As the result of his unaccustomed exertions, Edward slept more deeply that night, and resisted being shaken awake and guided through the morning routine the next morning. He did everything with the bare minimum of effort necessary, his head clouded with sleep. The voices crowded him more than usual, and Edward blocked them out, preferring instead the cloudy whispers of his dreams.
Perhaps that was why it took him so long to register there were now three voices. The new one was obviously different to the other two, brisk, busy and female. Whatever they were discussing was serious to judge by the fact that he had been left in the kitchen alone. He looked at his hands, slowly turning them over. The fingers curled and uncurled—were they really his?
"—just the messenger. They want the Fullmetal Alchemist in Central for the yearly review."
"Why? Why now, of all times? Bloody bureaucrats, how'd they find out anyway—"
"There is no way to dissuade them?"
The spoon lay on the table before him. Edward measured it up thoughtfully. He should be able to pick it up, and there was no one to make a fuss if he failed.
"Not without appearing suspicious. However, I think this could prove most beneficial."
"Beneficial, how? Nii-san can't possibly go to central—and if you think I'm going to let him be picked over by some state alchemist—"
"Alphonse, calm down. I think Riza has a plan."
"I took the liberty of checking who this year's assessment committee was. All of them are newly elected officials, none of which have encountered Edward in the field."
"So you're suggesting—-?"
His first attempts merely pushed the spoon further along the table. It took careful repositioning until he was able to close his fingers around it.
"Alphonse is capable of passing the exam, and I imagine you'd find the research grant useful if only to help Edward's recovery," the new voice continued. "At any rate, you don't have a choice. The train leaves this afternoon at 2, if you pack now you'll just make it."
"But I can't leave—Nii-san—"
The spoon slipped from his fingers. This was supposed to be easy, why was it taking him so long? Frowning, Edward carefully wrapped his fingers around the spoon again.
"Not now! He's—last night, he was actually here—"
The spoon wavered in his hold but he had it. What now?
"What if I miss something important?"
Edward raised the spoon carefully. The connection between eye and hand seemed clearer than it had in months, and he practiced moving it around. His eye fell on the half eaten bowl of porridge sitting at the other end of the table and suddenly he was hungry.
"You can phone every night. I'll be here—I'll take some time off work—"
"No, you won't."
It took him a few tries to reach it with his other hand but it didn't take him long to have it cradled against his side. Success! Edward grinned as he dug the spoon into the porridge. This was progress.
"—it makes you feel any better, I've just finished an assignment, and was planning on taking a few days off anyway. It would be no trouble for me to keep an eye on Roy and Edward for you, Alphonse."
It took a few false starts but Edward got the hang of porridge pretty quickly.
"Thank you, Lieutenant Hawk—I mean, Riza. I feel better knowing you'll be in charge."
"What do you mean, she'll be in charge?"
"It's no problem Alphonse. Do you need help packing?"
"No, I've seen Nii-san do it enough that I shouldn't be long. I'll be down soon."
He was out of porridge. Edward sucked on the spoon thoughtfully, then pushed the bowl away from him. So much for that. What now?
He felt suddenly tired, and settled for putting the spoon down and picking it up again. His unresponsive limbs seemed to get easier to move the more he did this, and he started when the door opened, letting the spoon slip.
Fortunately the voices seemed to be talking too much to notice.
"I'll call when I get to Central. And again after the test. If everything goes well, I can be back the day after tomorrow—"
The firm arms that belonged to the second voice, the one that smelt of aftershave and wine wrapped around Edward's shoulders and he was pulled against a warm chest. "Edward and I will be fine, Alphonse. You don't need to worry about us."
"If you say so." Gentle, careful hands brushed his hair away from his eyes, then tipped his head back so that he was looking up into the same worried gold eyes that had looked at him so pleadingly the say before. "Nii-san, I'm going to Central for a few days. I won't be long. I'll be back as soon as I can, okay?"
Red. It looked strange on him, the red did, strange and somehow distressing. Edward didn't like it. Neither did he like the black that went with it, or the brown battered suitcase at the other's foot. All wrong, all of them—
"I don't know if you can hear me or not, Niisan—but I'll miss you. Try to be good for Roy and Riza—I'm going now. See you in two days."
He stepped away, red coat-tails flying out behind him and the sense of wrongness grew. Edward didn't think, he just reached out to snatch at the red mid-air.
It worked. His brother stopped and the little kitchen went deathly quiet.
Edward gripped the coat more firmly as Alphonse turned towards him.
"Nii-san," he breathed, undoing Edward's grasp on the coat and clutching his hand as he knelt at Edward's side. "You want me to stay?"
It wasn't so much that as that the coat was just wrong. Edward let his eyes slide to the floor, unsure how he could express that.
"Nii-san—I'm sorry, but I have to go!"
His hand was pushed back and then suddenly his brother turned and fled. Edward reached for him, but he was too slow and he let his arm drop slowly to his side, useless.
It was a few seconds later that the woman bowed and followed him, and not until she'd left that the hands holding him relaxed, and the other voice exhaled.
"Well. Edward, you're having an exciting morning, aren't you?" His shoulder was patted and he heard the voice moving away. "I'll just make a quick phonecall then we'll see about getting you cleaned up. Alphonse wasn't very careful this morning, you're covered in porridge."
Edward sat very still. The house was quiet except for the noise made as the telephone was lifted off the hook in the next room.
"Good morning, Major. This is Mustang—very well, thank you. And yourself? Oh—actually, there's been something of an improvement in that area lately. Don't want to say too much, but he definitely seems aware of his surroundings and to recognise Alphonse at least—no, not yet. Actually about Alphonse—"
The house was absolutely still.
"Yes, the alchemist's exams. You'll be attending yourself? Excellent. Just one thing—he's Edward, as far as you know. Got it? Yes. Yes, I'm sorry. That would be the Mustang family procrastination method—fine, I'll write you a letter after lunch. Yes. Now, I can't keep Edward waiting—thanks. Same to you, Alex. Goodbye."
The click of the phone being put down echoed sharply, and made the silence only more apparent. Alphonse was gone.
"That didn't take long did it?" He was propped up against the back of the chair and a warm cloth dabbed at his mouth and chin. "No need to worry, Armstrong will look out for Al. He'll be back before we know it."
Edward didn't respond. Something warm and wet slid down his cheek and he knew it had nothing to do with the wash cloth. Distantly he noticed it was somehow harder to breathe.
"My god—" His shoulders were gripped tightly, and he was suddenly faced with sharp dark eyes, looking at him with utter consternation. "Edward, you're crying—I didn't think you could—" He was suddenly held tightly, muffled by the tight arms and the warmth of the other. "Thank god—you need a soul to cry, Edward, you need a soul—"
He couldn't be sure, but Edward had the feeling that not all of the tears on his cheek were his.