Disclaimer: The rights to the characters of this story are not mine and I make no profit in the writing of this tale.
A Debt Unpaid
For the longest time that was all he could remember. Everything else just drifted away, his past, his friends, his hopes and dreams, leaving nothing but the blackness that surrounded his body like a warm blanket. He didn't need anything else.
Every once in a great while a door to the darkness would open and he would hear voices. Sometimes the voices were sad, sometimes they were angry, sometimes they even screamed. He wasn't sure where they came from, but every time he heard them it was like they were rousing him from a deep slumber which became lighter with each interruption. Soon he could distinguish words in tongues he did not recognize, yet somehow understood.
"What is this place?"
"Bring her back!"
These words stirred something deep within him. He wished he could help these people, but he felt so weak, so tired.
This voice was new, and far younger than any of the others, but it held that same note of desperation he had heard in so many.
"Give him back! Give me my brother back!"
'Brother?' he thought. Sadness and hatred ripped through his heart at the thought and for a brief moment he could almost remember, but then it passed.
"Please," the voice begged. "Please give him back. I'll give you anything: my arms, my legs my heart, just give my brother back!"
"Persistent little brat," another voice growled softly from beside him. Suddenly the warmth surrounding him began to bleed away and it felt as if he were being pushed forward by an unseen force, straight towards the open door.
The closer he got, the more blinding the light became. Soon it was painful, and he tried to block it out but it seemed to sear his corneas through his eyelids. However, moments before he lost consciousness, he heard that same, low, guttural voice call from behind him.
"Have fun, kid. I'm sure I'll see you again soon."
The moment he awoke his mind was jarred into instant awareness as a flood of sensory information forced its way into his brain, awakening long forgotten parts of his mind that had gone dormant or atrophied after such a long time of disuse. The first thing he noticed was the omnipresent warmth that he had known for so long was gone, replaced by a stinging cold on one side of his body while a chilling wind covered the rest. The second was that everything felt heavy, meaning that gravity once more held sway over his form. The air around him smelled stale and damp, which made him assumed he was somewhere underground, along with another scent he couldn't quite place. His ears could hear breathing, though at the moment he couldn't tell if it was his own or someone else's.
All of this led him to open his eyes, slowly at first, in case there was more of the light from before, but soon they were open as wide as he could make them as he took in his surroundings. As near as he could tell he was in a basement of some kind with dark grey stones covering the walls and floor. A heavy white fog clung to the air, obscuring much of what he could see. As he pushed himself into a sitting position he realized that he had been laying in the middle of a large white chalk circle. The circle contained several smaller concentric circles, and the spaces in between were filled with numerous runes that were familiar in design, though he couldn't recall where he had seen them before.
Pushing himself up a little more, he climbed awkwardly to his feet. His legs wobbled a bit while his body tried to remember how to hold itself, but eventually it passed. Wandering around the edges of the room, he searched for something to cover himself with, since he was more than a little cold and he had a nagging feeling he shouldn't be walking around in just his skin. Eventually he found a worn overcoat that was a few sizes too large for him and put it on.
He was just about to explore some more when a sudden sound caught his attention. It was a slow, raspy wheeze that he knew with a disquieting certainty did not come from him. He turned towards the source of the sound, and found that the mist had cleared enough for him a set of dark crimson stains, and he knew what that smell he could discern before was. It was blood, human blood.
He traced the crimson path the stains formed until his eyes rested on the crumpled form of a small boy with hay-blonde hair. The boy was slightly younger than himself and was laying in a pool of his own blood, clutching the stump where his right arm used to be while the spot where left leg once was continued to drip his life essence onto the hard stone. However, even as he slowly bled out, the boy was far from unconscious, if the two frightened, amber colored eyes that stared back at him were any indication.
He needed help, of that much he was certain. With a cautious step, the older of the two boys moved forward. What happened next would start a chain of events that would change both their lives forever.
Edward arm and leg were gone. At the tender age of eleven it was difficult to accept, but impossible to refute as he felt warm blood, his blood, sliding between his fingers as he tried desperately to staunch its flow from his arm. He also knew that if he didn't get help soon, he was going to die. He had lost a lot of blood already, and he was slowly losing ground in the battle for consciousness. The only thing that was keeping him awake at this point was fear, fear that if he surrendered to the urge to sleep he'd never wake up again, and fear of the thing that stood less than a dozen feet from his position.
Something had gone wrong during the transmutation, something horribly, horribly wrong. He and his brother Alphonse had been trying to bring their dead mother back to life, knowingly committing alchemy's greatest taboo. He had been so sure his calculations were right, that he would succeed were so many others had failed.
He was such a fool.
The ritual had failed. Alphonse was taken behind that massive gate, pulled into the void. Ed had tried to bring him back, sacrificing his arm and leg to do so, but it wasn't enough.
Nothing was ever enough.
When he had woken up back in his basement, Alphonse was gone, probably forever, and at the center of the circle, the one in which their mother's reanimated form was supposed to lay, was something, something that Ed was sure only existed in books up until now: an artificial human being, a homunculus. This was further confirmed when Ed saw the blood red marking tattooed on the flesh of its stomach: the seal of Ouroboros, a picture of a draconic beast feasting on its own tail. The symbol was said to represent the circular nature of alchemic transmutations, and this creature wore it like a brand.
It looked human enough, like a boy in his mid-teens with unruly blonde hair and a muscular build. Ed noted with horrid fascination that the thing's eyes seemed to glow, even in the darkness of the basement, and that there were three parallel marks of each of its cheeks, giving it a decidedly feral appearance.
Ed tried not to make a sound as he watched it explore the room, even as it tried on one of his father's old raincoats. When its eyes finally landed on him, it was all he could do not to start crying.
When it began to move toward him, survival instincts kicked in and he grabbed the nearest object (an old book) and flung it as hard as he could in the thing's direction. He nearly choked when it plucked the flying tome out of the air with all the ease of a fisher casting a net.
"Stay away from me," Ed cried, nearing hysterics. He missed the vaguely hurt expression that passed over the homunculus' face before its body seemed to blur out of existence. He only had a moment to wonder what had happened before a sharp pain erupted from the back of his head, then all he knew was darkness.
"Sorry, kid," the nameless homunculus whispered, "but this is for your own good."
He quickly scooped the now unconscious boy up and found a way out of the dank basement he had found himself in, and from there wandered through what looked to be a two story home.
"Hello?" he called. "Is anyone here? This kid needs some help!"
When no one answered he began to feel a growing sense of desperation. How could this kid be alone like this! Where were his parents, his family? The more he thought about it, the more upset he became, partially out of fear for the life of the boy dying in his arms, and partially from a hauntingly sense of déjà vu.
Abandoning his search of the house after the first few minutes, the homunculus kicked out the front door and rushed into the storm outside. The rain was cold and came down came down in sheets, drenching him to the bone, but he paid it no mind.
Casting his eyes about the wet, rural landscape, he spotted one lone source of light high on one of the surrounding hills and began to run toward it. He hoped somebody was home.
Pinako Rockbell was sitting in her rocking chair, resting her ancient bones as she listened to the thunder outside. Her eleven year old granddaughter, Winry, had gone to bed some time ago, so now it was just her awake in a quiet house.
It didn't take long for her thoughts to drift to the two brothers who lived just down the hill. It had been a few years since their mother had died, but she was still worried about them. They were only ten and eleven years old, too young to have to deal with such loss, especially with no one else to turn to. Their father had abandoned them when they were little more than babes, and now with their mother gone it was just them in that big, empty house.
Pinako was just entertaining the notion of making her way down there once the storm passed and reaffirming her offer to let them stay with her and Winry when three loud knocks emanated from the door.
"Who'd be calling now?" Pinako wondered as she hobbled over to the door.
She wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but a drenched young man wearing nothing but a closed rain coat, carrying a half-dead version of one of the two boys she had just been thinking about certainly wasn't it.
"Help him, please," the young man pleaded. It was at that moment that she noticed the steady flow of blood coming from young Edward's severed limbs, forcing years of medical training to the forefront of her mind.
"Come in, quickly," she commanded. The man followed her orders as she swiftly guided to him to a spare cot where she sometimes did her auto mail procedures.
"Winry!" she bellowed. "Get down here, and bring my medical kit!"
It was only a quarter of an hour later that Edward was stabilized and Pinako was able to turn her attention to the stranger that had brought him to her doorstep. She had sent him up to one of the guest bedrooms with some of her son's old clothes. She hadn't asked why he had come to her home dressed in nothing but an overcoat, but she was going to remedy that soon enough. The circumstances were odd, perhaps even suggesting something foul, but she was willing to give the young man the benefit of the doubt. She always had a sense for good people, and that sense told her this man was someone to be trusted. She prayed dearly she wasn't wrong.
When peeked into the room he was just tucking in his shirt. It was a simple button down shirt and some brown khaki pants, but they suited him well. The clothes were also a little big on him, but it didn't look like he minded. Instead he seemed more interested in staring at himself in the room's full-length mirror, enthralled by his own reflection, as if he had never seen it before. Pinako took that moment to study him.
The young man looked to be in his mid to early teens and in decent shape, if the defined muscles flexing beneath his forearms were any indication. His hair was the color of sunflowers, and his eyes the same shade of blue as the sky. His skin was unusually pale for a farming country like theirs. He didn't look like he had seen direct sunlight for years. The most remarkable things about him though had to be the markings on his face. On each cheek there appeared to be three thin lines, almost like whisker marks. They didn't look like they were painted on, or even tattooed. It was almost like they were birthmarks, but she couldn't even begin to fathom how such things were formed. If she were a few decades younger, she would have said that they gave him an almost feral attractiveness, but sadly such days were long gone for her.
Pinako coughed lightly to draw his attention, causing the youth to start and look over at her.
"Ah, Mrs. Rockbell…"
"Just Pinako is fine, boy," she said, cutting him off. "I'm already old, no need to make me feel ancient."
His pale cheeks flushed slightly in embarrassment. "Sorry. I just wanted to thank you for the clothes."
Pinako smiled. At least he was polite, unlike that Elric boy. "Don't mention it, though I wouldn't mind knowing how you got in that state in the first place."
A strange look flitted over the boy's face. His eyes narrowed into squints, giving him an almost vulpine appearance. "I wish I knew. Well, that and a lot of other things. All I can remember is waking up, cold and naked in the middle of a stone floor, and then a minute later I found that kid. The rest you know."
"What about before you woke up?" she pressed.
"Nothing, except a feeling of warmth…and a name," he said sadly. "Naruto," he said after a brief silence. "I think my name is Naruto." She saw no signs of deceit on his face, only hesitation. She believed him when he said that all he could remember, and if she was correct about what Edward and Alphonse had been doing in that house, amnesia was the least of this young man's concerns.
Aloud she said, "An unusual name, but it suits you."
Naruto smiled slightly in response, and Pinako couldn't help but note how natural it looked on his face.
Before anything else could be said, the door creaked open and a young, blonde-haired little girl around the same age as Edward poked her head through.
"What is it, Winry?" Pinako answered.
"Ed woke up."
The newly dubbed Naruto felt oddly nervous as he sat on the ground outside the recovery room, waiting for Pinako to give him the okay to come in. He tried again to remember something, anything, from before he woke up, but he kept coming up with a blank. He knew something terrible had happened in that room, something that had changed the course of that boy's life as well as his own, and he had no idea what part he played in it.
His concentration was broken when he felt something soft and dull poke him in the forehead. He looked up and found himself locked into the curious gaze of the little girl from before.
"Hi," she said.
"Hey," the boy replied back a little awkwardly.
"My name's Winry. What's yours?" she asked.
"Naruto," he said.
Winry squinted at him before simply nodding and plopping herself onto the ground on his left. She was silent for a moment and when she spoke next, it was barely above a whisper.
"Thank you," she said, "for saving Edward, I mean." Then she smiled at him.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Naruto felt a silly grin blossom on his face and began to rub the back of his head reflexively. "It was nothing."
"Excuse me," an unknown voice called out, drawing their attention the stranger now standing two feet in front of them. He was a tall man, with short black hair and charcoal gray eyes, wearing an indigo blue military style uniform with a black overcoat draped over it. He was still wet from the rain and his expression was grim and all business. In his right hand he held what looked like an old letter.
"I'm sorry if I'm interrupting, but my I was hoping to talk to the person who wrote this letter." He glanced at the cover briefly looking at the older blonde youth. "Would you happen to be Edward or Alphonse Elric?"
Inside the room, unaware of the new occupant that had entered her home, Pinako stared at Ed with an intensity that was unnerving. The light overhead was reflected in her spectacles, hiding her eyes, and her mouth was set into a thin line around her pipe. It was all Ed could do not to squirm uncomfortably in his recovery bed.
"I can't believe you tried to bring her back," Pinako said, with a condescending detachment that could only be attained through decades of practice.
"How did you know?" he asked quietly.
"I fashion automail for a living, Edward. As part of my job, I've sorts of injuries. I've seen remains of limbs that have been sawn off in torture, blown off in explosions, and broken off in accidents, but none of those come close to matching what I saw on you." She took a pipe from the pocket of her apron and lit it. "Alchemy leaves a very distinct mark on human flesh, Edward. The truth wasn't hard to divine from there. Now, tell me what happened to Alphonse," she said, trying to keep her voice soft.
Ed looked down as a fresh wave of shame overtook him. "There was this gate. It was big, and black, and it was so old it felt like it could hold all the answers in the world. Al and I were standing in front of it, and then it opened, and these black tentacles reached out and started grabbing at us. It took my left leg and all of Alphonse. It was like it was trying to devour us." Ed's fist unconsciously clawed against the bed's sheets as he remembered his brother's screams and how his arms reached out for Ed before they were deconstructed and pulled into the void. "I tried to get him back. I sacrificed my right arm to open the gate again, but even that didn't work right. The gate opened, but something…something else came out."
"And I'm guessing this has something to do with the young man waiting outside the front door?" Pinako asked.
Ed looked up so fast he swore he could hear his own neck crack, but at that point he didn't care. "He's where? Auntie Pinako, you can't be serious! He's not human! He's…he…"
"He saved your life," Pinako finished sternly. At Edward's blank look, she decided to elaborate. "You didn't carry yourself here. If he hadn't brought you here, you probably would have bled out in a matter of minutes. Homunculus or no, you owe him your life."
"A homunculus?" a new voice spoke from the doorway, one Ed was sure had been closed just a second ago. "I see. Then that light was from a human transmutation. I've never seen such strong transmutation response before. Excuse me." The man in blue fished around in his pocket and withdrew an ornate silver pocket watch with a chimera engraved on its front. Edward recognized it immediately.
"A state alchemist?" he whispered.
"And what is a soldier doing here?" Pinako demanded. "This boy is critically wounded. He needs to recover."
The soldier pocketed the watch and withdrew a small envelope. Ed was quick to recognize that was well. I was one of the dozens of letters he and Alphonse had sent out to their father's acquaintances before their mother's death, all in the hopes that he might return home. "I received this letter asking the whereabouts of Hohenheim Elric," the man continued. "The State is looking for him as well."
"The boy's father is still missing. Now please leave." Pinako's voice was clipped. It was clear she wanted nothing more than this man out of her house. However, if the man noticed her subdued hostility, he paid it no mind. He glanced past her to meet Ed's astonished stare, then turned back to meet the elderly woman's grim gaze.
"To still live after attempting a human transmutation…I would say I now have more interest in him than in his father. He would make an excellent state alchemist."
"He has done nothing of the sort," Pinako growled. "Go back to your base. We're busy here."
The soldier did as he was told and turned back the way he came, but not before a parting word, this time directed solely at Ed.
"My name is Lieutenant Roy Mustang. If you want to see if you have what it takes to work for the state, come to Central City."
As he walked out the foyer, Mustang's eyes locked onto Naruto's for a brief moment, scrutinizing him, measuring his worth. Naruto stared back defiantly, and then the moment passed, and the soldier was gone again, disappearing back into the darkness and the rain.
From that evening onward, Ed barely spoke a word. The Lieutenant's words were still echoing in his head and he wasn't sure what to make of them.
His alchemy teacher had always told him and Al that alchemist who worked for the state were trash, dogs of the military. She had taught them that alchemy wasn't meant to be used as a weapon, but as a tool for the benefit of others. If she knew he was actually considering the Lieutenant's offer she'd kick his ass to the far end of the country and back again.
He had to find some way to get Al back, to right the wrong caused by his arrogance, and with the government's resources he might actually be able to do it. Still, he thought as he looked at the remains of his arm and leg, he couldn't do it as he was now. He would need help.
It was at that moment that Pinako decided to enter the room carrying a roll of fresh bandages. Sometimes it was easy for him to forget what she did for a living. She was an automail maker, a specialized career that required her to be one part metallurgist and one part surgeon to fashion mechanical limbs for those who needed them. In a world where people would frequently lose limbs to wars or industrial accidents, it helped pay the bills, and Pinako was one of the best.
As she began to change his wrappings, Ed tried to think of a good way to phrase his request. "Auntie Pinako…?"
"So he speaks," Pinako said in a bland tone.
Ed flushed lightly in embarrassment, but pressed on. "Listen, there's a lot of money in my house…"
"You don't need to worry about paying for this," Pinako reassured.
"No," he said. "I wanted to ask you if you could make me some automail."
She paused in the middle of applying the fresh bandages. "And I take it this has to do with that decision that's been weighing on your mind."
"Yeah," Ed said.
Pinako silently fastened the bandages so they remained in place and fixed him with a grim stare. "It won't be cheap, and it will be painful," she said.
She gave him a long, measuring look before she finally shrugged and said, "Fine. If that's what you really want, Winry and I will get started on it this afternoon."
Ed couldn't help the relieved smile that blossomed on his face. "Thanks." The smile slowly melted from his face when he remembered the other person he needed to speak to. "Um, where's Naruto?" The two hadn't spoken since that night in the basement, but he had learned the homunculus' name in passing.
"He went out exploring a few hours ago," Pinako said. "I'm sure he'll be back before the day's end."
Down the hillside, deep in the abandoned Elric home, Naruto let out a small sneeze. He stopped briefly to rub his nose.
"Dusty in here," he muttered, and then continued on.
He had felt a strange compulsion to visit here after the events of the previous evening. He wanted to understand what had happened here, he wanted to understand the person he had saved, but most of all he wanted to understand why he was here. He felt this place could be the key.
Even nearly a day later, he could still feel the power in the air. It brushed against his skin like a phantom breeze, drifted into his nostrils and across his tongue, whispered in his ears. It was familiar to him, yet at the same time completely alien.
He crept silently to the basement.
It hadn't changed much in the short time since he had last been there. The steam had cleared, and the blood on the ground had dried to a dull burgundy, but the symbols scrawled across the ground remained the same.
Seeing those symbols sparked something inside of him. He decided to add it to the growing list of things that were familiar yet frustratingly out of the purview of his memory. He took a finger and gently drew it across the chalk outline, hoping to coax something forward.
"Damn it," he whispered, the growing frustration palpable in those two simple words. He could feel the anger welling up inside him, starting in his stomach and slowly rising up to his chest and extremities. Finally it became too much and he grabbed the nearest thing in sight, the helmet from an old suit of armor, and flung it as hard as he could into the wall. The metal made a thundering clang as it impacted against the stone, but the sound only served to infuriate him more.
"Damn it, damn it, DAMN IT!" he screamed, and then he howled, and then, using strength he didn't know he had, he proceeded to tear apart the room, flinging desks, breaking chairs, disassembling suits of armor, and generally wrecking anything he could get his hands on.
An indeterminable amount of time later, Naruto found himself kneeling in the wreckage of the room, palms flat on the ground as he stared at the cold circle that had somehow brought him here.
"Damn it," he muttered one last time through gritted teeth. He could feel tears prickling at the corners of his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. He had to be strong, because no one was going to be strong for him. He was alone, and that in itself was familiar as well.
When he finally pulled himself together, Naruto made his way upstairs. As he walked passed Ed's father's study a beam of light reflected off a glass surface brought his attention to the old desk. Three pictures were standing there like a small shrine. Naruto could tell immediately they were arranged from oldest to newest. The first picture was of Ed's whole family. Ed looked to only be a few years old, and a man, probably Ed's father, was holding him up by his armpits. The man was tall and broad shouldered, with simple square rimmed glasses and long blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. Beside the duo was someone who had to be Ed's mother, a fair-skinned woman with long brown hair. The woman was holding a blonde infant, Alphonse, he guessed. They were all smiling happily.
In the second picture the father was noticeably absent, but the mother and her two sons still seemed happy. The three were standing outside surrounded by a lush garden. The Elric brothers, now a couple of years older, stood at the forefront with their mother's arms wrapped protectively around them. Naruto absently noted that the woman's smile, while no less genuine, held a hidden sadness.
In the final picture the boys stood alone, though he imagined their mother was behind the camera. It looked like they had just gone fishing. Alphonse was holding their catch while Ed was pumping his fists in the air in an exaggerated victory sign.
Naruto realized that any future family pictures would have Ed standing alone. The younger blonde had lost everything, his parents, his brother, even his limbs.
Maybe the two of them were more alike than either had expected.
On an impulse he grabbed the first family photo before walking out the door, his path a mystery but his final destination certain.
Naruto didn't return to the Rockbell house until well into the evening. Using speed he didn't know he had, he had explored the village of Resembool from top to bottom, familiarizing himself with the landscape. It was a beautiful place, and felt good to have the sun beating down on his skin after such a long time.
When he entered into the house, he saw that dinner wasn't quite ready (which was great since he felt absolutely ravenous) and that Pinako and Winry seemed to be consumed in some sort of project in the other room. He could hear the soft grind of mechanized tools and the see faint sparks. Whatever it was, it had to be more complicated that a bird house.
He walked into the living room to wait for dinner and froze when he saw Ed lying across one of the couches. They two of them hadn't had a chance to interact since he had carried Ed's bleeding body up the hill, and before that Ed had been screaming and throwing things at him. This wasn't an encounter he had been looking forward to.
He was just considering sneaking back out when Ed happened to look up and see him. The air around them seemed to turn into molasses for a few tense seconds, broken when Ed muttered a strained, "Hey."
"Hey," Naruto replied back lamely.
"Thanks for saving my life," Ed said.
"You're welcome," Naruto said. "I'm…sorry about your brother."
"Don't be," the younger blonde said. "It's not your fault, it's mine. I need to start taking responsibility for my own actions." Ed looked down at the blanket covering his remaining leg and clenched his fist. "I going to get Alphonse back," he said, and then looked into Naruto's eyes with a determined gaze, "and I want you to help me."
Naruto could feel his eyes widening comically. "Me?"
"I need help," Ed admitted, "and you're the closest link I have to the gate that took my brother. If you don't help me, there's a chance I might never find him. I know we haven't known each other that long and we haven't gotten off to the greatest start, but…"
He trailed off when he noticed Naruto was smiling. Not a small smile, but a large, unguarded, goofy smile. "Save it," Naruto said. "All you had to do was ask." Still smiling, he walked over to the couch and not so gently placed his palm on Ed's head and ruffled his hair. "Besides, I can't imagine the trouble a shrimp like you would do on his own."
Scowling, Ed pushed Naruto away with his hand. "Hey, who are you calling short?"
All Naruto could do was laugh at the boy's indignant expression. He laughed long and he laughed hard for the first time in what felt like centuries. It felt good.
Author's note: Comments and constructive criticisms are welcome, and always will. I've gotten a good response for this so far. Let's hope I can keep it up.
Edit: Fixed some small errors regarding the time line.