Title: Quality of Life
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Ed, Al, Winry, and Pinako.
Setting: An AU divergence from canon, sometime during the quest for the Philosopher's Stone.
Summary: A terrible secret from their childhood throws the Elrics' entire quest into doubt.
Disclaimer: They belong to the genius of Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: I actually wrote this installment of my Things That Never Happened series prior to "Stepfather", but I chose to post that one first, because I wanted to start my collection of AUs with a story that had a more optimistic ending. As for this one, it might be considered sort of a play on Alfons' illness in Conquerer of Shamballa. It begins with some humor that I almost think is too good for this grim little tale, and maybe rather ill-fitting; but it's what came out when I sat down to write this, so there it is. I hope readers will enjoy that part at least.
The first drops of rain were splashing down from heavy black clouds when the Elrics knocked on the door, and an ominous rumble of thunder accentuated its bursting open. It was an ironic touch that Edward would have appreciated - if not for the simultaneous collision of his chin with a fist that was wrapped around a heavy wrench.
"Just look at what you've done to yourself this time!" Winry wailed.
It was a fair enough point: Ed was a sight. His automail arm hung limp at the elbow, almost severed, and the only movement he was capable of from that point down was a slight twitch of his fingers. He was also limping on a too-rigid left leg, which showed broken cables protruding from beneath buckled outer plating. Furthermore, the parts of him that were flesh bore bandages in a dozen places, including one wrapped around his head to secure a patch of gauze over his left temple.
"Uh... hi?" Alphonse squeaked, pretending to prop his reeling brother up, but in actuality cowering behind Ed's shoulder - insofar as a suit of armor twice Ed's size could possibly hope to cower.
Winry made a very frightening growling noise... but the wrench thudded to the floor. She grabbed Ed's wrist and Al's gauntlet, dragging them out of the rain that had begun to pour down. Soon they were settled in the warm, dry living room, where the grumbling mechanic proceeded to shake her head over Ed's mangled limbs.
"Do I even want to know how you managed this?" she muttered, making Ed flinch as she yanked at a directly nerve-connected wire.
He squirmed and chuckled nervously. "It's... kind of a long story. There was this really nasty chimera about the size of a bus, and... well - this is nothing - you should've seen Al!" he misdirected abruptly. "We were just lucky my arm wasn't in such bad shape that I couldn't fix him up before we headed here."
"The chimera tried to eat Ed," Al simplified flatly. "After it figured out I didn't taste very good."
It looked as if Winry would have a choice reply to that explanation... but she was preempted by the deliberate slam of the door to the basement workshop.
"So. You boys have been at it again."
The brothers cringed slightly as Pinako strode across the room, to stand puffing at her pipe and appraising them with a stony expression. There was something unusually harsh in her demeanor; even Winry glanced up at her grandmother uncertainly. For a few moments, the only sound in the room was the pelting of rain against the windows.
"How long do you think we can stand watching the two of you come home like this?" Pinako finally asked. Her voice was quiet, but painfully hard, and her eyes behind her spectacles were even harder.
Ed shifted uneasily on the couch. "Granny..."
"Don't Granny me," Pinako retorted with unexpected heat, jabbing the stem of her pipe at his chest. "Not when you obviously don't care what it means to us, seeing you try to kill yourselves time and again."
Chastened, Ed lowered his head, but the muscles in his jaw tightened.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm sorry it seems like we only come to you when we're hurt... but we don't fight so hard because we want to get killed. We do it because we want to live - to live normal lives again, the way we were before." He looked up, his golden eyes brightening with the familiar fire of his determination. "I promised to get Al's body back, and you know I'll do whatever it takes."
"Oh, Ed... you fool." The old woman turned away, staring out through the rain-blurred window, and sucked in a deep breath through teeth that were clenched tightly around her pipe. For a long moment she was still; then her shoulders dropped slightly, and she spoke in a voice that was soft, but as cutting as a knife.
"Even if you could put Al back in his body... it might only be to watch him die."
The cryptic words gave Ed a chill and made his heart skip a beat, but it was Al who spoke up first.
"But everybody grows old and dies someday. I'm not scared of that, Aunt Pinako. It's part of being normal - being human. Even if it was true that I could go on living forever in this shell... I'd still want to live just the one life I was born with."
Pinako turned, studying the armor that imprisoned Al's soul, and her expression was unfathomably sad. "That's not what I meant."
"I don't understand..."
"You were just a baby, and you wouldn't remember." Pinako's gaze shifted to Ed, who suddenly and inexplicably felt his insides turn cold. "But maybe you remember, Ed. Maybe you remember a time, years ago, when your mother took both of you boys to Central. She went there to see a doctor - a specialist."
"I..." Ed stammered. He swallowed hard as his mind automatically traced back through the years, searching his memory.
And he found it: a long, long train ride, where baby Al was fussy, and he himself was desperately bored. At the end of it, a great, noisy city that was only a frightening blur... and a shiny, white, sterile place. A doctor's office. Alone with a strange nurse-lady for a little while, and then into an exam room, where a tall, deep-voiced doctor put Al on the table. The doctor stuck a needle in his arm and made him cry - and then he did the same to Ed.
Later, a hotel room, to stay the night before the morning train back to Resembool. Al oblivious on the bed, with a coloring book in his lap and a bandage on his pudgy little arm, to match the ones Ed and Mother had. Mother hiding tears, looking so pale and sad that Ed was afraid to ask her what was wrong.
Mom... did the needle hurt you?
What? ...Oh. Yes, sweetie. That's all it was.
Ed's breath caught. He had buried these memories because they hurt and were frightening, in ways a child's mind couldn't understand - but he now realized, at least, where his irrational fear of needles came from. He didn't even remember the prick on his own skin. All he knew was that it had hurt Mother, and he hated anything that would do that.
But there was more about the memory that disquieted him.
After that, she hugged him tight, kissed him on the forehead. Now play with your brother. I want you to be good to him, and always take care of him... okay?
There was something in the urgency of that plea, the tremor of her unshed tears, that made it more terrible than any of the things the brothers had faced in the years since. She had often asked Ed to look after his little brother, always with a loving, trusting warmth that made him proud to give her his promise; but this time, there was only a grieving pain in her voice. He didn't know why it should feel so wrong just that once, but somehow he desperately, instinctively feared what it meant.
A sick feeling tightened in his gut, and his left fist clenched as he stared hard at Pinako's back.
"That was when your mother learned she was a sick woman." Pinako turned to face him, exhaling a streamer of pipe smoke in a deep sigh. "But that wasn't all of it. You see, the disease that killed her was hereditary - and there was an even chance that she would have passed it on to her children. It's why she took you boys to be tested, too. Ed, your results were negative, but..."
As Pinako faltered into silence, Ed's reality suddenly crumbled. He slumped forward, barely feeling Winry's arm wrapped around his shoulders; barely hearing Alphonse let out a sharp, shuddering gasp.
"But Al tested positive," Ed concluded in a ragged whisper, and he knew Pinako had nodded when a sob caught in Winry's throat.
"What are you saying?" Al's voice trembled beneath the echo of steel. "You mean if we hadn't tried the transmutation... If Ed hadn't put me in this armor... I would have died?"
"After a while... yes. Signs of the disease probably wouldn't have appeared for years - but it could never be cured. You would have died much too young, just like your mother." Pinako gave the younger Elric a sad, painful smile. "Maybe that alchemy of yours couldn't bring her back, but in a terrible way, the truth is... Ed did manage to save your life."
Armor plates scraped harshly as Al physically sagged, letting out a soft whimper.
In that moment, Ed couldn't bear to look at his brother, because he knew Al's thoughts mirrored his own. After all their years of searching, after all the pain and struggle and hope...
His entire world ceased to turn, and he pressed his hand against his eyes, his skull pounding with a sickening horror and disbelief.
"And now, even if we did get your body back... what if it still had the disease?"
2010 Jordanna Morgan