It's dark when he opens his eyes, and for a moment he flutters on the verge of panic. It's only heightened when he realizes he has eyes to open, and when he raises his hands they brush the rough cloth and then the smoothness of his chest plate. His lips part, slowly, and he raises his hand to touch them.
He can feel the roughness of the ridges in his skin; feel the contrasting softness of his fingertips. His chest rises and falls, faster and faster, then stops entirely as he concentrates on breathing rather than letting it come naturally. Suffocating, helpless and trapped, he nevertheless winces when the chest plate is ripped away and two strong hands, one flesh, one steel, plunge into the cavity, securing him in a firm grip.
The light is blinding, the feel of air on his face new and terrifying, and Al flinches from the noises in the air, the clamour and chaos of people dying. His brother curses between his teeth as he wraps Al up in his bright red coat, holding him in his arms, and Al is surprised to discover that his body is older, and fits tightly into his brother's chest. The fabric of the coat against his new-old skin is both reassuring and scary, but Ed's presence is comforting, and when his brother begins to move—running, Al thinks, with one hand over his back to usher him along too—but the hood of the coat has fallen over his eyes and he's too afraid of what he'll see if he moves it, yet the motion is soothing. Despite the distant screams, the thick, almost-unfamiliar scent, the frightening newness of his body, he lets Ed's presence lull him to sleep for the first time in five years.
He awakes in an airy hospital room, Ed by his side. The fingers of his brother's living hand drift slowly and gently through his hair, but Ed is engaged in a vicious and bitter fight with Mustang, voice low but filled with venom. Opening his eyes, Al can see Mustang standing by the window, and his first thought is that he doesn't remember seeing the man in such a state before. He's pale and unshaven, eyes rimmed and dark as though he hasn't slept in a while, and has one arm bound tightly to his chest in a hospital sling.
"Fullmetal," he says, and yes, his voice sounds flat and exhausted. "I am merely pointing that it should be perfectly fine for you to leave Alphonse in order to feed yourself. I am not interested, at this point and in my condition, in discussing your future career."
"And?" Ed growled, his fingers speeding up in Al's hair with his agitation. "Maybe now's the perfect time, you bastard. I did what I said I would six years ago, and I don't see why I should stay in this fucking worthless organisation any longer than I have to."
"It's not that easy, Fullmetal," Mustang says patiently, his calm tone a striking contrast to Ed's snarl.
"Then *make* it that easy! Tell them I'm dead, or injured, or—"
"Do you think that would work?" Roy takes a step closer to the window, so that the bright light silhouettes him, makes Al wince, then turns back. "Good morning, Alphonse."
His ruse works; Ed dismisses him—with a harsh, impatient rejoinder that he isn't finished yet—and devotes his attention to his brother. Al distantly hears the door closing behind the man, but Ed doesn't seem to notice, the fingers combing through his hair drifting down to cup his cheek. "Hey," Ed says gently, and Al smiles hesitantly. "How is it?" his brother asks anxiously, concern in his bright-gold eyes, and Al is struck by how much Ed has—has changed, from the ten-year-old he was when Al last felt his touch. Suddenly he has an inkling of how much they've lost, and he reaches up awkwardly with hands that feel far too small and strange to take Ed's hand in his.
"It's fine," he says slowly, because Ed is still waiting for an answer. He licks his dry lips, a little startled by how different his voice sounds, and smiles weakly up at his brother. "It's a bit scary, and a bit confusing, but it's fine."
"It shouldn't be," Ed mutters, face falling, and Al lifts himself up awkwardly as Ed takes a deep, shaking breath and looks away from him. "It's your body, it shouldn't have to be like this," he says, hand sliding out of Al's to scrub at his face.
Al blinks, unsure of what to do, but eventually reaches up and hesitantly pulls Ed close. Ed goes willingly, burrowing into Al's shoulder, arms tight around his back. Ed is warm, Al thinks, but harder than he remembers, and it's not just the automail. The hair that brushes against his face is soft, but not clean—Ed smells of sweat and dried blood, of dust and dirt and smoke. Despite this, Al nestles his face into the top of Ed's head, and under that layer of scent lies another; one that he remembers from when he was young and scared, and crept into Ed's bed to be held after a nightmare or—after mom died, when they were alone save for each other. It's the smell of his brother that Al remembered when he forgot the feeling of soft hair and a face quirking into a smile under his hands.
"Brother," he says quietly, his hands settling nervously on the tip of the braid, pulling the thin black hair tie loose, "thank you."
Ed raises his head and blinks at him, and Al idly combs his fingers through that golden hair, shaking strands around Ed's shoulders. "For what?" Ed asks, and Al smiles fondly up at him.
"For everything," he says softly, and Ed's smile is light and hesitant, like the first rays of sun after a heavy thunderstorm. Al touches his brother's lips, more out of curiosity than anything else, and feels them curving as Ed's smile deepens.
"You have nothing to thank me for," he says lightly, and cuts Al off as he begins to shake his head. "I can never give you back the years that you lost, the part of your life you missed, but I can—I can try to make it up to you. I've done nothing that needs your thanks."
"Brother," Al says with a quiet frown, but Ed's expression is too fierce to argue with. Instead he sighs, lacing his arms around Ed's back and pulls him back into a tight embrace, rubbing his cheek gently against Ed's ear and revelling in the warmth and strength of his brother.
The bit of sky he can see beyond Ed's shoulder is bright blue, littered with heavy rain clouds turned the same purple shade as a fresh bruise. The sunlight reflects off the clouds, burning them the brightest gold, and though it is almost painful to view, Alphonse doesn't turn away. For all it hurts, the scene is beautiful, and he smiles quietly against his brother's skin.
Al doesn't like it when Ed leaves him; he said as much, but Ed merely smiled and brushed a few strands of his hair out of his eyes and said, "I'm not going to be long. I just need to talk to some people." He left Al with a bowl of soft peaches and promised not be longer than half an hour, but that was three quarters of an hour ago. Now the peaches are all gone and there is still no sign of Edward; Al sits on the edge of the narrow bed, his fingers curling into the pale green hospital gown. His mouth feels dry, and he is relieved when he hears Ed's distinctive footfall in the hall outside his room—even through the boots, the metal foot makes an odd sound against the tiles of the hall.
Ed seems weary and dejected when he finally opens the door and slips inside. Al moves to embrace him and trips over feet he forgot he had, but Ed catches him before he can fall, helping him back onto the bed and taking a seat beside him. "So. I went to see your doctor and Mustang," he says quietly, and Al bites his lip, shifts closer.
"What did they say?" he prompts when Ed doesn't seem to want to continue. He captures Ed's metal hand in both of his, chafes the cool steel until Ed yanks it away with an irritated noise. Al is hurt, but doesn't let it show, instead leaning softly into Ed's metal shoulder. Ed sighs and grumbles a little, but his metal arm snakes over Al's shoulder, and he puts his cheek to Al's temple.
"The doctor said you'll be discharged sometime over the next few days," he says eventually. "Mustang said I'll be lucky if they discharge me anytime in the next few decades."
"... Oh," Al says quietly, curling his fingers into fists. "But—surely there must be some law which says you can leave if you've been there for a certain amount of time? Something?"
"Nothing," Ed growled, flesh hand striking the flesh thigh above his automail. "I'm entirely at the mercy of the brass, and as far as they're concerned, I'm useful. There's no way I can be officially discharged."
"That's stupid," Al complains pitifully, and Ed blows out a long breath, nods agreement. His eyes are not focused; Al knows he is planning something and uses the opportunity to thread his fingers through Ed's metal ones.
"I think I should run," he said eventually. "The pair of us. Go somewhere far away, like Xing maybe, or Drachma or Creta—" He climbs to his feet, Al releasing him reluctantly, and begins pacing. His ire builds as he walks, and Al drops his hands into his lap and watches him. "—because to be honest, those goddamn BASTARDS wouldn't even KNOW a wanted criminal unless he danced in PURPLE LEATHER right underneath their noses, absolute PRICKS that they are—and let's face it, we only keep them around because THEY'RE NOT MUCH GOOD FOR ANYTHING CONSTRUCTIVE—so we could probably get away if we just didn't tell anyone where we were going, because those POINTLESS, USELESS FUCKERS don't have the BRAINS to ask the RIGHT PEOPLE where the HELL we've gone—-!"
"Brother," Al said softly, "it's not a very good secret plan if everyone in Central knows about it."
Ed's mouth closes with a click. "All right," he says grudgingly. "But what do you think, Al?"
Al ducks his head and thinks for a couple of minutes, then looks up. "Would you really do it?"
Ed nods, and grins. "What, you thought I was joking?"
"No, I..." Al bites his lip, and tries again. "Would you really—would you really leave everyone we know behind? In the dark? Without knowing where you've gone or how you're doing? Just abandon them like that?"
There's a touch of guilt in Ed's frown, but when Al catches his eye, he nods solemnly. "I would. If you asked."
Al's mouth opens and he just blinks at Ed, for a long time, struck by Ed's not-so-subtle confession of just how much he means to his brother. "You'd just walk out on our teacher, if I asked?"
"Sure," Ed said with a shrug. "That wouldn't be so hard; she knows we can look after each other."
Al swallows around a sudden lump in his throat, then asks hesitantly, "And... even Winry?"
Ed flexes his automail, but smiles. "It'll be a bitch to look after this thing without her, but yeah, if you want. Just say the word."
"I... " Al's heart constricts, and he has to fight back tears. Ed blinks in astonishment before scooting closer, cupping Al's face in his hands and gently thumbing them away.
"Hey now, what's wrong? C'mon, Al, you can tell your big brother," he murmurs, smiling that lightning-smile in which his teeth glint white and his eyes are kind. His touch is soft, so soft, even with the automail, and Al leans a little closer, face breaking into a slow grin. "That's it, Al." Ed stops wiping the tears away and tilts his head forwards, bumping his forehead against Al's. He grins too, and his breath smells like strawberries with a faint trace of chocolate.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," Al says, and the grin widens, though one of Ed's eyebrows curves slowly upwards. "No, seriously, brother. You don't have to give me that look. I'm fine. It was just a bit... overwhelming, hearing you say you'd give up everything, all your friendships and your allies and—everything—for me, that's all."
"Oh, Al," Ed said, rolling his eyes. "You should've already known that." It is probably coincidence that it's his automail he tightens into a fist and knocks gently against Al's shoulder, but Al's smile wavers. Ed blinks again, and then curses his judgement, drawing the hand away; but before he can get very far, Al grips it tightly.
"I know, and believe me, I did," he says. "I knew you were prepared to give up anything to get me back. I know you thought you had to—you thought you owed it to me, when really, you didn't—but the fact remains that you would have. I am glad, and thankful, and endlessly relieved, that you didn't have to lose anything this time, brother." Still holding the automail hand in his, he presses the back against his cheek, frowning at Ed as he does so.
"I should have," Ed said quietly, looking away. "I should've lost something. I got off so lightly, for what I did to you—"
"Brother!" Al scolds, and Ed's attention snaps back onto him, gold eyes wide in surprise. "Don't even say it! I'm not going through this again. I love you, you should know that. It hurts me to think that you don't know me enough to know that. I have never hated you for what happened, and I thought you understood. It infuriates me, to see you and know that you have to keep your automail—something which I always felt was just as much an unfair punishment as my own loss was. Why? Why couldn't you get it back?"
Ed's voice, when he confesses, is very, very quiet. "When I restored you," he says, voice practically a whisper, "I had the chance to get my arm and leg back. I... I didn't. I don't deserve them—"
Al slaps him. The sound echoes through the room, and for a while all Ed can do is splutter, metal hand pressed to his cheek. Al winces and flicks his own smarting hand; Ed's cheekbone is hard and sharp, and his skin isn't used to such treatment yet. Nevertheless, he is furious, and Ed cringes from the light in his eyes. "Idiot brother," he snarls, and Ed flinches. "I told you before to stop blaming yourself. I said it was just as much my fault as yours. I told you, and you carried on! You moron! You absolute idiot!"
"Al—" Ed tries, and Al narrows his eyes. Ed licks his lips and goes quiet, eyes downcast, his expression that of the guilty, the meek, those quietly designated to their punishment. Al sighs and sweeps him close, holds him tightly and presses his face into the side of Ed's neck.
"I love you, you imbecile," he says softly. "I'm going to get you your arm and leg back no matter the cost, and you are not stopping me, because damn, Ed, you deserve them."
"Al, I—" Ed's throat works as he begins to speak, but Al shakes his head, cutting off another argument before he can give voice to it.
"Ssssh. It's okay. You were going to give up everything to get my body back. Your arm is my responsibility. I will see them restored, but don't worry, you won't lose me. You will never lose me."
Ed takes a deep breath but doesn't argue further, wrapping his arms loosely around Al's back.
Al is discharged three days later. He has no belongings yet, but Ed lends him his coat to wear until they can get out of the hospital and into the military car he already commandeered to take them back to the dorms.
Al feels like an invalid, leaning heavily on Ed's metal arm as they make their way down to reception. Every now and then he falters, trips and falls, and it's only Ed's reflexes that prevent him from taking a nasty topple down one particularly long staircase and breaking his neck. He hisses between his teeth when they move off the carpets lining the halls and onto cold concrete; Ed smiles at him and tells him he's going fine, not to worry, just keep walking. As they pass an exceptionally large window along the second floor, Al trips for the third time. When Ed helps him up, Al can't help but think that the fresh autumn sunlight glittering through the glass makes his brother look younger, brings out the gold of his eyes and hair. He can't take his eyes off Ed's face as Ed helps him up, and his brother has to snap his fingers and wave a hand in front of Al's eyes before he stops staring. "Sorry," he mumbles, but Ed's grin is light and tolerant, and he shifts so his arm rests along Al's back.
"Don't worry about it," Ed says mildly. "There's another staircase along here, and we should be able to go all the way to the ground floor. You up for it?"
"Of course I am, brother," Al sniffs with mock haughtiness, and Ed laughs.
They reach reception without any more mishaps, and Al is thankful, at least, that Ed doesn't seem to have noticed him staring like a schoolboy with a crush. He leans on the faux-marble counter as Ed signs a few documents and bills, then Ed escorts him to the entrance. They can see the car, a sleek black thing with the driver—Jean Havoc—reading a paper which he's sprawled across the wheel and absently flicking a cigarette out the window, but it's on the other side of the main road. Al looks down at his bare feet, but Ed pushes him down onto the steps spilling from the front of the building and kicks off his own boots. As Al watches he pulls his socks off—thick, woolly things Gracia Hughes knitted for him. She made some for him, too, Al recalls, and smiles. He'll have to thank her when he finally gets to wear them. "Put these on," Ed says unnecessarily, holding the socks out. "My boots won't fit you, but these should be thick enough to get you across the road."
"Aa—thanks, brother," Al says, fingers fumbling on the top of the socks. Ed doesn't offer him help with this, understanding that some things you need to learn on your own, but offers Al a hand to help him up again.
Jean flicks the cigarette through the window when they get in, and nods at them in the rear view mirror. "Morning', boss, Alphonse," he says, folding up his paper. "Dorms, right?"
"Ah—yeah, thanks," Ed says distractedly, closing the door behind him.
They're mostly silent as the car slides like a slick black shark through the streams of downtown traffic. Al can see Jean's eyes flick to look at him in the mirror several times, and he bites his lip and hunches small in the seat, one hand automatically fumbling for Ed's. "So, how is it?" Havoc asks eventually, and he wets his lips and thinks before answering.
Ed is watching him, he knows; he gives the hard metal of his brother's hand a gentle squeeze and says, "It's good. It's very good," in as noncommittal a tone as he can manage.
"Yeah?" Havoc says, and grins. They hit a traffic light, and he fumbles in his pocket for a cigarette, clamping in between his teeth and reaching into his other pocket for his lighter.
"You're not smoking that thing in front of Al," Ed warns, and Havoc puts the lighter away with a long-suffering sigh. "Eh, don't complain. It's bad for you and everyone around you, including my little brother."
Jean's eyes flick to meet Al's in the mirror, and he grins at Ed's unconscious mother hen display. Al smiles back, while Ed looks out the window.
The car pulls to a halt in front of the dorms and Jean waits for them to get out, leaning out of the window. "Boss," he calls, and Ed turns towards him. "The Colonel says he'll call you when things have settled to discuss your situation. He says he thinks he can work up a compromise."
Ed nods slowly, and Jean rolls up the window. The car growls, then purrs, then slides away from the kerb. "Knowing Mustang, the 'compromise' is a desk job," Ed mutters, and Al grins at him.
"A desk job would be enough for me," he says, resting his head lightly on Ed's shoulder.
"Eh. I guess. But he'd fob all his bloody paperwork on me and you wouldn't see me anyway, since I'd be doing insane amounts of overtime to try and shift some of it—"
"As long as you're not travelling back and forth, brother, I'm happy," Al says firmly, closing his eyes.
Ed opens his mouth to say something, pauses, and then smiles. He raises his living hard and rubs softly through the fine hair at the nape of Al's neck, and he almost purrs, nuzzling closer. "You're exhausted," Ed accuses, and Al cranks open an eye.
"I didn't want to say anything, but... yes, I am. I'm not used to muscles being involved when I walk. Give me a moment and I'll be ready to try the three flights of stairs up to the dorm... "
"You're not going to be able to make them. Come on, and I'll give you a lift up there," Ed says with a sigh.
Al laces his fingers around Ed's neck as Ed hefts him up onto his back, supporting his thighs with his hands. He nuzzles into the space between his brother's shoulder blade and automail port; Ed smells of hospital soap and pine air freshener, oil and metal and paper as well as his normal scent, and it is this scent which relaxes Al enough to persuade him to close his eyes and sleep, to let his brother support him.
The next morning he wakes between cleanly pressed military-white sheets, Ed curled around him, his breath whistling through his nose—which someone broke for him on a military mission when he was thirteen. Al sits up and considers his brother, who growls sleepily and tries to pull him closer again. Ed's hair is bright gold and slips off the pillow; his face, in sleep, is calmer and softer. He sleeps with his automail arm buried underneath the pillows, and—yes, his stomach is exposed again. Al smiles fondly as he goes to tug the shirt Ed didn't bother to take off last night back down, only to pause at the sight of sleek golden skin, criss-crossed with white scars. He glances up at Ed's face, but his brother is still sleeping deeply and doesn't so much as twitch when Al touches the smooth skin of his belly with cautious fingers. He watches Ed's face nervously as he scritches, though he can't imagine why; it's not like he's doing anything wrong, merely touching the brother he's not been able to for so long.
Edward's skin is not as soft as it was when he was ten, and the scars are new and hard. Al frowns at them; he's never been comfortable with Ed's scars, but that's because he's generally there to see them inflicted—the knife slashing across his back, then the blood and then the bandages and stitches and other things afterwards, while Ed sits there as though it's nothing and tells him not to worry. He's always been like that, even back while he was having the automail installed—sat on the operating table with wires punched through the clotted ends of his stumps, metal drilled into his flesh and bones, and told Al that it was only a minor thing and maybe he should go out with Den and visit mom's grave while his elder brother was in surgery today.
He bites his lip and scratches lightly across one scar, and almost yelps and falls off the bed when Ed purrs with pleasure and stretches idly. "Mornin', Al," he manages through a yawn, voice still thick and groggy. "How'd you sleep?"
"Fine, brother," Al replies hesitantly, drawing his hand away, but Ed grins at him sleepily and closes his eyes again.
"Mmmm. Good. Oh, that felt good, don't stop," he warns almost petulantly, and Al smiles and continues scratching his brother's stomach. "Mmm. That's niiice. Aaaah."
"You're like a cat, brother," Al says fondly, just as the phone begins ringing. Both brothers spare it a glare from the bed, neither wanting to leave the little sphere of warmth for what would be undoubtedly Mustang's 'compromise'. Roy shows no sign of giving up, however, and after a minute or so Ed growls and wriggles out of bed, padding slowly across the room to unhook the phone and mutter a greeting.
Al sits up and watches the exchange, hands resting idly in his lap. His brother has a habit of pacing when he's on the phone, and he does so now, one moment toying with the receiver, the next drumming his fingers on the closet door, the next examining the back of the hideous portrait of King Bradley that came with the dorm. As soon as they saw it, Al had turned it face against the wall, and Ed had merely snorted in amusement and let him.
Ed hangs up after fifteen minutes or so, returning to the bed and sitting on Al's right. "What did he say?" Al asks mildly, reaching out to snatch an old comb off the little table by the bed. Ed doesn't object when he begins to run it through his hair, though they both know Al isn't coordinated enough to braid it right now.
"He is offering me a desk job," Ed mutters. "Hawkeye dredged up some antique position, State Alchemist liaison officer blah blah blah. Basically it means that I'm responsible for all the state alchemists in the damn military that aren't enlisted; I sign off their research accounts, supervise their assessments and certification tests, the works. Automatic rank of Colonel and you know the best part?"
Al drags the combs through Ed's hair and follows with his fingers; the gold is soft and sifts easily between them. "Mmm?"
"I've only got to work three days a week," Ed says with a cocky grin, and Al blinks at him then lets his face break into a huge smile.
"That's wonderful," he whispers, dropping the comb to cling to his brother's back. Ed laughs good-naturedly, reaching behind his own shoulder with his living hand to ruffle Al's hair.
"I thought you might like it. There are a few downsides, though."
"Oh?" Al asks, raising an eyebrow and steeling himself.
"Firstly," Ed says, mildly, "We can't stay in the dorms anymore. I shouldn't be here anyway, it's for enlisted men; officers and alchemists get houses either entirely of their own or provided by the military. Tomorrow I'll go to my savings fund and see whether we can afford a house of our own—makes sense that way. Can't be evicted if discharged, after all."
"That sounds fine," Al says quietly, though his mind is busy dwelling on the prospect of a house, a home, for just the two of them. It takes less than a minute to decide he likes the idea.
"Secondly, on any one of my days off, weekends included, I have to be ready to basically jump when they call me."
"When are they likely to do that?" Al asks, frowning.
"If a case like Tucker's comes up," Ed says quietly, tilting his head away. "I have to be ready to detain alchemists who have done something illegal, and I have to be ready to turn up on the scene of murders both which may have been done alchemically, or of which an alchemist was the victim."
"Oh," Al says softly, and they were both thinking of Scar, he knew. "But—-?"
Ed shuffles around until they're face to face, and Al rests his hands on his brother's cheeks, feels Ed's mouth quirking into a smile, and pulls him forward so their foreheads are touching. "But what?" Ed asks, his grin bright and cheerful, and Al grins back and says, "But nothing. I'm fine, as long as I've got you."
Their new home is wonderful, a four bedroom detached house at the end of a quiet suburban road with an enormous back yard stretching into open land. It was being sold at a knock-down price because the roof was falling in and it's a bit far from the city centre, but in half an hour, with the raw materials and his alchemy, Ed fixes the first problem and doesn't care about the second. Al wanders through from room to room under Ed's watchful gaze, star-struck and content. He babbles with ideas for decoration, for restructuring the house, and on their first night creeps out of his own bedroom and into Ed's to shake him awake with ideas of converting it into a conjoined alchemical bookstore and practise. Ed grumbles that he just wants to sleep and Al lets him, but when he wakes up the next morning Ed's already demolished the walls between the dining room, living room and the hall to create one big space, and is just getting started on the kitchen.
The next few weeks—when Ed isn't at work—is spent in a flurry of workmen, carpentry, shopping for fabrics and electrical supplies. Ed's good, but even he can't convert a house into a shop floor with additional flat by himself. Nevertheless, by the end of the first month, the books start arriving from suppliers all over Amestris and beyond; Ed pounces on a crate of rare tomes from Creta and vanishes upstairs with them, promising he'll help Al put them out when he's learned how to read Cretan. Al chases him upstairs and wrestles the books back, while Ed howls and clings onto them for dear life. Halfway through the struggle, the crate breaks, and the contents end up spilled over the floor; Ed moans and drops to his knees, scrabbling for the precious books and strokes their covers as he piles them up—almost as if to soothe them. Al can't see straight for his laughter, though Ed doesn't talk to him for the rest of the day.
It takes six weeks from moving in to opening time, but, Al thinks as he surveys the product of his hard work, it's worth it. He's moving easier now, things like walking, talking, eating and breathing coming naturally to him, though he is still fond of physical contact. He doesn't think that will ever change, not least his desire to touch Ed, to run his fingers over Ed's skin and hair. Ed doesn't seem to mind, though, so he's happy to let things remain as they are.
The opening is a success. The name of 'Elric' carries a great weight with even non-alchemists, and even though most are disappointed to learn that he is not Edward but rather his brother, they still offer him their alchemical problems. Al listens carefully and examines the arrays they produce for fundamental flaws, researches alchemical signs, reserves books and sells books and buys books, and collapses into bed at night next to Edward feeling perfectly content.
A month after opening, a telegram arrives for Edward. It simply states 'TRAINDEPARTINGFORNORTHCITYATTWELVETOMORROWSTOP REQUIREDFORTHREETOFOURWEEKSSTOP RESOLVINGFEUDBETWEENBRINEANDARTIFICIALSTOP REPORTTOGENERALAVERSSTOP BETHEREMUSTANGSTOP'.
"Um, what?" Al says, examining the thing over breakfast. He's never really actually seen a telegram before, though he knows what one is, and it's confusing. Ed sighs and snatches it off him, painstakingly finishing his mouthful of toast before offering an explanation.
"My train is departing for North City at twelve today, I'll be there for three to four weeks, I'm resolving a feud between the Brine and the Artificial alchemists, I have to report to General Avers and Mustang sent the damn thing."
"I thought they weren't sending you on any more outside missions," Al snaps resentfully, and Ed takes another bite of toast before answering.
"So did I."
"Can you refuse it?" Al pleads, and Ed blinks at him. "I don't want you to go, not for this long. Not for any amount of time."
"I know, Al, but believe me if it were that easy I'd've done it ages ago—"
"I don't want to be apart from you," Al says quietly. "I told you that day by the lake, remember? I don't ever want to be separated from you."
Ed runs a hand through his hair. "Yeah, I remember. And I don't like being away from you either, Al, but it was in the conditions of the job—when they call me, I have to obey. I'm still the Fullmetal Alchemist as well as your brother."
Al pushes his breakfast away, his appetite suddenly gone, and says quietly, "Can't you at least try? You're the one with the desk job; they have no right to send you out of the city like this—-? I'll go with you, you know I will."
"Al." Ed says, his face stern, but it relaxes slowly. "Come on. You know the answer to that already. Come and help me pack."
Al drags his feet behind him as Ed makes his way into the bedroom, pulling his suitcase from the top of the wardrobe where they thought they could leave it forever. They haven't bothered doing the laundry in a while, and dirty clothes are piled all over the floor; Ed toes them out of the way, picks up a few and sniffs them, and stuffs them in the suitcase. Al leans on the door frame and watches him quietly, bronze eyes shadowed. Ed's packing is haphazard, and he has to unpack in order to fold everything and put it in neatly. "I wish they wouldn't do this," he says quietly, and Ed sighs, snapping the clasps on the suitcase shut.
"So do I, Al, so do I. Believe me, I don't want to go, but the best I can hope for is that I get there and it's relatively simple; I smash their heads together, throw them in jail for a while if they deserve it, and go home. Trust me; I'll do my best to get back here as fast as possible."
"I know you will," Al says with a small smile. Ed passes him in the door way, pauses to cup his cheek, and grins.
"You gonna come with me to the station?"
"Aa, yeah, of course, let me just grab my boots and coat and lock the shop up." Ed waits by the door as he does so, draping a small 'closed' sign over the door handle before stuffing his hands in his pocket and trotting out after his brother. They don't talk on the journey, but they walk so close to each other their shoulders brush lightly against one another's. Ed seems withdrawn and quiet, and Al wonders if he's already planning what he's going to do with the two squabbling alchemists.
The ticket is waiting at the station, and the train is due to arrive in three hours. Ed takes a seat on one of the benches and Al sits beside him; they cross their arms over their chests and don't look at each other, until Ed sighs and shifts up the bench to drape an arm around Al's back. "Hey," he says quietly, and Al drops a hand onto his knee. "You know I'll be back. Nobody can keep us apart for long."
"I know," Al says with a sigh, then smiles at Ed. "But don't be too long, brother. I've got three copies of Dawson's combined essays coming next week. They might be all gone by the time you return."
"Dawson? 'Theories on the soul', that Dawson? AL! His books were banned until five years ago, and you know how hard I've been trying to get hold of one—-!" Al smiles cheerfully at him, and Ed presses a metal hand over his eyes and takes a deep breath.
He doesn't need the books to be sure that his brother will always return to him, but it doesn't hurt to have a little bit of insurance.
He's waiting on the station when the train comes back in, two and a half weeks later. It's early December and tipping down with rain, and his umbrella and coat are not really sufficient, but he doesn't mind. The train screeches to a halt, and his brother is one of the first ones off, red coat huddled around him and a magazine held over his head. He blinks when he sees Alphonse, but ducks under the umbrella and takes a deep breath before launching into a rant about how Al shouldn't be waiting out here in these conditions, he'll catch a cold or worse pneumonia and die, and then where will he be, hmm?
"Six feet under, I should imagine," Al says with a perfect poker face. Ed freezes mid-rant and blinks at him, then scowls and stuffs his hands in his pockets.
"Yeah, yeah, go on, make fun of me, why don't you," he grumbles. "Mmph. I'm hungry."
"There's a cafe just outside which sells a wonderful sausage roll," Al says sweetly, and Ed eyes him suspiciously before nodding.
Ed eats his sausage roll at the counter, while Alphonse leans next to him with the rain dripping off his folded umbrella and watches him. "So, how was it?" he asks eventually, and Ed scowls through his mouthful of pastry.
"Brine was, quite frankly, a fucking nutjob," he says. "The entire feud was because Brine thought Artificial was sleeping with his wife, when in fact Brine never even had a wife. I confiscated his watch and referred him to North HQ for psychological evaluation. Not that Artificial was much better—It's not a very good idea to wind up your local neighbourhood mad alchemist, especially one whose talent lies in creating tidal waves. Very localized tidal waves. And then sending your fucking animated statues and whatever after said lunatic alchemist? Really not a good idea. By the time I got there the entire town was three feet under water and filled with waltzing statues. I put Artificial under house arrest and told him I was having a really bad day and if he tried to escape, military representative or fucking not, I'd tear his goddamn balls off and feed them to him. Seemed to work, too."
"So... overall, mission success?" Al asks, and ducks from Ed's light-hearted swipe with his automail. "You don't look so good, brother," he says with a frown as he notes the rigidity of the movement.
"Brine resisted confiscation," Ed says with a grimace. "Really resisted it. Fucker has a hard head. And he bit me when I held him down with the automail and tried to get the watch off the chain around his neck. Prick. I had to knock him out before he stopped trying to kick my head in."
"Ow," Al says with a sympathetic frown. "Let's get home, brother. The hot water's back on and the bathtub and kettle have arrived. Oh, and what do you know? I do have a copy of Dawson left."
"Al, you are the best brother in the world," Ed says with a happy sigh, and Al grins at him.
"Oh, you took that title a long time ago," he replies lightly. "I just try to keep up."
"Mmm," Ed says with a disbelieving expression, but he knows better than to argue with Al on this, and they step out of the cafe together.
The rain stops as soon as they reach their street, which just makes Al snort and fold his umbrella up with a tragic sigh. "Figures," he grumbles, but cracks a small but proud smile at the small queue of customers waiting outside the door. He knows Ed's smirking at him as he unlocks it, but can't bring himself to care.
While Al deals with his clients, Ed wanders upstairs and begins to run himself a bath. He makes his way into the kitchen—formerly the second bedroom—and puts the kettle on, taking two mugs out of the cupboard for himself and Alphonse. The rain has started again, he notes out of the window, and sighs, unsurprised.
He takes Al his coffee before getting in the bath. His brother is deep in discussion with a young woman over the use of a particular set of sigils in a particular array; Edward stays long enough to decide that the woman is pompous and overbearing, and only came to Al to have him agree with her. What's the use, he thinks, of asking for someone's help if you're not willing to listen to what they have to say? Before he can butt in, though, Al passes him a slim tome with the words 'James Dawson; Theories on the Soul' inscribed in gold leaf on the spine from its hiding place under the counter. Ed makes a small noise of awe and vanishes upstairs, petting the book's cover lovingly before leaving it on his desk to be read when he got out of the bath. He undresses in the bedroom, sweeping up all the stray clothes and emptying his suitcase before dumping them in the laundry basket. He'll deal with them later, he thinks, but knows that 'later' tends to mean 'sometime next week'.
His muscles ache like a bitch, and he massages his automail port almost absently as he gets in the bath. The warm water will help, but even so, he makes a note to find the ointment Winry gave him at his last appointment and apply it. Liberally. He plucks the hair tie out of the end of the braid and unravels it with the fingers of his living hand; settles into the water and leans back in the heat and the steam with his eyes closed. God, that feels good.
It's still raining outside, though the rhythmical pounding of the water hitting the roof and gurgling down the guttering is somewhat soothing. He smiles and drifts into a light doze, too tired to help himself.
He isn't aware of time passing except by the water cooling. The rain doesn't let up, and the water is tepid when Al comes into the bathroom, yelps, and drops his book. Ed blearily opens an eye and is surprised to see that it is dark; night comes early in December, he knows, but surely not that early... ?
Then it occurs to him that he is in the bath and thus very, very naked, and that Al is backed up against the wall with both hands over his eyes and blushing furiously as he babbles apologies. "I'm sorry, brother, I thought you were done—-! I'm sorry! I knocked and you didn't answer! I didn't—-!"
"Eh, it's okay," he says sluggishly, closing his eyes again. "I was sleeping, didn't hear you. That's all."
"You fell asleep? In the bath? That's not like you, brother," Al frowns, and overcoming his embarrassment pads closer and presses a hand onto Ed's forehead. "Brother, you're burning up! I'll fetch the thermometer, but I don't think you're working tomorrow. Get out of the bath and get dry and get into bed, you understand?"
"Don't want to," Ed replies quietly, feeling too exhausted to risk raising his voice. Al slips an arm around his back and pulls him upright, resting his cheek against Ed's temple. "Cold. Let me go, Al, I'm gonna put some more hot water in—"
"No you're damn well not," Al says with a scowl, plucking the chain and yanking the plug out. He winds it around one of the taps and drops a soft clean towel in Ed's hands. "Get in bed, now," he warns, diverting his eyes as Ed stands reluctantly and wraps the towel around his hips before stepping out of the bath. Al's cheeks are still bright red, and Ed smirks weakly as he brings his hands together and lets the water clinging to his skin and hair evaporate into steam.
He falls over after five steps, and Al yanks him up by his living arm and half escorts, half drags him into bed. He tucks Ed up tightly and heads into the kitchen for the first aid kit they keep under the sink; returns with the promised thermometer and a bowl of gently steaming chicken soup. He leaves the soup on the bedside table as he slides the thermometer underneath Ed's tongue and watches it carefully. Ed moans weakly, tossing and turning, and shivers violently, curling into a tight foetal position underneath the blanket. Al removes the thermometer, looks at it, looks at Ed, leaves and returns with a bucket, before wrestling off his jeans and shirt and sliding underneath the cover with his brother. He presses himself along Ed's body and instinctively Ed uncurls to latch onto him tightly, nuzzling into his shoulder with his eyes squeezed shut.
It's too hot underneath the blanket. Ed really is burning up, and the heating seems to be on full and the blankets on fire. Al is sweating within minutes, but although Ed's bare skin is burning, he still shivers. Idly Al snakes an arm around Ed's waist, pulling him closer, and Ed twitches and mumbles sleepy thanks.
Al merely closes his eyes and swears softly in the privacy of his mind. Ed's skin is so smooth, despite the heat, and his golden hair is soft and clean, a pleasure when it brushes against his skin. And with Ed so close, there's no way he can't feel the steel muscles beneath the flesh, the grace and power and beauty of his brother so near to his own body. Al's lucky in that the sheer stifling heat kills any physical sign of arousal, but then his mind is more than making up for that. He shifts uncomfortably and Ed growls quietly; squeezes his eyes shut and prays for something to stop this feeling, for sleep, for anything.
But there is no god who will listen to an alchemist, and Al doesn't sleep all night.