devils devotion

Play on Nerds

chapter 10. Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Juvenile

Sylvia Klekiev would have been all alone on the train, had it not been for the presence of a young boy, sitting near the back of the compartment with his nose buried in a book, and grumbling to himself. The boy must be a foreigner, she supposes, for he has gold hair that blazes like the sun, and defies most northern characteristics; he is also dressed inadequately for the cold, without any sort of hood or scarf to protect his face, which is something the poor boy will find out soon enough.

Sylvia herself is taking the train north to return to her hometown of Lakovisk, a quiet city placed near the border and, sadly, the target of many an Amestrian raid. She knows it is dangerous, especially at her age, to take the train into the southlands to see her Amestrian-born daughter in North City, but she makes the trip every year, in the months between her daughter's birthday and her marriage anniversary, and she will not let some foolhardy war stop her.

The train jerks a bit, having hit an unexpected pocket of wind winding through the mountains, and the boy near the back curses, bumps his nose on the front of his book, and slams himself upright, looking around as though to make sure no one saw. His eyes catch hers—blink suddenly, as though he is surprised to see he is not alone on this train—then he offers up a sheepish grin, hand scratching at the back of his head.

It is another hour before they reach her stop at Lakovisk, and Sylvia certainly wouldn't mind a little company. She stands, wobbling slightly, and starts down the aisle, smiling congenially. The boy eyes her a little strangely, then closes his book, stores it underneath his seat, and scoots over to make room. The elderly woman sits beside him, a little cautiously—youths today were reckless, after all, and hopelessly violent—but nothing extraordinary happens, and she relaxes, letting out a tired sigh.

"Are you all right, ma'am?" asks the boy beside her, and she turns her head to him, seeing a touch of concern on his face—what unusually-colored golden eyes—and smiles again.

"Oh, no, I'm quite all right," she assures him, and offers her hand. "Might I ask your name, young man? I'm Sylvia Klekiev, heading north on my way to Lakovisk. Long rides like these don't suit my old bones, you see."

Hesitantly, the handshake is returned; loosely, as though the boy is afraid of crushing her fingers, and he uses his left hand, which is odd amongst gentleman, but Sylvia thinks nothing of it, not really. "...Edward. I'm Edward Elric, and, coincidentally, we have the same destination." He smiles then, as hesitantly as his handshake, and Sylvia wonders if he is one of those boys who is simply painfully shy. She had a grandson who was that way, Erik, and they had sent the poor boy off to war, where he had died before his seventeeth birthday; she finds herself hoping that things were more peaceful in this lad's hometown, and that he will never know that which is the absolute horror of war.

"Ah, you're also going to Lakovisk?" she says aloud, and puts a hand to her chest, feeling the necklaces gathered there clink loudly. "Are you visiting, perhaps? There isn't much to see there, but if you're going, you absolutely must try the bath. We Drachmans take pride in our baths." She recalls the book the boy was reading, and ponders another train of thought. "Or are you, perchance, a scholar? Lakovisk's a very superstitious city, you know. All sorts of rumors and legends! If you're going there to study, I'm afraid our university has been razed by the war, but Professor Creswell might be able to provide you with any information you need. He takes on pupils, on occasion, or so I've been told."

Something in the boy's face changes; sharpens, even, and his eyes grow fierce, and Sylvia is suddenly frightened. "Professor Creswell?" he repeats, with a sense of urgency, and the elderly woman nods.

"Yes, that's right. Extraordinary man. He takes great pride in his daughter, you know, but lately, there seems to have been a bit of controversy surrounding his research." Her own eyes grow sharp; she is old, certainly, but she is not daft. "Are you interested in his research, son?"

A faint flush, and the boy looks away for a second. "A-Actually, I'd heard..." An echo of nervous laughter. "Well, th-that he has a daughter..."

"Daughter?" Sylvia frowns. "Are you referring to darling Katarina? Sweet girl, she is. Shame about her sister; oh, the poor dear was so young when it happened, and she never was right in the head after Anna—" She clears her throat, uncomfortable to be talking to a total stranger about the affairs of the pitiable Creswell family, and attempts to change the subject. "If you're going to Lakovisk in the attempts to court her, I'm afraid you're out of luck, my boy!" Her laughter is not entirely forced, now. "Her father refuses to promise her to anyone, even though dozens have asked—she's beautiful, she truly is, the portrait of her mother—but...well, I'd have to say that out of anyone who's asked thus far, you'd probably have the best chance. You're such a cute boy."

The boy named Edward looks away again then, pallor quickly turning crimson and clamping down on his teeth as though in restraint. Sylvia recalls her own—now dead—grandson, and the way he used to react when he was called cute, and she smiles softly; boys will be boys, she supposes, though not for much longer, with this impending war. "I'm sorry, not cute—handsome, how's that? Such a handsome young man."

"...Attractive?" Edward asks then, lowly, and looking up at her solemnly from the curtain of those strange golden bangs of his. Sylvia blinks, once, surprised.

"Well, yes—attractive. T-Though I'm afraid I'm h-hardly the right age for you—"

"Thanks," is all he says, smiling what seems to be a real smile, one that lights up his face and makes him look rather like an angel.

There is silence, and after a time, it is broken by Sylvia, who cannot help but be intrigued by this strange boy. "...Edward, was it?"

A flash of gold, and large eyes shifted sideways in her direction. "Yes?"

"If you don't mind my remind me very much of my grandson, Erik—not in the face, but quite a bit in temperament. How old are you?"

"...Fifteen," is the muttered response, rather petulantly, at that. Sylvia is stunned, for a moment—goodness, I had thought for certain that he was much younger than that—but sets herself at ease, remembering that Erik had always been short for his age, as well—had ranted about it ceaselessly, as a matter of fact, no matter how shy he had been on the outside.

", you're actually younger than Katarina, by about two years! I believe she just turned seventeen, this past May."

"Mmmmm," Edward says, noncomittally, then digs under his seat to pull out the book he was reading again. Sylvia takes the hint and sniffs, hurt and somewhat offended that she was being cut off so rudely, but does not get up from her seat. This strange young man is interesting, with his bright-colored clothes and hair, with the occassional rub he would give his right shoulder, or his left leg. He was a strange mixture of awkwardness and wisdom, of childish naivete and jaded nonchalance; some strange sort of man cursed forever to be in the form of a child, and she rather likes him, though she suspects his manners could use a fine-tuning.

So she is surprised when he says, quietly, "...Why did you stop talking?"

"Well..." she flounders, caught somewhat off guard, "you were reading, young man, and I didn't want to disturb you..."

"I can do both," he says, a little louder and with something that is almost arrogance, "it's not very hard." A pause; an uncomfortable shifting on the seat. "Go on; it was pretty interesting... I like having someone to talk to. I usually only ride the trains with my brother."

The elderly woman smiles, and uses his new information to restart the conversation again. "Oh, you have a brother? Brothers are such treasured things, don't you think? Is he your junior or your elder?"

"Younger," says Edward, though Sylvia isn't put-off when he doesn't look up from the pages, "younger by about a year."

"Well, let's hope he bears some resemblance to that attractive older brother of his, eh?" Sylvia teases, and is rewarded with a smile, though it seems somewhat wistful, and somewhat troubled.

"Yeah, he will... Er, I mean, does."

It is a strange thing to say, but she doesn't question it. When one has been alive as long as Sylvia Klekiev has, one learns not to prod too vigorously into the affairs of others. Instead, she changes the subject back to the topic of their previous discussion.

"So, you have business in Lakovisk? What sort of business? I must warn you, we don't take kindly to strangers in Drachma."

"Mmmmm." Edward flips a page, seemingly undisturbed. "Business with Professor Creswell." Almost as an afterthought, he adds: "I was sent to meet him by my own mentor, you see, and compare notes."

Compare notes? Sylvia recalls something in the paper about Professor Creswell's research, but she cannot remember what, and the papers were often rigged by the politicians anyway, and couldn't be trusted. "Ah, I see. Well, I certainly hope you'll learn from him. He is truly a genius, and such a kind man."

Another flash of gold, as Edward looks her way. "...His last name sounds Amestrian. Southern, at least. It doesn't sound like Drachma."

Sylvia regards him for a moment, heavily, before going on. "That's because Professor Creswell is, so I've heard, from Central City. He met Katarina's mother—Nicola Czernokov, who was serving as the Drachman diplomat to Amestris at the time—at one of Central City's diplomatic relations balls, and decided to return to the North with her." She folds her hands in her lap, aware that her voice has accidentally taken on a schoolteacher tone. "At the time, relations between Drachma and Amestris hadn't gone so sour, you see, and so their marriage wasn't viewed as a union of any particular contempt, and by the time the border skirmishes had broken out, Professor Creswell had elevated himself to such a position of ideal citizenship that there are very few left who even mention his ties to that southern country."

"Well, if he's been gone that long, that would probably explain why I've never heard of him." Edward sits back up straight and opens his book again, golden eyes already absorbed in scanning the pages. "Thanks for the info."

"Oh, it's not a problem." Sylvia smiles then, craftily. "And now, if you would, answer some questions for me."

The boy stiffens next to her, but ventures, warily: "What?"

"I can understand why your mentor would want you to meet with a man like Professor Creswell, because you truly could learn volumes of research from him, but what I don't understand is why he would send a young man like you out here alone. Why didn't he come with you, at least?"

An unreadable look, with just a touch of flatness. "I don't like him. I would have killed him before the trip was through, probably."

This news surprises Sylvia, and it saddens her to hear such bitter words out of such a young man's mouth. "He's your mentor, though—I don't know too much of the south, but doesn't that imply a relationship of trust? Isn't it a mentor's job, then, to guide his charge, and protect them from harm?"

"Yes," replies the young man slowly, and obviously, "but I don't like him. We can't see eye-to-eye on anything. I do things like this better alone."

"...Aren't you terribly lonely, then?"

An unidentifable noise, and a start. Then, "Yeah, I suppose I am, sometimes. But I'm always with my brother, and he's all that matters to me in this world. Just..." Edward tosses his hands; a helpless-looking gesture. "He dislikes travelling out of country, you know? He's, er, xenophobic."

"...Xenophobic?" The word sounds strange to Sylvia's ears, and is hard to pronounce.

"Fear of strangers. He doesn't like them very much, so he actually hides himself most of the time in a giant suit of armor."

She raises an eyebrow. "That's...rather strange, if it's not too rude of me to say so."

The statement seems to rile Edward, who snorts and turns a page of his book with alarming briskness, nearly ripping it right out. "It doesn't matter if you get it or not. It's not like we frequent the northern border, so you'll probably never see him—or me, again, for that matter."

Feeling suddenly emphatic for this curiously bitter child, Sylvia extends a hand and lays it carefully on his shoulder. "That's truly a shame. If you'd stop by more often, I would make it a point to invite the two of you over. The house is rather old, but I would do everything I could to make you feel welcome. I make a rather mean bowl of okroshka, or so my daughter used to tell me."

The stiffness goes out of Edward's frame, and his barely guarded hostile expression turns to one of puzzlement. "Okroshka?"

"Oh, it's a rather delicious cold soup—when you're in Lakovisk, you simply must try yourself a bowl, even though I'm sure you'll be quite busy with the professor."

The mention of cold soup causes Edward to make a face. "Thanks, but no thanks. I...hope my stay in Drachma will be short, anyway," the blonde clarifies, doesn't seem to want to talk about it anymore, and closes his book with a sigh. He offers a smile that is slightly strained. "I'm sorry, but I'm really tired. Would you mind if I dozed off for a while? I'd like to catch some sleep before we get to the station."

Though she is disappointed at the lack of company for the next half an hour or so, Sylvia rises stiffly to her feet. "Not at all, young man. Shall I wake you when we arrive?"

"Nah, I can do it my—" a pause, "—self...probably. Ah, er, on second thought...would you mind?" An embarrassed grin. "I usually get Al to do it—that's my brother, see?—but if I'm by myself..."

The elderly woman offers up a fond smile. "Certainly. I don't mind." Her smile falters for a second, for she feels as though she has something to say, and that that particular something could—as strange and as whimsical as it may sound—make a world of difference to this young man. "I...hope that you learn everything you need to from the professor," she says at last, "and that your brother overcomes his zero...ah, xantho..."

"Xenophobia," replies Edward, leaning his head back on the headrest of his seat, but grinning tiredly, "and thanks."

Sylvia spends the next half an hour working on her knitting, working faster than she ever has in her entire life. The project was half-finished when she had set out for Lakovisk, which was disappointing, because she had hoped to finish it before she visited her daughter, but she forces her tired old fingers to work, perserveres despite the ache in her wrists. When at last the train pulls into the station at Lakovisk, she sighs in contentment and packs up her knitting supplies, rubbing her chapped and even bleeding fingers together gingerly, then stands and starts down the aisle.

"Young man," she says when she reaches the back, and shakes Edward's shoulder lightly; the blonde is sleeping with his head tilted back, his mouth open, and what looks like drool trickling out of the corner of his mouth. At her shake, he jerks a little and comes awake, eyes blinking for a moment in the harsh light of the train, pupils contracting instantly to focus in on her face.

"Wha—? Oh, we're here? Thanks." She backs up, and the boy stands; stretches, cracking shoulders and back in succession, and pulling his luggage down from the compartment.

Despite her protests, he helps Sylvia with her luggage, too, and on the platform, shuffles his feet anxiously, as though desperate to be on the go; he must be looking forward to his meeting with Professor Creswell, Sylvia figures, and fishes around in her handbag for a moment.

"Here, young man—take this." She holds out a red scarf that—coincidentally enough—seems to match the red of the boy's overcoat, and he looks at it dumbly. "For your face. I imagine you've never been to the north, so you wouldn't know, but if you don't keep those ears and that nose of your protected, you're very likely to lose them." True to her words, a bitter wind has begun to pick up on the platform, and, clearly against his will, Edward shivers.

"A-Ah. Thanks." He takes the scarf, and she has enough time to see his fleeting smile before he winds the red fabric around his chin, all the way up the bridge of his nose. His words of farewell are muffled, but they're words all the same. Sylvia, preoccupied with wrapping herself tightly in her own traditional shawl, manages to wave congenially in farewell, as Edward Elric hops down the stairs of the platform two at a time, and takes off towards the center of Lakovisk at a run.

During her obligatory check of her handbag, Sylvia realizes that she has left one of her knitting needles on the train, and so she totters back into the compartment as fast as she can, ignoring the startled looks she gets from the attendant. She finds the needle half-sunk into one of the seats, and pages flipping near the back of the compartment makes her turn her head.

The boy has left the book he was reading underneath the seat. Thinking that perhaps she can catch him and bring it to him, or perhaps leave the book with the professor to return to him, she bends painfully underneath the seat and grabs it, stumbling back onto the platform just before the train is about to depart again. Heaving a sigh of relief, and readjusting her scarf, she picks up her suitcase in one hand and observes the cover of the book with the other.

...Her face crimsons, and she nearly drops it in the snow that has accumulated on the stairs, but she manages to catch a railing, preventing a potentially dangerous tumble down the stone steps. A hand goes to her chest, and she hears her ever-omnipresent necklaces clink. My, she thinks, oh, my.

As Sylvia Klekiev starts walking, albeit swaying slightly, towards her home, she wonders if she ought to inform Professor Creswell that his new visitor has been reading books on how to be a more pleasureable participant in sexual relations.