The East City headquarters were mainly deserted at that hour of the night. Just a few guards—exactly guarding what, he did not know—or a random officer trying to finish a late report. But most of the offices, and specially the one he was in now, were empty. This suited his needs perfectly. People wandering all over the room would only make his chances of finding the photo scarcer. Moving silently trough a room crowded with desks and piles of reports was not an easy task when you were a suit of armor. His brother was lucky to be small.
Ed had been so engrossed in a book about old alchemic theories he had barely noticed his panic attack upon discovering that the small pocket in his chest plate, were he usually kept the photo, was empty.
He couldn't ask for help or just ask Lieutenant Hawkeye for it tomorrow. Not with his brother standing next to him. Not when this was something he shouldn't have carried with him in the first place.
Because, even between them, some things were taboo. Specially that night. Al didn't ask questions, Ed didn't give answers. Both tried to forget but neither could.
He had agreed on burning the house before leaving for Central City. He understood how much it hurt his brother, even remember, when Ed said "that's not home anymore, not without her." But, sitting in the dark while his brother slept, he couldn't help having some doubts.
He was afraid.
He was afraid that, without anything to remember her by, he would forget what his mother looked like. And if he did forget mom's face, what would be next? Her voice? Her smile? The color of her eyes? He could bear loosing everything else and move on, even if was just for the sake of his brother, but he could not lose what little he still had of her.
It had been easy, walking the road that went from the Rockbell's house to theirs, as if this was just another time he had stayed at Winry's house a little too late. He had opened the door and, for once, he had been grateful he couldn't smell anything; the metallic smell of blood would have been still too strong for him to bear.
He didn't want to take another step. He didn't want to see the corridor. Because one of the doors in the corridor would take him to his father's study and the door on that room would take him to the basement.
He didn't want to see the basement.
Considering all this, his choices had been reduced to two. One recent, one older. In the end he had chosen the older one, the one his brother hated the most. The whole family. The only photo he had ever seen of his father. His brother had stopped looking at it years ago, not even to glare at it.
Some times Al wondered why he didn't feel that way about their father. Ed said that father was the reason mom was always sad, that it was all his fault.
But mom had loved him, just as she had loved them. He couldn't have been so bad.
He had made a copy and hidden it in an inner pocket. Even if he seldom looked at it, he liked knowing that at least he carried a memory that wouldn't fade with time.
And now, he had lost it.
Nothing here either. And yet he was sure it had been here where he had been standing that morning. It had to be here somewhere. Had any of the officers found it? Maybe he could ask Lieutenant Hawkeye about it tomorrow.
He continued his search towards the door.... and found a black pair of polished army boots on his way. Looking past the boots and past the blue uniform, he saw Lieutenant Colonel Hughes... staring at the photo he was looking for. He stood up hoping the older man would give it back, but Hughes-san just continued to stare at it.
"It's this little one," he said finally and pointed at the baby Al. "You?"
"Er.. yes. I was a one at that time, I think."
Hughes studied the photo for a few more moments. He seemed to be memorizing it and storing it in his head for the future. Al had seen his brother doing the same things to documents, books and alchemic theories. It was times like this, when he saw adults do the same things, that Alphonse understood his brother was older than his years.
"Your mother was a very beautiful woman. You resembled her," he said quietly.
"Yes, she was... thank you." It was true. People had always said Alphonse looked like his mother and that Edward was more like his father...Ed hadn't been too happy after hearing this.
"Anou... Lieutenant Colonel Hughes, could you not tell my brother of this, please?"
Eyebrows shot up in question.
"Er... the photo... he doesn't know." Al felt a little embarrassed by telling this to Hughes-san. It felt like telling mom he had accidentally broken a piece of her favorite china.
"Don't worry, Alphonse-kun." Hughes-san's face was serious, far from his usual playful smile. "I can understand why your brother would be uncomfortable with this."
Extending his hand he gave Al the photo back and extracted one from his pocket. "A man has to keep his loved ones close to him."
"Yes." He wondered if his father had been anything like Hughes-san.
"Would you like to see some of my new ones? Look! Here is Elysia helping her mom make cookies. Doesn't she look ADORABLE with that small apron?"
"Wait! I have more of those here somewhere... Ah yes! I have several albums in my office..."
Maybe, in a couple of hours he would manage to escape.
But mom had said that as soon as his little brother got a little bigger and stopped sleeping the entire day (he could not understand how someone so tiny could sleep so much) Ed would have someone to play with. Until then, he played by himself, careful of not making too much noise because Alphonse was sleeping in the room next to this.
Suddenly, he could hear footsteps approaching. Heavy steps he had since long ago learned to recognize. In an instant he had dropped the ball and was running towards the door, smiling.
He was being lifted off the ground by strong arms and spun into the air. Mom always made a face when they did this, but right now she wasn't here, so it was okay to keep swirling around in circles until they were both laughing and smiling. And then the arms pulled him for a hug and he circled the other's neck with his small arms.
"Hello, little one."
Ed woke with a start.
He was in the library, surrounded by the books he had been researching. Someone, probably one of the librarians, had put a blanket on his shoulders, which was probably the reason he was not freezing right now. They had all given up convincing him to return home and sleep. Ed was grateful for it because he could never tell them home was something he didn't have anymore, and sleep was something he didn't look forward to.
He hated dreams.
He hated his nightmares because they were always the same: his mother, that night and blood. There was always so much blood that sometimes Ed woke up feeling he was drowning on it.
But, above all nightmares, he hated this dream the most. He hated how happy he felt in it. Hated that no matter how hard he tried to forget that bastard, he was always there, in his mind. It was the ultimate betrayal of his subconscious.
Letting out a sigh, Ed stretched over the chair. His back hurt from sleeping in the uncomfortable library chairs and he just knew that tomorrow Al would notice and give him a long lecture about not getting proper rest and taking care of his body.
Speaking of Al... Where was Al?
He vaguely remembered his brother telling him about forgetting something at the headquarters. Al had probably gone back there for whatever he had forgotten. Ed hoped it wasn't another stray cat.
Maybe it was better this way. Alone he could do something he wouldn't have even dared to attempt in his brother presence.
Even between them, some things were taboo.
Extracting a small cylindrical container from his pocket, he carefully emptied its contents on the table. To the casual observer it would have looked like a pile of dust or very small pieces of something. An alchemist might have been able to see it was a combination of several elements, the elements needed to assemble a color photography.
No one but himself was able to return it to its original form. No one would have known how the original should look. With a simple clap and very little effort, he had now the restored one in his hands.
There was his mother smiling, who Ed always looked at first. Young, healthy and happy. So different from the sad and weakening figure he could remember. So unlike the horrible visions from his nightmares.
Mom was holding a very small Al into her arms. Still so young he didn't understood why he had to stop moving and smile. Ed, on the other hand, was smiling from ear to ear.
Ed stared for just a moment at the face just above his. It really didn't tell him anything. It was just a face. What he really remembered was little details, like in the dream. The sound of his steps, the tone of his voice, the tall figure standing in the doorway.
The photo had little marks here and there, small imperfections. Edward had never heard of a simple object start to degrade itself after several alchemic transmutations. He had heard of the process when it involved complex subjects such as animals, but never a photo. Maybe the imperfections had always been there and he never noticed, maybe no one had tried before to repair and destroy the same object over and over through the years. Whatever the reason was, there was nothing Ed could do about it.
There was nothing Ed could do to bring back those times either.
It took only a small clap of his hands and the photo turned to pieces again. As he carefully made sure all the pieces entered the container, Ed wondered why he kept them in the first place. He should have left the photo burn with the rest of the house. He should have left everything behind and never looked back.
But he had left and never came back. Ed wanted to be different. Even if it meant staring at what was lost for the rest of his life.
Sometimes a picture was worth a thousand regrets.