Ed was halfway across the city when he collapsed, but Al was still the first to know. Al was teaching a class when he felt the gold fire that was his brother’s qi gutter and falter. The chalk in Al’s hand smashed onto the ground, but Al never noticed it. He was already running, moving blindly toward the flickering life force that had been his guiding star for as long as he could remember.
Ed had been moved to the hospital by the time Al could get to him. He was unconscious when Al arrived, Mei and Winry at his side.
“Al!” Winry said, embracing him with tears in her eyes. “We tried to call you at the school, but they said you’d already left.”
“I told you that he’d know,” Mei said, quietly.
“How is he?” Al asked, but he already knew the answer. He could see the way Ed’s qi struggled, danced inside his body.
Winry’s face closed in on itself. “They’re not sure,” she said. “They don’t know why he collapsed. He’s been in and out, but he hasn’t recovered. Do you think-”
Dread settle into Al’s stomach, and he fought against the tears that had threatened ever since he felt his brother collapsed. “Baschool,” Al said, grimly. “It may be time, Winry.”
Winry reached for Ed, burying her face in his shirt, brushing a hand against his still cheek. “Are we sure?” she said. “Do we know for sure that’s what this is?”
Al reached out with his senses, and he knew that Mei was doing the same. They examined Ed as thoroughly as they could. “It’s impossible to tell how much time he has left,” Mei said, her voice tinged with grief. “Not long. Perhaps not even an hour.”
“His life force is... it’s spent. Guttering.” Al tried, tried to keep the bitterness and grief out of his voice. Part of him wanted to grab onto his brother and not let go, as if death couldn’t take him as long as Al was holding on.
“Al....” Ed croaked, his eyelids fluttering open. “Winry.”
“We’re here, Ed,” Winry said, a little desperately. She rushed to take his hand.
“Kids?” Ed asked, his eyes darting around.
Winry bit her lip. “I called them. Gracia is picking Trisha and Maes and the littles up from school, and Sarah and Al are on their way from the University.”
“Aaah,” Ed breathed. “S-sorry, Win. Never wanted to leave you.”
Al took his brother’s hand and held it gently, choking back his grief. “We’re lucky we got to have this time with you, Brother,” he said, softly. He felt Mei at his back, a comforting presence.
Ed’s head tilted back suddenly, his face contorting in a rictus of effort. “N- not gonna make it till they get here, Win. Tell the kids- tell- I love them. Love you. Al- Mei-”
The machines that were monitoring Ed’s lifesigns went crazy, but Al didn’t need them to tell him that his brother was dying.
“Love you- Win- love you-”
Grief settled like a band around Al’s heart, and he couldn’t breathe. He held Ed’s hand tighter, feeling hot tears stream down his face.
Except- except he really couldn’t breathe. His chest had gone tight, and he was choking. The pain was worse, a stabbing in his chest and around his heart. Al felt himself fall, spiralling down into a whiteness that he’d all but forgotten about-
“Oh hell no!” Ed shouted at someone that Al couldn’t see. Al pulled himself up. He was naked, and his hair was long again, but at least he wasn’t like a skeleton. The whiteness stretched endlessly around him.
“I bargained with my life, asshole- you don’t get him too! Do you hear me? You can’t have him!” Ed was screaming. He looked strong, and vibrant, and nothing like the broken body that Al had seen in that hospital bed.
Ed turned, and his eyes were on fire. “I see,” he said, almost snarling. “I get it. I understand.”
Then he stood, and shook himself. He bowed his head and clapped his hands. Al suddenly realized that it had been over twenty years since he’d seen Ed clap his hands like that. Red lightning flashed, and Ed’s flesh right arm transformed into a steel blade. It shouldn’t have been able to, but it did.
Ed walked toward him. He stopped inches away, looking up into Al’s eyes. “Al,” Ed said, his face hard with determination. “I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t quite a surprise when Ed’s blade thrust into Al’s chest, but the pain took all his breath away. Al’s legs buckled, but Ed’s left hand held him steady. Al went limp in his brother’s arms. “I love you, Al,” Ed said, as he sawed and cut. “Fuck, I hope you can remember that.”
It hurt. It hurt so badly, and there was blood everywhere, spattering Al’s chest and Ed’s hands and Ed’s face. “Goodbye,” Ed said, and there was a strangely wistful look in his yellow eyes.
Al woke to the sound of crying. There were kunai around him on the ground, and Mei was sobbing, her tears soaking his shirt. “Hey,” Al said, tenderly.
She gasped. “Alphonse!” she cried, and wrapped her arms around him.
“Sorry I scared you,” he said, trying to make himself breathe.
“Al, you idiot!” Winry sobbed, and Al realized that she was next to him too. “What the hell was that?”
Al frowned. He remembered- he remembered- why was his hand on his chest now? Something had happened, but... he’d lost it now. Al shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, a little frightened.
Winry pushed him. “You were dead!” she told him. “Your heart stopped beating. Mei tried- she couldn’t do anything- how are you alive?”
Al pulled her into his arms, too, and held them both, breathing them in. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “I’m sorry I frightened you both. I don’t know what happened.”
Suddenly, something caught at the corner of his eye. When he turned, he realized that it was a hand, hanging out from under a white sheet. Carefully, gently, Al disentangled himself from Mei and Winry. He stood, and they let him go.
The white sheet was covering a body. Al folded it down, wanting to see the dead man’s face.
It was Ed, of course. Edward Elric, Al’s older brother. Al peered at the body, frowning slightly. He remembered Ed. He’d spent his whole life with his brother; how could he forget him? But still, Al thought, there was something missing.
Oh, yes, Al realized. He had felt something for Edward once. He remembered those feelings- grief and pain and love and joy. Those ghosts tugged at him like half-whispered memories, but found no purchase in his heart. Al felt- nothing, though he was sure that that was somehow wrong.
Al’s hand was on his chest again, though he wasn’t sure why.
(See Chapter 2 for podfic)