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The Tie That Binds

Chapter Text

Truth laughed.

The sound was enough to chill the blood.

Edward stood before the Gate, shoulders squared, his breath and his heart still racing from the fight he'd left behind. "What's so funny?" he asked, not turning around, though a thrill of panic shot through him. Was it not enough? It had to be enough….

But Truth just kept laughing.

Now Ed did wheel around. Truth had a wide-mouthed grin on its face, flashing all its teeth at once. "I've already told you, I can get by without it, so what's so damn funny?" he snapped.

Truth stopped laughing, but the grin did not disappear. –You have grown presumptuous, young alchemist. Presumptuous indeed.

"What, is that not a fitting toll for you?" he demanded. "Why the hell not? It's a part of me."

I'm afraid it doesn't work like that. The grin widened. –It's a fixed object. It won't budge.

Ed felt an icy stab of fear in his chest—this had to work, it had to, he had nothing else to offer—but he stuck his chin up. "What do you mean?"

What am I, Edward Elric? Ed, refusing to play along, didn't answer. –I am many things, but perhaps more importantly where your situation is concerned, I am YOU, remember?

"Yeah, you said that the first time…" He watched, breathing hard, stomach in knots but anger burning hot in his chest nonetheless, as Truth actually stood from its spot lounging on the white floor, stretched its arms up high as though stretching while the blotchy clouds of dark nothingness that outlined the thing swirled and pulsed. With what sounded like a contented sigh, it let its arms fall back down before closing the few steps' distance between itself and where Ed stood before the door. Now barely a foot away from Truth, who'd reached out a single shadow-encased arm to lay a flat palm on the door, Ed could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, the proximity to the being making him feel rather…odd. It a disorienting, almost lurching feeling, as though he'd skipped a step going down the stairs, and his heart did an alarming, painful flip-flop in his chest when Truth's hand lighted on the carved stone. When Truth slowly turned its head to face him, its grin was wider than ever.

If I am you, it said, its voice a silky, sinister whisper that seemed to come at Ed from all directions, –Then it follows that this door is already mine. You are merely a part of me. Of the whole. You know this. It ran its hand lightly across the stone. Ed suppressed a shudder. –And are you really so arrogant as to believe that you can cut yourself off from me? That you can escape me?

"I never said I wanted to escape you," Ed said, voice surprisingly even, all things considered. "This is your gift to man, right? The gateway to alchemic knowledge. I'm just returning it."

Gift? It scoffed. –This is not your gift, alchemist. This is your existence. He patted the gate. –Transient and insignificant as your mortal lives may be, this here is what makes you human. You should know. You've seen the other side. Alchemy, after all, is merely the manipulation of one's understanding of the universe, no different than any other scientific pursuit. Whether one rashly tears these doors open by force as you and your brother did, or glimpses its secrets in the usual way, by the mere observation and study of the world around them, humankind uniquely possesses the ability to seek what lies beyond them. Apart from this—it lifted its hand from the gate and turned to face Ed—you are less than beasts. This IS you.

Ed shook his head, mostly because he wasn't sure what the hell else he was supposed to do. Wasn't like he had a backup plan here. "I don't buy that." And he didn't, he couldn't buy it, because he'd been so damn sure this would work and had staked everything, staked Al, on that surety. But this was Truth talking here, and he was barely managing to stave off the mind-numbing terror that had plagued his nightmares for five years, that he'd experienced the very first time he'd ever encountered Truth—the blossoming dread that told him he had made a mistake, a terrible mistake.

Still. He had a little more nerve this time around.

Ignoring Truth, who watched impassively, he bowed his head, clapped his hands together, and even as the circle he'd created in his mind's eye began to glow and hum with envisioned energy, he felt the electric cackle of potent, destructive alchemy shooting through his arms, causing the wounded left arm to ache and the restored right arm to tremble with weakness. Focusing and concentrating the power in his hands, he smacked his palms against the gate and willed it with all his might into the very essence of the stone—

–Only to be thrown backwards by a sharp, electric, invisible force that he caught full in the chest, picking him up and tossing him in the air like a ragdoll and leaving him sprawled on the hard ground seven feet away, his chest on fire, the breath driven from his lungs. He thought he could smell singed hair.

Rebound, his mind supplied hazily as he blinked up at the white nothingness overhead, struggling to draw a breath through lungs that felt rather like they'd been both been run through by lightning. No, wait, that can't be right… That hadn't even been full alchemy, only utilization of the destructive step. And even if that somehow had rebounded, it shouldn't have affected him at all—he'd engineered the deconstruction to respond to the granite within the gate, and any backlash should have been virtually harmless to him. Well, it hadn't ripped him apart, but it certainly hadn't been harmless. He coughed once, then managed to push himself up on his elbows. "What the hell…" he croaked. Obviously he knew less about this place than he thought. And that scared him.

Truth was bending over him. It wasn't smiling anymore, but it didn't seem overly concerned, either, though of course on a faceless being it was difficult to tell. –That wasn't wise, it said mildly. –I wouldn't try it a second time, unless you have a death wish.

Ed pushed himself up and lurched to his feet, rubbing his sore sternum with his knuckles, trying to coax some more air into his body. Think, his mind urged, panic tugging more frantically at the edges of his concentration at the realization that, after that little stunt, everything he thought he knew about this place had just fallen apart. Come on, think, think, damn it, think….

"Al," he found himself saying, a moment later. It came out as a wheezy whisper—he cleared his throat, turned towards Truth, who was sitting again, and demanded, voice slightly raw but strong nonetheless, "Where's my brother?" He certainly didn't have another plan as of yet, but if Al had his own, separate gate, and he'd examine that first, make sure he had absolutely all of the factors to take into consideration here before….

Before what, exactly?

He couldn't think about that. Not yet.

Truth pointed vaguely over Ed's shoulder, the blackness surrounding its arm churning even more violently than before. "Over there." It sounded faintly amused.

Ed wheeled around. And all of a sudden, another dark, intricately carved gate loomed over him, a familiar gate, and one that he was positive hadn't been there a second before. And beneath the gate, hunched over on his hands and knees, was the emaciated form of his brother. His hair, pale and unkempt, hung half in his face, his one visible eye wide. The second he appeared, Ed lurched towards him as fast as his legs would carry him.

"Ed!" His voice, now lower, weaker, and without its usual tinny quality, was still slightly shrill with the panic that Ed had been clamping down on this whole time. Spindly arms trembled, trying and failing to push a skeletal frame up off the floor. Ed sank to his knees and gently helped lift him back into a sitting position, unable despite the situation to rid himself of a surge of wonderment—It's him, oh God, it's actually HIM, it really was Alphonse looking back up at him right now, gold eyes big and concerned in a painfully thin, white face. Frail, but unhurt. Ed could've sobbed with relief.

"What happened?" Al asked straightaway, hands seizing Ed's wrists to keep himself upright, eyes scanning Ed up and down as though checking for something. "I couldn't see anything…I didn't even know you were here, but then there this banging noise out of nowhere, and then I heard you scream…" He paused to catch his breath—he'd been panting like he'd just ran a marathon the whole way through his explanation, and Ed guessed Al's lungs must be as weak as the rest of him right now. "I tried to get up and find you, but I couldn't—" he looked down at himself, making a vague, helpless gesture with one hand.

"It's okay, I'm fine," Ed said, quickly, moving Al's hands from his forearms to the ground before getting up and moving to the gate behind them. Al glanced over his shoulder.

"What are you—"

"There's no time to explain." Ed clapped his hands, carefully directing a much smaller, much slower flow of the same deconstructive power, hardly a trickle, collect there. "I'm really sorry about this, Al," he said, before gingerly setting his hands on the gate.

"Brother, what—ow!"

When Ed turned back around, Al was clutching at his chest with one hand, and his eyes were screwed shut.

Ed swore under his breath, and knelt back down, bracing his hands on Al's knobbly shoulders. "Are you alright?"

"Y-yeah," he managed, after a moment, shuddering a bit. He opened his eyes. "What was that?"

"Proof that we're not getting off as easy as I thought," Ed said, grimly.

"What do you mean we're not—" Al began, still trying to blink back tears at what had felt vaguely like a small, electrically charged spike being driven through his chest. He had no way of knowing how bad it would have felt to anybody else, but as the first taste of actual pain he'd had in five years, it had jarred him badly. He felt shaky and sick, his newly restored nerves so sensitive he could hardly even stand the mere feeling of Ed's hands—one of which, unbelievably, was made of flesh again—on his shoulders.

He trailed the question off, as he realized Ed wasn't going to answer him. His brow was furrowed in concentration and his mouth was taut, eyes distant. A moment later, he'd hopped up and begun to pace back and forth. For the first time in years, it was weird to finally be looking up at him, Al thought.

And, for the first time in a very long time, Al finally, acutely, knew what it was to be the younger brother in every sense. Ed looked…well, almost scary right now, and nothing about him brought to mind the word "young" by any means. Blood coursed sluggishly down from the wound in his left arm—which they'd need to address soon, or he was going to pass out before they even made it out of here—and dribbled from his forehead into one eye and from the corner of his mouth. What was visible of his chest over a torn shirt now looked slightly bruised and slightly burnt—that was new, and he was pretty sure it'd had something to do with the noise and scream he'd heard earlier—and the sight of the ropey band of scar tissue and protruding metal pieces around his new arm on their own was enough to make anybody cringe. And to cap it all off, the unnervingly bleak expression he'd worn since turning away from Al's gate would've looked far more fitting on a man twice his brother's age.

Al saw the exact moment that the extreme concentration in his brother's eyes melted into a resignation that terrified him, which subsequently hardened into resolve. Ed glanced down at him, something wavering for the briefest second in his expression, a fist clenching hard by his side. Then he looked up into the white abyss above them, jaw set, shoulders squared. Al's stomach churned.

What on earth is he about to do…?

"Truth!" Ed roared. "Get your ass over here!"

Al started when the empty figure flickered into being hardly two feet from Ed. It smirked at him.

So, alchemist, it said. Al thought it sounded smug. –I repeat my earlier question. Will you offer up your entire being?

To be continued.

Chapter Text

So, alchemist, it said. Al thought it sounded smug. –I repeat my earlier question. Will you offer up your entire being?

 “What?” Al heard himself breathe.

Ed glared at Truth. “Is that what you want?” he asked it. “My entire being?”

And that was Al’s cue to speak up. He glanced between the two of them, suddenly sick with apprehension. “Brother, you weren’t planning on—”

“No, I wasn’t,” he said, his eyes never leaving Truth. “I never came here planning on not coming back. This guy just didn’t like what I was offering.”

“What were you offering?” He hadn’t given much thought to what might happen after when he’d traded for Ed’s arm: Ed would have died otherwise, and his seal had been cracked anyhow. And when he’d told Truth that he was sure Ed would come back for him, he didn’t mention that he hadn’t the faintest idea how Ed would manage it—he wouldn’t have used a Stone, and (at least he was pretty sure) he wouldn’t have used himself.

Ed jerked a thumb over Al’s head at the Gate behind him. “One of those,” he said. “Except mine, not yours,” he added.

“Your Gate?” he asked, startled. “But why…” he trailed off, and then he got it. “Your alchemy.” His voice came out slightly hushed. Ed minus alchemy... Now that was tough to imagine.

“Yeah.” His eyes cut to Al briefly, before returning to Truth, making a face that could only be called a scowl. “But apparently these things are, what was it, fixed objects?”

--That is correct. Another unnerving, toothy grin. –Now tell me, have you anything else to offer?

“You never answered my question.” Ed raised an eyebrow, planted a hand on his hip, the picture of frustration. But Al could practically hear the gears whirring in his brother’s mind. “So you tell me, is that what you’re after? My entire being?”

--Your being would provide a sufficient toll, yes.

“Sufficient?” Ed asked, raising an eyebrow. “It’d be more than sufficient. You’re hedging here, pal. That’s not the only option and you know it.”

--Oh? Truth sounded amused. Curious, but amused.

Al’s stomach was tying itself into knot after knot watching that empty being direct its somewhat ravenous smile at his brother. Al himself couldn’t quite yet see what Ed was getting at here. But at the same time, he knew that if anybody could out-reason Truth, Ed probably could. He was surely the only one out there with the nerve to try.

“Yeah,” Ed said. He brandished his skinny right arm. “I traded this to get Al’s soul back. And a complete human being’s comprised of three necessary components, the body, mind, and soul, right?”

Truth said nothing. Al didn’t like that.

Ed paid him no mind. “Now arguably,” he continued, “The soul’s the most vital ingredient out of the three, as the essence of the person itself. It can’t survive forever without the other two, obviously, but it’s still the key component.”

Something flickered in Truth’s body; the vague shape of its left leg shimmered and solidified into pale flesh. –And you would know, wouldn’t you, alchemist?

Ed’s eyes lingered for a second or two on his own missing leg, his expression unreadable, before they flicked back up to Truth’s blank face, burning with defiance. “Right,” he said through gritted teeth. “Anyway,” he continued, voice clipped, “even if a soul is worth that much, all you took in exchange was my arm.” He clenched the fist of his raised arm, stared at it. “A body and mind are worth no more than the soul.”

And then Al understood.

No.

Nonononono…

“Brother, you can’t—”

“You got a better idea, Al?” Ed dropped his arm and turned. He’d snapped the words, but when he looked at Al, Al caught the faintest traces of very real fear beneath otherwise hardened features. He doubted anybody else would’ve noticed it. “’Cause I was planning on us both making it out of here alive, and trust me, whatever this guy’s asking for, you can’t afford to give right now.” His eyes gave Al a pointed once-over, taking in a body that he knew must look half-dead as it was. Al looked away. Because, damn it, he didn’t have a better idea. Ed wheeled back around. “Well?” he demanded.

Truth stood with its arms crossed over its chest. –You’re not wrong, alchemist. Its voice was inscrutable, though the corners of its mouth were still upturned. –It will be as you wish. I’ll accept a suitable alternative from you. Although, he added, --know that it will be a toll of my own choosing.

Ed hesitated for a moment. Then he said, “Fine,” while at the same time, Al was saying, “Wait.”

Ed and Truth both turned towards him.

“What are you going to take from him?”

“Al…” There was a slight warning in Ed’s voice, but Al ignored him and stared resolutely at Truth.

--I will take what is fitting, Truth said simply, chillingly. –No more and no less.

Fitting? Al thought.

Despite what Ed had said, something was telling him that what was fitting here was exactly what Truth had said earlier—a life for a life. He himself by all rights should be dead, after all… Whatever Truth was going to do could simply be a more creative, roundabout way of claiming his life.

Brother can’t die here…he can’t die for me…

Al glanced at Ed, his own mounting fear and desperation met with what he was sure was supposed to be a reassuring nod, though Ed could no longer mask either the reflected fear, or the sorrow, in his eyes. “It’ll be okay,” Ed told him, softly.

Al couldn’t bring himself to respond, panic constricting his throat, but he nodded.

“Alright,” Ed said, addressing Truth once more, though he backpedalled a few steps until he was standing next to where Al still sat. “Claim your toll. And don’t lay a finger on my brother.”

--Very well, Truth said, and suddenly all its teeth were visible once more in a too-large mouth. –I don’t intend to harm your brother. What I do intend, it added wryly, as Ed’s old left leg rematerialized from nowhere on its body, --is to claim a complete set.

Ed went rigid beside him. Al heard his breath hitch. A “no” tumbled out of his own lips before he could stop it, and all his insides froze. But before he had time to think, a deafening rumble erupted from the Gate behind them.

He turned to look, just in time to see a yawning crack in the double doors, from which shot a thousand tendrils of darkness, each supporting its own miniature, grasping hand. Before Ed could even turn to face them, they’d all launched towards him, swept his feet out from beneath him, and pinned him to the ground, countless tiny fingers splayed out across his chest, arms, legs, around his neck...

“Brother!”

Ed’s eyes were wide, shocked, but before he could say a word, Truth’s cold voice suddenly boomed all around them.

--For the soul.

And Ed’s right arm disintegrated, ripped to shreds by the threads of darkness that converged there. He screamed.

--For the mind, it said.

His left arm.

Al tried to lunge forward to close scant the few feet between them, grab for Ed, do something, anything, but an invisible force seemed to hold him in place. All Al’s own most horrific memories were stirred up at once at the sight, his whole body being torn apart by the very same forces. And for Ed…this was the stuff of half the nightmares he’d had for the past five years once more come into being. That fact was reflected in the near-primal terror in his eyes and each raw, devastating cry that was ripped involuntarily from his throat as his limbs were torn from his body—but Al couldn’t do a thing about it. He couldn’t even move.

--For the body.

Ed’s right leg, boot and all, vanished beneath a swarm of clawing, razor-sharp hands, leaving only emptiness—and blood, an expanding pool of scarlet startling against the white of the floor—in its wake.

As each limb was claimed, it slowly flickered into re-existence on Truth, who, somehow, was now standing directly over them. Al swallowed back bile at the sight—all four of his brother’s limbs, attached to a formless trunk, shrouded by pulsing blackness. Ed’s eyes rolled up to land on Truth, his breath coming in tight, shuddering gasps.

--And finally, Truth said, looking down at them both, --For the tie that binds them.

With that, a dozen or so tendrils detached themselves from their tight grip on Ed’s chest, to shoot straight at his bone-white face, force their way past his tightly clamped lips and straight down his throat.

To be continued…

Chapter Text

The Tie That Binds
Chapter 3

"Stop!" Al raged with all his admittedly negligible strength against the invisible steel grasp that held him back. "Stop it, you're killing him!"

Eyes wide as coins and roving around wildly, Ed could only gag and retch as his mouth was forced wide open by dozens of cords of twisting shadow. Blood bubbled up at the corners of his lips.

At long last, Al wrenched himself free of—or was released from—whatever grip Truth had on him. Still unable to move far at all on his own, he threw himself towards Ed. He came down hard on his palms and elbows barely a foot away, his hands slipping on a floor that was slick with a swelling pool of his brother's blood. Blind panic nearly froze him as his fingers scrabbled for purchase in a sea of red, the startling sensations of hot and wet as good as an electric shock to his newly restored nerves. But he managed to swipe an arm at the tendrils currently choking the life out of his brother, one arm braced against the slippery ground.

To his surprise, it actually worked. The tendrils vanished when he touched them, dissipating into grainy wisps of black dust that wavered and then re-solidified in the air above them. They snaked their way back down, a few of them lacing chillingly through his fingers and wrapping themselves almost lovingly around his wrist, before joining their fellows that were still pinning Ed down fast.

Or, what was left of him. Many of the black hands had affixed themselves, parasite-like, to the bleeding stumps where three limbs had been moments before. Al almost went to tear them away before he realized that they were probably the only thing keeping Ed from bleeding out on the spot.

As soon as Ed's mouth was clear, he sucked in a shuddering gasp that quickly broke into a wet, vicious cough. His eyes screwed shut, and he turned his face to the side and hacked again, a mouthful of blood spilling out over blue-tinged lips and down the side of his face.

Al pushed himself up on his knees and slid a hand carefully behind Ed's neck, the other already splayed across his chest. Ed's head jerked up at his touch, and his eyes snapped open, unfocused and bright with agony.

"Ed," Al said urgently, fearfully. Ed's eyes flicked to his. His face was colorless.

"What's wrong? What'd they do to you?" He thought the more pertinent question was What DIDN'T they do, but Ed was coughing blood, and if something inside of him had been destroyed, or taken…

Ed opened his mouth as if to respond, but succeeded only in making another mouthful of blood dribble sickeningly down his chin. Al could feel him shuddering, hard, beneath his hands. His own head snapped up towards Truth. "What did you do to him?" The question was half snarled, half desperate.

-Equivalency, young alchemist. Truth had Ed's arms crossed across its chest, one thin and atrophied and one still bleeding. –I assume you wish to return from this place intact.

"Intact?" he repeated blankly, even as he helped turn Ed's head to one side so he could spit out more of the bloody froth filling his mouth. It took almost more strength than he possessed to even lift his head—and he fought a fresh surge of dread at the realization that if they were expected to cross the threshold between this place and their world under their own power, he wouldn't make it very far on his own, let alone with Ed in tow. As it stood now, even with the countless hands pressed to the wounds, Ed had minutes at the most before he bled out completely.

-Yes, intact, Truth continued, quite conversationally. –There is a unity between the body, mind, and soul, a unity that is not usually broken except in death. It paused. You, of course, are an exception.

Ed's eyes rolled back, and his head went limp in Al's grip, slumping against the ground.

"Brother!"

Truth continued talking. –But this unity is costly. Once broken, it's not easily regained.

"But I'm back together again," Al said, shakily, after he'd pressed an ear to Ed's chest and stuck a hand under his mouth and nose to confirm that he hadn't slipped away—and after, of course, he'd remembered that he was once again capable of utilizing his senses to confirm life at all. "The three parts are designed to fit together, and they're drawn to one another, so how—"

-That is true. Truth had sat down again, arms wrapped easily around one flesh knee drawn up against its empty chest. -But affixing a soul to a foreign object for an extended period of time? That complicates matters. That complicates matters a great deal. After all, the soul is quite mutable. There was a touch of what almost sounded like academic interest in its voice. Al watched it, incredulous, while fruitlessly attempting to swipe some of the blood off Ed's cheek with his thumb.

-Obviously, the tie between the three elements has re-established itself within you, it said, but such a unity is tenuous at best when the very fabric and composition of the soul has been so drastically altered.

Altered?

Al must've looked startled at that, because for the umpteenth time, Truth grinned broadly. –A hasty transmutation of a spiritual substance into a crude physical anchor and then back again has its consequences. If the bond between a soul and its corresponding mind and body isn't re-established, with time that soul is likely to slip away, because it is no longer made of quite the same stuff it once was. It won't, shall we stay, stick. It gestured at Ed with a sweep of a hand. Fortunately for you, though—it began, before its voice morphed and changed mid-sentence. No longer booming or hauntingly multi-tonal, but young and male.

-Your brother's just solved that predicament.

The voice was Ed's.

Al was sure his heart just about stopped at the sound. His breath caught, and whatever-the-hell Truth was saying about something being wrong with his soul suddenly didn't matter anymore as he grabbed for Ed's chin with one hand and forced his mouth open with two fingers of another.

"What did you take?" he demanded, while his fingers performed a hasty sweep of the inside of Ed's mouth. It was difficult, very difficult, with next to no dexterity in fingers that were no longer huge or gloved, and that were now tipped with jagged, overly long nails that he accidentally scraped across Ed's tongue a few times. Of course, he was relieved that Ed's tongue was still there at all, because that had been his first fear. But aside from a great deal of blood mixed with spittle that he managed to get all over his hands, his search turned up nothing. The source of the blood was obviously not the mouth itself, which must mean—

-I believe that you would refer to them as vocal cords, it answered. –Hardly necessary for human survival.

Vocal cords.

Oh, God

And it was enough to make him physically ill, hearing this thing answer him some warped, impossibly detached version of his brother's voice.

Blood began to leak out of the corner of Ed's upturned mouth once more. He was still out cold, hardly breathing. And, despite the dark hands having merged into three pulsing, miasmic masses that still clung fast to the stumps and caused the bleeding to become sluggish, Ed was still deathly pale, Al's shaking hands coated in his blood.

"Let us go," Al's voice was low, vicious.

Truth cocked its head to one side.

"We've paid, now let us leave." He gently turned Ed's face towards the ground again to keep him from choking, icy fear gripping his chest. "You know we can't get out of here on our own, so help us. I know you can."

-Clearly presumption runs in the family. Its—Ed's—voice was cold. When Al said nothing, Truth inclined its head, in a humoring gesture. –Very well, it said.

And then Al was being yanked backwards.

TBC.

Chapter Text

Al didn't remember a whole lot after that. What he did remember came in snatches, brief and terror-filled. Being yanked forcibly through the Gate for the second time in his life, for instance, felt a bit like being ripped apart all over again and reconstructed, only to be dropped in a heap on the ground in spring daylight. Miraculously, though, he still managed to hold onto a fistful of the tatters of Ed's shirt, and wound up sprawled almost on top of him. His own blood just about froze then at the sight of Ed's blood, suddenly not being held in by the arms of the gate anymore, spilling out onto the ground at an alarming rate. The trip through the gate hadn't woken him; Al wasn't even sure if Ed was breathing anymore, his hands were shaking too much to tell.

After that, it was all shocked exclamations erupting all around him, but they were muted over the roaring in his ears—

"Edward!"

"Fullmetal!"

"…Alphonse?"

He wasn't sure what he said in response to those voices, to the figures that converged on Ed and the hands that pulled him gently away and wrapped him in somebody's coat. But he thought he must've called for Mei, for Dad, Dr. Marcoh, anybody to help Ed, and babbled something about don't use a stone, please don't use a stone, he wouldn't want that, even though it was damn near impossible to say that when Ling had appeared with Lan Fan and held one out to him, or when Marcoh did practically the same. There was shouting, and more blood, and he thought Ed might've woken up and started coughing, though he couldn't see him very well for all of the people surrounding him. And he was trembling and trembling, and he thought he might have been sobbing, and somebody had their arms around him. Teacher, his mind had hazily registered.

After that, he wasn't sure how he came to end up where he was now, opening his eyes to find himself in a hospital bed, Mei curled up in a chair next to him, dozing, Xiao Mei curled up in a ball on her scrub-covered knees.

His return to consciousness had come with a torrent of sensory information that he could hardly begin to process. The sheet and blanket pulled up over his chest were heavy, the feel of them and the scrubs he wore underneath chafing and uncomfortable against his skin. His breath was loud and rattling in his own ears, the smell of antiseptic he supposed must go along with a hospital sharp and almost burning in his nose. An aching that set his teeth on edge was coming from one arm, and glancing down at where it sat on top of the sheets, he could see an IV line taped in place there.

And it was cold in here, too. But then again, maybe that was just him. He shivered, his eyes scanning the room. Window to the right of him, its blinds open to reveal what looked like early morning light, which threw dappled spots onto the bed and made Mei's hair look soft and glossy, unbound from its braids and spilling down her back in waves. A door in front of him, closed at the moment. To the right, a closed curtain partition. Somewhere on the other side of it he could hear a faint, steady beeping noise.

For a moment he couldn't quite figure out what was going on. If I'm here, and I'm…uh…myself again, then where's…

And then he remembered. The force of it was like a brick wall.

Brother.

"Mei!"

Mei yawned, her nose wrinkling slightly, and squinted blearily over at him. "Alphonse?" And then her eyes went wide, her face breaking into a tired but genuinely delighted smile. "You're awake," she said, and looked for a second as though she couldn't decide whether to fling herself at him. She stayed put, though, apparently deciding against it, though she bounced once or twice in her seat.

"Y-yeah," he said, forcing a small smile back. "Mei, can you tell me where my brother is?"

Her smile faded a bit. She suddenly looked uncomfortable, and sad, sitting up in the chair.

"Mei," he repeated, while his mind started up a desperate litany of don't-be-dead-please-please-don't-be-dead….

She pointed at the closed partition. "He's through there," she said, quietly.

"So he's—"

"Yes, he's alive," she said.

His shoulders slumped. Suddenly that beeping seemed a whole lot louder than it really was. Vitals monitors always did, he supposed.

Mei's eyes followed Al's to the partition. "We did everything we could. Me, and your father, and then the medics afterwards." She leaned forward a little, and set Xiao Mei, still sleeping, on the sheets near Al's legs. When she came near, Al could see all too clearly the scrapes and bruises on her face, fatigue palpable in her wide eyes. "We got the bleeding under control in his throat, and on the, um, stumps—" the word gave Al the sudden sensation that he'd just swallowed lead, and Mei winced before continuing—"but I've never healed injuries as extensive as that, and even with alkahestry it's too dangerous to transmute something you don't completely understand." She twisted the sheets up in her fingers. "I think Mr. Hohenheim has dealt with wounds that large, but I'm guessing he relied on the Xerxes souls for that kind of power, so he didn't try it either. And," she added, softly, finally meeting Al's eyes, "he told me it's easier on an automail patient if the wound doesn't have to be completely re-opened before the surgeries."

Al nodded, dumbly. The first time, Granny had waited until Ed had been just recovered enough that he could physically handle the surgeries, but no longer. It was less invasive, that way, with less of a chance of automail rejection, which could spell death for the patient.

But he could scarcely bring himself to believe the fact that there was even going to be a second time, that they were seriously sitting here, at what should have been the end of their journey, discussing the logistics of how Brother would survive now that the original price he paid had just been doubled.

Ed had held up his end of the promise, because here Al was now, flesh and bone and all, but…

Needless to say, Al had failed to hold up his own end. Something ached in his chest. And suddenly, he felt very, very tired. That persistent beeping from beyond the curtain seemed louder than ever.

After a moment, Mei slipped her tiny hand under his. He started, the feeling of her skin against his own not exactly unpleasant, but a bit like a battery shock. His wrist and fingers were thinner than hers, and through near-translucent skin he could see veins, joints, and the outline of bones all too clearly. Somebody had cut his nails short.

"You should know," she began in a hushed voice, and when she looked up at Al, her eyes were round and bright. "Before he wakes up, I mean. You should know what else was taken. He won't be able to—"

"He won't be able to talk," Al finished, vaguely and distantly shocked at the fact that he could come right out and say that with such apparent ease. "I know."

"Not ever, we don't think," Mei said, biting her lip. Her hand that wasn't under Al's reached out to pet Xiao Mei behind the ears. "The, um, vocal folds in the back of his throat were torn out."

Al just nodded. Now he finally felt like his own throat was closing up. He didn't think he could stomach the prospect of never hearing Brother's voice again. And for me. Because of me. But he swallowed a few times, blinked back against the hot stinging feeling in his eyes, and willed himself to calm down. Losing it right now was not going to get them anywhere. "Can I see him?" he asked. His own voice was hoarse.

"He hasn't really woken up yet, they don't think," she said, her hand finally coming to a rest on top of Xiao Mei, and fingers of the other twining themselves a little with Al's. "You'd have to ask somebody. After he got out of surgery, they've kept him pretty well drugged. The doctors figured you'd want to see each other, but because Edward's needed so much attention, they kept the curtain closed so they wouldn't wake you."

Al nodded again, and glanced out the window, the morning light hitting the waxy leaves of a flowering tree outside the window. He blinked again, this time impatiently—he was exhausted, and it couldn't have been more than a few minutes he'd been awake. "How long has it been?"

"The Promised Day was yesterday," she said. Xiao Mei stirred a bit, wrinkled her nose, and yawned.

He looked at her a little more critically. She was pale, her hair disheveled, and the dark smudges on her eyes as pronounced as those bruises. She was in a pair of scrubs herself, and Al wondered if she'd received treatment herself yesterday. He knew she'd hurt her leg, and he didn't know if he'd ever seen her attempt to heal herself—they'd had to take her to Dr. Knox along with Lan Fan when she'd been hurt after their first descent into Father's tunnel, after all, and he didn't even know if Mei could use her healing abilities on herself. "Have you gotten any rest since then?" he asked her.

She looked sheepish. "A little."

"You haven't been in here this whole time, have you?" The thought made him feel equal parts guilty and flattered.

A hint of blush crept into her cheeks. "No," she said, a little primly. "I was just making sure you were alright."

He grinned a little despite himself. But at the same time, if she had been with him most of the time since then, he didn't quite want to think about what kind of state she, or anybody else for that matter, had seen him in when he'd first come back. He'd been…well, not wearing anything, for starters, but what little he remembered about the ordeal told him that before he'd passed out (because he figured he must have somewhere along the line), he'd been a frantic, weeping, blood-covered mess clinging to his limb-less brother. His stomach roiled suddenly at the memory of his fingers coated in that sticky red, and his fists clenched.

"Alphonse?" Mei had withdrawn her hand, and was frowning, watching him with concern.

His eyes slid shut, and he willed himself to get a grip. He turned a hand over and held it up to his eyes after a moment, not even sure why he was doing it—there was no more blood there, of course there was no more blood there, he'd already seen that there wasn't, but—

"Are you—" Mei began.

Al let his hand drop. "Yeah. I'm okay. Sorry." Hold it together, hold it together, come on, it won't do any good to—"Um, can I ask you something?"

She nodded.

"If you're here, does that mean—" he broke off with a yawn, and blinked a few times. That in itself, some distant part of his mind registered, was a new experience—blinking, or even closing his eyes at all. Before, he'd never been able to block out his vision, except in a total absence of light, or if someone had covered his head. It almost startled him, the room repeatedly going dark as he fought fatigue and exhaustion that already sought to pull him back into unconsciousness. "D-does that mean that Ling and Lan Fan never left, either?" he managed.

There was a beat of silence. "No, they haven't," she said slowly after a moment. She sounded…worried, and, if he didn't know better, somehow guilty. "And when you're feeling up to it, we need to talk about that…"

"We can t-t-talk now—" he yawned again, his eyes shuttering a few times of their own accord.

Suddenly, she had that steely, determined look in her eyes, the same look he remembered from when she'd been attempting to teach him the beginning principles of alkahestry. It was quite different finally seeing it—seeing her—from his own eye level. "We'll talk later," she said firmly. "Sleep first."

He didn't want to sleep, he wanted to see Ed, and really, all they had to do was open that curtain. "I've been sl—"

"Well you need some more," she snapped. She scooped Xiao Mei up and set her back down on her lap. Xiao Mei, apparently sleepy herself, gave a little grunt of protest but did not move. "And as soon as you can handle it we have to get some real food in you too. Do you have any idea how undernourished you are?"

"Um," he began, sheepishly. His eyes traveled to his knobbly wrists, sitting on the sheets in front of him. His curled fingers reminded him of spiders' legs. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen himself yet. He only had a vague idea of what he looked like, from the few meetings he'd had with his unoccupied body by the Gate. He knew he'd looked horrible, a skeleton with skin stretched tight over it, but truth be told, one of the things that had jarred him the most was just how long his hair had gotten. As long as Brother's, if not longer, and all pale. Without much conscious thought, his hand made its way to his head. Yup, all that hair was still there. It felt dry, though, he realized, yanking his fingers through it, and brittle, though of course it'd been so long since he'd felt anything at all that maybe that was just what all hair was like. But Mei's didn't look like it felt like that…

"It's a little long, isn't it?" Mei said after a moment.

He nearly jumped. "Oh. Uh..yeah." He held a limp strand of it up in front of his eyes, and twisted it.

Mei leaned forward and plucked a strand of it up herself. Al felt his stomach do a nervous flutter at her proximity. Somehow Mei's inherent lack-of-shyness at physical proximity made him feel more…awkward…now that he wasn't in the armor anymore.

"Hmm…it's mostly dead ends," she said, frowning at the strand. "Didn't you tell me once that it used to be short?" She looked at his face, like she was trying to visualize his hair short, but then her gaze landed on a spot somewhere near his shoulder, and her eyes narrowed.

He fidgeted, uncomfortable under her scrutiny but also quickly becoming too exhausted to care. "What is it?"

"They didn't do the best job cleaning you up, is all." She reached out and touched a bit of the hair that fell over the shoulder closest to her. "They had a lot of other patients to take care of, and they were trying not to wake you so they did it quickly, but…" Her fingers pinched another strand of hair he couldn't see. "There's still some blood, here."

He stiffened. Suddenly he felt wide awake. His stomach churned. And the beep-beep-beep from beyond that stupid curtain now seemed deafening.

Mei didn't fail to notice his change in demeanor. "We can wash it out," she said, quickly. "I'll get a nurse to bring a basin."

He gulped back nausea, staring straight ahead, trying very hard not to let any of his hair enter his line of vision, or imagine Ed, at age eleven or at age sixteen, bleeding out in his arms.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

"Alphonse?"

"Huh?" He thought his voice sounded small, strained. Mei's eyes were wide with worry.

"I said we can wash it out, but, um, if you want, I—" she reached into a pocket of her pants, and produced one of her small kunai. "The hospital's over capacity right now, so it might be awhile if we ask them for anything that isn't really important. I know it's not a pair of scissors, but it's definitely sharp enough if you want me to try and—"

"You want to cut my hair?" In any other situation he might think it was hilarious that she was offering to cut his hair with a kunai, but at the moment it seemed like more of a godsend than anything else.

Her head bobbed up and down, earnestly. "It probably won't look like it did before, but I've used these to trim off split ends in my own hair. And you wouldn't think so, but once you get the hang of it it's actually pretty easy, if—"

Beep. Beep. Beep. That curtain must have been awfully thin.

Al gulped again, and nodded. "Go ahead."

To be continued…