When the orange didn't slip from his fingers, and when he didn't squeeze it too hard, spilling juice on the floor and down his arm, Al broke into a disbelieving grin. Did I really—? And then, I did, and he still was holding it with just the right balance, not too tightly to break it but tightly enough to keep it in his grip. He turned around. "Look, brother!" he said, stretching his arm out and shoving the orange into a bar of sunlight. "I did it!"
His brother smiled in return, raised his automail fingers in a thumbs up. "Good job," he said.
"You sound better today, brother," said Al, putting the orange on the table and tilting his head at the scene, still a little in shock that he hadn't broken or dropped anything. Hitching up on the table, he turned to look at Ed, who was a little less whiter than the sheets surrounding him. "Stronger. Are you feeling better?"
Ed grunted, shoulders raising in a quick motion. "Mmmhm."
"I"m glad," Al said softly. Dropping his hips down, he walked over to the bed and sat on the edge; reached out to touch the silvery cool of Ed's arm and then the warm flesh of his other. He curled their fingers together. "You're getting better, too. Soon we can both go home, you and me."
Ed's expression took on a more disinterested turn. He wiggled his fingers in Al's grasp, then slid them out and put them defensively in his lap, curling into himself. Al drew in a breath, let it out and forced himself to keep smiling. "You're tired," he said—it was a struggle to remain so patient, but yelling didn't help and Al had never liked it, anyway. "You want me to leave now?"
"Yeah," said Ed, lying down and turning his face to the window. He hated that window, would sometimes go up to it and press his fingers through the bar or his face, like he was trying to squeeze himself through and go outside. "Go out or something."
Al took another deep breath. "Fine," he said, lifting himself from the bed. He stumbled a little, but caught his balance and righted himself again. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I'll be back later. Okay?"
Ed said nothing, even when Al paused in the doorway. Squeezing the doorframe, he watched Ed's eyelids waver and flutter, then slide shut. Turning, he closed the door quietly and locked it behind him.
"He's different," said Al.
The doctor beside him grunted, head bent over his clipboard and pen. "Natural," he said. "He'll get over it."
"No—" Al pressed his fingers to the window, watching the doctor prod Ed's throat, move his fingers down to Ed's chest and press his head there for the heartbeat. "I mean he's really different, Doctor. Look at him—he hates to be touched, and now he just doesn't even care. But he won't let me touch him. I can hardly even hold his hand."
"Post traumatic stress disorder," said the doctor, humming. "The shock to the brain. A temporary setback. We won't release him until you feel he's fully recovered, Alphonse-kun."
"Yeah," Al sighed out. He watched his breath turn the window misty, then clenched his fingers in it and rubbed the mist away. Ed wasn't even flinching when the needles went in; Ed hated needles, always had. He just sat there, bent over to expose his back to the doctors, and they were fingering and touching the long scars dissecting his spine. "I don't know what to do."
"Ah, there it is," said the doctor, and Al looked at him, startled. "That lump, we've been wondering what it was." The doctor scribbled something on the notepad. "Just some shrapnel. Very good; I was worrying it might be a clot."
They drew the bits of glass out of his back, getting blood all over their white gloves and Ed's pale skin, and Al closed his eyes against a sudden burn. When he opened them again, the doctor was gone and he was alone, his face pressed to the glass and his fingers clenching the window.
The oranges were easier to carry now; he hardly ever dropped them. He sat now with a pencil, painstakingly scratching out his name: the letters were barely legible, but his fingers would regain memory in time. For now, it was enough to turn the paper and see his name. Alphonse Elric.
Ed reached out and tapped a finger on the letters. "That's you," he said.
"Yes," Al said, smiling. "Al-phonse. It's been too long since I've written my own name. I should write a letter to Auntie Pinako. Have anything you want to say?"
Ed's eyes narrowed. "No," he said, huffing a little. He shoved the paper back towards Al.
"Well, do you want to try writing your name, then?"
"What am I, five?" Ed tapped his metal fingers on the table, his biggest sign lately that he was irritated, and slanted a very unfavorable look at Al. "I know how to write."
"Write it, then," said Al, narrowing his own eyes. "Go on—you can, can't you?" He flipped the paper to its clean side and shoved it and the pen toward Ed's hand. "Show me."
Metal scraped against metal as Ed stood, drawing his fingers against the table. He grabbed the paper and, lifting his chin and looking down at Al with cold, unfamiliar eyes, ripped it in half, then ripped the halves into halves and let them flutter to the floor. "I said," and he leaned forward so that his breath was hot against Al's face, "I don't want to, okay?" He turned and stormed out of the room, his metal foot clicking high and hard on the concrete floor.
Al sat still for a long time, then let out a long, shaky breath and bent down to pick up the shredded bits of paper. His name had been ripped in half, a clean cut between Al and phonse. He traced the first half with his fingernails and closed his eyes.
"Tell us what happened, Alphonse-kun."
"Yes." Al ran his fingers along the edges of the table, nervous, feeling the rough contours and the cuts in the wood. "He drew the transmutation circle; the Sins helped. I didn't see much of that—and I couldn't draw it for you, if that's what you're wanting to know," he said when someone opened their mouth. "Lust had already opened the vials of the liquid Philosopher's Stone and he stepped in that, then clapped his hands and held them out to me. We both stepped into the circle."
Ed had been holding him tightly; Al had been able to tell from the little sounds that Ed's metal fingers and nails made against his armor. "Don't let go of me, Al," he'd said, and Al had looked into his shining gold eyes and felt, for the first time, that he was seeing all of his brother. "Let's do it together."
"And then what happened, Alphonse-kun?"
"Then we saw... it. The Truth. It spoke to my brother. I couldn't hear all of what it was saying, but for some reason—I don't even know why, now—I had a feeling I didn't like it. Then it was—it reached out for Ed and I screamed and held out my arms, and that's when I realized they were—mine."
"Your real arms? Your human body?"
"Yes," said Al, "the body I had lost." He had stopped with his hands in front of him, horrified and fascinated, and only looked up in time to see little black hands disappearing into his brother's body. Ed had jerked back, body bending in half, and then—"They grabbed him and his whole body went dark. I couldn't tell what was going on. I started screaming."
"And then you came to."
"I came to," Al agreed, "and I was... me. I was human again." The noises and the feelings had been overwhelming; it felt like the air was burning him, choking his lungs, and the liquid Stone around him had felt alternately like liquid fire and burning ice. "The Sins were around me, dead. They were ripped to pieces and their seals had been burned away. I didn't know what was going on, so I crawled around until I felt something. Until I felt his body. I tried to transmute a light, so I could see, but I couldn't."
"Because you are now a homunculus," said someone with a purr in their voice, a predatory lilt.
"Anyway, I dragged him to where I could see him. He looked fine on the outside, but when I looked more closely I saw blood coming from his mouth and his ears." He had started screaming, then, out of pure desperation had screamed his brother's name, begging him to wake up; but Ed stayed limp in his arms and the blood continued to stream out steadily. "And then... and then the military was there, and everything was being taken care of. Everything's hushed up now, right? My brother won't be in trouble, will he? The Stone's gone, we used it and that was it. So there's nothing you want from him, right?"
"Of course not. The military takes care of its own, Alphonse-kun, surely you know that."
"Of course," said Al. "After all, Shou Tucker is still alive, isn't he?"
The purr went flat as an iced pond. "That is none of your concern. Thank you, Alphonse-kun, that is all."
"I brought you something," Al said, dropping onto his brother's bed. "Look, I know you'll like these."
Ed's eyebrows raised, an expression almost interested. "What?"
"Here." Al leaned over and hefted up a bag, spilling its contents out onto the bed. "The History of the World. Ethics of Alchemy. Alchemy in Undeveloped States. You wanted these for a long time, remember? We finally got paid, so I went out and got these for you."
Ed hesitated, hand hovering in his lap, then reached out and quickly drew a book toward him, like he was afraid Al would snatch them back. "Ethics...." he said, flipping through its pages and stopping on an illustration of the alchemical sign for the Stone. "Alchemy. I used to care about this, didn't I?"
"Yeah," said Al, opening another book and thumbing through it. "You and me both."
"You...." Ed closed the book. "Al. Alphonse. My brother."
Al opened his mouth, then closed it and quieted his words. He touched Ed's hand. Amazing, that, in a way no one could understand, to be able to touch his brother and feel warmth and blood and life. He ran his fingers down the veins on top, then turned Ed's hand and drew a fingernail along his lifelines and down to the veins in his wrist, pinching the delicate lines.
"My brother," Ed repeated. His hand in Al's clenched, but he didn't move it. "Al. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I want to be sorry."
"It's all right." Al kept stroking his hand, and lifted his head to smile at Ed. "I know what you mean. You don't have to be sorry, okay? No apologies between us."
"I'm sorry," Ed whispered. He squeezed his eyes shut, touched his head with his free hand. His nails dug into his temple.
Al reached out and grabbed it, forced it back down. He was squeezing a little too hard, he knew, but Ed stopped struggling and relaxed in Al's hands. He'd left a little red mark on his temple; Al touched it, brushing his hair away from it, and leaned forward to bump their foreheads together. "I'm tired," he said.
Ed's lips brushed his as he nodded.
"I do think he's getting a little better," said the psychiatrist who saw Ed every week.
Al paused, catching the ball he'd been bouncing, but the doctor didn't look up or say anything else. Bouncing the ball again, catching it, he asked, "How, do you think?"
"Oh, little things. He's more shy about being touched, which means he's regaining ideas about personal space. He's a bit more talkative—he initiates speech rather than just responding to mine."
"That's good," Al said, throwing the ball hard.
"Does he talk more to you, Alphonse-kun?"
"Not really. So what's wrong with him, really? And will he get much better?"
"Hard to tell without cutting open his head and looking at that brain of his," said the psychiatrist with a laugh. "We're sure his brain was affected, but we're not really sure how. We're guessing certain areas were damaged that help people react to others—speech, empathy, emotions, that sort of thing."
Al stilled his hand, letting the ball roll across the floor. The blood coming out of Ed's ears.... "Oh," he said, stretching his fingers and shoving his hand into his pocket.
They looked through the window, watching Ed as the doctors prodded his chest. The Other had taken a lung—they were still trying to gauge how difficult this would make his release, or if he could even, realistically, be released at all. Sometimes Al thought of all that Ed had had taken from him and it seemed like half of his body was gone. He didn't really know what a fair price for creating him was, but that didn't seem it.
"Anyway, Alphonse-kun," said the doctor, scribbling down one last note and putting away his clipboard, "he is recovering, don't worry about that. You should spend some time with him this evening, see if you can draw him out. Talk about things that you normally would, things that pique his interest."
"All right," Al said, smiling a little. "Thanks a lot."
"Sit still. Don't move your head like that." Al threaded his fingers more securely through Ed's hair, and brought two sections together, sweeping them across each other and separating them carefully so they wouldn't tangle in each other. His pinky finger touched the silky hair at the nape of Ed's neck, and he reached down to gather that up, too. "It's been so long since I've done this. It feels like forever."
Ed twitched. "You're pulling it," he said, hunching his shoulders. "Damn."
"Sorry," said Al, loosening his grip. "Still pulling?"
"All right." The braids at the top were looser, bigger, but towards the bottom they got tighter and smaller. Al tied the braid off, wrapping the tie around it several times to make sure it was tight, then ran one hand over the sections. Newly-washed, Ed's hair was soft and slid easily through his fingers, and smelled like the soap from the shower. "There," he said, touching it one more time, then dropping his hands. "It's done now."
Ed scooted back so that they were closer together, reaching up to touch the braid. His fingers ran over it gingerly. "You used to do this a lot," he said, pausing on the tie.
Al murmured assent.
"Brother," Ed repeated, tilting his head. He looked at Al through his bangs, with his clear, light eyes; lifted his hand and settled it gently, almost hovering, over Al's. His hand was smaller, but the same shape as Al's. "Alphonse. That's what I am. That's who you are."
Al closed his hand, threading his fingers with Ed's. His bronze skin and then Ed's paler skin alternated, larger and then smaller, unmarked and lightly scarred. He lifted their hands and touched his lips to Ed's knuckles, breathing out across them quietly. He lifted his eyes to Ed's, returned Ed's even, blank gaze. "Brothers," he said. "That's what we are."
Ed hmmed, narrowing his eyes. He touched Al's fingers with his metal hand, pressed down on the knuckles. "Brothers."
"And I love you," Al said quietly, flexing his fingers so they brushed against Ed's.
"I remember...." Ed's eyebrows drew down. "It was my fault, wasn't it, Al? Everything is my fault. I wanted to fix you.... and I did, didn't I? I would have done anything. I did, right?"
Tears pricked at his eyes, hung on his eyelashes; Al held his eyes wide open. If he blinked, they'd fall. He couldn't cry, Ed didn't need him crying. "You did too much, brother."
"Al." Ed touched his face, his cheeks, then slid his fingers up to wipe the tears away. "I did it. I fixed it. Everything's all right now, right?"
"Yeah," Al whispered, and couldn't keep the tears from falling this time; but Ed just wiped them away, smiled and bumped their faces together. Al reached up and wrapped his free arm around Ed's neck, digging his fingers into the braid and gently touching the lumps and ridges of scars. "You're so warm, brother. I knew you would be, I've wanted to touch you for so long. We're all right now. You did it, you did everything all by yourself, so I'll take care of things now, okay?"
They burned Ed's written research, and gave the rest to Roy Mustang who promised, with a smirk and wink—although Al thought he saw a bit of a proud gleam to that smirk—to keep it safe, in case they ever needed it again. Hawkeye told them goodbye through a stern face, with teary eyes, and Armstrong flooded all over them as he hugged them. The others waved and Havoc blew smoke into their faces and everyone promised they were welcome to come back, and then they boarded the next train to Rizen Pool and got into town three days later, at sundown.
The innkeeper wrapped them both in a wet hug, and when she was done crying asked them why they weren't staying with their aunt. Al handed her a wad of money. "We thought we would surprise her in the morning," he said with a smile. The innkeeper sniffed, refused the money and gave them the key to their room. Al carried up their bags with one hand, and helped Ed up the stairs with the other.
Ed sat on the edge of the bed while Al unpacked enough for that night and the next day. Then he sat next to him, and for a while there was silence, broken only by periods when Ed had to breathe quickly and harshly to get in enough breath.
"Hey," Al said finally, glancing at Ed. "I have an idea." He stood up and held out his hand, looking down at Ed expectantly. "Let's go, okay?"
"Where?" But Ed took his hand anyway, and let Al pull him to his feet.
Rizen Pool was a hilly country; there was one high enough to overlook the entire village. They'd climbed them all the time when they were small, gone to them when they were sad or lonely or just needed some time together, to not feel so small and useless—especially when Mother had gotten sick. At night, if everyone turned off their lights, you could see the stars stretching across the sky for miles, see the white, twinkling spill of thousands upon thousands of stars.
Al went behind his brother, occasionally giving him a push when Ed slowed to catch a breath. He breathed in deeply the entire way, smelling green and rain and grass and the cool, sweet scent of the stars. At the top of the hill they sprawled out, Ed hooking his arms behind his neck and Al hitching himself up on his elbows. He inhaled and closed his eyes.
"I'd forgotten," said Ed beside him. "That there's a place like this, where we could stay forever and nothing would change."
He hadn't forgotten. The memory had always been in his head, of Ed leading him up here when he was scared or sad; of them sitting down together, Ed wrapping an arm around his shoulders and wiping away his tears with two dirty thumbs, then pointing to the sky.
"Do you remember?" Al blinked, turned to see that Ed was staring at him with the intensity of the stars reflected in his eyes. He was so white still that the stars danced off his skin. "The first time I took you up here."
Al shook his head, uncertain. "It just seemed like we always came up here, I thought."
Ed lay back in the grass. Al lay down, too, head turned to see Ed, pale skin and gold hair and eyes all framed in the bright green of the grass. "The first time was when Dad left." He lifted an arm and pointed to the sky; Al followed the line of his hand to the bright glow in the sky, the dog star gleaming green and bright. "I really worried Mother... I took you up here, carried you all the way myself. You were too little to really know anything, but I sat with you in my lap and made up stories about the stars because I didn't know their names, either. And then it rained, and I put you in my shirt and held you until it stopped raining. I don't remember much after that. Just Mother getting mad at me and yelling that you were too young for me to carry off. But I remember—feeling proud that I'd taken care of you like that. When we got home, I was soaking wet but you weren't even damp."
Ed sighed and clasped his hands together. "Funny," he said. "I hadn't remembered that in a long time. I guess I was trying not to. If I remembered too much of you, you and me when we were little, I guess I—"
"It's okay," Al said, snaking his fingers between Ed's two hands. He rolled over so they were closer, curled his body around Ed's—funny that he was the taller one now, when he remembered Ed as always being the bigger one: the one holding his hand, the one guiding him, the one carrying him when he tired.
"It's okay," Ed repeated, voice quiet. "It's okay now, Al. Maybe it won't be exactly the same but we'll get through it."
Al squeezed his hand. "It doesn't have to be the same," he said, catching Ed's eyes with his. He saw himself, whole and human, reflected in his brother's eyes. "It's all right, as long as you're with me. If you weren't....."
"But I am." Ed smiled and looked back at the sky.
"Yeah." Al reached out and smoothed his hair away from his eyes, grinning when Ed pulled a face. "You are."
This time, his signature was much straighter, less shaky, with uniformly thin lines. Al stared at it, then folded the letter, slipped it into the envelope and ran his tongue over the seal.
He heard Ed snort and turned to look, saw his brother pulling on his shirt over pale skin and a crimson scar cutting down his chest. "You'll never get tired of that, eh, Al?"
"No," said Al, cheerful, writing on the envelope: To Pinako and Winry Rockbell. And then on the other, To Roy Mustang, Fuhrer of the State Alchemists. He ran his nail along the seals, making sure they were closed, then stacked them together and tapped them on the edge of the desk.
"They probably won't care that we're leaving, anyway."
"Maybe not." Probably true; everyone had moved on, as people did. "But they'll still like to know. Some part of us still stays in the past, after all."
"Mmm." Ed fastened his collar, brushed the wrinkles from his cloak. "Well? Shall we go?"
"Yes," said Al, sliding the letters into their briefcase and standing up. "I'm ready."
Dear Auntie Pinako and Winry,
We just thought we'd drop you a short line to say that we're leaving. We're not exactly sure where we're going, but Brother thinks that it would be nice to help the Ishvarians rebuild their new country. Maybe we'll head east—and then who knows?
Thank you for letting us stay these past few months. Thank you for all your help. Thank you for the years.
Love, Edward and Alphonse Elric.
Dear Fuhrer Mustang:
Ha! You don't know how much I laugh when I write that! You'll always be a colonel to me, Colonel. I didn't want to write this, but Al is nicer than I am and he thought you'd want to know: we're leaving. No more military trips for me, no more reports; this is all mine. And if you ever need help, just ask me: as a favor, not an order. Who knows, I might be willing to help you out a little.
Not sorry to be leaving Sincerely yours,
Edward Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist.