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.
After Ed received his automail, there was a new level of energy in the house. Within days, he had abandoned his crutch for good; at first he could only limp stiffly on his none-too-responsive leg, and his hand barely managed the most simple and clumsy attempts at grasping objects, but his coordination and dexterity improved ever more swiftly with each day and week that passed.
If he had hoped to escape from the tender mercies of Pinako, however, he was mistaken. His physical therapy did not end, but merely shifted to a different purpose: training nerves to finely control the movements of automail instead of flesh, teaching muscles to adjust to the unbalanced weight of his limbs. It was clear that his efforts frequently caused him pain, but he endured it with a minimum of grumbling and swearing. Pinako treated him richly to her favorite motivational technique of sharp, bracing insults—and yet privately, even she would admit that she had never seen anything like his recovery.
Alphonse was proud and happy to see his brother making such progress… but he also felt a growing awareness that each step literally brought them closer to more difficult and frightening changes. Ed must have felt it too, because a worrisome quietness came over him increasingly often, and his eyes would grow dark as they gazed away into a clouded future.
One night, after helping Winry with after-dinner chores, Al went to look for Ed in their room—but Ed wasn’t there.
As Al stared into the empty room, a faint, irrational sense of fear swept over him. Brother surely couldn’t have slipped away now to pursue his plans! He couldn’t even walk very steadily, let alone make the long, hard journey to Central, or demonstrate his alchemy skills to the military. He wasn’t ready for that. Al wasn’t ready for that. Not yet…!
Then Al’s gaze fell upon the desk at one side of the room, and the angrily crumpled pieces of paper scattered across and around it.
With a strange apprehension, he approached the desk, and smoothed out one of the papers. The lines of a very basic transmutation circle were scrawled on it, but they were crooked and faltering, far short of the precision required to form a viable array.
Al didn’t need to unfold any more of those rejected wads to know they were all the same story. He understood then. Although Ed had worked from the start to train his left hand to write and draw, and he was now beginning to do the same with his automail hand, he still couldn’t create a functional transmutation circle with either. He was so close, but not quite there, and this latest failure to recapture his gift must have pushed his frustration to the breaking point.
The memory came to Al of the months after their mother’s death. He remembered how furiously Ed had worked then, too, in their quest for the forbidden—and he remembered where Ed went to sulk when it all seemed impossible.
Leaving their bedroom, he went down the hall, to the doors that opened onto the upstairs deck.
Outside, stars glittered in a clear night sky. For a moment after he stepped out onto the weathered boards, Al gazed up at that vast velvet-blue magnificence, stretching above the fields and hills frosted with moonlight. For all the hours he and Ed had spent there, or in those fields, simply lying on their backs and looking up at the sky… now it didn’t seem like nearly enough.
He wished he could smell the night breeze, feel the tickle of the long grass, just one more time.
Then something like a pebble pinged gently off the back of his helmet.
If he could have, Al would have rolled his eyes. He settled for folding his arms unamusedly as he turned to face the eaves of the house. Just as he had expected, Ed was there, crouching at the edge of the roof.
“You worried me, Brother,” Al protested gently. “You know you shouldn’t be climbing around up there yet.”
Ed frowned down at him. He looked sullen, and the soft rebuke probably hadn’t helped that.
“Just needed to think for a while,” he murmured. Then he turned and disappeared from view. Tacit permission to join him did not seem to be given… but then, it wasn’t denied, either.
With a breathless sigh, Al trudged over to the outer corner of the deck, where the slanting roof was lowest and the railing met the wall. It was where Ed would have climbed up—but after a dubious contemplation of the rail’s sturdiness, Al prudently decided on another route for himself. Producing the chalk he now carried at all times in a pouch strapped to his cuisse, he drew a simple array on the wooden siding, and transmuted a few solid steps leading up the side of the wall. Pinako would be furious if she found out, but he fully intended to put everything to rights long before she ever saw it.
Poking his helmet over the eaves, he saw Ed curled up halfway across the roof, with his back braced against one of the chimney stacks and his arms folded over his knees. Al wondered if there was a chill in the night air, or if that posture merely reflected Ed’s sense of gloom. He looked pale and brittle, like glass; his blond hair was now long enough that he usually tied it back, but tonight it fell loose about his shoulders, nearly colorless beneath the silver veil of a three-quarter moon.
And his eyes…
His eyes had that look again. The one Al hated. The one that meant Brother’s mind was in a place he couldn’t reach, couldn’t even explain; the place where Brother had left parts of himself that were more than flesh, and come away with something Al was afraid to know.
Gingerly—and as quietly as possible—Al crossed the roof to sit beside him. Edward said nothing, and hardly gave him a glance before turning those impenetrable eyes toward their own house, dark and empty on the opposite hill.
“I hate that house,” he declared at last, his voice a harsh snarl.
The words and tone gave Al an unpleasant feeling of foreboding. He tilted his helmet, likewise looking out at what was once their happy home. “Why?”
“Because it was his house. Because it’s where we lost Mom twice. Because it’s where—” Ed faltered into silence, his gaze sliding sideways, and Al was acutely conscious of Ed’s eyes bitterly taking in the gleam of moonlight on his armor.
“It’s hurting you again, isn’t it?” Al asked in a soft voice.
Ed’s jaw tightened, his left hand discreetly reaching up to clasp his right shoulder through his sleeve; but he said nothing. After a moment, he visibly forced himself to relax, flesh fist uncurling and dropping to his side.
“It’s nothing,” he predictably insisted. He reached up to bump his automail knuckles against Al’s rerebrace… and then he repeated the gesture, more gently, as if suddenly fascinated by the dull ring of steel on steel.
“…At least this way, I can share something of what you’re going through.”
A pang of grief cut through Al’s soul, and he laid his gauntlet on Ed’s shoulder, over the place where metal and flesh were joined together with a seam of scars. “I don’t want you to have to share it.”
Ed merely shrugged. Judging by the way he winced at the movement, it was a mistake.
Silence passed between them for several minutes after that. Ed remained lost in his own thoughts, and Al observed his brother, with an anxious intensity born of nights spent helplessly watching Ed struggle through pain and nightmares. He couldn’t quite figure out what his brother felt now, but that look in his eyes had faded away, and Al was glad of that at least.
Yet their veiled talk of the way he was made him think again about questions unanswered… and although he was hardly sure the time was right to bring up the subject, he found he couldn’t contain his wonderment and secret fears any longer.
“Brother… how did you put me in this armor?”
Ed’s flinch at those words was obvious and ugly. He was still for so long that it seemed he might not answer, but at last he turned to meet Al’s gaze, his face haunted by something deeper than the usual guilt and anger.
“It’s true, you’ve got more than a right to know that. You need to know.” He looked Al up and down thoughtfully, taking a deep breath. “And now that I’ve got two hands again, I think I can show you… if you trust me.”
After all that had happened, someone else might have hesitated on that point—but Al wasn’t someone else. He was Ed’s little brother.
“Of course I trust you.”
The words made Ed wince again, but the look on his face was briefly hidden in the dark as he moved, sitting up on mismatched knees. He faced Al for a long moment, intently studying the crude semblance of human features on the armor’s visor, as if trying to read an expression it was incapable of offering.
“This could get kinda weird,” he said carefully. “Don’t be scared, okay?”
That very warning gave Al a stab of anxiety, but he nodded resolutely; and after a hesitation, Ed reached up with his fingers of flesh and steel, to place his hands on either side of Al’s helmet. The movements were plain enough, even if Al couldn’t feel the touch.
Then, for the first time, he experienced a phenomenon that felt impossibly like being in two places at once, as Ed gently lifted the helmet from his shoulders… and part of his awareness went with it.
“Oh geeze, I didn’t know you could do that!” Al shrieked, impulsively trying to move. The arms of his now-headless steel shell responded by flailing wildly—almost smacking his brother in the process. Ed recoiled and fell hard onto his backside, barely managing to keep the helmet from slipping out of his hands.
“Hold still!” Edward hissed.
It took a tremendous effort, but Al quieted himself, fighting down his disoriented panic. Once he was still, Ed straightened again, and turned the helmet to face outward… and however it was that Al’s vision worked, he was suddenly confronted by the sight of the armor’s empty hull, sitting beside the chimney like some kind of decapitated metal gargoyle.
By various degrees in the past months, Al had faced and studied his own freakishness. He could finally look at mirrors now without a reaction of abject horror. Ed had even reluctantly permitted him to examine himself with his chestplate open, to come to terms with the nothing that was inside him.
But this was…
This was beyond freakish. It was almost enough to send him into hysterics again, and only his fear of hurting Ed restrained him from physically having another fit. As it was, the armor trembled and its fists clenched, a reaction Al couldn’t entirely suppress.
Ed didn’t say a word. He merely waited for the unnerving sight to sink in, and when he was evidently satisfied that Al wouldn’t move and injure him by accident, he leaned closer. He shifted the helmet to his left hand, and pointed an automail finger at the curved inner surface beneath what Al thought of as the back of his neck.
“Do you see that?” he asked, his voice low and rough with an emotion Al couldn’t quite identify.
From Al’s bizarre perspective, a shadow fell within the armor, and all he could make out was a faint blackness against the lighter steel. Without thinking, he exerted the will to move a little—which caused Ed to give a wary start, but Al was only trying to let moonlight into the gap between his shoulders. That slight stirring was enough, as pale illumination suddenly washed over a patch of rust-darkness.
In the next instant, Al realized it wasn’t rust at all, but a deliberate marking inscribed upon the inside of the armor. A circle framed a deceptively simple, eight-pointed-star of a grid, graced at its center with one small, serpentine curve…
If it was a transmutation circle, it was unlike any he had ever seen before, and the mere sight of it gave him a feeling that would have been a chill if he’d still had nerves.
“Is that…?” His voice was faint and quivering. He wasn’t even sure what he was trying to ask.
A heavy breath rasped in Ed’s lungs. “That’s… that’s you, Al.”
“Listen…” Ed’s voice caught slightly, and he swallowed hard. “That anchoring seal—it’s what keeps your soul bound to the armor. No matter what happens, we have to protect it. Don’t let it get wet. Don’t even let anything touch it. Because… if something were to happen to it…”
The unspoken conclusion to that statement hung loud and heavy in the night air, and the armor shuddered a little harder.
“It’s…” Al hesitated, struggling with a question he already knew he didn’t want the answer to. “It’s red…”
“It’s my blood.”
Those three words struck harder than a physical blow. Although the sudden movement made Ed flinch back sharply, Al couldn’t resist the urge to reach up and clutch at his chestplate, nerveless hands pressing against a nonexistent heart.
Blood… Ed’s blood. The seal that enabled his survival was a fragment of his brother’s life; it was his brother’s love made manifest. Even in the midst of unthinkable suffering, Ed had taken of the life spilling from his own body, and the last act he committed with his own right hand was to trace the circle that would cost him his arm. Deliberately, willfully, he signed over still more of his flesh to the forces that had already claimed his leg—all for Al.
And there was nothing Al could say. Thank you, I’m sorry, Forgive me; no words could ever be enough.
The armor leaned forward, gauntlets reaching, trembling with a child’s longing.
Ed deflected the embrace with an unexpected brusqueness, pushing the helmet into those seeking leather hands. He turned away, his shoulders hunching slightly, as if to physically shelter a reopened wound from Al’s sight… and in the instant before his eyes were hidden, Al recognized that look again.
The desire to simply hold Ed was crushing—but he had returned to that place, the one beyond Al’s understanding, and Al would not dare to intrude there. His brother’s sacrifice was already a more terrible violation than he could ever hope to be worthy of. Having witnessed the visible sign of the gift bound within his steel, it took on an almost unbearable new reality; he was sure he could feel the heavy weight of the blood seal inside him. As long as he carried that reminder of how much his life had cost, what right could he have to impose upon Ed for anything, now or ever again?
It was a monstrous cruelty that Alphonse couldn’t cry.
I will repay what you’ve given up for me, Brother. Someday, I’ll be the one to make you whole again.
Slowly, with just a little fumbling, he settled his helmet in its rightful place. His disjointed perceptions immediately fell back into order, but the relief of feeling that he was in one piece again did nothing to diminish his solemn pain.
And yet, even if he had no right, he wanted—he needed—to know just one more thing.
“Ed… where did you learn this? It’s not like anything we’ve ever read about, or anything Teacher taught us. How did you know how?”
The only response was a deep indrawn sigh of breath. Edward abruptly stood, easing his weight onto his still-hesitant automail leg, and limped across the slanting roof toward Al’s transmuted steps.
“I may tell you someday,” he said quietly, and disappeared below the eaves.
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan
Chapters: I. | II. | III. | IV. | V. | VI. | VII. | VIII. | IX. | X.