Chapter 75 - Nobody's Heroine (Part XXIV)
With a dull thump, the bundle of dirty clothes landed in a heap at the bottom of the stairwell. Taking clumps of fabric into each hand, Winry hiked up her dress as she stomped down the stairs. Having gone searching through the suitcases for a pair of missing socks, she had unearthed the weekend attire that had been ignored on Sunday by everyone but her. That Sunday morning after the party she had been the first one to take a shower, the first one to dress, the first one to wash her clothes and the first one to kick the rest of the house into existence. She felt fine, so why were they ignoring life?
Hohenheim had given a hearty laugh when Ed balked at Winry's cheerful 'hung-over' demeanour.
On Monday morning, Winry'd come to the sad realization that no man in this house had done any laundry. Why did she get the feeling she was going to be the one to take care of this? Like hell she was going to do their laundry. They were all over twenty, two of them were old enough to be her father, and they could do it themselves.
But, she'd give them a subtle reminder to behave like mature adults by leaving it in the middle of the floor.
As for this particular day, she was a little bit annoyed with Ed's morning behaviour. He'd gone out and told her to stay behind. She sincerely hated how it felt like she was being treated like a child not old enough to cross the street. He was just going to the district market, for goodness sake. It was a short drive from the Wilson house, and she could walk there in under half an hour – heck it might not even take 20 minutes.
Maybe he just wanted some time to himself. That's understandable, but maybe it was the tone of voice was using. He'd been doing it far too often lately, and even though she understood what brought it out, she wished he wouldn't use his commanding tone on her. The world was not as scary as he wanted her to think!
Winry scowled at the pile of laundry in the middle of the floor.
Don't you dare touch that, Winry Rockbell; you are not a maid or a house wife.
There wasn't enough time for her to conjure up something else to focus on before an external force answered her plea for a change of activity. Grinning, she narrowed an eye at the ringing telephone at the end of the hallway.
Reaching a fine hand down to grab the receiver, Winry suddenly stopped.
Wait, what do I say? 'Thank you for calling Dr. Charles Wilson's, Winry speaking.'? That sounds secretarial and contrived.
Winry glanced around quickly as the phone continued to ring.
If I just say 'hello' they might hang up, because no one knows who I am. Phone calls can't be cheap, whoever is calling won't want to talk to someone they don't know for too long if they think it's a wrong number.
Twice more, the ringing bell of the rotary telephone sounded and Winry stared down at the noisy black device trying to get her undivided attention. She reached out her hand to grab it…
Her head suddenly dropped, as did her hand, when she realized that she'd let the phone ring until it had gone silent.
She spun on her heels, an eye viciously narrowed at the pile of clothes in the middle of the floor. She would kick it across the room if it would make her feel better. With blazing annoyance at herself and the dirty, stinking laundry, she thundered back towards the mess, only to find herself scrambling back to the telephone as it began ringing once again.
Winry fumbled the handset in her fingers as she snatched it up, finally slapping it to her ear, "Um… Charles Wilson's home, Winry speaking!"
Well, it was going to sound strange no matter how she answered the phone.
Winry's reaction softened as she glanced at the phone piece in her hand, unprepared to hear a little boy's voice coming through the other end.
"Hi, this is Winry," she adjusted the tone of voice to something much more fitting for a child's world than an adult's.
"Hello this is Harold, I'm with the General Post Office. I would like to know if there is an Edward Elric at the address for this phone number."
Pausing, Winry tried to associate an age to the voice. The boy couldn't have been more than ten years old. What was he doing working at a post office?
"Yes there is, but he's not home right now, can I take a message?"
Wait a minute. Why is there a package for Ed?
"Yes please, Ma'am."
She shuddered, something about the way the boy said 'Ma'am' made her feel like the child's grandmother. Other people called her Ma'am, but it felt more stylish like 'Madame'. This little boy's words were just painful.
"Can you tell him that there is a package for him at the district post office? We will hold it for two weeks before discarding it."
Lost in confusion, Winry gave an affirmative response to the child, dearly hoping that Ed knew where that was and how to get there. Yet the more she thought about it, the more questions she had for this poor child.
"Is it normal for visitors to receive phone calls telling them they've gotten packages?"
"No, Ma'am, but my supervisor asked me to call. The gentleman who dropped it off made the request that it be picked up rather than delivered and printed the phone number on the package."
That was odd. Then again, this could be perfectly normal for this world. She had no idea either way, but pushed a little more, "Who's the package from?"
"I apologize Ma'am, but I didn't see the person who left it at our outlet. Perhaps it's fragile. I apologize if it's a great inconvenience. It can be delivered if you request."
"Well, it's not an inconvenience, I don't think," Winry scratched her head, mulling over the conversation, "but if we have two weeks, knowing Ed we'll be in there today if not tomorrow. Can you tell me who the sender is?"
A pause came, and she could hear the boy fumble with something; assumingly it was the package, "There isn't one, Ma'am."
The answer caught Winry off guard and again she left the young man dangling in her silence. A mystery package? With no sender? For Ed?
"Okay, thanks for the call. We'll be by to pick it up."
"Have a good afternoon!"
The call ended at that, and Winry found herself standing in the hall, staring at the silent, black handset that had given her today's great mystery. This was far more interesting than waiting around to bark at Ed to clean his clothes.
Dropping the handset down into its cradle, Winry darted back through the house, ascending the staircase in record time. She may not know where the post office was, but she knew Ed was in the market, and if she knew Ed, he'd want that package from a mystery sender before everything closed at four. It was only half past one that afternoon, and there was still plenty of time.
In a hall, flooded in coarse black, beneath the burning spotlight crushing down from above, the exact location of individuals and where their voices came from was uncertain. Each distinct voice hid within the vast echo, but their power, their ferocity, and their prowess was unmistakable.
It was true; actors besieged by spotlights could not see their audience.
Stern, broad shoulders held the weight of the mammoth light at bay, as Lieutenant Havoc found his hand twitching, unable to fondle his favourite cigarette between his lips, let alone his fingers.
By now it must have been the fourth hour he'd sat there, upon a sorry excuse for a wooden stool. He'd never caught much scuttlebutt about internal military interrogations, but he was on his way to being the focal point of the one developing around him. Certainly, there were lies that he had to hold in trust, fabricated for the safety of many people that he held in far greater regard than anyone in this room; however, it was the insults upon his life, his person, and his family that caused his jaw to grind. The constant assault set up to trip his tongue had slowly worn at his patience.
The missing Market Place reports, Klose and her father's missing statements, the unknown location of Brigadier General Mustang and Major Hawkeye, and the bizarre paperwork that lead to Broche's transfer came up endlessly. The private investigation into Izumi and the disclosure of Winry had become a hot topic early, and did nothing but hinder his credibility and inflame the words thrown at him. It was annoying, if not infuriating, how his interrogators seemed to think he was the best suspect for explaining away Winry. He had, of course, offered the girl a ride to Central Headquarters from the library a fair time before she'd vanished, and that became fuel to create suspicion that he somehow had knowledge of her whereabouts.
Once in a while, a door could be heard as men came and went. Though it was the moments after one particular door closed and silence embedded into the living darkness once again that caught the Lieutenant by surprise.
"Four years, seven months ago, Lieutenant, you led an intimate relationship with the lead switchboard operator on the first floor, Melinda Dy, is that correct?"
"Yes," the response was forthright, still having no idea where the conversation was headed.
The same voice stepped in again, "Your separation was of mutual, reasonable, rational consent, correct?"
"Yes, Sir." Why?
"Did you keep in contact with her after your separation?"
Havoc's eyes narrowed further beneath the light, "I would see her in passing each week. We exchange courtesies. She did run the switchboard, it's not like I could avoi-"
"When was the last time you spoke with her?"
The words in this charade echoed in the dark abyss, "A couple of weeks ago?"
This time, it was a new voice taking up a chord in the chorus of black noise, cutting Havoc's statement short, "And since she stepped away from that position, have you been made aware of her current assignment?"
The entire line of questioning was ridiculous as far as Havoc was concerned. Could they not get to the point? "During decommissioning over the winter, she was removed from the military roster and transferred upon request into Federal Government Services. I'm not aware of her exact position, we've never discussed it," rolling his eyes, his tone filled with exasperation, "she said something about getting more pay."
"Lieutenant, I would request that you provide us with a means of confirming the validity of your telephone records so we may verify your most recent contacts."
It had been the first time in hours where the officer's jaw was loosened by the influx of confusion, "Central Headquarters keeps record of the lines and numbers for incoming and outgoing calls, my telephone records aren't something that my office produces but Communications or the switchboard will be able to provide those."
What an absurd question, why was he being asked to provide phone records? They should have those already. Especially if they suspected that he was not an honours student in the class of honesty. If they were suspicious, they would have expected him to have tampered with them in some way – which was not entirely wrong, but certainly not a part of the bigger issue. Was this some sort of ploy? If so, what could the reason behind it possibly be? The incursion of shifting sheets of paper caught his ear without warning.
Again, the paper shuffle emerged again, and the dark silence had a very ominous sign of life, "Officer, your phone records were recently seized from Communications and placed in the parliamentary division of the highest ranking government officials awaiting review. They were left in trust upon the desk of Assistant Secretary to the Prime Minister, Melinda Dy. Upon request of these documents, Miss Dy could no longer produce your telephone records. Can you explain?"
Had there been a cigarette between his dried lips, it would have tumbled to the cold, cement floor.
They couldn't possibly think… were they making this up? He had nothing to do with this woman, and she owed him nothing. What were they trying to catch him on? Truth or fabrication, the statement was damming. He had no information on this card they played – if it was a bluff how was he supposed to play it? What would it catch him on? But, if this was true, who dipped their hands into the affair? What were they trying to do, incriminate him further?
"Officer, would you care to explain why a woman in association with you would be suddenly unable to produce the necessary documentation?"
If documents that stood for his credibility were missing, Havoc could only assume they were missing to make him a liability within the armed forces. The pieces of a puzzle slowly took the form of a scapegoat.
This time it was Havoc, burning silently beneath the white light, that initiated the sickening silence.
"I-" harshly, the officer cleared his throat, "I have no idea why Miss. Dy could not produce the telephone documentation you requested. You would have to ask her."
The affirmative response was preempted by silence, a dead tone in the black vortex sucking the air from Havoc's lungs. He might not see daylight again for a long time.
This was stupid.
Completely, utterly, stupid.
Winry could find no other words to describe it all. Sure, a wider search of the vocabulary spectrum might help make the description more colourful, but she was content to curse stupidity.
Her own stupidity.
Frozen, mitt-covered hands patted her ears, hidden by the fur-lined hat that shielded them from the brisk evening breeze. The sun had vanished hours ago. Many hours before that, she should have been home.
She had no idea where she'd gone wrong. The certainty had always been there, with every stride she'd taken – she'd known how to get to the market and how to get back. There was no one around who could explain to her how she'd ended up here, wherever 'here' was.
It was supposed to have been a twenty-minute walk to the market. There was no need for her entire menagerie to accompany her on a simple retrieval mission, mittens and toque were all she needed – she'd left her purse behind. If, for whatever reason, there had been something she needed, Ed would have covered for her. He was really assertive with that, so there was no need.
But, she was supposed to have found him.
Winry dragged her feet along the sidewalk, as she'd done all afternoon and through the evening, looking for some sign of where she could go. What she wanted more than anything was the blinking yellow sign to appear pointing her in the right direction, so she wouldn't have to ask how to find the residence of 'Doctor Charles Wilson' at address unknown.
The crowd had changed gradually, what had once been crowds of business men rushing to make it home to their wives was now a slightly less dense, but more vibrant flock of individuals: friends, couples and colleagues visiting the taverns and evening establishments. She wished nothing more than to have them ignore her, as the business crowd did.
The dense, cold air had sucked the power from her voice while she dangled from wit's end. Maybe it was a blessing that her feet had become so cold in the boots that she barely felt anything below her knees. Hours had passed where every step in these horrible feet-things called 'women's boots' had torn at her feet and ankles. She wished nothing more than to go barefoot in the snow.
Once again, Winry stood beneath a sign she'd seen in her journey previously: Police. She hadn't stopped in at another station she'd seen – she did not have the courage to admit she'd screwed things up so badly. Things were different in the late evening, fear won her over and she pushed her way in.
"Good evening," came a male voice.
The nonchalant tone calmed Winry to an extent. Her eyes gazed around the dull facility, probably the most mundane location in the entire sector. Certainly, it didn't look like much of a police location, perhaps it was an outlet or community watch center. The room was unexciting; nothing beyond a trash can by the door, a cluster of chairs at the left wall near a telephone, bulletin boards and notices cluttering the right wall, and the desk plus office space ahead of her.
"Can I help you with something?"
"Um," Winry shuffled herself forwards to the man appearing down the room clad in official attire. The warm, indoor air stung her ears and the tingle made her shiver, "… I think I'm lost."
"A young lady as fair as you can't be too terribly lost around here," the voice finally came to life as Winry reached a busy wooden stand that was more counter than desk, "what's the name of the business you're looking for, Miss?"
"I'm not looking for any business around here. I'm trying to get home."
The initially playful tone of the man old enough to be her father changed to something more parental as he brushed his fingers over a thick, brown mustache, "Were the friends you went out with a little too much for you tonight? You should have looked into arranging transportation home if you were venturing out. Your parents have a telephone, correct? Do you want to call your family?"
"I—" the phone number was in the purse she didn't bring. Winry'd realized that hours ago and chosen to simply disregard the existence of the telephone so she could focus on options available rather than lamenting over ones that were not. "I don't have that with me. I'm staying with a family friend, I'm not from around here…" she couldn't pale, the warm air of the room had been surging into her face, maintaining the thick, heavy pink in her complexion.
"That would explain your peculiar accent," the officer cleared his throat, "who are you staying with?"
"Charles Wilson," she replied
The man laughed, though it was neither soothing, nor comforting; it merely filled the building space where she stood, "You say that as though I should know your companion."
With all her heart, she wished he did.
"London is a bit vaster than the credit you're giving it."
Entirely true, this city was a monster. Winry's feet would have her believe it went on forever.
"What's you're name, dear?"
"Winry, Sir," she shrank into her coat a little, wishing only to curl up and close her eyes in hopes that when she re-opened them, the nightmare would be over. She hurt.
"That is quite possibly the most unique name I've heard for a young lady in ages. Where are you visiting from?"
Winry closed her eyes and provided no answer.
"… Sweden, maybe."
This story was not rehearsed. There was no 'home town' for her here. She could be explained away in Germany so easily since no one cared where in the English-speaking world she came from. But in the English-speaking world, she was most certainly not from Germany. The opportunity never presented itself for her to concoct a life history – at the time of travel, there were far more important things to worry about with Ed. Those issues aside, the need was not there. She was Edward Elric's companion, a friend of Hohenheim's son - an explanation that satisfied everyone she'd encountered so far.
And the night watchman laughed again. A painful sound that thundered around this hollow space of organization and legality like a pot tossed down a metallic staircase. This wasn't funny at all and there were no truths that could be given to clear the answers she could not give. With every question given came lies or dodges that devastated her credibility. There was no answer for these questions. Where were her parents? What city was she born in? When was her birthday? She had forgotten the year they were using. She was supposed to say she was 17 but she'd answered 16. Her year of birth made her 22.
It would be so easy to simply cry. Make the onslaught stop. She fought with herself to resist this pitiful urge: take the poor-girl's pathetic route and use tears to garner sympathy from a man who would not give it to her. She had done nothing to earn his pity.
"My feet hurt, may I sit down?"
In the middle of the interrogation, the request sputtered from her lips out without a prompt, much like how the feeling below her knees had exploded without warning.
"Take a seat."
Her knees ached as she worked de-thawing joints towards a lowly set of two wooden chairs against the white wall. Winry lowered herself into the seat and pulled her fingers free of the frozen, useless mittens. The soft tips of each digit had already begun to tingle from the warm air within the structure, and she fumbled a bit with the laced binding of her right boot.
She pulled the knee-high stocking off her right leg, exposing the wounded, flushed skin to the fresh air. It felt as though a layer of flesh had been peeled away, and she dropped the stocking to the ground with disgust. Winry cradled the battered and bruised foot upon her other knee, eyeing the damages done by blisters and cold elements. These boots were not industrial, nor were they comfortable or well fitted. Most certainly, the stiff, fabric casing her feet had been locked in were not meant for lengthy use, let alone hours upon hours of walking.
Though the chilled pink colour of her hands and feet were the same shade, her hands couldn't grip the foot to warm it. The chill stung the nerves in her hands and hurt her fingertips far more than the pain she could feel in her feet.
Winry's swept a run-away tear into to the puddle of melted ice and snow growing around her.
Placing the foot back to the floor and moving for her other boot, Winry startled as the officer minding the outlet reminded her of his presence. It was not what she'd expected after the vicious sarcasm he'd thrown around about her minutes earlier. A hand towel landed across an arm and her knee – before it could tumble into the dirty puddle at her feet, Winry caught it. Wayward blue eyes gazed through the bars of fallen hair in her face.
"Wrap your foot and keep it warm. I'll take a peek through our back room for a basin; some warm water would work better than cloths. Take off your coat; we'll hang it for a bit – it'll do you no good to sit around wrapped in something keeping the chill in. I'm certain there's a woolen blanket tucked away somewhere for you. How long did you say you'd been wandering around?"
Winry didn't know if she was supposed to reply and could only manage to fumble uneasily with the cloth handed to her.
"At least answer me that, child," the officer reached for the towel he'd tossed, but recoiled once Winry reacted, "how long have you been outside?"
"It was sometime after noon."
"It might have been wiser of you to have mentioned something about this when you first walked through the door," the officer's sigh reminded Winry of a sound Hohenheim had given Ed more times than she could count, "first, we'll take care of you. I can't have you expiring before I find out why on God's green Earth you're so full of nonsense. Is that agreeable?"
She nodded, uncertain if she could coherently voice gratitude at this point. Standing for a moment, she shed the iced winter coat and turned it over to the authority figure, quickly returning to the damp seat she had occupied.
Despite all of her ill-fated and poorly conceived attempts at foolish deception, the solitary individual in charge of this little space in the world left a warm handprint on her shoulder as he passed her and vanished into the hall beyond. Winry wrapped her arms around her stomach as she sat in silence. Her ears listened for anything – a clock, people outside, the officer in the back – but heard nothing beyond the sound of the cold water dripping off the ends of fabric hanging off her body.
Curling forwards, Winry placed her forehead upon her knees and waited for the companion to return.
"The sooner we head back to Central, the better," Riza quickly turned her glance over to her superior, certain of the affirmative response. Her statement was firm and blunt, a stark contrast to the atmosphere within the walls.
Lazily dumped in the wooden chair, attempting to disguise his confusions and frustrations with a careless expression, Roy gave the expected nod, "I'll sleep easier when I find out what is going on behind my back."
Maria had finally rejoined the military duo at the table, lying her arms against the wooden edge, "We could leave Brigitte with Izumi. I don't know just how long my records for the last few weeks will remain secure if Hakuro is looking through things."
Tossing his gaze into the empty room where two children had once loitered, Mustang's thoughts again crossed with the wayward child, "She'll remain with you, Lieutenant, indefinitely. I don't want her accidentally ending up somewhere where she can be recognized. The girl's departure occurred after we had left Central, so it distances you from the situation. The fact that we never had any intention to be in this location in the first place bodes well for your situation as opposed to ours," Roy's head nodded slowly with his train of thought as it blistered down the tracks, "as you mentioned shortly after we returned, there is no paper trail leading to this location, since the deed to this cabin isn't legally in your family's possession. Once we've returned, if it needs to be done, I'll take care of your record myself."
From beyond the sealed screen door to the porch, Izumi grunted out a sigh – a deliberate attempt to make sure she would catch their attention, "So, now that you have everyone's lives and fates mapped out in your imagination, I can't wait to hear the plans for myself and Alphonse? What will you do?"
Mustang's dark eyes turned over to the intrusive voice, watching Izumi's figure turn and re-enter the building. She had been an oversized fly on the wall for hours. Until that moment, she had not intruded, but she had made her presence clear: ensuring her silhouette remained visible beyond the waving curtain, minding her own business in the kitchen preparing nothing more than odds and ends, flipping lazily through the odd book she'd produced and entertained herself with in a chair at the corner of the room. She had deliberately kept herself within earshot.
"There's no choice in the matter, he has to return with us," Riza answered before Roy could, delaying the objection that was charging within the room like a raging mammoth, "Gracia Hughes is his legally assigned guardian until you return to Central and explain your actions. That said, Alphonse's over due to return home as it is."
"You certainly have no idea, but I'd bet your last coin that Alphonse is not a concern for that family at the moment," strolling through the room and up to the table in the kitchen were everyone gathered, Izumi ran her finger around the rim of the coffee cup she had abandoned more than an hour ago, before latching her finger onto the ring and snatching it off the table. The cold cup came to her lips, taking a slow step away from the table, "Unfortunately, Alphonse will not be making a return trip to Central with you. I'm certain you're resourceful enough to deal with that."
Mustang's voice struck with the thunderous impact Izumi had been expecting, "Unfortunately, there are too many problems for too many parties if Alphonse is to be left in your care. The majority of the problems stem from your disappearance in the first place and it is something you are going to have to resolve on a formal stage."
Heads slowly rose and eyes came into focus upon the woman standing in nothing but black leggings and shirt.
"Izumi, you understand, don't you, that we can't go back to Central without Alphonse," Maria said, turning around as best she could in her chair to look at the woman straight on, "the longer he's away, the more problems the Hughes family is going to have. We don't want to leave them with that. We can't leave them like that, everything will get blown out."
As though it had been deliberate, Izumi's initial response to Maria's plea was nothing more than an entertaining slurp from her coffee mug. The table of three was left sitting beneath the brewing clouds.
"The fact that I can't make a public appearance in Central is beside the point, because I know no one at your table is ignorant enough not to understand what I mentioned to Mr. Mustang the other night," Izumi's eyes cast over the crowd, inspecting their reactions. So he had discussed Dante with them before she'd begun monitoring the conversation after all.
"Then find a way cope with your actions a little longer," there would be no way Mustang would allow this woman to so badly screw up what was going on in Central, even if it was starting to unravel. The last thing he wanted to do was set the Hughes family in a position like this, and with what little blind faith he possessed, he'd placed it in Gracia's care to take mind the disguise of Alphonse's whereabouts.
Slipping out behind the fluttering curtains, Izumi placed her coffee cup down on the wooden porch railing. She could feel it, the eyes of everyone in that room still watching her from beyond the sheer, white drapery. Grappling with a side of the story that was a privilege all her own, Izumi took a moment to debate if there was no way to put off dropping a bomb any longer.
"Regardless if you return to Central with or without Alphonse, I doubt you'll receive a warm welcome."
Izumi shook her head, looking out to the rising sun's reflection off the lake top, "If a few things went right, Gracia Hughes and her daughter aren't in Central anymore, and they haven't been for a while."
There was that monstrous sound again, more earth shattering than before. All Izumi could do was shake her head, "So there hasn't been anyone to cover for you. If anything, they're trying to figure out where she's gone. And when two officers return with Alphonse, it's going to look a little out of place; I'm sure there'll be questions," she could hear it; those pounding feet were moving for her. Izumi slid herself out of the way of the door in preparation for an explosion, "That is, if they don't think you have something to do with it already."
The frame of the screen door nearly shattered in the window tracks as Mustang threw it open, "What the hell do you think you're doing? How do you know the family isn't in Central?"
"The moment I spoke with Alphonse and realized others had become involved I removed them from harms harm's way, especially considering who they were," her words were nothing but a backhanded lash across his face, "obviously you had no idea who and what you were dealing with."
"With out consulting anyone? Without bothering to inform me? Confer with me?" the brigadier general's voice stampeded forwards, "did you bother to even consider the consequences for anyone?"
In dull contrast to Mustang's rampage, Izumi's tone was flat and unwavering; doing nothing but agitating the man whom she refused entertain with her own screams, "the consequences were the only thing that mattered at that point, that's why they were removed. And like I said, you had no ide-"
"ENOUGH OF THAT!" Mustang bellowed, "if I am missing something then why the hell aren't you TELLING me?"
Mustang's reaction stopped Izumi. She had debated for some time just how much information he was entitled to, how much he could understand, and how much she was willing to part with. Knowledge was powerful, if not dangerous. The lack of respect she derived solely from the officers' line of work had kept her distant and skeptical. Strangely enough, it was how Mustang's explosion came across that had her attention, an informal request for knowledge was laced into the words.
The flame, situated just beneath a boiling pot, lowered a bit.
"If there's more I need to know, why aren't you forthcoming with it?" Mustang lashed out, "You seem to think that the fact I've escorted Alphonse through the countryside, at his request, in order to help solve the mystery he's chasing makes our presence here irrelevant. Myself and my colleagues have stakes in this matter, be it directly or indirectly whether you choose to accept it or not," his eyes slit, and jaw held tight for the thunderous sound of his voice. Izumi listened as Mustang made sure everyone was fully aware that the situation was something he was done playing around with, "I may already have my hands full with several people working behind my back, so I obviously did not come out here so that you could treat me as your little puppet and orchestrate my world to your convenience as well. By this point, I don't need to guess that 'Dante' is something formidable enough that you can't afford to do, regardless of your well stated dislike of our occupations."
Mustang held his outburst for a moment, watching the woman look back at him without any type of visible reaction. His head was hot, and expression tight, allowing a moment for the dust to settle in his sandstorm.
"However, I came out here because there is a young man I have known for a long time who's asked for my assistance to find information on his brother. There is another person beyond Dante connecting all of this," a level of calmness resurfaced in Mustang's voice, "Regardless if you are willing to accept that Dante may require more than a solitary effort on your part or not, can you at least accept that Alphonse's request to investigate Edward Elric is the reason we are here in this room with a common issue at hand?"
It was not the tirade she had expected. Her skills were never put into question, or her ability to handle the situation alone, both issues she thought he would raise. Though loud, it had been entirely diplomatic. The ball lay motionless in Izumi's court, waiting for her to pick up the points she'd dropped.
Much to her chagrin, Edward had gotten lost in all this nonsense, and he had been the catalyst for the adventure. Perhaps it was time to re-focus the scenario a little.
"I asked the Tlingum boys to look after the Hughes'. I didn't give specifics for where they should go, that judgment is theirs to make. I simply told them that Rizembool and Xenotime are not options," Izumi's cup returned to her lips.
There had to be more. Much more. Novels more. Mustang was certain of it. He was involved with the entire situation whether anyone, including himself, wanted him to be involved or not. He had dragged himself in inadvertently, and was subsequently hauled deeper inside; she must be able to see that by this point they could not go their separate ways.
"Isn't it said that everyone involved with the Philosopher's Stone will perish? Something along those lines?" stepping past Mustang, Izumi swept the curtains aside with the wave of her hand and returned inside, "That's only true because Dante ensures that the philosophy remains true. So, we'll leave tomorrow like you suggested, before the military trolls hunting you down find us here. During the course of our stroll tomorrow, you can let me know if you still think traipsing into Central like officers is still a good idea."
Mustang raised an eyebrow at the phrasing of the response.
It had been over a month, but it already felt like she'd lived through a lifetime. This world moved a mile a minute. Today was November 9th, 1921 – that's what she'd seen on the cover of the newspaper she'd read to keep her mind occupied. She could understand the day well enough, it felt like winter; however, it was the year that always caught her off guard. Until she'd picked up that paper, Winry'd never had a reason to pay attention to the calendar, what week it would become or what days were ahead. The only date that she marked off in her mental calendar was September 18th, because that was the date on this side of the Gate when she'd crossed over.
Nearly two months. Almost eight weeks. Fifty-two days.
Winry hadn't kept track until then. That morning, when the officer handed her a newspaper, she'd made the mistake of acknowledging the date printed on it. With her mind falling out of control, she really wished she hadn't.
It was almost 10am now, and she didn't really know how much longer she could loiter around this place, considering the previous night's watchman had gone off shift, and had been replaced by someone slightly less compassionate.
"Young lady, you're slower than molasses in January. Quit your dallying and be on your way!"
"I'm sorry, Sir," she threw in as much sarcasm as she could muster, "my feet seem to have swollen from these boots so it's a little hard to get them back on. I would greatly appreciate your patience."
He snorted, "You've worn my patience thin as it is."
"My apologies," she mumbled before reaffirming in her mind that she'd much preferred the man from the night before.
They spent an hour or so tending to her cold self, which she was entirely grateful for. Her feet were now littered with spot-bandages, they'd put alcohol on the hand she'd scratched up during the day when she'd fallen to the cement, and eventually the water she'd dipped her feet into had revived them. Shortly there after, she'd ended up tipped over on the chair next to her, and came back to life when the door chimes sounded at 7:30 in the morning, or so. Her jacket, stockings, boots, mittens and hat hung in the corner, drained of the chill that had once manifested itself. They were nearly dry by now.
The man who'd helped her thus far, someone she felt disappointed she'd never caught the name of, had brought her the bun and orange juice she'd taken in. He was kind enough to reorganize his approach to their discussions. Only minutes before he was relieved of his position, he was able to find a phone number for Winry – the phone number to the hospital Charles Wilson was at. She'd known where he worked, at least. The officer called on her behalf, and the receptionist had put him through to Wilson's division, and it was then Winry received some vindication. The woman recognized her name, but could not provide the doctor himself – he was not in this morning.
It wasn't until then that Winry remembered the party for Patricia's grandfather – and the endless social invites. Both Hohenheim and the doctor had accepted invites out of town for a few days during the week to catch up with old acquaintances; she hadn't cared enough to inquire too heavily into the details. Guilt sat heavy in her stomach, wondering if she'd screwed up their plans, and they'd stayed home to look for her.
The receptionist was not forthcoming with the doctor's home address, which made sense; Winry would probably have to walk in there herself to ask for it. But what she was able to obtain far exceeded what she'd had previously: both the location of the hospital and phone number for Wilson's house.
A black stain on her excitement came when no one answered the phone at Dr. Wilson's house, it rang endlessly or until the operator would step in and tell her that she could not connect. Each disconnection nearly made her sick, but she refused to let that stall things. What it must mean was that everyone was out looking for her. Yes, that must be it.
In the meantime, Winry's information was left with the receptionist, along with a request for the receptionist to call the doctor, and let him know about the situation.
Within ten minutes of the final phone call, Winry felt like she'd been kicked out of the building. The officer who'd helped her was off shift, late at that, and had left for home. The one who took his place, an older, balding, heftier man, took a look at Winry, got as little personal information out of her as she'd disclosed previously, and decided that she no longer needed to loiter in this building – it was not a hospice after all.
"Do you have the address and phone number on you?"
Darting her eyes back over to the man tossed lazily in his chair behind the counter, Winry gave a nod, "It's in my pocket."
"Don't be letting that fall out for any reason. You may end up in far greater hot water than you find yourself in already."
Though sleeping poorly and feeling sore from head to toe, the sleep had obviously repaired some of her demeanour. However, everything about this man's speech pattern made her want to gnaw holes in the collar of her jacket, "Your concern is appreciated, thank you. And if it makes you feel better, I did take the information down twice."
An eye lifting from the newspaper he'd confiscated from her, the man inquired further, "Did you put it under your hat?"
Sliding her wool-knit mittens over her fingers, Winry's hands came down on her chest, "I put it down my shirt where it will stay safe and warm. Good day, Sir!"
Rolling her eyes and flicking a few fingers in careless farewell, Winry marched herself out the door.
Society gave her a grace today: the weather was far more pleasant and warm than the day before and the sky was crystal clear to boot.
Her eyebrows snuck out from beneath the fur-trimmed lining of her toque, pushing together in a determined frown. She would not think of her situation, she simply had to look ahead. And she knew that the destination for the hospital was west. Concentrate on that, on only that, and don't worry about what might or might not happen. Don't worry about what everyone is thinking, doing, or not doing right now.
Could she walk to this place in a day? 'Most certainly' was the answer, in a few hours time if she walked swiftly.
And she marched off into the city yet again, with a refocused head on her shoulders, but taking the longest way possible to get home.
"Wha—" Alphonse never finished as her hand clamped shut over his mouth. Laying flat on his back, dressed only in the shorts he slept in upon his bed, the young Elric stared into the dead of night. He had been so immersed in sleep that the sudden wake up sent his heart racing and senses on alert. Slowly, his eyes dropped to his side, eyeing the girl dressed in a baby-doll night top and shorts crouched on his mattress like a cat ready to pounce – though one paw already silenced him.
Alphonse waited for her to look at him, but her eyes were trained across the room. She was listening, he could tell. Finally, Brigitte's hand released, and from Alphonse's mouth to her lips, a single finger rose requesting silence. She slid herself off the bed to the floorboards beneath them. Sliding himself from the bed sheets with as much grace he could give, Al joined her, both lowering their heads to remain hidden beneath the top edge of the mattress.
Al looked to her finally, eyes demanding an explanation, if any could be given. A finger landed on his nose, and the young man could only respond with a lost gaze back to her. Wiggling her nose, Brigitte encouraged him to give a sniff of the air around them. She continued the motion, as Alphonse attempted to identify whatever Brigitte was encouraging him to recognize.
There was something in the air.
Without a word, Brigitte grabbed his arm and as low as the pair could go on two feet, they hustled to the bedroom door.
Al's eyes widened in alarm and his fists tightened. He recognized the faint odour – it was gasoline.
Her free hand on the door handle, Brigitte slowly pulled it open. Both stepped out of the way of the ill moonlight filtering in from a hall.
Alphonse's thoughts drifted to the other rooms, Ms. Ross must be awake since both she and Brigitte had laid claim to the main room, but what about his teacher, Ms. Hawkeye, and Mr. Mustang? Whatever the reason was that the house carried a thin odour of gasoline and Brigitte was on her toes, the others had to be awake. But, if the hall was clear, why wasn't Brigitte stepping out?
Al's next gesture was to exit the room, but Brigitte vigorously shook her head. Responding with a sour stare, his female companion flustered and let her arms dance around her sides without giving a clear response.
Finally, Brigitte simply took him by the hand once more, and skittered out into the hall. Bare feet left the tiniest of sounds as the two slowed their pace and peered out into the darkened main room of the cabin. Looking back down the hall, Alphonse eyed the closed doors where others slept. He stepped back, moving towards the room where Izumi slept.
Brigitte turned when Al's fingers slipped out of her grasp, and she swung an arm back in attempt to grab him. He'd moved too far.
Their thoughts were broken by the sound of six bullets thumping out through the dull beat of a silencing device. Neither child screamed.
Both dropped to the floor, scrambling upon hands and knees to get away from the sound locked behind one of the doors. Pushed into the wall at the end of the hall Alphonse came to rest, having nowhere further to go. Brigitte fumbled her way into the main room the hall opened up into – a wide, open space with no solid object to duck behind. The kitchen could shield her presence, but provide no escape if someone moved in – at least there was the patio window to run through.
"Woah." The universal sound for 'stop' rose up, drawn out casually, without concern.
A door on each side of the four-room hall opened, releasing two figures.
"Look at what was flushed out."
Each child sat frozen, unmoving: Brigitte with her back to the situation and Alphonse sitting, looking up at the intruders, his back pressed against the wall.
The moment the taller of the two, with his partially buttoned shirt, jeans cut off and tattered above the ankles, and revolver holster attached to his belt, turned to look him straight in the eye, Alphonse realized, without a doubt, he knew them.
"Do you recall a little girl being a part of the picture?" asked the accomplice, not turning back to see the object in his partner's line of sight.
"Can't say as I do."
Alphonse's breath caught, hearing the sound of a cocked gun turn unto Brigitte, "Wait!"
"Shut it," the towering man addressing him turned his own piece to the Elric.
Shielded by the dead of night, all parties moved at the third adult voice. Finally, each child screamed, and curled up where they lay. Three, maybe four shots rang out as each person reacted.
Curled up, her knees beneath her chest, and hands clasped over the back of her head, the silence was almost as lethal as a gunshot. Brigitte could hear no voices, no moving bodies, and no further trigger ready movements from within the room. Seconds passed like minutes, and when her imagination created a scenario of the madmen in the room training a pistol down upon her for execution, she peeked an eye into the room to stop her self-created nightmare. What she saw allowed her to loosen her hands and breathe once again.
Mustang stood, in button down nightshirt and light pants, somewhat disheveled in appearance; obviously he'd been startled from bed. The officer had stepped out into the open, from behind the wall shielding the kitchen space from the remainder of the cabin. His firearm was raised and ready, trained on the larger of two threatening Alphonse, though the weapons of both men met with Mustang.
Brigitte's gaze looked from Mustang the remaining figure tucked behind the wall.
"The boy is more valuable to her than the girl?"
"No," Mustang responded to the callous question, "he is my responsibility."
"Then, have your Major step out," came the order.
Mustang did not respond, his gaze merely looked back at the man, drenched in fierce distain.
"Explain what the girl on the floor is looking at," was the redirect.
Narrowing his eyes, Mustang's position was unwavering until he finally spoke, "Step out."
Her own weapon raised, the final figure remaining in the building stepped into the open. Her shoulders stiff and weapon clearly fixated on the remaining assailant, her feet slid her locked body into the room. She moved carefully, attempting to see how far she could get in positioning herself between the men and Brigitte at the middle of the floor. As Mustang's eye was locked on the situation, her blue eyes were as well, generating a clear vision within the night beyond the ends of brown hair fallen in her eyes.
Alphonse sat silent, his breath held. Mustang's heart must have stopped, he thought. The woman who'd stepped out next to him was not Riza Hawkeye… it was Maria Ross.
"Major, Brigadier General, it appears whomever fires first will win."
Mustang paused upon hearing their response, taking a moment to ascertain the alternate direction the standoff had taken, "I guarantee someone in this room will remain."
The man Mustang had engaged retorted with a filthy, frightening sneer, "That guarantee means the Flame Alchemist knows better than to use his trademark tonight? No one in this room will satisfy your condition if you do."
"You're taking too much pleasure in the fact that I'm prepared to operate under your conditions," was Mustang's snide remark.
The intruders were right, there was no denying that. Though the level of fumes in the air would do nothing in a gun fight at this point, Mustang knew the moment he attempted to light a blaze the entire plot of land the group stood upon was at risk of exploding.
Again silence befell the room, no face clearly visible within the cabin, only the whites of eyes gazing between one and other carried the glow of moonlight partially covered by a mildly overcast night.
Alphonse's voice caught the attention of all, not expecting him to have spoken up. He had risen to his feet, though his back remained pressed to the wall. Bowing his head slightly, like a bull ready to charge, Al's hardened gaze carried out from beneath his brow.
"Both these men, I saw them in the Central Market before it exploded."
The shorter of two men, obviously second to the broad shouldered beast engaged with Mustang, turned his firearm from his female targets to focus on Mustang, leaving himself open and defenseless to the officer whose gun remained locked on him.
"They're also the men involved with the escapade at Shou Tucker's research facility," Mustang gave his response, "I do believe they've been assigned to us, in one way or another, for unfinished business purposes."
"The research facility was simply a matter of convenience," the senior of the two men turned his nose up at the statements, "but so we have everything clear, my division operates as eight-man cells. We are the first and second in the team, and for the most part, everyone else works from the outskirts. With that said, you have no way out. The rogue alchemist we had attempted to apprehend in Ishibal that subsequently joined your party was secured before we entered this building. The parameter of this building is secured as well. The backup you're thinking is available is unavailable. On my mark, this building will go up in flames. Something I'm certain you'd approve of."
All figures stood, unmoving and unfazed as the man directly engaged with Mustang changed targets. Lifting his weapon from the officer, the cold, dead sneer fell over Alphonse as the boy found himself unshielded, with nowhere to run.
"Look at your feet Alphonse, and close your eyes."
As the two men in the room laughed, bellowing at the cowardly request. Alphonse looked to Maria Ross, her position never changing between the second assailant and Brigitte, but the curl of confidence that hit her lips allowed the young man to abide by the request.
The sounds filling his ears painted a bloodstained picture in his mind's eye. Shattered glass, a single bullet fired by Mustang, and the raging scream of a man as more than one body hit the floor. If there had been any hesitation to abide by the request before, he most certainly did not want to backtrack now. It was as though he'd been asked not to watch the bloodshed.
In the end, it would Mustang's hand that took him away from it all.
This had been an ambush, occurring before anyone realized they should have been prepared. Alphonse was missing part of the story: the part where Izumi had opted not to fight back with her captors after having stepped out for a breath of air during a sleepless night. She was able to judge the situation quickly, and it was far more dangerous for all parties if she fought back. This would be her warning to the occupants inside until an alternate course of action was available. Both Lt. Ross and Brigitte had slept in the main room that night, though the Lieutenant had not laid to rest yet. She had heard, and seen, Izumi leave, but unable to drift off, she finally rose from her book in the corner chair and realized that the teacher had not returned. That in itself was curious enough, but when Ross could not see her on the porch or at any point between the house and lake, her first reaction was to wake Hawkeye and Mustang. Hawkeye was the one who woke Brigitte, and with a finger to her lips requesting silence, she sent her to bring Alphonse into the room. By the time Ross had said enough to Mustang to draw him out of bed, their sharpshooter had left the premises and Brigitte had vanished into Alphonse's room. Before Alphonse was awake and the remaining occupants of the house could be completely prepared, the cabin had already gathered two intruders.
The trump card lay in the knowledge that Lt. Ross could not be traced to this location; therefore one additional body could be mobile. Mustang left his trust with Hawkeye to handle the situation outside. There would be no way she could confirm for him the status of what lay beyond the walls, so he dragged the indoor proceedings out to give as much time as he could for her; a horrific task given that two children were present. Before the two had stepped out for confrontation, Mustang had relayed the cue to Ross for instructions to Alphonse. The moment it could be ascertained that things could not be drawn out any longer, she would make the request. Hawkeye would recognize the odd prompt as her cue to fire. If no shot rang out on their behalf from beyond the building, Ross was under orders to fire instead.
In the end, both Hawkeye's and Mustang's shots rang out in tandem, one shattering the glass window from beyond the house and blowing out the knee of the man Ross faced with, and the second from Mustang, putting a terminal end to the immediate threat over Alphonse without hesitation. Silence once again eclipsed the room. Mustang would not do this dead body any justice, and simply left it where it lay. Pulling Alphonse away from where he stood, still hidden behind the shield of his eyelids, the officer brought him beyond the mess and ushered him out of the room. Both children were handed over to the Lieutenant as Hawkeye threw open the screen door and re-entered the room.
"There were six?" Mustang asked. His weapon still trained upon the smaller of two figures, withering around on the floor, clutching the knee that oozed thick, red blood out from between his fingers.
"Yes. Though a great deal of credit is due to Mrs. Curtis," she answered, pulling out the long ends of her hair from the back of her shirt where she'd tucked it away, "she's keeping watch outside currently."
Addressing their second victim upon the floor, Mustang's arms crossed over his chest, "Allow me to introduce my major, Riza Hawkeye. Funny, she is the reason you aren't dead."
"I have nothing to say to you."
"Forgive me if I'm neither surprised nor angered by that. From what you've said since stepping inside, it's obvious your superior doesn't outsource a great deal of information to her dispensable pawns," Mustang's weapon never left the wounded target upon the floor. The faint illumination inside shed a vicious shadow across the complexions of the two officers looking down upon this chess piece, sacrificed by Dante, "but, you don't have to tell me anything, your presence here is an answer on its own."
"They must have been watching Havoc for longer than we realized," Riza put in, "we're obviously enough of a threat to somebody that they needed us out of the way promptly."
Nodding, Mustang could not disagree with that, "Hakuro's presence in Havoc's place created our suspicion, and their presence confirms it. Everyone here is a perceived threat by her, so much so that she assigned a shadow to our vicinity: a shadow she's associated to Alphonse and Mrs. Curtis."
The figure upon the floor gave a laugh, shaking his head where he lay. He shifted a bit, pushing his forehead against the floorboards as he continually clutched his knee, "You have no idea what you're dealing with…"
"That is the third time I've been told that recently and I'm damn sick of hearing it. However, I have no problem conceding at this point that, no, I don't have any idea," Mustang lowered his weapon, removing his hand from the trigger as he let the device hang at his side, "and all things considered, I don't believe your upper management has a full understanding either. The fact I'm walking away from here tonight is proof of that; therefore the advantage is mine. Major, we're leaving."
"You're not going to shoot me?" the voice was taunting.
The question did not trip up Mustang in his exiting stride, "I have never considered myself a proponent of that style of execution; I am not interested in shooting wounded men in the backs of their heads."
With that, Mustang dangled his right index finger in the air as he exited the cabin and reached into his pocket for a white glove.
To Be Continued...
- Ah! I waffled on the title for this chapter way too many times...
- This is the second version of this chapter - for Ed's side of things, anyways. The original verses had the story told entirely from Ed's point of view. I changed my mind and decided to give the poor guy a break from his emo and focus on Winry's 'adventure'. Though, can you imagine the absolute panic Ed's going through at the moment?
- Oh, yes, chapter 76 is finished :D I just want to look over it some before whisking it away. So, no, you won't have to wait 6mo-1yr for another chapter XD;. I'll have it ready sooner than that.