Title: Reawakening (1/6)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for a small amount of violence.
Characters: Edward, Alphonse, the Curtises, Winry, Mustang, assorted original characters, and a special guest villain.
Setting: First anime. Continuation of my AU one-shot story "Rebirth".
Summary: Fifteen years after being reborn as a child of the Curtises, Edward has grown to be a healthy, settled teenager with no memory of his first life. Yet shadows of the past are beginning to fall over the family's happiness… and not all of Ed's old enemies have forgotten him.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: From the time I wrote "Rebirth", it intrigued me to speculate on how Ed's second life in the Curtis family might unfold—and what would happen when his true identity caught up with him at last. The ideas were so compelling that, unlike most of my open-ended Things That Never Happened tales, the story demanded a sequel. I am usually not one to linger in alternate universes, but the richness of the emotional bonds in this one made it a great pleasure to further explore.
As always, my thanks to my cheerleader/idea-bouncer Kristen Sharpe, who particularly helped by suggesting the villain of the piece.

PLEASE NOTE: Before you read this story, I strongly suggest reading my much shorter story "Rebirth" first. The backstory it provides is important to fully understanding the circumstances here.


The water was cool and velvet-smooth against Edward Curtis' skin. He closed his eyes, shutting out the brilliant sparkle of the afternoon sun on the lake, and focused on his swimming strokes. As his strong arms and legs cut through the surface with hardly a ripple, he dwelled on the rhythm of the motions, letting it clear his mind of thoughts.

He didn't particularly want to think right now.

After a time, his hands brushed against the silt of the lake bottom as it became shallow. He opened his eyes to see a golden beach ahead of him, fading into a wild tangle of almost jungle-like forest beyond. He got his feet underneath him and waded ashore, to lounge on the sand and gaze up at the white birds wheeling in the sky overhead. His wet shorts and shirt clung to his body, cooled by the breeze off the lake, but it was not unpleasant on the warm spring day.

For reasons unknown to him, his mother Izumi strictly forbade her children to go near Yock Island, and Ed lived in such worshipful terror of her that he had obeyed this command for years. Yet he had always felt drawn to that beautiful, mysterious place… and finally, some months earlier, he gave in to its allure and his own curiosity. He secretly began swimming out after school on some days. There he would practice drawing new transmutation circles in the sand, or simply lie lost in thought. However, he had never ventured beyond the shore—not because he feared what might lurk in the forest, but because he hadn't yet suppressed his guilty conscience quite far enough.

Sitting on the beach, listening to the lapping waves and the shrill cries of birds, Ed could never understand what Mother had against the island. He found its lush green solitude to be soothing. It eased the headaches he had increasingly suffered for the last few years. It made him feel still inside, and closer to—something. Something important but just beyond his reach, waiting; perhaps waiting in the forest, if he could only work up the courage to explore past the open shoreline someday.

For now, he needed the tranquility Yock Island gave him. He couldn't explain why, because life was as simple and good as it had always been. He had a happy home and a loving family… and yet, there was a restless unease growing in his heart. All his life he had felt confident in who he was as a person, but now, for seemingly no reason at all, it was as if his sense of himself was suddenly becoming unclear to him.

And that feeling wasn't helped by things like the ugly scene that had just happened at Mr. Gowey's general store.

"Come on, Ed, aren't you going to pick some candy? If we each get something different, we can all share!"

With a sudden blink, Edward looked up, and briefly wondered how long he had spaced out this time.

His younger sister Shaya, a tall slim girl of twelve, stood watching him with brightly expectant brown eyes. A bag of strawberry licorice was hugged against her chest, half-hidden by the thick ebony ponytail that fell over her shoulder. Behind her, their ten-year-old brother Ronan held a box of chocolates in one hand and a jar of jellybeans in the other, weighing his choice between the treats.

"Uh—sorry." Ed grinned wanly at Shaya, rubbing his fingers against his blond head. "You can pick whatever you want. I'm not really in the mood for sweets today… I think I'm getting a headache again."

"Another one? That's the third time this week." Shaya frowned. "You've been getting these headaches more often, you know—and your mind has been wandering even more than usual. Maybe you should go to the doctor."

Ed made a face. "Nah. I've probably just been studying too hard. I have been working on a whole new field of transmutations this month. It's kind of tricky stuff."

Shaya looked at him dubiously. Like Edward, she studied alchemy after school with Mother, but she did not pursue it with the burning intensity he did. For her it was merely an interest; for him it was a passion, a driving force. He was naturally gifted, but beyond that, he felt compelled to learn everything, and become the greatest alchemist he could be.

He had his own reasons for that.

After giving him the eye just long enough to underscore her skepticism, Shaya turned to their little brother. "Okay, stop agonizing, Ro. You can get the chocolate and the jellybeans. Ed doesn't want anything."

Ronan shot Ed a fleeting look of incredulity—it was inconceivable to his mind that anyone could refuse candy, at any time—and then he gave Shaya a broad grin. "Alright!"

Shaking his head wryly, Ed followed his siblings to the front of the store… only to step forward quickly and halt them with an outstretched arm, as they came within earshot of the conversation between the store owner and a man at the counter.

"You seriously think that blond kid down there is the brother of those other two?" The man was a stranger to the children, a burly figure in blue work clothes. His voice carried a faint slur of alcohol. "C'mon. There's no way he can look that different from 'em and be from the same parents. He's gotta be adopted or something."

A faintly sick feeling squirmed in Ed's stomach. It made his burgeoning headache throb a little harder.

"And I'm telling you, he's not," argued old Mr. Gowey. "I've known those children and their parents for years. I saw Mrs. Curtis all through the time she was pregnant with Edward, and after he was born, she'd bring him here practically since his first day. He's her son, alright. I can swear that for a fact."

The stranger sniggered. "Well, maybe so—but that don't mean her husband is his daddy."

Ed's uneasy disgust blossomed into a swell of rage. With a choked snarl, he started forward at a run, fists balled for a punch; but within two steps he was caught by a large hand, gentle yet strong, that reached out from between the store shelves and seized his shoulder.

"It's not nice to talk about somebody else's family like that."

The voice that spoke those words was very young, its tone quiet and hard and faintly echoing… and it came from a gargantuan figure in steel armor that stepped to Ed's side, glowering down at the stranger through the narrow eye slits of a menacing helmet.

The man who had given insult took a step back, mouth slightly open. For a moment he may have been trying to decide whether this apparition was a drunken hallucination. As he finally realized that what stood before his eyes was real, he snapped his jaw shut. He swallowed hard and tried to put on a sneer of contempt, but it was too late to hide the glimmer of fear in his eyes.

"Just what in the blazes are you?" he growled nervously.

Metal clattered as the armored interloper drew himself up to his full height. One gauntlet still rested on Ed's arm, but at the same time the giant shifted his frame: placing himself halfway in front of Ed, in an unmistakably protective pose.

"I'm his other brother."

That was enough for the stranger. His eyes widened, and he stumbled backward, almost falling over his own feet as he spun to make a bolt for the door.

"And good riddance!" Mr. Gowey shouted, hurrying from behind the counter to shake a fist after the man. Then he turned back to the Curtis children, wholeheartedly apologetic. "I'm sorry for that. He was just some drunken fool of a delivery man from the next town—but I can promise you, he won't ever be welcome in my store again. A man like that's too low to speak one word about your family!"

Shaya and Ronan both relaxed, smiling gratefully at their old friend for defending their family's honor; but the tightness in Ed's heart did not lessen. He looked away, red-faced and closed-fisted, biting the inside of his lip so hard it hurt.

At his side, steel plating scraped. His armored defender knelt down to face him at his eye level, resting broad leather hands on his shoulders.

"It's okay, Ed. We've heard it all before."

Edward shrugged restlessly. After a brief hesitation, he raised his eyes, glancing up at the unseen gaze of his older brother Alphonse.

"I wanted to tear that guy apart," he muttered, and shamefacedly looked away. "I would have, if you hadn't stopped me."

Beside him, Shaya folded her arms and scowled. "What's gotten into you lately? Two fights at school in the last month, getting mad at me and Ronan for no reason, and now this. You never used to be angry like this before—not even when people said stuff like that. Don't tell me that's because of your headaches, too."

Al turned to her, exuding an invisible sternness through his steel. "Shaya—"

"No," Ed interrupted brusquely, in answer to their sister. He pressed his hand to the dull throb in his temple. "I mean—it's not completely that. I just…"

I just feel like I'm someone I'm not.

He thought those words, but he didn't say them. He couldn't expect his siblings to understand what he meant, when he didn't even understand it himself. Shaking his head, he pulled free of Al's gentle grip, his eyes still downcast.

"I just need to be alone for a while," he said faintly, and ran out of the store.

A gust of wind off the lake ruffled Ed's hair. He breathed deep, filling his lungs with the breeze. His headache was nearly gone, and he felt much calmer. On the island, he always did.

He sat straighter, thoughtfully sliding his fingers over his arms, down his legs, across the features of his face. His body was whole and healthy and strong, trained to peak condition under Mother's guidance, and his face was handsome. On its own merits, he could like what he saw in the mirror each day… but he needed no idle talk from strangers to remind him that he looked nothing like his family. That fact was never very far from his awareness.

For as long as he could remember, he had been conscious that he was different. Where his parents and younger siblings were dark-haired, tall, and powerfully built, he was sunlight-fair, slender, and short for his age. Mother said his lightness was a recessive genetic trait that sometimes appeared on her side of the family. He accepted that, because he knew his mother and father both loved him, and would never lie to him; but he was only human, and it still hurt when people like that drunkard at the store would mutter speculations about his parentage.

It didn't happen often. Dublith wasn't a small town, but it also wasn't large, and the Curtises had been known and respected there for years. Sig and Izumi were completely devoted to one another, a love they proudly displayed before the world. Anyone who had watched them for even a short time would laugh at the suggestion that one might stray from the other.

Still, Edward had heard that kind of talk before. In the past he had always followed Al's example, and shrugged it off as idiocy from people who didn't know any better, or whose lack of character in gossiping made their opinions not worth caring about anyway. What he hadn't done was try to take a swing at such a gossiper… until today.

What's wrong with me?

In the last several months, he had become increasingly quick-tempered. The smallest provocations would set him off. As Shaya had noted, his once-flawless record of behavior at school was now tarnished, and he was guilty of snapping at his younger siblings several times. He knew he couldn't simply blame it all on his worsening headaches. There was no good reason for his moodiness, and his inability to explain it only upset him further.

Perhaps it was just a natural part of growing up. After all, he was fifteen years old. In that awkward interval between boy and man, it was only to be expected that his feelings would change along with his body… but somehow, that didn't feel like the right answer.

Heaving a sigh, Ed swept his fingers up through his damp bangs, and brushed back his golden braid over his shoulder. For a brief moment, the thought of cutting his hair short crossed his mind, but he dismissed the idea just as quickly. Although wearing it long was sort of a nuisance at times, he knew Al liked it that way—and there was nothing he wouldn't do to please his big brother.

No one in the world could ever come near to the special place Alphonse occupied in Ed's heart. Not their younger siblings, or their cousins, or even their parents. As much as he loved them all, he cherished Al with a different kind of love that was almost painfully intense—and he wasn't even sure why the feeling was so strong, because in some ways, there was so much that stood between them.

Al was twice his age: fifteen when Ed was born, and now thirty years old, an adult. This disparity meant that throughout Ed's life, Al was as much a caretaker to him as a friend and playmate. It was a long-standing joke in the family that Al had sometimes been more of a parent to Ed than Mother and Father were… and yet, for all that, Ed had never seen Al's true face. From his earliest memory, he knew his elder sibling only as the metal giant he was now, a gentle soul imprisoned in a fearsome shell of steel.

According to their parents and Al himself, the gifted young alchemist had tried to raise their dead grandmother through human transmutation, five years before Ed was born. This forbidden act brought horrific consequences: the forces of Equivalent Exchange had consumed his body, and he saved his own life only by sealing his soul within that antique suit of armor. He had existed in that form for twenty years now, unable to sleep or eat, deprived of taste and smell and, most sadly of all, the touch of those he cared about.

It hurt to think of all the things Al had lost, but he was not bitter. To the contrary, he was more at peace than anyone else Ed had ever known—because he was simply happy to be alive. After so long, physical sensations were only the dimmest shadow of a memory, things he had learned to be content without. To love and be loved by his family was enough.

Ed wanted to be like Al, peaceful and gentle and cheerful. For most of his life, he felt that he hadn't done too badly at absorbing those qualities from his brother-hero—but his recent outbursts of temper could not have been farther from Al's easygoing example.

The strangest thing was that the anger felt somehow familiar… but what was he angry at?

A sudden flare of pain erupted behind his eyes, sharp enough to make him groan between his teeth. He buried his head in his hands, clenching his fingers into his hair, and sucked in harsh breaths as the pulsing pain in his skull nauseated him.

Not here… It wasn't supposed to happen here! Yock Island was his secret place, his shelter. No pain was ever supposed to intrude there; but this time it had, nonetheless.

Along with the sickening headache, there was another pain as well: a deep, dull throbbing in his right shoulder, his left thigh. It was there but not, undeniably felt, yet seeming to have no source. This ache had come a few times before, especially when he woke from bad dreams he could never quite remember, but this time it was a little bit keener.

He lowered his left hand from his head, reaching over to clutch his right arm… and for one fleeting instant, he had an inexplicably strange feeling when his grip closed upon soft flesh.

It was almost as if a part of him had expected to touch something else.

Startled and unsettled by that odd sense, Ed stumbled quickly to his feet. He rolled his shoulders, flexed his hands and arms, overcome by the sudden need to move. Perhaps it was a need to reassure himself that his muscles would still work—that everything was still there.

What is this?

After a few moments of pacing and stretching, the muscle twinges subsided. Although his headache lingered, the sharper stabs of pain slowly ceased. Still, his pulse was racing, and if there had been anything in his stomach just then, he didn't think it would have stayed put. Somewhat shakily he knelt down at the edge of the shore, to splash cool water on his face.

Maybe Shaya is right. Maybe I do need a doctor. Maybe there's something wrong inside my brain, making me feel things that aren't real.

Edward shook away that thought with a physical shake of his head. He drew a deep breath and plunged into the water, deliberately splashing large, glistening drops into the sunlight.

Now he didn't want to be alone.

The brisk exercise of the swim back from Yock Island did much to help relax Ed. By the time he reached the lakeshore, he felt almost like himself again—enough so that he felt a little foolish for his earlier alarm. Headaches were nothing new to him, and with all the strain he put his muscles through in swimming and running and sparring, he was bound to feel some occasional pains in his limbs. Surely it was nothing.

Of course not. Nothing at all.

The sun was sinking by then, casting long shadows from the wooden pier under which Ed had left his shoes. He retrieved them, and then dried his hair and clothes with alchemy, drawing the simple array in the sand.

He wished Mother would teach him how to transmute without a circle. She was the only alchemist he had known or even heard of who could do that, just by clapping her hands. He had begged her sometimes to show him the secret, but she refused to say anything about it, and he knew better than to press her when she said no. His only hope was that she was simply waiting for the right time; waiting for the day when she felt he was ready, his skills advanced enough to move on to that ultimate level of training.

It was only a short walk home from the lakeshore, but by the time Ed reached his doorstep, the sky was growing dark. The lights were out in the family butcher shop that adjoined the house. He felt a pang of guilt when he remembered that it had been his turn to help close up for the night. Mother would be displeased—and that prospect forced him to gather his nerves before he hesitantly crept inside.

Ronan was the only figure present in the living room, sitting hunched over his homework on the sofa. At the sound of the door, he rolled one eye upward from his book and stared fishily at Ed.

"You're late for dinner. Mom's not happy."

"I know." Ed squirmed. He couldn't think of anything else to say, so when Ronan added no further comment either, he made his escape toward the stairs. At least he could wash up and change his clothes before he faced Mother's fury.

The door of the room he and Al shared was open. Stepping into the doorway, he found Al at the desk, his helmet-cranium bent over a book in much the same way as their little brother downstairs.

It was an alchemy book. Even though Alphonse was himself a more skilled alchemist than Ed could dream of being—so gifted that he had once dared to believe he could return the dead to life—he still never stopped studying, learning, trying to be better. That dedication was part of what inspired Ed to become smarter and stronger, as well.

As for the other part…

Ed's secret wish was that someday, he could find a way to give Al a body of flesh and blood again.

Al had never once expressed such a wish in words. He had been parted from his mortal body for so long, he rarely even seemed to think of the sensations he lacked. Even so, through the years, there were fleeting moments when Ed could sense his brother's silent longing: a tender touch Al could not feel, a special meal he could not share, a fragrant flower he could not smell. Nothing would be more wonderful than if Ed could give it all back to him, watch him touch and taste the world again, as if for the very first time.

And besides that… Ed wanted to see his brother's real face.

The family albums were full of childhood pictures of Ed himself, as well as Shaya and Ronan. Their lives were lovingly documented from birth. Alphonse appeared in those pictures too, exactly as he was now; but of the boy he had been twenty years in the past, there was no trace. The one time Ed hesitantly asked him about that, Al claimed to have destroyed every reminder of his flesh long ago, in an early fit of grief and anger over his loss. As a result, all Ed really knew about Al's body—and that only from what Al told him—was that he too had been much fairer in coloring than their parents.

It was a strangely selfish ulterior motive—but Ed longed to witness the proof of that with his own eyes. If he could truly see that another of his siblings had been born different from the rest of their family, just like him, then…

Then the dubious mutterings of people like that man at Mr. Gowey's store would never touch him again.

Al finally noticed Ed hovering in the doorway. He looked up, closing the book before him.

"Are you alright, Brother?"

He never addressed Ronan as Brother. Only Ed.

"…Yeah." Ed ducked his head awkwardly, stepping into the room. "I had a headache earlier, but it's gone now." That was technically a lie; he still felt a nagging twinge behind his eyes, but at least it was light enough to ignore. "I'm sorry if I made you worry. I just… needed some time alone to think."

Al said nothing. Instead, with a noisy scrape of steel, he pushed away from the desk and turned his cumbersome frame sideways on the chair. Then he simply reached out, enfolding Ed in his arms.

No teenage sense of dignity and self-sufficiency could keep Ed from welcoming the embrace with all his heart. Accustomed to being cradled in those arms since infancy, he never started at the coolness of metal, never felt discomfort from its hard edges. All he felt was the love. Not even in their mother's arms did he feel so safe and cherished.

The hug lasted for a long, delicious moment… until Ed somehow heard himself saying something he didn't mean to say at all.

"Al… aren't there any pictures left of what you were like before?"

The words came out completely unbidden, and Ed wanted to kick himself the moment they left his lips. That one conversation about the subject in the past had seemed to sadden Al. The last thing he wanted was to repeat the mistake of needlessly upsetting his brother.

Slowly and gently, Al drew back, letting his gauntlets rest on Ed's shoulders. The tilt of his helmet meant that he was pensively studying Ed's face.

"I understand now." He raised his left hand, brushing Ed's right cheek with leather fingertips. "Don't think any more about the things that man at the store said. You're ours, Brother. All of ours—and you have been since before you were even born. I promise you that."

Heat pricked at Ed's eyes. Impulsively he turned his face, nuzzling his cheek against Al's palm, and a soft laugh echoed under Al's chestplate.

"You see? You used to do that when you were a baby." Al's voice was filled with warmth and affection. "If it wasn't for alchemy, I'd still have the marks from your teething all over my hands. You nearly gnawed my fingers to pieces back then."

Ed blushed and pulled away slightly, not quite able to meet Al's gaze. "I've always been kind of a handful, haven't I? …I'm sorry."

"I wouldn't have it any other way, Brother."

"It's just—I don't know why I've been feeling like this." Now that Ed had begun to open himself up, he felt compelled to continue. "Nothing's changed at all, but I feel like I don't even know myself anymore… No, it's not anymore. I feel like I've never known myself, and it doesn't make any sense. What am I supposed to be that I'm not?"

For a moment Al met that question with silence, his hands still gently gripping Ed's shoulders. His chin tipped down, almost imperceptibly, but Ed didn't need even that tiny clue of body language to sense the melancholy that arose within his sibling.

"You're growing up." Al's fingers squeezed a little tighter. "Whatever you're going to be, it will be something wonderful—but promise me you won't hide these feelings from me anymore, Ed. I need to know… you're okay."

With the last words there was something in Al's voice, fragile and almost-broken, that Ed had never heard before; and yet, something about it was so very familiar. Something that stirred echoes of a pain shared between them both… but that didn't make sense either, because never in his life had Ed really known pain at all.

Finding words inadequate to answer, Ed simply hugged Al again, clinging tighter than before.

He wasn't sure he could promise to share this confusion in him that seemed to have no source. If he didn't know the reason himself, surely no one else could help him understand it—and he didn't want to worry Al or the rest of the family about something that was really nothing at all. He just wanted to resolve these baffling feelings on his own, and return his focus to the boundless goodness and potential of the life his loved ones had given him.

He wanted…

He wanted to move forward.

A renewed dagger of pain stabbed inside Ed's skull, so suddenly that it made him flinch away from Al. He stifled a grunt and raised his hand to his eyes.

"Ed!—Your headache again?"

"Yeah." Ed glanced up between his fingers, smiling a little sickly. "It's just a flare-up. It'll go away in a few minutes."

It seemed as if Al was about to reply; but then he looked over Ed's shoulder, toward the doorway. Ed turned to follow the gaze, and his head throbbed even more sharply as he saw Mother standing at the threshold, her arms folded over her chest.

Izumi Curtis' beauty was that of a thundercloud, a force of nature. At over fifty years of age, she had the physique of a woman twenty years younger, toned by the same rigorous conditioning she required of her children. Her thick cords of dark hair showed very little gray. Over time, the only lines that had grown deeper on her faintly exotic face were laugh lines.

Somehow Ed suspected that when she was younger, Mother had laughed very little. During his lifetime, at least, that had changed. In all these years, surrounded by both the foolishness and the love of her children, her laugh would come freely and joyously…

But she wasn't laughing now.

"Uhm… Mother." Ed squirmed and rubbed his painful head, feeling his face turn red. "I'm—really sorry I'm late coming home. I don't have any excuse for it. It's just that I… wasn't feeling very well, and I wanted to be by myself."

Mother said nothing. She only stepped forward and took Ed firmly by the shoulders, pulling him into a hug that squeezed the breath out of him.

This was not at all the expected reaction to his transgression. Ed let out a small sound of perplexity; but Mother ignored the wordless question, letting go of him to look into his face.

"Since Shaya took your turn closing up the store, you'll be doing her chores tomorrow—and then some," she pronounced, with a sternness that somehow did not quite ring true as it usually did. "Your dinner is waiting. You'll have the dishes to wash afterward, as well. Go on."

Mystified, Ed could only bow his head in relieved acceptance of his punishment. He had expected to be given extra work, but he was glad not to have received a true scolding—or worse, an extra round of physical training. Even after a lifetime of practice, he could never escape a bout of sparring against Mother without bruises.

"Yes Ma'am," he said obediently, and with one last puzzled glance at Al, he shuffled out of the room.

"How much did you overhear?" Alphonse asked quietly, as Edward's footsteps retreated down the hall.

In the act of closing the bedroom door, Izumi paused for a long moment. At last her hand slipped from the doorknob, and she turned to face Al, her expression somber and conflicted.

"Enough." There was the faintest suggestion of a catch in her voice. "It's true, isn't it? We weren't mistaken about the signs we've seen in him, these past months. Somewhere in his subconscious… he's beginning to remember."

"…I'm not quite sure yet."

Izumi's gaze fell. Her hand passed very gently across her abdomen, where she had once carried the precious weight of Ed's unborn life inside her; and Al knew she was remembering it all.

Wrath's murderous rage on Yock Island, that final night. The light fading from Edward Elric's golden eyes as he stared helplessly up at her, his lifeblood pouring from his chest. A high-pitched, animal scream of anguish from Wrath, as the monster-child truly realized what he had done—followed by lightning and pain as his hands fell upon her and Ed. Waking to find that while her body was once again whole, Ed seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth…

And the complete joy that followed the pain on another night, nine months later, when they discovered Edward was not really gone at all.

"I thought I'd be more ready—if the day ever came." Izumi's voice was quiet. "But now that I feel it may be near… I'm sorry, Al. I don't want it to happen. I don't want to lose my son."

"Nothing can change the last fifteen years, Mother." Al still called her Mother himself, even privately. After so long, it was an ingrained habit; a habit he had developed for Ed's sake, to preserve the too-real illusion he lived for the brother who was his one true reality. "He is your son—and he always will be now. Even if he does remember our first mother someday, he won't love you any less. Not after what you've been to him in this life."

"And you, Al? How will you feel if he remembers?"

In spite of the circumstances, the question caught Al off guard. More than once over the years, he had considered what his answer might be, but now his thoughts were scattered. He was briefly silent, trying to collect them.

"Both of us would hurt." He stared down at the floor, his leather fists clenching on his knees. "If he remembered the past—the promise he made to me—he'd hate himself for not being able to keep it. I don't want that. It's true that I miss being able to share the memories of when we were boys together, and all of the things we went through… but I'd rather keep those memories alone inside myself forever than see them take Ed's happiness away."

There was a heavy, aching silence before either of them moved.

This time, it was Izumi who hugged Al.

Only the emotion could communicate itself to his being. He couldn't feel the strength of her arms around his not-neck, or the tickle of her long hair against his chestplate; and yet, when she pulled away from him at last, not meeting his gaze, he somehow knew she had left bright spots of tears on his steel.

"I don't know which one of you has sacrificed more for the other. Edward, for losing what was his life… or you, for being willing to let that life remain lost." She looked up at him slowly. Although her eyes glistened, her cool poise was recovered once more. "Sig and I promised that if the time ever came, the choices would be yours to make. That hasn't changed."

Al remembered very well that promise, and the gravely speculative discussions from which it arose, when Ed was merely a days-old infant in Izumi's arms. At the time, there was no way to predict how this second life he had been given would unfold. Al knew from the first moment that his brother's spirit was alive and intact: in some way, he could still feel it, as clearly as he felt his own. But were the memories of Edward Elric still bound within that spirit, waiting for maturity or future events to trigger them?

They had planned very carefully for that possibility… and the power to set that plan in motion rested with Alphonse.

"…I don't want to do anything yet." Al shook his head gently. "We still don't know for sure. I'll talk to Ed, over the next few days, and try to get a better idea of what's going on in his mind and heart—but I don't want to make anything happen that isn't ready to happen anyway."

He paused. "All the same, you might want to let Unc… I mean, General Mustang know."

His correction of his words was self-consciously awkward. In the last fifteen years, other people besides Izumi had gained new names, as well; but when Edward or the younger siblings were absent, Al tried not to use the title by which they addressed Roy Mustang. Coming from him, it still didn't feel quite right.

"I'll call him in the morning," Izumi agreed solemnly. "That way he can be prepared to come quickly, if… if we should want him soon."

With that conclusion, the matter seemed to be settled—at least for the time being. After a moment of fragile silence had passed between them, Al rose to open the bedroom door for Izumi. "I'll come down in a minute, and sit with Ed while he has dinner."

"You're not to help him with the dishes afterward." Izumi tried to mock-glare at Al, but the trace of a pained smile betrayed her.

Al chuckled. "I know. Anyway, Shaya wanted to ask me some things about her latest alchemy lesson—and Ronan always needs help with his homework. I'll have a busy evening."

Izumi laid her hand on Al's vambrace, looking up at him with a grateful affection that was undisguised. Then she brushed past his bulky form, to slip out the door and into the hall. He watched her as she moved toward the stairs.

She made it so easy to forget that, unlike his brother, he wasn't really her son.

They all made it easy. Ed and Shaya and Ronan most of all, because they didn't even know… and at this moment, Al wished with every ounce of his intangible soul-heart that they would never have to know. He wished nothing would ever take away the simple peace of the life they had shared. Looking back on the years of happiness that replaced only pain, he found it impossible to regret. Since the true beginning, the price he and his brother had paid was immeasurable: flesh and blood, years of misplaced time, even the very self-identity of the person Edward had once been. And yet, Al couldn't help feeling it was ultimately worth the rewards that came in return, for everyone he loved.

One fact was a greater proof than any other. If their strange journey had not led to Izumi's healing, Shaya and Ronan could never have been born—and Al couldn't imagine his life without them now. They too were his beloved sister and brother, in spirit if not in flesh; and flesh, after all, had been a moot point for Al for a very long time.

Tomorrow he would begin to weigh the possibilities of what might be yet to come. For now… for just one more night, he wasn't going to think about the past, or the specter of its intrusion upon the future. For now he would spend the evening with all three of his younger siblings, so innocent of the secrets that had given them their lives. He would sit and talk about the nothings of the day as he watched Ed enjoy Mother's cooking—and then undoubtedly sneak in to help him dry the dishes, in spite of what Mother had said. After that, he would draw transmutation circles with Shaya, and help Ronan figure out math problems. And later, as he had for more than these fifteen years, he would carry Ed to bed, when Brother inevitably fell asleep over his own alchemy books in the living room.

Feeling a wistful smile somewhere deep inside himself, Al went to join his family.