Title: Night-Riders (Part I: Romney)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Ed, Al, and assorted original villagers.
Summary: Another October finds Edward depressed - until the brothers get caught up in a family's secret.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: This is my belated attempt at a third-of-October FMA fic, as well as a Halloween tale. Poor Ed may disagree with me, but October is my favorite month of all, and this story is an affectionate nod to all of the things I love about it. I hope I've succeeded in bringing the fun of these autumn traditions to Amestris.
Most notably, this story is a tribute to one of my favorite fictional antiheroes: the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, from the classic Doctor Syn novels by Russell Thorndike. (They can be freely read online, so if you love historical adventure and masked swashbucklers, look up these wonderful forgotten books!)
The town of Romney was a small, picture-postcard community, settled in a valley among low green hills. Shops and narrow townhouses were clustered within a few blocks of the quaint, well-kept main street, and beyond that lay scattered farms, surrounded by sheep pastures and fields of crops. Children and their dogs ran and played, dodging the wheels of horsecarts, and flocks of chickens scratched around doorsteps.
In many ways, the peaceful simplicity of the place seemed much like the distant village of Resembool.
It was a similarity Alphonse Elric noticed with a rather sinking heart - or at least with a feeling that would have been such, if he'd technically had a heart at all.
As the train swayed to a halt at Romney's trim little station, Al pried his gaze from the view beyond the window. With a scrape of hollow steel, he leaned toward the opposite seat, and gently shook the shoulder of a shapeless bundle that was slumped beneath a scarlet coat.
"Time to wake up, Brother. We've reached our stop."
A heavy sigh emerged from under the fabric, and Edward Elric threw it off, blinking wearily at the assault of late-afternoon sunlight through the window. There were shadows around his topaz eyes, and his lips were set in the same thin, hard line Al had seen for days now.
Without a word, Ed shrugged into his coat, picked up his suitcase, and began making his way along the aisle of the train car. Al followed him out onto the platform - and the first thing to greet them was a thick cloud of dust, kicked up by the herd of sheep being loaded onto a boxcar further down the line. Ed coughed violently and waved away the drifting particles.
"Sheep..." he muttered, as if the word was a curse. He squinted through the dust and the surrounding bustle of the train station, trying to catch a glimpse of the town that lay before them; and when he did, Al could see him tense up just a little bit.
His dark eyes darkened still further. "Kinda reminds me of..."
"Yeah. I know," Al sighed.
Most of the time, it wasn't so bad to be reminded of their native village. In most any other week of the year, a place like this would arouse only a gentle wistfulness for the brothers. It was only that the calendar now happened to mark the first week of October, when the memories hurt the most.
The third of October was the day they had set their house in Resembool ablaze and walked away - leaving behind a few people who cared for them, but not, as much as they wished to, their memories of pain and grief. Besides that burden, all they carried with them was one old suitcase and the promise to heal each other's wounds. But the anniversary of that day had once again come and gone a few days ago, finding them still incomplete, and it was never any easier to see another year pass with that promise left unfulfilled.
Ed responded to the occasion as he always did, by sinking into a sullen depression; he slept a lot, ate little, and spoke hardly at all. Al hated to see him like that, but any attempt to lighten his brother's mood only resulted in his being snapped at. There was nothing to do but wait it out. It was never long before they found themselves in the middle of some new crisis, and nothing cured Ed's malaises like the opportunity to unleash some fresh, bracing anger on a problem. (Preferably a problem that had a face he could smash.)
But in the meantime, having to spend the night in Romney was only going to make him even less pleasant to be around.
"Just great." Ed hefted the suitcase over his shoulder with his automail hand, and started walking toward the street. "The sooner our next train comes tomorrow, the better... I guess for now we'd better find the hotel."
Al followed, ruefully refraining from any offer to carry the suitcase. When his brother wouldn't even let him help, his one advantage of tireless strength seemed only a waste, as empty as the rest of him.
The train station stood on the edge of the town proper, at the end of a broad, brick-paved main street. Romney's marketplace stretched before the brothers: a bustling general store, small shops crowded with customers, a cafe whose outdoor patio was almost overflowing with patrons. It was plain to see that Romney was much busier than its small population could account for, and the mood was distinctly... festive.
All along the street, buildings and trees were strung with white lights, and trimmed with garlands made of autumn leaves and acorns. On every door hung a wreath of golden wheat and dried gourds, or a decorative cluster of brightly-colored corn. Most curious of all, enormous pumpkins were perched everywhere, on barrels and windowsills and porch railings - and many of them were carved into grotesque faces.
"It looks like they're getting ready for a festival," Al observed, at the risk of pointing out the obvious to his irascible brother.
Ed simply groaned, hanging his head down over his chest. "Of all the times to end up here..."
The timing made Al feel equally sorry. Under better circumstances, he loved festivals and fairs, and the chance to enjoy the colorful revelries of the places they traveled to. He would have liked to see this one - but he wasn't going to push for that now. He sympathized too much with the weary unhappiness Ed felt at this time of year. It would have been nice if such diversions cheered Brother up instead of making him feel even more discontent, but his restless heart didn't work that way.
Al's sense of melancholy didn't last long, however. Within a few minutes, his attention was entirely taken up by another realization.
In the course of their long and far-flung journeys, Al had become accustomed to a lot of different reactions to his armor. Uneasiness was the most distressingly common, but some responses were more imaginative and unpredictable. He had been mistaken for everything from a robot to a ghost to an outer-space alien. Convincing people that he really was human and well-meaning sometimes required an effort.
But as they walked down Romney's main street, Al sensed that the looks he was getting were not frightened or suspicious, or even particularly surprised. In fact, if anything, he could only have characterized people's expressions as slightly... admiring.
That was enough to make Al himself feel nervously perplexed. He wanted to ask if Ed had noticed, but his brother was still walking in a dejected slouch. It would be a wonder if Ed even saw the hotel when they came upon it.
No sooner had that thought crossed Al's mind than he sighted their destination. A stately cream-and-white building that may once have been a mansion rose ahead of them, elaborately elegant in its gables and bay windows and long, broad porches. From its banister hung a filigreed sign that labeled it The Romney Inn.
"There's the inn," Al prompted, tapping Ed's shoulder. Then he would have frowned if he could have, as he surveyed the rocking chairs and picnic tables on and around the porch - all fully occupied by guests enjoying the crisp autumn weather, talking and playing games. "I hope it's not as busy as the rest of the town."
Ed sighed gustily. "With our luck? Of course it is," he grumbled. Nevertheless, he squared his shoulders and quickened his pace.
A group of children were playing a rowdy game of baseball in the vacant lot next to the inn. Al watched them wistfully, remembering that it was Winry who had actually dragged Ed and himself away from their alchemy books to teach them how to play. The children here showed the same confounding tendency the brothers and their long-ago playmates had: with all of the open fields beyond the edge of town to play in, they were still irresistibly attracted to a cramped plot of dirt that was fenced in on three sides and surrounded by fragile windows. Third base appeared to be the lamppost by the sidewalk.
The crack of a bat resounded through the air, followed by raucous whoops and a scramble of youthful bodies. Then a sudden warning cry was shouted, somewhere to the brothers' right - and before Al could sort out what was happening, he registered a violent collision against the side of his metal frame, well below his eye level. He couldn't exactly feel the impact, but his vision was jarred and his armor was rattled, forcing him to shift his weight quickly to rebalance himself.
His swifter-than-flesh reflexes served him well. Even as he regained his footing, he instinctively reached down toward the grunted "Oof!" he heard beside him, and caught the source of the blow. It was Edward who had crashed against Al like a domino - but only because something else had barreled full-tilt into him.
When Al looked down, he found the trigger of the pileup sprawled in front of them. A young boy was staring up from the sidewalk, his face red and teeth gritted. He was perhaps nine or ten years old, with sandy hair, green eyes, and thin, freckled cheeks.
"Hey! Whadaya think you're doing?" Ed snarled at the boy, pushing off of Al's supportive arm to right himself with an air of wounded dignity. "You wanna get somebody hurt?"
The boy's lower lip quivered guiltily, for the briefest of moments... and then he hopped to his feet, proving that he was almost as tall as Ed. His fists balled at his sides, and he glared at Ed with sudden defiance.
"Why didn't you move when I yelled at you?"
Ed's eyes widened, and he made a strangled noise of outrage in his throat. "Us move? Is this how you treat guests in this town? Since when is a sidewalk - "
The boy's yelp was so sharp and abrupt that Edward cut off his own words, instantly alert for danger; but as it turned out, the child had simply taken full notice of Al for the first time.
"Oh wow, that is so cool!" All but shoving Ed aside, the boy crowded close to Al, and actually seized his gauntlet in both hands. He craned his neck to gape in wonder at the fierce features and gleaming spikes of the armor. "Nobody's ever worn a costume like this for the Festival!"
Al flinched, awkwardly rubbing the back of his helmet with his free hand. "Uh..."
He was saved from trying to frame a coherent reply when the boy glanced over his shoulder, giving the older brother a second look. Ed growled and opened his mouth for another fusillade - but the child merely smirked at him.
"And what are you supposed to be? Little Red Riding Hood?"
Alphonse could practically hear the tripwire that went snap in Ed's brain. He hovered for an instant on the verge of a truly epic explosion... but then his muscles relaxed, and his eyes narrowed, and his voice dropped to a low and dangerously casual tone.
"No. This is no costume - and neither is that." Ed jerked his head at Al. "He just wears that to protect him from the sunlight, because he's really a vampire... and there's nothing he likes better than the blood of smart-mouthed brats."
For a second, the boy's expression quirked. Then he grinned insolently, as if delighted by his own cleverness.
"So why hasn't he eaten you?"
Al was quick enough to catch Ed around the middle and restrain him - but his other hand didn't quite make it to Ed's mouth before their young antagonist had learned a few highly inappropriate new words.
Fortunately, the child knew when to retreat. He bolted off toward the sandlot with a laugh, and had disappeared into the crowd of his playmates by the time Al dared to release his grip on Ed.
Denied the object of his wrath, Ed settled for rounding upon Al, his eyes blazing. "Why didn't you let me straighten that little monster out?"
"Come on, Ed, he's just a kid. You were worse at that age. Besides, it serves you right for telling a story like that about me." Al made the sound of an angry huff as he examined his right gauntlet, which displayed the faint but distinct impressions of tooth marks. "And stop biting my hand when I'm trying to keep you from cussing!"
With no comment beyond a vicious growl in his throat, Ed turned and stomped off toward the steps of the Romney Inn.
The interior of the place was as beautiful as the exterior, dominated by a theme of roses and lace. Huge arrangements of the flowers sat on tiny, doily-topped tables, and portraits of garden landscapes adorned the walls, echoed by the patterns in the wallpaper and the antique china in the curio cabinet. High-backed sofas and cushioned benches lined the walls of the front foyer, and large windows made the space feel bright and airy.
With no apparent appreciation for the decor, Ed stalked up to the check-in desk. Al followed him somewhat gingerly, feeling more out of place than usual in that delicate setting - not to mention a little worried about knocking something over.
A prim middle-aged woman behind the desk watched their approach with a look of discomfort. For a moment Al thought he was receiving one of his typical reactions, but then he realized the woman's attention was fixed more on the grimly businesslike Ed than on himself.
"We're here for a room," Ed announced brusquely, before the woman could speak.
She reddened visibly. "I'm so sorry, but we don't have any more to offer! Everything's taken - my daughter's even given up her own room for the night. We've been completely booked up for the Harvest Festival for weeks now."
Given the crowded state of the town, this news was not unexpected, and Ed merely slumped his shoulders with a sigh. "Yeah, that's what we were afraid of... But listen, we're not here for your festival. We're only passing through, and we'll be leaving on the first train tomorrow. Can't we make a deal just to spend the night on one of these couches down here or something?"
The innkeeper hesitated. "Well - "
Her response was cut short by an explosive sound of shattering glass. Al yelped in alarm and instinctively moved to shield his brother, even as Ed lurched into full combat mode: dropping to a crouch, body braced defensively, hands poised for a clap.
In the wary silence that followed, the tinkle of falling shards drew their gazes to a side window, where the lace curtains wafted in a gentle breeze that had not existed in the room a moment earlier. Several glass fragments littered the surrounding floorboards... and halfway across the room, a baseball now nested squarely in the middle of a large cluster of roses.
"Oh, those boys again!" The innkeeper rushed to the window, throwing back the curtain to reveal the jaggedly shattered pane. She peered out through the newly-made hole that overlooked the vacant lot - and promptly launched into a stream of imprecations that even made Ed stare. It seemed the words the boy had heard from him earlier were not so new to those young mischief-makers, after all.
The Elrics glanced at each other. Then Ed broke into a sudden, confident grin, and strode toward the furious woman at the window.
"Take it easy, lady. You're in luck! We're alchemists." He smiled winningly as she turned to him in surprise. "Would it be it worth some dinner and that night's sleep on the couch if we fixed the damage?"
At that, the innkeeper's angry red tinge softened to an abashed pinkness. "Why - yes, of course!"
That was all Ed needed to hear. With a familiar smirk of quiet pride in his abilities, he clapped his hands together, and bent down to spread his fingers over the broken glass on the floor. Transmutation energy flickered across the shards, and the innkeeper watched in wonder as the glass flowed back into the hole it had come from, to meld seamlessly together and restore the windowpane to its original shape.
"It's amazing!" She touched the glass that was now as strong and flawless as it had been before. "Thank you!"
Ed gave a self-satisfied shrug. "Nothing to it. Now, how about that dinn - "
"Uh... Mrs. Waggetts?" a very small and hesitant voice interrupted behind the Elrics.
Both brothers froze where they stood, and Ed clenched his teeth with a wince, as he sometimes did when his automail would scrape against Al's armor the wrong way. They turned slowly to see the impudent boy they had encountered earlier, standing a few steps behind them - with the offending baseball clutched in his hands. He shuffled his feet nervously as he looked up at the innkeeper.
"It was my fault. I hit the ball through the window," he admitted guiltily, dropping his gaze. "I'm sorry... and I'll pay it back."
The way Ed gulped, he must have nearly swallowed his tongue. "You're telling me I fixed the window for that brat?" he ground out - his voice fortunately so choked with outraged chagrin that only Al heard him.
Mrs. Waggetts glowered at the boy for a long moment, arms folded sternly. Then she let out a deep sigh, and her face softened a little.
"I'll let it go this time," she announced brusquely. "You're very lucky today, Jep. These two visitors are alchemists, and they've already fixed the window for me - so it's them you'd better thank."
With an audible indrawn gasp, Jep turned his wide-eyed gaze to the Elrics. "You? You're alchemists?"
"Of course we are!" Rankled, Ed jerked his State-issued silver watch from his pocket. "Does this look like costume jewelry to you?"
This revelation brought about a complete change in the boy's attitude. He gaped at the watch, and then at its owner.
"No way - a real live State Alchemist? But that's... Oh, geeze, I'm sorry about earlier!" His face abruptly turned a spectacular shade of red. "I never would've made fun of you if I thought... wow!"
It was no surprise to Al that this sudden tongue-tied awe had a mollifying effect on Ed. He relaxed a little, tucking away his watch, and regarded Jep with an air of condescending forgiveness. "Yeah, well... Let that be a lesson to you, kid."
"As a matter of fact, you might be able to pay these young gentlemen back," Mrs. Waggetts said to Jep. "They're looking for a place to spend the night, but I haven't any rooms left. Does your family have any guests for the Festival yet?"
"No - we don't!" Jep's wide eyes shifted back to the brothers. "Would you really want to come stay on our farm?"
The word farm was enough to make Ed frown. "Uh..."
"Trust me, the Maddocks can put you up better than I can now," Mrs. Waggetts chimed in. "They usually take in extra guests for the Festival, when all of my rooms are taken. Besides, Fay Maddock's cooking is the best in Romney - and as much as she cooks for the Midnight Feast, they'll have plenty to spare!"
The promise of good food clearly cinched the deal for Ed. After a quick glance at Al to confirm there was no objection, the older brother gave Jep a somewhat cautious smile and shrug. "Well, if you're sure your family won't mind..."
"Oh no! They told me to check and see if anybody needed a place to stay." The fading blush in Jep's face darkened again. "Besides... You know, when they hear how you helped me out..."
If he could have, Al would have smiled. "It's good that you're so honest. I just hope you won't really get in trouble."
With the happy ending to the mishap, Mrs. Waggetts' wrath appeared to have subsided. "Oh, don't worry too much about that. Jep is a good boy - just a little reckless." She eyed him sternly... and then she smiled. "Besides, no one in Romney can stay angry at Festival time."
Jep ducked his head sheepishly, turning to the Elrics. "I delivered all our produce earlier, so I'm ready to go home if you are. I hope you don't mind riding in a horsecart!"
Ed's tentative grin faltered a little.
"A horsecart... Great..."
2010 Jordanna Morgan