((Author's Note: KJ here. I'm actually really surprised I got a chapter done this fast. Wow. Well, enjoy, and if you do enjoy please tell me. Actually, however you feel about the fic, please give me your opinion! Thanks!))
The first thing I noticed when I woke up, sore and lying prostrate on the ground, was the heat. It was as if I were in some sort of oven, baking slowly. I still hadn't opened my eyes, but even through the thin skin of my eyelids the light seemed blinding. The air was dry, and my lips were chapped and cracked beyond the point of healing. The skin on them was starting to peel off in places, and I flicked my tongue out from my mouth to try and sooth the pain. If I continued to lay here, I knew, it would not be long before I died.
That was before I remembered.
I was dead.
So this was the afterlife. I had never believed in any sort of God, more out of denial than any other reason, but to me it seemed odd that the afterlife, the paradise so many spoke of, was in reality just a dry, dry desert. Maybe this was the Ishbalan heaven? I didn't know much about their beliefs, but what a sickening irony if their religion turned out to be right.
Death didn't seem anything special. Really, it didn't seem all that different from the deserts I had traveled through in life. The sand surrounding me, the heat blazing down, a train whistle blowing in the distance.
Wait a second.
A train whistle?
My eyes snapped open, and I was instantly blinded by the sun. Cursing the sky, I rolled over onto my side, covering my eyes with my palms. Groaning, I lay there for a second, trying to regain the will to move. I spread my fingers and peeked through at the vast expanses of sand surrounding me. Well, that was a stupid move. Maybe dying made my intelligence drop. After a minute of inner debate, I pulled my hands away from my face to prop myself up on my elbows, squinting to save my eyes from the bright light surrounding me. I peered around through mostly closed eyes, but all I could see was clear, blue sky and endless sand, the exact same environment in which I had been searching for the past five years.
The train whistle blew again, sounding much closer than before. I looked around frantically, finally spotting a line of train tracks about a hundred yards away. How did I miss that? With much grunting and groaning, I maneuvered myself first onto my knees, then, with much shaking and cursing, to my feet. Wobbling there for a second, I balanced myself with my arms, making pinwheels in the air before finally righting myself.
I walked to the edge of the tracks and peered down at them. Why did the afterlife look so familiar? Maybe, if the afterlife was this similar to the real world, the same rules applied. The same common sense. The most logical thing to do here would be to follow the tracks until I found something. After all, train tracks always lead to something.
Whatever they might lead to, it had to be better than the middle of a desert.
Or maybe this was hell.
That must explain why there was no food.
Rather than stand around with a grumbling stomach dwelling on the mysteries of death, I decided to take the train tracks. I started to walk.
It took a surprisingly short amount of time to reach civilization. Really, it was only about five hours, but the combination of the heat, hunger, and my sore muscles made it seem like years. By the time I saw the outlines of dark buildings in the distance, I had started to believe that I was in my own personal hell, destined to walk forever in a hot desert, following train tracks without food or water.
I have to say, I'd never been more relieved to see East City.
Though, at that point, I didn't know it was East City. Like the fool I am, I still thought that I was dead.
I took off running towards the shapes in the distance, my muscles groaning and my tired feet screaming in protest. My legs were shouting angrily, telling me to stop, to relieve them of their pain. I didn't listen. I was too happy at the prospect of food, water, and a chair to pay heed to the complaints of my limbs.
Soon, the shape I was moving towards revealed itself to be a train station, a train sitting on the tracks. About twenty yards from the bustling crowds moving around a train car, my legs finally gave up, and I fell to the ground hard. All the wind was knocked out of me and the sound of my fall attracted the attention of a few of the men milling around. From my place on the ground, their conversation seemed muffled.
"What's this, then?" said a deep, booming voice.
"I don't know, boss; he seems to be unconscious," said a slightly higher voice. I heard the sound of someone exhaling deeply. I, of course, wasn't unconscious, but even in my dazed state I was still reasonable enough to stay still.
"Who do you suppose he is?" A steel toed boot nudged me in the side, and I resisted the urge to grimace as it hit my ribcage.
"A new enlisted, maybe?"
"Isn't he a little short for a soldier?" I tried not to scream.
"Maybe. But I think I've seen him somewhere around before."
"Then where's the uniform?"
"Maybe he lost it? I don't know, I didn't put him here."
"Well we can't just leave him here."
"Obviously." The man exhaled again. It suddenly occurred to me that he was smoking, and a small sniff of the air confirmed it.
"If he is an enlisted, then he needs to be on this train. At this point, we need every single person we can get."
"But what if he's not?"
"We can't very well turn the train around."
"All right, how about this. If he's military, we take him on the train, no mess, no fuss. If he's not, then we return our shorty here home on the next supply train."
I would like to say it was a slip of the tongue, but I would be lying.
"Who're you calling shorty, you…" I said faintly.
"Oh my God, he lives!" Rough hands grabbed my shoulders and flipped me over onto my back. I cracked my eyes open, and peered up at the blurred figures of the soldiers. I could faintly see the blond one, the one with the higher voice, smiling down on me, his cigarette shoved to the corner of his mouth.
I started. Lieutenant Havoc? Was he dead too? He didn't seem to have recognised me, and something about his face seemed off. The look in his eyes was different too. More lighthearted.
"Hey, kid, you all right?" Havoc asked.
"Uh, yeah. Thirsty." My voice sounded thick, and somewhat muffled by the dryness of my throat.
"Hey, Googe," Havoc said to the man next to him. "Go get me some water, I think he's dehydrated." The other man walked away, and I was left with the Lieutenant on the outskirts of the crowd. "So, Boss, what's your name? Are you supposed to be on this train? You shipping out?"
Was I shipping out? Was this some sort of angel-lingo, deeply philosophical nonsense about passing into the afterlife?
"My name's Edward Elric. What do you mean by shipping out?"
"Are you in the military?" he asked. I thought it would be best to tell the truth, especially since I had no idea what fate would befall me if I lied. I knew where people went who told the truth.
"Then you're shipping out."
What in the world was going on here? From everything I knew, both intellectually and emotionally, I was dead. But this new encounter with this man, this fake Havoc, totally seemed to through all I had known out the window. Maybe I was on the other side of the gate, in that alternate world where war constantly raged and millions died. That didn't seem correct either. The clothes of the men by the train can were blue, and when I looked closer, I saw that they were Amestris military uniforms. Would the uniforms on the other side of the gate be different? I thought they would be.
Even if this was Amestris, it didn't seem like the place I knew. People all across the country knew of the famous Fullmetal Alchemist, and the military had been searching for him.
The last thing the false-Havoc had said came back to my mind. Shipping out? These soldiers were being sent to war? As far as I knew, there were no soldiers being shipped out to the east since the incident in Liore. So where were they going?
"Where are we shipping out to?" I asked the false-Havoc.
"Man, Boss," he said, chuckling. "You must have hit your head hard when you fell. We're going to Ishbal."
It was then that I passed out.
I woke up with a splitting headache to the familiar rumble of a moving train. A military jacket, about my size, had been laid across my shoulders, and under me was the cool wood of a bench. I maneuvered myself into a sitting position, one hand pressed against my throbbing head.
I groaned. This business of waking up in mysterious places needed to end.
The compartment I was in was empty, though outside I could hear many voices talking, laughing, and snoring loudly. I sat for a few seconds, trying to place myself.
I was obviously not dead. The dead probably didn't get headaches like this. Nor was I on the other side of the Gate, as this appeared to be the exact military I had belonged to as a State Alchemist. Still, this place was different. Ishbal had been annihilated, reduced to nothing more than a few ruined buildings in a world of sand, and troops hadn't been sent there for nearly seven years.
What was going on here?
The compartment door slid noisily open and the man who looked like Havoc entered. I looked quickly up at him.
"Hey, sleeping beauty! You're finally awake. You were really dehydrated when we found you, and you hit your head pretty hard. Do you remember everything?"
"Uh, yeah." He sounded to me like he was talking through a bullhorn.
No, of course I didn't. My head was being split open.
"Yeah." I replied.
Information. A bag of ice. A kind foot rub.
"Can I have a newspaper?" Maybe I'd be able to find out where I was. He cocked a sideways grin and pulled a cigarette out of his pocket.
"Sure Boss. I'll bring you a uniform too. Really, as an officer, I should already be reprimanding you for not wearing one." He chuckled and walked off, returning a minute later with a folded blue uniform and a newspaper. I accepted them with the hand not holding my head. "I'll leave you some privacy."
I didn't look away from his retreating back until he was completely out of sight. I set the uniform down on the bench and shook open the newspaper. It was the same East City newspaper that I had always seen on the Colonel's desk during my reports. The only thing different was the date.
The month was what it should have been, the day seemed to be right.
The year was 1907.
I gasped as it registered in my mind. My eyes grew wide. Everything suddenly made sense: why soldiers were being sent east, why nobody had recognised me, why Havoc had such a different look to him.
I wasn't on the other side of the gate.
I wasn't dead.
I was nearly eight years in the past.