part 3 of The Darkest Hour

Ed's eyes close, and Al leans his head against the covers, trying to gather the will to wield the knife.

If I do this, I'll be alone.

Al feels a surge of fury at himself. Stupid, selfish thought. I will do this, I promised. Just a few moments, he's allowing himself just a few moments before he's alone forever.

He draws his fingers through the strands of hair, lets them slither free and catches them up again, listening to Ed's painful breathing slow. If only he could have convinced—but his words were weak, because nothing, nothing he's done over the last months has succeeded. Try to take a chimera apart, and nothing living remains. He's taken so many apart, and made so many, and for nothing. Just his selfish cruelty, the same thing that has kept Ed here.

He can make a perfect chimera as easily as breathing, now. He's combined rats and snakes, mice and moths; had them slither or flutter in their cages in perfect health. Until he had put them in the circle again and reduced them to red mush. He can shape the living into anything he wants, just never take them apart. His breath catches, but his mind races on. He sits back on his heels, and looks at Ed. Al promises himself that he won't let Ed wake again to that, but he'll sleep for hours. There's time.

It had been difficult to get Ed down the stairs, and it seems an impossible prospect to get him up them alone, but there's not enough space here to draw the alchemic circle. He has to drag his brother in the end, trying not to sob at the damage he is doing, and the wet trail left on the stairs. He's killing his brother slowly, but he has already promised to do it quickly; what does it matter? Despair and desperation get him and Ed up the stairs and into Al's workroom. He arranges Ed in the middle of the floor and draws the circle, forcing himself to be slow and careful even though the insight is making him shake with hope.

Done, he goes and finds the stray kitten that has been begging for food at their door the last few days. It's so trusting when he opens the door; it rubs against him and purrs and runs eagerly to the food bowl. But he remembers his brother's broken body, and no matter how much he loves cats, he loves his brother a thousand times more.

He doesn't think anyone who hadn't seen the gate could do it; it almost terrifies him how the knowledge comes unbidden as he needs it, as he tears his brother apart. A hand with too many bones, twisted in the making, and the Gate whispers to him how to fray it to bits and remake it. A stretch of skin hardened, scaled and immobile, and it comes to him how to replace it with skin furred lightly. Has the Gate has been with him every day of his journey since the failed transmutation of their mother? Watching at the back of his mind?

He keeps going, does what the mad alchemist failed to do; not just merge, but winnow.

He can see them all in his mind's eye: the leopard, the lizard, the bat, the kitten he had drugged and laid in the circle himself, superimposed on, within his brother. He understands now that even if there had been a way of unmaking the transformation, his brother would not have survived; too much has been destroyed. He thinks he should have known that from the beginning; hasn't that always been the way of their lives, that they could not restore the past, but that they could press on and try to make the future better?

He keeps the image clear in his head of his brother, laughing in the sun the day before General Mustang had assigned them to investigate the alchemist. Strips away what does not fit, fills in what is lacking. There is a terrible dizzy moment when he realizes that for the moment his brother is not quite alive; is only an image in his head and a bloody melange kept from death by the flow of alchemical power. Is this what brother had felt as he held Al's soul in his hands and bound him to the armor? He will not fail, he swears, any more than his brother had. The image stays sharp in his head as the shimmering reaction collapses in on itself.

Flare, flicker, fade, and the circle is dark. What is around him is terrible, a spatter of fluid and torn lumps of flesh. What is before him is beautiful; his brother. Not exactly as he was; as Al pulls his brother into his arms, he can feel soft fine fur running down Ed's spine, and his reshaped jaw is more pointed than in memory. But two arms, and two eyes, and when he breathes it is smooth and even, not the wet and strained sound of malformed, multiple lungs.

Al sits in the circle, too tired to move. Strokes his brother's skin, and waits for Ed to wake and judge him.

Ed had not thought to wake again. In the first moment of renewed consciousness, he's angry, and despairing. Al promised. The pain was going to end, and the horror. How could Al betray him like this?

But the pain doesn't come with consciousness this time; Al's holding him, and it doesn't hurt. He doesn't feel right, sounds are too sharp and smells are everywhere, but when he lifts his hand, only one answers him and it's not twisted.

He touches his face, meets smooth skin, the line of unmarred bone. He says "Al?", and is distracted in wonder; he can speak, and it doesn't hurt. His tongue feels odd in his mouth, but it obeys him, not torn to shreds against the jutting teeth of many mouths crushed into one.

Al doesn't answer, though his face is pressed against Ed's back. Ed feels a shock of fear, and twists to look at his brother, terrified that Al has paid the price for Ed again. But Al is whole, and breathing, even if he won't look up to meet Ed's eyes until fingers curl under his chin and force his face up.

Those fingers feel odd; Ed flexes and realizes that tiny razor claws can slide out. They prick Al's skin, and he jerks and pulls away.

Ed reels him back in, whispering "Sorry."

Al hiccups a sob, and says "You are saying sorry?" He hides his face again, rubs it against Ed's bare shoulder. "I couldn't. I couldn't do it. I had to try, brother."

Ed pets him, feels again the wonder of his hands moving in proper obedience. "You fixed it."

"But I didn't really. You are still a chimera, brother. I couldn't undo it, I had to do more."

Ed starts to laugh. "Al. I lived half my life with half my body metal. You think I can't live the rest with half..." He flexes his hands again, feels the rasp of the tongue in his mouth, and guesses "" He turns his head, kisses the top of Al's head, and then lifts his brother's chin to kiss him properly, warm mouth to warm mouth.

He runs his tongue across Al's lips, pressing them open, and notes the pleasant shiver as Al reacts to the roughness. One last sob, and he's clinging to Ed, kissing back desperately with open mouth.

He feels the roughness of Al's shirt against his skin, and thinks for a moment about taking it off, stripping Al bare. But flesh-deep weariness is creeping up on him, and when he breaks the kiss a moment to breath, he sees with cat's vision in the dimness the shredded mess coagulating around the perimeter of the circle. That was me, he thinks, and shudders. He can almost recognize bits of it.

Al follows his line of vision, and stands up pulling Ed with him. There is a squawk of protest as Ed is slung over Al's shoulder, but the wet sound of Al's boots as he takes them out of the circle quiets Ed. Al lets him down once outside the circle and claps his hands once; crouches down to touch the circle, and it flares into flame, actinic white. The remains burn to ash almost too quick to leave a smell behind, but all the same Ed is happy to be gone, as Al leads him towards the stairs.

Al whispers in his ear "We'll find a new place to live. I don't want to remember this one." A nuzzle and a kiss. "A better place." There's a promise in it; a future no longer narrowed to a dark corridor of horror. Ed smiles to himself, and thinks of more than kisses.