The Sands Of Time
Ed hunched over his drink, trying to blend into the wall behind him. But the voice persisted, calling over the low, drunken buzz of the bar's other patrons. Finally, Ed gave in and looked up.
Riza Hawkeye was hurrying towards him, a small folder clutched in her hand.
"I'm off duty!" Ed snapped.
His voice was a little terser than it needed to be, but Ed didn't take kindly to interruptions. Not on this night. This was the night he went out to whatever sleazy bar he could find, bought himself a drink or six, and tried to drown his sorrow, regret and loss for another year.
Not even Al dared to interrupt him. Besides, the youngest Elric had other things to do – he had his own coping mechanism on this particular night. As regular as a well-made clock, when Ed finally staggered back to their room in the early hours of the morning, he would find his little brother asleep on the bed, surrounded by every picture of Winry they owned, tear tracks glistening on his cheeks.
Winry hadn't even seen Al returned to his body. And that piece of knowledge only served to make Ed more miserable.
When the civil war first broke out, the military divided sharply in two. Those called the H-Faction followed Wrath, the homunculus at the top of the military chain of command. Those called the Dissidents were their enemies, the men and women who refused to buckle to the Fuhrer's will.
Ed had been among the Dissidents, of course, but his first action in the war had not been to declare his allegiance. The very first thing he did, when he learned there really was going to be an all-out war, had been to try to get to Rush Valley. He'd had some crazy idea about getting Winry out of the country somehow, about taking her somewhere safe, but by the time war was declared it was already too late. All transportation had shut down, and Rush Valley was already occupied by the H-Faction.
Both Elric brothers had taken it hard. Ed had tried everything he could – eavesdropping on conversations he wasn't even supposed to know were taking place, calling in any favour he could, even drinking with some of the spies in the hope the alcohol would loosen their tongues and they would let something slip. Anything to find out what was happening there. Anything that had even the faintest, slimmest, remotest chance of giving him information on Winry.
And then, the first letter came.
One of Colonel – well, Major General, now – Mustang's spies had sought him out and slipped a small envelope into his hand. An envelope with Winry's handwriting curling across its surface.
Ed had gaped for several seconds, completely floored. Then his senses had returned, and he'd babbled questions at the woman, asking how she'd come into possession of the envelope, if she'd seen Winry, what was happening in Rush Valley and a slew of other queries he couldn't really remember.
What he did remember was that the spy had told him Winry was one of her contacts. The blonde mechanic had been left relatively unhindered by the occupation, as she was one of those deemed 'useful' by the officials. Members of the H-Faction came to her for automail, and any information she gleamed from their conversations was passed on to the Dissident's spies.
Ed remembered tearing the envelope open, his stomach churning with fear at the idea of Winry doing something as dangerous as becoming a spy's contact. If she was discovered...
But her letter had mollified him somewhat. She told them she was fine, she was being careful, warned he and Al about taking care of themselves and threatened him about looking after his automail. Ed remembered being very relieved to read that – if she could still threaten him about the state of his automail, her spirit had to be intact.
But the letters became grimmer as time went on. She never mentioned any particular sorrows, but Ed had practically sensed the downturn in her mood when he had read them. And then, six months into the war, the letters had stopped. No explanation, no warning...they had just stopped.
Ed and Al had panicked, both brothers convinced something dreadful had happened to keep Winry from writing to them. They had been ready to go down to Rush Valley to find out what had happened – ignoring the fact that it was currently crawling with H-Faction troops – but Mustang had stopped them.
Ed could remember that exact instant when Mustang had told them he forbade them to go to Rush Valley – he was sending them North, instead. It was the closest he had ever come to outright striking the Major General. Only Al's death grip on his jacket had prevented him throwing himself across the desk and tackling the man who stopped them from finding Winry.
Then, sitting on his hands in the North while civil war tore up the country below him, Ed tried to persuade himself that the sudden halt in the letters wasn't that suspicious. Maybe security had tightened up – it was an occupied town, after all. Maybe Winry had accidentally lost contact with the spy who passed her letters along. Maybe she was very busy with her automail business.
But when a year slid by without any word from her, Ed began to feel the chill fingers of despair squeeze his heart. Another year went by, and the Rush Valley Resistance started up and liberated the entire valley before advancing onto the surrounding territory.
With no word from Winry.
With Al newly-restored, Ed convinced himself that it didn't mean anything. Even if Rush Valley was liberated, there was no communication between the Resistance and the Dissidents, so Winry wouldn't be able to contact them. But still, it was that year that the tradition began. On the anniversary of the day she stopped writing, Ed went to a bar, reminiscing about Winry, and ended up drinking enough to make his vision blur.
Three years in, the Resistance had started to make a difference in the war. Though some officials didn't trust the independent group, questioning the army's motives, it was clear their goals were the same. Elimination of the H-Faction.
Yet still there was no word from Winry. But Ed could understand that, in a way. After all, the Resistance had thousands of H-Faction troops between them and the Dissidents, and while it might have been possible to send word, it wouldn't have been worth the resources.
And now, five years after the war started, it was finally over. Caught between the Resistance and the Dissidents in an unintentional pincer movement, the H-Faction had been spread far too thin for far too long and had finally collapsed. Now, all that was left was the clean-up – dealing with the small pockets of H-Faction loyalists scattered here and there, repairing the cities and towns, and trying to put the economy back on its feet.
But there was still no word from Winry. And this time, there was no explanation Ed could talk himself into believing. The Dissidents and the Resistance could communicate easily now – there was talk of pulling the Resistance Commander in to talk with the Dissident leaders about a treaty. It was being handled cautiously, of course, given as how the Resistance army was as large as the Dissidents. Probably larger, actually, given that they had frequently boosted their ranks throughout the war with raids on prison camps.
So there could be only one reason why Winry hadn't contacted them. She...wasn't able to.
Ed still couldn't bring himself to say dead. But Winry was...gone, and this was his night to mourn her. And he wasn't pleased that Riza had interrupted him.
"I know you're off-duty, but I thought you might want to see this."
Ed refrained from rolling his eyes. It wasn't like he could order her away in any case – Riza's rank was equal to his now. Any officer who was half-way competent tended to rise through the ranks very quickly in wartime. He'd gone from Major to Lieutenant Colonel. Riza had jumped from First Lieutenant to Lieutenant Colonel on the battlefield, when her squad had been so decimated that the officials had been forced to promote her two ranks in one night.
So Ed took the folder from Riza's hands, flipped it open, and scanned the contents.
He had barely glanced at the first page before he shut the folder with a snap and growled, "Is this some sort of joke?"
He was holding in his hands the 'missing person' file on Winry. A file Ed had opened himself.
Riza sighed with the tone of one whose infinite patience was beginning to wane. Her hand combed through her hair, and Ed caught a brief glimpse of the numbers tattooed on the skin of her inner arm.
"Look at the bottom of the file."
With a snort of exasperation, Ed looked. And found himself unable to tear his eyes away.
'Winry Rockbell – Status: Found. Living in Rush Valley.'
"AL!" A screaming hurricane would not have made as much noise as Ed did. "AL!"
Staring at a childhood photo of he, Ed and Winry and getting quietly depressed, Al practically leapt through the roof when his brother came charging into their room, waving a file, looking as though he were about to burst with happiness.
"Brother...?" Al asked cautiously, wondering if Winry's disappearance had finally caused Ed to snap.
Ed seemed to calm somewhat, enough so that he could hand Al the file. The younger Elric took it, startled by the sparkle in Ed's eyes that looked suspiciously like tears of joy.
"Read it!" Ed yelled, feeling like a five-year old on his birthday. "It's...she's...just read it!"
Wondering what could have made his brother so ecstatic, Al flipped open the file and scanned its contents.
Ed knew the precise instant Al read that Winry was alive and in Rush Valley. His eyes widened, his jaw dropped, his mouth worked as though he wanted to say something, but couldn't express his joy in words.
Not that he needed to say anything – Ed understood. Far too many things had been lost during the war. And now, to learn that Winry wasn't one of those things...the feeling couldn't be described.
"W-we're going there, right?" Al stammered out, finally looking up at his brother.
"Of course we are!" Ed said, "We're going with Riza tomorrow. She has to go down to escort the Resistance Commander here for the negotiations, so it's no problem for us to hitch a ride."
"And Winry will be there in Rush Valley," Al murmured, as though some part of him still couldn't believe it. "Just like old times."
"Yeah," Ed nodded, smiling softly. But inside, his stomach suddenly knotted. It wasn't 'just like old times'. Not really.
He and Al had changed so much. Al was back in his body; a blonde-haired, gold-hazel-eyed twenty year old, his soft flesh and lean muscles replacing hard, cold armour. But Winry would probably be okay with that. She would probably celebrate it.
But what about the changes in him?
Washing up in the tiny bathroom, he glanced at his reflection in the mirror. A twenty-one year old man looked back at him as he silently catalogued the changes five years of war had wrought in him.
He had grown after Al's body was restored – he could even look Mustang in the eye now, so he'd definitely be taller than Winry. But strangely, that thought didn't bring the triumph he'd expected. His eyes looked much older than his years...but then again, Ed couldn't remember when it had been otherwise. His hair was longer, and he tended to wear it in a ponytail more often than the more-complex braid. He had hardly any facial hair, and what little he had was shaved religiously – he didn't want to look too much like his father.
He took a guilty glance at his artificial limbs, though why he felt guilty, he didn't really know. He'd had no contact with her in nearly five years – he'd had no choice but to turn to other mechanics. It had been four years since Winry's automail had graced his body, and he used the word 'grace' because he had swiftly learned that was exactly what they had done.
His current limbs were considered top of the line among the Dissidents, but felt heavy, slow and awkward compared to Winry's work. Her automail had always moved as easy as a thought, and as Ed had never worn anything else, he had pretty much taken that for granted. Well, he'd never do that again. Once he was actually in the automail market, and not just relying on Winry, he soon learned that automail of the caliber Winry produced was so far above the normal standards it was like comparing the complexities of a car engine to those of a wind-up toy.
Ed swallowed, the movement making the scar across his neck ripple. He and Al had never actually been involved in any real warfare (and he suspected he had the Major General to thank for that), but the only battle they'd ever fought still haunted him.
They'd been sent to the North very early into the war, to protect a General named Hadram. And nearly a year into their assignment, they had met with one of H-Faction's most feared troops. An Angel of Death.
Angels of Death. No one quite knew where they came from, those people who seemed nothing more than living weapons. They were men and women, trained in weapons – everything ranging from guns and blades to their own fists and feet – in deception, stealth, even in alchemy. They had been an unstoppable force on the battlefield, a single squad enough to eliminate a small army. And that was not all. They had been spies, assassins, snipers...even recruiters.
There had only been seventeen Angels of Death in operation, yet Ed and Al were unlucky enough to meet one while protecting the assassin's target.
It had taken both of them and a small squad of fully-trained soldiers to bring the Angel down. Ed could still remember the taste of blood in his mouth, the burn of the wound in his neck as air touched the ragged flesh, the strangely blank eyes of the man beneath him as he drove his automail blade into the Angel's chest.
And then, horrifyingly, the Angel's eyes had cleared. He had looked down at the blade still lodged in his chest, then at Ed, his eyes dimming but apparently pleading. Ed had looked down, and found his knife had pierced a transmutation circle tattooed on the centre of the Angel's chest, similar to the one he had once daubed on Al's armour in his own blood.
It was that one clue that had led Ed to discovering the true horror of the Angels of Death. None of them had chosen that path voluntarily. They had all been subjected to alchemy – similar to the soul-binding alchemy he had used on Al, but instead of freeing the soul, they trapped it in servitude to the alchemist who cast the array. And the Angels of Death were forced to kill, and kill, and kill, with no regard to their will, emotions or opinions.
Ed still had nightmares about that man's eyes.
Ed realised he had been staring at his reflection for nearly ten minutes and shook himself from his trance. He didn't know why he was so worried at the changes in himself, only that some part of him was concerned that Winry might not like the new 'him'. He knew it was ridiculous – Winry was nothing if not accepting – but he couldn't help it. He'd seen people who were once close break apart because they'd changed too much.
What if he'd changed too much?
"You are, of course, aware that the primary reason for this transport is to escort the Resistance Commander and several of their trusted lieutenants here for negotiations," Major General Mustang said, his bored tone indicating just how little he thought of these formalities.
The 'formalities' being the need to debrief the Elric brothers before they were allowed to accompany Riza on the transport. Military protocol demanded it, but Roy saw little need for it. Ed and Al weren't going to disrupt anything, they just wanted to see their friend.
Ed could tell the Major General's heart wasn't really in the briefing. He seemed to sympathise with their eagerness, but then again, Ed supposed Mustang knew what it was like to find someone you thought dead suddenly alive and well.
It had happened to him, after all.
Lieutenant General Grumman, Riza's grandfather, the man responsible for the civil war and who had started the Dissidents in the first place, had been attacked by the Angels of Death while in transit. But this time, they had not killed.
They had captured.
The Lieutenant General had vanished, as had the small retinue that had been protecting him. A retinue that had included Heymans Breda and Riza Hawkeye.
The Dissidents received reports on Lieutenant General Grumman, as he had been transferred to a camp that just happened to be bristling with Mustang's spies. The Lieutenant General had died a few months after his capture, apparently from tuberculosis.
But there had been no such reports on Breda and Hawkeye. Both had vanished without a trace – until the Dissents got word of a small prison camp – Camp 13 – that had staged a successful rebellion against the H-Faction members stationed there. They had sent troops to provide back-up...and found Riza Hawkeye leading the rag-tag band.
Now, when she saluted, reached for something, or rolled back her sleeves on hot days, the mark of the prison camps was clearly displayed in the numbers tattooed on her arm, just below her wrist. 307561, etched into her skin with black ink.
And Ed had a horrible feeling that wasn't the only mark her imprisonment had left on her. He'd heard stories about what happened to most female prisoners, but the idea of Riza – strong, commanding, cool-as-ice Riza – enduring something like that was so foreign that for a while, he'd simply told himself it couldn't have happened.
Then he began to notice the way Riza almost unconsciously tried to keep a distance of about three feet between her and everyone else. He noticed the way her eyes went curiously blank when a man brushed by her or touched her, as though she were controlling the urge to flinch. He noticed the way Mustang was careful to keep his voice low and nonthreatening when he talked to her.
There was only one conclusion to come to, however sickening that conclusion was.
But no matter what she had suffered, Riza Hawkeye had returned to Mustang when he thought her dead, so Ed thought he could surely sympathise with he and Al.
Unfortunately, Breda had never been found.
Mustang's little group had been hit hard during the war. Havoc was killed when a bomb planted in Central's hospital exploded, and Falman had perished on the battlefield. Fuery was the only one still alive, and had been promoted to Warrant Officer. But an explosive planted in a communications device he had been repairing had blown two fingers on his right hand off.
"...is that clear?"
Ed blinked, suddenly aware that Roy had finished speaking and was looking at him expectantly.
"Yeah, yeah, don't muck things up with the Resistance Commander," Ed said. "We get it, are we done now?"
"Brother," Al admonished, "Don't be rude!"
"We're done." Roy huffed something that sounded like a chuckle and waved them away.
Ed and Al had boarded the transport truck to Rush Valley before an hour was up.
AN: That part about Ed growing...I forget which chapter it is, but it is hypothesised that Ed is eating/sleeping for Al's body, so has no spare nutrition to grow. So that means that when Al gets his body back, Ed will probably grow taller.
And thanks goes, as usual, to LaughingAstarael, my wonderful beta.