The Elric Brothers had worked hard for a week. They had hardly taken any breaks, except to look into some essential needs; they had kept reading the papers again and again, even memorising them; they had looked for any hidden meanings and symbols, and they had tried any theories they could come up with on paper.
Yet there were no results except for two things: exhaustion for both brothers and a splitting headache for Edward.
"This code is too damn hard to break," Ed murmured. His head drooped and his pen was ready to fall off his tired fingers, a sign that the teen alchemist was drained.
"Brother," ventured Alphonse, his own voice drawn, "We should just ask Dr. Marcoh..."
Even in his current condition, Ed managed to snarl in indignation. "No way! He'd just say: 'You don't have the right to learn the truth of the philosopher's stone if you can't solve something as simple as this! We'll solve this by ourselves no matter what!"
But it seemed that he had wasted all his remaining strength for that small outburst, because his head collided with the table at the next moment. "I just don't get this," he mumbled, his tone implying that he was even ready to cry in frustration.
It was Bloch who said that last sentence. Indeed, the sergeant had in the meantime come in, followed by a young woman with glasses who somehow felt obliged to bow every few steps.
"Scieszka?" Al said before he could help himself.
Scieszka nodded slightly and then bowed again. "I heard you two were here and..." she paused momentarily, clearly trying to find the courage to speak. "Mr. Edward, thanks to you, I was able to put my mother in a wonderful hospital. I don't know how to thank you."
"I told you it was okay," Ed merely said.
Scieszka didn't speak for a few moments, her gaze drifting from the piles of papers and notebooks to the Fullmetal Alchemist's pale face. She looked at the brothers, concerned."Maybe I shouldn't have given you that much."
Edward waved his hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it, we're fine. And when you think about how much this data was worth, what we gave you was actually little."
Scieszka blinked a bit, a small blush creeping on her cheeks. "Oh... So those recipes were important after all."
Ed and Al nodded.
"Have you managed to decode them?"
Neither of the brothers answered. Ed's face, in particular, carried now a somewhat pained expression.
"I see," Scieszka said.
"And you?" Al asked then. "Did you find a job?"
Now it was the girl's turn to carry a pained expression. But that soon vanished and she even smiled abit.
"Well, it's time for me to leave. Again, thank you very much."
"I told you not to worry about the money," Ed said once more.
"It's not just the money," Scieszka replied. "I'm happy that a useless human being that can only read a lot could help out - so thank you."
Al shook his head."You're not a useless human being. I think that trying your best to do something is by itself a talent."
Ed looked a bit at his brother in a curious manner before turning to Scieszka and nodding too. "Al is right. You should be proud to have an incredible memory."
The girl almost beamed at such kind words. "Thank you!"
Just then, the door opened again and a very familiar bespectacled man walked in with a huge grin on his face. "Yo!"
"Hughes!" Ed exclaimed, surprised.
"What are you doing here, Sir?" Al asked, just as startled.
"I heard from Major Armstrong a few days ago. Jeez, I told you guys to holler if you popped by Central!"
Ed blushed guiltily. "We were sort of busy," he mumbled.
Maes laughed. "Yeah, Iwas busy too and couldn't get away from work." But at the next moment, he had sobered dramatically. "Lately, there have been a load of crimes. The military tribunal I'm in has been bustling."
Neither Maes nor the Brothers noticed a very surprised Sergeant Bloch conversing in low tones with Lieutenant Ross.
"He's talking casually to Lieutenant Colonel Hughes!"
"I know!" Ross said."Just who are these kids?"
Meanwhile, Al kept staring at Maes incredulously. "Did you come here just so to visit us when you were so busy?"
Maes grinned once again."Nah, I needed the break anyway, don't worry about it. I'll go back to work soon - after I run a little errand for a mutual friend of ours." He leaned closer as though about to reveal a secret. "A certain /foreign/friend of ours."
Ed's eyes widened as the young alchemist understood about whom Hughes was talking. "You mean Beregond?What did he want?"
"To send his regards. He misses you."
Ed's heart warmed at this and, before he could help it, a ghost of a smile crossed his features.
"How is he?" Al asked excitedly, more than happy to hear news of the Gondorian.
"He said he was fine,"Maes answered.
Ed would have smiled at this if he hadn't registered the strange tone on Hughes' voice.
"And he is fine... isn't he?" he asked in mild concern.
Maes sighed a bit and shook his head. "Roy told me some time ago that he's been doing his own share of research back in East City. He spends hours at the library to study, and he even borrows the books to read them at home when he can't stay in there. In fact, he wanted to talk to you about it at first chance."
"You don't know what it could be?" Al asked.
"Something about atheory of his, from what I gathered," Maes answered with a shrug. "Sarah Abbot will be able to tell you more about it, if you want to go and talk to her."
"Sarah...?" Ed wrung his mind to recall where he heard that name before, only to gasp in surprise. "The librarian? But she's in East City!"
"Not anymore," Hughes said. "She's been transferred here so to help organise things after that fire on the State Library's 1st Branch. That's how I got to hear from Beregond, actually. He asked me to help her find some comfortable lodgings for her and her daughter."
Ed sighed. "That fire really has made life difficult for several people, hasn't it?"
Maes nodded. "Tell me about it. The tribunal is close by, so I would store records of old cases and registries of names in that book collection. But now..." He didn't bother carrying on.
At that, however, Ed and Al instantly locked their gaze on Scieszka, who had been particularly quiet during that whole conversation.
The girl looked back at them, not really understanding. That is, until she finally caught on.
"EH?!" she pointed at herself, jaw slack.
Ed turned to Maes. "How about her, Hughes? She's looking for a job."
Scieszka tried to object. "I did read and can remember military detective records too, but..."
Maes's eyes widened."What? This girl has that kind of ability?! That will definitely help!" He grabbed Scieszka by the wrist. "Let's start right away!"
"What--?!" she exclaimed, flabbergasted.
"We pay really well!"
But Maes didn't bother with an answer. He was now practically dragging her away.
"Ex... Excuse me, you two!" Scieszka called at that moment, straining her neck to turn and get aglimpse of the brothers. "Thank you! I'll be more confident in myself and try my best! Thank you very much!"
And with a last "Thank you!", both she and the lieutenant colonel passed through the door and out of sight, while Ed and Al waved their own goodbye.
Ed couldn't help but snigger at the sight though.
"What is he, akidnapper? That geezer..." he said, grinning. His gaze locked on Al, a mirthful expression still clinging on his face. "'Trying your best to do something is by itself a talent,'" he quoted. "Not bad, little brother."
Al rested his helmet on his palms. "I picked it up by looking at a certain somebody. That's what I felt from the bottom of my heart."
Ed felt a blush creeping treacherously on his cheeks. "Heh," he said finally. He picked up his pen again. "Anyway, that certain somebody is going to continue working."
And, for a few moments, there was only the sound of papers shuffling and the scratching of the pen against a notebook to be heard. Nonetheless, there was still something troubling Al.
Ed looked up again."Yeah, Al?"
"What do you think Beregond could be working on?"
Ed pondered on matters for some time. "I have no idea. It involves a lot of books, that's for certain."
"Should we talk to Mrs. Abbot about it?" Alphonse asked. "It could be something important."
Ed nodded. "We will. But after we finish with this thing, okay? I want to have the answer in our hands before we find Beregond again."
Al bowed his head slightly. "Okay, Brother."
Ed frowned at that kind of melancholic tone on Al's voice. He understood his brother's concern, he truly did; he felt the same way. But they were just a breath away from solving their problems and they certainly couldn't give up yet.
"Al, don't worry. All will be done in good time," he said.
And after a reluctant nod from Al's part, they both resumed work.
"Beregond, this is the fifth time that I catch you falling behind!" Falman exclaimed huffily. Indeed, the Gondorian had stopped walking again, looking at some boxes and crates at an alley close by. "I'm telling you, there's no way your cat could have reached these parts of the city; they're too far for it!"
"I can always look, can't I?" Beregond said with a sigh. "It's been two days!"
"You heard what Fuery said, right? You're not the first guy whose pet ran off."
"Without a trace?" the other man insisted.
"Without a trace,"Falman said. "Don't get yourself so worked up. It's a cat, after all. They can take care of themselves."
Beregond thought about it for a few moments. In the end, he nodded his defeat and walked up to Falman's side.
"So," he said, "Are we there yet?"
Falman shook his head."According to the Colonel's directions, No. 132 should be that way." He looked at the piece of paper he had been holding, placed it back into his pocket and beckoned Beregond to follow him. Soon enough, they had found a large house with a gate, the number 132 engraved on a plaque just above an average adult's height.
"The professor actually lives here?" Beregond asked, looking at the house.
"Well, I don't know about Middle-earth, but professors are paid quite well here," Falman said, his tease subtle yet evident. "And remember, this guy has in his possession a whole selection of invaluable books. He needs the space to put them somewhere."
Beregond nodded his understanding. He scrutinised the gate from top to bottom, raising an eyebrow in curiosity. "Why is there no guard or servant to open the door in such aplace?"
Falman grinned. "There's no need for one. This is how we'll get in," he explained, pulling a thick cord that was hanging next to the gate.
Beregond looked bemused at the warrant officer and then back at the gate. He blinked once, twice, until he finally declared: "Nothing's happening."
"Just wait for it,"Falman said. He regarded the Gondorian carefully, taking in his companion's posture. "Are you nervous?" he asked gently.
"A bit," Beregond admitted, shuffling his left leg on the gravelled ground. "Thank you for being here," he added, smiling a bit at Falman's direction.
"No problem," Falman said, a small smile brightening his own features. "I can't help feeling curious myself after our small revelation on that Friday night."
"Where will our curiosity lead us, I wonder..." Beregond said darkly. "A part of me feels that Ishould back out before it's too late."
"Too late for what?"Falman asked in a puzzled manner.
Beregond bowed his head, averting his gaze. "I wish I knew," he said in a soft tone. "But I know this. I/can't/ back out now, or I'll keep wondering and regretting it for ever."
There was nothing Falman could say to that except: "I understand."
It was then that the gate opened just slightly, but with enough noise to startle the Gondorian and make him jump back, sword in hand. Falman, on the other hand, just stepped inside, pushing the gate further open.
"Are you coming?" he asked his companion.
Beregond still looked at the gate suspiciously. "It's not going to close on any of my limbs, is it?"
"I'm holding the gate, aren't I?" Falman said, amused.
"Ah, right..." With that, the Gondorian gave one last look at the gate as though warning it not to get any funny ideas; then took three quick steps and entered inside too. He sheathed his sword back in its scabbard only when he heard the gate close behind him with a clinking sound.
"Intriguing. Just like the Dwarven gates," he commented.
Beregond immediately shook his head at Falman's question. "Nothing. I was just remembering." And without exchanging another word, the two soldiers approached the large oaken entrance of the house, where someone was already expecting them.
"What can I do for you?"the young man asked politely.
"Begging your pardon, sir," said Vato. "I'm Warrant Officer Falman. I made a phone call earlier this morning in the hopes of speaking with Professor Syndow."
"Ah, yes, I remember. I'm his oldest son, Christopher; it was with me you spoke. Please, come in,"said the young man, beckoning the soldiers inside. "May I ask what this is about?"
"It concerns your father's work about the ancient world," Falman said. "The sergeant and I have taken an interest to it and we wished to talk to him about it."
"I would not expect the army to be interested in things of the past," Christopher mused.
"How so?" Beregond asked.
"They are always interested in the future; on how to evolve to kill better."
"Chris, that's enough, my boy."
All three turned at the voice of an elderly man, who was now walking down a set of stairs with the aid of a walking stick. Beregond locked his gaze on him, taking in the limping, careful steps which carried a robust, proud figure; the bright, intelligent eyes; the lines of age that gave that man a wizened look; his small, kindly smile and his lips holding between them a small wooden pipe. Beregond somehow knew that that man could only be John Ronald Syndow, exactly how the Gondorian had pictured him in his mind's eye.
"Are these the gentlemen that rang the doorbell?" Syndow asked his son, eyeing the soldiers curiously.
"Yes, father,"Christopher answered.
"Well, don't just stand there!" the elderly man said with a mild chuckle. "Tell your mother to prepare something for them!" He turned to Falman and Beregond. "Do you have any preferences?"
Falman and Beregond looked at each other momentarily, embarrassed. "Tea will be fine," they both answered in the end.
"Ah, excellent!" Syndow said, his smile broadening. "You heard them, Chris. Tell her to bring the tea to my study."
The young man nodded first at his father and then at the soldiers. However, neither Falman nor Beregond missed the cold gaze directed at them before Chris went through another door and out of sight.
"I must apologise for my son's words. He has quite bitter notions about war and the military," Syndow said.
"It's perfectly fine,"Falman said, nodding in reassurance.
"Nevertheless, he expressed some of my own thoughts as well," the elderly man said. He motioned his hand to the direction of what could only be his study. "I never thought I'd have the military at my doorstep again. If there's a war brewing, I'm afraid I've offered my services long ago."
Beregond felt surprised at this new information. However, that wasn't the case for Falman, whose next words were: "Not this time, Sir. The 14th division fought bravely and they're remembered in the military for their sacrifice in the prospect of disaster back in 1854. This time we ask for your services in the theoretical level."
"I believe I heard something of the like while you were talking to my son," Syndow replied. He stepped into the room and settled on the couch, showing the soldiers a couple of chairs where they could sit. "It's the details that elude me though."
Just then, an elderly woman with a tray appeared on the doorstep. Smiling a bit in greeting, she walked at the centre of the room where there was a small table and, after putting the tea in close reach for both guests and her husband, she was gone.
Only then did Falman speak again.
"It's common knowledge that myths hide within them a grain of historical truth. What we've been wondering is the nature of the historical truth within the collection of myths that you have been publishing these last five years." As both warrant officer and Gondorian settled on the chairs, the first nudged the latter discreetly, thus showing him that that was his cue. Understanding, yet wishing to approach the matter carefully, Beregond bid his time by taking the cup of tea in his hands and sipping some of the hot liquid.
"Um... well," he finally started, doing his best to conceal his nervous tone, "In your first book, the /Introduction/, you said that those books were products of a strenuous search that you conducted throughout the country of Amestris and recording the tales of storytellers."
Syndow raised an eyebrow, a pleased expression on his features. "You have done your homework, my good sir. I'm flattered."
Beregond managed a small smile. "Actually, what I've been wondering is if these kind of stories are solely the product of storytellers of Amestris. It has come to my attention that, throughout your books, some of the stories were written with the utmost detail, whereas others were sketched only briefly."
"Well, there's nothing surprising in that," Syndow said. "Stories are passed on from word of mouth, but not all of them. The only stories that are remembered are those that are closest to the common folk's heart. The others are forgotten bit by bit, until there's little left of them."
"Then how is it possible that that small fraction of them can still be remembered?"
Syndow laughed. "There's no secret to that. I'm not the only one throughout time who took an interest in collecting those myths, considering them important for the people's culture. On occasion, there have been attempts to preserve that kind of knowledge. A prime example are the monks of a religion called Christianity, who spent almost alifetime during the dark ages of history to record as many works of literature as possible. Of course, books back then weren't made to last in the same way they do now. Many of those works were destroyed by time, as well as fires, humidity, ignorance of folk who considered them foolish - or even just plain negligence."
Beregond looked at Syndow intently. "But not all of them?"
Syndow nodded. "I tried to read as many of the books that have been saved as possible but, let us face it, none of them were intact. Even if they had been, those books are quite difficult to read."
"How so?" Beregond asked.
"Because of the language," Syndow answered. "The style is allusive and the ideas often seem remote and strange to modern perceptions, making them in this way only bed-time stories for children. And there is also something else."
"What?" The Gondorian felt himself tense up for some reason.
"It is quite difficult to explain. In simple terms, those stories do not deal with the countrymen of Amestris as you and I know it, but with forebears. That means that the historical period which is described in them goes centuries before the stories themselves were actually written."
"So, in other words, they describe a world and people that lived before history, or even prehistory for that matter," Falman said.
"In the same way that the story of Atlantis does?" Falman asked.
Syndow didn't speak for several moments. "You could say that," he finally answered.
Falman frowned. "But it has been noted that there have been artifacts that don't belong in the era that can be considered history. Artifacts that many believe belong to the city of Atlantis, since they resemble items of many civilizations, yet match none of them."
"And so establishing the theory that a people by the name of Atlanteans became the forefathers of the people as we know them today?" Syndow said, a strange smile on his lips. "Yes, Warrant Officer Falman, I have studied that legend as well. All I can tell you is that there's no such thing as Atlantis."
Beregond and Falman's eyes widened at this. But Syndow chuckled.
"You misunderstood me. Idon't believe that there has been a place with the name of Atlantis, but I do believe that there was a country that, truly enough, sunk. However, that country, through word of mouth, acquired the name of Atlantis and even got the size of a continent. Time has a way of changing ideas by evolving them and adjusting them to the dominant notion of the society of each historical period, after all."
Falman nodded his understanding. On the other hand, Beregond's mind was in turmoil as the Gondorian considered Syndow's words carefully.
In his world, there was the Island of Númenor that sunk and it was no longer spoken among the people except as the Island of the Atalantë, the Downfallen.
In this world, people told of a country that also sunk and eventually acquired the name of Atlantis, leaving open the probability that initially its name was something else entirely.
And then there were the stories of both worlds. They were so alike that it almost frightened Beregond.
But what dismayed Beregond the most was that, though he'd reached so many conclusions and revelations, he still couldn't see the answer.
Maybe because... he /was/afraid of it.
Well, he couldn't afford to be afraid anymore.
"Professor Syndow," he said, holding his cup of tea tightly; "Is it possible for my friend and me to have a look at those stories?"
Syndow looked at the Gondorian, exhaling a puff of smoke as the pipe still lingered in his lips. "I could do that. But I should ask the reason for this kind of curiosity."
Beregond didn't answer at once. He let his right index finger trace the rim of his teacup for several moments.
Falman was about to say something, but Beregond placed a hand over the warrant officer's to stop him.
"I'm sorry, Professor,"Beregond said. "I simply wasn't sure from where to begin."
"And now?" Syndow asked calmly.
Beregond nodded. "I'm conducting a research of my own concerning those myths. Namely, I'm trying to find connections and common points between the myths of different countries."
"For what purpose?"
Beregond placed the cup down. "From what I understand, there's always a core of truth within the myths. But, if a lot of myths describe the same thing..."
"... then the chances that the events described are true - aside from the elements of the fantastic -increase dramatically," Syndow completed with a smile. "You're not the first to have reached that conclusion, sergeant. However, each country has many myths, each told differently and with many elements either added or omitted. It's quite a difficult task to decide which story hides a historical fact and which doesn't."
Beregond thought about it for a few moments. "I understand. Nevertheless, I want to have a look at them."
Syndow raised an eyebrow. "Judging by your eagerness, you already know what it is you're looking for."
But Beregond only shook his head. "Actually, Professor, I can only suspect for the present. Iwill only know for certain when I look at everything you can give me."
"What is it you're looking for though?" Syndow said. "You have to understand that the stories you're asking me to show you are quite valuable to me - not to mention that they're invaluable to the Amestrian culture." There was a small pause. "I like to think it's a fair trade to tell me. It's an equivalent exchange, as alchemists always say."
It was quite an uneasy feeling for Beregond to feel cornered, yet he had to admit that Syndow was right; he couldn't merely show those things to just anyone.
The question was: /how/could he tell him? At least not without revealing his secret about his world?
"It could be nothing,"he finally said, "or everything."
And Beregond meant it. If his findings turned out to be just a very eerie coincidence, then he would simply suffer from disappointment for a couple of weeks and that would be that.
But if not...
"I see," Syndow said, cutting into the Gondorian's train of thought. The elderly man stood up and opened the door of his office.
Beregond's heart missed a beat and he was ready to turn to Falman, but Syndow spoke again.
"Give me a couple of days. I need to consider our conversation carefully. You already have my phone-number."
Beregond didn't know how to answer to that; so he only nodded.
"Thank you for your time, Professor. Have a good day," Falman said politely. And with that, he gave the signal to the Gondorian that they should leave.
"So now we wait," Vato said, as he and Beregond took the road back to Headquarters. "You did well," he added, smiling a bit at the Gondorian's direction. "Syndow isn't the most open person out there. His willingness to at least consider matters is encouraging."
"Let us hope he considers matters on our favour," Beregond said thoughtfully. "If he does, will you be with me?"
Falman nodded. "I've already told you I'm curious myself. But next time we will go by car." He rubbed his legs with a small grunt. "This venture to find the house on foot was too tiring for me."
Beregond groaned inwardly. Why did it have to be cars?
Christopher Syndow looked first at the retreating forms of the soldiers through the window, and then at the direction of his father.
"Good thinking. That should put them off from their treasure hunting."
"Now, Chris, you know that not all people who come here are out on finding the so-called treasures of the ancient world."
"I don't see why else the military should be here though."
"Is that what you think?That the military is behind this search?" Syndow chuckled. "You have many things to learn about people yet, my boy. Didn't you notice something intriguing about the sergeant?"
"Apart from the fact that he avoided to tell you what exactly he was looking for, nothing,"Christopher admitted.
"I wasn't talking about his talk; talk can be deceiving. The eyes... never."
Christopher looked at his father questioningly, not really understanding.
"He was /pleading/for an answer. Like a man of faith who tries to find his way in the darkness of his existence and seeks for the light that will set him free."
"So... you are thinking of offering him that light?" asked Christopher, frowning slightly in an attempt to follow his father's train of thought.
But Syndow didn't reply. He just looked outside the window, lost in thought.
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