It had not been a banner day for the Elric brothers.
They had spent the last week tracking down a man who was once known as the Acid Alchemist. After the Ishbal rebellion, he’d retired from the military and become a recluse, but a man who served with him said he had talked about researching the Philosopher’s Stone. After more than three years of their own fruitless search, even a lead that flimsy was motivation enough for the boys to seek him out.
In retrospect, the very sight of his secluded and fortress-like laboratory should have made them think twice about stepping inside. Yet in spite of all their past experiences, they were still caught off guard when the guy turned out to be certifiably insane—as usual. It just so happened he was working on a plot to overthrow the military, as usual—and a visit from an unsuspecting State Alchemist triggered a nasty reaction that left the Elrics lucky to escape with their lives. As usual.
Edward still hadn’t figured out how his report would explain the rather large crater that used to be the Acid Alchemist’s lab.
Not that it was his fault, of course. After all, the liquid in those giant vats underground had looked like harmless water. How was he supposed to know what one tiny little alchemic reaction would do to it?
As it was, only Alphonse’s act of shielding him had saved Ed from grievous injury or worse. Even at the distance they’d managed to escape to before the blast, they weren’t safe from a resulting rain of oil-black, corrosive stuff that burned holes clear through Al’s armor. Ed’s stomach still churned when he remembered the smell of it, the harsh sizzling sound it made, as Al crouched over him and bore its effect on his own unfeeling back.
The damage came closer to Al’s blood seal than the younger Elric ever realized… but Ed knew. The sight of that sludge eating hungrily toward his brother’s life-source made him feel more terror than he’d known in a long time.
…It didn’t really matter now. Al was as good as new, cleansed of the vile stuff, the holes and pitting flawlessly filled in and repaired with some alchemized scrap metal. Ed himself had suffered a long acid burn on the side of his forearm, but that was his own fault: stupid with panic at the threat to Al’s blood seal, he’d wiped away the goop with his flesh arm instead of his automail. Al got his coat and jacket off before much of it penetrated the sleeves, but there was still a fiery trail of pain under the makeshift bandage between his elbow and wrist.
Now twilight was descending as the brothers trudged into the nearby town of Wilbren, and in the aftermath of a day full of fighting and fear, Ed felt utterly drained. He didn’t even want food. All he wanted was a bed to fall into.
“This must be what they call ‘the wrong side of the tracks’,” Al mused, taking in the scenery of the neighborhood on the outskirts of town. They were walking along a drab, run-down street where it seemed every other structure stood abandoned, windows shattered. Weeds grew up through the cracked sidewalk, and many of the streetlamps were either dim and flickering, or didn’t work at all.
“Long as it’s quiet.” Ed rubbed his eyes with the heels of his gloved hands. “Seriously, if we don’t find a hotel within a couple of blocks, let’s just pick one of these empty buildings and camp out. I wanna fall over.”
They were spared from making that decision. Just past the next street corner, they came upon a well-lighted establishment that advertised itself as The Inn of White Roses. It was a rather starkly square but well-kept place, with white-plastered walls and pale blue shutters on the windows. Around the door, the eponymous white flowers rambled up a trellis, lightly perfuming the air. There was a veneer of cheapness to the inn, but it looked like a comfortable, welcoming cheapness.
“Finally,” Ed groaned, and managed to quicken his pace—if only from drag to lurch.
Al gently touched his shoulder. “Brother, while you get a room and lay down, I want to see if I can find a pharmacy. We should put some fresh bandages on your arm. Maybe they’ll have something for burns, too.”
A little abashed by Al’s thoughtfulness, Ed paused, looking up at his brother. “You don’t have to worry about it until morning. We can do that before we head to the train station.”
“It needs taking care of sooner than that. Somebody has to make sure your other arm doesn’t fall off,” Al retorted, with affectionate irritation. “Besides, you know I’m not tired, and it’s something better to do than sit watching you drool on your pillow.”
Ed sighed and smiled, wrinkling his nose at Al. “Okay already! Just be careful… Like you said, this doesn’t look like the best neighborhood to wander around in at night.”
The armored boy straightened himself to his full seven feet of menacing spiked steel. Incapable though he was of facial expressions, his voice had smirk written all over it. “I don’t think I need to worry.”
Chuckling helplessly, Ed waved his automail hand in a half-dismissive gesture, and the brothers separated. Al continued down the street, while Ed turned and made his way to the front door of the Inn of White Roses.
He was surprised to find the door locked. A bit apprehensively, he rapped on it with his steel knuckles, and after a moment he heard the sound of a chain being unfastened—which seemed unusual for an inn, a place that should have been open and inviting. Maybe it really was a rough neighborhood…
The door opened halfway, to reveal a bony, hawk-faced, middle-aged woman. Her gray-streaked brown hair was pinned up, stiffened into place with so much strong-smelling hairspray that it was almost lacquered. She wore a dress with a high lace collar and innumerable small buttons up the front. In fact, she looked so much like an ill-tempered version of Ed’s kindergarten teacher that he couldn’t help blinking at her.
She blinked back at him. “You’re a little young, ain’t you?”
That challenge instinctively raised Ed’s ire. Oh, please… not the where’s-your-parents-little-boy routine again.
With an impatient huff, he jerked his silver watch from his pocket, dangling it on its chain in the glow of the porchlight. “I’m not some runaway kid, okay? I’m a State Alchemist, and I’m in this town on business—and I’ve had a really bad day.”
The sight of the watch was enough to make the woman pale slightly under her heavy makeup. She backed away from the door, and Ed stalked into the front parlor, where he set down his suitcase and looked around.
The space smelled pungently of some sort of dark incense. It was rather dimly-lit for his taste, with a décor that seemed to have started out as antique, and then been piled with several more decades’ worth of layers; it was clean and not untidy, but just… cramped. One doorway at the back of the room opened onto a kitchen, while a bead curtain obscured another portal on the right that appeared to lead to a hallway. At the top of the staircase on the left, the landing was lined with numbered doors that were obviously the guest rooms—and directly in front of Ed stood a battered metal desk, which he could only assume was the place to check in at.
A fat, balding, soft-looking man sat hunched over what looked like a ledger. He wore a suit that was the dark purple-red of a grape, and his thick fingers were weighted down with jeweled rings. When the floorboards creaked under Ed’s footsteps, he glanced up skeptically—but before he could speak, the woman hurried to his side, and bent down to whisper something. Whatever she said to him, it made his flabby face twitch for an instant before his features resolved into an oily smile.
“Well. Good evening,” he purred solicitously in a nasal voice, closing the ledger and folding his hands on top of it. “Always a pleasure to be graced by an officer of the State. How might we serve you… sir?”
Ed shifted his weight, still feeling he was somehow being mocked. “I want the best you’ve got—make it a room with a bath, if you have it,” he added, deciding he should at least clean the burn on his arm before he collapsed in bed. “And my brother’s coming here after he picks up a few things, so I guess it’d better be a double.”
The man and woman glanced at each other, looking mildly confounded.
“Yes. Well.” The fat man steepled his fingertips, nervously tapping them together. “You understand, the cost is—”
“I’m good for it,” Ed interrupted brusquely, reaching for his wallet. Although he was ordinarily frugal by nature, tonight he would have traded his automail for a bed. “Just quote me a number.”
The fat man did, and it was a healthy sum, but not quite as high as Ed was braced to hear. Slightly bemused, he handed over the money to the eager proprietor.
“Take the front corner room—number one,” the man said, lovingly fondling the cash. “I’m sure you’ll find everything you might want.”
“Great. And send my brother up when he gets here,” the young alchemist added over his shoulder, talking around a yawn. “Big guy in armor… Can’t miss him…”
With that, he all but dragged himself up the stairs, leaning more heavily on the banister than he would have cared to let Al see. The promise of a bed was the one thing to keep him moving at all. He made his way to the door marked #1, shouldered it open, and stepped in.
To his surprise, the small room was dominated by a huge, positively luxurious four-poster bed with a canopy—and it took all of his willpower not to dive into what looked like very soft, smooth sheets. He put down his suitcase, leaned against the door behind him to shut it, and spared a moment more to glance around.
Like the parlor down below, the room was lit softly as candlelight, and smelled of some strong exotic musk; Ed hoped he wouldn’t wake up with a headache from it in the morning. The windows were heavily curtained. There was a low dresser with a large mirror, and beyond an open door to the right, he could see a fully equipped private bath.
His arm twinged at that moment, reminding him why he had asked for that amenity in the first place, and he grudgingly resigned himself to the fact that sleep would be delayed for a few minutes more. He shed his gloves, coat, and jacket—he had made temporary alchemic repairs to them earlier, although they still needed work—and shuffled toward the bathroom, unbuckling his belt and untucking the hem of his shirt.
Thankfully, when he turned on the bathroom light, it proved to be full and strong. He avoided glancing at the mirror above the sink, because he already knew he looked half-dead with exhaustion. Instead he turned on the hot-water tap, shrugged out of his shirt, and proceeded to unwrap the makeshift bandage on his arm.
Just as he was bracing himself to immerse his wounded arm in the steaming water, he heard the creak of the room’s outer door.
“That you, Al?” he half-mumbled, loudly enough to be heard over the running faucet, and turned to step out of the bathroom. “That was fast. I didn’t think you’d get back with those bandages before I—”
Then he saw what was actually awaiting him in the room, and stumbled into silence with a tiny choked noise.
Two girls were standing between the door and the foot of the bed. One appeared to be Ed’s age or a little older; the other was definitely at least a year younger. Both possessed the dark skin and red-hued eyes of Ishbalans. Both verged on being unhealthily thin—and both were dressed in thigh-length silk robes on top of… well… things that were sheer and lacy and meant purely to be worn under other things.
“I’m Adara,” the older one said, in an astoundingly businesslike fashion. She glanced at her companion, who hovered more nervously halfway behind her shoulder. “And that’s Skye… So which one of us do you want?”
In Ed’s state of exhaustion-addled shock, words exploded out of his mouth before he could even fully process the girl’s question.
“What are you DOING here?”
Adara gaped at him, but the younger one—Skye—flinched at his sudden outburst. She edged a little farther behind the older girl, and to add to Ed’s stunned bewilderment, large tears welled up in her eyes.
“You mean we… we won’t do? You don’t like us?” she asked tremulously, and clutched at Adara’s arm with a sudden and palpable fear. “But if he’s not happy with us, Mr. Sanzo—he’ll—”
“Shush!” Adara snapped at her, but Ed didn’t fail to notice the flicker of anxiety in her own eyes.
Over the last few seconds, a vague and repulsive idea had managed to penetrate Ed’s dazed brain, trickling down into a cold knot in his gut. He remembered his offhanded comment to the fat proprietor downstairs.
My brother’s coming here after he picks up a few things, so I guess it’d better be a double…
A part of him felt he should have been hideously embarrassed, but he really didn’t have the energy to spare for that now.
He was much too busy getting angry.
“Uh-huh,” he murmured, forming the syllables very deliberately. “Sanzo… The fat guy?”
Adara nodded very faintly. She was about to say something, but Ed cut her off with the simple act of his sudden, sharp movement. He reached back into the bathroom, turned off the faucet, and snatched his shirt off the counter; then he started briskly toward the door.
“You two. Go, ah—get dressed, or something. I’ll be back in a minute. Uh… Just don’t come downstairs.”
The sound of a clap trailed after him as he stepped out onto the landing.
Alphonse Elric was pelting down the street at a full run. His armor produced a clamor of colliding steel, but he had no thought for the noise he was making; even the fresh bandages and salve he carried in a paper-wrapped parcel were all but forgotten. At the moment, the only thing on his mind was a desire to get back to his brother before something horrendous happened.
It was only an innocent comment he’d made to the pharmacist about returning to the Inn of White Roses—but it had led to the most mortifying information he’d ever received in his young life.
There was probably nothing to worry about. Ed had surely already found out, or was simply turned away at the door of the so-called “inn”. He was probably waiting for Al on the sidewalk, red-faced and flustered.
But still… this was Ed. Nothing happened the way it was supposed to around Ed.
When Al reached the place where they had parted, there was no one to be seen, and he felt his nonexistent heart sink. He retraced their earlier steps as far as the intersecting street, hoping Ed would step out of the shadows between buildings and greet him, but there was no sign of his brother anywhere.
Al would have to search the area more thoroughly. Maybe Ed had slipped into one of the nearby abandoned places, intending to watch for him through a broken window, and had simply fallen asleep in his exhaustion.
Nevertheless, Al had to be sure.
After a long hesitation, he made his way back to the Inn of White Roses. He approached the door as if it was the gateway to the abyss, a sense of taboo uncleanness mingling with his anxiety.
Nervously he reached out, placing a hand on the doorknob… and the entire door promptly toppled inward, falling from its hinges and crashing to the floor beyond.
Okay, so Brother had definitely been there.
Through the now-gaping doorway, Al could make out the sound of a voice—Ed’s voice!—raised angrily. Bracing himself for a fight, he rushed inside… and what he discovered was a little more than he could get his mind around.
The parlor he stepped into looked as if a tornado had chewed it up and spat it out. Whatever shelves and furniture and decorative things had once occupied the room, nearly all of them were in pieces on the floor. In the middle of that wreckage lay a harsh-looking woman and a fat man, both tied up with thick cords that appeared to have been alchemized from the curtains.
The woman glanced up sullenly, showing almost no reaction to Al, but the man was quite unconscious—which probably had a lot to do with his swollen and bloody face. On closer inspection, his hands were not simply tied, but secured with handcuffs that were almost too small for his fleshy wrists.
Meanwhile, on the staircase landing, there stood a crowd of about a dozen girls; Ishbalan girls, Al noticed belatedly. Some of them were even younger than he was. They were dressed in assorted robes and frilly night-things, and the expressions on their faces ranged from quiet fright to shell-shocked awe.
And at the center of the fray, like the ruler of a kingdom of chaos, Edward sat behind a desk that was the only surviving piece of furniture. His automail hand held a towel wrapped around his injured forearm, while he used his left shoulder to cradle a telephone against his ear.
“Listen, Colonel, I’m not… Wait a minute. Al!” he exclaimed, letting go of the towel to cup his steel fingers over the receiver. “Do you know what’s going on here?” He jerked his head at the crumpled heap of lard on the floor. “This—this piece of trash and his wife have been taking in Ishbalan war orphans—only to turn around and—”
“I know,” Al said, somewhat sheepishly. “The pharmacist told me what this place really was—but I didn’t know it was like that.” He glanced up at the doubly-victimized girls on the landing, feeling a pang for all they must have endured in their lives.
“Nobody who might have cared did know… Wait a sec.” Ed turned back to the phone. “Okay, listen, Mustang. I told you the cops around here are paid off, so we need… Hey! Don’t you dare talk to me about jurisdictions and wasting military resources, you lazy, self-serving—jerk!”
Ed certainly had another word in mind, but Al saw the way he glanced up at the landing, and realized he was trying to hold his tongue in front of the girls. Obscene language was probably the least of their unpleasant experiences, but even so, Al was oddly touched by the effort.
He suddenly recalled the parcel he was still carrying. With a swell of exasperated affection for his brother, he stepped around the desk and knelt down, gently taking Ed’s wounded arm—which had been further aggravated by whatever fight had taken place. Ed flinched as Al proceeded to redress the burn, but he continued his long-distance battle with his superior.
“You want me to quote some laws? ’Cause you better believe I can. We’re talking about minors here—no I do not mean Al and me!” Ed snarled into the phone. There was a beat of silence; then his eyes narrowed, and he sat back slightly.
“Okay, Colonel. I thought I’d give you a chance to not be morally bankrupt for once, but if that’s the way you’re gonna be… I guess I’ll just keep this guy’s little black book for myself.” With his left arm immobile under Al’s care, Ed rested the phone on his shoulder again, and reached out with his automail hand for the not-so-little leatherbound ledger that sat on the desk in front of him.
“Wilbren is a stop on the main line between Southern Command and Central, you know that?” He idly leafed through the book. “Looks like this place is pretty popular with some of those desk-jockey pervos up there. Especially that one general. You know, the one whose wife is related to… What was his name again…?”
Al watched his brother, and couldn’t resist an amused shake of his helmet. Ed didn’t look tired at all now: his golden eyes were bright, his lips twisted in a small, vindictive smile. He was obviously reveling in this.
The pause while he listened to Mustang’s reply was longer than the previous ones. At last his smile broadened triumphantly.
“Fine. We’ll be waiting.”
Ed hung up the phone, and glanced at Al with a smirk of satisfaction—even as he relaxed a little, letting a shadow of his bone-deep weariness creep back into his eyes.
“…So where did you get a pair of handcuffs?” Al asked interestedly.
A blush spread over Ed’s face, and he waved his steel hand vaguely. “Found ’em in a drawer of—uh. Never mind.”
Al chuckled as he tied off the new bandage on Ed’s arm. “You just can’t stay out of trouble.”
“Like you heard me tell Mustang—the local cops are no good. He finally agreed to send some MPs from the nearest base. Oughta be here in about six hours.” Ed picked up the black book, holding it out to Al. “Do me a favor, will you? Stash this in your armor for a while. I wouldn’t put it past Mustang to have somebody search my suitcase… Nobody touches it but me until we see him in East City.”
Gingerly Al accepted the book, wishing he could grimace. “Ugh. I’m gonna feel dirty just carrying this thing around inside me. You know that, right?”
“Hey, it’s for a good cause. The names in there aren’t that much of a bombshell, but it oughta be enough leverage to get our—white roses up there taken care of.” Ed nodded ruefully toward the cluster of nervous girls still hovering on the landing.
The armored boy looked from the girls to Ed. “And you’re the one always saying we can’t pick up strays.”
Ed gave him a fond slap on the vambrace. For just a moment, as he glanced toward his flock of damsels in distress, there was a quiet softness in his eyes; then he stretched and gave a tremendous yawn, leaning back in the desk chair.
“Keep an eye on the girls until our backup gets here. I told ’em we’d make sure they get treated right, and I don’t think they’re going to run off, but they’re still pretty jumpy. Watch those filthy Sanzos too—but I can guarantee they’re not going anywhere.” He sighed. “Now, if you don’t mind… I’ve earned a nap.”
With that, Ed laid his head back, and was asleep within seconds.
Al’s gaze briefly lingered on his brother in a moment of quiet pride. Then, after a hesitation, he turned to look up at the girls on the landing—wondering just what he was supposed to do with them for the next six hours.
“Uh… I don’t suppose any of you play cards?”
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan