A/N: It has been a pleasure, readers. I have found that my most well-received pieces, both fanfic and original, are ones that are the searching, sometimes painful inventories of myself. This one is certainly no different. And that is why I say thanks to all you readers and reviewers for taking part in what has turned out to be one big, fat catharsis for me. You've ridden it out full circle, which is, if not a testament to your patience and tolerance, so remarkably flattering I can't even tell you.
XXIII. The Alchemologist III
The truth is, you can't study alchemists. It's impossible. That's like trying to study air or a smell or an idea. They never stay still long enough for you to get a good look, to even get close enough to look. Not that there's much to look at. There's a man, a skill, and a quest. And that's it. There's no science to it. Maybe, if you could separate the parts out, then you could just look at the man or learn the skill or map out the quest. But you can't. Without one part of the triad, the other two would die. And that's why I now understand that there never was a chance for Edward and me, that it was naïve of me to think that there was.
Alchemists are all insane, driven and heartless, but right to be so because they can change things in ways that other people can't. They have a responsibility to use their skills as best they can, but they treat it like it's their entire life, like they don't have time for friends or love or themselves. There's just a man, a skill, and a quest.
Sometimes, I think, what if I could perform alchemy? Would I be blind and crazy? And I think that I would be. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night unless I was in service, unless I was using myself – as in me, the skill, and the drive – to make something right.
But I can't really understand. I mean, I have an important job, right? I give people their lives back. That's what automail is: an extension of the person, the piece that they lost somewhere along the way, and without it, they are not complete. So, should I be up at night, worrying whether I'd blessed enough people with my skills that day or not? No, I don't think I should.
Really, what I do isn't that different from alchemy. I save lives, don't I? So why am I not just a shell filled with charisma and drive, staring down a narrow tunnel at a pinprick of light that I will never ever reach? Why am I not like an alchemist?
I can only think of one reason, the one mystery variable that I'm missing. It's got to be the alchemy.
Sometimes I wonder how things would have played out if they had been different. Would I have been able to wave Edward off with just some tears and some time and then move on, knowing now things would be different? Now I wouldn't have to worry because we'd shared something truly important, perhaps important enough to stand in the ranks with brotherhood. Lovers. That's what we were, and now he knew how I felt, and now I knew, too. And he'd call, and he'd visit. And we'd be happy, and life wouldn't be one traumatic amputation after another. Maybe I'd move with him to Central, and we'd buy a house in the suburbs and host parties and everyone would stop and marvel and wonder just how we got to be so damn perfect. And I would tell them that it's because we have history.
I think I thought our fate was already written somewhere. Like, just because we grew up together, stealing books and toys and all kinds of firsts from one another, we were meant to be. I mean, we had to be. I'd never loved a boy like I loved him. We just had to be. I suppose that's why, when I woke up with the sun in my eyes and no one in my bed, I was hell bent on making sure that those goddamn stars got what they wanted when it written in them that Edward and I were destined for each other.
It was 7:45. His train left at eight. It would take a lot longer than what I had to get into town and throw myself in front of the train. But really, the fear of not being able to succeed at this massive impossibility I'd taken upon myself didn't bother me that much. All I could think about as I threw on my clothes from the night before, my coat, and my boots, was that Edward had gotten up and turned off his alarm after I fell asleep. That son of a bitch had no intention of waking me up before he left.
He had lied to be me. To my face. To my face. That son of a bitch. That big, fat coward.
A carriage was trundling away in the distance toward town, and I leapt over the stairs leading from my porch to the ground, landed in the dry dirt with a cloud of dust, and took off sprinting toward that carriage, all the while thinking in time with the beat of my footfalls.
That son of a bitch. The big, fat coward.
I wouldn't have caught the cart if a piece of luggage hadn't fallen off the back. Up ahead of me, the driver pulled the cart over to the side of the road and began strapping the suitcase back on. It didn't actually occur to me until later that I should had hidden myself until the carriage was moving again. The driver probably didn't like the idea of me picking up a free ride, but he didn't seem to notice me beating down the road nor did he hear me grab onto the luggage rack on the back of the carriage. I managed a pretty precarious foothold on the cover over the right wheel, clung to the rack, and tried to stay hunkered down.
If the driver or the passengers didn't try to shake me, physics certainly did. We were going fast enough that a fall from the back would have beaten me up, and I could only guess that it must have been those stars that kept me on the carriage for as long as I was.
By the time we pulled up into town, I knew fifteen minutes had passed, but on the off chance that the train was delayed, I decided to continue. The carriage took a rather sharp right turn down a road I didn't need to take, and the dismount I was planning on making never happened. Instead, I was thrown off the back of the cart, my foot having slipped off the wheel cover. I hit the ground hard and barrel rolled twice in the dirt before ending face up, spread eagle in the middle of the road.
I had a bruised rib. I could tell that much when I leapt back up to my feet and began running toward the train station.
That son of a bitch. That big, fat coward.
The afternoon storms hadn't rolled in yet, so there were lots of people to maneuver around. I finally gave up on the sidewalk and started running in the street, just within the gutter.
In the middle of town, the clock tower was pounding out eight o'clock, but I was still pounding down the road, my feet slipping and sliding inside my galoshes.
When I took the turn into the train station parking lot, I fell again, scraping my knee and palms before jumping back up. It occurred to me, once I was on the first platform, that I didn't know what train Edward was taking. I didn't have time to check the posted schedule, so I started frantically scanning the crowd, all the while wiping my bleeding hands on my pants.
It must have been Blonde Ponytail and Brown Coat Day at the train station because I accusingly ran up to a stranger at least twice, and while that was embarrassing, it reminded me that this was not the kind of crowd the station would have if the train had just left. Judging by the impatient looks some people had, I guessed Ed's train had been delayed, and that meant the little bastard was standing around somewhere, just waiting to be clobbered.
On the tracks at platform one, a hulking engine smoked, looking ready to leave at any moment, but attendants stood at all the doorways, barring entry. Just as I was reaching the middle of the platform, they began letting people on the train, and I started to panic. I had already gotten some warning looks from the attendants, so chances were they weren't going to let me on the train if I asked to look for someone. That meant I had to pick Ed out of the crowd right then, or I'd have to wait until his next visit to punch his face in. And, from the looks of things, Ed probably wasn't going to visit again any time soon.
The crowd was getting thin. The remaining passengers were the ones who were clearly in no hurry, waiting for the bulk of the crowd to board the train so they wouldn't have to push through the line like cattle. It I knew Edward, he was at the front of the line, pushing away.
I could feel myself losing steam as I approached the end of the platform. Edward was probably already on the train, probably already dozing away in his seat, probably already willfully ignoring any thought that might involve me. That son of a bitch. That big, fat coward.
I stopped, toeing the end of the platform. My heart, which had been racing back and forth between my throat and my stomach, started to ache as it slowed and eventually took up normalcy behind my sternum. I had that sort of sick, empty feeling you get when you have all this adrenaline in you and you're all revved up for fight or flight, and you somehow end up with neither. You end up waiting. You end up staring at the pathetic blades of grass pushing up between the wooden slats of the floor, listening to your breath and your thoughts. That son of a bitch. That big, fat coward.
So, I thought, the stars were wrong. They wasted their time giving me fifteen minutes to get to the station. They wasted their efforts stopping the carriage and getting me on it. They abused their talents by delaying the train for me. But mostly, they wasted a really big fucking chunk of my life, convincing me that history meant something, that time and effort and talents could get me what I wanted.
"You can't get anything without first giving something in return," I murmured to myself. While it seemed viable in theory, it was bullshit in practice. "That son of a bitch," I muttered. "Big, fat coward."
"Kind of pathetic," a voice said to my left. I spun around to find the big, fat coward himself looking up at the train with a blank face and his hands in his pockets. "Equivalent exchange," he said and laughed. "Just some loser's way to convince himself he's got a fat reward coming. Like he's owed something."
I meant to agree with him. Instead, I hit him.
Edward stumbled back, holding the lip that I had just split.
"Some of us actually are owed something," I spat.
He looked down at his red-stained glove and then back up at me. "Nobody's owed anything," he said, far more calmly than I would have expected. "And you can wait for the mystery prize, but it's not happening."
That made me so angry. He was trying to be philosophical and metaphorical, and I just wanted to know why he would fuck me and run. "My prize isn't a mystery," I snapped, planting myself directly in front of him. "In fact, it's not even a prize. I don't think I won anything."
He furrowed his brow. "Then why are you here?"
"Because," I said, matter-of-factly, "While I don't think you're obligated to say goodbye, I want to know why you didn't." I thought that was clear enough. "I asked you, Ed. And you said you'd wake me up. Is it really that difficult?"
"You make goodbyes a real nightmare, you know that?" he asked, started to get defensive.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" I said sarcastically. "I should be really good at it by now!"
He rolled his eyes and started to walk around me toward the entrance to the train. I moved in front of him, and when he tried to side step me again, I snatched up the front of his shirt and pulled him down until he was eye to eye with me.
"Why?" I snapped. "You coward, why didn't you wake me up? How were planning on making it up to me next time you needed a tune-up?" I almost told him how disappointing he was last night, how I might trade my forgiveness for my virginity back so I could give it up the right way, but that wasn't a low enough blow. Plus, it wasn't the blow I wanted. I wanted him to know, all physical affection aside, that he did owe me something, that even if equivalent exchange is a load, some things are just unfair.
He watched the train instead of watching my face. "I get really sick of watching you cry," he muttered.
"Oh really?" I asked. I thought that was hysterical. "That's funny, because I really only spend time crying when you're around."
"That's not fair!" he barked. "You can't blame me because you're a—"
"You wanna talk fair!" People were starting to stare, so I lowered my voice. "Not waking me up to say goodbye when I asked you to, when you said you would," I hissed, "That's not fair."
"'Cause I knew you'd be like this," Edward hissed back. "Why can't you just hit me with a wrench and get over it like you used to?"
I gestured to his busted lip. "Well, I tried and it didn't make me feel any better."
"Then find your own way to comfort yourself because I have a train to catch," Edward said with finality. He pulled my hands off the front of his shirt and stepped around me.
I wanted to hit him again. I wanted to point and yell all the terrible, humiliating things about him I could think of. I wanted to dredge up old wounds. I wanted to hit below the belt and fight dirty. I wanted to insult his mother and tell him his dad left because of him and remind him of little Elysia, forever fatherless, and blame him for Alphonse. For poor, sweet, pitiful Alphonse, who was constitutionally incapable of hurting anyone yet still got the worst deal of all of us.
I burst into tears, which was the last thing I wanted to do.
"Who do you think you are?" I asked while he was still close enough to hear. "What makes you think it's okay to do this to people?"
He stood on the bottom step in the entrance to the train. He turned and looked at me with this stupid, unimpressed face like he couldn't understand what had gotten me so upset and he was only marginally interested in finding out what it was.
Edward let out a long sigh that ended ruefully with my name. He allowed his shoulders to slump.
I thought about running up and throwing my arms around him until I realized that I didn't really want to hug him. I didn't want to kiss him or sleep with him again. I didn't even want to hit him. I just wanted to know if I were anything to him, and I had this terrible feeling that my whole existence was contingent on his answer, like if I weren't anything to him then I wasn't anything at all. And then I could just evaporate into the overcast sky.
Poof. I'd be gone.
He watched me for so long I felt my tears drying in itchy trails on my face. He sighed again and said, "I'm sorry," in that sort of take-one-for-the-team way. Then he turned and boarded. I watched him through the windows as he walked down the aisle and took a seat on the opposite side of the car. Shortly after, the conductor blew the whistle, the air filled with smoke and deafening noise. We stragglers were instructed to stand back, and the train groaned to life.
And there I was, watching the ass-end of a train like it was my profession.
I remembered what I would sometimes do when I was a kid. I'm sure the attendants at the station thought I was a whack-job, but I'd sometimes walk down to the stationed with my lunch and park at a bench. I'd watched people reunited, unabashedly affectionate in public, and pretend that I'd be one of them. I'd imagine that everyone there was watching that cute little girl in her cute little sundress who was so obviously waiting to be met. The few people who actually did notice me smiled like they knew how I felt, how excited I was to meet up with some old friend. I smile back like I was exactly what they thought.
Then, when the station would get empty, I'd pack up my things and walk back home, pretending to all the people who passed in cars or carriages that I had just sent of an old friend after a day of fun in the sun. Not that anyone ever stopped and asked or even looked twice at me, but for the moment that we shared the same stretch of road, I wanted them to see a cheerful, satisfied girl who was so full up of love and sunshine that she couldn't help but smile like a fucking idiot. I wanted to be a girl who wasn't humiliated and ashamed of herself for waiting all day for nothing, pretending that she had something she had lost, that she might have only had in her imagination.
And it probably was my imagination. All of it. I'd wake up tomorrow morning, eight years old, housing the loves of my life, blissfully ignorant of the fact that, ultimately, the only thing worth loving, the only think I know is going to be there when I wake up every morning is myself. At eight, I didn't know that everyone and everything is never what it seems and that no amount of my love and adoration is going to make the people I cherish more than life itself anything more than human. I can be-pedestal them as high as I want. That won't make them rise above their own flaws.
And Edward was perfect in every way. He really was. He really is. Even as I'm writing this really long, pretty sad recollection right now in my flat in Central. Without all that anger, all that focused desperation, he wouldn't be Edward. I'd like to think that he loved me. I'd like even more to think that he loves me now, even thought it's been almost a year. I think he does, as much as Edward is capable of love, as much as any alchemist is capable of love. The closest they get, that we get to being loved by them, is when some unsuspecting mundane like me stumbles in front of the light at the end of their tunnel. And right there for a minute, all he saw was my silhouette sprawled across his dreams, and for that moment, it must have looked like I could fit. Not that I possibly could. It was just the shadow of me, superimposed over a reflection of all his insecurities and shortcomings – no pun intended.
I wish there were a science to it. I might then be able to identify and categorize the behaviors. If there were a distinct cause and effect, it might hurt less. Or maybe I'm just thinking the grass is greener on the other side. Maybe it would just as hard knowing that the only reason Edward stuck around as long as he did was some chemical reaction or diagnosis and not the undeniable magnetism of my charm. (I hope you're laughing, because that one was intended.)
I think, in the end, there is no logic. Alchemology was Edward's version of a sweet nothing. What a geek. Woo me with your brains, Ed. That's just like him, too. Such an immature, stupid, inconsiderate – and probably everything I'd ever want in a man – little boy. A boy with a skill and a dream and that's it. That's all he'll ever be.
But not me. I can be lots of things. I figured that out as the train was fading out along the horizon. I realized that sitting at the station, pretending I'm being met, really is embarrassing and unspeakably painful. And I started to wonder, why on earth would I pick that over just going home, just accepting that Edward was leaving and might not be coming back? I turned and looked at the train attendant who had probably seen so many girls just like me he couldn't count them. And suddenly, sitting on that bench with my lunch didn't sound shameful or stupid. It sounded sad. Not pathetic, but sad. It sounded heartbreaking that a girl would do that to herself.
One more glance in the direction of Edward's clumsy, graceless exit, and I knew that I didn't have to do that to myself anymore. No more reaching with fingers just short enough that I couldn't grasp. Not more wondering, maybe if I do this, I'll be good enough, or maybe if I do that, I'll be attractive enough. No more trying to study air. All Edward may be is an alchemist – a man, a skill, and a drive – but I'm more.
I smiled at the attendant, who was now beginning to give me strange looks. He could be thinking anything of me. In fact, he probably recognized me as the girl who would waste hours away, warming a bench for nothing. He probably recognized me as the Alchemologist. And that was okay. Because, well, maybe I still was, to one degree or another. I knew that, should Edward show up on my doorstep, I'd still drop what I was doing and love him as hard and as futilely as always. Even now. But there was so much life left even after you subtracted out the time wasted bitter and miserable. And when I caught myself smiling at the drivers as they slowed and offered me rides – it looked like it was about to rain – it was because I didn't need a ride. I could walk just fine.