"Porridge, Nii-san." The bowl was placed in front of him, even as his glass was quickly whisked away. Alphonse pressed the spoon into his fingers, patting Edward's head before turning away again. "Roy, did you remember to let the milkman know we wanted extra milk?"
Edward reached carefully for the bowl, resting his arm around it protectively, half suspecting it might be snatched away soon. Mustang and Alphonse moved around the kitchen, in and out, talking at each other and at him. The rhythmn of the morning was gone completely. He ate more slowly than usual, wary and unable to settle somehow. Every little thing jarred.
"Still eating?" Alphonse looked over his shoulder. "Better hurry up, Nii-san. I have to do the dishes."
"Al, did we decide where we wanted these?"
"Bedroom at the end of the hall—Oh, and can you change the sheets on Nii-san's bed? I thought we'd give his room to Winry."
Nii-san's room? Edward stopped eating. He wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. He didn't know what was happening, but the fuss and bother didn't reassure him.
"You're finished?" The bowl was taken quickly before he could protest. Edward watched it disappear into the sink with regret. Whatever was happening must be serious if they didn't have time to eat.
"Roy! Nii-san needs to be taken into the lounge."
"I'm kind of busy, Al—"
"I need to wash the floor!"
"You're lucky, Edward," Roy said, pulling the blanket up as he tucked Edward into the window seat, drawing up the curtains to give him a view of the street. "I wish I were the one taking it easy right now—No, Al, I don't know where the bucket is."
The windowseat, being somewhat out of the way, was the only quiet corner in the house. As Edward watched, every piece of furniture in the room was polished, shifted, rearranged, and then rearranged again. Alphonse and Roy were here and then gone, back again before he'd realised it.
Edward pushed away the jigsaw puzzle and the table set out for him. He didn't know what was happening, but he didn't like it. Turning back to the window he watched the snow collect at the side of the window sill and the people who hurried up and down the street.
The kitten was sent outside to do its business, and Edward watched it poke through the garden, unimpressed. Its nose and feet were cold when it found him again, and Edward let it curl up under the blanket. It reminded him of something, oddly, a girl and a dog, and he was dreaming, imagining another time when they'd all played in the snow when he realised that he could now see Alphonse and Roy in the garden.
He put his hand up to the glass curiously, watching them. It was easier to make sense of things with the distance, his thoughts having time to settle now that there were no words and sharp noises to disrupt and interrupt them. They were carrying shovels, and Roy seemed to have a problem with this fact, given the way he was waving his hand around. Alphonse seemed reluctant, but eventually he took up the shovel. Edward couldn't see what he did but it was something to do with the handle of the shovel and the snow . . . and suddenly light crackled—
Edward sat up, pushing himself onto his knees to see better. The kitten complained as it was dislodged, but Edward didn't spare it a second thought. The path was clear and there was a pile of snow in the middle of the garden—no, not a pile. It was a person—three people actually. No, that was a dog. A boy, a girl and a dog made of snow. And the snow had suddenly just been there. What was that? What was it?
Alphonse was looking at the snow-people with a sad almost wistful expression. Roy put his hand on his shoulder, and they stood there a while, watching. Then they came inside. Edward heard them in the kitchen, and he sat slowly. The kitten climbed into his lap, kneading it in a displeased manner before consenting to sit. Once again, Edward paid it no mind. His thoughts were out there in the snow—
"Careful, Nii-san, it's hot."
The mug pressed into his hands was indeed hot, but not painfully so. It smelled rich and warm—hot chocolate. Edward smiled, absorbed in the memory and almost missed Alphonse's words.
"—cold out. But at least we got the path cleared." His brother sat on the other end of the window seat, looking out over the garden. "I don't know why I did that—It was the snow and your birthday, and I suppose I can't help but think about her—"
"You remember." Alphonse shifted uneasily at the other end of the windowseat. "I'm sorry, Nii-san, I shouldn't have—"
"She looks happy."
Alphonse stopped, mid-apology. "You think so?"
Edward nodded. "Happy. And Alexander too." It was sad as always but it didn't hurt as much as it had used to. "I think it's all right, Al," he said, the words clumsy. "It's all right to remember."
Just after lunch, Alphonse made Edward put a shirt on overtop his usual t-shirt. "I wish you'd let me plait your hair," he said, fussing with Edward's ponytail. "People are going to ask."
Edward shrugged and let Alphonse fuss. His brother's words stayed in his mind though and ten minutes later the shirt was dumped to the floor.
"Nii-san!" Alphonse complained, trying to get it back on a resisting Edward. "Don't you want to look nice?"
Roy made the mistake of snickering. "Perhaps he does."
Edward was forgotten as Alphonse glared at Roy. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Roy held his hands up depreceatingly. "Nothing, nothing. Just that Edward had his own very particular sense of style, just as you have yours—"
Alphonse threw the shirt at Roy.
Eventually the shirt was taken away and Roy brought down three sweatshirts he left on the end of the windowseat.
Edward considered them carefully. The first followed the shirt to the floor. The second, red with two white stripes, was deemed satisfactory and after some wrestling with the zipper was put on. The cat fell asleep on the third.
Roy patted him on the head as he collected the rejected clothes. "Good to see you taking an interest in your appearance," he said. "Although, you could have picked a better time to develop a fashion sense."
Alphonse tried to sulk, but was quickly distracted by the necessity of wiping every table or other surface in the lounge. "Do you think it's too early to put the food out?"
"Alphonse, relax," Roy told him. "Our guests haven't even arrived yet. Take it easy—this is a birthday party, not an exam."
"I know," Alphonse said, fussing with the arrangement of the mantelpiece. "But I want everything to be perfect—"
"Stop fussing and talk to your brother. The birthday boy needs some attention after all."
Alphonse looked somewhat guilty as he joined Edward on the window seat. "Sorry, Nii-san. I haven't even said 'Happy Birthday' to you yet."
"S'all right," Edward replied quietly, Roy having gone into the kitchen. He was feeling rather satisfied with himself now that he had fixed the shirt. "Al—how old am I again?"
"I don't remember my last birthday," Edward explained. He wondered what he'd done to have Alphonse look at him in that sad, hopeless way.
"Eighteen, Nii-san. You're eighteen today. Now, I have to help Roy do . . . stuff."
Eighteen? That was old enough to drink in Germany, although his father had joked that even had he been of legal age no one would ever believe it. Edward hadn't been impressed, but then again, he hadn't really wanted to attend the Oktoberfest anyway. Edward settled back against the window and tried to work out where the memory had gone after that.
When he next opened his eyes, the room was full with the murmur of unfamiliar voices. Edward kicked the blanket away quickly; he didn't need anyone thinking he was some kind of invalid. The kitten disentangled itself from the blankets and stalked away with its tail held up stiffly; Edward would just have to hope that it would forgive him later.
He shifted uneasily, regretting the loss of the blanket. It would have been nice to have something to hide behind, had his pride allowed it. There were so many voices and people, all of them talking and milling around.
"Ah, the birthday boy is awake at last." A heavy hand descended on his shoulder, and Edward tensed, going very still. "Edward Elric, allow me to give you my warmest Seasons Greetings in the Armstrong Family Manner—"
"I'm sure Edward appreciates the gesture, Major, but the doctor did say that it was much better to respect his personal space until he's confident enough to initiate contact—" The woman was there, and though Edward gave no outward sign, he'd never been so grateful to see her in his life. "Why don't you give him his birthday present?"
The package set in front of him was brightly wrapped with a cheerfully coloured ribbon. Edward tugged at it until it came undone, and was captivated to discover an equally ornate box within. This was the sort of box that came with something in it, Edward thought, and he was right too. He removed the lid to find the box smelt heavily of chocolate, but before he could investigate further, the box was taken away. "Later, you won't want to spoil your appetite, Edward."
"Oh, let him—it is his birthday."
"Open my present, Ed."
Edward, distracted momentarily by the way the girl's ponytail fell over her shoulders as she leaned in, although he wasn't sure why this was important, just that it was, obediently turned his attention to the new present. It was smaller, but more cunningly wrapped. Other hands tried to take it from him, but he resisted.
"I can get that—"
"Edward can do it. Let him—he likes to do things for himself."
Finally, the paper was worked loose to reveal a shiny metal thing—a wristwatch, Edward realised. It was too hard to be silver, but too light to be iron. Automail, Edward thought, recognising the familiar feel of it.
"Winry, you shouldn't have—"
"I wanted to, Al. Made it from scratch and everything. It was a bitch getting the links exactly, but good practice and I'd been wanting to try out my new tools—"
They shifted and suddenly he realised just how many there were around him, all standing there looking. The one at his back was so big he almost filled the room, and there were more, so many more—
"How about my present Edward?"
He didn't touch the package placed into his lap, staring down at his hands. It was just too many, too much—
"He needs some space. Let's leave him be. Sensei, you haven't seen the garden yet—"
The people shifted back, but Edward stayed tense even after the buzz of conversation started up again. He waited until he was sure he was unobserved before reaching for the latest present.
The busy task of unwrapping things kept him occupied, and he'd no idea how long the voices had been there before he noticed them again. They'd probably been talking a while, but a particularly difficult knot had distracted him. Finally freeing the package of its bonds, he paused in triumph and that's when the words had sunk in.
Edward stopped. The words sounded so clearly, and the voice—he knew it, it hovered just on the edge of his consciousness. Meaning came a little later, and by that time the voice had continued.
"When you think of what he used to be and now—it might have been better if he had died—"
"How can you say that?" New voice, equally familiar. Not exactly angry, but thick with emotion—Edward swallowed, fighting back the sudden tightness in his chest to listen. This was important, even if he didn't know why. "They're alive, they're whole, they're together—it's everything they wanted. It isn't exactly what they wanted, but as long as there's life there's hope, right?"
"And here I thought you were supposed to be the regiment cynic, Havoc."
"Come on—we all know what these boys are capable of. Edward will surprise us yet, you'll see." An arm patted Edward's shoulder and he looked up, surprised, to clear blue eyes. "Isn't that right, Edward?"
Alphonse didn't like it when Roy smoked inside. He wouldn't approve of this either, so Edward carefully reached up and took the cigarette. The plate he'd used for lunch was still nearby and Edward extinguished the cigarette on that before passing it back. The man took it to the accompaniment of a chorus of laughter that made Edward freeze—they were watching him again.
"You were saying, Havoc?"
"Well, he surprised me—"
"You wouldn't be teaching my Edward bad habits now, would you?"
This voice was strong and powerful, and the others melted away before it. Edward was very conscious of the scent of sandalwood and the warm arms that gathered him into an almost-hug. This was familiar too, but in a different way—an earlier way than the others. He leaned into the hand stroking his hair without even thinking about it, so natural it felt.
The voice was fond, warm when it replied. "Eighteen then? Time goes by so quickly, doesn't it, Ed? I can still remember you and Al getting up to all sorts of mischief in the store—I had a hard time thinking up training exercises fast enough to keep the two of you occupied."
Was this how the kitten felt? Edward couldn't say he minded. He let his hand rest over the woman's, basking in the care of her touch and enjoying the warmth in her voice as she spoke again. He could have fallen asleep then, but the words from before unsettled him somewhat. They meant something, he knew it—
It was time for the food then and there was cake, but his fork was taken away before he could eat it. Roy was back again, tapping a fork against his glass to get everyone's attention.
"Alphonse and I would like to say how grateful we are that you could all make it," he said. "This celebration would not be complete without all of you, and your presence means a lot to us—and I'm sure to Edward."
This prompted a murmur and stares in his direction, and Edward went still again, listening hard.
"After all, one does not turn eighteen every day," Roy continued, at his most charming. "Therefore, ladies and gentleman, I would like to propose a toast to the reason we are all gathered here today, and invite you to drink to not what has been, but to what will be—"
There was something in Roy's tone and in the weight of the looks cast in his direction, and suddenly something slid into place and Edward knew.
Roy raised his glass to continue, but before he could a voice interrupted, shaking on the first words but growing strong and loud towards the end. "Who's so short you think he's a bean?"
The room was still suddenly, still and a lot larger than it had been. He resisted the urge to hide himself again, pride forcing him to meet the eyes that were suddenly all looking at him. Too quiet, suddenly, and then he saw Alphonse, grinning as though it were his birthday, and somehow he felt brave enough to look at Roy.
Roy swallowed, the astonishment and shock replaced by something undefineable, something that made his insides feel warm, and all of this somehow worthwhile. He raised his glass to Edward, with a voice that shook just slightly. "Happy Birthday, Edward."
And then everybody wanted to hug him.