"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that."
Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Ed had once asked him if he could sleep in that armor.

"Not really," Al had answered. "But I can still dream."

And dream is what Alphonse Elric did every night since his and his brother's experiment with human alchemy. The dreams were always the same: both brothers whole again, looking and feeling completely human. Sometimes it felt like those dreams were all that were keeping him going; on those nights when the Elrics returned to the hotel after a long day of false leads and failures, the promise of the Philosopher's Stone hung in front of them to keep them going, keep them chasing.

Once Ed had him back to normal, Al would immediately return him to normal as well. That was the promise they'd made. But after that… Al didn't have anything in mind, but he couldn't wait until he could feel the sun on his face and the cool breeze at his back. The next time they were in Central, he'd be able to play with little Elicia Hughes without feeling clumsy and awkward. If she asked him why he wasn't wearing his armor anymore, he'd simply answer that he no longer needed it.

Granted, they didn't have an explanation ready for when Ed got his real limbs back instead of his automail, but they'd worry about that later, when the time finally came.

Tasting would be another welcome sensation. On his first birthday after they'd tried to resurrect their mother, Al had felt more uncomfortable than anything else. Birthdays before Mom had died were small, but always festive. Mom would bake a cake, and Winry, Pinako, and Den came over to celebrate. Den always had his own small cake for some reason Al couldn't remember, but it had always made Ed and Winry laugh. Now, Al chose to forgo celebrating his birthday. How could he celebrate the way he did when he was human? But once he had his body back, maybe he and Ed would throw a party. Maybe they'd get Gracia Hughes to bake them one of her cakes, which Ed said were delicious. Then they could invite Pinako and Winry (and Den, of course). It would be just like old times when the brothers and Winry were little. Just like old times—before the experiment, before Ed decided to become a State Alchemist to research a way to get back their bodies.

Probably more than the sensation of being human, Al wanted for Ed to finally be able to leave the military. Pinako had warned them when it all started that they would become dogs of the military, and Al didn't like seeing Ed have to do all that he did. The Full Metal Alchemist may have been a hero to the common people, but being a hero wasn't always what it appeared to be. Too many times they'd come back battered and broken, and too often he'd seen the pain in Ed's eyes at seeing the suffering of others. He'd been doing a lot to fix things, but he needed the fixing sometimes.

It was a classic example of Equivalent Exchange: Brother had the power to help the innocents, but he had to lose his own innocence in the process. Nothing was ever without sacrifices, no matter what anyone said.

He could see it in his brother's eyes every time they discussed their common dream. Every time he'd mentioned that Ed would no longer be the military's lap dog, Ed had gotten a half-crazy gleam in his eyes with the thought of finally telling the Lieutenant Colonel that he quit. Al warned him each time to choose his words carefully for when that time came, out of fear of Ed provoking Mustang to use his flame alchemy. But even that couldn't kill Ed's enthusiasm about it, and he kept plotting ways to "finally bring that pompous, immoral ass down off his high horse." Al just hoped he didn't have to carry Ed's charred body out of the office when that happened.

There were good people in the military too, and with any luck, the world wouldn't need a Full Metal Alchemist, hero of the common people anymore. The people that were tired of being taken advantage of were now standing up to their corrupt leaders. In only a couple of years, the country was already starting to make changes in the way it was being run. If things kept continuing this way, the common people weren't going to need a military hero. They'd be their own heroes. But they'd still see Ed as a hero in their eyes. Al knew because he did and always had. And he knew he always would.

There was no way around it. Ed was a hero. It wasn't just because he actually followed the State Alchemists' motto, "Be thou for the people," and didn't exploit people. It wasn't just because he'd sacrificed his own arm to attach Al to the armor in order to save his life. All of those were part of his heroic side, but it wasn't the main reason. Ed was a hero because he didn't give up, even when everyone else thought the situation to be a hopeless cause. He kept right on searching for the Philosopher's Stone for Al. He'd do anything for his little brother, and Al would do anything for his big brother. That bond between them had been strong when they were younger, but now it was even stronger, now that they were all they had left. Pinako and Winry were family too, but not in the same way. Ed and Al would do anything for their sakes too, but the bond wasn't as strong. They hadn't spent years with them, wandering from place to place, chasing after their dreams. In those four years, Ed had become a true hero in Al's eyes, and there was no way that would ever change.

Maybe when it was all over, they could wander the country a bit, help others who need it. They didn't have to be State Alchemists to do that. And maybe they could visit Risembool again. It would be nice to see everyone again and not feel out of place by trying to keep their mistake secret. And maybe then, they could find a place they could really call home.

"Al! Al, no!" Ed suddenly shouted. He was thrashing in his bed, screaming and sobbing. "Al, I'm so sorry…"

"Brother!" Al cried, immediately coming to his big brother's rescue. He shook Ed awake, but he still seemed to be trapped in his dream. His pupils were narrow and staring at nothing as he tried to gulp in the air. Finally, he seemed to recognize where he was and looked up at Al with tears in his eyes. "Brother, what is it?"

"Nothing," Ed managed to reply. "It was nothing, Al. Just a nightmare."

"Was it about that night?" Al asked.

"Like I said, it was nothing," Ed answered, getting back under the covers and turning toward the wall. "We have to head for Liore in the morning, so both of us need to rest. If it bothers me again, I'll let you know."

"All right," Al agreed hesitantly. But he knew his brother wasn't going to. He'd been having nightmares often enough over the past few years, and he kept promising to tell Al the next time he had one. But he never did.

That was another reason Al wanted to find the Philosopher's Stone and return his brother to normal again. He hoped that the return of his body would put Ed's mind at ease and stop the nightmares. But to do that, he'd have to put his dreaming on hold for a while and concentrate on reality, the reality of trying to obtain the Stone. And that was why they were going to Liore—to see if the rumors of a Stone there were true. Once they were close to it would he start dreaming again.

But in a way, Alphonse didn't know whether to pity or envy Edward. His brother had nightmares as he tried to live each day. All Al had left were his dreams.

I do not own Full Metal Alchemist or any of the characters. As you can see, it's meant to take place just before the first episode (technically, before the scene in a later episode where we see Ed chasing a cab driver all across the desert while Al tells him that they'll never get to Liore at this rate). The reference to Den having a cake of his own came from Winry and Ed's reminiscing in episode 23, "Fullmetal Heart." This idea basically resulted from a post on my friend Ava's (Acey Dearest on FFN) Live Journal, about the amount of angst in the fanfiction in this section. I decided to go for a slightly hopeful fic with a bittersweet end. The Dumbledore quote was ironically appropriate, so I decided to use it, but the part about the "Philosopher's Stone hanging in front of them to keep them going" was inspired by another quote, one from the character Raistlin Majere in the book series Dragonlance about hope being "the denial of reality" and comparing it to a carrot held in front of a horse to get it to move forward.

I'd like to get some feedback as to how you really think I did, if there's anything I could improve on or if there's something you really liked. I like knowing how well I've done and if anyone has any suggestions.