|Fullmetal Alchemist: From Ashes (4/10: Healing)
||[Aug. 30th, 2010|10:14 am]
Title: From Ashes (Chapter IV: Healing)
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 days of Ed’s automail surgeries were the worst in the time that followed.
Bowing to his determination, Pinako and Winry connected the mechanisms to his shoulder and thigh as soon as they could be prepared—while his wounds were still fresh, nerves and muscles already exposed. Barred from the operating room, Al could only sit miserably outside the door, listening as his brother stifled cries from a pain that even a grown man would not have withstood.
Al could feel no physical pain now, but for the moment at least, he still possessed the memory of it. The scrapes and bruises of youthful antics, a broken wrist from falling out of a tree… and the faintest recollection of a pain far beyond any other, when alchemic forces had begun to rip his body from him. That was only a hazy fragment, too dim for him even to grasp what it had been like, but he sensed it was terrible.
It must also have been a part of what Ed felt, when the void tore away his leg and arm; but where Al’s metal shell felt no aftereffects from that torture, Ed’s body of flesh now endured a continuing agony. That fact weighed on Al with its own perverse brand of guilt.
Yet Ed seemed to think the long weeks afterward were even more unbearable, because he couldn’t be immediately fitted with automail limbs. His body needed to heal from the initial operations, adapting to the new mechanical parts that would interface flesh with steel. It took a brutal toll at first, and Al was frightened to see him so pale and weak—but Ed’s legendary impatience made a full recovery long before his body did. Within days he was railing bitterly against further delay, and his condition of crippled helplessness that wounded his pride. He pushed himself harder and more quickly than he should have. As soon as Pinako allowed him to get out of bed, he insisted on using a crutch to hop laboriously about the house by himself, and he resented his painful but necessary regimen of followup treatment and physical therapy. Yet it was never the pain he complained about; it was only the waiting.
With Alphonse, on the other hand, Ed’s volatile temperament disappeared. He wilted under the weight of his own guilt whenever Al was near, treating him in such a fragile and hesitant manner that Al began to wish Ed would get annoyed with him, as he sometimes used to do.
Ultimately, that was the reason Al picked his brother up bodily for the second time in their lives.
On that particular midafternoon, Ed was propped up in bed with one of their father’s most advanced textbooks on alchemy. Somehow he had persuaded Winry to fetch it for him, without Pinako’s disapproving knowledge—which really only succeeded in giving Winry blackmail fodder, as Al knew she gleefully realized. However, Al kept quiet about that, because he suspected she wouldn’t take advantage of Ed in his condition. To the contrary, anything she forced Ed to do just then was apt to be purely for the sake of his own health, and Al figured she could use all the leverage she could get for that battle.
Not that Ed’s utter absorption in the book was a great help in his recuperation, either. To Al’s concern, he had sat up poring over the pages all night. Even his breakfast still lay cold and untouched on the bedside table—a nearly unprecedented phenomenon, coming from Ed.
Admittedly, Al couldn’t blame Ed for resisting sleep, when it was so frequently shattered by living nightmares revisited. Except for the hours of heavily-sedated oblivion that followed his operations, there wasn’t a night when he hadn’t awakened thrashing violently, crying out either for Al or for their mother. In those fevered moments, Al could only try to comfort Ed with a hollow touch and echoing whispered words, and feel a bitter gratitude that he himself was consigned to a mind-numbing eternal wakefulness.
Whatever it was Ed had experienced in the moments lost to Al, it was hellish, and his guilt and anger only fed the lingering horrors that invaded his sleep. In the grip of those feelings, beating his brain over that book was merely chafing the open wounds of his memories. His heart needed time to heal, just as his body did, but he wasn’t giving it the chance.
So Al determined to do something about it.
“Brother, it’s a nice day outside. Why don’t you come out with me?” he asked from the doorway of the bedroom.
Ed barely glanced up. “No thanks. I need to check something.”
“But you already had that book memorized a long time ago—even before we met Teacher.” Al hesitated. “It isn’t going to tell you how to undo what we’ve done, Brother.”
With his head bowed over the book, Ed’s expression was concealed by an unruly curtain of blond hair; but judging by the stiff tension that flickered through his shoulders, the remark hit a nerve the automail connections never could.
“There’s nothing else I can do, Al. Not as long as I’m stuck waiting like this.” Ed shook his head, turning a page. “I can’t let all this downtime be a complete waste. Maybe there’s something…”
Al approximated a loud sigh.
For a moment he regarded his brother in grim speculation. Then he gathered his resolve, and strode across the room… and the book thudded to the floor as he unceremoniously picked Ed up by the waist.
“Hey! Whadaya think you’re doing to me?” Ed’s arm and leg flailed in violent protest as Al tucked him under one arm like a sack of potatoes—taking care not to disturb the still-healing flesh around the automail ports. Instead of replying, Al jerked the blanket from the bed with his free hand and dragged it behind them. He carried his struggling and cursing brother down the stairs and into the front room, providing a spectacle that caused Winry to drop her tools and shriek with laughter.
An ineffectual fist pounded ringingly against steel. “Stop, put me down! Lemme go, you… you big tin can!”
It was the first time Ed had ever called him a name like that, and although a part of Al couldn’t help wincing at it, another part of him wanted to smile. He had missed their natural brotherly give-and-take, occasional fights and all—and he wanted Ed to stop treating him with such painful, guilt-ridden delicacy. It was important for the healing of them both, because they could never take on the outside world if they couldn’t take on each other.
The traveling one-sided wrestling match continued through the front door, down the porch steps, and out onto the rich green grass of the yard, where the sun shone bright and birds were singing. The blanket fluttered gracefully to the ground. Al dumped Ed on top of it with considerably less grace, and then dropped himself beside his brother with a noisy metallic crash.
Breathing hard, Ed turned to glare at Al. “What’s the big idea? I’ve got work to do! You get me my crutch!”—Yet in spite of that demand, he didn’t even wait for a response before twisting his body around to face the house. He gave every appearance of an intent to squirm back to the porch on his own.
Al merely reached out and collared him, hauling him back by his empty right shirtsleeve.
“We have plenty of time for that, Brother,” he said, with a gentleness that even he knew was an odd contrast to his blunt physical force. “I just don’t want you to lose yourself in it.”
For a brief moment, Ed’s petulant expression dissolved into uneasy perplexity. Then his face hardened once more, with an angrier defiance, and his fist clenched against the automail port on his left thigh.
“Al, you know better than anyone that I’ve got to make this right—to find a way to put us back the way we were.”
“What if that can never happen?”
The softly spoken question made Ed physically flinch. He stared at Al in genuine shock, eyes wide and suddenly brimming, and Al wondered if it had even occurred to him that what they had done to themselves might never be undone.
“Don’t say that!” Ed raged abruptly. “There’s a way—there’s got to be a way! I’ll give anything for us to find it… and until we do, nothing else matters!”
A dull ache stirred in Al’s soul. Hugging his knees against his chestplate, he looked away from Ed’s furious face, and gazed up toward the filmy white clouds in the sky.
“If I felt that way, Brother… I think I’d be sorry you saved me.”
Ed’s breath caught in a sharp gasp. Al looked back at him quickly, and saw the tears finally spilling over.
“We’ve lost so much, and we’re not what we were—but at least we’re still alive.” Al dropped his gaze to his gauntlets, studying his fingertips with pensive fascination. He could feel no resentment toward this armor that sheltered his soul. For all it lacked, it had spared him from oblivion, granting him the miracle of his very survival.
“…And being alive means we’ve got to live, even as what we are now. If we don’t try… then there won’t be anything left of us that’s human at all.”
For a long moment, there was silence beside him.
Then Ed crumpled onto the blanket, and quietly began to sob… and Al gently rested his hand on Ed’s shoulder, wishing he could cry too.
Until now, that first morning was the only time Ed had wept, but once was not enough to purge the tears he had stored up. Perhaps not even a lifetime would be. He thought that to be strong was to deny the tears, but that would only injure him more deeply. He could still release his pain in ways Alphonse no longer could, and Al wouldn’t permit him to simply bury it, no matter how much it hurt.
Al couldn’t let his brother become, in a different way, as hard and empty a shell as he was himself.
It was then that he decided they must never be separated, no matter what plans Ed schemed to change their fate. Ed had said he couldn’t go on without Al, and he was right—but in ways that perhaps he himself had not meant when he said it.
After a little while, Ed slowly uncurled his body and pushed himself upright. He sniffled and scrubbed his topaz eyes with the back of his hand, giving Al a sweetly sad and contrite look.
There again were the words that had been near-constantly present in everything Ed said and did, in every expression of his face. Al had heard them enough. They couldn’t change the way things were, or absolve his share of a guilt that was just as much his own as Ed’s.
“I don’t want you to say sorry anymore,” Al said plaintively. “I want to hear your laugh again, Brother. I miss it. And since I can’t smile now… I want you to smile for both of us.”
Ed swallowed hard and sniffed, and Al braced for another downpour… but then, very slowly, the corners of Ed’s mouth turned up. The smile was as weak and broken as his body still was, but at least it was a start.
“Hey, am I invited to the picnic?” a familiar voice called out, startling both brothers. They looked over their shoulders to see Winry standing on the porch steps—her arms laden with a basket full of food.
This time, Ed smiled for real, and it gave Al the first happiness he had known in a long time.
The three sat or sprawled around the picnic basket for the rest of the afternoon, talking and teasing, playing with Den, watching the clouds in the sky and the small wonders of nature that moved around them; and for those few precious hours, things were almost the way they had been before. Almost. Al couldn’t share in the food, and that saddened him, but he was glad to see Ed regaining his infamous appetite.
Winry, on the other hand, was of a somewhat different opinion.
“Besides the automail, Granny and I should be charging you for your care and feeding,” she said tartly, watching as Ed wolfed down his fourth sandwich. “You eat more than enough for both of you. At this rate, you should be as big as Al!”
Alphonse inwardly winced. He knew exactly how Ed would respond to that—and the oddest part was that Winry did too. Maybe she had also decided the best thing for him was to get a rise out of him.
On cue, Ed bristled, almost dropping what was left of the sandwich. “Come on, nobody’s as big as Al! And besides, our room and board oughta be covered by all the chores you’ve been making him do!”
With a mild half-laugh, Al rubbed the back of his helmet—a lingering nervous habit of his former flesh. “I like helping… and there’s a lot more I can do now.”
Ed’s expression took on a faintly sour note, but Winry beamed up at Al. “Well, you broke a lot of stuff at first—”
“Hey, I fixed everything I broke!”
“—But now that you’ve mostly got a handle on your own strength, you’re awfully useful to have around, that’s for sure,” Winry finished, as if Al had never interrupted. Then she glanced inquisitively at Ed. “How does that work, anyway? How is he so strong when there are no muscles in there at all? For that matter, how does he even move?”
The elder brother sighed uncomfortably. “Don’t ask me. I’ve got more important things to figure out.”
Beneath the casual dismissal, Al sensed a deeper resistance he had felt before: the nature of his new existence was something Ed didn’t want to talk about. He had said nothing more of it since that first hurried and terrible explanation, when he lay bleeding in Al’s arms on the night of their transgression. Al still had his own questions of how, fears of what if, and the answers would have to come sooner rather than later…
But not on this day he had dedicated to healing.
Winry blinked at the moment of unease, but there was no change in her cheerful demeanor as she switched tracks. “Well, anyway, there are still some things I wouldn’t trust Al to do—like giving you a haircut.” She eyed Ed critically. “You should let me do that soon. Your hair is looking kinda ratty, you know.”
It would have been typical for Ed to indulge his inner brat, and stick his tongue out at Winry; but his expression grew oddly thoughtful instead. He smiled thinly and reached up, twisting the blond locks that now fell just past his shoulders. “Nah… no thanks, Winry. In fact, I think I’m gonna let it grow out some more.”
Winry made a slight face… and then her lips twitched. “Yeah, I guess you’re happy to see some part of you can grow.”
She laughingly jumped backwards as Ed dove at her, and he only succeeded in landing squarely on his chin.
Bright evening colors were splashed across the sky by the time Winry picked up the empty basket and went inside. The brothers remained for a while longer, watching the fiery sun sink toward the hills—until Al noticed that Ed was starting to nod off beside him. After all, he hadn’t slept the night before.
“I guess we’d better go in now, too,” Al said, watching his reluctantly half-roused brother yawn and stretch. After a hesitation, he ducked his helmet and asked timorously, “Will you be mad if I carry you again?”
Edward raised his eyes, soft and distant in the sunset glow. With a broken smile, he stretched out his arm; the gesture expectant and seeking, like the wordless request of a little child.
The sight of that made something hurt faintly within Al’s soul—but it was mostly in a good way.
With the most intense feeling of tenderness he had ever known, Al gathered Ed into his arms, bundled the blanket around him, and stood up. The taut muscles in Ed’s shoulder betrayed the tightness of his clinging. He pressed his cheek against Al’s chestplate… and a gentle tremor passed through the steel, a reaction to emotions Al couldn’t begin to give a name to.
“It can’t feel very nice to hug me now,” Al said quietly.
“You’re wrong about that.” Ed’s expression was hidden by his hair, and his voice was subdued with sleepiness, but there was a slight catch in it again. Fearing this was a prelude to more tears, Al tried to inspire a laugh instead.
“Please don’t cry on me, Ed. I don’t want to rust!”
The effort was rewarded by a quiet chuckle. Ed lifted his head slightly, and although his drowsy-lidded eyes were damp and shining, there was a faint smile on his lips. He reached up to give Al an affectionate thump on the side of the helmet.
“Never gonna be.” He closed his eyes with a soft sigh. “I’m going to take care of you, Al… no matter what happens.”
There was something implied there that gave Al another ache. For the first time, Ed had confronted the idea that they might always be the way they were now—and his no matter what was a veiled concession Al knew he would hear only once. It was a promise that somehow, life would go on, even if they never did find a way to restore their bodies.
Of course, Ed would still risk killing himself to make that dream come true. That was why it was up to Al to make sure he stayed safe.
“I’ll take care of you too,” Al whispered, and carried his sleeping brother into the house…
And for the first time since it all began, Edward slept through the night in peace.
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan
Chapters: I. | II. | III. | IV. | V. | VI. | VII. | VIII. | IX. | X.