A/n: I tried to write a shorter fic this time. I failed.
One of my favorite clips from the manga, which I wish had been included in the anime, is from the scene where Al realizes that his armor body will not let him sleep. He confides in Winry that he hates being awake all night because he can't turn his mind off, because it "makes me think about things that I shouldn't". Being alone at night for hours on end, without the luxury of shutting off his mind for several hours, leads him down the road of perseverating on tricky mind games. We've seen it before, during his identity crisis driven by Barry the Chopper. He falls into a self-driven trap over something that should actually be a non-issue.
Countless thanks to bookofstars, my wonderful beta, for being exactly her blunt self.
Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no profit. I am also not an expert in atomic physics.
The Other Vessel
"In my darkest night/when the moon was covered/and I roamed through wreckage/a nimbus-clouded voice directed me/ 'Live in the layers/ not on the litter.'/Though I lack the art to decipher it/ no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations/is already written/I am not done with my changes." – Stanley Kunitz
Months after the reunion of his body and soul, Al thinks he may be in better shape than he was before the incident. Every day he has a different routine, a different combination of exercises that he happily weaves into his schedule. They all start the same—first he rolls out of bed and does two sets of fifty pushups and sit-ups, concentrating on form and pacing. Then he follows up with either a long run or a workout. Twice a week he runs ten to fifteen kilometers, three times a week he lifts free weights, and he fills in the gaps with plyometrics.
He's up and dressed and stretching before daybreak, and warms up with a slow jog. The sun rises with him, alongside him, spilling light through the trees and burning off the morning fog. Resembool is a quiet little town most of the time, but as Al runs through the open countryside, cutting a trail of footprints in the dew, it is still and silent.
Of all these workouts, his unequivocal favorite is anaerobic training. Al saves it for the end of the week, the last before his one day off, so that when he's slogging and sore he has to drive himself even further. He finds an open field about two kilometers from home and pounds the ground into an oval track with alchemy.
Within moments of pushing off the starting line, the silence breaks to the sound of his ragged breathing. Al sprints one kilometer as fast as his body will carry him, and before he's fully recovered from round one he does it again. One kilometer, two, three, all with short interval breaks. It's the pain that does it. The white hot burn of lactic acid in his calves, the pinch in his lungs, his entire body crying out for him to stop. His heels pound so hard and fast that he feels the reverberation up into his shins. This is what it means to be alive. This—crossing the line and gasping and pushing until pain blinds him and exhaustion threatens to knock him down, then recovering and moving forward once more—is the existence he strove for five years to achieve. And when it's all over, after he's jogged home and has to limp through the following day, that's when he knows he's won. Change is winning, and making himself stronger is the means he's used to achieve it.
His family supports him, but at the same time they worry that he might push himself too hard. It's when Ed walks into the shed one morning to find his brother hanging upside-down from the rafters that he voices his unease.
"Don't you think you should give it a rest, Al?"
Al finishes his set of inverted sit-ups before swinging down and landing gracefully on his feet. "I can't, brother," he says, grinning broadly despite his labored breath. "This body, it's everything I could have asked for. It does everything I want it to, as long as I treat it right. It would be a shame not to use it to its full potential!"
Ed isn't convinced, but he nevertheless leaves Al to his table dips without comment aside from a muttered, "Absolutely nuts" as he disappears through the door. Al isn't concerned. The three mechanisms to a healthy body are exercise, rest, and nutrition. Or, in his case: work a lot, eat a lot, and sleep a lot. Luckily, Al still can't decide which of those three components he likes best.
Not long thereafter, Ed and Al are on a train traveling from Dublith to Rush Valley when the train is boarded by a group of extremists. In the course of fighting, Ed is shot.
To this day Al can see exactly what went wrong. If Al had been just a little taller, a little boarder, the bullet would have struck his hip instead of sailing under his arm and into his brother's side. He is fast, but not as fast as he once was, and broad, but not enough to take a bullet when it matters. No amount of exercise can make a bullet ricochet.
The wound is superficial. Ed recovers quickly, and within months they take off for opposite ends of the world.
But for the first time, Al wonders.
The invitation had claimed that they were going to a banquet, so Al is surprised when they walk into what looks like an imperial dinner party. Where he had expected long banquet tables, instead the room is filled with circular tables for much smaller groups. He and Mei find their assigned seats at a table for two, and as they sit down across from one another he jokes that maybe they're at the wrong place.
"This is way fancier than I expected," he says, glancing furtively around to see just how many people are in tailored suits. The answer is all of them. He makes a mental note not to remove his jacket, in case someone should realize that his waistcoat clearly doesn't go with the rest of his suit. "Maybe it's a cultural definition thing."
Four years in this country and he still learns something new every day.
"It's a money thing," Mei corrects him, with a resentful sniff. Just minutes beforehand, the doorman had spotted Xiao Mei perched on Al's shoulder and told them that they weren't allowed to have any pets. After an argument, during which Mei insisted that Xiao Mei was absolutely not a pet, they had had to make a show of walking away just so they could stuff the squirming panda into Mei's purse and come back empty-handed. Mei's scowl tells Al that she still hasn't recovered from the insult.
"This event is celebrating the five-hundredth anniversary of the country's most prestigious university," she says.
"Hmm! I still wonder why we were invited. We're just adjunct professors, not even real faculty! Technically we're not even being paid, if you don't count the research grant."
"There's two reasons why they invite a few of the best students and staff in addition to the nobility. One—" she lifts a finger for each cause, "because they hope that we'll donate money some day. And two, because this is also the perfect opportunity to show off to the new emperor. Or, at least, to the people on good terms with him!"
From his seat at the dimly-lit table, Al peeks around and tries to take in as much at once as possible. He doesn't recognize most of the well-dressed crowd, but he spots a small group of students looking uncomfortable a few tables over. He gives them a furtive wave and one of the men nods back. The youngest in Al and Mei's class, a woman about thirty years old, waves and mouths "Hello, professor!"
"I guess we'll have to put a good word in," says Al, turning back to Mei and grinning.
Mei still looks peevish, but she eases up at the laugh in his voice. "Only if the food is good."
The food is good; there's entirely too much of it, but they enjoy every mouthful and sneak a few bites to Xiao Mei when the wait staff isn't looking. The wine is even better. Mei orders red, Al orders white, and after three glasses each they somehow get to talking about their Alchemy and Alkahestry. This would be a perfectly regular occurrence had they not agreed to give their brains the night off from dealing with a major flaw in their research. The same problem has followed them for weeks now, one little glitch in the equation that morphed from an interesting logic problem to a nasty blot on their progress. They've presented the issue to the students in their comparative Alchemy/Alkahestry class, to numerous academics, to Ed several thousand kilometers away. But tonight, while slightly drunk and flushed in the low light of burning candles, Mei gets a look that Al well recognizes.
"What is it?" His Xingese sounds foreign enough when he's sober, but with his blood-alcohol level in questionable form the words come out with an even thicker accent.
Al is faintly giddy from the wine and warm from a combination of close quarters and free alcohol. His suit jacket lays abandoned on the back of his chair. When Mei keeps staring past his left ear, Al leans forward, touching his fingertips to her upturned wrist.
"What, did you solve the energy-mass transfer problem?" he says, and laughs because it's funny, because it's absurd to imagine that they could get it at a dinner party of all places.
Mei doesn't laugh. She startles at his touch, snapping to attention as if he's doused her and snatching up a utensil from the table. She scribbles something on the empty portion of her plate and stares as if expecting the words to appear in print. Then she stands up and sets her purse on the empty chair.
"Stay here, Xiao Mei. We'll be right back. Don't let anybody take my food," she says. When Xiao Mei's head pops up from the depths of the purse, Mei shoves her back in. She turns to Al next. "We need to go outside, quickly!"
For a moment Al is too surprised to move, but he comes-to as she brushes past him in a blur of braids and pink silk. Quickly he throws down his napkin and rises to join her, catching the attention of the nearby students when he trips over his own feet and nearly collides with the waiter. He expects her to head for the main entrance, but instead they duck through the bar and out through the service exit.
The weather is strange for this time of year. The day had been seasonably warm, but a looming cold front from the north brought with it a heavy wind and drizzly fog. Flecks of mist fling against Al's face, humid and sticky on his lips. As he follows Mei into the alley behind the banquet hall, he takes in a long breath of air just to feel it swell in his chest. He loosens his tie with a few deft tugs to let the cool air in. Now that he's outside, Al realizes how stiflingly warm he'd been in the banquet hall.
Mei doesn't seem to notice the weather. She's already darted over to the first dry patch of wall that she can reach and procured a bit of chalk from the front of her dress. Al watches the hem of her whip around her ankles as she scribbles out their formula. She steps back to let him look when she's finished writing.
"Okay. I'm not sure that I can talk about atomic structure on this much wine, but here it goes." Mei jabs at the failed equation with the chalk a little too hard and chips the tip. Bits of chalk dust puff up and flow off in the wind. "This is what we did. This—" Now she circles a symbol, draws an arrow around to the front, and adds another long string of numbers and symbols to the end. "—is what we should have done. We were way off on the numbers. If we want to transmute matter from energy alone, we have to take into account not only the composition itself, but the sheer force needed to cohere it."
She explains the rest all in one breath. Al listens with the heels of his palms pressed over his eyes, in a valiant effort to squeeze the buzz out and the information in. A long pause follows after her explanation. Al drops his arms, flexes his fingers, re-reads the equation again. He turns to find her visibly eager for his response.
"Mei, this is amazing!"
Her expression had been apprehensive, but at his words Mei breaks into a smile. They stare at one another for a long beat before she throws herself at him, locking his arms around his neck with a shrill cry of, "I can't believe it!"
Al returns the embrace in full, lifting her clear off her feet and spinning a circle. "Mei, you're a genius!" He sets her on her feet so he can frame her face between his palms and kiss her. Her lips are cool from the outdoors and slightly parted, her breath catches against his mouth as though he can still surprise her after all this time. She lingers long and pulls back a little sooner than he'd like, leaving the taste of red wine on his tongue.
"You see the problem, then?" she says, all out of breath.
Al nods. "To create even one atom of mass without bypassing equivalent exchange would require an unbelievable amount of energy… an impossible amount of energy."
"Yes, and maybe even more interesting: during re-stabilization, whatever energy is left over from the deconstruction might actually get released as a side effect. All at once. The equivalency works no matter which way you transfer the energy."
"Being anywhere near that transmutation would kill you. Ah, well," he sighs, brushing a kiss over her eyebrow before he lets go. "It may not be very practical, but it's still amazing. We can rearrange the elements all we want, but atomic transmutation is something we aren't even remotely prepared to handle."
Despite the latest hurdle to their work, Al still returns indoors feeling satisfied with their progress. He's so besotted by Mei and her amazing brain that he gives no thought to the faces of his students when they spot him and Mei returning to their table looking disheveled and flushed. Only later does Al realize what the students' expressions had meant—astounded, amused, even a little scandalized. But then, by the time this clicks, he's curled up naked in bed with Mei and all he can do is laugh.
The class that they co-teach at the university meets five days a week for two hours each. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings Mei lectures on Alkahestry, and Al does the same for Alchemy on Mondays and Wednesday mornings. While these four days of the school week are taught lecture-style, on Friday mornings Al and Mei host an informal discussion session specifically for clarifying and troubleshooting the week's lessons. This alternating pattern means that, on most days, they also alternate certain chores. On his day off, Al goes for a run and gets back in time to cook dinner. The fifteen kilometer route from the apartment is always the same, a winding circle around the city that passes through a multiplicity of neighborhoods. The change in the country's leadership has prompted a spike in crime in the capital city, where people take advantage of the law enforcement weakness as the new government tries to find its footing. Local instances of both petty and violent crime have been enough for the police to warn citizens to keep off the roads after dark, but then, Al's never had a reason to feel unsafe.
Al starts out at a slower pace than usual, pausing after the first three kilometers to stretch. At first the muscles in his legs tighten up in protest against the cooler weather. Every day has ended a little sooner than before, gotten a little colder a little earlier. Even a week ago he could finish this route with daylight to spare, but now the sun dips behind the building tops before Al gets to the halfway point. It's this early twilight that casts a shadow on the road, blinding him to the figure around the corner of a florist shop ahead.
The blow hits him straight in the gut. Al practically runs straight into it. His insides erupt into pain that shoots like splinters up his chest, and the combined force would have knocked him flat on his back if someone hadn't grabbed him by the collar and hurdled him into the alley way. His shout is strangled with his breath. It takes Al a solid few seconds to process that he's been assaulted, and even longer to move. Teacher would be disappointed.
He straightens up without giving himself a chance to inhale, fists up for a fight, but the sight of a gun makes him waver.
"Whoa, hang on," he says, slipping accidentally into Amestrian. He says it again in Xingese. "Hang on a second!"
"Let's make this simple, foreigner."
His opponent is probably thirty but looks much older. In the half light Al can see that he's unshaven, skinny but broad-shouldered, his torn-sleeved shirt hangs loose off his frame. There's something off about his posture, his voice—the scabbing track marks serve as confirmation.
"Hands up, foreigner."
Al puts his hands up, palms out. "I don't want to fight you," he says. Fighting a strung out man with a gun may actually be last on the list of things he planned to do this evening. It's not the same as fighting a soldier, or any person with an ounce of training. In terms of hand-to-hand, people like this man often make for a harder fight. They're desperate, unpredictable, and resilient. Al would gladly give what little he carries in his wallet in exchange for avoiding this confrontation. It's hardly equivalent, in fact, it's a rip off to the man holding the gun.
Unfortunately, the man doesn't give Al the opportunity to compromise once his hands are in the air. "Then don't fight."
Maybe it's the fact that he's just run eight kilometers that does it, or maybe it's the sheer shock at having been accosted for no apparent reason, but something counteracts the adrenaline pumping through Al's body enough to slow him down. The man advances, the gun barrel aimed so that Al can see down the channel. Al ducks under the man's arm and grabs his wrist, but in the next instant the man spins around and swings. The butt of the gun strikes Al across his right cheek with full momentum and sends face first onto the pavement. Simultaneously he becomes aware of two things: the first is that his mouth is filling with blood. The second is that he needs to move, and he needs to do it now.
His hands feel tingly and it takes some scrambling to pull his arms up, almost like he's lost them amidst his tangled limbs. A simple transmutation can knock the man off his feet long enough for Al to escape. He's about to clap his palms together when a sharp weight falls on his back and the man grabs his hand, twisting it around his back and pinning it under one knee. Al's vision blurs again as the air rushes from his lungs until he wheezes and coughs.
"I said this didn't have to be difficult." With the man's full weight pressing into his back, Al can feel the reverberation of his voice. "Don't move, or I'll shoot you."
Al hears rather than sees the man shift the gun from hand to hand, then feels the cylinder bump against the back of his head. When he tries to speak he splutters like his mouth is numb. Blood dribbles down his chin, sprays out his nose when he coughs. The man ignores all of this as he pats Al down and, when he finds what he's looking for, pulls the wallet from the pocket of his shorts. He slips the wallet open with the fingers of his free hand and rifles through its contents.
"Let's see… don't need that." Out of his periphery Al sees the man fling his library card, which lands and bounces out of his vision. "What's this, a registration card? I've never seen one. It's got two addresses… ah, Amestrian!" He says the last word in Amestrian, exaggerating the sound. "I thought that might be it, foreigner. And who's this, your kid?"
He's got the picture of Ed and Winry's son in his hand now. For some reason this makes Al fight anew to get loose, but he's pinned down firm. The man moves the tip of the gun from the back of Al's head to his wounded cheek, digging it into the spot that floods his mouth with hot copper, grinding his face into the pavement.
"My nephew," Al spits. "Give it—"
"You idiot, what's wrong with you? Don't you know to listen to the guy with the gun?"
Much to everyone's surprise, Al's cough turns into a laugh. The sound comes out choked and fluid, but it's unmistakable. "You're not the first one to put a gun in my face," he says, which is true enough—and even if the man pulled the trigger, it wouldn't be the first time he's been shot in the face—but unlike these other times, the bullets won't ricochet.
"Then you ought to learn quick," the man says, quickly recovering from surprise. "My advice? Don't run the same route at the same time every week. You're practically asking to be robbed, especially when you're such an obvious foreigner." There's a pause as he continues digging through the wallet, and then: "Is this really all you've got for cash? I can't even buy a sandwich with this change."
This time Al doesn't answer. For the first time since this engagement began, he feels a twinge of annoyance. If the man had only listened, they could have been done ages ago—
"Hey, now what is this? You've got yourself a girlfriend!"
Al tenses. That photo of Mei doesn't even belong to him; she'd asked him to bring it to the university records office and he'd forgotten every time he went to class. It's lived in his wallet for two weeks now, pressed between his library card and a few bills.
"That's another thing I can't stand about you foreigners. You take all the jobs and the cute girls. She lives with you, foreigner? At this address—whoa!"
Without warning, Al slams his free hand down and pushes up both his own weight and the weight on top of him. The man careens backward, and the shift is just enough to Al to yank his right hand out from beneath the man's knee, grab the gun, and twist it out of his hand.
There is something wrong. This is the first time Al has touched a handgun. Since as long as he can remember he's felt revulsion toward these weapons, these instruments designed for the sole purpose of killing, yet now he rolls onto his back and takes aim without hesitation. His finger falls easy on the trigger. Something cries out in his bones, a physical urge that hits him like a strike to the head. It thrums against his ears, drowning out his reason and morals and the rest, until all that remains is cold and furious.
Al cocks the gun. The man whimpers.
The man staggers back until he bumps against the adjacent wall. "Wait!" he cries, suddenly looking weak and wiry in his too-large clothes. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please don't—"
"Take the money and leave the rest," Al says, in a voice that's not his own. His body has begun to tremble but his hands hold steady. "If I ever see you near my home, I'll—"
He doesn't get the chance to say it, or even think about it, because before he's done the man turns and darts out into the street, tossing the wallet over his shoulder.
The alley falls into silence. Everything—the road noise from far away, the chatter of evening birds—tunes out, and only once his vision blurs does Al realize he's holding his breath. He gasps and collapses backward, still clutching the gun in both hands, pressing his wrists to his forehead.
He thinks of Rose in Leore, of Winry kneeling before Scar, of his brother beneath the streets of Central. Their faces had contorted with pain, and he… the grip fits so neatly into his palm.
When did he learn to take aim?
Al locks the safety and tosses the gun as if it's burned him.
Ten minutes pass before he sits upright again. His entire head throbs in time with the wound on his face. His teeth are lodged into the inside of his right cheek. He has to stick a finger in his mouth to gingerly pull the hanging skin away from his molars. The deep cut oozes fresh, and when he spits his saliva comes out in a long, red line. More blood seeps down his throat and mixes with his empty stomach, but the only way to keep the nausea down is to swallow the blood, too.
Years of training has made him proficient in the purification arts, but he's still not confident enough to try it on his own face. The cut will have to wait until he gets home. The rest of the wounds are more manageable. Al picks the grit out of his knees and palms, willing his concentration on the task so that he can't think about what just happened. But after he climbs to his feet, gathers up the contents of his wallet from all over the alley and stows them back where they belong, he spots the gun and wonders again. If he leaves it here, anybody could find it. That man could come back for it. Al bends and picks it up and tucks it into his waistband.
He walks the seven remaining kilometers at a sluggish pace, glancing unnecessarily over his shoulder every time he hears a sound. There's no way that man would follow him home, not after seeing the look on his face. Darkness has fallen thick around him, but he's glad for the mask—only a few of the people he passes notice his bloodied face and clothes, and none that do say anything (though one of them does cross the street rather conspicuously). Al catches his reflection in the window of a closed shop and understands why. The lower half of his face is smeared from nose to chin with blood, it's caked on one side of his neck and down the front of his shirt. His right cheek is swelling rapidly, which explains the shooting pain down his jaw and up into his temple. The people of Xing are usually attentive to their neighbors, but he wouldn't have spoken to him either. He looks downright dangerous.
There is an awful moment when Al reaches the apartment, where he grabs the doorhandle and it turns without resistance. He almost panics, until he realizes that he is almost two hours late getting home. Before he has the chance to close the door behind him, he hears his name from down the hall and Mei appears not a second later.
Her reaction to his appearance is so profound that it's almost comical. Her feet stutter-stop halfway through the kitchen door and her shoulder collides with the frame. The bowl in her hand falls and shatters, sending porcelain chunks scattering across the tile in a splash of noodle broth, but instead of stopping to gape she tackle-hugs him.
"What happened?" she cries. She buries her face in his shoulder, utterly unconcerned with getting blood on herself. "I was about to go looking for you!"
Until now Al thought that he was relatively composed, but as he puts his arms around Mei he feels himself begin to wilt. Standing in the foyer with her makes his recollection seem more surreal. It's an awkward hug; he keeps his wrists bent so as to not get his bloody hands on her. Mei has no such qualms, however, and already detached herself enough to start examine the side of his face with mild horror.
"I'm all right, Mei. I'm sorry for scaring you like that." It's the first time he's spoken in over an hour, and the words sound gravelly from the thick buildup in his pharynx. The return of his own voice over that other version brings him back down, and suddenly he remembers that he'd had plans today. "Oh no, I forgot about dinner! It was my turn to cook, I'm so sorry—"
Mei laughs, but the sound is tinged with desperation. So backs away to fix him with a disbelieving look. "How can you think about chores right now?"
Fixing the mess on the inside of his mouth takes a simple transmutation, which she performs almost effortlessly after steering him into the kitchen. He collapses into the nearest chair with a groan. Mei raises the lights and tips his head back to get a good look into his mouth.
"Ouch," she says, wincing on his behalf. "There goes my first theory. A fall couldn't have done this."
"You're right," says Al, except with her fingers in his mouth the words come out slurred. Gently he moves her hand from his face, then reaches around and draws the gun out from under his shirt. He keeps his finger away from the trigger, flush along the barrel. "This did it."
It strikes him that she doesn't gasp, doesn't flinch back from him at the sight of the gun in his hand. Her eyebrows rise, but that's the extent of her reaction. He's actually grateful.
"Let me fix you up first. It must be painful to talk with that injury."
Mei pushes the mess to one end of the table draws the transmutation circle on smooth tabletop, Al rests his head in the center, and flash later he feels the cut suturing itself as if with a thread. The inside of his cheek feels oddly twitchy, as if the broken capillaries are moving about beneath the surface, trying to reconnect in the right places. At once the shooting pain fades to a duller throb. Al almost regrets its dissolving, like the pain had been holding him in check. He forces the thought away and thanks her.
"So what happened?" she says.
Al tells her everything. How he left for his usual run, the fight in the alley, all the things the man said and all the things that Al had felt—everything. Despite his instinct to bury the burden of the details, he knows that to do so would be unfair to Mei. Al learned a long time ago what it meant to keep secrets from loved ones, and that the benefits rarely exceed the price. When he considers passing over some ugly detail, all he has to do is think of Winry and he has no excuse.
While he talks, Mei dampens a hand towel with warm, soapy water and drapes it over his scraped knees. Al uses one corner of it to clean his palms.
"What I don't understand is why. I never really tried to hurt anybody unless I thought I had to. And this time, I wasn't in any real danger. I wasn't even all that upset—it's not like this is the worst thing someone's done to me. I don't even think it makes the list." Al almost laughs, but then Mei starts scrubbing his knees and he has to gasp instead.
"Sorry, sometimes superficial wounds hurt the most." Mei rests a hand on his thigh, just above the towel, and scratches at a speck of dried blood. "And I'm not sure the reason matters. You didn't hurt him, and that's what counts."
"But Mei, I almost did. I wanted to."
"Haven't you ever been so angry that you wanted to hurt someone?"
The memory of Nina Tucker passes over his eyes, still raw and sharp years later. Discovering her there, what the Sewing Life alchemist had done… it remains without question the most wrathful moment of his life. If Ed hadn't been the one to snap, if he hadn't needed his little brother to save him from doing something unforgivable, there's a good chance that Al would have attacked instead. How far he would have gone, he can never know, but he hadn't had a body at the time, either. It wasn't… it had been different, not like this, not bloodlust.
By now he's buried his face in his hands, oblivious to the pain that results. "That's the thing. I have felt angry enough, but that anger was more justified than this, and it never felt like—like a craving… that poor man! I must have terrified him!" Al cries, as if he had been the one to instigate the mugging and taunt his victim. "I feel awful, Mei. When I think of how I must have looked… what should I do?"
Al peeks at her through his splayed fingers, expecting her to look appalled, but she surprises him yet again by smiling. Mei stands, taking the soiled washcloth with her, and smoothes a thumb down the side of his face. She bends to kiss the top of his head. He wants to lift a hand to touch her but he can't.
"First, you need to go take a shower. Then you need to ice your face to bring down the swelling. And you should probably eat something, too."
Al sighs. "I'm not very hungry, and you know that's not what I meant."
"I wasn't done yet," she says hotly, propping a hand on her hip. The towel dangles lamely around her knees. "We have to go over our lesson plans, too. And tomorrow, you need to get rid of that."
Al follows the line of her disapproving gaze to the table, upon which the gun sits like another tool amidst the clutter. His sense of doom suddenly seems more justified.
"So you do think something's wrong with me," he says, defeated, turning to the tile between his feet.
"No, but I do think having it around is just going to make you crazy. That, and I don't like guns."
Just hours after Ed had been shot on the train, Al was sitting across from the foot of the bed in a chair dragged in from the waiting room. The surgeons took almost no time to stitch up the entrance and exit wounds, their job facilitated by the fact that the bullet had passed cleanly through his side. Aside from some heavy bleeding, Ed had escaped with no damage to his internal organs. The word they used was "miracle".
Al stared down between his feet with his elbows propped on his knees like they were holding up his body. Winry, who had arrived at the hospital with unbelievable speed, had parker herself in the bedside chair and fallen asleep next to Ed's head. Al didn't hear her even breaths. He didn't hear anything, only a muffled ringing in his inner ears. Those people, that extremist, had shot with the intent to kill. After everything Al and his brother had done, everything they had been through, those people tried to take it away like it was for nothing.
Al had dived, but it didn't make any difference.
In this body, he was useless to protect his family. And they had taken advantage of that weakness without hesitation. Those people, those heartless cowards, had something coming to them—
His head snapped up at the sound of his name, and abruptly he returned to the hospital room, to his body. Winry was standing in front of him, one hand outstretched for his shoulder, her eyes wide with concern. Dumbfounded, Al stared back with his mouth agape until the source of the voice clicked in his mind. He looked past her, where Ed was sitting half-upright in bed, staring. Ed's expression bore unmasked alarm and… recognition?
All at once, Al became aware of himself—the hard line of his jaw, the wrought tension in his shoulders and wrists. He didn't remember balling his hands into fists like this. His fingers were stiff, knuckles white, the tiny muscles in his fingers resisting as he eased them open. He looked down. And what he saw there, eight little crescent moons bleeding into his palms—
Al wakes up sweating and queasy. The ache has crept up into his head, a full pressure that drums against his eyes and the inside of his sinuses. He can feel the thin line of a scar with his tongue. Beside him, Mei sleeps with Xiao Mei curled up on her pillow.
He gets out of bed and freezes a wet compress for his face, for a long while toying with the idea of waking Mei. There's something unsettlingly familiar about being so wide awake in the dark, like loneliness crawled into his belly, and its return terrifies him. But in the end, Al can't bring himself to ruin Mei's rest. There's no need to wake her for the sole purpose of keeping him company, not when he and the night are already so well-acquainted.
Instead he holds the compress to his cheek and paces a path from the living room to the kitchen. He walks and walks and walks.
Fridays are the one day of the school week that they get to spend entirely together. The alarm rouses them from sleep, they shower and dress together, then Al prepares a pair of lunches while Mei cooks breakfast. Everything about this last day of the week is more pleasant than the others—their morning ritual, the commute, the lesson itself, all just a little sweeter than the rest.
This is Al's favorite day of the week, and even on two hours of spotty sleep he's determined to enjoy it. He wakes up to Mei shaking his shoulder, her face hovering over his, looking slightly anxious.
"You've never slept through the alarm before," she says. She scoots back to give him space as he sits upright and rubs his eyes. "There's a little bruising, but the swelling's gone way down. Did you sleep at all?"
Al doesn't have it in him to tell her, so instead he and nods and prods the side of his face with one finger. The wound is still tender to the touch, but a night of on and off icing has done its job. He squints blearily at Mei, noting amidst a drowsy yawn that her damp hair is dripping dark splotches onto her blouse.
"You already showered?" he says. He's so audibly disappointed that she actually smiles.
"You looked so tired, I thought it best to let you sleep. I made lunch. Breakfast will be ready by the time you're dressed."
"You didn't have to do all that, but thank you."
As he climbs out of bed, deliberately trying to look more awake than he feels, Al pretends not to notice Mei looking at him like he might spontaneously combust.
"Did the pain keep you awake?" she asks, quietly.
"Something like that."
On their first day as adjunct professors, Al and Mei had arrived together and cheerfully greeted their students, but the faces looking back had been politely puzzled rather than interested. At the time he had never given a formal lecture and certainly never spoken Xingese in front of an expectant audience, and no amount of rehearsal could have prepared him for the torture of hearing his own voice for an hour, so blatantly foreign that he had felt as if he were standing there naked. Neither he nor Mei had been what the students expected—two young people with no formal education, who spoke like adults and brought a stunted panda bear with them to class.
It also hadn't helped that of all fourteen people in the room, Mei and Al were the youngest by at least ten years. One of the students had actually raised her hand and asked if she was in the right place. The dynamic had improved once Al and Mei started discussing concepts over most of their heads, but it was not until three weeks in, when a student marched in brandishing a copy of an Amestrian newspaper covering the events of the Day of Reckoning, that things suddenly became much more personal. Until then, Al and Mei had only spoken about their personal histories in vague terms, mentioning neither their role in the Amestris incident nor the fact that they had a close relationship with the new emperor.
Today, class discussion is so engaging that Al doesn't think about much else for the full two hours. He doesn't talk as much as usual, out of a combination of fatigue and the tea cup glued to his lips.
"I'm not sure I understand," says one student. "Are you saying that atomic division can't be done with Alchemy or Alkahestry?"
Mei shakes her head so hard that Xiao Mei almost topples off of her shoulder. "Not at all! The trouble isn't that it can't be done, but that the deconstruction would likely result in such devastation that it might not be worth trying. At least, not with all the variables still unaccounted for…"
Al sits with his chin in one hand and his tea in the other, watching Mei as she launches into an in-depth explanation of atomic energy transfer. He's still exhausted, but the dialogue among his students has perked him up more than the huge dose of caffeine. After talking for several hours, he and Mei had decided it would be best not to share their newfound equation, but the concept itself is still worth sharing with the class. He's glad that they're so eager to learn, and even more so that they understand it—but then, every one of the students is a well-versed Alkahestrist in their last year of university.
Nobody speaks after Mei finishes explaining. One of the students in the second row lets out a long sigh and rubs her hands over her face.
"It's terrifying to think that we as humans are powered by such strong forces," she says. "To create enough matter to produce even a tiny human, one would need more energy than even the sun has to offer. Yet we carry it around with us. And if it happened to be broken down like you said—if something triggered it, if it could happen—the results would be… explosive."
Al nods, grimly, in agreement with her thought. He thinks of the philosopher's stone, its composition, how the sheer energy of human life could amplify one's alchemy to unbelievable levels. "You're right, it is terrifying," he says. "But it's also amazing. We humans are much stronger than we realize."
After class, Al leaves Mei with the stragglers to go refill his tea cup. There's only one student left speaking to Mei when he returns, a middle-aged woman called Jun, and he lingers in the hallway to give them privacy while they finish their conversation. A comment toward the end of their chat tears his attention away from a wall map of the region east of Xing.
"Thank you again for all your help. And by the way, that bruise looks pretty serious. You should keep a better eye on your—"
Your something. Jun uses a word that Al doesn't recognize. Quickly he scrambles for his notebook, juggling his tea and a pencil procured from his pocket to write down the phonological spelling so that he can look it up later.
"Oh! He's, um, I didn't realize we were quite so obvious," she stammers, and her blush is so strong that he hears it in her voice. "I'm sorry if we've come across as unprofessional. We never meant to flaunt—"
Jun cuts off Mei's rambling with a hearty laugh. "No, no, you're fine, don't worry! It is obvious, of course, but Alphonse is to blame for it," she says. "The way he looks at you, he gives it away."
They part at the intersection outside so Mei can meet up with a friend, leaving Al to walk to the police station alone. He takes the long route and arrives at the bottom of the steps half an hour later. Al looks up at the building, a tall façade built in stone and bearing the crest of the police in gold. Pedestrians pay him no heed as they jostle past, too busy in their own business to notice a stranger standing with his heart in his throat. His bag is heavy, the strap hanging taut on his shoulder. All the way here the gun had bumped against his hip in syncopation with his steps. Now it rests amidst a clutter of books and scraps of paper.
Al turns around. He walks back to the apartment instead of taking the bus. The gun goes into his bedside table.
That night, sleep evades him again. He has the same nightmare, repeatedly, and though the details change the end is always the same: Al is in his former body, walking down a dark street with either Ed or Mei when a hooded figure steps out onto the walk. At first he thinks it's the mugger returning for a second go, but the person pulls back the hood to reveal that the extremist who shot Ed on the train from Dublith. The man pulls a gun out from under his coat and takes a shot at whoever Al is with. Al dives to deflect the bullet, reaching out with one arm as if to grab it from the air, but as he does so his body changes to its proper form. The bullet sails right past him, narrowly missing his own side, hitting the other person instead and killing them on the spot. And Al, without hesitation, pulls a gun from nowhere and aims it at the extremist. The man's gun falls from his hand as Al grabs him by the collar and forces him against the brick wall. By now the man has transformed back into the Xingese mugger and pleads for mercy, but Al doesn't listen. With his forearm Al pins the man to the wall by his throat, ignoring the gasped pleas. In his head Al is pleading, too, but his body acts without permission. Al raises the gun and forces it into the man's mouth, twisting it up so the barrel scrapes against the ridges of his palate.
"Isn't this what you wanted?" Al says, and jolts awake to the sound of gunfire.
The dream follows him every time he falls asleep. Nothing about it makes any sense—the helplessness of Mei and Ed, the transformations, his own body's disobedience—but it has the same effect every time. By morning, Al has shot and killed that man no fewer than eight times. Mei doesn't have to ask.
The following evening, Al laces up his trainers and runs hard sprints until he vomits. He does it to exhaust his body into sleeping through the dream phase, and he does it because it hurts.
The ploy doesn't work. After two encounters with the dream, Al gives up. He paces for hours, reads until his eyelids droop, sits at the window and watches the wind in the trees. In the middle of the night, Mei peers into the sitting room to find him lying face-first on the sofa, his long legs hanging awkwardly off one end. Mei turns up the collar of her robe, crosses to the sofa, and kneels down by his head.
"Staying up like this is only going to make it worse." Mei watches his motionless frame as if to ensure that he hasn't suffocated on the pillow, then rolls back on her heels and stands. She tugs him up by the arm. "Come on, let's try again."
Al shuffles round-shouldered into the bedroom behind Mei. He's been dreading this bed, but the sheets are cool and soft and he groans when his face hits the pillow. He wants to tell Mei that he's been trying to rest, but his words scatter when she slips a hand under the back of his shirt, and anyhow, there's no point in telling what she already knows. The tenderness of her touch renders him boneless and speechless. For a while he drifts in and out, until Mei stops rubbing out the tension along the length of his spine, and that's when he falls asleep.
Two hours later, Al is in the kitchen with his face in his hands and his skin sticky with sweat.
After three days of almost no sleep, Al accidentally puts his tie on upside-down and doesn't notice until halfway through his lecture. Four days in, he falls asleep standing in the shower and bangs his elbow falling down. At some point he stops tonguing the thin jagged line on the inside of his cheek and starts biting it instead.
On the fifth day, Mei tells him that if he doesn't stop gnawing, the wound will never heal properly. She sits cross-legged on the floor of the sitting room, the daily newspaper shielding her face, and from across the room Al doesn't know how she spotted him doing it.
"Maybe there's something wrong with me."
Al has three kunai in one hand and two in the other. Across the room he's set up the cork board he uses for target practice, but after only half an hour the surrounding wall is littered with chisel marks. He takes several long strides away from the board, then turns and flings all five kunai at once. Three hit their marks around the circle. A fourth sinks into the wall. The fifth ricochets off the edge of the board and soars toward Mei, who catches it by the ribbon without looking up from her paper.
"It's your wrist," she says, sliding the weapon back across the floor. "You need to keep it straight."
Al clears the target and bends to pick up the last of the kunai. "Thanks, but I don't mean my throwing." He straightens up with a sigh. His shoulders feel physically heavy, his limbs cumbersome and stiff. "I was talking about my dream."
"I suspect the key to both is a good night's sleep," Mei says. She turns a page of the newspaper. "I wonder how Mr. Zampano and Mr. Jerso are doing. I haven't heard from them in a while."
"Mei, this is serious! What if something happened to my body?"
Al starts pacing a narrow path from the doorway to the target board, absently spinning one kunai by its pink ribbon. Xiao Mei hops down from Mei's shoulder and follows by his heels.
"There's research suggesting that people who are left alone too often as babies can develop sociopathic tendencies. What if the same is true for all critical periods of brain development? My body went through puberty without me. What if my brain didn't develop right? What if—" His footsteps stop when he reaches an epiphany and he utters a slow, inward gasp. "What if my brain was reconstructed incorrectly, and now it's wired to hurt people? It's bad enough that I can't protect the people I love, but now there's this…!"
Mei sets the newspaper aside and sighs. "I don't mean to sound dismissive," she says, "but I don't think you should be so worried about this."
She's not being snappish, but she's crossed her arms in a way he knows means looming danger. Al can't help the anxious spasm in his gut. He'd much rather be studying right now, or practicing, or just about anything else. Most probably Mei is right about getting more rest, but it's not his fault he's being jerked around like this. The longer he goes without rest, the worse feels about trying to sleep. It beckons, and then pushes him away. Ed always said that Al fell into self-wrought mind tricks too easily.
Al frowns and fretfully folds his hands over his stomach. "But that feeling… I realized I felt it before, in the hospital after my brother was shot. I didn't just want to hurt the person who had done it; I was going to, until I snapped out of it."
"Alphonse, six years ago your entire philosophy hinged on the determination to never kill another person. You wouldn't even use the souls of people who would never live again to get your body back. Are you telling me that you've changed your mind?" And this time, Mei almost sounds annoyed. The unusual edge in her voice makes Al double back in his thought process, shaking his head in what he hopes looks like determination but is actually the fraying edges of panic.
"No, of course not! I never—I'll do anything not to, but—what if I get into a situation where I can't help myself? What if I'm capable of killing?"
"We are all capable of killing. Even children do it." Mei pauses, her mouth still turned down in a hard line, but then she softens and lets her arms fall out of their stiff posture. "And even you, if it was the only way to protect yourself or your family, you would do it, too. The difference is that you never give up on looking for an alternative."
When he continues to stare blankly at her, she stands. "I suspect the reason's much simpler than you think. You spent almost five years estranged from your body. Since you got it back, all your senses have been heightened. Not because the actual sensations are stronger, but just because you notice them more than you used to. What's more, you left a child's body in the portal and came back to a man's. It could just be an adjustment issue."
"That's true." And generally, he's had nothing but appreciation for this newfound hypersensitivity. Each of the five senses has its benefits, and even unpleasant sensations have their place.
"Why shouldn't emotions work the same way? A huge portion of anger is a purely physical experience. So unless you regret your body, you need to accept the shortcomings that come with it. You can't spend your time worrying about things that may or may not ever happen—all you can do is trust that when the time comes, you'll do the right thing."
"You sound like my brother. That's exactly what he said."
Almost exactly. Ed's lecture had been much louder and perforated by more instances of "you idiot".
"You ought to listen to him." Mei forces a hopeful smile. "Maybe the sensitivities will fade over time."
The trouble is that Al doesn't want them to. Not all of them, in fact, not most of them. There's something wonderful about smelling and tasting and feeling everything all at once, and save for those few (rather critical) inconveniences, the whole experience has been more than he could imagine. The conversation leaves Al feeling better, alleviates his sense of impending doom enough for him to sleep several hours that night. In the morning all his concerns feel foolish, until he peeks into his bedside table and still can't reach inside.
He hears that word again. It happens while they're out for an early lunch after Al's morning lecture, seated on high-backed barstools at the counter of a local restaurant. They come here fairly often, when the budget allows and when they don't feel like cooking, enough so the grumpy-faced owner spares them a half-smile when they come through the door.
There isn't anything about the situation that gives him any insight. The most unexpected aspect is the unprompted return of Al's appetite, the loss of which had begun to make Mei visibly nervous. He thinks of how his reflection had looked in the mirror last night, pale and gaunt, pupils round and wide and dark, and orders an extra serving of noodles.
His temperament had been the only side effect more profound than his dismal appetite, but even after half a night of proper sleep the whole world seems cast in a much brighter light. The only time he thinks of his existential crisis is between bites of food, when he accidentally bites down on the healing wound inside his mouth and winces in momentary pain. Otherwise he's content to let it go on her advice, something that he trusts more than his instinct at this point, and conversation flows between them like the blockade was never there.
They had been talking about her family, and how he had only ever met them when he first arrived in the country. At the time he didn't speak a word of Xingese, and almost immediately offended the entire clan by one or more of his Amestrian habits. Needless to say, Mei's mother had not been thrilled when three grown men showed up with the intent to abscond with her daughter—especially since two of said men looked as if they could crush a skull in one bicep.
"Maybe they would like me better now that I'm an educated gentleman," he says as he swipes the last bite from her plate.
"Some gentleman, stealing food from a lady!" She snatches the square of meat back with her chopsticks before he can maneuver it into his mouth. "If you're going to sneak half your meal out for the stray cats, that's fine, but don't leave me hungry! And besides, it's a lost cause. No man could ever be good enough for my mother's 'little princess'."
The owner then appears with the tab. Mei pays with a few bills, they thank the woman, and as they're standing to leave the woman catches Mei's eye and says, "Nice —"
It's the same word Al heard while standing outside the classroom. By Mei's blush and hurried "Thank you" he knows it must be some sort of compliment. Mei leaves the diner looking pleased and a little ruffled, but he doesn't have a chance to ask about it until they're hiking up the stairs to their apartment.
"Hey, what was that word the woman said?" he says, pausing to catch his breath at the top of the stairs before digging for his key. "It's the second time I've heard it. I couldn't find it in the dictionary, so I assumed it must be some sort of slang."
"You're halfway right. It is slang, but it's so archaic that you almost never hear it used, and when you do hear it, it's usually in a teasing way."
"What does it mean?" He unlocks the door and steps back to give her room once he's passed through it.
Mei pauses thoughtfully on the threshold. "It's a term used almost exclusively among women in reference to their partners. It doesn't translate very well, but in Amestrian it roughly means 'pure soul'." It's been so long since Al has heard Mei speak in his native language that it almost sounds strange coming from her mouth. At this point they converse almost exclusively Xingese as a supplement to his practice, and when he does speak in Amestrian she usually won't respond. "A more formal way of phrasing it would be 'a person who is genuinely good, and who may actually deserve you'," she says, and then she giggles. "In less formal terms, what she basically said was 'nice boyfriend'."
"That's a pretty personal thing to say to someone you don't know."
"Yes, well, it's really none of their business. That's why it's usually said with a bit of irony."
While Al closes and locks the door, Mei slips out of her shoes and unfastens the buttons of her coat. Xiao Mei hops down as Mei swings the jacket onto its hook and, apparently tired from the long morning, promptly curls up in a little ball on the arm of the sofa. Mei smiles placidly at her as she starts toward the bedroom.
"Historically it comes from the theory that you could learn everything you need to know about someone by reading their chi," Mei says, stretching her arms over her head. "People—mothers, specifically—thought it could be a means of detecting someone's true virtue. They would study the chi of their daughters' chosen partner, and if they deemed their souls to be compatible, then that partner was called a 'pure soul'."
Al follows right behind her. "Wow. Can you really tell that much about someone by their chi?"
"Of course not. Granted, you can tell a lot about someone. Their temperament and general health, for example, all have to do with the flow of chi within the body—even someone's mood, sometimes—but people are very complicated. The chi is hardly a window to the soul."
"So the idea of using your chi to find a soul mate is—"
Mei spins around so fast that Al leans back to avoid her whip-like braids. She's standing in the narrow space between Al and the foot of the bed, and with nowhere else to go she looks up at him, eyebrows aloft. He grins back.
"Obviously ridiculous," Mei says, but now she's smiling, too. Al bows his head to kiss her but she steps backward, catching the backs of her knees around the edge of the bed, and falls onto the mattress. She shuffles back on her elbows to her pillow. "Though I guess there's something to be said for good judgment."
Al widens his stance so her legs fall between his, then kneels on the edge of the mattress. A faint excitement hums through him, beckoned on by the turn of her expression. He climbs up over her on his knees then lets his hands fall to either side of her shoulders, lining their bodies up parallel. His inhale falls short when she nudges his thighs apart. One of her hands seeks him and pulls him down, slowly. Al realizes how long it's been since they got this close. Not since after the university dinner party, and even then they were so drunk on wine and success that neither of them lasted very long.
This is a comforting place to be, this bed. Though lately it has been the locale of his nightmares, he's now reminded that it can also be the safest place.
Al opens the kiss and Mei reciprocates, almost eagerly, her fingers rifling through the short hairs on the back on his neck. Her back arches, he groans against her open mouth. All he wants right now is this—the sweetness of her skin, the softness of her hair—to be alone with her in this terribly simple thing until he's lost to sensation. But when Al shifts his weight and lifts a hand to brush her fringe aside, he remembers the invader in the room and he can't.
He starts to pull back and consequently feels her discontented grumble all the way down his throat. At first Mei resists, until she recognizes that he's serious. Her eyes go round with alarm.
"What's the matter? Al—!"
Al falls sideways onto the mattress, shuffles on his elbows to his side of the bed, and has to reach awkwardly to pull the bedside table open. Mei doesn't say anything when he comes out with the gun. The bed creaks as he rolls onto his back, the weapon held aloft against the light.
"This actually explains a lot," she says, and sighs. "I told you keeping it around would only make things worse."
"Don't be sorry. But I hope you realize that you're no more dangerous with that gun in your hand than without. If you really wanted to hurt somebody, you could do much more damage with Alchemy."
Al turns his wrist, studying the gun with almost impassive interest, as if he's never seen it before this moment. It's heavier than he expected. The ceiling fan casts a trembling glint on the barrel, the muzzle, the trigger guard. After a few long beats Al lowers his arm, elbow locked at ninety degrees and the gun resting in the groove between their pillows.
"You said that all of us have the potential to kill. Even children. So…"
"How old were you?"
"The first time? Seven. Even though the Chang clan ranks so low, people had been trying to kill me since before I was even born. But it was the first time I was ever attacked on my own. I only meant to disarm her, but…"
Al turns his head to watch her roll onto her side. Her hands curl up under her chin as if shielding her body from the cold. Immediately he regrets bringing up the topic; in struggling to sort out his own issues he's made someone else hurt. Yet she speaks without waver, without looking away. "The second time I was nine. I was much more capable of defending myself."
"Do you remember, at Dr. Nox's house, when you attacked Lan Fan?"
Mei's lips actually quirk up at the memory, and the effect of her smirk makes him do the same. "I remember wondering if you had any sort of experience," he says. "On one hand you didn't hesitate, and yet… you almost seemed over eager."
"I was very over-eager. I thought I finally had the chance to act on my own terms. The way this country operated, most of us saw killing as self-defense. You were helping secure your clan's safety every time you took a life."
Several minutes pass in which they lay side-by-side and do not speak. He'd already known that Mei had been targeted by competing clans since infancy. It is the reason behind her early mastery of the purification arts. Her mother could not get her to study traditional fighting methods, so when Mei started studying Alkahestry she encouraged her to learn as much as possible. Though the art is shaped more toward the medical field, in practice it makes an effective tactical weapon. He imagines Mei at that age, a self-described "little girl who just wanted to read books", fighting for her life.
Eventually Al sits up, taking the gun up with him and cradling it in his hands. "I'll take care of this tonight, Mei. I'm sorry if I only made things worse for you."
"We can go together."
There's a light scuffling sound from the doorway, and a moment later Xiao Mei hops up on the bed. Mei lifts herself on her elbows as the panda climbs over her legs and up her arm.
"Don't worry. It's something that I've spent years trying to forget, but…" Mei shudders so intensely that he feels the reverberation from a foot away. Xiao Mei snuggles up to her cheek, and she absently lifts a hand to cradle her there. "The lives you take, they stay with you always," says Mei. "You carry them in your bones."
The statistical likelihood of being mugged twice is fairly small. The chance of being apprehended twice in the same week is astronomically small, which is why, when Al and Mei suddenly have three guns aimed at their heads, he thinks he must not be conscious.
"Put your hands up, kids! There's three of us and two of you—do what we say and nobody gets hurt."
"Maybe I should only be allowed out during the daytime," says Al, dryly. Only yesterday they had returned the first gun to the police station. This is starting to get ridiculous.
Two women and a man, all over the age of forty, all dressed from head to toe in oversized black wool and all holding hand guns like toy pistols.
Al is too baffled to be afraid, and too surprised to resist when he's told to put his hands in the air. To his right he hears an exasperated sigh. He turns, expecting to see some startled reaction out of Mei, but the look on her face says something more along the lines of 'you cannot be serious'. One of the women grabs Mei roughly by the collar and pulls her around in front of Al. She tips the muzzle of the gun against her temple. The only one who looks remotely nervous is Xiao Mei, who stares each mugger in turn from her perch on Mei's shoulder.
"Empty your pockets," says the woman to Al.
"How do you feel, Alphonse?" says Mei.
Al dips his chin, looking down as if the physical motion might give him some insight. The feeling is there, but it's dimmer than before, more like indignance than spiteful anger. "It's similar, but different, somehow less," he says, looking up.
"That's good—ouch!" Mei winces as the woman yanks on one of her braids to shut her up. "There's no need to be rude." Turning back to Al, she recovers before he has the chance to get upset on her behalf. "Do you feel any more or less concerned about your personal safety than last time? That's important."
"Not really…" And then, with more confidence: "Not at all, actually."
"So either you yourself has changed, or your perception has—"
"Hey, shut up, you!" says the person standing behind Al.
He jabs the gun into the back of Al's head, causing momentary dots of light to flicker over his vision. Al nevertheless ignores him, too focused on what Mei is saying to spare attention elsewhere.
"See, if you were going to hurt someone, if your brain was wired to do it, you'd have done it already. Think about how easy it would be!"
"Easier than this."
The muggers have begun looking back and forth at one another, blatantly confused at the indifference of their victims. Al frowns and sighs and thinks back to the man in the alley. The adrenaline had been pumping as it is now, and like then, he chooses to stand his ground. The craving still lingers in his gut, but a long week of deliberation has changed the way he feels about it. Mei has something to do with it, too.
"Right," she says. "But that's the difference, Al. You always look for the alternative. And that—" There's the unmistakable shing of metal, followed by five dull thuds as the kunai hit their marks. Only now do the three instigators turn their attention by Mei's feet, where a circle has appeared in the dirt. She's smiling wryly at him, looking almost proud despite the gun digging into her temple. "That is how I know."
Behind him, the man gasps as Al drops promptly into a squat and claps his hands before pressing them to the ground. Blue light flashes like electricity from the ground, once, twice, and before the others can react a slab of earth shoots up before Mei's feet, whizzes over her shoulder, and smacks her captor squarely in the forehead. The woman stumbles with a yelp. Mei catches her gun as it flies in an arc from her hand. When the other woman tries to grab her, Xiao Mei leaps from Mei's shoulder and latches onto the woman's ear.
Al acts on instinct. He spins around, knocking the man's feet out from underneath him with one fluid motion. Within seconds he's disarmed, pinned, and restrained the man to the ground with a simple transmutation. By the time he straightens up, Mei has done the same with the other two and is brushing the dirt from her dress.
"Great form!" she cries. "That transmutation was almost perfect!"
"Thanks. I'm still not used to remotely controlling the directional movement, but it's getting there."
"Looks like we're going to miss our dinner reservations," Mei sighs. "Oh well. Here, take this, I'll go find a public telephone."
She holds the woman's gun out for him to take.
"Um, all right." Al hesitates fleetingly, reaches for it, then realizes that he's already got a gun in that hand and has to take it with the other. Mei runs off for the phone booth with Xiao Mei scampering alongside her, and once the hem of her dress whips around the corner, Al holds the guns up parallel, frowning. Down by his feet, the captured man gives a weak cough.
"That's some girl," he wheezes.
Al arches a brow at him. "No kidding," he says.
He lets Mei take care of the details. When the police arrive, she smiles sweetly and presents them with all three of the guns. She fills out the report, chatting with the officers in rapid Xingese as she completes page after page, and when she's done she and Al leave together. The window of their dinner reservations has well since passed, so they go back home for sandwiches instead.
Steam spouts from the shower spigot. Twenty minutes and he's still standing motionless with the spray pounding a red mark into his back. Whenever Al worries that he's been too long in the shower, he reminds himself that he's compensating for four missed years and doesn't feel so bad.
He thinks he imagines the knock on the door, but he's corrected by the turning knob and the squeak of the hinge. Mei's calls out softly through the hiss, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm… I'm fine," he answers. He's surprised at the sincerity in his own voice. "Just thinking."
"Can I come in?"
The door clicks shut once she's slipped inside. She heaves a little sigh in the swollen heat of the room. Al rolls his shoulders to catch the water on his neck, tips his head to feel the burning stream down his arms, his chest, his back.
Mei sticks an arm through the curtain to test the water. Her hand recoils almost immediately. "You're going to burn yourself if you're not careful," she says.
"You say that every time." But he still chuckles and turns the knob a touch. Al peeks around the edge of the curtain for confirmation, and sees that Mei is taking out the last of her braids. She transfers her toiletry bag from under her arm to the lip of the tub, somehow maneuvers the full length of her hair into a loose bun, and adjusts her towel wrap.
"Did you surprise yourself today?" she says, as he disappears from sight.
Al pauses to consider her question. "I guess not," he says, at last. "What surprises me most is that I'm still making adjustments after six years. I wonder when I'll finally catch up."
"Ah, but what would be the fun in that?" Her towel rustles as she drops it around her feet. "If you thought you had it all figured out, you'd never keep looking for answers. Just over a week ago, we discovered that our bodies contain more potential energy than we could ever imagine. It's a miracle that we can even exist with such a force. You should celebrate it."
The rungs clang against the metal rod as Mei pulls the curtain back enough to step inside. Al turns sideways to give her an equal share of the spray. She shivers as the scalding water hits her body, goosebumps springing up across her skin, and to adjust to the temperature she sticks her whole head beneath the stream. When she resurfaces, she pushes her sopping hair out of her eyes.
For a moment, Al forgets what they were talking about. Only when she fixes him with an expectant look does he remember that she's waiting for his response, and it takes another pause for him to come up with an answer.
"I know, and I do, but I still worry…" His arms hang loose at his sides, fingers clenching and unclenching. For all the reassurances he's had in the last few days, only one matter still pangs as much as it did after that dream, after his brother was shot. "What if it's not enough? I might not be able to protect everyone."
Al blinks the water out of his eyes and looks at Mei, who reaches across the diminutive gap to take his hands. He would startle at her touch, except that she has once again sapped him of the strength to move. Lifting their hands between them, she turns his wrists upright and eases his fingers open. There are no warnings there, no little crescent moons carved into his skin, just a hairline scar from a childhood injury.
"You have beautiful hands," says Mei. She bows her head to press a kiss in the center of each palm. "You worked so hard to get them back. You need to trust them."
Al falters. Mei and his doubts and the heat of the shower all together leave him dizzy and speechless. He tugs one hand back and, painstakingly gentle, traces along her cheekbone from nose to ear, smoothes the arch of one eyebrow with his thumb. She offers a soft smile in wordless reassurance. His chin dips in a timid nod.
"Thank you," Al murmurs, almost in a whisper.
His other hand joins the first, cupping her face in his hands, and he kisses her. It's all tempered breaths and the bitter tang of tap water. Her hands sidle around his hips, pulling him closer, anchoring him in place.
Al draws a path with his fingers down her neck and the length of her spine, settling at the small of her back. When he pulls away for air, Mei nuzzles into the crook of his shoulder. He kisses her temple, rests his cheek atop her head and shuts his eyes. "Thank you so much."
And for a while they are at ease, the present resolved with the thrumming of two pulses, just him and her standing close in the silent fog.