So here is my NaNoWriMo story, as promised. Was not expecting to breech 3k words on day one! Anyway, this story is very AU so keep that in mind.
The end of our story is only the sorrowful beginning to a new journey.
When Al returned to Risembool, he did not expect to feel guilty about burning down his home. The home his mother had helped to keep in good working order, but also the home they had tainted with bloodshed. Their blood, but regardless the place had felt no good to them and would only prove to be a hindrance in times of doubt or weakness. He did not regret it, but his feelings were quite mixed on the topic. They still were, but trying to unravel his emotions no longer took up most of his waking moments. He had busied himself between running errands for Granny Pinako and helping Winry with the automail shop, which she had just recently taken over.
Despite having forced himself to be as active as possible, him and everyone else in that house knew something was missing. His brother had disappeared awhile ago, a sacrifice to the Gate in order to restore him to the world, body and soul. He was grateful for his life, but he had chosen to safe his brother. Edward had never allowed him to go through with that choice. At night when he would lay in the yard, looking to the universe for answers he would wonder if there was no way for them to once again live in the same world. They had given up everything during their teen years in pursuit of everything they had lost. How could this be equivalent exchange?
Alphonse had decided to take sometime for himself one day and sat himself near a river. He watched the current rush past him, once in a while tossing in a twig or leaf just to watch it float away. He sighed heavily, almost put out that this was what he spent his free time doing. He could not waste away wondering what had become of Edward. As much as he wanted to spend the rest of his life searching for his lost brother there was no way he could handle the burden of abandoning the Rockbell's again. He had succumbed to the idea that Edward was gone for good.
His brother had been such a strong person. Searching the ends of their world for a method of getting their bodies returned to them. He had sacrificed so much as well. His every moment was spent in research or following leads. No time to develop a relationship, no time to enjoy himself, and worst of all was that he had had no time to discover and chase a personal dream. Edward had become a slave to his pursuit of redemption, sometimes working himself close to death for the answers. Any other man may have broken under the strain of all of it, or even died much sooner than Edward had. Edward had always been an alchemist of a different caliber.
Al had decided that he had sat around for long enough. He couldn't expect Winry to manage the shop and take care of Granny all at once. He had decided it was a good idea to head back. The way the sky looked, it was going to rain soon anyway. He rose up to leave, turning his head away rather quickly, but he had managed to catch a glimpse of gold the same shade as wheat in the middle of summer. He turned back, but couldn't see anything. He dismissed it as nonsense and continued on his way home. It had probably been nothing anyway.
Winry was in the living room when Al returned, listening intently as Pinako went over some engineering principles with her. She turned when she heard the door and smiled brightly at Al. "Welcome home. Have a nice time?" Al smiled back and nodded. Seeing Winry smile had always been something he had enjoyed, and something he enjoyed even more was being able to smile back at her.
Winry had done a lot of crying during the time when he and Ed had been traveling. Somehow, Al believed she had done even more crying than that when only Al had returned home. She cried out of defeat and sadness for Ed, but also for joy at Al having returned. That day Al had known more pain than he had ever been able to feel before. It outweighed the pain of losing his whole body if only because watching Winry cry like this was enough to hurt his very soul. And all he could do was hold her. He couldn't even tell her that everything was alright like Ed had been able to. He couldn't do it because nothing was alright, and it never would be again. He held her, his hand rubbed her back. They remained like that for quite some time, exactly how long was uncertain but Winry had promptly apologized for making a scene.
Al remembered everything so clearly it was heart wrenching. He remembered reprimanding her for saying such crazy things. It had only been natural that she cry in such an odd situation. Al had been spared and that was worth some joy, but Edward had been lost. The sadness of that left its mark on all the joy of the moment, trampling over most of it. Winry had done nothing wrong acting like she had. Alphonse had even wanted to show some form of sadness at the loss of his brother, but he had decided to be a pillar of strength for Winry. He had refused to even acknowledge his feelings on the situation until they had put him up for the night. He had cried harder than Winry had, he felt broken inside. He may have had his body back, but the most important part of him had been taken away from him. Ripped away like it had been nothing but a piece of paper.
Nothing had been quite the same in the Rockbell home for a long time after Al returned. The air in the home was suffocating. Even the air outside seemed a bit constricting somehow. He knew why it felt that way and he knew Winry and Pinako felt it too. Their home, even all of Risembool was covered in memories of Edward. For some time, Al had considered getting a job and saving up money to move away from Risembool, but he had trashed the idea after realizing that he could not think of a city that did not remind him even a little bit of Edward. He was everywhere, all consuming and inescapable.
Al had lived like this for six years, although it gradually got better. Winry and Pinako still seemed concerned about him. Winry always looked like she wanted to give Al some words of encouragement, to comfort him somehow. But Al couldn't be comforted, and he suspected that Granny had known that. He would always be grateful that they had let him confront his emotions about Edward on his own. There would have been nothing they could do anyway. This was his demon to face, and although he would never truly defeat it, he could very well at least keep it in check. If not for himself than for the people around him that loved and cared for him.
"Hey, Granny, what did you want for dinner?" Al had placed himself in charge of cooking dinner lately to make things easier on Granny Pinako. She had been grateful, especially since it gave her more time to teach Winry everything she knew about automail. Al's specialty in cooking lay in baking, but they couldn't have cookies or brownies for dinner. That would be unhealthy and ridiculous.
Pinako looked over at him, and almost evil glint in her eyes. "How about you make some deep fried fish, Alphonse. Yes, that sounds delicious." Al's eye twitched. It wasn't that he hated fish, in fact it was one of his favorites, but he had figured out rather quickly that he was really no good at deep frying anything. Even bacon was a challenge for him. He was afraid of getting splattered, and no matter how many times he was coached he always seemed to overcook the food. Winry had had a terribly fun time mocking Al's cooking skills the first time it happened, seeing as he had burned the food and filled the house with so much smoke that the neighbor's had thought there was a fire.
Winry looked at Granny with a face that said clearly enough that she was about to have some fun with Al. "Are you sure about that Granny? He might actually burn down the house this time. Then what would we do?" Pinako snickered to herself, obviously happy she had made the suggestion, and knowing that Al was too bashful to turn down the idea. It was bound to be a fun night.
Al went red at the innocent teasing. He was shy by nature, and timidness always went hand in hand with shyness. Winry and Pinako were always professionals at making the younger Elric blush furiously. Instead of rebuking the claims that he would burn the dinner, even if they would still eat it, he stomped off to the kitchen. That action only seemed to cause them to laugh harder.
He looked around the kitchen, spotting the pan on the stove, the oil on the counter next to it and on that same counter was the fish that he was supposed to cook. Al was a bit creeped out at how they always planned this kind of thing ahead of time, and would always have everything set out for him. Vegetables he always fried with the fish was out. Al always insisted on their meals being somewhat healthy, so even if they were having fried fish they had to have vegetables.
In the end, everyone but Al was outside within twenty minutes, black tinted smoke rising into the air through every window in the house. Winry and Pinako had rushed around to open all of them before fleeing the smoke filled home. The neighbors were laughing at them, commenting on how little Alphonse had done it again. By now it was common knowledge that nothing was on fire, and it was just that nights dinner being burned to a solid crisp.
In the kitchen, Al had a wet towel over his face to filter the smoke, which was also ironically left on the counter, he then grabbed the pan and dumped it's contents into the sink and drenched it in water. The smoke in his immediate vicinity cleared quickly, but the rest of the house was another matter completely. Winry and Pinako would have to wait outside for at least another fifteen minutes. He looked out the window and saw Winry grinning madly at Al's catastrophe, whereas Granny was talking to some of the neighbors. Al's eyes knitted tightly together and his cheeks burned brighter than a tomato, a proclamation to his embarrassment.
When Al yelled out the window that everyone could come back in, they grabbed plates and took some of the fish, making sure to grab a knife on their way to the table. Even if the skin was horribly burnt, somehow Al could always salvage the meat inside, and it always managed to even taste good. It was the only reason that Winry and Pinako still allowed him to fry anything. The vegetables had been fried without a hitch, but Al's trouble seemed to lie in making any kind of meat. Fish included.
Over dinner, Al was far too embarrassed to say much of anything, knowing he would be teased if he did. So rather than engaging in conversation, he allowed his thoughts to drift off in other directions, not even paying Winry and Granny's conversation any heed. They typically left him to brood over dinners like these anyway. Al's thoughts ranged from a mental recap of the day, to Edward and then to his time at the river. He ended up thinking again about his supposed sighting of gold in the middle of the trees on the opposite side of the river. He had denounced it as a trick of his over active imagination, but he could be wrong.
He had only seen a shade of gold like that in one place. A shade that replicated the absolute best wheat flowing in a rare summer breeze with the rays of the sun bouncing off their precious bounty. It was a color that could do nothing but bring memories he'd rather not actively remember to the surface of his thought. But worse than that was the false hope it left him with. A tiny glimmer just waiting to be crushed to bits by the shadows of what was the truth. He was left with the nagging feeling that he needed to investigate, even if it did nothing but reaffirm the truth of the matter.
After dinner he excused himself, saying that after his adventure in the kitchen he really needed a breath of clean air. They laughed and snickered a bit, but waved him out the door saying he had earned a walk out in the fields. Al's legs felt more and more like noodles the closer he got to the river, and when he finally reached the banks he fell to his knees, but searched the woods beyond for any glimmer. He was just about to give up when he saw a small speck behind one of the farther trees. He clapped and pressed his hands to the ground, creating a dirt bridge across the river and rose up to bolt across. He reached the tree he was eying much faster than he supposed he would have, but he stopped a few steps short of the tree, preparing himself for the fact that it may not be Edward. It was far more likely someone else.
He cautiously approached the wooden barrier to his sight. One look at the face told him so many things, not all of them making sense. The face belonged to his brother, there was no doubt about that, but it looked far too young. This face had to be at least ten years younger than his, if not more. The Edward look alike wasn't wearing a shirt, instead it was rolled up and tied around his calf. He had gotten a nasty gash, most likely from a plant covered in thorns. The real telltale sign that this was not Edward though was his shoulder. Edward had had a vicious looking scar on his shoulder from the automail surgery and another scar from a fox bite. A mark he had received during their training with Izumi.
This was not Edward, but he had his brother's face. That thought made him angry, but the boy needed some help. That much was obvious, so he lifted him up and slung him over his shoulder, carrying him back to the Rockbell's. He could only wonder how they would react to this new turn of events.
He opened the door, and when the two women saw the person that he had in his arm they could only ask one question. "Is it Edward?" Winry half whispered. Al shook his head.
"No, but he looks just like him, huh?" Winry nodded, her and Pinako more confused than Al was. They both moved so Al could lay him on the couch. "He needs that gash on his leg disinfected and wrapped up properly. A shirt to wear might be nice too, but I'll take care of that." Al rushed up to his room, trusting that while he was gone Winry would see to his wound, which she hurriedly went to get the supplies for. Pinako went to her bedroom to yank out a spare pillow and blanket. By the time Al got back from getting some fresh clothes, Winry was wrapping the leg up, and Pinako was placing a pillow under his head.
After the immediate affair was taken care of, they all gathered in the kitchen so they wouldn't wake up the doppelganger while they spoke. The silence that took hold when they were first seated was nothing but pure tension. Winry was the first to break it. "Why does he look like that?" Pinako continued to look at the table top, but Al's eyes shot up in her direction.
He knew the feeling all too well at the moment. He was angry and upset that this kid had his brother's face, and it also made him sad because in his mind it proved that he would never see the real Edward again. "I don't know. But where did he come from?"
Without looking up Pinako spoke. "Does it matter? Besides, only the boy can answer that question." Winry and Al nodded. There was no point whatsoever in asking questions they could not answer.
"Can we actually let him leave here looking like that though? Just imagine if he ended up in Central... All that commotion and chaos. And poor Gracia if she meets him." Everyone at the table could sympathize with Winry's words. No one who had met the real Edward would be able to stomach seeing this one and finding out it wasn't him.
Al was nervous about the only solution that came to mind. He didn't want to do it, but he had to. If nothing else he could do it because this boy wore the face of the brother he loved so much. "Then what should we do? Just keep him here?"
Winry looked Al right in the eye. "That's all we can do if we want to avoid causing other people the pain that seeing him would create." Al looked away, but nodded.
"Then it's settled. Let's get to bed. The boy doesn't look like he'll wake up anytime before noon tomorrow anyway." Pinako's statement ended to conversation as she walked off slowly to her room. Al and Winry went to their room, both thinking that it was such a good idea to send Leonardo and Emilia to Gracia's for the week.