Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist (fusion with Avatar: the Last Airbender)
Word count: 19730 words
Characters: Roy Mustang, Edward Elric, Alphonse Elric, Riza Hawkeye, Winry Rockbell, Pinako Rockbell, King Bradley, Maes Hughes.
Summary: 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.
When Roy Mustang went to investigate an instance of illegal firebending, he didn't expect to find something that would change the course of his life: the new Avatar, who carried on his shoulders the hope for a new world.
A/N: Written for the Fusion Fest 2016. The idea of a fusion between Fullmetal Alchemist and Avatar the Last Airbender is one that I started to play with over a year ago, but this fest gave me the incentive to actually start writing it, and for that I'm grateful. Thank you to my friend boudour for her help with the story!
Link to the fic on AO3
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 closer 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 Ishbal. 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 Ishbal too.”
Mrs. Rockbell huffed again. “My older son was drafted during the civil war, died in Ishbal. 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 has 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 earthbended 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 inch more. 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 Ishbal 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!”