A/N: Warning: Spoilers for the series up to episode 30, but nothing too pronounced.
Al knows that his brother really, really hates it when his height is taken note of, but the same sentiment probably does not work in reverse. Stubbiness in a fifteen-year-old boy is not unheard of. Ed is far from a dwarf, and his hormones still appear to have all their raging tendencies, so he is certain to gain another two feet (no pun intended, Al manages to think in surprise,) eventually. But to be fourteen, two heads taller than a grown man, and completely made of metal – impossible, but that's what Al is. It's painful, because it's too obvious, too glaring, too easy a reminder of what he no longer is: boyhood, breath, flesh and bone.
His feet sound like tin pans against any flooring but grass, and even when he sits and laces his fingers together he is sharply aware that his hands shouldn't be that big. Nobody's hands should be. But there is already enough ache between him and his brother without anything being voiced, and the hurt isn't bad enough that he wants to worry Ed about it. So he never mentions it – but he still has the grace to blush when they mistake him as the older brother, even if no one else can imagine the tint of red on steel, the empty heat that rises from inside an old suit of armor.
He has become very good at keeping things inside. He had, from the moment he woke up and found himself encased in the armor, holding huge hands in front of his eyes and feeling the ground too far below him. He heard his brother screaming in the room next door (nerve to metal; he only learned afterwards that it had been an arm in exchange for Al's life), and immediately resolved not to say anything. Just the same, the first few weeks were unbearable; he wanted to drink, wanted to eat and weep and bleed, anything was better than nothing.
When Winry and Auntie Pinako were occupied, sorting out screws and bolts while Ed lay pale-faced on the bed, Al slipped away to the kitchen and filled a glass of water, raising it to lips that he suddenly could not find. The hatch of the armor's jawplate opened. He could feel the screws on the back of his neck lift the clamp to accommodate water he could no longer swallow – it dropped down inside him, straight into his stomach (not even a stomach, a torso), the liquid amplifying the metal's coolness nearly a hundredfold. He dropped the glass he was holding and it shattered on the kitchen floor even as leaks sprung all over his chest (not chest, armor). He clanked heavily onto one knee (he weighed a ton, maybe more), trying to seal his torso with one arm and scribbling a pentacle on the floor next to the broken glass, stop making a racket,
...but he already had. Winry stood at the kitchen door, twisting hesitant little hands into her sundress. It was Al, she knew it was, but until the last week they had nearly been the same height.
"Don't worry about the glass, Al," she offered, and then she was crying again, she had been crying so much those days.
By then his armor had completely emptied out, and there were puddles on the floor to make up for the tears that could not come.
More than his height, more than Roy smirking, more than the Homunculus going after them or the memory of his father, Ed hates himself. He hates himself every moment of the day, when he wakes up in the morning and stretches out all the creaks in his joints; when he stares out at the distance and sees nothing; the last few moments before sleep when he isn't paying attention to all the truths he tells Al. He hates being a dog of the military. He hates having lost Nina. He hates the traces of blood on his fingertips (I've washed them a hundred times, Al, he says with an eerie, floaty, voice, but the marks never leave). He hates himself for being careless, for gambling all that he had for something he had already lost.
He earned it back at his own expense, but Al will not let him shoulder that blame alone.
I did not stop him, he declares, but only inwardly. If he said so aloud, Ed would object; Ed would shake his head and squeeze his hands and say you have nothing to be sorry for. But Al does, because he has always been the calmer one, the more sensible one, the one who could honestly voice his thoughts without any anger. There were so many warning signs. Sensei telling them so was one, all the studies left by their father was another. Why didn't they mind when they knew it was forbidden, taboo, unheard of? Ed couldn't have noticed, not through his proud, one-track golden eyes. But Al could have, and did. It was impossible to bring the dead back to life.
And he had still believed.
Twitching on the floor with eyes that bulged like a swollen infection and her mouth where her mouth should not have been, her limbs where her limbs should not have been and veins all over her flesh – then the image was torn because hands were grabbing at Al and dragging him into the darkness, where he discarded his skin and his memories and almost his soul until Ed tugged that back for him (offering his heart, he learned. And both arms).
He risked too much.
The guilt passes from brother to brother as if it were a disease carved into their cells – one a fusion of metal, the other half-human composition.
The sun sets low over Central one day, when Ed is particularly bummed about his height. He scowls at the street with his lower lip jutting out, eyebags deep against his face. The insult was simply the stick that broke his back, of course – it's the work taking its toll on him, the burden that no one so young should have to carry. Even Roy, smirking over his laced fingers and letting the word measly slip from his tongue, should know that. Al sits from his brother at a distance, wary of the state alchemist's mood. The Mood. The sort that usually reaches its climax with something being thrown into Al's face – a teacup, maybe, flour.
It doesn't hurt physically, it doesn't even dent the metal, but it feels like a slap to his face just the same, and he knows the backlash stings Ed, too. He seethes with self-contempt, golden head between his hands, I'm sorry, Al, mouth covered in creases, you would have been hurt, I just...I can't...
Alphonse never holds it against him. "I would have ducked, brother," Is his usual retort.
"It's all right, don't worry about it." is another, slightly less-inspired one.
The silence lengthens.
"I'm sure," Al offers, after a spell, "That if I were in my own body I wouldn't be that tall, either."
Ed twists back to look at him, peering from eyes that are nearly devoid of cheer, ringed with dark circles. For a moment they look so unbearably empty that Al almost turns his head away – and then they flicker, a little, and some life springs back into them. It softens into something suspiciously close to a gaze, and Ed looks at his little brother with regret but what might also be – and Al wishes with all his heart it is – hope. Suddenly all of Ed's real anger dissipates, and is replaced by the usual lazy irritation. He leans his head back on the cradle of his arms, closes his eyes and smiles, thinking.
"We were mostly the same height growing up, you know. You were a little bit taller when we started training under Izumi-san, even." He pauses to yawn. "I've read somewhere, there's a trend going on nowadays: older sibling syndrome. We tend to get the recessive gene for shortness." He pulls himself upright, dusts the seat of his pants.
"But don't get so smug just yet." He grins up at Al. "We'll be able to check for ourselves someday, right? We'll stand back to back and someone can judge who really is taller, and you're not allowed to go on tiptoe." He says that last line with a kind of childish bossiness that Al hasn't heard in a while – the tone makes him utter what might be a giggle (and he is promptly horrified at himself – boys at fourteen shouldn't giggle), so he stifles it right away.
"Of course, niisan," And suddenly the mood has passed, and it's all right.
It will be all right.
Al comes down the last few steps to stand with his brother. Together they watch the sun drown between the buildings, lashing out a last streak of red between the gray.
In his dream, there is a cat. He cradles it in a hand that is splotchy and colorless – like the light that emanates from a transmutation, he notes with studious care – one moment he thinks the hand might be covered in flesh, the next it has melted to bone, then been fused with steel. The cat doesn't seem to mind. It is peaceful, it is purring, and after a moment it wriggles out of his repeated stroking to lap up a bowl of milk, which is, to Al's mild interest, located in his own stomach. After a while the cat turns and jumps away from him, tipping the bowl so that it sloshes around in Al's belly – he reaches out an arm and tries to chase after the cat, but his feet are too heavy to move and something has started to hurt inside.
He looks inward (certainly a dream, he assures himself), and he sees the milk has turned into seawater and the seawater has turned into rust, rippling over the iron and making it hard and crimson and corroded. It spreads over him from the inside out until even his formless, colorless hands are rust, and then it starts to deteriorate – crumbling into powder and fading and aching. And Al is gone.
He rolls out of bed as he stumbles back into consciousness, causing a din against the wooden floor before he can scramble upright and declare himself not guilty. The blanket he throws across himself not for warmth, but for sentimental reasons, has fluttered to the ground beside him. He hears the sound of metal rattling – it's his arms, he realizes, and his legs. He curls up and lets himself shake, even as Ed sits up on his bed and rubs his eyes.
"Are you all right?"
He's afraid to speak – he doesn't want his voice to tremble. His brother knows something is wrong, and goes down on his knees beside him. "What's wrong, Al?"
He manages to shake his head, say it's nothing, say it's nothing, but the silly thing that comes out is, "I dreamt I turned into rust."
Ed is quiet for a long time. Then he leans his head against his younger brother's silver arms and starts to cry, whispering furious apologies under his breath, punctuated by gasps and hiccups.
"I am sorry, Al, so sorry, it was all my fault, this is all my fault, and we keep hitting dead ends all over the place..."
For a moment Al is tempted to break down with him – scream until his own head rings with the echo, smash things up with his indestructible body, tear a wall down, transmute them both again, damn the philosopher's stone, stop his reflexive politeness. Run away. Give up.
But we've come too far, his mind - if he still has one - whispers, trying to counter the hysteria. If we give up now we'll have nothing to live for, anymore.
And I don't want to stay this way.
He remembers his mother, twitching on the floor with eyes that bulged like a swollen infection and her mouth where her mouth should not have been, her limbs where her limbs should not have been and veins all over her flesh, but she wasn't always like that. She wasn't. She had a sweet smile and a face like an angel and there was no kind of pain that she couldn't overcome, no sort of sadness that she couldn't ease away with a hug and – he swallowed – a glass of milk.
He shifts until Ed is against his chest, and then he puts a big hand on his brother's head carefully, smoothing the hair down gently – like the cat not too long ago, he muses (and it's a wonder that furry things don't run from him, not dogs or cats or birds, despite the way he looks now). He does so until his brother has stopped sobbing, stopped apologizing under his breath. They've both learned patience by then. It pleads no sacrifice.
Al can keep the hurt inside – there's a lot of hollow space, after all – but there isn't enough in Ed's tiny frame. He knows this because his brother has always had the passion to rage, at least; the strength to hate and seethe. Now he's just weak and world-beaten, and Al can't stand to see him frightened. Ed's the one shouldering most of the outside burdens – the threat of Scar, the power that the Homunculus want to exploit, the arm that he lost in exchange for the blood seal on Alphonse's armor, the silver watch that binds him to the laws of the military.
It's the least he can do.
"Come on, niisan, it's all right. It was just a dream." He forces his words to be even.
Ed looks up into the suit of armor, and there are two bright points in his brother's non-face, the only light in the darkness swelling up inside.
"Besides," He continues, and his voice is so small inside that shell, so quiet and sincere that there's nothing real enough to hold it,
"There's salt in tears."
A/N: I remember Al being taller than Ed in episode 28 (All is One, One is All). Also, for some reason I can't seem to replace the honorifics in Izumi-san (Teacher Izumi just wouldn't cut it), and Al's use of niisan. Ack. :D In any case, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.