Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for blood in the first two chapters.
Characters: Mainly Ed and Al, with intermittent Winry and Pinako.
Setting: The year between the boys’ human transmutation attempt and the day they left Resembool.
Summary: Edward and Alphonse had a long journey to make before they ever left home.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I own nothing but a couple of villagers in chapter nine.
Alphonse was sorry for having trailed blood all over the floor of Aunt Pinako’s house.
It was kind of a stupid thing to be thinking about, really, but it was a mindless distraction he clung to. He couldn’t let himself dwell on the true realities of the situation, not yet. Not until he knew Brother would survive.
As for the rest of it…
He couldn’t even begin to go there now.
So for the moment, on a blanket hastily spread across the floor, he sat and waited—as a heavy heap of nearly-inert metal.
Al had never shared Ed’s hard-edged, almost frightening sense of restlessness. Even so, he was an energetic boy in his own much sunnier way, and not very good at keeping still either… but impassiveness came to him now with a disquieting ease, for the nerveless shell he inhabited felt nothing. Steel couldn’t sense an itch or a tickle, or turn pins-and-needles for lack of circulation.
Steel couldn’t cry.
There was blood now not only on the floor, but on the blanket too: smears and spatters, and the handprints of the armor’s gauntlets, large and strangely textured. Al stared blankly at those rust-colored stains. He knew there must have been blood all over him as well, but looking down at himself was one thing he was not going to do right now.
The door opposite him opened, and Winry edged out of the bedroom with a backward glance, nervously rubbing her bandaged wrist. Al hadn’t thought she could look any paler than she did when she first saw him on the doorstep, a grotesque hulk bearing his brother’s mutilated body—but now she was even more chalk-white. She had volunteered her blood for a transfusion, to help replace the massive amount Ed had lost. It was a brave and selfless thing to do, and Al loved her for it as he never had before.
She had given Ed something he no longer could.
“Winry…” Al didn’t even know how he was able to form words within that empty echo chamber. “Is he gonna be alright?”
Whether it was due to the painful question itself, or simply the alien sound of his voice, Winry flinched. She blinked a few times, as if to keep from crying, but at last she managed to meet whatever it was that passed for his gaze. “He’s… he’s not gonna bleed to death now, anyway. But we’ve got to watch out for infection.”
“I wanna see him.”
“He’s unconscious now. Granny’s taking care of him. And…” Winry hesitated. “Al, I… I think we’d better get you cleaned up first. You’re… kind of a mess.”
A part of Al wanted to laugh at that in a most unhealthy way, but he resisted the hysteria-tinged impulse. He knew Winry was right; she and Pinako already had more than enough cleaning up to do, without him spreading any more of Ed’s red cells around. He nodded his helmet at her, sorted out his rigid new limbs with a minimum of awkward metal scraping, and levered himself to his feet.
After all the youthful scraps she’d had with the brothers (well, mostly Ed), Winry was one of the last people Al would ever have thought of as delicate… but she looked so small now that he couldn’t help thinking it.
Or perhaps it was only his agonizing new awareness of the true fragility of human life.
The way she looked up at him didn’t help. She craned her neck and tilted her head from side to side, with a funny expression on her face, almost as if she thought this must still be some kind of trick or a joke—as if she was trying to steal a glimpse of the boy she knew between the joints of the armor. Al made a small uneasy noise, and she about-faced abruptly, leading the way to the washroom.
She stepped in first, hurriedly… and Al saw her reach up to the mirror that hung above the sink, turning it to face the wall.
The small room was a tight squeeze with him in it, but Winry ducked around him adroitly. In a few moments, the sink was full of steaming water, and she had collected a pile of old towels and rags. She looked up at him, nervously twisting one of the cloths between her hands.
“I guess I should help. I don’t know if you can… you know… reach it all.”
“Okay,” Al agreed, only a little reluctantly. He knew Winry must have been tired from the transfusion, but he couldn’t bring himself to argue. Although he hadn’t tested the limits of his dexterity yet, he suspected she was right; and besides, if she cleaned him up, it would give him just a little more time to avoid looking at himself.
So he knelt, motionless as a statue, while Winry scrubbed away the blood… and he watched the water in the sink become slowly tinged with an ever deeper shade of scarlet.
It was bizarre to be polished like a teakettle. Although he had no sensation of Winry’s touch, the sheer fact of the situation was awkward and embarrassing—but there was something oddly impersonal about the way she handled him. After all, she was an apprentice automail mechanic, well accustomed to working with metal limbs in the same abstract way a doctor would treat a patient’s flesh. Still, Al was startled by how very… professional she was about the task.
She’s grown up a lot too while we were away with Teacher, he realized—and then a small quiver rattled through the armor, as he remembered Izumi Curtis.
Oh, she’s gonna kill us…
“Are you—uh—okay?” Winry certainly knew how absurd that question was, but she must have noticed his shudder.
Al only answered her with the slight clunk of a shrug… because if he said anything, he was afraid he would say everything. He didn’t want to break down now. Not in front of Winry—and not when Brother needed him to be the strong one.
Wisely choosing not to press the matter, Winry fidgeted from one foot to the other, and gave him a shrug of her own. “Well… I think that’s all of it.”
She dropped the last bloodstained towel in the laundry basket, and took the stopper from the sink, draining away the water that was tinted with Ed’s life. Finally she scrubbed her own hands clean, in another display of almost clinical efficiency.
The job was finished now, and as well as he could, Al flattened himself against the wall to let her squeeze past him. She must have expected him to follow, but when she didn’t hear him clattering after her, she turned back…
To see him reaching for the mirror she had hung backwards.
“Al?” There was a question in her voice, but also a faint, sharp note of alarm.
He looked back at her somberly. “I… I have to, Winry.”
The immutable armor offered no expression for her to read, but his voice must have conveyed everything. Although tears welled up in Winry’s eyes, she didn’t move… except to nod very slightly.
Slowly Al took down the backwards mirror, clutching the glass with great care in his huge, unfeeling leather hands.
He remembered perfectly well what the suit of armor looked like. He had certainly seen it often enough, glowering down at the brothers through countless hours spent in their father’s study. It always frightened him a little. Ed used to tease him gently about that—and then he would make fun of the armor, doing silly things like putting transmuted flowers around its neck. Then Al would forget his unease, and laugh instead.
Now his last memory of seeing it from the outside was the sinister way it seemed to glow that night, reflecting the dark light of the rift that had opened up from the circle to tear his body away.
The gauntlets shivered as Al hesitantly turned the mirror face-up…
And the mirror cracked as it struck the floor.
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan
Chapters: I. | II. | III. | IV. | V. | VI. | VII. | VIII. | IX. | X.