|Fullmetal Alchemist: From Ashes (9/10: Parting Gifts)
||[Sep. 24th, 2010|12:01 am]
Title: From Ashes (9/10: Parting Gifts)
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 this chapter.
Additional Note: Just to be clear, I view Ed and Winry strictly as friends and surrogate siblings—nothing more. Please bear that in mind when reading and commenting on this chapter.
Edward wanted to escape.
It was that familiar feeling again, the one that came over him each time he went into the village. He felt as if every eye in Resembool was drawn to the gleam of sunlight on his automail; he imagined strange looks and whispered speculations.
At heart, he knew it wasn’t really like that. Typical of a small town where everyone knew everyone else, the citizens of Resembool were largely good and kind, and had been sympathetic to the boys ever since the loss of their mother. Besides, Ed knew Pinako had smoothed the way early on, judiciously making it known that the brothers had suffered some kind of accident. He wasn’t sure exactly what she said, but when he and Al had finally ventured from the Rockbell home, their unsettling changes were met with politeness and discretion.
Still, his self-consciousness made him all the more eager to leave. He felt sure it would be easier to face strangers than people he had known all his life.
Nor could he forget that he was the lucky one. He could conceal his automail beneath gloves and long sleeves; but for now, he had chosen not to, because Al couldn’t hide that way. No matter what excuses Pinako might have given, it defied reason that a gentle young boy was now seen only by way of a fearsome, seven-foot-tall shell of armor. Ed knew his brother was the true object of unspoken wonderment and nervousness. That made him angry, but there was no one to blame for it.
No one, of course, except himself.
Al didn’t really have to expose himself to all of that, but he insisted on it. He calmly pointed out that he needed to be used to people’s reactions before they set out for Central. It was why he went out of his way to run errands for Pinako, until his armor became an almost-familiar sight in the village—but Ed still noticed every startled glance, and he ached at the thought of how it made Al feel.
Soon now, he would begin working to fix that. He would fix everything…
Or die trying.
“…And I need to pick up some parts I ordered from the post office, and Granny asked us to get the vegetables for tonight’s dinner… And you wanted to visit Mava’s shop, right? …Edward?”
Ed blinked and focused his gaze. Winry was in front of the brothers, her long blonde hair swaying over her shoulders as she walked backwards to face them; but beneath the impishness, there was a gentle worry in the way she looked at him.
“Uh—sorry. I was just thinking.”
“With something besides your stomach or your fists? That’s a novelty… And that reminds me, we also need more liniment from the druggist. You’ve used it all up again.” Winry glared at him disapprovingly. “You boys have still been fighting down by the pond, haven’t you?”
“It’s not fighting,” Al chimed in at Ed’s side, his armor rattling as he trudged along the hard-packed dirt road. “It’s sparring.”
Winry’s scowl briefly refocused on Al, and then she rolled her eyes, turning to face forward. “Whatever. If it looks like you’re trying to kill each other, I call it fighting.”
“But we need the practice! We have to be ready for anything when—”
“Al,” Ed cut in quietly, but he could already see the way Winry’s shoulders stiffened at the words.
A little less than a year after the transmutation, Edward had defied every conceivable estimate of his recovery time, mastering his automail with a speed and completeness that even left Pinako lost for words. He had trained his hands of flesh and automail relentlessly, until they were both equally capable of writing and drawing transmutation circles. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his scars and the weight of steel he carried, his body was stronger than it had ever been before… and he felt as emotionally prepared for new unknowns as he would ever be.
By now, even Winry realized the time was very short.
Ed had tried to shield her from that fact, but she could clearly sense it, in the growing secrecy that was proportionate to the brothers’ progress. It was in the way they crept down to the pond early each morning to sharpen their fighting skills, or shut themselves up in their room at night to practice new transmutations. Everything they did was no longer about healing, but preparation. Even this innocent shopping trip was really a foray to gather the last provisions for hard travel.
They walked in uncomfortable silence for several minutes before Winry spoke up again, without turning. She forced her tone to be light, doing her best to pretend the tension the brothers felt in her was not still there.
“When we get home, Ed, I want us to go over your automail maintenance routine again.”
Ed’s shoulders slumped. “We just did that two days ago!”
“Well, we’re doing it again!”
As Winry snapped out that retort, the momentary veneer of casualness cracked. She glanced over her shoulder for the briefest of moments, and the look on her face stilled further argument from Ed. He suddenly understood the way she felt, and it was a sobering realization.
She knew… and she knew she couldn’t stop him. All she could do was try to make sure he was ready.
“Okay,” he answered meekly.
The submission was sudden and complete, causing her to look back at him with a trace of mystified surprise; but she turned her head again before he could see more than a glimpse of her eyes, glossy with unspilled tears.
And Ed wished he was already gone.
Resembool’s main street was rarely busy at that hour of the day. Upon reaching it, the brothers and Winry found only a few familiar neighbors browsing the shops and market stalls. Ed squirmed inwardly at the waves and good-mornings they received, and hated himself for leaving Al to answer each greeting with his perennial good manners—just as if life was perfectly normal.
How nicely everyone pretended… but Ed didn’t buy it for a moment.
“We’ll get things done quicker if we split up,” Winry observed briskly, her own façade of cheerfulness back in place. “Ed, you should go ahead and see Mava. I’ll handle the post office and the druggist… Al, do you want to pick up the vegetables? The three of us can meet up there at the farmers’ market.”
Before Ed could object to the idea of Al wandering off alone, his brother nodded. “Okay,” he said gamely, and clattered off toward the open-air stalls where local farmers sold their produce.
Just watching Al walk away gave Ed a small feeling of panic. Regardless of Winry’s efficient agenda, his immediate impulse was to follow him, to keep him from being alone—but Winry’s hand caught and held the steel fingers of his automail before he could take a step.
“You can’t always be right next to him, Ed… and it’s better to start here than with strangers.”
The simple words gave Ed a pang, because he knew he couldn’t argue with them. Especially not with the way he had things planned.
“It’s alright. Go on to Mava’s.” She gave him a smile that was surprisingly genuine, releasing his hand. “I’ll check in on Al between my stops, and make sure he’s okay.”
She didn’t even know just how much Ed planned to entrust to her, and yet how equal to the task she was… Another twinge tweaked his heart, and his cheeks flushed slightly as he dropped his gaze and shrugged. “Sure.”
As Winry moved off, Ed glanced up from beneath his fringe of gold hair, observing her furtively until she disappeared through the doors of the post office. Then, impulsively, he crossed the street to the hardware store.
Even before he had automail, Ed had hated the place—not on any particular principle, but just because of the hours he’d spent waiting around as Winry squealed over the latest tools. Now, however, surrounded by all those shelves and racks of gleaming metal things that crammed every inch of space… his steel arm and leg made him feel something like a lamb in a butcher’s shop. He glanced around in vague paranoia on his way to the counter, as if crazed mechanics might lay in wait to ambush him and cannibalize his limbs for spare parts.
“Well, good morning, Edward!” Jobe Duncan, the proprietor, smiled down at Ed from behind the counter. He was a towering, deep-voiced man, with skin like tanned leather, an angular face, and a shock of bristly snow-white hair. He was also a fellow recipient of Aunt Pinako’s services: automail of her design replaced the right leg he had lost as a soldier in Ishbal.
“This is a first,” he observed jovially. “Never seen you come in here without one of the Rockbells. Any trouble with the automail?”
“Oh—no.” Ed half-smiled awkwardly and lifted his hand, delicately flexing metal fingers.
“Say, you really got a handle on that. Stomping around on a leg’s one thing, but I’d have never been able to work a hand that well. That’s a real credit to you—and to Miss Winry, too. That girl’s got some talent.”
“Yeah… she does.” Ed shuffled his feet, beginning to feel slightly chagrined by the vague intention that had led him there. “I was wondering… I mean, you know more than I do about what tools Winry has, since she buys most of them from you. Is there anything here that she doesn’t have yet?”
A mischievous light appeared in Jobe’s flinty gray eyes. “Well, let’s see now…”
He turned to a crowded shelf that stood behind him. After a moment’s consideration, he selected a large wrench, and placed it on the counter for Ed’s inspection.
Ed regarded it dubiously. “A wrench? …I thought she had dozens of those.”
“Not like this one. Just got ’em in yesterday. It’s an adjustable model in a new high-tensile-strength alloy.” Jobe grinned conspiratorially. “Trust me, she’ll be impressed.”
With a hapless grin, Ed shrugged. “You’re the expert. I’ll take it. And—have you got any paper?”
The shopkeeper helpfully produced a large sheet of brown paper. He might have expected that it was meant to wrap the wrench, but Ed took a piece of chalk from his pocket instead; and with his automail hand, quickly and confidently, he drew a transmutation circle. Jobe looked on, with an admiration that had more to do with Ed’s command of his prosthetics than his alchemical prowess.
Having created the array he wanted, Ed placed the wrench in the middle of the circle, and pressed his fingers to its edge. Blue light danced over the tool, and its surface rippled like water. As if by magic, neatly formed letters etched themselves across the metal, engraving the handle of the wrench with a name: WINRY ROCKBELL.
Jobe let out a low whistle. “That’s really something. Would’ve taken me half a day to do that, and even then it wouldn’t look as nice.”
“Alchemy can do a lot of things,” Ed murmured cryptically, and reached for the money in his pocket.
When he stepped out of the hardware store with his carefully paper-wrapped gift, he struggled for a moment with the impulse to go find Al and check on him. How true it was that he had to stop clinging so anxiously… and besides, Winry had said she would keep an eye on him.
Reluctantly, Ed turned instead toward the shop run by Mava, the local seamstress. Today he had important business with her.
Mava Lindenleaf was a kindly woman, with warm brown eyes, a tender smile, and long gray hair worn almost girlishly in a ponytail. Widowed at a young age, she had no children of her own, but she was known throughout Resembool for her generous and motherly nature. She occupied a special place in the hearts of the Elric brothers; she was a friend of their mother’s, and had Pinako not taken them into her already-familiar home, Ed suspected Mava would have cared for them herself.
A bell above the door chimed pleasantly as Ed stepped into Mava’s shop, a small and cozy place that seemed to be lined with fabric like a nest: clothes brought for mending, bolts of fabric, quilts she made to sell but just as often gave away. The fragrance of tea and cinnamon tickled Ed’s nose, stirring memories of a time when he and Al were very small. Mother sometimes left them here while she went off to do her shopping, and Mava would make little stuffed animals for them as they watched in fascination. In those days, the gift of skilled hands seemed as wonderful as alchemy.
Today, as always, Mava was sitting in her rocking chair by the sunny window. At the sound of the doorbell, she looked up from the quilt in her lap, and a welcoming smile lighted her face.
“Oh, hello, Ed. How are you this morning? How are Al and Winry?”
There was hardly a simple answer to that question, so Ed merely shrugged. “We’re alright, I guess. I just stopped in to see if…”
Mava chuckled and stood up, laying aside her quilt. “That’s what I thought—and it just so happens I finished your order last night. Let me get it for you.”
She went up the staircase to her living quarters above the shop, where she often continued to work after hours. Ed stood patiently waiting; but before Mava returned, the doorbell jangled again, and he was surprised to see Winry step inside. The packages in her shopping basket testified that she had already finished her errands.
“You’re still here?” she asked quizzically. “I thought you would have gotten over to the farmers’ market by now—I just went by, and Al is fine. Mrs. Ozley is talking his… well, whatever it is he hears with off,” she added with a pained smile, before Ed could ask.
Ed’s cheeks colored slightly, and he half-hid his brown paper package behind his back. “Yeah, I… just had something else to do first.”
Winry’s eyes sparked with curiosity, but before she could question him, Mava returned with a neatly-folded bundle of black and red fabric. She set it on her cutting table, resting her thin hands on it proudly.
“Here it is, Ed. I did my best with the drawings you gave me. Have a look, and see if it will do.”
“Oh, so these must be the clothes you came to get measured for two weeks ago!” Winry interjected, and gave Ed a rather suspicious look. “The ones you’ve been so hush-hush about…”
Ignoring Winry, Ed reached out for the stack of garments. He unfolded each item for inspection: trousers, a sleeveless shirt, a short jacket, all in black edged with white. A pair of slim white gloves… and finally, a long, hooded coat of blazing scarlet.
His heart skipped a beat as he slowly ran his left hand across the fabric. In his eyes, the clothes were perfect. Mava’s clever hands had brought to life the designs he had imagined and painstakingly sketched.
Winry frowned over Ed’s shoulder at the vaguely militaristic ensemble. “That… almost looks like some kind of uniform. What’s the idea?”
There was no sense in mincing words now. Ed turned to her, meeting her eyes with a grim shrug.
“I know I’ve got the skills to be a State Alchemist—but when I get to Central, I don’t want them looking at me like I’m just a kid. Maybe some more mature-looking clothes will help them take me seriously.”
He was sure Winry would either scoff at his idea of “mature-looking clothes”, or just be stricken with pained silence—and the second option turned out to be the case. He could feel her shut down beside him at the blunt reminder of his plans, and it made his own heart thump achingly.
In an effort to push away that feeling, he turned the coat over, and gazed with bitter pride at a familiar crest stitched in black.
“What is that?” Winry asked faintly, as grudging curiosity overpowered her gloom.
“The flamel cross—the crest passed on to Al and I from our alchemy teacher.” Ed caressed it with his fingers, tracing the coils of the serpent.
It was far more than that. When Ed had first seen the crest tattooed over Izumi Curtis’ breastbone, he thought little of it, except that it was the symbol of the school of alchemy into which he and his brother were initiated. Only later had he read of the myths that inspired it, about a god of healing who carried such a staff, a healer who had the ability to raise the dead—only to be struck down for his presumptuousness in using that power.
After that, Ed didn’t dare to ask what true significance might lay in the mark Teacher carried. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to know; hadn’t wanted to face the testament of warning some part of him feared it might hold.
If only he had asked. If only he had listened. If only he had known—before that night.
Beside him, Winry stirred uncomfortably, still regarding the crest with vague distaste. “I don’t get it. A snake wrapped around a cross… Is that a symbol for something in alchemy? What does it mean?”
Ed closed his eyes with a deep sigh.
Hubris. Sin. A cross to bear.
“…To reach for the impossible.”
He didn’t look at Winry, but he felt the heavy silence that briefly filled the space between them. Shaking it off with a will, he turned to smile at Mava.
“It’s perfect, Mava—more than I imagined. Thank you.” His hand went to his pocket for her payment.
The seamstress smiled kindly and shook her head. “You really don’t need to…”
“Yes I do.” Ed met her eyes seriously. When he left Resembool, he was determined to leave no debts behind him. At least, none that could be paid with money… He looked at his automail fingers, and shot a discreet sidelong glance at the girl beside him.
To Mava’s credit, she seemed to understand, and her smile softened. “Alright, then. But let me wrap all this up for you.”
She knew, too.
Winry’s brittle silence lingered after she and Ed had left Mava’s shop, and started down the street toward the farmers’ market. Ed thought she probably didn’t want to say what was on her mind—any more than he wanted to hear it. She walked half a step behind him, her head down, her eyes unreadable. Her tension felt heavier at his side than his automail arm ever had, and it bothered him tremendously, but he tried to focus on his anxiousness to make sure Al was doing alright by himself.
Halfway to the market, out of the blue, he was stopped in his tracks by a sharp tug at his braided hair.
“What’s in that other package?”
“Ow—Winry!” Ed jerked his braid out of her grasp, turning to give her a glare that would have burned holes in Al’s armor. “I told you not to do that!”
The sudden attack of brattiness was, apparently, both a retaliation and a shield for Winry’s inner heartache. She smirked at Ed, eyeing his braid in a way that was nothing short of evil. “Come on, can I help it if you decided to grow such a nice, convenient handle?”
“Don’t be stupid!” Ed roughly shifted the packages he was carrying to his automail arm, steadying them with his left hand. Then he impulsively grasped the smallest and heaviest one, and shoved it at Winry’s chest.
“Here. Why not, it’s for you, anyway…”
That certainly wasn’t the way he had intended this moment to go, but it would have to do.
The violent delivery forced Winry to catch the package before it could fall to the ground. She stared at it with wide eyes, glanced quickly at his uncomfortable scowl, and finally tore open the gift with eager fingers.
She gazed down for a long, long moment at the wrench… and teardrops suddenly darkened the brown paper wrapping.
“This is a going-away present, isn’t it?”
Ed turned away with a sharp huff of a sigh. He took half a step, hesitated, and finally looked back at her again.
“Listen, Winry. There’s something I’ve decided. When I leave for Central… Al isn’t coming with me. I’m going to leave him here, with you and Grans.”
She raised her head sharply, the momentary tears drying up in her astonished eyes. “What?”
“Making everything right again is my burden, not his.” Ed shrugged awkwardly. “He doesn’t need to go through what I’m getting myself into. I don’t want him to be away from everything he knows, having strangers treat him like a freak. And if the military found out the truth about him… About what we did…”
Ed’s breath caught slightly. He shook his head and started forward again, taking it for granted that Winry would follow.
“…It’s just better this way.”
He was aware of a hesitation before Winry’s footsteps shuffled behind him. A long moment of silence elapsed, and then she said his name, in an odd, strained tone he hadn’t heard before.
Unsuspecting, he stopped and turned to her…
And the swinging wrench caught him squarely under the left eye.
Packages tumbled to the ground as he recoiled with a howl of pain and indignation, clutching his cheekbone. Winry dropped her hands, white-knuckled in their death grip on the wrench; her face was downturned, hiding her expression, but her shoulders were shaking.
“What was that?” Ed snapped, gingerly massaging his cheek. “I thought you’d be glad I want Al to stay!”
“Of course I’d like him to stay safe with us… but that would be too cruel, Ed!” Winry lifted her eyes, hard as blue ice and streaming with tears. “You’re the one who’s convinced him you don’t have anything left but each other. You’re everything to him now. How do you think he’d feel if you just went away and left him?”
Involuntarily, Ed thought of his father—and it was an ugly feeling.
“And besides…” Winry went on, more softly. “You know Al would just follow you, and we can’t stop him. Making him have to catch up with you, all by himself, would only put him at more risk of being hurt. If you made a promise to protect him, Ed… you have to be with him to keep it, don’t you?”
The relentless words made Ed’s insides knot up. He winced and dropped his gaze, wishing he could find some argument to counter her logic—but once again, he knew there was none.
Winry was right. No matter how secretly he might slip away, or how much of a headstart he might achieve, Alphonse would simply come after him—and gentle though he was by nature, Al was a force to be reckoned with now. Between his alchemic skills and the physical strength of his armor, Pinako and Winry could do nothing to hold him back, and there was certainly no chance he could be talked out of it.
And besides that… What if the key to restoring Al’s body wasn’t just some obscure alchemic secret Ed could carry back to Resembool? What if the answer was linked to a particular place and time, a chance that would come only once? If Al wasn’t with him, his entire purpose would be a loss. He could never seize that chance for himself alone, reclaim his own arm and leg, only to come home to a brother still trapped in the steel Ed had cursed him to bear.
What Ed had made Al start with him, he had no choice but to let Al finish with him.
The realization made him bow his head in defeat… and yet he felt suddenly, bitterly, selfishly glad. A harsh smile crossed his lips, painful like his automail ports in bad weather.
“You’re right,” he surrendered quietly, without looking up. “Thanks, Winry—and I’m sorry.”
Winry didn’t say anything. There was a moment’s silence, and then she stepped forward, bending to pick up his fallen packages.
“Come on,” she said gently. “Let’s find Al… and go home.”
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan
Chapters: I. | II. | III. | IV. | V. | VI. | VII. | VIII. | IX. | X.