Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Edward and Alphonse.
Setting: First anime. An AU future in which the Elrics' quest has continued for a great many years.
Summary: Equivalent Exchange is measured in more than alchemy.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: I don't often find myself writing positive permutations in my "Things That Never Happened" stories, but here is one. Perhaps it's a bit simplistic, but maybe it will help counterbalance a few of the dreadful things I've done to the Elrics in other tales in the series. *g*
"Another town, another lousy inn," Edward Elric sighed, staring in through the open doorway of the room. Before him lay a tableau of peeling wallpaper, dingy carpet, a curtainless window, and two shabby narrow beds, lit harshly by a naked light bulb that hung from the ceiling. It was one of the worst lodgings he had seen—and in nearly thirty years of traveling, he had seen a lot.
Steel clattered as Alphonse loomed on the stairs behind him, clutching their suitcase. "Cheer up, Brother. It's only for the night. Tomorrow we'll finally be back in Central."
"Yeah, at least that means a decent hotel." Ed gingerly lowered himself onto the edge of the nearer bed—only to wince and rise again quickly, as his posterior encountered a broken mattress spring under the worn sheets. "Uh, maybe you'd better take this bed, Al. I'll try my luck with the other one."
A faint chuckle echoed within Al's metal emptiness. "What's the matter? Not soft enough for you?"
Ed shrugged, smiling wanly as he sat down on the second bed. "I guess I'm just getting old."
Al looked away then. Even through the armor, Ed felt the way his brother suddenly closed up, and he immediately regretted his offhanded, self-deprecating remark.
In a few more weeks, Ed would be forty years old—and those years had not been gentle. By some miracle, he had managed never to lose any more limbs or body parts, but the flesh he did have bore enough scars to fill a book. Although he had finally learned over the years not to take the care of his automail lightly—and though Winry had done amazing things with lighter, stronger alloys as the technology progressed—the prosthetics gradually ached more and felt heavier as a simple result of his aging. With the perennial exception of Al, he could still best anyone who dared to take him on in a fight… but afterward, it was taking him longer to bounce back.
He was beginning to slow down, just a little. Although he gamely pretended otherwise, they both knew it, and it was a sobering reminder that their quest could not go on forever.
After nearly three decades, they were still searching for a way to reclaim Al's body, and Ed's own arm and leg. It was that desire which led them to this town, just as it had led them to hundreds of others in the past. They came after hearing rumors that a doctor there had successfully used alchemy to create living, growing human flesh. In theory, such an achievement could one day enable medical miracles in organ transplants and limb grafts. The Elrics hoped the doctor's methods, when combined with their own skills, might help them find the solution they had sought for so long.
That hope was quickly dashed. They discovered that the doctor was merely a fraud, using alchemy for an elaborate swindle—also like so many others they had known. After a swift, violent confrontation in which he tried to silence the brothers by killing them, he was defeated and jailed, and the Elrics set off to begin from square one yet again.
From hope to disappointment and conflict, ending with only a hollow triumph and a few more battle wounds. It was the same pattern they had endlessly repeated, for what seemed like an eternity now.
Now and then, the victories were more dramatic. They had prevented Scar from transmuting a Philosopher's Stone in Liore, saving untold lives. With help from Roy Mustang and those loyal to him, they had exposed and defeated Dante's puppet regime, liberating the entire country from an unspeakable evil. Edward was a legendary national hero; and by now, so was Alphonse, who had long since been awarded the title of State Alchemist himself.
Yet for all that, they were no closer to the fulfillment of their own dream.
The battle with Dante was a turning point. In the first five years of their journey, they were sadly accustomed to seeing alchemy turned to harm for personal profit, but its use for selfish desires on so vast a scale had shaken their perspectives of what mattered. It gave them both a greater desire to do something about such wrongs. More than that, it sealed their resolve never to be lured down that path themselves.
Never again did they seek the Philosopher's Stone, or research human transmutation. They limited their studies to medical alchemy, and other conventional techniques that would not approach such monstrous power—even if those avenues held so little promise. And in the meantime, between pursuits of increasingly rare leads in those fields, they focused more wholeheartedly on their duties as State Alchemists: preventing illegal experiments, rooting out dishonest gain, capturing criminals.
In short, they protected the people from those who misused alchemy. It was something they had always done, since the beginning, when they happened to encounter such deceivers in their own quest; but now they pursued that work with dedication. They took pride in it, even at times such as this, when it came with the sting of another shattered personal hope. They were no better off through their efforts, but others were.
Somewhere along the way, they had both quietly come to accept the unlikelihood of restoring their bodies. Time, experience, and the gradual redirection of their purposes had dulled the pain of their self-inflicted loss. If they could not become physically whole again, at least their spirits found a little more completeness in doing something worthwhile.
It wasn't alright—but it was okay.
At least for now.
Days like these, when Ed was weary and felt his aches more than he used to, made him think about the future. As far as he understood it, unlike mortal flesh, Al's metal body would not permit him to grow old… yet Ed also knew, with a strangely unhurtful certainty, that his death would be his brother's. Whether his own life was ended by age or in battle, he knew Al would choose not to go on existing in the armor without him.
And somehow, for reasons he couldn't begin to explain to himself, Ed had come to feel that was alright. It would be over for Al then, and they would remain together, just as they had always been.
But if he had anything to say about it, that still wasn't going to happen for a long time yet.
Ed abruptly shook himself from his gloomy reverie. He looked up at his sibling. At some point, Al had turned to tuck away their suitcase for the night, and was now withdrawing a book from it.
"Do you want me to turn out the light?" Al asked considerately, poised to reach up to the grimy pull-string of the light bulb overhead.
"Nah. I'm so tired, I'll be out in no time. Go ahead and read." Ed slowly stretched out on the mattress and wrapped himself in his coat, rejecting the inn's highly suspect blankets. "G'night, Al."
"Good night, Brother."
The life-imperiling springs of the other mattress squeaked—and sproinged just a little bit—as Al's heavy weight settled on them. The younger Elric opened his book, and Ed turned away on his left side, carefully shifting his automail arm against his right ribs.
Joints are getting a little stiff, he noted absently. Gotta make time to see Winry and get a tune-up.
Heaving a sigh, he closed his eyes against the overhead light, and offered himself to the waiting shadow of sleep.
Ed's next awareness was of a brilliant golden light all around him, blinding him—yet although he could not seem to close his eyes against that radiance, it caused him no pain. Alarmed and confused, he instinctively tried to move, but he could not feel his body. He tried to call out to Al; he heard the cry in his own mind, but he wasn't sure it found its way to his voice at all.
A monolithic mass of blackness suddenly towered in the luminous haze before him. It was carved with hideous figures, living yet dead… and its doors were inset with a single great eye that stared at him and into him.
This time, he knew his scream was soundless—and so was his heart that should have been pounding in terror.
Along with the fear, incredulous shock pulsed through his mind. The Gate… It was impossible. Only through human transmutation could one approach its threshold, and that was the last thing he or Al would ever do again. They were innocent now of any deed that should call upon it. Al had simply been reading, and Ed had fallen asleep—
Of course. That was it. He was having a nightmare.
…Or was he dead?
Perhaps he had died in his sleep. Perhaps this was where alchemist sinners were drawn back to face their final judgment.
"What is this? Where's Al?" he shouted up at the eye with his nonexistent voice. He tried to clench his fists in defiance, although he was not sure if they—or the rest of his body—were even still a part of him.
The doors of the Gate remained firmly closed; but a formless voice whispered in Ed's mind.
Do not be afraid, Edward Elric.
Ed was taken aback for only a second. The words of reassurance were completely unexpected—but after all he had experienced in the hell on the other side of those doors, he could not believe the Gate held anything but further suffering.
"What do you want from us?"
To return what you have finally completed the price to redeem.
It was impossible to say whether Ed's dumbfounded silence in response lasted for a second or a millennium.
For almost thirty years, you and your brother have fought and suffered, seeking to regain the flesh you first traded away. Throughout that journey, your actions have changed and saved the lives of more people than you could possibly realize. The phantom voice within Ed's mind paused, and a distant note of amusement somehow seemed to creep into it. Have you never learned that Equivalent Exchange is measured in more than alchemy?
Ed would have been sure his breath caught, if he believed he was really breathing at all in that moment. He stared up at the Gate in confusion, completely unable to process what he thought it was trying to tell him.
The price is paid, Edward Elric. It is enough.
Before Ed could form another wordless word, the doors of the Gate were flung open… and what spilled out to meet him was not darkness, but an even brighter light.
A spring had finally worn its way through the surface of the decaying mattress, squarely under the small of Ed's back. As his nerves suddenly seized upon the awareness of its hard, nudging intrusion, he winced and squirmed to one side. His eyes opened, to blink dazedly at the stained and cobwebbed ceiling above him.
It was a crushing letdown to be plunged from a moment of unspeakable splendor, and back into that squalid room of the inn where he had fallen asleep. He smiled sadly to himself, his heart filling with a gentle melancholy.
What a crazy dream.
His body was even more sore than it had been earlier. Grimacing, he slid his left hand under the collar of his sleeveless shirt. His fingers glided gently across his chest, seeking the familiar ridges of scar tissue and steel that forever weighed heavy on his right shoulder…
But he didn't find them. His searching hand felt only flesh: warm and soft, tingling with the deep dull ache of awakening.
A tiny gasp caught in his throat. He tried to move the limb that was now bizarrely light at his right side. It didn't work quite right; its motion was awkward and halting, the nothing of nerveless steel replaced with buzzing, half-numb discomfort. Even so, he managed to lift it slowly from the bed, and stared with unspeakable wonder at the sight his wide eyes took in.
His automail was gone. In its place was a true human arm. It throbbed faintly in pain, its muscles gaunt and weak with the need for nourishment and exercise, but it was alive and natural and unimaginably real—all the way down to the very tips of its five fingers. The skin was pink-red and sensitive, as if newly born, but it merged seamlessly into the much more age-worn skin of his shoulder and chest. Not even a scar remained to show where steel had been bolted to his body for almost thirty years.
The Gate's reprieve had been no dream.
Biting back a soft moan of shock, Ed jerked upright. His gaze shot directly to the other bed… and he saw the steel hulk of Al's armor lying still on the mattress. Its helmet had detached and rolled off of the pillow, coming to rest beside the book that lay under one empty gauntlet.
The dawning of incredulous joy suddenly crashed down into a sick, uncertain thrill of horror. Ed whipped his coat off his lap and flung himself from the bed—confirming with the first step that his left leg, as well, was restored to flesh and blood. Unconditioned new muscles failed to bear his weight properly, and he fell sprawling onto the floor between the beds.
A grunt of pain was forced from him as he landed atop a pile of hard, unyielding metal. It was his old automail limbs—stripped from him but left behind by the Gate, now nothing but inert scrap.
Edward barely noticed the abandoned prosthetics. Grasping the edge of Al's bed with his stronger left hand, he dragged himself up onto it. He anxiously examined the shell that had been his brother's body for three decades: thumping it firmly with an open palm, reaching out to shake its spiked shoulder.
"Al! Oh, Al, please… Are you in—?"
His words broke off as he leaned forward, catching a glimpse inside the armor's neck-hole. The steel was as empty as it was lifeless.
For one moment, Ed's world splintered apart, and his body shook as he sank down brokenly over the armor. He was certain he had been right after all. The Gate had no mercy—only cruelty. For its own amusement, it had given him back his limbs, only to perpetrate the monstrous trick of taking Al's life in return…
But then, from the floor on the other side of the bed, he heard a faint groan.
With a leaping heart, Ed hurled himself toward the source of the sound, tumbling directly over the armor in the process. His new limbs were still clumsy as he scrabbled across the huge metal husk. When he slid down to the other side of it, his balance failed him altogether, and he thudded gracelessly into the floor—his landing cushioned this time by a warm and breathing body.
Not daring to breathe himself, Ed raised up just enough to look down at the face that was inches from his own.
The thin, naked figure underneath him, with its dark gold hair and distinctive Elric features, was unmistakably Al—even though he was far from the ten-year-old boy whose face Edward had last seen. His body was aged to the same extent as Ed's, leaving him a grown man of slightly less than thirty-nine years. He would never regain the time he had lost to the armor… but for the decades of life he could still have, he was blessedly flesh and blood again.
Irresistible tears brimmed as Ed dropped his forehead onto Al's, clinging to him. Everything within him hated that Al should have lost his youth before he was restored, but in his heart, he knew there was no grounds for protest. They committed the sin of human transmutation together, and the sentence of punishment was inescapably required of them both: the pain of automail for Ed, and the inhuman lack of pain for Al, for twenty-nine years. Only now, with those sentences served, was the score evened and the slate wiped clean.
Now they could live.
Al's eyelashes flickered against Ed's cheek. He squirmed under his brother's elbow that still pressed into his ribs, making another small noise of protest. His body was almost emaciated in its leanness, and just like Ed's restored limbs, it was flushed with the rawness of new, inordinately young skin. Ed withdrew his arm quickly from Al's chest, realizing that skin was sure to feel as painfully sensitive as his own—if not even more so, after the three decades Al had spent knowing no sensation at all.
Holding his breath, he watched as brown eyes slowly opened, only to blink against the light and squint puzzledly at him.
The confused and startled sound did not succeed at becoming a word. Al's now-adult voice was rough, cracked, nearly inaudible, decades out of practice in the use of breath and vocal cords to form speech. Nevertheless, Ed understood.
"It's over, Al." Breaking into a smile of radiant joy, Ed slipped his hand underneath Al's head, cradling it as lovingly as a child's. "The Gate—it gave it all back."
Comprehension came slowly. Al gasped, blinked, struggled to move. Pushing messages from his brain to his muscles was an even greater effort for him than it had been for Ed; but after a moment, his hands slid haltingly up his chest. Ed helped him lift his head to look at them. Al's facial muscles seemed to remember little expression just yet, but his lips parted without sound, his eyes widening enormously at the sight of his thin, twitching fingers. He touched his face, rediscovering the softness of skin, and stared up at Ed with bewildered awe.
Ed shook his head in gentle wonder. "The Gate told me… we'd paid the price now. That everything we've done for other people, all these years when we were trying to help ourselves—it was enough."
He could almost see the next reaction before it happened. Al's gaze slid immediately toward Ed's right shoulder. At the sight of flesh where his brother had once carried steel as well, his eyes brimmed, and his stiff lips twisted into a faltering semblance of a smile.
"Oh, Ed," he breathed, and reached up with one unsteady hand, to grasp Ed's restored shoulder. The grip hurt against still-tender skin, but Ed didn't care at all. He pulled Al into his arms, embracing him, and Al's tears that fell upon his neck were nothing less than what slipped down his own cheeks.
"Tears…" Al whispered in amazement, touching the dampness under his eyes; and then he was laughing as he cried, and Ed laughed too.
"How do you feel?" Ed asked, leaning back just a little, to drink in the sight of Al's face. Regardless of its aging, it was still the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in the world.
"I—think… it hurts." Al laughed again, his tangled emotions of vague discomfort and confused joy finally beginning to reflect on his features. Somewhat breathless, he wiped his eyes clumsily with the back of a still imperfectly-controlled hand. "What about you?"
The elder brother pulled Al close again, closing his eyes. "I've never felt better."
A brief moment of poignant silence passed between them… and then Al's stomach abruptly sounded off with a demanding growl.
Ed burst out laughing. He couldn't help it.
"Come on." With only slight unsteadiness, he rose and gathered Al, to lift him up onto the mattress beside the empty armor that was no longer his soul-prison. "First we've got to get you dressed, and then we're getting out of this dump—to find you the biggest, best dinner you've ever had!"
As he pushed himself farther upright on the bed, Al was visibly startled to see the armor at his side, and Ed couldn't blame him. After so many years inside that shell, it must have been like suddenly looking at himself from the outside. He flinched, the surprise on his face overshadowed by something almost melancholy; and then his expression resolved into a quiet, solemn smile. Reaching out, he gently patted the steel that had long been his survival and his curse—as if it was now an old friend.
It was a gesture that tugged powerfully at Ed's heart.
"We'll keep it," Ed promised, with a faint smile of his own. "And someday, you can tell your kids all about how that used to be you."
His sibling's already-pink cheeks brightened even further. "Slow down, Ed—I'm not ready to think about that yet!"
Chuckling, Ed snatched up his coat from his own bed and threw it into Al's lap. "Here. Take that while I transmute something for you from my spare clothes."
Shivering a little, Al wrapped the coat backwards around his body, with only a few winces at how abrasively rough the soft fabric felt to his raw nerves. Ed did not fail to notice the almost reverent way his hand passed over the flamel cross. For the first time, Al was truly able to touch the symbol of shattered pride his brother had borne as the standard of their quest.
"I never thought the answer would come like this," Al mused pensively, turning his hand over, splaying his fingers against the blackness of the flamel. "Just—out of nowhere."
Limping slightly on his new leg, Ed came back to Al's side, to sit on the edge of the bed and drape his new arm around Al's shoulders.
"It wasn't out of nowhere." He shook his head firmly, clasping his left hand over Al's. "It was just like Dad said, all those years ago—and what the Gate told me tonight. Equivalent Exchange is measured in more than alchemy. I never understood that before, but now… I know we earned this."
© 2013 Jordanna Morgan