Title: Bless the Beasts and Children
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for gore and major unhappiness.
Characters: Alphonse, Edward, and Shou Tucker; Mustang, Hawkeye, and Hughes.
Setting: First anime. During the Elrics' time living with Tucker.
Summary: How the Elric brothers' journey might have ended before it ever really began.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: This "Things That Never Happened" story is almost certainly the worst thing I will ever do to the Elric brothers. I'm sure the idea must have been done before, and it's probably quite predictable, but I wanted to write my take on it. I threatened to do so for some time, and finally found myself in a bad enough mood to follow through.
Some canon events referenced here are not quite in chronological order. I did this deliberately, to achieve the best effect.
The steps creaked under Alphonse Elric's heavy tread as he made his way down the stairs. In the stillness of the Tuckers' sprawling house, the sound seemed unnaturally loud.
Nina had finally fallen asleep, after hours of sweetly but insistently detaining Al to play with her. He had carried her upstairs and tucked her into bed, leaving Alexander sprawled on the rug to keep her company. Now the young alchemist was eager to get back to his brother and his books, to continue studying for the State Alchemy Exam.
They had come so far, and they were so close now. When the Exam came, they were both sure to pass it easily and become State Alchemists - and then the doors of knowledge would really be opened to them. They would learn how to restore flesh in place of steel, and make themselves whole again.
With that happy thought in mind, Al headed for the library. He expected to find Ed hunched over the day's selection of books, just as he had been when Al left him earlier in the afternoon... but at first glance, there was no sign of Ed to be seen. Al passed through the rows of shelves, checking the large room thoroughly, but the search only confirmed that the library was vacant.
Of course, unlike his younger brother, Edward had physical needs. He had probably just stepped out for a moment to use the bathroom or raid the kitchen. Al waited for several minutes, expecting Ed to return quickly.
But the door did not open, and the house remained silent... and even through the nerveless steel plating that took the place of Al's flesh, he could almost tangibly feel a quivering tension in the air. It was the feeling of something wrong, and not merely in the sense of something amiss. This was the wrongness of something dark and secret and corrupt. Something taboo.
It was the same feeling Al had felt on that night, when the brothers had added drops of their own blood to the lifeless pile of chemicals that was supposed to become their mother.
Unbreathing though Al was, the tension still managed to become suffocating. When he could bear it no more, he snapped it, abruptly lurching out of the room to find Ed.
His brother was not in the kitchen, or the bathroom, or the living room. He was not in the study, or their bedroom, or even Nina's bedroom from which Al had recently come. He was not in any room of the house where Al searched; and finally, the only place left to check was Mr. Tucker's laboratory, an eternally locked basement room that neither of the Elrics had ever entered.
For only a moment, Al hesitated. Tucker's lab always gave him an uneasy feeling, and while he had accepted from the start that the Sewing-Life Alchemist's chief line of study involved animals, he shuddered at the agonized whines and howls he sometimes thought he heard late at night. He would tell himself it was all in the name of science, but that didn't make him feel any better about it.
Nevertheless, Tucker was the adult of the household, and the only one who Ed might have spoken to before his vanishing act. And besides, Al wouldn't actually have to go into that room. He needed only to knock on the door, and if Tucker was there - which he almost always was - to ask politely whether their host knew Ed's whereabouts.
Reluctant but resigned, Al crept down the hallway that led to the basement door. There were no noises coming from it now, but the silence was even more unsettling than sound would be. Upon reaching the door, he hesitated for a moment before raising his hand, but at last he mustered the will to give the wood a soft knock that shattered the stillness of the air.
For several seconds, there was no response. Then a muffled scrape sounded behind the door. A moment later, there was the soft click of a key turning in the lock, and Shou Tucker opened the door a few inches to peer out.
Al's armor rattled as he gave a slight start, his feeling of wrongness intensifying. Tucker looked strange. His thin brown hair was disheveled, and his eyes were darting and feverish behind his glasses. He looked bodily exhausted, even as he radiated a kind of nervous, manic energy.
"Oh. Alphonse." A crooked, trembling grin crossed the man's lips.
The armored boy fought off an urge to squirm that came purely from within his soul. "Mr. Tucker... have you seen my brother?"
Tucker made an odd, almost dismissive gesture with one hand as he opened the door a little wider, but his eyes were gleaming with an agitated excitement. Instead of answering the question, he said, "A timely arrival, Alphonse. I have something to show you. I've finally accomplished just what you hoped to see when you came to me."
"What?" Al stammered, mystified by the words and by Tucker's flighty behavior.
"...Another one. Another talking chimera."
Al twitched and almost took a step back, seized with a quick flash of morbid excitement. Tucker's legendary talking chimera was the very reason Lieutenant Colonel Mustang had recommended the man as a mentor. Of course, combining animals was a far cry from human transmutation... but surely there were valuable things to be learned from an achievement so advanced.
"Wow! - But... does Ed know?" Al blurted, wavering awkwardly between his fascination and his anxiousness. "He should be here. He'll want to see it too."
Once again ignoring the question, Tucker stepped back and beckoned. "Come and see it, Alphonse."
Briefly Al hesitated. Ed would be annoyed if he found out Al had seen the chimera first, without him; but the boy couldn't resist the chance to see and hear such a marvel. Rather gingerly he moved through the doorway, and followed Tucker down the steps.
At the bottom of the steps was a half-lit passageway, full of cages of writhing and whimpering things. Some were normal animals, dogs and rats and rabbits, waiting their turn to become living raw materials at the center of a transmutation circle... but others were not normal. Al tried not to look at them, focusing instead on the flicker of light that spilled from the doorway at the end of the hall.
The room beyond the doorway was the kind of mess one would expect an erratic genius to inhabit. The desk and shelves were overflowing with books and papers. The walls, the floor, and even the ceiling were largely covered with chalked arrays - most of them unfinished, like fragments of passing thoughts. The unsteady light came from a single candle on the desk.
A large and sturdy cage stood against the far wall, at the very edge of the candle's sphere of light. Something was in it, a dark quivering shape that crouched and panted in the dimness of a back corner.
"This one was - aggressive." Tucker's voice and hand both trembled a little as he adjusted his eyeglasses. "I had to take... precautions. Still, it does talk... Say hello to it, Alphonse."
Torn between curiosity and an awful, crawling fear, Al slowly approached the cage. "Brother should really be here to - "
He faltered into silence, for at the sound of his voice, the creature in the cage started sharply and turned. Two yellow eyes glowed unnaturally in the shadows, and it sat up awkwardly, moving nearer to the light. A golden-furred left paw grasped the iron bars, its sharp talons unsheathed from the tips of long and twisted digits...
But what reached out to Al from the darkness was a perfectly-formed right hand of gleaming steel.
A heavy rain was pouring down when the staff car skidded to a halt outside the walls of Shou Tucker's estate. Heedless of the cold wetness, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang hurled himself from the car before it had even ceased to move, to run up the steps and burst through a front door that had already been forced open. His heart pounded furiously, and he was sick to his stomach.
My fault... All my fault.
"Hughes?" Roy called out into the deathly silence of the house, not needing to give Riza Hawkeye an acknowledging glance as the Lieutenant soberly came up at his shoulder.
Something faintly creaked and scuffled, and the faltering voice of Maes Hughes drifted to them from deeper in the house. "Here."
Roy forced himself to move, to put one foot in front of the other and walk. With Hawkeye following, he traced the sound of Hughes' voice to a hallway several rooms away.
Hughes was standing beside an open doorway at the end of that hall, one hand clutching the frame of the door, the other clasped to his brow and visibly shaking. He was paler than Roy had ever seen him. The eyes half-hidden behind his hand were reddened, and his face and hair were damp with tears and cold sweat.
If Maes' half-hysterical phone call hadn't already warned Roy of what was to come, just looking at the man would have.
"They're...?" Roy choked out, his voice almost inaudible.
Hughes breathed deeply, his hand moving from his head to point down the steps beyond the doorway. For a moment Roy thought Hughes was going to say something, but then he seemed to think better of it - probably because, if he opened his mouth, he looked quite liable to throw up. It was fairly certain he already had.
Resisting the rising urge to do so himself, Roy leadenly moved forward, as Hughes turned stiffly and preceded the other two officers down the steps.
A twisted menagerie dwelled below, pacing in their cages, growling and snapping at any flesh that wandered too close. Roy walked by them as if he didn't see them. On another day, the collection of chimera would have disgusted him, but their horrors now paled in comparison to what he already knew was waiting at the end of the corridor. What Hughes had haltingly described to him through gasping sobs over the phone, not fifteen minutes earlier.
At the doorway to Shou Tucker's lab, Hughes stopped and turned. Again he seemed to be searching for words, but at last he only shook his head, swallowed hard, and made a despairing gesture.
My fault, Roy reminded himself ruthlessly, and stepped forward to see the horror for which only he was to blame.
At first glance, the lab looked like the typical habitat of any obsessively zealous alchemic researcher. The candle on the desk was burning low, casting a wavering amber light over the clutter of books and papers and the haphazard arrays on the walls. One transmutation circle on the floor was larger and clearer than the rest, the chalk dust around it still fresh.
Unlike Hughes or Hawkeye, as an alchemist, Roy could read the equations. He could only just make out the part that read as human... because there, the marks of white chalk became more than half-covered by a stain of deep red.
Dully he let his eyes follow the congealing pool of blood to the crumpled form in the corner. There was nothing much left to recognize as a man, merely pulped flesh and shattered bone held together by a mess of blood-drenched clothing. A broken pair of eyeglasses lay in the red puddle.
Large, stumbling footprints tracked from the blood to an animal's cage against the opposite wall. The solid iron bars were wrenched open as if they had been made of wax.
From there the blood trail continued to a far corner, where the half-light of the candle glinted softly on bloodied steel. Alphonse crouched there, his broad metal shell of a back turned toward the doorway. His arms were curled in toward his chest, cradling something, with a gentleness that seemed as if it could not possibly have come from the creator of the room's violent carnage.
Al's bulk obscured the view of what he held. From the doorway, all Roy could really see was the end of a twitching golden-furred tail.
Roy gulped in a breath, managed not to choke on the heavy odor of blood, and shuffled forward. Al remained still as an inanimate object when the Lieutenant Colonel drew closer, when he leaned over to look at what remained of Edward Elric.
Something inside Roy quietly died then, and he knew it would never live again.
Retractable claws, a blunt whiskery muzzle, sleek lines of svelte muscle; the base animal was plainly something feline. The blond fur was matted with blood. This seemed only to have been transferred from Al's armor, rather than flowing from a wound - but Tucker's skilled handiwork had cruelly and carelessly neglected to allow for Ed's automail. No longer properly conforming to the altered body, the ports connected to flesh and bone and nerves had to be causing pain. That distress may have accounted for the Ed-cat's short, ragged breaths, even though his eyes were closed in an apparent sleep of exhausted physical shock.
The room tilted suddenly. Roy recoiled a few steps, sagged onto one knee, and promptly gave up the contents of his stomach.
For a few moments silence followed, as he breathed deeply and struggled to shut down his emotions. It wasn't that Hughes and Hawkeye were watching him; they had both seen him at his worst and his weakest before. It was only that there just wasn't time to fall apart. Decisions would have to be made now, and quickly.
"Ed... came to see me, today," Hughes murmured in a dull monotone, blinking wetly. "He was - asking me questions about Tucker. About the first talking chimera... and Tucker's wife. Said Tucker told him his wife only ran off, when all the records say she's dead. After he left, the more I thought about it, the more I felt something wasn't right. Finally I got worried enough to come over, and..." Hughes gulped suddenly and rested his head in his hands. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. If I'd listened sooner to my instincts, if I'd gotten here earlier - "
"It wasn't your fault, Maes." Roy clenched his fists and dragged himself to his feet. "It was mine. I was the one who put these boys in Tucker's hands, without looking hard enough at the signs that were right in front of me. I did this... and I should be damned for it forever."
Reluctantly, he stepped back to Al's side. Disgusted at himself for avoiding a glance at what the armored boy held, he placed his hand on Al's shoulder, even though the touch would not be felt.
"Al," he said, softly but firmly.
The steel under his hand shivered slightly, and after an infinitesimal moment, Al's back straightened. He lifted his helmet, looking up at Roy.
Roy suppressed a flinch at the pitiful smallness of the voice inside the armor, and tried to speak as gently and clearly as he could. "We need to know what happened here."
"...What happened?" Al repeated quizzically.
"Wh-what do you mean?"
There was something far too confused and uncomprehending in Al's tone. Roy blinked, frowned, and shot a glance at Hughes.
"Don't, Roy," Maes almost whispered, shaking his head. "I tried talking to him already. He's... he's not all there. It's like talking to a toddler... He doesn't know what's happened. I don't think he's even aware anymore of - the way he is." The Major swallowed hard. "This was just too much for the poor kid."
So, then... not one, but both of the Elric brothers had been destroyed by Roy's carelessness.
With a vehement oath, Roy turned and slammed his fist against the nearest bookshelf, hearing bones crack.
Al took no notice. His focus had already shifted back to the burden in his arms, the pathetic creature that was his brother.
In any case, they didn't need Al to tell them how this tragedy had unfolded. It was obvious enough. Perhaps following a confrontation over the things Ed learned from Hughes, Tucker had taken Ed, and transmuted him. Then Al had found out... and in the rage and grief of that discovery, he had unleashed the full potential of his steel-bodied strength on the man. It was impossible to guess whether Ed's fate or that unthinkable act of violence had been the more destructive blow to Al's young psyche.
"What now, sir?" Hawkeye asked in the heavy silence of the room, and Roy envied the steadiness of her voice.
He stiffened and turned, letting his gaze slowly pass over the lab once more. The notebooks and arrays that documented Tucker's abomination. The remains of the man a mere child had killed in the shock of his horror and pain.
"There can't be a trace left," Roy murmured, more to himself than anyone, and his battered hand unconsciously moved to the pocket in which he had tucked his gloves.
To investigators, it would look like a gas explosion, a tragic freak accident. Roy knew how to do it. He had done it often enough before.
Hughes crossed the room to Roy in two strides, and seized his friend's wrist in an iron grip.
"Roy... tell me you're not. Not thinking of - that." He swallowed hard, and did not quite turn his head to look at the huddled mass of steel and fur in the corner. "Of leaving them to - "
"It would be the most humane thing, Maes."
Roy didn't recognize his own voice. He couldn't blame Hughes for letting go of his wrist, recoiling as if he had become something poisonous. Nor did he blame Hughes for the instant's thought that compelled him to dart a glance at his sleeve, although Roy knew full well what his fellow soldier had always carried there.
"...But you know I can't," Roy concluded in a broken whisper, and shook his head, looking at Alphonse's bowed back. "Not now... and not to them."
As Hughes' body almost imperceptibly relaxed, Roy could feel the edge of an abyss shrinking back from him - and he was not ungrateful for its momentary presence. He hoped never to see the day when Hughes would hesitate to save what was left of his soul, even at the point of a knife.
"Then what are we going to do with them?" Hawkeye asked softly.
A long breath shuddered out of Roy's lungs, and he offered a small, weary shrug.
"We'll take them to Marcoh. He still owes me for covering his tracks after Ishbal, and I don't think he'd refuse anyway. I don't know if he can help them... but at least he can take care of them. I'll pay any expenses - whatever he needs."
"Ed's automail will need - changes," Hughes murmured tightly.
"I know. I'll arrange that somehow, too."
Hawkeye frowned as if at a sudden thought. "What about Tucker's daughter?"
"I'll take her," Hughes said, without a moment's hesitation, and Roy knew he was not merely thinking of keeping her overnight.
"Are you sure, Maes? You've got a newborn in the house already. Will it be alright with Gracia?"
"Yeah. She'll love having Nina with us - and Elicia will love having a big sister. Tucker never took Nina out to play with other children, so if we cut her hair, I don't think anybody'll recognize her. We can tell people she's an orphan we've taken in from Gracia's side of the family." Hughes smiled sadly. "I'm not sure Gracia's going to be so thrilled about Nina's dog, but... we'll work it out."
"I suppose Nina might have been lucky," Hawkeye observed somberly. "If the Elrics hadn't been here... maybe it would have been her."
A part of Roy wanted to say that it should have been; that instead of Edward Elric, it should have been a child he hardly knew, one who meant nothing to him. It was the ugliest feeling he had ever felt, but he couldn't bring himself to care.
"Alright," he sighed wearily. "Hawkeye, go get the girl and the dog. Hughes and I will see about... the boys."
With a short nod, Hawkeye exited the lab. Roy turned grimly toward the corner where Al still sat, but Hughes was already on the move.
"Al," Maes prompted gently. "Come on, Al. It's time to leave here... to get you to a place where you'll be taken care of."
The armor gave a small, clattering start. Al turned to Hughes, lifting the burden in his arms slightly, and spoke with a quiver of uncertain fear in his voice.
"I can take my cat too, can't I?"
Roy's insides twisted, and it took all the will he had left to hold his nerves together. He stepped closer to Al, and nodded slowly.
"Yes, Al. Of course you can... You've got to take good care of him."
Some indefinable shift of Al's posture seemed to express that he was happy with that answer. He carefully shifted his hold on his brother-pet and stood up, moving to follow Hughes from the room.
As they passed him, Roy could hear a faint, vibrating gurgle of a sound. It took him a moment to realize what it was.
The Ed-cat was purring - or at least trying to.
Then they were gone, and Roy stood alone in the bloody room, letting himself shake with a sob of sickened, bitter laughter.
In a monstrous, unforgivable way... perhaps the Elrics finally knew a measure of peace. Alphonse's broken soul had retreated into a childlike ignorance, no longer conscious of his own painful freakishness. The terrible burden of guilt and responsibility Edward carried on his shoulders had been taken from him, and for the rest of his days, he would know only his brother's love and tender care.
They still had each other... and now that truly was all they had.
2011 Jordanna Morgan