On Ed's twentieth birthday, Al lights a long row of candles in the Rockbells' backyard and sits by it for a long time, long after the sun has gone down and the candles are the only light in the darkness. They waver and flicker, and he holds his hand over them, watching the play of light over his fingers, the way it accentuates his knuckles and joints. At exactly midnight, he blows them out with one breath. Happy twentieth, he says to a person who is not there.
He has grown his hair into a short pontyail; it barely brushes the back of his neck. He is nineteen.
On Ed's thirtieth birthday, he attends a memorial that some of the military officers are holding for Ed. They pass around cake and well-cooked meat and uncork decades-old wine, and when fizzy wine spurts into the air and gets into everyone's hair and eyes, they all laugh, toast each other with their wineglasses. By the end, Havoc is drunk as all get-out, and Hawkeye is not much better, though she holds her liquor more gracefully. Al doesn't touch the wine. Before everyone leaves, they have him light a single candle and they all hold up a toast silently, clinking glasses and lighters and cigars; no one says anything. Al goes home painfully sober and falls into bed. By sunrise he still hasn't fallen asleep. His tail of hair is curled like a living thing between his fingers, warm and coarse, not as soft as Ed's hair was.
He wants to cut it, but doesn't have the heart.
The years pass and fade into a blur. Al doesn't remember his own birthdays, though Winry and Auntie Pinako, Rose and some of the military officers make a point to hold celebrations for him—although they eventually stop holding them for Ed. His thirtieth passes, and his thirty-fifth. He isn't quite sure how old he is. He counts his age by the number of lines around his eyes and mouth, and knows that he is old when gray hairs appear in his hair, mixed in finely with the blond.
The military has dedicated a college of the new university to Ed: the College of Alternate Studies. That is, for students who do not plan to enter the military after their certification. In the first year, over a hundred students enroll. When Al's hair is more gray than blond, the college has more members than any other of the other colleges combined. He attends one of the graduation ceremonies and sees Ed's name engraved on the college building, along with the title he hated and a simple quote: 'To Knowledge, for Knowledge's Sake.'
The cake at the graduation ceremony is terrible, the wine flat. The students give him wide berth and glance at him surreptiously from behind the rims of their glasses. He is not introduced, but they can compare him easily to the photograph of Ed in one of the college's rooms. With his long hair and the thinning of his face in recent years, they are nearly identical. Al smiles at all of them and raises his glass to them; their smiles, in turn, are blinding, white teeth and pink gums; naivete and excitement. He aches for these children who might, one day, end up just like him.
Auntie Pinako has been gone many years. When there are no blond hairs left to brighten the gray of his head, Winry passes away—normal old age, the doctor said, combined with many years of stress. Roy comes to the funeral with Hawkeye; they have gray hair and lined faces, just like him, but they have passed into old age much more gracefully and carry themselves with great dignity. Roy's handshake is firm as ever, and Hawkeye tells him sternly to take care of himself—he starts when she says he is only fifty. You are young, Alphonse. Don't waste your life, Alphonse. You have many years left.
He and Ed used to laugh about growing old, imagined themselves doddering along leaning on canes, shaking their fingers at teenagers and complaining about how the house is too cold. Mustang and Hawkeye do not complain, not even when the wind picks up, chilly with traces of snow. Al is startled to discover that he is cold, his fingers numb. He presses his hands inside his coat and closes his eyes against the bite of winter, and when he opens them, Winry has been laid into the ground, her coffin covered with freezing mud.
Her tombstone is engraved only with her name and—as per her wishes—Ed and Al's initials at the bottom.
When everyone is done expressing her condolences and have gone home, backs disappearing into the whirlwind of snow and rain, Al goes home, sheds his coat and shirt and stands in front of the mirror. He lifts the scissors to his hair and hesitates for only a second. When he is finished, his long tail of hair has been neatly trimmed to the sharp nob of spinal cord at his neck—-the same length Ed's was when he—
He can never finish the thought.
It is cold in his house; he can't be bothered to turn up the heat or light a fire. He sits in his workshop all day, poring over his texts, over his notes, over his brother's notes—his written in a clean, sharp script, Ed's in a slanted, messy, sharply up-pointed scrawl. Ed's notes look fierce and angry, are decorated with little stick figures around the margins: scowling faces, indignant ones, little scraps of hate letters to Colonel Mustang, fierce-looking chimera and gentle smiling faces scribbled in light, etchy lines. They are covered with notes to himself: Take out the trash. Wash clothes. Combat assessment, 1530. Take Al to dinner. Oil automail. (Which he never did.)
Al traces his finger over Ed's notes, feeling their deep groove, trying to absord some of Ed's essence. But he gets no warm feeling, no traces of love. They are only letters on a page.
The house is empty. Dust settles on the furniture; Winry's scraps of metal, her tools and automail go untended and start to rest. Al lights the fire in his workroom and rubs his hands feverishly in front of it, so that he can take notes without the pain of aching, cold fingers. He brings a blanket with them, then a pillow, then his razor and aftershave and some clean clothes. After a while he forgets about the house; although, when he peers out the window during the evenings, when his fingers are cramped from writing and his legs from sitting, he can see it, cold, dark, empty, looming over the plain like the empty shell of his and Ed's house, right before it fell as it burned.
His hair begins to get in his way, brushes his papers as he takes notes and reads. He cuts it, this time to his shoulders.
When the snow melts and new flowers are growing, blooming untended along the walkways, Al ventures out to the mailbox. He skims through his mail: You are invited to the funeral of Roy Mustang, in memoriam. You are invited to the funeral of Lisa Mustang. We regret to inform you that the 2nd Company has been lost in combat in the East....
He has gone through all of Ed's notes, re-read his last notes several times. They have no drawings, no absent notes to himself: they are clean and crisp, though still slanted slightly, t's and d's spiked sharply with a hint of desperation. He's read all the books in his library and most of the pertinent ones from the Central Library. For a few days, he sits, still and quiet, as desperate as Ed must have been all those years ago, occasionally settling his foot against his desk and pushing himself into an aimless spin. Then he closes his eyes and sleeps.
His hair has grown again. Al brushes his fingers through it, smoothing the tangles; closes his eyes and thinks of cutting it. He does not have the energy. His workroom has grown cold. His fingers ache. The only warmth is in his eyes, which burn, fierce and cutting, as he lays his head against his desk.
His tears smudge Edward's writing, his last page of notes: it blots and runs his last sentence: If I am damned, then I am damned on my own terms.
It is very warm, warm and bright. His fingers don't ache, his eyes are dry. Al blinks and sits up, winces, lifts a hand to shield his eyes. He blinks rapidly, several times, and when his eyes have adjusted lowers his arm and looks around. All around him is nothingness; just the bright light, stretching as far as the human eye can see. It is warm—warm and soft, like his mother's arms—but for some reason it frightens him, and he curls into himself, bringing his knees to his chest, and his eyes grow damp again. Not from desperation, not from sadness, but from an emotion he hasn't felt since he was small. Fear. And from an emotion he recognizes very well: loneliness.
Is this the end of the world? Is this the afterlife? Is this what humans dream so desperately about, what they long for so much—an eternal nothingness, a forever of being alone.
Then: footsteps, uneven, one step light and sure, the other heavy, hesitant. He hasn't heard that footfall in years, and for a moment he isn't sure he's not imagining it, what with all he's forgotten. But—he turns, and his brother is before him, Edward, head tilted, hands in his pockets; hair long and shining, looking for all the world like a mass of gold, eyes still hard bronze but soft as he regards Al.
Al opens his mouth with a soft sound, but no words come out. He can only stare at Ed, who watches him with a straight face, a poker face Al doesn't remember. Al's heart beats faster and he is warmer than ever: hot, even, his cheeks flushed, fingertips tingling. He wets his lips and touches his tongue to the roof of his mouth, and finally says, clumsily, what he has been waiting to say for so, so long: "Brother?"
And Ed smiles, and it is like—like seeing a waterfall for the first time, seeing its power and unspoiled beauty, its gift to life and nature; like hearing its sweet rushing roar, knowing it can't be harnessed, can't be controlled, only watched and admired. He slips his hands out of his pockets and holds them out to Al, stopping them just inches from Al's face.
"Hey," he says, face as bright and burningly painful as the sun. "It's been a while."
"I tried," Al says, wanting to move closer, but afraid to. He is suddenly afraid Ed's hands will burn him—worse, that Ed will disappear, that this will turn out to be a dream and he will wake up with pounding heart, cold, aching, alone. The words spill out of him, guilty and desperate. "I tried so hard, but even with your notes I couldn't—I couldn't—I really—-really tried and I—"
Ed touches his face. It is just his fingertips that rest on Al's cheeks, and so lightly, so carefully, like Al might break. His smile softens. "I tried, too," he says, "but I couldn't do it either." He cocks his head. "Do you hate me?"
The question chokes his throat. Al closes his eyes, trying to feel nothing but Ed's fingers on his cheeks, the warmth of them, the slight scratch of his jagged fingernails. Then tears are slipping out, spilling, he knows, onto Ed's fingers and running down his cheeks; they burn and scratch and crust on his face like salt, or blood. "No," he whispers. "Never. I love you. I—"
Ed embraces him, arms going around his neck, his whole body pressing against Al's. His fingers play in Al's hair, sorting through the tangles, smoothing the ends around his chin. "It's okay now." He draws back a little and grins, a hint of mischief shining in his eyes and in the way his teeth flash, canines sharp and ungainly, awkwardly beautiful like the rest of him.
Al wraps his arms around him, presses him close. He cries into Ed's jacket until his face is scorched and his eyes feel like nothing. Ed strokes his hair, thumbs away his tears when he can, murmurs into his shoulder. He is warm, so warm, and solid underneath Al's arms. Al notices things he never noticed when Ed was there—his smell, dusty, with the hint of something mechanical; something slightly sour, but sweet and soft at his neck and shoulders; the heavy fall of his hair, and the way his mouth quirks at the corners, the bright flash of his teeth and how his eyes turn a lighter gold when he is happy. Ed draws back, since Al has stopped crying, and smiles at him. Al can see the vaguest imprint of dimples in his cheeks.
"Would you believe it, Al?" he says, still tousling through Al's hair with a fond touch. "It's not heaven or hell. It's just you and me."
Ed smells like a lightning storm. He is too small to contain all his personality, too neat and tight under Al's hands, and it bubbles out from his smile and settles on Al like a physical presence. It's contagious; Al smiles back, his cheeks already dry, and feels like his face will crack from the stretch of his lips. He grabs Ed's hand, lifts it to his face, brushes Ed's knuckles over his cheeks.
"Just you and me," Ed repeats softly; then, grinning, knuckles Al's head. He untagles his hand gently from Al's and wraps it around the back of Al's neck, and they sit down together, knees bumping, shoulders brushing. Still scritching his fingers around Al's scalp, he says, "Do you want me to tell—?"
"No," Al says, turning to look at him. "I want everything to be new."
There it is again, that smile: unexpectedly sweet, and a bit shy. Ed turns it into a smirk and straightens himself again, leaning back on one arm.
"Sounds good," he says. "Since I guess we have forever."
And that word, more than any other, is sweeter than anything else.