Title: From Ashes
Author: Jordanna Morgan (librarie@jordanna.net)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for blood in the first two chapters.
Characters: Mainly Ed and Al, with intermittent Winry and Pinako.
Setting: The year between the boys’ human transmutation attempt and the day they left Resembool.
Summary: Edward and Alphonse had a long journey to make before they ever left home.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I own nothing but a couple of villagers in chapter nine.
Notes: In some ways, this chaptered story is more like a series of sequential one-shots about the boys’ long recovery from the transmutation. It alternates between Ed and Al’s perspectives; a couple of scenes from the episode “Mother” are touched upon, but much of the story attempts to explore the gap between Ed’s automail operations and their departure from Resembool. Expect a lot of angst, a lot of brotherly love, and even a little humor after the first few chapters.

 

From Ashes

 

I. After the Gate

The fall from searing light into blackness was instant and complete. For a moment, even in those blind depths of semi-consciousness, Edward’s mind still swam dizzily with the raw knowledge that had pulsed from the Gate…

And then he felt the pain.

He had never truly known pain before; never even imagined it. Not compared to this.

Alphonse!

Somehow his left hand—his remaining hand—managed to push his upper body from the blood-smeared floor. His right leg, likewise absent its twin, drew up beneath him to support a weight that was now much too light. He folded his arm across his body, clutching the torn and gushing void that was his right shoulder, and swallowed back the bile in his throat. Tears stung his eyes as he struggled to focus through the gray-red mist that clouded his sight.

It was the first thing he saw.

Before his second trip through hell, the toppled suit of armor lay in a heap on the bloody floorboards, its helmet fallen a foot away… but now, some invisible force had drawn its parts back together, bound firmly in its cumbrous approximation of human shape. It lay just beyond his arm’s reach, facedown, motionless—empty.

Clenching his teeth to hold back the scream of pain and fury and despair inside him, Ed waited. There was nothing more he could do now. He had no chance of crawling away to seek help for himself; even with the loss of only his leg, he doubted he could have reached anyone before his life bled away. His gamble to save Al was also his own sole chance for survival… and if he had failed, he would die here too.

Either way, they were going to be together.

A glimmer beneath the shadows of the metal hulk caught his eye. Inhaling a sharp hiss of breath, he watched as a pale white glow sparked to life behind the visor of the helmet, quickly growing brighter and stronger.

The steel plates shivered, with a faint rattling sound… and a soft moan resonated from within the hollow depths of the armor.

Something was alive.

But maybe it wasn’t Al. Maybe it was another horrible thing, like the nightmare across the room that was supposed to be their mother—and if it was, maybe this one would be able to survive within the shell Ed had fastened it to. He had drawn it back from the other side with his own flesh and blood; maybe now it would be hungry for the rest of him.

If it was, it would be welcome to finish the job.

What was left of Ed’s body was curled into itself, braced against the pain. Struggling to take each breath, and to fight back the darkness that threatened to fill his vision, he watched the armor warily from the corner of his eye.

Slowly it rose, sitting up on its greaves with a clatter of colliding metal, and stretched out its left arm. From behind the eye slits of the visor, two eerie points of light mirrored nonexistent eyes, staring at the empty leather gauntlet that had swelled into the shape of a solid hand. It uttered a bewildered sound. Ed recognized the pattern of human speech, but he didn’t quite catch the words between his own gasping breaths.

At last the helmet tipped to one side, looking past the gauntlet, and Ed felt its gaze fall on him—sending a shock of mingled hope and terror through his broken body, in the form of a wave of sick dizziness.

He whispered three simple words, just in case they were his last.

“I’m sorry… Al…”

For an infinitesimal moment, the steel behemoth hesitated. Then it lurched to its feet, with a blood-curdling howl that seemed to be torn from its hollow depths… and this time, the ringing echo of metal could not disguise the anguished voice, nor the one desperate word that pierced to the core of Edward’s heart.

BROTHER!

 

II. Blood and Steel

Alphonse was sorry for having trailed blood all over the floor of Aunt Pinako’s house.

It was kind of a stupid thing to be thinking about, really, but it was a mindless distraction he clung to. He couldn’t let himself dwell on the true realities of the situation, not yet. Not until he knew Brother would survive.

As for the rest of it…

He couldn’t even begin to go there now.

So for the moment, on a blanket hastily spread across the floor, he sat and waited—as a heavy heap of nearly-inert metal.

Al had never shared Ed’s hard-edged, almost frightening sense of restlessness. Even so, he was an energetic boy in his own much sunnier way, and not very good at keeping still either… but impassiveness came to him now with a disquieting ease, for the nerveless shell he inhabited felt nothing. Steel couldn’t sense an itch or a tickle, or turn pins-and-needles for lack of circulation.

Steel couldn’t cry.

There was blood now not only on the floor, but on the blanket too: smears and spatters, and the handprints of the armor’s gauntlets, large and strangely textured. Al stared blankly at those rust-colored stains. He knew there must have been blood all over him as well, but looking down at himself was one thing he was not going to do right now.

The door opposite him opened, and Winry edged out of the bedroom with a backward glance, nervously rubbing her bandaged wrist. Al hadn’t thought she could look any paler than she did when she first saw him on the doorstep, a grotesque hulk bearing his brother’s mutilated body—but now she was even more chalk-white. She had volunteered her blood for a transfusion, to help replace the massive amount Ed had lost. It was a brave and selfless thing to do, and Al loved her for it as he never had before.

She had given Ed something he no longer could.

“Winry…” Al didn’t even know how he was able to form words within that empty echo chamber. “Is he gonna be alright?”

Whether it was due to the painful question itself, or simply the alien sound of his voice, Winry flinched. She blinked a few times, as if to keep from crying, but at last she managed to meet whatever it was that passed for his gaze. “He’s… he’s not gonna bleed to death now, anyway. But we’ve got to watch out for infection.”

“I wanna see him.”

“He’s unconscious now. Granny’s taking care of him. And…” Winry hesitated. “Al, I… I think we’d better get you cleaned up first. You’re… kind of a mess.”

A part of Al wanted to laugh at that in a most unhealthy way, but he resisted the hysteria-tinged impulse. He knew Winry was right; she and Pinako already had more than enough cleaning up to do, without him spreading any more of Ed’s red cells around. He nodded his helmet at her, sorted out his rigid new limbs with a minimum of awkward metal scraping, and levered himself to his feet.

After all the youthful scraps she’d had with the brothers (well, mostly Ed), Winry was one of the last people Al would ever have thought of as delicate… but she looked so small now that he couldn’t help thinking it.

Or perhaps it was only his agonizing new awareness of the true fragility of human life.

The way she looked up at him didn’t help. She craned her neck and tilted her head from side to side, with a funny expression on her face, almost as if she thought this must still be some kind of trick or a joke—as if she was trying to steal a glimpse of the boy she knew between the joints of the armor. Al made a small uneasy noise, and she about-faced abruptly, leading the way to the washroom.

She stepped in first, hurriedly… and Al saw her reach up to the mirror that hung above the sink, turning it to face the wall.

The small room was a tight squeeze with him in it, but Winry ducked around him adroitly. In a few moments, the sink was full of steaming water, and she had collected a pile of old towels and rags. She looked up at him, nervously twisting one of the cloths between her hands.

“I guess I should help. I don’t know if you can… you know… reach it all.”

“Okay,” Al agreed, only a little reluctantly. He knew Winry must have been tired from the transfusion, but he couldn’t bring himself to argue. Although he hadn’t tested the limits of his dexterity yet, he suspected she was right; and besides, if she cleaned him up, it would give him just a little more time to avoid looking at himself.

So he knelt, motionless as a statue, while Winry scrubbed away the blood… and he watched the water in the sink become slowly tinged with an ever deeper shade of scarlet.

It was bizarre to be polished like a teakettle. Although he had no sensation of Winry’s touch, the sheer fact of the situation was awkward and embarrassing—but there was something oddly impersonal about the way she handled him. After all, she was an apprentice automail mechanic, well accustomed to working with metal limbs in the same abstract way a doctor would treat a patient’s flesh. Still, Al was startled by how very… professional she was about the task.

She’s grown up a lot too while we were away with Teacher, he realized—and then a small quiver rattled through the armor, as he remembered Izumi Curtis.

Oh, she’s gonna kill us

“Are you—uh—okay?” Winry certainly knew how absurd that question was, but she must have noticed his shudder.

Al only answered her with the slight clunk of a shrug… because if he said anything, he was afraid he would say everything. He didn’t want to break down now. Not in front of Winry—and not when Brother needed him to be the strong one.

Wisely choosing not to press the matter, Winry fidgeted from one foot to the other, and gave him a shrug of her own. “Well… I think that’s all of it.”

She dropped the last bloodstained towel in the laundry basket, and took the stopper from the sink, draining away the water that was tinted with Ed’s life. Finally she scrubbed her own hands clean, in another display of almost clinical efficiency.

The job was finished now, and as well as he could, Al flattened himself against the wall to let her squeeze past him. She must have expected him to follow, but when she didn’t hear him clattering after her, she turned back…

To see him reaching for the mirror she had hung backwards.

“Al?” There was a question in her voice, but also a faint, sharp note of alarm.

He looked back at her somberly. “I… I have to, Winry.”

The immutable armor offered no expression for her to read, but his voice must have conveyed everything. Although tears welled up in Winry’s eyes, she didn’t move… except to nod very slightly.

Slowly Al took down the backwards mirror, clutching the glass with great care in his huge, unfeeling leather hands.

He remembered perfectly well what the suit of armor looked like. He had certainly seen it often enough, glowering down at the brothers through countless hours spent in their father’s study. It always frightened him a little. Ed used to tease him gently about that—and then he would make fun of the armor, doing silly things like putting transmuted flowers around its neck. Then Al would forget his unease, and laugh instead.

Now his last memory of seeing it from the outside was the sinister way it seemed to glow that night, reflecting the dark light of the rift that had opened up from the circle to tear his body away.

The gauntlets shivered as Al hesitantly turned the mirror face-up…

And the mirror cracked as it struck the floor.

 

III. Regrets Only

The day after, Edward awakened to complete stillness, inside and out.

There was no confusion, no hazy grasping for the memory of where he was or what had happened. It was all there with a photographic clarity… and all he could feel was an overwhelming sadness. Some part of him knew the guilt and rage would come later, but for now, his spirit and body were simply too exhausted.

It was incomprehensible that he had slept without nightmares—without the memories of that place assaulting his mind. Yet somehow, it was a fact. Whatever Pinako had given him for his pain, it must have put him down deeply.

The pain… oh yes, it was there, dulled but very much present, a phantom agony in the empty places where an arm and leg should have been. A perverse part of him cherished it fiercely. It was a punishment well-deserved… and a welcome motivation.

That was for later, too. For this one moment, all he wanted in the world was the warm sunlight he felt on his face, and the knowledge that he was alive.

But Alphonse…

The sunlight abruptly took on the chill of ice. Ed opened his eyes, turned his head slightly, and saw just what he somehow expected to see: the vessel that had become his brother’s prison, sitting forlornly against the opposite wall.

It was strange to see the armor in the bright daylight that filled this room, rather than the shadows of their father’s study. Ed wondered if it was that, or simply his knowledge of the precious cargo it carried, that made it seem no longer fearsome to him at all. At the moment, enormous as it was, its dejected posture somehow made it look pitifully small and lost—reflecting the pain of Al’s soul with an expressiveness no stark metal shell should ever have been able to achieve.

Like a broken toy, the helmet was bowed over the chestplate, and the living spark that had glowed down at Ed the night before was hidden. For a moment, he could almost have feared the impossible bond he had forged was only temporary; that Al’s spirit might ultimately have rejected its transplantation, and slipped away in the night, leaving that cold metal hulk abandoned once more.

But no… Al was still there. Ed was sure of at least that much. Somehow, he still felt the gentle presence that had been by his side for as long as he could remember.

He wondered if Al was asleep. If Al even could sleep. There were so many questions—and the answer to each one held the possibility of a new horror. What was this inhuman existence he had condemned his brother to?

It was just possible that bringing Al back, for this, was purely selfishness on his part.

Despairing, Ed turned his face to the sun. The brightness hurt, and he closed his eyes, swallowing down a lump in his throat.

Oh, Al… can you ever forgive me?

He didn’t open his eyes when the door creaked open, and someone crossed the room to place a damp cloth on his forehead. Then the visitor moved away from the bed, and a moment later he heard a faint sound, like knuckles rapping against metal.

Ed looked over just in time to witness the improbable sight of Winry climbing onto the armor’s lap.

The helmet raised its chin, revealing once more the soft glimmer of Al’s soul behind the eye slits. Somehow, he seemed almost amused by their friend’s impertinent curiosity.

“Good morning, Winry,” he said, with his meticulous politeness that was so unlike his brother.

Winry shot up as if the armor had suddenly turned red-hot.

Eeeee! Al, you’re on!—I mean—you’re awake,” she babbled breathlessly. “Sorry. I was just—and I would’ve—but I can’t—umm…”

Al’s simple, good-natured reaction was to chuckle shyly, reaching up in a familiar gesture to rub what should have been the back of his head… and Ed’s shattered heart skipped a beat.

Now he was sure of a fact he had already sensed, even in those first awful moments, when Al had cradled his broken body in trembling new arms of steel. The price paid in flesh was exacted so much more cruelly upon Al than himself; but there was a more merciful difference between them, as well. Ed could no longer feel any innocence remained to him, after the things he had seen in that place… and yet somehow, Al’s own innocence survived, even within the bitterly ironic confines of a hull designed for war.

Al didn’t see it.

Ed seized upon that realization with a heart-clutching wave of relief. Let him gladly be the one to carry alone the scars that could not be seen, for at least his brother’s tender soul had been won back untainted.

It must have occurred to Winry that if Ed was asleep, her squeal would have put an end to that. She looked over at him—and when she saw his face, something passed through her own expression that made the hurt in his heart cut just a little deeper. Covering it quickly, she forced a thin smile, and stepped over to the bedside.

“Hey. How do you feel?”

After all the trouble and sorrow he had put Winry and Pinako through already, Ed couldn’t burden them further with his pain… so instead, he turned a grimace into the ghost of a hard, defiant smile. “Just terrific.”

“You stupid idiot,” Winry shot back bluntly, and Ed could hear the sudden quiver of tears beneath the familiar cover of her barb-flinging. She meant it. Of course, she always meant it, but this time especially so… because she cared.

“Granny is fixing you something to eat,” she continued brusquely. “I’ll go see if it’s ready—and you had better be up for eating with your left hand, ’cause I am not spoon-feeding you.” She meant that, too.

Then she glanced at Al, and her expression became entirely uncertain.

“I don’t feel hungry,” Al whispered. His helmet tipped downward, hiding the light of his gaze, as leather fingers touched the empty steel plating of his midsection. “I don’t feel anything now… and I didn’t sleep all night, either. I—don’t think I can.”

Even through the metallic resonance, the tremor of bewilderment and fear in Al’s voice was distinct, and it was almost more than Ed could bear. A sob rose in his throat, and it took all the strength he had to choke it back to a whimper, too soft for Al and Winry to hear.

Winry blinked back the sudden brightness in her own eyes. She looked from one Elric to the other, as if for some kind of answer; but seeing the devastation that was written on Ed’s face, she said nothing, and turned quickly to leave the room.

Even through the pain and crushing misery he felt, Ed couldn’t let her go without saying the one thing he needed her to hear. His voice cracked slightly as he raised it to call after her.

“Winry… thanks.”

She tossed a hasty glare over her shoulder, but it couldn’t disguise the tears that had finally escaped from her eyes.

“Listen, Edward, you can thank me after you get better—and after I beat the crud out of you.”

She meant that most of all, and Ed nearly gave her retreating back a weak smile. In his entire life, he didn’t think there was anything he had ever looked forward to more.

That fleeting warmth vanished instantly as the door clicked shut behind her, leaving no more distraction from the broken reality Ed had created. Metal scraped jarringly as Al slowly picked himself up from the floor, to cross the room and kneel beside the bed… and for just one moment, Ed was almost overcome by a desperate dread of looking up at him, of facing what he had done to his brother.

But he had to look. He had to bear the horror and the guilt of it, for Al’s sake—because if even his own brother couldn’t look at him, Al would be convinced he had become a monster.

Ed swallowed hard. His body tensed rigidly, sending agony through his wounds, but somehow he managed to raise his eyes without flinching. The muted light of Al’s soul met his gaze in silence, whiteness tinged now with crimson, unreadable behind the armor’s expressionless visor… and a fresh spasm of fear squeezed Ed’s heart, as he wondered what feelings of anger and blame the steel refused to betray.

Do you hate me, Little Brother? Will you… will you leave me?

Please… don’t leave me.

“Brother,” Al said faintly at last, and reached for Ed’s solitary hand; but then he froze in hesitation, looking down at his hollow gauntlet. It was as if he thought Ed might be the one to shrink back from him—but in that moment, all Ed could see was his memory of Al’s true hand, reaching out to him from the void in that last moment before it was dissolved in burning light.

With his heart crumbling to pieces inside him, Ed reached up, seizing what was now his brother’s hand with all his strength—just as he should have done the night before.

He should have—could have—

“…I’m sorry, Al. I’m sorry… I’m so sorry.”

Al’s grip closed around Ed’s hand in turn, an inexplicably solid force within the empty leather. He squeezed so tightly that it hurt, but Ed would not reveal the pain. Instead it was Al who shivered slightly, and the whimper that emerged from inside the menacing armor was purely that of a distressed child.

“But Brother—you gave up your right arm, for me—”

“You are my right arm.” Ed shut his eyes, fighting back tears, and pulled Al’s gauntlet closer to him. He pressed its knuckles against his cheek, to feel upon his skin the tremble of lifeless fingers that were impossibly, terribly, blessedly alive. “I couldn’t go on without you.”

Even when Al was flesh and blood, Ed had never heard anything quite like the soft keening sound his brother uttered then, but he understood what it was. It was something as close to a sob as Alphonse could now give vent to.

The floodgates opened at last, and Edward wept for them both.

“I’m gonna fix this, Al. I don’t know how… but I will.”

 

IV. Healing

The days of Ed’s automail surgeries were the worst in the time that followed.

Bowing to his determination, Pinako and Winry connected the mechanisms to his shoulder and thigh as soon as they could be prepared—while his wounds were still fresh, nerves and muscles already exposed. Barred from the operating room, Al could only sit miserably outside the door, listening as his brother stifled cries from a pain that even a grown man would not have withstood.

Al could feel no physical pain now, but for the moment at least, he still possessed the memory of it. The scrapes and bruises of youthful antics, a broken wrist from falling out of a tree… and the faintest recollection of a pain far beyond any other, when alchemic forces had begun to rip his body from him. That was only a hazy fragment, too dim for him even to grasp what it had been like, but he sensed it was terrible.

It must also have been a part of what Ed felt, when the void tore away his leg and arm; but where Al’s metal shell felt no aftereffects from that torture, Ed’s body of flesh now endured a continuing agony. That fact weighed on Al with its own perverse brand of guilt.

Yet Ed seemed to think the long weeks afterward were even more unbearable, because he couldn’t be immediately fitted with automail limbs. His body needed to heal from the initial operations, adapting to the new mechanical parts that would interface flesh with steel. It took a brutal toll at first, and Al was frightened to see him so pale and weak—but Ed’s legendary impatience made a full recovery long before his body did. Within days he was railing bitterly against further delay, and his condition of crippled helplessness that wounded his pride. He pushed himself harder and more quickly than he should have. As soon as Pinako allowed him to get out of bed, he insisted on using a crutch to hop laboriously about the house by himself, and he resented his painful but necessary regimen of followup treatment and physical therapy. Yet it was never the pain he complained about; it was only the waiting.

With Alphonse, on the other hand, Ed’s volatile temperament disappeared. He wilted under the weight of his own guilt whenever Al was near, treating him in such a fragile and hesitant manner that Al began to wish Ed would get annoyed with him, as he sometimes used to do.

Ultimately, that was the reason Al picked his brother up bodily for the second time in their lives.

On that particular midafternoon, Ed was propped up in bed with one of their father’s most advanced textbooks on alchemy. Somehow he had persuaded Winry to fetch it for him, without Pinako’s disapproving knowledge—which really only succeeded in giving Winry blackmail fodder, as Al knew she gleefully realized. However, Al kept quiet about that, because he suspected she wouldn’t take advantage of Ed in his condition. To the contrary, anything she forced Ed to do just then was apt to be purely for the sake of his own health, and Al figured she could use all the leverage she could get for that battle.

Not that Ed’s utter absorption in the book was a great help in his recuperation, either. To Al’s concern, he had sat up poring over the pages all night. Even his breakfast still lay cold and untouched on the bedside table—a nearly unprecedented phenomenon, coming from Ed.

Admittedly, Al couldn’t blame Ed for resisting sleep, when it was so frequently shattered by living nightmares revisited. Except for the hours of heavily-sedated oblivion that followed his operations, there wasn’t a night when he hadn’t awakened thrashing violently, crying out either for Al or for their mother. In those fevered moments, Al could only try to comfort Ed with a hollow touch and echoing whispered words, and feel a bitter gratitude that he himself was consigned to a mind-numbing eternal wakefulness.

Whatever it was Ed had experienced in the moments lost to Al, it was hellish, and his guilt and anger only fed the lingering horrors that invaded his sleep. In the grip of those feelings, beating his brain over that book was merely chafing the open wounds of his memories. His heart needed time to heal, just as his body did, but he wasn’t giving it the chance.

So Al determined to do something about it.

“Brother, it’s a nice day outside. Why don’t you come out with me?” he asked from the doorway of the bedroom.

Ed barely glanced up. “No thanks. I need to check something.”

“But you already had that book memorized a long time ago—even before we met Teacher.” Al hesitated. “It isn’t going to tell you how to undo what we’ve done, Brother.”

With his head bowed over the book, Ed’s expression was concealed by an unruly curtain of blond hair; but judging by the stiff tension that flickered through his shoulders, the remark hit a nerve the automail connections never could.

“There’s nothing else I can do, Al. Not as long as I’m stuck waiting like this.” Ed shook his head, turning a page. “I can’t let all this downtime be a complete waste. Maybe there’s something…”

Al approximated a loud sigh.

For a moment he regarded his brother in grim speculation. Then he gathered his resolve, and strode across the room… and the book thudded to the floor as he unceremoniously picked Ed up by the waist.

Hey! Whadaya think you’re doing to me?” Ed’s arm and leg flailed in violent protest as Al tucked him under one arm like a sack of potatoes—taking care not to disturb the still-healing flesh around the automail ports. Instead of replying, Al jerked the blanket from the bed with his free hand and dragged it behind them. He carried his struggling and cursing brother down the stairs and into the front room, providing a spectacle that caused Winry to drop her tools and shriek with laughter.

An ineffectual fist pounded ringingly against steel. “Stop, put me down! Lemme go, you… you big tin can!”

It was the first time Ed had ever called him a name like that, and although a part of Al couldn’t help wincing at it, another part of him wanted to smile. He had missed their natural brotherly give-and-take, occasional fights and all—and he wanted Ed to stop treating him with such painful, guilt-ridden delicacy. It was important for the healing of them both, because they could never take on the outside world if they couldn’t take on each other.

The traveling one-sided wrestling match continued through the front door, down the porch steps, and out onto the rich green grass of the yard, where the sun shone bright and birds were singing. The blanket fluttered gracefully to the ground. Al dumped Ed on top of it with considerably less grace, and then dropped himself beside his brother with a noisy metallic crash.

Breathing hard, Ed turned to glare at Al. “What’s the big idea? I’ve got work to do! You get me my crutch!”—Yet in spite of that demand, he didn’t even wait for a response before twisting his body around to face the house. He gave every appearance of an intent to squirm back to the porch on his own.

Al merely reached out and collared him, hauling him back by his empty right shirtsleeve.

“We have plenty of time for that, Brother,” he said, with a gentleness that even he knew was an odd contrast to his blunt physical force. “I just don’t want you to lose yourself in it.”

For a brief moment, Ed’s petulant expression dissolved into uneasy perplexity. Then his face hardened once more, with an angrier defiance, and his fist clenched against the automail port on his left thigh.

“Al, you know better than anyone that I’ve got to make this right—to find a way to put us back the way we were.”

“What if that can never happen?”

The softly spoken question made Ed physically flinch. He stared at Al in genuine shock, eyes wide and suddenly brimming, and Al wondered if it had even occurred to him that what they had done to themselves might never be undone.

“Don’t say that!” Ed raged abruptly. “There’s a way—there’s got to be a way! I’ll give anything for us to find it… and until we do, nothing else matters!”

A dull ache stirred in Al’s soul. Hugging his knees against his chestplate, he looked away from Ed’s furious face, and gazed up toward the filmy white clouds in the sky.

“If I felt that way, Brother… I think I’d be sorry you saved me.”

Ed’s breath caught in a sharp gasp. Al looked back at him quickly, and saw the tears finally spilling over.

Al…”

“We’ve lost so much, and we’re not what we were—but at least we’re still alive.” Al dropped his gaze to his gauntlets, studying his fingertips with pensive fascination. He could feel no resentment toward this armor that sheltered his soul. For all it lacked, it had spared him from oblivion, granting him the miracle of his very survival.

“…And being alive means we’ve got to live, even as what we are now. If we don’t try… then there won’t be anything left of us that’s human at all.”

For a long moment, there was silence beside him.

Then Ed crumpled onto the blanket, and quietly began to sob… and Al gently rested his hand on Ed’s shoulder, wishing he could cry too.

Until now, that first morning was the only time Ed had wept, but once was not enough to purge the tears he had stored up. Perhaps not even a lifetime would be. He thought that to be strong was to deny the tears, but that would only injure him more deeply. He could still release his pain in ways Alphonse no longer could, and Al wouldn’t permit him to simply bury it, no matter how much it hurt.

Al couldn’t let his brother become, in a different way, as hard and empty a shell as he was himself.

It was then that he decided they must never be separated, no matter what plans Ed schemed to change their fate. Ed had said he couldn’t go on without Al, and he was right—but in ways that perhaps he himself had not meant when he said it.

After a little while, Ed slowly uncurled his body and pushed himself upright. He sniffled and scrubbed his topaz eyes with the back of his hand, giving Al a sweetly sad and contrite look.

“I’m sorry.”

There again were the words that had been near-constantly present in everything Ed said and did, in every expression of his face. Al had heard them enough. They couldn’t change the way things were, or absolve his share of a guilt that was just as much his own as Ed’s.

“I don’t want you to say sorry anymore,” Al said plaintively. “I want to hear your laugh again, Brother. I miss it. And since I can’t smile now… I want you to smile for both of us.”

Ed swallowed hard and sniffed, and Al braced for another downpour… but then, very slowly, the corners of Ed’s mouth turned up. The smile was as weak and broken as his body still was, but at least it was a start.

“Hey, am I invited to the picnic?” a familiar voice called out, startling both brothers. They looked over their shoulders to see Winry standing on the porch steps—her arms laden with a basket full of food.

This time, Ed smiled for real, and it gave Al the first happiness he had known in a long time.

 

The three sat or sprawled around the picnic basket for the rest of the afternoon, talking and teasing, playing with Den, watching the clouds in the sky and the small wonders of nature that moved around them; and for those few precious hours, things were almost the way they had been before. Almost. Al couldn’t share in the food, and that saddened him, but he was glad to see Ed regaining his infamous appetite.

Winry, on the other hand, was of a somewhat different opinion.

“Besides the automail, Granny and I should be charging you for your care and feeding,” she said tartly, watching as Ed wolfed down his fourth sandwich. “You eat more than enough for both of you. At this rate, you should be as big as Al!”

Alphonse inwardly winced. He knew exactly how Ed would respond to that—and the oddest part was that Winry did too. Maybe she had also decided the best thing for him was to get a rise out of him.

On cue, Ed bristled, almost dropping what was left of the sandwich. “Come on, nobody’s as big as Al! And besides, our room and board oughta be covered by all the chores you’ve been making him do!”

With a mild half-laugh, Al rubbed the back of his helmet—a lingering nervous habit of his former flesh. “I like helping… and there’s a lot more I can do now.”

Ed’s expression took on a faintly sour note, but Winry beamed up at Al. “Well, you broke a lot of stuff at first—”

“Hey, I fixed everything I broke!”

“—But now that you’ve mostly got a handle on your own strength, you’re awfully useful to have around, that’s for sure,” Winry finished, as if Al had never interrupted. Then she glanced inquisitively at Ed. “How does that work, anyway? How is he so strong when there are no muscles in there at all? For that matter, how does he even move?”

The elder brother sighed uncomfortably. “Don’t ask me. I’ve got more important things to figure out.”

Beneath the casual dismissal, Al sensed a deeper resistance he had felt before: the nature of his new existence was something Ed didn’t want to talk about. He had said nothing more of it since that first hurried and terrible explanation, when he lay bleeding in Al’s arms on the night of their transgression. Al still had his own questions of how, fears of what if, and the answers would have to come sooner rather than later…

But not on this day he had dedicated to healing.

Winry blinked at the moment of unease, but there was no change in her cheerful demeanor as she switched tracks. “Well, anyway, there are still some things I wouldn’t trust Al to do—like giving you a haircut.” She eyed Ed critically. “You should let me do that soon. Your hair is looking kinda ratty, you know.”

It would have been typical for Ed to indulge his inner brat, and stick his tongue out at Winry; but his expression grew oddly thoughtful instead. He smiled thinly and reached up, twisting the blond locks that now fell just past his shoulders. “Nah… no thanks, Winry. In fact, I think I’m gonna let it grow out some more.”

Winry made a slight face… and then her lips twitched. “Yeah, I guess you’re happy to see some part of you can grow.”

She laughingly jumped backwards as Ed dove at her, and he only succeeded in landing squarely on his chin.

Bright evening colors were splashed across the sky by the time Winry picked up the empty basket and went inside. The brothers remained for a while longer, watching the fiery sun sink toward the hills—until Al noticed that Ed was starting to nod off beside him. After all, he hadn’t slept the night before.

“I guess we’d better go in now, too,” Al said, watching his reluctantly half-roused brother yawn and stretch. After a hesitation, he ducked his helmet and asked timorously, “Will you be mad if I carry you again?”

Edward raised his eyes, soft and distant in the sunset glow. With a broken smile, he stretched out his arm; the gesture expectant and seeking, like the wordless request of a little child.

The sight of that made something hurt faintly within Al’s soul—but it was mostly in a good way.

With the most intense feeling of tenderness he had ever known, Al gathered Ed into his arms, bundled the blanket around him, and stood up. The taut muscles in Ed’s shoulder betrayed the tightness of his clinging. He pressed his cheek against Al’s chestplate… and a gentle tremor passed through the steel, a reaction to emotions Al couldn’t begin to give a name to.

“It can’t feel very nice to hug me now,” Al said quietly.

“You’re wrong about that.” Ed’s expression was hidden by his hair, and his voice was subdued with sleepiness, but there was a slight catch in it again. Fearing this was a prelude to more tears, Al tried to inspire a laugh instead.

“Please don’t cry on me, Ed. I don’t want to rust!”

The effort was rewarded by a quiet chuckle. Ed lifted his head slightly, and although his drowsy-lidded eyes were damp and shining, there was a faint smile on his lips. He reached up to give Al an affectionate thump on the side of the helmet.

“Never gonna be.” He closed his eyes with a soft sigh. “I’m going to take care of you, Al… no matter what happens.”

There was something implied there that gave Al another ache. For the first time, Ed had confronted the idea that they might always be the way they were now—and his no matter what was a veiled concession Al knew he would hear only once. It was a promise that somehow, life would go on, even if they never did find a way to restore their bodies.

Of course, Ed would still risk killing himself to make that dream come true. That was why it was up to Al to make sure he stayed safe.

“I’ll take care of you too,” Al whispered, and carried his sleeping brother into the house…

And for the first time since it all began, Edward slept through the night in peace.

 

V. What You See

While Ed was once again bent over his books one evening, a weighty mass of metal landed on the pages before him with a thud and a clank.

He started back, blinking—and looked up to find Winry beaming down at him.

“Well, how do you like it?”

Perplexed and mildly annoyed, Ed refocused his attention on the object that had disrupted his reading, and finally recognized its shape: it was an arm. An automail arm, made of gleaming steel… and as he reached down to pick it up, he realized its measurements were a match for his own arm of flesh.

His heart stopped for a moment. He drew back his hand as if the arm would bite him, and a jumble of emotions passed through him as he looked up at Winry.

“This is… mine?”

“Well, it will be. It still needs some calibration, and a few other finishing touches.” Winry patted the arm proudly. “But I wanted you to finally see it. I don’t mind telling you, it’s the best piece that’s ever come out of our workshop!”

In quiet wonderment, Ed lifted the automail to study it intently. It was a little heavier than he expected; something he would have to get used to. Its lines were as sleek as his own arm, well-muscled as he still was from the rigors of Teacher’s training. As he turned it over to examine the joint of the wrist, the limp fingers clattered together, producing what was almost a softer imitation of the sound Al made when he moved.

Abruptly smiling like a child with a new toy, Ed looked up at Alphonse, who sat watching in silence from the corner of the room he had adopted as his resting place. “Al, look!”

“I see, Brother.” Al’s voice was subdued—even more so than the usual dulling effect of the armor could account for. He looked down at his own hollow vambraces, and Ed felt a twinge of pain in his heart as he realized Al was hurting for him. His brother knew better than anyone that steel was a poor substitute for flesh.

Ed’s smile softened. “Hey, don’t be upset for me, Al. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Soon we can really get to work.”

This time it was Winry who faltered. Ed just barely caught the reaction before she glossed over it, lovingly stroking the fingers of the automail again… in a way that threatened to make him uncomfortable very soon, if he thought too much about that thing as a part of him.

“Well, this still needs work, and your new leg isn’t quite that far along yet. But you’re the one that needs more time, Ed! This isn’t like snapping together the parts of a doll, you know. The connections in your shoulder and thigh have to be completely healed, or you could have permanent nerve damage that would affect your motor skills. And we’ve told you, it’s going to hurt again at first.”

“That doesn’t matter.” Ed pried the arm away from Winry’s possessive grip, giving it another admiring appraisal. Then his glance shifted to the automail port attached to his shoulder. He was accustomed to its weight by now, and where steel met flesh, the lines of scars had darkened in healing. Soon he would be strong enough. He looked back at the arm, and imagined it there at his side: responding to his will, enabling him to do all the things he had made a promise to do.

“Yeah, Pinako has really outdone herself with this,” he pronounced in satisfaction.

Winry twitched again.

“Well, actually… Granny’s mostly been working on your leg. She only helped out with some of the metal casting on this. I’ve done pretty much all the work—I even designed the whole thing myself.”

Ed flinched and dropped the arm on his open book, feeling oddly broadsided by information that was a little difficult to process.

It made sense now why Winry was fawning over the arm. If it was her proud personal handiwork, it did belong to her in a way, at least for now. But the thought of her doting on it the same way once it was attached to him, after it became a part of his body… that was just creepy. And this was Winry, a girl he had known even before she started taking her dolls apart. Intellectually he knew she had learned from the best, developing skills he hadn’t had a chance to appreciate, while he and Al were preoccupied with their own alchemy training. Still, it was strange to think of living his every moment with a thing she had made, feeling its heaviness at his shoulder, relying on it to let him function normally—perhaps even depending on it for his life someday.

Awkward and unsettled, Ed was thoroughly at a loss for what to say… and so, as usual, he said entirely the wrong thing.

“Well, I hope I’m getting a discount for being an apprentice’s guinea pig!”

Even as Winry’s expression abruptly crumpled, the reaction from Al’s corner was a deep, disappointed sigh.

“Why do you have to be such a jerk?” Winry snatched the automail away protectively. “There’s nothing wrong with it! It’s perfect! I’m a good mechanic—you know I am! It’s… Oh, I don’t even know why I’m wasting my best work on you anyway! I put my heart into this!”

…Which was exactly what made Ed so uncomfortable. What was the going rate for heart in Equivalent Exchange?

Winry was bawling now, and Ed reacted with instinctive alarm to the tears running down her face. Waving his hand rather wildly in an attempt at a soothing gesture, he forced a feeble grin. “Hey, come on, I was just joking! I said it was amazing work, didn’t I? I’ll think of you every time I have to hit somebody in the jaw with my new arm!”

In the next instant, Ed had the privilege of being the first person to know what it actually felt like to be hit in the jaw with his new arm.

As he clumsily righted himself from a dazed sprawl across the bed, for a brief moment seeing nothing but stars, he heard the rattling noise of Winry shaking the arm at him. Her voice came low and trembling.

“Don’t lie to me, Edward. When you look at this arm… all you’re ever going to think of is what you’ve lost.”

With that, she ran out of the room, taking her precious handiwork with her.

Stunned and dismayed, Ed rubbed his aching chin and looked woefully toward Al, who sighed again. “Really smooth, Brother.”

“I didn’t mean…” Ed trailed off awkwardly, looking down at the steel port that weighed upon his right shoulder.

Maybe Winry was right, but he didn’t want her to be right—at least not in the way she meant it. He knew he could never expect to look at the glint of that steel without thinking of the flesh that should have been there instead. Even so, it couldn’t be merely a symbol of his loss, his pain, his failure.

It wouldn’t be. He wouldn’t allow it to be.

“She’s wrong, Al,” he said with quiet resolve, gently running his fingers over the scars along the edge of the port. “This will always remind me of the promise I made… and I won’t forget how much Winry has done to help me keep it.”

And Equivalent Exchange be damned—because there was nothing he could give to repay her for that.

 

VI. The Sum of Our Parts

The days went on, and Al watched his brother grow steadily stronger.

When Ed wasn’t working at conditioning his body, he continued to pore over their old alchemy books—but now he tempered his labors with proper rest, and took comfort in Al and Winry’s companionship. His sleep was haunted by nightmares a little less often, and he managed not to be quite so moody. Even so, everyone knew he was still simmering with impatience, because that was just the way Ed was.

For his part, Al found himself both pleased and vaguely unsettled by his adaptation to his body of steel. Away from Ed’s presence, he tested and refined his abilities: learning to move quickly, to use his strength, to compensate for his lack of sensation, until his early awkwardness gave way to an unexpected speed and agility. The armor was made for battle, after all, and it suited Teacher’s intense physical training far better than the gentle boy he once was.

The plans Ed had made, to join the military and become a State Alchemist, were a little frightening. Having vowed to himself that he wouldn’t let his brother move forward alone, Al wanted to be ready for anything…

But when it came on a perfectly ordinary morning, the next long-awaited step in moving forward took them both somewhat by surprise.

“And how are we feeling today, pipsqueak?” Pinako asked brightly as she barged into the bedroom, presumably for Ed’s daily physical-therapy session.

A low rumble emerged from behind the book that concealed Ed’s face—or rather the two books, considering that a volume entitled Theories On Advanced Transmutation was tucked between the camouflaging pages of an automail maintenance manual.

Al resisted the temptation to duck and cover. He really wished people would stop thinking it was funny to antagonize Ed on purpose, because he was the one who always had to defuse his brother. Of course, that had now become a great deal easier with the application of simple bodily restraint; but still, it was kind of embarrassing.

Pinako merely chuckled and puffed at her pipe. “Well, if you’re in that kind of a mood, I guess you’re not up for being fitted with your automail today.”

The books went flying as Ed violently started upright against the pillows… and the alchemy tome landed with a thump at Pinako’s feet.

Several beats of doom-laden silence followed. At last Pinako sighed, and philosophically blew a smoke ring.

“You are your father’s son,” she said resignedly, as if that was the explanation for all the disappointments of the universe. “I’ll get Winry.”

She went out of the room, blithely ignoring the fact that Al’s arm was the only thing to keep a snarling, struggling Edward pinned to the bed.

Comparing Ed to their father? Oh, yes. That was the one thing Al longed to avoid even more than the height comments.

At least the prospect of receiving his new limbs distracted Ed quickly from his tantrum. Once he stopped muttering threats and Al let him up, he sat on the edge of the bed, giving the exposed junctures of his automail ports one last thoughtful examination. There was keen eagerness in his face, but Al knew his brother. Underneath the anticipation, there also lurked a little bit of fear.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Al queried, sitting down at Ed’s left side. The mattress bowed under the weight of the armor, causing Ed to slide close against him—but somehow, Ed didn’t seem to mind that. He looked up with a grin that was only slightly forced.

“Are you kidding? It’s about time we did this!”

“But it’s gonna hurt.”

“Yeah, well… I’ve gotten kind of used to that.” Ed’s smile became sincere, and he raised his hand to give Al a cheerful knock on the chestplate, his knuckles ringing against the hollow metal.

That gesture expressed far more than mere playfulness: its sound against Al’s steel was a substitute, feeble though it was, for the sensation of being touched. In a curious way, his inability to feel physical contact had only made it more precious to him than ever, and he knew Ed felt it too… because now, Brother always made sure his touch could be heard.

Moved to emotions that made his soul hurt, Al impulsively clutched Ed’s hand—perhaps a bit too hard at first, because Ed flinched. Al relaxed his grip at once, alarmed that he might have caused pain, but Ed’s fingers tightened around his own before he could pull away.

“Just… stay with me this time, okay?” Ed suggested, and his smile faltered wincingly.

The words stung a little, like a rebuke for abandoning him during the trauma of his earlier operations—even though Ed didn’t blame Al for that, and neither of them would have dared to cross Pinako and Winry on the issue then. But this time it was different. It was a far simpler procedure, painful but bloodless, to be carried out in their bedroom instead of an operating room… and Ed had asked him. Actually asked. After that, not even the Rockbells’ fury would have the power to chase Al out of that room.

“I’m not gonna go anywhere,” Al promised softly. “Not until you can walk out of here right beside me.”

At that, Ed’s smile lightened, but a suspicion of sudden mistiness in his eyes caused him to avert his gaze quickly.

Long minutes passed before Pinako returned, with Winry, Ed’s automail, and a large toolbox in tow. Both mechanics wore a grimly professional demeanor. Winry sat down at Ed’s right side, Pinako knelt on the floor at his left, and with scarcely a word they began making final adjustments to the metal limbs they had crafted: Winry the arm, and Pinako the leg.

With his gauntlet still trapped in Ed’s grip, Al squirmed farther to the side, trying to make sure he was out of Pinako’s way. “Do you, uh… want me to move?” he asked reluctantly—resolved not to go any more than a few feet away if she said yes.

Pinako looked up at him in brief appraisal, and then shook her head, turning back to her work. “No, you’re alright where you’re at.” Her voice lowered a little as she added, almost as if to herself: “Might as well be there to catch him, anyway.”

Ed flushed indignantly. “Catch me? C’mon, I’m not gonna faint! This can’t be any worse than all the stuff you’ve done to me already!”

Hmph,” Pinako retorted eloquently—and rather ominously.

Winry bit her lip. “Just keep telling yourself that, Ed.”

The brothers exchanged an uneasy look.

For some time, the Rockbells were preoccupied with their mysterious tweakings and togglings of the exposed workings of the automail. At last, Winry and then Pinako moved the limbs into position, lining them up with the connection ports on Ed’s body. Al’s anxiety ticked up a notch, and as he looked down at the hand still joined with his own, he could see the white-knuckle tightness of his brother’s grasp.

Leaning back slightly, Pinako glanced at Ed, and then raised an eyebrow at Al. “It probably wouldn’t hurt for you to hold him up.”

Al sought a quick permissive glance from Ed, and receiving it—Brother really must have been scared now—he gingerly withdrew his gauntlet from Ed’s grip. He wrapped his right arm around Ed’s back, and placed his left hand on the front of Ed’s shoulder, braced to hold him steady.

For all Ed had tried to appear relaxed and eager, he further managed to entwine his arm over Al’s vambrace, tightly gripping it at the wrist. His eyes were large in an ashen face, and his breathing had quickened. In spite of the lean strength of his body, he somehow looked more small and fragile than he had at any time since the night Al carried him half-dead from their house.

“Okay. Deep breaths, Ed.” Winry looked down for a nod from Pinako, and continued, “We do this on the count of three. One…”

“Two…”

Three!”

Simultaneously, the mechanics pushed the automail home into its connection ports. Blue-white currents sparked as the limbs locked into place with a loud click—a sound that was not quite drowned out by the short scream of pain Ed somehow managed to strangle to death in his throat. His eyes widened, rolled back, and closed… and mercifully, he fainted dead away in Al’s arms.

But Alphonse had seen it. At the moment of connection, the automail leg had jerked, and the hand had clenched.

His brother now had four limbs again, and two of them were made of steel—just like his own unliving, unfeeling shell.

A sledgehammer of confused and painful emotions struck Al, almost causing him to drop Ed. Had he still possessed a stomach, he was certain he would have felt sick. He whimpered slightly, looking back and forth between Pinako and Winry in an entirely childish need for reassurance, but they were both busy fastening the outer plating of the automail.

“It’s okay, Al,” Winry muttered brusquely. Then she spared him a glance, and her expression softened. “Really. The two of you will be running around together again in no time now.”

Pinako snorted. “Well, not exactly no time. It’ll take him a while to get used to moving the new hardware.” She looked up at Ed’s unconscious face, and her own weathered features took on a gentleness Al had never seen there before. “But the half-pint’s got guts, alright.”

Rather abruptly, she sat back on her heels, wiping her brow with her sleeve. “That should do it here. Winry?”

“Almost… there.” Winry leaned back as well, and gently lifted Ed’s new arm at the wrist, giving her work one last examination. Then she smiled up at Al. “All in a day’s work, huh?”

With Ed still sagging in the crook of his right arm, Al stretched out his left hand toward the automail… and then hesitated. He didn’t even know why he wanted to touch it, because after all, he couldn’t even feel it. Maybe he just wanted to confirm the solid reality of it to himself.

“Go on,” Winry chuckled. “It won’t bite, you know—at least not until the first time Ed gets mad and starts swinging it. But it might make some noise against your armor.”

Aware that his fingers were trembling slightly, Al laid the palm of his gauntlet on the steel outer sheath of the automail’s forearm. It hurt him to know Ed couldn’t really feel that touch either, but at least he would be able to function fully again. Soon he would walk on his new leg, and run, and jump. Soon his new hand would obey the messages of his nerves, learning to perform complex tasks, draw transmutation circles, protect him against danger. From Pinako’s cautionary lectures, Al knew some people never fully mastered the use of automail, but he also knew Brother would—and more quickly than anyone else. Nothing stopped him when he put his mind to a challenge.

“You can lay him down now,” Pinako advised, standing up halfway to massage the kinks out of her knees. “His nerves’ll be in a riot for hours. Sleeping through it is the best thing for him.”

Very gently, Alphonse lifted his brother, to settle him in bed. The heavy automail limbs hung limp like a rag doll’s, brushing against Al’s armor with a soft scrape of steel on steel… and if Pinako or Winry noticed the way he cradled Ed against his chestplate for just a moment longer than was necessary, they said nothing of it.

Al couldn’t feel the warmth of Ed’s body, or the beat of his heart; but to hold him close was a comfort, all the same.

 

VII. Not Quite Whole Again

Ed woke to a feeling that was something like a full-body toothache: his every nerve seemed to be dull and throbbing and in pain. The epicenters of the agony were his shoulder and thigh, and for one horrible moment, he thought he was reliving the first morning after the transmutation—but this pain was very different.

Blearily he remembered that Winry and Pinako had been attaching his automail, and his eyes fluttered open with a sudden spike of alertness. Although the obscuring bedcovers were tucked up to his chin, he dimly felt the sense of a new weight upon his body.

As for the other pressure that was clamped around his left hand…

Of course, that would be a now-familiar leather gauntlet that still didn’t quite know its own strength sometimes.

Ed turned his head, and met the unusually bright glow of Al’s gaze. His brother was excited—and slightly nervous as well, if Ed had learned to read the minute cues of the armor’s body language as well as he thought.

“How do you feel, Brother?” Al asked eagerly.

Ed could only muster a halfhearted groan. Helpless to do anything about the buzzing ache in the rest of his body, he settled for twitching his entrapped and half-numb hand; it was just enough of a movement for Al to notice, and the younger Elric sheepishly let go, freeing Ed to flex the circulation back into his fingers. He focused on that trivial action with an irrational intensity, stretching the moment that stood between himself and far more important things.

After all his impatience, Ed had to admit to himself… he wasn’t sure he was entirely ready to deal with what was under the blankets just yet.

“I really did pass out, didn’t I?” he sighed.

Al’s helmet tipped in a gesture of chagrin. “I guess you kinda did. It’s getting late now. Winry’s going to bring dinner up for you soon.”

“Did it… I mean, was it—?” Ed’s glance slid skeptically toward his right shoulder.

“Mm-hmm,” Al nodded brightly, as he shifted the pillows behind Ed’s back to help him sit up a little. Then he reached across Ed’s body, and gently placed a hand over the weighty thing at his right side. “The automail is all there, Brother—and it works. I saw it.”

The confirmation sent up a flock of butterflies in Ed’s stomach. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and threw back the blankets.

And there they were, those clever mockeries of flesh, wrought from unfeeling, inhuman steel. Machines—little more than a complex variation of the crutch he had been struggling around with. Artificial things, connected to his self-mutilated body in the pretense that they belonged there, that they would make him complete again.

All you’re ever going to think of is what you’ve lost

Edward gave his head a short, sharp shake, blinking back unshed tears he hadn’t realized were welling up.

“Brother? Are you alright?” The tremor of worry in Al’s voice was distinct.

With a grimace and a shiver, Ed tore his gaze away from his new steel, and looked up at Al… and his conscience squeezed his heart.

He had condemned his brother to an entire body made of steel, a cold shell that offered hardly the barest semblance of humanity. Yet for all the things Al had lost—the warmth of Ed’s touch, the scent of flowers in Pinako’s garden, the taste of Winry’s apple pie, even the simple release of sleep to quiet his mind and fade the terrible memories—Al had never once given voice to a complaint. Not once.

In the face of that, it shamed Ed to rail against a mere pair of artificial limbs.

A different kind of pain knotted in his chest, and he wanted to cry… but he smiled instead.

“I’m just fine, Al,” he said firmly, and forced himself to mean it.

Even at ten years old, Al’s natural body had possessed a softness Ed never had. He certainly wasn’t fragile—the way he stood up to Teacher’s manhandling proved that—but his tender skin was more prone to cuts and bruises than Ed’s tougher flesh. Al never complained about those hurts either, but somehow that had merely compelled Ed all the more to protect him from harm. Maybe part of it was because Ed himself used to run sniffling to their mother at the slightest scrape, and he’d hated to see Al’s stoicism show him up… but there was far more to it than that.

At the root of it all, there was his pure, fierce love for Al, a love that could never bear to see him in pain. There was his love for the woman who gave life to them both, and his promise that he would always care for the brother who was her precious gift to him. There was the sheer weight upon his shoulders of being the elder, a duty he had felt for as long as he could remember; for so long that it was a part of his being, his most basic sense of himself.

And all of those things were still there.

Now Al shielded the sorrow of his soul, bearing in silence the one pain left in a body that couldn’t feel pain—and Ed felt desperately helpless. It was bad enough that his body had become the weaker one, that his needs had held them back for so long from moving forward, that even his sleep left Al to spend the endless, aching nights alone. Ed couldn’t permit weakness of heart to be added to that bitter list of frailties.

“Dinnertime, huh? I’m starving.” His smile flattened into an expression of determination. “And I’m gonna walk into the dining room, Al.”

He looked down at the metal hand that lay limp at his side, and frowned in concentration: tensing his shoulder, trying to will movement from the intricate mechanisms that replaced muscles and tendons.

The effort was not instantly gratified, and for a moment, the very idea of it all seemed ludicrous. How could the signals of living nerves possibly be transmitted to lifeless steel? He must have been mad to embrace such pain, only to let them weigh his body down with these useless things. Automail was bizarre butchery, as alien and mystical to him as alchemy was to Winry and Pinako…

On that thought, the hand clenched suddenly, angrily, its fingers curling into the palm with a sharp jerk.

And when Ed appeared in the doorway of the dining room half an hour later—pale and shaky from exertion and pain, leaning heavily upon Al’s arm, but nonetheless standing on his own two mismatched feet—the glorious hysteria that erupted in front of them was worth it.

Pinako snapped her pipe in two, and Winry dropped an entire stack of their Sunday-best dishes.

Al generously fixed the damage, of course. For the time being, only his hands were adept enough to draw transmutation circles…

But that was going to change.

 

VIII. The Blood is the Life

After Ed received his automail, there was a new level of energy in the house. Within days, he had abandoned his crutch for good; at first he could only limp stiffly on his none-too-responsive leg, and his hand barely managed the most simple and clumsy attempts at grasping objects, but his coordination and dexterity improved ever more swiftly with each day and week that passed.

If he had hoped to escape from the tender mercies of Pinako, however, he was mistaken. His physical therapy did not end, but merely shifted to a different purpose: training nerves to finely control the movements of automail instead of flesh, teaching muscles to adjust to the unbalanced weight of his limbs. It was clear that his efforts frequently caused him pain, but he endured it with a minimum of grumbling and swearing. Pinako treated him richly to her favorite motivational technique of sharp, bracing insults—and yet privately, even she would admit that she had never seen anything like his recovery.

Alphonse was proud and happy to see his brother making such progress… but he also felt a growing awareness that each step literally brought them closer to more difficult and frightening changes. Ed must have felt it too, because a worrisome quietness came over him increasingly often, and his eyes would grow dark as they gazed away into a clouded future.

One night, after helping Winry with after-dinner chores, Al went to look for Ed in their room—but Ed wasn’t there.

As Al stared into the empty room, a faint, irrational sense of fear swept over him. Brother surely couldn’t have slipped away now to pursue his plans! He couldn’t even walk very steadily, let alone make the long, hard journey to Central, or demonstrate his alchemy skills to the military. He wasn’t ready for that. Al wasn’t ready for that. Not yet…!

Then Al’s gaze fell upon the desk at one side of the room, and the angrily crumpled pieces of paper scattered across and around it.

With a strange apprehension, he approached the desk, and smoothed out one of the papers. The lines of a very basic transmutation circle were scrawled on it, but they were crooked and faltering, far short of the precision required to form a viable array.

Al didn’t need to unfold any more of those rejected wads to know they were all the same story. He understood then. Although Ed had worked from the start to train his left hand to write and draw, and he was now beginning to do the same with his automail hand, he still couldn’t create a functional transmutation circle with either. He was so close, but not quite there, and this latest failure to recapture his gift must have pushed his frustration to the breaking point.

The memory came to Al of the months after their mother’s death. He remembered how furiously Ed had worked then, too, in their quest for the forbidden—and he remembered where Ed went to sulk when it all seemed impossible.

Leaving their bedroom, he went down the hall, to the doors that opened onto the upstairs deck.

Outside, stars glittered in a clear night sky. For a moment after he stepped out onto the weathered boards, Al gazed up at that vast velvet-blue magnificence, stretching above the fields and hills frosted with moonlight. For all the hours he and Ed had spent there, or in those fields, simply lying on their backs and looking up at the sky… now it didn’t seem like nearly enough.

He wished he could smell the night breeze, feel the tickle of the long grass, just one more time.

Then something like a pebble pinged gently off the back of his helmet.

If he could have, Al would have rolled his eyes. He settled for folding his arms unamusedly as he turned to face the eaves of the house. Just as he had expected, Ed was there, crouching at the edge of the roof.

“You worried me, Brother,” Al protested gently. “You know you shouldn’t be climbing around up there yet.”

Ed frowned down at him. He looked sullen, and the soft rebuke probably hadn’t helped that.

“Just needed to think for a while,” he murmured. Then he turned and disappeared from view. Tacit permission to join him did not seem to be given… but then, it wasn’t denied, either.

With a breathless sigh, Al trudged over to the outer corner of the deck, where the slanting roof was lowest and the railing met the wall. It was where Ed would have climbed up—but after a dubious contemplation of the rail’s sturdiness, Al prudently decided on another route for himself. Producing the chalk he now carried at all times in a pouch strapped to his cuisse, he drew a simple array on the wooden siding, and transmuted a few solid steps leading up the side of the wall. Pinako would be furious if she found out, but he fully intended to put everything to rights long before she ever saw it.

Poking his helmet over the eaves, he saw Ed curled up halfway across the roof, with his back braced against one of the chimney stacks and his arms folded over his knees. Al wondered if there was a chill in the night air, or if that posture merely reflected Ed’s sense of gloom. He looked pale and brittle, like glass; his blond hair was now long enough that he usually tied it back, but tonight it fell loose about his shoulders, nearly colorless beneath the silver veil of a three-quarter moon.

And his eyes…

His eyes had that look again. The one Al hated. The one that meant Brother’s mind was in a place he couldn’t reach, couldn’t even explain; the place where Brother had left parts of himself that were more than flesh, and come away with something Al was afraid to know.

Gingerly—and as quietly as possible—Al crossed the roof to sit beside him. Edward said nothing, and hardly gave him a glance before turning those impenetrable eyes toward their own house, dark and empty on the opposite hill.

“I hate that house,” he declared at last, his voice a harsh snarl.

The words and tone gave Al an unpleasant feeling of foreboding. He tilted his helmet, likewise looking out at what was once their happy home. “Why?”

“Because it was his house. Because it’s where we lost Mom twice. Because it’s where—” Ed faltered into silence, his gaze sliding sideways, and Al was acutely conscious of Ed’s eyes bitterly taking in the gleam of moonlight on his armor.

“It’s hurting you again, isn’t it?” Al asked in a soft voice.

Ed’s jaw tightened, his left hand discreetly reaching up to clasp his right shoulder through his sleeve; but he said nothing. After a moment, he visibly forced himself to relax, flesh fist uncurling and dropping to his side.

“It’s nothing,” he predictably insisted. He reached up to bump his automail knuckles against Al’s rerebrace… and then he repeated the gesture, more gently, as if suddenly fascinated by the dull ring of steel on steel.

“…At least this way, I can share something of what you’re going through.”

A pang of grief cut through Al’s soul, and he laid his gauntlet on Ed’s shoulder, over the place where metal and flesh were joined together with a seam of scars. “I don’t want you to have to share it.”

Ed merely shrugged. Judging by the way he winced at the movement, it was a mistake.

Silence passed between them for several minutes after that. Ed remained lost in his own thoughts, and Al observed his brother, with an anxious intensity born of nights spent helplessly watching Ed struggle through pain and nightmares. He couldn’t quite figure out what his brother felt now, but that look in his eyes had faded away, and Al was glad of that at least.

Yet their veiled talk of the way he was made him think again about questions unanswered… and although he was hardly sure the time was right to bring up the subject, he found he couldn’t contain his wonderment and secret fears any longer.

“Brother… how did you put me in this armor?”

Ed’s flinch at those words was obvious and ugly. He was still for so long that it seemed he might not answer, but at last he turned to meet Al’s gaze, his face haunted by something deeper than the usual guilt and anger.

“It’s true, you’ve got more than a right to know that. You need to know.” He looked Al up and down thoughtfully, taking a deep breath. “And now that I’ve got two hands again, I think I can show you… if you trust me.”

After all that had happened, someone else might have hesitated on that point—but Al wasn’t someone else. He was Ed’s little brother.

“Of course I trust you.”

The words made Ed wince again, but the look on his face was briefly hidden in the dark as he moved, sitting up on mismatched knees. He faced Al for a long moment, intently studying the crude semblance of human features on the armor’s visor, as if trying to read an expression it was incapable of offering.

“This could get kinda weird,” he said carefully. “Don’t be scared, okay?”

That very warning gave Al a stab of anxiety, but he nodded resolutely; and after a hesitation, Ed reached up with his fingers of flesh and steel, to place his hands on either side of Al’s helmet. The movements were plain enough, even if Al couldn’t feel the touch.

Then, for the first time, he experienced a phenomenon that felt impossibly like being in two places at once, as Ed gently lifted the helmet from his shoulders… and part of his awareness went with it.

“Oh geeze, I didn’t know you could do that!” Al shrieked, impulsively trying to move. The arms of his now-headless steel shell responded by flailing wildly—almost smacking his brother in the process. Ed recoiled and fell hard onto his backside, barely managing to keep the helmet from slipping out of his hands.

Hold still!” Edward hissed.

It took a tremendous effort, but Al quieted himself, fighting down his disoriented panic. Once he was still, Ed straightened again, and turned the helmet to face outward… and however it was that Al’s vision worked, he was suddenly confronted by the sight of the armor’s empty hull, sitting beside the chimney like some kind of decapitated metal gargoyle.

By various degrees in the past months, Al had faced and studied his own freakishness. He could finally look at mirrors now without a reaction of abject horror. Ed had even reluctantly permitted him to examine himself with his chestplate open, to come to terms with the nothing that was inside him.

But this was…

This was beyond freakish. It was almost enough to send him into hysterics again, and only his fear of hurting Ed restrained him from physically having another fit. As it was, the armor trembled and its fists clenched, a reaction Al couldn’t entirely suppress.

Ed didn’t say a word. He merely waited for the unnerving sight to sink in, and when he was evidently satisfied that Al wouldn’t move and injure him by accident, he leaned closer. He shifted the helmet to his left hand, and pointed an automail finger at the curved inner surface beneath what Al thought of as the back of his neck.

“Do you see that?” he asked, his voice low and rough with an emotion Al couldn’t quite identify.

From Al’s bizarre perspective, a shadow fell within the armor, and all he could make out was a faint blackness against the lighter steel. Without thinking, he exerted the will to move a little—which caused Ed to give a wary start, but Al was only trying to let moonlight into the gap between his shoulders. That slight stirring was enough, as pale illumination suddenly washed over a patch of rust-darkness.

In the next instant, Al realized it wasn’t rust at all, but a deliberate marking inscribed upon the inside of the armor. A circle framed a deceptively simple, eight-pointed-star of a grid, graced at its center with one small, serpentine curve…

If it was a transmutation circle, it was unlike any he had ever seen before, and the mere sight of it gave him a feeling that would have been a chill if he’d still had nerves.

“Is that…?” His voice was faint and quivering. He wasn’t even sure what he was trying to ask.

A heavy breath rasped in Ed’s lungs. “That’s… that’s you, Al.”

What?”

“Listen…” Ed’s voice caught slightly, and he swallowed hard. “That anchoring seal—it’s what keeps your soul bound to the armor. No matter what happens, we have to protect it. Don’t let it get wet. Don’t even let anything touch it. Because… if something were to happen to it…”

The unspoken conclusion to that statement hung loud and heavy in the night air, and the armor shuddered a little harder.

“It’s…” Al hesitated, struggling with a question he already knew he didn’t want the answer to. “It’s red…”

“It’s my blood.”

Those three words struck harder than a physical blow. Although the sudden movement made Ed flinch back sharply, Al couldn’t resist the urge to reach up and clutch at his chestplate, nerveless hands pressing against a nonexistent heart.

Blood… Ed’s blood. The seal that enabled his survival was a fragment of his brother’s life; it was his brother’s love made manifest. Even in the midst of unthinkable suffering, Ed had taken of the life spilling from his own body, and the last act he committed with his own right hand was to trace the circle that would cost him his arm. Deliberately, willfully, he signed over still more of his flesh to the forces that had already claimed his leg—all for Al.

And there was nothing Al could say. Thank you, I’m sorry, Forgive me; no words could ever be enough.

Brother…”

The armor leaned forward, gauntlets reaching, trembling with a child’s longing.

Ed deflected the embrace with an unexpected brusqueness, pushing the helmet into those seeking leather hands. He turned away, his shoulders hunching slightly, as if to physically shelter a reopened wound from Al’s sight… and in the instant before his eyes were hidden, Al recognized that look again.

The desire to simply hold Ed was crushing—but he had returned to that place, the one beyond Al’s understanding, and Al would not dare to intrude there. His brother’s sacrifice was already a more terrible violation than he could ever hope to be worthy of. Having witnessed the visible sign of the gift bound within his steel, it took on an almost unbearable new reality; he was sure he could feel the heavy weight of the blood seal inside him. As long as he carried that reminder of how much his life had cost, what right could he have to impose upon Ed for anything, now or ever again?

It was a monstrous cruelty that Alphonse couldn’t cry.

I will repay what you’ve given up for me, Brother. Someday, I’ll be the one to make you whole again.

Slowly, with just a little fumbling, he settled his helmet in its rightful place. His disjointed perceptions immediately fell back into order, but the relief of feeling that he was in one piece again did nothing to diminish his solemn pain.

And yet, even if he had no right, he wanted—he needed—to know just one more thing.

“Ed… where did you learn this? It’s not like anything we’ve ever read about, or anything Teacher taught us. How did you know how?”

The only response was a deep indrawn sigh of breath. Edward abruptly stood, easing his weight onto his still-hesitant automail leg, and limped across the slanting roof toward Al’s transmuted steps.

“I may tell you someday,” he said quietly, and disappeared below the eaves.

 

IX. Parting Gifts

Edward wanted to escape.

It was that familiar feeling again, the one that came over him each time he went into the village. He felt as if every eye in Resembool was drawn to the gleam of sunlight on his automail; he imagined strange looks and whispered speculations.

At heart, he knew it wasn’t really like that. Typical of a small town where everyone knew everyone else, the citizens of Resembool were largely good and kind, and had been sympathetic to the boys ever since the loss of their mother. Besides, Ed knew Pinako had smoothed the way early on, judiciously making it known that the brothers had suffered some kind of accident. He wasn’t sure exactly what she said, but when he and Al had finally ventured from the Rockbell home, their unsettling changes were met with politeness and discretion.

Still, his self-consciousness made him all the more eager to leave. He felt sure it would be easier to face strangers than people he had known all his life.

Nor could he forget that he was the lucky one. He could conceal his automail beneath gloves and long sleeves; but for now, he had chosen not to, because Al couldn’t hide that way. No matter what excuses Pinako might have given, it defied reason that a gentle young boy was now seen only by way of a fearsome, seven-foot-tall shell of armor. Ed knew his brother was the true object of unspoken wonderment and nervousness. That made him angry, but there was no one to blame for it.

No one, of course, except himself.

Al didn’t really have to expose himself to all of that, but he insisted on it. He calmly pointed out that he needed to be used to people’s reactions before they set out for Central. It was why he went out of his way to run errands for Pinako, until his armor became an almost-familiar sight in the village—but Ed still noticed every startled glance, and he ached at the thought of how it made Al feel.

Soon now, he would begin working to fix that. He would fix everything…

Or die trying.

“…And I need to pick up some parts I ordered from the post office, and Granny asked us to get the vegetables for tonight’s dinner… And you wanted to visit Mava’s shop, right? …Edward?”

Ed blinked and focused his gaze. Winry was in front of the brothers, her long blonde hair swaying over her shoulders as she walked backwards to face them; but beneath the impishness, there was a gentle worry in the way she looked at him.

“Uh—sorry. I was just thinking.”

“With something besides your stomach or your fists? That’s a novelty… And that reminds me, we also need more liniment from the druggist. You’ve used it all up again.” Winry glared at him disapprovingly. “You boys have still been fighting down by the pond, haven’t you?”

“It’s not fighting,” Al chimed in at Ed’s side, his armor rattling as he trudged along the hard-packed dirt road. “It’s sparring.”

Winry’s scowl briefly refocused on Al, and then she rolled her eyes, turning to face forward. “Whatever. If it looks like you’re trying to kill each other, I call it fighting.”

“But we need the practice! We have to be ready for anything when—”

Al,” Ed cut in quietly, but he could already see the way Winry’s shoulders stiffened at the words.

A little less than a year after the transmutation, Edward had defied every conceivable estimate of his recovery time, mastering his automail with a speed and completeness that even left Pinako lost for words. He had trained his hands of flesh and automail relentlessly, until they were both equally capable of writing and drawing transmutation circles. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his scars and the weight of steel he carried, his body was stronger than it had ever been before… and he felt as emotionally prepared for new unknowns as he would ever be.

By now, even Winry realized the time was very short.

Ed had tried to shield her from that fact, but she could clearly sense it, in the growing secrecy that was proportionate to the brothers’ progress. It was in the way they crept down to the pond early each morning to sharpen their fighting skills, or shut themselves up in their room at night to practice new transmutations. Everything they did was no longer about healing, but preparation. Even this innocent shopping trip was really a foray to gather the last provisions for hard travel.

They walked in uncomfortable silence for several minutes before Winry spoke up again, without turning. She forced her tone to be light, doing her best to pretend the tension the brothers felt in her was not still there.

“When we get home, Ed, I want us to go over your automail maintenance routine again.”

Ed’s shoulders slumped. “We just did that two days ago!”

“Well, we’re doing it again!”

As Winry snapped out that retort, the momentary veneer of casualness cracked. She glanced over her shoulder for the briefest of moments, and the look on her face stilled further argument from Ed. He suddenly understood the way she felt, and it was a sobering realization.

She knew… and she knew she couldn’t stop him. All she could do was try to make sure he was ready.

“Okay,” he answered meekly.

The submission was sudden and complete, causing her to look back at him with a trace of mystified surprise; but she turned her head again before he could see more than a glimpse of her eyes, glossy with unspilled tears.

And Ed wished he was already gone.

 

Resembool’s main street was rarely busy at that hour of the day. Upon reaching it, the brothers and Winry found only a few familiar neighbors browsing the shops and market stalls. Ed squirmed inwardly at the waves and good-mornings they received, and hated himself for leaving Al to answer each greeting with his perennial good manners—just as if life was perfectly normal.

How nicely everyone pretended… but Ed didn’t buy it for a moment.

“We’ll get things done quicker if we split up,” Winry observed briskly, her own façade of cheerfulness back in place. “Ed, you should go ahead and see Mava. I’ll handle the post office and the druggist… Al, do you want to pick up the vegetables? The three of us can meet up there at the farmers’ market.”

Before Ed could object to the idea of Al wandering off alone, his brother nodded. “Okay,” he said gamely, and clattered off toward the open-air stalls where local farmers sold their produce.

Just watching Al walk away gave Ed a small feeling of panic. Regardless of Winry’s efficient agenda, his immediate impulse was to follow him, to keep him from being alone—but Winry’s hand caught and held the steel fingers of his automail before he could take a step.

“You can’t always be right next to him, Ed… and it’s better to start here than with strangers.”

The simple words gave Ed a pang, because he knew he couldn’t argue with them. Especially not with the way he had things planned.

“Winry…”

“It’s alright. Go on to Mava’s.” She gave him a smile that was surprisingly genuine, releasing his hand. “I’ll check in on Al between my stops, and make sure he’s okay.”

She didn’t even know just how much Ed planned to entrust to her, and yet how equal to the task she was… Another twinge tweaked his heart, and his cheeks flushed slightly as he dropped his gaze and shrugged. “Sure.”

As Winry moved off, Ed glanced up from beneath his fringe of gold hair, observing her furtively until she disappeared through the doors of the post office. Then, impulsively, he crossed the street to the hardware store.

Even before he had automail, Ed had hated the place—not on any particular principle, but just because of the hours he’d spent waiting around as Winry squealed over the latest tools. Now, however, surrounded by all those shelves and racks of gleaming metal things that crammed every inch of space… his steel arm and leg made him feel something like a lamb in a butcher’s shop. He glanced around in vague paranoia on his way to the counter, as if crazed mechanics might lay in wait to ambush him and cannibalize his limbs for spare parts.

“Well, good morning, Edward!” Jobe Duncan, the proprietor, smiled down at Ed from behind the counter. He was a towering, deep-voiced man, with skin like tanned leather, an angular face, and a shock of bristly snow-white hair. He was also a fellow recipient of Aunt Pinako’s services: automail of her design replaced the right leg he had lost as a soldier in Ishbal.

“This is a first,” he observed jovially. “Never seen you come in here without one of the Rockbells. Any trouble with the automail?”

“Oh—no.” Ed half-smiled awkwardly and lifted his hand, delicately flexing metal fingers.

“Say, you really got a handle on that. Stomping around on a leg’s one thing, but I’d have never been able to work a hand that well. That’s a real credit to you—and to Miss Winry, too. That girl’s got some talent.”

“Yeah… she does.” Ed shuffled his feet, beginning to feel slightly chagrined by the vague intention that had led him there. “I was wondering… I mean, you know more than I do about what tools Winry has, since she buys most of them from you. Is there anything here that she doesn’t have yet?”

A mischievous light appeared in Jobe’s flinty gray eyes. “Well, let’s see now…”

He turned to a crowded shelf that stood behind him. After a moment’s consideration, he selected a large wrench, and placed it on the counter for Ed’s inspection.

Ed regarded it dubiously. “A wrench? …I thought she had dozens of those.”

“Not like this one. Just got ’em in yesterday. It’s an adjustable model in a new high-tensile-strength alloy.” Jobe grinned conspiratorially. “Trust me, she’ll be impressed.”

With a hapless grin, Ed shrugged. “You’re the expert. I’ll take it. And—have you got any paper?”

The shopkeeper helpfully produced a large sheet of brown paper. He might have expected that it was meant to wrap the wrench, but Ed took a piece of chalk from his pocket instead; and with his automail hand, quickly and confidently, he drew a transmutation circle. Jobe looked on, with an admiration that had more to do with Ed’s command of his prosthetics than his alchemical prowess.

Having created the array he wanted, Ed placed the wrench in the middle of the circle, and pressed his fingers to its edge. Blue light danced over the tool, and its surface rippled like water. As if by magic, neatly formed letters etched themselves across the metal, engraving the handle of the wrench with a name: WINRY ROCKBELL.

Jobe let out a low whistle. “That’s really something. Would’ve taken me half a day to do that, and even then it wouldn’t look as nice.”

“Alchemy can do a lot of things,” Ed murmured cryptically, and reached for the money in his pocket.

When he stepped out of the hardware store with his carefully paper-wrapped gift, he struggled for a moment with the impulse to go find Al and check on him. How true it was that he had to stop clinging so anxiously… and besides, Winry had said she would keep an eye on him.

Reluctantly, Ed turned instead toward the shop run by Mava, the local seamstress. Today he had important business with her.

Mava Lindenleaf was a kindly woman, with warm brown eyes, a tender smile, and long gray hair worn almost girlishly in a ponytail. Widowed at a young age, she had no children of her own, but she was known throughout Resembool for her generous and motherly nature. She occupied a special place in the hearts of the Elric brothers; she was a friend of their mother’s, and had Pinako not taken them into her already-familiar home, Ed suspected Mava would have cared for them herself.

A bell above the door chimed pleasantly as Ed stepped into Mava’s shop, a small and cozy place that seemed to be lined with fabric like a nest: clothes brought for mending, bolts of fabric, quilts she made to sell but just as often gave away. The fragrance of tea and cinnamon tickled Ed’s nose, stirring memories of a time when he and Al were very small. Mother sometimes left them here while she went off to do her shopping, and Mava would make little stuffed animals for them as they watched in fascination. In those days, the gift of skilled hands seemed as wonderful as alchemy.

Today, as always, Mava was sitting in her rocking chair by the sunny window. At the sound of the doorbell, she looked up from the quilt in her lap, and a welcoming smile lighted her face.

“Oh, hello, Ed. How are you this morning? How are Al and Winry?”

There was hardly a simple answer to that question, so Ed merely shrugged. “We’re alright, I guess. I just stopped in to see if…”

Mava chuckled and stood up, laying aside her quilt. “That’s what I thought—and it just so happens I finished your order last night. Let me get it for you.”

She went up the staircase to her living quarters above the shop, where she often continued to work after hours. Ed stood patiently waiting; but before Mava returned, the doorbell jangled again, and he was surprised to see Winry step inside. The packages in her shopping basket testified that she had already finished her errands.

“You’re still here?” she asked quizzically. “I thought you would have gotten over to the farmers’ market by now—I just went by, and Al is fine. Mrs. Ozley is talking his… well, whatever it is he hears with off,” she added with a pained smile, before Ed could ask.

Ed’s cheeks colored slightly, and he half-hid his brown paper package behind his back. “Yeah, I… just had something else to do first.”

Winry’s eyes sparked with curiosity, but before she could question him, Mava returned with a neatly-folded bundle of black and red fabric. She set it on her cutting table, resting her thin hands on it proudly.

“Here it is, Ed. I did my best with the drawings you gave me. Have a look, and see if it will do.”

“Oh, so these must be the clothes you came to get measured for two weeks ago!” Winry interjected, and gave Ed a rather suspicious look. “The ones you’ve been so hush-hush about…”

Ignoring Winry, Ed reached out for the stack of garments. He unfolded each item for inspection: trousers, a sleeveless shirt, a short jacket, all in black edged with white. A pair of slim white gloves… and finally, a long, hooded coat of blazing scarlet.

His heart skipped a beat as he slowly ran his left hand across the fabric. In his eyes, the clothes were perfect. Mava’s clever hands had brought to life the designs he had imagined and painstakingly sketched.

Winry frowned over Ed’s shoulder at the vaguely militaristic ensemble. “That… almost looks like some kind of uniform. What’s the idea?”

There was no sense in mincing words now. Ed turned to her, meeting her eyes with a grim shrug.

“I know I’ve got the skills to be a State Alchemist—but when I get to Central, I don’t want them looking at me like I’m just a kid. Maybe some more mature-looking clothes will help them take me seriously.”

He was sure Winry would either scoff at his idea of “mature-looking clothes”, or just be stricken with pained silence—and the second option turned out to be the case. He could feel her shut down beside him at the blunt reminder of his plans, and it made his own heart thump achingly.

In an effort to push away that feeling, he turned the coat over, and gazed with bitter pride at a familiar crest stitched in black.

“What is that?” Winry asked faintly, as grudging curiosity overpowered her gloom.

“The flamel cross—the crest passed on to Al and I from our alchemy teacher.” Ed caressed it with his fingers, tracing the coils of the serpent.

It was far more than that. When Ed had first seen the crest tattooed over Izumi Curtis’ breastbone, he thought little of it, except that it was the symbol of the school of alchemy into which he and his brother were initiated. Only later had he read of the myths that inspired it, about a god of healing who carried such a staff, a healer who had the ability to raise the dead—only to be struck down for his presumptuousness in using that power.

After that, Ed didn’t dare to ask what true significance might lay in the mark Teacher carried. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to know; hadn’t wanted to face the testament of warning some part of him feared it might hold.

If only he had asked. If only he had listened. If only he had known—before that night.

Beside him, Winry stirred uncomfortably, still regarding the crest with vague distaste. “I don’t get it. A snake wrapped around a cross… Is that a symbol for something in alchemy? What does it mean?”

Ed closed his eyes with a deep sigh.

“It means…”

Hubris. Sin. A cross to bear.

“…To reach for the impossible.”

He didn’t look at Winry, but he felt the heavy silence that briefly filled the space between them. Shaking it off with a will, he turned to smile at Mava.

“It’s perfect, Mava—more than I imagined. Thank you.” His hand went to his pocket for her payment.

The seamstress smiled kindly and shook her head. “You really don’t need to…”

“Yes I do.” Ed met her eyes seriously. When he left Resembool, he was determined to leave no debts behind him. At least, none that could be paid with money… He looked at his automail fingers, and shot a discreet sidelong glance at the girl beside him.

To Mava’s credit, she seemed to understand, and her smile softened. “Alright, then. But let me wrap all this up for you.”

She knew, too.

Winry’s brittle silence lingered after she and Ed had left Mava’s shop, and started down the street toward the farmers’ market. Ed thought she probably didn’t want to say what was on her mind—any more than he wanted to hear it. She walked half a step behind him, her head down, her eyes unreadable. Her tension felt heavier at his side than his automail arm ever had, and it bothered him tremendously, but he tried to focus on his anxiousness to make sure Al was doing alright by himself.

Halfway to the market, out of the blue, he was stopped in his tracks by a sharp tug at his braided hair.

“What’s in that other package?”

“Ow—Winry!” Ed jerked his braid out of her grasp, turning to give her a glare that would have burned holes in Al’s armor. “I told you not to do that!”

The sudden attack of brattiness was, apparently, both a retaliation and a shield for Winry’s inner heartache. She smirked at Ed, eyeing his braid in a way that was nothing short of evil. “Come on, can I help it if you decided to grow such a nice, convenient handle?”

“Don’t be stupid!” Ed roughly shifted the packages he was carrying to his automail arm, steadying them with his left hand. Then he impulsively grasped the smallest and heaviest one, and shoved it at Winry’s chest.

Here. Why not, it’s for you, anyway…”

That certainly wasn’t the way he had intended this moment to go, but it would have to do.

The violent delivery forced Winry to catch the package before it could fall to the ground. She stared at it with wide eyes, glanced quickly at his uncomfortable scowl, and finally tore open the gift with eager fingers.

She gazed down for a long, long moment at the wrench… and teardrops suddenly darkened the brown paper wrapping.

“This is a going-away present, isn’t it?”

Ed turned away with a sharp huff of a sigh. He took half a step, hesitated, and finally looked back at her again.

“Listen, Winry. There’s something I’ve decided. When I leave for Central… Al isn’t coming with me. I’m going to leave him here, with you and Grans.”

She raised her head sharply, the momentary tears drying up in her astonished eyes. “What?”

“Making everything right again is my burden, not his.” Ed shrugged awkwardly. “He doesn’t need to go through what I’m getting myself into. I don’t want him to be away from everything he knows, having strangers treat him like a freak. And if the military found out the truth about him… About what we did…”

Ed’s breath caught slightly. He shook his head and started forward again, taking it for granted that Winry would follow.

“…It’s just better this way.”

He was aware of a hesitation before Winry’s footsteps shuffled behind him. A long moment of silence elapsed, and then she said his name, in an odd, strained tone he hadn’t heard before.

Ed…?”

Unsuspecting, he stopped and turned to her…

And the swinging wrench caught him squarely under the left eye.

Packages tumbled to the ground as he recoiled with a howl of pain and indignation, clutching his cheekbone. Winry dropped her hands, white-knuckled in their death grip on the wrench; her face was downturned, hiding her expression, but her shoulders were shaking.

“What was that?” Ed snapped, gingerly massaging his cheek. “I thought you’d be glad I want Al to stay!”

“Of course I’d like him to stay safe with us… but that would be too cruel, Ed!” Winry lifted her eyes, hard as blue ice and streaming with tears. “You’re the one who’s convinced him you don’t have anything left but each other. You’re everything to him now. How do you think he’d feel if you just went away and left him?”

Involuntarily, Ed thought of his father—and it was an ugly feeling.

“And besides…” Winry went on, more softly. “You know Al would just follow you, and we can’t stop him. Making him have to catch up with you, all by himself, would only put him at more risk of being hurt. If you made a promise to protect him, Ed… you have to be with him to keep it, don’t you?”

The relentless words made Ed’s insides knot up. He winced and dropped his gaze, wishing he could find some argument to counter her logic—but once again, he knew there was none.

Winry was right. No matter how secretly he might slip away, or how much of a headstart he might achieve, Alphonse would simply come after him—and gentle though he was by nature, Al was a force to be reckoned with now. Between his alchemic skills and the physical strength of his armor, Pinako and Winry could do nothing to hold him back, and there was certainly no chance he could be talked out of it.

And besides that… What if the key to restoring Al’s body wasn’t just some obscure alchemic secret Ed could carry back to Resembool? What if the answer was linked to a particular place and time, a chance that would come only once? If Al wasn’t with him, his entire purpose would be a loss. He could never seize that chance for himself alone, reclaim his own arm and leg, only to come home to a brother still trapped in the steel Ed had cursed him to bear.

What Ed had made Al start with him, he had no choice but to let Al finish with him.

The realization made him bow his head in defeat… and yet he felt suddenly, bitterly, selfishly glad. A harsh smile crossed his lips, painful like his automail ports in bad weather.

“You’re right,” he surrendered quietly, without looking up. “Thanks, Winry—and I’m sorry.”

Winry didn’t say anything. There was a moment’s silence, and then she stepped forward, bending to pick up his fallen packages.

“Come on,” she said gently. “Let’s find Al… and go home.”

 

X. Departure

Although Ed had never set a date for their leaving Resembool, Al could feel it when the day arrived.

The third of October dawned sunny and unseasonably warm, a final touch of summer that made the turning leaves of the trees seem that much brighter. Winry suggested they take advantage of the weather with a picnic at the pond—and Ed was unusually quick to abandon his books in favor of the idea. So they spent that precious time together, surrounded by the hills of home.

From beginning to end, it was a beautiful day. A day to be held fondly, gratefully in one’s memories…

A goodbye that needed no words.

That night, Ed laid down at bedtime as usual, but Al knew he remained awake. The restless, nervous energy in the air was something new; Al didn’t need skin to almost feel the anxious prickle of it, and he was a little scared.

A part of him wanted to beg Ed to forget his plans, to let them both stay safe and hidden away in Resembool, in their small familiar world where everyone knew them and was kind. He didn’t want to sense all over again the stares and whispers of strangers with each new place they might travel to. He didn’t want his brother to be sent into danger by the military. He didn’t want either of them to be forced to use their abilities to do harm, even in self-defense… and he didn’t want to compound the horrors of their mistake through further meddling in human transmutation.

He just didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

But in the end, the truth was, he couldn’t bear to stay any more than Ed could.

He couldn’t go on merely existing as he was, helping the Rockbells with heavy lifting, occupying his mind with books and busywork to stave off thoughts of his own monstrosity. He needed to feel he was still somehow living—and the quiet of Resembool would never fill that empty silence inside his armor. In the innocent hills and fields of a lost childhood, the brothers’ suffering and learning and unnatural gifts could serve no worthy purpose. For the sake of his sanity, Al had to believe there was a purpose for it all, but he knew it could only lie in the vast unknown beyond their sheltering home.

And deep in his soul, his faith in his brother still gave him hope. The hope that he would know touch and taste and dreams again; the hope that Brother’s automail would again give place to flesh. If anyone could bend the forces of alchemy to his own will, shatter the walls of impossibility and cast asunder the law of Equivalent Exchange, it was Edward Elric.

All Alphonse could give him in return was devotion and protection: the shield of a metal body to guard him against enemies, the gentle echo of a voice of reason to guard him against himself.

For now, that was all the purpose Al needed.

Half an hour after the house became quiet, Ed sat up and turned on the bedside lamp. He was still for a long moment, fingers of flesh and steel gripping the edge of the mattress. At last he raised his eyes to the familiar corner of the room where Al settled each night.

“It’s time to go, Al.”

No answer was necessary. Ed knew he had felt it, too. Slowly Al stood up—making less noise now than in the beginning, when each movement of his alien shell was awkward and uncertain. He had learned so much since then.

He was ready. They both were.

Ed rose and moved to the closet, where he dressed in clothes Al hadn’t seen before: black as midnight, with the austere lines of a uniform. And over those garments, by sharp contrast, a long and beautiful coat in the red of royal robes, emblazoned with a bitterly noble crest…

Then Al understood. Blackness for mourning, with a scarlet cloak of sin to hang heavy on his shoulders.

Move forward, Ed had said so often… but he gave the lie to his own creed by wrapping himself in the past, to cover the steel and scars that told the same story in a far more brutal language.

As Ed studied the mirror over the bureau with grim satisfaction, Al’s hand closed on his shoulder—his automail shoulder. The younger Elric’s emotions were brimming, and he didn’t trust himself not to squeeze flesh and bone too tightly.

“Brother… I want to wear the crest, too.”

In the reflection, he saw amber eyes flash with a pain that was meant to be hidden. Ed reached up to brush the gauntlet aside, but his left hand lingered for just an instant over Al’s own.

“It’s not your burden, Al.”

“We’ve been through all that before. We both made the choice. Just because I was more scared, that doesn’t make me any less guilty.” Al tried to lighten his tone, and did not entirely succeed. “Besides, it’s Teacher’s crest. That gives me a right to it too.”

For a moment, there appeared to be a fresh argument on the tip of Ed’s tongue… but then he sighed and smiled sadly.

“Okay. I think Pinako has some paint down in the workshop. You go get it while I finish packing.”

A day ago, Al wouldn’t have dared to leave Ed alone at this moment, for fear he would come back to find him already gone—but now he knew. Ed’s surrender regarding the crest held a far deeper meaning. Brother had accepted the way this was going to be.

Together… or nothing at all.

When Al returned from the workshop with a jar of red paint and a fine-tipped brush, the secondhand suitcase Ed had bought a week earlier lay open on the bed. It was taken up almost exclusively with Ed’s travel necessities; Al required nothing physically but to keep his armor clean and dry and free of rust, a fact that gave him a certain guilty gladness. As painfully as he missed his human senses, at least he wouldn’t burden Ed with fleshly needs on the road before them.

If—when—that road was to lead them home with their bodies whole again, then Al would spend the rest of his life basking in every recaptured experience. But until that day came, he was determined to value and make use of the advantages of steel.

Ed turned from the suitcase as Al came into the room. For a moment he regarded his armored brother with a look of somber affection.

“Well… where?” he asked simply, taking the paintbrush.

Al knelt down in front of Ed with a clatter. After a moment’s consideration, he touched the rerebrace that served as his left shoulder. “Here.”

For the next few minutes, he held the paint jar and sat motionless as Ed carefully worked. The mirror was visible from his position, and although he was understandably not fond of his reflection, it fascinated him to see the crest take shape. It wasn’t quite perfect—apart from the inherent beauty in the mathematics of a transmutation circle, Ed had never been an artist—but if an angle was just slightly crooked here, or a curve was a tiny bit disproportionate there, Al still cherished it because it came from his brother’s own hand. His right hand; his automail, the weight he carried for Al’s sake.

It was hard, then, not to think of the fateful symbol Ed’s true hand had once traced.

When the flamel was completed and Al had approved, Ed used alchemy to bond the paint to the armor. Al moved to rise then, but Ed stilled him with an automail hand laid gently on the newly-painted crest. He met Al’s gaze, his eyes deep and dark.

“I already know the answer, Al… but I still have to ask, one last time.”

The younger Elric understood. Slowly and firmly, he clasped his leather fingers over Ed’s metal ones.

“I am going with you, Brother.” He tried to keep his voice steady, but it still trembled with the force of his feelings. “We’re all we’ve got… and nothing is ever going to keep me from being beside you.”

Ed ducked his head slightly, a little too late to conceal the misty shine in his eyes. And then he did something Al didn’t expect: he reached out, wrapping his arms just a little awkwardly around Al’s not-quite-neck, and hugged the cold unyielding steel.

Overwhelmed and soul-aching, Al returned the hug, and it didn’t matter that he couldn’t feel the warm tightness of Ed’s grip. With his brother’s fragile body nestled close against the place where his heart should have been, he felt strong in a way that had nothing to do with the strength of the armor. What was enfolded in his arms was his entire world, and what he could hold, he could also keep safe.

“I promise,” Ed whispered fervently, and there was no need to elaborate. He had said all the words that followed those a hundred times already: I promise to get your body back. I promise to make it all right.

Al squeezed him a little bit harder. “I promise too.”

The embrace lasted for a long moment more, until Ed reluctantly squirmed—a guilty reminder that he needed oxygen. Al hastily let him go, but as he caught his breath, he merely laid his hand on Al’s helmet with a rueful smile.

Then his expression became grave as he turned away. He latched the suitcase and picked it up, and briefly stood looking around their bedroom one last time.

This room held few happy memories. It was first prepared for them the same day Mother died, and long afterward they would cry themselves to sleep there each night. Then, in time, it became their den of secrets, a hiding place of forbidden human-alchemy books, a sanctuary for endless hours of study… and finally, those walls had borne witness to the nightmares and pain of the aftermath.

Yet somehow, at least to Al, it had become their home—or at least something as close to a home as they still had.

Finally, in silence, Ed turned and walked out. Al followed as quietly as he could, along the hall and down the stairs; but when they came to the foot of the staircase, he touched Ed’s shoulder.

“Let me put away Aunt Pinako’s paint,” he whispered, holding up the jar and the brush in his hand.

In the darkness, he could faintly see Ed shake his head with fond exasperation. “Just can’t stand to leave anything out of place, can you? …Go ahead. I’ll be outside by the shed.”

Accordingly, Al hurried to the workshop, with its organized chaos of tools and equipment and half-finished automail limbs that stretched out like grasping ghosts from the shadows. He left the paint and brush exactly where he had found them… and on Winry’s workbench he placed a note, scrawled in handwriting that was never quite the same after nerveless leather fingers had relearned it.

Ed had wanted to leave without a word of any kind, but Al simply couldn’t bear to do that.

Outside, Ed was waiting by the shed as promised—and the suitcase, resting beside him on the ground, had been joined by two metal gasoline cans. Al knew what those were for, and his soul felt a vague flutter that would once have been his heart skipping a beat.

It had startled him when, a few days earlier, Ed had confided what he wanted to do; but it hadn’t really surprised him. Not after that night on the rooftop, when Ed looked across the hill and spoke with such poisoned bitterness in his voice. Yet as he outlined the reasoning behind his plan, he was by contrast calm and thoughtful: Leave nothing to come back to. No choice but to move forward.

Al knew better. No excuse would make it a less painful, spiteful, wasteful deed…

But if Brother could feel any demons were expelled on the funeral pyre of their life-that-was, he would gladly strike the match himself.

Neither of them spoke as they walked away from the Rockbell house. Ed carried the gas cans, leaving Al to take the suitcase. Rather than follow the rutted dirt path to the road, they crossed the moon-silvered grass, retracing the footsteps of a thousand happier days. Al couldn’t help but remember: running, laughter, looking back over their shoulders to wave goodnight to Winry, as Mother called them home for supper.

The silence held until they arrived at the door of their own empty house. There Edward set down the gas cans and reached for the doorknob, withdrawing the key from his pocket.

Al barely stopped himself from clutching Ed’s shoulder. “We have to go back inside?” he asked, his voice quivering with anxious perplexity.

Twice in the last few days they had already returned, to carefully select and carry away a few precious fragments of the past. Several books. A small box of photographs. A few crude animal figures transmuted from tin cans, once cherished by Mother as their gifts to her. The stuffed cat, made by Mava, that was Al’s former bedtime guardian against the dark. These things and a few others were now tucked away in the Rockbells’ attic; perhaps the boys would never even see them again, but it was a comfort just to know they were there.

At the end of that second salvage foray, Al had made his peace and said his silent goodbyes, or at least thought he had. The idea of going in once more made him feel a vague distress. If he looked one last time at the remaining pictures on the mantelpiece, the cherished books that were still on the shelves, the big cozy chair where they would snuggle up to Mother when she read stories… maybe his resolve would break. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to bear what Brother intended to do, to the house—or with himself. Not any of it.

Maybe one more goodbye was too much.

“You don’t need to,” Ed answered quietly. “But I want to make sure we do a good job of this. Why do you think I brought the gas cans? It… it all has to go, Al.” He hesitated. “Especially…”

Ed seemed unable to speak the next words, but they rang clearly in Al’s mind anyway. This time he did clutch Ed’s arm of flesh, gripping more tightly than he intended, and his voice struck a high, sharp note of fear. “You’re going in there?”

Father’s study. The scene of their crime and its unspeakable punishment—a place neither of them had dared to enter since that night.

“It’s gotta be done.” Ed pulled his arm free of Al’s grasp. “And… I need to see it.”

Al couldn’t bring himself to ask exactly what it was Ed needed to see. Perhaps that any remaining evidence of their sin would be obliterated… or perhaps that the study was once more just a room, and not a gaping portal to the hell he had once witnessed.

Before Al could protest further, Ed turned the key and pushed the door open. Armed with a small flashlight and one of the gas cans, he slipped inside and vanished into the shadows—and Al could not force himself to follow.

The few minutes that followed felt like an hour. Al stood at the threshold as if he had rusted solid there, hating himself for his weakness, while his mind ran riot with horrible visions of what might be happening in the study. Ed being seized by some monstrous thing that still lurked in the darkness. Ed forsaking his assurances, retracing the bloodstained equations on the floor, attempting by himself to repeat the transgression that had cost them both so dearly. Had Al still possessed lungs, he would have held his breath, half-expecting the sound of a scream; but there was only a heavy, oppressive silence that was in its way even more terrifying.

At long last Al heard a scraping sound, followed by footsteps, and Ed suddenly emerged into the shaft of moonlight that penetrated only a few feet beyond the doorway. He was pale, his jaw set and eyes hooded.

It was the look that meant he was thinking of that place again—and Al didn’t dare to intrude on that unholy ground, to ask what he had seen.

Brusquely Ed stepped out and picked up the remaining gas can, and Al watched with dispassion as the fuel splashed against the walls of the house. A part of him wanted to ache for what was coming, but after those last few minutes, he couldn’t move himself to such a feeling. His reawakened fear of the study, of all it represented, had severed this abandoned place from his good and pure memories of a past beloved home. Washing away the blood would never cleanse that room of its horrors. It could only be erased from existence—and the rest of the house was a small price to pay for that.

He was ashamed to feel a little glad when, in the shadows where Ed crouched beneath the great oak tree, a flame sparked to life.

Ed returned to Al’s side. The makeshift torch in his hand glowed brightly, but he delayed for just a moment, looking up at his little brother with eyes that were now strangely filled with tenderness.

“You’re sure?” he asked quietly.

Of course, he would ask that too, one last time. The house belonged equally to Al… but so did the memories.

For answer, Al gently took the torch from Ed’s hand, and touched it to the doorpost. The fire bit eagerly into the wood, racing away along the spattered trails of gasoline.

Almost as if they were sharing a solemn ritual, Ed reclaimed the torch and ignited the other side of the threshold. Then they retreated to a safe distance and stood together in silence, watching as the house was consumed. Al couldn’t feel the heat, but he could see its wavering distortion in the air, hear the muffled pops and thuds of things exploding. Windows burst outward in sparkling shards of glass, smoke and flame billowing from the inferno within.

Presently, Al looked at Ed. His eyes were dark, his gaze turned inward, but his face was intently set. His red coat and golden hair were stirred by the wind, reflecting the flames in a shimmer of spectral brightness. The sight reminded Al of a myth he had once read: the story of a magnificent bird that perished upon its burning nest, only to rise again, reborn from the ashes of its past self.

Edward tossed the torch into the blaze, and stared after it for a long moment before turning at last to Alphonse.

“Don’t remember this night as an ending, Al… because this is the beginning.”

Picking up his suitcase, he turned his back to the gentle rain of ash that had begun to fall. The crest between his shoulders stood out sharply in the firelight, a symbol of all that would not be left behind.

He took a deep breath, and started to walk; and his brother followed him without looking back.


© 2010 Jordanna Morgan