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“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

King James Bible, Genesis 3:19

 


 

They bury his brother on a sunny day.

Alphonse wishes for rain to muddy the ground and lightning to streak the skies. He wishes for rough winds to shake the sweet-smelling flowers which have blossomed with the coming of May.

He wishes for something to happen — for anything to temper the great feeling of wrongness that sits in the pit of his stomach. But the green pastoral of Resembool is unperturbed, and clear skies bear down upon the funerary crowd.

The Pfarrer, clad in his somber blacks, begins the eulogy.

“Today some of us mourn a friend, some of us mourn a brother, and some of us mourn a grandson. However, all of us are united in mourning a good man — a man who was kind and selfless, and whose love for family and for country has made all our lives better, mine included.

Now, I will not tell you not to cry, nor will I tell you to be at peace. Heartache is human nature, and Christ himself tells us to take comfort in mourning. ‘Blessed are those who grieve,’ said he, ‘for they shall be consoled.’”[1]

(Alphonse declined to speak himself, unsure of his ability to see the eulogy to its end. If the prickling at his eyes is any indication, he made the right decision.)

Gathering around the grave are all those who they met throughout their journey. They forewent the military burial because his brother would’ve hated it, so come the service did to Resembool.

First arrived the Colonel, now Major General, and with him the Lieutenant, now Captain. Then Rose, who had called his brother a heathen when they first met, followed. After came Mei, the chimeras four, and even Ling, who left Lan Fan to govern in his stead as regent. Teacher and Sig, the Ishvalan, Havoc, Fuery, Breda, Falman.

And, of course, there are those who were with them from the very start: Winry, who is quietly crying to the side, and Granny Pinako, with her mouth twisted into a thin, bitter line.

Her heart is surely breaking, thinks Alphonse. Over the years of her too-long, too-bitter life, Yuriy, Sarah, Trisha, and Hohenheim had each in turn been buried in this little plot of land. Now his brother was to join them, and by some cruel twist of fate, she had outlived them all. Her grandson would share the earth with her son and his wife before she could.

Alphonse wonders if this helplessness isn't the true blight of age. Not the looming spectre of death over your own life, no, but having to watch the people you cherish pass on, one by one, all the while you yourself are unable to follow.

“… and although Edward passed too young, let us not forget the value of a life lived with unconditional love and forgiveness — for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned… and it is in dying that we are born unto eternal life.[2]

The Pfarrer’s voice melts again into the background.

 

__

 

It is the greatest of ironies that, having survived the end of days, his brother is done in by a simple illness at the age of only nineteen. Not just a simple illness, amends Alphonse in his mind – the same illness that wasted their mother away when they were only children.

The sickness came swiftly and struck deadly, just as it was back then. On the eve of his eighteenth birthday, his brother was lively and boisterous as ever. Then come the next day, well... They’d wanted to dismiss it was a stomach bug, or something harmless of that variety, but the Elric-Rockbell family was nothing if not realists.

Alphonse will never forget the absolute terror that seized his heart and flooded his veins when he heard the distinct thump of a body hitting the floor.

It was unmistakable and too familiar to be anything else, even ten years on. And though he knew, intellectually, that their mother’s body had not — could not have — made the same metal-against-wood clang as his brother’s, that wretched image of her collapsed form was etched indelibly into his mind. From here on out, he’d also have the nightmarish memory of his brother to contend with.

After were the harrowing days. In fever-induced delirium, his brother relived their darkest sins again and again: the transmutation, the homunculi, Nina. Sometimes he would call out for Alphonse, for Winry, eyes seeing nothing but the terrors that mind conjured. Other times the muscle spasms would keep him all night, until a melange of pills finally eased his pain.

They had all harboured a secret hope, before those days, that his brother would recover. But this illusion fell apart like so many shards of broken glass when the doctor had to be summoned from East City. Surprisingly, his brother only put up a token protest, and even then Alphonse had suspected it was only to reassure Winry. Mostly he sat by the window, eyes fixed on a distant point in the horizon.

“There’s nothing I can do. He won’t live through the winter” was her parting prognosis.

The next day, the doctor pulled Alphonse aside and told him in a quiet voice: “You had better start making plans… Goodbyes ought to be said when there is still time.”

So Alphonse did his duty and discarded any lingering notion of improvement. His brother was going to die. The sky was blue; water was wet; the sun rises in the east and sets in the west — and his brother was going to die. Though it was morbid, he recited it to himself when he woke in the morning, and repeated it again when he retired in the evening. Like a church catechism, the words drummed unceasingly in his head. Each was a terrible, yet irrefutable truth.

His-brother-was-going-to-die.

Of course, Edward knew this too. He knew it better than Alphonse, but he did not rage or seethe as Alphonse had wanted to do himself. He did not so much as express any measure of discontent or dissatisfaction with the situation. Alphonse could not fathom his brother’s unusual passivity.

“How can you— how can you be so calm!?”

The irony wasn’t lost on Alphonse, that he was the one in tears and Edward was the one left to comfort him, as stalwartly and intrepid as always.

And just like always, Edward didn’t answer him directly. Instead, he drew Alphonse into his arms, bore his heart wrenching sobs, and smoothed his hair gently as if they were still seven and six and standing before their mother’s grave.

When Alphonse’s tears finally ceased, he pulled back and gave him a gentle, half-smile.

“There’s this Xingese idea that life isn’t a discrete and finite term, marked by a beginning and an ending. Instead, they liken life to a wave; when the wind blows, the wave is there. You can see it, see the way that light refracts off of its surface. You can reach out and touch it. You can measure its height and note down its colour…” 

His brother reached out and gently tilted Alphonse’s head up to meet his eyes before continuing: “Then it crashes against the shore and dissolves, but the water — the wave — is still there, just in a different form. It hasn’t returned to nonbeing, only to the sea. To the thing that was its origin.”[3] _

And here Edward paused, eyes a little bit shiny, to ask: “Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Alphonse nodded in response. It was the lesson that Teacher had taught them when they were little — the lesson they thought they had understood, and the lesson that they only truly learned the difficult way.

“One is all, all is one.”

“That’s right. Maybe that’s why. When I die, my body will return to the earth, but I will not be reduced to nothingness. I will rejoin the great flow of the universe. In some ways, that’s just the natural price of alchemy. We, who tapped into this stream and harnessed its power for ourselves, must later sustain it with our own bodies.”

“Besides, we all have to die someday, Al. I take comfort in that.”

Then he looked out to the snowy fields, signalling the end of their conversation.

One by one, their friends came to sleepy little Resembool, each arriving in varying states of disbelief. The Edward they remembered was boisterous and loud and seemingly invincible. Even though they all knew that his brother’s illness was terminal, none seemed to be truly convinced of it. Not until they had spent a few days at his side.

Once those few days passed, Alphonse had the distinct privilege of bearing witness as the realization dawned on each of their friends. It came slower for some and faster for others, but all inevitably reached the same, devastating conclusion: this was not a passing ailment, and his brother would not be getting better.

There would be no eleventh hour miracles. Not this time around.

The ensuing reactions varied greatly in nature. Some, like Rose, broke down in front of Alphonse. Others, like the Lieutenant (Captain, he had to keep reminding himself, so habitual was her old rank), maintained a stoicism that struck Alphonse not as uncaring, but rather as a method of self-preservation.

Sometimes he wished for the same fortitude, because maybe that would make this all easier. But he owed it to him to feel everything, to feel every ounce of sadness and every pound of pain.

It caught him by surprise that the Colonel (Major General, he amends again) was closer on the spectrum to Rose than to the Captain. To his knowledge, his brother and the Major General’s relationship was one of civil camaraderie, but little more otherwise. Gone were the days of flashy red dusters and profanities screamed at heavy oak doors, to be sure, and in their place was a quiet, mutual respect. But Alphonse had assumed it to be the natural byproduct of overthrowing a government together, or something to that effect.

For reasons he could not fully grasp, Roy Mustang’s grief transcended beyond such as one feels for a comrade-at-arms. No, it was pure, irreconcilable anguish that marred his face — the sort that accompanies despair in its highest order.

As much as Alphonse was loath to admit it, his curiosity had been peeked. So it was that he hid outside of his brother’s room one night, with a dogged determination to know and understand the strange rapport he had with Roy Mustang. Through the sliver of an opening of a door left slightly ajar, he observed his brother in conversation with his former commanding officer. Softly spoken words filtered out of the room.

Edward was sat half-upright in his bed, a heavy quilt sewn by Granny Pinako draped over his lap. The quilt was an old one, sewn back when their mother first fell ill. As he himself had only been six, Granny Pinako’s explanation flew over his head. Now it came rushing back in force, and Alphonse was lost in the multifarious colours of the quilt.

At first glance, the patchwork cloth yielded no particular pattern, only pretty rows of haphazardly interlocking shapes. But in his mesmerization, the shapes in the centre rearranged themselves until a distinct picture emerged from the chaos: an angular, geometric tree, with leaves of staggered triangles and an arrow-like trunk.

The tree of life, as Granny called it. A symbol of life and death.[4] More specifically, it was a reminder that humans had traded their perfection and purity in exchange for knowledge. Rather fitting, actually, in his mind.

“We are but little creatures. Mortal and so powerless in the grand scheme of things, we are liable to be swept up and rattled by even the gentlest breeze. But we are not ignorant, and this gives life meaning. Death gives life meaning for us small humans.”[5]

Alphonse certainly felt small when he heard the sound of his brother crying. He had not heard the like since Mr Hughes’ death, some four years past, and consequently it was a noise so jarring that he was promptly ripped from his quilt-induced reverie.

Directing his gaze back to the two he had set out to observe, Alphonse found Edward with his face buried in the Major General’s shoulder. The man himself wrapped tentative arms around the shaking figure, and his brother’s hands were tightly clutched in the fabric of the man’s brown waistcoat.

His first instinct was to push inside the room and take the Major General’s place. The space that man occupied was his — his by birthright. Just as Edward always needed to comfort him, it was also Alphonse’s inalienable, inviolable, fraternal privilege and duty to do the same. Only he didn’t know how, didn’t even know where to begin.

Suddenly, it struck him how diminished Edward looked, and that it wasn’t the wasting effect of the sickness. His brother’s back was always straight when Alphonse sat with him. The set of his shoulders unerringly spoke of a particular strength, and the mien of his features a certain dignity of person. In those moments, though there was a subdued sadness about him, Edward looked calm and unafraid. He looked like the Fullmetal Alchemist. The person before him now was very small, as small as Alphonse felt.

When Edward spoke next, his words were barely above a whisper, but in the quiet solemnity of the house, they rang in Alphonse’s mind with the clarity of church bells on a Sunday morning.

“Roy, I’m scared.”

His voice quavered a little.

“I don’t want to die—”

And then it broke.

“God, I don’t want to die.”

His brother was still crying, not with reckless abandon, but soft, hiccuping sobs. Somehow that was worse.

“Shit, I — there’s still so much shit I want to do. And I don’t want to fucking leave Al alone, he doesn’t deserve that.” The Major General, who had been quiet up until that point, finally broke from his reticence.

“And you don’t deserve this either, Edward. Neither of you do. Fuck, if there’s anyone that deserves this, it would be me. I wish, shit. I wish I could bear this burden for you. If I were able, I would take your place in a heartbeat,” and his voice cracked in way that Alphonse had never heard before.

Predictably, Edward shoved him away.

“You complete idiot. Fuck, you’re such a dumbass, Roy. You made me a promise, remember? Don’t you go fucking breaking it now.” 

Then his brother looked away, his hair falling like a curtain and obscuring his face.

“I just… I just wish I could be there to see you keep it.”

It sounded like the Major General was crying now too. He lifted a hand to Edward’s face, cupped it with all the gentleness of one approaching a frightened deer.

“I am going to keep it. I don’t care what I have to do, I’m going to keep my promise. You have my word.”

Alphonse had looked away by then. Somehow, he felt like an intruder on an altogether too intimate scene. Which was ridiculous, since it was his own brother. A shudder ran through him, from top to bottom. Only then had he realized — the roiling in his gut wasn’t sorrow. It was anger.

Miserable, wretched anger.

The following morning, he woke up at dawn, walked downstairs, and made himself a cup of coffee. Alphonse doesn’t drink coffee, doesn’t understand the appeal of ritualistically scalding your tongue with bitter liquid, and the cup he made was shit, but that was all beside the point. The Major General often rose at six o’clock, before seven at the latest, and he wanted to catch him off guard.

He told himself that his anger was because the man had been keeping things from him. If his brother was hurting, was not Alphonse naturally the best person to console him? How could — how dare — Roy Mustang hide that from him?

Yet, a little part of him was aware of the shameful truth: Alphonse wasn’t angry with Mustang. It cut to the bone that Edward had not trusted him with the burden of his pain.

For nigh-on two decades, they’d been Ed-and-Al, Edward-and-Alphonse. The brothers Elric, as all knew, were an inseparable, monolithic force that stood fast against any obstacle in their way, be it immortal beings hellbent on their destruction, or unscrupulous alchemists determined to enact their vile experiments.

Together they were unshakeable; they were each other’s foundation, and the colonnade that lined their shared path. Remove a single column and the entablature, indeed the entire edifice, would cave in and collapse.

Whether he wanted to acknowledge it or not, the cracks had appeared months ago. Now, Alphonse felt like an outsider looking in, rendered powerless as crossbeams warped and limestone-white walls shuddered before him.

And the man responsible stood before him. Roy Mustang in the morning was just as bedraggled as any normal person — a fact that gave Alphonse no small feeling of schadenfreude. (He felt a little bit guilty when he saw the heavy bruises that lined his eyes, but that only lasted until the man opened his mouth.)

“Alphonse…? What’re you doing up?”

He said nothing for a moment, only setting down the rapidly cooling cup of coffee. The Major General blinked a few times, before something a little like panic settled on his face.

“Is… anything the matter?”

 That struck an unpleasant chord.

“How can you even ask that? You know what’s wrong.” 

Hysteria crept into his voice.

“My brother’s dying, that’s what’s fucking wrong! He’s dying, and I can’t do anything to help him, and he goes to YOU for comfort over me.”

The man flinched with his whole body at the disdainful way Alphonse spat ‘you’.

Unfortunately for him, Alphonse pressed on relentlessly with a vicious need to hurt, to inflict as much damage as possible.

“And what’s that all about, anyways? Now Edward’s dying you suddenly care? Shit, he could’ve died on any one of those godforsaken missions you sent us on!

I didn’t know toy soldiers were so valuable to you.”

At this, there was a pause of tense silence. He and Alphonse stood frozen, opposite each other in the terrible imitation of a tableau, both unsure of what to say. Then, all strength left the Major General’s body, and he collapsed into one of the kitchen chairs like a puppet with cut strings.

 “I’m sorry Alphonse, I’m so sorry.”

He let his head fall into his hands before continuing.

“You’re right. I mean, of course you’re right. I used the two of you. And you don’t have to believe me. Hell, I would believe me, but… The only thing that assuaged my guilt — the guilt I felt for bringing a child into the military — was the hope that once your bodies were restored, the two of you would get to live a normal life,” murmured Mustang.

Alphonse felt a little queasy. 

“Your sin wasn’t like mine. It could be atoned, and atone it you did. Mine… owns me, and my life. So I prayed that, for all the suffering I brought on you, you would have in exchange the rest of your lives. It was my sole comfort, you see, and for a while it seemed to have come true. But now…”

More than anything, it was the tone of his voice that had Alphonse regretting his earlier outburst. That kind of pain, so genuine and visceral and raw, could not be faked.

“Now the guilt and the shame, they demand to be felt. But I have always cared for the two of you. Always. And I will carry the weight of this guilt as I carry the weight of my sin, Alphonse.”

“I think… your brother has the mistaken idea that he’s relieving you of this weight, in keeping his fear hidden. Probably he believes he’s making the… transition… as painless as possible. For you.”

Alphonse heard the implied reassurance: ‘it’s not that your brother doesn’t trust you, it's just that he still thinks of you as a child, one who has to be protected. Even if it is an exercise in futility.’

That little shit.

His stupid, foolish big brother.

A plummeting feeling swept over him. It was as if someone had opened a trapdoor beneath the organs in his abdomen, reached in, and wrenched them all out in one fell move. That had to be the only explanation for the sudden, gaping emptiness in his chest.

Without warning, without so much as another word, Alphonse rushed out of the kitchen. Mustang would understand, he’s had enough experience wrangling his brother and his propensity to idiocy.

He had not a destination in mind, but his feet brought him up the rickety wooden staircase, right from the landing, and down the dusty hallway to Edward’s room. Even though it was barely ten past seven in the morning, he pounded on the door. His brother was likely not asleep, anyways. He spent very little of his time in bed actually sleeping, claiming it eluded him.

Fuck, Alphonse was too incensed to wait for a response. The door slammed, not unforgivingly, against the wall as he burst in.

“What the fuck, Ed? What the hell was all that shit? Tell me, because I’d like to know. Was that just another pleasant lie you made up to spare the feelings of your kid brother?”

Yelling at a dying man wasn’t very good bedside manners, but he was beyond the point of caring.

“When are you going to stop treating me like glass?! Because it’s fucking disrespectful, Edward. I stopped being a child when we tried to bring mom back, same as you. Jesus Christ —” 

It was the stricken look on his brother’s face that halted him in his path. No matter how angry he was, Alphonse never wanted to be the thing that caused him pain.

“I…”

The Edward who uttered this single syllable was pale and small, drowning in his surroundings. In fact, Alphonse was afraid to so much as blink, for fear that he would disappear in the split second his eyes were closed. He couldn’t believe that it took so long for him to see the truth: the calm demeanour his brother put up was nothing but a trick of the light, a sleight of hand that fooled him only because he wanted to be fooled. Everything was easier that way.

With one arm propped against the mattress, Edward moved to sit up.

“Al…” he murmured.

“Al, I…”

Again he struggled: “Alphonse…it’s not…”

But try as he might, the words wouldn’t come out.

After a moment of silent waiting, Alphonse decided that enough was enough. Crossing the room, he knelt at his brother’s bedside, the gentleness of his actions belying his caustic words from earlier.

“Brother, you can’t protect me from your death.”

Edward’s right hand, which lay on his lap, clenched into a tight fist. It didn’t escape his attention that his shoulders were shaking.

“I know you think you can somehow make this easier, but you can’t. Nothing can make this easier.” 

A brief pause, to give a moment’s respite. Then he resumed his path of destruction.

“I’m not a child anymore. Besides, we were children when Mom died, and we weren’t any better off for our ignorance. Don’t do that to me. Stop pretending, brother.” 

Finally, Edward found his voice.

“ALRIGHT! Fine! What do you want me to say? That I’m terrified? Because I am, okay? Are you happy now?”

This anger, red-hot and burning, was so much more preferable to placid acceptance.

“I wasn’t lying though. Everything I said, it was for my benefit.” His voice turned pleading: “Al, please. Please try to understand.” 

Now visibly trembling, he took a deep breath, as if to fortify himself.

“The truth is, I was scared for you too. Death has always been our enemy. We tried to cheat it when Mom died. Then afterwards, we clashed against it to survive. Al, we have fought it at every turn, and part of me was petrified that if you knew, you would keep fighting.” 

A sense of desperate urgency took hold in his voice; his eyes turned beseechingly to Alphonse.

“You understand, right? You understand why that scares me?” 

Alphonse had not been expecting this. In fact, he had expected empty words about being the elder brother, about it being his burden to bear — not this raw, visceral fear, choking the air like a haze of miasma in the early morning sunlight.

Hesitantly, he opened his mouth and broke through the haze: “Brother… you know I would never.”

Edward sighed. “I know. But I’m still terrified. There’s nothing to be done for all of this.” He gestured vaguely. “And I’m scared that you feel as helpless as I do.”

 Then he chuckled, low and sardonic.

“God, we really are pathetic, aren’t we? Pathetic and insignificant.”

Suddenly, Alphonse remembered Granny’s words from so long ago.

“And to cope, we tell ourselves that’s what makes us human.”

A scoff, quiet and almost undetected.

“Pathetic,” supplied Edward.

“… quite,” muttered Alphonse, heaving himself up to sit on the bed beside his brother.

After that, they spoke no words. The silence did not need telling.

Maybe it was messed up, but some part of Alphonse was happier now that the ugly truth was laid bare. No more equivocating about it: Edward was dying, would soon die, and there was no way to make it okay.

Pretty words could not disguise the sordid reality of things any more than new clothes conceal a rotting corpse. 

 

 

“You finally know how it feels,” said Winry. “I’m sorry. I had hoped you never would, but I guess the world is unkind.”

“How what feels?”

“To be powerless. To know that someone you love is in danger, but be unable to help. To watch on the sidelines, safe and tucked away, as everything happens. It’s special brand of torture.”

She lay a hand on his shoulder.

“You know, I never thought it would happen like this. I thought I would get a phone call from your Colonel, or from Riza. Or maybe an official-looking envelope, stamped with the green and white chimera. But you Elrics always surprise me, don’t you?”

 A pause.

“I’m sorry.”

“…I know.”

Then, “You know what Granny said?”

“No.”

“She told me all roads lead to an end, but that doesn’t mean we have to be okay with it.”

He smiled without mirth.

“We should’ve learned that by now, huh?”

“Probably.”

The sky was rapidly darkening from where they sat, among the ruins of the old house. Saturated sunset oranges and reds cast deep shadows on Winry’s face, obscuring her expression from Alphonse.

“Let’s go back,” she’d muttered, with a sort of finality.

 

 

Alphonse blinks. The service is almost finished.

In solemn tones, the Pfarrer begins the final words.

“Therefore we commit his body to the ground: in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes… dust to dust.”[6]

A handful of dirt, dumped into the grave.

“Receive Edward into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, O Merciful God. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. May thou forgive us our trespasses and deliver us from evil.”[7]

Songbirds — chirping jubilant. A soft, spring breeze rustles leaves.

The grass underfoot is vernal and green.

 

“Amen.” 

 

… and the sun continues to shine against halcyon skies.

 

 

 


 

 

Now to the roll of muffled drums,

To thee the greatest soldier comes.

 

Eternal honour to his name.

                                                                         

                                                                         

                                                                         

 

 

 

 

[1] King James Bible, Matthew 5:4

[2] The Peace Prayer of St. Francis

[3] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation.

[4] The ‘tree of life’ square is an actual quilt pattern, and is generally understood to represent life and death. The rest are my own interpretations.

[5] For more, see: Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning

[6] From the English Book of Common Prayer, 1662

[7] From the Lord’s Prayer