Disclaimer: I don't own Fullmetal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa does. That woman is a genius.
This is a story I really want to do because I've always been a fan of minor characters, and Sheska is a personality I can relate to very fluidly. That doesn't mean that the writing will be so smooth, though! I'm only a sophomore, so please don't expect much of me. Not that I assume you do, but I'd like… oh whatever! Ikeee!
Central City, Amestris, was famous for a number of things. It was the headquarters for the military, where you went to take the State Alchemist exam, the place an aspiring journalist must be thoroughly acquainted with, and full of many different culinary art colleges. It was very culturally diverse because it was the most secure city, and some would say that that made it all the more appealing to people who needed to leave their troubles behind. All people who weren't Ishballans were welcome, but the tacit rule was if you had light hair and skin you were more likely to be admitted in. It wasn't a fair rule, but Furer President King Bradley had made it clear in that hellish campaign years ago what he was for and against, though his reasons were ambiguous. Come to think of it, he never really had given the citizens of Amestris a valid explanation for why exactly what they were doing was justified. One occasionally got a tremor from their conscience about it, and couldn't help thinking that Central just might not be the place free from troubles it was cracked up to be.
For Sheska, this she knew to was a truth. Mother and her had moved to Amestris when she was young, maybe seven. They had come from a village not far from Briggs, at the base of the mountains. Now that she recollected it, it could pass for an encampment. Much like the scattered Ishballan sites she'd heard about… but cheerier. They had chosen that life over the smoke of the city, and they had been more than content in that life. It was only when Mother had gotten sick that things had spiraled into change, one she wasn't glad for entirely. Fact: Mother could get better treatment from the high and might oncologists in Central. Bigger fact: the money for the insurance and care accompanying the treatment was Sheska's responsibility alone. Biggest fact: Since Mother lived in the hospital now, Sheska's education and method of obtaining that money was up to her. Miraculously, when they'd first gotten there Mother had suddenly produced a bountiful sum of money, maybe a couple thousand dollars. When the doctor had exited the small room with the needles she was relieved weren't for her, Sheska had asked her where she had gotten all of that, and Mother had smiled and said that it was all from the divorce long long ago and things should be just fine for a while. The next day she was sent to public school as a second grader. Horror.
But how proud was Mother when she heard her little reclusive bookworm would finally have an occupation that suited her! Sheska had been elated too; hours and hours in the one place she was used to…where there was order and balance, unlike this strange land of disapproving glares and plastic smiles. She didn't even need to check out a book to read it, she spent so many hours in the library. It was wonderful. Then she was fired, and the world seemed cruel once again.
Until the Elric brothers gave her a task. Until her perception of her blatant worthlessness was blatantly shattered. She'd never thought of her little talent as useful, except for maybe helping with an essay: she could read the books in the restricted area, the ones you couldn't check out they were so valuable, and later reproduce them in secret. It was cheating, to be sure, but her own special way of cheating, and that was what smothered the conscience. Anyway, they'd gotten her a job, at the Investigations Department no less, and she couldn't deny that had been something. But still, this job made her a private of the military, and that meant she had to take a test every year to stay on board, just as the State Alchemists had their annual assessments. Consequently, if you passed the test too well, standards were raised. If she wasn't careful, she could be moved up a level and be expected to gather new information rather than recover lost data. And that was exactly how she got assigned her first true mission.
It was on a Monday; it had to be since Mondays are when a little of Hell leaks over to Amestris, or to the world, she should say, weekly. Monday morning she had no qualms with work because the night before she had put the luck charms she had studied to use. The horseshoe in her uniform's pocket only weighed a few ounces or so, since she liked to get everything cheap, and the common three-leaf clover was the best she could do. Neither talisman could get her out of this.
When she got into the office, said her greetings to Lucy and Frank her coworkers, and sat down at the desk to check if it was still as disorganized as the last time she had checked, the intercom came on, garbled and fuzzy as ever. She paid no mind to it: people who were called on the intercom were important, the officers, the people licensed to carry a gun on their uniforms in the building. She kept right on ignoring it up until an officer came into the room with all the stoic-ness of his kind saying he was there to escort a Miss Sheska to Colonel Roy Mustang's office immediately. That was a shock. "Yes sir, right away sir," she'd said dutifully, gathering up a couple of books to keep her company while she was waiting. When officers said "immediately" it really meant you'd be stuck in the waiting room till the higher up called you in. The young man, possibly a recent recruit, puffed out his chest proudly at being addressed "sir". Poor newbie simpleton, thought Sheska. It would be the only respect he'd get around here.
He strutted all the way to the Colonel's office as if he thought she didn't know where it was and this was his mission. Actually, he nearly got them lost twice, and both times Sheska had to cough softly and suggest, "Perhaps you were meaning to go this way, sir?" It nearly made her guilty to see his face crumble momentarily, but since he didn't say thank you she wasn't so sympathetic. As soon as they got to the waiting room she tried to sit down, but he asked her what she was doing, the Colonel had already been waiting for her long enough. She had almost gotten angry with him and brought out her all-purpose voodoo doll, but told herself it wouldn't be nice. You'll get yours, Newbie, she couldn't help thinking darkly.
But in the next few seconds, she was led to the Colonel's door, said door was opened by the young impudent soldier, and said soldier gave her a push inside impatiently. She had half a mind to turn around and ay her tanks for the trek there in the crudest way possible, but Colonel Roy Mustang welcomed her from his desk sharply; "Good morning Private Sheska." She started to say oh no, she was no private of the military, just a recovery specialist, but she remembered Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes telling her that the moment she became a librarian she also became a private of the military, because you can't be involved with the military library without holding a rank. So a lowly librarian such as herself was automatically classified as a private. Therefore, she kept silent, save for a mumbled, "Ohayou gozaimasu, Colonel Mustang, sir."
To this he responded with a broad smile that wasn't quite true. "At ease, Sheska. I called you here for something very important I want you to think about: a promotion."
She blinked, surprised. "Sir?"
"This year's assessment of your skills was analyzed over the weekend, and I've decided we could use your skills elsewhere. For example—"
"But sir," blurted Sheska, instinctively clapping a hand to her mouth. She continued tentatively. "I'm needed where I am now, to recover the data lost in the fire. Every time we finish a project another comes up, and unfortunately I am the only one who can do it. It would be irresponsible of me to abandon this job, sir."
The Colonel waited until she raised her bowed head, then said, "Think about it. With a promotion comes a raise, and Edward told me that's one thing you are sorely in need of." Edward! He had gotten her into this grand, imposing office, looking to help her and her mother out of the kindness of his little heart, knowing a raise would do just the trick; …she would throttle him. "Be reasonable. There are less new recruits than there were at the start of the war so we need to make extensive use of the people we have now, for however small purposes. This is not a proposal. I'm telling you to think about it not because you have a choice whether or not to accept, but because you must accept and the best you can do to prepare is to change your attitude toward it. It is every soldier's obligation to be as useful as they can to the military." His hands were intertwined on the desktop, his head lowered so that she couldn't see his mouth to judge if it matched with his stern eyes. There followed a piercing silence.
Sheska said quietly, "Where will I be stationed, sir." Mustang noted she phrased it as a statement because she was resigned and smiled again, lowering his hands. She had her eyes narrowed so that it looked like she was squinting.
"Your place will remain here in Central, however, the missions you will be receiving will require you to travel frequently, so be sure to pack sparsely." At her confused face, he added, "You'll still be in the same office you're in now, whenever you don't have a mission."
"What's the real difference between the position I hold now and this new one, sir?"
"The missions will put your well-being in jeopardy," he said, leaning back into his leather chair. "You will have to act on gut instinct instead of knowledge recorded in stone. You will gather information instead of copying it from memory."
"Still, sir," she protested, "my duty cannot be performed by anyone else. Who will replace me when I am not here?" The notion of her job jeopardizing her health had stirred a new feeling in her: indigence. Now the tough part would be to express it without being rude.
"Believe it or not, you're almost done with rewriting the books destroyed in the fire." She was stunned. How could that be? "If you hadn't been given this promotion, you would have finished sooner or later, and then either been fired or been a librarian again. And who knows how long you'd last at that again." She blushed sheepishly, then straightened up.
"What is my first task, sir?"
She was dismissed with a twist of his hand and a thin stack of paperwork pertaining to the promotion, the mission, and a layout of Dublith, the town she was to get to in the next forty-eight hours. By train, he had suggested, since it was the most efficient. She hadn't much experience with trains. Coming from the camp near the border with Drachma, they had taken the train, but she had been bleary-eyed at that tender age, all the fragments of memories strands of color. Mother had taken care of it all, and there was never a scary moment before Central. Mother felt powdery yellow.
She stopped in her tracks. Mother! What would she think of this? Who would visit her while she was away to be sure she wasn't being bullied? What if that horrid little purebred Amestrian adolescent with the bulging muscles and lacrosse stick called her savage Drachma barbarian again, if she forgot to conceal her precious petrified maple beads? Who would read to her from the Myth Book?
With all this rushing to her head along with blood, it felt like, which could account for the spinning sensation, Sheska executed a sharp pivot with every intention of heading back to the Colonel, flinging the papers all over his dusty office and own paperwork that was showing mold by now, and telling him he could shove that promotion talk back up his—But there's a blur, along with a whoosh, and what do you know that same impudent soldier was blocking her way. Before she could suck in the breath through her teeth and summon her prowess at upholding manners come whatever situation, he bent his head a little towards hers and brought a slip of paper between both of their faces. "The Colonel told me to take the liberty of getting you your ticket. Dublith, eh? Nice enough place. What kind of job you got there?"
"It is none of your concern," she answered mechanically, and turned on her heel the same way she came. Then, feeling badly for making an exception to Mother's rules, she half-heartedly called over her shoulder to him, "Thank you for the ticket. I do appreciate it." And the young man, standing in the hall, returned it with a wave and a smile.
That was what she had said, but she was hardly anticipating her ride to the charming little town of Dublith, and much less so her mission. Rifling through the papers, Sheska mused to herself that this was the sort of job she had assumed fit for professional detectives. They had more time on their hands, and no stable conditions in their job. Before becoming a librarian Mother had always told her she'd likely end up working in the bookbinding industry, which wasn't much better than the common papermill factory. That threat was enough motivation for her to concentrate.
But this mission was…scary. Not just mildly cumbersome, but scary. Mustang hadn't been pulling her leg when he'd said the jobs would possibly jeopardize her health, maybe her life! Dublith, hm? Unconsiously Sheska began to mull over the assignment. She was so busy mulling she walked head on into Alphonse Elric's backside, causing a faint ring to go through him as she stumbled backwards and shook her head. Ed's face popped from behind Al's waist, surprised. "Oh, hey Sheska! How ya been?"
"I'm sorry Alphonse! I wasn't paying attention!" First things first. Then she smiled to Ed, having to look a ways downward but wisely choosing not to comment upon it. "I've been fine lately, until just now. I've got a real mission outside of Central. What I'm supposed to do is—"
Al lifted a hand warningly. "Sheska, are you even allowed to talk about the mission?" Her mouth snapped shut and her eyes widened. She hadn't thought of that. Al chuckled amicably. "It's all right. It took Brother and I awhile to get into the swing of things, too. Where are you going outside of Central?" He added, when she got her deer-in-headlights face on, "You're usually allowed to tell us that, at least."
"I'm to get to Dublith. I was heading to the new library to see if they have a map; I've read only a little about the history of it, but that doesn't count for much." Ed beamed.
"Dublith, you say? We're going there, too!" This was strange-funny; he was smiling and motioning with his hands gaily enough, but behind it one could sense a plan formulating. A plan worth the title diabolical. He chattered on. "We have business there with a certain someone, our teacher, and we were already going to get there with our friend Winry. Oh that's right, you haven't met her yet, but you'll have plenty of time on the train, you know, and we're going to stall—er, stop, actually, at Rush Valley, won't that be fun? Of course it will! Winry said it was like the heart of all automail activity, you must have read about it. And you'll be able to gather information about Dublith from people there, since it's so close by. What a great idea, Sheska, deciding to come along with us, and staying at our teacher's place, too!"
"Eh?" said Sheska. She waved a hand in front of her face. "No no no, I couldn't possibly, it would be intruding—"
Edward's face took on a menacing expression in 0.3 sec. "You'll be more than welcome."
'Eep!' Thought Sheska. "W-well then, sure, I g-guess…"
"Great!" Triumphantly, he grinned. "We'll leave tomorrow morning at say, seven-thirty?" Al nodded to confirm. "Make sure you're all ready by then, but don't try to take all your favorite books with you. Too many to keep track of, you know. See ya!" And he was off, tugging his brother in armor behind him. Sheska shook her head, the realization of what she'd just agreed to hitting her full force, then scurried to her old office.
Al watched her coerce a door open with her foot because her hands were burdened with the paperwork. She nearly toppled over, but a private came at the last second. He said to his older brother, bending his head down with a click, "You have an ulterior motive for bringing her along." Matter-of-factly, as was his fashion.
Ed's grin had not disappeared, widening instead. "Think about it. The chances of Sensei murdering us when she finds out what we did are substantially diminished if we have a witness with us; Winry. With two witnesses, the probability of us coming out alive and with all the limbs we have is raised to one out of six!" Al clasped his hands together in delight. That was better than they could have ever hoped for! "In other words," said his ingenious brother in platform shoes, "We're in the clear!"
It was only when she was settling into her seat for the paperwork that she realized she had forgotten to be livid with Edward.
The young soldier who had led Sheska was under Central now, among the pipes and stench and Pride's many blacknesses. Crackling, his blond hair melted away into long locks of jade green held by a headband marked with a red inverted triangle. His uniform dematerialized and a rather skimpy black outfit was left behind. The man had uncovered himself to be Envy, a wholly androgynous figure, with malignant intent radiating from its strange leer. It held a hand under a dripping pipe and collected the murky liquid. It slurped most and smeared the remainder over its face, for the cool wetness. The homunculus shook its hair and strode into an enormous room. It was met by its sister Lust; awaiting orders from Father. "How did it go?" she asked with her rich alto voice.
"Better than expected," it answered. "Someone's being sent to Dublith."
"I got a chance to peek at their mission. They're investigating a gang rooted in a bar called Devil's Nest. Rumor has it that along with illegal drug trafficking, there's this strange humanoid beast with skin tougher than diamond, literally." The woman's bosom expanded marvelously, sucking in a long breath.
"You think it might be Greed?"
Envy snickered gleefully. "Wouldn't that be great if it was? We could get Wrath to storm in and trash it all, even exterminate any pawns he's picked up, and he'll be just devastated!"
There was only the sound of it giggling and Gluttony scarfing down a chimera deemed too old for further use, when the soft pats of sandals on cement silenced them both. The tall figure in robes emerged from the darkness and fixed his gaze on the three siblings. "Envy," he said, so dry it was almost a croak.
"I do not want to see or hear of disdain for your brother. He does not know any better, but if we can we must convince him to return. His rebellious tendencies can be dealt with by me, and only me." He paused. "And I take it Wrath is aware of this possibility as well?"
Envy smiled as respectfully as it could. Lust thought it was a very alien sight to behold, with all the leers and sneers it dished out so much more readily. "Yes, he is the one who approves most missions. And," its smile widened a fraction, "he told me the Fullmetal Alchemist would be heading to Dublith, too. I was thinking we could pull some strings… maybe get Greed out in the open."
Father nodded his consent, and Lust's mouth twisted upwards. "But do not forget, my children, your task tonight. One sensitive ant could alert the entire colony." Envy stretched its arms overhead jubilantly.
"Yeah, let's go squash this Hughes guy."
Sheska was finishing her explanation of what was happening to her supervisor, who sat scribbling on a cross referencing book, glancing at the map of Amestris and surrounding countries, and ignoring her. He really was a sweet man, she thought, staring at the many pictures of his family cluttering his desk, even if he sometimes made her work overtime with no consolation pay. She would miss him and Lucy, and Frank with his pipe, but she'd definitely get to see them again the minute she got back. She turned to the door.
"Sheska, wait a minute." She looked back and he was rummaging through his drawers. "I've got a little something, to celebrate your promotion. Close your eyes and hold your hand out." She obeyed without considering. There was the clack-clack of his military boots crossing the room, and the cold surface of an object flat and paper-thin. She opened her eyes. Just as she thought, a picture of his wife and little girl and himself, Elicia in his arms with one pudgy three-year-old hand on his chest. It was new and covered for protection. He smiled to match the photo, isn't she adorable? She laughed, truly and easily.
"Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel Hughes," she said, and closed the door softly after her.