Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Al and Ed.
Summary: Maybe Equivalent Exchange is not just a two-way street.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: I first wrote this complete one-shot quite early in my days as an FMA fan—but it remained unposted for nearly five years, because the original version contained spoilers for a larger adventure story I intended to write (and still do). After thoughts of this fic were recently raised for me again in conversation with Kristen Sharpe, I felt it would be fitting to present it as a Fandom Stocking gift to her. So, with some very minor edits, a long-overdue story is finally seeing daylight.
The sun was sinking low in the west, bathing an endless passing tapestry of farmlands and small villages in soft golden light. From beneath the wooden floor planks, the train wheels thundered and squealed against the tracks, punctuated now and then by a steam whistle's howl drifting back from the engine many cars ahead.
A part of Alphonse Elric was watching the scenery, but another part of him was watching his brother.
Not that this was especially interesting, because at the moment, Edward was as motionless as Al. He lay on his back at the edge of the boxcar's open sliding door, his head and shoulders propped against the doorframe, his arms folded over his chest. This choice of resting places was just shy of potentially suicidal, but Al had decided pointing that out would result in more trouble than it was worth. Instead, he had settled within an easy arm's reach of Ed, ready to seize him with inhuman reflexes if some unexpected bump should dislodge him.
Silent and passive as he was, it could have been easy to think the steady sway of the train had lulled him to sleep… but Al knew better.
Another detour, another dead end; it was the same story as always. This time they had sought the beloved alchemist-doctor of Ingall, a reputed miracle worker in a village long gripped by sickness, in hopes of learning something from his techniques that would be helpful to themselves. Instead, they only learned that this "doctor" was nothing more than a fraud who had been preying on the villagers for years… and he would kill to keep that secret from coming to light.
Their struggle against the man had taken a great physical toll on Edward—and at one point, very nearly a fatal one.
With a stirring of lingering concern, Al tilted his helmet and studied what he could see of his brother's face in profile. Ed's color was only just starting to look healthy again, but he still remained the faintest bit gaunt and drawn. He would never admit it, but full recovery would take him a few more days yet.
Adding insult to injury, after their final confrontation that drove the false doctor out of Ingall, the townspeople did not believe what the Elrics had discovered about him. Terrified by the loss of the man they saw as their savior, they had become little better than a mob, and all but chased the Elrics out of town themselves.
In spite of the Fullmetal Alchemist's reputation as "the Hero of the People", it wasn't the first time they had met with no gratitude—but Ed was taking it especially hard. Perhaps it was the unusually great physical duress this misadventure had put him through, or simply the last straw in his cumulative disgust with all the wrongs they had seen alchemy used for. Whatever it was, he was in a place Al didn't like to see.
To top it all off, being run out of town had prevented them from catching a train at the Ingall station. After miles of walking, it was only by luck that they found a freight train halted at a broken section of track, and traded an alchemic repair job for a ride in that empty boxcar.
Al sighed. Within his unbreathing steel shell, it was nothing but the venting of a frustrated sound, but it gave him a certain useless satisfaction anyway.
"Al, where do you think we'd be right now, if… if we'd never tried to bring Mom back?"
The softly spoken question made Al want to wince. It was predictable, really. As obsessed as Ed was with moving forward, each ordeal of pain resurrected his ghosts of regret and self-recrimination—and somewhere beneath it all, probably a current of bitterness toward their father too. Blame of a man he could hardly remember for not being there to save their mother, or at least fill the void that had driven two desolate children to an unspeakable sin and all its consequences.
It was a facet of his emotions that even Al was stymied by. Alchemy was Ed's strength, his passion, the thing that defined his very identity. He never did hate it for making them both what they had become… but he hated the man from whom they had inherited their talents.
"I don't know, Brother." That what-if was something Al had always tried not to dwell on: thoughts of how his body would have grown, what experiences now lost to him he might have had, whether they both could have learned in time to be happy again. In some ways, he had taken Ed's own credo of move forward much more to heart than his brother. In ignorance and arrogance they had made their own fate, and there was nothing to do but live with it, making the best they could of it—until the day they learned how to fix it.
"But there is something I wonder," Al added after a long moment, tentatively venturing along the lines of his thoughts. "Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to a lot of other people, if we'd never done the things we have."
Ed grunted bitterly and hunched his shoulders. "What's to wonder? Everyone would be better off."
"Would they?" Al's armor scraped as he leaned forward earnestly. "If we never made this journey, and you'd never become a State Alchemist, Cornello might still be working to make his followers into an army. Majihal might still be trying to put girls' souls in his dolls. Barry the Chopper might still be killing. The people of Youswell might still be under Lieutenant Yoki's thumb. Xenotime might still be poisoned by the Red Water. And Ingall—"
"That's a whole lot of might-haves," Ed interrupted brusquely, unfolding his arms to stare glumly at the palm of his right glove. "None of those things should ever have been our job anyway."
"But it's where life took us—and every time, we were the ones with the power to do something about it. The only way it makes any sense is to believe it all happened for a reason."
Steel fingers within the glove clenched tightly. "Yeah. Sure. And what have we ever gotten in return? There's no Equivalent Exchange in any of it, Al."
"Maybe not that we can see right now. But maybe it doesn't really work like that, Brother. We've always thought of Equivalent Exchange like a street that only goes two ways—just the direct trading of one thing for another. But what if it's like…" Al struggled for words. His wandering gaze fell upon a spiderweb high up in the corner of the boxcar, shining like spun copper in the flame-colored light of the sunset, and he pointed to it eagerly.
"What if it's like that spiderweb, with lots of threads spreading out in different directions? Maybe what we give up doesn't come straight back to us by the same path, but in other ways we'll never realize—from other people who give without knowing what they get in return, either." He paused thoughtfully. "Maybe it's why they call alchemy a gift, and any other kind of talent, too. Not because it's something we received… but because it's something we're meant to give."
Ed was silent for a moment, and then he shifted onto his side, turning his back to his brother. "I don't want to talk about it anymore."
He didn't say You're crazy.
He didn't say I need to think about this.
He didn't say I'm scared of the things it would mean if that was all true.
But the tone of his voice said every one of those things.
Feeling an unseen smile in his soul, Al sat back, and gazed up at the spiderweb glistening in the twilight. Not just a two-way street, but so many threads that reached out and intertwined; so many chances, so many possibilities.
© 2010-2014 Jordanna Morgan