Title: The Broken Vessel
Author: Jordanna Morgan (email@example.com)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Characters: Fuery and Izumi, with Sig and Mason in the background.
Summary: Kain Fuery seeks teaching from Izumi Curtis, but the lesson learned is not what he expects.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: Presented as a Fandom Stocking gift for Leni_Ba. This is a sequel to my ficlet “That Which Doesn’t Kill You…”, but the brief backstory is provided, so it can be fully understood on its own.
The Broken Vessel
Kain Fuery frowned and scratched his head, squinting down at the envelope in his hand, and then up at the number on the building in front of him. At last he had to concede that there was no mistake. According to the address Edward Elric had written on the envelope, this was indeed the home of Izumi and Sig Curtis… but Kain had not expected that home to be attached to a butcher shop.
A part of him was still convinced he was crazy to be standing here at all.
It had started when he hesitantly approached the Elric brothers, and asked if they would begin to teach him alchemy. After some prodding, he was forced to confess why he wanted to learn: because he thought being able to wield power like that could make him less afraid of the many things in the world that frightened him. Ed seemed none too impressed by that motive, but he eventually agreed that while he and Alphonse were too busy to give Kain lessons themselves, they could write him a letter of introduction to their own teacher.
Which was what ultimately led Kain to be standing on a doorstep in Dublith, in civilian clothes, debating whether to knock.
After all, the Elric brothers had made Izumi Curtis sound like a singularly terrifying woman. From the things they said, if she ever found out Kain was part of the military, she might very well chop him up and sell him for sausages in that butcher shop. He happened to be rather fond of the idea of not being cooked and eaten, so maybe it would be just as well if he simply turned around and…
No. After all, what had he come here for, if not to conquer his fears? If he couldn’t find the guts to face someone who taught alchemy, he would certainly never have the courage to learn that mysterious science itself.
Taking a deep breath, Kain reached out to knock on the door—only to flinch back as it flew open an instant before he could touch it.
For a long moment, he stared helplessly at the woman who stood in the doorway, and she stared back; and he slowly, desperately gulped down the urge to whimper for his mommy.
She was a tall woman, incongruously pale but dark, with obsidian eyes and long cords of deep brown hair. Not quite beautiful in the traditional sense—she was just a bit too hard-featured for that—yet she had the regal presence of a queen. The very air around her seemed electrified by the lofty power of her being.
And at the moment, those eyes like cold polished stones were glaring murderously down at him, as if he was a mere intrusive insect… which, in comparison to this goddess, he suddenly suspected he was.
“Well? What do you want?” she snarled, showing a great deal of teeth.
Kain’s brain very prudently shouted at him to run for the hills. Unfortunately, his body was far too terrified to comply, and left him to continue standing frozen on the doorstep.
The woman’s eyes narrowed a little further. She passed a second glance over him, and seeing the now slightly-crushed envelope still clutched in his hand, she snatched it from him brusquely. Finding it was addressed to her in Edward Elric’s handwriting, she tore it open to read the brief missive within. At length she let out a deep sigh, her shoulders slumping a little.
“So you’re a friend of those idiot boys, are you?” she said scornfully, and the letter crumpled in her hand as she abruptly turned her back on him… but then she added wearily over her shoulder, “Come in.”
Mechanically, Kain picked up his suitcase and followed her into the house, feeling rather as if a very large anvil had just fallen on his head.
The Curtis residence had a sparing quality about it, but it was spotlessly clean and not at all unpleasant. It was certainly far more ordinary than anything he might have expected of people who kept a butcher shop alongside. At the very least, there were no visible bloodstains to be seen, so he was reasonably sure any actual dismembering took place in the store. As long as he stayed within the house itself, perhaps he would be alright.
On the way through the living room, Izumi bellowed toward what was ostensibly the kitchen. “Sig!”
There came an answering grunt that Kain was sure caused the ground to vibrate. A swarthy giant suddenly loomed into the doorway, clutching the most gigantic meat cleaver he had ever seen… and the only reason he didn’t scream like a little girl was that he was physically paralyzed by terror.
“We’re going to have a guest for dinner,” Izumi informed her mate, jerking her head toward the savory young morsel who had delivered himself so conveniently to their door.
Kain desperately wanted his body to release its agonizing tension and just pass out, as he knew it was mere seconds from doing. Maybe the disemboweling wouldn’t hurt if he was unconscious.
But Sig merely gave another acknowledging rumble and disappeared back into the kitchen, without coming forward to seize their visitor as the main course. After a long moment, Kain let his breath out very slowly, and forced his muscles to unlock.
Maybe he was safe for now. Until dessert, at any rate.
“Well, what are you just standing there for? Put down that suitcase and go wash up for dinner!”
…Or maybe not. Kain flinched at Izumi’s barked orders and dropped his suitcase where he stood, frantically looking around for the washroom.
After finding the washroom, Kain was sorely tempted just to hide there until the ogres came for him, but he reminded himself once more that the very reason he had come was to confront fear and master it. So he lingered only long enough to scrub his hands and face, and then crept out hesitantly, following the relocated sounds of household activity to the dining room. He found Izumi laying a fourth place setting at the table, as Sig brought out a huge pot of stew—in which, Kain realized joyously, he was not going to be an ingredient.
There was no conversation at first. Izumi ladled a massive portion of stew into each bowl, and the Curtises simply began to eat. After a long, uncertain hesitation, Kain followed their example. The silence made him feel an unbearable awkwardness, but his hosts seemed oblivious to any such feeling, as they applied themselves to their meal with wholehearted enthusiasm.
In all fairness, the stew was quite delicious. Kain thought it was beef… unless, of course, it was actually the last poor sap to have come looking for Izumi’s teaching.
A few minutes into the meal, the fourth chair was claimed by a young man whose monstrous build clearly advertised a blood relation to Sig—but whose demeanor was much more outgoing. Izumi curtly introduced him as their nephew, Mason, who had just come from minding the shop. He smiled and shook Kain’s hand and dove straight into easy conversation, and Kain finally began to relax, chatting about the latest goings-on in East City.
Of course, given the Elrics’ warnings, he was very careful not to mention that he was with the military. Having been suffered so far to eat rather than be eaten, he had no desire to alter the status quo. Mason was perfectly content to do much of the talking, while Kain listened and nodded and silently congratulated himself on avoiding the subject of his occupation so easily.
At least, that was how things went until his bowl was empty… and then, with a terrifying casualness, Izumi broadsided him.
“And just what do you do for the military—Mr. Fuery?”
Kain’s heart nearly stopped, and he gaped in horror at the teacher. Her expression was as untelling as stone, but he could feel those cold dark eyes boring straight into his brain. “H-how’d you know?”
“Oh, please. You think I haven’t heard what class of people my pig-headed disobedient students are associating with these days? Who else would they be sending to me?” Izumi slapped her palms flat on the tabletop. “The next time you see them, you tell them that if they try to send me any more would-be State Alchemists, there won’t be anyplace in the world they can hide from me.”
“B-but it’s not like that!” Kain stammered. “I’d never try to take the State Exam. Just the thought is a joke. I know I’d never be good enough for that in a million years… uh—even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. Really!”
“Then what is your reason for wanting to learn alchemy?”
It was the same question Edward had asked him. Kain had expected it here, had run through his answer a hundred times on the train journey to Dublith; but in the heat of the moment, confronted by the warrioress glaring across the table at him, all his carefully-planned words evaporated. His shoulders slumped, and he dropped his gaze.
“I guess it’s just, in learning alchemy, I feel like… maybe I could learn to be a stronger person.”
That was all he wanted, in the end. The idea of being able to reshape matter had no special appeal to him. He was skilled enough with his hands in the conventional way; he already knew how to fix broken things. It was just that he couldn’t help feeling… he was a little bit broken, himself.
He wasn’t like his fellow soldiers. Not like Colonel Mustang, who could command his followers with one glance of his eyes. Not like Lieutenant Hawkeye, who seemed to have ice water in her veins, or Lieutenant Havoc, who would stare death in the face with a smile and a flippant remark. Not even like Warrant Officer Falman, who, for all his quietness, had an unerring mind in the most dire of circumstances. Every one of them had a quality at their core that Fuery felt he lacked. Presence, or character, or… something.
Really, that was just it. They were all something, someones, and they knew who they were. But Kain was just a nobody—and he felt it.
The silence stretched just a little too long. His cheeks still burning from the confession, Kain glanced up. Izumi was studying him with an intent, unreadable expression… but when his nervous eyes met hers, she abruptly pushed her chair away from the table.
“I’m going to take a bath now,” she announced coolly, and rose with a languid stretch of powerful muscles. Then, almost like an afterthought, she cast a glance at her nephew.
“Mason, will you prepare a room for Kain?”
Without waiting for acknowledgment, she breezed out of the room… and Kain stared after her with mouth agape, wondering exactly what had just happened.
Kain did not see Izumi again that evening. After she went to have her bath, he gingerly made an offer to help Sig wash the dishes, which the big man accepted. They went about the chore in silence, and presently Mason came to show Kain to a guest room. The house grew quiet not long after that; evidently the Curtises were in the habit of turning in early. No doubt they also rose early to open their shop.
For a long time that night, Kain lay awake, as his restless mind pondered what it all meant. Did the fact that he was given a room mean Izumi had accepted him as a student? Or was this merely the kind gesture of not sending him off to spend the night in a hotel, before they packed him on a train back to East City the next day?
As he had predicted, the Curtises began stirring almost before the dawn. Having slept lightly in the unfamiliar surroundings, he was awakened by the sounds of morning activity in the kitchen. He hurried to dress and go downstairs. Whatever he was still here for, perhaps he could help with more chores—if only as a thank-you for the past night’s dinner and lodgings.
Upon reaching the kitchen doorway, he could see Izumi at the counter, working at the cutting board with a large knife. He had an idea that it might be highly unwise to startle her, but his hesitation was put to rest when she said without turning to him: “Good morning, Kain.”
“Ah… Good morning, Ma’am.” Kain edged into the kitchen, rubbing the back of his neck. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, if you can handle a knife…”
Turning to him, Izumi flicked her wrist—and suddenly the blade she had been using was embedded in the wall, six inches to Kain’s right.
He would have shrieked if it hadn’t already been over by the time he realized it had happened. As it was, he merely found himself staring at the knife with his mouth open, while his heart briefly debated whether to start beating again.
Swallowing hard, Kain willed his knees not to turn to jelly. Sideshow knife tricks were decidedly not among the fears he had come looking to face—but he wasn’t about to make any objections to the scary lady. He took a deep breath, and his hand only shook a little when he reached over to pull the knife out of the wall.
As he grimly stepped up to the counter, he almost thought he saw a faint smile cross Izumi’s lips.
It was clear by now that the Curtises were very serious about their food, and especially their protein. The breakfast Kain helped Izumi prepare was as hearty as the previous night’s dinner. There was sausage and eggs and bacon—and a bit of oatmeal and fruit too, which he found a relief, because he doubted he could function on the heavy repast these people seemed to thrive on.
After a little while, Sig came in and made a pot of powerful black coffee that threatened to curl Kain’s hair. Mason was the last to join them, bringing in the newspaper as he returned from some unknown errand outdoors, and the four promptly settled down to eat.
And somewhere between putting sugar in his coffee and honey on his oatmeal, Kain decided his hosts weren’t really that frightening after all.
Later, when plates were empty and stomachs were full, Sig and Mason excused themselves to open up the butcher shop. Izumi continued to sit with her coffee, and Kain wondered if the time had come to talk further about what he was there for. That thought still made him nervous, and he tried to gloss over it by rising quickly, reaching for the dishes on the table.
“Let me get these…” he began, but he halted when a strong hand clasped onto his arm, squeezing his wrist firmly.
So then, it was time to learn his fate. Kain gulped and sank back onto his chair, resolutely making himself meet Izumi’s eyes. They were dark and serene, but they seemed to look straight through him.
“In the village where I grew up, they used to tell a story,” she said, resting her chin on her hand.
“It was the story of a servant who went down to the river each day, carrying two water vessels to fill. One of these was flawless, and it never spilled a drop of water that was put into it—but the other vessel had a crack. Although the servant would fill it to the brim, it leaked along the way back to his master’s house, until it was only half full. Still he carried it to the river and back every day for years… until finally, the cracked vessel could no longer bear its guilt. Then it said to him: ‘I’m sorry. Each day I bring back only half of the water, and I’m ashamed that I always fail you.’
“But the servant smiled and replied to the vessel, ‘Look around at the beautiful flowers along our way. See how they only grow on your side of the path. I scattered the seeds for these flowers years ago, and since that time you’ve been watering them each day, bringing brightness and beauty into the lives of others. You see, I knew of your weakness—but I had a purpose for you, all the same.’ ”
Izumi fell silent then, and looked at Kain. She smiled just a little at his expression of startled wonderment; and as he began to understand the meaning of her words, he slowly returned the smile.
“Thank you, Mrs. Curtis,” he said gratefully, and stood up. “For everything… but I think I’d better go upstairs and pack now. I have a train for East City to catch.”
© 2011 Jordanna Morgan