There are more ghosts than usual, today.
There's one going through the cupboard when Al comes into the kitchen, grumbling over the lack of snacks. There's one at the table when Al cooks breakfast at the stove, jiggling his leg impatiently and urging Al to hurry up with the eggs, already, I'm starving.
There's one to wrap his arms around Al from behind as he sits at the table, the empty seat across from him, and breathe in his ear. "Al," the ghost purrs, with a phantom gust of air against his neck, phantom blond hairs drifting over his shoulders. "I love you, you know. I love you."
He eats his breakfast.
The ghosts fade away when he busies himself with dishes, and he leaves the rest of the food for later. Laundry comes first, and he carries the still damp towels and sheets out into the backyard where the pump and tubs wait.
It's a nice day, cool but sunny; the breeze carries a faint whiff of rain, but there are no clouds in the sky and Al is not worried about setting out the lines. He soon heats up enough, with his arms up to the elbow in hot sudsy water, to appreciate the cool breeze playing through his hair, and finds himself humming a little.
The breeze becomes fingers, ruffling through his bangs, and Ed sits down across from him. "You're out of tune, Al," Ed says with a grin.
"Oh, shut up," Al says good-naturedly, trying to push his bangs out of his eyes with his elbow. "I like laundry."
Ed laughs, tossing back his hair. "You're so domestic. Like a housewife."
"I don't see you offering to help," Al grumbles, turning back to his laundry, and Ed just smiles.
There's a moment of quiet between them; Al keeps his eyes on the laundry, Ed's presence hovering just in his peripheral vision. Al hauls the sheet out of the water, and wrings it, then turns to pin it up on the line.
"I miss you," he says quietly, facing the clothesline. "Brother."
"What's to miss?" Ed says gently, from behind him. "You still have me. I haven't gone anywhere."
"It's not the same," Al whispers, dropping his hands. "I want to touch you, Niisan. I wanted to for so long. What was the point of getting me back in my body if I can't?"
"You still can," Ed replies, a note of reproach in his voice. "It's what I wanted, too, Al."
"It wouldn't be right," Al says, and rubs his hands over his face. The soap makes his eyes sting, a little. "Not the way I want to touch you, Niisan. It's not like a brother. I loved you so much... I never told you..."
"I knew." Ed's presence, close behind his back. "I'm your older brother, remember? What makes you think you could keep a secret from me? I wanted it too. God, I wanted it."
Al closes his eyes and rests his forehead against the cold wet sheet, hands twisted in the material to keep it straight. "I wish I could believe you," he says. "But it's not really you who's saying it. I'm talking to myself here."
A sigh, that could just be the breeze talking, and phantom hands encircle his stomach. "You're an idiot," the ghost of his brother tells him. "I'm only telling you what you already know. I love you more than anything, Al. I wouldn't have done what I did if I didn't love you more than anything. Nothing you do or feel or say could ever possibly change that."
"Come back to me, Niisan," Al begs. "I know you're not gone for good... not you. Please come back soon. I want you to be with me so bad."
"I'm working on it."
The presence fades. Al takes a breath, and turns around, to return to the laundry.
Once all the sheets and towels are up, Al takes took down the few items of clothing flapping dry on the line—a white shirt, a red jacket—and brings them inside. Leaving them stacked on the kitchen floor for now, he picks up the tray he'd prepared earlier and goes into the bedroom.
All hints of the ghosts vanish as soon as the door opens, chased away by the solid reality of the figure inside. Ed lies in his bed, staring up at the ceiling with eyes blank and empty. The ends of his hair are still damp from that morning's bath, and Al sets the tray on the night table as he draws up the chair.
"Well, time to get up, Niisan," he says cheerfully, as always. His hands slide under Ed's shoulders, neck, and with a firm pull he manages to get his brother sitting upright in the bed.
Ed goes where he is pushed, or pulled, and stays in whatever posture he is put into, although he'll drop his hand if it is held up for too long. His eyes blink, opened during the day and closed at night, but never focus or respond to the light. He will chew and swallow what is put in his mouth, though he will make no move to eat on his own.
All this Al holds onto as evidence, denial against whatever the doctors claim, that Ed is braindead or comatose. Ed is alive. He isn't dead. He isn't asleep. He is simply... not all there. Yet. Yet.
The sunlight pours in through the windows, warm without any hint of the autumn coolness. Al drew open all the curtains when he came in at dawn to find Ed's eyes open, letting Ed see the sun and the outside world. It bothers him a lot, to think of Ed staring at the inside of blank walls and curtains all day, unable to move or change the view until Al does it for him.
Wouldn't it be so much more efficient if you just slept in here with him, whispers a tiny voice, and Al pushes it aside. He holds up the eggs to Ed's mouth; those lips part, and Ed takes the eggs and chews and swallows without ever a change of expression. It's been this way for hundreds of mealtimes already, a hundred baths and a hundred nights of tucking him in and a hundred mornings of making sure Ed has a good view of the lawn and Alphonse is prepared to wait a thousand more.
"I can wait," he says aloud, firmly. "I can wait till you come back, Niisan. I'm not some impatient kid. Because you are coming back, I know it. With so much of you floating around, it's only a matter of time before you come back to yourself. And there will be... plenty of..."
The sweet morning snaps like a fragile pane of glass and Al is sobbing, the sounds tearing up out of his chest and throat before he can stop them. The fork clatters to the floorboards and he cries, hands clutching at Ed's pajamas as he buries his face in the blankets over Edward's lap.
He can't help it. No matter how hard he believes that Edward is coming back someday, that they'll be together and all this time will just be a bad dream, the reality is now and now is lonely lonely lonely and seems to go on forever.
The nearness of his brother, his scent and warmth and softness ought to comfort him; it usually does, that Ed is warm and breathing and alive. But now it just makes him sick with longing, and sick with himself; what kind of brother is he, to want the things he wants? To want more than he's allowed, more than Edward can give, anything to feed the hunger in his heart. Come back soon, Niisan. Come back soon and tell me if this is all right.
The crying jag is over soon enough, and although Al doesn't want to do anything other than curl up in his brother's lap for the rest of the day, he knows he can't. He's already eaten and isn't hungry, but Ed hasn't, and Ed must be, even if he can't say so or feed himself. Al slowly unclenches his hands from fabric, resting his cheek on the blanket and watching the wrinkled fabric smooth under his fingers. With a sigh, he starts to sit up.
And comes to a sudden halt, at a tug of resistance in his hair. He looks up with astonishment, still blinking the tears out of his vision. Somehow, during his bout of self-pity, Edward's fingers have become buried in his hair.
That night, he closes up the little house, locking doors and turning off lights in his usual nightly routine. He can't, though, keep from glancing over and over again at the closed door to Edward's bedroom. That part of the daily routine is complete already. He's gotten Edward changed, teeth brushed, tucked into bed with the blinds drawn. There's no point in checking up on him again; the view won't have changed between then and now.
"Go on," the ghost says softly from the corner, barely visible in the dim light. "It must get mighty lonely in there, all alone."
"Just because I do doesn't mean he does," Al says softly. "I don't want to... I don't want to. Intrude."
"Aa-llll," the ghost says, in tones of affectionate exasperation. "Have you lost your wits? When have I ever minded sleeping together with you, when we were kids? What makes you think I'd mind now?"
Despite himself, Al puts his hand on the doorknob into Ed's bedroom. Then stops. "I can't trust what you say, you know," he says. "You're just my subconscious talking. You'll tell me whatever I want to hear."
"That's all you know," Ed says impudently, from across the room. "Go on, get."
Al pushes open the door, and the ghost vanishes, as always. Even to Al's dim-adjusted eyes, the dark of the room beyond is nearly impenetrable. He can barely make out the bed, with Ed stretched out on it, just as he was when Al laid him down earlier.
Al slips inside, and pads slowly across the room. He stands for a long time by Ed's bedside, staring into the barely-visible face, until the silence deafens him. The autumn day was warm, but the nights are cool with a biting wind, and it's the chill air that drives him at last under the blankets of Ed's bed.
He arranges himself awkwardly, against Ed's side, tucking his arm under Ed's neck and laying his other hand across his chest. "Is this all right, Brother?" he whispers in the darkness.
No answer, no movement, and although he was expecting none, it still breaks his heart just a little more each time. He doesn't cry, but he does ride the wave of heartbreak into sleep.
His dreams are fragmented and fretful, but when he wakes up in the morning, sunlight filtering through and splashing on the white walls in spite of the heaviest blinds he can devise, Ed has turned in the night, and wound heavy arms around him.
"I am taking good care of them," Al objects, trying but not quite succeeding in keeping the sullen tone out of his voice. "I dry them every time they get wet. I'm very careful."
"They really aren't supposed to get wet anyway," Winry scolds, prodding at the inside of the metal arm; the casing is off and laid out on the table like the discarded carapace of an insect, or petals of a flower. Ed sits quietly, in his chair, eyes staring off into nowhere as Winry pokes and prods his arm. "And if they're left even damp for hours on end, of course they're going to start rusting. What do you do, give him a bath twice a day every day?"
"Every day," Al says, and frowns, crossing his arms over his chest. Aside from her other, more social visits, Winry comes to check up on Ed's automail every month. This is the sixth monthly visit since the habit started, and Winry's complaints have grown steadily sterner over time.
"Well, I don't see why you have to. The Ed I remember had to be cajoled into taking a bath once a week. Hah! Not that this isn't an improvement, at least he smells better, but still. I don't see how he even works up a sweat here, lying around all day!"
Al hugs his arms harder over his chest. Winry ought to know that just lying in a bed all day can leave a person feeling as nasty and dirty as running laps in the rain, and with Ed not even aware of the most basic things... Maybe he doesn't have to bathe him every day, though. But he thinks Ed would much rather be clean and fresh in clean sheets than floundering in his own sweat most of the time.
Besides, Al likes the way Ed feels and smells when he's fresh out of the bath. Al's frown deepens. He doesn't like the thought that he has some ulterior motive in how he cares for his brother—
"I'm going to take the framework out to clean it," Winry is saying, rummaging around without looking for the proper size screwdriver. "It'll leave his wires in the open, but that shouldn't be much of a problem, and at least I won't have to take the arm off completely."
She sets the screwdriver to the inside of the port, and Ed flinches; a slight line creases his brow, and he leans to the side in his chair, away from Winry and the offending screwdriver. Winry looks up at the unexpected movement, mouth open and eyes round.
"Al!" she squeals, dropping the screwdriver and jumping up. "Did you see that? He moved! I didn't push him, he moved on his own!"
"Oh, yeah," Al says, startled out of his thoughts. "He... he does that now. He'll move away from things he doesn't like, like pain or cold, and towards..." ...things he likes. Warmth. Al.
Winry is hardly listening, diving into her toolbox for a small but powerful flashlight. She shines the beam into one of Ed's eyes, and squeals again when Ed reacts; his pupils contract, and he jerks his head back, eyelids fluttering shut. "This is great! Al, do you realize what this means? His reflexes are coming back! This is a big improvement!"
"It is?" Al says hopefully, and Winry nods, hair bouncing.
"It is," she reassures him, grinning as she bounds around the living room. "This means that improvement is possible, Al, at least a little! Have you been working with him? Giving him physical therapy?"
"Physical... therapy?" Al says, slightly wary. Winry doesn't seem to notice.
"I'll show you. It's basically a kind of medical massage. I'd have shown you before if I'd thought it would do any good. It'll get his muscles back in shape and encourage him to respond to more stimulation. Oh, Al, this is wonderful! Maybe, maybe the Ed we know can come back!"
It seems a little much to hope for from a single flinch. But despite himself, Al feels his heart lift on the wings of her enthusiasm.
For the turn of the year, it snows; what in Central would only have been a light dusting of flurries comes down in heavy drifts in rural Riesenburg. Fortunately, there's little they could need that Al can't make or make do for, but the quiet of the falling snow and the sense of heavy expectation it brings makes his isolation feel all the more palpable. The silence from Edward's room is so thick as to be accusing.
The ghost darts from one window to the next, pressing an insubstantial nose against the frosted panes. "I wanna go out," he whines, in the strident high tones that Al remembers all too well from their childhood. "Can't I go out and play? It's my birthday!"
Al doesn't answer it, nursing his mug of tea at the breakfast table. The ghost of his childhood turns large, accusing gold eyes on him. "I want to go out," it says. "I don't wanna be stuck in here with you all the time! I hate it and it's boring and I wanna play, I wanna move again! Why you won't you let me? Why are you keeping me here?"
"Oh, for the love of..." The childish ghost freezes, like a snapshot, and fades away, replaced by the older one bending over the windowsill. "I was never that obnoxious!"
Al can't help but crack a smile. "You were," he says. "You completely were, as a kid."
"Well, I'm not a kid now," the ghost says firmly, brushing strands of insubstantial hair back from his face. "So will you get over it already? Winry said it's all right. She said physical therapy was a major deciding factor in patient recovery, right?"
"I don't think she quite had this in mind," Al says, voice detached as he stares into his mug of coffee. Despite himself, the heated memories flash into his eyes, of skin under his hands, moving and yielding under pressure; a touch meant to be firm turning into into a caress, a stroke as fine as any he would give to a purring cat. There's nobody to complain as he bends and flexes the compliant joints, slides his fingers down skin and hair until he has a greater awareness of his brother's bones and flesh than any other body in the world.
Al blinks the vision away. "Winry's patients can usually respond and do what she tells them. She doesn't have to do everything for them."
"That's just the point, she doesn't have to," Ed says with exaggerated patience. "You do. So you do. So stop obsessing about it and drink your tea before it gets cold."
The ghost exactly approximates the bossy older-brother tone Al remembers too well. He smiles a bit, and takes a drink of his tepid tea.
It isn't the best occasion to mark, Al supposes, as he busies himself with the tray. Piled high with platter, plates and silverware, he has a hard time keeping everything from slipping off. If he were going to bake a cake, he ought to do it for Edward's birthday, or his own, or some other childhood celebration. Marking the first anniversary of the day that Edward had fallen into his coma seems a little morbid at best.
And yet, it's an occasion worth marking. Edward poured all of himself into this sacrifice, into binding Al irrevocably into his flesh body. It was a sacrifice even more profound than that of his right arm, still cold metal on the bedspread, and Al can't bear the thought of letting it pass as if forgotten, unappreciated.
"Watch it, Brother," he warns, as though Ed might move at the last minute to disturb him. He slides the tray onto its place at Edward's beside and stands straight with a sense of relief. "There. I hope you'll like this cake, Brother, I spent ages trying to get the recipe right. It'll take me all day to clean up the kitchen. And I had to get the powdered sugar for the frosting specially from Central."
He sits on the side of the bed. Edward's head turned towards him, at the movement and sound, but it's a simple reflex, no recognition or comprehension in those eyes. A bit awkwardly, Al cuts a slice from the cake and transfers it onto the small plate, and lifts both fork and plate up towards Ed. "Say ah, Brother. It's good."
Ed's lips part obediently, and the sugar-frosted bite slides between them. Al feeds Edward the cake bite by bite, his own slice set aside for the moment.
Traces of pink sugar cling to Edward's lips even after the fork is removed. Al finds himself mesmerized by the illusion of a blush; new life to that skin. Edward is like a princess in an enchanted sleep, he thinks suddenly. Well, a prince, anyway. If only he could be woken as easily by a loving kiss from another prince. Princess? Prince.
Before he really thinks about what he's doing, Al leans forward and covers those suger-frosted lips with his own. His eyes close automatically, as he presses his mouth against the yielding warmth of Edward's. His mouth tastes like sugar and cake, and under that like Riesenburg's cool water, and Al touches his brother's tongue gently with his own before drawing away. No magic, no miraculous waking.
A blush overtakes him almost as soon as he does. "I... I'm sorry, Brother," he says humbly; he looks down and fumbles with the plate and fork to give his hands something to do. "It was a silly fancy, I..."
He looks up again, and stops. Ed's distant gaze is strangely close, now, though still unfocused into nothing; and his mouth is curved in a smile far sweeter than all the cake in the world put together.
Guilty and unnerved, Al takes the rest of the cake and flees for the kitchen. His own slice sits untouched; he's not in the mood for a treat and anyway it would taste like sand next to the memory of his brother's lips—his brother's lips. "I am such a horrible person," he whispers to himself, numbly, in the kitchen. "I'm so disgusting."
His brother's voice brushes faintly by his ears; Al squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head. He can't deal with ghosts, right now, the ones that look at him accusingly through insubstantial gold eyes and mouth whispered accusations, or even worse the one that will warm him and bear him up with false promises. With trembling hands he gathers the dishes up and starts to rinse them off.
It takes a moment to penetrate that it's no memory, no ghost calling to him; no ghost of his ever had such a hoarse, scratchy voice. He drops a plate, shattering on the kitchen floor, on his way back into the bedroom.
Ed is sitting right where he left him, the sugar still dusting his lips, but his head is turned towards the door expectantly, and his eyes—his eyes light up when Al comes in, and he smiles. Trembling from head to toe, Al slips back and huddles in in his accustomed place.
"I'm here, Brother."
"Al," Ed says quietly, and one hand rises, reaches towards Al. It bounces off his chest and slides down his chest, before dropping back to the bedspread.
"What is it?" Al says, keeping his voice calm and steady only with effort. He's hoping Ed will say more—God, God, this could be the break he's been waiting for—but Ed just smiles, that empty sweetness again, and lies back down on his pillows, eyes closed.
Al waits for a long time, but Ed seems to be sleeping; when he moves to go, though, those sun-gold eyes open a crack, and a hand reaches out to test his existence yet again.
"Yes, Colonel," Al says seriously into the receiver. "Yes, I mailed them... No, there's been no change. Yes, sir, I will. ... No, Colonel. I haven't forgotten. Thanks for your time... goodbye."
There's a click from the end of the line, and Al keeps on holding it up to his ear for a moment, before violently flinging the receiver away from him. As though the simple action had drained away all his strength, he slumps into a crouching position right there by the wall.
"Didn't think that was your style, Al," the ghost observes from a corner, where it had kibitzed on the entire conversation. "I was the one who hated Mustang, not you."
"I don't hate him," Al grumbles, not entirely convincingly, looking away. "Not the Colonel. He's always nice. He's been very good to us. I like him. I just don't like talking to him, when there's been no change, because it makes me feel like..."
"Like it's all my fault," Al admits in a small voice, staring at the receiver. "Like I'm not living up to my end of the exchange, because you're not—you're not getting any better. Like I'm wasting the money he gives us, to keep you well. Like this whole thing is my fault in the first place. Which it is."
Al sighs. "Leave it be, Niisan." He chews on his lip a moment, and then decides to be honest with himself, since he's alone anyway; "None of which would matter so much if I weren't jealous."
"Jealous?" the ghost sputters, perfectly mimicking Ed's offended, indignant tones. "Of—of me and the Colonel? No way!"
"Don't baby me," Al says wearily, bending down to pick up the receiver, check it for cracks (none this time, fortunately) and hanging it up. "I was an oblivious kid at the time, but looking back on it, it seems obvious. You liked him, for all your posturing, and he—he liked you back."
"Al, don't be an ass," the ghost sighs dramatically. "When the hell would we have had time? And besides, he genuinely drove me crazy!"
"You're telling me what I want to hear," Al says, more to remind himself than to stop Ed.
"I am not! Look, okay, when I was fourteen I had a stupid, stupid crush on him, and then I went and did an even more dumbass thing—I admitted it to him. He let me down nice, which was half decent of him, but then he had the nerve to tease me about it every single fucking meeting with him I had for the next two years!"
Al leaks a chuckle, lips quirking. It makes a good story, at least. "So... you did. Like him." It only made him feel bleaker inside.
"I had a crush," the ghost corrects him meticulously. "It was stupid, and anyway he didn't feel anything back, did he? After all, it wasn't him who offered to take me in and take care of me after—"
"He did," Al interrupts.
The ghost sputters, "What?"
"He did, a week after you got out of the hospital." Al closes his eyes, bringing his curled hands up to his forehead. He's getting a headache, he can feel it throbbing behind his temples. "I told him no. I told him it was my job to take care of you. But maybe that was a mistake. Maybe if you were with him, and not me, you'd be getting better by now."
Shocked silence. Al took a deep breath and held it tight. "I'm such a selfish jerk," he whispered, and his voice trembles enough that he doesn't dare say more.
"Al," the tender voice startles him. Al gasps as the faint tingling expression of arms swept over him. "You know that's not true. You do more for me than Mustang ever could. And even if you had to work ten hours a day every day, and barely had time for hello and goodnight, I'd rather live with you a hundred days than live with Mustang a week."
There's a crack in the phone, still, that Al hasn't gotten around to fixing even after six months, but it works just fine. He shifts the receiver from the cradle of one shoulder to another as Winry's comforting chatter pours out of it and fills his ear. He finds himself pacing, in an idle, meaningless little circle defined by the boundary of the cord; his hungry soul hangs on every warm word that comes out of the phone, but his body is tired of sitting still.
"So what did he say?" he asks, when Winry pauses for breath. "This customer of yours."
He could almost hear the eye-roll over the line. "Oh, you wouldn't believe it. After he's been told that no, he can't have the automail without going through the surgery to connect the nerves—he seemed to think he could just will it to move, like it was magic—next he wants to know why he can't get the surgery done at his doctor's in Dublith. Because he knows his doctor there and his employer will cover part of the costs. And then he has the nerve to say he doesn't trust such a big operation to a little girl, that he wants his experienced surgeon! I couldn't believe what I was hearing! As if I hadn't been assisting on automail operation since I was ten, as if any quack in the city could just pick up automail installation like it's taking out wisdom teeth!"
Al laughs, as much at the indignation bubbling over the line as from the customer's idiocy. "I hope I never have to be a businessman, Winry. The money I could handle, but the customers—-!"
Winry laughs with him. "I think you could do it though," she adds. "You have a good personality for it. People trust and like you. And if you were running your own business, you might not have to deal with customers directly at all."
"Mmm," Al says; what's left unsaid—that he can't be a businessman, or a banker, or a surgeon, or anything while he has to stay home and take care of Edward—echoes across the wire between them.
Winry changes the subject. "So when are we going out next?" she asks. "Auntie Pinako has a couple of free days at the end of the month—she can watch Ed, and I can take you out."
"I'd like that," Al says wistfully, contemplating temptation; a day out in the sun, a day or two of freedom. "But... I don't know. We'll see how he's doing."
"You're going to grow mold in there sooner or later, you know. Why don't you move back in with us completely? Then you could take time out whenever you wanted!'
Al closes his eyes, his pacing coming to a stop at the farthest point of the telephone tether. Why doesn't he, anyway? All the reasons that seemed so good a year ago—privacy, some perverse desire to prove that their independance—don't seem so good now. "Winry..." he begins.
There's a crash from Ed's bedroom. Alphonse is running for it before he even registers it consciously; the telephone clatters forlornly to the floor, Winry's anxious voice still coming from the end.
He gets to Ed's bedroom, heart in his mouth, and freezes.
Somehow, Ed has tipped over the side of his bed, and is lying tangled in blankets and sheets on the floor. Even as Al watches, he struggles to get up on his hands and knees, and then his feet, despite the encumbering cloth.
"Brother!" Al exclaims, and rushes forward to help him. "What are you doing? Where you trying to go somewhere? Why didn't you call me?"
He's excited and elated; this is the first time Ed has moved from his place since he entered his coma. He pulls the blankets aside, and takes Ed's arms, helping him sit up straight. "What is it, Brother?"
Ed begins struggling to his feet again, arms reaching out in—Al realizes with a blush—the direction of the bathroom. He helps Ed to his feet, steadying him when he sways drunkenly and supporting him when his knees almost give out again.
"I'm so happy, Brother," Al chatters excitedly, as he helps his brother take his first steps in well over a year. "I knew it, I knew I was right. We don't need anybody but ourselves."
In the other room, the telephone lay forgotten, Winry's urgent questions left unheard.
Temptation comes in the form of bubble baths.
Al leans against the end of the tub, a practiced position, and tries hard not to think about the warm water soaking through his lap, quickly turning cool. In front of him, Ed splashes about with interest, playing with the bubbles. He's scooping up handfuls, carefully lifting the largest and most beautiful bubbles from their nest among the floating soapy mass, and enjoying himself popping them. Either that or he doesn't quite grasp that contact with his automail kills the delicate structures as soon as they're touched, and keeps trying again and again.
"Move forward, Brother," Al instructs, following his command with a shove to Ed's shoulders. Obediently Ed slides forward, along the tub bottom, and Al is able to lather his hair with soap and dunk him into the water to rinse.
Ed opens his hands, letting the last of the bubbles fall, and leans back all the way, closing his eyes and letting his head slip under the water. The rest of him floats to the surface, waveringly visible between the floating islands of bubbles, and Al's breath catches. The long lean expanse of Edward's body, as known to him as his own—but far dearer—is doing nothing to help the uncomfortable soaked tightness of his pants.
Al tries to slow his breathing, calm his heartbeat, and get back to the business of washing Ed; but then Ed's eyes open, under the surface of the water, and he looks up at Al, and smiles. Rises from the depths of the bath like a magnificent sea creature, all streaming gold, and reaches up to plant his wet and soapy hand on Alphonse's chest.
"Touch me," his brother tells him, peremptory demand in his tone.
"I have to wash you, Brother," Al says quietly, folding the washcloth in his hand. But when he moves around the side of the tub to continue the bath, Ed clearly has other ideas. A slick automail finger hooks under the collar of his shirt, and Ed pulls him down for a kiss that is like stepping into the bath himself—moist, heated, and soapy.
"Touch me," Ed hisses, and the washcloth falls from Al's hand; the drops that splash onto him from its fall are hardly a dent compared to how wet he already is.
His hand slides down Edward's body, no longer cloaked by the bubbles, and Ed arches his back with an appreciative moan. Alphonse curses himself heartily; his weakness, his desperate longing. And most of all, he promises himself that this is never going to happen again; he'll never give in to weakness, to temptation again.
And he knows that these promises, too, will be broken in time, just like the last ones were.
Roy has never come to visit before, and a knot of tension settles in between Al's navel and breastbone. He greets the man politely, invites him into their house. Putters around for tea to warm against the freezing rain outside, and cookies to go with the tea, while Roy pulls off his overcoat and drips cold water on the floor.
Unseen to Roy, the ghost hovers in the corner, as insubstantial as a cloud. He doesn't speak as Al bears his tray into the living room and sets it down, gestures to the couch for Roy to sit. "Please, sir, won't you have a seat?" he asks, in formal tones that echo hollowly from the corners.
Roy shakes his head, sending drops of cold water flying. "I don't intend to stay long," he said.
Al guards his face, his tone carefully. "Have you come to see my brother? He's asleep right now—" he knows this by the ghost's faint presence in the corner, for Ed's waking presence is enough to drive it out of the house entirely. "But you could look in on him anyway."
Roy shakes his head, and Al's heart sinks. He knows, knows just how much Ed means to Roy, and if the Colonel doesn't want to see Edward, doesn't want to see how well he's doing now, how little he's changed in the last year...
"I came to talk to you about Ed's medical allowance," Roy says, cutting right to the point, and Al freezes up.
"What about it?" he says warily. "I filled in all the receipts—I turned them in last month. Is there some problem with them?"
Another shake of his head. "Not on your end," he says. "It's rather—Alphonse, to put it bluntly, the State is no longer able to care for your brother's medical expenses."
A puff of breath escapes Al's lips, the only hint of the anguish that hits his guts. "But—" he chokes out. "Not—not able? Or not willing?"
Roy hesitates. "Not willing," he admits at last. "For myself, I am willing. I have done my best by you and your brother, Alphonse. But the regulations can be stretched and bent no more. It's already six full months past the maximum period allowed, Alphonse. I can't help you any more."
"But—" Al bites his lip, starting forward and then stopping. "But I thought the Military guarantees ten-year care to injured soldiers?"
"Only to those injured in the line of duty, Alphonse, which Edward was not. Two years is the most they offer for unofficial injuries, and whatever else that fiasco in the caves was, it was unofficial."
Line of duty, a voice whispers in Al's head; he nearly killed himself for my sake, for me, saving me, when I would have dissolved into nothing... and it means nothing to you, your precious military, nothing at all...
"I won't have you completely stranded," Roy was saying, into the awkward silence. "I've driven my staff to the point of distraction and I've uncovered an obscure clause which we can invoke to put Edward into permanent wardship. All of his expenses would be paid, then, although not yours; I'm afraid you may have to look for work."
Al's chin jerks up. "I can do that," he says. "For Brother, if I have to. But this wardship—what—what does that mean?"
Roy is silent for a long moment, water slowly dripping from his hair into the carpet, and at least he says, "It would necessitate that your brother be moved into a State sponsored institution. There are several very good ones, in Central. I can provide you with a list—as well as studio apartments in the neighborhood, and possibly job listings—"
"No." Al's throat has gone dry, and icy, but his voice does not hesitate. "No. I won't put Ed into a hospital like some kind of lunatic. He's getting better, dammit! He's moving and talking... he even walks on his own now, a little!"
"That was the same report you gave me six months ago," Roy says with an odd gentleness, and tears sting in Al's eyes; it's the truth, he knows, and more, that that news was already months old by the time of the anniversary, six months ago nearly to the day.
"No," Al says again, more firmly. "I—I'll think of something else. Thank you, Colonel, for coming to see us. I'll call you if I need anything."
Roy accepts the dismissal with good grace, pulling on his soaking coat without a word, giving a grave salute before he turns back into the rain. Al shuts the door behind him, then leans on it, heart beating like a rabbit's. There's no reason to feel like he's just fended off an attack, like it was dark claws that came out of the night to try and snatch his brother greedily away.
"Brother," he says at last, turning his eyes to the corner with Edward's ghost. "What should I do?"
But the ghost only looks at him sadly, and fades into nothingness without a word. Al wonders numbly what his subconscious is trying to tell him.
Al paces, circles and circles in the near-dimness of the living room. It's been four days since Roy's visit in the rain. Ed is asleep, oblivious and innocent, in the bedroom, the bed they share.
He won't give Ed up. He's sure of that, deadly so. No matter what happens, he'll keep them together, won't let his brother be taken away by strangers. How could they understand him? How could they take care of him? Would they know how to do his hair, to run bubble baths, to read aloud to him in the evenings?
Worse—or maybe better, a bitter thought—with Ed in an institution their contact will be limited. There will be no more kisses in the bath, no more touches under the covers. He can live with that, although it makes him sick with longing, but will Ed understand? And what if he asks for Al, for sexual fulfillment in the night watch, and the night nurse doesn't understand? Worse yet—what if she did?
Winry and Auntie are nearer, more tempting, but—without the State funds, without even the possibility of a job in isolated Riesenburg, they'll be burdens on them, parasites dragging them down, and that's even more an unbearable thought than the institute in Central. Too, the thought of Winry finding out what he's doing with Ed makes him curdle even more than the thought of the anonymous nurse.
No, it's out of the question. They'll manage something, even without the State allotment. Al has been very good, and they have a fair amount saved. He can transmute any number of things from raw materials, although in the coming winter it will be harder and harder. But if he can just scrimp and save them through the winter, then, then...
Al sits down on the couch, legs going heavy on him, and stares at the bedroom door. Then what? How long can he struggle, can they limp along together?
"Brother?" he whispers, in the dimness. "What should I do? What am I supposed to do?"
No answer comes to him, no faded ghost. It's gone, and Al is alone. His brother is just in the next room, and he is utterly alone.
It's been two and a half years since he lost Ed, lost him to this half-life, this waking sleep, and Ed has hardly changed at all in over a year. He can move of his own volition, now, and express his wants, at least.
Simple tasks. Simple moves. Simple demands. Sweet, empty smiles. Where did his brother's brilliant mind go, his crackling energy, his driving will?
At least Ed recognizes his brother, and he loves him, and two years ago Al would have been so happy with just that. Wasn't that enough?
It's not enough. Salty, helpless tears pour over his cheeks when he closes his eyes in defeat. I want more. I want too much. I want what I'll never get from him again, and what I'm not allowed to have, I just take...
Maybe Ed will be better off without him, after all. Maybe Ed won't even miss Al, in the hospital, surrounded by nurses and doctors to care for him. And maybe Ed won't ask in the night for those sweet and forbidden things, or the nurses won't understand him when he does, and Al's betrayal need never be known.
Ed is lost to him, already lost to him forever. Maybe it's time to accept that, stop fighting it, and let him go.
The winter creeps by, with painful slowness. Al works. Ed is confused and hurt by his long absences, his newfound exhaustion, but is willing enough to warm his body until the wracking shivers ease. Their savings dwindle, but he keeps food on the table, keeps Ed fed. Happy. Well.
On the day of Edward's birthday, three months nearly to the day after Roy's visit, Al stumbles inside with a load of wet firewood for the stove, and nearly falls onto the couch for some rest.
Al, a voice whispers to him. Dreamlike.
No, you're gone, Al thinks to the ghost, grumpy. He wants to sleep. You haven't come around for months. You haven't been here. You haven't been here for me...
Wake up, Al.
Let me sleep. I know why Ed slept for so long, now. When everything becomes too much, it's the only thing left that you can do....
Al, wake up. I have something for you.
I don't want to wake up. I can only hear you when I'm asleep any more.
Silence. Then, something like a breath of a sigh. Something falls over him, light pressure that becomes no pressure that becomes warmth. By the time his sleeping mind registers that it's a blanket, the blanket is warm and the air is cool and empty.
Al wakes, with a start. Night has fallen while he dozed, and all the house's shutters are closed. He doesn't remember closing them. Shivering, Al pulls himself to his feet, and in a sudden breathless moment, runs for his brother's room.
Ed is not in his bed, sleeping or waiting for Al. Ed stands in front of the window, still wide open, with the frosty stars glittering in through the glass panes.
Al stumbles to a halt, heart in his mouth; Ed turns around, arms crossed over his chest, and his eyes are focused, thoughtful, aware, here. Al makes a noise that even he doesn't know the meaning of, and Ed meets his eyes, for the first time in two years, eight months, and twenty-seven bleeding days.
"I told you," Ed says softly, lips quirking up in a sad smile. "I didn't go anywhere, idiot. I'm right here."
Al's eyes fill with tears as though a switch has been flipped, and he throws himself into Edward's arms, which close gently around him. "I knew it," he sobs against Edward's chest, hands fisted in the light material of Ed's t-shirt. "I knew you'd come back, I knew you would. I never doubted it for a second."
"Liar," Ed calls him affectionately. His left hand smoothes through Al's hair, and Al buries himself more tightly against Ed, unable to keep from trembling.
"I'm sorry," Al says in a very small voice. "I—I did things to you, Brother—I shouldn't have, I know, but I wanted to so badly—"
"I know," Ed interrupted, and shrugged irritably. "Geez, Al. It's my body, I think I would have noticed. Trust me, all right. It's all right."
"I tried so hard to have faith," Al says, voice muffled against the shirt. "But—so many days—"
"Shh. It wasn't easy, I know." Al tilts back his tear-flooded face, and Ed grins, carefully thumbing the tears away from his eyes. "I was the one who had faith in you, Al."