"Click Your Heels Together Three Times"
Arc One: Chapter 29
Balance of PowerPart OneWARNING: Post Series, Post Movie, **SPOILER HEAVY** and just a bit AU September 2, 1919
Rush Valley, Amestris
Winry stood before the small mirror hanging crookedly from a peg, scrubbing the black streaks from her forearms beneath the outdoor shower. They’d had an extraordinary amount of business lately -- seven new customers this last month alone! It was the quakes -- a lot of smaller towns had been devastated; their remoteness hindering medical aid, thus hindering treatment for wounds. Limbs that ordinarily could have been saved were now so gangrenous they were forced to amputate. Though many people opted either to go without or use simple prosthetics. However, there were enough people who were still willing to brave the pain of surgery to gain the freedom that automail offered.
Personally not minding the feel of grease on her skin, Winry still frowned at the bull-headed stains refusing to remove themselves from her normally clear flesh. And yet, she mused, there were worse things that could cling to skin and clog beneath fingernails. Never weak of heart or prone to squeamishness, she’d still seen enough blood and gore over the last month to remove a layer of impersonality so necessary for her chosen field.
Plunging her fingers back under the steady flow of water, she let them hang for a while in the sun-warmed deluge. Were it later in the day, she’d give in to the compulsion to immerse her entire body beneath the spray. As it was, there were two more customers waiting for a fitting, and Mr. Dominic would likely chew her ass as it was for letting their income grow stale in the small room off the surgery bay. Sighing, she finally killed the feed -- letting the lovely rain drizzle down to small patters of individual drops.
Swiping at her shining arms with a convenient rag, she glanced upward at the gleaming walls towering about her. Even tucked in this secluded courtyard behind the shop, she was still struck by this place, by its beauty. Rush Valley! She knew her first word was wrench; she was pretty sure the second and third were the name of this magnificent place. A dream since it was first presented to her as the Eden of automail by her grandmother -- cemented as her future after the first bolt she turned. Even after all this time, the thrill of living in this city had not abated.
"Hey Princess, these people are developing liver spots while you’re mooning at the walls, let’s go!"
Ah yes... what a thrill.
"I'm coming Mr. Dominic!"
Snagging her tape as she ducked back inside, she couldn’t help an inner smile. The man might bark, but she knew first hand what a softy he really was. Rubbing one shoulder where her muscles tended to stiffen, she pushed into the waiting room. "Okay, where’s the first victim?"
Not really a shocker that the two men exchanged glances and backed away. Taking the triage route to expedite things, Winry grabbed the arm of the slightly less ashen man, dragging him through the doorway towards the room opposite the prepping area. There were no surgeries today -- always a plus when dealing with twitchy first-timers. Somehow the sounds of screams always left them shaking, which made it harder to get an accurate measurement.
"Do you know anyone with automail?"
She'd learned through the years that getting them talking always helped prospective clients deal with the fear of their upcoming operation. Specifically, talking about the surgery itself.
"My uncle... lost a leg in the Central Invasion."
Winry nodded. Almost always they knew someone -- usually a family member. The man before her had lost his hand and a portion of his arm up to the elbow. Within the last month given the level of healing. "You've probably heard a lot of stories about how painful automail attachment is."
The man swallowed, leaning back a little as Winry pulled the tape along the length of his undamaged forearm.
"Yeah... Uncle Mel likes to lay it on real thick -- especially around the younger crowd. I know it's mostly hot air and I shouldn't listen to it..."
Winry began measuring his fingers. "Actually he probably toned it down. Automail surgery is probably the most painful thing you'll ever experience."
"Except childbirth!" exclaimed a female voice just before the speaker entered the room.
Winry rolled her eyes as she wrote down measurements next to a quick sketch on her pad. "Yes, okay Paninya, except childbirth."
The young woman chuckled as she stepped over the threshold, stomach first. "I really don't know why you torture them like that, Rockbell." She peeled back her sleeve first, then bent slowly, and very awkwardly, to pull up her dress to her knees, exposing the gleaming metal beneath. "I had this done when I was just a kid. Trust me -- carting an extra thirty pounds in your gut is way more uncomfortable!"
Winry wasn't sure how this was actually helping -- the grey hue to the man's skin leaning more towards green at this point.
At any rate, she had finished with the man and was ready for the next guy. If he actually followed through with his appointment, he could come back in a week for the first surgery involving implantation of the automail ports. He was standing shakily when Winry made a final attempt to put him at ease.
"I've seen worse. This is just a lower arm... you won't even need that many adjustments, and the weight differential between the automail and flesh arm will be minimal. It's a lot worse when the whole arm is gone because you actually have to cut open the torso and reinforce the skeleton to handle the extra weight..."
The green shade darkened, and the man suddenly spun to stumble from the room.
"Bathroom's on the left!"
Winry glared up at the other woman still hovering over her. "You know, I was doing okay on my own."
Her friend giggled. “That’s a joke right? You do realize even your regulars are afraid of you right?”
Winry couldn’t help smiling in response, though the observation dug a little. It wasn’t the jib -- she knew very well that her enthusiasm could sometimes be a tad… off-putting. No, it was the mention of regulars. And as always, a portion of her mind immediately considered a particular regular-- And then she brushed past it. She still had one more customer to see, and assuring someone that they’d made the right choice in spite of the excruciating surgery was hard enough without being moody besides.
Constructing a grin, she sat back on her heels. "You mind sending in the last customer?"
Studying the other woman, her expression clearly saying she knew exactly what the automail mechanic was thinking, Paninya nodded. "Sure… no problem!"
Alone for a few seconds, Winry looked up at the wall, eyes taking in the partially finished drawing hanging above her. A new design… innovative… and it would never advance beyond ink.
Turning away from it quickly as the final client of the evening entered the room, she smiled brightly. "Why not have a seat right here and we’ll get started." Grabbing her tape again, she started to measure. "So, tell me, do you know anyone else with automail?"__________September 3, 1919
Central City, Amestris
Scieszka heard the door of the office open slowly, and heard the distinctive creak of that one floorboard that accompanied the footsteps approaching her desk. Glancing in reflex from between two rows of bookcases behind the desk, she confirmed yet again that the piles of books on the desk were too high for her to see who had come in. She had to get around to those, one of these days...
"Be right there!" she called, struggling to carry the too-tall stack of books she'd brought back with her to replace on the shelves.
"Private Scieszka, General Hakuro wants to see you immediately," came a crisp answering voice. "Please come with me. That is... where are you, exactly?"
Back among the bookcases, Scieszka gasped and almost lost her balance, one of the bookcases saving her from falling over altogether. The pile of books in her arms swayed a little as her shoulder banged into a shelf, but she managed to keep them from dropping.
Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Morgan, Hakuro's right-hand man. What was he doing here? And... what had he said? General Hakuro wanted to see her
"Coming!" she called back, searching quickly for a place to set down her little book tower. No chance of reshelving them now. She staggered back toward the desk, resigned to adding this pile to the others already obscuring her view.
As she set the books down on one of the remaining open spaces on the desktop, Lieutenant Colonel Morgan himself rounded the wall of books and peered at her, dark eyes mystified under his mop of unruly brown hair. "What do you do with these all day?" he wondered. "Why aren't these books just kept in Central Library?"
"These are reference materials of a pretty confidential nature," she informed him, straightening her glasses, "and they're consulted so often that they created this room especially for these books." She straightened her glasses again, unnecessarily, and asked, "So are you sure General Hakuro wants to see me? Does he need some special research done or something?"
The man's curiosity faded and he drew his shoulders back, just slightly, putting on what Scieszka thought of as his "official face." He responded, "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say. But he does want to see you right away."
She followed him out of the small library office, pausing long enough to lock the door behind her. Then Morgan led her through the long halls of Central military headquarters and up several staircases, heading for the upper levels of the building whence General Hakuro and his staff controlled the forces of Amestris.
She was already nervous, wondering why she had been sent for in the first place -- although she did have her suspicions. But from the glances that followed her as she walked alongside the Lieutenant Colonel, imagines began to spring into her mind, of prisoners being led in chains to their execution, or criminals being escorted before a judge. She tried to laugh them off, but when Morgan took an odd detour, leaving a staircase at the end of one wing of the building and walking needlessly toward another staircase in the middle of the wing, she really wondered.
Because this was the floor where General Mustang's suite of offices was located. And as they passed that particular door, out of the corner of her eye Scieszka saw Morgan watching her intently. She kept her face expressionless and took care not to react differently to that door than to any other. But now a cold lump of fear had settled into her stomach.
Her fears were confirmed almost the moment Patrick Morgan ushered her into Hakuro's office. As the man guided her to the side area where the general waited by the coffee table and chairs, and then retreated back to the outer office, Scieszka bowed to Hakuro and obediently seated herself when the man indicated a chair.
As he poured her tea, his eyes never leaving the amber stream as it flowed into her cup, he said, "Now, my dear. Let's talk about Roy Mustang, shall we?"
Oh boy. She really was in big, big trouble. And Roy Mustang was miles away. She'd have to play this as dumb as she possibly could. Scieszka adopted her widest gaze and replied, "Sure, General Hakuro, I guess that would be nice. I'll be happy to hear anything you want to tell me about him."
Hakuro smiled. He picked up his own cup and took a sip of tea, regarding her over the china rim. "It seems to me, young lady, that you should do the 'telling', since you would know a lot more about him than I would."
"Me?" she feigned surprise. "Oh, you mean because I worked with his friend Maes Hughes for a while? I'm afraid Mr. Hughes -- I mean, the Brigadier-General -- didn't talk about Colonel Mustang all that much. That is, he was Colonel Mustang then. He's General Mustang now. But I guess you know that. I mean, of course you know that, what am I saying?"
"But I'm sure you know him better than you claim," Hakuro interrupted. "After all, didn't he send you to Vinland recently?"
"Vinland? Send?" Her eyebrows shot up. "Oh no, sir, he didn't 'send' me anywhere. That is, he got me leave to go east, but that was only after he'd heard that my mother's health had suddenly gotten so bad. I've never been to Vinland, I'm afraid. But I've heard it's a very interesting place." She hoped fervently that Hakuro hadn't already investigated to find out that her mother was as healthy as a very healthy horse.
He didn't seem to have. "So that's the only reason you went away? Your mother was sick? And you never went to Vinland at all?"
"Yes sir. I mean no - I've never been to Vinland. But yes, my mother is much better now, but it was really touch and go for a little while."
"Why did General Mustang take such an interest, if the two of you are such strangers?"
"Well, we're not exactly strangers -- we don't know each other that well, but we're polite in the hall, and things like that. I think it really does go back to the Brigadier-General, though. I get the impression General Mustang was being nice to me because he knew Mr. Hughes had liked me. And I really liked him."
"I see. So if I were to ask you where General Mustang has been the last few days... what would you say?" Hakuro's blue eyes were sharp as icicles, watching her reaction as he asked the question.
And that question, Scieszka realized, was why she was here. She'd guessed it, from his first words to her, so at least she was prepared. She met his gaze with her own surprised expression. "Where he is? Well... he's around here, isn't he? I'm sure I saw him a couple of days ago. Didn't I? I'm not sure what you mean, General Hakuro." Puzzled, but cooperative. That was the way to play this.
"I mean that he's been absent for several days. And I want to know where he is."
"Begging your pardon, General, but are you sure? I know I ran into Breda and Falman just yesterday, and they're always around when General Mustang is. Pardon me, I mean Second Lieutenant Breda and Warrant Offi--"
"Will you quit worrying about everyone's rank!" Hakuro exclaimed. He closed his eyes briefly, taking a breath. "I merely mean that that's not important at the moment. I just want to find out where General Mustang is. Are you sure you don't know?"
"If he's not here, sir, then I don't have a clue where he is, I'm sorry. What does Captain Hawkeye say about it?"
"Captain Hawkeye -- and Lieutenant Havoc too, I might add -- seem to have disappeared right along with General Mustang." He stared back at her as she fixed him with her most dubious stare. Finally, unable to help himself, he broke down and asked, "What? What is it?"
"Well...," she said as apologetically as she could manage, "I wouldn't dream of wanting to contradict you, General -- I'm sure you must know better than I do -- but all the same, I could have sworn I saw Lieutenant Havoc yesterday, with Second Lieuten -- with Breda and Falman. But maybe I'm thinking of last week, I don't know. I can go months without seeing any of them, and then I run into them four days in a row. I'm sure it can be that way for you sometimes. Oh, but not in this case, I don't mean to imply--"
"Yes, yes, I understand what you mean," Hakuro waved that suggestion aside. He had begun to exhibit that look of exasperation that Scieszka had seen on many a face in her day, when she really got going. She'd never been so happy to see that expression in her life. It meant that he'd finally concluded that she probably didn't know anything.
Sure enough, he very quickly steered the conversation into more general topics, and their little tea party ended shortly afterward. When they had finished, he bowed, thanked her for coming, wished her mother good health, and asked Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan to take her back to her library office.
She assured Morgan that he didn't need to trouble, and she could find her own way back, and finally she was free. She walked sedately down the wide, echoing hall, just in case one of them was watching her, but when she reached the nearest staircase she literally flew down the stairs and almost ran the rest of the way. When she had finally achieved the safety of the office, she shut and locked the door behind her and, leaning against it, at last allowed herself to tremble.
She'd fooled them this time, and lived to tell the tale. But she wasn't sure she could carry it off a second time. She hoped to goodness that General Mustang and the others would soon finish what they were doing in Rush Valley, and get back here to defend themselves.__________September 4, 1919
After he'd woken up and visited the men's room, the steady rhythm of the wheels on the train tracks might have lulled Jean back to sleep -- as it had done hours ago to Roy and Riza in the seat across the aisle -- but he had too much on his mind to settle back into slumber. The four of them were due to arrive in Rush Valley in a couple of hours, at dawn, and who knew what would happen once they got there. So they'd all been trying to relax as much as possible while en route.
All of them, actually, except Armstrong. When Jean had gotten up a few moments ago, he'd seen him standing outside, on the platform at the rear of the car they were riding in, the last car on the train. The big man had stood there an awful lot during this two-day trip. So much that Jean now wondered, fighting a sudden urge to laugh, if the wheels at the front of this car might be lifting off the tracks a little, with all that extra weight at the very end.
When Armstrong had occasionally come in to sit down, he had tended to sit separately from the others, only rarely joining them, mostly when Roy called a whispered "strategy session."
Jean had gone back to Armstrong's spot to chat a couple of times, but when he'd asked why the man wasn't sitting with the rest of them, Armstrong had answered that since he took up so much space, he'd decided not to crowd them. It had been a perfectly plausible explanation.
And when asked why he was spending so much time on that back platform outside, he'd answered, equally plausibly, that he was so tall that he had to hunch a little any time he stood up inside the train. So whenever he wanted to stretch his legs, it was easier just to go out there where he could stand up straight.
It was all perfectly sensible. And Jean wasn't buying it for a minute.
He stood abruptly and stretched his lean form, lifting his arms above his head. His fingertips came within five inches of the ceiling car. He passed several other dozing passengers as he walked down the center aisle toward the back, and a few, as his shadow fell across them, opened a bleary eye to note his passing before dropping immediately back into sleep.
Armstrong spared him barely a glance as he stepped out to join the man on the platform. The night sky above was clear, glittering with stars, and the shape of the rolling hills on either side of the tracks could only be dimly perceived as a deeper darkness edging up into the dark of the sky. They could see lights from a farm yard on a hill, distant in the west. But the only other light came from the three regulation lamps along the top edge of the train car just above their heads. It cast Armstrong's long, wide shadow at three angles across the track receding behind the train, so that the shadow itself seemed almost bulky. Jean's shadow appeared wraith-like by comparison.
The night was warm, but there was enough wind whipping past them to make Jean glad of the thickness of his uniform. You wouldn't have wanted to stand out here in shirtsleeves, unless the sun was shining.
He leaned both hands on the polished wooden rail as his companion edged to the left, to give him more room. "Have you been out here all night? You were here when I dozed off, a few hours ago," Jean observed.
"I sat inside for a while," the big man murmured. "But the night is so peaceful, I wanted to enjoy it."
"Oh? The calm before the storm, maybe?"
"Perhaps. After the general's experience last time he tried this, it might be wise to be prepared for further trouble."
"I hear you," Jean said as he absently scratched his chin. His face hadn't been anywhere near a razor since just before they'd left Risembool and his beard had reached the stage where it was beginning to irritate.
"I wish he could have waited a few days longer, to give his arm more time to heal."
"I guess he didn't want to delay any more," Jean responded, "in case the boys are going to try again on the other side."
"That is understandable," Armstrong nodded.
He said nothing more, and Jean glanced up, watching him for a moment. The man met his eyes briefly, but seemed to shy away, determined to gaze in silence out into the darkness. He'd been very subdued for the entire trip. Since Roy's delirious ravings in Risembool, in fact.
Jean turned around, leaned his hips back against the rail, and crossed his arms. Through the window in the door he could look down the long aisle and discern the two of them, almost at the other end: Riza's golden head half-buried in a pillow she'd wedged between shoulder, neck, and window, and Roy's dark hair falling across his eye as he dozed, left cheek and dark bandanna pressed against the glass.
"So tell me," Jean said casually, "have you known from the very beginning that Maes Hughes was still alive?"__________September 5, 2006
Ed heard the phrase of music shrill through his dreams, and then repeat, but as he drew closer to wakefulness, a voice gradually eased into his awareness. He heard someone say, "Hey there," as he withdrew with difficulty from a series of frenetic dreams of the Gate and explosions and crying babies. It was like tugging himself out of a mire of sucking mud, but the cheery bounce of the voice drew him slowly back to reality.
"...that quickly, huh? Well, we kind of expected it, didn't we? .... No, Reilly, the turnoff is really close. We're almost there, so keep your shirt on. Or no, on second thought -- don't."
Ed lifted his head from where it had been leaning against the window on the passenger side, and blinked at Ducky, who currently held the cell away from his ear while several squawks emitted from it like aural punctuation marks. The young man rolled his eyes at Ed, then pressed the phone to his ear again, eyes on the road, steering with his free hand.
"Yeah, well, if this isn't the right time, I don't know what is. You know you love me. If you're still mad when we get there, I'll let you spank me. But are all of you together now? Ed needs to talk to his brother."
A pause, while Ducky continued steering, waiting for something at the other end of the phone line. Ed blinked again, realizing that the sun was coming up. He vaguely remembered peering out into the darkness of the countryside as his companion had pulled over for a nap during the night, but now he could see the wide gray ribbon of the road moving steadily past beneath him, even without the van's headlights.
"Hey, there," Ducky spoke again. "Hold on a sec, I'll get him." He held the phone out, sparing a quick glance at his passenger before turning his attention to the road. "Terminator Junior on line one. You up for it?"
Ed clenched his jaws as the memories flooded back. The image of an old man with golden eyes rushed into his mind.Al.
Oh yes. He was up for it.
He took the cell and murmured, "Hey.""Brother! Good morning. Sorry if I woke you."
Ed closed his eyes, determined not to let the tears start again. It was so good to hear his brother's voice. "Don't worry," he said. "I was already awake. I think we're getting close to you guys.""That's what Reilly said. We're at the ravine, and I'm going to start drawing the circle. But I wanted to tell you -- guess what! I know how to use the flute."
Ed's eyes flew open. In the emotional mess of meeting his son (his son!)
, he'd almost forgotten the reason Al had sent him away in the first place. "You do? That's fantastic. But are you sure? That was really quick.""Llyn helped me. I'll tell you when you get here."
"Llyn helped you? How would he know how to use your flute?""It's hard to explain. But like I said, I'll tell you later. How are you feeling? That's really why I wanted to talk to you."
Of course that would be Al's main concern. Ed had to smile as he pictured his brother frowning in worry at the other end. But already his brother's enthusiasm about the flute had begun to lift his own spirits. "I'm fine, Alphonse, don't worry about me. In fact, I'm even better, hearing about the flute. That must've been some practice session. So I guess you were right, after all?""I'm always right,"
Ed couldn't help a little answering laugh. "Yes, you always are," he agreed. "And I should listen to you more often.""I should be recording this."
Ed let his head fall back against the headrest as he laughed again, shaking his head. "Al... it's so good to talk to you," he murmured."Why? What do you mean? Are you really okay?"
Ed smiled fondly, watching the fence posts move swiftly past along the side of the road. "I promise," he said, "I'm fine. I've got some things to tell you, too. And then -- we're going home.""Yes, we really are this time."
He could picture Al's bright eyes and happy grin. "Which means I'd better start on the transmutation circle."
"All right, but be careful. I'll be there soon."
Ducky took the cell back and stuck it in a pocket. "So Term Junior learned the flute. Cool."
"You know," Ed drawled, half-turning and leaning his shoulder against the passenger door and ignoring the slight twinge in his collarbone as he did so, "you ought to learn to talk about your uncle with a little more respect."
He smiled at Ducky's surprised glance, before the other answered with a grin. "Not in this lifetime, old man."
"Kids today," Ed shook his head in mock mournfulness. He noticed the young man eyeing him, and raised his eyebrows. "What?"
"Are you... really okay, then? I know it was... pretty tough, finding out and then leaving."
The swelling of Ducky's lip was just visible on the other side of his face as he looked at Ed, before turning back to the road. Ed studied him for a moment, trying to discern any traces of himself in the profile. Not the dark hair or green eyes -- the hair might be from Noah, and the eyes probably came from the Maes Hughes of the past, but they certainly weren't from him. Maybe the nose, but that wasn't saying much; noses were pretty generic unless they were huge or oddly shaped. The slender build, maybe? But maybe not that either. Ed had always suspected he might have been naturally stockier, like Al, if he hadn't had to use up so much bodily energy carrying the weight of his automail. But of course he'd never really know.
Maybe he'd detect something in the brighter light of day, but so far, it didn't look as though Ducky had gotten anything from him. He was surprised at his own disappointment.
"Ed?" Ducky cast him another glance, this time tinged with anxiety. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No. Don't worry. Everything's fine. Now that I know he's alive -- that he didn't die, and had such a good, long life -- everything's better than fine. I'm grateful that I met him, at least. I just wish..." Ed shrugged, turning his face away and blinking self-consciously.
"Wish you didn't have to leave," Ducky finished quietly. "I know. I'm sorry about that."
"But at least I met him," Ed repeated.
"And you found Al, and we got him free, and you got rid of Bond, and now you're going home."
"We are. It's so hard to believe, after all this time." Ed felt his spirits lift again, but with nothing like the intensity he'd expected. It felt like this whole 24 hour period was filling up with unbelievable events, and it was hard to absorb all of them.
They were going home. Home
. The thought still barely made a dent in his emotions. It would become more real once he saw his brother, though, he was sure of that.
But Ducky seemed to be brimming with enough excitement for both himself and Ed. He grinned over again, eyes glinting with hilarity, with that smile that Ed was starting to identify with the word "shark."
"The turnoff is just ahead," he said, voice thrumming with anticipation. "And somewhere over there the feds are getting close, and Redfeather's guys are warming up, and all our friends are hanging, just waiting for us. And Al's going to play that flute, and open up a great big dimensional wormhole, just for you. Edward Elric, are you ready for your final big adventure in this world?"That's what he got from me,
Ed thought, as a sudden burst of warmth stirred within him. "Let's hope so," he smiled at his companion. "I guess I'd better be, eh?"
"Aye, Kepten," Ducky said, imitating a space officer on one of those shows of his, that Slavic guy. "And here we go! Engage!" He negotiated the turnoff at such speed that Ed felt like they were flying.
And as they turned left around the corner, Ed caught one last glimpse of the road they'd been traveling on, a quick, vanishing backdrop behind the profile of his great grandson. At long last, he was leaving everything in this world behind him, and going home.Maes.