A/N: I have a test tomorrow and have barely studied for it, but I have no regrets. This story reigns supreme in my mind; school obviously doesn't matter at all if there's a muse waiting for me in my mind. :D (Don't learn from me, folks - do as I say and not as I do, study and work hard ('slong as you're also still having a 'lil fun in your life too - helps with your productivity and overall happiness, I swear).)
Quick note: This is set in the 1990s, and in England, so note that some of the attitudes regarding children might be slightly different from what you might be used to nowadays.
Chapter Three: Alphonse Elric
Winter Break came soon enough, after that. I had the option of staying at Hogwarts, or leaving to go see my parents; my parents had told me I could stay if I had made any good friends at Hogwarts. I think they were somewhat desperate for me to find someone to make my acquaintance with.
Lucky for them, I would be returning home with good news: I had made a friend, and in fact, while I was staying at my parents', I would also be visiting him, at his own home too. I was very proud of the fact that Ed had invited me to meet his brother, and so made sure my parents knew it as I wrote letters back home to them talking all about it.
So of course, when I got to it, just stepping into the doorway of my own home after having been driven back from the train station by my parents and grilled about my "new friend", I got immediately rushed into it. My parents seemed such in a hurry to get me to see Ed, it was scarcely like they wanted to see me themselves!
It was soon arranged. I was off on a bus to a nearby area of town, going off the bus stop and following directions via a map Ed had owled to me. I had wanted to go alone by myself, and it was a firm bargain I had made with my parents to leave now at their insistence. Once I arrived, I found my friend grinning, waiting by the lawn in front of a peculiar building.
I stared at the building, then at Ed. It hadn't been what I had expected at all, and I was further surprised that Ed hadn't told me anything about this in the four months we had known each other. For being so talkative and loud, he also was very good at keeping secrets, and very private about certain things. Even though he was the same age as me, it felt like he had loads of secrets and interesting things to hide - so much so that I felt it was unfair.
And now this.
I blinked at him.
"I thought you were raised in a Wizarding household, Ed."
"Huh?" Ed looked at me strangely. "What gave you that idea?"
"Well," I stared, then continued, somewhat embarrassed by this whole situation, me suddenly intruding, and my obviously mistaken assumption. "It's just that… you always knew so much, and about Alchemy… isn't that a Wizarding subject?"
Ed actually laughed.
"Wizards and Alchemy! No," he shook his head, seeming amused and somehow somewhat smug. "Do you think Wizards know anything about alchemy, or muggle chemistry? They think they can just wave their wands and have everything happen!"
I thought about that for a second, and had to agree. The muggle chemistry Ed was teaching me was strenuous, and detailed, and it didn't seem that Hogwarts had any real math classes until Arithmancy, which was an elective you could only take starting in third year.
"I suppose," I admitted dubiously. Then I looked at him. "Then how did you learn Alchemy, Ed?"
He shrugged, looking uncomfortable.
"I'll tell you later," he promised. "But not now."
I nodded, unsure, but willing to go along with it, giving him a tentative smile. "Alright."
A look of relief passed his face, but before I could even think to question him on it further, his gaze snatched at his home building, and a loud grin replaced the look. He stood taller, regaining his energy abruptly, nearly bouncing on his toes in an immature way that scarcely fit everything I knew about Ed's personality.
"Anyway," he said loudly, brightly, "Come meet my little brother, Al! I can't wait for you to meet him, Kevin."
I grinned back at him, nodding, and tried not to show my trepidation as I followed him into the rickety wooden-slated, orphanage building pronounced mutely "Foster's Care for Desperate Children" on the side of the front door in small ramshackle letters.
Ed's brother, Alphonse Elric, proved to be as much of a mystery as my friend himself.
When I first met him, he had introduced himself politely, and I had done the same. He had grinned widely, but the smile hadn't met his eyes, not really, despite the way the corners of his eyes seemed to fold so naturally, and there was a forlorn look about him. And almost immediately, he had abandoned looking at me, in favor of speaking to his brother in hushed, urgent tones, who had also just only recently returned to the orphanage, about the letters he had sent Ed.
"Al." Ed's fond and proud look grew pained, creases of his eyes pulling at the edges, and not in a good way. "You don't have to…"
When Al made to quietly but urgently protest, my friend closed his eyes, breathing in deep, then snapped them open again as he stared sharply at his younger brother. "I told you not to worry about that. You don't have to do anything!"
"But it's my fault, brother," the younger boy, his hair just a smidge darker and browner than Ed's, said in a very quiet voice, staring at the floor. Rather than waving his legs in the chair like another ten-year-old child might, he kept them deathly still.
It was suddenly like I wasn't even there.
For my part, I felt like an intruder, frozen, like I should do something, but unable to, since I didn't know what was going on, and felt like I might make things worse if I tried. I hadn't expected to stumble on this kind of a situation.
"It's - " Ed's voice was pained, too, "it's not your fault, Al. It's mine. I accepted the cost - now we're here, and we can move - "
"But you got off so much worse than me!" Al cried out. "It's not fair. I should have been the one who lost my leg, not you! I was the one with a bad feeling about it, not you!"
"Alphonse…" Ed tightened his single left fist. He glanced away from his little brother, mouth tightening, and as a result, he caught a glimpse of me again, standing awkwardly by the door.
His gaze softened, losing his anger, instead becoming all sad. He sighed, and I thought in that moment it was like the grief of the world flowed through him.
"It was my fault," he finally said, sadly, to his little brother, fully turning to face him, squatting down slightly until Al was forced to meet his eyes. "Got it, Al? I decided that we would bring Mom back, and I dragged you along with me. You asked me to stop, but I didn't listen. So if my arm, and my leg, is what it took for us to get out alive - I can live with that, Al. You don't need to keep trying to fix me."
Al's gaze had finally turned upwards, to fully meet his older brother's gaze, and tears and snot were now dripping down his face, shoulders shaking quietly.
I decided it was high time for me to leave, and quickly stepped out of the room, leaving the two brothers alone to their moment of misery, or companionship, or solace. I felt very quiet inside myself, seeing that, and slunk down the side of the wall until I sat on my knees, the wooden wall slates pressed against my back, my mind thinking.
That had been…
Bring their mother back?
Lost his leg?
I realized, suddenly, that Ed had always been very careful when dressing in the dorms. I had never once even seen the stump of his right arm, it had always been buried under fabric, and never had I seen him changing into pajamas, unlike the other Hufflepuff boys who seemed to have no decency it was alarming. I had thought Ed was just reserved, like me, but now I wondered.
His leg, too?
I shook my head, trying to clear it of these thoughts. Instead, a sort of weight rested itself on my chest, a grabbing feeling that tugged at the top of my throat, and I felt sad.
I wish I could do something.
Maybe this was the world, just sitting out the doorway, knowing that two brothers were crying in there, my friend and someone important to him, and I couldn't do anything. I hadn't even known Ed well enough for him to entrust his secrets to me, until now. And they were -
In such pain.
I hated pain. I hated pain with as much hate I had inside me. I wished no one ever felt any pain. It - it wasn't a good thing. It was a terrible thing, like fingernails on a chalkboard, wrong. I'd much rather every stayed safe and warm and unhurt and yet -
And yet, also, as sorrow clung to me as a ball in my throat and vicarious tears budded at my eyes, I thought -
Maybe it is also a good thing, because of how real this made it, how the colors deepened -
And I thought maybe I was a monster for wanting such pain, to also make me feel alive.
I sat very quiet inside myself, pressed against that wall, trying to think void and empty thoughts, distracting thoughts, until some minutes later, Ed once again emerged out that door and took a look at me, his voice dry and rasping.
"Sorry, Kevin," he said, and I heard a swallow. "I didn't want you to see that."
"It's okay," I said. "Was it okay that I was there?"
I looked him in the corner of my eye, and after a moment, he nodded.
"Yeah," he said decisively, then cleared his throat. "Yeah." He then looked around, picked up his coat which he had slung on a nearby chair. "Want to go on a walk?"
"What about Al?" I asked, even as I stood up.
"He needs some time to think," Ed said. "He'll probably go by the river… he likes it there, and it's near enough that the matron lets him go visit." He hesitated. "Besides, Al and I will have plenty of time to talk over the break. And - he's going to Hogwarts too, next year, so then he'll be with us."
I nodded. Seeing that there was nothing more I could say, Ed then nodded at me, then whisked us out the door, until we were moving fast, our body heat acting up before the cold could harshly bite into our skins.
Ed was silent. I was silent. I sensed he wanted to talk about things - that's why we were going on this walk - so I decided to break the silence first, in an effort to make it easier for him. I hoped.
"You lost your leg?" I asked quietly, and the brisk pace abruptly halted, before renewing, slower, like a sigh.
"Yeah…" Ed said, looking at me. "You wanna know the full story?"
"Is it... okay for you to tell me?"
Ed coughed a bitter laugh, and it was a strange look on his small frame. It didn't seem normal for a child my age, to laugh like that. That was an expression that belonged on adults, when they - when they seemed to go crazy, or laugh, or make some mistake that lost them respect with the class. I had seen that often before, on them, but this -
"Yeah, it's okay," Ed finally said, hacking. Now, he drew to a complete halt, then, glancing side to side at the muggle streets, pushed me behind a set of bramble bushes set between two suburb, rickety houses. I didn't protest, and when we were well hidden, he lifted his left pant sleeve, revealing a glowing figure between his boot and his lifted pant sleeve.
"Professor McGonagall made it for me," he revealed, meeting my eyes, a hard light in them.
"What happened?" I whispered quietly, staring at the glowing appendage.
"I made a stupid mistake," he said, voice harsh, "and dragged my little brother with me. It was - an alchemic array. Something that should never be done. It cost - both of us - a lot. For me, the extra price was just my arm and my leg."
Something clicked in my mind, the way he said it.
Something that never should be done.
"You tried to bring your mother back to life," I said, staring at him, wide-eyed.
When he stared back at me, resignation and a vicious self-hatred filling his gaze, I couldn't help but flinch back at the confirmation. It was… the gaze was stronger than Ed had acted around me, save that first time in the train - filled with an unfiltered, pure, unadulterated truth.
I found myself reaching out, a hand reaching wordless forward, before I stopped, my throat feeling thick, not sure what to do.
"It's okay," I finally said, just before he was about to speak again. "It's okay. I don't care -" my eyes widened, and I said quickly, "I mean, I do care, I just don't think - I mean - I don't think it was wrong I just think maybe you - uhhh - just don't look so worried!" I cried out in a panic.
When he kept staring at me, I continued on, calmer, taking a breath, "I mean, I am not really feeling - against you for doing something like that - it's only human, and you know, we've talked so much about how lives are connected and how life moves on to death and becomes new life so I think it's only natural that you might have tried it, but it is really horrible that you lost your arm and leg and I'm sorry that you and Al are so sad about it but you know also life moves on so it's okay - "
It was such a blissful relief, that I felt my stance straightening, my chest expanding and lightening, and I grinned helplessly and emphatically towards him, even if I felt that grinning wasn't quite what I was supposed to be doing in that moment.
"Kevin," he snorted, "you're such a dork."
My grin became only half-sure now, as I wasn't sure what to make of that at all.
It had been at least said positively, so I figured I'd interpret it as a compliment.
Ed laughed even harder.
I found myself joining him, and found that it felt like it was a relief on the confused ball of emotions residing in my chest, like it had room to grow and breathe, and I counted this, whatever it was, as a victory.
When we were done, chuckles residing into quietness, Ed wiped away the tears from his eyes and sighed. Looking around the bushes, hidden like we were, I suddenly felt like we were quite the co-conspirators.
"Hey, Ed," I said, an idea coming to my mind, feeling different, brighter than most ideas I had had previously. "Want to prank someone?"
Ed looked at me like I was crazy.
"Prank someone?" he parroted.
I nodded. It was rare that I was the one to suggest or start a crazy idea, out of the two of us, so I swelled in this moment - especially if it distracted Ed or made him feel better.
"Yeah," I said. "Like ring and dash. It's a muggle prank. We go up to the door, ring the doorbell, then run away before anybody answers and watch their expressions when they come out and see no one's there."
Ed looked interested, red-rimmed eyes clearing. Then he grinned his familiar shark's grin.
"What the hell, let's do it."
After that, we spent the next half an hour being menaces to the neighborhood. I was pleased to find a perplexed but happy and maybe a little vindictive grin on Ed's face as we ran from house to house, watching all the bewildered adults come out and look around outside the door to see who had rung, only to find no one there. I was confident that our pranking would one day be known to the neighborhood as 'The Infamous Day of the Ring and Dashes', by how many neighbors had come out, some of them even looking at each other quite perplexedly and talking about what had happened.
It was of course quite childish, but I found that I didn't mind it at all in this instance.
At some point, Ed had decided we had needed to escalate it, calling 'just seeing their faces' boring. The news was already getting around the neighborhood anyway, adults knocking on each other's doors to warn them. Ed and I decided that we would instantiate a secret code amongst the adults, so that they would know when there was a real knocker versus a mischievous door dasher, and then once they were firm in their ideas of protection turn it all around back on them and knock all their doors with the secret knock at once. Ed said he knew another kid in the neighborhood who didn't belong to the orphanage, so we first knocked on their door to recruit their help in instating our nefarious plot.
Of course, once we had the kid's agreement (with a sly grin, he had promised to suggest the code to his mother, since his home too had been previously frequented by their door dashing tricks, and he was quite pleased to now be on the other side of it), to knock on all the doors at once without magic or visible alchemy - which would have been banned by both The Decree of the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery and the International Statue of Secrecy - we quickly decided we would have to recruit the help of all the orphans back at the Foster's Care for Desperate Children Orphanage to help us.
So we skipped back, sobering up once we reached the door again. Ed and I traded looks, and I told him to go in without me first, to talk to Al before we broke the news. He nodded, eyes gaining a bright determination, and strode in through the door like he was going into war.
Ten tense minutes later, he came out with an army, Al looking like a perplexed, but blearily smiling, sergeant behind Ed's strict general demeanor.
"Alright!" Ed called to everyone, grin on his face, and he exchanged a glance with his brother, who tentatively grinned back. "Here's the plan…"
Once all the other eight orphans were bobbing their heads up and down with understanding, forewarned of their need of stealthiness, equipped with stools of long sticks tied with a stone at the end to press doorbells quickly and from a distance, practiced the secret knock at least three times, they were ready. Ed looked to me, I nodded with grim severity, and we began our march to the street -
Before we all stealthily dispersed, becoming a guerilla army.
I had my own stone-stick combo, though in earnest I wasn't sure it would be very useful. Still, I slipped past walls and corners, ducking under bushes like some spy movie's main character, until I had reached my assigned first house. In order to cover the entire neighborhood, or at least a decent segment of it, we had decided
The first stage of the plan was to "initiate confusion tactics". In this stage of the plan, we would use the doorbell like Ed and I had done previously, so that adults would be forced to use the secret door knock idea that our child spy had implanted in them. The spy would relay news back to us of our success after thirty minutes, as we randomly knocked on doors, each approximately four houses apart, randomly dispersed. Under no circumstances, was anybody to be caught in this stage. The spy would reteach us the new knock if the adults had decided to come up with their own knock, meeting just behind the orphanage as we regrouped.
When I hit my first doorbell, attempting to practice using the stick-ball, I felt the jitters worse than when Ed and I had just done it. This time, it felt like the entire Orphanage was counting on me for this time, because if one of us failed, all of us did. We have to pull this off with perfect success.
Luckily, my aim was true, and the doorbell rang without a hitch. I quickly retracted my stick and scampered off, sliding against the side of the wall, hopped two houses over, and hit that house too. Then, grinning with a perverse and thrilled glee, I stealthily ran back to the back of the Orphanage, where we had agreed to meet after our hits.
Ed had somehow found a telescope, so as the eleven of us slowly gathered back at the congregation point, we took turns looking through the telescope and wondering at and admiring the frustrated-looking adults, many of them who had been door-dashed at least two times that day. The plan was a remarkable success, many of them chorused sharply and wisely, nodding their heads as they passed the telescope. Everyone was very pleased with the results, including me, and I had to fight off my snickers.
We grew worried, however, when our spy failed to meet us at the allotted time. We watched the horizon anxiously, again taking turns with the telescope to monitor the neighborhood without being seen, but as each minute ticked by we grew more and more worried that we had been discovered. Finally, however, when a small figure rustled from the bushes behind us, we all whirled around in fright, before we sighed in relief to discover our non-orphan conspirator.
"Hey everyone," the boy grinned, freckles showing. His name was Denis, he introduced, and his eyes were alight at this game. "They changed the secret knock, because they couldn't do it right the first time. It's really simple. Just three knocks, like this." He demonstrated by rapping his knuckles against the hollow walls of the orphanage, and everyone nodded in appreciation.
"Good work, Denis," Ed grinned at him, and the boy preened. "Now it's time to execute Phase Two."
They waited for a few minutes, for the adults to settle down again. They had grumbled to each other again, and Denis had reported that his mother was sure that it was just some kids playing pranks. All of us were sorry to have been so aptly described, but we were still determined to continue.
"Next time," I warned, thinking about Denis' words further, "the adults will be really angry, so then we should run and hide back here to make especially sure they won't catch us."
When the others all grinned at me and nodded, I felt gratified for speaking up.
"Okay," Ed said, "you all know your places. Three, two, one…."
It was pandemonium. Adults were out by the hordes by the end of it. Some had even started yelling at each other, about the secret knock being a trick and claiming that they had been in on it, that this was some ridiculous prank they were playing to get back at them for some nameless homeowners dispute years ago. Even I was amazed by the heights the escapade had risen too. All the orphans had miraculously managed to escape, and Denis had decided to stay with the rest of them, in fear that he'd be seen sneaking back into his home and be accused.
"I'm really scared if my mother figures me out," he confessed. "I was the one who told her about the secret knock anyway, so I hope she doesn't get too mad at me about it."
We all nodded at him out of respect and admiration for his great sacrifice.
We remained watching the adults for a while after that, still huddled behind the orphanage building, only peeking out with the telescope cautiously. Once we got bored of the adults arguing, we leapt back inside, giggling, each of us recounting our most daring escapade. I was particularly gratified to see Al with flushed cheeks, saying embarrassedly that he had only gotten to three houses, but the rest of them cheered him on, ribbing him and saying "We didn't think ya'd do it at all, Al, with your gentle heart!" and Al had been suitably embarrassed further but also cheered up. Ed had been grinning the entire time.
By the end of it, we all conglomerated in the main lobby room of the orphanage, and at some point, the Matron showed up, to everyone's shrill terror.
She had taken one look at them, at Denis, at me, raised an eyebrow, and told them she knew exactly what they had done today, but that she would forgive them and keep it secret if they did all their chores now - including everyone involved. I had paused, looking her in the eyes as she said it - there had seemed to be some hidden relief in her eyes - but I hadn't time to study it when everyone else suddenly scampered off and I had to follow them.
So we all rushed to do chores, me at first fumbling along while Ed first showed me how to sloppily do them in the orphanage way, before Al cried out in horror and showed me how to do them properly and where everything was supposed to be and go - and it built such a feeling of camaraderie in me that I couldn't help but smile everywhere I went even though I was supposed to be feeling punished for mischievousness. Still, as I found myself trading smirks and grins with the orphans whose names I grew to know - Nicko, there in the gray shirt, snarky grin, and black bangs, Alice, with her loose limbs and fierce smile, Bart, with his sloppy salutes and pinched-eyes look, were the ones I came to chat with the most in that hour and a half - and watched them share smirks between themselves, I felt quite cheery, and alive.
Finally, when it was time to go, I felt quite sad, but knew I would have to inform my parents of this adventure. I waved goodbye to Ed and Al, who stood side by side on the porch, and assured them I well knew the way back home and would get back safe. After that, as I was walking away, Al yelled,
"It was nice to meet you, Kevin!"
Suddenly, Alice, Nicko, and Bart, piled their heads from the doorway and chorused the same, and I couldn't help but grin back, walking backwards to the bus route as I waved to them.
"You too!" I shouted merrily, then promised loudly to them, "I'll be back again!"
"You'd better!" Ed yelled loudest from the doorway.
And as I left, I heard the sounds of cheerful laughter bubbling from the door, and thought that it had been quite a successful day, after all.