The rest of the house was nothing but crumbling charred timbers and debris, but the stone floor of the workroom was still there. Ed even fancied he saw a trace of old chalk under the dust and ash.
"Full circle, Al." He muttered, fingering the stone in his pocket.
"We'll need a clean space," said Al, the ever practical one. "Let me." And he stooped, metal knee raising a cloud into the dry summer air. He used his finger to sketch a series of geometrical designs in the dirt, then placed his leather hand gingerly into the array. Bright light briefly issued from the ground, then sudden wind buffeted both boys from all directions. When the wind ceased the stone foundation was as clean and pristine as any slate.
Ed pulled out two pieces or chalk and handed one to his brother. "Are you ready?" he asked.
"Last time you ignored your feelings. What do they say this time?"
"They say the time is right, Brother." Al sounded optimistic. "I'm ready to be flesh again. I don't want to wait any longer."
Ed nodded and knelt and both began to draw.
It hadn't been a true philosophers stone, but the boys prayed it was good enough. In the end it was, but only just. It shattered violently in Ed's automail hand the moment his human fingers touched Al's. Ed could only hold on as tightly as he could pulling the other back into realm of the living, hoping that Al's soul had reattached itself, because there was no going back into the armor now. The armor hadn't just broken under the strain, it had exploded, shattering into tiny flecks.
It had been enough. When the fury and light died down again, and the steam and smoke settled out Ed still held Al's warm hand in his. Exhaustion forced Ed to the hot stone floor, but nothing could keep him from looking at his brother's body for the first time in four years.
No his brother's body wasn't perfect. It had all its pieces. It was warm. It breathed large gasping breaths. But it wasn't perfect. The years on the other side had not been that kind: where once Al had been soft and round, the last traces of baby fat gracing his body, now he was emaciated and angular. He'd grown perhaps three or four inches on the other side, but had lost mass. His skin had turned pale, his muscles had shrunk, and his hair and nails were longer, though not as long as they would have been had they been allowed to grow in the outside world.
It didn't matter to Ed. Because even though he couldn't move, not even to keep his hand from slipping out of his brothers limp grasp, he could see Al stirring. Al was uncurling from a fetal position, naked body stretching out in the sunlight. Al's eyes were fluttering open, his mouth sucking in breath and letting it out in shudders. Al was turning his head to look at HIM, those huge hazel eyes focusing and blinking.
"Welcome back, Al," Ed breathed.
"Brother, " said Al, his voice hoarse and gravelly. "I can feel the sun."
Ed smiled, closed his eyes, and allowed joy to carry him off to sleep.
A loud crack and a strange light appeared through the kitchen window. Winry ran out of the house, a feeling of eerie déjà vu sending tingles through her body. From over the rolling grass hills she could see the alchemical reaction churning up the afternoon sky. Just like it had 4 years before.
They were doing it again.
Her heart pounding she turned to her grandmother standing next to the fence. "I've got to go."
She ran down the path and over the hill as fast as her slippered feet would let her, taking short cuts through the long grass, leaping over a drainage ditch and at last reaching the skeleton of the Elric's house.
She found them collapsed in the remnants of their array. At first her heart tripped and she thought they were dead, but then she realized that they were breathing, very slowly and deeply. Anger, which had been forced into the background by her initial terror, re-emerged with a vengeance.
Ed had destroyed his automail—AGAIN. Just for that she was going to be extra brutal attaching his new arm.
And there, that was Al. Oh my god, that truly was Al, looking like a famine victim, like he could die again at any moment if he wasn't taken care of.
Winry looked around desperately but saw nothing she could use to haul either boy back home. "You jerks," she said at last. She reached for a better word to describe the conflicting emotions she felt, but could come up with nothing more. "You inconsiderate jerks."
"Well, " Pinako had told Ed when he'd finally woken up, "I was hoping you boys would pay us a visit. Wasn't expecting Winry to have to haul you back in a wheelbarrow though. Why didn't you call ahead? Let us know?"
Ed struggled to sit up in bed. It was tough but he managed. His automail arm was detached, and his flesh arm felt like a wet noodle. "You'd have stopped us."
"Maybe. We'll never know now." She placed a sandwich on the end table next to the bed. "Can you reach it, or will I have to feed you."
Ed reached it.
"So," she said after a long moment. "What about the your arm and leg. Are you going to try to bring them back, too?"
Ed shook his head and swallowed. "No. It's enough. There are plenty of old soldiers who have lost as much as I have. They've gone on to live happy lives. I can do the same."
"What about Al?"
"I'll convince him. It isn't worth risking any more. It's enough."
Pinako picked up the empty plate, sparing a last look at the exhausted alchemist. She hoped he was speaking the truth, but in the back of her mind she suspected that it WASN'T enough. Not for Al, and not for Ed either. Sooner or later they would tempt fate again. She hoped it was whole lot later.
Over summer and into the fall, Ed had written Mustang three times. The first was a long letter written days after Al's return to his body. Out of habit, Ed had written the incident up as a report, outlining what he'd done, and what the results were in a very clinical way. It was only near the end that he'd broken down let himself become personal.
I can't express how happy I am to have Al back. It is as though I have managed to turn back the clock and undo my mistakes. I feel better than I have in years. Al is happy, too. Though he is still weak and has trouble doing ordinary things, he's getting better day by day. Sometimes he's overwhelmed by sensation and has to be quiet for a while, but most of the time he simply loves it. As far as his mind and soul are concerned they appear to be completely intact. He is exactly as he was before, as a person, and as armor.
Although at times we haven't seen eye to eye, I do appreciate all you have done for us. Thank you so much, sir.
Mustang had written him back quickly, expressing his awe and congratulations. He was looking forward to seeing Al in the flesh, and was wondering when Ed planned on returning.
Al had read the letter and handed it back to Ed, those huge hazel eyes looking thoughtful. "Are you going to go back?"
"Hell, NO!" said Ed. "The only reason I signed on for the Army was to do this, to get YOU back. I'm not going to be ANYONE'S dog again."
Al had smiled, but then looked rather pointedly at the end table, where Ed had stowed his watch.
"I'm sending it back, tomorrow."
The second letter to Mustang had been stuffed into the package with the watch. It was a request to resign.
Mustang had waited almost a month before writing back.
Please reconsider your resignation. While you have accomplished what you set out to do, the Army is still the best place for a person of your abilities. With the resources available here, you can go far. If you wish to pursue research, I will help you to that end. If you prefer a more active roll, I'll see you will have that as well.
Ed had snorted. "Al, he's missing me already."
The letter had gone on:
There are also other considerations. I don't know if you have heard of the rumors about the new Fuhrer, but they are very troubling. It looks like there may be a war soon, and a bigger one than Ishbal. It would require some finesse from up high to get our country out of this. I am doing my best in this regard, but I could use your help.
It was code and not too veiled at that. Mustang was about to unleash his coup, and he wanted Ed on board. Ed's belly burned.
No. It was enough. He was done fighting, done getting his hands dirty. Politics did not interest him.
Mustang's final words left him completely cold.
I'm grateful that you remember all I have done to help you out. Your watch is waiting for you in my office.
"I knew I shouldn't have thanked him. Now he's trying to guilt me into staying."
Al had held the letter gingerly in his fingers and read it over slowly twice. "We do owe him."
But Ed shook his head violently. "He got his money's worth."
Ed had rewritten his letter of resignation, making it as formal as possible to leave no doubt in Mustang's mind.
Mustang had written back an even shorter letter.
Dear citizen Edward Elric,
Your letter of resignation has been received and accepted. I wish you well in your endeavors.
It was the last either of them heard from Mustang for 15 months.
Al filled out on fresh air and good food. By the time fall had turned to winter he was slim but no longer skin and bones. His face had fleshed out a bit as well, and by winter Winry even described him as beautiful. But he didn't grow much. Winry didn't know if this was because he'd spent so much time in the void or if it was just plain old genetics that lead both bothers to be petite.
Winry had mentioned early on, back when Al was still looking like he might be on his deathbed, that she'd always liked Ed's hair. Al had taken that as a hint and had refused to cut his. Like his brother, his hair grew thick and fast and by Mid-Winter it fell several inches past his shoulders. He did not braid it though.
"Ed thinks I'm copying him," said Al sadly one December day, when Winry had conned him into letting her brush his hair.
"Mmmm?" asked Winry around the hair band.
"The hair, the clothes. He thinks that I want to be his twin or something. I don't, it's just that, I haven't really thought about personal style for years. It just seemed to be easier to go with what I see."
"Mmm," said Winry. She snagged the hair band out of her mouth and deftly looped it three times around his honey colored hair pulling it snug to the nape of his neck. "You can stop raiding Ed's closet any time you wish, but tell that bratty brother of yours, your hair is MINE." She then yanked him close to her.
Al smiled and leaned back against her, nestling into the warmth of her arms.