Conditioned Response

Al dreamed he got up out of his bed, got up out of his body, and walked through the curtain of reality to the other side. He found himself in a wide place of light, one that seemed to extend in all directions, above and below. Although it had no features, it felt somehow familiar, and Al knew with calm certainty that he'd been here before.

It occurred to him to notice that his memories had returned, and he wondered in the dreamlike way how it was that they could ever have been missing. Patiently, he sat down to wait. Whatever had called him to come here, he was sure, would make itself known.

Sure enough, after a stretch of time that seemed at once years, but felt no more than a few minutes, a voice spoke out of the void next to him. "Alphonse Elric."

"That's me," he agreed. He thought he saw a disturbance at the very corner of his eye, like something dark had appeared behind him, but he knew if he bothered to turn his head, it would be gone.

"We know who you are, Alphonse Elric," and now although he only heard one tone speaking, it seemed like there were many voices behind it, or perhaps many consciousnesses speaking in a single voice. "We have met you before, on more than one occasion. We are familiar with you, your life, your past—"

Al supposed this ought to seem alarming to him, and yet it did not. In fact, it slightly appeased him to know that he would not have to introduce himself.

"—and your family," the voice finished. "We have something to ask you, Alphonse Elric. Think well over it, before you respond. Have no fear; no judgment will be forced on you, nor will any harm come to you no matter what answer you give."

Al found himself intrigued. "I'll do my best," he said. "What's your question?"

After a pause, another one of those months-but-moments, the voice asked, "What would you say, Alphonse Elric, if we were to offer you a life without your brother?"

"What?" Startled, Al stared around into the emptiness, and then incredulity made him laugh. "You must not know me as well as you said you did. I already have a life without my brother; I'm trying to get him back." Endless trying. Searching, questing, the grind of frustration and the mounting despair of failure.

"We know you." The voice seemed unperturbed. "What you have now is a life with the hollow emptiness of your brother's shadow. What we are offering you is instead a life where you never had a brother at all. A life where the human being called Edward Elric never existed."

"Why would I want such a thing?" Al began, disturbed. "That's not even possible!"

"Many things are possible," the voice said smoothly. "Consider this carefully, Alphonse. Push aside your conditioned reaction of defensiveness and truly consider. As we said, we know you. We know well what trials you have suffered, what pain you have undergone as a result of your brother's thoughtless actions."

"That's not true," Al shot back, almost instantly. "If not for him, I would have died that night. He... he gave up his arm for me... he was willing to make that kind of sacrifice..."

"If not for him, you would not have been in danger," the voice countered easily. "You do not even realize, Alphonse Elric, just how much danger you were in. The punishment levied on the souls of those who break the laws and cross the boundaries is not a kind one. Your brother's folly dragged you within a hairsbreadth of a fate more terrible than you can possibly imagine. Balanced against that, the payment of a single arm is practically negligable."

"It wasn't negligible to him!" Al said indignantly. "Nor to me. He was willing to sacrifice himself for me... and I'd do the same for him. If he died, I wouldn't want to live much longer afterwards."

"Your devotion is touching," the voice said mildly, and Al wondered for a moment if it were mocking him. "But it is a trained emotional response born of closeness and conditioning. We offer you not a world where your brother died, but rather one in which he never existed."

A flicker of color caught Al's eye, and without conscious thought, he turned to look at it, and found himself mesmerized by the images he saw there. "A world where you grew up an only child, confident and self-assured, loving your mother and knowing you were loved in return. A world in which you stayed fast and close with your childhood sweetheart, where you comforted her through the death of her parents, and she through the death of yours. Where you cried when your mother died, and mourned her, and moved on with your life; where you left for Central and returned a doctor, and you and your wife became pillars in your community, and lived a peaceful wife, passed over by war and pain and suffering."

There was a pause, and Al sat transfixed, staring at the fantastic images playing out beside him. "This was the world that could have been yours; the fate that would have been yours, had your brother never existed. Would you not say that this was a better world?"

"But..." Al stirred himself with great difficulty, as though a suffocating lethargy were fixed over him. "May—maybe for me—but our journey didn't just affect us. If... if my brother had never existed... then... then he wouldn't have helped all those people!"

"Do not make the mistake of assuming that your brother was irreplacable," the voice said smoothly. "Had your pasts never crossed, those people would have, one way or another, found a way to deal with their problems. Indeed, to the contrary, what about all of the people who were hurt or killed because of your brother's actions, his careless disregard of others in pursuit of his goals?"

"He never!" Al's temper flared. "My brother was a hero!"

"Your loyalty to your brother does you credit." He was almost sure it was mocking him. "But you speak without thinking, out of emotion. Because he is your family member, you feel obligated to support and defend him, even against the consequences of the rules he thoughtlessly breaks. Because the two of you were forced into close proximity for so long, you cling to him out of emotional dependance. You are an alchemist, and thus a scientist, are you not? You must learn to set aside your emotions and look at the truth of a situation, not denying the facts."

Al hunched over a bit, shivering, although he didn't feel cold and there was no draft. He ached, and he felt confused. Were the voices speaking true, that his brother had done more harm to the world than good, and he was allowing his emotions to distort his thinking? How could he not? This was his brother, he wasn't supposed to be objective and rational about his own brother, was he?

"I... I..." Why was he so confused? Reasonably, he should have no doubts; the plain fact was that no matter how much he loved his brother, he would have been better off without him, without the armor, without the years spent searching. All those people who had been hurt because of them... Nina, torn apart by alchemy, Dr. Marcoh, whose peaceful existance they had ruined. Mr. Hughes, Greed and his friends, even Scar, Lior, God, all those people... did all their lives outweight this one? Where did the good of the many lie, in this matter?

"I…" Al wavered, then firmed, and shook his head. "I don't have the right to decide that. No human being has the right to decide if another person deserves to live or not."

"Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the right has been ceded to you." The voice sounded almost amused, in a dry way.

"No! ...that's not..." He brought his hands up to his head. How could he answer this without being selfish? Was it selfish, when he already knew that his own best interests lay all the others', if Ed had never been? How could he, how could he possibly make this decision, when his head was swimming with confusion and these heavy feelings, and this strange tension that rose up in his body as if to choke him.

"Answer the question." Under its dry, dispassionate exterior, the voice had gone coaxing, almost seductive. "Wouldn't it have been better if your brother had never lived? You would never miss him. You would never have suffered, never felt pain. Simply say the word, wish it so, and it could become true."

"No!" Al doubled over with a cry, clutching his head. Images of his brother flooded his mind, tripping over themselves in a tumult. Teen, child, adult, smiling, laughing, happy, crying, furious, harsh, soft, gentle, frightened, brave. Alphonse found himself almost crying. "I can't wish him away like that! I can't! I just can't!"

He sprang up, eyes wide and wild, as the suffocating feeling overtook his chest and rose up to strangle in his throat. "Why are you asking all these questions? Who are you? Who are you?"

There was a snap like a rubber band pulled too tight, and the white void blinked out, sending him falling through an endless darkness. Like some covering glass had broken, the suffocating blanket abruptly turned to rage and terror, boiling up through his chest to drown him, sending sparks in front of his eyes. Falling, air rushing past, whispering like the laughter of children, curious eyes watching him.

"Humans," a faraway voice said in disgust, "are so irrational."

He came awake with a jolt, and a strangled scream in his throat. The blanket that the voices had placed over his mind, suppressing his emotions and fogging his thoughts, was gone. That was no dream!

His bedroom, cluttered and familiar, darkened in shadows for night. Al sat up in his bed and clutched his blankets, heart pounding, shaking like a leaf. "I remember." As if saying it aloud had triggered the cascade, all his missing memories came pouring in, his lost years, the time in the armor. "I remember everything!"

A noise from somewhere outside his bedroom, somewhere downstairs, made Al stiffen, then throw back his covers. He scrambled out of his bed and out the door without pausing to grab a shirt, heart beating painfully in in chest. If—if—

His kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off, still filled with thin hazy smoke and soot. A huge array—no, the shadow of an array—had been burned into his floor, edges of t scraping against the wall. In the center of it, smoke still curling from the edge of his strange, soot-blackened clothes, was Edward. He was coughing, doubled over on his elbows and knees, and in an instant flash of knowing that had nothing to do with reason and logic, Alphonse suddenly knew what had been the black thing in his vision, and what he would have seen if he had turned around.

"Oh, God," he heard himself say, sounding eerily calm in his own ears. The calm cracked with the next word, though, reaching out through the smoke. "Brother—"

He was on his knees at the edge of the Array-shadow, now, words clogging up in his mouth until they just wouldn't come; all he could think of was that Ed must have been watching, must have seen Al doubt, and waver, and come within a word of destroying him. "No— I'm so sorry—-"

Ed was still catching his breath, breaking out hacking coughs, but he reached out without looking and grabbed hold of Al's wrist with his left hand. "Only you," he said, managing between spasms. "Only you had that right, Al. Only you."

As he grabbed his brother's hand with both of his, mind still numb from the shock, all Al could do was wonder what he'd ever done to earn that right.