They were late. It wasn't their fault; one delay after another had
plagued their steps. What ought to have been a routine assignment in
Hilago had turned bad, the one-day stopover becoming three. That should
still have left them with time enough to get back to Central, check in
with Headquarters and drop their stuff off in Ed's assigned dormitory
and still attend to their ritual.
But the train, picking up the unhelpful spirit that seemed to be
plaguing them that day, had broken down two stops from Central. The
engineers predicted a half-hour delay, which turned into an hour, then
two, and then four, before the car finally came back online and
clattered away towards the city.
"We could have walked back to Central by now," Ed ranted. He
shifted on the seat, fidgeting impatiently until even his brother's
almost limitless tolerance was worn thin.
"Brother," he said reproachfully. "You know the train is the
fastest way back. There was no helping the repairs."
"If Winry had been here, the engine would have been fixed in
fifteen minutes," Ed whined, slouching down further.
"But she wasn't here, and the engineers worked as quickly as they
could," Al reminded him. "If you'd pitched in like you wanted you would
have only slowed them down."
"We're going to be late," Ed said. "We already are late, in
fact." He pulled out his watch and flipped it open – again. Normally he
could go weeks without even taking it out of his pocket, but today he
couldn't seem to stop fiddling with it.
Of course, he wasn't the only one feeling irritated and impatient,
but as usual, it fell on Al to be the rational one. "It's okay," he
said. "We'll go there straight from the train station. There's a bakery
on the way so we can buy a cake there, since we couldn't get one from
the cafeteria this time."
"But we're going to be late, on her birthday," Ed said again,
and Al had to suppress a long-suffering sigh.
"I'm not any happier about it than you are, Brother," Al said, a
little more sharply than he'd intended. Ed turned a heated look on him,
so he added in a lighter tone, "She'll forgive us. What little girl
won't forgive her 'big brothers' for coming to her party?"
"Yeah," Ed said moodily, and collapsed back into a sprawl on his
bench. He stared out the window, as though willing the train to move
faster. "What should her present be this year?" he said after a minute.
"Well, let's see." Al turned to think about it. Normally they, or
at least Al, would have planned this out weeks in advance; things had
just been too busy lately. "She's a little old for a rocking horse, I
think," he said.
"Maybe a doll?" Ed cocked his head, thinking about it. "Little
girls never get tired of dolls."
"We already gave her one of those last year, Brother," Al reminded
him. "You need to be more creative."
"Ah, Al, you're the one who's good at this sort of stuff!" Ed
groaned. "Not a doll, then. How about a stuffed toy?"
"That's a thought," Al allowed. "Maybe a kitten or a puppy?"
"A puppy," Ed said firmly.
"A kitten," Al put a hint of steel in his voice. "She already
has a puppy."
"Whatever you say." Ed surrendered the conversation to Al, as he
usually ended up doing. As he'd said, Al was better at picking this
sort of stuff than he was.
The sun was starting to sink towards the hills, and Ed focused on
it, unaware that he was frowning fiercely. Go faster, he silently
urged the train. We're already late.
Fortunately, as it was near closing time, there weren't many people
in the bakery. The matronly-looking shop owner looked at them over the
tops of her glasses, and smiled benignly. "Isn't this a pretty big cake
for just the two of you?" she asked them with some amusement.
"O-oh – no," Ed flinched a bit, turning to look up at Al. "It's
not all for us, you see..."
"A friend is having a birthday today," Al told her. "We're picking
up the cake on our way to see her. I'm sorry we're in such a rush, but
we're already late..."
"Ah, well, you're a good pair of boys," she smiled, and slid the
box towards them. "I hope she appreciates that you're doing such a nice
favor for her. And the cake, as well. It's one of our finest."
"Yeah." Ed pushed the money over the counter, and Al picked up the
box. "Nothing less than the best."
"Don't let it sit out overnight," she called after them as they
left, "or it will go stale. And don't eat too much of it too quickly, or
you'll get sick!"
"That's the cake, then" Al said, setting it out and opening the
box. "Did you bring candles?"
"Yeah, I got them," Ed said, slipping his right hand into his
pocket and fishing around. Out came the little box of candles, and he
counted them out; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. He
crouched over the delicate cake box, patterned with golden swirls and
pink ribbons, and placed the candles carefully in the white frosting.
Behind him, Al busied himself clearing a space on the ground and
drawing the array. It was the simplest of arrays, really; and after all
this time, there was no way that Ed would still need one. He could have
just clapped his hands, pressed them to the neatly mown lawn, and
created whatever he wanted. He didn't. This was their ritual.
The last of the afternoon sun flooded the plot, as if everything
in sight were touched with warm honey. It was still warm, not yet cooled
towards evening, even though the shadows were growing long. Ed struck a
match, and reflected that at least the candles would be beautiful, in
"Brother," Al called him. "It's ready."
"All right," Ed said. He quickly lit the candles on the cake, one
after another. Then he straightened up and stepped back, letting the
flickering light play over the stone, and turned to Al.
Al was already in position, kneeling at the edge with his hands on
the array. Ed knelt beside him, mirroring his position. "A stuffed
kitten, right?" he asked Al, who nodded.
It really didn't take much. A flash of light, not much brighter
than the dancing candles, and a few seconds resolved in a neat plush toy
in the center of the circle. Ed touched it, hesitantly, with his human
hand, and then picked it up and cradled it in the crook of his arm. It
was soft; the fur felt almost real. He smiled. "It's perfect," he said.
They both knelt, now, in front of the grave, and Ed sat the toy
next to the cake with eight candles.
"Happy Birthday, Nina," Al murmured, and: "Happy Birthday," Ed echoed.
"Well, congratulations on being eight," Ed went on. "I hear that
if someone says 'congratulations' to you lots of times on your birthday,
good things will happen to you. So... congratulations!"
"We hope you like your present," Al added. "Next year, maybe we'll
bring you a new marker set. And hopefully then we'll be on time with it,
and not have to rush to get everything at the last minute."
"You wouldn't believe the delays we had getting here," Ed said.
"Sorry we're late. Sorry we were late. Sorry..."
"Brother," Al interrupted him, quietly but firmly. Ed bit his lip,
"I know," he said, both to Al and to the gravestone. "We aren't
supposed to talk about things like that today. But it's okay. We brought
you your present, and your cake. See? Your big brothers aren't total
losses, after all."
They were silent, for a moment. Al's eyes were fixed on the sweet
green grass. Ed swallowed, and thought maybe he'd better not talk any
more. So it was a relief when, as the shadows lengthened, Al lifted his
"Let's do it," he said, equally softly. They both laid their hands
on the edge of the grave, and the light returned. It quickly engulfed
the light of the eight candles, and the plush gray kitten, and dissolved
them in a swirl of gold. The brothers lifted their hands away, and
nothing remained, except for a faint swirl of dust that settled quickly
in the grass.
Ed sighed, and brushed the dust off his pants. "We'll see you next
year, Nina," he said. It wasn't what he wanted to say. There were a lot
of things he wanted to say, but he'd said them all before, over and
over, so many times until Al finally stopped him, and they never did any
good then either. So there was only one other thing he could say.