The Second Element
Author's Note: Spoilers for the entire series. TV series canon only applies. Void where prohibited. I never took the Kobayashi Maru test.
While not a day passed that Edward Elric did not find some new and baffling thing that saw fit to remind him just how far away from home he was, trains were not one of them. Trains were, he decided early on, a reliable, comfortable measure of sameness that could not be denied. Even the fusty ticket clerks and the slacking porters and the bangs and whistles and hisses as the engines bellied up to the station were familiar things. Those first days, when he could not look at the walls or the sky or the buildings or his father for another moment, he would often find himself at the station, ignoring the foreign names chalked on the board and just listening to the comfortable clink and rattle. He could pretend he was waiting for the next passenger car to Central, and Alphonse had just turned a corner to speak to the station master or buy Ed a package of biscuits and a hot chocolate.
Eventually there was less and less solace in the memory, and he would open his eyes and read the exotic destinations: Berlin, Paris, St. Petersburg. He would wander back late and fling his coat on the settee, groping beneath it for the tattered atlas his father had scrounged from somewhere. It was dated before the war, but Edward knew that mountains and rivers did not change as borders did, and he would stare at the continents like some strange inkblot test, looking for hidden answers.
But for all his restlessness, the closest thing to peace he had found on this side of the gate was the pull and sway of riding in a railway car. It was easier to pretend that it was somehow carrying him closer to home, closer to Al, closer to where he belonged. It was not long before he was taking trains everywhere, anywhere he could afford, looking for libraries and legend.
He was an hour out of Munich when the train slid away from a small station and into the darkness, another forgettable stop on a ride that was probably fruitless. He was half-asleep, his head nodding against the cold glass window; it was a while yet before they would set up the berths. He heard voices approaching and sank down in his coat, as if that would somehow make it less obvious that the seat opposite him was the only empty one left in the car.
Unfortunately, one of the things that had not changed about trains was the random and unwelcome social interaction it caused. Riding trains with Alphonse it had never been a problem; somehow being in the company of a seven-foot tall suit of armor made him less of an object for petty chitchat. But Edward journeyed alone these days, and talkative traveling salesmen and bustling nosey grandmothers all saw him as a target to ease their boredom.
He didn't like talking to them, and he didn't like looking at them. They were part of a world he wanted nothing to do with, and the more they spoke the wider the empty places in him yawned, until he fell into meaningless spirals of unbreachable distance.
Maybe he would pretend to be asleep. It wasn't far from the truth.
"I think there's another one in the next car up," The conductor was saying, just over Edward's shoulder.
"This one's fine," the passenger said, and Ed scrunched more tightly into his cold corner. At least it was honest company. The luggage rack rattled, but only briefly. Traveling light, Edward thought, and scowled to himself. It didn't matter. Ed had no intentions of getting acquainted with the man or his luggage. He listened, all the same, as papers were stamped and the Conductor was thanked and sent on his way. There was something familiar about the passenger's voice, as much as anything was ever familiar here, Amestrian-accented.
English, Ed reminded himself. It's English.
The passenger settled into the seat opposite, rustling his coat and sighing and patting down his pockets in search of something that turned out to be a cigarette lighter. Edward heard the flint scrape and the whisper of the paper over the comfortable rumble of the train. While he normally didn't care one way or the other, he took the opportunity to be offended that the other man would light up without even asking if he minded. For a moment there was only the sound of the train and the murmur of the other passengers, and Germany sliding past in the darkness beyond the window.
Then there here was a metallic jingle of chain, and a noise Edward knew all too well. The stranger was winding his watch. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself not to care. Curiosity ate at him, like acid eroding copper, and he finally stretched, making a big show of yawning, and peeked at his fellow traveler through one slit gold eye.
It was fortunate that the other man happened to be looking out the window at the time, medatitively smoking his cigarette, because he missed the uniquely dumbfounded look that crossed Ed's face, which had gone an unhealthy shade of white.
The passenger was a soldier, or had been, a worn uniform jacket slung over his seat and the peculiar tiredness of his features that all men his age seemed to have, no matter the language spoken. His hair was dark, swept back by more accident than care, and he needed a shave. The railway posts just beyond the windows flickered in his square, wire-rimmed glasses. But of all things it was his profile, framed perfectly against the once-red worn velvet seat, that made Ed's heart stutter and then go too fast, humming in his ears.
He made a noise, not really a word or a name, but it was enough to make the man turn and smile at him, narrow hazel eyes and a smirk achingly familiar, and Ed could feel the tiny invisible hairs at the base of his neck go uniformly upright.
"Somebody walk over your grave, kid?"
No, Edward thought, in the small, rational part of his brain that had saved his life more than once. I think someone just walked over yours. "You... startled me." Ed floundered for a moment, adding, "I didn't know anybody was there."
"Sorry," The soldier said, stretching out his legs in the space between them. "Last spot in the car." He looked at his cigarette, and at Ed. "You don't mind, do you?"
Ed shook his head, mute, his mind occupied with probability and ratios and degrees of separation, all to stall the slow awesome knowledge that he was talking to a dead man. Oddly enough, it was the train that brought him down to the ground, long since vanished down the tracks of his memory. The first time they had met it had been on a train, an early one to Central with Ed's one palm sweating nervous in his glove. And it had been the last time, sweet apple making the back of his jaw ache, leaning his head out the window and blinking hard at a platform he would swear had not been empty.
So it suited the pattern of things, Ed thought, that it should be on a smoky crowded train at some unknown hour of night, that he would hold out his good hand and say his name and hear one back he already knew, strangers meeting again for the first time.
"Hughes," the passenger said, as Ed knew he would, accepting the left-handed handshake without asking questions. "Maes Hughes. Nice to meet you, Herr Elric."
"Just Ed is fine," Ed answered, and the other man's relief at hearing something other than German must have covered the tight strained quality Ed could hear in his own voice.
"I'm glad to find someone who speaks English on this train, I tell you." Hughes smiled, conspiratorially. "My German's all right, but I can't hide my accent, and the looks you get..." He shook his head. "There'll be trouble again, and not long off, I'll lay money on that." He stopped, realizing perhaps that Ed was simply staring at him, his gold eyes unnerving in their flat appraisal, giving away nothing. "Eh, I'm sure you're tired of hearing about the war. Everybody," Hughes said, lifting his cigarette back to his mouth, "is tired of hearing about war."
"It's all right," Ed said, suddenly afraid that this chance would slip by before he could do whatever he was meant to do with it, before he could make astronomical coincidence into logical conclusion. His eyes fell on Hughes' silver watch chain, and it was with niggling suspicion that he asked, "Do you know what time it is?"
"Hmm?" Hughes said, coming back from someplace far beyond the train window, a thousand miles in his eyes. "Oh, right." He pulled the watch out of his pocket, and something blossomed in Edward's chest, like a seed long planted and forgotten.
The watch was battered, the silver dented and scarred, but the seal was still there, hippocampus and star. "Nine twenty-three," Hughes said, flipping the cover open. "The train was late."
"That's an interesting pocketwatch," Ed said, struggling to keep his voice as bland as possible. "Can I see it?"
Hughes hesitated, obviously uncomfortable. "Sure," he said, after a moment's consideration, and unfastened the chain from his belt. "It's an old piece of junk, really, I should break down and buy a new one..."
"It looks like you've had it a while." Ed turned the watch over in his gloved hands, examining the seal. "I've been looking for something like it. Where did you buy it?"
"I didn't," Hughes said, and it was his voice that sounded strained now. "It was-- It was a gift."
Ed pressed the knob and the case opened. He heard Hughes flinch, a sharp involuntary intake of breath, and realized that there was a photograph wedged face down in the hollow of the front cover. Someone had written "June 23, 1919" on it, in pencil. Ed knew the handwriting instantly, and it wasn't Hughes'. "Sorry," Ed said, snapping the case closed and handing the watch back. "I didn't mean to pry."
Hughes took his watch back, and there was an awkward silence. "No," he said, looking chagrined, "I'm sorry." He rolled the watch over in his palm, as though the scratches and dents were a language only he could read. "If you're interested in watches I can't help you, it's only been mine for a few years. It used to belong to my best friend, before he--" A stillness came over Hughes' face, and suddenly Ed didn't want to know anymore, didn't want to hear it, because he knew the handwriting on the photograph, and knew without any doubt that the man who had written that date and owned that watch was long dead.
"I'm sorry." Ed could not think of anything else to say, and stared hard at his reflection in the window glass. It shouldn't make one bit of difference to him. He didn't know that Roy Mustang, and had never known him, and grieving a stranger seemed foolish and impossible to explain.
"It's all right," Hughes said, sighing heavily.
"No, it isn't," Ed answered. He could feel Hughes looking at him, and then he heard him laugh, quietly.
"Fair enough, Kid. It isn't. And if you know that, we've got something in common, maybe." Hughes opened the watch, and pulled the photograph free. "Here."
Edward took the offered snapshot, turned it over slowly. It hit him like the nerves connecting in his automail, two men he knew in the wrong uniforms, laughing at the camera. "This was his watch?" Ed asked.
Hughes nodded. "Probably should have gone to his family, God knows." He took a long hard pull of his cigarette. "Damn little else to send back to them." Hughes raked back his hair. "But he'd told me long before to take it." The smile was forced, the change of subject awkward. "Are you a watchmaker, or a collector, or something?"
For answer Edward reached into his pocket and pulled out his own watch, and laid it on the windowsill of the train. It was a replica, but one he had custom made from his own awkward left-handed sketches, and matched Hughes' like a long lost twin. "I'm an alchemist," he said. "And your best friend's name was Roy Mustang. His birthday was July 31, he liked scotch on the rocks, and would hit on a china hutch if it put on a dress, right?"
Hughes just stared, cigarette forgotten. "What?" He said, and then, "Yes, I mean, yeah, that's all right." He looked at the watch, twin to his own. "Alchemist?" He lowered his eyebrows, thinking hard. Ed watched him try to put the pieces together and make a cohesive, acceptable whole, and the line between memory and present blurred. "Was Roy in some kind of secret society, or something? Is that how you know who he is?"
"I can tell you," Ed said, "but you might not believe me."
Hughes sat back in the seat and considered. He reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out his cigarettes and trench-lighter, laid them on the windowsill next to Ed's watch like a poker player raising the ante. "I've got nowhere else to go," he said.
Ed smiled, and removed the glove from his right hand. His automail, makeshift as it was and nothing he had planned to be stuck with, gleamed dully in the light of the dim train lamps. "People cannot gain anything without sacrificing something," he said. "You must present something of value in order to gain something else of value. That is the principle of Equivalent Trade in alchemy."
The conductors came and put up the berths on the seats on either side of them, but moved on when Hughes wordlessly waved them past. Around midnight he pulled a thermos from his haversack, and poured coffee for them to share out of the lid. Ed remembered the packet of tea biscuits he had shoved in his coat pocket, and took them out to share, but neither one of them unwrapped one to eat. Hughes didn't say one word to interrupt, not even when Ed knew he had said something that hit home, a word or expression, a reaction he could have predicted. He listened through the impossible and the extraordinary, and only closed his eyes once when Ed spoke, voice uncertain, of a Maes Hughes and a phone booth, a photograph and a single bullet.
Around them the passengers slept, arrived or departed, and the stops and the train fell away and Ed remembered even more than he wanted to, more than he had in the long string of empty days. Home was so close, on the end of his tongue and sitting in patient disbelief across from him. He was glad of the coffee even when it grew cold, for something to drink and wash down the ache in his throat and the taste of names long unsaid.
The windows turned grey and then pink with coming morning, and there was a city beneath the ground, and flesh and blood traded willingly, and a vast rustling gate in a space of openness. And then, suddenly, Ed was out of words, the tale ending as sunrise and the next stop both drew inexorably closer.
"Well," Hughes said, as Ed drained the last of the tepid coffee and tugged his glove back on. "That's quite the story."
"It's not a story," Edward answered. "It's true, even if you don't believe me."
"Oh, I believe you all right." Hughes reached out and touched Ed's watch, as though afraid it would bite, or that his hand would pass through it. The watch rocked gently from the motion of the train, stilling as it tilted up against Hughes' finger. "I've seen crazy before, kid, and it ain't you." He sighed, and the sound was nearly lost as the train slid to a panting halt at some unknown platform, wheels squealing, passengers murmuring and stirring. "You've given me something to think about, though. Probably for the rest of my life."
Ed stared as Hughes stood up and pulled his rucksack from the luggage rack. "You don't have to think about it. I'm looking for a way back. I'll find it. You could come with me."
Hughes laughed sadly, packing away the empty thermos, feeling around the rack for his hat. "No, I couldn't. Even if I did, it wouldn't be right. I will not cheapen the death of that man, or something so precious as the grief of the ones he left behind. It wouldn't be fair."
"I don't believe in fairness anymore." Ed said bitterly, as the conductor called for the departing passengers. "Just because it is right doesn't mean that it is equal, and the other way around, as well. My world has been taking things from yours for nobody knows how long; it's only right if you wanted to take something for yourself."
Hughes considered, running his thumb over the band of his hat. "All the same. I'd be a stranger with a familiar face. I wouldn't be the best friend they lost, or the husband."
"Or the father," Ed prompted, and a peculiar look crossed Hughes face and then left without any tracks.
"Your stop, sir," The conductor said, passing Hughes. Hughes nodded.
"Please," Edward said, his stomach trembling with fear. It was like some transmutation gone wrong, and he could only watch as elements collided and structure folded in on itself. "What else do you have to live for, here? Another war?"
"You can't bring back the dead, Edward Elric." Hughes tipped on his hat, picked up his rucksack. "And that goes both ways, on any side of any gate."
Ed clutched his right wrist, his eyes hard. "Nobody," he said, "knows that better than I do."
"Then you understand," Hughes said, rattling the empty cigarette box and lighter into his pocket. "Or you will sometime. People can't be replaced--"
"I know that!" Ed stood up, clutching the edge of his seat so hard that the faded fabric squeaked protest. "I'm not trying to replace him, I'm just trying--" He choked, turning away, hair covering his eyes. "I wasn't even there, goddammit. I didn't even know. Not for months. And even when I did, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't do a damn thing." He sank down onto the seat, his face in his hand. "If you're leaving," he said, his voice hard, "then you damn well better leave."
Hughes did not answer, but Edward felt a hand on his shoulder, an encouraging half-squeeze and pat that he knew all too well. The only farewell was the sound of Hughes walking away, into the early morning just visible beyond the grey shadow of the train platform.
And Ed put his head on his arms and grieved all over again.
It seemed hours later that the train shuddered into motion and Edward felt himself pulled away, propelled in the current of fate, unable to slow time or turn it back. His heart ached, out of place and time, and he fell into uneasy slumber.
He woke some time later in the midst of high white mountains, blinking at the bright late-morning light streaming through the window. The sleepless night left his mind blurry. For a moment he wondered if he had only dreamed of the meeting, some wishful thought on the part of his subconscious. But no, he could still taste the sour flavor of black coffee and disappointment on the back of his tongue.
He wondered how much longer he had before his destination, groping for his watch and remembering that he had taken it out and left it on the windowsill. Yawning, he put his hand down, and felt not one cold silver watch resting there, but two.
"I thought about it," Hughes said, in the seat across him. "Probably all the way through the second class car, actually, which can take a long time on a crowded train. And I'd like to give it a shot, if the offer still stands."
Ed's mouth worked silently for several seconds, the feeling of elation so foreign to him that for a moment he didn't recognize it, and only thought he was going to be sick. When he could finally talk, he said, "What changed your mind?"
Hughes looked at his hands, his smile rueful. "What you said, about being a father. I almost was, you know. But Gracia's labor started early, and there was a snowstorm. She was by herself; I was in the south of France at the time." He closed his hand, and his eyes. "My daughter didn't make it through the night. Neither did my wife."
"Late January," Ed said, and the elements swapped fairly, one substance becoming a balanced other. "On my birthday."
"So I thought," Hughes said, and he was smiling, though Ed was sure somehow that those empty miles of sadness would never leave his eyes, "that I would like to see that little girl. Even if I don't stay." He reached for his battered pocket watch, and folded his hand around it. "Even if it isn't fair."
"Not being fair doesn't always mean unfair in the negative." Ed said. "Sometimes you get more than you deserve."
"Yeah, well," Hughes said, grinning, "If you ask me, I think we both deserve quite a bit." He ruffled his hair. "You were right, you know. There's nothing left here. Not for me." He slipped the watch into his pocket, securing the chain. "So. Where are we going, Fullmetal Alchemist?"
Ed lifted his face to the sunlight, to the white mountain and black railway cutting as it flickered by. "...Home."