Author's Note: So, after a long hiatus- which was unintended- I can get back to work for now. Finals are coming up soon and everything is very close together as far as dates go, but I'll try and update some more. If you're still somehow reading, I'd like to thank you for sticking with me. I'm gracious, especially to Nyanchan-lol whom has pretty much reviewed every single chapter and helps me along immensely. Thank you! And here we go! I really appreciate the reviews. To make up for my absence, I've introduced multiple characters and have wrote maybe twice as much as I usually do! Please tell me if you'd like to see anything or someone in particular. c:

Crossing the Rapids

Chapter Eighteen: Across the Desert

"We'll have to take a few weeks off of this Shapeshifter case…"


Their voices were in unison. All were in disbelief and disappointment. Roy hadn't thought how they had felt about giving up the work they had put into their findings. He was just so concentrated on getting away from it, in fear of the nightmares repeating themselves. He was fearful, and that was odd. He was always so sure of himself…

He cleared his throat, "Well, yes. As well as protecting the state physically, we also have to ensure its economical activity remains unhindered to an extent. I've told you of the conference we'll be taking a weekend for, correct?"

Breda and Vato nodded their heads, but the other two stared on. Kain and Jean hadn't forgotten, had they? He gave a slightly inward sigh, scratching the side of his neck. "That's your vacation time. You aren't required to attend with us. By all means, I'll purchase your ticket if you want a weekend in the desert, but otherwise, spend it wisely."

Vato stood at his desk where he had been going through radio stations. "Sir, I'll attend with you. I'd like to study up on Ishval, actually…" (Little did they know, his wife and children had sent him off the edge and he gladly came to work everyday during this time.)

Breda nodded, "I would actually like to go, as well. I don't have much of anything to do, anyways, either."

Jean and Kain shook their heads, and the blonde opened his mouth, "I've got a date."

Kain piped up, too, "I've found an interest in the subject we've been researching and want to further explore it, actually…" He went a little pink, hoping he didn't sound too attached to his work. "What happened to Captain Clowers?.." He was determined to change the subject, and she was the only one he could think of.

Their commanding officer replied in a casual manner, "She hadn't been getting enough rest while she was helping us. Armstrong gave her leave for a few days to help her catch up on her sleeping habits, and she'll be back under his watch at night again."

There was a small "oh" from the smallest of his subordinates, then he became quiet. The Lieutenant General decided it was best to continue on with the actual subject.

Roy watched them for a second, then nodded, "Anyways, we'll leave around noon from Central on Friday. I've made arrangements to stay at the Rockbell's for a night in Resembool. That's the last depot we'll be at before going by automobile, and later, by foot, but not for lengthy distances. I'm going to have to call Pinako back now and tell her of our arrangements. Fuhrer Grumman is also sending Rebecca with us for the first meeting, but she'll break off from us once he arrives… It's this weekend. In the meantime, I'd like all of you to finish your paperwork before Friday or you'll be doing it on Saturday under Lieutenant Colonel Armstrong. That is all."

There were a couple of groans: if they didn't finish their paperwork, they either wouldn't be able to spend the weekend doing leisurely things, or they wouldn't be able to take the trip to Ishval. And worse, they'd be under the watch of Alex Louis Armstrong…

There was a sudden silence, then everyone returned to their desks very quietly, followed by the furious filling out of papers, everyone looking determined, and they even made some exaggerated noises. Havoc seemed to be going the fastest, Kain right behind him in speed. Riza only smiled a little at them all before becoming thoughtful of her own work, taking her time to sign everything with a calm hand in the hopes that at least some papers from Mustang's office would actually be legible.

The week came and went, and for the first time, possibly ever, the group had caught up on paperwork before the day it was due. On Thursday night, they all send in their work and Friday became a day off. The night before the trip, Kain and Havoc said their adieus, and the others bid them their own farewells.

Rebecca's train came in around six in the evening. She and Riza went out for a dinner at a small café that was similar to the one they would go to when they had been stationed in East City. After a few (or maybe five or six) glasses of wine, the girls walked back to Riza's flat where Rebecca crashed on the couch and Riza on her own bed (after trying to tuck in Rebecca as if she was a child).

They woke up when Riza's alarm clock danced off the bedside stand at eight with slight headaches but after two mugs of coffee each, they sobered up from their petite hangovers. Each had their own shower and after a breakfast filled with conversation, eggs, and toast, they helped each other pick out appropriate wear for the warm September countryside, and for the dry, hot air of the desert. After playing around with their hair and makeup on each other, it was well past ten o'clock, and the two decided it was best that they started walking to Central Station.

At eleven fifteen, they arrived, and later, the men showed up, one after the other: first Falman, then Breda, and finally Roy with only ten minutes before the train left.

There was a slight flurry of confusion as they all checked each other, making sure that they all had their tickets and luggage. Falman thought he lost his, but Breda had been holding onto it when he took a bathroom break, but forgot to get it back. Roy fretted, tapping his shoe, asking when Fuery was coming, and it took Riza to remind him that Kain was staying in Central.

After the chaotic mess they thought they were cleared up, they boarded the train and clambered into their seats, relieved that they were on it.

After a half hour of idle conversation, Rebecca started one with Riza whom had been staring out the window for most of the time she was on board.

"You're really set on this one, huh?"
Riza turned her head and raised her eyebrows, questioning the soft tone in Rebecca's voice. The brunette looked across the aisle at Roy, whom was talking to Falman about their hotel they had been arranged to stay in.

Her pitch changed dramatically now, and a smirk dominated her mouth, "Well, you better do something soon. Your eggs are dyin', and we aren't getting any younger, huh?" A good-humored laugh left her throat, and then she suddenly became a bit morose upon realization, her eyebrows furrowing as she repeated herself, "We're aren't getting any younger…"

The blonde pat her dark-haired companion on the shoulder, a smile tugging wryly at her lips, "I presume we are. Unless something has changed."

Rebecca sighed dramatically and inquired rather loudly, "Why can't alchemists be useful for once and make something that gets rid of wrinkles or something like that? Geez."

Roy stopped talking for a moment, paused and maybe thought about contradicting what she said, but never turned to them. Falman looked over, but turned his attention back to the Flame Alchemist. He began to babble about the hotel servicewomen whom were "a thousand times prettier than, say, Rebecca Catalina."

She rolled her eyes. "So much for that."

Riza smiled in amusement, adding sardonically, "It's alright. I think you're pretty."

"Yeah, thanks, doll."

The ride to Ishval was a long one. Although the tracks extended so that the trains would be able to stop in a new depot that was being built in Daliha, their stop ended in Resembool: the closest town before having to cross the countryside to meet the desert's edge.

At the station, they were greeted by Winry, Pinako, and Den. Edward was on a run to a nearby town, however, so his presence was missed. The blonde grinned at Riza, waving their group over. Falman grabbed his and Rebecca's suitcases chivalrously, but the other three seized and carried their own cases. The five of them approached the Rockbell-Elric family with big grins. Riza dealt out a couple of hugs and the rest of the group gave firm handshakes and smiles. Pinako looked the same, but Winry appeared almost radiant.

Rebecca was the first to say it: "Woaaaah! Is that a wedding ring I see?"

The blonde gave a light laugh that sounded like bells, "That, it is. Back in April. Actually, I know we sent a few cards out. Lieutenant, you and Gracia got your's right?"

Riza nodded with a smile. She remembered the night when Edward had returned her gun and he had said that they were just "childhood friends." Looks like she had been right.

Breda nodded, "I'm pretty sure the whole of Central knows that the Squirt got hitched. Gossip is like a wildfire, yanno?"

Winry gave a nervous laugh, "I guess so! We're just lucky that we had a private wedding. Granny read our vows, actually. It was just us, Al, and May… She's actually grow a lot. Xiao Mei's still with her as well…"

The short, old woman nodded with her pipe raised to her mouth, having been somewhat silent during the conversation. She spoke now, her pipe lowered, "Well, how about we walk and talk and start heading back... It's always good to have guests, and we've had more visitors coming through our house than we've had in a long time. The company's good because it gives me something to do." She gave a small laugh, looking rather chuffed as she walked away from the group, signaling them to start walking.

That night, Riza and Rebecca discovered that Winry was pregnant with her first child. Although she wasn't showing in the early months, she did have the glow of a woman during her pregnancy. The boys were deprived of this information however, as it was mostly a little secret. Even Alphonse hadn't had word of it yet, although contact with him was rather delayed while he was in the East. Letters that got around once a month were the most of they got out of him.

For dinner, Roy and Breda pulled out two fairly large picnic tables from a storage unit behind the house, and brought it out front. Falman chopped up a few logs and readied the campfire as the women helped Pinako with the meal. Within a few hours, a couple dozen soft, flaky rolls had been pulled out of the oven, and set into three bread baskets. Riza pulled out eight bowls for the stew from the cabinets while Rebecca and Pinako took the casserole out of the oven. Winry had the job to guard the stew while it was over the fire.

Edward returned around seven, just in time for dinner, and was shocked, to say the least, with the appearance of the Lieutenant General and company. After an uncomfortable moment or two when shaking hands with Roy uneasily, things began to go smoother.

The smell of teamed vegetables, chicken casserole, beef stew, and bread rolls filled the air. The group sat down at the tables, the sunset giving them light while they ate and talked animatedly. There was hearty laughter and constant smiles, and, if only for a while, Roy and Riza forgot about the Shapeshifters.

It was around eleven when everyone was getting tired, and the group knew that they'd have to wake up fairly early to catch their ride out of Resembool.

At nine, they left the Rockbells' home and met up with the driver. His car was specialized and manufactured to cross the desert in little time. The trip's length was cut in half what it would be by horseback, and since the engine was dual-powered, by both the sun and by gasoline, it was efficient for their use. For most of the ride, they were quiet in the car's savage heat, and mostly drank water rather than making conversation. By one in the afternoon, they were in Ishval.

The heat was still getting to them, even as it was the middle of September. The land was still dry and thirsty like it had been years ago, but as they closed into the region's center, Riza noticed that the land was beginning to be cultivated. Wheat and cotton fields had been planted on arable land around the center of their civilization. The desert soil was able to be farmed on with the strong crops, but the only problem was the dry seasons that would never give enough rain to supply them with enough water. She saw them now, working on irrigation ditches, some alchemists even helping them, though the Ishvalans stayed further back. Some were uneasy around the Amestrians, but others had remained optimistic and entrusted themselves in the hands of those who could push them along the path of success. Riza admired them. She wouldn't be able to trust after all the suffering they had been put through.

The wheat and cotton fields continued on until they reached the district of Daliha. Here, they got out of the car and began to walk through the bazaar. Bales of cotton were being moved from storage into shops where women weaved beautiful bands and sashes, as well as the robes and dresses that were the norm. A leather shop made saddles for their horses and other necessities like sandals. The leather used was imported from Resembool where livestock roamed freely in fenced pastures that went on for acres and acres.

There was a warm buzz of amiable people. A guide met them in the bazaar and lead them the rest of the way to the large building that served as their capital. The furnishings were exotic and intricately designed, and although Riza expected heat when she entered, indoors it was fairly cool. They looked around in awe.

The group was greeted by a small old woman. She looked fragile, but her grip was firm as she shook Roy's hand. "It is an honor, High Priestess Shan."

"Thank you for going out of your way to come here." Her hand went back to her cane and she gave a small smile to her other guests.

Roy introduced them, "These are my companions, Vato Falman, Heymans Breda, Rebecca Catalina, and Riza Hawkeye. They've come to help the cause as well as learn about Ishval itself."

She nodded solemnly, "Please, make yourself comfortable here, or you can take a stroll outside. The meeting won't begin until five thirty, so you have a solid two hours left to do as you please." She gave a brief smile.

With that, she walked away.