When Ed said that he didn't remember his father, he didn't precisely tell Al the truth.
Father was a very faint impression in Edward's mind—he was the back of a head late at night when Ed fearfully disobeyed Mom's instructions and peered into his father's study, a dirty blond ponytail that went out the front door, a thin, strained smile that sat at the table and tolerated Edward's questions about the biology book he'd been reading.
Edward remembered, almost subconsciously, being scared of his father. He remembered being picked up by his big hands, swung up into the air with the sort of measured preciseness he would later associate with chemistry experiments. "He's small for his age," his father had said in his thick, bored voice—it was sharp with criticism. "You need to feed him more, Trisha." And Ed had felt ashamed, he remembered, that his father disapproved. Ashamed and scared his father was mad with him for daring to not meet his expectations.
Ed didn't want to be like his father. He didn't want to be scary or remembered only by the back of his head as he left.
He didn't remember very much, and his mother never told him, but when he was very young Ed hardly let baby Al out of his sight. He would come into the bedroom, wiping off his thumb because he was learning to not suck it (Big Brothers do not suck their thumbs), and just watch his little brother sleep; it was the only time he was quiet except when he was able to play with a book, pretending to read.
It took a little while for his mother to realize he actually was reading.
Edward did remember the day his father left, because his mother had tears in her eyes when she waved goodbye that day, and his father did not turn around or wave back, just kept walking away, his ponytail swishing back and forth with each step. He remembered that Al had started to cry and Mom had not noticed right away. He remembered running to the bedroom to see his brother red-faced and hiccupping and clutching the bars of his crib, and he remembered climbing into the crib with him, dragging a book over the edge with him, and reading about Little Red Riding Hood until Al fell back asleep.
He remembered being angry at Father for making Mom and Al cry. He did not remember being carried back to his own room that night, though, after he fell asleep teary-eyed next to his little brother in the crib.
That was the last he saw of his father.
Ed remembered that Al's first word was 'Mama', and his second one was 'Niichan'. He took his brother everywhere, whenever Mom said it was okay. He would hold Al's hand and walk down the hill to the main part of town, to buy some candy with his allowance and get his little brother a lollipop, because although Ed liked grown-up candy now, like chocolate bars, he knew that little kids liked sweet stuff that tasted like candied apples. Then on the way back they would go to Winly's place, and they would play tag. Ed was always 'it' to start out, and he never tagged Al, who ran and giggled and fell down, then would get up and run back because he didn't understand yet that he had to run away from the person who was 'it'.
When it started to get dark their mother would flash a light from the upstairs window, and Ed would know it was time to come home. He would take Al by the hand and tell him very seriously that whenever Mommy flashed that light, you had to go home right away, or you would miss your bedtime story. Al would pout, though, and ask if Ed would read him a bedtime story instead?
Ed would frown and tell him no, he wouldn't, because that was like cheating. But sometimes, when Mom went to bed early, Ed would sneak out of his bed and snuggle into Al's and read him a story, anyway.
Al was able to read very quickly, though, and then he and Ed would read together, instead. Ed liked to read about math problems—'tri-go-nom-ih-tree'—and Al liked to read about the human mind—'fih-lah-sow-fee'—they didn't quite understand the big words, but if they read enough, eventually they would make sense. Ed was better at pronouncing the words because he knew phonics really well. Al was still learning that.
One time he and Al were reading when Winly came over with her parents. They were shocked, Ed recalled, and said that it was amazing that two young boys were already reading, and such advanced books! Ed hadn't even thought of it that way before, but he glowed at the thought that he and Al were advanced.
When Ed thought back on it, he was pretty sure that he had been the one to find the battered old alchemy book. He had been attracted by the design on the front cover, full of geometric shapes and runes arranged in a circular pattern. Inside, it had a lot of both math and thoughts on the human mind, so it was fun to read.
What it suggested was possible, though, had made Ed's mind open up. He wanted to try alchemy. He wanted to be good at it. He was pretty sure he could be; the hardest thing to understand was the part where his mind destroyed and reconstructed things, but he knew he could do it, with Al.
Al was more reluctant, but it was interesting to him, too. Soon, that was the book they read the most.
One time Ed woke up in the middle of the night after a nightmare where Al was missing and his dad knew where Al was, but he was walking away and couldn't hear Ed shouting. Breathing hard and still frightened, even though he knew it was just a dream and he shouldn't be scared of it, he rolled out of his bed and stalked out of his room as quietly as possible to keep from waking Al up, dragging his blanket with him. He went to his mother's room and poked his head in; he refrained from sucking on his thumb even though it was really, really tempting.
At first he thought it was a ghost sitting on his mother's bed, crying and clutching Father's clothes to her nose, each sob muffled by the material over her mouth. The moonlight made her shoulders and hair glow, and made her look as if she was a painting all in blue. But it was Mom, not a ghost, who was crying like that, and hugging her husband's clothes tight to herself.
Ed ran in, his blanket forgotten, and hugged his mom's knee while she gasped in surprise until she bent down and picked him up, wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her wrists. "Why are you up, Edward?" she asked, hugging him. "You should be asleep like a good growing boy. Did you have a bad dream?"
Ed shook his head, because she didn't have time for silly things like bad dreams. "Don't cry, Mom," he said, hugging her tightly. "I love you. Don't cry."
But for some reason, she just hugged him back and cried harder, laughing through the tears.
Ed had never been fond of milk, so he gave all his milk to his brother whenever he could get away with it. But they fought over the last of their favorite type of crackers, grappling across the kitchen floor until Al would come up triumphant and snatch the last cracker before Ed could get it. Ed would whine that it wasn't fair, and then they'd wrestle again. By the end of the fight, after much hair-pulling and rolling, they'd both be laughing and ready to go outside to build a fort and play War, ready to blow away imaginary bad-guys with their stick-guns and their amazing ninja skills. And sometimes, they would fight each other with their ninja skills, until Ed sat down heavily and had to catch his breath while his little brother crouched next to him and asked if he had hit Niichan too hard.
Mom never said anything about their fights, Ed recalled; she would laugh and watch them with a smile while she cleaned up after their snacks, making sure no one got hurt too badly. Sometimes, Winly's grandmother would say that their mom knew exactly how to raise boys. Ed didn't understand until much later that this was because she knew when things went too far, and when they didn't.
They didn't play War much, though, because Mom was never smiling when they did.
Al caught a fish for the first time on his third birthday, and he was so excited that he almost lost the fish again when it wriggled off the hook. Ed and Al had to chase the dying fish across the bank, clonking their heads together twice, until Ed grabbed it and managed to wrestle it back into the net. Then they watched as it gasped for air, spasming.
"Niichan, it's dying," Al said miserably, poking it.
"Of course it's dying," Ed answered, but he was kind of sad, too, even though he'd seen fish die before. He didn't like it when Al was unhappy. "It has to die before you can eat it."
"I don't want it to die," Al said, thrusting out his lower lip in a pout.
"Don't you want to give Mom a fish so she can make it for your birthday?" Ed asked, pouting because his brother was pouting, lowering his eyebrows. The fish really did look miserable, he thought. It was mean, killing it like this. "Winly's dad always says, 'The man brings home the meat', remember?"
"But it's hurting," Al cried. He started to tear up. "Can't we put it back, Niichan?"
But the fish had stopped gasping, and lay still. Ed shook his head miserably. "It's too late now, Al," he said, starting to pick up the net with the fish in it, and for some reason, he felt like crying, too. "We should give it to Mom."
Al sniffled, and grasped his brother's shirt. "I don't want to eat it," he said. "Can we bury it?"
Ed looked at his little brother, who was trying to not cry because his big brother wasn't crying, and he nodded. "Okay," he said, and they dug a hole in the mud on the bank, and buried the fish there.
They had a chicken from the market for dinner instead, and Ed didn't tell Al that they had to cut off its head so people could buy it and eat it.
Al almost never got in trouble, as Ed remembered it. It was because Mom always knew Ed had started it, whatever 'it' was.
Although there was the time Ed had thought it would be fun to give Den a bath, only Den disagreed and kept trotting off, tracking soap and dirty water into the Rockbell's house and shaking off the water all over the kitchen floor and cabinets. Ed had been determined to give Den that bath, though, and kept trying to drag him back to the baby pool he and Al and Winly had set up, but Den was too big and would have none of it.
In the end, the Rockbells had come home and seen the mess and given them a long lecture about asking permission to do these things, and having a parent around to help. Their punishment was cleaning up, though, which wasn't so bad because even though Ed confessed that it was his idea (and his fault that some of the dishes had been knocked down, and the olive oil spilled....), Al and Winly helped him clean up. That was fun, and they didn't even fight with the soapy sponges.
Mom had just shaken her head when Miss Rockbell walked them home and told her what happened, and they laughed together, even though Ed was pretty sure that what they did wasn't something to laugh over. (Winly's parents hadn't been laughing when they saw the kitchen.) "I'm sure they won't do it again," Mom said, looking over at Ed and Al with stern love.
Ed and Al looked at each other, and shook their heads vigorously. No, they would never try that again.
Next time, Ed promised himself, he'd only give the Manning's barn cat a bath.
Winly's parents left for a far away place called Ishbal, where there was a war, when Ed's birthday was three months away. Winly cried, and Al and Ed both hugged her and Al picked flowers for her, and Ed gave her chocolate. She smiled at them and said thank you, but she was still crying, so they stayed and hugged her a lot more, and Al kissed her on the cheek and told her it would be okay.
Winly said she was going to wait on the doorstep every day for them to come back. Ed and Al promised to wait with her. But Winly's grandma said that they would take a very long time to get back, and they must try to think of other things to do while they waited.
Ed knew that she was right, because he'd read that Ishbal was much further east, in a place so far away that people didn't even believe that alchemy was real. But that day they all sat on the doorstep and waited anyway, because Winly wouldn't listen to him.
Ed didn't say anything, but he didn't think they'd come back at all. He had a bad feeling deep inside, and there was only one other person he had ever seen look so grim when they left.
"I think we can do it," Ed said to Al.
Al nodded eagerly, drawing the circle on the floor. "Do you think Mommy will like it?" he asked. "We didn't understand the part about making the...the in-fa-struck-sure."
"I don't think that this has one," Ed said, looking critically at his brother's chalked markings. "That's supposed to be for big things with lots of different materials."
"Mmhm," Al said, a little nervously. "...I'm kind of scared," he confessed as he drew in the last inscribed square. "What if we have a—a rebound?"
Ed was a little scared too. 'Rebounds' were hard to understand, but it seemed like if they tried to make something with too much value, then the alchemy would hurt them—there were ugly pictures in the old alchemy book they were using, of people with missing body parts, and metal springing out of their stomachs. But he smiled at his brother and pretended he wasn't scared at all. "We won't," he said confidently. "It's too small, anyway, and we followed all the directions."
"Okay," Al said. But he grabbed Ed's hand as he put down the chalk and placed his free hand on the circle. "Let's do it together, Niichan!"
Ed squeezed Al's hand and put down his other hand on the circle too. "Okay!"
And they closed their eyes and bit their lips and put their imaginations into the chalk circle Al had drawn on the wooden floor.
"You made this?" Mom asked, turning the doll over and over in her hands.
Ed scuffed at the dirt with his shoe, pouting, but out of the corner of his eye he could see Al nodding solemnly. "With alchemy," he said, and looked sideways at Ed, a sad slash to his mouth.
Ed felt ashamed that he'd made Winly cry. The sand-filled doll they had made for her was a lot more complicated than the first thing they'd made (and it had come out a lot better too. The little wooden duck had been lopsided and too dense in front so it kept toppling forward and sideways), but it was supposed to be the kind of thing girls liked—even girls like Winly who watched their grandma make mechanical stuff in the automail shop every day.
He had never thought of the alchemical reaction as scary before. He liked the gold light it produced and the crackling noises it made; it was exciting, and it made him feel big and powerful to be in control of something like that. But it had made Winly cry; she wouldn't even look at the doll they made. Ed stared at the ground sullenly and promised himself he wouldn't cry, even if Mom scolded them.
"I think it's lovely," their mom said.
The first time Ed and Al got to go inside their father's study, Ed was thrilled because he'd never seen what was inside before; all he remembered was the back of Father's head as he hunched over a book by candlelight, making notes. And there was so much in there! Father must have been an alchemist; there were so many books about it. For days he did nothing but read those books, saying out loud the hard words and asking Mom for help when he needed it. Al was there most of the time, but he went over to Winly's to play, too.
But one day when Mom had gone out to the market, and Ed was scrawling one of the circles in the books onto the floor with chalk, Al said, "Niichan, what was Daddy like?"
Ed sat back and looked at the half-finished circle. "I don't know, Al," he said, after a minute. "I don't really remember him."
"Do you think that he'd be happy we were doing alchemy?" Al's voice was hopeful.
Ed scowled. "I don't know," he said, more angry than he meant to be. "Who cares, anyway, he's not coming back."
As soon as he said it, though, he wanted those words back. He looked up at Al, whose lips had fallen in a pout on the verge of crying. "I mean, I don't think he is," he amended.
"Does Daddy love us?" Al asked, a tremor in his voice. "Does he miss us, do you think, Niichan?"
Ed put down the chalk and crawled over to his brother and hugged him, because if Mom had been home, that was what she would've done. But he couldn't think of anything to say.
In Ed's opinion, there was only one girl in the whole world who didn't have cooties, and that was Winly. That meant that Winly was the only girl in the whole world that he wanted to marry.
The trouble was, Al wanted to marry Winly, too.
"We can both marry her," Al said.
"You can't have three people married together," Ed objected. "Only one boy and one girl can get married."
Al frowned. "Then I should get to marry her because I kissed her," he answered.
"Only on the cheek," Ed protested. "And besides, the guy has to be older than the girl to get married. It's the rule."
"You made that up just now, Niichan!"
"I did not!"
"Fight you to marry Winly!" Ed had shot back then, and Al had jumped on him and they wrestled until Ed was howling that he gave up so Al would stop biting his arm.
In the end, it didn't matter, though, because even though Al brought the very best flowers he could find and even made a little heart out of some scrap metal with alchemy for her, Winly said no.
Four days later, a letter came in the mail that told Winly her parents had died.
When Ed looked back on it, he remembered how Mom's eyes always lit up whenever he and Al did alchemy in front of her. He remembered the sad smile she would give everything they made, and then the little apologetic laugh as she cupped their cheeks and told them they were both amazing and smart little boys, and she loved them both very very much.
When he thought back, he remembered how her hands would shake sometimes and she would spill the milk. He remembered that she went to bed earlier and earlier, and sometimes went to bed before Ed and Al did, so Ed would teeter over the edge of the top bunk and tuck Al in instead. He remembered that some days, she would lay down in the hammock and put a wet cloth on her head and tell them that it was just a little fever, they shouldn't worry.
When Ed remembered, he would wonder why he didn't realize that Mom was sick until she collapsed that day.
He would wonder why he didn't realize just how much Mom missed Father.
It was all wrong, those last two months; everything was backwards. Ed and Al would work together to make dinner, and Mom would instruct them as she sat in a chair at the kitchen table, smiling and laughing as always, but too weak to stand up. Al brought in flowers every day just like Mom used to, and put them in the vase in the front window. Mom slept a lot, and Ed would read bedtime stories to her, whatever she picked out.
Sometimes, she dreamed out loud, and she would say their father's name.
They sent out letters, Al and himself, to all the people that their father had letters from in his study, telling them that Mom was sick, would they please tell Father and tell him to come home? Al harbored hope that maybe seeing Daddy would make Mom better, but Ed didn't think Father would come; even if he did, Mom was sick and there was no medicine, and only in fairy tales did people get better from serious things like this without medicine.
Ed tore through the alchemy books in their house, almost never leaving the study for two whole days, trying to find anything at all about making medicine with alchemy. But all he found were some old notes on crystallized red water, and red water was so rare that no one could find any.
The other things he found were a last resort, he thought. He didn't want to make Mom a Homonculus.
But he didn't want her to leave, either.
People started coming by when Mom was too sick to get out of bed; Winly and Pinako-baachan would come every day, and strangers would come, strangers in uniforms and strangers with gifts. They would bear the letters Ed and Al had sent and say they came to send their condolences and offer support, but sorry, no, they had not heard from her husband in years.
Mom would accept all their gifts gracefully. But one night Ed fell asleep in the chair next to Mom's bed, and when he woke up, Al propped up next to him and snoring a little, he could hear Mom crying.
"Edward, Alphonse," she said one day, when Ed was trying to feed her soup while Al looked on, holding the bowl; she had to take it one spoonful at a time now, like a baby. "It's okay, I'm not hungry."
"But you have to eat," Al protested. "You'll get sicker if you don't!"
But their mother smiled, and there were tears in her eyes. "I just want a hug, Alphonse," she said. "Can you give me one of those? A big, strong hug?" She looked over at Ed. "Both of you?"
Ed and Al looked at each, other, and then, they crawled up onto the bed and gave her the fiercest, tightest hugs they could give, until they were all crying and couldn't stop.
The last thing she asked for was alchemy, and then she died.
Ed bawled at the funeral, bawled as loudly as his brother, because he didn't want to hear about what a wonderful person Mom was any more, he wanted her back, he wanted Mom there, not just memories of her. He cried and hugged Al, who cried with him, and they ignored every hand patting their heads and shoulders and every whisper that it would be okay, they'd be taken care of.
Ed and Al could take care of themselves, Ed thought as he sniffled. That wasn't the problem.
But when he finally stopped crying—when his tears had dried up and all he was doing was staring at his mother's name on a gravestone—he remembered that the last thing she asked for was alchemy.
The last thing in the world that Mom had wanted, he thought, was Father giving her flowers that he made.
She didn't want Al. She didn't want Ed.
She wanted Father, who never came back in the end.
He clenched a fist. "Al," he said. "Let's revive Mom. Let's bring her back with alchemy."
He didn't really remember his father much. But he would give his mom another chance to see him. Maybe this time, they would be a real family.
Or maybe, Mom would see that he and Al were enough, and then she could be happy for real.