Where most people saw only a narrow, muddy street, Ed Wolf saw an intricate mesh of gears and cogs, writhing and twisting, spinning and fluidly rearranging, stretching across his vision and beyond to the edges of the Earth and even to the edges of the cosmos. Every snowflake that fell and every gust of wind that whistled by set some of them into whirling motion, and these few set their neighbors spinning, and their neighbors' neighbors, and thence mapped each and every cause to a billion subtle effects spanning the breadth of the universe. The learned called these interactions Chaos Theory. He called it his sixth sense.
If he really focused, he could imagine a certain cog moving and observe how it would influence the others. Sometimes he'd lay abed all night, awake, moving this cog and that to decide what he should say to a certain girl, or how to avoid another beating. His sense wasn't perfect, though. Nowhere near so. When he tried to look more than a few hours ahead, or at a matter made up of more than a few influences, thousands of cogs would spread themselves to infinity in width and depth in an undulating jumble far too complex to make sense of. Only through agonizing effort could he ever divine the truth he sought, however tiny, from such an uncaring ocean of prophecy.
The sky was the same ashen gray as the snowy ground, and the rest of the visual world bled a ruddy red from the brick walls of Pittsburgh. It was the sort of day Ed would be content to spend without stepping foot outside his home, but the stars had insisted it was important that he did. His parka kept out the worst of the deep winter's chill, but he still shuddered now and then when some tendril of cold somehow sliced through.
He came to the mouth of an unplowed alley and briefly looked around before entering. Nervousness began to tighten his heart as he stamped through the ankle-deep snow. He knew there would be at least some disagreement, and perhaps a lot of it. Perhaps too much. And in that case, the stars did not show a kind future.
When he gazed upon the stars, they showed him things that the gears and cogs never could. Rather than showing all of the possibilities that might be, the stars showed the possibilities that needed to become reality. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they were nothing more than pretty lights in the heavens, but on the other few occasions they leapt and cavorted in a cosmic dance to imprint upon the blackened sky their exhortations and demands. Never were they suggestions. The stars always spoke urgently when they chose to speak at all, and to ignore them was to invite possible ruin. Something powerful spoke through the stars, neither angel nor demon, and concerned with a far grander scheme than either. Whatever it was, it would not accept disobedience. Those who refused to be its pawns were almost always met by a nebulous force of bad lack that would eventually master them.
Voices flowed over the cracked bricks of the alley - first a young woman's, subtly agitated and harsh, and then in response a man's, solid and blunt, but with an undertone of tiredness and learned indifference.
Ed emerged into their midst, in a sort of alcove where two alleys met. The two voices went silent, and two faces turned to regard him curiously. Leah leaned against a wall, drawing smoke from a cigarette, but exhaling nothing besides foggy breath. She seemed dressed more for a chilly late spring morning than a brutal mid winter's evening, and the few wandering snowflakes that fell on her rain jacket melted into tiny rivulets of water which dripped to the ground and quickly froze again. Despite her hood, her cascade of dirty blond hair was damp.
Alphonse stood beside her, topping her by nearly a head. His combed hair and mustache made him look a century out of place, and his other features painted a similar picture. They all combined in a countenance that could hardly be imagined on anything but a marble bust sculpted in an age long past. He lifted a bushy eyebrow at Ed.
And there was Coal, also. Ed didn't immediately see him, sitting against a wall opposite the pair. The shadows seemed to reach out from the wall to embrace him with darkness, hiding all but his outline to all but the most observant. He gave a shallow nod of acknowledgement.
Ed moved next to Coal and leaned against the wall. He hesitated for a moment, and then began. "You guys will love this. Rory's in some kind of trouble. And we're supposed to do something about it."
Leah rolled her eyes and the others made sounds of exasperation. "What kind of trouble this time?" she asked.
"No clue," Ed replied. "I've tried to reach him but haven't had any luck. The stars told me last night. And they said we all need to be involved."
Silence hung in the air as the other three digested that. And then Alphonse suddenly pushed himself from the wall, "No. Look, I can't deal with this now," he blurted. "I had a really bad feeling when I got your message. But bad luck be damned, I just can't do it. I just got promoted, I'm settling into a new apartment… I can't, dammit. I'll risk it." He spun on his heels and stomped out of the alcove.
"Alphonse!" Ed called.
The tall man stopped and turned slowly. "I'll tell you what, call me, keep me posted, if the shit really hits the fan then, well, you know I'll do what I can. But I can't do this." He stared at them for another moment, shook his head, and left.
Leah was smirking when Ed turned to her. "This whole friendship 'you help me, I'll help you' deal really isn't working out, is it? One of us gets in some kind of shit and this alliance of ours crumbles and breaks like the arches of this damned city. It's not even the first time."
"Is that your decision too, then? Ignore the stars?" Ed asked.
She flicked her cigarette to the ground, slipped another into her mouth, and breathed deeply when it flared to life. "Sorry, we can't really just up and leave, whether the stars or some idiot's magic 8-ball tell us to. What am I supposed to tell my parents? 'Oh, I'm just leaving to help some of my magic buddies for, oh, who knows how long, see ya later.' I'd be swinging from the rafters before you can say bad idea. They only tolerate me as long as they can pretend I'm 'normal', you know that."
"Don't tell them anything," Ed suggested. "That's what I'm doing. Mine won't miss me a wink. Look, I don't think you guys understand," he turned to include Coal as well. "When the stars talk, you know it's pretty damned important, and this time they talked louder than ever. And Leah, you've always wanted to visit the University, it's practically next door to Cleveland."
That gave her something to think over.
"Coal?" Ed asked.
The figure in the shadows shifted slightly, and a quiet voice wafted through the dark, "I'll need to tell my parents something. They'd actually realize I'm gone. But I'll figure that out." He paused for a moment, and then, "count me in."
Ed tried to hide a relieved smile and turned back to Leah, who shrugged nonchalantly and looked away, "all right then, all right, you've got two of us at least, but what about Alphonse?"
"I'll call him and see if I can change his mind," He sighed. "But it's not looking good. I guess we'll just have to do our best. Maybe we'll get to Cleveland, figure out what's up with Rory, and whatever it is will be enough to get Alphonse over there.."
"So then," Leah started after a pause. "Cleveland, a hundred miles, no car. Amtrak?"
"Yeah. The Cleveland train leaves at half past noon."
"Any idea how long we'll be off?"
"None at all."
"Pack well, then, I guess. Anything else? My jeans are soaked and your nose looks like it's about to fall off."
"That's all I've got." Ed turned to Coal. "See you at the station tomorrow?"
"Well then, 'til tomorrow," Ed said. The three nodded and went their separate ways, through winding alleys under bursts of foundry fire and coal choked skies.
Ed opened the back door to his house as quietly as he could, but the rusty old thing still screamed like a banshee. It was nine o'clock, but his parents were already in bed snatching as much sleep as they could before their early shifts at the steel factory, so he was free to sneak about taking food, water, and anything else he couldn't die without and tossing it into his leather knapsack. The stairs to the second floor whined gently too as he climbed, but walking next to the wall kept them quiet enough. He slipped into bed and slid the first thing he could find, a roll of duct tape, into his pillow, enough to keep him uncomfortable enough to spend the entire night awake staring at the ceiling and the shapes it held.
Possibly won't be continued, but we'll see. Reviews are returned *hint* :D