Earth. Fire. Air. Water. Long ago, all the nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when Amestris, the Fire Nation, attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, can restore balance in the world.
East City, 1914.
“I hear that you’ve been busy, Elric,” Roy Mustang said. “Started a few fires here and there, put the fear of the spirits into a few corrupt military officials.”
Fifteen-year-old Edward Elric grinned at him, showing a little too much teeth. Legs crossed, head propped up on his automail hand with his elbow resting on the arm of the chair, the youngest firebender in the Amestris army was once again demonstrating just how close he could get to insubordination through mere body language: the whole posture shouted fuck you, Colonel without having to spell it out. Not that Edward was particularly shy about saying the words, come to think of it.
“All in a day’s work, Colonel,” the boy said, sounding chipper.
Roy knew the reason for Edward’s glee: he’d just stopped a bunch of terrorists on the train to East City, saving the lives of general Hakuro and his family in the process. He knew it would buy him some good will from the higher-ups and he probably assumed that it excused him for all of his… quirks. Roy thought that Edward didn’t realize just how much of that good will was used up on a daily basis by his behavior. He might have been a startlingly smart kid, and a terrifyingly powerful bender to boot, but he was still just a kid, and an arrogant one at that.
“Tell me more about it,” Roy said, threading his fingers to complete his posture of patient listening.
“Hey, I wrote you reports, you lazy bastard! Do you know how much of a pain it is to write those with my left hand?”
“Give me the highlights, will you. So I know what I have to look forward to. You could start with what exactly happened in Youswell, for example. I heard that you bought the mines, and then sold them back to the miners—what’s up with that?”
“That guy Yoki was such a shithead!” Edward exclaimed hotly, his golden eyes glowing with the fire of his anger. “He sucked the town’s population dry with his taxes, treated them like crap. I mean, they were pretty annoying too—you know that they kicked me out of their inn when they learned that I was a firebender? They let Al stay, though,” he added, looking sullen. “I guess being a scarred blind kid will make people go soft on you.”
“I’m sure that him not being part of the military helped too,” Roy pointed out mildly. “Where is he, by the way?”
“Oh, I think he’s somewhere chatting with the team,” Edward said, making it sound like he was just guessing at it, which Roy was pretty sure he wasn’t; the brothers both had the uncanny ability to always be able to tell where the other was. Roy had an idea as to how exactly they managed it, but it wasn’t a safe topic to discuss within HQ’s walls.
“Hmm, he probably is. The team likes him.” Edward scowled at the comment and Roy smirked on the inside. Everybody liked Alphonse—everybody also thought that Edward was impressive but needed to be knocked down a few pegs from time to time, and Roy made it his life mission to take on that job. “But you were saying: Lieutenant Yoki is a shithead, the town people are annoying… That doesn’t tell me how you managed to get the lieutenant to sell you his mines.”
“Well, see.” And here Edward was making the face he always made when he knew Roy was really not going to like what he had to say, and that he was maybe a bit sorry about it. “He thought the mines had collapsed—and that it would cost him a lot to get them cleared out. I managed to convince him that they wouldn’t even be functional again, and then I offered to take them out of his hands—”
“Elric. Tell me you didn’t. Someone’s bound to notice that—”
“No one suspects anything, okay?” Edward said defensively. “The town people think Yoki is an idiot for not noticing that the damages were superficial—the mines were still structurally sound—and Yoki is an idiot who was completely blindsided by what happened! We did it cleanly, too. No one will see—”
“We? Was Alphonse in on this too?” Roy reconsidered the idea that Alphonse was the wiser of the two.
“He did think it was kind of dangerous, but he also wanted us to help the people in Youswell. He actually did most of the heavy lifting—and no one ever suspects the scarred blind kid.”
“Okay.” Roy took a deep breath, his mind already working on how he was going to cover for this. He couldn’t fault Edward’s good heart—it was why he was known as the Hero of the People, the only firebender in Amestris who wasn’t rotten to the core—but it sometimes gave Roy a lot of additional work. “Okay,” he repeated. “Now tell me about Liore. You took down their religious leader?”
“That I did.” Edward smiled dangerously, flexing the fingers of his automail hand. “This guy was pretending to be the Avatar.”
“Ah.” Roy could see how Edward would take it personally. “Was he a bender?”
Every firebender in Amestris was supposed to work for the army—if that Cornello guy had slipped through their fingers, just to pop up again as a religious leader in one of the cities in the unstable East, it was going to set an annoying precedent. But no, it was unlikely that he was a firebender—everyone knew the current Avatar was supposed to be born an earthbender, especially in the East, the closest part of the country to Xing, the Earth Kingdom. If Cornello was an earthbender, though, it also meant that he had escaped the government’s scrutiny. No other bending than firebending was allowed in Amestris.
“Pff, not even! The guy was just a crafty illusionist—and the people there were damn easy to fool, too. I mean, he was like, old, you know, and you’d think people would have guessed there was something up with that, but he managed to convince them that the last few Avatars who died were fakes. They all bought it! He was a smooth talker, I’ll grant him that, but I didn’t need to use more than my little finger to burst his bubble. Don’t worry, I only used fire.”
“You made worrying about you my job,” Roy complained.
He was mostly playing when he said this, though. Edward might toe the line way too often for Roy’s comfort, but he still trusted that the boy was smart enough to know not to expose himself in front of a whole city.
Edward snickered at the comment—he was playing too, obnoxious brat that he was. Looking at him, it was sometimes difficult to believe that the whole world’s hope rested on his shoulders, but Roy’s conviction had remained intact since the day he’d seen the fire inside those strange gold eyes for the first time. Four years, it had been. How time flew.
When Roy walked into the space of what had been a small house, charred pieces of wood crushed under the soles of his boots. He bent over, examining the ruins: the wood had been reduced to cinders, and the stone had downright melted under the heat. The flames that had burned this house to the ground must have been unnaturally hot.
“It does look like a firebender’s work,” Roy said, talking to himself as much as to Hawkeye. The lieutenant was circling the ruins, looking intent on something.
“Lieutenant Colonel,” she called, frowning at a spot on the ground. “Come and see this.”
Roy joined her, careful not to stumble on the uneven ground, and examined the spot. At first he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to see: the grass had grown in unruly lumps, wet with dew and interspersed with tiny wild flowers—nothing frankly alarming here. But then he noticed that some of the ground overlapped with the house’s rubble, like the earth had already started swallowing them, even though it had only been a few weeks since the fire. A landslide, maybe? Roy swept a look around, but the house was on top of a hill.
“What do you think?” Hawkeye asked.
Roy looked up to meet her eyes. He already knew what she was thinking, and he was starting to come around to the fact that it was the only possible explanation. “It looks like someone tried to smother the fire with earthbending.”
They’d come to investigate an occurrence of illegal firebending: someone at a hospital in East City had reported two boys being gravely injured in a fire that had burned down their house to the ground. Finding an earthbender when they’d been looking for an untrained firebender was a surprise. A waterbender would have been more likely, as they shared a border with Drachma, but an earthbender was unexpected. There was, after all, a whole desert between them and Xing.
“There were two boys involved, weren’t there,” Hawkeye said. “Maybe the other one is an earthbender.”
“From what little information I have, they’re supposed to be brothers. I guess it’s not impossible—they could be mixed race. Still, that seems unlikely.”
“What do you want to do?”
Her face was smooth and unreadable, her professional mask in place, but Roy knew that she was reminding him of his options. They could just leave and say they hadn’t found the boys; that they’d died of their injuries; that none of them was a firebender after all, and it had just been a case of playing with matches gone wrong. Once Roy had made his report, this kid wouldn’t belong to himself anymore; he would be a human weapon, fit only to be aimed by his hierarchy at the enemy of the day. Roy had been a little older than the average when the army had taken him, but he had no more than a few faded memories of his parents, and trying to imagine how different his life could have been wouldn’t do him any good. But that boy, that yet to be named firebender—he still had a chance.
“Sir?” She was looking at him expectantly, letting him know the decision was his to make. She would follow his lead, whatever it was.
“We go check the address they gave us,” Roy said, sighing. “We can’t let that boy on the loose, not after this.” He waved at what remained of the house.
Hawkeye nodded, acknowledging his reasoning as fair. Government propaganda had hammered into people’s minds that firebending was so dangerous that only exposure to the army’s strict environment could channel its power—while all the other kinds of bending were, of course, potentially seditious seeds—but there was something to it. Fire was dangerous, and the boy had already destroyed a house, badly hurting himself and his brother in the process. Roy couldn’t in good conscience leave him to wander around untrained.
“Let’s go, then,” Hawkeye said.
It was easier said than done. In such a small, backwater place, addresses were more akin to vague directions, like, ‘behind the Fords’ farm, a couple of miles across the river.’ The weather was supposedly mild in that part of the country, but it looked like Resembool had decided to make it special for Roy and Hawkeye, because it started drizzling soon after they left the charred house, and kept at it for the whole two hours it took them to find the Rockbell house. Firebenders weren’t very fond of the rain, water being their opposite element, and Roy was in a fine mood by the time they reached their destination.
“It better be the right house, this time,” he groused as they climbed the flight of stairs leading to the front door.
There was a sign on the right side of the stairs that read, AUTOMAIL. “I think it is, sir,” Hawkeye said, pointing to it.
The door flew open before Roy had the time to knock—their approach on the long, uncovered trail had probably been watched through the window. It revealed a short old woman, gray hair gathered in a curiously shaped bun. Glaring at them behind her round glasses, she snapped, “What do you want, vultures?”
She had to know what they wanted—had to know that she couldn’t stop them, too—but it didn’t keep her from standing in front of them as though she were six feet tall rather than half Roy’s size, and could use her body to bar them from entering her house.
“Mrs. Rockbell, I presume?” Roy said, marching inside the house so purposefully that the old woman had to step aside or be walked into. It was useless to get dragged into arguing with her; it wasn’t as if Roy didn’t understand her defiance and her anger, but he also knew what he had to do. “I’m Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang, this is Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye. We’re here for—”
He broke off. A boy was sitting at the table in the main room; he had his face turned to Roy, but it must have been the noise that had caught his attention, because a bandage was wrapped around his head, covering his eyes. It tugged at Roy’s heartstrings to see this: if a firebender’s flame had damaged him then he would never see daylight again.
“We saw your house,” Roy said. “No natural fire could have burned it so completely.”
“I—” the boy said, but he was interrupted by the little old woman. “You leave that boy alone!” she raged. “Look at him—don’t you think he’s suffered enough?”
“You have to see that you need training,” Roy continued, ignoring her. “Something like this can’t happen again. And you won’t get any good, legal training outside of the army. You—”
“He didn’t do this. I did.”
The voice who had just spoken was thin and raspy, the voice of someone who hadn’t talked in a while. Roy looked around the room for it and found another boy, about the same age as the first or maybe a little younger. He was sitting, Roy’s second glance told him, in a wheelchair. Sitting in a wheelchair because—and there, Roy couldn’t help a little gasp of horror—he was missing an arm and a leg. The boy wore a long-sleeved shirt, and one of the sleeves hung limply on his right side, empty, while the blanket covering his lap was shaped by only one leg, and a single foot peeked from under it.
“The burns on his arm and his leg got badly infected,” the old woman said, her voice like thunder. “They had to amputate him in East City.”
“Al didn’t do anything,” the one-legged, one-armed boy said. He was looking down at his blanket-covered lap rather than at Roy and Hawkeye, but his voice was getting stronger by the second. “It was me.”
“Brother,” said the blind boy, Al, in a very soft voice.
“I couldn’t control the fire,” his brother said. “I tried to—to—” He got choked up for a moment, but then went on doggedly, “—to get to Al, but the fire was everywhere and it burned so hot.”
He hadn’t been able to dispel his own fire, obviously, so he had—what, jumped into the flames to save his brother? Firebenders rarely got burned that badly, because they had an innate respect for the fire’s power. If they couldn’t stop it, they knew to stay away from it. It seemed like that boy had more guts than common sense, though.
“When I got to the house,” Mrs. Rockbell said. “There was nothing left of it. I thought the boys were dead—it didn’t look like anyone could have survived this. Firebending,” she added with a little snort of disgust.
The boy flinched at the comment, and this reaction finished convincing Roy that he really was the firebender, and wasn’t just lying to protect his brother. A girl about the boys’ age, with long blond hair tied into a ponytail, came in at that moment. She shot Roy and Hawkeye a wary look, then placed herself at the wheelchair’s side in an obvious gesture of support.
Roy turned around Mrs. Rockbell’s comment in his mind: how had the kids survived this anyway? The earthbending attempt from the other brother couldn’t have done much good, and once the fire had gotten out of control there was no way an untrained boy could have stopped it by himself. They should both have been burned to a crisp.
“Sir?” Hawkeye asked, letting him know that he had been silent for too long.
“Yes,” Roy said. “What’s your name, boy?”
The boy didn’t say anything, but the girl piped up, “He’s Ed.”
“Well, Ed, you heard what I told your brother: you need to be trained, or this will happen again.”
“I know,” the boy murmured tonelessly, still not looking at Roy.
“When we went to your house, we saw traces of earthbending. If you’re the firebender, then your brother must be an earthbender.”
Ed looked up then, and Roy was taken aback by his eyes: they were an unusual golden color and burned with unadulterated fury, like Roy had tricked him into betraying his brother. Which, to be fair, he kind of had.
“We’re ready to pretend we never figured what your brother is,” Roy said, knowing without having to ask that Hawkeye agreed with him. Ed’s eyes hadn’t stopped pinning him with unrelenting heat. “But here you have to make a choice: given the… nature of your injuries, I can’t take you with us right now. I see that your friends are automail makers, so either you get automail installed and become a firebending soldier, or you stay as you are, we give you enough training not to hurt anyone again, and you spend the rest of your life in a state-sponsored facility.”
“Could he just stay here?” the girl asked, her voice edged with hope. “I mean, after he got some training. He can’t firebend properly like this, anyway, so why couldn’t he just—”
“The state would not allow it. I’m sorry.” The girl looked crushed, and the old woman sneered a bit, like she doubted that Roy was even capable of feeling sorry. He genuinely was, though. “I’m giving you the night to think it over. We’ll be back tomorrow.”
Mrs. Rockbell walked them to the door, but Roy understood that it wasn’t out of politeness when she asked him, “How old are you, Lieutenant Colonel?” She’d dug up a pipe from somewhere and chewed on its tip as she waited for his answer.
“Thirty-three,” he said, already dreading where this was going.
“Humph.” A sun glare was hiding her eyes from Roy. “If I know the army well,” she said, “you’re old enough to have served in Ishval. They sent all the firebenders who were of age there. Am I wrong?”
“What about you?” Mrs. Rockbell asked Hawkeye. “Are you a firebender too?”
“I’m not,” Hawkeye said. Loyal as ever, she added, “But I served in Ishval too.”
Mrs. Rockbell huffed again. “My older son was drafted during the civil war, died in Ishval. Died in the desert, far from his family. My younger son and his wife—my grand-daughter’s parents—were doctors, and they died in Briggs during a skirmish with Drachma. The army took all my children, Lieutenant Colonel. And now you want to take Edward and Alphonse as well?”
“As I said, we have no interest in the brother,” Roy said.
“That boy would follow his brother to the ends of the earth. You can’t have one without the other.”
“The only other choice for Edward is to become a fugitive from the government, to put all his efforts into hiding a power he’s already proved he can’t control. Is that what you want for him?”
The old woman’s mouth twisted in a bitter grimace. Roy could now see her eyes again, and she was giving him a strange look he didn’t know how to interpret.
“See you tomorrow,” she eventually said, before disappearing into the house.
Roy exchanged a puzzled look with Hawkeye; what had that been about? Hawkeye shrugged minutely, and they started walking down the path they’d taken to get to the Rockbell house. Fortunately it had stopped raining and a few sunrays filtered from in-between the heavy clouds, golden threads falling from the sky.
“What did you make of all this?” Roy asked Hawkeye as they walked.
She waited her usual amount of time before giving him a response. She never took his asking for her thoughts any less than very seriously.
“I’m not sure how the boys managed to get out of the fire alive,” she said, echoing his earlier thoughts.
“You too, huh? I feel like there’s a part of the story that we’re missing, here. I don’t really know—hey!”
He stumbled, barely catching himself in time so he didn’t fall on his face.
“Lieutenant Colonel?” Hawkeye asked, in a puzzled voice tinged with worry. She knew he wasn’t the clumsy type. “Are you all right?”
He hadn’t felt dizzy or like he’d lost his balance, but rather like his foot had caught onto something. He couldn’t see anything particularly protuberant on the dirt path; there were a few stones, but none of them big enough to make him trip. He whipped around to look at the house, struck by a thought: an earthbender could play with the ground at will. Maybe Alphonse, the quiet, unassuming blind kid, had been just as furious as his brother about the conversation that had just unfolded, and it was his payback.
There was someone on the porch, indeed, but even from a distance Roy could see that it wasn’t the blind boy; no, it was the other one, Edward, the crippled firebender. Roy couldn’t make out his face, but he was somehow sure that the kid was looking at them with the same intense stare that Roy had witnessed before. Even having known him for barely half-an-hour, Roy had the feeling that the petty tripping was exactly his style. But how was it possible?
“Oh,” he breathed out as realization dawned on him. “Oh, spirits.”
“Sir? What is it?”
“Hawkeye.” Roy spun to face his lieutenant, meeting her perplexed brown eyes. “I think we just stumbled onto the Avatar.”
“That was childish, brother.”
Al’s voice came from behind Ed, making him jump. Of course Al had felt what he’d done. Any earthbender worth their salt would have. Ed didn’t say anything, keeping his eyes on the retreating forms of Roy Mustang and Riza Hawkeye.
He heard Al sigh, then the sound of his footsteps as he slowly made his way to Ed’s side. He gripped the arm of Ed’s wheelchair when he had reached it—he knew the layout of the house well enough to move around without needing the stick Pinako had given him, but he seemed to often feel the need to have his hand on something to ground himself. He must be feeling so lost in the dark.
“You could talk to me, you know,” Al said, a hint of reproach in his voice. “You talked to the Lieutenant Colonel. Why can’t you talk to me?”
The reproach had turned into hurt, and Ed felt a familiar pang of guilt grip his heart. He opened his mouth to say something, but, as it happened every time he’d tried to talk for the past few weeks, his chest seized and the words got trapped there as he remembered the last thing he’d said to his brother: Al, you ruin everything! He’d hurled those words and then fire had leaped from his hands to Al’s face. Ed’s panic and horror had only fueled the flames until the whole house was on fire, with Al trapped in its center. Trying to put out the fire with earthbending had been a stupid reflex. He should have tried to work on it directly, but he hadn’t quite believed that it had really come from him. Still couldn’t quite believe it.
Al and he had bickered and fought a thousand times. They’d beaten each other blue and black, with their fists and with earthbending, but they’d never seriously injured each other, and could never stay mad at each other for long. What had made this time different? Why had the fire been triggered in such a destructive way? Now Al was sure to hate him forever.
“Ed?” Al asked suddenly. “Brother, are you okay?”
Ed definitely didn’t feel okay—his heart was beating too fast and his ears were ringing, his chest felt too tight—but how had Al known that? He was sure he hadn’t made a sound. How—oh. Ed’s foot was still down on the stone ground from his earthbending trick. Had Al been able to feel the vibrations of his heartbeat through the stone? Their master could do that, and had shown them how, but Ed had never found it a very useful skill to have so he had never practiced it and he thought Al hadn’t either. Had Al been experimenting during those weeks of darkness?
“I’m okay,” he croaked. A glance at his brother told him that Al was beaming at him, but it made Ed feel worse instead of better. It was really weird to see his brother smile without having it reflected in his eyes.
“You really shouldn’t have earthbent at the Lieutenant Colonel,” Al said as though the interlude of Ed freaking out hadn’t happened. “I know he annoyed you, but he didn’t seem stupid. He’s going to figure out what you are.”
What he was. That was another thing that didn’t feel real. He was… He was the… His mind was shirking from even thinking the word. Damn it. Ed’s remaining hand clutched at the blanket on his lap. His stumps and his more superficial burns were aching, so he was probably long due for his pain med, but he couldn’t make himself ask for it.
I’m the Avatar. He forced himself to repeat it: I’m the Avatar, I’m the Avatar, I’m the Avatar.
The word felt devoid of meaning. What did it mean, really, to be the Avatar? The Avatar was the master of all four elements, everybody knew that. Everybody also knew the stories: the last Earth Avatar had destroyed a whole city in one night, killing thousands in the process; the last Fire Avatar had turned against her country and had needed to be put down; a civil war had been fought over the last Air Avatar, and the last Water Avatar had barely lived at all. Being the Avatar didn’t sound like it was such a prize. Of course, Ed and Al had also read other stories in some of their father’s books, stories of great deeds and heroic adventures. In those stories, the Avatar was said to be the guardian of the world’s balance, the bridge between humans and the spirit world. Maybe it had been true in the old days, but it seemed like things had changed over the past century. Certainly it couldn’t be true of Ed, not after what he’d done.
“I’m going with you, you know,” Al said.
“When you go train with the Lieutenant Colonel, after your automail—I’m coming with you. You’re not leaving me behind.”
“I don’t—I don’t even know what I’m going to do.”
Al huffed a laugh. His fingers were roaming over the arm of the wheelchair, exploring it curiously.
“I can’t really picture you locked up in a military facility for the rest of your life,” he said.
Ed hadn’t really let himself think about the choice Mustang had presented him yet. Since the fire he hadn’t thought much of the future, especially not his future. The hard cold fact was that Al wasn’t the only cripple, and the thought of being wheelchair-bound and left into a military hospice to rot made his stomach turn. So Al was right—it was really no choice at all. He needed to learn fire, and then he would need to learn air and water too, because they might seem less dangerous than fire, but Izumi Curtis had beaten into them the idea that all the elements were potentially dangerous. All of them could kill. He’d have to learn how to airbend and waterbend, and then—
“Al,” he said as one thought imposed itself to him. “I’m the Avatar.”
“Yes, you are.” There was a hint of delight in Al’s voice, maybe because it was the first time any of them had said it out loud.
“I can bend all four elements.” He twisted on his chair to face his brother, something he’d avoided doing since the fire. Al’s head had a puzzled tilt to it. “I can waterbend.”
“You can’t, not yet.”
“I can learn to waterbend! Waterbenders have advanced healing techniques—some of Hohenheim’s books talk about them, remember? Al, if I can learn them, I can heal you!”
Ed grabbed his brother’s wrist with his left hand and clasped it tight. “I will heal you, Al. You’ll need to be patient—I have to learn how to firebend and airbend first—but I’m making you a promise, okay? One day, you will see again.”
For a long moment, Al didn’t say anything. With the bandages covering half his face, Ed couldn’t read his brother’s expression as easily as he used to, and after a minute of silence he felt his heart sink. Al didn’t trust him anymore, and how could he? For him, being the Avatar’s brother had clearly turned out to be a curse. Even when Ed had spoken up to protect him, he’d inadvertently given him away as an earthbender.
“Okay,” Al said, just when Ed’s dark thoughts threatened to overwhelm him once again. “Okay, Ed, I believe you. You’ll learn all four elements. You’ll be the greatest Avatar ever.”
Before Ed could find something to answer that declaration of faith, Winry came out on the porch and immediately started bitching at them. “What are you two doing out here? You’ll catch a cold!”
She grabbed the handles of Ed’s wheelchair and turned him around, back into the house. He felt a surge of irritation at being treated like a piece of luggage to be moved from room to room without his consent, but really he only had himself to blame for it. He’d been mute for too long; at first, Winry had tried to ask him where he wanted to go, but after a while of him not offering any input, she’d gotten used to taking the matter into her own hands.
“I want to stay here!” he protested. In truth, he was cold and sore and he could feel his eyes starting to droop from having been up for too long, but it was a matter of principle.
Winry paused for a moment and Ed braced himself for a comment on his talking again. But she only said, “Oh, well, okay, don’t start whining when you get feverish again.” Ed didn’t need to look at her to know she’d said it with a smile that belied her words.
“I’ll come with you, Winry,” Al said, and he left with a quick touch to Ed’s good shoulder.
Winry turned out to be right: Ed woke up the next day with a low-grade fever. It made him achy and irritable, but when Pinako suggested that he stayed in bed all day, he was adamant that he at least be up when the military people came back. That Mustang guy already had the upper hand on them, and Ed would be damned if he gave him one more inch. He wouldn’t lie in bed like an invalid—even if, an annoying little voice murmured at the back of his mind, that was exactly what he was.
“Hmph, I think I liked it better when you didn’t speak,” Pinako said. “At least we didn’t have to deal with your pigheaded idiocy.”
“She didn’t mean it,” Al said when Pinako and Winry had left the room. “We’re all happy you’re talking again.”
Al’s anxious tone made Ed wince. He wouldn’t normally be fazed by Ed and Pinako bickering, would certainly never worry about Ed’s feelings getting hurt this easily. But if everything was normal, he also would have two working eyes. What did his eyes look like beneath the bandages, now that Ed had fried them right into their sockets? Burns, Ed knew first-hand, were ugly wounds. Were Al’s eyes still the same color, the golden color that they’d both inherited from their worthless father? Did they still look like eyes at all? Ed felt bile fill his mouth and rolled over to his side, afraid he was about to throw up.
“Brother?” Al asked, probably having heard the change in his breathing.
Ed had to wait a few more seconds before he felt it safe to talk. He swallowed. “Fine. I’m fine.” He’d nudged his leg stump while moving, but he’d just been dosed with pain med and the hurt felt distant, bearable. “I know Granny didn’t mean it,” he said to soothe his little brother’s worries. “I’m not going to break down at a bad word.”
Al’s hand crept over the mattress until he touched Ed’s arm. It was a new thing of his, this sudden need to touch at every opportunity, like he wanted to reassure himself that the people around him weren’t figments of his imagination. Ed had found it unbearable and flinched away from every attempt before. Now, maybe because he’d finally figured a way to make it up to Al, he could play along without feeling too bad about it so he wriggled his hand until he was holding Al’s.
Lieutenant Colonel Mustang and Lieutenant Hawkeye made their entrance late morning. Anxious about the meeting, Ed had been up—for a certain value of being up when you couldn’t stand on your two legs anymore—for two hours, and he felt terrible. His head pounded, the light hurt his eyes, and his clothes felt too rough on his sensitive skin. All his wounds throbbed in time with his heartbeat. When Mustang laid eyes on him the first thing he said was, “What’s wrong with you, are you sick?”
Ed wished very fervently that he had his leg back so he could pounce on the man. “I’ll do it,” he said through gritted teeth.
“You’ll do what?”
“I’ll get automail. I’ll become a dog of the army, like you.”
The man didn’t react to the insult, which was disappointing. Instead, he looked at Ed for a long moment, longer than was normal, and then he exchanged a look with his lieutenant. The two seemed to communicate silently for a few seconds, and Mustang asked, “Edward, would you have a word with me in private?”
“I’m this boy’s guardian!” Pinako protested. “You won’t talk with him without—”
“Granny,” Ed said, interrupting her as she was warming up to a rant. “It’s okay. I’ll talk to him. Take me outside,” he told Mustang.
Having the man take control of his wheelchair made his skin crawl, but wheeling himself with only one arm was a pain and he felt way too tired and unwell for it. Lieutenant Hawkeye stayed inside with Al, Winry and Pinako, presumably to make sure none of them tried to eavesdrop on the conversation.
Mustang wheeled Ed out on the porch, but didn’t attempt to get him down the stairs. He didn’t start speaking immediately, and when Ed glanced up, he saw that the man was contemplating the rolling green hills of the country around Resembool.
“I’m feeling like crap, so could you make it quick?” Ed snapped.
Mustang chuckled quietly. “So this is what you’re really like when you’re not in shock.”
“Why did you want to talk to me? I gave you my answer. What else do you want?”
“When were you born?”
“What? Uh, April 1899."
"On the fifth. Why, do you want to do my horoscope?” Ed tried to sound casual, but he was starting to feel sick again, whether because of nerves or the fever, and he wished Mustang would get to the damn point already.
“The last Avatar died on April 5, 1899. It's a strange coincidence, don't you think? Another question: did you made me trip with earthbending yesterday?”
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Al was right, he should never have done this. People said he was smart, but in truth he was a complete idiot, and using earthbending on Mustang was a brilliant demonstration of it.
“Not my fault if you can’t stand on your own two legs,” he managed to mumble. He tried to push himself up in his chair for a little dignity, an awkward move with only one arm.
“A few weeks ago,” Mustang said, “I had a strange feeling, like a tingling at the back of my mind. I didn’t realize what it was until yesterday. I’m sure many other benders felt it without knowing what it was. I actually had that same feeling once before, but it was a long time ago and I was barely more than a child then. I know I’ve felt the Avatar’s death, twice, and yesterday’s feeling was something both similar and different.”
“What’re you babbling about?”
“I think what I felt was the Avatar getting into the Avatar state for the first time. This is how you and your brother survived the fire, right? The Avatar state gives you immense powers, even untrained as you are.”
Ed didn’t know how they had survived the fire. He remembered reaching Al, half-mad with pain from the burns he’d received from throwing himself into the flames, and he remembered realizing that he couldn’t get them out. Past that, he had to assume that he’d blacked out, because he had no recollection of what had happened next. Mustang was right, the Avatar state was the only thing that could explain how he’d managed to save himself and Al. The Avatar state was no more than a nebulous piece of legend to him, though, an expression sometimes used as a shorthand for the Avatar’s powers, and it felt more like something that had happened to him without his consent than something that he’d done. He barely knew what it meant.
“What are you going to do about it?” he asked Mustang quietly.
Ed knew enough history to be aware of how their government had dealt with Avatars for the past century. Mustang literally had power of life and death over him, and Ed wasn’t in a shape to do anything about it.
“It’s just like I said when we talked about your brother being an earthbender: I have no interest in revealing that particular piece of information to my superiors. Lieutenant Hawkeye knows, obviously, but I’ll make sure she’s the only one. I just thought you needed to know that I knew.”
“Is this blackmail?”
“This is me throwing the bases of an open and honest relationship between us.”
Ed closed his eyes, feeling suddenly too tired to deal with the way his life was being turned around. “I hate you,” he murmured.
“It’s okay. You don’t need to like me. For firebenders, it’s actually almost traditional to hate one’s instructor.”
After that Ed probably started dozing off, because there were murmurs, cool hands on his forehead, and the next thing he knew he was back in the house, parked in a shaded corner of the main room, and Mustang was asking Pinako, “How long before he’s able to train with his automail?”
“How long? Three years at least! This is no picnic—the surgery is hell even for an adult, and the reeducation is long and difficult, especially since he’ll have to get used to two different new limbs.”
“I’ll do it in one,” Ed said, thinking about the promise he’d made Al. He was still drowsy from his fevered-induced sleep, and it came out as an intelligible mumble.
“What did you say, Ed?” asked Winry, who was standing right next to him. The hands had probably been her checking on his temperature in that new authoritative way she had.
“I’ll do the surgery and reeducation in one year,” Ed repeated more clearly.
Al was sitting on a chair on his other side, and Ed wished he could share a look with his brother to convey his determination to him. Instead he slumped down on his chair until his foot touched the floor, and tapped once, as hard as he could. Al’s head immediately turned to him, and he smiled in understanding. For an instant it almost felt like things between them were okay again.
“One year?” Mustang said. “That’s a tall order for such a little guy.”
This time, Ed almost fell off his chair trying to leap from it. “What did you just say?!”
“Ed, calm down, you’re going to hurt yourself!”
Pinako took her pipe out of her mouth and puffed out smoke. “You’re going to be coughing blood,” she said. “You won’t be able to say I didn’t warn you.”
Central City, 1910.
“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang,” King Bradley exclaimed jovially. “How was your trip to the East?”
“Very instructive, sir,” Roy said, staring ahead and keeping his arms rigidly along his body.
“At ease, soldier, at ease,” Bradley said, and Roy allowed himself to relax his posture a little.
He was never completely at ease in the Fuhrer’s presence, and it wasn’t out of respect for the man’s position in the hierarchy. He just felt like he could never fully trust Bradley’s smiles and genial comments, like maybe he knew that Roy was eyeing his seat. Or, more likely, it was because no matter how much the man talked to him like to a favored grandson, Roy could never forget Ishval and the circumstances surrounding the Air Avatar’s death.
“I heard you found us another recruit, Mustang,” Bradley said.
“I did, sir. I sent you my report.”
“I only had time to skim it, but from what I gathered, the boy is a double amputee. Forgive me for being crass, Lieutenant Colonel, but doesn’t it make him damaged goods for us? We could send him to one of our facilities for injured veterans.”
“The neighbor who has taken care of the boy and his brother since their mother’s death is an automail specialist. I gave the boy a choice, and he chose to get automail and join us.”
“I’m not a bender, so correct me if I’m wrong, but won’t the automail affect his ability to firebend?”
“I’ve heard of firebenders who had automail, so I’m sure we can make it work.”
“Hmm.” Bradley looked down at a stack of documents on his desk that was maybe Roy’s report, or something else entirely. “How old is the boy?”
Roy made sure his face betrayed nothing. “Ten or eleven, I think.”
“He’s a bit old, isn’t he? I thought benders manifested their powers a lot earlier.”
Surely Bradley couldn’t be suspecting Ed’s true nature. Was he trying to test Roy in some way? No, Roy was just being paranoid. Bradley’s line of questioning was a normal one, and the only way the Fuhrer would suspect something was if Roy got twitchy and gave it away.
“Indeed they do, sir,” he said. “It’s possible that he used his abilities before without realizing it, or that his family actively tried to hide him. In any case, it doesn’t seem to be affecting his bending potential: from the state of his house, he looks quite powerful.”
Roy was walking a fine line here: he couldn’t understate Edward’s power too much, lest Bradley decided a late training was unnecessary trouble—and because it made Roy himself look good for having found him, let’s be honest here—but he couldn’t make Edward seem unnaturally powerful either.
Bradley hummed thoughtfully again, his face completely unreadable. “From the sound of your report, he does seem powerful, but his age is still a problem. It’s better to get our young firebender recruits at an impressionable age—they get used to the military mindset much more easily that way. Otherwise, they can get quite… willful.”
You mean it’s easier for you to indoctrinate them, Roy thought, quashing a surge of anger. It was old, well-worn anger by this point, and he was easily able to keep it from his face.
“Edward Elric is very willful,” he said. It was no use trying to hide it—five minutes with Edward would get that particular cat out of the bag. “Which is why I wanted to ask you for the favor of letting me oversee his training personally. I talked to the boy at length, and he seems to answer well to me.” If by ‘answer well’ you meant ‘looks like he would strangle me if he had two hands’. “I’m quite confident that I can handle him.”
Bradley smiled. It looked indulgent, like he was letting Roy get away with something. His lone eye shone with a light that Roy didn’t like. “Very well, Lieutenant Colonel. Edward Elric will be under your supervision. I trust you’ll be able to make a dutiful firebender out of him.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir.”
“You’re dismissed.” Roy turned on his heels, feeling the inexplicable rush of relief that always overwhelmed him after he’d talked to the Fuhrer, but Bradley called him back, “Oh, wait. I had another question for you.”
Roy reluctantly turned around. “What is it?”
“What about the brother? Is he a non-bender?”
Surely Bradley couldn’t know. “He seems to be, sir.”
“Yes, of course he is. Otherwise you would’ve mentioned it.”
Bradley let him go without calling him back, this time. When Roy was far away enough that Bradley couldn’t see him even if he stepped out of his office, he unbuttoned the collar of his uniform and exhaled noisily. What he needed was a stiff drink, and right away.
Ed’s breathing had become harsh and shallow over the last few minutes, and Winry could see his flesh arm tremble where he was holding the bar on his left side. She was on his other side, an arm around his waist to help him keep his balance in the absence of his right arm, which she was still working on. It was the first project she’d ever handled on her own and it was slow going, but so interesting that Winry only felt a little guilty that she was getting so much enjoyment from Ed’s misfortune. Even when it would be ready it would be a while before Ed could use the arm to support his own weight, but unsurprisingly he had refused to wait before he started trying to walk again.
“Do you need a break?” Winry asked. Ed felt too warm and sweaty through the t-shirt he was wearing.
“No!” came the predictable, heated answer. “I can—get to the end! Let me—”
He took another step and his flesh leg buckled under him, almost dragging down Winry, who hadn’t expected to suddenly have to carry his full weight. She managed to stabilize the both of them before they toppled, and guided him carefully into a sitting position.
“Okay, that’s it, you’re taking a break!”
He glared at her from his spot on the floor. His face was red from exertion and anger, and his hair, long enough now that she’d tied it into a short ponytail, was wild and stuck to his forehead and neck. “I don’t need a break!” he insisted.
“Yes, you do!” Winry threw her hands up in the air. “Aaah, you’re so stubborn! If you push yourself too much you’re going to get sick again! Do what you want, but I’m done helping you for the day. I’m going to work on your arm.”
She stormed out and into the living room, where Granny was doing her accounts at the table. “Trouble?” Granny asked, although she must have heard them yelling.
Winry stopped on her way to the front door. “Ed needs his wheelchair,” she said.
She wouldn’t put it past the idiot to haul himself back to his feet with one arm and try to complete the exercise on his own. That was probably what he was doing right now, actually; to sic Granny on him would slow him down.
Winry emerged from the house onto the front porch and blinked at the comparative brightness from the sun. She’d told Ed she was going to work on his arm and she would, in a minute, but she wanted to clear her mind first. Ed wasn’t the only one who needed a break—between working on his automail and helping him with his physical therapy, she barely had a minute to breathe.
It was a warm spring afternoon, sunny but not too uncomfortably hot, and the wind carried with it the scent of wild flowers. Winry saw Al sitting in the grass with Den, the dog’s head on his lap, and she trotted up to him.
He turned around before she could call his name. “Hey, Winry.” He’d developed an eerily accurate ability to identify the people who came near him, maybe because losing his sight had sharpened his other senses.
She dropped down next to him and started petting Den, who snuggled against Al’s stomach with a snort. Al’s bandages had come off a few weeks ago and he now wore sunglasses almost all the time. Having seen what his eyes looked like without them, Winry was secretly relieved at his choice. Even then she could see the edges of his burn scars poke out from under the glasses, red and shiny.
“Things didn’t go well with Ed, huh?” he said.
Had Al heard them fight with those new super senses of his? Or maybe he just knew her and his brother that well. Anyway, Winry knew an opening for a rant when she was presented with it.
“He’s pushing himself too hard! I know he made that stupid promise that he would recover in a year, but how many times do I have to tell him that this is not a race! Why does he have to do everything the hard way? I don’t understand why he’s in such a hurry to become a dog of the army!”
It was strange, now that she took a moment to think about it. She got that Ed wanted to be walking and functional as soon as possible, because it was hard on him to be so dependent on others—hard on them too, as he was not a compliant patient—but it didn’t completely explain his behavior. She knew Ed, and what she’d seen for the past few weeks was Ed on a mission. What was he up to this time?
She said that last part out loud, and Al’s mouth twisted. “He’s decided that when the time comes for him to learn waterbending, he’ll—find a way to heal me.”
Winry didn’t know what to say to this. It had been a couple of months since the fire, but she still couldn’t reconcile the idea of Ed, her loud, abrasive best friend, with a legendary figure like the Avatar. Resembool was too quiet, too normal for something out of a story, and Ed was, well, Ed. She’d known him forever. The Avatar couldn’t be someone as real as Ed.
“Do you think he can do it?” she asked.
“I don’t even know if it’s possible. Some of Dad’s books were about waterbending, but they only mentioned healing in passing, and I don’t know—I mean, maybe my injuries are too deep. But if someone can do it, I figure my brother’ll be the one.” Al had a slight smile, fond and proud. Contrary to Winry, he’d seemed to take his brother’s new status in stride—almost as though he’d always known, deep down. “And it gives him a purpose. He’s doing a lot better now.”
Ed had appeared revived by the visit of Lieutenant Colonel Mustang and Lieutenant Hawkeye, and Winry hadn’t been able to figure out why. It made sense, now: Ed had managed to move past his guilt because he’d found something to do about it. Or maybe he hadn’t really moved past it, but merely learned to work along with it—Winry remembered him after his surgery, and his fevered ramblings on how Al must hate him now.
“Are you mad at him?”
If Al’s eyes hadn’t been hidden behind his glasses, she was sure she would have seen them widen. “Mad at Ed? Why?”
“For the—” Winry waved to Al’s face, then blushed when she remembered he couldn’t see her. “For the fire. Your eyes.”
“Oh. I—no. It was an accident. And really, he got hurt a lot worse than I did in the fire.”
Al’s head was down, and there was something off about his body language. Once again, Winry wished she could see his eyes; Al’s eyes had never been able to hide anything.
“…are you feeling bad about what happened?” she asked, frowning in suspicion.
“It’s because of me that he got hurt. He jumped into a fire to save me, and—”
“He couldn’t let you just die!”
“He should have been trying to save himself!” In his lap Den whined, probably sensing Al’s distress, and raised wet worried eyes at him.
“Al,” Winry said gently, taking his hand. Al never refused physical comfort. “You don’t wish you were dead, do you?”
That thought—that Al felt bad enough that he would rather be dead—was so horrible that it made Winry’s chest hurt. Everyone felt bad for what happened to him, naturally, but Al had looked like he was handling it so well.
“No! Of course not. I’m glad to be alive. I just—I don’t know. It’s like you said—I wish my brother wouldn’t do everything the hard way.”
Winry sighed, snuggling closer to him. “You should talk to him.”
“You know how he is—he’s not going to believe me if I tell him it’s not his fault.”
“Then don’t tell him it’s not his fault. Just tell him that you don’t hate him.”
“I could never hate him!” Al said, clearly sharing Winry’s opinion that the mere idea was absurd.
“I know, but he needs to hear it anyway. Trust me.”
She didn’t explain further, because she didn’t like the idea of going behind Ed’s back and revealing things that Ed had only let out when he was too weak and sick to help it. Al hadn’t been there because Ed had expressly asked for it, probably not wanting his brother to see him in that much pain. She had a feeling he would have asked Winry out too, if it hadn’t been part of her apprenticeship.
Al didn’t answer, but she took his silence to mean that he would at least try. The quiet moment between them stretched a little longer, familiar and comfortable, and Winry lost herself in the contemplation of the landscape. The path leading away from their house wound in twists and turns over the hills, cutting through the soft-looking grass, and in the distance the crest of the low, dark green mountains flirted with a few fluffy clouds. It made her look at it with new eyes to know that Ed was going to leave it soon. It was so pretty and peaceful. Then she remembered that Al couldn’t see any of it, and she felt a sharp pang of guilt. Should she try to describe it to him? But Al knew what the sight from her house was like, they’d watched it countless times together as kids. Maybe she could just tell him about how the air was so clear today that they could see up to the Turners’ farm, or that one of the clouds looked like a giant wolf trying to swallow a fluffy sheep whole. Those were things he couldn’t know about.
Instead, she said, “You’re leaving with him, right?”
Al made a surprised sound, like he’d been so deep in thoughts that her talking had startled him. “For Central? Yes, I am. I can’t let him go on his own, he would get into so much trouble!”
Of course the brothers wouldn’t part willingly. They’d always functioned as a team, like they had their own little world Winry was only partly privy to. Since they’d left for Dublith with Izumi Curtis and the Rockbells had discovered that they were both earthbenders, Winry understood that the need to keep that particular secret had done a lot to make them that way. And it wasn’t that she blamed them for not telling her… No, actually, she was a little mad about it. She understood the need for secrecy, she really did—she’d heard the stories about those horrible prisons the government put foreign benders in—but why would they feel they had to keep it a secret from her?
“Winry?” Al asked, sounding anxious. “Are you mad?”
Winry blinked, finding that her vision had become misty. “I’m not mad!” she said, and gave Al a good shove. Den yelped and jerked away from them, then aimed a short, betrayed bark at Winry.
Sprawled on his back, Al shook his head at her. “You and my brother,” he said. “Always so violent!”
“Don’t be a baby. You and Ed spent six months getting your butts kicked by Mrs. Curtis, so I know you can take it. Okay,” she said, hauling herself up to her feet. “I need to get back to Ed’s arm. It’s going to be a masterpiece!”
Central City, 1911.
The only time they’d been through such a long train trip was when they’d gone to Dublith, and back then their excitement had overridden any discomfort they could experience. This time, Ed stepped out of the train feeling like he’d been put through the wringer and he grimaced, rubbing his right shoulder at the juncture between flesh and metal.
“Are you in pain, brother?” Al asked. He was wearing his glasses and holding a long cane that he swept in front of him, and he looked the very picture of harmlessness. Ed knew better.
“Will you stop monitoring me with your—” He caught himself in time. “—your thing?”
Ed could pick up someone’s heartbeat and roughly tell if they were lying or particularly upset, but he was far from having Al’s finesse. While Ed was going through rehabilitation hell, his brother had been practicing, and he was now able to tell emotions apart. His favorite guinea pig, of course, was Ed himself.
“It’s not like you’re going to tell me if something’s wrong,” Al said airily, avoiding a family coming the other way from them without using his cane; Ed was going to have to tell him to be careful with that.
“Nothing’s wrong! It’s just pain. I’m used to it.”
They emerged from the train station, and Ed blinked against the sunlight’s assault. It was pretty hot outside, too hot for wearing long sleeves and gloves like he did, but he didn’t want people to gawk at him. There also were a lot of people coming and going on the sidewalks, and so many cars in the street! Way more than in Dublith, not to say anything about Resembool. Maybe there had been as many in East City, but neither Ed nor Al had been in any shape to notice it. Ed saw Al tense, his knuckles becoming white as he clutched his cane tightly.
“Al? Are you okay?”
“Yeah… Um.” Al swallowed audibly. “That’s a lot of people.”
Al might have used Ed’s recovery time to develop picking up on emotions through earthbending as an art, but he never had the occasion to practice orienting himself with that many people trampling around.
“Do you want, uh, to hold onto me?” Ed offered.
Al smiled at him. “No, thank you. I have to get used to it.”
Ed took Al’s suitcase so his brother could concentrate on not walking into anything or anyone, and they made their way down the street and through the crowd. They had the address of Central’s military headquarter, and Ed had kind of assumed that they would walk there from the train station, but it seemed obvious now that they’d underestimated the sheer size of the city.
“Maybe we should take a taxi,” Ed said hesitantly. They’d never taken a taxi in their lives. How did you even tell them apart from normal cars?
“There should be taxis at the train station, right? Travellers need taxis.”
They backtracked to the train station, and there they found a few cars parked along the sidewalk with their drivers leaning over their open doors, seemingly waiting for something. They accosted one of them, trying to pretend that they knew what they were doing.
“Military HQ?” the taxi driver said after he’d had a glance at the address they’d handed out to him. “What the hell do you want to do there?”
“Mind your damn business!” Ed snapped, which made the man frown.
“Sorry about my brother!” Al hurried to say. “He’s tired from our trip. We need to meet someone there, that’s all.”
In a few minutes Al managed to charm the driver into letting them get on his taxi, even if the man shot a few more dirty looks in Ed’s direction.
“Nosy guy,” Ed murmured, and was sharply elbowed in the ribs by his brother.
The taxi ride lasted a while, and Ed unwillingly proved Al right by falling asleep half-way through it. When he was shaken awake by his brother, the first thing he saw was the imposing shape of Central’s HQ. He swallowed, feeling nervous for the first time since they’d left Resembool.
“Ed, we’re here,” Al said.
“Yeah, I can see that.”
The ride cost them an arm—ha!—and Ed wished he was able to tell whether they’d been ripped off, but maybe it was just that expensive in a big city. The flight of steps leading to the entrance looked daunting. If he gave his name at the reception, would they even know who he was? He had worked on the assumption that they would, but the building was so big, surely there were thousands of people in there, and maybe they hadn’t been expecting him so soon. If he asked for Mustang, would they let him see him? What if he was gone for the day?
“We should have called Lieutenant Colonel Mustang to say that we were coming,” Al said, in that bitchy tone of voice he used when he thought it was all Ed’s fault. “He probably didn’t expect you to do it in one year, and he thinks it’s another couple of years before you come to Central.”
“Well, that’s his failing! I said one year, and it’s been one year.” And two months, but let’s not nitpick. “Come on, let’s go already.”
He grabbed both his and Al’s suitcases and started climbing up the stairs without checking if Al was following. Al always ended up following him anyway. He was focused on the stairs—so many damn stairs!—and on not tripping up on them, because sometimes he still did that, when a familiar voice reached him from above.
“Elric! There you are.”
Ed raised his head to Mustang’s smug face. The man was going down the stairs, a stash of papers tucked against his chest.
“’Lo, Lieutenant Colonel,” Ed said, trying not to show how relieved he was to see a face he knew.
“I’m a Colonel, now,” Mustang said. “I’ve been promoted while you were slacking off. Ready for training?”
“Wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t ready.”
“Oh, you brought your brother with you,” Mustang said, his eyes looking past Ed. “Hello, Alphonse.”
“My brother brings himself,” Ed said, while Al echoed the greeting. He didn’t like Mustang looking at Al like this, not when the Colonel was aware of his brother’s secret. Who knew if they could rely on him to keep it?
“Let me take you two to the barracks, we’ll find you a room there,” Mustang said.
The room they ended up saddled with was small and drafty. The window didn’t close properly, and the walls were paper-thin, but Ed had always been able to sleep anywhere, so it didn’t bother him much. He still bitched about it to Mustang, just on principle.
“If the accommodations don’t suit you, Elric, nothing stops you from renting a room at a hotel. If you can afford it, of course.”
“You know we can’t, bastard.”
“Then stop complaining. I’ll leave you make yourself at home. Meet me tomorrow morning at 7, at training ground number 9.”
When Mustang had left, Al said, “You should try not to antagonize the Colonel so much, brother. He’s going to be your instructor and your superior officer.”
Ed flopped down on one of the beds. “So what?”
Al sighed noisily and grabbed his suitcase, putting it on the other bed. Despite his bravado, Ed felt a surge of uneasiness: maybe he should try to be less hostile to the Colonel, as the man was depositary to their deepest secrets. Mustang was so annoying, though, it was hard to resist arguing with him. And Ed figured that he was the kind of person who, if he were going to let out sensitive information, would do it because it benefited him, and not because he was annoyed with a twelve-year old.
The evening was uneventful, and Ed and Al were both so tired from their trip that they went to bed early instead of chatting until deep into the night like they usually did. Surprisingly, Ed had a lot of trouble sleeping, and he woke up wanting to punch something.
“Why wouldn’t that freaking kid shut up?” he grumbled to his brother around a mouthful of toothpaste and brush.
“Don’t speak with something in your mouth,” Al said as he made his bed like the neat freak he was. Ed’s blanket and sheet were all bunched up and would stay that way until he went to bed again tonight. “And what are you talking about? What kid?”
Ed spat in the small sink that was fixed in a corner of the room. Showers were shared by all the rooms on the floor, and he had already decided he would make use of the sink as much as he could—between the automail and the multiple burn scars, his body was a nasty thing to look at and he wasn’t ready to openly flaunt it.
“I don’t know, some kid. Not a baby, but a small kid—kept crying the whole night, I could barely get any sleep at all. Did you seriously not hear that?”
Al stopped smoothing his blanket and straightened up, tilting his head in Ed’s direction—this had become the equivalent to his former worried look. He was already wearing his sunglasses, even if it was just the two of them.
“I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “And I woke up a few times during the night. Maybe you just had a bad dream.”
“Maybe,” Ed conceded. He turned his back on his brother to splash some water on his face. He looked at himself in the small frameless mirror that was hanged over the sink and started braiding his hair. “You don’t have to wear your glasses when it’s just us, you know.”
In the mirror’s reflection he could see that Al had moved on to making Ed’s bed. It was unusual, and betrayed nervousness.
“You don’t like seeing my eyes,” Al said. “And it doesn’t make much of a difference to me, so…”
“It’s not that I don’t like—”
“So you do like seeing them?”
“Well, I—I’m just not used to it, you barely take off your glasses!”
“Brother.” Al stopped fussing with Ed’s bed, fists clenched to his sides. “I won’t let you use me to punish yourself. I don’t have to see your scars, so there’s no reason why you would have to see mine.”
I don’t have to see your scars. Ed’s hands clung tight to the edges of the sink. He knew Al hadn’t meant it as a snide reference to the fact that it was Ed’s fault that he couldn’t see, but it hit him hard anyway. In the mirror he saw Al angle himself toward Ed and open his mouth, probably sensing that he was upset.
“Don’t,” Ed said, and Al closed his mouth without saying a word. “I gotta go. Can’t be late for my first lesson in roasting people. See ya.” He left so quickly that it probably counted as running away, but he was cutting it a little close to Mustang’s meeting time, especially since he needed to figure out where the hell was training ground 9.
It didn’t take him as long as he’d feared to find it, because the building was built on a very strict geometrical pattern, and all the people he met were surprisingly helpful to the frazzled kid who was running around trying to find his way in what must have been the most important building in the country. Maybe they’d received orders to facilitate his way, in which case Ed was reluctantly grateful to Mustang.
Training ground 9 was a vast open space, surrounded by a covered gallery interspersed with the kind of square bare columns that Central’s architecture seemed to favor. The floor of the training ground was stone, and the earthbender in Ed couldn’t help getting a feel for it with a light twist of his foot.
Mustang was already waiting in the middle of the training ground, watching Ed approach with his arms crossed over his chest. He was wearing his uniform pants, but not the jacket part, and had rolled up the sleeves of his button-up shirt.
“You’re late,” he said, and Ed scowled.
“Only by a few minutes, jackass. I had to find the way on my own, as you didn’t take the time to explain to me how to get here.”
Mustang superbly ignored the comment, preferring to say, “Did you just use your trick?”
The little bit of earthbending he’d done had already told Ed that there was no one within hearing range, but he still shot a paranoid look around, and hissed at the Colonel, “Shut up! How did you know, anyway? Could you—feel it?” He knew non-benders couldn’t unless the ground actually shook or shifted, but he wasn’t used to other types of benders.
Mustang smirked a little. “No, I didn’t. But I noticed you doing something with your foot. You need to pay attention to that sort of detail on a battlefield.”
“I was just getting a feel for the stone we’re walking on.” They were now close enough to each other that even if someone was eavesdropping on them from behind one of the columns in the gallery, they wouldn’t be able to make out what they were saying. “It’s an earthbender reflex, that’s all.”
“Well, we need to force a whole new set of reflexes into you, firebender’s ones. You’re going to be too hot, strip down to your shirt.”
Mustang had seen him without an arm and a leg, and he must be familiar with burns, so Ed shrugged off his jacket and tugged at his gloves without too much self-consciousness. He left his clothes on one of the stone benches placed at the limits of the training ground.
“Okay, now, let’s work on your stance: your feet, wide apart—wider. Bend at the knees. Close your fists.”
Mustang kept adjusting Ed’s posture with words and little shoves until he was satisfied. Ed bore it with gritted teeth, because his earthbending training had instilled in him the notion that solid bending stemmed from a good stance.
“It will do,” Mustang eventually said.
Ed made himself wait a few long seconds before he asked, “What now?”
“Now you concentrate, and breathe.”
“The breath is a key point in firebending, so that’s what we’re going to work on. Come on, Elric—in through the nose, out through the mouth.”
“Are you freaking kidding me?”
Mustang raised an eyebrow at him. “You want to learn firebending or not?”
“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
“Do you want something like what happened last year to happen again?”
Touché. Ed had to bite his tongue to keep his temper in check. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s breathe.”
He took a few long, exaggerated breaths, but after a minute he got into it for real and he let his breathing flow more naturally. It actually sort of helped him calm down.
“Good,” Mustang said. “Keep at it. I’ll be back.”
“What?” Ed exclaimed, the breathing magic suddenly broken. “You’re leaving me? Where are you going?”
“I don’t think you need me holding your hand just to breathe, and to answer your second question: this doesn’t concern you, and you don’t need to know.”
He walked away, leaving Ed gaping at him. The nerve on that man! Was he even going to teach him firebending? Well, he didn’t have much of a choice on the matter either, since he couldn’t let a firebender wander around untrained, so Ed reassumed his stance and started breathing deeply until he’d gotten his cool back. He closed his eyes, and as his mind wandered off it felt natural to lose himself into the earth surrounding him. Widening his awareness he could feel the whole building, with its different floors and wings and never-ending corridors, and the vibrations from the people pacing through it, then he extended it again to a few of the buildings around. Retracing his way from earlier he found their room, and noticed that Al wasn’t there anymore. Finding Al among all the people walking in the neighborhood took him a while but he eventually recognized his brother’s stature and gait, as well as the light, barely there tap of his cane. Al was in front of the building, and there was someone else next to him.
When Ed opened his eyes after an undetermined amount of time he saw that the sun had changed position in the sky, but that Mustang hadn’t come back. What was that asshole doing? He was supposed to be teaching Ed, so surely he didn’t have another task that needed his attention right now. Was he—Ed’s blood pressure shot up at the thought—was he slacking off?
Ed didn’t have any other choice than to do as he’d been told and keep breathing, so he did, but his thighs were starting to hurt from the position and the sun was giving some real heat now, enough that it was beginning to feel uncomfortable. The longer he waited, the more Ed’s temper wore thin. He wasn’t trying to get out of learning firebending, okay? He was all for learning firebending! Now, if only someone was here to fucking teach him firebending!
“Damn Mustang,” Ed muttered through his teeth, his fingernails digging into his palms. Breathe in. “When he comes back—” Breathe out. Sweat was trickling down his back. “—will fucking shove—” In. “—my foot up his ass—” Out. “—will teach him—”
By the time Mustang sauntered back to the training ground, Ed was sweaty, sore, and ravenously hungry. Mustang said, “Oh, Elric! Still at it?” and Ed finally lost it.
“You!” he shouted, pointing an accusing finger at Mustang. “You left me here for hours! Where were you? What were you doing? You better have a good—”
“Well, well, all that breathing doesn’t seem to have calmed you down.” Mustang looked around, seemingly checking for something, and he had a slight smile. “I have another exercise for you, and then we’ll have lunch.” He took out a sheet of paper from his pocket, frowned at it, then tore a small piece of it. “Assume your stance again.”
“What?!” Ed was stiff from the hours he’d just spent in that position, and Mustang wanted him to do it again?
“Oh? Are you giving up? Do you want—”
“Okay, okay! Look at me, I’m doing it!”
When Ed was once again in the right stance Mustang held the piece of paper between his thumb and pointer, and fire spread around his fingers.
“Here,” he said to Ed, handing him out the paper with a ring of fire now burning a hole in its center. “You have to keep the fire from spreading to the edges, okay?”
“Good, see you later!”
“Wait, you’re leaving again?”
Mustang waved at him without turning around. “Keep the fire from spreading, Elric!”
But Ed could feel on his flesh thumb the heat of the fire devouring the paper and that brought his attention back to the task at hand. Stop the fire from spreading, all right. He’d shown himself utterly incapable of doing it when it counted, but this time there was a lot less fire to handle. Focus, Edward, focus. Despite what most people might think, he was actually quite good at focusing when he took something to heart. Looking at the ring of fire on the paper, trying to feel for it and contain it so it wouldn’t spread, he found himself naturally falling back into the breathing pattern he’d adopted for the previous exercise. In. Out. In. Out. Fragments of blackened paper fell from the center and onto the ground, but the fire seemed to have stopped its progression—or at least it wasn’t burning Ed’s non-metal fingers.
“Ready for lunch?”
Ed jumped at the sound of Mustang’s voice, almost losing control of the fire. “Hey, give a warning before you sneak up on people!”
Mustang, the bastard, was laughing at him. “I didn’t exactly sneak up on you, Elric. You just didn’t sense me coming. Some earthbender you make.”
“I was focusing on the fire!”
“Eventually, you’ll have to learn how to use several elements at the same time.” Mustang gave Ed’s burning paper an appraising look. “Good.” He took it away from Ed’s hand and snuffed the fire out. “Honestly, I have to say I’m impressed. I thought this ground would be scorched black by now.”
“You—” Ed felt anger bubble up his throat as he realized what Mustang meant. “You did this on purpose! You were trying to make me lose my temper? What kind of teaching method is that!”
“Losing your temper when you’re a firebender is dangerous—but you already know that.” Mustang gave Ed’s back a resounding slap. “You did a lot of better than I expected, Elric. You’re more disciplined than you look.”
“Hey, don’t forget I’ve had some training already,” Ed grumbled, swatting Mustang’s arm away. “My earthbending teacher wasn’t one to tolerate indiscipline. Me and Al had it hard.”
“That’s true,” Mustang said, looking at Ed thoughtfully. He started walking to the edge of the training ground and Ed followed him, his stomach grumbling eagerly at the thought of the promised lunch. “I almost forgot. I’m not used to teaching someone who’s already learned another type of bending.”
Ed ducked his head, feeling suddenly self-conscious in a way he rarely did. Of course Mustang had never taught someone like him, because there was no one like him. He’d known that he was one of a kind, obviously, but it had been an abstract notion until now. It made him consider what it meant to learn all the elements: sometimes it would be a hindrance, and there were some reflexes he’d need to unlearn to acquire a new kind of bending, but maybe sometimes part of the skills he’d learned could be transferrable. And once he’d mastered more than one element, he could find ways to combine them—immediately, his mind started rushing through the possibilities. Fire and Earth alone could make for interesting combinations—rock cracked and even melted under intense heat, so could he create lava, and then bend it? Temperature control might be a problem, though, because he would need to keep the lava from cooling down and solidifying too quickly, and—
“I was talking to you but you didn’t seem to hear me.”
“I was just thinking.”
“That sounds painful. About what?”
“About that’s none of your damn business, asshole.”
“Touchy, touchy.” They’d left the training ground and were going up one of the numerous staircases HQ held. “Maybe some lunch will improve your temper.”
Lunch was a quick affair, much to Ed’s disappointment. He wanted to collect Al so they could have lunch together, but Mustang was insistent that they keep their break short. The mess hall was wide and echoing, and most of the soldiers there kept giving Ed curious glances.
“Until they’re sixteen,” Mustang explained, “the firebenders are in military schools, so you’re by far the youngest person here. You’re a curiosity.”
“Lucky me,” Ed mumbled, pressing his automail arm against his side, childishly tempted to hide it behind his back—he’d forgotten to put his jacket back on.
Once they were done with lunch—the food was atrocious, and Ed had no qualms complaining about it at length—they went back to the training ground. A couple of men in uniforms were there, going through firebending forms, and Ed watched them, fascinated, as they whirled and punched the air, fire flying from their hands and feet. Mustang shooed them away, and then turned to Ed.
“Now, let’s try some fire.”
“Show me what you got. Try to make as big a flame as you can.”
Ed spread his feet, one in front of the other, and let his weight fall back on his right leg to give himself some momentum. He closed his fist, then hesitated. His heart was doing some erratic dance in his chest and his palm was sweating. He’d never voluntarily made fire before. He’d only ever—Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, keep it together.
“You take a deep breath,” Mustang instructed. “Contrary to the other elements, fire comes from within yourself.”
Ed did as he was told, ground his teeth, and then pushed forward, opening his hand palm first. Nothing came out.
“What—” He turned to Mustang, disconcerted. “What happened?”
Mustang was frowning, so this was definitely not normal. Ed’s stomach curdled, and he felt the food he’d wolfed down earlier roll nauseously.
“Maybe your automail is hindering the chi flow somehow. Try with your other arm.”
Ed tried, feeling sicker by the second, but once again nothing happened—not lick of flame, not even a puff of smoke. Could it be that they’d gotten it wrong the entire time? That Ed couldn’t firebend at all? That he wasn’t the Avatar, but just some normal kid who’d gotten caught into a bizarre misunderstanding? But no, no no no, that was impossible. The fire, that day—the one that had burned Al’s eyes—had come from him. It had surged from Ed’s hands and Al had shrieked—
A wave of nausea, and Ed had to say goodbye to his lunch. He threw up right down at Mustang’s feet, heaving and hacking, his eyes watering from the smell. He wiped his mouth with the back of his flesh hand, his face hot with shame.
“Sorry,” he murmured, keeping his eyes down so he didn’t have to face Mustang’s expression. Seeing the pool of his own vomit almost had him going again.
“Maybe we should call it a day,” Mustang said.
“What? No!” Ed looked up, suddenly incensed, and to his surprise there was absolutely no mockery on Mustang’s face. “I can try again! I’m just not used to it—this is different from earthbending—so I need to try again, to practice, and—”
“Elric.” Mustang’s voice had a hint of steel to it. “We’re stopping here for today. Go rest—spend some time with your brother. He must have been missing you today.”
Obviously this wasn’t open to discussion, and, for some reason, Ed didn’t want to push it like he usually would. In those soldiers’ practiced hands the fire had been mesmerizing, a feat of controlled power. In Ed’s hands, it had proven so far to only be a tool of destruction.
After his brother had left, Al found himself alone and uncertain what to do. They’d come here for a purpose, but it was Ed’s purpose, and Al was just tagging along. Was he supposed to stay here and wait for his brother? What else could he do?
He cleaned up the room as well as he could without seeing it—earthbending could only help him so far when it came to potential stains—but it was a small room, and they hadn’t been there long enough to start cluttering it. Al sat on his bed, submerged by a wave of homesickness. Following Ed had seemed so natural, but he wasn’t sure it was such a good idea now. Maybe he should just have stayed in Resembool. He wasn’t alone there—Granny Pinako and Winry would be happy to let him stay with them. It was home.
His chest felt tight in a way that meant he needed to cry, but his tear ducts had been damaged by the fire and he probably couldn’t even cry anymore. Instead he breathed deeply, waiting for the feeling to pass. Maybe when Ed came back, Al would tell him that he was going back to Resembool. It wasn’t like he was needed here, because for the first time in their lives, Ed had embarked on an adventure that left Al out. Al hadn’t let himself contemplate it before, but now that he was on his own with no other company than his thoughts, the idea raised its ugly head and kept poking at him: earthbending was something they’d learned together, their shared secret for as long as Al could remember; firebending was going to be Ed’s alone, and it was only his brother’s first step on a lonely path. There was, after all, only ever one Avatar at a time.
Al stayed there for a moment, just breathing until the pain in his chest started to subside. Half-decided on the idea that he would get back to Resembool and comforted by the thought, he told himself that he needed at least to keep himself busy for the day, so he took his cane and left the room.
From the barracks he walked around the buildings of Central’s HQ—he wasn’t sure he was authorized in there—and back to the front of the building, where they’d met the Colonel yesterday. It was early enough that there weren’t too many people out yet, no more than what he was used to in Resembool, so he technically didn’t need to use his cane but still applied himself to sweeping it in front of him so his cover wouldn’t be amiss. The sunrays caressed his face with their comforting warmth, but the smells were different from back home and the earth here felt compact and lifeless. Al was about to start walking down the street, wanting to practice using his earthbending in a big city, when a voice called his name, “Alphonse, is it? Good morning.”
It took him a few seconds to place the voice. “Oh, Lieutenant Hawkeye. Good morning.”
The woman’s voice had come from somewhere higher than him, and he heard her as well as felt the vibrations as she walked down the stairs to join him. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m just heading for a walk,” Al said, getting a bit nervous.
Was the army going to restrict his movements? Did Lieutenant Hawkeye want to keep an eye on him because she knew he was an earthbender? She’d sounded non-committal when she spoke and her heartbeat felt normal, but that didn’t tell him much about her intentions. He just didn’t know her enough—contrary to what Ed seemed to think, he couldn’t read other people as well as he could his brother, and that particular skill was the result of long and thorough observation.
“My brother is with the Colonel,” he continued, feeling a need to babble to hide his unease. “Learning firebending. I had nothing to do, so—”
“You can relax, Alphonse,” Lieutenant Hawkeye said, a smile in her voice. “I was just making small talk. I’m not about to stop you from doing whatever you want.”
“Don’t apologize, it’s normal for you to be nervous in your situation. Is it your first time in a big city?”
“Yes.” Lieutenant Hawkeye had a nice, low voice, and Al found himself soothed by it. “I mean, I’ve been to East City, I guess, but that was when I was hurt, so I didn’t get to actually experience the city.”
Now that he had broached the subject himself, he expected her to ask more about the fire or his injuries, but all she did was ask in the same conversational tone, “Do you have any plans to occupy yourself while your brother is learning firebending?”
Al felt himself blush, thinking back to his reflections from earlier. He didn’t want to tell the lieutenant that he wanted to go back to Resembool, because it made him feel like a little kid running off from the big, unfamiliar city.
“No, not really.”
“Hmm. Do you know how to read?”
“What? Of course I do!” Al exclaimed, indignant. “Resembool’s a small village, but we have a school, and our father had many books—”
“That’s not what I meant,” Lieutenant Hawkeye said. “There’s a specific tactile writing system made for blind people. I know this because there is a school for blind children next to where I live. They also teach other skills for the blinds, but you seem to be doing well by yourself.”
“Oh.” Al felt suddenly ashamed of himself—he’d acted just like his brother, getting offended on an assumption. “I didn’t know that. I’m sorry. Where’s this school? I would be very interested in learning this writing system.”
He hadn’t been able to read since the accident, and he missed it very much. Ed and he had spent so much time devouring their father’s library; it made him sad to think of all those books, burned to ashes, almost sadder than the loss of the house itself did. But if he could read that new system, and if the school agreed to let him borrow some books, that meant that a whole world would open up to him again.
“I can give you the address,” the lieutenant said. She must have been holding something in her arms, because the fabric of her uniform swished as she adjusted it. “And call a taxi to take you there.”
“How long does it take to walk to this school?”
“Then I don’t need a taxi. I can just go by myself.” He interpreted Lieutenant Hawkeye’s silence as doubt. “I’ll be fine. I don’t get lost, ever, because of—you know. And I want to practice it in a big city with many people.”
“I see. In that case—”
She gave him the address along with a few basic directions and they parted, with her getting back into the building and him starting to head in the direction she’d indicated. Even though it was still early, the streets were filling up pretty quickly, and Al soon felt some of the panic that had grabbed him the day before come back. He stopped, giving himself a moment to relax. You can do this. This can’t be worse than Teacher’s training, can it? She’d occasionally made them train blindfolded to better sense the vibrations from the earth, and he could only thank her for her foresight. He reduced his awareness of his immediate surroundings until he was less overwhelmed and could focus only on the people who could bump into him, and started walking again.
Once he’d stopped letting fear affect him and he’d started getting the hang of handling the crowd, he didn’t have too much trouble finding the school. He had to stop a few times to ask his way, and had to turn down offers to lead him to his destination by concerned passers-by, but he wasn’t especially in a hurry and even began to enjoy himself. The streets were a lot noisier than he was used to, from honking horns to the general hubbub of crowds, but it was actually nice, in a way: it made him feel anonymous, one among many, and there was relief in the fact that none of the people he came across knew about what had happened to him and his brother. When he arrived at the school, he hesitated a bit before knocking: shouldn’t he have phoned before he came? But Lieutenant Hawkeye hadn’t given him the school’s phone number, and he hadn’t made it this far for nothing, so he gathered his courage and rapped his knuckles against the door.
The woman who opened him had a shrill, unpleasant voice, and at first she thought he was one of the students and scolded him for being late. It took a few minutes before Al had the chance to speak, but eventually he managed to say, “Uh, no, I’m sorry, I’m not a student here.”
The woman paused in her rant. “Then what do you want?”
“I’m—a friend of mine told me about the school, and about the writing system for blind people, and I’m—” He gestured to his face. “I wanted to know if it was possible for me to take lessons?” He tried for his best smile.
The woman reluctantly let him in, and made him wait inside an echoing hallway while she went to see if the headmistress would receive him. While he waited, Al used his earthbending to get a feel for the building: it was a small, two-story structure with a courtyard that joined it to another building, probably dorms for the students. A faint smell of cabbage floated around, and although Al wasn’t overly fond of cabbage, his stomach rumbled a bit. He hadn’t had any breakfast, and he wasn’t sure where he was going to get lunch.
The headmistress, when she finally received him, apologized for making him wait. Her voice was soft and musical, she smelled like crushed flower petals, and Al felt immediately at ease in her presence. She reminded him of his mother, he realized after a few minutes—not that he had more than a few blurry memories of her, so it was just a general feeling of warmth and comfort.
“It’s a bit late in the school year to register,” the headmistress was saying, the music of her voice breaking through his thoughts, “but one of our students had to go back home for health-related reasons, so—”
“Oh no,” Al said, waving his hands. “I don’t want to register to the school, I just—I heard about the writing system and I—”
“Hmm. How old are you, Alphonse?
“And how long have you been blind?”
“A little over a year.”
Had it been a year already? Al could still remember the blue of the sky, the green of Resembool’s hills, the rich brown hues of the earth, his element. He couldn’t get rid of the feeling that the darkness was temporary, that colors would return to him soon, and he was unpleasantly jolted by the idea that he would eventually come to forget the faces of everyone close to him, like he’d forgotten his mother. He would forget his brother’s features, the way he smiled.
“Hmm. Firebenders, I’m guessing,” the headmistress said. “I know those scars.”
The headmistress sounded sympathetic, but there was an edge to the way she said the word ‘firebenders’. He’d heard that edge before from other people, though he hadn’t fully understood it before the accident. Fire had been the last thing he’d seen, and it had taken everything with it.
“It was an accident,” he said.
It was all he wanted to say on the topic, but the headmistress didn’t seem to take the hint. “Firebenders don’t care who they hurt. They’re a force of destruction. So many of our students have been victims of one of those so-called ‘accidents’—you don’t have to pretend, Alphonse.”
“It was an accident,” he repeated tightly, fingers digging into his thighs.
“All right,” the headmistress said gently. “It’s all right, Alphonse, we don’t have to talk about it.”
She spoke with the kind of voice people used on spooked animals, and it made Al’s hackles rise that she so obviously didn’t believe him, that she probably thought he was just too traumatized to face what had happened. But all he could think was, I’m glad my brother isn’t present for this. Even if Al had been mad about Ed burning him, even if he’d felt resentful, he could never have engineered worse tortures to punish him than what Ed was already inflicting on himself.
“So what you want is lessons to learn the writing system,” the headmistress said, filling in the awkward silence that had settled between them.
“Yes. Yes, please, if it isn’t too much trouble. I miss reading,” he said, unable to keep the longing out of his voice.
“Well, I’m sure it can be arranged. Here’s what we’re going to do: I’ll talk to my teachers, and if you come back tomorrow we can discuss the conditions. What do you think?”
“That sounds great, thank you so much! I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“Do you need someone to take you back?”
“No, I walked here. I can find my way back, this is not a problem.”
Al could tell that the woman was surprised, but to her credit she didn’t push the issue and let him leave on his own. On his way back to HQ Al caught the delicious whiff of grilled meat and stopped to buy himself lunch. As he made his way back to their room in the barracks, enjoying the smell of his meat sandwich and salivating in anticipation, he sensed that his brother was already there.
“Brother?” he said as he opened the door. “Back already? I thought the Colonel would hold onto you for the day.”
Ed didn’t say anything, which didn’t bode well. He was on his bed, lying on his back but with his feet still on the ground, and Al could feel the erratic beating of his heart. His brother was upset, but not angry-upset—Al could tell the difference, and, besides, an angry Ed was not a silent Ed.
Al put his food down on the nightstand by his bed, mourning it already, and he went to sit next to his brother, but not so close that Ed would feel crowded. “What happened?” he asked quietly.
“Nothing,” Ed said in an odd, flat voice that Al was only familiar with from his brother’s blackest moods.
He contained a sigh. Most people knew the energetic, high-strung side of Ed, but every high must be counter-balanced by a low, and it was Al’s job to deal with him when he was in a mood. Whenever he thought about it he was grateful for his own more even temperament, because Ed’s way looked exhausting from where he stood.
“How was your lesson?” he asked, deciding it was better not to confront Ed head-on. “Did you get along with the Colonel?”
“Bastard left me for hours to a breathing exercise.” Some indignation was seeping into Ed’s monotone, which encouraged Al to go on.
“Well, he must have had his reasons. What else did you do? Did you make some fire?” He tried his best not to react to the idea, but of course he wasn’t the only one who could read a heartbeat.
Ed sucked in a breath. “No,” he said. “No fire.”
“Oh. Why not?”
“I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make a flame.”
Oh. Wait, what? “What do you mean you couldn’t?” Ed’s fire was seared into Al’s memory—he definitely could make a flame.
“I mean I couldn’t!” Ed jerked into a sitting position, making the bed shake with the motion. “I tried but I couldn’t! I don’t know what—I don’t know how—” Ed took a few breaths, and Al could feel how hard he was trying to calm down. “That’s not true, though. I think it’s because I’m scared. I’m scared, Al.”
“Brother… You’re not—” Al’s throat felt tight, and he couldn’t get the rest of the sentence out.
“Don’t tell me I’m not going to hurt anyone! I already did—I hurt you!”
Al felt once again that awful ache from the tears he couldn’t shed anymore. Myriads of emotions and thoughts whirled inside his mind, too quickly for him to be able to pin one of them and make sense of it. He remembered the loathing he’d heard in the headmistress’s voice when she’d talked about firebenders, and it killed him to hear the same sentiment in his brother’s. That woman didn’t know anything—she didn’t know how much his brother hated himself for what had happened, neither did she know that Al would gladly trade one of his other senses if it would bring Ed peace of mind.
“I know,” he said, trying to keep his voice from getting strangled. Winry had told him once that he should let Ed know that he didn’t hate him, but he’d never found a natural way to bring it up. “I’m not going to pretend that I don’t wish I could see, or that what happened didn’t suck very much, but—”
“But I’m not mad at you! I don’t blame you, I never did.” Ed made a sound, presumably to protest, but Al had finally found a feeling to hold onto, and, surprisingly enough, it was anger. Anger at the situation, and anger at his brother, but not for the reason Ed probably thought. “And don’t pretend to know what I feel or should feel better than I do! You’re always doing this, reacting to things before I have the time to figure them out myself!”
“No, of course I don’t—Ugh!” Ed fell back on the bed. “This sucks.”
“I don’t hate you,” Al said, hurrying into the opening that was offered to him to finally say it. “I don’t. I couldn’t—because you’re my brother, the only family I have left, and because you’re you. I don’t want to lose you! Don’t you get that?”
Ed was silent for a moment. When he spoke, he sounded exhausted. “I just don’t understand why any of this is happening. I have these, these powers—this destiny—and I don’t know what it means! What are the spirits thinking anyway? This doesn’t make sense! Why elect one person at a time and dump all this bullshit on them? What can one person do on their own?”
Al took a deep breath to calm himself. He was not as quick to anger as his brother was, but also couldn’t let go of it as easily. Ed’s sad, tired voice went straight to his heart, though, and that helped him cool down. This was his big brother, whom he loved best in the world, and what affected him naturally ricocheted onto Al too. He had lost sight of this when he had been feeling sorry for himself earlier this morning.
“You’re not on your own, Ed,” he said. “You never are. I may not be the Avatar, but we’re a team, remember?”
He closed a fist and reached out in his brother’s general direction. After a few seconds he felt cool metal knuckles bump against his.
“Thank you,” Ed said. He sounded a little too fragile for Al’s taste, but it would have to be enough for now.
Roy had all afternoon to think about how to handle Edward’s problem. He’d been in the military for the best part of his life, and had gone through one of the nastiest conflicts their country had ever known, so he had no difficulties recognizing the root of the problem, and thought the boy probably knew deep down what it was, too. He’d seen it many times before, firebenders who’d gotten scared of their own fire so badly that they couldn’t produce a flame at will anymore. But if repression was bad for everybody, it was deadly in a firebender: the fire wouldn’t stay contained, and if the bender didn’t have proper control it would lash out at unpredictable moments, and in the most destructive way. Edward had been through this already and probably couldn’t afford another blow of that kind. Besides, he was the Avatar, and the Avatar must learn all four elements. There was no going around this.
“Well, what you need to do is provoke him until his fire comes out,” was Hughes’ rather unique piece of advice.
“Let me get this straight: you propose that I just set off the bomb and be done with it?” Roy said into the phone, deadpan.
He ignored Hawkeye’s increasingly pointed looks at the pile of documents that were awaiting him on his desk. Hughes and he had been talking for a while, and he knew that paperwork was piling up, but for once they were discussing something of work-related importance and Roy valued Hughes’ insight on the matter—he was a rather intuitive man, and the fact that he wasn’t a bender made him approach the problem differently from Roy. He didn’t know about Edward’s true nature—or at least he shouldn’t know, because no line was secure enough for that secret—but Roy had dropped enough hints about it that he thought his friend probably had an inkling.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Hughes said, then paused in his sentence to cheerfully shout ‘in a minute!’ to the irate voice that was asking him to hang up. “You said that this kid would eventually blow up, whether he wants it or not. Wouldn’t it be better for him to blow up when he’s with an experienced firebender who can dispel his fire?”
“Hmm.” Hughes might have a point, here. “Was that flattery I just heard? I already told you that if you gave me any more details about your wife’s pregnancy, I would start pretending I’ve never heard of you in my life.”
“Aw, Roy, you wound me! You wound me, I tell you! Any moment now your godchild is going to come into the world, and—”
“I’m going to hang up now. I have a lot of work to do, and Hawkeye might start shooting at me anytime.”
“Oh, so I guess you don’t want me to tell you more about that killer in the East?”
Having a discussion with Hughes was always an exercise in conversational whiplash, so it only took Roy a few seconds to get what he was referring to. “The one you think is murdering firebenders? Were you able to ascertain that it’s the same person?”
Hughes’ voice went low and quiet. “The MO is certainly the same. It’s too weirdly specific not to be, even though we’re still not quite sure how he’s doing it.” He paused. “You be careful, Roy. If we’re indeed dealing with a serial killer targeting firebenders, you’re high profile enough that he’ll eventually come to you.”
“Was that flattery again?”
“You need to learn how to take a compliment like a man, Roy. Watch your back, would you—watch that little protégé of yours too.”
“I will. I promise.”
They ended the conversation on that unusually subdued note, and Roy was left with way too many things to worry about. Hawkeye, who could always read him like an open book, asked him, “Are you all right, sir?”
Roy started shuffling through the paperwork on his desk. There was nothing he could do about the killer in the East for the moment, so what he needed to do what to focus on Edward.
“I’m just going through my options, lieutenant.”
“That sounded very ominous, sir.”
The next morning, Roy met with a disturbingly quiet Edward on training ground 9. Roy considered asking him if he was all right, but decided that the boy probably wouldn’t react well to pointed concern.
“Ready for training, Elric?” he said instead, thinking that acting like nothing unusual had happened the day before was the best course of action.
“Yeah, sure,” Edward mumbled, eyes cast down.
“Okay, so we’re going to go together through a few basic forms. We’re not going to make any fire for now, just work on the forms.”
They worked at it for a full hour, until sweat made Roy’s shirt stick to his back. Edward was docile, if not completely focused, and it gave Roy flashbacks to the first time he’d ever seen the boy, lifeless and dull-eyed, his will to fight having been crushed to pieces.
Well, he thought, this isn’t going to work. He needed to change his approach.
“Okay,” he said loudly, making Edward look up in surprise. “This isn’t working at all.”
“What? I’m doing everything you say!”
“If what I wanted was someone to meekly do my bidding, I would just get a dog.”
“You—hey, asshole, neither of us were given a choice in this. This isn’t about what you want, or about what I want—”
“This isn’t true, Edward,” Roy said in a low, quiet voice. The use of his first name captured Edward’s attention, and Roy was graced with the full weight of the boy’s golden eyes. “I gave you a choice: become a firebender, or spend the rest of your life a crippled, purposeless broken doll in a military hospice. You could have chosen the latter. If you’re going to give up, maybe you should just have gone for that option.”
Edward’s eyes narrowed. “You bastard. How dare—”
“What’s it going to be, Elric? You were about to die in that fire—you know that, don’t you. Are you going to ruin your second chance?”
“Stop it.” Edward’s fists were clenched so hard his flesh hand had to hurt.
“You hurt your brother.” Edward flinched, and Roy felt a flicker of discomfort at the thought that he was crossing a line. It wasn’t enough to stop him, though. “You blinded him. Is it going to be for nothing?”
“Stop it, don’t talk about my brother! Shut up!”
“What’s Alphonse going to think? He lost his sight, left everything he knew behind for you, and now you’re going to throw it in his face—”
Edward’s automail hand slashed through the air, leaving a trail of flames behind it that Roy cut through with his arm.
“There you are,” he said, mouth curving with the beginning of a smile. “You do have some fire left in you, after all.”
Then, not giving Edward time to process, he punched a fireball through the air. Edward let out a yelp but instinctively crossed his wrists in front of his face, blocking the fire.
“What are you doing?”
“Stay sharp, Elric!”
Roy threw more fire at the boy, who ducked headfirst and rolled on the ground. “You’re crazy!” he shouted. When Roy spun on himself, creating a whirlwind of flames, Edward stopped it by punching the ground and erecting a low wall of stone.
“Okay,” Roy said, casting a quick glance around. “Get rid of this before someone sees it.”
“Are you going to attack me again?” Edward asked grouchily, but smoothed the stone ground back to its usual flatness. “There’s no one nearby anyway. What the hell got into you? Are you insane? I could have—”
“You couldn’t hurt me if you tried, Elric. You may be—what you are, but I have years of experience on you.”
Edward was still on the ground, sitting on his butt with his legs spread wide, and he leaned back on his hands. “Well, you could have hurt me.”
“You seem to be made of sturdy stuff. You’re fine, aren’t you? Anyway, my point was—”
“Oh, because you had a point?”
“Absolutely, you insolent punk, and it was that you might not be in full control of your fire yet, but it’s part of you anyway. This is what it means to be a firebender.”
Edward crossed his legs, letting his mismatched hands fall into his lap. “I’m not a firebender,” he murmured.
“Of course you are. You can make fire, so you’re a firebender. It’s that simple. And if you keep denying it, the fire’s going to control you. You’re here to learn, and I wanted you to see that you cannot hurt me.” He didn’t say that Edward shouldn’t be afraid of getting hurt either, because he had a feeling that despite his previous words, this wasn’t what really worried him.
“Okay,” Edward said after a moment of silence. He picked up a piece of gravel from the ground and threw it in the air, then caught it with one hand. It looked like an absent-minded gesture until he hurled it at Roy with lightning speed.
The stone caught Roy in the shoulder with unnatural force, probably boosted by earthbending, and Roy recoiled from the impact with a pained groan. “You brat!” This was going to leave a bruise, damn it. “What was that for?”
“Ha!” Edward jumped back to his feet, eyes blazing once again. “That’s payback, asshole! And one day, I’ll know enough to do it with fire!”
Roy groaned again and closed his eyes, raising his face to the comforting warmth of the sun. This training was going to be a challenge on so many levels. And yet, Roy was in a better mood than he’d been in a very long time. Challenging also meant interesting.
East City, 1914.
“Colonel? Colonel! Hey, bastard!”
“Hmm? What’s your problem this time, Elric?”
“You zoned out on me. You made me come here, you could at least listen when I’m talking to you!”
Ah, it was possible that Roy had gotten lost in his memories. It was rude, but Roy wasn’t about to lose ground to Edward—who, let’s be real, wasn’t himself the epitome of polite behavior—so he didn’t apologize.
“I doubt you were saying anything of great importance,” he said, then continued over Edward’s offended splutters, “I actually had something important to say to you, so please file your complaints for later.”
“What is it? Some stupid mission again?”
“You might not find the mission so stupid after I’m done explaining it to you. You see, someone has been killing off firebenders all over the country. Probably has been at it for years, but it was a while before we could connect the murders with each other, so it’s possible that we missed some of the earlier ones. Now for the hot news: the killer has come to East City, and their latest victim is General Basque Grand.”
Edward’s eyes widened and he dropped the arm he had been resting his chin on, straightening up in his seat. “Basque Grand? Are you serious? I thought this guy was a force of nature or something.”
So had Roy; Basque Grand had been one of their most powerful firebenders, one of the rare to make it to the rank of a general. It was chilling that this killer—Scar, Hughes said he’d been nicknamed in Central—had been able to take down the Dragon of the West.
“Even the mighty fall, Elric. But this isn’t the interesting part: after the killer’s recent foray into East City, I got some detailed reports on his MO. We already knew that all the victims had died from a lack of oxygen, but that there were no signs on their bodies of them being strangled or smothered.”
“Get to the point, Colonel,” Edward said tightly. Roy could see that his quick mind had already started to put the pieces together, but that he wanted confirmation before he got his hopes up.
“Basque Grand’s death had some witnesses, though. Apparently it was quite a spectacular fight, as it would have to be to kill such a powerful bender. Anyway, getting to the point: all the witnesses agree on the fact that the killer was an Ishvalan airbender.” He waited a few seconds to let that information sink in. “We thought all the airbenders were gone, but it looks like we were wrong. Congratulations, Edward: we just found you an airbending master.”
Edward flung a hand over his eyes and started to laugh, a sound of savage amusement. “Are you kidding me? You find me an airbending master and he’s a serial killer?”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Roy said offhandedly. “As far as we know, he’s the only airbender left from the civil war. He’s very dangerous, though, so you will be getting an escort from now on. I gave the order to apprehend him rather than kill him, and then we’ll just have to convince him to teach you airbending, while of course keeping the whole process a secret. Child’s work.”
Roy caught a sliver of gold from in-between Edward’s fingers. “Child’s work, huh?” the boy said. “Good thing I’m a child, then. Well, Colonel—you know how much I love a challenge.”
Life, Roy thought, had a roundabout way to make sure you fulfilled your destiny. Through all the trials and disillusionment and horrors he’d weathered, he’d always wanted to make a difference. Something was wrong about the world they lived in, and it wasn’t in him to meekly accept it without trying to change it. Once upon a time he’d thought that becoming the Fuhrer was the only way to do it. Now, he knew that his role was to clear the path for the Avatar to save the world.