Not many people can tell when Al is sleeping. Because he doesn't really sleep, of course, not properly; it's like that doze you do during the day, when you have a report due but somehow you ended up in the library because you got a sudden spark in your head and had to tear through dozens of books you've already read before, and then you're through with them and you're sitting at a table with your head down and you're not really tired, not in the body sense, but your mind is so tired you just... doze. Drop off. Not sleep, not properly.
But that's what Al does, and Ed can tell when he's doing it. He kind of slumps over, like his armored body's suddenly so much heavier during the night than at day, and the lights that should be his eyes go out, and the little clanks and clinks and rustling sounds that he makes go away, leave the room dead silent if Ed isn't moving, either.
Ed holds his breath, testing the silence, then shifts in the bed, rustling the sheets a little. His little brother's huge body doesn't stir and those strange eyes don't light; Al's as sound asleep as he's going to get.
He gets out of bed, reaches for his coat and pulls it on, tugging at the collar to straighten it over his shoulders and smoothing out the wrinkles. At the door he pauses. He's had people ask why he keeps an old suit of armor in his room; people saying oh, Edward, is your brother dressing up?
Maybe he'd assume the same, too, if he didn't know. If he were just passing by on the street, he'd probably think it was a little kid playing dress-up?and can almost imagine it, Al in a suit of armor walking down the street with their mother, laughing tinnily through the mouth piece and she smiling at him indulgently.
But he does know, and the ghost pains in his own metal limbs remind him every day.
Ed reaches out and rests his hand over Al's head, hovering, close enough to feel the cold of the metal but not close enough to touch. If he touches, Al will wake up and ask him what's wrong, are you hurting, are you hungry?are you leaving, with that hint of accusation to it. Because Ed is always leaving, and Al is always following, and Ed knows that must get tiring at times.
His hand trembles and almost touches. Ed clenches it into a fist, tucks it into the crook of his arm, then turns and opens the door. He closes it softly behind him.
Walking down the city streets can get lonely at times, especially when it's like this, the edge of evening, the sky all pink and red and orange, the sun trying to peek one last time at the couples walking arm-in-arm through the parks, the mothers carrying their children in their arms, the harried military men striding through the streets like they're afraid someone is after them. Ed purposely straightens up and tightens his face, tries to look busy, but he still thinks he feels suspicious eyes on his back, or?even worse?sympathetic ones. What's the little kid doing out by himself? Where's his mom? Shouldn't he be at home with his father, playing kickball or something?or whatever kids do nowadays?and begging his parents to let him have one last piece of dessert?
That is one of his clearest memories of Rizen Pool and the worst, of eyes following him down the street when he and Al left to train with the master. He hates it, that he can make people somehow temporarily forget their own neuroses and focus all their attention on him, make up stories about him and how he's feeling. People think he's some little kid still in primary school, learning his arithmetic and reading the classics, going home at night to fight with siblings over scraps of dinner and be put to bed early by a sweet-eyed mother and a strong, smiling father. That's bad, yeah. But what's worse is when people who know him fix their eyes on his back, and it feels like they're pulling all of his guts out of his stomach through his back. He hates when people know his story; hates feeling gutted like that.
A story. That's how he thinks about it sometimes, like it's a story that happened to someone else. When he thinks of it like that, it's easier, somehow, to laugh over the absurdity and grieve over the sadness. And it's easier to see himself as the villain: that dumb, stupid kid who thought he could defy God, who was willing to sacrifice his own brother for it. What an idiot he was. What a joke.
A sudden wind rattles the shop sign above him, and that could be divine providence, because Ed is going here anyway. Or it could be a trick of the weather. That's what everything is, right, chance, freak happenings, all these individual little actions and choices mixing together to produce one big, crazy action. The butterfly in the east causes a hurricane in the west and blows this shop sign, and Ed drags his hands out from his pockets and raises one to knock on the shop door.
"Ah, Edward-kun," says the man who answers. He gestures Ed in, and Ed follows him into the shop, watches him uncurl his body so that it stretches to the ceiling. "You're here for the food, right?" He peels off his gloves and tossed them over his shoulder (Ed looks over his shoulder to see where they land, and notices admiringly that they went right into the wastebasket). "Here ya go. Took me a while to find the ingredients for it all, but I managed."
He hands Ed a huge, flat box. Ed holds it up and sniffs, and smells: first something sweet, then something sour, then something pickled, maybe. Perfect. He juggles it on one hand and reaches with the other for the wad of cash it in his pocket, handing it over with a grin. "Hey, thanks," he says as the chef counts the cash, with a measuring but not a greedy air. "I wasn't expecting you to get it done this quickly."
"You gave me a deadline. I try to meet deadlines." He winks. "It's probably for someone special?"
"Yeah," says Ed, and feels his smile waver. He forces himself to grin to make up for the lapse. "For someone real special. Thanks again." He holds out his hand and the chef takes it, giving him a grave smile.
"Just remember, kid," says the huge man, letting go of his hand. "You can buy your sweetheart all the food you want, but nothing beats telling her how you feel."
Ed blinks. A girl? Who's ever said anything about this being for a girl? But the chef is looking at him with a particularly leery look, so he plasters on a smirk and shoots back, "Of course, I know, I know?I'm a genius, I know everything, remember?"
"Of course, of course," the chef chuckles, waving at him to go. Still grinning, Ed waves goodbye and clangs his way out of the deli, shutting the door as loudly as he can.
There's a park near the military headquarters. It's beautiful, of course, because everything associated with the military is clean and neat and suited for its purposes, but he took Al here once and while he was saying how beautiful it was, how neat and structured, Al just got a sad look on his face and said that it looked like a little girl who was trying too hard.
After that, he's never liked it as much, but?maybe because he knows how it feels to try too hard?he still comes here when he has the time. Because if it's trying so hard, he might as well pretend that it's doing an okay job of it.
He sits on the bench across from the fountain (which is the best thing in the park, a pair of marble doves spreading their wings to the sky while water shoots out from their tail feathers) and spreads out the box, opening it and digging through the food. Spicy meat pies, little cool pastries, salads and pickled ginger and little strips of fish, rolls with sweet butter, potatoes with sour cream.
Ed's just happy if he has food in his stomach, even if it's three or four days old. Al, though, Al is picky, always was. Ed remembers that, even when Al was little, he always refused a certain type of milk, and then he would refuse some of the foods Mom cooked and when Mom made him eat them, he would get the most awful expression on his face, like it was painful for him to be chewing the food, to say nothing of actually swallowing it. She was mad at first, but then she figured out that it really was painful for Al to eat food he didn't like?and since Ed wasn't picky about food, she just started making the foods Al liked.
Meat pies were his favorites, along with the pastries.
Were... He hates that he has to use the past tense, and he forgets to sometimes, then remembers that Al can't eat anymore and hasn't for four years now. Ed wonders if he even remembers what meat pie tastes like now.
So Ed remembers for him.
The crust around the meat is soft in the center, crisp around the edges and tastes slightly sweet; the meat inside is hot and spicy, stinging his tongue and throat when he swallows. It even burns his fingers.
The pastries are almost as good as the ones Mom made. They're good, because how can pastries not be good, but hers were sweet with the tiniest hint of something a bit more sour? "To make you appreciate the sweetness more," she would say, patting Al's head when he complained. And Ed liked that better than any number of sweet pastries.
The potatoes are sweet ones, the kind Al liked best. The salads are made with soft lettuce, because Al hated crunchy foods. The rolls have cheese in the center and the fish is salmon with hot sauce packed in their centers. It's almost all sweet and spicy, nothing bland, whereas Ed is just as fine with without the hot sauce as with it?but Al had to have it a certain way.
When the box is empty, Ed crumples it in his metal hand and sits as still as he can, holding his spine perfectly straight. Usually he's warm and full after he's eaten, but tonight?maybe because autumn is coming, maybe because his automail is uncovered and it's catching drafts?he just feels cold and even his full stomach feels kind of funny, kind of small.
Watching his mother cook, he would always feel a quick flash of resentment that Al was getting special treatment. In every other way their mother treated them the same, and there was hardly any jealousy on their parts (except on his, because Al kept cheating when they wrestled and ended up beating him, the older one). If Ed liked his bed tucked down a certain way, his mother made him do it; she wouldn't do it for him. Same for Al.
His mother had been stirring the sauce one day while he sat on a stool, watching her, when suddenly she turned around and put her arms around him, kissed his forehead and said, "You know, Edward, that sometimes little brothers need to be treated extra nice, right?"
Because little brothers are such treats, she said. Because you have this little person who loves you so much, and maybe he's a little angry because you're older and it seems like everything good happens to you first. So sometimes, we have to make those little brothers feel a little special?because maybe they're not the oldest, and maybe they weren't the first, but they're just as good, right?
His mother said a lot of wise things on a daily base, but that stayed with Ed. Al looked at him with such adoring eyes, it wasn't fair that Ed didn't always look back the same way. Equivalent trade, after all, and equal treatment.
So he let his mother start teaching him how to make the special foods, because she was sick by that time and getting sicker faster. Implicit in the teaching was the fact that soon she wouldn't be able to cook, or be around to cook, but they didn't talk about that; and the first time Mom served some of the food Ed had cooked, Al couldn't even tell the difference.
But it was through the hands that you cooked, and with a false hand Ed found that the cooking didn't come as easily anymore, didn't taste quite like Mother's. There was something off about it, something about the flavor that left the taste of metal on his teeth.
No one else's cooking tastes like Mother's, either, but at least it doesn't taste fake, like it comes from someone who isn't quite real.
Ed tilts his head up and looks at the dark sky, and the North Star nestled in with all the others stars, like a newly-born litter hanging all over each other and so comfortable. He stands up and lets it guide him back to the barracks. Al is still asleep when he pushes himself gently through the door and he doesn't stir, not even when Ed crouches on his feet, rests his arms on his knees and looks at him.
Who knows that about Alphonse anymore, he thinks distantly, running his eyes over the hard clunky lines of the armor. Who knows that Al was so picky about his food; who knows that Al always beat him a fair fight, even when they were kids; who knows that Mother loved them both the same, but that she always looked at Al with a special softness in her eyes, because Al just commanded that kind of look. Who remembers his round cheeks and his wheat-blond hair, who remembers that face you just couldn't hate?
Sometimes Ed is scared that he can't remember, either.
His mailbox is packed tight: he has to yank hard to remove the bundle. He rifles through them?military, military, military?and pauses over one, return address Rizen Pool. He tears it open with a metal finger:
Did you remember to get Al a birthday present?
Yeah, Ed thinks as he tosses the letter into the wastebasket and stuffs the rest into his pockets, covering them with his fingers as he begins to slump his way back to the dorm.
He always remembers, because Al doesn't. For Al, he tries to remember all the things his little brother doesn't: the taste of food, the sun on skin, wet sand between your toes, and birthdays that you don't remember anymore because you don't seem to get any older.
Sometime he's scared he won't remember, but sometimes what brings it all back is the taste of a certain food Al liked: a spicy meat pie or a sweet but sour pastry.