College, Al decided a long time ago, is one of the most singularly wonderful things in the world. When his acceptance letter first arrived in the mail, he tried to hide it, ferreted it surreptitiously underneath his pillow, but Ed—and God knows what he'd been doing on Al's bed—found it and threw a fit of monumental proportions, waving it in his face and shouting about how Al shouldn't hide things like this from him. Then they didn't speak about it for another week. In the end, though, Ed and Auntie Pinako toasted him with bottles of new champagne and Winry baked him a (very bad) cake, and he went off to the Central State University the same week Ed was deployed along the eastern front.
College is wonderful, but he tries not think of his brother on the front lines as he sits in class, takes notes, and struggles through tests (he's never been a test taker)—but sometimes, the light shines in through a lecture hall window just so, turns so exact a shade of gold that he has to take a deep breath and put his hands under the desk so his seatmates won't see them trembling.
Ed is in his Book of Notable Twentieth Century Alchemists, Al notes with amusement; they will be talking about him on the week just before Christmas (the week when he will go back to Risenbourgh and Ed will—hopefully—be on paid leave). He thumbs through the chapter and has to smile over the picture of Ed it contains: his brother has always hated cameras and is scowling, one hand lifted to half-cover his face, but not high enough to cover his narrowed eyes and lowered eyebrows. He lays a bookmark carefully over the picture and tucks it underneath his pillow, and looks at it before he goes to bed at night.
His classmates are very nice, his friends are even better; they ask him, the second or third week, about his family, and Al answeres vaguely that he has a few family members waiting for him back in Risenbourgh, although his parents are dead. They don't ask again. Al couldn't tell them if he wanted to, anyway; Roy Mustang recommended that he assume a different name for his duration at the University, lest there be problems over the anti-military sentiment that's pervaded the campus since the Liore fiasco. He wonders how many other students here have family members, fathers, mothers, sisters or brothers who wear a pocketwatch on their belt; but when he mentions that in a letter to his brother, Ed writes back with a sharp reprimand to not ask. Al doesn't bring it up again, although he can't help but wonder.
Fall comes; the gardens are lined with wet brown leaves, and the trees become tall, majestic redheads. The wind takes on a bite to it, the crisp smell of snow. "Ah, autumn!" says one of his friends, a cheerful, brown-skinned Liore with a single strip of black tattooed over his nose. "Can't wait for Thanksgiving, can you, Al?"
"Sure can't," says Al, handing him his backpack. "My aunt makes the best pies and oh, the river will probably be just right for fishing, too."
"Hick," says his friend with a grin, and claps him on the back. "So, no go on coming to visit me, right?"
"I really would, but," Al shrugs, "family. Maybe for the spring vacation."
"All right." His friend's tattoo crinkles up when he smiles. "I'll see you after class then, Al."
He's forgotten his mittens back at Risenbourgh, the fluffy pink ones with the cats on the backs (hand-me-downs from Winry, since Ed said irritably that they couldn't afford such frivolities as mittens, jeez Al), so he tucks his hands into his pockets as he walks down the campus to his dorm. Which has recently become very cold—he thinks someone forgot to pay the gas bill. He'll have to heat up some tea and put on extra socks and...
He pauses, and two girls flow smoothly around him, not once pausing their high-pitched giggling. One tosses a cigarette onto the ground, and the smoke wafts up to Al's nose: cherry, tinted with cinammon.
Someone has taped up a sign to a tree, one of the majestic redheads. 'NO MORE WARS—NO MORE LIORES.'
Al starts and turns, tripping a little over a crack in the sidewalk, and frowns when he sees a young military officer in front of him, fresh-faced and clean-cut, hair and face neatly trimmed. The officer tilts his head and tries again: "You are, ah, Alphonse, right? Alphonse Elric?"
Automatically Al looks around to see if anyone has heard, but they're alone on the sidewalk together. He clears his face of its frown and holds out his hand, mustering up a polite smile. "Yes, that would be me," he says, and the officer returns his smile. "Is there... a problem?"
"Ah, well, not really. Well, I don't know, actually. I've just brought a letter to you from my superior officer. I can't say anything more than that, Elric-kun."
Folding his fingers over the letter, Al gives him a nod and an absent smile, and a few seconds later hears the sharp click of his heels snapping together and the tattoo of his feet walking down the sidewalk. When he looks back up as he is still opening the letter, the young man is gone; Al can't even see his back, not a hint of his blue uniform disappearing into the canopy of trees. He wishes, abruptly, he hadn't been so distant. The officer must have thought him another of those military-haters. He sighs and snaps open the letter.
When he's finished and tucked it back into his pocket, it's really no colder outside, and the trees are still as bright red as ever. But it feels a hell of a lot more chill.
He's seen quite enough of the military hospital in Central, and much as he likes the nurses, he was still glad when he thought they were through with it. Back when they thought the military would accept Edward's resignation, and wouldn't re-draft him for the latest war efforts. But life hasn't been quite so simple, and even though the hospital has gone through some renovations, become bigger and nicer-smelling, its clean white walls still make his eyes hurt and the acrid sting of antiseptic burns his nose.
There is a new clerk at the front desk, a round-faced, long-nailed young girl little older than himself. Al pulls up a smile, even though it makes his face hurt and probably looks just as painful, and flashes her his ID. "I'm here to see Edward Elric, please?"
Her eyes widen behind her glasses—they are a particularly pretty shade of blue, cornsilk or baby blue. "Why, yes," she says, glancing at his ID and then smiling at him. "He was brought in last night. He was in ICU, but they've moved him to recovery—ah, wait, wait, you have to fill out some forms!"
She chats with him as he fills out the forms, and Al is surprised to discover that she attends the university herself—she's reserve military, her poor eyesight preventing her from sent off to combat. She is glad, she says with a hint of shame, and Al smiles but is sad that she has to be embarrassed about it. "I can't believe I got to see your brother, though," she says, hero-worship brightening her eyes even more—hero-worship, and more: crimson touches her cheeks. "He's cuter than I expected. Cuter, and smaller."
And Al is very, very glad that Edward is not around to hear that.
He scribbles out the last of the required signatures and hands the forms back to her; her cheeks dimple when their hands brush. "He's in room 51," she tells him, pointing him in the right direction. "Please tell him I hope he gets better soon."
Room 51 is near ICU, down halls that don't even try to cover up the sick hospital smell. Al braces himself on the door for a moment, taking a deep breath and curling his hands on themselves, trying to warm his fingers. Then he straightens, and pushes open the door.
The room is dimly-lit and sweetened slightly by the bouquet of flowers sitting on the windowsill. A bright red radio sits on the table in the corner, playing news but softly, so softly Al can hear the scratchy whisper of Ed's breathing. Quietly, Al pulls up the lone chair in the room to Edward's bed and sits in it, bumping his knees against the bed and leaning forward to get a good look at his brother.
Nothing looks too bad; a bandage around the head, a swollen eye, all limbs intact. Al reaches out and peels back the bandage from Ed's stomach, clencing his teeth when he sees a long row of angry-red stitches and the blossoming of bruises. He tucks it back against Ed's skin, then scoots closer, takes one of Ed's hands in both of his—the automail one, cool against his flesh.
"I know you're awake, brother."
One of Ed's eyes, the unbruised one, opens; the other comes open more slowly. "How'd you tell?" Ed asks, voice clogged with sleep and drugs.
"Your breathing," Al says, unable to keep a swell of fondness from his voice. "When you sleep, your nose whistles—from your deviated septum, remember?"
"I remember." Ed closes his eyes, as if keeping them open is too much effort. It might be. "You broke my nose when I was five."
Al bites his tongue, opens his mouth, closes it.
Ed's lips twitch. "You have a mean right hook, anyone ever tell you that?"
"It's a first," Al says. He pauses again, then rushes forward with, "Brother, this is ridiculous. You can't be doing this anymore, you just can't. You're twenty, you've been in the military eight years—there's no reason to—"
"Al. I'm tired. Let's skip it, okay."
Al squeezes his hand, chafes it, trying to bring warmth into it—the cold makes the metal joints ache, he knows. "I'm sorry," he says, subdued. "What happened?"
"Ambush," says Ed, shifting in bed with a look of discomfort. "I was sleeping. Stupid. Should've been awake. Someone got me with a knife. Sucks, huh?"
"Yeah." Al tries not to think of it, tries to stop himself from picturing it—his brother with a knife in his stomach, bent over the ground, hands pressed to his stomach to stop the flow of blood. "I should have been there," he says, and knows as soon as the words leave his mouth that it is stupid; he couldn't have been there. And that, more than anything, brings the tears to his eyes.
"Hey, hey," says Ed, both eyes coming open in alarm as Al tries to swallow a sob. He presses his fingers into Al's, patting them; then sits up and wraps his other arm around Al, bringing Al's head down against his chest. "C'mon, Al, seriously. It's just a scratch."
Al laughs at that, chokes around a sob. "You idiot," he says into Ed's chest, squeezing his eyes shut. "You jerk. Don't be like that, don't. It's not just a scratch, you could have been killed."
Ed doesn't say anything, just strokes his fingers through Al's scruffy hair and makes little murmuring noises. Ed's not good at that, never has been, and it sounds stilted and awkward—but he tries, and that has always given him an air of sincerity that so many nurses and doctors lack. Al frees his hand of Ed's and wraps both arms around Ed's neck, clinging to him. Ed is warm, alive in his arms: too thin and pale. His brother should be taller than him, should be bigger and more dense, but Ed is smaller than he and always will be, now, and will always be too light in Al's arms.
They sit there for what feels like hours, Al clinging to Ed's back, Ed touching his shoulders and hair and murmuring that it will be all right, it won't be so bad, and then he'll be pensioned, right? When Al's eyes are finally dry, he sits back, scrubs his eyes and sniffs. "I'm sorry," he mumbles, shamed at how tired and pale Ed looks as he lies back against the pillow.
Ed rolls his eyes and reaches out for him again, knocking his metal knuckles against Al's shoulder. "Shut up already."
"Yeah, yeah." Al smiles in spite of himself, feeling like his face is going to crack. It hurts but—it feels good, in a way. He hasn't smiled, really smiled, in a while. "I've missed you."
"Yeah? How's university life?"
Ed pats the space next to him and Al sits on it, then stretches out next to him, propping his head on one hand and resting the other on Ed's arm. He tries to think of something to say, then thinks of one of his professors, a big, fat man who always rails against military offenses, and tells Ed about that. Then he tells him about his friends, the one from Liore, all the others from small country towns like him, mostly educated at home—and how wonderful it is to be at school, where everyone is so different, and how beautiful the white walls of the church are when the sunset shines on them. He mentions the redheaded trees, how the pond has frozen over but he can still see the fish swimming underneath, and how they tried to go iceskating but ended up falling in through weak ice. It was the coldest he'd ever been, so cold that warming up afterward had felt something like dying.
By the time he is finished, the sunlight coming in through the blinds is a watery orange, and Ed's breathing is ever so slightly wheezy from his deviated septum. Al reaches down and carefully pulls the blanket up around them both, then curls around Ed, twining their hands together, and tries to get some sleep with his head pillowed on Ed's shoulder.
The sky turns gray and the wind freezes during the train ride to Risenbourgh, and when Al steps out onto the platform, everything is covered in a light dusting of snow, fluffy and powdery, and he can hear the faint sound of people singing carols. Lights glow warm and bright at every house, and people smile and wave to him as he walks the path to the Rockbells' house, from which lights are flashing, too: Winry at the balcony, welcoming him home.
Ed waits for him in the doorway, eyes glowing in a bright face, and holds out his hand as Al nears the house. "Wait till you see the present I got you!" he calls; from inside the house Winry shouts out that it's not that great, Edward, would you shut up about it already? and Al grins, takes his brother's hand and presses it to his chest.
"I'm glad to be home," he says, and Ed's grin softens.
"Here," he says, fishing something out of his pocket. "You can have your present early."
"EDWARD ELRIC," Auntie Pinako thunders.
"Aw, shut up, hag! Lemme do Christmas my own damn way."
Al opens the letter, inhales the scent of fine, official paper, and skims over the script, eyes widening when he realizes what he is reading. "Brother," he says on a breath, disbelieving. "These are—these can't be...."
"Discharge papers," Ed says, lifting his eyebrows. "Eh, you know, that son of a bitch Mustang owed me a favor, so...."
Al just shakes his head.
"It might not be permanent." Ed stands on tip-toe and points down at the letter, highlighting certain spots, words couched in such official lingo that Al can't quite comprehend them at this point. "Official wording is 'temporary long-term leave of absence,' or whatever bullshit they're calling it now. But. Mustang said it'd be for at least a year. I thought I might take a break and do some traveling... you know, take some time off and really focus on my research."
Al fumbles for words, then finally drops the letter and drags Ed into a hug. He sniffs loudly, trying to hold back tears, and Ed huffs against his shoulder. "You are happy about this, right?" his brother says. "I mean, you kept asking me to quit—"
"I'm happy for you," Al says, pressing Ed's cheeks between his hands so he'll be quiet. "You don't belong in the military."
"Edward!" That's Winry, storming down from the balcony. "Close the damned door, you're going to freeze the turkey!"
"Happy Christmas," says Ed, cheeks curving underneath Al's hands.
Al grins—it feels like the smile is a living thing, trying so hard to run off his face so it can do a dance around the house—and touches his forehead to Edward's. "Happy Christmas," he says shakily.
Ed leans back, cocking his chin in the direction of the house. "Shall we go before Winry kicks us out? She's acting like she killed the turkey herself, but she really just bought it frozen—"
"EDWARD! Stop slandering me!"
"Sure. Winry always buys the best turkeys anyway," says Al, and closes the door behind him and Ed.
He remembers, when the turkey has been divided and they are cutting into it and their mashed potatoes and Auntie Pinako is passing around cider, that he left the discharge paper outside. But Ed is knocking his shoulder against Al's, grinning, his eyes a beautiful shade of gold and glowing with laughter, and Winry is looking about ready to hit Ed because he makes fun of how she cut the turkey, and Auntie Pinako is already on her fourth pinch of tobacco—and Al can't be bothered.