People always told Ed that he got his looks from his father. If Al looked at the pictures their mother had kept for them, he was inclined to agree no matter how angry it made his brother: Al and his mother, standing side by side, were all pale skin and dark eyes and soft, rounded faces. A younger, smaller Ed had the same roundness of face (“so much baby fat,” their mother had teased), but underneath the fat there was a fundamental difference of bone structure between their faces. Ed’s face had always held the promise of sharpening into something hard and chiseled: like now, with his cheeks thin from pain, throwing the sharpness of his chin into sharp contrast.
From the mirror, Ed’s golden eyes narrowed. “What are you looking at, Al?” he asked, chin burrowing deep into his one hand: the picture of casual indifference.
Al shook himself to attention. “Sorry, brother,” he said, gathering up the strands of Ed’s hair he had dropped and running the brush through them again, then sweeping them back into their sections. “I was just noticing your face is different.”
Ed blinked and widened his eyes at himself; frowned and shrugged and gave an elaborate sigh. “Well, it happens,” he said, taking his chin off his hand. “How’s it coming?”
“I think it’s long enough to braid, now.” Experimentally, Al began twisting the sections together. “That’s good. It won’t be in your face anymore.”
“Mm. I haven’t noticed it.”
“Well, I did,” Al said decisively. He reached around the space where Ed’s arm should have been, plucked up a hair tie and wrapped it around the place where the braid tapered off. He released the little queue of hair and it bounced against Edward’s neck, golden against the line of pale skin. Al peered around Ed into the mirror and, pleased with what he saw, said, “See, isn’t that better, brother? I think I like you with long hair.”
“You’ll have to braid it for me, though.” Ed’s eyes in the mirror were unfathomable, like the gold in them had no substance. “I can’t do it myself.”
“U-um, yeah, of course I can do it for you.” Al rubbed his hands together, angry to have reminded his brother of his handicaps. Ed had been fiercely independent during his months of convalescing–he fixed his own food, dressed himself, walked alone without any supporting arms–but there were just some things that couldn’t be done with one arm, and it hurt whenever he saw Ed come up short like this. “Um.... are you tired? Do you want to rest?”
“No.” Ed looked at him over his shoulder and cracked his first smile of the day. “You hungry, Al? I could fix us some food. Chicken noodle, sandwiches, stew.... my cooking skills are expanding.”
Al rubbed the back of his head. “Are you sure, brother? If you’re tired, I can fix something.”
“Nah,” Ed said, dismissive. “Come on. I’ll make sandwiches.” He pulled himself to his foot, caught himself with his cane, then turned to Al and raised his eyebrows. Al remembered his mother had laughed once and said that Ed’s eyebrows were the most expressive part of him, even more than his loud mouth. “Let’s eat outside, too. I’ve got to get out of this house.”
Al perked up. He’d been cabin feverish, too; of course Ed would be even more so. “All right, brother.”
On their way to the kitchen, he surreptitiously offered his arm to Ed; and, looking straight ahead, Ed took it. But his eyebrows did raise, and he lowered his head to cover his smile. The part of Al that was not-armor warmed straight through.
Auntie Pinako had made Ed a prosthesis while she and Winry worked on his automail. It was skinny and didn’t support Ed’s weight well, but it was better than the cane he’d been using. While Al juggled their picnic basket, Ed strapped it on and heaved himself to his feet, testing his weight with a suspicious look. It held, and Ed graciously held the door open for Al on their way outside.
“Wow, it’s a nice day,” Al said. He stopped on the porch, struck by the light of the sun filtering through the trees and the glistening of the grass from dew. Behind him, Ed shuffled impatiently, then leaned against him.
“Come on, Al,” he finally said, pushing a little. “Let’s go to the bank, you’ll have a nice view there.”
They fell into step beside each other, Al being careful to go slowly and not pass his older brother. He could see that the grass was wet under Ed’s foot and that it irritated him–he kept picking his foot up and shaking it before moving on again–but Al wished, suddenly and wistfully, that he could feel it. When Ed had been really sick, too sick to get up from bed even, Winry and Pinako had taken him out during the evenings and in the mornings when it rained; getting him acclimated to the lack of feeling his armored body afforded him. He’d been mad, at first–even Ed with his new handicaps and his pain could still *feel* the sun on his face.
But Ed paid in different ways. Like now; he had stopped short a little ways behind Al and stood in the middle of the road, biting his lip.
“Brother,” said Al, stopping as well. “Are you all right?”
He saw Ed take a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said; shook out his leg and jogged a little to catch up with Al. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just needed to catch my breath–out of shape–Master would *kill* me....” He started babbling as they walked, as Ed tended to do, and Al smiled to himself and let him talk.
“Stupid chunk of wood... can’t wait until I get the automail... Ow! Stepped on a rock, didn’t think that would hurt.... You okay with holding all that, Al?”
“Sure,” Al said, shifting his burdens a little; Ed had made a lot of food. “It’s no problem, brother.”
“Let me get some of that,” Ed insisted. Al passed him one of the lighter sacks–the dessert sack–and he peered into it, a dreamy look softening his face. “Mm. Auntie Pinako is a bitch, but she makes good pies, eh, Al? Mmmm, I can’t wait to eat!”
“Me either,” said Al, and wished he could smile.
But Ed’s smile, beaming and brilliant, almost made up for it as they sat down at the edge of the river bank and spread out their prizes. One-handed, Ed arranged all the food, neatly halving everything–two tiny sandwiches for Al and two for Ed, a larger sandwich for the both of them, and a pie each. Ed stretched out his legs and began the arduous process of eating, which, like writing, had been a trial to re-learn: Ed was right-handed. “Oh, God,” Ed said, sighing around a mouthful of food, grinning up at Al. “Damn, this is good. Didn’t think I had it in me, did ya, Al?” He blinked, smile faltering slightly. “Hey, aren’t you hungry? Why aren’t you eating?”
“Umm....” Al rubbed the back of his helmet. He’d meant to say something but Ed had been so determined, so anxious to be useful, to create something. He could see his brother grow more and more disgusted with himself every day the healing process stretched out longer and longer, leaving him still stranded in bed, too easily tired to go out and fish or play with Al. “Well....” Hesitantly, he shoved one of his sandwiches over to Ed. “Here, you have it. You can have my pie, too– Brother....”
Ed’s head had ducked down, long hair covering his eyes. He set down his sandwich and reached up with his hand to rub his face, so hard that for a second Al thought, stupidly, he might be scratching his eyes out. “No,” his brother said, and sweeping aside his food, stood suddenly. He tottered on the prosthetic leg and then caught himself, looked hard at Al, and shook his head. “Fuck!” he shouted. Al could see his fist clenching tight enough to leave marks in the pale skin. “Fuck....”
“Brother,” Al whispered, trying to muster up a stern tone in the face of this fury. “You shouldn’t say things like that.”
Ed blinked at him, then snorted. His shoulders fell down from their defensive line and he rubbed his eyes with his arm, wearily. “Who cares? Mother isn’t around to hear.” He knelt down and began gathering up the food. “Come on, let’s go. It’s getting cold.”
“Mother isn’t around,” Al insisted, catching his arm. “But I am. I don’t like hearing you talk like–like this, brother. There’s nothing to get so mad about.”
“No?” Ed scowled, eyebrows gathering together like a dusty storm cloud. “What isn’t there to get mad about? I’m a cripple, and you–god.”
Startled, Al let him go. Edward grabbed the food and stuffed it back into the picnic basket with none of the care he’d shown the first time– “You have to put the pies on top,” he’d said, grinning over his shoulder at Al, “or else they’ll taste like fish.”
“Brother....” You’re not a cripple, Al wanted to say, but looking at Ed as he moved around awkwardly with one hand, watching the obvious pain on his face as his leg rubbed against the prosthesis–Al wished he was three again, and didn’t even know what a cripple was.
“It’s all right, though,” said Ed, closing the basket with a soft snap. “It’s not so bad, and it’ll be even better once the automail are finished. And then, Al, then I’ll become a Nationally Certified Alchemist and I’ll find the Stone and I’ll get you your body back, no matter what.”
There was nothing to say to that. But Ed’s hand was shaking on the picnic basket, and Al didn’t think it was from pain. Maybe Ed was remembering Easter, and how Winry had used to tease them and pretend to hide the eggs, but she really hadn’t and there weren’t any eggs to find at all.
“Here, you big lug.” Ed tossed the basket at him; Al caught it out of reflex. “Let’s go, really. Looks like it might rain,” he said, jerking his head at the sky.
“Yeah.” The wind was already picking up; Al imagined that it must hold the hint of moisture to it, too, from the way Ed’s hair was starting to flatten. “Here, brother,” he said; “take my arm.”
It began to rain halfway to the Rockbells’, but they went slowly anyway so Ed wouldn’t trip.
They went to bed early that evening. Pinako had grabbed Ed’s chin in her hand and turned his face this way and that, and said with narrowed eyes, “You’re tired, shorty, and you’re in pain. Get your butt in bed and maybe you’ll gain a few inches.”
After the obligatory arm-waving and shouting and insult-throwing, Al had dragged Ed to bed, and they sat on their beds across from each other. This was Al’s favorite part of the day, the one most like when they’d been kids: supposed to be sleeping but really sitting up and talking to each other, sharing confidences that seemed to disappear into the dark.
“Bad storm outside,” Ed noted, untying his prosthesis carefully and shoving it under the bed so he wouldn’t trip over it in the morning. “You think the river’ll flood?”
Al glanced outside, enough to see that the rain hadn’t let up one bit, and shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe. I hope the roads won’t be too bad for travelers.”
Ed grunted. He crossed his arm across his back and stretched out his leg, a relieved look on his face. “Ahhh. Man, that thing’s a killer.”
Stretching out across the bed, Al watched him. Ed’s face was less tight than usual, and he didn’t move so stiffly as he folded back his covers and slid under them. “Good night, brother.”
“Good night, Al,” said Ed, turning off the light.
Sleep proper was a thing for bodies, as Al had discovered; so his nighttimes were passed in a light doze, mostly awake but sleeping enough not to be bored the whole night. He regularly heard and registered nighttime noises–Auntie Pinako moving in her bed, Winry getting up for a glass of water–but he was more asleep this night, maybe because the rain was lulling, so he didn’t hear the sounds next to him at first.
When he did, he thought he might be dreaming–or re-living a memory, because Ed’s screams sounded so like that night. But eventually it registered that they sounded very real, too loud and grating for a memory, and then Al realized who was screaming. Jolting out of bed (and probably waking the whole house up, in between the clangs and the screams), he turned on the light and shook Ed’s shoulder, lightly at first then harder when Ed’s face only twisted. “Brother!” he whispered. “Brother, it’s all right, it was just a dream....”
Ed took a deep, rasping breath; that woke him up. He sat up in bed and looked around the room with glinting desperation in his eyes; but he must have not seen what he was looking for, because he relaxed back in bed and shut his eyes tight against the light. “Al....”
“It’s okay, brother,” Al said again. “You were just dreaming.”
Ed just groaned. Then he opened his eyes a crack, peeking at Al.
“What were you dreaming about?” Al asked, letting go of his shoulder. He folded himself on the floor beside Ed’s bed, close enough to be a comfort but not to stifle. “Was it....” He hesitated. “That night?”
Ed nodded, eyes going dull. “Yeah,” he said finally; “it was that night. You were gone, and my leg... and Mother was.....” He shuddered so hard the bed shook. Al moved a little closer. “It was terrible,” Ed finished in a whisper.
For a while, the only sound in the room was Ed’s breaths and the rainfall on the window–a harsh sound and a light, pattering sound. Then Ed looked at him and smiled slightly. “Don’t look so worried, Al. It’s stupid. I’m all right now.”
“It’s not stupid!” Al said fiercely. “It was horrible. I would dream about it, too.”
Ed’s eyes moved toward the window. “It’s still raining, eh?” He heaved himself up on his elbow, biting his lip, then releasing it and stilling his face. “Hey, Al? Do me a favor.”
Ed nodded at the window. “I wanna go outside. Do your big brother a favor and carry me out, would you? I, um, couldn’t stand putting that prosthesis on again,” he said, grimacing.
Al blinked, struck by the request. It was so unlike Ed to ask for assistance, or even to admit that he needed help. The dream must have been terrible. “Sure, brother,” he said softly. “Let’s sit on the porch and watch the storm.”
In the end, there was no way to do it that could save Ed his pride or reduce the absurdity of the younger brother carrying the older. Al held out his arms and Ed maneuvered himself into them; he fit perfectly into the cradle of Al’s arms, like he had that night, and Al berated himself for but couldn’t stop a flush of pride that he could help Ed in this one way.
Also, the fact that he was bigger now was nice.
Al stepped quietly through the house, because somehow they hadn’t woken Auntie or Winry, and he wanted to keep it that way. In his arms, Ed was so quiet Al thought he might have fallen asleep. “Are you all right, brother?” he whispered, balancing Ed against one arm as he opened the screen door.
“Fine–hey, there’s Den. Let him outside, Al.” Ed whistled to the dog and soon Den came trotting up, wagging his tail at them.
As quietly as he could, Al closed the door and turned to the porch. “Oh, no,” he said. “The porch is wet. Brother, you can’t sit on that.”
“Den doesn’t mind. I don’t either.” Ed glared up at him. “Al. Put me down.”
“Nooo, brother!” Al tightened his arms defensively. “You’ll get a cold. You can’t get a cold on top of everything!”
Ed opened his mouth; then seemed to realize the futility of shouting, or trying to change Al’s mind, and he settled down in Al’s arms with a grumble. “It’s cold,” he complained, wiggling his foot.
“You wanted to come out here, brother.”
“Yeah? You got a problem with it?” Ed whistled to the dog again; Den came up and snuggled against Al’s knees, rested his chin on Ed’s stomach. Ed reached out and petted his head, eyes on the storm.
The sky was swollen with gray clouds; only patches of the night sky were showing. The rain almost looked like mist, turning their little town into a rainforest or a jungle, all green and gray and blue with dark spires rising above. “It’s so pretty,” Al said. “It almost doesn’t look like Rizen Pool anymore.”
“Mmm.” Ed’s foot was jiggling.
“Brother,” Al said patiently, “you can never be still. Come on, watch the storm.”
“I’m watching, I’m watching.”
Lightning flashed; Den went to his feet, barking at it with the fury only a dog can manage. Grinning, Ed ruffled his ears, said, “You won’t let anything happen to us, will you, Den?”
“The only people who can stop things from happening to us is ourselves,” said Al. More lightning was flashing in the background, but he was listening more to the thunder rolling in from the hills, bringing with it fresh sheets of rain.
Ed’s face tightened. “We don’t need anyone else to take care of us.” He looked up at Al with a fierce expression. “Don’t ever think we do.”
Ed looked so strong, somehow; it was the first time he’d looked anything but overwhelmingly vulnerable, and even with his body so much smaller with his missing leg and arm, Al found himself believing. Like if he couldn’t take care of himself, it didn’t matter, because his brother would pick up the slack. Things hadn’t really changed, he guessed, just how they looked at things, because it’d always been them two taking care of each other.
“I know, brother,” said Al, shifting Ed into a more comfortable position. “I’ll take care of you.”
“Heh.” Ed grinned suddenly, and thumped his metal chest. “I’ll take care of you, too, Alphonse.”
Den settled his head on Ed’s stomach again, and they spent the rest of the night watching the storm rage itself to an end.