He Who Searches for Himself
Genre: Post FMA1 Plot!Fic. Series exclusive, not CoS based.
Characters: Ensemble cast + OCs
Alternative: AO3 (same title, different handle)
This story is based off of the first FullMetal Alchemist 2003 series and it picks up after where Episode 51 leaves off. I began writing this fanfic before the FMA movie, and any details pertaining to the movie, had been released. Because of that, it is written entirely independent from the Conqueror of Shamballa.
Standing up and moving forwards feels a lot more like picking yourself up and trudging onwards.
August 1921, nearly 5 years after crossing the Gate, Edward returns to his father in Germany to find Hermann Oberth. Still searching for a way home, he learns the mind of Envy is lurking in a host body in Munich. As he tries to find out who Envy is, Ed meets a teenage girl named Brigitte who's able to help. Brigitte's fascination with Ed's alchemy has dire consequences and a life he was trying to escape beyond the Gate is thrown into chaos in the depths of the Thule Hall.
May 1916, 9 months after being revived, Alphonse sets out with Izumi to find his brother again, but his teacher vanishes during a terrorist attack in Central City. Without his memories, Al's unable to recognize the military personnel helping him, and the family Dante now hides in comes to his aid. Winry arrives in Central searching for Al and unknowingly gets in the way of Dante's plans. The ancient alchemist sends Winry beyond the Gate and receives something back in exchange.
This story was my very first fanfic, it has existed for almost as long as I've been in the fandom and it got pretty big. Chapters 1-3 have been revised for readability and clarity. AmunRa was kind enough to volunteer her betaing services at chapter 8 :) thank her for making me a better writer!
52 - Trains in Opposite Directions
Seated on a rickety wooden bench, Izumi's narrowed expression slammed to a disapproving frown.
"Get back from there!"
"It's fine! I just wanted to take a closer look!" Al called back. He carefully placed a hand on the cold, metal side of the train engine and he lowered his voice as he spoke to himself, "I've seen them go by so many times, but these ones here are so different."
Alphonse's eyes were still 'new' - they were fresh with youth, wild with ambition, and overflowing with life. They shone in the sunlight on days like this, existing free on an adventure and completely forgotten of their metallic prison.
The little, reborn Elric laughed lightly as a thought crossed his mind: Maybe this is what he gets for spending so much time with Winry - a heightened interest in trains. He pressed the tips of his fingers harder against the cold steel, his lips curling in amusement, she was going to be so jealous when he tells her how close and personal he got to be with the latest engines going through the big cities.
Deciding she'd had enough of his willful deafness, Izumi slapped her hands down to her knees and stood up, "You'll have your ticket taken away if you don't get yourself behind the white line, now!" Whether or not the statement was true was beside the fact - her commanding voice made it so and Al scampered backwards.
Alphonse straightened his pale green, button-down shirt with a sharp tug. The last thing he wanted was to have his train ticket taken away twenty minutes before they were going to board. Al figured his teacher would probably fling him out of the station if that happened. No matter how much he had reassured her that everything would be fine, his teacher was still wound tight; from the delays that had happened thus far, to the nine o'clock departure the prior evening they'd been forced to take, now this train operating late and Izumi was far from happy.
Turning away from the idle locomotive, Al's feet thumped up the mountain of wooden stairs to the platform and he shuffled up next to his stern teacher with a sheepish expression, "The trains went by all the time back home, but we always stayed away from the tracks. Mom said it wasn't safe. It's different here - they're all parked! I just wanted to have a look."
'We' was, by default, still Edward and Alphonse Elric.
Wrinkling her upper lip, Izumi let the air in her lungs escape slowly through her nostrils. She rolled her shoulders back and sat down on the rickety wooden bench again, "It's the same kind of train that parks in Resembool for thirty minutes every twelve hours."
Al's eyes widened in protest, "But there's only one track going through Resembool Station. There's…" he spun on his toes and scampered to the railing of the platform - it hung as a canopy over the tracks below, "... two in here and more outside! These platforms are huge. And there's a roof overhead and the floor down there is concrete. It's nothing like the old wooden one in Resembool!"
The teacher swallowed a chuckle and spoke to herself under her breath, "Boys… I don't know what I'd do with you if you were a gir-"
Izumi stopped. Her heightened sense of her surroundings had been on alert since they'd left Resembool, and now an alarm went off telling her she was being watched. The woman's gaze swept to her left, since the aura came from that side, and her dark eyes searched for what set everything off. What Izumi found was a fair face and a pair of blue eyes that quickly vanished behind a veil of dark hair on a young girl fidgeting on an adjacent bench. Izumi watched her; she never peeked again and her only focus seemed to be how she nervously wove her fingers through the ends of her skirt. What could this girl have possibly wanted that she stared so long that it tripped her? Izumi dismissed the peering young lady, and she leaned back on the bench and closed her eyes.
Children are innocent enough.
The metal roof over the train station was both a blessing and a curse. It was kind enough to keep the sun out - spring was in full bloom and summer was showing up a little early. The curse was how the metal roof did a fantastic job of trapping the daytime heat in and baking everyone like they'd been trapped in a slow cooking oven. Both Izumi and Alphonse would admit they were each a little cranky and overtired from a sleepless night in a bouncy overnight train car. Now, stuck 'outside', but inside enough that they were slowly cooking, the breeze from an open train window couldn't happen fast enough. At least there was a semi-potent draft blowing in on occasion.
Exhaustion caused time to skip and, in what felt like mere moments after Izumi had closed her eyes, the boarding call came over the broadcast system. The shrill noise jolted her awake and the woman pulled her bleary eyed self to her feet. She called out for Al and the child's voice echoed back. She listened to his heavy feet thump along the platform; what a reassuring sound that was after what the vacant, metallic catastrophe his suit of armour had sounded like. As Izumi reached down for the luggage at her feet, the teenaged girl with a veil of black hair passed by silently, her walk so precise her feet made no sound. Izumi couldn't help but puzzle over her again - she was trying so hard to be discreet and it was backfiring on her. Why was this girl watching them?
Al appeared with a grin and vigor. Snapping up his luggage he bounded down the stairs once again and filtered into the crowds of people filling the departure platform.
"Al! Stay close by!" Izumi was starting to think she'd have to put a leash on him to keep him from wandering off.
Alphonse stopped as requested, dancing around in place as he dodged the waves of people that moved around him. Frowning, he rolled his eyes, "She's being so overprotective… Mom wasn't so-"
"Oh, she's not your mother?"
The intruding voice snagged Al's attention. He turned a startled expression over to the female voice standing next to him. Alphonse stared wide eyed at a teenage girl, at least a few years his senior, with deep blue eyes and some of the longest, darkest hair he'd ever seen on someone her age. For a moment, Al thought she looked surprised at herself for saying something to get his attention. The two stared at each other in silence, getting bumped by the annoyed travellers navigating the platform, before she bowed her head and looked down to everyone's feet.
Al finally caught himself staring at her and quickly snapped to his senses, "Um, no she's not," he suddenly lit up with his natural brightness, "she's… been kind of like my mother, though."
It wasn't the easiest topic for him to discuss and Alphonse wondered if maybe his sudden response had sounded too contrived. The remaining Elric still felt some unease about how to define his relationship with Izumi now that everyone in his biological family was gone - she played both a mentor and a parent in his life, but his mom was his mom and Izumi wasn't that. She was like mom in a lot of ways. She played his mom on journeys like this. But, the memory of Al's actual mom, now years in the past on the calendar, was only a year past in his mind. For everyone around him, time had kindly healed many wounds, but Al's young memories had been ripped wide open again and dusted with salt. It was an uncomfortable feeling he tried desperately to cover up.
He shook it off and looked at the girl puzzled, allowing himself to wonder where the question came from. The silence between them grew longer and stronger and Alphonse began to question if he was even supposed to comment further at this point. Again he was staring, watching as her hair flew around her arms while people brushed past, her figure caught in the sunlight that filtered through from a crack in the canopy over head, and Al did not understand why it felt like she was the one who should be speaking next.
"I'm sorry, it's not something you wanted to talk about. I'm sorry I brought it up."
Al put his smile on for her, "No, it's fine, don't feel bad for tha-" he choked as he was shoved aside by a man rushing by. The young Elric turned to reorient himself, only to watch the mystery girl with long black hair get sucked away into the flowing crowd. Before he was able to process what the encounter had even been about, Al found himself lurching backwards.
Izumi had him by the back of his shirt, "You're having hearing problems today, young man," she gave him an open-palmed smack square in the center of his back, "you'd think that everyone on this platform was in a fire drill. It's not like the train is too small for everyone."
"Maybe you should sleep on the train," Alphonse turned up to his teacher, using his mother's concerned gaze to look at her with.
Moving with the flow of the passenger crowd, Izumi shuffled along, keeping Al close at her side. She offered him a half grin before ruffling his hair, "If I'd wanted to sleep on the train, I would have gotten us tickets for the front car."
Cursing, Edward scrambled to pick up the papers he'd dropped on the floor; the bumps on this train were becoming more troublesome and grossly annoying, "You'd think they could at least put a little effort into repairing the tracks properly . The war's been over for years," he snorted, having barely gotten a third of his papers re-organized – the rest remained thrown about the private cabin.
He narrowed an eye when a knock came at the door.
Ed stepped through his mess on the floor to flip the lock, "Yes?"
Regardless of the rough ride, this train line's service was one of the best. Edward had stopped being surprised that all of the concierges on this train were proper, including this well painted, middle-aged, female attendant standing at his door, "You requested earlier, that since we were not stopping in Reichenhall, to know when we entered Austria."
"I did, thank you," Edward was about to close the door on her, but a question caught him and he called back to the woman, "Isn't it Czechoslovakia?"
The woman's expression was empty as she gave an answer, "The world keeps changing. I think Czechoslovakia is the division to the north, not the south. I'm Swiss, Sir, I haven't had much of a chance to keep up."
"That's fine. Forget I asked," Ed scratched his head vigorously, muttering to himself as he pushed the door shut, "doesn't matter anyways."
Edward sat down on the floor of his train cabin. Disgusted with the situation, all he could really do was use his right arm as a paperweight. Ed brushed the shoe print marks off of his papers. Over the last few months, he had gotten used to the paralyzed sensation of his right arm that clanked around him as he moved. It was an unsightly metal decoration he hid under his clothing. He accepted that it was better than nothing; at least it made him feel balanced again, and he hadn't felt that way in a long, long time.
The curtains to the window were pulled wide and allowed the mid-day light to flow in. From his seat on the floor, Ed gazed up towards the window. The daylight should have been enough to warm him and fill everything with noontime, but no matter where he went on this vast continent, the sun he lived beneath never illuminated anything like he remembered. Sure, the temperature got hot and the sun cooked everyone until they felt gross, but nothing felt warmed by it. Every colour was muted, not to the point of being grey or monotone, but just enough so that nothing was ever vibrant. Ed stared out the window into the smoky-blue sky that held no clouds and hoped that the five-year-old memory of what an Amestris sky looked like in his mind was still accurate. He dreaded knowing that, at some point, he'd be gone long enough that the grey lifelessness here would pollute his memory too. His expression relaxed and he sat back against the seat, letting his shoulders fall and thoughts empty. His eyes shut and, without realizing it, he slipped into the void of an empty dream and lost track of the world around him.
The train hit another mangled section of track and he bounced on the floor, smacking his head against the seat. Edward snapped his eyes back open. Brushing his bangs from his face, he looked at the papers tossed about carelessly on the floor.
"Damn it," he briskly swept everything up and began stuffing them into envelopes, "I can't ever get anything done on these damned trains." An item among the mess, much smaller than his regular papers, slipped out of an envelope and his wide eyes watched it shoot across the floor, "shit, can't lose that," he slapped his hand down on top of his Vienna transfer ticket and tucked it into his breast pocket, "Last thing I need to do is get lost in Austria."
Al twitched and sat up in his seat before he finally crossed his legs to settle himself. He put a hand on his kneecap and slumped his chin into his other hand propped up on the arm rest.
"What?" Izumi asked flatly.
"Nothing," Al replied, clearly mimicking her disinterest.
"What?" Izumi repeated
Al slouched in his seat, "I need to go to the washroom," squirming a bit, Alphonse didn't need to look at her, he could feel her aura flare up.
"I told you, you should have gone-"
"I know what you said!" he cut her off, quickly wishing he hadn't.
"Don't cut me off when I am talking to you!" a sleepless Izumi rose from her seat like a cataclysm in the busy, noisy train car and forced Al to wither in his spot, chirping out apologies while she loomed.
Izumi's focus snapped over her shoulder and Al peered out from the ball he'd curled up in.
With her fists clenched, the girl with long black hair from the train platform straightened her knee-length dress and pulled her dark veil over her shoulders. Her fists may have been clenched to control her nerves, but her arms trembled and betrayed her, "I'm sorry, but your voice bothers me."
It wasn't until the words left her mouth that the poor girl realized how rude her statement had sounded. Half of the sweltering train car pulled their heads out of the window breezes to give the brazen teenager a cautious look for a statement made to a harsh woman. She recoiled as the awkward silence falling around her became the loudest thing anyone could hear.
Izumi slowly turned to her, the exhausted dark circles under her eyes weighing down her expression, "I'm sorry young lady, but pardon me? "
The girl stepped back abruptly, "I…"
"Where are your parents?" Izumi snarled, "do they know you speak to people this way?"
"I'm so sorry, Ma'am, I wasn't talking about you," she finally raised her hands in defence of herself and shifted her eyes off Izumi's mounting rage, "I was talking about him."
"You're that girl from the platform," Al popped out of his ball shape.
Looking between Alphonse and their rude visitor, Izumi allowed herself to deflate. Al was right, she was the one who'd been eyeballing them on the platform, "Beyond the apology you're going to deliver in thirty seconds, this young man hasn't said anything to bother you," Izumi brought her temperature down to a simmer and let the passengers of their train car find something else to look at. Her voice lowered, "I caught you keeping an eye on us this morning, I'd like to know why."
"Oh…" she looked down at her feet, "I didn't mean to stare, but something had been bothering me since I came through the turnstiles. I didn't think my memory could be wrong," she winced at her motives, "at least, not that wrong. But, something's not adding up."
Izumi looked at the booth of seats that she and Al occupied alone. The girl wasn't making a whole lot of sense, but there seemed to be an explanation in her voice for it all, so Izumi moved aside and made room for a guest to join them, "Come around and have a seat. Everyone's had enough of this spectacle."
The girl's expression brightened and she slid around to take the invite. She sat down across from Alphonse, brushed her dress smooth, and leaned forward to address him, "Sorry, I didn't mean to sound so rude and cause a fuss."
"You had something you wanted to say to me at the station, didn't you?" Al blurted without a welcome or any greeting; he hadn't realized how much that had been sitting on the back of his mind until he actually got a chance to realize it.
"Al, do you know her?" Izumi sat down next to him.
The girl's eyes widened and looked from Alphonse, to Izumi, and back again.
Al shook his head, "No, but we talked on the platform."
When Alphonse returned to face her again, he was momentarily startled by the shining, deep blue eyes looking at him.
She leaned back abruptly and shook her head, "Maybe it wasn't you. I thought maybe it was," she brushed her dark hair behind her shoulders again and peeked at Al once more, "you're not the right size at all. But still, just…" the girl took a deep breath and got her words together, "do you have a brother named Ed?"
Al's posture began to crumble. His ears shuttered themselves to any more words and the voices around him became dull. The muffled sounds that reached him echoed like he was trapped inside the hollow chamber of armour he couldn't remember.
"Edward Elric? I think he's an alchemist. Are you? Maybe?"
Al starred in her direction and yet still lost her. He lost the vibration of the train, the noise of the world's chatter, the breeze from the open window, and the world outside that was around them. His mind was elsewhere.
Izumi cut the line of communication strangling Al, "Why do you ask?" She smiled for her simple question, crossed her legs, and laced her fingers around the highest kneecap.
The girl looked away from Al, uncertain how to react with his obvious detachment, and she addressed Izumi, "Something like five or six years ago, two alchemists were in a town I used to live in. It was two boys, I guess not much older than me, but I'm certain their names were Ed and Al Elric."
Izumi slowly exhaled as the girl continued.
"It was something that was kind of hard to forget - they were pretty unique. After they left, my dad heard that one of them ended up becoming a State Alchemist, but…" she looked to Al again, wondering if he'd pulled himself back together, "your voice, I could have sworn you were supposed to be at least six feet tall. It was so unforgettable: this big suit of armour with a little boy's voice echoing in it." She raised her arms above her head, as though to remind herself how it felt to be in that towering presence, "I would have thought after five years and being so tall that his voice would have changed. I never thought I'd hear it again," her arms fell into her lap and she neatly clasped her hands, "but, you sound exactly like him."
Izumi leaned back, hooking her elbows on the back of the seat, "Five years changes a lot. And, you're right, it doesn't make a lot of sense. You have the wrong person."
The teacher's voice softened and her tired expression eased, then she put a hand on Alphonse's knee and squeezed it.
"This boy is my son, Alphonse Curtis, and he's my only child. He doesn't have a brother. I'm sorry, dear."
The girl shifted uneasily in her seat and allowed her eyes to narrow ever so slightly. She began brushing her dress smooth again, "I'm sorry I bothered you like this. Thank you, though."
"I'm curious. What's your name?" Izumi smiled with her mother's smile, "and don't apologize. If you weren't observant, I doubt your parents would let you travel alone, would they?"
"Clausé," she replied, again brushing her hair behind her shoulders like a nervous habit, "my dad's fine to let me travel alone. I'm meeting him in Central, actually. Dad would come home if he could, but the terms are he can only get leave in Central. He left me with train tokens if I wanted to visit."
Not allowing her disdain for the topic to enter her voice, Izumi curiously kept their conversation going, "Your father's in the military?"
Clausé nodded, "He signed on about 6 months ago. He didn't want anything to do with the military before the government fell. He despised the thought of what had gone on in Ishibal and Lior, but there was really nothing he could do about any of it. He volunteered when he was given the chance to help the people rebuild, kind of like his way of showing support for the progress the country is trying to make," the more she spoke, the more she seemed to glow from ear to ear, proudly talking about her father the peacekeeper and not war monger. "A few regiments were sent to aide Ishibal in their rebuilding process and my father was part of that team. The teams have been rotated, so he's back in Central for a while, and now I get to visit."
So much had changed in the world over the last few months.
Izumi smiled at her, "Your father is a good man."
"Thank you, but," Clausé put her hands on her knees, pushing up to her feet, "I'm sorry, I should go back to my seat. I shouldn't have bothered you with any of this."
"It's fine and stop being so sorry," Izumi waved a hand as the girl moved swiftly back to her ticketed seat.
As Clausé spun herself away from her seat, out of the sight of the teacher's prying eye, Izumi took her attention away from the child who'd retreated from their space and re-focussed on the one that remained next to her.
"Al," her voice quiet, Izumi nudged him. The boy's frozen expression remained locked on his faint reflection in the half opened window. Izumi reached an arm around him, but Alphonse rolled his shoulders away in refusal. More stubborn than an eleven-year-old, Izumi reached her arm around again, this time wrapping around his neck. Though he tried to duck away, the fingers of Izumi's free hand slid into his hair and she tucked the child, quietly in pain, away at her side and held him there. She put his head down in a soft space near her shoulder and put her chin down on his bed of short hair. The loss of Edward was a wound that didn't want to shut. Izumi tried to be the strong, stern mentor figure that she'd established, but for young Alphonse, and for what he struggled to accept, she preferred to be the soothing mother figure she was scarcely allowed to be.
Al's distant voice emerged, "I remember when we sat out back with Rose and her baby and she told me the story about the Priest in Lior. She told me about Scar and Dante. She told me a lot of things she knew. It was so strange - all these stories with so much of me in them, but I couldn't remember any of it. I still can't. It's all just a story with someone who has my name in it and nothing more. Sometimes I feel I have more in common with Den than anyone else."
He took a moment to breathe and suddenly felt light headed. Izumi waited silently, allowing him to speak whenever he was ready.
"Some of the people who come to Resembool to visit… I can't remember the wheres and hows I met them - and then they leave and it's like closing a book; you put it down and the story stops. No matter how many times anyone tells me, the stories just aren't real. The only thing that makes any of it real is when I look at Winry and I can see how old she is," Al shifted in his place, relaxing into Izumi's side, wishing for no one to see him, "and I looked at that girl like she was just a stranger to me. She was nobody special. But, she looked at me like I meant something to her. I didn't realize I was supposed to have cared or that I should have known," he stopped for a moment, quieted by how tight Izumi's grasp on him had gotten, "she can tell me about me and my brother. She's a page in that storybook that I can't convince myself is real. She's the only one left who can remember how we met and what we'd done together. And the only thing I can remember about her…" Al trailed off, his voice unsuccessful in its attempt to remain emotionless as possible.
"What could you remember?" Izumi asked quietly.
"That I liked how she looked in the sunlight when we stood together at the station today."
Edward hung out the train cabin window, his cheek resting against the wooden frame. The locomotive had parked at a station for half an hour for passenger turnover and some track adjustment down the line.
"Christ, it's hot in here… is it supposed to be this hot in August? There has to be something wrong with this country." He whined, already without his jacket, vest, and shoes discarded on the empty adjacent seat. The hotter the weather got on this train ride, the hotter his arm got and that just made things worse - the heat leached into the core of his body, trying to cook him from the inside out. Edward and his father were not AutoMail engineers, but with their heads put together from what they'd observed of the Rockbells, and everything his father knew simply through age, the heavy metal arm was the best either of them could come up with. Edward had given up cursing the stiff arm some time ago; it was almost a lost cause. Right now, the only thing he seemed to be interested in was whether or not the temperature would make the paint run on the Danube station sign. Ed adjusted his ponytail, having mastered a one and a half arm technique of doing so, and yanked it higher to keep his hair off the back of his neck. Slumping into the window's edge, he wasn't given enough time to feel any peace before a little voice poked him in the face from the platform below.
Ed didn't even bother to open his eyes, "Shoo."
"I have Weiner Tagblatt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Angewandte Chemie, Weiner Zeitung! Come on! They're only a spot!"
Edward swung his left arm out the window and used the tips of his fingers to flick the child's oversized hat askew, "I told you to shoo, didn't I?" He cracked an eye open at the feeble skeleton of a child. A trail of sweat ran down the boy's face and the skin stretched on the child's body seemed to be a more pale grey than any shade of pink. The frail child's wide eyes stared back at Ed desperately; the healthiest thing about him seemed to be the determination to sell a single newspaper.
Ed picked his head up slowly from the ledge, "Your papers are all German," he told the boy in German, "I can't take them through all the places I'm going. Sorry."
"Zeitung isn't!" The child shoved a thin and scrunched publication into Ed's face, "It's from Vienna! I promise."
Ed put a scowl on and fell back into his cabin room. Moments later he reappeared and tossed a few coins down to the feeble paperboy, "I'll take that, now go away."
The child tossed the paper up to Edward as he marched away, continuing along his daily pilgrimage of the train's platform, "Thank you for your patronage!" he called back.
Ed shook his head, "Patronage…"
Shaking his head, Ed uncoiled the paper and promptly slit his eyes at the front page of the publication. An eyebrow twitched as he scowled at the newsprint, "It's old…" he tossed the paper aside, "I'm sick of reading about what new province or border they're making up for whomever. I'll read an Austrian paper next year, maybe by then they'll decide what country to leave Vienna in."
Ed gave up on his window perch and lay himself down on the seat, sprawling out as best he could. Bundling his coat, Ed tucked it behind his head, shut his eyes, and let his thoughts be entertained by the only thing on his mind lately: Goddard's works. Edward's head could run marathons through Goddard's works, manipulating and toying with his theories on physics and propulsion was practically the only thing Ed did in his down-time now.
Because Edward Elric refused – defiantly refused – to accept his existence in this forsaken world.
There was somewhere else he had to be.
There was a place for him to return to.
He did not want to be here.
As he lay there, the harder he thought about Goddard's works, the more his concentration drifted. In the heat undisturbed by an idle train, Goddard was slowly interrupted by an abused, distorted, and painful memory that crept back in. The tiring exercise of a miserably endless train ride had left a heavy cloud in his mind's eye.
His cheek twitched under the light accosting him from overhead. He hated laying on this ballroom floor. He hated this horrid place. It existed in his last life and it haunted him in the next. What was this ghastly music that never fell silent - didn't it drive her mad? There was nobody here this time, nobody he could see anyways. Ed thought he could hear Rose's voice somewhere in the fog blanketing the cold floor he lay on, but she never appeared. Laid out on his back in an empty ballroom, in the catacomb of mankind's worst sins, alone Ed made the decision that his brother's life was worth his. This would be the last place he would exist. This was where he would end. Ed wouldn't be buried, he wouldn't decompose and become part of the earth, he wouldn't contribute to the All is One; he was the sacrifice to bring his brother back and he would end and let his brother begin again.
And yet, he woke up somewhere else.
Edward cracked his eyes open and looked over to a train attendant peeking in through the cab door.
"Sorry," he sat up and shook out the heat fogging up his brain.
"Would you like more water," she opened the door a little farther, "the heat isn't good for anyone."
Ed brushed his damp hair off his sweaty forehead, "Yes, thank you."
She nodded, "Have your pass ready, Sir. We're departing right away."
"Of course," she left and Edward's shoulders fell and he dropped his head back with a tired sigh. He reached into the breast pocket of the vest he'd set aside and fished out his ticket. His eyes returned to the window, trying to find something, anything, in the sky to entertain his thoughts - today wasn't the best day to let his mind try to wander home without him.
"Wow…." Al's expression widened, "There are so many people here. So many trains! Central is huge!" his shining eyes could have lit up the entire city.
"This is only the train station and everyone going somewhere has to come through here," Izumi rolled her head around on her neck while her mind was begged for a proper bed, so she could put an end to this long day, "Pick up your bags!"
Alphonse snapped them up, "We have somewhere to stay, right? Or are we going to look around the city?" the boy's energy brought forth a slew of questions, "I can't wait to find all the Central bookstores, the alchemy texts have to be amazing here. We should check out the new releases first, maybe they can help us! Oh, and Winry gave me a shopping list. Can I see if I can get her stuff here instead of in Rush Valley?"
Where did children find their energy? Izumi's tired eyes wandered, wishing she could share the exuberance with him, but she was too tired for it and only muttered to herself, "At least you don't stay upset for long." She pulled in a breath and gave Alphonse her plans, "I called for a motel room when we missed the train at our transfer station. We have to stay at least one night anyway, so there's no rush. You'll have all day tomorrow to find all the books you want and get Winry her things."
"Yes!" Al bounced with a light fist pump.
Izumi swung a free arm forward, "Use that energy to find us a lift. If all these people are taking cabs, there'll be none left for us," she had barely finished her sentence before Al had taken off ten strides ahead of her. Izumi's posture sagged and the tired darkness around her eyes grew thicker - she didn't want to stay here at all. She wanted to take Al and be as far away from Central City as she could get him, yet all routes forced people through the city. So, for twenty-four, possibly forty-eight hours, she had to focus on keeping their presence low and, if she couldn't lock Al in a motel, she'd bury him in a bookstore.
The teacher began her descent out of the station, trying not to drag her feet as she moved. At the bottom of the stairs she picked her head up and found Al again - the boy had stopped fifteen or twenty metres ahead and put his bags at his feet. Izumi narrowed her eyes at a curious scene.
"It's good that you have time off to spend with your daughter!" Al beamed as he brushed a wave of hair off his forehead.
"Where did you say you were going again? Dublith?" Clausé's father tapped his chin, his military jacket unbuttoned to accommodate the heat, "I think I have a cousin who lives there…"
Al nodded, "We are, but we have to wait a day or two, so we're staying in a motel for now."
Clausé ran her fingers through the ends of her hair, "Dad, I don't think they'll have much luck getting a ride this time of day. Couldn't we drop them off?"
Al protested with an emphatic wave of his hands, "No, don't do that. We'll be fine!"
"We'll be fine with what?" Izumi stepped up behind Al, putting a hand on his shoulder, and eyeballing the father-daughter pair in front of them. "Good afternoon."
"Dad, this is Al's mother, Mrs. Curtis," Clausé gave a skewed smile as she motioned to the mother-son duo beside them.
Izumi gave a slight bow of her head, "I hope my boy isn't holding you up Miss. Clausé… and… Sergeant Clausé…?"
Her father gave a hearty laugh at the address, "I'm property of my own daughter now? How the tides have turned," the sergeant clapped his hands together twice to clear his amusement, "it isn't an intrusion Al, I'd be delighted to take you and your mother to your lodge. Besides, if it's your first time in Central, you should get a chance to see some of the city, if you have the time to look around? People's first impressions with something this size are usually quite overwhelming. We could even stop for something to eat along the way."
Izumi wanted to pick Al up and march off without another word. Being escorted around Central City by an off duty military officer was not something she wanted to do. But, she also didn't want any reason to arouse suspicion either and she tried to find a simple solution, "We really shouldn't impose on you like this…" Izumi's words rolled on while her attention drifted - this girl, Clausé, was staring at her again. What on earth for now?
"No, really, we insist!"
Clausé's voice picked up finally and it gave Izumi a reason to finally dump her focus on the girl again. She smiled sweetly and the teacher found no obvious reason to do anything but smile nicely back. Her father piped up, insisting on taking up the escort duty, and Izumi slipped her gaze off Clausé, to Alphonse, then swept it up to the insistent officer. Damn.
"Well, I suppose it would be an honour to have one of the military's finest show us around this afternoon."
Edward repeatedly flipped his pocket watch open and closed - an action he'd held onto as a boredom ritual since he was twelve-years-old. He repeated it countless times, his mind juggling far too many thoughts and he was growing bored of them all. What had felt like a full day's worth of boredom in Vienna had actually been merely an hour under their sun. Ed shook his head to wake himself up. Sitting on a creaky wooden bench at the train station, he paid little to no attention to the people passing by – that was until someone stepped into his sunlight.
"That's a very lovely watch? Who's your craftsman?"
Edward looked up into the face of a bright woman, probably only a few years older than him, with short-cut, curled brown hair, styled like every other woman who cared about what she was supposed to look like in 1921. She tilted her head, holding her patience while she waited for a response. Ed snapped the watch shut and responded blankly, "One of my father's associates had it crafted."
The presumptuous woman sat down next to him on the station bench, her curls bouncing around her face, "I've never seen that sort of insignia before, but if I were to guess I'd say it's military of some sorts. Maybe Persian? Is it a war token? Are you a soldier?"
Ed stared at her blankly, completely confused over why she'd suddenly engaged him. She had a very clear and fragrant mystique to her and the way she carried herself, and Ed picked up immediately that she was some sort of busybody. She was dressed quite fine; her knee length tan jacket was tied perfectly at the middle and her hat sat slightly askew to let her curls bounce with more enthusiasm on one side than the other. The tops of her high-heeled boots hid beneath the length of her dress that hung out below her jacket. She crossed one leg over the other and, in a nearly mockingly dainty manner, she clasped her hands together over her knees and Ed could clearly see the wedding ring on her finger. As she peered into Edward's business a little more, he couldn't fathom what the hell this random, married woman could want with him.
"Well," Ed paused; he had a contrived response he'd created to explain the watch – why he possessed a replica of his State Alchemist watch – but it seemed lost on him today, "kind of but not really, it's more of a personal keepsake… for an old friend."
The woman's eyes widened, "Oh, that's sweet, what a nice thing to do for a friend. Did they pass in the war?"
"No…" Ed's mouth hung open while he garbled his words. How was she tripping him up so badly? "It's complicated."
"I understand how that is," she continued on, "it's fine craftsmanship though with the edging and the lines. I could tell from a distance it was something exquisitely made. You must have used the finest silver for it. How does it work? Do you wind it? Is it automatic?"
Edward chilled over at the woman's line of questioning. He clenched his hand tightly over the watch and stuffed it back into his pocket, "What's your name?"
"Me?" The woman seemed unfazed by Edward's sudden change in tone, continuing to smile as if she'd been hoping all along for the topic to come up, "Mathilde. And what might yours be?"
"Edward," he examined the woman carefully as he answered, looking for some clue that would reveal what business she had with him, "do I know you from somewhere?"
Mathilde re-crossed her legs and sat back on the bench they shared, "I'm not certain. Are you from Schässburg? Have you ever been there?"
Ed frowned, not liking the counter-questioning and disliking her choice of cities even more, "I haven't, but I'm heading there," his hand still gripped the watch stuffed in his pocket.
"Are you?" she beamed.
Her tone was utterly ridiculous in Edward's ears. She sounded like some flamboyant cabaret dancer he was being forced to converse with at a club drinking table, except they were outside and it was late in the day. Her words were contrived and he could have sworn she was just there to be obnoxious. She had to be too old for this sort of gimmick or prank. Where was the husband to go with this ring?
"Well then, if you were traveling 'from', instead of traveling 'to', my question would have been more helpful to us," the woman tapped her chin lightly as if she were playing a game, "how about Munich? Have you ever been there?"
Ed liked her even less now and he replied flatly, "I live in Munich."
Unfazed by Edward's lack of enthusiasm in their conversation, the woman continued on, "Oh! Have you ever been to the university there? I've had a number of friends that attended and my husband is on great terms with several professors. It's the best education Germany has to offer!"
Now she was beyond suspicious. Edward narrowed his gaze, "My father teaches there."
"Does he really?" by mistake, Mathilde allowed her honest surprise to come through in her voice, derailing Ed's assumption she'd been only toying with him from the start, "he must be a great man to be a professor at Munich's university. What's his name?"
"Why?" Ed asked sharply, not interested in this game with her anymore. His hand released the pocket watch and it emerged from his pocket to brush the beads of sweat from his forehead, "Is there a reason you're bothering me?"
"Goodness, you're quite rude to women, has anyone ever told you that? Your social skills leave much to be desired," Mathilde falsified anger as she chirped back at him, as if trying to do nothing but aggravate him now, "it's no wonder you have no travel companion; I can't imagine any woman taking a fancy with you." She stood up sharply and straightened her jacket, "Why on earth would someone like you head to my hometown? I can guarantee the bordello owners will kick you out if you disrespect the service. You aren't big enough to stand up against thos-."
A vein snapped upon Edward's forehead and he shot up like a firecracker, "LISTEN, Lady-"
Mathilde twitched an eye at him as she stepped back.
Edward thrust a finger into her face, his deep, demonic voice booming out, "I've grown."
"Tily!" a man's voice called from a distance. It cut their conversation off before it could degrade any farther, "We're boarding!"
"I'll be right there!" the woman called, stepping back from a fuming Edward. Her playful expression fell away and she looked him over with the eyes of a woman mature beyond her age, "I hope you find what you're looking for in Schässburg. There have been some problems with rebel groups since we became Rumanians. Keep alert, won't you?" She spun on her toes, tossed her hair from her face, and pranced away.
"What on earth…" Edward gawked as she left, mouth half open as this chaotic woman ran into the crowds of people, and he slowly brought his hand to his forehead with a sigh. The chain from Ed's pocket watch hung from his jacket and clattered on the bench as he sat down again.
"Wow…" Al exhaled as he gazed down the street.
Clausé folded her arms and her voice burst with delight, "The Open Market Fair began a few days ago. Streets and streets of little open shops are out selling everyone's best products! Food, clothes, sweets and candy, toys and games… and gadgets for that girlfriend you were talking about; you can find them all here! "
Al's eyes widened in a childish horror, "Winry is not my girlfriend."
"Awww," Clausé teased as she walked along with Al into the market, "she sounds so sweet though."
"Winry is six mo-years older than me!" he caught himself in his sentence, "it doesn't work!"
"Well fine, she can be a big sister then," Clausé's attention suddenly drew away and her eyes darted out to the side, "Ooo," She turned on a dime and slid herself through the pedestrian traffic towards a booth.
The two of them had been set free in the market after they'd had a bite to eat at one of the many sprawling outdoor cafés. Not more than an hour earlier, a few blocks away from the shopping chaos, Clausé's father had introduced the group to a patio diner. The children had spent the meal chattering about the amount of people traffic they could see entering and exiting the market lined with streamers and decorative knickknacks. The children had finally persuaded both guardians to relent and allow them to run loose for fifteen minutes before they were to return and go browsing as a group.
"H-hey!" Al pushed past people bumping his small figure aside while he tried to reach Clausé. The dirt paths everyone trampled, when the paved streets weren't available, were soft and muddy beneath everyone's feet – a messy reminder of the rain the night before. Al slid awkwardly, his feet wanting to go in all different directions. A man's firm hand came down on his shoulder and pushed him aside. Al landed hard, with his hands and knees embedding into the mud. Regaining his composure as quickly as he could, Al shot a glare up to a towering figure who simply gave an empty, uncaring stare down at him. The looming man's square jaw and chin were held high and tight while the pair exchanged looks, before the sun-tanned face turned away, and he let his two right earrings jingle in the sunlight as he left.
Al grumbled to himself as he stumbled out of the way of unrelenting traffic. Wiping the mud from his hands onto his jeans, Al staggered over to Clausé who promptly held up her new possession wrapped in a plain paper bag.
"The feathers won me over!"
"Feathers?" Al tipped his head.
"It's a pen! It looks like a dip pen, but it can store the ink in its body too. Here, watch," grabbing Al by the wrist, Clausé pulled him to the side of the booth to escape the traffic and put on a demonstration. Brushing the booth's cloth-overhang aside, she placed the paper bag down and quickly pulled out a polished, black, fat pen stem with a shining new nib that she slipped into the tip. A pair of purple feathers, one darker than the other, decorated the end of the stem. Clausé produced a jar of black ink and placed it on the edge of the table, "See you dip it in the ink jar like so and just wait a few seconds. It'll suck it right up."
When Alphonse didn't respond in any way, Clausé looked at him confused. Al had been bubbling with words since they'd gotten away from their parents, but something had his attention and Al stared right past her. His gaze went deep behind the brick-building backdrop of the sales booths, and he was obviously no longer listening to what she had to say.
"Huh?" he blinked and re-focussed on her, "sorry."
"Okay," she grabbed Al's right hand and held his palm open between them, "then you simply take the pen and you can draw fluid circles over and over. Not as scratchy as a regular dip pen."
In the palm of his hand she began to run the pen. Al watched for a moment, though he wasn't paying attention. He looked away from her art, yet again letting his eyes vanish into an alleyway between two buildings behind them.
"Huh?" he again shot his attention back to Clausé.
Clausé frowned at him, "What are you looking at?" She gave him his hand back and turned over her shoulder to look down the alley as well. She narrowed her eyes in an attempt to define the dark, grey objects that lay in the shadows, "I see garbage cans."
Al stepped further away from the crowds and deeper into the backdrop, picking up Clausé's bottle of ink from the table as he moved, "I saw something moving."
Clausé hands landed on her hips, "Cats and dogs like old garbage cans. They're just too scared to come out with all these people. Leave them alone and let's go."
Al moved towards the alley, "No, something odd was moving, I'm sure." He stopped at the alley's entrance, placing his right hand upon the aging wall.
"Cats and dogs, Al," Clausé offered again.
Al shook his head, "It was too big."
"Coyotes don't come this far into the city…"
Clausé stopped in mid-motion – Al's shadow finally moved for her. Whatever it had been, it had darted out from a cross-section up ahead, ran towards the end of the alley, and around the corner of the building, becoming lost in darkness. Clausé stood frozen as a chill ran down her back. Al stepped back, bumping into her. The two exchanged nervous glances before Clausé's resolve set back in.
"I've heard stories of chimeras people have said have gotten loose," she placed a hand on Al's shoulder, "but those aren't real."
The pair stood, staring into the alluring, dark mystery of the alley.
"Are you afraid of ghosts?" Al asked.
Clausé shook her head, "No."
The two took a deep breath and stepped into the alley.
Al stayed half a stride ahead of her, clenching his left hand around the bottle of ink as they walked quietly into the darkness, his right hand trailing along the wall as if to make sure he could keep his sense of direction. They could hear the faint echo of their soggy footsteps as they walked into the thin, low layer of mist that lived above the ground; another remnant from the rain in the evening prior that was now evaporating in the summer heat. Al gingerly maneuvered around a line of trash cans and garbage bags against the wall and looked back to see how Clausé was doing.
Clausé's attention was focused dead ahead; worry was smeared across her face and she chewed on her lower lip, "Well, come on," she urged hesitantly, "or do we turn back?"
Al looked past her to the bustling of people beyond the dealer's stand they'd tucked in behind. Through the crowds, he caught the eye of an elder female peddler who operated the stand across the pathway. Alphonse suddenly realized they were somewhere they should not be - the woman who stared right at them firmly adjusted the grey bun upon her head, snatched up the whiskbroom that lay upon the tabletop, and slapped it into her hand. Al's eyes widened with concern as the woman approached. He quickly calculated just how much trouble they'd get into with Izumi if this elder lady deemed them troublemakers and his stomach sank.
She adjusted her gaze to follow Al's. Clausé turned over her shoulder, and her eyes captured the peddler at the moment she jerked violently to the side, without a hand touching her. Never close enough for the pair to have ever heard her voice, the elder woman toppled to the ground. Both children's eyes shot wide, neither given enough time to comprehend what had just happened. With that as their only warning, their hands flew over their heads as they ducked beneath the rapid succession of gunfire echoing off the walls. Panicked, they scrambled away and ran into the darkness of the alleyway, unable to block out the sound of screams wailing behind them.
The children's feet pounded through the murky layers of filth on the alley floor. Frightened tears clouded their vision as they both slipped to their knees in the wet alley sludge, barely able to keep standing when they took a sharp turn too quickly. Gripping the mud between their fingers, they scrambled through the sludge until they re-balance on their feet. Clausé slapped her soiled hands over her ears, trying to drown out the endless echo of the gunfire bouncing off the brick walls. Al remained a stride ahead of Clausé and he looked towards another dreary intersection. When a new echo of gunfire erupted from the direction they were headed, Al tried to skid to a stop and his feet flew out from under him like the mud had turned to ice. Clausé's foot caught on his shoulder and she tumbled down to the ground next to him. Clausé's hands trembled as she reached back for her ears again, the maddening gunfire and screams sounding like they were encroaching on them from both directions. Whatever courage they'd entered with lay shattered and soiled in the mud around them.
The world around them changed without warning.
The next thing either of them realized was the stench they suddenly found their bodies lying in. Extracted from where they'd been and sent skimming at great speeds along the ground, they had become projectiles blown into the garbage bags lining a wall, forcefully removed from their positions when one of the buildings had exploded. The trash and waste had cushioned them from impacting the brick wall.
Al shifted in the debris; he could move in the mess well enough and he looked around at the threads of sunlight filtered in around them. Somewhere beneath him or beside him, Clausé moved. Trying unsuccessfully to gain some traction, Al sank deeper into the waste and mix of filthy debris. He could finally feel his right side start to burn in pain from whatever the explosion had hit him with. Putting his right hand to the side of his head in search of blood, when Al checked his hand in the filtered sunlight, he promptly froze. His concentration was sucked into unexpected focus; as carefully as he could, Alphonse cleared his palms of the spatters of blood, sludge, and waste and turned to face the wall they'd been thrown up against.
"Clausé," his voice nearly commanding.
She tried her best to look up at him, catching only half of the stern expression on his face, "Al?"
Alphonse slammed his right palm against the cement wall and Clausé shrieked from the surprising light that blinded her and engulfed the pair. Moments later, Al's hands grabbed Clausé under her arms and pulled her through a hole in the wall. As the two, filthy children crawled out of the mess, both collapsed on the building's floor. Clausé lay on her back for a moment, gasping for air, looking over at the mangled hole Al had created as parts of the brick and stone wall fell down into the gap where the two once lay.
The pair crawled further into the unlit building, darkened from lack of power. Eventually coming to a stop, both sat in the silence of each other's company as the sound of gunfire dwindled outside.
"Clausé?" Alphonse finally aired out.
She looked over at him as Al held up his right palm.
"Why did you draw this in my hand?" a question born from a myriad of emotions.
Getting to her knees slowly, Clausé wiped her face with her forearm and looked at Al, "I saw your brother draw that once, didn't I?"
Al's expression tightened; he looked up at her in a room lit with nothing but bounce light filtering in from elsewhere, unsure about the answer he should give. Strangely, the fear he had for all that was going on around him seemed to make the topic somewhat easier to explain.
Klose started to wring the sludge from her hair out, "I only saw it briefly, but I never forgot what it looked like. I saw it again in some books the first time I came to Central and wrote it down, but I guess I can't do alchemy."
Al brought his hand back to his own eyes and he examined the transmutation circle she had drawn in his palm, "It's one of the most basic of all circles." He looked at her again when Clausé got to her feet and then reached down and tried to haul him up as well.
"Well, then I'm glad you haven't forgotten how to use it," her grin only shone for a moment before it faded.
Al stared at her with a nervous expression, unsure if he should explain further. But, there was the more pressing issue of what was going on: where they were and how they would get out. Clausé shook her head, dismissing any further conversation about what she'd drawn.
She turned around in the room, trying not to bump into anything as she looked for a door, "We need to get out of here."
Al agreed and clenched the transmutation circle drawn in his hand.
To Be Continued…
This chapter is numbered 52, because the last episode was 51 :)
Klose's name has been revised to Clausé - which is a very slight mod for her name on her classic Bones studio character card
Though its not in this chapter, Ed and Al will refer to Izumi as "Sensei" in verbal context only. I know Japanese words in English stories isn't exactly the thing to do, but I feel it's a word gets a soft pass since certain martial arts disciplines use the title outside of Japan (and I called my Japanese teacher "Sensei" for years). I never became comfortable hearing Izumi addressed as "teacher" or "master", it feels very awkward in English. Everything else is anglicised.
(Chapter edited: 2004-10-12, 2006-02-04, 2010-05-30, 2012-01-18, and 2021-06-29)