"Tell me, Roy Mustang, exactly what you've got planned."
He blinked, the only actual surprise he allowed himself at the order from Izumi Curtis. "I'm afraid I don't know - "
"Oh, cut the crap," she snapped, "you aren't going to hide out here in Rush Valley forever. It's a waste of your talents, and even I know that, if I hate the fact that you were a dog of the military, and fought in Ishbal." Her mouth turned down. "But you're helping my stupid apprentice, and Winry, so I guess there has to be good in you somewhere."
"Thank you," Roy got out before she went on.
"But, if you think I'd believe you're not going to do something, that you aren't working an angle, you're wrong." Izumi folded her arms, glaring at him, and Roy was glad he'd become almost immune to Riza's glowers, as this woman's were almost scarier. "So, tell me what it is."
"Perhaps we should save this for later," Roy said, wanting to buy himself a little bit of time.
Eyes narrowing, Izumi nodded once curtly. "All right. I expect this to happen shortly, 'Shen'."
"Tonight. After supper," Roy promised. And hoped Riza didn't skin him alive for tipping their hand so early in the game. He figured he'd better explain it to her sooner rather than later, otherwise, he'd be in even hotter water. "Damn it."
"Next stop, Central City!" the conductor shouted, "Central City. Prepare to disembark in Central City!"
Ed jerked awake at the shout, a cold sweat breaking out over him. He glanced around, not seeing anyone paying any attention to a red-haired kid. Stretching his arms over his head, he grabbed his suitcase, preparing to leave the passenger car when the train pulled into the station. It was about another twenty minutes before the train was actually stopped next to the platform, and Ed waited for some of the older passengers to leave the train first. He climbed down the steps, his boots clattering on the concrete platform. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to begin walking toward the soldiers, absently watching the passengers. Ed stopped in front of them, making himself smile. Testing the color of his hair as a disguise. "Can you tell me with the military headquarters are?"
They looked down at him, and Ed hoped he looked innocent enough, and not as terrified as he felt. "You're too little to sign up for the military," the taller man said, laughing.
Ed kept his hands from making fists, but it was a real effort. "Is that so," he said through gritted teeth. "Well, what if I just wanna see where my dad used to work, before he died?"
"Oh, sorry, kid." The taller soldier gave him a sheepish look. "Yeah, you can just take the street outside the station, here, north, and follow it for about twenty blocks, then turn east, and you'll run into the headquarters." He pursed his mouth then, and reached into his pocket. "Here." He gave Ed a handful of cenz. "Take that and get a cab."
Surprised, Ed gaped at the money, then up at the soldier. "Thanks, sir," he said, and hurried off before the soldier could change his mind. He managed to make it out of the station, down the stairs, and out onto the street before he lost control of his mouth, though he didn't scream like he would've not so long ago. "Short," he growled under his breath. "Damn it. I'm not." Swallowing down the rest of it, Ed spotted a cab and made his way to it. Opening the door, he said, "Can you take me to the military headquarters?"
The driver stared at him in the rearview mirror like he had two heads or something. Tugging his hat down lower on his head, he said, "Sure, kid, wherever. Long as you've got money to pay."
"I've got almost a thousand cenz." He showed the cabby the handful of money.
His moustache twitched. "All right, kid, military HQ it is." He started the car. "Sit back and I'll take you there."
Ed leaned back in the seat, watching out the window as the streets passed by. Halfway to the headquarters, he changed his mind. "Can you take me to the military cemetery, instead?"
The driver glanced in the rearview mirror. "You're the boss," he said, and turned at the next corner.
The drive took them through some residential neighborhoods, and Ed felt a slight pang when he saw a street sign for Mayflower Street. Damn it, Hughes, he thought, you should figure out a way to go home to your wife and child.
And you? Are you going to find a way to go home to your brother and Winry?
He shook his head, trying to blot out the question. "Shut up," he mouthed.
The snake subsided with a chuckle, and Ed bit his lower lip, looking out the window again. When manicured lawns gave way to a high, brick wall, he knew they were close and readied himself to leave the cab.
"Do you need me to wait?" the driver asked.
"No, I…I can walk. Thanks, though." Ed paid the driver, then watched the car drive off. He waited a few minutes before turning to the open gate. Refreshing his grip on his suitcase, he started up the walk and through the entrance, a weird sensation spinning through his gut at the idea of visiting his own tombstone.
The sun burned down on the top of his head. His eyes stung behind his glasses. Ed ignored both to make his way along the pathways. A groundskeeper directed him toward the right area of the cemetery, and, when Ed finally reached the place where his tombstone stood, there was already someone there.
He paused, straightening automatically, then taking a surreptitious look around. Who knew if the military was guarding his gravestone, and it wasn't like he could actually ask. He might've destroyed Envy, Lust and Gluttony, but that didn't mean there weren't more homunculi around, just waiting.
Why would they want you?
That question bothered Ed, too. Why go through the trouble of dragging him out to the western border and throwing him in a brothel? Why not kill him? They'd tried to obliterate him by telling everyone who cared about him he was dead, but took him and hid him away, instead. Whatever the hell they wanted, they – the military, or maybe just the Fuhrer? – needed him alive. The fact he'd escaped probably played holy hell with whatever their plans were, which made Ed think he was probably stupid, actually leaving the train station, not to mention walking around the cemetery, near his supposed grave.
Taking a deep breath, he continued along toward it, angling so he could try to see who was visiting the stone. It was a tall man, with broad shoulders and dark hair. Ed caught sight of a beard, which meant it wasn't anyone he recognized – the Fuhrer just had a moustache, and was taller and broader, both. Ed still took his time on the approach, not wanting to appear hesitant, but also not wanting to interrupt this guy standing in front of his grave. Who the hell was it, anyway? Why would a stranger be standing there? Was he waiting to see if someone showed up? Al or Winry? Or even him?
The snake remained silent while Ed chewed his lower lip, finally deciding not to wait any longer. He stepped up to the tombstone, reading over the words and numbers that described his life in ways the military could understand. The man shifted sideways, allowing Ed a chance to stand almost directly in front of the grave. Words failed him at what he felt, standing here.
The man next to him cleared his throat, startling Ed. He shot a wide-eyed glance toward the man, who said, "I knew him. Ed, I mean."
He snapped his mouth closed. "Uh."
"Not well, I mean, it's been years." The man shook his head. "A really long time."
Swallowing, Ed managed to strangle out, "Oh, really?"
He smiled, facing Ed. "Yeah. We grew up in the same little town, a little sheep-farming community, Rezembool." Smile fading, he shook his head. "Now Ed's whole family is gone."
Coughing, Ed thumped his fist into his chest a couple of times. "'Zat so?"
"His mother died, his father disappeared – so did his brother. The family that took care of the brothers, well, they're gone, too." He lowered his head so his bearded chin touched his chest. "They were good people, all of them."
So, he knew about Pinako. And he had that faint Rezembool drawl. Ed still wasn't sure, though. The guy seemed familiar in some way, but he wasn't sure why. And it wasn't like he could ask, right? He bit his lip to keep from smiling. "So, wha'd your family do in Rezembool? Sheep?"
A grin split his beard. "No, my family's into cattle. My little sister, Nelly, she's probably going to inherit the herd, though. I left Rezembool years ago to continue my studies in medicine. I'm a doctor now."
Shit. Shit. He was that Todd brat, the one who'd been so mean to him when they were kids. A couple of years older – no wonder he didn't recognize the man; Michael Todd left Rezembool a long time ago. Ed remembered all too well Michael'd been the first of the kids to tease Winry about her parents dying in Ishbal, and he'd jumped him over it. Being bigger, older, and stronger, Michael'd beaten him into the ground. Winry, though, she'd been so damned smart. She'd figured out a way to get Michael and the older guys back using a rotten pumpkin and a catapult she'd designed and they'd all built together, her, Al and him. Pinako hadn't even scolded them, she'd been laughing too hard.
Todd continued, "I can't really do anything about it, what happened. But I wanted to pay my respects." He nodded at the flowers on the grave.
"Uh, me, too," Ed muttered. He tucked his hands and his suitcase behind his back.
"I guess I should let you get to it, then," Todd said. He nodded at Ed as he walked away.
Ed glanced back at him, frowning. A doctor? He remembered Todd being sent away to go to school, vaguely, but not the reason why. Shaking off the thought to follow Todd, Ed turned his attention back to the white marble in front of him. Todd had left behind a bouquet of tulips, bleeding red onto the grass from their paper sheaf. Setting down the suitcase, Ed snorted, rubbing a hand over his hair and thoroughly messing it up. He squatted in front of the stone, leaning his elbows on his knees. "So, this is your life, huh? Cut and dried." Nothing about his mom, his brother, just the years of his birth and 'death', his rank and his name.
Standing up, Ed stretched his arms over his head and cracked his spine. He used that motion to look around, making sure there wasn't anyone nearby. He shouldn't do this, he knew he shouldn't. You're going to get caught. Do you want that? You'd like that, wouldn't you? It'd keep you from your brother. Ignoring the snake's voice, Ed pressed his hands together, then touched them to the marble. The change wasn't immediately evident, but Ed figured someone would notice it eventually. Whistling, he grabbed his suitcase and started walking back toward the cemetery gateway.
Ling sat on the roof of Dominic's house, trying not to listen to the sounds coming from inside. Ran Fan insisted he stay away while Dominic and Winry worked with her in rehabilitation. He wasn't sure how Alphonse and Paninya could sit in the shade of the house, playing with the baby, while Ran Fan grunted and whined. He could hear her pain, and it made his hand clench around the hilt of his sword. She should not have had to suffer this way, not due to his foolishness. Just because he felt the strange ki of the Amestrian Fuhrer did not mean he needed to challenge the man. If he hadn't, if they'd run, Ran Fan might not be going through this agonizing procedure.
"Ling," Alphonse called, "come down here."
Paninya stepped out of the shade to wave at him. "You're not doing anyone any good sitting up there. Come down and join us."
He would've rather stayed on the roof, but, with a sigh, Ling hopped down. Paninya promptly handed him a basket. "Satella needs some help cleaning vegetables. You have that big knife, you can peel these potatoes, can't you?"
"This is a sword," Ling sniffed. "It is not used to peel vegetables!"
"There's a paring knife in the basket," Alphonse said helpfully as he dandled the baby on his knee.
Ling gave him a look. "I am not a scullery maid."
"You still can help. It'll keep you from chewing your nails and taking that sword to the roof." Paninya grinned when Ling glared at her. "Come on, it'll take your mind off of what's happening inside."
Huffing, Ling moved aside the potatoes to find the knife. He studied it as if it was a snake that might bite him, finally taking the handle and a potato. He only cut his thumb once while peeling the tubers, and considered that an accomplishment. The potatoes finished, he stretched, shaking his arms. Glancing around, he realized that while he was peeling, Alphonse and Paninya had disappeared with the baby. The sounds within the house were low now, comfortable and comforting. Making a face at the basket of peeled potatoes, Ling realized they'd done their duty. With a sigh, he picked up the basket and carried into the house.
It was cooler inside than out, the thick walls of the home protecting it from the midday sun. Satella nursed her son at the table, Paninya, Winry and Ran Fan sitting with her, while Alphonse sat, lotus-fashion, on the floor, his eyes closed as Winry ran her fingers through his hair. Ling could hear Dominic and his son somewhere in the house but didn't track them down, instead, he poured the potatoes in the sink and ran water on them. Just because he wasn't a scullery maid didn't mean he wasn't aware of the next step to clean vegetables. He'd needed to know that when he and Ran Fan were crossing the desert, not to mention, hanging around the kitchen when he was little meant he could cadge snacks out of the cooks – and learn something about how to prepare food at the same time. Just because he was a prince didn't necessarily mean he shouldn't know something about where his meals came from and the work put into them.
"How are you, Ran Fan?" he asked, returning to the others.
"I am fine, my lord," she said, her eyes lowered and tilted away from him, as was the proper way of addressing him, whether he preferred it or not. Her grandfather scolded him to his face, as if he was Ling's grandfather, too, but Fuu wasn't here in Amestris. He hadn't known about their decision before they'd run away from Xing. Ling didn't relish Fuu's reaction when they did return home, either, but Ling was determined to protect his people. The Yao clan was strong, but not so strong as to be able to take the throne without some sort of – how did the Amestrian's say it? 'Ace in the hole'?
"She's doing really well," Winry said brightly, and Ling turned his attention to her. "Even if she is pushing herself too hard."
"My place is at my prince's side," Ran Fan said, frowning at Winry.
"Yeah, but if you over extend yourself in your therapy, you'll just wind up hurting yourself more. There's a reason we say it takes at least two years to become skilled at using your automail."
"Brother did it in a year," Alphonse chimed in, then yipped when Winry thumped his head with her middle finger. "Ow!"
"Your brother was an idiot," Winry told him tartly.
Ling didn't react to that, though he noticed Ran Fan's gaze dart to him. They shared the secret between them, even as silence stretched through the room for a little bit, at least until the baby whined and yawned, pulling away from his mother's breast.
"I think someone needs a nap," Satella said, getting up.
"I'll start cutting the potatoes," Winry offered. "Paninya can help," she added, giving the girl a look.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll help." She got up, stretching her limbs, though only one was made of flesh, and Ling couldn't help but admire the fluidity of her movements, despite how much of her was made of metal.
Alphonse cleared his throat and Ling glanced his way. "Yes?"
"Staring's rude," Alphonse said, his cheeks tinged pink.
"Mm." Ling grinned at him, giving him a frankly honest stare in return and watching the young man blush even brighter. Amestrians were such…interesting people.
Izumi settled at the table across from Mustang. His features seemed so easily disguised with the change in his hair style and the way the Rush Valley sun had darkened his visible skin. 'Yao Shen' fit into Rush Valley as a tea merchant, and his lovely, Amestrian wife, 'Carol'. Carol's sister, 'Twilla', their cousin, 'Dan'. All a very pretty lie.
"So," she said, "explain what you're doing."
Roy spread his hands as Riza brought them all cups of tea – some sort of blend that reminded Izumi of the spices they used to cure meat in the smokehouse. She noticed that both 'Shen' and 'Carol' drank their tea black, with no sweetener, and she did the same, though Sig added sugar to his after taking a sniff of it. She smiled inwardly at her husband and how cute he was, then turned her attention back to Mustang. "So?"
"We're going to try to change the government," he said, after a judicious sip of his tea.
"Two ex-soldiers? And two children?" Izumi raised her eyebrows, not quite politely.
"Sometimes, it doesn't take much to change the world. Or at least a small part of it."
"Amestris isn't that small," Sig reminded and Roy nodded.
"You're right, but we're not really acting alone. I – we – have others willing to help, and within this valley, I see people who don't like the way this government is leading us. If they knew of what happened to Edward."
Izumi didn't let him get that far, thumping her hand on the table hard enough to make the cups rattle. "Ed didn't die to become a martyr for your cause."
Roy met her gaze levelly. "No. He didn't. But I think, if given the choice, he would agree that using his death to spur on people who might otherwise be on the fence might not be a bad idea."
"He died in service to Amestris," Riza said, "like so many other soldiers. All of their lives, and their deaths, are important. But if the people understand why they had to die," her voice faded and she glanced sideways at Roy.
"You might have riots on your hands. Those are hard to control," Sig said. He tasted his tea again and, from the flicker in his eyes, Izumi wondered if he'd be asking for 'Yao' to give them a packet to take home with them.
"Which is why we'd want to do this carefully. We need time to build up an effective force – as you said, four of us aren't enough to take on an entire country." Smiling faintly, Roy said, "We do have a plan. Which is why Winry's learning how to shoot, and Alphonse is continuing his training in alchemy, even though I'm sure he's far surpassed my knowledge already."
Izumi asked slowly, "You want to send them into the front lines?"
Roy and Riza exchanged a look. "No," he replied, "I don't want them there. But I must make use of what opportunities have been offered to me."
Now it was time for her to glance at Sig. His mouth twitched, and she blinked in response. "They've got their whole lives ahead of them."
"So did so many of the soldiers who've died for Amestris," Riza said. Roy's expression went distant, obviously thinking of some of those soldiers, maybe one or two specifically. Ed.
"I want to take Al with me when I leave," Izumi said. "There are things I can teach him." Sig grunted and she amended her statement. "Things we can both teach him. And there is definitely a faction in Dublith that is interested in the overthrow of the current government."
"That," Roy said slowly, "might be for the best." His eyes drifted sideways – recalling something, or searching for a thought in his memory, Izumi knew. "Edward never mentioned you to the military. Winry was only mentioned due to being his mechanic. No one should be looking for Alphonse that far south."
"And we're close enough that, should anything happen, well, it's a relatively short train trip away," Izumi said.
Roy gave her a short, sharp nod. "Agreed."
"He should also learn additional combat tactics," Riza argued. "He and Winry both need lessons in shooting."
"Perhaps we should have an exchange," Roy said thoughtfully. "Alphonse here for three months, and with you for three months."
Sig rumbled softly, "Maybe you should talk to Al and Winry, first, before you make plans about how their lives are going to be changed. Again."
Roy blinked, as if that hadn't even occurred to him, the fallacy of being a military man, perhaps, and expecting people to simply follow his orders. "They are aware of these plans. Riza and I have discussed them in the past."
"Winry's doing well with her target practice," Riza said, and a hint of pride shone in her voice. As Izumi recalled, Winry was very good at targeting, if Ed's bitching about her throwing arm was any indication.
"Shooting at targets is different than shooting at actual, living beings," Sig said, and Riza's gaze went to him.
"Which is why Winry doesn't belong on the front lines,. She is too," Riza hesitated, then went on, "kind. And while she would probably do anything to protect Alphonse, and he her, I'm not sure either of them would be willing to take a life. I want them to be able to protect themselves, though, and have the ability to do so if necessary. Additionally, the Xingese seem very willing to keep Winry safe." Her brow furrowed for a split second. "Though I'm not sure that we will be able to honor the payment the prince requested."
"Is that so?" Izumi leaned across the table. "What kind of payment?"
"One I have agreed to pay," Roy said, as if that was that, and Izumi felt a sharp flash of annoyance at his wanting to keep his secrets.
"You could tell us what that payment is," Sig said, "in case anything happens. We may be the ones who might need to repay the prince."
Neither soldier reacted to that comment, at least, not in any way that Izumi could discern. She decided that going up against either of them in any kind of a fight wasn't something she wanted to do, if she could help it. Accustomed to observing her opponents and being able to judge from their expressions and body language what their next actions would be, she thought it would be difficult to read what 'Shen' and 'Carol' might do next. It would make it hard on the people they were fighting against, and give them an edge they'd need. Izumi smiled, a little too broadly. "All right, keep your secrets. But remember, allies are the ones you need to share things with, rather than keeping them in the dark."
Roy answered her with a dangerous smirk. "I'll remember that, Mrs. Curtis, believe me."