The Tie That Binds

Chapter 1

Set during the final chapter of the manga/the corresponding Brotherhood episode. Ed has made his offer to Truth. What if Truth refuses to accept it? Equivalent exchange. A toll must still be paid…

Not a death-fic, nor a parallel universe fic, or anything of that sort, though obviously an alternate ending of sorts. Be warned, though—said toll will be pretty brutal.

Truth laughed.

The sound was enough to chill the blood.

Edward stood before the Gate, shoulders squared, his breath and his heart still racing from the fight he'd left behind. "What's so funny?" he asked, not turning around, though a thrill of panic shot through him. Was it not enough? It had to be enough….

But Truth just kept laughing.

Now Ed did wheel around. Truth had a wide-mouthed grin on its face, flashing all its teeth at once. "I've already told you, I can get by without it, so what's so damn funny?" he snapped.

Truth stopped laughing, but the grin did not disappear. –You have grown presumptuous, young alchemist. Presumptuous indeed.

"What, is that not a fitting toll for you?" he demanded. "Why the hell not? It's a part of me."

I'm afraid it doesn't work like that. The grin widened. –It's a fixed object. It won't budge.

Ed felt an icy stab of fear in his chest—this had to work, it had to, he had nothing else to offer—but he stuck his chin up. "What do you mean?"

What am I, Edward Elric? Ed, refusing to play along, didn't answer. –I am many things, but perhaps more importantly where your situation is concerned, I am YOU, remember?

"Yeah, you said that the first time…" He watched, breathing hard, stomach in knots but anger burning hot in his chest nonetheless, as Truth actually stood from its spot lounging on the white floor, stretched its arms up high as though stretching while the blotchy clouds of dark nothingness that outlined the thing swirled and pulsed. With what sounded like a contented sigh, it let its arms fall back down before closing the few steps' distance between itself and where Ed stood before the door. Now barely a foot away from Truth, who'd reached out a single shadow-encased arm to lay a flat palm on the door, Ed could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, the proximity to the being making him feel rather…odd. It a disorienting, almost lurching feeling, as though he'd skipped a step going down the stairs, and his heart did an alarming, painful flip-flop in his chest when Truth's hand lighted on the carved stone. When Truth slowly turned its head to face him, its grin was wider than ever.

If I am you, it said, its voice a silky, sinister whisper that seemed to come at Ed from all directions, –Then it follows that this door is already mine. You are merely a part of me. Of the whole. You know this. It ran its hand lightly across the stone. Ed suppressed a shudder. –And are you really so arrogant as to believe that you can cut yourself off from me? That you can escape me?

"I never said I wanted to escape you," Ed said, voice surprisingly even, all things considered. "This is your gift to man, right? The gateway to alchemic knowledge. I'm just returning it."

Gift? It scoffed. –This is not your gift, alchemist. This is your existence. He patted the gate. –Transient and insignificant as your mortal lives may be, this here is what makes you human. You should know. You've seen the other side. Alchemy, after all, is merely the manipulation of one's understanding of the universe, no different than any other scientific pursuit. Whether one rashly tears these doors open by force as you and your brother did, or glimpses its secrets in the usual way, by the mere observation and study of the world around them, humankind uniquely possesses the ability to seek what lies beyond them. Apart from this—it lifted its hand from the gate and turned to face Ed—you are less than beasts. This IS you.

Ed shook his head, mostly because he wasn't sure what the hell else he was supposed to do. Wasn't like he had a backup plan here. "I don't buy that." And he didn't, he couldn't buy it, because he'd been so damn sure this would work and had staked everything, staked Al, on that surety. But this was Truth talking here, and he was barely managing to stave off the mind-numbing terror that had plagued his nightmares for five years, that he'd experienced the very first time he'd ever encountered Truth—the blossoming dread that told him he had made a mistake, a terrible mistake.

Still. He had a little more nerve this time around.

Ignoring Truth, who watched impassively, he bowed his head, clapped his hands together, and even as the circle he'd created in his mind's eye began to glow and hum with envisioned energy, he felt the electric cackle of potent, destructive alchemy shooting through his arms, causing the wounded left arm to ache and the restored right arm to tremble with weakness. Focusing and concentrating the power in his hands, he smacked his palms against the gate and willed it with all his might into the very essence of the stone—

–Only to be thrown backwards by a sharp, electric, invisible force that he caught full in the chest, picking him up and tossing him in the air like a ragdoll and leaving him sprawled on the hard ground seven feet away, his chest on fire, the breath driven from his lungs. He thought he could smell singed hair.

Rebound, his mind supplied hazily as he blinked up at the white nothingness overhead, struggling to draw a breath through lungs that felt rather like they'd been both been run through by lightning. No, wait, that can't be right… That hadn't even been full alchemy, only utilization of the destructive step. And even if that somehow had rebounded, it shouldn't have affected him at all—he'd engineered the deconstruction to respond to the granite within the gate, and any backlash should have been virtually harmless to him. Well, it hadn't ripped him apart, but it certainly hadn't been harmless. He coughed once, then managed to push himself up on his elbows. "What the hell…" he croaked. Obviously he knew less about this place than he thought. And that scared him.

Truth was bending over him. It wasn't smiling anymore, but it didn't seem overly concerned, either, though of course on a faceless being it was difficult to tell. –That wasn't wise, it said mildly. –I wouldn't try it a second time, unless you have a death wish.

Ed pushed himself up and lurched to his feet, rubbing his sore sternum with his knuckles, trying to coax some more air into his body. Think, his mind urged, panic tugging more frantically at the edges of his concentration at the realization that, after that little stunt, everything he thought he knew about this place had just fallen apart. Come on, think, think, damn it, think….

"Al," he found himself saying, a moment later. It came out as a wheezy whisper—he cleared his throat, turned towards Truth, who was sitting again, and demanded, voice slightly raw but strong nonetheless, "Where's my brother?" He certainly didn't have another plan as of yet, but if Al had his own, separate gate, and he'd examine that first, make sure he had absolutely all of the factors to take into consideration here before….

Before what, exactly?

He couldn't think about that. Not yet.

Truth pointed vaguely over Ed's shoulder, the blackness surrounding its arm churning even more violently than before. "Over there." It sounded faintly amused.

Ed wheeled around. And all of a sudden, another dark, intricately carved gate loomed over him, a familiar gate, and one that he was positive hadn't been there a second before. And beneath the gate, hunched over on his hands and knees, was the emaciated form of his brother. His hair, pale and unkempt, hung half in his face, his one visible eye wide. The second he appeared, Ed lurched towards him as fast as his legs would carry him.

"Ed!" His voice, now lower, weaker, and without its usual tinny quality, was still slightly shrill with the panic that Ed had been clamping down on this whole time. Spindly arms trembled, trying and failing to push a skeletal frame up off the floor. Ed sank to his knees and gently helped lift him back into a sitting position, unable despite the situation to rid himself of a surge of wonderment—It's him, oh God, it's actually HIM, it really was Alphonse looking back up at him right now, gold eyes big and concerned in a painfully thin, white face. Frail, but unhurt. Ed could've sobbed with relief.

"What happened?" Al asked straightaway, hands seizing Ed's wrists to keep himself upright, eyes scanning Ed up and down as though checking for something. "I couldn't see anything…I didn't even know you were here, but then there this banging noise out of nowhere, and then I heard you scream…" He paused to catch his breath—he'd been panting like he'd just ran a marathon the whole way through his explanation, and Ed guessed Al's lungs must be as weak as the rest of him right now. "I tried to get up and find you, but I couldn't—" he looked down at himself, making a vague, helpless gesture with one hand.

"It's okay, I'm fine," Ed said, quickly, moving Al's hands from his forearms to the ground before getting up and moving to the gate behind them. Al glanced over his shoulder.

"What are you—"

"There's no time to explain." Ed clapped his hands, carefully directing a much smaller, much slower flow of the same deconstructive power, hardly a trickle, collect there. "I'm really sorry about this, Al," he said, before gingerly setting his hands on the gate.

"Brother, what—ow!"

When Ed turned back around, Al was clutching at his chest with one hand, and his eyes were screwed shut.

Ed swore under his breath, and knelt back down, bracing his hands on Al's knobbly shoulders. "Are you alright?"

"Y-yeah," he managed, after a moment, shuddering a bit. He opened his eyes. "What was that?"

"Proof that we're not getting off as easy as I thought," Ed said, grimly.

"What do you mean we're not—" Al began, still trying to blink back tears at what had felt vaguely like a small, electrically charged spike being driven through his chest. He had no way of knowing how bad it would have felt to anybody else, but as the first taste of actual pain he'd had in five years, it had jarred him badly. He felt shaky and sick, his newly restored nerves so sensitive he could hardly even stand the mere feeling of Ed's hands—one of which, unbelievably, was made of flesh again—on his shoulders.

He trailed the question off, as he realized Ed wasn't going to answer him. His brow was furrowed in concentration and his mouth was taut, eyes distant. A moment later, he'd hopped up and begun to pace back and forth. For the first time in years, it was weird to finally be looking up at him, Al thought.

And, for the first time in a very long time, Al finally, acutely, knew what it was to be the younger brother in every sense. Ed looked…well, almost scary right now, and nothing about him brought to mind the word "young" by any means. Blood coursed sluggishly down from the wound in his left arm—which they'd need to address soon, or he was going to pass out before they even made it out of here—and dribbled from his forehead into one eye and from the corner of his mouth. What was visible of his chest over a torn shirt now looked slightly bruised and slightly burnt—that was new, and he was pretty sure it'd had something to do with the noise and scream he'd heard earlier—and the sight of the ropey band of scar tissue and protruding metal pieces around his new arm on their own was enough to make anybody cringe. And to cap it all off, the unnervingly bleak expression he'd worn since turning away from Al's gate would've looked far more fitting on a man twice his brother's age.

Al saw the exact moment that the extreme concentration in his brother's eyes melted into a resignation that terrified him, which subsequently hardened into resolve. Ed glanced down at him, something wavering for the briefest second in his expression, a fist clenching hard by his side. Then he looked up into the white abyss above them, jaw set, shoulders squared. Al's stomach churned.

What on earth is he about to do…?

"Truth!" Ed roared. "Get your ass over here!"

Al started when the empty figure flickered into being hardly two feet from Ed. It smirked at him.

So, alchemist, it said. Al thought it sounded smug. –I repeat my earlier question. Will you offer up your entire being?

To be continued.