Title: The Darkness Before Dawn
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: Mild PG for pain and angst.
Characters: Winry, Alphonse, Edward, Pinako.
Setting: Soon after Ed and Al's attempt to resurrect their mother.
Summary: Sequel to "Poultry Problems". Winry learns what Al has been doing outside at night.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Written for the FMA Gift Exchange prompt of Al and "night vision". It ended up becoming a full-blown sequel to "Poultry Problems" - complete with another cameo for Buck the rooster. This is a more serious fic than its predecessor, though.
It was Edward's cries that awakened Winry, as they had many times in the awful nights since the Elric brothers' transmutation.
Usually, the manifestation of his night terrors only lasted for a few moments. Al would be at his side, eternally wakeful and quick to soothe him, and he would quiet and sink back into sleep right away; but on this night, the outburst of shrieks and sobs from down the hall did not abate. It only took on a sharper, more urgent pitch.
Distressed by the sounds, Winry rose and seized her robe, pulling it on haphazardly as she left her room. Maybe Al was having trouble calming Ed this time. They were hardly a day past the first excruciating stage of his automail surgeries, and when he was conscious at all right now, he was incoherent from powerful medications that still weren't enough to completely ease the agony. Winry had seen other automail patients have violent reactions at this point. She hoped Ed wouldn't be that way - but in his cries and mumbles in his sleep, she had caught such terrifying hints of his nightmares that she doubted they would be so lucky.
Reaching the half-open door of the boys' room, she quickly pushed it open, to receive a startling surprise: Alphonse was not there.
Edward was in the bed, still - which was rather a wonder, because he had somehow managed to twist himself around until his head was at the foot of the bed. The fact that his two remaining limbs were tangled up in the sheets was probably the only thing to have kept him from tumbling into the floor. He was breathing hard, clutching the mass of bandages where his right shoulder should have been, yet writhing and struggling against the accidental restraint of the bedclothes. His open eyes were glassy and unseeing... or rather, they were seeing something that wasn't really there.
"Al... Alphonse! No! Give him back!"
Winry's stomach tightened sickly. Sometimes Ed's cries were for his mother, and sometimes they were purely from pain, but this was the worst. That desperate, half-crazed pleading for his brother broke her heart, but it also frightened her - because she knew that somehow, whatever he was reliving had been real. In his mind, it was that terrible night all over again, and he was struggling against the monstrous unknown that had torn both of the boys to pieces.
In that state, even missing two limbs, he could have hurt Winry if he mistook her for the horror in his memory; yet she hesitated only a second before hurrying to the bedside. He let out a strangled yelp when she threw both arms firmly around him, and he panted and squirmed while she forcibly held him still, but it seemed as if the soft words she whispered eventually began to sink in.
"Shh, it's okay, Ed... Al's safe. You're safe. It's alright. Nothing is gonna hurt you. Shh..."
Very slowly, his feeble struggles subsided. His breathing grew a little steadier, and he dropped his head onto her shoulder, shaking with sobs and mouthing silent words against her collarbone. She knew some of them were still Al's name, and that tortured mantra of Give him back.
For several minutes, Winry sat still, holding the maimed boy who sprawled halfway across her lap and wept. She wanted to cry herself, but she resisted. It would have been unprofessional. After all, she was training to be an automail mechanic, and watching patients suffer pain was just one of the uglier, sadder parts of that work... even when the patient was like a beloved brother to her.
At length, a shadow moved in the doorway, and Granny stepped into the room. She squinted through her spectacles at Ed, who was now only twitching intermittently, and let out a deep sigh.
"I'll sit with him for a while," she offered. "Before he really wakes up enough to get scared, you'd better find Al. I don't know where he is - I've already looked through the house for him."
A little reluctantly, Winry peeled Ed off of her shoulder - noting with only the dullest edge of annoyance that some of the warm dampness on her nightgown was now drool instead of tears. Granny sat down at his other side, and by this time he was too fully asleep to protest as he was shifted from one pair of arms to another. Then Winry returned to her room just long enough to chuck her nightgown in the laundry, and wriggle into her coveralls instead.
If Al wasn't in the house, perhaps he was out in the yard somewhere, to be alone with thoughts that must still have been terribly confused and upset. He had taken such moments for himself now and then, during the day or the evening, when he knew one of the Rockbells was with Ed - but it was strange that he would leave like that when he was the only one on the night watch.
Winry pulled her shoes on at the front door, grabbed a flashlight, and stepped out into a slightly chilly predawn blackness. Resembool's usual ceiling of bright stars was obscured on this night by clouds. The grass was wet; it might have rained.
At least it hadn't stormed, because Winry wasn't ready for thunder and lightning yet. Not so soon after the tempest of that night.
Slowly she began to make her way around the house, scanning the yard with broad sweeps of the flashlight. She figured Al wouldn't be hard to miss, at any rate. Apart from the sheer size of his recently acquired armor body, the polished steel was sure to reflect her light like a beacon.
In spite of that certainty, though, she almost did manage to miss him. Halfway around the house, the flashlight just barely caught a gleam from his armor, in the last place she would have expected: directly underneath the window of his and Ed's room. He was tucked into the shadow of a rain barrel that stood beneath the gutter, his arms wrapped around his knees, as still and silent as the barrel itself.
He hadn't spoken up when Winry appeared, and he barely lifted his helmet when she swung the flashlight beam directly onto him. She got the distinct impression that he wasn't glad to have been found.
"There you are." Winry moved toward him - a bit gingerly, in truth. She was not yet entirely used to the monstrosity of steel that was now Al's body, even though it somehow exuded the feeling of his gentle soul. "What are you doing out here?"
Metal scraped as Al's spiked shoulders hunched. "...Just thinking."
"You didn't even hear Ed calling for you?"
At that, the younger Elric gave an alarmed start, and began to clamber quickly and noisily to his feet. "No! Is he - ?"
"He's fine. We got him back to sleep. Granny's with him now." Winry frowned at Al, and then at the second-story window above them. It was surprising that he hadn't heard Ed's cries - but, she supposed, not impossible. The Rockbells' house was solidly built, fortified against winter cold and summer storms with good thick windowpanes. And besides, well... Al's sense of hearing, within his metal shell, was not quite what it had been when he was a boy of flesh. She had noticed that already in the recent days.
For a moment, Al hesitated. Then he slowly sank down into his former position next to the barrel again.
"If he's okay, then, I... I'd like to stay out here a little longer."
The assertion puzzled Winry - and vaguely irritated her, in spite of herself. Of course she understood that Al had been through, and was still going through, something unimaginably horrible. It was perfectly reasonable that he needed some time on his own, to sort out everything he was thinking and feeling. Still, though... he knew that caring for Ed's massive injuries had left Winry and Granny little time to rest. When they did manage to get some sleep, he could have been considerate enough to stay with Ed himself. Indeed, to all appearances he had done so until tonight, so why did he choose to wander off now?
Maybe he couldn't bear it anymore. Maybe he needed to be away from the sight of Ed more than they knew. Maybe he needed a little while to stop pretending.
Maybe he blamed his brother far more for what had happened than he ever let on to them.
It was a thought that made something inside Winry stiffen and grow cold. She winced and looked hard at Al, trying to study what passed for his face - even though that was futile. He had no expression to read. There was only his rudimentary body language, the way he sat curled into himself slightly, helmet tipped downward as if to stare at the ground. She thought he looked sad, more than anything... but really, he could just as easily have been harboring terrible depths of suppressed anger inside that empty hull.
So strange. Underneath the steel, his soul was still the same one she had known since the day he was born; yet in many ways, he now seemed like a complete stranger to her, just because she couldn't see his face anymore. It was disillusioning to realize how much people relied on mere surface appearances.
Truthfully, she couldn't have blamed Al if he did resent Ed for all of this. Neither of the brothers had really said it, but it was more than obvious that Edward was the driving force behind their tragedy. He was always the stubborn one, the stupid one. Of course it would have been he who pushed Al into making this horrific mistake with him. Had she been in Al's place, Winry wasn't sure she could even pretend to forgive. It was hard enough to forgive Ed herself, simply as a friend who was left to help pick up these wretchedly broken pieces afterward.
Ed was adamant that he would fix this... but maybe it was too little, too late.
Slowly, Winry closed the rest of the distance between herself and Al. Without a word she sat down an arm's length from him, bracing her back against the wall of the house, in unconscious imitation of his pose. The ground was a little cold, but at least the grass under the eaves wasn't as damp as the rest of the yard.
"Are you okay?" she asked quietly, and only then turned her head to gaze up at him.
He looked back at her: helmet tilting a little, leather fingers clenching tighter on spiky drawn-up knees. The white soul-spark behind his eye slits was edged with crimson.
The one soft word was almost lost beneath its own echo in the armor, but Winry heard it clearly enough. It sounded like Al meant it, or at least was trying to, but it also sounded... tired. Not physically tired, of course, because he was beyond that now. This was purely soul-weariness, a rare sign of his struggle with the inner pain he tried to hide from her and Granny, and even - perhaps especially - from his brother.
Winry looked away from him then, because if she didn't, she would have started to cry. Staring at nothing in the dark, she reached out to rest her left hand on the night-chilled steel of his rerebrace, and searched helplessly for something she could say to make it better.
Before any words would come, she felt Al make a slight but sudden movement. Her hand dropped from his arm as she glanced back at him, and she found he was leaning forward, as if to peer intently in the direction of the garden shed across the yard. She followed his gaze, but she could see nothing in the blackness.
"What is it?" she asked, the rest of her senses rising to the alert, but still unable to pinpoint whatever had caught Al's attention.
Al turned his helmet toward her for a brief moment. She sensed an odd feeling of reluctance from him, and when his gaze shifted back to the unknown, she thought he wasn't going to answer her; but at last he did, in four terse words that were laden with a venom she wasn't used to hearing from him.
"Buck is over there."
Winry gaped at him, thoroughly confounded.
Buck was Granny's prize rooster. He was also the most vainglorious, temperamental bird ever to utter a cluck, and the feud between himself and Edward Elric was a thing of almost legendary stature. Aside from years of beak-and-claw battle wounds due to untoward backyard encounters, what Ed really hated Buck for was his customary morning reveille - because his chosen post was the rain barrel underneath the boys' bedroom window. Ed had tried everything he could get away with to curtail the bird's crowing, but Buck was every bit his match for stubbornness. Their private war had sometimes gotten entirely out of hand.
Of course, while Ed and Al were off studying with Izumi Curtis, Buck had lorded over the barrel unopposed. Peace reigned in the Rockbells' yard, and Winry had forgotten about the entire matter - and in the difficult days since the boys returned in their tragic state, it was certainly the last thing on her mind. Only now did it occur to her that Buck, a creature of strict habits, would hardly have ceased his morning ritual at the rain barrel just because his nemesis sleeping upstairs was badly wounded.
Come to think of it, ever since the morning after, Winry couldn't remember hearing the rooster crow from that particular part of the yard.
Bemused, she looked back at the shed. With the night sky cloud-darkened as it was, she could dimly make out the shape of the structure itself, but nothing around it.
"You can really see him in the dark like this?" she queried of Alphonse.
At her side, the small clatter of metal was evidence of a shrug. "Well, yeah... Can't you?"
Winry turned to him, facing the glimmer of soul-light that looked back at her with a sense of curiosity, and realized he was honestly surprised. However it was his armor-clad soul was able to see at all, his vision in the dark was apparently far sharper than hers - and he didn't even realize that fact.
It was strange to think of just how alien his surviving senses might have become. Without eyelids, she supposed he would never blink; for that matter, maybe he couldn't even close his nonexistent eyes if he wanted to. Perhaps the only way to shut out something he didn't want to see was to look away from it, or to cover the eye slits of his helmet.
Not that it mattered now. Closing his eyes could have done nothing more to make all that had happened go away.
Out of curiosity, Winry clicked her flashlight on and swept its beam toward the shed. True to Al's word, the light caught a quick flash of glossy feathers - and then the devilish fowl ducked behind the corner of the building with an indignant bawk.
Thoughtfully, she shut off the flashlight again, and the yard was plunged back into blackness. A part of her wanted to ask Al more about the way his sight had changed, but she was afraid that making him dwell on the new nature of his being would upset him.
In any case, before she could come up with any sort of tactful phrasing for the question, he rose and took one rattling step forward. He stood firmly braced, with his feet planted well apart and his hands raised slightly in readiness. It was a fighting stance Winry had never seen his flesh body assume. She wondered if it was part of the conditioning the boys had learned from their alchemy teacher, or just something weirdly innate to the armor itself.
"What are you doing?" she asked as she stood... and although Al didn't turn to look at her, or physically move at all, somehow she could feel the tension in him heighten a little.
"I don't care if Aunt Pinako gets angry. I won't let that stupid bird wake Brother up."
The words were simple and harsh and even slightly childish, but they brought Winry a revelation. It was the answer - the ridiculous, beautiful answer - to why Al had left Ed's side, and ventured out alone in the night. And it was the answer to what he felt for his brother.
Not anger, after all... but still, after everything, a devoted love that made Winry's breath catch and her chest tighten.
"So that's it," she almost whispered, not quite realizing she was speaking aloud. "You came out to chase Buck away from the rain barrel, so his crowing wouldn't wake Ed up."
At that, Al relaxed almost imperceptibly, glancing over his shoulder at her - his helmet incidentally twisting around to a degree she was sure no human neck could tolerate. He gave a little shrug, and an even tinier nod.
"And you've been doing it every night, this whole time?"
If Al still had his body, he would probably have started blushing. "Yeah."
Winry wanted to hug him then. Never mind the hard steel and the sharp spikes; at that moment, somehow, he managed to be as adorable and sweet as he had ever been in the flesh.
Blinking back the faint sting in her eyes, she stepped up to his side, and laid her hand on his vambrace.
"Go be with your brother," she said softly. "I'll stay out here and keep Buck away - and tomorrow you can help me put chicken wire over the top of the hen yard. We'll pen him up at night, so he won't bother Ed again."
The armored boy gave a little start. "But Aunt Pinako won't - "
"It's okay. Granny will understand when I explain it to her. Helping Ed get better is what matters." Winry smiled up at him, a little mistily. "Go on now. Ed needs you."
As Al ducked his helmet and turned, to go back to the house and his brother's bedside, Winry knew she could feel him smiling.
© 2012 Jordanna Morgan