|Fullmetal Alchemist: Reawakening (4/6)
||[Jun. 11th, 2014|09:02 pm]
|[||Tags|||||! fullmetal alchemist, # fma: alphonse elric, # fma: edward elric, # fma: izumi curtis, # fma: mason curtis, # fma: original character(s), # fma: roy mustang, # fma: sig curtis, # fma: winry rockbell, & fma: winry/mason, + fma: things that never happened||]|
Title: Reawakening (4/6)
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.
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.
Chapters: I. - II. - III. - IV. - V. - VI. - Alternate Ending