"Whatever genius," Ed panted, words muffled behind the thick wool of his scarf, "Thought it was a good idea to send a combat unit into the middle of fucking nowhere..."
But any consequences that the boy might have liked to advise were lost as a new gust of wind swept his voice away, and Alphonse could only guess at where the sentence had gone.
"It might help if you let me walk in front of you, brother," the younger of the pair offered cautiously, when he thought it likely that Edward had finished this newest bout of complaining. "It's awfully windy, and I'm big enough that—"
But the suggestion never got any further than that, so immediate was the response: the Fullmetal Alchemist stopped mid-step and whirled, eyes gleaming, to glare up at the massive suit of armor housing his brother's soul.
"Who's so small," the boy demanded, all but flailing in his rage, "That he'd blow away if his little brother didn't block the wind for him?"
A protest that was mostly exasperation rose up to greet the outburst. "Really, now," Alphonse pointed out, tone mildly reproving, "I didn't go that far, brother—you don't need to exaggerate."
On either side, the soldiers whose marching order positioned them directly behind the boys began to stream past; the spectacle had occurred enough times during the last several weeks that they'd come to accept it as a matter of course and ignore the sudden flares of temper accordingly.
A moment passed, and then two. Nothing changed.
Edward remained immobile, evidently not placated enough by the reassurance to resume his progress.
"Brother," Alphonse began again, shoulders heaving in approximation of what would have been a sigh, had he needed to breathe. "We really shouldn't be holding things up, you know. Unless you want the Colonel to—"
"...believe that you're deliberately being difficult," a smooth voice cut in from the place where its owner had come to stand, taking in the scene with disapproving grey eyes. "Honestly, Fullmetal, I'm beginning to think that you're more trouble than you're worth."
The transformation was immediate and complete; the boy spun in spectacular burst of fury, eyes and posture combining to create an astounding resemblance to a riled cat, all his anger immediately directed to the new source. "A bit fucking late for that, isn't it?" Edward demanded harshly. "If you'd left us in Central, we could be doing something useful with our time!"
"Really," Mustang acknowledged mildly, "It's only a few months. What makes you think they'd have made a difference? You've turned up next to nothing for the past three years, after all."
Murderous intent tinted golden eyes with a dangerous light. "You utter bastard. If you're gonna—"
"Though I suppose that if it's a question of the physical demands becoming too much, we can arrange for your return." The Colonel paused, turning a considering gaze to the boy that stood less than a meter away, shaking with fury. "Get moving, Fullmetal." The corners of the man's lips turned up, subtle and self-satisfied. "If your legs are too short to handle the snow, have your brother carry you."
The squawk of indignant rage that greeted the suggestion went largely ignored, and the man who'd caused it turned to walk carelessly away. But he got what he'd intended—for the Fullmetal Alchemist didn't pause to rest for the remainder of the day's travel, so intent was he to prove that he could manage it.
Alphonse practiced his airless equivalent of a sigh and tried again, tone pacifying. "Now, brother."
A heavy leather gauntlet patted the boy reassuringly on his flesh shoulder, mindful of the pressure that it was applying.
"It doesn't really do any good to get yourself worked up over something that can't be helped."
"...asshole of a Colonel, who's stealing our time so that we can sit up here in a goddamned wasteland." Eyes sharp with irritation met the place where Al's should have been, golden depths glittering bright with discontent. "Just in case the rebellion gets out of hand and they need backup."
"Well," the younger boy offered, tone cautious. "At least the march is finished."
It was as though the words had deflated the anger from Ed's entire body; with a groan, he flopped bonelessly to the sleeping bag spread across the tent's floor. "So now we're stuck waiting around for something that may never happen."
The boy worked the scarf free from his face with a careless hand and tossed it aside, breath turning the air to fog as soon as its protection had been removed. "I mean, I get that they need us somewhere, and I know it helps to have us coming from a place no one'll expect reinforcements to be... but why this far north?"
"I suppose someone had to think it was a good idea," Alphonse proposed diplomatically, lowering himself to the floor with a great, lumbering creak of metal. "But it must be awfully cold." The helmet cocked just slightly to one side, soulfire eyes fixing themselves upon the small form before them. "Is it bad, brother?"
There was a hesitation just before the answer came, a split-second's pause before Ed rolled onto his side and flashed a crooked grin upward into a face unable to show emotion. "Freezing," the boy said. "And if that bastard of a Colonel would stop throwing new missions at us every five seconds, you'd be able to tell for yourself."
"Don't worry, brother," Alphonse replied, and a smile showed through in his voice. "Someday."
"How does he eat that much," one unfortunate man had dared to wonder aloud early in the deployment, "And stay so tiny?"
After Alphonse had been forced to intervene on the poor soldier's behalf, no one had ventured to bring the topic up again—but more than one pair of curiously amused eyes fell to the boy during mealtimes, and money had exchanged hands more than once regarding the question of how many plates Ed would manage to work his way through before declaring himself finished.
And so it came as a surprise to absolutely no one that the hours following the announcement discovered the Fullmetal Alchemist in a particularly foul mood. Not that any of the men had been enthusiastic to learn they'd be on set rations until the blizzard let up and supply lines reopened, of course, but the boy seemed more intent than most to show it, stomping his way through the snow as though absorbed in crushing it and snarling at anyone misfortunate enough to speak with him.
It would be the better part of a day before the boy's first victim learned the extent of the impending lapse of temper, however—because the only thing more contrary than a cold, bored Edward was one that was hungry, as well. And for everything else that could be said about the announcement, it had at least come directly after a fully-rationed lunch.
"All of them," the boy insisted, and threw himself to the floor with a snarl. "I hate all of them." This time, he didn't bother to unwind the scarf from his face—too cold, perhaps, to bother, or too angry to remember it. "What the fuck sort of battle plan is it to get your troops stranded without supplies?"
"Now, brother," Alphonse interjected, settling into his usual place beside the sleeping bag. "Be fair. They really couldn't have planned for this."
Golden eyes, sullen and discontent, flickered briefly to what ought to have been his brother's face. "Oh, of course—snow up north. Who could've foreseen that?"
The younger boy ignored him calmly, pressing on despite the interruption. "And it's not as though there isn't any food," he contended reasonably. "Just a little less than usual, for a bit."
There was a moment's silence, during which Ed flopped backward to stare rebelliously up at the ceiling. "Fucking physician better know what he's talking about," the boy grumbled at last.
Alphonse fixed him with a pointed look. "Really, brother—do you think the Colonel would've brought him along if he didn't know his job?" There was an expectant pause, meant to be filled with Ed's answer, but when none was forthcoming the younger boy continued. "After all, someone's got to make sure everyone gets enough to stay healthy—in case they do need us as reinforcements."
Again, a surly silence greeted the boy—but Alphonse waited with patience born of practice as his brother turned what had been said over in his mind.
"Alright," Edward admitted at last, grudgingly. "Maybe."
The rest, barely audible under the wind beyond cloth walls of the tent, was nearly lost to Al's ears when it came a moment later. "But I'm hungry, dammit."
The fact hadn't surprised him—not with the uncanny level of perception that his little brother seemed to display—but slipping out beyond the boundaries of the camp had been almost laughably simple. So much so that, had the mishap not stood in Edward's favor, the boy would have been inclined to add "general incompetence" to the ever-growing list of things that were wrong with his current assignment.
But the guards' inattentiveness served him well—and so the only thought that crossed Ed's mind as he passed unnoticed less than twenty feet from the nearest man was one of profound relief. Because after his most recent encounter with Colonel Mustang, the Fullmetal Alchemist was in no mood to receive another lecture.
Hunching down against the wind, the boy scowled behind the red wool of his scarf and began to forge through snow that was nearly knee-height. "Asshole," he muttered viciously under his breath, just for good measure, and fought to ignore the fact that despite the cold, his cheeks were growing warm.
Because now, as every hour since he'd found his way to the Colonel's make-shift command center, Edward found his mind replaying words that he'd come to despise—found himself feeling the slow creep of mortification that they'd wrought when first delivered.
"You joined the military of your own accord, Fullmetal," said Mustang's voice in his mind, as impeccably calm as ever, "Surely you realized that your duties would require a bit of restraint?" The memory of charcoal eyes, uncompromising, rose up to accompany the words, and Ed tugged his jacket tighter around him as though to ward the image away. "It's not only unfair but immature to request special treatment." It didn't fade. "Am I understood?"
"Fucker," Ed hissed in the present, as though to drown the recollection of his own voice—the quiet "yes, sir" that had come out forced and more than a little embarrassed.
But though there was venom behind the accusation, it contained something reserved as well—something uncertain and ashamed. Because, loathe though he was to acknowledge it, Edward recognized the truth behind the reprimand.
After all, he'd been determined at first to manage the reduced rations as well as soldiers twice his age—had promised himself that this, like all other obstacles to interfere in his search for the Stone, would be undertaken and endured, and that he would prove to that bastard of a Colonel that he could.
But it had been alarming, the first time he'd finished dinner in the mess tent and discovered that there simply wasn't enough of it. Unsettling to realize that the next meal would be breakfast, close to twelve hours later, and that there would be even less.
And though it had been simple enough that one time to stand up in a huff, to grouse about it to his brother and make a show of advertising his displeasure to the camp at large, it had been harder the next time, and harder still after that. Because whenever he stood to leave the place while there were men around him eating—while there was still food to be had—it had become a naked test of will.
He hadn't missed the considering looks that Al had been leveling his way on the increasingly frequent occasions when he wandered outside to pack snowballs, bringing them back into the tent to munch on just so that he'd have something in his stomach. And it had frightened him a little to wake in the middle of the night, unable to fall asleep again for the hollow ache that seemed to have taken up permanent residence within him.
But every other soldier in the camp seemed to be bearing the reduced rations easily—if not without complaint—and Ed had been determined that if anyone could manage it, he could.
Bit by bit, though, his resolve had been worn away—eroded to the point at which he'd convinced himself that he wouldn't be swallowing so much of his pride, after all, if he went to talk to Mustang about the problem. Because surely, not even as insufferable a bastard as the Colonel would turn him away if he explained how bad it had gotten.
And what, Ed demanded furiously of himself as he crushed mountains of tiny snowflakes in his rage, had his confession gotten him? The explanation that if he wasn't such an undisciplined child, he would be able to handle it as well as everyone else.
"Fine," Edward snarled aloud, voice lost in the howl of the wind and the fabric of his scarf. "Fuck you. I'll make my own damn food."
And the boy's hands came together to create a flash of blue lightning.
Snow clung to the folds in the boy's pants and melted in slow trickles down his boots; golden hair was damp and bedraggled, strands freed from the braid by the force of the wind. Without a word, the Fullmetal Alchemist took two steps and sank to the floor.
"Brother?' The word was tentative, uncertain. "Are you alright?"
There was silence for a second, and then a muffled noise of discontent rose up from beneath the fabric of Edward's scarf.
Alphonse hesitated only a moment before lowering himself to the floor with a creak of metal, settling beside his brother to run a hand reassuringly over the boy's back. "What happened?"
A muttered response drifted up in reply, all but the tone lost in a covering of thick, red wool.
"Brother?" Cautiously, the younger boy repeated the gesture once, twice, and then again, the leather of the gauntlet settling into a rhythm both slow and even. The touch was soothing, Alphonse hoped; it looked as though the small form slumped so dejectedly before him needed reassurance.
Even so, it took the better part of a minute for Edward to turn toward his brother, lifting his head to peer up at the helmet that served as Alphonse's face. And though too much of the older boy's expression was swallowed up by the scarf to allow an accurate judge of moods, the mix of resentment and despondency in those wide golden eyes was revealing enough.
"Bastard had the nerve to lecture me," Ed muttered again, the words clear enough this time to be deciphered. "Like it wasn't his fucking fault to begin with."
The hard leather of the gauntlet hesitated for just a fraction of a second before resuming the contact, soulfire eyes flickering away from his brother's face so that they could watch the place where fingertips made wrinkles in the fabric of Edward's jacket, intent upon ensuring that the pressure wasn't enough to hurt.
"The assignment?" Alphonse asked delicately.
"Everything!" the older boy snarled, anger flaring up momentarily to chase away the weariness from his tone. "And when I try to fix it cause he's goddamned useless, all he can say is that I ought to know better." Fueled by the burst of outrage, Ed pushed himself up on his palms, knocking aside his brother's metal limb in a fit of irritation. "Like I'm some little kid or something."
Settling both hands composedly in his lap—he'd long learned not to take too much offense to anything Ed did while in a temper—Alphonse made a soft considering noise in the back of what ought to have been his throat. "Brother," he began, tone laden with the long patience of having dealt with the boy before him for his entire life. "What did you do?"
"Nothing half so bad as that asshole Colonel made it out," Ed declared, eyes simmering with discontent. Belatedly, the boy seemed to recall that the snow still melting on his clothes ought to be removed—shuffled a short distance on hands and knees to brush it off in an empty corner of the tent. "All I did was slip out past the sentries. And it isn't even like they would have—"
But what they would or wouldn't do was never resolved, because Alphonse's voice interrupted him, the tone tinged with a thread of alarm that was enough to slice the sentence neatly in two.
"Brother," said the younger boy, soft and worried. "It's storming outside."
Ed glanced up from the pile of snow-mush that was rapidly forming on the floor, expression rebellious. "So?"
"So what if you'd gotten lost?" Alphonse pressed, concern making the question sharply intent. "It's hard to see out there, and your coat isn't that heavy. If you hadn't been able to remember which way you'd come, you could have frozen."
"Well," the smaller boy huffed, "I didn't. So quit worrying." Abruptly, the automail fingers closed around the wool of the scarf and tugged, depositing it onto the tent floor with a sodden plop. "They could do with some heat in here, though. It's cold enough outside without having to put up with this shit indoors."
"Brother," Alphonse tried again, refusing to be side-tracked by the older boy's complaints. Inwardly, he braced himself for the spitting rage that was likely to greet his next statement. "If the Colonel warned you that sneaking out was dangerous, I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with him."
But the expected outburst didn't follow.
Edward's attention was utterly focused on his work as he plucked the dripping glove from his flesh hand, seeming not to have heard the last comment. "Or give us coffee or hot chocolate or something. Places this cold shouldn't even exist."
"Brother," Alphonse said, watching the expression on the smaller boy's face closely.
"I mean, really—some fucking physician we end up with." Those hands turned with a fierce intensity toward freeing the flesh foot from first boot and then the drenched sock beneath. "The whole outfit's gonna freeze solid in their tents while he's got his head up his ass."
"Brother," Alphonse tried again, worry tingeing the tone.
The jacket was halfway off already. "Hey, Al—bury me someplace warm, would you?"
A leather gauntlet caught the hand that was intent on pulling the cloth free. "Oh, for the love of—stop it, brother. You really will freeze if you take all your clothes off."
A huff of a sigh and the suit of armor lumbered to its feet, digging in their belongings for something to write with. "Honestly," Al chastised distractedly, drawing the lines to an array on a small scrap of paper. "You're too lazy to do things by hand any other time, but when you ought to use alchemy..."
One large gauntlet pressed the carefully drawn circle against his brother's chest.
"Here," the younger boy said, and touched life into the design; it glowed a brief, brilliant blue, and when it faded the snow-melt had gone from Edward's clothes.
"Thanks," Ed offered by way of reply, voice quiet and sincere, and reached to pull the jacket tighter around him.
For a moment, Alphonse merely watched him in silence, the worry impossible to express on a face of unyielding metal. "Go lay down," he suggested at last. "You'll get warm faster that way."
He didn't wait for assent. Gently, one of those leather gauntlets steered the boy toward the sleeping bag, helped to draw it closed so that it would hold his brother's body heat inside.
And perhaps, Alphonse thought to himself as he watched Ed settle gratefully down into the warmth, it was the exhaustion of hiking through a blizzard that had etched those new lines onto Edward's face. But quite suddenly, the younger boy was reminded of how small the form that lay trembling beneath the layers of fabric truly was.
"Brother." The word was cautious, as though testing uncertain ground. "Why did you sneak out?"
And when the answer came, those golden eyes carefully refusing to meet soulfire, Alphonse felt as though the spike of ice that the words drove through him couldn't be any colder than the wind outside.
"Maybe." The private being addressed spooned up a ladleful of mystery meat and gravy, amazed as always that it didn't just freeze in the frigid air, and deposited it next to the potatoes. "I hope we get done here soon, though, one way or the other."
The man moved on; a new tray presented itself.
"Or the supply lines free up," his companion agreed easily, dispensing more potatoes.
"Supply lines or no," the private pointed out wryly, "It's still freezing. I can't wait to see the sun again." He tipped his spoon, and thick liquid flooded into the corner of the tray.
The next in line came to the front.
"Ah," the new arrival said, a bit uncertainly. "Hello."
"Hey," answered the man with the potato spoon, tipping a messy glop out with practiced ease.
"Here you go," the private added, and meat with gravy joined the mix.
The Fullmetal Alchemist's brother inclined his head politely before shuffling past. "Thank you."
The younger Elric's steps were watched as he moved on down the line, however—because it was odd, it occurred to the private, that he'd never seen the boy wait his turn in the mess tent before. Odder still, considering that he'd been on serving duty for nearly a week, now.
But that was nothing short of ridiculous, proof of the job being boring enough that the soldier ignored what he was doing, most of the time. Because of course the boy had to eat—and a lot, doubtless, to stay big enough to fill up that suit of armor.
"Er," the private said, distractedly, and dipped his ladle again. "What were we talking about?"
There was nothing coherent by way of greeting when Alphonse pushed open the flap of the tent—nothing but a wordless grunt which may or may not have been a welcome, and Ed refused to move from the place where he'd settled atop the sleeping bag, sprawled face-down and motionless.
"Brother?" Al asked, cautiously, and was careful to make sure that the fabric of the tent was opened wide enough not to trail in the food on the tray as he stepped inside. "Are you awake?"
There was no response at all to that, though Alphonse knew very well by the set of his brother's back the answer to his own question. Ed was never that tense in sleep, after all, unless suffering from a particularly grim nightmare—and the small form lying splayed across the floor was far too still for that to be the case.
So the younger boy took those last few steps to bring him to his brother's side, knelt with the customary creak of metal so that he could settle as near as he was able without touching. "Brother?"
And perhaps, Alphonse thought, the boy could smell the food gathered on the tray—because there was a peculiar look in those golden eyes as Ed finally raised his head to see what was wanted of him, something cautious and a little bit disbelieving.
And when that gaze flickered minutely, darting as though quite unable to stop itself between Alphonse's face and the meal in his hands, Al decided with an uncomfortable twist of certainty that he never wanted to see his brother wear that expression again.
"I lined up to get my share," the younger boy began, less by way of explanation than to provide a distraction from whatever had put that look on Edward's face. "Here." Abruptly, he was pressing the tray toward his brother, compelling hands of mismatched flesh and metal to close around the edges. "This is for you."
For a lingering moment, there was no response at all—nothing but silence, thick and stunned, and the raw edge that had crept in at the corner of his brother's eyes. And then Ed's mouth was twisting up in a shaky grin, a startled laugh forcing itself from his lips, and the boy was reaching for the fork with fingers that trembled just slightly.
"Have I ever told you," Edward managed shakily, "How much I fucking love you?" And that was all the boy had time for—because he was turning his attention elsewhere, then, scooping up hunks of meat and bits of potato with an urgency that left Alphonse a bit unsettled.
Because it was one thing, certainly, when his brother was enthusiastic at mealtimes—one thing to ask for seconds and thirds, or to be teased about being too small to eat that much by the other soldiers.
But this—this was something else entirely. Something that went far beyond complaining for complaining's sake, or protesting the assignment because it was of Colonel Mustang's devising. It was something that drew those expressive golden eyes closed with pleasure and caused the small form hunched down over the tray to shake with the intensity of it.
This, Alphonse thought, disquieted, was the way his strays acted when he presented them with a much-needed saucer of milk.
"Thanks," Ed offered finally, when the last morsel had been carefully tucked away. "I needed that."
But the boy's hands lingered about the edges of the tray as though reluctant to let it go, and a moment later a single flesh finger dipped cautiously into the remaining gravy, drawing trails through it. Golden eyes flicked a surreptitious glance in Alphonse's direction, something wary in their depths, and the look on Ed's face brought two realizations crashing down upon the younger boy, one atop the other.
The first came with a force that would have taken his breath away, if he'd needed to breathe: quite simply, it was the fact that his brother was indeed hungry enough to think about licking the dish clean. And the second, crowding in on its heels, was that it was his brother, and Al had better find something else to pay attention to, or the smaller boy's pride might prevent it from happening at all.
And if Edward needed that extra little bit that badly...
"Really now, brother," Alphonse said abruptly, and creaked back up to his knees before rising to stand. "I don't understand how you manage to make such a mess of this place." Turning his back on the boy entirely, the younger of the two scooped up an open book from the tent floor. "We don't have all that much with us to begin with."
And if it took longer than it should have to gather the various pieces of their luggage from the floor and return them to his brother's pack, Edward didn't say a word about it.
But by the time Alphonse turned back, the tray had become suspiciously cleaner—and Ed was careful to duck his head so that the hair would hide his eyes.
"Alphonse-kun," was all he said in the reach of ears that could potentially overhear. "I'd like to speak with you a moment."
And Al supposed that he should have been grateful for that, at least—should have been glad that he wasn't scolded like a naughty child in front of soldiers that doubtless wondered already why a private citizen should be traveling with a military unit. But as he followed the Colonel through the snow to the man's tent, he couldn't take comfort in the fact that the meeting would at least be private.
Because he knew, after all, what it was going to be about.
"I would have thought," the Colonel said levelly, when the tent flap had been fastened behind them, "That you were mature enough to be above such things."
And despite the fact that he'd known it was coming—despite the fact that the boy flat-out refused to be ashamed of anything he'd done for Ed's sake—the man's words stung, not just with the force behind them, but with the unruffled, off-handed disappointment that they contained.
If he'd needed air, Alphonse would have taken a steadying breath to prepare his reply. Instead, he steeled himself and pressed ahead regardless, hoping his tone was strong enough to be resolute without offending. "But, Colonel," the boy began, "I think it really is beginning to wear on him. I've never seen brother—"
"Alphonse-kun," came the reply, even but firm, "The ration system is in place to ensure that there are enough supplies available until we're able to obtain more. If everyone is allowed to take as much as they like, there's no way to guarantee that we won't run out." The man's eyes, an intent charcoal grey, fixed keenly upon a gaze of soulfire. "And then your brother really would starve."
For a moment's unsettled silence, Alphonse turned that over in his mind, weighing the logic of it against the cautious hope that had been painted so plainly onto Edward's face when presented with a second serving.
"...he's so hungry, though," the boy protested at last. "And he barely—"
"Alphonse-kun," said the Colonel, and the tone had less of an edge, this time. "Everyone's hungry, and everyone's cold." There was something honest in the admission that stilled the rest of the protest before Al could think of voicing it. "Your brother's just going to have to be patient a while longer."
And there were doubts still, swirling round inside the boy, and the worry, he suspected, would've been enough to make his throat tight, if he'd had one. But it was impossible not to see the reason driving Colonel Mustang's explanation, and if it hadn't been for the recollection of his brother's eyes, grateful and intent and a little fragile around the edges, Alphonse would have felt foolish for what he'd done.
"Brother isn't very good with patient," Al offered at last, reluctantly, by way of concession.
The brief light of satisfaction in those charcoal eyes told him that the Colonel recognized the acceptance for what it was. "Well," the man said, not unkindly, "Perhaps you should help him with that."
It hadn't seemed like such a terrible suggestion. At least, not until the boy had made his way back to the tent that he shared with his brother and pushed the flap aside, stepping in out of the snow.
Because before he'd taken his first step inside, those golden eyes were snapping up to greet him, much more intent than they ought to have been, and the start of a smile twitched experimentally across his brother's lips.
And he saw the change in Ed's expression in that precise moment when the boy realized Alphonse's head was bowed and hands empty. Watched as his brother struggled, as best he was able, to hide the hope that had bloomed and been crushed in the space of seconds.
"Colonel Mustang had a talk with me this morning," the younger of the boys admitted at last, unnecessarily.
Expressive eyes were too, too careful not to meet his gaze. "Oh," Edward replied quietly, voice tighter than it should have been. And then, almost as an afterthought: "I oughtta go give that asshole a piece of my mind. What right's he got to hassle you about it?"
But there was no heat behind the words, and his brother didn't rise to make good on the promise, and that, more than anything, frightened Alphonse terribly.
It was, of course, a sentiment that had remained carefully hidden.
He'd expected that Fullmetal would be late—had anticipated that the boy would make a show of arriving just as things were starting to get under way, those golden eyes full of challenge. A petty vengeance, perhaps, and immature, but Edward could be counted on more often than not to foster both qualities in abundance.
What the man hadn't accounted for was the possibility that Fullmetal might not appear at all.
And it was true, certainly, that the boy hadn't needed to be there—that his invitation had, to begin with, been a sort of peace offering on the part of the Colonel. What better way, Roy had thought, to keep the increasingly foul-tempered young alchemist out of trouble than to give him at least a measure of what he wanted?
After all, it was a simple enough matter to include Edward in the small unit that would be heading south to see why the supply line had failed to reestablish contact. And the benefits were twofold: not only would Fullmetal's remarkably short attention span be entertained, but those remaining in the camp would be free of him for the length of the expedition.
Quite simply, Roy hadn't considered the possibility that Edward would turn the offer down.
And if the man had been honest with himself, he might have admitted that it was likely the rare lapse of judgment on his own part that had irritated him more than Fullmetal's trivial retaliation. But it had been a long day already and wasn't yet half over—and the seemingly endless time since they'd departed from Central had worn his patience for the boy's antics down to something wire-thin and brittle.
In fact, so intent was he upon what he would say to the older Elric that he'd nearly tripped over the younger before he noticed the boy's presence.
Because the hulking suit of armor that housed Alphonse's soul was sitting hunched up alongside one of the tents that dotted the snowy encampment, the fine dusting of powdery white across metal shoulders informing the man that he'd been there for some time already.
"...Alphonse-kun?" he asked, incredulously, stopping mid-step to turn and address the surprising sight head-on.
"Oh... hello, Colonel." But there was something off about the way the boy's voice sounded, and Alphonse didn't rise to greet him.
For a moment, charcoal eyes studied the seated form—the way those large shoulders seemed slumped, the incline of the helmet.
"Is anything the matter?" Roy ventured at last, tone the carefully neutral one that he favored when testing a situation with which he was unfamiliar.
It was the waver in Alphonse's voice that told him, more than anything else, that the response was a lie. "N-nothing really."
"I see," the Colonel answered, consideringly. "Then, is there any reason why you happen to be sitting outside in the snow?"
The response was too quiet to be heard, and once more the man was impressed by how human a suit of armor could be made to seem. Because there were no lips to mumble with, certainly, but Alphonse was managing all the same, words lost easily under the howl of the wind.
And Roy's expectations had been, he thought, quite reasonable.
At the top of the list had been the possibility that Alphonse had fought with his brother; the Elrics' arguments could at times become quite impassioned, after all, and Edward had been in an extraordinarily foul mood for most of the duration of the assignment. It wouldn't surprise him if by this point the younger boy's patience was wearing thin—wouldn't have struck him as odd to discover that Alphonse had retreated from the tent that he shared with Fullmetal in an effort to obtain a little quiet and peace of mind.
What Alphonse said, however, when he repeated the words loudly enough to be heard, took all reasonable expectations and bashed them neatly to pieces.
For the first time in years, Roy needed the space of several seconds to gather himself enough to find words. "You're dizzy?"
And the nod that he received in response was so subdued, so miserable, that the man couldn't doubt that it told the truth. "Off and on since this morning," Alphonse was agreeing. "I couldn't think what else to do, so I sat down to try and make it go away."
For a moment, the man simply remained focused upon the figure hunched before him, charcoal eyes intent and watchful. "Is that...?"
"Possible?" The boy's laugh was high and thin, a bit shaky. "I don't know. I didn't think so." There was a pause, and soulfire eyes lifted to search Roy's face. "It hasn't helped."
The expression on the man's face struggled for objectivity. "And Fullmetal? What did he have to say?"
"Brother was sleeping when it started," Alphonse admitted, softly. "I didn't want to wake him."
There was a spike of annoyance much sharper than the others at this admission, and Roy's mouth tightened into a thin line, eyes narrowing fractionally. It was one thing, after all, to miss a meeting for having slept in—but quite another to doze obliviously in the face of what seemed to be a new and quite troubling problem.
"Well," Roy said, tone decisive. "Perhaps we should ask him."
But there was no response to the soft worry in his tone, no motion from the figure that lay wrapped in the folds of the sleeping bag, scarf still wound about its face.
And so Alphonse stepped the rest of the way inside, let the tent flap fall closed behind him. It was habitual, by now, the two steps that would bring him the rest of the way to Edward's side. Familiar, too, was the creak of armor joints bending in the cold air, and then he was kneeling on the tent floor, leaning in so that he could shake the smaller boy gently by the shoulder.
It was a minute and a half later that he emerged from the tent, voice filled with all the frantic concern that his face couldn't express.
"Colonel," Alphonse began, the word thick and uneven. "Brother won't wake up."
It was, Roy decided grimly as he stood at the foot of one of the small foldable cots, a concession he was glad he'd made.
Because whatever the unsettling twist of guilt had managed to tear apart from inside him, a fraction of it could be staved off by the reassurance that, lying beneath the rough military blankets, Edward Elric was warm. Too pale, perhaps, and much smaller without the bulk of the automail. Looking as young as Roy often forgot that he was, certainly, and so terribly, terribly thin.
But warm, at least—and that was a start. Because this way, the boy's body wouldn't be burning the extra calories to keep its own temperature up—wouldn't be making those startling ridges of bone, too plainly visible, more prominent.
It had taken him a shocking amount of time, simply to understand.
Roy Mustang, master of subtlety and manipulation, who prided himself on being able to read his subordinates with uncanny accuracy, had needed scarf and coat and shirt peeled away for the physician's examination before reality could force its way through the assumptions that he'd made. And only then, when the painful sharpness of the boy's collar bone had been laid bare—when Roy had realized how well-hidden that scarf had managed to make the alarming edges of Edward's cheekbones and jaw—when he caught sight of the way the skin was stretched, papery-thin, over ribs that he could count—did he know.
And still, it was only after the metal limbs had been taken away that the explanation came, words barely penetrating through the haze of horrified astonishment and the way Alphonse's voice had sounded as he cried out for his brother and rushed forward.
It was the automail responsible for the weight loss, the doctor had told them; with the amount of energy it required simply to keep running, there was little surprise that Edward had dwindled away to practically nothing. The physician had been unaware that he possessed it, and Roy had simply never considered that the limbs might be powered biologically.
Very nearly, the combined oversight had cost Edward's life.
Now, watching as Fullmetal slept, mouth closed around the tube hastily transmuted to carry much-needed nutrients to his stomach, Roy felt something he'd thought long-dead twist sharply inside him.
And he couldn't help but wonder, as he looked away from the place where intent soulfire eyes were fixed upon that pale face, how much of the weight when he'd carried Edward from his tent had been comprised of metal.
There was something so fundamentally vibrant about his brother's face, golden with the touch of daylight and streaked rosy along the cheekbones, burnt from being just a bit too long in the sun. Something wonderful about the way Edward's skin shone, sleek with sweat, on hot days, and the careless way he stromped about their cheap hotel rooms, not bothering to put on anything but boxers.
The boy that lay so pale and silent beneath the blankets in the med tent seemed a different person entirely.
There was no life here, no startling gold of skin and eyes and hair—it was as though the snow had bleached Edward of his color, stolen that vivid, grinning face and left something fragile in its place.
The change was one that had left Alphonse near desperate with worry, unwilling for that first vital period to be pried from his brother's side. Because, be as it may that he couldn't reassure by touch—unless he was willing to take the armor off, the physician had informed him, the cold of the metal could only make matters worse—Edward's little brother refused to let the boy from his sight.
The hours spent waiting beside the too-small form bundled with blankets were some of the longest he'd ever known: the howl of the wind outside was a distant reminder of the blizzard that had caused his brother so much suffering, and concern and guilt roiled for dominance within him along with the sharp, irrational spike of anger that came every time Colonel Mustang returned to the tent.
Because, try as he might to convince himself that the man had only done what he thought best for the good of his unit, Alphonse couldn't rid himself of the nagging insistence that, had the Colonel just listened, it would never have come to this. Would never have reached the point at which food could be something precious enough to light up Edward's face or force him to scrape the remnants of gravy from the bottom of a military-issue tray.
But worse than being unable to free himself of a resentment that he understood, logically, to be unfair was another consideration, deeper and infinitely more unsettling.
Because when he thought too hard about the days leading up to the morning when his brother had simply refused to wake, Alphonse couldn't help but wonder whether there was more that he could have done. If he ought to have been more insistent when he'd spoken with the Colonel—if he should have ignored the reprimand and continued to take food for Ed, regardless.
And always in the back of his mind lingered the possibility that he most cringed from: that he hadn't tried hard enough, and that Edward had suffered, simply because the boy couldn't remember hunger enough to understand how bad it had gotten.
He recalled in an abstract sort of way, certainly, that there had been something unpleasant about waiting too long for dinner. Knew in a vague, too-faded manner that when you went a stretch without anything at all, there was a point at which hunger passed discomfort and crept into something more like pain. Remembered, even, that he'd cried over it once, young and desperate and terrified, trapped on an island with his brother and both of them too inexperienced to feed themselves.
But Alphonse didn't recall any longer what it felt like—and as he watched his brother sleep, heartbreakingly thin, the boy was tormented by the thought that he might have done more, if only there'd been enough of him left to understand.
And it was not the word that woke him—over the course of the last several years, he couldn't have begun to count the number of times that Alphonse had called him awake in exactly the same manner. There was nothing in the content of it, now, that should have startled him into consciousness. That was, he realized, the fault of the tone alone.
Because there was a subdued sort of worry to it, and guilt besides—exactly what he'd been struggling to distract Al from since the day he'd woken to discover himself a patient in the med tent.
He opened his eyes, this time—shifted to turn his gaze up toward the expressionless steel that housed Alphonse's soul. "Yeah," he managed, hating the fact that his voice announced precisely how weak he still felt. "I'm awake."
"Oh, good." But the disquiet was there, still, hovering just beneath the words, and Ed frowned instinctively in response to it.
It was an effort to gather his strength and push himself upright, but the boy managed despite Al's protest, groping behind him with the single arm left available to prop himself into a steadier position.
Bare seconds later, leather gauntlets were reaching around him for the pillow, the younger boy tsking disapprovingly. "Brother, you have to take it easy," Alphonse scolded, arranging the cushion against the uncomfortable metal frame of the headboard. "There, now—lean back." And one of those hands was on his chest, then, applying gentle pressure until he yielded, sinking back against the now-upright pillow.
Ed scowled up at him, acutely aware of how pathetic he must look, limbless and barely strong enough to sit under his own power. "I can do it myself, you know," the boy huffed. "I'm getting better."
And how Alphonse managed to incline a helmet in just such a way that he had no doubt as to precisely the look that his little brother was giving him would remain forever a mystery. "Not fast enough, you aren't. The physician says you still aren't gaining weight like you should be, brother." That thread of worry was running strong under the words once more, keen and desperate in a veiled sort of way.
"Yeah?" Absently, Ed swiped at the hair that hung, lank and intrusive, into his face; it was getting longer than he liked, and braiding it would be more of a pain than it was worth, but the perpetual presence of it in the corner of his vision was beginning to grate. "So?"
Alphonse made a noise that approximated a sigh. "So," the boy pointed out patiently. "You're going to have to start eating more. You're burning up energy faster than you ought to be, just lying around."
The look that Ed leveled in his direction was less than amused. "You say it like I'm doing it on purpose," the boy scowled, hand halfway to pushing the strand of hair behind his ear.
"Well," Al answered, a smile evident in his voice. "You are awfully difficult, brother. I wouldn't put it past you." The indignant intake of breath that heralded the snapped retort was cut short as a large gauntlet reached with all the gentleness that it could manage to coax the boy's hand away. "Here—turn around."
A blank stare met the request. "Huh?"
"I'll braid your hair," Alphonse answered lightly, as though the subject of his thoughts had been obvious. "It's been bothering you, right? And you're well enough to stay up for awhile, now, so there's no reason not to. It'll only get in the way if you try to read."
Edward leveled a long, considering look in his brother's direction, an expression that began as something thoughtful but ended up pleased, a little embarrassed. "If you want," the boy offered, noncommittal—but he made no protest when Alphonse put a hand gently on his waist, supporting the small form to help him make the shift in position.
There was a moment when it was awkward—because Edward really was too weak to support his own weight for very long, and without the headboard behind him, nothing was there to hold him up—but it took his little brother all of two seconds to discern the problem, and before Ed could protest it, the younger boy was moving in to provide the support, himself.
It was with attentive caution that Alphonse settled himself on the cot, and Edward knew without needing to give it thought why the extra consideration was necessary; the creak of protest from the flimsy metal frame beneath them was jarring, and there was a moment when Ed honestly expected the bed to give under the armor's weight.
But then Alphonse was in place, and his little brother's hands were rearranging the pillow against the the chest plate, and Ed was leaning back against the bulky form that such a gentle little boy had become, allowing a blanket to be wrapped carefully around his shoulders to insulate him from the chill of the metal.
The first touch of rough leather against his hair was tentative—Al had done this before, certainly, but no amount of convincing on the part of the older boy could persuade him that no, he really wasn't going to cause any unintentional pain. But still, the touch was hesitantly light as too-large hands separated strands of gold into three equal parts, barely a ghost of contact as thick fingers began to weave each segment together with the one beside it.
It was only then, when the gentle tug of a caring touch had drawn forth a thick, drowsy sort of affection, that Alphonse broke the silence with words.
"Brother," the boy said, voice quiet, something hesitant in the tone. When he pressed on, the words came more slowly, as though he was considering each before giving form to it. "You know what uses up a lot of energy?"
"Mm." Absently, Ed leaned into the touch, gaze flickering vaguely back toward Alphonse despite the fact that he couldn't see the younger boy without turning. "All sorts of things."
"Well, yes." Thick fingers moved more delicately than they ought to have been able to manage. "But I mean, particularly?"
There was something probing in that question, urgent enough that the forthcoming response fell silent. "No," Ed answered instead, "What?"
There was the slightest pause, and the very strong impression that, had Alphonse needed to breathe, he'd have used the time to take a steadying breath. "Alchemy."
The older boy waited a beat to see if more was forthcoming—snorted dismissively when it became clear that Al was planning to leave it at that. "Yeah—and? It's not like I've been jumping out of bed every night and transmuting shit in the med tent."
"No," Alphonse hedged, "But I think... well, what if it's something less dramatic, brother?"
And this time Ed did turn, unable to keep the from fixing his brother with the full force of the skeptical look that drew down his brow and tugged at the corners of his mouth. "How do you mean?"
Gently, one of the gauntlets touched a finger to his jaw, coaxing him to turn around so that the part of the braid the sudden movement hadn't dislodged could be saved. Edward complied, if reluctantly.
It was several long moments of silence, the only motion the careful shift and tug of Alphonse's hands, before the younger boy spoke, voice low and tentative. "The morning that the Colonel and I found you in your tent," he said, "I... wasn't feeling very well."
This time, rough leather fingers managed to make a dive for the end of the braid before the abrupt movement caused the progress to be lost once more. "You what?"
"Brother," Alphonse scolded, "I'll never get done if you keep—"
"Al." There was enough warning in the tone to cut the sentence off halfway, render those hands immobile.
And for a moment, intent golden eyes stared up at expressionless steel, too sharp in a face so pale.
"Turn around, brother," Al said at last, "And let me finish."
The compliance was less willing this time, but a moment more and Edward was lying back against his brother's chest, impatient for information and displaying it with every line of his body.
"I felt a bit dizzy. Out of sorts," Alphonse continued, when his hands had resumed their steady rhythm, "I had to sit down for a little while. Then you were doing so badly, and I forgot all about it " It was the sudden intake of breath that alerted the boy to the fact that his brother was preparing to interrupt, and the next words came in a rush, as though to stave it off. "But yesterday, I started thinking again. And I thought... well, alchemy takes a lot of energy, brother. And there's one array of yours that's always activated."
There was a long, long pause.
"...oh," Ed said at last, faintly. And then, with more conviction: "Oh."
Careful fingers, thicker than they ought to have been, tied off the end of the braid. "There," Alphonse said, "Finished."
Pillowed against a chest that both was and was not his little brother's, Ed struggled hard to breathe against the mass of emotions that were suddenly crushing forward, too jumbled for him to properly examine any one of them. "Do you really think...?" he began, and couldn't seem to mind the fact that his voice sounded weak to his ears in a different way now, a little strangled.
"I think," the younger boy replied, tone a curious mixture of warmth and reprimand, "That you'd better start doing a better job taking care of yourself."
The laugh that found its way between Ed's lips was a shaky thing, but his eyes were bright as he turned to face his little brother once more. "It's like I'm eating your share or something."
But hesitation greeted the words—a moment of considering silence, and then: "Maybe... maybe you are."
The smaller boy blinked once, feeling as though he'd missed a part of the conversation. "Huh?"
"Well... who's to say my body isn't out there, somewhere?" Edward was quite suddenly impressed by the notion that, had Alphonse been possessed of a flesh form, he would have lowered eyes that really ought to have been bronze instead of burning white, too embarrassed to meet his gaze. "What if you're all that's keeping me alive, wherever I am?"
It took a moment for the words to settle—for Ed's mind to wrap itself around the possibility, distant though it might be. Took longer still for the wavering hope in his little brother's voice to filter through and pierce his heart, and the boy knew very well that the laugh was going to be an unsteady thing this time, but he couldn't stop it any more than he had before, and it came out fragile and tinged with delight.
"I—" Edward began, overcome by the need to say something. "That's—"
"Yeah," Al agreed, and ducked his head, self-conscious. "I know."
But that wasn't what he'd meant—wasn't what he'd meant at all, and the boy groped desperately with the fingers of his single hand to catch hold of the dark leather of one of the gauntlets, meaning to put it right. "Don't be a moron," he told his little brother firmly. "Of course your body's out there somewhere."
"Brother..." came the reply, word laced through with wonder.
"Swear I must be sleeping for you, too, though," Ed announced, making no effort at all to stifle the yawn that forced its way from him. "Can't stay awake worth shit, lately."
There was a soft clicking noise, as though in disapproval. "That's because you're still getting better. It'll be like that for awhile, yet."
"Fantastic," the older boy muttered. "Something to look forward to."
"Actually," Alphonse pointed out, "You really ought to be getting some rest now. It's no good for you to try and force yourself when what you really need is to take it easy."
The explosion was no less spectacular for Edward's lack of energy. "What the hell? You just got done braiding my hair!"
"Well," Al said, sounding more than a little pleased with himself. "I'll just have to redo it later then, won't I? Now stop arguing, brother, and get some sleep."
"Pushy bastard," the smaller boy groused, with no real heat behind the words, settling back against the pillow.
And Ed didn't comment upon the fact that the cushion was still snugged securely up against the breastplate—nor did Alphonse seem to mind when, instead of bothering to lay back down, he simply pulled the thick woolen blanket closer about his shoulders and pressed in nearer.
And, much as Edward hated hearing the Colonel's voice, usually—it came with a whole retinue of associations regarding comments about his height and maturity level—it was quite possibly the one sound he'd most been dreading during his slow recovery.
For the space of a heartbeat, the boy seriously considered simply rolling over and pretending that Mustang had been mistaken about his level of consciousness.
But, no: "Oh, good morning, Colonel," Alphonse was saying. "You're in luck—he just woke up."
"Yeah," Ed managed, shooting his brother a halfhearted glare as he shoved himself up into a sitting position and willed the only arm he had for support not to shake. "Luck."
"I'd meant to come by sooner," Mustang began, tone level, "But your brother tells me you've been sleeping an inordinate amount."
In the sheets of the med-tent cot, fingers tightened into a fist around fabric; Edward ducked his head, letting his hair fall forward in hopes that it would do something to hide the humiliated flush spreading across his face. "Yeah," the boy muttered, refusing to meet that piercing charcoal gaze. "Well."
The silence that followed lasted long enough to border on awkward, and Ed was reminded quite suddenly of the fact that it had been this man to carry him, unconscious and half-starved, to the bed in which he currently lay.
It helped not at all when, a moment later, Al set a large hand gently on his flesh shoulder, meaning to comfort.
"About that," Edward began again, and shifted uncomfortably. It was an effort to raise his eyes to the man's face, so smoothly impassive—a greater one to work the humiliation still coursing through him into an acting apology. "I... know I've been out awhile." Because he understood now, logically at least, that the collapse really hadn't been his fault—but understanding and instinct were two different things entirely, and the part of him that had been too proud to ask for extra still felt the wound. "And that maybe I've been a little... uhm. You know. But I swear—"
"That's enough, Fullmetal," came the command, and it stopped the sentence midway. "You most certainly have been out awhile. And unless you plan to tell me that you're ready to resume your duties, you can stop right there."
"Colonel," Alphonse began, tone just shy of warning—but Mustang ignored him entirely, eyes fixed steadily upon Edward's face as he spoke.
"Until then, your orders are to get well enough to take orders." There was no trace of that amused smirk present now—was nothing but an intensity that failed to betray anything of emotion beneath it. "Am I understood?"
Stunned, Edward spent several seconds able only to stare in response. "Yes, sir," the boy managed.
"Good. I expect you'll manage it soon enough." By degrees, the corners of the man's mouth twitched up, the expression becoming one much more commonplace. "You're fairly strong for your size, after all."
"Brother!" Alphonse cried, and had to lunge in order to hold the boy back.
It was while the gauntlets remained clasped tightly around the boy's waist that Mustang approached, dropping a hand onto Edward's shoulder as though it was the most natural gesture in the world.
"Fullmetal," the man said, and the word was not the beginning of something more, but rather an acknowledgement—something somber enough that it stilled the rabid struggles of the small form on the bed.
By the time Ed had begun to puzzle it out enough to open his mouth for speech, the tent flap was falling closed behind the Colonel's back.
"...did he just apologize?" the older boy demanded, disbelief written plainly across his features.
Alphonse's helmet inclined itself consideringly in the direction of the tent's exit. "I think so, brother."
There was another second's stunned silence.
"About fucking time," Edward declared at last, and threw himself back down onto the cot with a snort.
"Brother," Alphonse began, tone the one he'd developed after long years of practice at placating the older boy.
But Ed was waving it off already, tugging at the blankets that he'd kicked down in his rage as he attempted to nestle back under them. "Yeah, yeah," he acknowledged, dismissively.
"Honestly," Alphonse reproved, and a too-large gauntlet closed around his brother's single wrist, pale and fragile. "Let me."
Golden eyes stared up at an expressionless metal face as leather hands smoothed the covers out for him—lifted, shook, and tucked, pressing the edges in around his shoulders. "Hey, Al?"
The only visible response was a slight lifting of the helmet, soulfire eyes rising in order to make a more level contact. "Yes, brother?"
Beneath the newly reinstated covers, Edward's fingers toyed nervously with a wrinkle of fabric. "Lunch?" the boy asked, hopefully.
It took no convincing at all for the armor to creak to its feet once more, and when Alphonse spoke, there was something a good deal more gentle than usual in the words.
"Of course, brother," he said. "Of course."