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.
The day after, Edward awakened to complete stillness, inside and out.
There was no confusion, no hazy grasping for the memory of where he was or what had happened. It was all there with a photographic clarity… and all he could feel was an overwhelming sadness. Some part of him knew the guilt and rage would come later, but for now, his spirit and body were simply too exhausted.
It was incomprehensible that he had slept without nightmares—without the memories of that place assaulting his mind. Yet somehow, it was a fact. Whatever Pinako had given him for his pain, it must have put him down deeply.
The pain… oh yes, it was there, dulled but very much present, a phantom agony in the empty places where an arm and leg should have been. A perverse part of him cherished it fiercely. It was a punishment well-deserved… and a welcome motivation.
That was for later, too. For this one moment, all he wanted in the world was the warm sunlight he felt on his face, and the knowledge that he was alive.
The sunlight abruptly took on the chill of ice. Ed opened his eyes, turned his head slightly, and saw just what he somehow expected to see: the vessel that had become his brother’s prison, sitting forlornly against the opposite wall.
It was strange to see the armor in the bright daylight that filled this room, rather than the shadows of their father’s study. Ed wondered if it was that, or simply his knowledge of the precious cargo it carried, that made it seem no longer fearsome to him at all. At the moment, enormous as it was, its dejected posture somehow made it look pitifully small and lost—reflecting the pain of Al’s soul with an expressiveness no stark metal shell should ever have been able to achieve.
Like a broken toy, the helmet was bowed over the chestplate, and the living spark that had glowed down at Ed the night before was hidden. For a moment, he could almost have feared the impossible bond he had forged was only temporary; that Al’s spirit might ultimately have rejected its transplantation, and slipped away in the night, leaving that cold metal hulk abandoned once more.
But no… Al was still there. Ed was sure of at least that much. Somehow, he still felt the gentle presence that had been by his side for as long as he could remember.
He wondered if Al was asleep. If Al even could sleep. There were so many questions—and the answer to each one held the possibility of a new horror. What was this inhuman existence he had condemned his brother to?
It was just possible that bringing Al back, for this, was purely selfishness on his part.
Despairing, Ed turned his face to the sun. The brightness hurt, and he closed his eyes, swallowing down a lump in his throat.
Oh, Al… can you ever forgive me?
He didn’t open his eyes when the door creaked open, and someone crossed the room to place a damp cloth on his forehead. Then the visitor moved away from the bed, and a moment later he heard a faint sound, like knuckles rapping against metal.
Ed looked over just in time to witness the improbable sight of Winry climbing onto the armor’s lap.
The helmet raised its chin, revealing once more the soft glimmer of Al’s soul behind the eye slits. Somehow, he seemed almost amused by their friend’s impertinent curiosity.
“Good morning, Winry,” he said, with his meticulous politeness that was so unlike his brother.
Winry shot up as if the armor had suddenly turned red-hot.
“Eeeee! Al, you’re on!—I mean—you’re awake,” she babbled breathlessly. “Sorry. I was just—and I would’ve—but I can’t—umm…”
Al’s simple, good-natured reaction was to chuckle shyly, reaching up in a familiar gesture to rub what should have been the back of his head… and Ed’s shattered heart skipped a beat.
Now he was sure of a fact he had already sensed, even in those first awful moments, when Al had cradled his broken body in trembling new arms of steel. The price paid in flesh was exacted so much more cruelly upon Al than himself; but there was a more merciful difference between them, as well. Ed could no longer feel any innocence remained to him, after the things he had seen in that place… and yet somehow, Al’s own innocence survived, even within the bitterly ironic confines of a hull designed for war.
Al didn’t see it.
Ed seized upon that realization with a heart-clutching wave of relief. Let him gladly be the one to carry alone the scars that could not be seen, for at least his brother’s tender soul had been won back untainted.
It must have occurred to Winry that if Ed was asleep, her squeal would have put an end to that. She looked over at him—and when she saw his face, something passed through her own expression that made the hurt in his heart cut just a little deeper. Covering it quickly, she forced a thin smile, and stepped over to the bedside.
“Hey. How do you feel?”
After all the trouble and sorrow he had put Winry and Pinako through already, Ed couldn’t burden them further with his pain… so instead, he turned a grimace into the ghost of a hard, defiant smile. “Just terrific.”
“You stupid idiot,” Winry shot back bluntly, and Ed could hear the sudden quiver of tears beneath the familiar cover of her barb-flinging. She meant it. Of course, she always meant it, but this time especially so… because she cared.
“Granny is fixing you something to eat,” she continued brusquely. “I’ll go see if it’s ready—and you had better be up for eating with your left hand, ’cause I am not spoon-feeding you.” She meant that, too.
Then she glanced at Al, and her expression became entirely uncertain.
“I don’t feel hungry,” Al whispered. His helmet tipped downward, hiding the light of his gaze, as leather fingers touched the empty steel plating of his midsection. “I don’t feel anything now… and I didn’t sleep all night, either. I—don’t think I can.”
Even through the metallic resonance, the tremor of bewilderment and fear in Al’s voice was distinct, and it was almost more than Ed could bear. A sob rose in his throat, and it took all the strength he had to choke it back to a whimper, too soft for Al and Winry to hear.
Winry blinked back the sudden brightness in her own eyes. She looked from one Elric to the other, as if for some kind of answer; but seeing the devastation that was written on Ed’s face, she said nothing, and turned quickly to leave the room.
Even through the pain and crushing misery he felt, Ed couldn’t let her go without saying the one thing he needed her to hear. His voice cracked slightly as he raised it to call after her.
She tossed a hasty glare over her shoulder, but it couldn’t disguise the tears that had finally escaped from her eyes.
“Listen, Edward, you can thank me after you get better—and after I beat the crud out of you.”
She meant that most of all, and Ed nearly gave her retreating back a weak smile. In his entire life, he didn’t think there was anything he had ever looked forward to more.
That fleeting warmth vanished instantly as the door clicked shut behind her, leaving no more distraction from the broken reality Ed had created. Metal scraped jarringly as Al slowly picked himself up from the floor, to cross the room and kneel beside the bed… and for just one moment, Ed was almost overcome by a desperate dread of looking up at him, of facing what he had done to his brother.
But he had to look. He had to bear the horror and the guilt of it, for Al’s sake—because if even his own brother couldn’t look at him, Al would be convinced he had become a monster.
Ed swallowed hard. His body tensed rigidly, sending agony through his wounds, but somehow he managed to raise his eyes without flinching. The muted light of Al’s soul met his gaze in silence, whiteness tinged now with crimson, unreadable behind the armor’s expressionless visor… and a fresh spasm of fear squeezed Ed’s heart, as he wondered what feelings of anger and blame the steel refused to betray.
Do you hate me, Little Brother? Will you… will you leave me?
Please… don’t leave me.
“Brother,” Al said faintly at last, and reached for Ed’s solitary hand; but then he froze in hesitation, looking down at his hollow gauntlet. It was as if he thought Ed might be the one to shrink back from him—but in that moment, all Ed could see was his memory of Al’s true hand, reaching out to him from the void in that last moment before it was dissolved in burning light.
With his heart crumbling to pieces inside him, Ed reached up, seizing what was now his brother’s hand with all his strength—just as he should have done the night before.
He should have—could have—
“…I’m sorry, Al. I’m sorry… I’m so sorry.”
Al’s grip closed around Ed’s hand in turn, an inexplicably solid force within the empty leather. He squeezed so tightly that it hurt, but Ed would not reveal the pain. Instead it was Al who shivered slightly, and the whimper that emerged from inside the menacing armor was purely that of a distressed child.
“But Brother—you gave up your right arm, for me—”
“You are my right arm.” Ed shut his eyes, fighting back tears, and pulled Al’s gauntlet closer to him. He pressed its knuckles against his cheek, to feel upon his skin the tremble of lifeless fingers that were impossibly, terribly, blessedly alive. “I couldn’t go on without you.”
Even when Al was flesh and blood, Ed had never heard anything quite like the soft keening sound his brother uttered then, but he understood what it was. It was something as close to a sob as Alphonse could now give vent to.
The floodgates opened at last, and Edward wept for them both.
“I’m gonna fix this, Al. I don’t know how… but I will.”
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan
Chapters: I. | II. | III. | IV. | V. | VI. | VII. | VIII. | IX. | X.