echo

Rose looks at him sometimes, and thinks she knows why his brother loved him so.

He’s always careful with her son, with the dog; he’s always so studious when he’s helping Winry or Pinako, and there is a light in his eyes that reflects the same sun that gave his brother’s eyes their color.

Sometimes she looks at him and loves him for it.

And other times she remembers the smile on Ed’s face when he sent her away; she remembers looking at him and feeling her voice strangle in her throat again, stifled as it had been for so long. She wanted to tell him, she remembers, that he is why she did not give in to despair and slit her wrists when she first realized she was pregnant; she wanted to tell him that his words have resonated in her, more strongly than any of Cornello’s teachings.

Winry has told her that she’s very transparent; that she cannot hide anything because her face is an open book. Rose does not believe this is true — because Ed looked straight at her when he told her to leave, if only for a moment, and he saw nothing.

Or, perhaps, he was blinded by the sun that melted the wax of his wings. She will tell her son this story, when he is old enough to understand.

Sometimes, she looks at Alphonse and hates him for the pieces of his brother he still carries. His face is not as sharp as Ed’s, and his eyes are duller, bronze rather than gold, and though the sun is bleaching his hair, it’s still not the same. His movements are slower, smoother; his grace is less unique, less sharp-edged and himself.

Sometimes, she looks and she hates the fact that Ed loved him enough to leave them both.

It is raining today, and that is a strange thing; Liore was too close to the southern border of Amestris to have that much rain, but here in Rizenbul, there are true seasons, rebirth and life and fading and death. Rose stands at the window and places her fingertips against the cold glass, breathing fog.

The door opens, and she looks up, and sees Alphonse standing there, dripping wet and cradling something in her coat. Surprised, she turns to him, and he gives her a wry smile — he knows she hates him sometimes, she thinks, and he forgives her for it.

He is better than her for that.

“Rose,” he says, and winces as the wind blows, cutting through his wet clothes. “Can you get me a dry towel, and warm up some milk?”

“Milk?” she says, surprised. “Why –”

A small mewl cuts her off, and she sees a small, sodden head lift up from the folds of Alphonse’s coat. A kitten, she realizes, barely larger than two of her fingers put together, its eyes closed and its ears plastered to its small head, moving its head blindly in the air.

“Rose, please,” he says. “Milk –”

She moves before he can finish, going to the icebox and opening it; there is only half a bottle left; Alphonse drinks it more than he does water. She knows, from what Winry has said, that Ed hated milk.

For a moment, Alphonse disappears down the hallway, without bothering to shed his shoes in the process. He leaves large wet footprints behind him. She looks at them a moment, then pours milk into a saucer and sets it on the table. When he returns, there is a towel draped over his head, and two in his hands, bundled around the kitten, who is mewling and struggling weakly; she can see the way the folds shift in Alphonse’s hands.

“He’s really young,” Alphonse says, bumping a chair out with his hip and sitting slowly. “I don’t know if his mouth can open big enough for this.”

She drifts closer, not quite to his side, watching as he places his burden in the crook of one arm and dips a corner of the towel in the saucer. “Where did you find him?”

Alphonse gets milk on the kitten’s nose. It squeaks at him, and he carefully blots it away before trying again. “Down the hill,” he says. “In Brother’s old tree fort. We were building it at the time Mom died.” He looks wistful for a moment, as though yearning for the years that have passed since then. “We were going to finish it when we got her back.”

There is nothing Rose can say to that. She watches him try to feed the kitten, and sees a parody of herself with her son, when she was first brought to this tiny village, to live with these people. Alphonse is not more successful than she was, the first time she tried to breast-feed her son; the kitten is sluggish, and does not respond well.

“Should I go fetch Auntie?” she asks, softly. Alphonse looks up, startled, then wry.

“Yeah,” he says. “She’ll probably know how to do this better. Den was a stray, you know.”

“I thought he was a present.”

“He was that, too.” Alphonse gives up on trying to feed the kitten, and leans back in the chair, chafing at it gently, trying to keep it warm. “We found him and brought him home, and it was Winry’s birthday, so her parents said she could keep him.”

She says nothing. After a moment, she turns and walks for the door, and out into the rain. It’s cold against her skin, which shocks her for a moment, and she pulls her shawl tighter around her shoulders as she walks.

Winry will be angry, she thinks. Winry is often angry at them in small ways, like a proper mother would be.

Without knocking, she opens the door to the Rockbell Automail Garage, and stands there for a moment, not speaking. Winry is working on a custom-order — an arm for a child, lost in a car accident, with delicate tiny fingers and fragile mechanisms. And though Winry’s eyesight is perfect, she still has to use a magnifying glass for this, hunched over the table. She looks up at the cold burst of air, and almost drops her screwdriver. “Rose! What are you doing — god, do you want to freeze to death? Come on!”

Rose lets herself be drawn into the workshop proper, only half-listening as Winry closes the door behind her, fussing. “You need to take better care of yourself; you’ve got to stay strong so that your son won’t worry, and Al’s too young, we can’t ask him to look after you while we’re working –”

“Alphonse found a kitten,” she says softly. “It’s very young, so –”

“He what?” Winry is brought up short for a moment, then grumbles, raking fingers through her hair; it pulls the bandanna free. “Oh, damnit … give me a moment to finish up here; I’ll go back with you.”

She hesitates, shivering a little in the cold now, watching as Winry starts putting tools away, and then the little arm, laying it carefully in its small box. In six months, she has learned a little about how these limbs work, how they attach to the docks and how someone must remain conscious as the surgery is performed; she knows that water will not slow automail down as long as it is properly maintained — and she knows Ed was always careless with his.

It is strange, she thinks, as she accepts the coat Winry gives her, watching as the other girl ties up her long blonde hair. It is strange, how she is learning pieces of this boy who has destroyed and rebuilt her life into something entirely new.

They walk together in the rain, huddled together against the wind. Winry bangs the door open, and also neglects to take her shoes off as she stalks over to the table. Alphonse looks sheepish, shrinking back a little in his chair.

“Al,” Winry says, in a tone of long-suffering patience, “you can’t just bring home every stray you find! We don’t have the room for all of them –”

He looks sad and small, very young. She looks at him and wonders what it would have been like, if he’d been restored to his true age, with the memories of the years he’s spent traveling and bodiless. Most of the time, she believes it’s the greater kindness that he does not remember; the rest of the time, she wants to see him understand, truly, what his brother has sacrificed.

“He’s so little,” Al protests to Winry, when the scolding ends. “Look at him, Winry, he shouldn’t even be away from his mom, but he was all alone –”

For a moment, she continues to frown sternly, then softens, and hitches one up onto the table, reaching out to ruffle his still-damp hair. “Let me see him,” she says. “You go get dried and change.”

“Yess’m,” he says, then ducks when she swats at him. Winry takes the kitten from him and sets it in the crook of her arm, against her breast, then uses the tip of her finger to stroke the top of its tiny head. After a moment, it stirs and whines at her, its tiny head nodding in the air.

“Look at you,” she says quietly, then looks up. “It really is too young to be alone. Rose, can you warm the milk for me?”

Rose startles, then nods. Winry watches her, and sighs, still stroking the kitten’s head. “His heart’s in the right place,” she says, watching the kitten move. “But he … he’s still a kid, now. Sometimes, I think that the memories are there, he’s just … he doesn’t want to remember, and so he doesn’t.”

She stares down at her hands, and sees they’re shaking. “I wouldn’t want to remember, either,” she says quietly. “I don’t want to remember what I do.” The mad dance, Ed’s blood, his farewells, and coming back to find a frightened little boy, five years too young and unable to remember anything beyond his failed experiment with his brother.

“It’s not your fault,” Winry says, and she startles again, looking up. Winry is watching her with sad dark eyes, even as she continues to stroke the kitten’s head. “There’s no one on earth who could change Ed’s mind, when he was determined. Al could, but only sometimes.”

Rose presses her lips together, looking down at the stove. She has forgotten the saucer at the table. “I don’t blame myself,” she says. “I just wish things were different.”

Winry is quiet, but she hands the saucer to Rose when she comes back to the table. “I used to, too,” she says, and Rose pauses, and tries not to let her hands shake. “I used to say, ‘I wish they’d never left, I wish things would have stayed like they were,’ but …” She touches a finger to the tip of the kitten’s nose and it mewls. The sound is very loud.

She puts the milk into a pan, turns it on. When Winry remains silent, she licks her lips and says, “But?”

“… But, I think that if they’d stayed, things might have been worse.” Winry looks up as footsteps clunked from upstairs. “If Mrs. Elric hadn’t died, or Ed and Al hadn’t left, and nothing changed. I’m glad things happened for a reason beyond Ed getting bored of being here and going. I’m happier this way.”

For a moment, she wants to say she isn’t, but then Alphonse comes back, with dry clothes and his hair toweled into spikes, almost running as he skids in. “Is the kitten okay?” he blurts, and nearly trips over himself as he stops beside Winry; his body is still too young to have grown into its grace. “I mean, it’s still alive, right? Why aren’t you feeding it?”

“We’re warming up the milk, Al.” Winry rubs the kitten again. “Do me a favor and run to the study and grab me one of the smaller syringes, all right? We don’t have a bottle, so we’ll just have to make do with what we have.”

Alphonse nods, and bends quickly enough to examine the kitten, to ascertain for himself that it will be all right, and dashes off again. Winry looks like she might scold after him for a moment, then sighs and leans back in her chair.

“Besides,” she says, “Ed is gone, but he’s not … gone. I don’t think he could do what he did and then just … be gone, like that.” She waves vaguely in the direction Alphonse went, and rubs the kitten again. “I don’t think he’d go away without at least seeing Al was fine.”

Rose says nothing as she turns off the stove, and transfers the milk back to the saucer. She balances the dish carefully between her fingers because the ceramic is hot now, and walks slowly, setting it down by Winry’s elbow. Alphonse comes back in, breathless, and gives Winry what she asked for, hovering over her shoulder and watching with anxious, keen eyes as she fills the small stopper and very carefully teases it into the kitten’s mouth.

“You know that if we’re going to keep this, you’re the one who’s going to have to take care of it, Al,” she says. “Granny and I are busy when we’re working, and a kitten this young needs lots of time and attention –”

“I’ll do it,” he says quickly, with the enthusiasm of the young. “I want to help. I can’t just put it back where I found it, Winry, it’ll die.” His eyes are not the same bright gold as his brother’s, but they hold a similar intense conviction. “I’ll take care of it, I promise!”

Rose watches him, solemn and determined, and wonders at the sort of man he will grow up to become. His brother was a man of dedication — is a man, she corrects herself fiercely, is, because he can’t be dead, not now — but Alphonse is gentler, with his hands so careful as Winry gives him the kitten, so very careful as he takes the small tubing from her, and lets her direct him on feeding the kitten on his own.

When the kitten takes its makeshift nipple, he positively beams. Rose wonders if Ed ever looked like this as a child, if he ever smiled so, as though the most precious thing in the world rested in his hands.

Winry glances up and sees her face, and smiles quietly. There is old exhaustion in her eyes, from long ago — from the days when Rose first came here to Rizenbul, and Alphonse was terrified and lonely and woke screaming for his brother every night. There is hope in her still, Rose thinks; she does not merely think that Ed is still alive somewhere, that he is finding his way home even as they stay here and wait — she knows, in the heart that has known both Elrics since childhood.

Rose wishes she could know, too. She wishes that she could open her eyes and turn the morning, and know, someday, she will see Edward Elric walking down that road — perhaps older, perhaps wiser, but still himself, and he will open his arms for Alphonse, and for Winry, and if he sees Rose there … well, maybe he will even have a smile for her.

“I’m going to name him Edward,” Alphonse announces.

Winry looks startled, turning to him. “–what?”

“Look at him,” Alphonse says, and shifts the kitten a little. It is dryer now, and its coat is a soft, fuzzy peach-gold. “It’s the same color as Brother’s hair. “Don’t you think?”

For a moment, Rose and Winry look at each other, and then at Alphonse, who is earnest and waiting for their approval.

“Edward’s a good name for a cat,” Winry says slowly, and something wry is in her eyes and the twist of her mouth, like she’s found a peculiar kind of humor in it. Rose thinks, that despite his role as a dog of the military, Edward was always suited more to a feline nature, coming and going as he pleased, loyal to only a paltry handful. “When your brother comes home, we’ll have to give him a different nickname, so we can tell them apart.”

Alphonse beams at that, at the implied idea of keeping the cat, and, Rose is sure, the idea of his brother coming home. He’s already imagining it in his head, of introducing Edward to Edward, bright-eyed with possibility. Rose wonders if her son is in his daydreams — perhaps walking by then, with a better vocabulary than several dozen garbled word-sounds. She wonders if she has any hope of being there herself.

–She’s sure she does. This is Alphonse, and his kindness is instinctual as breathing.

He’s a sweet boy, she thinks, watching him. He holds the kitten so carefully — he held her son so carefully — and it’s like his tiny body still has the memory of his larger, clumsy one, which could easily crush glasses with little effort.

Sometimes, Rose looks at him and thinks she knows why his brother loved him so.

And other times, she knows she hates him for it.

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