Afterward—right afterward, when Ed was still hysterical and Al was trying so hard to convince him that It's me, brother, it's me, it's me that the words were tumbling incomprehensibly over each other and making things worse—Mustang showed up on their doorstep with the unflappable Hughes in tow. Ed, too distraught to even notice the flare of alchemy that opened the door nearly by virtue of taking out it and part of the wall, first noticed their presence when Hughes knelt down next to them making soothing noises.
"Well," Hughes said. "Al, is that you in there?"
Al, shaking like a leaf, still unsure of how to use his limbs or what to do with the golden-brown hair falling into his eyes, nodded.
"Can you talk?"
Al gulped and nodded again. "Yeah," he said, his voice rusty and clumsy from disuse. "Brother, stop. It's me, it's still me, I don't feel any different inside."
"I bet you feel a bit different outside," Hughes said, teasing gently.
"I don't know what the fuck happened," Ed wailed. He wasn't in the mood for Hughes, for Mustang, for consolation, for anything. All this effort, everything they'd done and sacrificed, and he'd fucked Al up again.
Mustang knelt behind Al's back. "Can I touch?" he asked, and reached out when Al nodded, running one gloveless hand over soft feathers down to the skin and muscle between them. "They look like swan wings."
"Well, they fucking aren't," Ed snapped. "I think if a fucking huge swan had been in the transmutation circle I would have noticed at some point while I was gluing my brother back into his body!"
"They're beautiful," Mustang said simply, and Ed nearly killed him.
"I don't think Ed thinks they're beautiful," Al said in such a small, woebegone voice that Ed forgot about killing Mustang and jumped on his brother, flinging his arms around Al's neck and nearly knocking both of them right into Mustang's lap. Al's wings snapped outward reflexively, balancing them.
"I'm sorry, Al," Ed whispered, breathing in the warm scent of his brother's skin. "Oh, God, I'm so sorry, I don't even know how I fucked up. I don't even know."
"You got my body back, brother. You said you would and you did," Al whispered back, holding Ed tightly, almost human.
The word was chimera, and none of them would say it. None of them wanted to summon Shou Tucker's ghost, melded upside-down to some sort of animal, a monstrosity. It didn't seem to be the right word for Al, with his human eyes and clear speech and white wings unfurling from his back.
It didn't seem right from a scientific standpoint, either. Ed knew—he knew—that there had been nothing in that transmutation circle but an empty suit of armor and his brother's soul. So in the weeks afterward he spent his nights reading frantically, voraciously, burning through every book he could lay hands on that looked as if it might be even remotely helpful, invariably losing time between one breath and the next and finding it again only when Al wrapped gentle arms around him and whispered, "You fell asleep at the table again, brother. Come to bed." And wings would wrap around him too, around both of them, delicate and white as new snow, and for one exhausted, confused, ashamed moment Ed would forget to be sorry.
They smuggled Al out of Central and back to Rizembul, where they rented a small house with room for Ed's books and Al's wings. Gracia had come to see them and quietly left behind a bag full of shirts with slits down the back, and before long Al learned to tuck his wings back against his body so that he could fit through doorways.
There was only one bedroom, and soon there was only one bed, because Al and his wings couldn't fit comfortably into the small beds that had been there when they moved in. Ed minded less than he should have when he woke up with his mouth full of feathers.
They fell into a routine soon enough, Al combing out Ed's hair in the evening before bed, Ed grooming Al's feathers first thing in the morning when Al was still bleary-eyed and unable to quite get over the miracle that was coffee. They ate together whenever they were hungry, and went out to the lake in the evenings when the fireflies came out. For a while it worried Ed that Al liked the lake so much, until he remembered that Al always had.
"There's nothing different about him," Ed said when Hughes came to visit. The two of them sat on the porch, steaming mugs of hot chocolate in hand, while the lights from the house spilled out from behind them and Al clattered around in the kitchen making dinner. "He's still—Al. He loves alchemy and hits me when I do stupid things. He doesn't eat frogs or birdseed or act like he wants to fly."
He did other things too, now, human things. He slept, sometimes badly. He caught colds and huddled miserably under the blankets while Ed fussed over him. He sang in the shower, though it had taken weeks to convince him that it was all right to because the first time he'd done it, Ed—and God, it was mortifying to think of it now—had had such a shrieking panic attack that Al had had to curl around him on the couch wearing only a towel, holding him and crooning softly to him, getting both of them and the couch soaking wet. Swan songs, Ed had thought, and hadn't stopped shaking for hours, until long after the trails of water left on his face by Al's hair had cooled and dried.
Hughes hummed thoughtfully. "Is there anything he doesn't do now that he did before? Besides loom, I mean."
"Well," Ed said slowly. "He's kind of—weird around Winry sometimes."
Hughes perked up like a pointer catching a scent. "Weird? Weird how?"
"I guess—like he doesn't want to leave her alone with me? He gets all fidgety when she comes over, and then when she leaves, he—"
He wanted to sit on the couch and read to Ed, or have Ed read to him; wanted to cuddle together as if they were puppies, or still small; wrapped his wings around Ed as if they were shielding him from something, enclosing the two of them in a soft shelter that shone dim orange with the light of the fire outside.
"Gets upset?" Hughes guessed, not quite accurately. "Awww, well, you know, Ed, swans only mate once, and they mate for life. Maybe your little brother's getting ready to fly the coop, huh?"
"May—maybe," Ed said, and didn't want the rest of his hot chocolate all of a sudden.
"It's a wonderful thing, you know, the whole mating for life business," Hughes said in the rhapsodic tones that turned battle-hardened men pale the length and breadth of Amestris. "My Gracia—"
"Dinner's ready," Al called, and Ed loved him so fiercely that it felt like drowning.
Hughes left after dinner, graciously leaving behind a dozen pictures of Elysia to console Ed and Al for her absence. After he left, Ed sat at the table in the warm glow of the lamps, watching Al do the dishes—Al wouldn't let him help, not anymore, because his automail tended to chip things.
"Hey, Al," he said finally, not really wanting to.
"Hm?" Al asked, distracted by a burnt spot on the bottom of a pan.
It shouldn't have been hard. It was only a question. Ed wondered miserably what kind of coward he was, that he couldn't ask his own brother a question.
"Do you like Winry?"
Al glanced over his shoulder at Ed with a small frown, looking a little uneasy. "Of course I do," he said. "Why would I have stopped?"
"No, I mean—do you like like her?"
"Do I—" Al paused for a moment, then slid the pan into the dishwater and turned to face Ed, reaching for the towel to dry off his hands. "You mean do I want her to be my girlfriend? No, not like that. Why?"
"I just wondered," Ed said; but even he could hear the relief thick in his own voice, and winced when Al's hands stilled on the towel.
"Do you," Al began, not looking at Ed. "Do you like her like that, brother?"
It bothered him, that Ed might. Ed could see it even if he didn't understand it. "Nah," he answered. "Not Winry. I think we've known her too long."
Al looked up at him, smiling, the edges of the towel trembling where it hung down from his hands. "And she's hit you in the head with wrenches too many times."
"Well, yeah," Ed admitted. "That sort of thing kind of takes the bloom off the rose, don't you think?"
"It's a change, isn't it?" Al said. "We used to argue over who was going to marry her when we grew up."
Ed looked down at the pile of photographs of Elysia on the table and prodded aimlessly at them with a finger, trying, in an absent-minded way, to put himself in Hughes' place. "That was before," he said.
"It's late, brother," Al said, wings unfurling behind him, moving slowly as though coasting on an invisible breeze. "Come to bed."
"I have some more reading to do," Ed said, a little hoarsely, and imprisoned his thoughts in the labyrinthine lines of arrays.
"Brother," Al whispered in his ear.
Ed jolted awake, heart pounding. There were hands on his shoulders, and everything was white and soft-warm Al-smell.
"You fell asleep reading again," Al noted, resting his chin on Ed's shoulder and reaching around him to pull his book closer. "It's two in the morning."
"Why are you up?" Ed asked, rubbing a hand over his eyes. It brushed against feathers when he lifted it.
"You didn't come to bed. I missed you," Al answered. "You're reading about human transmutation again."
Ed leaned wearily back, turning his head into the curve of Al's throat. "I don't know how this happened to you," he whispered. "I don't know what it'll wind up doing to you. I'm afraid—"
"That you'll wake up one morning and I'll have flown south for the winter?" Al smiled; Ed felt it against his forehead. "Do swans fly south for the winter?"
"I don't know," Ed answered. "Don't go, Al."
"I love you, brother," Al said. "I'm not going anywhere. And the wings aren't that bad."
Ed lifted his head a little, and met grey eyes so very close to his own. "They're beautiful," he said. "Mustang was right."
Al bent to kiss him, a gentle brush of the lips softer than the feathers surrounding them. "I won't tell him you said so. Come to bed."
Ed reached out and closed his book.
When Al was first remade, Ed hadn't been able to bring himself to touch the wings; so it was strange, in a way, when he found himself unable to stop touching them.
Al didn't mind, fortunately. He only smiled at Ed—an odd smile, too patient and too knowing—and stroked Ed's face with his wingtips; they were surprisingly dextrous, those wings. Ed spent more time than he should have kneeling beside Al, on the bed or on the floor, tracing the curious musculature of his brother's back with his fingertips, pressing inward so that he could really feel and making Al purr with contentment. The wings themselves he explored endlessly even after his fingertips had already memorized the feel of them, while Al watched him and smiled that strange, patient smile.
Swans mate for life, Ed found himself thinking, and No. No, Al, don't leave me. I promise I won't ever want more than this.
He woke in the mornings with wings and Al wrapped around him, smelling of summer air, and his books began to gather dust until one day they disappeared.
"I'm still human, brother," Al whispered against the back of his neck that night. "I'm not like him. I'm not like Nina. I'm still me."
"Just with extras?" Ed asked, smiling.
"Do you still hate them?"
Ed was silent, thinking, stroking the backs of his human fingers along Al's feathers. "Do they hurt? Ever?"
"No," Al answered, his mouth moving on Ed's shoulder. "I kind of like them."
"I don't hate them," Ed whispered, and the admission was in some strange way both liberating and crushing.
Al's wings surrounded them both, shutting out the moonlight. "Good," he whispered. "I don't want you to hate them."
Ed shifted, feathers brushing against his face, and turned to face Al. "Tell me something," he said. "Do swans really mate for life?"
In the darkness he couldn't see Al's face, but he could hear the smile in his voice. "I think they do."
"Oh," Ed whispered, and found himself leaning forward, pulled by something invisible like a compass to the northern star.
"You know what else?" Al breathed, tilting his head so that his mouth brushed against Ed's as he spoke.
"I think suits of armor mate for life too."
Ed stopped his irrevocable descent into lifelong strangeness long enough to contemplate the idea of suits of armor mating. "Al, that's kind of a scary thought."
"Shut up, brother," Al laughed.
Ed did as he was told, for a while.