So this was originally supposed to be a songfic, but as I started writing it...and writing it, and writing it, and writing it (needless to say it turned out a good bit longer than I thought it would...), it sort of changed a bit, and by the time I was done it didn't really fit the song anymore. So I decided, what they hey, I'll just leave it as is. It turned out able to stand alone anyway so it wasn't really a big deal.
One important thing: this follows the manga storyline, NOT the anime. It also takes place about two years in the future (like from where it's at now, just add like two years). What happened in between isn't hugely important, but a lot of it's sort of mentioned in passing in here, so I'll just let you read and sort of guess things for yourself, kay? It's more fun to let the imagination handle things like that, anyway, right?
"Thanks for the ride."
The addressed man driving the wagon smiled warmly in reply, the horse leading him braying in a friendly manner. "Anything for the ones responsible for ending that blasted war. I only wish there were more I could do to thank you!"
"N-No, no," I replied hastily, struggling against the weight of the multitude of fresh vegetables in my arms which had already served as as much thanks as we would need for quite some time, especially considering the somewhat larger portions each of my two companions were attempting to balance while extracting themselves from the wagon. "Really, we couldn't ask for anything else."
"Nonsense!" the old man protested, jumping down from his seat. "Here, take my horse!" he held the reins out to us to take, though how he expected us to do that I couldn't say. "He's a bit old, but he's got spirit. I don't really need him much, anyway." The horse turned and snorted at the man, as if showing its discontent with the idea altogether. The man ignored it.
"But how will you get home?" one of my partners asked in bewilderment, her eyes carefully eyeing a teetering bundle of carrots perched precariously on the top of her pile.
The man only smiled again. "Oh, I'll just walk. An old man like me could use the exercise!" Why does he have to sound so enthusiastic all the time? I thought in wonder. If you ask me, this guy's a few cards short of a deck… Maybe we should've just walked from the train station…
"Now what kind of people would we be to accept something like that?" my other companion said, a note of forced kindness in his voice. I could tell he was starting to get annoyed. "Look, you've already given us enough. We appreciate the help, but we'll be fine on our own from here. Go on, your family's probably waiting for you, right? What would they say if they found out you gave away not only almost an entire season's crops, but also your best horse?"
The man looked thoughtful for a moment. "I suppose you're right…" Then, as soon as his smile had vanished, it was back again, and wider than ever. He let go of the horse's reigns and stepped toward my companion, hastily grabbing his hand and shaking it vigorously. This, of course, caused the great bundle of vegetables he had been holding to fall immediately from his arms, many of which landed on his feet, causing him to grit his teeth angrily to keep from shouting at the man still tightly clutching his hand. "Thank you, Mr. Elric! Thank you, thank you!" He then turned to face the two of us, ignoring the glare he was currently receiving from my brother, whose left eye was starting to twitch in agitation. "Thank you all! I feel honored to have been able to assist our country's fine young heroes!"
"Heh… No, we should be thanking you," I said with a somewhat nervous laugh. If this man didn't let go of my brother soon, well… I couldn't be responsible for whatever may happen.
Fortunately, the man seemed finally content that he had thoroughly shaken my brother's hand with as much intensity as was necessary. Picking up the horse's reigns once again, he climbed adeptly back to his perch atop the front of the wagon, turning to face us one final time.
"Just remember," he began, lifting a finger for emphasis. "If you ever need anything in the future, I mean anything at all, don't hesitate to—"
"Don't worry," our friend cut him off, her voice sounding urgent with attempted calm and gentleness. "We know where to find you!"
The man nodded resolutely. "That you do." He turned to my brother again, who was now grudgingly gathering the fallen vegetables, muttering angrily under his breath. "Mr. Elric, sir," he said in a would-be official tone, saluting him (with the wrong hand) and sitting up straight, clearly trying to appear impressive. My brother looked up momentarily, mumbled something that sounded like 'Yeah, yeah,' and continued piling the crops in his arms. With that final farewell, the old man drove off at last, but not before his wagon caused a great cloud of dust to rise behind him, consuming all of us within its choking fumes.
"What a…nice man…"
"Winry, you're too soft," came my brother's reply through the dust, between coughs. "We should've just thrown these damn vegetables back on his stupid cart and told him to get the hell out of our way. All that trip did was slow us down. What a waste of time…"
"Honestly, Edward, I don't know why people like him look up to you," Winry retorted with an exasperated sigh. "Let's just take all this stuff into town. Maybe we can give it to the grocer or something."
"That's a good idea," I spoke up as we started slowly making our way (or trying as best we could; it was difficult to see when carrying twice our weight in crops) towards the town. "I've been wanting to see everyone in the village again anyway. Might as well bring them some gifts, right?"
"Whatever," Edward grunted. "Long as I don't have to eat the stuff."
I rolled my eyes. It's times like this that make feel like I'M the older brother…
When we reached the edge of town, it didn't take long for someone to recognize us and make a fuss. Not that we weren't expecting it, of course.
"Look! Who's that?"
"Is that the Elric Brothers?"
"Yeah! And Winry Rockbell! I haven't seen them in ages!"
"Heard you found work in the big city, Winry! Good for you!"
"What happened to that armor you used to wear, Alphonse? Get tired of carrying it around?"
"Is that Edward? Wow, you got tall! You never used to be able to reach over that counter there!"
I heard my brother growl threateningly at that comment, but thankfully the overwhelming den of voices drowned out whatever retort he had planned to throw back. I chuckled to myself as he fumed silently under his stack of crops.
"What's with all the vegetables?" someone asked suddenly, and others began to voice similar agreements.
"We, uh… brought them for all of you!" Winry spoke up quickly, giggling awkwardly as some town-dwellers looked at the large pile of offerings. "So if you could maybe show us a place to set them down…? Our arms are awfully tired…"
"Of course, of course!" a man from the crowd boomed above the rest. "Just follow me. I'll get'cha a spot." We recognized him as Todd Flank, a man who worked at the grocery in town.
"Finally…" Edward grumbled as people began to move out of the way.
I sped up to walk next to him. "Calm down, Brother," I whispered so all the others couldn't hear. "These people are just excited. And so was that old man earlier. We've been away for almost two and a half years. They probably just wanna know what we've been up to."
Edward sighed, shaking his head. "Yeah, I know, Al," he responded quietly. "I just wish they'd do it a little more… slowly." I chuckled in reply, as he smiled back at me.
"Hey, where are you two going?" Winry called from a few steps behind us. We turned to face her. She was standing with Mr. Flank, who had been leading us to a place we could store the food. Edward and I looked at each other, before grinning and heading toward where they stood.
The man led us back behind a small building and told us to drop the vegetables in a great crate which sat against the back wall. We all hurried to pile the food in the crate (which went from empty to full in a matter of seconds), sighing in relief as soon as we were free.
"Oh, my arms are killing me…" Winry complained as she dropped into a sitting position, leaning heavily against the wall beside the crate.
"So where's Mrs. Trevy?" I asked Mr. Flank, as Winry began to rub her upper arms, whimpering helplessly.
The man looked puzzled for a moment. "You mean the old grocer? Dunno, actually. She retired almost two years ago, left town, haven't seen her since." My eyebrows creased in confusion. I looked at my brother, who wore a similar expression. "I run the grocery now."
"Oh…" I responded in a bewildered tone, feeling odd inside. Mrs. Trevy's gone? But… She's always been the grocer here…
"Anyway, c'mon," Mr. Flank said cheerily. "Everyone's prob'ly dyin' to ask you guys loads o' questions 'bout the real world and all. Can't keep 'em waitin' for too long, eh?" He jogged back up the alley and out of sight, leaving us to gather our thoughts.
"So Mrs. Trevy's gone…" Winry said slowly. "It's funny… It feels strange to come back here and not see her. She loved working here… Why would she have left?"
"Come on," Edward replied with a wry smile, his eyes showing a tiny hint of melancholy. "You didn't expect everything to be exactly the same as we left it, did you? You said so yourself, Al. It's been years since we've seen this place. Things were bound to have changed somehow. It's not like everything's just gonna get frozen in time until we come back, right? You guys know better than that." He didn't look at us, but rather spoke facing the wall. I could tell he felt the same sense of surprise and distance that we did.
"You're right, Brother," I said with a smile.
He turned to look at me, a grin on his face. "Of course I am," he replied. He held his hand out to Winry, who looked at him for a second, then smiled as well. She took his hand and allowed him to pull her up from the ground. Before she let go, I noticed him squeeze her hand slightly and give her a small smile, which she returned, her eyes brightening.
"Well let's go!" she said excitedly. "Like Mr. Flank said, everyone's waiting for us. Come on!" she grabbed Edward's hand again, pulling him toward the exit back to the street. My brother looked at me and shrugged, allowing himself to be led back to the waiting crowd. I grinned, before following them towards the bright front road.
For the next hour or so we took our time walking around town and saying hello to everyone we knew, and many people we didn't. We soon found out that not only Mrs. Trevy had left town, but also Mr. Yandura, the butcher; Ms. Kramer, the seamstress; and Mr. and Mrs. Stole, who had owned the furniture store. A few others had retired from work but still lived in the village. It was a strange feeling to walk through the streets we had grown up on—streets that, as we traversed them, would constantly bring back countless memories of times we used to play together as kids—but to slowly realize that they were hardly the same streets at all. It made us feel as though we had been gone for an eternity. Although, to be fair, we had been gone for a pretty long time. It was just beginning to feel like a lot longer. And the biggest shock, I soon found out, was still yet to come.
"And this is the new animal shelter," Mr. Flank, who had become our self-appointed tour guide through the city, said proudly as he came to a halt beside a building that had obviously been erected recently. "Just went into business a few months ago. My wife's the owner. Selina!" he thundered, entering the building. "The Elrics are back! Come out and say hi!" I shook my head with an amused smile as Edward sighed and Winry giggled. After a moment, Mr. Flank returned, followed closely by a short woman with light brown hair and a soft, kind face. She smiled widely upon seeing us all waiting outside.
"Edward! Alphonse! Winry!" she said each of our names and hugged us tightly. "It's so good to see you again!"
"It's good to see you, too, Mrs. Flank," I replied, grinning back at her.
"You all look great! You've grown since I've last seen you."
Mr. Flank chuckled, putting an arm around his wife. "Gee, Al, you're about as tall as your brother now." He ruffled my hair in a fatherly manner, and I laughed and pushed his hand away. He looked at Edward, whose jaw had hardened at the topic of discussion. The grocer, however, didn't seem to notice. He put a hand on Edward's head, stooping down to look him in the face. "Even you grew a couple'a inches, Ed. Boy, the last time I saw you, you barely came up to my elbow! Still got a bit o' growin' to do though, looks like. Bit short for an eighteen-year-old, eh, Selina?" Uh-oh… I thought, bracing myself for the outburst that was sure to come. He said the word…
"WHO ARE YOU CALLIN' A PINT-SIZED RUNT SO SMALL HE CAN STAND ON THE TIP OF A PENCIL?!? I'M NOT SHORT, I SLOUCH, YOU MOUNTAIN-HIGH, OVERGROWN, SMALL-TOWN VEGETABLE FARMER!!!"
"Whoa, there," the grocer chuckled, raising his arms and taking a step back as Winry grabbed Edward's shoulders and attempted to calm him down. "Still sensitive about that, looks like. Heh heh… Well I guess I can't blame ya…" He's really asking for it… I marveled, shaking my head.
As my brother took a breath, looking ready to go off on another rant, two small boys ran out from inside the shelter, apparently reacting to the noise. Luckily, this was enough to distract Edward, who closed his mouth and looked at them instead.
"Ah, boys!" Mr. Flank exclaimed as they looked around with puzzled expressions. "Look who's back! It's the Elric Brothers, and Miss Winry too!" Finally their gazes came to rest on the three of us, and their eyes widened with delight. "You guys remember my sons, Greg and Ben, right?"
"Sure do," Edward replied as Winry and I nodded in agreement. We had only met the Flanks' children a few times before, and not since they were very young. It had to have been at least five or six years since then, judging by how much older they looked now.
"Greg's eleven now," the grocer said proudly, patting his older son on the head, who looked at him in minor annoyance, a glare in his hazel eyes. "And Ben here is nine. They sure are growin' up fast, the little rascals." He chuckled again, squeezing the younger boy's shoulder. He only smiled at his father, giggling happily. I looked at Edward, a small smile on my face. He caught my eye, wearing the same nostalgic expression. Clearly he had been thinking the same thing I was, that these boys had reminded us of how we used to be. Before alchemy changed our lives… I thought almost bitterly.
"You're…" the older boy, Greg, began, looking at my brother in awe, "Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist, right?" he stared up at Edward, his eyes wide. Ben let out a small gasp.
My brother grinned, his anger at the previous conversation now completely faded. "That's me," he answered haughtily, placing his hands on his hips impressively. I rolled my eyes, catching Winry's eye momentarily. Her expression seemed to mirror mine.
"I knew you'd come back someday," Greg said proudly, looking to his little brother as if to say, 'I told you so!' Ben stuck his tongue out at his sibling and turned to face Edward again. "And look, I'm just like you now!" My brother gave him a puzzled look as he proceeded to roll up his left sleeve, showing what was now obviously a shining, metallic arm. "But not just that one," Greg went on, turning then to pull up right pant leg, proudly showing off yet another automail limb. My eyes widened in surprise, as did those of Winry and Edward. "See?" the young boy said happily. "We're the same, right?"
After a moment's hesitation, my brother smiled. "Yep, we sure are," he replied kindly. He removed his white glove from his right hand and rolled his sleeve up just as the boy had, moving his mechanical arm to allow the shining silver to glisten in the sun. "Like lookin' in a mirror."
Grinning even more widely, and apparently having been amused by the 'mirror' comment, Greg began to attempt to match my brother's movements, as if he really was a miniature looking glass. Edward laughed at the child's actions, as did his parents. Winry smiled, watching my brother with a look of fondness in her eyes. She must have enjoyed seeing him happy, playing and laughing with children. We haven't really been able to just laugh like this in a while… I thought, the trials of the past few years still fresh in my memory. It feels good to just relax like this.
"Why don't you boys run along and play with your magic stuff inside?" Mr. Flank said to his children. "Give these three some time to finish checkin' out the town."
Greg glared at his father. "Alchemy, Dad. Not magic! It's science!" he retorted, making the grocer shrug. Ben nodded in agreement.
"You guys practice alchemy?" I asked in surprise. It wasn't often we met children who could do alchemy. Well, not since us anyway.
They both turned to look at me with bright eyes. "Yep!" Greg answered enthusiastically. "We can still only do really small stuff… Nothing special. But someday we're gonna be great alchemists, known around the world!"
"Yeah!" Ben piped up, nodding his head vigorously. "We wanna be just like you guys!"
My smile faltered somewhat, and Edward looked at them with mild interest. "Just like us, huh…" he repeated in a far-off tone. I could tell he was thinking the same thing I was, as usual. There's nothing great about what we did… What we are. But how could we expect these two young children to understand that, when it took us years to fully realize the length of our mistakes? "Well, good for you," my brother said suddenly. I looked at him, a puzzled expression on my face. He had a serious look in his eyes as he glanced down at the young brothers, who looked back at him, waiting for him to go on. "Just let me give you one bit of advice first."
"Yeah!" Greg answered, his eyes widening. His mother nudged him in the back. "…Please," he added quickly.
Edward smiled at the exchange, before kneeling down in front of them and putting a hand on one of each of their shoulders. "Always stick together," he told them. "Never, and I mean never, let anything or anyone come between you guys. Having a brother you can trust and confide in is like having your own guardian angel. There's always someone there to talk to, to help you out, to protect you, or even to give you a good whack in the head when you need it." I chuckled at the remark, remembering more than a few times when I had been forced to use my armored fists as persuasion during some of my brother's more stubborn moments. "Take it from me: Al and I only made it this far 'cause we looked out for each other." Brother… I felt a wave of emotion welling up inside of me at my brother's words. I walked over to where he was still knelt on the ground and stood behind him, placing my hands on his shoulders. He looked up at me and smiled. I glanced at the two boys in front of us.
"Ed's right. We're the people we are today because through everything, we stuck together. Sure, there were times I wanted to throw him off a cliff for being so stubborn and selfish…"
"Thanks a lot, Al."
I laughed and squeezed his left shoulder. He elbowed me in the thigh in reply. "But I never did. 'Cause I knew there'd come a time again when I'd need him. And whenever I did, he was there."
"Because that's what brothers do, right, Al?"
"Right." The two boys looked at each other, both beaming with delight. It was obvious they were ecstatic we were comparing ourselves with them, and seeing their faces only made us smile wider.
Edward stood, rolling his sleeve back down (though instead of replacing his right glove he removed the left one as well and placed them both in his pocket). "Well, don't you guys have practicing to do?"
They both nodded excitedly, looking at each other before turning back to my brother and me. "We sure do! Thanks, Mr. Elric! And…Mr. Elric!"
Edward shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck with his automail hand. "Aw, don't call us that. We're still kids, just like you, right? Why don't you call us by name?"
Their eyes widened, understanding that we wanted them to think of us as friends. "Right!" Greg said as they headed back for the house at full speed, waving to us enthusiastically. "'Bye Ed! 'Bye Al!"
"See you later!" Edward shouted back. "Good luck!"
"I'd better get back to work," Mrs. Flank said to her husband. She turned to my brother and me. "Thank you both so much. Those two really do look up to you. It's so nice to see them believe in something like that."
"It's no problem," my brother replied. "If there's one thing all this has taught me, it's that nothing's more important than the bond between brothers. And the more I can spread that feeling, the better." I nodded in agreement. It feels good to help people feel the way we do, to make them understand just how important your family is.
Mrs. Flank smiled, silently thanking us once more, before turning and disappearing back inside the shelter.
"Huh? What's the matter, Winry?" my brother said all of a sudden. Startled, I turned to look at Winry. She was standing stock-still, a hand over her mouth, water brimming at the edges of her eyes, staring straight ahead. She looked on the verge of tears.
"Oh… Edward!" she cried, before bursting forward and throwing her arms around his neck, burying her head in his shoulder. Edward's eyes widened in surprise, and I could've sworn I saw a hint of color rise in his cheeks. "That was the most beautiful speech I've ever heard!" Winry said between sobs, her voice muffled by my brother's coat (which was becoming increasingly damp from her tears). She pulled her head up to look into his eyes. "Did you really mean all that?"
Edward chuckled nervously. "Of course I meant it," he replied. "Why would I have said it if I didn't?" With another sob, Winry lowered her head once again to rest on his shoulder. This time, however, he relaxed somewhat and wrapped his arms loosely around her waist. "Heh heh… How come whatever I do, I always manage to make you cry?"
I watched them silently, a small smile on my face. Even if so much isn't the same here anymore, some things never change.
Mr. Flank took a step to his right and leaned in close to me. He whispered in my ear, "Are those two…?"
I shook my head. "Not really. At least, not officially." The grocer nodded in comprehension, straightening himself again.
"So what happened with him?" Edward asked Mr. Flank once he and Winry had separated and Winry had begun to dry her tears. "Your son."
"Wasn't too long ago, actually," the man answered, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "While this building was bein' built. The boys were playin' around inside one night after the builders had gone home. I told 'em the place was off-limits, but they're kids, eh? What can ya do? Anyway, apparently the whole back foundation o' the place had been pretty unstable. Came down on top of 'em. Ben only broke an arm, had to wear a cast for a few months. But Greg, he got hurt pretty bad. Well, you saw what happened." The three of us exchanged sad looks, disbelieving that something like that could happen to two young kids. "The timing was lucky, though. We were able to get some of old Pinako's last few good bits o' automail for 'im. And at a good price, too."
"Whoa, wait-wait-wait," Winry interjected, waving her hands in front of her face. I had caught it too, and judging by the look on my brother's face, so had he. "What do you mean, 'last few good bits of automail'? What happened to everything else?"
The grocer looked sideways at us, as if we were speaking a language he didn't understand. "Everything else? She hasn't had much else for a while now. What, you haven't been up there to see her yet? I'd'a figured that'd be the first place you three'd go."
"We didn't get a chance," I explained, growing increasingly more worried as the conversation progressed. "We had to get rid of all those vegetables first. And then you started showing us around town, and we got caught up in everything going on here."
"Let's go, guys," Edward said suddenly, jogging past Mr. Flank and toward the road which led to Pinako's automail shop.
I followed him immediately, Winry right on my heels.
"Thanks for the tour, Mr. Flank!" Winry called back as we hurried to catch up with my brother. He waved, a confused expression plastered across his broad face.
When I got to the top of the hill, where we knew Pinako's house would come into sight, I noticed Edward standing there waiting for us. But as I got closer to him, I realized he hadn't in fact been waiting at all. He was staring in shock at something ahead of him. Coming to rest beside him and following his gaze, I instantly saw what it was that had him so entranced.
Pinako's house looked the same from the outside as it always had, except for one small detail. Beneath the sign to the right of the front door that read 'Rockbell Automail' were printed four new words, four words that we hadn't ever expected to see there. Especially not now.
Going Out of Business.
Not a second later, Winry caught up, stopping on Edward's other side and staring ahead as well. She let out a small gasp when she saw the sign, and immediately starting running full speed toward the house.
"Winry!" I called, taking a few steps forward. Out of business…? I thought in confusion. She can't be… When Edward didn't move, I turned around hastily to see his face. He was staring wide-eyed at the sight before him, his eyebrows creased in a deep frown and his mouth slightly open, as if he wanted to say something but couldn't find the right words. "Ed! Come on!" I said to him. But he still wouldn't budge. With an exasperated cry I turned away from him and followed Winry at a run back to the house, leaving my brother where he stood.
When I reached the front porch Winry had already fished a spare key out from the flower pot beside the door and was fitting it into the lock. She flung open the door and sprinted inside, with me following directly behind.
"Grandma!" she called frantically, standing in the entrance so her voice would carry through the whole house. "Grandma! Where are you?"
Just as I was beginning to think she may not have been home, a voice spoke up from behind the kitchen door. "Good grief, child, there's no need to shout. I'm old, I'm not deaf." Not a second later, the short, wrinkled form of Pinako emerged from the kitchen, still smoking the same pipe which I could almost swear never left her teeth.
"Grandma!" Winry said, a bit more calmly now, as she ran forward to hug her grandmother.
"I knew it was you the minute I heard the key in the lock. I never did tell anyone else about that hiding place." Winry smiled brightly, hugging the old woman again. When she noticed me still standing in the doorway, her eyes widened a bit, and her mouth opened in surprise. "Alphonse? Is that you?"
"In the flesh," I replied. "Heh, literally."
Winry stepped back and I went to hug Pinako as well. When I pulled back, she put her hand on the sides of my face, her warmth penetrating my skin. Smiling, she said, "It's great to have you back."
I grinned, knowing she didn't only mean back in town. "It's kind of nice to be back, you know?"
As I stepped away from her, Pinako's smile slowly began to fade as she looked the two of us over. Her eyes darted around the room, as if searching for something. A frown grew on her face as she looked at me, a serious gleam in her tired eyes. She looked almost…afraid? She slowly opened her mouth to speak, her voice soft. "Where's—"
"So what's this about you closin' up shop?"
All three of us jumped at the sound of a fourth voice. Instinctively we all turned to the doorway, to see Edward standing there with his arms folded across his chest, leaning against the doorframe.
Rather than address his question, Pinako strode right up to him, pulled a rusted metal wrench from her white apron, and mercilessly smashed him on the head with it. I flinched as he cried out in pain, both hands flying to his head to clutch the rapidly-forming bump just above his left temple.
"WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT FOR?!?" Edward exclaimed as Pinako calmly stowed the wrench back in her apron pocket.
"For being selfish and making me worry like that," she answered, dusting her hands off. "Why didn't you show up with Winry and Alphonse? For a second there, I thought you were—" She cut off abruptly, breaking her eyes away from Edward's, which had widened almost apologetically as he realized what she was referring to. "Never mind. Now what were you saying when you came in?"
"Right…" my brother mumbled as he walked into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Winry stood behind it and made to inspect the spot where her grandmother had hit him, but he waved her off. So with a neglected huff she sat beside him instead. "What's with that sign out front?"
Pinako sighed, dropping herself into an armchair which was so comically large for her it made her look even smaller than usual. "It's just what it says. The shop's going out of business."
"But why?" I asked, taking a seat on the other oversized armchair. "I thought you loved being an automail mechanic."
"I do, Alphonse," she answered, a hint of sadness hidden in her voice. "Ever since I was a little girl. I could even use a screw driver before I could walk. But I've decided that it's finally time to close up shop." She paused and looked sideways out the window, admiring the countryside. "With the civil war over, the town's quieted down considerably. War is a terrible thing, but it was what kept my business going all these years. You understand, I'm sure. War brings injury, loss. And that was where my mechanic's business came in handy. But now, there's no more war. And with no war, there's no real need for automail."
"But… What about that kid Greg in town?" Edward protested, clearly not agreeing with Pinako's opinion. "What about what happened to him? He got hurt, right? So what about situations like that, people like him? People like…me?"
Pinako looked down at her hands clasped together in her lap, a frown on her face. "What happened with Greg was an accident. Things like that don't happen very often, especially in small towns like Risembool." She raised her head to look at Edward, who was watching her with wide eyes, almost pleading with her. "And let's face it, Ed. You were an even more special case."
Edward took a breath, looking about to reply, but he let it out in a sigh, lowering his head and leaning forward over the edge of the sofa. Winry moved in closer and put an arm around his shoulders, silent tears streaming down her cheeks. His golden hair fell in front of his face, shielding his eyes from view, but I felt as though I could still see them, staring back at Pinako in helpless sadness.
I understood why my brother was so affected by the news of Pinako's shop's closing. When we were kids, the Rockbells' had always been our home away from home. We would come here almost every day, sometimes spend the entire afternoon just playing out back. Then, when Mom died… This place really became our home.
But more than all of that, most of all, this was where our real journey began. I remember that night, the night that started it all. The night I lost my body and my brother lost his arm and leg. I remember coming here that night, carrying my brother in my arms, feeling lost, confused, and broken… I remember waiting up all night, how I couldn't sleep…that body couldn't… Feeling lonely, tired, afraid, not knowing whether or not Edward would survive.
This place held strong memories for both of us. It was where my brother first decided to become a State Alchemist, first asked Winry and Pinako to fit him with automail, first promised me that he would get my body back, no matter what. It was strange now, horrifying even, to think of all of that disappearing.
"So… What are you gonna do now?" I asked, trying to start the conversation back up. At least with people talking, the atmosphere didn't seem as down.
"I'll probably just retire and stay right here," Pinako answered, blowing a smoke ring into the air before her. "Maybe I'll continue to work as a part-time doctor, to help out in town. But my days as an automail mechanic are just about over." She looked at her granddaughter. "I'm sorry you had to find out like this, Winry," she said kindly. "And that we didn't get much chance to work more together before this happened. You were the best partner I ever had."
Winry's eyes welled up with a fresh bout of tears. "Thanks, Grandma," she said, smiling. "I was kind of looking forward to coming back and spending some time here, working with you again… But I guess…we can't…"
The old woman lowered her gaze momentarily, before raising it to look at the two on the sofa again. "Edward," she began. He raised his head to look her in the eyes, his despondency having faded somewhat. "I know this may be hard for you, for all of you, but change is something that you can't prevent. It happens to the best of us, whether we want it to or not." Edward looked thoughtful at those words, as he considered the point Pinako was trying to make. "You can't change the past, and you can't prevent the future. What's done is done forever, what's gone is gone for good. You should understand that better than anyone, right?" He looked at her, complete seriousness in his eyes. He understood what she was saying. And so did I. We got into this whole mess because we had tried to change the past. And we had paid a price for it. It wasn't something we wanted to go through again.
"I guess you're right," Edward said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry. It's just… With everything else that's changed around here, this was just more than I could take. But I understand. This is something you've decided. Who am I to tell you to change your mind?"
Pinako smiled. "That's very mature thinking, Edward," she said in a tone of mild surprise. "I'm impressed." Edward looked about to retort, when Pinako opened her mouth once more, and said, "And proud."
My brother stopped, closing his mouth and allowing it to spread into a small smile. I grinned at him from across the room, and he returned my smile with gentle eyes. Beside him, Winry was wiping her eyes and sniffling quietly. He turned to face her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Heh… C'mon, don't cry, Winry. Look, it's still light outside." He looked over at me. "What do you say we go do some more exploring out back? We're bound to find something that hasn't changed around here."
"Oh, no," Pinako cut us off before either of us could answer. "You're not going anywhere without eating a nice supper first. I was just about to start cooking dinner when you all showed up."
"Oh, let me!" Winry said suddenly, quickly standing up from the sofa and causing my brother to stumble backwards and almost lose his balance. "I haven't cooked a real meal in so long!"
The old woman smiled as her granddaughter bounced up and down on the carpet, her spirit having obviously returned. "Of course, child." Winry squealed with delight and skipped off into the kitchen, leaving my brother and me staring after her in bewilderment and Pinako shaking her head silently. "That girl… She's easy to please, but unfortunately hurts easy too." Then suddenly she shot a glare at my brother, who jumped in surprise. "You'd better remember that, Edward."
"Wh-Whaddaya mean by that?" he said nervously, rubbing the back of his neck in a jittery manner. Pinako sighed as I shook my head.
After a moment, Edward spoke again. "So how long do you think it'll be until dinner?"
"Probably about half an hour," Pinako answered. "Why?"
I had expected my brother to just shrug and say he was hungry, but instead he held up his right arm and said, "How 'bout a maintenance check?" He paused, looking down, then added, "For old times' sake."
The old woman eyed him with a questioning glance, her eyes darting first to his right arm, then to his left leg. "You still…" Edward grinned sheepishly. She looked at me, and I only shook my head. Then she smiled softly, before answering, "Of course. Anything for my best customer." We followed her into the back room which we had visited so many times before. "Take a seat."
Edward sat down on the table and set about removing his jacket and shirt as Pinako pulled out a set of tools. She handed my brother a sheet of paper, which he examined briefly. "What's this?" he asked.
"My new rates," the old woman answered simply.
I couldn't see what was written on the paper, but judging from what happened next I assumed the costs had gone up.
"WHAT?!? THESE PRICES ARE MORE THAN DOUBLE WHAT THEY USED TO BE!"
"I told you business hasn't been that great lately. I had to raise them."
"BUT DON'T I GET SOME KIND OF DISCOUNT OR SOMETHING?! YOU SAID I WAS YOUR BEST CUSTOMER!!"
"I said 'best', not 'favorite'."
"AARRGGHHH!! YOU OLD CHEAT! I BET THAT'S THE REAL REASON YOU HAD TO CLOSE THE SHOP! NO ONE COULD AFFORD THESE DAMN PRICES! THIS IS HIGHWAY ROBBERY!!!"
After eating dinner (which had turned out slightly burned, but otherwise edible), Winry, Edward, and I all headed outside to look around the yard we had once known so well.
"Hey, I know!" I said after we had been walking aimlessly for a few minutes. "Let's go down to the river, that one we used to play in during the summer." I've been looking forward to being able to feel the water again… Sure I had felt water plenty of times since getting my body back, but not this water. This water was different.
"Good idea, Al," my brother replied, leading the way.
We walked for a little while, all the while talking about how we used to spend our warm summer days cooling off near the running waters of the small river that had run down behind Winry's house. It was also Edward's and my favorite place to practice our alchemy.
"Okay, it should be right around…" Edward's voice faded as he vaulted over a particularly large rock to get to where the water used to be. "…Here…"
"What is it?" I asked, though I had a feeling I already knew. And sure enough, as Winry and I made our way around the rock, what we saw on the other side was not the cool, rushing stream we remembered from our childhood, but a dry, rocky trench carved through the earth where it should have been. The river had dried up.
"Oh, no…" Winry said quietly, stepping toward what was once the riverbank and crouching down to examine the ditch. "It's…gone."
"Tch, just like everything else," Edward finished bitterly, shoving his hands into his pockets and kicking a particularly large stone, which flew into the air and fell with a thud among the many others littering the dry riverbed.
"But how?" I asked in disbelief. "…Why?" The others didn't respond. I turned dejectedly and trudged a few steps up the grassy hill, plopping into a sitting position. Soon I heard my brother come and sit next to me, and Winry take a seat on his other side. None of us spoke for a while, each of us staying within our own thoughts.
"We don't belong here anymore," Edward said solemnly after a long silence. Winry and I looked at him. His knees were pulled up against his chest, and his arms were resting on top of them. His face was pointed downward, his eyes focusing on something we couldn't see, something only visible to him. He looked sad, distant. But also confused and even lost. It was a side of my brother I didn't see very often, a side that reminded me that he wasn't the adult he pretended to be. Inside, he was just a kid. And Winry and I may have been the only ones who ever saw it.
"What do you mean?" Winry asked.
Edward was silent for a moment, then replied in a strained voice, "This town, it's not the one we knew. The one we grew up in. …It's different. The people are different, the buildings are different, even Pinako's automail shop, the one thing I always thought would be there, is changing, disappearing. I feel like an outsider here, like I don't belong. Like I've been left behind…"
"I guess you're right…" Winry said sadly, turning her gaze toward the setting sun. "This place has changed. …I never thought it would happen like this, you know? When we came back… Sure, we were welcomed and everything. But I just thought maybe we could just…sort of…pick up where we left off, live normal lives. It'd be nice, wouldn't it?" Edward smiled, silently agreeing.
"I had really been looking forward to coming back after getting my real body back…" I began, taking it as my turn to speak. "To tasting the food, feeling the breeze, the grass, the water, just spending real time with the people I've always known, and not having to worry about them being afraid or intimidated by the way I look. But this… This hasn't felt like I thought it would."
For another minute or so we sat there in silence. It was Winry that spoke up first this time. "We can't stay here… Can we…" she whispered softly, tears forming in her eyes again. Finally Edward lifted his head to look at her. He didn't say anything at first, only took her hand in his and smiled when she turned toward him, searching for an answer.
"This isn't our home anymore," he said to both of us. He didn't sound angry, rather he sounded surprisingly calm, as if he understood this fact and accepted it, and he wanted us to accept it too. "We don't belong here."
"But… Where will we go?" I asked quietly. I was afraid of the answer, I wasn't sure I wanted to leave. But he was right, we couldn't stay.
"I don't know," Edward answered honestly. "We'll think of something. We always do."
Winry's gaze lowered again. She didn't cry, but her sorrow shone clear on her face. She leaned her head on my brother's right shoulder, moving as close to him as she could, maybe just seeking some kind of solace, of familiarity in this place that was now so strange, so foreign to us. He put his arm around her, letting her know it was okay, he was there, and he wasn't planning on changing like everything else we had thought we'd known.
I watched them out of the corner of my eye for a second, feeling a little left out, before instead choosing to stare at the grass in front of me. It may have been my imagination, but at that moment it almost seemed to me as though the verdant blades of grass had lost some of their vibrancy. They appeared a somewhat duller tint of emerald from what I thought I remembered. But like I said, it may have just been my imagination.
Suddenly I felt something touch my shoulder, and I looked over to see my brother's hand resting there. He gave me a sort of half smile, before pulling me toward him and wrapping his left arm around my neck. I leaned my head on his shoulder, just as Winry had, relaxing into his grip.
There, in my brother's arms, I realized, was the only haven I had left, the only place I knew would never change, no matter what happened to the outside world. Here, I was safe. Here, I wouldn't ever have to worry about being afraid, being lost, being confused. It just felt right, with Edward in the middle, holding tightly onto Winry and me. I knew he would protect us, he would never let us go, never let us get hurt. Because that was just the way he was. Sure he was stubborn, but he was stubborn where it mattered: He could never break a promise, and would protect someone with his last breath. Sure he was immature, but only where it counted: He refused to give in to an adult's way of sacrificing others to further one's own gains. Sure he was sort of loud and annoying, but he could use those qualities for good: He fought for what he believed in, and wouldn't give up until everyone accepted him. These things, I could count on. These things would never change.
This was the only place I knew I could always return to.
The next morning, we ate a quick breakfast and said goodbye to Pinako, telling her to pass on our regards to the rest of the village. I think she understood why we had to leave so soon and without warning, even if she didn't say anything. She's just one of those people that always seem to know everything, regardless of how much they're actually told. But that's one of the reasons she's always been so close to us. She understood us, without ever having to ask. And for us, that was comforting.
We didn't wait around for a ride back to the train station this time, having thoroughly learned our lesson the previous day. But it didn't take us long to get there and to get our tickets. Also luckily, the train was right on schedule, and we boarded without any major problems.
"So from now on, we stick together," Edward said when we finally left the station.
"Right," Winry replied from the seat next to him. She had linked her arm with his immediately upon sitting down, which had caused him to fidget slightly and me to snicker discreetly. He had since relaxed however, and they now sat comfortably together.
"Just the three of us," I agreed from my place across from them.
"No boundaries," my brother said, resting his head against the back of the seat.
"No worries," Winry added, grinning as she glanced between the two of us.
"No failures," I finished, leaning against the window.
"Speaking of failures," Edward began after a moment, straightening up again. "Didn't Mustang say he'd be expecting my resignation by the end of the week?" I grinned and he snickered at the thought. "Bet he'll be happy to know I'm not leaving the military after all."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Looks like Major General Mustang'll just have to put up with you a little longer than he expected."
"We'll break it to him slowly when we get there," Edward said, grinning almost evilly. "Don't want him to get too excited."
All of a sudden Winry gasped. Looking over at her, I noticed she was looking at something out the window.
"What?" my brother asked. Without warning, she lunged toward the window, leaning across Edward to do so. He looked vaguely annoyed with this, but more confused than anything.
"That sign there!" she said excitedly, pointing to a large sign stuck high in the middle of a field. It read, 'Come and see the world's first ever thirty-foot statue made entirely of recycled automail! East 212 Miles.'
"That's near Eastern Headquarters…" Edward said thoughtfully. It didn't sound all that exciting to me, and by the look on my brother's face he was having similar thoughts. But one look and Winry was hooked.
"A thirty-foot statue? Made entirely of automail?!? But how? What kind could they have used? What materials could they use to keep it together? I wonder how long it took to make… Maybe they'd let me inspect the material! Or maybe they'd ask me to help make a bigger one! I HAVE to see it! Oh, Ed, can-we-go-can-we-go-can-we-go-can-we-go can we pleeeeeeeease?" She was kneeling on the seat, holding Edward by his coat, shaking him vigorously. When Winry got excited, she really got excited.
"Okay, okay!" my brother said as soon as he had the chance. "Just let go of—"
"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!! Thank you Ed, thank-you-thank-you-thank-you-thank-you-thank-you!" She pulled him into a tight hug, squeezing the life out of him to show her appreciation. I started to laugh, as Edward did his best to glare at me from his current position. All it served was to cause his eyes to bug further out of his head, which only made me laugh harder. Eventually Winry let him go, where he fell sideways onto the seat, whining about broken ribs.
"We should still check in at Central first, since we're on our way," Edward suggested after he had regained consciousness and Winry had calmed down a bit. "Might as well let them know where we're headed next."
"Think Fuhrer Armstrong will let you go?" I asked, though I knew how my brother would likely respond.
"Aw, you know she really likes us," Edward insisted, waving a hand in the air. "Even if she may not show it too often…"
"Or ever," I corrected him. He shrugged, still unconvinced. But it didn't matter. I was sure my brother was planning to go whether he had the Fuhrer's permission or not. And that meant I'd be going with him. Winry, too. Because that's what we promised, to always be together. To always protect each other. And to never change.
Halfway through the train ride, Winry had worn herself out from gushing about that statue and had fallen asleep on Edward's shoulder, his arm around her again. His head was down, so I couldn't see his face, but I assumed he was asleep as well.
I looked out the window, watching the landscape pass us by. It changed so quickly, from grassy plains to populated towns to small villages to dry, rocky roads. It was just like everything else, I realized. I was watching it change, alter before my eyes, speed by so quickly I barely had time to remember the way it had been seconds ago. Unnerved, I tore my eyes away from the window, not wanting to watch so much distortion all happening at once.
I looked up to be met with my brother's amber eyes, gazing at me from across the booth. He smiled.
"Come on," he said, jerking his head in the direction of the empty space next to him on the seat. "You should get some rest. We still have a long way to go."
Smiling back at him, I rose from my seat and took the one he had indicated. He lifted his arm and hung it around my shoulders, as I leaned into him and relaxed, glad to be away from the ever-fluctuating torrent of transition outside. Now, whatever was happening outside didn't matter anymore. All there was was this train, and inside it, everything was still, normal, the same. Just the way I liked it.
Soon I felt my brother rest his head on top of mine, as his breathing slowed to a fixed rhythm. For a while I just lay there, listening to his unwavering heartbeat, watching his chest rise and fall in the same pattern every second, reveling in the constancy of his presence. After all, he was the one thing I could count on to always be there, just like he always has, right? It was difficult, how much change we had had to handle in our short lives. First our father left, then our mother died, then we lost part of ourselves. Then we began to travel the country, with no real place to call home, except for Risembool, although we didn't really spend much time there after leaving all those years ago. We uncovered secrets, dark secrets about the military and its followers, about the Homunculi and the Philosopher's Stone. We fought against it all for years, and finally we won. People came, people went. But through it all, one thing, to me, remained the same: Edward. He was the only one who stayed, who stuck around from beginning to end, without ever letting himself be changed by all the drastic alterations taking place around us. Even now, he was still the same old Edward, who would never go near a glass of milk, hated anything small, sharp, pointy, and meant for injections, and always came up with colorful ways of proving he wasn't short. And for that, I was more thankful than he would ever know. And as I finally drifted off to sleep, lulled into drowsiness by the sound of his heartbeat, the slow movement of his chest as he breathed, my last thought was that I didn't care if the outside world kept on changing, because here, in the warmth of my brother's arms, with him holding onto us, this was permanent, and nothing else was ever as real as this.
Wow... that was soooooo much longer than I originally planned on making it... But I was writing it last night and just like couldn't stop, you know? It just kept going, and going, and going... It actually ended up being over 9,000 words in Word. (....Wow... Haha, I just used the phrase "over 9,000" in an actual sentence... Heh heh :P ) I liked it though. I think it turned out pretty good. I sort of tried to make the like speaking scenes and stuff read like an actual episode, cause I like reading stuff like that too. So drop me a review and let me know how it came out, kay??? I spent like a ridiculous amount of time on this thing, and I'm curious to know how it looks to someone who...isn't me. :P
I'm thinking about doing a drawing to go along with this (I love to draw, I do it all the time. Unfortuately I don't have a scanner here in my dorm, so I can't put any of my stuff up online, but I do it for fun anyway). It'd either be the scene with the three of them on the hill, or the one at the very end in the train. Yanno, with Ed sitting in the middle of Al and Winry with an arm around each of em. If it's the first one, they'd all be awake and sort of looking off into the distance, all sad and stuff. Second one, Ed and Winry would be asleep and Al would just kind of be watching his brother... Man, I can so picture it... And I soooo need to get around to doing it. I wanna see it for real, yanno? Hahaha, these things just excite me too much sometimes :P
Thanks for reading! After all, what good is a writer without someone to read her work?