He knew the day was going to be different from the moment he opened his eyes.
The sunlight was warm on his pillow and he used it to lever himself up sleepily. Usually Alphonse or Roy came in to wake him, but today either they were late or he was early. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Edward sat up, dragging his feet over the side of the bed to wait for them. They swung heavily and he frowned at them, concerned by their lack of response, but his good mood resasserted itself quickly. The sun was now warming his back, he'd slept well, and his head was unexpectedly clear and sharp.
Words were easier too. "Take four ounces of sulpher and combine with four ounces potassium aluminum sulfide," he told himself. "Put the mixture in an earthenware container and place within a coal fire until the sulphur has ascended. Allow eight hours for this step." It was still hard to form words on his own, but if he could remember them it was much quicker. "Take four ounces—" There were steps on the stairs outside and Edward fell silent.
"Time to—well." Roy seemed surprised as he swung the door open, still doing up his shirt. He smelt strongly of soap and as he patted Edward's head in greeting, Edward felt just the slightest bit of damp. Just out of the shower then? "Good morning, Edward. You're up early."
He revelled in the approval in Mustang's voice, and held out his hands obediently to be picked up.
"Hungry, is that it?" Mustang's breath tickled his neck as he carried him downstairs. "I'll have to have a word with Al—I think you're putting on weight." Edward tightened his grip on Roy's arm warningly and the man laughed. It was still somewhat unreal hearing that happy sound coming from him, though Edward had no idea why it should be. "Alphonse, your older brother demands his breakfast."
Alphonse's smile was as bright as the sunlight outside. "Does he now? He'll have to wait. I haven't finished the eggs yet."
"I can manage that at least. What else needs to be done?" Roy asked, settling Edward in his usual chair.
"Just the toast—Nii-san, the jam isn't for you." The jar was shifted further down the table and Edward regarded it balefully—that wasn't fair. "It should be ready in a few minutes."
So he had to wait? Edward studied the table for anything of interest. A lock of hair fell over his shoulder and he put a hand to it curiously. They usually tied it back immediately he woke up, it was almost a shock to realise it was there at all. He pushed it out of his face, smoothing it back into place. It seemed there was more of it than he remembered and he ran his fingers through it slowly, wondering about that.
He must have missed something because the door shut suddenly after Mustang and it was just him and Alphonse in the kitchen. His brother didn't seem pertubed though.
"It's getting colder, Nii-san. The water takes too long to heat in the mornings, we'll be taking our bath at night now."
Edward frowned at that, but didn't have the time to think about the words. Roy had returned, setting a hair brush and a mirror down on the breakfast table, to Edward's right. He didn't look at them or mention them, and neither did Alphonse. Edward waited until they were both busy at the stove before picking up the hairbrush.
"You know, I've been thinking about growing a moustache recently—"
Compared to food, brushing his hair was simple as anything. Edward gathered his hair together, searching for the hair tie that must be around there somewhere. There it was, hidden below the mirror.
"You don't have to be so vehement about it. I happen to think I'd look very dashing—"
"You'd look like Bradley."
" . . . Point taken. Ah, you're finished already, Edward. Let me do that for you."
Deft fingers took over and his hair was neatly pulled back and plaited, the hair tie tugged out of his hand to finish it off. Breakfast was set in front of him and Alphonse and Mustang joined him at the table. The meal progressed much as they all had lately. Edward no longer felt tense eating around them, although he did wish Alphonse would stop trying to make him talk. ("Egg, Nii-san. Say egg. Or would you like some salt? Sa-lt."). Despite the impromptu language lesson (which Edward ignored) they still finished much more quickly than he did, Alphonse collecting the dishes from the table while Roy put the kettle on to heat the dish-washing water.
"—don't understand why you don't just snap your fingers and heat the water. We should be the last people to complain about the cold," Alphonse said, setting the mirror upright again before carrying the dishes to the sink.
"It's a little something known as depth perception, Alphonse. Unless you want to lose half the bathroom everytime you bathe—"
Edward stopped eating. The new angle of the mirror gave him his reflection clearly. He tipped his head to one side feeling puzzled. He'd caught glimpses of himself before, and he knew that this was what he was supposed to look like but all the same . . . it was wrong somehow. He shook his head, to shake away the thought and the plait swung heavily behind him.
"Eat up, Nii-san. It will get cold."
Edward obediently poked at his plate, but his attention wasn't in it, absorped in this new problem. What was missing?
"—we should probably invite Hawkeye to dinner some time soon. It's been just over a week since she last visited, and Edward seems to like her company."
"Good idea. We need to thank her for her help. Friday should be fine—see if she's got plans, will you?"
No matter which he turned his head to look at it, the plait was somehow very unsatisfactory. Edward carefully reached back to tug the hair tie free. A couple of brisk shakes freed the rest of his hair from the braid and Edward carefully gathered it up once more.
By the time he'd finished he was aware that the voices had stopped and the kitchen was silent. Disconcerted, Edward stared at his plate.
"I didn't do a good enough job, Edward?" Roy tried to smile but it was clear he was puzzled.
Quick fingers undid the hair tie and within a minute his hair was down around his face again. "You should have left it as it was, Nii-san," Alphonse scolded. "You find it difficult to plait it by yourself.."
"Alphonse, what are you doing? Let him be—"
Alphonse ignored the other's protests, fingers deftly tying off Edward's hair. "Nii-san doesn't like to have his hair like this. It's too much like our father." He patted Edward's shoulder, turning the mirror towards him. "There, isn't that better?"
It was still wrong.
Edward reached back once more to pull the hair tie free. Slowly and deliberately he pulled his hair loose from the braid and began collecting it again. He'd just got the hair tie in place when hands gripped his painfully and tugged them way. Alarmed, Edward resisted, the struggle bringing him face to face with a tearful Alphonse.
"Nii-san, why? Why are you doing this?"
The look on his brother's face was stricken. Edward froze—he wasn't supposed to upset his brother, Mother would be cross—
"Alphonse, calm down—" Firmer hands guided the two of them apart, and Edward watched as Roy placed comforting hands on Alphonse's shoulder. "Maybe Edward changed his mind?"
"He wouldn't, not about that!" Alphonse's voice was sharp and Edward winced. "Maybe he's mad at me, maybe he hates me—"
"Alphonse, wait! You're taking this much too—Alphonse!"
The door slammed.
Edward stayed still and miserable, not looking up from the table. He heard Mustang take a deep breath and then a hand patted his shoulder.
"Don't mind him. He only gets upset because he cares about you a lot, you know?" Edward tensed as he felt his hair gathered up once more and tied in a high ponytail. "There you go." A hand fingered the ponytail lightly. "You know, I think I like this look on you. Now, I'll have a word with your brother, you finish your breakfast, okay Edward?"
His breakfast went cold, he heard Mustang leaving for his job and the kitten mewling at the door wanting to be fed, and then things eventually went quiet. He had no idea of what time it was, as he waited, completely motionless, for Alphonse's return.
The kitchen door shut quietly behind him, startling him.
"I'm sorry, Nii-san."
Alphonse's voice sounded little. Edward wasn't sure he should risk turning to look at him, but he hung on every word Alphonse said with all his attention.
"I didn't mean—I just want you back." Arms wrapped around his shoulders, and Alphonse buried his face against Edward's neck. It was so hard to stay still and not respond to the touch, but Edward was not going to risk upsetting his brother again any time soon. Alphonse sighed, letting go of him, and Edward watched as his cold breakfast plate was carried to the sink. "I didn't realise it was so late. You'll want a snack, right?"
Alphonse brought a plate of biscuits and two glasses of milk to the table, and pulled up the chair next to Edward. "There you go. You still like chocolate, right?"
Edward shot a glance at his brother as he took a biscuit. He seemed all right, although his eyes were somewhat puffy. It was his job to take care of his brother, make sure he was happy. It would be hard, but Edward had reached a decision in the time that he'd spent in waiting silence.
"Nii-san, you're not drinking your milk." Alphonse closed Edward's fingers around the glass. "There."
Edward gave the glass a look of pure dislike and pushed it across the table.
Alphonse stared at him a moment before chuckling. "So that's how it is, is it?" He said, returning the glass to its former position. "Some things don't change, Nii-san." His voice sounded warm again. Edward knew he had to try.
"Truth," he agreed. "So you can forget making me drink that foul stuff." It was a long sentence, and he was proud of the way his voice hardly wobbled at all.
The look on Alphonse's face made it all worth it.