Day?”
Al actually snorts at him and the gaps in his memory. “Uhm, I mean no disrespect, Colonel, but ‘help’ is a sort of an understated way to describe what she did on the Promised Day.”
A fair assessment, but they’d gotten a lot of help on the Promised Day, and without the ability to see the faces to even attach a name to, it became near impossible to recall with accuracy all of their allies who ultimately, Roy was indebted to. He could pull a few characters from the fuzz; Izumi Curtis had been the hands that’d held him upright in his first moments back after his meeting with the Truth, Darius and Zampano had stayed with the Lieutenant until he’d come up to the surface once more.
“She’s also the one, who taught me everything I know about alkahestry, so if you’re coming up with a list of things to thank her for, Colonel.”
Ha ha, very clever Alphonse, except Roy still doesn’t think he knows anyone named Mei, from that day or from ever, but before he can be decisive about it, he recalls Hawkeye narrating the colloquial final battle with some clarity and more force.
“It’s the young girl who had been seen travelling with Scar—she must be the alkahestrist. She’s using her throwing knives to arrange a circle around Edward’s broken automail arm and—” her throat had caught, the fist she held in his jacket pulled tight—“And he has his arm. Edward. Ed has his arm back, sir.”
“Right,” Roy replies, and he thinks about what exactly he’d sputtered to a little girl in pink about a month ago, after she’d saved his Lieutenant’s life. “Yes, of course.”
She doesn’t miss Amestris. That’s not what this is.
Honestly, what was there about Amestris to miss at all? Between there and here, the food simply isn’t comparable. The trees ask to be climbed in Xing, practically placing their branches just perfectly so in order to assure a leg up. The flowers grow free and plentiful, as confidently as the strong, majestic mountains they sprouted upon; Amestrian fields were wide and bare, and the cold gnawed more than nipped. So much had been missing in her travels: her mother wasn’t in Amestris, nor the familiar, well-worn walls of their clan’s siheyuan complex, nor her favorite blankets and books. And no amount of study had prepared her for how fundamentally broken the Amestrian language was, missing entire words, words that are foundational to expressing oneself fully like they might in Xingese. The earth beneath her feet upon touching ground in Xing whispers welcomes and good tidings into the soles, rather than the incoherent sufferings of souls looking for their great beyond and digging in the wrong direction, remember? Amestris had been a withering, strangled place; Xing is home.
Also, a controversial opinion indeed, but Amestris simply didn’t have enough stray cats. Hard to swallow, perhaps, but it was true.
The late summer heat is overwhelming but there’s no sun as far as Mei can see between pillars, past the heavy layer of humidity that had draped over the entirety of the Ancient Capital earlier that morning and still hadn’t let up by noon. Her silk collar clings wet to the back of her neck as she stalks one of the long, innermost hallways of the Imperial Palace, her simple flats hitting the marble floors like the beat of a small drum. Impatience prods her to walk faster every time she catches sight of another palace butler or clan representative, the letter in her palm bound to burn a hole straight through if she didn’t find a place to read it soon. Alone. Very alone, if possible.
It’s not that there’s too many people in the palace these days—it took some coaxing from His Majesty at the very start of his reign, but like water lapping the edge of the stream, more and more high-ranking members of Xing’s clans and their entourages could be found making business or conversation in what used to be a very large, very exclusive, and very empty castle. The Son of Heaven, or rather, Ling Yao liked the sound of people nearby, and Mei was fine with that, whatever. He had a point, that it was much harder to sew dissonance across their forty or so half-siblings when the family is kept close and forced to look one another in the eye, yeah, yeah, sure, sure, but peace also made any attempts at privacy near futile some days. Today being one instance, with the August Magpie Festival coming up within the week and preparations for the holiday looming atop the fog.
That said, Mei had a plan: at the end of this corridor was the Great Hall, the lungs of the Imperial Palace, a splattering of malachite and garnet and topaz tiles, great gold pillars, and about a hundred bodies moving in and out like air being inhaled and exhaled over the city. Past that, through another modestly busy corridor, around a few corners, and past the terraces, there was a small garden beside a running stream with a bench that was frequently empty. If Mei could get there, get there soon, and find nothing and no one besides herself, her thoughts, and this letter with Amestrian script addressing her across the front, then she’d finally be safe. A few months ago, before she’d become so acquainted with the layout of the Emperor’s Palace, it would’ve been a gamble to assume she could make it with a record time, but it wasn’t as though Mei feared a challenge, then or now. She took one last look back down at the letter, then back up to face the tall, heavy red door, and carefully pushed it open just wide enough to slip through the crack.
No rank or title could water Mei like a sprout and make her any taller, a fact that would be disappointing if she couldn’t reluctantly admit that gave her an advantage when navigating through the most congested parts of the castle unnoticed. Especially with Xiao Mei at home, the Chang girl with the tiny panda became faceless, and she couldn’t be stopped and recognized as one of the highest ranking officials in the Kingdom if the strongest indicator of her rank sat at most peoples’ hips. The Emperor Regent’s most trusted advisors, his Most Honored Hands, were given a lot by way of responsibility and duty, but were also gifted with golden and pearl pins shaped like chrysanthemums to wear at all times to signify their status to the Emperor. Before her own initiation, she’d only seen such a brooch once before: pinned to a hooded man atop a massive, white horse, who brought news of her dying Emperor and his impossible challenge of immortality on a fateful and rainy day. Mei wore one now, and still couldn’t believe she, a Chang, wore one every day after years of primarily hearing about them through whispers that barely peered out from the poor mouths of her fellow clansmen.
“Are you able to stand straight while wearing the Hand, Chang? I know it’s quite heavy, especially for a girl your size.” Speaking of stray cats, Ling Yao’s grin was sly and curled when he’d carefully adjusted the pin to her robes during her promotional ceremony. “Careful not to poke your eyes out when you go to put it on and take it off, now.”
A younger Mei, just a few months ago, would’ve replied with something like “No, I’ll be sure to consider my place and poke my Lord’s eyes out first.” But that would’ve been before everything, before the Emperor Regent and one of his Most Honored Hands had just been two of three children and a dead body wandering across the sandy badlands with a map and cart of rations.
The journey home that she still can’t describe quickly becomes part of her narrative regardless, the roots she reminds herself of when she forgets to be humble: if she could mourn with and walk beside and eventually learn to trust a Yao and his shadow, then what was to say she couldn’t do the same with any and all of the people she tip-toed between now? If all of the histories that had made up Amestris could work together for the greater good that was a country still standing, then perhaps the vision the Emperor Regent had of a bustling, but peaceful castle was not so foolish in comparison.
Ultimately, Mei’s downfall comes by way of a domino effect: perhaps one of the royal guards had sneezed, and the sound had merely been lost in the talking and the echoes of the talking. Maybe then one of the maids had stepped too far to get out of the guard’s projectile range, thus knocking into a royal cousin, a Chen or a Zhou or both, who elbowed one of the priests, who tripped into another prince or a merchant or the Dowager Empress for all she cared to know. Regardless of the preceding series of events, a secretary of some kind goes on to drop all of the scrolls and brushes in his arms to clatter and roll across the floor. He’s flustered as he drops to his knees, scrambling to collect everything he was missing to absolutely no concern of anyone around him. When a brush hits Mei’s foot, she pushes down her immediate reaction, the internal Xiao Mei that tells her to move along, and instead, tucks her letter into her wide, purple sash, getting on her knees to pick up the brush. She picks up another and another and another, hands deft between the feet of all the Great Hall’s inhabitants too busy in their business to dirty their pants.
“Here, you dropped these, sir!” Mei taps the secretary on the shoulder, handing over her finds back to the secretary with a warm smile. He’d probably been brought in to assist in festival planning, and if not, was very new, all fresh-faced and distressed by his own misstep, but Mei doesn’t realize the weight of what she’s done until the secretary’s cheeks flush the color of poppies upon meeting her gaze.
See, she had been warned, by her sweet mother, her uncles and aunts and cousins, by every Chang who lived a little too far away from the Ancient Capital to truly bask in it’s holy might—the closer one was to the Emperor, the closer one was to God, sure, but a God that demanded propriety and respect from everyone and everything below. Being the Royal Princess to such a small, squalored clan like the Changs had always been more of a responsibility than a simple title, but it was still what she expected to hear when she was called to lift supplies to the village or to attend to a child’s illness—“The Princess is here, she’ll help us. Princess Mei.” Being the Princess in the Capital was a whole other kind of high honor, if you considered an utter lack of eye contact from underlings who never told her “no” as they kept their phrases simple and cordial. Being the Emperor’s Hand was its own beast, and Mei was still acclimating to her proximity to the Heavens that was presumed when one saw the golden chrysanthemum pinned to her breast. People like this secretary, who might’ve passed her home village with his nose in the air, now held her to an inhumanly high level. A sacred level. A “punishable if not followed properly” level.
The secretary’s eyes are so wide and round and white that they could serve dinner, probably. “His Most Honored Hand,” he stutters, and to Mei’s dismay, follows the expectations of his role accordingly. She'd gotten similar instruction not even a year ago when she'd first seen a Hand on that rainy afternoon.
One was to make themselves lower than the Hand's line of sight, perhaps bowing below the chin if one wanted to be safe; the secretary proves ambitious as he drops to his hands and knees, gently setting down the brushes he'd so carefully collected first, and presses his forehead to the beautiful kaleidoscope floor. Mei looks around for any wandering eyes around her as she rises, stepping on the front of her own silks as she does so. She misses her old hemp robes. "No, no, you really don't have to do that—" she begins to insist.
"His Most Honored Hand! Please forgive my impudence!" The secretary shrills at full volume, his announcement bouncing off the floor and rising above the echoes of the chatter.
Mei recalls, as time slows in motion, that she hadn’t followed her mother’s instruction when the Hand had delivered the Emperor’s message to her village.
"His Most Honored Hand."
Rather than bowing or lowering her gaze, the Mei of a year ago, standing in the rain, with her panda and her pink hemp robes, had craned at the neck to look up past the horse’s thick chest and decorative bridle and under the hood of the cold Hand.
"His Most Honored Hand."
It seemed important at the time, like his was a face she’d never forget, but she couldn’t remember what he looked like at this particular moment. Not when she was busy watching the merchant join the secretary on his knees, along with the priest and the guard and the Zhous and the Chens and so on and so forth, each gasping at their own, historically severe miscalculation and lowering themselves below Mei’s line of sight until every individual that inhabited the Great Hall bowed to her, nothing to show her but the top of their heads.
"His Most Honored Hand."
She was never going to get out of here now. Mei was going to be stuck in the Great Hall forever.
"This role will change your life forever, my Princess." Mother had the best hand for brushing out knots when Mei's long hair got tangled, and her journey to the west had delayed the time she cherished, sitting on the second wooden step with the breeze on her face on a cool early summer night. Her mother would brush her hair out gentle, with slow strokes, until each thread gleamed softly on its own, and Mei would hum along with the cicadas.
"I know that, Mama," Mei replied. She’d been looking up at the sky for Zhinü and Niulang and the bridge of stars that would connect them, though the August Magpie Festival would still be a ways off, Mei often thought in the back of her most romantic mind that maybe the Goddess could lighten up and allow the lovers to visit twice a year instead.
"Oh, my Princess." Another thing, about Mei’s return from Amestris: while it'd always been common for the royal concubines to refer to the Emperor's children by their superior rank, Mei's mother had always gone back and forth between the two. Sometimes she was just "Princess", but usually she’d been just "Mei", that is, until Mei came back from her long journey as an escort and valuable comrade to the new Crown Prince and his key to immortality. "There are some places, I believe, we reach and don’t fully realize until we're deep within, hm?"
The Mei of today checks again for the letter once she reaches a much quieter corridor on the other side of the Great Hall and pats it down closer to her heart just to make sure. It's unmistakable in its size and density, the paper unique in its quality, and she wonders if Alphonse had bought it special. She smiles at her feet, leaning back against the closed door, considering that if Alphonse had chosen it special, maybe he’d gone into a shop somewhere, which maybe meant he had enough strength now to make the trip. And who knows, by now maybe he was even back to whatever his normal self was, when he’s more than skin and bone and gratitude to be alive.
She still can’t believe what they’d pulled off, some days. Other days, she’s very busy and doesn’t have time to practice alkahestry at all and remembers Alphonse when she’s reminding herself what she’s capable of.
It wouldn’t be an August Magpie celebration without lanterns, and the corridor she turned into now was certainly more decorated than the halls deeper within the castle; every other lantern she passes is shaped like a star in the sky, each next lantern shaped like a magpie instead. The open windows catch whatever breeze the day can bring in and with it, the smell of the gardens in full bloom: she can see it now, the open grounds illuminated by the lanterns, food and warm faces, looking up towards the sky to see if the lovers can be spotted reuniting after a long year apart. When Mei clears the veranda and bounds from rock the rock, finding perfect solitude in the form of a stone bench beneath a young tree and a small pond, she wonders if her close proximity to the heavens these days will lend her a better glimpse at Zhinü’s and Niulang’s face when they were finally allowed to embrace once more.
She settles instead, for satisfying her curiosity about this letter, tearing open the parchment and pulling out the enclosed papers—written on front to back. Mei can hear Alphonse’s voice when she reads even the first line.
And she finds herself unable to get much further.
When was the last time she’d heard her own name?
Somewhere here on Earth, underneath all the names and the titles, the “”Chang” and the “Royal Princess” and “The Emperor Regent’s Most Honored Hand”, Mei is still here, you know. It might take some digging past silks and tradition, propriety and the livelihood of a whole family tree on her shoulders, but somewhere swimming in her gut was a little girl with long braids and handfuls of hope and ambition. A little girl who’d, at some point, been seen as a fighter before a princess, a medic before a royal, a real person before a figurehead. And Amestris’s problems had been too grave and painful to call everything she’d done “adventurous”, and she wasn’t such a romantic that the pain she’d witnessed was anything like mere plots of fables or hero’s tales, but she’d made friends, hadn’t she? She’d helped good people in need, hadn’t she? She ran, skipping and jumping, through a foreign land on a mission and hadn’t exactly gotten what she’d set out for, but brought her back home with so much more than what she could hold in her hands. For better or for worse.
Mei had left for Amestris with the hopes of returning with safety guaranteed for her clan. She’d gotten just that, along with a country to help run and everything she could ever ask for at her feet before she could request it, but what did one do when they got everything they needed and not what they wanted?
Mei is barely through the second line when she hears a voice call to her from the veranda and subsequently jumps a foot in the air. “Excuse me, Hand to the Emperor? Princess Chang?”
“What?” Mei snaps, though there was little to prove for it other than a slight dent in the parchment she’d gripped. That wouldn’t do, taking her frustration out on—Mei turned to look—a simple palace servant, probably no older than herself, truly. “Can I help you?” she asks instead, schooling her tone into something more patient.
“My Lady, I have a message and a parcel from the Emperor.” The servant holds something up as he nears closer, and it takes all too long for Mei to recognize the item as a stack of thick letters, not unlike the one in her hand, wrapped up with string. When she takes the parcel, it occurs to her that Alphonse Elric hadn’t sent her one letter, he had sent her a stack of letters.
“And,” Mei has to stop and swallow, though, and recalls that yes, she can speak. “And the message?”
“‘Princess Chang, it appears that The Royal Family’s Black Market Courier—” Mei hated when Yao used that joke, he used it only because she hated it for being so overtly suspicious—”got some of our mail mixed up. Perhaps the letter he brought to you this morning fell out of good favor with her sisters’.”
Mei thanks the servant with a deep bow before she returns to her stone bench, holding the stack of letters close to her chest. Without ruminating on what she’d just obtained for too long, she decides to start her read of the Al’s first letter over from the first line.
I hope this letter finds you in good health back home sweet home in Xing. Did you find the desert easier to navigate the second time through? Since you and Ling and Lan Fan left, I’ve been working on getting stronger in the hospital. It’s not easy, but it’s also a privilege to get to be myself again.
She doesn’t miss Amestris. She misses getting to be Mei.
The day Colonel Roy Mustang is discharged from Saint Dwynwyn’s, Holly Gilliam puts in her transfer to Saint Joseph’s out west in her hometown of Durbuy. She didn’t keep much in her locker, hadn’t brought her own mug to take her coffee in, and so her whole departure was as ceremonious and meaningful as clocking out one last time, and saying goodbye to Miss Cass with her coat dangling in her arms.
“It came back while he was sleeping, Cass,” Holly mutters, at least twice as bitter as she sounds, and half as quiet as she needed to be, given it was just to the two of them. She’d already recounted the story as she knew it: a week since their last conversation on the matter, Holly had been reassigned to a group of patients on the opposite end of the rehab wing and Roy Mustang had fallen asleep at some lazy afternoon hour only to wake up with perfect vision. His doctors were dumbfounded but gleeful, and given the progress made in physical therapy after his hand operations, would be given the clear to go home in three day’s time. Three days ago, Holly decided to follow suit, and here she was, keeping her honest promise (though, not without two days of utter rage and despair, anguish and tears and frustration and what did he do and how did he get away with it—)
Cass heaves a sigh, taking an effort to cross one aching leg over another, “Gilliam—”
Given she’s no longer Holly’s superior, Holly finds that she doesn’t have to waste time doing anything other than shooting Cass a tired, weighty glare. “Have you ever heard of a patient who fell asleep blind and woke up seeing 20/20, Cass? Have you?”
“No, I haven’t, but damnit, it’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Cass replies. “We haven’t gotten a lot of good things these days, let alone total mirac—”
“Stop,” this time, it’s Holly who holds her hand up stern. “There’s nothing miraculous about it. There were signs the whole time, that I just couldn’t piece together, pointing to God knows what.”
“Wouldn’t that still be a good thing though? A God to cut through all this mess?”
“Sure, but you know what I’d like?” Holly asks, and Cass peers at her curiously, waiting for a conclusion to the rhetoric. “Less mess.”
Holly is pulled into a hug before she can stop it, the weight of the world two months post-Promise Day holding her close and dear. It’s probably the first time anyone’s hugged her since she got to this big and lonesome city, and it’s the closest to the warmth of her family home’s hearse this side of an eight-hour train ride. “Your family will be happy to have you back out west, kid,” Cass says in her ear, “and your hometown won’t know a nurse who will work harder for them. I hope you get what you’re looking for.”
“Thanks, Cass,” Holly whispers, and she means it.
When she takes to round her floor one last time, it’s the golden hour, and as empty as it could possibly be, unsurprising given that dinner is being served right now on another floor. She takes her time and walks slow, standing under the warmest windows and letting the light paint her white gown yellow. Maybe Cass was right, maybe as often as there were times of reckoning that came and left a nation in tatters without warning, there might also be days of miracles, sudden recoveries at the beck and call of nothing, good coincidences, sweet dr—
It hits her as clear as a smack across the face while she’s standing in the lounge, and Holly stomps all the way back to the Colonel’s now empty room. She’s like a bloodhound on all fours that’d caught on to the stench of the missing person her keepers didn’t know ever disappeared. Holly checks under the bed, in the drawers, along the windowsill, behind the door before she wrings her coat out with white knuckles and hurls it to the floor.
That bastard had taken the radio with him.
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Chapter 2: 1916
I like to call this chapter "Four Weddings and a Funeral" lmfao
For those of you who haven't checked out my other work, let it be known that if I say I'm gonna update something within a week, I really mean a month! Sorry! That's life!
UPDATE, 10/16/20: UHHHHH FAN ART!!! https://twitter.com/shrimpchipsss/status/1299065207914864640 shrimpchips is an angel!!! you should follow her on twitter!!!
Bojing Han’s parents had come from both Xing and Amestris, which meant that occupying the proverbial space between had been somewhere he had lived long before he’d become a courier, delivering letters across the Great Desert.
Coming up on forty years old now, it was nearly impossible for him to consider what he’d be doing, if not this. The sheer possibility of having decided on another profession in his formative years seemed impossible, even as others had done it and continued to do it all the time, becoming profound scholars or expert alchemists or skilled seamstresses and savvy shopkeeps. But it isn’t as though he isn’t also a master in his field; like the cacti and the horned lizards, Bojing thrived in the oppressive heat, knew the waves of the sand like the back of his own tanned hands, and could explain in detail how exactly to safely make the daunting, but not impossible trip between Xing and Amestris, so close and yet so far.
See, it was like this: depending on how fast one walked, an ambitious traveler might make the trip from the drawn border of Xing to the drawn border of Amestris in just under three weeks if they had exactly the right amount of supplies and walked an exact and constant pace for the entire journey. However, if one had the exact right amount of supplies, then they either needed a large pack to carry it all on their back, which would undoubtedly be heavy and slow them down, or they needed a cart and mule, which would reduce the travel time, but also require three times the amount of water, a prize hard to come by in the vast desert. It hadn’t been nicknamed “The Badlands” for nothing, after all, and that wasn’t even considering the miles left to walk in either country after they’d crossed the border, but before they’d eventually hit real civilization.
Which is why when Bojing’s contractors and colleagues asked him what he thought of Shikotan, the border town between Ishval and nothing that had popped up at the announcement of a railroad that would cross the Great Desert, he’d answered with great enthusiasm. The square postage stamp of land that made up Shikotan was truly on top of the Amestrian border, so far east, that even Ishval at its peak hadn’t claimed the dead space. To whomever was concerned about the region’s reconstruction efforts, this location meant that there was no chance of quickly building an apartment complex, a train station, a meager row of shops, a post office, and running into haunted ruins or a sacred burial ground; to Bojing, it meant about 10 hours less between hitting the Amestrian border and hitting the showers and a warm bed as reward for a voyage well-made back from Xing. And so, right when Shikotan was beginning it’s bloom into a growing, functioning, working town, Bojing set up shop in a small apartment on the second floor of the new residential building.
His business model worked as follows: customers mailed their post intended for Xing by the fifth of the month to 553 4th St, Apt 2S with their payment and letter contents packed inside. Bojing then departed from Shikotan with all of the post, his supplies and his cart, and his mule, Emma, to cross the desert within two weeks, assuming he didn’t fall upon rattlesnakes or something of the sort. From there, he either repackaged the Amestrian mail into new envelopes and let the Xingese postmen carry it off the rest of the way, or he commissioned his cousins in the Han Clan to cash in on the high-dollar deliveries to the royals in the Imperial City. In instances of the latter, Bojing met his cousins in the western city of Haidong, where he’d rest for a few days in some hostel above a good restaurant before starting his journey back to Amestris with more letters to send through the Amestrian post office in Shikotan.
It was hard to feel threatened by new business when one was making money, and well, to say that Bojing was making money was an understatement.
“What have I for a wife?”
It is a question so thoughtless, so insipid, that Mei thinks she must have misheard at first. She glances just to the right of the throne at Lan Fan, who’s steel gaze and painted, unmoved mask still could not conceal the way her chi had plucked a chord out of tune at such a remark. The guard looks toward her in the same instant, and with a strained glance and a simple blink, conveys that Mei’s own chi had moved as well, perhaps like a walnut being crushed, or like a rock, doing the crushing.
They’re thinking the same thing: an Emperor without a wife is more than a preposterous notion, it’s so deeply unheard of that it must be the measure of outrageousness given as an example that all other outrageous things must be compared against. Only in a world where pigs flew and the sun rose in the west did the Emperor of Xing not have an Empress at his side, though Ling Yao seemed bent on being the exception to every rule these days.
Something about being in the throne room in particular made it clear that Lan Fan would not dare talk out of turn, even if she was the favorite between the two of them, and so Mei takes it upon herself to ask Yao to clarify.
That said, she didn’t mean to snarl. “What did you just say?”
Now in her defense, she still doesn’t sound quite as tired as she feels, with another long audience between the Emperor Regent and his father’s personally appointed Senior Council—the Chancellor, the Chief Minister, the Imperial Secretary, amongst other Hands—having just ended moments ago. These audiences were usually impromptu, with discussions of the future and the Crown Prince’s ascension to the throne increasing in frequency the closer the Emperor (not Regent) was to his final breath, and as it turned out, even the Son of the Son of Heaven had much to learn from those on Earth. So much, that the meetings were long and strenuous, and discussion could last hours into the night if the elder advisors were so kind as to continue serving the food that Yao would inevitably decide to play with before he ate.
“I said,” The Emperor Regent swings his legs up to lounge across his throne because he knows, specifically, that it doesn’t offend Mei as a government advisor, that it simply irritates her on a molecular level, the way he loves playing with his food. None of it mattered and no taste of power or royalty changed him: the way he pulls back his hair now, to look older, the new robes, that make him seem regal, the crowns or the titles, to signify his grand importance to their nation. The Emperor Regent is still a Yao, through and through. “What. Have I. For a wife?”
He enunciates every other word like he might need to for a child, and her resentment is only fueled by the distance between the height of his throne and the cushion upon which she sat below his pedestal. Mei feels her tired eyes narrow into a glare before she can remember her propriety. “Surely, I don’t have to explain that to you.”
“No, you don’t,” Ling replies with a grin, just as controlled and measured as he had used with the other Hands not ten minutes ago. “And surely I don’t have to explain in return, Princess Chang, the deep love and devotion and not at all competitive atmosphere of having a wife and several consorts and dozens of children clawing to get closer to you just because they love you and not to, I dunno, obtain personal power or safety for their immediate families?”
Well. It’s not as though he doesn’t have a point.
“No,” Mei ultimately replies with no bite, eyes cast to the floor, where she can see her blank reflection staring back at her in the black marble, the ornately carved ceiling depicting the Xingese sky above her head, “you don’t.”
He leaves her like that for a moment, or at least she thinks it’s intentional; Mei watches herself blink twice before she looks up to find the Emperor pulling a loose thread from the sash he was undoubtedly wrinkling with his poor and nonsensical posture. Before she can so much as open her mouth to scold him, he peeks up at her lazily, “But?”
Mei’s brows tug close together. “But what?”
“But there’s more you want to say, isn’t there?” Ling loops his finger about the thread he’d been tugging at and gives it a sharp pull. It breaks off with a perfect snap. “As a most trusted advisor, you’re welcome to speak freely here, Princess Chang. You always are.”
At todays’ audience, the rest of the council had made the situation clear, and to say that The Emperor Regent was causing alarm with his utter lack of interest in courtship was an understatement. Historically, Xingese princes with status were at least courting by Yao’s age if they hadn’t been otherwise called to a military post or a theological vocation. For princes most likely to become Emperor, high above both the church and the military, potential matches were likely considered by his family once he’d survived enough combat training to keep himself alive for his clan, one of those matches eventually being promised as a fiancée long before his 17th birthday. This was all historically speaking, however, and for this generation of royal siblings, the first murdered few of the Emperor’s sons and daughters made clear how the reality of the bloodthirsty road to the throne was starkly different from the antique practices from an idealized Xing that the older Hands had expected. Mei’s clan never set aside a match for her—whether it’d been to insure she’d focus on learning alkahestry or because they didn’t expect her to live this long, she’d never know for sure—but even she had been surprised to learn that the Yao’s hadn’t chosen anyone for Ling either. And if she was surprised, how could the Hands, in their holy, safe, walled city, ever really know what living and dying was like for the Emperor’s children out there? And how could the Hands, in all of their dealings with the father, have anticipated a son, a character, and a handful such as Ling Yao?
“They talk about you, you know,” Mei says, resting her cheek in her hand, her elbows on the long table stretched in front of the throne, much lazier than she’d ever be allowed to in a real audience. “The other Hands, other members of the court, both.”
“I know,” Ling smirks, crossing his legs over the arm of the throne they dangled from.
“One could assume. If these audiences are anything to go by, the Hands like to talk about me, to me, quite a lot.”
“Yes, but the Hands only tell you what they’re willing to say to your face,” Mei continues; something in Lan Fan’s chi or glare or overall foreboding presence tries to will her into tagging a ‘My Lord’ or something similar at the end of her statements, but Mei would not, since she’d been so sincerely asked for honesty. “For example,” and the corners of her mouth do curl honestly, “no one asked you if that notebook you keep is full of chess strategies instead of real notes.”
The cackle that erupts from the Emperor’s lips is childish and devious and echoes in the otherwise empty chamber. “I’ve always preferred mancala, but do go on.”
“Some of them wonder openly whether you’ve no interest in a wife because you’re already part of a torrid affair with another woman—”
“Oh, now would it really be an affair—"
“Or a man—”
“—if the Emperor is carrying it out? I implore you.”
“Or your guard.”
The Emperor doesn’t say anything to that, not to her anyway. “Relax, Lan Fan, everybody talks,” Ling tosses his placations over his shoulder jovially, his words skimming the corners of the gold throne and the decorative curtains to land beside Lan Fan’s ear. She exhales sharply through her nose, like a beast called to heel. “And so what? Nothing of any actual work I do? My attempts to build a bridge between all of Xing’s clans? Investment in infrastructure and trade—”
“But that’s the thing about all of your work, how easily can it all be undone?” Mei presses on. She catches how wide Ling’s eyes are when he flicks his attention up to her, and she gulps. Mei doesn’t particularly like what she’s about to say, doesn’t care much for what she’s already said about court dealings, hates court politics all together, honestly, but all of the reasons why she didn’t want to go down this road only secured it’s importance. This was what Yao had deemed her a Hand for, and Mei, like any other princess, was bound to seeing her duty through in every instance.
“There is no clear line of succession without a wife and at least one heir, the seat to the throne opens back up to our generation the moment that something happens to you,” Mei explains, her role as a political consultant well-rehearsed by now. “Knowing all of the other siblings want exactly what you have, and that some might still plot to stake their claim, what happens, then, if you and the Emperor die at the same time? Who keeps up any of the hopes and dreams you ascended to the throne with, and who makes sure Xing doesn’t tear itself apart trying to find out?”
Yao nods slowly at the morbidity of his situation, the snip of a thread away from pandemonium at any time, before he grumbles, “It would be insurance of my status.”
“Right,” Mei finally lets herself exhale. “The status, you know, that none of your council seems to think you’re taking seriously.”
“I understand the seriousness of my claim, believe it or not. I just don’t know what I’d do with one wife, let alone fifty,” Yao admits, crossing his glimmering vermillion sleeves across his chest with a small, private sort of smile. “But then, neither did Father.”
Something in Mei’s gut flinches at the term—she knows the Emperor is technically her father as well, but to hear Ling refer to The Emperor so casual and mutual inspires something in her kind of like a devotion, kind of like a connection, but mostly like a fear.
This isn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. For as much hot, wide, open space there’d been on the way home from Amestris, there’d been just as much room to talk, and after a week of old habits dying slow and painful in the sun, there’d been another week of, well, speaking. Talking to pass the time, speaking to communicate a need for necessities, chatting to ignore the dead body under a series of musty white sheets in the cart behind them. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home? Who will you speak to first? What did you miss most when you were gone? What do you think your clan is going to say about, well, all of this?
“Have you ever—” Yao had paused, rather uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Mei remembers clearly: the wagon’s front bench was certainly wide enough to seat three people, and his face wasn’t visible to her from where he’d been sitting on the other side of Lan Fan, who had been given the all-important jobs of watching the mule that pulled their wagon and also acting as a physical shield, lest the royal siblings begin fighting again. It made all the more notice when he leaned down close to his lap to look at Mei’s face, searching for a physical confirmation to whatever might she answer with when he finally asked: “have you ever met our father?”
It was a heavy question, one that doubled in weight at the word “father”, rather than “Emperor”. “One time, sort of. My mother and a few other members of the Chang clan had an audience with the Emperor a few years ago after some rogue members of the Wu clan burned down our harvest for the winter.” The desert was hot, but it seemed to get much hotter all of a sudden. “We had to ask for spare rations.”
“And did you get them?”
“Oh.” Yao straightened out like her words tied him to a ruler, but she could still see his hands and where they’d balled into fists in his lap. “I’m sorry.”
Mei didn’t like to think about that day either, but also didn’t like how accustomed she’d become to it with time, too. “It’s not your fault,” she had replied, deflated.
“No. I’m sorry, dear sister, that you had to go through that at all.”
“You know, dear sister.” And now such a phrase of endearment was only used teasingly, mockingly, in the same way a jester might pull a card trick. The Emperor’s grin only falters for a moment before he seems to rememebr something, and Mei’s stomach drops when he finally adjusts his posture to reach under his throne’s cushion to pull out a letter. The envelope is addressed, obvious even from where Mei sat on the floor, in Amestrian script. “Our Royal Family Black Market Courier mixed up some of our mail again.”
Mei scowls openly, and doesn’t hesitate in rising to her feet, hopping over the cushions on the floor left behind by the other Hands in order to close the distance between her and the throne. “Did you open it?” she presses, and when she goes to reach up toward the envelope Yao flicks his wrist, and with it, the letter, back towards him.
“No, I didn’t. I respect you and your privacy,” he replies, gauging her interest before handing her the letter gently. She’s halfway back to her seat before he tags on, “But you should know people talk about you and your insurance, too. Almost as often as they talk about me and all the potential consorts I’m not wooing.”
“They do?” Mei asks before she can consider schooling her tone to sound sure and fixing her words up to sound confident and unmoved. Judging by the Emperor’s knowing face, she’d just sounded a little too much like the well-loved Princess who’d never been the subject of gossip in her own tight-knit clan, because, well, she’d grown up well-loved as a Princess of a tight-knit clan, revered as an alkahestrist, protected so she could grow into a protector, if not a wife.
“As the court is apt to do, of course,” The Emperor replies, melting back into something more mischievous, but also impulsive. Methodical. He’ll prod with a fork before the point is made, and she’s on the plate this time. “Sometimes they tell me that you get letters not from potential suitors but because you’re corresponding with a foreign spy, divulging all of my plans of the railroad to some insurgency group.”
Mei looks down at the letter in her hands, and the way Alphonse dots his I’s. “Sounds fun,” she says, with a shrug.
“That’s what I said,” The Emperor grins at her, though his chuckles dissipate quickly. “Though, they also said that perhaps you were writing love letters to someone you’d met in Amestris.”
She moves on to the precise way the envelope’s flap had been secured shut, the stamp placed a little off center from the corner’s edge, a fold where the letter had perhaps fallen to the bottom of the courier’s sack. “And what did you say to that one?” Mei asks.
“I said I wasn’t too worried about that,” the Emperor sits tall, with his spine parallel to the back of his throne. “It’s not like anyone in the Imperial Court has married outside of Xing in nearly three hundred years.”
Before she can stop herself, the envelope crinkles in Mei’s fists. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
In their long cart-ride home across the Great Desert, in the week where Mei and Ling finally decided to treat each other like people, if not siblings, and in all the questions they’d asked one another, neither of them had anticipated, quite what the rest of their lives were going to be like upon touching ground in Xing. After getting a good bath and hugging their mothers and presenting the Emperor with Yao’s victory, there’d been nothing tangible to show of the future that was set to become, let alone the chain of events that had unfolded to lead them here. The weakness of the Stone delaying the Emperor’s death, but not rendering him immortal. The speed with which Yao had moved from Crown Prince to the official head of the Xingese government, The Emperor Regent to millions of subjects, a king, a deity, with plans for schools and roads and trains, if not the end of every possible dispute between his clans. Time cut short: Mei rolled up her mat at the Chang complex for a room in the Emperor’s Court, exchanged her duties as an alkahestrist for a small clan for duties as an Honored Hand, who mostly just talked about alkahestry and small clans. They’d only spoken, back in that rattling cart, of everything that they’d get when they got home, not what they would have to give up.
Mei’s letters were really just about alkahestry, and when they weren’t, they were about the children Alphonse tutors in his tiny farming town or trips to Rush Valley. They were often about Ed and Winry and the way that siblings are supposed to, apparently, tell jokes or take care of each other. If they both were especially optimistic, they were as tangible as the dreams Mei had when she’d first left Amestris, idealism written out in the form of one day getting to meet up again in Xing, like that too wouldn’t be asked of her, once more, to sacrifice. What did she need to do, to keep one thing, just for herself? Cry? Beg?
“Relax, Chang, please.” Yao is exasperated, like he’s had to call to her attention a few times. “There’s no crying in the throne room, not when I put in a good word for you.”
“You did?” Mei asks, and her throat is unexpectedly wet. “What did you say?”
Yao smiles, small again, and a little sad. “I said you’re entitled to a few more years of getting to be a greedy princess before I lose one of my Hands.”
Mei scoffs and wishes, for once, that she could be so selfish. “And to that they say?”
“I work you too hard.”
He talks a little like he’s joking, a little like he’s confessing, but it’s all together too much, and Mei is shaking her head. She also wishes (her second, if anyone’s keeping track) that she could not be such a crybaby for once. “No, you don’t,” she huffs one shakey breath, wiping her cheek a bit too rough. “This is my job, this is my responsibility. To my clan, to the people of Xing, to you and the hopes you have for your subjects—”
“But it’s not what you wanted. You didn’t go to Amestris like I did to become a ruler. I understand that.”
“But we don’t always get what we want,” Mei retorts.
“‘Always’ doesn’t mean ‘never’, Chang. Just because there’s a tradition doesn’t mean there’s no exceptions.” She wonders, absently, if this is what it was like with Alphonse when he described bartering with his brother like children. She wondered how often other siblings treated their feelings like deals to be made. “Look, do you want to get married?”
Mei’s nose curls in time with Ling’s. “No.”
“Me either. So, we’ll just have to find other ways to honor our statuses, won’t we?” And for once, she notes, Yao sounds like an Emperor.” I, for one, am very much enjoying the plans laid for the Sunscape Route, and you have what? Your monthly alkahestry instruction with Alphonse Elric?”
“So, you did open the letter?”
“I did not, Chang. You’re just predictable—you have your romance serials and your alkahestry and your Panda, what else is there?”
Mei takes that as her cue to take the nearest cushion and fling it at the Emperor’s head. Instead of unsheathing her dagger, Lan Fan actually, really snorts with laughter.
“Thank you?” Mei finally says, after her giggles subsided, wiping her cheek free of totally different tears this time before she deadpans, “but don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself with this one? It’s just a few letters, not a marriage proposal.”
“Yeah, whatever.” And the Emperor Regent is gone, replaced once again with an irreverent and unsophisticated Yao. “Lan Fan isn’t the only one who can sense chi, you know. I have real, actual skills, in case anyone forgot, in case we’re still talking about more, obviously false, popular beliefs.”
Mei returns to her chambers that night closer to the sunrise than the sunset, meeting the day with another letter to send off with the courier before the week was through and ink smudged along her hand.
When pressed further, by his colleagues and contractors, whether he was worried about the railway putting his courier business out of commission, Bojing simply laughed at the prospect. “But won’t the speed of the train make a mule and buggy obsolete?” they say. Hysterical. A riot.
Bojing’s clients don’t pay him for speed, they pay him for his expertise, the guaranteed success that can only be promised by another human being, steady hands, a beating heart. Not the big metal beast under construction a few blocks away, steel and vicious. When this railway sinks into the sand just like the one before it, Bojing poses, then who will be obsolete, hm? Then who will be out of commission?
“Certainly not you, Mr. Han,” says General Mustang, and that’s the correct answer, and why General Mustang’s gossip-worthy post—always one to an undisclosed Madame in Yangshuo and to one to the Emperor about the railway destined to fail—get transported with the utmost care and concern.
Bojing has spent some time, with all the time he has to spend in the desert, reading wild crime novels, with handsome detectives and mysterious femme fatales and the black market mafia men who stand for their own justice. Bojing has also spent time with actual black market men, crossing the desert in stuffy silence with their suspicious gold rings and the wares they planned to sell abroad, however, no black market salesmen, real or not, ever seemed to be as black market as General Mustang, who was willing to pay any price to assure his post was well taken care of and quickly dispatched. He offered escorts, military-grade trucks, additional funds as insurance, questioning his comfort in the buggy—Bojing only takes the money, the least of the offers likely to become a liability. When Bojing’s cousin returned from the Capital City with two heavy coin purses and her jaw hanging so wide that a fly was sure to wander inside, he found out that while the Emperor was not available to meet face-to-face, he was absolutely willing to double Mustang’s price.
Though, if it’s their money to spend, it’s no business of Bojing’s to criticize where it goes. He saves most of his rewards, all except the raise he spares for his neighbor, an elderly Ishvallan woman who collects the mail that is sent to his apartment when he leaves and doesn’t care about him enough to open it before he comes back. After he gives her a raise, he finds that he comes home to more food than he’s ever prepared for himself after twenty years as a working man, and departs again with enough well-wrapped rations that he no longer needs to ration his rations. Whenever he opens another pack she’d sent him off with, he chews fondly and thinks of his mother and the food she used to make before they’d moved safely out East.
The Brigadier General stays late doing paperwork and the rumor mill churns. He stays late as a front for something dramatic, obviously, though no one’s been able to come up with a solid alibi. A secret affair? A political ruse? Both, tied up in one salacious and scandalous spider’s web? At this point, Riza has heard a slew of theories regarding her commanding officer’s activities after hours, but here she was, in the office she shared with her commanding officer, after hours, and on this particular day, the truth is not stranger than the works of fiction imagined by the much fresher officers of Eastern Command. The reasons why the General stays late are much like the reasons he does most anything, simple, if not twofold:
First, when reconstructing a land laid to waste, the scarcest resource of all was time, and the Brigadier General was simply very busy seeing that the Ishval Restoration Project proceeded smoothly.
Second, the Brigadier General, in the last year or so, began to require the need for a pair of thick, round glasses to read, and he was simply too vain to wear them during the day when someone might see him. To equalize the amount of work he needed to wear glasses for and the amount of time he was willing to wear them, he started his paperwork at the hour most men started home for a warm meal, and if the General was staying late, then naturally, his adjutant would have to as well, if only to see his tasks through.
She can hear the disappointment echo from the water cooler crowd at the notion that this is as good as the story gets, but for Riza, it is not as though it’s going to get much better than this.
Without a coup to plan or homunculi breathing down their necks, Riza and the General were set keeping their noses to their desks these days, their rule-bending tendencies limited to the portable radio the General kept in his desk drawer that came out at about the same time as his reading glasses. The further the sun went down, the louder the radio became, and they typically stayed until the summer sky bled navy and purple, dotted with stars. On the least of these nights, they sat and worked in silence and missed a sparing glance out at the setting sun—Eastern Command faced west, towards Central, and from the higher floors they worked on, the view was really something if they only thought to look up (easier said than done, sometimes). On the best of these nights, Riza feels like there was never a time where they had worked in Central—where most of the buildings were too high to catch a view of the sunset from Command—or had been separated from their team with long black tendrils to bind their wrists, and that the Promised Day had been little more than a series of bad dreams.
Again, it’s not as though the story is going to get much better than this, than companionable late nights in the office, the end goal always tucked in with some file or curled at the end of a signature, but by her assessment, the worst of the tale was likely behind them.
Tonight, however, they’re just here to nail down the simple tasks, rounding out a twelve-hour workday with whatever would take the least amount of thought and finesse. When Riza returns from the mailroom to see the General carefully checking the math of what looks like another financial report—frown deep, but eyes wide and childish under the magnification of his lenses—she successfully fields her expression away from any smirks or laughs at his expense, set instead on shuffling through the stack of post they’d really let pile high over the course of a few short days.
Most of the letters look similar to one another upon a first glance, and upon hypothesizing, would contain much of the same content that most of their mail had these last few weeks and months prior. The size and weight of three in a row definitely contain expense reports from their contacts at the Labor Union, detailing line by line, item by item, the exact materials and wages required to rebuild the physical Ishval, from the smallest of farming towns to the greatest of holy sites. Another two, slightly smaller envelopes, by Riza’s estimation, are likely to be progress reports regarding the status of the General’s pride and joy, the First Transsunscape Railway—"the actual first of it’s kind, not like the last one at all” she can hear him say, even as he remains silent—progressing satisfactorily in linking the corners of Ishval to trade capitals in Xing, Amestris’s new and, gently put, unexpected ally.
Riza, cutting into the large thick envelopes to confirm her guesses, knows well that people don’t talk about the General for fun, first and foremost. As twofold as the General’s intentions, they talk about him because of his unusual plans—progressive and expensive—for the Eastern region, that surely appeared to anyone who knew him for his reputation to have something of gossip behind them. How on Earth was he getting the funding (Grants from the Fuhrer, like anyone else, but their friendly relationship and the promise that the trade opened up by the railroad would pay for the costs itself didn’t hurt much at all)? How was he watching over the reconstruction from Eastern Command (through the correspondence of contacts and friends who were decidedly not State Alchemists, with great trust that his greatest dissenters in the region wanted to see it all rebuilt even more than he did)? How could he even start to get it all done (with twelve-hour workdays, overseen by his adjutant, mostly)? Why, of all things, a very expensive, very risky railroad between Ishval and Xing (honestly, Riza wasn’t sure)?
The various ‘hows’ were simple, it was the double-sworded ‘whys’ that were probably the more interesting to dissect. How the railroad was being built was decidedly much less fascinating than the animated glint in the General’s eye when the railroad merely came up in conversation. Of course, it’s not as though the watercooler crowd asks for her take on much, which is to say, they ask for her take on nothing at all when they fall silent as she walks past.
The remaining letters are a little more diverse and interesting, and with the sky close to indigo now, she takes her time going through them, knowing it’d likely be her last task for the night.
“What’s that one?” asks the General, though when she turns in her seat to meet him, he’s back to being bent over another document, eyes to his desk.
“It’s a save-the-date from Rebecca and Havoc,” Riza replies; she hadn’t said anything about it, though she’d probably been smiling at it for too long. January 6, 1917, formal invitation to follow.
The General simply shakes his head as he turns the page of a packet in his hands, stray hairs falling stubbornly to his forehead from where they’d been pulled back. “Aren’t you in the bridal party, Captain Hawkeye? Why would you need a save-the-date?”
“I could ask you the same thing, sir.” Riza holds up the letter and this time he looks up to squint, and if he can make out the writing across the front, he would see the addressees listed as
Colonel Brigadier General Mustang & Captain Hawkeye across the top line.
A huff. “Why waste the paper? Sending an invite to a wedding we’re already going to, to Eastern Command, no less?”
“They must think we live here, sir.”
“Well, they aren’t wrong, per se,” The General replies, indignant. “Very well, Captain, save the date.”
The next letter is another standard-grade, military issued envelope, and Riza recognizes the PO box as the catch-all for any military contact out in Ishval and identifies the small, square letters as those of Major Miles. Looking over at the General’s desk, his input pile has certainly shrunk in height, but wasn’t done, and while she wants to report on the letter’s presence, any good news, bad news, or average news from Miles’ work on the ground was likely to distract the General for the rest of the night.
When she decides a lost hour tonight was better than a lost morning tomorrow, she clears her throat and announces over the buzz of a radio commercial, “There’s a letter here from Major Miles, sir.”
The General doesn’t look up to reply, “Go on, open it, then.”
Riza sets off once given the cue, methodically and precisely cutting open the brown parchment paper to designate a perfect opening for the letter to slide out. Except the letter comes second, after first and unexpectedly, a photograph, printed in color.
It doesn’t take long for Riza to discern what, exactly, the photograph is of, but it does take her much longer to process, let alone find words to even speak, let alone say something at all. She’s cautious when she holds the photograph up to her face, pouring over each minute detail like someone much younger might pour over a seek-and-find game for a hidden meeting in the picture, but it was what it was: a pure exaltation of joy. She perhaps wouldn’t recognize such a thing if it hadn’t landed, full-force, in her hands first.
“What does it say?” The General asks, still face-down in his paperwork.
“He sent a photograph,” Riza pauses, the snapshot nearly touching her nose as she took in each centimeter with the ease she took in air to her lungs, “a photograph of a wedding, sir.”
She’s had no reason to see an Ishvallan wedding before, and therefore had no way of knowing that the bride didn’t wear white, but a gown of many colors, vibrant and lively against the dusty tan sand. She would’ve had no way of knowing the sheer number of people who would be in attendance and wouldn’t have anticipated what looked like an entire city to stand for a commemorative photo afterward. Riza scans each face in the crowd and is surprised by the number of pale Amestrian faces present, in support, amongst rows and rows of shiny, bright, happy Ishvallan people, with smiles in every shape. It doesn’t take much effort to find Major Miles in the crowd, even in civilian’s dress and, ironically, missing his sunglasses, now that he was out from the cloudy north, but Riza is taken aback when she spots the priest—Scar holds a holy book close to his chest, like a father to their son, and his strong brow molds soft like clay, rather than stone. She’s just thinking to herself, how healthy he’s come to look, when she realizes where, exactly they are:
In the background, illuminated by the golden hour, is the very first temple the reconstruction had erected; Riza had only seen the expense report, some preliminary sketches sent to the builders, but hadn’t even considered to imagine it in real time.
“Lieu—” She’s back inside of her body now; the General still messes up her title, periodically, and especially when they work late like this. “Captain, is everything alright?”
“Yes, sir,” Riza affirms, “though, I think you should she this.” She rises from her own seat to close the space between her desk and his to hand him the photo outright—he holds it up to his nose, then far away, before deciding to slide his glasses up to rest on his forehead and squinting at it instead, going very still when he realizes what exactly he’s looking at. For a moment, she can’t even hear him breathe, only the slow rhythm of a love song coming from the radio.
“And there’s one thing I want you to do, especially for me, and it’s something that everybody needs.”
She thinks, absently, the last time she heard this song, she was waiting at Roy’s bedside in the rehab wing at Saint Dwynwen’s Hospital in Central, wondering what was to come next for them.
The longer the General takes to say something, the more Riza refers to the letter. According to Miles, the wedding ceremony was the first service held at the temple upon its completion. “Their mutual friend”, as Miles so fondly liked to describe Scar, had both acted as officiator and insisted upon sending them a photograph of the event.
“‘He wanted you to see,’” she recites directly from the page, “‘exactly what your work was turning into before you pass through next month.’” The General nods with some sort of understanding, but for something further off than her or Major Miles’ words.
The General quickly comes to the same conclusion she did, surely. It’s in the glare of his eyes and the concentrated way he holds the photo in scarred hands: the restoration was never supposed to reach them. The romance of teamwork and elbow grease to uplift Ishval to her rightful glory was gifted along with the region to its native people; the bulk of the General’s work was set to be from a distance, where he could push through the less glamorous parts without frightening anyone with the mere mention of his earned titles. It was simple, and with little space to fold twice: no incentive, no reward, no victory, and that was supposed to be as good as their story got, when reconstructing a land that the two of them, specifically, laid to waste.
They hadn’t asked to be included on anyone’s joy. And yet.
Though in no hurry to do so, the General eventually takes his last glance at the photo before he hands it back to Riza with an exhale, the song on the radio fading into something else entirely. “Well, we’ve only just begun, anyway, and it won’t be long before they have everything they need,” he says, tempered, as he taps a finger to the expense report on his desk twice over. “What, with the railroad set to finish in the next year.”
And there it is—if the first fold was what he told their superiors, their doubters, the press, the world about the railway, then somewhere under that, right here, was the General’s second fold.
Riza is careful as not to smudge the photograph in with her fingertips, folding it back neatly within the letter, buys herself a moment to consider her course of action before she says, “Sir, can I ask you a question?”
“Why the railroad?”
The General has to look up at her from where she stands opposite his desk, though any scrutiny he could attempt to convey was lost behind the great circular glasses. “Hawkeye? You’ve been in on every planning meeting, every blueprint I have.” No, no, no, that’s not what she meant, and she wants to stop him before he launches into another elevator speech—she’s heard it before, she’s heard it half a dozen times since even before he’d been reinstated to his post after the Promised Day. “The train is going to be—” an economic and structural lifeline, yes, she knows “—insurance that Ishval will be irreplaceable—” in the greater scheme of Amestris’s very fabric, right. “And with the progress science and alchemy has made in the last several centuries—” no, there’s absolutely no chance of this one sinking into the desert sands.
The General eventually stops himself to take a breather. “You know all of this,” he concludes with a frown.
“I understand what the train means to Ishval, sir,” Riza replies with a curt nod, “but that’s not what I’m asking. What I’m asking is what does this train mean to you. Is this not different to you from every other part of the restoration that we oversee?”
A pause. Roy makes a face, not unlike one he might make playing cards and most unlike the expression he should be wearing as an over-worked and ostentatiously well-behaved General—it occurs to Riza, when he reaches for the radio to shut it off, that he’s either deciding how much she already knows, or how much he ought to tell her.
“You really—” he starts, then stops just to look her in the eye; Riza considers, alternatively, whether she has something on her face, though unlikely. “You don’t remember.”
Without the radio, the following silence is nearly piercing. “Remember what?”
“Hawkeye.” No, that’s genuine shock, unfortunately, painting Roy’s face something thoughtful, rather than meticulous. Very little could prepare her for what he asked next: “Who do you think saved your life on the Promised Day?”
“Well, it was—” She stops. Riza’s mouth is open, but no words manage to find their way out and beyond. Even if she could physically reach into the box she might keep her memories tucked away in, out of reach for most of her working days, she doubts she’d even begin to find what she’s looking for.
The scar on her neck remains, white and mottled, but she just doesn’t remember: who saved her life on the Promised Day? “I don’t remember. I don’t remember at all.”
Roy nods, like he too, was trying to recall a specific memory from long ago. “Granted, in your defense, you’d lost a great deal of blood and took a few minutes after you were healed. You could very well have missed your savior and their identity.”
Her savior? In the sewers of Central City? “Was it not Scar?” Riza pressed, incredulous. “One of the chimera?” Roy shook his head. “It wasn’t you?”
He forces a half-smile, something tender. “I don’t have the ability to heal any kind of flesh wound. No alchemist does.”
“Then who—” a pause. “No alchemist?”
The glasses hanging off the tip of Roy’s nose are taken off then—he fiddles a bit with a cloth and smudge as he starts to explain. “The railway is admittedly different to me than most of the other projects we oversee, you are correct.” A puff of hair, and more circular scrubbing, to take off a smudge. “It’s certainly a favorite, and everything you know about it is still true.” After a quick look-over, Roy pulls open the top drawer of the mahogany desk to set them gingerly inside. “But I perhaps may have given this particular project a little extra push, knowing it’s existence could wrap up a small debt of mine.”
“The debt that came from my life, saved,” Riza doesn’t glare, rarely will she do so with any intention, but she can tell by where he diverts his attention that it’s a hard gaze to bare. “It’s not like you to mix your personal debts and your professional ones.”
“Oh.” Roy leans back into his chair once he closes his desk drawer, folding his arms and unfurling a smirk—she got him cornered, but he doesn’t act like he lost. “I don’t know about that, Captain, I think it’s become more like me than anticipated.”
When she doesn’t say anything to that, not right away, he continues, unprompted. “You’ll think I’ve been foolish.”
“I already think you’re foolish.”
“That, as well.”
There’s nothing romantic about bleeding out in a sewer, Riza thinks, though she supposes she didn’t technically bleed out in the end. Waking up safe was a luxury, maybe, and seeing the Roy Mustang’s face first upon returning from the endless void of unconsciousness had been, if anything, a relief.
She perhaps wouldn’t recognize such a thing if it hadn’t landed, full-force, in her hands first.
Roy rises from his desk rather suddenly, leaving the expense report behind without a struggled signature to grab his coat. “Sir, where are you going,” Riza states, rather than asks.
He grins, something tender. “Come on, let’s call it a night. I have a feeling I might need some time to explain.”
Money isn’t everything, of course, but at the end of a month’s hard work, Bojing knows what to do with money. He does not quite know yet what exactly to do with the “thank you” letters.
And to be honest, Bojing has no reason to care about Alphonse Elric at all. He’s just another customer, paying his rates like all the rest, even if his letters are being hauled across the desert only to be handed off to royalty. Royalty in Xing was dime a dozen—plenty of people knew at least one royal cousin—but to be given a thank you note? Just for doing his job? They were starting to stack up, and Bojing still hasn’t decided how to feel about the small cards addressed to him at the start of each month.
When Bojing’s clients mail him their post to haul across the desert, they put their letter in an envelope, like they would any other letter, with the address for their contact in Xing written on the outside. That letter then goes in another letter, addressed to Bojing’s apartment in Ishval, along with their fee. It’s a simple set-up, so simple that Bojing has never had a customer mess up their order, even once. Not until Alphonse Elric.
Alphonse technically didn’t mess it up either. Technically. He just? Exceeded expectations? Added too much unnecessary junk, with the nerve to address it to Bojing. It starts with a holiday card, and then the holidays end and it’s a nondescript decorative card with painted flowers along the front. Alphonse sends a few of these before he switches it up with a postcard, painted like the Cretan coast, but ultimately returns back to his standard card format, his most recent version having a kitten on the front.
Each short note says something of the same: a hello, a wish of good health and wellness, an expression of gratitude, and an entirely capitalized “TRAVEL SAFE” before the flourish of his signature. Bojing’s neighbor tells him to relax and accept the gratitude that flows through the boy from Ishvallah above. Bojing says no. When he gets back from that month’s journey to Xing, the cards are tacked up on the bare wall in the bare kitchen, the only color in the apartment (and a disorderly ragbag at that) certain to catch his eye every time he went for a drink of water.
Bojing does not care about Alphonse Elric. They are not friends. And yet.
The fire that burns in the tallest tower of the Ancestral Temple, high above the castle’s other rooftops, is probably best witnessed as both the beacon of mourning and the promise for the people of Xing it’s intended to be when there isn’t a thunderstorm overhead.
Lan Fan isn’t one to daydream out of windows, especially when the night’s downpour made it next to futile, but The Emperor—no longer Emperor Regent—was only just now getting a chance to warm up, and it wasn’t as though he needed her to remind him how long to hold his stretches anymore. At least thirty seconds per stretch, maybe longer for someone who spent most of his time on a throne, and before late, Lan Fan would allow herself to honor his last-minute request for a few rounds of one-to-one sparring in good conscience. Until then, the fire atop the tall tower glows, a vibrant, demanding orange floating in the darkest teals and browns and blacks of night; ready and waiting, she watches the flicker with intent.
Mostly, with these grandiose traditional displays of Xing’s pain, Lan Fan thinks with great empathy for the guards in positions like hers, cycling in and out of that top chamber at all hours to make sure the fire burns continuously; as long as the pyre is lit, Xing is grieving, and the fire was set to burn in honor of the deceased Emperor for another twenty-seven days. She knows well, an innate sense of how the guard in the temple must feel right now, at the close of another twelve-hour guard shift on his feet, sometimes fanning the flames, sometimes stacking more wood to burn. It must be hot in there, or at least warm enough to doze off…
The lightest tap of a bo staff hits her right on her shoulder—the one still made of flesh—totally square with where her usual armor would be had she not exchanged her full Emperor’s Guard garb for something more apt to training. “Lan Fan.” When she snaps back to attention, the Emperor is closer than she thought he was and growing nearer, leaning over her back to follow her line of sight out the window. “You seem to be much more upset about that than I am.”
A people without their King, even as another takes his place, Lan Fan thinks, is simply something to be sad about. “The Son of Heaven was carried home,” she replies, somehow stern. “It’s the end of an era, Your Imperial Majesty—”
But his hand goes up to stop her there, and so, Lan Fan stops. “Hold on, just hold on. I know it’s been a while but, if we’re going to spar,” The Emperor grins and the corners of his eyes crinkle like his matching canvas pants do, altogether very unlike the grin he shows his council these days, to the people he meets in conference or for meals or for worship. “My name is Ling, Lan Fan. You can call me Ling. You used to call me Ling.”
Her grip on her staff loosens momentarily; the last time she’d called the Emperor “Ling”, they’d been closer to wearing diapers, if not the traditional beginner’s sparring uniforms, white and plain, like they wore now. “That’s unacceptable,” is all Lan Fan replies with when she takes too long to consider her response more carefully.
He scoffs at her, if still playful, in jest, tossing the staff between his hands as he strides away from the window and the downpour across the small training room towards the mats. “You’re right, Lan Fan. That is unacceptable. The Emperor might have to reprimand you for it,” he says, stepping back into a challenge stance as effortlessly as counting to ten. Thunder claps outside.
It’s been a little while since Lan Fan’s has gotten to just spar, in airy canvas pants, no blades in sight; the last time it’d been this simple was probably her second automail recovery last year after making the trip back from Amestris. It seems like another lifetime away now, easing back into traditional forms and learning old technique from the ground up with all the time she hadn’t been allowed during the first recovery. With patience instead of urgency, and method over strength, each of the basics came to her arm with the ease that she might’ve waved to her grandfather with, from the tips of her metal fingers to the length of her scarred back. To this day, her automail arm still couldn’t quite throw kunai with the same trajectory and speed as her good arm, but it improved daily, and reminded her, when her grandfather couldn’t, of the basics.
That said, if it’s been a while since Lan Fan has gotten to just spar, it’s surely been twice as long for The Emperor. And it shows.
“You know,” he says, panting slightly after a few rounds that went faster than this storm’s lightning, his attention back towards the window. He’s agitated, still agitated, but not with Lan Fan’s superior sparring skills, which unfortunately meant something else burned him. “All this grief for my father and the last nail of that railroad is about to go down in the middle of the desert. History in the making, and not a soul seems to care.”
Lan Fan blinks, not understanding the alternative. “Do you resent that your people grieve their old King?”
“No, no, I just,” he grimaces, falling back into another challenge stance. One. “Honestly, Lan Fan, between friends, I wish I understood it.”
Their bo staffs click upon meeting, two, the sound crisp and rhythmic, front strike to block, three and four, block to overhead, five and six. The Emperor continues, “I only got a chance to know my father as my father after I presented him with the Philosopher’s Stone. Before that, who did I have? My mother and our servants, Master Fu, you, the rest of our clan—those were the people I was closest to.”
The transfer of weight between feet, the methodical intake and disposal of oxygen to and from the lungs, seven, eight. “I know people in Amestris better than I knew my father.”
Nine. Ten. “I knew homunculi better than I knew my father.”
It’s that greed that gets the better of The Emperor, in the end, where one messy strike made by the skin of secretly sharp teeth is diffused by Lan Fan with little effort at all. “Then there’s the fact that I’ve been Emperor for less than two years and I’ve already done something no one else has in generations,” he says, casually, even with the tip of her bo staff at his neck, before they move to reset. “A railroad, Lan Fan? Xing has nothing to lose with this as a way forward into a brighter future.”
Nothing he’s saying was untrue, Lan Fan supposes—perhaps she’s missing something. “Have you ever been on a train, Imperial—” The Emperor shoots her a look, and she pauses. “Master Ling?”
“No,” he admits, “have you?”
If her grandfather were here, he would have no qualms in reprimanding even the Emperor as he shrugged out of prone, turning his attention again back at the fire in the window—Lan Fan swears the glint of light above his pupils is not sadness, but made of the same flame. “What if we did?” he says, suddenly, like he couldn’t stop the thought that entered his head from immediately making itself known. He turns back to her, enthusiasm familiar. “Lan Fan, you have a whole weekend off and a train ticket to Amestris—”
“No, no, no—hypothetically speaking.” They fall back to challenge once more, and The Emperor only presses the question again as their bo staffs connect, this time with more vigor. “What do you do with a whole weekend off?”
Crack. “I—who is with you?”
Crack, tap. “Lan Fan, no. I’m asking you, what would you do if you had two days off to not worry about your bodyguard duties—”
Tap, tap, crack. “If I had a day off—”
“Two days off.”
“—two days off to not be your guard, why on earth would I decide to travel to Amestris?”
“Because you have tickets?”
Crack, a dodge, a parry—the Emperor ducks out of Lan Fan’s reach and retaliates seamlessly. Tap. “More than one?”
“Are you coming with me?”
“Yeah, but like—” his efforts are futile, ultimately, and one foot out of balance gives Lan Fan the open she’d need for a jab to the throat. He’s gotten negligent, she thinks. “No one would recognize us over there. We’d look like tourists instead of royals, and since we’re not running around tearing up the place like we did last time, it’d be less work for you.”
Lan Fan brings her bo staff down to her side. To have “less work”, to just be a tourist passing through a foreign land instead of searching for a fable—this was a vow she hadn’t chosen, but also hadn’t considered. “I see,” she replies.
“So,” The Emperor balances his staff atop his foot and his chin upon where his hands rested on the staff, “what would you do with a weekend off?”
Aside from the strange taste left in her mouth at the notion of the Emperor being open and susceptible to attack without her at her most alert, a few days in Amestris seemed? Well? Silly. Why travel somewhere like Amestris just for a few days off? To be exhausted by the time it’d take to get there? To take in lung-fulls at a time of the desert dust in Rush Valley? To wonder who or what one-eyed creature would be watching her every move over her automail shoulder in the city streets of Central? To witness the sharp teeth that seemed to appear on the Emperor’s face in flickers, even now, took up a more irreversible residency. No, she wouldn’t be able to relax. Not there. Like the guard in the tower, the Emperor’s absolute safety was her pyre, and that’d only be threatened with a trip back to Amestris. Though the end made something of the means, her fond memories of their time abroad must’ve been fewer and further between than the Emperor’s appear to be.
That said, they weren’t non-existent.
“I’d get a hamburger,” Lan Fan concludes with a nod.
The Emperor laughs with his head tossed back—his teeth average and blunt—as he falls into a challenge stance once more. “Me too. That place we ordered from in Rush Valley? Delicious.”
“I’d just sit somewhere and eat for a whole weekend, and then get on the train and come back home.” Lan Fan strikes, One, two, three, head, neck, shoulders.
“I’d get two hamburgers, and then get a cheeseburger to offer to Ed Elric and then also eat that,” The Emperor offers, blocking each of her strikes with the ease he’d been lacking earlier.
Lan Fan smiles, dodging a blow to her gut. “You’d visit Edward?”
“Yeah! Why not? It’d be nice to check in. I bet he’d introduce us to a few locals, and I bet he's twice as entertaining when his country isn't on the verge of imploding.” Four, five, six, he tries for her ankles now, then the crown of her head, then the hand with which she holds her staff. “I bet he could throw a good party.”
Tap, crack. “A party?”
“Yeah, you know, a real one, not like a banquet or anything formal. Just for fun. We’d dance.” The air parts with an audible whip as two bo staffs meet nothing but the audible sadness that the Emperor had been hiding earlier.
“But, Master Ling,” he misses a beat when she calls him by name. His mistake, honestly—“Wouldn’t you get a stomachache?”
Tap, tap, a strike to his left shoulder, a strike to her right ankle, all while he evaporates and chuckles out a clarifying, “What?”
“If all you did that day was eat and then you decided to dance all night,” their staffs crack together once more, but it’s too late for him; Lan Fan drops to a squat and swings her staff to catch the young lord at the ankles. “Wouldn’t you get a stomachache?”
He falls with his back to the mats with a thud, and before he can so much as wince, the tip of Lan Fan’s staff is to his nose. He goes cross-eyed to look at it before he laughs again, jovial, sad. “Pfft. When have I ever done that?”
If her grandfather were here, he’d say they were going too easy on one another. If her grandfather were here, he’d ask why they seemed sad today. If her grandfather were here, he’d have to know that all of Xing was mourning something, but she’s thankful, if anything, he never had to witness the fall of his king.
“Friends don’t let friends get sick, Master Ling,” Lan Fan says as she offers him a hand up. “Especially not in foreign lands.”
“No, I suppose not.” The thick patters of the raindrops to the roof are lighter now, Lan Fan can tell, and the last of the thunderclaps must have been lost to the cracks of their bo staffs. The Emperor, standing tall and proud, dips into a bow in gratitude for her time. “We’ll have to be more conscientious when it comes to our trip’s itinerary, Lan Fan, when we do go,” he says with great confidence.
“Of course,” Lan Fan replies, offering a deep bow in return before she straightens out again, taking the time to consider her response. “That’s not the only thing to consider, though.”
“Hm? What else is there?”
“With absolute honor and respect, Master Ling, you’re out of practice.”
“Just a bit, right?” The Emperor asks as he reaches out a hand to take Lan Fan’s bo staff with, getting ready to clean up.
“Lan Fan.” Her mistake, honestly; the Emperor shakes his head as he takes on the challenge stance again. She matches him without hesitation. “Fine, if that’s how you want to be. Fine. But you’re going down this time!"
So if it’s not for the money and not for the notoriety, not for fame or the pursuit of political power, why exactly did Bojing continue to risk his life by crossing the Badlands, month after month after month?
There’s music out here, Bojing can hear it. Sometimes it’s the Cretan guitars that make even stone statues want to dance. Sometimes it’s traditional Ishvallan hymns and the harmonies followed as closely as the prayers. Sometimes it’s the jazz of the radios in East City, the whines of the saxophones and the cries of the trumpets. The melodies lift and soar with the wind, riding on the tiniest particles of sand, and whip past Bojing’s ears to kiss his temples. His parents are out here, somewhere, their memory eternal in a way the horizon can only try to be. Maybe their parents are here too, and their parents before them. The rhythm of his life—to Ishval, to the sands, to Xing, back home, to Ishval, to the sands, maybe the ruins, maybe the mountains, to Xing, back home—swells in cacophony and doesn’t find it’s tune until meets Bojing’s eyes and he fully understands the course charted ahead of him. It’s who he is, the man who will take breaks from sitting on his cart’s wooden seat to map out to the beats with his body; to anyone else, he might look crazy, dancing alongside his mule through the desert when the sun was just getting ready to set.
Lo lai lo lei—he doesn’t know if it’s him, or the choir of souls who keep the desert inhospitable for those anyone elses, singing loud for him—Lo lai lo lai lo lai lo lai.
He’ll do this until he dies, he hopes. Even if he makes enough money to buy a house and pay people to sit in it, to eat until he gets too fat to leave his big house and all of his paid-for friends. Badlands or not, The Great Desert is his domain.
Bojing comes back from the East and even before the outline of Shikotan can be made out, he watches the tall crane that picks up the railway carts and sets them on the track right outside the brand new train station. Every movement rocks the ground with great metal moans, birthing the long metal monster that sits upon the track like a dragon observing his hoard. When Bojing finally stops Emma, just to get a good look at his nemesis, the new prized son of both Xing and Amestris, he’s admittedly still not impressed.
He’s not impressed until he hears the workers test the wheels.
From dawn ‘til dust, they run the wheels across a few miles of track, keeping the steadiest four-four rhythm Bojing has ever heard in his life, chugging smoke like the region’s best hookah pipes. He’ll grant, next time he’s asked, that the train is interesting. Fascinating. A wonder, if he was being generous.
Perhaps, when he can get a little time to himself, he’ll take the train to Xing and back, just to see the desert from a cushioned seat.
Chapter 3: 1917
Finally, the chapter where CosmicScrap's beautiful art comes into play:https://twitter.com/CosmicScraps/status/1288517580848676866
This big bang was really fun to work on, so thank you for tagging along and reviewing and favoriting, etc, etc! Please consider checking out all of the other works tagged in the collection!
you can find me on twitter @_roxast!!! this is where i am when i'm taking a month and a half to post a chapter lololol
CENTRAL CITY, May 2nd—Twelve miles of track remain to be laid on The Sunscape Route, with chief engineers expecting the connection between the two mighty railways to transpire in the next fifteen days.
The First Trannsunscape Railway is the official name for what is technically the second railroad to ever connect Amestris across the Eastern Desert to the kingdom of Xing on the other side, the first having sunk into the sand during the Wellesley conflict in 1811.
Primarily slated for use as a cargo train to open up trade between the two nations for the first time ever, passenger seats are available in limited numbers and completely sold out for the steamroller’s inaugural trip on June 5th.
Old habits do indeed die hard, as Al often finds himself awake and alone when the rest of the house is still asleep, no one to keep him company but the sun coming up over the hills.
Granted, “asleep” doesn’t always mean “quiet” for Granny’s old home, and Al has to be careful as he gets dressed, careful as he goes down the stairs, careful as he starts his morning tea so as to not hit those stray, creaky floorboards that appear to be growing in number faster than Ed can keep up with. He only really starts to relax when he falls into one of the rocking chairs on the porch with a book in hand, maybe a blanket if the morning is a bit too cold for comfort; if he was religious, maybe he would meditate, and if he was more ambitious, maybe he’d start his chores early. Usually, he’s neither of these things, and instead he watches the day break chewing on mint leaves when his teacup goes empty, thumbing through whatever novel or language instructional he’s reading through this week—at present, it’s a little bit of both, by way of a children’s collection of Xingese myths. He got through the first few alright, he thinks, but he’s in the middle of the one about the weaver and the ox herd now, and there’s still a few words he’s yet to learn so well. The muted twinkle of tin utensils being set on the kitchen table is usually the house’s first sign of life, and only then will Al start to stir from his solitude, stretch out, maybe go get the mail, even if he’s not expecting anything at the moment.
It’s been quiet. Things move slow and known in Resembool, like a wheel on a track where everything that was to come had already happened before. Trouble could be pretty hard to come by, after all, when the ground, the sky, and the point on the horizon at which they met were all visible from one’s front porch.
This morning appears to be bound for the same course: when the smell of bacon flows in dreamy wafts through the screen door, Al rises to his feet and wipes the sleep from his eyes until he sees stars, and descends the newly-replaced wooden stairs two at a time, with his book in hand, heading towards the end of the driveway. When he pulls open the lid to Granny's old, rusting letterdrop to scoop up yesterday’s mail, he knows he’ll have to swing the ruddy lid a few times over with increasingly more force before it finally sticks shut. It takes but a few well-known and well-walked strides for Al to get halfway back up the dirt path, when in his shuffling through today’s post—mostly letters to Winry, the automail pioneer she was growing into this side of Rush Valley and all—he finds that there is, in fact, a letter addressed to him.
Wait a second—there's a letter addressed to him.
A letter that is decidedly not from the families closer to town that Al tutored for extra money, and a letter that is decidedly not from Mei Chang, who wrote words like most artists drew flowers with ink on a fibrous tan paper. No, this letter sat inside of a plain white envelope, adorned only with a small, square script and the kind of wrinkles that could only come from sitting under the weight of everything one might find at the very bottom of their desk drawer. And in spite of all the traveling and running around East City Al had done in the time of Ed’s military tenure, the return address is wholly unfamiliar to him; without a name listed, Al couldn’t venture a guess as to who would bother to send him a letter instead of call him up on the phone, let alone send him a letter—this specific letter—at all.
Tucking the remaining mail and his book under an arm, Al tears the letter’s thin seal open at the top with his fingers, only paying about half as much attention as its contents should have demanded of him, do demand of him, when the tickets slip straight away into his palm before he’s even halfway through. Three tickets— train tickets, each one connected to the other—that had been clearly mailed and addressed to him (and he reads the envelope one more time just to make sure), Alphonse Elric, 2150 Willoughby Way, Resembool, Amestris-Eastern Block, 718291.
When he finally realizes what it is he’s really holding, the mint leaf in Al’s slack-jawed mouth falls out and drops into the dirt, marking the spot in the driveway where he’d frozen in place. On the bottom right-hand corner of each ticket, there is a golden seal shiny enough to reflect Al’s shock back at him as he reads again and again that these vouchers are intended for—and let's be clear, it's printed in a wide, unmistakable text—the inaugural journey from Amestris to Xing on the Transsunscape Railway.
For a moment, Al can’t even hear the breeze rustle the leaves on the trees, how it gives him goose pimples on the back of his neck.
His immediate response is that there's just no way. Right? No way. This has to be a mistake. The letter was surely supposed to go to another Alphonse Elric, wherever that guy was in this wide, wild world (Al’s never met another Elric besides his mother and his brother in his whole life). Or, more likely, just like they’d had their identities swapped for one another's all the time when they were younger, the letter’s proper recipient was actually the Fullmetal Alchemist, first name optional, as part of a reward or an assignment or a thank you or a trap (Ed has been retired for nearly two years now). Al’s mind runs at a full sprint, tugging on any yeah, maybe, or or perhaps he could conjure as a reasonable explanation, and letting each dead-end strengthen the cruelest hope that this all wasn’t just a dream? A trick? A work of fiction?
(Al. Going to Xing.)
(Al, not just going to Xing, but going to Xing and seeing Mei. Going to Xing and studying alkahestry. Studying alkahestry with Mei, who knows a lot about alkahestry and could teach him, maybe, like how they talked about in their letters back in forth to each other every month. Because she was his friend and his pen pal and also happened to be an expert in alkahestry. Xingese alkahestry. That had originated in Xing, where she lived. Where these tickets were intended to go. In two weeks.)
When Al drags his free hand down the length of his face, he finds his vision stops swimming long enough to read over the smaller print of the tickets so he can search for the name of the buyer, of the intended traveler, anything. He holds the string of tickets up close to his nose and certainly finds what he's looking for, though it frankly only begs more questions, starting and ending with one, increasingly perplexed but why?
In the same way he would have when he’d really, literally been disembodied for many years, Al feels only his consciousness as his feet work independently to carry him back into the house before he can order them to. If Ed or Winry or Den say something, then he can’t hear them, not as he trips over the shoes he kicks off at the door and spills the rest of the mail and his book of myths onto the coffee table and stumbles into the wall-mounted telephone in the living room to grab hold of it like a lifeline. See, he might’ve not known a lot of addresses in East City, but there was one phone number he’d memorized there, and one person to connect the line to just in case something went wrong when Ed was out causing trouble on the military’s dime.
Before Al does what he's about to do, he pauses, ever briefly, to think that it’s awful early to be getting in so much trouble.
“Hey, Alphonse?” Al is pulled back into his body when Trouble Personified touches his shoulder and gives him a light squeeze; Ed’s at his side, still in his grease-stained kitchen apron, sounding like he’s had to ask for Al a thousand times and is prepared to ask a thousand more: “Al, what’s wrong?”
Al opens his mouth to force out some kind of toneless answer, thinking to himself that it sort of depends on your operative definition of wrong, Brother, especially when the number to East City Headquarters has somehow already been dialed, and the phone is already ringing, mid-connection. Oops.“Quick, what was your ID number, when you were a State Alchemist?” he asks instead, breathless, and Ed’s concern spoils into confusion.
“Ugh, why?” Ed just shakes his head like this is happening too early for him, too, the hypocrite. Old age and three limbs have made him soft.“Al, what do you need that for now?”
“Brother,” Al urges again, through his teeth, just as the operator on the other line greets him, and Ed seems to register the gravity of the situation before he has to beg, “I need it.”
It only took two hello’s from the operator, but when Al is finally able to answer, he says that he’s the Fullmetal Alchemist, requesting an emergency connection to Roy Mustang’s office, code Victor-How-Jig-Eight-Three-Three. Al holds the phone so that both he and his brother can put an ear to the receiver.
“What are we doing, calling the Bastard this early in the morning?”
“What’s going on?” Winry’s wiping her hands on a towel as she comes in from the kitchen; both Al and Ed turn to her with a finger pressed to their lips, and she rolls her eyes before pressing a finger to her own.
On the third ring, Al finally hears from his mark. No hello, no greeting, just a brisk “Elric, it is a chargeable offense to pull a rank you don’t even have anymo—”
The sound Ed makes is more animal than human. “Oh whatever, like you’re one to talk about being offensiv—”
“Colonel! Er—” Al elbows his brother in the gut, interjecting with a burst of confidence that dies somewhere inside the transmitter, “General?”
Mustang huffs, though Al could hear his humor improving upon hearing from the Elric he probably hadn’t expected to. “Brigadier General, technically, but it’s fine, Alphonse. To what do I owe the pleasure at—” he stops when he sounds like he’s looking for something, “eight o’ two in the morning?”
Now Al, generally pegged as the less troublesome Elric brother, the one who looks before he leaps (and rightfully so), hadn’t considered exactly what he’d ask the now-Brigadier General Mustang when he'd found his name printed on the tickets to Xing. He hadn't considered what he'd ask in every second that had followed, either; he does, however, eventually try to communicate all of his thoughts about the matter at once.
“I got— This is—I can’t—” Al’s conscientious, even as he sputters, to hold the tickets with great care. When Al brings them up from where’d they’d been hanging heavy in limp arm at his side, he can see Ed’s jaw drop, just like his own had in the driveway. “I can’t take these from you,” is the first cohesive thought out of Al’s mouth when he finally finds the words to speak, letting Ed gingerly take hold of the tickets and patter off to show Winry.
“Sure, you can, Alphonse. That is why I sent them.”
Huh. So the General wasn’t going to deny that he'd sent the tickets or put up a fight about it or any of the more implacable actions Al might’ve retroactively considered as appropriate from the Colonel he’d known—"known", perhaps, being operative here. But to not-deny is to admit, and to admit that the tickets really are from Mustang, really intended for Alphonse is what the General had just done, like it was the simplest thing.
But—“B-but aren’t you supposed to go? As General. Aren’t you important?”
“Wildly important, unfortunately.” It’s almost laughable, even, how the General sounds nothing short of cavalier, like he’s still working on some spot of paperwork as he chats and not at all like he’d just caused Al’s whole life to flip on it’s head in the last five minutes. “Frankly, Alphonse, I’m busy and I don’t want to go, so I’m not going. By taking these tickets, you’ll be doing me a favor, truly.”
Why?—“You don’t even want to go to Xing?” Al presses. “Not even for, I dunno, a trip? A vacation?”
“I don’t have time—"
“What about to say hi to Ling after all the work you did together on the train?”
“You told me you had family there once, right? In the hospital after the Promised Day? You don’t intend to visit them? I mean, geez, General, you’re not dying are you—"
“I sleep poorly on trains,” Mustang cuts him off, clipped and decided. "My mood would ruin the rest of the trip not just for me, but for the ill-fated subordinates who’d be forced to accompany me.” It's good that Ed had walked away; if Al’s frustrated by the General’s emphatic, but flimsy logic, then Ed would’ve snapped the phone in half by now. “You’re much younger and will bounce back from the journey much quicker than I would. Therefore, you should take the ticket and enjoy your time in Xing.”
There's no doubt about one thing, though. The General sounded like he’d determined the fate of the tickets long before he'd sent the letter through the post, and if Al was being really honest with what he could parse apart from the General's words, probably even before they’d been printed at all. But this would be the part of the story, just like in each of the myths sitting in the book he’d haphazardly tossed on the coffee table, that most imitates life—Al knows better than most that there’s got to be stakes, a one for one. There has to be a catch, and where there’s not a catch, there’s an exchange.
“But why?” Al finally asks again, quieter, steadier this time. “Why me? What is this all for?”
At first, he hears nothing, and then a click as Mustang puts whatever pen he’s holding down on his great wooden desk. “I just told you why.”
“No, the real reason. What do you get out of this? It’s not like I was your subordinate, Ed was. And I don’t even know when I’ll be able to pay you back, if ever—”
Much to Al’s surprise, Mustang doesn't cut him off again to protest or argue; instead, he actually snorts, halfway to fond. “I don’t trust Edward to appreciate the finer aspects of Xing, though if you decided to take him with you, I’m sure the Emperor would appreciate the company. There's also no need to repay me at all. I would say that this is my investment into your pursuit of alkahestry, which isn’t untrue, but to be honest, I have to admit this isn’t really about you, Alphonse.” Whatever act he'd been keeping up is dropped now, and the General suddenly sounds more like he’s at a table with Alphonse, rather than in East City. “This is more of a very belated, extremely convenient thank you for your friend, the Xingese Princess.”
“She provided the country with a great service on the Promised Day, and all I did to thank her was give up a long train ride," Mustang tuts. "But, I did tell her that I owed her one, so I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Al is about to respond that he’s well-aware of Mei’s lengthy list of Promised Day contributions and that he’d been the one to tell Mustang about Mei in the first place, if he so recalled their time at Saint Dwynwen's correctly, when he's instead struck with a different, vivid memory from early on in that fated spring. It comes like an easy, factual recall, like knowing magpies are smart enough to recognize themselves in a mirror or the precise names and weights of the elements that make up the human body or the Xingese phrase for "I'm well, and you?": Al had asked Ed, one day in his room, the window open wide and blowing cold air, if he thought that the Lieutenant and the Colonel meant something to one another outside of the very specific requirements of their posts. Brother had asked where this was coming from, to which Al had thought of, but not verbalized, all of the small moments the two of them shared that indicated a nearness through distance and silence. Not even counting the life-or-death moments of near-loss, just quieter things, a bit like the stars one sees when they close their eyes, ever-present but rarely observed.
Eventually, Al replied that they just seemed close. Instead of gagging or curling his nostrils like he smelled something foul, Edward simply shrugged, which in and of itself said the answer was a resounding “yes”, let alone the reply that followed:
“I think dedicated is a good word for it.” And that had been that.
Al realizes now, in his home in Resembool, hours away from Saint Dwynwen’s, that because there was a final nail being driven as one of many into the desert sand and not into a coffin, the exchange he'd been taught to expect has already been made. There is no ratio to even out or score to settle. This is the end of the story.
“Alphonse?” A pop, a crackle from the old phone line, and Al snaps to attention. “Al? Are you still there?”
“Yes! Yes, I am,” he replies like he’s tripping over something, his dry, minty tongue or his own gratitude, maybe. “I can’t thank you enough for this, General.”
“Once was plenty, Alphonse," Mustang says, warmly. "Now, unless you have any more questions?”
Al only ever has questions, perhaps, but if the General only has time for one…“Actually, just one more thing?"
“This return address isn’t from anywhere on the Eastern Command campus, is it?”
“No, it’s not military. It’s a residential address.” See? Implacable. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s nothing, I just,” Al grins wide, with no one but the wall to see, “Ed and I always thought you lived in your office.”
The General audibly scowls, bt also grants Al a real laugh. “Safe travels, Alphonse,” are his eventual, final regards before Al signs off, clicks the phone back into place and stands still with just himself and the white paint of the living room walls for for a moment. Two weeks. Al has two weeks to prepare for the trip of a lifetime. It was enough time to pack a modest suitcase, to hit the gas on the Xingese he’d been studying already. Maybe he could try to get away to Central for the weekend, just to say something to Mrs. Hughes and Elicia, to get a hold of Darius and Heinkel as his travel companions, his tickets two and three. His only regret, leaving his homeland now for the first time, is that he’d told Mei, in his last letter, that he’d seen in the paper that the first round of civilian train tickets to Xing were sold out through October, and the likelihood he’d beat the rush to secure a ticket after that were still slim. She’d be taken completely off-guard, with no warning. Mei would have no idea to expect him at all. Al hopes she likes surprises. He, for one, is alright with this one.
Al can feel eyes on his back, but he can also feel the way his cheeks are starting to hurt from the tug and pull of his smile, his heart running faster than his feet could ever hope to keep up with, his chest entirely afloat. When he finally turns around, Ed and Winry are watching him from the kitchen doorway like he’d had a pin pulled out of him, ready to explode.
“So, how’d it go?” Winry asks, with about half of the nonchalance the General had had moments ago.
“Do you need anything? Water?” Brother adds, with half of Winry’s casualness.
“Do you need to sit down?”
“Do you need a bucket?”
Al decides on the chair and the water, sinking into both before he can finally put down words to the feeling of living out a myth. He should start at the beginning, Al decides, as he takes in the furrowed brows and anxious frowns of his brother and Winry before he says what he’s really thinking with the shake of his head: “That bastard.”
“Right?” Edward’s at full volume, loud enough to reach even the top floor of Granny’s big, quiet house. “That’s what I’ve been saying for years!”
The long stretch of the 1,423 mile railroad completed construction just barely within projected time, with about two-and-two-thirds miles being laid daily for eighteen months by laborers, and structurally reinforced from the ground-up by alchemists to prevent future collapses. It is anticipated, that if a traveller were to board the train (lovingly nicknamed “The Iron Phoenix” by it’s constructionists) at the Ishvallan border town of Shikotan, they would arrive in the Xingese city of Haidong after just three days time.
Plans for construction began shortly following the genesis of Fuhrer Samuel Grumman’s administration in the summer of 1915, setting the stage for what would be a term diametrically opposed to isolationist policies of his predecessor, Fuhrer King Bradley.
In a telephone interview with the Central Times, Fuhrer Grumman explained his pursuit of the railway: “My decision to prioritize the railroad project was not unlike the simple decision many rural Amestrians consider routinely. If you and your family reside alone on your farm, with the closest neighbor being several miles away on a simple dirt road, are they still your neighbor? The families who decide to walk that road for miles and share their butter or their firewood or their friendship, those families would say yes. Amestris has many neighbors, near and far, made even more distant than Xing with the self-reliance policies of the past, but connection breeds camaraderie, and this railroad is the first step.” He adds that the project was only truly made possible by General Roy Mustang of Eastern Command, The Honored Emperor Ling Yao and his suppliers of tools and railroad materials, and the Labor Union of Eastern Amestris and Ishval. “It was truly a labor of love,” Grumman beamed.
There’s a boy sitting on his father’s shoulders, his head a buoy above the waves of civilians filling the travel plaza—Haidong is not a large town by any means, in neither population nor miles, but one wouldn’t know it by the sheer number of people who stretched as far behind this boy as the city square, and as far ahead of him as the town’s new and shiny train station platform. He can’t be much older than six, from what Mei can observe of his side profile this high up: a button for a nose and round, poppy cheeks, with the kind of haircut that says his mother grew tired of brushing out tangles before she’d sheared him in anticipation of the summer heat. Where the energy of the rest of the crowd is brought to life by a thundering drum corps, an endless buzz of chatter and cheers, and the smells of street vendor food, spicy and fatty and delicious, this boy is decidedly unmoved by the spectacle that comes with witnessing history, in-person; Mei watches him frown instead, as he lays one of those round, poppy cheeks on the top of his father’s head, watches him sigh with his shoulders and wipe sweat from his brows, watches as his lips round out the same complaint once more, probably with a whine: “but it’s late.”
Mei knows. Oh, she understands.
Xiao Mei understands too, or else she wouldn’t be flitting around so much, using Mei’s spine as a ladder and her arms as slides, tugging on the earrings that’d been loaned to her from the Palace, pressing her paws into the make-up that’d been painted to her face. They’re stories above the mob, sitting together perched along the top balcony of Haidong’s largest hotel (which is to say, it’s only hotel) along with the rest of the Emperor’s entourage, under a roof that had made some shade for the party, at least before the train had been late. See, if this train had arrived on time, at the point where the sun was highest in the sky, Mei probably would’ve gotten up from her seat by now, maybe to get a better look at the contraption from the railing, or perhaps she would have gone back inside for a meal and a cool glass of water as the plaza began to empty. However, since the train hadn’t considered anyone’s time but it’s own, Mei's been given no choice but to sit and wait, just as the sun had no choice but to continue on as it fell past the edge of shade the balcony’s awning had provided to begin setting directly in front of her face.
So Mei holds her hand in front of her eyes to keep from accidentally looking straight into the sun’s rays and regrets not taking the fan that was offered to her by the Palace this morning, along with her makeup and earrings. “Listen, there’s nothing I can do about it. If all it is is late, then that’s not so bad,” she whispers, for the third time now, to Xiao Mei as she paces across the fabric making up the skirt of Mei’s gown.
“What if you were acting like this only to find out everyone on the train died in a tragic accident? Hmm?” Xiao Mei puffs at her in response, Mei simply blinks back.
“What if the desert floor opens up and swallows the train whole, huh? Then what?” Xiao Mei shows her teeth, Mei peers at the standing guards and the other government officials seated in all in a row beside her before sticking her tongue out at her panda.
Xiao Mei gasps, actually whines in disgust, and Mei returns her attention to what she can see over the balcony banister; she can’t quite see the boy’s father’s face, not clearly, when surrounded by other adults packed in as tight as they all are, but she can tell he’s just as much a kindred spirit to her as his son. For one, where he has his son yanking on his hair, tiny fists pulling and playing with the strands like they were the reins on a horse, she’s wearing what may be, by all estimates, an equally heavy crown, which holds to her scalp like talons to prey. Also, where he is expected to wait for the first tangible product of the new Emperor’s reign as one in a sea of hot bodies, under a sun so scorching eggs could probably fry in the dirt, she is expected to wait as one body under a sea of fabric, the beautiful pearl whites and fervent reds and regal purples hiding the beads of sweat falling down her back.
The similarities, Mei hopes, might stop there; where she knows (and she checked her letters twice over) that this train won’t bring to Haidong a single soul she knows, maybe this stranger, who may have traveled some time and distance to be here today, is actually waiting to meet someone special—to introduce his son to someone special—for the first time in years. If this is his case, Mei would be happy for him, and if not, maybe this man and his son will at least go back to tell their neighbors and their children, who will tell their children and their children too, that the first fruits of the Emperor’s reign were sweet, and the machine that dared cross the arid Badlands was powerful. That the First Transsunscape Railway was (or, would’ve been, a half-hour ago, and hopefully still would be) a success, a wonder, a gift.
The conversation with Yao’s Council to bring them all here to watch the end of his railway’s maiden voyage had gone as most conversations with Yao’s Council went these days.
“Well, I suppose any public outing comes with a deal of risk,” Yao had conceded, tapping his finger to his chin, almost like he was being considerate of exactly how much work it would take to safely get an Emperor of Xing to an event outside of the Imperial City for the first time in generations. “But I’m sure we can trust my guards to secure a safe location to watch the train come in from. Right?”
His bodyguard hadn’t twitched like Mei would have expected, hadn’t sweat or protested in any way, not even as she listed, upon command, the ideas she held for keeping the Emperor safe: some kind of platform to watch from, built with a roof and high above any grabby hands in the crowd, wide and sturdy enough to keep a bodyguard at every corner and every blind spot in case of snipers, and so on and so on. Of everyone in the throne room, sitting together under the enamel stars of the ceiling’s night sky, The Emperor seemed the least disturbed by his Shadow discussing, in detail, all the ways he might die just to get a glimpse of the train he’d dedicated this last year of his reign to, but in her honesty, Lan Fan could almost be mistaken for persuasive.
“It’s still unusual,” said the Chancellor.
“Dangerous,” muttered the Chief Minister.
“None of the royal cousins can know ahead of time,” continued the Imperial Secretary. “We would have to assure an unprecedented amount of secrecy for this plan to stand a chance.”
“Princess Chang.” The Emperor ignored every response he didn’t care to hear, naturally, to call upon Mei. “What do you think?” he had asked, innocuous enough.
Mei has a number of responsibilities these days to the Emperor, none more important than as his Official Enabler, though it helped that she’d recently been promoted; the Emperor’s next big endeavor was to secure a trained alkahestrist and a food bank in every city and village in his kingdom, which meant that most of Mei’s work had been moved to the Imperial City’s university so she could be the Emperor’s eyes as well as his Hand as far as seeing the training and logistics it would take to make his visions a reality. All to say: Mei was finally practicing alkahestry again, and so it seemed only fair to her that in return, Yao got his chance to go on a trip, however stupidly dangerous or frivolous. Their this-for-that perhaps wasn’t typical of any of the strong-bonded siblings Mei had ever witnessed before, but it seemed to work for her and Ling.
“I think it’s a fine idea, Your Majesty,” she replied as saccharine as she could. The Emperor’s eyes crinkled at the corners when he grinned that time, and that had been the end of that.
He’s still just as pleased with himself, and Mei can feel it without the effort of turning her heavy head to look towards the makeshift throne erected beside her simple wooden chair (with two cushions, one extra for height). The Emperor is undoubtedly wrinkling his nice robes again, sitting on the edge of his seat like he is, chin in his hands like he’s pining for the gorier details of a battle. Mei couldn’t pretend to match his enthusiasm at the moment, even as someone known for having enthusiasm in spades, but if the train is novel for him, and the success worth celebrating, and he’s allowed to leave today’s events alive and unassassinated, then she could at least concede that it’d been a good day. And she is having a good day.
All things considered, it wasn’t a lie. That’s not what this is.
Mei just, you know, might have to be a little strict when she moves her recollection of June the Fifth to copyedit—strike the headache, keep the drums, cut the extravagances, preserve the buzz of the crowd. When she writes of the day to her second pen pal, Mr. Scar, who found The Royal Family’s Black Market Courier working in Ishval by some miracle, she’ll tell him that the day was so beautiful even Lan Fan had fun, and that if he ever found it in himself to leave Ishval for a little bit, he’d have somewhere to stay on top of a way to get here. When she writes of the day to her first pen pal, Alphonse, she won’t sound disappointed that he couldn’t get a ticket and may not until this time next year, not when she can tell him that the chi of the excited crowd made her hands tremble, made all of her senses feel so much much (he’ll know, he’ll understand). When she tells her mom about today, she will say that her silks were beautiful and that she definitely didn’t get a sunburn and when she puts her plain clothes on again, she will acknowledge that the chrysanthemum pin is altogether much lighter to bear these days. When she goes back to the Imperial City, she won’t be disappointed, and when she goes to work on her alkahestry again, something simple to remind her how much more she’s capable of, she won’t feel like she’s still missing something.
It's not so much that she's a liar, Mei supposes of herself. She’s just greedy.
Xiao Mei heaves another long and heavy sigh, taking the sweeping, shimmering fabric of the sash tied at Mei’s waist to improvise a canopy for herself; Mei can't help but be a bit charmed by her panda's antics, even as her eyes roll into the back of her head and she switches her tired arm to guard her eyes with the other hand.
And that’s when it starts—not with any sort of flash or ceremony, but with rumbles so low and pulsing that they nearly blend in with the thunderous rhythm set by the drummers. Mei knows she's not the only one who feels it, however, and when heads in the crowd turn to crane their necks and cover their ears in a ripple, it’s clear that it's not just her. Something is growing closer and closer, louder and louder, the something feeling like it could be a thousand more terrifying and wild things than just a train. And it’s not only audible, it’s palpable: all harsh tolls of metal upon metal, chugging and pulling on top of a constant spinning and below the victorious belt of the whistle. From what she can make out over Haidong’s tallest roofs, the steamroller isn't so much arriving as much as it's bellowing a song, where between each note is a puff of smoke rising to the sky, veiling the heavy weight of the sun. Before it really gets too close, for a moment, Mei considers what would happen if maybe the engineers were wrong, if the ground might actually break open at the weight and swallow all of them whole, until, present without warning, the machine appears on the horizon where the sky outlines the ground and the ground holds up the sky—the head black iron, textured with dirt and debris, blowing smoke through it’s nose, the tail painted a verdant green with paned glass scales.
The train had arrived. The train had arrived, successfully.
What comes next is a pandemonium of the best and brightest sorts as the tall wheels ultimately come to a screeching halt, the length of such monstrosity running nose to tail with the whole of the city of Haidong, probably. The crowd welcomes the locomotive driver and the conductor with the wild applause and jubilant cheers worthy of legendary beast tamers; the two men, with furrowed grey brows and thick mustaches, don't quite look the part of the young, foreboding warriors, wave to the crowd through their windows with a matched glee, one sounding the whistle one more time as a sort of hello (Xiao Mei, utterly transfixed, waves back at the men from her seat in Mei's lap). Steam fogs off the body of the engine in the bright summer sun, a actually getting a good look at it now, the train isn't so much as half as frightening as it's arrival, not even a quarter as frightening as other green monsters full of souls Mei's met before. This train—a name is painted along the side tank, and it's hard to see from so high up, but Mei thinks it reads "Elizabeth"—Elizabeth is instead, well, magnificent and beautiful, though she'd only tell the Emperor that his train was worth at least half of the effort she'd demanded over the last two years or so.
The other half of the Elizabeth's worth in Mei's eyes quickly appears, though, in the form of the passengers making their way out of the cars one-by-one. The point of a train, after all, is to bring people from one place to another right? And so it did—men and women in those familiar, blue, wool uniforms, stout, suited business types and women made tall by their heels, folks dressed more comfortably and plainly, but with a gold and burgundy sash to cross their chest. Each new stranger observable moving through the windows of the passenger cars and onto the train platform receives a warm welcome from the crowd waiting outside; many people take their time to bask in the moment, greeting the crowd right back or coming right up to the edge of the platform and reaching to the hands raised to touch. There's nearly as many people, maybe a bit more worn from the overnight trip, maybe just a bit shy, who seem to grab their luggage and slip past the commotion before Mei can even get a look at their face. The best part, though, are the reunions— it's hard to know, always, where they're happening in such a busy space, and who between, but she can hear them, as loved ones shout out a name before running in the direction of their own.
"Lan Fan, Chang," says the Emperor, a bit absently. At the first words the Emperor has said nearly all day, Lan Fan appears between him and Mei, swiftly and silently from wherever it was she'd been standing guard behind their row of seats. It's the three of them again, lined up in a row, leaning into one another to hear what he has to say just then; Mei is only distracted when a woman from behind one of the food tents deserts her post with a shout to leap into the arms of a man who'd dropped his luggage about ten steps back to meet her halfway.
"When was the last time you saw this many people happy to be alive?" Ling asks.
No one answers. Or, they do, but they don't. Lan Fan's thinking the same exact thing that Mei is, and Mei is thinking the same thing that the Emperor is—the last time they'd seen this many people, happy to be alive, while lined up three in a row together was far away and two years ago, in Amestris, on the Promised Day. If Mei didn't know any better, she'd probably agree with the Emperor whole-heartedly, that what the exuberance they were witnessing now is almost a duplicate of what they'd seen in the streets then before promptly leaving to come home, but Mei does know better. Mei doesn't have to cry today, she just gets to be. No one had to die today. Everyone's soul stayed put where they belonged today and none of these blue uniforms are splattered with red and the tears lining nameless faces aren't borne of relief, of fear, of loss, but joy. There's no rubble or carnage in the square, and there will be no sign of today's celebration in a mere few hours, save the footprints in the dirt. The man who'd dropped his suitcase isn't holding the woman's neck closed, he just gets to hold her without anguish, and the woman he's holding gets to be conscious enough to hold back, without agonizing over what was to come and whether it was all for nothing. The ways people cling to one another might look the same in times of great celebration, no matter what for, but there's something to say for celebrating life because it'd nearly been taken from you, from your loved ones, and from the life you'd known and built, together, and celebrating life for the sake of celebrating, still together. Today isn't a question or a maybe, a moment of begging or wishing or praying to see tomorrow. Today is an answer, the fruit of much labor, a promise fulfilled, a dedication to all the ones we love.
The Emperor's question is a bit funny though; now that she's been reminded of the Promised Day, Mei realizes that she might've almost forgotten about that military man in the tunnels and his I-owe-you up until this moment, to be honest. Now that Elizabeth is up and running, maybe one day he'll actually get a chance make good on his promise. She'll look forward to it.
Xiao Mei comes back with a vengeance, suddenly and abruptly smacking Mei in the gut, full-force. "OW! Xiao Mei! What was that for?" Mei curses, but Xiao Mei's eyes are wide as plates as she points back towards the crowd.
Mei scans the scene, frowning when, surprise, she can't make out what unique occurrence could possibly be noteworthy to Xiao Mei between the thousands of bodies. "Yes, I know, I'm watching too! It's very exciting—" Xiao Mei smacks her again, harder this time. "OW! Xiao Mei, stop!" Xiao Mei does not stop, and tries to mime something with her paws in between her pointed gestures, again towards the throngs of people below. What she's try to say is, uh, pointy teeth? The shape of a heart? The sound of footsteps?
"Xiao Mei, I have no idea what you're—" before Mei can so much as finish her sentence, Xiao Mei scurries up her arm and lunges for the beaded adornments hanging from her crown headdress, dangling above Mei's shoulder. Pain shoots across the top of her head as Xiao Mei pulls with all of her weight to drop back onto Mei's collarbone, effectively swinging Mei's head toward the train platform with her landing. And it's through Mei's pained owowowowowowowowowow that she sees exactly what has Xiao Mei so worked up.
The Emperor's train seems to have produced a precious metal, see, by way of a patch of golden hair that catches the warmth of sun and makes the loud and enthused world around Mei go silent.
There's no way, right? This can't be.
Mei can’t quite tell if she’s said this aloud or not, if she can so much as speak at all. She just waits, so still and so quiet and refusing any impulse to self-deceive as she tries to catch another glimpse between the blue-suited military men and the trainhands and the waves of civilians bobbing off the train, grabbing their luggage, greeting the all who had come to see their arrival. Following the gold with just her eyes, Mei keeps her watch as he turns away from where he had been chatting with a few other men and waits for the hand he uses to shield his eyes from the bright light of afternoon to rise into a gentle wave towards the crowd. When the sun is forced then to capture his face, she's unable to deny it.
“We know, you already said that,” the Emperor quips, and when Mei whips her attention to look up at him, her headdress gives another sharp tug at her hair. “You seem awfully sure— though I suppose he feels about right without the armor, and perhaps he just looks a bit healthier than he did when we saw him last? Ed doesn’t seem to have come with him. What else could he have possibly had going on today?”
If anyone else on the balcony around them notices the fondness in the Emperor’s gaze or the way Mei’s mouth sputters over a collection of disjointed vowels or the way the Chang girl's panda seemed to only ever keep it’s mouth open, then they must’ve been very uninterested indeed. Mei’s head spins back in the direction of the platform, then back towards the Emperor, back to the platform, back to the Emperor, the pain numb now.
“Oh, what’re you looking at me for? For permission? Now?” The Yao laughs boldly where the corners of The Emperor’s mouth simply curl, like an alleycat. “It's a simple enough challenge: all you have to do is run faster than the guards can catch up to, huh, Princess Chang?”
He, Ling Yao, would go leaping into the crowd too, if he, The Imperial Emperor, could, is what he means. It's what he conveys as he leans over his great chair to look back at Lan Fan, who in turn, wordlessly steps closer to him, providing enough space for one small Chang girl to conceivably slip between the guards, dash to the nearest set of stairs, and leap across the crowd like it was her own bridge of magpies. This doesn't calm her rampant heartbeat, doesn't unclench her fists, doesn't bring her into the present, but Mei nods at him anyway. Her body might stay here, at the Emperor's right hand, but her soul had taken off, giddy and giggling and deeply, deeply grateful.
Her hands are so steady that they seem like someone else’s when shes rises from her seat cushions, picks up her skirts, and takes off running for the nearest set of stairs.
What happens next is a blur: Mei knows she's descending the floors of the hotel two steps at a time, but her feet don't touch the ground. She knows the guards are shouting, maybe even calling her name, but she can't be sure. She knows there’s a drum outside, there’s cheering and chattering, but all she hears is the wind of the atmosphere and her heart thumping in her ears. If she’s not crying, she probably will be soon. Xiao Mei too, from where she's white-knuckling Mei's collar.
Her body ultimately wastes little time catching up to her soul, all the way outside the front doors of Haidong's only hotel and headfirst into the sea of people between her and the train platform.
"Look, daddy!" shouts the boy with poppy cheeks, at attention and pointing a small, chubby finger at Mei. "It's a princess!"
And that does something. Maybe all of Mei's training navigating the Great Hall will have to go to waste today, because the drop of her title starts the domino effect of one, then, three, then many, then more heads are not only turning and gawking in her direction, but parting to make way for her. No bows, just reverence and well-wishes and a path so clear and open that she can sprint towards the metal steps of the platform while keeping her eyes on that golden hair. Alphonse, on the other hand, is maybe a bit late, she thinks, distracted by two of the soldiers in blue before he starts to notice the turn in the crowd's attention—look, she tries to choke out, I'm here!
“Alphonse!” is what she comes up with instead, a great joyful, strained shout, enough to get him to meet her gaze.
Al's face bleeds from curiosity to joy. He's also very handsome now, though that's neither here nor there. “Mei!” he shouts back, taking off to meet her from where he'd been standing on the far side of the platform. It's the last leg, they're gonna make it.
As the distance closes, Mei comes to realize, however irrelevant, that they’re nearer in height now. Not by much, Al's certainly filled out some of the space between where he'd been on the Promised Day and the metal suit he'd been before that, but Mei thinks maybe in their time apart, she's gotten a little bit taller after all.
With but a few steps remaining, Al stretches out his arms like the wings of a bird; however foolish, Mei goes ahead and takes the leap, she’s pretty sure he’ll catch her.
When asked for his thoughts on his old superior officer’s “labor of love” comment for the Central City Times regarding the railway’s inception, General Mustang affirmed the Fuhrer’s sentiments with no exception and no intent to elaborate.
The final nail stamped into the laid track will be celebrated with a small ceremony held by railroad workers. The inscription on the historic final nail was decided ahead of the event by the project heads and reads as follows: “For our one sky, our two countries, and those who fly between."