Al pushes the door open slowly, careful not to push too hard and rip the hinges out. In his free hand he carries a bowl of water and a soft cloth; he can't take his eyes off it, worried that he might spill. Balance is difficult. It takes three steps (one-two-three) to reach the bed, and set the bowl on the little table beside it, and a further one to the window, to tug the curtains aside and let light into the room. He imagines it must be stuffy in here, the air thick and musty, and so he opens the window slightly.
Ed still hasn't moved when he returns to the bed, but his eyes are open a slit. Al wishes he could smile for his older brother as he dips the cloth into the water then wrings it out, draping it over his brother's forehead; instead he settles for saying, as gently as he can, "Good afternoon, brother. How are you feeling today?"
Ed just closes his eyes, and after a few seconds Al can tell he's fallen asleep again. His rest is not peaceful—his breath hitches, his brows draw together; and, whimpering, he pushes at the blankets with his remaining leg. Al can only tuck them around him—Ed will catch a cold if he takes them off completely, his immune system is shot to hell—and stroke his brother's face with the back of a gauntlet; the cool metal seems to help, however, and Ed's thrashing slowly calms.
Al stays by his older brother's bedside for a long time, watching Ed sleep. He doesn't really notice when it starts to get dark; only when Winry nudges the door open, a bowl of lukewarm broth in her hands. "How is he?" she asks, coming to stand beside him.
"No better," Al tells her, truthfully, and she frowns.
"Lazy bastard," she says, and then sits on the edge of the bed. "Ed. Ed, wake up. I've got food. Ed, come on. You know you need to eat." Ed's eyes open very slowly, and Winry presses the back of her hand on his cheek. She hisses between her teeth and dips a spoon in the broth, pressing it to Ed's lips and tilting it until he opens his mouth. "Al, get the cloth," she says, as some of it spills over his cheeks, and Al carefully wipes the mess away.
He watches her spoon-feed his brother with a growing sense of anger. Ed's eyes are dull, flat and listless, and he makes no effort to feed himself. "How long is he going to be like this?" he asks, helplessly.
"I couldn't say," Winry replies; she doesn't meet his eyes, and concentrates on giving Ed the last spoonful. "He's catatonic, Al. There's a fair chance that he'll never... you know."
Al tangles his hands in the sheets. "He will," he says, firmly. "He's my brother. He'll make it."
Winry grins at him and puts the spoon back in the bowl. "Yeah, of course he will. He's Ed."
Al suddenly wants, more than anything, to be able to smile back at her; but then, looking at Ed, he finds himself wishing that he could cry.
Winry hates this apathy. Ed is getting better, now; she visits him on the Tuesday of the second week to find him sitting up in bed, looking out of the window. His expression is wistful and something else, something she can't name, and Winry dislikes it immediately. "Hey there, Ed," she says, climbing onto the edge of the bed and putting a tray on his lap. "I bought food. What're you looking at?"
"Al," Ed says, hand closing around an apple. His eyes are still dull and empty, and Winry frowns at them before she leans forward to see outside, too, one hand pressed against the glass for balance.
Alphonse is hanging up the laundry; he said he wanted to be useful, so Granny dumped that task on him straight away, and he's tall enough. Den sits patiently by his feet as he folds the white cloths and carefully hangs them up. Winry winces—there's still blood on one, even though this is something like the twelfth time it's been washed. It's stained a dark brown into the fabric, and Winry knows from personal experience that no amount of scrubbing and soap will remove it. "He's moving so well now," she says softly, and forces a smile she doesn't feel before sitting back on her haunches. "How are you feeling?"
"My arm hurts," Ed says, after a pause, and reaches for one of the sandwiches. He only nibbles on the edge before dropping it, however.
"Whereabouts?" Winry asks, hands hovering around the bandages covering his right shoulder.
"My wrist," Ed tells her, and pokes half-heartedly at the discarded sandwich. Winry reaches out to massage his wrist, and he shrugs her away—not irritably, though it would be better if he had. This lack of emotion is distinctly unnerving. "Not that one. The other one."
"Ed..." She begins undoing the bandages, refusing to let any of the things she feels show. "You lost your entire right arm. What you just felt is called a 'ghost pain', that's all."
Ed jerks, but then just seems to fold in on himself. The last of the bandages come off, and Winry leans forward to inspect the stump. "It's healing," she says softly. "Give it a few more weeks. It's scabbed nicely, though."
Ed doesn't answer, but his shoulders shiver once, sharply, as if he were suppressing a sob he wouldn't acknowledge even existed.
Sometimes Al takes him down to the river, if the weather's nice and Auntie Pinako says 'yes'. At first Al carried him there, wrapped in a blanket; but then Ed picked up a cold, and Al stopped for fear of killing his brother by contact with his cold metal body. He still carries Ed up to bed every night, but is always careful that he's been warmed in front of the fire first. Ed hates that, and wants to tell him that it's nothing to worry about, it's not his fault—
—but he can't look at Al for very long, let alone talk to him. He hates looking at that fierce, cruel helm that serves as Al's head, hates the little voice inside that whispers you did that to him at night, when he should be sleeping but can't because the ghost pains hurt too much.
His little brother. His little brother. The one who trusted him, looked up to him, blindly followed him to his death. He's the worst older brother that could ever be, Ed thinks; he should have just let Al die, then bled to death himself shortly after, rather than doing this to him, preserving him for a lifetime in a steel prison.
Al doesn't blame him for it, of course. Sometimes Ed wants to yell at Al to shut up when those leather gloves tuck a blanket around him, when Al's voice, gentle and compassionate, scolds him to be more careful.
But all of his emotions are muted, now, as if felt through a veil, and he can't bring himself to care overly about anything. He knows his apathy distresses the Rockbells and his little brother; Al has sat by his bedside many a time, urging him to get up, speak, do something rather than just lie there and wait for death to come upon him. And if he could be motivated enough to answer, Ed would say that that is not what he's doing.
But it is, and Al knows it, and the sight of Al's huge grey body reminds him every time.
That same Al is settling him now into a wheelchair, wrapping the thick plaid blanket over his legs. "Winry says it's a sweltering day outside, brother. You probably won't need this, but we'll take it anyway, okay?" Al's voice is overly cheerful, bright and loud as if he's trying to make up for the lack of conversation on Ed's behalf. Ed doesn't say anything; he's tired, and just wants to sleep, doesn't want to see that unsmiling face.
Al smoothes his hair down—he's already brushed it, going slowly, careful not to pull too hard—and sets his hands on the wheelchair's handles. "Do you think I should pack lunch, brother? It's such a lovely day—oh, what's happening?"
The dog is barking furiously outside, though Ed can't hear anything that should worry him. A sudden rap at the door, however, makes Al start and Winry poke her head of the kitchen, though Ed is still unresponsive. Auntie Pinako frowns, wiping her oily hands on a bit of cloth, taps her pipe out, and opens the door. "Stop being noisy, Den," she scolds. "Be nice to the guests—"
Whatever she is about to say is interrupted when a man in the Amestris military uniform barges in, tossing some half-hearted apology over his shoulder. Al makes a worried little noise, and Ed raises his head a little. He's been found out, he thinks, and knows he should feel something other than a sharp pain at the thought of Al being taken to a laboratory. The death sentence, he knows, is too good for him; but it's what he'll get, and that's okay. All that matters is that his little brother is alright—
The man catches sight of him and draws himself up, and Ed can read the disgust, revulsion and pure fury in his face. Abruptly he feels guilty—he defied the laws of god, and the man has obviously seen what he did to his mother, the mutilated, twisted form—
The strange soldier moves swiftly, crossing the room and grabbing Ed by the front of his shirt, tugging him half-out of the wheelchair before Al can stop him. "We went to your house!" he snarls. "What the hell is that mess? WHAT THE HELL DID YOU MAKE?"
What did he make? He made a mockery of everything that alchemy stands for. He made a perverted mess of his mother, a creature of flesh and blood and bone, a shapeless form that wheezed and choked and died before him. He made a ruin of his brother's life. Al, mom—he fucked it all up, and just lost two goddamn limbs in doing so much damage.
Al makes a little noise, one he's learned is meant to be a startled gasp. And that's wrong, that Al has to rely on sounds like that of a human body since he doesn't have one of his own—
And through the barrier of apathy there comes an emotion he hasn't felt since his mother died: grief. It bubbles up inside him and he can feel his face falling, furiously beats back tears with more energy than he's felt in a long time. He will not cry in front of this soldier, not even when he's put under arrest and hauled off. He promises himself that; this man will never see him cry.
Al gently grips the man's wrist, prying his fist from Ed's shirt. "Sorry," he says, softly. "Please forgive him."
The look the soldier gives his little brother makes Ed think, then, that maybe, just maybe, he won't be arrested after all.
"You will get these privileges if you become a State Alchemist," the man says solemnly, "However, in return, you are bound to follow military orders. Then you're able to access information that average people cannot get. You may be able to find something that would help you return to normal."
Pinako—still in her nightgown and slippers, and looking colder than Al had ever seen her, had seated the man at a table in the workroom; his assistant and Winry had been ushered gently away. Al isn't sure what to make of this man, with his haughty face and blue uniform. He's an alchemist, or so he says: and that makes Al even more suspicious. What kind of alchemist would let them keep what they've done a secret? But Ed—Ed had responded to this man; Roy had managed to break through the apathy. In Al's opinion, that made him worth listening to.
Still, there were a few things he was suspicious about. "But I thought alchemy is for the public?" he asks, and Ed stiffens almost imperceptibly under his hands. Al doesn't feel it—only notices that his hands shift on his brother's shoulders.
"That is correct," Mustang replies, brushing dust off his uniform sleeve. "Thus we are called dogs of the military."
Pinako fiddles with her pipe, resting on the table in front of her. "Are you sure that these kids are skilled enough for State Certification?" she asks, picking it up and drawing a breath from it.
"Yes," Mustang says, firmly. "The transmutation array found in the Elric household, and the subject of human transmutation..." He pauses and looks up at Al, seeming not cowed at all by his new fearsome body. "And the ability to transmute a soul; there is no doubt."
Pinako's expression pinches, like it always does when she finds something she doesn't like. "Lieutenant Colonel Mustang," she snaps, tone clipped. "After this boy came in all bloody, I want to their house to see what had happened." Al had suspected as much; he doesn't remember much of the first night, but he does remember that once Ed's bleeding had stopped or at least slowed, Pinako had left Winry in charge and had vanished. Al had been scared, convinced Ed was going to bleed to death while she was gone; he remembered Winry smacking him upside the head with her favourite wrench, insulted that he didn't think she could handle it.
"That... I buried it in the back of the house," she continues, and Al gasps. He can't help it—but it's a relieved gasp, all the same. That thing... he and Ed had created it, after all, and he's glad it got a proper burial, rather than simply being left there, in their basement, alone and un-mourned. Pinako's next words, however, jolt him back to reality. "That... that wasn't human at all! A method of creating such a monstrosity? Is that what alchemy is?"
Roy folds his arms over his chest, scowling, and narrows his eyes. Pinako, incensed, jabs an accusatory finger at him. "YOU! You want to take those kids along that path again?!"
There is a long silence after her outburst. She lowers her hand, and Mustang's expression eases, though his does not unfold his arms. "Mrs Rockbell," he says, calmly. "I am not trying to force them to do anything. I am only stating the choice! To live your life with despair and a piece of armour for a brother, or to sell yourself to the military for the possibility that you can recover!"
There's another long silence. Pinako takes a drag of her pipe, and Mustang's shoulders relax. "It is your choice," he says to Ed, almost gently, and Al watches him, surprised. "That will be all for today," Roy continues, pushing himself to his feet. He shrugs his coat on without looking at either the Elrics or Auntie Pinako, and then digs into his pocket. "If you decide to come to the headquarters in East City," he says, holding out an envelope and a small square of paper to Al, "this should be helpful."
He pushes open the door and his assistant—a young blonde woman—joins him, tucking her coat on. He says something to her, but Al doesn't catch it, his attention concentrated on Ed. "Brother, I—" he starts to say, crouching down in front of his brother.
"Al!" Auntie Pinako interrupts. "Go hang the laundry up. Winry, you help him."
"But Auntie, brother—"
"Alphonse," she says softly, "Your brother has been given a lot to think about. Let's leave him to it, okay?"
"... Okay," Al mutters, bunching his hands into fists. With a last glance at his brother, sitting alone in his wheelchair in the middle of the floor, he closes it behind him.
He sits still for a long time after they leave, golden eyes focused and determined for the first time in what feels like years. His single hand clenches on the arm of the wheelchair, and he lowers his head, grits his teeth.
There is hope.
There is hope and he concentrates on that, lets the feeling spread inside him, filling him. Someday, he will reverse the damage he has done. Someday, he will watch his little brother and see bronze eyes, honey-coloured hair and a smile that melts the hardest of hearts.
Someday soon, he will join the military; he will wear his leash like a good dog, carry his collar with him on the end of a silver chain. He will do it, for Al.
To join the military, he knows he will need fully-functional limbs. He eyes the cut-off of his shoulder, and frowns. His eyes fall on a cane of metal, leaning against the far wall, and he grins slowly.
Before he can learn to stand on two legs, he should learn to stand on one.
It's easier than he thought it would be, pushing himself up off the wheelchair. He overbalances; lands hard on the floor as the wheelchair tips over with a crash. He doesn't dare move for at least a minute, cautious of his brother coming in and finding him like this; but when that doesn't happen, Ed half-crawls, half-stumbles over the floor like a wounded beast until his one remaining hand can close around the top of the stick. Okay. Easy part over and done with.
He staggers up, kneeling on the floor, and takes a deep breath before scuttling back to the table. Gripping the cane in his teeth, he latches onto the bars of the back of one of the chairs before slowly, using muscles he hasn't needed for weeks, he climbs into the seat. He pauses to take a deep breath, and winces—he's hopelessly out of shape; Izumi would gut him for that if she wouldn't have already gutted him for attempting human transmutation—and then digs the end of the cane into the floorboards. It takes a lot of fidgeting until he can get his leg into a position to allow him to stand, but he does so, and as he thought, it's easier to go from the chair than it would be from the floor.
For a moment, he wavers, and that's enough to send him sprawling on his rump on the floor. He lets go of the cane in surprise, but then grits his teeth. Damn, did he think it was going to be that easy?
He manages it on his third attempt, wobbling a little on his leg and half holding the cane and half hanging off it. He feels insanely proud, and instantly curses himself for it. Moron. Standing doesn't really mean a thing; he should do something more.
His eyes climb, by chance, the long staircase leading up to the upper floor, and his bedroom. Al carries him up and down it, normally, holding him tightly—but not tight enough to hurt. There's no way he could get up or down in the wheelchair, and Winry and Pinako aren't really strong enough (and in Pinako's case, tall enough) to help him up them even now he can sort-of stand. There's a railing going up the side, within reaching distance of, say, a ten-year-old with only one leg. Over time, Granny has put pictures up on the walls on either side; Winry, Ed, Al, his mother, Winry's parents, and that one photo of their bastard father he'd gotten in trouble for breaking the frame of when he was five.
If I make it up the stairs, he tells himself, hobbling over carefully. If I make it up the stairs, I'll ask Winry for automail.
He falls over on his first attempt, barking the stump of his leg painfully against the bottom step. It brings tears to his eyes and for a moment he doesn't want to move, wants to wait until Al comes and picks him up. Then he shakes his head, no. He is Edward Elric, not some sort of useless cripple. He can do this. He made a promise to himself, and it's one which he intends to keep. He picks himself back up—drags the chair over to the foot of the stairs to make it easier—and starts again.
On the second step up, he has to discard the cane. He does so reluctantly, clinging tightly to the railing like it's his lifebelt in a stormy sea, and very carefully, climbs up onto the third step. He trips on the fifth, and slides back to the second; bangs his left leg again, and this time blood oozes slowly through the scab. He prods at it, but when it doesn't resume the frantic gushing he remembers from that night in the basement, he dismisses it. It's only a little bit of pain, he tells himself, worthwhile for the greater goal. Kind of like the automail.
He makes it up to the eighth step the third time, and when he falls bangs his jaw and his shoulder, landing heavily on the left arm. He grits his teeth and grins up at the staircase. "Okay then, you bitch," he promises. "I'm gonna beat you."
When Al comes home two hours later, a battered and bruised Ed—blood still dripping from a half-dozen cuts, and from his shoulder and his leg—is waiting for him at the top of the stairs, grinning fit to burst. "Brother!" Al cries, hands going to the sides of his helmet in his surprise. "I—what—huh—what the hell happened? And—you're not catatonic? Brother, what's going on?"
Ed mildly swings his good leg, still grinning—and is he laughing? Al thinks, indignantly. It sure sounds like laughter—the movement displaying the large bruise on the calf. "I kept a promise," he says. "Hey Al, could you go fetch Auntie and Winry?"
"Why, brother?" Al asks, a sinking suspicion growing inside him.
"We need to discuss automail," Ed says bluntly. "Aww, don't give me that look, Al—I'm gonna get your body back, even if it kills me."
"Don't say things like that!" Al blurts, and Ed blinks at him. "Up until now I—I was sure you were going to die, going to wither away and just—leave, and I don't want that, brother! I don't want you to die for me! I wasn't the only one who lost something—your limbs! I'm going to get them back, and you'd better not die until I do!"
Ed stares at him for a long time, before his face breaks into a huge grin. "Is that a promise?"
"Yes!" Al stares back up, and for the first time, Ed realises he can read Al's emotions. He can see his little brother glaring back up at him, eyes narrowed, shoulders tense, hands clenched into fists and indignant fury on his face.
"Okay, then," he says with a sigh. "I'm still getting the automail, though. This State Alchemist thing sounds like the best option, right? And I think we can trust that Mustang guy."
"O-okay..." Al replies, slowly. "If you have to..."
"Yep." Ed pushes himself off from the top stair, shuffles down the staircase step by step, and grabs his cane from the floor. "Ow. Now come on—"
He doesn't say anything when Al helps him up to his feet; only smiles when his little brother puts a protective arm around his shoulders.
And the next day, lying back against the pillows, every muscle tense as Winry and Pinako begin digging around with the nerves in his leg—he doesn't let go of Al's hand.