"'Arbeit macht frei'. It is a lie. Work does not set us free from this hell, save by death. We will be free when we are dead, and buried in the mass graves with our friends. Our brothers and sister...
Arc One; Chapter Fifteen
Balance of Power
"'Arbeit macht frei'. It is a lie. Work does not set us free from this hell, save by death. We will be free when we are dead, and buried in the mass graves with our friends. Our brothers and sisters, who have died before us." ~ M. E. (Dachau Diaries: Letters from the Holocaust)
May 31, 2006 - 9:15am
That was it! Ed had decided to declare war on the vile pink room and there was nothing that would stop him today. They'd found Al and plans to get him out of the hospital in Wichita were going to be made tonight. Within the next 48 hours, Al would be with him, back home and safe. He wanted to make him feel comfortable, and the current state of this room would not do.
Ed stopped and realized what had just gone through his mind. Home. It was strange. This was far from a 'home-like' situation for the average person, but for Ed and Al this was about as close as they'd gotten in a few years. The last place Ed felt comfortable enough to call home was the Rockbell's.
Reilly had told him under no uncertain terms that he was welcome to stay as long as he wanted or needed. She made it clear after they got Al out of that hospital, he was welcome too.
"I can hardly let you stay and say no to your brother, now can I?" she'd said.
Okay, he couldn't really argue the logic. But the fact that she was willing to take them both in still meant a lot to him.
It didn't matter that they might have to run at a moment's notice. For now, Ed and Al had a place they could call home.
Hell, even Hughes had more or less moved in, although that had more to do with playing body-guard than any pretense of romance. What the man thought he could do against those shadows, Ed had no idea, but Hughes seemed to think it was necessary, and Reilly didn't argue. Ed was just glad that they'd made arrangements so that no matter what, someone was around at night.
He'd never been afraid of the boogeyman before; he'd never looked to make sure there were no monsters under the bed. He never went through that phase other kids did when imagination ran away with you in the dark. He didn't need to. His real life had been horrifying enough.
Now he wondered if he could ever sleep without a light again.
Ed was beginning to think of Reilly, Tom... and even Ducky, as family of a sort. He had Hughes too, and despite how obnoxious the man was, Ed genuinely cared about him. He'd been there for him and his brother on more occasions than he cared to admit; and if he were to be honest with himself, under the guise of Equivalent Exchange, he owed Hughes... a lot.
He owed all of them. More than he thought he could ever repay. He still couldn't fathom why three strangers would go out of their way to help him and his brother. People don't do that, unless they want something in return. But those three asked for nothing.
"It's called paying it forward," Reilly had said once. "Someday, you'll be in a position to do something without getting anything in return, and you'll look back on this."
And now... tonight... they were making real plans to get Al. Which was another reason Ed had decided to paint the bedroom; sitting around waiting until everyone could get together was going to drive him crazy.
It would be a simple process just to use alchemy to change the color of the room and not even have to resort to the physical labor of the standard preparations, but there was something satisfying in the actual act of moving things out of the way and rolling the paint on the walls. Besides, this way would take longer and keep him occupied.
Especially since Reilly wasn't letting him near her laptop computer.
She'd made sure to back everything up after the last time Ed wiped the hard drive on the desktop, but there was no recovering or reinstalling anything this time. It was little more than a boat anchor now.
He felt himself heat up at the thought of how spectacularly he'd ruined her computer the other night; and he'd apologized profusely to her. She wasn't angry over the ruined thing; she was worried about him. Still, he thought, I should do something.
Chances of being able to open the gate on Reilly's property and getting back to either Germany or Amestris were slim, but he could still help with her research. While he was beginning to realize that her theories weren't nearly as far out on the fringe as he first thought, he'd still been less than open-minded. Perhaps being a little more cooperative would be the better way to go.
This world was a shock in a way Germany hadn't been, but Ed was starting to adjust and realize it wasn't all that bad. He could even tolerate Ducky on occasion. And if he could learn to do that, he could learn to tolerate almost anything...
Except for that bedroom.
Reilly had given him her blessing in painting those horrendous pink walls, and today was the day to do it. The weather was good for once, and no one was home but Ed. Reilly and Hughes were off in different directions making last minute preparations for "Mission: Rescue Terminator Junior", as Ducky had dubbed it in an email he sent Reilly last night. Boredom was looming overhead and he really didn't feel like staring at the 'infernal idiot box', as Reilly so aptly called the TV. So he had a choice of reading books on subjects he had little to no interest in, or painting. Painting won out, and he didn't even have to flip a coin.
Ed had already taken the curtains down and moved what furniture he could into the center of the room; now he was staring at the laden bookshelves, trying to decide where to start and wondering if the bed would actually hold them all without collapsing.
From the living room, a combination of classic rock, blues and even some Gospel was cranking from the stereo speakers. Before Reilly had left for the day, she'd helped Ed create a playlist from all the MP3s she'd amassed, and he'd developed a fondness for the blues and rock tunes she had. He had to admit, even though the Gospel tunes were religion-based, it was damn good music.
As Ed closed his eyes and pointed at a random bookshelf, one of his new favorite songs started playing. He loved the whiskey-rough voice and the earthy sound of the woman who sang the lead, and he liked the way the song started slow, then sped up. It was nothing like he'd ever heard in Amestris, nor 1920's Germany. More's the pity, as far as he was concerned.
"...Listen to the story, now," Tina Turner suggested as Ed started pulling books from the first shelf. As the song slowly progressed, Ed started singing along with her. About the time he dropped the fourth armload of books on the bed, the song paused... and so did Ed. He grinned, anticipating what would come next.
"Oh, left a good job in the city, workin' for the man every night and day..." Tina and Ed belted out as he spun and danced back to the set of shelves. He wouldn't be caught dead doing this where anyone could see him. No way, no how. But he was alone, and he really, really liked this song.
One thing about wood floors; they made sliding across them easy. Unfortunately, Ed had misestimated the needed acceleration and slid his shin into the bed frame. Fortunately, it was his left shin, so he didn't feel the pain that collision should have caused. /Un/fortunately, it caused him to fumble the stack of books and one fairly heavy one landed on his bare foot. The right one.
He started hopping around on the automail foot, clasping the flesh one as Proud Mary wrapped up, muttering curses and considering seriously on wearing his shoes all the time now. In his pain, he neglected to take into account that he had no tread on the metal foot and it slipped out from under him, launching him into the bed, then down to the floor; the precarious pile of books tumbling down on him in a dusty, sharp-cornered avalanche. He flinched and covered his head until he was certain the avalanche had ended. Once the thudding of books had ended, he cautiously opened one eye, then the other.
The minor disaster seemed to be over, and with a minimal amount of damage. Then one last book bounced off his head and landed in his lap with a dull slap, front cover down. This was the first one he grabbed as he dug himself out of the pile, and started to get to his feet.
He absently flipped the book over when he was about halfway up and promptly fell back to the floor... unable to breathe.
The title was "Dachau Diaries: Letters from the Holocaust", and the faces that stared back at him punched him in the gut with the force of a battering ram. A dark-skinned, dark-eyed woman... once exotic and beautiful in her youth, now gracefully middle-aged, stood next to a flower shop window...
...Her arms were wrapped affectionately around the shoulders of a tall teenaged boy with equally dark skin, but the eyes were light. His dark hair was short, except for the bangs that nearly hung in those light eyes. The woman was smiling; happier times... but the boy was sulking. An expression that was all too familiar.
Except for the darkness of the skin, it was the same face that looked back at Ed every morning.
Sick, shaking and unable to breathe, Ed flipped the book open and felt the blood drain from his face at the first entry...
Januar 4, 1941
Ich sollte Sie hassen. Ich traf Sie nie, und es gab nur eine Abbildung von Ihnen, daÃŸ ich Ã¼berhaupt sah, aber ich merkte mich jedes Detail. Mutter erklÃ¤rte mir viele Geschichten von Ihnen, aber, wie ich wirklich glauben kÃ¶nnte, daÃŸ ein guter Mann so, wie sie sagte, Sie waren, wÃ¼rde uns lassen? Sie wÃ¼rde mit groÃŸer Liebe sprechen, und, im Ende Ich muÃŸte vertrauen, daÃŸ was sagte sie, war zutreffend.
January 4, 1941
I should hate you. I never met you, and there was only one picture of you that I ever saw, but I memorized every detail. Mother told me many stories of you, but how could I truly believe that a man as good as she said you were, would leave us? She would speak with great love, and in the end, I had to trust what she said was true.
His mind wanted to shut down. He didn't want to acknowledge the surname attached to the quote. He /couldn't/. Because to do so would mean...
MÃ¤rz 12, 1941
Wo Sie sind, wir benÃ¶tigen Sie jetzt. Es gibt GerÃ¼chte, welche die Deutschen Leute von ihren HÃ¤usern in nebensÃ¤chlichen StÃ¤dten nehmen und sie setzen, um als Sklaven zu bearbeiten. Mutter bittet mich, ruhig zu sein, und Glauben haben. Ich lasse sie nicht sie verletzen, sie tÃ¶ten mich zuerst, bevor ich sie sehe, sie zu berÃ¼hren.
March 12, 1941
Where are you, we need you now. There are rumors the Germans are taking people from their homes in outlying towns and putting them to work as slaves. Mother tells me to be calm, and to have faith. I won't let them hurt her; they will kill me first before I see them touch her.
"Oh, God," Ed moaned, and scrambled to his feet with his hand over his mouth.
MÃ¤rz 28, 1941
Es gab Rauch von einer nebensÃ¤chlichen Stadt heute morgen. Mutter fÃ¼rchtet das schlechteste.
March 28, 1941
There was smoke from an outlying town this morning. Mother fears the worst.
Mai 2, 1941
Ich habe Mutter nicht fÃ¼r fast einen Monat gesehen. Die Deutschen drangen MÃ¼nchen am Ende MÃ¤rz ein und nahmen viele von uns weg in ihren LKWAS. Ich sah die Freunde, die in den StraÃŸen wie Hunden geschossen wurden, und ich fÃ¼hlte so hilflos. Warum hassen sie uns so? Mutter erklÃ¤rte mir dieser Welt, die Sie pflegten zu kennen. Von gab es solcher HaÃŸ, wo Sie waren? Glaubten die Leute, die fÃ¼r einfach anders als ermordet wurden?
May 2, 1941
I have not seen mother for nearly a month. The Germans invaded Munich at the end of March and took many of us away in their trucks. I saw friends shot in the streets like dogs, and I felt so helpless. Why do they hate us so? Mother told me of that world you used to know. Was there such hatred where you were from? Were people murdered for simply believing differently?
Ducky knew Reilly wasn't home yet. It didn't matter; it was Ed he wanted to talk to. He'd given almost no detail about Al's state, or about the Walking Wall that was protecting him, and he knew Al hadn't told him much. No one wanted to risk messages being intercepted. Not with the Men in Black snooping around. Ray said they'd faked Al's medical records to throw the Feds off the scent, but Ducky knew it would only be a matter of time before they picked it up again.
That meant one of two things: either the Men in Black were going to figure out where Al was hidden before the recon team could get there, and they were going to have to plan a full-out assault to get him; or he would really be moved and placed under someone else's protection, and they'd have to plan a full-out assault to get him. Either way, something was going to go boom.
He stood in the middle of the unpopulated living room and looked around. Music was playing, but he didn't hear anything from the kitchen. "Hey! Terminator-boy! Got some news for you," he called out.
Ducky thought he caught a hint of something, but couldn't pin down what it was. He turned down the music on the computer, and listened. A moment later, he heard it again. A choking, coughing sound; low and muffled, and coming from the direction of Ed's room.
"Reilly's dust bunny collection get to you?" he said as he headed down the hall. At the doorway he froze, a smart-assed comment dying in his throat at the sight before him.
Ed was sitting, curled in on himself amidst a pile of tumbled books, hugging one tightly to his chest. He glanced up at Ducky with huge gold eyes stricken with more anguish than he'd ever seen. Haunted, heartbroken. Wet trails etched his face where tears had been shed.
"Ed?" Ducky whispered as he took a cautious step forward. "What's wrong, dude?"
The boy swallowed, and his mouth trembled. Ducky saw his eyes fill with more tears just before he brought a hand up over them. A sob escaped as Ed curled up into a tighter ball, hugging the book as though it were the only thing that could keep him from shattering into a million pieces.
Ducky shoved books out of his way and knelt next to Ed. He gently took the book from the boy's hands, meeting no resistance, and took a look at the cover. The face of the teenaged boy that stared back at him bore an uncanny resemblance to the young man sobbing next to him. A feeling of dread settled in the pit of Ducky's stomach as he opened the book up to the footnotes at the end. The page was crumpled and damp, but the ink was still legible.
"Noah Elric, 33. Cause of death, hypothermia. Cremated. Maes Elric, 16. Cremated. Maes Hughes, 45. Cause of death, pneumonia. Cremated. Gracia Hughes, 41. Cremated. Elysia Hughes, 15. Cremated," he read softly, the horror of what he was seeing sinking in and gripping his heart. "Oh fuck."
Ducky set the book aside. He had no words to offer; he just drew Ed into his arms and held him. The younger man's sobs started in earnest, and his narrow shoulders shook. "She was p-pregnant when I left," Ed choked. "I h-had a son... I had a s-son... I didn't know... and now he's d-dead."
Bastard! Cowardly stinkende Tiere!!! Mutter...
Bastards! Cowardly stinking animals!!! Mother...
Juli 12, 1941
Sie wird gegangen. Ich sah ihr weg fÃ¼hrend. Und fÃ¼r einen Moment, sie betrachtete mich. Dann drÃ¼ckte der deutsche Schweinsoldat ihr VorwÃ¤rts. Es gab die spielende Musik, aber ich kÃ¶nnte ruhig die SchÃ¼sse hÃ¶ren.
July 12, 1941
She is gone. I saw her being led away. And for one moment, she looked at me. Then the German pig soldier pushed her forward. There was music playing, but I could still hear the gunshots.
Juli 23, 1941
Sie kommen fÃ¼r uns. Vater, Ich habe Angst. Ich benÃ¶tige Sie, bitte.
July 23, 1941
They are coming for us. Father, I'm afraid. I need you, please.
Reilly hated days like this. A glitch in the system had caused several thousand bills to be sent out that were wrong, and all day long she had to take calls from several thousand pissed-off customers. The calling was so heavy that overtime was made mandatory to handle the queue. Two hours extra. It felt like ten.
She had never been so happy to see her driveway in her life. She was even happy to see the Ninjavan parked there; it meant she could talk Ducky into cooking tonight.
As she crawled out of the truck, a set of headlights hit the mirrors from behind her and she turned to see Hughes pulling in. He's here early, she thought.
Ducky already here; Hughes arriving early. It meant one thing to Reilly. Ducky had more news about Ed's little brother. She hoped it was good. She could really use some happy sounds right now.
She waited until Hughes climbed out of the car and her heart sank at the grim set to the man's mouth. "Shit," she said when he reached her side. "What happened?"
Hughes shook his head. "Don't know yet. Ducky called me at work and said Ed needed me right away. It didn't sound good."
"Oh boy," Reilly breathed and started for the door. Hughes gripped her shoulder, and she looked back.
"Reilly," he said, and hesitated. "He... he sounded like he'd been crying."
Reilly's jaw clenched and tension twisted in her stomach. "Not good."
Together, they went into the house.
Ducky met them in the living room, his head was hanging low, and he had a book in his hand. Both Hughes and Reilly stopped dead in their tracks.
"Ducky?" Reilly queried.
The hacker never looked up, but she heard him sniffle before he spoke. His voice was thick, and it cracked. "The good news is... Al's safe."
"Oh good," Hughes breathed next to her.
"He's alive and well," Ducky stated. "It's just going to take some planning to get him."
Reilly breathed a sigh of relief, and felt Hughes relax a little next to her. The good feeling was short-lived though, for when Ducky finally looked up, his dark eyes were sunken and pained. He focused on Hughes and said, "You'd better sit down, Maes."
Hughes had gone to Ed's room after Ducky had filled him in and showed him the book. Two hours later he was still sitting on the floor, back against the side of the bed. Ed had cried himself to sleep before Ducky had called him, and the boy was still asleep. Hughes had no intention of waking him up. Not after all that. But he was going to be there when he woke on his own.
The creepiness of seeing his own name and that of his girls listed as dead in a concentration camp was bad enough. The pain he felt at the horrors they had faced clenched his heart with an icy grip, and he couldn't shake the feeling that it was his own girls' names. Logically, he knew this wasn't his Gracia or his Elysia that had been sent to the ovens, but logic didn't help any in this case. It was still Gracia and Elysia Hughes. They were his girls and they died a horrible death in a horrible war. And he wasn't there to save them.
He tried to reconcile the fact that Maes Hughes was there, but it just wouldn't stick. It wasn't him/. And all he could do was pray that /his girls were all right.
He glanced over at Ed, who was beginning to stir. It was horrible enough to think about the alter versions of the people he loved the most being imprisoned, starved, tortured, and killed. It was worse to think about how Ed was suffering now, knowing that a woman he loved and a son he never knew about had died in actuality. Noah and Maes were not alter versions, they were the flesh and blood... and heart of the young man laying in the bed next to him.
Hughes sighed and rested his head on his arms. He remembered when Ed was only twelve years old and had helped deliver his own precious Elysia. Now the boy was a young man, and a father who had just discovered he had a son, only to have that child ripped from him in the same instant.
Hughes knew, probably better than anyone else outside of Alphonse, just how agonizing it was for Ed right now. He knew that it wasn't just that his son was dead, but also that his son had grown up without him. He knew that Ed was horribly afraid that he'd just followed in his own father's footsteps and that his son thought he'd abandoned him and his mother.
He also knew that he was going to have to do a lot of talking to get the boy past that guilt. It was an accident, after all. Ed wouldn't abandon his wife and child if he'd been given a choice.
"She must've taken my name when she found out she was pregnant," Ed whispered, startling Hughes from his thoughts.
There was enough light streaming through the un-curtained windows for Hughes to see that Ed was awake and not talking in his sleep. It was also enough for him to see the look on his face, and it worried him. He had only seen that horrified, haunted look one other time; after Nina Tucker had been transmuted into a chimera, then murdered. "Ed," he whispered.
"He probably died cursing my name."
"You didn't abandon him, Ed."
"I wasn't there."
"It wasn't your fault. It was an accident."
"Fat lot of good it did," Ed spat. "The bomb was still developed and used."
"You delayed it by several years, and Germany didn't develop it first. The US did."
Ed rolled over, turning his back to Hughes. "I think I would rather have died at ground zero fifteen years early... beside my... son. As a father."
Hughes let the silence weigh heavily between them for a few moments, his back resting against the bed again, before he spoke. "So I'm a bad father, am I?"
He felt the bed behind him shift. "Huh?"
Hughes focused on his hands, remembering when he first held his daughter. "I deliberately left my family, Ed. I left them, letting them think I was dead, because I was involved in something larger than myself. I knew I'd never see my daughter grow up, never see her go to school, never get to watch my wife age beautifully as she matured." His breath caught. "I abandoned them."
Hughes felt a flesh hand rest on his arm. "You didn't abandon them, Maes. You didn't have a choice. If you wanted to keep them safe, you had to leave."
Smiling slightly on the inside, Hughes looked up. "Then how can you call yourself a bad father?"
Hughes saw the surprise on Ed's face, but didn't let him get a word in. "You went to stop something larger than yourself and Noah thought you were dead. You didn't know she was pregnant; neither did she, I'll bet." He smiled lightly through the sadness. "She was probably grateful you left something of yourself with her, and told your son as much."
Ed blinked, then stammered "But I still-"
Hughes smiled at the boy, reaching up to silence him. "It doesn't work that way, Ed. If you're guilty of being a bad parent, then I am, too."
Ed's mouth flopped for a few seconds, as he tried to come up with an argument and failed miserably. Then his face fell into that trademark sulk and he flopped back on the bed. "You fight dirty, Hughes."
Hughes smiled. "I have to work with what I've got." Standing up and brushing dust from his hands, he offered a hand to Ed. "C'mon; we'll sort this whole mess out once we've got Al back."
It took a few moments, but Ed smiled slightly and grabbed the proffered hand. "Sounds like a plan."