This is a prequel to my post-manga chapterfic No Small Injury. Things went a little differently to this in manga canon, so I got to indulge myself by writing a duel I'd always wanted to see and taking a look at what makes Olivia tick.
She'd seen Bradley fight just once before, in a demonstration for the troops when she was a cadet.
Afterwards, all her classmates had talked about the blinding speed, the power of his moves. What had struck her was not that so much as the grace that accompanied that speed, and how every blow had been pulled neatly before it struck. He was holding back so much.
She hadn't shared these thoughts with her fellow cadets. Nor had she told them how much she'd longed to take the place of the fencing tutor whom Bradley had just pinned effortlessly to the dusty ground. She wanted to be the opponent standing in front him, their swords extended. They would bow, they would drop into a fighting stand, there would be the shout of en garde! Then, of course, she would take him down.
I could do that, Olivia had thought to herself at nineteen years old.
He wasn't holding back now, and he wasn't graceful either. His sabre clashed against Olivia's and it echoed harshly in the underground room. When you shoot a bear, your first hit should be the deathblow. Yet despite all the blood and strength that had been already poured away to defeat him, Bradley remained injured and dangerous. She'd studied the school of fencing he used long ago, in case it ever came to this, but his classic moves were still forceful and quick enough to resist her attempts to get under his guard by improvising.
She wondered if he'd ever improvised before in his life. Or lost a duel?
There had been no doubt in Olivia's mind that she should take the stairs underground, to finish what her captain had started. Bradley had never surfaced from the moat, and she knew about the underwater tunnels that led below headquarters. Bradley might be wounded, but it seemed he had a task to complete. She knew the feeling.
Her brother and Mr Curtis had been difficult to shrug off, but, well-trained in her different ways, they took her order to guard the exit in case of a further wave of the army of golems.
"Bradley's on his last legs," she'd said. "My men beat the hell out of him, he could be dead already. But I don't leave tasks half done."
"Sister," Alex had said, his eyes watery.
She'd just snorted at him. "I'm hardly hurt, I've fought with worse. Don't make a melodrama out of it." She turned on her heel, but then it struck her that she ought to say something more. "Don't let me down," she said, and gave him a backwards wave as she started down the stairs.
She knew what she was marching towards. The tunnels were vast, but she followed the sound of steel against stone.
She was sprinting by the time she reached her destination. She could count the number of people strong enough to fight Bradley on the fingers of one hand. It certainly wouldn't be Mustang. She'd seen him fight and studied his style. His alchemy disguised hand to hand skills that were merely mediocre. A good enough swordsman would disarm Mustang quickly — possibly literally disarm him. No, it was likely the alchemist Curtis. When she'd disappeared, she'd been taken below by the enemy for some purpose, Olivia was certain of it. But she would fight them, if Olivia had the measure of the woman.
When she smelled ozone and saw the blue flashes lighting up a tall doorway, Olivia was certain she'd been right. She and Curtis would fight him together —
Ah. This was rather a surprise. It was that scarred Ishbalan criminal. Olivia unsheathed her sword as she caught sight of the two men at the other end of the vast chamber, lit up by another blue alchemical flare. Pulling it from the scabbard with her left hand was an awkward motion, but her right arm was in a sling, useless to her and likely broken. It wasn't ideal. But despite what she'd said to her brother, she wasn't surprised to see Bradley this agile. She'd allowed for this. Her left-handed fencing was very decent, competent enough to give her a decent shot against an injured monster. This was workable. Besides, she could hardly leave the task to anyone else.
A forest of stone spikes flashed up into Bradley's path. So Scar was fighting with constructive alchemy? That was a new one. Bradley was moving far more slowly than she remembered he had, all those years ago. It wasn't just age. He was bloodied, the eyepatch gone and the inhuman eye beneath it slashed and blinded. The other homunculus had been able to heal itself. Perhaps they weren't all able to do that — or perhaps Bradley really was on his last legs. The biggest wound was the one her men had described: a sword wound to Bradley's lower torso that looked to have bled copiously. Captain Buccaneer's final strike had been a true one.
The contorted corpse of another monster lay off to one side. It must have been a chimera or something like that: a body distended like a blowfish, skinny limbs sticking out at odd angles. It couldn't have been a very effective weapon.
As she neared, Bradley and Scar were screaming at each other, apparently unaware of her presence. Olivia picked up some mention of God. Arguing during a duel, typical men, what a waste of energy —
— and Bradley's arm was extended straight out from the shoulder, the sabre pointed out in the finishing move of a slashing strike she'd barely even seen. A sudden spray of blood — and now Scar was down, on his knees before Bradley, holding his abdomen closed with a clutching hand. Bradley was still capable of some speed, then. Olivia pounded towards them, and the bastards still didn't even notice her.
"There is no God," said Bradley with an emphatic contempt, as he raised his sabre high for the final blow.
"So?" she bellowed. Bradley turned. "I don't need any god to slice you up!"
Bradley roared and surged forward — and then froze and stumbled. A widening shaft of sunlight was pouring in through the hole in the roof , high above them. The eclipse — Olivia was already moving. She thrust and he parried neatly, then flicked his sabre under her guard.
But the strike was uncoordinated. Olivia batted it aside. "That's right!" she yelled. "Turn away from that loser, I'm the one you should be worrying about!"
His speed took her by surprise. She had jumped before she even registered it. Her boot hit the side of a slanted stone spike, and she climbed it automatically, planting herself above Bradley on footholds just big enough to spring from. He leapt for her with a roar, but her stance was too well-protected, his move too obvious. She batted his blade aside with a low parry then brought it back in to slit his throat — he kicked himself backwards off a stone spike, and her blow cut air.
Olivia had the high ground. Bradley brought his sabre up and across into a high defensive stance. She dropped her knees and thrust low, but he was too fast, parrying easily. He tutted at her; her move had been an illegal one for sabre fencing. Apparently he wanted them to cut each other to pieces in the classical manner.
She straightened again and pointed her sword out. He hopped back on the balls of his feet — and the foot on his blind side skidded on a loose piece of rubble. He landed on his back, sword still in hand. She leapt down to skewer him — a disappointing kind of kill, but I'll take it — and Bradley twisted out of the way. As she landed, she brought her sabre up just in time to stop it burying itself in the ground, and jumped sideways again, out of his reach. She stood on guard and ready to move as he hauled himself to his feet, panting and grinning.
"I was always curious to fight you," he said cheerfully.
Olivia nodded. "Me too. But you're disappointing me." They began to circle each other. "Your style's a little textbook. Did you swallow a fencing manual?"
"Every game has rules and principles," he said. "If you don't see that, you're an undisciplined child."
It was strangely like something her own father would say. Olivia spat. "Did they train you for everything?" she asked. She batted the point of his blade in a little feint. He flicked it away. "To be a fencer?" Another feint from her, and he twirled his blade neatly around hers. She batted at it again from the other side. "A leader? A gentleman?" He breathed harder, and tensed. "A husband?"
His face set hard, and in a moment he was striking for her. She twisted aside and backwards. The sleeve of her jacket slashed open.
"Good!" she yelled. "Start taking me seriously!"
"You have no manners," he said.
From then on, the fight was silent.
A few minutes later, Olivia's ribs ached as she circled him yet again. The duel was becoming tedious and tiring. Bradley's injuries had slowed him enough to reveal the unimaginative style behind the inhuman speed. And yet, he still didn't fall. The damaged machine kept on rolling. Meanwhile, with every moment, Olivia's treacherous body whined about its injuries and exhaustion. Her bad arm throbbed. Her ears buzzed. Steadying her breathing had become an effort. And as he came for her this time she realised it: he just wasn't tiring quickly enough. He was wearing her down.
She wasn't going to win.
Bradley's sword flashed out, a slashing blow aimed at her bad side —
Yesterday afternoon, they had walked together through the woods of her estate, she and Mustang, and they had talked about the future. He'd been in an odd mood, sentimental as he was, carrying the hyacinths he'd brought with him under one arm. He stared off into the middle distance beyond the trees as they talked — or rather, as he talked at her.
"The old guard won't go easily, of course," he remarked, stepping around a patch of bluebells. "There are too many comfortable old bastards in the brass's lower ranks. Grumman's support is going to be vital. He speaks their language, they think he's one of them."
Olivia marched straight over the flowers. What was the point of talking about this now? "You can think about that after the eclipse. Don't count your chickens before they've hatched," she said.
Mustang grinned at her. "But if I want any chickens, I'll need to gather some eggs."
"You're getting ahead of yourself, idiot. Concentrate on what's right in front of you. Get it done, then if you survive you can plan your little utopia."
"I'm not going to die tomorrow," he said flippantly. "I'm too busy."
The ridiculous thing was, he was really serious. She could see it in his face. She snorted, but didn't bother to respond. He looked too far ahead, already beyond the goal to which he was trying to beat her. He'd better hope that tomorrow wouldn't bring him a hand-to-hand against Bradley. Mustang might be able to take down a battalion from a mile away, but one monstrously skilled swordsman at close quarters would be too much for him. It would likely fall to her to destroy the creature, just as she'd thought. Mustang's dreams were as flimsy and fragile as any thought, living for now only in the brain of one man. A single pistol shot could destroy them. Olivia's legacy was made of sturdier stuff. It already pumped through the heart of every soldier in Briggs. She aimed at the top, but unlike him, she was a general: any day could be the day she left her men. She was always ready.
"By the way," he said, and held out his bouquet.
Olivia's downward parry was triumphant. It swung Bradley's arm wide. She could see the answer in front of her, a twist to the rules so simple he'd never see it coming. Her blood pumped hard, flooding her system with sharp joy and sharper focus. Her grin showed her teeth and made the muscles of her cheeks ache.
She knew she could do it.
Olivia laughed in his face, and the air burned its way up cleanly from the bottom of her chest.
Bradley stepped back, and began to circle her. His face was flushed dark. He gave an angry, animal snort. He was getting riled up.
Her legs had started to shake a little. She let it show: all part of the plan.
They circled each other, and then she restarted the fight with a feint and then a cursory attempt to get under his guard from the other side. It failed, but he seemed to buy it. Surely only Olivia Armstrong could be arrogant enough to think she could win a fight in this condition?
She could see it in his eyes: victory, tinged with a little frustration. He'd read her exhaustion; he was expecting to cut her down with the next strike.
Every duel he'd ever had must have gone the same way.
She winced, once, and then paused, bobbing on the balls of her feet. She looked at him, unblinking, waiting for the moment.
Then she leapt at him and thrust, gave the blow everything she had. Of course he simply stepped back, evaded her whole body, waited as she sprang shakily into a turn that left her whole right side open —
And Bradley was surging forward. He was so fast — but she could read him so easily, could see his killing strike as he began it, could see exactly where it would leave him open —
She aimed and struck in a moment. His neck impaled itself on her sword — something slammed into her, hard — she took in his look of surprise. She held her sword steady as he sank to his knees.
His face contorted, his single eye widened. His left hand flailed, empty of the sword now, and his skin — his skin was crumbling and flaking, becoming dry and fragile, like old varnish falling off wood. His lips were moving. She didn't bother to try and read them. He didn't have anything to say that could interest her now. She steadied herself on her feet as he sagged around her sword. Then his head rolled back, and he began to topple. She let go of her sabre. It fell with him, its work done. Then he was gone, no longer the monster that ruled them all, but merely another broken thing in a room full of wreckage.
She permitted herself to look down.
Just as she'd thought, Bradley's sword had gone all the way through. The hilt lodged neatly under her right breast.
It was, of course, difficult to breathe. She took an experimental step forward, and discovered, with a burst of dizzy agony, that walking was also quite impossible.
When she came back to herself, she found that she had fallen to her knees.
A voice was calling her name.
"Armstrong. Help me." It took her a moment to process the words, and another moment to locate the source of the voice. The Ishbalan was still alive, lying on his belly, propped on his elbows on the floor near her. A fat trail of blood snaked away behind him.
"Help yourself," she said. It was a quiet, painful wheeze, not her voice at all. "I'm taking a break."
"Get me to the circle." She couldn't care less. "The circle. The creature who rules them all. It's necessary. To defeat him. So it isn't all for nothing. Help me. If you have the strength."
She processed each phrase as it was doled out to her, slowly and painfully. When he was silent, she took as deep a breath as she could. It was difficult and unpleasant. She raised a knee. Her wound pulled, and she grunted. She got a foot on the ground. She leaned down hard on her knee with her uninjured arm, trying to push herself up. Her head swam. She tried again. She slipped her right arm from the sling, and pushed down with that too. Then she was standing, hunched over, hands to her knees.
She'd never known pain like it.
But she was standing.
She straightened, and took a step forward.
There was a hand on her shoulder. A hard little gauntlet shaking her gently, a low voice speaking to her. Olivia cracked her eyes open. Her hair fell over her face; all she could see was the chalk marks at the edge of the transmutation circle near where she was kneeling.
Olivia's ears buzzed. The person shifted, and put Olivia's hair out of her face, gently. Olivia looked at her dizzily for a moment, then managed to focus. It was a young Xingese girl with a fierce little face, dressed in black for combat: one of the prince's warriors. There was something indefinably familiar about her. Olivia wanted to ask if they'd met before, but that was ridiculous. She knew she hadn't.
Olivia looked around, vaguely. Her gaze settled on the scarred man, lying sprawled in the transmutation circle a few feet away, dead in his own blood. His wide red eyes stared up into the blazing sunshine without blinking. His mouth smiled and gaped open a little, as if he was about to laugh.
The girl held her hand up. In it was a small jar holding an unmistakable viscous red liquid. She said, "Do you know —"
"Philosopher's stone," muttered Olivia.
The girl made a noise in the back of her throat, and her eyes widened. She pocketed the jar again hastily.
"Come for revenge? Afraid I got here first." Olivia laughed shortly. It came out like a cough, and the spittle that sprayed her uniform was red.
The girl nodded. Her lips pursed. "My grandfather died to bring that creature down." She put her hand on Olivia's fist, clenched hard in the cloth of her uniform trousers. Her palm was startlingly warm. "Your vitals are pierced and your life is draining. I can't do anything."
"I know. Get back to the fight."
The girl looked at her for a moment, then her hand tightened on Olivia's. She pulled a small leather flask from her clothing and opened it. She held it to Olivia's mouth and carefully tilted it to pour in a little water. The water was good. How odd it was to be treated like an infant. The girl replaced her hand on Olivia's, and said, "If you have parting words to leave to your people, I will deliver them."
Olivia said nothing. They stayed like that for a few moments. It was getting much harder to breathe. Olivia swayed, but the sword kept her upright. She tried to speak. It didn't really work.
"I can't hear you," said the girl.
Olivia tried again. Sound creaked out of her. "Give me a hand. Pull this thing out. So I can lie down." She put her hand to the sword hilt.
The girl looked at the hilt with a hard frown. "The sword?"
"Yes." A wheezing, painful pause. "Take it out. It's uncomfortable."
"If I pull the sword out," said the girl, "you'll die straight away." Her eyes focussed sharply on Olivia, and Olivia felt another surge of that strange familiarity.
Olivia grinned. "So? Now that I've killed that thing, I'm going to take a rest."
The girl nodded once, and took Olivia into her arms. Her automail gauntlet gripped the sword hilt, ready.
She said again, "Do you have any parting words?"
Olivia shook her head.
The girl blinked. "Nothing? Nothing for your friends? Your comrades? Your family?"
"They know what they know. Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."
Olivia looked up at her face, glowing with resolve and incredibly young, and thought, whatever that girl sets out to do, she will do it. She said nothing. After all, the girl would hardly need Olivia to tell her this.
Through the storm of buzzing static filling her brain, she glanced again at her place in history. Good enough, she thought, yes, and let herself go.