chapter 10.

Later, Alphonse would remember little more than a vague impression of that time, a mixture of aching tenderness and the recollection of Ed shaking in his arms while he murmured soothing, nonsense noises into the soft down of his brother's ear. All he knew was that the shadows in the room had already shifted with the sun's progress by the time he felt confident enough to urge the smaller boy to stand and help him to the bed—and when Ed seemed disinclined to break the contact after they'd resettled, Alphonse didn't protest.

Nights of Ed waking plagued by the remnants of terrible dreams had taught him the most comfortable way to position them—and so he eased himself slowly backward against the headboard, drawing his brother to his chest. Al's hand, gentle along bare skin, wasn't immune to the tiny tremors that raced though the small frame, nor could he stop the spike of worry that had established itself in the center of his heart. But for the moment, the older boy seemed content to simply accept the embrace, nuzzling in closer when Alphonse lifted his free hand and began stroking loose strands of shining gold.

The trembling subsided by degrees, slow progress that forced Al to fight down a fresh wave of apprehension on more occasion than one; his thoughts were a whirl of emotions caught up wholly in the precious, too-hurt creature cradled against him. And then, unexpectedly, Edward's voice came, low and thick with tears: "Al?"

Those gentle fingers hesitated just a fraction of a second before resuming their steady, soothing rhythm. "Yes, brother?"

The boy's reply was a murmur against the skin of his collarbone, all warm breath and the quiet hum of vibration. "Love you."

Bronze eyes squeezed shut suddenly in the face of those words, beset by an unexpected sting of tears and an upwelling of warmth that left him dizzily, absurdly happy. His fingers left off stroking to settle on Ed's good shoulder, squeezed gently. "I love you too, brother."

It wasn't until much later, after the smaller boy had drifted off to sleep, that he dared to lean forward and press a kiss into warm golden hair.

"Brother," Al called, and reached back with his free hand to pull the door shut behind him. "It's time to get—oh! You're awake already."

And indeed the boy was. Lying sprawled on his stomach on top of the hopelessly tangled covers, Ed had spread a book out before him, looked as though he'd been there long enough to get comfortable.

"You're up early," Al commented mildly, but the pleasure showed through in his voice, and he flashed his brother a warm smile. Carefully, he toed off first one shoe and then the other before moving to the room's small table to set the results of his shopping expedition down.

"Yeah," Ed agreed with a grin in return, all tiny, jagged teeth. "It's kinda hard to sleep when your pillow wanders off."

Alphonse laughed softly, turned to see that golden eyes had begun to watch as he unpacked the food he'd purchased. "I'm sorry, brother," he offered, tone light. From the bag he pulled a shock of carrots and a little sack that bulged with potatoes. They would be soup tonight, if the innkeep let him borrow the stove again. "But if I waited for you to get up on your own, we'd never eat again."

He got a scowl as a response, and a moment later Ed was grumbling something and returning his attention to the book.

Al did his best to hide the smile as he lifted a loaf of thick, soft bread free from its confines. "You know, brother," he said a moment later, when it became clear that the older boy had no intention of replying to that particular comment, "I think there must be a local holiday coming up. Have you looked out the window?"

"Yeah," the boy conceded, glancing toward the open ties of the curtains. "Fuckin waste of streamers, if you ask me."

"They're hanging from every roof," Alphonse agreed, appreciative. "But I was thinking—" A jar of apple juice joined the rest of his purchases. "It might be nice for you to get out for a little bit. We could wrap a blanket around your shoulders."

Ed rolled his eyes, turned back to the page spread out before him. "Like hell," he snorted, and made a show of leaning forward to resume his reading.

"No, really," Al urged, and reached into the bag again—paused as he realized that there was only one item left. "Or even if you didn't want to see the town, we could get up for the sunrise some morning." Resolutely, his hands closed around the smooth glass of the bottle, lifted just as golden eyes raised once again to regard him.

"Oh, no," Ed said, voice thick with horror. "Oh, Al—how could you?"

"Don't be melodramatic, brother." The tone was firm, and Alphonse tightened his grip, advanced toward the bed.

The older boy abandoned his book in favor of scrambling backward, dangerously close to falling off the edge of the mattress. "Haven't I suffered enough?" he wailed piteously. And then, accusing: "I thought you said you loved me, you traitor!"

"We're not going to argue about this," Al told him, exasperation evident, and knelt on the opposite side of the bed. "You need the nutrients. It's good for you."

"It's milk," Ed hissed in response, eyeing the bottle with a look of wary misgiving. "The only thing it's good for is rinsing down the sink."

"Really, brother," Al sighed, and leaned forward to take Edward's arm. But as he moved closer, Ed went back—and the smaller boy really had been too close to the edge of the bed, because golden eyes widened as the limb meant to support him came down on air.

"Fuck!" Ed yelped—and the noise that came from Alphonse wasn't coherent enough to be a word, because he was too busy lunging across the distance between them, catching the boy in a grip that must've been tight enough to hurt.

"Ow," Ed complained, and struggled his way back onto the bed with his brother's help.

"I know," Al agreed, wincing and reaching to remove the corner of the book from where it had settled sharply against his hip. "If you weren't so childish when it came to—" And then bronze eyes fell upon the title of the book, narrowed in remembered displeasure. "Oh, that's right."

Ed lifted his gaze, startled, to see what had caused the change in tone—then ducked his head, guilty, when he realized the text that the younger boy was holding.

"Anatomy, brother?" Alphonse waved the volume for emphasis. "Chimerical transmutation, brother? What were you thinking?"

The tone, when Ed replied, was precariously near to sulking. "...I was gonna fix it."

And Alphonse had known. Of course he'd known—it had been obvious since he'd laid eyes on the small black and white sketches left open on the filthy floor of the library in that forsaken place. But the reply was a strong enough conformation, sudden enough, that he drew back with the force of the fury that welled up in response. "That's impossible, brother."

"Yeah, well, it's not like the lazy asshole even finished the job." Golden eyes drifted up to meet his gaze, fierce and defiant, and the grin that accompanied the expression was sharp. "And besides—I've done impossible things before."

"Brother." The shaking mix of horror and understanding at what might have been lost made the word thick. "You cannot transmute yourself. It is impossible. And even if—" He raised his voice to drown out the attempted protest. "-even if you managed, by some random fluke, to work out a way without being able to practice first, you were already half dead."

"I'd have managed," Ed insisted stubbornly, eyes rebellious.

Alphonse sucked a breath in through his teeth, let it out slowly. "Brother," he told the other boy, voice quiet. "You are the most amazing person I've ever met. You're brave and brilliant and I love you more than anything in this world."

He paused meaningfully, leaned in so that he was a few short inches away from the stunned expression spreading across Ed's face. "But you're also an absolute idiot. And when you get better, I'm going to hit you until you get it through your thick skull that if you ever, ever think about doing something that stupid again—" But he couldn't make his mind decide on what, precisely, he would do, couldn't think for too long about a world without Ed in it, and so instead he blinked fiercely against tears and raised shining bronze eyes to meet startled gold.

"Al," his brother said—and the sound of his name, quiet and amazed, was enough to force a soft hiccup of a sob from the younger boy.

"I'll do it," Alphonse demanded, and choked on the tears. "If it's that important, brother, I'll do it." The first of them was sliding its way down his cheek now, hot and wet, but he didn't reach to wipe it away.

And when a hesitant thumb ghosted along the skin of his face, tracing the damp tract, he was too caught up in his brother's shaky smile to notice.

"Let me see the teeth again," Al said, and tried not to notice the flush of his brother's cheeks as the older boy opened his mouth to comply.

Were he not so caught up in the pages spread out before him, Alphonse thought uncomfortably, he might be tempted into considering other things. Things like what it would feel like to touch the little ridges of Ed's teeth with his tongue instead of his fingertips, his mind provided as a helpful example, or whether the boy would reach precisely that shade of crimson if he were to lean in and kiss him.

But that, Al thought, feeling his face grow hot as he removed his hand again, was something two years too late. And besides, he reminded himself firmly, he was supposed to be concentrating.

Which wasn't at all helped when, a moment later, he realized that he needed to examine the spots covering Ed's legs again.

"Are you sure, brother?" he asked to cover his embarrassment, willing his eyes not to stray too far up the pale, exposed skin of Edward's thighs. "I really can't tell, to be honest."

Ed cleared his throat, looked away. "I'm sure," he offered, shifted awkwardly under the scrutiny. "I got a look at it before it was. Y'know. In me."

"Oh." Bronze eyes settled on the pages in front of him once more, and Alphonse peered closely at the text beside meticulous black and white ink drawings. "So... an Iberian lynx." The gaze shifted to the other book. "And a lesser mouse-tailed bat."

The growl that came from his brother's throat was unexpected, and Al glanced up, startled, to see what the matter was.

"Who's so small," Ed demanded, "That he's not even a proper sized bat?"

And the question was so absurdly normal that it took Alphonse five minutes to stop laughing.