"Chris! Hey, Christopher! Wait up a minute!"
That was him.
The chime of a bicycle bell sounded in the autumn air, as Chris pulled hard to a stop, turning one wheel to the side. He put the kickstand down and glanced over his shoulder, looking for the source of the call. Two of his classmates jogged down the street towards him, one waving as he came.
"What's up?" he asked casually as they came up to him, panting for breath. "I was on my way home. I promised Laurie I'd take her out to the park."
"I know, I know. I can hear that lame bell from a mile," one of them replied, giving his shoulder a friendly shove. "I keep saying you ought to rip that thing off and just mow people down."
He just smiled at them, as the other straightened up, regaining his wind. "Chris wouldn't do that, he's too nice," he said firmly. "Go on, Gabe, ask him."
"Oh, yeah. Did you get the algebra assignment?" Gabe asked, looking a little annoyed to be reminded.
"Of course." He smiled, and shrugged casually. "You guys need the numbers?"
A sidelong glance, and an elbow to the ribs. "Actually," the boy said, clearing his throat, "we were hoping you could give it to us after you did it."
He grinned, even as his brow crinkled and he shook his head. "No way!" he said. "If you don't do the work yourself, you'll never learn."
"Oh, c'mon!" He wasn't going to let it go that easily. "Look, Chris, this stuff is a breeze to you! You're a genius, super-smart..."
"I am not 'super smart.'" He knew he was blushing, and tried to stop it, but he didn't ride off, either. "You could do just as well if you worked at it."
"That's not true," his friend protested. "You're the same year as the rest of us, but you're already studying all these advanced subjects that aren't even in the normal curriculum—physics, Drachmian history, military law and stuff—"
"He just wants to get out of this dump and attend university in Central with the rest of the hotshots," Gabe jeered good-naturedly, and Chris felt the blush coming back. "What d'you want to study there that you can't study here?"
"None of your business," he said firmly. "Look, if you want help with algebra, go talk to Mr. Centine, he used to give me help."
"Is that him over there?" his friend asked, jerking his chin over behind Chris. "We could talk to him now."
Both other boys turned to follow his gaze, the bike bell chiming faintly as he twisted around to look. It took a moment for Chris to pick out the man in question; he almost blended in with the dusty lot behind the road.
"What are you talking about, idiot?" Gabe demanded. "That's not our teacher, that's a bum."
"Oh," the boy said. "Guess you're right."
He didn't look a thing like their math teacher, aside from the hair color. For one thing, he was older; even from this distance he could pick out the lines on the man's face. But this man was nothing like the usual well-dressed businessmen and tidy teachers of Andenfeld; he looked shabby, grimy, and tattered. His hair was shaggy and unkempt, sticking up in spikes and hanging in an uneven line around the back of his neck. His coat was a dusty tan color, looking threadbare and worn even from this distance.
The man didn't seem to be going anywhere; he was just standing there, watching them, in a way that sent an uneasy chill down Chris' spine. "Who is that?" he said.
"I dunno," Gabe shrugged. "I've never seen him before. I don't think he lives around here. Maybe he really is a bum."
"Or an Ishvar vet," his friend suggested. "A lot of them wander around like that, I hear."
"Maybe he's an escaped convict," Gabe snickered. "He sure does look like something your dog dragged through the gutter, doesn't he? Chris?"
"Are you sure you have no idea who he is?" he said, frowning. "I didn't think there was anyone in Andenfeld we didn't know."
His classmates looked at each other, then shrugged. "Positive," Gabe said. "Never seen him before in my life. What about you, Chris?"
"No," he said. "No idea."
"Are you sure?" Gabe persisted. "Ever seen him before? Maybe a few years ago?"
His shoulders stiffened, hands gripping the handlebars. "I've got no idea," he said, voice tight.
"Well for all you know, you could have seen him once and then forgot—Ow! What the hell?"
His friend elbowed him hard hard, then glared. "Gabe," he hissed.
"No. It's okay," he said, but he didn't look at either of them as he climbed back onto his bike. "I gotta go."
"Yeah," the boy said, subdued. "You promised your sister, right?"
He stepped hard on the pedals, and pushed off down the street. He felt eyes on his back all the way until he turned the corner, but he didn't look to see whether it was his friends, or the strange man. Instead, he struggled with his own turbulent thoughts.
It's not my fault I'm weird, he thought angrily, head lowered and pedaling hard. It's not my fault I can't remember.
He'd hardly pulled up in front of his house before the sound of excited barking hit him; he made quick work of tying his bike safely up before the front door banged open and he was assaulted by two small, excitable beagle puppies and one not-so-small girl. "Brother!" she shrieked, and years of practice allowed him to catch her and not lose his balance when she flung herself at him and caught her arms around his neck. "Welcome home!"
It was impossible not to be infected by her enthusiasm, and he laughed as he swung her around, before setting her down on her feet and smoothing back her dark curls. "Hey, Laurie," he said. "I'm sorry I'm late. Do you want to go right out to the park, or wait a bit?"
"Right away!" She nodded once, fiercely enough to throw her hair into her eyes. Chris chuckled again, kneeling to pat the head of the puppy that was leaping up on his legs. "Well, you'll let me put my books down, right?" he said. He straightened up, gathering the puppy against his side, and headed into the house.
Her father was seated at the dining table, newspaper open in front of him as was usual; the radio was also on, droning in the background.
"Dad?" he said. The newspaper dipped, revealing a large, heavyset man in his fifties, with dark hair the same color as his daughter's. Her mother's was much the same, with a tight curl that loosened to ringlets in the little girl; the family resemblance among the three was easy to see.
He, of course, didn't look like any of them. Nobody in his family had light brown hair, or eyes that shaded between brown and green. But that was only to be expected. He shrugged off his books, setting them on the edge of the table.
"Welcome back, Chris," his father said distractedly. "You're a little late."
"I'm sorry. I was talking to my friends and it slowed me down," he apologized. "We're going to head out again in a minute."
His father frowned, and flipped down the newspaper, tossing it across the table. "You can't go out today," he said. "There's some kind of military criminal wandering around in our town, and I don't want Laurie exposed to that kind of danger."
Laurie gave a cry of disappointment, even as Chris' eyes went wide, and he grabbed the paper. "A military criminal?" he asked, incredulous. "So he was an escaped convict!"
"No, boy, it's nothing that dramatic. He was in prison all right, but they let him out free as a bird two weeks ago," his father snorted. "The military might have wanted to keep it quiet, but there's no way we're going to let a dangerous man wander our city without warning everyone about him!"
"He's not really dangerous, is he?" Laurie wanted to know, face clouding over. "We can still go, right?"
"No, you may not," he said firmly. "They won't confirm anything, but the rumors say all sorts of things; everything from insubordination, treason, to murder. One thing they all agree on—he was involved in Lior; that's about the time he was put in prison."
Laurie gasped, eyes going wide. Chris didn't blame her. It was before her time—before his time either, really, but every Amestrian child knew about the disaster at Lior, the military's most spectacular failure in over thirty years.
The bloody Ishvar struggle had killed and injured many, and dragged on indefinitely, but Lior had killed more Amestrian citizens in a day than Ishvar had managed in a year. Bad enough that the military had been provoking conflict with the natives, but then the entire city turned into a trap that killed almost a thousand men. Even aside from the deaths and material losses, the blow to pride and morale had been devastating.
"Lior?" Chris asked skeptically, scanning down the paper. "That's impossible. How could he be out so soon if it were something that serious?"
"Apparently called in a few favors with the military brass," his father grunted, reaching for the newspaper back. "That's the way it goes in the military, favors traded for favors. Can't trust any of'em. And they wonder why we make such a fuss when they let one of their mad dogs into our town!"
Chris shook his head, handing the newspaper back, but didn't argue. His father was too much of a cynic sometimes.
"When is he going to go?" Laurie wanted to know. "This is our city, they should make him leave! It's not fair to make us stay inside!"
The radio murmured on in the background, a constant static. His father unfolded the newspaper again, turning back to the article he'd been reading before Chris came in. "With any luck, his parole will run out and they'll throw him back in prison where he belongs."
He found himself staring at the back of the newspaper his father held, the sparse print of the announcement. There were no photos, so he found himself thinking back to the haggard figure in the park. A strange feeling like nausea filled him, and he pushed away from the table. "Excuse me," he said. "I don't feel well. I'm going up to my room."
"Brother?" Laurie trailed after him, to the foot of the stairs. "We aren't going out?"
He shook his head, then managed a smile. "Probably not today, Laurie. With someone like that wandering around, it's better safe than sorry. Keep that in mind, too—don't go out without an adult until he's gone, right?"
"Oh." She looked dismayed, and no wonder—Andenfeld was a quiet neighborhood, a good place for kids, and never in her eight years had she been warned against going outside. She surprised him by adding, "Is everything okay? Are you afraid?"
He sighed, and came back down the stairs to tousle her hair again. "I'll be fine, Laurie. I just want a nap."
She hesitated, then nodded. "Okay, Brother." She surprised him by leaning up on her tiptoes, hand on his arm, and kissing him on the cheek. It warmed him straight through. "Feel better."
Stupid. He flung himself down on his bed, looking up at the ceiling, and then took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid, to waste time evolving theories about strange men he'd probably never met before and never meet again. He couldn't help it; his mind played tricks on him, fixating on every new face, some suppressed part of him wondering and wishing if maybe he knew him or her from long ago. Once upon a time; a time he'd lost.
He rolled over on his side, looking towards the wall with the dresser and the door; his eye fell on a small leather book perched at the back of the desk. The latest Doctor had suggested that he keep a dream journal, in the hopes that some of his lost memories would surface during his sleep. But all Christopher ever had to record was dreams of a light and empty space, void of ground or sky, with only flat echoes rippling away into nothingness.
Why couldn't he remember anything? Everything, absolutely everything before that day was just a blank slate, a void. Ten missing years out of his life. He must have had a real family, once; a real father, a mother who looked like him, who'd raised him. People didn't just pop out of the ground, did they? They couldn't just spring into existence at ten years and wander on like normal people. Somewhere, sometime there must have been a family, and a childhood, that were missing from his memory.
His memory began, sharp and clear, coming out of an alley into a street in Central, surrounded by the chaos of the riots that had devastated whole city blocks. He'd been swept up hastily by a rescuer along with a dozen other children, all orphans like him; bundled out of the dangerous city into Andenfeld just like them, placed in the orphanage and eventually adopted, just like the rest of them.
But he wasn't just like the rest of them, was he? He had some friends, but he wasn't wildly popular, either; everyone at school knew that Christopher Abert was a little strange, even if they didn't know why. Even if that's not my real name. Not the name I was born with...
Two walls of his room were lined with bookcases, stuffed to bursting; he rarely spent his allowance on anything besides books. Some of them weren't his, but on semi-permanent loan from teachers, or friends, or the library. Most of his schoolmates thought it was weird, to read anything besides the boys' adventure novels that were so popular, much less such a bizarre variety of different subjects. Just like Gabe had jibed him, everything from physics to poetry to Drachmian history.
Nobody knew that he studied all those different subjects so long and hard, reading every book he could get his hands on, because he was trying to fill up the empty place in his head. Nobody that he was so unfailingly nice to everyone, no matter if they were nice to him, because there was a cold and aching hole in his heart that he was always, always trying to fill.
He got up, and went over to the dresser to pick up his little book, the only one set apart from the rest. The Doctor had made his parents promise not to look in it, for the sake of confidentiality; he said, Chris needs to worry about nothing else besides the past when he's dreaming, he will need a safe place to write it in. He had no dreams to report, but the book wasn't empty. Instead, he filled it with daydreams and fantasies, made-up days and weeks and years, long complicated storylines that grew as fast as he could dream them up. For all he knew, they might be true.
The little book was his guilty secret. His parents would be terribly disappointed if they found it; his father would be angry, and call him ungrateful, and his mother would cry, and they would both wonder what they did wrong, if they didn't love him enough. And that wasn't true at all; he loved them both, and his little sister more than anything, but it wasn't always enough.
It wasn't ever enough. The hole inside of him had gotten smaller, over the years—or maybe he'd gotten bigger—but it never really went away.
He picked up his book, and brought it back with him to his bed, digging out a small pencil from under the mattress. He flipped the book open to a new page, a fresh start, instead of going back to continue any of the stories he'd started before. Turning to a new leaf, he took a breath, closing his eyes, and wondered how to begin this time.
Six years ago. Six years ago, Lior went up in a burst of light, killing a thousand men and women in a matter of minutes. Hundreds of orphans had been created that day. It was only a few weeks later that a boy with no memory appeared on the streets of Central. Could he be one of those war orphans? Might his parents have been soldiers in Lior? There was no way to confirm it, no way to know.
But he could pretend. Just for a little while, he could pretend.
Letting out his breath, he began to write. My parents were in Lior...
The next morning, he walked Laurie to school.
It made him late—her school started well after his did anyway—but he had a note tucked in his pocket to give to the teacher. Not that Mr. Centine would have likely given him grief over it, once he explained, but it was nice to have that crackling little gesture of concern riding with him. The change of routine was nice; walking his bike through the cool morning air, listening to Laurie's happy chatter and giving her the right answers when she pestered him for one.
It all felt so... normal. A good life. A life anyone would be grateful for, would envy. Why, then, did he feel so... empty? Ungrounded?
He dropped her off at her school building, three-story brick with too many windows, and turned his bike down the smooth-paved street towards his own school. The wind picked up a few dead leaves, skittering them over the stones. He left the schoolhouse behind, and the noise of the shouting, laughing children died away behind him. Nobody else was on the streets; all his classmates were already at school, the classroom bell must have rung.
His mind wasn't on school, though. Instead he was thinking about the Andenfeld library—technically attached to the high school, but sponsored by some retired general to serve the whole town. He could go there today, after school—look up Lior, there would surely be—
He stopped dead, nearly thrown from his bike as he hit the brakes hard.
The school was just ahead, at the end of the next block. Between him and it stood the stranger, the ex-prisoner. There was nobody on the street but the two of them.
For a moment Chris stood frozen, heart lumping in his chest. The first time he'd seen this man, his shabby coat and lined face had inspired curiosity, maybe some sympathy. Now—knowing what he knew—he only wished that someone else was around, or that there was some other route he could take to get to the school.
But what did he know, really?
Light-headed, he found himself walking his bike forward, further towards the school. The stranger just watched him, hands in his pockets, not making a move. Chris stopped several feet away, close enough to speak, far enough that he thought he could mount his bike and get away if the man moved suddenly. He cleared his throat. "Hello," he managed after a minute.
The man tilted his head to the side, looking at him gravely, and answered, "Hello."
"Um." He had to clear his throat again. The eyes staring in his direction were an odd color; almost, Chris thought, as yellow as the neighbor's lazy old cat. "Excuse me, but you're in my way."
"Am I?" The man's voice went a little flat, unfathomable. "I'm sorry. Go on, then, I'll try not to block the road."
He looked away, then took a few steps towards the side of the road. There was enough room for him to ride by, if he wanted, to, but—somehow he was unwilling to let it go just like that.
Well—he wasn't really in any hurry. Chris took a deep breath, gripped his bike handles, and turned towards the stranger with a smile. "Let me introduce myself," he said. "My name is—"
"I know what your name is."
That took Chris aback, and his mouth hung open for a minute, not knowing how to take that or how to respond. Before he could gather his wits together, the stranger went on. "That girl," he said, "the one you dropped off at school. Is she your little sister?"
"Yes," Chris said, the answer startled out of him. Had this man been following him? How else would he have seen Laurie?
"Her name was Laurie, wasn't it?"
He didn't answer, this time. The man's gaze sharpened on him. "How old is she now?" he asked.
"That's none of your business," Chris replied, voice tight. "Why are you asking questions about my little sister? What do you want?"
"I—nothing." The stranger dropped his eyes, looking suddenly weary. "She—reminds me of someone I knew a long time ago, that's all."
Caution struggled with curiosity, and for a time, lost. Chris bit his lip, then offered, "Do you have a little sister?" he asked.
For some reason, that made the stranger laugh. It was rusty and dry, and sounded almost painful. "No," the stranger said. "No, I never had a little sister."
Dead end. Chris shifted uneasily. "What are you doing here, anyway?" he blurted out, before he could stop himself.
"Oh," the stranger said vaguely, tilting his head back to look up at the sky. His hair brushed the edge of his collar when he did that, dirty blond against dusty tan. "You might say I'm attending to some old... unfinished business."
"No, that wasn't what I meant," Chris said, and the man shifted his gaze down to blink at him, startled. Chris stared back, eyes hard. "What are you doing out of prison at all?" he asked, and once he'd started, he felt he had to go on, before his courage failed him. He tensed, asking that question, already anticipating that he would have to kick his bike into motion and get away. The expected burst of motion, though, didn't come.
The stranger looked taken aback at his forwardness, no less so surely than Chris himself. "So you've heard something, at least," he said, and he seemed to almost be talking to himself. "I guess everyone's heard about me by now, although I thought the media would have better things to think about."
"They said you were involved in Lior," Chris dared, and the man flinched, as though the word were a physical blow. "Is it true?"
"Ha. They would," the man snorted. He gave Chris an unfathomable, sideways glance. "If you want to know the truth, though, you're looking in the wrong newspaper."
The wrong newspaper? What did he mean by that? "If it is true," he said, grasping onto what he understood, "then what are you doing out?"
"Apparently, it's called parole," he said, softly enough that Chris could barely catch the words. "I'm not the only change the Fuhrer made when he took power, although I was one of the first."
"The Fuhrer?" Chris repeated, shaken. This man, whoever he was, had connections that far up? That important, that—dangerous? It was one thing to hear a rumor that he might have been involved in Lior, and another thing to hear it right from his own lips. Chris swallowed, and asked with a dry mouth, "How did you get the new Fuhrer to owe you a favor?"
One side of the man's mouth turned up in a smile; it didn't seem to be an accustomed expression, judging by the way it turned the lines crooked. "We were both State Alchemists, for a time," he explained, to Chris' shock. He studied the pavement, now, seeming to finding it fascinating. "Apparently he thought that counted for something."
"If you used to be a State Alchemist—if you even know the Fuhrer—" Chris choked out, through a haze of shock and half-grown fear, "—then what could you possibly want in a nowhere town like this?"
The stranger looked up again, his eyes meeting Chris' directly for the first time. There was a look in them that frightened him more profoundly than anything the man had done or said, something—fierce—that seemed, inexplicably, to focus on him. Without even realizing it, he'd begun to back away.
"I, I have to go," he babbled. One shaking foot reached the pedal of his bike, and dug in. "I'm late—"
With a lurching movement, he was away from the man, cycling hard down the street. Even though no footsteps chased him, he didn't dare to slow down; even though he didn't look back, he could feel those eyes watching him until he escaped around the corner.
The library, after school hours. It was one of Chris' favorite places; quiet, soothing, redolent with a faint smell of leather and ink. An open space on the first floor, a long wooden table surrounded by comfortable armchairs, made an excellent meeting space; Chris often came there with Gabe, or some of his other friends, to study.
He'd spent hours and hours here, when he was younger, tutored by the teachers and the librarians. Back then, it hadn't been so much of a choice as a necessity; he'd entered schools years behind all the other students his age, and he'd had to study hard to catch up. Once he had caught up, he was too in the habit of studying to stop. He could spend hours browsing the bookshelves in the back of the first floor, both the fiction and nonfiction alike.
He loved books for the feel of them, the smell, the neat look of black ink on white pages or the venerable feel of crackling old paper. Most of all, he loved books because he could lose himself in them; for a while he could ground himself, following some story or some argument on theory from beginning to end, and when he was done, he'd feel a little less empty inside.
Today, though, he was not looking for a place to study, nor for entertainment. He went up to the second floor, nervously, feeling the empty air press in around him.
Up here was the old General's private collection; students weren't allowed up here, normally, unless doing research directly on a project under the supervision of a teacher. None of the students ever bothered to come up this way, though, and there was no guard posted or even a librarian. Just a dusty velvet rope barring the top of the stairs, which Chris climbed carefully over, terrified of making too much noise.
Apart from him, the library was completely deserted. Still, he found his ears straining for the slightest sound, and his carpet-muffled footsteps sounded far too loud as he searched through the shelves, among the desks, for the one case he was looking for.
"Found it," he whispered at last, kneeling in front of the glass-fronted case. He pulled on the ornate metal handle; it didn't budge. Locked?
Nervously, Chris looked around him; still nobody. He gave the handle a harsh, sudden tug and it gave way, the hinges creaking as the front of the case tipped forward.
With light fingers, Chris leafed quickly through the newspapers, eyes scanning the dates at the top. This case seemed to start from twenty years ago; he moved from row to row, checking the dates as he went, until he finally came to Continental Year 1912. The year of the Lior invasion—and the year that his memories began.
He shook his head sharply, and pulled out the stack of old newspapers. Starting with the headline decrying 900 LOST IN LIOR, he went forward several months to be sure he'd get the right one. Then, with his rustling armful of suspects, he made his way to the little table and chair at the back of the library.
Part of him stayed on a hair-trigger, listening for sounds of any approaching librarian, but the rest of him quickly became absorbed in his new task. This wasn't the first time he'd done research, but never before in a military newspaper. It didn't take him long to figure out the layout they seemed to use, and before long he was able to leaf quickly through the stack, keeping an eye out for the keyword he wanted.
He stopped his hand at the first Trial, then stopped completely, flummoxed. Through everything that had happened, he had never heard the strange man's name, nor had he thought to ask.
A moment's thought, and he carefully set aside his bundle, and tip-toed to the front of the library. Sure enough, there were a few of the later newspapers lying on the table overlooking the balcony; it was only the work of a moment to search through them until he found the right one, the bold-printed notice across the bottom of the front page. He pulled off the front sheet, and took it back with him.
Edward Elric, that was the man's name, and Chris checked the terse description provided. Yes, that seemed to be him. This newspaper, being military, included more details in its bulletin than the civilian newspaper their family read. They listed the man's prisoner number, as well as where he'd been held—Third Prison, in Central—and a summary of his information. Birthplace, birthdate; Chris noted with a distant shock that the man was only twenty-two. From the lines on his face, he would have guessed him to be at least ten years older.
He'd been telling the truth about one thing—he was currently out on parole, his case suddenly up for a re-hearing at the special request of the new-appointed Fuhrer King Mustang. The article included a few pointed comments about that, with a dark hint of special interests at work, but said nothing about on what charges Elric had been brought up in the first place.
He turned back to the old newspapers. Six years back—it gave Chris another unpleasant shock, this time closer to home, to do the math and realize that Elric had been only sixteen at the time of his trial and conviction. Same age as me...
He skipped quickly over the formal details of the trial, only noting with some interest that the whole thing was in a single article; it must have convened and dismissed within the same day. He ignored that; he was only interested in one part of the report.
Forgetting secrecy for the moment, he whispered the words aloud, eyes moving rapidly over the page. "—hereby find Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist, guilty of betraying the trust of state and people, as he has abused the authority and power invested in him as an Alchemist and an officer, in violation of the following crimes: Insubordination and gross insubordination towards higher ranking officers; disobedience of direct orders, resulting in major casualties, as pertains to the Lior maneuver; incompetence in assigned duties, resulting in major casualties, complicity in the death of a senior officer and Alchemist.
"To all these crimes we find no answer, neither to the discovery of illegal human transmutations performed some five years prior and held in secret until this investigation; we also find Edward Elric guilty of the following crimes: illegal human transmutation and murder of mother, illegal human transmutation and murder of brother—"
Voices on the floor below startled Chris out of his half-trance. Horrified, he recognized the voice of two of the librarians, returning from some coffee break. Keeping as quiet as he could, he scrabbled after the rest of the newspapers, shuffling them together in the best order he could. Some of them weren't quite right—May and June ended up somewhere around January—but at least when he was finished the stack looked as it has when he started.
Heart pounding, he tiptoed as quickly as he could to return the newspapers to their case. He shut the glass front, but didn't dare push it into place, lest the librarians hear. Creeping to the top of the stairs, he peeked down to the first floor, and listened; right now, they seemed to be in the office at the back. This would likely be his only chance.
He ran down the stairs as quietly as he could, but his foot snagged on the bottom step and he caught his balance with a thump. The voices in the back office abruptly changed tone, and Chris abandoned stealth for speed, breaking into a run and banging out the library door. He was only grateful that he hadn't tied his bike, out by the road, and made his getaway.
Once the library vanished from his sight, hidden by the other buildings on the street, did Chris let himself relax and slow his pace a little. He began to feel a little foolish, for panicking like he had; while what he'd been doing was against the rules, certainly, it wasn't like he was breaking the law. At most, he would have gotten a scolding, and a call home to his parents.
Still in all, he thought as he turned for home, he was grateful that he wouldn't have to explain to anyone just why he was suddenly so interested in old military criminal records. Especially since it was an interest he, himself, didn't quite understand.
That brought the criminal—Elric—to mind again, and Chris found himself looking hard at the scenery he passed, hunching and ducking down a little towards his handlebars as if it would help him pass unnoticed. The thought that Elric might be hanging around, watching him like yesterday, was just too creepy to contemplate. The more he learned about this man, the more dangerous he seemed.
He had to think about this some more, and he wished he hadn't bolted out of the library like that; there were some things he wanted to research. The date of the trial still nagged at him. He was no lawyer, but he was pretty certain that it was unusual for any judicial case to convene and dismiss so quickly. Military justice tended to be brisker, if only because the case was decided by a court of officers and not a court of civilians, but there were still an unholy amount of technicalities to work through.
And then there was the matter of his pardon, so suddenly on the heels of the new Fuhrer's appointment. Something else had to be going on there; he just wished he had some idea of what. A cover-up? For what? A more serious crime? He could hardly imagine one more serious than the charges which had been piled up against him, like weights on a chain.
The only one that came to mind was treason, but he didn't see, if that was the case, why they hadn't just executed him and gotten it over with. The Fuhrer's influence? Some State Alchemist matter? He wished he knew more about the subject, but there were no books on alchemy in Andenfeld.
The breeze picked up as he approached the house, a stiff, cold wind that blew Chris' hair in his eyes and dead leaves into the spokes of his wheel. Overhead, the sky was still blue and clear, but when Chris looked over there was a dark smudge at the horizon; the wind was blowing in some bad weather, it looked like.
He turned onto his home street, and nearly crashed his bike with startlement. His mother, his father, and Laurie were all crowded out on the front lawn, talking with someone; Chris recognized Officer Murka, one of the patrolmen who watched over his neighborhood. Their front door was hanging wide open.
After nearly crashing a second time, Chris stopped himself and climbed off his bike, walking it the rest of the way. "Dad?" he called out as he got near. "Mom?"
"Brother!" Laurie cried, and launched herself at his midsection. He caught her as her arms wrapped tightly around his stomach, and looked up at his parents, bewildered.
"Chris!" His mother looked like she might burst into tears with dismayed relief. "Thank God you're safe! Where were you?"
"I, I was at the library," he stammered out. "Dad, what happened?"
His father's face was thunderous, more ominous than the still-distant clouds. "Somebody broke into our house," he said shortly.
"What?" He looked from his father to Officer Murka, bewildered. "When, how? What'd they take?"
"This afternoon," the police officer replied, stepping forward. "While your mother stepped out with little Laurie to do the shopping, it looks like. Lucky they weren't home when the thief forced his way in."
"How did he get in? Did he break a window?" Chris asked. He pulled Laurie's arms from around him with some difficulty, then stooped a little to pick her up. She wrapped her arms around his neck instead, willingly enough, and he buried one hand in her curls, taking comfort in her safety.
The policeman shook his head. "I don't quite understand, myself," he said. "You can take a look at it, but don't touch. Somehow, he forced the lock off the door, but I've never seen anything like it. My best guess is that it was somehow melted off, but there's no sign of scorching—"
"Then how'd it happen?" his father barked. Chris inched forward, bending in to examine the lock as the officer turned away.
—illegal transmutation of—
Chris straightened up again, trying to hide the shaking, and backed quickly away. He'd never seen it himself, so he couldn't speak his suspicion aloud; but there was only one way he knew of to force a lock that cleanly and easily. It could only be done by an alchemist.
But there aren't any Alchemists in Andenfeld...
No—there was one.
The adults were still talking, his father railing about thieves while his mother catalogued aloud all the things that could have been stolen. The policeman looked increasingly grim. "Mister Abert, if it's all right with you, I'd like to use your phone," he said. "There's something I'll need to confirm."
"Of course," his father said immediately. "But what about us? Is it safe to go into our house?"
"It should be, sir. The thief would have to be a fool to linger. Just to be safe, though, I'll check the place out before I place my call. While I'm using the phone, please check your belongings to find out what might have been stolen; but don't touch or move anything until the detectives arrive."
With Murka leading the way, his parents hesitantly went back into the house. Chris, carrying Laurie, trailed behind. He felt a sinking sensation, as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach, and Laurie's weight almost made his knees buckle.
Even after Murka reported the house completely empty, and gone to make his call, Laurie was reluctant to leave Chris' side. At her request, he stayed close by as she ventured into her room, gravely assuring her that he was both willing and able to "kick the teeth out" of any intruders.
He hadn't expected anything to really be out of place—after all, what would a thief and and alchemist want with a little girl's books and toys? So it was a frightening moment when Laurie turned to him and said, far too calmly, "Someone's been in my room, Brother."
He grabbed her hand. "How do you know, Laurie?" he managed, sounding almost as calm. "It looks like everything's here."
"Nothing's missing," she said, with a slight tremble in her lip. She pointed to her dresser, to the row of stuffed animals parading across the back. "But somebody moved my stuff and didn't put it back. See, Cliffy and Ralph are in the wrong places." She picked up the stuffed horse, lying on the edge of the dresser, to show him.
"Oh." Chris felt dizzy, with the revelation. His first thought, that Laurie was just nervous and mistaken, was just wishful thinking; Laurie always knew exactly where she'd left any of her toys. But the alternative, that an ex-convict and alchemist would break into their house, go into Laurie's room and pick up a stuffed toy, only to put it back again, was just too bizarre to contemplate. "Laurie, I think you should put that back where it was when you came in, and then we should go tell Officer Murka, okay?"
"Okay," she gulped. As soon as her other hand was free, she grabbed onto his with both hands, and they headed back out to the rest of the house.
His parents were just emerging from the kitchen, a baffled look on his father's face. "Nothing's missing," he said. "I can't make it out. The radio, the silverware, your mother's jewelry—everything's just as it should be."
"Not everything," Chris told them, and looked down at his sister. "He was in Laurie's room, and moved some of her stuff."
His mother gasped, but before they could respond more, the policeman hung up the phone and joined their conversation. He looked more grim than ever. "It's not good news, I'm afraid," he said. "Our boy didn't come home last night—he's missed the last two checks with his parole officers within the last 24 hours. They're searching for him now, but there's no sign of him. It's quite likely he's the one who broke into your house today."
"What do you mean, they can't find him?" his father exclaimed. "This is an outrage! How can they let a dangerous criminal wander around freely like that?"
Officer Murka fiddled with the brim of his hat, brow knotted slightly. "Mister Abert, they're doing all they can to get hold of him," he told him. "He can't have gone far, and he's broken parole. Once they do find him, he'll be on his way back to the prison in Central."
"I should hope so!"
"Have you checked all the rooms in the house?" Murka asked, directing the question at the rest of the family.
Chris looked at Laurie, then up at his mother. "I looked in all the downstairs rooms," she said, fluttering her hands nervously. "Chris?"
"I didn't look in my room yet," he said, "but what would he want from there?"
"Who knows what this maniac wants?" his father said, still fuming. "Chris, go look in your room."
"All right, already." With some regret, he let go of Laurie's hand, and climbed the stairs to his room. Nervous excitement tingled in his hands, as it had been since he first rounded the corner and saw the police in front of his house.
This is stupid, he thought. There's no reason Elric would have singled me out of everyone. But would it be any better if it were Laurie he was after?
When he did open the door, it felt like his stomach abruptly hit bottom. His bookshelves were in complete disarray, their contents scattered over his bed and floor. He stared, trying to make sense of the mess. He must have yelped, or made some noise, because his mother called out in concern, "Chris? What is it?"
He didn't answer. He couldn't. He couldn't think of a single good reason why the thief would want to raid his books, and the half a dozen bad ones that came to mind were too ridiculous to entertain. He couldn't help but notice, though, that the books weren't just thrown on the floor. All the books were closed and intact, piled haphazardly on top of one another; obviously each one had been handled, then discarded. But why would he be looking for—
A sinking sensation overtook him, and he strode over to his dresser and yanked open the drawer there. Empty. Gone. His dream diary, the one full of his hopes and fears and made-up lies, was the only thing in the room—in the whole house?—that was gone.
Numbly, like a sleepwalker, he turned and walked out of his room, leaning against the stair banister. What was he supposed to tell them? They wouldn't understand the significance of this one book, nothing more than a diary for recording dreams. How could he explain what it really was without exposing his secrets, spilling out their disappointments?
"Chris?" His mother stood at the foot of the stairs, face a white blur turned anxiously towards him. He took a deep breath.
"All my books are on the floor," he said. "I haven't checked, but I think they're all—"
He stopped. His mother picked up, "They're all there? Nothing's gone?"
He looked down at her. "No," he said at last. "Nothing's gone."
The rest of the day was a blur to him, barely reacting to anyone else, body going through the motions of normal life. There was dinner, barely tasted, and then noise and commotion as some men came over to fix the lock on the door. For all the good that would do, Chris observed detachedly. It was obvious the lock would hardly slow Elric down, if he was determined to get in.
Chris thought he might work up some good anger for the man, if he could get past the shock dulling his senses. Stupid, he thought with an effort. There was no reason why the loss of a book, especially a book filled with silly daydreams, should be so devastating. If anything, he ought to be angry, or embarrassed at the thought of some stranger poring over his secret fantasy life. But all he could really manage was a sense of loss.
He hadn't thought about the missing pieces for a while now; managed to mostly forget their absence. Now, it was like the hole had been ripped inside him all over again.
Why? What did Elric want from them? From him?
He didn't particularly care, other than feeling an ache of frustration. It wasn't his business to play amateur detective, anyway. He devoutly wished he hadn't gone to the library today; it had seemed exciting and adventurous at the time, but if only he'd been home, then maybe he could have kept the theft from happening. Maybe. Or maybe Elric would have just killed him to get him out of the way.
...transmutation and murder of mother. The phrase kept looping through his head. He wished he'd never touched those damn newspapers. Transmutation and murder of brother...
The next day there was no school. Normally, this would be a time to gather with his friends; to hang out in the park or the library and play games or just talk. Chris sat by the window, watching the storm clouds roll in, and sighed; nobody would be going out today.
Almost nobody. His parents were standing by the entrance, putting on their coats. "Remember," his mother said for the fourth time, "Don't open the door for anybody. If someone tries to force their way in, call the police; do you remember the number?"
"Yes, mother," he and his sister chorused obediently. Laurie added, plaintively, "Do you have to go out?"
"Damn straight we do," his father said grimly. "The police are useless. The military garrison is worse—bah, that's if they're not actively helping him! He used to be one of theirs, after all. No, it's up to us in the neighborhood to decide what needs to be done about this criminal."
"We'll be back before dark," his mother assured them. "The police have sent a patrol car, it comes around this block every fifteen minutes, so you should be fine."
"Hah! They can spare a car to patrol the area and look impressive..." His father trailed off into grumbling, buttoning up his coat. The front door open, blowing in a gust of cold air, and out they went.
Laurie watched them go, hand pressed flat against the front window. "Brother, do you think they'll be okay?" she asked, anxiously.
Chris sighed, and ruffled her curls affectionately. "Probably," he said. "Dad's big and strong, after all. Nobody smart would go after him. Besides, this guy hasn't hurt anyone yet, has he?"
—transmutation and murder—
Laurie's face scrunched up, and she made a doubtful noise, but didn't argue.
He wasn't in the mood to argue. He wanted to brood. The missing diary preyed on his mind; it was a small thing, in absolute terms, but it carried so much emotional weight that without it, he felt adrift, unanchored. He shouldn't feel that way, he knew, but he did; they might be fake, but they were the only memories he had.
He sat down on the sofa, staring out the window at the lowering overcast. Why was that? All his Doctors seemed convinced that his memories were just suppressed; only buried, never lost. That memories could never truly be lost, only hidden, and with careful work, recovered again.
Six years of doctors and dream diaries and hypnosis and he'd yet to recover one single scrap of memory. What if there was nothing to recover? If every human being had memories, and no human memory was ever truly lost, then what did that say about him?
The orphanage doctor had said that it wasn't unheard of for people to lose their memories after some traumatic event; but she hadn't been able to find any injury on his body—anywhere—that might account for it. No scars, no bruises, no hidden illnesses in his blood, nothing that would explain it. Nothing at all, in fact; none of the tiny little scars and deformations that other kids his age had, the sort of things that a child collected growing up.
He rolled onto his elbows, and stared down at his hands. Unless he'd never been a child. It was a ridiculous thought, but no less a terrifying one. Was he even really human at all?
The bang of the door startled him out of his thoughts, and he jerked upright on the sofa. It was Laurie; she was holding the doorknob with one hand while she struggled into her rain boots with the other. "Laurie, what are you doing?" he said.
She looked over her shoulder at him, and as he came off the couch, he saw the leashes she tugged along with her. "Pins and Needles have to go out," she said, stomping into her boots. "Mommy didn't take them out before they left, so they have to go to the bathroom."
"We're not supposed to go out," he reminded her, but he got up anyway.
"I'm not going out, I'm just going to the yard. It's got a fence." She scrambled through the door, the puppies excitedly leading the way. "I won't go out of sight of the window, I promise."
"Laurie—" He gave up on speech and just followed after her, grabbing his jacket and tugging it on as he stepped outside. It wasn't raining yet, but given the way the wind drove the cold air ahead of it, that was only a matter of time. He left the front door open behind him, sitting on the front porch as he watched the girl and the puppies nose about the yard.
He glanced over at the street; the patrol car his mother had mentioned should be coming around soon. He was just about to call Laurie back, puppy bathroom or no bathroom, when both the dogs suddenly began barking excitedly and straining at the leashes, faces pointed off to the back of the lot behind the fence.
"Pins! Needles! Come back here!" he called, standing up quickly, but he didn't think his voice carried over the wind. The excitable dogs ignored him, pulling hard against Laurie's hold on them.
The little girl lost her grip, stumbling, and one of the puppies yanked the leash out of her hand and went bounding forward. He paused for a minute at the fence—five feet high, Chris could just see over it to the back lot—then gathered his legs under him and leaped over it.
"Pins!" Laurie shrieked, and went scrabbling along the fence for the gate. "Wait, Pins!"
"Laurie, no! Get back here!" Chris yelled; when had the wind gotten so loud? A few drops or rain splattered on the porch around him.
Either she didn't hear him, or she was too frightened for her puppy to listen; either way, she fumbled along the gate catch until she could swing open the gate, and went running after the lost puppy.
"Laurie, no!" He wavered for a moment on the porch, casting an indecisive glance at the road; then, slamming one hand into the doorframe in frustration, he took off after her. He could take care of himself, but he had to protect his little sister; had to protect her from anything that might seek to harm her, stray dogs or bullies or strange men with cat-yellow eyes. That's what older brothers did, damn it.
The gate creaked and clattered behind him; at least the wind wasn't so loud. He glanced from side to side, but didn't immediately spot his sister in the overcast gloom. He heard the sound of a dog barking, though, off to his left, and followed it, whistling as he went.
Crashing through a hedge, he found himself in a neighbor's yard, the house dark and unoccupied. He whistled again, and was rewarded with a rustling in the brush, not too far away. "Here, boy!" he called, starting towards the noise. "Pins, come here!"
A familiar bark answered him, and as he got closer, he spotted the familiar form of Pins under the bush. He didn't come, though, and after a minute Chris saw why; he'd gotten his free-dangling leash caught in the branches. Chris sighed, and started forward to retrieve him. A light was beginning to grow over the hedge, though he wasn't sure of its source. "Silly dog. Where'd Laurie go?"
All at once, something crashed into him from behind. It didn't hurt—at least, he didn't feel it hurt—but it knocked the wind out of him, and he found himself on his stomach in the brush, with something heavy lying on top of him. The light in his eyes grew nearly blinding, and he blinked through tears to suddenly identify the headlights of a car, just turning onto the road ahead of him—out of sight, now, through the low brush.
He struggled to get up, go and find them, tell him about his sister, but only succeeded in crashing around. It wasn't until he opened his mouth to call that he realized there was a hard hand clamped over the lower half of his face.
"Be quiet," a voice hissed in his ear.
Chris froze—not so much in compliance as in sheer terror. The bright light seemed to crawl in his eyes, and thoughts bounced around inside his head until he couldn't make sense of them. The criminal, that was Elric's voice, that was Elric on top of him, harsh breathing hitting the side of his neck, and that was the patrol car ahead of him, making their round of the block, that light was so bright, didn't they see them?
It seemed not; the headlights crawled past, then abruptly faded, and the car was out of sight around the bend of the road. Elric hissed a curse, too indistinct to make out even at this close range, then sat up, cautiously raising his head. His weight still pressed Chris into the ground, a heavy, angry heat in contrast to the cold wet of the dirt. His hand over Chris' mouth was making it hard to breathe, and he struggled to get up on one elbow, get the leverage to push him away.
"All right, the coast is clear," Elric said, loosening his hold. Chris took a grateful breath, and then filled his lungs to yell, but a hard hand instead locked around his elbow and yanked him to his feet with such speed that he lost the breath he'd been gathering. He stumbled, trying to find his feet on uneven ground.
From somewhere to his left, he heard a puppy whining, a rising intonation that he knew was leading up to a bark. "They'll hear him," Elric muttered, and yanked sharply on Chris' arm again. He set off through the dark brush at a fast pace, dragging Chris behind him; he didn't seem to have any trouble with his footing in the dimness, Chris noticed in a flash of indignation.
They passed in an unreal daze through three lots, before Chris recovered his wits. What was he doing, going calmly along with this man like a lamb to the slaughter? He began to struggle, digging in his heels and dragging against the older man's unyielding grip. "Let me go, you bastard!" he cried, saying the word with real feeling for the first time in living memory. "What do you want with me? Let go!"
Elric jerked around, pulled to a stop by Chris' sudden resistance, and faced him for the first time. Chris found himself transfixed by those cat-yellow eyes, like a mouse under the gaze of a snake. He looked, for a moment, like he was going to say something, but in the end could not find the words; his shoulders slumped under the ratty coat, and he shook his head, and began pulling Chris along.
Sick of being treated like a piece of luggage, Chris dug in his heels again. He twisted in Elric's grasp, pulling hard against the juncture of thumb and fingers until he managed to yank free. They stumbled a few steps apart, recovering from the movement, and for a fleeting moment Chris thought of running. But the memory of a heavy weight knocking him down from behind, pinning him to the ground, was still too strong; he wouldn't get far if he tried. And even if he did, what would Elric do then—would he turn his attention to the other sibling, to Laurie?
Instead he put his fists up, backing away from Elric without taking his eyes off the man. "I won't make this easy for you," he said, making his shaky voice as firm as he possibly could. He was strong for his age; he knew he was in shape, and nobody could keep him down in a tussle for long. He could, at the least, make a lot of trouble for Elric, too much to drag him anywhere. "I'll fight you!"
"You really want to?" A strange expression took over Elric's face, one that sent a warning chill down Chris' spine. "Fine, then."
Elric moved, almost faster than Chris' eyes could follow—he lurched forward, trying to connect with his fist, but the older man twisted to one side of the blow, catching it effortlessly on one arm and deflecting the force. His arm turned easily and caught Chris' wrist, and then suddenly he was behind him, twisting Chris' arm behind his back.
Chris panicked, nearly breaking his arm in an attempt to break forward; he couldn't dislodge Elric's hold on his arm, though, and the older man easily popped Chris' knees, sending him sprawling almost onto his face in the dirt. Chris had to catch himself with one hand, and felt a heavy weight nearly fall on his back, easily and solidly pinning him down.
"You have no idea how long I've been waiting to do that," Elric told him; through the blood thundering in his ears, Chris thought that he didn't even sound winded.
For a moment longer he struggled, pulling at his captured arm and trying to push himself up, but there was no give in the hold on his arm. "Get off of me," he said again, fighting back a haze of tears. "Let go, murderer!"
Elric went completely still above him, and Chris caught his breath, afraid that he might have pushed him too far. If this was a man who could cold-bloodedly use his own family members as experiments—and then callously murder them afterwards—how difficult would it be for him to murder Chris, too? Or was he safe until Elric got what he wanted? What did he want, anyway?
"You won't get away with this," he said, tentatively. "Everyone's on the lookout for you. You'll be caught before long anyway, and if you hurt me, you'll get in even more trouble."
"I don't want to hurt you." Without any warning, the weight abruptly lifted from his back, and then he found himself hauled to his feet. The hand stayed tightly closed around his wrist, though, and another hard grip encircled Chris' left elbow. "Let's go."
Chris found himself steered helplessly forward, caught in that unyielding grip. He had a new appreciation for the man's iron strength, now, and had a fearful suspicion that further struggle—or flight—would get him nowhere. The best he could do was to drag his feet as much as possible, to slow them down and to leave a clear trail for... for whoever would find it and follow it. Surely someone would—after all, weren't all the police on the lookout for this man? It couldn't take them that long to find him, trace them to wherever they were going.
"Wherever" turned out to be the park, to Chris' confusion. In the corner of the park away from the public roads, set out of sight from passersby, stood the caretaker's shed; the storage place for all the tools to maintain the park through the seasons. Elric dragged them into the shed, and released Chris to stumble in the dark, before slamming the door shut behind them, cutting out the sound of the wind.
Before Chris could grope through the dark to find a wall, much less an exit, there was a flare of light, and he turned to see Elric setting a light in a glass globe on the wall. A gas light, he recognized it, but what was it doing out here? Surely this shack wouldn't be equipped with a line for advanced lighting—
His train of thought chopped off, suddenly, as the light grew to illuminate the room. He'd never been into the shed before, but there was more than any ordinary gardener's tools in here. The center of the room had been carefully cleared, all the junk pushed back and piled against the walls.
Among the clutter of tools and seeds were items Chris didn't recognize at all, and their very alienness sent a cold ache through his chest. He'd never seen them, but he'd heard them described, in chemistry textbooks and—a few places—in his history books. Stills and burners, huge unfamiliar books, compass and plumb and chalk. Alchemical paraphernalia. That explained the gas light, anyway—
Dominating the center of the room was a large circle inscribed on the floor in chalk. It was a double line, filled in with angles and runes and symbols that he couldn't even guess the meanings of. A smaller circle sat at the center of the ring, and in the small circle sat a chair.
—transmutation and murder—
He did not like this. He did not like this at all.
"Do you recognize anything?" A voice came from behind him, filtering in through ears almost too numb to recognize the words. He didn't turn around; a creeping chill was working its way outward through his limbs, and his legs had enough trouble just holding him up, even without moving.
Elric walked around him, stopping at the edge of the circle to survey its contents, then turning back to Chris. "You shouldn't," he said, when Chris didn't answer. "I made sure of that."
"Wh—what—" Run away, the rational part of his brain still cried. Run for the door, you're closer to it than he is; knock the light out, that will slow him down. Pick up the chair and hit him with it, rub out the chalk lines, anything, don't just stand there, don't just stand there...
Elric stepped closer, and his face was like a mask. His voice had gone as quiet, now, as that conversation yesterday—only yesterday?—in the sunshine of the street. "I made sure of that when I made you," he said, softly, but the words hit Chris like hammers.
"You—made me?" he whispered, though his tongue felt like a block of wood in his mouth. Everything was crashing down on him, and he wanted to walk away from this, he wanted to run, but he couldn't make himself move, any more than he could stop the shaking.
"Six years ago," Elric said softly, and his eyes slid away, back to study the lines of chalk. "But I made you incomplete."
A pair of hands were on him, pushing him—not roughly, but firmly—into the circle. One step, then two, and the chair hit his legs and he fell into it, as collapsed as a puppet with its strings cut. A strange light was beginning to suffuse his vision, something silver-blue to the dusty gold of the lamp light.
A voice was saying something to him, from somewhere far-off, but he couldn't listen to it. The light grew brighter, almost painfully so, and he closed his eyes against it.
Everything went to white.
...morning and he doesn't want to wake up, he's warm and cozy but the sun comes in at just the right angle to light up the room and there's the smell of cooking oatmeal, a warm shadow that bends over him and shakes his shoulder, "Wake up..."—mother?—...mother's washing the dishes and singing, brown hair tumbling in a braid down her back, and he wants something but doesn't want to ask her...
...tears in his eyes because his hand hurts, and mother takes it gently and kisses it better, smiles and says "Don't cry, Alphonse."—Alphonse, that was his name—not Christopher (not my name!) but Alphonse—...puts his head in his arms and cries, and cries, because the doctor said mother is sick and never going to get better...
...holds the book carefully because it's important, it's Father's, even if he can't remember what Father looked like he likes to look at the name on the inside cover: El-ric...—Elric, he remembered now, he remembered everything, his head—...sitting by the river hugging his knees, with bruises that sting but the sunset on the water helps...—was filled to bursting, the new images came pouring in so fast—...sitting by the river and he doesn't feel anything at all, but the sunset on the water helps...
...there's a kitten and it likes him, but Mother says no...—not new, not new at all, because he knew them—...there's a kitten and it's cold and wet, he picks it up carefully and puts it inside him (inside? how?) and hopes it won't make too much noise...—they are his, they are him, Alphonse Elric, the past he'd been missing, ten years—...an island and he's hungry, so hungry he can hardly feel his stomach any more...
...on a train and everyone's staring at him, he tries to make himself small, but it's impossible...—no, fifteen years, that was right, ten years as a child and five as—...on the roof of the hospital and he wants so bad to cry, but he can't, can't cry, can't move, can't do anything but sit and watch the clouds go by...—as a living suit of armor, a miracle, a walking sin, an act of desperation—...morning and Winry is staring at him with huge eyes, poking and prodding, and he doesn't blame her, he must look so strange...
...Fullmetal Alchemist, somebody says, but they're mistaken, it's not him, it's...
...waking up to darkness and choking smoke, and his body feels so strange, and the floor is spattered with blood, but not his, there's nothing left of his body...—that nobody thought was possible, to affix a living soul to an inanimate object with alchemy—...the study full of books, all over the floor, and he's lying on his stomach reading aloud from one, working out a problem with...—alchemy he studied all his life, worked to bring back Mother, worked—- ...the river is overflowing, the village is in trouble, so he takes his copy of the array and follows...
....I'm hungry, I'm cold, let's go home...
...running up the hill laughing, his arms full of groceries, racing his—to save his life—his mother rocks him, huge and blurry and warm, whispers "This is Alphonse," and holds him out to—it was something he could never have done—endless train rides, rocking and swaying motions, the scenery is all the same, he wishes he could sleep like —would never have been able to do—men have them surrounded, but he's not worried; they're not even alchemists, they're no match for him and his —something only his brother could do—
...standing in the alley in front of the stain of blood, and his brother is crying, and he only wishes he could too...
—the one who loves him—
...sunset on the river, footsteps behind him on the bank and he's there...
—fights for him—
...mother is dying and he cries, and then there are small chubby arms around his shoulders and he's there...
—looks out for him—
...so cold on the island at night, but he turns over on the leaves and he's there...
—the one who is always there, his—
...lonely on the roof of the hospital, the door scrapes open and he's there...
—older brother only brother friend companion protector—
...he's helpless on the ground and the killer walks away, towards his brother and he isn't running, why isn't he running, why won't he save himself?...
...running through the rain to Winry's with a body in his arms so small, water dripping down his metal face like tears, praying with everything he has that his brother will live...
"Do you hate me?"
...another night awake, watching his brother in the next bed, tossing and turning and murmuring in his sleep, loving him so much that if anything were to happen to him, he'd surely die...
The light died; it was silent again. Slowly, Al opened his eyes—they felt strange, almost numb, as though they didn't want to feed him any more sensation. It was the same for the rest of him, he noticed distantly; a tingling numbness, although it was already fading, as things settled into place again.
And there he was, not five feet away, head bowed and hands planted; Edward Elric, his crazy, reckless, stupid older brother. Al twitched his lips, had to swallow to moisten his mouth enough for speech. Even then, his voice was distant, flat in his own ringing ears. "What did you do?"
Ed sat back on his heels, still looking down at the floor, and brushed off his dusty hands on his coat. It left smears of chalk behind. "Memories are nothing but information," he said, in that soft tone that was at once familiar and alien. Familiar, because he'd heard it more than once over the last few days, and alien, because this was Ed, this was Ed, and he didn't talk like that, quiet and timid and deferential—
"Like any other information, it can be written," Ed continued. "Or it can be erased, or it can be copied, and stored. When I built that body six years ago, I chose not to write that information. I kept it with me, instead, to keep it safe. To keep you safe. But there you have it. It's done now."
He trailed off, still staring at the floor. Al pushed himself out of the chair, unsteadily, and tested his balance for a minute. Good enough; it would do. He could at least feel his legs enough to take the few steps to the edge of the circle. He found himself staring down at the top of his brother's head, and felt a moment of near-nausea; this view, at least, was familiar. "Why?" he said at last.
Ed looked up at him, eyes widening in shock. "Why? Isn't it obvious? To protect you, Al. Without your memories, you were anonymous, safe. They would have no reason to go after you. I did it to keep you sa—"
Al punched him in the jaw.
"You moron!" he shouted, clenching his aching right fist. It had been a while, and Ed's head was hard. His arm was shaking from the effort of the swing, and he felt it traveling up through his shoulder, infecting the rest of him. "You, you blithering fool! Inconsiderate idiot! How could you even think of doing something like this without my consent?"
Ed pushed himself up on his elbow, from where Al's punch had sent him sprawling. He shook his head, as if to clear it, and reached up to gingerly feel his aching jaw. "You would rather have stayed the way you were, wouldn't you?" he mumbled, still avoiding Al's eyes. "You looked so peaceful, so happy, I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to remind you of everything that happened... give you all that pain... but when I read your diary, I thought—"
"That's not what I'm talking about at all!" Al grabbed Ed's shoulders, forcing his startled brother to meet his eyes. "Why did you decide on such a stupid plan without asking me? Maybe I didn't want to be kept safe this way! You didn't even stop to think about what I wanted!"
"Al, you... it was the only way," Ed faltered. "I had to make it look like you were dead, or else they would have brought you into their labs to dissect you! Not just one, but two transmutations—you would have become their lab rat, Al!"
"So you thought it was better to become my scapegoat?!" Al felt tears building behind his eyes, and fought to keep them back. If he got started now, he wasn't sure he'd ever stop. "Or maybe you just knew that if I remembered anything at all, if I had any idea of who I was and who you were, there was no way you could have kept me from your side when they came to arrest you!"
Ed wouldn't meet his eyes, jaw working. That was fine; Al didn't need an answer. His brother was too predictable sometimes. He had to let go of Ed's shoulders in order to press his hands against his eyes. "You idiot," he whispered again, and let his knees give out, slumping to kneel on the floor.
He felt a tentative grip on his arm, and looked up to see Ed's blurry, worried face through his tears. "Are you all right?" he asked cautiously, voice anxious. "I thought—I had everything worked out perfectly—there should be no side effects, are there?"
"No. I'm fine." Fine, that was, except that his head was so stuffed full of new memories, it ached constantly, leaving his vision fuzzy and his ears ringing. Fine except that the cold and empty place in his heart had been filled, so suddenly and violently, that he felt stretched and full near to bursting.
Fine except that as everything jostled for space inside his head, crashing around as the old memories and the new ones fell into place, he was suddenly sick at his own appalling ignorance. While he'd lived a normal life in Andenfeld—believing himself to be an ordinary young boy, brooding incessantly over the mystery of his missing past—Edward had stood in the fire for his sake.
To keep him ignorant, and safe, and happy, Edward had let them catch him, convict him, and imprison him, going willingly along with the farce that the military called justice—Al sat bolt upright as something occurred to him. "How did they find out about the transmutations we performed, Brother?" he exclaimed. "I mean, obviously they knew, but where did they find the evidence? Surely even they couldn't make the charges stick without something—"
"Mustang testified." Ed was back to avoiding Al's eyes, and he felt another surge of sick fury when he wondered who had taught his brother to do that. "He didn't have a choice, Al. It was him or me, and they'd get me anyway. Besides, he kept his promise, even though I didn't expect him to. As soon as he had the power, he got me out."
"That son of a bitch." He sat back and wiped his cheeks of tears. Although the words were said without heat, Al had never felt them more sincerely in his living memory.
Speaking of memory, as his own from this evening caught up with him—"You have to run!" Al grabbed at his brother's arm in a panic. "They're looking for you, you broke your parole, you broke into my parents' house—what the hell were you thinking, anyway—"
"I know." Ed took hold of his wrist, and smiled at Al, tired and sad. "But it's okay. I finished what I had to do. I don't care what happens next."
"Well, I care!" Al snapped, but his mind was racing. So much more new information, so many things to think about... one thing, at least, required no thought. "I'm coming back with you."
"What?" That shocked Ed out of his determined resignation. "Are you nuts? Your family—they're probably going to put me back in prison, Mustang or—everybody thinks you're dead, Al!"
"Yes, and they're blaming you for my murder!" Al glared at him. "Since I'm not even dead, that's unforgivable. And as for—for the other charge," he said, faltering, "I'm as much to blame for it as you are. If they punish you for it, they'll punish me too."
"I don't want you to be involved!" Ed said sharply. He pushed back away from Al, shaking off his hands. "You're staying where it's safe, with your family, and that's final!"
"No, I am not!" Al surged forward, grabbing hold of Ed's shoulders again. "I'll miss my parents and Laurie, it's true, but they're not my real family. You are, Edward, and there is absolutely no way I am going to let you separate us ever again! Do you hear me? You'll have to knock me out and tie me up to keep me from following you, and even then I'll come as soon as I wake up, unless you take away my memories again!"
Ed just stared at him, shocked out of resistance. Al stared intently into his face, memorizing the new lines, the new thinness of flesh over bones, and it only fueled his new determination. "I've been cold inside, Brother, here—" he reached to touch Ed's chest, above his heart—"for six years, and I didn't know why. I always knew something was missing, but I didn't know what.
"I thought it was my memories, my past, but it wasn't just that. Memories are only information—you have it or you don't, you don't feel the lack. I was missing you, Brother. You're a part of my spirit, and when you're gone, I feel it, I miss you without even knowing why."
He was crying again—it was as hard to stop as he feared it would be—and couldn't see what expression was on Ed's face. Nor did he really care. He slid his hand along the rough cloth of Ed's dirty coat until he could lean forward and hug his brother fiercely, burying his face in his shoulder. He could feel Ed's arm—still steel, still cold hard automail—trapped between his chest and Ed's, but he didn't mind at all. He was only glad when, a minute later, Ed's left arm slid tentatively over his back, carefully returning the embrace. He felt Ed's chest shudder a sigh of relief, and suddenly he was clinging to Al just as fiercely as Al was clinging to him.
The hotel room was narrow, shabby, and not entirely clean—but it was cheap. With the money his parents had insisted on giving him, before he left, Al could have stayed at a nicer place—but he wanted to be careful with that money, with no idea how long he would have to make it last. He'd saved some money by choosing only one bed, instead of two half-sizes, and at least there would be running water in their bathroom.
Ed didn't complain, nor did he have any money to help pay the bill. Thinking of the shabby gardening shack from the park, Al rather suspected it had been a while since Ed had slept in a real bed at all. Three days, at least, and possibly more. And that was a reminder...
"I've been wondering, Brother," Al said, hefting his suitcase up onto the small dresser and flipping open the locks. "What happened to your parole officer?"
"Damn, it's good to get off my feet," Ed groaned, plopping down on the bed; then he squinted up at Al. "What was that?"
"You said you were on parole, but you broke it. You stopped checking in," Al said. "Where did your parole officer go? I'm surprised he didn't stop you from traveling with me."
"Oh," Ed said, and turned a dull red. "Sergeant Harp. I, er, expect we'll see him again when we get back to Central. I kind of, uh, mentioned that I would be returning there, without saying when or how."
Al sighed, and shook his head. "You can't just go around ducking the rules like that," he grumbled. "Not when you're already in so much trouble. I'm sure what you said is true and Mustang will support you, and if so, the re-trial will go in your favor... but it won't look good for you or him if you do things like this."
Ed's mouth twisted up in a smile. "Al, when did you turn into a lawyer?" he said, amused.
Al turned a dull red. "N—I'm not!" he said indignantly. "I've read a lot about contemporary military law, that's all. There was a whole section back in the library—it was fascinating."
He turned to face his brother, expression serious. "It's tricky, but the law's on your side, Brother," he said earnestly. "Half of the crimes held against you are falsified, and the other half took place when you were a minor. You never should have been charged with them in the first place, if they'd given you a decent trial instead of a mockery of justice!"
Ed just looked down at his hands, resting in his lap, and Al sighed, getting up to unpack their meager suitcase. "This time you'll be fine, I swear," he said. "Just so long as the new Fuhrer is halfway to fair—although I can't be sure," he added darkly. "He sure played his part in last time's farce."
Ed blew out a breath, and rubbed the bridge of his nose, then went back to working on his bootlaces. "Al, don't take this out on Mustang. It isn't his fault."
"He testified, Brother," Al returned, voice sharp. "He helped put you in jail. Why shouldn't I be angry?"
"All he did was tell the truth." Ed pulled off one of his boots, and shucked it into the corner. Al scowled and looked away, staring down into the depths of the suitcase.
"He kept silent for as long as he could, but then with Lior... and the Stone..." his brow pinched again. "It got too big. It was taken out of his hands. That's why I had to do what I did to keep you safe, Al. Mustang couldn't protect you any more from the consequences of my actions."
"You mean our actions."
Ed didn't answer. Al got up, crossed in front of him, and snapped his fingers in front of Ed's nose; Ed jerked back, startled. "Ours, Ed, ours. There's this little thing called the first person plural, please try and remember it."
"Yeah, yeah." Ed waved Al away, then used his hand to cover a yawn. "Are you gonna shower, Al? I'm tired."
"Yes, I think I will," Al said, gracefully allowing Ed to change the subject. No point in pressing the question now. "What about you?"
"Eh, I'll shower in the morning." Ed looked up at Al, and flicked a quick smirk at him. "Hope you don't mind sharing the bed with someone who stinks."
Al chuckled a little. "No, I don't really mind," he said. "If it really bothers me, I'll kick you out to go shower."
"You can try. Once my head hits the pillow I'll be dead to the world." He shed the second boot, then began to peel off his socks. Al shrugged, and dug through the suitcase for a towel; this hotel wasn't nice enough to provide towels, and he wouldn't trust them even if they did.
Pulling out towels and a change to sleep in—and blessing his forethought in packing soap—Al began to strip out of his clothes, packing them away in the suitcase rather than letting them sit on the dirty floor. Across the room, Ed was also preparing for bed, and it took Al a few moments to realize that Ed was surreptitiously watching him as he did.
He had a moment of confused, paranoid panic, before insight flashed into his mind. Oh. This body, he created it. It was ridiculous to feel self-conscious in front of Ed's eyes, as much as a child about his parents. But a lot has changed since then.
Watching Ed out of the corner of his eye, he soon found himself fascinated in turn, as Ed pulled the shirt over his head, leaving him in his black undershirt. Ed, too, had changed. Al hadn't really seen the changes before now—at first he had only seen Ed as alien, with nothing to compare him with, and afterwards he'd been blinded with the familiar. But Ed was no longer the teenage boy that Al had known.
For one, he'd grown. He would never be a tall man—even now he lingered at a height notably below average—but he'd added enough inches that his size was no longer the most distinctive thing about him. His hair was shorter, for another; messy ragged strands falling to the bottom of his jaw, but no further. His shoulders had widened, his chest broadened—but Al realized with a start that under the flat muscles, he could count Ed's ribs.
That shocked him enough that he abandoned all pretense, and turned to look at Ed full-on, still holding the towel in one hand. Not just his ribs, but also his shoulder and arm were bony and thin—much more so than he remembered, even when Ed was just a skinny little kid. There was the familiar automail, and the scars from it, but there was another discolored streak of skin over his left shoulder, that topped his shoulder and disappeared under the black tank top. An unfamiliar scar. A new scar?
He realized he was staring, unabashedly, and flushed, but Ed didn't object. In fact, he was in turn looking at Al's body—his smooth, soft, entirely unmarked body—with an oddly pensive expression on his face. Comparing, maybe. That was nothing new, it was something they'd done all their lives, although it felt much stranger now; now that Al was left seven years behind, instead of the usual one. Or maybe it would be better to say he was left seven years ahead.
That scar bothered him. He padded across the room, wearing only his pants, to get a closer look. "Brother, where did this come from?" he asked, reaching out to trace it gently. It started out as a narrow line at the top of his shoulder, and widened as it traced down, the other end hidden under the shirt. This close, he could see others, of different colors and textures, tracing across Ed's skin.
Ed pulled away from his hand, then frowned at him. "I thought you were going to shower," he challenged.
"I am. In a minute." He rested his hand on Ed's shoulder, gripping just hard enough that he couldn't easily be brushed aside. "Please answer me. I want to know..."
"Well, I don't want to tell you," Ed said brusquely. He stood up, shrugging Al away again, and picked up his discarded shirt.
"Brother!" Al let steel creep in and stiffen his tone, the same way as when they were younger and Ed didn't want to drink his milk or take a shot. "Sit down and take your shirt off."
Ed did. Not grudgingly, but immediately; like a soldier snapping to obey a command, or a dog trained to do tricks. Al stared as Ed complied, pulling the black undershirt over his head, then looked up at him expectantly.
"Brother..." He struggled to find a way to put into words, just what was bothering him. "Why did you do that?"
"Huh?" Ed blinked up at him, scowling, and Al shook his head. Never mind. Never mind that now.
He sat on the bed beside Ed, sitting sideways to study him more closely. After a minute, he directed Ed to turn sideways, presenting his back to the dim light that the room provided.
"How did you get these?" he said softly, tracing his fingers lightly down a long ridge running crosswise down his shoulder blade. He saw Ed's back stiffen, and the line of his jaw set.
"Got in a few fights," he said tersely.
"That's all?" Al asked, dubiously, splaying his palm on the hollow between the shoulder blades. There were too many of them for that, he thought. And too many of them were too regular. There was a whole set of parallel lines running horizontally along his lower back, all approximately the same size and texture. Another, a line of small notches that Al couldn't quite fathom, marched up one side of his spine.
That spine twisted, as Ed turned to glare at Al over his shoulder. "What, you want a play-by-play?" he said tersely. "For God's sake, Al, I can't be expected to remember every stupid little scrape I've gotten for the last six years. It doesn't matter, all right?"
"Brother," Al said softly. "Don't lie to me."
Ed turned his head straight again, and Al heard him swallow. "I'm not," he said after a minute. "I got in a few fights. That's all."
Al thought about that, feeling the rough and smooth patches of skin alternate under his fingers. Thought about a life of constant battle, where you were under threat all day, every day, without a moment or a safe place to rest; until finally resistance gave out, and defenses caved, and you couldn't fight any longer. And you got up the next day and kept on fighting, and the next, and the next, because there was no other choice.
"Tell me about your life," Ed said suddenly. "Tell me about... your family. Your friends. What you've been doing. How you've been doing."
Al flushed, his earlier discomfort returning doubled. The contrast was painful and shameful, between his own perfect skin and Ed's, between his own idyllic, spoiled life and Ed's. "I'm not sure what you want me to say," he said uncomfortably.
"I don't know. Whatever. Say that you've been happy. That you've been well. That... something good came out of six years ago." Ed's breath was beginning to come a little faster, Al noticed. "Say that... that for the first time in my life, I didn't completely fuck up and ruin yours. Say that—say that there was some point to... to all of this."
Hesitantly, Al began to talk. At first he just talked about general things, a one-moment status snapshot of how his life had been just before his brother reappeared in it. School. Studies. Friends. Arguments with his parents. Then, remembering Ed's wistful interest in Laurie—remembering Nina—he began to talk about his little sister. About her games stuffed animal collections and tantrums and birthday parties with friends, about their spot under the tree in the park. Her delight at getting a pair of puppies for Christmas. The smell of dog fur and grass stains when she hugged him.
All the while he talked about his old life, though, his fingertips kept tracing lightly over the scars on Ed's back, as if by some sympathetic magic he could heal them just by touching each one. At least, all those he could see. All those that could be touched.
Ed stayed quiet, and still, for a long time. Finally, Al faltered, and trailed off, daunted by the lack of reaction. He leaned forward, to try and get a sense of his brother's expression.
He was shocked to see that Ed's eyes were closed, and he was crying. Without fanfare or noise, just silent, steady tears spilling from under his eyelashes and over his cheeks. Worried, Al put his arms around his brother's chest and hugged him from behind, tight, feeling the sharp press of backbone against his chest. "Brother," he said. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." It came out a little choked, and Ed opened his eyes, still awash with tears. "I'm just... glad. So glad."
What did he mean by that, Al wondered. Glad that Al's life had been happy? That Al had chosen to give up his life, no matter how happy, to follow him? That he, himself, was free of his old life? Glad that Al was still willing to touch him, scarred as he was? Glad that they were here, together, for as long as it lasted?
It didn't matter which. Al tightened his arms, and leaned forward to place a kiss on his brother's cheek. "So am I," he said, and tasted salt on his lips.