My Brother's Keeper

He spies Colonel Hawkeye across the lobby, sipping coffee, which means that it is Thursday—a sprig of bright saffron sticking up amongst the hospital whites, illuminated in the clear, strong light coming through the eastern windows. Nice, sometimes, to see a familiar face; nice also that others do visit as regularly as he does. Today is Hawkeye's day, and she is wearing a hazel turtleneck that brings out her eyes. They flicker to him across the distance, sympathetic despite her face's usual mask of decorum.

She nods to him briefly, then turns away. Go ahead, I'll wait my turn.

Alphonse waves to her and turns to the stairs, takes them up and up, circling in a clockwise spiral. There is a skylight up above here, blazing light straight down through the stairwell, and when he looks up into that dazzling sun, sometimes it feels like he might keep going straight into the heavens, as if this journey is literally Forever. Even when does reach the fourth floor, his brother's ward feels though it's aeons away.

Nurses in interchangeable white smocks bustle about a tiny nurses's station, and he is intercepted by one of the younger ones, a new girl he doesn't recognize—Marissa, her name tag helpfully provides. He asks her if his brother is able to take visitors at the moment.

"I'll have to check with my supervisors to see if that's okay," she says uncertainly, chewing very slightly on her bottom lip. Very well then. Al knows it will be, but there is no fighting the system; cogs must be turned in the proper order. He gives her his very best attempt at a smile for her efforts and she lights up like a light bulb. She has pretty eyes, a light blue-grey. Alphonse appreciates them abstractly, the way one admires a very fine painting.

He stands there and examines the various bric-a-brac lining the wall as he waits for her to procure the key to his brother's room. He is not particularly worried. The people in charge here know who he is, that his brother is the Fullmetal Alchemist, and besides, he always comes for visiting hours precisely at four, to help Ed wake up enough for dinner which they always serve at five. The world of hospitals is very much like the world of the military; time lined up in precise straws and then cut, taken hard in successive hits. Everything happens on time, or the world is out of order. It is a good environment for his brother right now; meals are regular and there are few, if any, surprises.

Marissa bustles back to him within short order, still beaming like a giddy school girl.

"This way," she said, and reaches out to tug him in the direction of Room 421. Al blushes a little at the way her nails brushed up his arm flirtatiously to tug at his elbow. Five years out of his thirteen-year-old skin, but sometimes he doesn't feel like it. He isn't used to being attractive to women. In some ways, it is still hard enough just being out of armor. He looks down at her hand stupidly and she lets him go, seems to collect herself; she must have realized it isn't really the time or the place.

"Excuse me," she says, and he nods; they walk the rest of the way in silence.

"Fifteen minutes," she pronounces when they are standing in front of that double-thick door. "He's a little woozy, mind—he only woke up a few minutes ago."

"How's he doing?" Al asks.

Marissa chews on that lower lip again, a habit of sorts, it seems. Now that he' s looking, he can almost see two grooves worn into it where her teeth are used to sitting. "You'd have to ask Dr. Haversham about that, I don't have his chart here -"

No change then. "Thank you anyway," he says, cutting her off abruptly and her pretty eyes widen, perhaps a little affronted. Such an open face. It reminds him a little of his brother, and he finds he could not wait to get inside to him.

"Fifteen minutes," she warns again, and opens the door to let him in, then closes it neatly behind him.

The room itself is light and airy compared to the rest of the clinically bleak hospital, and Al can't help but smile a little at the sight of his brother curled up in the center of the bed, staring dreamily up and out through the row of high skylights in the angled ceiling. Al got him a room along the outside of the building on purpose, and it is nice to know he was dead on the money. Soft natural light, neutral-colored sheets, all very restful without being too dreary; his brother can relax here. There is a potted plant from the approved list that came last week; the nurses said it came from General Mustang's office, which translates to Colonel Hawkeye (and he thinks of her downstairs again, quietly sipping at her coffee and waiting her turn). It is nice of her to think of these little details. The General is sweet, but without her he would be perpetually lost.

Just like his brother would be lost without him, Al thinks with another slightly guilty pang.

"Hello, brother," he says softly, and waits to make sure Ed is really awake before padding softly over to the bed and sitting down on it.

"Allll..." Ed tosses his head over toward him and favors him with a jubilant, unfocused smile. Al smiles back and puts out a cautious hand to cup his brother's cheek, stroke gently down the side of his neck. He doesn't look like there is a tense bone in his body.

Probably not, Al snorts, considering there are enough tranquilizers in his system to kill a horse.

"How are you feeling, brother?" he asks and Ed squirms toward him, attempts to mold himself bodily around Al's hip. Al reaches down and gets an arm under him, helps him get his head up into Al's lap. Ed is so strangely cuddly when he is loopy. Taking advantage of it feels wrong, because it is so out of character, but so does denying him. He brushes his brother's tangled bangs back and waits for him to find more words amidst the haze of medication.

"Sleepy," Ed admits finally, eyes crossed with the effort of talking. "Dope me too much. The nurses." He wriggles a little again and Al pets him, soothes him as if he were an oversize kitten.

"Is my leg better yet? I wanna go home..."

"Getting there," Al dodges the question by scritching behind his brother's ear.

"...good," Ed says agreeably. In the haze, he doesn't seem to notice that he is in fact already moving his right leg quite normally. Al hopes that is the tranquilizer, and not the nervous breakdown talking.

There were times when he wonders if it was all his fault somehow, if maybe it happened because he never entirely pieced together the puzzle of his memories from his time in the armor. He has recovered good-sized pieces over the years, but never the entirety, and there is always the nagging feeling, maybe the secret of what has broken his brother lies somewhere in there. Or perhaps, he thinks moodily, it is just Ed, deep down, unable to give without something big giving way. Twenty-three and so often lost in his own life, and Alphonse does not know how to put it back together for him.

He loves his brother so much that sometimes, he wants to shake him to death.

Ed hums a little, then rolls inward and buries his face into the flat of Al's stomach. "Tell me what happened again?" he murmurs. "To my leg?"

Like a kid wanting a bedtime story, even. Hell. He will have to speak to the doctors about this dosage. "You don't remember?"

"Mmm, I do...?" Ed drawls, sounding uncertain. "But I like hearing you tell it."

Al shakes his head. He was hoping not to have to go through this again today, but is something they will have to deal with eventually (if Ed ever manages to keep the details straight enough to make sense of it) so Al takes a deep breath and pets the back of his brother's head.

"We were at the peace talks," he starts gently. "We were with the General."

"Bastard," Ed supplies helpfully.

"Yes, General Bastard," Al says. "There was an assassination attempt—the three of us assisted. You brought the ceiling down and a beam got you across the leg."

"That one Drachman bastard..." Ed breathes suddenly, and there is a flicker of murderous fire in his eyes. Al freezes, waits for it subside before continuing.

"Yes, it was Drachma. And it's over now," Al says quickly, trying to gloss over it. Not wanting to relive it himself. Certain aspects of it are captured forever on freeze-frame in his memory; others he never entirely saw but can certainly imagine. The way his brother's face must have looked when Al lunged for the gunman. He saw it afterward for sure, bloodied and grinning with wild ferocity. That is one of those images he wishes he could forget.

"I saved you though, right?" Ed asks, looking somewhat anxious. As if Al's presence is not proof enough.

"Yes," Al says flatly, and his hand stills for a moment on Ed's head. "You did." It is not untrue; just not the entire truth. The whole truth is not so cut and dried.

"Then I did good," Ed announces, and squeezes his eyes shut just a like cat when it has gotten the cream and is proud of itself.

"You didn't need to bring the ceiling down, though," Al cannot stop himself from saying; it is the part of the whole thing that he most sincerely regrets. You didn't need to bring the works down, just like you didn't need to scorch the earth at the northern line during the war; you were working too hard, too fast; why can't you ever just stop to breathe? And there is a part of him that knows that it isn't really the shaky peace fire tension, it is just Ed, that there is something fundamental that hasn't been right for a very long time. It is sometimes terrifying to be on the receiving end of this much love, and Ed has made it clear that without Al, Ed is nothing. It is love so strong that it begins to strangle him.

"But I...I thought I was going to lose you," his brother says with real anguish in his glazed eyes, and Al pets him harder, shushes him a little.

And people died because you wanted to save me, Al wants to point out, but he is afraid to because a part of him wonders, what if Ed says that he is fine with that? Ed has died for him, and he has died for Ed, but he is not sure he can accept the sacrifice of others.

Or was that in fact the reason Ed broke? Al thinks his brother has killed before, but homunculi, nothing like real people.

"I know," Al says instead. "I know you were worried about losing me. But I'm okay. You're okay too, right? So it's all going to be just fine, right?"

"...right," his brother says, and burrows his nose hard into Al's abdomen, as if trying to prove to himself Al was real, Al existed. Al hisses a little but endures, knowing this is important to his brother, knowing that is his true fear. His brother somehow seems to believe that his life's goal is to stop all war, these days, but he is also terrified of what that work means for Al—never for him, always for Al. It was something he went back and forth over daily for a while, trying to force Al to stay home (which Al cannot do; who will make sure Ed lives if Ed does not?), trying to keep himself from going (which neither of their consciences would allow; not when the Drachman forces threaten everything they hold dear); endless argument over and over with no solution, only more precipitate.

He's driving himself crazy trying to keep you safe, someone had said—maybe Gramma Pinako?—and Al knows there has to be more to it as well because hell, sometimes even he wakes up from nightmares of things in their past that he can hardly remember; but it really sunk in when that ceiling came down, when Ed had nearly killed them both in his haste to take out the gunman swinging his rifle around to face Al.

Al and the General had had to save their asses, with transmutations that even to this day Al could not say how he'd managed in time. Even then, by the time they had made their way out of the rubble that had once been the Amestris Parliament, the secret was out and it was clear that Ed was just too stressed to take it anymore, frothing and clinging to Al and spitting half-nonsense, shaking and yet still trying to stand on a leg with a compound fracture; had already been exhausted from another skirmish they'd been in just hours before, because Ed still couldn't figure out if he wanted to save the world with Al or continue to lock Al away from it, and Al had looked up at the General with tears in his eyes and begged him to transmute the oxygen out from the air around his brother temporarily because it was the same sort of panic attack he dealt with all the time and he just could not handle it anymore.

And you can't get Ed to talk to anybody about it, Al thinks with anguish, though he keeps a steady hand running through his brother's hair. Ed is too smart for psychiatrists, just talks circles around them, so what choice did they have? Ed is used to hospitals; he is used to being put under and worked on, so they had just quietly transferred him from one ward to another, to a quiet place with plenty of light and soft cream colored blankets where he could unplug from the world for a while.

Maybe if he sleeps long enough, it will knit together what is wrong inside of him, the way over time the bones in his leg healed. Because damn it all, Al has tried, had been trying as best as he knew how, and somehow it still hasn't been enough.

Ed yawns suddenly and shudders, flops back onto his back in Al's lap and stares dreamily up at him.

"We are going home soon, right?" he asks again, plaintively.

Al closes his eyes.

"Yes," he lies.

"That's good," Ed sighs. "Miss you."

Another knife needles its way into Al's heart and he leans down to kiss his brother's forehead. He smells warm and innocent, like a sunny day, and Al tries not to cry because dammit, he has put up with it for so long, he has tried...

He just wishes, sometimes, that his love could be enough for Ed.

"I miss you too," he whispers instead, and smooshes his lips against his brother's forehead so hard it leaves a mark. "Love you, brother."

Wishes, sometimes, that his love could be enough to get Ed to stop loving him.