The last thing Alphonse Elric saw was fire, and the blue light of alchemical reactions, and thousands of thin black hands snaking across the floor towards his brother's body.
When he wakes, he is in a clean, light-filled room (by its color seeping in through the window shades, he can tell it is mid-sunset) that smells of old flowers and antiseptic, and Roy Mustang—of all people—is asleep in the chair next to his bed.
Al lifts his hand in front of his face, wondering. His skin is very pale, that is the first thing that strikes him—the color of milk. Skin that's never seen sunlight before. And it's soft when he runs his fingers over his face, as soft as he's always imagined baby skin must be. He feels a brief irrational fear that he is a baby, that he has gone from one form of hell to another; then he calms himself by realizing that his hand is too big, and so are his feet, which are sticking out of the pink bedquilt.
He clears his throat and is about to test his voice when Mustang jerks awake, blinking sleepily at him and then going wide-eyed. His face falls back into its customary smirk-smile as he says, "Ah, Alphonse-kun, I was wondering when you would wake up."
"What are you doing here?" Al blurts, a rude thing to say under any other circumstances—but lying here in the feel of his own skin, in a light body with fingers and toes numb from cold he hasn't been able to feel for years, he feels a little rudeness can be excused.
Apparently Mustang agrees. "The military is still after you. My men and I thought our talents might be best utilized guarding you—for the time being, anyway."
He has a slippery tongue, Mustang; no wonder Ed hates talking to him. Al picks through what he's said, trying to feel out the truth in Mustang's carefully-crafted sentence, and says, "The military's after you, too, isn't it?"
"Astute as always." Roy smiles, rubbing his chin with his hand. "Anyway, how are you feeling?"
Al runs his tongue over his teeth; his mouth tastes strange and makes his voice sound funny, too. Morning-mouth, he realizes distantly. His breath probably smells awful. "I need to brush my teeth," he says; then, recognizing the funny feeling in the pit of his stomach, "And use the bathroom, too.—Ah!"
Roy pauses by his bed, head tilting. "Yes, Alphonse-kun?"
"Brother!" Al sits up in bed and has to curl his fingers into the sheets, steadying himself against a rush of dizzy vertigo. He takes a deep breath, then another one, and the blackness around the edge of his vision fades. "My brother," he says, and even though he knows Ed isn't here, he looks around the room anyway, hoping he might be hiding in a corner or under the curtains. "Where's my brother?"
"Ed is recovering as well, here. Now, let's get you to the bathroom, and then you need to eat. Understood?"
The military briskness in Mustang's voice soothes him; Al nods, takes another deep breath. "That sounds good," he says, and holds out his hand for Mustang to take.
In between shoveling food into his mouth—Mustang gave him fruit and the flavor explodes on his tongue; tears come to his eyes and not just because of the sweet-sourness—Al notices a newspaper lying on the floor. He leans over and picks it up, careful not to rip it, and scans the headlines.
'MILITARY COUP LEAVES FUHRER DEAD'—'UNDERGROUND CITY DISCOVERED BY AWOL STATE ALCHEMIST—STATE ALCHEMIST EDWARD ELRIC MISSING, PRESUMED DEAD—'
"Colonel!" Al shakes the newspaper at Mustang as he comes in through the door; his fingers on the paper are trembling, and not just because of the effort of moving around. "You—this—Brother's not—what is going on ?"
"Relax," Mustang says, taking the newspaper from him and shaking out the wrinkles. He flips it right-side up and looks at it, then snorts and shakes his head. "The press loves to assume things, but that doesn't mean it's all true. Anyway, Ed is missing. That part's not wrong."
"And—" Al forces the question out from his tight throat—"dead?"
Mustang smiles. "Of course not. Your brother's harder to kill than that."
The relief is overpowering and causes a physical reaction, too: his eyes tear again as a strange, flighty feeling clutches at his chest. Al clasps his hands together to stop the shaking, then raises them to wipe at his eyes. "He's alive?" he asks, and Roy's nod makes his chest go even tighter. "He's alive... I need to see him."
"All right, all right." He reaches out and steals one of Al's strawberries, and chews it with a frown. "Well. Ed wouldn't thank me if I kept you two separated anyway, I'm sure. Here, lean on me."
By the time he gets into Ed's room, the sun has set, and the room is mostly dark and only dimly light by the bedside lamp. Al leans on Ed's bed and runs his eyes over Ed's face—his bruised eyelids, the burns and cuts and split lip, his skin as pale as Al's own—then reaches out, slowly, to touch it, to feel it slide against his own. Ed's left side cuts off abruptly, and is wrapped in a blood-tinted bandage; he runs his hands down it, lightly so he won't hurt Ed, then clenches his fingers and lifts the fist to his mouth to choke off an angry noise.
"What happened?" he whispers harshly.
"Envy." Roy's voice comes from the corner; he stepped discreetly back when Al entered the room, and even now is hidden in shadow. "He seemed to think that if he couldn't take Ed's life, another arm was a fair substitute."
"And here I am, with a whole body. I couldn't even get his right arm back for him."
"Alphonse-kun," says Mustang, full of reproach, "I'm sure that Ed thinks it was worth it. And that if he were awake he would stomp on you for even thinking about feeling guilty."
"Please, Colonel. You don't know what either of us think."
"That's true," and Mustang pushes off from the wall, revealing his solemn face. "I'll leave you alone." He shuts the door behind him quietly, but the sound echoes in the still room.
Al touches Ed's face again; he wants to rub warmth back into it, warmth and life, but he doesn't have the strength and it probably wouldn't work, anyway. He smoothes his hand up Ed's cheek, brushes over his eyes and tangles his fingers in Ed's hair—it's soft and silky as his own skin, and when he presses his face into it, smells like dust and sweat.
"Idiot brother," he says into Ed's hair. "Stupid brother."
He has waited years for this moment, for when his human hands could finally touch Edward. But he had expected warm skin and a smile spreading under his hands. He gets neither; Ed's skin is cold, his lips heavy and still. Clumsily, Al pulls himself onto the bed, knocking his legs against the metal side and crushing his fingers under his ribs before righting himself. He stretches out next to his brother—he is longer and broader still—and keeps one hand tangled in Ed's hair, the other on Ed's automail shoulder. He presses their cheeks together and shuts his eyes tight.
The doctor who attends them is non-military and doesn't know who they are. He is brisk and cold; when Al asks what, exactly, is wrong with Ed, he rolls his eyes and says, like it should be obvious, "Comatose, of course."
Al doesn't really want to know anymore, but the doctor continues as he examines Ed, prodding the stump of his shoulder and prying open an eye to check the pupils. "From his stimulus response, he went a long time without air. I expect mild brain damage at best."
Al hates him, this skinny doctor with his veiny face and squinty eyes; he wants to knock his hands away from Ed and shove him out of the room. "And," he asks, "at worst?"
"Severe mental incapacitation," the doctor says, almost absently, reaching out to unwind Ed's bandage. "Possibly death. It's an interesting case—he shouldn't even be alive. You kids these days—luck of the devil."
Al can't watch him anymore. He doesn't want to see those long spindly fingers working on his brother. The door clicks loudly behind him as he leaves; but he's sure the doctor didn't even notice.
His first shower is wonderful, and Al wants to make Ed clean, as well. He begs warm water and soft cloths from a young nurse and takes it into Ed's room; he sits cross-legged on the bed and opens Ed's flower-studded hospital gown, revealing the mess Envy left. Looking at it, Al shares the doctor's amazement for a moment: he is surprised, and glad and thankful, that Ed is even alive. He will carry a huge scar forever.
Al dips a cloth in the water and avoids Ed's chest for a moment, touching it to his face instead. He wipes gently at Ed's bruised lips, patting his stitches with care. A trickle of water runs down Ed's chin and Al catches it with a finger. He bathes Ed's entire face, gentle and soft like their mother used to clean them (but they were younger then and smaller, and could fit in the sink), and brushes his lips over Ed's cheek when he is done.
He hops off the bed to change cloths, depositing the used one in the trashcan. When he turns back around, Ed's eyes are open and watching him. Al nearly drops the pan of water.
For a moment his voice won't work; when he does speak, it comes out softly and hoarsely. Any louder, maybe, and he might wake himself up—this might reveal itself to be a dream, having his body back, having Ed looking at him with dark-gold eyes. "Brother," he says, and when Ed doesn't respond he steps closer, kneels by the bed. "Brother, are you... in there?"
Ed's lips move, but no sound comes out. The doctor was right, Al thinks, and his heart sinks, fingers go cold. Then Ed licks his lips and says, "Where else would I be?" His voice is low, hoarse, but oh, God, Ed is speaking to him. Ed is smiling, speaking, breathing, living.
Hot tears are spilling out from his eyes, and an explosion of salt fills Al's mouth as tears run down his cheeks and onto his lips. He tries to speak but can only get a few syllables out and they are rough, broken, and make no sense. He presses his hand to his mouth and shuts his eyes, and they burn.
Something touches his hand, and Al jerks his eyes open to see Ed's fingers brushing across his—back and forth, back and forth, a slow, soothing motion. "Five years," Ed whispers. "I've waited five years to see you, Al. It was worth it. It was worth every damned second."
Al really can't stop crying now, and as the tears fill his eyes and blur his vision he moves blindly forward to bury his face in Ed's good shoulder. And he sobs onto Ed's neck, and the groans come out from somewhere deep inside him, from a place that has been silent for five years. He clutches at his brother, burying his fingers in warm skin and soft hair, and running his fingers over Ed's lips to feel them move as Ed murmurs soft nonsense.
Ed strokes his hair with a soft, sure touch; it lulls Al to sleep even before he has stopped crying.
Risenbourgh in the summer is green and lush, brooks quietly gurgling under blue skies and white clouds. In the fall the sun disappears and the rain comes, and the rivers flood into the fields, and all is a canopy of brown and red and a gold the color of his brother's eyes.
"Do you two really have to leave?"
"Aa. We definitely do."
"We need a break. Just for a little bit—just to get away from people."
"Jeez, don't cry. We'll be back. Count on it."
"I will! And if you don't, I'll come after you and you'll both regret it."
From the balcony, Winry flashes the lights for long after they've left the path leading to the Rockbells' house. When it is gone, Al cranes his head over her shoulder, searching for a glimpse of her, but the house is tiny, the balcony empty.
Beside him, Ed rotates his new arm, then clasps his hands together behind his back and stretches. "Gonna rain soon," he notes.
"Mm," says Al. He looks one last time behind them, then turns back to the road in front and looks over at Ed, a smile tugging at his mouth. "You're happy we're leaving, aren't you, brother?"
Ed looks at him sidelong; his lips twitch, too. But all he says is "Maybe," before laughing and reaching up to punch Al's shoulder. "Oh, come on. It doesn't matter if we leave. This town will always stay the same."
"Does it matter? Hmmm. I wonder what we should do now. Maybe we should herd goats."
Al does smile, this time. "You don't even like animals. You always hated it when I picked up strays."
"Not because I hate animals. I just knew we couldn't take care of one. Now, though—now you can pick up all the strays you want, Al."
"It's okay," says Al. Ed hasn't dropped his hand from his shoulder; the metal is not warm and never will be, but it is heavy and comforting in its own way: uniquely Ed. So few people are willing to undergo the pain of automail limbs. "I don't need them anymore."
"Maybe we can be detectives," Ed says, eyes lighting.
Choking back a laugh, Al presses his tongue to his cheek and nods. "Whatever you want, brother."
"Or maybe we can just get a house and. Just relax for a while, you know?"
Ed is not looking at him but straight ahead, face set into a casual cast. Al smiles, reaches out and brushes his bangs out of his eyes, and when Ed looks at him startled says, "I think I like that idea the best."
At night, with no one but the stars watching, Ed is like a little boy again, all defiance gone, only his shaking voice left comforting Al after their mother's funeral. But now it is the other way around, and Al holds him in the dark, curling around him skin-to-skin. "I'm here," he says as Ed shudders against him. "I'll never leave." He threads their fingers together, flesh against metal, and lifts them to the window; the moonlight glints off Ed's fingers and falls onto Al's. He drops them, and brushes his mouth against Ed's knuckles.
Ed is half-asleep; it is the only reason he can show Al his vulnerable face, with wide frightened eyes and skin sheened with sweat. "Are you really here?" he says, clutching his free hand in Al's shirt. "What if I'm dreaming... what if I'm dead... it'd be all right if I'm dead, if it was always like it is now...."
Something sticks in Al's throat; he swallows around it and grabs Ed's other hand. "You're not dead. There's no way I'd let you die, remember? Idiot... you don't have to be dead to be happy, you know, brother."
Ed's eyes close and he nods faintly. In sleep, he buries his head in Al's chest and keeps a tight grip on his hands, so that Al's fingers in the morning are rubbed raw from the metal.
In the morning Ed is his usual brusque self; he fixes a rough breakfast, scrambled eggs because he doesn't have the patience to keep the yolk unbroken, and burnt toast because he always forgets that he's left the bread in the oven. But it tastes good anyway; Ed makes faces over the black toast, but Al eats what he doesn't and enjoys the unpleasant, rough texture on his tongue.
Ed's words stay in his head, though, and when Ed goes out to get some water from the river, Al sits at the table and watches heavy stormclouds fill the sky. It's all right if I'm dead.... Then the back door slams and Ed stamps into the kitchen, shaking water off his hair and cloak like a dog. He grumbles something about smelling like wet fur and leans his hip against the table, crossing his arms as he rambles on. Al sits up straighter and Ed pauses, blinking at him.
"Brother, do you think there's a heaven?"
Ed sighs, face drooping in exasperation. "AL. What kind of moronic question is that?"
"Don't worry, it's not really a question." Al stands and grins at him, then brushes past him to open the door. He puts one foot on the porch, half-turns in the doorway and says, "I was just meaning to say, If there is one, it wouldn't be so bad if it were just this. Not bad at all."
Ed stares at him for a long moment, face still beneath his sopping wet bangs. He is dripping onto the floor and he does smell a bit like wet fur. But when he joins Al on the porch, he is smiling; he knocks into Al affectionately, like puppies do with their siblings. They stand close together, sharing heat, and watch the storm rage across the sky, over the mountains and onto the plains below.
Ed fixes dinner that night—tomato soup—and manages to burn it. But it tastes good; even Ed has to admit it.
Months pass, and Al's skin turns from milky-white into pale gold, near the color of Ed's eyes and of the leaves back home. His hair grows out and he debates keeping it long, but one night Ed holds up the scissors, and Al lets him do a rough trimming job; he leaves it a wild mess, hair sticking up in all directions, and when Al trims Ed's hair he doesn't do much better. Ed's hair is down to his back now, and it's about as unruly as a cat's tail, swinging around when he walks, bobbing up and down and blowing in the wind. Then sun bleaches it paler blond as it darkens his skin, but his eyes never change color. They remain shockingly gold against his darker skin.
Sometimes Al wonders at it, at how easily things have fallen into place for them. Money appeared in a joint account under their names, just enough for a little cottage in the mountains; Edward Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist, was discharged from the military with a pension fund more than enough to cover their living expenses. No one asks questions; they only smile at Al cheerfully when he comes into the nearby village to buy food and supplies (since Ed is quite content to live the rest of his life as a hermit, it's usually left to Al to manage the more practical side of their new existence).
Then he remembers one of the very first things he remembers his mother teaching him. He and Ed had a friend, a boy their age who lived a few miles away; he was not so much a friend as a hanger-on, someone they tolerated because he was so lonely and so appreciative of their company. Ed especially loved to tease him, knowing he would never get angry or lash back. Then, one day, he was gone, he and his family. Al had wondered out loud to his mother that it had been so easy for him to leave his friends.
She had smiled at him knowingly—she'd watched them play together, of course, and never said anything although he knew she disapproved of their behavior—and said, "Alphonse, you only get out of something what you put into it."
And that is fair, Al thinks now, as he and Ed sit in their chairs by the window, him reading, Ed with his feet propped up, head tilted back to watch the sunset. He looks at Ed and thinks, I have put my whole life into you; and it would have been fine if it had never come back to me, but it did. You're happy, and so am I.