There was something about the final stages that had always drawn him in.
The moments before were fascinating, certainly, all raw energy and flux, a seeming of spontaneity in direct contrast with the calculated precision that transmutations required. It was the last moments of the change that had always held Ed rapt, however, had always thrilled him with the knowledge that whatever came into being, every tiny detail of it, was his creation.
It was no different this time—at least, that was what he told himself over the pounding of his own heart. It was exactly the same as every of the hundreds of transmutations he'd performed in the past several years, and the tightening in his throat and chest—well, that was just the usual excitement mixed with a healthy dose of nerves.
Nothing was going to go wrong. He'd thought it out too completely for anything to go wrong. Imagined the moment too many times for anything to go wrong.
He'd spent hours beforehand running over every detail of the finished product, lost sleep the previous night doing the same. He knew he had to concentrate, knew he ought to be focusing on what he was doing, but his thoughts wouldn't stop clamoring that if he never got anything else right in his entire life, he had to get this. Had to get it perfectly.
And surprisingly, filling in the gaps was easy.
Because he still remembered the exact color that his brother's eyes had been, and that his hair had been just a slightly darker shade of blonde than Ed's own. He knew where the little mole on the back of Alphonse's knee was supposed to go, and that the pinky on his right hand had been just a fraction of an inch longer than the one on the left. He knew that his brother had always been taller than him, had time to think that he didn't care whether Al teased him every day for the rest of his life, so long as he got it right.
And then... it was finished, and the fiery blue-white light was fading, and he was left sitting on a stone floor with the culmination of his efforts before him.
He heard the quiet gasp from behind him at the same time that he sucked in his own breath, holding it for an endless second as he surveyed the results. Distantly, Al's voice was speaking, echoing hollowly in the confines of the armor, but Ed was already crawling forward on shaking arms, heart in his throat, as he reached out to the naked form spread on the circle before him.
He felt as though the world had stopped around him in the first tentative seconds after he'd pressed his fingers to its throat, panicked for moment before the shallow throb of a pulse reached his fingertips. And then it caught his eye: the gentle rise and fall of a pale, bare chest as it breathed.
Relief stole his energy, and he leaned back heavily on his hands, a feeling both dizzy and slightly surreal settling over him. Gradually he realized that Al was asking whether he was alright, and he turned to face his little brother with a grin that felt tentative and uncertain and on the verge of tears.
It was a shock to see so much of the armor gone, but of course they'd expected it—had known that if they'd planned on using the Philosopher's Stone in a trade, parts of it would be taken away.
"Breathing," Ed told him, and laughed quietly. The sound was shaky, for some reason. "It's—you're—there's a heartbeat. And breathing."
"Is that right?" He could hear the tremble of excitement below the words, guessed that, if the anticipation was bad for him, it must be tearing Al apart.
"If you wanna take a look before I keep going, now's the time." He felt like his heart was pounding in his throat. "Cause in a couple of minutes..."
He didn't finish the sentence. Didn't have to. They both knew what the next few minutes would bring—that, whatever came to be, it would shape the rest of both of their lives, forever. There would be no changes, no fixes, no going back. Nervously, he flicked his tongue out to wet his lips; his mouth had gone dry, and it was beginning to make his voice rough, a bit raw around the edges.
"I trust you, brother."
For a moment, Ed closed his eyes against the impulse to demand that Alphonse not trust him, just for once—fought the urge to remind the other boy that he'd spent the past five years without a body thanks to trusting him. And then the compulsion had passed, and he forced a grin instead, guilt showing only as a shadow over confident golden eyes.
"Then let's get going." And before he could stop to think about it any more, he was taking the small jar from his pocket, unwrapping the glass container carefully from the cloth that held it. His hands shook only a little as he uncorked it, spilled the ink onto the bare skin laid out before him.
Again the room was filled with the sound of two hands coming together—one flesh and one metal, completing a circle to begin the change.
It was easier this time—much easier, and Ed took comfort in the fact. Working the ink into pale flesh wasn't nearly so hard as making the flesh had been, no matter how meticulous the design he was creating needed to be. And this array was, after all, one that he knew with disquieting intimacy.
Bare seconds later, intricate strands had merged together, tendrils of black too-dark on the pale chest of the body that would be his brother's.
And with startling ease, everything had fallen into place. The body was there, breathing and living and looking for all the world as though it was Al just freshly turned fifteen. The array was made, the same mark as one that had been drawn in blood by a child's hand on a night long ago.
There was only one thing left to do. It had been years... and there was only one thing left to do.
He couldn't explain the panic that welled up in response to the thought, didn't want to acknowledge the fact that, if he were to fail now, it wouldn't simply mean losing the Philosopher's Stone.
"Al—" Desperately, he twisted around to face his brother, needing very suddenly to see Alphonse, even if he couldn't judge the younger boy's expression. He wasn't sure what he'd intended to say, whether he'd meant to offer comfort or seek reassurance, but the words were lost a moment later, and Ed forgot about attempting to voice them.
Because Alphonse was speaking again, and the words were patient, and exasperated, and nervous, and Ed was sure quite suddenly that there wasn't anyone in the world more perfect than this boy who had born the weight of his sins so tirelessly for so long.
"Brother," Al was saying, "I did say that I trust you. That hasn't changed in less than a minute, you know."
For the space of a heartbeat, Ed blinked against the prickly warmth at the corners of his eyes, swallowing hard before he could trust himself to speak. "I guess I'd better get it right, then."
His grin was fierce—determined and confident, flooded with the hope that he'd spent years gathering and hoarding for this one moment.
Pressing his hands together, Ed completed the circle.