The flowers fell more slowly than the spraying blood. Down they floated and came to rest like leaves in a pond when fall comes and strips the trees' branches. They sank into the blood, seeping through with red, and disappeared without a trace, as if they had never been there at all.
"Would you like a flower, little boy?"
Her face was so hopeful that Ed managed to keep his twitching in check. "I'm not a little boy," he grumbled, but stopped and peered down into her little wicket basket to examine the flowers tumbling over the sides. There were some tulips and violets, and even some hyacinths; he picked one up and turned it, thoughtfully, tilting it to the blood-red sky.
When he looked back up, her smile had turned crafty. "I'll give you a discount for a bundle," she offered.
Ed hesitated. Damn, he thought, and rifled through his wallet for some change. He'd spent most of his money on food earlier that morning, when their rations had run out. He took out what was left and handed it to her. "Thanks," he said as she handed the flowers to him, her whole face beaming. "Hey, shouldn't you be inside or something? It's awfully dangerous out here." And they both looked up as the cackle of gunfire, far away, sounded, and stopped just as abruptly.
She managed a braver smile. "I still need to feed my children," she said, folding his money neatly and sticking it into a pocket on the inside of her skirt. She looked up and caught his eye, her gaze going a little sharp with suspicion. She quirked her skirt back in place. "And what about you, little boy? Isn't your mother watching you?"
He'd really have to work on his eyebrow twitch; Colonel Mustang was always making fun of it. "I'm not," he gritted out, "a little. Boy."
She raised her eyebrows and tilted her head at him. Her eyes lit with mischievousness. "What? You hardly look older than twelve."
Ed sniffed and folded his arms. Damn it, he hated having to be polite to ladies. "I'm fifteen. Almost sixteen," he added; fall was coming and his birthday would follow on its heels. Maybe he'd finally gain some inches ? and a few pounds, too, because Al could still lift him with one hand. Sixteen was supposed to be the magical age.
Of course, he'd heard that about thirteen, too, and that had been a huge disappointment.
The flower lady was laughing. "Oh, my! You have some growing to do, little boy."
"My growth spurt is coming," Ed snapped. "Any day now. My bones are aching. That's a sign." He rotated his metal shoulder, which had been aching but not, he was pretty sure, because of an imminent growth spurt. He needed to oil it again or Winly would raise hell the next time she did maintenance.
The lady cocked her head. "Listen," she said, nodding. "I think the fighting's stopped for the night."
Ed squinted over his shoulder, narrowed his eyes. The lights from the alchemical reactions had faded long ago, which meant the regular branch of the military had taken over. He rubbed his metal arm absently. "You should go home," he said, looking back at the woman. "If you've got kids, you shouldn't be out in the streets like this. The soldiers'll be jumpy when dark comes."
She shrugged and smiled at him, the smile of an adult to a child. Ed rolled his eyes. "I'm able to take care of myself, but thank you," she said kindly. "You should go home, too. I bet your family is worried. You shouldn't be out."
"My family understands," said Ed with a scowl. And Al always took advantage of being able to lift him up, too, damn him. He couldn't wait until he was taller.
"Well, I would hate for them to be sad, anyway. I have an idea. What if I walk you home? Where do you live?"
Ed hesitated, giving her a sidelong glance. "Not here," he said.
"You're a tourist?" she said disbelievingly. "We've been closed off to tourists. Only government officials and...." She trailed off.
"I'll walk you home," Ed said into the silence.
After a pause, she nodded. "I live by the church," she said, tightening her battered shawl with dignity. "I hope you know where that is. Maybe you should go," she added heavily. "Leto forgives all crimes, even murder."
"I'm not a soldier!" Ed protested as they began walking, picking their way through pieces of fallen building and shells. Then he grimaced and clapped his face. "I'm Edward Elric. And I didn't come here to kill any of your people."
"So you're an alchemist. You're awfully young," she mused.
Ed raised his hands and assumed an angelic expression, trying to lighten the mood. "I'm the genius alchemist who made certification at twelve. Maybe you've heard of me?"
"Yes," she said. "I have heard of you."
Her inky eyes looked at his, but Ed couldn't tell what she was thinking. But she had a very respectable, weary dignity, standing in her city's destroyed streets, a flower basket in her hand and a shawl around her shoulders. Uncomfortable, Ed looked out across the sky again.
"So do you believe in God, Edward Elric?"
That didn't take much thought. Ed lowered his arms. "I've been an atheist," he said, "since I was eleven."
"So young to be deciding something so serious," she smiled. "Do you think God never helped you?"
Ed worried his braid, sighing. "My village had a priest in it, once. When I was sick?" lying in bed a cripple, missing an arm and a leg ?"he came and visited me and asked me the same question. It's not like I'm an atheist because I'm pissed at God. I don't believe there is one, and it's better for me as a scientist to believe that. Scientists are making actual progress questioning traditional beliefs; all religion does is sit back and say that God will take care of everything. Well." He paused, interrupted by the sound of a single gunshot, and when the echo faded continued, "He hasn't, so it's up to humans to do something. There are no gods, and we're not gods either; we're just men. And it's better for us to realize that and move on with our lives."
"Ah," said the flower lady. She stopped, and Ed stopped with her, cocking his head. She looked regretful as she reached for something in her little wicker basket. "Then I'm sorry you will go to meet Leto with the weight of your unbelief on your shoulders."
To sidestep the bullet was a natural instinct, but he couldn't move fast enough and it grazed his arm. Surprised, Ed stood still and stared at it, the single mark cutting through his coat and his skin, leaving a trail of blood that dripped slowly?like a single raindrop?onto the ground.
She aimed the gun again.
"Boss, look OUT!"
She cut such an incongruous figure, this slight, soft-faced lady with her flowers and a gun in her hand. Her face was so motherly but her eyes were so cold. Ed stared at her. "Is this what God wants you to do?" he asked?more to the barrel of her gun than to her face. "Kill people?" He clenched his fist around the flowers in his hand.
The gun shook a little; her gaze moved to the left, then back to him as she pointed it more firmly. "You are a lost child," she said, "corrupted by that devil practice you call alchemy." Her voice trembled on the word. "The devilry that's killed so many of my people. I pray to Leto that he will forgive your sins?you're too young to understand them, but he does."
Ed flinched reflexively at the gunshot, clenching his eyes shut, waiting for the pain to come.
"Boss," said a voice beside him. A hand touched his shoulder. "Fullmetal, you okay?"
Ed opened his eyes a crack and saw a rain of white. He opened them further, gazed down at the ground to see flower petals drifting down into a red pool, garnishing the bloody body lying on the ground. Next to the blood, the black waterfall of the woman's hair shifted with the wind. He stepped back, slipped and was caught by arms. Voices chattered over him, but he couldn't quite make out what they were saying.
He looked down at his metal hand and saw the bundle of hyacinths, white against the cold steel.
Alphonse Elric had never particularly cared about religion. He remembered a big fuss in his school, when the priest had come to teach him and his year mates; his mother had been indignant. "My children," she had said, "are the sons of a scientist. I dislike the hate that's being poured into their ears." There had been more fuss and she had finally taken them out of school. After that, Al never really concerned himself with it.
Ed didn't really care much for it either, but Al could tell that he thought about it. A lot. His brother was like that.
Al opened the door to the church a crack and peered in. The great big room was dark, but he could see the glow of candles further in. He squeezed in through the door and closed it quietly behind himself, recalling his manners.
He saw Ed's head bent over the altar and sighed. "Brother," he called, "what are you doing?"
Ed shifted a little, and lifted up a small black book. "Studying."
Al sat in the first-row pew, and, after a searching look, Ed joined him. "Oh, brother," Al said as he spread himself out on the bench, legs splayed, arms dangling. "Here, give me your arm."
He tore a piece of fabric from Ed's cloak and wrapped it around the wound. It was shallow but already bruising, colors going dark and mottled. "That'll scar if you don't take care of it," Al said, tying it off tightly. "You should know that." He didn't say anything about the little book Ed still clutched.
Ed said it for him. "You must think I'm being stupid." He tossed it into the air, caught it easily with his metal arm. With a pang, Al saw in the simple motion how many months Ed had practiced to be able to do something so simple. "Reading something like this. I'm a scientist. I shouldn't concern myself with religion, huh?"
Al picked his words carefully. "I think you should concern yourself with whatever you care about, brother." He leaned forward and plucked the book from Ed, flipping through the pages. "A lot of people are dying for things like this. Why should we ignore it? It's obviously important to... Brother?"
Ed was leaning forward, clutching his head with both hands. Al couldn't see his face. "Brother," he repeated, then paused. Ed had never liked being coddled, but he felt things so deeply?more than anyone gave him credit for. Gently, he set his hand on Ed's shoulder, remembering that once upon a time, his hand would have been warm and comforting instead of so hard and cold. "I wish I could hug you," he said at last, surprising himself with the words?instantly he was ready to laugh over them, to take them back. But something made him pause.
Ed said nothing. His shoulders shook under Al's hand. Then he nodded. "I know," he said, lifting his tear-streaked face. "And even if that woman was right... even if I am damned... that's why I'm doing this, Al. It's enough."
Al couldn't do anything but sit and stare at his brother, whose face grew more composed during the long silence. And finally Ed managed a weary smile.
"Come on," he said, standing and sweeping his cloak back behind him. "I have something I need to do."
The moment for an embrace had passed, Al thought; and he wondered if it would have even been accepted if offered.
His resolve weakened a little when he realized he had no idea what house, exactly, was the woman's, but Edward was nothing if he wasn't resourceful. "Hey, there," he said to a little girl playing on the streets. She looked up from her mud castle to make wide eyes at him. "Do you know where the pretty lady who sells flowers lives?"
She stuck her finger in her mouth.
Ed was also nothing if not impatient. "The flowers," he repeated, hoping that the emphasis would get his point across. "You know, the lady. Who sells flowers. And, uh...."
"Your castle is so pretty," Al interrupted him. He squatted down and made a show of looking at the castle from all sides, while the little girl's eyes widened even further. "Who lives in it?"
"Me," she informed him, eyes lighting up. She was sold.
"Really? Who else lives there? Someone from this street?"
She nodded. "Cail and Alcuin," she said, pointing across the street. "I like going to see them. Their house smells good. And their mommy is nice to me. She gives me cookies."
Ed glanced across the street, at one of the only houses on that side that wasn't crumbling and dilapidated. Propping his chin in his hand, he said, "But your castle doesn't have a flag."
The little girl deflated. "I know. I haven't been able to find one."
Ed held up one of his flowers. "How about I make you one?" he asked, and put it on the ground, clapped his hands together and pressed them to the flower. When the lights had cleared, he held out the little white flag for her. She took it with eyes nearly twice as big as they'd started out.
"Thank you, mister!" she said, holding it like it would disintegrate at any moment.
"You're welcome," Al said over his shoulder as they turned and headed across the street.
Almost the moment they stepped onto the porch of the house, Ed smelled flowers. He breathed in deeply and closed his eyes. Beside him, Al stopped.
"Are you sure about this, brother?"
"I'm sure," said Ed. He put his metal hand to the door and knocked.
Muffled voices from inside the house; small feet pattering, young voices shouting. Ed closed his eyes, opened them when he heard the door open. A small, defiant face peered up at him. "Yeah?" the little boy demanded. "What do you want?"
Another, almost identical face peeped out from behind him, this one rounder and more worried. "Big brother," he whispered, "are they here to hurt us?"
Beside Ed, Al waved his hands frantically. "Of course we're not here to hurt you!" Al cried, sounding insulted they would even think it. It hurt Al, Ed knew, to be feared; he could never harm anything and everyone knew it.
"I'm here about your mother," Ed said, and both sets of eyes dimmed.
The older boy lifted his head first, the defiance back. "Tell me," he said, challenge clear in his voice.
Ed paused, the moment taking on a sharp clarity: the smell of the house, sweet and warm; the clear black color of the night sky, stars overcast by patches of red and black smoke; and the two little boys, poised next to each other, one angry and the other frightened, who didn't seem so very far removed from Ed's own experiences. He took a deep breath and held out the bundle of hyacinths, mute: there was nothing he could say.
The elder stared at them, jaw slowly clenching. His brother still looked bewildered, gaze flicking back and forth between Ed and Al, hands clenched tightly in his older brother's shirt. "Alcuin," said the elder sharply, taking his brother's fingers and disentangling them from his shirt. "Go back into the house."
"What, big brother?" Alcuin wailed, dismayed. "Don't make me go!"
Cail froze him with a cold stare. "Go. Don't make me tell you twice."
Alcuin hesitated, clearly torn, then looked one more time at Ed and Al before turning and disappearing behind his brother. Cail looked back at them.
"Brother," Al whispered. Ed shook his head imperceptibly, but enough so Al would notice. Don't say anything, Alphonse, he thought; don't say anything.
"So," said Cail, "dogs of the military. People who've come into our town and murdered our people. Now you murder women? Now you kill our mothers?" His voice shook; he clenched down visibly and continued in a rising voice, "Will you kill our sisters, our brothers? Will you kill our grandfathers who can't raise a hand to help themselves? Eh, dogs of the military? How far will you go?" He reached out and pushed Ed's chest, hard enough so Ed stumbled backward. Al caught him, but Cail only pushed him again, and then again and again.
Don't say anything. Ed tried to tell Al that with his eyes. Don't talk. Don't make it worse. He owed her that much.
"Well, dog?" Cail shouted. "Well? How did you feel when you killed my mother? Did the devil smile on you? How does it feel, knowing you'll burn in hell for your sins? Well?" He clenched his fist, reared back and slammed Ed's jaw.
Ed hit the ground hard, covering his head automatically. The little black book fell from his cloak and lay on the ground, its gilded pages splaying out, catching the light and glowing.
His arm felt the heaviest it ever had when Ed heaved himself to his feet, touching his jaw gingerly. He looked at Cail, who stared back at him with glistening eyes. Al reached out to touch him and Ed lifted his arm to ward him off, shaking his head.
Don't try to help me, Alphonse. Don't read this book. Don't let things like this happen to you.
"Well, dog of the military?" Cail whispered. "Aren't you going to say anything?"
"He doesn't have anything to say to you!" Al flared, turning to him before Ed could stop him. "How dare you!" His metal armor was practically standing on end.
"Alphonse!" Ed said sharply. He brushed his little brother back and stepped up to the porch. He and the Liorian were of an equal height, and Ed let Cail look all he wanted, let him take his measure. Let him see what a dog of the military looked like. Cail looked down first. "I do have something to say to you," said Ed, after a pause. He looked over his shoulder at Al, standing in the street and looking suddenly very small. "You're an older brother, like me," Ed continued, lowering his voice. "So you have a duty and a responsibility. You take care of him. You protect him. That's what your mother wants, that's what all mothers want. I may be the military's dog, but I know that much."
Cail glared at him, but there was more sorrow than anger in his eyes now. He gave a single, sharp nod.
Ed brushed his cloak out of the way and palmed his pocket watch for Cail to see. "My name is Edward Elric. When you're done taking care of your brother... if you have more you want to say to me... come to Central City and ask for me."
"Edward... Elric," Cail repeated, brows drawing together. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I'm an alchemist." Ed mustered up a smile and flexed his automail. "Equivalent trade. You should learn about it." He turned and joined Al on the street. His brother gave him a look, but fell into step beside him, heaving a wounded sigh.
"You never tell me anything, brother," he muttered.
At the sound of a shout, they both turned around. "Edward Elric!" Cail was shouting after them, clutching the bundle of flowers in his outstretched hand. "I will! I'll come and see you, dog! Don't think I won't!" He turned back to his house, but not before they saw his face crumple.
"It wasn't your fault," Al said after they were a good distance away from the crumbling neighborhood. "You always blame yourself for everything. You're not a god, brother."
"Don't I know it," Ed said with a sigh, crossing his arms behind his neck.
"I'm just glad you're all right. If that woman had...." Al shook his head. "I don't know what I would do," he said softly.
Ed leaned forward to look into his armored face. "Hey, Al," he said, "you know you don't have to worry about that, right? I'll always be around to take care of you."
Al sniffed loudly. "Of course, brother. But that's not what I'm worried about."
"Eh?" Ed blinked at him.
"You won't let me take care of you," Al said, poking his forehead with one finger. "Won't you, brother? Promise me."
Ed smiled to himself and unfolded his arms, crossing them over his chest. "Ah-h," he sighed, "that's not how it's supposed to go. I'm your older brother. I take care of you, you listen to me. That's how it is, right?"
"Brother." Al was smiling. "Is anything the way it's supposed to be? Hm?" He reached over and plucked him off the ground.
"Al," said Ed direly, looking down at his dangling feet, "if you don't put me down, you're going to regret it."
Al put him down hastily. "See?" he said as Ed brushed himself off. "You should listen to me."
"I do listen to you," Ed protested. "Remember when you said I had one of the seals on that array wrong? You were right. I changed it." He rapped Al's chest fondly. "My genius brother."
"Stop it," Al said, the blush audible in his tone.
"Come on, Al." Ed grinned. "I'm beat. Let's go back to our room. The sooner we get this job done, the sooner we can go back home."
That night they called a brief cease fire, and the haze and smoke in the sky faded to let the stars shine through. Ed stole the seat by the window, leaving Al to stretch out his huge body next to the fire. Ed crossed his legs and uncurled his automail arm, and perched his book on the arm of his chair to read by the firelight.
He glanced up and smiled when he saw Al slumped over, the lights that passed for his eyes gone dim. He looked down at his book and paused, skimming his eyes back over the passage he'd just read.
The hyacinth flower, recognized by the ancients as a symbol of death and regret, noted particularly for what is supposed to be a blood-stain on its petals....
Ed drew the last hyacinth flower out of his pocket, where he'd put it next to his watch. He held it up and turned it to the starlight.
"Brother," Al whispered, and Ed started, lowering the flower guiltily. "I can't wait to be back home, can't you?"
"Aa. Me neither." One-handed, Ed pressed the hyacinth and slipped it back into his coat. "I can't wait to go home."
He stared out the window until the small rustles and clanks from Al's side of the room stopped, then slid off his chair and gathered up his cloak, shrugging his arms into the sleeves. By the door, he paused to stare down at Alphonse. His brother always slept in the same posture lately, knees drawn up to the big metal chest, clunky arms wrapped around them in a protective posture. Ed sometimes wandered what he was trying to protect himself from, but his thoughts never really got further than that.
Sighing, he went over to his bed and wrestled the quilt off, dragged it across the floor and wrapped it around Al's shoulders. Al stirred with a clank, but other than that he didn't move, so Ed tucked it more securely around him, then rested his head for a moment on top of Al's. He remembered Al wishing they could hug each other.
"Someday," he murmured, touching the smooth top of Al's head fondly. "?Night, Al." He turned off the light as he left.
The streets of Liore were empty and dark; the Liorians no longer lit up their streets at night, making the stretches of destroyed road seem even more intimidating. Their desert nights were cold, too; Ed chafed his normal arm, trying to get feeling into it, and held his freezing metal arm away from his body, wincing every time it brushed his side.
The cathedral doors were locked, and the building itself was as dark as the rest of Liore. Ed clapped his hands together and pressed them to the doors, lighting the streets for a brief moment, then squeezed in through the hole.
Most of the church was dark, but the altar was lit with a dim glow, as he'd known it would be. Ed walked down the thin row between pews, absently touching every other pew, one with his normal hand, the other with his metal hand, until the rows ended and he was in front of the altar. It was filled with tiny candles, some newly-lit, others burnt nearly to the end of their wicks. He passed his metal hand through the flames and they wavered, nearly went out, then beamed back into full brightness.
Ed exhaled slowly, waving his bangs, and reached into his coat, withdrawing the black book and the white hyacinth. He set the hyacinth inside the book and put them on the altar, then clapped and pressed his hands down on them. The sight of his hands on that book evoked some image?something he'd read?but he couldn't place it, and when the haze cleared, the book was gone, anyway. Ed picked up the black candle he'd created and dipped its wick into another's fire; when it was lit, he set down it at the end of the row of candles, set it down to glow bright for as long as it could.
He sat back on his heels and pressed his hands under his arms, regarding the warm glow of the candles. For a brief instant, Ed thought he understood why the Liorians believed all this?remembered his mother lighting the candles for all the soldiers who had died and smiling down at them, face warm with the candle glow; then the moment passed, and the church was cold, the city just as filled with dead bodies as before, and nothing would change the fact that they were dead and weren't coming back.
The black candle was still burning bright when Ed left the church and stepped outside, tilting his head back to look up at the stars. And then he looked back down so he wouldn't trip over the rubble, and started walking back to his room. Back to Al. Back to home.