Summary: Ed found a way to prove that he was truly from a parallel universe, and Alfons finds himself trapped in Ed's dream of opening the Gate. Premovie, AU
Previous parts can be found here or via journal tags.
Notes: As always, thanks to yixsh and cryogenia for the handholding, and naatz darling, ILU. Not yet betaed 100%, but this chapter is driving me to distraction, and I need to study. So I will post now, and do a bit more editing later. Any remaining mistakes are a result of my impatience.
"I'm going to break him out,” Al said, challenging the room. Mustang sighed, but other than that, nobody bothered answering. Al continued. “I'm going to! He's miserable in there, and now they're going to put him on trial again–”
"If you break him out,” Mustang said, “all of us will have to run.”
"I shouldn't be listening to this,” Harris commented.
"Why would you have to run? I'm not asking for help!”
"I'd help,” Alfons felt the need to say. Winry nodded as well.
"Nobody would ever believe that we were uninvolved,” Mustang answered. “And where would you go? Xing? If Ed runs, it'll be clear to everybody that he's guilty. None of the surrounding countries would want to let him in.”
"And,” Mustang overrode him, raising his voice, “Amestris would probably collapse into chaos. The ANP would take any excuse to start a war and bring the entire country back under martial law – and if I am implicated in this, they could do exactly that. Are you willing to risk it?”
Alfons could have told Mustang that was a stupid question. If Al had to choose between the future of Amestris and Ed's life, he would choose Ed. And Alfons would back him all the way. Ed didn't deserve to die for politics.
"I'm not letting Brother get killed!” Al shouted, jumping up from his chair and starting to pace. Alfons really hoped that nobody outside could hear them.
"He doesn't have to,” Harris said, shifting position on his end of the sofa. He looked nearly as tense as everybody else.
Momentary silence followed his words.
"He did it,” Al said, enunciating clearly.
Harris scratched at his mustache, and wouldn't meet anybody's eyes. “Legally speaking, that doesn't really mean anything.”
The thought of lying hadn't really occurred to Alfons, but it was enough to excite him.
Tapping his foot a bit, Harris looked around at all of them. “Aside from present company, who else knows – or knew – that Ed was responsible for attempting Human Transmutation?”
There was another silence, as everybody thought.
"Most of my immediate subordinates,” Mustang began. “Riza, Havoc, Fuery, Falman, Breda. I would have to ask to find out who heard it from him directly. Gracia Hughes. Major Armstrong.”
"Grandma and Rose,” Winry said. “And Sheska. Scar must have known, too.”
"Your teacher?” Alfons suggested.
"Yes, but she died.” Al's voice took on a stiff note. “Sig also knew, though. And Mason.”
Alfons mumbled condolences, and wondered if Edward knew.
"Barry the Chopper,” said Mustang. “Kimblee. Fuhrer King Bradley. All three are dead.”
"The fuhrer knew?” Harris murmured, shaking his head.
"All the homunculi knew,” said Al. “And Dante as well.”
Alfons thought back to the stories Edward had told him, tried to dredge up memories. “There was an alchemist named Majhal in some small town,” he offered. “He transmuted souls into dolls...” he trailed off at the blank stares. “He's dead, though,” Alfons added, self-consciously.
"Doctor Marcoh,” said Al, and looked at Mustang inquiringly.
"As far as I know, he's dead.”
"Tucker,” said Alfons, desperate to be useful. “The guy who transmuted his daughter-”
Mustang nodded. “Dead as well.”
Winry jumped to her feet. “Oh for goodness' sake, half the country knows! And everybody knows that Al was in an empty suit of armor, it even said so in the film!”
The hopelessness of the situation was dawning on Alfons. From Edward's stories, it had always sounded like the whole Human Transmutation business had been something of a secret. But if everybody knew, what hope did they have?
"We're back to breaking him out,” Al announced, crossed his arms, and dared anybody to contradict him.
"Not precisely.” Harris had a look of deep thoughtfulness on his face. “Even if a lot of people know that -Ed was responsible,” he stumbled over the name a bit, apparently not sure whether he should use the nickname or not.
Alfons wondered when he would start. He just couldn't imagine calling Edward anything else.
"-The only testimony relevant is from people who heard it straight from him, and moreso – it would have to be a clear statement that he had done the alchemy. If he said it was his fault Al was in the armor, that's not enough. We could say he was simply blaming himself, it's not an admission of guilt.” Harris suddenly smiled, tight and grim. “And the only eyewitness besides Ed,” he nodded at Al, “cannot testify to remembering his brother actually doing the alchemy.”
Alfons had never expected Al's amnesia to turn out useful, and from the look on Al's face, neither had he.
"Now,” Harris continued, but Winry cut him off.
"Wait.” She clasped her hands in her lap, her hair falling forward with the tilt of her head. Then she looked up. “How are we going to pay for this?” When nobody offered an answer, she started thinking aloud. “I've been pitching in with my savings – and we've used up most of Ed's money over the years, and Colonel Mustang has been a great help... but how much longer can we keep going? How long will this trial take?”
"No less than three months, probably,” Harris said. “And even that's pretty fast.”
"But the first trial was only a month and a half!” Alfons protested. “Why should this one be longer?” Another three months of visiting Edward in prison... three months of living on base, of trying to keep Edward together....
Three more months alone.
"For several reasons. Because of the politics involved, everybody was pushing for a quick resolution. The prosecution had an extremely flimsy case, and neither side spent nearly as much time preparing as would normally be done for a trial of this scale. Furthermore, because Ed was held under such terrible conditions and mistreated regularly, it encouraged the judges to move things along as fast as possible. I'm afraid this won't be the case, now.”
"What, because he wasn't responsible for Lior, suddenly nobody cares about him?” Al demanded.
"That's not true, and you know it,” Mustang said calmly. He looked around the room, meeting everybody's eyes with his one good one. “People are tired. They're in the same situation we are. They need to return to their homes, their jobs, and their families. There's only so long you can keep masses of people at fever pitch. Right now, the only options are to escalate, or just back down.” He sighed heavily, and looked at Harris. “I'm afraid Winry is right. It will be difficult for us to afford your fees, but if you'll be willing to accept delayed payment-”
"No,” Harris said, and Alfons' heart sank. Betrayed expressions flickered across Al and Winry's faces.
"Forget the fee,” Harris continued. At that point, Alfons could hardly believe his ears. “Cover some of my expenses, and we'll call it even. Nobody else has a hope of a chance to get him off.”
He looked momentarily embarrassed at the looks he was getting from Al and Winry, and Alfons knew a similar expression must be on his own face. The relief was so strong it was almost palpable.
He was so happy for Edward, so proud of him, to have such good people rallying to him. And he didn't know what he would have done if his alter-father had turned out to be an asshole.
Harris cleared his throat. “Well. Concerning Ed's defense. Our strategy will obviously have to be quite different from the previous trial.”
Alfons leaned forward to listen, and noticed that everybody else had sat back down, and looked just as intent. For the first time since he had heard the news, he felt a glimmer of optimism.
"As I said earlier, for eyewitness accounts, all we have to do is keep Ed off the witness stand. Nobody else can give conclusive evidence as to what happened.”
"But he didn't testify in the other trial, either...” Winry trailed off.
Harris shook his head. “It's a different situation. Then, his testimony would have been useful, but he was in no shape to be cross-examined. It was better to keep him away.”
Alfons thought of Edward, bruised and battered and sad, and found himself nodding.
"We were kids!” Al said, choked. “Shouldn't that matter? How can he be executed for something he did almost ten years ago? He was eleven years old!”
This, Alfons knew the answer to, having come across it during his research. “It doesn't matter, when it comes to Human Transmutation,” he said. “According to the law, if Edward was capable of activating the array, he can be held responsible, and executed for it. More than that, they will find the fact that he managed to do it when so young more horrible, because many older alchemists are incapable of Human Transmutation. I think,” he added, for good measure, but Harris was nodding in approval. Alfons felt a rush of satisfaction.
It immediately faded into queasiness, as he thought of what that meant for Edward.
"If he is found guilty, we might be able to ask for leniency on the grounds that he is no longer capable of doing alchemy,” Harris mused. “But of course, since we are hoping that his ability will return, it's not a strategy we can rely on. A better strategy would be to simply try and prove that there is no concrete evidence that Ed was the one who transmuted Al.”
"What?” Winry looked confused. “Who else could it have been?”
"Ah! That is not a question we have to answer. We simply need to try and present the idea that it could have been somebody else. Perhaps Ed's claims that he was responsible are because he attempted to protect Al, failed, and now feels guilty about it.”
Alfons couldn't help but be a bit skeptical. “Isn't that a bit of a stretch?”
"It is,” Harris admitted. “It's a risky plan, and one that will demand a whole lot of creative twisting of the truth from all of you. Frankly, I can't see any other option. I've glanced at the prosecution's evidence, and they seem to have a fairly solid case. I have a suspicion they've been working on gathering evidence throughout the Lior trial. They intend to take Ed down at all costs. And with Human Transmutation, guilt is an automatic death sentence. Nobody has ever won an appeal.”
"The old military got away with it all the time,” Al muttered sullenly.
"Not to our credit,” Mustang replied. “If anything, people will argue that properly executing this sort of criminal will show the world that Amestris has changed, and no longer suffers those atrocities.” He slammed a fist onto the arm of his chair, shaking. “Damn them. If anybody deserves to be pardoned for his sins, it's Ed.”
"Look, even if the outlook is bleak, there are still some things we can do,” Harris said, looking a bit more cheerful. “After the fiasco of the Lior trial, I'm hoping to get Ed transferred to house arrest. He's proven not to be a flight risk, especially since he can't do alchemy. Or see. Since he was mistreated so badly, and was proven innocent, I hope the court will allow this. House arrest means that he will be allowed daily visiting hours, both morning and evening. He'll be kept under constant guard, but at least he will no longer be in prison.”
Harris kept talking, and yeah, it sort of cheered Alfons up. But it wasn't enough. Until now, he hadn't really believed that it could end badly – because Edward was innocent. But getting him off even though everybody knew he was guilty was sounding more and more like wishful thinking.
And if he was finding this difficult to cope with, what would Edward do?
"No,” Ed said. His hands were clasped in his lap, unchained. The automail emitted whirring noises every time he twitched. There were no new visible bruises, and his hair looked healthier; Alfons was evidently making a difference. Especially in his posture, which was unbent, even in the face of the news.
"I won't let them do it. Not for my sake.”
He was also, still, a blithering idiot.
Harris sighed. “I already explained to you that this is the only option. Our priority right now is getting you acquitted.”
Ed swallowed, then raised his head. “You expect me to go up in front of all of Amestris and claim that what happened to Al wasn't my fault?” His voice cracked. “As if I didn't ruin his life-”
"This isn't about what you did!” Harris cut him off. “We know what you did. He knows what you did – and by the way, says it wasn't just you. Nothing you say in court will change that. But are you actually willing to risk death because of the accusations these nincompoops are leveling at you?”
Ed froze, and that was all the answer Harris needed.
Of course he thought he deserved to die. Harris leaned back in his chair, slowly, feeling helpless. None of his clients wanted to die. None of them thought they deserved it, not even the ones who were blatantly guilty of crimes that turned his stomach. And then comes this stupid, noble kid.
"What do you want to do?” he demanded. “Go up and confess?”
"I should tell the truth,” Ed said in a small voice. “And they'll decide what I deserve. Isn't that what justice is about?”
Harris slammed both hands onto the table. “This isn't about justice!” He didn't get it. He just couldn't wrap his mind around the insanity that was Edward Elric. “This is a disgusting, political trial, run by people who want you dead in order to further their own goals! If they could get you incarcerated for jaywalking they would!” He took a breath, tried to find a way to explain it.
"There is no justice, here,” he said. “There is a legal system. It's not the same thing. This system can be manipulated, and it's our job to make sure that the conclusion the judges reach is the right one.”
Ed ran his fingers through his bangs, then looked back in Harris' direction, eyes wild. “And if we win? If I'm declared innocent, it's because I'm pretending – in front of the whole world – that I wasn't the one that hurt Al! How can that be right?” He buried his face in his hands. “How will I ever be able to look him-- talk to him again?”
No wonder heroes died young, Harris thought.
"Do you think he'll be happy to watch you die?” he asked. “Do you think any of us will?” The 'us' slipped out, but he found himself believing it. He thought of Al, who was so earnest, and lost, and wanted his brother back. Thought of Winry, who worked to give him a leg to stand on, and never complained. Of Mustang, who fought grimly every day for another supporter, another way to help Ed. Alfons, with his gentle, worried eyes, who was pining for Ed and didn't realize how obvious he was about it.
And he, heaven help him, found himself liking this idealistic idiot.
"I don't want to die,” Ed said, on edge. “But I just... I can't. It's wrong. And maybe...” He was silent then, for a long time. Harris watched him, let him reach his own conclusions, and tried to track the emotions flitting across his face. None of them were happy.
Even so, he was surprised at Ed's words.
"Maybe it's better like this,” Ed said, and couldn't keep his voice steady.
"It's not.” Harris' tone left no room for argument, and he wasn't sure why Ed's face fell. Alfons was right; something was very wrong. But if neither Ed's brother nor his boyfriend could suss it out, Harris didn't think he had much of a chance.
"I can't do it,” Ed whispered.
"I'm not a miracle worker,” Harris said, trying to keep exasperation from his voice. “If you won't cooperate, it will make saving your life quite a bit more difficult.”
No response was forthcoming.
"I need your agreement to pursue this course of action,” Harris said.
"No. I won't let them be put in danger because of me.” Ed was shaking, his eyes squinched shut. “I won't let them risk everything. My life isn't worth theirs.”
Harris quickly revised his priorities. Getting Ed transferred to house arrest, and getting both Al and Alfons several hours with him was at the top of the list. He would try and talk to Ed again after that.
And in the meantime, even if it wasn't proper procedure, he would begin gathering evidence. The trial wouldn't wait for Ed to discover his sense of self-preservation. There was no time for this.
Al rushed his way through the train station, torn between annoyance, worry, and satisfaction over being helpful. Harris wanted information on everything Ed had done, places he'd been, people he'd talked to. All of a sudden, the years Al had spent painstakingly piecing together their life would pay off; he had a sizeable amount of written documentation dealing with exactly that, and a lot of it was probably material the prosecutor hadn't a hope to get his hands on.
If only it wasn't all in fucking Resembool.
Al had balked at going, at first. It didn't make sense to spend the better part of two days, maybe more, on the train just for this – couldn't somebody else pick up the stuff? Was he really supposed to leave Ed alone for so long (with Alfons)?
But hey, he was learning. Nobody had to tell him that if the material fell into the wrong hands it would be a disaster. Whoever went had to be a capable alchemist – enough to fight off opposition, if there was, and enough to break through whatever barriers the weather might erect. Al was the ideal choice.
So Al didn't even bother to pack a suitcase, and went. Of course, he stopped by to tell Ed that he was - - picking up some stuff for Harris. He managed to stop himself from admitting what he could never say, that there was a huge blank in his life where his and Ed's journey should have been.
Ed hadn't looked happy, and had told Al to be careful, and said a bunch of stuff about how he didn't like the risks they were taking. Al had asked him if he really expected them to risk losing him again, after he had only just returned. Ed had shut up at that, and looked miserable. Even though Al knew it had been necessary, he still felt like a tool.
Worse, he knew Alfons would be visiting, if not today then tomorrow, and he would cheer Ed up. That thought was enough to set Al's stomach churning, so he forced himself back to the present, and busied his mind with anything he could, as he waited for the train to get going.
Oh god, he had like ten hours of this ahead of him. He pulled out the one book he had brought – Ed's tiny diary from the old days, small enough to fit into a pocket, the bulge of it hidden by the drape of his coat.
Breaking the code had been damnably difficult. Decoding the journal, even once he had figured out the key, was still a difficult task. He wished he remembered watching Ed write in it, wondered how long it had taken to code.
Three hours in, and he was already going stir-crazy. He leaned his head on the window, closed his eyes, and tried to remember. Again. Anything, even the slightest flicker.
There wasn't even a blank in his memory. There was just nothing. One moment he was activating the array with Ed, the next he woke up in an unfamiliar ballroom, Ed was gone, and everybody was six years older.
His eyes opened a bit to watch the dull, snow-covered countryside rush by. Everything had changed in those lost years. So many people knew who he was, and he didn't know any of them. Ed had become a national hero, the government had fallen, cities had been wiped off the map. Winry had grown breasts.
None of it made sense.
And he couldn't help but realize, slowly, that he had lost Ed, too.
Ten years. Ten fucking years since he last remembered his brother, and why had he ever thought they could go back to how they were? He didn't remember how they were.
Now Ed was six years older than him, and he was an adult. He had grown up, Al had been left behind, and Ed had found himself a-
Damn it, that was just what they were saying. Al was only just starting to feel interested in girls, there was no way Ed was...
But wasn't that what happened? People grew up, and paired up, and nothing was ever the same again.
And Alfons really looked like him. And – and – it didn't fucking mean anything, because this was just some stunt to get Ed more visiting hours or something, that was all. It couldn't be anything more, because Al had gambled so much on getting Ed back – friendships, childhood, sacrificed Wrath's life for this, how could Ed not want him any more?
After much trying Al managed to fall asleep, and resolutely woke himself up every time he started dreaming something. He didn't want to know what his subconscious would conjure up.
He got off at Resembool, inconspicuous, since he wasn't wearing Ed's coat. After the mess that was Central, Resembool seemed unnaturally quiet. There were no crowds in the streets, no picketers, no soldiers -
In a shop window, prominently hung, was a sign proclaiming “Free the Fullmetal Alchemist” in bold red letters. Al felt warmer, and sped up.
He tried to avoid people as much as possible, not wanting to advertise his presence. That meant he had to slog his own way from town to the Rockbells', but he didn't mind. It was mindless enough to take his mind off his problems, allowing him to clear his head and just focus on the next snow-ridden step.
The house on the hill was dimly lit with warm lights, and Al was surprised at the feeling that rushed through him. This is home, he felt, deep in his gut.
Nobody was expecting him. He dithered in front of the door, wondering whether he should just walk in, but in the end decided to knock. He didn't want to startle anybody. The door was opened almost immediately by Rose, who looked surprised – and happy – to see him.
"Al!” She stepped aside to let him through. “Come in, you must be frozen, why didn't you call ahead? I'll warm some soup for you-”
Granny was up as well, and for once, Al was content to let them fuss over him. And after he had finished eating, when they wanted information, he patiently answered all their questions.
He hadn't planned on staying the night, he had thought to grab the notebooks and be on the next train out, but when they coaxed him to stay, he didn't resist. It was nice, here, quiet, and felt like home. He crept into a bed that was familiar despite the fact that he wasn't there often, feeling vaguely guilty. It wasn't right that he felt safe and happy away from Ed. It wasn't right that while everybody else was working so hard, and Ed wasn't sleeping, and he himself had things he needed to do, he was lying here, and felt good about it.
It was such a relief to be away from Alfons.
Enough. He had decided to sleep, and he would. Ed wouldn't begrudge him a night of peace. He only wished Ed could have the same.
He left early the next morning, now carrying a suitcase packed with all the information he had gathered about his brother in four years. Somewhere within might lie the information that would save Ed's life. Nobody else was awake yet, so he left them an awkward thank-you note, and quietly shut the door behind him.
As the train ate up the kilometers to Central, Al felt nervousness start to gnaw at him again. He, Winry, and Alfons would be staying with Gracia, and Al hoped it wouldn't suck too much. Mustang had also promised to find him a job in an alchemy lab somewhere, because none of them could afford to deplete their resources any further.
Several times along the way the train was stopped by military blockades. Soldiers came up to inspect the train, walking up and down the cars and giving everybody within the evil eye. Al tried not to attract attention, not meeting people's eyes too much, and let his hair down in the hopes they might mistake him for a girl.
Only one soldier recognized him. He appeared to be affiliated with the UAA (not allies of the ANP, not fully backing parliament either), but paused next to Al, muttered a quick “luck to Fullmetal” under his breath, before hurrying off. Al clutched his suitcase closer, and resisted the urge to smile.
They arrived in Central late, and Al figured nobody was expecting him on this train, so he took a cab to Gracia's. He would have walked, to spare the expense, but it was too far.
On the other hand, when the cab driver saw who he was, he told Al to keep his money, it was an honor to help.
Lights were still on at the Hughes', but Al knocked quietly, not wanting to wake anybody up. After a few minutes, Winry opened the door and gave him a tired smile.
"Gracia's asleep,” she said, “and so is Elysia.”
"Where should I leave the stuff?”
"Take it up to your room, better not leave it sitting around. Are you hungry?”
"I just want to get some sleep. How come you're still up? Did you find a job?”
They spoke softly, Winry following him up the stairs.
"Yeah. I was up with Alfons, he had an attack.”
Al looked at her sharply, worried. “An attack?” He remembered something about Alfons being sickly-
Winry looked surprised at his response, and Al reminded himself that he wasn't supposed to care. He really was tired.
"He was coughing, but he should be better now. I haven't heard any noise from his room.” She paused, then said carefully, “I'm sharing a room with Elysia, which puts you with Alfons.”
It figured. Al sighed. He was so sick of fighting with everybody.
"Yeah, whatever. 'Night, Winry.” He pushed open the door to his designated room, and didn't wait for a response.
A small light was still on in the room, and Alfons was awake, reading. He glanced up idly, then did a double-take when he saw who it was.
Al headed to his bed – the one Alfons wasn't on – and tried to look anywhere but at him. Alfons was undressed for bed, and Al didn't like the vulnerability of him. He looked paler than usual, which fit in with what Winry had said about an attack. Al quashed an instinctive worry, because if something happened to Alfons, Ed would be unhappy.
"Um, hi,” Alfons said. Al didn't trust himself to speak, yet. He didn't want to encourage Alfons, but he was just too tired tonight to snipe at him. He dropped the suitcase on the floor by his bed and flopped onto it, only bothering to kick off his shoes.
"Never mind,” muttered Alfons, sounding resigned. Al swallowed and glanced in his direction. He looked kind of disappointed, which just wasn't fair. Wasn't it enough that Alfons had taken Ed from him? Why did he have to be nice, too?
Because Ed would want him to, and the memory of how much Ed cared about Alfons was still a vivid imprint on his mind. “Sorry,” he said, a bit stiffly. “I'm just tired.”
Alfons smiled a bit before he closed his book and started to mess around with getting under the covers, and Al wondered if they had met under other circumstances, he would like him.
Alfons was still putzing around doing who-knew-what. Al pulled the covers up over his face to block the light out, but it wasn't very comfortable. He peeked over.
Alfons was scribbling in some notebook.
Now he was turning pages in a large library book.
Al closed his eyes.
Alfons put the books on the small stand by his bed, with a thump that was far louder than it needed to be. He turned off the light.
Now Alfons was shifting in bed, making the springs creak. Al stared up at the dark ceiling, and tried to resist the urge to throttle him.
Alfons coughed, and drank some water. Then he shifted around some more. Al buried his head under his pillow.
There was a soft thud; Alfons had apparently knocked something onto the floor.
"Can we get some bloody quiet?” Al hissed.
They were still in the process of settling Ed in his new prison, fortifying the building and setting guard schedules and whatever, so Al had to go to work. Ibis Laboratories was located in the industrial section of Central, and just far enough that Al couldn't really walk there.
And he had to be there at 8 o'clock. He hated having his schedule dictated.
Upon arrival, he could tell that though his new boss knew who he was, he wasn't expecting too much out of Al. Once he got over the initial offense at anybody thinking his skills were average, he decided that maybe this was better. All he wanted was money, he didn't care about recognition or advancements, not for this sort of work. Developing simple, focused arrays for two-bit alchemists had to be among the most boring things ever conceived by mankind.
He wondered what Alfons was doing. Probably something even worse, like waiting tables, or cleaning. The thought cheered Al up, just a little.
By the time his workday ended at 5:00, Al was very much ready to get out of there. Was there any chance of getting paid by array instead of by the hour? With motivation, he could probably do the same amount of work in a quarter of the time. But if Mr. Coram the Asshole found out Al was that talented, there was no way he would agree. They would probably send more work his way, and then he might have to actually expend effort on this stupidity.
On the streetcar back to Gracia's he tried not to contemplate the fact that this had been one day out of what looked to be months. When this was over, he would seriously have to consider signing on with the military or something; at least it wouldn't be so mind-numbingly dull.
The house looked welcoming, lit windows shining into the evening's darkness. He was briefly cheered by the prospect of dinner, until he thought of the fact that Alfons would probably be inside, and he might try being Al's friend again or something.
He was pleasantly surprised to find that neither Alfons nor Winry had returned yet, though the fact that both were out at the same time set up warning lights in his mind. Elysia was ecstatic to see him, and quite a bit bigger than when he had last seen her, about two years ago. Gracia had tried to explain Al's memory loss to her, but she had seemed hurt by the thought that he didn't remember her. Al just pretended he knew her, and left it at that.
At her invitation, he followed her to her room, and made appropriate impressed noises at her drawings – though he didn't have to pretend, she was getting quite good.
The room was far more girly than any Al had seen – pink flowers dotted the wallpaper, the entire room painted in soft, comforting shades of white and cream. He couldn't help but notice the musty, dull-brown books pushed to the corner of her desk, which looked to him like alchemy texts. He thought of asking her about them, but when he opened his mouth she tried to distract him, so he left it alone.
Gracia called Al down to help with dinner, then, which made the whole getting-home-earlier thing a bit less attractive, now that he thought about it. She set him to chopping vegetables, and thankfully didn't ask him much. He wouldn't have known what to say, anyway. The Hughes' were just more unfamiliar people that knew things about him that he himself didn't know.
Winry and Alfons came in together soon after, both of them looking just a bit too happy for Al's peace of mind. Maybe they were working close by, he thought as they all sat down to eat, or maybe Winry had set a place to meet Alfons after work, the guy probably would get lost without help. Or maybe-
"So, Al!" Winry said cheerfully. "I guess you get to work set hours, no surprise surgeries to keep you. How is it?"
What was Al supposed to say? It was the most mind numbing work on the planet?
"It's okay," he said. "I'm probably the best alchemist in the place, so it's not really much of a challenge for me. At least they're paying well." Uncomfortable with the looks he was getting, Al tossed the conversational ball away. "What about you guys?"
Alfons looked at Winry expectantly. She nudged him on the arm, gave him an encouraging smile.
"Oh come on," Alfons said, rolling his eyes.
"You're the new face, I don't have anything interesting to tell," Winry retorted. "First day of work in a new world, what's it like?"
Alfons sighed and looked embarrassed at the attention. "It's very different from the engineering I've learned, but I hope I'll be decent, with time," he said.
To Al, it sounded unpleasantly suspicious.
"He's being far too modest," Winry said, and poked him again. "You have an excellent grasp of the basics, I'm sure you'll improve quickly."
Suspicion confirmed. Al looked between the two of them, and blurted, "Alfons is helping out at an auotmail shop?"
Alfons was building automail, while Al was stuck drawing moronic arrays? It wasn't fair.
"I'm trying," Alfons said, "but I don't really know anything about automail. They only agreed to take me because Winry said if they wanted her, they had to give me a job, too."
Al looked down at his plate. Of course it didn't make sense for Al to learn something else, or run around searching for something interesting when a perfectly good paying job was right there for the taking. But even Winry was on Alfons' side, now, and it felt rather like betrayal.
"It's just a matter of time until you get useful-"
Alfons cut her off. "The only real advances I'm liable to make in automail construction are if you want me to make it fly."
Winry's eyes glittered. "I like that."
Al tuned them out.
In bed that night, Al thought about how… friendly Alfons and Winry had seemed at dinner, and wondered. Maybe Alfons could turn his attention to Winry and just leave Ed alone. That would solve all the problems neatly, wouldn't it?
Al rolled over, disquieted, at the thought of Ed being left. Not… not that it really counted, because this was just a ruse. Nothing but a ruse.
And once Ed was transferred to house arrest, there would be no more private visiting hours for Alfons. Al would make sure that they weren't alone, that Ed saw he no longer needed Alfons.
Al was his brother. For six years he had been enough for Ed. Why did that have to change now?
They fell into a rhythm, of sorts, over the next two days. Al went to work, drew his arrays, returned to Gracia's and tried to avoid Alfons as much as possible. Being a grownup must suck, he thought. No wonder they kept mucking around with the government; they must be going insane for want of excitement in their lives.
The third evening, Mustang showed up at Gracia's, excitement chafing behind his mask of restraint.
"He's settled," Mustang announced. "Visiting hours are every evening from 7:00 to 10:00 pm.
Same in the morning, on days when the trial isn't in session. Limited to up to ten people at once, from a pre-approved list."
Everybody's eyes moved, as one, to the clock on the mantelpiece. It was 7:30.
"Now?" Al asked breathlessly, and could hardly believe it when Mustang nodded.
"You can all come," Mustang added, smiling broadly. "You, too, Gracia. I'm sure he would be overjoyed if you and Elysia were to visit."
So they all piled into the car, which was a bit too small, but nobody cared.
The building housing Ed was heavily guarded. A wall surrounded the perimeter, and they had to pass two checkpoints before they got to the building itself. Mustang's credentials held up each time.
Elysia was practically bouncing with excitement, her face glued to the window.
Inside the building there was still more technicalities to get through. They were searched, and both Al and Roy had their gloves confiscated.
"If you knew they were going to take them away, why'd you bring them in the first place?" Al asked, as they were being escorted further in.
"It makes them feel better when they have something obvious to confiscate," Mustang murmured back.
"What, no condoms?" asked the guard who had searched Alfons. Alfons turned beet red and didn't answer. Al couldn't – couldn't¬ – process thinking of his brother in the same context as Alfons and condoms, but. Ed still deserved respect, and Al found himself glaring at the guard for being so crass.
The guard didn't get the hint. "For twenty cenz I can get you some!" he called after them.
Alfons tried to continue as if nothing had happened. Up ahead Al could hear Elysia: "Mom, what's a condom?"
They had to sign a document stating they would in no way be involved in anything illegal, trying to break Ed out, smuggling in anything Ed wasn't permitted, disturbing the peace, drawing arrays anywhere in the apartment, etc.
It almost amused Al, because he knew that if they set their minds to it, none of these soldiers so busy posturing could stop them from getting Ed out of there.
Another quick check, their names were written down again, next to the time of entry, and they were ascending the final flight of stairs. Two guards flanked the door on the landing at the top. Two locks and the door was open – to another door, and this was getting really fucking ridiculous. Then the last heavy door swung aside, and this was it.
Stepping into Ed's apartment was startling. Al wasn't what exactly he had expected, but it certainly wasn't hominess. A small sitting room greeted them, furnished with mismatched brown sofas, decorated with the occasional plush cushion. A serviceable carpet was on the hardwood floor, both of which had seen better days. The adjacent dining area actually sported a vase of cheap silk flowers. The 'posters', however, had definitely been put up by the guards, and Al frowned in disapproval. Those would have to go. Besides, Ed apparently didn't like girls anyway-
He cut off the thought in abject horror.
Past the decorations, though, the signs of a prison were still obvious. Aside from the four guards lounging about the room, who had shown greater alertness since the group had entered, there were other things – like the heavy bars on the one visible window. Then Ed came rushing in, and Al no longer cared what the place looked like.
"Who is it?" Ed asked eagerly. He moved with a confidence Al hadn't seen since his return. The surroundings were evidently already familiar to him. "Who came?"
"Everybody," Al said, and couldn't help but grin at the excitement on his brother's face. "Me and Winry and Mustang-"
Ed was already moving, reaching to identify them all by touch, and the sound of their voices. Al got a hug, and was slightly discomfited when Alfons did, too. Ed was obviously happy that Gracia and Elysia had come. Elysia stood solemnly while he inspected her features with quick fingers and exclaimed over how she'd grown. Al caught the moment of pain on his face – remembering Hughes? Wishing he could see her? He would probably never know.
"Sit down!" Ed said, herding them towards the sofas, waving his hands around more than necessary. "Guards, budge over. You can lurk by the walls or something."
The men moved, looking mostly tolerant. A far cry from Ed's treatment at the prison, though the basic dynamic was the same. They humored Ed, because they had all the cards, and Ed knew it. The display of bravado was empty.
There were a few moments of shuffling for seats, and Al was pleased with himself when he managed to sit next to Ed, Elysia on the other side, and Alfons was left watching wistfully from across the coffee table. They swapped stories and jokes, and for a time, things felt almost normal, despite Ed's occasional too-loud laugh, or strained smile. Later, Ed showed them around the rest of the small apartment – the windowless room where he slept, whose layer of fresh paint didn't hide the seamless concrete walls, the bathroom. No cabinets were permitted, no place he could hide anything. His few clothes lay on shelves in plain view. At least his room had a door that he could close. The kitchen boasted what appeared to be a permanent guard, and the cutlery was all numbered and chained to various surfaces. Even the spoons.
They needed to get Ed out of here. It was a vast improvement, and Ed was doing his best to project utter, intense happiness at their visit, but that made it no less wrong. They were still treating Ed like a potential mass murderer, and it was a fucking insult.
The clock kept ticking, far too quickly for Al's peace of mind. 10:00 o'clock came rushing, and the soldiers showed no tolerance for keeping people around after hours. Ed didn't protest, but Al didn't miss the sudden tension in his shoulders when people started getting up to leave.
"Brother," he said, touching Ed on the arm, and waited until his face turned towards him. "I'll be back tomorrow morning. I can read to you for a while, before I have to go to work. Okay?"
Ed flashed a smile, and perked up a bit. He shoved Al a bit, and nodded. "That's… that's good."
Al stood by him as everybody else left, close enough that Ed could feel his presence when he brushed against him. Alfons looked between the two of them helplessly for a moment, but Al kept his face blank and guileless. Eventually he gave up.
"Goodnight, Edward," he said. His hands twitched, as if he would touch Ed, but under Al's gaze he didn't dare.
"Bye, Alfons." Ed tried to smile. "You'll come back tomorrow?"
Alfons' eyes flicked over to Al, then back to Ed. He swallowed. "Yeah. Of course."
"Automail, huh? Can't believe Winry roped you into that."
"It was the easiest to arrange on short notice."
"But do you like it?" Ed asked anxiously.
There was only the slightest hesitation before Alfons answered. "It's good enough for now."
Al was relieved when the guards got tired of them, at this point, and booted Alfons out, Al on his heels. Alfons shoved both hands in his pants pockets, and shot Al a look of satisfying resentment, which Al ignored. He had learned something valuable. No matter what they might say to the newspapers, when Al was around, Alfons wouldn't touch his brother. From now on, he vowed to himself, he would always be around.
On the way out he passed by Mustang, who had stayed behind to corner the guards' supervisor.
"- and by the time any of us comes back here, those damn pinups had better be gone," Mustang snarled, his fury barely contained. "Or I will know who to hold responsible."
That moment, as Al stood watching his fury, fury for Ed's sake and what had been done to him, he decided that Mustang was okay. Mustang might not be forthright about it, but he was fighting for Ed every inch of the way. Mustang had always hoped that Ed would return. He could be trusted.
Al didn't know what Mustang saw in his face that made the colonel raise a questioning eyebrow at him, but he gave a short nod in response, and the corners of Mustang's mouth curved into a tight smile.
They headed out, side by side.
"I trust you'll keep an eye out when you visit tomorrow morning?" Mustang murmured.
"You'll be the first to know," Al replied.
All that evening Alfons was irritable, and Al just waited for him to explode. He wouldn't mind giving his stupid double a piece of his mind, but the opportunity never presented itself. Alfons swallowed whatever-it-was, the spineless idiot. He was still obnoxiously loud before finally falling asleep, and by now Al was pretty sure he was doing it on purpose. Nobody could be that clumsy.
Getting up early was no problem when he had a visit with Ed to look forward to. He even lucked out – Alfons had a bad night, and couldn't drag himself out of bed.
In Ed's apartment, a few tears in the wallpaper were the only signs of yesterday's posters. When they saw that Al was alone, most of the guards left, which was all the better in Al's opinion.
He found Ed zoned out on one of the sofas. "Brother?" Ed didn't move, staring blankly into space, until Al gently shook him.
"Al! When did you come in?"
"Just now." Al sat down next to him. "You're just sitting here. What do you usually do with yourself?"
Ed looked embarrassed. "I was waiting for you. The guards got sick of telling me what time it was, so I figured I'd just wait out here."
"As opposed to where? Your room?"
"Yeah." Ed lowered his voice, leaned closer to Al. "I hate being out here. I keep feeling like the guards are watching me."
Al looked over at the one guard who was, indeed, watching them.
"They're kinda creepy," he admitted. Ed leaned closer to him, rested a hand on his shoulder as if to reassure himself Al was still there.
"You're not going to deny it?" Ed asked, sounding a bit amused. "For, I don't know, my peace of mind or something?"
Al was suddenly uncertain. "Should I have?" he asked, an uncomfortable pounding in his chest.
"Nah." Ed flopped back, and looked sort of happy. "'Sides, I knew it."
Al looked between his brother and the guard. "I could punch them for you," he offered. "Maybe then they'd stop."
Ed's smile broadened. "Ah, I missed you."
Al flushed with pleasure, warmth spreading through him.
"But better not." Ed's voice was still light, but tenser now. "You're going to have to leave at some point."
One day, Al vowed to himself, Ed would be fearless once again. And when Ed was free, he would deal retribution on every single fucking guard that dared hurt him.
On to part two