chapter 6.

Alphonse closed the door behind him carefully, listening for the quiet click as it settled fully into place.

The room was as he'd left it; the glow of warm electric light spilled across the worn blankets of the little bed and its occupant, and Al felt a rush of relief as he stepped the rest of the way inside. He wasn't sure what he'd have done if his brother had woken to find him gone, had worried from the moment that he slipped out over whether it was such a good idea, after all.

But he hadn't been able to shake the image of his brother's naked body, of the too-sharp collarbone and painfully visible ribs, and so he'd only waited long enough to be sure that Ed was sleeping deeply before leaving to find him something to eat.

He wasn't sure what he'd expected to be open in the early-morning hours, not in a town as small as Rush—and despite his efforts, he'd very nearly come back empty-handed. But when Alphonse returned to the inn just half an hour after he'd set out—through the front door, this time, not the wedged-open little back exit that he'd used to carry his brother through earlier—the innkeeper had stirred and mumbled a good morning at him from the place where he'd fallen asleep behind his desk.

Usually, imposing on people that he didn't know well fell at the very top of Alphonse's list of things to be avoided at all costs. But it was for his brother, the boy had told himself firmly, and approached the man.

He supposed that he should've realized the innkeep would remember him from last summer; after all, it was the only place to stay in a very small town, and he'd been quite conspicuous when he passed through, showing Ed's picture tirelessly as he asked after the older boy's whereabouts. But to say that he was surprised when the man interrupted him halfway through his awkward explanation would have been an understatement. "I suppose you found your brother, then," he'd said, tone warm with sympathy, and rose from the chair with a yawn. "What's the matter, son—he hurt?"

It had taken Alphonse a moment to recover enough to respond. "N-no. Well, yes—but mostly he's hungry. I didn't—he shouldn't wait, I think."

Now, armed with a mug of soup broth and the innkeep's advice—"Have him drink it slowly, now; if he's as bad as you say, gulping it'll just make him sick."—Al approached the room's bed, settling himself on the mattress beside his brother.

Almost as though drawn by the motion, a whimper crept from the sleeping boy, and Alphonse reached without thinking to reassure by touch, free hand stroking hair that was still slightly damp. It seemed to help; the lines smoothed from Ed's face and, after a moment, the tension faded from his body.

Carefully, Al repeated the motion, watching the reaction that the contact brought—and if he'd been entirely honest, he would have admitted that the touch was as cathartic for him as it was for his brother. Because despite the day's events, a small part of him still had trouble believing he'd actually found Ed, that the boy nestled beneath the blankets wasn't perhaps the result of some elaborate and happy dream.

The feel of familiar golden hair under his fingertips, warm from the heat of Edward's body, did a good deal to lay those doubts to rest, though—and when his hand brushed inadvertently against one of his brother's ears, Al reflected with a tinge of sadness that if the dream were truly happy, the boy would never have been so badly hurt.

Despite the sharp edges of regret, however, Alphonse couldn't resist the urge to explore—and so he did, as cautiously as he was able, running a finger gently over the soft golden fur that dusted his brother's ear. It was wider, now, deeper and pointed—a dog's ear, perhaps, or a cat's, though none of the strays he'd brought home had ever had anything like the graceful black tufts that rose from the tips.

The thought of the look that his brother would give him if the smaller boy ever learned about that particular comparison brought the ghost of a smile to Alphonse's lips, and he leaned carefully over to peer at the face of the sleeping figure, half expecting to see that some instinct had caused the anticipated scowl.

Edward's features had been sharp before, but they were all hard lines now, and Al felt the smile fading before it had really taken root, eyes tracing the harsh angles of cheekbone and jaw that served as a startling reminder: his brother was far too thin to be healthy. Musings forgotten as worry flooded through him once more, he set the mug carefully down on the small stand beside the bed.

"Brother?" he said softly, and stroked his fingers through the boy's hair. There was no response this time—but, considering that Ed had barely been awake for most of the trip to town, that wasn't surprising. Normally, Alphonse wouldn't even consider waking his brother when he was so plainly exhausted—but this situation was, after all, a far cry from normal. And so he tried again, a hand finding Ed's shoulder tentatively. "Brother... I brought you some soup."

But the only response was a slight shift as the smaller boy nuzzled deeper into the pillow, quite profoundly unconscious.

Alphonse leaned in closer, the flat of his hand drifting from shoulder to ribcage. "Brother?"

Still nothing—and so he began working his fingers gently between the sheets and Ed's back, painstakingly careful, easing the still-sleeping form to lay half-cradled in his arms. "Brother... aren't you hungry?" The arm not currently supporting Ed reached to smooth a strand of gold away from the boy's face, lingered. "Come on, now... time to wake up."

It must have been the movement that woke him; Alphonse had pitched his voice no louder than before, after all. But his brother's eyes flickered open nonetheless, golden slits bleary, and for a moment he struggled for consciousness, hovering blankly in the space between sleep and waking.

Alphonse saw it the moment that Ed fought his way through the last layer of sleep—saw the change in his brother's eyes, and it scared him. There wasn't an expression of blind panic; the smaller boy had been sleeping too deeply for nightmares, it seemed. But fear might have been better, Al would think later, than the raw confusion that crept across Edward's features and the tiny crease that formed in his brow.

Because when he turned to face Alphonse, looking for all the world as though finding himself in his brother's arms was the last thing he'd expected, the second that recollection struck was painfully clear. He watched it dawn in Ed's eyes, watched them grow large with the memory, round and gold and expressive, and the relief and the hope and the gratitude that flooded into that gaze was enough to make Al feel as though something had cut him.

He reached for the mug with an unsteady hand, brought it to his brother's lips. "Soup," he told the boy softly, encouraging—but when he offered a smile, it felt a bit shaky.

And then Ed took the first mouthful, and all he could do was watch, heart shattering.

Because of all the many, many things that Alphonse had seen in his life thus far, he could think of none that was more fundamentally wrong than this. Nothing quite so unforgivable as the bliss that spread across his brother's face or the tiny noise of want that escaped his throat. Because Edward deserved to be happy, certainly—ecstatically, unworriedly happy, every day for the rest of his life. But for him to be radiating utter content like this, for his eyes to be drifting closed and him to be crying again—over soup broth—was so unspeakable that for a moment Al couldn't breathe through the knot that tightened his throat.

And when he recalled the innkeep's advice a moment later, gently lifting the mug away from his brother's lips before he could finish, the half-arm raised instinctively to clutch at his hand as best it was able, trying to keep it in place. "Al—" the boy managed, voice shaking. His expression was one of alarm, and of pleading. "Wait—what're you—"

"It's alright, brother," he soothed, and reached to stroke Ed's hair again when the mug was safely set aside. "You can have more in a minute."

For the space of several heartbeats, he didn't think the assurance would be enough. And if his brother asked again, Alphonse knew, he wouldn't be able to refuse the desperation displayed so clearly in those stunning golden eyes.

But Ed had fallen silent—and a moment later, he offered up a weak grin, meeting the younger boy's eyes with an expression that was both determined and vulnerable. "Sorry. It's... been awhile, is all."

"I know," Alphonse said softly, heart aching. "I know, brother. I... I wish..." But the rest, he was startled to discover, wouldn't squeeze past the tightness that had closed his throat.

"Hey." There was something mildly reproving in that tone, and it drew Alphonse's gaze to the warm concern radiating from golden eyes, to the it's-not-so-bad-really smile that Ed had painted on. "It's alright now, though, isn't it?"

Too often. Ed had worn that expression too often—had been knocked over and hurt and staggered to his feet and pretended that nothing was wrong.

There were traces of their lives behind that smile—of a skinned knee, barely remembered, and brash assurances as the smaller boy limped home so that their mother could bandage the wound. Of a bullet that he hadn't blocked in time, a fourteen-year-old Edward hospitalized after the mission, that same expression on his face as he promised from the too-white sheets that he'd be fine after the surgery. Of the shaking exhaustion that he'd felt trembling in his brother's limbs as Ed had carried him home on That Day, too weak in his new body to walk on his own and marveling all the while to realize that he could feel the vibrations in his brother's chest as he reassured that the transmutation hadn't taken much out of him at all.

And then quite suddenly, the tightness in Alphonse's throat was giving way to tears—but he was smiling, too, because Winry had been right, she had been right—and as long as Ed was still living, there wasn't anything he wouldn't do to make sure that one day, at least, his brother could smile like that without it being a lie.

"No," he managed, voice shaky with the tears. "S-stupid brother. How is this alright?" But he was reaching forward to pull Ed closer, wrapping his arms around the smaller boy's shoulders and burying his face in the crook of his brother's neck.

When he spoke again, it was barely a whisper, lips close to the soft golden down of Edward's ear. "But it will be," he promised, and the words were fervent. "It will be, brother."

And when Ed raised his arm to return the embrace, none of the hesitancy in the gesture that had been there before, Alphonse knew that he'd heard.