FMA Fan-Fiction + Fan Art: "Threads of Time" Chapter 10 + ART

(P.S.: Additional art/images/goodies are linked at the end of the chapter!)

Premise: FMA Divergent AU where, among other things, it was Ed that ended up bound to a suit of armor by his brother, Alphonse, when their attempt to resurrect their mother recoiled and went horribly wrong. Their lives have been forever changed since that fateful night.

This story picks up three years later: approximately two years after Alphonse Elric became the State-Certified "Full-Metal Alchemist," making the brothers 13 and 14 (Though the current chapter is in "Flashback" mode).

Characters: Armor!Ed, Automail!Al, and many more to come!

Rating: PG

Pairings: None

Genre: AU, humor, angst

Spoilers: None (Due to the degree of AU-nature)

Length of this Chapter: 6,155

CrazyLostStar is my Beta-Muse

ART: Available on LiveJournal publicly under username "theregaltigress":

Full Image (Available on LiveJournal): "Growth" – This was an experiment with collage. All of the texture and such is real media that was layered with acrylic and pieces of newspaper. Scanned and reproduced that and then worked on top of that composite with graphite and a dabble of gouache. It's 8x10 inches, and I enjoyed illustrating this warm and fuzzy scene a lot. :) It didn't end up quite as I intended, but I think the collage aspect of it really fit the "feel" I was going for.

Close-Up (Available on LiveJournal): A fragment of the same image. Hopefully you can see some of the collage/text a bit better here.

I wrote most of this chapter in silence, but the soundtrack to "Stardust" powered me through the last phases of editing. :) I can't recommend that particular soundtrack enough.

Thanks so much, all of you, for the support: I really appreciate it!

As always: enjoy!

"Threads of Time" - Chapter 10

A month later…

Pinako hadn't inquired Ed's reasoning for why he wanted a red loincloth made, or what had happened to the old one from some months earlier. The petite woman had simply regarded the figure in front of her which loomed easily two to three times above her with calm, gauging eyes and then taken a puff from the pipe she kept locked to one side of her mouth. She nodded once before she strode around him making measurements by eye. A day later, Ed had fastened the sturdy cloth around himself, repeating internally his promise to restore Al's body and make things right.

Oblivious to his brother's sudden symbolic streak, Alphonse stood alone by his bedroom window, supported only by a crutch as he looked out over the pale landscape. The majority of his time was still spent resigned to his bed, or in his wheelchair, but he was trying his best to, at least in passing, listen to Pinako (and Winry's) suggestion of increasing his stamina with the crutch. He couldn't hold onto a second one because his automail hand still denied him the sort of fine control and stamina he swore it should have had by this point (although he'd long-since "tossed" out his internal recovery timeline, he found now and then that the "overdue" concept still prodded at him). He could, however, clutch onto a crutch alright with his flesh hand, and he thus tucked it under his "good" arm to help keep pressure off his automail leg (which he could now tuck slightly so it didn't simply drag lifelessly along the floor).

He stood silently, trying to ignore the tormenting pull of the automail leg as it responded to gravity's bidding. If he could just get to the point where it would support his weight, he hoped things would be so much better. The thought of actually being able to walk again had started to nudge his progress along. He still couldn't really maneuver on the crutches much at all, but any victory at all was something he eagerly devoured these days. Any change to lying in bed making constellations out of dots along the ceiling was a change he relished.

Al grimaced as he shifted his weight. He looked down to his automail foot as he tried to lower it an inch or two so it would touch the ground, but it wasn't heeding his commands. He'd asked Winry some days earlier if it might be defective, and the color that had sent to Winry's face, and the way she started hollering at him and waving s screwdriver around had sent Ed into "defensive big brother mode" as he stood between Winry and Al, hollering back that she would have to go through him to get to his little brother. Noble as the gesture was, Winry had ceased to be intimidated (assuming she ever really was) and had yelled back full force at the looming tower of armor that was likely three times her size and just so happened to hold the voice of a certain Elric. She had hollered at Ed that that wasn't the point.

"If you don't step out of the way, NOW, Ed, I am going to make sure that when you get your body back you won't even have TIME to enjoy it, I'm going to hit you SO hard …."

By the time they had finished arguing, everyone involved had entirely forgotten how the debate had started, and Al decided from then on that he would never, ever, mention in the smallest capacity that there could be a single problem with his automail.

At least, not in front of Winry.

Once Winry had left, Ed had offered the possibility that perhaps the reason Al was having more problems with his leg was simply because he hadn't been forced to use it as much. Certainly when he laid in bed doing puzzles, or even sat at the dinner table pretending he could manage cutlery with his right hand before eventually switching it to his left, but his arm and hand became the focus of his coordination struggles. In fact, aside from during the daily endurance "sessions" Alphonse endured to strengthen it, he clearly avoided using his leg except for occasions that specifically required its use.

"I guess that's why Winry was so adamant about you working with your leg," Ed had supplied in a sort of defeated way that implied he didn't want to admit she might have been right all along.

"Probably," Al had responded in much the same tone.

But as Al stared out the window, he worked to reassure himself that day-by-day, things WOULD get better. And day–by-day, he wondered where they'd go or what they'd do next, after he'd finally regained his strength. Usually Ed had been the one leading the way. He always had an answer to Al's questions, or at the very least: a direction for them to head. Yet, the elder Elric hadn't said anything about where they would go after Al recovered. Perhaps Ed was keeping it to himself to not put pressure on Al? He wasn't sure, but as Al looked out the window and its overly-familiar landscape, he worked to piece together what he knew into something that vaguely resembled a plan of attack that might take them closer to understanding what had happened, and, eventually, hopefully, would lead them to a way to reattach Ed's soul to his rightful body.

Wherever that was.

Al frowned and shifted where he stood.

Something in him stirred when he glanced at the automail hand that had somehow found its way to rest upon the windowsill. He clenched the fingers, and then relaxed them as he told himself it was past time to make progress.

When Ed made his way back into Al's room, he had almost hoped Al wouldn't pick up on the new loincloth. Though the color was a symbolic reminder for Ed, that didn't mean that he wanted to explain it, or more aptly, explain AROUND it to his little brother.

Ed realized it was a somewhat ludicrous notion that Al wouldn't notice, not only because the color was likely so vibrant against the polished steel surrounding it, but his little brother and the fastidious way he clung to details… it in no way was going to get past him.

Al turned at the noise at the door and noticed his new wardrobe almost instantly as Ed strode forward, trying to look casual as if there was nothing to be concerned about.

Al wasn't sure if in their entire lives whether or not he or his brother had expressed the importance or history of loincloths. Certainly, they had made jokes about the "King of the Jungle" in reference to them, and how strangely crude and silly they looked (offering little protection against the elements or jungle animals), but as far as loincloths in regards to Ed… Al came up blank. Al was fairly certain the armor that Ed now resided in had once had a loincloth. He wasn't sure when he'd last seen it, but he'd always assumed that loincloths were there to cover vulnerable areas, and on something such as armor, it was simply there to disguise the same areas. Al casually wondered if Ed had an issue with modesty, but Al thought it was better to leave that question go unsaid, so he decided on something a bit more obvious, "Red? I never thought you really liked that color."

Ed stopped a moment and then continued walking to sit on the wooden chair by the bed as one hand nervously fidgeted with the edge of the fabric, "Eh, it's okay. I thought it went well with this 'look.'"

Al worked ever so slowly to rotate himself on the crutch while he tried to figure out if his older brother was joking around or not. Humor wasn't anything that anyone in the household had seen in months, and for Ed and Al, possibly years, so Al decided to err on the side of caution, "Oh, yeah. It does," Al nodded; he waited a beat to see if Ed was going to say anything else before he looked longingly back to the window and added in a defeated tone, "I wish they'd let me go outside."

Ed glanced out at the window as well, "Yeah…" he remarked, "you can in a few months, though, you know. It won't be that much longer. But Granny says you're not ready yet, especially for the change in temperature."

Al looked back to Ed, " I know I just… I feel so cooped up in here. I mean… couldn't I just go out for a little while? Neither of them would have to know. We could be really quiet about it and use the back door…"

This wasn't the first time Al had brought this particular scheme up. It was custom for him to mention it, and then in the next sentence, quickly bemoan the sweet reality that kept him chained to the inside of the house for a few months more.

But instead, this time Alphonse continued to look at his older brother with a strange new sense of resolve, "C'mon, you'd help me, right?"

Ed stared back and he heard himself say his words and stating the obvious before he even stopped to think about them, or their implications, "Of course I would."

For the first time in too long, Al's face lit up in a smile, and the reasonable part of Ed, the part that nudged at him that maybe this was a "bad" idea, simply melted away in the sheer joy and anticipation emanating from his brother's face, "Really? You would?"

Ed nodded once as he struggled to beat down the monster of pessimism inside of him that was remarking that Al could hardly use his automail, or stand, and would frequently scream in the shower because the shock of the change in temperate was still such a shock to his system, and yet his older brother was not only condoning this rash course of action, but even supporting it?

But just as excitement was beginning to build in Al's face, it slipped away just as quickly, "Oh…. I don't have winter clothes," Al stated in a sad, deflated way. "Maybe there's something else I can wear… or a few layers?…" His face squinted in deliberation. His now blind resolve was heartening.

"Actually, I got them for you," Ed supplied, as he still tried to run predictions in his mind if this was so notably "bad" an idea that he should call it off before Al got his hopes up any more. That was one of the main reasons he'd gone back to their old house to begin with: Al's clothes.

Those same eyes lit up again, "Really?"

Ed nodded, and within minutes, the Elric brothers were again on a mission: and this one was against doctor's orders, which made it all the more thrilling.

In the bedroom, Al quickly decided that the most expedient way to allow their plan to transpire without a hitch was to let Ed help him with the many, many layers of clothes that would shield him from the wintertime weather. Two layers of just about everything went on, capped with outerwear, a winter coat, gloves, and boots. There were so many layers, in fact, that Al caught himself wondering if Ed was overdoing things, and he thought about bringing up the point, but he decided if it would get him outside, he was more than willing to tolerate feeing like an overstuffed teddy bear, with his arms forcibly outstretched more than he was accustomed to.

By the time he'd gotten his coat on, he was struggling to use his left hand to brush his hair out of his face, as the static had gotten to it and it now stuck out in various directions without a clear motivation for which direction it fell in. He worked to brush it out of his face with mittened fingers when his brother spoke up.

"You know, I think your hair is almost as long as Winry's hair," Ed remarked, "I'm sure Granny would be happy to cut it for you."

"It isn't that long," Al said in his hair's defense, since it couldn't very well speak up for itself, "Besides: father grew his hair long, there's nothing wrong with long hair."

Al could practically imagine the disgusted face Ed would have made at that moment, "You don't want to look like a girl do you?"

"I don't look like a girl! It's just hair!" Al exclaimed, "And besides: your hair used to be longer than MINE was and I never called you a girl." Al huffed, deflated.

"It wasn't nearly as long as yours is now," Ed gently corrected, with a sort of sibling compassion apparently unique to older brothers, "You could practically braid it."

"It's not that long!" Al retorted, grappling for the ends of it, which he could only imagine to feel through the now dual layers of glove and mitten he wore on either hand.

Ed watched him frantically grapple with the disobedient strands of it for a few moments until he felt a little guilty in being part of the present struggle and let out a long sigh, "Fine, fine, let me at least find something to tie it back with so it doesn't get in your face when we're outside."

Al stopped his struggling for the moment and made a face, and within minutes, his hair was tied to the back of his head with a spare rubber band, and about two or three spare inches of hair that stuck straight out from its messy clump. Ed made sure it was higher on Al's head than where he remembered his father used to put his ponytail, because he clearly wanted to avoid any unintentional similarity.

Even if he thought Al's hair looked stupid, he didn't want it to look stupid AND resemble the bastard of a father he still half-blamed for their mother's early demise.

By the time they were ready (and Al was layered with a winter hat as well as a set of earmuffs and scarf), Al had begun to second-guess if this was actually appropriate timing on his part to want to go outside. He did WANT to go outside: he'd been trapped in the house for over six months now, and even the idea of a breath of fresh winter air was exhilarating to him in concept, but he DID wonder if it was a good idea. He still couldn't walk without a crutch. He could use his crutch even less with so many layers of fabric cushioned around him, and the weight of the boots threw off his usual vague-maneuverability of his automail.

But he still wanted to just step outside, so deeply, so desperately, that he pushed himself on, even when Ed finally expressed his own sibling concern. Al was quick to notice, however, that Ed wasn't even trying to be persuasive so much as to simply let Al know that they should be careful.

And that Winry was going to kill them if she found out.

Neither Winry nor Pinako, however, were due back for some hours from the store, so the two brothers were fairly certain they could be out and back in long before there was any Rockbell sighting.

If they weren't, or if somehow either of them "suspected," both of the brothers were fairly certain that a they wouldn't hear the end of it for upwards of a week, and that Winry wouldn't be above using tools to drill in the point that what they did was against doctor's orders.

Nothing that Al did was really pain-free. This wouldn't be any different, certainly, but he tried his best to stomach his angry nervous system as best he could.

Al had let Ed push him in his wheelchair to the crest of the door before his brother helped him up again, making sure his crutch was secure before he unlocked the front door. Ed pushed open the door, and the bitter cold rushed in, sweeping against Al's face so briskly that he needed a moment to catch his breath. Ed was watching him, carefully gauging him, "If it's too cold, we can do this another day," he backpedaled.

For a moment, Al didn't seem to hear him. He clutched the crutch supporting him tightly as he braced against the chilling wind, "I'd almost forgotten how BIG it is out here."

No matter how many layers he had on, however, he could still feel the cold sneaking in on him, and he did his best to ignore its cold, prodding fingers. He simply wanted to relish the experience (that he might never have again, if Winry found out). As if lured by a piper's song, he tried to take a cautious step forward, but the crutch started to slip out from underneath him.

Alphonse didn't fall, however. A set of large hands kept him steady, "It's kinda icy here on the porch," Ed said apologetically, knowing full-well just how slippery they were, since he had taken more than one haphazard tumble down them, himself, "Want me to carry you down them? I'm sure you'll be fine once you're on the ground."

It took another moment for Ed's words to register, so focused was Al on the world now so suddenly open to him outside. Al turned his fleece-framed face up to Ed's while his dark blond bangs danced in the wind, "Sure. I've just been inside so long. I just want to feel what it's like again."

Ed nodded then, and before he could catch himself, he replied, "I want you to enjoy it for both of us."

It took Ed about three long minutes to close the door behind them and carefully navigate the stairs: a task that was ever more precarious with Al in his arms. Ed pushed away the thoughts of "that night" as he cradled his brother, hoping that this once he could make it down the stairs without cause for alarm. His own body was forgiving (if you could call it that) of tumbles, but Al was still far-too-fragile for such a fall, and Ed was even more concerned about the very real possibility that his sharp, spike-covered body could fall on top of Al in respect to such a tumble.

The aftermath of that thought was something Ed decided to avoid exploring.

The entire operation, however, went uneventfully, and once they reached the bottom of the stairs, Ed had inwardly breathed a sigh of relief before he retrieved Al's crutch. He wasn't sure how useful it would actually be in the snow, but Alphonse seemed hell-bent on trying to support himself and use it. Though Al was cringing against the elements, it wasn't hard to see how relieved he was to be out of the house. It was as if stepping outside had awakened a part of his little brother. Even though Ed was certain, absolutely CERTAIN that it had to hurt to move, Al's resolve pushed him slowly onward through the first wave of snow. Though it went unsaid, his pain tolerance seemed to be increased when he was alongside his ever-watchful older brother.

Slowly, Al trudged forward. He didn't move quickly, or even easily, but as he limped forward, he did it with purpose and didn't complain. What a pair they must have been: the crippled child and the towering lost soul, wandering alone in the snow.

Ed stayed close to Al's side the whole while, and they made it a good thirty feet or so into the virgin snow when Al suddenly cringed and stopped. For a moment, Ed could feel worry rise inside himself, until he saw the smile that lay plastered over his brother's now cold-reddened face.

"Brother?" Al asked.

"Yeah?" Ed responded, trying his best not to let concern seep through into his reverberant voice.

"I think…. Automail is a little overrated." As Al said this, he slowly worked to lower himself into the snow, "Remember when we had that fight over whose would be better?

This got a small chuckle from Ed, who sat down to join his brother in the snow, "It wasn't all that long ago, wasn't it only a summer or two ago?"

"Well, it seems like a lot longer," came Al's reply. His eyes were closed as he sat, listening to Ed's voice, imagining his older brother there beside him as he once was. The same brother that had hotly argued about the many reasons "his" proposed automail was bound to be superior. They'd argued schematics, about all variety of coy and clever attachments not limited to boyish gadgets (Ed had specified his would have every variety of possible cutlery so he'd never have to worry about dropping his spoon when he had stew).

More than a year earlier, he'd bragged about style and creative uses for automail, about why it would be superior to "regular" limbs, and of course how each Elric insisted they would have better automail than the other.

The debate had gone on for quite some time, until the young boys had resorted to putting in their final few creative bargaining chips before Ed had claimed himself victorious.

Al, however, had other ideas, and ended said debate with, "Well, you can say that, but no matter what you say, mine would STILL be better on principle."

"Oh? Why's that?" A younger Edward, with his usual cocky grin had crossed his arms and replied.

"Because I'm taller than you, so OBVIOUSLY my automail would be bigger, and thus: better!" Al had maturely ended his point by sticking out his tongue, and some minutes later the two of them were wrestling in the grass to the tune of "Are not!" and "Are too!"

As if the olden debate needed no introduction, the suit of armor remarked from his seated position in the snow, "You weren't taller than me, you know. You just made that up to distract me from the perfectly valid points I'd made."

A very well-insulated Alphonse continued smiling and rolled his eyes, as always, "Of course I did, Brother. And that's precisely why you got so worked up about it."

Ed made a small "Hmph!" as he flicked a lose frock of hair out of his face and then neatened the loincloth across his lap before looking over at Al, who was working to "comfortably" position himself in the snow.

Once situated, the younger Elric ran a double-insulated mitten through the snow, crafting what crudely resembled a snowball with one hand. He shifted and squirmed where he was as if he couldn't quite get comfortable.

It was strange, sitting out in the snow again. Ed couldn't feel a thing: not the cold, the wind, not even the mashed ball of snow he toyed haphazardly with between his thick fingers.

But Al? Al felt too much.

"Are you cold at all?" Ed inquired.

"A little, but I'm fine," Al shivered once, but he steadfast in his desire to drink up every bit of the "outdoor" experience while he still could. "Hey…. have you done any alchemy since….?"

"Nah," Ed remarked, a bit more softly than he intended. He wasn't sure if it was more that he was cautioned against the subject, or if he wondered if he was still able to do it at all. So much of his life seemed engrained in the subject, so the thought of possibility not being able to do it seemed a harsh sentence.

"Me neither," Al replied. "We could, here, you know?" Something in Al's tone reminded Ed of himself: that twinge of curiousness, just waiting to be tested.

There was something else in Al's face, though, when Ed looked up to try to read it. He couldn't quite pin it, but there was something in Al's tone that implied his request held deeper importance to him.

And it did. Even though Al couldn't put into words why exactly he wanted to perform alchemy with his brother just then, somewhere deep inside of him he wanted something to replace the memory of the last time they'd performed alchemy. He wanted a reaffirmation that the science could still be used to create rather than to destroy lives and possibly worse.

He wanted a fleeting glance into alchemy as it once was, before it had become so convoluted in his mind. And they had to go back to using alchemy eventually. They were both good at it, and more than once he'd heard adults whisper that Ed was a child "genius" concerning the complex science. And really: they were just kids. They didn't really have any viable skills except alchemy.

Al used the end of his crutch to draw in the general shape while Ed worked the finer details. It was a simple alchemic equation, really. Chemicals in the water and air would be reconfigured to form heat, which would trick the plants below into premature germination and accelerated growth as they absorbed the converted nutrients.

The two of them looked over the array, etched so precisely, so innocently into the snow in front of them. "Ready?" Ed asked.

"Ready," came Al's reply.

A synched pair of claps echoed across the landscape followed moments later by a bright blue light, which alighted the crisp markings in the snow.

When their hands had hit the array, both of the boys had quietly wondered to themselves if Ed could still perform alchemy in his current condition. The concern, however, appeared unfounded, because as soon as their hands hit, they could each "feel" not only the alchemy they were stimulating, but they could also feel the familiar "presence" of the other brother working in tune with them to mold the reaction just so. The bond between the two of them seemed re-solidified in that moment as they controlled the elements within the equation and their desired interactions and reactions.

Al could remember reading about alchemy using two individuals when he was very young. It wasn't very common practice simply because there was an understandably large room for error the minute you had two scientists trying to control a single experiment.

Maybe it was because they were brothers that they were able to get beyond this traditional hurdle. Al wasn't sure, but in his mind the sensation he felt whenever he did Alchemy with Ed was sort of somewhere between a well-choreographed dance and collaborative cooking. Teacher had taught them that alchemy started in the kitchen, so perhaps that was why it seemed an appropriate comparison, but in his mind, he could almost imagine the two of them like two well-coordinated cooks in a kitchen "controlling" the alchemic reactions where each of them saw fit. They knew not only what they wanted, but they knew each other well enough to be able to predict each other's reactions (and they also, more formally, knew when to proverbially stay out of the other brother's "way"). They knew their strengths and weaknesses and how to make adjustments for them. If one of them felt something going awry, they would "push" their presence forward to be able to take control of things.

And though it was a relatively simply equation that they worked on, there was something in their synergy that was a familiar, welcome feeling. The only thing that caught Ed was "strange" was that it seemed Al had a much stronger "presence" during the transmutation than he recalled him having. Well, that or Ed was getting rusty, and he wasn't about to have any of that. He was the older brother, after all. And he could still do alchemy.

But as the first fragile plant arched its way through the crest of white snow, Ed's scientific mind faded away for a moment as he caught himself simply observing what would seem to so many to be nothing other than a miracle.

"That never gets old," Alphonse spoke up as the growth completed. He scooted around the edge of the array so he could rest his weight against Ed's side. The struggle through the weather and the transmutation had obviously taken its toll on him, but he was making no motions to get up and return to the house. He shuddered once and blew into his hands to warm up, but even as the weather worked against him, a smile laid spread across his face. Ed wasn't sure if he'd seen Al smile so brightly in years, and yet here he was, smiling for the most ridiculous reason: that he was shivering out in the cold next to his brother, and that was precisely what he wanted to be doing at that very instant.

Less than thirty minutes later Winry and Pinako had returned earlier than expected, and while there was some amount of yelling due to the brothers, they both were rather surprised that the Rockbells seemed more impressed than angry. It wasn't the usual brand of physical therapy prescribed, but the "Elric" variety of therapy had at least succeeded in exercising Al's coordination and stamina, so they couldn't fault him for that.

Winry actually ended up lazing outside with them in the snow for a few minutes (after she made absolutely certain Al was faring okay). They made what crudely resembled snow angels and then just laid on their backs in silence as the snow started to pepper the noontime sky once again.

"Well, at least we know who has the best automail," Ed remarked after a minute.

"Hmm?" Al said as he lazily tried to see if he might be lucky enough to get a snowflake to land on his outstretched tongue as he lay still on his back. Winry, herself, smiled pleasantly, as if waiting for the inevitable compliment to her craft.

"Yeah, I have full BODY automail. Beat that!" came Ed's response.

Al abruptly closed his mouth and then opened it again to gape in Ed's direction. Ed hadn't chanced a joke in ages, especially one at his own expense. It was so entirely unexpected, but it was so very, very "Ed" to declare himself the resounding "winner" in such a ridiculous competition. Then again, when Al looked at it that way: maybe there was some sort of twisted humor to be had on the whole.

Winry, however, hadn't yet gotten the memo, and hotly declared, "That's not automail, you dolt!" as she sat up and unceremoniously chucked a handful of snow in Ed's direction.

It was Al who laughed first. A high, joyous sound that he covered with one mittened hand as if he worried that someone else overhearing it might somehow accidentally involve him in the snowball fight that was due to break loose at any moment. A second later, however, Ed too was laughing at how worked up Winry had gotten over the automail remark, and in due time even Winry found herself brightly laughing while she lobbed impeccably aimed snowballs at the empty suit of armor (and he retaliated in kind).

They hadn't laughed like that in years, and there they were: laughing together as if they were kids again, never stopping to wonder how or why humor had so coyly reemerged

Pinako stood on the doorstep as she adjusted the pipe in her mouth. "About time," she remarked aloud. The petite little woman smiled to herself and then quietly went back inside.

"We need to find a way to get our bodies back," Al had whispered out of nowhere later that night. Ed had been fairly certain that Al had been dead asleep for upwards of an hour, so the sudden voice made him jump, and almost slip out of the chair in which he'd be quietly sitting.

"Shhh!" Al hissed at the darkness.

Al wasn't the only one having such thoughts. Ed's mind still eagerly clung to the possibility that somehow, someway, they'd be able to undo all of this, all of the careless mistakes he'd made. That there was still some fleeting way to wipe the slate clean. But every time Ed found himself dwelling over the possibilities he knew of, he promptly found himself kicking himself for even CONSIDERING returning down that path he'd so haplessly led them down already.

And perhaps that was why, as Al spoke up, Ed listened. Really listened.

It wasn't that Ed didn't listen to his brother's ideas before; it was simply that Ed had always assumed his own ideas were superior to Al's. He was one year older, after all. That had to account for more experience. And the fact that Al was usually so happy to follow Ed just went to reaffirm Ed's own stubborn hubris.

But now, Ed found himself listening to Al in a way he hadn't before.

"We need to find a way to get our bodies back," Al repeated in a whisper. "But we can't go back to Teacher, because she…."

"She'd kill whatever's left of us," Ed groaned.

Ed could imagine Al nodding in the darkness, "…Yeah…. we should probably stay clear of Teacher for awhile…."

Silence slipped over the room once again, and when something creaked outside their door, the two of them bolted upright, as if they worried the mere mention of Izumi's wrath had unwittingly summoned her. After an achingly long minute of silence (during which both boys strained to hear any additional signs of movement), they resettled themselves to resume their scheming.

"…What did you think of that Mustang guy?" Al inquired, always depending on Ed's opinion for guidance.

"The military dog?" Ed inquired with a scoff, as if Al could mean anyone else.

"Yeah, he said something about how we should visit him in Central," Al's tone showed he had thought this out. "He's a State Alchemist, right? That means he has to have access to all sorts of stuff that might be able to help us."

"Yeah, he probably does," Ed agreed, but wasn't willing to supply anything more.

What Al was searching for in that moment was direction, and a plan. Old habits were, however, hard to break. While Ed stalled and stewed in self-doubt, wondering himself what they should do next, but not wanting to again lead them further down the path to ruin, Al had gently prodded him for thoughts on what they were going to do, looking to him for guidance as he always had. Ed had found a variety of clever ways to avoid the question of what they should do next (and more precisely: Ed had discovered a plethora of ways to cleverly avoid his REASON for avoiding the question), but eventually Al, the observant boy that he was, had found a way through Ed's exceptionally stubborn defenses.

"I wonder what someone like him would want with us," Al remarked to a pitch-black ceiling that he had come to know so well that even in the dead of night, he could STILL impeccably imagine what the ceiling looked like even to its smallest detail.

"He's military," Ed supplied from across the room, as if that was answer enough before adding, "He must think we'll be useful to him somehow." The suit of armor scoffed, letting years of hearing about the many evils and underhanded ways of the military from Granny Pinako, Teacher, and firsthand, their absent good-for-nothing father, bubble to the surface. Ed's tone shifted then, "But maybe he could be useful to us. I mean, that Mustang guy is a State Alchemist. State Alchemists have access to the State Libraries, and I'm sure all sorts of secret military information. If there is anything at all that can help us, I bet that's where we'd find it."

"We could become State Alchemists," Al stated, following Ed's unspoken logical conclusion. Indeed, he had been considering something along those lines, but Edward's own inner-commentary only solidified Al's decision.

"Nah, Al, we don't both need to. It's safer if you didn't, besides."

But Ed wasn't going to deter his brother this time, "You're not doing it alone," Al insisted, "I'll get stronger, Brother, and we'll both go to Central and become State Alchemists so we can get our bodies back. You'll see."

The final decision had been Al's certainly, but Ed couldn't help but feel as if he'd had a heavy hand in fostering it there, even if he hadn't done so intentionally.

Years later, as Ed sat beside his ailing brother at the darkened, ethereal train station, he couldn't help but wonder how far they'd really come since that day, and if they'd made a bargain with the devil by having any part in getting Al signed up for the military.

Their present situation, in particular, was no thanks to one Lieutenant Colonel Mustang.

And thus did I finally escape from the jaws of Eternal!Flashback…. cheering

As for additional art (link intensive, but oh: so very, very worth it)… (ART: Available on LiveJournal publicly under username "theregaltigress"):

1.) I actually drew Fan Art: "Threads of Time" Armor!Ed in the Snow: for a scene that was reworked for this chapter (if you look at the date of that entry (November, 2006), you'll see just how LONG this extended flashback of doom has affixed itself to my brain ;;).

I have some incredible friends and fans, and I wanted to take a moment to thank them SO much for not only motivating me, but in some rare and precious instances, even gifting me with art. ;;

2.) x0whitelily0x caught me totally off-guard with this incredible illustration she sent me of ToT!Alphonse. Gah! The beautiful angst/melancholy, it kills! I am not worthyyyy!

3.) ToT Fan-Art/Comic from : x0whitelily0x and banner from GreenfireMantl (scroll down for it) - Both of these made me laugh so. Freaking. Hard. Your senses of humor are impeccable, and I feel so touched that the fruit!angst lives on! XD

4.) FMA ToT: I Don't Deserve This... (ie: ToT Crack Doodles by CrazyLostStar) - Oh god, the beauty. ;;

5.) CrazyLostStar illustrates an untold scene where ToT!Ed enters his old homestead and braves the darkened basement, only to find "Mom" waiting right where he left her…

6.) and 7 "Threads of Time" Crack Icons (by CrazyLostStar), complete with links to random omake crack in the same entry. Also More ToT!Angst Icons and others which make me wibble. ;;

8.) And as a random note: while I was away recently, apparently my dear, sweet parrot attacked my ToT!Alphonse Doll. cringe He wasn't fatally wounded in the encounter, but I will need to repair him a bit before I get around to posting photos of his various sets of ToT and movie-themed clothes.

9.) And…. have a random ToT!Al sketch (a tiny one that's about two inches large), from the present I intend to return us to next chapter (er… or a few years later, seeing how he looks )!

In any case, as always: I hope you guys enjoyed this chapter/the art! Feedback is always so very appreciated, and thanks for withstanding that Flashback of Ultimate Doom with me! HUGE hugs