Title: Slow Down
Author: Jordanna Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Characters: Alphonse and Edward.
Summary: Al wishes Ed would just slow down once in a while.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: Written as a Fandom Stocking gift for Yhlee. It’s very, very loosely inspired by the shot of Ed and Al fishing in one of the FMA anime’s opening sequences.
Really, the thing that bothered Alphonse more than being a giant metal freak was the guilt.
There was guilt for the knowledge that Edward had sacrificed his right arm to keep Al alive. It was never far from his mind every time he looked at Ed; at the steel arm that replaced his flesh, and the way he bore in silence the aches it caused him. Al felt guilty that his brother hurt because of him, while he himself was incapable of pain. (Well, at least pain of that kind.)
And there was guilt for the way Ed pushed himself, ever and always, searching for a way to get Al’s body back. Oh, of course he said it was all to regain his arm and leg too, and there was no doubting how much he truly wanted that—but Al knew the quest was really for him. If it wasn’t for his sake, perhaps Ed might have contented himself with trying to rebuild an ordinary life, the way other people with automail did. It was Al’s loss that drove him to seek a means of restoring flesh and blood, and Al felt guilty for all the injury and exhaustion and grief he brought upon himself in pursuit of that goal.
Al certainly did what he could to help and protect his brother. The strength of both his armor and his love could do much, if Ed only gave him the chance—but Ed certainly didn’t make it easy, because he would never admit he needed help. In someone else, it would have been pride, but in Ed it was something different: it was his sense of devotion and duty as the elder, the one who was supposed to be strong. He had taken this as a matter of fact from the day Al was born, and a conviction that deep was not about to be altered by the changes they had endured.
It would have been nice if Ed would at least slow down every once in a while, to think and rest and heal, and let Al have just one day without the constant fear of seeing him hurt. Ed spent every moment hating the thought of letting Al spend one more day in armor, but Al would gladly have traded months and years of any future life returned to flesh, if only it would give Brother safety and comfort now.
Just the strain of living at the pace Ed set made it hard to be patient with it all—and while patience was one of Al’s greatest strengths, even his reached its limits now and then.
They were at the library in East City on that afternoon, but really, the only place Ed should have been was with a doctor. A battle with a rogue alchemist three days earlier had left him battered: the bruise around his right eye was fading, but his left arm was in a sling from a nasty sprain. He tried to put it out of mind by obscuring it with his coat wrapped around his shoulders, but Al noticed with frustrated disapproval the way he winced every time he moved it.
Although Al had argued that he should get proper medical care as soon as they arrived in the city, Ed was burning with eagerness to decode the alchemic research journal he had taken from their defeated foe. There was little arguing with him when he got that way; so Al could only sit opposite him at a table piled with books, halfheartedly paging through a ponderous volume, while his brother furiously wrote and crossed out and rewrote his attempts at the decryption.
Finally, on one occasion when Ed had left the table to find another reference book, Al heard the deep chime of the clock tower across the street. It was midday, and time for lunch—a fact Ed would have to be reminded of. In spite of his prodigious appetite, when there were books in front of him, he could have starved to death without noticing.
Gingerly Al stood up, his armor clattering, and started in the direction of the shelves Brother had gone for… but he had barely taken two steps before a thud and a yelp spurred him into a panicked run.
Five aisles down, Al found Ed dangling by one arm from the top of a towering bookshelf, his automail fingers clamped desperately onto the shelf’s edge. The stepladder he must have been using to search for a book lay toppled beneath him. There was a space of five feet between his boots and the floor; ordinarily an effortless jump for the agile teenager, but now he couldn’t rely on his injured and sling-encumbered left arm to steady his balance in the drop, and the stepladder directly below him was in the way of any sort of gentle landing.
“Brother!” Al cried as he rushed forward. Unceremoniously kicking the ladder out of the way, he reached up to wrap his gauntlets around Ed’s middle, and lifted him down as easily as a kitten. “What happened?”
Ed squirmed in chagrin, red-faced and wincing. Besides aggravating his left arm again, his mishap couldn’t have done the muscles around his automail port any good, forcing them to bear the full weight of his body as he hung onto the shelf.
“Somebody put the book in the wrong place,” he muttered awkwardly. “I was just reaching for it, and…”
“And you almost broke your neck!” Al snapped.
Ed physically flinched at the outburst, staring up in surprise at the metal face that could give no expression to match Al’s angry voice—but the younger Elric wasn’t done. The sheer stupidity of this near-accident had brought years of frustration boiling to the surface.
“You can’t even pick up a book without almost getting yourself killed! Do you know what it’s like to watch you do dumb things because you never even think about yourself? Why can’t you ever ask for help, even when you’re hurt?”
Alarmed, Ed waved his steel hand urgently. “Al, shush! Library!”
“I don’t care!” Alphonse almost shrieked. “The way you act, the whole world knows you’re trying to kill yourself anyway! You think I want my body back so badly that I don’t care what happens to you? What good would it do me to feel things again if you weren’t there to touch? Why won’t you just slow down?”
An abrupt silence fell, and Al knew he had gone too far when he finally noticed Ed’s stricken expression. The flustered blush of a few moments ago had drained from his face, leaving the bruise around his eye to stand out darkly against his sudden pallor. His mouth was slightly agape, and his wide eyes were filled with a hurt confusion Al had never intended to cause.
“Al…” he whispered in a cracked voice, and his automail hand twitched, as if with an impulse to reach out to his brother.
The sight brought a wrenching ache to Al’s soul, and a part of him wanted to apologize; but he knew he couldn’t do that in honesty to either of them. An apology would have been a lie, because he’d meant the words he said—meant them for a long time—even if he hadn’t meant to say them at exactly that moment, or in exactly that way.
“Just go back to your stupid books,” he murmured weakly, and trudged off toward the library entrance.
Outside the library, the sun was obnoxiously bright. Al heaved himself down noisily onto a bench and became a statue, his steel inert as he lost himself in his thoughts.
He shouldn’t have wasted his nonexistent breath. All he’d accomplished was to upset them both, because Ed couldn’t change. Ed would never rest, and that meant Al could never rest from being afraid for him. He should have been used to that idea by now, but…
But all he really wanted was just one day to let it go. The weight of armor wouldn’t be so heavy upon his soul if he could lay down the burden of worry he carried within it, even for a little while.
Al looked up to see Ed standing in front of him. He looked painfully contrite, and a pale something that wasn’t really a smile twisted his lips as he gave a tiny shrug. “I’m sorry, Al.”
Rather awkwardly, Al shifted his own spiked shoulders. “No… I’m the one who’s sorry. For yelling at you—not for what I said,” he clarified, feeling it was somehow important to make that distinction understood. After all, he was always going to be frustrated with Ed for just as long as he kept pushing himself too hard, and that was shaping up to be forever.
Ed ducked his head slightly, a mute acceptance of the admonishment. “You know, I was sort of thinking…”
“Mr. Elric, sir!”a brisk voice broke in.
Both brothers turned their gazes to the blue-uniformed lieutenant who was hurrying toward them, rigid and businesslike. He stopped in front of them with a crisp salute, glancing back and forth between the armored giant and the slight blond youth—and he managed to address the right alchemist only because Ed pulled back the edge of his coat, displaying the chain of his pocketwatch with an I-dare-you glare.
“Uh… sir. Colonel Mustang sent me to find you. He heard you’d arrived at the station this morning, and he has a job for you.”
A deep sigh echoed beneath Al’s chestplate. That was it, then; off on another mission and another struggle before Ed had even recovered from the last one, as usual. More hurt and more fear, the way it always was.
But there was a different sentiment on Ed’s face, as he smiled up wryly at the lieutenant.
“Sorry,” he said cheerfully, shrugging the shoulder of his sling-supported left arm. “I’m overdue some sick leave. And you can tell the Colonel he’s a—well, never mind that. I want to see his face when I say it. Just tell him I’ve gone fishing.”
Al’s momentary bubble of hope did not burst, but it was punctured a little. Of course, gone fishing would be code for hitting the books again, to study without rest. At least it was better than rushing off right away on another dangerous assignment.
The baffled lieutenant blinked at Ed. “Er… yes, sir,” he mumbled, and left the pair, casting a few dubious glances behind him.
With a satisfied expression, Ed rapped his steel knuckles against Al’s chestplate. “Let’s go, Al,” he said, and started walking; not toward the doors of the library, but in the opposite direction.
Bemusedly Al followed after him. “Huh? Go where? You’re not going back to work on the journal now?”
“Nah… not yet.” Ed beamed up at him. “You heard what I said to the lieutenant, didn’t you?”
“You told him you’re going fishing.” The armored boy stopped in his tracks. “Wait, you mean…”
“I’ll bet I can catch a bigger one than you!” Ed challenged, and abruptly dashed off down the sidewalk with a manic grin.
An almost tangible joy welled up in Al’s soul, and as he ran laughing after his brother, he was sure his armor felt a little lighter—even if only for a day.
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan