A.N. I've finished writing out this story, so the updates will be coming more quickly now. It's almost spring break and I have other stories I want to work on during the time off from classes. Can't do that when I'm bogged down by this one.
Chapter Seven - On The Wind
"I'll kill a man in a fair fight. Or if I think he's gonna start a fair fight."
An ill-omened hush fell on Serenity after Hughes' announcement. Roy made his way back to the bridge with legs gone weak as jelly, fighting all the while to keep the fear from showing on his face. A fear brought on by the very likely notion that their lives would be over within the next few minutes.
On the way to the bridge, Roy passed by the infirmary. Rose had yet to awaken from the surgery and Scar stood beside her, eyes closed as he chanted a prayer over her sleeping form. Outside the infirmary, Ling had taken up a position on the floor with his sword point-down before him, both hands gripping the hilt so hard that they were trembling. He nodded at Roy tersely and went back to staring at the opposite wall. Roy moved past him and scaled the stairs to the corridor that would take him to the bridge.
Behind him, Al stood in the doorway of the dining area. Roy couldn't read anything from the blank helmet, but the boy's fear was evident in how fragile his voice sounded. "Are they really Reavers?"
"Yes. How much do you know about them?"
Al looked away. "Too much. There were Reavers being studied at the facility I was taken to. Two of them got free and…I didn't s-see what they did exactly, but…"
"You saw the results," Roy murmured.
"I heard the screams," Al said in a hushed voice. "Captain…if they board us, I can fight them. They can't hurt me when my body's like this and I don't get tired. You could seal me in the cargo hold with them and I'll take down as many as I can. At least until they're at a number you can handle."
Of all things Roy had expected of the younger Elric, a backbone was not one of them. But these weren't rational beings they were dealing with and blatant courage was nowhere near enough to stop them.
"I appreciate your offer," Roy said flatly. "But it won't make a difference. If they can't hurt you, they'll overwhelm you and make you watch while they hurt all of us. And if they find out Edward is your brother…they'll make it last longer for him."
Al recoiled at that. He clearly hadn't thought that far ahead. "B-but there must be something I can do…"
Riza came up the stairs, methodically loading a clip into her gun. "The best thing any of us can do is be prepared to face them."
With one last look at Al, Roy walked up to the bridge with Riza at his shoulder. Hughes had both his hands clenched around the steering column and was staring out the front windows with wide eyes, watching the Reaver ship glide closer and closer to them. Its core reactor was out in the open and flashing a deadly purple from radiation. Blood-red symbols decorated the hull and metal spikes jutted out from the ship at all different angles, serving no function but to look threatening.
They were doing an amazing job. Roy's hands were already shaking.
"What are they up to?" Roy rasped.
"N-Nothing yet," Hughes muttered. "I'm hoping they're heading somewhere in particular. But if they change their minds…"
Roy nodded once and, when Hughes looked away, silently held out his hand to Riza. With only the smallest hesitation, she put the gun into his hands. Riza was the only one who was in on his contingency plan, in the event that they were boarded. By the size of the Reaver ship, there were probably nearly thirty Reavers on board. Thirty bloodthirsty monsters ready to invade Serenity in search of victims to fulfill their own base desires.
If that happened, Roy would have just enough time and bullets to murder the rest of the crew before they got to him. It would be a monstrous, inhuman thing to do, but Roy could handle that far better than hearing Winry and Rose scream as they were raped or seeing Ling and Hughes hauled off to be eaten while they were still alive.
Riza released the gun, but her fingers remained curled around his wrist. Her thumb brushed against his racing pulse in an attempt at comfort. A pitiful sort of comfort, but comfort all the same.
Hughes looked back to the screens, checking and rechecking the Reaver ship's trajectory. The Reavers seemed to take forever to pass them, circling Serenity like a hungry wolf.
"They're holding course!" Hughes gasped.
Roy let out a shuddering breath, allowing the slight break in his mask for only a split second. He didn't even notice when Riza took the gun from his hand and put the safety back on.
"They're pushing out further every year," Riza whispered. "Hughes, did you mark the coordinates?"
"Yeah," Hughes said grimly. "Yet another course we can't fly."
Roy braced his palms against the console, watching the screens to make sure the Reaver ship had really gone. He hated this. Whether it was the Alliance or the Reavers, he was always outnumbered, always on the run or on the verge of losing everything. Nothing he said, nothing he did ever made a difference. It happened when he was a colonel and hadn't stopped after becoming a captain.
Either way, Roy was always powerless to protect those who depended on him.
"Hey," Hughes said slowly. "Do you guys ever feel like the sky's getting a little crowded?"
The moment Ed entered the engine room he decided it was the best place on the entire ship. It wasn't quite as big as the dining area or as cozy as the dorms and there were no windows either. In fact, the whole room was noisy and smelly and dangerous. And it made him feel more alive than he had felt in a long time.
Of course he would have been a lot more comfortable if he wasn't missing his shirt.
Ed jerked his arm away from Winry's tools, rubbing his steel shoulder uselessly. "What was that for?"
"Get back here, I'm not done yet," Winry huffed. "It wouldn't hurt if you just let me take the arm off."
"It's staying on," Ed growled.
"Then quit being a baby and let me do this!"
"Are you calling me small?!"
Winry reached down and hauled his arm back over her legs. They were in the doorway of the engine room so she could sit on the step above him while she worked. Ed couldn't stop himself from peeking down the hallway in search of eavesdroppers. The last thing he needed was for the captain to see them like this and get the wrong idea.
Or Ling. Or Hughes. Or Al.
"Just one more should do it," Winry mumbled to herself.
"One more what?"
She hooked her wrench around the exposed shoulder joint and twisted, throwing all her weight into it. Ed yowled and jumped halfway across the engine room, clutching his arm as an icy shock rushed up his nerves. "What the ruttin' hell did you do?!"
"I fixed it," Winry said determinedly. "Now move it around. How does it feel?"
"Like some psycho mechanic busted it open and-!"
Ed paused in the middle of rolling his shoulder around. When he didn't feel anything unusual, he slowly raised his automail high above his head. Before Winry's meddling, he hadn't been able to get it higher than his shoulder without causing a horrible ache. Now it moved almost as well as his real arm.
"What the ruttin' hell did you do?"
The mechanic gave him a brilliant, cocky smile. "Not much. Your shoulder was grating against the port before and pinching some wires when you lifted your arm up. That was the ache you felt. Now that it's loose, you just have to keep it oiled and you'll retain full range of motion."
"That was all?" Ed said in amazement. "It feels incredible now! I never knew it could move this easily."
"I need to put the plating back on," Winry told him and Ed sat back down obediently. "Honestly, you're lucky you can move with all the problems you're having. Most of which could have been avoided with regular maintenance!"
Ed winched when she twisted the last screw in place and reached for his shirt. "Believe me, this is the last time I forget to oil the damn things."
Footsteps in the hallway warned them both of Ling's arrival. He squatted in the doorway, watching Ed do up the buttons of his shirt with narrow eyes. "Am I interrupting something…private?"
"Don't be such a child," Winry said grumpily. "This might be Ed's last chance to get a maintenance check for a long time. He needs all the help he can get."
Ling snorted. "Doesn't matter how much help he gets, it's not going to stop him from being vertically challenged."
"Shut up!" Ed barked. "It's not like you're one to talk. You're still pretty short for an adult."
Winry paused in the middle of putting her tools away. "Edward…Ling is fifteen."
Ed's mouth dropped open and then snapped closed again. He looked between Winry and Ling, searching for some kind of trick. When neither of them denied her statement, he stepped up into the doorway next to Ling and motioned at him curtly. "Stand up!"
Ling rose up to his full height, at least a head taller than him. Ed felt the blood start pounding in his ears.
"Edward?" Winry said timidly.
Ed snarled and pointed an accusing finger at Ling. "You're ugly!"
A vein throbbed in Ling's forehead. "Only because you broke my nose! Look at it, it's all crooked!"
"Told you I was tall enough to break your face!"
Ed and Ling both went down with huge lumps on their heads, staring up at a wrench-wielding Winry in shock. "If you two are going to argue, then take it outside my engine room! Sheesh!"
She slammed the heavy door closed and shoved the lock in place. Beyond the door, Ed could just hear her muttering to herself as she messed around with her tools. He rubbed his head with a quiet curse and got to his feet. "Man, what a gearhead…"
"You'll ruin her too, you know."
Ed stopped dead in his tracks. "What?"
Ling stood up as well, never taking his eyes off Ed's face. "Because you brought that agent on board. If he gets the chance to tell the State you and your brother were here, all the crew will be held responsible. She's put her heart and soul into this ship, with this crew. You really want to be the one to snatch that away from her?"
Ed wanted to argue, but no words would come. Ling was absolutely right. At the time, Ed hadn't imagined that his actions could have such a negative impact on the lives of others. Or at least it hadn't seemed very important at the time.
But the idea of seeing that cheerful, talented gearhead get locked away in a cell because of what he did was…almost unbearable.
"You should be the one to deal with that agent," Ling said quietly. "And I suggest you hurry up. Before the captain decides it's you who deserves the punishment."
"What are you talking about?"
There was a long silence and with each passing second Ling's narrow eyes seemed to grow darker with emotion. Ed felt an inexplicable dread begin to eat away at him from the inside.
"Rose is dead."
Ling brushed past him, vanishing down the hallway without another word. Ed watched him go, his mind completely blank. Rose? Dead?
The words took on meaning and Ed's eyes went wide. He swayed and braced his hand against the wall, suddenly sick to his stomach. She was dead…she was dead…
Rose was dead!
Ed rushed down the hallway, feeling as if he were in a dream. This couldn't be right. He had checked on her less than an hour ago! The surgery had gone well, she'd been awake and talking! How could she be-?!
Ed streaked around the corner and went barreling down the stairs. Ling's words echoed again and again in his mind, cold and accusing. And Ed's very soul trembled because deep down he knew he was responsible for this. If he had never, ever gotten on this ship, Rose wouldn't have been shot trying to protect him. It was his fault this happened, his fault for not doing enough to save her.
And he and Al would pay the price for this. Once the rest of the crew found out, what would happen? Would Roy still allow them to get off at Whitefall? Or would he just get out those gloves again and kill Ed once and for all?
What would happen to Al?
Ed halted just outside the infirmary, gasping for breath from his uncontrolled sprint. The windows had been covered for Rose's privacy so he couldn't see anything inside yet. But the door was open and from within he could hear his brother's voice, soft and sorrowful.
"…never meant for this to happen to you. Ed and I just…w-we needed someplace safe to go. I wish there was something I could do to fix this. I want to make this right, but I can't. And I…"
Al's voice cracked as if he were holding back a sob.
"I feel like this is all my fault…"
Ed's heart ached horribly. It wasn't Al's fault. There was no way he could have known what was happening inside that crate. If anyone should be making an apology to Rose, it should be him. But it was too late now, far too late…
"Alphonse, it's okay. You don't have to apologize. Ed saved my life. What could I possibly be mad about?"
Ed took the last few steps to the door and leaned against the doorframe in shock. Al had taken a seat on a little stool beside the Rose's bed. And Rose…
Her eyes were open. And she was smiling up at Al in reassurance. There was a long more color in her face and her heartbeat on the monitor was strong. Rose saw Ed and waved at him weakly, prompting Al to look up as well. "Oh, hi Nii-san!"
Ed turned away from the infirmary and sagged against the wall weakly, pressing his hand over his eyes. Rose was okay…
He pondered that for a long, long moment.
"That bastard!" Edward roared. "That sneaky, squinty-eyed SON OF A-!"
"Nii-san! Not in front of a girl!"
Up on Serenity's bridge, only one person was laughing.
"That's not funny, Ling," Hughes said sternly. "Ed feels responsible for what happened to her."
"Come on, have a sense of humor!" Ling choked out. "It you were there, you would have laughed too!"
"Why must you constantly antagonize others?" Riza asked with a jaded sigh. "I hope when you're a little older, you'll have the presence of mind not to make light of another person's pain…Captain, if you need to laugh then get it over with!"
Roy wheezed and doubled over, cracking up. "Holy hell, I wish I had your brains, Ling! I can just imagine…how did Halfmetal react?"
"He panicked!" Ling said gleefully. "He went rushing off to the infirmary with the most hilarious look on his face! And then you should have heard his curses when he saw her alive! Really, that guy makes it so easy for other people to get under his skin."
The communicator blinked and Hughes waved Roy over to it with a wide grin. "Being hailed. It's Dante."
Roy's elated feelings vanished. "You talk to her," he grunted.
"But you're the captain, Roy," Hughes said wickedly. "It's your job to negotiate with our clients. Just sweet talk her! Be the ladies' man! And try not to get all uptight and stiff about what happened two years ago."
Roy eased himself into Hughes' chair and, with one last glare at the pilot, answered the call. Dante's face appeared on the little screen. The conservative clothes and smooth, heart-shaped face suggested a young housewife at first glance, but her eyes were sharp and piercing and filled with a hidden cruelty.
The captain grimaced. Be the ladies' man? To that bitch? Not likely. Everything about her was fake, even her looks. Dante kept herself looking young and demure with a host of cosmetics and creams shipped in all the way from the Core. If she wasn't twice as old as Roy, he would eat his own gloves.
"And how is my captain this fine morning?" Dante inquired politely.
He forced a smile. "Hello, Dante. I see you're as saggy and wrinkled as ever."
Dante touched a faint wrinkle beside her right eye with a sour look. "And you're as tactless and gruff as ever, Roy. I marvel at Riza's patience in dealing with a man like you every day. And please let her know that my offer is still open. We can talk at length about it once you land."
Roy covered the screen with his palm and looked back at Riza. "Offer?" he breathed.
Riza shrugged uneasily and motioned for him to keep talking.
"Oh…she didn't tell you," Dante murmured. "Well, I see no reason to enlighten you, as it's between me and her. Woman to woman, so to speak."
"Woman to hag, you mean," Roy muttered.
"Enough, Roy," Dante said edgily. "Was your pilot telling the truth about that cargo? I must admit, the low price concerned me."
"Because it's imprinted. Alliance."
Dante's eyebrows went up. "Government goods? Getting a little ambitious, aren't we?"
Roy's heart leapt. "If you're not interested, it's no harm. We'll bypass Whitefall and move on-"
"Don't be silly, Roy," Dante laughed. "Are you still bothered by our spat two years ago? That's no reason to avoid me. I'll gladly buy those goods off you. I'll upload coordinates for a rendezvous outside of town."
With that, the screen went dark. Damn. Roy turned the chair around as was met with the amused faces of his crew. Hughes was hiding a snicker behind his hand.
"Keep that up and I'll make sure she shoots you this time," Roy growled.
"Sir, we shouldn't trust her," Riza said quietly. "I don't think she has any plans to pay us. She would have haggled us down otherwise, especially since this cargo is so dangerous for us to keep."
"No!" Ling burst out. "We're not walking away from another buyer! If Dante won't play by the rules, then it's up to us to make sure she does! They have guns, we have guns. Nothing else to it."
"This isn't the wild west, Ling," Hughes exclaimed. "You don't just go around threatening people until they fork over their money. We have our own code to abide by."
"What code?!" Ling demanded. "What's the use of saying we have a code when we let everyone else make up their own rules?! We should have just forced Greed to keep his end in the first place!"
"That wasn't your call to make!"
"It should have been-!"
Roy slammed his fist on the console, getting everyone's attention. He met Ling's gaze and held it, causing the Xingese boy to shift uncomfortably.
"Is that how it is, Ling?" Roy asked. "Is that how you really feel? That I'm making all the wrong calls and our crew would be better off if I wasn't in charge?"
"N-no," Ling faltered. "That's not what I-"
"Because if it is, then tell me straight up," Roy went on. "Don't ever lie back and let me walk all over you. Speak out. I don't care if it's my plans or my leadership or my choice of haircut you disagree with, I want to hear about it. I'm the captain, not the dictator. So tell me again…do you have a problem with me?"
Ling didn't answer at first. He looked like he wanted to say yes, but was unable to in light of the reality of their situation. The others may not have believed Ling's stories about being an almost-prince and an almost-emperor, but Roy knew better. Those who only fantasized about that kind of power didn't carry such a heavy burden in their eyes.
"No," Ling said finally. "I have faith in you, Captain. I just don't see why we're the ones who have to run away all the time."
Roy clapped him on the shoulder. "Who said anything about running away?" he asked deviously.
Ling's eyebrows rose up to his hairline. Roy looked around at the others. "Dante has the money to pay for this cargo. And I think Ling is right when he says we should make her pay. Once that's over, we can decide how best to deal with the Alliance agent and the Elrics. There are obstacles in our path and we're going to deal with them one by one. We'll get through this. We will."
A.N. I just couldn't resist adding in the 'you're ugly!' moment from the manga. One of the few awesome moments that weren't included in Brotherhood. And is it just me or could Ling totally pull of Jayne's fuzzy hat?