In Broken Dreams, 2
Another storm arrives a couple of days later in the form of a knock at the door. You open it, wishing you hadn't. Since you'd used alchemy to keep the river from flooding, you'd half-expected a visit from someone in Amestrian blue. It came as no shock to see him on Winry's porch. "Mustang."
He studies you, and you try not to stare at his ruined face and the eye patch covering most of it. "Hello, Fullmetal. I'd say I'm surprised to see you, but I'd be lying."
There was one military officer in Risembool, well, not even in Risembool, but in the next town over. Someone must've mentioned you damming the river, and alchemists are always in need in service. You mentally sigh. Next to you, Lu is making a weird sound, kind of like barking under her breath. "Go lie down," you tell her, and open the door. "I guess since you've come all this way, I'll invite you in." You hesitate, peering beyond him. "Where's Hawkeye?"
"We met Miss Rockbell at the station, inadvertently. She sent me on to speak to you." Mustang scuffs his boots clean and you lead him to the kitchen, letting him seat himself. You start the kettle heating on the stove to make some tea. Lu lies in the corner, where she can watch both of you.
"So," Mustang's voice doesn't quite make you jump, but the hair on the back of your neck stands up. "How long have you been in Amestris?"
"Almost a month." You open the cupboard. "Before you ask," you can say it, you can, "Al's…Al is dead. In the other world." It doesn't feel like you'll throw up this time. You swallow anyway. "He made a transmutation circle and sent me back." You can't go on, shaking your head. Taking down four cups, you set them on the counter, figuring Winry and Hawkeye might join you later.
"And you didn't report in?" Mustang asks silkily.
He can still make you want to punch something, but you force yourself to ignore his tone, shrugging. "Winry says she's been getting my allotment. That means I'm dead, right? Dead people don't report to anyone."
"Missing in action," Mutang raps out. When you turn around, you catch him staring at you, but you can't read his expression. Bastard must be a great poker player.
You twitch like a bug under a magnifying glass. "Close enough," you say, folding your arms and leaning back against the counter. "I'm not rejoining the military, so don't bother asking."
"This from the People's Alchemist?"
"No, this from a man aged beyond his years." The space behind your left eye twinges and you hope it doesn't develop into another headache. "I've seen enough hatred and battles in the years I've been away." You eye him back. "Probably the equivalent of your experiences in Ishbal," except you didn't kill anyone, at least not that you're aware of. You got into some fights, sure, got beaten up, did some beating yourself, but no one died. Except Al. "I'm tired of it, Roy."
His only reaction to my using his name is a bare blink. He covers it with a scoff. "So you're going to hide out here, in Risembool?"
"Maybe. Maybe I'll do some traveling. I've always wanted to see Xing." You wonder if it's like China in the other world. It seemed that way.
Mustang says, "You know, the military still needs alchemists."
You wave him off. "Pass."
"I could order you to return to the military." He still stares at you.
You meet his eye. "You could. I'd probably ignore it."
"You can't avoid a court martial forever, Fullmetal."
Jutting your jaw, you say, "I could in Xing."
"Your mechanic is here."
"I'll take her with me." The words come out before you think about it, and you wonder whether you can take Lu, too – and whether Winry would even want to go anywhere with you.
The eyebrow cock is the one you remember, despite the patch. "Do you really believe you can escape the military that easily, Edward?"
You spread your hands. "I'm dead as far as the military is concerned. And I won't use alchemy any more."
"You did at the river."
"Extenuating circumstances." You don't say Winry made you. "I can not be a Human Weapon. I can't be an alchemist. I won't be."
"So do research," Mustang says, "and stay in Central City."
"Until Drachma invades, or Creta breaks the treaty, then I get dragged back into a war. Not interested, Mustang." The kettle whistles, breaking your gaze, and you pour the hot water over the tea leaves, releasing the aroma. You busy yourself with the teapot for a little bit, then set it on the table.
"Hawkeye said you wouldn't come back to the military," Mustang says lightly as you set a cup in front of him. "I suppose I'll have to tell her she's right. Again."
"You suggested I join the military to get access to the information I needed to get Al's body back. I did that." You don't add, 'without help from the military'; in the end, it was the sacrifice of your own body that accomplished the actual exchange. But if you hadn't been in the military, you'd have never found out what you did, ultimately leading to your understanding of what you needed to sacrifice – you decide not to continue down that path. Not now, not with Mustang here. "I don't have any reason now to be in the military."
"Except for all the people who believe you a hero." He leans toward you. "There is a great deal more you can offer Amestris, Edward."
For a few seconds you consider it, remember what it felt like to be the Fullmetal Alchemist. Then you remember how much of a child you were, and how much horror you saw. The blood on your hands has never washed clean, not from Majihal, not from Greed, not from the people who died in Lior. Definitely not Nina's blood. You remember how you treated the people who'd only wanted to help you, and how you'd pushed them away. Your single-mindedness could've cost people their lives. It had very nearly cost you something you hadn't even realized you valued, until you'd realized you'd lost it. "Not interested."
You look up in time to realize Mustang's gaze has softened. "Of course not," he says, lowering his head so you cannot read his expression. "How foolish of me to consider otherwise." Rising to his feet, he adds, "You do know I won't be the only one who investigates. And any other alchemy you do will just bring additional attention."
You get up, too, hearing Lu patter up from her corner. "I won't be using alchemy."
"Until another emergency comes up, and you are coerced or otherwise encouraged to use it, and someone sees it, and reports it to the military." Mustang gestures at you. "Sooner or later, your name will be reported, too, and you will return to the military to fulfill your contract, or face an AWOL charge, and possibly a court martial trial."
You cock your head. "Are you threatening me?"
Mustang's smile is not particularly pleasant as he shrugs. "You could come back in and request to be relieved of your duties."
"Would I be allowed to resign?"
"Perhaps, if you could explain where you've been for the past," his eye cuts to the right, "twelve years, it might be possible."
How would you explain another world without someone getting the brilliant idea of trying to get there? Some people were too power-hungry to be trusted with that kind of information. "I won't be able to, unless it might be considered I was a prisoner of war."
Mustang rubs his chin. "Maybe," he said. "It might work. I'll have Fuery research it."
"If that doesn't work," you force your hands to loosen; you smile, "I'll change my name." It isn't a bad idea, though you're not sure you could actually go through with it.
If Mustang rolled his eye, you miss it. "This town is so insulated from the rest of Amestris, you don't think everyone knows who you are?"
"Are you trying to convince me to return to the military or to run and hide?" You're genuinely curious. "We both know I'm not really military material. I wasn't that good of a soldier. I never followed orders – how many times did you yell at me for that? I don't want to be a poster boy," your face screws up in distaste, "and I won't use alchemy. I really mean that, Mustang. You could point a firing squad my way, and." You shake your head.
"But if one is pointed at someone else?" His words flow like silk, and you realize he's moved around the table, standing extraordinarily close to you. "Say Miss Rockbell."
Hissing through your clenched teeth, "Leave her out of this, bastard. You owe her more than I do, and I owe her my life." You clench your hands, automail servos whining.
"Ah, as always, something will get a rise out of you. It's good to know some things don't change." You don't like Mustang's smile, and are about to tell him so when he turns abruptly, waving at you over his shoulder. "If I can think of using Miss Rockbell as leverage, how many others might?" He doesn't look back as he says, "Take care of yourself, Edward. Take care of her."
You watch after his retreating back as he makes his way down the path to the road, wondering if you'll see him again.
It's only about an hour later when Winry comes through the door, a little flushed from the wind outside. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens when she sees you. She stops dead still in the doorway, with Lu dancing around her. "Ed," she says, breathless, surprised. "You're still here."
And you hadn't been, so many times before. You still manage a smile. "I hope that's a good thing?"
Winry slams into you, her arms around your waist, burying her face in your shoulder. Shock freezes you for a second, but this time, you hug her back, hard. It's difficult to let her go, but when she loosens her grip, you do, too. She backs up and tucks a strand of hair back behind her ear. You know that nervous gesture, because you have to drop your hand from where it's trying to rub the back of your neck. "I thought," Winry glances at you, then away, not finishing her sentence, instead saying, "It's a good thing, Ed." She walks out of the room, leaving you watching as Lu trots after her.
X X X
It's night time, and you sit on the porch steps, enjoying the sights of the stars and planets above. You know all of the constellations, the Lion and the Plow, and the Archer, his bow drawn. He aims at the Stag, but doesn't see the Bear stalking him from behind. The Two Dogs and the Weaver aren't visible yet, but you know they, and the Triplets, and the Ox, will march across the sky before the sun rises. You wonder if any of those points of light might be visible from Earth. The constellations were different there, the planets strange. The moon seemed smaller, and the sun not as bright. But there were a lot of things odd about the other world.
Lu comes outside and sits beside you, and you rumple her ears. Winry follows her dog, and, while she doesn't sit, you can feel the radiant warmth from her body on your back. Scooting over, you pat the step.
Sighing, Winry folds herself up next to you, wrapping her arms around her knees. "I figured you'd be gone by the time I got home."
You start to say something, but think Winry has a right to say her piece, and keep your mouth closed.
"It's what I've come to expect."
That hurt, but it it's not like Winry isn't right. She doesn't offer an apology, either.
"I think this is the longest you've been here since," she pauses.
Since the night you tried to bring your Mom back from the dead, and wound up creating a monster, instead. Since you'd needed port surgery, and physical therapy to learn to use your automail. You'd spent three days here after Scar destroyed your arm, and then, afterward, Winry wound up traveling with you for a while. It wasn't the same as being home.
You try not to jump when she leans against you. "I missed you, when you disappeared the first time," Winry says softly. "At first, I thought you must've used your life to get Al back, but that didn't last long. I mean, you might've died for Al, but you wouldn't have killed yourself." Humor laces through her words, but it's bittersweet. "After a while, I was the only one. Even Al had his doubts, because he couldn't remember you."
Al had told you about that; that his memories of all your travels together had been lost. He regained them, but. You twine your fingers together, blinking at the blurring stars overhead.
"When you left the second time, I was sad. You didn't say goodbye, again. And Al was gone, too, so I knew you wouldn't come back."
Drawing a breath to protest, you hold it. What can you say? "I…I wanted to keep Amestris…you…safe." It still sounds weak, after Al had yelled at you that you could've worked together to close the gate from Amestris, and not gone back to the other world. Still…"We were trying to find a man with a bomb, to make sure he didn't set it off."
"Did you find him?"
You sigh. "No." And you don't want to talk about the things you did find. People could be horrible to each other. "I'm sorry, Winry. I – I wasn't thinking. I didn't see any other way to stop them. I never wanted to make you sad." Risking a glance at her, all you can see is the crown of her head and the tip of her nose. "Really. Every time you cried, it hurt me. I hoped…hoped you'd found a reason to smile after we left."
"Robert made me smile."
"What happened to Molly and him?" You ask the question gently, not sure if Winry will answer. When she doesn't say anything, you think it's too soon, but she inhales, and lets it out again, and tells you.
"The river was flooding. Robert went down to help. I was making supper, and didn't realize Molly'd left the house to go after him." She falls quiet, and your imagination paints a picture. You're not sure what happened, but you can guess; a little girl and a flooding river, and the little girl's father trying to save her. "They're buried next to Granny in the old cemetery."
There are too many factors to say for certain, but maybe alchemy could have saved her daughter and her husband. It's no wonder Winry slapped you. "I'm sorry," you whisper.
She whispers back, "Me, too."
X X X
Spring suddenly gives way to summer, and the days are longer, and, at first softer, but the sun begins to bear down. Risembool isn't that hot; it has a mild climate, but you're still recovering from your pneumonia, and the damage it did to your lungs. You spend as much time outside as you can, baking your skin brown. You push yourself more than you should, but you want to do something for Winry, prove that you can be something more than a nuisance. Your garden flourishes in the warm weather, putting out vines and leaves and flowers, and bringing in bees and butterflies. You planted vegetables, sure, but along the borders, you planted flowers, too; bachelor's buttons in various hues; sunflowers for their color and their seeds both, if you can get to them before the birds and squirrels; hollyhocks to vie with the sunflowers for height; marigolds to protect the tomatoes from insects; lavender, because of the way it smells, and how it could perfume clothing in drawers and closets.
When the first flowers open, you pick a bouquet and bring them inside, putting them in a canning jar with water, and setting them on the table.
Winry's smile makes all your hard work worthwhile.
X X X
You're eating an apple for lunch when Winry comes into the kitchen. Her face is set and you don't like how tight her jaw is. The man who follows her explains it all; the elderly soldier from the next town over. He has his hat in his hand and a pleading expression in his old blue eyes. "You're Edward Elric," he says, without preamble, "and I need your help."
Glancing at Winry, you can she she's not getting involved. Lu paces next to her legs, whining softly, and Winry touches the dog's head, settling her.
You take a deep breath. "I'm not an alchemist any more."
"You made a dam during the flood," he says. "You can help me, can't you?" He absently strokes the brim of his hat and you grit your teeth.
X X X
There is a man, always a man. You wonder why women aren't interested in this kind of trouble, then think of Eckhart, and her plans for Amestris. Major Meinrad tells you of the man, ex-military, leading a group of others, and the way they challenge the farmers on their way to town with their local harvest, requesting a toll for their safe passage. He is starting small, but Meinrad thinks he'll escalate and become more trouble than he's worth.
"I'm not using alchemy," you warn Meinrad.
He shrugs. "As long as you can help catch Bevan, I don't care what you use."
You turn to Winry as Major Meinrad leaves the house, to wait for you outside on the porch. "I won't be gone long," you tell her.
Winry cocks her head to the side, and gives you a faint smile. You're pretty sure she doesn't believe you, but at least she's willing to let you say it.
Lu follows you down to the road, and barks at you when you keep walking.
X X X
Meinrad has some information on Bevan. It's not as in-depth as you've come to expect from Mustang's men or Hughes's investigations, but about similar to what you'd had in Europe and Germany. You're going to be busy, you think; and sigh mentally. Hopefully, you'll get home soon. You think about Winry and Lu and the yellow house on the hill for a few seconds, then put them out of your mind. You have work to do.
X X X
The farmers let you come with them as a farmhand on their journeys, let you sit in stores and listen to gossip. They don't know you, but they recognize Winry's automail when you roll up your shirtsleeves, and that eases their concerns. You just introduce yourself as 'Ed', not wanting them to have your full name. You make sure Meinrad doesn't give it out, either. You don't want to alert Bevan before it's time.
Two long weeks pass, and you find yourself bored at nights in a rough military hotel. You could drink in the tavern across the street, but while you'd sometimes taken solace in the bottom of a bottle in the other world, it doesn't seem right here. Instead, you find yourself writing Winry.
X X X
It's late and I'm bored, and nothing's happened yet. I'm still as impatient as you probably remember, and it's making me crazy. There aren't any libraries here in town, and there's nothing here to keep my interest, really.
There isn't any information on Bevan except he used to be military. Meinrad sent out a request for his files from Central, but that might take weeks to get here. Hopefully, I'll be back home in Risembool by the time it arrives.
People recognize your automail. Looks like you're getting to be a household name, huh?
Thinking of you,
Still stuck here,
No, definitely not that. You chew on the end of your fountain pen and finally just sign your name.
X X X
It stormed last night and I had a nightmare. I dreamed I was back in Europe, with Al, and you were there, too. It was awful; all grey and wet, and the Brown Shirts were hauling away people. They did that to people they didn't think were 'pure' – the Jews, the Romany, the infirm.
One of them grabbed me, and ripped my jacket to show my automail arm. "Infirm!" he screamed, and I tried to fight, but it was like I was in mud. I yelled at Al to get you out of there, to keep you safe, but you refused to go.
And one of the Brown Shirts raised his pistol and he shot.
You and Al both fell, and there was so much blood, and I woke up, lost and confused. I nearly called you then, to make sure you were okay, but I thought it would be stupid. And it was so late at night, and you probably were sleeping, or working on automail, and I didn't want to interrupt either.
I probably won't mail this letter to you, but I had to write it anyway, and get it out of my system.
I miss you,
X X X
Not everything in the other world was awful. Al and I made a friend there, a Romany girl, Noah. She damn, this is weird to write fell in love with me. I cared about here, too; her race of people weren't trusted by most of the other races, but she always treated me fair no, that's not quite right was kind, and could be generous, once she learned it was okay to trust people other than her own race. I guess even her own people treated her pretty badly, and what I learned when I was traveling with the Rom didn't really make them seem like they were any better or worse than the other people of Europe. The Rom had really strict rules, that the men had say over their wives, or their daughters, or their sisters, and the women couldn't argue that point. That anyone not Rom wasn't to be trusted – which meant that Al and I were always looked at suspiciously, even though Noah vouched for us. That the other races were lesser than the Rom, and therefore, anything that could be gotten over on them was for the good of the Rom. They were thieves, in more ways than one, though honorable amongst themselves, for the most part. Al really liked their horses, which were beautiful, even I'll admit to that.
Girls were supposed to remain virgin until they were married. I didn't know that part, and Noah, well, she was you try to think how to say it, how to word it. Finally write, it was my fault, too. I don't know if any of her family figured it out, but her brother or cousin, I never could figure out which, insisted she was going to be married to another Rom family to fix some sort of bond between them, like royal houses marrying to stop a war or something. Noah wanted to tell them that we'd had sex, and I told her 'no, don't,' because by then, Al was sick, and I didn't want us to get thrown out of the caravan.
That happened anyway, and I made Noah leave with her people. I figured it'd be safer for her with them than with us.
I'm not sure why I'm telling you this. I don't even know if you'd want to know about it. But it feels good to tell someone, even though I felt like I was using Noah to anchor myself in that world. I don't know if I loved her; I'm not sure I would've married her, even if her people would've allowed it.
I think she pinned her hopes on me, though, and I still had Al to think of. You probably know how that feels, huh? Would you have sympathized with Noah, or would you've told her to get over it? Or would you've beaten me silly for even considering having sex with her?
Your stupid friend,
X X X
Bevan's making his move soon. I've gotten word that he's haunting a particular road into town.
I hope to see you soon.
X X X
It's been three weeks since you've arrived in this town, and you finally get word of Bevan sniffing around a particular road into town. You join up with a farmer, dragging a battered straw hat on to hide your hair and eyes. You wear your old clothes, not the ones Winry gave you. They're battered enough to fit in as a laborer in any world. The threadbare fabric is appropriately dirty, from working in your garden and with these farmers. You hope Winry's keeping an eye on the garden back in Risembool.
Mr. Handlin has a load of watermelons on his wagon, and his son drives a second wagon full of corn. You ride with Mr. Handlin, sitting in the back with the melons. It gives you a better chance to look around from back there.
Nothing happens on the way to town, and you help unload the watermelons and corn onto the train to take it into Central. You're tired by the time everything's unloaded, and Mr. Handlin offers you a drink in the local bar. You just drink water, though Handlin and his son have a few mugs of beer. They're a little tipsy by the time you're ready to go home, but the horses know the way.
Of course, with their wallets full of money and slightly tipsy, they're perfect marks. You pretend you're drunk, too, lolling back in the wagon and ignoring the way the ruts in the dirt road shudder through the wheel bases. You've always been able to sleep through anything, but you need to stay awake now. The horses plod along, and you can see Handlin's son sagging in the wagon behind you.
You're a good twenty kilometers out of town when the attack happens, men swooping in on fast-moving little horses. The wagons jolt as they stop, Handlin's son tumbling to the ground. You stay where you are, hat pulled low, while the men whoop and shout and Handlin cries out in anger. His son starts to pick himself up off the ground, then plays dead when someone sticks a spear in the dirt next to his head. You wait while someone drags Handlin off his bench and onto the road. The men and their horses spin around the wagons, a kaleidoscope of movement. If you'd been drinking, you know your head would be whirling. As it is, you wait, wait until the horses stop moving, wait until Bevan makes his move, leaping from his mount to confront Handlin and insist on his money. Bevan thrusts a gun into Handlin's ribs, and orders him to hand it over.
Sitting up, you yawn and stretch loudly in the tense silence, and everyone turns your way. You smile a little bit, and say, "Don't give it to him, Mr. Handlin," as you hop out of the wagon.
The clicks of pistols being cocked makes your stomach clench but you've heard it before. If someone was going to shoot, they would've already. You wonder how many bullets they actually have. From a quick glance around, you think the guns look ancient, though in very good shape. Some of them might be single-shooters, needing to be loaded again after the trigger is pulled. And there aren't as many guns as they might want you to believe; you see spears and swords, too. Now, that didn't mean some of the men weren't hiding automail weapons beneath their jackets and cloaks, but you'll take your chances as you walk toward Bevan and Handlin.
"Are you his boss?" Bevan asks, sneering at you.
"Nope." You shrug, peering at him. He's taller than you, and broader, too; reminding you of that idiot you'd fought on the train so many years ago, Bald? Yeah, that was his name. "Just a concerned citizen, wondering why someone like you is taking it out on hardworking farmers."
Bevan laughs uproariously. "Why should I tell you?"
You smile and scratch the back of your neck lazily. "How about if you and I have a fight. Just the two of us. If I win, you tell me why you're doing this. If you win, you can have all of Mr. Handlin's money. I'll even tell you where he hid part of it." Handlin gulps and sends a dark look your way. You ignore him, grinning at Bevan. "Well? What do you say?"
A knife glitters as it arcs toward your ribs and you leap backward, nearly crashing into one of Bevan's horses. The animal complains and sidesteps when you use its body as leverage, pushing off its bulk to fling yourself at Bevan. He feints with his knife, then drives it in, and you block it with your arm, the blade ringing off your automail arm. He laughs again at the tear in your sleeve, and the gleam of metal showing through it. "So, you've got a secret of your own," he says.
"Oh, more than one," you admit, your smile widening.
Bevan's fast, you'll give him that, but you're still faster. You pivot out of his blade's range and use the momentum to throw a roundhouse kick. It hits Bevan's shoulder, sending him back a few steps, but he's so big, you know he'll take a lot more punishment to get taken down. Unless…
You let him lead the attacks, let him push you back out of the ring. The men move out of your way, laughing and offering advice. The horses whinny and stomp their feet, around despite their riders hanging on their reins. Handlin's son is in the way and you have to jump to keep from running over the top of him. He curls into a ball while you lead Bevan sideways to keep him from crashing into the kid. You let Bevan get in a few strikes, still blocking with your automail, but enough to let him think he might be able to beat you. Besides, you want to keep him interested, and moving, and wear him out a little bit before you take him to the ground.
He's not showing any loss of speed, but you can see the veins starting to pop on his forearms and throat. He bites his lip as he lunges toward you, and you leap backward, run into wagon, and drop to the ground when Bevan stabs his knife. You roll onto your back, scissoring your legs so the automail limb strikes first, slamming into Bevan's shin. His howl cuts through the excitement of his men and he hops on one leg. You kick the other leg, sending him sprawling while you roll backward into a crouch, then leap forward, punching Bevan's knife wrist hard enough to make him release the blade. It drops to the ground and you kick it farther away, putting your automail knee on Bevan's throat.
"Okay," you say, giving Bevan's men a look, "you remember what you said, right? You'd tell me why you're attacking farmers if I beat you. Well," you show him a lot of teeth, "I beat you."
A couple of pistols click as they're cocked, but Bevan waved a weak hand. "He's right," he shouts, "put up your weapons." Well, he tries to shout, your knee happens to be resting on his throat, making it harder for him to speak. You lift up just a little bit, letting him gasp in a breath or two. You've made your point, after all.
"I want all of you to put down your weapons in a pile in the back of that wagon," you shout, and Bevan reluctantly backs up your order, though his glare lets you know he hates that he's lost to you. His men are reluctant, but Handlin grabs a pistol and waves it in the air, and when he points it at a bad-ass, the rest of them decide not to argue, not much at least. When all the weapons are thrown on the wagon, you get off of Bevan, grabbing his knife and tucking it into the back of your belt. Bevan scrambles up, with you keeping an eye on him. You wouldn't be surprised if he had something up his sleeve – it'd be how you'd do this, after all. What he doesn't know is who you are, and what you can do, if you have to. Even if you don't want to – the idea of doing any type of transmutation still turns your stomach – you know what you'll do to protect Handlin and his son, if not yourself.
"All right," you say, climbing up on the wagon so everyone can see you. "The military is aware of what you're doing. How long do you think it'll be before a unit of troops comes down, and wipes you out? Don't any of you have family? Won't they be worried – disappointed – at what you're doing? If you're lucky, you'll go to jail. If you aren't, you could lose a limb, or even your life. Is that what you want to do?"
"We already did that in the wars," Bevan snarls at you.
"Yeah? Well, so did I." You brandish your automail arm; a lie, but it got their attention. "Do you think I don't know what you went through? I went through it, too, not knowing if I was going to be alive from one morning to the next. Not knowing if there was any way I could protect the people around me, but knowing I had to do my best! And there are days when I still feel that way, and I'm not even in the military any more! But I'm not taking advantage of people who didn't do anything to me. I'm trying to live my life the best way I can." You stab your automail finger at Bevan. "You idiots are hurting the people who might be able to help you, you know!"
"Help us how?" one of the men asks, stepping out of the circle to confront you.
"We could hire you for work," Handlin says, his voice mild.
"We're soldiers," the man spat.
"Used t'be, you mean. An' you're not soldiering, are you? You're a nuisance." Handlin sniffs, and you think that has more of an effect on the man than anything you can say. "It's like the lad says, what you're doing makes you a threat, and you know how the military handles threats. Do you wanna end up plowed into a field, or plowing the field?" He makes a hand gesture that's more than a little obscene, and most of the men laugh at it. You try to keep from blushing, hoping that dusk will hide your darkening face. "Then you boys need to make your decisions, and they'd better be the right ones. You know the military won't play around, they'll just wipe you out, if you're lucky."
You're not going to shudder, you're not, because you know what unlucky could mean in the military, even if you don't believe in the tenants of 'luck'. "Mr. Handlin's right," is what you say, because if these men are ex-soldiers, they ought to know what the military is capable of. And from the expressions on some of their faces, they do know. "If you're smart, you'll disband before there's any more trouble."
"Why should we listen to you?" Bevan spits at your feet, the sputum a glob on your shoe.
Looking down at it, then at him, you say, "Because I kicked your ass, and I'll kick anyone else's ass in your group if he needs it." You fold your arms, all but daring anyone to step up and take that first swing. "And you know that Handlin and I are right."
Whatever posturing they might've done, they all stare at you for a few seconds, then look away, and you know you've got them right where they need to be. "So, do you want to become productive members of society again, or do you want to get thrown in jail, or worse?" you announce, loud and clear. "You can have a little bit of time to think it over, but while you're doing that, we're heading into town. If you want to come with us, you're welcome to it. If you decide that you're not coming with us, well, if you're found in this area again, I can't be blamed for the consequences. You've been warned, and you know what the military can be like."
"And the men that you've been robbing don't take kindly to it," Handlin reminded.
There are grumbles and shifting feet, with men glancing at each other and everywhere else but at you. You wait them out for a full two minutes, then hop down to help Handlin's son back into his wagon and climb up to sit beside the man to make sure he's steady enough to drive the horse. Pitching your voice to carry, you say, "Let's go!" Handlin's already in his wagon and clucking his horse into movement, and his son kicks the brake off and the wagon jolts a bit as his horse starts to follow. You don't look back – looking back is for losers – but over the clop of hooves and jangle of harness, you hear muttered voices, and then the tramp of feet as the men fall in behind.
X X X
You tell Meinrad to take all the credit. You don't want any of it; you just want to go home. Funny, you think as you walk up the path leading to the Rockbell house, you'd never wanted to think of Risembool as 'home', but things have changed now. Hell, you've changed.
Lu squeals at the sight of you, barreling off the porch and straight at you, knocking you down in her enthusiasm. She's licking your face and pawing at your chest, making high pitched sounds that hurt your ears. You shove at her, but she keeps coming back, her butt in the air and her tail wagging hard, her front legs spread and her chest pressed close to the ground. You know this pose. Lu offers it when she wants to play.
"Get off, you crazy dog!" you yell, but you're laughing anyway. Lu bounces around and jumps at you again, knocking you down just as you hear the screen door open. You twist your head, trying to block Lu's nose, peering upside-down at Winry.
Her mouth twitches up, but she says, "When you finish playing with the dog, I've got lunch on the table. It's not much." She shrugs slightly, admitting, "I wasn't expecting you," so softly, you almost don't hear her; probably wouldn't, if not for being able to see her mouth move.
Sitting up, you move Lu out of your way, picking up your suit case as you get to your feet. You climb the steps to the porch as you try for jovial, and fail. "I said I'd be back, didn't I?"
Winry swallows and her voice catches as she whispers, "Welcome home."
This time, you hug her. And when her arms come up and hold you tight, you think, you're never letting go again.
X X X