Between the prior chapter and this, it's been two years and nine months since I last updated. I have a note in my last chapter saying that wouldn't happen... I feel like quite the heel...
I was sitting around over a long weekend and suddenly thought of this story again. A friend of mine from work had been going on about her mother's book that had been published and how it has won awards (congrats to her!). She'd talk and I'd think 'I really did love writing. I can describe things in writing that I can't draw'.
I've had this chapter done for ages but I never posted it. Other than my story muse being confiscated by my college (because I had a spot in the library where I always wrote – I left and it didn't follow) I was worrying too much about people liking what I was writing. I'd always wanted to write the ending for myself first and foremost, and the fact that people have liked it was a huge bonus. Thank you thank you thank you. I really have no viable excuse for abandoning this story for so long. Totally my bad and I'm sorry for being neglectful. I should be hung from a flagpole by my undies and have crab apples thrown at me. I don't know if I'll ever get to the end, but I'll work on that. Strange thing is, no matter how much time goes by, whenever I think about it, I always know the course of this story. That's nice :)
This chapter is self-beta'd. If you notice errors or anything truly bizarre (because sometimes I have sentences that just make no sense lol) send me a message and I can edit :) thanks. FMA still has a special place in my heart, even if I forget that sometimes.
Front Side of the Gate (Alphonse)
Havoc is interrogated for mounting discrepancies that have come up to cover the actions of Alphonse, Mustang and Hawkeye. Mustang confronts Izumi about being left out of the loop and her taking actions without his consultation, while later in the evening the wayward gang find themselves as the targets of an unsuccessful ambush.
Back Side of the Gate (Edward)
Winry receives a phone call for Ed, at special request, from the post office to retrieve a package. Unwilling to mull around at home any longer, Winry takes off to find Ed in the market to tell him the news, only to find herself turned around an horribly lost in the vast city of London.
Chapter 76, Part XXV – In Lieu of Armistice
Chapter 76, Part XXV – In Lieu of Armistice
Don't start. Don't even think of starting, Winry Rockbell. You start and it'll never stop, then where will you be?
Sitting on in the middle of a cement staircase she'd found herself at, Winry's face was in her hands, trying to realign her dismantled train of thought. Yet again, she had walked for hours, upon hours, asking where to find this address in her hand. She was pointed in this direction and that direction, back 'that way' and 'somewhere over there'. Hours and painful hours later she found the place where Doctor Wilson worked; an institutionalized-looking, redbrick building. She'd recognized it in an instant and nearly cheered. Even the sun was still up to dance with her.
And that would be her only dance partner.
'I'm looking for the office of Doctor Charles Wilson?'
'He's off for the week.'
'I know, I'm staying with him, but I'm a little lost. I need the address back to the house.'
'I'm sorry, but the doctor's address is privileged information.'
Winry was fine with the fact that she'd been denied the information – obviously you don't give someone's address out to a stranger. But, apparently, it was also a crime to contact one of his associates who could validate her story. There could have been up to fifteen people in the building who might have remembered her with all the ruckus that Ed's wooden leg had caused, but she wasn't even allowed to speak to one.
They argued, and argued, and argued some more until both women were nearly blue in the face. One would think that prerequisites for working in a hospital would be decent manners, so if this nurse didn't stop wagging her finger in Winry's face, she'd bite it off.
Winry gave up, throwing her nose to the air and deciding to find another place in the building where she might get some decent service. But, the crazy nurse must have seen the intention in Winry's eyes and contacted co-workers across the building.
'Now young lady, I believe you were told before that we can't help you with that.' That reply, or some version of it, was everywhere she went.
By five that evening Winry was flaming mad. She felt like she was being treated like a street urchin. Eventually, someone was kind enough to tell her that the people she'd needed had left at 4:30 – in the middle of her escapade. Barely able to hold her cool together, Winry again demanded to speak to a supervisor, a manager, a director – someone who'd give her some assistance.
The 'assistance' finally came in the form of a security officer who escorted out of the building and asked her to 'kindly be on her way'.
So, Winry sat herself down in the middle of a staircase she'd found and tried to calm down. In her never-ending mental chaos, the default point for all of her thoughts was a sign she'd seen while trudging along. A block or so away she'd seen that quaint little police sign again – only this one appeared far more official than the last hole in the wall. Her mind was so swollen with her own thoughts that nothing was coherent, but Winry finally managed to gather together enough sense to march her way over to the station. She planned to ask, in her sweetest voice, if she could use the telephone.
Some time ago, the first police spot she'd encountered was a meager little outlet, but this one was far more intimidating. Stepping inside, Winry found it was active and lively, cluttered and decorated, and it had more than one person kicking around. Maybe they were used to seeing people who were out of sorts wander in, because no one batted an eye at her.
Winry patted her hair down anyways, and tried to rub away the circles under her eyes before clearing her throat, "Excuse me?"
"What can I do for you this evening, young lady?" came the reply of a younger man behind the counter.
Winry figured he must have been the lowest person on the totem pole in that day. He was the least decorated of all the officers there and the only person who seemed to greet anyone. Though, she had stopped wondering why people were always so polite when addressing her, "I don't have any change on me, is there any chance you'd let me use the telephone for one call?"
"Only one call?" his voice prodded, almost playfully.
Even if she'd wanted to entertain this officer and his sweet grin, Winry's head was pounding too hard to play along, "Yes, please, just one."
"Help yourself at the end of the counter," the officer waved her along with an empty smile and then called out, "Gloria, would you pass the receiver to our patron and dial out for her."
Winry blinked at it all and shuffled away. She'd been passed along just like that, no questions asked. She glanced over to 'Gloria', the frumpy, middle aged woman seated at a switchboard, tucked away at the left side of the facility. Reaching out in a robotic daze, Winry took the receiver from her.
"Please keep your call prompt, Miss. What's the number?" Gloria asked.
Winry passed the woman her piece of paper. As the number to the Wilson house was dialed, Winry's attention uncontrollably drifted. The station was bubbling. Her ears heard parts of conversations: a pickpocket snagged something from a woman in a fluffy dress, a hunched over old man was prattling along about filling out some sort of form, the person who'd entered after she had was paying his fine…
"Miss, is the line ringing?" the receptionists voice came back into the picture.
"Huh?" snapping back to it, Winry suddenly realized that the phone was ringing in her ear.
And ringing. And ringing…
After what felt like forever, Winry finally took the phone away from her ear and placed the handset down. Her elbows, hands and forehead soon slid down until they came to rest on the counter as well. Why was nobody home to answer this phone? Was it even the right number? Maybe they'd gotten this number from that cranky nurse this morning and it was deliberately wrong…
"No one answered?" there was that all-too-pleasant low-ranking officer's voice again.
"No," Winry muttered into the countertop.
"I might be mistaken, but judging by that reaction to a dead line, you're a woman with a problem."
Winry nearly laughed, it sounded like a crude pick up line? Couldn't he try a little harder?
"Is it something that you need some assistance with, or more personal in nature?" he inquired further, with that playful tone again.
Picking her heavy head up, Winry eyed the verbal doormat he'd presented.
"I'm lost. Really lost. I was supposed to stay with a family friend and couldn't find my way back. I knew he worked down the street, so I went in there to see if someone could help me find the way home. They refused to help me because they didn't recognize me," her cheeks burned, and Winry struggled to hold a stiff upper lip, "Why would he have introduce a houseguest to the lowly receptionist anyways? Stupid cow. And I've tried calling home a few times, but no one answers. No one ever picks up. I want the reason to be because they're out looking for me… but I wish they weren't! I wish someone was home."
The officer's hand came up into his hair, his brow furrowed in thought. Winry's rant was obviously not what he had expected and the entertaining tone was replaced with something far more business, "How long have you been out and about?"
"Since yesterday," she took a deep breath, trying to steady herself, "Stupid me, I didn't take anything with me, just my coat and mitts. The only thing I've had to eat since breakfast yesterday was a bun. My feet are killing me, I'm cold again, and the only people who can help me left that horrible building over an hour ago…"
Winry threw herself back from the desk. She needed to take a deep breath, her voice was shaking and she did not want to loose her composure on him. The situation was embarrassing enough. With a heavy exhale, she finished with the shake of her head, "I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
"Franklin," the young officer who'd lent Winry his ear looked away, calling for one of his co-workers, "hey Franklin, can you bring over those wires?"
"Does it matter which ones?" without leaving what he was doing, the disinterested Franklin clipped together a thin pile of sheets when the answer was 'no', placed a small paperweight upon it and sent the collection scooting across the counter.
Stopping the impromptu bundle, and dumping the weight from the sheets, the young officer did a quick skim of the sheets before pulling one out, "Is your name Wendry Rockbell?"
She stood in silence to the question, for some reason unable to answer the question.
"You seem to fit the description," he continued, giving the paper a flick of his finger, "A wire came in from one of the stations a fair ways off. If you're Wendry Rockbell, then people are looking for you, and you've made quite the hike."
Her mind was so slow to process the statement, and all she could do was mumble, "It's Winry Rockbell."
The officer double checked the sheet with a raised brow, "Oh right, sorry, yes. Odd spelling you've got there."
Without warning, her body did not want to move any more. She'd been dragging herself around town all day and there was not enough adrenaline to keep her mobile. The weightlessness of relief kept her from collapsing all together. By this point, it did not matter who it was, it did not matter when, or where, as long as some prince would come and take her home.
"Have a seat and don't run off on us now," the officer pointed her to a seat, "the wire says a gentleman named Hyland asked this notice be passed around. We'll get in touch with the dispatcher who issued this and see if there's more information for you."
By this time in her endless life, the construction of a perfectly symmetrical pentagram was no longer a challenge for Dante. Adorned in black, polished shoes, the devil child stood square between two points of the pentagram she'd drawn with a paint brush in thick, red blood over the polished floor. Nothing but the bloody circle encompassing a powerful alchemical equation sealed the sigil.
"Let's try this," her spotless hands came onto her small hips.
"You couldn't have used an animal to draw this?" cradling the silent infant, Aisa inquired to her tiny overseer.
Dante only scoffed, "If you're going to try something, do it right. It's no harder to drain a man than any beast," the petite figure turned, "my child, please."
Without further conversation, Aisa obliged. The woman approached Dante, and placed the infant in the small arms of her master.
Adjusting the child in her grasp, the ancient soul moved her young body to the center of her alchemical pentagram and placed the baby, wrapped in a white blanket, down at the center. Turning, Dante faced out, positioning herself between two points of the drawn pentagram and looked cross-room into her tarnished ballroom hall. From the unbroken lamps, scattered rays of light shone orange, carrying the predominant colour of her magnificent room.
Dante clapped her hands.
It was, as it always had been, an exhilarating few seconds. For every ride she'd taken to the Gate, the surge of power and emotion was different each time. There was always something new, something salivating, something so close to being tangible but entirely unobtainable. After hundreds of years, the imagery bombardment began to have moments of repetition – glimpses she'd seen before. She almost, almost, felt like she could recognize the events and piece them together if she could get only a few more visions. No matter what ridiculous information was thrown at her, it no longer frightened her like it did in her youth.
Her ballroom transformed into nothing more than hollow, white space. It stretched on for eternity. Finally, the infant howled, screaming endlessly as it had been hoisted into the air by the frozen hands of the Gate's wall. Once again, this worlds crossing was locked into existence.
Dante looked straight ahead, the Gate at her back, watching Aisa for a moment. The woman had been taken along for the trip to the Gate, though she did not visibly flinch at the sudden change in surrounding. With wide eyes full of never-ending awe at this space, Dante turned over her shoulder and looked up at the towering structure looming over her. An ancient, aching sound tore out as the heavy doors slowly swung open for her, presenting the black abyss beyond the passage.
The eyes and arms of the Gate never greeted her or touched anyone when the baby was around. She was free to romp and roam unhindered.
"Foul entity," Dante's eyes narrowed, looking down at the body she'd drained and left for to the Gate as bait, "at least take the peasants body."
No response was given by the Gate.
"I'm being toyed with," Dante snarled, unable to see the final pieces of her puzzle, "You're an irresponsible wretch when I come alone with the stone, and you won't give me the time of day when I arrive with a child that should be of your liking. I do not understand what I am missing."
Annoyed, Dante tugged at the simple sundress she'd worn for this day's adventure. Her fingers gripped the white and orange fabric and the woman clenched her fists as she forced power into her legs and approached the steps of the looming, vast opening.
Dante's subconscious fears brought her to a halt. Although she knew that in this state the arms of the Gate did not reach out for her, she could not easily brush away over 500 years of caution.
Inhaling a stiff, deep breath, Dante stepped up to the black void that lay beyond the open doors. It was frighteningly silent – she felt more comfortable when it was laughing. I am not so foolish that you can mock me now, am I? Harshly tilting her head back, her juvenile eyes looked up to the shrill child hoisted by Gate arms, cemented into the frame of the passage way.
After a moment, her gaze resettled on the open Gate. It wasn't as though she was looking into a black void; voids appear endless. Even when the eyes and children of the Gate had looked back at her in the past, she could feel the expanse and vast space beyond the Gate's doors. However, the view of darkness the Gate gave Dante with the infant in tow felt more like a curtain standing between herself and what was beyond.
A stubby, right arm was held in air with fingers outstretched. Her eyes were growing dry; she didn't dare blink. In her handful of previous trips with Diana, she had simply observed the change in scenario. She had never before stood so close, and so free to roam, at the border crossing of the Gate. What would happen if she touched it? Was it malleable? Could she reach through it? Would it suck her in?
Why couldn't she make her trembling hand move those last few inches?
This horrible, unconquerable monstrosity was at her mercy – hundreds of years later she could finally touch it. She could make contact. Would it accept her presence now?
The baby had gone silent.
Through Nina's eyes, Dante looked up at the suddenly silent and motionless child. Its stubby arms and legs lay limp, dangling from the fermented hands that supported it.
Was this right? The howling thing hadn't died, had it!
Without giving herself time to think on her actions, Dante's hand thrust forwards and forced into the black space. She stood frozen for a moment in the dead silence, her hand engulfed in the black mess up to her wrist. It was malleable, like thick tar. The tiny woman let her hand sit where she'd placed it, the lack of viscosity holding it up. She slowly moved her arm, watching the black space refilled behind the path her hand carved. Her expression absorbed in fascination, Dante clawed at this space. Perhaps if she dug away at it, something would be revealed. It was a wishful thought – no matter how many times her hand clawed away the material, nothing was revealed.
"I know you've allowed people from beyond the Gate to see our secrets. I've heard the stories and erased them after," Dante wasn't sure if she should be pleading, or continue arguing with an unresponsive entity like the Gate, "passage is said to be possible. The world's delegate told us this boundary could be bridged millennia ago. We were even told how."
Dante pulled her hand from the mess, instinctively shaking her hand free of a non-present black residue.
"I have the Stone, and I have kept it in my possession for hundreds of years. I have perfected its science. Now I have this child, which you've obviously recognized. These are the pieces, what am I missing?" she stomped a foot like a spoilt child. In this form, the only thing that stopped a juvenile tantrum was vanity, "How can I prove that I am worthy of that knowledge? Is the world beyond the Gate simply that much more wondrous than ours that we are no longer entitled to any of it? Have we become that insignificant!"
At that, Dante spun on her heels, "Aisa, come stick your head beyond this and tell me what you see."
It was the first time woman had made her voice heard, "I think it would absorb me…"
"Probably," Dante snorted, angry at the roadblock, "I don't understand. What more do I have to-."
All concentration was lost and the alchemist's attention suddenly fell upon her precious gateway once again. Quickly shuffling her feet away, Dante's instinct moved Nina's body back from the black space. The thick border separating two worlds at the Gate's doors had come alive. The tar churned.
There had been no warning. The sensation nearly knocked Dante of her quick-moving feet, and she stumbled backwards down the steps, giving distance between herself and whatever was suddenly happening. Like an overpowering odour, the black space reeked of life; it flowed in and filled the darkness with the rhythm of a pulse. It was inaudible, but pounded so hard it reverberated deep in her bones.
It was how everything had felt at the time she'd clapped her hands for Winry and reached out for the Gate. At that moment, when the thunderous pulse of the opening doors had made its presence felt, Dante had found herself so overpowered by the reaction she could barely respond to it. Upon sending Winry through, she'd scrambled to disengage her contact. In the end, when the dust settled, the doors had closed and Dante could not figure out what had nearly gone so horribly wrong. But, of all things, Brigitte was then laying on her floor.
Like a child watching in awe of a magician flawlessly perform his tricks, Dante watched the darkness swim. Her initially frightened reaction disappeared and replaced with a thirsty grin.
This was new.
In her own opinion, Winry had been a good sport, but she'd wanted to play along on her terms. She'd participate and then get rewarded by going home – it was the summer camp mentality. But she knew, even if she chose to deny it, that she may never get home. Winry'd instructed herself to play along in the meantime – that's how she'd cope, because moving with society would be easier than challenging it. Suddenly, there were intangible things that Winry found the world refused her to have; intrinsic little things that she would surrender to and say 'fine, I still have this or can do that instead'. The only problem was, she'd lose one every hour or so of each day and each week. Little by little she'd found herself loosing ground.
'You can't do that, Winry'
'You have to do this, Winry'
Why couldn't she have things her way! What was so wrong about her way of doing things?
She couldn't have her favourite foods, she couldn't wear her favourite clothes, she didn't have her tools, she couldn't play with her favourite hobbies, she couldn't sit or stand certain ways, she couldn't sleep in her old bed, and she couldn't have her peaceful countryside. People were constantly everywhere. She would swear they were always looking at her, sometimes they'd continue looking even after they'd realized she was looking back at them.
She'd never felt self conscious before, and suddenly Winry had moments where she'd felt uncomfortable taking her jacket off.
But, she was a big girl, she would cope with that.
Hold your head high and keep going.
Nothing Winry could do helped her to feel more comfortable in the clothing. It looked atrocious on her, from undergarments to outerwear, like someone's ugly toy doll. She would have to parade around, dressed like all the prim and proper ladies should be in this world. The situation felt ridiculous and some greater being must be laughing at her awkwardness.
She could cope with that.
For those nights where she'd sit around, absently thinking about all the ways this world bothered her, a special mention always seemed to go out to the wretched shoes that left the most horrible blisters on the backs of her heels and balls of her feet. She only had one tolerable pair that didn't leave her feet wounded, and they weren't always 'acceptable'.
And, she would cope.
The temperature was too cold wherever she went; indoors and outdoors. Even on the nicest of days, it carried a nip that she couldn't shake and then it got worse the further the mercury fell. Yes, she'd been told time and again, it just seemed that way because she was new from the other side of the gate. But, the air was so dry that her nose would hurt when she'd wake up in the morning. Her skin was drying out and becoming itchy. Why wasn't lotion a popular commodity here?
Fine, she would find a way to cope.
She would take a drink of water, milk, or whatever beverage would be available. It was neither refreshing nor relieving. Cup to mouth. Open. Swallow. It was unsatisfying.
Edward and his father warned her of this, and if they'd found a way to cope, so could she.
But then there were the odd things that they couldn't tell her, or that she didn't want to tell them, mostly girl things. And the dizzying language barrier she couldn't bridge. There was a feeling of loss that this world gave off all on its own, without any help from her; it leeched out from the soil and floated in the air. It was entrapping.
Winry'd decided she could be strong on her own.
And then her empowered self-confidence, transplanted from a world where she could use it into a place where it received no merit, imploded on itself. She found herself standing in the middle of a strange society, having no idea what she was doing. She wanted, more than anything, to be back home.
Even with that wish, she was more than delighted to see Thomas Hyland march in as her prince charming to reset the nightmare. The first nightmare that started in Germany was a far better option than the one she'd created all on her own.
And there were the tears, again. Why couldn't she stop doing this? She'd gotten frustrated with herself for crying so much when she'd arrived there. In the Thule hall, with Edward, in their house – eventually Winry'd decided she was done with the tears and it was time to cope; there was nothing she could do about it so there was no use being a baby. That was a challenge far more formidable than she'd ever realized. Everything that she'd put in the reinforced 'cope' box of her mind, everything that had bothered her, exploded when she filled it so full that the bottom fell out.
Against the back of the sofa, tucked out of sight from the hallway light, Edward had landed under Winry's weight when his knees weren't strong enough to keep them both standing. She'd curled up; tucking her torn feet under the edge of her dress, her fingers clung to the back of his white shirt for dear life and she'd buried her face into the side of his neck. Her unintelligible sobs carried away a sound filled with everything she'd thought she could tolerate. She needed to have someone hear how hard it had been to support that load. There were no exact words for it, so it would have to be conveyed through the sound of her voice while her face dampened the collar of Edward's white dress shirt.
And Ed had remained silent the entire time.
From the moment she'd had enough of absolutely everything and staggered through the door, stumbling out of her footwear as she moved, Ed had been silent. Dumped in an awkward heap on the floor, up against the sofa, Winry'd done all the talking without a coherent word. By the time she'd found herself too rung out to say anything more, her mind followed a wonderful hand that soothed over her back. If Winry hadn't known that Ed was the only person in the room, she would have asked who was there. She wondered where he'd picked that up; because it was the only correspondence he'd given her. In the end, the message she'd gotten out of him was that he completely understood everything she hadn't been able to say.
Somewhere along the way, the chimes for 6AM rang and she couldn't really figure out how time had managed to get to the morning without her knowing. Coming alert from the chiming, Winry sat back. Shivering in the chill of the morning, she sat on her backside, pulling up a knee and resting her chin to it. She did nothing but tuning her thoughts into the vast silence.
I'm so embarrassed.
Winry kind of wished the first thought to strike her wasn't one that made her feel embarrassed. What was she supposed to do now? Laugh? Cry some more? Neither one made sense. She didn't want to do either one. She would be content just to forget the last two days had ever happened. Slowly she rose from the floor, her swollen feet making the task uncomfortable at best.
Edward had not woken up; still asleep in his somewhat sat-up position, propped up against the back of the couch.
Winry watched for a moment, her arms lost at her sides. Ed was a basket case at the best of times, she couldn't imagine the circles he'd just ran himself in. She didn't want to. Her decision was the quickest she'd made in days – just leave the events behind. She didn't have the energy to deal with it and hoped no one else did either. Ed certainly wouldn't force the issue – it wasn't like him.
Kneeling back down again, Winry came to her hands and knees. This house belonged to someone else, all of the houses belonged to someone else, but they happened to have spent the night occupying this one. Crawling over, Winry lifted a hand to tap Ed's cheek, hoping he'd wake up without startling. They probably shouldn't wear out their welcome.
Izumi's command had been 'sit', but everyone merely stopped.
In the distance, faint through the haze that day, a highway could be seen. Ultimately, they'd follow that highway out of the region. There was no longer a point in staying lakeside at a cabin that had been set ablaze, and none of the group had been able to sleep after the late-night intrusion. Crucial items had been gathered from the house, organized, and distributed. The decision was reached that they would embark on their long walk before dawn. The journey itself was silent; barely a word was spoken between any two individuals. Each person bore a different weight and the walk opened up the opportunity to explore the burden. Izumi had taken the journey lead long ago and would finally stop the progression of internalizing thoughts. She dropped the bag she carried from her shoulder and looked over to Alphonse.
The youngest man's hand gripped tighter with Brigitte, who'd stayed at Al's side religiously since leaving the enclosed lakeside area.
"Sit, I said," Izumi repeated, her instruction to Alphonse more authoritative than coaxing, "everyone take a seat."
The group exchanged glances, and though Mustang was not known for one to handle orders well, even from a superior officer, with his hard gaze locked onto Izumi, he led the seating chorus.
They had embarked on a walk through the Amestris dawn and daylight moving across open country fields; decorated with a scattering of trees, lush shrubs and low-laying vegetation of all sorts. At the fringes of this peace, Izumi had been the last to take a seat upon the cool grass.
The teacher was given the grace of the speaking floor; she needn't ask for it. Everyone's undivided attention was placed squarely on her shoulders, and the story would be hers to unravel. She would discard her voice into the wind and see where it would be carried off.
"Al, when your brother was still around, you, he and Roze knew a woman named Lyra," the teacher's eyes shifted to Mustang, knowing he had this part of the story, before turning back to Al, "she was an alchemist and an assistant at a military outlet in Youswell, which was where you and Edward met her."
Leaning forwards, Alphonse recognized that this bit of information was exclusively for him.
For a few moments, Izumi sat in silence, untangling the wealth of information wound up inside her, before bringing her voice up again, "The description Roze provided of Lyra fits the description of the Prime Minister's past wife. I can only guess that at some point Lyra and Dante met, Dante discarded her old persona and took on another."
"I just want to make sure I understand this," Maria stepped in, "Dante uses the Philosopher's Stone to take over a person's body?"
"Yes," Izumi took a deep breath, clearing the air of this procedure once and for all, "Dante uses the Philosopher's Stone to continue her own life by forcing out the soul of a chosen candidate and replacing it with her own. That's the simplest explanation."
For Mustang, as frightening as it was, it was strangely fascinating to hear the applications of the Philosopher's Stone. He had momentarily considered looking into its dangerous science, before someone with a steadier head on his shoulders convinced him to turn away.
Alphonse did not know what he was supposed to make of the Stone by this point in time. It was beyond all the laws he recognized, yet, it was something he'd possessed, something that was the cause of all this mess, something he could not remember, and something very intriguing. It was weird hearing so much life given to this inanimate object. However, this object was tangible, endless, ruthless, and cruel in its abilities. The 'how to' manual of the powers had been written by the devil, safe guarded closely, and disclosed only to those privileged and unfortunate.
"Why would someone do something like that?" Alphonse asked. It was a moral question posed to an immoral situation.
"It would be for power, I would assume," Hawkeye suggested, "entertainment is another factor to be considered. As well as a continuing agenda…" Riza's final syllable was left hanging as she caught the gaze thrown towards her by the meeting's conductor.
"The Theory of Beyond the Gate," Izumi said.
She'd thrown the additional puzzle pieces onto the table. The teacher's words again garnered the undivided attention of adult and child alike, "It is a theory deals with the idea that there is another society, another world, or another plane of existence beyond the Gate. A world enriched with knowledge, alchemy and otherwise. It is something, potentially, that is far beyond our ability to understand," she cleared her throat, "for all the things she's used her life to accomplish, bringing together this theory seems out of Dante's reach."
With a stiff voice and unwavering power, Izumi began to shake away the wrappings of an ancient tale. She would be the unwilling breath of life into a story withering away at deaths door.
"Alphonse," the teacher turned her attention to the youngest of the group, "I don't believe Edward is 'property' of the Gate, like we originally thought, but he is beyond the Gate, like Brigitte seems to indicate," Izumi cast her gaze over Brigitte, watching as the girl returned her glance with caution, "if she wasn't sitting here in front of us, with so much overwhelming information, I would never have given the idea a second thought."
Al nearly leapt from his grassy seat, "If Brigitte came to our side, then my brother can come home!"
"If they are masters of alchemy beyond the Gate, why hasn't Ed brought himself home?" Mustang intruded into Alphonse's joy with a damming question.
"I don't know," the concern returned to Izumi's face, "assuming Ed understands his situation, if he was aware of a way home, he would find a way to do it. He's too bullheaded to not to," she sat back a little, mulling her thoughts over, "we're missing a lot of information, most of which isn't on our side of the Gate."
Squirming, Brigitte could only look on in confusion as eyes flickered on and off in her direction.
Taking a moment to step away from her explanations, Izumi re-gathered her thoughts, "On the whole, the theory is based off folk tales from Dante's youth; stories passed on to her generation after already being told for centuries. The stories themselves are found nowhere in today's literature, I would guess they either faded or were removed."
Maria added her voice to the chorus of aloud thinkers, "And those stories deal with people who exist beyond the Gate? Like Brigitte?"
"People beyond the Gate and people who've travelled across it," Izumi answered, her arms stiff over her chest. She hated this story and loathed thinking about it. Judging by the rising eyebrows and hungry gazes, she was uncertain how her listeners were piecing together the information. The woman's fingers squeezed in thought and she laid a new ground to start from, "It's documented that Alchemy began evolving and taking on the applications we are familiar with today several thousand years ago, correct?"
A collective nod in agreement went through the group.
"The theory, and I use that term loosely, claims that ancient Alchemists had encountered people claiming they'd traveled beyond the 'Gate'," Izumi's hands loosened as she disposed of a little more of the story, "all of which happened at a point in time before Alchemy began it's major evolution – it's those stories that no longer exist."
Alphonse drew his knees to his chest, wrapping his young arms around his legs and clasping his strong hands over his wrists, locking his body while the story filtered in, "You're thinking the travelers triggered The Alchemy Revolution?"
Izumi continued on, conducting her class of abolished history, "The theory discusses the implications of the travelers from beyond the Gate, what kind of knowledge they possessed, and the first historical mentioning of the Philosopher's Stone. It claims that a great deal of information was exchanged before the travelers returned home," Izumi secretly wished someone would speak up and ask a question to divert the endless sound of her voice. She had no problem addressing a crowd; it was the topic that concerned her. "Portions of the theory imply that the principles for alchemy, as we've come to know them today, were founded on principles provided from beyond the Gate. So, yes Alphonse, it implies that they triggered our alchemy revolution."
Alchemy had its revolution many, many centuries before the Philosopher's Stone was created. But, because of the secrecy that taught to shroud the science at the time, it was assumed that the alchemical documents and recollections of the past had been hidden, destroyed by mistake, misinterpreted, or went unrecognized and vanished over time. Documented history struggled to validate the origins of a science that was once kept in the utmost secrecy; it had not always been an accepted practice.
"And, the knowledge bases for alchemy are said to be substantially imbalanced in the other society's favour," Izumi continued, "Because of that, it is believed there is something like a Utopia beyond the Gate. At the very least, some type of Alchemical Perfection that we are not permitted to obtain."
Alphonse's hands gripped a little tighter. Perhaps he'd waded into a pond so deep he may never touch bottom. It was a sudden, sinking realization that came over him that he honestly had no idea the foe he was bound and determined to take on.
"… Or, so says the theory," Izumi finished, "and then there's Brigitte…"
Silence eclipsed the group, no one too certain just how to handle, analyze, or interpret so much foreign knowledge. Mustang and Alphonse were the only two listeners who could associate the information with anything of relevance, while the two supporting female officers could only digest the knowledge as though they were copying a college text word for word, without complete understanding.
"And Edward is there?" Maria questioned suddenly and had Izumi nod in response.
"And Dante wants to get there?" Riza followed up.
"My assumption is yes," the instructor confirmed, "and I don't think she's concerned if we reach Ed on the other side before she's reached anything over there herself. If we do it before she does, that just means she didn't have to get her hands dirty to accomplish the process."
Again, the silence of slow comprehension over took the group beneath the mid-day, over cast skies.
Until this point, Mustang had only offered his voice once. He had not wanted to interject, but simply absorbed everything given to him and processed it as best he could. Yet the more he wrapped his mind around the key bits that Izumi had given, the less something made sense, "Dante would need some sort of validation for the 'theory' to convince her, to convince you, me, anyone, that its worth investing more than one lifetime in. What is the catalyst, prior to Brigitte, that tells anyone that there may in fact be something there."
Izumi wondered if anyone had noticed her wince. Many things caused her stomach to pinch, but the terror of this thought made it so much worse, "When someone travels to the Gate, you can see everything it holds but never truly understand what it means. What you see is what lies beyond the Gate in fractured, distorted, and incomplete detail. The glimpse beyond the Gate is a tease for what is obtainable and the hell you would face to get it."
"Dante believes all that because she's seen it, right?" Alphonse asked, his voice almost squeaking, "that's why she believes it?"
"Anyone who's been to the Gate has seen it," Izumi gave a nod in response, though her gaze quickly became tangled up with Mustang.
The senior officer had narrowed his eye. Why had she just unquestionably explained away the Gate's imagery? No matter how much he wanted to know, the look in Izumi's eyes created a dark and heavy weight in the pit of his stomach kept him from asking, kept him from wanting to ask, how she could validate 'Dante's' vision of what lay at the Gate and not leave any room for doubt. Instead, he finally chose to digress, "How much of this 'theory' did you gather?"
Izumi snorted, rolling her eyes more so at the weight of information she bore on her shoulders, rather than Mustang's inadvertent ignorance, "I don't know if I should call it 'too much' or 'too little'. To be perfectly honest, there're great chunks that don't make any sense. I don't know if that's because I didn't get all the information or that the information wasn't there in the first place. I have portions of information spanning from how to cross the Gate to what purpose 'baby Diana' might serve," Izumi shook her head, dissatisfied that she had so much information thrust upon her so suddenly in such a fragmented state that she couldn't even confirm how much she honestly knew, "The initial theory itself was abandoned at an incomplete stage, so there wasn't a completed list of information to begin with. It lacked credibility and a great deal of it was next to impossible to prove. The original author was so skeptical of what he'd penned in that he'd abandoned it."
"Wait, 'he'?" Al's attention jerked away from the bewildered state he'd sat in for so long, "Dante's not the author?"
Izumi stopped, her answer coming after moment of hesitation, "I don't recall ever saying this was Dante's theory."
"Is the author known or does he pre-date Dante?" Mustang took the reins and dropped the question forthright.
Izumi's gaze started out at Mustang, but dropped away into the soil. Her brow wove together as she thought, listening to the weak whip of the wind drift past her ears. Amidst everyone's silence, the threads of grass swayed in rhythm as an internal debate held her eyes down.
Sweeping her attention over to Alphonse, she watched as the boy looked over her, his expression begging for information, "The man who was her first husband. Back then, he signed as 'Von Hohenheim'."
Glancing to his side, Ed watched with a raised eyebrow as Winry turned the brown, paper-wrapped, square package over and over like some child determined to solve the mystery.
"I'd still like to know what you think you're doing?" he rolled his eyes, shaking his head before finally returning focus to the sidewalk the two walked along, "I told you to stay home."
"I wanted to find out what this package was that had caused me so much grief," Winry scoffed, giving the box a shake, listening to the dull contents thud around inside amongst, what sounded like, crumpled newsprint.
In an hour and a half long argument, that seemed to take up most of the morning, Ed had profusely refused to take Winry with him to the post office. Heck, he hadn't even planned on going today - the bloody package could wait a day or two. Much to his chagrin, Winry persisted, and persisted, and pestered, until finally Ed gave in and told her he would go fetch the package he'd believed was more trouble than it was worth. The deal was that he would go and she would stay home with her ass-end in a chair and her feet bundled in wool socks. Winry's early morning had started out that way, but regardless of exhaustion, sore parts and Ed's orders, she'd found herself unable to stay prisoner in a chair. She'd done that the day before and barely survived, but this time Edward had the gall to tell her to learn how to knit to pass the time.
So, the agreement was ratified: Winry would accompany Ed. Insisting that the men's boots and fuzzy socks she had on were comfortable, she'd tagged along with Ed as he entered the postal outlet and followed him outside again like a happy puppy, much to Ed's annoyance and mostly dismay.
"Where are your keys?" Winry suddenly asked.
"In my pocket," Ed spat out, his eyes turning to slits, "why?"
Tucking the cubic package under her arm, Winry grabbed Ed's single good arm by the wrist and tried to wiggle her way into his jacket pocket, "I want to cut the tape and open it. Your keys will work."
"Knock it off Winry, dammit," trying to pull his arm free and turn away from having his keys abducted, Ed wound himself in circles down the sidewalk as Winry pursued, "get some patience and wait until we're home at least, you're going to bre-"
As though irony felt like driving home a point in Edward's favour, the package landed with a dull thump on the sidewalk.
"You're going to break something," he held a snarl of displeasure in his voice. Though, as Ed's eyes looked down at the fallen item with great displeasure, he very quickly realized his keys had been confiscated. Annoyed, he threw his gaze out into the morning street and found his glance narrowing at something entirely different; eyeing the traffic officer in the upcoming intersection that had stopped all lanes of traffic.
Kneeling down to the sidewalk, dirtied with days-old snow, Winry gripped the house key firmly and began attacking the tape that separated her from this mysterious object.
"Oh…" Ed's brow rose momentarily.
Not to be disheartened by the difficulty she was having with the key and tape war, Winry paused a moment, glancing up to Ed. He hadn't barked at her in the last sixty seconds, when he had every reason to do so. She felt kind of bad about this ridiculous tizzy they were at today. It was like some sort of ridiculous cover-up, because barely anything had been said between the two of them the day before. She didn't know what she was supposed to have made of that day, it wasn't as though they avoided each other or she hid away in her room in shame of her behaviour. They'd sat in the sitting room all day together and said next to nothing. Well, the mention of tea came up occasionally, and crunchy buns, but not much more than that. He'd asked her more today about how she'd been feeling than at any point in the prior day. A good chunk of the time, she could read Ed like a book, but yesterday he'd shut himself right up and had vanished into the book he was reading. She was afraid to ask him about it and, more so, really wanted to apologize for it. Winry was certain it was her fault he was being like that and just ended up feeling guiltier because she couldn't convince herself to speak up.
Watching Ed's attention veer elsewhere, Winry paid no mind to his distractions and returned to her self-appointed task. At the final snap of tape sealing this tiny cube of mysteries, she straightened up and held out the box victoriously.
The sudden sound of a single church bell came – a powerful intrusion startling the both of them. The sound echoed out into the streets, flowing without interruption. The deep chime forced the world to stand still so its sound could run freely through the streets. Again and again the chime rang, racing past with painful force and haste, tugging on the edges of Ed and Winry's coats. Neither one of them could see the steeple that was ringing out a powerful and endless sound that had stopped time.
The sound of the bell seemed to rise above her voice, attempting to silence her.
"You opened the box?" he glanced over, no longer startled by the deep ringing that continued to thunder around, "happy now? Can I have my keys back?"
Winry's question came with caution, completely thrown by how Ed had suddenly just disregarded the hypnosis of the deep bell, "What was that?"
"Today's the eleventh, it's a memorial day of sorts," Ed gave the response with a shrug, shaking the moment and issue away as though it was nothing, "don't worry about it."
"A memorial for what?" it was confusing to watch him suddenly become so detached from a moment he'd seemed to have been captured by. The box suddenly became Winry's secondary interest, "everyone just stopped for what?"
Ed rolled his head around on his neck before begrudgingly answering, "A war."
"What war?" Winry's tone was more surprised than persistent sounding. No one had told her about a war.
"A big war. A war that's over. What's in that damned box, Winry?" Ed demanded, drawing her attention back and smacking the top of the box with the back of his hand.
Winry blinked down at the box she still firmly clutched, "Right, it's open." Sometimes she truly hated when he'd get so blunt and vague about things that seem so important to everyone but him.
Ed extended his hand, "Keys. Now."
Without a word to the matter, Winry returned the man's keys and proceeded to lift open the cardboard flaps to the box, "What kind of a war?"
Ed watched as she pulled out some crumpled news print and fished for their prize. His melancholic expression grew a shade of concern as Winry wrinkled her nose at the eventual discovery. Ed did respond to her question though, his voice lost in a stagnant monotone, "the kind where lots of people die." He watched her crouch and place the box down on the ground, and then return standing with a thick, brown, leather-covered book, accented with gold plated corners and matching clasp in hand.
"What is it?" his head tilted.
Turning it over in hand, Winry examined it a little closer, "It's a day timer? Or diary?"
"It's too large for that," reaching out, Ed took the weighty object from Winry's possession and held it in his hand. It was oversized, thick, heavy, and quite professional looking. It wasn't exactly what he'd expected for a surprise delivery.
Sliding up to his left shoulder, Winry recognized that the book was too much for Ed to manage standing with only a single hand. With the flick of her thumb, she released the snap-button clasp and pulled open the cover with far more ease than either expected for something that appeared so freshly bound. Ed cradled the binding in his hand while Winry flipped the fluttering pages back until the front page came to be.
"Wait, what!" Winry exclaimed, uncertain if she should be amused or angered by the printed name of the owner on the inside cover, "This belongs to your dad? Why's it coming to you?"
"What the hell? Why was it addressed to me?" Ed grumbled, his interest in the object slowly growing a layer of disgust. Still cradling the book in his left hand, Ed watched as Winry handled the pages, flipping to the title page.
The outer pages were thick, like protectors, but the core of the book was not written on such strong paper – very light and free. Each page was only printed on one side as the ink had bled through, rendering the backsides of each sheet unusable. And it was hand written - the entire book was hand written. The first page gave the title away – stylized in thick, black ink by a dip-pen.
Edward stood and reviewed the title over in his mind more than once.
"'The Theory of Beyond the Gate'?" Winry read aloud.
His nose wrinkling, Ed wasn't sure if this was meant as a game, joke, or otherwise, "The what…?"
"This is as far as I go, folks," the horseman pulled on the reins of his cart, slowly drawing his caravan to a stop, "Pendleton."
Russell Tlingum stepped out from the back of the covered caravan, his shoes kicking up the road dust as he moved. All riders aboard the rickety transport had caught the elaborately decorated sign for Pendleton. Russell almost laughed; the city was in no way vibrant enough to live up to the excitement of their welcome sign.
Pendleton, the final city settlement in the west that was governed by Amestris, and even that was in question. The border town itself lay in relative peace and the inhabitants relied on only themselves for support. The government constantly gave its attention to the north, east and south – the Pendleton outlet was left to its own devices. The only time this location garnered attention was when the governing body of the western country raised its voice and threw out the empty demand that the outlet be returned to their jurisdiction.
Looking back into the caravan, Russell gave a nod to his travel companions: his younger brother, plus Gracia and Elysia Hughes. Elysia had tucked herself away in young Fletcher's lap, and the younger of the two brothers played 'big brother' to a young companion. The elder pair of Gracia and Russell kept themselves occupied, chatting with the driver, taking inventory of what they'd brought, and working on how they would manage to get themselves across the armed border to the west. Gracia had refused to go along with most ideas, not because they weren't sound plans to see the mother and daughter out of the country, but because they did not allow for a flawless return for the two boys back into their home country.
Extending a hand for Gracia, Russell helped her out of the cart.
Both Gracia and Elysia had taken on a change of clothes during the trip west. A peasant or farmer's look was decided to be the easiest solution. Four finely dressed people showing up at an outskirt town would raise a chorus of alarm bells. A simple white and pale green dress was collected for Gracia, and a yellow and green speckled dress with bonnet had been found for Elysia.
With feet on the solid ground, Gracia turned back to help her daughter out.
"Get up Fletcher," Russell called as Elysia left the boy's lap.
Calling back to his hitchhikers, the caravan driver gestured out west, "Since I'm not crossing the border, I'll take my leave of everyone. Do you have your things?"
Fletcher handed the last of two backpacks to his elder brother before signaling a thumbs up at their driver, "Yes, Sir. Thanks for taking us out here."
"It's been a pleasure to have you along," chirped the driver, "not often I pick up a pack of strays that come with a couple pretty ladies. Good day, folks!"
The light crack of horse reins were heard, and the caravan that had taken the group from West City to Pendleton continued on without them, leaving a fine cloud of dust in its trail.
"Mummy, I'm hungry," Elysia sulked as she took her mother's hand firmly, "can we go eat?"
Russell would respond as the teen suited up with a backpack and satchel, "We can stop and eat if you two are hungry, no problem with that. Or we can try to cross and see what's to eat out of country."
"Fletcha?" Elysia called, "is food better out of country?"
The boy could only shrug in response, "I dunno, I've never crossed the border. Maybe it's mysterious. Mrs. Hug—er, Gracia? Do you know?"
Russell's attention went onto the woman as well, but she could only smile and give the same unknowing response. It bothered the eldest Tlingum to hear how she'd forced her pleasant tone to keep her daughter from sensing anything was wrong. As far as the little girl was concerned, they were going on an adventure with Alphonse's friends, a great adventure, and when it was done, Elysia could see everyone again. That's what they were trying to maintain.
But Izumi's letter to them was no adventure, and the boys instructions were clear: see it through to a safe end. Initially, Russell had told Gracia they would hide out in West City, since the conflicts were mostly in the other quadrants of the country. But a problem came in securing their safety – the boys were a liability since they stood a chance of being recognized. Then came the problem of slipping a woman and child into a district that was extremely tight knit. Their names would create another issue. None of them could gauge the extent of Dante's eyes and ears. Changing their names would work, but convincing Elysia to go along with it for an indefinite amount of time didn't seem to be a reasonable expectation for the child.
In West City, it was Gracia who had suggested leaving the country, since it would not be a stretch to get to the western border. Once across, they would all become untraceable. Regardless of the regime change in their home country, most nations had, at one point or another, engaged in extensive combat with Amestris. Though a peaceful border existed in the west, the bordering nation did not let their grudge die so easily. For the most part, the nation was completely disinterested in providing any type of assistance to a warring nation. Hunting down a few citizens wouldn't be a request they'd entertain.
"Are you doing okay?" Russell asked quietly.
Gracia turned, her ears drowning out the bubbling chatter of Elysia and Fletcher as they walked. Her head lowering slightly, the woman released the exhaustion from her face and allowed a peaceful expression to return, "Honestly, I'm tired. I'd like nothing more than to cross the border and worry about things like dinner and accommodations afterwards. If we even ge—"
"No," Russell cut her off, "no 'if' here, we'll get you across, even if we need to go through the country side."
"The country side would be easier, then we don't risk arguing with the border guards," Fletcher piped up.
Stopping, Russell turned on a dime to face his younger brother who stood beneath his line of sight. Elysia tucked herself behind the shorter of two boys as he grinned up at his brother.
Russell flared his nostrils momentarily before lowering one eyebrow, "Last I checked, you were having a conversation about ice cream."
With a chirp to his voice, as if to impress the young lady at his side, Fletcher responded, "You're the one always telling me, 'Pay close attention to what I'm saying, Fletcher. It's important'."
Sliding his hands into his pockets, the elder brother rolled his eyes at his nosy younger brother and found a new line for their conversation, "We need a snack, I'll be right back. Nobody go anywhere."
Gracia looked back over her shoulder to Fletcher. Amusement curled into her expression, but she used the voice of a wise mother, "Be careful not to trodden too much on your brother, Fletcher. He's trying his best to be a responsible for everyone."
"I know, I know," the young boy rocked on his feet for a moment before something moving caught the corner of his eye. The figure in motion was his brother and the younger boy's attention veered towards the new direction his brother was wandering.
All eyes rose to the call of Russell's voice. He had nearly marched to the bakery at the corner of this dirt street, but had stopped in the middle of four crossed roads. With his gaze cast down the only street obscured by buildings, the right hand turn in their path, Russell gave a sharp snap of his wrist and flagged over his companions. After a moment of hesitation, the remaining three in the party joined up with Russell.
At the end of this right-hand turn, no more than 500 meters ahead of this tiny, sleepy town, was the border crossing.
Russell's arms slowly folded at the sight before them. A meek yellow and black painted bar in the road that separated two nations was raised and a shameful little officer's house at the crossing, barely larger than two outhouses, was vacant with the door hanging open. The actual border guard, in Amestris military garb, was unshaven and his shirt lazily done without all buttons. His scruffy brown hair was a bed-mangled mess and his military jacket had been thrown over the back of the rusty lawn chair he lounged in – crossword in hand. An aging peddler pushed his mule-less wooden cart with his own strength across the invisible line without so much as the flicker of acknowledgement.
Russell's grin grew wider. Stealing a look from the corner of his eye, he watched the concern wash away from Gracia's face. Right now, even more so, Russell loved this responsibility he'd been given. Despite the dire circumstances and situation surrounding the upheaval of this family and the stumbling trek into the western quarter of Amestris, the tiny family was a wonderful group to be around. Beyond how contagious the mother's smile was, there was no point in their adventure where he could shake the warm feeling that followed this tiny family at every turn.
Remembering the story they'd settled upon on their way here, Russell cleared his throat, "Ahem… 'Aunt Grace' shall we escort you and your daughter 'home' somewhere over there?"
The woman's smile remained, softening at the thought of safety and pushing aside the sad feeling of leaving the land they'd called home, "That would be lovely, thank you."
To Be Continued...