It's the same nightmare all over again, but quieter this time.
He felt it coming before it came, the sense that something was wrong, as the smoke and sparking light faded, as the acrid ozone stink of fried air that always hung around a fresh transmutation filled his lungs. He feels paralyzed, as if the power he'd channeled into the lovingly-drawn array had melted the floor, as if his kneeling legs are trapped in what had once been stone.
The array stretched between them, lovingly inscribed on the smooth floor, every whorl of chalk dust double and triple checked. A diagram to bring them home again. They faced each other across it, one on each side. The hulking silver armor. The slim golden boy.
Ed lifted his chin to look his brother in the glimmering pinpoints that passed for eyes. His lower lip trembled.
"I'm ready," Al whispered, a soft echo in the depths of his metal chest.
His brother swallowed, nervously brushed a strand of yellow hair out of his face.
"And if it goes wrong?"
Al shook his helmet, the movement creaking gently. "It won't. We calculated everything. I trust you, Brother."
Ed nodded. For a moment the words hovered just behind his lips, begging to be said, just in case.
I love you, Al.
But...no. He'd save them to fall on real ears, to warm a real heart.
They were almost there.
The quivering final pause, and then they stepped into the circle, striding among the lines to the center. And turned, back to back, raising three false hands and one that thudded to its fingertips with a frantic pulse.
The clap echoed in perfect unison.
It was perfect, it was meant to be so perfect...
The smoke is gone. His heart thuds horribly. He tries to stand, but stumbles to his hands and knees again, his head spinning dizzily. Too weak to rise, too disoriented to walk a straight line. Instead he pulls himself forward, hand over hand, crawling across the floor. It's like a warning, like déjà vu. The little boy in his memory screams for his mother, for his brother, for God or death. He holds his breath.
And the shape lying prone in the center of the array is whole this time. No quivering exposed ribs, no thudding visible heart spraying jets of blood into the stinking hazy air, no arms growing from places they shouldn't or convulsing purpled faces with gaping gasping mouths.
The door opened. A thin body turned, its mane of hair falling across one bony shoulder, gray eyes wide with weakly fluttering disbelief.
He could not breathe, watching it at last. It was like looking into a mirror, as the same brilliant smile spread across their faces, the soul glowing softly beside him, the emaciated body that belonged to it, that stood and turned to face it, away from the door that had held it prisoner for so long. No words were necessary.
They took their first hesitant steps towards one another, arms stretching out like children asking to be embraced.
The space between the doors glowed brighter.
Their fingers touched, laced together, passed through each other. He saw Al plant a soft little kiss on his body's forehead as the two silhouettes melted into one.
And then it was too bright to see.
Just Al, lying there in the haze of smoke, so thin that the ribs this time are saved from exposure by only a papery layer of skin.
Just Al, with the ragged shock of hair spread softly around him, heat-crinkled here and there from lying against the steaming lines of the array.
Just Al, staring up at nothing with blind gray eyes as dull as two pebbles. His mouth is open slightly, breathing shallowly, the ravaged chest rising and falling. Ed collapses beside him for a moment, hauls himself up onto flattened palms and trembling arms to gaze frantically down into his brother's face.
"...Al?" he whispers, and when no sign comes that he's been heard, he reaches out with shaking fingers to touch the bony cheek, fingers skimming over dry flesh.
And Al's body bucks and shudders at the light touch, his spine arching into a paralytic rictus, as his mouth gapes wide to gasp in a tortured breath that tears hoarsely through them both.
And screams, and screams, and screams.
If they'd discussed it with Winry, she could have warned them. She was medically trained, specialized in the nervous system and the ways to ruin it or patch it together. The environment Ed could have described would have triggered her danger senses. The nothingness, the utter lack of stimulation.
But they'd only just begun to speak to her, when it came to alchemy. And they had never imagined being the ones to listen.
The dormitory room was dark and he was curled fetal on the bare mattress when she arrived, the cheap folding blinds drawn tight. The door closed softly behind her, but he heard her cross the room to sit beside him, and felt the mattress shift.
"Hey," she said, and even that little syllable managed to break with grief.
The next thing he knew he was sitting up, clutching silently at her in something too tight and desperate to call an embrace. His fingers clutched at her shirt so hard that it creased. His face pressed into the hollow of her shoulder, tightly-closed eyes hot and dry, his breath shuddering in hiccupping gasps against her skin. She cradled him, and said nothing more.
She never showed him anger, though she could have.
She never said I-told-you-so, and for that he was grateful.
But she wept, the tears seeping warm through his hair, and that was what broke him.
He'd promised her tears of joy.
It's too white in here, too sterile. There ought to be colored curtains, Ed thinks, or flowers, or a calendar of kittens on the wall. Or a nubbly soft knitted throw for his brother's bed, to keep him warm. Something to look at, to soften the sharp medical loneliness of it all.
They wouldn't let him put anything textured on Al's bed, anyway. According to the readouts and the examinations, he feels every sensation as pain, now. It takes a constant drip of drugs to let him bear the weight of his sheets. The small mercy is that he's not really conscious most of the time, anyway. What few times he's spoken or moved, it's been in the throes of hallucination, flailing fragile arms at creeping things that no one sees but him. The rest of the time, it's the silent immobile stupor and the dull unfocused stare.
Sensory deprivation, leading to tactile hypersensitivity. Atrophied muscles, eyesight, bones, brain. Psychosis. Malnutrition. They put him on a feeding tube, at first, to spread a layer of something between thin skin and brittle bones. He could have solid food now, if they could get him to eat it, to swallow it without agony and incoherent panic. Until he can, the tube stays in.
Ed has heard the doctors talking. It may be in forever.
The horrible irony is that they did it so perfectly. There are no loose corners, nothing to tease free and peel him away from himself again. Al is securely back in his body, where he has belonged all along.
And six years in the Gate have destroyed it.
Ed dreams of it sometimes, what it must have been like, piecing together the long white silences from what he saw and what he guesses. Unable to feel, to breathe, to speak. The stone door hanging in space before him.
He must have withered like a flower in a dark room.
No one was there to watch him fade. By the time he was brought out into the sun again, he was dead nerves and desiccated tissue, fragile like something rare and gray and lacy, fit to pin in a glass box. Look at those beautiful wings.
Worse than that, all wrong.
Should they never have tried? Rejection would have been a kinder fate.
Something flutters on the heart monitor, then steadies again. Ed swallows, and gazes down at Al's drawn face. His eyelids are so pale, veined visibly with blue. The bones still protrude too far, over hollow cheeks, but he is healthier now. He can survive this.
Edward glances at the closed door. They're alone. Better do it now.
It was so hard, waiting even this long.
He takes a deep breath, pushes back his sleeve. The rivets in his grill warp at his touch, with a few blue sparks as the metal curls and melts away. Lifting away the distorted grill, he gives his arm a shake, and two sticks of chalk fall into his palm.
The chalk was the hardest part. There's a guard outside, unofficial but stubborn. Their remaining friends in Central have been taking it in turns to search him when he visits, to wait outside for signs of trouble. They don't trust him not to try again.
They don't understand that he has no choice.
Linoleum flooring won't take chalk reliably, so he draws it on the wall, quickly, scraping the powdery white lines in hurried webs across the cheap paint. He still knows this array by heart, ever since that day in the ruins. It's easier in chalk than in blood.
Al shifts in his bed, disturbed slightly by the noise and movement. If he wakes, his screams will bring Hawkeye down on their heads. Ed throws him a frantic look, presses his palms together, and lunges for the array.
And there is the Door again, and the brilliant silhouette, waiting in a casual sprawl like a pampered cat. His traded limbs are dull against its radiance, almost waxy-looking.
[[back again so soon?]]
He'd punch its face if it had one. The spiteful leer is all that hangs there, suspended among the light.
It shifts, sitting up a bit. [[didn't get what you came for last time?]]
"We got it," he whispers, his head bowed to hide his hatred.
The head tilts knowingly. [[and now you want more.]]
His fists clench at his sides, and the plea spills out, rehearsed, clumsy, desperate.
"You have to fix what happened to him! Or...or if you won't...then give me the knowledge I need, so I can do it! I owe him that much!"
[[we know about owing. don't we.]] The anticipation in its voice sickens him.
He drops to his knees. He knew it would come to this.
"Take it," he whispers. "Take anything you want. He's my brother."
The leer widens until it nearly splits its head.
[[two birds with one stone,]] it says, and the Door cracks open, and the ribbons of darkness unfurl, and reach for him...
At the last moment, he realizes where they are reaching, and lurches to his feet, backing away in horror.
"No. No, wait!"
The first soft feathery touch brushes the bridge of his nose. Through the whirl of color and sound forcing its way into his head, he can hear the Truth laughing.
Something strikes his back, hard, and the breath whooshes from his lungs. Panic thuds in his veins, until he recognizes hospital cotton under him and realizes he's staggered back and fallen sprawled across the bed.
Things fade a little, after that. Pain sings sharply in his head, more dully in his wrenched spine. There's a body next to him, its chest rising and falling with slow, even breaths. His breathing stretches out, dawdling until they match.
Al, he realizes, dimly. It's Al he's lying beside.
Clarity returns somewhat, and he sits up, checking his brother over quickly for injuries. He seems all right, not fallen on. No damage done to brittle bones. No flesh shifting unnaturally under his careful hands.
Something warm runs down Ed's neck, over the curve of his jaw. He lifts a hand to touch it and brings away fingers smeared red with blood.
He's bleeding in a thin trickling stream from his ear.
It comes back to him then.
An explosion of memories, most of them not his own. The Gate and everything in it, searing his retinas, branding information on the inner curves of his skull. A million secrets of alchemy and life and death.
He remembers more of them, this time.
A few stand out, and he turns them over, examining them dispassionately as the tools they are. His mind is doing strange little jumps, hopscotching across the surface of logic, holding up this and that to his brother's condition to see what fits. It's as if a whole new plane of genius has been unlocked to him. He skims inward, and compares.
There. And there.
It would do it, he knows it would. He could heal him. He could make him anew.
It would only take...
A little fading part of him cries out in horror at the idea, and he winces and presses a hand to his forehead. Something flares briefly raw inside his skull. Blood wells up and drips from his nose. The crying voice falls silent.
And it's as if his mind has finally come into real focus after nearly two decades of scattered jumbling. Suddenly he realizes what matters, what really matters...
Before he can think about this any more, the heart monitor goes wild. The body in the bed lets out a soft keening noise, then begins to struggle. Too much physical contact, he realizes belatedly. The drugs only work to a point. Al is awake.
"Shhh now," he singsongs, pressing a hand over his brother's mouth—and then remembers weakly and too late that this is wrong. Al's keening becomes a shriek of agony. The door slams open.
Time to go. He scrambles to his feet, nearly trips over the tangled bedcovers as they slip off the bed with him, but regains his balance and begins pulling off wires. Al thrashes and screams, but it's only temporary, he'll make it up to him...
"What on earth are you doing? Edward!"
As light as he's become, it's easy to hoist Al over his shoulder. Even his panicked half-conscious struggles are feeble. It only takes one arm to keep him from falling.
"Stop that! What's gotten into you?"
There's a woman shouting at him, stretching out her arms to them as she rushes into the room. Her expression is shocked, pained and desperately confused.
She seems familiar, he thinks. Vaguely. But she is between him and the door.
His flesh arm is occupied with Al, but his steel arm is quicker anyway, and lashes out at her without warning. Her brown eyes widen in abject shock in the moment when she might have dodged, had she ever expected this; and then bone crunches, and she topples.
He has to step over her to get to the door, which is a nuisance, but he is careful not to step in the spreading pool of blood around her head. Leaving tracks would be a bad idea. They'll try to take Al away again; he can't let them take Al away again.
Al is tiring already, his flailing limbs slowing, falling limp on his shoulder, but the faint infantile wailing noise persists. His suffering matters. More than anything.
Turning around, Ed sets him carefully on the floor next to the woman, and checks her pulse. It still beats, very faintly.
A beatific smile lights up his face, and he seats himself crosslegged, then reaches for his newfound knowledge, dipping his fingertips in fresh red paint. He's got a few minutes, before people come looking.
The sooner he begins, the better.
There are rumors flying everywhere, horrible rumors, printed in the papers, crackling on the radio, murmuring from mouth to mouth across the distance from Central to home. Some days it feels like the air is aflame with malice, charring his name black.
Winry doesn't believe them, of course. How could she?
It isn't the first time they've called him these names. They were wrong before, and they'll be proven wrong again. She just knows it.
This is what she knows for certain:
The hospital door was broken down from the inside, and that set off the alarms.
The bed was empty when the nurses reached it. There were wires strewn around that should have been attached to him. Al was gone.
Lieutenant Hawkeye is dead. Not all of her was buried. Not all of her was still there.
There was an array chalked on the wall, another in blood on the floor.
There have been similar killings since, unrelated victims, one headline after another.
No one has heard from either Elric in a month.
These are the bare facts. Ed would be proud. She sifts out her own deduction, which is that everyone is worried about the wrong culprit. There is an alchemist madman on the loose somewhere and he has to be apprehended before he hurts anyone else and they're never going to get him this way. Or her. It could be a woman, she supposes. Of course no-one has heard from Edward, he has to lie low, they're manhunting the countryside for him and they're after the wrong man.
It isn't Edward, can't be Edward, because Edward is not a killer.
This is fact, ultimate truth, as essential to her as her own heart. This is why she leaps up with hope battering against the walls of her chest when she hears the knock on her window. This is why she sees his face there, finger pressed to his lips, and pushes up the frame eagerly, catching his hands in both of hers.
"Where have you been?" she cries in a delighted whisper. "I expected you ages ago!"
His eyes are flickering left and right, well, of course they are, how long has he been on the run?
"Don't say anything," he insists, fiercely, and she nods, starts to brace herself to pull him in at the window but he shakes his head and tugs back. She's confused, but she takes the cue, heaving one leg over the sill and sliding awkwardly down into his arms with the shrubbery scratching at her bare legs.
Impulse tightens her arms around him for a second, comfortingly, and he's stiff in her embrace and pulls away too soon but that's just Ed, he hasn't changed a bit.
"It's okay now," she tells him, as he guides her down into the hidden space between the wall and the dead inside branches of the bushes that skirt it. She can hear Den huffing somewhere nearby. "We can figure out who did this together and clear your name. Do you have any ideas? The homunculi aren't back, are they?"
He's shaking his head, but he seems distracted, gazing over her shoulder, she's not sure if he's really listening but that's still normal, Ed never listens completely, it's just how he is.
"You can hide here as long as you need," she reminds him, giving his shoulder a friendly shake. "This is still home."
He ducks his head, almost shyly. "I remember."
And her face lights up with a brilliant, almost tearful smile—he practically admitted it, what a horrible thing to have to go through for it but he might finally be opening up again and when this is all straightened out, she imagines joyfully for a moment, everything will be like it was again, maybe they can even find a way to cure—
There is something breathing in the hedge behind her and it isn't Den.
She half turns—it is half hidden by the branches and it is heaving and piecemeal and unfinished and pale and she recognizes its eyes but not the look of helpless agony in them. And terror slithers up her spine, but he's faster than her and there are metal fingers clamped over her mouth with inhuman strength to bottle up the brewing scream.
He presses his face close to hers, eyes searching hers and they're feverish and pinpoint-bright even in the dusk and her stomach congeals because Edward isn't a killer but this is not Edward.
"I remembered," he whispers again, softly, "that you had hands."
And then there is light.
It's just like he always hoped it would be.
There's smoke in the air, last vestiges of a transmutation done perfectly, and he can smell it, the familiar electric acrid smell, making him cough a little as he draws that first delicious breath. He savors it for a minute, and then he opens his eyes.
Above him is Brother's face, the first face he sees, slightly blurry at first but definitely Brother and anxiously hovering over him like he has in a thousand hopeful daydreams until now. And now it's finally real, and Al feels his heart hammering for the first time in years and wonders if it will burst with happiness before he has time to say I love you.
"Al," Edward whispers triumphantly, gathering him up with careful hands, as if handling an invalid, but before he can finish Al sits up of his own accord and throws his arms around his older brother's neck, and they rock back and forth together, weeping for joy.
"I did it," comes the wondering murmur into his hair when the tears no longer choke them too hard to speak. "I finally did it."
Alphonse laughs, drawing back a bit to nudge his brother's shoulder with one fist. "We finally did it, you mean," he says. "See? No reason to worry. The array worked perfectly."
There's a brief silence.
There shouldn't be a brief silence, Al thinks, bemused. This is the part where Ed agrees and admits to being a worrywart, and they sweep away the array together and—
He looks down as he thinks this, and there is carpet under their feet where there should be stone, and no array. And Ed is still not speaking.
"Brother?" Al asks, plucking at his sleeve uncertainly. "Where are we?" Not so surprising that he wouldn't regain consciousness immediately, that he would be moved to another room to wait—he suddenly recognizes the yielding softness under him as a mattress—but then why the lingering smoke and the distinctive smell of recent alchemy?
"I fixed it," Ed says, disjointedly, as if answering a question that hasn't been asked yet. "Everything should work fine now. It all fits, doesn't it?"
He's running his hands over him now in an inspecting sort of way and it almost reminds Al of how Granny used to check the parts of an automail limb to make sure everything lay smooth. Well, Al would want to check him too in a situation like—
Edward is running both hands over him, and they're warm and real.
Al grabs his brother's perfect hands, stares at them, looks up at him in abject delight. "Oh, Brothe..."
Something is wrong. The word dies on his lips, and Al looks again at the hands in his, and it hits him that they're not the same shape. One of them is square and sturdy and the way it ought to be, and the other is different; thinner, oval-nailed, almost girlish.
He's still trying to sort that out, because it makes no sense whatsoever and how could Brother have ended up with the wrong hand, did they reach into the wrong Door for him?
And then, because he's already noticing the differences between Brother's hands, it registers at last that there are other differences in him as well. His clothes are not the ones Al turned his back on to begin the transmutation just a minute ago, and his hair is longer and messier and his face is older and—
Al's skin should be all one color and it isn't.
Something is throbbing inside him and Alphonse suspects it's the beginnings of panic. He wrenches away from his brother and holds his hands close to his face, and even allowing for the dimness of the room and the changes that probably happened inside the Doors of Truth, their shape is unfamiliar. He looks down at his naked body and there are tiny differences in the skin, lighter here, darker there, a dozen colors, and his knees never used to be that knobby and his feet are all wrong...
"Brother," he whimpers; he doesn't know what the hell is going on and he's suddenly scared to death of something he doesn't dare contemplate yet, struggling up off the bed and wobbling on legs that haven't stood under their own power since he was ten and innocent.
There's a mirror propped on a table across the room and he half-falls towards it, desperate to look and afraid to.
"Al? What's wrong?" Edward asks, sounding hollow and wounded.
His face. It's still his face, thank God, it's a little older but everything is just where it should be. Al stares at himself hungrily, and for a second everything almost makes sense again. Naturally they're both older; he probably just never noticed how much Brother had grown from that great armored height. The changes are side effects, nothing to worry about, just something to get used to and how silly of him to think the Doors would leave them unmarked. There's nothing to be afraid of after all, except...
There's something odd about his eyes. Al leans closer, trying not to squint in the shadowy room as he scrutinizes the perfect tiny wheels around his pupils; and then he realizes the difference.
It's the color. They ought to be gray-gold with flecks of hazel and they aren't, instead it's like a little piece of the sky got lost in his irises and decided to stay, like a newly-opened cornflower, and he knows that shade, he knows that shade.
"Brother," he whispers, his voice trembling, not daring to turn away from the mirror. "My eyes weren't blue."
Edward's shape is visible at the edge of the reflective glass, a dark shadow. He moves closer, his face swimming into sight beside Alphonse's, and the expression on it is reptilian.
"Waste not, want not," he says, calmly.
And whatever heart is inside of Al, shatters.
Somewhere someone is screaming, panic-stricken wordless tormented screams that he has to stop because someone will hear them and come and they can't have that because Al is better now at last.
He did it, he hid and carried and worked for so long and it took ages and ages and more tries than he expected and it was messy and exigent but they're going to be happy now, they're going to go away where people won't follow them anymore and be happy just the two of them, forever.
But they can't be happy until Al is happy and he won't be happy as long as someone is crying like that. It isn't Al, because Al is grateful, he has to be, he made him, he loves him, but of course Al is never happy when someone else is sad.
He takes a step forward, raising his hands to clap and make the screamer quiet...
There are thudding blows against his chest and he falls backwards across the bed and wonders who is hitting him and why they're angry—
There's a sickening crack as Edward hits the bedstead headfirst, bowled over by his furious flailing lunge, and Al feels his brother jerk spasmodically, then slide limp to the ground. Seizing his shoulders, he shakes the silent body until his fury and betrayal and revulsion ultimately freeze solid in the face of the fact that Brother is not moving.
Too sudden, it's happening too fast and he can't keep up.
He staggers back, head whirling. Murderer, murderer, murderer...
The world is breaking up around him with a silence like a dying thing sliding into the abyss. Tears of shock and mourning and terror are flooding hot over his cheeks; a single beautiful release, because how long has he waited to cry, to bleed, to feel?
Shaky limbs giving out, he crumples shuddering and nauseous to the floor. He feels something sticky-warm and wet brush his bare thigh; it's shoved half under the bed and he grants his own last request, not to open his eyes and confirm what he guesses it to be.
He is an alchemist, and he owes this eternal debt to Scar: that he doesn't need a gun.
Will someone find them, Al wonders in the moment before he presses those patchwork hands together, and his last thought is a broken mental hiccup of hysterical laughter:
how will they ever decide where to bury us?