A/N: I HAVE NOW DONE MORE RESEARCH INTO THE TIMELINE OF THE MANGA, SO THIS STORY BEGINS IN THE FALL OF 1908, AT WHICH POINT THE ISHVALAN WAR HAS NOT CONCLUDED. Hence, I will be making some edits to the published chapters so that all of the timing is accurate, as well as just revising things for the sake of plot flow and accurate characterization.
"Do you think Resembool will have changed much since we left for Dublith with Teacher?"
"What do you mean, 'mm'? Are you even listening to me, Ed?"
"Uh-huh. Yeah, sure."
"You're not listening at all, are you?"
"Whatever you say, Al." The elder brother then realized his mistake and hastily made to cover for himself. "I mean, of course I was listening!"
"Don't call me a liar." Ed promptly thwacked his little brother with a finger, leaving a small red area on the boy's forehead.
"Ow! Ed! I thought you'd moved past the phase of hitting me."
"I didn't hit you; I thwacked you."
"Don't be a jerk. "
"Don't be a baby, Al," The elder brother retorts as he returns to his previous occupation of watching objects whiz by the window. He'd always enjoyed traveling on trains – the rush of the wind, the steady rhythm of the wheels clattering underneath, the swaying motion of the cars as they race along the metal rails. It's a mechanical lullaby of sorts, one that often overpowers him with its unexplainable charm. He had been in tune with that man-made melody when Al had asked him about Resembool, and now he will have to resettle into it. Maybe he'll be able to nod off before they reach the station…
"Ed, is… is that smoke?"
"What?" Ed sits up and looks where Al is pointing. Sure enough, plumes billow upward from ahead of them… where their destination lies. "What the hell?"
Normally, Al gets on Ed's case about his foul language, but not this time. When the train pulls beside the humble platform, both boys have grabbed their luggage and stand ready to leap off as soon as the steel behemoth slows to a halt. After doing so, the brothers look again toward the distant smoke.
"It… it looks like it's coming from close to where we live," Al notes with apprehension.
"I sure as hell hope not, but I'm sure Granny will know what's going on. Let's go." And so, they make their way toward the Rockbells', following the familiar dirt roads. When they can finally see the house on the horizon, they hear the first blast. Another quickly follows, and another.
"What's that sound?"
In answer to Alphonse's question, a screeching fills the air. Seconds later, the Rockbells' house explodes. Both boys gasp and bolt to the scene. Wood, stone, and earth have all been churned together in a pile of burning wreckage, so hot that Ed and Al can't get anywhere close to it.
"It's that damn war! Why hasn't the military stopped it yet? They're supposed to protect us, dammit!"
"Ed… you don't think… you don't think Granny and Winry were… inside, do you?"
Now that Al has raised the question, Ed can't push the possibility away. "There's no way to know," he says, much more bravely than he feels. He doesn't want to think about losing any more family right now, not when they've been moving toward the goal of getting some of it back. "Let's hope not."
More canon fire sounds in the distance, and Ed can make out the figures of soldiers moving through a deserted pasture. Setting down his trunk, he climbs on top of a rock to get a better look.
"We should move," Al points out.
"Yeah," Ed answers after a moment. "I want to get closer."
"Closer? Are you crazy? We could get killed!"
"We'll stay low. As long as no one sees us, we'll be fine. Come on."
"What? You're not scared, are you, Al?"
The smallest of offended tears collect in Al's eyes as the younger brother draws himself to his full height, which leaves him towering over Ed. "Yes, I am," he admits without a hint of shame. "I'm scared that I'm going to lose you, too. Let's not go down there, Brother, please."
But the elder brother has made up his young mind. He wants to see up-close why these incompetent bastards from the military can't put a stop to all of this fighting. Not waiting for Al to relent, Ed begins his descent, using the sparse trees for cover as much as possible. At the base of the hill is a gully about a yard deep, narrow enough for Ed to hop over with effort. Once he reaches level ground again, he ducks behind a cluster of bushes and waits. Around him lie discarded weaponry – canons, sandbags, guns… just more remnants of war. When he finally peeks over the top of the vegetation, Ed sees not Amestrian military, but Ishvalan rebels encamped on the next ridge. Whoa, he goggles. I've never seen an Ishvalan before.
"Ed?" whispers Al from several yards up the hill. "Brother, come back. It's dangerous."
"No, it isn't. Come on and join me, Al."
"Not on your life. You're gonna get in trouble, or worse."
"Quick being such a crybaby and come on!" Ed hisses as quietly as he can, motioning to Al.
Looking miserable, Al emerges from his hiding place and edges cautiously down the hill. Then, he momentarily looses his footing and kicks a rock in his haste to regain his balance. The stone clatters loudly against an idle piece of artillery… and that is all it takes. A gunshot breaks the silence, and Al's eyes widen. The boy looks down at his shirt where a dark stain is slowly spreading across his chest. Then, he meets his brother's gaze, still in shock, and falls forward, tumbling down the hill and into the shallow ravine.
"AL!" Ed screams, forgetting everything else and running to the spot where Al had disappeared. More shots ring from across the field, and Ed feels a bullet connect with his left calf. His muscles seize up in response to the wound, and he, too, tips over the edge of the gully. The Ishvalans probably won't pursue; they'll think he's dead, just like-
No! the small blonde catches himself. No, don't think that! He can't be… Al can't… He drags himself to his little brother's side, lifting the trembling form into his lap and rocking fitfully. "Al… Al! Come on! Say something!"
The younger brother opens his eyes halfway, and though they are filled with a mix of emotions, the strongest by far is forgiveness. "B… Brother…" Already the light is fading from the golden gaze.
"No! No, Al! I'm so sorry! This is all my fault! Please, don't leave me! Don't do this, Al, please!"
Alphonse brushes Ed's face with a tender hand. "It… it's okay. I'll tell Mom… to wait just a little longer… until you bring us back… Ed…" As his brother's name leaves Al's lips, his hand falls back onto the trampled grass, and his gaze drifts toward the sky until it forms an unblinking, unseeing stare. A smile still graces the boy's mouth as the remaining color drains from his face and his body grows cold and still.
"Al?" Ed chokes. "Al? Come on, Al. You… you're not… you can't…" Only by remembering that enemy forces are still nearby does the elder Elric keep himself from screaming again. Instead, he drops his forehead against Al's and whispers his brother's name over and over, as if, by repeating it enough times, he could draw the soul back into the lifeless body.
As evening approached, Ed thinks on Al's last words. That's right; it's up to him to piece back together the family that had been so torn apart. He can bring Al back, and he will. In the last few days of their training with Izumi, Ed had finished a draft on a diagram for the circle that will revive their mother. It's ingrained in his memory perfectly, and he won't need any extra ingredients, which will lessen the complexity of the transmutation. He can do it, right now.
Using a mixture of his and Al's blood, Ed paints the array on the low turf, making adjustments for the semicircular surface of the ground. He then places Al's body in the center and presses his hands against the circle, willing it to activate and hoping beyond hope that the Ishvalans won't see the transmutation.
He stands before an endless void, whiter than anything he'd ever seen before. Looking behind him, Ed sees a towering set of stone doors, carved with a pattern he recognizes as a Sephiroth Tree. "Weird," he mumbles. "Wait a sec. What was I doing before?"
"Hello," says an unearthly voice, like the whispers of millions joined in one. Whirling around, Ed finds a shadowy figure sitting cross-legged in front of him.
"Who are you?"
"Oh! I'm so glad you asked! I am called by many names. I'm the world, I am the universe, I am God, I am Truth, I am all, I am one, and I am also… you." It points a transparent finger at Ed, and the boy suddenly hears the creaking of the doors behind him swinging wide. The faceless being continues, "You have dared to knock on the door. Now, the door is open." Black hands emerge from the darkness, wrapping around Ed and dragging him into the depths. Scared out of his senses, Ed screeches in alarm. "Quiet, child," the entity hushes. "This is what you wanted, isn't it? I will show you… the Truth."
The doors slam shut, encasing Ed inside. And then, streams of pure knowledge bombard his senses. It's like all of the information in the world is being poured into his brain at once. "It's too much!" he shrieks. "It's too much! Make it stop!" The black hands begin unraveling his body as easily as loose thread, which only makes the boy cry out louder. "What's happening to me? Stop it! MAKE IT STOP!" Then, for an instant, it all becomes clear – the Truth… of everything. He sees Al just up ahead, holding out his hand for Ed's and smiling warmly. "AL! Al, wait! I'm coming! Just wait, I'll-"
SLAM! He's outside the doors, his body whole once again, standing with his hand extended toward where Al had just been.
"How was it?" asks the Truth.
Ed fixes the being with a fierce glare. "What happened? Where did Al go? What have you done with him?"
"That's a stupid question, young alchemist. Your brother is dead; I haven't done anything with him."
"You're lying! You have to be! I have to bring him back!"
"That is impossible."
"But…" Ed turns back toward the doors, "but it was all in there – the truth about Human Transmutation. It's possible; it must be! All the knowledge I need is right here! Please, you have to show it to me again!"
The entity finally rises from its seat and sighs, "I'm afraid I can't do that."
"Why not? You have to! I'm going to bring him back! You can't take him from me! You're going to give him back, you hear me!? I… I had so much I didn't get to say to him! It's my fault he's dead! I talked him into coming with me! I have to make it right! I HAVE TO BRING HIM BACK!"
"So much you wanted to say?" the Truth repeats. "Is that so?"
"Yes, so please, let me see it again."
"As I said before, I can't do that. I've already shown you as much as I can for the toll you've paid."
"Toll? What toll?"
The shadowy being approaches him, backing him up against the closed gateway. "This. Surely you knew." It touches his throat, and Ed chokes as something begins to feel very, very wrong inside of him. The Truth's face contorts into a menacing, mocking grin as it concludes, "It's the law of Equivalent Exchange – right, young alchemist?"
Suddenly, Ed experiences a dropping sensation, and the next thing he knows, his legs have collided with earth. The pain of the bullet wound returns in full force, so sharply that Ed cries out… or, at least, he tried to. He opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. Then, he lurches forward and coughs blood onto the ground. As he suppresses more convulsions, his watering eyes land on Al's body, but… it looks nothing like his little brother anymore – the limbs have been contorted, sticking out at impracticable angles, the features twisted beyond recognition. It's a monster; he had created a monster… and it is still dead. He had failed. Overcome by misery, Ed breaks down into sobs, but still no cry comes from him. He tries to say Al's name, to call for him one more time, but it's useless. Ed finally realizes what's wrong, what the toll had been. He rests a trembling hand against his throat where the Truth had touched him… and admits the reality. His voice is gone.