Edward Elric was trapped in nothingness.
It stretched out in all directions, never beginning and never ending. It was the aether. It circled him, surrounded him and encompassed him. His feet were on solid ground yet he was floating; his clothes fluttered around him and yet he was naked.
He knew this place.
Edward had been here before. Despite being nothing and everything, he could see. Edward twisted and didn't actually move, but the action had the desired effect. Behind him, stretched and warped, was The Gate of Truth. Was he supposed to be here?
The pain as Envy's arm stretched into a spike and pierced his chest. The monster couldn't even be merciful in that, he had missed Edward's heart completely and punctured a lung instead. Edward's hands fell to his chest instinctively, looking for the wound, feeling for the gap in his flesh. His clothing and body were whole, so it was a futile gesture. If he was here, then....
Edward was dead. Choking on his own blood, convulsing and impaled on Envy's arm, he had died. Alphonse was there. Al had to have seen....
Fuck. What was he going to do now? There had to be a way out of this, he wasn't done! Al wasn't fixed, Al was stuck in that transmutation circle and Dante was going to use him and then they'd both be dead and Alphonse didn't deserve that. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
The Gate had not yet opened. What did that mean? Was there still time? Was Edward's body still warm, did his soul have a chance of making it back...? Edward twisted again but now every way he turned he only faced the Gate. He thrashed helplessly, caught in the aether. He wouldn't let it end like this, he couldn't, he wouldn't...
But what could he do? He was dead, his body broken beyond repair. How could he muscle his way back to life if his body wouldn't even sustain him? He was absolutely helpless, caught in the grip of fate and he couldn't do a damn thing about it. His fists clenched in fury, Edward tried to twist around again.
When he looked up to the obsidian doors, he froze. There was something else there. Someone else.
It stood before the Gate. The huge doors had not yet opened so it couldn't have come from the darkness within, it had to be independent of it. Someone else passing on...? Another alchemist, another fool... it couldn't be Al already, could it? No, the figure was too tall, too slender … its hair, blond almost to the point of white fell in straight sheets down past its hips....
Edward was captivated, his mind grateful at having something else to focus on. What was this thing...? It was no creature of the Gate, not any that Edward had ever seen. They were black, oily things with eyes that never came in natural shades. This, whatever it was, it seemed to embody light, a being of light... this was...
No, Edward had stopped believing in those when his mother had died. He had stopped believing in those when he had made science his religion and alchemy his faith. It couldn't … those just did not exist.
Yet it was standing there, still. Who knew how much time passed while Edward was staring, dumbstruck at it. It – he, Edward decided, dazzled, he couldn't keep referring to him as an 'it,' that seemed like a disservice despite the androgyny of the figure before him – raised his head and stared evenly back at Edward. Edward started because then the being was not standing beside the Gate but beside him, before him, his amber eyes locked with eyes the color of the sky.
I'm dead, Edward said. His mouth moved to form the words, he could feel his larynx move but no noise came out. There was no air to carry the sound, Edward realized dumbly.
I KNOW. He did not move his mouth like Edward did, but the words, the feeling conveyed to Edward all the same. The tone and cadence of a voice Edward couldn't hear physically but felt in the core of his body was centuries old.
Are you a... Edward couldn't finish the thought, his brain stuttered to a halt. To finish that sentence would be to accept what he spent his whole life denying existed and he couldn't he refused to fathom it. ...you are, aren't you.
THE NATURAL ORDER HAS BEEN DISTURBED. His eyes were the color of the palest sky and yet seemed to keep changing, reflecting sunset and sunrise and brightest day and darkest night. Time passing, Edward realized with a sinking feeling. How long were they standing here, hours, seconds, decades? As if to quell his question, the being continued. TIME IS SOMETHING MEASURED IN THE DECAY OF THE BODY AND IN THE BLOOMING OF FLOWERS. TIME IS HELD IN ALL THINGS MATERIAL. IT HOLDS NO WEIGHT HERE.
Edward wasn't following. At all. The natural order... What had upset the natural order of things? Why did that pertain to him-
The an- no, he wasn't going to think that word, he wouldn't. The eyes staring into his were soft. I KNOW THE EXACT SECOND THAT BREATH FIRST ENTERED YOUR BODY AND THE EXACT SECOND THAT BREATH SHOULD DEPART. THAT FINAL MOMENT HAS NOT YET PASSED.
What was it telling him? He wasn't dead yet? But he was here, wasn't he, some sort of purgatory before the all-seeing Eye of the Gate … maybe it was an agent of the Gate after all....
Or maybe he was dead and he wasn't supposed to be.
THAT IS CORRECT.
Edward nearly jumped, the voice invading his thoughts intrusively. If I'm not supposed to be dead, then what am I doing here? Can I go back? There are things... Al …
THERE IS A WAY.
He could feel the hope blossoming in his chest. He didn't care if he had to barter his soul to the Gate but if he could go back...
The being opened its arms wide. He was glowing with a faint light. THROUGH ME.
Edward was puzzled, but then the put its – his – arms around Edward the light grew brighter until he was lost in white and falling... falling...
Edward's eyes snapped back into focus with painful clarity. They had never closed – died with his eyes open – and Envy was still standing over him but with his back to Edward, moving away. Edward's chest felt like it was being crushed and his throat and lungs were full of fluid – full of blood and he was drowning and that thing was full of shit because he was going to die here choking on his own blood-
He could hear Al screaming for him frantically and he couldn't move. He couldn't move and he was going to die all over again and fuck, fuck, fuck...
The voice came again, quiet, a whisper, a tug at his subconscious. A suggestion and a command all in one. Sleep.
Was that thing yanking him around? He couldn't sleep, he couldn't breathe, it was fucking with him … If he fell asleep Al was going to die and then everything would have been for nothing! Black tugged at the edges of his vision, he was light-headed and he was going to pass out any second.
Edward Elric closed his eyes and, against his straining will, slept.
The ceiling was a bland, dull shade of white. A few of the tiles above his head were cracked, but they were all whole. The daylight accentuated their drabness, although the light seemed muted and filtered. Edward blinked a few times, staring dumbly at the ceiling as he tried to recognize it.
The sharp, pungent scent of antiseptic made Edward raise his head. Hospitals … he hated hospitals, why was he in a hospital...? He glanced around, still groggy. The room was empty, and Edward felt a sharp, stabbing panic. Where was Al? Alphonse was always by his side in hospitals, sitting in a corner or by the bed while he waited for Edward to wake up and the fact that he wasn't there agitated Edward even more.
He struggled into a sitting position and almost didn't make it. His chest felt like it was on fire, he was sore, almost ridiculously so and in his maneuvering he realized that his automail arm was disconnected. It had been an absolute wreck after all the shit he had just been through and Winry would have his hide nailed to her wall as a warning to all her future clients. Edward sat up in the bed for a few minutes, just concentrating on not being overwhelmed by pain. Whatever he did this time hurt like a fucking bitch and when he remembered what it was
- lungs are filling with blood oh shit oh fuck I'm going to drown in my own blood-
he would definitely make sure to avoid a repeat performance. Now, where had Al gotten off to? The longer that he sat the more pressing the lack of Alphonse was. When he had first opened his eyes, it was possible that Al had maybe stepped out to fetch more books - but no, even that was unlikely as the second lieutenant always made sure that Alphonse didn't need to leave the hospital if he didn't want to in the past. So where was he?
And why was he having such a hard time remembering what put him here? He remembered the church, and the Tringhams, and Dante, and the homunculi and Al, trapped, Gluttony eating away at him but then his memory started to fuzz over. The Gate, he had seen it again, he ... the thoughts were jumbled, more and more. His father, that old bastard, strange flying ships and fire and Envy and -
- the fucking asshole, he'd missed my heart on purpose so he could watch me die slowly -
too much information, he couldn't process it all right now. He wasn't thinking clearly anyway, he was probably doped up on something that the nurses gave him.
What if Al was...
No. He would refuse to think about that. If something had happened to Al, there would be someone here when he woke up - Lieutenant Hawkeye or even the bastard colonel himself, they wouldn't leave him to let him wake up alone. So where was Al?
Edward tested himself out a bit. Aside from the horrific dull ache in his chest and shoulders and multiple cuts and bruises, he seemed fine. There didn't seem to be anything seriously wrong with him - he was a bit light-headed and dizzy but who knew what they'd been putting in his system for however long he'd been here? He had both legs, one false and one real, and neither were badly injured, so Edward swung himself around and got carefully out of bed.
He wobbled in place for a moment, feeling like a child's toy. Edward closed his eyes and willed the room to still around him. When he opened his eyes the room was level, and he staggered over to the door, leaning bodily against it for a moment before opening it and looking around.
There was nobody in this particular hall this particular second. Stroke of luck, in Edward's experience the nurses were prone to conniption fits whenever he decided he was getting out of bed without their permission. They'd even wanted him to use a bedpan, once, and it had taken Al holding him down physically to keep him from chasing the nurse out of the room. Edward cracked a wobbly grin at that particular memory, bedpans made a heck of a racket when you threw them.
He leaned against the wall, using it as support with his left arm. Now, where would Al have gotten off to-? He could hear voices buzzing and the general clatter of a hospital, so it was only a matter of minutes before his escape would be discovered. He had to get as far as he could before anyone realized he was loose and decided to lock him in his room or worse, tie him to the bed!
Edward was coming up on a corner, and figured he was just going to go left because it was a lucky stroke that he made it across his room without taking a spill, taking one in the middle of the hospital hallway would be ridiculously degrading. Just as he was coming up on the turn, a familiar face turned the corner.
Russell Tringham stopped dead, almost losing the drink he had clutched in his hand. "What the hell-!"
Edward braced his left hand flat against the wall and turned his best protective older brother glare on Russell. "Where the fuck is Al?"
Despite his efforts, Edward's voice came out cracked and scratchy. All the same, the venom came through quite clear. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to bother Russell in the slightest.
"What are you doing out of bed?" Edward didn't have time to lever himself backwards before Russell had him by the front of his hospital gown. "The nurses will totally tranq you again, you idiot! Come on-"
"Tranq me again?" His voice didn't crack so much this time, which Edward was thankful for. Russell actually seemed to have his best interests in mind so Edward didn't resist much when he was turned around and steered back towards his room. He could get answers out of Russell, and then go out and look for Al. "I don't remember that-"
- one foot on the windowsill while Russell and the nurse struggled with him, trying to pull him down - let me go, I have to -
"I'm not surprised, considering how much sedative they put in your system," Russell said. "You shook off the first shot like it was nothing, they had three people holding you down!" He glanced up and down the hallway and actually looked concerned. "The only reason they didn't tie you down is 'cause I said I could control you when you woke up again, but of course you picked the time I decided to actually grab a bite to eat to come out of it..."
"Where's Al?" Edward dug his heels in to halt their progress. It didn't do much good, he was barefoot on the tile floor and he had no traction, but the motion didn't go unnoticed. "Tell me where Al is or I'll show you how uncooperative I can be!"
"I don't need another display of your brattiness!" Russell snapped at him.
"Tell me where my brother is!"
"He's with Fletcher, I'll go get him when you are in your bed-"
"I'm fine, I'll go find him myself-"
"You are not fine!" Russell shoved him, hard, and Edward staggered and barely stayed upright, and only with assistance from the wall. "You were running on fumes when we met you in that church, and now you're injured! I didn't want to stick around but Fletcher made me stay here as a favor to Lt. Ross because the military's gone nuts and this is the thanks I get? Can't you listen to me for just once and get in your damn bed?"
Edward had his back against the wall to support him. The longer he was on his feet, the lighter his head was getting. He was hungry, and tired, and he hurt and he was confused and he was pissed off. "What happened with the milit-" Edward started to say but then stopped, his eyes going wide. "What-"
"BED." Russell pointed at his door, only a few feet up the hallway from where they currently stood. His finger didn't waver when Edward growled at him, showing teeth, although he did take a cautionary step back.
Edward twisted and growled and made the most atrocious faces but the hallway was long and making an escape for it would probably end the second a larger nurse saw him and picked him up by his scruff. That was only slightly more humiliating than obeying Russell, and that slightly required a larger expenditure of energy than Edward was willing to put out. So he grumbled and shuffled in the direction of his room.
He did see Russell sag slightly when he obeyed, and as he wobbled in the direction of his bed, Edward realized that Russell really didn't look at his best either. He sat himself back on his bed and frowned at Russell, who had watched him wobble but not helped him. "You would have laughed at me if I fell over," Edward snapped, attempting to cross his arms over his chest then remembering he only had one and he looked ridiculous. Now that he was seated he felt a little better.
"You wouldn't have let me help you," Russell rolled his eyes, still standing inside the doorway.
Edward scowled, ignoring the point. "Where's Al," he demanded instead. "I want to see him!"
"I'll go get him in a minute," Russell said. He crossed his arms as well. "The reason that the military has gone crazy is because the Fuhrer has gone missing and is presumed dead."
Edward stiffened immediately and Russell caught it. "What happened?"
"You know something about it, don't you?" Russell eyed him and sighed. "I don't know, no one does. It's been chaos for the past few days. "Maybe they'll tell you something, if they ever send someone in to talk to you."
"Where's Al?" Edward said again.
"I think you may not have invented the one-track mind, but you certainly perfected it," Russell shook his head. "I'll go get him. You stay in bed until we come back."
Edward made a face at the back of Russell's head, but the second the teen was out of sight Edward frowned. His memories were still hazy and jumbled, but what he could make out was clearer now - the drugs were leaving his system, he hoped. He never liked being drugged, even when he was in pain because it meant giving up control of himself and his actions. There were too many people out there who would gleefully use him if given the chance and he was not going to give it to them, especially voluntarily.
The Fuhrer was missing. Bradley was a homunculus, so there was a possibility that he had gotten away and was now in hiding. If that was the case this wasn't over, although with Dante gone that would cripple the assets of any of the homunculi that were still out there. Edward swallowed and frowned. How did he know that Dante was dead? It was a sure feeling, a certainty that he did not understand
- as they staggered up the stairs, a large chunk of torso came tumbling towards them and Roze fell back, screaming -
but he knew that Dante was gone for good. So was his old man, not dead but forever gone, banished to another time and place. Edward felt an unexpected twinge of remorse at that, but swallowed it fairly quickly. The bastard deserved his fate, besides it looked like he was doing fine for himself wherever that London place was, anyway.
Sloth and Greed he had - he still didn't like thinking about it, would it ever get easier? - he had killed, so he knew they were dead. Lust was gone, too. He had no idea what had happened to Wrath or Envy, or Gluttony for that matter, so they were all likely still out there, waiting to stir up more trouble. And then there was Bradley.
Mustang had pulled something off, that was for sure, and if he had managed to kill Bradley, Edward definitely wanted to know how. Greed and Sloth had both been trapped by transmutation circles, how had Mustang done it...? And the repercussions...
Edward would be up for a court-martial for going AWOL, at the very least. His certification would likely be revoked, but Mustang would be tried for treason... Edward felt sick to his stomach suddenly. This wasn't over, even if the homunculi were in hiding. Al was still the Stone, he and Al would have to make a run for the border - maybe they could break Mustang out of wherever he was being held, Edward didn't like him very much but even he didn't deserve to be put to death for essentially saving the country. They'd take Al, maybe go to Xing and figure out what to do from there.
He flopped backwards onto his pillow and instantly regretted it. Pain shot through his upper body and shoulders in particular. He groaned and dug the heel of his left palm into his eye. He closed his eyes and sighed. Things just kept getting more complicated instead of less.
Edward blinked a few times. The room was dark, although wan light still filtered through the curtains. It must be dusk - he had fallen asleep again. Edward groaned quietly, he hadn't meant for that to happen. He scanned the room superficially but didn't see a looming form in any of the corners, that bastard Russell hadn't brought Al, he'd have to punch him if he dared show his face again.
Then Edward saw the glint of the back of a wheelchair in the failing light. That was strange, as his eyes traveled over it he saw someone seated in the wheelchair, leaning forwards, with both arms draped over the edge of the bed, head on arms and dark blonde hair colored brown by the light and features familiar but aged just right and his shoulders were moving up and down as he breathed and he slept and Edward just sat there and stared.
Al was ... Al was.
Edward scooted down the bed in silent awe. Al stirred a little and he froze, he didn't want to wake him when he hadn't slept in years and ... Edward's thoughts were a jumble. How? How? He didn't remember, he wanted to, but it was all a mesh and a cacophony and it made no sense but Al was right here before him, the armor shed and whole and Edward was grinning larger than he had grinned since before their mother died. He felt like his whole body was one giant grin and he just sat there and stared.
Al's hair was long, easily as long as Edwards if not longer, pulled back in a loose ponytail. Longer, Edward reasoned giddily, because Al hadn't been forced to sit still for haircuts because food got into his hair and dried or because the desert fried the ends and Al was complaining about having to stare at the frizz and wanted it gone.
Edward started as Alphonse yawned and blinked sleepily. He raised his head a bit and yawned again, before realizing that Edward was sitting up and staring at him. Alphonse straightened up instantly and locked eyes with Edward, blinking the sleep out of his eyes as fast as he could. "Brother," he said, still sounding groggy, and his voice didn't echo.
The grin threatened to split Edward's cheeks. Now nothing else mattered, because Alphonse was whole.
Fletcher peeked through the thin window on the door just in time to see Edward fling himself bodily at his little brother and winced as the two went over backwards in the wheel-chair with an impressive thudding noise. He winced and turned around. "They're both awake," he confirmed to Russell, who was leaning against the wall and on his third cup of coffee.
"Good," Russell muttered. "Maybe now that idiot will stay in his bed." Fletcher raised an eyebrow at his older brother, knowing that if it was Russell in that bed, no mortal power would be able to keep him from crawling around looking for Fletcher.
There was another thud from the room, some muffled raised voices and one that rose higher for a second before it was cut off. Fletcher winced but didn't dare look as now he heard scuffling. They both were in such poor condition that perhaps Fletcher should get a nurse before one grievously injured the other; but when he finally got up the courage to peek through again, Alphonse was in the righted wheelchair, smacking Edward in the back with a cane - where did he get that, Fletcher wondered - as his older brother was climbing back into the bed. Alphonse, it looked like, had things well in hand.
Fletcher glanced back to Russell, who was staring into his coffee cup so intently it looked like maybe he was communicating with it. "You should sleep," Fletcher nudged Russell gently. "You haven't slept much in this past week. They're both awake now and they're both fine."
Russell started and glanced over at Fletcher guiltily and Fletcher realized Russell had been sleeping, albeit with his eyes open and not in a beneficial way at all. "C'mon," Fletcher tugged at Russell's arm. "Let's go back to the inn for the night. They'll still be here in the morning."
"Not if Ed has anything to say about it," Russell muttered groggily, but he allowed Fletcher to tug him down the hallway. His bed did sound good right about now...
They were both too large and too old to be trying to share a single bed but neither of them cared. Once Alphonse had literally beat Edward off with the cane they both had calmed down and tried to figure out what had happened.
"What do you mean you don't remember?" Alphonse had hissed at him, his face just inches from Edward's own as they had to share the single pillow, and Edward didn't care, it felt just like they were ten again and conspiring in their father's lab.
"I don't know, I just don't," Edward hissed back. "I remember... I kinda remember fighting Envy but then everything is just random bursts and then I woke up in here."
Alphonse looked troubled. "You were ... you were really weird after you fought Envy and I don't know how to describe it. You kept using Latin and switching back as an afterthought, and you moved kind of funny. But you used the Stone and you fixed me," Alphonse paused and glared at Edward. "But not yourself," he added, giving Edward a good punch in the stomach.
Edward whuffed in pain. "For someone who's muscles are supposedly atrophied you punch hard," he whined.
"They weren't atrophied that badly, and it was more my legs than my arms which confused the doctors both, but I'm not going to argue about it," Alphonse said primly. "Besides, you deserve it. What were you thinking, it was the perfect chance to get yourself fixed too," he said.
"And put Winry out of a job?" Edward muttered dryly. "She'd kill me."
"I'll kill you. You wasted a perfectly good chance to fix yourself!" Alphonse actually looked angry.
"The chance wasn't wasted, and you were more important," Edward said, and glowered back at Alphonse. "What if it had only allowed us to fix one of us? I don't remember what happened exactly, but I won't have you calling it a wasted chance."
Alphonse wasn't put off. "I'm still mad at you."
"Be mad," Edward snapped, attempting to cross his arms again and feeling stupid. "The next time I have to restore your body I'm going to turn you into a girl," he informed Al airily. "I've always wanted a little sister-"
Abruptly Edward was cut off because Alphonse was crushing him in a hug. Edward gurgled in confusion for a second. "Thank you," Alphonse whispered between them. "I'm glad you're my brother, brother..."
Edward squirmed uncomfortably for a moment because he really wasn't able to hug back. "I'm glad you're my brother too," he muttered, before he squirmed more insistently. "Al, let me go, did I really bring you back as a girl? Because you're sure acting like o-" The rest of his sentence became a whuff of air expelled as Alphonse punched him in the stomach again. "You're such a freak," Edward grunted in pain.
"I'm a freak? Who's in bed with his own brother?" Alphonse snapped back.
"This is my bed, that makes you the freak," Edward informed him. "OW! Stop hitting me!" He scowled at Alphonse, who made a face at him then kicked him. "Don't KICK me either, what are you, twelve?"
"No, but you could sure pass for it," Alphonse snorted.
After the night nurse threatened to separate them for disturbing half her ward, Edward retreated to his corner of the bed, all of seven inches away from Alphonse, and sulked. Alphonse snickered at him for a bit before settling.
"Brother?" Alphonse's voice was quiet.
"This isn't over, is it?"
Edward turned carefully over to face Alphonse again. Alphonse’s amber eyes were darker than he remembered. "No," he said. "No, it's not. Envy's still out there somewhere, same as Gluttony and Wrath. Bradley could still be alive, I won't know until I talk to Mustang or if I get out there to the Fuhrer's mansion, which I'm sure is just the easiest place in the world to get in to..."
"I think the mansion's burned down," Alphonse said. "And most people seem to think that Bradley's dead, but no one can be sure."
"Mustang would know, he fought the bastard," Edward said. "I'm not so worried about Wrath," Edward shook his head. "He could cause trouble but it would be minor, not government-undermining; Gluttony's nothing but a machine programmed to eat and as much as I hate to say it, Envy's a clever bastard. He'll be the real problem."
"A problem we have time to take care of," Alphonse said. "They don't have the Stone anymore, and with Dante dead they don't have any resources."
"Yeah," Edward said with a small smile. "It's not over yet, but it almost is..."
Alphonse smiled as well and Edward was happy to see it. They fell asleep together, squeezed on the tiny hospital bed. Edward knew he would ache in the morning and he would regret it and the morning nurse would probably throw a fit to end all fits, but he didn't care. He was happy, and content, and slept pretty damn well until Alphonse poked him in the side and he grumbled and opened his eyes to early morning light and Alphonse looking at him curiously. "What?" Edward grumbled groggily, wanting to fall back into comforting sleep.
Alphonse had a strange expression on his face and it made Edward wake up just a bit. "What is it, Al?"
They had slipped out of the hospital under the cover of darkness. It had been Lieutenant Hawkeye's idea – she had visited earlier in the day, sitting ramrod straight in one of the visitor chairs that Russell had dragged in from the hall. She looked as tired as Russell had, dragged-over-coals tired but somehow still operating, her arm in a sling across her chest. Edward and Alphonse needed to vanish now, while the military was still in disarray, it would be months before anyone would think to look for them otherwise.
Edward was fine with this, he had been trapped in the hospital away from all of his favorite resources by armed military guards. They stood at every entrance, checking the identification of everyone entering and leaving the building. How Russell and Fletcher got in and out was a mystery to Edward; until Fletcher showed him quite proudly the forged military I.D.s and fake State Alchemist watches.
Russell had snapped at Fletcher for showing Edward their trump cards, and Fletcher had yelled at his brother that Edward was a friend and they could trust him, and Edward had used that chance to slip out of the room and roam the halls of the hospital.
In truth he could probably still use a few more days in the hospital – he didn't wobble when he walked any longer, although occasionally he'd still get dizzy. But he needed to get out to do research. It was troubling how little he remembered of the encounter in the subterranean city, and how weirdly spastic those flashes were. There was also the name that Alphonse had brought up to him, it stuck in his mind like a bad penny. It felt familiar and foreign all at once and he knew he'd heard it before. When he'd questioned Alphonse later his brother didn't even remember asking Edward about it.
For the most part he had free run of the hospital, but if Edward even seemed to be considering the exits there was always the military police – their uniforms the same cut that Edward recognized but a flat black instead of the clean blue. It lent them an otherwise sinister air, and Edward didn't like it one bit.
Then Lieutenant Hawkeye had suggested they make a break for it, and the plan came together very quickly. Edward barely had time to search him out in the hospital – he was under armed guard even within the hospital itself – he just had to see, something in him clenched up and died at the thought of running off into the night without another glance.
They'd parted ways once already. It was the first time the colonel had looked at him like that, like an adult. If he hadn't thought he was going off to his death, would Mustang have let that look slip into his eyes?
Edward had too much to deal with to let that thought into his head. But now, now that he'd had time to stop and to catch his breath and to process, it had wiggled its way into his gut. And he had to see.
There wasn't much to see. Mustang's room was under guard like he knew, he couldn't step inside and peering through the windows into the room, the blinds open seemed rather stalker-ish but he couldn't help himself. Mustang was sitting up in bed, pale, bandages obscuring half his face and giving some kind of statement to military officers. He wouldn't be able to see Edward through the glass, still in his hospital scrubs. He'd finally gotten someone to pin the flap of the short sleeve over the exposed automail port, more than anything having that visible made Edward feel vulnerable.
Mustang looked … old. His face was gaunt, his hair lank and in need of a wash. Edward wasn't sure where this need came from to check in on him, the man infuriated him more than any person living or dead, but there was so much relief in his gut that he had lived through his encounter with Bradley it almost made him sag against the window. He didn't care what Mustang looked like, Mustang was on the other side of the glass, Mustang was breathing and alive and that was all that mattered.
Lieutenant Havoc was stationed at the exit they crept out of that night. He held the door for them – Russell was pushing Alphonse's wheel-chair. There had been a brief fight in Edward's room about who was pushing Alphonse around, Edward didn't trust Russell with his newly-restored younger brother but Edward trying to bully the wheel-chair around with one arm was just not feasible, so the task fell to Russell.
It was just Russell and Fletcher who saw them off on the train platform. It was such a late train there were few passengers; there were only a few passenger cars, the other carriages were devoted to freight. They'd left the wheel-chair at the hospital, catching a ride with Lieutenant Ross. She'd dropped them off at the train station and the four of them had staggered into the platform, Russell waving his fake State Alchemist's watch at the conductor and arguing at him for ten minutes to get the tickets. “Don't ever say I don't do anything for you,” he'd spat at Edward.
Edward, who was wearing Russell's borrowed clothes, snarled wordlessly back. Alphonse had his arm slung over his brother's shoulder – they were almost exactly the same height – his weight distributed between Edward and a cane. “Brother,” Alphonse said tiredly, clearly not in the mood to put up with the two alpha brother's pissing contest.
“Call us when you get in,” Fletcher said to Alphonse. “We'll be staying in town for a while.”
Alphonse smiled, exhaustion evidenced on his face by their escape. He still didn't have much in the way of stamina and the entire ordeal had sapped all of his energy. Edward supported his weight, clearly concerned. “Thanks, so much,” Alphonse said.
After a moment of silence, Alphonse elbowed his brother pointedly, and Edward grunted a brief thanks as well.
Russell's face had twitched, and it was probably the dim lighting but Edward could have sworn that his ears darkened. “You're probably the closest thing we've got to friends,” he said quickly. “So we don't want to see you guys kill yourselves or anything.”
Edward blinked. That was completely unexpected, especially out of Russell of all people. “What the hell, did you turn into a fucking girl over night or something?”
“Fuck, you are such an asshole,” Russell spat right back. Alphonse and Fletcher exchanged a weary look, and then Alphonse poked Edward's flesh foot with his cane as the train's departure whistle shrieked.
“Don't forget to call us,” Fletcher yelled, waving one hand over his head as Edward managed to sling Alphonse up into the carriage before climbing on himself. Alphonse clung to the railing and waved in return as the train began to move, slowly out of the station and heading back toward Resembool.
They were going home.
The fields were full of wheat stalks, waving in the wind. The land was familiar, but Edward had never been there before. Mountains in the distance, unfamiliar craggy peaks brushing sky, the area almost reminded him of Resembool but not quite. He'd been so many places his short lifetime he had probably walked this stone-edged path before, Alphonse beside him ... but today he was alone.
He wasn't used to this. Usually his dreams were full of blood and sin, the mistakes of his life coming back to point accusatory fingers at him - you didn't do enough, you could have saved us, why did you let me die - and he would wake up choking on his breath, fighting not to alert Alphonse that he'd had another nightmare. This quiet, calm path - fields spread out along them, ready for the grain to be cultivated as the season ended - was deeply unusual in its peacefulness.
He was alone on this path. It felt like Alphonse was beside him but when he turned to look, still searching for that suit of armor instead of his brother there was nothing there. The dirt path stretched on far behind him, disappearing over a rise in the road, and when he turned to look the way he was going it too disappeared into the distance. He was alone on this road.
You are never alone, Edward.
He put one foot in front of the other, never noticing that both feet were flesh, and walked the path of his dream.
Alphonse watch his brother sleep through his exhaustion. He knew that Edward would fight and claw to stay awake and watch him, but he was as drained as Alphonse was, as everyone who had lived through these events were. It was going to take weeks, months, years to recover from this ordeal but now they had all the time in the world to do just that. There were new hurdles and new fights in front of them - there always would be those, even if the brothers lived in seclusion eventually someone would seek them out, curious alchemist or military, their lives were far to extraordinary to ever be left fully in peace - and besides, if Alphonse knew his brother the second he had his new arm he would be on a train back to the city to hunt down the last vestiges of Dante's plan.
Everything overwhelmed him now, and he hated it. He hated how useless he felt - if by some strange sick twist of fight they got attacked right now he was nothing but a hindrance. He was barely able to stand on legs that didn't want to support him - it was likely only due to their martial arts training that he had this much motor control, his body was wasted away to nearly nothing when he was restored. Eating was a slow process, although his metabolism was shot all to hell and he'd missed a sense of taste for so long that he could barely eat or drink anything. He had tried not to let any of this on, eating bland food mostly in secret away from Edward.
Edward, who looked so strange in one of Russell's button-down shirts hanging untucked over trousers secured by a belt. The hem of the trousers dangled down over his shoes - Edward's favorite pair of boots, probably the only bit of the outfit he'd been wearing that hadn't been completely destroyed by the time they'd dragged themselves out of the underground city. His face looked a little older, his jaw squarer, his long bangs framing his face and hiding his sleeping eyes from Alphonse's gaze.
His memory was troubling. Alphonse kept trying to tell himself it was the trauma of the events, the encounter with Dante, everything leading up to Lior, all of it was one bundle of trauma and of course his memory would fudge some of the strangest details. But Alphonse remembered so clearly, laying on the burning transmutation circle, the glow distorting everything and Edward standing over him, shirt torn open and blood still dripping from its hem. The skin underneath seemed whole and Alphonse fought against the circle's hold on him.
Edward's eyes weren't his, and if Alphonse had had innards to seize in terror they would have. He'd seen Envy kill his brother, he'd seen Ed die and now he was standing over him like that but his eyes were wrong and it was Envy, it had to be. The sadistic bastard had killed one brother and now wanted to watch the other dissolve into nothingness as Gluttony consumed him.
But Gluttony was gone, the universe had resolved itself into three bright points and nothing else, Alphonse, the thing wearing Edward's face and the transmutation circle, casting everything into the strangest shades of red. Alphonse didn't remember what he said to the thing that looked like his brother but wasn't - he remembered the grief choking his voice, he couldn't see where Ed had fallen, this thing was blocking his view - but then he brought his hands together just like Edward did when he was about to transmute. Even that gesture seemed perverted somehow, slowed down, not the solid noise of Ed's hands slamming together but gentle - and said something that Al would never forget.
His next memory was slung over Edward's back as Edward tripped up stairs, swearing colorfully in the way that only Ed could, Roze behind them and Alphonse wondering how Ed had mastered Latin so quickly. Edward's head for languages was amazing but he could never really speak them, he could read and listen and understand but when it came to parroting the language back it was like there was a broken link in there, his words were fumbled and the tenses wrong.
The thing that wore Edward's face, that wore Ed's body because no homunculi could do alchemy, it had spoken Latin cleanly and clearly, to Dante, to Alphonse, and Al had no idea who it was.
Edward slept, across the carriage from him, his head tilted against the glass, each breath fogging across the glass. The countryside was dark outside the window and Alphonse smiled as he watched his brother. Edward deserved the rest, no matter what he thought. Alphonse wasn't sure what was up with his memory but held the troubling images close. Later he would ask Ed; after Ed had more time to recover. He would ask how Edward survived when Alphonse had seen him die, had heard the wet, cut-off noise as Edward had tried to breathe through lungs full of fluid and had seen his body slide limply to the ground.
Those questions could wait. Alphonse rested his head on his tired hand and watched his brother sleep as the train carriage trundled toward their destination.