That year, the snows arrived in Riesenburg earlier than anyone had ever seen before.
Even Pinako attested to the rarity of the early snowfall; she had stood in her threshold, severe-faced as ever, adjusting her glasses habitually while gazing at the descending curtain of white flurries. That had been on the fifteenth day of September, and it had already been snowing for two days. Edward and Alphonse had noted the thoughtful look in the old woman's eyes as she chewed her pipe and puffed up curling tendrils of smoke.
Winry had sat on the couch, blushing softly at the latest gift her childhood friends had brought her: a teddy bear, cream-hued with large black button eyes. Her fingers had dusted across its surface as she proclaimed it beautiful, something the child would surely cherish, and Edward and Alphonse had pretended not to notice the tears in her wide blue eyes. Sara if it was a girl, she and her husband had decided; Winry repeated this as her pink-painted nails playfully brushed the bear's red bow. That had been on the fifteenth. On that day, the snowfall ceased, and this remained so for nearly a week.
By the twentieth, the brothers were at Pinako's house almost constantly, and the snow had begun to fall anew. The hearth stayed lit during the evenings, and dinners were sumptuous, pleasant affairs, although Winry sometimes lost her temper about one thing or another. It was in Alphonse to be infinitely patient...but it was in Edward to stomp out the front door, snow crunching loudly beneath both the flesh foot and the automail.
Al could only tsk audibly as he went about helping with the dishes; it never mattered how loudly Ed yelled or how much he sighed and huffed in annoyance, because regardless, he always returned with an apology and an offer to transmute whatever his friend currently needed. Pinako was always there with some sarcastic remark—maybe a suggestion that he transmute his ego into some humility and exchange his short temper ("shorter than you," as the jokes went) for a little forbearance, and comments such as those always instigated more conflicts...but all in all, life was good.
Things adopted that pattern for the next few weeks, and by the time the second of October rolled around, everyone could feel the nearness of the expected delivery.
"Two more days, Brother," Al said as he held up the glass. He had poured a little champagne out, and he kept tilting the glass back and forth, causing the amber-hued liquid to shine in the light. Tiny bubbles rose within it. The sight was making Al so thirsty, but he was hesitant about drinking. Funny, he thought to himself, that he should still be so uncertain about partaking of a very natural and common "adult" activity. "And then there'll be..."
He still could not say it without turning just a shade more rose. The prospect of a kitten had always been enticing, but a baby? That was another level of cuddliness entirely.
"And there'll be a squealing little mouth and a lot of noise and wetness and messes," Ed retorted, huffing to add effect and looking out the window so that his cheek was angled just enough to hide his own faint touch of colour. "Come off it, Al. Miracle of life is fine and all that, but we're not kids anymore."
"No, we're not," Al agreed with a slim smile. He lifted the glass and took his first sip of the champagne. "We're adults."
Although the words had come from his own lips, he felt vaguely surprised by them, as though a stranger had just informed him of the news. Well, it was true, wasn't it? He didn't often think about it that way, but it had been five years since his soul and body had been reunited with one another.
Al still could not quite remember everything from his and Edward's "big adventure", but Ed had recounted the story so many times that Al could almost see every detail; he could nearly feel the hot sun over Lior, even if he had never actually felt it during the real journey. Every time Ed told the tale of the great search for the Philosopher's Stone, the details seemed to get just slightly more impressive: at first, vanquishing the homunculi had been quite a massive undertaking for Edward, but as years of retellings went by, Sloth sounded as flimsy as the water that had composed her essence, and Envy—well, he was just some pansy in a skirt, after all.
"Auntie Pinako keeps saying we need to find wives," Al remarked, quietly. Slowly, he took another drink of the champagne.
The comment was met with a snort. Ed was still looking out the window, gazing at the piles of snow that lined the yard like thick woolen blankets. "She'll probably outlive both of us, y'know...stubborn old bat." When he turned his gaze to Alphonse, the rouge glow fled his cheeks and his lips parted for a broad grin. "'Course, she doesn't know I already have a wife."
"Br-uhhhh-ther!" He sighed facetiously and took another drink of the champagne. "Don't you want to celebrate, too?"
"Nah. Doesn't seem right that we can drink and the person whose fortune we're celebrating can't."
Al let out a slight chuckle and narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Oh, you're just saying that because you have a low tolerance for alcohol, what with you being so—"
Ed's eyes went wide, and his grin was instantly replaced with a look of pure slack-jawed horror. Alphonse could not help but feel amused at that; Edward was nothing if not predictable. "Don't you even say it, Al!"
"—weak of stomach," Al finished, shrugging innocently.
Ed made a face at him, nose wrinkling in feigned annoyance. Not a moment later, his attention shifted once again to the outside world. Al watched his brother, regarding him with the quiet, understated admiration he had always reserved for Edward and Edward alone. The elder Elric sat across the room from his brother, automail foot absently tapping the linoleum, shoulder propped on the top of the sideways chair. Alphonse always found himself amazed by the way his brother could make even the most simple and mindless gestures seem so pristine and beautiful. The kitchen had a fine ambience, what with the gentle lighting and the appetizing scent of baked sweets, but nothing added to the comforting atmosphere like Edward himself.
Everyone spoke of how grand Ed was; famous, intelligent, and accomplished—not to mention golden, but it was also well-known that he had a metal attitude. He could act aloof or even downright irascible, and he didn't make a habit of getting too close to people. But he's never at a distance with me, Al thought with a hint of smugness, and the thought made him feel...oddly powerful...although maybe that wasn't quite the right word. Strong, secure, safe; all of those adjectives applied. Al was proud in his knowledge that he had something special, something no one else had. Having Edward's love was like holding the sun, all loving golden warmth and fiery intensity.
"Two more days, Al..." Ed muttered. The words were little more than a puff of air, and there was a surreal quality to them, as though Ed were speaking in his sleep and not quite hearing himself. "He'd better be back by then."
Automail knuckles rapped wood in a steady, repetitive motion.
"He will be," Al said, and finished his champagne.
He did not doubt his statement in the least, but Edward took to a contemplative silence—the same silence and focus he used when intently reading a book—and only his metal parts continued to voice emotions.
Al pointedly ignored his brother's goodnatured (because with Ed, what else could it be?) complaining and worked the soaked blond mane into a fine lather. The tub was an old-fashioned one with claw feet, and the boys had poured the hot water themselves. The brothers had decided to make use of the aged tub because it was really the only one large enough to adequately contain the both of them, but the floor was none the less drenched in suds and water, though Al mostly blamed Ed, as the elder Elric seemed quite unable to sit still. Al sat behind him, back pressed to the tub, one hand stroking Ed's chest and belly while the other knuckled a dollop of conditioner throughout his hair.
Edward's skin was slippery with trails of water and a thin film of soap, but Alphonse loved the wetness on the ridges of tight muscle which comprised his brother's body. He sighed softly and pressed their cheeks together, then eased back and kissed one of Ed's ears. The action caused a small remnant of floral shampoo to get into his mouth, but aside from a minor wince, he ignored the bad taste and showed little reaction. Ed's breathing was steady; Al felt the slow rise and fall when he pressed his palm to his brother's sternum. Still, he knew better than to think Ed's mind was at ease. His fidgety behaviour told the truth of his mood, and Al couldn't blame him.
It was the third of October, one day before the predicted date of labour, and they were both worried about Winry. Her husband still had not returned home, and while the snow was beginning to melt, there was still too much of it for travel to be advisable. Pinako was unperturbed; all of her labours had been at home, and she had delivered babies for others when help was needed. Meanwhile, Winry herself doggedly insisted that she'd be fine. She made sure to remind everyone that if she could take a watch apart and then assemble its parts again, then she could surely have no trouble pushing out a baby. It was just a matter of figuring out the mechanics of the situation, she assured.
By far the most stressed out person in the household was Edward, although as always, he did a remarkable job of hiding it from everyone but Alphonse. Al never missed those little lines of stress, those slight pinchings of the lips, or the way Ed's eyes narrowed a hair more while he went about performing some mindless chore. Al had suggested that they share a steamy bath after he had, by chance, caught sight of Ed transmuting wood into logs for the fire.
Alphonse had stood at the window and watched for a while, mesmerized as he always was by his brother. Ed's hair had been in disarray, and every breath sent up little white clouds of breath. Beside him, Den—now of an age to rival Pinako—barked softly and wagged her tail. Even with a slight distance between he and Ed, Al had been able to spot the tension on Ed's face as he produced log after log. He needs something to loosen him up, Al had thought; it wasn't so much that he was worried about Ed as it was that he felt Ed just needed pampering because...well, because.
So, once Winry had gone to bed for the night, Ed had grudgingly agreed to a bubblebath, though he probably hadn't expected Al to take things one step further by ensuring that his long hair was replete with "awful" shampoo that Ed had deemed the bastard child of tropical fruits and an overdone garden.
All the same, Ed did seem somewhat more relaxed, and Al was in no hurry for this to end; he wanted to cherish Ed's closeness, savour the feel of his skin and hair, and relish a little peace before the big day began.
As he ran his fingers through Ed's hair, Al found himself marvelling over how long it had gotten. He supposed his own was barely shorter, but it was still interesting to note how Ed had changed over the years. So beautiful, he thought, but that was redundant. His mind repeated those two little words many times, and really, who in their right mind wouldn't agree?
When he heard Ed mumble something beneath his breath, Al blinked, wiped the foam away from his ears with the back of one hand, and said,
There was a pause, then a slight chuckle, rich and warm. Ed sounded tired, but in a good way. He stretched, and muscles audibly popped, succumbing to pliance. "I just said, 'I love you, Al', but you already know that, right? Still doesn't hurt to repeat it every now and then."
Al smirked. So much for his thoughts being the redundant ones. "Of course I know that..." he whispered in response. A hand touched Ed's metal arm; Al uncurled his index finger and stroked the rigid, glistening surface. "Actions speak louder than words."
Ed stayed still for a few seconds as Al helped him clean his automail parts; the younger Elric draped the washcloth over his fingers and tenderly scrubbed the dirt from the small grooves. Al was careful not to touch Ed's shoulder or thigh too carelessly; he knew the automail wore on his sibling more than he'd ever let on, and he wasn't going to risk exacerbating that. Intermittently, Al paused to administer a hug around the waist or a press of his lips against Ed's neck—any feather-light movement to add the closeness he perpetually and desperately craved.
Finally, Ed took the initiative to do what Al had more or less expected from the get-go: he turned and pushed Al back against the tub. Instantly, Alphonse went limp and—like the sponge he had earlier used on the dishes—soaked up everything of Edward's: from his eyes to the curve of his still (perhaps eternally) boyish face, from the smell of the shampoo and conditioner mixing with Ed's own earthy and musky scent to the coldness of automail against his thigh, from the way his lips parted so exquisitely to the heat of his breath.
This is devotion, Al thought, and once he had consumed every detail of the picture before him, he closed his eyes and held the image. He wanted to single it out, focus upon it, obsess over every line of Edward's body and every emotion upon his face. This is love, and this is ...bliss.
Maybe he was smiling. He probably was, but he did not know for certain. All around them, some of the water had evaporated into a pale fog, and Al felt as though his own body was undergoing a sublimation. I love you, he thought again and again, not caring that his mind was repeating itself; hands tangled in long hair—Al's in Ed's and then the reverse—and Al tilted his head, baring the muscles for nips, teeth, tongue, kisses, or hands. One metal thumb traced ellipses on the bath-soft skin while Ed's flesh hand cradled the small of his brother's back. Lips met; mouths stretched and tongues came together; automail pushed hips up at an angle, and Alphonse pulled one hand from Ed's hair to steady himself by gripping the side of the tub.
Exquivalent exchange? Maybe it was. For all they had suffered, there was happiness now, and they could drink from one another, tasting life and celebrating its creation—its entrance into the world—simply by enjoying one another's existences.
October 4th; when Winry walked into the kitchen with a broad smile and plainly announced that her water had broken, Edward looked to Alphonse and the look he saw announced that he would remember this day for the rest of his life. Edward could have said the same for himself, but instead, he said only, "Well, I guess you'd better go lie down."
Alphonse was nervous, anxious, excited, and apprehensive. Ed was amused by all of his expressions and uncertain movements, but what he found most endearing was the knowledge that he would have been the same way...had it not been for Gracia.
"This isn't the first baby we've delivered, Al," Ed informed him, and Al nodded.
Ed had long ago told Al about Gracia and Hughes, and he had since repeated the tale several times over, but of course that could never be the same as actually storing away a memory of such a poignant experience. Alphonse had met the woman, as well as little Elysia, so he could at least understand what Ed was speaking of on a conceptual level, but then again, understanding and application were two different subjects.
"You did great," Ed assured.
Al seemed proud of that, at least. Ed stood beside him and watched his countenance intently, reading the sweet gray eyes as some might read a book or the crescents of a palm. Trisha Elric had left much of herself on her second son, and every day, Ed woke up thankful that he could see those eyes, that smile; the years Al had spent without a body had taught his older brother to worship every simple thing about his form—the minute freckles and slender, high eyebrows, and the way his eyes were never gloomy despite their pewter colouring.
Alphonse put the light in Ed's own eyes, which otherwise would have been ashen and sullen in spite of their colour.
Hours after the labour began, Ed stood beside Winry as she sat in bed, blankets pooling around her abdomen. There was still one person missing from the occasion, but Winry had not yet expressed any doubts about his eventual arrival. She must wonder, though, Ed thought, and he couldn't help but feel impressed by how well she was handling things...at least outwardly. Ed had a feeling that her almost demure smiles hid clenched teeth.
It was interesting to ponder how much they had all matured, and how much they had grown...well, Al had grown, though Ed was sure he had gained a couple of inches himself. This is my family, he mused, smiling contentedly as he watched Alphonse walk into the room with a large bowl of warm water. As he set it beside the bed, Ed decided that it would be his little brother's turn to keep it warm this time around.
Once the sterilized instruments were nearby, much of the tension visibly fled Winry's facial features, and Ed had to suppress a laugh. Now that was something; what other woman in the world would look more relaxed around a slew of metal objects?
Pinako, being the only person with any real experience on the subject, did the majority of the check-ups, urgings, and work. Alphonse offered moral support and whatever assistance the old woman needed, and Edward filled the obligatory 'hand-holder' slot—primarily because automail could not be crushed by a strong grip, and well, Winry always had been fond of the automail she had made...and it wasn't like there was anyone else around to help, Ed thought, a touch bitter.
"It's a happy occasion," Al said when Winry took to catching some brief rest and the brothers stepped into the hall. "And she's doing really well."
"Yeah. She is." Ed reached up and ran his flesh hand through his loose hair. The room had gotten hot and stuffy, and there was sweat on both of his hands, though the sheen on the automail had not come from his own body.
More than anything else, Edward felt tired. It was a welcome exhaustion, the satisfied sort that came about after one had been very productive and had many accomplishments to show for it, but Alphonse looked as exuberant as ever. Ed was about to search for more words—something more poetic for the occasion—but then Al's arms were around him, and he was being squeezed half to death by his little brother.
"Al?" he asked, blinking, a bit taken aback by the sudden display of affection. It was not uncommon for Al to hug him, but rarely did it happen so...spontaneously. "Something wrong?"
"No. No," Al responded instantly; his voice sounded as benign as ever, and his body language seemed to radiate even more flocculence than the kittens he had always been so fond of. "Everything...everything's right, Brother. That's just it." Ed felt the warmth of his brother's body as Al pressed against him, burying his nose in the crook of Ed's neck. "I was just thinking..." he started, tone hushed. "...that we'll...y'know...probably never have a child..."
Not without a miracle or a surrogate, Ed's mind supplied. His own mental sarcasm gave him a vague sense of amusement, but Al was right, and Ed had considered this before...though not often. After maintaining a relationship that was far and away outside of societal norms, Ed knew better than to dwell upon hopes that the future would contain a perfectly normal and compact family unit. Instead, he had learned to just live for the moment and enjoy whatever he and Alphonse had—this multi-faceted love that was both filial and romantic, sweet as candy and blindingly passionate at the same time. Delirious love, strong and heady, more intoxicating than alcohol and more addictive than any drug sold in Youswell or Xenotime.
Ed ran his tongue along his lips, moistening them. "So, you're thinking—"
"—that this will be the closest thing to a child of our own that we'll ever have."
A soft sigh. Ed's fingertips found their way to Al's hair and stroked it, sifting through the dark blond strands before giving the tie a quick, flirtatious twist. "Yeah. Well, we're a family, Al. We're all a family. The Rockbells don't have the same blood as us, but...well..." He relaxed in Al's embrace and returned it by wrapping his own arms around his brother; he squeezed the shoulders gently, rolling knots from the muscles with an automail knuckle. "...for years, we didn't share any blood, either. Never stopped us from being a family."
Al nodded. The discussion ended there.
Gracia's labour had been short...at least, by comparison. By ten o'clock, Alphonse had finally given in to his need for sleep (or maybe only a quick nap, one prefaced with, "But be sure to wake me when the baby's born!"), leaving Ed alone with his childhood friend and her prune of a grandmother. The room was still as hot as ever, scented with powdery smells and medicinal odors; the clock droned an obnoxiously loud tick-tock, tick-tock, and with each second, its volume seemed to increase. Edward could feel the dark circles growing beneath his eyes, but pure need kept his legs from collapsing beneath him. The teddy bear sat on the night-stand, silently viewing the entire spectacle.
"Thanks...Ed..." Winry said meekly as soon as Pinako had left the room for fresh sheets. Ed looked down, meeting her wistful blue eyes with his own golden ones. The girl's—no, woman's—face was flushed pink and lightly sweaty; pretty lemon blonde hair clung to her face, neck, and back in a sweat-drenched mess. She had been so calm and strong, but her eyes, face, and voice revealed her absolute exhaustion. Of course, she had screamed; who wouldn't have, in her position? But she had swallowed a lot of the noise, wincing while grabbing Ed's hand and holding it tightly. "Thanks for all your help. It means a lot to me and Granny Pinako, you know..."
Edward smiled at her. "You're almost there, eh?"
His friend's first reply was a smile of her own. "Yeah...I am." A small laugh occupied the following pause. "It's a girl. I just know it." She looked over at Al, who was all the while napping blithely. "And she'll have the two best uncles in all of Riesenburg...no, in all of Amestris."
"And the best mother, too," Ed added.
Ed chewed his lip. She was going to make him say it, wasn't she?
"...And, Edward?" Winry pressed, sweetly but assertively.
"...And the best father," he mumbled, turning aside to hide his blush as Winry greeted his words with a jovial giggle. He really was not feeling so gracious toward the man right now, what with his tardiness, but if Winry wanted him to be accepting, well, that was the least he could do for her right now.
He did not want to break the high-spirited mood, but there was something he wanted to ask, and he figured now would be as good a time as any. Golden eyes focused on Winry, narrowed a little, took in her dimples, bright eyes, and obvious delight. "You know...?" he asked. His tone was somber, his words slow and cautious. This had been on his mind for a while now, and he needed to hear the truth. He only prayed she understood what he was inquiring into; otherwise, explaining it would have been embarrassing.
Winry's laughter calmed, then died. Blue eyes like a cloud-dappled sky regarded Edward with a somberness not so unlike his own. "About you and Alphonse?"
"Yeah." He inhaled deeply, hoping she was too focused on his face to notice the way his chest extended with air.
Winry looked away, and an elusory smirk played upon her lips. With the scant lighting, the shadows nearly disguised her expression. "Of course I know, Edward."
"For how long?"
Once again, she turned to him. "You guys aren't as good at hiding things as you think. I've known since you two moved back to Riesenburg." For a second time, she turned away. At her waist, her fingers had begun to twist the covers, pinching them between her thumbs and forefingers and twisting loose shapes into them. "At first, I was mad..."
"But now?" Edward interrupted, impatient and quick to quell a pang of anxiety. Ultimately, his life was his own, and he was going to do as he saw fit; he had never doubted this. Never the less, he would prefer to have his best friend's approval.
Winry shook her head, lips pursing. She rubbed them together for a long while, seeming to gather her thoughts before continuing. "...I can't tell you that it's right...and I can't tell you that it's wrong..." She reached up, running her fingers through her heavily tangled hair. Ed noticed that the pink nailpolish was nearly chipped away entirely. "When I was younger...when we were younger...I might have passed judgment, but...now—"
She flashed a grin at him. "—now all I know is that I want you...both of you...to be there for me...for us...and we'll return the favour."
Ed scratched the back of his head; he was quite unable to stop the laughter that followed. It bubbled from his lips like the foam of the previous night's bath, and he could, for once, not manage to care that he was at risk of growing loud and waking Alphonse. He was about to say "Of course we will!" but before he could utter a single syllable, Winry winced and gripped the automail. Ed watched her expression transition from placid bemusement to pain, or discomfort, or...
"Ed..." she breathed, panting shallowly. "...go get Granny Pinako...please..."
Alphonse was awake by then...everyone in the house was...but the automail gave Edward an advantage in terms of speed; metal never tired out like flesh muscles did. A flurry of blond and black was at the door in an instant, rushing to open it with one jerk of his fist.
The man on the threshold removed his cap and greeted Edward in that annoyingly self-assured way of his, and Ed sneered, baring his teeth. There was no hostility there, though; this was simply how he interacted with certain people.
"Hello, Colonel Bastard," he said, amiable if snarky. "...Ready to meet your daughters?"
"Never thought I'd give my cloak to someone for swaddling," Ed confessed to Alphonse once they were alone, one against the other as they lay in bed. The fourth of October had ended, and the snowfall had met its silent cessation; outside, everything was white, glistening and shiny, frosted like the cupcakes they had eaten as children.
"I never thought you would either, but the babies looked nice wrapped in it. Too bad we didn't have the foresight for multiple gifts..." He chuckled and squeezed his brother tightly, indulging in the simple squishiness of the evening; it was rare for Edward to be so at ease, and Alphonse fully intended to take advantage of the twilit morning. They could sleep late and have coffee in the morning, while dying embers glowed in the hearth, and Alphonse could hold the babies all he wished.
They were so tiny, pink and wrinkled, with barely there nails and wispy swirls of dark hair. Al vowed to supply them with kittens, and love, and Edward—in his silent way—vowed to be a loving "uncle", too, and if it were possible to love his brother more than he already did, Alphonse had loved him more in that instant. There was nothing so magical as this day, and the knowledge that the future would bring more moments of family and love, snow and summer, children and adults, moments spinning away like yarn on a loom; time wove everything together, fashioning one blissful harmony...and they would be there to see it.
Alphonse grabbed Edward's hands—both of them—and linked his fingers with his brother's. "Because of you, Brother. If it weren't for you, I could never have held the babies, or smelled the powder; I could never run my fingers across a kitten's fur...if it weren't for you..."
"But Al...if it weren't for me, you never would have..."
"Shhh. Don't say that." Al removed one of his hands from Edward's and reached up, thumbing the upper portion of his cheekbone as though he sought to rub away the sadness that had crept into Ed's eyes. "Remember the champagne I drank?"
Ed looked a bit taken aback by that. His lips parted for a response, but Al cut him off with,
"Half-empty or half-full, as the saying goes." He shrugged, then leaned in for a kiss. "Funny thing about glasses...they can shatter, or they can reflect so much. Tilt them back and forth and you might see a lot of sides to things...a lot of things which might surprise you...kinda like a metaphor for life, don't you think?"
Golden eyes rolled. "And how long did you spend thinking that up, Al?"
The answer came in the form of a long, steady kiss.
Outside, the snow rested, and melted. Inside, nothing could have been warmer. In the living room, sitting on the coffee table beside a lamp, there was a picture of a man with glasses smiling broadly in the presence of his wife and child. Beside it, a similar picture displayed a more varied family: the old, the young, and the just born—all gathered together in an array of black, blue, red, gold, brown, grey, and blonde. Like brothers or comrades, the two pictures complemented one another, depicting happy families and precious moments caught in time. Across the newest, a date had been scrawled. In red marker ink:
4th of October (but barely).