"Daddy can I get down?"
The request was quickly fulfilled with the fluid sweep of Hohenheim's arms. Dropping to his feet, Ed did not remain in place long enough for his father to take his hand. Taking a few steps back until he could see the man behind the counter clearly, Ed's tiny hands came to his hips.
"I'll help catch the mouses for you!"
"The word is 'mice', Edward," Hohenheim corrected.
Ed quickly turned to his father, "But I said I'll catch'em! You can help too Daddy, right?"
"It's okay young mister," the attendant smirked with faint amusement and leaned over his counter, "I'll find a way to rid myself of these disturbances."
Raising his hands in front of himself, Ed's grin grew wide, "Daddy gets the mice out of the house when he cla–"
"Edward," though his actions were swift, his touch remained gentle as Hohenheim took hold of his son's left hand. Kneeling down, the other strong hand came to rest over his shoulder, "Edward…" his voice held a playful tone up as a guise, "you can play jump rope, right?"
Ed nodded vigorously at the statement, "I'm better than Winry at it, but she's always bragging she's better."
"Well, why don't you ask those girls we passed outside if you can join them and show them how much better than Winry you are."
With that, Edward scampered from his father's grasp, toddling to the door and pulling on the handle until it popped open for him.
Chapter 67 – The Devil's Mask
He looked back with stern disapproval; everyone remained steadfast to his gaze. Steadying his umbrella beneath the wind and hard rain, there seemed to be nothing that would turn them back.
He didn't even want Alphonse there.
It was a graciously given second chance to keep the boy from everything that had gone wrong the first time around. Yet, he found himself unable to push back the same determination that he'd shown while following his brother through a hell most adults could never dream of. Stern silver eyes challenged the directive that the children at least remain in the car, the same relentless gaze that had challenged him in the hospital weeks before. He did not look like his elder brother, his eyes carried a different glow than his older brother; but he carried a strikingly similar aura. Five years had taught Mustang enough that he'd come to know better than to argue with a determined Elric.
Hawkeye took her cue. The shot from the handgun echoed within the mouldy factory walls, the lock that tumbled to the cement floor left a startling echo.
The only one who could remember this place did not, no one even realized he'd been there before. In this tiny, flooded out city beyond Xenotime, the crumbling factory that was once the workshop of Shou Tucker existed in near ruins. Half of the city did. Existing in disarray beneath the torrent rain, the frailty of life was made a bloody spectacle in the streets.
Inside the ravaged facility on the wrong side of a departed invasion, the five stood, bundled in raingear, unable to avoid the wind and rain funnelling in through the gaping roof and torn siding.
Kicking the lock aside, Mustang pulled open the heavy wooden cellar doors. The first direct hint of suspicion came because of the lock's existence. A lock with no abrasion; obviously placed on after the intruders had ransacked the building.
The doors fell open and Roy found himself assaulted by a nauseating stench upon decent.
"Major," Mustang's hand extended back to her as she placed a lantern into his hand, the snap of his readied glove hand bringing the wick to life.
He entered first, followed by Alphonse, Fletcher and Russell, with Hawkeye taking up the tail end of their line.
Pushing open the door at the bottom of the staircase open further, Mustang stopped their decent as he peered inside the room emitting a rotting odour. Holding the lantern high at the entrance, Mustang's teeth clenched at the atrocity rotting in the middle of the floor.
"What the hell is that?" Russell's muffled voice came through from beyond his hand covering his mouth as he peered beyond Roy into the room.
"'Was'," Hawkeye corrected as she moved past the Tringham children, stepping to the edge of the sticky pool of dried blood, damp once again from the rain's moisture.
Mustang's gaze carried back to his subordinate, only to find Alphonse standing silently between them at the edge of the sticky red mess. The boy's eyes cast upon the poorly lit expression that had existed last on the creature's face, his voice trying to conceal the overwhelming shock of what lay in pieces upon the ground.
"… This was Shou Tucker?"
Roy hesitated, uncertain how to read Alphonse's behaviour, "Yes."
Beyond the travesty that lay at their feet, the sets of eyes wandered around, examining the shattered chimera tanks and opened animal cages; there was nothing left in the room beyond Tucker's dead body. Roy quickly glanced over his shoulder to Riza as she pulled open one of four closed doors around the room.
"When you said he was a chimera…" Al stepped slowly around the mess, the eyes of the two guardians falling upon him as he looked down at the severed head looking back at him without any sign of life, "I didn't think it would be this bad."
"That's disgusting," Russell's face wrinkled as he moved closer to the situation.
With great displeasure for the situation, Roy moved over to Riza as she began opening doors to the room, looking to clear out the stench.
"None of them are locked," pulling open the third door, Riza turned, "none of them are lit either."
Peering into the darkness, Mustang could only frown, taking a quick glance over his shoulder to Alphonse who hadn't moved from his spot, "That's alright," extending his left hand towards the darkened tunnel system, he gave a light snap of his fingers, flaring up the candlelight, "we have other problems."
Shadows created from the lantern began to dance quickly, catching Al's attention. His eyes darted toward the exiting staircase, the parade of chaotic movement avoiding his direct line of sight, disappearing once the light settled down.
"Where's the rest of his body?" Hawkeye squinted in the poor light as she tried to make out what existed in this cavity beneath the building.
Huddled up against the wall, young Fletcher's eyes focused away from the central mess, "some of it's over there…"
The young Elric stepped out from a bloody mess towards Russell, his attention carrying past him towards the staircase.
Raising his lantern higher, Mustang's eye narrowed with curiosity, "It's been moved around…" both officers' eyes scanned the room, looking for the two upper arms that were no longer attached.
"Did you see that?" Al whispered, standing next to Russell.
The older Tringham glanced over his shoulder as Alphonse stepped past him, "You saw something?"
Stooping in the pale outreaches of Mustang's lantern light, Al narrowed his gaze, questioning if he'd actually seen something escape from the shadows. Glancing back over his shoulder to Russell, Al ducked out of the room and began to ascend the surface.
"What's he doing…?" Russell muttered, unimpressed. Glancing to the officers distracted by the two remaining exits, he turned to follow Alphonse back upstairs, issuing a stern warning as he exited, "Fletcher, stay here."
The young Tringham couldn't argue, he didn't want to go ghost chasing, since this room was unsettling enough. Fletcher's right hand grasped over the front of his shirt as he turned his attention back to the officers, wondering if they'd even noticed.
The echo of the rain against the tin roof of the old factory was nearly deafening, it sounded like hail. Al moved slowly as his wide eyes scanned the room, though he nearly shrieked when Russell's hand grabbed his shoulder.
"What are you doing?"
"Something's moving around," Al shook the hand form his shoulder, "I think it ran out from the basement… one of the chimeras. All those cages were open and empty."
Russell held the ends of his poncho tight in his hands, in defiance of the brisk, moist draft spiralling around them.
"We should get Mustang… it could attack us and we're not-"
"No," Al's steps quickened, the sounds of his shoes never heard above the pounding rain dripping through the roof, "if it was going to hurt us it could have done that when we got here. It ran for a reason."
Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, Russell folded his arms, intent on giving the young Elric one of his 'Older Brother' lectures that he'd give Fletcher, only to realize that the boy was running off again.
"Alphonse!" his feet dug into the damp ground as he broke into a sprint to catch up.
Already scaling a mountain of rubble at a point where there was no roof to deflect the falling rain, Alphonse stopped, his eye catching something in the debris.
"Al!" Russell followed into the debris field, watching curiously as the boy began throwing the debris aside.
Crouching down around the hole he'd created, Alphonse shoved a bit more debris aside before his hand came to cover his mouth, eyes wide with wonder and confusion at ruins he'd found.
"Alphonse?" Russell perched himself next to him, "are you o… kay?"
His gaze followed Alphonse's, looking down into the uncovered mess. Both boys remained silent, the rainfall against their ponchos providing more than enough sound, examining the remnants Al had revealed.
"A transmutation circle…" Russell broke the vocal silence, eyeing the portion of a shattered wooden tabletop.
"It's my brother's…"
The voice was so quiet, Russell wondered if he'd mistaken what Al had said, "Come again?"
Alphonse leaned forward, his hand reaching tentatively towards the tabletop. From the corner of his eye, Russell watched as Al brushed his hand over the rain-soaked, wooden surface, tracing a finger through the grooves of a partial transmutation circle, engraved into the wood.
Edward froze in his steps, the briefcase dropping from his fingertips.
Breathing stopped, eyes flew wide, and ears fell deaf. It was so cold. The flesh hand slapped over the back of his neck as he spun around. Wide eyes scanned down the street, then back towards the university.
He didn't even know what he was looking for; it was like someone's cold breath blew over the back of his neck, sending a shiver down his spine.
Nobody was there.
Trying to smooth away the hairs that stood on end, Ed's hand rubbed his neck slowly, wondering what would cause such an uncomfortable feeling.
"And I thought I was the only one jumpy today."
Ed spun on his heels at the sudden voice, barking out his uncertain aggression, "Did you do that?"
Narrowing an eye in confusion, Hess examined Ed's obviously flustered behaviour, "Do what?"
"… Never mind."
"You know," Hess's arms folded across his chest, "I have a reason to be on edge, you don't. Are you up to something we should know about?"
"Who's 'we'?" Ed asked flatly, picking up his briefcase swiftly, "What are you doing here?"
Hess turned over his shoulder quickly. For a moment, the vicious, spiteful gaze Hess enjoyed wearing during Thule meetings shot out into the streets, "If I'm out in the open with someone, less chance something will come up."
"Thanks, you're using me as a shield," it only left a disgusted taste in Ed's mouth.
"There have been eyes watching me on this street since the moment I stepped outside to see you walking home," Hess smirked, as though amused by the game he intended to play with whomever was following him, "it's been going on for days."
"Lovely. And you've followed me around on some of those days, thanks a bunch," rolling his eyes, Ed returned to walking away, "Maybe if you did other things in your spare time, you wouldn't think people were stalking you."
Hess's expression fell away, glancing to his departing companion, "Edward, wait up."
The sudden urge to continually beat his own head into the wall crept up as Hess insisted on following Ed.
"Is there a reason you're here?" Ed shot out flatly, "or am I just convenient?"
"What are you talking about? My class is done, I'm heading home," Hess spoke with a laugh, "did you have a bad day at work?"
Ed rolled his eyes, feeling as though he were being spoken to as a child, "no, my day at work was fine."
A lecherous grin grew across Hess's face, "something else then?"
"How about someone else," Ed's snapped to another topic, not wanting his displeasure to become too well known, "You're that Mr. Hitler's friend, you might know," his pace slowed as a question came to mind, "my father asked me to check with Hermann but he didn't know, so maybe you do. Where does Mr. Hitler gets his wine?"
"His wine?" Hess blinked at the strange question.
Edward could only shrug, "Before I left this morning, My father wanted me to ask around and find out which wineries in Germany carried certain brands of wine. He mentioned something about being surprised that Mr. Hitler could import some certain expensive wines for that party you're planning and wanted to know where we could get some for our wine cabinet."
"Aw hell," Hess scratched his head, "I have no idea where Adolf gets some of his stuff, he has a network of connections that would leave most men jealous. Leave it to him to pick the best."
Re-gripping the briefcase in his hand, Ed's pace picked up again, "Great. I've done my part, he can call the wineries himself."
Matching speed with him, Hess took a few quick steps to join Edward's pace, "You know, it's a shame you and Winry are going to be out of the country when he gets out. We were planning quite the party."
There was that 'no touch' nerve again, "We're not leaving the country, my father has no idea what he's talking about."
"Albrecht told me that Winry said you two were going to London."
The comment stopped Ed in his tracks, "When the hell did he talk to Winry?"
Hess did his best not to laugh at Edward's obviously flustered reaction, "You know, everyone's having a great laugh over how protective you are of her when Albrecht's name comes up."
Ed wished he could bite back about that but chose restraint over a potentially uncontrollable rant, "Are you going to answer my question?"
"Your father was talking with Karl the other day and the idea came up to let Albrecht practice a phone conversation with her because that's what he was doing in class right now. Hohenheim said Winry's entertained by his English skills," Hess mused, "and it's not like you've ever volunteered to help Albrecht with his English skills."
"Not like I've ever volunteered to talk to Albrecht, period," Ed's unsatisfied expression carried far down the street he walked.
"You know Edward," Hess frowned, shaking his head, "I don't know what you have against him, but maybe cut Albrecht some slack once in a while."
Ed's skin began to crawl at the thought. Since the day he had met him, he'd seen nothing but a slimy boy who slept around on his girlfriend and seemed quite proud of the fact that he kept getting away with it. Decency wasn't something high on many people's lists of behaviours, apparently.
"Besides which, I think Albrecht realizes that if he tried to move in on Winry, you'd put him in his grave," the words rolled off Hess's tongue with a laugh, "that or she'd beat you to it. She's… eccentric and isn't afraid to exert herself. It's somewhat frightening, no woman raised in a German household behaves quite like that; I'd have hoped most of Europe would be the same way."
Scratching his head at an odd flood of disturbing and mostly painful memories, Ed glanced up in thought, "Yeah well, Winry's out of place in most European settings, you shouldn't be too surprised."
"Obviously you've figured her out then?" his eyebrows rose.
Ed simply shrugged.
"So how does it work?"
Narrowing his eyes, Hess wondered if Ed was playing with him or was actually serious, "Well, if you're sleeping with her there has to be…"
Loosing the sound of Hess's voice, the man had managed to derail Edward's entire train of thought with one foul swoop, leaving a mortified expression in it's place.
Amused by the exaggerated and shrieking response, Hess licked his lips at the ideas crawling around, "You're this great big mystery Edward, most men I can paint a clear picture of, but you're withdrawn from most social settings and I don't know what to make of you half the time. Winry came along and you seemed more amicable; it's rather nice. I've actually seen you around town more often," Hess watched as Ed twitched, a hand slapping over his face as he tried to simply grasp what was being implied, "you've been here over two years now, that's a long time to be away from home. You took her home from the hall and no one saw you resurface for the next several days... we assumed you two were making up for lost time."
The pitched shriek Edward managed to give was far sharper and louder than the first, "What the hell are you TALKING about?" Flinging his body square in front of Hess, Ed stiffened his shoulders as he brought the world to an abrupt halt.
Hess could only blink.
"I am NOT sleeping with Winry," even saying it sounded wrong, "WHO gave you the idea that I WAS?"
"Well…" frowning in thought, Hess' reaction remained subdued, "we just figured that's what you two were doing. I mean, you two live together, you take her everywhere, you bicker and yell at each other but still walk or drive home together when you're done… we just assumed that's what you were getting out of it. I wouldn't put up with any woman using a belligerent tone of voice with me unless I was getting something quite rewarding in return."
"Rewarding?" once more, Edward wondered where that conveniently placed wall he wanted to bang his head against was.
"You two seemed really close when you were with her in the Thule hall. We've seen you around with your father but you keep your distance from everyone, it was strange to see you with any sort of openly compassionate side."
"Geh…" Ed's eyes crossed while his head drooped in disbelief of their interpretation.
"… So I'm going to assume you're going to deny our rumour?" Hess made no secret in his tone that he was playfully disappointed.
"Winry was scared, okay!" Ed threw his hands up in frustration, "you idiots frightened her for four or five days and she kept on crying, what did you expect me to do? I'm not going to let her cry on the bed by herself."
"We were given incorrect information; you and your father straightened that out. Beyond that, she put up a fight whenever any of us came near her."
Ed held his disgusted look over the man.
"Hey…" a frown developed in Hess's expression, "I apologized, don't look at me like that."
Taking a slow, deep breath, Ed finally straightened his posture and tightened his ponytail with a stiff jerk, "I've known Winry for as long as I can remember and she's different than that! It's not happening. Tell all your friends, it's not happening. Tell anyone who asks, it's not happening," sudden realization came as he continued with the denial, "where the hell was my dad to tell you this was not happening?"
"We asked him, and he said he didn't know."
"That stupid ass!" Ed's voice once again snapped with frustration, paying no mind to Hess's frown for the derogatory description he'd given of his father, "He knows we don't do anything, he'd be even nosier than he is now if we were."
"Hey," it was a cross tone of voice Ed had not heard Hess use very often, "don't speak so poorly of your father."
As much as he wanted to carry on his tirade, Edward opted for the wiser of the two courses of action. Simply discarding the line of conversation without another word for it, Ed decided he was going to walk away, "It's quicker for me to cut through the market. Are you still heading up street?"
Hess picked up on the deliberate change, somewhat grateful that he didn't have to engage in a verbal sparing match, "I am, but I'll see you at school tomorrow. You will be in?"
"I try to be," Ed made his abrupt ninety degree turn at the street corner, giving Hess a passing glance from the corner of his eye as he ended the conversation, "don't let those ghosts follow you home."
"Heh," he could only smirk at that, "I have a bullet for every eye that considers spying on me, though I still can't shake this feeling."
"Good luck then," raising his hand in departure, Ed made haste into the market, wanting nothing to do with whatever Hess planned to say or do next.
Only able to shake his head with a laugh, Hess let Edward walk off. Never in a million years, he thought, would he figure this one out. He loved a mystery, and as much as he enjoyed the intriguing aura of Hohenheim, he still enjoyed trying to figure out why it was Edward kept the people around him at arms length.
With arms folded, Hess continued his walk up street, a smirk landing on his face as he ran the preceding conversation over in his mind.
"Nothing, huh?" steps slowing, the Thule member's pace ground to a halt as he looked up in thought.
Looking back over his shoulder to the vacant spot he'd held the conversation at, Hess's arms slowly fell away. His mind drifting from the musing sensation to another the man's eyes carried down a sidewalk sprinkled with moving people. The gravest of concerns filled his eyes, his feet slowly moving back to the corner where the two had gone their separate ways.
It was gone.
With his attention tearing into the marketplace, Hess watched the unconcerned world move about. The eyes he'd felt since leaving the campus, the ones that watched him, the followed him, daunted him… the one's he'd have killed if only his hand would reach the trigger fast enough, they were gone.
"My God… I wasn't…"
He tore off into the marketplace.
Something tipped, and both boys turned their attention towards the direction of the sound as it came crashing down. Alphonse stood up, his alerted attention distracting him from the engraved surface. The boys stepped along the debris, slipping into a corridor between the heavy machinery scampering until they found themselves in the heart of the firearms factory.
Russell took a few steps towards a toppled tower of equipment piled against the wall, the obvious source of the collapse.
"No, wait…" Al's voice came stern as he stepped up alongside Russell, his eyes darting about in the dim light, trying to map out where the closest points of escape could be.
"Al," Russell momentarily glanced away, "Tucker used to work for the State you said? I heard rumors about the type of chimeras they wanted to create… if this thing attacks…"
Slowly, Alphonse stepped away from Russell, moving towards the crumbling cement wall, "Even if it's two different animals, it's still an animal," he motioned for his counterpart to move to the other side of the mess, "Chimera's attack at the order of their master, but there's no one here to command it. So if you don't give it a reason to fear you, it won't attack."
"That's not a reassuring strategy…" Russell's shoulders sank as he stepped towards the far corner at the wave of Alphonse's hand.
"Just don't run," rising on his toes, Al tried to see what lay in the shadows of a factory in ruins, "if you run, it'll chase you."
Pressing his back against the cold, damp wall, the elder boy carried his gaze around the room before finally setting into the darkened mess of equipment, "That I'll believe."
The rain pounding against what remained of a rooftop and pouring in from a gaping hole above, drowned out the sound of Alphonse's approach. As much as he was thankful for that, he wished it wouldn't drown out the sounds of anything moving around in the darkness. His eyes glanced down the room, watching as Russell carefully made his way around the debris on the floor.
The shadows moved and Alphonse found himself frozen. He couldn't see it, but he could feel the eyes look back at him. Curiosity told him to move forwards, fear told him to move away; all that could be done was for him to stand motionless, wide eyed against a cloaked opponent.
"Al!" Russell's horse whisper called for him, barely heard above the constant echo within the room.
"It sees me…"
It was Alphonse's frightened voice that wasn't heard; this wasn't frightening before, he had the thing cornered in a mess of metal. He was supposed to have the upper hand in this situation. But it moved, he was certain of it, and it moved towards him even if he could not see it make an advance. He wondered if it was not the wind he was hearing wheezing through the cracks, but the sound of the animal's breathing.
The angered bark of Mustang's voice commanded the attention of both boys.
"What the hell are you two doing?"
Alphonse next found himself laying flat upon his back on the ground, thrown from his feet by the force of a body in full sprint. Dropped upon the damp floor, his eyes looked up into the boxes and shelving piled high into the rafters, and the body flinging itself up towards the protection it would provide.
His eyes narrowed in confusion, it was a human body.
"Wait!" Al's voice rang out as Hawkeye's gun fired, he shrieked when the bullet ricocheted off the shoulder of the moving shadow with a spark and bounced off the cement next to Alphonse's ear.
"What the hell?" Mustang's brow rose as Hawkeye lowered her gun in a mix of surprise and confusion.
Scrambling to his feet, Alphonse had barely moved two steps before freezing, the body that had collided with him dropping down from the rafters at the connecting corridor between the two rooms, right in front of Fletcher.
Both bodies, of practically matching heights, stood frozen in motion, practically nose to nose, looking into each other's eyes.
Stepping away from the collapse of equipment, Russell stood speechless at the wild child standing before his little brother.
Riza and Roy snapped their attention to the sudden situation, both swift to draw their guns.
Alphonse's voice came over Roy's shoulder, tightening his expression, "Why?"
"That's Wrath," Al's voice swept out as he came to stand next to Roy, "his right arm and left leg are AutoMail, I felt it when he hit me. The major's gunshot went off his right shoulder. Winry put that AutoMail on him…"
"Wrath?" Riza's eyes narrowed.
"He ran out from the basement, I thought it was a chimera that escaped. He might know what happened to Tucker."
Lowering his gun, but keeping it at ready, Mustang looked at the back the motionless child, covered in lengths of frazzled hair, "Who's Wrath and what was it doing down there?"
Al paused, wondering if he should give out the information, "He's one of the homunculus."
"What?" Alphonse suddenly had Mustang's undivided attention. With the security of the major's shot at his side, Mustang turned to look into the nervous expression the Elric wore.
"Why was that creature equipped with AutoMail parts?" glancing back, Mustang paused for a moment as a disturbing realization hit him, "…why does he have the same AutoMail as your brother?"
His eyes turned forwards, Al took a moment to glance up to Russell who'd joined them, his jaw quivering with the urge to speak, "Fletcher… back away from it…"
"Brother, he's…" it was the intrusion of the younger Tringham's voice that diffused the standoff, Wrath's posture slowly loosing the aggression and panic for escape that he'd been moving with.
"Why are you here?"
The tremble in the purple eyes held Alphonse where he stood, watching as the young Homunculus turned towards him. The look did not freeze Al for long; slowly his tension slipped away and posture straightening as he looked into the timid gaze that bore no resemblance to the creation he'd known as Wrath many months ago.
"Why?" The voice was childish, carrying a frightened cry within it. Alphonse remained silent, wondering what could have caused such a change; the anger and rage no longer present in the small body.
As Wrath turned towards the barrel of Hawkeye's gun, staring into the startled and confused expression Alphonse carried, Fletcher turned quickly on his heels and ran into the safety of his brother's presence.
Violet eyes suddenly shot around the room, dropping his defensive posture against the people around him, Wrath stumbled himself around in circles, wildly looking about.
"Sir?" Riza's voice held low, waiting for the order from her superior to fire; an order that Mustang held carefully in his two signalling fingers.
The movement stopped suddenly, the Brigadier General finding himself entranced by the frightened look in an unnaturally coloured gaze.
"I knew they came back because of you!"
Mustang's brow slowly rose as Wrath's voice shrieked.
"It'll be your fault!"
"Alphonse!" Riza screamed in frustration at the boy as he moved into her intended line of fire, chasing after the homunculus that had quickly fled before his last syllable was spoken.
Roy considered cursing the boy for having an impulse reaction like his elder brother, but his attention was stolen the moment a frosted glass pane shattered, ripping into the echo of rain. Turning in the direction of the noise, the remaining four watched the remaining stack of boxes and equipment, piled high along the wall, begin to topple over.
"Get back here," Roy's darkened expression directed the Tringham brothers towards the back of the room, his good eye watching a thick, grey smoke billow out from the collapsed mess, "get against the wall."
"Let's go to the other building," Russell glanced to Mustang who'd opted for his gun over his glove, wary of what fire could set off in a factory filled with ammunition and weaponry.
"Sir?" Hawkeye found herself standing at the senior officer's back, as the two moved in a circular tandem, surveying the room.
"Wait…" he wished he could command the wind and the rain as well as people's voices. Mustang's right gun hand came to point at an archway of glass panes that remained in tact.
Her left hand coming to steady the right, Hawkeye kept her focus trained forwards, listening for what existed beyond the storm.
Huddled up against the wall, farthest from the flowing smoke, the Tringham brothers watched as the cloud began to flow around the two officers who paid no attention to the growing screen. As the rain thundered down against the roof, spilling in from its cracks, Mustang's jaw tightened as he fought to see something beyond the growing grey haze and frosted white windows.
"… Get down… "
"Grace?" Winry paled, it was a strange word and for some reason, she didn't like it, "how do you say 'Grace'? Isn't 'grace' how you walk?"
A meal of ham, steamed carrots, and sweet potatoes steamed up from the centre of the table as she stole a glance of the dinner before questioning Hohenheim once again.
"A lot of families in Germany, Europe in general, say 'Grace' before sitting down to dinner. It's a thank you to God for the meal."
Leaning back, Winry watched as the elder Haushofer placed a wine glass down at the side of her still empty plate.
"If there's a guest over, it's not uncommon for he or she to be the one who says Grace before the meal."
Winry's eyes traveled around the dining room, Mrs. Haushofer setting the white buns down with the meal, Mr. Haushofer returning the wine bottle to the middle of the table, Albrecht's continued gaze cast upon her, and Hohenheim fixing the napkin in his lap.
She couldn't tell him that she didn't want to do such a thing, Albrecht knew enough so that he'd understand her.
Winry fiddled with the napkin in her lap, "I don't know what to say…" it was a merely defensive response to an uncomfortable situation, "God didn't make this meal, Mrs. Haushofer did…"
"Winry," Albrecht's voice made her nerves even worse, "you will have thanks for this food before we begin the eating?"
Even in his butchered English, it was like another unwanted pressure for the topic, "Sure, I'll… think of something."
"I am happy for that!"
Half the time Winry couldn't figure out if she wanted to laugh at him for sounding so funny, or have his tongue cut out because it had gotten so annoying.
The conversation at the table broke into a chorus of foreign German as plates began to fill; the transition allowed Winry to unwillingly distance herself from the moment. It was a fleeting, passing sensation that sat heavier than the food could have in her stomach. The dinner looked so good, so warm; the ham, which had been the last cooked ingredient of dinner placed at the table, billowed up with thin white steam. Albrecht had asked her if it smelt good; yes was her answer for his question, but no was the response. Dinner was a table decoration. Every night, dinner was a table decoration that only teased her tongue on what life use to taste like. It was a bother that had grown up over the three weeks, the wanting urge to taste and savour the meals, the drinks, the aromas. It was all there for her to grasp, all of those sensations, she'd watched other people enjoy them; but she couldn't find it for herself.
One more piece of life went missing.
"Huh?" she blinked over to Hohenheim, a stupid expression must have crossed her face that caused a few giggles around the table.
"Do you have something to say for Grace?"
She wished to be five years old, so she could throw her napkin at the plate and yell how mad she was at this inanimate object for making her so unhappy. She was not thankful for this food, "I will… make something up…"
Wrinkling her face in thought, Winry found herself momentarily flustered at the bowed heads and hands in laps; even Hohenheim, which seemed more wrong than her saying Grace.
The thanks Winry ended up giving was for the doorbell that rang.
"Right at dinner hour too," Karl Haushofer stood up from his meal, "people have no manners."
"Or no wife to cook them dinner," Mrs. Haushofer gave a smile, casting an eye at Hohenheim who began to laugh at the statement, "it's a good thing you have Winry staying with you, I can only imagine the catastrophes you and Edward cook up."
"I will have you know that I'm a fine cook, Edward is not bad at it himself," Hohenheim conveyed through a smirk, "my wife use to love it when I cooked for her."
Smoothing her napkin over the skirt of her dress, the woman could only giggle, "If either my husband or my son ventured into my kitchen, our house would burn down in no time. Did your wife teach you how to cook? The men in my household seem quite disinterested."
"I actually knew how to cook before I met Trisha, and Edward had some culinary guidance from his mother and a teacher."
Winry raised her eyebrows to the only two words in the conversation she was sure of, spoken with a casual delight that seemed inappropriate for the names.
It seemed to be an astounding concept, "They teach young boys how to cook in the British school system?"
"In the education stream Edward went through, yes."
Entirely disinterested in the foreign conversation, Winry glanced over her shoulder and out curiously into the rest of the house. With only moments to let her distraction wander, she quickly turned to face forward as Haushofer returned into the kitchen with a dinnertime guest who seemed somewhat familiar.
Her eyes focused on Mrs. Haushofer who greeted the interrupting man with a delightful smile. The gibberish continued on with a jovial light tone, Winry ran her attention around the room, trying to figure out who this somewhat familiar face was. Haushofer's voice intruded with a grave tone that caught her attention, and Hohenheim's as well. Unsettled, Winry held her hands in her lap, her attention redirected to Hohenheim the moment he abruptly stood up from his seat. The unnerving vocal tones held her discrete, painting a distraught world through the sounds of everyone's voices. The intruder continued to speak while her eyes glanced from man to man: their guest would speak, Mr. Haushofer would speak, Albrecht would speak, Mrs. Haushofer finally spoke when addressed by her husband. Winry's nerves wanted her to curl away each time Hohenheim's broke into the conversation; Edward's father that did not 'speak', he demanded and commanded.
"Winry," his tone chilled her as her gaze traveled over to meet an incontestable sternness, "stay with the Haushofers for the night."
"What?" she squeaked, looking up at him horrified. Her lips moved to protest but the moment she caught his gaze, he silenced her challenge.
"Do not leave the house unless myself, Mr. Haushofer or Mr. Hess have come to get you, understand?"
He was frightening; her bottom lip itched to move in defiance of being with a family she'd barely had the company of for two hours. She couldn't find enough courage within herself to protest against the damming eyes of a man who'd quickly discarded his empathy. She'd spent the last few days telling herself that if Ed knew and accepted him as he was, she could too. But again, his existence, towering above her with a powerful aura, frightened her.
Turning to leave before Winry could cast her gaze away in submission, the raging concern that swept over his expression became far more alarming for her than his aura ever could have.
"What happened to Tucker?"
"Why did you have to come here?" the tiny, frightened voice cried back.
"To talk to Tucker," Alphonse swallowed the tremble in his body, looking blindly into the darkness, "did you kill him?"
The dark hole carried a gut-wrenching odour that Alphonse forced into the back of his mind. Like a frightened and trapped animal, Wrath remained buried in the darkness of a corridor he'd unsuccessfully tried to hide within. The young Elric's hands clenched to subdue his fear of the confrontation. His jaw tight, eyes stern, Al waited for the darkness to move. The one thing he knew for certain: the only way out was through him.
"She killed him. She cut off his head."
Pausing, Alphonse found himself caught off guard by the abrupt answer. It came blurted, like a secret that he'd been longing to share.
Alphonse waited in the silence, feeling the faint, cold breeze against the back of his neck as it flowed through the stench, seeping in from the hatch he'd left open.
Alphonse's defensive guard fell, his shoulders giving away beneath a confusing answer, "Dante's dead."
"No…" such a timid sound, but the fear Wrath held in his voice had been redirected, and Alphonse's gaze became lost in the darkness as he began considering the improbability of his statement.
"Why'd she kill him?" regardless of who Wrath thought had done the deed, the question had to be asked.
"Because of Nina."
There was that name; it was a tiny name for a tiny child shrouded in a mystery no one had yet been able to answer for him.
"Was Nina Shou Tucker's daughter?" Alphonse nearly bit his tongue at the eagerness in his voice. He knew as well as anyone, at the core of his question lay a disgusting truth he was afraid to know the answers to.
Just one more question. No matter what he would find out about this young child's existence, she seemed to carry so much more life, history and intrigue than he could ever have guessed. Everyone seemed to either love her or want her. The pinch bothering him in his chest made it an immoral choice to concern himself with only the self serving interest of his own and not that of a family in ruins, "Why did…" Al side glanced as he thought about how he could possibly imply Dante, "how did Nina have anything to do with it?"
"He wouldn't let her go," the darkness had turned deep grey; Alphonse held in his eye the black signature of Wrath's figure as he sat on the damp cement floor, "she cut off his arms first so he'd let her go."
Even though he'd seen the chimera's hairy torso bled out on the floor, Alphonse could not help but carry the image in his mind of the human Shou Tucker: the image he'd looked at from Mustang's files during the train ride. He'd spent so long becoming accustomed to the image, the only thing he could envision was the man, the father, refusing to give his child over.
As tattered as it was, it was still a family of two. A forged family of two, he knew this. The stunning grey eyes shrouded in the cavern's darkness steadied themselves in the cloud and asked a terrible question.
"Do you know how Tucker took Nina from the Gate?"
Alphonse's posture straightened to a quick and unanticipated answer. Wrath's response was affirmative, without hesitation, but how could he not have? There couldn't be any other way someone could look so-
"He made her."
Pausing, Al wondered if Wrath understood what he was asking. Roy had told him Tucker was attempting to recreate his daughter, but he wouldn't be able to finish her without retrieving her mind and soul from Gate.
"You helped him finish making her, with the Philosopher's Stone…"
The words blew through his chest like a rusty old spear. Again, there was the Philosopher's Stone. Everywhere he looked, all the answers that he knew, everything found it's way back to that. He did not want that, yet reality insisted on bringing him crashing back down to earth. Stiffening his shoulders as he took a sharp breath, trying to hold his disappointment and composure in check, Al forced himself to think over the other implication Wrath had presented.
"I brought her back…?" For the moment he thought about how this could be his fault, the air was hard to breathe, "why would I have…? It doesn't make any sense. How could I have enough left for my brother?"
"You did though! Dante said you did…"
Distancing himself from the words, he continually fought to fight the numbness wanting to take him over.
"… because you were the only one who could, Tucker's alchemy couldn't do it without you."
Al turned slowly, dragging his feet along the soggy surface of the floor as he moved away from the darkened dead end. He didn't want to hear any more, this had been a waste of time; beyond that, it hurt. For a few days he could finally start progressing towards answers, something that could give him a lead, or a starting block. He found himself dropped back at the point where he'd began before the idea of Tucker or Nina. Alphonse continued to walk away from Wrath, carrying with him nothing more than an ugly story about a time in his life disassociated from his current state. A frustrated silver gaze looked ahead down the hall, he wished Sensei or Winry were there to lean upon for support, but he only had himself. Taking in a slow walk away from the situation, Al's eyelids drooped as he thought Wrath's statements over.
He could only shake his head, the more he thought about it, the more something was wrong with Wrath's information. He'd used the stone to bring his brother back, and that was the last thing he did. How could he have possibly had enough Philosopher's Stone for two complete human transmutations…
"Hey," Alphonse spun on his heels, turning back towards the unlit tunnel his voice called out into the blackness, "are you sure we're not – GEH!"
Finding Wrath standing right behind him, Alphonse stumbled backwards in surprise and quickly found himself fallen on the floor. Staring up at the saucer wide eyes that looked back down at him, Al could only sigh.
"Why do you want to know all this stuff?" Wrath tilted his head, "you make so much trouble with it."
"I want to reach the Gate," rising to his feet, Al patting the damp seat of his pants unimpressed with the soggy floor he'd landed on, "and take something from it."
An over exaggerated scowl crossed Wrath's expression, "I don't like the Gate."
"Neither do I."
"You know," the purple eyes examined Alphonse fiercely, "the Gate doesn't like your idea of Equivalent Trade when you want things from it."
"And I don't want to give it anything in exchange," a grin swept across Al's face, hands landing on his hips as he played along with the childish voice Wrath used in the conversation, "so we're even."
Turning again, he continued to make his way back towards the cellar doors; his hand coming to cover his nose as the smell of rotting flesh grew more potent the closer he came. He could hear Wrath following, his bare feet echoing off the damp floor.
"But I don't know how to get to it safely," Al's gaze carried up to the low ceiling as he thought, "let alone get someone from it. I think you and I are missing something…"
Alphonse stopped, looking back over his shoulder as Wrath's footsteps came to a stop.
Holding a distant and still unsolved riddle, the inhuman eyes Al could see in the darkness shone with a damming knowledge, "Diana is part of what you want, just like Dante wants too."
Al slowly turned, squaring himself around to the presence Wrath began to carry, "Diana?"
"Dante wanted to make Diana for that theory," the young voice bounced off the moisture on the walls and surrounded the last Elric.
"Is she a thing…?" Al's brow wrinkled in confusion.
"It's not a she, it's a baby."
Al's arms fell down to his sides, thoroughly confused by Wrath and his story. Choosing to disregard the gender confusion, Al found another question to pose, "Why does Dante want a baby?"
"Babies talk with the Gate the best…"
Slowly, Alphonse's eyes widened with intrigue and fascination, listening as Wrath offered up a simple elaboration.
"… and Diana is a special baby."
"What makes Diana special?" he couldn't help but ask.
Wrath's face twisted as he danced around in thought, "Hmm… lots of things."
"Like what?" his tone attempted to coax Wrath along.
"Well," the young homunculus tapped his chin, "you can do that thing you wanted to do, 'cause Diana's part of the Gate," Wrath paid no mind to the widening expression on Al's face, "she's made of some Philosopher's Stone, so she doesn't listen to all of the Gate's rules."
The idea of using a baby for an alchemical experiment seemed horrifying; an infant is defenceless and unable to defend itself, a horrible victim of some mad man's experiment. Standing in the darkness, Alphonse ran over the implications in his mind, the cruel and heartless idea of violating an infant; yet, it could access the Gate. Letting the information soak in, he tried to find reasons and possibilities for what he'd been told. Refocusing his attention upon Wrath, Alphonse couldn't help but think of the alchemy array that had been on Roze's baby for so many weeks before finally fading away.
"Where is she… er… it?" the question came off his lips tentatively, carrying stern caution as though he wasn't sure if he wanted to know.
Wrath's response was quiet and withdrawn, somewhat to Alphonse's relief, "I dunno, I've never seen it."
Even if he didn't want to know, the response Wrath gave him was unsatisfying. Frowning, more so in frustration for the overwhelming mountain of questions and obstacles coming to light, Al challenged the answer, "Then how do you know there's a Diana?"
"I don't know!" Wrath's voice rose in protest of the accusation in Al's tone, "Dante wanted the Lior baby for it, but it wasn't working right. She wanted to change him into the Diana baby so the theory would work, but the Lior woman took it away."
Al's eyes widened, his head slowly shaking with confusion at the bizarre information, "W-which theory?"
"The Gate one!" Wrath's voice whined with displeasure at the barrage of questions, "The one Hohenheim made!"
The darkness hid how quickly the colour drained from Alphonse's complexion, the tension vanishing from his shoulders as his hand's hung loose at his sides, "… My dad?"
Not given time to digest Wrath's words, the pair's attention shot towards the echo of sound rushing down the hallway. Alphonse froze, he could feel it in the echo, in the ground; the world moved from some type of explosion.
"They came back!" Wrath shrieked, taking Alphonse's attention. The boy looked on; wide, dilated eyes watching the fear flow through the small body, "I knew they came back because of all this."
Remaining standing in the echo of what Alphonse soon realized was gunfire, they grey eyes watched Wrath tear off into the black mess of hallways beneath the building that led into Tucker's lab. Turning back towards the faint light, now flickering with noise and movement, the youngest Elric took two frightened steps away from the only known exit before running into the darkness of the hall system.
A crushing grip rattled a pair of cold, metallic bars, "Get on your feet."
"Does anyone know you're here? At this hour?" the voice carried bitterly, unimpressed by the interruption at the post-midnight hour, "waking a man up at this time of night."
"Are you that cowardly?" Hohenheim's voice shot out with a startling ferocity.
"Isn't it a bit late to hold so much rage?" sitting up slowly from the old mattress on the cot he slept upon within the prison cell, Adolf opened his eyes towards the angered voice, "even if those bars were not in our way, it would be quite unwise for you to handle me, Professor Elric."
"Where is he?"
Hohenheim's eyes slit, "Edward."
With a deep sigh, Adolf rose from his creaking bed, "Who's Edward?"
"Don't you dare…"
"Oh your son! That's right," his fingers snapped, coming to sit on the cozy wooden bench against the back wall, "Did you lose him?"
The voice raged with a low rumble, "If anything happens because of your actions I'll-"
"You'll have no way to prove it because I am in jail," Adolf's hands slapped down upon his kneecaps, cutting into Hohenheim's threat, "now satisfy my curiosity Professor, why do you care so much for that existence you feel is worthy enough to be known as your son? You've come all the way down here to threaten me, yet I still cannot see you as a man who cares for a family, especially something as broken as 'Edward'."
Hohenheim's attention focused on a strange line of questioning, "your opinion of my life style has no bearing on how I conduct myself."
"Perhaps I cannot envision it because I know the types of actions you are capable of," his words drifted around the room, pretending as though he were lost in thought.
Hohenheim's directed speech was far less whimsical, "My actions with Thule and my actions outside of that are entirely unrelated."
"So what are you doing here?" Adolf grew a similar, serious tone, still holding the entertained atmosphere in his speech, "accusing me of these things, when you should be out looking for your son."
"I thought it would be best to go straight to the source," Hohenheim's smooth speech shot towards the man sitting in the post-midnight darkness of his confinements, "rather than continuing to chase my own tail around until sunrise."
His eyebrows rising, Adolf seemed mildly delighted, "I am flattered to know that our last conversation found a place in your heart."
"Where is he?" Hohenheim was done with the man's game.
"Why don't you just let fate run its course and see if he turns up."
Scoffing, Hohenheim turned his nose up at the suggestion, "Don't lecture me about 'fate' when you are the one intent on toying with it."
Adolf held the room in silence, looking back at his accuser with the same cold gaze bestowed upon him. With arms folded across his chest, he leaned back against the cold cement wall, "I do not like what you are implying, Professor."
"Then I'll tell you again to answer me," the words came without care or regard the previous statement.
"Maybe he'll float up in a swamp," his voice carried a bored drawl, "face down."
"Why do you insist on interfering in my business and with my family?" Hohenheim snarled, forcing the image Adolf had created from his mind, "I've told you time and time again that I have no quarrel with you."
An unforgiving gaze looked back at him as he spoke.
"If you insist on confrontations with me, fine, I will deal with you," the father's voice thundered out, "but your issues with me have no reason to include anyone else around me."
"That is not how this system works," his left hand smoothed over his chin, "besides which, I cannot comprehend why you're so insistent about caring for your son. He and his mechanical parts should be thrown out with the trash. Beyond that, I've heard you've abandoned him before," Adolf watched as the man beyond his cell bars stood frozen at his words, "while you lived in London, and that you were reunited after many years in the days after the raid. Are you making some foolish effort to atone?"
Just for a moment, Hohenheim had forgotten that was the story he'd concocted to explain Edward's recurring animosity towards him; the realization relinquished a strangling fear that had lingered for far too long.
"Hence, why I'm confused about how a man like yourself cares for his children so much."
Hohenheim paused, bothered by the wording, "I have one child."
"That's it? I was told you had more children in your household," the man said with the tilt of his head.
With the slow shake of his head, Hohenheim made the correction to an assumption, "No, I only have one. Winry is a family friend."
"Strange…" he came to fold his arms, once again trying to give the illusion he'd become lost in thought, "Someone must have been confused when I heard you fathered more children."
Hohenheim's gaze hardened, speaking slowly at the frightening and sickening sensation of déjà vu from the smooth tone of voice, "It's happened before."
"Obviously some mistaken identity…"
"By whom?" the words came harsh and cold, frozen over as they snapped from his mouth.
"… with 'Winry' then."
Each syllable came with strict enunciation, "Given by whom?"
"Someone named Bryan," Adolf waited, watching Hohenheim as the old man tightened his jaw, unable to strangle the life out of the metal bars he'd come to grip.
"You remember the man I speak of? He ran the postal outlet you once frequented. I found out many interesting things about your life and your family from him," throwing one leg over the other as he sat upon the old wooden bench within the prison cell, the toying man watched as Hohenheim stepped away from the barrier that prevented him from tearing something apart, "Do you remember the time we met there? Your son was with you. It was the last time we'd spoken outside of your introduction to the Thule Society. You received a package: a bottle of wine."
His hand sweeping over his tightly tied hair, Hohenheim let his cold gaze hang cold over the conversation, casting his fierce golden gaze back at the man who paid no mind to the atmosphere.
"You remember what happened that day, don't you?"
"I'm curious to find out how you think you know what was in that package," Hohenheim's voice fell low, he began to piece together the implications of this knowledge. Adolf once again asked for his attention, and Hohenheim gave it to him, watching as the man stood up from his perch.
"In one of the southern districts, some stray members of the Freikorps have an 'office' of sorts. Perhaps he might still be there," smoothing his prison shirt, Adolf slowly approached, "and if you two grace me with your presence at my celebration next week I might tell you how I came to know that there was a bottle of Mariana's Finest in your package."
His fists clenched so firmly the strain on his muscles caused his strong arms to tremble. Eyes shut tightly at the recollection of a memory, jaw grinding at the thought; Hohenheim finally threw himself away from the situation. Hands gripping his ponytail as he yanked it tighter, he straightened his vest with a firm tug and marched down the hall towards the door.
"Hohenheim," Adolf watched, smirking; the bellowing call did not slow his departure.
"Let me make myself perfectly clear," the man's words rang out down the hall, wrapping around its listener, "I did not tell you where to find your son because I pity the wretched thing's existence. Nor did I tell you where you might find him because I carry any concern for your poorly conceived idea of a family."
Angered golden eyes carried boiling frustration for a suddenly far more dangerous situation, refusing to look back as the vocal sounds bounced around him.
"Pick up whatever may be left of his tattered body off the ground and hold in your eyes the knowledge that I can manipulate many different strings of 'fate'. In my Germany, you are a very little man. With the position you hold, I will not tolerate how you stand against me. So, before you die, I want you to dance in whatever performance I dream up for you, before something more unfortunate happens."
Firmly, Hohenheim gripped the metal handle of a prison door.
"Perhaps your son should watch when you're put in your place, and then know who was able to accomplish that."
Glancing down at the hand that held the cold handle, Hohenheim gave a response, "Edward has nothing to do with us."
"Unfortunately, as I'm sure you're aware," Adolf's arms came to rest against the bars above his head as he leaned against the confinement, "I've already included him."
His hand gripped around the door handle, throwing it open as the taunting voice broke into the mid night silence once again.
"Do I get to see the look on your face before you walk out the door?"
The door swung shut without him turning back, but the echo of Hohenheim's fist slamming into the wall let Adolf's grin of satisfaction curl a little more.
To Be Continued...
Like always, check my profile for info! I love reviews… if you're here, you should hit that review button and tell me what you think. It always makes my day :D even if its been a billion years since I started this lol XD
Poor Ed… he lives his life with this neon yellow "Pick On Me!" sign hanging over his head.
I think I've given my insight into Hohenheim once already, check in some previous chapters for my explanation for his behaviour and mannerisms. But keep their conversation in the back of your minds for a bit, obviously it was rather important.
Moofy is everyone's favourite devil child.
Previous Chapter Feedback
www . livejournal users / yuuki / 81361 . html