Title: From Ashes (Chapter X: Departure)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for blood in the first two chapters.
Characters: Mainly Ed and Al, with intermittent Winry and Pinako.
Setting: The year between the boys' human transmutation attempt and the day they left Resembool.
Summary: Edward and Alphonse had a long journey to make before they ever left home.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I own nothing but a couple of villagers in chapter nine.
Additional Note: A certain stuffed cat is for Griselda Banks, in appreciation for her wonderful support of this story. Thank you!

Although Ed had never set a date for their leaving Resembool, Al could feel it when the day arrived.

The third of October dawned sunny and unseasonably warm, a final touch of summer that made the turning leaves of the trees seem that much brighter. Winry suggested they take advantage of the weather with a picnic at the pond - and Ed was unusually quick to abandon his books in favor of the idea. So they spent that precious time together, surrounded by the hills of home.

From beginning to end, it was a beautiful day. A day to be held fondly, gratefully in one's memories...

A goodbye that needed no words.

That night, Ed laid down at bedtime as usual, but Al knew he remained awake. The restless, nervous energy in the air was something new; Al didn't need skin to almost feel the anxious prickle of it, and he was a little scared.

A part of him wanted to beg Ed to forget his plans, to let them both stay safe and hidden away in Resembool, in their small familiar world where everyone knew them and was kind. He didn't want to sense all over again the stares and whispers of strangers with each new place they might travel to. He didn't want his brother to be sent into danger by the military. He didn't want either of them to be forced to use their abilities to do harm, even in self-defense... and he didn't want to compound the horrors of their mistake through further meddling in human transmutation.

He just didn't want anyone to get hurt.

But in the end, the truth was, he couldn't bear to stay any more than Ed could.

He couldn't go on merely existing as he was, helping the Rockbells with heavy lifting, occupying his mind with books and busywork to stave off thoughts of his own monstrosity. He needed to feel he was still somehow living - and the quiet of Resembool would never fill that empty silence inside his armor. In the innocent hills and fields of a lost childhood, the brothers' suffering and learning and unnatural gifts could serve no worthy purpose. For the sake of his sanity, Al had to believe there was a purpose for it all, but he knew it could only lie in the vast unknown beyond their sheltering home.

And deep in his soul, his faith in his brother still gave him hope. The hope that he would know touch and taste and dreams again; the hope that Brother's automail would again give place to flesh. If anyone could bend the forces of alchemy to his own will, shatter the walls of impossibility and cast asunder the law of Equivalent Exchange, it was Edward Elric.

All Alphonse could give him in return was devotion and protection: the shield of a metal body to guard him against enemies, the gentle echo of a voice of reason to guard him against himself.

For now, that was all the purpose Al needed.

Half an hour after the house became quiet, Ed sat up and turned on the bedside lamp. He was still for a long moment, fingers of flesh and steel gripping the edge of the mattress. At last he raised his eyes to the familiar corner of the room where Al settled each night.

"It's time to go, Al."

No answer was necessary. Ed knew he had felt it, too. Slowly Al stood up - making less noise now than in the beginning, when each movement of his alien shell was awkward and uncertain. He had learned so much since then.

He was ready. They both were.

Ed rose and moved to the closet, where he dressed in clothes Al hadn't seen before: black as midnight, with the austere lines of a uniform. And over those garments, by sharp contrast, a long and beautiful coat in the red of royal robes, emblazoned with a bitterly noble crest...

Then Al understood. Blackness for mourning, with a scarlet cloak of sin to hang heavy on his shoulders.

Move forward, Ed had said so often... but he gave the lie to his own creed by wrapping himself in the past, to cover the steel and scars that told the same story in a far more brutal language.

As Ed studied the mirror over the bureau with grim satisfaction, Al's hand closed on his shoulder - his automail shoulder. The younger Elric's emotions were brimming, and he didn't trust himself not to squeeze flesh and bone too tightly.

"Brother... I want to wear the crest, too."

In the reflection, he saw amber eyes flash with a pain that was meant to be hidden. Ed reached up to brush the gauntlet aside, but his left hand lingered for just an instant over Al's own.

"It's not your burden, Al."

"We've been through all that before. We both made the choice. Just because I was more scared, that doesn't make me any less guilty." Al tried to lighten his tone, and did not entirely succeed. "Besides, it's Teacher's crest. That gives me a right to it too."

For a moment, there appeared to be a fresh argument on the tip of Ed's tongue... but then he sighed and smiled sadly.

"Okay. I think Pinako has some paint down in the workshop. You go get it while I finish packing."

A day ago, Al wouldn't have dared to leave Ed alone at this moment, for fear he would come back to find him already gone - but now he knew. Ed's surrender regarding the crest held a far deeper meaning. Brother had accepted the way this was going to be.

Together... or nothing at all.

When Al returned from the workshop with a jar of red paint and a fine-tipped brush, the secondhand suitcase Ed had bought a week earlier lay open on the bed. It was taken up almost exclusively with Ed's travel necessities; Al required nothing physically but to keep his armor clean and dry and free of rust, a fact that gave him a certain guilty gladness. As painfully as he missed his human senses, at least he wouldn't burden Ed with fleshly needs on the road before them.

If - when - that road was to lead them home with their bodies whole again, then Al would spend the rest of his life basking in every recaptured experience. But until that day came, he was determined to value and make use of the advantages of steel.

Ed turned from the suitcase as Al came into the room. For a moment he regarded his armored brother with a look of somber affection.

"Well... where?" he asked simply, taking the paintbrush.

Al knelt down in front of Ed with a clatter. After a moment's consideration, he touched the rerebrace that served as his left shoulder. "Here."

For the next few minutes, he held the paint jar and sat motionless as Ed carefully worked. The mirror was visible from his position, and although he was understandably not fond of his reflection, it fascinated him to see the crest take shape. It wasn't quite perfect - apart from the inherent beauty in the mathematics of a transmutation circle, Ed had never been an artist - but if an angle was just slightly crooked here, or a curve was a tiny bit disproportionate there, Al still cherished it because it came from his brother's own hand. His right hand; his automail, the weight he carried for Al's sake.

It was hard, then, not to think of the fateful symbol Ed's true hand had once traced.

When the flamel was completed and Al had approved, Ed used alchemy to bond the paint to the armor. Al moved to rise then, but Ed stilled him with an automail hand laid gently on the newly-painted crest. He met Al's gaze, his eyes deep and dark.

"I already know the answer, Al... but I still have to ask, one last time."

The younger Elric understood. Slowly and firmly, he clasped his leather fingers over Ed's metal ones.

"I am going with you, Brother." He tried to keep his voice steady, but it still trembled with the force of his feelings. "We're all we've got... and nothing is ever going to keep me from being beside you."

Ed ducked his head slightly, a little too late to conceal the misty shine in his eyes. And then he did something Al didn't expect: he reached out, wrapping his arms just a little awkwardly around Al's not-quite-neck, and hugged the cold unyielding steel.

Overwhelmed and soul-aching, Al returned the hug, and it didn't matter that he couldn't feel the warm tightness of Ed's grip. With his brother's fragile body nestled close against the place where his heart should have been, he felt strong in a way that had nothing to do with the strength of the armor. What was enfolded in his arms was his entire world, and what he could hold, he could also keep safe.

"I promise," Ed whispered fervently, and there was no need to elaborate. He had said all the words that followed those a hundred times already: I promise to get your body back. I promise to make it all right.

Al squeezed him a little bit harder. "I promise too."

The embrace lasted for a long moment more, until Ed reluctantly squirmed - a guilty reminder that he needed oxygen. Al hastily let him go, but as he caught his breath, he merely laid his hand on Al's helmet with a rueful smile.

Then his expression became grave as he turned away. He latched the suitcase and picked it up, and briefly stood looking around their bedroom one last time.

This room held few happy memories. It was first prepared for them the same day Mother died, and long afterward they would cry themselves to sleep there each night. Then, in time, it became their den of secrets, a hiding place of forbidden human-alchemy books, a sanctuary for endless hours of study... and finally, those walls had borne witness to the nightmares and pain of the aftermath.

Yet somehow, at least to Al, it had become their home - or at least something as close to a home as they still had.

Finally, in silence, Ed turned and walked out. Al followed as quietly as he could, along the hall and down the stairs; but when they came to the foot of the staircase, he touched Ed's shoulder.

"Let me put away Aunt Pinako's paint," he whispered, holding up the jar and the brush in his hand.

In the darkness, he could faintly see Ed shake his head with fond exasperation. "Just can't stand to leave anything out of place, can you? ...Go ahead. I'll be outside by the shed."

Accordingly, Al hurried to the workshop, with its organized chaos of tools and equipment and half-finished automail limbs that stretched out like grasping ghosts from the shadows. He left the paint and brush exactly where he had found them... and on Winry's workbench he placed a note, scrawled in handwriting that was never quite the same after nerveless leather fingers had relearned it.

Ed had wanted to leave without a word of any kind, but Al simply couldn't bear to do that.

Outside, Ed was waiting by the shed as promised - and the suitcase, resting beside him on the ground, had been joined by two metal gasoline cans. Al knew what those were for, and his soul felt a vague flutter that would once have been his heart skipping a beat.

It had startled him when, a few days earlier, Ed had confided what he wanted to do; but it hadn't really surprised him. Not after that night on the rooftop, when Ed looked across the hill and spoke with such poisoned bitterness in his voice. Yet as he outlined the reasoning behind his plan, he was by contrast calm and thoughtful: Leave nothing to come back to. No choice but to move forward.

Al knew better. No excuse would make it a less painful, spiteful, wasteful deed...

But if Brother could feel any demons were expelled on the funeral pyre of their life-that-was, he would gladly strike the match himself.

Neither of them spoke as they walked away from the Rockbell house. Ed carried the gas cans, leaving Al to take the suitcase. Rather than follow the rutted dirt path to the road, they crossed the moon-silvered grass, retracing the footsteps of a thousand happier days. Al couldn't help but remember: running, laughter, looking back over their shoulders to wave goodnight to Winry, as Mother called them home for supper.

The silence held until they arrived at the door of their own empty house. There Edward set down the gas cans and reached for the doorknob, withdrawing the key from his pocket.

Al barely stopped himself from clutching Ed's shoulder. "We have to go back inside?" he asked, his voice quivering with anxious perplexity.

Twice in the last few days they had already returned, to carefully select and carry away a few precious fragments of the past. Several books. A small box of photographs. A few crude animal figures transmuted from tin cans, once cherished by Mother as their gifts to her. The stuffed cat, made by Mava, that was Al's former bedtime guardian against the dark. These things and a few others were now tucked away in the Rockbells' attic; perhaps the boys would never even see them again, but it was a comfort just to know they were there.

At the end of that second salvage foray, Al had made his peace and said his silent goodbyes, or at least thought he had. The idea of going in once more made him feel a vague distress. If he looked one last time at the remaining pictures on the mantelpiece, the cherished books that were still on the shelves, the big cozy chair where they would snuggle up to Mother when she read stories... maybe his resolve would break. Maybe he wouldn't be able to bear what Brother intended to do, to the house - or with himself. Not any of it.

Maybe one more goodbye was too much.

"You don't need to," Ed answered quietly. "But I want to make sure we do a good job of this. Why do you think I brought the gas cans? It... it all has to go, Al." He hesitated. "Especially..."

Ed seemed unable to speak the next words, but they rang clearly in Al's mind anyway. This time he did clutch Ed's arm of flesh, gripping more tightly than he intended, and his voice struck a high, sharp note of fear. "You're going in there?"

Father's study. The scene of their crime and its unspeakable punishment - a place neither of them had dared to enter since that night.

"It's gotta be done." Ed pulled his arm free of Al's grasp. "And... I need to see it."

Al couldn't bring himself to ask exactly what it was Ed needed to see. Perhaps that any remaining evidence of their sin would be obliterated... or perhaps that the study was once more just a room, and not a gaping portal to the hell he had once witnessed.

Before Al could protest further, Ed turned the key and pushed the door open. Armed with a small flashlight and one of the gas cans, he slipped inside and vanished into the shadows - and Al could not force himself to follow.

The few minutes that followed felt like an hour. Al stood at the threshold as if he had rusted solid there, hating himself for his weakness, while his mind ran riot with horrible visions of what might be happening in the study. Ed being seized by some monstrous thing that still lurked in the darkness. Ed forsaking his assurances, retracing the bloodstained equations on the floor, attempting by himself to repeat the transgression that had cost them both so dearly. Had Al still possessed lungs, he would have held his breath, half-expecting the sound of a scream; but there was only a heavy, oppressive silence that was in its way even more terrifying.

At long last Al heard a scraping sound, followed by footsteps, and Ed suddenly emerged into the shaft of moonlight that penetrated only a few feet beyond the doorway. He was pale, his jaw set and eyes hooded.

It was the look that meant he was thinking of that place again - and Al didn't dare to intrude on that unholy ground, to ask what he had seen.

Brusquely Ed stepped out and picked up the remaining gas can, and Al watched with dispassion as the fuel splashed against the walls of the house. A part of him wanted to ache for what was coming, but after those last few minutes, he couldn't move himself to such a feeling. His reawakened fear of the study, of all it represented, had severed this abandoned place from his good and pure memories of a past beloved home. Washing away the blood would never cleanse that room of its horrors. It could only be erased from existence - and the rest of the house was a small price to pay for that.

He was ashamed to feel a little glad when, in the shadows where Ed crouched beneath the great oak tree, a flame sparked to life.

Ed returned to Al's side. The makeshift torch in his hand glowed brightly, but he delayed for just a moment, looking up at his little brother with eyes that were now strangely filled with tenderness.

"You're sure?" he asked quietly.

Of course, he would ask that too, one last time. The house belonged equally to Al... but so did the memories.

For answer, Al gently took the torch from Ed's hand, and touched it to the doorpost. The fire bit eagerly into the wood, racing away along the spattered trails of gasoline.

Almost as if they were sharing a solemn ritual, Ed reclaimed the torch and ignited the other side of the threshold. Then they retreated to a safe distance and stood together in silence, watching as the house was consumed. Al couldn't feel the heat, but he could see its wavering distortion in the air, hear the muffled pops and thuds of things exploding. Windows burst outward in sparkling shards of glass, smoke and flame billowing from the inferno within.

Presently, Al looked at Ed. His eyes were dark, his gaze turned inward, but his face was intently set. His red coat and golden hair were stirred by the wind, reflecting the flames in a shimmer of spectral brightness. The sight reminded Al of a myth he had once read: the story of a magnificent bird that perished upon its burning nest, only to rise again, reborn from the ashes of its past self.

Edward tossed the torch into the blaze, and stared after it for a long moment before turning at last to Alphonse.

"Don't remember this night as an ending, Al... because this is the beginning."

Picking up his suitcase, he turned his back to the gentle rain of ash that had begun to fall. The crest between his shoulders stood out sharply in the firelight, a symbol of all that would not be left behind.

He took a deep breath, and started to walk; and his brother followed him without looking back.

2010 Jordanna Morgan