Zilo: Ugh, wow! Once again I have broken the record...which is a bad thing...but wow! You guys are seriously so amazing! To save space (and help me get this out faster) I will be forgoing responses in the chapter, BUT, over the next week I will PM responses to everyone I can! But before even that, thank you, THANK YOU GUYS! All the reviews and PMs I got made me feel so much better and really, really lifted my spirits, and also helped me get back in the saddle this month and start writing again!

I hope to have more info for you on my deviantArt and Twitter about how frequently I can update, but I swear I'll move heaven and earth to make sure it isn't this long again. I can't say thank you enough, so here's the best way I can show my appreciation: a new chapter! This is also unbeta'd, so please feel free to point out any spelling/grammatical errors or missing words you see. Now have at you!

Chapter 33: How To Breathe

Al finally felt able to pull himself together, and peeled a hand away from Risty's shoulder to wipe his face. She hadn't moved once, hadn't offered any pointless phrases like "it's gonna be okay". She'd just held him, and for that, he was both grateful and guilty. After all, she must have been torn up inside as well.

He pulled back and sat up, wiping his face. Risty absently massaged the shoulder he'd been slumped against, her eyes pointed towards the floor, and he felt another wave of guilt. Somehow it was easier to focus on that than the fact that his brother was gone.


Edward was dead.

He'd felt that jump of fear many times before, when it seemed like Ed had gotten into a situation he couldn't easily escape, but his brother had always found a way. Even when Dante had seemed to take him down for good, Al had been there, and he'd found the way to save him.

But now it was far too late. Ed had been dead too long, and there was no alchemy, no spell, no heartfelt wishing that could reach him now. His brother had finally made the ultimate sacrifice, like he'd tried so many times before.

Al felt tears threatening again, and realized that he had to think of something else before he collapsed again. But he couldn't help focusing on Ed. How could his vibrant, active, violent brother, who had always been so thoroughly full of life, now be nothing but a body?

The body...

"Is he here?" he asked Risty, the first real words he'd spoken since who knew how long ago.

Risty's eyes flicked up at him, and she shuddered, but nodded.

"I...need to see him...please."

Risty sucked in a suspiciously teary breath, but her reddened eyes somehow remained dry. "Okay," she whispered. "Mr. Roy put him on the couch in the front room."

Al propelled himself off the bed, then winced. He still ached all over, and couldn't put weight down on his left foot. The thought almost made him want to laugh. The last thing Ed had done in this world was beat him to a pulp?

He turned and extended a hand to Risty. Glancing up at him, she looked like she wanted to be anywhere but where she was. "Al...we should figure out what we're going to do," she said, her voice almost completely toneless.

Al glanced away. Pull it together! he ordered himself. Just thinking about the next step felt like dismissing his brother. Ed always made the ultimate decision as to what their next move would be, though he'd gotten better and better at consulting with Al and Noa the older he got.

But Al could barely even think Noa's name without feeling a surge in his stomach like he wanted to throw up. He could see his hands, taking her life away. Even though the children had been in full control, he was still there. It was still his hands, his body, that were ultimately responsible.

And not just poor Noa. Envy, Luludja, that man whose name he didn't even know...all of them, except one, had tried to fight him, been overpowered, and killed. And with a knife, something so up close and personal, that it would be nearly impossible to disassociate himself from each act.

Al resisted the urge to shudder and turned back to Risty, who was also looking away. "I...I think we should..." He tried to form the words, but couldn't.

Risty swallowed hard. "We'll keep doing what we were doing," she said to the wall. "That's what Ed would do." Her chin trembled, and she put her good hand over her mouth. "I can't..." she mumbled behind her hand, seeming like she was talking to herself.

Al's heart hurt too much for this. He felt the pull to the front room, to see what remained of his brother, to start trying to put all this in perspective and find some way to get through it. But he just wanted to sit there and cry, and revel in his irrational anger towards Ed.

You promised, Brother. We were supposed to be in this together.

So he sat back down next to Risty.

Ravi and everyone else looked up when they heard the sound of the door opening. Risty appeared first, supporting a hobbling Al, and they slowly made their way into the front room. Ravi's heart tightened at the sight of the two—they looked so broken down, so defeated, as if they thought their struggle was in vain. Everyone had heard Al before, but she knew none of them would mention it.

Risty and Al went over to the couch, where Risty pointed silently at Ed's body with a finger. Al's body shook, and he slowly released his hold on Risty and sank to his knees, grabbing the body's hand. "Did he suffer?" he asked in a whisper Ravi could barely hear.

"I...I don't know," Risty mumbled.

Ravi exchanged looks with Rita. Dr. Cornello got up from the kitchen table and approached the sad duo at the couch. He laid a hand on both their shoulders, and they glanced at him. "Both of you seem to be able to move fairly well, but please don't overtax yourselves. We're still at the point where we don't know exactly how severe your injuries are, and we wouldn't want to aggravate anything," he said with an encouraging smile.

Al said nothing, only turning back to his brother's body. Risty, at least, nodded solemnly at the doctor. He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, then returned to his place at the table across from Ezekiel.

There was silence for a moment. Risty looked down at Al, who remained kneeling before his brother's body, and then turned and looked at Roy. Roy had been silent ever since Al had first woken up, sitting with arms and legs crossed in the chair next to the hallway. He caught Risty's gaze and sat up a little.

"We, um, decided. We're going to keep doing what we were doing. Mr. Green's still out there and so is the bomb, so we can't stop right now," Risty said to everyone, though she was focused on Roy.

Ravi didn't like the sound of this. Were the two of them really going to press forward, without taking time to grieve?

Roy nodded, his expression grim. "We'll accept your help. Outside of those of us who are here, however, it's likely you'll have little to no contact with the group, considering the circumstances."

The circumstances, he said, like they'd just been late for a meeting. Not the fact that most of the group believed Al was responsible for the death of their leader. Ravi glanced at his bent head again. How could anyone believe something so horrible of such a kind young man?

"That's fine," Risty said solemnly.

"Very well. Once the two of you have recovered properly we'll begin planning."

"Can't we start now?" Risty sort-of protested, though she put no feeling into it.

No, Ravi thought, dismayed.

Roy's gaze turned steely. "No," he said crisply. "You're not going to shelve what happened to you like it's nothing. No one in my employ is allowed to ignore their psychological issues. Grieve and get over it."

Risty flinched. Her good hand twitched towards Ed's body, then closed into a fist. Ravi saw Ezekiel nodding in agreement out of the corner of her eye, and reasoned that even he couldn't have said it more bluntly.

"...You're right," Risty finally said, bowing her head.

Roy sighed through his nose.

"Roy, it's getting late. We need to head back to the others and update our plans," Rita said.

"Yes." Roy uncrossed everything and stood up. "I assume you'll be here for the treatment, doctor?"

Dr. Cornello nodded firmly.

"All right. We'll return in one week with an update and begin plotting our next move." Roy strode towards where he'd jumped his jacket in the front room. On the way, he paused at Risty's side and put a hand on her shoulder. "Take it easy. For both your sakes."

Risty swallowed and nodded without looking up at him. She remained where she was, hand opening and closing, as Roy and Rita collected what little stuff they had, said their brief goodbyes, and left. Al, of course, hadn't moved an inch.

Ravi decided that it was time to do what she could, at least for the one who was more responsive. She approached Risty with an encouraging smile, and when the girl finally looked up, extended a hand to her. "Why don't we take care of your hair now?"

Where is the light?

There had to be something beyond this massive darkness made of rage. There had to be.

Oh, wait, I need to stay sane.

But how, when a million voices were screaming different things in your ear?

...Little bastards.

Where is the light?


TO # %$#^


"There. You're all done," Ravi said with a smile.

Risty reached up and touched her head. A flash of renewed memory came to her, of when Izumi had cut her hair, and she'd done this same gesture in wonder. It felt less like a weight being removed this time, though, and more like a limb.

The cut wasn't quite as drastic this time, though—it had been trimmed presentably, and now hung a little below her shoulders. The red ribbon she'd been using to hold it back lay in her lap, frayed, dirty, and bloody. It looked almost as bad as she felt.

"Do you think you'll grow it out again?" Ravi asked, setting the scissors on the bed.

Risty looked up, confused by the question. When she understood, she let her head sink again. "Oh...um, I don't know. I don't...really care right now."

Ravi watched her bent head for a moment, then knelt and started to pick up the clumps of hair grouped around the chair Risty sat in. They'd retreated into the bedroom, where Ravi had cut Risty's hair as the sun set. It was a beautiful sunset, and the sky was clear, but neither of them were really in the mindset to appreciate it as it slowly faded into darkness.

"You know," Ravi said as she scooped up the hair, "it seems impossible to believe, but you won't always feel this way. I can't say it gets easier, but it becomes more bearable."

Risty said nothing, twisting her ribbon in her hand.

"But first and foremost, you have to be willing to move on," Ravi went on.

"This is about Al," Risty stated quietly.

Ravi stopped cleaning for a moment to put her hand on Risty's knee. "I can't begin to imagine what Alphonse is feeling right now, but...what he's doing will only make it harder to let go." Alphonse hadn't once left his brother's side, and in fact had ceased speaking or moving.

"I can't tell him how he's supposed to grieve," Risty protested, a flicker of emotion finally appearing in her tone.

"Surely you can see that this isn't helping," Ravi said patiently.

"But—but—" Risty's chest heaved, but she swallowed hard and twisted away, once again sucking her tears back down. Ravi saw that as well, and disapproved. Why were these two so bent on self-destruction, so unwilling to even try?

With a sigh, Ravi went back to cleaning up Risty's hair. Perhaps the hurt was too fresh for them to listen to reason. Very well. She would patiently wait until they could respond to her advice, and then help them as best she could.

Risty, meanwhile, was silently digesting what she'd just been told. Maybe Ravi was right. Maybe she needed to get Al away from Ed if there was going to be any sort of recovery happening. She wanted desperately to believe that there was an easy way out of this hurt, some miracle she hadn't yet thought of to bring Ed back. Was she being her dumb, childish self to hope that?

Is it so wrong to not want to let someone you love go?

After a few moments, she turned back to see Ravi standing, dusting off her knees. All the hair had been scooped into a pile. "Oh...I'm sorry, I should have helped," Risty said, feeling a twinge of guilt.

Ravi smiled at her. "It's nothing, don't worry."

Risty stood stiffly, then almost fell down again when her body spasmed unexpectedly. She bent over, hand on her knee, until she regained herself, then slowly straightened. Right. In the onslaught of emotional pain, it was almost too easy to forget that her body was still recovering from the sudden, savage release of the children. What a stack of things to deal with. She exhaled slowly, ignoring Ravi's concerned glance, and opened the door and went back to the front room.

It was quiet. Ezekiel and Dr. Cornello had stepped outside to the porch, probably to escape the somber atmosphere. Al was where he'd last been, curled against the sofa and clenching his brother's hand. Risty's stomach twisted at the sight. She hated this, so much, but what could she do?

If it was Ed, he'd find a way to move on, she thought, then swallowed hard to fight back the tears. She wondered how long it would take before she could think of anything vaguely related to Ed and not cry.

"...Al?" she managed, her voice coming out less like a grown adult's and more like a small, scared child's.

Al tilted his head briefly, like he thought of turning towards her but didn't make it the whole way. There was a quiet click behind her, as Ravi exited through the front door to join her husband and the doctor. More privacy for more devastating moments.

Slowly, cautiously, Risty approached the scene, her good hand gripping the loose fabric of her pants. "Al, I...I think...we should try to decide what we want to do..."

Al said nothing.

Her hand tightened into a fist. He was really going to make this tough on her. "Listen, I—obviously it's terrible, but we can't do this to ourselves. We'll never—we have to keep moving forward."


"Al, please," she said, tears unwillingly coming to her eyes. "If you don't—Ed wouldn't want you to act like this!" As soon as she said it she slapped her hand over her mouth. Who was she, to try and guilt trip him like that?

But those seemed to be the magic words, as Al slowly turned enough to face her. Instead of the crumpled grief of before, or even a blank emptiness like she might have expected, his expression was level, contemplative.

"C-Can't we just...please...plan something? Do something, anything...I don't want to think about this any more than I have to," Risty admitted, finally losing the courage to look him in the eye and looking down at her feet. "I just...there isn't anything else we can do for..."

She saw Al reach out, and felt him take her hand. For a moment, Risty thought he was trying to comfort her, which made her feel worse. Instead, he pulled her over, and then guided her hand to settle on top of Ed's.

Risty thought for sure she'd start to break apart again. Was Al trying to drive her insane, making her touch what was left of Ed like this? Another shudder ran through her, and she squeezed her eyes shut to drive it away.


Al's voice made her pay attention, and she finally realized what was really wrong about Ed's hand.

"Brother's still warm," Al said.

Risty's eyes opened and her head snapped up. Her fingers involuntarily tightened around the still warm, still soft skin. She was no forensics expert, but it had been a whole day. There was something to do with rigor mortis, and of course dead bodies cooled, and...


"No!" she said aloud, already shaking her head. "It's not possible. I already checked, it's been too long, there's no way—!"

Please don't make me hope again like this. I can't take it.

"He's still alive," Al said evenly.

"He isn't!" Risty shot back, shaking her head harder. I know what I felt. I checked and double checked. I would have NOTICED if he still—!

Al's expression softened, and he put his hand on top of hers and Ed's. "Risty, he needs us. We have to believe one more time," he said.

"N-No, I can't do this again, I already tried to..." Risty was barely aware of what she was saying, sinking to her knees next to Al.

Al swallowed hard, as if his own composure was starting to break. "Even if I'm wrong...isn't Brother worth it?"

Risty's breath hitched as she tried to process that statement. Would she risk her heart shattering again, if it meant a possibility that Ed could return? Could her psyche handle that?

What if I go insane? Really, truly nuts?

She sucked in a breath and almost choked on it.

Could she risk it?

Is he worth it?

Slowly, unsteadily, she sat up off her heels so she could reach Ed. She tilted her head towards him, and ever so slowly, like she expected to land on a mine, pressed her ear against his chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, holding her breath so nothing would interfere.

Is he worth going insane over?

His hand was still warm.


Something pulsed faintly beneath her ear.

He is.

She started to tremble. Al tightened his grip on her hand. "We've...got to try, one more time. Brother would do the same for either of us," Al said. To his credit, his voice only cracked once.

Ed? Are you really still there?

"What do we do?" she whispered.

"I don't know. But I feel like we should be close to him."

Risty nodded slowly, then lifted her head so she could reposition it on Ed's shoulder.

I'm scared. I don't want to have to go through what I went through in the field again. I don't know if I can take it.

But I can't...just abandon Ed. I have to try. I have to be willing to risk it for him.

Ed...I don't know if you can hear me anymore, but this better not be some trick. You'd better come back.


Ravi was disappointed when she finally came back in and saw that Risty had adopted a position similar to Al, but she decided it was too soon to try and talk them out of it.

Okay, this was ridiculous. But they were winning.

...Definitely never seen this side of the Gate before.

Somehow, inch by inch, they were consuming him. And that word..."consume"...it wasn't really enough to describe what was happening, but it was hard to think of something better.

He'd thought HE was stubborn; this stadium of monsters had him beat ten times over.

But what about the deal? Sure, it had been a bit of trickery on her part, but it had still been a legitimate exchange. Why was he here, being...destroyed...by these guys?

'They broke it.'

Oh, hell, not you again. Aren't you supposed to be dead or something?

'Shut up, idiot.'

What do you wa—

KHRV$%^&YO*767 # %$3DU&$$ ! #$EEE%$&658

YOU#%%$$^^ *&# %




They'd converged on him again, making it impossible to think straight for several moments. It was only the sheer force of his pent-up anger that kept his mind from spinning into nothing, and even that took some doing.

They retreated, sort of, but more of him was gone. Where the hell was the light?





'I don't owe you anything.

'I should just let this happen.

'It'd serve you right.


'If I look at it this way, then letting it happen means I'll be stuck in here with you forever, and that's a fate worse than this fate worse than death.

'So, yes, you annoying little snot, I'm going to help you. Because it benefits me.

Ugh, it's so much more than you deserve, pipsqueak.'

$# %$#T—




For a moment, they retreated farther, almost COWERED—but that couldn't be right...

He's pointing.

'Over there.'




Why would you help me?

'Oh for God's sake, you moron, I already told you. I know half your brain's been eaten, but I thought you were smart enough to remember something simple like that.'


QQQQQGGG# %$#^#^%%$,7 *&^%=ow

...That's a lie.

'Just shut up and get out of here already!'

Is this because Hohenheim's dead?

'Why the hell are you bringing up ancient history now? Oh, I'm sorry, did you WANT to be oblierated? You are such a stupid human.'

The first thing Risty wondered upon waking up was, What time is it? Did me and Ed fall asleep in the living room again?

Once she lifted her head, her gut clenched as everything came rushing back. They were back in Scheden, at Ravi and Ezekiel's, and Ed was—

No! Stop! There's still a chance, remember?

She turned slightly to see that she had fallen asleep with her forehead propped against Ed's shoulder. Ed, who was as still as a statue, and didn't move or breathe to indicate that he was in any way alive.

But his hand was still warm.

Risty's fingers instinctively flexed in their hold of Ed's hand. At some point, Al had moved his hand so it held Ed's from underneath, and now his fingers flexed too, in response to hers.

She turned the other way and saw that Al had shifted position so they were slumped next to each other by the couch, their knees touching. He had his head resting on his free arm, tucked into the small space on the couch next to Ed's waist and facing towards her. He blinked slowly, like he was awake but not really seeing what was in front of him.

Risty blinked back at him. It seemed wrong to break this weirdly peaceful moment with words. She could tell what he was thinking about anyway, because it was the same thing she was thinking about: Ed. Unfortunately, being quiet meant she could hear the others talking about them.

"...just don't think it's a good idea to let this go on much longer," Ravi was saying in a low voice.

"I've got my doubts as well. Everyone's grief is different, but this seems more self-destructive than anything," Dr. Cornello's low voice said next. "I really do wish the two of them would rest properly; they'll aggravate their injuries sleeping in such awkward positions."

"If we let this continue, it will only be harder for them to let him go," Ravi went on.

Then Ezekiel, not modifying his volume at all for anyone's sake, blunt and brusque as usual. "Leave them be."

A moment's silence, then a sigh that sounded like Ravi, and a noise like a chair being scraped back. Risty shifted a little, feeling uncomfortable hearing them talk about her, and once again wondering if they were making the right decision.

Is there really hope, or are we being dumb? How long should we keep trying?

She swallowed hard, not wanting to doubt, in case God or the cosmos or the Gate or whoever could seize upon the slightest hesitation and make Ed dead for real.

Al closed his eyes, and slowly took a deep breath. Latching onto something to calm her suddenly frazzled nerves, Risty followed suit, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply through her nose. She tried to push out her worries and doubts as she exhaled.

"Breathe with me!"

Back in the field, ages ago, Ed had yelled that to her through their link, forcing her to pay attention to him and not the indescribable pain she was suffering. He'd helped her return to her senses, like he had so many times before. He could have easily lost it too—after all, he got to feel the pain as well—but instead he'd been her anchor and pulled her back from the edge. He deserved a last try, at least, no matter how much the inhabitants of the house disagreed.


Risty opened her eyes and lifted her head, looking at Ed's still face. If only he would breathe.

If only I could...

Slowly, stiffly, she rose so she was on her knees, ungripping her fingers from around Ed's hand. Al's eyes blinked open, and he watched her silently as she brushed Ed's bangs out of his face. Hesitantly, Risty pressed her forehead against Ed's, awkwardly scooting over ninety degrees so he was upside-down to her.

Ed...I guess you can't hear me anymore...but I want you to breathe. Prove you're still here.

She closed her eyes, then inhaled deeply. Her throat constricted suddenly, and she found herself almost wanting to sob, but she swallowed it thickly and exhaled. She could feel Al's eyes on her, but it felt supportive instead of judging. Whether or not the others were looking, she didn't care.

She inhaled again. The second time, she heard Al exhale in time with her. Maybe he was lending his effort as well.

The third time, she felt another urge to cry, but she ignored it with all her strength. She would be calm until there was no hope left, and only then would she give in to hysteria. She had to be the anchor.

The fourth time, a sudden, tiny noise—like choking, maybe—nearly made her jump out of her skin. A hand came down on the one she'd braced against the couch cushions—she could tell without looking that it was Al, keeping her from startling. She clenched that hand into a fist, forced herself to be calm, forced herself to breathe deeply and evenly.

Another noise, like someone trying to inhale through a straw. Ed's forehead shifted slightly, in time with the noise.

Risty's heart began to beat faster. You're a fighter! Make those lungs work! She did it again, heard Al breathing in time with her, heard the tiny choking noise again as it segued into something like a wheeze.

Breathe with me! she mentally yelled.


The light!

'God, you're slow. Not get out.'

Somehow he could feel it. His chest, just his chest, stiff and hard from disuse, trying to follow the pattern. His lungs trying to clear out the dust and the children that clogged them.

Oh, they did NOT like that—

'Stop stalling then!'

%$ %^%&^%&%&NO


The familiar feel of them engulfing him, trying to remove him from existence, surrounded him. But this time, he saw a path through. He could even reach it. He reached out a...hand? No, he was out of hands...he just reached out.

#% #why &? %%Q


In the midst of their...whatever you would call this, they realized that they were losing power. Worse, it was their fault. They weren't all-powerful—they made deals for a reason. Often they were horribly lopsided deals, but on some level equivalent. They might have briefly gained the upper hand in breaking their deal, but now the consequences were coming on full force.

He remembered what irony was, just in time.

'Will you just get out already?'


'Whatever, shut up!'

He reached out to the path, feeling their hold on him grow weaker. They threw yet another multitude of fits, but they were losing their power.







The pattern was clearer now, easier to follow. Expand it this way, pull in this way...this is what breathing was. Right, he used to do that all the time. He'd have to figure that out again. Thankfully the pattern was there.

...No, not just a pattern. A person.



Her name came back like an explosion of fireworks. The children screamed and let go of him like they were burned, then reached for him again in childish fury. He reached out with his hand—he was pretty sure it was his hand—to Risty, who had produced a light, produced a pattern, was showing him the way—

The next one was a gasp.

Risty's eyes opened, and her head snapped up just in time. Ed's body convulsed suddenly, startling both her and Al. He might have fallen right off the couch if Al hadn't reacted quickly and pinned his arms down.

He's alive!

But he seemed to be freaking out. Risty separated her bad arm from her side with a pained cringe, then used both hands to hold Ed's head in place. She vaguely registered a series of crashes as Ravi dropped an entire stack of plates in the kitchen, but she couldn't focus on that right now.

"Brother," Al said urgently, though he didn't raise his voice. "It's okay, it's us. We're here."

Ed's face was twisted in pain as he coughed and gasped for air, and he didn't seem to have heard. Risty swallowed hard, unsure what to do to make him stop. If he couldn't hear what Al was saying, would her speaking even do anything?

"What in the..." Dr. Cornello said from somewhere. At this point, he and Ravi and the broken dishes were in a void somewhere that Risty didn't care about. Her eyes were locked on Ed's face.

He's not breathing right.

Gritting her teeth, Risty ducked her head back down and pressed her forehead against Ed's. He knocked her in the nose, causing a yelp of surprise from her, but she steeled herself and didn't move away. With her head and hands pinning his head down, he was able to thrash less, but couldn't seem to stop.

Even though her instincts warned her to get away before something else got bashed, and even though her nose was starting to throb, Risty closed her eyes and forced a calm, deep breath. Al was working on pinning down his brother's legs as well, and all she could do was breathe.

Come on, you can do this.

The second time yielded the same result. The third time, though, his gasp seemed to match up with her breath, though he sounded strangled. Risty felt a jump of hope and did it again.

His next breath was more of a gasping in, coughing out—but it synched up with hers. His head stopped jerking. He was following along, painfully, but every new breath seemed to get easier and easier for him. Slowly, his convulsions stopped.

Risty felt another huge lump in her throat, but she couldn't afford to have weepy breathing now. She had to swallow three times to make it go away, and Al shifted as he loosened his pinning grip.

Ed suddenly pulled his left arm free. Al reached out in alarm, but paused when he saw Ed's hand settle on the back of Risty's neck. To her credit, Risty didn't flinch. The touch was warm, and his hand was shaking, but he wasn't hurting her. Al sat back a little, then hissed when his foot complained.

By this point, Ravi and Dr. Cornello had come over to stare in shock. Ezekiel still hadn't gotten up from his chair, but he was at least looking at the scene, seeming as surprised as he could get.

"But I thought he was dead," Ravi murmured.

"Well his heart had certainly stopped," Dr. Cornello agreed. "It's a miracle."

Ed's breathing finally sounded normal again. Risty felt his grip on her neck loosen, and she lifted her head to look down at him as he wearily cracked open his eyes. He looked up at her for a long moment, then finally spoke, his voice rough like he hadn't used it in months.

"You cut your...hair."

"...Oh. Yeah," Risty said, unable to resist her eyes filling with tears now.

Ed's hand shifted sluggishly, sliding from her neck to her chin then up to her face, his pinky primed to catch the tears threatening.

"W-Welcome back," Risty managed, blinking rapidly to try and make the tears go away.

Ed studied her quietly, then shifted his eyes downward. Al was sitting on the couch next to him, restraining grip loosened but not gone, looking down at his hands. "Al..."

"You idiot!" Al punched him in the arm, knocking Ed's hand off Risty's face.

"OW!" Ed hollered, regaining his volume pretty quickly. "The...h-hell was that..." he croaked.

Al looked up, revealing that his own eyes were filled with tears. "Don't you ever do that to us again," he threatened in a breaking voice.

Ed's indignant looked faded, and he glanced up at Risty, who had sat back and was trying to wipe her quickly multiplying tears away. Al looked sharply away as well, his own hand coming up to stop his tears.

Ravi had stepped back to give them some room, and now she started to wipe her own eyes. Dr. Cornello had the smile of a doctor who had just seen a patient revive. Ezekiel lifted the newspaper he'd been reading, and allowed a smile of relief while hidden behind it.

Ed looked at everyone in the room in turn, his head moving slowly. "I...sorry, I...guess I worried...everyone," he said.

Al finally released his brother and rose stiffly, favoring his left leg. Dr. Cornello chose that moment to enter the scene. "I'm sorry to intrude on such a moment for you all, but Edward, I'd really like to examine you now," he said, medkit ready in hand. "Considering that I didn't do much of one before, since we didn't believe you were alive..."

Ed was silently watching as Al peeled Risty off the arm of the couch and pulled her into a hug. "...Yeah...whatever," he finally acknowledged the doctor.

Zilo: More to come, more loose ends to wrap up, and...we have at most two installments left. A final chapter, and an epilogue. Stick around for things!