One thing was sure: Alphonse’s vision of Izumi’s house and town were nothing but fickle dreams. Living with her was pure hell.
First there were the early morning physical workouts, and then there were the sporadic midnight runs which sometimes included field trips to nearby natural wildernesses where the boys had to last the night and the next day on their own (just like the island). That was taxing on their bodies. The pain inflicted on their minds was just as strenuous: alchemy lessons during martial arts training, standardized schooling in the evening to keep them on the same general educational level as their peers, and the yelling. Oh! the discipline enforced on the two boys was enough to make them cringe at the thought of stepping out of line, but both Ed and Al knew they needed Teacher too much to quit, even if their ears bled a little after a powerful lecture.
And despite it all, they knew she actually cared about them.
It took a while before either of them realized it though. Izumi was not one to show her soft side, but predictably it was Alphonse who broke through her smooth, hard surface first.
It happened when they were out shopping. Izumi haggled with the grocer for the best prices in exchange for a discount next time he restocked from her meat shop. Both boys wandered outside with bags and packages from other stores. Despite the warning not to stray too far, the allure of the toy store was too much for Al. He wandered up the street when Edward’s back was turned and pressed his free hand against the window.
Unfortunately, Izumi emerged from the grocery store moments later and called boys to follow her…in the opposite direction.
Edward glanced back at Alphonse and echoed the command. “C’mon, Al, let’s go!” He started forward, but several yards later he turned back. Alphonse’s familiar footsteps were not scampering behind him to catch up. He watched Al stand enraptured, pressed against the window. “What’s the hold up?” Edward glanced at Izumi’s retreating back. Oh, boy were they going to catch it if they didn’t hurry up.
Al didn’t answer save to beckon Edward over. “Come see what I found!” he called excitedly, oblivious to the impending punishment Izumi would surely inflict for their dallying.
With a mournful glance at Izumi, Edward walked back up the street to retrieve his brother. “Al, we need to get going. Teacher’s going to kill us if we don’t–”
“Look, Brother! Look!” Alphonse ignored the warning entirely and grabbed Edward’s sleeve, dragging him closer. “Isn’t it cool?”
“We’re going to get in trouble…” Edward protested.
Alphonse spared him no pity, “Just look,” he insisted.
With a defeated sigh, Ed pressed his nose to the glass of the storefront window. Inside on a square of red velvet lay an intricate wooden horror. Corners and curves stuck out from every angle in a patternless array. The toy roughly resembled a ball, and if Edward were to hold it, he would barely be able to stretch his hand around half of it. Not because he had small hands, of course. Obviously not.
Ed stood stunned and confused, his mind doing cartwheels trying to figure it out. “What is that?”
Al’s eyes gleamed. “It’s a–”
“–Xingese puzzle ball,” Izumi’s voice boomed over the blond heads. Both boys turned nervously toward her as she continued to read the description resting beside the little toy. “’Transforms into a car, a boat, or a train’ depending on which way you arrange the pieces.”
“Teacher…” Edward whispered, bowing his head submissively. Alphonse mimicked his older brother. They were anxious to get the lecture over with. They had, after all, directly disobeyed her by staying behind when she said to come.
Inwardly, Edward cursed. There was no way to wriggle out of this situation without a bruise or sore arms (Izumi put military drill sergeants to shame when it came to dishing out punishment push-ups). He and Alphonse had disobeyed her because of a toy. A child’s plaything. Edward darted a quick glance at the innocent wooden abomination. This was something Winry would love, but for him and Al…
What was he saying? Winry wasn’t the only kid. He and Alphonse were still just children struggling to cope in an adults’ world. Alphonse yearned to live as a child. That much was evident in his tender, honey brown gaze; but grief and consuming perseverance had already torn Edward away from children’s playthings.
Izumi looked over them critically. “Alchemy shouldn’t be used for everything,” she stated at last. “If you can do something or get something another way, you should.” Turning her eyes on Alphonse, she smirked slightly, a flicker of warmth burning beneath her dark eyes. “Alphonse.”
“Yes, ma’am!” He stood a little straighter, resisting the overwhelming urge to duck.
“Do you want this?” She pointed to the toy inside the window.
Timidly, Alphonse lowered his eyes and muttered a hesitant, “Yes.”
“Speak up, Al!” Izumi commanded. “Talk with assurance and confidence otherwise no one will take you seriously.”
Al forced boldness into his gentle, lilting voice. “Yes,” he repeated.
“Alright,” she said. Her voice dipped subtly softer as she compromised, “If you help Sig clean up in the meat shop every night this week you can have the toy. Deal?”
The emotions sparked across Alphonse’s face like a splay of fireworks. He gave a little gasp of delight before squealing, “Yes, ma’am. I will! Thank you, thank you!”
A soft smirk filled with fondness graced Izumi’s lips.
“Teacher…why?” Edward dared ask.
The smirk hardened suddenly as though she had been caught cheating. “Wholesome recreation is part of a healthy lifestyle,” she snapped the line authoritatively. “Now, no more questions.” She turned briskly, the cans towering over the edge of her grocery bag threatening to fall. “Edward, Alphonse, we’re going home. We’ll come back at the end of the week.
(One week later)
“She’s evil, Al,” Edward declared as nonchalantly as he could in a whisper. He lay in bed, propped up by one elbow as he watched Alphonse run his fingers smoothly over the newly purchased Xingese puzzle ball.
“She’s not evil, Brother,” Al chided. “You’re just jealous.” Alphonse poked his tongue out at him before focusing on forcing the pieces apart.
Edward watched him, not confirming or disconfirming the accusation. “Al, careful–!” He started to warn, but the pieces broke apart under the forceful pulling of his brother’s grip anyway. A few landed on the floor with a loud CLANK, and two pairs of golden eyes widened. They waited, posture stiff and breath held, to see if either Curtis was coming into their bedroom to remind them that nighttime was for sleeping. After a few seconds, nothing happened. Still, both boys remained tense. It would not be unlike Izumi to burst in after they let their guard down if only so she could lecture them about always staying alert.
The house stayed quiet and undisturbed so Al slipped out of bed to collect the fallen pieces. Edward got on the floor to help him. “You know, we should probably look at this later,” he held up a piece in the dim moonlight. He didn’t even realize his slip. We not you. They did so much together that they rarely had to distinguish each other in conversation.
Alphonse emitted a small confirming noise. “I know, but I’m really excited.” I haven’t acted my age in years, went unsaid.
Only semi-reluctant, Ed allowed, “Okay, but only for a few minutes.”
“Really?” Al’s eyes lit up. He and Ed huddled under the window where the moonlight was brightest. Together they started to fit pieces together at odd angles hoping it would come out as a miniature car like the instructions (crumpled in the waste bin) said.
Izumi Curtis scared them both, and Edward cursed her every time his muscles throbbed, but in the deepest recesses of his heart, he was glad she had enough kindness within her to give them so much hope and happiness in between all the punches.