Title: The Prices We Pay
Genre: .... some sort of saga with bits of romance and sick!fic hurt/comfort mixed in, I really don't know .... post-2003 AU where Ed never went to the other world
Summary: "Why won't he wake up? I woke up. Why won't he?"
When he woke it was bright. Noisy. Voices, footsteps, other sounds he couldn't put a name to. The smell of antiseptic, rubber, something stale and sickly, and numerous other smells assaulted his nose. He was lying on a bed, firm and smooth, not the old, lumpy mattress he was used to. The sheets were scratchy against his skin and something was taped to the back of his hand. He couldn't still be in the basement.
Al opened his eyes and immediately shut them. "Bright" turned out to be an understatement. He tried again, squinting against the harsh light and blinking to clear his eyes. Every part of his body seemed oversensitive.
The room was white and bare. White walls, white tiled floors, white sheets on the bed. To one side, a partially open door showed a sliver of white hallway and people rushing past.
He thought this might be a hospital, but the closest thing Al had ever seen to a hospital was the Rockbell's surgery room, and never when it was in use. The nearest hospital was over an hour away by train. Why would they have been taken there?
And where was—?
Alphonse pushed himself up onto his elbows and scanned the room. A rack next to his bed held what he recognized as an IV drip, confirming that this was most likely a hospital. A white curtain blocked his view of the other half of the room, but he saw some chairs and the end of a second bed.
A woman in a (white) uniform started to push open the door but jumped when she caught sight of him. "Oh my, you're awake!" She stepped back into the hallway and told someone to fetch a Doctor somebody, and then bustled to the foot of Al's bed and picked up a clipboard. "We were wondering when you would wake," she told him with a bright smile. "How are you feeling?"
"Thirsty." His throat felt as if he hadn't had anything to drink in ages. "And hungry. Where is this? Where's my brother?"
"Central General Hospital. Another young man was brought in with you—" she stepped to the other bed and glanced at the clipboard there, "—but he hasn't woken up yet. Here." The nurse came back to the foot of his bed and bent to turn a crank, raising the head of his bed. He reluctantly leaned back off his elbows. What he really wanted to do was leap out of the bed, find his brother, and get out of this whole place. "That's better, isn't it? When the doctor gets here I'll ask him if you can have some water."
That would mean—they were in Central.
Al rubbed his eyes. They had been home in Resembool. Why—how would they be in Central? He and Edward had been in the basement, they'd been about to activate the array—
They did activate it—
There had been too much light, too much energy arching around the room—
"Young man? Hey. Are you still with me?"
The nurse's hands were too tight on his shoulders, or maybe his skin was too sensitive. He pushed at her hands and she let go. "I'm—I'm fine. Where's my brother? Why were we brought here?"
"He's here, he's in the other bed. And . . . we were hoping you could tell us."
A middle-aged man came through the doorway then, probably the doctor. The man smiled and took the clipboard from the nurse. "Glad to see you've decided to join us, son. How are you feeling?"
"Thirsty," Al repeated. "Why were we brought to Central?"
The doctor nodded to the nurse, and she brought over a paper cup half full of water. "Sip it slowly," the doctor said. "We want to make sure you can keep it down."
Al frowned but did as he was told.
"Now, before I answer you, I'm going to have to ask you to answer a few questions for us. Can you tell us your name?"
"Alphonse. Alphonse Elric."
The doctor's eyebrows went up as he made a notation on the clipboard. "Elric, did you say?"
"Yes . . . why? What's going on?"
"How old are you, Alphonse?"
"Do you have any relatives we could contact?"
"We don't have any family, it's just me and my brother, but there's the Rockbells. They're not family, but they're close. Granny's a doctor, why weren't we taken to her? Why are we in Central?"
The doctor looked at him. "Son . . . I would like to answer that, I really would, but I'm afraid I can't. We don't know, either. You see, you and another young man—your brother, I assume—were left on the steps of the hospital a couple days ago. Neither of you had any apparent injuries, but nothing we did could wake you."
"Witnesses say it was two blond youths and a young woman with dark skin. One witness claims the girl had a baby with her, but that wasn't confirmed. They left before anyone could speak with them. Do you have any idea who they might be?"
Al shook his head. The only young mother he knew was Evelyn, back in Resembool, but she was fair skinned, and he couldn't think why she would be all the way out here. He couldn't think who the two youths might be.
"What is the last thing you remember? It might help us if we knew what had happened to you."
"We—my brother and I—were in the basement—"
"Where was this?"
"Our house, in Resembool."
"It's a small town out in the east," the nurse supplied. "There's a well-known automail shop there."
"The Rockbells," Al added.
"Ah yes, I wondered why the name sounded familiar. So you say you were at home, in Resembool? Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. We'd just come back from Dublith. We were in the basement, where most of our books and our father's old things are. We—we were—" we were going to bring our mother back. Al pressed the heel of his hands to his eyes. "We—something went wrong—" too much light, too much energy, the transmutation surging out of their control—Al shook his head, sharply. "We were—we were doing alchemy, but I think something went wrong. I don't know—I don't know what happened."
"Alphonse?" The doctor's hand was on his shoulder. "It's all right, son. What sort of alchemy were you and your brother doing?"
Our mother. "I don't remember." We were trying to bring her back. "My brother—" —black hands pulling at Edward's leg— "—is he okay? Let me see him."
"He's fine, he's right here." Alphonse sat up and watched the doctor walk to the curtain. "He hasn't woken up yet, but neither of you had any injuries that we could find." The man drew the curtain back and then stepped aside.
Al's initial thought of Brother—! was replaced by a surge of confusion. His brother was eleven, barely more than a year older than he was. The person on the other bed was a teenager. How could—?
"Alphonse? Is this your brother?"
Al opened his mouth to deny it, to tell them that there must have been some sort of mistake, this person couldn't be his brother, but—
—But wasn't his hair the same yellow-gold? Didn't it have the same cowlick in the front that Ed always complained about?
—But it was too long, his brother never let his hair get past his chin. This boy—this man—had hair past his shoulders.
Al swung his legs over the side, pushing the nurse away when she bustled up to get him back into bed. He slid to his feet, found they would hold him, then took a few steps toward the other bed. The nurse and doctor were saying something, but he wasn't listening.
This stranger was far too old. Into his late teens, even. And he was missing an arm. Alphonse could see the edge of an automail port past the neck of the hospital gown, which meant it wasn't a recent injury. That proved it then, this couldn't be—
—But didn't he look like Edward? Wasn't his nose the same, if a little more prominent in his face? Didn't he have the same mouth?
Al shook his head.
But he looked so much like Edward, and they didn't have any other relatives—
He tore his eyes away from the disturbingly familiar face. This person was broader in the shoulders but not much taller than he remembered his brother being. If this really was Ed, he'd be pissed about that—
He was missing his left leg.
Al blinked, and gripped the bed harder.
The fall of the sheets clearly showed that this person's left leg ended just before the knee.
Al shook his head and stumbled back from the bed.
He remembered—just as the array rebounded and pulled him in—black hands on his brother's leg, deconstructing it, tearing it off above his knee—
"No. . . ."
"No. It's not—" He shoved at the hands trying to restrain him. "That's not my brother, it can't be, he's too old—"
He turned and bolted for the door. A sharp pain in the back of his hand told him the IV had ripped out, but he ignored it. "It's not—" He stumbled across the hallways and into the far wall. "It's not. . . ."
Al slid to the floor and bowed his head to the wall, sheltered beneath his arms. "That's not, it's not my brother, it can't be," he sobbed, trying to override the little voice that insisted that there was no one else the young man on the bed could be. "It's not, it's not, that can't be my brother, that can't—"
A woman's voice, but not the nurse. Al sniffed, and tilted his head just enough to peek over his arm.
A pretty blonde woman with one arm in a sling knelt down beside him, looking at him with muted shock and amazement. "Alphonse . . . is that you?"
"Um." Al sniffed again and surreptitiously wiped his nose on the sleeve of his hospital shirt as he lowered his arms. "Yes ma'am . . . I'm Alphonse Elric."
The woman's eyebrows drew down in confusion. "Alphonse . . . don't you recognize me?"
The boy shook his head and looked down at his hands in his lap. "No, ma'am . . . I'm sorry." She seemed nice and something about her made him want to trust her; he wished he did know her.
The woman looked up at the doctor and nodded, suddenly formal and business-like. "Are you Doctor Connors? We were told both boys were still unconscious."
"Alphonse here woke only a few minutes ago. Can you confirm that he is, indeed, Alphonse Elric?"
The woman, Lieutenant Hawkeye, studied him for a moment, her brown eyes unreadable. She stood. "Let me see the other boy first."
Al watched the doctor direct Lieutenant Hawkeye to the bed on the far side of the room. He stood and walked back to the doorway, leaning against it. The nurse was hovering around him but his sole focus was the far side of the room.
The Lieutenant barely glanced at the young man in the bed before she nodded. "Yes, that's Edward Elric."
—It's not it's not it's not—
"He hasn't regained consciousness at all?"
"No," the doctor confirmed. "Quite frankly, we're stumped. We haven't been able to find anything wrong with him. No sign of toxins, no head trauma—no trauma of any kind, actually. We found a couple of odd scars, fresh ones, one on his chest and one on his back, but they're healed over and there's no sign of internal trauma, not even bruising. Alphonse here mentioned something about alchemy—" the man glanced at him, then lowered his voice, "—but he also said they'd been in their home town, out in the east. He also . . . reacted very strongly upon seeing Edward. You caught the end of it there."
Hawkeye looked over at Al for a moment, then asked the doctor if there was somewhere private they could talk.
"He really should be in bed, he's only just regained consciousness—"
"Doctor, further bed rest is not going to calm his agitation. Please, let me talk with him."
Doctor Connors looked at him, then sighed in resignation and nodded. "All right. Would my office do? I can have a nurse bring some food, Alphonse is probably hungry."
Al's stomach growled at the thought of food and he flushed, ducking his head and rubbing the back of his neck.
They would only allow him soft foods and cautioned him to eat slowly, but once he tasted the first spoonful he forgot all about their warnings and even manners in general and only worried about how fast he could get the food into his mouth. It was bland, over-cooked, and for all he knew it could have been baby food, but he didn't care.
Lieutenant Hawkeye, sitting on the other side of the desk in Doctor Connors' office, was watching him with an odd look on her face. Al flushed again and lowered the mostly empty bowel with some effort. "I'm sorry. I just feel as if I haven't eaten in ages."
"No, please." She motioned for him to finish eating. "Although . . . it is odd that you say it like that."
He gave her a politely puzzled look around his next spoonful.
"You said 'as if.' Alphonse . . . what is the last thing you remember?"
For some reason he didn't feel wary when she asked it, not like with the doctor and the nurse. He finished off the bowel of mush and picked up a nearby glass of water while he thought. "Well . . . Brother and I had just gotten back from Dublith, where we had been studying with our sensei. We were in our house, in the basement. . . ." But how could he tell her about that? It was forbidden, adults would be angry if they knew. "We . . . he and I were going to do some alchemy. . . ."
She reached over and put a hand on his arm, and he looked up. "Alphonse, I know about your mother. About what you and Edward tried to do."
She knew? Nobody knew, how could she—?
She said "tried."
What they had tried to do.
"Is that the last thing you remember?"
Al took a deep breath, then pulled away from her hand, cradling the water in his lap. He concentrated on the feel of the cool glass, his ghostly reflection in the water. "Brother and I . . . activated the array, and then . . . we lost control of it. It—it started to rebound, I guess. I've never seen a rebound, only read about them so I don't really know . . . but it started to—to pull us in—" —black hands tearing them apart, as he reached desperately for his brother's hand—Al shook himself, sloshing the water over onto his hand. "And that's it. I woke up here. Lieutenant Hawkeye. . . ." He looked up and found her watching him, her expression concerned. "Why am I in Central? Is—is that—" is that really my brother?
Al stopped himself and took a sip of the water.
"Alphonse . . . this isn't going to be easy to hear, but please, bear with me. That night, the night you tried to bring back your mother . . . that night was five years ago."
Al stared at her with complete incomprehension. ". . . What do you mean?"
Hawkeye looked around the desk, and found a newspaper—the Central Times. "This is yesterday's, but it will serve."
Al carefully set the water back on the desk, then took the newspaper with shaking hands. He didn't want to look at it, he didn't want her to be right—or wrong. He just didn't want to know. But his eyes found the date in the upper right corner anyway.
26 November, 1914.
It should be 1909.
"I—how? How is that possible? It can't be nineteen-fourteen. I'd be almost fifteen—" and his brother would be sixteen, about the age of the young man in the hospital bed— "—but I'm not! I'm ten—aren't I?" He frantically looked around the room for something to use as a mirror. "I don't feel fifteen. Shouldn't I be—bigger, or something?"
Al shook his head, dropping the paper.
"Alphonse." Hawkeye had come around the desk and had a hand on his shoulder. "Please, let me finish."
He looked up at her and nodded, twisting the fabric of his hospital-issue pants in his fists.
"I'm not an alchemist, and I don't pretend to understand this, but I'll explain as best as I can." She pulled the chair around the desk and sat down next to him. "When the transmutation failed, your body was . . . lost. Edward bound your soul to a suit of armor."
She nodded. "Edward was fitted with automail, and then the two of you came to Central, where he took—and passed—the state alchemy exam. He was twelve. He did this so that the two of you could have the resources you needed to find a way to get your body back." She paused, studying him. "A lot has happened between then and now, and I don't know what he did to finally restore you. But . . . you are much younger than I would have expected."
Al looked down at his hands. "But he didn't restore himself."
"No. That's something else I don't understand. You two always spoke of restoring both of your bodies, together. Maybe . . . he simply wasn't able to."
"Five years. . . ." Somehow, he knew she wasn't lying to him But that meant, "I've lost five years. I don't even remember. Then that—" he blinked back tears and looked up at her, "—that really is Edward in there . . . that really is my brother."
Al bit his lip, looking off to the side. "He . . . he lost his leg when our transmutation rebounded, I remember that. His arm—?"
"He gave that to bind your soul."
Al nodded, but his mind refused to process that. His soul . . . in exchange for his brother's arm. How did that add up?
Five years. His brother had gone from a cheerful, optimistic boy to the teenager lying on the bed. What else had changed? "I guess—you worked with him?" If she knew about their mother they must have known her pretty well.
"Edward and I were in the same command, yes. The two of you often worked on your own."
He nodded again. "I wish I could remember."
Al felt Hawkeye's hand on his shoulder and looked up at her. "I know this must be quite a shock to you."
"I'm—I'm all right. Really!" He managed a smile for her. "At least I know now why I'm in Central." And why my brother is so much older.
She nodded. "I'll call the Rockbells. I was waiting until I knew what to tell them. They should be here by the end of the week."
"Okay. Thank you. I think . . . I think I want to see Brother now."
She nodded again and stood, holding out her hand to put against his shoulders when he joined her.
"Lieutenant Hawkeye? What happened to your arm?"
She gave him a small smile. "It's nothing, Alphonse. Hardly more than a graze."
The room was empty when they got there, the doctor and nurse having moved to other patients. Hawkeye pushed the door shut behind them and hung back, letting Al approach the bed by himself.
Now that he knew, it was much easier to take. That was his brother's face, just with less baby fat and stronger angles. Al tentatively reached out and touched a small scar on his brother's chin, something he'd gotten from playing on the rocks in the stream when he was six. And there was another by his eyebrow that he'd gotten from playing on the wood pile. Their mother hadn't been happy with them that time, she'd already told them not to play there.
There were other scars on his face now. Thin ones that looked several years old but which were new to Al. Another one by his hairline that looked like it had closed over maybe a month before. Al traced this one with his finger, wondering what could have made it. It looked like something sharp, like maybe a knife, but what had he done to get hurt like that?
He reached across the bed and took his brother's hand, careful of the IV needle. The hand was broader than he remembered, the arm more defined. Edward had always been a strong boy, but this was a man's arm. Fine scars decorated his forearm, similar to the ones on his face.
His vision started to blur and he scrubbed a hand over his eyes. This both was and wasn't the brother he remembered, and he didn't know how to reconcile that. "Why won't he wake up? I woke up. Why won't he?"
"I don't know. I wish I did, Alphonse. I really do."
After a full examination, Doctor Connors pronounced him fit to leave the hospital, despite the five-year gap in his memory and, apparently, his age. Alphonse didn't understand why there wasn't more of a fuss about that, but he didn't question it.
He was picked up at the hospital by a woman named Gracia Hughes. She hugged him and told him how wonderful it was to see him, and Al hugged her back and wished he could remember her. She had a little girl with her, who peeked at him from behind her mother's legs and finally asked if he was really the armor-brother.
Al leaned down to her level and smiled. "Yes . . . but I don't really remember that. I'm sorry."
"No. Something happened to my memories."
"All of them?"
"All the last five years."
She paused a moment to puzzle over this, while he thanked Lieutenant Hawkeye.
"There are a lot of people eager to meet you, Alphonse. Let me know when you're up for it."
He assured her he would, and waved as Gracia herded them to the car.
"First thing tomorrow we should get you some clothes."
Al looked down at his current clothes and grinned in embarrassment. He was wearing a black shirt and a pair of leather pants that had apparently belonged to his brother, although where they had been found he couldn't imagine. Both were too big for him.
"Are you hungry? There are some leftovers I can heat up when we get home. And afterwards. . . ." She glanced at him and smiled. "I know you don't remember, but you had always wanted to try my apple pie. There's a fresh one cooling on the counter right now."
Al wasn't sure whether to smile or cry.
Gracia smiled easily enough, but there was a sadness about her that reminded Al of his mother. It was when he passed a bureau in the sitting room that he suddenly understood.
The surface held several photos of a man in uniform, and behind them rested a case with a folded Amestrian flag and several medals. Al stopped and stared at the memorial. He had known this man, he must have.
"Alphonse?" Gracia poked her head out of the kitchen to see what had kept him, then quietly walked over to join him.
"Mrs. Gracia? When—when did—"
"Just over a month ago." She put an arm around his shoulders, although he wasn't sure if it was to comfort him or herself. "It seems like forever and yesterday, all at once."
"I'm sorry. . . ." This man must have been important—but Al couldn't remember. "What was his name?"
"Maes Hughes. He was a lieutenant colonel when he was alive, but he was buried as a brigadier general. He was very fond of you both."
Al could only nod, and follow when she gently tugged him into the kitchen.
Gracia insisted she didn't mind taking him to the hospital every day. Al felt guilty, though, and said he could take the bus; but then he felt guilty about that, too, because he had to borrow money. Still, when Gracia wasn't busy, she drove him.
"I believe Edward had quite a bit of money in his account," she told him at one point. "We should see about getting you access."
"Really? He—he did?"
"I'm sure someone in Maes' office or—" she almost managed to hide the hitch in her voice. "—or maybe Mustang would know about that."
Three days and Edward was still unconscious. The doctors told him they had no explanation; he simply wasn't waking. Al would sit by him and talk to him, because he'd read somewhere that people in comas might still be able to hear. Al hoped it was so. He was getting used to this older version of his brother, but he wished he'd wake and confirm that he was still the Edward he had grown up with.
He was in the waiting room on the fourth day when someone called his name. He turned, and for a moment, simply stared at the young woman hurrying toward him. She had Winry's face, but this—his eyes dropped down of their own accord, and he hastily snapped them back to her face—this was a woman.
She hesitated, stopping several feet away, her eyebrows drawn together in worry. "Al—"
Pinako Rockbell put a hand on her granddaughter's arm and stepped around her, smiling up at her adopted grandson. "Al. Well. Looks like the two of you finally did it."
"Granny. . . ." The rest was cut off by the lump in his throat. He finally just dropped down into a chair and buried his face into her familiar shoulder and sobbed.
Sometime later he sat up and rubbed his arm over his eyes. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I just—sorry."
"Al, don't be silly, it's all right." Winry was sitting on his other side, one hand gently rubbing his back.
"That Hawkeye woman told us you had a gap in your memory," Granny Pinako said as she patted his shoulder. "Can't imagine what it must've been like to suddenly wake up in Central, five years later."
Al could only nod, rubbing his nose.
"How's—how's Ed?" Winry asked.
"Still unconscious," Al said, glumly. "They still don't know why."
He took them to the room; after Al had left the hospital, Ed had been moved to a single, so at least there was privacy.
"Don't tell me he lost his automail somehow," was Winry's first reaction upon seeing the teen. "That—that idiot." She shook her head, and turned away, but not before Al saw the brightness in her eyes. He had a feeling it wasn't over the automail, no matter what she said.
Granny sighed. "An 'idiot' to the end, that one. No clues as to what happened?"
Al shook his head. "No. Well, except for me. But nobody knows how . . . nobody knows what happened."
"Well, one person does," Granny stated. "But for once, he's not talking."
"I'm meeting a lot of nice people," Al told his brother. "I guess they're just new to me, though. They've all known you for a while . . . I guess they knew me, too. But they're all very nice."
He fidgeted with a corner of the hospital blanket. "They've all been surprised. I'm pretty sure Miss Hawkeye already told them—about me, about us—but they still looked surprised." He smiled. "The tall one—ummm, Falman?—and the one with glasses, Fuery, tried to hide it, but the big one with red hair—Breda?—just came out and said we didn't look much alike. I guess they all expected us to. Kinda funny, isn't it?"
Alphonse pulled his feet up and hugged his knees, studying his brother's profile. Ed looked even more like their father now than he had as a child, especially with his hair long. Winry had pulled it into a neat braid, but that didn't do much to lessen the resemblance. Edward had always told Al how lucky he was to take after their mom, but in Al's mind, Ed was the lucky one.
Al was used to adults describing him as cute, or sweet, maybe charming. But for Ed, those same people used words like striking, or stunning, or handsome. His elder brother had always been flashier in both appearance and personality, Al had long ago accepted that. But now, at sixteen, Ed was well on the way to growing into his looks, while Al was still a round-faced, childlike ten-year-old.
"Everyone's been kinda uneasy, though, but I don't think it was because of me," he continued. "I keep hearing people talk about the Fuhrer. They say his mansion was attacked, and now he's missing, but nobody's really sure, and some people say it's a conspiracy by the military, or the Ishvalans, or some secret group or another. But it sounds like everything's kinda a mess right now, and nobody knows what to do." Nobody seemed to want to talk about what was really going on, at least not with him.
He also couldn't get anyone to talk about what he and his brother had been involved in that had landed them where they are now, but in that case it seemed everybody honestly didn't know. No one he'd spoken to really understood alchemy, so they couldn't even guess.
"Miss Hawkeye said you were in the military, Brother. As a state alchemist. That must've been something, you must've really impressed them for them to give you a license so young." He wasn't really surprised, Ed had always been exceptional. But it was something he would like to know about.
Al rocked a bit in the chair, and glanced at the clock. "Winry's probably back now. Granny's still talking to the doctors. . . . You might be moving soon, did I mention that? There's a place in the east that said they could take you. It's a few hours away from Resembool, but it's better than Central." He still wasn't sure why they were in Central, except that whatever they'd been involved in was here. But he didn't know why.
He lowered his feet to the floor, then reached out and took Ed's hand between his own. "I won't be gone long. Okay?" Before he left, he gave the hand a squeeze. He told himself that, one day, his brother would squeeze back.
Winry was in the waiting room. The young woman—and it still boggled Al to think of her that way—had been running errands. Some were in anticipation of moving Ed, and some were to thank Gracia for everything she'd done. The kind woman insisted that they didn't need to repay her in any way, but Winry and Al both thought otherwise.
Winry was just showing him a trinket she had picked up for Elysia when Al saw two figures enter the waiting room. He brightened as he recognized one of them.
She was hovering at the side of a dark-haired man who looked like he should be in the hospital himself. There were bandages peeking out from under the large patch that covered half his face, and the half that was still visible looked pale and drawn. He was moving slowly and stiffly.
Beside him, Winry had gone rigid. Al looked to her and blinked, taken aback by the hard set of her jaw and the confusion of emotions in her blue eyes. He turned back across the waiting room and saw that the man had stopped. He was looking back at Winry with . . . remorse? Sadness? Shame? Al couldn't quite place it.
"Al." Winry's quiet voice startled him out of his thoughts. "I'll—I'll be in the cafeteria, okay?"
He thought that maybe she smiled a greeting to Miss Hawkeye, but she seemed determined to walk right past the man as if he wasn't there.
Al was burning with questions as he watched the man collected himself. Hawkeye asked him something, and he nodded. Only then did he seem to notice Al.
His smile was warm as he crossed the room to stand in front of the confused boy. "Alphonse. It's good to see you."
"Um. Thank you, sir." He was getting used to familiar greetings from apparent strangers, but it was still uncomfortable.
His smile turned apologetic. "I'm Brigadier General Roy Mustang. I was your brother's commanding officer."
"Oh! Pleased to meet you, sir—though, I guess it's not meeting for you, um—um. You . . . you probably want to see my brother," Al finished lamely, rubbing the back of his neck.
"I do, but I would like to speak with you, as well."
"I'll be here," Al assured him.
Mustang gave him another smile and patted his shoulder, before making his way toward Ed's room.
Al followed behind Hawkeye as she followed after Mustang . Hawkeye hovered in the doorway until the brigadier general had eased himself into the chair.
"Hey, Fullmetal," Al heard him say as she closed the door. "Keeping out of trouble, for once?"
"Miss Hawkeye? Is . . . is he okay?"
Her lips pressed together as her eyes flicked toward the closed door. "Brigadier General Mustang is . . . recovering from some wounds. The doctor was against him being up and about so soon, but he insisted on coming to see you and Edward while you were still in Central."
Al took a breath, but then just let it out again, unsure which of many questions he wanted to ask.
Al tried not to hover while the brigadier general seated himself on the bench. The short walk from the hospital room to the courtyard seemed to have worn him out. Al watched nervously as the single dark eye slid shut, and the man let out a tight sigh and clutched his left arm to his side.
"I'm merely tired, Alphonse," he said abruptly. "I'm not going to collapse on you."
"I didn't—say anything, sir."
Mustang regarded the boy with a weary smile. "It would be unlike you not to worry."
"Oh." He glanced away shyly, reaching up to scratch the back of his head. "I suppose it would." He still wasn't used to strangers knowing him so well.
"Come." Still smiling, he gestured to the bench beside him. "I'm sure you have questions for me.
"Yes, sir. I do." Al obediently sat down, and clasped his hands between his knees. "But I'm sure you have questions for me, too."
"I have questions . . . but I'm not sure you could answer them."
Al shook his head, his eyes on the ground. "I don't remember anything after . . . that night. You . . . do you know about that night, sir?"
The man nodded. "It's the night I met you."
Al looked up. "That must've been after. . . ." When Mustang nodded again, he sighed. "Then you already know more than I could tell you, sir. I don't remember anything . . . after."
"I'm sorry for the time you're missing."
Mustang looked out across the courtyard for a moment. He'd regained a bit of color, but he still looked drawn-out and worn. Al wondered if it would be rude to ask what had happened.
"Fullmetal and I met briefly by chance, just before we went off to . . . fight our separate battles. He didn't tell me any specifics, but I know you had been taken by the enemy, and he was prepared to do whatever he had to to see you safe."
"What enemy, sir? Who was he—were we—fighting?"
He sighed, and gave the boy an apologetic smile. "I'm afraid that would take more explanation than I feel up to at the moment."
He sighed again, looking across the small courtyard. "I suspect the little I could tell you wouldn't be much use, anyway. The two of you were keeping a lot to yourselves, which was—" he grimaced, as if he'd just bitten into something unexpectedly sour, "—understandable, though aggravating."
Mustang glanced over with a small smile. "You were both doing what you thought you had to. A combination of not wanting to get others involved . . . and not knowing who you could trust." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Alphonse. I wish I could be of more help."
Al dug at a weed with the toe of his shoe. "I guess I'll just wait for Brother to wake up."
In the silence that followed, Al looked up, and caught an odd look on the dark-haired man's face, one that was gone in an instant as he closed his eye in weariness. "I hope it's as simple as that."
"Sir? What was my brother like to work with?"
Mustang glanced over with a raised eyebrow, then smirked. "A headache, most of the time."
The change in mood startled a smile out of the boy. "That sounds about right."
He chuckled. "Fullmetal used to accuse me of spying on him, but in truth I never needed to. When the complaints and expense reports weren't enough, rumor would fill in. He never did anything low-key."
Al grinned. His brother had always had a flair for the dramatic.
"I could always count on him to do what was right, though. Maybe not from a legal point of view," he added with a wry smile, "but definitely from moral one. He claimed he was doing what he did for purely selfish reasons—to fix his mistakes—but he's one of the most selfless people I've ever known."
"Were you. . . ." He hesitated. It seemed odd to be asking this kind of thing, but something about the look on his face as he spoke made Al want to know. "Were you and my brother close? Friends?"
The look he got was startled and more than a little taken aback. "Close? No. . . . No, there was never a time for that," he said with a sigh. "Fullmetal never stayed in one place for long, and when he did, I was his commanding officer." There was something in his voice that sounded like regret. "That's what he needed me to be."
"Oh. I see." Though he was not sure he did.
They chatted until Miss Hawkeye came to remind Mustang that he still needed his rest. Her tone was gentle, but was the kind of gentle that brooked no argument. Mustang sighed and looked quite put-upon, but Al suspected he was glad to be looked after.
Al walked with them to the car. Mustang smiled and shook his hand, and told him that if he needed anything—anything at all—that he shouldn't hesitate to ask. Al thanked him, and wondered if the offer wasn't more for his brother than for him.
Still turning the conversation over in his mind, Al went to hunt down Winry. He found her in the cafeteria, scowling over a crumb-speckled plate and a paper cup filled with coffee. She startled slightly when she saw him, and sighed.
"So." She glanced off to the side as she raised the cup. "I suppose he's left."
"Mr. Mustang? Yeah." Al stared at his friend for a moment, taken aback by the bitterness in her words. "Miss Hawkeye took him home. . . . Winry, what is it?"
She thumped the paper cup onto the table, sloshing lukewarm coffee over her hands. "Oh, it would be easier if I could just hate him!"
Al jumped. "What—?"
"He killed my parents!" she blurted. She picked up a paper napkin and dried her fingers with short, jerking swipes. "Not because he wanted to, he was ordered. The military made him. I know he hates that he did it but still . . . he did it. He killed them."
Al was staring, his mouth still open from his aborted question, trying to imagine the kind man he spoke with killing the people he'd looked to as aunt and uncle.
Winry sniffed, and dabbed at the puddles of coffee on the table. "And he helped you guys so much . . . I don't even know how much. But I know he looked out for you and I know he cared—cares about—both of you. It would be so much easier if I could hate him but I can't."
"I . . . um . . . oh," was all he could manage to say.
Al sat on the hard hospital chair with his knees hugged to his chest, staring at the unnaturally calm face of the brother he no longer knew.
Today was the day they were going to transfer Ed, and it had been such a fiasco of equipment and paperwork and legal and medial mumbo-jumbo that Al had thought it best to avoid it all. Normally he liked to talk to his brother, but today he wasn't sure he had it in him to keep up a one-sided conversation. So he sat, and waiting for the orderlies to come. He had more than enough to think about.
Just yesterday two boys had been waiting for him outside the hospital. The younger boy had rushed to apologize, saying there had been too much military around—Al had stopped them then to explain and apologize that while they might know him, he unfortunately no longer knew them.
After the awkward (re)introductions, he found out that these were the boys who had left him and his brother at the hospital.
"We don't know what happened," the older boy, Russell, had been quick to explain. "Ed went down alone, and told us not to follow. It was after that girl Rosé came up with that strange boy that we finally went looking for him, and—well, there you both were."
Al had pelted them with questions. They had told him quite a bit—about the underground city, the red water—but ultimately couldn't shed light on what Al needed to know the most.
Still, he was glad to make some friends his age, and Russell and Fletcher were easy to talk to. His brother's military colleagues were all very nice, but he hardly knew how to relate to them.
Al glanced down at the letter in his hand. He was gripping it so tightly that the paper was getting crumpled. He wondered if maybe he was trying to hold onto the forgotten past it represented.
Lieutenant Ross had met them that morning and had given him the letter. "Ed's one of us, Al," she'd said. "You both are."
It wasn't until after she'd left, when he'd read the letter, that he realized what she was saying.
His brother's medical expenses were all paid for. Completely. For the foreseeable future. Everything would come out of a trust that had been set up. But it was the list of names signed at the bottom that was getting to him. He could put them all to faces, but only barely.
They were doing all this, and he couldn't even remember them.
"If you woke up right now, would you even know me, Brother?" he muttered into his knees. "Would I know you?"
A pair of orderlies wheeled a gurney into the room, and Al sniffed and rubbed his eyes. He stood, finally folding up the letter and tucking it safely into his pocket.
"Everything all right, son?" one of them asked.
"Yeah. I'm fine."
"We'll just get your brother tucked in here and then we're ready whenever you are."
"I'm ready to go," he assured them.
Al watched as they carefully lay Edward on the gurney and strapped him in. He touched the letter in his pocket, already making plans to return to Central soon and thank as many of these people as he could.
Not having to worry about his brother's care—or the financial burden they'd be putting on the Rockbells—freed him up significantly.
It was time to move forward.
"Rosé finally registered her baby with the state," Winry chatted as she carefully ran a brush through Ed's hair. "His legal name is Joshua Edward Thomas. I told her you'd be embarrassed. He's so big! He's started crawling and he's getting into everything. . . ."
Alphonse sat back and watched while Winry brushed out and re-braided his brother's hair. She claimed the nurses never did it right. "Ed was always so particular about his hair," she'd explained. "He'd hate to have it so sloppy."
Al still couldn't fathom his brother even caring. The Edward he remembered would hack off his hair with a pair of kitchen shears as soon as it got in the way. How he had gone from that to the neat braid Al had seen in photos was still a mystery.
". . . I may not be by for a while, I'm going down to Rush Valley to visit Paninya." Winry wrapped up her stream of words as she tied off the braid. "I'm going to try again to see if I can get Mr. Dominic to teach me. Either way, I'll be sure to have a new design ready for you by the time you need it!"
It was so easy for Winry. It didn't seem to matter that Ed never answered back, and may never answer back. Al remembered his brother saying once that Winry could have a conversation with a rock. The remark didn't seem so funny now.
The young woman headed out to the waiting room, leaving Al alone with Ed.
"Hey, Brother." Al shifted his chair closer. Ed was lying on his side today, and the younger boy brushed the long bangs out of his face, tucking the loose strands behind his ear. "Winry pretty much told you everything. It might get a little lonely for a while, with her in Rush Valley, and Rosé talking about going back to Liore . . . and I'm going to be leaving, too. Not for too long. I'm going to study with Sensei again. I'm hoping she can help me figure out what happened, so I can figure out . . . figure out a way to help you." He leaned in close, just like they always did when they were sharing a confidence, something just between the two of them. "I know what the doctors say, but I just can't believe that this is medical. You did something that caused this, Brother, I know you did. And I'm going to find out how to fix it."
He studied his brother's face, looking for a twitch, a flicker of an eyelid, anything.
Al sighed and sat back. "I'll come back in a couple weeks or so, to see how you're doing. So I . . . I guess I'll see you then."
"You out-rank me now, you know." Roy gave the still form in the bed a half smile. "I'm sure you would have some choice things to say about that. The investigation into your activities was put on indefinite hold due to medical issues, but I got no such luxury." He ruefully touched the large patch covering the left side of his face. "My medical problems didn't take so long to resolve." If everything worked out like it should, then Ed's investigation would be abandoned in favor of an an honorable discharge. He would be forever remembered as the People's Alchemist, without little things like desertion and storming headquarters to mar his record.
It pained him to think that that might be the end of the story.
Edward's usually vibrant hair had gotten lank, and clung to his forehead and cheeks. The urge to smooth it back was strong, and Roy balled his hands into fists in his lap. He refused to take advantage of the boy's condition, even for something as minor as that.
Roy studied the young man's profile. The unnatural tranquility was disturbing; Fullmetal lived in extremes, scowls and glares and wide grins. "What I wouldn't give to have you mocking me right now," he murmured. "I'm pathetic, I really am. It's a shame you're not here to appreciate it."
He ran a hand over the thin blanket, needlessly smoothing it out where it was tucked beneath Edward's arm. He'd caught the boy napping at headquarters a few times, and he smiled at the memory of him sprawled out over the break room bench or, on one memorable afternoon, stretched out on the steps to the library. Even in sleep he had seemed determined to take up much more room than his small frame should allow, filling the space with the force of his personality. Now he was dwarfed by the white hospital bed and its neatly tucked bedclothes.
"I'd always hoped we'd have a chance to get to know each other outside of the confines of the military. As your commanding officer I could never just talk to you. I had to keep my distance . . . no matter how much it hurt to do so." He found his hand halfway across the space between them and pulled it back, folding his hands together against the bed. "Well. I'm sure you wouldn't care to hear about that. You'd probably be glad to be rid of me. You'll be getting that, at least." He sighed. "I've been reassigned to an outpost along the northern border. This may be the last chance I have to visit. For a while, at least."
Would Fullmetal have taunted him about that? Or would he have lambasted him for giving in and letting himself be shuffled off? Perhaps he would have even been sympathetic. Edward of all people understood a sacrifice. Even at his most cynical he couldn't imagine that Edward wouldn't have cared. The young man cared about everything and everyone he came across.
"This is the Brass' passive way of getting rid of me. They couldn't legally put a bullet in me, so they're hoping I'll freeze to death."
And you're letting them.
Roy wasn't sure if that was his own conscience or the ghost of a memory. He supposed it didn't matter.
"Things are changing, but slowly. The old regime still has a lot of power. There's a lot more work to be done, but it's not for me to worry about. Not anymore. I really am useless now." He laughed; a dry, humorless sound. "I'd never be saying this if you were awake. I'm not sure I'd even be able to face you. I told you I've gotten pathetic."
The former commander let his gaze drift over the young man again. He was pale and sallow, and had lost most of his muscle tone. He was no more than a shadow of the boy he had been and seemed to be withering away, as if from one moment to the next he might turn insubstantial. In a moment of panic he grabbed his hand and gently squeezed, trying to reassure himself that it was solid.
"But at least you'd be honest with me," he continued. "You were never shy about speaking your mind. Insubordinate little brat." He stroked his thumb over the slack fingers, a small, despondent smile on his face. "Did you hear that? I just called you 'little' and you're not jumping up to punch my face in."
Roy sighed. "I antagonized you on purpose, you know. I'm sure you realized that, but you probably never figured out why. You'd look so down and discouraged when you'd come into my office, I always wanted to distract you. Take your mind off whatever lead had just dried up. But you were so goddamn pigheaded that the only thing that got through were insults and jabs." He allowed himself a fond smile. "I can't apologize for it. At times it was the only way I could help you, poor as it was. Besides, I have to admit it was fun to watch you rant. Few people work themselves up quite the way you do."
He fell silent, his thumb still sweeping back and forth across the boy's knuckles. "I only wish you'd stayed in East more often," he said at last. "Maybe I could've been something other than an ass to you. Maybe . . . you might have trusted me."
The former colonel sighed, and squeezed Edward's hand once more before laying it on the mattress. "I don't blame you for thinking you couldn't. But . . . I wish you had. I wish . . . I could've been someone you trusted. I wanted to be that for you."
Roy stood, and gave the young man a flippant salute. "Well then, Major Elric. Provided I don't freeze, I'll come by the next time I'm in this quadrant of the country. Perhaps by then you'll be able to give me the dressing down I'm sure I deserve."
He was lost in thought as he walked out to the common area of the long-term care facility, and almost missed the boy perched on one of the hard plastic chairs. He stopped short as the boy bounced to his feet. "Alphonse! I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were here—"
Alphonse ran over to intercept him, waving away the apology. "No, it's all right! I'm glad you came to see Brother. I've been training in Dublith, and I and was afraid he'd been getting lonely. . . ." He trailed off, raising one hand to scratch through his hair. "I mean . . . um."
Roy smiled. "I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner. I've been . . . busy."
"Oh! The trial! Did it—did it turn out well?"
The soldier stared at the boy. "I hadn't thought the court martial had been made public."
"Oh—it wasn't. Not that I know." His hand slid down to rub the back of his neck. "Mister Armstrong came by the butcher shop—Sensei's place—and I was talking to him. . . ."
"It . . . it didn't go well, did it."
"That depends on whom you ask," he admitted. "It . . . could have gone worse."
". . . Oh."
"I've been transferred to an outpost in the north. It's . . . somewhat remote."
Hazel eyes, so close to the gold he missed but so much more open and innocent, stared up at him. "They're trying to forget about you, aren't they."
Roy blinked, then smiled in admiration of the boy's sharp perception. "It would seem that way, wouldn't it."
"Do you have to go right now?" Alphonse blurted.
"Right this minute? No. I was planning to leave soon, but there's some leeway." He doubted anyone cared enough to keep track, the outpost wasn't a critical one. "Is there something on your mind?"
"Yeah. . . ." The boy fidgeted and glanced off to the side. "If it's not a bother."
"Alphonse, you would never be a bother," Roy assured him. "I can wait here while you visit with your brother." He was in no hurry to catch the train north.
Al shot a grimace toward the doorway and quickly ducked his head. "I don't—I don't think Brother will mind if we go get something to eat first."
Roy nodded and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder, and gently guided him out. "I'm sure he'll understand."
"He's promised to write," Al informed his brother. "He doesn't know how reliable the mail will be up there, but he said he'll write as much as he can." He smoothed Ed's hair back, and tried to tuck a few loose strands back into the braid. The nurses really had done a sloppy job. "Mr. Mustang is going to try to help. He said he doesn't know what you had found, but he might know where you looked. He. . . ."
Al leaned against the bed, his eyes on the threadbare sheets. "He told me about the—the homunculi," he continued quietly. "About what they are, and—and how they're made. He told me . . . about the Stone." He swallowed. "Is that what you used, Brother?"
Alphonse studied the pale, still face of the young man who was at once so familiar and so strange to him. "If it's as bad as he said . . . he wouldn't tell me directly, but he hinted . . . somehow, I don't think you could have used it. But . . . somewhere in all that is the key to this, I know it."
He sighed, running and hand through his hair. He hadn't cut it since he'd woken up in Central, and it was almost long enough now to pull back. "I'm going to start in Xenotime. I haven't talked to Russell and Fletcher since we left Central. They told me some about the Red Water, but maybe there's more I can find. Mr. Mustang said we had done something pretty big there, but didn't tell me anything more." He laughed. "He said you used to find him irritating, and I can sort of see why. Still . . . he really cares about you, Brother. You should see the look on his face when he talks about you. He tries to hide it, but it's there."
He sat back. "I'm getting to know some of the people who knew us before—the people we knew before. It's still so strange, to talk to these people and hear about the things you did. You really made an impression on people. I guess—I guess we both did." He fell quiet. "It's nice, though," he said after a long moment. "We're not alone anymore. We always had Winry and Granny, of course, but now it seems like we have friends everywhere. Someday . . . someday I'll get you to tell me all about that."
Body, mind, soul.
According to alchemic theory, those were the components of a living being. No more, no less: a body, a mind, and a soul. Before that night, the night when his memories stop, Al had never questioned this.
The body is nothing but a container, a vessel of meat and bone and blood. The body can be broken down into chemical equations and ingredients.
The mind is information, the knowledge gained from a lifetime of experiences. Information can be written—or obscured.
That left the soul.
Al realized now that their thinking that night had been woefully incomplete. They had used their own blood as information for the soul, thinking it would act as a template. But the soul is energy, the power source that animates the body and fuels the mind, like coal and water in a train. Without it the body is nothing but a carcass. But the mind? Could information ever truly be destroyed?
Al spread out his notes and his correspondences from Mustang. They had agreed to write anything important in code just in case the military got nosy (which Al suspected they had; some of the letters had arrived less than pristine), but after more than two years he could read it as easily as the codes he and his brother had developed as children.
"Here." Fletcher Tringham handed him an old, worn notebook before sitting down on the floor across from him. "I don't know how much help it will be."
"Thank you, Fletcher."
Al had made a habit of stopping in Xenotime whenever he could. Fletcher was always pleasant company, and Russell reminded him of his brother. Plus, there were very few people he could talk alchemic theory with.
"We were never able to fill in all the gaps," Fletcher continued. "The Red Water hasn't resurfaced, anyway."
"That's okay. The Red Water is not what I'm interested in." Al thumbed through the pages. "I saw something in here before—and I think Brother might have seen it, or something like it. From what Rosé said happened—here." He set the book down, and copied the passage to his own notes. It was little more than an aside, but it confirmed the conclusion he'd already come to.
"'The conversion of biological mass into energy—'" Fletcher read upside down. "Al! That was—was—"
"Was what?" Russell gave Al a suspicious look as he came in from the next room.
"I'm not—look, it's not the literal conversion I'm after, it's the principal—"
"What principal? That people are an energy source? We could've covered that two years ago—"
"No—this is what he did!" Al knew the older boy was needling him, but couldn't keep himself from rising to it. Russell was a little too much like Ed sometimes. "The body and the soul are not dissimilar. They're not separate things at all—not really. That's what Brother traded for my body—his soul and mind! And now I know how I can get them back!"
If he'd been expecting his friends to look impressed, he would have been disappointed. Fletcher looked concerned. Russell looked irritated.
"Yeah?" the older boy said at last. "And how's that? Without a Stone or Red Water, just what are you planning to trade?"
"It's . . . complicated." Al lowered his gaze and started gathering up his notes.
Russell scoffed. "And here I thought you were the smarter one."
"Ed insisted on fixing everything by himself, too, and you know where that got him," he snapped. "And now you're doing the same thing over again."
"It's not—look, I've got it worked out, it's just hard to explain—"
"If you can't even explain it, then maybe you shouldn't be thinking of trying it," Russell taunted. "Do you think we're idiots?"
"Brother, please," Fletcher tried to interject.
"Come on, Fletch. You know where he's headed with this." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "And from what she just said, so does Winry."
Al blinked. "Winry? What?"
"She's on the phone for you."
"Winry's on the phone? She called? Why?"
Russell rolled his eyes and pointed again to the other room. "Go talk to her, idiot."
Alphonse hopped to his feet and trotted off to find the Tringhams' phone. He usually let Winry know where he would be because she got on his case so much when he didn't, but this was the first time she'd tried to contact him.
"Hey Al." Winry's voice sounded drawn out and tired. "I wanted to let you know that—that Mr. Mustang is on his way down and should be here in a couple weeks."
"He—what?" They hadn't spoken in person since Mustang had gone north, but the abrupt nature of the visit tempered any excitement he might have felt. "Why is he coming down?"
"Because I asked him to. And let me tell you, it's a huge pain to get a message to that outpost—I called Northern Headquarters, and got transferred to Briggs, and they had to send a messenger, it's ridiculous—"
"I saw the look on your face before you left for Xenotime, Al," she told him. "And I know that look. You'd never listen to me or Granny—I don't even know what we'd say—but maybe you'll listen to him."
"I'm not going to stand by and watch you risk your life—not again. I didn't know what you were planning to do the first time, I couldn't do anything for Ed the last time," she went on, her voice rising, "And maybe I can't do anything now, but I'm at least going to find someone who can!"
"Winry. . . ."
"So don't go doing anything stupid until he gets here, okay? Please, Al," she added in a softer tone, "I can't lose you, too."
Al gripped the edge of the bench as the train slowed, then stopped. Mustang had sent a telegram from East City to let them know when he would be arriving, but Al still couldn't quite believe it. The soldier hadn't left the northern outpost in over two years; that he would drop everything and come now just because Winry asked was . . . strange. When he'd expressed this to Winry, she'd shook her head and muttered something about idiots before shoving him out the door and telling him not to miss the train. "He's come all this way, the least you can do is meet him at the station."
Al would have done that anyway, but he wished this sense.
Nothing made sense anymore. Not since he'd woken up.
Finally, amid the chaos of freight being loaded and unloaded, a small handful of passengers disembarked; among them was a dark-haired man of medium height, half of his face obscured by a large black patch. Al leapt to his feet and ran over.
Mustang spotted him as soon as he stood, pausing on the platform to smile. "Alphonse. It's good to see you. You're looking well."
"Thank you, sir. It's good to see you, too." Al wished he could return the compliment; Mustang's smile was warm enough, but he looked drawn, tired. Gaunt. As if the snow had leeched away his essence. Al reached for the small trunk he carried. "Here—I'll take that. You must be tired."
"I'm fine, but—thank you."
"Should we get a ride to the Rockbell's? I'm sure there's a cart, or—"
"No. It's fine. Actually, after the trains, I could use the walk."
"Oh. All right. If you're sure."
Mustang clapped him on the shoulder, turning them toward the edge of the station. "I'm sure. How have you been? I see you've grown." With an odd smirk, he added, "Ed would be jealous."
The boy laughed. "Well, to be fair, I think he's grown some, too. But you're right, he would be."
Mustang looked away as they went down the steps from the platform. "And how has your brother been doing? I'm sorry I . . . haven't made it back down until now. . . ."
Al kept his eyes on the road. "He's . . . the same."
"I was given to understand . . . you mean to change that, soon?"
He took a deep breath. "I—yes. I've worked it out. I'm certain now."
"It—it might take a while to explain. . . ."
"We have the time."
Al took a deep breath, and nodded.
As they made their way up the dirt road to the Rockbells' shop, he summarized his research as best he could. He knew it inside and out and was confident in his conclusions, but it wasn't an easy subject to put into words. Mustang listened intently, only interrupting occasionally to ask a question. Al kept sneaking glances as they walked, but aside from a general weariness, the man's face remained an enigma.
"So that's it, then?" he said suddenly, breaking Al off in mid-wrap-up. "Nothing more to prepare before you perform the transmutation?"
He looked over. "Well—yes. Like I said, it's a matter of energy—and the equivalence of matter to energy—"
"I doubt that."
Al stopped in the middle of the road. "I'm sorry?"
With a sigh that sounded like it came from the bottom of his soul, Mustang leaned back against the stone wall that ran along side the road. He studied the boy in silence for a moment before answering. "I don't doubt your research, or your conclusions. But I don't think that's all there is to it." He paused. Al wanted to argue but held his tongue. "When the two of you attempted to transmute your mother, you had everything you needed for the body. Correct?"
He nodded. "But we hadn't accounted properly for the soul."
"And for that, this—Gate—took your brother's leg, and your body. Then to bind your soul, Edward lost his arm. And then, to regain your body—or to reunite your body with your soul—he loses . . . his soul. That's the conclusion you came to, right?"
Al nodded again, frowning.
"But that's not all there is to it. Your memories, your age—those three years of living—what of them? What of your original goal—your mother? It seems to me you both lost an awful lot without gaining much of anything in return. If there is equivalency in any of that, it is not of our kind of accounting."
"I . . . it doesn't change anything," he insisted. "My conclusions are still the same."
Mustang nodded. "I agree. But what will you lose this time?"
"I—I told you. The energy—"
"May be irrelevant. Your theories on gathering and stabilizing energy seem sound—brilliant, in fact—but as far as I can tell this Gate operates by its own rules. Can you tell me what it will take this time? Can you tell me with certainty?"
Al snapped his mouth shut and looked away, glaring off down the road.
"That's what I thought. Tell me this, then: when will it end?"
"He sacrificed to save you, to bind your soul. You sacrificed yourself to save his life, or so you've said. He sacrificed himself to bring you back whole, losing his soul in the process. And now you sacrifice for him. Is this how it will be? The two of you forever tossing this sacrifice back and forth? When will it end?"
"What would you have me do?" Al cried. "Abandon him? Leave him to sleep until his body wastes away? I haven't got a Stone—"
"But if you did, you could use it. Work it into your equation."
"Of course! A stable store of energy is all that's needed—"
"Such as a 'Stone' made of a single person?"
"Right! Like a—what? No!"
"If you could use a Stone, you could use a person. The energy's the same. It doesn't need to be yourself."
"You can't!" Al blurted. "It might kill you—"
"Better me than you."
Mustang chuckled. "You can both be rather selfish, you know that? You think you're sparing others pain by pushing them away, but you're not. Did you ever stop to think of how hard it is to watch the two of you suffer? Did you ever think of the pain of knowing we could have helped, but were prevented from doing so?"
"But—it's—our problem to fix—"
"You don't exist in isolation, Alphonse."
He shook his head. "But—I—I can't use another person! I—I can't just take from someone—"
"You aren't taking—I'm giving. It's my choice. It's my life to use as I please." He pushed himself off the wall and brushed off his clothes. "I've done my bit for my country, and as my reward, I've been shuffled off to where I can be of no use to anyone. I can at least be useful in this."
"You're not—" Mustang was already heading for the Rockbells again, and Al scrambled to catch up. "Sir, please, think about this—"
"I have thought about it." His voice was calm, even. "I've been thinking about it for two years now."
"For two years—"
"I always expected we would end up here."
Al looked up at the soldier, trying to find any hint that he'd parted ways with sanity up there in the cold. Mustang smiled.
"I can assure you, I am completely rational. My decision to help is no less sound than your desire to proceed alone."
"'But' what?" He stopped again and turned to face the young man. "Did you really think you would do this on your own? After what happened to your brother—did you think any of us would let you?"
After seeing the notes and hearing Alphonse explain the research in detail, Roy could only marvel yet again at the boy's quiet brilliance. Ed had always been so flashy, it was easy to forget that the younger Elric was a match. Al's methodical, meticulous approach was the perfect complement to Ed's often incomprehensible leaps of logic. Seeing the one without the other was heartbreaking.
Roy tapped the loose sheets of paper together and tucked them into the notebook. As he had thought, Al's theories were sound—or as sound as they could be. But they had no safety net.
He could be that, at least.
It had taken some convincing. But he'd pointed out that if it all went how Al hoped it would, his presence would make no difference—and if things went awry, well, he was prepared for that. After much back and forth, the boy had reluctantly agreed. He'd gone off to talk with his grandmother about retrieving Ed from the long-term care facility, leaving Roy to look over his notes and refine the arrays. He didn't have many changes to make, only two small circles to add.
Roy finally lifted his head to acknowledge the young woman who was watching from the doorway. Winry had noticeably matured in the last two years, seeming more centered and self-contained.
She nodded to the notebook, eyes filled with concern. "So, that's it then? He's really going through with this now?"
Roy nodded. "I wouldn't have been able to talk him out of it even if I'd tried. I think we both know that."
"I, um. . . ." She shifted from one foot to the other and smoothed back a strand of hair. "I don't think any of us want to talk him out of it. Not really. I just . . . I don't want anyone getting hurt this time."
"I'll keep him safe," he assured her.
"I know, that's why I called. That's—not what I meant." She sighed and shook her head. "Granny's made the arrangements, we'll leave tomorrow morning."
Even though he'd been anticipating this for two years now, Roy's stomach clenched, just a little, now that it was concrete. "That easily?" He hoped the trepidation didn't come through in his voice. "The hospital agreed to release him?"
"They have to, Granny's Ed's legal guardian and his doctor. If she wants to take him to try a new treatment there's nothing they can say." She started to leave, but then turned back and said, "Look, I . . . I'm glad you came. Al needs someone here who knows about alchemy, who—who cares about Ed as much as we do. I just . . . I really hope this doesn't turn out like it did last time. But just in case—we'll be standing by, all right?"
Al focused on the array. The curves and angles had to be just right; each rune and glyph had to be in just the right place. Standard alchemic arrays lost too much energy to light and heat and noise; this one was designed to minimize that. Every bit of energy had to be focused into the transmutation, and to do that, the array had to be perfect. So Al focused on the array.
And did not focus on his brother.
His brother whose face had aged but was still slack and void of expression. Whose body had gone thin and soft after two years in a hospital bed. Who seemed so small and fragile bundled in a blanket and cradled there in Mustang's arms.
Of course Alphonse had seen his brother regularly over those two years. But it had been easy to ignore, to chatter about inconsequential things during his visit and focus on his research any other time, and to—perhaps deliberately—not see the changes. It wasn't until they had pulled the blankets back and lifted him onto the gurney that he had realized just how much his brother seemed to have wasted away.
He needed to focus on the array.
Mustang sat at the base of the stairs, quietly watching and waiting. He held Ed in his lap, head against his shoulder, one thumb stroking his blanket-covered arm. He had been doing little, unconscious gestures like that since they had picked Ed up that morning. Al found it reassuring. It wasn't familiar, exactly, but he felt almost as if he'd expected it. As if it was—right, somehow. It calmed his nerves a bit, something that was in great need right now.
Al stepped back, giving the array a once-over—then again. "O-okay."
He took a deep breath and tried to express more confidence this time. "Okay. That's done."
"Mm." Mustang eased the blanket off of Ed's frame and dropped it to the side of the steps. He stood, shifting Ed's slight weight to let him see where he was stepping, and picked his way across the array. He knelt and with great care arranged the unconscious young man in the designated space in the center. Just before he drew back his fingers flitted against Ed's forehead in a brief, almost nonexistent touch to smooth back a few strands of hair.
He stepped out of the array and slowly circled it, examining every line. Al held his breath. He was confident in his work, but he still felt like a student showing a project to a teacher—though Mustang was a good deal less intimidating than Sensei.
"Excellent." Al was so lost in thought that the proclamation startled him. "I hadn't expected any less." Mustang nodded at him. He looked pleased, which Al found encouraging. "Now for the secondary arrays."
Alphonse took another deep breath, and nodded. The secondary arrays were deceptively simple, but just as important to get right as the main array. But chalk wouldn't do for these.
Edward was first. Al stepped across to the center of the array and knelt down, unfastening the ties on his brother's hospital shift. He had a sudden worry that Ed might be cold lying on the cement floor in nothing but the thin cotton garment and wondered if they should change things around so they could include the blanket.
He was stalling.
He set his jaw and pulled out a small pocket knife, quickly nicking his finger before he could have any more second thoughts. He watched the blood well up, then drew the binding array on Ed's chest, over his heart.
"There." Al picked his way out of the array and stood back to take one last look at the set-up. "Okay."
Mustang's hand settled on his shoulder.
Al bit his lip.
He sighed. "I know."
Two more sets of arrays. They had agreed.
Mustang offered up the backs of his hands. Al hesitated for another moment more before using the blood still seeping from his finger to draw the sigils that would mark the man as an offering—essentially a Philosopher's Stone of one. "I still don't like this, Sir."
"Duly noted." He took the knife and nicked his own finger, then adorned Al's hands with marks that would ensure that the array would pass him by. "Now. As we discussed."
It was now or never. If only the butterflies in his stomach would settle. "Right."
They took up positions on either side of the array. At Al's nod, they touched their hands to the edge.
Being stuck on the wrong side of the Gate was decidedly boring. The landscape was the exact opposite of interesting, but since he wasn't properly dead he couldn't go anywhere. Sometimes he could hear people out there in the physical world talking to him, but most of the time all there was to do was sit against the back side of those fucking doors and try not to go insane from the boredom. If it weren't for the dead—souls, spirits,whatever they were—who came to talk with him, he probably would have cracked some time ago.
His mother had been first, of course. He'd been so afraid of her judgement, or even just disappointment, but all she did was smile and hold her arms out, and the next thing he knew he was huddled in her lap and crying like he was five years old again. He'd apologized through his sobs, over and over again, but she just held him and rocked him and stroked his hair. And when she did finally speak, it was to tell him how proud she was.
She was proud of him.
He didn't know how long he had sat there crying into her shoulder. Time had little meaning in a place where nothing changed. Eventually he'd settled, absently noting that crying was a lot less messy when one didn't have a body. And then, without raising his head, he'd started telling her everything. He'd gotten the feeling she already knew, but all the same he just had to tell her. And she'd held him, and comforted him, and told him she was proud.
The next one to come and see him had been Hughes. Before Ed could even open his mouth, the fatherly man had fixed him with a stare and had said, "Don't you dare apologize."
"You and Roy, I swear," Hughes had gone on to say. "If you two had your way, there wouldn't be any guilt left over for the rest of us."
After that, he'd seen—just about everybody. Nina, with Alexander ever beside her but no longer one with her. Winry's mom and dad, the people who had been like an Aunt and Uncle to him. Martel. Marcoh. Even Scar. Death seemed to have mellowed the Ishvalan, and Ed actually found him quite amiable now.
They could all go where they wanted. Both in this plane—which was far broader than the small area Ed had seen—or over to the physical world to watch over the living. Ed couldn't. Ed was still tied to his body, still technically alive, which meant he couldn't stray very far from the Gate. And this not-living-not-dead state was maddening.
"If this was an actual floor, you'd be wearing a groove in it."
Ed ignored the remark as he paced the edge of his range. "Something is going on out there. Al's up to something, I know it."
Hughes sighed. "Of course he is, Ed, he's your brother. Al's been 'up to something' for the last two years."
"But it's different this time. Something's different." He always knew when someone came to visit him. The tie to his still-living body was strong enough that he always knew. But they hadn't talked to him this time. And he couldn't be certain but he could swear he'd been moved. "Al's setting up to try something, he's got to be, and why won't you tell me?"
"Ed. . . ." Hughes intercepted his pacing and put an arm around his shoulders. "What could you do, if you did know? You'd worry yourself sick. And over there, everyone would still go through with whatever they were planning. You know that."
The young man clenched his jaw and looked off to the side.
"Yeah, I know, it sucks being dead. And it sucks even more being not-dead, in your case."
"If you're going to tell me I should have thought it through better or something. . . ."
"Would you have done anything different, if you had known what would happen?"
"If you could talk to Al now, do you think there's anything you could say that would deter him?"
". . . No."
Hughes hand settled on the top of his head. "Have a little faith in the people who love you."
Ed wanted to shout. He wanted to rant. He wanted something he could beat into submission. His sacrifice was meant to be the last one. He hadn't cared if he died so long as Al—everyone—was safe. He had offered up himself so that no one else would get hurt. And now. . . .
"Hey." Hughes ruffled his hair, which was somehow at once annoying and comforting. "Do me a favor?"
"Take care of Roy."
"He needs someone. He's pushed everyone away and been stubbornly making a go of it on his own these last couple years, and it hasn't done him any good. So take care of him?"
"Maybe share some spinach quiche."
Air scratched and caught in his throat and Ed choked. His body reflexively pulled in more air and it tasted of ozone and chalk dust and grease and blood and a dozen other things and he gagged and choked again.
He'd had no warning; the Gate had opened, invisible hands had grabbed him, and he'd been slammed into cold and ache and smells and air that felt like glass.
"Brother—" Hands touched his shoulder, his neck, then the side of his face—real hands, warm, living, human hands. "Brother—!"
He forced his eyes open, squinted, and blinked, but couldn't make out more than a vague blur above him. His throat and mouth were equally uncooperative but he managed to choke out "A . . . Al—?"
From a few feet away came a primal sound that made his gut clench and twist, a sound he was intimately familiar with.
Al leapt over him, and Ed forced his head to turn, tried to will his eyes to focus. Tried to make sense of what was going on around around him—
A rectangle of light appeared at the top of the stairs, but Ed couldn't turn away from the figures crouched next to him. Mustang? Here?
"Winry—it worked—but Colonel Mustang—his hands—"
Winry was already down the stairs and across the room before Al could finish his stuttered explanation. "I've got him, Al—you take care of Ed!"
Al stepped back. Ed tried to sit up, tried to at least raise his head, but only barely got his head off the floor before he fell back onto the concrete. Al knelt down and slid an arm beneath his shoulders, raised him up so he could lean back against him. His hands were shaking.
Ed got a grip on his arm and squeezed, as they watched Winry quickly and efficiently tend to the crumpled figure next to her. As she helped him to his feet Ed could see now that this was definitely Mustang, his eyes were working well enough for that, but everything seemed off. Even beyond the obvious pain and shock he was in, the pattern didn't match the man in Ed's memory.
Winry guided Mustang up the stairs, talking quietly and supporting him when he stumbled. Ed's hand was starting to shake with how tightly he was gripping Al's arm.
"Al—" He coughed and tried again. "Al, what—why—"
"We should get you upstairs. And get you some water." Al shifted and got an arm beneath his legs, and hiked him up. "This was a lot easier in the armor."
Ed grabbed a handful of his brother's shirt. "Al! What is he—" His throat rebelled and sent him into a coughing fit.
Al shifted his weight and waited until he was still before starting up the stairs. "Colonel Mustang wouldn't let me do this on my own, Brother. He insisted." In an undertone, he added, "Though he's not a colonel anymore."
You out-rank me now, you know.
"But—why would he—"
His brother gave him an odd look as they mounted the last few steps into the main part of the house.
". . . You really don't know?"
Al set him down on the couch, propping him up with pillows and generally making a fuss until Ed shoved him away. Or tried to. He found that his shoving power was greatly reduced.
Al disappeared into the kitchen, then came back with a glass of water and a rag. Ed scowled when it was the rag he held out.
"Brother, you haven't swallowed anything in over two years, if you try to drink something now you'll choke. Don't worry, it's clean."
Begrudgingly, Ed had to concede the logic in that. At least no one else was around to see him sucking on a dish rag.
His eyes drifted over to the surgery room. It was quiet behind the door, which he took as a good sign. Quiet meant less panic.
Al perched next to him on the edge of the couch. "It's funny. I've been calling him 'Mr. Mustang' for the past two years, but now that I remember everything I want to call him 'Colonel.' It never did seem right to call him 'Corporal.'"
Ed decided his swallowing muscles had gotten enough of a wake-up and dropped the rag. At least his throat didn't feel so dry now. "You still haven't told me why the hell he's here."
Al's smile was very enigmatic. "He's always watched out for us. You never liked to admit it, but I know you knew that."
He did know it. After two years of having nothing to do but think, he'd come to realize just how much Mustang had done for them, and how much it meant. To him. But what it had meant for Mustang, he'd been afraid to guess.
He turned again to the door. Looking out for a couple of idiot kids who often got in over their heads was a lot different from putting your life—your entire being on the line.
After what seemed like far too long, the door opened and Winry stepped out. "Well," she said as she pulled the door to, "he's not going to bleed to death. He's definitely in better shape than you were, back then."
It was eating at him, but the question stopped in his throat. The Gate wasn't known for kindness.
Winry kept her composure for another two second before her face crumpled and she dove forward, scooping Ed into a bear hug.
"Agck—Winry!" It was all he could do to keep from getting whiplash. His neck muscles weren't in any better shape than the rest of him.
"Sorry." Her voice was tight with emotion. "I'm sorry. I just . . . sorry."
"It's okay, it's okay." He managed to get his arm around her to return the hug as best he could. She smelled of blood and antiseptic but he pressed his face to her shoulder anyway. "Just—shit, give me a little warning or something."
"There's an arm and leg waiting for you." Winry rubbed her eyes before she pulled back. "You've grown, did you know that? I checked every time I visited so I could be sure your automail would fit."
Ed scoffed. "I better have grown. Fuck knows I wasn't doing anything else."
"You'll need to get your strength back first, of course. But they'll be ready as soon as you are."
"Then I need to get my damn strength back—" He started to leverage himself up, and she easily pushed him back into the cushions.
"In good time, idiot. There's no point in working yourself to exhaustion, not this time."
Ed sighed in exasperation as he shoved his hair back. "I've done enough fucking lying around."
Winry only smiled and hugged him again, though a bit more gently this time.
Al had slipped into the room _Winry had emerged from. He came out now, looking distraught. Granny Pinako trailed out after him, shaking her head at the young man.
"I don't know why you expected anything different," she was saying.
Ed pulled away from Winry and tried to push himself up. "Al—"
Winry caught him again, holding him in place and gently turning him to look at her. "It's his hands, Ed," she told him. "He's lost both hands, up to the mid-forearm."
Ed felt like he'd been punched in the gut. He sagged against Winry, eyes unfocused. He'd heard Al's frantic cry when they were in the basement, of course he had, but in all the confusion it just hadn't registered.
Mustang . . . without his hands. The hands he used to make those frightening, beautiful flames.
"I thought I'd worked it out," Al was saying. "I thought . . . I thought, this time. . . ."
"It doesn't matter." Ed looked up, and caught his brother's eye. "It wouldn't have mattered how you'd worked it, Al, the Gate would've taken its toll anyway."
"But . . . I had calculated. . . ."
"I know. And you probably kept it from being any worse than it was." He reached out and Al caught his hand. "But the Gate works by its own rules. Look, I've spent the last two years with my back against that damn thing, and I've come to realize some things: you can't quantify a soul. Or knowledge. Not with any metric we have. And that's what the Gate peddles. It's not arbitrary, but we could never hope to second-guess it because we simply don't know how it's measuring—we can't know. Our world—this solid, material world we exist in—just—just doesn't have that scale."
Al rubbed a hand across his eyes and nodded, but still with a heart-sick and guilty expression that Ed knew all too well.
"He's doing pretty well, for all that," Pinako informed them. "Guess it helps to go in expecting to lose a chunk or two." She tapped Ed's knee. "Do us a favor and get in there. He's not going to settle down and rest until he sees you."
That was fine with Ed, he had a question or two for Mustang himself.
Winry produced a wheelchair from somewhere, and Al settled him into it—with much more fussing than was necessary. Ed had to snap that he was fine, he wasn't going to fall out of a fucking chair for fuck's sake. Finally Al wheeled him into the surgery room.
Mustang was propped up on the bed, his face pale and pinched with pain. But it was his arms that drew Ed's attention—thickly wrapped in bandages and ending far too soon, resting gingerly against his stomach.
Ed barely noticed when Al stepped out. He almost didn't notice that Mustang had turned toward him. The large black patch was what caught his attention, finally drawing his gaze away from the damage the Gate had done.
He had changed in the last two years. The missing eye was part of it, but even beyond that, he seemed . . . reduced. Worn. Ed wasn't even sure he could say what was different, just that the man before him was like a pale echo of the Colonel Mustang he had known.
He seemed content to just lie there and look at him, as if Ed were some kind of miracle—he supposed in a way he was. But Ed had a million things he wanted to ask, everything that had been pent up over the last two years and then some.
What came out of his mouth was "What the hell were you thinking?"
Mustang laughed. It sounded weary but it also had some genuine mirth in it. "Coming from you?"
"And you didn't learn from my fuck-ups? My entire life is one big lesson on what not to do. Weren't you—didn't you pay attention to that part?"
"Of course. I learned a lot from you."
"Obviously not enough if you're pulling this shit." He gestured to his empty shoulder. "Did missing body parts somehow not make an impression, or—"
"I learned," he repeated. Mustang sat up with some effort. "I learned that sometimes, it's worth it."
The rest of Ed's rant withered and died. He rubbed his hand through his hair and took a moment to consider the man in front of him. He wanted to say, but that was for Al. That was to fix the mistake that had been my fault in the first place. That was supposed to be the end of it.
"Did you think I could just leave you as you were?" Mustang's voice was soft with some emotion Ed couldn't—or didn't want to—place. "Did you think I would stand by and let Alphonse put himself in danger?"
He let out a sigh that was mostly growl. ". . . Fuck. I dunno if it's the blood loss or it was the air up north, but something's fried your brain."
He chuckled. "Actually, I would say this is the first clear-headed thing I've done in ages."
"If you say so." Ed turned to call for someone, but then remembered: "Oh—what's the deal with spinach quiche, anyway?"
Mustang looked like he'd been struck. ". . . What?" he said, his voice faint.
"Uh, well, my soul was trapped on the other side of the Gate," he rushed to explain, "which is as close to being dead as you can get without actually being dead, because—because the Gate is where . . . you know . . . when you die. . . ."
Mustang had made an odd, strangled sound. Ed cursed himself. As if the man hadn't suffered enough because of him.
But then Mustang sputtered and burst into the most exuberant laughter he'd ever heard from him. He fell back against the bed and curled onto his side, his whole frame shaking. He gasped for breath, but even after a few attempts couldn't get out anything more than "It's—it's from—"
Ed was shaking his head. "No. You know what? I don't need to know."
Mustang nodded, his face streaked with tears. He made a half-hearted attempt to wipe his cheeks on his arm before he stuttered into another fit of laughter.
Ed started to smile as he watched. "You've definitely gone screwy, Mustang." The other man seemed to find that hilarious.
Al had materialized at Ed's shoulder during the commotion. He was looking between them now like they'd both gone crazy. "Brother? What. . . ."
But Ed shook his head again. "I'll tell you in a minute. We should let this lunatic get some rest."
Al was pensive as he helped Ed back onto the couch. Ed realized that he probably hadn't gone more than two steps away from the door and had almost certainly overheard the entire conversation.
Winry had gone in to check on Mustang and Granny was fixing dinner, so now was as good a time as any. Putting it off would only cause his brother needless worry.
"Al . . . what you're thinking . . . yeah."
Al had stilled. His throat worked, but he remained quiet. Ed tugged him down, and pulled him into a hug. "That's from Mom." His own throat was starting to feel thick. "And—it's okay. That's what she wants us to know, more than anything else: it's okay. And she's proud."
Al made a quiet noise, then rested his head against his brother's chest as his shoulders started to tremble. Ed thought he'd been done with all his crying, but as he tucked Al's head under his chin his eyes were starting to swim. "She said to remember that." He screwed his eyes shut and repeated, "It's okay."
Roy watched through the window as Al steadied his brother and then stepped back, one arm still extended. Ed had insisted on being fitted with a lightweight leg, wanting as little to do with the wheelchair as possible. He took a few tentative steps now balanced with only a crutch before Al reached out to steady him again.
"He never could tolerate sitting still," Pinako remarked. "Except when he'd get sucked into a book. Any other time he had to be moving around."
"Mm." Roy was remembering the fidgeting and restlessness whenever Ed was in his office for more than five minutes. It was so good to see that energy again after the unnatural calm of the last two years that he couldn't keep his eyes off of him.
He shook himself out of his thoughts with some effort. "Ah . . . my apologies. You were explaining the different options."
"We wrapped that up a couple minutes ago."
"Ah . . . right. So we did." He stole another sheepish glance out the window before turning back. "Well . . . my decision hasn't changed. As . . . daunting as automail surgery and recovery sounds. . . ." He looked down. His bandaged, truncated arms still seemed surreal. He wondered just when it would hit him. "I need hands." Noninvasive prosthetics were tempting, but the thought of going through life with only half the dexterity he could have. . . .
"That's what I figured. I just need you to know what you're in for." She drew on her pipe as she thought. "Now, you'll be dealing with partial limbs, but hands are tricky. I'd say it's still going to be at least two, maybe as much as three years before you're recovered. That idiot," she poked the pipe stem out the window, "did it in one, but he pushed himself so hard he was vomiting blood." Roy looked at her in horror. But the old woman stuck her pipe between her teeth and finished with a simple, "I don't recommend that."
"Uh." He looked back out the window. Ed was leaning against his brother now, but after a moment and a few tense exchanges he pulled back, bracing himself with the crutch. Always pushing forward. "I'm—I'm in no such hurry."
"Glad to hear it." She tapped together the spec sheets she'd been showing him and tucked the bundle under her arm. "I should get started on lunch." She laughed. "If anything will get that boy to take a rest, it's food."
Roy grimaced, rubbing the side of one throbbing arm against his leg. He hadn't had much appetite the night before, but this morning he'd had a taste of just how much of an . . . inconvenience . . . life without hands could be.
Pinako poked him in the chest with her pipe. "And you, young man, will do a lot better once you get over yourself."
"You heard me. We see every sort of injury and handicap here, and I can tell you, there isn't a one of them that can't be overcome or worked around, even without automail. But you need to let go of any notions you have of doing anything the way you used to—and it wouldn't be a bad idea to set aside silly things like pride and dignity while you're at it. You get me?"
He had to fight the urge to come to attention. "Yes ma'am."
"Don't worry, you'll be fine," she said with a smile. "Once you get past that little hurtle. You seem like the determined type." She turned to leave. "Although—you might want to start thinking about what you're going to tell your superiors. Just a guess that they're going to want to know why you're way out here and missing a couple of hands."
Roy let out a faint laugh. "Honestly? I'm not sure any of them would care. But it's on my mind, yes."
She left him then, and he went back to watching the two figures out in the field.
Yes, his life would be different now. He could look forward to a notoriously horrendous string of surgeries, and then two or more years of a painful, slow recovery before he could hold something with his own two hands again—hands that would never have the tactile sensitivity of flesh. Never feel the warmth of another person's skin, or the softness of silk, or the prick of a thorn. He would be at least three years away from his life as a soldier, if the army didn't decide to discharge him entirely. Life outside of the military was something he could barely even imagine.
Hearing Ed's voice raised in irritation, watching his stubborn determination to take just one more step on his own—regret was the furthest thing from his mind.
Al caught Ed as he stumbled and nearly spilled to the ground, and Ed finally relented, letting his brother hike him onto his back and carry him into the house. Roy moved to the doorway to watch as Al carefully settled him on the couch.
"You'll do much better later if you rest now, you know that."
Ed grumbled as he fell back on the seat and draped his arm over his eyes. Something that may have contained the words "fuckin' mother hen."
Al left him there with a shake of his head.
Roy smiled to himself.
"What're you looking at, Mustang."
"Someone who really needs to learn how to take it easy." He walked over and perched on the edge of the couch, near Ed's head. "What's the big rush? There shouldn't be any crisis to fix this time."
He sighed. Then mumbled, "I hate being a burden."
"There isn't a person here who would think of you as such."
Ed eyed him from under his arm. "I still don't get you." He gripped the back of the couch and tried to pull himself up. Roy got an elbow beneath his back to help.
Finally he got himself upright. He braced against the back of the couch and took a deep breath, letting it out with a quiet "Shit."
He turned and fixed the older man with a stare. "You. I don't get you—I haven't gotten you since—since we were dealing with Liore. I didn't have time to stop and think back then—but I've had two years of nothing but thinking and . . . you . . . I still don't get you."
Roy deliberately made himself breathe. ". . . Yes?"
Ed lifted his hand and let it rest on Roy's arm, his fingers at the edge of the bandages. "This . . . isn't the kind of thing you do for a subordinate. It isn't the kind of thing you do for some idiot kid, even if you're looking out for him. It's. . . ."
Roy wanted, in the worst way, to take his hand. To squeeze his fingers, to give him some physical acknowledgement of understanding since his voice was failing him. He swallowed.
"Do me a favor, Mustang."
He narrowed his eyes. "Stop with the keeping your distance bullshit. You're not my CO anymore and I don't need you doing—whatever it was you thought you were doing by being all distant and aloof and shit. We're done with that. We should've been done with it when you chased me down and lied to the military. And if you're gonna go and do something like this—" His thumb brushed the bandages. "This—I mean, I know what—what this—" He swallowed. "Look, that old shit is done, all right? We're done with it."
He should speak—he should answer—but all he could do was stare down at this beautiful, insightful creature.
Ed pulled his hand back—and punched him in the shoulder. "And for the record, of course I fucking knew you were pissing me off on purpose, you jackass."
That broke the tension. He never thought laughing could feel so good.
Ed settled back against the couch. "Fuck. Remind me to hit you again after I've gotten my strength back. That was pathetic."
He chuckled. "I'm sure you won't need any reminders."
Ed snorted. "Yeah. You'll find more ways to piss me off before then anyway."
They sat for a moment in silence. Close enough to feel his warmth. Close enough that Ed's shoulder brushed up against his when he shifted.
"Nice eye patch, by the way. Trying out a new fashion?"
"Why, think it'll catch on?"
"Not with you hiding out in the frozen north. How come you didn't come down to thaw out once in a while?"
He shifted, trying to find somewhere comfortable for his arms. "It's . . . a little far for a weekend trip. To anywhere."
Ed eyed him, and Roy was sure he could see right through him. But all he said was, "I still say you froze your brain while you were up there."
"That wasn't . . . huh," he drifted off, staring down at space where his hands should have been.
He rubbed the edge of one stump against his leg. "Nothing. It just struck me—frostbite is a constant danger up there, but. . . ." He chuckled. "I guess I don't have to worry so much about frozen fingers now."
Edward sputtered out a laugh. "Yeah. Or paper cuts, or slamming your fingers in a door—it's great for punching people, too."
"I'll leave that one to you."
It hit him then, like a physical blow: would he be able to produce sparks? Could metal fingers build up the friction necessary to work the spark cloth? He hadn't used flame alchemy since that day over two years ago when he'd nearly died taking down a monster, but the thought of being unable to use it left him feeling suddenly hollow.
"All right you two clowns." Winry's hand landed on his shoulder. "Lunch is almost ready, and we need to change your bandages."
Roy nodded and stood.
"Hey, when am I gonna get an arm?" Ed griped.
"When you can wear one without toppling over," Winry shot back.
As she ushered him into the surgery room he heard her mutter, "You two deserve each other, I swear."
He almost jerked to a stop in the doorway, shooting her a quick glance. She couldn't have meant that as it sounded.
Winry rolled her eyes as she pushed him into a chair. "Come on. I could see it two years ago, plain as day. Why do you think I called you?" She sat down opposite him and started to unwrap the yards of gauze from his arms. "How have they been? How bad is the pain?"
"It's—It's manageable." The pain killers they'd given him were wearing off, but he hesitated to ask for more. He didn't like his senses dulled. "Was . . . was it really that obvious?" he asked instead. "Back then?"
"You mean when you chased him all the way over here just to yell at him?" She seemed amused. "I think the only one who didn't figure it out was Ed."
Winry set to inspecting and cleaning the wounds—if such a word was big enough to cover the sheered off and stitched over ends of his forearms. The pain was almost enough to keep him from marveling at how much this young woman's attitude toward him had changed.
"Let's see how you do with a local," she said, getting a couple needles ready. "But we need you to be honest about the pain. The pain you feel now and how we deal with it can affect the automail surgery and recovery."
"I, um. Was not aware of that."
"At least alchemic amputations are incredibly clean. The swelling should go down in a few days, and then after a few weeks of healing we can start on the automail surgery, so long as there's no infection."
He barely felt the prick of the needles on top of the cacophony of pain he was getting from the amputation sites. She quickly got to work with the bandages.
"Look, I. . . ." she said, her head bent over her work. "I don't . . . blame you, you know."
He let his gaze fall to the table and its array of medical tools. He didn't need to ask what she was referring to.
"I was angry when I found out, but I—I know how the military works." She finished with one arm and started on the other. "I'm not just telling you because of this. Because of what you did for Ed and Al. I've wanted to tell you for a while." She glanced up with a small smile. "Not the kind of thing you want to relay through phone transfers and a messenger."
He managed a weak smile at that.
"Granny never did blame you. She was just sad—and angry that you were put in the position of having to do that kind of thing." She finished securing the last bandage, then laid her hand on his elbow. He still couldn't meet her eyes.
"Let's get some lunch." She withdrew her hand and stood. "Are you ready to brave eating?"
Roy did his best to smile. "I'm not about to start backing down from a challenge now."
What was left unspoken was that he was going to be there for at least three years; things were going to be a lot harder if he kept carrying this around.
Roy only wished he could forgive himself as easily as this young woman had forgiven him.
Al leaned against the phone table as he waited for the line to connect to Xenotime. Through the kitchen doorway he could just see the end of the table, where Mustang was still struggling with his food. Ed was being his usual helpful self—which meant he was offering more smart-ass remarks than actual assistance.
"You could just strap a fork to the end of your arm," he was currently saying. "Then you'd be all set. Wouldn't have to mess with automail at all."
"That sounds like your kind of accessory," Mustang replied. "You were the one constantly stopping at the cafeteria or snack bar whenever you were on base."
"Hey, I was a growing boy! Of course I was always hungry!"
"And yet you seem to have skipped over the 'growing' part."
"Who're you calling so tiny he could slip through the tines of a fork!"
"I dunno Ed," Winry chimed in. "You walked right into that one."
"You dug the hole for that one," Mustang added.
"Fuck you. Both of you."
The phone clicked through and Al snapped himself out of his reverie. "Russell? Hi! It's Alphonse."
There was a half-second of silence, and then Russell said, "I guess this means you're still in one piece."
Al laughed under his breath. "Yeah . . . and it worked. Brother is back with us now." He wondered if Ed's antics were loud enough to carry over the phone.
Russell paused again. "I want to say 'that's great,' Al, I really do, but I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."
The younger boy sighed, lowering himself into the nearby chair. "You were right," he said. "All of you were right. I was wrong to think I could find a way around it. If Colonel Mustang hadn't been there. . . ."
After taking a deep breath, Al told him.
"I really—I really did think I had it figured out," he wrapped up with. He leaned his head against his hand, staring down at the table "I thought I could do this without anyone else getting hurt. But—Brother pointed this out—that's impossible. You can't quantify a soul."
"Wow. If he hadn't been there. . . ."
"Yeah." Al still couldn't shake the notion that it should have been him. It didn't sit right for other people to get hurt because of their mistakes.
"Wait—isn't this Mustang the guy Ed complained about having to report to?"
Al laughed, wiping his eyes. "Yeah, that's right. He's also the one I've been exchanging letters with. He wouldn't let me do this on my own."
"Is he . . . going to be okay? I mean, he's obviously not okay, but—you know what I mean."
Al turned to look back into the kitchen. Ed was holding something and telling Mustang he could just feed him if that would be easier, Mustang was taunting back something about when you can walk across the room without being winded then we'll talk—Al wasn't sure what was going on, but they both looked to be in good spirits. "I think so. It's not going to be easy, but . . . I think everything's finally going to be all right."
Winry frowned at the prosthetic between her hands, rubbing her finger against the black marks around the thumb. "Well. At least I know the sparker's working."
Roy smiled sheepishly. "Ah. Sorry about those. I'm still working on the timing."
Automail fingers couldn't snap. The joints might be coaxed to move right, but the metal didn't have the necessary give to build up pressure. Roy had all but resigned himself to never again having the ease of summoning flames with his fingers, but during his maintenance check that morning Winry had surprised him by installing sparkers in both thumbs. He'd been touched beyond words, and had spend the rest of the day out in the field sending flames into the air. With Ed there laughing and cheering him on and ribbing him for every fumble. He'd felt exhilarated for the first time in years.
"It's just cosmetic," Winry magnanimously offered. "I'm going to assume you weren't in the habit of burning your fingers so I don't have to warn you about the heat tolerance of the various components of automail."
"I'll get the timing worked out," he assured her.
She finished her adjustments, bending the thumbs and giving each mechanism a test before putting away her tools. "There. That should help."
"You have my eternal gratitude, as always."
Roy traced the back plate of one of his hands. The young woman really had done an exceptional job; without giving it much thought, he'd expected something utilitarian, along the lines of Ed's automail. But the hands she'd crafted for him had an understated elegance.
"Yes, you may etch your array into one of the plates, as long as you're careful."
Roy blinked and looked up.
"That's what you're wondering, right?" she continued. "I know you can do that clap-alchemy like Ed and Al now, but you're used to having the array right there." She tapped the back of his hand. "This should be enough room, here. Right?"
He shook his head while he tried to find his voice. "I . . . thank you. Yes, it would. I wasn't going to—I would never want to risk damaging your fine craftsmanship—but I would like that very much."
She rolled her eyes and muttered, "Flattery will get you nowhere." But she looked pleased.
The front door banged open and Ed announced his return with "Yo! Food! Now start dinner." Al trailed in after, shaking his head at his brother.
Winry stood and put her hands on her hips. "Just for that I should make you cook it."
Ed grinned. "Sure, I'm up for some improvising."
"No, thank you." She snatched the bag from him and marched off to the kitchen. "But don't think you're getting out of clean-up! And if you transmute my skillets again I'll have your head."
Ed leaned his elbows against Roy's shoulders. "What, no contusions?" he said in a stage whisper. "Winry's feeling generous today."
Roy tipped his head to glance up at him. "Has it ever occurred to you that you might have a singular talent for getting on her nerves?"
"Nah, she's just crazy."
"I can hear you!" Winry sang form the kitchen.
Roy touched his hand. Ed shifted, then held still, patiently waiting while Roy entwined their fingers. When he'd succeeded Ed gave his hand a squeeze of encouragement.
Only in the last couple months had they started really exploring other avenues of their relationship. Automail recovery left little room for anything else, but a closeness had grown between them, one Roy still wasn't sure how to handle. The last two and a half years had been nothing but new experiences for him, but in some ways this one was throwing him off balance even more than prosthetic hands or being discharged from the military.
"You done any thinking lately?" Ed asked.
Roy sighed at the question. As long as he was still rehabilitating he could put off making any major decisions, but Pinako had declared him almost recovered—or close enough to be getting on with life.
The problem was, for so long the military had been his life, for good or ill. Two years ago the top brass had opted for a discharge instead of medical leave, citing that "a review" had concluded that it was "in the military's best interests." Roy hadn't been surprised, and at the time hadn't given it much thought beyond being relieved that he wouldn't have to return to the Briggs outpost. But now he was facing a future of nothing but uncertainty.
"That looks like a 'no'."
"I've thought," Roy insisted. "I just . . . haven't . . . decided anything."
"You mean you haven't figured out how to get away with being a lazy bum." Ed's free hand lit briefly on the top of his head, the affectionate gesture belying the criticism. "Well, if you needed something else to think about, you got something from the military. Two somethings."
Al was holding out a couple envelopes. "One looks official. I wouldn't let Brother open them."
"They dropped you like a used tissue," Ed stated with his usual eloquence. "If they want you back now, it can't be for anything good."
Roy agreed. But that didn't stop the little eager flutter that sat along side the trepidation as he took the mail.
He worried at the flap, but his metal fingers just wouldn't catch on the thin ridge of paper. Frustrated, he pinched one edge and tore the envelope open. The letter inside suffered some collateral damage and he grimaced, but there wasn't much to do except smooth it out on the worktable and nudge the torn edges back together.
Ed scoffed as he read the letter over his shoulder. "That figures. They want you do to their dirty work for them."
"Or take a bullet," Roy muttered. The letter only barely tried to couch it in polite language. Not that he'd had any delusions that he'd been valued as anything other than a weapon.
"What is it?" Al perched on the table, reading the letter upside down. "The border skirmishes in the west?"
Roy glanced up at him in surprise. "You knew about this?"
Al smiled. "I've had more time to keep up with news and correspondences than you have," he reminded him. "I heard about the skirmishes with Creta a couple months ago. I thought it was resolved, though."
"From the sound of this, it was only a temporary resolution." He tapped the letter. "They don't say it outright, but this sounds like it could erupt into a full war."
"And they want you on the front lines," Ed added.
Roy sighed and leaned back, reaching up to touch Ed's arms. "This . . . is not a part I missed."
"They can't make you reenlist, can they?"
"No." He nodded toward the letter. "But there's clearly deeper problems behind this. I don't know what good I could do from the outside."
Bradley might be gone and the rule of the government might be nominally in the hands of parliament, but the old guard still held a lot of power. Reenlisting would mean once again becoming the pawn of men who cared more for numbers and lines on a map than for the faces behind it all. He had been getting used to the idea of being his own man for once—
—Too bad he had no idea what to do with himself like this.
Al was looking over his head, having some sort of silent conversation with his brother. Roy frowned at him, then tried to twist around to see Ed. "What? Okay, what? What are you two not telling me?"
Ed coughed and looked away.
Winry stepped out of the kitchen, pointing a spatula at them. "Maybe it's that he's got an envelope with the military typeface stuffed in his back pocket."
Roy pulled away to stare at him properly.
"Well, okay, maybe you're not the only one they're trying to sweet-talk." He pulled the letter out of his pocket, waving it around to make his point. "I mean, technically, my service record's in better standing than yours, because . . . because they're idiots who have no idea how much this country actually owes you," he finished in a rush. "Or else they never wouldn't've dropped you in the first place, so fuck them, I wouldn't take orders from those short-sighted imbeciles no matter what they offered me."
Roy was chuckling by this point. "My dear Edward, if they had any idea what your time with the military was actually like . . . well. Probably best that they don't."
"Are those really your only options, though?" Winry pressed. "Play into their game or don't play at all? I've been keeping up on this, too. It's a different world than the one you left, 'Colonel,' but they," she flicked the spatula at the letter on the table, "aren't going to admit that—oh, damn that's starting to burn—" She dashed back to the kitchen, leaving Roy staring after her.
"I . . . really have been out of touch, haven't I."
"Automail recovery will do that," Ed mollified. "Though it doesn't sound like you were terribly with it before that—"
Ed gave him a wide-eyed look, and Al glared at him.
Roy shook his head. "No. You're right. I was . . . cast aside, yes, but I let it happen." He prodded his own letter with a finger. "But now . . . I find I have little desire to fight in pointless battles again." At the same time, he couldn't deny that he missed being a soldier. Having a purpose.
Ed was giving him an odd, fond smile. "Maybe you're just not meant for making a go of it on your own. So, good—" he dropped his own letter on top of Roy's and shoved them both to the side. "I wasn't looking forward to dealing with those blowhards, either."
"You think I'd let you go off alone? I told you, you're not meant for it."
"Ed, wait a minute—"
Al picked up the second letter and held it out. When Roy's gaze landed on it he realized this one wasn't in the official military typeface—and he recognized the handwriting.
This time he was a little more careful and managed to spare the letter from damage.
He skimmed the letter from General Grumman, then read it more closely. "Hm."
"Worth thinking about, isn't it?"
It seemed the landscape had changed when he wasn't looking.
Alphonse was looking entirely too pleased with himself. Roy eyed him. Regaining his memories had matured him almost over night, and the two and half years since had turned him into a self-contained, confident young man. At twelve, he'd been a force to be reckoned with. Now?
"What do you know of this?"
"I told you, I've been keeping up my correspondences." He gestured to the letters. "I can't ignore what's going on, either. But aside from that. . . ." He looked between them. "I knew it was only a matter of time. Brother is already getting restless—and I am, too—and Roy . . . you're not really happy unless you're useful."
Roy rubbed at the edge of one port as he let the words sink in.
"When did you get so devious?" Ed muttered. "Conspiring behind our backs. . . ."
Al laughed. "I'm not 'conspiring.' I just saw this coming. And may have . . . had a few exchanges with a few people."
Winry was leaning against the kitchen doorway, watching them all with a pensive expression on her face. "I was wondering when this would happen," she said. "It actually took longer than I thought it would."
"What d'you mean?" Ed asked.
"None of you lot are content sitting around. If this hadn't come up I might've had to kick you out myself. Before you started driving me and Granny crazy." The wistful edge to her smile betrayed her conflicted feelings. "But I'm warning you: if you don't keep me posted this time, I'll be coming after you. Each of you. Got it? Now come get supper before it gets cold."
Roy set the letter on the workbench and stood, looking between it and the formal letter. He certainly did have a lot to think about now.
Ed took his hand. He could feel the pressure and the contact of skin against the metal; nothing near the sensitivity of flesh, but enough. Carefully, gingerly, he closed his fingers, only turning to look after he'd completed the movement.
Ed was grinning at him. He jerked his head toward the military letters. "You know you would never get rid of me that easily."
Roy smirked. "Supernatural forces couldn't get rid of you."
"Well." His smile softened as he reached for Roy's other hand. The metal-to-metal contact was a different kind of sensation; he felt a sense of accomplishment that he could sort it all out now. "That's only 'cause you're a meddling bastard who wouldn't leave well enough alone."
His smile widened again. "And now you're stuck with me, Mustang."
Roy pulled him close, and leaned down to press their foreheads together. "What a horrible thought."
As crazy and frightening and uncertain as everything was right now, Roy was sure of one thing: he was never letting go.