This was no place for his Niisan.
This filthy hole in the ground, with oppressive barred windows and suffocating cement walls, with floors speckled with blood and grime and an odor of the unwashed that permeated the air was simply not where his Niisan should be.
True, he couldn't quite recall the Niisan that everyone else knew—couldn't recall the last five years of his life at all—but he remembered his brother, more than anyone in Central gave him credit for. Nobody seemed to realize that there had been at least ten years of bonding between them before they ever met Colonel Mustang, before they ever tried to bring their mother back to life and failed. And while he didn't know the Niisan that had been to hell and back again with a grin on his face, he knew his Niisan, and he knew that prison was not at all where he belonged.
Central's high security correctional facility lay on the outskirts of town, on a road that nobody talked about, on a street that wasn't often traveled. Al had lived in Central the last six years of his life and remembered living there the last two. He must have passed by the crossroads at least a thousand times on his way to headquarters and back, constantly pestering Colonel Hawkeye for leads and stories and photographs.
It took Alphonse all the self-restraint he had to not just kick himself when he thought about how many times he had passed his brother on that road, in that jail, right in Central, when he was so desperately looking for him all over the country of Amestris. That, truly, was irony at its finest.
Al followed along silently behind the guard, trying not to imagine his brother behind those bars, his brother in those shackles, his brother wearing the ugly, plain suit that so drastically betrayed his personality. Most of all, he tried not to imagine his brother's beautiful eyes turned hard and uncaring and dull, like everyone else's—guards and prisoners alike—had seemed to in this horrible place.
It was hard for Alphonse to walk these halls, because it seemed ridiculous to him that one should be so scared of a building. But he could imagine that the walls and floors and ceilings were paved with misery and sorrow, with freedom lost and nothing gained. Certainly, they were paved with retribution as well, because many of these people deserved to be here. But then there were people like his brother, who were falsely accused and falsely imprisoned, who had their names tainted by a crime they didn't commit—their souls tainted by the incredible sadness that wept through the walls and seeped through the skin.
His brother had done nothing wrong.
The guard seemed to lead him through an endless maze of twisting corridors and iron-clad doors. He didn't speak to Alphonse. Perhaps it was the nature of Edward's crimes that kept him silent. When the guard finally did speak, just after they stepped into a more narrow corridor where the air was stale and the ceiling leaked little green rivulets down the walls, it affirmed Alphonse's assumptions. Edward was on death row—he was a dangerous and hated criminal, imprisoned for the murder of thousands in Liore. Because of that, because of how utterly dangerous his brother was made out to be, it was only natural that people would get scared.
Alphonse thought of his brother, licking an ice cream cone and arguing with Winry over the superiority of chocolate to vanilla, and laughed a little.
"He's never had a visitor before. He's not 'sposed to you know. No one knows that he's here. And with what the papers say, I don't know why anyone would want to visit him," the guard choked out, and clasped his gun a little tighter. "He's a maniac, he is."
"No one except Mustang knew, you mean," Alphonse thought sadly.
"...No?" Alphonse mused. "Well, working here, you must have heard that his case is being reopened? Very soon now he'll have more visitors, I'm sure." The guard only winced.
Alphonse could perfectly recall the exchange from a few days ago. He had been rushed into Colonel Hawkeye's office by First Lieutenant Breda, (indeed, he had never seen the rotund man move quite so quickly) and he had a hopeful feeling in his gut that something good was in store for him, because he knew that if Ms. Hawkeye was bothered enough to send for him across town, in his own hotel room, at nine o'clock in the evening, something serious was bound to have happened. And since he wasn't even in the military, he knew that it must concern the only link between the military world and his own isolated one—Edward.
"Ah, Alphonse," she'd said pleasantly, cradling a file in the nook of her arm as if it were something precious. "We've been expecting you."
"Well. This is it." And the guard stopped abruptly, stood at attention, and waited, stock still, just before a heavy iron door clad with three heavy locks below a handle that he knew didn't exist on the other side. Alphonse smirked and thought slyly that locks couldn't stop his brother if he didn't want to be stopped. Walls couldn't stop his brother if he didn't want to be stopped. One flick of his automail wrist, and this guard would be down for the count.
"Alphonse. Do you remember how when we first met, I told you that I would put my all in to locating your brother, but...but you might not like it when I finally did?" Alphonse could remember his heart sinking a little at that.
Minutes passed, and the guard didn't make any indication that he was planning to unlock the door. He just stared intently at the patches of mismatched metal, expertly welded together into a door that was strong, unbreakable—and absolutely useless against his Niisan. Really, Alphonse thought, all that this door achieved was giving his brother more raw materials.
"Well...You're not going to like it."
"...What do you mean?" And then she had tossed him the file.
There were a few more wordless moments. Alphonse finally grew impatient. While before, he had been shuffling silently behind the man, waiting for him to take some kind of action and figuring that if he had waited two years to meet his brother, he could wait a few more minutes, this was simply too much to bear. Alphonse wanted to be with his Niisan now.
"Well?" Alphonse urged. "Are we going in or aren't we?"
The guard winced slightly before looking in Alphonse's direction, and then slowly took a large ring of keys off of his belt loop, absently fumbling with them. Alphonse knew immediately which keys went with his brother's lock. They were large and gold, just like the lock on the door and just like his brother's eyes. But the guard seemed oblivious, went on mumbling to himself, and passed the gold keys at least twice before Alphonse intervened and, politely as he could muster, pointed out the correct keys on the ring. The guard pouted a bit before conceding to the fact that he was right, even though Alphonse had a sneaking suspicion that the guard was just trying to buy himself time.
"Sir..." Alphonse whispered so as not to startle the poor man. "You don't need to worry. He won't hurt me, so he won't hurt you." The man didn't seem convinced.
"I've never been in here. He's never had a visitor before. I only escort visitors. That's my job." And the guard's knuckles turned white around the gun in his left hand even as his right fumbled with the three golden keys.
"Prison?! That can't be!"
"Yes. It seems he was taken right out from under our noses in the chaos of Liore, just before we found you and you were still unconscious. His trial was a big military secret, a mockery of the law, and it seems that Colonel Mustang—he knew about it."
"I need to see him!" Hawkeye had smirked, and something in him had told him that it was familiar.
"I thought you might say that," and her smirk had broken into a full-fledged grin.
The door swung open with a deep, unremarkable groan to reveal a similarly unremarkable cell, lined with the same mismatched metal. In the half of the cell he could see, bedecked modestly with a toilet, sink, and tiny reading desk that shouldn't have been gathering dust if it was indeed his brother that lived there, he couldn't see his brother. But he knew, even before the door opened completely, that his Niisan would be there—the Niisan that everyone told him about. An unstoppable ball of burning fury—a genius who had returned him to the body of a healthy fifteen year old boy. His Niisan.
"I found his name in some of Mustang's old files, not too long ago. From there, I was able to piece it together. We're not sure why they want him alive, but I know that he still is, and through some of Mustang's old connections, I've gained permission for a visitor."
But he wasn't. The door groaned to a halt and the guard stepped inside ahead of him, still trembling a bit with every step. Al looked around, not even attempting to be discreet as he searched for his brother drawing an array or clapping his hands somewhere. It was vaguely surprising that he hadn't yet come bounding out of some shadow. The guard, however, surprised him further by making a beeline for a lump sprawled across the bed in the far corner. He then proceeded to shake the figure roughly, with the gun barrel pointing ominously at the now-squirming lump.
Alphonse had taken another glance at the file then and realized with a start—"He's...he's on death row?"
"Yes. But we're going to help him, Alphonse. Now that the military is under new jurisdiction, we have the authority to reopen his case and give him a fair trial. There's no way they can convict him. I'm almost sure of it."
"In the meantime, I think it's only fair that his visitor be you. There is no doubt in my mind he's missed you as much as you've missed him, and I bet he could use some comfort right now."
"Hey, Elric," he said gruffly, and Alphonse ignored that the man had been whimpering mere moments before. "Visitor."
Alphonse peered warily at the shifting sheets, still glancing around the room for his real brother, because in all his dreams, Edward never, ever slept.
"I hear that they have to sedate him," the guard provided. "Keeps him and the staff sane and out of trouble." Alphonse nodded absently, distracted by the quiet shuffling of sheets on the bed.
And then the sun rose. It didn't seem possible, in a tiny cell with no windows and one dingy lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, but it did. It peeked from beneath the dirty green landscape and its light spread across the room, like nothing he'd ever seen before.
And all that Alphonse wanted to do was run to the sun, to embrace it and make it glow even brighter. But when it emerged completely from its hideaway beneath the surface of the Earth, he could see that its light was dim, and he feared going to it, lest he snuff its light forever with his enthusiastic embrace.
And then the impossible happened.
It spoke to him.
"Al...Alphonse?" It was hesitant, soft, almost disbelieving. It was a voice that was scratchy and hoarse with disuse, far, far deeper than Al ever remembered it being, but it was indeed his brother's voice. But, upon looking closer at the figure drowning in a sea of bed sheets, Al realized that the voice seemed to be the only thing familiar to him.
This simply wasn't the brother he imagined.
This couldn't be his Niisan.
"Alphonse?" The voice in the impersonator's body came again, more hopeful this time. The guard stepped aside, walked nervously off to the other side of the room to aim his pistol at them both from a more safe distance, and Alphonse saw his brother in full, for the first time in nearly two years (though it seemed like so much longer).
It wasn't the fact that his brother looked so much older that had Al spooked. He had expected that—anticipated it, even. It would be interesting to see the brother in the photographs in person. Plus, he must look older to his brother as well.
But what he hadn't expected was that his brother would look so incredibly—so incredibly broken.
Edward was hopelessly thin, and Alphonse wondered vaguely when he had last eaten. His cheekbones were prominent and shadowed the hollows of his cheeks. He was indeed swimming in his gray uniform, and even though what little he could see of Ed's left arm indicated that there had once been rippling muscles covering his wire-thin frame, two years spent in a half-aware state, laying sedated, immobile, and helpless in a prison cell bed had whittled them away to practically nothing.
He was missing an arm. Alphonse knew, logically, that his brother was missing two limbs. He knew that the automail was what gave his Niisan his second name.
But it was one thing to hear about the metal arm and leg and look at pictures in Mrs. Hughes' scrapbook, but it was quite another to see the empty sleeve and concaved bed sheets where a second leg should have been.
His other arm hung uselessly at his side, no doubt another side effect of sedative, because even sitting up seemed a monumental task for his brother. There was no doubt in Al's mind that the drug was meant to hamper Ed's fine motor skills and prevent him from drawing an array.
There were dark circles beneath his eyes, and his eyelids seemed unbearably heavy. Even his hair, their mother's golden pride and joy, was limp and greasy, covering his pale, pale—almost blue—face like a dirty blanket.
Edward was like a rag doll right now. Alphonse could have knocked him over with a flick of his index finger. He could have (wanted to) lift him up and shake him, demand to know what he had done with the real Edward, because this weakling wasn't him.
"Al?" That familiar tone was laced with uncertainty now. Uncertainty...and hurt?
And then Al looked up, looked straight into the depths of those golden orbs, and found there a fire that he hadn't seen in anyone else's since he entered this building. He saw a light that, clouded though it may have been by drugs and misery and loneliness, was still there and burning brightly.
He smiled, reassuringly, and took a step toward his brother, "Yeah, Niisan. It's me." Edward's smile was breathtaking.
"Al, you don't know how much I've missed you. Every day, every goddamn minute I'm awake I think about you, and then I close my eyes, and...and you're in my dreams, Al." Edward colored and Al heard his voice growing stronger. "You're the only thing that's kept me alive."
With that, Alphonse felt himself flooded with an overwhelming sense of self-loathing for ever thinking that his brother was weak, for ever doubting that this was his brother at all. Because this boy may not have been perfect, may not have been what he was expecting when he stepped into the cool, steel prison minutes before, but there was an unconditional love in his heart that Al found in his own too after Ed's last statement, and he was ashamed that he ever thought limbs or strength were more important than the pure love that existed between them.
"Niisan, I..." And even after this wonderful enlightenment, he still wasn't able to embrace his Niisan as he properly should. Because Edward was fragile, and Al feared smashing him like the porcelain vase that had sat on their mantlepiece at home, once upon a time.
Edward gave him a hurt look, and Al bit his lip.
"Al, get the hell over here." Edward smiled gently, and all reasonable thought escaped him.
And it was a good thing that the guard had retreated to the other side of the room, because nothing could have stood between him and his brother at that point, and Alphonse would have gladly plowed the guard into the ground.
But when he crashed into his brother's chest, buried his head in the dirtied prison uniform, smelled the stale air and terrible odor adorning his brother's person, he felt at home, and he knew that this was where he belonged.
"Niisan," he choked. "I looked for you. Everywhere. All over Amestris. And I hate that you were right here under my nose." Edward didn't move to return the heartfelt embrace, but that was okay, because Al could see his brother was tired and probably not all there, still partially paralyzed by a drug that had robbed him of two years of life. "No one knew you were here."
"Hell, I didn't even know I was in jail for my first three days I was here." Al looked up and saw that his eyes had grown hard, steeled at the thought of his own robbed freedom. "I was a scapegoat, Al. The government wanted someone to blame for the lives of the soldiers in Liore," he whispered. "I guess I was the best available candidate."
The guard across the room snorted at that, and Al threw him the best glare that he could muster.
"I thought it would be public though. I'm surprised...they...they didn't tell anyone? It didn't appear in any of the papers?" Alphonse quieted at that.
"They blamed you, Niisan. They did. All of the deaths in Liore were pinned on you, but the government reported that your whereabouts were unknown." Alphonse grinned a little. "It made searching for you difficult...one mention of your name and everyone closes their shutters."
Edward smirked, "We could clear a room, no problem, eh?" Alphonse muffled a pained choke in Edward's scruffy shirt and Edward took the opportunity to rest his chin atop Al's head, the best he could do to show affection with his somewhat limited mobility.
"Was it terrible for you?" Alphonse whispered.
"Was what terrible?"
That, Alphonse concluded, had to be the world's stupidest question.
"The trial, the imprisonment—everything! I want to know everything!"
"Ah...well...from the beginning then. The trial...well, it wasn't really a trial. It was more a...formal gathering of impressive-looking people that I didn't know, sneering at me from pedestals and dooming me to death," Edward recalled.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that alone."
"But I knew that you were human again, Al. That alone put me on cloud nine for the first month I was here." Then something seemed to dawn on his brother. "Plus, I wasn't alone at the trial. Mustang was there." Alphonse stiffened. He knew the name "Mustang" very well, if only from hearing it in Hawkeye's office. They mentioned it occasionally, always smiled when they did, and they had told him countless times that Mustang loved them, would have and did do anything for their well-being. Alphonse had never met the man, but he certainly did admire him. "He came charging into the room and demanded my release. Count on Mustang to know the military's deepest secrets, eh Al?" Alphonse carefully avoided telling his brother that he didn't know Mustang, not really. His brother really didn't need to know that he had lost his memory. That could come later. Al merely bobbed his head once against Edward's chest and tried not to seem guilty.
"But...but why wouldn't he tell you where I was?"
"He did...he did promise that he was coming back."
"Oh, he was amazing, Al. You would have been so happy to see him defending me like that. I think he was the only one to figure out what really happened, y'know?" "Niisan, about Mr. Mustang..."
"And right before he left, he gave me a hug..." Edward sighed wistfully. "And he told me everything was going to be fine. Told me to behave myself while he was away."
"Niisan, there's something you should know." Edward sobered and glanced downward as Al maneuvered himself away from Edward's chest at last.
"What is it Al? Is that why you're here? Did Mustang send you!?" Alphonse could have cried. Who was he to take away his brother's hope?
"Niisan, the Colonel..." Most unexpectedly, the guard cut in to relieve Alphonse of his burden.
"Colonel Roy Mustang, The Flame Alchemist, was murdered just a week after Major Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist, was reported missing in action. Or did no one tell you, Elric?" Alphonse immediately flinched, because this couldn't be the guard that was wincing and terrified moments ago. It quickly became apparent that Alphonse hadn't been the only one surprised by his brother's sorry state. This man had obviously been expecting a raging, thrashing maniac when he came in earlier, and when he found nothing but a tired, lonely, disabled teenager, he had suddenly become a lot more courageous.
What an absolute coward.
Alphonse spun on the man and fixed him with an infuriated glare. "This doesn't concern you!"
But the damage was done. Alphonse felt his heart absolutely break as his brother's face fell and his smile crumbled. "No. No that can't be. Mustang is fine, isn't he? He'll keep his promise."
"I'm sorry, Niisan, but Colonel Mustang was killed. The investigation into his murder closed over a year ago. I was still unconscious from the transmutation when it all happened." He gently touched his brother's scalp and began picking at the knots in his hair, wondering idly of the repercussions involved with punching a guard. Ed meanwhile fell against the wall near the head of his bed, muttering.
"It was my fault, Al. He was only trying to defend me."
All of Alphonse's alarms flashed, and he quickly sat again by his brother. He had heard about Edward's overactive guilt complex, about the way he nearly tore himself apart for what he did to Alphonse. Mrs. Hughes had confided in him that Edward convinced himself he was responsible for her husband's death as well, and that he confronted her about it and apologized himself hoarse. It wouldn't do to let Ed get worked up over this.
"Oh no, no, no, no, no Niisan. Please don't do this to yourself."
"It was the government quieting him, and you know it Alphonse—"
"You're not making any—"
"They didn't want anyone else in the military to know that I was here! They didn't want it reaching the higher-ups or the civilians because they knew that it would cause an uproar! Mustang knew more than he should have, and they killed him!"
"Niisan, calm down. Here, have some water." He grabbed for a glass of clear water resting on the iron bedside table and brought it to his brother's lips. Then he tried to placate his brother as best he could, touching his hair and face, running a soothing hand up and down his back. He could feel every rib through the rough fabric. "Won't you please just listen to me? I don't know how much time I have." But Edward was curling in on himself, collapsing onto the bed as if the drug had exhausted him all over again.
"I can't take it...I can't... Won't you stay with me?" He mumbled. "I don't want to be alone again." Damn, how many times could his brother break his heart in one sitting?
"You know I can't do that."
"It's good that I'm here. I can't kill anyone when I'm here." Damn, his brother really was getting drowsy again. Al shot an incriminating glance at the water on the bedside table.
"Edward just try to listen to me. You and I obviously need to have a talk, but right now, I think that all you need to know is that there's a new Fuhrer and your case is going to be made public. Colonel Hawkeye is going to reopen it, and there's no way they can convict you in a proper court, Niisan. There's not enough evidence. Just please...please be on your best behavior." He really hoped Edward heard that—especially the last bit.
But Edward closed his eyes and mumbled, "I only used the stone...I didn't ask him to kill all those people. I would have stopped him if I could, Al, I would have." And there was no indication that he knew what Alphonse had said.
"Oh, Edward..." He pulled the ugly green sheets to his Niisan's neck and gently laid a kiss on his brother's forehead. "I'll be back for you. Everything is going to be fine."
"Sounds familiar." A yawn. "G'night, Al."
"Goodnight, Niisan." It was a testament of the drug's strength that Edward's breathing changed, evened and shallowed, almost immediately. He couldn't bring himself to leave just yet though, and he toyed with Edward's hair, studied that familiar-but-not face and wished desperately that this conversation could have lasted longer.
There was so much he wanted to know.
But the guard's hand was on his shoulder and he let the himself be led backwards out of the cell, eyes never leaving his brother's sleeping form until the door's great metallic thunk shook him awake and out of that dreamworld.
Before turning to leave, he made his Niisan another silent promise of his return—and just to be sure, he left a little piece of his soul in that cell as collateral.
Since Alphonse's visit a few days back, the bastard warden had lain off a bit on the sedatives. Perhaps he had finally figured out, two wasted years too late, that Ed wasn't stupid enough to try anything, that he didn't want to be in trouble with the state, that he had accomplished his goal and he really didn't care what they did to him at this point as long as they didn't touch his little brother. That was all he ever really wanted to begin with.
Edward wasn't sure if he was pleased with this new development or not. Certainly, he was glad to have more awareness of the world around him. It was wonderful to wake up in the morning—to truly wake up. For two years, waking up had felt rather like drowning; he was floating at the bottom of some deep pool, surrounded by cloying, choking, murky water. It was painful to rise to the surface and the world around him was pressing down too hard, so he let himself sink to the bottom and just forget to breathe. But one morning, he rose to the surface, saw the sun, inhaled a deep lungful of air, and it felt amazing .
Now that the novelty of wakefulness had spent its worth, however, the stifling boredom and heightened awareness of everything around him set in with a vengeance, and each day found him becoming increasingly restless. The gurgling in his stomach roared to ear-splitting decibels and though they fed him (relatively) regularly, it never seemed to be enough. Somewhere deep in his gut was an angry, pulsing hunger that wanted more and more and more, wanted him to eat and never stop eating.
On top of that was the horrible, stifling boredom. One of the guards, he suspected, had lost some sort of relative in Liore and had a special kind of cruel grudge that led him to leave books perched in various places around the cell—places that he knew a vertically challenged eighteen-year-old who happened to be missing a leg could not reach. And it was frustrating to say the least, to have it mere centimeters away from his desperately grasping fingers. It became about ten times more frustrating when he realized that they were watching him, that there were cameras and holes all over his cell that allowed them to see him struggling to reach, slapping his whole body flush against a wall and groping just to acquire some semblance of entertainment.
It had been downright painful when the guard came in later that evening with his dinner, casually removed the book from its perch atop a ventilation duct, and fanned Ed with it, revealing quite decidedly blank pages. Ed hadn't thrown a fit, he merely allowed his dinner plate to slip from his lap and onto the floor that evening, eyes gleaming with satisfaction as he watched the guard crouching to clean the mess and griping of a sore back all the while. And that night, Ed convinced himself that that the mind-numbing hunger that didn't allow him sleep was worth it, if only because of the expression on that guard's face as the mashed potatoes sullied his shiny black shoes.
The worst thing by far about Ed's recently rejuvenated state was that he was seeing things, that day after day he received visits that weren't possible from people who needn't use the door for their lack of physical...well... existence.
Most of the time, it was Roy. That bastard was smarmy and smirky and clever even when Ed dreamed him up, and it hurt Ed to see him waltz through that door so casually every day, not bothering to use the handle (or the hinges) to talk to him. It shouldn't have hurt, because the things he said were not painful. Mostly, he was sincere and conversational, asking Ed what he had been doing recently (nothing, I'm in jail you bastard), what the weather was like (I haven't seen the sun in two years, jackass), how Al was doing (better off without me, I'm sure). Many times, he talked about himself and that was painful too, because those words were recycled from memories of long ago that he treasured now that they were gone, and hearing them come from this illusion's mouth seemed a bit like desecrating the bastard's grave.
"I had a date with Grace this evening, Fullmetal. She told me that you were an adorable little boy; isn't that funny? I don't suppose you'd like to meet her, would you? Women do appreciate a sensitive man."
Lips quirk. Eyes spark. And Ed fell to pieces every time.
Damn it all, he missed the man.
In the beginning, he had found himself desperately trying to avoid the conversation. After a bit of wheedling, Mustang usually retreated into some dark corner of his subconscious. But later, after he had succumbed to the fact that the gut-wrenching hunger and mind-numbing boredom were conspiring against him to make him simply miserable, he found that talking to this Mustang wasn't all that bad.
So he did—most days, until the occurrence just became normal in his mundane daily routine. Breakfast at eight, meeting with a dead man at ten—bout of guilt-ridden tears and tirades to follow—unch at noon, and dinner at six. There would, of course, be the occasional unscheduled bathroom break or book-seeking escapade, and if the bastard didn't show up, his time slot was replaced with a nice, long, soothing session of counting the bolts in the wall.
No one could say that Edward Elric didn't have an utterly fulfilling life.
It shouldn't have surprised him that if the guards saw him reaching for that damnable book, they heard him talking to Mustang too. Before long, there was a book on his nightstand to accompany his breakfast. Ed had looked at it for a moment, disbelief flitting over his features and then a sense of suspicion joining the mix. These were the guards, his sworn enemies, and here they were offering him a lovely, red, leather-bound tome. Something just wasn't right. But before long, he forgot his suspicions in his desperate need for some form of stimulation. He hurriedly snatched the book and cradled it against his chest, stealing glances around the cell and just daring anyone to relieve him of his newfound treasure.
There was no title on the book, but there was a page marked with a satiny blue ribbon. Ed opened to that page, crooned in delight if only because his greasy hair was begging to be tied back and now he finally had the means to do so. How could the guards be so—
His eyes skimmed the title on the marked page.
Absolute horror kept him reading, utter disbelief stopped him from slamming the book shut then and there. And while his frantic fervor only allowed him to pick out certain words, they were enough for everything to come together in a wave of one terrible realization after another.
Most often leads to severe physical and mental addiction—
May feel insatiable appetite—
There was a laugh from somewhere far off.
Ed groaned then, anguish and disbelief and hatred, and wanted only for his tortured body to let him drift off to sleep. But alas, he closed his eyes, felt like drowning, and his hunger would not be satisfied.
Were it not for Colonel Hawkeye, Alphonse would have been lost in inner workings of the Amestris legal system long ago. There were too many loopholes and rat traps, too many places he could get snagged and lose his way. It was unfair and terrifying to think that his brother had to face this confusing sea of laws and bylaws and paragraphs alone nearly two years prior. He admired Colonel Mustang for what he did—or rather, tried to do—for his brother, because it was such an amazing, beautiful, (stupid) sacrifice—just so his brother could go free, just so his brother wouldn't be by himself. Hearing the way his Niisan referred to the embrace he received from his superior officer, he valued it more than he would ever admit. He must have drawn strength from Mustang's courage then, and Alphonse took it upon himself to do the same. He was, after all, attempting something similar. He was just going about it in a much more cool-headed, methodical manner (even if his emotions were itching to shove common sense aside) and it was reassuring to know that, thanks to Hawkeye, the law was on their side this time.
Only a day after he had seen Edward at his very worst, Hawkeye sent the information to the public in the form of an enormous, front-page story in the Central Times simply titled, "Fullmetal Military Scandal." Under the headline was a black and white picture of Edward, scowling and impatient, tongue wiggling out of the corner of his mouth, and a row of numbers balanced in one flesh hand. His prison mug shot. It made Alphonse laugh to look at, because even in the face of this, his Niisan looked confident, if not a bit irritated, that ever-present fire in his eyes glimmering and reflecting the burning brightness of the camera's flashbulb. Below that was a lengthy story detailing the conditions of his detainment and the date of his retrial, along with some heavily biased opinions regarding his innocence. It didn't particularly matter to him that this article was biased though, because it was so in his favor—his and his Niisan's. The Central Times certainly must have known what they were publishing, must have known that it was one of the most slanderous, incriminating articles that Alphonse had ever seen in print—because it sold.
Making such an accusation of the former Fuhrer was juicy gossip and it had all the housewives clucking hours after the release of the article. The world knew of the Fullmetal Alchemist—Amestris loved the Fullmetal Alchemist—and paper sales certainly reflected that. The next day, special editions of the Central Times were shipped to cities across the country. Rizenbul and Dublith, East and West and South City all heard that the Fullmetal Alchemist was alive but incarcerated, was accused of heinous crimes against the state and the military. And it seemed odd to Al that only days before, no one had even known his brother was alive.
The article was written by an "unknown" source, but reading it, Alphonse immediately recognized the smooth, efficient military clip of Colonel Hawkeye's writing. He was also amused to find that he could tell where Havoc had added his own less-than-eloquent input to the story. It didn't matter who had written it though, because the story was true down to the letter, and it put the public exactly where they wanted them with a sort of smooth, anonymous efficiency that only Hawkeye could accomplish.
The men in the office said she was more like Mustang everyday, and Alphonse really wished that he didn't have to take their word for it.
The funniest part of it was that the article declared the date of his brother's trial. Alphonse knew, however, that before the article was released, there hadn't been a trial date. Hawkeye had taken the idea to the higher-ups, certainly, and it surprised them to learn that Edward Elric was indeed alive and well—but they weren't interested (nor, it seemed, compassionate) enough to alert the people to an enormous scandal right under the military's nose. But as soon as the media was involved, as soon as the whole country was clamoring for the military to confirm their attempt to rectify the Fullmetal Scandal, the trial date was finalized and the Fuhrer himself promised to preside.
This was probably what Hawkeye had been expecting.
Hell, this was exactly what she had planned and Alphonse knew it. Tricky, manipulative woman.
Later that week, after Alphonse had received excited calls from both the Rockbells and his Sensei, he felt that there was one more person who ought to know the good news. So he got an address from Fuery and set off to the quiet, out-of-the-way cemetery where the legendary Flame Alchemist had been put to rest.
Mustang hadn't been provided with a military funeral. In the wake of the Liore tragedy, there had been over seven thousand other men who needed them just as badly—if not more so. Roy Mustang, after all, had no family. Who would have attended?
Once he got there, it took him quite some time to find the headstone. It was little different from the thousands of others, after all. The only things that changed from stone to stone besides the occasional chip or crack were the names, dates, and titles beneath. When he did come upon it (absolute luck he would recall, thinking about it some days later) it was plain and gray, exactly what he had expected. But he kneeled before it, touched his hands to the earth, touched his lips to the stone and thanked the man beneath him in every way he knew how.
"I'm told that you saved us," he whispered against the stone, laying the newspaper announcing Edward's retrial on the ground. "I'm sorry we couldn't do the same for you." With that, he climbed to his feet, memorizing the entirely inadequate memorial in one final glance. "Thank you."
And he left, because it wouldn't do to be late to a meeting with the Fuhrer.
Nearly a week after Edward had been off the influence of whatever the hell those bastards had drugged him up with, he started to get jittery and nauseous. He figured that they had been giving him less and less every day in an attempt to make the sudden lack of the drug less of a shock to his system. He supposed he could thank them for that, at least, but really, it hadn't helped much. Once the water stopped tasting funny (was he just so used to it that he hadn't noticed?) every symptom of withdrawal detailed in that godforsaken book started to rear its ugly head.
He was irritable and tired; he was sore and his stomach constantly threatened send his food right back where it came from. Just getting a cup to his mouth had become a challenge for how much his hands were shaking, and he couldn't for the life of him get a good night's sleep. He almost preferred the mind-numbing boredom.
"Not up yet, Fullmetal? For shame. You need to eat your breakfast."
Despite the fact that Edward was feeling more and more like absolute shit with each passing day, his hallucinations were never, ever late.
"G'way," he mumbled irritably into his flat pillow, brow furrowing in annoyance and head pounding in time with the beat of his heart. "I was almost asleep."
"Ah, but I have something I do believe you will enjoy reading," the hallucination mused smugly, and if Edward had been bothered enough to look up, he knew the bastard's eyes would have been glinting. And then there was something solid thrown on the bed next to him, which was odd, because Roy wasn't solid, couldn't hold anything solid, couldn't get anything solid through a closed door. Curiosity piqued, he slowly turned over and felt around, unwilling to open his eyes just yet because he knew that he would be barraged with unwelcome light, and he didn't think his headache could take something like that just then.
He stopped abruptly when his hand fell upon something dry and smooth, and he ventured a look when he determined that it was a newspaper, something he hadn't seen in nearly two years. The enormous, bold headline glared at him as soon as he cracked his eyelids, and it only made his eyes open wider in surprise.
"Fullmetal Military Scandal" - it was perhaps the most exciting thing he had seen in all his life (besides a red glow from within an empty suit of armor). Hell, Edward could have cried right then and there, regardless of who was watching (be it a hallucination or guard), because they had come through for him—someone out there was still thinking of him, someone out there remembered that his life still had meaning.
So, he found it odd when the first thing out of his mouth was, "Not the most flattering picture of me."
Mustang smirked and sauntered to Ed's side, glancing at the photograph in question over his shoulder. "Oh, I don't know—I think the tongue is a nice element. Makes it look as if you're concentrating." Ed snorted, then remembered he was speaking with someone who technically didn't exist, and busied himself with reading the article—a daunting task when his hands refused to cease in their endless shaking.
He wondered absently if chills were another symptom of withdrawal that the book had overlooked, because damn—t was freezing in here. But then there was a wisp of white floating up in front of him, and he realized that he could see his breath. Not just him, then.
"Hey Mustang, why don't you make yourself useful and find the goddamn thermostat. If you can bring me a newspaper, I'm sure you could handle turning a knob." Mustang gave him an unexpectedly warm smile, and a blanket fell over Ed's shoulders. Ed's eyes, if it were possible, got even wider.
"Better?" He inquired softly. Edward's head, seemingly of it's own volition, bobbed once in an attempted nod. "Good."
Mustang visited Ed often. He talked, he smirked, he laughed, he taunted. He had never, however, interacted with anything tangible, with anything real. That particular aspect of this visit had Ed extremely puzzled. Edward's scientific thought processes quickly produced two possible hypotheses. The first, and far more likely, was that the rest of Edward's senses had decided to play tricks with him, if only so the sense of sight wouldn't be lonely. The second was...
The second was...
"Don't be offended, Fullmetal, but I do believe you've already said that."
"Mustang." And the last was said as a statement, solid proof to Ed that he was either going insane or that his hallucinations had taken on more of Mustang's quirks than they ever had before. And there was a glint in Mustang's eye as he crouched before Edward, smiling gently and nodding.
"Are you...you're real?" Mustang sucked in a deep breath at that, absently patting the knees of his tailored, gray suit. Another inconsistency—Edward had never seen Mustang in this outfit—all of his hallucinations wore a tidy military uniform. All of his hallucinations wore what he remembered Mustang wearing.
And how could they not? Hallucinations did, after all, originate in his mind—portrayed what he remembered about the man. As such, the Mustang hallucination was a man with a two-dimensional personality, because in all truth, Edward didn't know much about Mustang as a man outside his position as a Colonel.
"Not precisely, no." Edward felt his heart crush and tear to pieces.
Of course he couldn't be real, Ed reprimanded himself, you killed him. Ed's face flushed, in embarrassment, in anger, in an overwhelming amount of self-loathing that he hadn't been able to focus on properly since jitters and nausea had dominated his daily life.
"Please don't be, Edward."
"Shut up!" He squawked. "I did this to you! It's my fault, dammit! Let me take the blame!" It's something I need to do. It's something I've always done.
"I'm afraid I can't do that. Everything I did, I did for you, of my own free will."
Edward said nothing, lost in his own thoughts, mind struggling to interpret all of the evidence Roy had given him and all the evidence he had given himself as to what the hell was going on. But it was hard to concentrate; his head still throbbed mercilessly, he was still freezing, and there was still bile creeping up the back of his throat.
Hallucinations. He concluded uncertainly, eyes falling on the book resting beside him. What kind of a sick bastard am I? I want the Colonel to come here and comfort me for my sins. This is nothing but another drug-induced adventure into my twisted subconscious.
"Hey, now, Edward," Mustang's image murmured placatingly.
Edward's mind still turbulently debated and compared despite his last conclusion, ricocheting back and forth between facts, trying to be in control of the situation as it always had, wanting to know everything as it always had. But this was just too much, and Edward felt that his brain was approaching critical mass.
It seemed much easier, at that point, to hand the reigns of his actions over to his far less rational emotions.
"Why are you here?! Why can't you just stay the hell away from me?!" This statement, quite unintentionally, ended in a heart-wrenching sob, and Ed hated himself for letting this get to him. It was as if he was a child, fucking twelve years old again, and he was standing in front of a desk that had absolutely no right to look so damn big. And then behind it was the smirking, condescending Colonel, all dark hair and gleaming eyes—provoking and distracting, pushing and shoving in all the right directions. He was a child and he was arguing with a man who had become and would be a constant in his life—who was so mighty, he thought he might live forever—
This image wearing Roy's face shouldn't be getting to him.
But it never has before. One side of him argued. This man is more than that.
"I hate you!" He cried desperately, willing it to be true with his very heart and soul. The Colonel heard the uncertainty lacing the tone, though, and he inched closer to the bed. Edward shifted his gaze to watch his progress, noting with dismay that he didn't cast a shadow, and his brown loafers made no noise as they inched across cold metal floor.
Suddenly, there was a weight on his hand. It was mind-numbingly cold and Ed felt as if his very joints were being coated in a fine layer of frost.
He vaguely wondered if his bones would shatter.
But he didn't move his hand.
"Alphonse is gorgeous, Edward," Mustang whispered. At first, Edward took that entirely wrong, got an absurd mental picture of Alphonse and Mustang having at it on the Colonel's unnecessarily large wooden desk. It took him a moment to realize that what he said hadn't been small talk, what he said hadn't been recycled from his mind's eye, what he had said was real and genuine and heartwarming and—FUCK! Ed let out a miserable, strangled wail and buried his face in his hand, bringing his knee to his chest and doing his best to imitate one of the roly poly bugs from under the stones outside Winry's old house.
"Mustang, I see you all the time. You're not real. You're not alive," he muttered into his knee. But at this point, it was all some sort of charade. They were dancing the same dance they had when he was a child—each bowing and stepping forward but refusing to take one another's hands.
"I'm not alive Edward, and I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry for what they put you through, too." He reached up, gently, and combed through Edward's bangs with nimble fingertips. Edward shuttered, exhaled a large cloud of white and could almost feel his lips turning blue.
"Don't be sorry for me, I got what I wanted. I got everything I wanted at the cost of your life... The only thing that I can't help hating, is that I don't know what's real anymore! Those bastards doped me up and didn't bother to read the label, and now I still think I'm dreaming! Hell, I know I am. What are you supposed to be...a ghost?!" Ed ranted, steeling himself against Mustang's icy touch. Not ice, Mustang shouldn't be ice. "Ghosts don't exist. You know I don't believe in them," Edward hissed. Mustang was never ice—Mustang was fire.
"Oh?" Roy cocked his elegant eyebrow in mock curiosity and Edward bit his frozen lower lip. "A Miss Gracia Hughes confided in me that you believed you saw an image of Maes, waving at you from a train platform, days after his death. Did you believe in that?" Mustang's voice stayed eerily level, but Edward could hear the gravity, the firmness in his tone. "Do you truly believe that if you can attach a soul to a suit of armor, that if you could physically grasp your brother's soul in the gate, that the mind and soul aren't something just as tangible as the human form!?"
Edward let out another pathetic little sob and clutched his knee tighter. "I don't know, you bastard! D'you hear me!? I just don't KNOW anymore!"
Mustang sighed heavily. "Edward, I didn't come to upset you. I came to tell you that it wasn't your fault, that you didn't kill me. I came to tell you that I loved you, I still love you, and I would have given a thousand lifetimes to see you alive with your brother. Please don't let your time go to waste." This image said he knew Edward, and truly, Edward believed him. The quirks and personality were all there and all strong, but the words coming out of this man's mouth just seemed entirely wrong. There was so much of Mustang that he didn't know, and Edward hated that now that he finally had gotten to see a softer side of the smug bastard, it was just too late. "Your brother gave me a visit and that knowledge, along with the fact that you always were a well-oiled guilt machine back in your glory days was enough to tell me that you would blame yourself. You always blame yourself." I need to blame myself. "Don't."
"I just...I hate that I felt betrayed when you never came back," Edward admitted to his knee, with whom he had apparently become very close friends. "I wanted to hate you for a while, you know. You promised. "
"I know," he ran a (non-existent!) hand through his (non-existent!) hair, mouth suddenly a tight line. "I hated that I couldn't come back too. But how were you to know what happened, Ed? You shouldn't feel guilty for things that are out of your control."
"Was what me?"
"Oh, certainly not. I'm not capable of something so eloquent. It was me, however, who left the trail of breadcrumbs to your prison cell—and some very good evidence in the form of your handwriting. In the top drawer of my file cabinet. No doubt Hawkeye will find that, as well." He winked, and Edward's gut clenched uncomfortably. He was reminded vaguely of another man who had lost his life for him. "Riza did take longer than expected following those crumbs, though." He shrugged. "No matter, all's well that ends well. My faithful team will see that you are among free men as soon as humanly possible."
There was a companionable silence.
"He is gorgeous, wasn't he?" Edward blurted out breathlessly, excited now, as if it were something he had been itching to ask. "He's perfect."
"You did wonderfully, Edward. You truly did. Always a prodigy, always brave," Mustang smiled, and Edward could detect a hint of pride lurking beneath the surface. "I," a pause, and the firm gentleness of his tone was back again. "I was finally able to see what you were up against—what you saw all those times you ventured beyond the realm of the living."
Edward inhaled deeply and closed his eyes, fighting back memories of clawing hands and grasping fingers, swallowing his nausea in one fluid gulp.
"Oh yeah? And?"
"It scared me shitless, for lack of a more eloquent term," he smiled again. "And I'm in my thirties."
Ed merely shrugged.
"Speaking of the gate, Shrimp, I should probably be on my way. People to see, you know," and he moved to stand.
"NO!" Mustang paused, his expression pained. "I..."
—don't want you to leave me.
—don't want to be alone.
—love you too.
"...am not a shrimp." It was difficult to think that if Mustang left now, Edward would never see him again.
Suddenly everything was far too real. The undeniable truths of his life were crashing down around him. It was surreal to be having this oh-so-familiar conversation with a ghost, knowing quite well that he would never have it again.
Edward would really miss being called short.
"Of course, Edward. My mistake. You're ten feet tall," he clapped Edward on the shoulder in a fond sort of fatherly way, shooting icy needles up and down Ed's spine. "Now remember what I said—no worries, no guilt. Don't look back. Just be happy—and smile. You have such handsome smile." Ed gave him one then, tainted with bittersweet melancholy and tear stained.
"Thanks...thanks, Colonel Bastard."
"Give my regards to Alphonse, short stuff," Mustang lifted two fingers in flippant salute, smirking despite the fact that his gaze had gone slightly glassy.
Then he stepped back and closed his eyes, the embodiment of grace and spirit and fire even as he let the Gate take him. The gate yawned open, and Edward could instantly feel a prickling where the eyes of the Gatelings seemed to pierce his very soul. They chittered wordlessly for a moment as their arms closed around his tormentor and mentor, his oppressor and his saint—and for a fleeting moment, Ed wanted to call out and tell them to take me instead. They seemed to notice his uncertainty, cast gleaming violet eyes in his direction and stilled on him, asking silently, what's it going to be? But images of Alphonse flashed before him, and he knew that he was needed. So he shook his head and grasped his automail port until his knuckles went white, glaring straight back at them.
I've already paid my debt.
They blinked simultaneously in some sort of understanding, turning back to the task at hand. Mustang was soon enveloped in black, and Ed closed his eyes desperately before he couldsee Mustang disappearing into that gaping black abyss, because he didn't want that to be his last memory of the Colonel. He wanted to remember Mustang's warmth despite the fact that he was icy cold, he wanted to remember that proud smile and those dark, glassy eyes.
It wouldn't hurt to remember that Mustang had called him tall, as well.
When he finally opened his eyes, the gate hadn't disappeared yet. It was still there, doors wide open and beckoning. He looked into their depths, wary, because he knew what that door was capable of giving, and he knew very well what it was capable of taking away. The Gatelings were parted and bowed, momentarily stilled in their constant writhing and grasping in some sort of reverent moment. Ed kept looking, hardly feeling the bed beneath him—indeed, unsure of whether it was there anymore at all—but nothing came. Just smooth fields of inky blackness as far as the eye could see.
A good five minutes into the staring contest, just as he had gathered the courage to ask if they wanted another fucking arm or something, the Gatelings began their insane giggling again and the doors slammed shut with a mighty thunk.
Abruptly, he was aware of coarse sheets and a prison cot again. He took in the same dull, dank prison cell, and he wondered vaguely if all of it had been a dream. But his hands crept to the blanket lying on his shoulders, and his eyes fell to the newspaper resting in his lap.
He would have to get around to reading that article. But now, there was sleeping to be done. The experience had leeched him of what little energy he had, and now that all was said and done, his hands were still shaking.
He slumped backwards onto the lumpy mattress and flat pillows, closed his eyes, and wondered why exactly he still felt so cold.
The new Fuhrer had a kind sort of air about him. Alphonse had yet to see anything but a soft smile on his face, and his eyes glimmered with wisdom and understanding.
He had offered Alphonse tea upon his arrival, laughed jovially at all of Alphonse's nervous tendencies, and there was a lovely picture of him holding two little girls resting atop his desk.
Alphonse silently willed his body to sink into the chair below him. All evidence indicated that the Fuhrer was nothing but a kind, loving man, but Alphonse was hopelessly intimidated regardless. Perhaps it was the fact that his brother's freedom, his brother's very life was depending on what he said and did here.
Not that he was feeling pressured.
"You mean to say that you remember absolutely nothing? Why your brother was in Liore? Why you disobeyed Colonel Mustang?" Alphonse shook his head slowly, bit his lower lip, and sat on his hands to keep from fidgeting. "You do realize that this isn't exactly conducive to your case, Mr. Elric. I want to believe your brother is not guilty, but all evidence seems to indicate the contrary." Alphonse couldn't stand to look at that kind face anymore—his brow was furrowed in concern, his lips twisting and itching to form compassionate words. It seemed as if he was trying to be fatherly—though Alphonse had little idea of how fathers were supposed to act—and quite frankly, Al didn't appreciate the gesture. What he needed—what he wanted—wasn't a father, because he hadn't wanted one those since he was nine. And then, he had only wanted him so their mother wouldn't die alone. She hadn't died alone though, because he had been there. He and his Niisan.
It was then that Colonel Hawkeye interjected, a shining beacon of positive energy and light in Alphonse's life. It had been upon her insistence that she accompany him to this meeting, and he had gladly allowed it. After all, she knew so much more about his Niisan's case, knew so much more about the ways of the world and the people in it. She could speak with this man so much more easily.
"Sir, with all due respect, does the evidence we have mean absolutely nothing? Witness accounts indicate that Edward killed no one. Indeed, over fifty men tell us that they were saved by his quick thinking." She drew a folder from one of the many in her pack, then drew from that a fat stack of yellowing papers. "If you'll look through these, you'll understand what I mean. These are all of the witness' reports." She then rustled through another stack and withdrew a photograph that she was careful to keep from Alphonse's eyes. Judging by the Fuhrer's reaction to it, he was extremely glad she did.
"This is a photograph of Colonel Frank Archer, who was injured at the time of the Liore incident and died of massive hemorrhaging shortly after. His autopsy revealed that his wounds were alchemically inflicted, and this death report from the coroner himself states that 'it was as if he was caught between two alchemic reactions.' Our experts concluded, based on photographic evidence and on-site inspection, that someone fashioned an alchemic bubble of sorts to ward off another destructive alchemical force, and in the process, he saved some of our men, which corresponds perfectly with all witness accounts." Alphonse tried to catch Colonel Hawkeye's eye, tried to tell her in some way that he loved her—he loved her for what she was doing for him. She reported her evidence flawlessly, constantly calm and always collected. Her words were smooth and eloquent, flowing from her mouth in one flawless string—her words were naught but grotesque accounts and evidence, but she made them sound beautiful and sweet, like a song.
And boy, did she ever sound convincing. Colonel Hawkeye, Alphonse concluded, would make one hell of a salesman.
"Ah, please, there's no need to go on Colonel. I can see you've done your research. Based on only the evidence that I've heard already, I believe you're very capable of making a case for the Fullmetal Alchemist," Hawkeye gave a tight-lipped smile and a nod, clasping her hands in her lap.
"Thank you, sir."
"I'm just concerned," he continued, brow furrowed in the aggravating paternal manner again, "that Alphonse's missing memories will be taken advantage of."
"Ah...I'm not quite sure I understand that, Mr. Fuhrer, sir," Alphonse interjected, suddenly incensed and unsure why.
"Well, Alphonse, many believe that your brother may have instigated that alchemic reaction from elsewhere—that even if he was not the one setting off the array, he may have been pulling the strings from afar. Your missing memories could have been your brother's attempt to alchemically modify your recollection of the situation, so as not to present any incriminating evidence. You understand our suspicions, of course." Alphonse could feel his blood boiling and he must have been going red in the face, because seconds before Al felt as if he would explode, the Colonel's hand was on his arm.
Instead of jumping up to slap the aggravating paternal expression off of the Fuhrer's face, Alphonse closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and grated out, "My Niisan's integrity should not be something so easily questioned." How dare they, how DARE they accuse his brother of doing that to him! "Edward is my everything, and he has been ever since we lost our mother. He would NEVER do something like that to me, sir. "
"Please try to understand, Alphonse," the Fuhrer gave an uncertain smile.
"No, you please understand," Alphonse hissed, and Hawkeye shot a warning glare at him. "I love my Niisan so much it hurts, and I trust him with my life. He's kind and trustworthy and loving and warm. He's giving and thoughtful and when he went to Liore, it was to stop—" Alphonse stopped, realized what he was saying, and then continued, testing the words on his tongue. "It was to stop Scar. To stop the man who really did it." Hawkeye glanced up at him sharply, surprised, and the Fuhrer eyed him critically. But Alphonse couldn't stop now. "He...he...Scar was our enemy, but I was going to explode...ah, nevermind that.
"Ed hated Scar and Scar wanted the stone. Why would he help Scar?! He wouldn't. HE WOULDN'T, 'CAUSE HE BLEW UP MY NIISAN'S ARM!" Alphonse explained frantically, rising to his feet and pacing across the room, spinning his arms like a pinwheel in a tornado. Hawkeye and the Fuhrer watched him in silent interest, nodding occasionally to prove that they were indeed listening, though Alphonse cared very little if they were or not.
"Scar had something against the military, 'cause he was Ishballan...and, and he had red eyes and killed state alchemists! And my Niisan was a state alchemist. And he wanted to kill my Niisan!" The images were coming, and Al couldn't seem to stop them; it was as if some floodgate had suddenly opened in his mind. People and places were surfacing, and Alphonse quickly tried to sort through all of the gunk, desperately groping for anything remotely relevant.
"So...so later he transferred to Archer's command. HE TRANSFERRED TO ARCHER'S COMMAND! Archer sent him to Liore, not Mustang, dontcha see?! He didn't disobey Mustang by going to Liore at all!" Alphonse ceased in his pacing long enough to pound a fist on the Fuhrer's desk. "IT'S ALL SO OBVIOUS NOW!"
"Alphonse..." the Colonel said, tone worried and warning.
"HAWKEYE! THE LETTER!" Alphonse turned on her, grasping the arms of her chairs, enlightened eyes gleaming and face flushed. "My Niisan sent a letter from Liore that told the army not to invade! Do you have it!?" Hawkeye jumped at the urgency in his tone, recalling the letter in question and the startling discovery that had come with it. "DO YOU?!" He swiveled again to face the Fuhrer, spinning so quickly he overbalanced and almost toppled into a bookcase. "That proves it, without a doubt—it PROVES he didn't want the military there! He didn't want to kill those people at all!"
Hawkeye rose quickly, because Alphonse's enthusiasm was simply infectious. "Ah...I believe...the Colonel... If you gentlemen will excuse me for a moment." She snapped off a quick salute and scurried out the door with as much dignity as possible, which was very little, considering her uniform's formal skirt caught momentarily on the doorframe and she had to pause to inelegantly yank it loose.
Alphonse made a sound resembling a deflating balloon and slumped into a chair. The Fuhrer merely stared at him, eyebrows furrowed and face contemplative. Neither attempted to start a conversation, because Alphonse was too busy trying to sort things out in his muddled mind and the Fuhrer was quite honestly, far too baffled at the whole situation.
Hawkeye returned fifteen minutes later, panting and red-faced, but holding a crumpled piece of brown paper aloft triumphantly. Alphonse beamed and the Fuhrer extended a hand to accept the letter.
Both Hawkeye and Alphonse held their breath as his eyes traveled deliberately back and forth across the page, face betraying absolutely nothing.
"Well," the Fuhrer said after looking up from his reading, still holding the paper delicately between two fingers. "Quite honestly, I'm not sure what just happened, but..."
"Ah, sir..." Alphonse started, but the Fuhrer merely raised his hand in a halting gesture, and then the most incredible thing happened.
He smiled. He gave an enormous, teeth-bearing grin, and Alphonse's breathing evened and slowed as an enormous weight was kindly removed from his chest. It was so much easier to talk and move and breath now that it didn't feel as if his heart were in a vice.
And best of all, he wouldn't have to see the heartbreaking look on his brother's face when he told him exactly how much he didn't remember.
The new Fuhrer was a saint—fucking SAINT as far as Edward Elric was concerned. The fact that he hadn't known Edward was incarcerated a month before was easily overlooked as Ed was supplied with painkillers and blankets, books and delicacies. It truly was a pity that the warden and his guards only started caring when the higher-ups did, that they only stopped sedating him because it was quite clearly illegal. The only reason, and truly the only reason, Edward was being treated with any sliver of humanity was because the guards and supervisors and warden all knew that their asses were on the line. If Edward Elric, current media goldmine and long-time military pet, were ever to alert the military bigwigs of his mistreatment, they could just kiss their jobs goodbye.
The drug's side effects were still present all these days later. Edward's hands were still shaking, but it wasn't quite so extreme now that the migraines had dulled to an achey sort of throb that one gets when they have a head cold. His hallucinations had been back once or twice, but it hadn't been the Colonel, and Ed was extremely thankful for that. In fact, once, his hallucination had been Den, and he spent nearly an hour absently scratching behind the nonexistent dog's ears before he realized what exactly he was doing. True, he was absentminded and flighty—and true, his nausea had increased tenfold along with the godforsaken hunger pang that he never could quite crush. But at least now he could sleep. And that wasn't the fault of the sleeping pills they pushed in his direction, (because he violently refused them every time—he had been drugged quite enough already, thanks) no, that was entirely Mustang's doing.
A clear conscience does a body wonders.
On one particular morning, Ed woke to find his head surprisingly clear, his logic and sense gradually returning and sharp as ever. Perhaps it was the early morning, the clearness something one achieves when they had just woken; perhaps it was the visit he'd had only days earlier. Regardless, the lucidity gave him a moment to think—a moment to remember, and Ed took advantage of it while the clarity was still there.
It hadn't hit him until then precisely how strange his encounter with Mustang really was. His logic-influenced mind concluded that ghosts are nothing but a figment of the imagination, which led to another part of him arguing over the origin of the newspaper and this newfound sense of peace with the whole goddamn world. A third part of him urged the others to just leave him alone, because for a few shining moments, he felt pretty damn good.
Then his darkest side seemed to emerge from some shadowy sliver of his soul and slithered its way unwanted into the conversation. It seemed intent on focusing on the Gate, and in focusing on the Gate, it seemed intent on bringing up one particular instance in which the Gate had tried to tell him something (if he could only figure out what).
Ed combed through the file cabinets of his knowledge regarding alchemy and science—anything academically relevant—and while the sheer amount was indeed extensive, there was nothing new. The Gate, in those final moments after the Colonel had disappeared, had remained open and told him something, because everything the Gate did had some sort of reason. It didn't just go about showing itself willy nilly.
What had he learned, damnit!
A guard chose that moment to ease the door open, slow as he was able, eyeing him cautiously. It amazed Edward that even now, after he had been harmless and bedridden for a little under two years, the guards could still be so scared of him. He had done absolutely nothing to provoke or intimidate these guards. Hell, he hadn't performed alchemy since he'd come here (not that he hadn't thought of it, of course).
What followed behind the guard made Ed immediately abandon all coherent thought in order to make room for an enormous flashing marquee in which the word "AL" flew by in varying colors and extremely bold print.
Ed wiggled in his seat and threw his arm wide, grinning at his little brother. Edward hadn't seen him since their first reunion, and had been looking forward to the visit for quite some time. He had tried not to get his hopes up, because he figured it would be just like those prison bastards to give him a taste of what he wanted and then yank it all away. Now that his head was clearer, however, it occurred to him that they had taken him off sedatives for a reason, that they were treating him civilly for a reason—and it shouldn't have surprised him that his baby brother had something to do with it.
Al beamed when he saw his older brother, face splitting into an enormous grin, and Edward could have just melted right then and there. There was the Alphonse he knew from childhood, whole and healthy and complete, grinning and loving and happy to see him. There was the Alphonse he had seen all along, caged within an enormous steel prison but not broken—never, ever broken. There was his Alphonse, who was the most amazing, caring person in the world, who loved him unconditionally even though he didn't deserve it one little bit. There was Alphonse, walking through his door to deliver him from this literal prison as he had delivered Alphonse from his metaphorical one two years ago.
Edward didn't speak as Alphonse embraced him, just inhaled and marveled at the fact that even the fucking scent was the same. Alphonse smelled warm and soft, just as he had in childhood—like soap and linens dried in the sun. His hair felt the same, like woven silk, his skin felt the same, baby smooth. This was his Alphonse, and he had had a hand in making him. Edward traced his hand along his baby brother's spine, feeling the smooth breaths and the even flow of muscles constricting against one another.
The next thing he knew, Edward was sobbing. Alphonse was there, kneeling in front of him and blinking his perfect brown eyes, the same eyes that had peered at him from across the bedroom at Izumi's house, the same eyes that had been filled with tears at their mother's funeral, the same eyes that had greeted him from the folds of a baby blanket—all the same, but so different, because this time—he'd had a hand in creating them.
"Hey, hey," Al murmured, patting Edward's back. "There's no need to be upset. Everything is going to be fine." And Edward cried out again, this time desperately, clutching tightly to the fabric of Al's jacket. "Shhh. Don't cry, Niisan."
"D-d-damn withdrawal. Damn moodswings, Al," he choked. "Can't help it. Love you so fuckin' much."
"I love you too, Niisan," Al assured him quietly. Then, something about what Edward had said seemed to hit him, and Alphonse's expression morphed into something fierce and protective. "Withdrawal?" He inquired to his brother's down-turned face. When he didn't receive an answer, he gently pried his brother's shaking fingers from his jacket and used his freed arm to tilt Edward's head upward until he was gazing into teary golden eyes. "What do you mean by withdrawal?"
"Ah...it's difficult to explain. You don't really need to know." Edward hiccuped.
"Well I have a secret for you as well. Why don't you try me, and then I'll feel more obliged to share my own," Alphonse said smugly. It wasn't fair, Edward thought, that his brother had so much control over him. He was the Fullmetal Alchemist, damnit. He was supposed to answer to no one—yet here he was cowering at the feet of a seventeen-year-old boy. His brother shouldn't be able to take advantage of his love so freely. Ed felt nauseous at the thought.
No...no, Ed just felt nauseous.
"Niisan, you know you can tell me anything."
"Yeah, I know Al, but..."
"Please, you know I love you and I want to make up for the time you lost here. I feel terrible about everything that's happened, and I wish that you would answer my question," Al ranted, and Ed wondered if maybe he'd created his brother without lungs, because he didn't seem to need to breathe.
"No I'm sorry, but I don't want any more secrets between us!"
Edward promptly vomited all over his little brother's shoes.
"Does'at answer yer question?"
Al looked calmly at the vomit on his shoes for a moment, then looked back at his brother's face, still placid as ever. "What...what's wrong?"
"I just puked. What do you think is wrong?" Ed retorted sourly.
Al pursed his lips. "You know what I mean."
Ed gestured the book on his nightstand after wiping his mouth with his sleeve, willing away the vile taste on his tongue. "The book explains it better than I do. I don't even understand it myself."
"Does this have something to do with...with my last visit? With the sedatives they were giving you?" Alphonse asked tentatively, letting the word sedative drip off his tongue as if it were something foul. He did, however, remain calm even as he removed his vomit-soaked shoes and demanded a glass of water from the guard hovering at the door.
"Yeah...apparently I developed some kind of dependency on the drugs they were giving me. Been moodswinging like a fuckin' girl...among," he indicated the puddle of vomit on the floor by his bed, "other things." Ed gave what he hoped to be a reassuring—if not a bit lopsided—grin, and elbowed Alphonse playfully. "No worries—book says I'll get over it."
Goddamn warden better hope the book's right.
Alphonse worried his lower lip and offered Edward the glass of water, then seemed torn between beating Edward over the head and hugging him again as their hands brushed. "I'm...I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I'll get through it. Guilt'll get you no where," Edward said, waving his hand in a noncommittal fashion. "Mustang taught me that," he added as an afterthought.
Alphonse suddenly seemed excited at the mention of Mustang's name, and Ed leaned back sharply when Alphonse gave a satisfied little leap.
Edward really hoped he had said the right thing, because he didn't want Al to pester him for another ten minutes about his withdrawal. He wanted this to be a pleasant visit, because he didn't know when they would have the chance to visit again. Talking about jitters and dizzy spells for who knows how long would hardly be pleasant.
Mustang, on the other hand, was pleasant. Mustang was a good memory now, and thinking of him left Edward feeling warm, pensive, and calm. He was gone, but somehow, Edward was at peace with that.
"Roy Mustang—the Flame Alchemist! He was a Colonel, and he came to visit us in Rizenbul when he was searching for our father. You never liked him. You called him a manipulative bastard," Alphonse gushed, oozing pride and beaming brightly. Edward felt his mouth go slack.
"Umm...Al?" This was worse than Edward thought. The transmutation had addled his little brother's brain.
"He was good friends with Mr. Hughes. He called you by your military name all the time, which was Fullmetal. Because you were the Fullmetal Alchemist. 'Cause of your automail," he preened. Edward didn't have the heart to tell him that, I already knew all this, Al, why are you telling me? "And...AND. He protected us. He told us that he would use your secret, but he never did. I don't think he would have," Alphonse finished matter-of-factly, clasping his hands behind his back and glowing with pride.
"Hey Al...? You okay?"
"Better than okay, Niisan. I've got my memories back," he removed one of his hands from the knot behind his back and tapped his temple, winking in what Ed thought was a mildly patronizing manner. There was a moment where Edward sat, dumbfounded, a myriad of emotions clashing deep within him.
The first was despair. It seemed natural that the first thing Edward would feel would be self-hatred, and for a moment, he was angry with himself for failing his little brother. He had gotten the body but not the mind? Had he been so driven to restore his little brother's physical form that he forgot Alphonse's most important features? Selfish, selfish, selfish.
"Al, I don't understand. Got your memories back?"
"Ah, yeah..." Al started, and Edward prepared himself for another long, breathless explanation. "Y'see, when I first got my body back two years ago I...I didn't remember...well...the last thing I remembered was drawing the...the transmutation circle in our basement."
Then, Ed was afraid. If his brother didn't remember these things, then Ed was alone in his suffering. Being alone was frightening. Solitude (in a basement, Alphonse gone, mother gone, leg gone, utterly alone and so, so helpless ) was perhaps the most horrible thing he could wish upon anyone.
"Well, imagine my surprise when I found out that I was asleep in a military hospital—two full days away from Rizenbul."
Then, there was relief. Alphonse didn't need to remember those things, really. It was nothing but five years of horrifying, unprecedented misery. People lost, homes lost. Really, he was better off.
"And imagine my surprise when I...well...my body had gone through puberty without me, Niisan. It was a little strange."
Then, there was some unidentifiable emotion, a sort of muted relief because...oh, he remembers. I'm not alone, but he remembers. He couldn't quite decide if that was a good or a bad thing.
"And...well...don't feel bad, Niisan. But you weren't there. And I was scared."
And then Edward was heartbroken.
Because he wasn't there.
"No, no. Don't feel bad!"
And solitude was perhaps the most horrible thing he could wish upon anyone.
"I'm sorry," he whimpered. Moodswings like a fucking girl!
"No, no, no, STOPPIT! You only just said guilt will get you nowhere you hypocrite! Plus, didn't you hear me? I got them back, a few days ago. I found you—everything is alright now, Niisan. We were both afraid, don't you see? But we're not anymore. We found each other. And now, here's the best news—your trial date is coming, you have lawyers and petitions! You have so much defense and evidence in favor of your case—thanks to all the stuff Mustang kept—and they're hard-pressed to find a prosecution attorney!"
Edward's heart stopped. He could have sworn that Mustang had already outdone himself—had already disappeared in so much glory that his selflessness eclipsed the sun itself. But no—no, no...count on that tricky, manipulative bastard to outdo himself even in death.
"When did you say you got your memories back, Al?" He asked, throat dry.
But he already knew. Some piece of him already knew—but another piece groped desperately for Al's reassurance—because surely, such a man who had done his best to bring him misery in life hadn't just given everything he'd ever loved and lost back to him. Certainly Roy Mustang was no god.
"Ah...about two days ago..."
It didn't just go about showing itself willy nilly.
What had he learned, damnit!
Edward found it hard to breathe for the tightness in his chest.
"Why Fullmetal, you haven't figured it out?" He could imagine the man laughing, smirking, taunting. "You haven't learned anything. "
But Alphonse had.
The world around him shattered, because yes, yes Roy Mustang had to be a god. Roy Mustang had to be the God that he didn't believe in.
Roy Mustang gave him more than God ever did.
"Niisan, are you alright?" Edward let out a harsh bark of laughter at the sheer absurdity of the question.
ALRIGHT? I'm fine! I'm better than I've been in fucking years, thanks to a man I hated in life. Thanks to a man I can't even thank now.
Because in one final moment of glory and selflessness, that bastard gave him everything. In one final transmutation of nothing into something, Roy defined impossible and Roy gave him his very life back.
He was fucking well better than alright.
"Yeah...yeah, I think so, Al."
He was goddamn perfect.