Chapter XLIII - #94 – Bad Witch
Ed had watched his father stand at the front of lecture halls and teach for years. Hohenheim had taught in Germany and he'd 'lectured' in London briefly, so Ed had stood at the front of a classroom at one time or another; albeit, when the room was empty. It was a whole other feeling to have people focussing on him as an educator – it was kind of a powerful feeling, even if it was only a handful of people watching.
"Brother?" Al looked at him.
Ed shook his head, snatched up a black pointer stick, and refocused, "The Theory of Beyond the Gate is flawed," his golden eyes scanned the meeting room comprised of Al, Mustang, Armstrong, and Izumi – the people who'd actually understand what he had to say, "at least, Dante's version of it is. Dante believes her knowledge is close to complete because she's unaware of the other portions of the theory that the other side of the Gate covers, which means that everything she's doing is based on a forty to forty-five percent understanding of the full theorem."
"You've seen the theory?" Izumi asked, seated in a wooden chair with one leg crossed over the other.
"I've read it cover to cover," Ed nodded to his own teacher, his thoughts becoming occupied by memories of the book Envy had stolen from Hohenheim's office in Germany and mailed to Ed in while they'd been in England. Ed frowned, "dad had written a revised version during his time beyond the Gate with everything he'd learnt, but he was only able to complete it to eighty percent. The information needed to complete the theory is unobtainable information and exclusively part of that world's ancient history." Ed found it ironic how much he'd wished there'd been a complete version of the theory while he'd been lost in the other world, yet now that he was home he was so thankful that he'd never found one – he didn't want to be responsible for that kind of powerful knowledge, "So, there is no way to successfully bridge the Gate with the theory without guessing at the missing portions and running experimental trials."
"What we do know for sure is that the two sides of the Gate have a symbiotic relationship," it was Alphonse's turn to digress in the conversation, "our side feeds from the energy sent through the doors in order to lessen the strain on the other world."
"The soul energy of the deceased?" Mustang asked, restraining the disgusted undertone in his voice, "the dead souls you described earlier from the other world that I use whenever I perform alchemy."
"Yes," Ed's response came through firm and absolute, "and you have to be okay with that."
"You just can't think about it," Al echoed his brother's sentiment, "or maybe look at it in a different light: if our world didn't use their souls for our alchemy, then we wouldn't have our way of life and that other world would become ruined."
Armstrong's voice billowed up from the back of the room, "If we didn't tap into that energy, would the souls become useful to that other world and their knowledge of alchemy?"
"No," Ed shook his head, "they've actually evolved in a way that prevents the usage of alchemy. I think it was just part of their natural evolution so they wouldn't destroy themselves," Ed glanced to Al standing against one of the tables before looking back to his thin audience, "if we ever stopped using alchemy, the volume of dead souls pooling at the Gate would become so overwhelming that the souls would begin to seep back into the other world. They'd have…" Ed paused to think about his next words, wondering if it was really what he wanted to say, "ghosts."
Before the alchemists in the room could check their moral compasses or begin to swallow the ramifications of what the brothers had to say, Al stepped in once more.
"Now that Diana's dead, one of three things can happen if Dante continues to try and breach the Gate with the partial knowledge of the theory," Al lifted a finger, "one, she'll get the information she wants and we'll have to try and contend with someone who has god-like powers," the younger brother popped up a second finger, "two, she'll break the Gate and the doors will be stuck open…"
"Despite the kind of anomaly the Gate is, the energy flow between the two worlds is regulated by the Gate so we can both live our lives in the safest possible manner," Ed did his best not to sound horribly, disgustingly bitter while praising the Gate, "if the doors stay open and we taste too much of that pool of power, then our world would become oversaturated with energy and that would essentially cause an alchemist to overload. You'll overload the biological circuit board connecting the mind, body, and soul and alchemy essentially burns out," Ed glanced off in thought, "then both sides get 'ghosts', because we aren't using the souls."
An awkward silence and exchange of glances went around the occupants of the room.
"And three, the doors will break and become permanently shut," Al put his hand down in his lap, "which means we lose our way of life and at some point the other world will become overrun with its own death and fall into anarchy, madness, etcetera."
"Dante isn't going to attempt to breach the Gate until she's had her way with you," Izumi's deepening thoughts came through in her low voice, eyes looking at Edward, "all three of those scenarios are dependent on if she can get anything out of you first."
Ed rolled his eyes, "Yeah I have to think of some way to deal with that…"
"Brother," Al finally aired out a growing concern, "maybe it's safer if we move you away. I mean, if Dante can't reach you, then she can't force any information from you."
Ed's initial response began with a disinterested frown, "I don't want to be on the run, Al; we don't even know if she knows I'm back." After all he had gone through, the adventure he'd taken, Ed was facing the possibility of falling off the preverbal radar and going into hiding – an immensely frustrating thought. He wanted some kind of normalcy that was obviously not forthcoming.
Re-crossing her legs, Izumi sat forwards, "So, say Dante does manage to get what she wants out of you," a situation none of them wanted to face, "in a worst case scenario, what kind of knowledge does Dante take?"
Ed's eyes slipped away to the corner as he felt himself subjugated by his own library of knowledge, forcing everyone in the room to wait on edge before looking over his shoulder to the chalk board. Ed spun the black pointer in his hands, a slew of heavy thoughts weighing him down, before he finally took a deep breath, stepped up to the chalkboard, and wiped it clean with his sleeve. In the anticipatory silence, Ed swiftly picked up a piece of chalk in his right hand – palm still wrapped and slowly healing from the deep wound he'd given himself at the backside of the Gate doors – and Ed wrote out six characters clearly before turning back to his audience.
"We all know what these do, right? We use them in alchemy every day," the pointer tapped on the chalkboard, "These characters are all found beyond the Gate as well. The first three are Greek in origin: Psi, Theta, and Lambda; the next two are Cyrillic: Zhe and Jus; and this last one is Phoenician, it's pronounced something like Qof," fascinated gazes bore down on Ed as he slapped his black pointer into his hand, "we have a set of thirty six alchemy characters that we use in every day practice and forty two in total. On the other side of the Gate the five different alphabets - Cyrillic, Coptic, Runic, Greek, and Phoenician – can be used in alchemy." Ed looked over his audience, fascinated to see the eyes of his peers absorb information… everyone looked so enthralled, "There are approximately 140 characters in total between those five languages beyond the Gate, so that's ninety eight characters we've never either seen or known there was a purpose for before – because a handful of them we already have, we just didn't know it," Ed took a deep breath before he began dropping the first of several bombshells that he was sure they'd been waiting for, "I have them all memorized in historical and alphabetical order… and I understand their principles, but don't know what half of them can actually do even if I tried to put them into practice – because practical alchemy as we know it was never truly possible beyond the Gate."
At first no one reacted, but some level of deep concern slowly soaked into every person's facial expression, ultimately acknowledging the calamities inside Edward's head. It was the first time in the lecture that Ed actually could say he felt uncomfortable standing up at the front of the room. Yes, every one of them should be concerned with the knowledge he possessed – Ed was concerned with the knowledge he had, since the magnitude of it all was still unexplored. Ed had rarely taken into consideration the practicalities of his knowledge quests in the other world because it was simply a useless fantasy there. It was strange for Ed to admit, but it was unfortunate for him that the other world tended to dream big when it came to ancient alchemy – everything he found far exceeded his expectations.
Ed put the pointer down and walked up to a wooden chair that was unoccupied at the front of the room. On one chair leg, he spun it around, then sat down on the backwards chair and folded his arms over the wooden back. Though the eyes that looked at him seemed to toil in the spaces between fascination and concern, Ed offered up an otherworld story that could end up being one person's fantasy and another's nightmare… or perhaps a little of both.
"I saw an alchemical formula carved in massive amounts of stone once – it spanned more than one area in a compound and I don't think anyone in that world could have known there was a connection to them," dangerous words in Ed's voice were almost wistful, "it took me weeks to decipher the purpose for it because it was loaded with obscure characters and markers and who knows what else. What I think I figured out from it was that some ancient alchemist had a thing for 'earth movement', and I'm not even sure I understand myself when I say 'earth movement'." Ed's hands stretched out in front of himself, his fingers twitching as though he was trying to tangibly grasp the concept. There were some things in that other world he'd found that had been so unfathomable until he'd found them, "It was like someone had thought the earth – the ground – was made up of puzzle pieces and this alchemist created a massive formula to find the seams in the rocks and move the pieces," Ed shook his head at his own words, not even looking to his audience – only focussing on his hands. Without seeing it, without standing on it, without saying they'd somehow felt it, there was no way for Ed to describe the childish excitement he felt every time he'd found something in the other world that defied his understanding. "Someone on that side was trying to move entire land masses; not just countries and cities, it was massive pieces of land. It was fantastic and terrifying and nobody there even had the slightest clue what it was… it was just decoration and carvings to them."
How Ed wished someone had been there to experience those moments with him, and not just Al's imaginary shadow – his father wanted very little to do with alchemy beyond the Gate. But by the time Ed had aired out his last syllable, he didn't even have to look up to know everything would be done to keep him out of Dante's reach.
"Edward Elric," Armstrong finally spoke again to assert his presence and made his words absolute, "you will be moved away to a location where Dante will be less able to track you."
"I see your dilemma with alchemy," Mustang found something to say that extended beyond his immediate desire to get more details out of Ed's mouth, "you clap your hands and a quarter of Central City has a chance of exploding."
Ed snorted, recalling the warning tone that came from his father shortly before he'd died; Hohenheim telling his son that if he managed to get home, he would be a danger. Even then, Ed didn't dispute that fact, he'd just never conceived of having to deal with it.
"OKAY!" Izumi suddenly stood up and all eyes snapped to her loud outburst. The woman's hands landed on her hips commandingly as dark eyes grabbed the two Elric brothers by their throats, "you boys are done this lecture."
Ed and Al swallowed in unison.
Izumi's right arm snapped out to her side, finger pointed to the open door leading to a hall that fed into the remainder of Mustang's hotel, "But you two aren't done scrubbing this place until it shines."
"Yes Sensei!" the boys snapped to attention, not yet finished with their punishment for the massive headache she accused Ed of causing her.
The barking teacher thumbed down to Mustang, letting Ed and Al sweat bullets, "I will use his white glove to go over every inch this building at 8am sharp tomorrow morning!"
Roy scowled, "You will not…"
Izumi didn't acknowledge his response, "And if you have to sacrifice another good night's sleep to meet your deadline, then so be it."
From the back of the room a foreboding presence rose, "If you boys would allow me to impart upon you…"
Ed and Al paled and inched back towards the opened door as Armstrong lumbered towards the front of the room.
"… one of the great Armstrong family traditions for the most effective way to clean sink, urinal, and toilet bowls that has been passed down through our generations!"
While Izumi's hands balanced firmly on her hips and Roy hung his head and sighed, Ed and Al squealed their steadfast refusal of 'no thank you!' and abruptly vanished from the room.
In the dead of night, the backsides of two brothers hit the cushions of an empty couch hard, each one taking an opposite end – Al throwing his arms over the one side and Ed heaving his legs over the other.
"I don't think I ever cleaned my own house that hard," Ed groaned, his head hitting a cushion and his arms dropping over his face.
"I don't know if there's an inch left that we haven't cleaned," Al buried his face in the fabric arm of the couch.
In synchronous fashion, Ed and Al kicked their slippers off, hearing them lightly thud on the floor.
"I'm going to sleep like a log tonight," Ed groaned, his voice quickly vanishing in behind the noise of officers bustling through the halls.
As the absence of their chatter lingered, Al found himself swaying to a concerning thought that he wanted to voice. Al wished he completely understood why he felt hesitant to ask his brother things – Ed was still Ed, and once they did start talking it was a conversation that never felt like it contained a barrier, and it never really felt like his brother was that much older. Maybe there was a fear of finding out that Ed wasn't completely Ed in some way, and that was what kept Al from freely speaking up. What if Al asked the one question that Ed would answer that opened up the storm clouds over their parade? Al didn't know the how, why, or what for to the question, or if it even existed, but he was still wary of it. The younger brother silently wished he could take all his fleeting concerns, roll them up into a ball, and step on them with an oversized armoured foot.
Al frowned and forced his primary concern into words, "Do you think you'll be able to get some sleep tonight?"
Ed had not slept well the last few nights.
"I'd better…" Ed wrinkled his nose.
Al had been woken up by his brother the last two nights.
"… or someone'll exile me to the basement."
Edward had woken the entire floor up the other night, before someone was merciful enough to wake Ed up.
How Ed had explained it to Al was that for some reason or another, because of the type of journey, neither he, nor their father, nor Winry had experienced any dreams in the other world. Sleep was just a black abyss that they fell into for however many hours at night. The way Ed saw it was that he was forced to spend every moment of his existence beyond the Gate, never allowed to dream of being home or escaping the world. That was part of his punishment. The way Al interpreted it was that perhaps the perpetual empty nights of sleep were the only merciful thing that world had subjected his brother to. Never being able to dream of home meant that Ed would never have to wake up and re-live the loss, and never being able to dream meant he never had to be subjected to any of his nightmares.
Now, Edward's mind was free to dream up anything with years worth of fodder.
Al watched his brother take the disasters his sleeping mind conjured up in moderately frustrated strides; there was obviously a staggering amount of embarrassment that Ed scowled at and he barked at anyone making an issue out of it. But Ed had a history of nightmares after their mother's failed transmutation and after Nina's death, so Al at least knew it wasn't an uncommon reaction… at least that was before Ed had turned fifteen and had managed to find a way to shut himself down far enough that he could block it all out. Al wondered if the nightmares were so bad that he couldn't block them or if his brother was actually allowing himself to deal with the bombardment. Al wondered if Winry might know what might be haunting him, but there was no guarantee she did, and if Winry did know, did Al want to dig it all up through her if Ed was having this much trouble with them? Neither one of them had spoken in detail about the events that had transpired to cause Winry to be shot…
What Ed and Al had going for a conversation had faded away. With soggy pant and shirt cuffs, pruned fingers, plus bumps and bruises, the boys silently decided the most prudent course of action was to remain where they were, listening to the unintelligible buzz of military personnel, and relax. No natural light entered this little sanctuary away from the chaos in the main concourse of the hotel – there were no windows – just a meek little light sitting on a table pushed up against the wall out of reach from Al. The longer they sat, unmoving and uninterrupted, the better their ears were able to tune out the hum of people, and sleep was becoming quite tempting.
"Al?" Ed aired out in a rush.
"Hm?" Al wiggled his chin around on the plush couch arm.
"Can I ask you something?"
Al picked his head up. Squaring himself around properly on the seat cushion, Al looked to Ed– laid out on his back next to his younger brother with his legs thrown over the arm of their long seat. Al smiled, "Sure."
"Are you okay having me so much older?" Ed turned more onto a shoulder.
"Yes I am," the response came without forethought or hesitation. Al's shoulders relaxed, his hands clasping in his lap. His head tipped in thought, eyes focussed on the concerned expression on Ed's face, "I think it's gonna take a few weeks at home before I stop expecting to see the younger, shorter you though. I'm always double-taking because my brain tells me I'm not seeing the right you. I'll get over it."
Even before Al had finished his statement, he'd seen the look in his brother's eyes flicker away.
"I want this to be over so we can go home…" it was a verbalization of a feeling both brothers silently shared – wasn't it about time they got to move on? Ed paused before adding a quiet afterthought. "I'd like to take a crack at tackling life instead of fighting through everything in the way of life."
Al grinned, "We can start to think about the rest of our lives."
The younger brother watched the look in his older brother's eyes escape from beyond the four walls that surrounded them as he spoke. That look on Ed was new. It was a subtle and subdued look Al hadn't seen on his brother before, because Al didn't think he'd ever heard his brother refer to his own future in any way – Ed was always concerned about somebody else. Al soon suspected Ed had something more to say; he still moved and twitched in ways that had been like his teenage self when there was something he wanted to say. It was far less noticeable now, but still present, and the younger brother knew that if he didn't push and waited long enough…
"I used to think about things sometimes beyond the Gate," Ed sounded so shamed and childish, like he'd been caught doing something and Al was somehow responsible for extracting the confession, "I think for a long while I'd convinced myself I wasn't entitled to much in life."
Edward Elric of days gone by was an alchemist for the people. He was the older brother who did not want to get back his own limbs – they weren't important – but get back his younger brother's body instead. He wanted to get Al's body back. He'd wanted to fix his wrongs. The last thing Ed had dearly wanted for himself, that something he had worked hard to get, that thing he had strived stubbornly for nearly a year to find a way to obtain, was something that mourning eleven-year-old boy was told in the most disastrous fashion he could not have: their mother. It was a desire that ruined, damaged, or affected more than just Ed – it touched everyone involved with him and usually hurt them. At more than one point, the repercussions of that desire had cost Ed all that he believed he had left: Al. Edward's selfish desires threatened to leave him all alone. That was the last version of Edward Elric Al had known before he'd reached into the Gate to retrieve him. In a way, Ed's sacrifice to bring Al back finally gave the Gate its chance to inflict the punishment of solitude on Ed that it hadn't been able to the first time around. Al wondered how much time in those five and a half years Ed had spent beyond the Gate alone thinking about his situation and all he'd gone through.
"Now I have these things that I've wanted for years," Ed sounded so surprised to feel such an accomplishment, "and now I'm seeing other things I could want, I'm finding things that I might want, and discovering there are things I didn't know I wanted," Ed's nose twitched, fighting through the urge to drop his voice to an incoherent mumble, "it's a weird feeling."
Al grinned a little wider, "Is it because now you want more?"
At that point Ed stopped and Al figured his brother had decided he'd let his voice run on too long, because the look overtaking Ed's facial expression was clearly infused with discomfort and embarrassment. Talking about himself wasn't something Ed was ever good at, even if Al was the one person Ed felt most comfortable opening up to.
"When you say 'home', you mean Rizembool?" Al asked.
"That's where home is," Ed's response came with a slow, thoughtful nod, "when I thought of home beyond the Gate, that's always where I went," his golden gaze meandered off into the corners, "like lying around the hill that overlooks the valley, or sitting creek-side on the edge of the thicket, or falling asleep with the sunset in the spare room Granny Pinako kept for us."
Al wished his brother hadn't stopped there, but the odd, forceful grin Ed took on overrode the mellowed and thoughtful gaze – like the peaceful, private thoughts of home were suddenly ushered into their drawers again – and Al knew instantly his brother was done talking about himself.
"What do you plan on doing when this is all over?" Ed looked to his brother.
The question threw open the lid of Alphonse's mental toy box, "Grow up!"
Al didn't know how much he'd honestly thought of his future while he was a suit of armour – the future he had beyond reclaiming his body – because Al's future began and ended with that body. Alphonse had divergent futures: one was his future if he was forced to remain in the armour forever, and the other was his life if he'd gotten his body back. Positive thinking reclaimed Al's body, but he didn't want to be disappointed if it didn't happen. The future as a suit of armour was a future Al didn't want to think about, because he wanted to be in his body again. So, like his brother, Al now had the opportunity to open his eyes wide and look to the future.
"I want to go home with you and Winry to Granny Pinako's and grow up!" Al bounced on his seat and pulled his feet underneath himself, "We didn't get to hang around with a lot of kids our age during our search for the Philosopher's Stone, but I did get to watch them when I could," Alphonse slapped on a gleeful expression that made Ed grin, "I want to go to school for a bit and learn new things. I want to see and do what kids my age actually are supposed to do and grow up like everybody else! I want to be a teenager, and see how tall I get and find out what my voice changes into and have a girlfriend and become an adult and go travelling and meet new people and…" Al stopped when he realized Ed was laughing, "… and is that weird?"
"No, Al," Ed tried to corral himself and his laughter, "I think it's fantastic. That's exactly what you should be doing."
Al happily nested himself into the seat cushion, "I spent years watching people around me and seeing how things are done in life, and now I get to do it all - it's going to be fantastic!" Al gave an emphatic, childish, repetitive poke to his brother's shoulder, to which Ed rolled his eyes, "And I'm going to study alchemy, and you're going to help me."
"You have fantastic goals, Al," Ed's legs came down to the floor and he straightened himself properly on the couch, a position that only lasted a minute before he'd sunken down and slouched in the seat, his legs extending as far as he could out in front of himself, "perfect goals."
Al had always known that if and when he was free of the suit of armour he would do everything he could to step back into a normal life, what he hadn't planned for was the do-over of the years he'd spent in the suit of armour. The sudden opportunity to explore all that lost time was a trove of excitement that Al hadn't dreamed he'd get – now he could dream.
Though Ed still grinned at Al's outpouring of energy, the younger of the brothers settled down his own excitement with a sobering thought, "And somewhere in all of that alchemy we'll explore together, we're going to have to find some way to get Brigitte home safely."
Ed cocked an eyebrow curiously, "Brigitte?"
That wasn't the reaction Al was expecting. His expression fell, "You know her… she came with your picture," he narrowed an eye when it was obvious by Ed's confused expression that he didn't know who Al was talking about, "the girl from the other side of the Gate… Brigitte Shmittenhelm."
"Schitten…" Ed suddenly slipped out of his seat and landed on the floor with squawk and a thud, "WHAT?"
The more hours that went by in Central City – not just the days, but the hours, sometimes minutes – the more Ed realized that when people mentioned that things were dire in the city, he grew to understand they weren't kidding.
Rail transportation had been halted for weeks. Ground transportation wasn't being let into the city at most points. Foot traffic within Central was only safe between certain hours. The common people wanted the government out but if they protested there was a growing risk of being shot in broad daylight – it was more of a military state now than at any point during Bradley's regime. Stores were running low on food and somewhere along the way a rumour had been started that the possibility of a water shortages in some areas were imminent.
Out of all that was going wrong, the only thing Ed wanted was a phone that worked, and it appeared that the telephone system only functioned if and when it wanted to. It had taken nearly four and a half hours before Feury finally was able to establish a line out to Xenotime. Local switchboards outside of the central core worked, it was just a matter of reaching the operators in the out laying areas. When the operator finally connected with the Tlingum residence Ed bolted into Mustang's paper-filled office, shoved aside some work that would never get done, and sat himself down.
Ed snatched up the receiver sitting on Mustang's desk.
And it rang.
And rang some more.
Ed had forgotten how much he loathed the ringing telephone. After the hours of frustration, Ed had to restrain himself from snapping the receiver into two.
"Sir, would you like me to try once more?" the female operator at Xenotime telecommunications came over the line after twenty-one rings.
"Yes, please," Ed tried to make sure none of his frustrations leaked out into his voice.
The rings again began, much to Ed's growing impatience, only this time someone answered at the fifth ring.
"Finally!" Ed bounced up in his seat when a woman's voice came on the other line, "I'm looking to speak with either Maria Ross or Russell Tlingum, is either one of them available?"
"I'm sorry both Lieutenant Ross and Mister Tlingum are out."
Ed frowned, slouching back into the chair, "Do they have a guest with them named Roze Thomas?"
"Yes, but she's stepped out with them as well."
Ed's frown was downgraded into a scowl, "Well, what about the little brother Fletcher?"
"I'm sorry, everyone's out for the day."
Edward sat somewhere between annoyed and moderately disappointed that he'd just gone through all that effort to find out the people he needed to talk to weren't home, "When're they coming back?"
"They left late yesterday for a task, but I don't have their schedule. Would you like me to take a message?"
Ed scoffed – doubtful they'd get through but at least they'd have something. So, Ed needed to compile a subtle message, something that wouldn't set off all the alarms or become gossip material. Ed looked to a story Al had told him the night before, "Sure, tell them to give Ms. Ross' boss a shout about the camera bag we have in Central, we have some new exposures with the film she might want to go over."
"I'll pass that along."
Ed gave a hesitant pause before asking a further, curious question, "Did they take Brigitte with them?"
The woman's voice had a very subdued sound of surprised, "No, Miss Brigitte remained behind."
Ed's brow lifted and a bounce came into his voice "Put her on."
"… Pardon me?"
"Go get her!" Ed barked impatiently into the receiver.
The silence on the phone was negligible and, like Brigitte had been standing in the room the whole time, the telephone in Xenotime was passed off and a confused little voice came on with very nervous English.
Ed's face abruptly twisted like there was someone standing right in front of him to scold, "I didn't see you with your fingers in your ears when I told you not to go to the Thule Hall."
"EDWARD!" Brigitte's squealing voice shrieked into the phone forcing Ed to take it off his ear, "Oh my God, Edward Elric, really! Where are you? How did you find me? Are my parents with you?"
Ed's eyes glanced to the side uneasily while Brigitte shot off an endless string of questions. She obviously didn't know where she was – not that there was any way she could have figured it out.
"I will take my lashes, be expelled from school, and take all the punishment in the world, but I'd just really want to go home. Are you helping me leave?"
Clearing his throat, Ed again tapped the receiver off his ear while he thought, "Um, it's gonna be a bit before we can get you out of there and find a way home. I'm kinda out of the way at the moment…"
"Well, then I'll come to you! There're people here who can drive – tell me how to get there!"
"It's not going to work that way either," Ed scratched his free hand through his bangs, "sit tight for a bit – I just called to make sure you were doing alright."
"Well, I'm fine but Edward you should really hurry, there are sorcerers and witches and wizards all over the place - I don't know who I'm supposed to trust."
Ed laughed and could almost see the displeasure on Brigitte's face through the phone, "Well, those two boys you're with, the pompous one and his little brother, I'll out them as sorcerers for you."
"Well I figured that when I saw them make the trees change colour! I'd thought they were good people until that happened."
"Well…" Ed was going to have to concede this, "they're good sorcerers and they're going to help you, so they're people you can trust," he looked around the office in thought, "and I know you've met Izumi, she's a good witch too… and Mustang is—"
"What about the little girl?"
Ed raised an eyebrow and ground his teeth down on the inside of his cheek; he was very certain which little girl she meant, "You mean the girl with the braids?"
Brigitte hesitated before answering, "Well, her hair's not in braids right now, but it was when I first met her."
It took a moment before Ed realized Brigitte's response had thrown him face-first into a mental brick wall – he felt a little dazed. This couldn't possibly be happening; Ed's stomach churned. Maybe his understanding of German was failing now that he was home. Ed pulled in a few slow, deep breaths and his expression began to plummet, "Is she there?"
"She showed up yesterday," Brigitte sounded thoroughly disapproving of the new company, "she claps her hands and does the craziest magic I've ever seen. She scares everyone."
Things weren't just 'bad', they were worse. Ed's heartbeat suddenly kicked into high gear, "Is she in the room with you?"
"Yes, she's watching me talk to you," Brigitte answered, "her servant answered the phone."
Ed's mind replayed the delighted shriek of his name in Brigitte's voice and ran his hand over his face, "Fuck this…" Ed cursed the chaos that endlessly rained down over his life and made a futile wish for one more day of peace he would no longer get, "Brigitte, we're going to have a conversation and I don't want you to look at her, okay?"
His frustrations boiling on high and his blood pressure steadily rising in the heat, Ed took a long, deep breath and tried to put together a situation for Brigitte, "That little girl is a bad witch, and she's not even a little girl, she's very old and just uses her magic to make you think she's little… do you understand?"
"Yes," now the nerves kicked into Brigitte's voice.
"Don't do that, you have to always act like you don't know something is wrong," Ed frowned as he tried to organize his thoughts, "you have to keep an eye her all the time. She has a magic red stone that makes her strong, so if she claps her hands and goes to touch you, I want you to run and run as fast as you can."
"Where do I run?"
"Away - just far away. When you can't run anymore, you find somewhere to hide until I find you," Ed put his arms down on the desk and clunked his chin down on the varnished surface, "You have to act as properly as you can with her. She's a terrifying witch who's a lot stronger than all of us, so you have to play dumb around her and do exactly as she says."
Brigitte's voice rose with a concern, "This bad witch chased away Maria and her friends yesterday, are they in danger?"
"Yes – but I don't think you are," Ed made sure the leave some sense of security in the girl – Dante had sent everyone away except Brigitte… that made Brigitte important in some way, "the bad witch knows who you are and where you're from, so she shouldn't have any reason to harm you. She thinks you're a magic code and that makes you important, very important to her; that's why you're still there with her and you're not hurt." In Ed's mind, that was the only reason he could think of to explain the situation.
"Edward… why me?"
Ed's jaw slowly fell open. Why her? Why Nina? Why anybody? 'Why' was a question Ed didn't like, because why's tended to make the least amount of sense and the reply rarely made anything better.
"That's just how it happened," was the best answer Ed eventually gave her.
Izumi's fingers landed quietly on a door frame, though she could do nothing beyond curse the painful sound of the hinges. Slowly, the woman pulled the door shut while doing everything she could to minimize the sounds. Izumi turned the knob before it reached the latch, silently sealing the door and controlling the release of the knob. Izumi's hands fell away and she dipped her head as she turned into the hall.
"Was their attempt to sanitize this hotel to your satisfaction?" a low voice questioned in the dimly lit hall, "I never saw the final grade."
Izumi looked over to Mustang, "They did an exemplary job."
The officer bobbed his head slowly in approval, cocking an eyebrow and throwing out a greedy question, "Any tips on how to get Ed to behave so obediently? I've never seen him answer anyone's orders quite so well."
Izumi grinned slightly, eyeing the man who'd never managed to obtain authority over the Elric brothers quite like she had. The grin transformed into a smirk and the teacher's feet scraped the floor; Izumi walked past Roy, "Estrogen."
"Ah." With his arms folded, Roy turned and slowly trailed in behind Izumi's path, "Edward is sleeping?"
"Three hours," Izumi stopped and turned the door handle to Alphonse's room, "he got restless at one point, but he just needed something calming to ease him from it."
Izumi entered Al's room before Roy could comment further, and the officer waited in the hall as the teacher quietly made her way through Alphonse's room to check on him. She re-emerged quickly – nothing with Al entered Izumi's list of concerns – and she pulled his door shut again.
"Has Alphonse mentioned any problems sleeping?" Roy asked.
"Al says he's fine," Al looked fine, sounded fine, and came off with a profound increase in confidence – if Izumi wasn't so reluctant to relax her nerves, she wouldn't have checked on Al at all, "the experience at the Gate hasn't adversely affected him as far as I can tell. He's the only one in this building who appears to be getting eight hours every night."
Even those with clear heads didn't manage to get a fully nights' sleep with all the never ending commotion.
With Alphonse's room inspected, Izumi made her way further down the hall. She paid no mind to the officer who observed her actions, not interested in his presence enough to keep the conversation going with him. Izumi's hand landed lastly on the knob to Winry's door; she turned the handled and used her shoulder to push into the room, only to thump into the wood when the door didn't budge. The woman stepped back and gave a confused scowl to the knob.
"Winry asked for some privacy the other night," Roy cleared up the situation, "she's allowed to lock the door."
Izumi wasn't sure if allowing anyone to lock their door was a good idea considering Dante could manufacture the ability to come and go as she pleased, and who knows who else was out there waiting to be sprung on them. The teacher continued to frown her fingers lightly tapped the door knob. She eyeballed the man standing square in the hallway, somewhat uselessly, entirely unsure of his motivation for standing around like this in the dead of night. Rather than simply walk away, Izumi chose to utilize his lingering presence.
Izumi sighed, "So, after all was said and done, Brigitte and Winry were exchanged through the Gate?"
"If what Edward told us earlier in the day holds true, yes," Roy concurred.
Shaking her head, like hearing the explanation from more than one person didn't make it any less profound, Izumi turned up her nose in frustration, "And now Dante has caught Brigitte in the town of sanctuary you sent them all to."
"I don't believe for a second that Dante would have pursued her out that far if her circumstances hadn't changed so drastically. She showed little sign of interest in Brigitte until now," Roy's response had a fair bit more bite to it than Izumi had been expecting – the situation from his perspective was obviously more frustrating than he was outwardly letting on. Then Mustang threw in a deepening concern of his own, "and she has one of my good officers."
"And those boys with Roze," masked in the dim hallway light, Izumi's fists clenched before she threw her arms across her chest, "I explicitly told them to stay with Mrs. Hughes beyond the border."
Izumi felt Roy react to her statement on Gracia Hughes long before the words came to his mouth – she couldn't say the ire in a man's aura caught her attention that often , "Did I ever get the chance to properly discuss that with you—"
"Save it," Izumi waved him off like the boiling rage of a man had no affect her, "save your breath for one of the hundred other more important things we have going on right now. Don't keep your panties in a knot because you think I'm stepping on your pedicure."
Roy's fingers twitched with the urge to light the entire hallway and all its contents on fire.
Izumi hopped onto another train of thought before the prior one could cause any damage, "With Diana gone, Dante might trying to find some use for Brigitte in her place, which is probably why she headed out there."
Roy's temperature slowly lowered, "That was the consensus."
Izumi nodded in agreement, "We don't have time to get out there and prevent anything before Dante will have moved on again. Even if Brigitte speaks another language, Ed said his name isn't pronounced much differently in her tongue, so we can be almost certain Brigitte gave his return away. Dante will head back to Central and we have to make sure she comes nowhere near Ed – not with the knowledge he has and the power Dante can use."
That arrangement was something Roy had begun working on in the evening, "Major Armstrong has been making arrangements with his family up north to have Ed sent to the mountains – I'd say that'd be Dante's least desirable destination at the moment since Drachma has been harassing the border and is profoundly miffed at the political office she's controlling."
"You honestly want to send them within spitting distance of a potentially escalating battle zone?" Izumi harshly questioned Roy's logic.
"Where else do I send them?" Roy scowled, "you lured Dante's eyes west when you ushered off Gracia and Elysia, I got wind that men were sent south to Rizembool to talk to Mrs. Rockbell when Havoc was being accused of indecencies against her granddaughter, and Dante has a long standing love affair with the eastern quadrant of the country. Dante's only involvement with the north has been sending us to do something to piss Drachma off."
Izumi scoffed, yet offered nothing to counter his assessment of the situation.
"They can go north but stay south enough of the border to be out of the way. We have towns and hamlets that they can lodge in," Roy spoke with an inarguable tone.
Again, Izumi offered nothing to counter his logic, "You know you're going to have to send Al and Winry too," was finally her concession, "Al won't leave Ed and we obviously can't send Winry to Rizembool."
"Lieutenant Havoc and Officer Falman are going to accompany them north," Roy responded promptly, something that seemed to draw out some of Izumi's frustrations.
"You have this all planned out, don't you?" Izumi finally scowled at him.
"I have to have this all planned out," Roy responded tartly, "you think I just run around this capital city without knowing exactly where everyone is, what the missions are on each division, the time frame for execution, what exactly I'm looking to accomplish, and how I'm going to pull that off with the least amount of pedestrian consequence?"
Izumi dearly wanted to reply with a yes to the military dog, but was more than certain he was holding onto as much power and control over the situation as he could. Unable to counter his retort with nothing more than some childish backhanded response that was beneath her, Izumi lost the argument by changing the subject.
"What are you doing up here standing around in the hall talking with me for?" Izumi asked abruptly, "if you're so busy being an active little puppy, why are you standing around?"
"Because it's my bedtime," Roy responded with a haughty perk in his voice and it stood a few of Izumi's hairs on end, "and I am free to use my bedtime in whatever manner I see fit."
Izumi scoffed, wondering how a man could hold the kind of look in only one eye that gave her a childish urge to want to claw it out, "You thought it would be best to waste your bedtime bothering me?"
The reply was brisk, "I thought it would be best to waste the first few minutes of my bedtime to look around my upper most floor and make sure that, at least for some point in the night, everything was sound and at peace – you've taken care of that for me it seems."
Izumi watched the wind fly out of her sails. She didn't like to lose a verbal sparring match, but if Mustang had shown up only to check on his cared-for occupants, she couldn't condemn him for that. The teacher's shoulders fell, "Everyone's fine," Izumi let her arms drop to her sides and she walked down the hall, stepping past Mustang as she moved, "since my bedtime doesn't feel like its forthcoming, I'm going to sit in on Ed for a bit."
The noise Mustang made almost sounded like a laugh, "Does he know you're babysitting him like this?"
"I have no idea," Izumi shrugged, turning the handle to Edward's door, "but there are some tricks you learn about kids when they're younger that can help you slip under their radar even when they're older. If he complains about it, I'll stitch his lips shut."
Mustang cocked the eyebrow over his good eye and looked to Izumi over his shoulder, "Do those tricks require estrogen to learn as well?"
In the wake of her swift reply, but before vanishing into Ed's room, Izumi kept an eye on Mustang as he slowly made his way towards the staircase, walking through the dimmed lighting of the hallway without any further response.
As far as Brigitte could figure out, 'Nina' had initially been this little girl with a servant and the both of them pestered her. When she'd first woken up in this backwards world, she was on a dark floor with the girl and her caretaker, and from that point forwards Brigitte had felt something like a puppy they'd been trying to train. The whole situation was thrown on its head when a lady named Maria had shown up in costume and kidnapped her… at least, that's what Brigitte had originally thought was going on. All of it had made no sense; she'd been abducted in the first place and taken away to some British colony that was presumably much closer to the equator, so to be re-kidnapped by another sect within this far away world made even less sense than kidnapping in the first place. But, no one had made her cook or clean, wash linens or chase away cobwebs; no, Brigitte had been clothed, fed, modestly entertained, nicely treated, and thoughtfully taken care of, which really shot a number of holes in her whole kidnapping theory.
The world made no sense.
And for some reason they all wanted to know about Edward Elric – if this golden-eyed person was so important, why did they kidnap her and not him? Then life made less sense when men attacked Maria's cottage and they all had to run. It made even less sense when the magic started happening. Brigitte was forced to update her only logical scenario: she'd been kidnapped by British sorcerers and taken to their training colony for some reason yet to be determined… but it couldn't be good, whatever the reason. Maybe this was like Hansel and Gretel and she was Gretel without Hansel; Brigitte spent a few days not eating much.
So, Maria Ross, the only woman who she was one hundred percent certain was not going to suddenly pull magic out of her bag, collected Brigitte plus the dark skinned woman who came out of nowhere, and they drove off in the middle of the night.
It had taken days to get where they'd needed to be because of this, that, and the other thing, but the city they came upon was tucked away in a hillside and was a lot lower key than how active the other city had been. In this city she was re-introduced to two blonde boys that she'd seen briefly in the previous city. For a few days at least, things felt kind of normal.
And then Nina came back into the picture. Brigitte hadn't known really who or what this little girl and her entourage were all about until Ed phoned the next day, and neither had Russell and Fletcher's servants – they had mistakenly let Nina in when her party had walked up to the front doors and rung the doorbell. Then came the outburst of rage from the older brother, followed by an explosion of magic, and then the building went into lockdown. After a good deal of confusion, all of the faces Brigitte was familiar with vanished and she was left with Nina, who seemed perpetually angry. Nina appeared to want Brigitte's company for no logical reason, and it was the only point in time during her entire adventure where it actually felt like a kidnapping.
Since all the adults in the room were taking orders from the little girl, Brigitte took it as a clue to behave and do as she was told. Her conversation with Edward cemented her good-girl behaviour.
In the afternoon that followed her conversation with Ed, Brigitte had been taken on a walk, directed to remain three steps behind Nina, and had been instructed to carry a jewel box that weighed next to nothing. They'd walked the hall for hours, visited thirty different rooms, until the pair finally found another closed door to open. What made this thirty-first room more distinguishable than the first were the two security guards and the key Nina needed to get in.
"Come inside, Brigitte. I need that box," Nina summoned Brigitte forward and she sauntered past the guards who didn't even glance her way.
Brigitte scampered in after Nina and looked around the rounded room with no windows but astoundingly bright lights in the ceiling. It looked like it was supposed to be a bedroom, but it had been warped – there was bedroom furniture but no closet, a bed but no sheets, rounded walls with no corners. Brigitte looked ahead to the body of a person curled up on the bed but glanced down again when Nina walked up and flipped open the jewellery box in her hands. Brigitte's brow rose at a blood red pendant on a golden chain seated atop the pure white cotton in the box and a clear vile of matching red dust next laying to it. Nina picked out the thin vile and twisted the cap off.
"Just a little…"
Brigitte watched Nina produce a handkerchief and thinly spread a layer of red dust over it.
The vile was capped, returned to the box, and Nina walked up to the bed, climbing atop the mattress. Brigitte glanced down to the open box, her eyes fixating on the stunning colour of the red jewel attached to a thin gold chain; she'd never seen anything so profoundly, powerfully red. It was enthralling.
She has a magic red stone that makes her strong…
Brigitte startled at a handclap and looked up when the figure on the bed jolted; Nina was leaning over the body and holding the handkerchief over the person's face. The struggle barely lasted a few seconds – the body on the bed simply had no strength for a fight.
"That's better, just breathe it in for a few seconds," Nina hovered for a moment before withdrawing, turning away and slipping herself off the bed, "our conversation today will be so much more productive this way and much less of a struggle for both of us."
Nina walked back up to the box Brigitte held and helped herself to the red pendant, linking the golden clasp behind her neck and then tucking the entire pendant away under her blouse – the wondrous object vanished from sight. Nina shut the box and smiled up at Brigitte who only replied with a nervous frown.
Nina turned back to the bed.
"Would you sit up please, Maria."
Brigitte nearly dropped Nina's jewelry box when Maria Ross sat up on the bed with a pale, empty expression on her face, deeply reddened cheeks, and hazy eyes that captured nothing.
"I have a few more things for you to answer today," Nina's voice suddenly echoed in the room, "so make this painless: put your hands on your knees."
It took a few moments, but gradually – hesitantly – Maria obliged. The subsequent clap of Nina's hands was deafening; Brigitte staggered back a few steps, rolling the jewel box into her arms and pinning it to her chest. Everything moved so slowly.
If she claps her hands and goes to touch you…
'Something' will happen.
Nina reached out and Brigitte dropped the jewel box. When the corner cracked on the ground, Brigitte acted on the first thing she thought of – she screamed.
Nina spun around.
Brigitte screamed until her lungs were empty and her chest hurt from it. She coughed as she looked back at the bewildered little girl with some kind of terrifying power no one had explained, but the witch's hands seemed to hang uselessly at her sides.
"The ceiling is white and the sky is blue and it's all falling down!" Brigitte kicked the jewel box and backed herself up, her body thumping against the door – she didn't care what came out of her mouth, no one would understand her anyways, "there are skeletons in the closets and monsters under the beds. They're going to break everything!"
"What is your problem!" Nina hollered.
For someone so small, Brigitte was startled by how much booming rage Nina could project; her heart pounded. Brigitte looked around madly before suddenly cutting across the room and scrambling into the space between the night stand at the side of the bed and the wall. Brigitte wedged herself in, sat down on the floor, wrapped her arms around her knees, and looked back out into the room at Nina's flabbergasted reaction.
"You don't even have a closet in here, but that just means the skeletons you have are the worst."
"Wha—" Nina looked at her hands in disgust, then to Maria, back to Brigitte, and down to her hands again, like she didn't know what she would do next, "you… you stupid girl!"
Brigitte paled and curled up tight when Nina finally stormed forwards, the German girl's eyes pinching and ears listening for a frightening handclap. A handclap never came, but the hard toe of Nina's dress shoe kicked her in the side of her thigh. The angry witch kicked her four or five times with chirping screams of frustration before Brigitte reached out to try and push her away. Nina's hands flew in and grabbed Brigitte's hair, trying to yank the girl out into the centre of the room, all the while attempting to inflict damage with her feet. Brigitte scrambled along the floor, trying to grab the hands pulling her hair, but she ended up grabbing Nina at her waist instead, and Brigitte again tried to shove the raging child away.
Brigitte shrieked and recoiled when her hands sunk unnaturally into Nina's body, though her own startled sound was drowned out by the scream of pain the little witch made. Brigitte was released and she scrambled back against the wall, watching as Nina wrapped her arms around her stomach and staggered away.
"This body…!" Dante choked.
Brigitte's thoughts were momentarily captured by the strangest odour seeping into the room.
"I lost my concentration… I need my focus!" childish rage erupted again, "and I need to heal this body again."
Nina threw her piercing eyes over her to Brigitte, fear nailing the girl against the wall. Dante only stared down Brigitte for a moment before she stormed through the room, kicked the jewel box to the door, picked the box up again when she got there, and slammed the door in a tantrum as she left.
The wrathful little girl left and the air slowly began to clear. Brigitte sat in the corner for a few silent moments, waiting to see if Nina would return, but once the sound of footsteps vanished and all she could hear was the buzz from the blaring overhead lights, Brigitte pulled herself out of the corner.
Standing up, Brigitte winced and rubbed her sore leg and hip. Her focus wasn't on these new bruises though – Brigitte looked over to the bed, nervous to see Maria tipped over and fallen on her side atop the mattress. Brigitte carefully walked around the bed, slowly making her way to the side Maria was facing.
Brigitte climbed onto the bed and hid her knees beneath herself. She could hear Maria breathe, she could see her empty eyes stare off without purpose, and Brigitte put her hand down on the woman's bare arm, shaking it a little – she was very warm to the touch, like a person with a fever, "Maria?"
Nothing came for a reply.
Brigitte reached up and patted the unresponsive woman on her cheek once, then twice, and a third time just a bit harder, "Maria?"
For a moment Brigitte watched the look in the officer's eyes come into focus and capture the room; it looked something like delight over the successful scale of the world's tallest mountain – it was full of exhaustion. She didn't move her body, but Maria smiled before the moment faded and she closed her eyes.
"NO," Brigitte shrieked and jerked Maria's arm, "no no no what did the witch do to you! She did something to you, didn't she?" Brigitte looked frantically around the blindingly bright room, "I need someone to help you. I need to go get help."
Brigitte slid off the bed and fixated on the door. She didn't know how to contact Edward, or where the two brothers from this city were, or where the dark skinned woman had gone. Brigitte clasped her hands over her mouth and pinched her eyes, trying to think about what she was supposed to do next.
"I'll go get you help," Brigitte nodded to herself, looking towards the door again, "I'll bring someone who can help, I promise."
The girl from the other side of the Gate spun on her toes and ran from the room where the ancient witch with the face of a child used the red stone and red powder that Edward Elric had warned her about to harm the only person Brigitte could safely say she trusted.
To Be Continued…
- If memory serves me right, I was pretty bad with the thank yous and replies on the reviews for last chapter... school likes to send me overwhelming amounts of work without warning that kidnaps me for weeks at a time (though I much prefer the stress of meeting a deadline as opposed to the stress of studying for a test). So thanks to those who R&R'd... :D few new readers too. Hope everyone keeps enjoying... sorry if school is slowing me down!
- If you head over to the LJ version of the chapter ( http : / yuuki . livejournal . com / 119568 . html ) you can see the sketchy storyboardish thumbnails I did for the opening section in the chapter :D (tis a shame FFN doesn't allow art inserts)
- Oh Maria Ross D: you are one of my favourite characters…
- Ed had never thought Brigitte had crossed over the Gate, he'd always thought she'd died or gotten sucked up by the Gate or something in the process of bringing Winry over. He had no reason to think she'd gone through because he had no way of fully understanding what had happened.
- Something I find endearing about Al is that although he has fears and insecurities (like talking to his brother about important things after such a change) he's a strong enough character that he'll fight through them and speak anyways, rather than shy away.
- In the opening bit, Ed is talking about moving large land masses. He is referring to plate tectonics, but I left Ed unaware of the concept of tectonics. Our world didn't accept tectonics until the 60s and continental shift wasn't coined until the 20's. The FMA world doesn't seem like a world that would be looking into a science like that quite yet either. Ed's ultimately baffled by what he discovered. The boy can't know everything!