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 went on, and Al watched his brother grow steadily stronger.
When Ed wasn’t working at conditioning his body, he continued to pore over their old alchemy books—but now he tempered his labors with proper rest, and took comfort in Al and Winry’s companionship. His sleep was haunted by nightmares a little less often, and he managed not to be quite so moody. Even so, everyone knew he was still simmering with impatience, because that was just the way Ed was.
For his part, Al found himself both pleased and vaguely unsettled by his adaptation to his body of steel. Away from Ed’s presence, he tested and refined his abilities: learning to move quickly, to use his strength, to compensate for his lack of sensation, until his early awkwardness gave way to an unexpected speed and agility. The armor was made for battle, after all, and it suited Teacher’s intense physical training far better than the gentle boy he once was.
The plans Ed had made, to join the military and become a State Alchemist, were a little frightening. Having vowed to himself that he wouldn’t let his brother move forward alone, Al wanted to be ready for anything…
But when it came on a perfectly ordinary morning, the next long-awaited step in moving forward took them both somewhat by surprise.
“And how are we feeling today, pipsqueak?” Pinako asked brightly as she barged into the bedroom, presumably for Ed’s daily physical-therapy session.
A low rumble emerged from behind the book that concealed Ed’s face—or rather the two books, considering that a volume entitled Theories On Advanced Transmutation was tucked between the camouflaging pages of an automail maintenance manual.
Al resisted the temptation to duck and cover. He really wished people would stop thinking it was funny to antagonize Ed on purpose, because he was the one who always had to defuse his brother. Of course, that had now become a great deal easier with the application of simple bodily restraint; but still, it was kind of embarrassing.
Pinako merely chuckled and puffed at her pipe. “Well, if you’re in that kind of a mood, I guess you’re not up for being fitted with your automail today.”
The books went flying as Ed violently started upright against the pillows… and the alchemy tome landed with a thump at Pinako’s feet.
Several beats of doom-laden silence followed. At last Pinako sighed, and philosophically blew a smoke ring.
“You are your father’s son,” she said resignedly, as if that was the explanation for all the disappointments of the universe. “I’ll get Winry.”
She went out of the room, blithely ignoring the fact that Al’s arm was the only thing to keep a snarling, struggling Edward pinned to the bed.
Comparing Ed to their father? Oh, yes. That was the one thing Al longed to avoid even more than the height comments.
At least the prospect of receiving his new limbs distracted Ed quickly from his tantrum. Once he stopped muttering threats and Al let him up, he sat on the edge of the bed, giving the exposed junctures of his automail ports one last thoughtful examination. There was keen eagerness in his face, but Al knew his brother. Underneath the anticipation, there also lurked a little bit of fear.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Al queried, sitting down at Ed’s left side. The mattress bowed under the weight of the armor, causing Ed to slide close against him—but somehow, Ed didn’t seem to mind that. He looked up with a grin that was only slightly forced.
“Are you kidding? It’s about time we did this!”
“But it’s gonna hurt.”
“Yeah, well… I’ve gotten kind of used to that.” Ed’s smile became sincere, and he raised his hand to give Al a cheerful knock on the chestplate, his knuckles ringing against the hollow metal.
That gesture expressed far more than mere playfulness: its sound against Al’s steel was a substitute, feeble though it was, for the sensation of being touched. In a curious way, his inability to feel physical contact had only made it more precious to him than ever, and he knew Ed felt it too… because now, Brother always made sure his touch could be heard.
Moved to emotions that made his soul hurt, Al impulsively clutched Ed’s hand—perhaps a bit too hard at first, because Ed flinched. Al relaxed his grip at once, alarmed that he might have caused pain, but Ed’s fingers tightened around his own before he could pull away.
“Just… stay with me this time, okay?” Ed suggested, and his smile faltered wincingly.
The words stung a little, like a rebuke for abandoning him during the trauma of his earlier operations—even though Ed didn’t blame Al for that, and neither of them would have dared to cross Pinako and Winry on the issue then. But this time it was different. It was a far simpler procedure, painful but bloodless, to be carried out in their bedroom instead of an operating room… and Ed had asked him. Actually asked. After that, not even the Rockbells’ fury would have the power to chase Al out of that room.
“I’m not gonna go anywhere,” Al promised softly. “Not until you can walk out of here right beside me.”
At that, Ed’s smile lightened, but a suspicion of sudden mistiness in his eyes caused him to avert his gaze quickly.
Long minutes passed before Pinako returned, with Winry, Ed’s automail, and a large toolbox in tow. Both mechanics wore a grimly professional demeanor. Winry sat down at Ed’s right side, Pinako knelt on the floor at his left, and with scarcely a word they began making final adjustments to the metal limbs they had crafted: Winry the arm, and Pinako the leg.
With his gauntlet still trapped in Ed’s grip, Al squirmed farther to the side, trying to make sure he was out of Pinako’s way. “Do you, uh… want me to move?” he asked reluctantly—resolved not to go any more than a few feet away if she said yes.
Pinako looked up at him in brief appraisal, and then shook her head, turning back to her work. “No, you’re alright where you’re at.” Her voice lowered a little as she added, almost as if to herself: “Might as well be there to catch him, anyway.”
Ed flushed indignantly. “Catch me? C’mon, I’m not gonna faint! This can’t be any worse than all the stuff you’ve done to me already!”
“Hmph,” Pinako retorted eloquently—and rather ominously.
Winry bit her lip. “Just keep telling yourself that, Ed.”
The brothers exchanged an uneasy look.
For some time, the Rockbells were preoccupied with their mysterious tweakings and togglings of the exposed workings of the automail. At last, Winry and then Pinako moved the limbs into position, lining them up with the connection ports on Ed’s body. Al’s anxiety ticked up a notch, and as he looked down at the hand still joined with his own, he could see the white-knuckle tightness of his brother’s grasp.
Leaning back slightly, Pinako glanced at Ed, and then raised an eyebrow at Al. “It probably wouldn’t hurt for you to hold him up.”
Al sought a quick permissive glance from Ed, and receiving it—Brother really must have been scared now—he gingerly withdrew his gauntlet from Ed’s grip. He wrapped his right arm around Ed’s back, and placed his left hand on the front of Ed’s shoulder, braced to hold him steady.
For all Ed had tried to appear relaxed and eager, he further managed to entwine his arm over Al’s vambrace, tightly gripping it at the wrist. His eyes were large in an ashen face, and his breathing had quickened. In spite of the lean strength of his body, he somehow looked more small and fragile than he had at any time since the night Al carried him half-dead from their house.
“Okay. Deep breaths, Ed.” Winry looked down for a nod from Pinako, and continued, “We do this on the count of three. One…”
Simultaneously, the mechanics pushed the automail home into its connection ports. Blue-white currents sparked as the limbs locked into place with a loud click—a sound that was not quite drowned out by the short scream of pain Ed somehow managed to strangle to death in his throat. His eyes widened, rolled back, and closed… and mercifully, he fainted dead away in Al’s arms.
But Alphonse had seen it. At the moment of connection, the automail leg had jerked, and the hand had clenched.
His brother now had four limbs again, and two of them were made of steel—just like his own unliving, unfeeling shell.
A sledgehammer of confused and painful emotions struck Al, almost causing him to drop Ed. Had he still possessed a stomach, he was certain he would have felt sick. He whimpered slightly, looking back and forth between Pinako and Winry in an entirely childish need for reassurance, but they were both busy fastening the outer plating of the automail.
“It’s okay, Al,” Winry muttered brusquely. Then she spared him a glance, and her expression softened. “Really. The two of you will be running around together again in no time now.”
Pinako snorted. “Well, not exactly no time. It’ll take him a while to get used to moving the new hardware.” She looked up at Ed’s unconscious face, and her own weathered features took on a gentleness Al had never seen there before. “But the half-pint’s got guts, alright.”
Rather abruptly, she sat back on her heels, wiping her brow with her sleeve. “That should do it here. Winry?”
“Almost… there.” Winry leaned back as well, and gently lifted Ed’s new arm at the wrist, giving her work one last examination. Then she smiled up at Al. “All in a day’s work, huh?”
With Ed still sagging in the crook of his right arm, Al stretched out his left hand toward the automail… and then hesitated. He didn’t even know why he wanted to touch it, because after all, he couldn’t even feel it. Maybe he just wanted to confirm the solid reality of it to himself.
“Go on,” Winry chuckled. “It won’t bite, you know—at least not until the first time Ed gets mad and starts swinging it. But it might make some noise against your armor.”
Aware that his fingers were trembling slightly, Al laid the palm of his gauntlet on the steel outer sheath of the automail’s forearm. It hurt him to know Ed couldn’t really feel that touch either, but at least he would be able to function fully again. Soon he would walk on his new leg, and run, and jump. Soon his new hand would obey the messages of his nerves, learning to perform complex tasks, draw transmutation circles, protect him against danger. From Pinako’s cautionary lectures, Al knew some people never fully mastered the use of automail, but he also knew Brother would—and more quickly than anyone else. Nothing stopped him when he put his mind to a challenge.
“You can lay him down now,” Pinako advised, standing up halfway to massage the kinks out of her knees. “His nerves’ll be in a riot for hours. Sleeping through it is the best thing for him.”
Very gently, Alphonse lifted his brother, to settle him in bed. The heavy automail limbs hung limp like a rag doll’s, brushing against Al’s armor with a soft scrape of steel on steel… and if Pinako or Winry noticed the way he cradled Ed against his chestplate for just a moment longer than was necessary, they said nothing of it.
Al couldn’t feel the warmth of Ed’s body, or the beat of his heart; but to hold him close was a comfort, all the same.
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan
Chapters: I. | II. | III. | IV. | V. | VI. | VII. | VIII. | IX. | X.