Gabriella sighed. It had been over a day and still she was under orders not to move from her room. Not just Edward’s orders but Mustang’s too. Edward had been to see her twice, but only briefly. He was busy with whatever it was Mustang had him doing as a penalty for breaking regulations. He would not be drawn on what he was doing or how he planned to deal with the scandal splashed all over the newspapers.
Riza had been to see her too and had walked Iggy. Gabriella had run out of nail to nibble on her fingers and had started on the skin, peeling it off in little rolls so her fingertips were now red and sore. She really did worry too much, but what else could she do? She was the classic damsel in distress, though it made her bristle that she had to rely on the men in her life to resolve the situation. She really had been here too long. If this had happened when she first arrived she would be stalking around the halls of HQ and eviscerating anyone who looked at her the wrong way. Then again, she would not have played the game and so would have even less choice over how she lived her life than she did presently. The situation was regrettable but not disastrous. She was not going to apologise for falling in love but she still could not settle her anxiety no matter how she reasoned with herself, and part of the cause was needing to rely on others to do the thinking for her. The rest of the worry came from how Edward would be affected by this.
He had a bright shining career and despite his recalcitrant attitude towards the military it was the closest thing to a home he probably had outside of Rizembool. This was no small matter for him, as much as he may claim otherwise. She sighed and looked at the ceiling. Her life was so complicated that sometimes she fervently wished she was back at the cottage. It had been warm, safe, secure.
“Boring,” she muttered to herself. If she was entirely honest she knew Edward had been right about her back then. He had spent two weeks in her company before flat out telling her she was existing – not living. She had been scandalised at the time; how dare he judge her? But he had been right, as always. She had put her life on hold to avoid getting hurt.
“Then he fell into it and we have not stopped running at a sprint since,” she muttered, smiling. He may not have intended it, but Edward had changed her life and her sister’s life. It was not necessarily for the better but it was certainly more interesting. No, she was not sorry she had fallen for him but she should be facing the consequences rather than hiding in her room. Then again, she was not her old self. She was more cautious than the old Gabriella. She remembered facing the generals at the hearing that would decide her fate in the military. She had gone in there head held high; prepared to growl, snarl and preach to them all. She cringed a little to think of herself back then. It was not even a year ago and yet she felt like a different person. If she faced the generals now, she would answer their questions and listen to the arguments before deciding on a strategy. A much less dramatic approach, but she would probably have fed the press less fodder and given Mustang less power over her destiny.
She frowned at herself. She would do as asked but she had another battle to prepare for. Olan Venguard. With that in mind, she shuffled into the hall to use the internal telephone. Luckily Riza had given her the direct number for her apartment and she did not have to use the switchboard. She was not sure the switchboard operator would have been able to restrain herself from asking her questions and Gabriella was not up to being chewed over by the gossip hungry women who always seemed to end up in the positions where they were most likely to acquire what they needed to feed their habit. A quick request to Riza and she returned to her room.
Twenty agonising minutes later, during which she nibbled her index finger until it bled, her request turned up; an ancient man from the archive pushing a trolley filled with documents into her room. Some of them were old and yellow, whereas others appeared not to be written on paper at all. She frowned; just what had Riza asked for? She blinked as the old man lectured her on treating the more ancient documents with care. Gloves were provided lest the acids in her perspiration and the oils from her skin damage the vellum. The scrolls needed to be replaced in their sealed containers or the damp atmosphere and her breath would cause them to begin to degrade. The man warned that many of these documents were rarely requested and so these were the only copies. If she damaged them she was damaging Amestrisian history.
With a gulp she pulled the trolley further into her room. She rolled up her sleeves and pulled on the white gloves. She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the trolley. It was quite disheartening, actually. With the military’s grip on power within the country she had expected her request to yield more recent information. This was the entirety of the material the military had on its northern neighbour. The majority of the documentation was old – very old; from before the country was even called Amestris. The modern documents were mainly battle reports. Riza had a very high level of security clearance and seemed only too happy to use it to access the records for Gabriella. Gabbie suspected Riza was not happy with Roy and giving Gabriella what she needed was her revenge. They were like an old married couple already. Still, this was what she needed to fight. She would not go into this chapter of her life unarmed. Knowledge was power; the more she could find out about Drachma, the better.
“Where to start?” she wondered, tucking a red curl behind her ear. The records seemed to be in no particular order if they were fifty years or older. She dug through three boxes of weather reports from the border outposts before her eager fingers found something of interest.
A book. It looked like a journal. The leather binding was cracked and fragile; the pages were loose within. She thumbed open the cover with reverent care. The yellowed paper was scrawled over in copperplate handwriting. Her eyes narrowed. The language was English, or rather Amestrisian, but it was spelt oddly and the syntax was unusual.
“My dear father having granted me permission to go on this latest excursion is on condition of my conducting a preliminary research project of the people of the vast highlands to the north that are perpetually clad, for the most part, in a mantle of white. These notes have been written by mine own hand and while on my travels, and this will then inform my experiments when I return to the mother land.”
“Experiments?” she mused. “This guy was an alchemist?” She searched for the date of the first entry. The journal was almost four hundred years old! Her hands trembled and she gently placed the journal on the floor to read so there was no danger of her dropping it. The old man had not been kidding about her handling history!
“If our brittle nation is to prosper,” continued the journal, “people gifted in the alchemical sciences must be at the forefront of developing our people and guiding them to a position of strength. We have much to learn from the people of these mountains. It is said that they practise alchemy without adhering to the rules of transformation or energy. I am sceptical this can be so thus we take this trip to find out if hearsay is correct. I, Luca Elric, will recount my findings faithfully in these pages and hopefully work towards the betterment of our infant nation.”
Gabriella’s heart squeezed painfully.
“Luca,” she whispered her eyes suddenly misting with tears. “Envy.” She sighed the name, half expecting it would summon the evil entity and she would hear his hateful drawl in her ear. She shuddered. Junji had told her that Envy had travelled Drachma as a young man. She wondered if the military knew that the author of this journal had family working for them in the present. They all had the same father, and that put Edward’s father at well over 500 years old. Just how long had he and Dante lived for? She shuddered again, not wanting to really delve into that particular part of Edward’s tragic history. She decided not to tell Edward about the journal; it would bring up too many memories for him. She sat and read it in silence.
Luca had been a sweet boy, more like Alphonse than Edward. He had wanted to make his father proud of him and seemed to hold Hohenheim in high esteem. The journal was unfinished. A month into the excursion Luca wrote that he was feeling unwell. The entries became shorter and the hand writing deteriorated. The last entry caused her to almost weep all over the book.
“I have failed,” was all it said.
Gabriella suddenly understood why Hohenheim Elric had attempted to raise his son but then chose to abandon him. Luca had been adorable and obviously loved. Envy had been a mockery of that life. She guessed that was also the reason Hohenheim had never been close to his other sons. Had the man ever forgiven himself for what he had turned his first son into? Perhaps he felt that his new family were better off without him when his soul was poisoning and degrading the bodies he put it into. The man had it all wrong. He should have been there for his family. Without his guidance his sons were doomed to repeat his mistakes and Envy had been manipulated by his mother into becoming a cold blooded killer. If his father had been involved, Envy may not have hated him so much; he may never have killed Hohenheim. If poor Wrath’s story proved anything it was that resurrected humans were not inherently evil. She closed the journal, feeling sad and a little dejected. Luca had seen some interesting things in his travels and she had a place to start. Silently thanking the long dead boy, she reached for another box.
She hoped Alphonse was out of the brig; she felt guilty about that. She found it hard to imagine Alphonse losing his temper over anything. Edward had shrugged when she had voiced that thought.
“You are family now,” he said simply. “We Elrics look after our own and we have a bit of a possessive streak.”
She had laughed at that. That was Edward all over; master of the understatement. She wondered how his pupils would treat him now his love life was all over the papers.
“You better really have a plan to deal with this, Ed,” she muttered between violent sneezes. The documents were thick with dust. She sighed and went back to her work. She would wait and decide what to do when she was forced to, not before. That, if nothing else, had been the biggest change in her since coming to Amestris. She had learned the value of patience.
Anna watched from her workbench as Winry paced. Olan had announced that morning that he was leaving. It had not really been a surprise to Anna; with the storm the man had brewed in Central about to rain down all kinds of political intrigue on the capital, he needed to be there to direct the lightning. Winry had protested of course. To her mind, he should stay another week at least. The blonde was angry; she always was when her patients would not listen to her. Anna had decided when she was qualified and opened her own shop she would not be half as stressed about her job as Winry.
Winry invested everything in her work. That was why she was one of the best. But it came at a price; Winry had no life outside her career. She lived her work and rarely thought of anything that did not involve oil and false ligaments. Anna decided if that was what it took to be the best then she would have none of it. She wanted to be a good mechanic but also wanted more. Home, family…
“Stop it, Anna!” she scolded herself mentally. “You are too old to daydream about playing house.”
She shook her head and dropped her eyes to her work and tried to ignore the irritating vibrations as her boss paced back and forward. No doubt Winry was mid-rant about how irresponsible Olan was. Sometimes being deaf had its advantages. A hand slapped down on the table moments later, startling her and sending cogs pinwheeling across the floor.
“Are you even listening?” Winry growled. Anna gave her angry boss a flat stare as a reply. Winry back tracked and began to babble.
“I didn’t… It’s not like I meant…” She swore and threw up her hands.
“You talk to him!” she said at last. “He dragged you into his little games – he will listen to you! He owes you!”
“You berating the staff again, bear cub?” asked Olan as he deposited his baggage by the shop entrance. Wriny growled a response that Anna did not catch.
“How rude!” Olan chuckled. “I might just offer Anna the position of my personal automail mechanic and get her away from her overbearing employer.” His sparkling blue eyes turned to Anna.
“How do you put up with her?” he asked with a smirk. Anna grinned in return and bent to pick up the cogs on the floor. She must have missed something important because when she turned back, Olan had Winry’s wrist in a firm grip and there was a chillingly stony look on his handsome face.
“You need to calm down,” he said firmly to the incensed blonde. Then the ice melted with a charming smile. “Besides, you would not want to damage some of your best work.”
The automail fingers gripping her wrist loosened and Winry snatched her hand back.
Anna was puzzled. Had Winry tried to hit Olan? Edward let her get away with that kind of thing, but Prince Charming was not Edward. It looked like Winry had just been firmly put in her place as far as manhandling Olan was concerned. The mechanic was still more than angry but she was containing it.
“Fine,” she growled, rubbing her wrist. “Go. If you get any rejection issues you can fix them yourself!”
Olan laughed at her, only further irritating the mechanic. Then he stepped forward and to Anna’s surprise and delight he kissed the blonde on the cheek. Winry stiffened and Anna expected her to fall into pure rage. Winry merely stood there, eyes wide, fingers flying to her cheek.
“It’s kind of you to be so concerned for me,” said Olan, apparently sincerely. “But I must be elsewhere or this,” he indicated
to his arm, “will be for nothing.”
“Wh… What about your check-ups?” said Winry weakly. Olan gave her a sympathetic look.
“Unless you want to travel to Drachma, I doubt I will be seeing you for a service. Other mechanics can…”
“Would you pay my expenses?” she interrupted. Anna’s eyes widened. Was Winry actually offering to abandon the shop in six months and follow Olan so she could service his arm? The entire notion was ridiculous! Olan seemed to think the same thing and laughed.
“Do you have any idea how far away I live?” he asked with a soft smile, as if he was trying to placate a demanding child.
“That does not answer the question,” she countered. “Would you pay me?” Olan folded his arms and gave her a hard look, his quick mind obviously reassessing Winry.
“Anyone can service my arm,” he said after a moment’s silence. “Why would you leave your life behind to visit me and…”
Winry turned to a battered shelf on the workshop wall and grabbed a note book. Anna knew that was in it. The complete, hand-drawn, technical diagrams and specifications of Olan’s arm.
“I spent weeks of my life designing that arm just for you, but that is not all,” Winry said absently as she flicked to a particular page. “The servomotors are my own design and this is the first time I have ever used them on a client; other motors were too heavy and would make your new arm unbalanced and uncomfortable.” She held up a yellowed diagram that showed many a correction note added over what was probably a period of years. She flicked to another page.
“The transformers and internal wiring are, again, my own design and are twenty-three percent more efficient than standard copper. This was an innovation I came up with when I was twelve, but I have never had the time or capital to implement the system until now.” She shoved the specs at him. “You are effectively wearing a prototype that I have spent half my life designing but could not build. You gave me access to titanium and suddenly everything I have been planning became possible.”
She studied him. His expression was well schooled and held no emotion as he listened. The perfect face for a politician; he gave away nothing until he decided how to react to a situation.
“I thank you for the opportunity to use the metal and you are indeed now wearing my best work.” Winry actually bowed to him and Anna made a half strangled squeak of surprise.
“I don’t want some unqualified hick mechanic so much as touching that arm,” she said sternly. “I also want to know how the arm performs over time and make any adjustments so other clients can benefit.” She gave him a level look. “Pay my expenses and I will service your arm once a year for the next three years.”
Olan blinked. He put the notebook on the table carefully and then his face melted into a small smile. He offered his metal hand to Winry.
“You make a compelling case,” he said softly. “I accept you offer.” Winry shook his hand firmly. He turned and shouldered his bag. “But for that to happen I have to do my job and get the borders open.” He turned and his gaze fixed on Anna again.
“Oh, and I have a bone to pick with you,” he said with a frown. Anna steeled herself. “Tell your boyfriend to stop stealing my information network.” He pulled a letter covered in Cretan diplomatic symbols from his bag. “I pay a lot of money to certain individuals to keep friendly ears in Central, and I do not appreciate Alphonse Elric using my people free of charge.”
Anna took the letter with a grin. Al could charm the birds from the sky if he put his mind to it. It was nice to be able to get letters from him knowing that the eyes of HQ had not been over every word.
She bowed her head to Olan in thanks then squeaked as the man pulled her from her chair in a one-armed bear hug.
“Make sure you come with your boss when she checks on me,” he said with a smile. “I am sure your sister would appreciate a visit.”
“That is if you manage to get her to agree to go with you,” Winry snapped.
“Oh, she will come,” said Olan with an arrogant tone that soured his affectionate goodbyes. “I have made sure she will.” Anna sighed. There was nothing more she could do about that. Gabriella needed training or she might kill herself. Though Olan’s motives were far from pure, it would benefit Gabbie to leave Central and with it leave Edward. Her chest tightened. She did not know what would happen between them over this but she hoped it would all work out.
Olan bowed at the waist with practised ease.
“Thank you for your hospitality, ladies; I am more than grateful to you.”
And that was it. He left. Winry watched him stride confidently down the dry street and scowled. Anna said nothing. She remembered another patient who had lived with her not so long ago, except they had not let him leave. She had run after him, twice. She supposed stepping into that portal had been monumentally stupid. Still, her life now was more than it ever would have been in her own world. From a purely selfish point of view it was the best decision of her life so far. She wondered if Winry was experiencing something similar. Was her decision to go to Drachma to be the one that challenged her to live rather than simply exist?
Anna nudged Winry with her elbow and the blonde smiled at her.
“Tea?” Anna offered. Everything could be fixed with tea; she was till British after all. She had a bag of imported Xingian white tea that was heaven in a cup. She had been rationing it as it was expensive, but now seemed a good time to brew a pot of it.
“Thank you, yes,” Winry said with relief.
Anna shuffled into the kitchen and thumbed open the letter Alphonse had sent as the kettle boiled. The letter merely said:
“Present for my girl.”
She grinned and flipped open the document that the letter was wrapped around.
The document had Mustang’s official seal on it and was written on parchment rather than paper.
“It is hereby confirmed that the above named soldier is to be discharged from the Amestrian military with full honours…”
Anna dropped the mug she had just picked up. It shattered on the floor. She stared at the letter open mouthed. Mustang was letting Al go, just as he promised he would.
“Are you all right?!” exclaimed Winry, waving a hand before the deaf girl’s eyes to get her attention. “Is it bad news?”
Anna looked up at Wriny and her eyes filled with tears. She did not even know why she wept, only that she felt so relieved and so happy that she could not do anything else.
“He’s coming home to me,” she whispered showing Winry the letter and demob papers.
Winry hugged her almost as hard as Olan had and made the tea for Anna.
Gabriella woke slowly and reluctantly. Someone was shaking her. She groaned and rubbed her face in her very uncomfortable pillow.
“The archivist will have your head,” chuckled a familiar voice. Gabriella sat bolt upright. She looked around, not quite remembering where she was. She put a hand to her face and peeled centuries-old vellum from her cheek. She whimpered in distress when she saw the ink was hopelessly smudged. She must have fallen asleep on the floor. Documents were dispersed about her in neat piles. She had spent most of the night putting them in chronological order before beginning her study of them in earnest. Her notes had been crumpled beneath her chest but luckily she had been writing in pencil so they were still legible.
“Give me that.” Edward sighed and took the vellum from her hand. His real fingers brushed her cheek, removing the ink. A quick transmutation and the ink was back on the page and the lettering restored. She beamed up at him sleepily.
“Thank you,” she said in a small voice, grateful to him. The yellow eyes softened and he smiled in return as he crouched down to her level. His knee squeaked in protest. Gabriella frowned.
“When was the last time you oiled your leg?” she asked sternly. He rolled his eyes at her. She realised he looked tired. His hair was less than pristine and he had dark marks beneath his eyes.
“I have barely had time to sleep; my leg can wait,” he said with a sigh, scratching the back of his head in irritation. “You have no idea how much work I have done in the last two days.”
“I would if you would tell me what is going on,” she said prissily, pouting despite her best efforts not to. It was apparently too much of a temptation and Edward quickly moved forward and playfully nipped her bottom lip before kissing away her pout.
“Get a shower,” he ordered softly. “You’re covered in dust and we have an appointment.” She narrowed her eyes at him and twisted her body into a very ungraceful flounce to her feet. She nearly tripped over those same feet and growled at her tired legs.
“So do I get to know where we are going?” she asked in a cold tone. “Or is that not in the great plan?”
She expected him to get angry but instead he gave her a level gaze.
“Fine,” she muttered. She stepped over her night’s work and grabbed clean clothes, wash bag and towel. She walked to the door, ignoring the alchemist who was now browsing through her notes. There was no reference to Envy’s journal in there and the journal itself was shoved under the bed. She would return it when he was not around. She paused at the door, still irritated. She knew he was not telling her anything because she would likely object to whatever his plan was; she had done the same to him in the past. Bile rising, she decided to be just a little mean. She heaved a sigh to get his attention and twirled a lock of hair around her finger as if waiting for something.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, straightening with an adorable frown on his face. “We don’t have much time.”
She looked over her shoulder at him from below her lashes. Her bitten lip protruded slightly again, head on one side.
“I’ve not spent much time with you in over a week,” she complained, bending a knee slightly so her hips tipped a little, showing off her figure as best she could while dressed in shapeless clothes and smeared with dust. Still the effect on her alchemist was as she hoped. His eyes widened a little and he swallowed. His fingers twitched as if he was wanting to reach for her but stopping himself.
“It can’t be helped,” he said, inhaling. “Things have been difficult…” he trailed off lamely.
“Oh, farm boy,” thought Gabbie to herself with wicked glee. “You may be a genius but you still have a lot to learn. You really do make this too easy.”
She turned around and leant against the door frame, picking at the paintwork with a pointed finger. She moistened her lips before she spoke and nearly laughed when his eyes dropped to the carpet.
“If you find my appearance so disgusting,” she said in a husky voice. “Perhaps you should come with me to make sure I clean everything to your satisfaction.” The golden eyes snapped back up to her, wide with surprise.
“Gabriella!” he exclaimed. “Those are public showers! Anyone could…”
He trailed off when she could not keep her face straight anymore.
He gave her an unamused scowl and crossed his arms.
“If I had taken you seriously that would have totally backfired!” he snapped.
She shrugged as she chuckled.
“What would be wrong with that?” she asked with a throaty laugh.
He said something in one of the many languages he had at his command and she found herself pinned against the door frame with a very amorous pair of lips on hers. She kissed him back hungrily, making his breath quicken and hitch. The lips tore from hers and pressed her ear.
“Go and get a shower,” he breathed. “I’ve missed you too, but we cannot be late or my plans will fall apart.”
She nipped his earlobe in retaliation then ducked under his real arm to escape into the corridor.
“All right.” She sighed with a good dash of melodrama. “Reject my advances and spurn my love.”
“Gabriella!” he snapped, finally losing patience. “Get in the shower or I will drag you in there myself and scrub you with a yard broom!”
“Oh, you’d love that, you pervert,” she said with a giggle. She laughed and side stepped as her pillow was thrown at her. With a titter she dashed down the hall, not wanting to push him further. There was a fine line between teasing and just being annoying and she did not want to overstep it much when he was tired. She could hear him chuckling and grinned. She liked to make him laugh.
Faster and rather colder than she normally would opt for, she quickly showered and dressed. She tried not to worry about what Edward’s brilliant mind had cooked up this time.
“Screw it,” she muttered looking at her bitten fingers. She was tired of worrying. So she might get jeered at in the corridors and bullied by people jealous of her. She could always threaten to melt their faces off. She grinned at herself in the mirror and went back to her room. Edward was lost in her paperwork. Apparently he could not help himself and had started sub dividing her carefully categorised notes.
“OI!” she squeaked. “Hands off!”
He looked up.
“It’s more efficient this way,” he declared, then grinned. He breezed past her and grabbed her hand tugging her along and closing the door behind them.
“So where are we going?” she asked, hoping he would answer her.
“To the mess,” he replied casually. Gabriella dug her feet into the worn carpet and skidded to a halt.
“The mess?” she half shrieked. She glanced at her newly restored watch. It was not only shift change – it was breakfast time. The mess would be heaving with bodies from every part of HQ.
“All part of the plan,” he said in response to her protest. He gave her an encouraging smile.
“Trust me,” he said gently. “This will make everything right and no one will dare bother you about us again.”
“Oh, dear God; I’m doomed.” Gabriella whimpered.
“Thanks for the resounding vote of confidence,” replied Edward sarcastically. He pulled on her arm again and she trotted after him with a whimper.
(AN In which… chapter heading suggestions welcome. This will go on FF in a day or two. Any mistakes, let me know.)