Sunday, 19th March 1916
When he comes to, the first thing he becomes aware of it the cold hard damp against his cheek and it takes him a long drowsy moment to pinpoint why that is.
He pushes himself up from the freezing concrete ground, shaky arms and shuddering breath, but he nearly buckles under his own weight when the memories slam into him with full force.
“Al-” he gasps out, his throat tight, fighting to get to his feet and assess his surroundings, the deserted warehouse, the array on the naked floor.
Because of the damp they had used white paint instead of chalk, and the evidence glares back at Edward like a malign eye in the half-dark. It's better than the other kind of eyes, though, the ones that had been staring deep into him, taking him apart and inspecting every little bit of him, every secret, every sinew, and the hands, those horrid hands-
No. He tears himself away from that part of his recollection. What is done is done, and he will never be whole again. Not his dismembered body and certainly not that part of his mind. So he swallows the bile and tries to find the reason he managed to get up for, the reason he always manages to get up for again, that drives him on and motivates him and has him biting tenacious teeth into his own life like a despairing dog fighting for its survival.
Al. Where is Al. The last Ed had seen of him was the armor being lifted up by that violent light, taking the steel and twisting it, twisting it, unraveling it bit by bit like it had done with Alphonse's body during the first transmutation.
There's nothing there now. Not even Al's clothes remain behind this time. Edward, on the other hand, does not find himself bleeding but still unbearably bereft.
No no no, his mind scrambles frantically as he stumbles through the wide empty space that is now left behind, void of Al's voice, his soul, his being. It can't be, he did it right this time, he was sure he did it right this time, and even if he didn't, why didn't the Gate take him, why did it always take Al when Ed was so obviously the one who deserved divine punishment, who ought to be slaughtered like a sacrificial lamb?
He is not thinking straight, so when he falls to his knees he's not even sure whether it is a conscious decision or just his body giving up on him, and it is the same with his hands that lift themselves in front of his chest, that clap once, loudly, a thundering noise through the stunning silence of this crime scene, and he's about to slam them down onto the array once more to do something, anything, but-
A cry in the twilight. Not a cry even, not a scream or a screech or a shout. More of a squalling. A pitiful, pitiful sound, begging for attention.
Ed looks up, through his bangs, his unbidden tears, and for one terrifying moment he thinks that he has done it again. That he has brought something back, not his mother, not Alphonse, but something, and he expects to find another gory mess staring back at him through hollow eyes, he expects parchment skin stretched thin on bones, ribs spread out like the wings of a dying swan, and in its open middle the thudding pulp of a heart, aching to be fed a red stone in order to become Sloth, become Wrath, become Envy.
Instead there is something else, something small, too small to be strictly human, and Edward's mind rebels at the thought of it, his stomach turning again, but before he can stop himself he is crawling towards it on hands and knees, if only to twist the thing's throat and wrangle the damned life out of it.
Except. Except the thing looks whole, looks healthy, looks human. It looks like a baby, naked and exposed on the unforgiving ground of warehouse, the used up array at its back.
No, Edward thinks faintly, reaching out a trembling hand but letting it hover midair, afraid to touch but also to not. What if it bites, if it kills? What if it dies, disappears?
The thing stops its crying, cuts itself off with a hiccuping breath and then turns its head towards Edward, giving a little sniff. Its face is round and red, its eyes unfocused as its gaze tries to pin itself on Ed.
His own breath hitches.
“No,” he whispers, voice breaking, faintly shaking his head in denial, “A-Al?”
The baby – for it is a baby, that much is obvious from up close – does not answer, does not react to the name. Ed doesn't know what he expected.
No, that's not true. He had expected for the transmutation to work, had hoped for his brother to become fully human again. But if- if that really was Al then it had worked in a way, hadn't it? Only that once more the Gate had fucked with him.
Edward's heart jumps in his throat as he finally closes the distance and puts his flesh hand on the child. It feels warm and real, the skin soft under his own calloused fingers.
Carefully, he cups his palm underneath the tender skull, the soft downy hair, trying to recall what he knows about babies, how he had been taught to hold Rosé's son and Elysia and, once upon an eternity, his little baby brother. He doesn't remember that last bit, but as he lifts the child into his arms the weight does feel strangely familiar, not a burden, but a responsibility.
With wide eyes he stares down at the living breathing thing nestled in the crook of his elbow. It's a little boy with ten tiny toes and ten tiny fingers and red toothless gums and a healed up belly button, no umbilical cord or placenta in sight, no blood, no amniotic fluid.
This was no birth, Ed reminds himself, no expulsion from a womb or the Gate or whatever else. It was a transmutation, a transformation. For all Ed knows this might not really be his brother. It might be his soul, but not his body. Or the other way round. It might be some sort of homunculus after all. It might all be a terrible, terrible nightmare.
Or it might be Alphonse Elric. That chance seems so infinitesimal small and yet it is big enough that he cannot risk drowning it in the river.
It might be Alphonse, he tells himself, and awkwardly shrugs out of his coat, out of his jacket, wraps the child in the black fabric. It might be Alphonse, as he staggers to his feet into the direction of the warehouse's exit. It might be Alphonse, as he resists the urge to scream, to cry, to run back to the array and try it again, trade himself again, risk losing his sanity over facing the Gate again.
Stepping outside is like entering a foreign world. It seems like hours away when they had made their preparations, but he can tell that it's merely the late afternoon.
Dusk is already falling, yet the muted sunlight feels like an assault on his eyes, so he keeps his gaze down, not on the baby, but on the path in front of him, heavy boots on cobblestone.
On autopilot, he picks his way through the bleak alleys that separate the warehouses by the dock. The wind carries over the sounds of the working men shouting at each other, the clatter of them loading cargo into the ships, the noise of the machinery, but further down here there is no one to be found.
Once he makes it back to the road, he huddles down deeper into his coat, trying to shield the baby from view. He doesn't think anyone will stop him or even recognize him but he does not want to risk it either.
The transmutation has exhausted him. After his first attempt back in Riesembol he had been so high on the adrenaline and the pain and the blood loss that he has no recollection of how the process itself had taken its toll on his body's capacities, but now he barely knows how he keeps moving, his feet dragging with every step, while his thoughts are sluggish and slow, like trying to sift through molasses.
He doesn't know where he ought to go. Not the dorms, he can't, they'd ask questions there and it's not like there is anything apart from four walls and a rather uncomfortable cot.
He considers the places he usually frequents when in East City, the library, his favorite diner, the headquarters.
He could go to Mustang's office, though he isn't sure whether anyone would be there at this time. He also isn't sure how the team would react. How Mustang would react.
He can't bring himself to believe that he actually trusts the colonel, but after the whole thing with Führer Bradley he is pretty sure that he has the man in his corner. Mustang is an adult, an alchemist. Mustang would give Edward direction, he always did.
But Ed doesn't need orders now or motivation or spite. He needs... he needs...
For a moment he considers Hawkeye's calm and caring ways, wonders whether she would know what to do. But he dismisses the thought as quickly as it had come. He has no clue were she lives, and she'd go report to Mustang anyway, not so much out of loyalty for her superior but because she would feel that it was the right thing.
Not Hawkeye then and certainly none of the other Lieutenants either. So who-
The toes of his left boot catch on a crooked stone plate on the sidewalk and Ed jerks a little in an effort to keep himself upright. The baby in his arms gives a tiny mewl of protest, barely more than an exhale, and for the first time Edward looks at it, really looks at it, here in the fading day of light.
It has rounded cheeks and a button nose and a small birthmark barely hidden under its fuzzy blondish hair. With a quavering breath Ed has to admit that it really is just a baby. And, deep in his heart, he already knows that it really is Alphonse as well.
He comes to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk, a couple of people bustling past him, cars on the street, but no one paying him any attention.
Throughout all his life, all his hardships and failures, he has never quite felt so utterly alone. Even when the Gate had taken Al that first time, he hadn't had the time or the clarity to really consider any of that. His thoughts had been in a frenzy, he had spotted the armor in the corner, and the decision had been made, no time for hesitation, for second-guessing the risks.
He could do that now, too. He could go and return to the warehouse, the array is still there after all, and Edward still has a little bit of himself left to offer in exchange.
But he had already tried that. He had laid bare everything he was, his body, his heart, his alchemy, he didn't need any of it after all, he only needed Al.
And yet he had made that damned promise. He had known that the Gate couldn't be trusted but he had thought he could bargain with it. Even if the equivalent exchange wasn't quite logical from his point of view, he had thought that all of him would be enough to get Alphonse's body back as it was.
Ed's shoulders quiver as he fights to keep himself under control.
He wants his mom. He wants his mom so badly that it hurts, like it hasn't hurt in quite some time. He wants her to hold him and tell him that everything is alright and that dinner will be ready soon and that she'll read him a bedtime story. He wants to be a kid for just another moment. He wants-
He bites his tongue and forces down his pain, his panic. No. He wants to sit down and think this through. He wants to know Al is safe. He wants to do whatever is necessary to make sure his little brother will get through this alright. He has no time for tears, none at all, so he forces himself to move forward again, because that's the only thing he knows how to do.
One thing is for sure, though. Even if he can never again have his mother back, he still needs someone who has experience with childcare.
Al... doesn't look like anything is wrong with him, but it's not like Edward can tell. He needs a doctor or- A doctor would ask questions, though, would want to know where Ed found such a little child. A doctor would contact the authorities. Ed couldn't risk that, not right off the bat. He needed someone trust-worthy, someone who already knew about Al's previous condition, so he wouldn't have to explain too much or worry about being thrown in jail.
His stomach turns. The thought of someone malicious finding out that Al's armor was hollow and him becoming some sort of test subject for the military's twisted experiments was already bad enough, but to think that now they might do the same to a defenseless baby- No, no chance in hell. It was best if no one in the military ever got wind of this.
It seems that, despite all his anguish, Ed's subconscious is good for something after all because when he next becomes aware of his surroundings he finds that his feet have carried him to the suburbs, the road lined with charming little houses and neatly trimmed hedges.
The neighborhood is a familiar one, he had been here often enough, mostly for Al's sake, but hadn't dared to return, not since Hughes' death. He doesn't think Gracia would want to see him ever again.
He's not sure just how much she knows but she is not complacent enough to not figure out that her husband's sudden death is somehow linked to the hornet's nest that Ed had stirred up within the military.
Still. Just this once. She had liked Alphonse, right? She would not just turn him away when he needed her. And she had Elysia, after all, she was good with children. She would know what to do, at least for the next few hours. And then... then Ed could look for a hotel room and... tomorrow maybe he could catch an early train and-
The thought of going back to Riesembol scalds him like stepping into hot water.
The look of disappointment on Pinako's face, unmoved but stern. Winry realizing that he had destroyed Al's only chance at a normal life, while Edward himself hadn't really lost anything this time, nothing visible, not even a single scratch, his remaining limbs still intact.
They would blame him. Maybe they wouldn't say anything out loud, they hadn't last time after all, but last time he had been a stupid kid and now he was almost an adult, he was supposed to know better, was supposed to be a proper alchemist, but he had fucked up again, and he doesn't think he can explain the Gate to them, he just can't-
And even if he did, who says that they would believe him? After all those times he had fucked all of them over, they might think that he was doing it on purpose. They might think that he had willingly sacrificed Alphonse in order to save his own skin. They-
He can feel himself hyperventilating, so he bites his lower lip until he tastes blood and clenches his eyes shut, white stars appearing in the darkness.
Not Riesembol then. Not yet. He had to talk to Gracia first. Gracia was kind. Even if she judged him, if she hated him, she wouldn't turn him away on the spot. At least he hoped so.
The house looks like he remembers it from when he had last been here on his and Elysia's shared birthday, months and months ago. His fifteenth birthday, though. The sixteenth had been spent in the hospital. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since then.
The little front-yard looks somewhat bleak, not just with the remainder of winter, but like no one had been taking care of it in preparation for spring either. Of course not. Gracia surely had other worries apart from keeping up with the gardening. But there is light behind the windows and Edward allows himself a relieved sigh at that tiny bit of luck.
Yet as he walks up the path through the garden, he tries to think of what to say, and just like that the anxiety creeps back into his veins, his lungs.
Because how can he possibly explain what he had done, what he had done again, how can he tell her that he didn't just tear her family apart but his own, too, how can he-
He foregoes the doorbell, the knuckles of his shaking automail hand rapping against the wood instead, and absurdly he finds himself wishing that no one is home after all, that he can just turn on his heel and run away, he's never run away before, he gets a free pass this time, right?
But then the door is already opening and he comes face to face with not only Gracia and Elysia peering out from behind her legs, but also Colonel Mustang at her shoulder, looking just this side of surprised.
Figures. The one time Edward decides to stay away from his commanding officer not just out of spite but for a really good reason the bastard is there anyway.
Ed would laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, would like to just start railing at Mustang because it's familiar, it's normal, but then his composure bails out on him and the words stumble from his mouth like a landslide.
“It went wrong,” he stammers out before anyone can ask, his grip on Alphonse tightening as if his weight were the only thing still anchoring him to this moment, “It went wrong, I messed up, I didn't know where else to go, please, I messed up-”
He can't even properly see through his burning eyes, but they slide from Gracia's brutally soft face over to Mustang who, for probably the first time, stares at him in something like honest disbelief.
“Oh, Edward,” Gracia says with a mother's understanding, reaching out a hand to put on his trembling shoulder, pulling him into her embrace, and Edward wonders why he ever doubted her.