Title: Blood Brothers
Author: Jordanna Morgan (librarie@jordanna.net)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for one rather gory scene, and scattered instances of dhampiric blood-drinking.
Characters: Alphonse, Edward, Noa, and my cast of “Hunter” alternate-world doubles.
Setting: This follows my story “Blood Ties”, but it assumes two events in that continuity did not happen: Ed and Noa were not made human again, and Ed was not returned to Amestris.
Summary: An alternative outcome to my story “Blood Ties”. Even as Edward tentatively begins to plan for a future in his dark new world, the dying Alphonse makes a choice that could reunite them once more—but at a great cost.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: At the time of my writing these notes, I have just recently begun work on a massive sequel to “Blood Ties”. However, in the four years since I wrote that story, I have also been turning over a few ideas for alternate outcomes to it. This version is the largest and most significant. When I first posted “Ties”, a few readers expressed interest in what would have happened if Ed had remained in the other world as a dhampir. The answer to that question is this story—essentially an AU of my own previous work.

This contains MAJOR SPOILERS for my previous story “Blood Ties”. If you want to read that story at its full effect, read it first!

 

Blood Brothers

 

CHAPTER I: SACRIFICE

 

It was not quite dawn when Izumi carried Alphonse down to the basement, where his empty suit of armor faithfully awaited him.

Only Teacher attended him now. Winry, General Mustang, and the others remained upstairs. Their last hugs and good-luck wishes, delivered a few minutes before, had been difficult to bear—because they all knew the words they struggled to infuse with optimism might instead be a final farewell.

After two years of desperate searching and fading hope, Edward had not returned, and neither had the fragment of Al’s soul he unknowingly carried. Now Al’s body was consuming itself from within, unable to live any longer without that missing piece of his being. His only chance for continued existence was to bond his soul to the armor once more, freeing it from the living flesh it could no longer sustain.

He might not survive the attempt. Perhaps death would be justified in not allowing him to cheat it this way; and if he found his brother already waiting for him in death’s embrace, that would be alright.

But if not… Al would survive. If Ed was still alive, still out there somewhere to be found, then Al would deny death itself.

Teacher knelt down beside the armor, setting Al on his knees on the basement floor. As her left hand rested on his back to steady him, her right hand placed a long, sharp knife beside him on the cold concrete.

“Live, Al.” With tears spilling over, she gripped his shoulders and leaned her forehead against his, as if she could channel all her great will into his own. “Just live.”

Al closed his eyes, and answered in the whisper that was all he could manage. “It’ll be okay.”

His eyes remained closed when Teacher drew back, carefully removing her supporting hands. It took all of his strength just to stay upright, but he kept still as he listened to her heavy-hearted footsteps mounting the stairs. Only when the door creaked shut did he look up, to find himself in solitude in the dimness of the basement.

No matter how weak he was, there was no choice but for him to face this moment alone. It was far too dangerous to let anyone else be near him in the performance of a human transmutation.

His only companion now was the armor at his side.

Without looking at the knife, Al’s thin fingers reached down and found it. This was to draw blood for the seal. He couldn’t remember the one Ed had imprinted within the armor seven years earlier, but that didn’t matter. Sealing his own soul would require a different equation.

The blade hovered above his inner forearm for a long moment… and then it clattered to the floor, loud in the silence.

For this price, his mere return to the armor was too small a thing to ask.

“Sorry, old friend.” He swallowed hard, resting his palm against the chill of the armor’s steel chestplate. “I can’t take you where I’m going.”

Al turned away. Bracing his left hand against the floor to hold up his nearly-useless body, he took out a stub of chalk from under his nightshirt. He gathered all of his strength, drew the deepest breath his exhausted lungs could hold, and began to scrawl a deceptively simple circle on the floor.

Whatever happened now, Winry and Teacher and the others would grieve for him; but that was alright, too. At least this way, they would be able to move on after mourning, instead of living with the tragedy of him for the rest of their lives.

It took him only a few minutes to lay out the equations he wanted. When he was done, he didn’t let himself think any more. He merely dropped the chalk, cast a sad smile of farewell toward his armor… and laid his hand on the edge of the alchemic array.

An explosion of light swallowed him, and then he was standing in the middle of a universe of golden nothingness.

…Or something more than nothing. A monstrous black monolith towered before him, carved with tormented figures that seemed to writhe but did not. Etched into its great doors was a single eye that stared out at him: simply waiting.

He remembered this…

He remembered. He remembered everything.

All of his weakness was gone. Perhaps his body was gone; perhaps only his soul was permitted to represent him in negotiations here, while his flesh already lay on the auction block.

That suited him perfectly well.

Take me to my brother,” Al demanded of the impassable doors, clenching fists he was not sure really existed. “I don’t care how much it costs me. I don’t even care if I have to die to be with him. All I want… is Ed.”

Silence answered his plea. Deafening, crushing, overwhelming silence, for a moment that felt like an eternity…

And then the doors were flung open.

A horde of unblinking eyes stared down hungrily at Al from the depths of the void. Lifting his chin, he gazed defiantly back at them, daring the Gate to refuse him.

When a dozen black wraith-hands reached for him, he did not resist.

 

“My friends, these losses were not in vain. I want every one of you to believe that. We still have a difficult road before us; but last night, our fallen comrades paved the way. Now it remains for us to honor their sacrifices, by carrying out the work they believed in.”

The cemetery lay behind an ancient chapel, its wrought-iron fence and shadowy trees guarding a collection of gravestones worn smooth over centuries. By night, it was an even more solemn place than it would have been beneath the sun. Its somberness was enhanced by a thin veil of creeping fog, bringing with it the edge of an autumn chill.

In a far corner of the grounds, under the spreading branches of oaks, a single lantern cast pale yellow light over nine figures who had gathered. Their black garments were not symbols of mourning, but a trademark of the occupation that had brought them here.

The vampire hunters of London were burying their dead.

Standing silent at the edge of the group, Edward Elric only half-listened to Councilor Bradley’s eloquent words of comfort and encouragement. He was not quite sure he really wanted comfort yet. Although the previous night’s mission to rescue his father had ended with the destruction of Envy, the heavy cost of that achievement made it a hollow victory at best… and the testament to that cost was the four new graves that now lay before the Hunters.

Kain Fuery’s death was the first, a few days earlier. When Maes Hughes was driven insane by Ed’s own memories, Kain defied the Hunters’ faltering leader to aid in Ed’s escape. The frail but courageous young man paid for that deed with his life, slain in rage by Maes’ own hand after his deception was discovered.

Francesca was lost early in their battle with Envy, her heart sliced open by his sword. When the vampire-homunculus attacked, she was merely caught in the wrong place at the wrong moment—a randomness that made her death seem perhaps the most undeserved. With the difference of a step or two, it could have been any one of them.

Maes himself was next to fall. Mad with the desire to join his family’s counterparts in Amestris, he had followed the Hunters in hopes of using Envy to open the Gate, but he failed when he tried to fuel the transmutation with Riza Hawkeye’s tainted blood. Envy had then taken Maes’ life as well… which was a bitter mercy, because it only spared the Hunters from being forced to end his insanity themselves.

After Envy was finally destroyed, they found his captive Hohenheim still alive—but only for a little while. With his body already deteriorating, there was no chance of his recovering from the brutal injuries inflicted upon him by his own inhuman creation. When he was carried back to the Hunters’ headquarters, he had only strength enough to speak with his son one last time. He slipped away soon afterward, just before dawn, at peace for perhaps the first time in his long life.

In his heart, Ed knew what his parting words of forgiveness had meant to his father… but now they meant even more to him.

The battle had exacted another price, as well. Ed raised his eyes and studied Riza, who stood with her arms hugged against her chest, leaning into the pensive embrace of Roy Mustang. Yet another of Envy’s victims, she too would have occupied a grave here—if not for Roy’s blood that she had deliberately consumed long before, infecting herself with dhampirism. Even her lover had not known it until her blood failed to respond to Maes’ attempted alchemy. She confessed to Roy with her last mortal breaths, and he later revealed it to the rest of them, submitting himself to be punished for her turning.

As far as any of the Hunters were concerned, that was out of the question. Bradley merely assured Roy that he bore no guilt for what was done without his knowledge; and more importantly, Riza needed him now. It was obvious that she could be no one’s foundling but his own, taught by him to cope with her new urges, to use her new strengths for good and not for harm.

Only a handful of hours had passed since Riza awakened to undeath. Although she knew what to expect after years of living and working with dhampirs, she was still nervous and a little unsteady, bewildered by a new world of smells and sounds and her instinctive responses to them. By all rights, she should not have joined them for this burial service, but she was insistent on saying farewell to their lost comrades.

Riza was not the only one who shouldn’t have been wandering London by night. Sig Curtis’ powerful frame was propped heavily on a crutch, and a bandage was wrapped around his head. As a mortal, his recovery would take time. By contrast, Vato Falman’s dhampir body was healing swiftly of its internal damage, but he had leaned himself wearily against a tree. Now and then, even Bradley still favored the shoulder that was impaled by a sword not twenty-four hours ago.

Ed had been injured too, but his wounds had faded. The ache he felt now was only within his silent heart.

He glanced at Noa, standing two steps from him, and the ache lightened a little. He had known it would. Her eyes were brimming as she gazed down at the graves of her guardian and her best friend, but they were also filled with a determined light that moved him deeply. She would only harden her present pain into an even greater resolve, just as he had done throughout his life—and still would, even now.

Being her foundling was one of the few things left that he could take pride in.

It surprised him how easily he could accept that idea now. He had begun to think and feel as the other Hunter dhampirs did, in their primal code of honor that kept them from becoming the very monsters they fought against. At first he couldn’t imagine sharing their extremes of harshness and tenderness; but as he recovered from blood-starved madness after an earlier, disastrous encounter with Envy, he had realized the necessity of coming to terms with the beast in himself. Instead of resisting what came from the dark new place inside him, he had to let it become the part of him it inescapably was, turning instincts for killing into instincts for protection.

Noa set the example for him in that task… and as her foundling, his natural impulse to protect her gave him a much gentler way to face both of the extremes within him.

Movement among the other Hunters caught his eye, prompting him to realize just how lost in his thoughts he had been. He stepped closer to them, and stood at Noa’s side, brushing his flesh fingers against her shoulder. It was a small and demure gesture of comfort—a compromise for not knowing what to say.

“We’ll be getting back now,” Bradley informed Ed solemnly. “Miss Riza and our recovering injured should rest.”

“Yeah.” Ed looked back at his father’s grave, and smiled sadly at the Councilor. “Go on ahead. I’ll catch up to you in a minute.”

Bradley answered with a nod of quiet understanding. He picked up the lantern and started for the front gate of the cemetery, leaving the graves to be lit only by fog-softened moonlight. The rest of the Hunters followed, considerately walking slowly to keep pace with Sig as he hobbled over the uneven sod.

Only Noa remained, hesitating at her foundling’s side.

“Ed, I… I only wanted to say…”

There was a fresh tremor in her voice. Ed turned to her, and was surprised when she seized both of his gloved hands in hers. She bowed her head over them, pressing her forehead against his knuckles. Her face was veiled by her long dark hair.

“…I’m sorry.” She swallowed back a sob and turned her head a little, as if to glance toward Hohenheim’s grave. “Everything you had left in this world—your father, your mortal life, your hope of going home—you’ve lost it all because of us.”

Even though Ed’s heart no longer beat, it responded with a dull pang. He gently turned his hands over, cupping her chin, and raised her tearful face to meet his gaze.

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. Envy was the only one who took from me. You and the other Hunters… You’ve done nothing but give.”

Noa sniffed, blinked, and gazed up at him in astonishment, her misted eyes clearing. He knew it would be a wonder to her that he felt there was nothing to forgive. Like all Hunters, she was taught that her blood in his veins was only a curse… but now, to Edward, it was the farthest thing from that.

Still cradling her face in his hands, he leaned forward slightly. For a brief moment, his lips nearly touched hers; but then he merely turned his head, brushing his cheek against hers, and rested his forehead on her shoulder. His flesh fingers reached up to his shirt collar, loosening the first two buttons, tugging the fabric aside.

“Please,” he whispered.

She stiffened, but only with a momentary surprise and hesitation. Then she accepted her foundling’s request for that intimate communication. Her hands settled on his upper arms, and her lips sought his exposed neck.

As the small shock of the bite twinged through his flesh, he slid his arms around her, closing his eyes.

He couldn’t begin to put all the things he wanted to say into words. His gratitude that she had broken the taboo for him, granting him survival with her blood, even if it came at the cost of undeath. His appreciation for her guidance, her tenderness, her fierceness in defending him. His conviction that he was still the one who owed a debt. His resolve to share her cause as a Hunter, a protector of her world…

Their world, now.

And there was one other emotion, the most powerful and complicated he had ever felt since he crossed the Gate.

Somewhere along the way, in days of resting beside her, in nights of searching the darkness together, in watching her risk all she was and all she had for her belief in him, a new instinct had grown in him that was not unique to dhampirs. It whispered a yearning to know Equivalent Exchange in its purest form: to belong to her, to be a part of her, and to feel her give herself to him too. In the past he would have denied this awakening need, fearing the pain of one more loss in his ever-perilous existence, but she filled him in turn with such faith that he was absolutely without regret.

Falling in love was nothing like he ever thought it would be.

Through the sharing of blood, his memories and emotions were transmitted to Noa, exposing it all without reservation or deceit. Even that most unexpected of revelations was laid bare to her. He knew she understood when she gave a start in his arms, her lips leaving his throat to breathe out a soft gasp.

He didn’t have to wonder whether she shared his feelings. Although he hadn’t fully comprehended it until much later, he had sensed it the last time she gave him her blood—even through the hungering rage his wounds had driven him to. And if he hadn’t figured it out that way, he still would have known by now. Her eyes and voice and hands revealed it whenever he was near her, even when she treated him like some kind of heaven-sent messenger of whom she was unworthy.

Ed…”

More tears. His lips did brush against her cheeks then, kissing them away. Their taste was so much better than blood—but he soon tasted that as well. A faint trace of his own blood, when his mouth found hers in the gently inquisitive caress of a true first kiss.

He could get used to that. He could get used to all of it now.

Reluctantly, he resisted the desire to kiss her again. There would be a much better time and place. He only hugged her instead, stroking her hair. Then he drew back just a little, entwining his flesh fingers with hers, while his automail hand still rested at her waist.

“You know… I think my dad would approve.” He smiled somberly at the nearby graves of two men who had loved them as fathers. “—But I’m not really so sure about Maes.”

Noa let out a short, bittersweet laugh, leaning against him. “Yes he would.”

Ed hoped so. Although he had only known the Maes Hughes of this world when his reality was crumbling, Noa’s memories were of a man who fiercely cherished and guarded her. His possessive devotion was not so different, after all, from the Amestrian Hughes’ delirious fixation on his daughter. Ed wanted to believe the Maes who cared for Noa that much would have gladly trusted his foundling’s life and heart to him.

The fog was closing in now, obscuring the graves beneath tendrils of silver mist. Ed looked toward the cemetery gate. Even his nocturnal eyes could scarcely make out the other Hunters waiting there, little more than faint shadows in the dull glow of their lantern.

To Noa, the stronghold they were about to go back to was home. Ed wondered how long it would take him to think of it like that, or if he ever could at all. Home had always been wherever his brother was; but he could never return there now, when the poison he carried in his blood had the power to destroy his native world. All he could do was find some way to build a new life, founded on the cornerstones of a worthy purpose and Noa’s love.

“Come on,” he said softly, squeezing her hand, as he gave her a rueful smile. “They’re waiting for us.”

She nodded. Her eyes were dry now, bright and gentle. Her hand did not leave his as he began to lead her away through the mist, toward the light of their waiting comrades.

They had taken only ten steps when they were halted by a far brighter light that burst into existence behind them.

Ed turned with a startled gasp, raising his automail arm to shield his sensitive eyes. A glowing vortex had erupted in the air above the graves of the fallen Hunters, twisting the atmosphere with an unearthly wind that roared and bent the trees. Shot through with blood-red lightning and swirls of solidified darkness, the rift looked like the mouth of Hell itself.

He knew all too well what this was. It was impossible—but it was here.

No!” Ed screamed, not in denial but in raw defiance, instinctively bracing himself in front of Noa to shield her. The emotion coursing through him then was not fear. It was rage: savage, white-hot rage that the Gate would stalk him even in this world, hunting him down to take still more from him, when it had already taken everything that was ever his.

Not this time. Not Noa. He would tear the Gate to pieces with his own hands before he let it have her.

Yet the Gate made no effort to reach toward either one of them. After a second or two, it belched a mass of shadows from its depths, a tangle of writhing blackness that rolled lazily toward the edge of the vortex like a thundercloud. As the mass drew closer, it resolved into the shape of a small human figure, wrapped in the hideous embrace of numerous jet-black tentacle-hands. The figure struggled in their grasp, thrashing and clawing.

And screaming, as well—but the screams were stifled by several more black tendrils that had forced themselves down the trespasser’s throat. The frail body convulsed as phantom hands twisted and groped inside it, seeking their toll.

It was only then that Ed recognized the distorted, agonized face of the Gate’s victim… and he cried out with a sound of horror and despair that was barely distinguishable as one desperate, cherished word.

Al!”

His cry seemed to interrupt the nightmare tableau. Like animals startled out of a feeding frenzy, the searching appendages suddenly withdrew from Al’s mouth. Ed saw the bleeding clumps of living tissue that came away in their grasp, torn from deep within his brother’s body.

The black hands slithered away, vanishing into the Gate with their monstrous trophies. Those that were entwined around Al’s body uncoiled and followed, abandoning him to the forces of gravity. He tumbled from the mouth of the Gate like a stone, his too-light body falling upon the Hunters’ graves with a sickening thud.

Having delivered this gruesome offering, the Gate sparked and wavered and shrank into itself, snapping shut in the suddenly empty air as if it had never existed. One endless moment of silent stillness followed, stretched taut with the feeling of trembling on the edge of an abyss… and then Edward hurled himself forward, with a cry of horrified grief choking in his throat.

He fell to his knees beside the small, savaged body the Gate had disgorged, reaching out, but not quite touching.

Alphonse—and it was Alphonse; too young, too horribly white with loss of blood, but unmistakable to Ed—lay sprawled on the mound of earth that covered Hohenheim’s grave. The red-stained tatters of a nightshirt clung to his skin-and-bones frame, displaying the ravages of a starved hollowness that went beyond even the Gate’s brutal harvesting. Blood spilled from his mouth, his nose, the corners of his closed eyes, welling up from massive internal wounds.

The scent of it filled Ed’s reeling awareness. Human blood—blood imbued with the scent of Al. It had been seven years, but even in childhood and with merely human senses, he had known the smell of his brother. It had seeped into his consciousness from infant years spent nestled together in the same crib, and stormy nights when Al crawled under his blankets to shiver in his arms.

No more steel, cold and still and safe from pain. This was Al’s living flesh and blood, lost for so long…

And now moments away from death.

That realization broke whatever spell had stayed Ed’s hand. With an anguished groan, he reached down and gathered Al into his embrace. He leaned his forehead against Al’s, rocking back and forth gently, mingling tears with the blood. It was hot against his cold skin, so very close to his lips… but even with his urges running high after the violence of the past few days, the thought of tasting his brother’s life simply did not exist in him. It was still a part of his own life, in spite of the difference of two separate species between them.

He felt Noa drop to her knees beside him. He heard the footsteps and shouts of the other Hunters, drawn back by the light of the Gate and his own cries; but for the moment, they didn’t matter. Nothing mattered in this world, or in any other, but the fragile burden he held.

Al’s eyelashes flickered against Ed’s cheek. He leaned back just far enough to watch as brown eyes slowly opened, staring up in a dull haze—and then filling with light as they recognized him.

Ed.” The name was almost soundless, but Edward could read it on lips that slowly twisted into something like a smile. “It’s you…”

Shh. Don’t try to talk.”

They were the last words Ed’s heart wanted to say. Everything in him wanted to hear Al’s voice while there was still time, and most of all, to ask why—but he knew the effort of speaking would only cause Al further pain.

Al’s head moved just a little, a feeble attempt at a shake. The trembling smile grew faintly stronger.

“It’s okay now, Brother. Because… I’ve seen you again.”

Then Al violently coughed up a clot of black blood, and his eyes rolled back, as a shudder coursed through his body.

“No, no…!”

Rational thought failed Ed. For a moment, it was as lost to him as it had been two nights earlier, when the blood loss from near-fatal wounds had forced him to rip into Noa’s throat—but the impulse that seized him now was something entirely different.

He was only vaguely conscious of tearing his left glove off, raising his hand to his mouth. His fangs sank deep into the softest part of his own palm, but he never even felt their harsh penetration. He knew nothing but the warmth of Al’s already-bloodstained lips as he pressed his hand over them, allowing scarlet venom to trickle from his corrupted veins.

Ed—!”

Noa’s voice dragged him up from the depths. Like waking from a trance, he looked up to see her at his side: her eyes large and frightened, her hand frozen between them in the act of reaching for his own. In the near distance behind her, the other Hunters were approaching at a run, their faces filled with horror.

Not at the sight of the blood. They were far too used to that.

What horrified them was…

The forbidden.

Ed’s gaze fell to the hand he had placed on his brother’s mouth—just as the muscles in Al’s throat twitched, reflexively swallowing cold blood that burned. His eyelids fluttered in unconscious distress, and he uttered a faint moan as his head jerked slightly, trying and failing to turn his face away.

…What have I done?

Then Al became still, and the heartbeat Ed felt against his chest faded gently into silence.

 

CHAPTER II: WAITING

 

Edward remembered very little of what happened for some time after that.

Later, he had a dim recollection of violently refusing to let anyone else touch Al. He carried him from the cemetery on his own, held him in his lap during the brief, silent car ride back to the Hunters’ headquarters. Of bearing Al’s body to the bedroom their father had occupied, he had no memory at all, but he was sure Noa must have guided him there. She was the only one he possibly would have allowed near him then.

He didn’t know how long he simply lay beside Al’s still form, holding him as the warmth of his flesh faded. He didn’t even know if anyone else stayed in the room with them. His consciousness could only contain the two soul-rending thoughts that chased each other through his mind, over and over.

Alphonse was dead…

But he wasn’t going to stay that way for long.

A soft knock at the door finally intruded into his chasm of numb horror, bringing him close to full awareness again. He blinked and raised his head, to see Noa rising from a chair by the door. It did not surprise him to realize she had been there the entire time, after all.

Noa opened the door to find Doctor Nash Tringham in the hallway. A human male of middling age, tall and thin and perpetually melancholy, he was officially employed as the Hunters’ secret agent in the London coroner’s office; but when necessary, he also served as their physician. Ed had met him just that morning, when he arrived before dawn to care for those wounded in the previous night’s battle. Now there were shadows under his eyes, and his straw-colored hair was rumpled, as if he had been hurriedly roused from bed.

“The Councilor explained.” Tringham’s hooded eyes shifted past Noa, to Ed and the lifeless figure in his arms. “If I may…”

With a small nod, Noa stepped aside, and Tringham entered the room with his black leather bag. He approached the bed—only to pause as Ed stiffened and clutched Al tighter, a low growl emerging from his throat.

It was a reaction that startled Ed himself. He hadn’t intended it at all, but it came instinctively from the darkness in him, with his defenses worn down by the raw pain of his emotions. Quickly suppressing his inner animal, he bowed his head and forced his tension to relax.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, his voice rough and nearly inaudible.

When Tringham spoke, there was only a soothing gentleness and patience in his tone. “This is your brother?”

“…Yes.”

“I see. I know how protective older brothers can be. It’s the same way with my boys.” Tringham’s voice became a little softer. “You know I’m not going to hurt him. I only have to see that he’s… progressing properly.”

A shudder passed through Edward. After a long moment, his arms slipped loose from around Al’s body, and he slowly sat up on the edge of the mattress.

Tringham sat on the other side of the bed. With a glance at Ed to confirm that the elder brother was permissive, he reached down and placed his long hands on Al’s shoulders, gently peeling away the torn and bloodstained nightshirt.

The full sight of Al’s bare torso was even more shocking than it had been while clothed. Not even a newly dead corpse should have looked so terribly white and wasted. Ed stifled a groan, but he continued to watch hawkishly as Tringham’s practiced fingers moved over Al’s emaciated body, reading invisible clues about the damage beneath the skin.

What could have happened? Even apart from the price he had paid to the Gate, how could Al have become so weakened—and why was he still only a child, instead of the nearly-adult young man he should have been by now?

After a few torturously long moments, the doctor looked up at Ed.

“I can see the signs already,” he pronounced solemnly. “He’s begun to turn.”

For a moment, Ed felt violently ill. His mind refused to take any refuge in the fact that without his desperate act, Al would be gone altogether. At that time, all he could think of was the dark future that lay ahead of his brother: permanently shut away from daylight, forced to appease his body’s inescapable craving for blood.

“What about—the rest of his condition?” Noa asked quietly.

“You don’t need me to tell you he’s suffered massive internal damage. Based on that short physical exam, I can’t say precisely what was taken out of him—but the fact that he’s turning is proof that it doesn’t matter now. Most of the organs that are vital for humans only lie dormant in an undead body anyway. As long as his heart is intact, he’s going to survive and heal… You dhampirs really are remarkable creatures.” Tringham smiled sadly, but only for a moment.

“As for this wasting-away of his flesh and muscle, it may look like starvation, but that isn’t quite right somehow. His body seems to have been feeding on itself, long before the other injuries occurred. I can’t account for it… but I suspect that even without having half of his insides torn out, he would have been dead in a very short time.”

Ed started and caught his breath, staring up at the doctor in mute bewilderment and distress.

“Steady, now. If he’s half as strong as you are, I’m sure he’s going to be alright—even this way.” Tringham reached across the bed to clap a reassuring hand on Ed’s shoulder. “He shoulder recover fully, once he’s had plenty of fresh blood to nourish him.”

The thought of Alphonse even tasting blood made Ed choke. He looked away, his flesh fingers helplessly seeking Al’s limp hand on top of the bedspread.

“And on that note…” Tringham reached for his black bag. “His body is badly damaged enough that he should start being fed now. It will help accelerate his healing, and ensure that he’s calm and free of hunger when he wakes.”

From the bag, he produced a small coil of thin rubber tubing… and a bottle of unmistakable red liquid.

“What are you going to do with that?” Ed demanded in faint alarm.

“At this point, he can only be given blood through a feeding tube.” Tringham eyed the older brother’s distraught face, and rose with a sigh of fatherly sternness. “Listen. I know this is much to ask of you right now… but I think it would be best if you left me alone with him for a little while. I’ll see that he has blood, and get him cleaned up. You don’t have to worry that he’ll awaken without you,” he added, anticipating Ed’s protest. “He’ll be unconscious for hours yet. So please trust me, Edward. When you see him again, he’ll look far better, and it will be easier on you. I promise—I’ll take care of him just as I would one of my own sons.”

Everything within Ed wanted to refuse, to stay by Al’s side, but something about the sincerity of those last few words gave him pause.

In this world, Russell and Fletcher Tringham were somewhat younger and more innocent than the counterparts Ed had once known. Mere boys not much older than Al himself now appeared to be, they were the great love and pride of the doctor’s life… and he quietly agonized over their youthful ambition to become Hunters like him. He didn’t want them to follow him into the night world in which he served. He didn’t want to see one or both of them die, or meet the same fate as Al.

Ed knew all of that from Noa’s memories. It gave him an understanding of just how strongly Tringham sympathized with him, and how he would feel about looking after a child who was loved by someone else, just as he loved his own. He was a man who could be trusted with that task.

It took a great effort, but Ed acquiesced. Once more he gently brushed his fingers through Al’s hair, and then he rose slowly, feeling very old and weary. He moved toward the door, only to pause there, looking back at Tringham gravely.

“You’ll call me as soon as you’re finished?”

“Of course. He’s not aware of any of our presences now—but you should be the one he sees when he wakes up.”

For a moment more Ed hesitated, but his resolve was strengthened when Noa touched his arm and gave him a nod of encouragement. Taking a deep breath that he didn’t need, he stepped out into the hall without looking back, and she followed him.

As Noa closed the door, Ed sagged forward against the opposite wall, leaning his head on his arms. What he really wanted to do was either break down weeping or punch a hole through the plaster, but by some effort of self-control he didn’t expect of himself, he somehow succeeded in doing neither.

“This is what’s best,” Noa said softly, as her hand came to rest on his back. “It can be… difficult to tend to a foundling at this stage, even if it’s someone you never knew as a human. With your brother, so soon after you’ve been through it yourself… Doctor Tringham was right. Better to let someone more experienced do the things that have to be done now.” Her voice trembled slightly. “Al will need you soon enough.”

“I can’t believe this has happened.” Ed swallowed hard and turned, bracing his back against the wall. He found himself staring at his hand. His fingers closed over the palm he had pierced to spill his blood into Al, tightening until the nails bit painfully into flesh.

“Don’t, Ed.” Noa took his hand in both of hers, prying his fingers open. They had not drawn blood, and the bite he had inflicted on himself was long since healed. “It’s going to be alright—because he’s going to be with you now. You know he never wanted anything more than that.”

Councilor Bradley’s voice broke in at that moment, coming from the end of the hall at the head of the staircase. “How is he?”

Faintly surprised, Ed blinked and turned his head. He had been too wrapped up in his misery to realize that Bradley, Jean, and Roy were there, seated in the same comfortable alcove where he had shown his father the monster he now was… Could it really have been less than two days before?

Noa answered. “Whatever the Gate did to Al, it didn’t damage him enough to prevent him from turning. Doctor Tringham is seeing that he… he won’t have any needs, when he wakes up.”

A thin smile crinkled Bradley’s lips, and he nodded at Ed. “I meant this one.”

“How do you think I feel? My brother sacrificed his life, just to try to find me… and now he won’t even be human anymore because of me.” Ed closed his eyes and pushed away from the wall, bowing his head. “I broke the law of the Hunters. I did it for nothing but my own selfishness—and I’ll accept any punishment I’ve got coming. Just… don’t let him suffer for it.”

There was a brief, bemused pause. At last Roy’s voice replied, with a touch of wryness.

“You know, you’re still kind of an idiot.”

Rankled, Ed opened his eyes, but his retort perished when he saw the way the other Hunters were looking back at him. He couldn’t quite give a name to what he saw in their expressions, but there was neither accusation nor pity there.

“The rules about breaking the taboo were exactly what we were just sitting here talking about,” Jean elaborated, hanging his elbows over the back of his wicker chair. “And we figured out there’s three reasons why the usual procedures won’t fly in this case.”

“Well, it was mostly Councilor Bradley,” Roy offered.

Noa seemed to be irritated by their coyness. She planted herself protectively halfway in front of Ed, bracing her hands on her hips. “What are you two talking about?”

“Point number one,” Roy said briskly. “In case you’ve forgotten, the Council is kind of a mess. They’re not really in a condition to be judging these kinds of cases right now—and besides that, we’re still not sure we won’t end up fighting for our lives against Hunter factions that decide alchemists are more of a threat than vampires. When we may be needing all the help we can get real soon, it wouldn’t do us much good to exile or execute the best alchemist we’ve got.”

Jean continued. “Point number two: your brother’s an alchemist straight from the source, like you. Later on, after he adjusts, he could be a big help in teaching others to use alchemy to kill vampires. That was the whole reason Noa turned you, after all—and since nobody’s exactly been talking about punishing her, it’d be sorta hypocritical to do it to you.”

Ed’s eyes narrowed, glancing back and forth between Roy and Jean. He was fairly sure he wasn’t liking at least some of their logic, but at the moment, he was unable to argue with it.

“…And point number three?”

Bradley smiled, rather sadly. “Edward, remember that when you shared your memories with us, you gave us much more than the knowledge of alchemy. We’ve felt what you feel toward Alphonse—and that’s why we know the bond between you is unique. It really wasn’t a separate life you were preserving. It was a part of you. No man deserves to suffer for that.

“And furthermore…” The Councilor sobered. “In itself, Alphonse’s turning has already dictated the burden you bear for the deed.”

“What?”

Roy shrugged. “You’re in more or less the same boat as I am, Fullmetal. Even though I didn’t exactly choose it for myself the way you did, I’ve taken responsibility for Riza, because it was my blood that turned her. The same is true of you and Al.”

“Wait a minute,” Ed breathed. “You mean that it’s my place to…?”

“I should think that nothing would be more obvious,” Bradley said reasonably. “You’ve been Alphonse’s guardian and guide for your entire lives—and the rest of us will be strangers to him, even if we may look familiar. At least in the beginning, you’re the only one he’s going to trust and rely on as he tries to adapt. You see, he could never be anyone else’s foundling.”

The word had seemed weighty enough from the other side of the equation, when Ed applied it to himself in relation to Noa. Now it suddenly felt like an iron anvil in the pit of his stomach.

“But I’ve only been a dhampir myself for eight days!” Ed turned a confused gaze to Noa. “How can I teach Al, when I still have so much left to learn? How can I face explaining to him…” He shuddered and squeezed his eyes shut. “The things he’ll have to do to survive?”

Noa answered him, very softly. “How did you explain to him that the seal inside his armor could never touch water, or that it was drawn with your own blood—and that when you were only eleven years old?”

The words made Ed look up sharply, startled and troubled. All this time, the ugly irony of that parallel had been lurking in the back of his mind: once again he had broken a taboo, leaving Al to suffer the worst consequences. Once again, his own impulsiveness would force Al to relearn a completely new kind of existence.

Yet this time, Al wouldn’t be alone in empty steel. His body was cold, but it was flesh and blood—and its nature was the same as Ed’s. All the strangeness and horror that Al would feel as a dhampir, Ed himself would share.

Down the hallway, the door to Al’s room opened. Doctor Tringham stepped out with his bag. If anything, he looked more tired than he had on arriving, but he smiled hollowly at the group of dhampirs as he approached the alcove.

“It’s all taken care of now. Given the boy’s condition before turning, I expect he’ll be weak at first, but a few days’ rest and nourishment should allow his body to build itself back up easily.” Tringham yawned abruptly, stretching one arm upward to scratch the back of his neck. “And now I’d appreciate it if you’ll do me the service of not getting yourselves turned or injured at hours when mere mortals are supposed to be sleeping. This is two nights in a row. I have a day job, you know.”

Bradley chuckled somberly. “We’re in your debt, Doctor. Good night.”

With a parting nod, Tringham proceeded down the stairs. Ed watched him for a moment, and then turned to gaze reluctantly at the closed door beyond which his brother lay.

Noa squeezed Ed’s shoulder. “It’s going to be a while—but I know you won’t want to be anywhere else. Go on.”

He needed no further prodding. With nervous haste, he strode down the hall and slipped into the room. He closed the door with quietness and care, and then stood gripping the doorknob for a long moment, as he gathered the courage to turn around.

When he finally did, he was startled by the difference in what he saw.

Alphonse lay inanimate on the bed as before, but his previously bare white flesh was now semi-clothed in an oversized black shirt that served as a makeshift nightshirt. The blood-streaked sheets had been stripped from the mattress, and a clean one spread beneath him. Ed realized the doctor must have done some adroit maneuvering of Al’s limp body to accomplish all that. To his somewhat irrational relief, Tringham had not folded Al’s hands over his unbreathing chest like a corpse, but left them resting at his sides instead. His head lay upon a fresh pillow, eyes closed. He looked almost as if he was only sleeping peacefully.

Upon stepping closer, Ed could see that all remaining traces of blood had been washed from Al’s skin. Moreover, his color was a little different. He was still very pale—and he always would be now, as a dhampir—but it was not the ghastly whiteness his internal bleeding had caused. The blood fed into him by Tringham was already at work in his changing body, fueling the repair and regeneration of flesh and muscles.

Leaning over the bedside, Ed studied Al’s face closely. He could see it already: a little of the terrible gauntness had faded, softening the lines of his brother’s features. It was only a start now, but it would progress ever more quickly as Al strengthened.

Even the smell of him had changed. It was still the scent Ed recognized so well, but it was becoming more subtle, and there was an altered note to it that triggered entirely new reactions in Ed’s instincts. A human scent, no matter how beloved that human might be, inevitably whispered prey within a dhampir’s brain and body; but Al’s scent no longer carried that message. Instead, it spoke darkly of… likeness.

They were the same species now—and both frighteningly far from human.

A faint sickness squirmed in Ed’s stomach. He sank down onto the chair at the bedside, and reached out, his fingertips barely brushing across the knuckles of Al’s right hand.

“I’m sorry, Al.”

The sound of a gentle tap at the door pulled him back from the dark place his heart was creeping toward. Ed heaved a sigh, raised his head, and answered sullenly: “Come in.”

He was not surprised when Noa stepped in. He was, however, bemused to see her carrying a bundle of clothes in austere Hunter black. She set them on the bureau, and it only occurred to him then that the garments he was wearing were still liberally stained with blood.

Al’s human blood. It was the last fragment of his mortality… but useless now. Worse than useless, because the scent of it could easily disturb him when he awakened, still weak and in need of healing nourishment.

Noa knew. She had known it when Ed was in Al’s place, for even in the crude shelter of an abandoned house, she took care to wash away Ed’s spilled blood while he was unconscious. She was so thoroughly prepared for her duties to her foundling—but he had already neglected even something that simple.

Chastened, Ed began to rise, with a word of thanks rising to his lips… but he was halted by the sight of the blood-filled flask Noa was clutching as she turned to him.

“…More, so soon?” he asked, and winced at the unsteady smallness of his voice.

“It’s not for Al. This is for you.” Noa stepped to the opposite side of the bed, and held out the flask. “It will steady your nerves.”

She was right, of course. Edward eyed the flask for only a moment before he accepted it from her. He downed its contents in a few short gulps, too tired to feel guilty about not feeling guilty anymore.

The beef blood wasn’t warm, but its dull tingle as it went down was the closest a dhampir could come to feeling warm on the inside. Ed closed his eyes and let it saturate his being for a few moments. He wondered if this was anything like the way a fix felt for a junkie or an alcoholic—but blood was no mere vice for a dhampir. It was the price for survival and sanity, a nourishment demanded by the parasitic homunculus blood that kept his body just alive enough to serve its hunger.

Perhaps there was a poetic justice in his fate. As an ignorant boy, he had broken the most sacred law of alchemy, and now he suffered the most horrifying consequence of other alchemists’ sins: the evil unleashed upon this world by human transmutation had become a part of him. It had redesigned his entire being, given him an animal’s strengths and instincts with which to hunt prey… and if he did not feed it the essence of life for which it lusted, it would consume him instead, unleashing a predatory rage to ensure that its appetite was satisfied.

Ed had already skirted that madness once, and barely escaped. The possibility that it might ever claim Alphonse…

He refused to let his mind go there. That thought would drive him mad just as surely.

Noa had retreated into the adjoining bathroom. She returned with a bowl of steaming water and a washcloth. As she set them beside the change of clothes, she gave him a small, demure shrug. “You should clean up. Al will get upset if he sees blood on you.”

That was true—and it was motivation enough. Crossing the room to the bureau, Ed set down the empty flask, hard enough to chip the glass against the wood. He unbuttoned his bloodstained shirt, let it fall from his shoulders, and reluctantly grasped the cloth to wash away the last traces of Al’s humanity that had soaked through onto his skin.

“…Here.”

Noa was at his side then, gently taking the cloth out of his hand, wiping off a red smudge he hadn’t known was on his cheek. She worked her way down his neck and chest where he had cradled Al against him, lingered meticulously on a trickle of dried blood that had collected along the edge of his automail port.

Someday, in a moment like this, when the blood was not his brother’s but that of a slain homunculus-vampire… he would let himself enjoy it.

“You didn’t stop me,” he observed quietly. There was no accusation in his tone, and barely even a trace of curiosity.

The movement of the cloth against his chest halted. Noa’s gaze fell.

“I couldn’t. Not knowing—not feeling what you’ve felt.” She looked up at him, her eyes uncertain and a little afraid. “Was I wrong?”

“…I don’t know.”

There was a long moment’s silence between them. At last Noa turned away abruptly, twisting the cloth in her hands.

“Earlier tonight, Ed. Before… before the Gate.” Her voice trembled, and she swallowed hard. “I’ll forget that it happened.”

When Ed realized what she was talking about, the brusque statement pierced his heart. He gripped her shoulder with steel fingers and turned her to face him, searching her face in confusion. “Why would you say that?”

She stared up at him, wide-eyed; equally perplexed, it seemed, that he had to ask.

“Because—you have Al now. He’s all that matters.”

It was an answer that would have taken his breath away, had he still been breathing. Noa expected to step aside. She was prepared to take not a moment of his time or a fraction of his love away from Al, the only other person he had known how to love for so long.

Such selfless love for him—for himself and Al both—only made his reply all the stronger, all the easier to give.

“You should know better than that.” He drew her into an embrace, leaning his head against hers. “Al and I used to believe that all we had in our world was each other, but we were wrong. I’m not going to make that mistake again. I’m not letting go of anything anymore—including you.” A melancholy smile crossed his lips. “After all… Hunters work in packs, don’t they?”

They were just the right words to say. Ed felt Noa’s uncertainty melt away in his arms, and she clung to him, breathing out a soft half-laugh of gladness and love.

“I’m still your foundling,” he continued gently against her ear. He glanced at Al’s unconscious form, and his smile became more pained. “Even if I do have a foundling of my own now, I still need your help… to do this right.”

Noa drew back from him, returning a sad smile of her own, as her hands entwined with his. Her eyes were misty, but no tears had fallen.

“I’ll do everything I can,” she promised. Her eyes darkened a little as she studied his face. “What matters most is that you just let Al know… it’s alright to be what you’ve both become. For him to be able to accept it, he needs to see that you have, too.”

Ed wasn’t quite sure if there was a question buried within the statement, but he answered it anyway.

“I’m not sorry for what happened to me. Not anymore.” He gazed somberly at his brother. “Becoming a dhampir may be a heavy price to pay for survival… but it’s worth it. I believe that now.”

He felt Noa squeeze his left hand, and they stood in silence for a few moments, looking down at Alphonse on the bed.

“He’s so young,” Noa murmured at length. “I thought he was only a year younger than you.”

Ed glanced at her keenly. “How old do you think he is now?”

She contemplated Al’s face for a long moment. “Even with that sickness, whatever it was, making him look smaller than he should… I’d say no more than eleven or twelve.”

“Twelve is how old he would be—if you didn’t count the five years of our journey together, while his soul was in the armor.”

“Then you think his body didn’t age while it was lost inside the Gate?”

“It’s the only explanation that makes sense.” Ed frowned. “He was ten years old when it was taken. Those two years it’s aged since then can only be… the last two years, while we were separated. And that means…”

“His body was returned to him when you crossed the Gate.” Noa’s hand tightened in Ed’s again. “You kept your promise. You paid the price to get it back.”

“Yes, but… the sickness. Tringham said it was killing him, even before he…” Ed swallowed hard and shook his head. “What caused it? Why would Al get his body back, only to begin dying slowly? Was the price I paid not enough to give him back a full lifetime?”

“Don’t try to question it yet, Ed. Al may be able to explain it later. All that matters now is that he’s here with you.”

The mystery frustrated Ed, but he realized it was true that no answers were within reach at the moment. With a sigh he gazed down at Al’s face, and was briefly silent—until another disconcerting thought reared its head.

“Wait a sec. If dhampirs don’t age… he won’t be like this forever, will he?”

Noa shook her head. “No. When children are turned, their bodies still grow. It just happens much more slowly. In Al’s case, it will probably take thirty or forty years for him to physically mature—and then his aging will stop. He’ll look the same age as you and I then. But in the meantime… his mind should develop at a normal rate. It’s only his body that will be underaged, for a long time to come.”

Ed winced. “Somehow I don’t think Al is gonna be happy about that. His growing up was already delayed for five years… On the other hand, even as a dhampir, maybe he can still have back a small part of the childhood I took from him.” He forced an aching smile. “At least it’ll be a few decades before he’s taller than me again.”

The strained effort at humor earned a rueful twitch of Noa’s lips. She reached up to squeeze his shoulder gently.

“It’s almost sunrise outside. You should rest now. You’ll want to be at your best when Al wakes up.”

It was a suggestion Ed couldn’t argue with. He too had begun to feel the faint sensation of inner pressure that warned dhampirs to take shelter from the sun; and he did need rest, still emotionally and physically exhausted from the struggles and tragedies of the last few days. His father’s death had left him too full of somber thoughts to sleep much the previous afternoon. However, even with his new stamina—and even with the burden of Al’s condition weighing heavy on his heart—the fatigue he felt by this point would not be denied for much longer.

Now cleansed of Al’s blood, Ed retreated into the washroom with the bundle of clothes Noa had brought him. He changed his trousers, which were still stained with a few long-dried streaks of redness, but he didn’t bother putting on a fresh shirt. It was needless then, as he intended to do nothing other than sleep. Only a few hours would be enough, but he would probably let himself lie dormant until the next sunset anyway, unless Al began to stir before then.

When he returned, Noa was still beside the bed, thoughtfully studying Al’s face. Ed found he was glad she hadn’t left yet. There was a need in his heart that he couldn’t quite define; all he knew was that he wanted her near him. In better times to come, he realized the closeness he desired would be of a more intimate kind, but for now he craved only the part of Noa’s love that provided spiritual sympathy and comfort.

Moving over to her, he took her in his arms and kissed her softly. She responded with no further trace of doubt or uncertainty, and they held each other for a long moment.

“I should go now,” she said at last, and began to take a step back toward the door; but his flesh hand caught hers.

“…No. Please.” Swallowing hard, Ed glanced meaningfully toward the large bed on which Alphonse lay. “I’d like… for you to stay.”

Noa caught her breath faintly, her eyes widening. She hesitated for a brief moment. Then, in silent acceptance of his wish, she moved toward the nearer side of the bed.

With a quiver of oddly nervous anticipation, not sure why this was so important to him, Ed followed her. He laid down next to Al, and watched as Noa rather gingerly settled opposite him. They faced each other then, with Al’s pale, still form sheltered between them… and from the most bestial depths of his dhampir impulses, Ed felt a strange kind of contentment he had never known before.

For the first time since his mother’s death, something inside of him whispered the feeling of home. It went even beyond having Al back. He was surrounded by a place and people he had sworn to protect, to make his own. In that moment, on that bed, he was lying safe in his nest with his brother—and with… his mate. Or at least, the woman he loved and intended to have as his mate, when the proper time came. It startled him to realize that his heart had already claimed Noa in that way.

All of these reactions were deeply primal and involuntary, but Ed couldn’t bring himself to mind. If it was his fate—their fate—to be no longer human, at least there was consolation in these innocent animal feelings. The tender, protective pack instincts of dhampirs could not have been more different from the bloodlust and savagery at the other extreme of their nature. If only humans could form such bonds, he wondered what the world would be like.

Breaking off her gaze almost shyly from Ed’s, Noa closed her eyes, and became as lifelessly still as Al. It was no longer alarming to Ed by now, after seeing her asleep like that in their cellar refuge during their time spent hunting for Envy. He permitted himself to study her for a few long moments, taking in the serene beauty of her face in repose. She looked as if she could have been nothing more than the humble young gypsy she once was… but Ed knew better. He had seen her strength, her skill, the intensity of her resolve.

She had pledged all of those things to him, even before he knew he loved her. At first it was because she believed he would bring this world its only hope against vampires; yet even after she shared his memories, saw how weak and flawed he could be, her faith in him only grew stronger. It was no longer about her devotion to a cause, but her own love for him.

And Al… Ed smiled sadly as his glance shifted to his brother’s face. Many times in their difficult childhood-that-wasn’t, he had caught himself feeling almost more like a father to Al than a brother, focused so single-mindedly on caring for him. Between the youth of Al’s restored body, and the new instincts Ed possessed, that sense was now even stronger. Indeed, his burden truly had become more like that of a parent than ever. He faced the responsibility of bringing Al up in a new existence: guiding him to master the needs and powers of his dhampiric condition, to understand its rights and wrongs, almost as if he really was a child again. The thought had terrified Ed before, and in many ways it still did… but at this moment, there was also something about it that felt bittersweetly touching.

Nor would this life be only about the three of them. With the introduction of alchemy causing ripples of upheaval to spread throughout the Hunters’ organization, Ed couldn’t guess what the future might hold—but he knew they would share it with Roy and Jean and the others here in London. Somehow, they would find their way together through whatever was to come.

At least beyond himself and Al as brothers, Ed was unused to thinking of himself as a part of a greater whole—and perhaps that was the point. Perhaps enduring all that had happened was the only way he could ever learn that lesson. Caught up for so long in his own narrow goals, he had never deliberately aspired to change an entire world, until now… but even he couldn’t do that alone.

Now he knew that he didn’t have to.

Closing his eyes, Edward let himself slip quietly into a sleep that was without dreams—but not without hope.

 

CHAPTER III: RESURRECTION

 

Ed was not sure what awakened him, sometime later; but when he raised his head, at once fully alert, he saw Noa opening her eyes as well. He could feel that the sun had still not set, which meant it wasn’t nightfall that had roused them.

His gaze fell to Alphonse’s small body between them… and Al moved almost imperceptibly, fingers and eyelids barely twitching.

Noa saw the movement as well. With a somewhat startled expression, she rose quickly from the bed and started to turn toward the door, clearly intent on making a retreat.

Ed sat up, feeling sudden dismay and anxiety at the thought of being alone when he revealed their new reality to Al. “You don’t have to go.”

“It’s for the best.” Pausing at the foot of the bed, Noa placed a hand on Ed’s cheek, and bent her head to brush his lips with a gentle kiss. “It’ll be okay, Ed… Just give him love.”

Then she was gone, and Ed turned his gaze back to his brother-turned-foundling, overwhelmed with apprehension and uncertainty.

Dhampirs could wake instantly from normal sleep, but the first return to semi-life was a little slower. Ed watched as Al swallowed and turned his head slightly, showing signs of an initial discomfort that the elder brother vividly remembered. There would probably be some lingering pain for a short while yet, as the vicious damage within Al’s body continued to heal… and the taste of Ed’s tainted blood would still be in his mouth.

Al’s fingers curled into his palms, relaxed again. Then his right hand slid unsteadily up to his stomach, clutching at his torso, where the ache of healing would be centered. His lips parted in a faint grimace, and his eyes slowly, hazily opened.

His gaze was unseeing at first; but when his eyes finally focused, the first thing to meet them was the sight of his brother.

Ed…” he whispered, his voice barely working at all.

With a pained smile, Ed took Al’s small hand in his own. “I’m here, Al. Take it slow. It’s alright.”

In his still-weakened state, the boy was unable to do anything other than obey that advice. He lay still, with a tension on his face that betrayed the pain he was in. His gaze remained anxiously fixed upon Ed, as if afraid the brother he had sacrificed so much to find would disappear if he looked away.

The single breath that was exhaled as Ed’s name was the only one Al had taken. There was no movement of the lungs within his chest. To Ed, it was almost more strange and haunting to see that stillness while Al was awake than during his corpse-like repose. The thought caused Ed half-consciously to draw a deep breath of his own, not wishing Al to notice too quickly how impassive both of their bodies were.

After a few minutes, Al made an effort to sit up—only to encounter the stiffness of his muscles, another hallmark of dhampiric resurrection. His movement turned into little more than an awkward flop against the pillows. Ed leaned close to calm him, placing his flesh hand on Al’s shoulder as a gentle restraint.

The thin fingers that locked onto his wrist had an astonishingly powerful grip. Clutching Ed’s arm, Al managed to pull himself up a little, until he was able to lean forward and slump into his brother’s lap.

Ed barely succeeded in choking down the sob that tightened in his chest. He gathered Al in his arms, pulled him more fully onto his lap, and just held him, as he had in the cemetery when Al’s mortal life faded away. A part of him dimly warned that such closeness risked exposing the physical signs of his inhumanity, but he couldn’t help it now.

They sat still for a long time, with Al’s fragile-feeling body sagging against Ed’s left shoulder. The elder brother had both arms wrapped around Al’s waist, embracing and supporting him, while his cheek rested on the boy’s soft hair.

“I did it,” Al murmured at long last against Ed’s collarbone. “I found you…”

“You crazy idiot,” Ed responded softly, with a broken smile, as a few tears succeeded in escaping.

He might have said more. He might have offered a further gentle reproach for Al’s madness in throwing away everything for him; but he was halted when Al stiffened against him, just a little. There was a brief hesitation before Al spoke—in a tone that was startlingly calm, considering his ominous words.

“Your heart isn’t beating… and neither is mine.” He raised his head, looking Ed in the eye with an unflinching steadiness. “Brother, are we… dead?”

A part of Ed could only marvel at the complete lack of fear in Al’s voice. At the same time, he was pierced to the core by that earnest question, and he knew that to answer it—to explain what they had both become—was one of the hardest things he would ever do.

“Not quite.” He bowed his head, leaning his forehead against Al’s, as his heart ached with contrition. “I’m sorry, Al. I never wanted you to be here… To have to know…”

“Where is here? What’s happened to us?”

Al’s mental clarity, if not his physical strength, was recovering rapidly. Ed sighed and drew back a little, realizing the truth could not be put off.

“This is a different world, on the other side of the Gate. It’s just like ours in a lot of ways—but not completely.” He paused, searching for words to convey only what was most important at present. “For now, all you need to know is that most of the human transmutation attempts in our world don’t actually produce homunculi there. The creatures that are born from it usually cross over to this world instead, and here… they take the form of vampires.”

A shadow of grim comprehension flickered through Al’s eyes. Of course, he knew enough of the folklore that was common to both worlds. He could easily trace the link between the concept of vampires, and the chilling silence of the brothers’ own hearts.

“Ed—”

“It’s true, Al.” Ed looked away, unable to bear Al’s gaze as he plunged into his confession of the worst of it. “I was infected with the blood of one of those vampires—with homunculus blood. Someone did it to save my life. And last night… after the Gate…”

“You did the same for me,” Al concluded faintly.

Ed’s silence was the only confirmation necessary. He lowered his head, pressing his automail hand over his eyes. There was a long moment of heavy stillness in the room, as neither Elric spoke or even breathed.

And then Alphonse uttered a single, extraordinary word.

“…Okay.”

It was a simple, profound statement of acceptance, too unexpected and impossible to believe; and for a few seconds, it made the world seem to stop. Edward’s head jerked up, and he stared at his sibling with wide, incredulous eyes.

What?”

“I’m with you again—and I’m the same as you are. That’s what I asked the Gate for. It’s all I wanted.” Al’s firm expression grew more pensive. “Besides, I know you, Brother. If being this way was something evil… you wouldn’t have chosen to go on. But instead, you changed me too—and if you can live with this, then so can I.”

For a moment, Ed thought he might laugh from the sheer giddy shock of such a placid reaction. He shook his head in baffled awe. “Al, how can you say that so easily? Without knowing what—?” He stumbled into silence and made a futile gesture with both hands, unable to express the enormity of the difficult, painful fate Al accepted so unquestioningly.

“Because we’re alive.” Al frowned, pressing his palm over his unbeating heart. “Or at least, we’re whatever this is. It must still be better than being really dead… and if I hadn’t come through the Gate to find you, that’s exactly what I would be.”

“I don’t understand,” Ed breathed, with a flash of sudden anxiety.

Al’s lips twitched in a rueful smile. Although he was sitting up on his own now, he reached out, placing his hands on Ed’s shoulders. When he spoke, he seemed oddly and hilariously like a parent explaining something difficult to a child.

“The blood seal you drew on my old armor, Brother. It was your blood—and that got you caught up in the transmutation too. Most of my soul did bond to the armor, the way you meant it to… but a part of it bonded to you instead.”

A simultaneous wave of wonder and horror filled Edward. He had never known this. Never even imagined

“Missing a piece of myself didn’t hurt me while I was living in that metal shell,” Al went on calmly. “But after I got my real body back, my soul wasn’t strong enough to keep it alive for very long. The two years we’ve been apart, I just kept getting weaker. To save me from dying, Teacher and I came up with a plan to put me back in the armor for good—but going on that way wouldn’t have meant anything without you.” He gazed at Ed with undisguised love. “Do you see now, Brother? No matter what I’ve become, this is what I chose. Even if I would have died last night, after seeing you again one more time, I wouldn’t have regretted it. But now that I know I can stay with you, and share whatever you’ve been going through…”

The boy did not continue, because Edward had buried his face in his hands, his shoulders trembling with silent tears.

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he breathed, after a long moment. “The Gate should have taken my life, and made everything right for you instead. You were supposed to be safe and healthy in our world… even if I could never be there with you again.”

“This is what’s right, Ed. After you were gone, I didn’t belong in our world anymore. I could feel it. My dreams about the place where I saw you were more real to me than anything else—because my world is where you are.” Alphonse gently, fondly butted his head against Ed’s shoulder. “So stop crying. It’s the last thing I feel like doing.”

Helplessly Ed sniffled and raised his head, wiping his eyes. “What about your soul now?”

Al smiled. “I’m whole again now. I felt the missing part come back to me last night, once we were together. And even if it hadn’t…” The smile curved down into a thoughtful frown. “Maybe not having it couldn’t do me any more harm anyway, now that I’m a vampire.”

“We’re not exactly that.” Emotionally drained by the shock of Al’s reactions and revelations, and by the weight of the further confessions he knew were still ahead of him, Ed flopped back wearily on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling. “The homunculi that emerge in this world are the real vampires—soulless monsters with nothing human about them. Infected humans like us are only half-vampires, called dhampirs. We’re not nearly as powerful… but what matters is that our souls are still human. We’re not like them, because we still know how to choose right over wrong. That’s the only reason we’re able to go on living this way.”

“How long have you been like this?” Al queried somberly, as he crawled farther up the bed to settle himself close against Ed’s side.

Touched by that innocent gesture of affection, Ed surrendered to his own yearning. He took Al in his arms, letting his brother snuggle against his chest. The closeness offered a primal reassurance that made his nerves feel calmer, in spite of himself; and with his cheek pressed to the top of Al’s head, there was no eye contact between them. That made it somehow easier to go on revealing such painful truths.

“It’s only been a little over a week. Envy crossed the Gate before I did, and became a vampire, like the other homunculi here. It took him these two years to find me, but when he did… I never had a chance.” Ed shuddered and grimaced. “At least, not while I was human.”

“Was it his blood that changed you?”

“No.” Ed was unspeakably grateful for that fact. Had it been Envy who got the idea to prolong his torture by giving him a dhampir’s durability, as other vampires had done to their victims, he didn’t think he could have borne the horror of knowing that monster’s blood was in his veins. “It was another dhampir named Noa, who tried to save me. She got me away from Envy… but I was already hurt too badly to survive the way I was. So she gave her own infected blood to me.”

“I’m glad. I’m glad it wasn’t Envy, and I’m glad that woman saved you—even if it meant this change. I hope I’ll be able to thank her.”

“She’s nearby right now. Noa is a vampire hunter, and this place is the local headquarters of the Hunters’ organization. We’re among friends here…” Ed swallowed hard. “And that brings me to something else you need to know about this world, and the people in it.”

Delicately, even haltingly at times, Ed proceeded to tell Al everything about their situation. About the other Hunters who were doppelgangers of people they had known in their world. About the fact that alchemy had to be fueled here by human blood, and even then it could only affect beings who came from the other side of the Gate, such as vampires… and the Elric brothers themselves. Al listened intently, showing surprise at many of Ed’s revelations, but never a trace of disbelief. He remained as calmly accepting as he had been when Ed first confessed that they were no longer human.

But then, perhaps it wasn’t so remarkable that if Al could take that news without a flinch, nothing else would faze him.

Only once did Al become upset, when Ed explained that their father was exiled to this world too—and that he had died at Envy’s hands, a mere two nights earlier. Tears fell from the boy’s eyes as he absorbed that loss. When Ed explained how he and Noa were able to defeat and destroy Envy with alchemy, Al expressed a bitter gladness that Hohenheim had been avenged.

There was no visible clock in the room, but Ed knew they must have talked for hours, well beyond the setting of the sun outside. Eventually, he asked questions of his own: inquiring about the welfare of Winry and Pinako, Izumi, General Mustang, and everyone else who had mattered to them in their world. He was saddened by the thought that they would now grieve for Al, just as they did for him. However, it did his heart good to learn they were all doing well otherwise, going on with their lives and accomplishing good things for others.

It was enough. Knowing they were safe, he could say goodbye to them in his heart, and focus now on creating something meaningful from the difficult new life he and Al faced.

Through the entire time they talked, the brothers continued to lie curled up together. It was something they hadn’t been able to do in this way since they were little boys—and now that Al could feel Ed’s touch for the first time in seven years, he clearly craved it. Ed was glad to indulge him, stroking his hair, occasionally brushing flesh fingers across his cheek. His skin had cooled, but the elder brother hardly noticed, because it was no different than his own. All that mattered was that Al was tangibly there with him, in his rightful flesh-and-blood body that was soft yet solid in Ed’s arms.

In some ways, perhaps it would have been better if Al had come to this world in his old armor. Then he would never have had to know what it felt like to be a dhampir—and he would be safer from the dangers they surely had yet to face. Yet Ed suspected that even when Al felt the dark hungers and impulses of his condition, he would prefer its new onslaught of animal instincts and heightened senses to the complete void he once knew. To him, the armor’s invulnerability had been a poor exchange for the inability to experience the world around him, even if some of those experiences were unpleasant.

When a soft knock sounded at the door, only then did they both sit up, as Ed called for their visitor to enter.

He was not at all surprised to see Noa crack the door open, peeking in with a shyness that was an endearing contrast to her strong, forthright nature. Receiving a thin smile and nod from Ed, she stepped into the room, closed the door, and approached the brothers where they sat on the bed. The Hunter was holding something half-hidden behind her—and with a squirm of uneasiness in his gut, Ed realized what it was.

Forcing back that reaction, he introduced her. “Al, this is Noa. She’s…” He smiled wanly. “She’s the reason I’m still here.”

“I’m so sorry for everything you’ve gone through,” Noa said softly to Al, kneeling at the bedside to meet the boy’s eye level. “But I’m glad you’re with Ed again. And I promise, I’m going to do everything I can to help you both.”

In response, Al leaned forward and threw his arms around Noa’s neck, hugging her tightly.

Thank you,” he whispered fervently. “For both of our lives. For saving Ed the way you did—and for keeping him alive to save me.”

Over Al’s shoulder, Ed could see the look of astonishment and powerful emotion on Noa’s face, and he couldn’t help smiling at it. He nodded approval as Noa hesitantly lifted her hands to squeeze Al’s shoulders, her eyes growing misty.

“I’m the one who should thank you, Al. Your brother has brought hope to this world… and he was able to do it because you kept him alive and fighting through all the years of your hard journey. You don’t know what that means to our future.”

Smiling ruefully, Al drew back a little from her. “I always believed there was a reason for everything that happened to us. A fate we were meant to live for. I knew it would be something important—but I never could have imagined it was going to change a completely different world.”

Ed snorted with mock irritation. “Oh, don’t get started talking to Noa about fate. She thinks she was literally born to be my bodyguard.”

“Well, we do need all the help we can get to keep you from getting yourself killed.” Al wrinkled his nose at his elder sibling. “Now that I’m not in my old armor anymore, I don’t think I can do it alone.”

Beside the bed, Noa was smiling, clearly entertained and delighted by the interplay between the two brothers. Edward loved to see that. The last thing he wanted was to disrupt the almost-lightness of the moment; but he was still thinking of what Noa had carried into the room, and he decided it was best not to put off addressing it any longer.

“I guess you brought us…” He grimaced. “Dinner.”

Noa’s face fell with an abrupt, awkward sadness. “Yes. I know it’s a terrible thing to deal with so soon, but Al needs all the nourishment he can take to get his strength back.” Slowly she lifted the bottle of red liquid from where she had set it at her side, meeting Al’s eyes. “Please don’t be afraid. This is only beef blood. It still isn’t very pleasant, but… this is what it takes for us to live.”

“…I understand,” Al said faintly. He was making an obvious effort to preserve his earlier poise, but he stared at the bottle with uneasy eyes. It was one thing to be told he had become a half-vampire, but it was very much another to face the stark reality of it.

“Would it make you feel any better if… if I drank first?” Ed asked gently.

After a hesitation, Al nodded slightly. Ed reached out with his automail hand, taking the bottle from Noa, and then paused a moment to gather his own nerves. He thought he had grown used to this by now, but the very thought of Al watching him feed upon blood made the abhorrence of it somehow new and fresh again.

Finally, refusing to let himself think about it any further, he twisted the cap from the bottle and raised it to his lips. He took only a small swallow of the blood, without looking at Al. What Noa had given him earlier was still enough… and it was Al who needed it now.

“Does it taste good to us the way we are?” Al asked quietly, his gaze resting intently on his brother—but without accusation or disgust.

With reluctance, Ed met Al’s gaze. “It’s hard to explain. The taste of it isn’t good, but it triggers such a strong need in us that it doesn’t matter. The way it feels on the inside is what’s… satisfying, in an awful way. Even if it’s cold, it fills you with a kind of warmth. It fuels our bodies… and it keeps our minds free from the cravings that would turn into something much worse.” He grimaced. “But it’s not something anyone in their right mind could ever enjoy.”

“That’s good. I wouldn’t want to enjoy it.”

Noa spoke. “You should start by getting the scent of it first, Al. Just know that… your body will react.”

Al did not look reassured. Nevertheless, he reached out and took the bottle from Ed’s metal grip. For a moment afterward, he visibly struggled with himself, as if he couldn’t quite force his hand to draw the vile stuff any closer. Were his change farther along, Ed knew the smell of blood would already have decided things for him, but his senses had not yet achieved their full strength.

At last, closing his eyes, Alphonse raised the bottle underneath his nose and took a deliberate sniff. The inhalation gasped out again softly as his eyes flew open, their color swiftly brightening from warm brown to vivid scarlet.

Oh…”

His left hand rose to touch his parted lips. From there, his fingertips gingerly explored further, brushing against the sharp points that his canine teeth had suddenly developed. A deep shudder passed through him, and his eyes screwed shut again.

With a heart full of aching pain, Ed squeezed Al’s shoulders tightly. “It’s okay, Al.”

It was difficult to say whether the feeble attempt at comfort spurred Al to gather his resolve. In any case, he lifted the bottle and quickly gulped the blood, draining it so fast that he may not have tasted it—at first. There would be no escaping its bitter aftertaste, but at least he succeeded in drinking it down.

Once done, Al pushed away the bottle and sank facedown against the mattress, his small fingers fisting into the sheets. He was still for a long moment before he turned his head, to stare blankly at the far wall as his eyes faded slowly back to their natural color.

“I’m sorry,” Ed whispered in guilty grief, stroking Al’s hair. “But you’ll get more used to it. I promise.”

“I know.” Al blinked pensively, as the troubled tension in his face began to relax. “And I know this must be easier for me than it was for you. I have you to trust… but when you were alone here, it must have been so hard.”

Ed exchanged a touched and rueful glance with Noa. “It was at first—but Noa was the best teacher I could have. I can only hope to do as well for you.”

Noa smiled sadly at Al. “Neither of you are alone here—and not only because you’re together again. The rest of the London Hunters and I are here for you too. It won’t be easy to sort out the changes your alchemy has brought to this world… but whatever happens, you’re a part of us now. We’re going to take care of you both.”

In response to those words, Al turned over on his back, halfway sitting up. Although he said nothing, he smiled at Noa. The expression was pale and tired, but full of sincere warmth and gratitude.

For the first time since he was turned, Ed felt as if he had been touched by gentle sunshine.

 

CHAPTER IV: ADAPTATION

 

Alphonse had no idea what to expect when the Gate responded to his demand—but nothing could have prepared him for what he found in his reunion with Edward.

Of the crossing itself, he had little memory. Blackness, and bright light, and then blackness again. The haziest recollection of phantom hands that burned as they crawled across his skin, crushing him in their grasp, clawing their way into his body to take away pieces of him. Heat where his blood spilled out, and a deepening chill in the depths from which it drained. Searing, unspeakable pain that consumed everything.

Now that he was on the other side of it, that fading nightmare felt like the dark rebirth it had truly been. He was reborn into a different world and a different species, cut off from everything he had ever been before… except for being a brother.

He did remember Ed leaning over him, holding him. The different warmth that spread through his being, as the missing piece of his soul melted back into him—and the bitter tang of lifeblood as Ed’s hand pressed against his lips. For a moment before it all faded into nothing, Al thought Ed was trying in some way to seal his soul again, to tie it down once more with the scarlet threads of his own.

Perhaps, in a way, it was precisely that. Instead of binding him to a husk of metal, it was simply Al’s own damaged body that Ed had bound him to this time… although, in order to continue bearing his soul, that body was necessarily, terribly changed.

Nevertheless, it was alright. No matter what this change was or how it worked, it did come from Ed’s blood—and that was all that mattered. It was all Al needed to know to rest assured that he would be okay.

Dhampir. Half-vampire—or even more ominously, half-homunculus. Al supposed it should have frightened him more than it did. Yet after the prospect of returning to his lifeless armor shell, living on in that way without his brother for a potentially endless time, this alternative seemed far less horrifying. Now Ed was safe beside him, and while his body had once more become alien, at least this time it remained his own flesh and blood. At least he could still touch and taste and smell—in fact, far more keenly than ever before. Perhaps his newly heightened senses were a strange compensation for his five years without sensation at all.

And as for the price of preserving the health and sanity of his changed being… that wasn’t entirely something new. For five years in the armor, he had felt every day the precious, cruel weight of the seal inside him, the mark of blood that had cost his brother’s arm. At least what he was required to take into himself now was not human blood.

The only thing that really hurt Al was that Ed shared this fate, and was clearly grieved by it.

Through Al’s first night as a dhampir, and most of the following day, neither of the brothers rose from the bed where he awakened. He was still too weak for exertion, and Ed was not about to leave him. They simply lay nestled together, talking to each other, or sleeping. It was a strange kind of sleep, light and dreamless, but satisfying. Al noticed he felt considerably less pain and more strength each time he woke up.

Noa stayed with them for a while during the night. Al was glad for the chance to talk with her, to learn a little more about her—even though it took Ed’s input to fill in the blanks when she was too humble about herself, and the things she had done to protect Ed. She was lovely, and Al was intrigued by the few little details she mentioned about her native Roma culture.

More than that, Al could sense the warmth between his brother and this girl—and he was delighted by it. As intensely driven as Ed had always been, Al used to fear he would never see such feelings stir within him. But now, whatever it was that Ed had found in Noa…

It was a missing piece, like the part of Al’s soul that had just been restored.

When sunrise approached, Noa fetched two fresh bottles of blood, and then retired to her room to sleep. After drinking their distasteful ration, the brothers curled up together for their own long daylight rest. Although Al had already slept at intervals during the night, his body was still more than willing to become dormant, and continue its process of regeneration. His mind, too, was quick to grow quiet, dismissing all troubling thoughts of his new life. He wondered if this ease of sleep now was also an ironic repayment for his ever-wakeful years in steel.

Evidently, waiting out the useless daylight hours in unconsciousness was natural for dhampirs; or else, Al’s body simply needed the healing rest that badly. He didn’t awaken until he felt the sunset, as Ed had told him to expect. It was a peculiar feeling, like the relaxing of muscles that didn’t physically exist.

Ed was already awake, staring thoughtfully at the ceiling. Upon feeling Al move beside him, he quickly sat up, to look down at his brother with sad affection.

“Hey. How do you feel?”

After taking a brief moment to search himself inwardly, Al smiled up at him. “There’s no pain at all anymore—and the weakness is gone, too.” His expression took on a hopeful note. “Does that mean I can get up and meet the other Hunters now?”

A faint look of troubled reluctance crossed Ed’s face, but he nodded slowly. “If you think you feel up to it, I guess there’s no sense putting it off. You know it’s just… gonna be weird.”

“I know. It’s okay. After all we talked about, I think I’m ready to see them as who they are here.” Al ducked his head. “At least I’ll try.”

Pensively wordless, Ed rose from the bed. At that moment, there was a soft knock on the door; and when Ed called out permission to enter, Noa stepped into the room. Once again, she was carrying their grim evening meal of red fluid, as well as a bundle of black fabric.

“You’ve gotta stop pampering us,” Ed remarked warmly, as he moved to meet Noa and relieve her of the two bottles. Then he looked down at the bundle tucked against her side. “Clothes for Al?”

“Yes. They may be a little big for him, but they’ll have to do until we can get something his size. These are the smallest we have.” Noa laid the folded clothing on top of the bureau. Her hands rested on them for a moment, and her voice trembled ever so faintly as she added: “They were Francesca’s.”

A sharp sadness flickered through Ed’s eyes, and Al himself felt the same pang. Ed had told him about Francesca, Noa’s best friend and the double of their own world’s sweetly foolish Sheska. Her death was one more reason Al was glad that Envy had paid for his evils at last.

Impulsively, Al stood up, still clad only in the black shirt that had served as a nightgown. It was the first time he had been on his feet since… well, a number of days before his arrival in this world, given the unnatural illness that had been consuming his body there. Ed reached out to support him, but he wobbled only slightly before his new reflexes balanced him. As he moved, he could feel an unsettling difference inside his torso, things shifting in new ways where an unknown number of now-absent internal organs had left a void—a thought that made his stomach add to the confusion with a nervous spasm. He grimaced and coughed, but then he took a needless breath and stood firm, gently withdrawing from Ed’s hand that grasped his elbow.

“I’m fine.” He gave his brother a reassuring nod. Then he stepped forward, closing the few paces between himself and Noa, to take her brown hands in his small pale ones.

“I’m sorry for the friends you lost because of Envy. I know I can’t replace them… but I’m going to do my best to be your friend now, too.”

Noa’s eyes shone, and she put her arms around Al in a tight hug.

“Al feels like he’s ready to meet the other Hunters now,” Ed informed Noa when she pulled away from Al. “Could you see if you can get them together in the meeting room?”

“Of course,” Noa said quickly, and left the room.

When she was gone, Ed picked up one of the blood bottles she had left on the bureau, to open it with steel fingers and pass it to Al. After they had both nourished themselves, he set aside his own empty bottle, half-smiling with an awkwardness that made Al think his older sibling would have blushed if he could.

“Thanks for what you said to her, Al. I’m… I’m really glad you like Noa.”

“I’m glad you like her, too.” Al raised an eyebrow impishly. “And I mean that kind of like.”

Ed’s jaw dropped, and this time he definitely should have been blushing, had his physiology allowed it. “What—? How’d you guess that?”

“Brother, it’s obvious. The way you talked to me about her, the way you’ve both looked at each other…” The boy grinned. “I’m happy to see you care so much about someone else, Ed. Sometimes…. I used to be afraid we might never have any other family again, besides each other. I didn’t want it to be that way. And I didn’t want you to be afraid to love other people—even after all we’ve lost.”

At that, a shadow filled Ed’s expression. He dropped his gaze and turned away slightly, folding his arms.

“Having feelings for others may be more dangerous here than it ever was in our world, Al. Hunters… have a high mortality rate. Even if the dhampirs like us don’t die from natural causes, they can’t go on forever. Sooner or later, they’re killed by vampires, or they just burn out and—they go crazy. I told you what happens then. What their own friends have to do.” Ed’s voice quivered slightly. “The thought of that ever happening to Noa—or to you—”

“It’s not going to,” Al said confidently. “We’re never going to lose ourselves as long as we have each other. And as for it being dangerous, you told me yourself, things are different now. Hunters will be able to use alchemy to kill vampires, instead of just fighting them forever.”

“If other Hunters don’t decide to kill us because they’re afraid of alchemy…” Ed smiled wanly and shook his head before Al could argue. “It’s okay, Al. I’m really not going to… to shut everyone out again. I don’t think I could now, even if I wanted to. Dhampirs have some crazy kind of pack instincts—and they bond with each other in ways humans can’t imagine.”

“What do you mean?” Al asked, and saw the uneasy hesitation return to his brother.

“This is one thing I hadn’t told you yet.” Ed stared down at his hands, fretfully rubbing steel fingers against flesh. “You know dhampirs can’t drink human blood. But… they can take it from each other. And when dhampirs share blood, they absorb each other’s memories and feelings.”

Were it possible, Al’s silent heart would have skipped a beat. He gazed at Ed in wonder, trying to grasp the enormity of what he was hearing—and what it meant if Ed was speaking from firsthand experience.

“Oh, Brother,” he whispered. “Then… have you—?”

“Only from Noa,” Ed replied, quickly and a little brusquely. “At least—so far. Eventually, I’ll have to get used to the idea of doing it with other dhampirs, because it’s an important means of communicating for Hunters. In fact… that’s how I taught alchemy to the other dhampirs here. I gave them my blood—and my knowledge with it.” He smiled thinly. “That also means they already know all about you, Al.”

Stunned, Al sank down onto the edge of the bed, as his mind raced. He tried to imagine Noa, and the other Hunters who he had not yet even met, being able to share all that was in Ed’s mind and heart…

And a strange, faint prick of jealousy twinged within his own heart.

Ed was his brother. Except for these last two years, they had spent almost every moment together from the time Al was born. He was the one who was supposed to know Ed best and most intimately, the one to share his memories—because they had made them together.

Al shook his head slightly, pushing away that irrational flicker of selfishness. From what Ed told him, he realized it was partly his new instincts talking. Dhampirs formed strong ties in groups, but they were also highly possessive of people they especially loved, and those impulses could collide in volatile ways. The conflict would subside when Al came to know the other Hunters, made them a part of his pack to be cared for and shared with, just as Ed was.

And as for the fact that he had not yet experienced that ultimate closeness with Edward… that could surely be remedied easily.

“Can I do it?” he asked, his voice breathless. “Can I share your memories?”

“I was expecting you to ask that.” Ed looked away again. “Since you’re my foundling, it’s my responsibility to teach you how to deal with all of this—and that includes sharing blood. But I don’t want to do that, Al.” His fists clenched. “You’ve suffered enough hurt on your own, without having to feel mine too.”

“But I want to, Brother. I want to know the pain you’ve been through for me—and how much you loved me to do it.” Al rose and approached Ed, searching his downcast face. “And if you drink my blood too, that means you’ll also feel everything good and bad from me, right? It’s like Equivalent Exchange.”

“You don’t know how right you are about that.” Ed sighed and raised his head, reaching out to squeeze Al’s thin shoulders. “We’ll talk about it later. You have enough to adjust to right now. Besides, it’s not really the best idea to share blood until your system has fully changed over, and that takes a few days.”

Impatient though Al might have been, Ed’s reasoning made sense. Grudgingly resigned to defer the matter for a little while longer, the younger Elric nodded, and went to collect his new clothes from the bureau.

 

Once the brothers had dressed and made themselves presentable, they finally left the room where they had been sequestered. Ed guided Al downstairs to the second floor, where the Hunters carried out much of their more routine nightly work.

Al looked around keenly, taking in his new environment with interest—and trying to be discreet when he frequently sniffed the air. His sense of smell continued to grow stronger, while new instincts had emerged to interpret the language of scent he was discovering. The ambient odors in the building described the presence of people and dogs and electrical machines. Much like hearing the sounds of those things, their smells told him in general what they were; but he would only learn to recognize their sources individually when he saw them, and associated each unique scent with its owner.

The new clothes that had been loaned to Al were oversized and a little too long, as predicted. He did his best to tuck in the excess fabric where he could, but he still felt self-conscious and much too small—especially now that he properly remembered he was seventeen years old. It was rather absurd to be almost an adult in the body of a twelve-year-old.

He knew it was a situation he would have to get used to for quite some time. Ed had explained to him, with great reluctance, that as a dhampir it would take him many years to mature physically. It was a thought that pained him, after the development of his body had already been delayed for so long by its time within the Gate. Noa tried to encourage him, saying his small size and deceptively youthful appearance offered a certain advantage for a Hunter: he could look like easy prey to many less experienced rogue dhampirs, and even some incautious vampires, who failed to realize until too late that he was not a mere human boy. She told him that acting as a decoy in this way was a valuable tactic for other Hunters like him, who were turned as children, and grew mentally to adulthood while their bodies aged much more slowly.

It was, for now, a strange and troubling thought… but in the end, this too would be alright. It was simply another part of what was still a small price to pay for surviving and being with his brother. More than that, he was certain the work they would do here was vitally important and meaningful. Although Ed scoffed at the idea of fate, Al was convinced these things were meant to be, to bring balance to this world that had unknowingly been so hurt by the alchemy of their own.

And the Gate—or perhaps an even higher power—surely would not have chosen them for this destiny if they were not up to the task.

As the brothers neared the Hunters’ meeting room, the scents Al identified as those of people became more distinct. He slowed his pace and sniffed more openly, prompting Ed to stop and look at him with a sadly amused thoughtfulness.

“Tell me what you smell,” the elder brother prompted softly.

“Other people,” Al answered, blinking. “I recognize Noa’s scent, but not any of the others, even though some of them seem a little… familiar somehow.”

Ed’s lips twitched. “I noticed that too. Subconsciously, I think we even remember the smell of people whose doubles we knew in our world.”

Once more Al breathed in, tasting the air. “There’s something about most of their smells that reminds me of yours and Noa’s… and mine too, I guess,” he added bemusedly, supposing it was natural that he had not been very aware of his own scent until he thought about it. “But one or two of them are a little different, and their smell is stronger. Is that the ones who are still human?”

“Yeah. Sig and Heymans are the only humans still left with us, now that Riza’s been turned.” Ed sniffed consideringly as well, and his nose wrinkled. “Sig is the one who brings in that smell of raw meat. And that whiff of dog hair… that’s Roy.”

Al chuckled. “It’s kind of funny, hearing you refer to General—I mean, Mr. Mustang, and Miss Hawkeye—by their first names.”

“It was weird for me too at first, but that’s the way Hunters do things. Except for the Councilors, they don’t really have a formal ranking system, and I think I can understand that now. Even with the humans who can’t share memories… there’s something about this life that brings people too close to have ranks and titles between them.” Ed smiled crookedly at Al, and clapped him on the shoulder with his flesh hand. “So do you think you’re ready to meet them without freaking out?”

The boy rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to freak out, Ed. You’ve told me what to expect. I know it’ll be weird, but I understand.”

“Okay. Come on, then.” Ed nodded, and continued leading Al to the meeting room down the hall.

Noa must have heard or smelled the pair as they approached, because she stepped out through the open doorway to meet them. “Everyone’s here.” She took Al’s hands in hers, squeezing them lightly. “They’ve been looking forward to meeting you. Come in.”

Taking a deep breath that he didn’t need, Al followed Noa, with Ed trailing close behind him. As he stepped into the room, his first awareness was of several figures seated around a long polished table. They stood when the Elrics entered. He paused to take in each of them in turn… and his silent heart filled with wonder.

If it wasn’t for that cold stillness in his chest, he could almost have believed this was some elaborate prank, and he was back in Central instead of a literal world away. The faces that gazed at him were as startlingly, exactly familiar as Ed had told him they would be. True enough that there were a few differences: the Roy Mustang he saw now had longer hair and an eyepatch, and the dhampirs were all slightly paler and more gaunt than the human counterparts Al had known. Yet physically, in some impossible way, they were the same people he had left behind in Amestris. He knew from Ed that on a fundamental level, they were much the same people mentally and emotionally, too—although shaped differently in many ways by their unique life experiences here, and the horrors wrought upon each of their lives by vampire-homunculi.

As he tried to wrap his mind around that thought, it was finally driven home for him that this was not just a different world, but a parallel one. A few of the more outlandish scientists in Amestris had theorized about such things, and certain writers of fanciful pulp fiction had toyed with the what-ifs of the idea. Al wondered what they would think if they could see the reality of it.

“Master Alphonse,” said a chillingly familiar voice from the opposite end of the table, as a tall figure stepped forward. “Welcome to our world… such as it is.”

Something inside Al’s too-hollow gut tightened with instinctive anxiety. His breath caught, and he swallowed hard, looking up at the powerful dark-haired man who approached him. He stared at the faint twist of a smile beneath the black mustache, the eyes that appraised him with level coolness.

Two eyes. Not an eyepatch—and not the haunting scarlet glyph of an Ouroboros, the inhuman eye he had glimpsed for an instant when…

Whatever was left of Al’s innards flopped. He wrapped his arms around his thin torso, stifling the faint uneasy sound that tried to rise at the back of his throat. Edward had told him he could trust this version of the man named Bradley, and he believed his brother… but just then, all he could remember was that moment. The moment he had looked down to see blood—so much blood—spilling out from between the plates of his armor, when the life of the woman he had hidden inside him was brutally extinguished by a monster who wore this man’s face.

Ed’s hand found Al’s shoulder, and gripped it tightly. The touch alone was enough to bring him back to the present, back to his senses. He gulped and cleared his throat, forcing himself to return Councilor Bradley’s gaze more steadily.

“I-I’m sorry, sir,” he stammered, in a smaller voice than he wished. “It’s only—”

“I understand.” Bradley bent down to Al’s eye level, with kindness in his expression and voice. “From your brother’s memories, I know at least some of the evils committed by the creature who took my form in your world—including what you suffered because of him. And I am deeply sorry for that. I hope for the chance to prove that to you.”

A faint smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. “And when certain larger affairs settle down, perhaps I can introduce you to the Hunter who has served for many years as my personal aide. After helping your father and I to slip away from the Council secretly, she remained in Paris, to keep an eye on matters there on my behalf. She’s not only indispensable to me, but a close personal friend… and her name is Marta.”

Al’s jaw dropped, and his eyes grew enormously wide.

“You mean that Marta?”

“Yes—well, at least the incarnation of her in this world. She’s a dhampir, as well.”

Filled with a strange mix of astonishment, relief, and ruefulness, Al did his best to show Bradley a thin smile. “I’ll look forward to meeting her then, sir. I’m… glad to know she’s alive here. Even if she’s like us.”

“Good.” Bradley glanced sideways at the other Hunters around the table, with a small gesture for them to resume their seats. “Now, as to more immediate concerns. I don’t suppose our names need introducing to you, Alphonse—and yours certainly doesn’t to us. We regret that you now share our fate, but we’re pleased to have you with us. I can assure you that we’ll do everything we can for you.”

“Thank you, sir.” Unable to blush, Al could only duck his head shyly, as his eyes wandered across the other Hunters. “It’s strange to see faces I know so well, even though I’ve never really met any of you. I hope you won’t mind that it’ll take some getting used to.”

Riza Hawkeye gave him a small, pained smile. “Of course not… We all have a lot to be getting used to right now.” Her soft eyes studied him, with the interested concern of one newly turned dhampir for another. “How do you feel?”

“Well, kind of weird… but I know it’ll get better.” Al grinned haplessly, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m used to weird. This is just a different kind than I’ve dealt with before. I’ll be fine.”

At Riza’s side, Roy murmured, “I hope you won’t be disillusioned too soon, kid.”

Roy…” Ed muttered, taking a step forward from behind Al, to scowl at the doppelganger of his former superior.

“Easy, Ed.” Roy raised his hands from the table in a placating gesture. “I don’t mean to be discouraging—but let’s not sugar-coat it. Adjusting is hard enough for a dhampir under normal circumstances… and right now, the future is pretty uncertain for all of us.”

With a troubled frown, Ed glanced at Bradley. “Have you heard anything new from Paris?”

“Very little, I’m afraid,” Bradley sighed, as he moved back to his chair at the head of the table. “Obviously, after I disappeared with your father, Marta would have been questioned if she remained at the Citadel—the headquarters of the Council. For now she’s staying at a safe house, and can only receive news through the aide of another Councilor who shares our pro-alchemy views. All we know at present is that the Council is still bitterly divided… but at least it hasn’t come to violence, and news of the upheaval hasn’t spread to other Hunter cells. At this time, we can only wait, and see how the conflict among the Councilors plays out.”

“There’s gonna be trouble either way,” Ed muttered. “Even if the Council itself doesn’t end up controlled by people who want to wipe out all knowledge of alchemy, the ones who are against it could split off into a new group and come gunning for us.”

“It’s possible—and something we’ll have to make contingency plans for. But that isn’t your concern now, Edward.” Bradley looked back and forth between the Elric brothers with a melancholy smile. “You concentrate on Alphonse’s adjustment—because sooner or later, we’re going to need him badly. Protecting both of you, and the gift you’ve brought to this world, is up to the rest of us now.”

Al shivered slightly as he realized what Bradley meant. The Hunters hoped he would share his blood with others, just as Ed had, to pass on his alchemic skills. It had given him no pause to think of Ed drinking from his veins, feeling his love and his frustrations, gaining his perspective on their experiences together… but the thought of other dhampirs taking all of that from him was a little frightening.

Equivalent Exchange, he reminded himself. Other dhampirs would share with him as well, and he would learn things from them that he couldn’t yet imagine. It was only fair that he should teach them in turn—especially because the skills they gained from him could save untold lives in the future.

“I’ll do anything I can,” Al submitted, quietly but firmly. “Ed told me about the vampire-homunculi, and your fight against them. I want to share that work too.”

His brother scowled at him. “Slow down, Al. Becoming a Hunter takes a lot of training.”

“Says the guy who went out to kill a vampire less than a week after he was changed into a dhampir.”

“That’s because it was Envy, you dope!”

Around the table, a few chuckles were hastily stifled.

“There will be all too much time for our troubles and duties later.” Bradley leaned forward, beckoning the Elrics toward a pair of empty chairs. “Tonight is yours, Alphonse. We may know a great deal about you from your brother’s memories, but that still doesn’t compare to knowing you for ourselves, firsthand—so let’s become better acquainted.”

With a tentative smile, Al moved forward to take a seat at the table, and lost himself until dawn in conversation with his new comrades.

 

CHAPTER V: MEMORIES

 

All things considered, Ed was almost too impressed by Al’s adjustment in his first few days as a dhampir.

By the second night after his turning, Alphonse showed no sign of the terrible injuries he had arrived with. There was no longer any hesitation or weakness when he moved—and he was becoming restless. He wanted to go beyond the gates of the Hunters’ stronghold, to see something of the city, even if it was only on a short moonlight walk. Still nervous at the thought of Al being exposed to the wider world, Ed resisted his brother’s plea.

Yet the other thing Al begged him for frightened Ed even more.

“No thanks,” Al said primly, sitting on the edge of the bed in his room, when Ed came to deliver the bottle of blood that was to be his morning meal. “I’m not going to have that right now.”

Vexed by the refusal, Ed frowned. “Al, I know it’s not fun, but you shouldn’t skip any meals right now. You may feel just fine, but your body still isn’t really finished adapting yet. It’s important to stay nourished. I’m telling you from experience—they didn’t feed me for a few days while their Hughes had me locked up. That’s part of why my change was harder, and took longer than it should have.”

“Oh, I’ll have blood now if you want me to.” Al folded his hands, gazing up intently at Ed. “Just not that blood.”

It was easy enough to understand what Al meant by that. Ever since he learned about dhampirs’ ability to share memories, he had been giving Ed hints and nudges about it, and had outright asked him more than once. He completely ignored Ed’s assertion that he was not yet ready for so intense an experience.

Ed couldn’t bring himself to confess that he was the unprepared one. He was nothing less than terrified at the thought of exposing his soul to his brother. Al probably knew that anyway… but when he wanted to be, the younger Elric was just as good as the elder at not taking no for an answer.

“We’ve been over all that,” Ed sighed. “The time isn’t right yet.”

“You said you took Noa’s memories even sooner after you were turned.”

“Yeah, and I could barely handle them. A dhampir can’t absorb memories very well before their change is really complete.”

“I’ve come far enough now, Brother. I know I have. And it’s not just about being healthy as a dhampir—it’s got to count for something that I know you so well already. Besides, even if you didn’t know it, you carried a piece of my soul inside you for five years.” Al’s eyes softened, and he gave a small, melancholy shrug. “I just want my turn to have part of you in my soul, too.”

Something about the earnest, gentle assurance of Al’s voice and gaze affected Edward deeply. Feeling a tightness in his chest, he set aside the blood bottle on top of the bureau, and edged closer to the bed.

A part of him did want the sharing Alphonse longed for. He wanted Al to feel, once and for all, how desperately loved and precious he was. He wanted Al to know the depth of his wretched remorse, for having led him astray in arrogance and ambition—leading him down a path that had stolen the boy’s humanity, not once, but twice. He wanted his emotions to pour out his apology in ways no words could ever achieve.

But it also meant allowing Al to feel his memories of unspeakably agonizing pain. The pain of lost limbs, automail surgery, battle wounds… and the even worse torture of fears and doubts and helpless rage, the phantoms that had shadowed him all along their journey. Fear that Al could not truly forgive him; doubt that he was truly strong enough, skilled enough, good enough to fulfill his promise and make Al whole. Rage that he felt even now, toward destiny or the Gate or the entire universe—whichever universe it might be—that had always condemned Al to suffer for Ed’s own choices and mistakes.

No matter how Ed felt about it, he knew he couldn’t put this off forever. There would be no stopping Al from his decision to become a Hunter himself, and sooner or later, that work would require them to exchange critical knowledge of some vampiric target. Besides, if he refused to carry out this responsibility to his foundling, Al would only be forced to learn the practice of blood-sharing from Noa or another dhampir. Ed could not ask them to shoulder his burden.

“…What if you don’t like what you see?”

He wasn’t aware that the words were on his lips until he spoke them… but he truly wanted the answer. Even if Al couldn’t possibly predict his own reaction in advance, Ed wanted to know what he thought he would feel.

Al smiled ruefully. “Brother, you gave up your arm to save my life—and then you tried to sacrifice all of yourself to save me again. How can you think anything else you’ve ever done would matter more than that?” The smile faded abruptly. “The only thing I’m going to hate is really knowing how much you’ve hurt… but I want that too.”

A few seconds of silence passed; and then, very slowly, Ed sank down onto his knees at the bedside.

The remainder of the breath Al had taken to speak shuddered out of him. He watched with wide eyes as Ed’s left hand reached up to his shirt collar, pulling loose the top three buttons. With his throat exposed, a steel finger gently tapped on the target site at the juncture of his neck and shoulder.

Swallowing hard, Al leaned forward, to plant his hands firmly on Ed’s shoulders. He dipped his head forward a little, lowered his lips beneath his brother’s left ear—and then he paused.

“How do I… do this?”

Ed resisted a faint smirk. Undoubtedly Al’s emotions were intense at that moment, but they were clearly not the kind that would spur his fangs to emerge, such as anger or fear… At least, not for the moment.

“Don’t expect me to make it any easier for you. This is your show now. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself.”

Al released a small huff of irritation against Ed’s shoulder. Then he pulled close again, and pressed his nose to his brother’s neck, tentatively nuzzling and sniffing. After a moment, he parted his lips and lightly grazed Ed’s skin with the edges of his still-blunt teeth. When he got used to his fangs, he would find it easier to manifest them; but for now, he had no idea how to make them work, and could only search blindly for some cue that would trigger them.

Somehow, at last, he succeeded. Ed heard him gasp softly, and felt the first gentle dent of fang-points pressing on his skin, hesitating to push through to the red richness underneath.

When Al uttered a soft whimper, Ed knew the boy had suddenly realized the very human instinct of horror at what he intended to do.

“This is what you wanted, Al,” Ed murmured quietly, taking care not to move his head away from those delicate pin-points braced against his flesh. “Now do it.”

Al flinched and whined softly, hugging Ed closer. One deep shudder passed through his thin body… and then he bit down, his jaws abruptly tightening with just enough pressure to force his fangs into Ed’s flesh. They withdrew immediately as Al let out a startled breath, releasing the pierced skin; but their sharp, cutting points had already done the job required of them. From the two small wounds they created, red droplets welled up, to trickle thinly across Al’s trembling lips.

The taste of it, so different from the animal blood that had sustained him until now, would arouse new instincts that were anything but human. As a predatory need surged up to repress all loathing and fear, his mouth settled over the bite. He began to drink, once more taking into himself the blood of his brother—the same blood that had already twice preserved his life.

Ed closed his eyes, and did not resist as the flood of memories spilled from his soul.

Their childhood in Resembool. His first memories were not of their parents, but of Al. Toddlers nestled together in the same crib; growing boys, playing and learning together… and then grieving together, as their mother’s death tore their peaceful life apart.

Ed’s intent resolve, even then, that he must now be the one to protect and care for his little brother.

His dark obsession with resurrecting their mother—born of a deep-down fear that he would fail both her and Alphonse, because he wasn’t as strong or wise as she. Fear that he couldn’t look after Al as well as she could. Fear that was only fueled by their month on Yock Island, with his first taste of the terror and futility of trying to defend Al from what they thought was mortal danger.

The forbidden act of human transmutation. The agony of hearing Al’s cries as a living darkness ripped him away from the world. The pain and horror of the bleeding void where Ed’s leg was supposed to be… and even more so, the void of losing the one person he had never, ever been without. The desperation, the near-madness that drove him to make use of a new knowledge no human should possess, giving up even more of his own body to ensure that the true most vital part of him was not lost. The impossible joy and grief of seeing Al awaken within the armor—and overshadowing it all, the fear that Al would never, could never forgive him for causing the loss of absolutely everything.

Long months of recovery, of torturous automail surgery. Nights full of nightmares much worse than the physical pain; not visions of the brutal trauma he had borne himself, but of the very different suffering he had thrust upon Al, and of being hated and left alone by him because of it. The constant insecurity of wondering if the care Al showed for him, in his months of crippled helplessness, was just a burden of familial duty that Al might silently resent. His promise that he would fix what he had done: not only for the sake of making everything right again, but to give his brother a reason not to abandon him in disgust, as Al had every right and reason to do.

Their long journey, with its own many trials and pains, eternally driven by that promise he had made. Ghosts of doubt that lingered until a final breakthrough, one splendid ridiculous night in the midst of all-out battle, when Ed forced himself at last to voice the one question he had feared all along—a question Al answered, once and for all, with his own protective love. Joy in that assurance, tempered with the conviction that even still, no apology for Ed’s mistakes would ever be enough.

Other bright spots, apart from Al, in the often-dark path they followed. Gratitude and affection for the faithfulness of Winry and Pinako. A deep warmth for Maes Hughes and his family, however suppressed it might have been beneath a feigned annoyance at the man’s fumbling paternal impulses. Subtle, unspoken appreciation for those who had been kind to the brothers, like Lieutenants Hawkeye and Havoc… and for General Mustang, a wistful jumble of emotions. Contempt and irritation and grudging respect, and a hidden fondness that Ed’s pride could never admit to until it was far too late.

The brothers’ final, fateful confrontation with Dante and her homunculi. Facing the Gate again, learning of this world beyond it, and the terrible secret of its connection to their own. An instant of unimaginable shock and pain, when Envy took Ed’s life the first time… and the devastation of waking to restored limbs that had cost Al’s life in turn.

The choice that was really never a choice at all: to bring Al back once more, or die trying.

Automail again, and this alien world, without even any certainty that the Gate had returned Al on the other side. Two lonely years of searching for knowledge in the absence of alchemy, yearning for nothing but to know his brother was alive, even if they could never be reunited.

Envy’s reappearance, in the form of an impossible monster from legend. Noa, strong yet gentle, taking it upon herself to spare Ed from a second death at Envy’s hands—but at a price as bitter and taboo as human transmutation itself. The dark gift of her blood, the shock and bewilderment of transformation into a dhampir.

The Hunters, in all of their uncanny familiarity. The Maes Hughes of this world, and Ed’s guilt in unwittingly driving him to madness. Captivity, escape, the hunt for Envy. The return of Hohenheim, with all the answers he held. The last battle against Envy, and the hard-won victory that set the course for Ed and his new comrades, proving that alchemy was their weapon against the vampire-homunculi.

Somber reflections in a cemetery, as Hohenheim and the fallen Hunters were laid to rest. Ed’s quiet resolution that he would accept his new life, use it to share the Hunters’ fight against the evils his fellow alchemists had created, even though the question of Al’s fate would always leave a hollow place in his heart…

And the sudden, unexpected answer to that question, when the Gate delivered Alphonse into this world—daring Edward, for one last time, to trade his blood and Al’s humanity for their chance to be together.

Like the fog clearing from a mirror, the visions of the past gently evaporated. Al’s mouth had pulled away from the punctures on Ed’s neck. The boy clung and shivered, overwhelmed for a moment by the inhuman and unthinkably intimate experience of sensing all that was in his brother’s mind.

Wrapping his arms around Al’s waist, Ed whispered yet again those two familiar words: “I’m sorry.”

For a few seconds, Alphonse was still. Then he drew back just far enough to look up into Ed’s face. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, and there was a small trickle of blood at the corner of his lips; but those lips were twisted into a crooked, painful smile of fond exasperation.

“Ed, you idiot,” he said, his voice cracking only slightly.

Stung by the incongruity of the smile and the reproach, Ed gaped. “What?”

“For ever doubting how much I love you. For thinking I could blame you for something that was my fault too—even when I told you so many times that I was just as guilty.” Brimming eyes mock-glared at Ed. “If you weren’t the most important thing to me in any world, do you think I would have offered the Gate all I could give for you twice now?”

Shamefaced, Ed looked away. “I know that now… but for so long, it was so hard to convince myself that you wouldn’t hate me, no matter how much you showed me otherwise.” With a rueful sigh, he raised his left hand, brushing his thumb across the corner of Al’s mouth to wipe away the blood. “Maybe it’s because I hated myself so much for what I’d done, I couldn’t see how you could feel any differently.”

Al studied Ed’s face with grim thoughtfulness. Then he reached up to his own shirt collar, and tugged the fabric loose from his neck, just as Ed had done.

“It’s your turn now.”

Even though some part of Ed knew the offer should not be unexpected, it still shocked him to his core. He flinched back, staring at the pale skin of Al’s exposed throat, and then at Al’s intent, earnest eyes. “Al—”

“I mean it. You need this, Brother. If telling you and showing you how much I love you isn’t enough to get through all this hurt you’ve been carrying for so long… then at least now you can feel it, once and for all.”

A little while ago, the very thought of biting Al would have been unbearable; yet being bitten by him had taken away some of the revulsion. It forced brotherly protectiveness to give way to the realization that Al was now truly and fully a dhampir, with a new physiology designed to use these abilities. In any case, Ed knew that Al would not be denied in the matter. If anything, he had seized even more firmly upon the idea that this was the form Equivalent Exchange was to take for them now.

Besides… it was only right that after subjecting Al to his pain, Ed should feel the echoes of his brother’s own unique suffering as well.

Deeply reluctant, yet somehow tantalized, Ed slowly rose from his knees and settled on the edge of the bed. He sat sideways to face Al, lightly gripping the boy’s shoulders. Al gazed back at him with a look of determined expectation, and tilted his head just slightly to one side, the better to expose his waiting throat.

Trying not to think, Ed bowed his head close to Al’s neck. With his somewhat greater experience, it was less difficult for him to summon the impulses that would bring forth his fangs. Just a moment of focusing on his anger at the fact that Al was forced to share his fate as a dhampir—and there they were, two sharp points against the tip of Ed’s tongue. He was glad Al couldn’t see them as he opened his mouth, breathing in Al’s scent, bracing himself to do something that should have been unimaginable.

Only twice so far had Ed bitten Noa, driven both times by an injury-induced starvation that compelled him to tear viciously into her flesh. This time, with Al, he was at least blessedly in control of himself. He inflicted little more than a gentle nip: a slight scrape of his fang-tips against soft young skin, just enough to draw a small taste of blood.

This was all that was needed to spark the connection between their minds. For one moment as the vision came, Ed had to force himself not to break away, not to recoil in fear of taking from the soul he had always fought so desperately to protect…

But that soul welcomed him with a surge of joy and love that overwhelmed him, that drew him into its embrace, even before the first glimpse of true memory took shape.

Their shared childhood once more. Al’s early memories, of playing and fighting and mourning together, were so much a mirror of Ed’s own—except for one thing. Instead of the heavy weight of responsibility, the fear of inadequacy, Al felt only innocent trust and admiration for the big brother who protected and guided him. He had absolute faith in Ed, even after their mother died… and even when his conscience whispered doubts of the dark, forbidden path Ed laid out for them.

The night of the transmutation. Anxious fears Ed had felt as well, but refused to admit to—and on top of that, Al’s fear of failing Ed, of making some tiny mistake in the equations that would leave him guilty of disaster. His last sensations: the prick of the knife on his finger, the nervous thumping of his heart, the silken slickness of the array’s chalk dust on his hands. The terror as it all went monstrously wrong, and the barely-remembered shadow of a pain that was briefer than Ed’s, but far more shocking.

It was the pain of Al’s entire body being torn away from his soul.

The Gate. Perhaps spurred by his far more recent and vivid encounter with it, Al remembered it now; but this first recollection was still vague, a hazy jumble of dark and light and utter absence. All he really knew of those moments between worlds was a sense of fading, the terrifying slide of his disembodied soul toward oblivion—until he was captured by a sudden gravity that pulled him back. For an instant, he thought he heard Ed’s voice, and then there was nothing.

Waking in the armor. Numbness, confusion, shock; and then a horror which, at least for a time, pushed aside all thoughts and feelings about his own condition. The sight of Ed huddled before him, half his limbs gone, bleeding out a sea of red.

Carrying Ed’s maimed and unconscious body to the Rockbell home, as if his older brother was no more burden than a feather. Feeling nothing on the outside—neither Ed’s weight, nor the warmth of his spreading blood, nor the wetness and cold of the rain that pounded down ringingly upon the armor—yet on the inside, feeling an anguished fear worse than anything the Gate could have wrought upon him personally. The fear that Brother would die.

After, when Alphonse knew that Ed’s condition was stable, and Ed’s blood had been cleaned from the steel shell that enclosed him. The first of so many long nights devoid of sleep. Sitting beside his brother’s bed in the half-light, staring down at the leather gauntlets that had become his hands; wondering if he could still be human, or even a living thing.

Hearing Ed cry out in the night from his wounds and his nightmares. Feeling the hurt of his brother’s pain, somewhere in the emptiness where his heart should have been. The one thing that assured him he was still human after all—at least until morning, when Ed awakened, to cling and weep and breathe out tortured apologies. Because Ed’s love made him feel more human than anything else ever could.

Days and months of slowly recovering together. Uselessly watching Ed endure the further agonies of automail surgery, and then at last begin to grow stronger—even as Al himself adjusted to his alien new form. Learning how to move, how to control the strength of his steel frame, how to handle objects without a sense of touch.

Learning not to feel guilty in the moments, every now and then, when he caught himself almost enjoying some of the things he could do.

Their departure from Resembool. Fear of the vast unknown beyond their home; fear of what awaited Brother in his ambition to become a State Alchemist. Determination to take up that challenge equally with Ed, and dismayed frustration when he was not permitted to. Fierce resolve that even without a military commission, he would remain at Ed’s side, do his best to share the burden Ed had taken upon himself… and through the years that followed, more fears and guilts of his own, as their journey took a far greater toll on Ed’s fragile body than his own impervious shell. The helpless feeling that with his great strength and sturdiness, he could have and should have done more to keep Ed from getting hurt. Days when he secretly longed for nothing more than to end their quest: to submit to the fate they had brought upon themselves, and build a new life just as they were, so that Brother would cease to suffer in a fight for the impossible.

The good and the bad of their experiences. Friends, and enemies, and total strangers in need of help. Brushes with death, and occasional fights with each other; yet always, they were together, and that was the only thing that truly mattered.

Liore. Marta’s brutal murder, and Al’s guilty grief at being unable to protect her. Kimbley, Scar, the terrifying burden of the Philosopher’s Stone forged within him. Hohenheim, and Dante, and the final battle.

The horror of seeing Ed die at Envy’s hands.

The refusal to accept such an end after all their struggles, choosing instead to save Brother with the Stone—or else to die with him. Sacrifice… and then waking as a ten-year-old child again, bereft and bewildered, in a world that had aged five years since his last memory.

Brother’s absence, an emptiness deeper than any Alphonse had ever felt in the hollow armor. The yearning for nothing more than to have Ed back, no matter the cost. His fight to recover his memories, to train and grow stronger again for the search, only to find that he had lost more than he first realized. The creeping onset of frail weakness, as his body preyed on his fractured soul. His dreams of Ed, his one delicate link to the missing piece of himself that Ed carried, causing him to cherish the very condition that was killing him—until even the dreams ceased, their last thread of connection unknowingly severed by Ed’s undeath.

The final option to survive, by sealing himself forever within his armor… and yet again, his choice that even death with Brother was preferable to life without him. A final entreaty granted by the Gate, but at a savage price, demanding flesh as payment for the reunion that would heal his soul.

Unspeakable pain—and then joy at the sight of Ed’s face leaning over him. The warmth of his own gushing blood, mingled with the warmth of his missing soul-piece as it was absorbed back into his being. The cold, sharp bitterness of Ed’s blood upon his lips. A gentle rest, followed by awakening to yet another new life: tainted now by an inhuman darkness, yet caring only that he was with Brother once again.

Edward pulled away from Al’s throat with a shiver, pressing his automail hand over eyes that streamed with tears.

For a moment, even now that he was fully adapted as a dhampir, the memories seemed more than he could process. The images and sensations were myriad and staggering—but Al’s emotions were what gripped him, because they were everything his little brother had promised.

The love Al had for him was more than he could begin to comprehend. All his apologies, all his guilt, all his struggles to make amends… yet Al loved him so much, he counted nothing to be apologized for. At least, not to himself. In Al’s eyes, the true repayment of their shared misdeed was owed to the world, the natural balance of existence whose laws they had violated. Rather than expect recompense for the loss of his body, he had instead felt only grief that Ed pushed so hard in the effort, continuing to endure hurt while Al’s own metal husk could feel no pain at all. Even when his body was restored, he would have given it up again in a heartbeat to have Ed back.

In the end, he had certainly tried his best at that. Like Ed himself, he survived only because this new world offered a way to cheat death, forged by the very sins of other alchemists. It was the most perverse twist of fortune… or perhaps providence.

Al’s hand came to rest gently on the top of Ed’s bowed head.

“Do you understand now, Brother?” the boy asked, his voice a quivering whisper.

Too choked with emotion to speak, Ed could only nod faintly and throw his arms around Al’s shoulders, hugging him tightly.

“Good.” Al returned the hug, nuzzling his cheek against Ed’s neck, where the marks of his own bite had already vanished. “We’ll be okay now, Ed. Both of us. We’re together—and we’re not alone.”

“…I know.” Ed sniffed and pulled back a little, to smile tearfully at Al. “And I’m glad you’re here. I didn’t think I could ever feel that way about having you in this world, like this… but I see now. And I promise, I—”

He found himself silenced by Al’s finger against his lips. “No more promises, Brother. We don’t need them anymore—not to each other. The only promise we should make now is to do our best for this world, and try to save it from the monsters our world created. Because that’s what we’re here for… It’s what it was all for. I’m sure of that.”

Ed gave a feeble shrug. “I think I want to believe that. Maybe I can learn to… It’ll just take me a little time.” His expression grew firmer, and he clasped Al’s hand in his own. “But I will make that promise with you. This is our home now—and we’re going to protect it.”

When Al beamed at him in approving joy, he knew that smile was the only sunlight he would ever need again.

The moment was ended by a knock on the door. Ed called for the visitor to come in, and when Noa entered, he was remarkably unashamed to be caught still wiping his eyes with his sleeve. Al didn’t even bother to rub the tears from his own cheeks, but smiled up at the girl with a bright sense of relieved happiness.

Whether or not Noa glimpsed the last fading trace of the bite on Al’s neck, she seemed to sense immediately what had passed between the two brothers. Understanding filled her eyes, and a brief, warm smile crossed her lips as well.

“Councilor Bradley has called a meeting,” she informed them, quickly sobering. “We’ve received word from the Council.”

That news was enough to stir butterflies—or at least the dhampiric equivalent—in Ed’s undead stomach. He quickly stood up with a nod, and stepped forward to follow Noa out of the room, joined by Alphonse.

As they made their way down the hall, Al glanced between Noa ahead of them, and Edward beside him.

“I take it back,” the boy mused with a little smile, in a murmur just loud enough for Ed’s enhanced hearing to detect. “There is one more promise I want to see you make—but not to me.”

Ed nearly faltered in his stride. He shot a look of surprise and chagrin at his little brother, and found himself stifling a snort of laughter when Al grinned back at him cheekily.

It really shouldn’t have been the time and place for the good feelings that were creeping into his heart. At least, not until they knew whether the news from Paris was good or bad… but still, Ed couldn’t help it. He felt a buoyant lightness inside him, where the accumulated weight of seven years’ pain and fear had been lifted from his soul.

He knew then that sharing Al’s mind had changed him forever, and he wasn’t sorry for it.

The slate of their past was clean. In time, the grim burdens of life as dhampirs and Hunters might very well begin to darken it again; but for now, Ed was almost strangely at peace. Something felt complete in the brothers’ lives that had not been for years, if ever. Whatever was ahead, they had new strength to face it together, along with their new friends—perhaps now their family.

Edward Elric had long known the feeling of purpose. Now, for the first time he could remember, he knew the feeling of belonging.

They entered the meeting room to find that with the exception of Sig, who did not live on the premises, the other Hunters had already gathered there. Councilor Bradley was sitting at the head of the table, gazing intently at his steepled fingertips; but when he saw Ed and Al arrive to take their seats, a faint, weary smile curled beneath his mustache.

“Only a few minutes ago, I received a message from Marta,” he announced. “The conflict within the Council has been resolved—at least for the time being. In the end, all but two of my fellow Councilors were persuaded to give the potential of alchemy a chance. The dissenting pair have quit the Council and left Paris, still vowing to take any measures necessary to oppose its use… but at least now we have time to make our own case to those who remain. Knowing them as I do, I believe we can convince them that alchemy’s power to save lives is more than worth its risks.”

Around the table, bated breaths were exhaled in sighs of cautious relief. Riza slipped her hand into Roy’s, giving him a tiny smile. He squeezed her fingers in return, but his expression was troubled.

“That doesn’t mean this is even close to being over. When Hunter cells all over the world learn about alchemy, they’re going to go through the exact same thing. Other Hunters will start defecting to those two dissidents, and I’m sure it won’t be long before they’ve established their own organization—one that targets alchemists just as much as vampires.”

Bradley nodded gravely. “That’s true—but having the majority of the Council on our side is crucial to us. Most Hunters will follow their lead, and at least for a while, they’ll provide us the benefit of the doubt. What we have to do is use that time to prove the value of this new weapon, and reassure them that it can be kept out of the wrong hands.”

Can we do that?” Vato asked grimly. “As easily as our kind can gain knowledge from each other, any rogue dhampir could steal the secrets of alchemy from one of us with a single bite.”

Ed scowled at that, clenching his fists on the tabletop.

“It will happen,” he stated flatly. “Sooner or later, alchemy will spread farther than we intended it to, and we’ll have to face a few lunatics who want to use it for wrong… but I never said this wasn’t going to be dangerous. Alchemy is the one thing that can finally protect this world from vampires—but at the same time, we’ve also got to protect alchemy and this world from each other.”

“That’s not really so different from what we had to do every day in our world,” Al remarked gently.

Noa spoke up. “The most important thing is to start putting alchemy in the right hands—other Hunters we can trust to use it for good. We’ll have to be careful in screening those who want to use it… but we do have an advantage there. We can look into the minds of other dhampirs before we give them the knowledge, to be sure they’re stable enough, and they have only the right intentions.”

“And that process must begin with the Council itself,” Bradley agreed, turning to the Elric brothers. “As you are the root source of alchemy in this world, you can best present our argument in its favor. Will you go with me to Paris? There should be no danger for you there now—but regardless, I promise that you will be completely protected.” Receiving Ed’s nod, he glanced around the table at the other Hunters. “All of you should come to give your testimony as well. When the Council sees what you here have become together, and what you achieved together in defeating Envy, they’ll understand the value of what we offer.”

The Hunters gave nods and murmurs of assent. After a moment’s hesitation, Jean leaned forward to address Bradley, with a request that utterly astonished Edward.

“Chief, if it’s alright with you—I mean, and if you think those two Councilors who split off might try to make trouble any time soon—well, I’d like to take on the duty of being Ed and Al’s personal bodyguard.” He glanced at Noa and then Ed, meeting their shocked expressions with a faint, rueful smile. “I’ve got plenty of reason to want to see Fullmetal safe… and I don’t just mean because of alchemy.”

Grateful tears welled in Noa’s eyes. Her left hand clasped over her mouth, while her right hand seized Ed’s, out of sight underneath the edge of the table.

Bradley looked between the Elrics, Noa, and Jean, arching his eyebrow with a sort of fatherly amusement. “I’ll leave that decision to you and your intended charges—and to the very capable protector Edward already has. If there are no objections from them, I certainly have none.” He rose, pausing to glance over each of the London Hunters. “We’ll travel tonight. And now, my friends, you should rest. A new day has quite literally dawned, for all of us.”

The Councilor left the room first. Roy and Riza followed, with his arm around her shoulders. Vato and Heymans also departed together, in quiet conversation. Ed, Al, and Noa lingered—looking to Jean as he approached them, with an uncharacteristic diffidence.

Jean,” Noa breathed softly, leaning into his arms to deliver a hug of heartfelt appreciation and affection.

“…Yeah.” Incapable though he was of blushing, the awkward expression on his face made up for it. He squeezed Noa’s shoulders once, and then stepped back demurely, glancing at Ed. “I know I don’t have to tell you to take care of her… and like I said, I plan on making sure you’ll be around to for a long, long time.”

Ed smiled slowly. He extended his gloved automail hand, and Jean wavered for only a second before grasping it.

 

EPILOGUE

 

“London is as beautiful as I thought it would be,” Alphonse said serenely, gazing out across the Thames. “Even at night.”

At long last, Al was getting the exploratory walk through the streets of London that he had wanted. He traipsed cheerfully along the riverside walkway in the moonlight: admiring the architecture of the old buildings, reading the colorful signs, investigating new smells. Finally dressed in black Hunter clothes that were small enough for his underaged body, he looked indefinably more mature and graceful. Instead of the emaciated weakness he had shown when he arrived in this world, he was brimming with energy and strength.

Ed followed several paces behind his little brother, physically relaxed, but alert for any danger; and at Ed’s side walked Noa, just close enough for her sleeve to brush against his own now and then.

Sixteen days had passed since the Council’s verdict. During that time, the London Hunters had been away from the city they were charged with protecting, while they spent two weeks in Paris. The Elric brothers and their new comrades had presented their case for alchemy to the Council, and when it was met favorably, they began dispersing their alchemic knowledge to other Hunters—starting with the Councilors themselves. It was a tiring several days, as they carefully screened dozens of Hunter dhampirs who volunteered to become alchemists, and then shared blood and memories with them.

For now, actually using this new skill against vampires was a complicated and dangerous prospect. As easy as it was for dhampirs to gain the knowledge, they could only transmute with blood from human partners; while conversely, learning alchemy would take time for human Hunters. Perhaps a better system would take effect when enough humans were able to perform alchemy themselves, with the dhampirs serving to protect them and subdue their vampire targets. In the meantime, until human alchemists were trained and ready, the act of killing a vampire would take the combined powers of both Hunter races.

This was hardly the only challenge they faced. Although their visit to Paris was without incident, Ed had no doubt there would still be danger from those who opposed alchemy. More than that, when vampires realized they were now suddenly vulnerable to the Hunters’ new weapon, they were sure to fight back more viciously than ever before. If they continued to be selfishly solitary creatures, no one vampire would ever be undefeatable… but deep down, Ed felt a niggling fear of what might happen if they learned to work together for their survival.

The thought made Ed restless. He wanted to be on the offensive now, while the Hunters still held the element of surprise. He wanted as many vampires as possible to be eliminated quickly, before the threats the Hunters faced could organize themselves.

He wanted to have his hands on the job himself.

At least for now, that was out of the question. For the foreseeable future, the Elrics had been sent back to London, placed under a strict order of protection. Until the Hunters’ overall situation became more stable, the two teenagers’ minds were deemed far more valuable than their ability to fight firsthand.

“Sure, London’s great,” Ed muttered. “Only I’m starting to see why it was considered a punishment for Hughes to be assigned here. There are so many more vampires out there that need to be tracked down and taken out. What was the point of the Council accepting me as a Hunter, if they’re not going to let me hunt?”

Beside him, Noa gave a sympathetic chuckle. “You heard their reasoning, Ed. You and Al are the original source of alchemy in this world. The two of you have to be guarded at all costs—at least until we’ve readied enough alchemists to ensure that your knowledge will survive.”

“It’s not like we didn’t spread it to plenty of new alchemists in Paris.”

“But that isn’t the point. You’re more than just the first alchemists here. You’re… symbols.” Noa smiled gently at him. “As we work through all of this change and upheaval, the Hunters need an inspiration. Being the first to stand up to vampires in a way we never could before, and show us how to strike a killing blow… That means just as much as the knowledge of alchemy itself.”

Ed glanced at her with wry affection. “Somehow I think you’d make a way better figurehead than me.”

Noa shook her head. Unless it was his imagination, a glimmer of calm happiness seemed to have crept into her eyes.

“My place is at your side, Ed. I know that. I’ve always known—even before I ever saw you.”

Feeling a vague pang in his chest, Ed stopped walking, and faced Noa directly. Ahead of them, Al noticed that they had paused, but he didn’t intrude by moving back to where they stood. He waited for them instead, idly peering through the darkened windows of an antique shop.

“Noa…” Ed murmured, a little hesitantly.

He knew the words he wanted to say, but they had never come easily for him; not even toward Al, in a very different context. It shouldn’t have mattered, because Noa had already shared his feelings directly from his soul, but he still felt the need to express them in a more external way.

After a brief moment, her shining eyes darted away from his. She clasped her hands and continued walking, with another twitch of a smile.

“Actually, I have thought of something you can do until the Council clears you to hunt,” she remarked, rather casually. “You know things will be much simpler when human Hunters are trained as alchemists, but it will take them time to learn. Well, what they need for that… is a book of alchemy to learn from.”

Eyes widening, Ed halted again. “You mean Al and I should write it? An instruction book on the technique for killing vampires with alchemy?”

“You do know it better than anyone. Having a book to teach humans would help relieve that burden on the dhampir alchemists.” Noa frowned. “Of course, it could also fall into the wrong hands… but we already know rogue dhampirs can take the knowledge even more easily. There’s no reason not to give our human partners a resource that will help them learn more quickly.”

“Huh.” Ed gazed up at the night sky, scratching his chin, as he contemplated the proposal.

It certainly seemed like a sound plan. Even as the Hunters were making this awkward transition to alchemy, vampires and rogue dhampirs were still on the hunt. If human alchemy students had a book to study, it would reduce the amount of time dhampirs had to spend instructing them directly, and that would leave the dhampirs more free to focus on their normal duty of protecting innocent lives.

He was a little less sure of his fitness to write such a book himself. For all of his knowledge and natural talent, he was grudgingly aware that his mind was not exactly the most… organized. Even if he could put the necessary information in some semblance of order on paper, he wasn’t so certain he could make it simple enough for beginning students to handle.

But then, relatability was more Al’s area of skill. Ed knew he would be just as interested in this project. He could polish the manuscript properly, fill in the gaps Ed overlooked, make it readable and logical enough for a novice to follow. Between the two of them, maybe they could produce a suitable book. After all, they needed to cover only one grim subject. It was dangerous enough that dhampirs were gaining far broader alchemic knowledge from the Elric brothers’ memories. Unlike them, human Hunters could be given more limited information—and Ed planned to see that their curriculum was restricted to nothing more than the transmutation that would destroy vampires.

“Yeah… It’s not a bad idea. At least it’d be something to keep us busy for a while,” Ed mused.

Noa smiled gladly in response, and moved to step forward; and Ed felt the same stirring in his silent heart that had come a few moments before. Impulsively he reached out, the fingers of his left hand very gently catching her by the arm.

“But you know… maybe this time is good for something else, too. Maybe it’s a chance for us to think about…” He swallowed hard, gazing into Noa’s eyes. “About us.”

This time it was her eyes that widened, as her lips parted slightly in an expression of surprise and wonder.

Ed… Do you really want that?”

Slowly and seriously, Edward nodded. His steel fingers tilted her chin up to kiss her. When she responded by melting happily into his arms, he held her, releasing a soft laugh of pure gladness and joy.

All of the evils in the world could wait. Just for a little while, he wanted to feel nothing but the love he felt now.

Finally, with some reluctance, he drew back a bit from Noa. He looked over her shoulder, toward his brother. “Hey, Al? Noa and I have a couple of ideas.”

“Yeah. I know. Did you forget how good my hearing is now?” Al smirked as he sauntered back to them from the bookstore window he had been browsing. “I heard everything you said. I think the alchemy book is a great plan. And as for your other idea…”

Al glanced toward the street corner where a small chapel stood, with light glowing through its stained glass windows. Then he abruptly seized Ed’s and Noa’s hands. They were both too startled to object as he pulled them over to the church’s heavy oak door, and knocked firmly.

Equally heavy steps could be heard inside. After a moment, the door creaked open—to present an imposing, bald-headed man in the clothes of a clergyman, whose kindly smile looked unfamiliar beneath his small eyes and large nose.

The three dhampirs glanced from the holy man to each other, with surprise spreading across their faces; and then, they started laughing.

“Good evening,” the man said in polite bemusement, raising his eyebrows at the unexplained mirth of his visitors. “I’m Parson Cornello. Is there something I can do for you?”

Alphonse, after a moment, was the first to swallow down his laughter. Smiling at the bewildered parson, he pushed Ed and Noa forward slightly, into the warm candlelight that spilled from the interior of the chapel.

“Pleased to meet you, sir. We’re here because my brother and his girl were wondering… Do you ever have weddings at night?”

Parson Cornello smiled at that, and ushered the three young Hunters inside.

 

LONDON, PRESENT DAY

 

Sometimes, when Edward Elric was gazing out over the moonlit city, he couldn’t help comparing the view to the one he had first known—more than ninety years ago.

Big Ben was the same, but he still wasn’t used to the massive wheel of the London Eye. He didn’t care for the lights and noises of traffic that now filled the streets at all hours, as society’s ever-increasing activity crowded upon the nocturnal domain of the Hunters. He didn’t care for the antennas and cell towers that sprouted on rooftops like weeds, or the bland, square modern buildings that had none of the character of the age-old capitol he had long ago chosen as his home.

For years, he and Alphonse and Noa had seen little of London. They had spent much of their time traveling, visiting other Hunter cells to teach them alchemy, or tracking down and eliminating especially nasty vampires themselves. Sometimes, it felt bittersweetly like the journeys he and his brother had shared in their own world.

World War II was the very worst time. The horrors of its predecessor, which Noa and so many of their friends had experienced firsthand, were magnified tenfold in those years of global madness. The Council was forced to flee from Paris before the Nazi occupation, relocating to London instead. Vampires flocked once more to humanity’s killing grounds in search of easy prey—incidentally creating thousands of newly turned dhampirs. Between their efforts to hunt vampires in the war zones, and to take in as many dhampir foundlings as possible before they could go rogue, the Hunters’ resources were strained to the limit… and there were darker, more terrible incidents, when Nazi scientists dabbled in the active development of dhampir soldiers. The Elrics and their comrades had personally taken part in many of the Hunters’ most crucial wartime missions, and seen things that no one should ever have had to see.

Since then, the relatively smaller wars and conflicts across the globe had created similar hotspots of vampiric activity, but not quite to the same degree. It was a recorded fact that after all these decades, there were fewer vampire-homunculi in the world than there had been then. This was due largely to the fact that the Hunters could now destroy them, and were doing so more quickly than new ones were appearing; but Ed liked to hope it also meant attempts at human transmutation had been reduced in his native world.

Occasionally, he and Al still explored theories on how to send some form of message through the Gate. To this day, they had never determined any method that would not cost a human life… and after so long, Ed sometimes even found himself questioning the value of the effort.

By now, everyone they had known in Amestris would be gone. Winry, General Mustang, Izumi Curtis: their friends and allies, all those who would have believed any message they could send, had by this time lived out their lives and passed on. Even little Elicia, if by chance she was still alive, would be close to a hundred years old.

Ed wondered if their world had seen the crush of changes this one had. He wondered if technology had consumed it too, or if it had somehow maintained a slower pace, preserved more of the comparative peace he now fondly remembered.

Certainly, there were moments of homesickness—but quite early on, Ed had ceased to be bitter about their fate. He had come to realize that this was where he and Al needed to be. There was a purpose for them here that went beyond anything they had known in their world. Back then, the quest they devoted themselves to had been about nothing but redeeming their own mistakes. Here, they were fighting for a greater cause… and it felt right.

“You’ve been quiet tonight,” Noa said gently at Ed’s side.

With a rueful smile, Ed turned to her and shrugged. “Just thinking, I guess.”

“Mmm.” Noa leaned closer to him and slipped an arm around his waist, prompting him to wrap his own left arm around her shoulders. “I usually worry about you more when you’re thinking than when you’re not thinking, you know.”

The remark earned a short laugh from Ed. He gave his wife an affectionate squeeze, resting his cheek against her hair. “I promise not to think in the middle of a fight, then.”

“When have you ever done that anyway?”

“Well, back when I could really use alchemy for more than killing vampires, I did have to calculate different arrays for—”

“That wasn’t thinking. With you, that was pure reflex.”

Edward ended the debate by placing his automail forefinger under her chin, to turn her face up to his and kiss her.

They were lingering in that moment of intimate sweetness when they heard the door open behind them. Alphonse sauntered out onto the roof, frowning in concentration: so absorbed by the digital tablet in his hands, he didn’t seem to notice the couple’s politely pulling away from each other.

It took more than thirty years after his arrival in this world, but Al’s body had finally matured to flawless young adulthood, and then ceased to age altogether. He was handsome, his figure slim and strong—and not unexpectedly, half a head taller than his big brother, which annoyed Ed to this day. More than that, Al was the most contented and well-adjusted dhampir Ed had ever known. He had somehow not only accepted, but embraced their condition and the life they led, truly believing it was far better than the grim alternatives he had faced alone in the world of their origins.

In spite of Ed’s misgivings, Al had also become a superb Hunter. The elder brother had feared what would happen when Al faced the prospect of destroying not only vampires, but once-human rogue dhampirs; yet it seemed as if the gentleness of his heart only strengthened his resolve. He wanted to give both of those lost creatures a compassionate release from existence, and he did so with a quiet, steady efficiency.

“We’ve gotten word from the Hunters in New York,” Al announced, tapping at his tablet. Technology was just one more thing he had taken to so much more easily than Ed had. “They lost a dhampir they were tracking, who they suspected of being a rogue. When they picked up his trail again, they found out he’d boarded a flight to Heathrow. It should be arriving in about an hour.”

Ed let out a groan. “You know, I told Bradley it was a bad idea to let Roy lead his own Hunter cell. The guy can’t do anything right.”

“Except save your life about fifty times in as many years…” Al muttered under his breath.

“And how many times did I save his? Two hundred?”

Noa chuckled. “Give him some credit, Ed. With the state of worldwide travel now, the New York cell does face some of the biggest challenges. Roy is doing the best job anyone could there.”

“Ten to one, Manhattan would be overrun with vampires and rogues if he didn’t have Riza to handle everything.”

“…Well.” Noa shrugged. “She’s part of it.”

“A big part,” Al conceded.

“I’m gonna have another talk with that guy,” Ed groused, narrowing his eyes. “In the meantime, I guess we’re heading for the airport, to catch the one that got away from him.”

With that, Ed slipped his hand into Noa’s, and they followed Al toward the stairwell—only to be met at the doorway by a lithe blonde woman.

“The car is waiting,” Marta informed them coolly. Then she glanced at Al, her eyes sparkling faintly with mischief. “And I’ve cleared away my duties to Councilor Bradley for the night. So I hope you don’t mind my coming along… to keep you out of trouble.”

A grin twitched across Al’s lips as he leaned forward and kissed her lightly. “Not at all.”

You two,” Ed sniped, with a roll of his eyes. “I know it’s only been twenty years, but you’re not still newlyweds.”

“Oh, as if you old-timers weren’t being lovebirds up here when I walked out!” Al shot back.

Noa laughed softly, as she and Marta exchanged a knowing look. Then the two women seized their husbands by the arms, and began towing them down the stairs.


© 2015 Jordanna Morgan