Mirror and Image
Al watched the countryside go by, the farms sewed into the hills like a quilt, with an uneven headboard of mountains in the distance. He and his brother were heading back to East City by train to meet with Mustang and report on what they had been doing. Then it would be back to the libraries in search of more possible leads to the Philosopher's Stone.
The Stone. It was the be and end all of their quest. Their quest for normalcy. On some level, Al doubted that they'd ever be normal again. Not since they lost their mother; things would never be the same again. But, instead, their want for normalcy, was for regular human bodies. Al's very soul was bound to a large suit of armor. While he could move and speak like any other living being, Al found there were many, many things missing. He could not feel. Not warmth, not cold, not stings, bumps or bruises, not soft sheets, fluffy pillows, or fuzzy fur. There were living necessities that he did not need, like food or water. Sleep was difficult, because his mind needed rest, but his armor did not. Figuring out how to "sleep" took him almost five months. During that time, he had been snappish and rude with his brother, but Ed always seemed to understand.
Ed. Al moved his helmet to look down to his brother. Given Ed's normal exuberant personality, one expected him to be sprawled out in sleep, taking up as much space as he did when flaying around while awake. But instead, Al's little big brother was curled up next to him, his head resting on Al's steal lap, pillowed by his dark red trench coat. His arms were curled up by his chest, and his knees were in front of his arms, slightly off the seat. Ed's feet were the only piece of him sticking out into the open space between the rows of seats.
Al couldn't help but smile inwardly, since he couldn't show it outwardly. For all of Ed's complaints about being so short, his small size had the benefit of letting him curl up against his big little brother. Al couldn't escape the irony. Ed was the oldest, but always assumed to be the youngest, both due to size and demeanor. Ed positively hated being so short, yet his small stature was invaluable, even if he didn't see it. People underestimated him for being so small, and thought him to be younger. Thus, it was always more of a surprise to see what Ed could do. That surprise had saved their lives over the past year since Ed had become a State Alchemist.
Ed mumbled something in his sleep, snuggling further into his pillow and Al's steel lap. Al sighed. He could not see how his brother could so instinctively cuddle up to him when he slept. Al was cold, hard, unmoving steel. Even as a child, Ed always preferred the softest of pillows, so Al just could not see why Ed always curled up with him.
Still, Ed was adorable when he slept, not that Al would ever admit it. Reaching a gloved gauntlet down, he gently stroked his fingers through his big brother's golden hair. He couldn't even remember how Ed's hair felt. Ed nuzzled into Al's large hand before falling back to his trench coat.
"Excuse me, sir."
Al looked up to see the conductor, who was speaking in a quiet voice in consideration of the sleeping boy.
"Yes?" Al replied just as quietly. The conductor's eyes widened briefly and Al sighed. His voice was still that of a child. It did not match the armor he currently wore, and whenever he spoke for the first time in front of someone, it always proved to be a shock.
"We just got word," the conductor continued, an apologetic smile on his face. "There's a tree covering the tracks past the next town. We're going to have to wait for it to be cleared."
"I understand," Al replied. "If you want, my brother and I are alchemists. When we get to the tree, we might be able to make things go a little faster." Al smiled to himself. Ed never failed to help whatever person he came across. It was a trait that could often lead them into trouble, but Al admired it in his brother. There was no doubt in his mind that Ed had inherited it from their mother, but Al didn't always feel that he was that kind.
"It would be greatly appreciated, sir," the conductor smiled, his voice still quiet. "I'll let you know when we're there. Will your brother be up by then?"
Al looked down. Ed had exhausted himself in the last town they were in. Plus, though the conductor couldn't see it under Ed's black jacket, his arm was bound to his chest to prevent motion. Running a hand affectionately through Ed's hair once more, Al replied, "I don't think we'll need to wake him. I'll take care of it."
"Very well, sir."
Another reason to return to East City. As much as they were going to be spending easily two months in the libraries again, Ed needed rest. The last town had an alchemist who was based on swords, spears, arrowheads, and other sharp and pointy objects. Ed's one good arm had taken two iron arrows right at the shoulder joint as well as a deep sword gash on the forearm. The wounds weren't life threatening, but it left Ed's quick alchemy useless until he could clap his metal hand against his unmovable flesh one. Al had been the one who had ultimately defeated the alchemist.
That metal arm. Al knew why that arm was made of automail. Initially, when trying to bring their mother back from the dead, Al remembered being pulled into something, stretching and compressing all at the same time, reaching out to Ed, who had crimson blood pouring out of a severed leg, each drop, each puddle, each stream glistening in the light. Though Ed had to have been in extreme pain, he had desperately reached out to his little brother.
The price for trying to revive the dead had been Ed's leg. While Al wasn't happy about it, not in the slightest, neither of them knew what they were getting into on that horrible night.
But Ed's arm...
That was a different price. It wasn't a time that Ed talked about. He claimed he couldn't remember much about that night, but Al knew that haunted him. And the haunting itself suggested that Ed remembered everything that happened that night. In probably more vivid detail than Al did.
Ed had lost his leg in ignorance, not knowing what was going to happen when they tried to revive their dead mother. Ed had chosen to lose his arm so that Al would survive. Al remembered waking up, his brother in a pool of blood. His confusion drowned out by worry for his only family left. He didn't notice the difference in the scale of his perspective, how tiny Ed looked, Al had just rushed to his brother's side before Ed passed out from the pain or blood loss Al wasn't sure. Al's response was immediate. Go to the Rockbell's. It was on his way there that he had noticed the clunking of his movements, and the height he saw when he ran. He knew he was different, but Ed had been his first priority.
That night was horrendous. Al hated to relive it.
Ever since then, he had been extremely aware of his brother's limbs, especially when they sparred. The echo of metal on metal was very different than flesh, and there was no denying that Ed favored using his automail over his normal limbs when it came to fights.
It was an echo he got to know very well whenever his older brother clapped his hands. Though his hand wasn't hollow like Al was, there was a distinct sound when metal and flesh met at high speeds. Sometimes it was a comforting sound, a sound that meant Ed was coming and his usual brilliance and ingenuity would save the day. But most times, it was a reminder for Al on what was sacrificed to save his life on that bloody, terrifying night.
Al was grateful that he was alive. He was happy that he could stay with his brother. He was ecstatic that he had the chance to help restore his brother to normal. But Al couldn't help but wonder about the cost of being there. The arm was just the beginning. The pain of getting the automail installed, the inability to fight off Barry the Chopper, the accusations that he got automail for power like a dog of the military would. The list went on and on. That arm made Al's brother suffer, and Al felt it each time.
Ed grumbled something in his sleep, grimacing. Looking down, he saw that Ed's face was twisted in some sort of pain. His body was trembling, another reminder that Al couldn't feel anything, he had to actually see it, and fine beads of sweat were starting to appear on Ed's forehead. Al mused that it was almost like Ed knew that his brother's mind was in a dark place.
He ran his armored hand through Ed's hair again, but Ed continued to grumble and look distressed. Al glanced around their train car. Their fellow passengers had gotten used to his tall bulk and were either reading, looking out the window, or talking with their travelmates. Nobody was paying attention to his giant metal form. Leaning down, Al softly sang a lullaby their mother had sung to them after nightmares. He knew he was messing up the words; that his memory of the lullaby was dim and imperfect, but the melody was there, even if the lyrics weren't.
He remembered their mother singing the song after he had woken up from a bad nightmare involving being buried alive in corn. Looking back the dream was ridiculous, but he had been petrified. Ed hadn't been able to calm him down and their mother came in, sleep tousled and rubbing her eyes, but she talked with them for a long time before she sang this lullaby to get them both back to sleep.
Gradually, Ed calmed, somehow snuggling deeper into Al's lap. Al inwardly smiled, wishing it could somehow show on his helmet, before looking out to the quilt and headboard landscape again. It had darkened, the sun gradually sinking to the distant horizon. The landscape was no longer a quilt of farms, but playground of buildings. They were going through the town the conductor had mentioned before. It would probably be night before they reached the blockage.
There was a mumble of something from Ed before a deep breath of going back into a deeper sleep. Al wondered what the nightmare had been about. He might want to ask his brother in the morning, but, knowing Ed, he'd claim he didn't remember and move on to other topics. It was just what Ed did and Al was only just beginning to understand.
There was no question; they both bore the burden of trying to bring their dead mother back to life. That didn't change. But there were times where Al was certain that Ed was trying to shoulder the bulk of the burden on his small frame. Last year, when taking the exam to become a State Alchemist, they had both wanted to keep their traumatic past secret. It was personal, it was between them. The military didn't need to know about it. But when the interview section of the exam came up, Al had been petrified that he'd be carted off to become an experiment for another alchemist. He was not going to leave Ed, but if Ed became a State Alchemist, they may not be able to stay together.
But he had convinced Al that he could be a dog of the military and keep him by his side. They had both gone to Central prepared to leave childhood behind and bear the burden of being kept on a leash. But instead, Ed took it all on his own. It was a habit that Al was only just beginning to see in his brother. Even looking back on their childhood, there were instances where Ed would take all the blame. Their mother knew better, but that didn't stop Ed from trying. Not that he would leave Al unscathed if he'd done something wrong. If anything, Ed's punishments could be worse than their mother's, but there was no denying that Ed would be punished as well.
Al wasn't sure how he felt about that. He was happy and proud and humbled that his brother loved him so much; he'd do anything to keep him safe. But since Ed had taken on the collar of a dog of the military, Al had seen exactly what that "anything" meant. That he was not always happy about. He varied between feeling left out, angry, frustrated and a whole host of other things. Ed was willing to suffer, but Al didn't want his only brother to suffer. Al wanted Ed to be happy, and Ed was always happiest when he was with Al. So he couldn't understand why his big brother chose to leave him out of things.
Oh, he understood that Ed wanted him safe, but that couldn't be all of it, could it? Didn't Ed know that watching him suffer only made Al feel sad and useless? If he really knew how he made Al feel, then why did he keep choosing to do it? There had to be something else behind it, but Al just couldn't see it yet. He was still a child after all. They both were, even if Ed was a dog on a leash.
For all of Ed's refusal to be treated like a child any more, they both had as much fun as they could. Al internally smiled once more. Before their battle in the previous town they were in, before Ed had been injured and Al had to take down the alchemist, they were involved in a deadly battle of their own. A pillow fight. It seemed so trivial, flinging pillows at each other, laughing as Ed got hit right in the face, yelping when the curtains were transmuted to hold him down so his big brother could pound his helmet with a pillow, announcing victory when he had pinned Ed down himself and buried him in pillows; but Al felt more happiness in that moment than they'd had in a long time. There were, without a doubt, times they needed to be children. Besides, Ed had lost that skirmish and would no doubt want a rematch. Ed was very competitive, after all.
Al reached down and carefully fluffed Ed's trench-coat-turned-pillow as best he could. Ed didn't seem to respond, other than to snuggle closer yet again. Al seriously wondered how his brother could keep cuddling up to him. There was barely room for him to even sleep on the seat with him, so how could he keep getting closer? Not that Al minded. He'd said it before. He was happy he could stay by his brother's side. But he was starting to get worried that Ed was going to wake up stiff and sore. Maybe he should move him to the seat across from them, so that Ed had more room.
Al looked up. It was the conductor again. "Are we near the blockage?" Al quietly asked.
"Yes, we're starting to slow down now."
Al looked down to Ed, who was still burrowing into his side. "I'll be there in a minute."
The conductor offered a soft smile, nodding.
Extricating himself proved to be a challenge without waking his older brother, but Al managed to stand up and gently set Ed down on the seat. He tried to move quietly, but his bulky armor still clamored and clinked with every motion. As he walked to the head of the car where the conductor was waiting, he noticed that the woman who sat across from them was smiling gently. Al would have blushed, had he been able, and he was grateful that his embarrassment couldn't show so readily. This armor did have some benefits, after all. There was no questioning that Al and Ed were close. However, other people seeing such a display of closeness often felt like someone was peeking at them. It was embarrassing. What he and Ed had was private.
"Is your brother all right?" the conductor asked as they passed through the next car. "He's been sleeping for the whole journey."
"He's fine," Al replied. Nobody really needed to know about their battle in the last town. "He's just exhausted. Travel does that."
The conductor nodded. "Especially by train. You can get mesmerized, watching the countryside go by. And the rocking of the train can remind some people of when their mothers rocked them to sleep."
Al didn't say anything.
They reached to front of the train, where the engineers were shoveling coal into the furnace, but at a very slow pace. Al could see the change in speed, even though the night air kept their surroundings in a black blanket.
"About ten miles from here is the tree, sir," the conductor stated, squinting out into the night. "The wires say that it's been down all day, but that they still haven't been able to clear it."
Al nodded as they continued to slow down. He peered out into the darkness, the light of the train, piercing the night. The brakes of the train reached a higher and higher pitch until it finally came to a surprisingly gentle stop. Al hoped it didn't wake Ed. If his brother was ever roused from sleep suddenly, he could be quite the terror.
"It should be another mile, sir," the conductor said, hopping off the train. Another crew member jumped down and reached up for a lantern. Al hopped of himself, and the three of them started to follow the tracks. "So where are you and your brother headed?"
"East City," Al replied. "We need to research a few things there."
"Research?" the conductor asked, a chuckle in his voice. "Shouldn't you be having fun?"
To this Al offered his own chuckle. "Research into what you enjoy is fun."
The other crewman scoffed. "Alchemists..."
Al mentally winced. It was true that alchemists tended to be extremely eccentric, but that was a little callous.
The conductor, ever amiable, kept making light conversation. Al kept the light tone, and the other crew member remained quiet, for which Al was grateful. If the crewman had made any more comments about Alchemists, there was bound to be an argument, and that was the last thing Al wanted to deal with. Walking down the train tracks, Al tried to keep his awareness open. He doubted there was any danger, but trouble always popped up in the most unexpected places. Ahead, they started to hear chopping, orders barked out, and the creak of tree limbs.
"Finally," the crewman mumbled, his voice dripping tiredness. They rounded the bend and saw the blockage. Al looked up and up. It was no wonder the tree that had fallen was still blocking the tracks. It was massive. The tree must have been hundreds of years old, with a trunk almost as thick as a house. Branches littered the area, some from the axes of those trying to chop the tree up, many from the collapse. The conductor let out a long whistle.
"What made that tree come down?"
Al looked around, borrowing the conductors light, and inspected the surrounding trees.
"It looks like the trees here have been hit with some sort of disease."
"Good eyes," a new voice said. It belonged to a tall dark man, looking tired and sweaty. "Last big storm we had came from the east instead of the west. Blew something in, all our trees are dying." He stuck out a hand. "Name's Jack. I'm told you'll take care of this real fast?" Al shook the man's hand.
"I'm an alchemist, so I should be able to deal with this in a few minutes."
The man gave Al a thorough once over. "I don't see that watch. Hope the military doesn't snatch you up."
Al couldn't offer a reassuring smile, so he tried to smile in his voice instead, "The military won't get their hooks into me," just my brother. And I was willing to be hooked as well. He flashed his light over the length of the tree. "This must have been beautiful in full bloom."
"Don't know about that," Jack replied. "Folks don't usually come out here much."
Al couldn't think of anything to say to that so he walked up to the tree. "You might want to get your men back."
As men climbed out of the fallen tree, Al drew a simple circle on the ground. People tended to assume that the bigger a job, the more complex a circle. The size of a job had nothing to do with it, it was about the complexity. What Al had in mind was simple, so a simple circle would do. Once the tree was cleared, Al focused on what he wanted and put his hand to the circle. A bright light flashed and the sound of timber ripping echoed over the tracks.
Al stepped back, feeling moderately proud of himself. The tree was now lumber in many, many manageable stacks, on either side of the train tracks. He would have preferred to restore the tree to its previous glory, but he already knew what the cost of that would be. He wished Ed could see this. His brother never failed to shower Al with praise when he did something right. Plus, the wood would now be a good source of income for the townsfolk, and the train would make it to East City on time. An equivalent exchange.
That was something else that Ed had passed on to Al. Equivalent Exchange was something that they lived by. It was their way of life, their approach to every problem. An Equivalent Exchange was necessary in anything done. You needed ink and paper to write, you needed money to buy, you needed materials to create. It was all an Equivalent Exchange.
"Thank you, sir," the conductor smiled brightly. "We'll be able to make better time now."
"That saves us work, let me tell you," Jack agreed.
Al smiled, though no one could see it. "Shall we be heading back?"
The walk back to the train was filled with questions and explanations. The conductor was impressed and was asking all sorts of questions that Al answered as best he could. The other crewman said nothing, merely lighted the way.
He was back on the train and heading back to his car when it jerked, staring down the tracks again. Al felt a smidgen of pride once more swell in his empty shell. He was still smiling to himself when he got entered his car. When the door shut behind him, he was surprised to see his brother sitting up, hair askew, rubbing his eyes with his automail hand.
"Aaaaaaallll," he drawled sleepily. "Wh'r'd ya go?"
Al took his seat once more. "I was helping the engineers clear the track," he replied. "You should still be sleeping."
Ed rubbed his eyes some more. "C'ldn't sleep w'thout you..." he mumbled, once more putting his trench coat onto Al's lap and readjusting himself to get comfortable. "D'n't wan' ya t'leave me 'lone." He burrowed into Al's side once more.
"Nii-san, you'll get stiff like that."
"D'n't care," Ed mumbled sleepily. "Warm." Al doubted that he was warm, he could see people's breath outside and it had been a long walk to and from the train, but Ed was already drifting back into slumber. He couldn't ask about what he said now.
The pride Al had felt in his hollow armor warmed as he looked down to his sleeping brother. It was late, and Al would admit that he was tired as well. Stretching his legs out to the seat across from him, he brushed some hair out of Ed's face before settling down for the rest of the train ride.