Chapter Nine - Epilogue

Thinking back to the moment when Ed passed out on the ice, Al could freely admit that to be the most terrifying moment of his life. Not even the night of their failed human transmutation could compare because at least then Al had been able to get help for his injured brother. Al still shuddered to remember his own helplessness, trapped on a platform of ice in the middle of the ocean, unable to check whether Ed was even alive or not despite being right next to him, knowing it was only a matter of time before the ice melted away…

Al returned to reality just in time to notice how badly the tray in his hands was shaking from his too-strong grip. He eased up and focused on not spilling anything on his way up the stairs. Though Al couldn't have actual nightmares, or perhaps because of that, dark thoughts had a way of sneaking up on him when he least expected. The best remedy for that, Al had learned, was to focus on something else, something that occupied his mind and heart fully. Taking care of those who needed him, whether it was a kitten or his brother, tended to work the best and so Al turned his mind to the task at hand--nursing a sick Ed back to health.

Balancing the tray in one hand, Al slid open the door to his and Ed's room with the other and entered to find the doctor just finishing his exam. Loraden stood nearby with her arms crossed and the only sounds in the room were Ed's wretched moans from where he lay curled up in a miserable ball under the bed's covers.

Al set the tray down on Ed's nightstand. Ed cast one look at the food it contained and turned green, clinging tightly to the basin in his hands.

"Well, young man," the doctor said gently, "it's nothing too serious. Just a minor case of decompression sickness."

The basin hit the wall with a loud clang.

"Call this minor!" Ed croaked. "I feel like shit, you useless hack!"

"What is decompressions sickness?" Al asked quickly. A day had passed since Loraden found them both on the ice platform, following the dolphin pod in her boat, and Al hadn't stopped worrying ever since. On the boat ride back, Ed had awoken only once and then just long enough to transmute Al's blood-seal back on the armor. Once back in Loraden's house, Al had spent the entire night huddled over his sick brother, afraid he may have picked up the same sickness that killed the workers in the lab.

"It's a condition common with deep divers," the doctor explained. "When you rise too quickly from deep water, the gases in your body expand and form bubbles in places where there should be none. Nitrogen is usually the culprit. Depending on where those bubbles are, decompression sickness can manifest as anything from simple nausea to fatality."

At Al's swift glance in Ed's direction, the doctor waved his hand reassuringly. "I don't think there's anything to worry about now. If he hasn't ruptured a lung or had a stroke by now then he should be fine. The nausea, dizziness and joint pain he's experiencing will pass within a few days once his body adjusts. You should definitely keep an eye on him and get him to a hospital if he gets worse instead of better."

"Can you go now?" Ed grumbled. "Your voice is hurting my head."

The doctor retreated with a tolerant shake of his head, nodding to Loraden on the way out. An uncomfortable silence fell over the room and Al knelt by the head of Ed's bed, wondering how to break it.

A door opened downstairs. "Loraden?"

At the sound of Dorian's voice, Loraden's head snapped toward the door with such a look of pained need that Al actually felt guilty for catching it. Al hadn't yet told her in so many words that her father was dead, but she was smart enough to put the pieces together. Despite that, Loraden had remained remarkably composed when she found them, even assuring Al that she wouldn't divulge his secret to anyone since they had finished off Huskisson's creatures like they promised. Al doubted Loraden had allowed herself the luxury of feeling sad over her loss, let alone sought comfort in the shoulder of a friend.

Al waved his hand to get her attention. "We'll be fine here. Go ahead."

Loraden only stayed long enough to cast him grateful look before stepping out. A moment later, Al heard her voice and Dorian's intermingling downstairs before they faded, presumably moving out of his hearing.

"Al?"

The blatant vulnerability brother's voice snapped Al's attention back to Ed. "Yes?"

"Basin?"

Al snatched up the basin and got it under Ed's chin just in time. Once, just listening to the pained retching and sickening splashes would have sent Al into his own fit of dry heaves. Sometimes, armor had advantages, other times…

Ed shoved the basin away with a disgusted look and sank down on the pillows, breathing heavily. Al took the basin to the bathroom to wash it out, knowing it would most definitely be needed later. While he was there, he ran a cloth under cold water for Ed's forehead. When Al came back, Ed was rubbing his automail shoulder, hissing in pain.

"Is it bad?" Al asked, gripped by a perverse desire to share Ed's pain. They had been through the same experience and it just wasn't fair that only Ed had to suffer for it.

"Worse," Ed muttered, accepting the wet cloth on his forehead with a grateful sigh. "Worse than when it rains or when water gets in the joints. Not just the automail, it's all over my body."

Ed clapped a hand over his mouth suddenly and Al could see his throat working furiously against the nausea that was no doubt clawing its way up. Al only vaguely remembered the feeling. He offered the basin, but Ed declined. "Stomach's empty now," he mumbled past his hand.

"You should eat something," Al said in concern, "or at least have some water."

Ed shook his head furiously, causing the cloth to drop to the pillow. "Anything but water."

Al merely sighed and replaced the cloth on Ed's forehead, this time keeping his hand over it. It was a sign of just how bad Ed was feeling that he didn't pull away or act like he didn't need Al's comfort.

"Did you tell her?" Ed asked quietly.

There was no need to elaborate on who or what he was talking about. "Not yet," Al murmured, "but she knows. She didn't want the details."

Ed's expression clouded over. "She will want them eventually. She'll want to know why we didn't save him."

Al could think of nothing to say to that so he settled for stroking Ed's temple with his thumb. Ed's eyes slid over to ponder the food again, but he seemed to decide against risking it.

"Do you want me to get you something else?" Al asked. "There's some fruit downstairs."

Ed perked up. "Fruit might be better," he said slowly. "Light, tasty, not too watery…not like that soup you brought up." Ed cast the soup in question a heated look then quickly averted his gaze, his stomach apparently unable to handle the mere sight of it. It took a lot of Al's willpower not to poke fun at the fact that Ed was fighting a losing battle against an innocent bowl of soup--shrimp soup, no less.

"I'm just glad all this is really over," Al said as he gathered up the tray.

"It should have been over a long time ago," Ed muttered.

Al paused then slowly sat back down on the end of the bed. Ed had something he needed to say. Al could tell despite the fact that Ed was refusing to make eye contact. Ed let his eyes drift to the window. Far away, the sounds of celebration could be heard. The festival was still in full swing and the news that Huskisson's monsters had at last met their end had spread like wildfire. Al wondered if the town had been told of Lorence's death or if Loraden was keeping it to herself for now.

"Did you hear what they said to me down there?" Ed whispered, keeping his eyes on the sky outside. Though Al knew exactly what Ed was talking about, he remained silent.

"They wanted me to…to make their families the same as them," Ed continued. "That's why they were trying to take people from the town. At first, I couldn't believe it. I mean, what made them think they could ever pull that off? But…"

Ed swallowed convulsively, his voice cracking on the next words. "…it was because of me. Because they remembered me. People didn't start getting taken until after we got here, Al. After they tried to take me."

"That doesn't make it your fault," Al said gently.

"Doesn't it?" Ed asked with a self-deprecating snort. "I don't know what to believe anymore. All I know is that when I came here I wanted to keep people from getting hurt because of our mistake. And now it turns out I may have made things worse just by being here."

"No, Brother," Al said firmly, earning a surprised look from Ed. "It's because we came back that we were able to prevent more people from dying. The people here are strong, but if we hadn't been here things probably would have escalated anyway and more people would have gotten hurt or killed."

Ed didn't look quite convinced yet. "You really believe that?"

"I do," Al answered without a trace of doubt. "Those creatures' minds don't…didn't work like ours. They couldn't think of anything beyond their own survival, their own needs. I know that because if they had still had their souls then they would never have wished that kind of existence on someone they loved."

Al paused for a moment then continued softly, "If we hadn't come back…I don't think Aaron and Lorence would have been the only victims."

"And Harris," Ed added somberly. "And Aaron's father and all the other workers that Huskisson murdered. Shit, Al we made so many mistakes…"

"And we're correcting them as best we can," Al pointed out. "No one can expect more than that."

Ed thought that over in silence, which was interrupted by a knock on the door. Loraden's young housekeeper poked her head into the room. She had just returned from her vacation the night before and had been invaluable in keeping visitors from bothering Ed with their thanks and invitations to celebrate.

"There's a man on the phone for Edward," she said cheerfully, her cheeks tinted a rosy pink. "He introduced himself as Colonel Roy Mustang."

"Aw, craaap," Ed groaned, pulling the blanket over his head. "I was supposed to call him yesterday and report on our progress! Just thinking of that bastard's voice is making me want to vomit!"

"Should I tell him you're indisposed?" the housekeeper said hastily, clearly eager to return to her conversation with the biggest womanizer in East City--and apparently everywhere else.

"I'll go talk to him, Brother," Al reassured the lump under the blanket. "At least this time you have an actual reason for not reporting in on time."

Ed practically erupted out of the blankets to wrap his arms clumsily around Al's waist. "You're the best brother ever! Whoa, head rush…moving fast, bad idea…"

Al chuckled as he lowered a swaying Ed back down on the pillows. On his way out, he handed off the soup to the housekeeper with a polite request to bring Ed fruit instead. On his way downstairs to the phone in the hallway, Al reflected on what he had told Ed. Even though they would be leaving Half Circle as soon as Ed felt well enough, Al knew it would be a long time before either of them could completely let this go. Ed was right. They had made a lot of mistakes. But unlike his guilt-tripping older brother, Al refused to go through life dwelling on every single thing he couldn't do right, nor would he allow that to happen to Ed. Sometimes, it just paid to be reminded what one still had left to treasure today rather than what was lost the day before.

Passing by an open door, Al couldn't help peeking in at the pair sitting together on the couch. Loraden was leaning into Dorian's shoulder, speaking to him in a low tone while he stroked her hair. The atmosphere emanated friendly comfort with just the barest hint of 'something more'. Oddly, it made Al think of the frequent, yet lighthearted banter that often cropped up between Ed and Winry and he reminded himself to ask Dorian for the basket Ed had bought for her the day before.

But not now, Al thought slyly as Loraden tilted her head up just enough to brush her lips against a blushing Dorian's cheek. There would be time later.

And Al couldn't help but smile to himself as he left the couple in peace, looking forward to the day when he would catch his brother and childhood friend in a similar position.