The first thing Al experienced when he awoke to his body at last was a sensation of overwhelming fatigue, a weakness that gripped his limbs and made even turning over on the hard tile floor a Herculean task. Was something wrong with his body? Had his muscles atrophied, in the time behind the Gate? Or had it always been like this, and he'd just forgotten?
He lay for a moment on his back, panting, and staring up at the ceiling, viewed now through a dim film of dirty smoke. Somewhere beyond the new thunder of heartbeat in his ears, he could hear alarms; faintly, the pounding of feet and shouting of unfamiliar voices.
Heaving his uncooperative limbs up and over, Al made it to his hands and knees. After so long feeling neither hot and cold, he now felt both at once, and when his hands encountered a discarded coat on the tile floor he fumbled it in shaking fingers until he threw it around his shoulders. Fighting his arms through uncooperative sleeves seemed to take more strength than he had in him, and he nearly collapsed back onto his stomach when it was done.
The sudden boom of an amplified voice nearby, though, too distorted to make out words but not the sharp bark of military command to them, gave him new strength. This place was no longer safe. Before the military came in and caught them there, they had to get up, get together, get out.
On the other side of the room, lying in a still tumble of metal and limbs, was Ed.
With his new heart hammering in his mouth, Al pushed himself to his hands and knees and crawled over the soot-blackened tile floor, over the scuffed and dirtied chalked lines. "Brother?" he called, his voice croaking and buzzing hard in his ears. "Brother, are you all right? Are you..."
He felt curiously light-headed as he reached the still pile, and fearfully reached out to take his brother's pulse. There was a confusing moment where he could not detect any movement of his brother's heart from the movement of his own, but after a few seconds the pulsing resolved itself into two separate beats; his own, and Ed's. Alive, then. Ed was alive.
"Wake up, Brother... we have to go." He shook his brother's shoulder; it was hard, as somehow Edward had become enormously heavy. "Brother?"
His heart nearly stopped when with effort, he pulled Ed over onto his back, and the saw the thin stream of blood flowing from Ed's nose and mouth onto the floor.
"Freeze!" A voice yelled from behind him, and Al nearly fell over Ed's body trying to turn around to face it. A man in a black soldier's uniform, face pale, had his gun pointed right at Al's head. Time seemed to slow down, a little, looking into the small dark barrel.
Other uniformed figures rushed into the room, spreading out with guns drawn. Behind them came a figure in officer blue, with the rank tabs of a Brigadier General; his face was not one that Al knew. He looked straight through Al, to Ed's prone form, in a cold and freezing manner that made Al's heart quail.
"So," he said without preamble, "the rumors are true."
He turned halfway, to address another blue figure out in the hallway; "Document all this," he said. "I've got special dispensation from the high brass for this, but I'm not setting myself up for a fall here. I don't want there to be any wiggle room in the Council when we present our side of the case. We've got all the evidence we need right here in this room."
"Yes, sir," his aide replied, and stepped forward into the room. Like his commander's, his gun was still holstered; he didn't need it. In his place, he aimed and fired a camera.
"Good," the General grunted, and turned to address the armed soldiers. "Let's make this fast, boys. I want this case all sewn up before the Eastern pussy can get a C&D from the Fuhrer." The camera snapped, flashed, and Al winced at the painful brightness of the flash.
"Sir," the lieutenant said, calling the general's attention back. "What should we do about the boy?"
The general swung around to face Al full on for a moment; Al's eyes were watering too much from the flash to see him clearly. "Fullmetal's brother, are you?" he grunted; without waiting for a reply, he turned and added "Take him out."
"Wait, no!" Al cried, to no avail; a stampede of black uniforms surrounded him, and hands grabbed his elbows and arms, and he was lifted up as helplessly as a child. The stampede resolved itself into three soldiers surrounding him, half lifting, half carrying him; he stumbled as his bare feet hit the floor with a shock, and the hands supported him and dragged him inexorably along. Before Al could quite work out the rhythm of walking for himself, they had passed through the doorway and into the hall.
"Stop!" Al protested, beginning to struggle against the hands on him. He tried to brace his feet, but that only resulted in his solves being scraped along the floor, and he nearly fell. The soldiers stopped to readjust their hold on him, more carrying than leading, and Al craned his head and just barely caught a glimpse of two other men lifting Ed from his heap on the floor. Ed was lolling in a disturbingly limp way from their grasp, and then Al was yanked away. "I want to stay with my brother!"
His muscles were already weak and trembling; the further they took him from the room, the more frantic his struggles became, but he had no leverage and no strength behind him. "Let me go! I have to stay with my brother! Take me back to him! Why won't you let me go?"
"You can see him tomorrow," one of the soldiers soothed, wrestling with his left arm. "Even the brig allows one visit from family."
"Why would you take him there?" Al cried, and began to struggle even more frantically. His feet weren't even on the ground, now, as he wrestled in mid-air with the hold of the guards. "He didn't do anything wrong! He just did it for my sake. If you lock him up you have to lock us up toge—"
A single gunshot rang down the corridor.
For Al, time seemed to slow down, and the space around him expanded a hundredfold. The noise ripped through him, like something deeply planted in his brain had been ripped out by the roots, leaving him raw and bleeding in a dozen tiny, slowly fatal places. All at once he knew, as if he had always known; every inch of space in this small room, every gram of matter, where each and every thing was in relation to everything else. He knew, as he had never known before, his own body; the strength and flexibility in every limb, every joint, every bone. And he knew exactly what he needed to do.
It was the simplest, easiest of matters to turn his wrist, slip it out of the grasp of the clutching guard and turn to grab his arm instead. A smooth contraction, an easy pull, and seventy-four point eight kilograms of mass were rushing towards him, and it was the easiest thing in the world to turn in mid-air and direct all that momentum against his other captor.
He had all the time in the world to slip aside out of the way, to dive for the floor and place his hands smoothly against the wood, and kick back—two solid, clean impacts to the sternum, to the jawbone of the man holding his legs, and he was stumbling back, a pained cry beginning to emerge from his mouth as slow as molasses.
He didn't remember learning all this. But his body knew, knew how to flip and tumble and come to his feat, perfectly poised, perfectly balanced; the third man came towards him, hands outstretched to grab, and it was laughably easy to turn him, aid his momentum into a full-on collision with the wall, punctuated by the crunch of bone. He turned lightly on his feet to face the last man standing, bewildered and bruised and backing away, mouth agape with incomprehension that two of his friends, his comrades had been so easily reduced to tumbled, unmoving piles on the floor. Thin stream of blood from the mouth, from the nostrils.
The man wasn't stupid. He reached for his gun, but he never had time to draw it; Al's charged, perfectly calculated, perfectly timed, reached him before his hand ever touched metal. One hand to grab and twist, snapping tendons in a fragile joint; the other hand upraised, palm out and fingers curled, perfectly in line to smash the man's nose. He tumbled, clutching his bloodied face and howling, and once on the floor it only took one more precise blow, force traveling from his hip all the way down through his bare heel through flesh to the floor, to silence him.
Time sped up again. Al ran.
He could barely feel the pounding of the floor against his feet as he flew back down the corridor, around curves, slamming through doorways. He could barely hear the rasping of his breath in his lungs, the uneven thunder of his heart; could hardly register anything at all over the thick, glazed terror that had frozen every thought and nerve in his brain.
He burst back into the room, the fateful room, still hazed with a thin film of smoke, still scuffed with the dirty lines of chalk. Now lit by the flashbulb of multiple cameras, now forested with black uniforms and boots. Now painted red with his brother's blood.
They were already turning towards him by the time he broke among them, some of them reaching for a grab, some of them reaching for their guns. All of them shouting or swearing angrily, for daring to interrupt them in the aftermath of their bloody work, daring to challenge their deadly supremacy.
He didn't remember taking them all down.
When he came back to himself, trembling and cold under the coat in the center of the room, the center of the array, the claxons were beating again, and the blood on the floor was no longer all Ed's.
The strange lucidity that had come over him in the hallway, guided his steps and his muscles back here, left him now; left him cold and clouded and gray. He stumbled to Ed's side, and dropped to his knees; fearfully, one hand reached out and dabbed gingerly at the trickle of blood that oozed down Ed's neck. It was small, almost neat, the round coin-sized hole in the back of Edward's head. The blood was all coming from the front, and Al did not dare to turn his brother over. He knew—he knew—- but still he pressed trembling fingers to the side of Ed's neck, searching once again for that doubled pulse: but now there was nothing. His pulse went on, alone.
A low moan reverberated through him, and he dove his hands into the spreading puddle of blood, coating his hands in carmine. Blood, Edward had used blood to draw his seal, to bind him to the armor in this plane. How long did he have? How long had it been, in that basement, between the time his body had shredded away and the time Ed made his terrible sacrifice? Al would make that sacrifice, he would do anything, anything to bring ed back again, and surely—surely—Ed would understand.
His breath was ragged, little whining sounds escaping his throat as he scrambled around the room, dragging the hem of the coat through the blood and gore. Where had his armor gone? didn't matter, it wasn't here. What was there to bind his brother's soul to? This room was bare, so very bare of everything but bodies, blood, death...
Metal! He needed steel, that's what Ed had thought, to resonate with the blood. With half-numb hands, he fumbled out the guns of every soldier in the room, piling them into a clear space in the middle of the room. He dragged out an array in the congealing, sticking blood; there was enough steel for what he needed, to build a suit of armor to house a soul. It would be small, maybe smaller even than Ed's own body, but surely Ed would forgive him, surely he would understand—
I don't know it.
He began to tremble again with that realization, so simple, so terrible, so inescapable. The array, Ed's array, Al's array, the array to bind a soul...
I don't know it.
He'd never seen it. He'd lived it, he'd been it for five years, but he had never once seen what it looked like. Never asked Ed to redraw it for him. Never, ever dared to take off his own helmet and look in a mirror, peer into those cavernous depths to see the bloody, sinful miracle that bound him here. It was the same as it always, always was; Ed seeking, however hopelessly, to protect some shred of his innocence, to keep some final barriers between them.
Ed had pulled that array from the mind of a God, from the depths of mystery, from a miracle. But no doors had opened in Alphonse's soul, no mysterious knowledge of the mind and soul had come to him. He was ignorant, he was helpless. Al collapsed on the floor, curled into a fetal ball in front of the useless, worthless pile of scrap metal. He could not save his brother. He could not love him He could not...
It's not fair. It's not fair! Didn't I do the same thing as Brother, didn't I stand before the gates with him? Why can't I cross this line? Why don't I know it? Why don't I remember it? Why.... why... Why, this fatal innocence; ignorance had never protected them before. And now, in these last most desperate moments, it ended him.
He could feel, through the cooling, sticking tiles, the growing grumble of running boots, coming his way. As he uncurled slowly from his crouch, he felt the strange, weightless spatial clarity overtake him again. From the pile in front of him, he pulled a rifle, still with its full charge of ammo; carefully stood, and turned to face the door.