Not tired enough to nap, not bored enough to finish reading the novel he'd picked up for the trip (after about twenty pages, he had realized it wasn't what he'd expected and had shelved it, at least until he was feeling more desperate), Ed stared out the window at the green, gold, and brown southern land rolling by. The region bore some resemblance to Resembool and its surroundings, though perhaps the fields were a bit less lush and the buildings more severe. Or maybe it was just the comparison with his hometown that made everything seem a little lesser. Once he reached the border with Aerugo, Ed was sure that- "Kimblee Textiles." The sign flashed by, staying in view just long enough for Ed to be sure he'd seen it. "Kimblee." What were the chances that this was related to ithat/i Kimblee? ...What were the chances it wasn't?
The train slowed as it pulled into the station. Ed rose, rocking slightly with the jerking of the train. "Fernburg!" the conductor announced. Ed hesitated. It wasn't as if he were on a tightly fixed schedule, but...
He grabbed his suitcase and headed for the front of the compartment. "Excuse me," he squeezed past a woman leading two small children in the opposite direction. It just wasn't in Ed's nature to deny his curiosity. These weren't like the days when the fate of the nation hung in the balance. He had time for detours (although this one seemed unlikely to provide a funny anecdote or good souvenir for Winry).
"I thought you were headed for South City," the conductor looked a bit bemused as Ed hopped off onto the platform.
"You've got to know when to change your plans," he answered optimistically.
The Fernburg station was quiet, but not empty. At least four other people had this stop as their destination. Two of them were met by family. Ed looked around, took his bearings, and backtracked along the road that ran parallel to the tracks until the tantalizing-horrifying sign came into view again up the path and on the hill. More locals went by, including a group of rowdy youths probably just a year or two younger than Ed in a beat-up pickup truck. Without any visible automail and wearing none of his trademark red, Ed faded right into the town. No one paid him any heed as he ambled up the road to the factory.
From the outside, it appeared an ordinary factory. A couple of trees flanked the front doors. A stream ran along the backside of the hill, toward a grave of flowering orange trees. All the activity was inside at this hour, behind closed doors. Ed considered coming just a bit closer and peeking through one of the dark, narrow windows. Kimblee Textiles. So what? Maybe the memory of that particularly tricky alchemist was making him paranoid. Why couldn't there be other, innocent, people in Amestris named "Kimblee?"
Half of a pair of heavy doors swung open just enough for a small boy to slip out into the sunlight. He was dressed pristinely in blue and white and, even by the laxest interpretation of the labor laws, was too young to be working in the factory, although his clothing seemed to imply he was more privileged than that. He turned toward Ed as the door slid closed after him with a thick clank. Gold eyes met gold eyes. He looked curious. Ed couldn't help but read into that sharp gaze- intelligence, intensity, cunning. His hair was cute neatly and fashionably, but an odd cowlick still jumped out from the side of his head. Black hair and heavy-lidded eyes. It was enough to put Ed on edge and keep him there. "You saw his soul," he reminded himself, "He's dead. He's gone." It was irrational for an unknown boy to put his guard up so high.
"Hey, kid," Ed spoke, breaking the paralyzing spell of his own thoughts, "I want to ask you a question. Who is this "Kimblee" running this place?"
"That's my granddad," he leaned back against the door, "Do you need to see him?"
Did he? "Uh, if he doesn't mind me taking a look around..." Ed ventured instead of answering directly.
"Yeah," the Kimblee -Ed was sure he was a Kimblee- boy nodded, "I'm sure it's fine and all. I'll go tell him he's got a guest." He struggled slightly with the familiar weight of the factory doors and disappeared back inside.
Ed shifted his suitcase from one hand to another, still with wonder and confusion. What was the answer to this puzzle? Surely he was over-thinking this. From the dappled shade of the elms at the front, Ed moved on into the cool of the building. It probably didn't feel so cool to the men and women (though more women) swarming over the power looms and other machines.
"Good afternoon, sir." Ed's braid flipped over his shoulder as he suddenly shifted his attention to the gray-haired, sharp-nosed man speaking to him. It wasn't hard to peg him as an overseer of some kind. "James C. Kimblee," he introduced himself, "I'm the owner of this factory."
"Edward Elric...from Resembool."
"Oh." The mention of Resembool brought the ghost of a smile to James' somber, lined face. "Most of the wool we handle for military uniforms comes from Resembool." Ed picked up on James' pleasure in discussing his work and parlayed it into a stroll around the factory. He asked mostly perfunctory questions about the textile business as he looked for clues toward his real source of curiosity and tried to sort his thoughts. Winry, he imagined, would have enjoyed the tour more than he was.
The reappearance of the boy (his resemblance to ithat/i Kimblee was stronger than the older man's) provided Ed with what he assumed was the best opening he would get. The grandson was talking to a woman- presumably his grandmother- in the doorframe of a back office. "That kid's your grandson, huh?" he tried to act normal about it. "He's pretty polite. Is he out here to visit with you?"
"Polite, hmm?" James considered it. "Not so much as my own children."
"Both?" Ed hoped this dispassionate man would submit to his prying.
"The first two Kimblees to die outside Fernburg in generations. Let me give you a little advice, young man. Whether you and your father see eye to eye or not, he'd prefer to see you outlive him."
Ed supposed James Kimblee was right, but he saw no need to bring up the fact that he was already past the help of such advice. It wasn't his story he had come to tell. He could compare it to the pains he knew, like losing a friend or a parent. "It must have been hard. Were they with the military?"
"Only one. ...But they were both alchemists," James slipped into a sullen frown. "At least the younger one died in a South City hospital. We could give him a proper burial. The older one... Well, there wasn't anything even sent back to us. We wouldn't have even known he was dead if Brigadier General Mustang hadn't written us about it." James paused, looking Ed over, as if confirming something he had already guessed about his inquiring young guest.
Ed was struck by an awkward feeling, his stomach twisting into a half knot. In a way, this was sad to hear. The Col- Brigadier General hadn't been present for Kimblee's demise, but for some reason he had still taken it upon himself to specifically inform this family. Did he know these people personally? What were they like? That for all Kimblee's awful crimes and twisted nature, he was still someone's son. And if Mustang hadn't taken that initiative, who knew who long it would have been until they learned of his demise?
Unable to think of anything kind to say about Kimblee (aside from "he was a really powerful alchemist," which James seemed disinclined to appreciate) Ed settled for a weak, "Your factory is very nice."
But it wasn't enough. He went on to confirm what James had already guessed. "I knew your son," he admitted, "Umm, I mean, Solf." It felt weird saying that name, but it must have been what his parents called him.
"Oh...So I thought."
That James was not cheered by this knowledge left a funny impression on Ed. He couldn't stop a smile from beginning to crack across his face. "Ha ha, so," he guessed, "You knew what sort of person he was. We weren't exactly friends, Mr. Kimblee." James looked like he was about to speak, but Ed kept him from an unnecessary display. "It's okay," he said, although almost unconsciously he placed a hand over the spot where he retained a scar from being impaled in Baschool's mines, "You don't need to apologize for him. There's...well, I don't imagine there was a lot you could do about that."
Any hint of apology that had risen to James' lips was banished just that easily. "You're right. He was a bad seed. He might not have even been my son, but I raised him. I have to take some responsibility."
Ed wondered at that declaration. Those words and aspect brought this Kimblee closer to the man he had encountered, who had worn this name so proudly, than any other action could have done.
This father might be as unhappy with the bond with his son as Ed had long felt concerning his own father, but denials would not change things.
The father was hard, but the mother, kneeling down to the height of the small boy, seemed soft. It didn't hurt that Ed's feelings for his own mother were unconfused. "Could I talk to his mother?"
"If Lydia wants to..." James shrugged and broke away, "...Do as you like." James had already said all he could stand to on this touchy subject. He was cold to this possible source of pain.
Ed picked up suitcase again and approached the woman in gray and purple. She rose from her kneeling position and met his eyes. Where James had pushed him away with a look, she pulled him in. "You look really elegant, ma'am. It seems like everyone in this family is well-dressed."
She laughed at this, a light sound not so far removed from sobbing. "Solf made all of us a bit more fashionable. Both of my sons were something of dandies, you see, Mister..."
"Elric. Edward Elric."
She announced what he had wondered if James knew. "You're- you were- the Fullmetal Alchemist. The very model of a State Alchemist, I'd wager. It's a pleasure, Mr. Elric," she shook his hand. "I'm Lydia Kimblee."
The boy's attention had been hooked by Ed's old title. His gaze did not stray as he seemingly attempted to take in every detail of Ed (what part made an alchemist?). Ed didn't expect him to speak, so he addressed himself to Lydia. "How about the little one? What's his name?"
"Daniel," the boy spoke up on his own. "Nice to meet you. Alchemy's sooo cool."
It was strange to Ed to see a look of discomfort cross Lydia's face that felt identical to his own. He wasn't sure how much she knew about Kimblee's exploits, but she had to know enough about the war to be aware of his being court-martialed. "Why don't you go on ahead, Daniel?" she trembled, though whether out of frailty or emotion Ed couldn't say. "We'll take a walk. Get out of this gloomy factory." Daniel heeded his grandmother's words and scuffed on ahead, sending a flash of light into the dim building as he opened a back door. Lydia's overcast eyes kept tightly to him until he vanished from sight.
"Both of my sons were alchemist," Lydia told Ed. "I even think practicing alchemy managed to make both of them happy. But I don't want Daniel to follow that path. I don't want him to join the military either." Ed took the door from her, passing his suitcase from one hand to the other again. He squinted at the comparative brilliance of the outdoors. The sunlight brought all the tiny lines and markings on Lydia's face into bright relief, like candlelight through parchment paper. "I just want Daniel to live quietly to an old age." She strolled ahead under the orange trees. "James really wanted someone we could call family to inherit the factory."
Was it this ambiguous wording that kept Ed's mind from settling? Was Daniel a real, biological part of this family or was he adopted? He ilooked/i like he was James and Lydia's real grandson. He could also understand why they might not say so, if he was ithat/i Kimblee's child (Was that possible? Timeline-wise? About how old was Daniel? Ed mentally ticked off the years. Okay, but even if it were possible, was it plausible? He just couldn't believe that). But it was too rude to burst out and ask such a thing. Ed knew as well as anyone that your family was ultimately who you made it be.
Lydia's soft shoes were quiet as they passed over the stream by way of a footbridge. Ed's boots clunked out a wooden rhythm. "How well," Lydia proceeded carefully with her inquiry, "Did you know Solf?"
How did he put this? Uh, he tried to blackmail and then kill me? Yeah right. "Uh, it was complicated. ...But in the end, he gave me a hand when I really needed it." It occurred to Ed that perhaps it would've been wiser to use his one lead to fish for information before revealing something potentially awkward. "What did Co- uh, Brigadier General Mustang tell you in his letter?"
"You weren't mentioned. He said Solf was killed during that horrible attempt at a coup. He had been released from prison to tackle a special job for the president. I hate to think what sort of bloody mission President Bradley would have chosen Solf for, of all people, but he was always very sharp. It probably had to do with counterterrorism."
Ed wasn't usually one to hold back hard truths, but this conspiracy was the new party line. How could he explain to Lydia about the Homunculi, ironic and bizarre as it was to hear this generous view of her son's actions?
"I don't know exactly when it happened, but I always think of it as being the same day that I learned that President Bradley and poor little Selim had been killed. I was listening to the radio," she gave her version of what was becoming a familiar tale across Amestris- 'where I was when I learned Bradley died' -"I was mending James' socks, actually. Do you...do you know how Solf died?"
Ed could see some of her son's keen mind in this bent and graying woman. If she were anything like Kimblee, she could probably already tell that he knew.
"Yeah." There was no use in lying. "I know."
"It's true that there were no remains that could be brought back to Fernburg for burial."
"Yeah, it's true." According to Heinkel and the others, Kimblee had been dying anyway, but Ed really didn't want to tell this pleasant older lady that her son, twisted and despicable as he might have been, had been eaten by a Homunculus when all she seemed to want for him was a decent burial. They emerged from the variegated shade of the orange trees and continued off away from an impressive two-story white house and garden toward a silent, empty cemetery. This was where Daniel had rushed ahead to. Ed guessed he was looking for bugs or something the way he had knelt down, peering between the stones. "The state didn't deprive you of anything just because he was a war criminal. There really was nothing to send home. It was a rough end, but I think he was satisfied."
"I imagine Solf managed to convey that feeling to you in one way or another."
...She had no idea. "Is that where you live?" Ed shifted the subject, pointing back toward the white house. "It's impressive."
"Yes, thank you. ...I suppose we're the local gentry..." The unmown grasses waved high around them. There was that look. That "I would've traded all of this" look. Ed imagined how it would have felt for someone like his mother to be in Lydia's place. ...It was hard to be a parent.
He supposed he'd found out what he wanted to know. All there was now was ride this somber scenario out to the end.
Lydia's destination was a pair of gravestones, side by side. Lon Thomas Kimblee. Solf James Kimblee. Dates of births and deaths (Lon died too long ago to be Daniel's father). White flowers had been left for both of them (would Kimblee have preferred red?). Daniel had reached down to the day-old blooms and found a ladybug. He turned his hand this way and that, keeping the speckled insect from reaching its goal of the highest point, until he finally relented and allowed the ladybug to climb to the tip of his index finger and fly away. Lydia folded her hands and stared at the graves of her sons. "Thank you for visiting, Mr. Elric."
Ed thought of the pair of graves he frequented back home. He wondered what Kimblee would have made of his visiting his hometown. He considered saying something to Daniel about how pleased his father would be that he was such a good boy, but there were so many things potentially wrong with this because of his uncertain paternity and how even if he were Kimblee's child, Kimblee probably wouldn't have wanted to praise him for being good, but for being clever or something like that, so Ed refrained. A slight breeze blew a large petal from one of the flowers. Ed compared the dates and realized that Kimblee had been an older brother, just like him. Strange.
"Oh," Lydia apologized suddenly, "You've been carrying your suitcase this whole time. I should've offered to let you leave it in the office back in the factory. I'm so sorry, Mr. Elric."
"Grandmom," Daniel leaned against Lydia, "When's tea time?"
"I'll, uh, let you go," Ed figured it was about time for him to break away and find out when the next southbound train would be coming so he could resume his journey.
"If," Lydia had her hands on Daniel's shoulders, "If you're not in a hurry, you could come into the kitchen and share tea with us." She had an inkling of what time table he might be running on. "The next train won't be here until five after the hour."
"Please come," Daniel urged him.
"Okay," Ed agreed. Daniel interested him. It seemed mutual.
Tea was a low-key affair in the kitchen of the Kimblee house. There were several photos out of a messy-haired, wide-eyed young man. While Lydia busied herself taking out teacups and heating water over the stove, Ed came closer to inspect them. A shot of two boys confirmed that the diligently chronicled one was Kimblee's younger brother.
It was kind of funny to look, knowing he was being watched himself as he did so. Daniel's eyes were fixed on him. The spark within them had not varied in brilliance this whole encounter. "You look a lot alike," Ed touched his fingertip to Kimblee's childhood form. He smiled gently at Daniel, curious as to what he would say.
"No one says that, but Grandmom says everyone wants to." Daniel was impressed by Ed's honesty. Even if Ed knew that this late member of the family was a touchy subject, he wasn't afraid to speak about him openly.
It was hard to tell how Daniel felt about the family resemblance. "Do you wish people would say or not?"
"I wish they wouldn't be scared of me because of somebody I didn't ever know. He's him, I'm me." Ed nodded. He could relate.
"Daniel, can you come in here and help me carry these things?"
"Yes, Grandmom." He started to zip off, then turned and delivered a stiff bow in Ed's direction, before resuming his kitchen-ward trajectory. Such politeness wasn't second nature to Daniel, but he tried. Ed continued to note his attempts at fancy manners over the tea. Despite his clear liking for them, Daniel managed to offer the last peach cookie to his guest and grandmother instead of snatching it for himself (thankfully, they both turned it down).
Lydia made pleasant small talk with Ed, asking about what he was doing now that he had resigned his commission, about his wife's work once he mentioned her, if he planned on having any children... She was a rare parent who didn't want to hand him off some preemptive piece of child-rearing advice. He looked away from Daniel to the innocent portrait of her two dead sons and found sadness at the root of her reserve and modesty. She wasn't the most dedicated follower of political news, but the role she believe Ed had played in "stopping the attempted coup" at such a young age quite impressed her. She wouldn't let a "national hero" help with the dishes either.
"Go on, you'll want to head back now so you can catch your train," Lydia gently shook Ed's hand on the doorstep.
"Thanks for treating me so well after I just burst in like that. Unannounced and all, asking weird questions..." He was still doing that sort of thing, but now, a little older and in a more peaceful time, it felt more awkward than before.
Daniel bowed with a one word, "G'bye," from his grandmother's side.
Ed picked up his suitcase and headed back the way he'd come when Lydia first lead him out this way. The main difference was that this time he didn't cut through the factory, but skirted around its borders. Inside, he could hear the endless thrum of whirring machinery. Unbidden, Winry's horror stories of limbs severed in places such as this rose to the forefront of his mind. Daisy Cunningham's automail hand was a result of one such accident, wasn't it?
It wasn't until he struck down the thought that he realized the boy was following him. Ed stopped and turned around without preamble. He and Daniel exchanged curious, thoughtful looks. Ed waited to see if Daniel would say anything, but even though he was bold enough to match the visitor's gaze, one pair of golden eyes to the other, he didn't speak up. There was nothing wrong with being quiet. Maybe it was even a virtue in some people (Ed wouldn't go so far as to say everyone- he didn't see how being quieter would make ihim/i a better person).
"You be good for your grandparents, okay?" Ed leaned down, closing the gap between them.
"Yes, sir," Daniel answered promptly. Ed wondered why no one else seemed capable of giving him half as much respect as this random kid- and ithose/i people knew he'd helped to save the country, if not the world. The Kimblees might have raised one psycho, but they knew how to teach a kid manners.
Of course, even after this exchange, Daniel lingered. "Something on your mind?"
"You're an alchemist."
"I used to be." Ed knew a lot of kids thought alchemy was cool. He'd been one of them.
"But not anymore?" Daniel's eyes fell from Ed's face to his feet. He was clearly disappointed.
"No. It was fun while it lasted, but there's more to life than alchemy."
"Grandmom and Granddad think alchemy is bad. They don't want me to learn about it. They said I'm not allowed to."
The scar on his side was not actually throbbing, Ed told himself. He was just imagining it. James and Lydia might not know all the things their son had done, but they knew enough. Ed had a more nuanced view of alchemy, but, under the circumstances he couldn't blame them for discouraging it. On one hand, forbidding a child from doing something only made him or her more likely to want to do it. On the other hand, who could blame Mr. and Mrs. Kimblee for not wanting to go through that again?
Daniel's paternity had been sidestepped, but Ed had a hard time seeing anyone but Kimblee (or perhaps James?) in that face. It didn't inspire comfort. He and Al were pretty different from their father, but in a few crucial ways, they were painfully similar.
"At your age, you should listen to what your grandparents say, but later stuff like that will be up to you, Daniel. Alchemy can be used for a lot of good things. Or it can be used for bad ones. It all depends on the will of the alchemist who wields it."
Daniel didn't smile, but he met Ed's gaze once more. He seemed so serious. i"Was I that serious back then?"/i His eyes were that all-too-rare shade of gold, but they lacked the cold spark of his predecessor. "Yeah, I know. I'll be good," Daniel stepped back, effectively allowing Ed to go. "Have a fun trip, Mr. Elric. I bet Aerugo will be neat."
"Goodbye, Daniel J. Kimblee," Ed replied. It was like a thank you. He was all in favor of setting loose the darkness of the past and looking toward the future.