Alphonse leaned his head against the window and wondered whether his brother had taken this train. Had he sprawled across the seat, loose-limbed and yawning, or had he sat up straight as befitted a seasoned National Alchemist? He doubted it was the latter, unless Edward had been on his best behavior just to throw Mustang for a loop.
The door to the private train-room opened, and Hawkeye stepped in. She was carrying two treats, and she held out a stick of honey-coated dumplings. Alphonse took it with a puzzled look.
"Ma'am?" He regarded the treat carefully, then bit into one, and smiled. Chewing rapidly, he grinned over it at her. She'd seated herself back in her spot opposite him in the private compartment, and was eating one of the dumplings with careful bites. Alphonse took another bite, and swallowed before speaking. "Now I know why Brother always eats these on trains..."
He realized he was thinking in the wrong tense. The treat stuck in his throat.
"Don't stop thinking that, not yet," Hawkeye said, staring out the window. She dropped her gaze to the treat, twirling the stick a little. "When I was a child, these were my favorite part of visiting my grandparents."
Alphonse smiled. "Brother once told me the best were on the train to Aquaroya."
"Not surprised," Hawkeye said, a bit dryly. "Give the tourists an early taste of all that good food waiting for them."
"Wonder what they serve on the train, now," Alphonse said, taking another bite of the second dumpling.
"Towels and lifeboats, I presume," Hawkeye deadpanned.
Alphonse choked, and almost giggled. "Captain," he protested, not sure of the etiquette.
"The General has a secret love of these, too," she continued, as if they were only speaking of the weather. "There's a bakery in Central that makes them."
"How do you know?" Alphonse was curious to see what she'd divulge.
"When he's working late, he gets dinner at the deli, picks up some dumplings, and eats at his desk. He tends to leave the honey-coated sticks on the edge of his desk. By morning the sticks are firmly affixed to the bottom of some file," she said. This time, she nearly cracked a smile. Alphonse laughed outright.
The door opened, and Farman entered with several bottles of ginger ale. "I thought you might be thirsty after the sweets," he said. "Captain, would you like a drink? I brought enough."
Hawkeye shifted uncomfortably for a moment, then nodded. Alphonse realized that although technically Hawkeye was the commanding officer in Mustang's absence, the staff had known each other for too many years to keep up the act for long. It was as though they were all waiting for Mustang to appear, his brows lowered and deep in thought, and they'd snap to attention and await his orders for them.
Or, Alphonse thought a bit uncharitably, they'd snap to attention, waiting for Mustang to realize Hawkeye had orders for him.
He accepted the bottle of ginger ale from Farman with whispered thanks, and finished off the last dumpling. Uncapping the bottle, he sighed, watching the broad plains and gray winter fields pass.
They arrived in Hyle an hour after dark, and two officers were waiting with cars to take them to the military barracks. Alphonse hung back, the suitcase at his side, uneasy for some reason. Farman was the last one of the group off the train. He paused on the top step, and jerked his head at Alphonse towards the back of the train.
"Go on," Farman said. "Call it superstition, but I think you'll learn more on your own."
Alphonse frowned, then nodded. He wasn't sure he wanted to be split up from Hawkeye—who was, for all intents and purposes, his temporary commanding officer—but at the same time, the short hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. He knew his brother well enough to know that the chances of Edward trotting along behind a military entourage were slim. It was far more likely that Edward had hopped off the train and gone exploring.
A little late at night to do that, now, Alphonse thought, but trudged back down the train to get in line with the rest of the people unloading. Several minutes later he stepped down off the train in time to see two military vehicles leaving the station's pull-around.
"Excuse me," Alphonse asked the nearest station clerk. "Where's a good hotel in this town? Something decent, but not too outrageous."
"Try Mabel's," the man said. "Just down the street. Good food, I hear, if you don't mind listening to trains all night."
"Thanks." Alphonse followed the man's pointing finger, and headed towards the bright lights of a large old house, only four buildings away from the station.
The town was old, with buildings no taller than two stories, but the streets were clean and the people seemed friendly enough. Mabel had a room on the front of the hotel, and Alphonse handed over his money with only a pang for his limited expenses before remembering he now should have a National Alchemists' account of his own, with the same generous pay his brother had earned for years. Now I'm rich, too, he thought; that made him almost smile, until he remembered his reasons for being there.
In the hotel room, he set the suitcase on the bed, and settled down at the head, staring at the suitcase for several minutes. Then he drew out the pocket watch, and ran his thumb over the engraved surface.
If I don't find him, Alphonse thought...and knew what would be his own message, carved into the inside lid of his watch.
The next morning came gray and rainy, and Alphonse peered out at the streets below before prying himself from the warm bed and getting dressed. Hawkeye had mentioned they'd stay in Hyle for one day, long enough for her to meet with the local commanding officer.
A quick shower in the shared bathroom—hurrying through in case the warm water ran out while there was still soap in his hair—Alphonse was dressed and coming down the stairs, suitcase in hand. He would've preferred to stay in the shower until the water ran cold; the sensation of water on his skin was one of his favorites.
"Where's a good place to find breakfast?" He asked the girl behind the counter, and she blinked at him a few times before handing him a flyer with a huge yawn. He smiled and took the paper, thanking her again as he left.
Two blocks away was a small diner. Alphonse stepped into the brightly lit room, half-filled by what looked like an assortment of miners, travelers, and a few business people. At the counter he purchased a cup of coffee and a muffin, and juggled both with his suitcase until he found a good seat in the corner to watch everything.
Really, he thought, nibbling at the muffin so it'd last as long as possible, I'm going into this completely blind. No matter what happened to Brother, I have no idea if I'm actually following the same path. And talking to someone here isn't necessarily going to—
"What's that?" A young girl, not much older than Alicia's age, was pointing at the symbol on Alphonse's left coat shoulder.
"It's a kind of crest," he told her gravely, not willing to get into the esoteric elements.
"Can I see?" Her brown pigtails bounced as she came up on her toes, trying to get a better look. Dutifully Alphonse leaned over, catching sight of the girl's mother hurrying towards them. His coat fell open, and the woman's eyes widened, her gaze fixed on the silver chain leading into Alphonse's pocket.
"You're a National Alchemist?" The woman's voice was reverent.
"Ah..." Alphonse flushed, and braced himself for the worst. "Yes, ma'am."
"Really," the woman said, and tugged at her daughter's arm. "Come on, Melissa, let's not bother the young man. He's probably got a lot of very important jobs while he's in town."
"Alchemist," Melissa repeated, and grinned at Alphonse. "You fix things!"
Alphonse noted several other people turning their heads to look at him, and he resisted the urge to sink down in his chair. It was always a shock to remember that people weren't staring at a massive suit of armor, but him, and he had to take a deep breath to remain calm.
An older man, heavy-set with wild black hair, was cleaning a table nearby. He wiped his hands on his apron, and gave Alphonse an interested look. "You're a National Alchemist? No one told us you were coming."
"Excuse me?" Alphonse gave the man a bewildered look. "I'm just passing through—"
"Do you want more coffee?" A blonde girl, about Alphonse's age, was suddenly at his elbow. Before he could protest, she'd refilled his cup. "On the house," she said. Her smile showed a great deal of teeth.
"Usually we get news ahead of time," the man said, shaking his head. He leaned back, and his bellow startled Alphonse. "Bob! Where's that damn newspaper?"
"On the back counter," came a shout from the kitchen.
The man in the apron muttered something and stalked towards the back of the café. Alphonse was dismayed to find most of the customers had fallen silent and were watching with undisguised curiosity.
"So did you have to travel a long way?" The woman was holding her daughter by the shoulders. Melissa was wriggling, her eyes fixed on the crest on Alphonse's coat.
"From Central, ma'am," Alphonse said. It felt strange, to hear his words repeated across the café, to watch heads nod as though this was just what they'd been waiting to hear.
"Where are you staying?" She smiled, leaning into him.
Alphonse instinctively leaned back, just a little. "I spent the night at Mabel's, but this afternoon I'm—"
"Mabel's!" The woman shook her head. "That just isn't right." She turned to a man at a nearby table. "What kind of impression are people going to get if—"
"Lydia," someone else interrupted. "Mabel has decent food."
"But a National Alchemist," she protested.
Alphonse had a sudden visual of himself being pulled in different directions and dissected. The looks people were giving made him terribly aware of his hands wrapped around the warm pottery mug, the way his ankles were caught in the legs of his chair, and the fact that he knew his hair was probably messy again. He resisted the urge to wet his palm and try to slick down the cowlick.
"Are you going to be here long?" The man at the next table smiled, a hopeful look on his face.
"Heading to Soswell?" Another asked.
"Do you have room for appointments?"
The last one caught Alphonse's attention, and he looked across the room to the two young men by the counter. "What kind of appointments?"
"To fix things," Melissa crowed.
"Shush, honey," her mother said, and gave Alphonse an apologetic smile. "She's just really excited. We're so out of the way, and having a National Alchemist in town is exciting for us."
"I have a little time," Alphonse said, wary.
Next thing he knew, he and his suitcase were being hustled into the middle of the shop. The café owner and a second man—Alphonse guessed he was Bob—soon appeared with broad smiles and a new cup of coffee for Alphonse. People were getting up and leaving hurriedly, and within minutes a string of people returned, carrying various items and chatting amongst themselves.
"Don't you have an Alchemist in town?" He asked, curious, as a broken clock was set down on the table before him. Alphonse clapped his hands, quickly repairing the broken spring inside. "Someone who does all this for you?"
"Yes, but a National Alchemist is a step above," Melissa's mother said, as she held out two broken plates.
Alphonse fixed them as well, baffled by it all, and vaguely annoyed he was doing for free what the town's Alchemist would do to make a living. Three more household items, and he realized Bob was watching intently. The cook was built like a shorter version of the man in the apron.
"You're brothers," Alphonse guessed, and Bob laughed.
"Guess who's older," he said.
Alphonse glanced between the two of them. Bob was at least two inches shorter than the other man; both were grinning widely.
"You are," he told Bob, and was rewarded with a hearty laugh and a solid slap on the back.
"Must be a new thing for National Alchemists," Bob's brother announced, watching as Alphonse fixed an automotive part. It seemed vaguely familiar, like something from Winly's shop. The man continued behind him, "maybe they've figured out ways to not need an array."
"National Alchemists probably all can," someone else said.
"Pardon?" Alphonse hesitated, his hands apart. "You've met someone else who doesn't use an array?"
"Yeah, week ago," Bob replied. "Short blond guy, big temper but he did the same thing..." Bob clapped his hands together. Several other people nodded.
"Did you have a chance to talk to him?" Alphonse kept at the alchemical reactions to cover his rapidly beating heart. "Did he say what he was doing in town?"
"Uh," Bob scratched his head. "Not really. Just wandering through, but then, don't most National Alchemists?"
A radio, two screwdrivers, and three pottery planters later, and the café's employees were more than happy to keep talking while Alphonse worked. Apparently Edward had eaten breakfast there, and struck a deal that he'd get a muffin for each item repaired. Alphonse was not surprised, and did his best to keep a wry grin from his face as he listened. If anything, he was surprised Edward didn't waddle, given the way he inhaled food everywhere he went.
It was noon before the line died down, and Alphonse hadn't learned anything else of importance. It seemed the town had once had several National Alchemists stationed at the military headquarters, who'd together done some rather heroic things. They'd saved a number of people from a burning building, protected the town when the nearby river flooded, and rebuilt the train bridge when it collapsed. The military had transferred them eventually, but the town hadn't forgotten. As far as the people were concerned, a National Alchemist was a walking hero.
And, Alphonse thought, just a little grumpy, a walking excuse to have things fixed for free. He sighed and clapped his hands for the fiftieth time. His palms were going numb, but the boy's excited expression at his repaired rocking horse made Alphonse decide listening to 'just one more' had been worth it.
It was almost easy to forget, Alphonse thought, that the real purpose for a National Alchemist, in the eyes of the military, was a dog for killing.
At the military barracks, Alphonse was stunned to discover that Hawkeye and the rest had already continued to Soswell. He'd expected at least a note, but the old lady behind the counter had no idea. He was a bit put off, though, by the fact that she already knew his title, the fact that he was a National Alchemist, and that he'd spent the morning doing the usual visiting Alchemist's task of fixing too many things for free.
Bidding her thanks, he stepped out into the wintry gray, and pulled his cloak tighter around himself. The cab stop was at the train station, twelve blocks away, and Alphonse leaned into the wind, his long legs eating up the distance.
He stopped at the halfway point, ducking into another small café in hopes of warmth and a chance to defrost. His ears were smarting painfully, and although it was a fascinating feeling, he knew it wasn't a good thing.
"Halmos, right?" The wizened old man behind the counter took one look at Alphonse, and handed over a large cup of coffee. "Don't worry, son, it's on the house." He blinked, then, looking at Alphonse closer. "Gracious, they're getting you Alchemists young these days!"
Alphonse nodded, not sure what to say. "Thanks for the coffee," he said.
"No problem," the old man said, waving a hand. "It's a tradition in this town."
"Tradition," Alphonse repeated, and smiled. I could get used to this, he thought. Sure beats all the times Brother got thrown out of pubs and hotels for being a dog of the military. Edward had said on the phone that Hyle was a great place, but Alphonse hadn't realized the extent of the town's adulation. No wonder Edward had made noises about wanting to move here.
The thought of his brother made his stomach churn, and the coffee tasted bitter on his tongue. Alphonse hissed, setting the cup down on the counter, and the old man raised his eyebrows.
"I'm fine, sorry," Alphonse said. "It was just...hotter than I expected."
"Oh, that's our machine. Doesn't always work right."
"Want me to fix it?" Alphonse brightened. He'd just gotten a free cup of coffee. It was the least he could do, he figured.
"No, that's all right, I like it that temperature," the man replied, and chuckled. He glanced down at Alphonse's suitcase. "Leaving town already?"
"Yes, sir," Alphonse said, sipping at the coffee gingerly, and making a show of blowing on it. "I need to get to Soswell."
"You could do what the last one did," the man said. "Borrowed my son's car to drive around."
Alphonse nearly spit out his coffee. Edward couldn't drive anymore than Alphonse could. Absently he wondered if perhaps a second short, blond-haired National Alchemist had been through Hyle in the week since his brother's visit.
"Borrowed," he managed to choke out. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah," the man said, frowning slightly. "My son took it to the military barracks, and the Fullmetal Alchemist took it from there. Someone from Soswell brought it back the next day."
"That's a generous offer, sir," Alphonse said, and drained the last of the coffee. Edward, driving? The idea was ludicrous, not to mention somewhat terrifying. "But I think I'll catch a carriage, instead."
"They leave on the hour," the old man told him, and poured more coffee. "Take it with you," he urged. "It's windy out there, and bound to get worse."
"Thanks." Alphonse gave up on protesting—the day had proven there was no point—and gave the man a polite smile before leaving, suitcase in hand.
At the train station, carriages were lined up, and Alphonse studied them, not sure who was heading in what direction, or how much it'd cost. He'd just picked up his suitcase and approached one carriage when a man dressed in a pseudo-military uniform accosted him.
Alphonse took a second look at the jacket, and decided it wasn't a doorman's coat like he'd first thought. It really was a second-hand soldier's dress coat, pressed into service as a chauffeur's uniform.
"Halmos?" The man's smile was crooked, his face weather-beaten. He might have been Mustang's age, or double that; it was hard to tell. "I heard you're heading to Soswell. It'd be an honor to take you."
"Oh, I—" Alphonse glanced past the man to the other carriages, and sighed. One was probably as good as the next. "But I insist on paying," he added, firmly.
The man grinned. "I wouldn't complain, young Alchemist. It's a three-hour ride, so if we leave now, we'll be there by nightfall." He led Alphonse to a carriage at the end of the line. Four brown horses were champing at their feedbags, and their ears twitched lazily as Alphonse walked past. He paid his fare to the driver, and climbed in.
For several minutes he kept the curtain pulled away from the window in the door, watching the town go past and recede into the distance. When the scenery had dwindled to deep forests and snowy drifts in the shadows, he let the curtain drop, and leaned back against the stiff cushions. He drew his cloak tighter about himself, and wished again for a hood. The cold seeped into his boots and hands, but he soon drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
He was awoken by a jolt and a shout sometime later, and was up in an instant. The carriage was tilted to the side, and Alphonse threw the door open, climbing out carefully. The driver was staring at the front wheel, shaking his head.
"Broken," the man said, looking disgusted. "Big rock in the road, and looks like the old girl just couldn't handle the bump. Terribly sorry about this. There's carriages that pass this way regularly, so if you don't mind waiting I'm sure you can catch a ride with the next one by."
"I can fix it," Alphonse assured the man. "It's just the axle, right?"
"That's my guess. Cracked, see, there?" The man pointed, and Alphonse bent down, squinting. The thick beam of wood running across the belly of the carriage did look misshapen.
"Shouldn't be a problem," Alphonse said, and clapped his hands.
The minute he did so, the horses whinnied at the blue light wreathing around the front of the carriage. The lead horses reared up, shaking their heads violently. Alphonse was stunned to see all four horses bolt, and the carriage gave a sharp jerk, then held. The horses' leads broke, and a second later he was on the road with the man, both of them staring at the horses fleeing into the woods.
"Oh, hell," the man said, sighing. "I'm going to go after them. But at least it's fixed, now?" He looked hopeful, and Alphonse nodded. "You stay here, young man. Once those stupid horses calm down, they'll be docile and we can head on. If someone passes by, feel free to grab a ride, if you have to be in Soswell by a certain time."
"Yes, sir," Alphonse said, and checked the axle one more time. He was pretty sure he'd fixed it properly, but with the time to kill, he saw nothing wrong in going over the rest of the carriage, just to make sure. And it took no time at all to fix the leads for the horses.
The man still hadn't returned, and Alphonse trudged around the carriage, rubbing his arms and trying to keep warm. Eventually he settled down on the step to the carriage door, looking around the late afternoon woods and listening for sounds of horses.
The sun was hitting the tops of the trees, casting the road in long shadows, when Alphonse heard a stick break from behind the carriage. He lifted his head from where he'd pillowed it on his knees and listened carefully. There was no sound of the heavy tread of a horse, let alone four.
Alphonse glanced up at the sun, glowing orange-red against the steel-gray sky, and figured a half-hour had passed. Tensing and releasing his muscles, he waited on the step to see who had arrived. Another crack from the woods around the carriage—but from a different direction—and he was instantly on guard.
A large shadow stepped out from the trees onto the road, and became a man easily a head taller than Alphonse. Two more stepped out behind the first; a fourth man had come around from behind the carriage. Alphonse waited, noting the short sticks in two of the men's hands; the first to arrive was carrying what looked like a thick, nasty walking staff.
"Halmos," the first man said. His voice was a low rumble, echoing in a barrel chest. Like the other men, he was swarthy, with brown hair cropped close to his skull. All of them were dressed like farmers, or miners.
"Yes," Alphonse said, keeping his voice calm.
"You're coming with us," the fourth man said, and grinned. There was a gap in his front teeth, and the rest of his teeth were blackened and rotting. It gave him a death's head appearance, and made Alphonse shiver.
"I'm waiting for someone," Alphonse replied. Then he reacted.
In one move, he clapped his hands, pressed them to the ground, and came to his feet with a long staff in his hands. It was Edward's favorite weapon, but Alphonse had no problem using his brother's tricks.
Spinning the weapon neatly, he rammed the butt-end into the fourth man's stomach. Twist and dodge, and the staff hit the third man in the back of the knees. Alphonse kicked out at the same time, ducking under a swing as he got the second man in the gut. The first man's staff hit him in the shoulders. Alphonse twisted, bringing the staff up to block. Parry, feint, plant the staff and flip backwards, coming down in a crouch. Alphonse swept the staff, and the first man hit the ground on his back.
Alphonse slammed the staff down across the man's chest, knocking the breath out of him. Getting to his feet, Alphonse ignored the other three men moaning in the road, and pointed the sharp blade-end of the staff at the first man's throat.
"Where were you planning on taking me?" Alphonse demanded. The man coughed, and Alphonse didn't move the blade. It pressed against the man's neck, and the man flinched away. "Don't annoy me any further."
"Just wanting your help," the man told him. The deep voice had become an ingratiating whine. "National Alchemists—"
"—Are the dogs of the military, not the common people," Alphonse said curtly. "This seems to be a forgotten fact around here. And the last time I checked, it's not necessary to bring sticks and staffs when asking a favor."
"Don't kill me," the man said, but then he grinned, and it wasn't a pleasant look. "You do, and it'll be much worse for you."
"I just want to—" Something hit Alphonse in the back of his legs, and he buckled. Whistling warned him of a second blow, and he twisted, angling his jump sideways, striking out with the staff. The attacker yelped, falling back, clutching his hand. The other two men were getting up, but edging backwards.
"You little—" The first man was on his feet, reaching for his staff. Alphonse brought his foot down, smashing the man's fingers under a boot heel. "Hey," the man yelled.
Alphonse didn't bother to come up with a reply, too busy bringing the staff around. The momentum added force, and he crashed the staff down over the first man's neck; he stumbled sideways, just as Alphonse ducked another attack from the only other remaining man. He rammed the staff's blunt-end into the second man's ribs and darted forward. A single punch to the second man's jaw; he fell backwards, perfectly still.
A horse's whinny echoed from the woods, and Alphonse kicked the first man. Neither moved. A clap, and the staff melted back into the ground, along with the other two weapons left by the men who'd fled. Alphonse stared at the two men for a second, weighing his options. The horses were coming closer, and he made his decision.
Ten minutes later, the carriage driver appeared down the road, leading the four horses. Alphonse stood up from the carriage step, making a show of stretching as though he'd been sitting there the entire time. The man's only reaction was to stumble a little, but Alphonse caught the man's quick glance at the dark woods around them.
"Sorry it took me so long," the man called out, holding up the leads to the horses.
"No problem," Alphonse said. "It's all fixed, and I took care of the leads, too." He put a tired smile on his face, and raised his arms over his head, stretching lazily. "Shouldn't be any problem hooking all four back in."
"Oh." The man looked surprised, and nodded, a smile sliding into place. "Thanks, that would've been a problem if the leads had come undone after I'd fixed them."
"Right," Alphonse said, and waited while the driver hooked the horses back into the complex system of leads and ropes. When the driver climbed up on the top seat and wrapped himself in the blanket, Alphonse nodded, and got back in the carriage.
This time, he didn't fall asleep, but pondered the day's events, all the way to Soswell.