Alphonse Elric dreams.
He doesn't eat, or breathe, not anymore. He knows that sugar is twelve parts carbon to eleven parts water, and he knows too that once he liked candy. But he can't remember now what 'sweet' was, how it spread over his tongue and made him smile. He can't remember what it was like to breathe air, rank with chemicals or the fresh ozone scent before a rainstorm. Not how it felt to draw in a breath until his chest swelled against his tunic, nor the dull ache that comes of holding it too long, for all that he remembers clearly competing with his brother--and Ed always won, bursting out of the water with his face blue, while Al would already be flopped on the river bank, panting.
He doesn't remember what it was like to sleep, not as he used to, once, the darkness that comes when the lids drop heavy over the eyes. He doesn't sleep, not exactly. But he still dreams.
He doesn't know how that's possible. At first he didn't even realize that it was something unusual. Too much else happening, those first days, when Ed only might have survived, and he was new to this body that isn't a body at all, a shell without meat, fruit without a seed. When, exhausted--in mind only, never in body again--he slumped on the floor, his back to the wall he couldn't feel, watching his brother's face, white in the moonlight, and the stained bandages seemed black.
He thought he might be falling, but he landed somewhere soft, and he heard his mother's voice, and Ed's, and he was so happy and relieved that he didn't consider it, just walked with them, on a long twilit road. And then there was sunlight bright in his vision--he could look directly at the sun now and it would not sting, and he could not blink--and Ed lay on the bed, his bandages red but his eyes open, oblique gold, as he tried to push himself up with an arm that wasn't there. His voice was so hoarse it was hardly a hiss, asking, "Al? Are you there? Al?"
He stood, so tall he almost bumped his head against the ceiling rafter, and the metal joints clinked and clanged against one another. "I'm here," he said, but his voice didn't sound like his own, higher than he thought it was, resounding strangely from some unknown place. But Ed, hearing it, relaxed down onto the bed. Later he would cry, later he would apologize, over and again, in words and deeds and everything else he could manage. But then, that first dawn, he just sighed, "You're there," before falling back asleep.
Since then, Al has learned he doesn't need to sit, that he can slip from the waking world as easily upright, and the armor will stand silent and empty as any object. He lies down at night, on beds too small for that massive frame, only because he wants to, because his brother does. Because that he still can do, for all the things he can't.
He doesn't know how he can dream, when dreams--so the current science understands--are just the firing of random synapses, and he has none. Perhaps he's not really dreaming at all, and sometimes he'd like to believe that. That maybe what he thinks are dreams are more than misplaced fragments of will and memory, that his soul flies to true realities. That when he sees his mother, as she was, alive, smiling, holding him, it really is his mother, from before.
Ed awakes screaming, some nights. For months he won't, and then something will happen, and he will, for a couple days, or a week, shouting for their mother, shouting for Al. Even if Ed, after he yells himself conscious or Al shakes awake, refuses to talk about the nightmares, Al knows those cries. If it's not that, it's Nina, or Barry the Chopper, or something else identifiable, but usually it's that.
He remembers when they were little, that sometimes Ed would have nightmares of monsters chasing him, and Mother would have to hold him until he fell back asleep. But Ed doesn't run from monsters anymore.
And Al has no nightmares, for all he remembers that night so vividly. The sharp, quick twinge when his brother nicked his finger with the knife is the only true pain he still remembers. But only awake, never in his dreams.
In his dreams he laughs a lot. In his dreams his mother is often there, and Ed. They'll be in sunlight, eating fruit or lying in the grass or running to Winly's. And sometimes there's strong arms picking him up--he's so small he can be easily held, and there's a deep voice in his ears, a male voice he almost recognizes.
Sometimes, though, there's other dreams. He's not small in those. He's tall, looking at everything from almost as high as he sees the world now. He's shaking Colonel Mustang's hand, and he feels the roughness of the fire-cloth glove against his skin, the firmness of the Colonel's grip as the man smiles up at him.
When Ed hugs him it feels wrong, a little, off-balanced, because half of him is supple flesh and the other half hard metal, but Al's used to it, so that there's only a little pang of guilt. And Ed's grin is cockier than ever but real, and there's no pain shadowing his eyes.
Then the doctor smiles at him with more than just professional politeness and gestures him into the room, but he freezes up, so that Ed has to give him a hard shove toward the door, almost rocking him off his feet, "C'mon, you gotta go first!"
So he does, and she's in the bed, sitting up, her hair a tangle around her face like a golden sweat-slicked halo. She grins at him, starts to stand up but the midwife pushes her down impatiently, so Al goes over instead, looks down into the bundle she holds. Such a little thing, red and patted dry, so light when he takes the baby into his arms. She hardly weighs more than the blankets swaddling her, and yet she's heavier than gold, more beautiful than the most precious stone. All his or his brother's skill in alchemy could not make this, and yet without him she wouldn't be at all.
He's sitting on the bed and his wife nestles close, warm against his side, and as he looks down at the tiny face scrunching in the blankets, his cheeks ache from the width of his smile, and there's a stinging in his eyes.
He blinks to clear them, and when he opens them again, there's only darkness. He can hear the wind whistling outside, blowing in winter's first storm, and the curtains stir in the draft through the shutters, but he feels no chill.
When he raises his hand to his face, he sets the metal helmet ringing. In the dark room he studies the leather glove, but there's no moisture staining the fingers.
"Al." In the other bed, Ed is sitting up, watching him.
Al wonders if he spoke in his sleep. If he cried out without knowing it, or if the moving of the armor disturbed Ed. Or if Ed woke on his own.
"Did you have a bad dream?" Ed asks, calm, concerned. At night, alone with only the two of them in this room, he's still the big brother.
"No," Al says, honestly.
Even if there were tears on that steel faceplate, he couldn't feel them. But he knows there aren't any for Ed to see.
In the dream he knew the salt water burned his eyes, but he can't remember what it felt like, even though it was only moments ago. Or maybe years to come. Or maybe just something he made up. But now, awake, he can't even imagine them.
He could tell Ed. And Ed could give him the tears he can't make, so he could see them, and he would know they were hot, and taste of salt, and sting in his brother's eyes.
"Al," Ed says. "Tell me."
Ed knows he dreams, but not what. And it's not fair, that Ed should have such terrible dreams and he does not. There's no reason he should want to cry, not when he can feel no pain, and Ed hurts so much. Not fair, that Ed alone should suffer, when he is just as guilty. Ed paid for his own sins long past, and now is atoning for Al's, because he cannot, and it will never be fair. He doesn't deserve tears.
"It's nothing, niisan," Al replies. "I can't remember what I dreamed."