He eased into the room awkwardly, hands full and feet still clumsy from re-learning balance and remembering how to bear weight. Juggling the tray, he crossed one foot behind the other and closed the door as quietly as he could.
Al huffed out a breath. The room was hot, windows closed and curtains drawn to shut out the light. He set down the tray on the table near the wall and went over to the windows, poked his head through the curtains and looked outside at the sun shining down on the fields, enjoying for a few seconds the heat emanating from the glass. He pressed one cheek to a pane and smiled. The warmth was almost friendly, like the sun was telling him good morning.
"Al, are you doing dirty things to the window?"
His smile widened even more to something goofy. It was a little embarrassing, how often he smiled like this nowadays. Al leaned one hip on the window sill and turned his smile on Ed. "Good morning, brother," he said, and cocked his jaw at the tray he'd abandoned. "Are you hungry?"
Ed smiled too, pain shading the expression and making it brave. "Nah. I just woke up. I need to brush my teeth." He maneuvered himself, one-handed, to the edge of the bed, and Al hurried over to him before he could try to get himself off and fall, pressing his legs against the bed and offering an arm to Ed.
Ed gave him an expression of doom, eyebrows tilting down direly. "I can do it," he said, enunciating carefully, "by myself."
Al closed his mouth around a snappish reply, and moved aside so Ed could grab his cane and swing himself off the bed. Ed could do it himself, of course. Al knew better than anyone that Ed, if he put his mind to it, could do anything, and a little thing like missing limbs wasn't going to stop him.
"I just want to help," he finally said.
Balancing himself on his cane, Ed straightened up, another pained expression flashing over his features before being smoothed into a poker face. He looked at Al and raised his eyebrows, and said, "Okay. Then open the door for me."
Another goofy smile stretched his mouth. Grinning, Al opened the door for him with a flourish, earning himself a playful shove from Ed's cane as he went past.
After the bathroom break, Ed situated himself on the bed again and Al brought the tray, seating himself on the edge of the bed and watching as Ed munched his way through the remains of breakfast. The sun turned the dull cast of Ed's hair and automail arm into a gold-and-silver halo, made the starchy white of his bandages stand out whitely against his skin. Then Ed looked up, and the sun caught and gleamed off his eyes, too, and Al blinked and had to ask Ed to repeat himself, please.
Ed's eyes narrowed, then his mouth tilted up knowingly. "Is there any coffee left?" he asked, reaching for a thick scrap of bacon.
"Um?yeah. Hold on, I'll get you a cup."
He brought back a steaming mug ? Winry's favorite, the one with the cow on it, tail pointed up and eyes bugging in a surprised expression (what he was surprised at, Al had no idea). Ed wrapped his hand around it and lifted it to his lips, eyes lidding in a blissful expression after his first sip. He brought it back down, balanced it precariously on his knee. "You want a sip?"
Al peered into the cup, curling his lip at the black liquid settled there like a coiled, slimy animal. "I never said anything, but I don't know how you drink that," he said truthfully. "It looks gross."
Ed grinned. "It's an adult's drink, Al."
"Hey," Al protested, but he grinned, too. "If we have to drink that to be adults, I think we should stay kids, brother."
Expression smoothing again, Ed took another sip. "Maybe so," he said, and couldn't hide the wistful tone to his voice.
Al opened his mouth to speak, but Ed shifted and let out a tiny wince ? hardly anything more than a sigh, really ? and Al closed his mouth. He turned his eyes to the window and the green fields outside, where he'd hung the laundry this morning: some of Winry's tops, his pants, the apron that everyone used when they wanted to cook; and the towels they used for bandages. He'd scrubbed and scrubbed, but hadn't been able to get all of the blood out and they sat in the cloth like a crimson flag, like a call to battle.
"Al," Ed said suddenly, drawing Al's attention back to him. "What's that in your pocket?"
Al blinked, then crimsoned in a rush, hand leaping to hide the bulge in his pants pocket. "N-nothing," he stuttered, reaching forward to grab the empty tray. "Um, let me take this to the kitchen, brother, and then do you want something else? Maybe some juice? Or maybe do you feel like going outside? We could go to the river, it's beautiful outside."
"Al," said Ed. He settled his hand on the top of Al's head, ruffled his hair and then drew it back. "Don't make me beat it out of you, Al."
Al sighed and smoothed his hair. "Brother?" he began, and winced when Ed glared. "All right, all right," he said grumpily, reaching inside his pocket and drawing out the little box: velvet, with a tiny flower pinned to it. He grimaced as he handed it to Ed.
Ed settled it in his palm, flicked it open with his thumb and peered inside. His eyes widened.
"Don't make fun of me," Al pleaded, feeling the heat come to his cheeks anyway, as if Ed had already laughed at him. "I just... it's pretty, isn't it?"
"I don't know much about it," said Ed, taking it out and putting down the box. He held the ring up, and a bar of sunlight bounced off it and angled across the floor in a spread of gold. Ed glanced up quickly, catching Al's eyes with it, and they softened with his smile. "But. It's pretty, I think."
He handed it back, and Al took it carefully, holding it between two fingers and settling it back into the box on its little velvet bed. "She'll probably say no, anyway," Al said softly, snapping the box shut and sliding it into his pocket
"Heeeh?" Ed stroked his chin with his hand. "What makes you say that?"
Al blinked, rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "I dunno...." He'd never really applied logic to it. An array was all fine and well to deconstruct and pick apart, but this was Winly, who he'd been blood siblings with at five and then asked to marry at seven. "I mean...." He spread apart his hands, helpless. "I don't know," he repeated on a whisper.
There was a sigh from his brother, the kind Al hated to hear: it was the ?my younger brother is the hugest idiot in the world' sigh, which Al always thought was kind of unjustified. It wasn't like Ed was the most stellar example of maturity. "Why haven't you at least asked her, stupid?"
He knew the answer to that, at least. Al covered one hand with the other and began to pick at his nails, steadfastedly looking at anything but his brother. "Well.... ?cause I, uh, I bought when I was. You know. Still attached to the armor."
Ed drew in a breath, but Al plowed on. "Yeah. So... and then, I got back my body but you...." He did raise his eyes, then, and looked at Ed sitting on the bed, sheets pooled around his hips, and followed the line of his body to his automail arm, and on the other side to his shoulder, where the line ended in a clean split. He looked back down and picked again at a hangnail. "It didn't seem right."
"Al." His brother's voice had a soft quality to it, so strange on him when everything about him was so hard: his metal limbs, his bronze eyes. "Geez," Ed sighed, and the softness was gone. He reached out and smacked Al, hard, on the back of the head. "Idiot. Here. Let's pretend I'm Winry, okay?"
Rubbing his head, Al said skeptically, "What?"
"I'm Winry." Ed batted his eyelashes a few times. "And you're proposing to me. Okay? Got that? All right, go for it, tiger."
"Brother!" Al protested, cheeks flaming again. "I can't! That's not going to work."
"Oh, come on." Ed smirked. "Or are there things you want to say to her you can't say to your older brother? Al, you are growing up."
Al shoved him half-heartedly. "That, too," he said, fanning his face with a sigh. "But not just. I can't ask yet, brother. Because... what if she says yes?"
Ed blinked, then widened his eyes and clapped his hand to his head. "Then you get married?"
"Exactly," Al said. "I can't marry her. Not yet. It wouldn't... it wouldn't be fair to her, you know?"
"Why the hell not?"
Al looked out the window again, at the bandages and the blood that wouldn't come out. "What girl wants a husband who won't be there? A husband who has other things to do, more important things?"
"What the hell?" Ed asked, eyes narrowing in exasperation. "What, exactly, do you have to do?"
Silently, Al reached out and touched his shoulder, settling his fingers gently on the bandaged stump then drawing back at Ed's wince. "You... you come first, brother," he said, throat closing. He cleared his throat and looked down at his hands, his whole human hands. "Winry deserves someone better than that."
"Alphonse." Ed's voice had turned rough, but when Al looked up, he had that half-smile on his face, that fond, knowing smile. "You don't need to do anything for me. I'm fine." He reached out and rested his hand on Al's shoulder, drew Al to him and touched their foreheads together. His gold eyes narrowed to slits, then closed with his grin. "I think it'd be cool if you and Winry got together, God knows you've liked her all these years... can you imagine, little Als running around, and I'd be their Uncle Ed. That'd be cool."
Al rested a hand on Ed's shoulder, too, and reached up with the other to tangle in the mess of Ed's braid. "I couldn't be happy leaving you like this," he said, forcing out his words harshly around the lump in his throat.
"Alphonse. I'd be happy if you and Winry got married. I always knew I wouldn't end up...." Ed trailed off, and sighed, eyebrows drawing together. "Maybe there is a God, after all," he said. "Or maybe it's just fate. Either way, I think I was supposed to end up like this. I'm fine with it. I just wanted... I want you to be happy." He flashed a grin, patted Al's cheek and drew back, eyes glinting. "Making little Al-babies."
Al had to swallow several times before he could say anything. "Brother," he whispered, "I love you."
Ed just smiled. "I know," he said, closing his eyes and leaning back against the bed.
He fell asleep quickly ? more tired than he would admit, of course. Al stayed where he was and watched him sleep, watched the smooth rise and fall of his chest be occasionally interrupted by a hitch, of pain or with a bad dream, Al didn't know. The healthy flush that came with morning gradually faded, skin going back to a pale, sickly color in startling contrast to his heavy golden hair. When his brows drew together and his breath caught, Al reached out and twined his hand with Ed's, chafing the metal to warm it. Then he leaned forward and nestled his head against Ed's side, stretched out and closed his eyes. He closed the fingers of his free hand around the box, stroking the velvet over and over until he fell asleep.
Al jolted awake, sitting straight up, and for a moment wasn't sure why until he saw Winry standing in the doorway, leaning a hip against it and watching them. She smiled apologetically and stepped into the room, close enough so she could whisper, "Sorry to wake you up. I brought dinner, do you think he's going to be up?"
Al glanced at him. Ed's face was taut with pain, eyebrows close together and mouth tense, and his body was held tight against Al. "I don't think so," he whispered back. "If you'll save some, I'll feed him later."
Winry sighed and crossed her arms. "Idiot," she said. "If he doesn't eat, he won't heal as fast. He should know that."
"He has been eating," Al said with a smile, remembering how quickly breakfast had disappeared. "He's just sleeping a lot, too. I think he's doing... okay, actually. It'll be a while before he's better, but he'll be all right."
"Of course. He's Edward." Winry caught back a yawn, then stretched her arms to the ceiling and dipped to either side. "Man, I'm tired. You two have been sleeping all day, but I was up working. So, I'll see you two in the morning ? if you wake up," she scowled.
Al scratched his arm, sheepish. "We will, I promise. I'm going to take him to the river tomorrow."
"Good idea," she said over her shoulder. Then by the door she paused, and turned an inscrutable expression on Al. He had the sudden sense of being the frog in the frying pan, where the temperature rose and rose and the frog never noticed. "Al," she said. "I understand you and Ed. Okay? I know how it is, I know how it's always going to be." She tilted her head and a smile flashed across her features, lighting them up. "I don't care."
Al blinked, opened his mouth. Then he closed it slowly. He nodded.
She raised a hand in a careless wave? "Good night," and closed the door behind her.
The room was chilly; it had gotten cold outside while he'd slept. Al peeled himself from the bed, stretching like Winry had, wincing over sore muscles, and stood on his tiptoes to close the windows. He pressed his hands flat against them and stared outside: Rizen Pool was covered in darkness, the sun and the lamps extinguished, but on the very edge of the horizon there was still a hint of orange and red that refused to leave; the world's only light.
He turned away from the window and stood by the bed, leaning over Ed. His expression had calmed a little. Al reached out and pressed the back of his hand to Ed's forehead, felt the warmth of a fever, and sighed a little.
"I'm all right," Ed said, opening his eyes. "Don't stand there and worry over me."
"I wasn't," Al shot back. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked at Ed over his shoulder. "We missed dinner," he said after a pause.
Ed shrugged his shoulder. "Eh. I wasn't hungry."
"You should eat anyway," said Al, carefully keeping his voice devoid of any reproach.
"I know." Ed shifted, eyes narrowing a little, and a wince escaped before he could catch it back. He gave a loud, explosive sigh and kicked back the covers, ending up with them all tangled up in his leg and arm.
Silently, Al peeled them back. He kept them over Ed's feet, raising his eyebrows at Ed's scowl ? "You know you'll just get cold if they're off your feet," he said. "Are you still hot?"
"Yeah." Ed threw his arm over his head and stared up at the ceiling, a dark expression flitting across his face.
Al nodded and got up, going over to the table. There was a bowl on it, filled with ice ? he was surprised they hadn't melted yet, but then, Winry or Auntie had probably re-filled it. He pulled out the cloth from the bowl and wrung it out, testing it against his arm to see how cold it was. He padded back to the bed and, perching on the edge, folded the cloth, brushed back Ed's bangs and draped it over his forehead.
"There," he said. "Lie still, and you'll feel better."
Ed closed his eyes and shook his head, mouth tightening. He made a little wordless noise, but Al could hear the negativity clearly.
"No?" he asked quietly. "You hurt?"
It had been the same way the last time, too. Ed had never let anyone see his pain, or at least, he hadn't let anyone do anything about it: he had been stubbornly insistent on bearing his pain without assistance, even with hardly any complaints. He only let the others see his pain when he was feverish ? and when the fever was gone, he probably wouldn't even remember it.
When he didn't get an answer, Al got up again and went to the bowl, and dipped his fingers in it. He walked dripping back to the bed, then ran his fingers over Ed's nose and cheeks, wetting the hot skin. After a few moments, the crease between Ed's eyebrows softened a little. He opened his eyes and looked at Al.
Al picked up his automail hand again. "Sleep," he soothed; "I'll take care of you." He leaned down, touched his forehead to Ed's, smiled against his brother's skin. It was all he could do right now, smile, comfort him. When Ed got better?
He lay down next to Ed, slid an arm under Ed's shoulders, and dipped his fingers into his pocket for the ring. He lifted it up one last time, tilting it this way and that, admiring the smooth lines, the perfect circle. Then, reaching over Ed's body, he clapped his hands together softly and pressed them to the ring.
He slid the transmuted stone into his pocket. Then he turned his face to Ed's and pressed against him, hoping to provide some cool for his fever. He touched Ed's automail hand again, and after a while, Ed squeezed back. Then Al smiled and closed his eyes and slept.
He didn't dream of babies and wives and a happy home, not of coffee in the mornings and breakfast on the table, and automail customers and a garden for alchemy, because he'd always been interested in organic alchemy. Instead he dreamt of human flesh, and of touching his brother's human body for the first time in over a decade. He dreamt of Edward with his full body, his full flesh body. He dreamt that he was running towards Ed, and Ed stopped to let him catch up, and Ed held out his hand ? and Al caught it, and they pressed their fingers together and just like that, just as simple and normal as you could be, they continued walking together into the rain.