Rating: PG-13 (for unpleasantness?)
Genre: Sort of horror
Notes: Sequel to "Night at the Pound". Continuing on with the same theme, and it was so much fun to write, even if I'm nervous about the end result. Thanks to
Summary: Al would do anything to save Ed from a fate worse than death, because he's the only one who knows the truth.
The gavel descended with a thunk of finality, sealing his fate.
Two burly soldiers stopped on either side of him, and pulled him to his feet. Al swayed unsteadily, unable to use his straitjacketed arms to regain his balance. The courtroom blurred slightly with tears, though he had no idea when he had started crying.
Winry sat in the audience, obviously pregnant, and the hatred in her eyes followed Al on his way out, cutting him to the quick.
He honestly didn’t know what was worse, the looks of hatred or the looks of pity. Nobody understood, even though towards the end he had finally blurted out the truth, explained that it had been the only viable option, and the kindest thing he could have done for his brother.
The only thing the explanations had gained him was a one-way ticket to the Central asylum, instead of a visit to the firing squad.
“Hey, Brother! How’s it going?” Al forced cheerfulness into his voice. On the other end of the line, Ed didn’t sound nearly so happy.
“Fine, I guess…”
“I’m glad that you decided to go back to the military,” Al enthused. “I think it’s really good for you. And Brigadier General Mustang definitely needed the help!”
“Yeah, well, I guess the bastard is happy I’m here to clean up shit for him.”
Ed sounded glum, even more so than usual, and Al bit his lip. They had only been separate for two months, and Ed was already unhappy.
“Al…are you sure you’re doing okay?”
Here we go again, Al thought, but the anxious tone bothered him. “I’m doing fine, Brother. Don’t worry about me.”
“Oh…” Ed sounded crestfallen. “You don’t need me there?”
Shit. Al had hoped they would manage to stay away from the danger zone this time. “I think what you’re doing is really important! You’re helping to rebuild the country! Aren’t you…aren’t you happy doing it?” Al allowed some hesitance to creep into his tone.
“Yeah, I mean, of course I’m happy,” Ed stammered quickly, “I was just making sure you’re ok-” Ed stopped suddenly, then said uncertainly, “I’m not…being a nuisance, am I? I’m trying-”
“Of course not!” Al cut in quickly. “I worry about you too. Take care of yourself, ok Brother? I wouldn’t want something to happen to you.”
“Yeah…” The edge of tiredness was still in Ed’s voice. The conversation ended with a few more bits of trivia, and Al hung up, frustrated.
Maybe he was imagining it, but all the conversations went the same way. He had hoped that after a few months Ed would start pulling away, develop some independence, but the opposite seemed to be true.
Even Mustang had commented on how wistful Ed was becoming.
Al shook his head, and forced his thoughts away. Ed would be fine; he was just having a little separation anxiety.
After all, it wasn’t like Ed couldn’t live without Al.
And yet…Al remembered a dream, of an empty place full of rejected Edwards…
That will never happen to my brother. I swear it.
“Al!” Ed rushed at him, and threw his arms around his brother. Al laughed, returning the enthusiastic hug.
“It’s been half a year!” Ed now had to look up slightly to meet Al’s eyes, but he immediately looked down, bangs hiding his face. “I missed you…”
“I missed you too,” Al held on tighter, almost surprised by how true the words were. Finding excuses to stay away from Central the past six months had taken a toll on him; it was very good to see Ed again. Ed suddenly made a strange choked sound, and buried his face in Al’s shoulder, fisting his hands in the fabric of his brother’s shirt.
“Ed? Are you alright?” Al asked in concern. This behavior was definitely un-Ed-like.
Just as suddenly, Ed let go and pulled away from him, forcing a smile on to his face.
“Yeah!” he sounded cheerful, and tried to scrub surreptitiously at his face. “I’m great! It’s so good to see you again…come on, you must be hungry, let’s go get something to eat!”
Ed grabbed Al’s suitcase, despite his protestations that he could easily carry it on his own, and let the way out of the train station, still talking enthusiastically.
“Man, we need to get together more often…first thing, I’m going to ask the Bastard for a month of vacation, so I’ll be able to visit you in Resembool.”
When Al was sure that Edward was completely asleep, he crept out of the room and picked up the phone, dialing a very familiar number.
“Hello?” a slightly grumpy voice answered.
“Brigadier General Mustang, it’s me, Alphonse,” Al said quietly.
There was a slight grunt on the other end, then- “I suppose there’s a reason you’re calling me this late?”
“It’s about Brother.” Of course, when wasn’t it about him? “He’s going to be asking you for vacation. Could you please not give him more than a week, ten days at most?”
There was silence, then an audible sigh. “Alphonse, I’m not sure I understand exactly what you’re trying to achieve, but I don’t think it’s quite right. Your brother is entitled to a vacation.”
“Moreover,” Mustang continued, “I’m not sure pressuring your brother to return to the military was a wise decision. He’s obviously miserable. Why do you insist on this? I trusted your judgment, but a moping Fullmetal is not terribly useful to anybody.”
“I want him to be independent,” Al said hotly. “I’m trying to get him away from me and doing something constructive.”
“If you truly want him to grow, you need to let him choose his own path, not control his life,” Mustang retorted sharply.
“I’m doing this for his own good,” Al snapped. “If it was up to him, he’d follow me around all day. I want him to make his own decisions, and live his own life!”
“Alphonse,” Mustang’s voice gentled, “Your brother is still trying to get over some severe trauma. I understand your frustration, but I don’t think you’re going about this the right way. You need to talk things over with him. He’s his own person. Don’t treat him like a child.”
Al wanted to scream in frustration. Of course Mustang couldn’t understand. He couldn’t talk it over with Edward, because then Edward would probably get it into his head that he was unnecessary and vanish again. And besides, some unpleasant part of his mind thought, he’s not his own person. He’s mine. That’s the problem I’m trying to solve.
Somehow, everything Ed did was suspect.
Every time he begged Al to visit him, Al wondered whether this wasn’t another sign of dependence. When he joked on the phone about Al being the ‘little brother’ and therefore unable to take care of himself, Al got angry and snappish, and Ed sulked for a week.
When Ed finally called him again, Al decided that this could be a useful ‘learning experience’, and blocked him out.
He spent a week ignoring increasingly frequent phone calls from his brother, even though his conscience twinged a bit. Ed needed to get used to coping with things on his own, Al told himself firmly.
Another week passed
Finally, he got a phone call from Mustang.
“Your brother is hysterical,” Mustang informed him shortly. “He’s sure that you’re dying in a ditch somewhere, because nothing else could possibly make you ignore him for so long.”
Guilt welled up, and Al found himself stammering slightly. “I…I’ve been busy…”
“And yet, amazingly enough, here I am talking to you. Are you sure you haven’t been hospitalized while you weren’t paying attention?” Mustang's voice dripped with sarcasm.
Al scowled, even though he knew the man couldn’t see him. “Stop treating me like a child.”
There was a pensive silence from the other end for a moment, then Mustang said slowly, “Alphonse, I don’t think I understand you. I wonder…is this some sort of power trip for you? Do you enjoy asserting dominance over your brother?”
What? “No!” Al exploded, horrified. “This isn’t…how dare you…”
“Then you need to stop trying to get rid of him.” Mustang’s tone was hard. “Stop playing these childish games! If he’s too much for you to cope with, talk it over with him!”
“I’m not-” Al began hotly, but was interrupted by a click. He stared at the phone for a minute, incredulous. Had Mustang just hung up on him?
Al found himself shaking in fury. Implying that he was some sort of sadist, that he got his kicks from hurting Edward…it wasn’t true, he thought. He just wanted to help his brother. He wanted to be able to live knowing that Ed could manage on his own, that Ed’s life wasn’t dependent on Al’s. This was for Ed’s own good.
Hand still shaking, Al dialed a different number, and waited nervously until the phone was answered.
“Hello?” The voice was tired, unhappy.
“Hello, Brother,” he said carefully.
He had never heard anyone sound so relieved. Al felt another twinge of guilt.
“Al, are you alright? Did something happen to you? I’m so glad I finally caught you…!” The questions came out in a breathless babble.
“No, I’m fine, I’m so sorry…” Al tried to keep his voice steady, though he could feel his eyes threatening with tears.
“Al.” Ed let out a sigh of relief. “Don’t be sorry…I’m just happy that you’re safe. I was so worried…I mean, I know that we argued while back, but it wasn’t anything serious, and there’s no way that you could be that angry at me…” Ed trailed off, and Al was frozen, unable to fill the silence.
“Al?” Ed’s voice was very small. “You…you’re not mad at me, are you? Oh shit, you are, right? I’m such a fucking moron…Al, I’m sorry!”
“I’m not mad at you!” Al burst out, unable to stand the sheer misery in his brother’s voice any longer. Mustang hadn’t been exaggerating; Ed really did take it very hard. “Brother, I promise, I’m not mad at you. If anything, you’re the one who should be mad at me, for not answering the phone.”
“But…” Ed laughed a little, “Why would I be mad about that? It’s not like you didn’t answer on purpose, you were just busy… I must have the worst luck in the world, never being able to catch you around. And here I am, getting all worked up about it!”
God. Al scrubbed at his eyes, struggling to keep from sobbing. It hurt too much, talking to Ed. It wasn’t normal, it wasn’t right, why did Edward take everything on himself? Why couldn’t Ed yell at him, for a change? Two years ago, Edward had acted much more naturally…was it really Al’s fault, for trying to force a separation?
Was Edward truly incapable of functioning on his own?
Al’s next idea was much more benign, and he was very pleased with himself for coming up with it. After all, it was obvious that Winry was in love with Ed, and Ed certainly cared about her. Maybe if he set them up, Ed would fall in love…and once Ed had a wife and a home and some kids, he would probably be a lot happier.
The next time Ed came to Resembool on leave, Al decided to put his plan into action.
Autumn was already well in, though the area around Resembool got none of the multicolored leaves that could be seen in the north. Many trees were evergreen, and those that weren’t tended to lose their leaves in an abrupt transition from greenish-brown to none at all. Still, the days were pleasant and the nights were cool, and it almost seemed like they were young again, Al, Ed and Winry, hiking in the fields and woods around the house.
Whenever possible, Al arranged for Ed and Winry to have some time alone with each other, though he kept a close watch to see how they were getting along. They seemed fairly happy together. It could work, though Ed had a disturbing tendency to start looking for Al whenever he found himself alone with Winry for more than a few minutes. This bothered Al a bit, though he managed to push the thought to the back of his mind. At least Ed was connecting to someone.
One evening, when the two brothers went off on their own, Al decided it was time to up the ante. Grinning slyly at Ed, he prodded, “So? Have you gotten anywhere with Winry yet?”
Ed startled and blushed scarlet, which Al took to be a good sign. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he managed.
“Oh please,” Al scoffed, “I’ve seen how you look at each other.” He punched Ed playfully on the arm, ignoring the protests. “You know you can’t hide anything from me. I was always sure you two would end up together.”
His brother looked startled, and shot him a strange look. “Really? It doesn’t…I mean…you used to fight with me over Winry…”
Damn, he had to cut this train of thought off at the quick, before the idea became entrenched in Ed’s mind. If Al were to show any interest at all in Winry, Ed would probably back away, and end up alone, which could end in… “We were little kids,” Al scoffed quickly. “That was years ago. And anyway, I don’t like Winry that way.” Which was true, Al thought to himself. He loved her, but in more of a brotherly childhood-friend sort of way.
“But I don’t want you to feel left out…” Ed said hesitantly, searching his face earnestly for any sign of unhappiness.
Al was quick to smile. “How could I possibly feel left out? I care about you both, and I want you to be happy.”
Ed looked away, scuffing his feet slightly in the grass, a pensive look on his face. Al watched him carefully, trying to guess what thoughts were going through his mind. Finally Ed said hesitantly, “So, you really think…Winry and I…”
“Sure,” Al said firmly.
Al could hardly suppress his exultation over the fact that it seemed to be working. He kept up a careful surveillance of the development of their relationship, though he made sure that he wouldn’t get caught at it. Ed spent more time with Winry, now, and once he even caught the two holding hands.
Still, he sometimes noticed Ed shooting him furtive looks, as if to ask, is this all right? Despite everything, the doubts resurfaced.
What if the only reason Ed was pursuing a relationship with Winry was because Al told him to? Had Ed truly fallen in love with her, or could he actually only be deepening his dependence on Al?
What if Winry was unwilling to bear the fact that Ed was constantly seeking Al out, and tried to break off the relationship?
Once Ed was back in Central, it was easy for Al to make sure that Ed wasn’t seeing too much of him. Now, when Ed was lonely, he should turn to Winry instead of Al, especially now that Winry opened a clinic near Central, and Al was constantly traveling with his job of freelance alchemy. And, well, he was so busy all the time, what with all those new roads and tunnels being built up north, and working on rebuilding after that hurricane in the west, that really, he couldn’t afford to spend too long in Central, which was saturated with alchemists.
Of course, it wasn’t like he was shunning Ed completely. They still talked on the phone often, though Al moved around a lot –just enough to make sure Ed couldn’t catch him consistently.
He also talked to Winry often, and thus kept fairly close tabs on their progressing relationship.
He had found work doing some design and exterior decorating for the municipality building of Talburn, a town not far from
He felt a sudden pang at the thought of the general. It was clear that he hadn’t forgiven Al for his meddling, and had been oddly cold the last few times they had spoken. Mustang had even gone so far as to offer Al several jobs in Central, with the rather explicit hint that he should spend some time with Ed, and had been very disapproving when Al politely turned down the offer.
The fact that Ed seemed to still be pining had clinched the decision. It was ridiculous that Ed was incapable of dealing with a little separation. Why couldn’t Mustang see that his brother’s behavior was unnatural? Catering to his whims would only strengthen Ed’s dependency.
A few days later, though, he got a phone call from Winry.
“Ed’s worried about you,” she told him once the pleasantries were over.
Al sighed. Not Winry too! “I’m doing fine.”
“Frankly, I’m worried about you, too,” Winry sounded rather annoyed. “I can see that you’re having some sort of adolescent rebellion thing going on, and you want to be independent, but you’re not being fair to Ed.”
“I am not having an ‘adolescent rebellion’!” Al practically yelled, indignantly. “I have a job, and I’m busy!”
“You’re avoiding him on purpose,” Winry said flatly. “You’ve been doing good business; there’s no reason you can’t come by more often.”
“He never lets up!” Al exploded. “Every time I come by, he follows me around all the time. Do you honestly think that’s healthy for him?”
“Have you considered that if you came more often he wouldn’t make such a fuss every time you deign to show up?” Winry was shouting now as well.
“You were practically inseparable for more than eight years, of course it’s hard for him to get used to you being away all the time! You idiot, he keeps wondering what he’s done to drive you away – is it because I’m seeing him?”
Al tried to get a word in edgewise. "Of course not! I just-"
“Then stop being such a child!” Winry spat, and slammed the phone down.
“I’m not a child,” Al muttered furiously to the silent phone. Did nobody remember what happened last year? It wasn’t normal, or natural, or right that just because of a fight Ed would vanish for months. And the way he returned… Al shuddered. He couldn’t tell them what he knew. He couldn’t even tell Ed that it wasn’t his fault, it was how he was built – what would it do to his brother to learn that he might not be quite human?
Al had no clue how he had done something so incredible, yet Truth could not lie. Nothing, no unhappiness Ed was going through now could possibly compare to an eternity in limbo, forever rejected.
Truth’s mocking words came back to him, “Soon enough he'll find his way back.” How could he make sure Ed never suffered such a fate? He tried and tried to make him independent, to give Ed purpose, direction, so that when Al moved on with his own life Ed would not be left behind.
But it wasn’t working. Al almost wanted to cry in frustration. It was too much for him, too much pressure to try and keep track of his brother’s life for him. He had to find a permanent solution, something that would ensure that Ed never, ever found himself rejected.
A glimmer of an idea flitted through the back of his brain, though it dissipated too quickly to be caught. Either way, he might as well see about accepting one of those jobs in Central. Maybe then General Mustang and Winry would forgive him.
It was bittersweet to know that he didn’t have to court Ed’s forgiveness. Ed loved him no matter what, and always blamed himself for any problems. In his eyes, Al could do no wrong.