|Fullmetal Alchemist: Reawakening (6/6)
||[Jun. 27th, 2014|11:39 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 (6/6)
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 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.
Chapters: I. - II. - III. - IV. - V. - VI. - Alternate Ending