A piercing whistle shrieked through the air, disturbing pigeons from their roosts among the iron girders overhead. The train pulled away, steam hissing from its pistons as it gathered speed, rattling along the tracks until it disappeared from sight. People came and went, a constant stream of movement as they hurried into Central's heart or ran to the rural seclusion of the countryside for the start of the weekend.
Alphonse Elric leant against the wall on platform three, staring unseeing upwards. Pearly glass arched high above, sheltering the travellers from the elements with opalescent curves. The sunlight turned the pure white ceiling a vivid gold and trailed a warm caress across his skin, brief and loving.
Closing his eyes, he revelled in the faint touch of it, losing himself for a moment in the gentle sensation. He could still remember the deep despair of knowing that he might never feel anything again and the constant challenge of trying to express his emotions as fully as he had when he was young. Armour couldn't cry or smile. It could only rust. When he was locked in that tall, menacing suit people did not see him as a human, and they certainly didn't seem him as a boy, frightened and vulnerable. Only his brother seemed to understand.
He had been grateful to Ed for retrieving his spirit from the gate, but he knew that the metal shell that formed his body had been a constant reminder to them both of what they had done. The absence of his heartbeat and the chill nothingness of his false skin emphasised his memories of that night. He had not seen it all, and so he could not relive every moment, but Ed was different. The pain in his brother's eyes had been a constant shadow, always present and never fading. He had hated it, seeing the hurt and remorse, but it had been the impetus to keep them both moving. Ed wanted to undo the past, and Al wanted to know that one day he would look at his brother and see only happiness.
Then, when everything seemed to be going wrong and failure was so certain - when Al had realised the only thing he could do was give himself up for his brother - everything had changed. Amidst a storm of alchemy and a blinding sea of light he actually opened his eyes and felt the flutter of his lashes as he blinked. Al would never forget that assault of sensation. True vision, dazzling in colour, filled his sight; the smell of dust and power in the air was almost choking. A breath of wind across his cheek bordered on pain, and he flinched from its alien touch. In that moment everything was overwhelming. It was as though the world was unfolding for him. It was as if he were being born again, awake, aware and amazed.
Through it all, smiling and laughing with relief, was Ed. He had kept his word, and it was obvious that he didn't care that he didn't have his arm or leg. He had his brother back: body, mind and spirit.
Even now, Ed would deny the existence of any debt at all, but Al knew that there was nothing he could do to repay him. Most people would not have the presence of mind to bind a soul to a suit of armour in the midst of a crisis, nor the strength of heart to make the sacrifice that was necessary. Even fewer individuals would devote their existence to righting their wrongs.
But there was a cost, however much Ed protested, and now Al knew the true extent of it.
A life for a life. One future for another. Most would say it was a fair trade, but Al couldn't think of it that way. It wasn't about the value of what was exchanged. It wasn't even about balance. He had regained his body, and for that he would lose the one person that mattered the most. That alone would render his life empty.
Tears blurred Al's vision and he swore quietly, dragging his sleeve over the heel of his palm and using the fabric to soak away the evidence. Once, he would have given anything to feel again, but now he longed for that old numbness. There was so much guilt and pain and anger raging in his heart that he couldn't tell where one emotion ended and the other began.
Turning his head he glanced at the clock, watching the second hand march around the face. He used to look at time passively, as though it were just another unit of measurement. Now it had become an enemy. Every moment was another moment lost, and every day that was ushered across the sky was another defeat.
He glared at the clockwork mechanism, hoping it would stall, wishing that time could stand still and the future could be ignored. Once, his mother had said that he and Ed were wishing their lives away, always looking to tomorrow and the future and never enjoying the present. Al grimaced, remembering how her expressive eyes would sadden when she said that. It had taken years, but now he finally knew what she meant. They had looked to tomorrow, next week, or month, or years as if it was a certainty that they would live to see it.
But life held no guarantees. He knew that now.
Al breathed in deeply, ignoring the smell of smoke from the trains as he struggled to control his crushing grief. It was a hand clenched around his heart, cold and tight, and nothing he could do would make it go away. The past few days had passed in a blur of confusion and disbelief. It didn't matter how many times he re-stated the doctor's words to himself, he couldn't comprehend their meaning. Life without Ed was unimaginable; he couldn't bring himself to acknowledge the possibility that one day, and one day soon, he would be alone.
Wincing, he ignored the lump that constricted his throat, making him gasp around a choked off sob. His thoughts were hollow, chasing each other in circles around his mind from denial to horror and back again. He wanted to shout and rant, to let his brother know just how much it hurt to be kept in the dark about what was happening. Yet every time he opened his mouth Al wondered if his next words would be the last he spoke to Ed, and he knew he couldn't bring himself to say anything at all.
Ed had noticed, though. He didn't need telling when Al was disappointed in him. He could read every nuance of his body language and every quirk of expression, just like Al could understand Edward's mood without asking. No doubt he had also seen Al's tiredness. It wasn't just the dark circles under his eyes that betrayed him, but the shake of his hands and the nervous, unconscious movements of his body.
Belatedly, Al realised he was chewing his thumbnail, and he dug his hands into his pockets and frowned. It wouldn't be much longer before Ed cornered him and demand an explanation, and he didn't know what he could say. How did you tell your brother that you loved him and hated him in the same breath? How could he reassure Ed when all Al wanted to do was scream that he was being abandoned by the only family he had left?
The clatter of wheels on the tracks was accompanied by the singsong tones of the announcer, and Al realised that a train was pulling up to the platform. It lumbered in, squealing to a graceless halt as steam hissed from its wheels. Hot metal clanked as the fire at the engine's heart was banked and tamed. Carriage doors swung open, and he stepped back from the crowd of disembarking passengers as he tried to spot Winry among them. People chattered, and train-guards shouted to each other over the din, laughing and joking as they made their way towards the station bar.
A flash of pale blonde caught his eye, and he smiled for what felt like the first time in days as he saw Winry elbowing her way through the bustle with a suitcase in her hand. She ignored the grumbling complaints of an old sergeant, flashing him a bright smile of apology as she finally pulled herself free from the press of people and hurried onward.
Al barely had a chance to straighten up before she had dropped the suitcase on the floor and wrapped her arms around his waist, squeezing hard. He gave a laugh of protest before returning the gesture, feeling some of the tension seep away in the young woman's warm embrace. Her presence was a surprising anchor, stable and secure in a world where he no longer felt in control of his own life.
She was smaller than he remembered, her head fitting neatly under his chin with a bit of space to spare, but she was still the same old Winry. Her hair smelled of flowers mixed with the faintest trace of engine oil, and he could feel the strength in her arms as she tightened her grip for a moment before pulling away.
'I came as soon as I could,' she blurted out, looking him over with an intense blue gaze that missed nothing. 'What's happening, Al?'
No, not yet. He didn't want to tell her yet. Al felt his shoulders slump and the stiff, brittle tension return as he knew that he had no choice. He could put it off for a few minutes, no more. After that he would have to tell her the agonising truth. He would have to confirm the worst, and he didn't know how he could bring her that kind of pain.
Wordlessly, he retrieved her suitcase and motioned for her to follow him. A few minutes of delay was better than nothing. 'You've got to be hungry,' he said quietly. 'Let's get you something to eat.'
He was stalling, and Winry knew it. She watched him carefully with narrow eyes, her hands on her hips as she pursed her lips. Normally that kind of tactic would have earned him a quick reprimand, but this time she knew that it was no idle matter. Her annoyance at his evasion was a poor mask for her fear. Irritation folded her brow and set her jaw in a stubborn line, but her pretty face was pale, and dark circles rimmed her eyes. She must have spent the journey worrying, and Al cursed himself for not being more careful in what he said on the phone. He had tried to make sure that she wouldn't be too concerned, but it seemed that he had failed.
'Al...' she prompted gently.
'I'll tell you in a minute, Winry, okay?' He was pleading with her, desperate to hold off for a second or two longer. It must have been enough because she relaxed in surrender, nodding her agreement. 'Come on.' He held out his other hand, waiting until she looped her fingers through his before leading her through the crowd.
There were plenty of cafés bordering the busy plaza outside the station, serving all kinds of food and drink. Bright parasols glowed like jewels, sending patches of fluttering shade across the sun-dappled ground. People sipped their coffees and beers, reading newspapers as they waited for their trains to arrive. Pigeons and sparrows chased each other among the tables, gobbling up crumbs and twittering in the potted greenery.
It didn't take long to find a quiet table, but Winry refused any kind of food. She was wringing her hands, twisting her nimble fingers around each other in a nervous dance. The waiter came over and set down a cup of tea before hurrying away, intent on his other customers. For a moment Winry just stared at it before she finally curved her hand around the warm mug and waited.
She didn't press him to begin, but he knew he didn't have a choice. The longer he put it off the harder it would be to explain. Besides, he couldn't stand seeing Winry like this. The normally confident mechanic was vulnerable in her worry, and he could almost see her thoughts dancing from one dire possibility to the next. The truth, however painful, was probably going to be better than that constant uncertainty.
Taking a deep breath he began to speak, not bothering to offer reassurances or evade the issues. He talked quickly, knowing that if he stopped then he would never be able to finish.. 'A few days ago Ed started coughing,' he murmured, trying to keep the emotion out of his voice and stick to the facts. 'He said it was just a cold, but the other night he collapsed outside the dormitory.'
Al barely noticed Winry reach out for him and stared blindly as she wove her fingers through his, hanging on tight. The mute gesture was comforting, and he returned it without a thought. 'He was coughing up blood and in so much pain; he could hardly even breathe. I got him to the hospital as quickly as I could. They stabilised him, but they found out that something has been eating away at his lungs.' Al bit his lip, trying to move his tongue around the heavy, leaden words that had to be said. 'The doctor thinks he's dying – thinks he'll be gone in a month.'
Winry stared, the cup of tea forgotten in front of her as she managed a tiny shake of her head. Al watched, feeling his heart clench when he saw the flicker of emotion across her face, a precise reflection of his own tumultuous feelings. 'Dying?' she managed at last. 'Ed?' Her gaze was unfocussed as she pressed her free hand to her head. 'But – but -'
Al stroked the pad of his thumb over her hand, keeping up a steady, sweeping rhythm as he tried to reassure her. He had been worried that Winry would nod and accept Ed's fate as fact, that she would say “these things happen” or some other empty platitude. If she had been the voice of reason that cut through his denial he didn't know if he could manage.
Throughout his childhood he had relied on Ed and Winry to help him form his young opinions, and even now, as an adult, he knew that their thoughts would sway his own. If Winry had believed or acknowledged the possibility that Ed was dying then he would have felt that it was real. Now he could see that it was not just him who couldn't believe it was happening, and he felt a rush of hot relief.
'I don't understand,' Winry whispered, her gaze jumping from one thing to the next as she tried to fit these facts into her reality. More than once she met his eyes fleetingly before flinching from the pain and seriousness in his gaze. 'How could he get ill so quickly?'
Al shifted uncomfortably and bowed his head. 'The doctor thinks it's been happening for the past two years.'
'But how could Ed not know? How could he -' Her words trailed off and hard, solid anger took the place of her pain. 'He knew, didn't he?' she asked quietly, her voice low and husky with disbelief. 'He knew and he didn't tell us.'
'I don't know if he was certain about it, but I think he suspected something was wrong. The doctor said that, in the beginning, Ed would have been in considerable pain.' Al paused, swallowing hard around the lump in his throat. 'Winry, it's been happening since he brought me back. I don't think it's just an illness. I think it's what it cost to get my body back.' His words sounded so broken and defeated, even to his own ears, and the familiar guilt was like black ink on his heart, painful and choking. If it weren't for him Ed would still have a future; he'd still have a life to live.
'Stop it.' Winry's demand was soft and plaintive; all trace of her fury at Ed's stubbornness had fled. He felt a flicker of surprise as she reached across the table and wiped away a tear that he hadn't known had fallen. 'Stop blaming yourself, Al. Ed might not have known exactly what he was getting into, but I know for a fact that he'll think it was worth it to get you back. He loves you so much I don't think there is anything he wouldn't give.'
A tear brimmed over her lashes, tumbling to break upon the tabletop. 'I just can't believe it. I didn't even see that there was anything really wrong!' Winry put her hand to her lips as more tears spilled down her face. 'When you got back from the gate he kept wincing and grimacing, but I didn't think anything of it.'
'He said it was his automail,' Al added hollowly, realisation sinking in. He had thought at the time that his brother had clutched at his chest once or twice, but he had hastily covered it, cradling his wrist against his ribs instead. At the time Al had shaken off his worry. Now he couldn't believe that he had been such a fool.
'I checked it. I checked the ports, the plates, the bolts. Everything,' Winry bowed her head for a moment, and Al knew she was still doubting her own expert work. 'There was nothing wrong with the mechanics, I'm sure of it. I can remember thinking that he must have just been tired. His body was just a bit drained, the limbs were pulling on his muscles and he'd get better. How could I be so blind? I've grown up watching the two of you. I know when you're lying. Why didn't I see it?'
'Winry. It's not your fault. Everyone was wrapped up in what had happened. Everyone was happy that I was back, and that we had both survived. I bet Ed didn't want to worry us.' Al clenched his jaw. He would have rather have known than be kept out of his brother's life like this. Grimly he carried on, determined to tell Winry everything. 'Ed knows he's dying and how long they think he's got. When he woke up in the hospital he was intent on going back to the gate to – to – I don't know what he planned to do. To challenge it, I guess. He discharged himself against medical advice within hours of waking up.'
Winry stared at him, blinking bloodshot eyes as her blotchy cheeks flushed with angry disbelief. 'Why am I not surprised?' she demanded shakily, throwing her hands up in resignation as she sniffed pathetically. 'Tell me he wasn't stupid enough to go through with his plan?'
He looked up at her, communicating clearly in one glance that Ed always did what he pleased. 'I don't know if he deliberately broke his word. The way he tells it he ended up at the gate by accident. He stumbled across some people we'd been trying to catch. They robbed Lieutenant Colonel Hughes' grave, as well as several others.' Al looked down at his hands, trying to sort out the logical chain of events from the mire of emotion in his mind. 'Ed said that he followed them and got caught in the middle of an array. He was pulled to the gate.'
Winry looked doubtful as she sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. 'That seems a bit convenient,' she sighed, picking up a tissue and wiping her eyes before screwing it up in her hand. 'Do you believe him?'
'I don't know. Probably. He tried to explain what happened, but it was too much for me to take in. All I know for certain is that there was an explosion in the warehouse district, and when we got there both Ed and Lieutenant Colonel Hughes were alive in the middle of the rubble.'
The silence following his last statement was a thick, palpable thing. Winry had spent time with Gracia and her family before Hughes' murder, and his loss had been almost as painful to her as it had been to Al and Ed. Swallowing nervously he searched her face, seeing the same questing expression in her gaze as she examined him. She went to speak, but obviously thought better of it before she reached for her cup and took a large gulp of the rapidly cooling tea. 'Ed brought him back?' she asked, her voice squeaking breathlessly as Al nodded.
'At least he brought him back from that plane. He said the other alchemist, the grave-robber, was the one who performed a successful transmutation. Ed got him back to Amestris.'
Winry nodded, stunned. He could practically see her mind trying to make sense of it, to find room for all of this news, and failing. 'If it was anyone else I wouldn't believe it,' she whispered, 'but you two boys have always been special and different.' She fiddled with the tissue, twisting it around her fingers as she said, 'I don't suppose Ed managed to confront the gate?'
Al knew it wasn't really a question. It was a vain hope voiced, and his only answer was a shrug. 'The gate's been destroyed. Ed said there was nothing left by the time he got out of there. The other alchemist has been tearing it apart for years. I don't know if Ed managed to strike a deal with it before it was torn demolished, or if the fact that it's gone means the price it asked for is undone.'
He frowned, thinking of the brother he knew so well. 'Something has changed, though: I'd have to be blind not to notice it. I just can't quite put my finger on it. He seems different somehow.' Al shrugged, shaking his head as he realised this couldn't be making much sense to Winry. 'The doctor's took the x-rays of Ed's chest again and there's something obscuring the film. They can't get a clear picture, so they won't change their prognosis one way or the other.' He faltered and rubbed his hands over his eyes, wishing he wasn't so exhausted. 'Brother seems better, healthier, but tired. All he seems to want to do is sleep.'
Something in his voice must have given away his distress because Winry abandoned her seat, moving to his side and hunkering down. 'Isn't that a good thing?' she asked. 'I mean, if his symptoms have gone maybe he did manage to do something.'
Her hand moved up his arm, rubbing back and forth over his sleeve. The contact was warm, but it didn't help to calm the shivers that raked across his flesh. 'All I can think of is mum and how tired she was at the end. Now Ed's the same, and even though he seems better than he did a couple of days ago I still can't shake the idea that I'm losing him.'
'Al, it's different than when your mum died,' Winry said softly, shifting her weight as she looked at him intently. 'I don't remember much more than you do about what happened then, but she was ill for a long time...' she trailed off, frowning in thought. 'Look, when Ed's awake, does he seem weak or listless, or does he still shout and swear and generally act like the stubborn pain in the ass we all know so well?'
Al had to smile at that. 'He's still like himself most of the time.'
'Your mum wasn't. She was such a wonderful, kind woman, and that didn't change, but the closer she got to the end the more it seemed like she was fading out. I'm not saying that just because it's not the same thing it means that Ed's going to be all right, but it's different now.' Winry swallowed, glancing away across the plaza as if she was trying to get her thoughts in order.
'You were helpless then, even if you didn't think so,' she continued. 'Now there's a lot you can do. Whatever Ed thinks you don't just have to be a spectator to his illness. You can stop him from behaving stupidly, or taking risks. You can help him try and get better and so can I. Your mum was alone with two children to look after, Ed isn't. He's got people who he's close to, people who can look after him. Am I making any sense?' she asked weakly, brushing her hair out of her face as she watched him intently.
Mutely he nodded in response, watching her twist one of her earrings absently as she ducked her head down, looking away from him and at the pavement beneath her feet. Gently he reached out and touched her shoulder, knowing without seeing that she was hiding fresh tears. 'Maybe I shouldn't have told you all of it.' he said quietly.
'If you didn't, who would?' she asked, lifting her chin and giving him a fierce look. 'I know you called me because you needed someone else here, but thank you. If you hadn't, I wouldn't have known anything about this until it was too late.'
'It was Lieutenant Hawkeye's suggestion. I was so wrapped up in Ed I couldn't think of anything else.' The confession tasted bitter on his tongue, and he wished he could call it back. The truth was he should have thought of Winry almost immediately. She should have been at the top of the list of people who needed to know, but instead all he could think about was how he felt. He hadn't spared a thought for anyone else.
'Don't be,' Winry said quickly, patting his knee. 'I know what it's like. I can still remember when my parents were killed and how horrible I was to you and Ed.'
'But you were right. Our dad walked out on us,' Al reminded her. 'It's not the same thing.'
'It doesn't matter if it was true. Now, I think of that day and I still miss my parents, but I always feel terrible for what I said. You were only trying to help.' Shakily Winry got to her feet, blotting away her tears. He could see that she was struggling to contain her emotions, and somehow he doubted they'd be the last tears that fell. Just like him she was overwhelmed by what she had been told of Ed's illness and Hughes' return, and who knew how long it would take for everything to sink in.
'Come on,' he said, forcing a reassuring smile on his face. 'Ed'll be glad you're here, and maybe you can talk some sense into him.'
'Where is he?' Winry asked as she reached out for her suitcase, sighing in irritation as Al beat her to it and hefted it easily.
'When we found him and Hughes, Ed was unconscious,' Al explained. 'We took him back to the hospital, but he discharged himself pretty quick. He's staying at Mustang's, and we're taking it in turns to keep an eye on him. There's space for you there too, but -' Al hesitated, unsure of what to say. 'Well, if you're uncomfortable there are plenty of other places you can stay.'
Winry's expression was closed off, her face drained of any emotion. Still, he could see the internal debate raging within her. Her shoulders were tense and her back ramrod straight, and she showed no sign of relaxing as she spoke. 'I respect Mustang for what he's doing, for the changes he's trying to make to the military and to the way the country is run, but I can't stay in the same house as the man who murdered my parents.'
Al blinked as she held up her hand, stemming his reasoning before he could even speak. 'Al, I want to see Ed, and I want him to know that I'm there for him whether he wants me or not. I can visit that place and talk to the Brigadier-General. I can stay there all day the same way I can sit in Mustang's office with Hawkeye and the others, but I could not sleep under the same roof as Roy Mustang. I don't think you could, either, if it was you.' Winry worried her lip between her teeth for a moment. 'I was thinking of calling in on Scieszka . Perhaps I could stay with her? I wouldn't want to intrude on Gracia, especially now.'
An honest smile broke out across Winry's face, and some of her colour returned as she focussed on the one good bit of news that Al had imparted. 'Imagine what she must be feeling like! It's the kind of thing a person dreams about. To think that you'll never see someone again and then have them returned to you. What's he like? Has he changed? Is he still in raptures over Elysia?'
As fully as he could Al answered her questions, smiling at her eagerness as they slipped into the bustling crowd. They lingered on happier subjects to keep their thoughts away from the dark despair that always seemed to hover nearby, ready to pounce. All the time they were talking Winry was looking around, re-familiarising herself with the city she had not seen for so long and eyeing up some of the young men in uniform as they hurried past.
They were almost at the edge of the plaza when someone moving at a sprint caught Al's eye. She was wearing a military great coat which covered her from shoulder to ankle, flaring around her as she hurried away from the station. The collar was pulled up, and pearly grey hair hung in a curtain past her cheek. Only when she darted down an alley did he notice the cool, dead pallor of her skin. It was the colour of milk, so white it looked almost like bone. A grey tint flushed her cheekbones, the only sign of exertion as she darted into the shadows and out of sight. She looked just like the woman Hughes had described at the gate.
'Al?' Winry's voice was curious as she realised he was no longer walking beside her, and she quickly followed his line of sight. 'Did you see something?'
Suddenly, the earth heaved beneath his feet, making him gasp in surprise as the air around him trembled. Instinct had him shutting his eyes and diving for the ground, pressing his arms over his head as the plaza trembled and a massive roar pummelled at his ears. His ribs shook with the force of the shock wave, stealing his breath and making him gasp in dust and smoke as massive crashes tore through the square.
It seemed to go on for an age, a constant nightmare of sound and movement in which he was an insignificant and meaningless thing. Like a ship in a storm-tossed ocean, he could only cower and wait until the noise finally died away. In its wake an eerie silence fell, taut and painful. It was as though the entire city had frozen in shock, and Al cautiously lifted his head to see a mass of destruction in front of him.
Within heartbeats the moans and sobs began. The station itself was a wreck of jagged stonework, little more than rubble and broken glass. Most of the ceiling was gone, and that which still remained was turning black as the smoke blossomed against it before spilling into the sky. A couple of smaller explosions rang out, and Al flinched before he realised that it was the steam engines in the depth of the fire, tearing themselves apart as the flames heated their cast iron shells beyond tolerance.
Staggering to his feet he groaned, grateful that he had covered his ears. A faint ringing interfered with his hearing, but it wasn't enough to block out the agonised wails from the rubble, or the distant, frantic ringing of the sirens. Unsteadily he glanced about, realising that he and Winry had been right on the edge. Any closer – it didn't bear thinking about.
He spun around frantically, his breath catching in his throat as he tried to see her among the debris. Someone tugged on his sleeve, and he slumped in relief when he saw her next to him. Her face was ashen, and she was clutching at her side, her face contorted with pain. Hastily he reached out for her, catching her easily as she almost fell. 'Where does it hurt?' he asked gently, skimming his fingers over her side and pressing at her ribs. Nothing felt broken, but she still winced at his touch before pulling away. 'I'm all right, but you're not. Do you feel light-headed; can you see okay?'
Tenderly, Winry reached up to his temple and brushed her hand across his skin. Pain exploded through his head, making him flinch away. When she withdrew her fingers were crimson with blood, and he realised that a sticky trickle was working its way down his face and neck. 'It's nothing. I didn't even feel it until you did that.'
'You need to see a doctor, Al, or at least sit down until help gets here.' She was shaking hard with delayed shock and staring around with huge blue eyes. She barely noticed when he wrapped her in his arms, and he knew that she was distancing herself from what was happening. It was an automatic human reaction, and he swore quietly as her teeth began to chatter.
Looking around he tried desperately to think, but his mind was sluggish with pain and its own defensive numbness. Parasols had been ripped from the cafés and lay like broken wings, flapping forlornly. Tables and chairs were overturned and crockery lay broken among the motionless bodies. If they had still been sitting in the café they would both be dead. There was almost nothing left of it, and he grimaced when he saw a bloody newspaper rattle soggy pages at the wind.
'We need to help these people,' Al said quietly, taking her hand and urging her back towards the station. If he kept her busy and distracted her with something else, then the shock would begin to fade away. Leaving her to follow , he began to search the rubble. Every body he came to he checked for a pulse. Some were gone, snuffed out in an instant. Others were still alive, but unlikely to last another hour. Gradually, Winry mimicked him, talking in soft murmurs to those who were awake, helping some to their feet and closing the staring eyes of others.
The closer they got to the station the fewer people they found alive, and by the time Al was standing on the remains of the platform he knew that it was hopeless. If the building had just collapsed then perhaps people might have survived beneath the debris, but if the explosion hadn't torn them apart then the smoke would soon steal their lives. He didn't dare use alchemy to extinguish the fires. One or two trains, thrown from their tracks like toys, were still intact. Any rapid cooling could cause them to explode, shifting more of the rubble in the process.
His stomach turned as the air became thick with the coppery tang of blood, fighting the choking perfume of the smoke for supremacy. How many people had been on these platforms or on those trains? Everyone had been rushing home, the working week finally done. From what he could see it looked as though hundreds would never make it back to their families, or set foot through their front door again.
Numbly, he walked back, finding Winry sitting cross-legged and holding a young man's hand. He must have been about their age, but it was obvious that he wouldn't make it. Each breath rattled horribly, and his face was a mass of wounds. There was blood everywhere, and Winry was murmuring soothing words, her eyes full of tears. It wasn't long before the young man took his last breath, and Al felt his throat go tight as she sobbed hopelessly, burying her face in her hands as she sat on the ground and wept.
As gently as he could, Al helped her up and sat her on a bigger piece of rubble, talking to her about their childhood. Snatches of memory he could barely recall crystallised in his mind, and his tongue tripped over his words as he tried desperately to calm her. Eventually her fluttered, panicky sobs slowly subsided into a normal rhythm, and she smiled weakly as she clung to his t-shirt. He grimaced at the rips and the bloodstains, but she seemed not to care as her tears slowly dried, and she found the strength that he knew so well.
Ambulances and police had arrived, but their shouted orders were lost on him. It was as though his mind was protecting him by focussing on the tiny details, rather than letting him see the massive picture of lost life and vivid pain. Red and blue lights flashed all around, bouncing off the pall of smoke. Sunset made the thick, white cloud ruddy, a perfect mimicry of the blood on the ground below. The wind was gentle, but it still whipped dust into the air, making his eyes sting and tears bite at his eyelids.
A pair of paramedics hurried over, ushering them both towards the open back of an ambulance. They worked quickly, pressing something to his head and making him lie down. He saw one of them touch Winry's ribs, and heard his soft apology as she flinched but bit her lip and tried to be brave. 'Bruised,' the paramedic muttered, 'not broken. Look at me.' He shone a light in her eyes, and Al winced as the same procedure was performed on him. Everything had taken on a surreal, dream-like quality, and he grumbled in quiet complaint as Winry moved over to him and lifted his head a touch, laying it back in her lap as she sat stiffly on the gurney in the back of the ambulance.
'They've told us to stay here,' she said, gently unlatching his fingers from the compress on his head and holding it there herself. 'They'll check back in on us in a few minutes. Just relax, okay?' Her voice was soft and fierce, and Al smiled in relief as he heard the Winry he was used to in that one, strident sentence. There was still a touch of shaken fear behind her words, but her shock seemed to have ebbed.
He could hear the sound of more cars arriving over the sirens. Some ambulances tore away, no doubt heading for the hospitals that littered the city. A few others stayed, treating the walking wounded as the police began to take statements from those who could still speak. A familiar voice, firm and full of authority, made Al sigh in relief. There was no doubting Mustang's command, and he knew that people would be falling over themselves to obey the Flame Alchemist. A worry niggled at the corner of his mind, but he couldn't quite grasp the thought. His head was fuzzy, and the soothing brush of Winry's fingers over his forehead and cheek was hypnotic and calming.
Dimly, he heard her gasp of surprise, and a quiet, familiar voice murmur something. A cold hand touched his chest before warm fingertips lifted the dressing over the gash on his head.
'Al, are you okay?'
He cracked open one eye, seeing the pinched, worried expression on Ed's face. 'I'm good,' he mumbled, a frown twisting his face as he struggled to recall something important. 'You should be in bed.'
'I think you're the one who needs that. You look like hell.' Ed smiled, but his expression was still riddled with concern. 'Don't worry about me, okay? I'm right here. You can keep an eye on me when you feel better.'
His brother's voice was gentle but firm, the kind his mother used to use when she was laying down the law. It brooked no argument, and Al nodded in agreement as he slipped into a hazy half-sleep.
Al could hear Winry's whispers, angry and harsh, but they held no meaning to his cloudy mind. Every now and again Ed would reply, and he found himself soothed by the familiar rumble of his brother's voice.
He didn't think of the future or worry about the past. Instead, Al concentrated on the muted voices nearby and reminded himself that, at this moment in time, he had a family.
And he wasn't about to let that slip through his fingers.