He'd been six when Edward taught him to swim, exhilarated and terrified and too proud to admit to either.

They'd left the house barefoot in their haste, raced breathless over the warm, green fields that separated their home from the lake, hadn't stopped until their panting reflections stared back at them out of the still, even surface of the water. And then they'd waded in, the slick mud cool between their toes, and Alphonse had been less excited and more afraid.

He could almost recall the way that those small hands had felt, even now—the fingers digging into his sides almost hard enough to bruise, his brother just as frightened of dropping him as he was of being dropped.

The command had come in the brash tone that Ed always used to reassure the world that he knew exactly what he was doing: "Kick."

And Al had taken in the expression on his brother's face and done as he was told—flailed so wildly, in fact, that he'd managed to get Edward in the nose, and they'd waded from the lake again, the smaller of the boys clutching his bleeding face while the younger stared, wide eyed, and apologized over and over.

When Ed had declared himself ready to try again, wiped his nose with the back of one small hand and left a streak of blood across his cheek, Alphonse had thought that he must have the bravest brother in the world.

And it would not be the last time the boy would be impressed by that particular notion, certainly—nor would Alphonse, over the years, ever cease to be astonished by the new and sometimes frightening lengths to which his brother went in order to pursue their quest. But a new awareness drifted in gradually to temper that vision of Edward, to blur the picture of a little boy at once invincible and shining, all golden skin except the white flash of teeth and the bright smear of blood.

Because on the night that he'd held Edward for the first time in arms that couldn't feel, his big brother had seemed not brave but fragile, not invincible but dying, and the realization had changed the way Al understood the world, fundamentally and irreparably. Had made him realize that for all Ed's light and heat and energy, he was breathtakingly vulnerable—was human.

And for every time he'd stood beside the hospital bed with his brother lying between the sheets, he'd been reminded once more exactly how easy it would be for that sharp grin and those glittering golden eyes to be snatched away from him.

"Hey," Edward said suddenly, as though the silence had become too thick for him to bear. His voice was soft, eyes half-lidded; the boy really had lost a lot of blood, and it showed. "Knock it off, Al. You think I'm gonna let some two-bit asshole finish me?"

"Brother," Alphonse began, meaning to protest that the boy ought to be saving his strength.

"Well, you've got another thing coming." Slowly, as though making sure of its own strength, Ed's flesh hand crept out to feel its way along the leather contours of one of the younger boy's gauntlets, seized a finger and tugged it nearer. "I'm not gonna give up that easy."

And when it was close enough, the knuckles of the gauntlet bare centimeters from Edward's face, the boy kissed it—a brush of a touch, gentle and reassuring.

"…yes, brother," Alphonse agreed quietly, and wished with a distant sort of ache that he could know whether Ed's lips felt the same as he imagined. "I know."

Because after all, he had the bravest brother in the world.