Alphonse was doing the laundry. Auntie had been surprised to find that he liked it, Winry estatic; he liked the repetitive motions, though, how easy it was because he didn't have to handle the cloth carefully, didn't have to always worry about whether he was exerting too much pressure. He set aside a pair of Ed's shorts and said, "Yes?"
Ed shifted in bed; they were almost done with the preparations for the surgery, and would start tomorrow. Ed was under strict orders to stay in bed for the day—he would need all of his energy for tomorrow—but it was evening and he was getting antsy. "I'm hungry. Would you get me an apple or something?"
"Just an apple, brother? You haven't had anything to eat since—" Al glanced at the clock—"hmm, wasn't it noon?" He hesitated, knowing it was a thin line between being helpful and reminding Ed that he couldn't do much for himself. "Can I—make you a sandwich, or something?"
"No." Ed's tone was final. "Actually, forget the apple. I'm not really hungry. I just wanted to say something."
"Ah," Al settled on saying. He pinched the corners of a napkin, smoothed the middle and carefully laid it onto the pile. "Um. Should I turn the radio on?"
Ed sighed and shifted again, placing his hand behind his head. Al hated how bored he looked, but there wasn't much they could do about it. "Hell, no. They play the worst shows at this hour, haven't you noticed?"
"I kind of like them. Especially the ones about cooking. They give good recipes."
"Since when do you like to cook?" Ed raised his head up a little.
What he meant and wouldn't say, Alphonse knew, was Wait, you can't even taste those recipes! "I have a lot of time on my hands," he said, shrugging. "And besides, Auntie and Winry don't always have time to make supper, so I like to help them out when I can."
"Yeah," said Ed, mouth tightening. "We owe them a lot, huh. When I get my automail—" His voice trembled ever so slightly. "When I get my automail, I'll be sure to pay them back."
And what Al wanted to say was Don't be scared, brother, I'll be there—but he wouldn't, because if they talked about it, it'd seem more Real, what was going to happen tomorrow. He didn't want that. Just for today, he wanted to pretend that everything was normal. "I don't think they want that, brother."
"So? I do. I care. I'm not going to be a cripple forever, and I'll pay them back."
"But they're family."
Ed scowled. "No, they're not. They're family friends. There is a difference and stop arguing with me, Al."
Al tossed a shirt at him, hitting him in the face. "What else do you have to do?" he said, and then winced at his own words. "S—I didn't mean that. I'm sorry, brother."
Ed just rolled his eyes, picked the shirt off his face and began, laboriously, to fold it one-handed. "Don't apologize for saying what's true. I can't even go outside." He sighed and flopped back against his pillows. "This sucks."
"Can I have that shirt back?—Thanks," Al said, catching it and re-folding it when Ed wasn't looking. "Maybe we should go to bed. You need lots of sleep for tomorrow."
"Yeah," Ed said, slowly. "I guess."
It was getting dark outside—Al hoped it would cool down, they'd left the windows open in the house and it'd been muggy all day long. It made his armor feel grimy, and made his brother irritable. He folded the last few shirts, set them into the basket, and turned around to look outside the window. "Oh look, brother," he said, pointing. "I think it's going to rain."
"Thank God." Ed pushed himself up on his arm, squinting against the setting sun. "I've been sweating like a bitch all day. Hey Al? You going to sleep in here tonight?"
Al paused, hand on the switch of a lamp to turn it off. "Can I?" he said, feeling a bit shy suddenly. "I don't want to keep you up talking...."
"It's okay." Ed turned off the other lamp and smiled at him. "I don't really want to go to sleep, anyway."
The sun set and the room turned dark, and Al watched the clouds gather, gray on the black sky. Just when he thought they weren't going to do much, it began to drizzle lightly. Ed sighed, a pleased sound, and rolled over in bed to look at him. He spoke quietly, so quietly Al had to lean it to hear him—the rain on the roof nearly drowned him out. "Al? Could you do me a favor?"
It felt like they were normal kids again, leaning over in their beds to whisper to each other so Mom wouldn't hear. Al lowered his voice, too, and murmured, "Of course, brother. Whatever you want."
Ed's mouth quirked. "Don't say that."
Thunder clapped, and Al jerked instinctively, metal parts clanging together. He saw Ed wince. "Sorry," Al whispered.
"Don't apologize," Ed said, voice a little rough. "But it's a little silly to be afraid of thunderstorms at your age—"
—And with your body, Al finished for him. He folded his hands in his lap and leaned against the wall, keeping an eye on the storm outside their window. "I know." Thunder clapped again and he began counting: one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand—
The next crash of thunder was so loud, even Ed winced. "Great," he said. "The one night I need sleep, and the dam is probably going to give out again. Just my luck."
Ed's voice was a little higher than normal, and it made Al smile. "Hey, brother, you're not afraid of the storm, are you? At your age?" he teased.
"I'm not. Ed glared at him, the shadows of his frown highlighted by a streak of lightning. "It's just—you know—especially tonight and everything. I'm just." He lifted his chin, looked away. "I'm just a little worried about tomorrow, is all."
Al felt his heart plummet. Damn, he should have realized—they teased each other all the time, but they usually knew when to back off. Stupid, he told himself, stupid, Alphonse. "I'm sorry," he said, in a small voice. He shifted as quietly as he could, like any loud noise would make Ed break. He never would have thought that before, but things changed so quickly. "Brother?"
Ed's eyes darted over to him, then back away again. "What?"
"Can I—" Another thunderclap; Al jerked. He rushed the rest of his sentence out. "Can I sleep with you tonight? Just for tonight."
There was a long pause, and when Al looked up, Ed was staring at him thoughtfully. Then he smiled. "Jeez, Al," he said, "I'll be fine. It's not like I'm going to die or anything."
"I know." That would have been a joke, once, but Al remembered—remembered the feeling of his older brother dying in his arms, bleeding his life away. He'd been so light with two limbs lost and all that blood seeping out. Al held his hands out, folded them, remembered how long it'd taken to wash the blood out of his new body's fingers.
The bed rustled, and Al looked up to see Ed shoving off his covers and sitting up, reaching for the cane that lay hooked onto the bedside table. Ed saw him looking and raised his eyebrows. "What?" he said, standing, wobbling a little—he'd never gotten very good with the cane. But soon he wouldn't need it. "The bed's too small for you, you big lug. It's okay." He'd hooked one of the blankets around his ankle and was dragging it onto the floor with him. "You make a good pillow."
"B—brother—" Automatically, Al shifted one of his legs so that Ed could pillow his head against it. Ed shifted a few times, then relaxed against him, his good arm flung across Al's lap. A rumble of thunder shook the house; he put his hand into Ed's hair, trying to remember how soft it would be, how fine, careful not to hurt him.
Ed's eyes fluttered shut as Al began to massage his scalp. "Al?"
"You can't feel that, can you."
Alphonse exhaled, then slid his hand down the roundness of his brother's cheek, regretful. "No."
Ed opened his eyes and touched the stump of his arm, running his fingers over the bandages. "I can still feel my arm, you know," he said, tilting his head so that their eyes met. "And my leg. Auntie calls it phantom pain. But it's not always pain, you know. Sometimes—sometimes when I'm holding something with my good arm, I feel like I can feel it with my other, or something. I forget for a second." He dropped his hand back into Al's lap and sighed. "But then I remember."
Al tucked an earlock back behind Ed's ear, and said nothing.
"Wonder if my automail will feel like your armor. I hope it does, sort of. It'd be too weird to feel with metal."
That's not the real reason, Al thought; you just want to punish yourself. "Well," he said, "I hope you can feel things when you get the automail. I want you to be as back to normal as possible."
Ed smiled. "You haven't got a mean bone in your body, do you, Al?"
"I just don't like to see you unhappy. And I want you to—" Al faltered. "I want you to—to feel good."
"Even if you can't?"
"Not everything is physical, brother."
Ed pushed off Al's leg and sat up, pulling the blanket around his shoulders. His head barely came to Al's shoulders; he had to look up at him (but that wasn't so weird; Al would have been taller if everything had been normal). "Really?" he said, eyes wide and bright even in the dim room. "Then if I do this, do you feel good?" His lips brushed Al's helmet, where his mouth should have been.
("Brother, are you sure this is all right?"
"Of course, Alphonse. Brother knows best. Besides, Mom would want us to be happy and—" Ed's voice faltered. "There's no one around to tell us it's wrong.")
Ed pulled back and regarded him with vulnerable eyes, balancing himself with his hand on Al's shoulder. "Did it feel good, Al?"
("Feels good, doesn't it, Al? See, I told you I'll take care of you.")
He wanted to cry and was glad Ed couldn't see—was glad this body couldn't feel anything or process any emotion. Al reached out and wrapped Ed in his arms, pulling him to his chestplate. "Yes," he whispered, putting his fingers carefully on the waistband of Ed's boxers, "and now I want you to feel good, too, brother. Like you always made me feel."
Ed's eyes widened. "But you—I—"
"I never did it for you because I was too embarrassed." It was going to be so hard, he was going to have to be so careful not to squeeze too hard—but Ed hissed, closed his eyes, arched up a little, and Al felt a flush of pride. He'd learned how to use this body very well. "But you always made me feel good." The teary feeling came back and Al leaned down, putting his head just a few breaths away from the bandaged stump of Ed's arm.
Ed's good hand was scrabbling at his shoulder, trying to get a better grip. He put his head down, and Al could hear the scrape of his breath coming from between his teeth. "Alphonse...." He rocked his hips, breathing becoming harsher. "A—Al...."
"I want to take care of you, too," Al said into the scar tissue crisscrossing Ed's shoulder. "Let me?" Just a bit more pressure and—
Thunder clapped and the house rumbled, and Ed slumped against him, breathing heavily against Al's chestplate. His arm was flung over Al's shoulder; Al ran his hand down it, then laced their fingers together and pressed Ed's hand to his helmet. "I love you, brother," he said. He swallowed and squeezed Ed's fingers.
Ed shifted in his lap, not trying to get away, just making himself more comfortable. He lay his head in the crook of Al's elbow and stretched out, closing his eyes. Al could still see the tears leaking from them. "Don't worry," Ed said, voice raw and thready, trembling. "When I get the automail, I'll get you back to normal. No matter what."
Alphonse pulled the blanket up over him, then leaned against the wall. He didn't say anything, didn't voice his doubts (what if it goes wrong again? What if I lose you for good or I die?). Ed had enough to worry about.
Ed thumped his chestplate, getting his attention, and grinned at him when Al looked down. Ed's eyes were practically glowing in the dark, accented by the brilliant whiteness of his teeth. "Hey," Ed said, "the storm stopped."
Al blinked, looked over to the window. Rain was still dripping from the roof, but the lightning and thunder had moved on and the sky was clear and black. He could see the stars even from here. "I thought it would last longer," he said, wondering. The dam probably hadn't even gotten close to collapsing.
"Bad things pass quickly," Ed said, closing his eyes.
Al opened his mouth, then closed it.
You're probably not right, he thought; Ed had always gotten away with things by fudging them. He was a practiced liar. At the end of the day, it usually felt better to believe him than the teacher who said the sun was going to burn itself out and destroy the earth, or the priest who said that some people were going to burn in hell for being bad, or Auntie Pinako when she told them that giving up now would be better.
You always get me in trouble, brother. Al stroked Ed's cheek. But it's all right; I love you anyway.