Chapter Nine - Big Damn Heroes
"We seem to have got here just in the nick of time! What does that make us?"
"Big damn heroes, sir!"
"Ain't we just?"
-Mal and Zoe
Everyone stampeded up to the bridge so fast that Roy nearly tripped over his own feet at the door. He took a place right behind Hughes' chair with Riza and Ling beside him. Serenity had left the ground behind long ago and Hughes was pale as he guided the firefly over the blighted land.
"Hughes, tell me good news," Roy said breathlessly.
"I don't mean to alarm anybody," Hughes said grimly, "but I think we're being followed."
On the screens, the Reaver ship loomed up behind them. Close enough for Roy to count the decaying bones welded to its nose. The Reavers were in full-on hunting mode now, blasting toward them at full speed. Only Hughes' steady maneuvering through Whitefall's natural canyons was keeping them from closing the distance.
Roy gripped the chair to stay upright through another hard turn and looked back at Ling. "Go find that Ishvalan and get him to help you move Rose to her shuttle. They're to take off if this gets bad."
"Are you sure that's-"
"Ling!" Roy said sharply. "For once, just do as I say!"
Thankfully, Ling left without further argument. Roy checked the screens again, alarmed by how much closer the ship was now. Hughes cursed and snatched up the intercom. "Winry, I'm gonna need a push here!"
Instead of an answer, the intercom came alive with crashes and bangs and some weird crackling noises.
"No, you idiot!" Winry bellowed. "This part needs a right angle! RIGHT!"
"I'm getting there!"
"Edward?" Roy said slowly. He grabbed the intercom from Hughes' hands. "Halfmetal! What the hell are you doing down there?"
"WHO'RE YOU CALLING A TINY LITTLE HALFPINT MIDGET?"
More crackling and Roy recognized the sounds as transmutations. Lots of them. Then it was Al speaking to them. "We're helping! Winry's having us fix up some parts so the ship runs better."
Roy punched one of the gauges on the console, cracking the glass and bruising his knuckles. "I told you boys to get in the shuttle!"
Hughes grabbed the intercom back from him. "Winry, are we ready for full burn?"
"On your mark. Both of you get over here! See if you can get these fuel lines running better…"
"Full burn in atmo?" Riza said in disbelief. "Won't that burn us out?"
A slow, slightly-insane grin crossed Hughes' face. "Not if we can pull a crazy Ivan."
"I don't like the sound of that," Roy muttered.
"I do!" Winry cried.
"If she's excited, I'm excited," Ed announced. "Let's go for it!"
Hughes steered Serenity toward the clouds, gaining altitude quickly. But now that they were out in the open, the Reavers gobbled up the distance between them like a hungry wolf. The grapplers on the Reaver ship opened up and took aim, ready to bring Serenity to the ground. They had only seconds left.
"We're ready down here!"
Hughes put his hand on a lever. "Hang onto something!"
Roy and Riza braced themselves as best they could. Hughes let his eyes slide over the Reaver ship on the screens with a smirk that told Roy he was rubbing off on the pilot a little too much.
"Here's something you can't do," Hughes growled and threw the lever.
Instantly, Serenity's left engine turned over and the force of both engines powering in opposite directions made the firefly flip a one-eighty. Once they were facing the Reavers, Hughes rotated the engine back in the right direction and they whooshed past the Reaver ship, only yards away from scraping the red symbols on the belly.
"Now!" Hughes shouted into the intercom.
That must have been a signal for Winry and Ed and Al because in the next moment an incredible roar filled the ship. Only a few times had Roy heard the engine when it was going full throttle, but even then it had been nothing like this. Outside, Serenity's tail end lit up like a star, burning hot enough to leave a trail of smoke and fire behind. The little firefly shot for the stars while the Reaver ship, unable to turn quickly enough, got caught in the backlash and went crashing to the planet below.
Minutes passed as they powered through the atmosphere until only the stars were visible, the planet far behind. Roy didn't relax until Hughes did, sagging back in his chair with a hand over his heart.
"Damn," Hughes panted. "So fast…could've…lost it…damn…"
Victory cries flooded the intercom from the engine room and Roy had to smile at how very childish those teenagers sounded. "Put a sock in it!" he called down to them. "We were almost eaten in case you hadn't noticed."
"The point is that we're NOT eaten! Bastard…"
"Well he is! We save his ass and that's all the thanks we get?"
Roy clapped his ailing friend on the shoulder. "You're my hero, Hughes. Now go take a nap. I'll watch the helm."
Hughes staggered for the door with weak wave over his shoulder. "I'm way too old for all this excitement. Wake me up if you decide to take on more kids with dangerous enemies."
"Sure thing," Roy snorted. He slid into the pilot's chair and starting plotting out their course to Boros. When he looked back, Riza was still there.
"You could have told me what you were planning back there," Roy said resentfully. "Making Dante think you were on her side."
Riza avoided his gaze, looking out at the stars. "It was last minute. I wanted to make sure she didn't run off with our payment once things got ugly. For that, Dante had to believe she had an extra card up her sleeve."
"You still could have told me."
"Did you think I would do it?" Riza asked quietly. "When she ordered me to pull the trigger?"
Roy didn't answer at first. It was a valid question. They had built up a great deal of trust over their years spent in the war and then on Serenity. But it was more than that. Riza's father had been Roy's alchemy teacher. To him, she was his responsibility. His closest friend, advisor and confidant. Roy hoped it was the same for her, but it wasn't something they had ever really spoken about.
"I knew you wouldn't kill me," Roy said honestly. "I still couldn't be sure you wouldn't turn on me. We both know there are better jobs out there. More honorable than watching a thief's back."
There. He said it. Roy could deny it all he wanted, but the simple fact was that it was their job to take things from people and bring them to someone else for money. It was ugly and dishonest. Worst of all, it was as thankless as it was dangerous. It was nowhere near the glamorous jobs Roy had envisioned himself having as a child studying alchemy.
Riza set her hand on the back of the chair. "I see no dishonor in looking out for someone who is as willing to die for his men as he is willing to kill for them."
"…been practicing that one?"
Roy tilted his head back and beamed at her. "Tell me more about how honorable I am."
"Sir," Riza said sternly. "Part of being a good leader is not letting the power go to your head."
Roy nodded in agreement. "Right, of course."
For a moment, there was only the steady beeping of the monitors to break the silence.
"You're not getting any more compliments out of me, sir."
Rose came back to consciousness slowly, as she always seemed to be doing lately. The blank white ceiling of the infirmary was there to greet her once again, but with it came the sharp tang of blood. She barely had the energy to turn her head and then she was met with a frightening sight. Scar sat on the counter nearby with his leg stretched out before him. His calf was covered in blood, so much if it that it was dripping down the cabinets to form a puddle in the floor.
"Scar?" Rose slurred. "Wha' happened?"
"It's not as bad as it looks," Scar assured her as he tied off a bandage. "The Alliance agent got loose."
"Is everyone okay? Are Ed and Al alright?"
Rose smiled in relief despite her exhaustion. "Good…that's good…"
Scar slid off the counter and limped over to a stool, reaching across the bed to lift a bowl from the side table. Rose's mouth watered at the sight and smell of a steaming bowl of rice.
"Elric said you need to start eating," Scar told her. "To get your strength back. Can you sit up?"
Rose pushed herself up on her elbows and Scar quickly arranged her pillow to support her. She couldn't believe how much effort it took just to lift the spoonful of rice to her lips and then to chew it. But that was quickly forgotten when an incredibly spicy taste flooded her mouth.
"It's the spices," Scar said humbly. "I had some left from the last place I stayed. Without it, this would be horribly bland."
"You should have Edward look at your leg," Rose murmured between small bites.
Scar's expression darkened and he ran his hand up and down his bandaged leg. "This is fine. I'll let it heal on its own. My body has been tainted enough."
Rose's eyes were drawn to the motion of his hand, to the swirling symbols tracing over his dark skin. And she finally placed them.
"You mean alchemy?" Rose inquired. "That's right…I heard from my grandmother that Ishvalans look on alchemy as a sin. That was part of the reason my people left."
"Yes," Scar said quietly. "Our monks have always preached that power such as alchemy shouldn't be in the hands of mortals. It's a perversion of God's will."
Rose set the bowl aside, unable to stomach any more. "I don't understand. You're saying any alchemy is evil? Even the alchemy used to save my life?"
Scar's hand closed into a fist. "Alchemy is a temptation to sin. It lures people with its promises of a power on equal with a god's. No one could have that kind of power and not use it for their own gain. And there are no laws to stop alchemists from using their abilities against their fellow man indiscriminately, no one to punish them when they cross lines and hurt other people. Especially not with a government that condones behavior like that!"
"Ed and Al are not like that…"
"During the war," Scar said softly, "I saw many horrible things. Alchemists that had joined the State plowed through the homes of my people to get to the rebels, leaving corpses piled up in their wake. Without alchemy-"
Rose leaned forward and seized his wrist, nearly toppling off the bed.
"Without alchemy, they would have used guns," Rose panted. "That's w-what happened on my world. I-It wasn't alchemy that killed us, it was people-"
Scar gripped her shoulders and lowered her back to the bed gently. Rose shivered when the skin of his right hand came in contact with hers, making her arm tingle. Or was she just imagining it?
"Perhaps you're right," Scar admitted reluctantly. "But that doesn't make the State Alchemists any better for selling themselves out to the Alliance. If I could, I would kill every one of them for what happened to my family."
Rose forced her eyes back open sluggishly. Her body wanted nothing more than to fall back asleep and she was finding it so hard to fight it off. "Even Ed?"
Scar laid his palm over her eyes. His left hand, thankfully. "Elric has forsaken the State. He has outlawed himself for his brother's sake. I don't have any quarrel with him. Rose, you need to sleep now."
"Can't," Rose mumbled. "Want to…say goodbye…before you all leave…"
"I highly doubt any of us are getting off at Boros," Scar told her. "If the captain had really wanted the Elrics off, he would have left them behind on Whitefall. And I have nowhere to go, no one waiting for me anywhere. This ship…Serenity has already shown more decency to me than I could ever expect on any other world."
The room was growing darker, fuzzier. Rose could barely hear Scar's voice. He was staying? And Ed and Al were staying? The thought of that made her incredibly happy. Serenity had been her home for so long that she could never imagine leaving. Rose hoped that in time it would become that way for them as well.
"All that's left is for me to convince the captain that I'm worth keeping around," Scar muttered. "There must be something I can do to earn my passage…"
Rose forced the slurred words out. "Be a…cook…"
Dead silence. Then Scar laughed, a sound Rose hadn't thought she would ever hear. "Now that's a notion…"
Ed found his brother in their bunk a few hours after leaving Whitefall. Al had taken a seat on the tiny bed, causing it to nearly sag to the floor, and was inspecting his armored hands in silence. Ed wished he could read Al's expression, but the blank helmet and flat eyes told him nothing.
He knocked and Al looked up. "Can I come in?"
Al nodded. "How's your automail? It sounded like something broke when Winry threw that wrench at you."
"Good as new!" Ed said with a quick grin, flexing his wrist to show him. He dropped down on the bed beside Al and an awkward silence fell over them. Al looked back down at his hands.
"Hey, Al," Ed said quietly. "What's it like? In the armor?"
Al paused and Ed thought he wouldn't answer for a moment. "I'll tell you if you tell me about the automail."
Ed started in surprise and looked down at the automail fingers in thought. "Um…I guess it's kind of strange. But not that different from what I had before."
Al's bright eyes dimmed. "Okay. In that case, the armor is strange, but also not that different."
"Oh come on, Al!"
"Come on yourself! Tell me the truth!"
Ed scowled up at him, but Al held his ground. He cradled his arm defensively. It always bothered him when people stared at his automail and asked questions about it. It was even worse when they wanted to know how much pain and suffering he had been through to get it installed so they could offer their sympathy, pretending to care.
But this was Alphonse…
"It hurts out here," Ed muttered. "The cold makes the joints ache and it gets worse if I don't move around."
He drew his left leg up onto the bed, running his real hand over the calf. "I can't really feel with them. There's the sensation of an arm and leg there, but nothing to tell me if I'm touching something. I spent months just learning how to walk when I couldn't feel the ground under one foot. But when it comes right down to it, I'm lucky that I can stand up at all. So I hate them…but I'm also grateful to have them."
Ed fell silent feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious. And Al was taking a horribly long time to answer.
"That's exactly how I feel," Al said pensively. "I'm so glad to be alive. But it's hard to really call this living. I can hear and I can see, but that's it. I can tell when something touches me and where my body is, but I can't feel it like I used to. Like the automail, I guess.
Like the automail. Ed tried to imagine what that would be like and couldn't. It was too awful to contemplate. How could Al stand to be in the same room as him when Ed was the one who condemned him to that?
"It's so strange," Al went on. "I've gotten used to some things, but there's still so much that I miss. And at the same time, I'm grateful to even have this much. Things could have turned out so much worse for us."
Ed chuckled bitterly. "I don't see how."
"We could have died that night," Al said in a fragile voice. "You could have died trying to save me from that place. We could have gotten a ride with people who would have turned us in or just abandoned us outright."
"I'm still trying to figure that one out," Ed muttered. "Why didn't Mustang just leave us on Whitefall like he was planning? The open door was right there."
"Maybe he likes us?"
"I doubt it," Ed snorted. "No one on this ship likes us."
"Winry does," Al said slyly. "Though I think it's really you she likes."
"Hey!" Ed snapped. "That's not-! She only likes me for my automail!"
Al shrugged innocently. "Maybe now. Just give her time to get to know the rest of you."
"Don't even go there, little brother!"
"Go where? I was talking about your personality, what were you talking about?"
Someone knocked on the door before Ed could come up with a response. Hughes leaned in with a knowing grin that said he'd heard more than enough. "Not interrupting, am I? Roy wants to see you up on the bridge, Ed. That is, if you can stand to be in his company for a minute or two."
Ed pushed himself to his feet with an irritated noise. "Don't have much of a choice, do I? Captain Bastard up there calls all the shots on this ship…"
Ed grabbed his favorite red coat on the way out and pulled it on as he climbed the stairs. Below him, he heard Hughes talking to Al. "Hey, Al. Me and Ling and Winry are starting a game of poker upstairs. Want to join us?"
"R-Really?" Al faltered. "I…yeah, that would be great! I mean, if you think it's okay…"
"Of course it's okay," Hughes laughed. "We can't have a poker game with only three players! Besides, it's been awhile since we had anyone new to compete against. Do you know how to bluff?"
"I can try, but Ed's the real bluffer…"
Their voices were lost when Ed reached the top of the stairs. A slow sigh escaped him as a hard knot in his chest finally began to unwind. Last week, when he first got Al free from the facility, his brother had barely been able to talk at all. Years in isolation had made him timid and nearly mute. Ed had feared for Al's sanity for the two whole days it took to coax any words out of him. And now, not only was he talking again, he was also making jokes and reaching out to other people. Al was himself again. The fact that he stopped Ed from killing Dawson was proof enough. There was still hope for both of them. That was good to know.
Ed stepped into the bridge to find the captain piloting the ship alone. Roy looked back at him from the pilot's seat, that damnable neutral mask back in place. He still had his glove on, which made Ed more than a little leery.
"So," Ed muttered. "Where do you plan on dumping us?"
Roy waved him over to the other seat silently. He pressed his hands together, scrutinizing Ed thoughtfully over his fingers. "You're free to get off on whichever worlds we choose to land on. But before you make any decisions, I'd like to ask you something. Hughes said he talked to you about how you two would be safer on the move?"
"And I already told him," Ed answered, looking down at the floor. "We don't have the means to keep moving around. All our money is spent…"
"There are other ways to pay your passage."
Ed raised his head. "What do you mean?"
Roy rose from his seat, turning to look out the windows. "It might have become apparent to you that this ship is lacking a doctor. A medical alchemist is almost as good and probably more practical given our situation."
It took Ed a moment to understand the implications. "You…want me to stay? Here? On the ship? What's the catch?"
"The catch is that we're both fugitives," Roy said flatly. "My crew takes jobs as they come, legal or illegal. We don't go out of our way to piss off the State, but we're not their friends either. We've gotten into bad situations before, like what happened to Rose, and only survived because we were lucky. I'm done taking that risk."
"Our common enemy makes us allies?" Ed guessed wryly. "Okay, I think I get what you would gain by having us here. But what's in it for me to stay with Serenity? I'd much rather have us hiding on a moon far, far from the Core."
"Then you'll be happy to know we spend most of our time away from the Core," Roy said with a shrewd look. "Out near the border where the rest of the fugitives are hiding."
Ed caught on to his tone. "Wait. By fugitives, do you mean…other alchemists?"
The captain picked up a small transmitter from the dashboard and tossed it to Ed. The tiny screen was alight and showed an article from the local news in Boros.
Crimson Stones Found-New Energy Source?
"I assume you're still serious about getting your brother his body back," Roy said seriously. "And the only way to do that is with alchemy. But since you sacrificed your arm to put him like that, I doubt another limb will be even close to enough to reverse it. What you need is an amplifier."
"No such thing," Ed said immediately.
"Ever heard of the Philosopher's Stone?"
Ed laughed aloud at that. "Who hasn't? Some old legend about a stone that acts as a container for limitless alchemic energy…wait! These crimson stones! You're not seriously suggesting-!"
"If this was the only lead, I wouldn't bother mentioning it," Roy amended. "But I've seen stones like that crop up on more than one world. That suggests there are people working on it. People who are not with the State. When you're not working for me as our medic, you can have leave to search the worlds we visit for anything that might be of use to you. That's way better than being confined to a single, remote world with no resources at all."
Ed let himself slump back in his seat, his real leg feeling weak. And he let himself consider the possibility. To stay on Serenity. To live here and work here with the crew he had grown to like so much. Well, except for maybe Ling. And the captain. But Winry was here, and Riza and Rose and Hughes had all been kind to them.
This could be their home.
"I just can't believe you're letting us stay here," Ed said slowly. "I thought you were ready to kick us out the door."
Roy grunted and lowered himself back into the pilot's seat. "Yeah well, I just hired an Ishvalan cook when we clearly don't need one. I figured I might as well grab a medic while am at it."
Ed smirked, earning a raised eyebrow from the captain.
"You lied earlier," Ed said slyly. "You're not neutral. You're sheltering two rogue alchemists who broke every rule in the book and you killed an Alliance agent in the process. Hell, you're the freaking Flame Alchemist! You're never going to be neutral when it comes to the State. Just like me."
"And now you think you've got me all figured out?" Roy said with a vague smile. "That's more than a little conceited. Anyone who wasn't in the war with me can't claim to know exactly how I feel about the State."
Ed felt his earlier happy mood drain away, oozing out of his system like molasses. "And how do you think I feel about them, Mustang? I never even had a chance to pick sides. The war ended six years ago, right after Hohenheim left us. I was nine years old when the recruiters came to our world, promising money and jobs to those who joined the State Alchemists. I thought alchemy could grant me anything I wanted. Now I…I feel like I missed out, never knowing a universe where people could practice alchemy just for the sake of it."
Roy looked to the window. "Welcome to my universe…Fullmetal."
"Fullmetal? Not Halfmetal?"
The captain lifted up his gloved hand and rubbed his fingers together, letting sparks flicker and fall. "Before the war, alchemists used to give each other second names, like Flame Alchemist. It was a way to help the common people remember them and to hint at what their abilities were. I think you've earned a stronger name. One that will make people think twice about messing with you and your brother."
"Fullmetal Alchemist," Ed said slowly. "Catchy. But I'm still gonna call you bastard."
At Roy's sour look, Edward grinned. "Unless you'd prefer Captain Bastard?"
"Keep talking, shorty," Roy muttered. "If you're going to be part of my crew, you need to show me some respect."
"And if I'm going to be your medic, you have to treat me as one of the crew," Ed retorted. "That goes for Al as well."
If looks could kill, there would have been two dead bodies on the bridge at that moment. "I'll let you get away with one more day of acting like a brat," Roy said finally. "But after that if you don't show some maturity, you're both getting booted."
"In that case…"
Ed stood up, calmly walked up to the captain and punched him hard enough to send him sprawling to the floor. Roy stared up at him in utter astonishment, rubbing his jaw.
"I don't like being called short."
Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me
Take me out into the black
Tell them I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me
There's no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can't take the sky from me
-Ballad of Serenity-
We were foolish then
But our trials helped to make us strong
The burdens are not yours alone
We sought the answers for so long
But they're not free
They cost you more than they cost me...
And I promise you
There is nothing I won't give
To see this through
Return the soul to where it lives
-Nothing I Won't Give-
A.N. WOOHOO! I can't believe I did it! I still haven't decided if I want to continue this or not. I have other stories waiting for my attention that were put on hold to finish this. I might start writing more episodes just for my own fun, but if this doesn't get many readers I doubt I'll publish them. Besides, if I made more episodes I would be compelled to do the movie as well and THAT would be a job and a half. I've opened a Pandora's box here…