Her grandfather is dying and there is no such place as Amestris. [post episode 51, series spoilers]
Author's Note: Movie? What movie?
Beatrice Hartford grows up with a ghost.
This is just a poetic way of saying she is raised by her grandfather, who thinks "military" is a filthy word and swears in German and never ever answers her questions. She knows very little about him, other than what makes him laugh and what makes him sad and quiet, but she is intelligent and observant and uses what he doesn't talk about to string the facts together.
The first time she lets slip what she's figured out is in seventh grade, when Mrs. Watkins assigns the dreaded family tree project. She draws simple straight lines and scribbles in the dates -- with her mother and father and the exact time of the car crash all in big round handwriting -- and then she goes off to one side of the paper and adds a tangent.
"What's that for?" her grandfather asks over her shoulder.
She doesn't look at him, because she knows what his expression will be. "So I can add your brother."
After the initial shock wears off he tells her a little -- a name and a quick word-sketch of a boy who was quieter and shyer and wiser and taller than her, but not much older at all. She has to pry everything out of him, because he isn't like her friends' grandparents and doesn't turn into putty when she tells him he's the best grandpa in the whole world. He's too clever for that.
That's the problem with them, of course. She's just like him, and they both know he's too smart for his own good.
It's easy to assume they're not related. She is dark and curly-haired -- like her father, or so the photos suggest -- and he is pale and has a ponytail she wishes he'd just chop off already. But they both have height issues and they both lose their tempers at the drop of a hat, so her teenage tantrums make the walls shake and he tells her he's met irate colonels with more sense and they spend endless hours fuming at each other over who's the shortest, damnit.
The fights happen less and less as they get older, because she matures and he tires out easily, and the ghost gets dimmer and more distant even as she becomes all the more aware of it. She understands that it is there because of her grandfather -- not a ghost at all, except in the metaphorical sense of the word -- and that when he dies it will be gone forever.
"Was he like this?" she asks one day, after she's informed him that he's small enough to skate on ice cubes and he tells her ants could beat her up.
"Who?" But he's just avoiding the question.
She thinks he looks cold and small and fragile, and she would get him a blanket if he wouldn't be insulted by the gesture. "My great-uncle. Your brother. Was he like us?"
"You mean scary?"
"Psychotic works too."
"I've been told I'm psychotic," he says, his grin twitching at the corners of his mouth like a half-forgotten memory -- but she knows that he hasn't answered her, and she also knows that he never forgets.
Sometimes she finds him sitting upright with his hands pressed together, the real and prosthetic fingers flat against each other. He says he doesn't pray, but she thinks there is a difference between praying and believing, and that deities have nothing to do with this particular kind of lost faith.
"I should show you how to do this," he says very suddenly, almost to himself.
She sets her bookbag down and sits beside him, three days short of fifteen with snow on her boots and a bright red peacoat to clash with her scarf. "Show me what?"
"You'd be good at it, if you ever got to Amestris." He doesn't quite smile, not really. "I'd make sure you knew what it's really for."
"You should go home, Grandpa." She isn't sure why she says this. "I don't start camp until July. We've got time. We can go together."
But he just lifts her hands and presses them against each other -- fingers straight, palms flat -- and there is something soft and proud and very sad about his expression. "It's not worth the cost," he says.
She wonders who or what he is seeing now, and she is not sure if she wants to cry for their lost family or just for him.
When she tells him she wants to be a doctor, he looks up at nothing in particular and rattles off all the bits and pieces of a human being -- like a chemist's shopping list, perfect and chilly and precise.
Maybe it says something about her that she just grins and laughs. "You sound like a mad scientist."
"Watch it, shrimpy." And he has her in a headlock before she can do much more than splutter something about finding him with a microscope.
By the time she extracts herself her ribs are sore from laughing and he's got his hands on his knees and is chuckling to himself. "Your arm /hurts/," she whines between giggles.
He gives her a sidelong look from under his bangs -- he has eyes like hers, bright golden-brown ones, and damn if he doesn't need a haircut again -- and pauses long enough to smirk at her. "No one ever said I fight fair."
She tugs on his ponytail and tells him he looks like an old hippie in retaliation, and she does not wonder when she will ever see him this happy again, because she suspects the answer is never.
These days he scares her, or perhaps she is simply old enough to be more aware. Their arguments and roughhousing shrivel up because he has trouble getting out of bed some days -- and she knows that she's not learning fast enough and she won't be a doctor for years yet and he's the only family she's ever known, he can't die, he /can't/.
He turned the guest bedroom into a study years ago, and she finds him there more and more often, surrounded by his books and his illegible notes and a chalk circle traced out on the hardwood floor. Sometimes he is crouched beside it, studying the loops and lines and made-up letters like they mean something.
The circle probably means he's going crazy, but she won't let herself think that.
"I should take you to a doctor," she says. She is standing in the doorway with fuzzy slippers and a big pastel tee-shirt, and her hands are fisted behind her back.
He waves a hand dismissively. "Don't have time for that. I need to figure this out."
"Figure what out?"
But he just grins big and bright and proud, like ten years fell off him. "Al's gonna love you."
That's when she forgets all about doctors, because something cold and awful reaches into her chest and grabs her heart and squeezes the breath right out of her lungs. "He's dead, Grandpa."
He's already gone back to the circle and the notes she can never read or understand, and for a moment she hates them both. "Remind me to explain things later, squirt."
"Great-Uncle's dead. He's /dead/." She's heard stories about her friends' grandparents and what happened when they got older, and she thinks that if her grandfather gets stuck in his memories -- if he ever looks at her without recognizing her -- her whole world will break apart beneath her.
And he glances at her again, and she's never seen an expression like that, she doesn't even know what it means and it still makes her sniffle and choke on a lump in her throat.
"I have to believe he isn't," he says.
One day when she is seventeen she gets called out of math class and shuffled down to the principal's office, where her neighbor is sitting with a sympathetic look on her wide friendly face.
Her grandfather isn't in any mortal danger, not immediately, but she still pushes past the poor neighbor once they're at the hospital and screams at him for being short and stupid and what the hell does he think he's doing/, who the hell collapses in their /study?
None of this seems to get through. He just curls his prosthetic hand behind his head and looks bored. "You done yet?"
She says nothing. Fuming will suffice.
"Ever looked Amestris up on a map?"
She scrubs at her eyes and shakes her head. "You told me it got bombed during the war."
His eyes focus on something else, far past the cracked ceiling tiles and stupid fluorescent lights. "Yeah," he says softly. "I guess I did."
That night she goes through atlases and encyclopedias and maps and calls libraries long-distance, and then she stomps up to his study and kicks some of his books and stands there shaking.
Amestris isn't a village or a town or an obscure corner of the world. It never existed.
"Is Amestris real?" she asks him in the hospital. There are tubes coming out of him and three different nurses have told her he needs his rest. "Is your brother real?"
He doesn't open his eyes.
"I want to take you home." She sits on the hard chair next to him and presses her hands together so they won't shake -- palms flat, fingers extended, like a prayer to something she doesn't know the name of and never believed in. "You want to see if Great-Uncle's alive, right?"
"Would it matter?" He sounds very far away.
She can't breathe. The air is heavy and something is squeezing her chest and closing her throat and she can't breathe. "I'll find him for you. I'll find Amestris if you tell me how."
And she knows the words are a mistake as soon as she says them, because he opens his eyes long enough to smile at her. "I know you will."
She would give her arm and leg and life and heart for her family, if only she were allowed to. She has always been just like him.
"That's why I can't tell you," he says.
In the end she is drawn back to the study and the chalk circle, to the memories of her grandfather holding her hands together like the gesture means something. She throws more books and swears and screams at him and the world, at Amestris for existing-but-not and her parents and his brother for leaving the two of them with just each other and herself for being too weak and small and not growing up fast enough.
She can still feel the ghost.
"He's not here," she scrapes out. Her voice is hoarse. "Tell me where you are or /go away/."
The chalk circle is made out of rambling delusions and long-dead hope. She wonders what he wanted to do with it, what he thought she'd be good at and wouldn't tell her about, and if maybe she's crazy for half-believing that there's a power here she doesn't understand.
The doctors say there isn't much time now.
She kneels beside the circle, her head bowed for her grandfather and his Amestris and broken promises. "/Tell me/."
For as long as she can remember, she has been her grandfather's mirror image, and he has always been too smart for his own good. She is too clever to believe in miracles.
"I'll do whatever it takes. /Please/."
The ghost has no answer.
Beatrice Hartford presses her palms together and stares at the loops and letters, wild-eyed and desperate and alone.
And because she will give anything for her grandfather -- because she will even believe for him -- she puts her hands inside the circle.