If there was one thing in life Riza both despised and was beyond grateful for, it was bobby pins. The small, metal clips looked so unassuming, so innocent, and yet they could hold more weight than one would think at first glance. What made these bobby pins so special, though, was that they blended in so well with her hair. While many pins were dark in color, these were an unassuming yellow-white which made them completely unnoticeable in her golden hair. It made it easy to tuck her hair in such a way, that it looked like she had just a boy's cut with a bit of fringe off to the side.
However, the pins also were experts at getting lost, and she often woke up with one in her mouth, or on her bed, or even sometimes dangerously close to the hole of her ear. She should shower to the tune of high pitched clatter on the marble floor, and brushing her hair returned many of the pins she thought she'd lost.
She often considered just cutting the hair off if she was going to go to all this trouble to look like it was so short, but stopped each time she grabbed the knife. As she looked in the mirror, her mother's eyes and her father's face staring back at her, she remembered the only compliment her dad ever gave her: "You know Riza, your hair is so pretty."
So, she kept it, staring her past down as she pinned it up every single morning. It was a necessity. Women weren't allowed in the military nor could they be in the inner circle. But men, of course, could do as they pleased. So, Riza just had to pass herself off as a very convincing man and she too would be able to have the freest of wills over her own life.
Riza lived by herself in her family's old home. It was a small little shack, nothing fancy, and certainly nothing anyone else would want to live in. The battered wood was in desperate need of repairs, but Riza was always so busy, and it had survived the winter, so she figured she'd gotten a few extra months out of it. Her mother and father were buried on the property, and although Riza would love a reason to leave, she couldn't bring herself to. Besides, she couldn't afford a place on her own and if she had a roommate, her secret would be discovered much sooner.
She placed the pins she didn't use in the container on the porcelain sink. Knowing how easy they were to lose, Riza did her best to keep track of the bobby pins and always placed them very deliberately and in easy to find places. She double checked that she'd tucked everything in its place and, once satisfied, she left the bathroom. Grabbing her coat off the kitchen table, she made her way outside. Riza never locked the door, because the house wasn't valuable and neither was anything in it. She might mourn the loss of her bobby pins, but everything she valued-her coat, her clothes, and her bow-she carried with her.
She walked the long trail into town where the Royal Training Grounds were. Every morning she trained so she would always be loose with her bow. Her bow was her most prized possession and was passed down from her father. Granted, he never intended for her to have it, but when she joined the Royal Forces, it came in handy. She was quite the shot too, the best sniper in the entire Kingdom. They called her the Hawk's Eye as a play on the name she introduced herself as-Hawk.
It was a quiet morning and the air was comfortably crisp. Winter was over and the last snow had melted, and Riza was sure there would be no more snowfall until next winter. For that, she was grateful. She did not enjoy the grey skies and cold weather. For one, the house was not equipped for a comfortable winter. The cold also made training more difficult, and sometimes the road from her home into town would be so covered in snow, she wouldn't get in for the day.
But now, all she needed was her blue cloak which was warm enough but would be discarded once it warmed up in the afternoon. She breathed in the sharp air and let her shoulders relax as she strolled along. The town was never out of her line of sight and it loomed higher as she approached. It was early, but the gates were open and she passed through the tall stone arches. She waved politely to the guards on the wall and they waved back, but no words were exchanged. Speaking would have been unnatural in the quiet stillness of the half-awake town.
Amestris was a beautiful kingdom with large, expertly crafted towns surrounding it. But, the most beautiful of those towns was the capital, known as Central. It was perhaps the most obvious name for a place, but also the most practical. It was the central-most town, after all, where everything happened, where the military was based, and where the King lived. All the towns in Amestris had charm, but Central was downright beautiful. The finest stone built up the town and there was not a drop of litter in sight. The people were friendly, the kids were cute. Central was almost too perfect. If Riza could afford it, she'd move right into the center of town. She already knew the city so well from a childhood of wandering the cobbled streets and, perhaps, she wouldn't feel so lonely surrounded by people.
Central was also laid out in a very simple and straightforward way: The King was in the center, the Royal Court in a circle around the Palace and the Nobles in the next ring. The rings made up the city, with the most important, and rich, people living towards the center and the others on the outskirts. It was nearly impossible to get lost with the layout of the city, even for those who had never once stepped foot in Amestris.
She approached yet another set of gates and this time shouted up her identity so they would open for her. As the gates opened, the sprawling emerald of the Palace Green came into view. This was also home, and Riza found comfort in being part of the Royal Forces. Besides, she might be a solitary individual, but there was someone she had to protect.
"Hawk!" A deep, cool voice called from behind the disguised woman and she turned to see a handsome young man with dark hair and eyes approach her. Besides their coloring, there was a stark difference between Riza and the man. She was dressed as an archer, in royal blue armor and a blue cloak. He was in blue as well, as blue was the choice color for the Royal Forces, but his clothes were loose and draped in robes. He wore a light hooded cloak and wore white gloves with a red insignia on them.
Roy Mustang was a Royal Mage. More specifically, he was the Fire Mage, and he was the person Riza had to protect.
"Good morning, sir," Riza said politely, nodding as she slowed to let the man catch up to her. Her voice was dropped in a low pitch. No one knew she was a woman, not even her best friend and superior. Roy smiled warmly and they fell into step together as they approached the castle grounds. "Have you completed those reports for Lord Hughes yet?"
"Uh…" He had obviously not been expecting that question, and it was obvious he had not. Riza sighed and shook her head. "I'll get them done today!" Roy protested, as though she had chastised him.
"Of course, sir," she responded politely, though they both knew that was a bold faced lie. Riza would be busy training and following orders, and Roy would likely get distracted by something. They would have the same conversation the next day, as they always did.
"What is the schedule for today?" The Fire Mage asked her as they passed into the building where their team's office was. The Royal Forces were divided into teams, with each team having a Mage at the head of it and a group of soldiers ready to follow orders. It was efficient and left room for advancement, which kept the people happy.
"I will be training this morning, as usual," Riza responded. "You should as well. That or paperwork. And then you have a meeting with Lord Hughes. Your afternoon is free, but something is likely to come up."
Mustang sat at his desk which was positioned at the head of a large room. Riza gathered some papers from the shelf to her right and placed them on the already messy and disorganized desk. She hoped the Mage wouldn't forget today, though she knew he likely would.
With a final reminder to please fill out the reports, she left so that she could get some training in before the late afternoon classes took over the grounds. So early in the morning, it was likely that she would be the only one practicing and that was how she liked it. The fewer people around her, the less chance she had at being found out. Even after four years of this disguise, she never once felt even the smallest bit like a male. Perhaps it was her own bias causing her to feel like she wasn't going a good enough job. What was more likely, however, was that she was such a good sharpshooter, no one was going to question her.
She was frankly amazed Roy hadn't figured it out, after everything they'd been through together over the past years, but he was so focused on rising up that he probably didn't pay much attention to anything not directly in front of him.
Thunk. Riza smirked to herself. First shot right in the bullseye. Perfect. She grabbed another arrow from the pouch she had at her side, lifted her bow, and drew it back. The under side of the first knuckle on three of her fingers felt the bite of the sharp twine, though they were so calloused, it caused no real pain. She closed one eye, then the other, and adjusted the bow's position before letting go. She heard the whoosh of the bow fly just a few inches from her nose and it hit, right on the red center target, just slightly to the right of the first arrow.
And so she went until she emptied her pouch over the course of a half hour. Some wild shots ended up on the target but in a circle surrounding the bullseye. Most of them bounced off the three that were crowded in the bullseye since there was no room for them on the target. The ground was littered with those arrows, and Riza picked them up on her way over to the target. She then returned to the marker and picked up another arrow.
The dark haired man glanced up from the paperwork and smiled at the older, also dark haired man who was standing in his office. He had been doing paperwork and was glad for the distraction.
Pushing aside the papers, he stood politely for his superior. "Hughes," he smiled. "To what do I owe the pleasure so early in the morning?"
"Oh, just wanted to check up on my favorite little Mage!" Hughes sang as he came into the room with an impossibly large smile on his face. "Did you know my Gracia had a baby?"
Roy sighed. "Yes, isn't your daughter, like, four months old now? I think everyone's heard."
"Well, I commissioned an artist to draw my precious angel! Look!" He thrust a small parchment into Roy's face and he looked at it. It was a beautiful drawing and had obviously cost a lot, so he didn't know why Hughes was carrying it around instead of hanging it on his wall or something.
"She's beautiful, Hughes," Roy said kindly, though he didn't have the heart to tell the man that his daughter looked like every other baby he'd ever seen. Perhaps when she got older a portrait could really depict her unique features, but Roy thought she looked just like a little pink lump.
"I know!" Hughes exclaimed as he grabbed the picture back and hugged it. "Roy, it's so hard to leave every single day and not get to spend time with my two wonderful ladies! Oh, I would give anything to bring them with me wherever I go."
"Forgive me, but I don't think the Palace Military Offices is the best place for a baby…"
"We could start a daycare! It would be wonderful!"
"Yeah…" Roy could think of few things he would want less than a daycare in his place of work. "Anyway, is there any other reason why you're here?"
"Actually, there is." The Fire Mage was always surprised at how the older man could go from gushing over his family like a lovesick teenager to a serious and accomplished member of the Royal Guard. But, Hughes's face darkened and he stepped closer to the desk, so their conversation is more private. "Have you thought about taking a vacation, Mustang?"
Roy's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Perhaps he had misheard. "A what?"
"A vacation. You know, get out of the city for a bit."
"Why would I want a vacation?" Roy asked, completely confused. "Everything is so quiet here, every day is like a vacation. There's no stress to escape."
"I think there will be," Hughes said cryptically.
The man nodded and stole a glance at the door. Seeing no one, he leaned in closer. "The King feels threatened," he said in a dark voice just above a whisper. "He is going to turn on the Mages."
"What?" Roy asked, his surprise evident in his raspy, loud whisper. Hughes just nodded solemnly.
"Yes, King Bradley feels that the Mages are too powerful. He worries they will come for the throne."
"That's absurd! Where did you even hear this? I never thought you one to get wrapped up in gossip, Maes."
The man shook his head. "I can't say, but Roy we've been friends for as long as we've known each other. You came to my wedding. Please trust me." He placed a hand on the young man's shoulder in a comforting way. It was in that moment that Roy realized how much Hughes looked like a father. His daughter was lucky, she was going to have the best dad in the world.
"I do trust you," Roy said softly. "But what do you want me to do? I've worked so hard to get to where I am today, and I'm about to be hunted down because I have this gift? That isn't fair. I've done more for this country than most!"
"You should get out," Hughes replied kindly, knowing the decision wouldn't be an easy one. "Just for a little bit. Let this settle down and wait for a time when it's a little safer to be a Mage. At the very least, if some fighting breaks out, you can say you weren't part of it. That might show loyalty."
"This is coming out of nowhere…"
"It isn't, Mustang. There have been meetings you and your team don't know of."
Roy sighed and looked away, contemplating what he was going to do. Running off to get away from all of this seemed cowardly, but he also wouldn't achieve his dreams as a dead man. "Alright," he finally said. "I'll think about it, but I will heavily consider your words of warning."
Hughes broke into a brighter, but still tight, smile and pat the young man's shoulder before returning his hand to his side. "'Atta boy! Don't worry, this will all blow over. You know how the King gets in peacetime. He's always looking for something."
Roy didn't find it in himself to tell the older man that he didn't think this was just an example of the King being himself. If this was truly happening, the King was turning his back on some of the most powerful people he had at his disposal. There was no doubt they would be imprisoned at best, killed at worst.
And so, for a week, Roy floated about in a haze as he watched the world around him crumble. He tried to make arrangements to get out of town but had nowhere to go. He also couldn't plan much without riling up suspicion. He didn't even tell his trusted aide, Hawk, that he was planning on leaving.
It was the seventh day after his chat with Hughes that the older soldier came back. He handed Roy a summons requesting all Mages attend a meeting at three that day.
"This is it," Hughes said solemnly. "Do you have a place to go?"
"Yes," Roy lied as he held the paper in his hands. He couldn't believe something like this was happening. He gave his life, his service, his loyalty to this country and it was turning its back on him.
"You'll be alright," Hughes said kindly, trying to force a smile on his face. "This will all blow over soon. Have you told Hawk? Is he coming with you?"
"Oh, no," Roy said sadly. He'd never told his best friend about the terrible news. He felt awful about it now but felt the need to protect the bow-man. He didn't want him to get all caught up in this and put his life on the line for Roy. No one should have to choose between their friend and the country they love.
"You should at least say goodbye. He's your best friend. He'll understand, and I know he won't say a word. He's more loyal to you than anyone else."
"But he's loyal to the country too. I just worry that-"Roy began, but a loud crashing sound cut him off completely. The ground shook and the two men rushed to the window to find the area outside covered in smoke. Like an ascending chorus, screams filled the air, and people could just barely be seen through the smoke running around.
"Get out!" Hughes shouted and pushed Roy towards the door. "Don't fight, don't get into this. Just get out of the city!"
Confused and worried and with adrenaline coursing through him, Roy began to run. He hadn't even had time to digest the conversation and he and Hughes had and now he had to get out of the city? Possibly out of the country? The day had started so normal, like any other, and there had been no build up. For the first time in a very long time, Roy felt lost.
And then his thoughts flickered to his aide, Hawk, who was in the direction of the smoke by the training grounds. Hughes was right. He had Hawk were such good friends and Roy knew he couldn't leave without him. He trusted Hughes with words and actions, but he trusted the boy with the embellished long bow with his whole life.
"Hawk!" Roy shouted, pushing his way through the smoke and people running in all directions. Another blast nearly knocked him off his feet, but he kept going. As he ran opposite the offices and towards the training grounds, he collided with something hard and solid. Glancing up, he saw Hawk, who looked relieved and nervous.
"Sir!" Hawk said. "We have to go find whoever is the cause of this!"
"No!" Roy grabbed his wrist and pulled him back against a wall. "We have to go. We have to get out of here."
"But we're sworn to protect the King! This isn't like you to run away!"
"The King is coming after Mages. He wants Magery gone," Roy explained quickly as he glanced around for a way out. "He feels it is a threat and we don't know who the real enemy is."
"Who told you this?"
"Shit." Hawk knew how trustworthy Hughes was and if the older man had said something was up, it had to be true. Not to mention, rumors of something happening in the castle were swirling, but Hawk was so low in rank, all of those rumors were just dismissed as meaningless gossip.
"There he is!"
Both Hawk and Roy jerked their heads up to see guards rushing towards them. Hawk lifted his bow and sent a warning shot in their direction, which caused the guards to pause long enough for the two to run. Roy found himself surprised by how quickly Hawk was able to cast away his pledge to serve the crown and instead focus fully on his promise to protect the Mage.
They ran as fast as they could, out of the castle grounds and into the deserted city. It was nearing afternoon at this point and had the explosions not happened, the town square would be bustling with people. It seemed despondent now and Roy hated the sight. This wasn't how his morning was supposed to go.
Through the carefully laid cobblestone streets, the pair ran until they were on the outskirts of the town. The gates were closed and guards were on the walls and the two ducked into an alley. Hawk checked to be sure no one had seen them and then turned to Roy.
"I need an explanation now, sir."
"The King wants to eliminate all Mages," Roy said heavily as he wheezed out the words in puffed breaths. "He believes they are a threat to his throne. I don't know who set off those explosions or if the order has come down yet, but I'm going to assume by the guards ready to attack us that we're not on the friendly side."
Hawk stared at him for a long moment. "So, what do we do?"
"I have to leave. That's what Hughes suggested."
"Where do we go?"
"I'm sworn to protect you, sir. Where you go, I'll go."
Roy studied Hawk's face, but he was as serious as ever. "Alright," he said. "Are you sure?" Hawk nodded. "Then let's find a way out of this city."
Riza had no idea what the hell she was doing. One minute she was shooting arrows in the training grounds and the next she was shooting at her own comrades. The first explosion happened as she was loosening an arrow. Startled, her arm jerked up and the arrow went flying through a window. Before she could turn around, smoke filled the area and she found herself running along with other guards.
"It's that damn Fire Mage!" she heard someone shout and her thoughts jerked to the man she was supposed to protect. Spinning on her heel, she rushed back towards the office, desperate to find Roy. The words of the soldiers didn't even register until the two of them were standing in an alleyway, hiding from the very people they had once thought of as friends.
"Where do we go?"
Roy stared at her. "We?"
"I'm sworn to protect you, sir. Where you go, I'll go," Riza replied fiercely. Roy believed she had just been assigned to him randomly, but Riza had a bond with him spanning years Roy probably barely remembered. If the country was against Roy, then she was against the country.
"Alright, are you sure?" Riza nodded. "Then let's find a way out of this city."
"I know a way," she said, grabbing Roy's wrist and running towards the other end of the alley. She knew this city inside and out. As a sniper, she knew every crevice, every false wall, every corner she could squeeze herself if need be. So, she knew that just a few alleys over in the southwest corner would be a false wall leading to the outside of the city. There was a chance it would be guarded, but Riza hoped they were faster than the guards.
Pressed against the wall of a building, buried in the shadows, Riza peered out and saw her prize, the false wall, completely unguarded. "See that stone there?" Riza pointed. Roy just shrugged. All the stones looked the same to him. "That's our way out."
Before the Fire Mage had the opportunity to ask what she was talking about, she grabbed his wrist again and barreled towards the wall. A guard above her on the wall shouted, and Roy called to her because he thought she was running full speed into a hard stone wall. To his surprise, the stones gave way and they found themselves on the other side of the city walls.
The pasture around the city was lush, green, and rolling. It seemed to go on forever and there was no tree cover. So, the two would have to run for their lives and hope they weren't hit. It was only a matter of minutes before more guards were alerted to the outskirts of the city and they would be hunted.
"This way." Riza took off through the pasture, Roy following close behind her. Her bow was propped up in attacking position and she was ready to shoot anyone she came into contact with. Roy, on the other hand, was a little apprehensive to hurt anyone because they were just following orders. If roles were reversed, he would chase after any of the men in a heartbeat should he be ordered to.
An arrow just missed Riza head by inches, so she turned, still running backwards and fired an arrow into the sky. She didn't see it land, but heard a thud behind her and knew she'd hit a man and he'd fallen off the wall. Well, now there really was no turning back.
Another arrow came close to hitting Roy, but he snapped his fingers and it caught on fire, and it disintegrated in the air just an inch from his nose. He turned back, trying to keep up with Riza who was much better at running backwards than he was.
"Hawk!" Roy shouted and snapped his fingers, lighting another arrow on fire just before it hit the bowman in the chest. She gave him a grateful smile and shot back before turning around and running full speed through the rolling green.
They passed farms and animals as they pounded the dirt path. Finally, they came to a place where forest sprung up to their left and the pasture continued on to their right. Immediately knowing they needed cover, they ducked into the woods. At this point, the guards would literally have to come to them because there was no way an aimed shot could reach them from the city walls.
Crashing into the woods, they ran for some time before they came to a place with a large rock where they could catch their breath. They both collapsed on the ground, panting and trying to control their breathing. Rize didn't feel her legs could move another step, but she knew their rest would only be temporary. The woods were small, so they would have to get going soon.
"Are you okay?" Riza asked, glancing at the Mage. He just nodded, too busy catching his breath to speak. Satisfied enough with his answer, she sat back against the rock and closed her eyes for a moment.
How had this day gone from peaceful to this? One day she was a bowman in the Royal Army and now she was one of the most wanted individuals in Amestris. She opened her eyes and looked at Roy. She couldn't even imagine what he was feeling. She loved her country, but Roy had plans on moving up in the Army and eventually getting into the Nobility. Now all of that was crushed.
Riza could never go home. The thought crashed into her as she thought about the small little house on the outskirts of the city. She would never be able to return to the only place she had ever spent the night, the only place her parents had ever lived. It was where they were buried. It was where her bobby pins were. She leaned her head against the cold stone and sighed heavily.
"Are you okay?" Roy asked once he caught his breath.
"We're not going home," Riza said simply.
"Yeah… I know." Roy paused and studied the green grass as if it would give him all the answers to his problems. "We're in deep shit."
"We need to know what's going on, but we can't get into the city," Riza said. "We'll have to piece together what we can. We need more information before we make a plan."
"For now, let's just get as far away as we can before night falls," Roy suggested. He smiled a little, his personality showing for the first time since they escaped. "At least I can make a fire tonight."
Riza smirked back and rolled her eyes. She was about to respond when they heard crashing through the brush and knew the soldiers had entered the woods. They jumped up, Roy heading further into the woods while Riza held up the back, her bow ready.
A chorus of arrows cascaded through the leaves and Riza swore, dodging them expertly. "Roy, run!" she shouted, turning and sprinting full speed through the trees. There were too many of them and no way they could take them. She had seen Roy hesitate to use his magick, so she knew he was not going to easily set the forest on fire. Besides, it would be best if they destroyed as little property as possible.
And then there was the cliff. Riza broke through the trees and saw Roy who was perched on the edge, looking warily down at the river rushing below. Riza stopped short and swore. There was no way out. The cliff was a deadly drop, and the pointed arrows behind them spelled their death. They glanced at each other and Riza lifted her bow towards the trees just as the soldiers came crashing through.
There was a pause. Riza knew that because she had killed or at least injured one of their men, they would be inclined to shoot on sight. They readied their bows, and she realized they were about to die right then and there.
That would be it. No more goals, no more life, no more protecting Roy. And worst of all, she had failed in the one duty she had been sworn to. She would die and so would Roy, and all of their hard work, all of her perseverance would be for nothing.
And then Riza broke.
She turned, grabbed Roy, pulled him close and jumped as a cascade of arrows followed.
I know, we were thinking the same thing: Man, Kat has like 4 unfinished stories and two sequels she wants to work on... she should write another one!
Oh, brain... why? Well, I've been wanting to write a fantasy, so here's a RoyAi AU Fantasy! It's largely an exercise in longer form writing. My chapters tend to be about 2k words and I want to use this to practice hovering around 5k, though some chapters may still be shorter.
Anyway, some notes: This is total AU. Also apologies for the pronoun switching, that should stop after the next chapter. Hopefully it flows alright. I use the word "magick" instead of "magic" because, traditionally, "magic" is an illusion. It's entertainment. But "magick" is the real deal, it's the working of the universe and power which is, of course, what Roy is able to do. If you look it up you'll find many different definitions, this is what I chose to use in keeping with my own experiences with magic and magick.
This will also pull some elements from Akatasuki no Yona and perhaps a little from the Books of Pellinor
Also, the title is based off of the song "Something Wild" by Lindsey Stirling and Andrew McMahon. While not a perfect match and the story isn't based off of the song entirely, it is where I've drawn the most musical inspiration.
Sorry this is so long. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Sometimes my world building skills can be less than great. As always, thanks for reading!
Thank you all for the lovely comments and reviews! I'm so excited to keep writing this! Just a note on this story and the rest, I've begun studying for the GRE (omg i know) for grad school, so updates may slow as I fill time I would use for writing with studying. But I have not given up any of my FMA stories nor have I stopped my Voltron one. Okay, here's the fic!
Roy's head was pounding. Then he felt his arms aching and his legs felt like lead. For a brief moment, he wondered if setting himself on fire would be less painful. It took a while to figure out where he was and what he was doing lying down in all this pain. For a few minutes, he was conscious with no reason for existence. And then, slowly, memories began creeping back to him. He remembered going to work. He remembered talking to Hughes. There was a vacation... maybe? And an explosion for sure. He and Hawk were running, then shooting and attacking, then defending. And then falling? He briefly remembered the sensation of falling from a very high point, but he didn't remember hitting the ground. It was like the world had swallowed him up and now, he ended up here. Wherever 'here' was.
And then he remembered Hawk had fallen too and his eyes shot open, something he quickly regretted as light filled his pupils. He groaned and pressed himself into the matt he was lying on, wishing it would swallow him up. He wanted to put a hand up to soothe his aching head, but his arm ached something terrible and he thought it would only aggravate his injuries further. But still, he had to find his bodyguard, his second in command.
As he tried to sit up, the door opened and he heard a high-pitched, "No, no, no!" from the young girl who had come into the room. Her voice was grating on his sensitive ears as he was nursing a headache and he found himself tensing his back defensively. But, it was such a silly thing to do, as the girl who had entered the room looked no older than eight and was as short as could be. Her lock black hair was tied up in multiple braids that sprawled down her back and her large black eyes were narrowed as she scolded him for trying to get him.
"What are you doing sitting up?" she asked while Roy struggled to get used to such a high-pitched voice. "You're hurt so badly! I can't even believe it! You're so lucky I found you!" she said. "You fell off a cliff! A cliff! It's a good thing I'm a healer, otherwise, you would be dead! So don't make my job harder by getting up like that!"
The man didn't quite know how to respond to all of this. He felt a strange twinge of guilt for trying to get up but quickly brushed it off. She was just a little girl, after all, he had nothing to feel guilty for. "Oh, I'm lucky am I?" Roy smirked. "You healed me?" The idea that such a small girl knew enough magick to heal was laughable. Healing Magery was one of the hardest to learn. "Where is the Mage? I must give my thanks."
The child glared. "I am the Mage."
"Please, kid, I need to talk to the person who healed me."
"I am! I am! I am!" She pouted and stomped her feet, so desperate to prove that she was, in fact, the healer that she was proving the exact opposite. Roy just watched her, unused to children, and didn't know how to stop her tantrum. The girl could tell she was not believed, so she grabbed his hand and a nearby knife and gave him a cut.
"Ow! What the fuck?!" Roy asked, forgetting his language in front of the child. But, as he was about to lay into her for hurting him, he saw his arm glow in a strange blue light. Where there had once been a cut was not just normal skin and where the girl had been yelling, she was now smugly looking at him.
"I found you," she said. "And I healed you. I'm a healer. Got it?"
"Yeah, okay, I got it." Roy rubbed his arm, checking to be sure healing was all she did. "And who are you?"
"Mei! I'm a Mage from Xing," she smiled brightly.
"And you just live out here in the woods? By yourself?" Roy asked and the girl nodded, as though that was perfectly normal. He thought to ask her where her parents were, but he had other matters to attend to. "How long have I been out?"
"Three days," she said. "You really just hit your head hard. You're lucky, your friend shielded you from the brunt of it."
"Hawk," Roy said and moved to try and get up, but the girl pushed him down. "I need to see him now. Is he alright?"
"She's in rough shape," Mei reported. "I think she'll be okay, but it's taking all the skill I have. I think the trees broke your fall, but she's got some sprains and bruising and quite a lot of bleeding."
Roy's eyebrows furrowed at the pronouns Mei used to describe Hawk, his right hand… man. But, he was also so worried for his friend, that he figured he wouldn't say anything yet. He might have misheard the child anyway. Unbeknownst to him, Mei was also confused at the words Roy was using the describe the woman she had found.
"Can I see him?"
Mei stared at him and Roy stared back. "Um… Mister, are we talking about the same person? Was there another guy with you?" Mei asked, worried she had missed someone who needed help. She had found the two of them just by a river at the bottom of the cliff. The woman was tightly wrapped around Roy, and Mei could tell that she had landed on her back to prevent her companion from taking the brunt of the fall. But, if there was someone else with them, they must have been out of the way of trees and there was no chance they would survive the fall without the greenery breaking their fall.
"Yes, Hawk, my bowman," Roy replied irritably. "Can I see him?"
Mei just stared for another moment, finding herself utterly confused. But, the man wanted to see his friend and perhaps this was all because of the fall, so she figured she'd just let him go. "Only if you can stand," she said.
That was all the motivation Roy needed. He slowly got up, bracing himself against the wall because he was afraid leaning on the tiny girl would topple her over. With a groan of pain, he was standing, though not entirely comfortable. But, he was standing and he could walk, so Mei led him to another room right next to his.
This room was a little bigger and had more herbs and a few medical magick books scattered around. Unlike Roy's room, there was a window and sunlight shone in, indicating it was sometime during the day. In the center of the room was a bed with a figure lying still, and as Roy approached, he saw Hawk all bandaged up. His head was wrapped with gauze and both arms were as well. The parts of his body not covered with bandage were instead littered with scrapes, cuts, and bruises.
He looked terrible, and Roy was grateful for the chair Mei brought in because he didn't think he could stand through the shock of it all. He sat heavily and gently touched Hawk's exposed arm. Being tender was not his strong point, but he couldn't bear the thought of losing his best friend. And, he couldn't help but feel that this was partially his fault because he had been the target of the guards in the first place.
But then Roy glanced at Hawk's face, looking right at his friend for the first time. He was caught off guard by the redness, but that wasn't what ended up holding his attention. Hawk's golden hair was splayed out around the pillow, which was weird because his hair was supposed to be short. Roy touched a lock of hair and found himself touching metal. Upon closer inspection, he found a small yellow pin.
Mei was behind him and watched as the man explored his friend's hair, realizing that Roy was discovering something monumental about his friend. So, she came forward and brought the blankets down as though she was checking the bandages on Hawk's chest. Roy gazed down and his eyes widened as he saw the gentle curve of his friend's chest. He found himself quickly looking away out of respect, but the shock didn't wear off.
His eyes met Mei's and she smiled kindly. "I didn't want to be insensitive in case I was wrong," Mei said. "But, uh…"
"Hawk's a woman…"
At the end of a long day, sleep was something Riza usually craved. There was no better feeling to her than climbing into bed, curling up under the covers, and drifting off to peaceful nothingness. In turn, she dreaded the light invading her eyes in the morning and how she would have to pry herself out of bed to get ready for the day.
And now, for the past day or so-Riza couldn't tell-she had been stuck in that terrible in-between time while she struggled to wake. While she flirted with consciousness quite a few times, she couldn't break through the invisible barrier that prevented her from coming into the conscious world.
Sometimes she heard talking. A voice she recognized as Roy's was constant, though she often couldn't keep focus long enough to tell exactly what he was saying. Still, she knew he was awake and talking, and sometimes talking directly to her, and knowing he was okay made her feel so much better. Her memories had returned almost the moment she had found herself half-conscious, which made her even more desperate to return to the fully awakened world. Then there was a high-pitched, young voice she didn't recognize, but Roy spoke to her in friendly terms so Riza knew they were safe. What confused her, though, was that no one else ever seemed to be in the room. It was just Roy and a young girl speaking with words Riza could never fully make out. This left her with far more questions than answers.
And then, finally, after fighting for what felt like an eternity one rainy morning a week after Mei had taken them in, Riza slowly opened her eyes. It was a good thing it was cloudy because sunlight would have made it impossible for her to come to. Her eyes adjusted to see the wood ceiling and then she looked over at Roy, who was looking back at her with a face filled with happiness, relief, and worry.
"Hawk," he breathed out.
"Yes, sir?" she asked, her voice raspy and dry.
Roy didn't know what to say. He wanted to admonish her for being out for so long. He wanted answers to her newly revealed gender. He wanted to thank her for being so strong that she could live through something like falling off a cliff and then scold her again for using her own body to protect him. But, instead, he just gently grabbed a lock of her hair and let it run through his fingers. She watched him do it and, feeling a knot in the pit of her stomach, she looked worriedly back at him.
"Let me get Mei," he said kindly. "Then we can talk." Riza studied his face, trying to figure out before that talk how he was feeling. From the look in his eyes, there was no doubt he knew her secret, and she hoped he wasn't mad. After running away from a country that wanted them dead, she didn't want him to cast her away, especially not with her in this condition. But, she couldn't read him, so she just nodded, and Roy left the room briefly to get the little girl.
Riza stared back at the ceiling while he was gone, wondering how she had managed to get into a position like this. What was she thinking, launching herself and Roy off a cliff? They could have easily been killed. Then again, if she had done nothing, they would absolutely be dead. But, now Roy knew her secret, and while she supposed that was better than dying, she was anxious to know his feelings and reactions. Then again, it certainly wasn't the strangest nor the most impactful thing to happen this week.
"Hawk?" a familiar high-pitched voice pulled her back from her thoughts. "Maybe she's not awake."
"I know he-she's awake," Roy replied correcting himself. "I was just talking to her."
"I'm awake," Riza whispered out, turning her head slowly and opening her eyes again. She hadn't realized she'd closed them. She was still so exhausted.
"Oh good!" The child exclaimed. "My name is Mei! I'm a Healing Mage and I found you and your friend! You were so hurt, but I fixed you right up! But it's going to be quite a road to full recovery. I could only do so much."
"Thank you," Riza said and Mei helped her sit up against the headboard so she could drink some of the water that was brought to her. "You're a Mage?" She was just as surprised as Roy was, though she wasn't as overt about it.
"Yup!" Mei smiled brightly. "I already told Mister Mustang-I live here on my own, but I'm originally from Xing. I'm trying to find something special that I can bring back to the Emperor so my clan can be the top clan and I can be the Empress!"
Riza looked a little concerned for a moment and wondered how a child like herself could live out here all alone. But, if she was powerful enough to save her and Roy, then she was probably doing just fine. She looked healthy, anyway, and seemed happy. For all Riza knew, her parents were nearby anyway.
"I really can't thank you enough."
"Don't thank me! I haven't been able to practice my healing magick for a long time, but now I can!" She paused and looked between the two adults. "Why did you jump off a cliff anyway?"
Neither said anything for a long moment. There was no reason not to trust the girl, but they didn't want their status to be discovered. If anyone knew where they were, they would be killed immediately.
"We were chased," Roy finally said, deciding to be honest. "By the King's Royal Guard."
"But you guys were wearing Royal Armor. I recognized your cloak, you're a Mage too." Mei replied, even more confused than before.
"The King had criminalized all Mages in his Kingdom," Roy explained. "I don't know what he's doing with them if he's imprisoning them or killing them, but we escaped."
"Where is my bow?" Riza asked suddenly, a fire lighting in her eyes. She loved that bow, it was the most valuable thing she owned. If anything happened to it, she'd never forgive herself.
"I have it," Mei said. "It's snapped in half, but all the pieces are there. You can probably get it back together with rope and then try to find a proper Mage who can fix it. I would, but I'm not skilled in putting things back together. I'm just a healer." Riza was not thrilled with the condition of her bow, but knowing it was there relaxed her. At some point, they would find a Mage who could fix it and all would be well. She leaned back against the pillows tiredly and Mei pat her hand.
"You need a lot of rest," she said, "Don't worry, I'll take good care of you!" Riza just nodded, hoping to get back to sleep soon and Mei left the room. Roy was left standing there as he looked at Riza warily. He wanted to ask so many questions, but also didn't want to push Riza too far.
"If you want to talk, talk," Riza said, her voice hard. Roy was a relatively easy person to read, at least to her, and she knew exactly what he was thinking. "I'll only be able to stay awake a little longer."
So, awkwardly, Roy sat down in the chair by the bed. Riza looked at his eyes, but he refused to meet hers. He just stared at her bandaged arms. She was about to tell him to just leave, then, but he spoke.
"You're a woman."
Riza scrunched her nose at him in an incredulous look. There was no way on earth that she was going to explain biology to him, especially not in her condition.
Seeing her expression, he quickly corrected himself. "I mean, why do this? Why disguise yourself and join the Royal Army? Why go to all of these lengths to protect me?"
Riza just shrugged. "I've wanted to join the military since I was a child," she said. "Obviously women aren't allowed. I'd resigned myself to that, but when my father died and I was left alone, I had to find a way to take care of myself. I found his old bow and began practicing. Then I enlisted."
"Then why would you follow me out here?" Roy asked. "You're risking your own livelihood, your own dreams for me."
"Because you're my friend, sir," she replied evenly. "And I swore to protect you and follow you."
"I thought that promise only went as far as the military was concerned," Roy admitted.
"My promises have no conditions," Riza said.
"I'm guessing Hawk isn't your name then?"
"No." Riza paused. "Well, sort of." She glanced away from him. She wasn't sure if she wanted him to know that their relationship went back further than the military, and divulging her name would be a dead giveaway as to who she truly was.
"What do you mean?" Roy pressed.
She paused. "My name is Riza. Riza Hawkeye."
Roy caught himself mid-nod as realization dawned on his face. His stomach dropped and he stared at the woman in front of him as if for the first time. "Wait. Hawkeye?" He asked, his voice cracking with shocked disbelief. She nodded. "You're Master Hawkeye's kid? Riza? But you died of The Sickness." His mind was reeling. An image of the stern-faced man flashed in his mind and he found himself feeling so stupid that he'd never made the connection before. But then an image of a funeral, the memory of being told the Hawkeyes were all dead surfaced. He was certain she was gone. Then again, a week ago he was certain she was a man.
"No, it will take much more than an illness, or a fall apparently, to kill me," Riza smiled, trying to breathe some humor into the room. It felt like the air had been sucked out of the home and she hated the anxiousness that still stirred in her stomach. She couldn't tell if Roy was upset with her.
"Apparently," Roy mumbled. "I feel like I'm seeing you for the first time in years. Your family… your dad… They gave me a lot." Memories filtered through his head of training with Berthold Hawkeye, the only other Fire Mage known in the land. He remembered Mrs. Hawkeye, Riza's kind mother who made them lunch after a hard day of work. And then there was Riza, the wide-eyed, timid daughter who watched from afar.
Riza smiled. "Father never showed it, but he was glad to have a student like you." Roy smiled back at her, grateful for the compliment on behalf of his old teacher.
"You're something else, Riza," Roy said. "I guess I'll have to mourn the loss of my friend Hawk, but I'm so glad to have Riza back." He paused and studied her face for a long moment, the weight of what was going on elsewhere in the world crashing into his mind. "Will you follow me still?"
"What?" Riza asked.
"Will you follow me?" he repeated. "If you want, you can go off and live a life free of running from the Royal Army and free of all my bullshit. And, there's a much lower chance of you being killed."
Riza just shrugged. "I have no intention of leaving, sir. Like I said, I made a promise. I don't know what's going on, but we'll figure it out together and find our way back to Central."
Roy nodded and placed a tender, but firm hand on her shoulder. "Great. I wouldn't want anyone else at my side." Riza just nodded, completely exhausted now and Roy knew that was all they would be able to discuss for now. "Get some sleep," he said. "Mei will kill me if I keep you up."
Gratefully, Riza sunk back into the sheets and quickly fell asleep. Still recovering and also exhausted, Roy went back to his small room and laid down. His head was swimming and he felt numb from all he had learned. As he closed his eyes, memories filled his vision and he drifted off to sleep in the comfort of the past.
"Father is happy to have you here," the young girl said one day as Roy sat in the small living room, waiting for Master Hawkeye to come home from the market. He turned to her with a small smile.
"You think?" He'd only been training for a week, and the older Mage was so cold. It was hard to read him.
Riza nodded as she knit. Her threads were sloppy, and she knew her mother would scold her later. But, she wasn't good working with her hands. She would rather be practicing with the beautiful bow that was hung above the fireplace.
"He's always wanted to pass along his knowledge," Riza told him as she fumbled with the knitting needles. "Father says Fire Magery is too dangerous to write down in a book, and that people are the best way to keep knowledge alive. He wanted a son, but he got me instead. He was less than thrilled when he found I had no Gift. But he's glad he can pass it all onto you."
Roy pondered this for a long moment, unsure if he should say thank you or address her self-depreciation. "Well, I'm grateful he's my teacher," he said. "And I'm sure he's glad to have you for a daughter."
Riza shrugged. "He pays me no mind. But that's alright. I just wish Mother would let me outside more often so I could practice my archery."
Roy arched an eyebrow. "You do archery?"
"Yes." Big brown eyes looked over at him and Roy saw a glint of light in them. He could tell the girl didn't like talking about her father, and she didn't enjoy knitting. But her eyes shone when she talked about archery. "I want to be an archer for the Royal Army," she said. "They won't let women in, but maybe in a few years."
"Well," Roy said, impressed, though he quickly dismissed the idea of a woman joining the King's guard. But, he liked talking to the usually quiet girl and found himself humoring her. "Hey, maybe if you get good enough, you can be my bodyguard. Your father keeps talking about how dangerous all this fire magick is. I'll need someone to protect me."
Riza laughed and returned to her knitting. "You haven't even really begun the training my father will put you through," she smirked. "If you manage to survive it, I'll follow you into hell, Mister Mustang."
Riza was stuck in bed for quite a few days, much to her disliking. She was an active sort of person and she hated that her body wouldn't cooperate with what she wanted it to do. Riza enjoyed being in control, but, then again, falling off a cliff was bound to set you back a bit. It also gave both her and Roy time to process what had happened over the past week. Her secret was out, they were wanted by the state, and Magery was outlawed. All of this had happened so quickly and they were grateful for the time to process.
Meanwhile, they learned more about the young Mage who saved their lives. Mei was about ten years old and did, in fact, live all by herself in a cabin in the woods. Originally from Xing, she was one of over fifty potential heirs to the throne. The backstory was long and confusing, especially for Riza and Roy who could barely keep up with their own country's politics, but the short version was that Mei was looking for something to impress the Emperor, her father, with so she would be picked to be Empress over all of her half-siblings. She set up a home in the woods outside the capital and in between some other towns so she would be central to the gossip and rumors.
"You can perform strong healing magick at ten," Riza said one evening as they sat on the porch, sipping tea. She was able to move around more often now, though she needed some help still. Her legs were very sore when she was trying to move around, but when she was settled into a comfortable position, she was fine. Every day, Mei would perform some ritual on her that would alleviate the aches she felt first thing in the morning. "How is the Emperor not impressed with that?" Riza did not have a Gift but learned from her father that it was one thing to be born with powers, but another thing entirely to control them and use them well. Not to mention, healing was among the most difficult to master.
But, Mei just shrugged, seemingly disinterested in her own abilities. "It's just a few spells," she said. "And it's nothing some of my older siblings can't do." Roy and Riza nodded, hit again with the realization that this child was competing against people twice, some even three times her age for the throne. While amazing for a young kid to be able to perform the magick she did, there was no doubt some of her older siblings had the same or even better capabilities.
"Well?" Roy started. "You're out here searching for rumors. What have you heard?" They had been away from civilization for almost a week and he was growing antsy. He loved the city. The lights, the sounds… maybe not all the smells, but he enjoyed his life there. The quiet of the wilderness scared him and the silence felt so loud, so stifling that he had trouble falling asleep most nights. He was also desperate for information. It was like they fell off a cliff and into another world.
Mei regarded him for a moment, so used to keeping her secrets that she wasn't sure if she really wanted to say. "Nothing much," she replied guardedly. "I heard rumors in the next town over that the King was growing suspicious of his Mages and was looking at getting rid of them."
"Huh," Roy couldn't help but chuckle. "All the way out here and you had warnings of that, and we're right under the King's nose and the idea never crossed our path until we were running for our lives." He shook his head at the absurdity of it all.
"Well, hopefully, we'll have better luck at getting information when we move along," Riza said. "We'll have to rely on what we find out from neighboring towns, especially those more removed from Central."
Roy frowned. "You're still not recovered."
"We should keep moving," Riza shrugged. "If we take it easy and stick to covered roads we should be fine." She thought for a moment, glancing down at the simple shirt and tight leggings that she'd worn for the past few days. It was what she usually wore under her Archer's uniform, which was back in her room. "We should get new clothes. Get rid of the old military attire."
"Well, I have to go into town soon," Mei chimed in, before Roy could continue to protest on behalf of Riza's condition. "I could go tomorrow and get you clothes and gather some news before you go!"
"Do you really think she's alright to keep moving?" Roy asked incredulously, stunned that they were even considering moving on after that fall off the cliff. He also felt strangely protective over Riza, more so than when he thought she was a man. He recognized that within himself and knew it was a little sexist, but when he looked at her now, he still saw the wide-eyed timid girl he knew in their youth. It was difficult for him to smush together Hawk, the strong, silent, and deadly archer and Riza, the kind, caring, and gentle young girl who was his old master's daughter. But, she was one in the same and it would take time to get used to that.
"Mister Mustang, you're not even really ready to keep moving," Mei replied seriously. "But I know a mission when I see one, and you guys have an important one right now. Besides, you can't stay in one place for too long!" Roy saw Riza nod in agreement and he knew he was outnumbered in his opinion.
"I think it's a good idea for you to go into town and get the information you can. If you would also get us some new clothes, we would be grateful," Riza said. "I'm afraid we don't have much money, but we'll give you what we have and repay you when we can."
Mei just shook her head. "I'll help you out knowing you'll help me in the future if I ever need it," she replied.
"Of course," Riza smiled.
And so, early the next morning, Mei left for the nearest town while Roy and Riza stayed behind. She took some coins to pay for clothes and brought with her Riza's bow, in hopes she could find someone who would fix it. In thanks for the girl being so kind as to take care of both of them, they helped pick up the small home. As he wiped down one of the tables, Roy glanced over to Riza who was folding blankets onto a shelf. She looked alright which was a miracle after that fall, though he did notice her sitting and taking breaks more often than usual. He also couldn't get over that Hawk, his best friend, was actually Riza, the daughter of the late Master Hawkeye.
"Yes, sir?" Riza asked. He had not spoken, but she knew she had been under his gaze for the better part of an hour and Roy internally cursed at himself. She'd noticed, though then again he hadn't exactly been secretive about it. Her eyebrow was cocked in a confused way as he scrambled to find something to say.
"I was just wondering, are you sure you're ready to leave here?" he asked quickly. It wasn't a total cover-up; he'd been wanting to ask that question for a while now. "I mean, you've only just begun to move around now. Without Mei, I'm just worried no one will be there to heal you if something happens."
Riza shrugged and returned to her blankets after finding that nothing important was crossing Roy's mind. "I'm fine, sir," she replied coolly. This was what felt like the hundredth time he'd asked her that same question. "Besides, whether I fell off a cliff or not, we weren't going to have Mei with us anyway once we hit the road. And we have to move on. We can't stay in one place for too long."
"And you're sure you're ready for anything?"
Riza stopped folding the blanket and stood to face her old superior. She placed her hands on her hips and gave him a hard look. Roy found himself becoming nervous. He had not said the right thing. Unconsciously, he flinched in preparation for the lecture he was about to receive.
"Roy, I realize you're shocked to find that I am not the person you thought I was in name, but I am the same person in every other way," she said in a cold voice. Hawk had been just as much a part of who she was as being Master Hawkeye's daughter, so she found Roy's incessant questioning not only annoying, but offensive. "This is exactly why women are still barred from joining the military-because men like you can't fathom a woman being able to handle herself on the battlefield. For the last time, sir, I am absolutely capable of continuing on. Yes, I will follow you. And yes, I will continue to protect you and fight by your side. Once I get my bow fixed, I'll be of much more use, but I have no intention of leaving your side. So please, I know you're grieving the loss of Hawk, but try to realize that we are one in the same."
Roy found himself swallowing thickly and he slowly nodded his head. Watching Riza get so aggravated at him, hearing the coolness in her voice, made him realize that this was an entirely different person from the girl he knew all those years before. Whether Hawk had always lived inside her or she grew into the person of Hawk, he didn't know. What he did know was that this woman was capable, smart, and deadly and that he wouldn't want anyone else on his side.
"I'm sorry," he sighed. "It's just a lot to process." To his surprise, Riza's face softened and she set the last blanket down.
"I know, sir," she said in a much warmer voice than before. "But we've had plenty of time to process. Now we have to accept our reality and move on." That was the same old Hawk, Roy noted. Always looking ahead, always moving forward. And she was completely right-they've had plenty of time to come to terms with what was going on and Roy needed to move on. He also needed to stop thinking about this from the perspective of losing a friend. Instead, he'd found one he'd thought was long since dead, and she was also pretty badass now.
A smile crossed his face and his eyes shone with determination. "Alright," he said firmly. "Then, Riza Hawkeye, I'm entrusting you with my back." The woman bristled at her name and looked at him, her brows furrowed in a slight confusion. "We are going to get to the bottom of this and, as a Mage and apparently outlawed class now, I'll need protection. You are my protector. But…" He paused for effect. "I'm an ambitious man, you know that. And I'm angry that the King would do this. So, I need you to keep my temper in check. And, if I ever stray from the righteous path, I want you to shoot me."
"Shoot you?" Riza looked concerned and even more confused. The idea of shooting Roy, her friend, was one she had never in her wildest thoughts ever considered.
"Yes." That tone of voice told Riza he was being completely serious, if even a little dramatic. "This whole thing-banning Magery-it has to be part of a bigger plan. This could be the end of our government and monarchy as we know it. And I'll be there to pick up the pieces!" He balled his fist and brought it down from his neck to the middle of his chest in what was supposed to be a display of confidence.
Riza, though, just sighed and tried to keep herself from roller her eyes. Yes, Roy certainly was ambitious. And he had always been dramatic, even when they worked for the King at the Central Palace Grounds. "Alright, sir," she said simply, her voice dripping with dryness. "But let's not get ahead of ourselves. This could all blow over tomorrow and we'll be back to our normal lives next week." Even as she said the words, they sounded so phony. Even if the King did rescind his order, she still shot a guard. There would be consequences for that and for running off.
Roy opened his mouth, likely to protest the notion that things could get turned upside down and then return to normal so quickly, but it was then that Mei burst through the door carrying bags that seemed even bigger than she was. "I'm home!" She called out in a sing-song voice and dumped the bags on the ground. The older two came over and helped her unpack and then sat in the main room sipping tea while Mei relayed the news she'd gathered at the market in town.
"I got you guys some clothes," She began. "Nothing fancy, just some stuff that doesn't look military." She riffled through one of the bags and pulled out two sets of clothes. One was a long black accented in red. It was nothing fancy, just a cloak as well as some pants and a shirt to wear under it. While it would certainly be a clothing item of choice for Mages, nothing about the cloak necessarily implicated its wearer as a Mage. For the fashion of the day, cloaks were popular and this was pretty standard. The other set of clothes included black pants, a light blue shirt, and a black hooded cape that snapped on at the neck. It would be perfect for an archer wanting to store her bow relatively discretely on her back, under the cape, as well as blend in with the dark of night.
After being thanked profusely for finding just the perfect clothing, Mei continued. "I also got your bow fixed," she said as she handed the ornate weapon to the blonde haired woman. She took it gratefully and traced her fingers over the whittled wood.
"Thank you," Riza replied breathlessly, thankful beyond words to have her prized bow back in working order.
"A friend owed me a favor," Mei smiled. "He was happy to help. But he did say a more specialized Mage would be able to do a better job. Still, it should hold up for now." Riza nodded and looked over where the bow had originally snapped. Sure enough, it was pieced back together, but Mei was right, a more skilled hand could do a slightly better job. And, if their journey becomes any more dangerous, that might be a good idea to pursue.
"Anyway," Mei continued, "I also got some news. Everyone in town is really scared because the King's gone off the deep end."
"What do you mean?" Roy asked, shifting anxiously to the edge of his seat, his tea cooling and forgotten.
"He's banned Mages, he'd thrown people out of his court, he's just gone wild," Mei replied. "I mean, some of it might be exaggerated rumor, but it's based on fact."
"What about the Mages specifically?"
"He has them all in jail," Mei replied. "They're alive, but imprisoned. He wanted them all taken away so he could stop what he believed to be a coup attempt. It all happened so suddenly even his top advisors had no idea what was going on until it happened. One day the guards just launched an attack on the Mage quarters of the Royal Grounds and that was that. I did hear talk of an escaped Fire Mage." She glanced pointedly at him and Roy felt pale. "But not much. There are so many Mages in the Royal Court, no one's keeping track of names. But I would lay low if I were you."
Roy nodded and glanced down at his hands.
"Why so sudden, though?" Riza asked.
"No one knows," Mei shrugged "I did hear something interesting though." She smiled widely, as though she had a fun secret that no one else knew. Roy and Riza stared at her for a long moment while the girl drew out the anxious silence out for dramatic effect. "He got a Philosopher's Stone!"
Roy and Riza both stared at her blankly and her joyful grin turned into a rueful sigh. "Really? You don't know what a Philosopher's Stone is?" She asked. "But you're a Mage!"
"I've heard something about it, possibly," Roy pondered, placing a hand on his chin for a moment. "In a children's book? It wasn't supposed to be real."
"That's what makes it so special!" Mei said. "Everyone thinks it's fake, but I bet it's real!"
Riza was studying the ground, trying to find recognition of the term there. It then hit her and she looked up with a gasp. "Oh! My father talked about the Philosopher's Stone," she said. "He thought it was a legend too." The others looked at her expectantly, but that was all she had, just a small snippet of something her father once said. "We didn't talk much," she said awkwardly. "And certainly not about magick. That's all I know."
"Well, that's the rumor," Mei said, grabbing the attention back. "The King got a Philosopher's Stone and he kicked all the Mage's out because some knew about it and he was worried they would take it. A Pilosopher's Stone is much more useful in the hands of a Mage, you know, because we can better control the powers. But, even without a gift, if you have a Stone, you're the most powerful person in the whole entire world!"
Roy, however, wasn't convinced. "What makes a stone so special anyway?" he asked, folding his arms as he sat back in his seat. "It sounds like a children's tale. Of all the reasons to kick Mages from the inner circle, I doubt finding some rock is the reason."
Mei opened her mouth to protest, but Riza spoke before the two could begin fighting. "Whether it's real or not doesn't matter right now," she said, ever a level head. "What matters is that, for whatever reason, the King has indeed decided to outlaw Magery and magick. So, we'll need to stick to back roads and keep a low profile. We'll also need to figure out where to go next." Hopefully, she thought, working out their next course of action would prevent further arguments over whether or not the Philosopher's Stone was real.
"Risembool might be good," Mei suggested. "It's quiet and way out in the middle of nowhere, but I bet the locals have lots of gossip. It's also a good place to go if you want to make your way back to Central from the East, which tends to be less guarded than the other directions."
"Oh?" Riza asked after pondering the girl's suggestion. "Have you been?"
"No, but I've been out that way," the girl said. "I looked around East because I heard it was more rural. Less people means less of a chance of getting caught by someone who would throw me out of the country." A smirk appeared on her face, one that perfectly mixed childishness and deviousness. "And I've done a great job or not getting caught."
The adults considered this for a long moment. The girl was correct, she had not been caught by the usually strict immigration guards. Wherever she came from, however she traveled, she had the right idea when it came to laying low.
"Well, if you're so good at not getting caught, why don't you come with us?" Roy suggested suddenly. Riza whipped around to look at him, confused eyes searching his own confident face for a reason why he would extend such an offer. Their journey was going to be dangerous enough without dragging along some kid.
But, Roy was focused on her powerful healing abilities and how she was able to evade arrest while here. Not to mention, her survival skills must be top notch if she had survived in this little hut in the wild for so long. However, Mei just shook her head.
"I've made friends with the people in town," she explained. "And if I up and leave I'll lose my source of information. Your journey sounds really important and interesting, but you guys don't have much direction right now. But, if you need anything you'll know where to find me!"
"Are you sure?" the Fire Mage pressed. Riza could tell he did want her to come along, but his insistence was coming from a place of not liking to be told no. Roy would push and press to get a 'yes' out of someone, even for the smallest ask. "You can't stay out here in the woods forever! You're just a kid."
"Hey!" Mei frowned, her eyes narrowing at the older man. "I've survived out here for a whole year while you guys fell off a cliff in the first hour!"
Roy matched her frown and narrowed his own eyes as well, his pride wounded from the girl's words. But, she was as stubborn as he was and he could very easily see that he was not going to get anywhere with his request.
"We will be sure to repay your kindness," Riza said after a pause when she realized Roy wouldn't end the previous conversation. Mei nodded and the woman turned to the Mage. "I think we should leave tomorrow, then. We have clothes, information, and we're as healed as I think we're going to get. So, we might as well get moving."
He didn't answer for a moment as he studied the dull wood floor. Riza could tell he was lost in thought, as he'd often been in the week they stayed with Mei. Finally, he glanced up and met her amber eyes with his own serious, dark ones.
As always, thanks so much for the comments and reviews! I'm so glad people are as excited for this story as I am! This is largely a bridge chapter to get them moving along, but things pick up next chapter! Thanks again!
At first light, Riza was up along with Mei, who helped pack necessities into a small leather backpack. They sat on the front porch of the hut, their feet in the dew dipped grass as the cool air blew comfortably around them. As the sun rose and beat on their fronts, they grew warmer until they had to move fully onto the deck. There was not a cloud in the sky and Riza was thankful both for the pleasant weather and high visibility that would allow them to get relatively far on this first night on the road.
"It should be a good day to get started," Mei said cheerfully, noting the way Riza tilted her head to examine the sky. The woman nodded in agreement. "And you're feeling okay?" Although she was confident in her healing, she was concerned about Riza moving around so soon after a long fall. Roy was alright, thanks to Riza protecting him with her own body, though it took a day or so for him to be ready to move around. But, Riza had been bedridden for nearly a week and she still had stiffness and pains in her legs.
"Better," Riza replied after contemplating what she wanted to say. It was better, she felt, to hide the details so as to not worry the child. "I'll be alright, Mei. Thanks to you, I think we're both going to be just fine."
"Just be sure to take it easy," Mei warned. "You probably should be resting for another week at least!"
"I know." Her tone was diplomatic, but she felt uncomfortable having someone worry about her. She couldn't remember the last time someone was honestly concerned for her safety and wellbeing. Perhaps her mother was the last person, her father certainly never did. She and Roy were a great team when they worked for the King's Army, but they also weren't in too many dangerous situations. And, she had lived by herself.
"But," Riza continued after realizing her long pause indicated she was going to say more. "We have many things we need to do."
"Like what? What do you want to accomplish?" Mei asked. Riza found herself taken aback, but Mei was acting as kindly as she could. There was no judgment from the girl. Instead, she was just curious as to what her patients were hoping to find on their journey.
But, Riza wasn't entirely sure. The question took her by surprise. Sure, they needed to figure out what was going on in Central and they had to free the Mages, but that goal seemed so unrealistic and so far away. It would be so much easier to just cross to the next town and stay there either until this whole thing blew over or, at worst, for their entire lives. And, why bother trying to save the country? She'd pledged her allegiance to Roy. Then again, the Fire Mage was as determined as ever to rise to become the leader of the Kingdom, though now he would have to take a much less diplomatic route.
Mei was looking at her expectantly and Riza shifted her gaze to the sparkly green grass on the ground. "I don't know," she responded after the grass didn't give her an answer. "I suppose we want to reunite the country, though that sounds like too big a goal saying it out loud."
Mei just shrugged indifferently, a supportive smile on her lips. "Well, that's what goals are for. They're for big dreams that you don't know are going to work out or not, but that's also why you have smaller goals too. I'm sure you'll figure it out! You guys are strong and you make a good team."
Riza nodded, humming her appreciative response as she tucked another package of dried meat into the bag.
Roy woke up just before one of them went to get him, but just late enough that he missed out on packing up. Riza met his tired yawn with a disdainful frown, realizing that she'd been able to deal with her superior for eight-hour bursts, but literally living with him might be another thing altogether. Then again, these were weird times, and she hoped they would whip into shape before anything dramatic happened. Surely the Mage wouldn't be so lazy when it was his life on the line.
"Be safe," Mei smiled as she stood on the porch. Roy and Riza were ready to go and stood just down the trodden dirt path that led to the little house. They smiled widely back and nodded their heads, silently promising that they would at least do their best to not get themselves killed. It was the least they could do, after all, since she had saved them.
"Thank you so much for your kindness," Roy said pleasantly, a grateful smile resting on his lips. "We wouldn't be alive without you."
"I know!" Mei responded cheerfully without the slightest hint of humility. "I am a great healer, after all. But, I wish you guys luck! I hope everything turns out alright."
"Keep yourself safe too," Riza said earnestly, finding herself feeling very protective of the girl. Although she had saved their lives, and although they wouldn't be able to start this journey without her, Mei was still a child. She was entirely self-sufficient, but leaving her out in the wild like this felt wrong. "With Magery outlawed, there's no telling how long it will take guards to reach that small town near here."
"Don't worry, Miss Hawkeye, I have backup plans!"
"Alright," Riza replied, her tone showing a slight hint of skepticism. Then again, Mei could have said anything and Riza would still feel protectively worried for the girl. "And, as Roy said, thank you. If we find anything your Emperor might like, we'll be sure to get it back to you. And if we can ever repay you, please let us know."
"Just don't die," was all the girl requested before the gave one final wave and she retreated to her little house.
Alone in the wild, Riza turned to the Fire Mage. Before she could speak, she found herself struck by the fire in the man's eyes. His lips betrayed no telling of what he was feeling on the inside, but his eyes said everything. He looked confident, excited, and determined. And, because he simply looked to be all of those things, Riza was too. Of all the people to go on this journey with, Roy was her first pick, even if he did sleep in too much.
"Alright, sir," She said, adjusting the bow on her back and checking her quiver to be sure all the arrows were there. "Let's go."
Riza lost herself in the cover of the forest. It was a beautiful day for traveling through the woods, as the misty morning had broken away to a bright warm day. Hidden under the cover of the trees and following paths that only led them through the shade, it was cool enough to make walking long distances comfortable, and both were grateful that it wasn't too hot nor too cold and they could begin their journey on the right foot. Of course, it wouldn't always be this way, they were sure, so they relished the calmness while they had it.
They didn't talk much, but a comfortable silence fell over them. It was much like being back in Roy's office when they would have to do paperwork late together. There was nothing really to talk about, so rather than force an awkward conversation they just did what they needed to do. In this case, they had said all they needed to about where they were going and why, and rehashing the details of their self-exile distressed the both of them. Still, Riza wondered what was going through the Mage's mind as he led the way down the barely noticeable path. He was not one to adapt to change quickly, but in just a week he had realized, accepted, and begun a new journey. And, at the same time he had to deal with the outlawing of his very being, he also had discovered Riza's secret. It was a lot to take in.
But, their relationship, though friendly, was not that where they could confide their deepest feelings. Riza was his bodyguard and he was her superior, even if it wasn't officially true anymore. She still felt a duty to him and, after all that had changed, she didn't feel the need to upend this facet of their lives too.
They stopped for a quick lunch and break when the sun was high enough in the sky to not shine through the trees into their eyes. Since they were heading East, they battled the brightness all morning and, although it made the day much warmer, Riza almost wished it had remained a little cloudy. Thankfully, the trees gave cover, and the sun quickly climbed.
They sat on the ground in the middle of the pathway, chewing on the dried beef that Mei had packed in their lunches. Though they didn't speak as they ate, both were contemplating how dry the meat tasted compared to what would usually have been their midday meal back in Central. While they did not dine like the King did, the small cafeteria offered decent cuisine. For Roy, it was a nice light meal to have. For Riza, it was the only meal she got in a day. And now, here they were on equal footing, eating the same dried beef for lunch as they would for dinner, and then for breakfast the next day, and so on until they reached Risembool.
"Are you ready?" Roy asked, breaking the still silence as he repacked the bag. It seemed like such a sin to ruin such peaceful silence and Riza even jumped at the suddenness of another person's voice. But, she quickly collected herself and nodded.
"Yes sir," she responded, her voice dry on her lips. She gathered the other pack and stood, waiting for the Mage to begin walking. Roy studied her for a brief moment, ensuring to himself that she was, indeed, ready to go, and then turned on his heels to continue down the path.
Again, silence ensued, leaving the both of them to their own thoughts. If they hadn't been afforded enough time to consider their new life, they certainly could think about it now. Birds chirped and animals rustled in the bushes, but aside from that, no other sound escaped the still forest.
But, both had their demons, though Riza was less inclined to speak about it. Roy, on the other hand, found himself growing more and more disdainful of the quietness. While he often relished the chance to engulf himself in blissful silence in his old life, he now found himself lost in his thoughts, which were rather dark. He was exiled. He was outlawed. If a member of the King's Army saw him, he'd been shot at on sight. This might never end and he might never be able to go home. He liked his home. It was small, but he was a single guy and he missed sleeping in his own bed. He wondered what Hughes was doing. Hughes nor his wife had a Gift, but he was sure the man was worried over his newborn. If this didn't end would children born with a Gift be taken away? Or, he shuddered to think, put to death?
"Riza," His voice called out through the forest, again breaking their silence. The woman again was startled, having been lost in thoughts of her own.
"Yes, sir?" she asked with concern. Roy drank in her voice. It was like a cooling rain on a hot day or water in the desert. But, he realized, he hadn't thought of anything else to say. He'd called her name for the response and now that he'd gotten it, he wasn't sure what else to say.
"Um," he started weakly, obviously fumbling for something to say. "What was it like, pretending to be a man?" It was the first thing that popped into his mind, though he felt his face heat up in embarrassment. What a stupid thing to ask, he chided himself.
Riza pushed her brows together, though Roy never turned to face her so he didn't see the look of utter confusion on her face. "I'm sorry, sir, what did you say?" she asked, though she knew what he'd asked and just wanted to confirm he seriously wanted an answer.
"Uh… What was it like pretending to be a man?" For all the things Roy was, he was not one to lie or back down from a question. And, unfortunately for him, that included times the questions were silly.
Riza paused, and for a moment Roy thought she was ignoring him out of spite. But, stubborn as he was, he refused to turn to her. If he had, he would have seen she was considering the question, as it was something she had never really thought about before. She'd lived every day waking up a woman and coming home a man. It became who she was, as though she fused together these two separate but still so similar genders into herself. She found herself not contemplating the question itself, but the absurdity of keeping men and women separate in their society. It seemed so ridiculous considering she could do anything a man could, sometimes better, and yet if anyone had known about her true identity, she would have been kicked out and likely court-martialed.
"I don't know," Riza finally decided to answer after sitting on his question for longer than was fair. It was the truth, she didn't know how she felt about the matter. It was just something that happened, something that became part of her daily life. No more, no less.
Roy, however, wasn't satisfied. While he had been cautious to ask such a question, with that answer he was determined to get a real response. "What do you mean you don't know?" he asked incredulously, fighting the urge to turn around and look at her. "It's something you did every single day for years and you don't know how you feel about it? I mean, you had to live life as a man, isn't that different from being a woman?"
The archer was agitated by his incessant questioning but was far too professional to yell at him. Though, she figured, if he continued, she'd have no choice but to tell him off. Still, his questions confused her and she found herself thinking more deeply about her feelings than she wanted to.
"I don't know!" She replied indigently, her voice rising slightly with irritation. "My life isn't divided up into being a woman and being a man. I suppose if I had to find a divider, it would be between when my parents were alive and after they died. That's it. I became who I am after that, not sooner and not later."
This gave Roy pause. While very apparent to Riza, who had lived through the situation, he'd never considered the impact her parent's death had on her. Reflecting on it now, it made perfect sense that she became a different person after they died.
"You changed after they died?" he asked.
"Of course." Her tone dropped and Riza had to stop herself for a moment. Thinking about her parents brought on thoughts she didn't like to explore. "I had to fend for myself. I was alone with no other family around. I had to grow up immediately. That's why I joined the King's Army. I'd wanted to as a kid, of course, but really just did it out of necessity."
There was another long silence, broken only by the crunching of leaves under their feet. That was the only sound they could hear. Although the birds chirped and animals ran around in the brush beyond, they could only focus their hearing on the crinkle of the foliage.
"Do you miss them?" Roy asked.
"Oh." Riza contemplated this for a moment, finding herself shrugging even though he couldn't see her. She felt a lot of things about her parents. Missing them was there, but it was low on the list. Mostly, though, she felt angry. But, she didn't feel she could actually say that out loud. How ridiculous would that be? After all, it does no good to be angry at a dead person.
"Yeah," she finally said noncommittally and Roy knew instantly by the tone in her voice that she wasn't fully sure of that answer, but he didn't press her about it.
"Your dad was a good guy," he said awkwardly. "What happened to him was a shame." He didn't know what else to say. Master Hawkeye was a stoic, cold man who didn't show love. If he felt love for anyone or anything, it certainly wasn't apparent. The only thing anyone could tell her loved was fire magery, as he'd thrown himself into his work and research for his entire life. Riza just hummed at Roy's words about her father. She didn't truly have an opinion one way or another about his character and didn't care to discuss it then.
"What about you?" she asked. "And your family?"
Roy just shrugged. "I never knew my parents. I can't really miss someone I didn't know."
They fell back into silence since neither had anything else to say. Riza wrestled with the feelings Roy brought up in their little chat but decided in the end that she was glad for the talk. It didn't soothe her opinions of what happened in her life, but it broke up the monotony of walking through this forest, so she was happy enough. Roy felt similarly, though he did have a twinge of guilt for bringing dark memories of the past.
Riza didn't mind, though. She figured it was good to think about these things every now and then. She'd been so wrapped up in her work before all of this happened that she'd never really stopped to consider her feelings on the situation. But, as she watched Roy's thick black hair bob up and down as he walked, she knew that no matter the situation, no matter where they were, she wanted to protect him. He was, after all, her friend, but also her father's prized student and the keeper of the secrets of very dark magick. Their destinies were intertwined in a way that even Riza herself didn't quite understand, but she was content with her ignorance for now.
The sun was behind them now as the afternoon light wore into a subtle evening glow. They could still see perfectly fine but agreed they would want to find a place to camp for the night before the light slipped completely away. Riza wondered how it would feel sleeping outside like they would have to for many nights to come. She'd never slept anywhere but in her own bed in her family's home, so this would be quite the experience.
Soon, they found a clearing and settled there. As they ate their dried food in comfortable silence, the last light of day ebbed into the first glow of the moon. They had the perfect chance to see the round, beautiful moon that lit the forest with an eerie hue.
"Riza, look," Roy said, his head tilted back and his mouth agape. He looked positively stupid like that, which Riza found amusing and even a little endearing. So she too threw her head back and gazed up at the sky through the clearing in the trees.
Stars. So many stars filled the night sky that Riza thought she was looking at a painting. It was beautiful, unlike anything she'd ever seen before. And, it wasn't just the white glow on the black sky that had her in awe, it was the multitude of colors that blossomed across the heavens. Ringlets of reds and greens sprawled across the sky followed closely by the deepest purples and blues she had ever seen. Drowned out by the light of Central, Riza had never seen the sky like this before. But, in the solitude of the forest, where no one else lived and no light was there to overpower, she could gaze at the night sky in all its glory.
And, Riza felt so small. It was amazing how many beautiful stars she could see, but she found herself thinking about all that must be out there. Here she was exploring the lands of her own world that she'd never seen before, but she would never get to explore the stars that she gazed upon now. And she wondered how many countless others were also gazing up at the sky, feeling as small as could be compared to the infinite power of the universe that lay beyond.
"Beautiful, huh?" When Riza came back to Earth, Roy she found the Fire Mage looking at her a little smugly. He was thrilled to have pointed out something that could captivate her as much as the night sky did. All Riza could do was nod and steal one more glance at the heavens before returning to the man before her.
They made a camp and Riza took the first watch. Roy snored away and Riza continued to look up, positioning herself against a tree so she wouldn't hurt her neck.
Yes, she wondered about the worlds beyond her planet. But, looking over at the sleeping Mage she was glad she was here, on Earth. Home.
They continued on for a few days as they walked the long forest to Risembool. They never saw another person on their journey, though they did see animals filtering in and out through the trees. Usually, they stayed far away from them, though a few daring squirrels came out of their hiding places in the bushes to investigate the intruders.
The weather mostly held up, though it rained the evening of the second night. This made Roy angry because he couldn't do much in the rain. His Flame Magick would only go so far before being put out by the water. At the same time, Riza also ended up aggravated by the weather because that meant there would be no fire for the night.
It was the late afternoon of the fourth day and the two companions were tired and short. They had argued that morning about whether the jerky Mei packed was chicken or beef and then fell into a simmering silence for the rest of the day. It was cloudy outside and cool, and the clouds threatened to open up any moment, which would only worsen their mood.
"I think we should stop here for camp, sir," Riza said, the first words she'd spoken to him since morning. He paused and turned to her before evaluating the potential campsite.
"No, I want to keep going," he replied dismissively.
"If we keep going we could get caught in rain," Riza reasoned. "And then it will be harder to find a proper campsite.
Roy contemplated this for a moment. He knew Riza was right. There wasn't much daylight left anyway, especially with the cloud cover. But, a small, temperamental part of him wanted to keep going out of spite. He was just about to insist again that they keep going when they heard a loud rustling in the bushes to their left. Their attention captured, they forgot their disagreement and turned to where the sound was coming from.
Realizing that this was not an animal they had met before, Riza placed a hand on her crudely mended bow and readied it in case it would be needed. Roy seemed a little taken aback by her quick move to action, but he followed suit and placed himself in the mindset to use his magick if need be.
The rustling continued and then, they heard the smallest whisper of a voice. "Hello?" it called. Roy lifted his head in surprise and Riza's eyebrows furrowed, though she did not release her position. It sounded like a young boy who was scared out of his mind.
"Who's there?" Riza asked, finding her voice before Roy did and taking on a deep, confident tone meant to intimidate whoever was there. It worked because there was a long pause before another response came and she thought for a moment she'd scared whoever it was away.
The two adults exchanged a glance. "Help with what?" Roy ventured, taking a step closer. Riza wished he would stay in one place in case this was a trap, but then she figured she was being a little paranoid.
The rustling stopped for a moment before beginning again, this time coming closer. They heard footsteps and they could tell it was absolutely a person, likely a child walking towards them. "Promise you won't hurt me?" asked the boy's voice.
"Promise," Roy said, his softer side getting the better of him as Riza shot him a look. No, she figured, they couldn't really promise that. Who knew what was coming out of the woods at them!
It turned out to indeed be a little boy. He looked young, maybe a little older than ten, but certainly not yet a teenager. His face was scratched and he looked pale and scared. Short blonde hair was mixed with mood and what the adults feared was some blood as well. His golden eyes were wide as he stared back at Roy and Riza who looked as shocked to see him as he was to see them. He hadn't expected to find anyone else out in these woods.
"Who are you?" Riza asked. She had no idea what to say to this… thing. Her bow was still leveled at him unconsciously and by the time she realized she was literally pointing her weapon at a child, she had already scared him more. He stood frozen in his place, looking up at them as though they were actually about to kill him there in cold blood.
"My name is Alphonse." He said, stuttering with fright. "Please, help my brother."
Riza was about to ask what he meant, but before she could even open her mouth, Alphonse turned and revealed a shorter boy on his back. And worse, he was absolutely covered in blood.
Roy gasped, Riza dropped her bow altogether. She lurched forward instinctively, her heart in her throat, and unwrapped the red cloth that covered what the young boy was carrying. The blood went from his golden hair to his bare toes. His clothes were ripped and ragged and his breathing was erratic as he fought to stay alive. Riza gazed over him and found, to her horror, that he was missing both an arm and a leg and both stubs were bleeding profusely.
"Please help him," Alphonse, said again, his voice shaking and sounding desperate.
"Of course," Roy replied quickly as Riza gently lifted the child off of his back and knelt down on the grassy forest floor. At this point, she didn't care where the boys came from, one was hurt and they had to help. Riza grabbed one of the bags and pulled out all the medical supplies Mei had packed, which was a considerable about given that she was a healing Mage, after all, but still not nearly enough.
And then, as though the heavens were laughing at the poor unfortunate souls, there was a crack of thunder and the sky opened up, showering them all with buckets of freezing rain.
Here's the next chapter early because I've been a little consumed by this whole series. I LOVE writing it! Anyway, I wrestled with whether or not to have Alphonse appear in his suit of armor or as a boy, and I chose this because I think it works best with future plot points! As always, thanks for reading!
"Sir set the tent up!" Riza called over the roar of another crack of thunder. Her hair was already darkened and sticking to the side of her cheek and she wished ruefully that she'd thought to bring her bobby pins so she could get her hair out of her face. For now, she would have to deal with the strands as she pushed them away to focus on the unconscious, bleeding boy in her lap.
Behind the curtain of the rain, the Fire Mage grabbed the small tarp and thick pole they had been using as a tent. He dug the stake into the ground and threw the tarp up before quickly pushing bags underneath to prevent all of their belongings from getting soaked. He then pulled out a thin, but dry, blanket from the bags and laid it down on the muddy ground.
Riza gently laid him down, watching as his pale face contorted with pain. He was conscious, unfortunately, and she couldn't even begin to imagine the agony that engulfed his tiny body. He twisted and turned on the blanket, gripping the sheet with his one hand while Riza worked to stop the blood with bandages where his other arm should be.
"What's his name?" Roy asked, glancing at the boy standing beside him. He didn't know if he'd asked before, or if Alphonse had said so in the rush of everything happening.
"Edward," Alphonse responded in that shaking voice of his. "Is he going to be okay?" he added quickly but got no response. Roy didn't want to say he didn't know, and Riza was too busy wrapping bandages around the child's arm and leg.
"Roy, I need help," Riza said sternly, her sharp amber eyes looking up to pierce him. Roy found himself staring back into a wild, determined, and hardened face and furrowed his brows in confusion. He didn't know what he was supposed to do to help. They were alone in the middle of the woods with a boy hurt worse than Roy had ever seen anyone hurt before. Even in his years in the King's Guard, he hadn't seen an injury like that. And, he'd never seen Riza look the way she did. Her jaw was set like stone, but she looked like she was about the cry or scream or both.
"What could I do?" he asked as lightning dimly lit of the sky and thunder cracked once more.
"Use your magick," Riza replied. Roy looked back at her incredulously.
"I'm a fire mage, Riza, what could I possibly do to help?" he asked her. "Burn the wounds? That would kill him!" He didn't see Alphonse flinch harshly at the idea of his brother dying.
"My father always said all magick comes from the same source within you, right?" she asked. "You should be able to do something. I have the bandages on but they're not stopping the bleeding. If you could close the wounds even a little bit, he'll have a chance."
Before Roy could respond, Alphonse stepped forward, his mouth in a brave, thin line, but his eyes betraying how scared he was. "I could try to help," he offered.
Riza stared. "You have a gift?"
"Yes," the boy confirmed. Riza briefly wondered how in the world they had managed to find not one, but two gifted children alone in the woods in just a week, but she decided now was not the time to question it. Roy also exchanged a shocked glance but realized too that there were more important things to attend to.
Both males stepped forward. Riza noticed how timid they both seemed, Roy likely due to lack of confidence in his healing abilities and Alphonse because he was scared of losing his brother. But, they still knelt down, their knees turning brown with the mud instantly and placed their hands on the shaking, bleeding boy. Riza watched in awe as a blue light formed and they carefully healed the boy, using much of their own strength to mend the wounds. The bleeding soon clotted and then stopped altogether, though he certainly would need more medical attention once they reached the next town. But, Edward's face softened and he seemed to fall asleep, which was a great relief to everyone as none could bear to hear his whimpered cried any longer.
Everything had happened so quickly that the world rushed around them. Now, it was silent, an eerie silence that made all uncomfortable and tired. Still, for a long minute, they just sat there, eyes glued to the child whose breaths moved his chest more evenly now as the rain poured around them.
Roy was the first to break the silence. "What happened to him?" he asked accusingly, turning a harsh gaze onto the younger boy who looked back with wide, but tired eyes. Riza wanted to jump in and defend the child. Surely it wasn't him that caused this to happen. But, she was curious and didn't speak.
"It was an accident," Alphonse told him wearily. Roy's frown deepened.
"An accident? Well, I hope so," he said sarcastically. "An accident with what? A saw? A sword?"
Alphonse shook his head and turned to stare at the soupy muddy ground. He couldn't look at the man's frightening gaze and he couldn't bring himself to look at his brother. He might have sought refuge in the softer features of Riza, but she was behind him and he was too tired to move. "It was magick," the boy finally responded.
"Magick?" Riza asked worriedly. Of course, she wasn't so naive to think that magick couldn't be used with bad intentions, but she couldn't believe that evil had touched the lives of children as young as these two were. "Was it something you did?"
She hadn't meant to sound accusatory, but Alphonse flinched again before shaking his head wildly back and forth. "No!" he all but shouted. "No, I didn't." He tried to calm himself down, get his emotions under control, but he couldn't. With a stolen glance at his brother, he was undone. Tears came flowing down his cheeks, but neither Roy nor Riza could really see them since they mixed with the rain still pelting his face unforgivingly. But, they could hear the anguish in his voice. "He wanted to bring back our mother!" he sobbed. "He made a deal. But he couldn't do it so he had to pay the price. He wouldn't let them take my arm, so he gave his!"
Riza found herself frozen to the ground, and across from her, Roy was too. Cold shock filled them as they struggled to comprehend the struggle Edward had gone through to try to bring their mother back, only to lose two limbs in the process. It was a wicked energy for sure, and Roy felt his blood boil at the thought of someone using magick for something so terrible. How could anyone do this to two innocent children?
"Who did you make this deal with?" he asked, his voice low and dangerous. He was only angry at the person who caused the boys all this pain, but Alphonse was frightened and he didn't say anything else. Riza glanced across at her traveling companion and in the moonlight, Roy understood the look she was giving him. That would have to be enough for now.
"Come here," Riza said, moving for the first time over to Alphonse, who finally turned to look at her. He hesitated but decided she was safe enough and came over so she could wrap him in the only other blanket they had left in their packs. She felt how cold he was and hoped the thin sheet would do. Alphonse, longing for comfort, and still shuddering from tears moved close enough for her to almost hug him. Riza didn't, unused to children and being so gentle in general, but she did guide him under the tarp and out of the rain. He was soaked through and the blanket wouldn't help much, but at least he was out of the worst of it.
Of course, with both children under the tent, there was no room for Roy or Riza who looked at each other forlornly. Neither could believe what had transpired and both were completely exhausted. They didn't speak but instead sat there, their eyes either on each other or on the sleeping boys.
An hour later, the rain stopped. Riza stood immediately, stuck her palm out to be sure, and then began to walk around, feeling her legs pop and crack with every placement of her foot on the mushy ground. Roy did the same and they ended up within sight of the tent, but a few yards away.
"What are we going to do with them?" Riza asked as the rung the water out of her hooded cloak. Roy was doing the same with his and shrugged.
"We get them to Risembool. Hope to god there's a doctor there," he said. Really, what else could they do? They couldn't leave them in the woods, but they also couldn't take them further than the next town. They were traveling soldiers, not a traveling daycare!
"But Alphonse has a gift," Riza said, her tone even. She wasn't trying to persuade the man one way or another but was trying to give all perspectives. "And it sounds like Edward does as well. If we leave them in Risembool, someone could out them and they could be taken away or worse. They're obviously the sort to get into trouble."
Roy whipped his cloak out, snapping it up and down quickly to rid it of more water. Of course, it wasn't anywhere near completely dry, but at least it wasn't sopping wet. "Well, they can't come with us," he said. "We have business to take care of and information to find that doesn't involve them. Maybe we can find someone there to take them in, protect them. Maybe they know to keep their gifts a secret."
"We don't know that, though," Riza countered as she moved on to her socks. "That boy just lost an arm and a leg messing around with dangerous magick. I bet they'll get into something again, and it might cost more next time. And we can't just pawn them off on some random person in Risembool. We don't know anyone there. How will we know they're safe?"
The mage scowled. "You know, I get you're playing devil's advocate, but you make things really fucking hard," he said ruefully, though Riza knew he wasn't angry at her. It was what she'd always done, talked both sides just to be sure Roy was making the most levelheaded decision. What he chose didn't concern her, she just wanted him to make a decision that wasn't based solely on emotions.
"I'm just presenting all sides, sir," she said professionally. "I'll follow your lead."
"Well, what do you think we should do?" Roy asked. Riza just shrugged, a small smirk gracing her lips.
"I don't know. That's why I'm following and you're leading."
He couldn't help but crack a smile at that, especially after everything they'd gone through that night. He looked at her, then up at the moon and stars before finally letting out a long sigh. "I guess we'll just see what happens," he said. "The first order of business is getting that kid some real medical help."
And with that, they finish ringing out their clothes and then made their way back to the tent in the clearing. Alphonse was fast asleep as was Edward, who still looked pale and gaunt but wasn't bleeding profusely anymore. Riza knelt down outside the cover of the tent and ran a hand through Edward's long golden hair. It was caked in mud and blood and she wondered what horrors he had seen. She felt a pang of guilt and an overwhelming need to protect the children, not unlike the same protectiveness she felt for Roy. And she would, she knew. But now, she would sleep under the dazzling stars as she tried to forget a world that would be so cruel to those so young.
Riza had never slept so terribly in her life. Although traveling around the forest wasn't exactly five-star accommodations, this night had been the worst by far. She awoke sitting up against a thick tree stump, her bottom sunk into the muddy ground, and her hair littered with twigs and leaves. She felt disgusting and had never longed for a shower more in her entire life. For a brief moment, as the sunlight hit just below her eyes, she wondered where she was and what she was doing. And then, she remembered the children they had found in the woods and the bleeding boy that had barely saved.
She felt herself freeze with fear, worried that their efforts had not been enough. Slowly, she moved, feeling her joints pop and her muscles scream in protest, but she crawled over to the tent. Her heart was in her throat as she came upon the children, her attention first captured by Edward.
Riza didn't realize how tense she was until she let out a breath and felt herself sag with relief at finding the child still breathing. He was asleep, pain still showing on his young face, but he was alive. She then turned to the younger boy, Alphonse, who was curled in a ball next to his brother. He hadn't shown any signs of injury, but he was shaking like a leaf in a strong wind, and a quick hand to his forehead revealed a fever. That wasn't much of a surprise, Riza felt, considering they had been out in the woods for who knows how long. In fact, she was surprised that she wasn't sick herself after being caught up in all the rain.
Riza jumped, startled and remembered the mage who had fallen asleep against another tree. She turned, her hand leaving Alphonse's forehead to rest on the ground as she twisted her back to face the man.
Mustang's eyes were open and he was furiously swiping at his nose with the backside of his hand. He looked agitated, and Riza could tell from a distance that he'd also caught a cold, but thankfully didn't seem as ill as the boys.
"Good morning, sir," Riza said, upping her pitch so she sounded much cheerier than anyone needed to be at this hour in this situation. Her chipperness earned her a scowl and a glare from Roy who mumbled something that she couldn't hear, but she guessed it was not a pleasant greeting back.
"How are the kids?" he asked in a nasally voice giving away the fact that his nose was plugged up with mucus.
"Well, the shorter one is alive," Riza replied grimly. "The other one has a fever now." She looked back at the two sleeping boys. "It's funny how Alphonse said his brother was older than him, but I think he's taller." Roy didn't respond to her comment, though he agreed and he scooted over to the tent and peered in. Sure enough, both children were fast asleep. He noticed that even in his unconscious and painful state, the shorter boy had managed to kick off the blanket and had his only hand resting on his bare stomach. A sort of protectiveness filled him, similar to what Riza felt the night before. It wasn't quite fatherly, but it was familial in nature and he wanted nothing more than to see these boys get somewhere safe.
For now, though, he had to push all that aside. There were, unfortunately, more dangerous things to worry about. "We need to get moving," Roy said, standing against the protest of his sore muscles. "We're almost to Risembool, I think." And hopefully, he added to himself silently, they were almost to a warm bath and food that wasn't stale.
"We'll have to carry this one," Riza said, brushing her hand through Edward's bangs again. "We'll be lucky if he even wakes before we get to Risembool."
"I'll get him on my back, just wake the other one up," Roy said gruffly as he began packing up their little camp. Riza nodded and woke Alphonse, who looked and felt awful, but confirmed he could walk on his own. While the adults put away the tent and blankets, the young boy gazed at his brother worriedly, though he tried to avoid the gruesome images of the bloodied bandages.
"He'll be alright." Alphonse jumped a little and turned to find Riza with a hand on his shoulder. "We just have to get him to the next town." Initially, Riza felt bad for promising the boy's well being, which she really couldn't do, but all the guilt washed away when a flood of relief crossed Alphonse's face. "And we need to get you there too," she continued moving her hand to his still hot forehead. "How long were you out here?"
"A week and a half," Alphonse responded shyly. "But brother didn't… didn't end up like this until two days ago." A shadow crossed his face and Riza briefly considered questioning him further, but he looked so frail that she didn't want to upset him. Besides, she realized when she looked up to see what the mage was doing, they were ready to go. So, she just ushered him along, taking note of the grateful look on his face when she didn't ask more questions.
They moved along the path, Edward resting on Roy's back as they walked. Riza was behind him with Alphonse in the middle, who worriedly kept his eyes focused on his brother. It was a quiet morning and the sun rose as though there hadn't been a tremendous rainstorm the night before. Riza was almost angry at the lack of acknowledgment of the hell they went through the night before and just hoped they would reach the town soon. At least, she thought, the air was warm, and the parts of their clothes that hadn't dried yet soon would be.
And soon, about two hours into walking through the forest, they saw the end of it. Light shone through the gap in the trees just ahead of them and within minutes they were out of the woods and gazing across the rolling fields of East Amestris. There would be no more forest for cover, but the hills seemed deserted enough and they could veer off the regular path as they continued on to Risembool.
They paused to take in the view, and Riza took the opportunity to check on Edward. Nothing had changed, and he still hadn't woken up, but his breathing was even at least. Turning to Alphonse, she noted the younger boy looked a little worse for the wear.
"How are you holding up?" Roy was asking him as Riza checked Edward. Alphonse just shrugged, still a little nervous around the mage.
"'m alright," he mumbled tiredly. He rubbed his eye with a balled fist and looked around the fields. "Where are we going in Risembool?"
That was a question neither Riza nor Roy had considered, as the boys came crashing into their lives before they could discuss next steps. "I'm not sure," Roy said, posing an implied question to Riza as he turned to her. Riza pursed her lips in thought. Neither had been to Risembool, so they didn't know what they would find there.
"I suppose we'll go to an inn," Riza suggested. "And then call for a doctor." Roy nodded in agreement and she turned to the young boy. "Do you know what's happened over the past few weeks?" she asked, referring to the ban on magick. Alphonse nodded. "Good, then you know not to tell anyone you have a gift. That goes for you too, sir. Obviously. To be honest, you should lay low."
"I'll be fine, Hawkeye," he said dismissively as he gently readjusted the boy on his back. Riza gave him a look but didn't protest his comments. There was no use arguing on the side of a hill anyway. They began walking on, but it was only a short time later that Alphonse stumbled and almost fell, but Riza was able to grab his arm first. He pulled limply against her and she knew he had fainted. Hearing the commotion, Roy turned and saw Riza lifting Alphonse onto her back.
"He's down," she reported evenly, trying to hide the concern in her voice.
"Is he alright?"
"It's the fever, sir," she said, lifting her legs quickly and readjusting him on her back. She felt his warm breath on her neck and strangely felt a little better knowing he wasn't pushing himself anymore. "He needs sleep. We probably shouldn't have made him walk this long."
"He didn't say anything," Roy replied, trying to ease any guilt the woman might have. Riza just nodded, not feeling particularly guilty, but also not particularly good about having a sick kid walk miles.
They continued on and soon approached a few houses littered across the countryside. They weren't sure where the center of town was, or if there even was one. Perhaps Risembool was so small, there was no real central part of the village. Thankfully, after another mile and another few houses passed them by, the found a sign advertising the "Rockbell Inn and Automail Shop." They noted to each other how strange it was that those two services were in the same building, but then again it was an extremely small town.
They walked up the short, dirt and gravel path and Riza knocked on the door. In Central, Inns always had their doors open, but this one looked more like a private residence than an actual house. Perhaps that's because it truly was and they made extra income from their inn service.
There was puttering behind the door and the creaking of floorboards before the knob on the door turned and opened. Riza glanced down quickly, as both she and Roy were surprised to find themselves looking at another young child. This one was a girl of about ten years of age with blonde hair and big blue eyes and she looked positively adorable in a little pink dress, but Roy sighed in frustration.
"Am I never going to see another adult again?" he groaned, a little louder than he meant to which earned him a confused look from the girl and a sharp glare from Riza.
"What he means," the woman corrected, turning her attention back to the child. "Is that we desperately need a room and medical attention for two small boys." She didn't want to go into any further details because she didn't want the girl to see the state that Edward was in. No child should have to see something so awful done to another child. "Are your parents home?"
The girl suddenly looked distressed beyond words, but bit back her tears and shook her head. "No, but my granny is," she said. "Let me get her." And before either adult could say anything, she turned on her heel and hurried to a back room out of sight. They waited, Roy bouncing anxiously from foot to foot and Riza standing there stoically, until a short older woman, no taller than her granddaughter bustled to the front of the house.
"Well, what do we have here?" she asked, a brown long pipe between her fingers. She placed it back in her mouth while she awaited an answer and let out a small ringed puff of smoke.
"Ma'am, we desperately need help and a doctor for these boys," Roy began as he turned around to let her see Edward on his back. The older woman gasped and adjusted her glasses as she stepped forward so she could take a better look. Roy's back was stained a little with blood seeping through from the bandages and Edward's breath was relatively even but hitched with stress. He was absolutely not out of the woods yet.
"We also have his brother," Riza offered, showing the woman the other boy on her own back. "He's relatively alright, but he has a high fever. They were out in the cold and rain for a week."
"Well, don't just stand there, come in! Come in," the old woman said in a slightly panicked tone as she ushered the four of them through the doorway. Without stopping or missing a beat, she hurried them through the large rural home. It was the perfect house for an inn with the communal dining room right in front and rooms in the back of the first floor. Although they didn't go upstairs, they guessed that was where the woman and girl slept. The floors were made of old wood that would likely need to be replaced soon and the house was cozy but sparsely decorated. It didn't appear that the small family was hurting for money, but they certainly were not rich. Riza even thought it similar to how her old home was before her parents died.
They were shown into a small room with two twin beds and a window at the end of the room. There was a dresser, an end table between the beds, and a chair positioned in the corner by the window. It was a charming little room, a perfect place for a weary traveler to stay. Riza went to the far bed and gently laid Alphonse down. As she pulled the blankets up over him, he shifted and wearily opened his eyes. He tried to move his mouth to form a question, but Riza placed a hand on his shoulder.
"You're safe," she said. "We're getting help. Now, sleep." He hesitated, but all the questions he had were answered in those few short sentences. He turned his head to watch Roy lower Edward down on the opposite bed and felt comfort knowing actual adults were going to help them. So he just nodded in response to Riza and closed his eyes. Within seconds he was back asleep.
Once his eyes were closed, Riza turned her attention to the other boy and moved across the room. The older woman was checking him over and changing the bandages. It was quite the bloody affair and Riza averted her eyes so she wouldn't have to see the gore.
"Who are you?" the older woman asked as she changed the bandage on Edward's shoulder. It wasn't an accusing tone, which both were grateful for. Instead, it was just a curious, business-like question.
But, the answer was difficult because they didn't know this woman and wanted to keep their identity a secret. "We're travelers," Riza ventured. "We want to see all of Amestris. But these boys, we found them in the woods last night. We don't really know what happened to them. I'm Riza Hawkeye, this is my…" she considered how she wanted to frame her relationship with the mage. "Traveling partner, Roy Mustang, and the boys are Edward and Alphonse."
The woman paused in her care and looked up at Riza, her small round glasses glinting in the light. Riza felt like she could see right through her and thickly swallowed. But, the old lady just nodded.
"My name is Pinako. Pinako Rockbell. The girl who answered the door is my granddaughter, Winry."
"You own an inn and an automail shop?" Roy asked as he glanced around the room.
"And I'm a doctor," she smirked, her wrinkles creasing her eyes in delight. She had been holding her pipe the whole time but paused to set it down on the end table. "So, I suppose you are the luckiest travelers there are, huh?"
Riza let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding, and a look of relief passed Roy's face. "Yes, we certainly are," the mage said. "This is quite the coincidence."
"Well, in a small town it pays to be a jack of all trades," Pinako reasoned as she moved to rewrap the bandage over Edward's upper thigh. "Although, the Inn just came about because travelers would stop at my house often anyway. But I am a trained automail mechanic."
"You don't advertise that you're a doctor though," Roy said, remembering the sign that sat out in the front yard.
"No, but the people in town know I know a little something, especially as a body mechanic." A shadow crossed her face as she finished placing down the last of the bandages. She looked a little lost and sad, and both Riza and Roy were concerned about the change in atmosphere. "My son and his wife were doctors," she continued sadly. "Best doctors around could have gone to Central and done great things, but they wanted to help here where they were needed."
"I'm so sorry," Riza said genuinely, noticing the use of past tense and correctly guessing that the husband and wife pair had died. Pinako just waved her off and didn't say anything more about that topic.
"Anyway," the older woman said, forcing a chipper tone back into her voice. "This one's going to be okay as long as those wounds don't get infected. And at least from here it looks like the other one just needs sleep." She glanced up at the two, noticing all the grime and dirt on them for the first time. She laughed and called Winry into the room. The little girl came back, looking attentive but timid and focused her gaze only on her grandmother.
"Why don't you go run baths for these two weary travelers?" Pinako suggested to her and then turned to the mage and archer. "We have a bath upstairs and downstairs, so no need to fight over who's first."
"Thank you, it is much appreciated," Roy said, excited at the prospect of getting out of these dirty, muddy clothes. Riza wished the bath could appear right there because she would have gladly jumped in, clothes and all. She longed for the warm, clean water against her skin.
"Oh, no not a problem," Pinako waved and then glanced up at the two above the rims of her glasses. She stayed like that for a while, even after Winry had gone off to draw the baths. "And then," she said in a low tone that was neither accusatory nor soft, "You can tell me where you are really from."
Finally another chapter. Forgive me for my updates coming at a slower pace-work has picked up and I'm busy and... oh okay I got Stardew Valley on my Switch, so any moment I'm not at work, I'm probably playing that! Anyway, I'll do my best to be better! Nothing is abandoned, so updates will come (eventually)! Anyway, review if you can and enjoy regardless!
The steam from the large round tub fogged up the windows and left a comfortable mist around the room. Riza sunk further into the warm bath, enjoying the feeling of a warm hug on her weary bones. The second Winry left her to the bath, she had ripped her clothes off and jumped right in, audibly sighing with relief when the water hit her. And then, she could barely find the will to move around. She was so comfortable, she had to keep watch that she didn't fall asleep. The water was like a warm blanket and she realized she was so tired. Glancing at the window, she hoped the day would go quickly so she could climb into a real bed.
But, she also hesitated to remove herself from the warm embrace of the bath because she was worried about talking with Pinako, who clearly knew they were hiding something. She sounded like someone they could trust, but Riza wasn't about to blindly share their secrets with her. And surely, if the woman was truly trustworthy, she would understand why they couldn't divulge all of their information. Perhaps it was just concern for the kids, and Riza understood that well. Part of her hoped Alphonse would wake soon so he could tell them more about what had happened to him and his brother. It was all a lot to take in and the archer found herself marveling at the fact that her life had been relatively normal just a few weeks ago. Now, nothing made sense.
A knock at the door broke her of her thoughts. It was not a knock, no turning of the handle, but Riza moved to cover herself. "Um, Miss Hawkeye?" came the timid voice Riza instantly recognized as the young Winry. "Granny says she's serving dinner now."
"I'll be right out," Riza called back and didn't move again until she heard the patter of feet slowly fading down the hall. She sighed, leaned back, and closed her eyes so she could take in the warmth for one more moment. But, she figured, it was about time she got out. The water was cooling off after all.
After scrubbing down her arms and legs with the provided bar of soap one last time, Riza drained the water and stepped out of the tub. She wrapped herself in a towel and put a brush through her wet hair. It was so unlike when she was stuck in the rainstorm the night before. Her hair stuck to her similarly, but was warm and felt so clean. She wished she could just stay at this inn forever, taking warm baths and sleeping in comfortable sheets, but she knew she had more pressing matters to attend to.
Before taking the bath, Pinako had laid out a simple white dress with brown accents for her. "You look to be my daughter-in-law's size," she had said. "It'll just be something to wear until your other clothes are clean." And now Riza thumbed the fabric, feeling the soft cloth against her skin. It felt weird wearing a dead woman's clothes. She'd never even worn her own mother's dresses after she died and instead purchased all new clothes for her new life. But now, the few sets of clothes she did have were tucked in a drawer at her abandoned old house far away from there, and the one set she did still have was dirty from days of wandering in the forest.
She pulled the dress on over her head and found it to be a little loose. She turned, checking her profile in the mirror above the sink and wondered how much weight she'd lost in the past few weeks. She was unconscious for a few days, and then barely ate after waking up. And then when she could keep food down, there wasn't much to go around, plus they had been walking miles a day. She lifted the skirt of the dress above her waist and inspected her stomach. Still flat, but losing muscle. She needed to train more.
But for now, all she could do was let the dress go and pat down her still damp hair. She found it strange, letting her hair down for the first time in seven years. Not enough pins had been recovered for her to be able to put her hair up securely, so she had worn it down for the past few weeks. Although she regretted before that she'd been able to bring herself to cut it, she was glad now that she hadn't given into the urge. Her hair was pretty and fell just below her shoulders. She found she quite liked the image of a long-haired Riza in a dress, though her fingers did itch for her bow and the movement of air around her legs felt weird.
Not wanting to stall any longer, she made her way to the door and stepped into the upstairs hall. The second floor of the home was much smaller than the downstairs, but there were a few rooms on the level. One was the bathroom, which was at the end of the hall closest to the stairs. Across from her was what she suspected was Winry's room. Then there was Pinako's room next to it, and another room further down and on the same side as the bathroom. She'd barely caught a glimpse of the room, but it seemed to be where the automail was produced.
She made her way down the simple, creaking staircase that announced her arrival to everyone below in the kitchen. Between the steps, she heard talking and more specifically heard Roy's gruff voice, so she knew he was out of the bath and with the Rockbell's. It seemed to be him and Pinako chatting amicably. Winry either wasn't around or wasn't speaking, and Alphonse's voice was absent as well. Riza figured he must still be asleep.
But the first thing she saw when she turned the corner from the staircase was the blonde girl looking at her bow with awe. Riza resisted the urge to run and grab it. Afterall, Winry was just looking at it and was respectful enough to not handle it or touch it. But, that bow was precious to the archer, not just because it was her only defense against the unknown, but because it had been passed down in her family for generations. It had always hung above the fireplace in silent reverence to the Hawkeyes it had served, but now it was Riza's trusty companion, second only in her life to Roy.
Winry noticed the woman before she could speak. "I'm sorry," she said, jumping, though she hadn't done anything wrong. When Riza's eyes softened, the girl became bolder and with a careful hand touched one of the engravings on the bow. "It's so pretty, though. It's yours, right?"
"Yes," Riza confirmed, looking only at the bow and not the girl. "It was my father's, and his father's before him. But, it hasn't gotten much use until recently."
"I can see why, it looks like it belongs in a museum," Winry commented, taking her hand away, but keeping her gaze steady across the engravings in the bow. She was absolutely right, the bow was as beautiful as it was functional, with engraved runes and lettering in a language long since forgotten. "Do you know what all this means?"
"I don't," Riza admitted. "I asked my father a few times, but he didn't know either. More than likely it's just a design." Winry looked up at her with uncertain eyes, and to be perfectly honest, Riza didn't quite believe what she'd said either. But it was what made the most sense, especially since she certainly couldn't read what was on the bow. So, the girl just nodded and smiled before turning to walk to the kitchen.
Riza followed and Roy glanced up as the two blondes entered the room. He met Riza's gaze and smiled and she returned it. He looked so different from the man carrying the gravely injured boy just a few hours before. His hair was washed and darkened because the dirt and soot lightened had actually lightened it. His skin, on the other hand, was much paler, with the dirt scrubbed off, but his cheeks held a rosy healthy glow from the warmth of the bath he'd just taken. He wore brown pants and a plain collared white shirt, which she guessed belonged to Pinako's son.
He looks so handsome, Riza found herself thinking and immediately her face heat up from the intrusive thought. She did her best to push it away and sat down at the table as Pinako set down bowls of warm soup. Riza was grateful for something else to focus on and thanked the woman for the food, realizing for the first time that she was very hungry and longed for real hot food.
"Thank you," she said breathlessly as both she and Roy were encouraged to begin eating. And they did, hardly stopping for a moment to speak to each other. The soup was made of meat broth and potatoes and more than likely wasn't even the best soup in the world, but in that moment it sure tasted like it.
Roy was the first to finish and he pushed his bowl away with heavy satisfaction. "How are the boys?" he asked. With his hunger quelled, he was able to focus on other issues.
"That Edward boy is in very rough shape," Pinako replied honestly. "But as long as none of the wounds get infected, he should be alright. Alphonse has a fever. He'll be fine, just needs rest." She took her place at the table and began to eat her soup. Winry sat next to her quietly, though she stayed attentive, listening closely to every word the adults were saying. It wasn't often that they got guests at the inn, and she couldn't remember the last time other kids came through. A selfish part of her wished they weren't sick so they could play with her.
"Now," Pinako said. "I see we have a mage and an archer here. And," she turned to Riza. "Judging by the conversation you and Winry just had, I assume you're the archer?"
Mustang and Hawkeye sat in stunned silence for a moment, unable to believe the woman had guessed who they were so quick. Were they truly that noticeable? Perhaps the bow was an easy giveaway, but how would she know that Roy was a mage?
"I am," Riza nodded, knowing a lie would not be believed. "But how did you-"
"I'm an old woman," Pinako chuckled. "I've seen many things. My eyes may be tired, but they're still sharp as ever. I know a good mage when I see one." Roy looked paler now, the rosy glow gone from his cheeks. His mouth was parted, as though he wanted to say something, but he couldn't pull the words from his throat. "Don't worry," she continued. "You're safe here. So are the boys."
"You know about the boys too?" Roy asked.
"Of course, those injuries could only have been sustained by magick," Pinako reasoned. "I could tell the energies on the wound were from one experienced hand and one inexperienced hand. Though, neither were particularly trained in healing."
Roy couldn't believe she could tell all of this from some injuries and simple perceptions. "Are you a mage too?"
Pinako chuckled. "Oh, no," she laughed. "Just an old woman. Anyway, what brings you all the way out to Risembool? Was it just the boys, or something else?" She took a spoonful of soup but leveled her gaze at the two guests as though she already knew the answer to her question.
Roy and Riza exchanged a glance. It was amazing, after all those years together both in their past and as comrades in the Royal Forces, and through the revelation of a few weeks ago, one look could convey everything. There was no lying to this petite old lady. She would see right through them.
"We're from Central," Roy said.
"Ah, yes. Troubling times. I assume you escaped?"
"We were in the military," Riza explained. "But then they turned on the mages. Banned magery altogether. I assume the order has even reached the East?"
"Oh, yes." The woman sighed and shook her head. "People taken to Central, children with gifts hidden away. It's been a tough few weeks here. I wouldn't be surprised if those boys are running from it as well."
"We wonder that too," Roy nodded, a shadow falling over his face as he considered the people and children hurt by the King's order. It was tough growing up with a gift, as special as it may seem to an outsider. If you were born in the wrong area or to the wrong family, you risked being made an outcast. His childhood had been rough at times, but at least he never had to be hidden away for fear of imprisonment. "It seems the boys have no parents. He mentioned trying to bring back his mother. It sounded like they made some sort of deal with dark magick."
"That's a grave sin," the old woman said softly, finishing her soup and reaching immediately for her pipe. "Magick takes in the essence of what is on Earth and uses that to bend nature to its will. When a soul dies, it becomes not of this Earth, and magick cannot reach it anymore. To try to return a soul to earth using magick not only would never work but comes at a great cost."
The mage nodded. He'd known about the dangers of using magick for something such as this but didn't pay much attention to it because he couldn't ever imagine being desperate enough to try it. Then again, as he'd told Riza days before in the woods, he couldn't miss someone he'd barely met, so the longing to bring his parents back just wasn't there. But, for two young boys, alone in the world without their mother, he could absolutely see them being pulled into the dark arts.
"I just wish we knew who they were," Riza commented. "We could see if they have any next of kin, any family friends who are looking for them."
"If they are trying to bring their mother back from the grave and no father has stopped them, I dare say they have no next of kin," Pinako sighed. "We can ask when they wake, but I bet it will not be a happy story."
"There seems to be a shortage of happy stories these days," Roy muttered bitterly as he stood to help wash the dishes that once held their soup. Riza frowned at the pessimism, but she had no rebuttal. The old woman, however, tisked.
"There are only no happy stories if you chose to look away from them," she said sternly, but with the undertone of grandmotherly wisdom and love. "You saved those boys. That's a happy story. And you're alive too when you might not otherwise have been." They reached the sink and turned on the water for the tap. Roy didn't respond, but he nodded, and he understood that she was right. There was a lot of things going wrong in the world today, but if they looked a little closer, they could find happiness even in the worst of times.
"Now, Winry, off to bed with you," Pinako said, ushering her granddaughter upstairs with no protest from the girl. It had been a short, but exciting day, and she was tired from the unusual bustle of the household. Riza glanced behind her at the window and saw that the sun had already set. Well, at least she would get her wish of going to bed soon. "Let me get your room made up." The older woman bustled to the hall closet and pulled out some choice linens before hurrying off to another of the rooms. Roy and Riza were left there in the kitchen in the blink of an eye.
"I'm going to check on the boys," Riza stood, pushing herself away from the table before making her way down the same hall Pinako just went down. She pushed open the door to the room the boys were sleeping in and lit a candle.
Edward hadn't moved a muscle, but the color was starting to return to his face and the blonde woman was very grateful for that. She wondered what kind of boy he was when he was conscious. Of course, he must be a selfless one, to take upon himself the punishment meant for his brother, and Riza wondered if, should she have had a sibling, she would have done the same.
She moved to the other bed and placed a hand on Alphonse's forehead. Sweet Alphonse, the timid younger brother who was, in fact, a good few inches taller than his older brother. She wondered what he was like beyond this capacity, in a world that wasn't out to get them. Riza felt a sisterly protectiveness for the boy and admired his resilience in trying to find help for his brother. She assumed she would feel the same fierce passion for Edward as well when he woke up and she got to know him better. Her life had changed quite a bit in the past few weeks, but now she clearly saw that she was meant to find these boys. They played a bigger role, that she knew. But, they were also children, and they needed rest and happiness.
Unbeknownst to her, Roy Mustang lingered in the doorway, watching her face flicker in the candlelight. He hadn't said anything and did his best to hide his face when she appeared, but she looked beautiful after her bath. If he was honest with himself, she was beautiful before then. He wanted to scold himself for finding the woman he once thought a man to be so attractive because he knew that wasn't fair. Like she'd told him so many times already, she was the same person as Hawk, so for him to suddenly find himself attracted to her just because she was now a woman felt wrong. But, he had long since lost Hawk and now was rekindling a friendship with a woman he'd been fond of as a boy and long thought dead. Now that they weren't actively running for their lives, he had time to process these thoughts and feelings and sort through them in his mind. He had eyes, after all, and Riza was objectively a very attractive woman.
He also admired the way she carefully bent over each boy, feeling their forehead with care and love. He thought the world of her for putting others before herself, and he wondered how that would affect them as they continued on this journey. She was selfless, that was for sure, and Roy wished he could be half the person she was in times like these. Riza never jumped to the worst conclusion. Riza settled for what she was given and made do.
"How are they?" Roy's voice was only a whisper, but it seemed loud in the quiet room and Riza jumped as she turned to him.
"Better," she said. "Pinako's right, they should both be alright. Alphonse's fever is coming down and Edward has some color now. Hopefully, he'll wake up tomorrow."
Roy nodded and took another step into the bedroom, hearing an old board creak under his weight as he placed his foot down. "That's good."
"I wonder what life would be like," Riza started and lifted her head to meet Roy's eyes. Her lips danced with a smirk. "If we lead normal lives."
The man laughed. "Well, we wouldn't have found those boys, which would have ended badly for the both of them. So, I guess an abnormal life is good for something."
"True," Riza hummed. "But it seems like the cause of our abnormal life is also the cause of their pain. I hope we can get to the bottom of all of this."
"We will. But through all of this, you've been able to stop living a secret life," Roy reasoned, attempting to do as Pinako suggested and be less pessimistic. "So, that's a good thing."
Riza just shrugged and turned back to tuck the youngest brother more firmly into the bed. "You put a lot of weight on who I was versus who I am now," she said. She wasn't accusing him of anything and her tone was soft, but she didn't meet his eye. "I don't. I haven't changed. I fixed my appearance to the standards set for me and used a different pronoun and that was about it. But, this is the person I've always been."
Taken slightly aback by the words, Roy just nodded, but he let a smile linger on his lips. She was absolutely right and he knew he needed to part with the idea that Riza and Hawk were somehow different people. "Have you always been this caring?" he asked.
At this, she turned to look at him, confusion painted on her face for a moment before it ebbed away into a grateful smiled accompanied by a faint blush that couldn't be made out in the darkness of the room. "I've always tried," she responded.
"Well, you used to be pretty harsh with me if I didn't get all my work done!" Roy joked eliciting a full laugh from Riza.
"Well, sir, despite how you sometimes acted, you actually are not a small child."
Roy thought briefly about protesting but instead shot her a knowing smile. He had been a difficult one, but Riza was the only person in the entire castle who could put up with him. And she had, so diligently, and all the while asking for nothing in return.
As he opened his mouth to speak, Pinako returned, the creak of a floorboard giving away her location before she appeared. "Your beds are all made up," she said. "Right in this room over here." They followed as she crossed the hall and opened the door to another, very similar bedroom, with two beds and a candle on a nightstand for light. "I hope it's alright. Let me know if you need anything."
"This is perfect, thank you," Roy replied quickly with a smile. He'd only barely looked in the room, but the idea of sleeping on an actual bed and clean sheets was enough for him. He didn't care if it had the atmosphere of an abandoned shack, he just wanted to get to bed.
After exchanging goodnight's, the older woman left the two, closing the door behind her. Riza walked over and sat on the bed closest to the wall. The bed was soft and the sheets felt warm, and she, like the mage, was also excited to get to bed.
"How long do you want to stay here?" Riza asked as she pulled the blankets and laid down on the bed. Roy shrugged as he snuggled under his own covers, a sigh of content escaping from his lips.
"I don't know," he replied as he rolled over to swiftly blow out the candle. In a flash, the intimate, flickering light in the room was gone and instead replaced by the dim glow of the distant stars. "I suppose we'll gather as much information as we can around the town, make sure the boys are doing alright, and head back up towards Central. The closer we get to the capital, the better because there will be more information in towns near there."
"Right," Riza affirmed, blinking her eyes so they would adjust to the darkness of the room. "I wonder where those boys came from," she said, her voice rising to form a question, though she knew there was no answer.
In the darkness, the mage shrugged. "Who knows?" he replied noncommittally. "Hopefully the younger one will be awake tomorrow to tell us. And hopefully the other will survive."
"Yes," Riza replied, rolling over away from the man as she gazed out the open window. The cooling light wind blew the curtains gently and she closed her eyes as the air hit her face. She was so comfortable, but her heart was so heavy. It was a strange feeling, to be so worried about everything, yet so content physically. "I'm sure Edward will be alright," she said. "But I still find myself stuck on the same question over and over again… Who takes a child's limbs and leaves them to die? All for just wanting to see their mother one last time?"
Silence fell in the room, and Riza thought she had spoken in such a low, anguished whisper, that Roy hadn't heard her. Or, perhaps, he had fallen right to sleep. So, she closed her eyes and sighed, allowing her muscles to fully relax into every comfortable curve of the bed.
And then, just as she was teetering on the edge between awakeness and sleep, Roy spoke. "Something more evil than you could ever imagine.
In a surprising turn of events, I am actually still writing this fic, but Stranger Things kinda sorta ate me for a bit, and is admittedly still taking all my free thoughts! But I am still writing this and working on some direction. I adore this fic and this couple, so it's absolutely 100% going to get finished! Thanks for waiting and thanks for the support!
Sunlight filtered into the small room unforgivingly, as the blinds had not been shut the previous evening and Roy was far too exhausted to get out of bed. He laid there, one arm covering his eyes in a half-hearted attempt to keep the light out, as he tried to remain in the comfortable place between awakeness and sleep. Although objectively, his bed back in Central was much more expensive and familiar, he did not think he had ever laid on a bed as comfortable as this. The mattress was stuffed firm with sheep's wool and it held him stiffly, yet also caressed his sides. The blankets were just warm enough to leave him at the perfect temperature and he knew he would live the rest of his life in bliss if he never had to leave this bed again. He knew that, once they got back out on the open road, he would find himself longing for this bed in this old wooden house, rather than the one he'd spent the last few years in back in his old home.
But the light only grew harsher and he groaned, rolling over to turn his back on the cruel sun. However, that moved him from his comfortable position and he was now wide awake. The illusion was gone and he knew he needed to get up.
Slowly, he pried his eyes open so they focused on the old, worn wooden wall. Then, he sat up and then stood, and was about to cross to the door when he instead decided to close the damn blinds. The light was absolutely pouring in, making the old wood planks look as though they were on fire.
As he approached the window, the green meadow outside blossomed into view. It was lush and rolling, and he spotted a few cows and other animals grazing in the field. As he reached the windowpane, he took a deep breath, letting the crisp, fresh air fill his lungs. With so many people, Central's air was not half as clean as Risembool's. Previously, Roy had never thought about it, but now he wondered how he had ever been able to breathe in the crowded city.
The deep pop drew the man out of his thoughts as he turned his head instinctively towards the sound. The first thing that caught his attention was the end of an arrow sticking out of a thick log in the field to his left. As he traced his gaze further left, he saw Riza there, completely unaware she was being watched. She was quite a few yards away from the log and had her bow in hand. Her hair was wet from a bath and dripping onto the collar of the same white dress she was borrowing. Roy watched as she grabbed another arrow, and loaded it onto the bow. She gripped the front of the weapon with her hand, though her fingers only lightly tapped the front end as he palm pushed against the inside panel and held it steady. Three fingers were placed carefully on the string and she took aim, drawing the arrow back with a perfectly positioned, completely straight arm. As she held her stance, Roy felt himself holding his breath as he watched, releasing only when she did. The arrow flew so quickly, he barely caught the whooshing sound of it flying through the air before landing in the dead center of the log with another satisfying thunk.
He smiled as she examined her shot, her face looking puzzled and unsatisfied. Of course, he knew, she was a perfectionist and would never accept that she literally could not have been closer to the center of the log. He pondered her as she set up to take another shot, watching as she adjusted her arms, the back of the dress hugging her a little too tightly for comfort. It was hard to believe that this strong, willful, perfectionist woman was the same young girl he'd known years before, but he was slowly accepting the idea.
And the friendship and comradery he had with Hawk were now being replaced by deep loyalty and affection for Riza. While under the command of the King in the Royal Army, he had been so focused on moving up to a higher status that he barely had time for friends. Hawk was one of them, and, although he often was annoyed by the man's antics, he also considered Hughes a close friend.
Briefly, he wondered how the energetic, black-haired man was doing. Although he came off as silly, Maes was strong and could easily be underestimated. And, Roy shuddered to think what would happen to the person stupid enough to come between him and his family. Gracia and Elicia were his whole world and he was theirs. Yes, he figured, Hughes would be alright.
His attention turned back to Riza with another thunk into the log. She tucked a strand of hair around her ear out of force of habit and then walked to the log to pull the arrows out. He knew, as he stood watching her carefully pluck the arrows out that, that he would hardly be able to continue on without her. As her secret unwound, it wrapped itself between them, forcing them closer than they had been before. She was no longer his subordinate, but his friend. He was too busy to think about deeper feelings than that, but still, he knew he would not want to continue this journey-or any journey for that matter-without her.
He reached up and pulled down the blinds before turning to head out the door. As he walked down the hall towards the kitchen, he paused in the doorway of the room the brothers had been put to sleep in. Carefully, he opened the door and peered in, his eyes adjusting from the bright, sun-filled hall to the dimmer, but still easy to see in the bedroom. The curtain was closed, darkening the room, but the sun was crashing into the back of the cloth, giving the room a comforting glow.
Roy noticed that Edward was still asleep, but was breathing gently. He could tell even in the dim light that more color had come to his cheeks. While he was sure no one would say he was out of the woods, the mage felt pretty confident that he would be alright.
His eyes then glanced over to the bed on the far end of the room, only to find the sheets rustled and a pillow lying on the floor next to it. Alphonse was nowhere to be found in the room and Roy was glad for that. Hopefully, it meant that he was feeling better.
He turned and exited the room and closed the door with a soft click behind him. He made his way back down the hall and found Pinako in the kitchen, making a simple breakfast of eggs.
"Good morning," she greeted without looking up from the stove. She'd heard the squeaking of the floorboards and the opening and closing of the boys' bedroom. "Riza mentioned that you were a long sleeper. I can see she wasn't exaggerating."
Roy laughed nervously, his cheeks turning a light shade of red at the mention of his heavy sleeping habits. "What can I say, ma'am?" he asked with a chuckle. "That was the first real bed I've slept on in weeks!" Pinako just hummed in response and Roy realized they were the only ones in the kitchen. "Where is everyone?"
"Outside watching Riza practice," the old woman replied. "She got up a few hours ago and asked if we had arrows. By chance, we do from finding them randomly in the woods. Alphonse woke up and sat here for a bit while I checked him over. When Winry woke up, they went outside to watch."
"Oh, got it. How's the kid doing?"
Pinako moved away from the stove and towards the counter where she pulled out some bread. "Oh, he's alright. He'll be good as new tomorrow," she responded while fiddling with the twist tie. "And Edward's own fever is down. I'm hoping he'll wake today."
"That would be great," Roy agreed. "We need to know what happened to those boys, and how Edward lost his arm and leg."
"Yes, but don't be surprised if he's not up for questioning," she said. "He still has a long road to recovery."
Pinako moved back to the stove and began toasting the bread on another pan. She glanced out the window where she had a clear view of Riza shooting her arrows. "Your girlfriend is very good at archery."
"Girlfriend?!" Roy spat out, completely caught off guard by the woman's reference to Riza. He'd given Pinako just the reaction she'd wanted and she burst into laughter.
"Oh, lighten up! I'm just teasing." She chuckled, her smile lighting up her wrinkled rosy cheeks. As she turned to him, Roy glanced down as he willed the redness to leave his face so she couldn't see how much it had gotten him. "But she is excellent."
"Of course she is, she's my right-hand man… Woman," the mage responded with a good-natured laugh. He tried to put the woman's teasing comment behind him and peeked out the window at Riza. "I wouldn't have made it out of Central without her."
"She's sharp. Keep her close. And go get all them for breakfast now. I'm not heating it all up again!"
The mage paused since she'd wrapped the command up so closely with her complement of Riza. When it registered that she wanted him to go get the woman and two children to eat, he backed up quickly, nearly tripping over himself as he hurried out the door.
The air was mild and a light breeze drifted over the plains. The sun was set firmly in the sky, which reminded Roy that he had slept in quite late, and the green hills appeared lush and beautiful in the bright light.
Riza was a few feet away from the house, completely wrapped up in her archery. Roy knew better than to scare her, so he decided to approach the children on the porch first to allow her time to loose all the arrows in her pouch.
Alphonse sat on the stairs while Winry hung onto the rail. Both were as engrossed in the bow and arrows as Riza was and they watched with awe as the woman hit the center of the log every single time. Roy couldn't help but fall into a daze while watching as well, but he quickly snapped out of it.
"Hey, kid," the man said as he stood over the younger boy. Alphonse was startled a little, but he turned to look up at Roy with a smile. He seemed a little nervous around the mage, and Roy felt bad since he was sure he had been rather short with the child while on the road. Now that he was cleaned up and well-rested, he felt much better.
"Roy is fine." He smiled and sat down on the steps. Alphonse looked for a moment like he might scoot away, but decided against it and sat where he was. He realized he didn't mind the closeness and Roy seemed much more friendly than he had before. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," the kid said, a slight smile gracing his lips, but his eyes shone with regret. "Edward's still… you know."
"Yeah, but he'll be okay. You'll see." The smile didn't quite reach Roy's eyes, but he tried his hardest because he wanted the boy to feel safe and comfortable. "Just focus on you for now, okay? On getting better." Coming from the hell he'd just escaped from, Roy knew that was easier said than done and it didn't seem that Alphonse took his suggestion to heart. But, a smile and a nod told Roy that the kind words were, at least, appreciated.
He stood and was just about to grab Riza when he saw she was circling back from the wood post with some arrows. He waved her over and let her know they were about ready for breakfast and the everyone hurried inside for a shared meal.
After breakfast, Alphonse went to the small bedroom where Edward was asleep and sat at his bedside until his brother awoke later in the day. He was not the only one in the room usually, as everyone else in the house filtered in and out as the hours went by. Winry sat with him in silence until she became fidgety and went off to see what the two travelers had brought back from the market. Pinako was in quite a bit, but she still had businesses to run and had a few patients come by for a checkup. Roy and Riza went into town to gather some things and hear the news but were back before midday. Riza would sit in the room for a while, occasionally stealing away to practice her bow and arrow. Roy ended up somewhere between helping Pinako and keeping Winry company.
When Edward stirred, it was just Alphonse and Riza in the room. Riza was flipping through the latest local paper she had picked up at the market. Nothing particularly interesting was written on the thin light grey sheets. It was largely local gossip, advertisements, and details about the next village council race, but it gave her a sense of how the townspeople felt and what they valued. That would go a long way in getting more information out of people.
"Miss Riza!" Alphonse suddenly called, startling the woman. Riza glanced up as the boy jumped off the edge of the empty bed and stumbled forward towards Edward. Riza felt her heart begin to beat fast but took it upon herself to calmly stand and walk over. Sure enough, a pair of golden pained eyes stared up at her from the bed and searched her face for some recognition.
"Brother," Alphonse exclaimed, his voice sounding far too loud in such a quiet and subdued room. "You're awake! Are you alright? How are you feeling?" Edward opened his mouth to respond, but no sound came out. It was clear that the questions overwhelmed him, and his inability to move freely and without pain was frightening.
"Alphonse." Riza's tone was low and soft as she placed a hand on the child's shoulder. "Your brother has just woken up, I'm sure he's very confused. Let's handle one thing at a time." She turned to Edward who looked a little relieved that she had rescued him from his brother's onslaught of questions. "You're safe," she said, knowing those were the only words the boy would want to hear. "And you're hurt, but you're safe. Let me grab Pinako to check you over." She turned as Alphonse sat down on the edge of the occupied bed. A smile crossed her face as she left the room, glad that the brothers had been reunited.
"Pinako," Riza called as she stepped into the hall that was now illuminated by the sun shining through the windows on the far end of the house. She turned the corner to the kitchen where Roy and Winry were sitting at the table playing a card game. Riza almost forgot the urgency of her mission because she was so taken aback by the look on Roy's face. She knew that Roy had often spent time with Maes's daughter, Elicia, but she had rarely seen him look so content and at ease with a young child.
But the two glanced up at her as soon as they heard the loose wooden floorboard creak. Roy Half stood, half bent over the table upon seeing the frantic look Riza didn't realize she was wearing on her face. "What's wrong?" he asked as Winry nervously shot a glance over.
"The boy-Edward," Riza said, "He's awake." She locked eyes with the girl. "Winry, can you go find your grandmother?"
"Yes, of course," the girl said, jumping up from the table and hurrying out the door to find her grandmother. Roy walked over, his eyes searching the door to the room the boys were in as he rocked on his feet.
"How is he?" Roy asked as Riza followed his gaze to the door. Suddenly, she felt so useless, so stupid, because she had no idea what she was supposed to do now. In the Royal Guard, she was an injury creator, not a healer. The little first aid knowledge she knew involved bandaging the wound and gritting teeth until the injured party could find an actual healer. It absolutely did not extend to a young child with two missing limbs.
"I don't know," the woman admitted. "He's awake, though, so that has to be a good sign." Roy just nodded, knowing as much about healing as she did. He could work a little magick, but not much, as flame magery didn't much lend itself to alleviating pain.
It was then that the front door flung open and the short, but loud and heavy footed old woman came bustling into the house. She didn't acknowledge the two adults standing outside the doorway before she disappeared into the bedroom. Within a minute, Alphonse was being shoved out with a long whine. Winry joined the party outside the room and they all stood there, huddled in a circle, like an awkward family waiting anxiously waiting outside a hospital room. Alphonse was not happy about being kicked out of the room, but Riza, Roy, and Winry were content to wait until Pinako gave them the clear.
It was a while before the door opened again, but it did eventually, just as the group was about to migrate to the kitchen. Pinako looked a little worn out, but a thin smile lingered on her lips and that was all the response they needed to know that Edward was doing alright. As alright as a child with two missing limbs could be, at least.
"How is he?" Alphonse ventured in a quiet, hoarse voice that hadn't been used in at least an hour.
"All things considered, good," Pinako confirmed. "He's awake and I'm sure you have questions, but please do try not to overwhelm him."
"Of course," Roy agreed as they made their way into the bedroom. Edward was resting against the slightly propped up pillows and he looked much more relaxed than he had when he first awoke. Alphonse hurried to his side and the brothers exchanged a grateful, but gentle hug. Roy and Riza stood back with Pinako and Winry to allow the brothers their moment.
"I'm so glad you're alright," Alphonse breathlessly as he sat down on the edge of the bed again. "I was so worried. You've been asleep for days and I was worried that… You know, that…"
"Oh, shut up Al," Edward said with a lopsided smirk. His voice was laced with obvious tiredness, but a nasally, boisterous tone shone through. "Of course I'm fine. You gotta have someone to watch out for you right?"
Alphonse smiled weakly and turned away so his brother couldn't see him wiping at the tears that began to prick his eyes. He then turned back, a wider grin now pulling at his lips. "Right," he said as the rollercoaster of emotions turned his smile into a worried frown. "But, brother, what about… You know." The boy gestured to where Edward's full arm used to be. His brother followed the gaze and regarded the empty space as though for the first time, and then merely shrugged as though it were just a minor scratch.
"Guess I'll have to get new ones," he said like getting a new arm was akin to buying some new clothes. "Hey Granny, when did you say I can get a new arm and leg?"
Pinako's eyebrows raised to her hairline and she looked as though she was trying her hardest not to yell at a sick and injured boy for his abrasive nature. She let out a deep sigh and shook her head. "A year, at least," the woman replied. "Do you have any idea just how injured you are, boy? Your recovery is going to take ages, and that's not even counting how long it will take to actually prepare your body for the surgery." She shrugged. "You're pretty short as it is."
Edward's face turned red and he began to sputter angrily as he tried to move up and over to ring the old woman's neck. Alphonse quickly pushed him back down and it wasn't like Edward could get very far anyway. "You hag!" the boy shouted instead. "I'm perfectly fine! Just give me a new arm and leg!"
"And then there's the whole problem of the cost," Pinako pondered.
"You're gonna charge a poor sick kid for new limbs?!" Edward yelled.
"Brother!" Alphonse scolded, placing a firm hand on Edward's chest to keep him from actually trying to jump up.
"Well, of course! This is a business after all, not a charity." Pinako shrugged. "But regardless, you are far too injured for me to even begin to think of preparing you for surgery. Just focus on resting and getting rid of that attitude of yours."
Edward just rolled his eyes and huffed back against the pillows. He knew he was going to find some way to get a set of automail, but an hour after waking up was probably not the best time to argue.
"We do have some questions," Roy said, stepping towards the bed. "If you're up for them."
"Yeah, whatever," Edward shrugged.
"How did this all happen?" Roy asked and Edward glanced down at the sheets.
"Okay," Roy sat down on the opposite bed and studied the boy, who made every effort not to look at the man. Roy knew he was lying, not just from his expression, but because Alphonse had tearfully recounted exactly why this had happened just a week before. "An accident." Roy turned the words over on his lips as he thought about how to bring up another question. "So, you accidentally made a deal to bring your mother back to life?"
The room was thrust into a silence. Edward whipped around to stare at Roy with a mix of horror and regret. Riza's mouth opened, as though she was going to scold Roy for speaking so carelessly, but no sound came out. Alphonse looked down, guilty for sharing the terrible secret in a moment of weakness.
"How do you know about that?" Edward broke the silence with a steely voice through gritted teeth.
"Your brother told me," Roy replied. Edward turned his glare to Alphonse who was focused on staring at the door. "Hey, don't be mad at him. He carried you around those woods for two days before bumping into us. And I'm not gonna tell you what I think of the whole thing. I think you've learned well enough already." The older brother looked back over at Roy, his face still hardened, but his eyes significantly softer.
"I guess that wasn't an accident, then," Edward said in a hollow voice. "Yeah. I tried to bring her back."
"How did you get from bringing your mother back to missing two limbs?"
"I went to a witch to help me," Ed explained. "She said she could help. And then, well, it didn't work, and she said that of course, it wouldn't work. Magick can't bring people back to life. But, I still owe her and she said she wanted my leg and my brother's arm. I told Al to run and she took my arm and leg and then…" He gripped the sheets. "I woke up a bit here and there, but I guess then I ended up here."
Everyone had listened to the story with baited breath. Alphonse nodded along, confirming the account of the events. When he was finished, the silence lingered, because they couldn't, or better, didn't want to believe that something this terrible could happen to children. Roy especially was angry that someone had tricked the boys. Of course, magick can't bring people back from the dead, but how could two young, desperate boys have known that?
"What happened to your father?" Riza asked, bringing the questioning back on track after the silence had stayed long enough.
"Deadbeat piece of shit bastard," Edward spat out, hatred heavy in his young voice. Riza was taken aback by the tone and language he used but didn't press any further on that issue.
"And your mother? How did she die, and when?"
"Got sick a month or so ago. Lasted a week."
"Yeah," Edward replied with a bitter laugh. "Aren't we all?"
"Where are you from?" Riza asked after a pause, not deterred by the short answers coming from the child.
"Yeah. Well, just outside. Why?"
Roy and Riza exchanged a glance. "Well," the woman said. "Mustang and I are from Central too." She paused. "We were from there, at least."
"You're a mage, huh?" Edward asked, glancing back to Roy. The man looked a little surprised because he was sure he had never told the oldest boy about his gift. "I can just tell," Edward answered the question that was not spoken out loud. "I can do magick too. That's why Al and I had to get out. No one left to protect us after Mom died."
"You know about the Royal Decree against Magery?" Riza asked.
"Yeah, that's why we were so far outside of Central," Alphonse chimed in. Another silence fell as everyone figured out what else they wanted to ask, but nothing came to mind. For now, at least, they would have to focus their energy on protecting the boys while Roy and Riza continued on their own journey.
"Alright, well, I think that's enough questioning," Pinako broke the silence and began to usher everyone out of the room. "Come on, let the boy rest. I'll go start dinner." Everyone did as they were told, leaving just the older woman and the injured boy. They regarded each other for a moment before Edward huffily laid back down against the pillows.
"I don't know if you'll be ready for surgery anytime in the next year," Pinako said in a more gentle tone. "But if you can get stronger, I'll see what I can do."
"I will get stronger," Edward replied stubbornly. "I will. Faster than a year."
"Alright. Either way," Pinako placed a kind hand on the covers by Edward's knee. "You and your brother are safe here for as long as needed. We in Risembool aren't taking this whole magery ban kindly. Far too many children have been put at risk. You two will be safe here, though."
Edward was surprised by the kindness shown by the old lady he had just yelled at minutes before, but he smiled slightly.
"Thanks, old hag."
"Go to sleep, little twerp."
"I'm not little!"
Thank you all for the continued support! I adore writing this story and hope you guys continue to enjoy reading it! Since the chapters are long and I have little time, it takes a while to get a new one out, but I promise I will continue this story! Thanks again!
Two weeks brought both changes and improvements that surprised everyone at the Inn. Winry and Alphonse had formed a sort of friendship and they played together often when Edward was resting or being cared for by Pinako. Winry and Ed also tried to be friendly with each other, but the girl found the older boy very abrasive and preferred Alphonse's docile manner to Edward's brash temper.
Roy and Riza stayed far longer than they thought they were going to, partly because it was tough to gain trust in the small farming community, and partly because neither wanted to leave until they were absolutely sure the boys would be alright. Even after Edward awoke, it was touch and go, though he only improved as the days went on. Still, they feared he could take a turn for the worse since there was only so much Pinako could do to keep infections at bay.
What they were able to gather, however, was that a resistance was brewing, though it was unorganized and quiet. The townspeople were of the mindset that they should be ready for a fight if need be, but they would prefer to live their lives quietly in the shadows of the mountains that formed the valley. Although all would say they believed in Amestris and wanted to be part of the nation, they were far enough away from Central that propaganda fell unconvincingly upon their ears. Still, they stowed away their children with gifts because there was no way of knowing when soldiers from Central would come and take them away, and that was part of the reason why it was so difficult for the two newcomers to gain the trust of those they encountered. No one knew who they were or where they came from, and they were all worried that they meant trouble.
Most importantly of all the changes, Edward's health began to look up. Although he was still disabled by his missing arm and leg, he took quickly to the wheelchair Pinako dug up from the basement. It was old and creaky, but it matched the old creaky floors and it enabled Edward to finally leave the confines of the bedroom after what felt like years. Alphonse would push him around like a dutiful little brother and the three children could go out back and play together.
Soon, it was time for Roy and Riza to begin the discussion of taking their leave. It was a conversation neither wanted to have. The town had grown on them and so had the children along with the sweet but strict old woman. Pinako never asked them for a single cent; she just requested they help out around the property and the two were more than eager to oblige. But, they couldn't live off her kindness much longer, especially after weeks of being away from Central. Being so far out, they only got so much information since news traveled slowly around the countryside. They needed to get closer to the capitol.
Winry watched with big sad eyes as Riza stuffed some clothes into her pack. Pinako had been kind enough to find some old garments that once belonged to her son and daughter-in-law. The plain pants and shirt that her son had worn when he was a teenager fit Riza perfectly and would be great for traveling and the white dress that she had been borrowing was a great disguise. She was grateful, although they did take up more room than she would have liked.
"Are you ever going to come back?" Winry asked in a sad, quiet voice. Riza glanced at her where she was standing on the other side of the bed. She hadn't heard the girl come in, but she was glad for the company. Packing was a lonely sort of business.
"I don't know, Winry. I hope so." Riza wasn't used to children and she certainly wasn't the kind of person to give false hope. She was honest, though Winry seemed a little disappointed by her honesty. She would have rathered a kind lie.
"I hope you come back too." The girl's voice was somehow quieter, but no less earnest. "You won't forget us?"
"Of course not." That, Riza felt, she could say for certain. "You and your grandmother have shown Roy and I a kindness we'll never forget. And, if we ever get the chance to, we'll be sure to come and visit."
As Riza picked up some wrapped dried meat and placed it in her pack, Winry came a little closer. "When you come back," she started, ignoring Riza's condition of 'if', "Will you teach me archery?"
Thoughtfully, Riza looked over at her again. She remembered that first night when the girl had studied the old family bow in the hall the same way Riza gazed at it for years above the fireplace. It was a longing the woman recognized, not just for the sport, but for the freedom. The arrival of the mage, the archer, and the two injured boys probably brought more excitement to the young girl than anything else that had ever happened in this town. And, Riza noted as she folded another of Winry's father's shirts, it probably took her mind off the death of her parents.
Archery had a way of clearing Riza's head like nothing she'd ever experienced before. It required total command of body and mind. One single toe pointing the wrong way, one thought out of line, and your shot would miss. It was her escape in the months after her own parents' passing. She'd always wanted to try it, always wanted to study it, but in those days she needed archery in the same way she needed air. It was life for her and necessary to give her the strength to keep moving on.
"No," Riza answered the girl's question curtly. Winry's face fell. The woman walked towards the window where her bow was propped up against the wall and took it, pausing for a moment to stare at the faded inscriptions on the old beautiful wood. She came back and laid the bow down on the bed so it rested right in front of the sad looking little girl.
"I'm going to teach you right now."
"Stand straight like this. Good. Point your toes towards that tree there. Okay, now press your hand flat against the bow here. Don't grip it, but let your fingers lightly touch the outside. Great."
Riza wrapped herself around Winry, marveling for a moment at how small the girl was. It made it easier for her to guide her arms up and over into the right position for shooting. Winry held a simple small bow. One hand was pressed flat against the grip, fingers curled so they lightly danced on the front, and the other was positioned so three fingers right below the nock pulled the string back. They had made a quick run into town and found a local woodworker who had a child's bow for sale. It was a simple bow, but perfect for a practical introduction to archery and it was light enough that Winry had no trouble pulling the string.
Riza gripped the outside of the bow and Winry's right elbow as she helped her lift the bow up and then pull the string back. It felt strange since Riza left left-handed and Winry shot with her right, but she figured it really wasn't much different. She helped position Winry so her form was straight and she was staring down the target.
"Good," Riza said. "Now set your head and set your mind. Bring the bow up like this and set your aim. Let your back muscles do most of the work here." She tapped just between Winry's shoulder blades. "This is where your tension is. This is where you're holding the arrow." Winry nodded, scarcely breathing. "Good." Riza took a small step back, trying not to disturb Winry's form and went behind her. She positioned her hand just inches away from where Winry's elbow was stuck out, her fingers pulling the bow's string. "When you're ready, release. Make sure your right arm goes back and your elbow hits my hand."
If Winry nodded, Riza missed it. The girl was so focused on getting this right that it didn't even look like she was breathing. She held her position for just a moment and then, in a split second, released. Her elbow went back against Riza's palm and the arrow whizzed through the air and into the tree stump. It was quite far off to the left, but that could be adjusted. What mattered was that she hit it.
Winry turned immediately and looked at Riza for approval. She wouldn't dare celebrate until her teacher told her if she did well or not. But, Riza broke into a smile and then Winry did as well and the girl jumped up and down excitedly.
"I did it!"
"You did!" The excitement was contagious and Riza wished she could spend her life introducing children to archery. It was one thing to teach soldiers how to shoot. They were there for a very serious reason. But, Winry seemed so excited by one little shot. Her first shot. She reminded the woman of her first practice session with her own bow. "Alright. Let's try again without me this time."
They stayed there for a few hours, Riza watching on as Winry kept practicing. Her shots slowly gathered closer towards the center of the trunk, though a few stray arrows went flying past the tree altogether and landed a few feet away.
Soon, the sun started to sink below the horizon and the pair went back to the old inn. Roy and Riza would leave that night, under the cover of darkness as they moved north-west towards the capital. Riza now found herself even more saddened to leave with Winry's excitement buzzing beside her. She would have liked to stay and teach the child more about archery, but there was work that had to be done first.
In the hours that Riza taught Winry archery, Roy hung out with the boys. Edward was having a particularly bad day, where his shoulder and thigh hurt quite a bit and getting out of bed was difficult. In the spare room that was illuminated by the bright sun, Alphonse sat at the end of Edward's bed and Roy sat on the one opposite them. He read a bit of the paper and talked a little with the kids. At some point, he pulled out a deck of cards and taught them how to play a few games. They were really nice kids, even if Edward was a little rude. If the mage focused on the playing cards, he could forget the horrors that the brothers went through and pretend everything was normal.
"You don't have to feel bad for me, you know," Edward said suddenly halfway through their game of poker. Roy considered whether or not it was appropriate to teach two kids a gambling game, but then he figured most card games could include gambling, and someone was sure to teach them at some point. At the comment, Roy glanced up, his brows furrowed.
"I'm not letting you win, kid," he said. "Just beginner's luck."
"Beginner's luck for ten straight games?" Edward smirked as he showed his hand. Another royal flush. Damn. Roy mumbled something under his breath as he scooped up the cards and began the shuffle them again. "But no, I know you just suck at poker," the older boy continued with a haughty shrug. "I mean this whole thing. I don't need your pity. I made my decisions and I have to live with it."
As he moved the cards in between themselves and began to deal them out once more, Roy looked at Edward's young face. The boy was maybe thirteen, probably a little older, though his height made him difficult to read, and yet he spoke words some adults couldn't bring themselves to admit. "You do, huh? Well, I guess we all have to live with our decisions one way or another."
"What decisions do you have to live with?" Alphonse asked curiously. When Roy paused for a long time, the boy for nervous and added, "Sorry, you probably don't want to talk about it."
"No, it's fine." The man offered him a weak smile. "I'm just thinking. I guess I have to live with joining the Royal Guard in the first place. Becoming a Court Mage. There's a lot of stuff that went on in the castle that I turned myself from. There was a war a few years back, before you were born, maybe a little after. It was terrible and I just went along with it. I was young and I wanted to prove myself, but youth doesn't automatically absolve us of our sins." He shot Edward a stern look. "As I'm sure you're aware."
The boy didn't take offense to this and he nodded solemnly. "When that witch brought me out to her cabin in the woods, I knew something felt wrong," Edward said in a rare quiet voice. "But I just kept going. Nothing seemed more important to me than bringing Mom back." He glanced at the space where his leg should be. "I was wrong."
Roy sucked in a hard breath. Here was a reminder that these boys weren't normal and would never be normal. It was like the sun had set and now everyone was forced to face their dark pasts. But, Roy refused. He had his demons and he knew he deserved no forgiveness, but these boys deserved absolution and the chance to move on.
"Well, anyway, you lose!" Roy cheered as he showed his hand-a straight. Edward looked surprised at that, as though he had forgotten they were playing cards in the first place. He then smiled and that smile brought all the air back into the room. The mood turned. All was well.
After dinner, Roy and Riza checked their packs and Pinako ensured they had all the food they would need to make it to a town just outside Central, where they were headed. It wasn't long before they all stood on the porch with the twilight sparkling above them.
"Do be careful," Pinako told them as she gazed past them and into the woods beyond the house. "I would like to see the two of you come back. Maybe pay me for your stay this time around." She then laughed, conveying the joke and the other two adults cracked a smile.
"Yes, ma'am," Roy replied in a charming voice. "We'll do our best. Take care of those two, and don't let that runt get away with too much."
"Who're you calling a runt?!" Edward shouted from the wheelchair he was sitting in. His shoulder and thigh were wrapped in clean bandages and he bounced with flashing rage at being called short. But, Roy wasn't intimidated. Rather, he laughed and winked at Alphonse.
"Keep an eye on your brother there," he told the younger boy.
"I will, sir!" Alphonse smiled, all sickness gone from his now healthy face.
Winry looked over with sadness, clutching the bow that Riza had given her. Riza placed a hand on the girl's blonde hair and gently ruffled it. "Be good to your grandmother," the woman said. "And be sure to keep practicing."
"I will," Winry mumbled, trying to keep her voice low so no one would hear the tears laced with her words. She pulled one hand from the bow and dug around in her pocket for a minute before presting Riza with a dark, thin rectangle. "Here, I want you to have this." Riza took it, feeling the plastic in her hand. It was dark and even with the light of the stars, she couldn't quite make out what it was. "It's my mother's," Winry explained before Riza could ask. "A hair clip she always wore. It'll keep your hair outta your face. You can borrow it while you're gone and bring it back when you're done."
Riza was touched and she found herself pulling the girl into a hug. "Thank you, Winry," she said kindly as she stored the hair clip in her own pocket to be used later. And, though she didn't make promises she wasn't absolutely sure she could keep, she found herself saying, "I'll bring it back when I'm done."
And then they were gone.
It was a warm and quiet night, aside from the rustle of the leaves under their feet. As they moved through the fields and then through the forest, the town grew smaller and smaller until it couldn't be seen at all. The pair spoke not a word as they hurried themselves along, trying to get as far as they could before daybreak.
"You miss them." Roy spoke as the sun was beginning to make its way back over the horizon. Both were exhausted from walking all night and were beginning to search for a place to hide for the day.
"Yes," Riza admitted with an expressionless look on her face. "But we have to keep moving."
"I didn't know you could teach archery."
Riza shrugged. "If I can shoot, I can teach."
"A kid?" Roy glanced back at her and Riza caught his eye. He looked confused at her decision to teach the girl how to handle the weapon. She held his gaze and then merely shrugged it off.
"She's old enough to have that power. Many kids learn younger. Besides, she showed an interest and I think that should be rewarded. It'll be a useful skill."
"You see yourself in her." Roy was wise, too wise for Riza's liking sometimes. They had been friends for a long time, in two lifetimes even. Once as children just learning their way around the world and once as soldiers. And now, here they were, embarking on a third lifetime as an exiled mage and the dumbass archer who followed him.
"Perhaps," was all Riza said, as quiet as she always was when talking about herself. Roy didn't have anything else to say and Riza studied the leaves on the trees they passed by as they grew ever more illuminated by the rising sun. "Shooting," she said suddenly, softly, with care in each syllable. "It clears the mind."
"What?" Roy asked, though he'd heard her clearly.
"It clears the mind. Archery. It helps you focus on one thing, just one specific thing. When you're shooting and you're in that position, arms raised up and bow pressed against your nose, nothing else matters. You're in control. That's all we ever want, right? Control. But, we really have very little control. Things change, people die, you grow older. But for that one moment in time in the space between your fingers and the tip of the arrow, you have control." Roy stopped and stared at her. Riza, who was right behind him, stopped when he did. "I gave her a gift. A way to clear her mind and get in control of her situation. She can't change that her parents are gone or that those boys showed up, but she can work on her shooting and place an arrow exactly where she wants to. It works. It worked for me."
Roy stared for another moment before he continued walking along the path. Riza felt foolish, having gushed all that out to the man only to have him act as though she'd said nothing. But then, Roy chuckled and said, "That's fucking beautiful, Riz'."
Riza smiled behind his back. "Thank you, sir."
It took a week to get to the next town, and another to get their first piece of information. The resistance was growing in those parts, but, like in Risembool, no one wanted to make the first move. They'd gathered after a few nights of visiting the local bar that Bradley was ruling with an iron fist. No one was certain where the old Court Mages were being held, but there had been a public execution of one accused of trying to overthrow the royal government.
"Gotta new rumor for ya's." The gruff barkeep, a large man with a long white beard, approached the bar with two more rounds of beer for Roy and Riza. There were no women in the lively bar, so Riza had figured out how to pin her hair up and wore men's clothes when she and Roy went to gather information at the local watering hole. It was comfortable to her and perhaps that confidence was what made her disguise so convincing.
"Oh?" Roy asked, passing a few silver coins over the beaten wooden table. "Let's hear it."
"Heard they're lookin' for a mage up north, in the cap-tal," said the man as he placed down the golden pitchers and snatched up the coins. "Fire mage, they called 'em. Been gone for two months or so and they still can't find 'em." Cold shock filled both Roy and Riza as they listened to the man speak. Roy had been the only fire mage in the entire kingdom, so they knew that Bradley was still searching for him.
"Oh?" was all the black haired man could manage to say.
"Yeah, it's drivin' 'em nuts knowin' they can't find that guy," the barkeep, a member of the resistance laughed with a deep boisterous tone that nearly shook the liquid in their pints. "Last I heard, he jumped off a cliff. So everyone's pretty sure he's dead, but they can't find the body."
"Well, the Royal Guard is pretty incompetent," Riza interjected, knowing that Roy was having a hard time talking about himself in this context. "So that old mage is probably dead."
"Yeah," the older man considered, though he didn't sound convinced. "But I dunno. Crazier things have happened, and I don't think they'd be killin' themselves tryin' to find this guy if they thought he was a goner."
Riza shrugged. "True, I suppose. We'll see." She sipped the last of her drink and held her hand up so the barkeep wouldn't bring her anymore. "We should head back to the inn." Roy looked over and nodded, slipped the barkeep another few coins for the intel, and they both slipped out of the bar and into the dark town street.
Once free of the bar's grip, Roy let out a long sigh. "Geeze, Riza. Thought I was going to get caught back there!"
"You would only have gotten caught for your nervousness," she said. "There are no descriptions of you, and everything seems to think you're dead. You need to have a cooler head, sir, otherwise we'll get ourselves outed."
Roy opened his mouth to protest but realized that she was absolutely correct. So, he made a sort of indifferent grunting noise and the two continued down the brick street towards the inn. They approached the old wood building and Roy opened the door for Riza, who stepped into the warmth of the inn lobby. A fire glowed in the fireplace opposite the door and a few people lingered around it, mostly patrons who had come from the same bar. A woman was over to the left at the reception counter and she beckoned the two over frantically. Roy and Riza shared a glance, but then quickly hurried over.
"I got some news," she said in a hushed whisper. "My little brother and his friends were playing in the North Woods and they found an old cabin there. Said it looked pretty ripped up, but smoke was rising from the chimney."
"Okay," Roy said slowly, not sure what this meant to them.
"There was a royal seal on the front door." Roy's eyes widened and the girl smirked, knowing she had finally gotten his full attention. "Yeah, and he said he felt some sort of magick in the area. Now, I don't know about the magick, but I've lived here my whole life and I've been all over those woods and never have I ever seen a cabin there." She shrugged. "Thought you'd be interested."
Roy smiled and reached into his pocket before slipping the girl a silver piece. "Thanks," he said. "That just might be something interesting." The girl smiled and slipped the coin into her own pocket. She gave them a small wave and the pair returned to their room.
The room at the small village in was very similar to the rooms in Pinako's house. There was a window, an end table, and two beds. Although the beds had been a welcome reprieve from sleeping outside, neither felt they were as comfortable or as welcoming as Pinako's.
Their packs were against the wall by the door and Roy immediately grabbed his upon entering the room. He flung it onto his bed and began to dig for his warmer cape. Riza stood with her back against the closed door and watched him.
"Are you sure this is something we should investigate?" she asked as he pulled the garment from his bag. He turned to her with a confused look on his face.
"What? Of course, we should! Did you hear what that girl said?"
"Yes, of course, sir, but it's just a kid that found a cabin in the woods," Riza reasoned. "And kids are very perceptive of magick. The energy they felt might not have even been coming from the cabin itself."
"And what if it is more? It can't hurt to check it out." Roy put on the cape and adjusted the hood. "Look, before we left, Ed brought up the whole thing with his mom again. He mentioned going to the witch's cabin in the woods to perform the spell. It was an offhand comment and I know that cabin could be anywhere, but there's one right here in these woods with magick around it. I think it's something we should look into."
Riza considered this for a moment and Roy stared at her expectantly. After a long pause, the woman shrugged and reached down to grab her bow. "What? I said I'll follow you. So, if you want to find this cabin, then lead the way."
As an FYI, I do archery myself so I identify so much with Riza in this context. It's really an amazing sport and I encourage everyone to give it a try if they are able to!
Thanks again for the continued support!
The way through the woods was dark and cold. The moon hid behind a large dark cloud and the stars seemed so far away. The wind nipped at the two travelers, piercing through their outer layers and making them feel colder than it actually was. And, it was silent. So silently eerie in fact that they both felt like they were walking through an old ghost story.
Riza didn't know why she casually went along with Roy's plan. Or better, she did, but as the walk got longer and the brush thicker, she wished she had the balls to put her foot down with that man. Perhaps she knew she already had that power and didn't want to abuse it. More likely, she was curious as to what Roy was chasing. To be fair, she was always curious about what Roy was chasing from the moment she had been assigned to him. He had such passion that no one else in the entire Kingdom seemed to have. Riza often felt like she was living in a world where people lived one day so they could be ready to die the next. But, not Roy. That man was abandoned by his parents, adopted by a brothel owner of all people, and worked his way up to become one of the Court Mages. And, each time he managed to lift himself another step on that ladder, he still had his hand stretched out for the next one. There was no settling with Roy Mustang.
And, Riza often wondered, when Roy finally made it to the top of the ladder, when there were no more steps to take, what he would do. But, it was a far-off daydream, because no one truly believed back then that someone could go from being a poor orphan boy to King of Amestris. Now, as they stumbled through the woods trying to find clues about a secret plot within the Kingdom, Riza wasn't sure how far-fetched that dream was anymore.
"How far out did those kids go?" Roy whispered as he fought his way through another large bush. Riza thought to suggest that they themselves might have gone the wrong way, but she didn't feel like invoking Roy's ire, especially with how aggravated he was now. "I could light this whole place on fire and then we'd find the cabin for sure!"
"Yes, and then we would be found, arrested, and likely destroy the cabin in the process of doing so," Riza said dryly. "Sir, have you considered turning around?"
"No!" Roy replied with firmness in his voice. "I know where we're going. In fact, it should be right about-" He stopped suddenly and Riza caught up to him. They had reached the end of the forest, but the cabin was nowhere in sight. Instead, they found themselves at the edge of a cliff that had quite a drop down into the river below. It looked similar to the one they had fallen off before, but that one was further west.
"You were saying?" Riza asked with a teasing smile. Sometimes Roy got so wrapped up in his ideas that he failed to take even a short pause. And, as usual, this had brought them to a dead end.
Roy grumbled and kicked some stones off into the water below. He turned and began to lead the two of them back into the trees, but made a left where turning right would have brought them back on the path to the village. Riza caught the sigh in her throat. She wanted to go back to the inn and get some sleep, but she was also loyal to the mage, who had it in his head that they needed to find this cabin right now. And, admittedly, she felt bad about the snarky comment she had made when they reached the dead end. Roy just wanted to find the person who hurt those boys, and that goal was nothing to be ashamed about.
In another few minutes, they found themselves in a decently sized clearing. Had the moon been shining, it would have looked lovely, but unfortunately, it was just as gloomy as the rest of the forest. Roy stopped, gazed up at the sky, and then turned back to Riza with a defeated look on his face.
"You think this is stupid, don't you?" He asked. Riza met his gaze, but her lips were pursed. She could tell this was important to him, even if they were chasing down a lead that went nowhere. "I just have to figure this whole thing out," he continued as he balled his fists. "Those kids… the villagers… all the citizens of Amestris. They deserve better. I can't just sit back and do nothing while the King continues to abuse his power. And those Edward. I can't believe someone would take advantage of him like that. Whatever is going on in this country, however these things are all connected, I have to find out. I have to fix it."
Riza's face softened and she took a step towards her friend. Friend, she considered for a very brief moment. Roy had indeed become her friend. Long ago, in a lifetime nearly forgotten, they had been friends. And then, more recently, he was her boss, her commander. But now, as they stood in the deserted woods chasing down clues and trying to bring peace back to the land, Riza realized that they were both reaching for the same thing. And, all the while, as they traveled to Risembool and then to this tiny village, and then out to these woods, they had done so as equals. Roy never commanded her anymore and, though Riza followed him, she knew she had the power to rebuke him, which she did more freely now. Yes, they were friends.
"Roy, I-" Riza started, but she was suddenly pulled away from her thoughts by a flash of lighting that whizzed over her head and crashed into the tree behind her. She immediately sprung into action, her hand on her bow as she backed away from the direction the bolt came from. Roy was also jumping back with his hood up and his hands outstretched, ready to call upon his fire magick.
"Well, now, we just want to fix everything, don't we?" came a soft, velvet voice that seemed to echo through the trees. Both Roy and Riza looked frantically around, but they couldn't see anything in the darkness of the night.
"Who are you?" Roy shouted when the following silence became too unbearable. There was a deep, mocking laugh in response to his question.
"That's not important," the voice replied, closer this time. "What is important is that you want to fix everything, right? Well, then don't I have the deal for you."
"What kind of deal?" the mage found himself asking, his curiosity overruling his instinct to run for his life. Riza glanced sharply at him, though she tried not to take her attention away from where the voice was coming from. Her bow was poised with an arrow ready to shoot.
"One I'm sure you can't resist, Mister Mustang," came the answer. Roy bristled.
"How do you know my name?"
"I just know things. I'm good at knowing things. And I also know about your ambitions, your dreams." They could hear the smirk in her voice, the absolute confidence that she had them trapped right where she wanted them. It was unnerving and infuriating. Both Roy and Riza needed to be in control of their situations. Right now, that control was slipping from their grasp and it angered them. "I know you're a mage. I can feel the energy from your magick. So, I know you're on the run, trying to get away from the King. But you're too kind to just go into hiding. You want to save a few people. Dare I say, you also want to assume power, right? Because who could be a better rule for this Kingdom than Roy Mustang? Who would be more just than a little orphan kid who understood what life was like for those less privileged? Yes, Mustang, I know all about you."
There was a long silence where Roy couldn't bring himself to reply since everything the woman was saying was completely true and that scared him. He was not this open with most people. In fact, there were parts of this that Riza was hearing for the first time. How in the world could this one random person in the middle of the woods know so much about the mage?
"I have my ways, you know," she said in answer to the question he never asked. "I know more about you than you probably do about yourself. And, I know how to help you get the power you seek."
"You do?" Roy questioned. Riza sent him another sharp look that, again, went unnoticed. She was becoming more worried, more frantic. She didn't understand why Roy was humoring this person with his questions. There was certainly no good that could come from making a deal with her.
"Oh, yes I do. I have more power in myself than you could imagine. But, for me power is boring. It's watching what you people do with the power that amuses me." Beyond the trees, further back than the voice sounded, a figure began to emerge. Riza pulled her string tighter and Roy was a millisecond away from lighting the forest on fire, but they both contained themselves.
And then the woman showed herself. She was tall, curvy, and extremely beautiful. She looked like someone had drawn her. Her hair tumbled in loose black curls down to the middle of her slender, curved back. Even in the darkness, both Roy and Riza could make out the ruby red smirk that was painted on her pale, perfect face. What was extremely odd was the dress she was wearing, a tight deep purple sleeveless one that seemed so out of place in the cold night.
"Who are you?" Roy asked again, his voice gaining a bit of a bite. He didn't appreciate the cryptic games this woman seemed to be playing with him.
"Someone," she shrugged. "No one. It's all the same, really. But I can offer you that power, Mustang. And, oh what a great power it will be."
"What is it, then? The power?" He couldn't help it, he had to know.
"Roy." Riza's voice rang crisp across the clearing, neither too loud nor too soft. But in it, it carried a warning for the mage. He was dancing too close to the edge there. At least, too close for Riza's comfort.
"Oh, hush, girl," the woman remarked in a dismissive tone, as though she was both bored with Riza's presence and exasperated that she was speaking at all. "Roy knows what he wants, don't you? You want to be King. You want to run this godforsaken piece of shit country don't you?"
"Hey!" Roy's eyes narrowed. "This country might be a mess right now, but it's my country."
"Nationalistic, aren't you?" she hummed. "See, you're also the right man for the job. What do you say, Roy? You and me."
"I don't even know your name."
"Like I said, not important. But you can call me Lust if you really insist on calling me anything."
"Alright, then Lust, how do I know you can get me this power at all? And why me? Do you just go running around offering people who wander this far into the woods their wildest dreams?"
Lust laughed and the deeply mocking tone made Riza want to put an arrow right through her head. She wished Roy would stop egging this woman on so they could either fight or leave.
"No, just those I know will use what I offer them well. Just like those boys." She stepped forward again so now they could see the evil look shining in her eyes. Riza's heart leaped into her throat. "The ones from outside Central who wanted their mother back. You know them, right? It's a shame, really. They had so much potential, but they were caught up in some fairy tale that would never happen. Not like you, Roy. You know what's real and what isn't, what's possible and what's child's play."
Time froze. Roy sucked in a breath through gritted teeth and Riza gasped. It took all her strength not to loose her arrow, but if this woman knew about the boys, there was no telling what other information she had. If she was dead, they would never find out more from her.
"How do you know about them?" Roy asked in a steely voice, but all he got in response was a laugh. And, God, that laugh infuriated him to no end. He snapped his fingers and a small spark of flame danced along the forest floor, lighting up his taut, angry face. "I mean it, you witch! Tell me! What's the matter with you? Taking a little boy's arm and leg? Trying to kill him!"
"I have no use for the weak," she replied indifferently. "And being a child is no excuse for being weak." She placed a finger to his chin as though lost in deep thought. "Alive, then huh? Well, maybe he's not so weak after all. Still, I have no use for him."
And then time sped up.
Roy rushed towards the woman. Riza, determined not to put an arrow through Lust's head quite yet, lowered her bow and ran forward, calling his name out. A tree burst into flames at the same time another was struck by a whizzing lightning bolt. Riza kept running, though she was further back than Roy was from the woman and had more ground to cover while still carrying the heavy bow. The darkness acted as a thick fog, but soon it began to clear and Riza saw Roy still rushing towards Lust who had not moved from her spot near the edge of the clearing.
They began to spar. Riza hung back as Roy and Lust fought. Trees burst into brightness around them, fiery ashes falling through the air like a hellish snow. They kept getting pushed back further and further until they were no longer in the clearing, but now back into the thick of the brush. Riza kept her bow steady, unwilling to kill Lust quite yet, but Roy aimed fireballs at her head. Each one missed by such a narrow margin, Riza began to wonder if this witch was actually real.
And then there was the cliff.
Riza heard the waterfall first before they broke through the brush and knew immediately that it was too late to turn themselves around. The witch had pushed them so far back, there was nowhere to go but forward. They would either have to kill her or survive yet another cliff fall, and Riza was sure neither would be able to do that. She propped her bow up, her string pulled back and her fingers ready to let loose so it would fly right into her skill.
Then, she was frozen. Her legs stopped moving, her breath slowed, the bow came loose of her fingers and clattered to the ground. She looked down, finding herself floating maybe an inch, no more than two, above the dark forest floor. Riza couldn't move, she was forced to float there while Roy stopped and watched her, dumbfounded by what he was seeing. And the witch, who's magick now surrounded Riza in a hazy purple glow, began to bring her forward.
"Riza!" Roy shouted, rushing forward, only to be stopped by an invisible wall of magick that surrounded him on all sides. He pounded against the air, which lit up the magick force with the same purplish hue, but he wasn't able to continue forward. All he could do was watch as the blonde woman was brought before the dark witch.
"I'm sick of this," Lust said in a tired, childlike tone. "If you're not going to take me up on my offer, then I might as well just take the information I need and be on my way. Now, Miss Hawkeye, let me into your mind. Come on, it won't hurt."
Riza hated the mocking sound of her last name on the lips of this evil woman, but she was also focused on the strange sensations around her. It felt like someone was trying to open her mind, like there was a door she couldn't see or touch and someone was knocking on it, trying to get inside. The knocking became more and more forceful and Riza knew she couldn't let them in, so she diverted all her strength to keeping that door closed.
"Stubborn, aren't we?" Lust commented, "To be suspected, I suppose. I mean, you disguise yourself as a man to make a living and followed this…" She glanced at Roy and waved him off dismissively. "Man, I suppose, around Amestris. There has to be a stubborn streak in you to account for not giving up on him."
"I don't… give up on people," Riza replied, her voice strained. She regretted speaking immediately. The energy it took to give the witch a reply took away from the energy she was trying to focus on not opening the door to her mind.
But, that was just the in Lust needed and the doors of Riza's mind burst open. She felt violated, exposed. She wanted to cry and scream and thrash around, but she was frozen as she continued to float in the grasp of the witch's magick. It didn't take long for Lust to find what she was looking for, and when she did, she dropped Riza to the ground. In that moment, the box around Roy was lifted and he ran to her.
Even though it was just a few inches, the fall felt like an eternity and hurt quite a bit. Riza felt exhausted and she had no idea why. That thick consciousness of her mind like a room one could enter was something she had never known about, but it took so much of her energy. That, and speaking while under the witch's influence made her feel like she hadn't slept in days. Still, determined as ever, she reached forward and grabbed her bow and an arrow and weakly pointed it at the witch. Roy placed a steady hand on her shoulder, his other outstretched and ready to light the whole forest on fire.
"Yes, yes, you're stubborn, we get it," Lust droned, bored. "Don't worry, I'll be out of your hair, then. I have everything I need."
"What did you do?" Riza asked, her voice low and dangerous, and utterly exhausted, though she continued to point her weapon right at Lust's face.
"I looked into your mind. It's a rather easy thing to do if you know the trick. You shut me out pretty quickly, which hasn't happened in quite some time." The witch shrugged. "Either way, I just wanted to know where those boys were. We have some unfinished… business I need to take care of. Don't worry, I'll be taking my leave to Risembool now."
Riza let her arrow fly and Roy lunged forward. Lust ducked out of the way faster than it should have taken any normal human and she grabbed Roy's fist, stopping him before he could bring a ball of fire onto her. He was out like a match, Riza was grasping for her next arrow. Lust laughed.
"You're not going anywhere," Roy shouted, grabbing onto Lust's arm. "You're not going to touch those boys! I won't let you!"
"Hmm, yes, you do seem particularly attached to those twerps," Lust mulled, shaking her arm away from Roy. She glanced towards Riza, who had strung another arrow on her bow and was just about to let it loose. She did, and Lust froze the arrow in mid-air, then dropped it to the ground. She stepped forward and thrust her hand out, and her long slender fingers were shot out, extended into pointy knives all aimed right at the archer.
Riza didn't have time to get away. Roy shouted for her and started forward, but caught himself in case Lust started to run away. He was caught between wanting to stop Lust from harming those boys and protecting the one who had always protected him.
One of Lust's long finger knives pierced Riza's shoulder and continued on through her. She called out as blood began to trickle from the wound. Then, she was floating again and she couldn't even bring her arm up to grab at her shoulder so she could try to stop the bleeding. Roy watched in horror as she was sent further and further away from them.
"Well, Roy Mustang, the Fire Mage," Lust drawled, thoroughly enjoying this whole scene. "Looks like you'll have to choose. Chase after those boys, or your little girlfriend." Roy looked between the two of them, his hesitation heavy and thick on the silence that had fallen over the forest. "So indecisive, are we? That's unlike you. Oh well, guess I'll just make this choice for you."
And with that, Riza was thrown over the edge, the side of the cliff swallowing her. Roy shouted and ran forward, but all he heard was a splash below. When he turned back around, he saw that Lust was already gone, presumably on her way to Risembool to get the boys.
With every second that went by, Roy knew he was losing time on either end. Riza was drowning and the boys were in danger, and the further away he let Lust get, the less of a chance he had at finding the boys safe. But, the longer he stood there, watching as the waterfall flowed out and came crashing down into the river, the longer Riza was stuck underwater.
She could already be dead.
The thought hit him like a ton of bricks and took the air right out of his lungs. The thought, the mere idea that Riza Hawkeye was dead made him want to vomit. Riza was a good friend when they were kids, and then Hawk was the best bodyguard anyone could ever ask for. But now? Now they were friends, equals. He realized that he loved her. Romantically? He wasn't entirely sure. It felt weird to think of Riza as more than a friend, but something about it also felt so right. Still, she was his closest friend. He couldn't imagine going on this journey with anyone else. He would never have forced her to come with him, but he was beyond grateful that she had chosen to stay by his side, even with the rest of the capital turned against him.
Roy wanted to go after Lust and get to her before she got to the boys, but she had magick that he had never seen before. There was a good chance she was in Risembool right now, a two week's journey by foot. There was a chance that it was too late before the clock even started ticking.
But he wasn't too late to save Riza. He needed Riza Hawkeye more than he needed water to drink or air to breathe. He feared for her safety more than he considered his own. And he knew that if he didn't go in and get her, he would never forgive himself.
And so, he tossed his cape off, braced himself, and then dove right off the cliff and into the dark river water below.
And here is the fated encounter with Lust, the poor things. All the support you guys have shown me through this writing process has been so great, and I'm thankful for each and every review, fav, follow, kudo, etc I get. It means so much to me! Enjoy this last update before Christmas--I'll be away for two weeks and will try to write a little here and there, but most of my prose is done during downtime at work. Don't worry, though, I'll be back in the new year with more chapters!
Roy crashed into the unforgiving freezing black water so hard, he almost lost the air he'd sucked in. Immediately, he began sinking, as though he'd never learned to swim like the river was actually a black hole. The waterfall nearby made the current unpredictable and dangerous, and Roy had no idea which way it had carried Riza. Right, or left, forward or backward. He had to pick a direction, and he knew he would only get one shot to find her.
But, Roy couldn't tell which way was up or down and the roar of the falls clouded his thoughts. He just began to swim through the vast, empty space, his hands wildly flailing around him as they searched for something human. His ears pounded from the pressure and his lungs burned from lack of oxygen, but he was determined to continue searching until the very last moment.
After what felt both like an eternity and no time at all, that moment came, and Roy knew he would have to push himself up to the surface to get air. He found the riverbed floor and planted his feet on the ground, bending his knees as he prepared to shoot upwards. But, as his right arm returned to his side, it brushed against something. He wasn't sure what it was, but it felt different from the rocks and gravel he'd pushed through, so he grabbed it, hugged it close to him and shot upwards towards the surface.
The second he was above water he began to gasp for air and he coughed as bits of the water splashed down his throat. He turned his head and found that he had managed to grab Riza who was coughing and sputtering as she clung to his side. Relief washed over him at the same time another wave crashed into the paid, and he half pulled, half dragged her through the water to the riverbank.
When the river became shallow enough to stand on the rocky bottom, Roy carried Riza the rest of the way to solid land. She continued to cough violently, gasping in cool gulps of air in between her hacks. He noticed that her eyes were not just closed, but squeezed shut as tightly as she could force them and her wet fists clenched around his soaking wet shirt. But, he figured, as she shuddered against him, she was breathing, and that was all that mattered in the moment.
He trudged out of the water and onto the riverbank and then into the thin grass that created the line between the dirt and the forest. It was there that he sat Riza down and followed onto his knees so he could sit her up and hold her shoulders steady while she coughed. She lurched forward, wet hair dripping onto her knees which she had brought up to her chest. Her back rested against Roy's left hand while his right hand rubbed circles between her shoulder blades. He felt like he should say something, anything, but he couldn't bring his lips to move. Perhaps there was nothing that needed to be said in this moment.
Finally, her coughing died down to the point where she was just weakly choking every few minutes. Riza continued to shiver and didn't move away from her friend, but she turned to look at him with a steely gaze. "Where's my bow?" she asked in a scratchy, soft whisper. Roy's mouth opened and he almost told her not to speak, but the hard look she was giving him caused him to reconsider.
"Up on the cliff," he replied. "It's fine, we just have to go get it." Riza relaxed immensely at that. Her shoulders slumped, her breathing became more even and she closed her eyes for just a brief moment. Roy glanced over at the river and then looked up to his right. The tall cliff loomed above them, which in the dark veil of night, he hadn't immediately seen. At least he wouldn't have to cross the river to get back to the town. It would be some time before Roy felt like going anywhere near a body of water again.
"I'm assuming Lust got away," Riza said after clearing her throat. There was no judgment in her voice, just a question that she already knew the answer to. Roy looked away.
"Yes," he replied as he grit his teeth. "We have to get to Risembool, but in your state and with how far away it is, I don't know how we're going to manage that."
"My state doesn't matter," the woman said in an even tone as she worked to balance her breaths with her speech. "You're right, we need to get back to those boys. We have no idea what Lust wants them for or why she has such a need to get to them." She sat up straighter and Roy knew her next move would be to stand and walk. "Let's go."
He wanted to convince her to rest, but that would be futile. Besides, there was no way either of them was going to sit on the riverbank all night. Their first order of business was getting Riza's bow and then getting back to town. Roy didn't verbally agree, but he nodded and he helped Riza stand. She swayed, unsteady on her feet as she found gravity again, but it only took a minute for her to gain her bearings.
It was when she stood up straight that Roy noticed the blood on her shoulder. His eyes flew to the wound Lust had created before throwing her off the cliff and he placed a hand right next to it. "Your arm," he started.
"Is fine," Riza quickly snapped in a harsher tone than she had intended. She mentally cursed herself when Roy's face fell and softened her eyes. "Don't worry about it," she told him as she tried to drop into a kinder way of speaking. "I'll be alright. We have to get going."
Again, Roy wanted to stop, to check out her shoulder. He wanted to bring her into town and get a doctor to wrap it up, but he knew she would never agree. And, she would be right of course, as they had to get going if they wanted to catch Lust before she managed to find her way to the two young boys. The man hated his hesitation. Normally, nothing could stop him when the situation was urgent, but Riza was his one weakness.
Still, he didn't argue. They made their way to the cliff side and collected Riza's bow intact. She gave it a thorough check over to be sure the string wasn't broken and the length of the bow wasn't bent. Satisfied with her inspection, they made they way through the thick forest and back to town, which took longer than either expected, since they'd both forgotten the way they came in.
By the time they stumbled through the door of the inn, it had started to rain. Both figured it was more a blessing than a curse; now they had an excuse as to why they were soaking wet. When they came in the door, the half-asleep clerk startled to attention at the sound of the door closing. It was very late and few people ever came through the doors at this hour.
"Caught in the rain?" the innkeeper asked. She was older than the girl that stood there just hours before, and Riza guessed she was her mother or aunt, or at least of some blood relation.
"Just a bit, ma'am," Roy said as he went to the desk with soggy footsteps squeaking behind him. "We need a favor. I've just heard my wife is deathly ill in Risembool and I need to get back as soon as I can." Riza, who had followed behind him to the desk, was surprised by his assertion, though she tried to keep a straight face. It was amazing how easily Roy could come up with a story.
"I'm so sorry to hear that," the woman replied with a look of genuine concern on her face. She also looked a little confused, as though she wasn't entirely sure how she could help with that.
Roy reached into his backpack and took out all the money he and Riza had brought. It wasn't much; really, it was only supposed to last them a few weeks until they could pick up odd jobs or find some other kind person to let them stay free of charge. "Can you rent me a horse and tell me the fastest way to get to Risembool? I know it's not much, but it's all I have and I need to get back to my wife before…" Roy trailed off. He had twisted his face into an anguished expression and he artfully hitched his voice at the end of his sentence to show how deeply upset he was.
The innkeeper looked at the money warily, knowing immediately that it wasn't enough to cover the rent of a weak child's horse, nevermind a horse strong enough to get Risembool quickly. "I… I don't know," she whispered, afraid to tell the man no.
"Please," Roy pleaded. "I have to get to her side. I need her to know I love her, just one more time." His tone arched into a frenzied whine and Riza had to consciously stop herself from rolling her eyes. She'd known Roy for years and even his best acting couldn't fool him. The innkeeper on the other hand…
"Of course, sir. Of course!" She now had tears in her eyes, completely convinced of Roy's fake wife's impending doom. "I have a steed out back, a retired workhorse. He's only just been taken off the fields this week, so he's strong." She didn't even take the money, so when she hurried to the back door, Roy inconspicuously slipped it back into his pocket. They went outside, greeted by the lightly pouring rain. It had been so quiet inside the inn, they had all forgotten about it.
They were led to the stables where many proud horses stood. They walked all the way to the end before the innkeeper pulled out a key and unlocked the stall of an older, beautiful brown stallion. The horse was easy going and allowed her to lead him out of the stall. He glanced indifferently at Roy and Riza, and then expectantly back to the other woman.
"Can I ask you a favor?" she asked as she handed the reins to Roy. "I have a cousin in Risembool who is visiting me in the next few weeks. They were originally going to rent a horse to travel, but if you bring my horse to them, she can ride him for the trip here." Roy nodded. The woman paused and looked up at the steed. She gave him a reassuring pat on the side and turned back to the two travelers. "Please bring him to my cousin. Her name is Rosalie, she shouldn't be hard to find. We just need the horse back, please."
Roy reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. "I promise you, we will absolutely get this horse to your cousin and back to you. We're good people, we just need a little help." She swallowed thickly and nodded, whispering a thank you that only he could hear. And then she was gone, back inside the inn, and Roy and Riza were left in the stable.
Roy was in the front guiding the horse, and Riza was behind him, clinging to his back as they rode rapidly down the dirt path that led out of the village. The rain whipped at their faces and Riza's hair blew wildly, but they dared not slow for anything. They had to get to Risembool as quickly as possible. For all they knew, it would be too late.
It was a miserable ride for Riza, who had barely been able to catch her breath before they were whisked away on another adventure. Her shoulder throbbed, her lungs burned, and she felt weak. Not to mention, she had been freezing since she was pulled out of the river. It took all of her effort not to fall asleep on Roy's back, which would have normally been impossible with the bumpiness of the ride.
She couldn't believe how quickly her life almost ended. It was also the second time in only a few months that she'd gotten herself thrown off a cliff. Of course, the first time was by her own desperate choice. This fall, however, felt like the longest fall of her life. She was sure she was going to die and it pained her to think she would never see the boys again, or Winry, or Pinako. Or Roy.
As they rode through the night and she pressed herself against Roy, partly for warmth, and partly to avoid being thrown off, she thought about how much her life meant to her now. Before, as a soldier, she didn't give much thought to returning home at the end of the day. Of course, she wanted to protect Roy. It was not only her job but her mission in life. She'd promised herself to help him achieve his goals. It was lonely, though, being alone in that house every night. She had never been able to please her father and she could barely please herself.
But now she had this new life, one filled with uncertainty, but also filled with friendship. She and Roy were growing closer, yes, but she had also met two amazing boys, a kind little girl, and the most generous older woman. Where once she was just a "dog of The Crown," now she was just Riza.
She wondered who Riza was, who Riza could be. Her identity was no longer hinged on keeping her gender a secret and serving the Royal Family. She felt so different, and yet at the same time, she knew that this Riza was always deep down inside her, waiting to break free.
"Riza. Riza!" Roy's voice came crashing through her thoughts as he shouted above the rain and the wind. She shot up, careful to keep a firm hold on him so she wouldn't go flying off the horse.
"Yes, sir!" She managed to call back to him, as though he were miles away instead of right next to her.
"You okay?" He didn't elaborate, but he felt her slipping down his back and was worried she was falling asleep. "How's your arm?"
"It's fine, sir!" she replied shortly. She didn't feel she had the voice to carry a full conversation, and she also didn't want to talk about how she was feeling. She felt like shit, but there was nothing to be done about it, so it didn't matter.
Roy was not thrilled with her passiveness about her condition, but there wasn't much he could do as they rode through the night. She wasn't in danger of falling off the horse, so everything else was going to have to wait. He thought about saying something more, perhaps telling her to let him know if she felt worse, but decided against it.
They rode for hours until the sun slowly crept up upon the weary land. They rode as the rain stopped and the sun climbed, though neither Roy nor Riza felt any touch of warmth as the world brightened. They stopped twice along the way to give the horse some water and a short break, but they were soon back at it again.
It had taken them two weeks to reach the town because they were traveling only by cover of night and only through the thick forests. They also stopped for a night or two at small villages and traveler's inns, gathering clues and taking their time. However, the main road only took them the better part of the day before they were back in the familiar hillside town of Risembool. Roy had never been more grateful to see a town in his life. In a strange way, it was like coming home, though he felt even more anxious as he traveled through the farmland towards Pinako's large house. There was no telling what they would find.
Riza would have been more excited and anxious, but she was fighting to stay conscious. Her shoulder had gone from throbbing to burning and, though her lungs only stung, she felt that she wasn't taking in enough air. The cold bite of the river water still lingered and throughout the trip, she drifted between states of frigid pain and complete numbness.
Finally, as the sun was just about to slip below the horizon, they pulled up in front of the old wooden house. Roy hopped off the horse first and tied it to a post before he helped Riza down. He wasn't sure if it was just a trick of the dim glow of twilight, but Riza's face looked ashen. Bags lingered under her eyes and he felt her shiver. Still, once on the ground, she didn't sway or stumble and looked at him with those hard brown eyes.
They looked upon the house as they had many times before and found not a single board or blade of grass out of place. Everything seemed normal, and yet there was a feeling of dread that lingered in the air. Had they been too late? Were they too early? Or did Lust lie to them, choosing to poke at their fears instead of act upon them?
With only one way to find out, the pair walked up the front porch and knocked on the door. It wasn't too late, perhaps about time for the children to go to bed, but Pinako would surely be awake. And, sure enough, the door opened in an appropriate amount of time, revealing a short older woman who looked at them with a mixture of shock and happiness. She said nothing but gathered the two of them in as big a hug as the small woman could give.
"I didn't think you'd be back so soon," she said, pulling away. "Come in, come in. You're both soaking wet. What happened?"
"A lot," Roy replied, glancing around as he walked through the familiar hall and into the familiar kitchen. Everything was right where it was before. Nothing seemed out of place. "Is everyone here okay? How are the boys?"
And that was when Pinako's face fell into an expression of great uncertainty and contemplation. It was as though she was considering not responding to the question at all and then, at the last moment, decided to be honest. "We had an incident."
Roy's blood ran cold. Riza froze. "What happened?" she asked in a whisper, her voice barely carrying through the nearly empty house.
Pinako opened her mouth to answer, but she never got the words out. Heavy footsteps filled the room accompanied by the familiar squeak of a wheelchair on old wooden floors. All of the adults turned their heads towards the main hallway. Pinako's frown deepened as two figures emerged. One was Edward, perched in his wheelchair. He looked much better and healthier than he had two weeks prior, but his face looked tired and worn.
The other caused Riza to breathe in a sharp gasp and Roy to place a steady hand on the kitchen table. It was a large suit of armor that could move on its own. It looked like nothing an actual person could fit themselves into, perhaps it was a sculpture or an artistic rendition of old knightly armor. But, it pushed Edward's wheelchair through the house before it stopped in front of everyone at the kitchen.
"Hey, that dumb mage is back," Edward said in a voice that sounded somewhat cheery, though his tired expression didn't waver.
"Hi, Roy! Hi, Riza." It was Alphonse's voice for sure, but Alphonse was nowhere to be seen. It also didn't sound right; it was like Alphonse had his head stuck in an old milk bucket somewhere far away. And yet, they knew, the voice was coming right from the armor that stood before them.
"Alphonse?" Roy asked, taking a step forward and reaching out to touch the suit. It nodded. The expression on its face didn't change, but it seemed to slump over and look saddened by their realization.
"Yeah," he said sadly. "It's me."
"What happened? Why are you in there?"
Wordlessly he reached up and placed two gloved hands on top of his head. He pulled the helmet off and bent over so that all could see there was no physical person in the suit. "Brother bound my soul to this suit of armor after the witch came for my body."
"No," Roy whispered, his eyes widening at first and then narrowing. He slammed a fist down on the table. "Dammit!" Riza placed a hand on his shoulder, but she didn't say anything. There was nothing to be said, they were too late.
"It's okay, really!" Alphonse insisted as he placed his head back on. "It's pretty cool being this tall now! And I can still practice magick. In fact, I might even be better now!" This, however, did not convince Roy, who had taken a seat and had his head in his hands.
"Hey, don't go feeling sorry for yourself," Edward scolded. "We're the ones who got attacked! Besides, now we just have to get Al's body back along with my arm and leg."
Roy glanced over, shaken by the brutal honesty of a young teenager. As much as he hated to admit it-and he would never, ever admit it out loud-Edward was right. There was no use feeling sorry for what couldn't be prevented. They could only move on. Maybe that was a lesson one could learn from the boys whose entire reality relied on picking up and continuing to move after hardships. He sighed, ran a hand through his hair, and even tried to paint a small smile on his lips. "And the rest of you? You're alright?" he asked.
"That witch was on a mission," Pinako sighed as she moved to the stove to make some hot water for tea. "She touched nothing else in this whole house." The woman turned back and, for the first time, noticed Riza, who had unconsciously placed a hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong with your arm, dear?"
Riza looked startled at being addressed. "Oh, it's nothing."
"It certainly looks like something. Let me see." Pinako moved across the kitchen and pried Riza's hand away. The woman sucked in a breath at seeing the shoulder wound, still bloody and now weeping onto her shirt. "Oh dear. How did this happen?"
"The witch," Roy answered for her. "We met her in the woods… a night? Two nights ago? That's how we knew she was going to come back here. We came as quickly as we could."
Pinako didn't care how long it took the two of them to come. Instead, she focused on examining the wound. She reached up and placed a hand on Riza's cheek. The woman leaned into the kind touch. It had been a while since someone so lovingly attended to her. "Sit, sit," Pinako ordered and Riza did as she was told, sinking into the chair next to Roy. Pinako then rushed out of the kitchen and towards her office.
Roy placed a hand on Riza's and leaned forward. He was shocked at how exhausted she looked now in the glowing light of the fire. He could more clearly see the defined bags and her pale skin. Her eyes were lowered to the ground and she made no eye contact. "You look awful, Hawkeye," was all Roy could think to say.
"Gee, you must be a hit with the ladies," Edward retorted from behind him and Roy whipped around to shoot him a glare before returning his attention to Riza.
Riza just shrugged as much as she could with the injury. "The most important thing was getting here, sir."
"Well, we ended up being too late. You should have told me you… You…" He wasn't sure what she should have told him, but he felt she should have said something. Riza picked right up on that and her eyes flickered upwards to meet his.
"Told you what? That I'm cold? Sick? Hurt? That much is obvious. We had to get to Risembool quickly."
Damn her voice of reason. Roy sat back in his own chair, but he didn't take his hand off Riza's. She let out a sigh and seemed to relax a little in her own seat, but she ended up letting go a little too much. As she fell unconscious, she nearly fell off the chair, but Roy lurched forward and caught her. The commotion caused his chair to scuff the floor as it moved back, and Riza's body pushed her chair out as well. Roy ended up gathering her into his arms as he sunk them to the floor.
"Riza? Hey! Riza!" he called to her, shaking her lightly. Pinako came running back into the room.
"Alright, come on, let's get her into a bed," she said calmly. Roy glanced up at her, uncertain since she'd passed out so quickly, but he trusted Pinako's medical advice. He lifted her up and hurried behind Pinako into the same guest room they'd stayed in weeks before. Edward and Alphonse followed close behind.
Once Riza was settled into bed, Pinako ushered everyone out of the room so she could change the woman into warm clothes and wrap her shoulder. This left Roy, Alphonse, and Edward in the hall. Once the door was shut on them, Roy turned to the boys and said with genuine emotion, "I'm so sorry."
Edward shrugged indifferently. "Whatever. It's fine, we'll be fine."
"What brother means is that we'll get our bodies back eventually!" Alphonse corrected. "And that we're grateful that you and Miss Riza care so much about us."
Edward rolled his eyes at the correction, but he nodded. "Yeah, sure, that too." He smirked up at Roy. "Now that you're here, you can convince that old bat to give me surgery."
Roy frowned and shook his head. "I'm not a doctor, kid. You have to listen to her."
"Yeah, but we don't have a lot of time, right? We have to get moving!"
"Riza and I will get moving," Roy explained, though his voice faltered at the mention of his partner, who was currently laid up. "Eventually. We need to make new plans anyway, so just hang on, okay?"
Edward was going to rebuke him, but the door opened and Pinako stepped out. "Exhaustion, fever, and a nasty infection on her shoulder," she explained dryly as she closed the door behind her. "She'll be alright with rest and observation. Now, you two boys get to bed. And Roy, I'll get that tea ready for you if you want to change into something warm and dry first."
"Perfect," the man said with relief. "Thank you."
"No, no problem," the older woman waved him off as she ushered the two boys to bed. "We're just glad to have you home."
Home. Yes, this certainly felt like home. and Roy was so grateful to be here.
Happy New Year! I got back from vacation on Sunday and started typing this up as soon as I could! I hope everyone had a great winter holiday season! I can't wait to keep writing this and my other stories, so stay tuned!
The steam from the tea rose high into the air and then faded just before reaching the kitchen ceiling. Roy sat at the table, his hands wrapped tightly around the porcelain mug as he tried to warm up. He was wearing a nice set of night clothes that once belonged to Pinako's son and he was finally dry aside from his thick black hair which still held a little dampness.
The pair sat in silence for a while after the boys had gone to bed and Roy came back from getting changed. It was comfortable, and he liked being able to sit in a warm house with a hot cup of tea and finally relax. They'd not gone far, and they hadn't known the Rockbell's for very long, but this felt like home.
Roy brought the lip of the mug up and took a long sip. The resulting feeling was a deep warmth that spread through his stomach. His shoulders slumped and he rested back in the chair. He even felt a few pops from his joints as his body adjusted to the unfamiliar feeling of being relaxed.
His eyes flickered to the guest room door. "Is she going to be alright?" he asked, his voice just barely above a whisper. Quietness didn't seem appropriate for how homey the old farmstead was, but he didn't want to wake the children.
"We'll see how she is tomorrow," Pinako replied. "But, I would assume so, yes."
Roy would have rathered a much more confident affirmation, but he didn't say anything more about her. Instead, he switched to a much more dire topic.
"How did…" he started, and then stopped, trying to find the right words to ask his question. When he found none after a brief pause, he continued. "How did it all happen?"
Pinako knew immediately what he was talking about. "It was last night, very late. She came to the door posing as a weary traveler. I let her in, made tea, and then when I turned around, Edward was shouting, Winry was crying, and Alphonse was trapped in that armor."
"It happened that fast?" Roy asked, taking another sip of his drink.
"No, no. I assume she placed a freezing spell on me. It felt like no time at all, but it was long enough to ransack the boy's room and turn Alphonse into that… thing."
"I thought Edward did that?"
"From what they told me, she turned Alphonse into the suit of armor," Pinako explained. "Then she left. The suit began to reject Alphonse's soul, but Edward stepped in and was able to tie the soul and body more firmly together." The old woman paused to take a drink of her own tea. "That was probably the witch's plan. Transform Alphonse into something that would reject a soul so he would disappear. If not for Edward…"
She didn't finish the sentence, and Roy didn't want her to. All of this sounded so confusing to the mage. It was diving deep into the intricacies of Magick that even he didn't know much about. For Roy, there were the basics and then there was fire magick. Lore and theory and best practices all meant nothing to him compared to the raw skill. But, from what he'd learned about the Elric brothers, they had spent their short lives studying all the book stuff. They knew the ideas and the forces that drove magick.
His teacher, Riza's father, was a scattered and disorganized man. He had all kinds of notes that Roy never saw, probably explaining all the ins and outs of fire magick. But, when it came time to learn it, Roy didn't study a book. Master Hawkeye just told him to do it.
"Edward," Roy started, deciding to change the subject. "How is he?"
"A pain in my ass," Pinako laughed. "Everyday the first word out of his mouth is surgery. All he wants is automail so he can go and do god-knows-what to get their bodies back. But, he's healing well. A strong boy, that one. Won't drink his milk though."
"Must be why he's so short," he chuckled. "When do you think he'll be ready?"
"In two days."
Roy paused, furrowing his eyebrows together in confusion. He remembered weeks ago Pinako telling Edward it would be months or even years before he would be able to get the surgery he wanted.
"I'm sorry, did you say two days?"
"Sure did." The old woman leaned back in her chair and looked out the window, as though her reasoning for the decision was somewhere out beyond the hills. "That boy, he's something else. I've never seen anyone-not a kid, not even an adult-with injuries like what he has make such a quick and nearly full recovery. The drive to change their situation and now the drive to help his brother is more intense than anything I've ever seen in my life. And, Roy Mustang, I've lived a damn long life."
"Of course," the mage said, jumping a little at the use of his name. "But he's still just a kid. And you said that surgery is really serious, right?"
"Oh, yes, it is. I'll have to bring in another healer to help me. But, I can't keep those kids here while they're chomping at the bit to get out and do something for themselves."
"How long will the recovery process take?"
At that question, Pinako laughed again. "Normally, I'd say a year, likely more. But that kid? There's no telling, none at all."
Roy nodded and drank the last of his tea. Noticing the mug was empty, Pinako wordlessly stood and poured him another cup. She sat back down and he thanked her and took another sip of the piping hot drink.
"That kid might be a pain in your ass, but you seem to really care about him," Roy commented.
"I could say the same of you," Pinako observed.
"True, but you've had to take care of him. Riza and I, we kind of just dumped these two kids off at your place. And you didn't even know us!" He gave her a sly look. "Some would say you're crazy."
"And they'd be right," the woman retorted with a smirk of her own. "But I did what I felt needed to be done. You know, kids often ask what their parents would do in different situations. I ask what my son would do. And, I know he would do this."
"It sounds like your son was a great person."
Pinako didn't respond to that comment, but she smiled contently and let a brief silence linger over them. "You know," she said lightly. "You and Riza remind me of Yuriy and Sarah." Roy shot her a questioning glance. "The two of you put the other first. And then above that, you both put other people before yourselves. I can sense a lot of love between the two of you."
Roy's face turned a bright shade of pink and he sputtered into his tea. "L-love?" he choked. "We're just friends!"
Pinako laughed and raised an eyebrow at his dramatic reaction. "That's exactly what I meant; you two are good friends. Unless, of course, that's now how you see it."
"Of course that's how I see it!" Roy shifted his gaze down so he could study the wooden table intently. He hated the warmth that lingered on his cheeks, but more so he hated what this line of conversation did to his feelings. Something about using the words "Riza" and "love" in the same sentence stirred something within him that he wasn't prepared to confront.
Pinako only hummed in response, as though she didn't actually believe what Roy said, but doesn't care to continue the conversation. Instead, she took a long sip of tea and cupped the mug in her hands. "Humor an old woman, then will you?" she asked. "Tell me about Central."
And so, Roy and Pinako stayed up for the better part of the night as he told her about what his life was like growing up. He felt that she deserved to know the whole entire story, from start to finish, of where he and Riza came from, why they were here, and what they were going to do. Besides, he figured, he had no desire to go to sleep. Sure, he was exhausted, but he couldn't bring himself to settle down.
He told her about studying under Master Hawkeye and about his young, bright-eyed daughter, Riza and how the whole Hawkeye clan died when The Sickness came. He discussed the process of enlisting in the Royal Army and how he came to be a Court Mage. That was how he met Hawk, a stern but sturdy archer who was sworn to protect him and The Crown. He then launched into the decree that Magery was outlawed and how he and Hawk ran away and met Mei, a young healer trying to bring back honor to her clan. It was there he discovered that Hawk was actually Riza, though he didn't divulge to Pinako just how emotionally confusing it was to find out that his bodyguard wasn't who he thought he was and instead was the girl he'd grown fond of years before. Roy then touched lightly on finding the boys, since Pinako already knew the whole story of how they met up with Edward and Alphonse and went straight into what they had been doing the past few weeks. They'd turned up no relevant clues and then ran into Lust.
"We got here as fast as we could," Roy explained. "But I… I couldn't just leave Riza in that river. I had to save her. We've been through so much and I don't know how I could keep going without her."
"You made the right decision," Pinako soothed. "It wouldn't have mattered anyway. It sounds like Lust was here with the snap of her fingers. Teleportation spell or something."
Roy seemed to take comfort in Pinako's assessment. If he hadn't saved Riza, he still wouldn't have made it in time and instead would have lost his best friend. "You know," he said after he finished the last of his tea and waved off Pinako's offer of another cup. "Maybe there is something to that love thing. I don't know. But, this sure isn't the time to figure all that crap out. We have things to do. Besides, it feels stupid, you know? I only start liking Riza like that when I find out she's a girl as if that's her one defining quality. Hawk and I were best friends, but I never thought about marrying him."
Pinako shrugged as she gathered the mugs and set them in the kitchen sink. "Perhaps. But, maybe it's not that you saw her more romantically because now you know she's a woman. You knew her when you were younger right?"
"Well, yeah," Roy replied, unsure of where the old woman was going with this.
"So, perhaps you're just drawn to the potential of a relationship you never got to have with her back then. It's not that you're only attracted to her womanhood. You're attracted to the history you share. That's not stupid."
Roy hesitated for a moment before he stood up from the kitchen table. "Thank you for the chat," he said politely, seeming to ignore what Pinako had just said. "And the tea. I appreciate it."
"Anytime. Sleep well," she said as she waved him off.
Roy didn't know why he felt the need to spill his guts to Pinako. Sure, she was an extremely kind old woman who he owed so much to, but Roy was a private person. He opened the guest room door and slipped inside. Riza was asleep in the bed by the window. She was laid on her back with the covers pulled up to her chin. Even in the darkness, Roy could tell that her hair was still a little damp, but he was glad to see that she was warm and resting.
He slipped into the other bed and rolled over, his eyes resting on Riza's dark sleeping form for just a brief moment before he closed his eyes. He felt lighter. Although he preferred to keep his feelings to himself, talking with Pinako made him feel better. Not to mention, the bed was comfortable and familiar and he breathed in the deep wooden smell of the home. It wasn't long before he was fast asleep.
It was late afternoon the next morning when Riza awoke. The first thing she became aware of was the pain that lingered on her shoulder. For a brief moment, she was confused and wondered where she was, but the events of the previous night swiftly came back to her. A feeling of dread boiled in her stomach as she recalled laying eyes on Alphonse for the first time. They had been too late. They couldn't protect the boys.
She also realized that she didn't remember going to bed, and wondered how she had ended up back in the warm familiar blankets. Judging by the light that tried to poke its way into her eyes, it was sometime in the afternoon, so she had likely been asleep all night and all morning.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and the world came into focus. She was correct in her assumption that she was lying in the same bed by the window in the tiny room that Pinako had for traveling guests who stayed at her inn. Sun came streaming through the window, which was open to let in the mid-spring breeze. Aside from the dull pain and the fever she was sure she had, Riza felt comfortable.
Riza turned her head to find Roy sitting on the edge of the other bed, reading the local paper. Next to him was a stack of what she assumed was two weeks worth of papers. His lips were set in a neutral frown as his eyes scanned each page.
"Hey," Riza whispered. Her voice was hoarse and soft, but Roy heard it and immediately glanced over at her. His face almost seemed to melt with relief and she heard him let out an audible sigh.
"Hey, you're awake," he commented, setting aside his paper. "How are you feeling?"
"Awful," Riza laughed. "I guess I've been out a while?"
"Just most of the day. You passed out last night. Pinako said you have an infection in that shoulder."
Riza shifted to glance at the offending shoulder and pursed her lips in disdain. She rolled it back a little, hoping to loosen it up, but flashes of pain prevented her from moving it more than once. "I'm sorry," she said.
Roy furrowed his brows. "Sorry? For what?"
"For getting hurt. I let my guard down, sir, but I promise it won't happen again."
"Don't be sorry for that. Lust took all of us by surprise. I'm just glad you're okay." He offered her a smile which she weakly returned, though it didn't quite reach her eyes. She still felt bad for her injuries and hoped she would be better very soon.
Roy, meanwhile, was kicking himself for somehow leading Riza to believe he was angry she had gotten hurt. Last night's conversation with Pinako came back to him, though he tried to push it away. Now was absolutely not the time. They had to focus on getting better and helping those kids get their bodies back. Plus, there was the whole magery ban they had to deal with as well. There was a lot riding on their shoulders and they couldn't afford to lose any more time.
"Let me go get Pinako," Roy offered after a silence had fallen over the two of them. "I'm sure she'll want to redress the wound and give you a check-up." Riza just hummed in response and Roy went into the hall to grab the older woman.
In a few moments, the older woman was there checking up on Riza and ensuring her wound was healing correctly. It was then that Riza was told about Edward's surgery, which would happen the next day. Pinako also caught her up on what had been happening since they left a few weeks beforehand. She also touched on the chat she and Roy had last night, but she didn't go into all the details.
Riza spent the remainder of the day resting. Her fingers itched for the string of her bow and she longed to practice again, but she knew Pinako would have her head if she got out of bed. Roy brought her dinner and ate with her in the bedroom. They kept the conversation light and shallow, but there was something different about his demeanor that Riza couldn't quite place. Although he chatted amicably, he seemed to pull away from her. Rather than sit on her bed with her, he sat on the other and made little eye contact. At the end of their meal, the woman chalked it up to the guilt he felt over her getting hurt, but she was too tired to alleviate his feelings. Besides, she figured they both needed to get over their tendency to harbor guilt. It never changed anything about their situation.
The next morning came just as bright and sunny as the last. Light danced on the walls of the old house, illuminating the old wood. Riza was finally allowed up and stood on the porch drinking morning tea. She longed to practice her archery but knew she needed to let herself heal. She gazed over the valley and noticed dark clouds in the distance. Another rain storm would likely approach by that evening.
Edward was buzzing with excitement. He said little but had Alphonse push him wherever Pinako went so he could see what she was doing. The old woman soon grew tired of the both of them and kicked them out of the operating room so she could continue setting up. Edward pouted for a bit before Winry distracted him with some puzzles and games.
Around noon, there was a knock at the door and in walked a dark-haired, gruff faced doctor. He wore a white button shirt and brown pants and carried a large black briefcase with him. When Winry, who had answered the door, called for her grandmother, Pinako came bustling out of the operating room.
"Dr. Knox, thank you for coming by," she exclaimed. "Can I get you a drink? Some tea? I have some bread left over from lunch if you would like something to eat."
The doctor raised his hand and shook his head. "No, I'm alright," he said as he glanced around at the small crowd that had gathered. Roy and Riza, who had been going over local news and gossip appeared in the doorway and Winry, Alphonse and Edward watched on from the top of the stairs. He looked back to Pinako leaned over towards her ear and whispered, "Are you sure about this?"
The old woman nodded firmly. "Yes. Let's get you set up." She led him to the room but not before he stole another glance at the boy who he was about to operate on. Riza noted that he didn't seem too thrilled to be here and felt an air of apprehension from the doctor. Of course, the surgery was going to be dangerous, but she trusted that Pinako knew this was a good time to do this.
The kids came downstairs and Roy and Riza entertained them with a card game. Alphonse sat next to his brother, perched on a small wooden chair. If he had been able to feel anything, he likely would have been severely uncomfortable, but sitting regularly at the table made him feel like he was normal. He was still getting used to his new large body.
An hour later, Pinako emerged. "Alright, Edward, it's time." She paused as Edward turned with a bright smile on his face. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
The smile faded on Edward's face and was replaced by a look of solid determination. He didn't even need to say anything, he just nodded and pursed his lips in a firm thin line. Pinako came over and wheeled him into the room.
Apologies for the wait, I ended up getting busy, losing inspiration to write, the works. Thanks for sticking with me though!
The cries of agony echoed through the house and bounced mercilessly off the walls for the first half hour of the procedure. Then, it became quiet, though whimpers could be heard if you ventured too close to the door. Riza paced nervously, finding her stomach in knots for a child she barely knew. When she grew tired, she laid down in bed, but nothing could quell the nervousness she felt.
Roy fared no better, spending all of his time pacing outside the operating room door like a worried father. Though he and Riza exchanged glances, neither spoke. Alphonse and Winry went into town for the day. It was for the best. Winry was too young and sensitive to be around for this, and Alphonse didn't need to hear the agonizing screams of his own brother.
The sun was just about to set when Dr. Knox came out of the room, sweat dripping down his stoic face. Roy and Riza were in the kitchen within eyesight of the hallway and glanced up when they heard the gentle click of the door. They both fought the urge to run to the man. Rather, the pair stayed put until Knox heavily fell into a chair next to Roy.
"How is he?" Roy asked in an unusually small voice when a few moments passed in silence. Knox took a deep breath, sighed, and leaned back towards the ceiling.
"Alive," he said to the sky. "Better than expected."
Riza let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. "He'll be alright?"
"No telling what he'll be. We'll see what happens through the night. Kid's tough, though."
Riza stood and went to the stove where she poured the doctor a cup of tea for his troubles. "So, you consider yourself a doctor?" she asked as she set the chipped white teacup down beside his right elbow. "Not a mage?"
Knox gave her a curious look and took a sip of the hot liquid. "Yes," he replied. "It's dangerous now to call yourself anything else. Always was, really."
"Being a mage was dangerous?" Roy asked, the topic peeking his interest, though he had no background in healing magick.
"'Round these parts, yeah." Knox set the cup down and sat forward in the chair. "People don't trust what they can't explain. But yes, I do practice magick. And I assume you do too?"
Roy opened his mouth to respond but realized that Knox wasn't looking at him. His gaze was fixed expectantly on Riza, whose brows were furrowed together. "Me?" she asked. "No, I don't practice magick."
"Oh? I apologize. I noticed your bow when I was passing your room and thought otherwise."
Roy and Riza exchanged a look before Riza turned her attention back to the doctor. "I'm an archer. That's why I have a bow."
"Hmm." Knox took another sip of tea and then stared thoughtfully into the light brown mixture. "Can I see it again?" he asked without looking up at her.
Riza hesitated, unsure of whether or not she should. Her bow was her life and she was extremely protective of the old family heirloom. But, Knox was a genuine person, if a little standoffish. So, she walked to her room and returned with the old wooden bow and laid it on the table for Knox to examine.
He looked over the bow for a long while before he spoke again, and when he did, his tone had changed to genuine curiosity. "Do you know what these runes mean?"
Riza's eyes glanced to the intricate ancient runes that lined the side of the bow. It was a question she had often asked herself, but no one else had ever questioned. "No," she said. "It was passed down to me. No one ever knew what those runes meant, at least not anyone who was alive at the same time as me."
"That figures, they're difficult to read."
Riza's eyes widened and Roy lurched forward. "You can read them?"
Knox scoffed. "Our land doesn't have many folktales," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "But trust me, I think I remember the few it does." He looked at Riza. "These runes tell the story of a prophecy that will lead to the rebirth of the kingdom."
"Oh." Roy relaxed a little. He chuckled and looked over at Riza. "That's cool, a storybook and weapon in one, huh?"
She smiled at him, but Knox shook his head. "It would be a 'cool story,'" he said seriously. "If everything that's written on that bow wasn't happening as we speak."
"What do you mean?" Riza asked. "What's happening now?"
"The outlawing of magery, the restrictions on travel the Crown is placing on citizens. Those boys." Knox's eyes flickered to the door he'd come out of minutes before. "It's all there."
"Can you read them to us? Tell us about the prophecy?" Roy questioned, unsure if he really believed what the doctor was saying.
"Yes," Knox said. "But they have to be activated first."
His eyes flickered over to Riza and she shifted uncomfortably when he held his gaze on her. "I can read the instructions written on the runes." He pointed to the first one and traced his finger down to the second. "The person in possession of this bow will be a talented archer thrown into turmoil through no fault of their own." He touched the third rune. "The student of a decedent of the creator of this bow will possess a gift more powerful than has been seen before. That student will use that gift to recreate these runes on The Gate which will open a Truth."
Silence fell on the table again. It was a long few minutes before Roy spoke. "So, am I the student?"
"My gut says so, yes. You're a mage, correct?"
"Ah. Yes, this may be you."
Riza looked at the runes, as though she expected them to suddenly make perfect sense. Rather, they continued to look like old pictures carved into the ancient wood. "Then where is The Gate?" she asked.
Knox traced a finger down to the fourth rune. He looked over at her, his lips pursed in a thin line. "The Gate?" he repeated. "The Gate is you."
So I'm dumb as hell and didn't mark where the last chapter ended and this one began, so I accidentally reposted last chapter + a bit of this. So, I wrapped this up to another cliff hanger and will continue from here. Sorry this chapter is so short, but I couldn't let the alert email go out and not have anything to show for it. Thanks for following!
"I'm sorry, what did you say?" Riza had pulled her eyes from the runes carved into her bow and was now staring at the doctor. She wasn't sure if she heard him correctly but judging from the almost amused smile that rested on the older man's lips, she knew he was serious.
"If this is your bow, and I am reading this correctly, then you are The Gate."
"The Gate to what?" Roy asked.
"The Truth," Knox answered shortly.
There was a pause. Roy and Riza both hoped Knox would expand on what The Truth was, but no further explanation came. Riza glanced back to the runes, then to Roy, and then back to Knox. "You said the runes have to be recreated on The Gate," Riza started. "If I am The Gate, what does that mean?"
"Exactly what I said. The runes have to be written on you to be read."
"Okay." Riza sucked a breath in and braced herself for a question she wasn't sure she wanted to ask. "How, then? Marker?"
Knox's face became more sullen, and Riza was surprised that was even possible. He already looked pretty serious, but now he almost seemed saddened by her ignorance. Riza felt anxiety bubble in her stomach when she didn't receive an immediate answer.
The doctor traced his finger down to the fifth rune. It was by far the most intricate of all with many lines and shapes that all seemed to form a pointed ball of some sort. "Fire."
"What?" Roy asked before Riza could choke out a response of her own.
"Fire. The runes must be written on The Gate with fire." Knox looked up at the two shocked faces before him. "What? You're a fire mage, and your father taught him fire magick. You're really that surprised that a bloodline seeped in flame magery would have a prophecy passed down to them that involves fire?"
Silence fell over the table again. He was absolutely right, though, and Roy and Riza exchanged worried glances. "So, Roy has to burn me?" Riza asked in a quiet voice.
Knox detected the hesitation in her voice, but answered rather sharply, "Yes. But not now. Maybe not for a long time. You'll know when the time comes."
"That's cryptic," Roy pointed out. He wasn't quite sure if he believed this whole prophecy business. As far as he was concerned, the old doctor was full of shit. Knox simply nodded.
"Yes, but if prophecies were always forthcoming with their information, humans would learn nothing." Knox set the bow down on the table and stood. His chair loudly scrapped across the wooden floor. Roy opened his mouth to speak again, but Knox cut him off. "It's late and I need sleep after a full day's operation. Goodnight." And then he turned on his heel and walked up the stairs to the spare bedroom next to Pinako's.
The pair were left there staring at the bow and each other. Roy felt terrible and a little angry at what had been discussed. Riza stared at the bow as if looking at it for the first time. It looked so different, though it was the same as it had always been. All these years, her family displayed the bow in the living room and all these years it held such secrets. And she didn't believe her father had no idea about what was written on the bow, but she did believe he simply didn't tell her. Her father barely spoke to her when he was alive. Going into all that detail would be more conversation with him than Riza had with the man over the course of her whole life.
"Riza," Roy started, but when the woman matched his gaze, he forgot what he was going to say. There was a long pause before the mage gathered his thoughts. "I wouldn't listen to what that doctor thinks," he said. "Knox seems like a good doctor, but what are the odds he knows anything about prophecies and runes?"
Riza nodded, but then paused and shook her head. "I wouldn't dismiss him so easily," she replied and pursed her lips, saying nothing more. Roy wasn't used to Riza being so contrary, but she looked serious and he wasn't about to debate with her on this. So, he simply nodded and let silence fall over the table once again.
"We should get to bed," Riza finally said, not wanting to speak much about the bow or the runes and certainly not anymore about being burned by her most trusted friend. Roy nodded slowly and stood, following Riza back to the bedroom where she stored her bow and went to bed.
The next morning brought warm sunshine that brightened the house and its inhabitant's moods. Edward was still recovering from the surgery, but Pinako assured everyone that it went well. Better than expected, in fact, and there was a good possibility he would be awake and moving within the week.
Roy cast a little healing charm on the sleeping child since Knox had left early that morning before the sun rose. The doctor disappeared without another word to anyone, which Roy and Riza found strange, but Pinako noted that he always seemed to vanish. He was a very private person, after all.
Knox's words echoed in Riza's mind as she picked up her bow and began to practice. She spent a while just standing there, gazing at the carved runes. The feel of her bow, the curve of the base and the sharpness of the string all felt so different. It was like she was holding an entirely new weapon. She pulled the string back and rested her thumb under her shin. She stood ridged. Perfect. Just as she had been taught to stand. Riza breathed in, then out, then loosened her arrow but held her pose until she heard the thunk of the arrow hitting the tree. Dead center, as usual, but something still felt so different.
She practiced for a while longer, trying to find the difference. It wasn't in her stance, in the arrows, or in her aim. It was within the bow, she realized. As though the knowledge of what this tool was unlocked something within it. It wasn't bad and it didn't negatively affect her. It was simply different. A different, strange feeling that she would have to get used to in the same way she got used to the unnatural poses that make for great aim.
Riza was just getting into a grove when Roy came out the front door and called to her. "Hey, do you want to head to the market?" he asked as he approached. Riza let the arrow she was in the middle of aiming fly. Truly, no, she didn't want to go anywhere. Their fight with Lust had left her winded and the talk with Doctor Knox made her feel drained and confused. But, perhaps a little trip to the open air market would clear her mind. They also couldn't stop in their tracks and needed to keep gathering intel so they could continue their journey.
"Alright," she answered. She leaned her bow against the tree nearest her and walked to the other tall oak she was using as target practice. Slowly, she removed her arrows and checked to ensure the tips were still sharp. Once every one of them was removed and inspected, she gathered her archery stuff and brought it inside.
In another few moments, Riza was out of the house in her usual borrowed clothes and her hair down. She had recently taken to clipping up her hair onto the back of her head, but she had decided to let it down today to look more civilian. Roy watched her for a long moment before quickly turning his head to look down the dirt road that led to the village market. She looked very pretty, he decided.
The pair began walking silently. It was a very agreeable day. The weather was warm and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Late spring had never looked so good, Riza decided. Sure, the city was nice and grand, but with all the brick and stone, no one was able to appreciate how green the grass could get or how blue the sky could look. There was something about that change of pace that Riza was particularly liking. If the country wasn't on the brink of collapsing, she might stay and live here. Maybe when this was all over. If, of course, they made it out alive.
"It's really nice here," Roy said, as though he could read her thoughts. Riza was broken from her rivalry and glanced sideways at him.
"Yes sir," she replied. "It really is." Her voice was lower than she meant for it to be, as though the beauty of the world forced her to respectfully soften her tone.
"You don't have to call me that," Roy frowned. It wasn't like she was his subordinate anymore. You kind of needed to have a position to have a subordinate.
"Call you what?" Riza asked, her brows knitting together. She worried she had offended him in some way but had no idea he was hinting at the formality that was instinctive in her speaking patterns now.
"'Sir.' We're not, you know, in the military anymore. We don't need those formalities. You're my friend."
"Yes, of course. I apologize." Riza stumbled over her words for a brief moment, about to add the formality to the end of her sentence, but caught herself just in time. This would be a harder habit to break than she thought.
Roy waved her off, not wanting to accept her apology. "It really is beautiful here, though," he started, deciding to change the subject.
"These people here are lucky, the kids too. It looks like a great place to grow up," Riza responded, but Roy didn't seem to believe that much.
"It's nice and the kids seem happy, but Central has the best schools and job opportunities. The people here are nice but poor."
Riza just shrugged. "My family lived near Central and we were always poor," she replied and looked at him with a judgemental stare. "And you should know most of all that not everyone in Central has money to feed themselves. Didn't you grow up an orphan there? That can't have been easy."
The man was taken aback and an affronted look swept over his face. He didn't think about his past very often. He had gotten so far away from the poor street rat he once was, it was like his past life belonged to someone else entirely. "I mean, yeah, but because I lived there, I had the chance to meet your father and join the military!"
"And, look how far that's gotten us," Riza pointed out. "And you were one of the lucky ones. At least the poor here are poor and happy. The community comes together and helps people out. How many times when we were staying with Pinako did she offer food or housing to someone in need? No one would do that in Central."
She was absolutely right, Roy knew. He watched her as they moved onto a cobbled path. They were getting closer to the market, and the smell of bread from the bakeries on the outskirts of the town drifted over them.
"You're amazing, you know that?" Roy asked her, the thought slipping through his lips before he could hold it back. She looked at him, questioningly, but didn't verbally ask what he meant by that. For the first time in a long time, Roy became flustered. "What I mean is that," he started quickly, then paused, trying to figure out what he could mean. "You're kind," he decided, "You care about other people."
"You do too, otherwise you wouldn't have started this journey."
"I couldn't have gotten this far without you. And you're the one that wanted to help those boys-"
"You weren't seriously thinking about leaving them out there?" Riza asked, shocked that anyone could consider such a thing.
"Well, no, but you immediately went to help. I just bumbled around a bit." This seemed to satisfy the woman, who turned her attention to the stalls they were about to start walking by. Roy watched as she did so, her golden hair bathed in the bright sunlight.
I can sense a lot of love between you two. Pinako's voice echoed in Roy's head as he looked at her. She was right. He did love her. Was this something he should share? Did she feel the same? His ego would never recover if she turned him down, but something about this moment felt so right. There, in between the market stalls in this adorable little village near the house they'd found a home in.
"Riza, I need to tell you something," Roy started.
"Hmm?" She turned to him.
"I'm not quite sure how to say this, but I think you should know," he started, turning the fabric of his shirt between his fingers. "This whole time, this whole journey, you've been great. You've really helped me find what's important. I think we'll be alright, but I can't wait until this is all over to tell you that I-"
Boom! A loud explosion suddenly rocked the marketplace and the pair snapped their attention to where a large cloud of smoke rose over the small town center.
"Come on!" Riza shouted, grabbing Roy's wrist and running between the scattering people to where the action was.
Apologies for how long this took me to post--I promise I've not lost inspiration for this story, but I just got really busy and had a March from hell! Wrecked car, signed lease, quit job, started job, had to fly out to see family... phew. I'm SO glad it's over! Let me just assure you lovely readers that I will finish this story, but it might take some time as I adjust to a new schedule! Thank for as always for reading!