Title: Steel and Serpent
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Al and Marta... and yes, it might be faint one-sided Al/Marta, if you so choose.
Setting: First anime, during the events of the episode "Secrets of Ishbal".
Summary: It was remarkable, the things a person could get used to.
Disclaimer: They belong to the genius of Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: I have no clue where I got the notion to do this--but it came around in time for a "mismatched pairs" prompt at the FMA Fic Contest community, so I thought I'd give it a shot.
It was remarkable, the things a person could get used to.
Impossible as it seemed, one could get used to existence as a freakishly strong, seven-foot-tall shell of hollow steel. To the ever-present sound of metal on metal with each movement; to the sidelong stares of strangers, curious, suspicious, afraid. Brother would say these were things one shouldn't get used to, but a kind of time-numbed acceptance was better than the alternative. Better than dying inside from slow pain... or quick madness.
One could get used to functioning without any sensation of touch. One could get used to the idea of bullets bouncing harmlessly off of one's metal hide--although the instinct to duck never quite went away, and had to be willfully overcome when a reckless Brother's soft flesh needed shielding. And, after a time when it seemed one's very sanity would crumble, one could get used to an unending wakefulness that did not allow harsh thoughts and hurtful memories to settle naturally.
As it turned out, one could even get used to having another person sitting inside one's empty hull.
The first time Marta jumped down Al's neck and made herself at home, it was... well, at least the second most disturbing experience of his life, behind the times when his armor had been physically torn apart by Scar and then the homunculi.
To be fair, it wasn't exactly a precedent. There was the time when he was left at the wrong train station by mistake, and a punk kid had squirmed into his damaged pieces and sallied forth to wage gang war. That was embarrassing--but it didn't inspire the total creepy spooks Al got from Marta's intrusion upon his person.
He was fairly sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Marta was a part-snake chimera. Snakes had never bothered him. (And a good thing that was, considering they were on the menu perforce when he and Ed were stranded on Yock Island; although under the circumstances, if he'd still had a stomach now, the very memory of that would have made him queasy.)
On the other hand, the fact that Marta was a girl...
...Okay, so that wasn't something that had nothing to do with it. There were all kinds of thoughts in that direction that Al didn't want to think about, that he was quite sure he was too young to have any business thinking about.
He couldn't understand why she had stayed inside him while he was a prisoner at the Devil's Nest. Greed may have told her to watch him, but there was no excuse not to do that from the outside. Her apology for making him uncomfortable seemed genuine, so what was her reason? If she was amused by the novelty of sitting inside a living suit of armor, it was just one more reminder of what a freak he was. He resigned himself to her presence because he could only wait for Brother's help, but it wasn't really true when he told her he'd gotten used to her.
And in the forest later, when Greed left them, and Al found himself actually trying to keep Marta inside... all he could think of then was Loa and Dorochet, who had stayed to fight Lust and Gluttony. The time and distraction they bought with their death was partly for his benefit as well as Greed's and Marta's. They had asked him to keep her safe, and their dying request was one of the few things he could focus on in his state of confusion and fear.
In any case, Al wouldn't have wanted her to be hurt anyway; but in trying to go after Greed, she gave him an awful fight.
She only quieted down after she'd accidentally brushed against his blood seal. That was the one sensation Al could perceive--a hot, ominous almost-tingle that was everywhere and nowhere, filling him with an instinctive mortal terror--and his wild shriek stilled Marta instantly, as she realized what she could have done.
They were both silent for a moment, but Marta knew he was still alive because the armor trembled. He didn't stop her then as she slithered out; but she didn't try to run away, either. She only sank down onto the grass, breathless, pale, refusing to look at him.
I'm sorry, she said, and nothing more... and this time, Al knew just how much she meant it.
The second time Marta dropped in uninvited, it was a caprice instead of hostility, but still almost as bad as the first--if not worse by reason of sheer humiliation, with Ed there to see the whole spectacle. At least it was fortuitous, since it placed Marta safely out of sight when Havoc and Breda picked them up. Explaining her to the lieutenants, much less to Colonel Mustang himself, would have been purely impossible.
Unfortunately, with all the commotion of being hauled to headquarters and scolded and fussed over, it meant that Al was stuck with his illicit passenger. All day.
It was ridiculous, wanting so badly to fidget when he didn't even physically have nerves. He was just... so conscious of her there inside him. He could hear her breathing, and it sounded so loud to him that he was afraid someone else would too. And even though he knew she wouldn't dare to make contact with his blood seal again, he was sure he could never rest easy as long as she was so close to it.
Yet as the day wore on, he did begin to relax a little.
Now that he had time to consider it without immediate life-and-death fear hanging over him, he found that having a living presence inside his armor was... curious. Since he didn't breathe himself, her breaths revealed to him what that sounded like in the echoing steel. Carrying a burden altered the kinetics of his balance and movements, which at least gave him an abstracted awareness of her weight; she was so light that it was hardly perceptible, but he knew.
He wondered if her closeness warmed his metal, or if she was instead cold-blooded like a reptile.
For once, Ed made no mouthy comments--probably just because he couldn't, in the present company--but he kept giving his brother funny looks all day. Al was torn between amusement and annoyance.
And you thought my hiding a kitten was trouble...
Of course, kittens didn't mutter threatening things if he was forced to delay feeding them. Al felt badly about his abortive attempt to give Marta food during dinner with the officers--but Mustang's staff knew the secret of his armor, and they knew just how useless food was to him. All he could do was give a sheepish apology that was really directed at Marta, and hope she would be patient.
But then the truth about the military's mission in the region came out, and the entire tone of the evening was bitterly changed.
Ed shut down emotionally after he learned of the crisis in Lior. He lay on his bed in the quarters that had been assigned to them, but Al knew he wasn't sleeping. Brother was thinking--much too much. And Al didn't like that one bit.
As for Marta, Al had a feeling she was determined to stay put until she was fed, so he didn't even ask her to remove herself. He merely settled in the corner, promised to take her to the kitchen when they were sure Mustang's officers had gone to bed, and proceeded to watch his brother brood.
An extremely boring, uncomfortable hour passed.
Finally, when lights all over the compound had dimmed and the building fell silent, he got up. He knew Ed continued to lie awake, but there was no acknowledgment when Al announced his intentions. The younger Elric sighed and left the room, still bearing his impatient passenger.
After a little bit of searching, he found the kitchen that served the base. Past the rows of gleaming industrial-grade ovens lay the doors to well-stocked pantries and larders, and he was aware of Marta squirming around inside him in anticipation. He pulled open the door of a large icebox, regarding its contents with a sort of detached curiosity.
Simple things like this reminded Al of just how bizarre his existence was. Officers ate well, and there were several delicacies in that icebox; but after living for so long in his inorganic shell, the very idea of eating had become alien to him. He sometimes wondered how he would adjust to the need for food again, when--or if, he could concede to himself if not to Ed--he did get his body back.
But pondering such things was better left for a time when he wasn't smuggling a very hungry fugitive chimera. Pushing his thoughts aside, he focused on the matter at hand.
"Okay, so what looks good to... aaah!"
Al jumped as his helmet was lifted up from the inside, and Marta's arm literally snaked out, seizing a chunk of cold roast beef. She reached out again for a block of cheese, and then his helmet dropped back into place with a muted clunk.
To the list of unbelievably unsettling experiences he had known in his young life, Al now added the eager sounds of chewing and swallowing that ensued inside him.
"Ugh... Just don't get any crumbs in me, okay?" he asked plaintively, turning his desire to squirm into a mere futile clutch at his chestplate. "Ed really hates it when he has to help me clean anything out of my armor."
"I'll be careful." It sounded as if Marta's mouth was full; a garbled chuckle was followed by a gulp. "So Big Brother doesn't like it in here, huh? I would've thought there were times it'd be useful to hide him."
"Maybe it would, but he's always avoided it somehow. I guess the idea upsets him... He has to think enough about the way I am, and what he did to save me. He doesn't need another reminder like that." Al hesitated, and then added, "Besides, I'm his brother--he probably thinks it's as creepy as I do. Would you be so okay with crawling inside me if I was your brother?"
There was an uneasy silence in response, and Al knew he had said something wrong, although he wasn't entirely sure what.
Maybe he'd struck a nerve concerning her age. It was hard to remember what she had told them: that she was old enough to be their mother. She scarcely looked any older than they were, and she certainly didn't act motherly. In fact, Al still hadn't exactly figured out how she acted. It was all very confusing.
Marta was very confusing.
"Uh..." he stammered, not sure what to say next--but before either of them could say anything else, another voice broke in from the doorway.
"Hey, this is the last place I'd expect to find you!"
Al turned quickly--much too quickly, considering the slight thump and sudden skewing of his balance that told him he'd accidentally pitched Marta against the inside of his armor. He windmilled his hands wildly, somehow managed to keep from falling over, and looked up sheepishly to see Jean Havoc slouching in the doorway. The Lieutenant's habitual cigarette was firmly in place, but his collar was loosened, and his uniform jacket was absent. He had to be looking for either a late-night snack or a rendezvous with a pretty cook, and Al had absolutely no interest in knowing which option was the case.
"I, uh--Ed asked me to get him a drink!" Al blurted out, turning back to the icebox. He grabbed the first bottle of liquid he saw, slammed the door shut, and faced the officer with a nervous chuckle.
Havoc glanced at the bottle clutched in Al's gauntlet. Then he eyed the armored boy fishily... and Al looked down at the bottle, realizing with tremendous chagrin that it was a bottle of milk.
And Ed's first act at the dinner table that evening was to have a fit over being offered milk, too.
This was so not good.
Suddenly, to Al's surprise, Havoc cracked a slight grin. "Oh, I get it. Picked yourself up another stray, huh?"
A wave of incredulous relief nearly knocked Al over... followed at once by the desire to laugh hysterically. He tried to resist that impulse, but the way Marta was growling near-silently inside him, he couldn't quite help letting out a rather strangled giggle.
"Yeah... I guess you could say that."
"Uh-huh. I know how it goes, kid." Havoc smiled, with a sort of lazy kindness. "Your secret's safe with me. You'd just better make sure you find it a good home with the locals, before we get our orders to head out of here."
"I will!" Al answered, still fighting to keep a tremor of mirth out of his voice. He bobbed a slight bow to the Lieutenant--even more slight than usual, due to his wish not to unbalance Marta again--and hurried to step past Havoc and leave the kitchen.
Along the way, Al's arm reached out and snatched a loaf of bread from a countertop--which was quite interesting, considering that wasn't his doing at all. Al gripped the loaf automatically in startlement, and the unfamiliar resistance in his arm disappeared, as Marta's own mischievous arm withdrew from inside it.
"It's--a really hungry stray!" Al said hastily, and swept past Havoc, leaving the Lieutenant to stare after him in bemusement as he rushed off down the hall.
"A stray!" Marta hissed indignantly as Al crept down the night-dimmed corridors, trying to keep his armor from making noise.
"I'm sorry," Al apologized in a whisper, although a part of him still wanted to laugh. He paused to lift his helmet and slip her the bread and milk. "But next time, you could warn me before you're gonna grab something."
...Okay, wait. Had he really just said next time?
Marta only sighed faintly. "So what now?"
"Well... if Ed's finally fallen asleep, I don't want to wake him up, so I probably won't go back to our room tonight. But after you're done eating, I'll take you back if you want."
"You don't have to. I'm kind of nocturnal myself... and I guess you don't get many nights you don't have to spend alone."
The offer of company, if it could be called that, gave Al a very peculiar feeling--but by no means a bad one.
For a few minutes he wandered the hallways of the vast building, until he found a door that opened onto a terrace outside. Although they were in the desert, the space was crudely landscaped with hardy scrub hedges and flowering cacti; it was hardly a garden, but someone had at least cared enough to try to make the place a little nicer. Al stepped out and stood looking up at the stars above, finally allowing his mind to go back over the terrible things they had learned that day.
It was hard to believe the shining oasis of Lior had become torn by unrest and violence. He was troubled to think that in hours or days, Colonel Mustang and his men would very likely be going there, prepared to do things Al didn't want to think about... And then there were the ominous lines of the alchemic array carved across the city. It was only the second time a transmutation circle had given him such a terrible sense of fear and foreboding.
The first time was the night he had watched his brother draw the equations for human life on the floor of their father's study.
"Hey. Mind if I ask you about something?"
Marta's voice startled Al out of his rather gloomy reverie. He straightened unconsciously, with an inquisitive tilt of his helmet. "What?"
"The symbol you have on your shoulder." A tap sounded from the inside of Al's left rerebrace, drawing his attention to the crest painted on its outer surface. "I noticed the same thing on Ed's coat. You can guess why I'm interested."
"Huh? ...Oh, yeah... the snake. I never thought about that." Al chuckled faintly, clasping his leather fingers over the scarlet figure of a serpent coiled around a cross.
"So what does it mean?" Marta prompted.
"It's the Flamel cross--the crest of our alchemy teacher. We adopted it from her, and she took it from her teacher before her."
Al could have left it at that... but something made him want to go on.
"But it means more than that, too," he continued, in a low voice. "It represents a staff carried by the god of healing in ancient myths. He dared to raise the dead... and for that, the chief of the gods struck him down with a thunderbolt."
The explanation was met with a heavy silence, and Al wondered if it had been a mistake to say that much. Marta knew the brothers' story; she didn't need any lines drawn to understand the significance of the myth.
"Why would you want to wear a... a reminder of something so tragic?" she breathed.
"Because when I see it, I don't think about what we did. I think of what we want to do." Al lowered his hand, gazing up at the stars once more. "We could never try to bring someone back to life again, but trying to get our own bodies back to normal would still be human transmutation. This crest reminds me how hard it would be, and how much it might cost. It reminds me that I... I shouldn't get my hopes up. That I should live and be grateful for the life I've got--because the price for getting back what we lost might be more than we could ever pay."
Marta was silent for a long moment, presumably absorbing those words. At length she asked gently, "And does Ed see it that way too?"
The sudden discomfort Al felt in his soul made him shift nervously, a reflection of old flesh-habits.
"No," he admitted at last. "To him, it does stand for our sin. He keeps the memory of that night close to him--and the crest and what it means is part of that. As much as he talks about moving forward, sometimes I think all he can focus on is looking back at the mistakes he promised to fix, because... because he doesn't really know how to hope for the future."
Al's fists tightened angrily. "And now that we know what happened in Lior after we left, it's just one more failure to him. It isn't his fault, but he'll blame himself, and I--I'm..."
His voice cracked slightly, and he suddenly felt very much like the child he still was.
"...I'm scared of what he might do."
Marta said nothing. There was an interval of somber silence... and then, three deliberate taps resonated against the inside of Al's chestplate. Much softer and gentler than the rapping of knuckles, they were produced by an open hand, and the sound made Al wish he could cry.
Devoid of sensation, he only knew he was being touched when he could see it or hear it--and hearing it somehow moved him more. A pat that echoed against his steel meant as much to him as an embrace. His brother had always understood that, and Colonel Mustang seemed oddly aware of it as well; but it wasn't something other people ever really thought about, even if they knew his armor was empty and unfeeling.
The fact that Marta realized it...
Al pressed his nerveless leather palms against his chestplate, and was almost convinced he could feel warmth where she had touched him.
"Thank you," he whispered, more grateful for her presence than he had ever imagined he could be.
His fears shrank back a little, like shadows chased away by firelight. So much was still so wrong, and he had no way of knowing what the dawn might bring... but just this once, he wasn't left to wonder through the long night alone.
It was all she meant to say, and all she needed to say.
2010 Jordanna Morgan