Best Kept Secret
Chapter 117: Maternal Perfidy: Part 1
Disclaimer: I don't own Fullmetal Alchemist and gain no profit from this fanfiction.
When Riza stepped upon the train platform, her eyes homed in on the only person there. He sat on one of the benches, looking across the track at a single point, unmoving. When she approached him, he looked up at her. "Good morning."
"Good morning." She set her bag beside him on the bench and hoped it wouldn't be there long enough to freeze to the wood. "I wasn't expecting you to be here first. Honestly, I was surprised you agreed to come."
"I was surprised when you called me," Edmund replied. "I figured Mustang would take the business card I gave him and use it as tinder."
Riza buttoned her coat and shivered. It was just her luck that the day she chose to go to her hometown would be the coldest morning of the year. But at least she wasn't dealing with Pride. The feeling of him looming over her combined with the frigid air would render her useless. "He waited until he had to give it to me. He'd rather have you go with me than for me to go alone."
"He shows good sense. I would be the same way. I know you're capable of taking care of yourself, but with everything going on, it's not safe.
"Roy said nearly the same thing when I was packing this morning, but that doesn't mean he's happy with me going with you. It just means he's resigned to it."
Riza had been surprised when Roy hadn't tried more to convince her not to go. Yes, the information could possibly help with the tattoo, but it was also information that might not be as critical to their overall goals. "Might" being the key word since everything seemed to be linking together in one long intricate chain.
She'd had to force herself out of bed this morning. Even though she desired to know more about her tattoo, the fearful side wanted to remain in the dark about her mother and father and the connections they shared with the homunculi.
Other bundled up people came onto the platform to wait and the silence was replaced by hums of conversation. The depot was much too small to handle large crowds, which was something that needed to be change but wasn't at the top of the "to do" list of state stared down at her feet and wiggled her toes inside the winter boots she'd bought on a splurge.
When she heard the familiar rattle and chuffs of the train approaching—the sound dull at first but increasing the closer it came—she looked to the west. The train's headlamp peeked through the fissures in the fog before it came into view. She and Edmund stood, ready to board.
"I hate trains," she said.
Even if she'd had to explain why to him (he was well aware of her experience) she wouldn't have had the time. The train's brakes squealed as the locomotive jerked to a stop and steam hissed from its exhaust ports.
She boarded the train and found a seat next to the door just in case she needed some air. If flashbacks came, she needed to get outside so Edmund wouldn't see that she'd finally broken down. She didn't mind showing weakness to Roy now, but she couldn't risk it around anyone else. It took long enough to let her walls down with Roy.
Fortunately, the train wasn't as crowded as she expected, and there was only one other stop before she got to her hometown, so she shouldn't hark back to shoulder-to-shoulder transportation on that military train.
She shifted a little closer to the window when the conductor called an "all aboard". The train whistled cut through the city's increasing cacophony and declared the beginning to her journey.
Her hometown was anything but a home. Roy had hired people to repair her old house. To make it appear warm and comfortable. They could rip up carpet, burn furniture, paint the walls, but nothing could renovate the memories of her father's treatment of her. Even in the rare show of affection she'd experienced as a teen, it'd felt forced. That day, her father had come to terms with her feelings and actions toward Roy, but he hadn't been pleased with them. Nothing ever pleased him except alchemy.
After his death, she'd often contemplated exactly why he didn't want her around Roy, reasons unrelated to flame alchemy, and only one thing came to her: Roy made her happy.
Her father made a deal to teach him alchemy and Berthold Hawkeye never reneged on a deal. Roy showed her how to have fun even though her conducts involving him were questionable. Should she have slept with him so soon? No. Did she make the right decision to follow him into the military? Obviously not. But at the time, she'd felt that the roads she traveled were the right ones.
At the time. . . Her ruminations of the past were useless for everything except making sure she wouldn't repeat it. It couldn't be changed, so there was little use in letting her thoughts reside there.
"This is a nice town. I'm surprised I've never heard of it before," Edmund said as he came up to stand beside her.
"It's nice only in appearance."
"Bad childhood here?"
"Yes," she replied. She looked along the street, past each maple tree positioned every ten feet, for a place they could go in and get something to eat. She hadn't eaten that morning, and didn't feel like eating now, but if they were attacked or something else happened that required intense effort, she didn't want to be weak.
Her eyes fell upon a sign in a window that said open. Further in the shop, she could make out cases filled with something and tables along the wall. From what she remembered, there used to be a drugstore there. "Are you hungry?" she asked.
Edmund nodded. "Yeah, I could use a bite. I didn't have breakfast."
"There's a shop over there, a bakery I think, maybe we can grab something."
What she thought was a bakery turned out to be a small restaurant. Right after the little bell above the door rang, announcing their entrance, a voice sounded, "Be with ya in a second."
"We might as well have more than a bite if it as a menu like this." She turned and saw Edmund reading a menu shaped more like a journal rather than the typical foldouts seen in restaurants back in Central.
They walked up to the counter. In the back of the kitchen, a short chubby lady was kneading a large piece of dough. Flour covered her cheeks and chin, and duster her hair enough it was impossible to differentiate between grey hair and the flour.
She plopped the dough ball into a bowl several sizes larger, covered it with a damp towel, and sat it beside the stove before walking over to them, grabbing a pad and pen on the way. "You two are new here aren't you?" she said. "You coulda waited at the table and I would've been out there. That's the way everyone does it. Ah, well, what would you like?"
"Any recommendations?" Edmund said. "Everything looks good."
"Got the best breakfast platter in town. Bacon, eggs, pancakes with real maple syrup."
If the size of the town was anything to go by, Riza figured she had the only breakfast platter in town. "Sounds good. I'll have that and some coffee. Black."
The woman motioned to the coffee pots lining the wall at the right. "Coffee is always free here. Help yourself."
"And you?" she said looking to Riza.
"You have anything without the pancakes?" She didn't think her stomach could handle sweets right now. "Something lighter?"
"Egg white omelet with some soft cheese."
"Sounds perfect," Riza said. "And I'll get some coffee as well."
"Will have it for you in a jiffy," she said and went into the kitchen to start cooking. Riza turned toward the coffee pots but Edmund handed her a cup. "Coffee, with three tablespoons of cream?"
Riza took the mug. "How did you—"
"You mentioned it in Ishbal once when we were drinking black coffee. I don't forget important conversations," he said.
He shrugged. "I like to know how my friends take their coffee." They moved over to a table to sit down and looked out the window. "I thought a small country town would be livelier in the morning. With people going to take care of the fields and all."
"They've probably gotten to that at dawn," she said.
"Where did you live here? On a farm? In one of the buildings in town?"
Though Riza trusted Edmund, she was unsure if she wanted him that deep into her past. "In a house."
He laughed and took a sip of his coffee. "Yes, I figured that much."
"Outside of town," she said.
"Oh, you're from around here?" the woman said as she sat their breakfasts down in front of them. "What's your name? I've been here a long time. Maybe I know your family."
Riza contemplated making up a name, but there wasn't much of a point now even though she wasn't sure of what kind of welcome she'd get with the name Hawkeye. People didn't like her father, so by extension, people didn't like her.
She wanted to shrink down in her seat when the woman paused with her hands on the tray she'd just set down. She was about to leave when the woman smiled widely. "Elizabeth Hawkeye?"
"We were all wondering what happened to you, dear. You just up and left. When your father passed, some of the townspeople, myself included, felt horrible for how we treated you, so we went to check on you and you were gone. Then that handsome man came here about a year or two ago and hired people to fix your house. We all thought you were moving back but you never did. That man was your boyfriend?"
"No, he's my husband."
The woman looked at Edmund, and shifted away from the table slightly. "And who is this then?"
Riza decided not to make a big deal out of the woman's nosiness even though it was none of her business. "This is my lawyer," Riza said.
Edmund dropped the fork he'd just picked up and narrowed his eyes at her for just a second. She wasn't sure what he had against being a lawyer, but it was better than a scandal possibly getting out about her having an affair. He let his fork drop from his grasp and extended his hand to the woman. "I'm Grant Kent."
"Pleasure to meet you, Mister Kent."
"Please, Grant is fine," he said with such congeniality that Riza thought he actually meant it.
She moved behind the counter and began wiping it off with a dishcloth. "So what brings you here Missus...?"
Riza knew that if she spoke now, by the time she left this place everyone in town would know she was here and she'd probably get nowhere in her goal. "Missus Stallion," Riza said and almost laughed at her own lousy naming. "Just visiting my hometown."
"I see," she said.
Edmund leaned forward. "Did it just shift several degrees in here?" he whispered. She tapped his shin with her foot and he shifted his leg. "Well, I'll leave you to eating," she said and moved to the back. Riza watched her as she went back to tending to her dough. The woman glanced toward the telephone on the wall several times during her kitchen tasks. She wouldn't call if they were still in the building, but the moment they went through the door, the entire town would be so secretive no one would give her any information.
She nearly spit out the food she was chewing when her nausea spiked. She forced herself to swallow then looked down at the tray, the food daring her to take a bite and manage to get it down again. She shivered and her hand trembled, shaking the tray as she scooted it across the table to Edmund.
She took a sip of the orange juice that came with her meal, trying to push down the acid rising in her hair on her arms and legs stood on end and her shoulders tensed.
Selim had followed them.
"Riza, are you feeling okay?" Edmund asked.
She stared into his eyes, trying to convey that no, she wasn't. "Just sick, like I said. You remember. The way I got sick at the restaurant in Central."
Realization took over his expression. "Yes, I remember. You must be allergic to eggs or something. You had an egg dish that night." He went back to eating as if nothing were wrong, and Riza was exceedingly thankful he knew to act as normal as possible.
"Yeah, that must be it," she said. As soon as the last word left her mouth, the heaviness on her body was gone. Selim was probably checking to make sure she wasn't here to tell Edmund about him.
After Edmund finished eating and Riza had another cup of black coffee, they went over to pay the bill. Riza reached into her purse but Edmund said, "I had most of your breakfast, let me pay."
"That's not necessary."
"Humor me whether it's necessary or not." She nodded. Edmund was as stubborn as she was, and they didn't have time to argue. She wanted to get these events over with and get back to Central.
"All right," she said. "Why don't you be the one to ask about the doctor? It will take the focus off me."
"You got it."
The lady came up to the cash register and Edmund handed her the money. After giving him change back, he put the majority of it in the tip jar.
"Could you tell me where the doctor's office is?" he said.
"You mean the old doc or the new?"
"Pardon?" Riza focused on the woman. She didn't feel any homunculi around, so she couldn't be Envy in disguise, but it was always possible that they were using her for some reason. How did the woman know to make a distinction?
"Most people come here to talk to the old doctor. I figure that's why you're here. You wouldn't come here to get medical treatment with all the better doctors in the country."
"You're right. We want to talk to the old," Riza said. "Can you tell us how to get to his office?"
"He's long retired so he doesn't have an office anymore. His house is easy enough to find though. Do you remember Parker Bridge?"
"I'm afraid not."
She lifted her hand to her mouth as if she said a curse word. "Oh that's right, you haven't been here in a long time. Onercreek Bridge."
"I remember that one, but not the direction."
"Go east out of town and take the left road. You'll come to another fork in the road. There are two bridges there. Take the newest one, the red covered bridge, and then go straight on until you come to a house with a horse wire fence surrounding the yard. It's white, two stories. There's a tree in the yard with an old tire swing on it. That's the house where the doc lives. I'd call him for you but there's no phone lines running near his place."
"Thank you for your help, ma'am," Edmund said.
"I trust you wanna keep this visit quiet?" She and Edmund must have looked surprised because the woman followed with, "I wasn't eyeing the phone to spread that you were here. I'm expectin' a call."
Riza laughed. "Yes, we want to keep our appearance here quiet. It's for safety reasons. "
"Then, I saw, spoke to no one, and told nothing."
"Sitting behind a desk hasn't slowed you down at all," Riza teased as she stopped and leaned against the wooden fence behind her. Edmund was far enough for her to have to wait but not far enough that he wouldn't hear her ribbing.
"Don't start. You probably run that distance every day. I'm a white collar worker now," he said. He wasn't out of breath but he certainly wasn't in as good a shape has he had been before."
"A few times a week. I still have military fitness exams once a year."
"I'm getting old," he said when he got to her side.
She pushed away from the fence. "Need a break?"
He nudged her with his elbow. "You're really enjoying this, aren't you?"
"A little," she said. "You moved faster during our sewer expedition. I don't know how you could get out of shape so quickly."
"That wasn't four miles," he said. "When I get back to Central I'm going to head back to the gym. I've gotten too soft."
"Why don't you start working out with Arm—"
"Bite your tongue."
She turned so she could hide her grin. She didn't realize Edmund was so fun to joke with, and she'd have to do so more often.
The woman at the restaurant gave more description than needed about the house; it was the only house in the area. The road stopped at two wooden gates where a pasture stretched as far as they could see, looking as if it was striking the mountains much closer than where the mountains actually were. A tiny path transversed the pasture, a few shrubs and saplings shooting up randomly along it, testifying to its rare use.
They went through the gate on the left and journeyed up the pathway that led to the porch steps. Before they set foot upon the platform, an old man exited the house.
A German shepherd followed him out and scampered toward them. Edmund sidestepped the dog. Riza knelt and petted the dog under the chin. When she stood, she looked at the man and said, "Are you the previous town doctor?"
"I am, but if you're looking for medical assistance, there's a far more qualified doctor back in town."
"I'm not looking for medical treatment. I'm looking for some information about someone you treated a long time ago."
"I see," he said. He limped over to a rocking chair and motioned to the one in front of him. "Please, sit down."
Riza and Edmund took a seat on the bench. "You know that even now I can't give out any personal information. I take my confidentiality very seriously."
"Not even to a relative?" Edmund asked.
The doctor leaned forward and looked at him. "You certainly aren't from around here."
"It's me, sir," Riza said. "Do you happen to keep records of the people you've checked?"
"I do, but how do I know you're the relative."
"I have no real way of proving it," she said. "I just have the papers for the house I own."
"Just who are you, young lady?"
"My name is Hawkeye, I'm—"
The man got to his feet and faltered a bit. "Berthold's daughter."
The man looked around as if wary of someone watching. He moved over to the door. "Come inside."
They followed the man to a small room or and went inside to a small office in disarray. The man looked at his dog. "Let me know if anyone comes, boy."
The dog's ears perked upward and he sat into a position so still that one would mistake him for a statue if they were to enter and not know the man owned a dog. The doctor closed the door and turned to a shelf. He moved several books out of the way, revealing a safe. His fingers grasped around the rotary combination, but he didn't turn it.
"What was your father?"
"I have no idea what you mean by that," she said. "My father was an alchemist. That's all I can tell you, and you probably already know that."
"Why do you want information about your mother?"
That was a dumb question but she wouldn't risk telling the man that. He was being overprotective of what he knew for a reason. It made twisted her heart to think about what was beyond that heavy safe door and what lingered in that man's memories. Regret at coming there festered, but she wouldn't let it cause her to hesitate in discovering more. She knew her father was tied to the homunculi somehow; she'd be stupid to deny that. "There are some suspicious circumstances regarding my father and mother. I'm just trying to learn more about what he did when he left town sometimes."
The man released an exhale. "The government didn't send you?"
"No. I'm here for personal reasons. Whatever I find here will go no further than me, my husband, and Edmund here."
He turned the combination to the proper numbers and the safe clicked. "You're mother was a sweet woman, so what happened caught me off guard."
The man removed a few papers and turned. "I always felt sorry for you having to live with that man without her, but then I realized after a while that he was the better option."
He handed her a file and she opened it. "That's your mother."
Riza looked down at the picture of the woman and she understood now why her grandfather had always said she took more after her father. The photo was in black and white so she couldn't tell what shade eyes or hair her mother had, but they were much darker than hers were. The only similarity she saw was in the shape of their eyes.
Edmund put a hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"
"This. . . This is the first time I've seen a clear picture of my mother. The only one I had was so faded I couldn't make much out. My father destroyed the others and refused to tell me what she looked like." She moved the picture to the side, finding it difficult to pull her eyes away from the woman who gave birth to her and focused on the death certificate. "So, she did die of the plague."
The old man sat down on the desk. "No. She didn't."
Riza's head shot up, but before she could say anything, Edmund said, "It says it right here. A doctor Hammerstein signed it. Is that you?"
The man nodded. "I did indeed sign it, and I did come to your house, but I did not examine your mother. The body was already covered and ready to be buried."
Riza nodded. "But if that's the case, how do you know she didn't die of the plague?"
"Because what your father covered was not human, and your mother was long gone by then."
The man walked over to the file and tapped his index finger on the photo. "That woman is alive, or at least, she was when I signed that certificate." He offered her sympathetic smile. "Miss Hawkeye, your mother didn't die. She left."
(Spoiler warning for those that haven't read, haven't finished, or might want to read my fiction Vacuous Heart of Blood)
I mention this because I know someone might catch it. There is a similarity between the mother situation in VHOB but only a tiny part. (Those who read know what I'm referring to). It will be very different later in this fic. I didn't quite notice it until I wrote this out.