"Edward," Al called from behind him, his tone finally starting to show the irritation that Ed suspected he'd been feeling since they'd dropped their things off at the inn and Ed had proceeded to take off with only a brief warning.
Ed sighed and finally stopped, turning to scowl back at his brother. "What? If you only came to slow me down–"
Al aimed a punch at him, far closer than Ed had expected, as he snapped, "I'm here because you're a careless idiot, Brother, and the last time I let you hunt down a rumour on your own, you came back with a broken collarbone."
Ed grimaced at the reminder as he dodged the punch, because broken collarbones were not fun. Even less fun had been Winry's response, and the way their son, Yuriy, had kept looking like he was waiting for Ed to keel over. (Seriously, that kid was way too fucking much like his mother with the constant freaking out over other people's health, and Ed knew that was at least half due to him breaking his leg when he was four, but seriously. Nina, their daughter, on the other hand, was way more Ed's kid, getting into fucking everything and plotting adventures all over town, which was probably why she was both his favourite, and the one most likely to give him grey hairs before he hit thirty-five.)
Al huffed and thumped his fist backwards against Ed's chest in that way that he'd picked up from Ed, back when there was an obvious height difference between them. "Nothing about these rumours say we have to rush," he pointed out, tone reasonable.
Ed sighed. Yeah, the rumours he'd heard this time sounded less like an alchemist about to rip up the countryside – which had happened, and Winry had knocked him out when he'd tried to go help, insisting that was the military's job – and more someone doing questionable experimentation. Small scale – only animals had been reported missing, so far – but who knew when it would turn into something more worrisome.
Al let out his own sigh, clearly reading Ed's thoughts from his expression. "Okay," he said, a quiet agreement, and Ed glanced over at him, raising one eyebrow. Al smiled back, a little tired and a lot resigned, then motioned towards the crumbling manor house they could see up the dirt road ahead of them. "Let's go kick some idiot alchemist's arse."
Ed grinned at him. "If it really is chimera research, can I kick out all his teeth this time?" he asked, just because he could.
Al rolled his eyes and shoved Ed's shoulder, getting them both moving forward again. "Is that the reason you refused to send up to Central for backup?"
'Again,' he didn't add, because Ed had been refusing to ask for help from the military since Mustang became the Führer, even though they both knew the bastard would send a couple soldiers or an extra alchemist to help them out in a heartbeat, should they but ask. Would probably insist on it, even, given neither of the brothers had the authority to run around Amestris bagging alchemists performing questionable experiments. (Being national heroes granted them some leeway, there, or it had under Grumman. Why Mustang hadn't come down on them for acting like Ed was still a State Alchemist yet, only he could say, and Ed didn't care to think about it overmuch.)
Ed snorted. "Like we really need that bastard's help to take out some stupid hermit," he returned. Because there was no way he was ever going to tell his little brother the truth, the reason he avoided Mustang even more now than he had when they were kids; that was one secret he was intending to take to his grave.
Al just sighed, likely long resigned to Ed's refusal to ask for help, especially from Mustang.
They slowed as they reached the clearing around the manor, both keeping their eyes sharp for any sign of arrays lying in wait; Ed couldn't purposefully activate any arrays, but he'd learnt through painful experience that there were some arrays you didn't need a personal Gate to activate. (And if he ever met the fucker who'd designed those, he was going to do a lot worse than kick all their teeth out.)
Seeing nothing, they made their way up the short staircase in front of the house and Al stepped forward to knock, while Ed stayed back and readied one of his throwing knives.
The door creaked open at Al's touch and he looked back to frown at Ed, who narrowed his eyes and shook his head in response; he had no idea, but now he was twice as glad that they'd come.
Al grimaced and gave a ghost of a nod, then cautiously pushed the door open the rest of the way and called, "Hello?" into the dark halls that greeted them. "Mr Martin?"
There was no response, and Al looked back at Ed again, defaulting to his command. And Ed knew that was because his brother's better sense was saying 'run the other way' or 'wait for a response' or whatever normal people's better sense said when they came across this sort of situation, but his gut was probably doing the same thing as Ed's was right then, screaming 'something's wrong'. And when it came down to a battle between Al's better sense and their gut instincts in the field, so long as neither of them was wounded, Al always defaulted to Ed.
Ed flashed him a sharp smile and shifted his grip on his throwing knife, then made the hand-signs he'd picked up from knowing one too many members of the military for 'careful' and 'move forward'.
Al gave a short nod, then stepped carefully into the house, Ed following two paces behind – just far enough back, he wasn't likely to get caught up in any alchemical traps, but close enough he could intervene if things went to shit.
They walked through the entire ground floor like that, lighting the small chemical lights they'd brought with them and spreading out to check darkened doorways as they found them. A large portion of the floor in what looked like it might have been the dining room at one point – not that there was furniture to be certain – was sagging, and they'd taken care to skirt around the outer edge, neither one stupid enough to test what was clearly unstable.
"Clear," Al whispered with a frown as they stopped in the kitchen, which had definitely seen some use recently, because there were dirty dishes in the sink that hadn't been sitting so long as to start stinking. "Maybe he's out?"
Ed shook his head, because everything in him – every instinct and sense tuned to danger – said this wasn't just an innocently empty house, and the light sheen of sweat he could see beading Al's forehead in the glow of their lights said he felt it, too. "Basement or upstairs?" he asked.
Al swallowed and looked towards the gaping doorway they'd found that led to a set of stairs heading down. Both of them knew that alchemists usually set up their workshops in the bottom floor of their homes – basement or ground floor, depending on the design of the house – so going down was their best chance to find out what this guy was up to. But, if Martin was upstairs, he could potentially cut off their retreat if they went down before clearing the rest of the house.
Ed knew what he wanted to do – head straight down and find out exactly what this fucker was up to, and if they had to fight their way out, they had to fight their way out – but Al was, by and large, the more sensible of the two of them, so he'd bow to his decision. (That was, after all, the reason he'd let his brother tag along with only token complaining.)
"Down," Al finally said, and Ed couldn't keep from shooting him a disbelieving look. Al shrugged. "We might as well figure out what he's up to?"
Ed flashed him a grin that made Al grimace, then stepped past him and started down the stairs with care, knife held ready to throw at the first hint of movement.
The basement turned out to be a huge open space, with wooden bracers holding up the ceiling at intervals, some of them leaning slightly. (Ed made a point to give those a wide berth.) There were tables and bookshelves shoved up against the far wall, while a massive array had been traced into the middle of the floor. The supports that should have been inside the array were missing, and the ceiling was sagging slightly; Ed would bet that was the dining room.
The basement didn't have any doors or hidden passages they could find, so it was easy to clear. Which left Ed and Al staring across the massive array in the middle of the floor.
"...the fuck?" Ed said at last, vocalising what, he was sure, they were both thinking.
Al carefully crouched down just above what looked like might be the top of the array, above the symbol for combining matter. "I don't recognise either of these," he said, pointing to the two closest...Ed didn't actually know what to call them. Miniature arrays?
Ed gingerly touched the outer circle of the array and, when nothing happened, stepped inside and crouched over the nearest of the strange...whatever they were. Circles and crescents and lines going every which way. "Not an array," he decided.
"So...what?" Al asked as he got to his feet again and started over towards the tables and bookcases. "Let me see if I can find anything about this."
"Yeah, good luck," Ed muttered as he got up and walked around the array to the bottom. There was another strange symbol down there, which looked like it was a bit simpler than the other two. It was bracketed by mirror images of the symbols for night and day, which was...a weird choice. Usually, when you were going to use those symbols as balance, you put one on either side, but Martin had put both of them together on both sides of the array. And that–
"Is he trying to overload it?" Ed muttered to himself as he turned to look at the centre of the array. There looked to be something written there – or maybe it was just the remains of one of the missing wooden supports, but he stepped forward and crouched down next to it anyway. And, yeah, that was writing. Old script. Looked like two distinct phrases, each forming half of a circle, and Ed leant in closer to try and read the small text.
"Memores acti et prudentes futuri," he murmured, then tilted his head to see the other half. "Reverti ad praeteritum."
Be mindful of your deeds and conscious of the future. Return to the past.
Something very like disbelief caught in Ed's throat, the hair at the back of his neck standing on edge, because that sounded a lot like–
He looked towards where Al was bowed over one of the tables. He'd found a lantern and lit it, using it and his chemical light to look through at least two different books. "Al," Ed croaked.
"Just a minute, Brother," Al called back, not even bothering to raise his head.
"Al-phonse," Ed stressed, his voice cracking.
Al looked up and around, then, attention most likely caught by Ed's tone. And then his eyes went wide and he shouted, "Move!"
Ed looked behind him as he tried to get to his feet, but his automail had locked up – he really should have got Winry to look at it before they left, but with the preparations for the yearly festival underway, he hadn't wanted to add to her stress – and he found himself staring at a man that couldn't have been much older than him, hair defying gravity around his head and eyes wild.
"At last," the man said, only just audible over Al shouting for Ed to move, "a human test subject."
And then he touched the outer edge of the array.
"Brother!" he heard Al scream as the array lit blue, then dark, terrible purple.
A door slammed, and Ed found himself standing in a world of whiteness. In front of him sat a white figure, haloed in shadows, and Ed shook his head, stumbling backwards, away from that figure that he only ever saw in his nightmares.
"How was it?" that terrible voice asked.
Ed turned to look behind himself and found his Gate standing tall. "No," he whispered. He'd got rid of it. He'd traded it for Al fourteen years ago. This shouldn't be here.
Return to the time past.
He turned back towards Truth, looked down at where its white-white legs were folded together. Two white legs.
Ed looked down at himself, his child's body, and felt nausea climbing his throat at the sight of his real left leg.
Truth let out a sigh and got to its feet. "Nothing to say?" it asked.
"Don't," Ed heard himself plead, his voice too young.
"Don't what?" Truth returned. And then it took a step forward and pain – so much worse than he remembered – shot through Ed as his leg was torn to pieces. "This is your toll, Mr Alchemist," it reminded him as Ed struggled vainly to keep from screaming at the agony.
Hands braced against his arms, steadying him, and Ed found himself staring into an eyeless face, its grin wide and cruel. "Equivalent exchange, is it not?"
And then Ed found himself laying on the stone floor of Hohenheim's old study. The purple light of human transmutation lit the walls in eerie shades, and Ed tasted blood and alchemy in the air, like a page from the worst of his nightmares.
Agony bled from the stump of his leg, and Ed couldn't quite bite back a sob as he forced himself into a sitting position with one hand, the other clutched tight around his wound. Panic was creeping at the edge of consciousness, and Ed forced himself to close his eyes, to breathe in deeply, ignore the dying light of the worst mistake of his life and the scent of his own blood, calm down and think.
Time travel. Impossible, yes, but no more so than the hundreds of other things Ed had seen and done over the past twenty-nine years.
No, not twenty-nine years any more. He was ten – almost eleven – when this happened.
The thing they'd transmuted let out a wet gurgle, and Ed opened his eyes to look towards it. "Al," he whispered, remembering what his brother had said about being in that thing for a moment, before it rejected his soul.
His thoughts focussed into sharp clarity: Al. He had to get his brother back, couldn't trust Truth not to just let him die out of spite, because they didn't know how long a body and soul could remain in that world before it was shunted off to death, how long their theoretical connection would let them cheat the natural order.
First, a test: Ed looked down at his leg stump, took a deep breath and envisioned the Cretan healing array he wanted, then quickly clapped his hands together and pressed them against the open wound.
The alchemy blazed bright green, the same as pretty much every other healing transmutation he'd seen performed using western alchemy. The pain faded away to a manageable level and the bleeding stopped, thick scabs stretching over the wound, exactly like was supposed to happen.
Ed could use alchemy again.
He stared at his hands for a long moment – two real hands he could press together and activate an array – then shook himself and looked towards the armour he'd trapped his brother in last time, standing tall against the wall, just within reach.
"I can't," Ed whispered, squeezing his eyes closed. He couldn't do that to Al again. He couldn't trap him in that hollow body, watch him struggle with the same, terrible distance that he had once before. (Fuck. Had Al got caught up in that transmutation? Would he remember that existence? Wouldn't it be better if he didn't?)
But, then, what could Ed trade for his brother? His Gate?
Ed let out a laugh that cracked and shattered at his feet.
No. If he was ten, that meant the Dwarf in the Flask hadn't been destroyed yet. That meant he would need his alchemy. Because maybe he'd defeated the fucker with a punch, in the end, but alchemy had done a lot more, in terms of using up his Stones quickly, than conventional weapons.
Ed opened his eyes and stared down at the blood-stained floor, remembering what May had mentioned, once, about how it had felt like there were people moving under the ground in Amestris. Something she'd noticed as soon as she'd stepped over the border, the first time, but which was missing when she'd returned with Al after Ling's coronation. They'd hypothesised it had been Philosopher's Stones, spread out over the whole country to serve as the Dwarf in the Flask's means for limiting Amestrisan alchemists from using the full potential of tectonic energy, as well as shutting off their access to it entirely.
Ed swallowed. He and Al had made a promise, that they'd never use a Philosopher's Stone to get their bodies back, but that was before. And–
He closed his eyes, ran through every argument for and against using Philosopher's Stones that he'd heard over the years. Ling and May and the chimeras, they'd all been for using the Stones if you had them, because what use was a weapon – or a last chance for life – if you didn't use it. Dr Marcoh, too, had said, the last time Ed had seen him while visiting Ishval, that if he could use a Stone to heal someone – to do something good – then didn't that validate those who had lost their lives in the creation of the Stone? They no longer had any control over how they were used, but at least they could be used for something good, rather than storing them up to suffer in agony until they were pulled out for war.
"Something good, huh?" Ed whispered, opening his eyes and looking towards Al's abandoned clothing. His brother was good and kind, even as an adult. He'd never made any of Ed's mistakes, never run through a battlefield and ignored cries for help because there was nothing he could do for them, never fallen into bed with a man while his wife was at home with their two kids, and then run the fuck away.
He clapped his hands together and whispered, "He deserves to live," as he closed his eyes and touched the ground, seeking the well of life energy beneath him. "Help me save him. Please."
Red lit behind his eyelids, boundless energy filling him for a long, impossible moment, before there was nothing.
"You're back," that voice said.
Ed opened his eyes to find Truth sitting across from him, wearing Ed's leg. "I came for my brother," he returned, holding out a hand that, he found, held a blood-red Stone. "This is my toll."
Truth didn't move for a long moment. And, when it finally did – when it shifted and reached forward – it grabbed Ed's wrist and yanked.
Ed couldn't keep from sprawling forward, unbalanced with only one leg and his arm held tight by the fucker in front of him. Still, he didn't stay down long, shoving his free arm under himself and glaring up at the white figure. "The fuck gives, you shit? I brought you your fucking toll, so give. Him. Back!"
Truth turned to consider the Stone in Ed's trapped hand, head tilting, completely unconcerned with how angry Ed was getting. (They both knew there was nothing Ed could do to Truth.) "There is not enough for your leg," it said.
"I don't care about my fucking leg," Ed snarled, because he'd managed with automail for eighteen years, and it was a fucking pain in the arse some days, but it was his due for his sins. "Keep the fucking thing. I just want my brother back. I know he's here."
Truth turned to him, its mouth a flat line, and Ed felt like he was being stared at, even though Truth didn't have any eyes. "You took too much," it said, sounding a bit like it was...surprised?
A chill went down Ed's spine. "Too much what?" he asked, not sure he wanted to know.
"Knowledge," Truth said, before a hand wrapped around Ed's throat.
He grabbed for it with his free hand, trying to pry free fingers that were way too strong, even as he felt himself being raised into the air.
Beyond Truth, he could see now, was another Gate, familiar in a different way from his own, and a blond boy stood there, staring with wide, terrified eyes towards Ed and Truth. 'Al,' Ed mouthed, reaching towards his brother.
"I'll take your tolls, then," Truth said, as it took the Philosopher's Stone from Ed's hand.
Across the way, Al started to be disassembled, one hand reaching back towards Ed.
"Remember, it's equivalent exchange, Mr Alchemist."
The real world crashed back into existence around him, and Ed bowed forward, coughing as he clutched at the ache of his throat. "Al," he gasped.
Or...tried to gasp. All that came out was a wheeze, but Ed had spotted Al by then, laying naked on the floor next to his empty clothes, and he just...felt the strain drain away. "Thank fuck," he whispered.
No, not whispered. Mouthed. His lips moved and air came from his lungs, but he wasn't– He didn't–
Ed pressed his hands to his throat, a distant sort of horror settling over him. 'Tolls,' that fucker had said, and, 'You took too much knowledge.'
Truth had taken his voice as payment for Ed's future memories.
'You fucking bastard!' Ed shouted silently at the ceiling.
Oh, he should have known something like this would happen. Fucking Truth. Fucking Gate. Fucking–
Ed closed his eyes, forced himself to take a deep breath, ignore the taste of blood, and just–
He had Al back. He had alchemy and two arms. He knew what was coming. He knew they could defeat the Dwarf in the Flask.
He didn't need his voice to fight.
He swallowed and clenched his fists, shot a glare towards the ceiling. 'You'll see,' he mouthed at the absent fucker. 'You can't stop me. Not now, not ever. I'm gonna save everyone.'
Hughes and Nina. And old man Fu didn't have to die. Or Buccaneer.
Ed felt his mouth stretch with a grin that ached, angry and determined, and he looked towards Al. He forced himself to crawl over to his brother's side, touched his shoulder, took a moment to watch him breathe.
Al in the flesh. Warm. He wouldn't grow up trapped in cold steel. He would never know the uncertainty of whether or not he was real, would never find himself fading in and out as his armour body started rejecting his soul. No more long nights without anyone to keep him company, or only being able to sit and watch as others ate.
No, Ed didn't need his voice. This was enough for him.
He stared at his brother for a long few minutes, content to just watch him breathe, feel his warmth.
But, eventually, he remembered the horror waiting in the middle of the array, and he looked towards it, feeling sick. Last time, Granny had handled it, because Ed had been quite literally falling to pieces and Al had been desperate to save him; cleaning up this mess hadn't been on either of their radar, and, doubtless, Granny had been happy to keep them from seeing it again. Now, Ed was already stabilised because of the Cretan healing alchemy, and he still had both arms. Al was clearly sleeping, and Ed was loath to wake him, especially since that was there, and Al didn't need to see it.
Assuming he didn't already remember it; had Al been sent back too? He hadn't been in the array, not like Ed, but if Al had been in an array while someone was activating it, Ed would have come running to try and drag or push him out, and he knew his brother well enough to bet he'd do the same. But would he have made it in time? And what did getting stuck on the other side of the Gate mean for those memories? He hadn't remembered the Gate at all last time, until whatever had happened in that pub had unlocked the block; would that be the same now? Or had that only been because of the armour?
Ed didn't have any answers, wouldn't get them until Al woke. He huffed his hair out of his face and shook his head.
Fine. Whatever. He'd go with the assumption that Al didn't know anything about the future – better for Ed, anyway; if Al found out he'd used a Philosopher's Stone and only brought his brother back, not his own leg, he'd be so dead – and that meant he was better off not seeing what they'd created. He didn't need this horror haunting his nightmares.
Ed nodded to himself and looked around for the closest thing he could transmute into a crutch for himself, coming up with one of the weapons the suits of armour had been holding. A quick clap and he had something to help himself up with. Which was...too tall, he found once he'd stood, because he was thinking of his adult body.
'Idiot,' he mouthed, hobbling over to the wall so he could brace himself, then clapping again and shortening his crutch.
The scabs on his stump pulled as he made his way back to the edge of the array and carefully broke the circle, limiting the chance of it activating while he was inside it. (Which, yeah. That would suck.) He grit his teeth against the reminder that he was far from healed, and took a moment to find the bandaging they'd left out just in case to wrap his stump, lessening the chance that the scab would just fall off when he moved the wrong way. (He was a little careless with himself, okay, not completely stupid; he knew what would happen if it tore off while he was upright.)
It wasn't hard to turn the pan the thing was mostly laying in into something he could wheel outside, and shoving the mess of bones and half-formed skin and hair, while gross, was about on par with carrying a dying friend through a warzone, and far less sickening than digging up what he'd thought was his mother.
Somehow, with much silent cursing and a break to heal his leg again when he felt the scab tear, he managed to get his load outside into the pouring rain. A clap cleared a hole behind the tree, and it didn't take much effort to shove the whole mess into it, even with mud clinging to everything. Another clap had the mud returned to the hole and, after a short, uncertain pause, Ed clapped again and formed a small headstone marker out of some rocks.
Then he stumbled back inside, the strain of multiple transmutations, blood-loss, and stress finally catching up to him.
'Al,' he mouthed to himself. 'Have to get back to Al. If he wakes up alone–'
"Brother!" Al screamed from the study, because Ed's luck was just like that.
Gritting his teeth, Ed forced himself to hobble back into the study, found Al sitting up and staring at the massive spray of blood inside the array with horror. He opened his mouth to call out, remembered his lack of voice, and let out an angry sound.
Which...didn't come out quite like he'd have expected, but it was enough to catch Al's attention, and his head came up and around, tears glinting in the lantern light.
Al could cry.
"Brother?" Al whispered, his voice shaking.
Ed nodded and held out a hand towards him, bracing himself against the doorframe.
Al scrambled to his feet, tripped over a forgotten shoe, then stumbled his way over to Ed, nearly knocking him over as he hid his face in Ed's chest.
Ed dropped his crutch and wrapped his arms tight around his brother, squeezing his eyes shut and giving himself a moment to feel his brother's warmth, smell something other than steel. Flesh and blood. Alive. His brother was okay. They were both okay.
"Brother," Al whimpered against his chest, tears soaking through his shirt, "did we–? Did Mum–?"
Ed let out a silent sigh and shook his head, tightened his grip on Al when he let out a broken sob.
(Well, at least that answered the question of whether or not Al had any memories of the future. That was okay. That was good; Ed didn't want his brother to remember their trials.)
When Al started drooping against Ed, he let out a grunt and shook his brother until Al looked up at him with a broken stare. 'Granny,' Ed mouthed slowly.
Al's brow furrowed. "Brother?"
Ed set his mouth in a thin line and shook his head, then carefully braced himself with one hand on Al's shoulder and waved towards the door.
"Ed," Al whispered, horror in his voice, "why won't you–? You can't...talk?"
Ed shook his head again.
"How? Why? What–What happened?"
"What happened?" Al cried, pulling away and turning back to the blood-stained array in the middle of the floor.
Ed barely managed to catch himself on the doorframe, gritting his teeth as the sudden movement made the scabs on his leg pull warningly.
Right, so, being able to talk would have been really fucking nice right that moment.
Keeping a firm grip on the doorframe, Ed carefully knelt and grabbed his fallen crutch, then used it to poke his brother in the butt as he stood.
Al turned to look at him, guilt and horror dragging at his expression. And then his eyes caught on the crutch as Ed lowered it to the floor to lean on, and then on the empty space where Ed's left leg should have been.
And Ed had the dubious pleasure of watching his brother crumple to the floor and completely fall apart.
Ed closed his eyes and leant back against the doorframe. Fuck. Fuck. He hadn't been with it enough, last time, to know exactly how Al had taken everything. He knew that Al had picked him up and carried him to the Rockbell house, because Ed would have died otherwise, but he didn't know exactly what had been going through his brother's steel head while Winry and Granny had been fighting to save Ed's life.
Al didn't have a body that could carry Ed this time, and he didn't appear to have suffered any of the pains that Ed was wearing so carelessly. If their positions were reversed, Ed would have been screaming threats to the world, would have done everything in his power to even the field. (Once upon a time, he had.)
But Al... Al was nine years old and fuck alone knew what he remembered of that other world, if anything at all. All he knew was that their attempt to save Mum had failed, and Ed had paid the price.
Ed grit his teeth and made his careful way across the bloody study to Hohenheim's desk. He grabbed up a quill and the nearest mostly-blank paper, then wrote, 'I stopped bleeding but I need a dr to look at my leg. I need you to either call Granny + have her come over or help me over there--I can't make it on my own.' And it fucking sucked, having to admit his infirmity, but this was Al. Younger and untried, but still the one person he trusted above anyone else.
And, well, maybe giving him something to focus on, some way to help would help settle Al a bit. Maybe. (Ed could hope.)
He brought his note over and thrust it in front of Al. And when Al didn't take it, Ed whapped him on the head, then held it out again when Al sent him a broken look.
Al took it with shaking hands and read the note, then swallowed and looked up at Ed. "Granny would b-be able to h-help better there," he managed.
Ed nodded and pointed towards Al's abandoned clothing.
"Oh," Al whispered, and shuffled over to pull on his clothing, while Ed leant back against the wall and took a moment try catching his breath.
Fuck, he ached. He just wanted to be able to lay down and sleep, but he needed–
The study wasn't clean – they'd only swept it enough to make room for the array – and he'd ended up with an infection last time, not to mention he'd lost way more blood than was probably safe; he needed to let Granny look at him before the worst-case came to pass. And he should probably write her a note explaining everything, but he–
He clenched his jaw and pushed away from the wall, made his hobbling way back over to the desk and grabbed for the quill and some more paper.
"Brother?" Al called from behind him.
Ed shook his head and quickly wrote, 'We were stupid it was my fault leave Al alone about it. YES I lost my voice + leg. Floor wasn't really clean lost a lot of blood closed wound with alchemy. I want automail'
That was all the important stuff, right? Well, it was the stuff that would need to get tackled head-on, at least. Everything else could wait until he'd got some sleep and they'd figured out if he was going to be suffering from another infection. (Ugh.)
He folded the paper and slipped it safely into his pocket, hoped it would survive the rain, then carefully turned back towards Al, who was standing a few steps behind him, looking about as worn as Ed felt. And maybe they would have been better calling Granny over, but she had all the equipment she might need at her place, and Ed wasn't sure he should really let Al unaccompanied in the empty house, not with the study like this.
Ed held out his free hand, and Al immediately stepped forward to take it, moved in close enough to wrap an arm around Ed's waist, take some of his weight. Ed draped his arm over Al's shoulders in return, let himself balance between his brother – pretended he didn't notice how Al's whole frame was shaking – and the crutch for a breath, then nodded and took an obvious step forward.
Al stepped with him, took great care to keep step with Ed as they made their careful way out of the house and out into the rain.
The walk to Granny's was long and exhausting, and Ed almost slipped a handful of times, gritting his teeth against Al's broken apologies, as if it was his fault that Ed had lost his leg, that the mud made the road slippery and Al wasn't fucking armour this time, capable of carrying him the whole way in less than half the time it was taking them.
When they made it to the porch, they both stopped to catch their breath, and Ed wasn't really sure if Al was shaking or shivering any more, which was freaking him out a bit, but there wasn't a whole hell of a lot he could do when he was equally drenched and cold. (At least the rain had washed away the blood?)
"Granny!" Al shouted, and Ed winced at how loud his brother was, standing right next to him. "Granny, help!"
The door thudded open after a minute, Granny Pinako silhouetted in the doorway. "Al?" she called back, her voice worried.
"Brother needs help up the stairs," Al said, and Ed knew from his voice that he was crying again.
"Ed?" Granny called, stepping out onto the porch.
Ed grit his teeth – no fucking way he was going to try using Granny as a crutch – and took a firm hold of the railing in one hand, moved his crutch up to the first step, and hopped up.
"Brother," Al complained, just before hands came to rest against his back, making sure he didn't fall over backwards.
Ed made it up two more steps, Al a comforting presence at his back, before Granny let out a gasp and shouted, "Winry!"
Ed groaned – just what he didn't need (as if he could actually avoid Winry) – and hopped up another stair.
Winry had probably been roused by Al's earlier call and had just been avoiding coming out into the rain, because she stepped out before Ed felt secure enough to try the next step. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"Help Ed up the stairs and into the ground floor patient room," Granny ordered, before turning around and brushing past her, back into the house.
"The patient–" Winry started, before choking and hurrying forward, her eyes gone wide. "Your leg!"
Ed gave a tired nod and decided, fuck it, too late to wave her off now – she was at least as stubborn as him and Al –and tossed his crutch onto the porch, then held out his newly freed arm to her.
Winry rushed to his side and ducked under his arm. "Al, can you get his other side?" she asked, so completely her parents' daughter, it was a fucking relief. Because Ed wasn't certain he could handle both her and Al crying right that moment.
"Yeah," Al promised, sounding tired, and Ed made a point to put most of his weight on Winry when they helped him up the last two steps and into the house.
"Get him onto the bed," Granny ordered once they made it back to the patient room, and Al and Winry carefully helped Ed up the slight jump onto the patient bed. "One of you two tell me what the hell happened," Granny ordered as she dragged over some water and clothes.
"I–" Al started before his throat apparently closed up and he squeezed his eyes shut, whole face scrunching up like he was doing his damnedest not to cry.
Ed reached into his pocket and pulled out the note, sighing to find it soaked through. He unfolded it while Granny demanded, "Well?"
With a clap, he dried the paper and reformed the ink into his original message, though it was a bit faded in some places, from where the ink had bled away. He held the note out to Granny, only to find her and Winry both staring at him. He huffed and waved it at her.
"Brother," Al whispered, "can't talk." And then there was a hand folding into his, cold and shaking, and Ed glanced over to find Al standing next to him, red-eyed and clearly miserable, but not surprised. And Ed wasn't certain if that was just because he was too tired to be surprised, or if he remembered the Gate and knew he could perform clap-alchemy, now, too.
It didn't matter. Ed would find out eventually, when they were both dry and warm and had slept a bit.
"Ca-can't...talk?" Winry whispered as Granny finally took the note.
Ed snapped his fingers until Winry turned a watery stare on him, then pointed at Al and made a very pointed shiver.
Winry blinked a few times, then seemed to realise, "Towels!" and ran from the room.
"Brother too!" Al shouted after her, his hand squeezing Ed's.
"You closed it with alchemy?" Granny demanded.
Ed turned to her and nodded, while Al whispered a disbelieving, "Brother?"
Granny set the note aside and carefully shoved the leg his shorts up, out of the way, then murmured, "It's not bleeding," sounding more than a little surprised. She shook herself as Winry returned with towels. "I'm going to cut off the bandaging," she warned.
Ed nodded in understanding and held still while she carefully snipped away the soaked bandaging. And it pulled at a few places – where the scab had torn, Ed knew – as she gently pulled it away, but it looked–
"This looks days old," Granny murmured, while Al pulled his hand away from Ed to accept one of the towels from a wide-eyed Winry, then wrapped it around Ed.
Ed huffed at him, but yanked off his shirt and wrapped the towel around his shoulders all the same; the last thing he wanted was pneumonia on top of a potential infection. Ugh.
Granny looked up again, casting a glare between him and Al. "What stupid thing did you do?"
"Human transmutation," Al whispered, before Ed could motion that he needed something to write with. "We wanted...to bring Mum–" he choked, and when Ed looked over, he found tears on Al's face again.
Ed reached out and caught Al's arm, pulled him into a hug and, fuck, he could hug his brother. He could comfort him. That was worth...everything.
That said, they were both exhausted, and while Ed was fairly certain he wouldn't be able to sleep until his leg was seen to, Al didn't need to be here for that. So he made his free hand like a pillow under his hand, then pointed to his brother.
Granny narrowed her eyes at him, but agreed, "Winry, take Al upstairs and help him to bed."
Al jerked away from Ed, looking stubborn and tired and like he was about two steps from falling to pieces. "I'm not leaving Brother!"
"I need to see to your brother's leg, and for that I need silence and space. Out," Granny ordered.
Al turned a helpless look on Ed, and he nodded and pointed towards the door.
Ed pointed to his chest, then at the bed he was on, mouthing, 'I will be right here. I promise.'
Al swallowed, looking so fucking small, and Ed almost gave in, almost agreed that he could stay. But then Winry touched Al's arm and whispered, "Come on," and Al slumped and let himself be led from the room, the door being drawn shut behind them.
Ed and Granny sat in silence for a long moment, Ed staring after his brother and, fuck, was that such a good idea? Al needed to sleep, yeah, but they could have brought in a cot and then Ed would have been able to see his brother, make sure he was still okay, that this wasn't some fucked up dream.
Granny let out a grunt, then said, "Good."
Ed tore his eyes away from the door out into the hall, turned to stare at her.
Granny met his stare evenly. "You're taking this too calmly," she informed him, and Ed felt his jaw lock. "You're still worried about him."
Ed gave a tight nod; of course he was worried about Al. The day he wasn't worried about his brother, would be the day he die–
Granny didn't know a hell of a lot about alchemy, he knew, only the handful she'd picked up from Ed and Al and Hohenheim. She knew human transmutation was forbidden, but she didn't know the cost. All she had right then was one brother missing pieces, acting way fucking calmer than Ed had ever been as a child, and one brother whole in body, but clearly falling to pieces emotionally.
Rather than trying to find a way to explain – if he ever explained – Ed touched his chest, then flexed one arm, then pointed out the door.
"You're trying to be strong for Al," Granny translated.
She sighed and muttered, "Of course you are." She let out another sigh, then shook her head. "How dirty was the floor?"
Ed grimaced and shrugged.
"Did you sweep it first?"
"Fine. How long did it bleed for before you healed it?"
Ed frowned and tried to sort that one. It was difficult, because time in that other place seemed to go on for ages, though he knew, from what others had said when he'd traded his Gate for Al, that it was only seconds in the real world. He'd sat there for a bit, after, trying to screw his head back on. So...a couple minutes? He held up one finger, then four.
"One to four minutes?" Granny guessed.
Ed nodded again; she was good at this game.
Granny took a moment to consider that, then shook her head. "I'm not worried enough about an infection to rip this off," she decided, motioning towards the thick scab. "It would hurt like hell, and you'll just end up losing more blood."
Ed clenched his jaw and nodded in understanding.
She turned to collect a new bandage, then set it to the side as she started gently wiping away the blood that had leaked out when the scabs had pulled. "You want automail," she said flatly.
Ed took a deep breath and nodded.
"The surgery is agony and the rehabilitation is long," Granny continued in the same voice, even as she traded the dirtied cloth for the bandaging and started gently wrapping his leg.
Ed shoved a finger towards his leg and, when she looked up at him, scowled; like hell he'd have the patience to keep hobbling around for the rest of his life.
Granny sighed. "Stubborn shrimp."
Ed ground his teeth together and crossed his arms over his chest. So what if he was a little short now! He'd be taller than Winry in another five years, and that was with Al stealing some of his nutrients and his automail arm weighing him down!
...wait. He could be taller this time around, couldn't he? He could end up being taller than Mustang. Oh, what a glorious day that would be!
Granny patted his thigh and he glanced over at her. "We'll talk more about that once I'm certain your leg won't get infected. For now, get some sleep; Winry and I will keep an eye on you tonight."
Ed pointed up at the ceiling, because he needed them to keep an eye on Al, too.
"You're staying in here," Granny replied, tone no-nonsense, as she collected his damp shirt from his lap.
Ed sighed and nodded, then pointed up again.
Granny frowned at him for a moment, then guessed, "Keep an eye on Al?"
Granny frowned. "Is he hurt?"
He shook his head.
She glanced up at the ceiling for a moment, then sighed and nodded. "Fine." She tossed Ed's shirt over one shoulder with a wet smack, then picked up the bowl of water and unused cloths. "Lay down and get some sleep."
Ed let out a silent sigh and, as she started for the door, settled carefully on the bed, wrapping the towel more tightly around his shoulders, since there wasn't a blanket on the bed.
He was asleep before she got the door open.
Al must have snuck in at some point while Ed was sleeping, because he woke to find his brother sleeping on a stool next to his bed, his head resting in the space where Ed's left leg should have been. He stared down at him for a long moment, letting relief settle over him like the blanket someone had covered him with. He'd done it. He'd saved Al. It didn't matter that he'd used a Philosopher's Stone, he'd done it. Al was whole and safe and fucking perfect.
He was just reaching out a hand to touch his brother, ignoring the twinging of his stump as he shifted, when Al let out a whimper, his face scrunching up, and he whispered in a broken voice, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry..."
Ed clenched his hands for a moment, felt sick at the reminder that Al believed they'd killed Mum again, and then he reached out and brushed his fingers through Al's hair, making shushing noises, because he could do that much.
Al settled again, his expression smoothing out, and Ed pressed his eyes shut, hating himself for this, for the wretched choice that he'd made as a stupid child, for making his brother sin next to him and pay far too great a price. And maybe Ed had kept Al physically whole this time, but he'd done nothing at all for his brother's mental state.
Fuck, if Mum could see him, she'd be giving him so much shit for this.
'I'm sorry, Al,' he mouthed, running his fingers through his brother's golden hair and feeling like he was at least twice as old as his mental age. 'I'm the one at fault. I should have listened to you. I never listen to you, and you always get hurt and I'm so fucking sorry.'
He closed his eyes, hated that they were dry. But, then, he'd spent far too much of his life refusing to cry. Even for his little brother.
(He'd never had that right.)
The door creaked and he looked over to find Granny standing there with her pipe. "He keeps sneaking down," she commented, motioning with the pipe towards Al.
Ed nodded and brushed some hair out of his brother's face; if he'd been the one who was mobile, he'd have come looking for Al all the time, too. No matter what Granny said about him needing a proper bed.
"Brother?" Al mumbled, his fingers curling in the sheet.
Ed tried a humming noise, which sort of worked – he was going to be spending months trying to figure out what sorts of noises he could still make, he knew it – and ruffled his brother's hair.
Al squinted his eyes open, clearly still sleepy. " 'Kay?" he mumbled.
Ed offered him a smile and nodded.
Al blinked a few times, then his eyes fell closed and he turned away.
Ed shot Granny a worried look.
Granny sighed and approached the bed. "Back upstairs, Al, come on. Your brother needs his rest, and that position isn't good for your back."
Al let out a heavy sigh and obediently slouched out of the room.
'Al?' Ed tried to call after him, but the familiar name was little more than a gasp of air that went unheeded, and Al left the room without glancing back.
Something wretched was crawling up Ed's throat – bile or a sob, it was all the same – and he forced it back down as he leant forward and punched the bed where his left leg should have been, grinding his fist into the white sheet the way he wanted to do to Truth's face.
Granny was quiet for a long moment, before she settled into the stool Al had vacated. "I went by your house," she said.
Ed glanced at her from behind his bangs.
Granny took a long draw of her pipe, breathed the smoke in the opposite direction, then said, "I saw the headstone."
Ed gave a cautious nod, not sure what she was getting at.
Ed blinked, then nodded again.
Granny turned around to collect what turned out to be a pen and some paper attached to a clipboard. "Write," she ordered, her stare hard.
Ed looked down at the clipboard. Write? Write what? An explanation for the blank headstone? 'It wasn't Mum'
"What do you mean, it wasn't your mother?" Granny asked, a note of surprise in her voice.
Ed stared down at the paper for a long moment, pen poised, trying to decide how he could explain...
He clenched his jaw, made his choice, and wrote, 'Hohenheim suggested human trans never works. You can't bring the dead back to life'
"Hohenheim?" Granny repeated, definitely shocked, now.
'He comes back when I'm 15'
Ed turned to look at Granny, his expression set, and she looked up at him, met his stare with something that wasn't nearly as disbelieving as he'd have expected. (But, then, she'd known Hohenheim for so long, watched him never age; was it really any wonder she could so easily accept time travel?)
"How old are you?" Granny asked.
Ed didn't bother misunderstanding her. '29'
Granny drew in a careful breath, then offered, "You didn't react when I called you a shrimp."
Ed blinked, then found himself letting out a rough laugh. (And it was good to know he could still laugh.) Oh, of course it would be that which gave him away. He finally managed to train himself out of reacting to people commenting on his height, and that's what catches him out. Fuck.
Granny tapped out her pipe in the ashtray next to the bed. "Have you had automail before?"
Ed nodded, then wrote, 'Left leg + right arm. Kept my arm this time'
"I see that. And your voice?"
Ed couldn't keep his mouth from twisting with disgust, even as he scribbled, 'New'
Ed paused for a moment, then carefully wrote, 'Al suffered last time. Not this time'
He glanced over at her and found a sad smile on her face. "You boys," she murmured, gently patting his thigh.
Ed huffed a breath, then picked up the paper he'd been writing on, leaving the pen on the clipboard, and clapped, activating the deconstruction array he'd taken from Scar, leaving behind pieces so small, they'd have needed a microscope to find them in the dust specks.
"...that's a new trick," Granny offered.
Ed shrugged and nodded; at this point, he had nothing but new tricks.
"Are you going to tell Al?" Granny asked.
Ed nodded, not even having to think about it; Al deserved the truth, deserved to know what was coming, what danger lay in wait under Central.
"And Winry?" Granny pressed.
Ed frowned at that, uncertain. Tell Winry? She'd just freak out on him and–
He swallowed, reminded that she'd been turned into a hostage to force his and Al's compliance. She deserved the right to know she was going to be in danger, that Ed and Al were going to be in danger, even.
So he met Granny's stare and nodded, then looked down to write, 'Not yet. Not while I'm a sitting target'
Granny let out a laugh and slipped off the stool. "I guess I should get working on that automail for you, then," she announced, and Ed couldn't keep from grinning at her, so very grateful. "For now, though, are you hungry?"
Ed blinked, then rolled his eyes; he was always hungry.
Granny laughed again as she stepped from the room.
Ed was left with the silence and his thoughts. He stared down at the clipboard in his lap, realised that he felt a bit lighter for telling Granny the truth, even so little of it. Like this wasn't just on his ten-year-old shoulders, any more. He had someone to share the burden, who wouldn't look at him and see a child who has no fucking clue what he's walking towards.
Granny had always been a solid support for him, for all three of them, and he hadn't even realised how much he'd needed her in his corner until she was there.
'Thank you,' he mouthed to the empty room.
"I don't know what's wrong," Winry admitted quietly when Ed shoved his clipboard at her, his brother's name underlined a couple times. "He sits outside with Den a lot. He won't tell me anything." She threw her hands up in the air and pointed an angry finger at Ed. "You're more talkative than he is, right now!"
Ed knew she didn't mean that in a rude way, no matter her tone, and she was using anger to hide how terrified she was, but it still made him flinch, the reminder than he was struggling to find ways to communicate.
Winry's face fell and tears welled in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Ed. I didn't–"
Ed shook his head and patted her shoulder; he would get used to this disability, same as he'd once had to get used to two metal limbs, same as he'd had to get used to not having alchemy.
It was amazing, the things you could adapt to, if it was important enough.
He picked up his pen and wrote, 'I'm worried about him too'
Winry swallowed and reached up to wipe angrily at her eyes. "It's not fair!" she snapped. "None of this is fair!"
Ed looked away, couldn't bring himself to write what he was thinking: Life isn't fair.
(He, better than anyone, understood that.)
They were both silent for a long moment before Winry got to her feet. "I'm going to go find Al. Tell him you're asking after him."
Ed paused for a moment, then wrote, 'If he won't come at least make sure he's eating?'
Winry's bottom lip trembled, tears gathering in her eyes again, and she nodded. "Yeah," she agreed, before taking her chance and fleeing.
Ed closed his eyes and drooped back against the bed. Fuck. This was so fucking hard. He couldn't tell if Al hated him or was being stupidly guilty about the whole mess or what, because Al wouldn't come see him, and Granny and Winry just didn't know how to read Al when he wasn't bright and smiling, but Ed could. Ed had learnt to read his brother when he couldn't have an expression; right now, this, it would be a walk in the park. (Fuck, Al was the only person he'd always been able to read; even Winry had thrown him for a loop half the time, even after they'd married each other.)
Assuming Al would stop avoiding him.
He could go chase his brother down, of course. It wasn't easy, but he was capable of getting around on a crutch, and there was plenty of material for him to transmute into one. But, if he did, he'd get all kinds of shit from Granny and Winry. And he knew Granny. She'd hold his automail over his head if he started misbehaving, and he needed his fucking leg.
He didn't know what to do.
Swallowing against a lump in his throat, Ed turned his thoughts to planning for the Dwarf in the Flask, which he really needed to sort.
Hohenheim, much as he hated the bastard, had been somewhat necessary in fighting the Dwarf in the Flask effectively, given his own regenerative powers were equitable, so waiting until his useless old man showed his face would be helpful.
Too, they would need Scar and his brother's notes for the reverse circle, so the Dwarf in the Flask couldn't shut off his opponents' alchemy. (Ed had seen the circle, sure, but his memory of it wasn't perfect, and he'd rather have the original than try to recreate it from memory and chance screwing it up. And he could probably research it himself, if he could find the necessary resources, but why bother spending months working on that when someone else already had?) All he had to do was wait for Scar to pop up, then tempt him into a fight and...
And, what? Ed couldn't talk.
He let out a grunt and shifted, opening his eyes to look towards the open door.
Al could, though, and Ed intended to tell him as much as he could. Give his brother enough to go on, he could probably talk Scar around for him.
Scar's brother would be the key. Ed understood all too well the bond between brothers, and could make some pretty good guesses as to how to approach the issue. He and Al would figure something out.
(If Al would ever talk to him again.)
'Stop it,' he ordered himself, scowling.
They would have to wait for Scar and Hohenheim, then. So that was four years or so where they would have to cool their heels. Ed could join the military again, but he wasn't sure he really wanted to. Eventually, sure – as a State Alchemist, no one would look at him twice if he went snooping in the underbelly of Central, and he'd need the title to attract Scar – but there wasn't much reason for them to be running around the east area for three years, hunting after whispers of the Philosopher's Stone, and he didn't really want to know what horrors Mustang or Bradley would assign them without the goal of getting their bodies back.
Carving bloody crests, with Ed's luck.
So, if not the military, then what?
He sighed and rubbed at his face. Not here. He couldn't sit still here, couldn't sit still anywhere. It was something that had driven Winry nuts, but she'd always understood. May had been a little less–
Ed turned towards the hallway, as though thinking of his brother's future wife would bring him running.
Hah. Yeah, right.
Still, a few years in Xing might prove fruitful. Al had managed to figure out the Dragon's Pulse, eventually, but Ed hadn't bothered, not when he couldn't use alchemy or alkahestry. It had seemed pointless, so he'd just kept to collecting arrays and hadn't bothered to learn how to manipulate the Xingan power source. But, now...
If he and Al could use alkahestry, they didn't really need to talk Scar around. They probably still would – they weren't the only Amestrisan alchemists, after all – but it wouldn't be vital.
(Not to mention, fuck, distance alchemy. Ed needed that in his arsenal. Al had been fucking unstoppable once he'd figured that trick out.)
Right, so, Xing. He'd have to figure out how to teach Al Xingan, and he should probably actually practise the written form, for once. Because Ed had learnt to read the fancy characters – May had taken great joy in ambushing him with it until he gave in and let her teach him – but writing them had never been one of his skills. And since he was stuck communicating through the written word...
Ed sighed and picked up his pen, turning his attention to the clipboard in his lap. Well, he might as well start with that practising, and writing in another language was a good way to make a list of everything he needed to remember, without chancing someone figuring it out when he didn't want them to.