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 don’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 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 not 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 a 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 into 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 Ishbalan 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.
A/N: If you have made it this far, I hope you enjoyed the story! It was tremendous fun to try to adapt the Avatar mythology to the FMA universe. To make it work I had to tinker a bit with the timeline--some of you might have noticed that Mustang (and Hughes and Hawkeye along with him) was aged up, or that Winry's parents didn't die in Ishbal, etc. I hope it all made sense.
This fic is supposed to be the introduction to a longer 'verse, so if you felt that some things were left hanging, fear not! This was on purpose (or should be...). There's a lot of worldbuilding and plot that I haven't shared in this story.