Done for the fic exchange at fma_santa on LJ. This was absolutely my favorite of everything I wrote for the holiday season. D.M. Evans' prompts were things *I* wanted to read, too, so it was very easy.
Al woke up.
Waking up was one of his favorite new experiences- right up there with going to sleep, and wiggling his toes around in the sheets, and feeling hungry, and eating, and drinking water. He'd been doing a lot of all of those things since he'd been admitted to the hospital. He couldn't seem to sleep for more than about three hours at a stretch, but he couldn't stay awake more than an hour or two either. The doctors said it was probably normal; that his body needed constant nourishment, and this was probably its way of getting it. He needed to eat a little every time he woke, even if it was twelve times a day. Which it usually was.
This particular waking-up-time, however, was different. Al lay there, enjoying the feel of starched sheets as as they rubbed against his too-thin, too-sensitive skin and trying to work out what had changed. Finally, as he blinked his eyes and yawned, it came to him: Brother wasn't around. Usually, by now, Brother was holding his hand and asking him if he was okay. Again. Al wasn't really complaining that Brother wasn't in his face right now, but he did wonder where he had gone...
Al scooted himself upright. It was amazing how worn out even that little exertion still made him. Al leaned his head back against his pillows and surveyed his room. "Colonel?" he said, surprised.
The Colonel's head turned towards the sound of Al's voice. He was sitting in a chair next to Al's bed, his bandaged hands held loosely in his lap. He looked lost and vulnerable and painfully mortal in the hospital tunic. It reminded Al uncomfortably of how badly wounded the Colonel been after the battle with Lust, how he'd gone into shock and only a desperate Lieutenant Hawkeye had been able to keep his heart beating-
This was worse even that that, in some ways, Al supposed. The Colonel's eyes were milky and unseeing. The Gate had taken the Colonel's eyes, and Al knew that there was every probability that that he would never be the same again. It was stupid; Al knew that the Colonel was a man like anybody else, and just as mortal. All the same, Al didn't like being reminded of it. "Hello, Colonel," Al said politely. "Um- do you know where Brother is?"
"They're examining his shoulder," the Colonel told him. "He wouldn't leave unless someone promised to be here when you woke up. I got volunteered for the job."
Al sighed. "Brother worries too much. I'm fine! The nurses would look after me, even if he wasn't poking me every moment of the day."
"I suppose it's not surprising that he'd react that way," the Colonel said, with wry amusement. "This is what he's been working for for years. I imagine he doesn't quite know what to do with himself now."
Al smiled fondly. "I don't really mind, of course," he said. "But I'm sorry you got dragged in here. I could have managed on my own."
"It's no trouble," the Colonel said. "Er- they left your next meal here for you-" he reached out cautiously with his right hand, trying to feel for the table next to him.
"Six inches to your left," Al advised. "And maybe... four inches over?"
With direction, the Colonel's hand moved more confidently. He got the tray and maneuvered it carefully over to Al.
"Sorry," Al apologized. "I would help, but I really can't lift the tray. My muscles aren't strong enough. I would spill everywhere." He laughed. "I tried it once already!"
The Colonel nodded. "I heard that you were weak coming out of the Gate," he said. "I admit to wishing that I could see what you look like, after all this time." He waved ruefully at his eyes. It was unnerving the way that they didn't track Al's face. It looked as though the Colonel was staring into space.
"Um," Al said. "It's not really the same, but you could-" He reached out and picked up the Colonel's hand, setting it against his own face. The Colonel was startled, but didn't quite pull his hand free. The Colonel brushed his fingertips tentatively over the hollowed planes of Al's cheeks. "My hair is blond like Brother's," Al told him, "but maybe a shade darker. And my eyes are just a little bit darker, too. They're yellow, but with just a little hazel in them, maybe?" Al dropped his hand to his side, and the Colonel pulled away. Al laughed self-consciously. "I'm tired again," he said. "And hungry!"
"Your brother threatened me with bodily harm if I didn't make sure you ate," the Colonel said, dryly.
Al sighed again. "He can be so tempermental," he said, and started eating the cream-enriched porridge that seemed to make up the bulk of most of his meals at the moment. He ate slowly, closing his eyes and savoring the taste.
The Colonel cleared his throat. "I was actually hoping I might get to talk to you," he said, awkwardly. He sounded embarrassed.
Al opened his eyes and swallowed. "What did you want to talk about, Colonel?" he asked.
The Colonel put his hands together. "Clap alchemy," he said. "They tell me that the Curtises have already left, and so has your father. Since Fullmetal- I mean, Edward-"
Al nodded. "He gave up his alchemy," he said, quietly. He still couldn't believe that it was possible, much less that his brother had done it for him. Ed had given up so much already for Al's sake. It made Al feel sick to think that he'd given this up, too.
The Colonel nodded. "You're the only one left who understands clap alchemy," he said. "I was hoping that you might discuss it with me." He paused, looking at his hands. "Perhaps when you're more recovered," he allowed.
Al smiled. "Of course, Colonel! I'd be happy to talk about alchemy with you." He yawned. This was ridiculous- he'd just woken up. "I am sort of sleepy now, though."
The Colonel nodded. "I'll ask again when you're feeling more yourself," he said.
"Mmm," Al said, settling back into his pillow and wiggling his toes between the sheets. "It's probably better to wait anyway," he said dreamily. "Your hands will hurt if you clap them now."
The Colonel chuckled. "I suppose so," he said.
Roy blinked against the light of the sun. His eyes were still sensitive, still recovering from the trauma of having the optic nerve removed and then replaced.
Lieutenant Hawkeye walked beside him. Roy allowed himself for a moment, in the privacy of his own heart, to think that she was beautiful. Her hair shone gold in the sunshine, and her eyes were warm and brown. The fugitive thought escaped him that he'd've damned himself with that stone twice over if it meant being able to see Riza walking beside him in the sun.
She was pushing Alphonse in a wheelchair. Roy had intended to do it himself, but Hawkeye'd intercepted him with a quiet "you know that you're not supposed to do anything strenuous with your hands, sir" and taken charge of the expedition. For his part, Alphonse looked to be enjoying their outing immensely. He was smiling, his face raised to the sun.
The emaciation of Alphonse's body was truly shocking to behold. Roy had been told, of course, and he'd even touched Alphonse. It still hadn't quite prepared him for the way the bones jutted through Alphonse's translucent skin; for his hollow cheeks and brittle hair. The shape of his body reminded Roy uncomfortably of what a corpse looked like after the fat and flesh had been melted off of it.
Roy swallowed, forcing that image away. "This should do," he said, indicating a bench in the courtyard.
"Thank you for bringing me out, Lieutenant," Alphonse said, turning his face up to Hawkeye. "It's so nice to be out of doors." He smiled beatifically. "I can smell the trees! I had forgotten that trees had a smell."
Hawkeye smiled back at him. "I had forgotten, too," she said.
Roy found himself suddenly trying to smell trees. In the time he'd been blind, he'd become much more aware of smell as a sense- but he'd barely gone outside then. It had never occurred to him to try to smell the greenery.
Alphonse looked up at Hawkeye and blushed. "Lieutenant?" he said. "I hate to ask, but would you help me onto the bench? I won't be able to reach anything but the chair as I am."
Roy looked over at her. "I'll do it," he told her firmly. She might be concerned for his hands, but he was concerned for her as well. She'd had to be transfused for god's sake; she wasn't meant to be lifting anything.
Roy leaned down and scooped Alphonse into his arms. The boy was as light as Roy'd imagined that he'd be. His hair smelled of antiseptic and sickness, and his limbs were like sticks in Roy's hands. Roy was suddenly seized by the horrible thought that if he just squeezed, Alphonse would break into a million pieces. Roy set him gently down on the bench, and Hawkeye tucked a blanket around him- Alphonse didn't yet have enough body fat to regulate his own temperature. Even in the warm spring air, the boy shivered a little.
Alphonse looked up at Roy, and smiled again. "The bench is warm," he said. "And a little rough. And I can smell flowers in the air." He laughed, ducking his head. "I'm sorry!" he said. "There's so much to pay attention to now. Sometimes I get distracted! I know we didn't come out here so that I could smell flowers."
"It's alright," Roy said, seating himself at the far end of the bench. Hawkeye perched herself on a bench on the other side of the walkway. "It must be difficult to adjust." Roy had a great deal of respect for how well he was adjusting, in fact. But then, he would have expected it. The Elric brothers were strong kids, and Alphonse was, if anything, the stronger of the two.
"It's a little strange," Alphonse admitted. "But- it's good. I was dying before, I think. It was a very close thing. Brother saved me just in time."
Edward was in surgery now. By unspoken agreement, they'd decided to meet when Ed wouldn't be around. It remained an open question whether it was to spare Ed's feelings or because they thought he'd disapprove.
"So," Roy said. "Clap alchemy."
Alphonse pulled himself upright, and looked over to Roy. "Teacher explained it to us like this once: in alchemy, you need a circle, right?"
Roy nodded. "The circle is the conduit- it delimits the flow of power." It was one of the first concepts he'd learned when he'd begun to study alchemy.
Alphonse nodded. "Then there's the array. The circle draws energy, and the array directs it." Alphonse idly traced a transmutation circle with his finger. "What we can do-" he paused, as if he was uncertain how to explain. "Um, what seeing the Truth lets us do-" He looked up at Roy with his unnervingly yellow eyes, so like his brother's. "Our body becomes the array," he said, finally. "We make the circle with our hands." He brought his palms together. "Then we visualize the array. At that moment, we are an activated transmutation circle. Touch the array to something else, and-" Alphonse touched his fingers to the bench, and it rearranged itself underneath them. It was lower, and had a scalloped back. Alphonse leaned back, resting his head in the curve of the scallop.
Roy frowned. "It seems as though there's an immense possibility for backlash," he said. "If you didn't visualize the array clearly, or if you misjudged the available material-"
Alphonse cocked his head, smiling. "Don't make a mistake with the array, then," Alphonse advised. "Start with arrays that are familiar. You still have to know an array to transmute; you just don't need to inscribe it."
Cautiously, Roy put his hands together. He knew how to do this; he'd done it blind on the Promised Day. Still, he didn't trust it. Transmutation circles were safe- or at least familiar- and he wasn't sure he liked this new method.
In his mind, he visualized the transmutation circle for manipulating stone. Carefully, he modified it for calcite and dolomite, tweaking the magnesium composition. He finished the circle and felt it... settle into place, somehow. As he paid close attention to what he was doing, he had the sudden, strange sense of a transmutation circle superimposed over his own body, thrumming through blood and nerves and bone. Roy dropped his hands to the bench. The marble reformed in a flurry of crackling blue lightning, leaving a back rest jutting up only where Alphonse was still leaning against it.
Alphonse smiled. "See?" he said. "It's easy."
"How does it compare to having a prepared array?" Roy asked, curious, looking down at his still-bandaged hands.
Alphonse shrugged. "I've never carried a permanent array," he said. "Not like your gloves, or Armstrong's gauntlets. But I guess it would be a little slower- it doesn't take long to prepare an array with clap alchemy, but it does take some time. This is much more versatile, though. Even if you underspecify a prepared array, you're still limited in what you can work with and what you can do." He smiled.
"I note that your brother almost always used his stone array in combat, even so," Roy said, smirking a little.
Alphonse's eyes twinkled. "It can be difficult to focus on a new array when you're in the middle of a fight," he said. "But you can prepare the array once and use it multiple times if you need to; you just have to refresh the circle. It makes it easier."
Roy was surprised. "Wait, so you're saying that you don't have to visualize the array every time you use it?"
"Not exactly," Alphonse said, looking thoughtful. "You just- um-" He brought his hands up and held them together for a moment. "You have the array," he said, closing his eyes. He dropped his hands and now the bench separated, forming into two low stone armchairs. "And when you transmute, you- you don't let go of it. It's not active but it's still there. When you want to use it again, you-" Eyes still closed, Alphonse brought his hands back up and then dropped them. The small stone figure of a cat appeared next to him, startlingly realistic. It even had whiskers, though Roy was sure that even the lightest brush of a hand would destroy them. Alphonse opened his eyes. He looked tired as he leaned back into the stone chair. "You try it," he said, with a smile.
Roy stood. He brought his hands together and visualized the transmutation array for wood. Cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin- the array settled into his body, and it was there. He reached out and put his hands against a dead branch on the tree next to him, and it reformed into the shape of a wooden sword with flames chasing up the blade. Roy paid no attention to the transmuted object; he was trying to focus on holding the wood array in his mind.
Strangely, it wasn't difficult. As soon as Alphonse suggested that it was possible, he somehow knew how. He didn't want the array to clear, and so it didn't. Roy brought his hands together again, completing the circle, and the array reactivated. In his hands, the wooden sword reformed into a large bouquet of straw-colored flowers.
"Are those for the Lieutenant?" Alphonse asked, amused. As Alphonse's voice broke his concentration, Roy felt the array slip away from him. Gone, until he called it up again.
Roy covered his shock at Alphonse's suggestion with a smile. He turned. "How about it, Hawkeye?" he said. "Would you like some flowers?"
"You know I haven't got a vase, sir," Hawkeye said, evenly.
"Ah, well," Roy said. He called the array up, clapped his hands. The flowers transformed into a small sign on the end of a stake. Casually, Roy pushed it into the ground at the base of the tree.
"What does it say?" Alphonse said, twisting around to look.
"Igne natura renovatur integra," Roy quoted. "'Through fire, nature is restored whole." Off to the side, Roy could see Hawkeye startle. "It's something my master used to say," Roy explained.
Alphonse smiled again, his eyes lidded with fatigue. "Fire is the alchemical symbol for essence- for the soul. That phrase is about the balance of man and the world."
Roy shrugged. "I think he just liked it because it had that part about fire in it." He paused. "You look tired. We should take you back inside."
"I suppose so," Alphonse said, patting his stone kitten. "I want to be there when Brother wakes up."
"I think we both want you to be there when your brother wakes up," Roy muttered.
Roy lifted Alphonse back into his chair, and Hawkeye took charge of pushing him back inside. They left the stone chairs and kitten behind.
Hawkeye looked tired as she pushed Alphonse's chair along the path. She usually seemed tired these days. She had assured him that it was just the blood loss and that she would be back to her old self soon, but it didn't make it any less disconcerting.
"Lieutenant," Roy said, keeping his voice even, "You shouldn't push yourself so hard. It's alright to rest."
"I'll rest when you do, sir," she answered him.
Alphonse just smiled, pulling the blanket tighter around him.