After the events of episode 34, Martel finds she needs to go back to the past before she can move into the present.
I left the kid behind in the forest, when the sun came up. When I knew he wouldn't be coming back. He called after me - Alphonse did - and I looked at him. But I didn't say anything. I just turned and walked away.
I was furious. How could they do that? All of them! How could they treat me like that? Like I was some damsel that needed to be protected? I clenched my fists as I walked, gritting my teeth. Greed, maybe I could forgive - he'd been around a long time, he probably had some messed-up leftover notions of chivalry - but Law? Dorochet? They'd fought beside me countless times, they knew I could take care of myself. It set my teeth on edge, made me hiss. After all we'd been through, and at the end they just push me aside like that? I'd kill them, I'd fucking kill them...
And then I remembered that they weren't coming back. None of them.
- - - - -
/"Man!" Dorochet cries, "I thought you'd /never come back!"
I shrug as I sit down and set the drinks on the table. "It's your fault for not ordering a beer like everyone else," I remind him. "We're lucky she even knew what a martini was, much less how to make one."
He rolls his eyes. "Well, excuse me for wanting a little quality. How silly of me."
Law smirks and shakes his head. "And how come you're such a connoisseur?" he asks, teasingly.
Dorochet sips his drink and grins. "Told you. My family owned the tavern, back home. My uncles taught me how to make any cocktail, up to and including Molotov."
He and Law both have a laugh at that. I grin, too, pretending I get the joke.
"If that's your pleasure," Law says, shrugging and raising his frothing mug. "Me, I've had enough to the fancy stuff to know the cheap stuff is good enough for me." He sets the mug down and looks at me. "What about you, Martel? What's your poison?"
- - - - -
When I woke up it was dark and I was in some shitty hotel room and my head was pounding and I felt dead. Or at least, death certainly couldn't be much worse than this.
Slowly things started coming back. What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Fuck off. What are you doing drinking this much before lunchtime? None of your business. Looking for some action? Just get out of my face. Then there weren't so many words to remember, but a lot more punches and kicks and carefully aimed knees. And then... it somehow led to me sleeping here, fully dressed, with a knife under my pillow. I guess some habits you can never really kill.
I stumbled downstairs, sat down, ordered coffee, all without actually thinking about what had happened last night. Not thinking made it easier. But they kept coming back. Dorochet. Law. Greed.
The handle of my mug broke off in my hand, and I had to apologize and ask for another.
Kimberly. The bastard. The one who sold us out to the military. To those monsters in black. The ones even Greed seemed scared of. The ones who killed -
I let go of the mug before I broke another.
I never liked Kimberly. Never trusted him. Not because he was an alchemist, really. After all, he was locked up just like the rest of us. But I never liked him, and neither did the others. Animal instinct, I guess. And now he'd betrayed us. I didn't know why, and frankly I didn't care. All I knew was that he'd made a big mistake.
Maybe that was why I was still alive, even after all the others were gone. Because someone had to make the bastard pay.
I finished my coffee, paid the guy extra for the broken mug. Asked him where I was. He didn't bat an eye - guess he'd seen my drinking last night, after all - just told me. Peyora, he said.
- - - - -
"Me? Oh, I dunno..." I shrug, try to make it sound like my indecision comes from broad experience, and not a lack of it. "Whatever. Beer's good enough for me too, I guess."
"Hah..." Dorochet waves his hand dismissively and sips his martini. "You two just don't know what you're missing." He sits back and puts his hands behind his head. "Maybe when I get out of the army, I'll start up a bar. You can all come see that there's more to liquor than just rotted barley."
"I'll drink to that," I say, but Law just laughs. We both look at him. "What?"
"Funny joke," he says.
"What joke?" Dorochet asks, cocking his head to the side.
" 'Out of the army'," Law says, knocking back his beer. "Funny."
- - - - -
I'd kind of known we were close. After all, Dublith is close to South City, and that's the closest city to Peyora. But I'd forgotten just how close. Admittedly, it had been a long time. I'd left home on my eighteenth birthday, and that had been - God - almost twenty years ago. Was that right? I had to stop and think. A year of boot camp and special ops training, three years of special ops work, then - then /fourteen years/ in that lab. Eighteen fucking years of my life. Half my life I'd lived at home, and the other half I couldn't go back if I tried.
It wasn't that I was really unhappy at home. I had plenty of space to run around and get into trouble in, Mom and Dad took good care of me and my sister, (though they probably wished I got into fewer fights), and we had this old farmhouse that had all these great places to hide in and explore. I went to school and learned a lot of thoroughly useless stuff; you couldn't win a fight on the schoolyard by using long division. Although the math textbook did make a pretty good weapon.
It wasn't that it was unpleasant; it just wasn't /enough/. I didn't want to stay in Peyora forever. I didn't want to be a farmer - or worse, a farmer's /wife/. Especially not if meant being married to one of the brainless snot-nosed brats from school. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to explore, and see things and do things no one I knew had ever seen or done before. So as soon as I was old enough, I left for the army, and never looked back.
I wrote home, of course; sent letters and pictures and stories that probably made them smile. But I never went home again. To do so would be to admit defeat, and that was something I just couldn't do.
And now here I was. Back again, entirely by accident. I was tempted to write it off entirely as just that - an accident - and continue on my way. But then I thought of Dorochet's family, who had abandoned him; and Law's, who had died years and years ago. And I thought of Kimberly, and my vow, and the very real possibility that I might not come out of it alive.
I felt I owed it - to my friends, if not to myself - to go back home. One last time.
- - - - -
"Don't listen to him," Dorochet says to me, as Law goes back for the second round. "Some guys just get depressed when they drink. I see it all the time. After two drinks, they're losers, after three drinks, they're stars, and after four drinks, they're dancing on the tables singing rude songs about hedgehogs and my uncle Nikolai has to show them the door."
"Sounds like you had an interesting childhood," I say, smiling at him over the top of my glass.
A shadow crosses his face, and he nods, slowly. "Yeah. Interesting. That's a good word for it. But Suzdal's a pretty small village, isolated. Everyone knows each other. So when you screw up... there's not much chance of a fresh start." He sighs and empties his glass, then looks at me with a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "What about you, Martel? What was home like for you?"
- - - - -
I thought it would be hard to find my way back, after seventeen years. But no; my feet still knew the way. Down the east road, out of town; a left turn, half a mile out, down a dusty dirt road I must have walked a thousand times... the same big blue sky, same rolling golden hills - same old farmhouse, off in the distance. I felt a weight lift. It was still there. It was still there.
I smiled as I got closer, as familiar details came into view. Mom's rosebushes out front were still there, though it was too late in the season for them to be blooming. There was that same old rocker out on the front porch, where Mom would sit and supervise and make sure none of us hurt ourselves too badly. There was that window on the second floor, from which I had once fallen, when I was ten. I still had the scars. So many memories, things I'd forgotten that I'd forgotten, all coming back at the simple sight of something so familiar. I picked up the pace a little, smiling.
But as I got close enough to see the things that were the same, I saw the things that were different, as well. That old truck in the driveway wasn't Dad's old truck; it was newer, differently built and colored, though certainly just as beat-up and probably just as cranky. The walls had been freshly whitewashed, the roof re-thatched. The top step on the front porch no longer creaked when I stepped on it. And I could hear children's voices as I reached for the door.
- - - - -
"Boring," is the first thing that comes my mind. "Quiet. A little town out in the sticks, with lots of farms and sheep and cows, and unfortunately a lot of people who aren't as smart as either."
"That bad, huh?" Law says, handing me another beer and sitting back down.
"'Fraid so," I say. "It waasn't horrible, but... I dunno, I always figured there was something better out there."
Dorochet looks around the grimy bar with one eyebrow raised. "You found it yet?"
I smile. "I dunno. At least I'm looking."
- - - - -
Thorns notwithstanding, the rosebushes provided decent cover. Certainly good enough for me to see them: a boy about twelve, a pair of girls - twins? - a few years younger. I knew I had never seen them before in my life. But I knew the woman who watched them from the porch. From where I was hiding, I had a perfect view. She'd lost some weight, and her curly hair was shorter and there were lines on her face that weren't there before, but I knew her. I'd recognize Marissa anywhere.
The last time I saw her, she was twenty-one years old. She helped me pack, she hugged me, she cried a little, she walked me all the way down to the train station and watched until I couldn't see her anymore. She wrote to me every week while I was at boot camp, sent me photos and stories and jokes. She probably sent me letters after I joined special ops, but they never reached me. We were moving around too much. I wondered how long it took before she stopped writing altogether.
And now, seventeen years later, here she was, watching her children play, while I watched from the shadows. Scared. Scared that she might not recognize me. Might not want to see me. Did she even have any reason to think I was still alive? I hadn't spoken to her in so many years... would she really want to see what had become of her little sister?
I watched the children play, and tried to get my head around the fact that I was an /aunt/. I had nieces and a nephew now? Auntie Martel? Too weird to think about.
And had Rissa told them about me? Would they have any idea who I was? Did I want them to know who I was? And who/, exactly, had married my big sister!? That was what I /really wanted to know. I ground my teeth. It better have been someone good, or there would be trouble.
And then, only a couple moments later, a man appeared on the front step, touched Rissa's shoulder, and that just looked /wrong/. It was like some weird distortion of Dad and Mom, and seeing this stranger and my sister and the backdrop so familiar - it all made my stomach clench. It wasn't /right/. Some things just weren't supposed to /change/.
I looked a little closer at the man - at Rissa's husband - at my brother-in-law -- trying to see if I recognized him. There was something familiar about his face, but I didn't make the connection till I saw Rissa's lips move, forming his name: Lee. Well. Lee Reynolds. Yes, I remembered him all right. I'd given him a black eye when I was fifteen. He'd followed Rissa around like a puppy for years, doing the stupidest things to try to get her attention. She thought it was /cute/. I was the only one who seemed to see it for what it really was: pathetic attempts to make a girl way out of his league think he was good enough for her. But I knew he wasn't, and never would be, and my sister deserved better.
But I hadn't been there, and in my absence, she'd settled for second best.
- - - - -
"Oooh! Swing and a miss!"
Law glares at me. "It's darts, not croquet," he says sternly.
"Whatever," I reply. "You still missed."
"I'd like to see you do better," he grumbles, knocks back his wrist, and lets another one fly. It sticks in the board near the edge. Six points.
"Well, at least you hit the board this time," Dorochet says, trying to be comforting and failing.
Law glares at him and lets the next dart go. Ten points.
"You know, maybe you should just leave the precision work to the younger ones," I tease, and he grunts at me. I smile. Time was I was too shy to tease him; I've opened up a bit since I met him.
"Listen to the woman," Dorochet agrees, "She's the one who beats all the rest at knife-throwing."
Law growls and hurls the last dart at the board.
- - - - -
Rissa and Lee and the children went inside. For a while I heard them moving around inside: heard the children being sent to bed, heard the clatter and hiss of water as Rissa cleaned the dinner dishes, heard she and Lee talking, though I couldn't make out the words. Probably the same sorts of things Mom and Dad talked about; grown-up things, married-people things, things that were of no interest to Rissa or to me.
If I closed my eyes, it sounded like home.
My legs were aching and my whole body was stiff and I was shivering from cold by the time I heard Lee and Rissa go up to bed, heard a door close; and only then did I allow myself to stand, wincing and grimacing as muscles complained and bones popped.
I should just go, I told myself. I've got a job to do. I've got to find that bastard before the trail gets cold. I can't waste time here.
I knew that. But I opened the door without a sound and crept inside, just the same.
The house looked almost exactly the way it did the last time I'd seen it. The same wooden staircase, the same bookshelf near the door, the same carpet under my feet. The only difference was that I could see it more clearly in the darkness - something I probably had those Fifth Laboratory butchers to thank for, I thought bitterly. But I knew the way so well, I probably could have found my way blind.
Strange that I should feel like such an intruder in my own home. Or what used to be my home. But was it anymore, really? The walls were the same, the furniture and the layout were unchanged. There was that same little dark spot on the living room rug from when I accidentally set the carpet on fire, when I was four. But on the walls and the shelves were pictures, of an elderly couple it took a moment to recognize as Mom and Dad - of Rissa and Lee, their kids, their friends - Rissa by the river, with her son in her arms - Rissa on her wedding day, looking more beautiful then I'd ever imagined she could be - and even Lee didn't look half bad, even if his tux was probably borrowed. It was a happy family in the pictures, full of smiles and joy. Happy lives, a happy home.
But it wasn't mine anymore. And nowhere, in any of those pictures, did I see my own face.
Like I'd never been there at all.
I didn't go upstairs. Upstairs was Mom and Dad's room, and I knew what I'd find there, and knew I wouldn't like it. I knew, deep down, that Mom and Dad were dead. After all, they'd both be in their seventies by now if they were alive, and I know this was the only place they'd ever want to live. Where else would they go, if they were still living? No... no, they were gone. I just wasn't ready to face it, not yet. So I stayed downstairs, and looked around.
Rissa's room wasn't her room anymore. It had been taken over by the twins, both of them curled up and sleeping in matching little beds. I noticed one of them had her dolls all neatly organized and lined up at the foot of her bed. I smiled. Just like Rissa. And the other, who had toys and dolls and stuffed animals scattered all over the floor and the bedspread, seemed to be taking after me rather strongly.
I wondered what their names were, whether they were named Alice, for our mother; or for our grandmothers, Lily and Sarah - or maybe, I thought - maybe even Martel.
I stood there a while longer, watching; then I turned and walked on.
Next was what had once been the little-used guestroom, now the boy's room. The walls had been repainted, the bed given new covers. The place was, I was rather surprised to see, fairly neat. Well. That seemed to bode well for my sister's son. Most of the boys I'd known at his age couldn't keep a bar of soap clean, much less an entire bedroom. His father hadn't exactly been the model of tidiness, either, if I recalled correctly. I half-smiled to myself. Maybe Rissa had gotten him to change his ways, after all.
Then I came to the last room. The one at the end of the hall. My room.
It was locked.
But picking locks was always my specialty, and it didn't take long for me to get it open. But even then... even then, I still had to go through.
Finally, I took a deep breath, and stepped inside.
- - - - -
The manager comes out to yell at us, but he shuts up pretty quick once Law glares at him and Dorochet pays him the cost of a new dartboard. He even agrees to let us take the old board home as a souvenir. I hold it up to the light. The porous wood is cracked straight through, and there's a big hole smack in the middle.
"Bulls-eye..." I mutter, awed.
"Yeah," Dorochet agrees, looking over my shoulder. "I tell you, those metal-tipped darts, they're deadly." He pats Law on the bicep. "Come on, let's play some pool."
"I play winner," I announce, grabbing my drink and pulling up a chair to watch them as they set up the game.
Law lines up his first shot, with an amount of care and delicacy that one might not expect from such a big guy. The cue stick snaps forward, and the balls shoot everywhere with a series of clicks and soft thuds. "Stripes," he says.
Off in a distant corner of the bar, someone's standing on a table and singing.
- - - - -
I could only stare.
There had been no pictures of me in the halls. That was because they were all in here. Everywhere I looked, I saw myself: as a baby, as a child, smiling, frowning, with messy hair and scabby knees - sitting on Dad's lap, holding Mom's hand, playing with the dogs. My old toys sat on the dusty bed, even the ratty old teddy bear I'd had since before I could remember. I saw my old clothes in the closet, my old drawings on the walls.
On the bed was a piece of paper that I didn't recognize at first. It was old, but neat and crisp and had the military's seal at the top. I scanned the first few lines, and the date: almost fourteen years ago. We regret to inform you... your daughter... died bravely in combat this thirteenth of August... I tossed it aside, angrily.
And there on the desk...
On the desk there was a framed photograph, taken inside this very room. Rissa, smiling and beautiful, had her arm around a skinny, nervous-looking kid who didn't look quite at ease with her freshly cut blond hair or the beige fatigues she was wearing. I picked it up, awed. Did I really look like that, the day I set off for Central? Was I ever that green, that inexperienced? I blew dust off the glass covering the picture and stared at Rissa's face, at mine. Rissa the way I remembered her, the way she would always be to me, no matter how many kids she had or how many losers she married. Some things shouldn't have to change.
I set the picture down. And beside it there was another, the photograph a little more beat-up and grainy, but just as precious. I remembered this: at the end of boot camp, at a barbecue for all the freshly graduated cadets - all those people in brown in the back, holding paper plates and bottles of beer - and then in the front... in the front was me, and Law, and Dorochet. Dorochet was laughing, and had his arm around my shoulders; I was grinning like an idiot who'd had too much to drink; even Law was smiling, ruffling my hair with one huge hand. We all looked so young, and so happy.
I turned the picture over and carefully removed it from it's frame. And yes, on the back, there was that same message I'd written, a lifetime ago: "6/17/1900; Proud of me, Sis?"
And that wasn't the end of it, either. Held together by an old rubber band was a thick stack of envelopes. I picked them up to look at them, and my heart started to pound.
Every letter I'd ever sent home... every letter Rissa and Mom and Dad had ever sent that had never found me... they were all here. All sitting right here. Almost like they were waiting for me.
I smoothed my fingers over the top envelope, over the address written in Rissa's neat, careful letters and the ugly black 'return to sender' stamped on top and the thirteen-year-old postmark in the corner. I clutched the letters to my chest, looking around and around, at the photos and the drawings and the /memories/, everywhere, so many memories... I realized I was crying, and I hadn't cried in years; but here I was, standing in the middle of my bedroom with tears streaming down my face, hiccupping and sniffling and clutching the battered letters and photos like they were my own heart. I had to sit down, and a cloud of dust came up from the bedspread when I did. It was too much, it was all too much...
A light came on in the hall. I heard footsteps approaching, and my heart stopped.
- - - - -
I wake up with cool air on my face and a rumbling beneath my feet. I blink, looking around, but it's too dark to see much yet.
"Hey, she's up." It's Dorochet's voice. I sit up and realize I'm nestled up against Law's side. Dorochet sits across from me. We're on the back of the same truck that gave us a ride into town, except now its load has been deposited and we don't have to squeeze into the cabin.
"Comfy?" Law asks me.
I blush. "Sorry," I say. I hadn't realized I'd be that cuddly when I was asleep. Come to think of it, I couldn't remember falling asleep at all.
"Don't worry about it," he says. "You were out like a light. We didn't have the heart to wake you up."
I yawn and draw my knees up to my chest. "Where to now?"
"The base," Dorochet says, hooking an arm over the edge of the truck's bed. "Home sweet home. We've got a big day tomorrow. Ought to get in a couple hour's sleep before the wake-up call."
"Ugh," I say. "Can't wait."
"Hey," Dorochet says, smiling. "Look on the bright side. We made it through boot camp! We're moving up tomorrow. Starting our special ops training soon. And if we've survived this far..." he grins, looking happy and fierce. "Then what can't/ we do?"/
- - - - -
The bike is easy enough to come by. Like I said, picking locks are my specialty. And I'm well out of South City, so I figure it's safe to pull off to the side of the road and relax. I sit in the shade of an old oak tree, the bike off to the side. It really is a gorgeous piece of work - a hell of a lot more advanced than the motorcycles I remember from before the lab - but I have more important things to look at.
I pull out the stack of letters, rifling through them, almost afraid to open them. I haven't really taken the time to look at them yet. It wasn't even till I was half a mile from home, till I finally stopped running, that I even realized I was still holding onto them, holding onto the letters and that old picture of me and the guys.
I can't help but wonder what Rissa thought, when she saw the room: dust disturbed, papers on the floor, letters and pictures gone. I wonder if she even considered that it might be me, back from the dead. Wondered why I didn't come to see her, didn't come say good-bye to her face. I wish I could make her understand. Make her see why I couldn't talk to her, even though there's little else I want more; make her see why I can't come home, ever.
Maybe she was better off believing I was dead. But now... now she must at least be wondering. Doubting. And I can either let her keep doubting... or I can write to her, let her know for sure that I'm alive. For now.
I look down at the letters. To write to her now would be to change her world, even more than I have already. Do I have that right? Things have changed so much already, and I'm not at all sure for the better.
Maybe... maybe she's better off not knowing. Because not knowing for sure leaves you free to believe the best. If she wants to believe her little sister is out there somewhere, thinking of her... why not let her? That way, it will still be true. Even if her little sister never comes home.
I tuck the photo of Dorochet and Law and me into my pocket, and open up the first letter. Behind me is a past I can't go back to, and ahead of me is a future that is anything but certain. And in between them, I want to linger, just a little bit longer.