By Al's count, it had been forty-two very long, wildly unproductive days and nights since the Elric Brothers left Rush Valley. Though it would only have taken a week—give or take a few days, depending on the woefully erratic speed of Amestrian trains—to head to the far north straightaway, Al had insisted on visiting (or re-visiting, as the case often was) all of the towns along the way, in order to at least halfway comply with Winry's wishes.
Though Ed had been either irritable or broodingly silent for the majority of the trip, the first day had been the worst. After that, at least he and Al had been able to drop Winry from the scope of their bickering.
The first day, Al's first words to his brother echoed shrilly in the cramped train station. "I can't believe you told Winry that we were leaving this very instant!" Al reprimanded, disapproval clear in his voice, though it could not show on what would be his face. "I mean, we don't have anything to go off of, so it's not like anything would change between now and tomorrow morning. We could have—"
"That's exactly it, Al. Nothing would change, no matter how long we hung around here. And damn it, which one is our platform? There're too many people blocking the way!"
"That one," Al parted the crown in front of Ed, muttering "excuse me" when required. There were a lot of people at the station, though it seemed that the vast majority were disembarking in Rush Valley, while an exclusive few were boarding the soon-to-depart train with the Elric brothers.
Conversation was deemed an impossibility as the two pushed against the current of new arrivals, and they did not resume until they had settled into the patterns of shake and jerk on the moving train. Edward gave the impression that he was staring intently at the scenery that lumbered by, though Al doubted his brother was actually seeing anything, as there was... nothing to see. Nothing of note, anyway. "You shouldn't have left Winry upset like that," Al blurted, disapproval clear in his voice. He couldn't let Ed drop their discussion until he had proffered a satisfactory explanation.
"It's not like I said anything bad; I just said that it'd be better if we went north as soon as possible. Why should she upset herself over that?" Ed said, not shifting his gaze from the dusty plains outside.
Al sighed, a hint of annoyance pushing through. "You know why. And your reasoning still isn't making any sense, Brother. If we don't even know what's waiting for us north, then why rush towards it?"
"Because we are running out of time, Al. Mustang and the rest of the military aren't going to keep waiting around for us to create our own miracle. To them, we're just using up time and resources that they think could be better spent.
"And two, I don't know if you've heard, but there's an awful lot of people going south—and it's not like it's a tropical paradise getaway! Obviously, something's going on up north. I told Winry that the last time there were any solid traces of the philosopher's stone was during the Ishval rebellion; I'm thinking that's where the 'hostilities' in the north are headed. However, I'd really rather not be stuck in the middle of a war." He paused, as if to give Al time to digest the information.
"That being said, we need to get this done before Amestris does something stupid and accidentally shoots another child."
"I think it'd be better if there wasn't a war at all."
"Yeah, but that's not the way things work. There is going to be a war, and there is always going to be more, no matter what anyone does. It's just a fact that we all have to deal with."
But guns and wars and norths don't have anything to do with us. Al kept the sentiment to himself. It was a child's voice. It's girls that love wrenches and lost mothers and promises to ourselves that matter. Should matter. Do matter, as far as Al was concerned.
All of that didn't have to overlap (it doesn't, it doesn't, Al assured himself) but images of girls holding guns (with the eyes of a hawk) and mothers lost in wars crept unbidden into Al's mind nonetheless. Determined to drive such thoughts away, Al confined his scope to material plans for their immediate future. He figured he had best start booking stays in inns and making other mundane arrangements before Ed did; it was childish and petty, but he wanted to be first at something. Despite his resignation from their talk, Al's irritation was still fresh.
"You're being so stupid, Brother." Tossing the words over his shoulder like an offhand comment on the weather, the little boy trapped in a suit of armour walked out and closed the compartment door just before Ed had time to throw something at him.
Days passed. The two had been riding in trains for so long, Al swore he memorized all of the travel brochures that ever existed in an Amestris station. (The previous evening, he had even read about an island far to the south where there were strange animals called armadillos; they curled into balls when they were afraid, because their skin was as tough as armour—hence the name. If he'd thought the pamphlet he'd read in Rush Valley on 'the history of the growth and crash of economy in Xenotime' was boring, the last one had been ten times worse.)
Ed's 'looking out the window at the scenery' deal was getting old, Al decided. But he'd already mentioned that yesterday, and the remark had done nothing to improve circumstance. So, he decided to amuse himself by looking at a map he had bought at one of their earlier stops.
Tracing their journey across the ink and paper Amestris, Al's finger swerved around forests and mountains, small towns and big cities alike. He could swear the map was creased along that trail just as much as it was along the folds, from all the times Al had done the exact same thing before.
There was a small black dot at the end of the rails—labeled 'North City' in the scraggly hand of the map vendor. This was one of the many 'special' margin notes, though the map vendor assured that the original map was 'really quite official'.
The northern city wasn't actually a city, or even a town. Al wasn't even sure it had a name at all—it was simply christened North City because it happened to be in the north. Before Ed had directed their efforts north, Al hadn't even known that the rail companies had bothered to set track all the way out there.
Or here, rather, Al corrected as the train screeched to an eventual rocking stop. Today was October first, and with the first of the new month came their (by now much awaited) arrival in the opulent North City.
Al had expected to see a station much like the one they had left in Rush Valley. Instead, his gaze was met by a low wooden platform washed in a translucent sheen of ice. The wood below was green and rotted with age and mildew, and at the center rose a high, spindly tower of the same nature. Definitely opulent. The only thing that Al could connect with the Then and the Now was the ubiquitous ticket window that faced the train. Ed must have noticed it too, because he started toward it the second his boots hit solid ground.
When they reached the mouth of the station office (also doubling as the lookout tower, else there was no explanation for its ridiculous structure) Al saw that there was just enough room inside for a destitute cot, a black iron stove—the insides of which burned bright with flame—and a chair that held a tremendous mound of flesh.
"State your business," the flesh said as soon as the Elrics stepped forward. If it were not for his ability to speak, Al would not have been sure the fleshy mound was even a man at all. He was thick of neck and thicker almost everywhere else, and his voice seemed to hail from the throat of the decorative wolf's head above his cot rather than his own.
"Sightseeing," Ed replied, a bland look crossing his face. The sarcasm was difficult to miss, and the irritation even more so.
The man in the tower gave the two brothers a look to wither trees. Maybe that's why there aren't any trees up here, Al thought, not bothering to curb his distaste. If he didn't vocalize it, what did it matter what he thought? Apparently, Ed's sour mood was catching.
"State your name, then." He left little room for argument. Ed, however, seemed intent on wiggling into just that little space.
"Oh, please. What does it matter why I'm here or who I am? It's not like we're planning to build a summer home up here!" Ed frowned, his foot tap-tap-tapping impatiently. With every tap the ice below cracked and slivered. When the guard replied with only a blank stare, Ed finally snapped, "Edward Elric. Edward and Alphonse Elric."
The man squinted—making his pig eyes seem even smaller and more beady—and leant forward to try and see Ed more clearly. "Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist Edward Elric?"
"Yes." The word was practically a hiss. "How many Edward Elrics do you know?"
Seemingly oblivious to Ed's snappish remark, the man dug through a pile of differently coloured memos. "You got a call from some man. When I tol' him I never heard of you, he said the same thing as you did just now. Who's this Edward Elric, I ask him, and he says, 'Edward Elric the Fullmetal Alchemist, and his brother Alphonse, who wears a suit of armour! Haven't you heard o' them?' Bah, I say. BAH."
The man gave Al such a looking over that Al felt himself shrink under his gaze.
"A suit of armour! Alchemists! Bah, piss on your phone-happy friend. I'm just a bloody north guard; what did he expect?" He slapped down a thin green sheet onto the counter.
Ed bent closer to read the note. Almost immediately, Al saw any shred of relief his brother might have gained by arriving at their destination stripped away, like leaves from trees in winter. "How did he know we were here?" Ed shouted, jerking the note out of the hands of the guardsman, who had already moved to return it to its proper file. From Ed's reaction, Al surmised it could only be one person.
"Bastard Colonel," Ed muttered under his breath as he tucked the note into one of his many pockets. The mound in the tower was about to object when he turned back towards him. "Where's your phone?"
"Right 'ere in the box, next to me. But we can't permit its use for civilians."
Ed took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, a plume of white issuing from his mouth. "Listen, mister. What part of 'State Alchemist' don't you understand?" Ed shoved his State Alchemist's pocket watch inside the tower. From the way the guard snatched his hand back when it met his hand, it must have been icy cold. "Now. Give me the phone."
Miraculously, the guard obliged without so much as a quiet grudging retort. As Ed dialed the Colonel's number, Al saw that the guard was still clutching his fingers.
He's scared. Al would have blinked in astonishment if he could. A second ago, the man was blustering and heedless of propriety. Was it because they were alchemists? No, that wasn't right. He maintained his difficult attitude even when Brother said he was the Fullmetal Alchemist.
Al allowed himself another look at the guard. This time, he saw the man had three fingers on his left hand where there should have been five.
It's the cold he fears. And perhaps there was reason to, Al thought grimly. Before he could brood on the matter for too long, however, his brother's brazen timbre roused Al from his thoughts.
"How did you know we were headed north?"
"I didn't, Fullmetal. It's not like I can anticipate your every move. I was just... shooting in the dark!" The man on the other end laughed then. His voice came across the line scratchy and static-filled. From his tone, Al found it difficult to believe that the Colonel didn't have spies watching them.
Al turned back to the man in the tower while his brother continued to trade insults with his superior. "It might be a while before they're finished," Al told the man. "Is there some way we could find a place to stay?"
The guard seemed to have finally recovered from his brush with ice. "You can rent a site and a tent like ev'ryone else," he replied, his voice practically a guttural snarl.
"A... tent?" Al asked, half disbelieving. It seemed too cold for anyone's idea of a pleasant camping trip, regardless of whether one could physically feel the cold or not.
"Yeah, that's what I said. Rent a tent and a block like ev'ryone else. A half cord of firewood too, if you pay extra."
A half cord of firewood would last a while. How long did the man think they would be staying? Obviously more than the week Al had anticipated—though it might be an even shorter stay, if the Colonel was pushing them towards a lead.
The man seemed to take Al's momentary hesitation as indecision. "Eighty for the tent, twenty for the lot—and you can't get the lot without buying the tent. I won't have no alchemist tricksters getting out of payin' like ev'ryone else! Thirty for the wood."
Though the prices seemed hardly logical (how could a lot cost more than the 'extra' for the wood?) Al told the guard his brother would pay, and in turn received a ticket to present to the men working the gear shed 'up the left bath, by the honey buckets'. He had never heard of a 'honey bucket' but by the way the man chortled, he didn't think that they were as pleasant as they sounded.
"Okay, great. So is this before or after we freeze to death?" Oh, good. It sounded like Ed and the Colonel were wrapping up.
"I don't know, Ed. It's at your leisure to decide. After all, the military is dedicated to making your life perfect in every way. If you need anything, be sure to ring for the bellboy." The line buzzed silent.
"How much did he say?" Ed turned to Al, swiftly changing the subject. Before Al could figure out what his brother was asking about, Ed slapped whatever he saw fit onto the table and stalked off. To where, Al couldn't say, since he had the gear ticket.
Al didn't follow his brother right away. Instead, he addressed the man in the tower. "Sir, I couldn't help but notice that the volume on your phone seems to be turned up very high. Maybe future callers would appreciate the priv —"
"Nonsense, boy," the man cut in, slipping part of Ed's payment into an envelope and the other part into his own pocket. "What's the point of letting the damn high-ups use my phone if I don't get to hear what the chatter's all about?"
Al's expectations of the north sunk even lower.
Twenty minutes later, the two brothers were making their way to the leftmost side of camp, hauling a large canvas tent and a half cord of firewood on a makeshift sled. They passed huddles of men warming themselves around huge iron cauldrons, arguing in a foreign tongue, as well as a few scattered stalls that had various roasted animals hanging from poles and pots of something... stewed and green. Each spark of human activity was marked by the telltale smoke and steam of fire and ice.
As the two passed a tent filled to bursting with jars of pickled vegetables and bunches of dried rosemary, Al realised that none of the vendors had spoken their language. Of course, this far north it was natural to have a greater commodity of foreign people than it would be in Central (where it was nigh unheard of) but to realize that no one here spoke in a language that Al could understand made him feel very small and alone. Well, there was that man in the tower, too, but that did nothing to put Al's insecurities to rest.
Breaking the oppressive silence that had crept up on them as soon as they left the market area, Ed snapped, "Where the hell is our block? L-57? I don't think there's an L block that goes out further than twenty. It's because we're alchemists, isn't it? Making us go all the way out to the edge of camp. If Mustang hadn't blown our cover, we could have signed in as anonymous sightseers."
Al tried to disguise a snicker.
Ed stopped and stared at him, obviously trying to figure out what was so funny. "Okay, so maybe not sightseers. But you get the point."
Al did not bother to remind Brother that it had been he who had announced himself as Edward Elric in the first place, thrown down his State Watch to prove it, and acknowledged knowing the Colonel's office number. It probably would have been worse to ignore the Colonel, but even the Colonel couldn't have known that they were really in the north at all...right? It was best if Ed was allowed his ranting space for the time being. Even knowing that, Al wanted to tell him about the guard's fear of the ice and the message of caution it brought, but he didn't think he could put it in a context that his brother would understand.
"—can't believe he always figures out things like that. When we get back to Central, I swear I'll flay the bastard! Then we'll see what people have to say about the 'Flame Alchemist'. Hey, are you listening?"
I would pay more attention if you didn't whine about the same things all the time. He had a feeling that his brother was complaining more for the sake of complaining than he was for being actually upset. "But didn't the Colonel give us a lead? That should cut down the amount of time we spend walking in circles."
"Well, yeah," Ed admitted grudgingly. "But it's not as if it's something that we wouldn't have found out sooner or later. And now that it's his idea we're here..." He stopped, adjusting his hold on the ropes that held the sleigh. "It's different somehow."
It was different because now everything they did would reflect positively on the Colonel's behalf, for he was the one who supposedly sent them here. Al understood Brother's pain at the notion of their hard work being directly proportional to—heaven forbid!—someone else's success, but this was getting ridiculous. Al was just about to speak up and say so when his brother stopped abruptly, throwing down the ropes that pulled their sled.
"This is our block," Ed declared. "And about time; I don't see what's wrong with all of the empty blocks we passed." He heaved the heavy canvas folds onto the ground, just as Al took the tent poles in hand, trying to figure out which way all of the sticks were supposed to fit together. With surprising professionalism, the two managed to raise the canvas into something that looked vaguely like everyone else's shelters.
"Brother," Al paused, watching Ed rummage through their battered suitcase. Assorted maps, notes, articles of clothing and other 'necessities' (though, to be honest, Al could not remember a single time either of them had actually used some of it—the vial of shoe polish, for instance) were already strewn all around the interior before Al could think of what he really wanted to say.
He opted to state the obvious. "Looking for something?"
"No, Al. I'm just marveling at the infinite wonders of our suitcase," came the terse reply. Then, "Fuck." Al heard the minute tinkling of crushed glass pieces falling against each other when Brother stood up. Whatever liquid the bottle had contained spread across the white of Ed's gloves almost artistically.
Ed stopped, stared, then sat back down again, as if he had decided that further attention to the shards of glass was unnecessary. He continued his rummaging.
Al watched for a while, but a few minutes later when Ed produced still no results and seemed to be going over the same things over again, he could bear it no longer. "You've been acting like this for weeks! What's bothering you so much?" He probably should have said that a long time ago. He absolutely did not need to deal with this anymore.
"I'm not mad!" Ed objected.
"I didn't say you were!"
"Yes you did!"
"No, I didn't!"
"You implied, I inferred!"
Al let out a sigh of exasperation. "You're being completely ridiculous. You've been completely ridiculous. And I'm tired of hearing you complain about every little insignificant thing. I'm tired of you."
He watched Ed's mouth open wide, filled to bursting with snakes hissing malevolent curses, backed by the empty ghosts of half-formed platitudes. He watched his brother swallow all of those words, pressing them down in the hopes of quelling the argument right there. And with an aching sensation of disappointment, he watched his brother lose.
"Oh yeah? Well, well! I'm tired of you too!" Ed shot back, adding in toxicity what it lacked in... Everything. "I'm trying, okay?" And you're losing.
"But you and Winry aren't any help if all you do is shoot down our options. I'm trying to make sure we've followed every last speck of information to its roots. So you both think it's stupid and pointless. And you know what? Maybe it is. But it's a hell of a lot better than just sitting around, doing nothing. If you got any better plans, now would be the time to speak up!"
Though he had been determined to see the issue to the end, Al felt deflated, like someone had come up and pricked him with a needle so he went swerving down and down, out of control. Perhaps he was ashamed.
I shouldn't have pressed Brother like that. I should have—Should have what? Kept going like nothing was wrong? That would have been a lie. He focused on the emblem on the back of Ed's coat, trying to sort all of his emotions out and climb back up...
...climb back up the thick black threads that formed the emblem, edges jutting out like blades. But when he came to the crossroad, what was he supposed to do?
Whenever Teacher had given the two of them a riddle they could not solve, he had always slept, and the next morning the answer would be there, plain as the daylight. But now he could not lie dormant and wait for the answers to come to him; he could not sleep at all, for that matter. But it had been that way for a while, now. The true reason was that they no longer had the time to sit and dwell and ponder—loathe though he was to admit it, Brother was right about that.
Al's voice dropped to the softest of whispers. "Why don't you just go to sleep. We can sort out what we're going to do in the morning." But he had forgotten—and then, he felt incredibly pathetic—that he had been in the midst of an argument. So when Ed lashed out at him, he couldn't say he had been entirely prepared.
"Oh, you fucking go to sleep!" Almost instantly, Al saw the regret coming sweeping onto his brother's face. "Shit. I'm sorry, Al. I—"
This was even worse than the uncertainty Al had felt earlier, because Brother was always so careful not to make comments of that sort, reminding Al of his 'situation'. Too careful. But then, how was he supposed to know that Al didn't really care about stupid things like that? That Al liked it best when Ed didn't take the time to second-guess every little thing that came out of his mouth? (It was sort of his fault for not telling Brother that in the first place.) What Al hated most, though, were the apologies. He didn't like seeing his brother stumble head over heels with heaps of 'I'm sorry', and he hated the veil of contrition that clouded his intensely burning eyes when he apologized for everything that had happened since That Time.
It reminded Al too much of their fallibility, because every time Brother said 'I'm sorry' it was an affirmation of every plan that went awry.
"I'm going for a walk. See you in the morning," Al said, with an icy finality that not even Ed had the temerity to protest. He saw the gust of cold wind rush into the tent, but didn't feel it. He made himself believe he was past feeling (needing to feel) and feelings. He couldn't deal with things like that right now. Outside and away was only the slightest bit lighter than the tent had been, but it felt a hundred times more inviting. The other blocks were beginning to settle into a methodic evening pattern and lanterns were going up like lines of fireflies between the tents.
The only block that was not enjoying the moon-brought peace was theirs, partly due to the Elrics' screaming and partly because of the new arrivals. All of the empty rows he and Brother had passed on their way to L-57 were starting to become not-so-empty. A truck laden with tent canvas and cords of firewood rumbled past, giving Al just enough time to jump out of the way.
Dozens of men—swaddled in layers of clothing, each sporting the same dark-coloured coat—were already erecting countless shelters and starting campfires.
I wonder who they all are? Al thought absently. He really didn't care who or why or even what their neighbors were; they'd be gone and forgotten soon, because they weren't even real neighbors, and this wasn't even home. Even with the sheer enormity of their party, watching the men set up their camp was about as amusing as a circus that only had the tents and the men, but no laughter or colours. And as the sun's rays were clipped short on the horizon and the only thing lighting the men's progress was the moon, it was a very dull sight indeed.
So, Al left them to their obedient, mechanical set up and walked in the direction of the hills—probably the very hills he and Brother would be hiking the next morning.
What it was they were looking for, Al couldn't say. There didn't seem to be much of anything in the north, much less someone capable of creating a Philosopher's Stone. There weren't even any 'locals' to speak of, as all the inhabitants were travellers of a fashion. The only ones who might know anything about the happenings in the north were the military guards like the flesh mound at the train station. And given the reaction the man had to alchemists, Al really doubted he was going to be of any use.
What, then, had Brother expected to find out here? Or rather, what did the Colonel want them to find? It was the Colonel who 'officially' sent them here (despite only having figured that out once they were already here) then perhaps there was something out there. Somewhere.
But peering out into the stark grey icescape and the empty cloud-choked sky, Al really, really doubted that.
Compared to the vast amount of alien land they had to comb, he felt too small and insignificant to be able to do anything. Their entire search for the Stone had been virtually fruitless, even after four years. Four years. And if you took away all the petty, personal reasons they had for searching, even if they did succeed, to what ends was it worth anything?
He and Brother didn't know if the Stone would live up to the all-powerful cure-all legends. They didn't even know if it was more than a legend, for that matter!
"Do you want to laugh at us too, moon?" Al looked up at the sky, knowing he was being more than a little silly. He remembered when he first learned the moon was only reflecting the sun's rays. Brother had laughed at him when he said the moon was more pretty than the sun, told him it was only a reflection, so it couldn't be more anything. He'd been sad then.
But tonight his companion Moon was so full and luminous it kept the untouched snow alight throughout the night, albeit in pale, flat shades of grey. During the deepest hours of the night, he was never lost in total darkness, hidden away in some untouched pocket of cold and shadow. Even so, he wasn't sure if he enjoyed the peculiar twilight either. Finally, Al watched the horizon flicker with the sun's first light until the sky blazed red, chasing away the morning glory violet.
Al stood with a startling crack, a layer of ice that had formed up found his armour shattering when he moved. He found himself momentarily thankful that he wasn't able to feel the cold, until he remembered what he'd done the previous evening. Then he felt stupid for even thinking something like that ever. It didn't matter whether he had been upset or confused last night, he couldn't doubt that. If he doubted the foundation for everything accomplished since they left home, then there wouldn't be anything solid left to cling to. Still, a small part of him cried out, why? Is this what you really want, or are you going to make it happen, only to realize this wasn't worth it?
It needed to be worth it. It had to, Al thought as he ducked into their tent. Ed was in more or less the same place he'd been last night, though it seemed he'd at least had the sense to surround himself with spare clothes from their suitcase and start a fire besides, though it had long since dwindled away into a pile of cold ashes.
Al prodded the lump of fabric with the toe of his armour, along with what he could only assume was Brother, curled into a protective ball like some sort of strange animal.
An armadillo, that was it, Al recalled from one of the various travelogues he had entertained himself with during their trip. The thought lent him the slightest bit of good humour.
"Brooooother..." Al whispered, as if he was trying to will his brother to out of dormancy. He wasn't entirely sure if he even wanted Ed awake, but he figured Brother was like to freeze to death if he didn't get up now, and besides, amidst the previous evening's plethora of complaints, he had never told Al what the Colonel wanted out of them. "Wake up." Al switched to a more conventional method of waking by giving his brother a less than gentle nudge. It wasn't a kick. Really, it wasn't.
"Fucking hell," came the muffled response, the bundle of clothing finally showing signs of life. It took several pointed nudges and what meager store of Al's patience had been renewed overnight to get Ed to the point where he looked more the part of a State Alchemist than he did an armadillo. However, when Al told him this, Ed mumbled that he'd rather be an armadillo.
Massaging his temples with his hands, he fell back amongst the makeshift blankets with a groan. "...hate this fucking ice... why are we even in the fucking north?" He muttered, just barely coherent and not at all eloquent. He covered his face with his hands and wiped away a thin film of sweat.
"Have a nice sleep?" Al commented, deciding that he'd rather not be mad at his brother. "You should have thought about ways to keep warm before we got here, mm?"
"I did," Ed said defensively, sitting up once more. "I was going to make a fire. No, I did make a fire, but I couldn't find the matches, which made things harder."
Al didn't think Brother was patient enough—not stupid enough—to try and rub two sticks together to spark a flame through friction, so he drew the only logical conclusion. And phrased it in the worst possible way.
"Trying to emulate the Colonel now, are you?"
"No I wasn't." Ed shot up too quickly for his tone to be mistaken for amusement. In an instant, everything playful about the morning dissipated. He peeled the bottommost layer of clothing off the bed of ice. It was more than a little damp, so he took it and strode past Al and draping it over their suitcase, painfully deliberate. Then he pulled back the tent flap and took a deep breath. "Let's do this as quick as possible, so we can get on with our own research."
With an entire night between them, conditions appeared to have simmered to the point where the flames had died down, leaving only tenseness. It was not as comfortable a stage as Al had hoped for, but it was a definite improvement. He sighed and followed his brother's back into the endless expanse of nothingness. They walked at a brisk pace, Ed's cheeks reddening with chafing cold. When they came to the hill where Al had spent the night, he could stand the silence no longer. "What sort of case are we working on, anyway? You never told me what the Colonel wanted," Al said, coming to an abrupt halt.
"Some north patrol men went out on a routine perimeter check and failed to report back. Nothing big." Ed shrugged noncommittally. "I asked him why this concerned us, and he said 'not everything is about you, Fullmetal; you got put in charge of the investigation so someone doing actual work doesn't have to waste their time riding out there,'" he mimicked in a whiny, nasal voice that sounded nothing like the Colonel.
"But if they were near the Drachman border and they didn't come back..." Al ventured.
Brother's mouth twisted into a hard, mirthless smile that he generally saved for special occasions. "Exactly. And where there's a war brewing..."
"That's where we find the Philosopher's Stone," Al finished, a hollow sense of unease spreading through him.
Once the two slid down the hillside, Brother squinted, shading his eyes from the bright sun with one gloved hand and wrapping his coat tighter with the other. "It looks like there's some sort of camp out there."
They hastened onward, but it wasn't a camp he spied. And it wasn't easy to imagine how he had been mistaken either, because now that they saw what it truly was, Al could swear that even from a distance, a hanged man looked very different from your average tent post.
There were more men scattered face down in the ice, their green patrol sashes leaving no doubt as to who they were—or rather, had been.
The hanged man they sighted first was the only man who had not been of the north patrol. Though his face had been slashed to ribbons, he looked a lot like the merchant men he and Brother had passed the night before. Could he have been one of their companions?
"So, the north patrol finds someone at the perimeter. They catch him, and hang him up there while they... hack pieces out of him," Brother murmured, pacing about as he tried to reenact the gruesome story. Watching his brother's impersonal, methodic inspection, Al was part impressed but mostly disturbed. "Then, someone comes and kills them." He knelt down by one of the patrolmen, gingerly taking hold of the man's coat to roll him face-up. "With cuts to the back and—"
Ed jumped back suddenly, jerking his hand back from the dead man's neck. "What the hell!"
For Al, it had not entirely sunk in that these men were anything more than a couple of bodies, that they had had lives and loves just he and Brother did. And when Ed revealed the guard's front side, Al sincerely hoped it stayed that way.
Where there should have been eyes, a nose and a mouth—a face—there was nothing but a bloodied mess of half-frozen sinews of muscle, held together by a congealed glue of sick-yellow adipocere. It seemed as though his head had been vertically shorn in two, face taken by whoever—or whatever—slew them.
Al felt a little sick (though he knew that physically, that was impossible) and needed to turn away. It was not the first time the Elric brothers had dealt with dead bodies, and perceiving the corpses only as bodies and not as people certainly helped, but there was always so much -
Blood. Hate, sorrow... fingers of fear that linger always, seeking anyone or anything to leech of life.
Al could have continued his grotesque visualization, but Ed was already investigating the rest of the men.
"All the..." he started, staring at the gaping hollow that should have been the patrolman's face. "All the same. I guess we can rule out an enemy retaliation. Unless, of course, the Drachmans have a very sick sense of vengeance." There was something in his brother's tone that made Al believe said option wasn't to be ruled out.
Bits of scrap steel and countless gears and bolts were strewn about the site, catching the sunlight like diamonds. Though diamonds would have been a shade more suspicious, the metal fragments were sending off warning bells as well. Al began to collect the shining bits and pieces, under the notion that he might be able to see what it had once been. They could merely have composted tent poles or other military issue camping gear, but it was worth a looking over, at least.
Brother was still turning over the dead patrolmen, handling the cold-stiff bodies as if they were made of glass. The one that had died furthest from the outpost campground was the only one that had died already facing up.
"This one must've died fighting. See, he still has his rifle in hand, for all the good it did him." Ed continued his hypothetic reenactment, sounding more bitter with every detail he added to his tale. "And the others were taken from behind. Whatever killed them must have been pretty numerous, since you can't usually overtake a trained patrol without suffering a few casualties..."
Unless they weren't trained, Al thought.
"Unless there were casualties," Brother said. He bent down over the man, so close it looked as if Ed was planning to lie down with him and die too. Slowly, slowly he turned the man so that he was lying face down. Four sharp knives still stuck out from his back, cloak and furs stained black with old blood. Brother's eyes widened as he drew out one of the blades, perilously long and sharp. "So they were all attacked from behind. This one just fought back."
Fought back and died anyway. Kept going and still ended up a failure.
Alphonse was not so keen on mirroring the level of intimacy his brother exhibited with the victims, pulling out more knives, inspecting the places of entry, leaning over the men like they were still living, breathing, and not rigid corpses... so he stepped back. Al had told his brother once that he had a morbid scope of interest, but Ed had brushed the jest aside, saying that it was just his job, and that sitting on the side lines wasn't going to get anything done.
"Al," Brother said, leaping from relatively collected to frighteningly tense in an instant. Whispering to himself ("That bastard;he knew. He knew all this time, and that's why..."), his gloves brushed back over the (now removed) knives, and back to the bloodied tatter of the man's back. Sliding a hand into his pocket, he repeated, "Al."
"What," Al replied, emotions brimming over into annoyance in as little time. Did Brother really need to say his name repeatedly until he got acknowledged? It's not like he wasn't listening.
"I need you to go back to the camp."
"I need you to go back right now; the things that killed these men—Al, will you just listen to me for once? Al."
"I'm listening, already! Honestly, what do you think I'm doing?" Just like that, the cool reserves of patience Al had gained melted away and the semblance of civility the brothers had built overnight dissipated like steam, setting the two on a spindle of thin ice once more.
"If you're going to turn your back on me and keep looking at things while I'm talking to you, it doesn't seem like you're listening! Since you're not doing as I say, it doesn't seem like you're listening! 'Honestly', I have no idea what you're really doing, but it definitely doesn't seem like you're listening. Get my point?"
"That's great, Brother. Really. But saying the same thing over and over isn't helping! What are you so worked up about all of the sudden?"
"It's dangerous," Ed stated simply.
"Oh yes. All the more reason to let you go off into the middle of nowhere by yourself! Because I'm so vulnerable and useless to you. Because it's not as if I can do anything by myself." Al crossed his arms, staring down at his brother. He reveled in being able to do that.
"Just leave it. Go back to camp and wait for me!" Brother ordered. "You don't understand the magnitude of this—"
"Well, I would if you'd just tell me!"
"I don't need to tell you anything if I don't think you need to know! Just GO. Damn it, Al, I know what I'm doing; it looks crazy to you, but I swear I do. Humour me for once and do as I say!"
The last time you said that, I believed you. We drew a pretty circle on the floor and paid a price in blood, all to see Mom again. But it wasn't right, it wasn't right! Al had believed that had been crazy even then, but he had believed in his brother more. This time, he wasn't so sure.
"You can't tell me what to do! You're not Mom!"
Brother froze for a moment, shocked into submission. "I..."
Teacher, I meant Teacher. Why did I say Mother? A thousand different things came to mind, each one sounding more sorry and pathetic than the last. "On second thought, you're right. Maybe be should split up for now. We might actually get something done that way, and then we can go—" Not home. We have no home, because Winry was home and now she probably hates us, too. "Back," he finished darkly.
Al hated the ice because it made everything cold and dark and fragile. He started walking back towards the northern outpost and did not give any indication that he was the least bit consoled, placated or otherwise warmed by his brother's rather loud admissions of guilt. Because really, he wasn't. The ice made for such a stark, blank world it gave Al too much time to think about what wasn't right in front of his face, what should have been buried deep down inside.
Somehow, the ice made all of his memories and misgivings rush to the top, as if without the colours of the present there was nothing between him and That Time, like that's all he was—those memories.
And in a way, Al thought bitterly, that was true.
"Sir, there's a call from someone on an outside line; an Alphonse Elric. Do you want me to put him through?"
Mustang raised his eyebrows. Al? That was strange. It was technically Fullmetal who was supposed to be reporting in, but given the note their last conversation had ended on, Mustang couldn't say he was all that surprised. Making fun of the kid was a lot less gratifying when Edward was actually upset. He set his boots up on the surface of his desk and leant back in his chair as far as the phone cord would easily allow before saying, "Go ahead."
"Um, Colonel?" Came the expected inquiry, after a moment's buzz of static while the lines connected.
"Well, well. Alphonse! To what do I owe this occasion? Is Fullmetal too short to reach the phone?" Mustang said. It was one of his less brilliant quips, but he supposed it was wasted on Alphonse. Though they had not spoken directly to each other often, he was of the opinion that Al would not pass the greeting on to his brother, anyway.
"Why are we in the north?"
"I don't know—aren't you supposed to be telling me that?" Mustang sighed, slipping into the part of Accusatory Supervisor. "Fullmetal neglected to tell me you were going at all." Not that it was particularly difficult to guess. Sometimes Mustang wondered if Ed knew he would figure out on his own anyway, so omitting these little details did them both a service.
There was a pause, as if Alphonse was torn between defending his brother and simply rephrasing his question. Eventually, he opted for the latter. "I mean, why did you leave us that message at the outpost? What are we supposed to be investigating?"
"Why don't you just ask your brother?"
"Well, ah... He's not actually here. You see..." Al started. "You know how he gets those... sudden... inexplicable convictions?"
Mustang made a sound that was halfway between a knowing 'ah' and a bored 'hm'.
Al got the message and went right to the point. "I need to know what you told him so we're both on even ground."
"You do know," Mustang started, reclining just a bit further... further... Hawkeye gave him a meaningful stare, but held her tongue. After all, he was on the phone. He had learned that she would allow him to get away with more when he was talking to someone else—oftentimes much to his displeasure, because that also meant he couldn't use her as an excuse to hang up on Hughes. "That I'm not going to divulge classified military information to a civilian, right?" Not that he hadn't in the past, as Alphonse Elric was a special case, but to Mustang it seemed like a perfectly defensible standpoint.
"We found the north patrol already," Alphonse stated, as if that was supposed to make Mustang miraculously change his mind.
He had been expecting another confused pause, but Alphonse was quick to respond. "And now I need to know exactly what it is the military wants to find. We found the north patrol, all right. With their heads sawed in half and their faces torn off! There's something more to this, and Brother just went off by himself to find it, so I need you to tell me what it is!"
Mustang fell off his chair, Al's shouts ringing in his ear. Not because Alphonse's outburst was so unexpected—even though it was—or because the news was unexpected—which it was (he had expected 'dead', but not 'mutilated')—but for the simple fact that he had leant back too far and the chair had slipped out from under him. The phone came crashing down as well, disconnecting the line and probably much else besides.
He could only imagine what Alphonse was thinking at that moment. With any luck, it would sound as if he had just hung up, so he wouldn't have to explain anything to the younger Elric when the brothers returned to Central.
"I hope you take that as a lesson to exhibit more professionalism whilst on the phone, Sir."
"Duly noted, Lieutenant." Now, I have some more phone calls to make—to the Fuhrer's secretary and to whoever got put in charge of the men we sent up to North City. They should give Fullmetal a day or so to finish up; then they can go about their duties. He murmured, "Knowing Fullmetal, I'll just tell them to follow the smoke or look for a mountain of rubble and head in that direction."
That part, at least, was true. Though the steps leading up to this moment had been none too pleasant, Fullmetal always made the last step easy.