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mikkeneko

The Center of the World


Alphonse sat perched at the edge of the lower bunk bed, staring out over the

scrubby grass lining the edges of the dormitory, and tried to remember.

Tried to remember the feeling of grass, under your hands and feet. He could put words to it—stiff and cool and prickly and bendy—but did they mean anything, without the tactile sensation behind it? Tried to remember the feel of sunlight, not just warmth or heat but the faint prickling behind it that meant sunburn was on its way.

Tried to remember how it felt to inhale, and blow it out, in speech, in a laugh; how it felt to stand, to walk, with bones and muscles compressing and jolting about with every step, how to stomp your foot and know that you were feeling the rock-solid earth, all the way down, and that the earth and your foot were one, because one is all, and all is one.

Tried to remember how it felt to feel, to feel an emotion and not just know it existed, but to feel your head swim or your eyes prickle or your hands shake with nervousness. Tried to remember the feeling—the exact physical feeling—of fear.

Because he was afraid.

He was afraid and he was not even sure what he was afraid of, because there were just too many possibilities, so many things that could go wrong tonight. They were really going to do it, forbidden human transmutation, drink again from the same cup that had poisoned them before; and who knew if they really had got it right this time, with all the new arrays and equations and theories? What could go wrong—what could go wrong with the transmutation wasn't just a worst-case scenario, it was living breathing solid metal reality for the past four years and there was no way to know if things would go bad, or even worse.

He was afraid that he would come back alive and whole, but weak, his body withered or atrophied from years of disuse. He knew Ed was afraid of it too, from the number of times he'd repeated his assurances over and over, and that just made him more afraid of how likely Ed thought it would be.

He was afraid of what might happen after, not just if things went wrong, what if things went right, and they couldn't keep this under wraps, it promised to be at least a little bit spectacular; what if the wrong people put the right things together and they got in trouble, real human military trouble, and what if the Colonel couldn't dig them out of their messes this time? Al didn't know, really, what the punishments were for human transmutation—they'd shot Tucker, hadn't they, but Tucker had as good as committed murder on top of everything else he'd done. They wouldn't—couldn't—shoot Ed. Could they? Would they?

He was afraid because the world was a scary place these days, the air tense and grim and full of anxious portents that had nothing to do with them, and they had more than they could handle just dealing with their own problems, and how much longer could they keep dodging the rest of the world's? They weren't kids any more, and things that used to be 'grown-up business' was their business now, too. And it frightened Al because despite all they'd been through he knew, on some crushing level, that he had never grown past being ten years old, and he felt like a child lost in a world of grim and frightening adults, when even his own brother seemed to be moving farther and farther away from him in age.

He was afraid because Ed wasn't talking to him, wasn't telling him everything, and whatever he was hiding had to be worse than all the other fears put together, because he and Ed told each other everything. Everything. Whatever this was that was so bad that Ed couldn't—wouldn't tell him, Al couldn't figure it out and couldn't dream it up and he just hoped that he would be fast enough to stop it from happening, when the time came.

He was afraid afraid afraid because there were so many dangers, so many things that could go wrong, but above all else there was the possibility that things could go right and he would be human again. He could be alive again, he could live and breathe and laugh and touch and feel and love like humans did, and they could be free of the military at last, at last, and go back home together.

Hope—he could almost reach out and touch that hope, hours away, maybe, just a few ticks of the clock and an array or two later and it could be real, and that, that terrified him more than all the rest of it put together.

Because... because... was it cowardly to think, that as long as their dream stayed a dream, it would be forever safe? Reality was different. Things that were real could be changed and broken and lost.

Knock on the door broke him out of his thoughts, and his plates rattled as he jumped in surprise. He'd been doing it again, he realized, falling into one of those thoughts-only trance states that left him mostly oblivious to the real world. They annoyed Ed, he knew, probably because they scaraed him and Ed never admitted to being scared if he could help it... and he was doing it again, and he gave himself a mental shake as the knock repeated itself.

"Um... come in?" he called out, somewhat uncertainly. It couldn't be Ed, Ed never knocked on a dorm door in his life, but Al wasn't sure who else it could be; they didn't get many visitors, aside from that one girl who'd had a crush on Ed and followed him around for weeks which Ed had expressly forbidden him from ever mentioning again. The military police wouldn't knock, would they?

Al was somewhat relived, but still surprised, to see that his visitor was none other than the Colonel himself. He was still dressed in his uniform, with the black greatcoat over it; drops of water beaded on the shoulders and hems of the heavy material, as well as the ends of Colonel Mustang's dark hair, and Al noted with surprise that it must have been drizzling lightly enough that he hadn't seen it through the window.

"Colonel Mustang?" he said, rising to his feet and then standing uncertainly; he didn't like to loom so much, especially not in such tight quarters, but at the same time feeling it would be disrespectful to just sit with his feet up on the furniture when the Colonel was there. "Um—I'm sorry, but if you're looking for Brother, he's not back yet—"

"I know." The Colonel reached up and removed his cap, tucking it under his arm. "I went to considerable trouble to see that he would be occupied elsewhere for a short while, so that I would get a chance to talk to you in private."

"Talk to me?" Alphonse's earlier uncertainty redoubled. "Why would you want to talk to me?" Although he had a lot of respect for the Colonel—a lot more than Ed did—they'd never had much of a personal relationship. In fact, they'd rarely spoken directly to each other at all; the most direct and frank conversation they'd had was four years ago, when Mustang had told him to give up the State qualification exam. "Is there—is there something you need to know about—or tell me about Brother?"

"Only indirectly," Mustang said quietly. "This concerns you equally. Hence this personal visit. Now, I don't know—at least, I can't say with any certainty—what you boys are planning to do."

Al found himself stiffening up, a freezing of the metal joints that was obvious in the creakings when he tried to move. "I don't—I don't know what you mean, sir," he said, his voice wooden with the effort of keeping shrieking panic out of it. Of course, the Colonel was one of those few who knew their secret—of course the Colonel knew what their goal was, and he'd always supported them towards it before, but human transmutation was one thing when it was a goal and another thing when it was a plan, tonight—-

Mustang shook his head; a drop of rainwater arced away into the distance. "I don't need the details," he said quickly. "All things considered, it's best if I don't positively know anything. But I... Certain circumstances have come about that lead me to suspect that you boys might be moving towards a conclusion, and soon. Very soon. And before you reach that conclusion... whatever it is... there are things I feel that you deserve to know."

"Things... I need to know?" Al said in a small voice. "You—you mean, about the transmutation...?"

Mustang actually smiled slightly. "I wouldn't presume to teach the master alchemists their own business, Alphonse. No, what I have in mind is more a question of... circumstancial information."

He reached under his coat and brought out a plain, slightly shabby envelope of brown waxed paper, and held it out to Alphonse without further explanation. His expression was perfectly neutral. With slightly shaking hands, Al reached out and took the envelope, which crackled slightly in his hands.

With dexerity honed from years of practice, turning delicate pages with too-clumsy hands, Al opened the top of the envelope and shook out the contents. There seemed to be three different types of paper in the file; several sheets of graying newsprint were on top, and Al opened them first.

Al had never followed newspapers faithfully, tending to only read them when left with nothing else to do during long train rides; but he could tell right away that this was not the same newspaper edition that was widely published in public places. Only clips and articles had been included, dates spread over the past few weeks, but the picture they painted together was grim—bleak, even.

The situation in Drachma was worse, it seemed, than anyone wanted to admit to the general public. The range of 'disputed' territory between the two countries was growing wider mile by mile every day, and the areas which were 'controlled' by the Amestris military were anything but. The claims, accusations, promises and accords of the two national governments bore less and less relationship to each other, quickly devolving into mud-slinging propaganda and threat-mongerering scare tactics.

Al raised his helm to look at the Mustang in silent question—What does this have to do with our mission? But Mustang just gave the tiniest shrug, face still neutral, and his eyes flicked down to the papers in Alphonse's hands, indicating that he should continue reading.

The body count—all military now, since the civilians who had once inhabited the area were all dead or fled by this time—was growing on an exponential scale. And—a small voice of dread began to wake in the back of his mind—the Drachmans employed their own version of the National Alchemists.

"Does Brother know about this?" Al whispered, not wanting to know the answer—of course he did, how could he not, if Mustang knew, if he was telling Al of all people—

"Keep reading," Mustang said, and his voice was so flat, so level, that Al knew what would be in the next paper, stiff and glossy and heavy and watermarked, before he even turned it over.

He had to read it twice, before the contents sank in, and then a third time before the flare of blind rage and betrayal subsided enough to make sense of it. Transfer orders—Edward would no longer be in Colonel Mustang's chain of command but instead working in the same unit, on detatched duty with a dedicated squad, to be dispatched to special duty on the Drachman front.

The orders were signed and sealed, and dated almost two months ago, and the shipping order—Al stared dumbfounded at the date, willing it to make sense over the screaming in his mind—was tomorrow. Tomorrow.

This is what he wasn't telling me, Al realized in a burst of stunned clarity. That's why he insisted it had to be tonight, no matter what...

"I was afraid of that," Mustang said, his voice impossibly gentle, and only then Al realized he'd spoken his thoughts out loud. Another bad habit that he'd gotten into, when voice was only thought unhampered by breath or teeth or tongue, but he hadn't slipped up like this in years. "The truth would, of course, have come out on its own eventually. But by then—" Roy nodded to the last of the papers in Al's hands "—it would no longer have mattered one way or another."

Slowly, Al looked down at the last set of papers. They were eerily familiar; shabby, soft, and battered around the edges—booking receipts, like hundreds of others he'd seen in the last four years. Grocery pre-orders, a massive amount of food to be delivered to an address unfamiliar to him, but for the painful homesickness of the name of the town. Train ticket receipts for a—he leafed through it, counting the chronology—nine-day journey back to Riesenburg, with pre-booked and pre-paid hostel rooms at every stop. Just the sort of journey you would prepare for someone ill, or physically weak, who had to travel in easy stages to conserve his strength.

Reservations for one. Just one.

Mustang was still watching him, he could feel his dark eyes on him, waiting silently for him to take the information he'd been given and come to all the right conclusions. And he didn't need to have worried, because Al's mind was racing ahead, out of control as a firecracker tumbling to ignite dry ground.

If Ed went to Drachma then Ed would be in danger, if the orders were signed and sealed then there was no way, no way ever, that Ed could resign from the military now; but Al was not military and if the Colonel wasn't in charge of them any more they would be more than happy to send Al home, would probably insist in fact, for all Al's protestations to the contrary. And if Al were human and if he were weak then how could he fight against them, where would he find the strength to fight against the tide if his own brother was pushing him away, was sending him away...

And if Al were human and if Al were weak then it wouldn't matter what the military wanted, what Ed wanted, because Al couldn't go to Drachma and Al couldn't help protect Ed because he would be just flesh and bone without even steel automail and what good was that against blades and flying bullets? And he couldn't help Ed, and he couldn't shield Ed, and he couldn't step in front of the explosions and Ed never could take care of himself and he would die while Al was trapped thousands of miles away and would he even know when it happened?

And if Al were human—

And if Al weren't human—

And if they didn't do the transmutation tonight then everything would be fine, Al could go with Ed to Drachma and protect him there and the military could insist all they want and it wouldn't make a difference and—

and Ed might die anyway, or Al might, because he'd rather die saving him than let his brother die, and the chance to restore him might never come again.

Slowly, Al looked up, into the Colonel's face. He was pretty sure he wasn't vocalizing now, because his mind was going too fast for even voice without breath to catch up, but he rather thought from the Colonel's expression that he knew and understood everything that Al was thinking.

"Why did you tell me?" Al asked softly, as blank and emotionless as cold steel. He only thought hope had hurt before, when it was alive; it hurt now, like the bottom falling out of his armor into a hole leading to the middle of the world. It was not, he thought, a feeling very much like fear.

"Because you are not a child, Alphonse," Roy said, still with that damnable gentleness in his voice. "You are not a little boy to be shielded and lied to and sent here and there without your consent. You are an adult, and as such you deserve to know to the greatest extent possible what choices you have and what the consequences will be."

And the Colonel was right, and Al knew it and hated him a little bit for it, because this always should have been his decision to make, but it hurt. Oh, it hurt, and he would do anything to hurt him back—

"You know Edward will never forgive you for this," he remarked, still in the soft-level tone. Come to think of it, Ed would probably never forgive Al for this, but Al was confident that he could handle Ed.

"I know," Roy said, and he took his hat out from under his arm, studying the brim for a moment before he ducked his head to place the cap back on it. "Really, I would expect no less than a phenomenal grudge from him. It's his way."

Cap back on his head, hands in his pockets, he stared solemnly at Al for a moment. "Alphonse..." Al didn't think he'd ever heard Roy hesitate to that degree. "I don't quite know what words to say to help you. For the most part, this is going to have to be between you and your brother. But I wanted to... If you have anything you want to ask me, or can think of anything I can help you with, please let me know. If it's within my power, I'll do it."

He turned to go, leaving Al standing in the middle of the room, brown waxed paper envelope in his gauntlet. One white-gloved hand was on the doorknob when Al spoke again.

"There is something I want to ask you," Al said.

"Name it," Roy said, with a kind of closed wariness in his voice; aware of the potential danger, but not seeking to avoid it.

"That's not the only reason you came to tell me the truth... is it?"

Roy glanced over his shoulder at Al. The cap compressed dripping strands of hair down over his forehead. "No," he said. "I told you because... because your quest does not mean more to me than his life. You—So long as the two of you live, you will find more chances. I know you are young now, and a few years seems like a long time, and it is so when you are young, but... Time moves on. There is always another chance, while you live. Only death stops chances."

And after a long moment Roy added, more quietly, "And because I wanted you to do what I couldn't. To protect him when I cannot."

Al didn't say anything. Roy was a manipulative jerk—bastard, that was Ed's word, but it seemed to apply. That was nothing new. Roy had always been a manipulative bastard, but it had always been for their own good, before. And perhaps it was now, still, but it was hard to forgive him for that—except that in Roy's eyes, behind the pity and the careful blankness and the ruthlessness was fear, fear born of love that matched Alphonse's own.

"I hope to see you tomorrow, Alphonse," Roy said; the doorknob rattled, and he walked out.

Al stood, for a time, before he remembered vaguely that he was supposed to be aware of time passing. Ticking of minutes, of hours; in a few hours Ed would come back with the last of the supplies, geared up and ready to do the final transmutation that would restore Al's body. And Ed would fly into a rage, when he discovered the betrayal that had exposed his own, and they would fight, and Al would win... eventually.

And a part of Al writhed at the thought of the inevitable conflict, and whispered Brother how could you do this we promised to stay together how dare you try to make decisions for me push me away have you forgotten I made a promise or does that mean nothing to you

But most of him was just... still, and silent. Down to the center of the world.

Al sat folded on the edge of the bunk bed, stared into nothing at all, and tried to forget.