Thunder clapped, almost drowning out the accompanying scream; but Al looked up and down the hallway anyway, hoping to see the door open, to see Auntie Pinako come out—but no. The door was closed and he was still alone, ass planted on this bench, doing nothing but being absolutely useless.
All the alchemical skill in the world didn't matter, he was learning, when it came to something like this. Idly, he lifted his hands and stared at them, outlining them with his eyes: there were the long fingers he'd been so surprised over when he'd gotten his body back; the life lines crisscrossing the palms; the pale veins shining through the skin, the blood they carried turning them a dark violet color. Still visible on the back of his hand was the alchemical sign he'd scribbled on there last week; it'd been a difficult one a client had requested, and once he'd figured it out he made sure to write it on his hand as soon as possible, so he wouldn't forget. Winly had been exasperated: "Why didn't you just write it on a piece of paper?" she'd asked while Al held his hand under the faucet, trying to get the sign off, and Al had just shrugged and said he hadn't thought about it. He just hadn't wanted to forget the sign, was all.
Funny thing, that. He helped so many clients every week, gave them what they wanted, brought smiles to their faces, and here he sat in a dark hallway while life was being created in the next room, and he couldn't do anything to help. Equivalent trade had ceased to be a factor.
Lightning lit up the hallway again; Al winced, shielded his eyes, and glanced out the window. The rain was still coming down with a vengeance, which was why he was here and not getting the doctor: Auntie Pinako had threatened to cut off his fingers if he so much as made a move to step outside the door. "We'll see how much alchemy you can get done with that," she'd said, fixing him with a stern glare through the haze of tobacco smoke.
Al thought she was joking, but he didn't want to take the chance. He did need those fingers.
He stretched out his legs with a sigh, crossing his ankles over each other and planting his heels on the floor, letting his toes point to the ceiling. The alchemical sign caught his eye again, and he lifted his hand to stare at it. It was a beautiful piece of work—he wasn't shy of praising his own achievements when they surprised even him—the clean, strong lines gracefully taking the irregularities and unequivalancies of life and transforming them into simple formulae. Al loved hands-on alchemy more than anything, but he had to admit there was a beauty in the research of it: of alchemy for alchemy's sake. His brother loved that more than anything, no matter how often people praised him for his genius for practical alchemy, and Al guessed Ed's enthusiasm had bled over onto him, over the years. He'd never loved sitting in a library and devouring information as much as Ed did, but at times—when it produced something like this—the work was worth it. And he couldn't really compare himself to Ed anyway, Al thought wryly; Ed was a veritable monster in many ways, in talent, intellect, and personality.
Another thunderclap, this one shaking the house's foundations. Al clenched his hands, once more reminded that all his talent, and all his brother's, couldn't do anything right now. He suddenly wanted a cigarette very, very badly, which was a bad habit he never should have started and would be quitting soon—but still.
And then, even over the low roll of thunder, there came a sound from behind the door. At first Al thought he was hearing things, but then he heard it again and the sound catapulted him to his feet. A baby's cry, high and thin and angry but—sweet. He ran to the door and knocked furiously on it, shouted, "Auntie Pinako? Can I come in?"
There was no answer, just another angry baby squall. Al had drawn chalk out of his pocket and put its tip to the door before he realized what he was doing, but he forced himself to put the chalk down. Some things couldn't be forced; like the time, he remembered with a sudden grin, that Ed had tried to jumpstart a cow into labor by using alchemy. That hadn't worked well at all; they'd gotten in a lot of trouble and ended up paying a hefty fine for their troubles.
And Winly would kill him if she knew he'd just compared this to a cow in labor, but it was the first thing that'd jumped to mind.
"Auntie Pinako," he called again. "Is it—is she—are you—Is she finished? Um, can I come in? Auntie Pinako?"
The door opened, and Auntie Pinako stared dourly at him before puffing a large cloud of smoke into his face. Al coughed and waved it away, and when he could see again, Pinako touched his hand. "Alphonse," she said. "It's over." She paused.
Al looked into the room but couldn't see anything past the bed, where the lump of Winly's body was discernible. "It's over," he repeated. "That's good! Can I see... can I see it now? Is it a boy or girl?"
Pinako's eyes darkened even as she smiled. "It's a boy. But, Alphonse, there's a problem."
He should be shocked, Al realized; and he was shocked, shocked at himself for not being more crushed or distressed or even surprised. Maybe he'd expected it. "What's wrong?"
She shook her head. "Can't say. Here, Alphonse. Come in and see him."
The tiny bedroom smelled like sweat and labor and tears. Al moved his hand to his face, then put it down again slowly when he came to the foot of the bed and saw Winly lying there, a tiny, cloth-wrapped bundle in her hands. She looked up at him, a fierce expression on her face; but tears were in her eyes as she nodded for him to come closer. Holding his breath—like if he let it out the baby would blow away like a dandelion—Al stepped to her side and knelt down, to be face-to-face with them.
"Al," Winly said. There was no tremble or quaver in her voice; for a second it gave Al hope, before he realized no woman who had just given birth should be speaking in that flat, cold voice. She opened her mouth to speak again, then changed her mind and peeled back the blanket, revealing their son.
His face was beautiful, Al thought dimly, all pale skin, touched with pink at the cheeks and nose; tiny little lips and a mouth opened in a soft yawn. And his eyes—Al's breath caught. His eyes, when they opened and looked around and tried in vain to focus, were the clear color of gold.
As the blanket moved down further, revealing the baby's body, Al set his jaw and lowered his forehead to the bed; then looked back up, summoning a stoic face for Winly. "It's not so bad," he said. "You can give him automail, right?"
Winly managed a brave smile as she turned the blanket back up, covering the limp little stumps where limbs should have been. "Of course," she said. "We are the best automail doctors in the country, after all. He'll be fine." Her smile trembled a little but her voice remained firm. "Say happy birthday to your son, Al."
Al nodded and lowered his head again, and let out a slow breath. "Happy birthday, Tristan," he said quietly, touching the baby's fine blond hair, losing himself in that gold, gold gaze.
That night, Al left Winly asleep in bed and tiptoed over to the crib, where a much less red-faced and more settled baby had been put to bed. To Al's relief, when he peered in Tristan wasn't asleep, but was looking around with wide eyes, trying to focus. Al rested his chin on the crib and watched him, the lightning every so often throwing him into white relief.
Objectively, he knew that the baby was really ugly, but that didn't stop him from running his eyes over every bit of his son and admiring it all, even the fat face and the weirdly-shaped little head; then he saw the little stubs of limbs, with stumps that should be fingers and toes, and looked down, swallowing tightly. Al remembered that his and Ed's mother had kept their baby pictures in a little book under her bed; every now and then—usually through Ed's wheedling and cajoling—she could be persuaded to take them down and look at them, with one boy perched on each of her legs.
"There's little Edward after he was first born," Trisha would say—or something to that effect—and ruffle Ed's hair affectionately, while Ed gaped and made faces at the pictures of himself.
"Wow!" Al had always been fascinated by one picture of Edward, which showed him splayed out across their mother's lap. "Was he really that fat?"
"I was not fat!" Ed said indignantly.
"You were the fattest baby in Rizen Pool," Trisha laughed. "And here's Alphonse, wasn't he beautiful?"
He hadn't been beautiful, not by a long shot, but Trisha hadn't seemed to know or care. She had kissed the pictures, then ruffled their hair and said that her sons were even more beautiful now than when they'd been just born.
"And a lot smarter, too," Ed had said, having mastered the fine art of sarcasm at a young age.
With a sudden pain, Al wished that this could somehow last forever. He didn't want this little baby to have to grow up, to have to experience even a fraction of the things he and Ed had. He wondered if his mother had ever felt that way; like maybe, when she looked at them so sadly, she hadn't just been sad about their father, but also about the way they felt about their father. They'd loved him unconditionally when they were babies, but growing up did mean you get smarter—and Al knew that that wasn't always a good thing. Babies didn't experiment with human alchemy, but little boys with Ed's wild and untamed intelligence did.
Tristan was yawning, his eyelids beginning to flutter. Al reached in, picked him up and cradled him to his chest, and Tristan blinked up at him, then closed his eyes. "There you go," Al murmured. "Go to sleep, I'm just leaving for a bit, okay?" He couldn't get anything else out; his throat had closed. He set the baby back down and carefully navigated his way through the bedroom, looking over his shoulder to see that Winly was still fast asleep before closing the door behind him. The soft click rang out in the silent hall.
The upstairs was sealed off for most of the day, locked securely so that no wandering clients could find themselves up there. Al fished in his pockets for the key, then jiggled it in the lock; it stuck sometimes. The door opened, and Al squeezed himself through, deliberately quieting his steps and his breathing.
Auntie Pinako had cleared out the attic, and Al had converted it to a bedroom. It was a quiet place, large and spacious, sparsely decorated; during the day, golden light fell from a single window, bracketing and spilling across the wooden floor. There were some pictures on the wall, but the only way the room really had any personality was through the scores and scores of books that filled it: Ed's personal collection, the books he'd collected over a four-year period. They filled bookcases and spilled out onto the floor; heaped in stacks across the room, they sometimes tottered and fell, waking everyone up if it happened at night. They were all battered and bookmarked, covered in hasty scribbles and notes and diagrams. The famous Edward Elric's life research filled this room; another reason why Al locked it.
Al looked around, then felt his heart leap as he saw a figure sitting up in bed, face turned towards him. "Brother!" he cried, and winced at how it echoed in the too-quiet room. Chewing at his lower lip, Al stepped quietly over to the bed, careful not to knock over any books since they were mostly arranged in a semblance of a pattern. "Brother," he said again, more quietly. "What are you doing awake? You should be sleeping."
Ed's dull gaze didn't move at his words, just remained fixed on the wall opposite his bed. Al reached out and touched his brother's shoulder, clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Your automail is cold.... here, let's get you back in bed, eh, brother?"
Ed sat passively as Al drew back the covers and, as gently as he could, lowered his brother to the bed, arranging his legs and arms so he wouldn't have kinks in the morning. "There we go," Al said in a whisper, throat clogging again. "You'll be comfortable now. Maybe you're up because your automail is bothering you. I'll have Winly look at it in the morning, okay?"
A flash of lightning filled the room, casting white light on the stacks of books. Ed never blinked or moved. Al let out a quivering breath, then dropped himself abruptly to the floor, rested his forehead against the bed. "Brother," he said, and the scraping sound of his own voice was frightening but not startling. "Winly had the baby tonight—do you remember me telling you she was pregnant—His name's Tristan. I thought it was the closest thing—the closest thing to Trisha... Tristan Elric. I think it sounds nice and strong." He swallowed. "He'll need to be strong," and his voice quavered but Al set his teeth and continued. "He'll need to be strong like you, so someday he can help people who've been hurt by alchemy. I'm trying to do it but I can't, not all by myself. He has your eyes, though. I think he might be a little bit like you."
The storm made it easier to remember. Ed had loved storms, loved the rain and the lightning and all the sheer noise it brought, the chaos. It'd been raining the night they'd ruined the human alchemy and it'd rained the night Ed had used his own soul to power the Philosopher's Stone. Now he was little better than a doll, like a homunculus with no soul to enervate or animate it.
Al remembered those baby pictures of Ed with his gold eyes and bronze hair. Alchemy had given his brother the ultimate knowledge, but he'd paid for it.
"What would you want me to do?" Al lifted his head a little, looking at Ed who hadn't moved a limb; his only movements were the waving of his bangs from his breath. "I know you wouldn't want to be this way. I know that. But I keep thinking, I keep hoping that someday, I might be able to get your soul back—or you know, I always have this wonderful dream where I wake up one day. Winly is still asleep and so is the baby, so I get up on my own and go to the kitchen. And you're sitting there, brother, grinning at me over coffee and saying,—You didn't think I'd stay that way forever, did you, Al?'" He had learned long ago that no matter how hard he looked, there was no glimmer of intelligence or presence in Ed's eyes, but he still couldn't keep himself from looking.
"I promised you I'd get you your body back. And you must have known, the entire time, that wouldn't happen, but you kept going, brother, and you never cared. Sometimes I hate you for that, you know. Why didn't you ever talk to me.... why did you always have to keep things to yourself...." Al sighed. "But it doesn't matter. You always did things the way you wanted to. That was why people called you—genius.'"
He looked at Ed, who still stared blankly up at the ceiling. It was selfish, he thought, to keep Ed here on some vague pipe dream, hoping, always hoping, that someday he would find a cure. He wouldn't find a cure; not a cure that he could live with. The Philosopher's Stone would bring him back, but that price was too high to pay again. It was just as selfish for him to want Ed to stay here, as it was to expect Tristan to be happy in that deformed body, living on automail limbs where everyone else had normal ones. Maybe he'd lived his whole life selfishly and he'd just never realized it.
Lightning flashed again, followed by a low rumble. The storm was getting closer. Al moved closer to the bed and gingerly took up Ed's normal hand, linking their fingers together. It was warm to the touch, and calloused from writing; and there, on the palm near the wrist, was the scar Ed had gotten when they were five. They had been climbing trees and Ed had fallen, impaled his hand on some broken glass. He'd never cried, not once. Al rubbed it; then, eyes filling, touched his forehead to Ed's hand. "I'm sorry, brother," he whispered. "I was selfish. I really do love you."
The house rattled as Al released his hand, stood and strode downstairs. In his and Winly's bedroom he picked up Tristan, cradling him against his chest, and paused briefly to touch their foreheads together before turning and leaving the room. This time the click of the closing door didn't echo; the low rumble of the house drowned it out.
Tristan moved in his arms, face scrunching together, and Al made soothing nonsense noises as he walked up the stairs. "Sh, sh," he murmured, opening the door to Ed's room, closing it with his foot and pausing a moment to look around. He would have to clear a space, but it would work. And he had chalk in his pocket. Squaring his shoulders, Al strode forward.
"Here we go, brother," he said. "One last time—let's do it together."
There was a field behind the Elric house that in the evening was turned into a sea of red and gold by the setting sun. Clumps of trees cast bloody shadows, which slanted onto a single slab of stone set in the middle of the field. In the morning and day the marble gleamed, but in the evening it looked like it was burning.
You don't go back there, the neighbors whispered. They took their children by the hands and pointed over the fence to the field, telling them that God's punishment waited for them there. Don't go back there. What lies there faced God's retribution.
Al uncrossed his legs and held up his wine glass, slanting it so that it caught the light from the sun. Then he upended it, letting the wine splash onto the marble stone, watching as it seeped its red viscosity into the grass.
"Alphonse." He turned and smiled at Auntie Pinako, who smiled back and held out the squirming bundle in her arms. "Winly is taking a nap and he got restless," she continued, dragging hard on her pipe after he took the baby. "I figured I'd take him out here."
"Thanks, Grandma," Al said softly, folding back the cloth from his son's face. Wide lips and golden eyes smiled at him. He touched his nose to Tristan's and grinned at him.
The old woman folded herself beside him, setting her chin on her free hand. Al glanced sideways at her to see that her eyes were fixed on the stone. He turned his gaze back to Tristan.
Pinako exhaled. "What's that array for?" she asked, nodding at the etchings in the stone.
"It's the human alchemy array," Al mumbled. "The one for restoring bodies."
"Hmm. You're very good at that." Smoke trailed from her nostrils.
Al tightened his lips and stroked the hair back from Tristan's forehead. It was almost brown now, but he thought he saw shades of blond in it at times; it'd probably be Winly's color or a little darker when Tristan was older.
Then a hand touched his arm, and he looked up to see Auntie Pinako smiling at him. Her eyes were soft, an expression he hadn't seen since he and Ed were little boys, hardly to their mother's knees. She squeezed his arm and said, "You made choices, Alphonse. All of us do. Your mother did. I did. And Edward certainly did." She paused. "God rest their souls."
"God rest," Al repeated in a whisper.
"Don't ever regret those choices," Pinako said. "You don't have time to be looking backward trying to make up for the things you did in the past. In the end, your brother understood that. Your mother too. She never looked back, always focusing everything on raising you two. And Ed, Ed knew if he looked back he'd only lose his resolve. That he wouldn't be able to do what he did for you."
If he tried to speak, it wouldn't come out around the lump in his throat. Al nodded and looked down.
"Don't let their sacrifices be wasted, Alphonse. Live a full life." She stood and rested a hand on her hip, blowing smoke out at the grave. "Sleep well, you ultra-shorty genius," she said fondly; smiled at him, winked, and turned back to the house.
Eventually, the blood on the stone faded with the coming of night; now, from the light of the moon, it glowed white and pure. Tentatively, Al rested his hand on the letters of his brother's name, feeling its familiar curves and lines. He shut his eyes.
When he dreamed at night, Edward was sitting in this field, clothed in his usual black, cut-off sleeves showing the smooth curves of his two human arms. His gold hair blew in the wind. He turned and grinned, lifted his hand and yelled across the space between them—
But Al could never remember what he said.