chapter 7.

He remembered little of the first day.

All that would remain later were snatches of recollections: waking blearily several times to Al's voice, low and insistent, and a cup pressed to his lips. Mumbling vague thanks, realizing that his throat must be so raw from the screaming he thought he'd kept to the dream. Hating himself for the look of shock in Alphonse's eyes when he'd knocked away the offered painkillers, demanded that the younger boy get them the fuck away.

The next morning, he felt guilty enough about that particular fit of temper to swallow another piece of his pride and explain awkwardly that he'd had enough of being drugged—and his brother squeezed his shoulder gently in sympathy and let him leave it at that.

By the third day, he was awake for a long enough stretch of time to be bored—and Ed had realized, with a jolt of unpleasant awareness, that the last time he'd experienced this particular emotion had been on the long train ride to a mission that he'd never arrived to accomplish. He ignored the realization stubbornly, instead demanding that Alphonse entertain him—and soon the boredom was forgotten entirely, swept aside when the younger boy slipped from the room to return a few minutes later with a chess set.

Edward was delighted to realize that he could manipulate the pieces without help, crowed perhaps a bit too triumphantly when he won the first round. His little brother whomped him quite thoroughly in every subsequent game, but they played until he was tired enough that his moves had become ridiculously bad, anyway, only stopping when Al chastised him gently about needing his rest.

Alphonse cleaned his automail ports on the fourth day, and Ed changed his mind about the painkillers less than ten minutes after they'd begun.

By the time the younger boy announced that he was finished, the bedside table held two empty bottles of hydrogen peroxide and a small mountain of gauze, stained rust with dried blood and peppered by tiny bits of debris. Hovering on the edge of consciousness, Ed had lay sweating and shaking atop the covers as his brother stroked his hair, clinging to awareness just enough to insist, dazedly, that he didn't want a doctor—didn't want anyone to see him like this, despite the younger boy's quiet urgings to the contrary.

It was an hour before Alphonse must have realized that the boy was too tightly wound to sleep, because he'd helped his brother stagger to the bathroom and drawn the water for a bath, letting the subject subside in favor of keeping Ed's mind from the pain. It had hurt at first, of course—badly enough that he'd clenched his teeth and hissed obscenities through them—but when that had faded to a bearable level, the combination of the painkillers with the hot water had been enough to lure his mind away from consciousness.

On the fifth day, Al had presented him with one of the books crammed into the travel-worn suitcase standing beside the door—and Ed had discovered, gratefully, that he could read it without help. That with a little effort, it wasn't terribly difficult to hold the book open with the flat of his arm while he used his thumb to turn the pages.

Halfway through the third chapter, his little brother had settled at the room's small table with a sheet of paper and a pen. "A letter to Winry," the boy had replied with a sunny smile when he wanted to know what was being written. "She was worried, brother—she'll want to know that you're okay."

And quite suddenly, Ed had recalled a sort of pain that he'd thought long forgotten.

He woke slowly, sleepily uncertain for a moment as to why, precisely, there were arms curled around him and the feel of a heartbeat not his own.

Awareness drifted in gradually not long after, coming with the worn cotton of the sheets and the moonlight streaming silver through the space beneath the curtains. And as realization dawned, just for a moment Ed imagined that it was another time: that they were far from here, and the body pressed against him was freshly restored.

They had lain like this then, every night for nearly a month after the change, just being together. Al had needed the contact with an urgency that bordered on desperation those first few days, and later they'd both been loathe to abandon the habit. For a precious almost-week, life had been... not perfect, because Edward didn't believe that a world like this could ever truly perfect anything. But it had been close. As close as was allowed.

If it had lasted, Ed realized with a sudden, aching pang of regret, none of this would have happened. But it hadn't, and the truth was that he had no one to blame but himself.

Because he'd been young, and it had been years since he'd wondered, in passing, who he'd like to share his first kiss with, years since his mind had settled on an image of Alphonse, bronze eyes warm and shining. And suddenly, the speculations that he'd entertained in the between time had become quite possible indeed—and the object of those thoughts had been sleeping pressed flush against him, night after night, oblivious.

He'd begun waking before dawn, trembling with the remnants of half-remembered dreams, to disentangle himself from the warmth of his brother's limbs and creep to the bathroom. He couldn't remember the number of times that he'd paused, holding his breath to listen for sounds of waking before he locked the door, couldn't begin to guess how often he'd bit his lip to keep from crying out as his hand found its way beneath the waistband of his pajamas.

And he'd been so sure, he recalled, that he couldn't tell the younger boy the truth—not when he'd already laden Al with the burden of relearning how a body works. It would be unfair to complicate things, greedy to want more.

So at last Ed had convinced himself that they both needed the time apart, had lied through the regret thick in his throat. He'd claimed that his leave had been cut short, that he was being recalled to Central.

It shouldn't have surprised him when Alphonse replied that they'd both be going—but somehow, it did.

The pair of them had bought a small house, a poorly-cared-for little shack of a place with a tiny patch of yard utterly overrun with weeds. Al had loved it, and Ed... well, Ed had loved the look in his brother's eyes when he saw it for the first time. So he'd spent most of the remainder of his salary for the year and a fair-sized chunk of his research funds on it, reassuring his brother that they'd turn one of the rooms into a lab so that he could justify the expense, if Mustang ever decided to pry.

And for a while, at least, the effort to make their new home livable had allowed him to overlook the fact that it was getting harder to keep quiet on the nights that he spent leaning up against the bathroom wall, tile cool beneath his bare thighs. Then, quite abruptly, Alphonse had solved the problem for him.

He wasn't sure where the request had come from, but by the hesitancy in the boy's eyes, it had been building for some time. Al was ready to try sleeping alone again, he'd admitted, smile small and embarrassed. He'd been worried that, if Ed was sent away on a mission, it would be difficult to adjust—wanted to try it now, when he could know that his brother was just a room over in case he really needed him.

And just like that, the situation had been diffused. Without the constant worry of close contact, he'd been granted peace of mind—and, though he was loathe to admit it, the Fullmetal Alchemist had adapted to the more sedentary lifestyle quite easily. At Al's prompting, he'd even gone so far as to request exemption from missions more than a day's travel from Central—and Mustang, in a rare, utterly inexplicable fit of kindness, had actually granted it.

They'd fallen into an easy sort of give and take; Ed got used to washing the dishes at night, and Alphonse gathered the discarded clothes from his brother's floor to do laundry when they'd run out of things to wear. It had reminded him of a time when they'd been more innocent—children in a house that seemed too large without their mother to share it. And every day that Ed came home to discover his brother had arrived before him, something inside had rejoiced at the warm glow of light in the window.

For awhile, Edward had been happy—and even now, knowing what would follow, the ache that filled his chest wasn't fully sorrow. The memories were too good to be truly sad, even if they hadn't lasted.

Things had changed when Winry visited. Or, the boy considered bitterly, golden eyes tracing the lines of his brother's face in the dark of the inn room, nothing had changed at all, and he'd always been too blind to see it.

Ed wasn't sure when he'd first begun to notice that Alphonse was acting strangely, wasn't sure what, precisely, had struck him as odd. But his brother had been flustered, and distracted, and later the smaller boy would hate himself for prying—because if he just hadn't asked, then maybe he could have carried on well enough, unknowing.

But he finally got an answer on the third try, words that had burned themselves into his brain and fused with the image of their delivery: a slow flush across pale cheeks, warm bronze eyes refusing to meet his gaze. "Y-you shouldn't worry about it, brother," the boy had said. "I just... I need to talk to Winry about something, is all."

He'd felt the first twinge of jealousy, then, hadn't quite been able to keep the edge of hurt from his voice as he'd replied: "Winry, huh? You're pretty wound up for just something like that—you gonna ask her on a date or something?"

And when Alphonse had ducked his head away, blushing harder, Ed's mind had answered the question for him.

The grin that followed had pained him, but he'd forced it anyway. "Well, you've got all day," he'd offered, tone meticulously casual. "Take her somewhere nice, alright?"

Al had made some token protest, of course—but the older boy had gathered up his jacket anyway, grinning all the while, and announced that he'd make himself scarce and give his brother an opportunity.

He hadn't known where he intended to go until he stood before the towering building, chest a roiling mess of hurt. He hadn't known why he'd come until he climbed the first flight of stairs. But by the time he flung open the door to Mustang's office and stormed in, eyes blazing, he'd known what he wanted to say.

"Send me somewhere," he'd demanded quite abruptly, and the newly-made Fuhrer hadn't even had the decency to look surprised.

"Oh?" was all the response he received—and all the prompting he'd needed.

"Send me somewhere," the boy had insisted again. "I want something that'll take months to sort out, and I want it way the fuck away from Central."

For a long moment, Ed had thought the man would refuse. He'd never been good at sitting still under that calm, watchful grey gaze, and this particular stare had been positively dissecting. "Living arrangements not panning out?" the Fuhrer had asked at last, mildly, and opened a drawer in his desk to retrieve the necessary paperwork.

"Fuck you, Mustang," he'd hissed in response, irrationally furious. But he'd signed the sheets anyway, with a zeal that bordered on ferocity, and ignored the part of his mind demanding frantically that he ought to be worried about how much the man knew.

Ed had paused as he walked out the door, glanced back with menacing golden eyes. "Mention this to Al," he'd promised, "And I'll beat the shit out of you when I get back."

Words had echoed after him, calm and vaguely amused: "Of course, Fullmetal."

He'd left the next morning on an early train. And until six days ago, the last time he'd seen his brother had been at the station platform, smiling and waving, Winry beside him.

Closing his eyes against the way the moonlight lit Alphonse's features—peaceful, and gentle, and lovely—Ed swallowed hard against the sting of regret and settled back down to sleep.

It was a long time in coming.

"Hey, Al." He didn't look up from the book spread open before him on the bed—didn't have to. He could feel the younger boy's eyes on him, concerned and watchful. Carefully, he forced himself to relax. "You're... going back soon, aren't you?"

"To Central?" He heard the rustle of fabric as Alphonse stood, footsteps as he came to settle himself beside the smaller boy on the bed. "I already told you, brother—I don't think we should go anywhere until you're a bit better."

"Not to Central." It wasn't working. This wasn't working. "To the mine." He let the book fall closed, lifted his gaze to search Alphonse's face.

Those bronze eyes widened just slightly before the surprise was swept away by compassion, and a hand settled on his back, rubbed soothingly. "I... have to, brother. Even if there was a cave-in, it's better to be sure."

"I know," Ed answered softly—and he did. They'd been over this the day before—and logically at least, he understood why it was important, knew that someone needed to do it. Not as though that made it any easier. "When you go, though—get me something?"

The surprise came again, a flicker across the boy's face before he agreed with no more hesitancy than that. "Of course, brother."

"There're books open on the floor of the library. And three in the lab." He held his breath, hoping that questions wouldn't follow—because if Al knew what he wanted them for, he suspected that his little brother might not be so cooperative. "Bring them?"

There was a pause at that, and Ed tried on a hopeful smile as the younger boy regarded him with a skeptical expression.

"...if that's what you want, brother," came the response and last, and Ed let out a breath that he hadn't been aware he was holding.

The grin was real this time, and Edward had no way of knowing that the fierce, determined flash of teeth reminded Al uneasily of the days when his brother would charge into the impossible quite recklessly.

"It is," he assured, and turned back to his book.