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pellaz

Trade-Off


Al's children are ten and five when a famous alchemist from one of the continents visits, dropping off the last bits of papers that Al needs to complete his research. He wishes Al good luck and leaves without staying the night as he usually does; at dinner Al's wife notes his absence, expresses concern for his well-being with a sweet smile. Al returns it and says, over spooning mashed potatoes onto the youngest's plate, that he is sure the professor will be fine.

He has gathered all the materials he needs on little more than a child's allowance, on what seemed like so much so long ago but which now hardly makes a dent in his teacher's salary. He has taken to locking his workshop, even though his wife and children never express any interest in visiting it, and after dinner he steps out of the house, unlocks the door and slips inside. A deep inhalation fills his nose with the scents of wood and potpourri, chalk and old paper, and acrid chemicals. He touches his materials with gloved hands until he is satisfied everything is ready; then locks the door again, lights the shop dimly by a few candles, and kneels down on the floor to begin drawing the transmutation circles with painstaking, shaking-handed care. They are beautiful, he thinks, round circles with crosses and triangles and squares: the best arrays he has ever drawn. He takes off one of his gloves to trace the edge of a circle with his fingernails, just lightly enough so that it won't smudge. He can almost feel its power coursing through his fingers: but not quite yet. Soon they will be glowing, alive, but not yet.

Al has arranged his favorite pictures on the edge of his desk; he sits in his chair and stares at them, brushing his fingers over the frames. There is one of his daughter when she was born, a light-skinned blond with the faint blush of good health; of his son when he is two, both of his hands held by his parents. There is his wife, her kind smile lighting her otherwise plain face, dark hair done up in two braids and lit from behind by the autumn sun. And there is another picture tucked behind the frame of a picture of Winry, so old it is beginning to fade and curl; but he doesn't need it to be perfect, for he can picture the face and coloring of his brother all on his own, draw his smiling, gentle face and glowing eyes with careful strokes in his own mind. But it is good to be able to hold it, to touch it, run his fingers over its worn surface. It has kept him company through many years—but soon he won't need it.

The clock reads 8:00. His wife will put the children to bed soon, and she will wait up for him, as she has done for so many nights, nestled in the rocking-chair in their bedroom, reading a book or gazing out the window—perhaps occupied with her own thoughts, or perhaps wishing that he will come back inside soon. Soon, he thinks, the word that has been in his mind for all these years: soon. Soon everything will be right, everything will be perfect. His children will know their sharp-witted uncle; his wife will know her murdered brother-in-law. He takes a deep breath, links his fingers together, cracks his knuckles; then shakes them out straight and lays them over the array, and closes his eyes on the sudden blaze of blue light.


Images fill his mind: his brother and he as young children, faces turned to the sun, laughing. Their mother waiting for them on the hill with hands outstretched. His brother on a stretcher, pale face flecked with blood, eyes wide open but sightless. Central City burning as the rebels poured in through the gates, so many, so packed together it resembled a river. His wife standing in a bar of sunlight, draped in a wedding dress the same deep shade as the blood on his brother's face. His two children laughing in the sunlight, gold eyes shining.


He does not remember visiting the Gate when he was younger, but he recognizes it instantly: the golden glow, the Truth towering above him. It is cold, so cold it makes his bones ache, and he lifts his hands to his shoulders with a wince. He looks around frantically, suddenly aware how vastly empty this place is, how far removed from his own experience. He could be kept here forever and only a moment might pass in the real world; and no one would know.

"Alphonse."

Al whirls around and the breath rushes out of him in a gasp. He tries to speak, but can't force words past the barrier in his throat, the lump of tears. He holds his hands out, instead, and his brother steps close enough to take them: but their hands do not touch, Edward's fingers stilling just before they reach Al's. He tilts his head with a sad smile and Al chokes.

"Brother," he says thickly, heat beginning to fill his eyes. "I...."

"I know you tried," says Edward, smile curving. "Don't do it again, Al."

Al shakes his head and the tears spill with the motion, tracking down his cheeks, to his mouth so that he tastes salt. "Why not?" and he hears his own voice with surprise, how childlike and small it sounds. "Look! I'm so close."

Edward just sits down, pats the space next to him. "Come on," he says. "Tell me what you've been doing."

Al sits apart from him at first, and says nothing. But his brother is so close, and his smile has turned wry with knowing, so that Al has to return it tremulously and curl into him so that Ed can wrap an arm around his shoulders and stroke through his hair. It is a very motherly gesture, like what Mother used to do for them, and like he used to do for Ed when he was in the armor and bigger, letting his brother crawl into his lap and sleep through nightmares. He tells Ed about his wife and hears Ed's pleased puff of breath, and about his children. He tells him that Winry isn't married, that she goes through a new boyfriend every six months or so, that she has broken the hearts of most of the men in Central City. Colonel Mustang and Lieutenant Hawkeye disappeared sometime after the war and were never seen again, although Al knows that Havoc and Fury and the others receive mail from Lieutenant Hawkeye and just never tell anyone. Auntie Pinako died many years ago; their teacher and Seig are getting older, setting their affairs in order. Sensei is affectionate to his children; so is Seig. They would have made wonderful parents.

"I wanted you to have children," he says into Ed's chest, inhaling the familiar scents of his old red cloak and tasting metal and oil on his teeth. "I wanted us to live in houses next to each other and do research together, and just—"

"Oh, come on." Ed pats his hand. "Wouldn't I have made a better crazy uncle?"

"That, too. I want my kids to know you."

To that, Edward says nothing, just brushes his fingers across Al's brow and squeezes his shoulder. Al squeezes his eyes shut and draws himself closer into Edward. "When I get back into the real world," he whispers, "will you be there?"

"No," Ed says. "It won't be me. I can't come back, Al. No matter how much I want to, no matter how much you give up."

"But this time it was supposed to be perfect—!" Al clutches at Ed's chest and pulls himself up, searching Ed's face, trying to memorize these eyes, these lips, this expression. "I perfected the theory," he says. "I worked so long on it—you see, if you can just do the transmutation perfectly, if you can just offer up something of equal value, you don't have to create a homunculus."

"And what did you offer up, Al?"

"Myself," he says, looking down from what he knows will be Ed's angry expression.

Fingers touch his face, curl under his chin. Ed lifts up Al's face so their eyes can meet, then shakes his head, slowly. "But," he says, "I won't let you do that."

"You deserve to live! Not me. I've had my life. Please, brother—"

"Go back now, Alphonse." Ed's hands have settled on his shoulders now, and he squeezes gently, then skirts a hand through the silky hair at Al's neck. "Go home."

And then the world begins to fade, the Gate of Truth disappearing and Ed's form wavering. Al clutches at him, tears spilling out again from his eyes, but Ed is slipping through his fingers. His last sight of Edward is blurred, but he can see the smile on his face, the sad expression in his eyes, and he stretches out his hand and cries out—but Edward is gone.


When he comes to, the blue light of the alchemical reaction is fading, and the air is thick with smoke, blurring his eyes when Alphonse opens them. He chokes, putting his hand over his mouth, and rolls over to hide his face beneath his shirt so that he can cough and breathe in clean air. When he is through choking, and spitting out a strange thick substance in his mouth, he sits up, wipes at his face and looks around.

His eyes widen.

"Ed....?" he whispers, and the thing in the middle of the room turns, as if it has recognized the sound of his voice—but, turning, it puts its face into a wisp of light, and Al gasps and shrinks back at the sight of it.

"Oh God. Oh, God...."

His brother—but not-his brother, with eyes not gold but a pale, milky-white substance and devoid of anything that can be called human feeling—puts out its hand, tilts its head at Al. It makes a little noise, a gurgle like a baby's first trembling breaths. Al catches himself from shrinking back again, and takes a deep breath.

It won't be me, Ed said, and Al believes him. And yet it looks so much like him—he could pretend, if he wanted to, he thinks. If he held it long enough, it might remember him enough to say his name, call him brother.

Al stands and holds out his hands to the creature. Something like a smile lights its face at the gesture, and it stumbles towards him, every bit as clumsy and graceless and fumbling as a toddler learning its first steps. It is still making that strange gurgling sound, and even the thick substance streaking its blond hair and pale face looks something like what had covered Al's son and daughter when they were first born. "Come here," Al says gently when it hesitates, and at his voice it stumbles the rest of the way towards him and falls, heavily, into his arms.

It is warm and its heart is thudding against its chest, and it nestles its head against his chest, clings to him with strong fingers. Al lifts up his hands and settles them—very gently, lest he break something—-onto its head, sinks his fingers into the thick, warm mass of hair. He closes his eyes and lets out a trembling breath. In his arms, the creature is trembling, too, and its gurgling has quieted into content silence. Al pulls it closer and sets his chin on its head, and holds his eyes carefully open to keep back tears: but they spill out anyway, hot on his cheeks, tracking a scalding path down his chin.

He pulls away and it makes a noise of distress, clinging to him. "It's okay," he soothes, framing its face with its hands. Pale, almost clear eyes blink at him, nothing like Ed's bright eyes, its face holding nothing of his old sardonic expressions. It is like a little child, an empty slate, but sweet as a newborn when it nestles into him again, folding long-fingered hands into Al's shirt. "It's okay," he repeats, carefully untucking its fingers and putting it at arm's length. He smiles at it through his tears. "It's going to be fine. Just trust me. Brother, just trust me."

Keeping one hand on it, he steps backward, bumps into his desk and scrabbles at it one-handed. There is a box in one of the drawers, and he pulls it out, opens it clumsily. Cold metal meets his fingers and he picks it up gingerly; save for the time he first bought it, he's never touched it. It's heavier than he remembers. He turns it in his hand and thumbs off the safety; its click is like a gunshot in the room.

He strokes its hair, its cheeks, murmurs to it. "It's okay. It's okay. I love you, don't be frightened." And—"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," over and over again as he lifts the gun and settles it in between the pale eyes.

It opens its mouth; no sound comes out, but he recognizes the shape of its lips, and can imagine its voice as it mouths his name.

Alphonse pulls the trigger.


It is midnight by the time he forces himself up from his slumped position on the floor, from kneeling next to the small, still body. His knees are soaked in blood, and they ache with cold; his legs are trembling. Al gathers the body into his arms and cries at how small it is, how light, how easily it fits into his arms. The eyes are still open, but he can't bring himself to close them. They stare at him as he drags himself outside, tripping on mud and clumps of grass, and struggles over the hill to their vast backyard.

There is a shovel in his workshop, but he hadn't thought to get it and can't bear the thought of leaving the body by itself. So he kneels on the ground in the cold mud, sets his hands to the earth and begins digging. It's been raining for weeks, but the ground is still hard to break, and the mud makes it heavy and hard work. Before he has even dug a shallow grave, his fingers are bleeding and his arms are burning. He keeps digging long past the point where he is numb, every single part of him.

When the hole is deep enough, he staggers back up, stumbling a bit, and bends down to lift up the body and place it carefully into the grave. He arranges it neatly, folding its hands over its chest and straightening its legs—putting it in the same position Edward had been buried in. He even tweaks the braid over the shoulder, just like Ed's was. He wishes he had the pocketwatch, but that was buried with Ed; it is probably gone to the earth now.

"I'm sorry," he chokes out rawly. "I'm so, so sorry." He reaches down and closes its eyes, then collapses onto the ground, leaning forward until his forehead is pressed into the mud. "Please. Please forgive me. Don't be angry, wherever you are."

He is shaking so hard he can barely throw the first handful of dirt onto the body, but when he does he almost climbs in and shovels it back off. He remembers them throwing the first bit of dirt onto Ed's coffin. He doesn't remember the rest; he just remembers waking up a few days later, feeling groggy and slow-minded from the sedation. But there is no one to catch him if he faints here, and there is no one to finish the job.

There isn't even a flower in sight to put over the little mound when he is finished. His wife used to have a garden, but she gave up on it after the rains and winters here proved too persistent. The only thing he has is the little cross around his neck; he pulls it off its chain and nestles it carefully into the dirt. It is too small to even catch the glow of the moonlight.

A bit of the dirt darkens, then more, and Al realizes as a thunderous sound fills his ears that it has begun to rain. He looks up, into the rain, and closes his eyes as it washes away the blood and the filth, and masks his tears.

He is screaming and screaming, but no one can hear over the roar of the rain.


"Daddy, look at what I made!"

His youngest is seven now, his oldest twelve and gone off to private school. Al looks up from his morning coffee and smiles at his daughter, holds out his hands for her. She folds into them and nestles against his chest, smiling up at him as he strokes her pigtails. "Now, what did you make that's got you so excited?" he asks, sipping his coffee and snapping back a page of the local newspaper. "Did you draw me something else like you promised you would?"

She shakes her head. "No. I learned it all by myself, from some of your books. Come and see! Mom said it was good."

"Well, looks like I have to," Al says, tweaking her nose playfully and scooping her into his arms—she's small for her age and he intends to take advantage of it while he still can.

His wife is waiting for him in their children's bedroom, hand tucked under her chin, looking pensive. "Oh, Al," she says, shaking off the sober look when she sees him. "Come see what Charity did."

But he already sees it: a transmutation circle on the floor. Drawn shakily, and with no real skill: a simplistic circle, but a transmutation circle all the time. Al sets Charity down and kneels next to it, drawing a careful finger over its curves.

"Do you like it, Daddy?" says Charity, bending down to his level. "It's from one of your alchemy books! Now I can be just like you and Uncle Ed, right?"

Al smiles. "Right. It's very good. Maybe I should start teaching you, Charity.—Now, go and feed your kittens, okay?"

She grins and laughs, thrilled, and runs out of the room—-her adopted calico, whom they all thought was just unnaturally fat, gave birth to a little brood of kittens, and Charity is caring for them diligently. With her brother gone, it's good she has things to take care of, things to distract her.

His wife touches his back hesitantly; then, when he doesn't move away, settles her head in between his shoulder blades. "I'm sorry," she says in subdued tones. "I try to keep your books out of Charity's sight, but she's too curious. You'll have to put them under lock and key."

"I won't," says Al. He turns his head so she can see that he's still smiling, then moves away to begin erasing the circle. "She should learn it. I'll just teach her, and hope she doesn't make the same mistakes we did. That's the best thing, isn't it?"

He can hear his wife's surprised smile fill her voice. "Yes," she says. "I think that's best."


The little grave has melted into the earth, and now the only thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the backyard is the little cross. Al visits it every week and puts fresh flowers on it. His wife comes with him; he's never told her what he did and who is buried here, but he knows she has her guesses.

He kneels in front of the grave, clasps his hands to his forehead in—not a prayer, exactly, because he's every bit as atheistic as his brother was, but in a silent apology to a person he can only hope will hear him someday. Then he stands back and puts his hands in his pockets, and his wife puts her hand on his back, stroking gently.

"Shall we go visit your brother's grave next week?" she asks.

He nods. "It's past time. I missed last month's visit."

"We were all sick. We couldn't help it."

"I know," says Al, turning his back to the tiny grave.


Edward's grave in Central City is just one of hundreds of white State Alchemist graves in the cemetery, lying unremarked somewhere near the city. Winry decided what went on the tombstone, because Al couldn't, and so it says, simply, 'Edward Elric. We won't forget.'

Al has taken that to heart. He hasn't forgotten, and he doesn't want anyone else to, either, this generation or the next, for long after all others' names have passed.

He crouches next to the grave, puts his hand on top of the green mound. Fresh flowers crowd the headstone: red ones and yellow ones, along with a particularly pretty breed of white flowers. Winry brings these. Al brings pictures of his family. He sets the new one against the headstone and rests his hand against the cold stone; some moss is beginning to creep onto the letters, but he doesn't brush it off. It makes the headstone look pleasantly alive, green and lush like Risenbourgh where they were raised.

He always thinks he should say something—a prayer for Edward's soul or for his forgiveness, but he knows Ed would only laugh if he saw him doing it. So he keeps all words in his heart, sealed behind his lips; touches the grave one last time, then turns and walks away.


'They say human alchemy is a terrible crime, that it lets men walk on God's territory and subvert the natural laws. Call it God's punishment, divine retribution, karma—with all humans can do now, maybe it's just one last thing we have to conquer. But if history ever judges those who tampered with the natural order, I hope we are looked kindly upon, for—it wasn't out of scientific curiosity that we did what we did. It was out of loss, and pain, and most importantly it was out of love. If I could take it back I wouldn't, because in a way it was the ultimate declaration of love. I would do this for you, and I did. Call that arrogant, call it unrepentant. Just think: in that situation, with those feelings, what would you do, and why shouldn't we all?'