Al was the first person to notice when Ed started dropping out of their lives. He started spending more time in the study; when he was out, he was cheerful, laughing, ruffling Al's hair and pinching Winly's cheek just because she hated it, but when he was in there, the door would be locked, and he would not reply when Al knocked.
"Oh, he's probably just studying too hard to notice you knocking," Winly said at first. "You know how he gets, better than anyone."
For a bit, that satisfied Al, because it was true. And when he went into the study after Ed had put it to good use, he would find the desk covered with papers, scratched musings in his personal alchemical code, books scattered here and there. And yet...
"Niisan," he asked one day at lunch, as Ed sucked his spoon clean, "have you been studying anything interesting?"
"Oh, this and that," Ed replied, waving his metal arm indifferently. "More mashed potatoes, please?"
He did not meet Al's eyes.
Niisan was researching something, of that Al was sure, but he didn't know what. And he at least owed it to his Niisan to make sure he was okay—after all, Ed had lost an arm to save his life and a leg to give him back a body. But Ed refused to talk about it—and if Al turned over in his bed at night to look across the room at Ed, he would be laying there muttering to himself, curled on his side, not sleeping.
Al wasn't sure when Ed slept, anymore. He thought he must sleep on his notes in the study, because no one could actually go months without sleeping like that.
"Something is wrong with Niisan," he said one day to Winly.
Winly's brow furrowed slightly, but she nodded a little. "If you think there is, then I trust you," she said. "you know Ed better than anyone." Which was something hard for her to admit; she had, for so long, wanted to pretend she knew the brothers the way she had in years past, but in truth, Al knew, she was having to grow up just to meet them halfway.
"I'm going to find out what," Al said. "Will you help me? Niisan won't like being confronted."
Winly nodded, a sigh on her lips. "Of course," she said.
"...thank you, Winly." Al hesitated only a moment before kissing the tear on her cheek away.
And that was how Al found himself staring, for the third time of his life, at a finished human transmutation circle.
"It's done, Al," Ed said tiredly, as he relaxed in Winly's restraining arms. "I did it. I did it, Al. I can get back my limbs."
"Niisan .." Al clutched the diagram, and could not decide whether to be elated or horrified. "If you wanted your limbs back that much..." guilt clutched his heart. He should have known. Having only one arm—it couldn't be something to be satisfied with—Edward must have been sick of it, turned back to alchemy—
"I did it so you wouldn't have to!" Ed snapped, lunging a little as if he wanted to punch Al, but didn't have the strength. "You wanted to restore me. Now you don't have to, I'll do it myself. I'll do it for you. Stop looking at my arm like that, Al. Stop it. Stop it..."
But Al couldn't look away, sickened with himself, sickened he didn't see that Ed would do that—would keep going with dangerous alchemy because he knew Al wanted to. "Niisan, I..." He looked up at Winly, but Winly's eyes were haunted, were tired; she looked as if she wanted to cry, but didn't dare.
He wouldn't have done this, Al thought, if not for me. And he wanted to kick himself.
At least we caught him first, he told himself. At least we did that.
"Let me have the notes back," Ed said hopefully. "Let me...I'll do it tonight. Then you can be happy, right, Al? We'll all live happily together."
"Ed," Winly began, her voice shaking, but Al spoke over her, "Niisan! You're being stupid!"
"No I'm not! It worked before, I got you back!" Ed's voice cracked. "It's better now—it's perfect—I can do it now—I can do it so you don't have to—!"
He cut off suddenly when Al slapped him.
Al stood, silent, breath heaving, and he could almost feel the stillness of Ed and Winly, both startled into that stillness.
Then he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around his brother, tightly. "Niisan," he whispered. "I wish you could have your limbs back...but I want you here more. I want you here...I want you alive..."
Edward trembled. His breath stopped. He kneeled stock still in Al's arms.
"Al," he mumbled.
And then he cried, for the first time that Al could remember since he got his armor body, slouching out of Winly's arms, arms going around Al's shoulders, face buried in the crook of Al's neck.
Al wept with him—was startled by his tears, actually—but couldn't stop as he clutched his older brother to himself, there on the kitchen floor. They cried until their eyes were red and puffy; until they were so exhausted they couldn't move.
Winly joined them then, and Al didn't know when she had gone, but her eyes were red and puffy too. "I think," she said when noses had been blown and tear tracks wiped away, "That we—you—need to talk."
Surprisingly, it was Ed who nodded first, his gaze bleary but determined—and Al, as he had for so many years, followed his brother's lead, nodding as well.
Healing would not come in a day, or even a year. But it was closer than it had ever been—closer, even, than the array that had promised Al's body back, or promised Ed's limbs.
Healing, Al thought, wasn't something you could always see.