It had slipped from night to early morning by the time Alphonse awoke, and after he fought off the last wisps of sleep, his first impression was that it was very cold indeed.
The second was that this was likely caused by the fact that half the bed was empty—and the third that waking would be a much more pleasant experience altogether if his brother would just hurry and come home already.
Blearily, the youngest Elric turned that thought over in his head, and recognized, in a sleepy, distant sort of way, that he probably wasn't being entirely fair.
After all, it wasn't really Edward's fault he'd been gone so often. Wasn't his fault that he happened to have expertise in precisely the areas that several long, demanding missions had required, back to back.
And if Alphonse was honest with himself—or perhaps just awake enough for his mind to demand rationality—he'd have acknowledged that, in all likelihood, his brother hated the situation as much as he did. After all, it was Edward that had to spend his days dozing uncomfortably aboard a train to some far-off destination, Edward that was subjected to the unsavory reception often reserved for members of the military.
But that didn't change the fact, Alphonse thought with a twinge of annoyance, that he was freezing even beneath the covers, and that he'd woken in a bed that should have been much fuller.
Irritably, the boy rolled over onto his side, hauling the blankets up around his shoulders and snuggling down into them. He'd only had his body back a few months, yet, and some things were taking quite a bit of getting used to, the chill air that winter had brought with it chief among them.
It was just as his body heat was beginning to bring the sheets up to a reasonable temperature that the noise caught his ears—an ugly scraping sound, unnatural and harsh in the silence of early morning hours.
Alphonse froze in response, muscles rigid as he lay still, trying to breathe quietly so that he could listen—and then it came again, heavy and insistent, too loud to be anywhere but nearby. It grew in volume by increments, paused for the fraction of a second—crescendoed to a tremendous crash that couldn't have come from anywhere but directly below the bedroom.
Which would place the sound in the center of their living room.
It was with the utmost care that Alphonse slid from between the covers, with tremendous patience that he eased open the drawer beside the bed. Because it squeaked, just a little, if you forced it too quickly—and that, the boy thought grimly as he helped himself to a piece of chalk, wouldn't do at all.
He didn't turn on the light as he felt his way out into hall; they'd lived in the little house for long enough that he knew the way by touch, the barest whisper of fingers on the wood of the wall the only indication of his passing. The sound was, he was pleased to note, covered completely by the heavy, uneven scrapping that seemed to be coming ever-nearer.
He was nearly to the bottom of the stairs by the time he gauged it had crossed the living room—had time to pause, breath caught in his throat, and chalk an array on the wallpaper of the stairwell as he waited for whatever had caused the noise to come within range.
And then it was drawing closer, the dragging counterbalanced by the striking of something less weighty against the floor, more rhythmic than the other sound but still unbearably slow.
It seemed ages before he gauged that it must be halfway down the hall, but Alphonse had always been patient, and if the palm of the hand pressed up against the array on the wall was a bit damp—well. It had been five years since he'd last fought in his flesh body, and the rush of adrenaline was a foreign sensation, indeed.
His timing was perfect.
The array flared to life with a flash of blue lightning, and the wall warped beneath his fingers, a change that ran down to ripple through the floor. The noise came to a stop with a startled cry; Alphonse took the last three steps in a single bound, swinging round to face the hallway.
The lamps in the living room were still dark, but he could see well enough by the light of the moon. Its silver rays cast long shadows from the window at the far end of the hall, illuminating the figure that struggled for freedom from the wooden hands that had sprung up from the floor to seize it.
"Fuck, Al," it gasped, sounding out of breath. "That hurt, you bastard."
And for a moment, the boy could only stare.
"Brother?" he managed at last, taking two steps to bring him to the older boy's side. Seconds more and he was chalking a new array on the floor beneath him, pressing fingers to it, watching as the light it created bathed his brother's features in a wash of blue.
Almost before the alchemical glow had faded, Alphonse surged forward to wrap his arms tight around the smaller boy, bringing them both to the ground in an awkward pile.
"You said you wouldn't be back for another week," Al accused, words muffled by the fabric of his brother's shirt. It was a moment more before he was willing to pull back enough to see his brother's face, dim-lit in the darkened hall.
And only then did he realize that his brother was wincing. "Yeah," Ed admitted, gingerly, "Change of plans."
"Guess they figured I wasn't gonna do much good if I couldn't walk," the older boy shrugged, attempting nonchalance. "So I got to go home early."
And it took beat for Alphonse's mind to process the words—a bit longer to realize that there were crutches on the floor of their hallway, left where they'd spilled when the floor leapt up to stop the intruder. That his brother was reaching for them, beginning to struggle awkwardly back to standing—trying to balance on his automail, or at least what was left of it.
Because the metal had been twisted round the wrong way, pulled down and to the side, and even before the boy had made it back to his feet, Alphonse could see that it would drag when his brother walked, an awkward, slow maneuver. But it was a necessary one, Al realized—because without the false limb, Edward would have needed to put the weight on his real leg, and by the gritted teeth and quiet hiss of pain that came with movement, that was not an option at all.
"You're hurt," Alphonse exclaimed, and was moving to help in the next heartbeat. His hands were careful, gentle, and the smaller boy leaned into them, using the support to clamber the rest of the way up. "Oh, brother, I'm sorry, I didn't mean—I thought you were—"
"Don't worry about it," Ed replied, teeth flashing pale in the moonlight, a grin of reassurance. Absently, the flesh hand took the crutch that Alphonse pushed toward it. "Nice to know anyone who thinks breaking in here's a good idea is in for an ass-kicking."
But the worry had settled resolutely already, and Alphonse didn't like the way his brother was moving, as though every gesture hurt, or the dark smudges that he could just make out below the boy's eyes. "Brother," he began, and his voice was rich with concern. "What happened?"
"In the morning, alright?" The automail hand accepted the second crutch, closed around it as though used to the motion. "It's a long story."
And there was more to it than that, Alphonse knew—could read in the tone and in what little he could make out of his brother's expression that it would be a reluctant retelling indeed, when at last it came.
But he nodded slowly in response, and together they made their awkward way up the stairs.