Author: Jordanna Morgan (email@example.com)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for a small amount of violence.
Characters: Edward, Alphonse, the Curtises, Winry, Mustang, assorted original characters, and a special guest villain.
Setting: First anime. Continuation of my AU one-shot story “Rebirth”.
Summary: Fifteen years after being reborn as a child of the Curtises, Edward has grown to be a healthy, settled teenager with no memory of his first life. Yet shadows of the past are beginning to fall over the family’s happiness… and not all of Ed’s old enemies have forgotten him.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: From the time I wrote “Rebirth”, it intrigued me to speculate on how Ed’s second life in the Curtis family might unfold—and what would happen when his true identity caught up with him at last. The ideas were so compelling that, unlike most of my open-ended Things That Never Happened tales, the story demanded a sequel. I am usually not one to linger in alternate universes, but the richness of the emotional bonds in this one made it a great pleasure to further explore.
As always, my thanks to my cheerleader/idea-bouncer Kristen Sharpe, who particularly helped by suggesting the villain of the piece.
PLEASE NOTE: Before you read this story, I strongly suggest reading my much shorter story “Rebirth” first. The backstory it provides is important to fully understanding the circumstances here.
CHAPTER I: Who We Are
The water was cool and velvet-smooth against Edward Curtis’ skin. He closed his eyes, shutting out the brilliant sparkle of the afternoon sun on the lake, and focused on his swimming strokes. As his strong arms and legs cut through the surface with hardly a ripple, he dwelled on the rhythm of the motions, letting it clear his mind of thoughts.
He didn’t particularly want to think right now.
After a time, his hands brushed against the silt of the lake bottom as it became shallow. He opened his eyes to see a golden beach ahead of him, fading into a wild tangle of almost jungle-like forest beyond. He got his feet underneath him and waded ashore, to lounge on the sand and gaze up at the white birds wheeling in the sky overhead. His wet shorts and shirt clung to his body, cooled by the breeze off the lake, but it was not unpleasant on the warm spring day.
For reasons unknown to him, his mother Izumi strictly forbade her children to go near Yock Island, and Ed lived in such worshipful terror of her that he had obeyed this command for years. Yet he had always felt drawn to that beautiful, mysterious place… and finally, some months earlier, he gave in to its allure and his own curiosity. He secretly began swimming out after school on some days. There he would practice drawing new transmutation circles in the sand, or simply lie lost in thought. However, he had never ventured beyond the shore—not because he feared what might lurk in the forest, but because he hadn’t yet suppressed his guilty conscience quite far enough.
Sitting on the beach, listening to the lapping waves and the shrill cries of birds, Ed could never understand what Mother had against the island. He found its lush green solitude to be soothing. It eased the headaches he had increasingly suffered for the last few years. It made him feel still inside, and closer to—something. Something important but just beyond his reach, waiting; perhaps waiting in the forest, if he could only work up the courage to explore past the open shoreline someday.
For now, he needed the tranquility Yock Island gave him. He couldn’t explain why, because life was as simple and good as it had always been. He had a happy home and a loving family… and yet, there was a restless unease growing in his heart. All his life he had felt confident in who he was as a person, but now, for seemingly no reason at all, it was as if his sense of himself was suddenly becoming unclear to him.
And that feeling wasn’t helped by things like the ugly scene that had just happened at Mr. Gowey’s general store.
* * * * *
“Come on, Ed, aren’t you going to pick some candy? If we each get something different, we can all share!”
With a sudden blink, Edward looked up, and briefly wondered how long he had spaced out this time.
His younger sister Shaya, a tall slim girl of twelve, stood watching him with brightly expectant brown eyes. A bag of strawberry licorice was hugged against her chest, half-hidden by the thick ebony ponytail that fell over her shoulder. Behind her, their ten-year-old brother Ronan held a box of chocolates in one hand and a jar of jellybeans in the other, weighing his choice between the treats.
“Uh—sorry.” Ed grinned wanly at Shaya, rubbing his fingers against his blond head. “You can pick whatever you want. I’m not really in the mood for sweets today… I think I’m getting a headache again.”
“Another one? That’s the third time this week.” Shaya frowned. “You’ve been getting these headaches more often, you know—and your mind has been wandering even more than usual. Maybe you should go to the doctor.”
Ed made a face. “Nah. I’ve probably just been studying too hard. I have been working on a whole new field of transmutations this month. It’s kind of tricky stuff.”
Shaya looked at him dubiously. Like Edward, she studied alchemy after school with Mother, but she did not pursue it with the burning intensity he did. For her it was merely an interest; for him it was a passion, a driving force. He was naturally gifted, but beyond that, he felt compelled to learn everything, and become the greatest alchemist he could be.
He had his own reasons for that.
After giving him the eye just long enough to underscore her skepticism, Shaya turned to their little brother. “Okay, stop agonizing, Ro. You can get the chocolate and the jellybeans. Ed doesn’t want anything.”
Ronan shot Ed a fleeting look of incredulity—it was inconceivable to his mind that anyone could refuse candy, at any time—and then he gave Shaya a broad grin. “Alright!”
Shaking his head wryly, Ed followed his siblings to the front of the store… only to step forward quickly and halt them with an outstretched arm, as they came within earshot of the conversation between the store owner and a man at the counter.
“You seriously think that blond kid down there is the brother of those other two?” The man was a stranger to the children, a burly figure in blue work clothes. His voice carried a faint slur of alcohol. “C’mon. There’s no way he can look that different from ’em and be from the same parents. He’s gotta be adopted or something.”
A faintly sick feeling squirmed in Ed’s stomach. It made his burgeoning headache throb a little harder.
“And I’m telling you, he’s not,” argued old Mr. Gowey. “I’ve known those children and their parents for years. I saw Mrs. Curtis all through the time she was pregnant with Edward, and after he was born, she’d bring him here practically since his first day. He’s her son, alright. I can swear that for a fact.”
The stranger sniggered. “Well, maybe so—but that don’t mean her husband is his daddy.”
Ed’s uneasy disgust blossomed into a swell of rage. With a choked snarl, he started forward at a run, fists balled for a punch; but within two steps he was caught by a large hand, gentle yet strong, that reached out from between the store shelves and seized his shoulder.
“It’s not nice to talk about somebody else’s family like that.”
The voice that spoke those words was very young, its tone quiet and hard and faintly echoing… and it came from a gargantuan figure in steel armor that stepped to Ed’s side, glowering down at the stranger through the narrow eye slits of a menacing helmet.
The man who had given insult took a step back, mouth slightly open. For a moment he may have been trying to decide whether this apparition was a drunken hallucination. As he finally realized that what stood before his eyes was real, he snapped his jaw shut. He swallowed hard and tried to put on a sneer of contempt, but it was too late to hide the glimmer of fear in his eyes.
“Just what in the blazes are you?” he growled nervously.
Metal clattered as the armored interloper drew himself up to his full height. One gauntlet still rested on Ed’s arm, but at the same time the giant shifted his frame: placing himself halfway in front of Ed, in an unmistakably protective pose.
“I’m his other brother.”
That was enough for the stranger. His eyes widened, and he stumbled backward, almost falling over his own feet as he spun to make a bolt for the door.
“And good riddance!” Mr. Gowey shouted, hurrying from behind the counter to shake a fist after the man. Then he turned back to the Curtis children, wholeheartedly apologetic. “I’m sorry for that. He was just some drunken fool of a delivery man from the next town—but I can promise you, he won’t ever be welcome in my store again. A man like that’s too low to speak one word about your family!”
Shaya and Ronan both relaxed, smiling gratefully at their old friend for defending their family’s honor; but the tightness in Ed’s heart did not lessen. He looked away, red-faced and closed-fisted, biting the inside of his lip so hard it hurt.
At his side, steel plating scraped. His armored defender knelt down to face him at his eye level, resting broad leather hands on his shoulders.
“It’s okay, Ed. We’ve heard it all before.”
Edward shrugged restlessly. After a brief hesitation, he raised his eyes, glancing up at the unseen gaze of his older brother Alphonse.
“I wanted to tear that guy apart,” he muttered, and shamefacedly looked away. “I would have, if you hadn’t stopped me.”
Beside him, Shaya folded her arms and scowled. “What’s gotten into you lately? Two fights at school in the last month, getting mad at me and Ronan for no reason, and now this. You never used to be angry like this before—not even when people said stuff like that. Don’t tell me that’s because of your headaches, too.”
Al turned to her, exuding an invisible sternness through his steel. “Shaya—”
“No,” Ed interrupted brusquely, in answer to their sister. He pressed his hand to the dull throb in his temple. “I mean—it’s not completely that. I just…”
I just feel like I’m someone I’m not.
He thought those words, but he didn’t say them. He couldn’t expect his siblings to understand what he meant, when he didn’t even understand it himself. Shaking his head, he pulled free of Al’s gentle grip, his eyes still downcast.
“I just need to be alone for a while,” he said faintly, and ran out of the store.
* * * * *
A gust of wind off the lake ruffled Ed’s hair. He breathed deep, filling his lungs with the breeze. His headache was nearly gone, and he felt much calmer. On the island, he always did.
He sat straighter, thoughtfully sliding his fingers over his arms, down his legs, across the features of his face. His body was whole and healthy and strong, trained to peak condition under Mother’s guidance, and his face was handsome. On its own merits, he could like what he saw in the mirror each day… but he needed no idle talk from strangers to remind him that he looked nothing like his family. That fact was never very far from his awareness.
For as long as he could remember, he had been conscious that he was different. Where his parents and younger siblings were dark-haired, tall, and powerfully built, he was sunlight-fair, slender, and short for his age. Mother said his lightness was a recessive genetic trait that sometimes appeared on her side of the family. He accepted that, because he knew his mother and father both loved him, and would never lie to him; but he was only human, and it still hurt when people like that drunkard at the store would mutter speculations about his parentage.
It didn’t happen often. Dublith wasn’t a small town, but it also wasn’t large, and the Curtises had been known and respected there for years. Sig and Izumi were completely devoted to one another, a love they proudly displayed before the world. Anyone who had watched them for even a short time would laugh at the suggestion that one might stray from the other.
Still, Edward had heard that kind of talk before. In the past he had always followed Al’s example, and shrugged it off as idiocy from people who didn’t know any better, or whose lack of character in gossiping made their opinions not worth caring about anyway. What he hadn’t done was try to take a swing at such a gossiper… until today.
What’s wrong with me?
In the last several months, he had become increasingly quick-tempered. The smallest provocations would set him off. As Shaya had noted, his once-flawless record of behavior at school was now tarnished, and he was guilty of snapping at his younger siblings several times. He knew he couldn’t simply blame it all on his worsening headaches. There was no good reason for his moodiness, and his inability to explain it only upset him further.
Perhaps it was just a natural part of growing up. After all, he was fifteen years old. In that awkward interval between boy and man, it was only to be expected that his feelings would change along with his body… but somehow, that didn’t feel like the right answer.
Heaving a sigh, Ed swept his fingers up through his damp bangs, and brushed back his golden braid over his shoulder. For a brief moment, the thought of cutting his hair short crossed his mind, but he dismissed the idea just as quickly. Although wearing it long was sort of a nuisance at times, he knew Al liked it that way—and there was nothing he wouldn’t do to please his big brother.
No one in the world could ever come near to the special place Alphonse occupied in Ed’s heart. Not their younger siblings, or their cousins, or even their parents. As much as he loved them all, he cherished Al with a different kind of love that was almost painfully intense—and he wasn’t even sure why the feeling was so strong, because in some ways, there was so much that stood between them.
Al was twice his age: fifteen when Ed was born, and now thirty years old, an adult. This disparity meant that throughout Ed’s life, Al was as much a caretaker to him as a friend and playmate. It was a long-standing joke in the family that Al had sometimes been more of a parent to Ed than Mother and Father were… and yet, for all that, Ed had never seen Al’s true face. From his earliest memory, he knew his elder sibling only as the metal giant he was now, a gentle soul imprisoned in a fearsome shell of steel.
According to their parents and Al himself, the gifted young alchemist had tried to raise their dead grandmother through human transmutation, five years before Ed was born. This forbidden act brought horrific consequences: the forces of Equivalent Exchange had consumed his body, and he saved his own life only by sealing his soul within that antique suit of armor. He had existed in that form for twenty years now, unable to sleep or eat, deprived of taste and smell and, most sadly of all, the touch of those he cared about.
It hurt to think of all the things Al had lost, but he was not bitter. To the contrary, he was more at peace than anyone else Ed had ever known—because he was simply happy to be alive. After so long, physical sensations were only the dimmest shadow of a memory, things he had learned to be content without. To love and be loved by his family was enough.
Ed wanted to be like Al, peaceful and gentle and cheerful. For most of his life, he felt that he hadn’t done too badly at absorbing those qualities from his brother-hero—but his recent outbursts of temper could not have been farther from Al’s easygoing example.
The strangest thing was that the anger felt somehow familiar… but what was he angry at?
A sudden flare of pain erupted behind his eyes, sharp enough to make him groan between his teeth. He buried his head in his hands, clenching his fingers into his hair, and sucked in harsh breaths as the pulsing pain in his skull nauseated him.
Not here… It wasn’t supposed to happen here! Yock Island was his secret place, his shelter. No pain was ever supposed to intrude there; but this time it had, nonetheless.
Along with the sickening headache, there was another pain as well: a deep, dull throbbing in his right shoulder, his left thigh. It was there but not, undeniably felt, yet seeming to have no source. This ache had come a few times before, especially when he woke from bad dreams he could never quite remember, but this time it was a little bit keener.
He lowered his left hand from his head, reaching over to clutch his right arm… and for one fleeting instant, he had an inexplicably strange feeling when his grip closed upon soft flesh.
It was almost as if a part of him had expected to touch something else.
Startled and unsettled by that odd sense, Ed stumbled quickly to his feet. He rolled his shoulders, flexed his hands and arms, overcome by the sudden need to move. Perhaps it was a need to reassure himself that his muscles would still work—that everything was still there.
What is this?
After a few moments of pacing and stretching, the muscle twinges subsided. Although his headache lingered, the sharper stabs of pain slowly ceased. Still, his pulse was racing, and if there had been anything in his stomach just then, he didn’t think it would have stayed put. Somewhat shakily he knelt down at the edge of the shore, to splash cool water on his face.
Maybe Shaya is right. Maybe I do need a doctor. Maybe there’s something wrong inside my brain, making me feel things that aren’t real.
Edward shook away that thought with a physical shake of his head. He drew a deep breath and plunged into the water, deliberately splashing large, glistening drops into the sunlight.
Now he didn’t want to be alone.
The brisk exercise of the swim back from Yock Island did much to help relax Ed. By the time he reached the lakeshore, he felt almost like himself again—enough so that he felt a little foolish for his earlier alarm. Headaches were nothing new to him, and with all the strain he put his muscles through in swimming and running and sparring, he was bound to feel some occasional pains in his limbs. Surely it was nothing.
Of course not. Nothing at all.
The sun was sinking by then, casting long shadows from the wooden pier under which Ed had left his shoes. He retrieved them, and then dried his hair and clothes with alchemy, drawing the simple array in the sand.
He wished Mother would teach him how to transmute without a circle. She was the only alchemist he had known or even heard of who could do that, just by clapping her hands. He had begged her sometimes to show him the secret, but she refused to say anything about it, and he knew better than to press her when she said no. His only hope was that she was simply waiting for the right time; waiting for the day when she felt he was ready, his skills advanced enough to move on to that ultimate level of training.
It was only a short walk home from the lakeshore, but by the time Ed reached his doorstep, the sky was growing dark. The lights were out in the family butcher shop that adjoined the house. He felt a pang of guilt when he remembered that it had been his turn to help close up for the night. Mother would be displeased—and that prospect forced him to gather his nerves before he hesitantly crept inside.
Ronan was the only figure present in the living room, sitting hunched over his homework on the sofa. At the sound of the door, he rolled one eye upward from his book and stared fishily at Ed.
“You’re late for dinner. Mom’s not happy.”
“I know.” Ed squirmed. He couldn’t think of anything else to say, so when Ronan added no further comment either, he made his escape toward the stairs. At least he could wash up and change his clothes before he faced Mother’s fury.
The door of the room he and Al shared was open. Stepping into the doorway, he found Al at the desk, his helmet-cranium bent over a book in much the same way as their little brother downstairs.
It was an alchemy book. Even though Alphonse was himself a more skilled alchemist than Ed could dream of being—so gifted that he had once dared to believe he could return the dead to life—he still never stopped studying, learning, trying to be better. That dedication was part of what inspired Ed to become smarter and stronger, as well.
As for the other part…
Ed’s secret wish was that someday, he could find a way to give Al a body of flesh and blood again.
Al had never once expressed such a wish in words. He had been parted from his mortal body for so long, he rarely even seemed to think of the sensations he lacked. Even so, through the years, there were fleeting moments when Ed could sense his brother’s silent longing: a tender touch Al could not feel, a special meal he could not share, a fragrant flower he could not smell. Nothing would be more wonderful than if Ed could give it all back to him, watch him touch and taste the world again, as if for the very first time.
And besides that… Ed wanted to see his brother’s real face.
The family albums were full of childhood pictures of Ed himself, as well as Shaya and Ronan. Their lives were lovingly documented from birth. Alphonse appeared in those pictures too, exactly as he was now; but of the boy he had been twenty years in the past, there was no trace. The one time Ed hesitantly asked him about that, Al claimed to have destroyed every reminder of his flesh long ago, in an early fit of grief and anger over his loss. As a result, all Ed really knew about Al’s body—and that only from what Al told him—was that he too had been much fairer in coloring than their parents.
It was a strangely selfish ulterior motive—but Ed longed to witness the proof of that with his own eyes. If he could truly see that another of his siblings had been born different from the rest of their family, just like him, then…
Then the dubious mutterings of people like that man at Mr. Gowey’s store would never touch him again.
Al finally noticed Ed hovering in the doorway. He looked up, closing the book before him.
“Are you alright, Brother?”
He never addressed Ronan as Brother. Only Ed.
“…Yeah.” Ed ducked his head awkwardly, stepping into the room. “I had a headache earlier, but it’s gone now.” That was technically a lie; he still felt a nagging twinge behind his eyes, but at least it was light enough to ignore. “I’m sorry if I made you worry. I just… needed some time alone to think.”
Al said nothing. Instead, with a noisy scrape of steel, he pushed away from the desk and turned his cumbersome frame sideways on the chair. Then he simply reached out, enfolding Ed in his arms.
No teenage sense of dignity and self-sufficiency could keep Ed from welcoming the embrace with all his heart. Accustomed to being cradled in those arms since infancy, he never started at the coolness of metal, never felt discomfort from its hard edges. All he felt was the love. Not even in their mother’s arms did he feel so safe and cherished.
The hug lasted for a long, delicious moment… until Ed somehow heard himself saying something he didn’t mean to say at all.
“Al… aren’t there any pictures left of what you were like before?”
The words came out completely unbidden, and Ed wanted to kick himself the moment they left his lips. That one conversation about the subject in the past had seemed to sadden Al. The last thing he wanted was to repeat the mistake of needlessly upsetting his brother.
Slowly and gently, Al drew back, letting his gauntlets rest on Ed’s shoulders. The tilt of his helmet meant that he was pensively studying Ed’s face.
“I understand now.” He raised his left hand, brushing Ed’s right cheek with leather fingertips. “Don’t think any more about the things that man at the store said. You’re ours, Brother. All of ours—and you have been since before you were even born. I promise you that.”
Heat pricked at Ed’s eyes. Impulsively he turned his face, nuzzling his cheek against Al’s palm, and a soft laugh echoed under Al’s chestplate.
“You see? You used to do that when you were a baby.” Al’s voice was filled with warmth and affection. “If it wasn’t for alchemy, I’d still have the marks from your teething all over my hands. You nearly gnawed my fingers to pieces back then.”
Ed blushed and pulled away slightly, not quite able to meet Al’s gaze. “I’ve always been kind of a handful, haven’t I? …I’m sorry.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Brother.”
“It’s just—I don’t know why I’ve been feeling like this.” Now that Ed had begun to open himself up, he felt compelled to continue. “Nothing’s changed at all, but I feel like I don’t even know myself anymore… No, it’s not anymore. I feel like I’ve never known myself, and it doesn’t make any sense. What am I supposed to be that I’m not?”
For a moment Al met that question with silence, his hands still gently gripping Ed’s shoulders. His chin tipped down, almost imperceptibly, but Ed didn’t need even that tiny clue of body language to sense the melancholy that arose within his sibling.
“You’re growing up.” Al’s fingers squeezed a little tighter. “Whatever you’re going to be, it will be something wonderful—but promise me you won’t hide these feelings from me anymore, Ed. I need to know… you’re okay.”
With the last words there was something in Al’s voice, fragile and almost-broken, that Ed had never heard before; and yet, something about it was so very familiar. Something that stirred echoes of a pain shared between them both… but that didn’t make sense either, because never in his life had Ed really known pain at all.
Finding words inadequate to answer, Ed simply hugged Al again, clinging tighter than before.
He wasn’t sure he could promise to share this confusion in him that seemed to have no source. If he didn’t know the reason himself, surely no one else could help him understand it—and he didn’t want to worry Al or the rest of the family about something that was really nothing at all. He just wanted to resolve these baffling feelings on his own, and return his focus to the boundless goodness and potential of the life his loved ones had given him.
He wanted to move forward.
A renewed dagger of pain stabbed inside Ed’s skull, so suddenly that it made him flinch away from Al. He stifled a grunt and raised his hand to his eyes.
“Ed!—Your headache again?”
“Yeah.” Ed glanced up between his fingers, smiling a little sickly. “It’s just a flare-up. It’ll go away in a few minutes.”
It seemed as if Al was about to reply; but then he looked over Ed’s shoulder, toward the doorway. Ed turned to follow the gaze, and his head throbbed even more sharply as he saw Mother standing at the threshold, her arms folded over her chest.
Izumi Curtis’ beauty was that of a thundercloud, a force of nature. At over fifty years of age, she had the physique of a woman twenty years younger, toned by the same rigorous conditioning she required of her children. Her thick cords of dark hair showed very little gray. Over time, the only lines that had grown deeper on her faintly exotic face were laugh lines.
Somehow Ed suspected that when she was younger, Mother had laughed very little. During his lifetime, at least, that had changed. In all these years, surrounded by both the foolishness and the love of her children, her laugh would come freely and joyously…
But she wasn’t laughing now.
“Uhm… Mother.” Ed squirmed and rubbed his painful head, feeling his face turn red. “I’m—really sorry I’m late coming home. I don’t have any excuse for it. It’s just that I… wasn’t feeling very well, and I wanted to be by myself.”
Mother said nothing. She only stepped forward and took Ed firmly by the shoulders, pulling him into a hug that squeezed the breath out of him.
This was not at all the expected reaction to his transgression. Ed let out a small sound of perplexity; but Mother ignored the wordless question, letting go of him to look into his face.
“Since Shaya took your turn closing up the store, you’ll be doing her chores tomorrow—and then some,” she pronounced, with a sternness that somehow did not quite ring true as it usually did. “Your dinner is waiting. You’ll have the dishes to wash afterward, as well. Go on.”
Mystified, Ed could only bow his head in relieved acceptance of his punishment. He had expected to be given extra work, but he was glad not to have received a true scolding—or worse, an extra round of physical training. Even after a lifetime of practice, he could never escape a bout of sparring against Mother without bruises.
“Yes Ma’am,” he said obediently, and with one last puzzled glance at Al, he shuffled out of the room.
“How much did you overhear?” Alphonse asked quietly, as Edward’s footsteps retreated down the hall.
In the act of closing the bedroom door, Izumi paused for a long moment. At last her hand slipped from the doorknob, and she turned to face Al, her expression somber and conflicted.
“Enough.” There was the faintest suggestion of a catch in her voice. “It’s true, isn’t it? We weren’t mistaken about the signs we’ve seen in him, these past months. Somewhere in his subconscious… he’s beginning to remember.”
“…I’m not quite sure yet.”
Izumi’s gaze fell. Her hand passed very gently across her abdomen, where she had once carried the precious weight of Ed’s unborn life inside her; and Al knew she was remembering it all.
Wrath’s murderous rage on Yock Island, that final night. The light fading from Edward Elric’s golden eyes as he stared helplessly up at her, his lifeblood pouring from his chest. A high-pitched, animal scream of anguish from Wrath, as the monster-child truly realized what he had done—followed by lightning and pain as his hands fell upon her and Ed. Waking to find that while her body was once again whole, Ed seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth…
And the complete joy that followed the pain on another night, nine months later, when they discovered Edward was not really gone at all.
“I thought I’d be more ready—if the day ever came.” Izumi’s voice was quiet. “But now that I feel it may be near… I’m sorry, Al. I don’t want it to happen. I don’t want to lose my son.”
“Nothing can change the last fifteen years, Mother.” Al still called her Mother himself, even privately. After so long, it was an ingrained habit; a habit he had developed for Ed’s sake, to preserve the too-real illusion he lived for the brother who was his one true reality. “He is your son—and he always will be now. Even if he does remember our first mother someday, he won’t love you any less. Not after what you’ve been to him in this life.”
“And you, Al? How will you feel if he remembers?”
In spite of the circumstances, the question caught Al off guard. More than once over the years, he had considered what his answer might be, but now his thoughts were scattered. He was briefly silent, trying to collect them.
“Both of us would hurt.” He stared down at the floor, his leather fists clenching on his knees. “If he remembered the past—the promise he made to me—he’d hate himself for not being able to keep it. I don’t want that. It’s true that I miss being able to share the memories of when we were boys together, and all of the things we went through… but I’d rather keep those memories alone inside myself forever than see them take Ed’s happiness away.”
There was a heavy, aching silence before either of them moved.
This time, it was Izumi who hugged Al.
Only the emotion could communicate itself to his being. He couldn’t feel the strength of her arms around his not-neck, or the tickle of her long hair against his chestplate; and yet, when she pulled away from him at last, not meeting his gaze, he somehow knew she had left bright spots of tears on his steel.
“I don’t know which one of you has sacrificed more for the other. Edward, for losing what was his life… or you, for being willing to let that life remain lost.” She looked up at him slowly. Although her eyes glistened, her cool poise was recovered once more. “Sig and I promised that if the time ever came, the choices would be yours to make. That hasn’t changed.”
Al remembered very well that promise, and the gravely speculative discussions from which it arose, when Ed was merely a days-old infant in Izumi’s arms. At the time, there was no way to predict how this second life he had been given would unfold. Al knew from the first moment that his brother’s spirit was alive and intact: in some way, he could still feel it, as clearly as he felt his own. But were the memories of Edward Elric still bound within that spirit, waiting for maturity or future events to trigger them?
They had planned very carefully for that possibility… and the power to set that plan in motion rested with Alphonse.
“…I don’t want to do anything yet.” Al shook his head gently. “We still don’t know for sure. I’ll talk to Ed, over the next few days, and try to get a better idea of what’s going on in his mind and heart—but I don’t want to make anything happen that isn’t ready to happen anyway.”
He paused. “All the same, you might want to let Unc… I mean, General Mustang know.”
His correction of his words was self-consciously awkward. In the last fifteen years, other people besides Izumi had gained new names, as well; but when Edward or the younger siblings were absent, Al tried not to use the title by which they addressed Roy Mustang. Coming from him, it still didn’t feel quite right.
“I’ll call him in the morning,” Izumi agreed solemnly. “That way he can be prepared to come quickly, if… if we should want him soon.”
With that conclusion, the matter seemed to be settled—at least for the time being. After a moment of fragile silence had passed between them, Al rose to open the bedroom door for Izumi. “I’ll come down in a minute, and sit with Ed while he has dinner.”
“You’re not to help him with the dishes afterward.” Izumi tried to mock-glare at Al, but the trace of a pained smile betrayed her.
Al chuckled. “I know. Anyway, Shaya wanted to ask me some things about her latest alchemy lesson—and Ronan always needs help with his homework. I’ll have a busy evening.”
Izumi laid her hand on Al’s vambrace, looking up at him with a grateful affection that was undisguised. Then she brushed past his bulky form, to slip out the door and into the hall. He watched her as she moved toward the stairs.
She made it so easy to forget that, unlike his brother, he wasn’t really her son.
They all made it easy. Ed and Shaya and Ronan most of all, because they didn’t even know… and at this moment, Al wished with every ounce of his intangible soul-heart that they would never have to know. He wished nothing would ever take away the simple peace of the life they had shared. Looking back on the years of happiness that replaced only pain, he found it impossible to regret. Since the true beginning, the price he and his brother had paid was immeasurable: flesh and blood, years of misplaced time, even the very self-identity of the person Edward had once been. And yet, Al couldn’t help feeling it was ultimately worth the rewards that came in return, for everyone he loved.
One fact was a greater proof than any other. If their strange journey had not led to Izumi’s healing, Shaya and Ronan could never have been born—and Al couldn’t imagine his life without them now. They too were his beloved sister and brother, in spirit if not in flesh; and flesh, after all, had been a moot point for Al for a very long time.
Tomorrow he would begin to weigh the possibilities of what might be yet to come. For now… for just one more night, he wasn’t going to think about the past, or the specter of its intrusion upon the future. For now he would spend the evening with all three of his younger siblings, so innocent of the secrets that had given them their lives. He would sit and talk about the nothings of the day as he watched Ed enjoy Mother’s cooking—and then undoubtedly sneak in to help him dry the dishes, in spite of what Mother had said. After that, he would draw transmutation circles with Shaya, and help Ronan figure out math problems. And later, as he had for more than these fifteen years, he would carry Ed to bed, when Brother inevitably fell asleep over his own alchemy books in the living room.
Feeling a wistful smile somewhere deep inside himself, Al went to join his family.
CHAPTER II: Who We Love
In the morning, Edward awakened without pain. His latest headache had passed. He kicked off the blankets and stretched languorously, staring up at the ceiling as he collected his first thoughts of the day.
Now that a night’s sleep had settled his emotions, his upset over the incident at the store seemed forgettably foolish to him. It was no different from any of the ignorant whispers he had heard before in his life—and just as meaningless.
He knew the truth. He knew who he was, and where he had come from.
Drowsily Ed gazed around his bedroom in the soft dawn light. The bed opposite his own was empty. That was normal; Alphonse still spent his nights there, reading or simply resting his ever-wakeful mind, but he always went downstairs to begin the day’s chores long before anyone else woke up. He worked with humble happiness, and his cheerful morning greetings in the kitchen started each day joyfully.
Preparing breakfast was one of the duties Al claimed for himself—and in spite of his own inability to eat, he had somehow managed to become an excellent cook. The thought of his pancakes and bacon was enough to hasten Ed’s waking. The teenager rolled out of bed, dressed quickly, and left his room, twining his long hair into its usual braid as he followed enticing aromas down the stairs.
Sometimes Ed wondered why his voracious appetite hadn’t put more meat on him… or more height, for that matter. Ronan had not yet begun to develop the dense build common to men of their family, but he was already as tall as Ed, and Shaya was more than an inch taller. Once again, Mother simply attributed Ed’s slightness to a genetic quirk. He accepted it with fairly good grace, but still—and increasingly, over the last few months—he felt it was a disappointing annoyance.
He told himself his small size was a part of what made him much quicker and more agile than his younger siblings. They never could beat him in the physical contests Mother put them through. His prowess came naturally to him; his body just seemed to know the elegant, effective moves he performed before they were ever taught to him, and sometimes without being taught them at all.
“Good morning!” Al welcomed him brightly as he stepped into the kitchen. The armored giant carefully set a stack of plates on the counter, and came forward to squeeze Ed’s shoulders fondly. “How do you feel?”
Ed grinned up at him. “Great! …Hungry. What are we having?”
Al cuffed Ed playfully on the arm. “I know you don’t really have to ask. You can smell it.” He turned to the stove and picked up the skillet that sizzled on it, showing Ed a light, fluffy apple pancake. “I hope it’s alright. I haven’t made these in a while… Winry is better at it.”
“It looks perfect!” Ed helped himself to half of an apple sitting unattended on the cutting board, and moved into the dining room, continuing to speak with Al through the doorway. “How is Winry, anyway? She hasn’t come by in a few days.”
“Actually, she did yesterday, while you were in school. She’s been busy with work—and she said her morning sickness has been a little rough on her this week.”
With that statement, the conversation encroached upon bizarre female matters that Ed found completely alien. He let the subject lapse, smiling at Al as his brother set a heaping plate before him, and was just about to dig in when his father strode into the room.
Sig Curtis truly couldn’t have looked any more different from Ed. He was a dark, hairy man-mountain, crags of bronzed muscle piled one upon another, towering almost as tall as Al. To any stranger, he would look frightening; but his children knew that under his foreboding exterior, he was the tender-hearted one of their parents. He had spent all of their lives quietly spoiling them behind his wife’s back.
“Morning, Father.” Ed rose from his chair. Standing when one of his parents entered the room was not one of the many good manners he had been taught, but he always did it anyway, because he genuinely respected them both that much.
“Hrm,” Father rumbled deeply. It didn’t sound like a friendly noise at all—but the way he put his hand out and affectionately tousled Ed’s hair was the true expression of his feelings. He was a man whose actions more than made up for his few words.
“I have to meet with some of the farmers we buy from today,” he informed Al, as he poured a cup of strong black coffee. “You’ll mind the store until I get back?”
“Yes sir.” Al fidgeted loudly. “I just hope Mrs. Soper doesn’t come in today, then. Her little girl’s only two, and still kinda scared of me…”
“Good morning.” Mother’s velvet voice preceded her into the room. She greeted them each in turn, patting Al’s arm, kissing Father… and then she came to Ed’s side, to put her arm around his shoulders. “Do you feel better today?”
First Al, and now Mother. Ed blushed and twitched in her half-embrace, embarrassed by the concern he was attracting. “Yeah, just fine! Really. It’s only a headache I’ve been having—and I don’t even have it now.”
Mother pulled away from him. She looked into his face, with the unmistakable expression of hers that said she knew better, but that she wasn’t going to press the issue just yet. Her hand lingered on his shoulder for a moment as she sat down next to him, prompting him to reclaim his own seat.
“Well then, if you are feeling alright, I have a small errand for you. Winry has been having trouble with morning sickness—something I know a little about.” She smiled wryly. “I asked Doctor Lang to prepare a medicine of his that worked for me. He dropped it off here yesterday evening. Will you take it to Winry’s shop on your way to school?”
“Yeah—sure.” Ed nodded. “I’d like to see her, anyway.”
“Should I get Shaya and Ronan up for breakfast?” Al queried, as he set the platter of pancakes on the table.
“Not yet. Let them sleep a little longer.” Mother smiled—a bit ruefully, Ed thought—before turning to him again, with a softness in her eyes that he did not often see. “For now I want to have this time with you, Ed. We haven’t had much chance to talk lately… so this morning, I want to change that.”
Really, it was all rather strange.
For the next half-hour, Ed somehow managed to converse with Mother about mere trivialities, avoiding the subject of the troubled emotions he had lately been feeling. It wasn’t easy. Several times, he got the sense that she was fishing for exactly that—but he didn’t want to talk about it. Not with her, or really with anyone now, since he had resolved to ignore it for the nothing it was.
When he left the house with Shaya and Ronan, carrying a paper-wrapped parcel that was the medicine he had been tasked with delivering, he was still pondering Mother’s unusually tender behavior.
Mother loved him deeply, just as she loved his siblings. He had always known that—but the ways she expressed that love were ordinarily quite subtle. She didn’t cling or hover, as so many mothers did. She raised her children with a firm, wise hand, teaching them from a young age to be strong and independent, and trusted them to come to her when they truly needed her strength beyond their own. They appreciated the freedom that trust afforded them, and returned it by readily seeking her guidance and quiet comfort when they did face a problem they couldn’t resolve for themselves.
Now, however, Mother’s unwonted display of concern made Ed a little nervous. He had chosen not to share his feelings because he was sure they were just a contrary teenage phase. He expected her to let him work it out on his own, as always; but her discreet probing into the matter made him feel as if she was no longer trusting him to do that.
Or perhaps, adding the gradual onset and increase of his headaches into the equation…
Did Mother think there really was something physically wrong with him?
The thought frightened Ed. Could there be something they had never told him about the “genetic quirk” that made him so different from the rest of the family—something that would actually affect his health?
…No. It couldn’t be that. He had been perfectly healthy all his life, and he still was. He couldn’t be so active and athletic if there was really any illness lurking in him.
“Ed! We’re here!”
Startled out of his disturbing thoughts, Ed looked up to realize he had almost walked straight past the shop that was his destination. Shaya and Ronan had both paused beneath its striped awning, and were looking at him: she with a frown on her lips and hands on her waist, and he with wide-eyed bemusement.
“Oh! Sorry. I was just—thinking.” Ed blushed and stepped back to them, awkwardly tugging at the strap of his book bag.
Shaya rolled her eyes. “You’ve been thinking way too much lately, if you ask me.”
Ed smiled wanly, and regarded his younger siblings for a moment, feeling a faint pang in his heart for no reason he could name.
Although the much older Alphonse held the deepest place in his heart, Shaya and Ronan were his childhood playmates in ways Al could never be. It was because they were so much closer to his age… and, admittedly, because they were flesh instead of steel. They could swim with him, whereas Al could only sit on the shore and watch them in the water. They could climb trees that would never hold Al’s weight. They could play games of dress-up and pretend that Al’s large, cumbersome form could not. Sometimes they even got into childish fights with him, too; a rite of passage Ed had never shared with Al, given their elder brother’s maturity in both age and temperament.
The two younger Curtises were quite different from one another. Shaya was growing to be a very studious, responsible young lady—albeit a little bit bossy at times. Ronan was much more laid-back, with a short attention span and a clownish sense of humor. Ed loved the qualities they both added to his life. His sister kept him focused, while his brother reminded him not to take himself too seriously.
His recent moodiness was trying their patience as much as anyone’s, he knew. Lately, things hadn’t been the way they used to be. They just wanted him to be the older brother he had always been before: a clever and even-tempered leader in misadventures, old enough to look out for them, but still young enough to share their wonder and fun.
“…Thanks,” he said to them, very softly, and he wasn’t at all sure why he said it.
Ronan squinted at him. “For what?”
“Just… for being here. For being who you are.” Ed’s blush darkened a little more. He scratched his fingers awkwardly through his hair, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “I don’t mean to sound weird. It’s only…”
He couldn’t find any words suitable to complete that sentence, to explain his strange mood. Fortunately, he didn’t need to. Ronan wasn’t likely to think about this moment for longer than the next two minutes—and Shaya thought Ed had been acting weird for months anyway. He knew they would both let it pass.
But a part of him did hope the sincerity of his feelings would linger in their hearts, even if they forgot the words.
He was spared from making any more of a fool of himself. A crowd of Shaya and Ronan’s schoolmates ran past them, laughing, trailing bright paper streamers in their wake from the decorations they had made for a birthday party. One girl stopped to call out to the Curtis children before rushing after the others.
“Go on ahead,” Ed told Shaya and Ronan warmly. “I’ll give this medicine to Winry, and follow you in a few minutes.”
His siblings were quick to agree to this plan. Smiling, they hurried off after their friends. Ed watched them for a long moment… and then he let out a sigh, reluctantly turning to face the shop door that read CURTIS AUTOMAIL in bold red letters.
Edward loved his cousin Winry. She was a Curtis only by marriage—the wife of Father’s nephew Mason—but she had been a part of their lives for as long as he could remember, having stayed with them to help Mother since before he was born. He was fairly sure that when he was very little, he’d had a crush on her. She was beautiful and good-hearted, and in spite of her occasional flashes of temperament, she always treated Ed with a special tenderness. Besides that, having her around meant he wasn’t the only blonde in the family, which was nice.
What he didn’t love, however, was Cousin Winry’s profession… because automail gave Ed the creeps.
He didn’t know why it was so. In his familiarity with Winry and her patients, he had seen firsthand the great value of her work: the way it made crippled people almost-whole again, allowed them to live essentially ordinary lives. It was noble and compassionate, and he respected that.
Nevertheless, just being around automail gave him a squirming, unnerved feeling he could never quite define. It wasn’t fear or disgust, as some people felt, at the idea of having machines in place of flesh and blood. His reaction was even more irrational and baseless than that. Looking at the polished prosthetics on their racks in the shop, or the jumbles of parts half-formed in the shape of human limbs on Winry’s work table, was somehow like seeing ghosts… or the terribly clichéd feeling of having one’s grave walked upon.
Ed was inclined to believe that as a small child, his first sight of those inanimate metal person-parts had frightened him, and now he still carried the scar of that reaction in some primal recess of his subconscious. It was the only sensible explanation. After all, he wasn’t the kind of person to be bothered by things when he could see no logical reason to be bothered.
…Not that anyone would know that from his recent behavior, of course.
There wasn’t much time left before class. Taking a deep breath, Ed gathered his nerves, and stepped into the shop.
Creepy. So creepy…
Dozens of steel arms and legs were on display in the front showroom. They were lined up in the window for passersby to see, or they rested on satin cushions in glass cases—or more disturbing still, they simply hung on racks at the back of the room, like some kind of metallic parodies of the meat in his parents’ butcher shop. Ed couldn’t bring himself to see the intricacy and beauty of their construction, as Winry did. She prided herself on how perfectly they matched the form of the limbs they replaced; but to Ed, that imitation was somehow too perfect, too insidiously deceptive.
His breakfast unexpectedly turned over in his stomach. Gulping hard, he hurried through the doorway that led to the back of the shop, in search of his cousin.
The next room was Winry’s workshop—and it really wasn’t any better to see the gutted, half-constructed prosthetics that littered the counters, the shelves, and even the floor. Ed leaned against the wall and took slow breaths, fixing his gaze firmly on the battered old wrench that lay on Winry’s work table.
She was always carrying that thing around. When he was little and she had lived with his parents, he used to see her sleeping with it, the same way his sister slept with her beloved stuffed frog. To this day, Winry still even talked to the wrench, telling it what she was trying to do with it, or demanding that it cooperate. Sometimes Ed thought she was more than a little crazy… but for all that, he didn’t love her any less.
He jumped when a curtain rustled at his left, and Winry emerged through the doorway behind it. Her five-year-old son Yuri trailed along in her wake, clinging to the belt loop of her frayed khaki coveralls. That garment was unbuttoned above her hips, to allow for the weight of another burgeoning new life—her third child—that showed plainly under her black tank top.
“Oh—Ed! When did you sneak in here?” Without too much awkwardness from the burden inside her, Winry hurried forward to give Edward a hug. He welcomed it gladly, returning it with his right arm, while he laid his left hand fondly on Yuri’s head.
“I just came in.” Ed squirmed out of Winry’s grip and reached into his book bag, withdrawing the parcel he was to deliver. “Mother asked me to bring you this. It’s some medicine from Doctor Lang, for your morning sickness. How are you feeling?”
“Thanks,” Winry said warmly, accepting the package. She ran her free hand through her hair; it was once long, but she had cut it to shoulder-length when Yuri, as a toddler, had introduced her to the unpleasantness of its being pulled at by grabby little fingers. “I feel pretty good right now—lucky for me, because I have a lot to do. A patient is coming in for surgery to connect his port this afternoon, and Sarah’s been fussy. I just fed her and put her down for a nap.” She nodded toward the curtained-off room that served as a nursery for her children during the work day.
“You need babysitting later?” Ed offered, idly setting down his book bag, so that Yuri could plop down on the floor and burrow curiously into its contents. Most likely searching for candy—a bad habit Ronan had taught him.
Winry shook her head. “Nah, we’ve got it covered. Mason’s going to take the kids home early. I just needed his help with some metalwork this morning.”
“Where is he now?”
The mechanic grinned and planted her hands on her hips, with a gleam in her eye that Ed remembered from her two previous pregnancies.
“Oh. Right. Breakfast.” He chuckled. “Ice cream again?”
“Actually, I’ve been craving broccoli this time. I don’t know.” Winry laughed, patting her belly and the child-to-be inside it. “I just hope that means this one won’t have Yuri’s sweet tooth!”
Ed couldn’t help smiling at Winry’s unaffected joy. She loved motherhood, and it suited her beautifully.
“Okay, then. I’d better get going. I have to get to school.” Ed gently disengaged Yuri’s hands from a history book containing exciting pictures of horses and battles. He stuffed the book into his bag, and then straightened to look up at Winry once more. “You’ll come around to our place soon, won’t you? …I haven’t seen you very much lately.”
“And whose fault is that, Mr. Spending-Every-Minute-Studying? I’ve been visiting as much as ever—but you haven’t been there.”
The gentle admonishment made Ed squirm. On the increasingly frequent occasions when he strayed to Yock Island or some other isolated spot, to be alone with his headaches and his restless feelings, it seemed Winry believed he was off studying instead.
“…Yeah. I’ll try to catch you next time.”
Winry’s expression softened abruptly. She reached out, laying her hands on Ed’s shoulders. Her blue eyes sought his amber ones.
“Thanks, Ed. Really. I know you’re not very comfortable coming here… but I’m glad you did.”
A blush threatened to spill across Ed’s cheeks again. He ducked his head, settling the strap of his book bag more securely on his shoulder. His eyes did not quite manage to meet hers.
“Well, Mother asked me—and I wanted you to get that medicine as soon as possible. I hope it works for you.”
“I’m sure it will. Thank your mother for me too, okay?”
“Sure.” Ed succeeded in raising his eyes, if only briefly. He pointed toward the doorway with his thumb. “I’d better go…”
He turned to leave, preparing himself for a rapid retreat through the main room with its collection of unsettling machine-limbs; but the first step only led to a collision, as a wall of flesh and bone and faded denim work clothes thrust itself into the doorway.
“Oh! Hey!” A broad hand planted itself firmly on the top of Edward’s head, tousling his hair with all the gentleness of a grizzly. “What are you doing here, kiddo?”
A part of Ed felt a wave of warm fondness—even as a fuming spark of irritation flashed somewhere deeper down. For some reason, his reaction to Mason had always been weirdly conflicted.
“Hey, Mason.” He jerked his head out from underneath his cousin’s palm, and looked up at him. “Just dropping something off for Mother.”
Mason smiled. The dark-haired young man was nearly as large and muscular as his uncle—Ed’s father, Sig—but his easygoing friendliness made him far less intimidating. He had quit working for Father in the butcher shop nine years earlier, after his marriage to Winry, to become her partner in the automail business instead. Although he still couldn’t perform the delicate engineering of the inner mechanisms, he could handle the heavier and more laborious metalwork; and when he wasn’t doing that, he looked after their children himself. Like his wife, he loved raising his family more than anything else.
Winry came forward to greet her husband. Ed fidgeted, glancing away, as the couple snuggled and kissed.
“Did you get it?” Winry asked eagerly.
Mason grinned, holding up a paper-wrapped bundle of broccoli. “Fresh off the farm. They were just unloading it when I got to the market.”
Letting out an inarticulate squeal, Winry seized the vegetables and vanished in the direction of the shop’s small kitchen, before the two males in the room had the chance to say a word.
“…Huh. If she wasn’t pregnant, it’d take chocolate to get that reaction,” Mason chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. “Well, either that or a trip to the hardware store… Guess I’d better go cook that up for her before she eats it raw. You want to stay for breakfast, Ed? I’d promise not to make you eat any broccoli, but Win’s going to eat it all anyway, so you’re safe.”
“Uh… no thanks.” Ed took a backwards half-step toward the doorway. “I’ll be late for class if I don’t get out of here. See you around, though.”
With a grin and an affable wave of his hand, Mason drifted off after Winry, and Ed turned to make his way out of the shop.
In the outer room, morning sunlight poured through the plate-glass windows, casting a brilliant white glare on a hundred steel surfaces—and that bad feeling was back again. Ed hurriedly slunk past the lifeless automail limbs in their cases, trying not to look at them.
The reflected light hurt his eyes. It obscured and distorted the details of the prosthetics until they seemed to move at the corner of his vision, grasping, groping…
Changing to an inky, writhing blackness as they reached for him.
A violent burst of pain struck Ed inside the skull like a physical blow. He stumbled, muffling a sharp groan into his fist, and tried to regain his balance with a quick shift of his weight; but his left leg failed him, with a painful throb of its own. He tumbled to the floor, upsetting a display stand beside the door that crashed noisily somewhere behind him. Another, equally familiar ache twisted like a knife within his right shoulder, completing the descent of his entire being into torment.
Yet this wasn’t like before… because he knew, with every fiber of his being, that not all of this experience was even real.
The distraction of the physical agony was not even enough to make those shadow-hands in his mind go away. He shut his eyes, but he could still feel them, caressing icily across his skin like death itself. Tears leaked from underneath his eyelids as he clawed at the floor, whimpering like a child, trying to crawl away from their phantom grasp.
The voice seemed to come from a different world altogether. He was suddenly conscious of true touch, of movement around and over him. The black hands slithered away into nonexistence as he was lifted in powerful arms.
He must have faded out of consciousness for a minute or two. When he came to his senses, he was lying on a couch in the nursery room, with Winry and Mason looking down upon him anxiously. Little Sarah was crying in her crib, while Yuri stood in the corner, chewing on the edge of his shirt and looking frightened.
“…Geeze.” Mason breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Ed’s open eyes, reaching out to smooth the teenager’s sweat-damp hair. “You gave us a scare, kiddo. What happened?”
Ed shook his head minutely against the pillow that had been stuffed under it. Although the aches in his shoulder and thigh had subsided to a twinge, the pain inside his skull was still roaring. It was making his eyesight a little hazy… along with the tears still caught in his eyelashes. He reached up hastily to scrub them away with the back of his right hand.
And there it was again: the feeling that the softness of flesh there was somehow wrong.
Quickly he jerked upright, not caring that it caused a particularly sickening throb in his head. All he wanted was to move, just as he had when that haunting sensation came to him before on the island. He ran his hands over his body, his face, his limbs, lingering in the places where the aches came. His fingers found nothing but firm, smooth skin.
Frozen in the act of reaching down to pick Sarah up from the crib, Winry watched him; but he never noticed the darkness in her eyes.
“…It was one of the headaches I’ve been having,” Ed partially confessed at last. His mouth was dry. He swallowed, rather unsatisfactorily, and gave a small shrug of his shoulders. “It just hit me really fast, out of nowhere. That’s all. I’m alright now.”
Mason frowned. “I don’t know. Maybe we’d better call Doc Lang. You’re pale as a ghost—and you’re still shaking.”
Glancing down at his hands in his lap, Ed realized they were indeed trembling. He clasped them together tightly, determined not to show Winry and Mason his fear.
“No,” he insisted, and then tried to soften his obstinacy by forcing a wan smile. “I mean… yeah, I guess I should go to the doctor about these headaches, but I’ll talk to Mother and Father about that later. I’m fine now, so I just want to get to school. I have a big test today.”
The words were nothing more than an excuse. Ed didn’t want to lie to his anxious cousins—but the truth was that he had no intention of seeing a doctor just yet. After that hallucination or whatever it may have been, he was terrified of learning that something really was wrong with him. He knew that finding out, and getting prompt treatment if necessary, was the reasonable thing to do; but everything in him just wanted to deny the things happening inside him until they went away. It was a childish impulse, but he couldn’t bring himself to go against it.
Surely this would all pass, even after such a serious incident. It had to… because somehow, instinctively, he was even more afraid of knowing why he had imagined those black hands than he was of seeing them again.
Winry studied Ed for a long moment. He thought her eyes were shining just a little too damply. At length she passed Sarah into Mason’s arms, and reached out to grip Ed’s shoulders with her strong mechanic’s hands, so tightly that it hurt.
“You had better talk to your parents,” she warned him harshly, although there was a slight quiver in her voice. “Because you don’t want them to hear it from me first.”
Knowing Mother and Father’s expectations of openness from their children, that was a perfectly valid threat. Ed gulped, nodded, and slid off of the couch, getting his legs underneath him with only a small wobble. The pain in his head was starting to diminish, at least.
Someone, probably Winry, had picked up his book bag and brought it into the room with him. He bent down to gather it up, hugging it in front of his chest like a protective shield.
“Would you mind if I go out the back door this time?” he asked, in a ridiculously small and nervous voice.
Mason exchanged a rather uncertain glance with Winry, but she nodded and took Sarah from him. Accepting her judgment, he strode forward, with a gesture for Ed to follow.
“Are you sure it was a good idea to let him go without seeing the Doc?” Mason asked skeptically, after he had returned from letting Edward out through the back door.
Winry was seated on the edge of the couch, with their daughter on her knees and their son sitting at her feet. Her gaze was downcast, fixed on Sarah’s small fingers, as the drowsy child tugged at the buttons of her coveralls.
“…I don’t think what’s happening to Ed is something a doctor can fix.” She looked up at Mason, revealing tear-trails from the moisture that had finally escaped from her eyes. “You saw the way he looked at himself after he woke up. It was like he almost didn’t expect all the parts of him to be where they belonged… and you heard him before that.”
Mason’s lips twisted thoughtfully. “Well… he was kicking and screaming pretty bad for a minute there. I couldn’t make much out of it. I’m not completely sure we heard what we thought we heard.”
“I am. And I ought to know. I used to hear that same sound twenty years ago, at Granny’s. After… when he had nightmares.” Winry closed her eyes, shivering. “That was Al’s name he called out. And the automail… You know how he’s always felt about it. I should’ve realized that seeing it here might—remind him someday.”
“You really think he’s starting to remember?”
“He’s been different lately. I hadn’t noticed it myself, but Izumi and Al told me about it. I didn’t make the connection then, but now I see… they both already saw it coming.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have let him go off alone,” Mason reflected, kneeling in front of Winry to meet her eyes. He gently tousled Yuri’s hair as the boy scooted over to lean against him—still spooked by their cousin’s fit of unwellness.
“I don’t know. I just felt like we should let him keep to his usual routine for now. After all, it was a little out of the ordinary for Ed to come here. If he goes on with his normal day, maybe nothing else will upset him, and he’ll be fine… at least, until he gets home. Then Al can talk to him.” A painful smile crossed Winry’s lips. “Nobody else will know better than Al about what to do.”
“But you’re going to call Izumi and let her know what happened, right?”
“Of course I am. It’s obvious Ed won’t. But they need to know… so they can decide what’s next.”
Shifting Sarah into one arm, Winry reached for Mason’s hand. He stood, helped his child-heavy wife to rise from the couch, and then reclaimed their sleeping daughter, to tuck her back into the crib.
“It’s okay now, sweetie,” he whispered. He glanced over his shoulder as Winry moved off to the front room and the telephone, to report the morning’s troubling events to a woman who loved as a parent herself.
“…At least, it is for us.”
CHAPTER III: Who Was He
By the time Ed escaped from Winry’s shop, he was on track to be thoroughly late for class—and he hadn’t been lying when he said there was an important test ahead of him that day. He grumbled internally as he ran down the street, the exertion making his still-lingering headache beat harder.
Now he was a little more angry than scared over the inexplicable panic attack that had so delayed him. It was becoming impossible to deny that something weird was going on inside him, whether the root cause was mental or physical… but whatever it was, it was just so stupid. Nothing should be disrupting his world like this. Everything should simply have been normal, the way it was before.
He didn’t have time to be sick… or crazy. His life was too full to let headaches and waking bad dreams interfere with it. He had studying to do, and chores at his parents’ shop to perform; for that matter, extra chores today, after his delinquency of the previous evening. He had family to spend time with, friends to visit, alchemy to practice.
He had Al’s real body to get back someday.
It was the only way it would ever happen. Al was so uncomplaining, so accepting of his fate, that the idea would never even occur to anyone else in the family. Only Ed had ever considered it—so he had to be the one to learn how.
An especially piercing throb shot through Edward’s head, causing him to stumble to a stop on the street corner. He clutched his forehead and frowned at himself, wondering why he had just thought those words so clearly.
Ed never had made any promise to restore Al’s flesh and blood. Al didn’t even know he nurtured that desire in his heart—and probably would have dismissed or even discouraged it if he did. Besides that, Ed knew better than to promise something so incredible. If Mother and Al knew of no way to undo Al’s condition, what were the chances that he would ever find one, when his abilities might never be as good as theirs?
His emotions contorted again. Suddenly his anger was directed at himself and his own limitations, instead of the phantom ailment that assailed him. The feeling was not unfamiliar. In fact, it was strangely much like the sourceless, frustrated ire that had been randomly welling up in him for months, for no apparent reason.
Was this the reason? All along, had his anger come from this sense of inadequacy he found buried deep down inside him?
No matter the cause, the timing of this mood swing was particularly bad. The anger made him irritable, and the irritability made him lose focus. It made him self-consciously withdraw from others, so that no one would set off an irrational flare of the temper he didn’t even mean to display—and his academic performance suffered for it all. Not what he needed on a morning when he had a major test to take.
By this point, it was clear that his day just wasn’t going to get any better.
With a short, sharp movement, he lowered his hand from his head, striking his fist against his thigh in futile aggravation. Then he looked up at the clock tower of the bank across the street, and stifled a snarl between his teeth. He was even later than he had thought.
The only remedy was to take the straight line that was the shortest distance between two points. Instead of following the sidewalks to school as usual, he could cut across the next block at an angle, weaving his way between the backs of several businesses. That would shave a couple of minutes off his time, at least.
Resolved, Ed turned to the left. He climbed over a chain-link fence behind a café, leaving behind the sunlight that fell on Dublith’s broad main road, to set off down a much dimmer and narrower driveway used by delivery trucks. The rear doors of several stores and restaurants faced this grimy lane on both sides, most of them flanked by reeking garbage cans and stacks of wooden pallets. It wasn’t picturesque, but it was a more direct route to Ed’s destination, used by him in the past when various crises with his younger siblings belated him.
In spite of the rank smells, the softer light soothed Ed’s eyes, which in turn helped ease his headache. He picked up speed, skipping over oily puddles and littered trash, and began to feel a surge of optimism. This would be alright. At the rate he was going, he would only be a minute or two behind schedule.
Next his course required a right turn, down a particularly narrow and dirty alleyway between the rear walls of a couple of empty storefronts. Without slowing, he sprinted around the blind corner… and skidded to a halt as he nearly collided with something.
Or rather, someone. The hunched figure moved, startled by Ed’s intrusion, and quickly straightened to an impressive height—not quite as tall as Father, but almost. A hooded cloak of coarse brown fabric obscured the face at first, but as the stranger turned to look at Ed, he saw a man’s features. Deep crags and scars were cut into leathery skin; an iron-gray mustache and chin grizzle matched the errant strands of hair that hung down over an eyepatch. The visible left eye was a deep hazel-green, staring back at Ed with a wolfish fury.
“You…!” the stranger breathed slowly, his one eye widening.
Ed felt as if his head would explode from the sudden detonation of pain inside it. Choking off a cry, he fell back a step and clutched at his skull with both hands, as baffling images and sensations rushed through his consciousness.
The swaying of a train… The sharp smell of gunpowder… The ricochet of bullets against metal…
The face of that man, glowering with the same rage… but many years younger.
Along with this new hallucination, the aches reignited in Ed’s shoulder and thigh, more intensely than ever before. He gasped and reeled away from the stranger, only to slip on the slimy bricks, going down hard on his backside.
Then, from that changed perspective, Ed saw past the edge of the man’s cloak, and glimpsed what lay behind him.
An open purse and its scattered contents. A slender hand, limp and pale, outstretched as if pleading for help that never came. Long brown hair that spilled down in a tangle, concealing the face of its owner… but not hiding the savage red-black marks imprinted on her neck by crushing fingers.
A child in an alley like this, clinging and shrieking as he was dragged away, tearing off the sheet from his mother’s mutilated remains.
A familiar face that resonated with feelings of love, framed with brown hair just like that—but twisted into an unrecognizable mask above a tortured, inside-out horror of a body…
It was an utterly primal sound, born in mortal terror, ripped from the blackest and most unknown depths of his being. The pain in his head and limbs spiraled to an entirely new level, but at the same time, it was suddenly nothing—compared to the blind madness of the animal compulsion to run.
To escape from the murderer in front of him… and the bewildered agony inside of him.
He didn’t even know how he got on his feet. Fueled by instincts of self-preservation, his body simply went into overdrive, with no conscious direction from his mind. All he knew after that was running, and the heavy booted steps pounding behind him as the killer gave chase.
“You! Get back here!”
The bellowed demand sounded close enough to have been right in Ed’s ear, as the footsteps fell ever closer in his wake. Not only his head, but also his chest felt as if it would burst from the exertion and fear; but he pushed himself to run even harder. It would be better to drop dead from a failed heart than to die with this monster’s hands around his throat, the way that woman had died.
If he could just reach the open street beyond the maze of alleyways—then he would be safe. There would be passersby there, who could hear him call out for help. Witnesses, to whom the murderer would not dare show his face.
The wooden gate at the end of the alley was shut and padlocked. Ed gathered himself to leap, to vault over it…
At that moment, a powerful fist seized the back of his shirt, nearly jerking him off of his feet.
Ed screeched, twisted away, and heard a sound of fabric tearing as it slipped from the killer’s grasp. With his momentum suddenly unrestrained, he lost his balance and stumbled forward, skidding onto his knees a few steps beyond his assailant. Equally overbalanced, the killer went down on one knee as well, snarling out a sharp oath.
Desperately Ed dug his nails into the cracks between the paving bricks to pull himself upright. Even as he moved, he heard the scrape of boots behind him. The killer was far quicker than his bulky figure suggested. He lurched to his feet, and Ed smelled a gust of foul breath as a reaching shadow fell over him.
Everything seemed to slow down then, veiling the things that came next in a dreamlike twilight.
As Ed braced his body to push himself up and keep running, that hand closed over his shoulder and shoved him back down, forcing his own hands out from under him. His chin hit the ground so hard that his vision went almost black, shot through with bright sparks.
Dozens, hundreds of unblinking eyes, staring out from the depths of an eternally hungry, grasping darkness…
Ed moved beneath the menacing figure that loomed over him. His hands struck together, palm to palm, and he reached up toward the closest of the walls that bounded the alley’s narrow space.
Somewhere above him, there was a flash of light, followed by a thud and a yell.
The grip of the killer’s savage hand went away. The clinging apparitions in Ed’s mind did not—and now, they were what he ran to escape from.
Running. Running forever, perhaps. Mindlessly, sobbing, screaming; body and soul both wracked with unspeakable pain. Blind to the broken crates and garbage cans he stumbled over, numb to the cuts and bruises he received. All he saw was those eyes, and the grasping talons in the blackness, without one speck of light ahead to show him the way out.
He didn’t know when he stopped running, when he fell. He didn’t know when it all disappeared in the blessed nothing of unconsciousness.
That gentle voice pierced the blackness like sunlight, as familiar leather fingers stroked Ed’s cheek. The cool hardness of steel was under him and around him, in the form of huge arms that cradled him like a baby.
He started awake, opening his eyes to see his older brother’s metal face above his own.
“Shh. It’s okay now, Brother. You’re safe.”
Edward couldn’t think straight. There was still a hammer pounding away on the inside of his skull, and the rest of his body ached dully. For one groggy moment, he was bewildered; but memories quickly flooded in to fill that brief void of confusion.
Fleeing headlong in terror from the murderer in the alley… and from the waking nightmare visions of living darkness.
His heart turned over, and he squirmed into a sitting position on Al’s lap, shivering slightly. One hand gripped Al’s wrist as he looked around at the sterile environs of a medical exam room. Familiar pictures on the walls, a jar of cookies on the counter… It was the office of Doctor Lang, their family physician. Taking quick stock of himself, he found a dozen small bandages on his arms, hands, and legs, where he had suffered cuts and scrapes in his desperate escape.
How long had it been since it happened?
“There was a man—a killer—he strangled a woman back in that alley—” Ed stammered, the words tumbling out breathlessly.
“We know.” Al brushed Ed’s hair away from his face. “Winry called us about what happened at her shop, so Mother and I came looking for you—and we found out you’d almost been hit by a car in the next street down, when you ran out of the alley. The people who saw it said you were screaming, but then you passed out. When the police came, they found the woman’s body, and they thought you must have seen… what happened to her.”
“I didn’t see him do it. But I saw his face.” Ed shuddered, remembering the startled, hate-filled ugliness of the murderer’s expression. “Then he chased me, and… and I…”
Involuntarily, Ed glanced down at the palms of his hands. He thought he remembered doing something with them, a muscle memory of action in the moment before it all blurred into the blackness of his hallucinations; but he couldn’t remember just what it was he had done.
“Tell me the truth, Ed.”
Stricken, Ed raised his eyes, meeting the red-tinged reflection of quiet soul-distress in Al’s gaze. His brother knew he was holding back.
“…There’s something wrong with me,” he whispered faintly at last.
There. It was out. Now that the first crack had been made in the walls of Ed’s prideful resistance, he crumbled into the bitter relief of confession, curling into a ball with his face buried in his arms. “I was—seeing things that weren’t there. Eyes all around me, and these awful black hands reaching for me in the dark. It happened when I was running from the killer, and… before that, too. At Winry’s shop.”
In response to the revelation, Al was silent for so long that Ed finally looked up, his heartbeat quickening as he searched Al’s unreadable face.
“What’s wrong with me?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Brother!” Al’s arms abruptly slid around Ed’s ribs, hugging him so tight that he could barely breathe. “And no matter what happens… nothing will be wrong with you. I promise that, Ed.” His voice trembled with inner tears he was unable to spill. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Ed’s own eyes welled up. He closed them, and clung to Al’s smooth steel as if his life depended on it.
His life did depend on it. Because if he let go now, if he let a single part of what was real to him and made him himself slip out of his grasp, that ravenous darkness would be waiting for him… and whether it was only in his mind or something more tangible, it would consume him either way if it found him again. He was sure of that.
“…There are some policemen here, Brother. They need to know what you saw—so they can find the strangler before he hurts anyone else.” Al drew back from Ed with seeming reluctance, helmet tipping downward to seek his eyes. “Do you think you feel up to that?”
The thought of voluntarily retracing those memories, of trying to sort out what was and wasn’t true, made Ed’s stomach flip-flop. Even so, he knew he had to do it, for the sake of others the killer might victimize. He nodded a little shakily and slid off of Al’s lap, bracing one hand on the edge of the exam table to steady himself.
Al reached out with both hands, squeezing Ed’s shoulders once. Then he rose from the chair where he was sitting, and moved to the door.
“I’ll stay with you while they’re asking their questions, if you want,” he offered, looking back at Ed.
“Come on, I’m not five years old.” Red-faced, Ed rubbed the back of his neck. “I’d—rather do this on my own.”
He meant those words—or at least, he wanted to mean them. A part of him did yearn to have Al’s hand to hold while the police made him relive the horror. And yet, at the same time… if he broke down again in the process, he didn’t want Al to witness that. He was starting to feel a little embarrassed that his experience had made him unravel so completely, no matter how monstrous it was. After a lifetime of Mother’s self-defense lessons, he should have done something more commendable than simply run away in terror.
Of course, that unreasoning animal fear had been triggered more by Ed’s hallucinations than by the strangler himself… but still.
“Okay. If you’re sure.” Al’s spiked shoulders hitched in a small shrug. “Winry is out there with Mother, too. We’ll be just outside if you want us.”
With that, Al opened the door and stepped halfway out of the room. He spoke to someone, and then moved aside, revealing three men in the waiting room beyond. Two were uniformed police officers, while the other was their apparent superior, a lean and lugubrious figure in a brown trenchcoat.
Ed took a deep breath as they entered the room, and the last man gently closed the door behind them.
When Alphonse emerged from the exam room, he was met only by silence in the waiting room beyond. The two women who occupied it did not speak. Winry was seated, her gaze lowered; her hands clasped firmly across her belly, as if to protect her unborn child from the heavy weight of the room’s atmosphere. More restless, Izumi paced, looking very much as if she wanted to smash something.
Neither of them approached the question Al knew they were burning to ask. Instead, they only waited for him to answer what was unspoken… and he obliged them, soft-voiced, as gently as he could.
“We know for sure now. The memory of the Gate is still inside Ed.”
Izumi caught her breath in a hiss, looking away. Winry flinched and clenched her fingers tighter against her stomach.
The confirmation was really not a surprise to any of them. Before Ed was taken from the scene of the crime and his own near-accident, they had seen the physical evidence. Aware of Izumi’s reputation as an alchemist, the police detective sought her opinion of the strange protrusion that had sprouted from a nearby wall. It bore the telltale crystallization marks of a hasty, imperfect transmutation… but there was absolutely no sign that an array had been drawn on the concrete it was formed from.
Alchemy, without a circle: a skill possessed only by those who knew the touch of the Gate.
“Does he remember anything else?” Winry asked faintly.
“I don’t think so. Not yet.” Al’s fists tightened. “But if he remembers that… the rest must be there, too. I can feel it.”
“He only reacted in fear for his life.” Izumi turned her face upward to seek Al’s gaze, her eyes glistening. “This doesn’t have to go any further. We can protect him. If he never experiences a trigger like this again—”
The word was barely above a whisper. That was all that was needed to halt Izumi, to make her gulp and stare wide-eyed at Al, as if the word had been a shout instead.
“The past isn’t going to go away just because we want it to. Ed has always known he was different—and now he knows something isn’t right. He’s more afraid of what’s inside him than of what he saw today, and if we just leave him lost in that fear…” Al shook his head gently. “Sooner or later, it would hurt him even more than the truth.”
Izumi’s tears spilled over. She bowed her head, and Al knew it took all her strength to compose herself before she spoke, her voice trembling very slightly.
“I’ll call General Mustang… as soon as we get home.”
Al hesitated for only a moment. Then he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Izumi, hugging his foster mother as tightly as he dared.
“It’s not the end, Mother. I won’t let it be the end.” His too-young voice quivered with something more than the resonance of metal. “You and Father gave us back what we lost so much trying to reclaim in the first place. You gave us a family again—and I won’t give that up. No matter what memories come back to Ed, I won’t let the past take away what we have now.”
Only silence was Izumi’s reply. She leaned her head against his chestplate, and simply allowed him to hold her.
He was grateful for that, even if he couldn’t feel her in his arms.
No one spoke for a while. They merely sat, and waited… and wondered what pain Ed might be going through on the other side of the door. For all of the Curtis family’s roughhousing, this second life he lived had been so innocent, raised in an environment of safety and love. He wasn’t naïve about the darker corners of human nature, but he hadn’t experienced it. Not the way he had today. It surely would have been traumatic for him, even—and perhaps especially—if it did not awaken shadows of the Edward who once knew humanity’s darknesses all too well.
Nearly an hour passed before the police detective, Lieutenant Pardo, finally stepped out of the exam room alone. He closed the door behind him before approaching the waiting family, a sheaf of forms and papers clutched in his hand.
“Your boy’s a brave young man. He told us a lot.” A frown slanted across his lips. “He got a little confused when we asked him about the sign of alchemy I showed you back in the alley. Though you say he’s an alchemy student himself, he doesn’t seem to remember doing it at all—but of course, after what he went through, it’s understandable if some things aren’t too clear. Anyway, he did remember the strangler’s face clearly enough to give us a solid description. Our sketch artist made good use of it. I wouldn’t guess you’d have seen the man before, but on the off chance…”
Pardo turned his cluster of papers around, revealing a rough pencil sketch of a burly, grizzled man with an eyepatch—and Alphonse gasped.
“We can’t wait to call General Mustang.” Al stepped forward urgently, looking from Izumi to the detective. “I can tell you exactly who this killer is. He was sent to prison as a terrorist twenty years ago, after he hijacked a train… and I was there.”
By the time the police interview was over, a fresh headache was grumbling dully behind Ed’s eyes.
For just under an hour, he sat with an untasted glass of water clutched tightly in both hands, and tried to make sure the answers he gave were rooted in hard fact—rather than phantom terrors of his mind. With the gentle coaching of Lieutenant Pardo, who was both kind and skilled, he focused past the haze of his dark visions to pinpoint the specifics of the killer. That in itself was frightening enough; and later, when the sketch artist went to work with him, the ugly portrait that slowly took shape made Ed feel sick to his stomach all over again.
When Pardo left the room, the exhausted Edward leaned forward and propped himself against the edge of the exam table, resting his sore head on his arms. He only realized he had dozed off that way when he woke up. The other policemen were gone, and Mother was beside him, gently calling his name.
“Ed? Come on. We’re taking you home now.”
That thought was overwhelmingly appealing. Still drowsy and deeply troubled at heart, Ed straightened in his chair, and impulsively threw his arms around Mother’s waist for a hug. She returned it tightly, caressing his hair.
“It’s going to be alright,” she said faintly, repeating the promise Al had made to him earlier. She brushed her cheek against the top of his head. “Whatever happens… it’s going to be alright.”
Her voice held the faintest note of a tremor. She sounded almost as if she was trying to convince herself of those words, more so than Ed. His heart fluttered anxiously, and he looked upward, searching her solemn features.
“What’s wrong, Mother? I mean—what’s really wrong? What is it that everyone’s not telling me?”
“…It’s nothing, Ed. Nothing you need to worry about.”
She smoothed his hair one more time, and drew back slightly. “But… the police are concerned for your safety, as a witness to a crime. I’m sure they’re overreacting,” she assured him hastily, as he gaped in alarm. “They just want to post an officer outside of our home, to keep watch for a day or two. That’s all.”
Amidst the immediate distress of the aftermath, Ed hadn’t considered that the killer might recognize him as easily as the other way around. A shudder raced down his spine, and he swallowed hard. Especially the way that madman had looked at him… and because…
“My book bag!” Ed jerked to his feet, looking around anxiously. “I must have lost it when—”
“We found it. Winry has it, out in the waiting room.”
That, at least, was a relief. It meant the killer probably hadn’t found his name and address on the bookplates inside his schoolbooks. Ed relaxed a little, and tried to smile, although he knew he wasn’t going to be convincing.
“I guess I missed my test today, too.”
“Don’t worry about that. You’ll have time for it later… Plenty of time.” The tremor was back. Mother put her arm around Ed’s shoulders and began to lead him toward the door, clearing her throat very discreetly. “Meanwhile… you should know that Uncle Roy is coming to see us.”
That news was unexpected. As the commander of the military’s State Alchemists, General Roy Mustang—“Uncle Roy” to the Curtis children—was extremely busy, making his visits much less frequent than Ed would have liked. Uncle Roy was a fascinating man: a national hero, who led a coup to save Amestris from a tyrannical regime when Ed was only a baby. More personally, to the young alchemy student, he was a favorite teacher. When he did come around, he was always interested in seeing the progress of Ed’s alchemy, and seemed to genuinely enjoy showing him new tricks… much to Mother’s dismay at times, when Ed’s attempt to duplicate those skills was destructively unsuccessful.
In a very different way than Alphonse, Uncle Roy presented something Ed could aspire to. He had even considered the idea of taking the State Alchemy Exam himself one day, if he ever became skilled enough to stand a chance of passing it.
“Does his coming here have something to do with what happened?” Ed queried.
“I suppose it does.” Mother gave him a melancholy smile. “You know Uncle Roy is very fond of you. He wants to be sure… you’ll be safe.”
She looked away then, and Ed tried not to dwell too hard on the way she blinked quickly, as if forcing back tears.
“There’s something else, Mother.” He stopped in front of the door, looking up at her. “Lieutenant Pardo said it looked like I’d used alchemy to protect myself, back in that alley. But there was no transmutation circle, and even if there had been… Well, a lot of it is fuzzy now, but I know I never had the time. Not with the way that man was coming after me.”
Mother looked back at him. When she spoke, her voice was as steady as the mirror-smooth waters around Yock Island on the stillest of days.
“What do you think?”
A rush of heat blossomed in Ed’s cheeks. He fidgeted and raised his hands slightly, casting a furtive glance down at his open palms. He could still feel that ghost-memory of movement and sensation, a blind impulse in the animal darkness of fight-or-flight.
“You don’t think I… I could have done it without a circle, do you? The same way you can?”
“You were fighting for your life.” Mother’s arm tightened around his shoulders, loving and protective. “I can’t say what instincts might have been awakened in you then—but I do know it is in you, Ed. And I believe you’ll discover it… sooner than you may think.”
Edward was too speechless to say anything more after that.
In the waiting room, they found Lieutenant Pardo standing with Al and Winry. The detective smiled at Ed, thinly but appreciatively. “Thanks again, son. You did well by us. We won’t forget it when we put that creep behind bars—and in the meantime, we’re going to make sure you and your family are safe. I promise you that.”
“Thank you,” Ed murmured.
“And you, Ma’am. You’re an automail engineer, right?” Pardo inquired of Winry. “If you wouldn’t mind… maybe you could come down to the coroner’s office. There’s something nagging me about the marks on the victim’s neck, and I’ve got an idea about it. I know it wouldn’t be very pleasant, and I don’t want to upset you in your… er, condition—but you might be able to tell me if I’m wrong or not.”
“Even with a baby in it, my stomach is pretty strong when it comes to things like that. Otherwise I wouldn’t be an automail mechanic.” Winry glanced at the clock on the wall, tugging the ends of her hair. “I really want to help you, sir… but I do have automail surgery to perform in half an hour.” She smiled rather sickly. “If my hands are steady enough by then, at least.”
“I understand. Call us as soon as you’re available, then.” Pardo flashed a glance over the other members of the family. “I’ll have one of my men see the rest of you home. There should be an officer posted on watch by the time you get there, so don’t worry about a thing now. You just go on with your lives, and leave this guy to us. We’ll get him.”
“If you think of anything else I can tell you, I…” Ed faltered, with a hollow smile. “I’ll try, at least.”
Pardo clapped Ed on the shoulder. “Good. I’ll call for you personally if anything like that comes up. In the meantime, after the scare they’ve had about you, if this family of yours wants to spoil you for a day or two…” He smiled knowingly. “My advice is to let them.”
True to Pardo’s word, the three Curtises were escorted home by a polite young officer. Upon arriving at their house, they found a much larger and more burly policeman already waiting on the doorstep. He gladly accepted Mother’s offer to feed him dinner, but only on the condition that he eat at his post. It was rather unnerving to think that a guard would be sitting watchfully outside their house all night.
Shaya and Ronan had arrived home from school before the policeman’s arrival, and were unaware of his presence. When Mother went to find Ed, she had left them a note, simply saying that she and Al had an errand to run—so when Ed walked in, the two youngest children were quite unprepared to see his torn, dirty clothes, and the bandages on his collection of cuts and scrapes.
“Oh, Ed!” Shaya wailed in a mixture of alarm and dismay, rushing to put her hands on his shoulders and look him over. “What kind of fight did you get in this time?”
Okay, so maybe the way Edward’s moods had been lately, he deserved that—but it stung nonetheless. He scowled and squirmed away from his sister’s grasp, moving off toward the stairs.
“You’d better ask Mother and Al about it. I’m going to take a shower.”
The answer probably only made him sound more guilty. He really didn’t care. He was exhausted, his head still hurt terribly, and he felt a sense of crawling uncleanness that had little to do with the damp filth of the alleys where he was chased. It was as if the black hands that had clung to him in his hallucinations left a vile stain on him, at least in his own mind.
In the shower he scrubbed himself three times under scalding-hot water, yet even that didn’t seem like enough. Slumping against the tile wall, he let the steaming heat continue to pour over him until it turned cold, and tried not to think at all.
When he finally went downstairs, he found that Father had come home, and had been filled in on the day’s events. Father didn’t say anything. He only grasped Ed’s shoulders in his powerful hands and pulled the boy against his chest—giving him a hug that was crushing not because it was so tight, but because its rarity spoke volumes about just how much it meant. Even that stalwart man was upset by the news of what Ed had gone through.
Dinner was lighter and more sparing than usual. It seemed Mother was sensitive to the fact that no one—except perhaps Ronan, who could eat through an earthquake—had much of an appetite.
“I haven’t forgotten that I’m supposed to do Shaya’s chores tonight,” Edward said demurely, as he helped gather the dishes after dinner. Work of any kind was the last thing he wanted to do at the moment, but he was resolved not to defer his responsibilities any further. He had already caused the household enough trouble in the last two days, even if most of it was inadvertent.
“Never mind that.” Mother grasped the back of his neck with one hand, caressing his face with the other. It was something she had only ever done when he was truly and seriously hurt in some way: when he had a terrible fever, when he fell from a tree and broke his leg while retrieving a kite for Ronan. Even though his physical injuries from the chase were quite minor, she clearly recognized that the pain inside him now was something exceptional. “I just want you to rest, and try to forget today. Tomorrow… isn’t going to be easy, either.”
“Why would that be? You said Uncle Roy is coming for a visit. It’s always a good day when he’s here.”
Mother smiled thinly. “Yes… of course.” She brushed a quick kiss across his forehead, just at his hairline—and that was even more unusual. She had only kissed her children when they were babies or young toddlers, almost too young to remember it.
Ed was in no mood to deny such a maternal ache. He hugged her tightly, laying his head against her chest. For a few moments, he simply rested in her arms, as he had from the day he was born… and he wasn’t entirely sure he was surprised to feel a few tears trickle down into his hair.
“…Hey, now.” Ed pulled back, forcing a smile to keep his own eyes from misting up. To return the favor Mother had granted him, he stretched upward and pressed a hasty kiss to her cheek. “I don’t know what everyone’s so upset about. It was just a… a really bad day. It’s over now.”
He didn’t honestly believe that. Even if the strangler never came looking for him, and was caught quickly, that business probably wasn’t over; he would surely have to give his testimony again for the man’s trial. But even that was secondary to whatever else was happening, although Ed couldn’t explain it. In his heart, he was sure his dark visions weren’t going to stop until he found and faced their cause—and he didn’t know when or how he would find the courage to do that.
Mother didn’t believe it, either. She and Father and Al, at the very least, could sense the wrongness Ed felt. He knew that, even if they wouldn’t talk to him about it. He was sure now that they were keeping secrets from him.
But it was only because they loved him.
In any case, Mother had the grace to pretend things would be alright, which gave Ed a hollow kind of comfort. She returned his smile, squeezed his shoulders, and finally let him go.
“If you really don’t need me to do anything… I think maybe I’ll go to bed.” Ed rubbed the back of his neck, grinning sheepishly. “I am awfully tired.”
Early though it still was in the evening, no one seemed surprised when Ed made the rounds of saying good night. It didn’t really seem fair that he was so exhausted, when he had already spent a part of the day passed out, but it was true. If he hadn’t felt as if he could sleep for days, he would have been much more reluctant to face the possibility of nightmares.
By the time Ed had brushed his teeth, loosed his hair from its braid, and made his way to his room, he found Alphonse already waiting for him there. The eldest of the Curtis siblings was sitting on the edge of his own bed, its mattress sagging under the weight of his armor.
“What are you doing here?” Ed asked curiously. “It’s still early. I thought you’d stay downstairs with Shaya and Ronan for a while.”
“Oh, they have easier homework tonight.” Al eased his massive frame back onto the bed, and rested his helmet on the pillow. “Besides… I have a lot of things to think about.”
Ed’s heart gave a little thump, and a warmth rose in his eyes. Without a second thought, he crossed the room and climbed into his brother’s bed, settling against night-cooled steel with the complete lack of discomfort that came from lifelong familiarity. It had been a few years since he felt like enough of a child to do this… but just for tonight, all bets about his maturity were off.
The little sound Al made was the breathless approximation of a small gasp of surprise. He shifted instinctively, turning onto his side. From his own long experience, he knew the position least likely to poke Ed with his sharper edges; and with no muscles or nerves to protest, he could lie that way all night.
Al reached up to the bedside lamp, finding the switch to shut it off. Then, in the darkness, the palm of his broad gauntlet gently curled around Ed’s right shoulder. The gesture was affectionate and protective, a reminder that a tender guardian soul was there within the hard steel at Ed’s side—and it wasn’t going anywhere.
Grateful, Ed turned his head, so that his cheek could rest against Al’s knuckles. Al wouldn’t feel it, but it still mattered.
Neither of them spoke for a long time. The comfort of Al’s close presence warred against the formless jumble of ugly memories and thoughts in Edward’s head. He didn’t try consciously to think about them, to make any sense of them… but they weren’t going to leave him anytime soon, either. And somehow, they inevitably led him back to the ominous inner whisper that he was different.
“I want you to tell me the truth, Al.” Ed swallowed hard, but the ghost of a tremor still crept into his voice. “…Was I adopted?”
A flicker of tension quivered through the armor beside him.
“No, Brother.” The fingers on his shoulder gripped a little tighter. “You were born to us. I swear it.”
That simple, direct answer was enough. If Mother and Father thought it was for Ed’s own good, even they might dissemble to him; but Al had never, ever told him a lie, and he never would. There was no doubt of that in his mind. If his elder brother swore it, then Ed’s blood truly was the same as that which had flowed in the veins of Al’s long-lost body. He could rest assured of it now.
Something else was still wrong with him… but it wasn’t that.
CHAPTER IV: Who He Was
Once Edward had asked his single, painful question, he seemed to be more at peace. He snuggled a little closer to Al, and grew still, his breaths eventually lengthening as he faded into sleep.
His brother held him, and watched him, until the sun rose.
Twice in the night, Ed stirred and made faint sounds of distress, visibly struggling against bad dreams. Al stroked his hair and whispered to him until he quieted. Nightmares were nothing new; Ed had suffered them from time to time since Izumi gave him birth, but they were more frequent now than they used to be. Mercifully, he never remembered anything about them in the morning.
Al could only wonder if the dreams were memories of Ed’s original life. He had always wondered that, but now that they knew those memories were still within him, the question weighed all the heavier. What would this ingenuous, open-hearted boy think, if he remembered Nina Tucker, or Lab Five, or homunculi… or worst of all, the horrific mutual choice that had cost the brothers their flesh and blood?
Learning the answer to that question was the last thing Al wanted in the world… but he had a terrible feeling that soon, they would.
When the bedroom began to lighten at dawn, Al carefully extricated himself from Ed’s comfortable sprawl beside him. Ed turned over, but made no sound. His sleep was always deepest in the early morning, just before the alarm clock rudely intruded.
Considerately Al picked up the clock from the nightstand, and turned off the alarm. There was no need to wake Ed before he was fully rested. As the witness to a crime—and that by one of their few surviving enemies who might have remembered him, seemingly almost unchanged from twenty years in the past—he would not be permitted to attend school that day. Lieutenant Pardo himself had advised against it.
And General Mustang would soon arrive; but not only because of the killing. He was coming to Dublith, at Al and Izumi’s request, to play his part in the contingency plan that had been laid after Ed was reborn.
Pausing at the door, Al looked back at Ed, asleep and blissfully unaware. A savage pang ripped through the hollowness within his armor. If the choice he made was to destroy the innocence his brother had known for fifteen years…
It would feel like murdering the person Ed was now.
With a sharp shake of his helmet, Al tore himself away, slipping out into the hall. The plan had been set in motion, and there was no turning back from it. Besides, even if they did nothing, Al was sure they couldn’t prevent this reawakening in Ed. He had already been hurt enough by his rising awareness of something unknown within himself. Unraveling his past in disjointed, terrifying fragments would be far more cruel and damaging than a controlled revelation, with those who loved him gently guiding him through the rediscovery.
In both of his lives, Edward had always been a seeker of truth. His family could no longer deny him the truth about his very existence.
Unsleeping Al was usually the first member of the household to stir, but that was not the case this morning. Downstairs, the light was on in the living room, and he could hear the soft murmur of voices. When he stepped into the doorway, he saw Mother and Father—Izumi and Sig. They were seated on the sofa, their faces solemn.
And in the chair opposite them, with a cup of coffee cooling in his hands, sat a familiar figure in a blue uniform.
“General Mustang,” Al murmured in surprise. “When did you get here?”
With a pale smile, Roy Mustang stood. He had aged gracefully, with graying hair at his temples, and slightly deeper lines of dignified authority etched into his face. If anything, he was only more formidable now than he had been fifteen years earlier, in the perilous months after Edward’s rebirth. That was when he achieved his own destiny, becoming the young military hero who had rooted out the shadow regime that controlled the government.
Outside of those present in the room, only a few people knew that Mustang could never have done it without the help of Ed and Al’s natural father. Hohenheim had returned at a crucial point in the intrigue, and had sacrificed his life to help defeat Dante and her homunculus puppets—so that Edward’s second growing-up could take place in a world that was safe and free.
Alphonse had played a part in the battle, himself. Leaving infant Edward in the care of their second parents, he had gone to Central, to help his father and Mustang tear apart the monstrous web the Elric brothers had been so fatefully caught in.
He claimed it was a gesture of gratitude for all Mustang had done for them… but in the heart he didn’t have, it was revenge against everything that had conspired to erase Ed’s identity.
In that sense, the victory was hollow. It did nothing to change the situation, leaving Al to return to Dublith with a sense of emptiness greater than the void inside his armor. All he had then were questions of what life would be after that, as he watched Ed grow and become a stranger, someone he had not been before.
Yet as time passed, Al discovered that Ed was still growing up to be Ed, after all. He was a gentler and more disciplined Ed, influenced quite differently by Izumi and Sig’s firm parenting, and by the love of a much larger family—but his heart and soul were unmistakably the same. All that had really changed, and so much for the better, was that he was at peace.
For the joy of that, Al eventually came to bless those same twists of fate he had once cursed, and embraced their new life fully… but with the acceptance, there came the lurking fear that the past would return one day.
Now, it seemed, that day had finally come.
“When you called yesterday, I left Central as soon as I could. I arrived late last night, after you and Edward had already gone to bed.” Mustang shrugged, a little awkwardly, and his wan attempt at a smile of greeting faded. “For what it’s worth, Al, I’m glad to see you again… but I’d give just about anything not to be here now. Not for this.”
“Did you bring it?” Al asked quietly.
Mustang did not reply with words. Instead, he turned and went into the dining room, conveying implicitly that Al should follow. Al did so, with Mother and Father trailing behind him.
On the dining room table stood a rectangular chest made of dark polished wood, its hinged lid secured with an ornate lock. It was innocuous on its surface, but the sight of it made something grow tense and cold in Al’s soul. He recognized that box all too well: he had packed its contents with his own hands, fifteen years earlier.
“You locked it,” Mustang said somberly, and held out a key on his open palm. “You should be the one to unlock it.”
With a numb feeling that went far beyond his lack of sensation, Al took the key from Mustang, and advanced toward the table. His fingers trembled, so that it took him a few tries to insert the key in the lock. Once the mechanism released with a faint click, he rested his gauntlets on top of the chest for a moment, as if it contained something sacred—and perhaps it did.
Finally, gathering all his courage, he lifted the lid.
At the top of the box lay a thick swath of scarlet fabric. Although he could not feel its softness, Al’s hand moved across it slowly, halting at the black cross and serpent that was emblazoned upon it.
Perhaps it was just as well that his body wasn’t human. If it had been, he would already have been in tears.
With a will, Alphonse folded back the coat, gently moving it aside. Beneath it lay the remains of a tragic life: a time capsule of buried memories, carefully preserved as a testament to all that Edward Elric had once been.
A birth certificate from Resembool, proclaiming the first son of Hohenheim and Trisha Elric. The funny-looking rag doll that was Ed and Al’s very first alchemic creation. The silver pocketwatch of a State Alchemist, inscribed with an infamous date. A military identification card, bearing exactly the same fingerprints Ed still possessed—but only those of his left hand. A folder containing copies of official reports, in which were detailed numerous exploits almost too fantastic to be believed.
And most precious of all, the chest yielded up two photo albums.
The first album, compiled mainly by Winry’s late grandmother Pinako, predated the transmutation. Here were the pictures Ed had wished to see for so long, of Alphonse in his flesh—and in each one of them, a young Ed himself was at Al’s side. Winry often appeared with the brothers, as well: not a grown woman, but a child herself, just as they were. Still other photographs found the boys being held by Trisha and Hohenheim, the parents who first gave them life.
That series of early, happy images was jarringly broken by a single snapshot, taken at Trisha’s funeral. Standing at their mother’s grave, Al was in tears, while Ed gripped his brother’s shoulder and gazed away with a hard, intent look in his eyes. In the handful of pictures that followed—some from Resembool, and others in that very house, when they were merely the students of Izumi Curtis—the pair never once looked up from ever-present alchemy books, or from the increasingly advanced transmutation circles they practiced.
The second album came after the night of their sin. Its first page held the scant few pictures they had permitted, or at least failed to avoid, in the long self-conscious months of their recovery.
Edward leaning on a crutch, with heavy steel ports implanted in the stumps of his right arm and left leg; still healing from the surgeries, not yet fitted with automail limbs. Alphonse standing apart, unused to the challenges of functioning in his armor, reluctant to make too much physical contact before he had mastered his strength. Ed trying to conceal his obvious pain, as Winry made an adjustment to his automail arm.
After that, the photographs quickly skipped to the friends and acquaintances they had made on their subsequent journey. Many of these were captured by the inescapable camera of Maes Hughes. His widow Gracia had been kind enough to provide them.
Nina and Alexander, playing with the Elrics in the snow outside Shou Tucker’s mansion. Lively scenes from Ed’s first twelfth birthday party—all of them, of course, taken before the chaotic disruption of Elicia Hughes’ birth. Ed and then-Colonel Mustang in the middle of an argument, both looking highly disgruntled at the interruption of a flashbulb. Lieutenants Havoc and Breda carrying out a prank involving magnets and Al’s armor, over Ed’s furious objections. Al crouching as the catcher for a baseball game they had been good-naturedly blackmailed into, while Ed, as the pitcher, stood examining the ball clutched in his steel fingers.
The final page held only one photograph: Edward on the platform of the train station in Central, with Al beside him and a suitcase in his hand, ready to depart for some untold mission. Ed’s eyes were filled with a determined light the world had not seen for fifteen years.
When Al closed the photo album, he was gripping its hard cover tightly enough to bend it. Realizing that, he quickly let go and drew his hands back. Even though he had personally sorted and approved these pictures years before, he was unprepared for the impact of seeing them again. The two albums told the story of the Elric brothers more clearly than words ever could.
“…I know this must be hard for you.” Mustang’s soft words sounded loud in the silence.
For a few moments, Al did not answer. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. He bided his time by carefully replacing the albums in the chest, and then setting the other mementos on top of them once more, ending with the cherished red coat that covered all.
“I’d forgotten what my real face looked like.” He closed the lid of the chest, bowing his helmet over it. “I forgot the sound Ed’s automail made when it touched my armor. I forgot what it was like to watch him nearly die, so many times, and know it was for me. And most of all, I forgot the hope I felt, every time he said… I promise.”
Mother looked away, pressing her fingers over her mouth. Father laid his strong hand tenderly on her back.
“If Ed remembers…” Mustang hesitated, with a barely perceptible catch in his voice. “Do you think for one moment that he won’t renew that promise to you?”
“That’s just it.” Al turned away from the chest and the table with an almost violent motion. His heavy bulk didn’t really need steadying, but his hand fell on the back of a chair anyway, and he squeezed it until the wood cracked. “I don’t want Ed to promise again… because I don’t want to feel that hope. It was only a lie that made us give up everything we could have had that mattered. We found those things again here—and now all I want is for us to be happy with that, the way we have been.”
A thick silence stifled the room, dragging on to a painful length before Mustang spoke again.
“The choice is still in your hands, Al—but you’d better decide quickly.”
Al turned away slightly. He did not speak for several moments, as he considered that choice one last time… but in the end, he couldn’t escape the conclusion he had already made. There was no choice. Ed had sensed and remembered too much on his own. If he was ever going to have peace again, he had to know those memories were not some lurking sickness in his mind, but the ghost of his own very real past life. In spite of all its tragedy, it was the life of a hero and a genius, who had been and was still deeply loved. He needed to know at least that much.
With the truth, inevitably, there would come the guilt that had been blessedly absent from Ed’s heart for all these years; but there was nothing Al could do about that for now. Only later could he address it, try to persuade his brother to let it go. He wasn’t sure Ed would ever understand that even if he could, he would never choose to erase their shared sin that had cost him his flesh. Without it, they would not have followed the path that eventually gave them a family—and that was worth more to Al than his body had ever been.
There was no point in thinking that far ahead yet, anyway. If they were lucky, even when Ed was shown and told the story of his past, perhaps it would not fully awaken his memories. Perhaps he would receive only the bare, detached facts they told him, without truly feeling again all the pain he once knew.
Al fervently hoped so… but with the way Ed’s memories had begun to stir already, he knew that hope was a very slim one.
“We have to do this.” Al looked back at Mustang, his voice quiet and resigned. “No matter how much it hurts, Ed would rather know the truth than have it hidden from him. That was true of the person he was before… and it’s still true now.”
His three elders digested that verdict for a long moment. Mustang and Father were gravely solemn. Mother’s eyes glistened, and for all of her serene strength, she looked very much as if she wanted to turn away and cry; but instead she swallowed hard, smoothing her expression into an unrevealing mask.
“When do you want to go through with it?” she asked quietly.
“Not right away… We shouldn’t rush anything. Ed was looking forward to General Mustang’s visit, and after what he went through yesterday, I think he should have one more day to… to be happy.”
Al paused to force a tremor from his tone. He had always wondered why his disembodied voice within the armor, not produced by the physical means of vocal cords or breath, should betray such emotional unsteadiness. All he could assume was that his soul still naturally followed the patterns of his long-lost flesh in reflecting his feelings.
“Later this afternoon or this evening, when the time feels right… then we can do it.”
Mustang nodded slightly. “Alright. That also gives me time to talk with the local police this morning.” He scowled. “I might even call up a few soldiers to place on guard here. If the killer Ed saw is really who you think he is, then—”
Those two words, tinged with drowsiness yet bright with anticipation, brought instant silence to the dining room. A second later, Ed appeared in the doorway, to blink and smile at the sight of the family’s honored guest.
“Oh, it is you! I didn’t think you’d be here until later today!”
Al was sure he saw the slight twitch of a lump in Mustang’s throat as he studied the still-sleepy teenager.
In Ed’s second life, nothing had been more greatly changed than his demeanor toward Roy Mustang. Where the Ed of the past had treated his superior with antagonism, mild suspicion, and only-grudging respect, the Ed of the present regarded his role model with earnest affection and admiration. Granted, the difference was mutual; now a family friend instead of a commanding officer, Mustang was free to be much more gentle with the boy he had watched grow up. He was still the same man he had always been, but the fondness and humor he could show openly to Ed were a transformation in themselves, permitting Ed to see him in a light that would never have been possible before.
More than that, Mustang was the mentor Ed’s pride could never have accepted in the old days. With his former unnatural skills gone, or at least buried with his memories, he looked up to the Flame Alchemist’s talents as a wonder—and with no knowledge of the dark pages of Ishbal in Mustang’s past, he knew only the heroic figure the General had been perceived as during his current lifetime. He aspired to be like Mustang, and delighted in learning from him, as the old Ed never would have dreamed of doing.
Certainly, such idolization tickled Mustang’s own ego… but Al knew it also humbled him, because he never forgot what this boy who admired him had once been capable of, and might one day be again.
“Well, good morning, Ed.” Putting on a smile that was extraordinarily convincing, Mustang reached out, to grasp Ed’s shoulder in a firm, fond grip. “You didn’t think I’d waste any time getting here after what happened yesterday, do you?”
Ed shrugged awkwardly under Mustang’s hand. “I think everyone’s making it out to be a bigger deal than it is,” he murmured—but the sudden flicker of darkness in his eyes gave the lie to that claim.
“I hope that’s true.” Mustang’s hand fell to his side. “But based on the description you gave, we might have a lead on who the killer was. And if he’s the man we suspect… he’s extremely dangerous. He may have committed crimes against the State in the past, which gives the military every reason to get involved. So you see, it’s not just for you that I’m here.”
“It’s always business,” Ed remarked, rolling his eyes—and his gaze fell upon the closed trunk on the dining room table. “So what’s in the box?”
Blanching, Izumi stepped forward quickly. “Never mind that, Ed. I think it’s time to have breakfast, and catch up with Uncle Roy before he goes to see the police. When he comes back after that, then… there will be other things to talk about.” Her mask of casualness almost cracked for a moment; but she took a deep breath, and squeezed Ed’s shoulders with both hands. “Would you boys please set the table?”
Impossible as it would be not to think about the burden ahead of them, the adults did their best then to set it aside—for just a little bit longer. Al quickly locked the precious trunk and carried it away to a corner of the living room, while Ed and Mustang went to fetch the dishes from the kitchen. When Al returned, Ed was cheerfully reminding the General of the proper way to lay a place setting.
“The forks go on this side… So have you got any new tricks to teach me?”
Mustang glanced up from the handful of silverware in his grasp, with an awkward smile. “Oh, I… I think you’ll have a lot to learn while I’m here this time, Ed.”
“I’ve been practicing what you showed me last time. I still don’t think I’ve gotten the hang of it.” Ed’s cheeks pinkened, and his voice lowered. “Don’t tell Mother this, but actually… I kind of burned a hole through her favorite tablecloth. I fixed it before she could see it, but I think she might still notice if she looks at it too closely.”
Al felt a pain deep in his hollowness. After all Ed had been through in the past day, all the fears and doubts that must have been aroused in him, he could still behave as if he was most concerned about the discovery of a youthful mishap. He was so completely innocent—and it made Al wonder again if the time was truly right to take that innocence from him. If they simply left well enough alone, said nothing more of these frightening incidents that had stirred shadows of the past… Could things possibly go back to the way they had been?
There was still time to reconsider. Al resolved to watch Ed closely through the morning and afternoon, and see just how well he had bounced back from the traumas of the previous day. After all, even if he did sense that he was on the brink of a great change… perhaps he too would be just as glad to consciously step back from that precipice. If they gave him the choice, perhaps he would choose to stay safe in the life he knew, and allow his family to go on protecting him from the truth.
Maybe that would be wrong… but Al still wanted it desperately.
“How are Aunt Riza and the boys?” Ed inquired. The question made Al feel briefly guilty for not thinking to offer Mustang the same politeness, preoccupied as he had been by his own worries.
The smile that crossed Mustang’s face then was genuine. “Everyone’s fine. Maes and Aron are doing very well in school… and I think Maes is almost ready to start learning alchemy.”
“That’s awesome. He’s been begging you to let him for a few years now, hasn’t he?”
“Yes. I didn’t enjoy making him wait, but…” Mustang hesitated, his glance flicking pensively over Ed. “I wanted to be sure he was ready. Old enough to understand the consequences of actions and reactions—and to realize the rules are what they are for a reason.”
Edward looked up at Mustang, and for a brief moment, the thoughtfulness in his own amber eyes stole Al’s nonexistent breath.
“…You’re a good dad, Uncle Roy,” Ed murmured softly, and Al wondered if that response was tinged with even the feeling of the memory of Hohenheim. Their own first father had never been there to teach them those things himself, even after their mother was lost. If he had, perhaps none of the events of the last twenty years would ever have happened at all.
Then Ronan wandered through the dining room, all but ignoring Uncle Roy’s rare presence as he played noisily with a wooden toy soldier, and Al remembered why he still had no regrets.
“I know this trip was kind of sudden—but you should bring Aunt Riza and the boys with you next time,” Al remarked, feeling a welcome trace of soul-warmth at the very thought of such a normal, familial occasion in the future. “It’s been too long since we’ve gotten to see them—and if Maes is learning alchemy by then, Ed and I could have a lot of fun showing him things.”
“Maybe, but I’m a little worried your house wouldn’t be left standing afterward,” Mustang retorted.
Ed laughed. “We’ll be fine as long as Shaya doesn’t join in too. She might look innocent, but she’s the one whose alchemy gets a little out of hand sometimes. You should have seen what happened when she—”
“I heard that!” Shaya’s voice shrilled from the kitchen, where she had apparently joined Izumi without her brothers’ notice.
“Settle down, children.” Izumi herself appeared in the kitchen doorway. Al could see the veiled strain in her eyes, but even so, there was a thin smile on her lips. She was taking some comfort, at least for now, in the everyday foolishness of her family. “Breakfast will be ready in a few more minutes. Al, would you bring some bacon from the freezer in the shop? There isn’t enough in the kitchen.”
On hearing that request, Ed straightened quickly. “I’ll get it for you, Mother.”
Izumi’s eyes hovered on Ed for a fleeting moment, dark with something that Al could only think of as foreboding; but then she sighed and gave him a small nod. “Alright. But be quick about it.”
Edward nodded. He glanced at Mustang, and then at Alphonse, with a small grin of half-apology on his lips.
“I’ll be right back,” he promised, and slipped out of the room.
The calm smile faded from Ed’s face as he stepped out of the doorway and passed through the living room. In the shadowed hall that joined the house to the family’s butcher shop, he paused for a moment, to breathe deeply and try to settle his restless feelings.
His long sleep through the night had helped to push the previous day’s phantoms to the corners of his mind. He felt just a little better—but not yet even close to right. Apart from the terrors of being chased by a killer, his waking nightmares still had him convinced something strange was going on inside him… and that his elders already knew it just as well as he did. Worse, that they knew even more than he did, because he could sense their hesitation toward him now. They were harboring something unspoken, as if they feared he was too fragile to bear it.
Uncle Roy’s abrupt visit only confirmed the air of secrecy; and when Ed had crept down the stairs a short while earlier, to hear the voices of the adults speaking in low, grave tones, everything within him suddenly rebelled in horror against the thought of learning that secret.
So he impulsively spoke up, announcing his presence before he could draw close enough to make out their words. He put on a bright smile and pretended that everything was completely normal—because he just wanted things to go back to normal. If he made them believe he was really alright, perhaps they would let that whisper of the unknown fade back into silent nonexistence.
It was childish, and it went against everything that was ordinarily in Ed’s nature. But for once in his life, somehow, he found himself fearing knowledge far more than ignorance.
Mother had said there were other things to talk about later. That made him afraid they meant to tell him whatever it was he felt suddenly so sure he didn’t want to hear. He only hoped now that his false veneer of cheerful normalcy would make them change their minds—even if only for a while. Long enough, at least, for him to wrestle with this fear… and to persuade himself that he wanted to know the truth.
Shaking his head, he continued down the hall, and unlocked the door to the shop. He was being stupid. Whatever was happening, he simply had to trust that his parents and Al would always do what was best for him—because they loved him. That was the one thing he was as sure of as he had ever been.
Beyond the door, the shop lay in darkness. Ed turned on the light, and crossed between familiar rows of gleaming freezer cases that stood filled and waiting for the day’s customers. He went to the door of the much larger walk-in freezer, at the back of the shop, which held their additional stores. Chilled steel stung against his fingertips as he unfastened the bolt and turned the heavy handle. When he dragged the door open, icy air spilled out over his skin, making him shiver.
It reminded him of the ghostly touch of those inky-black hands in his hallucinations.
He fiercely shook the memory out of his head, and strode into the freezer, wishing he was wearing more than lightweight trousers and a short-sleeved shirt. His breath steamed in warm puffs as he moved toward the racks on the far wall where Father kept the bacon.
Around him, sides of beef and pork hung in two neat rows from the hooks in the ceiling, waiting to be chopped into choice cuts of meat. Ed grimaced slightly at the naked animal carcasses. Father had tried to introduce him to the family business at a young age, but he had no taste for it. Although he was healthily omnivorous, he didn’t like to be reminded that his dinner was once alive.
Besides, this frozen chamber of slaughtered beasts creeped him out a little. It was somewhat like his reaction to Winry’s automail wares, but far milder—if only after a lifetime of almost daily familiarity, as he helped his parents restock the shop’s cases in the evenings. He always avoided looking at the hanging slabs of flesh, and focused on his immediate tasks. Sometimes he thought it would be marvelous if an alchemist could discover a way to synthesize meat from other organic proteins.
Just like his uneasiness with automail, he was sure his unsettled feeling about the freezer must have had some definite root cause—if only he could remember it. Perhaps as a very young child, he had received the scare of being accidentally shut in the freezer for a few minutes. He was always underfoot, following Al or Mother everywhere, and he could easily have escaped notice if he wandered after them into that strange cold closet.
Ed smiled humorlessly as he reached the back wall and glanced over the slabs of bacon, seeking the finest one. He could just imagine himself as a toddler, trapped in the icy darkness, driven to greater panic as he bumped into the frozen carcasses hanging down around him…
For a split second, Ed knew he had let his imagination wander down an entirely wrong path.
His vision blurred as a wave of pain slammed into his skull. The misty chill of the refrigerated air took on a sharper, more tangible edge, turning into the caress of greedy black hands. He recoiled from the illusory sensation, and felt a familiar throb ignite hotly in his shoulder and thigh.
The violent movement upset his balance. Ed clawed for a handhold, finding nothing within reach but the frozen-solid flesh of a hanging side of pork. He grasped at it to break his fall, only to hear the sound of a chain giving way somewhere above him. A cry was stifled in his throat as he tumbled to the ice-frosted floor, with the carcass falling heavily on top of him.
Then suddenly the black hands snaked away, and different images swept across the swirling darkness in front of his wide-open eyes.
Another freezer, much like this one—but even larger, with chunks of flesh on its meathooks that had not all come from animals. A slender man with deranged eyes and a gleaming meat cleaver. Pain, primal terror, the trickle of fast-cooling blood on Ed’s skin, the horrified eyes of a blonde-haired young girl whose wrists were bound with chains…
A choked screech erupted from Ed’s throat. With a spasm of manic strength, he shoved the pig carcass off of him and twisted onto his belly, to half-crawl and half-stumble out through the freezer door. He fell to his knees on the floorboards of the shop beyond, his body shivering almost convulsively from pain and sick fear, and from the tendrils of cold vapor that continued to spill out of the still-open door behind him.
It couldn’t be real—but it was too real to deny. It was something more powerful than any nightmare. The sensations and impulses of it were still surging in Ed’s mind, in a part of his consciousness much higher and more aware than the place where dreams slowly burned out.
This had the solidness of a memory.
Yet that was impossible. The girl was unmistakably Winry… but at an age she would already have surpassed before Ed was even born. There was no way he could ever have seen her like that. Surely, even this was a fabrication of his mind, patched together from his own subconscious fears and whatever snapshots he had seen of Winry in her childhood—
It suddenly occurred to Ed that he couldn’t remember ever seeing a photograph from Winry’s youth. Not one. Not even once.
What is happening to me…
What’s happened to all of us? Why do I have too much past inside me, while Al and Winry have too little past?
He didn’t have the chance to reason out any sensible answer to that question. This time, the immediate visions seemed to have dragged along many more things from wherever they dwelled within him. In the wake of that first shock, other fragments of images and emotions continued to swarm through his brain like angry hornets, paralyzing his very thoughts.
A tall, broad-shouldered man with a blond ponytail and a beard. A gentle brown-haired woman—the same one Ed had seen a twisted distortion of before the killer chased him, but this time whole and beautiful and smiling. Another man in a blue military uniform, grinning and thrusting out a handful of pictures of his little girl.
There were places, too, that Ed had never been to or even imagined. A house on a hill, overlooking windswept grassy fields. Military barracks in Central. A city surrounded by water. Mountains, desert towns, thick tangles of semi-tropical forest.
Ed’s skull was abruptly squeezed by the sharpest pain his headaches had ever wrought. His eyes widened, and he groaned between tightly clenched teeth, clutching his head in his hands.
Yock Island. He recognized those species of trees and vines from his hours spent sprawling on the beach there, but he had never ventured into their depths; yet this memory was of the lush, damp darkness of the forest’s heart. Sleeping in the rain, fishing on the shore, building a shelter from branches and leaves.
…He wasn’t alone there.
Something like a bolt of lightning raced through Ed. His mind’s eye seized only a glimpse of large brown eyes, a crooked smile of confidence, a face that looked uncannily like his own at a younger age.
With a muffled moan, Ed lurched upright, forcing his still-throbbing left leg to bear his weight. He clutched his right shoulder as he staggered from the shop and into the hallway of the house, his hand braced on the wall to steady himself.
There was no name for the emotion that face had aroused in him. All he knew, in his haze of blinding pain, was that he had to find that precious person. He had promised…
Yock Island. He always had felt a soul-deep pull in that place, felt close to some powerful truth. Perhaps the answers to this new madness in his brain were waiting for him there.
He had to find out.
A part of him knew he should have gone back to the dining room, should have confessed to his family what was happening, and allowed them to help him… but he couldn’t stand the thought of them seeing that he was going out of his mind. He needed to figure all of this out himself, if he could, or at the very least have time alone to pull himself together. If he was sick, if he was losing himself, he wanted to appear composed in front of his loved ones when he learned the truth. Even if he didn’t find the answers he was so irrationally convinced the island held, just being there would quiet his soul as it always did. Then he could return to face whatever awaited him.
With his eyes nearly shut against the pounding in his head, he all but felt his way to his father’s study down the hall. The room had a window that faced the backyard. If the policeman on guard was still out front, he wouldn’t see Ed there.
Ed fumbled with the window’s latch, forced the sliding pane upward, and slithered out over the sill. Clutching at the brutal ache inside his skull, he crept to the corner of the house and peeked around it. The policeman sat tipped back in a chair by the front door, yawning and scratching himself. Satisfied that he would be unobserved, Ed turned and cut across the back of the nextdoor lot, and then the one after that, only making his way down to the street when he felt sure he would be out of the officer’s line of sight.
Once he reached the sidewalk, he started running.
A few neighbors who knew Ed looked up in surprise as he dashed past them. Mr. Gowey called out to him from the doorway of the store, but he didn’t pause to respond. He didn’t even care anymore whether someone might see him swimming out toward the island. One way or another, he knew every unimagined secret in his life was going to come to light today… but now his own hidden trespass was not the one that mattered.
Cousin Winry’s voice. It was enough to make Ed halt in his tracks, looking up in the direction of the cry. Winry stood on the opposite sidewalk, her eyes wide with alarm at seeing him in such a rush.
Her house and shop were both in the opposite direction from the lake. What was she doing over here, and so early in the morning?
In Ed’s eyes, her features suddenly blurred. Superimposed on them was the face of the young girl she had been in his vision—but not quite. A few years older, her hair even longer, the curves of her figure maturing but not yet softened by motherhood. In one heartbeat she was angrily shaking her wrench at him, in the next smiling, in the next glossy-eyed with tears.
Groaning, Ed blinked the illusion from his sight, and continued to run.
He could hear the fear in Winry’s voice as she shouted after him. Silently he apologized to her, but he didn’t slow down. It would drive him mad to see that again, to look at his loved ones and find more of these echoes from a past he couldn’t have known. For his sanity’s sake, he had to chase it all out of his head before he returned to them.
Winry didn’t follow him. In her condition, heavy with child, she couldn’t have begun to catch up to him if she tried. Instead, undoubtedly, she would go straight to his parents and Al; but for all he knew, they might already have discovered his absence from the house.
It didn’t matter now, anyway. As soundly as Mother had instilled the fear of it in her children, Yock Island was surely the one place they would never dream he was headed for. He would have all the time he needed to wrestle with his own mind alone.
He only hoped they wouldn’t fear the worst.
With his pace slowing little, Ed continued through the outskirts of Dublith, where the town tapered into open fields with more scattered houses and buildings. Beyond that stood the fringe of woodland that surrounded the lake, and the dirt road that wound its way to the shore. Unlike the Curtis family’s zealous avoidance of the area, other locals often went there to swim or picnic, or simply walk in the quiet of the woods. However, at that early hour of the morning, the road and the grassy parkland on the lakeshore were deserted.
In the distance, Yock Island rose greenly from the blue. Ed slowed as he crossed the well-worn sandy slope where boats were launched, gazing across the water at the familiar beach.
The inside of his head thumped sickeningly as more images stirred. Notches cut into a tree, counting off days. Hunting rabbits and snakes for food. Being hunted in turn by a towering, terrorizing figure in a garish mask.
That face again, of the boy so much like himself—contorted this time with fear. For a moment, it may have been a fear of that masked attacker… but then the vision twisted, and the terror was for too-familiar black hands that surrounded and entangled the boy, just as they had done to Ed in his previous hallucinations.
Ed screamed. He fell to his knees on the sand and grasped his head, barely able to resist vomiting from his pain and bewildered horror.
Now he was sure the island held a key to what was happening to him. He had to go there, beyond the shore. Whatever it would awaken in him, surely it would be better than the torment of these broken fragments cutting into his brain.
Gulping in a deep, shaky breath, Ed lowered his hands from his face. The palms he had pressed over his eyes were damp, not only with sweat, but with tears that had escaped unnoticed. A dull-hot counterpoint to the pain in his head, the aches in his right shoulder and left thigh seemed to have spread, filling his arm and leg entirely; but there was a certain numbness to the ache now as well, as if both limbs were strangely distant and unfamiliar. Ed clenched his right fist, just to assure himself that he could.
He had to move now, while he still could move. Half-closing his eyes to diminish the hurt the sharp morning light added to his pounding skull, he braced his hands against the coarse yellow-brown sand, to push himself to his feet.
Just as he was beginning to rise, a large, dark shadow fell over him.
The instincts Ed reacted on were quicker than any he had ever felt before, even with Mother’s rigorous training. He spun aside as something big and heavy swept down over the spot where he had been, smashing a crater into the sand. The evasive movement tumbled him a few yards closer to the water’s edge, where he turned to face his assailant.
In his struggle with his own inner demons, he had forgotten about the murderer from the alley.
Ed recognized the man instantly, even though, at first glimpse, he was hunched over from the momentum of his attempted blow. His hood was down, exposing more of his unkempt and greasy-looking gray hair, but the long cloak that concealed his huge craggy figure was the same… and when he looked at Ed, so was the burning hatred in his one visible eye.
As he rose up, the hem of the cloak fell away from a massive, menacing steel shape where his left arm should have been: a monstrosity of gun barrels and bladed edges that glistened in the rising sun.
A new level of pain seared through Ed’s head. His mind incongruously whisper-screamed a word at him—bald—but he didn’t know what that meant. All he knew was that he was suddenly half-blind and reeling from the assault within his own being, even as the killer without lunged toward him.
Desperation mingled bizarrely with muscle memories of battle that Ed had never known before. Unable to fully dodge his attacker at such close range, he twisted his body aside as best he could, at the same time seizing the man’s enormous weapon-arm with both hands. Its barrels looked ten feet wide as they swung in front of his face, and his right palm burned where the tip of a bayonet blade caught raggedly on his skin.
For a single moment, Ed was braced against his attacker’s much greater physical power, with a dizzying sense of deja-vu spinning in his brain—until the strangler’s right hand emerged from beneath the cloak.
It was a proper hand in shape only. That is, it had five fingers and a palm; but it was as gleamingly metallic as the weapon-arm, and it clenched and shot up toward Ed’s jaw with unbelievable speed.
Everything in Ed’s being cried out that this was wrong, impossible, not the way it had been before…
And then it all went away into darkness.
CHAPTER V: Who Am I
Something was wrong.
That feeling had been nagging at Alphonse for the last several minutes. As he sat at the table and tried halfheartedly to make small talk with General Mustang, all he really wanted to do was get up and go check on Edward—but he knew his now-younger brother would object to such a mother-hen impulse. Ed’s spirit was still as independent as ever, and he didn’t like being fussed over, even when he was troubled.
He had probably just been stopped in the hallway to listen to some sort of chatter from Shaya or Ronan. Either that, or he was procrastinating over the task of fetching bacon from the shop’s freezer. He never had liked going in there.
Ruefully Al touched his chestplate, tracing the spot where Ed’s long-ago blade had struck him in a panic after overcoming Barry the Chopper. That traumatic ordeal was the obvious reason for his aversion to what was now their family’s trade. It was one of the things Al could hold to, almost from the beginning, as proof that Ed’s soul still contained everything he once was. The only question had been whether that part of him could ever awaken.
Now that it was beginning to happen, Al could only wonder what the future held.
If Ed remembered their past, would he be content to keep on living the simple life they had enjoyed here in Dublith? Al couldn’t imagine that he would. Even if he could be convinced that it was truly what Al wanted, he would never really be able to forgive himself for failing to keep his promise. That weight in his heart would deny peace for both of them.
And yet, at the same time, Al couldn’t let them go back to the way things had been all those years ago. He couldn’t just follow along, watching Ed risk his life and suffer hurt day after day, on a quest to achieve the impossible.
He wondered if there could ever be any compromise that would let them both be happy again someday.
“Are you alright?”
Mustang’s voice drew Al out of his sad reverie. He looked up in chagrin, to find the General somewhat concernedly—but quite uselessly—studying the steel mask that passed for his face.
“Yeah.” Al shifted awkwardly on his chair. “I was just thinking about… where we go from here. If Ed remembers everything.”
Mustang smiled thinly. “It wouldn’t have to be his decision, you know. At least not yet. You’re the adult now.”
“That’s true… but this is Brother. I could tell him what to do in this life—but the way he was? Never.”
“It isn’t as if his remembering would just flip some kind of switch and erase these last fifteen years. At least, I don’t think it could happen like that.” The General lightly patted Al’s rerebrace. “Listen, Al. I don’t know just who Ed is going to be if both of his lives come together, but I do know one thing. You and the rest of your family have loved him for all this time… and no matter how much pain he has to relive, the effect that love has had on him isn’t going to go away.”
Al found himself wishing he could smile, to show his gratitude for those words.
Before he could form a suitable answer, the abrupt slam of the front door resounded from the living room. It ushered in two voices, a man and a woman: the policeman on guard duty, and Winry. She was speaking quickly, in a high and anxious voice, as he evidently tried to calm her.
Hearing the commotion, Izumi appeared in the kitchen doorway. Her eyes were so very dark… and Al suddenly knew, seeing it reflected there, that his sense of wrongness had not been mistaken at all.
A second later, Winry thrust herself into the room, ignoring the policeman who trailed confusedly after her.
“What’s happened? I just saw Ed running down the street!”
Horror spilled instantly into Al’s soul, and he lurched up from his chair so violently that he almost upset the table. “What?”
“I was coming out of the police station,” Winry elaborated breathlessly. “I saw Ed on the other side of the street. He stopped and looked at me when I called to him, but then—he just turned around and kept running!”
In Al’s mind, all at once, he saw it so clearly. The direction in which the police station stood, and what lay a distance beyond that, on the edge of town… and somehow, he knew, beyond the faintest shadow of doubt.
“That can’t be,” Mustang murmured, shaking his head. “He only left this room a few minutes ago. What could he possibly—?”
“He’s going to Yock Island.”
All eyes turned to Alphonse, struck silent by his quiet pronouncement. He looked around at them with clenched fists, soul-light eyes flickering with a spark of scarlet.
“I understand. Ed must have remembered something, out of all the things that happened to us there… and now he’s gone to look for the reason why.”
For a brief moment, the room was perfectly still. It was Izumi who shattered that stillness. She strode forward with swiftly, ominously deliberate steps, and pushed past Winry on her way to the front door.
Sig, who had discreetly come up behind his wife at the threshold of the kitchen, started after her. “Izumi…”
“He’s still my son, Sig—even if only for today.” Izumi looked back. “…And there’s a killer out there who knows him.”
If Al could have felt sick, he knew the reminder of that external danger to Edward would have achieved exactly that. He moved quickly to follow Izumi, but Winry reached out, clasping one hand firmly onto his vambrace.
“Wait. That’s something else you have to know—what I was doing at the police station.” The expectant mother’s eyes were wide with anxiety. “You remember how Lieutenant Pardo wanted me to look at the marks on that woman’s neck. I went there first thing this morning, and when I saw the body, I was able to confirm exactly what he suspected. The person who strangled her had automail.”
“We already know that,” Mustang returned brusquely. “This terrorist Bald used to have a whole arsenal in place of his left arm—and since he escaped from prison, he’s probably picked up something else just as nasty on the black market in Rush Valley.”
“No, that’s not it.” Winry shook her head vehemently. “These automail finger imprints… They were from a right hand.”
By the time a heated oath had escaped from Mustang’s lips, Izumi was already out the door, and Alphonse was close behind her.
For some time, the dark was only broken by sporadic fragments of sensation. The creak of oars, the lapping of water… and always, the inferno of Edward’s headache, burning distantly even in the void of black nothingness that kept dragging him back from those flashes of perception.
When at last he fought his way out of it completely, awareness came all at once, in an excruciating flood of sensory input.
His head jerked upward sharply from his chest, his eyes snapping open. The pain heightened his disorientation; now it was not only throbbing in his skull and his limbs, but in his jaw where he had been struck. Strangely, he could feel that he was in a more or less upright position, with his weight resting against something behind his back.
A blur of green and brown filled his view. As he blinked it into focus, it took shape as the familiar varieties of trees, ferns, and vines that grew on Yock Island—but the soft sound of the lake’s ripples against the shore could not be heard. There was only the buzz of insects, the chirps and whistles of birds. Instead of the bright sunshine of the beach, the light was filtered through the shadows of overhanging branches.
This was the hinterland of the island, the very place he had intended to go on his own—but now he had been brought here by force instead.
The realization brought a sharp new stab of clarity. Ed moved, a start of surprise that reflexively became an attempt to push off from the surface he leaned upon… but he remained frozen in place. From the back of his neck down to his ankles, he found that something cool and impossibly sticky was clinging to him from behind, holding him fast against the taut ropes of something that felt like a fisherman’s net.
With some effort, trying not to get any more of his hair caught on the stuff, Ed managed to turn his head a little. The fibers of the net were not rough hemp, but instead pearlescent white and silk-smooth, woven into an intricately beautiful pattern. All down the length of its strands, gobs of the wet sticky substance glistened like dewdrops. It stretched away for several yards on either side of him, its anchor lines vanishing into the foliage of the trees.
In short, it was nothing other than a gigantic spiderweb.
Ed’s pulse lurched and his stomach tightened, intensifying his headache. He forced his head forward a little more, looking around fearfully for whatever monstrosity could have created this trap. No other living thing was visible, either on or near the web… but as his gaze took in further details of the clearing across which it was spread, something else squeezed his heart still further.
Below him, under his feet that were suspended hardly an inch above the ground, he could make out a large circle paved with flat stones. It was covered by a thin film of earth, and vines had begun to crawl across it, but its shape was still distinct. Rising around it in a semicircle were four cairns of piled rocks—some of them serving as anchoring points for the web. The formation was ancient, but clearly man-made, like an altar for some kind of sacrificial offering.
The urge to laugh sickly bubbled up within Ed. Was this why Mother had always warned him and his siblings not to come here?
He had read horror stories like this. Crazy works of fiction about cults that harbored a monster in some hidden place, and occasionally dragged away an unsuspecting traveler or the choicest local maiden to feed to it. He always found such tales hilariously implausible…
But when one was knocked out, hauled to a forbidden island, and hung up on a giant spiderweb, it had a funny way of opening one’s mind to the world’s weirder potentials.
Maybe the one-eyed, hooded strangler with guns for an arm was the cult’s high priest. Maybe what Ed had stumbled upon the day before was a botched attempt to acquire a sacrifice. Of course, he couldn’t be allowed to see that and live.
This time Ed did laugh: a thready, quivering, unhealthy sound. He shook his head as sharply as the adhesion of the web would permit, ignoring the way the movement made his skull throb harder.
There was a far more rational answer. He had a concussion from the strangler’s metal-fisted punch to his chin, and combined with the already dubious state of his mental health, it was getting the better of him. It was that simple. If he could just get a grip on himself, he would realize that the spiderweb was only in his mind, a manifestation of the inner confusion he felt himself tangled in.
…Perhaps even his encounter with the killer on the lakeshore wasn’t real. That could have been a part of the entire hallucination, too. It was so much more likely that he had made his way out here on his own, just as he planned—and now he was plunging headlong into the very madness he had hoped to unravel.
Enough already! I’m going to pull myself off of this thing and walk away—because it’s not really here at all.
Ed took a long, deep breath, and closed his eyes, struggling to concentrate through the pain in his head. He reached inward to recall everything he had learned from Mother about focusing himself…
His eyes flew open. The bizarre stone terrace around and beneath him was still there; but he suddenly saw it veiled by the dark of night. He saw Mother sprawled on the edge of the circle, with a dark-haired, demon-faced child standing over her.
Ed groaned through his teeth and thrashed against the web—not fighting it, but the fresh wave of images and emotions that cascaded through his mind. Mother clinging protectively to the same monstrous little creature. Mother with her strong body bowed, as she coughed up a gush of red-black blood into her hand.
Alchemy lessons—but not as Ed had always known them. Shaya was not there, and even the familiar armored figure of Al was absent. Instead, that boy was there. That boy, learning word for word alongside Ed. That boy, trying to suppress the quiver of his lip, as Mother bandaged his tender bruised flesh after a harsh bout of physical training.
Flesh so precious, so priceless, that Edward had promised…
The scream Ed released then echoed between the trees, causing birds to take flight and scatter across the sky.
“So, you’re awake… Good.”
A chill shot down Ed’s spine. He raised his head, to see the strangler approaching through the forest. The weapon-arm was tucked beneath his cloak, but he reached out with his right hand of ordinary automail to sweep branches from his path.
Bald was his name.
Suddenly made real, the name burned in Ed’s tortured brain like the flame of a welding torch, throwing off further sparks of memories from a life he didn’t recognize. Facing down terrorist thugs. Climbing on the roof of a train. The fatherly soldier Ed had seen in his visions before, catching him when he fell—and wielding a knife with breathtaking precision and speed.
Bald was not alone. Someone else followed him through the brush, a hunched figure who was completely covered by a similar cloak and hood. This person was almost as tall and broad as he was, but even under such obscuring garments, something about their shape and way of moving was distinctly… wrong.
“I wanted you to be awake when you die.” Bald reached out as he came near, his metal talons twisting themselves into the front of Ed’s shirt. He jerked the slight teenager upward as far as the meager slack of the web would allow, until they were face to face. “I want you to die knowing what happened because of you.”
Ed’s consciousness, and his very reality, were spinning so far out of control that he could barely follow the words. All he fully grasped was the menace in Bald’s voice, the absolute promise of pain.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about… I haven’t done anything…”
Even as he choked out those words, he somehow knew they were not exactly true.
In response to the plea of innocence, Bald’s lone eye blinked. His scowl thoughtfully softened a fraction, and he studied Ed’s face.
“A part of me does think it’s hard to believe it was you. It’s been twenty years… but you’re still the same brat you were that day. You’re barely any older at all.”
He bent his head a little closer, his eye intently scrutinizing every detail of the boy’s features. Then he abruptly released him with a rough snort of disgust, letting the stretched fibers of the web snap back into place with a force that jarred Ed’s bones.
“…No. It was you. Everything about you is too exactly the same. I don’t know what you’ve done to stay young like this and get your arm back, or if you really don’t remember what you did—but you’re still going to pay for it. For what you let happen… to her.”
His glance shot toward the figure who lurked behind him. In acknowledgment, or perhaps agreement, a faint moan came from beneath the hood. Even in Ed’s condition, he knew there was nothing natural about the sound.
“I don’t understand,” Ed groaned, struggling to discern whether there was something perfectly rational in Bald’s words that he was missing. He could barely separate the present moment from the images and sensations that spilled through his mind. They felt like memories, and they were filled with the inexplicably younger faces of many of his loved ones; but there was no context, no knowledge of what and when and where to piece them all together.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll explain it to you. I want it to be the last thing you ever know.”
Bald took a few steps back, to stand beside his companion. He rested his automail hand on the figure’s shoulder. The head turned and tipped downward, as if to rub its cheek against his steel fingers.
“Priya was the boss of our organization… but not even our other members knew what she was to me. Do you get me, kid? It wasn’t just politics when I took that train, to hold General Hakuro hostage and trade him for her. It was personal.” He took a deep breath that shuddered through him, closing his eye. “But then you and that armor-plated freak you were with wrecked the whole plan, and the rest of us were sent to prison. I would have hated you enough just for that—but what they did to her as retribution…”
His eye opened, with a gaze that cut straight into Ed like a blade.
“They took her to a place called Lab Five. Do you know what that was, boy? You were an alchemist—were you part of it?”
A fresh, piercing pain surged through Edward’s head. It brought with it new visions, splashed across his mind in shades of glowing crimson.
Metal-clad souls, just like Alphonse. A hulking, no-longer-human creature, fawning over a lifeless puppet in the shape of a child. Prisoners in a cage, watching fearfully as Ed’s own hands trembled over the array for a forbidden transmutation. Al with his armor torn to pieces… and a dark woman bending over him, her finger forming a deadly black needle that was poised to scratch away the bonds of his very soul.
Ed arched and shrieked, his entire body pulling violently against the grip of the web’s clinging adhesive cords. He felt as if his skull was going to burst, unable to contain these impossible horrors that were swelling within it.
The terrorist watched those anguished contortions dispassionately. When Ed finally sagged once more against the web’s inescapable support, gasping in pain and exhaustion, Bald went on in a chillingly quiet voice.
“Maybe you already know what happened to my Priya. Maybe you were the one who did it—but even if you weren’t, you’re still the one who stopped us from saving her. I’ve waited twenty years to pay you back for that. While I rotted in prison, the one thing that kept me alive was the thought of seeing you dead… and finally, two years ago, the day came when I had the chance to break out. The first thing I did then was find Priya at the so-called hospital where they were keeping her. The new government likes to claim they’re rehabilitating the ones like her—but all this time, she was still nothing but a lab rat to them.”
Bald raised his weapon-arm from beneath his cloak, and his automail hand stroked it with a soft clink of metal. “Once I got her out of there, the next step was to get me some new hardware in Rush Valley. That’s where I picked up this… and for good measure, I had my other arm replaced with something stronger, too.”
Those words, with their inhumanly monstrous implication, were enough to fully penetrate Ed’s fog of living nightmares. Staring up wide-eyed at the mechanical constructs Bald had deliberately traded his flesh for, he retched from the depths of his fortunately empty stomach.
“Finally, when I was healed up, it was time to come looking for you.” Bald smirked humorlessly. “I thought I was looking for a man who’d be thirty years old by now—but don’t think that innocent young face you’re hiding behind is gonna save you. Even like that, it won’t be any less of a pleasure for me to watch the life drain out of you.”
The intensity of the threat alone was enough to spur Ed’s resistance. He pulled against the web, gasping out words that felt hollow and false on his own lips, even though he didn’t understand why.
“No, you’re wrong… You’ve got me confused with somebody else…”
“Not a chance. I’ve been seeing your face in my mind every day for twenty years. You were the one, even if you don’t remember—but I want you to remember. I want you to die knowing the reason why… and now, I’m gonna show you.”
With that, Bald seized his companion’s cloak and tore it away, to reveal a creature that looked as if it could only have crawled from the darkest abyss of some primordial nightmare.
The monster was colored a dark slate-gray, its skin rough and bristling with short, spiny hairs. Its torso was clothed in white drapings, almost like a simple dress or a nightgown, but the garment did nothing to conceal the four too-spindly legs that supported its bulbous, swollen body. Similarly, there were four arms or forelimbs sprouting from the upper trunk. One pair distinctly resembled normal human arms in placement and proportion; but the lower pair was smaller, misshapen, covered with an even darker chitinous hide. All four arms ended in things that could no longer be called hands, their fingers fused and elongated, growing together into single serrated claw-hooks with a useless nub of a thumb. A thick, darkly veined neck rose above the shoulders of the uppermost limbs, and at the top of that…
It only made it more horrible that the head retained the strongest vestige of a human form. Much of the skull might almost have been normal in shape—if not for the long, jagged mandibles that pushed forward out of the jaws. Stretched around the roots of these savage pincers were half-recognizable lips, but they could only partially close over other, inner mouth-parts that moved repulsively, dripping with saliva. In the center of the distorted face was a flat semblance of a nose. Above that, four differently-sized pairs of compound insect-eyes stared unreadably, gleaming an iridescent scarlet color. The top of the head was crowned with a tangle of hair, long and black… and somehow, still hauntingly feminine.
Ed wanted to scream, but his throat constricted with sick terror, strangling his voice.
Alchemy. It was alchemy that had done this…
Visions again. A little girl with long brown braids and a dazzling smile, hugging a blond-furred dog so large she could have ridden him. A man whose eyes shone feverishly behind his glasses, his face bloodied from the blows of Ed’s fists. A deformed, hollow-eyed thing that gazed up mournfully at Ed, asking him why it hurt.
It was the spider-chimera who gave utterance to the cry that was choked inside of Ed. Upon her exposure, she reared back and uttered a wail of instinctive, half-animal anguish. She raised her dominant arms, almost crossing them over herself—as if to cover her monstrous appearance, or to hide herself from the light of the sun—while her lesser arms stretched out beseechingly to Bald.
“Easy, Priya. After all these years… it’s time to have your revenge.” Metal fingers stroked the almost-human cheek that bulged around the base of the chimera’s mandibles. Then Bald turned and extended his arm, pointing sharply at Ed. “This is the one who let them hurt you—and now he’s yours. Take him.”
Priya wavered uncertainly. Her head turned, looking back and forth between her erstwhile lover and the boy suspended on her web; and then, slowly, she began a shuffling advance on her four bowed legs. More fluid trickled from her mouth, thick and green-tinged, as she reached out her hooks toward Ed in a heart-paralyzing gesture of greedy want.
A screech finally tore itself out of Ed’s lungs. He twisted and struggled against the web, staring in horror at the approaching monster.
“Don’t fight it. It’ll be quicker that way.” Bald stepped up to the web, leaning close to Ed’s face with a vindictive smile. “She’s hungry, and the animals on this island are too small to satisfy her. I was trying to bring her something better yesterday—until you showed up to get in my way again.” He laughed blackly. “Who would’ve thought it? The payback couldn’t be any more perfect. She became this because of you… and now she’s going to make a meal out of you.”
“No… It’s not—I never meant—!”
Bald lying crumpled on a train platform, his flesh singed, as Uncle Roy—the Flame Alchemist—casually strolled away. A grim, shaven-headed man with a squad of soldiers, forcing the talking dog-child into the back of a truck. Al’s gasp of terror as the dark woman traced the lightest touch over the edge of his blood seal, her low voice murmuring mingled promises and threats. Outrage, frustration, helplessness: the feelings of being betrayed, of being used time and again, like a mere puppet on a string.
The erosion of innocence, as the lines between manipulation and complicity blurred.
My fault… Always, all of it, all my fault…
Now-familiar black hands slithered out of the shadows in Ed’s mind. The sticky secretion that held him to the web became their eager clutches; and this time, he sagged limply into their embrace. His struggles ceased as the guilt of unremembered sins consumed his will to fight.
He had broken that promise, whatever it may have been.
He had failed.
Priya reached the web. Her hooks fastened on it at either side of Ed’s shoulders, and she leaned over him, her mandibles stretched wide. Gusts of foul breath panted out against his face, while a few drops of viscous saliva dripped onto his cheek, causing his skin to burn where it touched him. In his mind, the sting of it was the black hands, clawing into his flesh.
He didn’t flinch. He didn’t care anymore. All that mattered to him now was one thing, one question he wanted the answer to before he died.
Turning his head away from the creature that hungrily drew closer, Ed met Bald’s gaze. The sight of the man’s one stony eye entwined with the memory of another: an eye that stared down at him impenetrably, carved into the surface of a massive pair of doors.
“Tell me who I am.”
Bald’s eyebrow raised at the words. Then the fleeting surprise passed, and his lips twisted with a sadistic grin.
“Your name was—”
The shadow-hands vanished as Ed’s eyes opened wide. His racing heart almost stopped at the cry, unmistakable in its ringing steel resonance; and at least for a few moments, it caused the world to sharpen into clarity around him again.
It wasn’t in his mind this time. He knew it when Bald and Priya both recoiled from the edge of the web, turning to face the four interlopers who crashed through the forest undergrowth and burst into the clearing.
Al. Mother and Father. Uncle Roy.
Father’s fist plowed into Bald’s face before the terrorist could raise his weapon-arm. The two powerful men went down together in a thrashing, punching tangle. Alphonse seized Priya, twisting her backwards and away from the web, as Mother clapped her hands and sought an opening to deliver one deadly touch upon the struggling monster.
The sound of a snap was followed instantly by the odor of smoke, and one side of the web gave way at Ed’s left, its silk fibers burning. With a yelp he tumbled down onto the stone circle below, entangled by more of the web’s sticky strands as it partially collapsed on him. He glimpsed Uncle Roy’s gloved fingers closing together to snap again—and then he saw Bald on the ground, clawing his way up from underneath Father’s restraint, his weapon-arm outstretched to target the Flame Alchemist. Bald’s face was filled with renewed vengeful hatred, testifying to his own memory of pain and humiliation in their last encounter.
Ed didn’t know whether his shout of warning was ever heard. Father shoved Bald’s weapon-arm aside the very moment it fired, but the cannon-like shot still thudded into the ground only inches behind Uncle Roy’s heels. It caused him to stumble just as he snapped his fingers, and the resulting spark burst wide of the other anchoring web-threads he was aiming at. Fire erupted across the fallen strands hardly an arm’s length in front of Ed, billowing up into a wall of flames that obscured his view of the ongoing battle.
The adhesive secretion that coated the web must have been flammable. The fire coursed eagerly along the silk, flaring brighter as it met thicker drops of the stuff. Through his dazed pain, a part of Ed realized that if he didn’t get clear of the webbing he was mired in, he would burn with it.
Through the flames Ed dimly caught sight of Al, releasing Priya to rush toward him; but there was no time for Al to draw an alchemic array, and Mother was fully preoccupied with the snarling spider-woman. The armored brother froze for a moment on the other side of the wall of fire, torn between the encroaching danger to Ed, and the risk that its searing heat would damage his own vital blood seal.
A seal that bound them both—with Ed’s own blood…
The world suddenly blurred again. The flames dissolved from Ed’s sight, and in place of Al, he saw the face of that boy once more.
That boy, huddled beneath a sunset sky the same color as the fire, sobbing beside a grave.
That boy with a heavy club looming over him, wielded by the masked giant who had lurked on this very island.
That boy, wrapped in the clutches of the black hands as they dragged him toward a twisting well of darkness. That boy reaching desperately for Ed as he cried out one word: a word that was also a name.
The word was Brother.
The scream Ed released was high and wild as an animal’s. Without a conscious thought his arms wrenched forward, tearing at the webbing that held them, until the palms of his hands came together in a violent clap. Then they pressed flat to the ground beneath him, his fingers clenching against the rough stones.
Under his hands, blue light surged. The ancient pavement split apart, and a mass of loose earth exploded from the widening crevice. It swelled and congealed, crashing down like a wave to smother the threatening flames.
I promised him…
Ed clapped again, and the webbing that clung all over him disintegrated at his touch.
He staggered to his feet, stumbling over the heap of soil that had extinguished the fire. Still gripped by the relentless pain in his skull, unable to think, he could barely see and comprehend what was happening around him. He didn’t even realize that his hands remained poised instinctively for a transmutation without a circle. For a moment, all he fully registered was the gleam of Al’s armor, as his brother rushed toward him.
Another burst of flames was mingled with a man’s cry, a heavy thud… and a terrible dull crack. Ed whipped around to see Bald lying limp at the base of a tree, the front of his clothes scorched and smoking from the fireball that had blown him back. His neck was twisted, his eye staring emptily toward the sky.
Now held at bay by Mother and Father, Priya saw her lover on the ground. She screeched in anguish and flung herself toward him, sweeping her scythe-like hooks at the couple as they bodily grappled with her.
Al spun to join them, to help subdue the beast, as Uncle Roy stood hesitating. His hand was raised, but the others were pressing in so close around Priya, he had no opening to use his fire without risking harm to them.
For a moment, the struggle was only a blur of motion. Priya thrashed with monstrous strength, her mandibles snapping at her opponents, while smaller, hideous appendages flicked out of her wailing mouth. Her head suddenly snapped forward, causing Mother to gasp and flinch away—as one of those gnashing mouth-parts sliced into flesh.
Mother’s hands clapped together with a greater urgency than before. She reached out just as Al and Father succeeded in dragging Priya back, and her palm struck flat against the chimera’s chest.
In an instant, Priya’s body violently heaved and distorted from within, as every organ inside it ruptured simultaneously. The wretched creature didn’t even have time to cry out. As Mother recoiled, Priya slumped forward onto the ground and lay still, her hooks stretched out toward the lifeless form of the man who had loved her.
Standing paralyzed as he stared at Priya’s body, Ed saw once more the deformed and writhing perversion of the beautiful young woman in his visions.
The thing he and Alphonse-the-boy had made… Made in the image of…
His head jerked up. Al and Father had gathered around Mother. She was clutching her left forearm, and even from where he stood, Ed could see the ugly red gash it bore. There was not only blood oozing from it, but also the greenish, burning liquid that had dripped from Priya’s mouth.
“Mother!” Ed gasped, rushing forward.
She looked up at him, with a wan smile; but her face was rapidly growing very pale.
“It’s nothing,” she murmured, releasing her arm to lay her right hand on his shoulder, with a tight grip that betrayed her unsteadiness. “Only a small bite…”
Then she collapsed at Ed’s feet, shuddering, and the shudders swiftly turned into harsh spasms.
Father and Al and Uncle Roy closed in around Mother then. They tried to still the convulsions, to hold her down, to figure out something they could do to help her… but Ed knew there was nothing. The venom was too potent, and it had already spread too far.
As he watched in numb horror, he felt the last remaining walls inside his mind crumble.
Standing with the boy who had been Alphonse, at the bedside of the young woman when she was still beautiful. Her voice fading to a whisper as she asked them to make her flowers. Her hand letting go of theirs when her life slipped away.
It was her loss that had started it all…
Not this time. Not again.
Ed shoved the other three men away from his second mother. His palms came together once more, and he fell to his knees beside her, spreading his hands over her chest before anyone could reach out to stop him.
Golden light engulfed him, and in the space between two heartbeats, he stood before the inscrutable eye of those all-too-familiar doors.
He stared back at the Gate unrepentantly. A faint, bitter smile twisted across his face.
“…You haven’t gotten rid of me yet.”
CHAPTER VI: Who I am
As Edward awakened, a dull, warm pain was the first thing to creep into his awareness. It seemed to spread through every nerve in his body, making its source indistinct in those first hazy moments of consciousness. With his eyes closed, he lay very still, allowing the ache to remind him…
No, not that he was alive. Merely that he existed at all.
He remembered everything.
He was Edward Elric: the Fullmetal Alchemist. The Hero of the People. The young prodigy who had used his gifts to defy the most sacred laws of alchemy. The devoted, guilt-ravaged brother who had promised to set right the sins for which he did not suffer alone.
But he was also Edward Curtis. An innocently loving brother, son, and cousin; a sheltered schoolboy, an alchemy student who felt he had still barely scratched the surface of the skills he sought to learn.
For a long moment, he wondered which of those lives had been only a dream.
Slowly he opened his eyes, to see the walls of his bedroom in the Curtis home. The brightness that streamed in through the windows held the slant of late-morning light. That meant at least one day, possibly more, had passed since…
Yock Island. Bald and Priya, the web, the pain of half of his soul reawakening after so long. His rescue… and what came after.
Ed knew then exactly where the ache in his body was coming from.
His left hand slid out from beneath the covers to reach across his chest. As his fingers closed on his right shoulder, he thought he would feel the softness of gauze and bandages… but instead he found hard, smooth steel. His eyes widened for only a moment, but as he explored further, discovering familiar lines of aged scars between metal and flesh, his lips crooked with a rueful smile.
He had known his arm was gone—again. Taking back what it had claimed before was the Gate’s price for saving the life of Izumi, his Mother-Teacher, and averting a loss that neither part of him could bear to relive. What he hadn’t expected was that the Gate would return to him the old automail he had borne so many years ago.
There was no revulsion when he turned his head to look at it. Now that he remembered his history, what automail meant to him, the unpleasant reactions of his second lifetime were no more. The mechanical limb was simply the part of him that he so well remembered it being.
His nerves were now unpracticed at controlling it, but the hand did slowly respond to his will, rising from the mattress to stretch out in front of him. Sunlight gleamed on metal fingertips that closed into a fist, as if to grasp what was now—again—his reality.
Or at least… a part of it.
The exchange of steel for his flesh meant Izumi was alive. He knew that for a fact, so he had no fear for the woman he still loved as a mother. For his own sake, all he felt was a quiet melancholy, a dawning sense of guilt for involuntarily losing sight of his promise to his brother… and even now, a great deal of confusion. Perhaps now more than ever, as he faced the question of fitting together the two lives he had lived, the two very different identities that both existed inside him.
Knowing exactly how he had become Edward Curtis would certainly help. It was the one part that was unclear to him, a void between the last jumbled memories of his original life, and the first simple recollections of the childhood in which he had started over.
Gingerly, with the movements of his automail arm still halting and hesitant, Ed pulled himself up against the pillows and sat straighter. The ache was getting better, but he still felt weak and unsteady. He began to further examine his flesh, and found that the small scars of various youthful accidents were gone—while other scars, those of surgeries and battles, had reappeared in their place. Evidently the Gate had restored his body to exactly the way it was when his first life ended.
Just as he was about to push the covers off and try to stand, the door softly swung open. Alphonse looked into the room. As his brother saw him awake and sitting up, Ed could hear the soft gasp within the armor.
It was only then that the full impact of the last fifteen years truly struck home.
Al was thirty years old now. He had grown up inside that metal shell from which Ed had vowed to free him. More than that, he had been forced to become the elder, the caretaker, helping to raise Ed again from the total dependence of infancy. While Ed lived in happy, sheltered ignorance of their dark past, Al had carried alone the memories of all their hurt, and the emptiness of his brother’s unfulfilled promise.
The tears came in a sudden flood, as Ed pressed his flesh hand over his eyes and shook with guilty grief.
“I’m sorry, Al… I’m sorry…”
With a swift clatter of steel, his now-older brother was beside him. Al sat heavily on the edge of the bed, pulling Ed halfway into his arms.
“Don’t, Ed. It’s okay. It’s all okay.”
Ed didn’t know how long he simply clung to Al, sobbing and mouthing useless apologies, as Al stroked his hair and crooned soothing words. A part of him hated that even now, it was his brother giving strength and comfort. He should have been the strong one, the one to make things right so long ago—instead of wasting these many years as a pathetic child, who still cried for his own weakness in the arms of the very person he had failed.
“I… n-never kept my promise—all this time…” he breathed out at length, his cheek pressed tightly to Al’s chestplate.
“I don’t care about that, Brother. All I care about is that you’re alive.” Leather fingers curled around Ed’s cheek, cradling his head. Al’s helmet bent closer to his ear. “Fifteen years ago, when I thought I’d lost you… How did it take that to make me see what really mattered? I’m the one who’s sorry—for letting you fight and hurt for so long. The one thing I’m not sorry for is getting you back the way we did, and being able to see you happy for all these years. That’s all I want, Ed.”
For a few moments at least, the fiercely loving words made Ed weep more heavily. When at last he managed to get a grip on himself, swallowing hard and sniffling, he raised his head to look up tearfully at Al.
“How did it happen?” he asked faintly.
“It was Wrath. On that last night, when we fought with him on Yock Island…” Al’s helmet turned, his gaze wandering away to the incongruous brightness that poured in from the window. A shudder passed through his steel, and he gathered himself in a brief, painful silence.
“He stabbed you through the chest, Brother. You were… You were going to die. And there was nothing I could do.” Al’s voice was heavy with a guilt of his own. A moment passed before he shook his helmet and continued. “But when Wrath saw you lying there, bleeding, it was like he realized what he’d really done—what it meant to hurt someone. Then he chose to sacrifice himself to save you. He used your dying body as the raw material to heal Mother… I mean, Teacher… and he transmuted your soul into an unborn child inside her new womb, to give you a second chance to live.”
Ed’s stomach flopped uneasily. Between his earliest memories of his present life, and his lovingly preserved baby pictures in the family albums, he had realized his current existence must have started over from the very beginning. Yet now that he remembered the way he once lived in fear of Izumi Curtis, it was strange to think that she had carried him inside her, given him birth into the world for a second time.
Even so, he also remembered the power of her tenderness and love ever since.
“Then Mother… Teacher…”
“She really is your mother in this life.” A note of fond warmth crept into Al’s voice, as he brushed back a few strands of hair from Ed’s face. “I told you all along that you were born to this family. Remember?”
“…Yeah.” A slight pinkness crept across Ed’s still-damp cheeks, and he tried to smile wanly, although he was not sure he succeeded. He let himself sag forward, resting his forehead on Al’s chestplate. “It’s just hard to understand. I need some time to figure out—which one of me I really am. Or maybe… which parts of both I should be.”
“We have all the time in the world, Brother—and we don’t have to face this alone.”
Before his rebirth, Ed thought he would have responded cynically to such words. Now, however, his heart embraced them. Maybe it was only the part of him that was Edward Curtis, ordinary and weak, but he was relieved at the thought of having other loved ones to share this burden with. As they helped him rediscover himself, perhaps they would lead him closer to being the son and brother he had been in these recent years than the Edward Elric of old… but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
Except that this time, he would remember his promise.
He sighed, turning his head a little to glance ruefully at his metal shoulder. “I’m just sorry that after all these years… we’re right back where we started.”
“No we’re not.” Al pulled back slightly, studying Ed’s face. “We have a family, Brother. We have parents who gave us the love we were trying to get back in the first place. We have another brother and sister, who could never even have been born if Wrath hadn’t healed Mother to save you—and there’s one other thing that’s different, too.” His voice took on a trace of amusement. “Haven’t you noticed?”
With that, Al gently laid his gauntlet on top of the blanket that covered Ed’s lap. Ed felt the touch… and for the first time, he realized his body was not quite the same as it had been in his first life, after all. His eyes widened as he threw back the covers, to see that the healthy, flesh-and-blood left leg he had possessed for the last fifteen years was still intact.
Tears welled in his eyes again, as his emotions knotted up. The Elric part of him felt guilty to have his leg, when Al was still resigned to empty steel. The Curtis part of him, however, was simply and selfishly glad to be missing less of his natural body than before.
Almost hesitantly, he ran his flesh fingers over his knee. “I’ve been so used to it for so long… I guess I didn’t even realize it was still there.” He scrubbed his fist across his eyes and looked up at his brother, his cheeks reddening. “Al, I—”
“Don’t you dare say you’re sorry you still have your leg,” Al cut him off, with an embarrassingly accurate prescience. “I want you to be whole and well, Brother. You don’t know how much it hurts just to see you with that automail arm again… but if I could love you any more than I did already, I would now, for what you did to save Mother.—Even if you were an idiot to try it.”
“It wasn’t just for her.” Ed raised his eyes awkwardly. “But I guess she must be pretty mad…”
“She probably won’t kill you.” Al tipped his helmet downward, as if lowering his brows for a mock-ominous glower. “…Probably.”
The warning was not very reassuring—but Ed decided he didn’t want to draw out the suspense of facing his Mother-Teacher’s reaction any longer than necessary. He breathed deep and squirmed away from Al. With his automail hand gripping the bedpost, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, and began to lever himself to his feet.
“Let me help—” Al began, rising quickly and reaching out, but Ed waved off the assistance.
“Nah, I’m okay. …This isn’t as hard as where we started from, you know.”
Carefully, Ed stood up. He felt a little lightheaded for a moment, but his legs remained steady underneath him. He flexed his automail arm, trying to recapture the feel of it, to become used to the imbalance of its weight again. If nothing else, he was grateful that he wouldn’t have to endure surgery to implant a new port. In granting that favor, the Gate had really been much more than fair to him.
Someday it would still have to answer to him for other things, by giving Al’s body back; but for himself, he had no complaints.
He gingerly made his way to the bureau to dress. Pulling on his pants didn’t give him much trouble, but his still-awkward automail arm caused him to become slightly entangled in his shirt. With a rueful chuckle, Al came over to help him wriggle into the shirt properly, and to braid his hair—something Ed’s metal fingers had definitely not regained the dexterity for yet.
As Alphonse plaited his blond locks, Ed contemplated himself in the mirror. In his own eyes, his face looked so very different now than it had a mere day before, sharpened by the shadows his Elric memories brought back. He wondered if the family would see that difference too.
“Shaya and Ronan,” he murmured, realizing they were the only ones who had not been present in his first life. “How much do they know?”
Al’s practiced fingers paused for a moment. “We told them everything after we brought you home, Brother. There was no other way to explain how you got that automail so suddenly.” He touched Ed’s left shoulder reassuringly. “They took it really well. Probably better than the rest of us.”
Ed softly sighed. It gave him an unexpected pain to think that his younger siblings, who existed as a consequence of his own transformation, now knew he was not really their brother. Not exactly, at least.
“…I don’t know what to say to them, Al,” he said faintly, turning from the mirror with downcast eyes. “To any of them.”
“You don’t have to say anything, Brother.”
Convincing himself to believe that was difficult, even after they had all woven their love and acceptance into his very being over the last fifteen years. Ed closed his eyes just long enough to draw in a deep breath, and then started for the bedroom door.
He was halfway across the room when the door opened ahead of him, to reveal Izumi Curtis standing at the threshold.
In that moment, Ed’s cherished memories of Trisha Elric cast no shadow over the woman who had raised him again. In spite of everything, the word his heart whispered at the sight of Izumi was not Teacher. Even now, still, it was Mother.
…At least for the time it took her to make three swift strides across the floor. Before Ed fully understood what was happening, her fist plowed squarely and painfully into his jaw, flinging him onto his backside; but in the next heartbeat, she was on her knees beside him, enfolding him in a crushing hug.
“Why, Ed?” she whispered through tears, as her left hand stroked sorrowfully over his right shoulder, at the edge of his automail port. “Why did you do it?”
For a brief moment, Ed felt an almost irrational flicker of anger that she found it necessary to ask. He pulled her back from him, looking into her eyes, which reflected surprise at the forcefulness of his movement.
“Because… Because I couldn’t let Shaya and Ronan grow up without a mother too!”
As her eyes widened, he saw the swift change of emotions that passed over her face: understanding, sadness, gratitude, many others he could not name. His words left no doubt that the past had returned to him, that he knew she was not the woman who first conceived him—yet he had saved her for the sake of the children who were fully her own.
And for so much more than that.
She closed her eyes, resting her head against his chest as she clung to him again. Ed blushed and laid his hands on her shoulders, gripping gently.
“Mother… or, Teacher…”
“I endured your kicking inside me for months. I think I’ve earned the first title.” She raised her head, revealing fresh tears that streamed down her face, but she smiled brokenly as she reached up to caress his cheek.
Her expression, her tears, and Ed’s memories of fifteen years of love overcame him then. He put his arms around her and hugged her tightly, his own eyes brimming.
“I remember everything,” he confessed in a whisper, stroking her hair. “But I haven’t forgotten, either… and I never will.”
For a few sweet moments, Ed’s rediscovery of himself did not matter at all, and he was merely a boy in the arms of his loving mother. He would have been quite content to remain in that embrace for a little while longer; but Mother, as always, was not a woman of excessive sentiment. She withdrew slightly and studied his face again, with a look of thoughtful concern.
“Are you sure you want to get up yet?” she asked, but Ed could read the true meaning of the question. She wasn’t asking if he was ready to be out of bed. She was asking if he was ready to see the rest of the family.
Even though he wasn’t completely convinced himself, he smiled thinly at her, and gave a small nod. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
Mother nodded in turn. Rising from the floor, she grasped his flesh hand, to pull him to his feet. Her hand lingered on his shoulder as he moved to the door, with Alphonse following them both.
Just as Ed’s fingers touched the doorknob, he caught the faintest sound of a whisper from the hallway beyond.
There was no doubting who it was. No adult would have secretly, pointlessly followed Mother upstairs, to stand hovering outside the room in nervous curiosity. Unable to suppress a slight roll of his eyes, Ed threw the door open—and his younger siblings guiltily flinched back against the wall. Shaya blushed a dark red, while Ronan stuffed his knuckle between his teeth and chewed it.
Ed was suddenly and painfully conscious of the way their gazes were drawn straight to his automail arm. He quickly slipped the hand halfway behind his back, although his short sleeve still exposed a gleam of steel. In the ensuing moment of awkward, unbearable silence, the fear of their possible reactions squeezed tight in his chest, making it hard to breathe.
“Are you…” Shaya swallowed and forced her gaze up to meet his. Her voice quivered faintly. “Are you okay, Ed?”
“…Yeah.” Ed searched with difficulty for the words to say, unable to meet their eyes. It was painful, but he was determined to face this moment with complete openness.
“Shaya, Ro… Listen. Al said they told you all about—my life before. I remember all of that now, but it… it doesn’t change the way I feel about you two. And I just wanted to say… I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’m not really your brother.”
“But you are!”
Those three words almost spilled over top of his apology. Before he could raise his startled eyes, Shaya crashed against him, throwing her arms around him in a hug that was fast becoming every bit as tight as Mother’s.
“It doesn’t matter if you had a different life before us. All that matters is what you’ve been with us—and you’ve been the best brother anyone could have. Besides, even if it wasn’t really normal, you were still born to Mom just like we were… and most of all, nobody else but our brother would’ve done what you did for her.” Shaya raised her head from Ed’s chest, looking at him with tear-filled eyes, as her fingers gently moved to touch his automail shoulder through his sleeve. “Next to that, how could we ever care about where you came from?”
The impassioned statement was so perfectly Shaya, in all her stubborn fierceness, and it filled Ed with a sense of wonder. His heart flooded with grateful love as he returned her hug—a little uncertain when he wrapped his automail arm around her shoulders, but she did not shy away from its unfamiliar weight and hardness.
Ronan stood two steps away, squirming apprehensively from one foot to the other. His eyes still ranged speculatively over the automail, with interest instead of fear. Ed knew him well enough to realize what he was hesitating to ask.
“It’s okay, Ro.” With Shaya still nestled in his other arm, Ed stretched out his steel hand toward Ronan, turning the open palm upward. “You can touch it.”
Without the least reluctance, Ronan scooted forward and ran his hand over the metal limb. His expression clearly displayed a boy’s irresistible fascination with all things mechanical.
“Having it all of a sudden like this… Does it—does it hurt?” he asked ingenuously.
“Oh… it won’t be so bad, once I get used to it again.” Ed smiled wanly, flexing the fingers. “I can even do some pretty awesome things with it, actually.”
“Yeah. It’s—it’s cool.” It was Ronan’s turn to pry his eyes up to Ed’s face, reddening slightly. “Ed… What Shaya said. I mean—you’re still our brother.” He glanced at Alphonse, who stood watching from the doorway behind Mother. “And so’s Al.”
If it was possible, that fumbling but sincere declaration was even more moving than Shaya’s, because Ed knew heartfelt words did not come easily for Ronan. Impulsively he reached out with his automail hand, drawing his youngest brother into the hug his sister had still not pulled away from. As he squeezed them both firmly, he heard a small clatter of steel; and then Al’s arms were around all three of them, completing the assertion of their unity.
Ed knew then that whether he and Al were born, adopted, or grafted by alchemy into the Curtis family, it really didn’t matter. Genetics played no part in these bonds. It was love, and nothing else, that had made them all a part of each other.
…And perhaps, after all, there was something more physical to it. Al said Mother’s womb—the same womb that had later conceived Shaya and Ronan—was formed from the material of Ed’s previous body. In the strangest of ways, perhaps that really did make some part of their flesh and blood his own.
It was a little more than Ed wanted to try getting his head around just yet. For now, he pushed aside the thought, and simply held onto the feeling. Shaya and Ronan were his, in the same way Al had always been—and nothing was going to take that away.
After a moment, when he felt the two children starting to move restlessly, he let them go. Having cleared one more hurdle, his thoughts began turning toward those that still remained.
“Is Unc…?” he began, only to catch himself, blushing furiously.
For a moment, he struggled with embarrassment at his impulse to use the family’s term of endearment for Roy Mustang. After fifteen years, it came to his lips naturally; but now, it could not have felt more bizarre to the Elric part of him. Regaining his past memories of the man really was, in a sense, like discovering the unsettling secrets of a family member. Now he was conscious of the true story of Ishbal, of grim ambitions and ulterior motives, of the casual way Mustang had steered him into a hundred treacherous situations…
Because Mustang had faith in him. Always, from the start: from the very first time he saw the maimed and helpless child Edward had once been, one stormy night in Resembool.
Swallowing down the ghosts of his old pride and contempt, Ed finished at last, in an unintentionally small voice: “Is Uncle Roy still here?”
Shaya raised an eyebrow at the pause and the awkwardness of Ed’s tone, but she nodded. “Of course he is! He wasn’t going to go anywhere until he knows you’re okay. He’s been worried about you, Ed.”
The weirdest part was knowing that was true. Ed smiled feebly, wondering which side of him his bane-turned-hero was really going to bring out in him now. Given the sheer talent Mustang had for setting him off in the past, he wasn’t sure that choice was quite in his control at all.
“…H’okay.” The word was a sigh as Ed turned to glance back at Al—who he could distinctly sense was restraining a chuckle under his armor. “I’m pretty sure he’s gonna be the worst… so let’s get it over with.”
Al’s chuckle escaped then, but it was quickly stifled when Mother spoke, addressing her two youngest children. “Shaya, Ronan. I want the two of you to go take over for your father in the store. He’ll want to see Ed now, too.”
Once again, Ed could read between the lines of her words. More than an arrangement for his semi-foster father to see him, it was also a pretext for him to face Mustang without two young onlookers making it even more uncomfortable. The consideration caused him to flash a glance of gratitude at Mother. As for Shaya and Ronan, they both looked disappointed, but they obeyed: after Shaya pressed a quick kiss to Ed’s cheek, the pair went ahead of their elders down the stairs.
As Ed watched them go, Mother’s hand came to rest on his shoulder from behind. “You did wonderfully with them, Ed.”
“I meant everything I said.” He turned to her, his cheeks slightly pink. “I still love them… so much.”
That was purely the Curtis part of him talking. No matter how powerful the depths of love Edward Elric felt, he had almost never actually spoken the word, even to Al. Only in his second life had his emotions been so open. With memories of agonizing loss reawakened, he now realized how vulnerable that openness made his heart—yet he still didn’t regret it for a moment.
Downstairs, they found Roy Mustang seated in the living room. When he saw Ed, he rose slowly, and the shadow of a solemn smile on his lips was a thin mask for something else in his eyes.
What filled Ed’s mind was a jarring collision. Heated arguments, devious manipulation, countless moments of frustration and humiliation… and then the fond affection of a boy who followed Mustang around like an eager puppy. Without rank between them, and perhaps softened by all Mustang had learned from having sons of his own, the warmth he had shown Ed in his present life was almost impossible to reconcile with the smug condescension of the past.
Strangely, it occurred to Ed that even the General might not be sure which of his selves to present in this moment.
When Ed failed to find words, Mustang took it upon himself to speak first. Like Shaya and Ronan, his gaze was hovering on Ed’s automail arm as he drew an apprehensive breath.
“Don’t.” Blushing suddenly for what reason he didn’t know, Ed raised both hands in a halting gesture. “Just… not. Not yet. Okay?”
Mustang’s eyes darkened slightly. “So you do remember.”
“Of course I do.” Ed avoided that penetrating gaze, even as he nervously sidled a bit closer, rubbing his hands of flesh and steel together. “I’m gonna get all this figured out. But right now I just… I need a little time to figure out who you are.”
The slight cough in reaction was undeniably a bitten-off laugh. Ed glanced up from beneath his bangs, to see that the General’s expression was surprised and interested, as well as faintly amused.
“That’s Fullmetal, alright.” The amusement vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “I knew it was really you when I saw what you did for Izumi. Only one alchemist I know has ever been that boneheaded.”
Ed ignored the pale attempt at Mustang’s old brand of wry barbs. Instead he asked quietly, “What about Bald?”
Mustang shook his head, and this time it was his gaze that shifted away. “His neck was broken when he hit the tree. I didn’t intend for that to happen… but the fact is, it only spared the government the trouble of executing him. And I suppose it’s just as well that he and that wretched thing he loved went out together.”
Unable to disagree, Ed refrained from replying. Still aching a little, he sagged onto the edge of the sofa, and stared blankly at the carpet.
“Bald wasn’t the real reason I came here,” Mustang persisted gently. “That box in the corner. The one you asked about yesterday morning. …It belongs to you, Ed.”
After all that had happened, Ed had entirely forgotten about the mysterious wooden chest that appeared with Mustang’s arrival. Sweeping the room with a glance, he saw that it was set aside in a corner of the living room.
Alphonse stepped forward solemnly. He stretched out his hand to Ed, his fingers uncurling to reveal a key on his leather palm.
Something squeezed tight in Ed’s heart. Although he was almost afraid to, he took the key, and went to kneel beside the chest. He unlocked it, lifted the lid… and as he took in what the box contained, he almost forgot to breathe.
His old red coat, and his pocketwatch. Humble alchemic gifts he had fashioned for his first mother. Albums full of pictures from the past. All the proof he would have needed, a mere few days before, to assure him that the madness-making fragments of the other life in his mind were really true.
“We always wondered if you’d ever start to remember,” Al said softly. “We did our best to make a plan, to try to help you if you did. Uncle Roy kept the box for all these years, so you’d never accidentally find it… until you needed to see it.”
Slowly, Ed sank down until he was sitting cross-legged in front of the box. He pulled the coat halfway over his lap, his metal fingers fisting into the fabric.
It was Mother who answered. “We weren’t sure until the day before yesterday. But when we saw the signs that you’d used alchemy without a circle, to protect yourself from Bald…”
“I still don’t really remember doing that. But you were right. My memories were coming back to me—and it was only getting worse, even before Bald showed up. The headaches, the weird way I was acting… It’s no wonder you could tell what was happening.” Ed sighed and cast a rueful smile over his shoulder, toward the loved ones who had tried to protect him from the ghost of himself. “I’m sorry I messed up the plan. I don’t know if you could’ve made it any easier… but thanks for trying.”
Before any of them could reply, footsteps sounded in the hallway that led to the shop. Sig’s large form loomed into view, only to halt abruptly when he saw that Ed was sitting beside the open chest.
Of all the immediate members of the family, Ed’s physical connection to Sig was perhaps the most tenuous. Izumi’s womb, created from flesh that had once been Ed’s, was his connection to her and to his younger siblings; but there was not even that shared blood between him and the husband of his second mother. Unlike any ordinary birth, Sig played no part at all in the miracle that had returned Ed to the world. Biologically, he was still Hohenheim’s son, and no one else’s.
…But that didn’t matter, because Sig had held Ed moments after he was reborn, embracing as his own the unnatural child his wife had carried. From that time forward, Sig loved him, protected him, provided for him—and guided him in becoming the kind of young man he could be proud of. Neither genetics nor memories could change the fact that Ed’s life now clearly bore the fingerprints of Sig’s strong hand.
Pushing the scarlet coat from his lap, Ed rose and approached Sig—only a little hesitantly. The big man’s expression was as unreadable as ever, but there was a startlingly fragile light in his eyes, and it somehow seemed just as uncertain and hopeful as Ed’s own feelings were.
Ed presented himself in the respectful, attentive way he had been taught as a Curtis: standing straight, shoulders squared, eyes raised steadily to the face of the only man he had ever really known as a father. The learned mannerism made his focus look deceptively easy. No one would have guessed that meeting Sig’s gaze was harder than any of the others.
For his part, Sig remained silent, and waited. He needed no further confirmation of Ed’s restored memory. All that could be in question now was how it would change the boy’s heart toward him.
The answer was, quite simply, in no way at all.
“You’re still my father.” The words came very softly, almost a whisper, as Edward’s voice nearly failed him. “You’re the father I always wished Al and I could have had all along. You made me who I’ve been… and that’s always going to be a part of me.”
For a long, long moment, the man who had chosen to be his father digested those words… and then Sig’s hand reached out, coming to rest on Ed’s head. He tousled the bright blond hair, and then pulled close the slight, slim body that was equally unlike his own, yet just as much a part of him as well.
“Son,” he murmured quietly; and it was all he needed to say.
Once again, Ed felt the beginnings of a warm itch in his eyes—but now he was loath to show tears in front of Father and Mustang. After a brief moment, blushing darkly, he ducked out from under the one brawny arm that was easily wrapped around him.
“You must be starving,” Al noted, before the silence that followed had a chance to grow uneasy. “You haven’t eaten anything since the night before last.”
Until this point, Ed’s emotions had kept his insides too knotted up to feel anything else. However, now that Al brought it up, he became aware of the empty grumbling in his stomach. He rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. “I guess I am, actually…”
“I’ll make your breakfast,” Mother volunteered quickly, turning for the kitchen before the words were even out of her mouth. The movement still wasn’t fast enough to keep Ed from seeing the faint shine in her eyes. He suspected she was eager for the chance to shed a few tears in private, now that the worst was over.
At least for a while.
Heaving a sigh, Ed folded wearily onto the sofa. Al sat at his left side, resting a hand on his arm. The touch was reassuring in one sense… but now, the hollow fingers clasped over Ed’s flesh were also a reminder of his unkept promise, no matter how much Al might wish they could both forget.
“What now?” Mustang asked gently—perhaps reading the brief glimmer of conflict on Ed’s downturned face.
For a long moment, Ed contemplated that question.
He couldn’t just go on with the peaceful, unburdened life he had known as Edward Curtis. That was the one thing he was sure of. Even if it was true that his brother no longer cared about the promise he had made, he could never live with himself if he didn’t do something to pursue it. For himself as much as Al, he needed to keep searching and learning.
At the same time, he couldn’t retrace their old paths into darkness, by seeking the Philosopher’s Stone and all the evils that surrounded it. Even after remembering his already-tainted past, the person he was now could no longer justify compounding his sins that way. Besides, Alphonse would never allow it—and after all these years of being the elder and guide, Al had earned the right to make at least that much of the choice.
Then too, the ties of Ed’s second existence were much more complicated than the first. This time he couldn’t merely set an empty house ablaze and walk away. He had a family who loved him and feared for him—just as they had in his first journey, but now all the more so. He had friends he had grown up with there in Dublith; how much simpler they seemed to him now, but he still cared for them. He was in school, and although the knowledge he regained with his memories was far beyond the level of his classes, the experience itself taught him so much—about people, about feelings, about life—that his aloof Elric genius never had the chance to discover.
In fifteen years of growing as an ordinary boy, his roots had anchored deep, and there was no way he could ever tear them up now…
Yet neither could he bear to remain still.
Faced with that dilemma, Ed chose to admit the truth. He curled into himself on the sofa cushions, studying the mismatched hands that hugged his knees to his chest, and carefully gathered the words.
“I don’t know. Our life here is a part of me now, but I… I can’t just let go of the promise I made.” He raised his head to look at Al, resisting yet again the tears he felt brewing. “I’m sorry if that isn’t what you really want anymore. I have to try.” Then a sad smile crossed his lips. “I never told you, but somehow, all this time… I knew I had to. Even when I didn’t remember why.”
In either of his lives, Ed knew Al more than well enough to sense the inner tears of the soul within the armor.
“Oh, Brother.” Al’s hand rose from Ed’s arm to stroke his hair. “Do you think I’m surprised you feel that way? Of course I understand. It’s true that getting my body back isn’t what matters to me now—but your doing what you need to in your heart does matter. I always knew it would be this way… and I’ll be with you, no matter what.”
There was no longer any chance of suppressing the moisture that rose in Ed’s eyes. He leaned against Al’s chestplate, hiding his face behind his automail arm, as he raised it to half-hug his brother’s cold steel.
Alphonse permitted him that luxury only briefly. After a moment, he drew back and slipped a hand beneath Ed’s chin, to study his tear-streaked face with a distinct new sense of sternness.
“But it’s not going to be the same as before, Ed. No more chasing the Philosopher’s Stone. No more trying to learn things people aren’t meant to know—and no more running from one end of the country to the other, getting into danger. I won’t let you do any of that. If you want to go on with this fight, you’re only going to do it in a lab, studying conventional alchemy methods. Do you understand that, Brother?”
Somehow, it was not as strange as it might have been to see Al exude such adult authority. Ed was used to it now, after years of being watched over as a child by his now-older sibling; but even when Al was the younger of them, he had been far more mature, in so many ways.
Perhaps this was how it should be. Perhaps Al was really meant to be the elder, all along.
“I know,” Ed agreed with a nod, rubbing his flesh hand against his damp eyes. “I couldn’t—couldn’t go down that road again anyway, even if I wanted to. I don’t know if any ordinary alchemy studies could ever come close to giving you a body again, but… I’m not going to sell my soul. Not this time. I won’t hurt you even more by paying a price you’re not okay with—even if that price would only be myself.”
It was Al who hugged Ed then, showing every sign of willingness to let him stay in his arms for as long as he wanted… but after a moment, General Mustang’s voice quietly intruded upon their embrace.
“I may have a solution for you, Ed. One that could let you have your family and your research.”
With those words, he earned the full attention of both brothers. They reluctantly withdrew from one another, looking up at him curiously.
“It occurred to me on my way to Dublith—when I was passing through Gratz, the next town to the north. As it happens, the military has a small State Alchemy research lab there. The facilities may not be the most extensive, but it would be a nice quiet place to work… and it’s only half an hour from here by train.” The corners of his lips turned up. “Not such a bad commute, I’d say.”
Ed’s eyes widened. “You really think… I could work there? I could be a State Alchemist again?”
“There’s no again about it, Fullmetal. That watch has always been yours. I was just holding onto it for you these last few years.”
Mustang said those words with a warm smile; but then the expression took on a slight twist, as a foreboding glitter of mischief crept into his eyes. “And as for a position at the lab, it shouldn’t be difficult to arrange something with the commanding officer. In fact… I think you used to know Lieutenant Colonel Tringham yourself.”
The glow of tentative excitement instantly fled from Ed’s heart, chased away by a feeling of abject mortification… and for just a moment, he was entirely Elric.
“You mean I’d have to work for that moron Russell?”
Judging by the quiver of Mustang’s shoulders, he was barely suppressing a laugh. “Actually, I’m referring to Fletcher—the younger Tringham. His brother is still a civilian alchemist, I believe.”
“Russell is living in Liore,” Al offered helpfully. “The Tringhams went there years ago, to help restore the town with their agricultural alchemy. Russell met Rose, and they fell in love—so he stayed. They’re married and have a family now.”
“Wait, wait.” Ed waved his automail hand to ward off any more verbal blows to his brain, while pressing his flesh hand over his eyes. “This is hurting my head even worse than when my memories started to come back. You’re telling me Rose… and Russell?”
Mustang chuckled. “I think we’d better give it a few weeks before you start that new job, Ed. You obviously have a lot to catch up on first.”
“And besides… Winry’s going to want to upgrade your automail,” Al added, with a much more somber note in his voice.
Ed winced, looking down at his metal shoulder. It wasn’t at all surprising that Winry would have already thought about that. The automail limb returned to him by the Gate was not only roughly used and put through major repairs in the past, it was also fifteen years out of date. With her professional pride, it was only natural that his mechanic wouldn’t stand for him going around with such an antiquity attached to him. For that matter, Ed himself would be perfectly glad to have a new and more advanced prosthetic.
What sobered him was the reminder that he had yet to face her, the one remaining person who had known him the longest in his first life—even before Al was born.
Mother appeared in the doorway then. If she had overheard any part of the conversation about Ed’s future, she gave no sign of it, only smiling delicately at him. To his mild embarrassment, she was carrying a tray laden with breakfast, which she brought to him and placed in his lap.
“Aw, Mother…” he murmured uncomfortably, blushing.
Her smile only grew a little warmer, and she gave the back of his head a small, affectionate push. “Just eat.”
Without further objection, Edward obeyed, holding the fork with his currently more trustworthy left hand. Hungry as he was, his body was still recovering from the various traumas it had endured; he doubted he could make much of a dent in the heap of eggs and sausage. Even so, for a few minutes, he ate eagerly. His elders gave him space then, talking quietly amongst themselves.
His meal was interrupted when the front door opened, and Winry stepped into the house.
As she came through the door, Ed’s eyes met hers. His heart skipped a beat, and his mouthful of food stuck in his throat. He was unable to help staring at her, a woman so familiar to one part of him—yet the other part of him saw her now as if for the very first time.
Like his first glimpse of Al that morning, Ed was only then fully conscious of the passage of fifteen years in Winry’s life… and unlike Al, the changes those years had wrought in her showed on the outside too. If the Curtis part of him hadn’t known her for all this time, he wasn’t sure he could have recognized his short-haired, heavily pregnant cousin-by-marriage as the old friend of his first childhood. The fierce girl who once struck terror into his heart was now a gentle wife and mother.
But the most surprising thing was how perfectly natural it really was to her, after all.
Ed coughed, swallowed, and blinked uncertainly. Although he knew it wouldn’t happen now, a part of him still couldn’t help fearing a forceful encounter with Winry’s beloved wrench—but she made no such hostile move. She only stepped forward hesitantly, her eyes misty.
The tone of her voice conveyed the question in its entirety. Ed fidgeted, dropped his gaze to his still mostly-full plate, and answered with the same simple succintness.
Winry moved forward with remarkable swiftness for her condition. Al barely had time to rise and remove the tray from Ed’s lap before she took the armored brother’s place, resting her hand on Ed’s left shoulder as she sought his eyes beneath his long bangs.
“Are you okay?” she asked softly.
For a long moment, Ed was silent, weighing that question. Weighing the gains and losses of the last fifteen years; weighing the reactions of his family when his past returned to him, and the plans for the future they had only just begun to discuss.
Then he astonished Winry by raising his head, and showing her a pale, but completely genuine smile.
“Yeah… I think I am.”
The glossiness in her eyes spilled over. She threw her arms around him and pulled him against her—as well as she could, in her half-sideways position on the sofa, and with the weight of her unborn child somewhat in the way.
“I’m glad, Ed. I mean—I’m sorry that you’ve had to remember so many terrible things… and—this.” Winry gently touched Ed’s automail arm. “But I know it’s been hard for you lately, trying to figure out who you were… and I’m glad you don’t have to wonder anymore.”
Ed was content to let her hold him for a few moments more. His Elric side would have felt awkward about it in the past; but that was before Winry discovered her maternal instincts. Somehow, that made things very different now.
“Is your arm hurting you?” she asked at length, drawing back to look into his face.
He shrugged his left shoulder. “Not much. I’m just… surprised I got to have this back.” He gazed down thoughtfully at his flexing metal fingers. “I’m glad, though. At least it means I won’t need surgery again.”
“You should let me upgrade your port anyway. The one you have can still connect with new automail, but I can make it better. I can replace the outer plating with a lighter and stronger alloy, and modify the nerve connections to make them even more responsive.”
Hovering nearby, Alphonse quivered. “Would that hurt?”
“…Not too much. At least… not as bad as the original surgery.”
A grimace flashed across Ed’s face—but then he sighed and smiled wanly. “I guess it’s for the best. I don’t expect to go around fighting with homunculi and chimeras anymore, but I’ve still got work to do. I want the highest-quality automail I can get.” He paused, looking down ruefully at his mechanical arm. “You know, all I’m really sorry for is… I’m going to miss swimming.”
Winry’s momentary look of concern relaxed into a smile. “This time you’ll be able to swim again, Ed. Automail technology has advanced a lot in the last fifteen years. The latest models are so much lighter than this old thing, and they can be waterproofed to a depth of a few hundred feet now.”
The prospect was enough to provoke a wide, boyish grin from Ed. “That’ll definitely make the upgrade worthwhile!”
Al chuckled. “I’m glad you’ll still be able to swim, Brother—and Shaya and Ronan will be too.”
“…And the sooner we can get it done, the better,” Winry muttered, abruptly taking Ed’s steel forearm in her callused hands, to examine it with a critical scowl of disgust. “Having you walking around with this hanging off of you is gonna embarrass me. I can’t believe I ever thought this level of work was good…”
“It kept me alive for four years.” Ed placed his flesh fingers over Winry’s hand. When she looked up at him in surprise, he met her gaze with an expression of shy sincerity. “Well—this arm and the one that got wrecked before it. And I know back then I wasn’t so good at letting you know how much I appreciated it, but… thanks, Winry. For everything.”
The eyes of his mechanic welled up again, and he promptly found himself engulfed in another hug.
Before Ed could find further words to say, the sound of running footsteps approached from the hallway leading to the shop. Winry pulled away from him, and they watched as Shaya and Ronan bounded into the room, wearing expressions of gleeful excitement.
“Look who else has come to visit us!” Shaya exclaimed happily, and Ed saw that the pair were followed by Mustang’s own family: the former Riza Hawkeye—now long since known as Riza Mustang—and the couple’s sons, Maes and Aron.
Mustang smiled knowingly. “As long as I was going to be here for another few days anyway, I thought I might as well call the family down, and make a holiday of it.”
Ed’s eyes widened as he glanced from Mustang to the General’s wife and boys. Looking at the two young Mustang brothers now, a part of him couldn’t help seeing a little of himself and Alphonse in the past… and somehow, his two lives didn’t seem so very far apart anymore. Not when he was reminded that all he knew before had never really gone away after all, but instead had only grown into everything he loved.
He met Al’s gaze, and although his own brother’s metal face offered no expression, he was sure Al knew just how much this moment meant.
“Come on, Ed.” There was a smile in Al’s tone as he stepped forward, extending his hand. “You did tell Shaya and Ronan you could do some incredible things with that arm—and I’ll bet Maes and Aron would love to see it too.”
It was more than an invitation to show off the rediscovered power of his alchemy. It was an invitation to come and play; to be the ordinary boy his family had loved for all these years, without reservation or self-consciousness. The darkness of his past memories may have crept back into their lives, but they were determined to make it only a pale shadow in their light.
Closing his eyes, Edward silently promised that he would try his best to let them.
As he looked up again, a warm, grateful smile twitched over his lips. He placed his flesh hand in his brother’s grasp. Alphonse pulled him to his feet, and together they followed the children out into the sunshine.
Alphonse still couldn’t believe that it had come back to this.
Nearly a full day had passed since Ed’s kidnapping by Bald, and the battle on Yock Island. As the following morning dawned, Al found himself sitting beside his brother’s bed, watching him while he slept. For the most part, Ed lay peacefully, but there were moments when he did stir… sometimes with a faint sound of pain, as his left fingers unconsciously reached up to clutch at steel beneath his right shoulder.
Edward had sacrificed his arm once more; but this time it was to save the life of Izumi, his second mother. In that, he succeeded. When the light of the transmutation faded, the spider-chimera’s bite had vanished from her own arm, and its deadly venom in her bloodstream was negated.
And in place of Ed’s right arm, instead of a gaping wound, they found the automail limb that had disappeared when Wrath transmuted Ed’s original body.
Al couldn’t begin to explain why the so-called Gate Ed once spoke of—which he himself still did not remember—had taken a whim to return his brother’s prosthetic. Even more curiously, the scars that bordered it were as old and fully-healed as they had been when Ed’s first life ended. It seemed his body had been returned to the exact condition it was in before his rebirth… except for one thing. His left leg was not taken as well. Evidently, his arm alone was a sufficient price to pay for Izumi’s life.
It was difficult enough to grapple with the pain of seeing what Ed had lost again. Even worse was the sheer uncertainty of these long hours, as Ed lay unconscious, his body and mind recovering from the trauma he had endured.
How much would he remember when he woke up?
One fact was clear. During the battle, Ed had deliberately used alchemy without a circle. Not just once, but three times: to smother the fire that threatened him, to free himself from the remains of the chimera’s web, to offer the Gate his flesh for Izumi’s healing. Did that really mean Ed’s memory of his past and his full powers had returned? Or instead, were his actions merely driven by defensive instincts, like his transmutation in the alley where Bald had pursued him before?
The thought that Ed might awaken to remember everything caused Al a soul-deep anguish. Facing an old enemy, nearly losing Ed, seeing him suffer even a part of his former loss; it all reminded Al more potently than ever of the struggle and pain they had left behind in their old life. He couldn’t bear the thought of going back to that. More than ever, he wanted to cling to what they had here in Dublith. He wanted to wrap Ed in their family’s love, heal him inside and out, and never, ever let him be placed in danger again.
But even if Ed still didn’t remember the past… Al couldn’t imagine how they would explain what had happened to his arm. As Edward Curtis, he might have felt an instinctive revulsion toward automail, but he understood enough to know that a prosthetic limb just couldn’t be attached and heal completely overnight. And what if that near-phobia caused Ed to react to the steel arm with horror?
It was probably a moot point, anyway. After the evidence they had seen, surely Edward Elric had returned, with all his memories of the heavy burdens in his soul.
Ed shifted and sighed uncomfortably beneath the covers. Al felt himself tense on the inside, wondering if this was the moment when it would all come to light… but then his brother became still again. Several more minutes of silence passed.
“I’m sorry, Brother,” he whispered at last, so quietly that he felt sure the words could not be heard outside the shell of his armor. Reaching out, he brushed away golden strands of unbound hair that clung to Ed’s slightly sweat-dampened forehead. “I’m sorry we didn’t tell you the truth before you found out in such a terrible way… I’m sorry you ever had to know at all.”
That, in the end, was what it all came down to. Only now could he fully admit to himself that he didn’t want Ed’s memories to return. For the last fifteen years, Edward Curtis had embodied everything he loved in his brother since the beginning, but with none of the pain—and he wanted more than anything for it to stay that way. For both of their sakes, and for the family they never would have gained if they hadn’t suffered that pain in the first place.
“I don’t want to go back.” Al’s nearly inaudible voice trembled. “I don’t even want your promise. All I want is the home we have here, and the people who love us… and for you to be safe. I just want us to be happy the way we are. I think… that’s what I really wanted most, all along.”
The soft ticking of the bedside clock was the only sound to answer his faint words. Al bowed his helmet, and then looked away, watching the shadows of birds that darted across the sunlit patch of floor beneath the window.
After a few minutes that felt like an eternity, the covers rustled from a stirring of movement at Al’s side.
Startled, Al quickly looked back at his sibling. Ed’s motion must have caused pain in his shoulder, because he caught his breath and grimaced. His head turned a little toward his automail limb, only to loll in the other direction to face Al again. Long blond eyelashes fluttered lightly over pale cheeks, and then rose fully, unveiling eyes of darker gold that immediately met Al’s phantom gaze.
In the emptiness beneath his chestplate, Al nonetheless felt the dizzying swoop that would have been his heart skipping a beat. He stretched out his hand, resting it gently on Ed’s right temple; perhaps, in some part of him, driven by a partial intent of keeping Ed from turning his head to see what he had lost.
The name was whispered, trembling, so much more uncertain than Al wanted to sound at this moment. Curtis or Elric, either Edward he might be facing now was his brother, true enough—but the course of their entire lives hung upon the question of which one he was.
For a brief moment, Ed’s almost too-keen stare lingered. He blinked once, twice, as his chest rose beneath the covers with a deep breath… and then his eyes softened, taking on a guarded, almost hesitant uncertainty of his own.
“Al… What happened?” His gaze shifted, roving around the familiar environs of their bedroom. “I was just in the dining room with you and Uncle Roy—and then I went to get the bacon for Mother…”
A tiny breath-catching sound echoed inside Al’s armor. Is it possible?
Receiving no prompt answer for his apparent bewilderment, Ed became a little more agitated. He moved to sit up, starting to pull his head away from Al’s light touch. “How did I—?”
“Wait Ed,” Al said quickly, slipping his hand down to Ed’s chest, where he applied just a little more restraining pressure. “I have to tell you…”
In the next two seconds, his mind groped desperately for a story that could begin to explain Ed’s condition. Instinctively, he settled on the fact that the obvious one was the best.
“It was the strangler. He found you, and tried to kill you.”
Ed’s eyes darkened, and he made another effort to move against Al’s hand. “What? Oh, no… Did he—?”
“No—everyone else is fine. That is, they are now. There was a fight, but between Mother and Father and Uncle Roy… well, the strangler didn’t have much of a chance. Only…”
Al hesitated, wondering whether the words he was about to say were the right choice. He wished he could take a deep breath to brace himself. More than that, he wished Izumi or General Mustang were there in the room to guide him; but from the beginning, they had promised to leave this matter in his hands, and now the time had come.
“Mother was hurt badly, Brother. But you healed her. Somehow, you found an instinct inside you, to do something no one else could do. None of us understands how, but…” His voice quivered with tears he could not release. “You gave up a part of yourself to Equivalent Exchange.”
The shadows crept back into Ed’s amber eyes. Strangely, the emotion they reflected did not seem to be fear.
“A part of myself?”
“…Your arm, Brother. Your right arm.”
As Al spoke, he finally withdrew his hand, permitting Edward to lift his head. Ed’s dark gaze turned to the side, meeting the sight of steel and scars where a natural flesh limb had resided the day before.
He stiffened, becoming very still… and that was all.
“I saved Mother’s life?” he whispered at last, as he reached across his chest, to touch the cold metal of the automail. “By doing—this?”
“Yes.” Again, Al hesitated. After Ed’s years of uneasiness toward automail, he was still fearful about what kind of shock this was causing his brother—and whether the sheer fact of it would bring back memories of how it really came to be. “You don’t… remember how you did it?”
“No.” Ed turned his face away from the prosthetic, and withdrew his flesh hand, curling it into a fist against his chest. “But if it saved Mother… then I’m not sorry.”
Armor grated softly as Al shifted on his chair, somber and bemused. Considering that Ed had lost a limb—and that he evidently had no memory of losing it before—his calm was almost unsettling. Perhaps something of the inner steel of Edward Elric had returned, as well… but not his actual memories, judging by Ed’s words.
That thought made Al want to weep tears of joy.
“This arm.” Ed was looking at his automail again, his lips twisted into a thin line. “Winry did this?”
…And here was the dilemma of explaining to Ed how automail he gained a day ago could look as if it had been there for years.
“Yeah—but Mother helped, too,” Al improvised. “It’s… a new experimental technique, that involves alchemy in the surgical process. That’s how it could be done so fast, and heal so quickly.” His chin tipped downward. “But that doesn’t mean your learning to use it will be any easier than it is for ordinary automail patients.”
At Ed’s side, the metal fist slowly clenched. He lifted it, with only a few unsteady jerks to the movement, and gazed at it in the light.
There was definitely something of the old Ed in that, if nothing else.
It was all rather strange. If Ed really didn’t remember his Elric past, Al would have expected more questions, more confusion. Maybe Ed was just in shock; or maybe it was true that he was drawing on the emotional reserves of his old self, without knowing it. But if he said he remembered nothing of the battle on Yock Island, the events that had seemed so surely to awaken that part of his soul, then Al could only believe him…
“Brother,” Al said softly, leaning a little closer to study Ed’s face. “Are you sure you’re really okay?”
Ed let the automail hand fall to his side on top of the covers. He rolled his head over to look up at Al, and gave a thin, sad smile.
“Yeah… I’ll be alright, Al. Honest.”
Wherever the truth really lay, there was something in Ed’s eyes that made Alphonse believe those words.
“Okay.” Affectionately he brushed back Ed’s bangs, and stood up. “I should go tell everyone else you’re awake. Even Uncle Roy is still here, waiting to find out how you are.”
A fleeting reluctance crossed Ed’s expression. “Would it be alright if I rest a little longer before I see anyone else?”
“Oh… Of course. Take all the time you need, Brother.” Al paused. “It’s been a long time since you ate anything. I know what’s happened is a lot to take in right now, and you probably don’t have much of an appetite—but you really need some nourishment. Do you feel up to having a little breakfast?”
“Sure. I’ll try, anyway.”
“Good. Then I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”
Al moved to the door. He stopped there, to look back at Ed contemplatively for a long moment… and then he continued on toward the stairs, a faint glow of hope gradually easing the uncertainty within him.
On the other side of the door that Alphonse had drawn halfway closed, Edward sat up on the bed. He curled into a ball, resting his forehead on his now-mismatched arms, as tears brimmed in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Al… I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise.”
He remembered everything. Their tragic life together as the Elric brothers was now as clear to him as their past fifteen years of happiness in the Curtis family. Exactly how his change could have happened was still a mystery, lost in the haze between his two lives; but it really didn’t matter. Right now, there was room for nothing in his mind and heart but the words he had heard Al whisper, just as he was awakening.
I don’t want your promise. I just want us to be happy the way we are.
Everything within Ed was anguished by the thought of letting Al go on as he was, in the armor, without even trying to change his fate… but if this was what Al truly wanted, he resolved to try to accept it as well. He made that choice in the silent moments before he opened his eyes, and began pretending to be the innocent little brother Al still wanted him to be.
Sooner or later, the family would see through that pretense, and realize his memories had returned. He would give himself away with a poorly considered word or deed, or some sudden crisis would compel him to use alchemy without a circle again. They would know then that he had hidden all of his old guilt and pain, for their sakes.
But they wouldn’t make that discovery for as long as he could help it. And by then, surrounded by the healing love of a family—his family—perhaps he truly could learn to let go of the past for good.
Besides, continuing his life as Edward Curtis didn’t mean he could do nothing toward the goal of restoring Al’s body. Even before he regained his memories, purely out of love for Al, he had nurtured that secret ambition in his heart. He couldn’t go on as he had in his Elric life, ignoring the cost to himself and others in a quest to cheat Equivalent Exchange; but he could at least pursue other, ordinary avenues of research. When he finally grew a little older, he could even become a State Alchemist again, as he had considered already in recent years.
Perhaps he would confess the truth of his recovered memories to General Mustang. In his first life, he would never have dreamed of choosing Mustang as his confidante, of sharing with him a secret that was even to be kept from Alphonse… but as things stood now, Uncle Roy would understand. He would try to help Ed protect the family’s happiness.
That was all that mattered now. If Ed had been given this second life for a reason, it was to think of them, and not himself.
Al’s footsteps rattled on the stairs beyond the door. Ed hastily wiped his eyes, and looked up with a soft smile as his brother entered the room.
© 2014 Jordanna Morgan