Title: Form Follows Function
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Alphonse, Winry, Edward.
Setting: Sometime not long before 3 October.
Summary: Before they leave Resembool, Ed offers Al a surprising choice.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Since FMA canon shows us repeatedly that Ed can repair damage to Al's armor, I have long wondered whether he might be able to modify it in other ways as well. This story is a speculative take on how that subject might have gone.
"The water is just about boiling," Winry Rockbell noted, turning from the stove in her grandmother's kitchen. "You can put in the vegetables as soon as they're ready."
Standing by the opposite counter, the giant steel figure who took up seemingly half the room gave her a small, polite nod of his helmet.
"Right," Alphonse Elric said agreeably. He turned back to the cutting board before him, and his broad leather gauntlets resumed their work at a careful but steady pace, chopping potatoes and carrots.
The fact that Al was no longer uncomfortable holding a knife said much for his adjustment to his armor body. For a long time, even after he got used to handling other items without a sense of touch, he was reluctant to pick up things that were sharp and pointed. He always worried that he would grip too hard and break them, or otherwise slip somehow, and send some dangerous missile flying across the room. It took months of experience with more harmless objects before he regained confidence with blades. He still didn't really like holding a potential weapon, and he remained cautious, but he didn't fear using them for household chores anymore.
All things considered, he was pleased with the progress he had made since the loss of his true body. At first hopelessly clumsy, his big hands had learned how to perform surprisingly delicate tasks. He was now a good enough judge of height clearances to avoid smacking his helmet on doorway lintels. He'd figured out the tricks to cleaning all the joints and crevices of his armor.
Most of the time, he could even walk past mirrors without feeling the urge to look away.
Early on, Al had let himself indulge in the thought that his reflection was his own waking substitute for the nightmares his brother endured. However, he came to realize that was silly and selfish. Maybe he looked like a freak now, but he didn't even have any memories of pain from the transmutation. It was Edward who had known unspeakable agonies, both that night and throughout the following months… as well as another kind of hurt that Al couldn't name, glimpsed only in the depths of Ed's eyes.
Suddenly noticing a movement at the kitchen doorway, Al glanced over to see Ed himself standing there.
In all this time, Brother had made his own extraordinary progress—especially since his automail limbs were connected. He no longer showed any sign of the limp his new leg initially caused him, and when he performed a task with his right hand, the movements often looked almost as natural as those of his original flesh. On pace with that physical recovery, his self-assurance was growing by the day. If anything, he was only becoming more spirited than he had ever been before. Even the short braid he now plaited his hair into served to make him look a little bit more rebellious. (Al was still working on getting used to that, but since Brother seemed to like it, he wasn't about to complain.)
Today, though, Ed looked strangely diffident: much the same as he had the day he took his first unsteady walk outside on his automail leg. His hands were tucked behind his back, and he regarded Al with a pensive frown that clearly expressed… uncertainty.
"Dinner will be ready soon," Al informed him, just in case he was actually wondering that, but hesitating to ask the question of someone who literally couldn't eat.
"Yeah… thanks." Ed cleared his throat. He shifted his weight from his organic foot to his steel one, and visibly forced himself to come to the point. "I, uh… I have something for you, Al."
"Oh?" The younger sibling set the knife down and turned to properly face Ed, wiping his gauntlets on a dishtowel. "What is it?"
Without a word, Ed withdrew his hands from behind his back. His automail fingers were clutching a sheet of paper. Rather nervously he stuck it out in front of him, to reveal a perfectly-formed circle that was crammed with alchemic equations. The nuances were so complex and numerous that, on casual inspection, the whole of the array went over Al's head—but he did recognize an overarching basic formula for the transmutation of steel.
Somewhere in his soul, Al felt that fluttery sensation again.
"…What is that for?"
Ed made a pale attempt at a smile, scratching the back of his head with his left fingers. His initial words came out in an uncharacteristic ramble, as if he found it difficult to broach the real answer to the question.
"It took me days to get this right, actually. I've only just gotten good enough at drawing with my left hand to do it." The grin vanished then as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving only a grave solemnity. "It's… a transmutation for changing the shape of your armor."
Metal scraped as Al flinched in astonishment.
"Brother… You can actually do that?"
"Well, I am the one who put you in there… so, yeah." Ed's eyes wandered away, to the water boiling on the stove. "I would have offered to do it sooner, but you know I couldn't draw viable arrays until just recently. Anyway, if you wanted me to… I can change the way you look now. I could make you a more normal size, and not so—uh—"
"Scary-looking?" Al suggested, his resonant voice hardly rising above a whisper.
Ed's cheeks flamed. "It's only other people who'd think that—but I know it's hard for you, seeing those reactions. I've seen the looks you still get in the village, even after all these months. I can't change the fact that you're stuck inside that steel yet, but if it would help make things any better…" His eyes darted back up to meet Al's gaze, and he gave a helpless shrug.
"Oh, Ed," Al said softly, and pulled his brother into a tight embrace, barely managing not to crumple the precious circle between them.
It was hard to think straight just then. The enormity of what Ed offered was difficult to take in. All Alphonse knew was that Ed hurt for him, and wanted to help, even when his own pains were so much more urgent and tangible.
The question of how Ed learned to modify soul-infused steel was one thing Al definitely didn't want to ask. He had not even explained yet how he'd acquired the skill to attach Al's soul to the armor in the first place. Clearly, both subjects were part of the mystery wrapped up tight within shadows in Ed's own soul, ever since that night—and it was something the younger boy instinctively knew better than to intrude upon.
"So do you want to go for it?" Ed murmured against Al's chestplate, after a few moments of sweetly aching silence.
"…I don't know yet," Al admitted, carefully pulling back from Ed. "Looking even a little less like I do would be… Yeah. A part of me wants that so bad." He hesitated, fretting briefly that any trace of uncertainty might hurt Ed's feelings. "But this armor is what I have for a body now—and the thought of changing it around is kind of scary. It's already taken me so long to feel like I'm used to it."
"It wouldn't actually function any differently," Ed supplied. "But I guess a size difference would take some adjustment all over again."
Al squeezed Ed's shoulders, taking care to be gentle near his automail port. "Can I think about it for a few days?"
"Of course. You can take as long as you need to decide." Ed smiled, and the expression was radiant with undisguised love. "I'll be ready any time you are."
"Okay then." Al ducked his helmet. "For now I'd better finish with those vegetables, before Winry comes back in here."
With a small nod, Ed turned to shuffle out of the kitchen, protectively clutching the transmutation circle he had worked so long and hard to be able to produce. Al watched him go… and when the younger Elric was alone, only then did he sag against the sink, his mind reeling.
He certainly hadn't expected to be dealt any such weighty decisions today.
Dinner was quieter than usual. Al sat at the table to share Ed's and the Rockbells' company, if not the meal, but he was too full of thoughts to have anything to say—and evidently it was the same for Ed. The elder brother picked at his food with less focus than usual, his gaze distant, except for occasional furtive glances in Al's direction. It was obvious that he was wondering what Al was thinking, but he didn't want to bring up their earlier conversation in the presence of the two women.
For their part, Pinako and Winry undoubtedly noticed the brothers' thoughtful mood, but they had the grace not to comment on it. Instead they talked between themselves: about the automail they had worked on that day, and the latest village gossip shared by passing neighbors, and the growth of the vegetables in the garden.
After dinner, Ed retreated to the brothers' bedroom, to continue his diligent practice in refining the motor skills of both his hands. Al chose not to interrupt him. However, when Winry volunteered to wash the dishes, the boy found no further chores to occupy him. Instead, he went out to sit on the bottom step of the back porch, and pondered silently as the stars glimmered to life in the sky.
In the soft light of those stars, he stretched out his arms before him. The thick fingers of his right hand passed over his left vambrace, following the lines of seams and joints in the plates, tracing the fierce pointed edges of the fins beneath his elbow. He couldn't feel the smooth hardness of the metal, but his clear and unblinking vision showed him the details of every rivet, even in the gathering shadows. It was becoming difficult to remember, but he thought his human eyesight had never been quite so keen at night.
Letting Ed change the form of this shell would not fix everything, of course. Al would still lack touch and taste and smell. He would still never sleep. Even when it came to appearance, his shiny steel skin could never remotely pass as anything human, no matter how much its shape was made to match a normal human figure. At best, he only imagined he might look more like a robot from the pulp stories he had read.
Yet even that would be quite a difference from the huge and menacing engine of war the armor represented—or, to children especially, the giant spike-covered monster that had walked straight out of a nightmare.
Al tried to imagine that for a few moments. If he was only smaller and less threatening, the looks people gave him would continue to be curious and wondering… but perhaps there would not be fear in their eyes. Perhaps no small child would ever again burst into tears at the sight of him, as the Brinkers' little girl had the first time he encountered her after the transmutation.
Maybe scariness should have been an easy thing to give up.
The screen door creaked behind Al. With a slightly noisier creak of his own, he turned to see Winry stepping out onto the porch.
"Hey." The girl smiled at him—a bit tentatively, he thought. "You kind of disappeared there. For being so big, you're awfully good at sneaking off when you want to."
A faint chuckle escaped Al, in spite of himself. "Sorry. I just have some thinking to do."
Winry's blue eyes darkened a little. Uninvited, she dropped herself on the top step: the only one that almost allowed her to meet Al's gaze on a level plane, even though he was sitting down at the bottom.
"Yeah. I noticed how quiet you and Ed were at dinner." She frowned and leaned closer, her expression filled with earnest concern as she looked up into what passed for his face. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, but… did something happen?"
It took only a brief moment for Al to decide that he did want to answer her.
"Brother told me he can transmute my armor. He could make it so that I wouldn't be this big and… scary."
The young mechanic released a quivering breath of surprise. "Oh, wow… His alchemy can really do that? I mean, you really think he could do something like that to the metal you're attached to—without hurting you somehow?"
"I know he could," Al replied, without the slightest hesitation. A faint shudder passed through his hull as he glanced away. "Compared to what it took for him to make me like this in the first place… I'm sure it would be simple for him."
Sobered by the reminder of what Ed had sacrificed to save Al's life, Winry was silent for a few moments before she spoke again.
"…So what did you say to him?"
"I told him I needed some time to think about it."
"That kind of surprises me. Even if it wouldn't really make you normal again, I would've thought just looking a little more normal would be…" Winry fumbled for words. "Something that would help. Something you'd want."
"Of course I want it. I don't want people to be afraid the moment they see me. And if things were going to stay just the way they are, maybe it'd be easier to say yes, but…"
Al hesitated. He knew his next words would cause Winry another glimmer of pain; but it would be no good to avoid the facts.
"But Brother will be ready to leave Resembool very soon now."
Predictably, Winry flinched and curled into herself a bit. Her eyes did not meet his.
"And you're planning to go with him," she murmured. "But isn't that all the more reason to take Ed up on his offer? Everyone in Resembool is used to seeing you like this now, but—if you leave, and you're only surrounded by strangers every day… If it's possible, wouldn't you want to stand out less?"
"I guess that's one side of it. But that isn't all I'm thinking of." Al gazed up at the glittering stars. "Ed has such big plans, and you know he… he gets himself in trouble sometimes. He's so determined to fix me for real, I don't know what he might do. I want to be able to help him… and sometimes, maybe even stop him, if he tries to do something stupid."
Winry frowned. "You think you'd be less able if you let him change your armor?"
"It's simple physics that if Ed made me smaller, reducing my mass, my strength would be reduced too. Who knows if the strength I lost would make the difference someday? And besides that…"
Al touched his chestplate, directly opposite the point between his shoulders where a scarlet sigil connected his soul to steel. He suspected that if Ed decreased the rest of his bulk, the fragile blood seal could not also be reduced in size—leaving it a proportionately larger Achilles' heel on the smaller target he would then be. Painfully aware as he was that his life depended on that seal, he was reluctant to put it even slightly more at risk.
He decided not to mention that consideration to Winry. When she already worried herself enough over Ed, she didn't need to be reminded that Al was not completely invulnerable, either.
"Being able to scare people might finally come in handy," he observed instead. "If somebody Ed picks a fight with would back down after just looking at me, it'd be better for everyone. It'd even be worth the rest of the time… scaring people when I don't mean to."
His friend smiled up at him sadly. "Oh, Al. Listen to you. After all you've had to go through, you've got every right to think about what would be easier for you… but all you're thinking of is every chance you could have to help your brother."
"That's the way he thinks about me," Al replied somberly. "Besides, I am thinking of how I feel too. I've gotten used to the way I am now, after all these months… and maybe it means something to me that this armor belonged to Dad. It's not the body I was born to from his DNA, but it's still something from him that's given me life. I'm not sure it would feel right to change it."
"I guess after everything that's happened, you can't help having some complicated feelings about it." Winry's pensive expression warmed. "Anyway, between all these things, it sounds like you've already made up your mind."
"Yeah… I guess I have." The boy put an appreciative smile into his voice. "Thanks for giving me a chance to talk it out with someone."
She patted his rerebrace. "You're a lot braver than I think I could be."
Alphonse was glad the sudden frown he felt within himself was outwardly invisible. He wasn't sure he was really being brave at all. He wasn't sure whether he was simply afraid of any further change, after the massive upheaval the brothers had already endured in their lives… and afraid of what was waiting out there in the world. So afraid that he didn't want to give up the tiniest bit of the strength he now possessed, even at the cost of looking like a monster.
Yet that cost was a small one to pay, if it helped protect the brother who had traded flesh and blood to save Al's life—and even after that, was still intent on putting his own life on the line to make things completely right for him.
With a clatter of metallic limbs unfolding, Al rose from the bottom step. "I think I should go tell Ed what I've decided."
"Knowing him, he'll probably find some reason to argue about it," Winry chuckled, accepting the hand Al offered to help her up.
"Maybe. But that's just Brother being Brother—and I don't think I'd want him any other way."
Even by starlight and the far-off glow from neighbors' windows, Al could see Winry's pained smile. Her voice was low as she leaned closer and murmured, "Don't you ever tell him this, but the truth is… I wouldn't either."
Once again she patted his arm, and turned to go inside; and after gazing up at the stars for a few moments more, collecting his thoughts, Al followed her.
2017 Jordanna Morgan