Edward wished that the man would just leave them alone already. He was always there, offering protection that wasn't wanted and help that wasn't needed, when all Ed wanted was to be with Al and try and recover the confidence that was so shaken in the encounter with Scar. And he was scary, dammit, when he loomed more than twice your height over you bursting with enthusiasm and sparkles, and you were quite sure that this next hug would turn you into alchemist jelly.
What right does he have to act so gentle, anyway? Ed grumbled to himself. Who does he think he's fooling? They'd both seen Armstrong fight against Scar in the sewer, seen the destruction and havoc his brand of alchemy could wreak; and he knew that he'd been in Ishbal, just like Mustang. There was no way he could be the bumbling fool he tried to project.
So why couldn't he give up on the act already, and save Ed's poor hurting head?
The worst part, Ed decided, was that Armstrong seemed to have gotten it into his head that with his arm gone, Ed was helpless. He obviously hadn't stopped to think about the fact that Ed had been without the use of an arm for quite a while after he first lost it, and he had learned to do simple tasks one-handed or left-handed a long time ago. He did not need Armstrong to hold the door for him. He did not need Armstrong to carry his suitcase for him. And by all that was holy to science he did NOT need Armstrong to help him dress and undress.
And he'd said as much, in no uncertain terms, the first day on the train. Which was probably why it was so embarassing, in the hotel room this morning, brushing his hair with his left hand, to find himself scowling at the dusty mirror as he admitted to himself that there was just no way he could braid it on his own.
Al always braided it for him before, if he lost the use of his arm. But now Al was in the same boat as him, with one arm and one leg gone. He sighed, turning to the open suitcase to pack the brush away. Al was even worse off than him; he couldn't walk, and most of the time he had to stay still or quiet to keep anyone from finding out about what he was.
If there was one good thing about Armstrong's unbelievable attitude, Ed thought grudgingly, it was that it mostly kept Al distracted and his mind off the trauma Scar had just put him through. Thinking of Scar made anger flare up in him, and it only heightened his frustration. Helplessness to get his revenge on that homicidal bastard shouldn't be on the same level of irritant as not being able to braid his own hair, he admitted, but they were both giving him the same sense of not being able to do a damn thing about it.
The door opened behind him, and he knew who it was without having to turn around; nobody else could torture hinges quite like Armstrong. "Are you ready to go, Edward?" came the rumbling voice from behind him.
"Yeah, I'm working on it," he said, packing up his suitcase. It took him a little longer, one-handed, but it wasn't like he couldn't do it. "We're gonna get breakfast before the train, I hope."
"This hotel has a restaurant on the first floor," Armstrong rumbled, trodding into the room with a creak of floorboards. "I thought we would eat there on the way out. I will pay for you, of course!"
"Don't bother," Ed said with an eye-roll. He clicked his suitcase shut, and set it on the bed as he turned around. Armstrong was staring at him. "What?" he asked, annoyed.
"You are leaving your hair down?" Armstrong said with some surprise. "I did not think you preferred to let it loose in public.
Ed flushed; he couldn't help himself. "Well, it's not like I can braid it myself, one-handed," he snapped, feeling embarassment rising in him at having to admit that, and oh, hell, here came the sparkles. He cringed as Armstrong's moustache curled up in a smile.
"No need to worry! I, Alex Louis Armstrong, will braid your hair! With the Armstrong Aesthetic Hairdressing technique that has been passed down for MANY generations in the Armstrong family—"
"No thank you! Please!" Ed interrupted, cringing with panic. Armstrong was having none of it, though, and before Ed could escape around him to the door two huge hands were on his shoulders, guiding him gently but inexorable to the hotel room's only chair and shoving him into it.
He was just contemplating a launch, kick and a dash for the window when Armstrong's hands closed around his hair. His grip was careful but unyielding, and Ed was pretty sure any attempt at escape would result in him leaving most of his hair in Armstrong's hands when he took off. So instead, he froze and tried to play dead. "Don't do anything strange to my hair back there!" he managed faintly.
"Do not worry," Armstrong assured him, and he seemed to be sincere. From what Ed could get a glimpse of, craning his neck to glance in the hotel mirror, he really did seem to be doing nothing but a simple braid. Ed sighed in relief, and, unwillingly, found himself relaxing.
Armstrong's hands were large, and gentle; not, Edward thought, unlike Alphonse's accomplishing the same task. But unlike Alphonse—and Ed found his eyes fluttering closed, without his willing it—his hands were warm, where they brushed his scalp, or the back of his neck. Calloused, but still soft; flesh and blood. Human hands. A human touch, for the first time in—how long? Ed tried to think back, to who was the last person besides his brother to touch him willingly, the last human who had laid hands on him without the intention to hurt and punish.
It felt... nice. A lot nicer than he would have wanted to admit. He took a breath, seeking to steady himself, and cast about for something to distract himself. "So, where's Al?" he asked, and was just pleased that his voice came out even and casual.
"Already loaded into the luggage car," Armstrong replied, sounding a bit sad. "He seemed in good spirits, but I believe it would do him good for his brother to visit him sometime during the ride."
Ed growled a little, under his breath. "Al shouldn't be treated like a piece of luggage," he said with a hint of anger.
"No," Armstrong agreed, "he shouldn't have to. But he understands the necessity of it. As damaged as his body is, he could hardly pass for a normal person on the train."
Ed's hand clenched into a fist in his lap. "He shouldn't be damaged in the first place," he muttered, glaring off into nothing. "He should have run away when I first told him to go. Scar was only after me."
The hands in his hair, which had been so gentle until now, suddenly tugged sharply, and Ed winced. "Hey, watch it!"
"Don't say such foolish things," Armstrong said reprovingly. "Your brother would never have run from danger, not if he were trying to protect you. No more than you would have run after he was hurt. You should not insult your brother by implying that his love for you is less than yours for him; nor yourself by implying that your life is somehow worth less than his."
Ed hunched his shoulders. Armstrong's tone gentled. "You are too hard on yourself, Edward Elric," he rumbled gently, his fingers still slipping in and out of Ed's hair. "I have seen the depth of your care and your love for your brother. He is fortunate to have an older brother such as yourself; as anyone would be who had such love devoted to them. Your quest is a hard one, Edward Elric, but with such a bright spirit pursuing it so tirelessly, I have no doubt that you will someday succeed."
Ed blinked hard, and his heart gave an odd thump in his chest. He didn't need this, damn it. He didn't need anyone else's gentle touch. He didn't need anyone's kind words, reassuring him that he was doing okay, that he didn't fail his brother, that he wasn't a bad kid deep inside. He didn't need anyone to look at the two of them and tell them that they'd be okay, that they'd surely find what they needed someday. He didn't need anyone to... care about him, because he wasn't a child, he wasn't a child and he had his brother and that ought to be all he needed.
Something thumped his back lightly, and Ed looked up, startled to realize that somewhere in there Armstrong had finished with his hair, and was now resting one hand lightly on his shoulder. Slowly, he turned around, and found himself looking up and up into Armstrong's kindly face, and something about it made his heart go much too fast in his chest. So he just swallowed once and nodded up at the Major. "Thanks," he said, and hoped it didn't sound too weak.
The sparkle level abruptly doubled. "Anytime!" Armstrong assured him, smiling, and Ed had to look down so that his embarassed blush wouldn't be too obvious. He stood up and grabbed his coat, made himself very busy maneuvering it on, and grabbed his suitcase off the chair.
He cleared his throat, and looked up at Armstrong again. "So, what are we waiting around for?" he asked. "We'll miss our train."
Armstrong was always there, offering protection that wasn't wanted and help that wasn't needed, and Ed still wished the man would just leave him alone already. But somehow, at the same time, he wished that this train to Risembourg would last forever.