There was something indescribable about rising before dawn, a sort of power in understanding that before light had even touched the world, he was awake and alive, preparing for a day that hadn't yet been born.
It wasn't something that Edward had always appreciated—wasn't something he'd even thought about, before six months ago.
But then, he'd tried a lot of new things lately, struggling to readjust to a world in which the most he had to worry about was whether Winry could be trusted to kitten-sit while they were away.
And this new life was staggering—more so, the feel of Alphonse's shoulder, warm and flesh beneath his cheek as the train lurched out of the station.
But if every day began with the morning light spilling though the window, roar of the tracks bellow him and his brother nearby, perhaps, Ed thought, the future could be something amazing.
It had been a game of boundaries from the very beginning.
How hard he could push without having life spring back to catch him in the face. Whether the military needed him enough to allow certain leeways. What it would take to see an expression less smug on Roy Mustang's face.
So he'd edged a bit closer that point where the line became indistinct—and suddenly, the boundary Ed had always supposed was somewhere just a little further off had been crossed.
Too late to stop, though, and he'd waited instead for an opportunity: one of many lovely women visiting the Colonel in his office.
They'd been taking bets by the time Ed finished, unable to agree whether the shouting could be heard two floors down or three.
He'd stopped on the way out with a wicked grin, promised that if there was a next time, it would be five.
It cut him every time that Alphonse ran marveling fingers over the cotton of the sheets, feeling the place where the sun had made them warm. Stung when those lovely bronze eyes brightened with wonder as the boy made dinner, leaning down to smell the cloves.
Crushed him every time a shudder trembled out across smooth shoulders as they nuzzled closer; every time quiet keening escaped parted lips as the pad of a thumb brushed him just so; every time the mingled bliss and disbelief settled over those expressive features after they'd finished, heartbeats slowing.
And the smaller boy never spoke when Al's simple joy reminded him that he'd stolen for five long years the things that brought his brother so much pleasure. Because that, after all, would rob him of it once more.
So Edward simply smiled, tucked the guilt away inside him, and hoped the pain wouldn't show.
There had been a time when they were innocent.
It was difficult to recall now, wrapped up in that blur of color and joy that he'd shuffled away to the corner of his mind for things not safe to think about—because memories of childhood had no place in a world thick with an adult understanding of pain.
He took them out sometimes, dusted them off and tried each on in turn, face pressed into the pillow of a cheap hotel room, trying hard not to cry loudly enough to wake Alphonse.
They'd come so far from the laughing little boys of his memory, lost so much more than an arm, a leg, and a body.
But the last thing Edward thought to himself on those rare occasions that he recalled days gone by was grateful: no matter how grievous the wound, there was still a chance for it to heal.
There really was no way to tell for sure—but they'd argued anyway.
Ed had claimed that it was just fog, groused that the extra care he'd need to put into his automail wasn't fair when it wasn't even a proper storm. And Alphonse had laughed at him, elbowed his brother in the side, told him that if it was heavy enough to leave puddles it most certainly couldn't count as mist.
The punches were as much in play as the traded words had been, blows too light to hurt—but they ended up on the ground anyway, rolling hard in dark, muddy soil and grass thick with rain.
It wasn't until the sun peaked through the faded steel of the clouds that they paused, two sets of eyes rising to the place where light filtered in through tiny drops of water.
Beneath a streak of blended hues, they smiled.
For the first time, this place was full of memories: a train pulling in, whistle ghostly in the light of morning. The steam rising from coffee that he couldn't smell. Wheels rumbling on the tracks, the shout of the conductor, the bustle of a crowd in Central.
And above all that, his brother: complaining that he ached after hours on the train; biting into the glaze of a pastry; excited about a treasured new book; curled up on the hard wood of the bench.
His brother: living, growing, changing. Older and wiser and not at all the innocently wicked little boy that he'd known when he was ten years old.
His brother: the Fullmetal Alchemist and everything beneath, with all the years they'd shared between them, with every laugh and sob and shout and desperate dream of what might be.
His brother: forgotten and remembered and loved beyond all words.
The rain streamed quietly down the windowpane, tiny glinting rivulets dim in the stormy light of the afternoon. Alphonse watched them fall with a fascination perhaps a bit too intent, caught up in the notion that if the weather relented, even for a short while, the day might not seem so lifeless.
Because with Edward lying pale and drawn beneath the sheets of the hospital bed, wound newly stitched, it seemed as though the boy's suffering had leeched the color from the world.
Alphonse had turned away the priest that came just after his brother left surgery, incensed enough not to care when the man cowered before his frightening bulk—because it was unforgivable to imply that Ed might need the help of a God in which he didn't believe simply to survive.
After all, his brother put faith in the world around him—and that, Alphonse knew, was enough.
It was morning when Edward left, the sky laden with a chill, grey mist.
Alphonse walked him to the door of their apartment building, slow and even down the long flights of stairs, kept his brother's fingers tangled with his own and their hands pressed palm to palm.
And all he could think, with every step to bring them just that little bit nearer, was that maybe, if they took long enough, the war would forget all about the both of them and go on. That the summons they'd been dreading every day since his brother had received the silver watch would disappear the following morning when they woke: a nightmare lost to the reality of warm, tangled sheets and a sprawl of bare limbs.
But a week had been and gone already, each day a hammer to drive the truth of the situation a little deeper into their hearts. And with the door open before them and their home empty behind, there was no lingering hope left to which they could cling.
He's my brother, Alphonse's mind murmured one more time, by way of reassurance. He's brilliant and strong; he's done things that no sane person could ever think possible.
But the smaller boy was leaning up to press a kiss to his lips, the gesture solemn and tender—and those amazing golden eyes, those eyes that captured every facet of Ed's heart and mind, were filled with love and hurt and a bravery so false that it ached to behold.
It was, Alphonse knew as he watched the faded red of his brother's coat disappear into the grey of the morning, the only way Edward knew how to say goodbye.
"Brother," Alphonse began again, "Is this really necessary?"
In the silver glow of moonlight, the pointed look leveled his way was barely visible. "If you were gonna complain," Ed panted, "You should've said something sooner." The boy's flesh hand reached for a better grip on his brother's arm, pulled harder. "Now stop bitching and help me."
Alphonse nodded minutely in response and scrabbled for purchase with his feet, trusting for the dizzying second when he found none that his brother would keep him safe. And then he caught a tentative hold and pushed, and he was being hauled that last little bit of space, up and over the edge of the roof to collapse panting beside the grinning boy who'd clambered up before him.
"There," Edward declared, and reached an affectionate hand to ruffle his brother's hair. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
It was a moment before he could gather his breath enough to roll over onto his back, but when at last Alphonse managed, he couldn't keep the smile from his lips. Because the view from the roof was everything his brother had promised: the stars, thick and white in the dark velvet of the sky, the moon gleaming full and round and waxy, the still landscape awash with pale light.
And his brother's hair, back-lit with the silver light from above as Edward leaned in to kiss him.
He closed his eyes against the sensation, lost in it—because there were some things, Alphonse thought, that would always be overwhelming, no matter how long he had to get used to them in this new body.
And when the smaller boy pulled away at last, and their hands sought each other and fingers twined, he found himself grateful for the fact.
"Well?" Edward pressed, triumphant. "Was I right?"
"Fine," the younger boy sighed, tone one of affected exasperation. "You win, brother." Absently, he brought Ed's hand to his lips, kissed gently along each of the knuckles. "It's too nice a night to waste inside."
"Was that really necessary, brother?" Alphonse panted, sprinting down the hall on the smaller boy's heels. Behind them, General Mustang's office smoked and sparked; curious eyes followed their retreat.
"Don't be stupid, Al." They rounded a corner, and Edward pressed on just a bit faster. "That bastard's got another think coming if he thinks he's gonna insult a body I spent six years trying to get back."
Fond exasperation tinged bronze eyes. "Not to mention the fact," Alphonse pointed out, voice brimming with amusement, "That I'm taller than you. So if I'm short—"
"Don't you dare," Ed warned him, and the look that the boy tossed back over his shoulder was positively dangerous.
Alphonse smiled sweetly in response, radiating innocence. "I wouldn't dream it, brother."
The grin flashed razor-sharp and wild; Ed seized his little brother's arm, pulled him down for a kiss. "Better not."
And they were off again.
It was the time of day that fell into the uncertain period between sunset and night—the time of day that Alphonse spent on the porch swing out front, eyes lingering on the path to the little house he shared with his brother.
"Train gets in tomorrow," the note had promised. "Back around sundown."
But that had been two years ago, and the Fullmetal Alchemist had never returned—had been declared missing in action, presumed dead. There had been a memorial ceremony which Alphonse didn't attend.
Because his brother was alive somewhere, and maybe one day—
Movement on the horizon caught his eye: a silhouette, dark against the glow of the setting sun. He could only stare, throat dry, heart pounding—and then one arm lifted in greeting.
He stumbled in his haste—faltered, righted, took off sprinting.
And when those arms closed around him, metal and flesh, Alphonse cried.
Alphonse no longer slept in the bed he remembered, worn blankets soft and reassuring; that bed, they told him, had burned.
There were no photographs here, either—or at least, none that he recalled. The house was full of Rockbell photos, pictures in which Winry grinned out from the vast majority of the small, glossy squares, he and his brother only mentions on the sidelines.
Things had changed.
And Granny Pinako had explained to him, as many times as he'd wanted to hear, about everything he no longer knew—had told him, time and again, about the daring, brilliant, astonishing young man that his brother had become.
It wasn't enough.
Not without the familiar laugh that pervaded every memory of his childhood—certainly not without those hands, dirty and usually scraped raw from scrabbling for purchase on tree branches.
And so he left it all—for something much more important.
Sometimes, Edward Elric wanted to give up.
There are only so many times that a person's hopes can be raised and dashed to pieces, after all, before there's not enough left to rebuild them again.
And so the boy sat with legs drawn up to his chest, chin resting on his knees, a position he would normally despise as making him seem childish—but the station was deserted save himself and Al, who had seen him at his very worst and loved him all the same.
His brother, Ed's mind repeated, and he turned by degrees so that he could catch the light glinting off the surface of the younger boy's armor. His reason for living, for continuing an impossible search, for having the strength to pull himself out of bed every morning and face a new day.
In the distance, a train whistle sounded, and Ed lifted his suitcase.
The streets were crowded, all noise and flashing motion. A local holiday of sorts, Alphonse had supposed to his brother as they'd made their way from the train station just after sunset.
And there was plenty here to celebrate, the boy thought fondly from where he stood watching on the sidelines; the pale soulfire of his eyes had found a place where, amidst the sea of delight, a toddler clutched the finger of a dirt-smeared little boy no more than seven, chubby hand closed tight and bright eyes adoring.
Almost, it made him think of another time—of shining golden eyes and an irrepressible grin, of the sensation, just beyond recollection, of his brother's hand warm about his own.
"Al!" called the voice, and he turned before regret could set in, confronted by the laughing, childish wonder in Edward's eyes.
Someday, he promised himself, and moved to join the boy.
Alphonse visited his brother on the third Tuesday of every month.
It was an important day for them, after all—the day that he'd been restored. The day when, on his "welcome back" anniversary a year later, they'd shared their first kiss: a sweet, clumsy gesture that he could still taste when he tried hard enough to remember.
Al packed a picnic lunch when he came, caught the early train so that the long afternoon hours could be spent with his brother. He loved sitting in the soft, new grass beneath an impossibly blue sky, loved telling Edward how everyone was doing and what had changed in Central.
He brought daffodils, usually; the color reminded him of lovely, expressive eyes.
And sometimes, as he began the long path away from the stone with his brother's name, he swore he could hear Ed's voice echoing out across wide, green hills.
He didn't know for certain anymore, and that scared him.
Memories that had once been so sweetly definite, his only link to a life before the cold encasement of steel, were beginning to fade. He could no longer remember the caress of a summer's breeze, the squish of mud between his toes, the warm silk of his brother's hair.
And even now the words rang in his mind, a suggestion that he couldn't escape no matter how desperately he tried: perhaps those lovely, darkened images of himself as a human being had never been. Perhaps he'd never felt the ache of a fading bruise or lain on his stomach in the grass behind their house to watch as insects crawled beneath the green of the blades.
But none of that hurt so much as the cruel insistence of his own mind: it's impossible to love something that's not even real.
For as long as Ed could remember, life had been a struggle. A constant fight against the world—the people who said he was wrong, or that it wasn't worth it.
In time, the boy had come to believe that the only way to achieve a measure of happiness was to claw his way through smoke and fire to get it, cling with bleeding hands until he conquered whatever obstacle dared to stand in his path.
And so Edward had been staggered, the first time that his brother reached out for him with trembling fingers. Been too stunned to breathe properly as Al nuzzled in close and cried, tears hot, body warm and human.
And when Alphonse searched out his lips with the mouth so newly crafted for him, it was all Ed could manage to wonder whether life was, perhaps, a bit kinder than he'd given it credit for.
The fading glow of twilight crept in under the curtains, falling across the blankets in a bar of brightness that made the boy's hair glow a burnished gold. He lay motionless atop the bed, but his body thrummed with an air of expectancy, every inch of him aware and waiting.
Outside, somewhere far below the tiny apartment, a child screamed; it was a shriek of joy, wild and unadulterated, loud enough that he missed the quiet click of the door opening.
The touch of fingers warm on his bare stomach announced another's presence, and the boy stretched, leaned into the caress, opened his eyes with a lazy smile.
Alphonse leaned in to kiss him, then—long and slow, lingering.
After they'd parted, words came: "Do you remember when we used to play tag, brother?"
"How could I forget?" And a hand of steel reached out to draw the boy nearer.