Author's Note: Kinda plotless and babbly, but I generally
like to wallow in brotherliness, so I figured other people who liked to
might like to read this anyway. I was trying to play with atmosphere
mostly. It was good practise, at least. Sorry for the rambliness of this.
It kinda drags on in some places. This would go right before they go to
Lior and find out about Cornello the fraud. Should fit into both the manga
Brotherly bonds rock. :O
No fancharacters or pairings. Thanks for looking!
Travel was nothing short of a dreary thing sometimes, and the Elrics dealt with it almost ever single day. Ever since Ed had joined the military, it seemed like all they did was drift from town to town, doing whatever dirty work Mustang had decided to throw on them, or looking for leads on their precious but elusive Philosopher's Stone. Of course, the search yielded nothing more often than not, but they had little to go back to besides an irate colonel or a rural country town they hadn't stopped by since they'd left in the first place.
Autumn was settling briskly over the towns. Edward Elric was in one of those moods again, too much so to pay much heed to the bright colors that were spreading across the tree leaves like gradual flame. He was mad and disappointed, but it was a depressing kind of disappointment. It was a disappointment that was eating at him because every time he and Al failed again, he had to realize all over that the Philosopher's Stone was not easy to find. Leads were hard to come by, and the one they'd gotten recently had seemed reasonable. It was all for naught, though. It had led them to a dead end. Ed was never the type to express visible sadness. He masked it with his frustration and anger, and pretended he wasn't torn inside over the thought of another snowfall this winter that he and Al wouldn't be able to enjoy properly.
The inn wasn't very pleasant. It was a little dreary on the outside, and could use a good coat of paint. The words Granite Sky were painted in big block letters in peeling silver paint on a sign above the doorway. The wooden floor creaked as Ed and Al proceeded over it, passing the darkened fireplace to go up the stairs. They'd spent the last two days there, and Ed didn't throw the manager so much as a glance as he walked by moodily. This day sucked, period.
Their room wasn't much of a welcoming sight, either. The ceiling was just barely eight feet up, which bothered Al, because this meant the door was low, too, and he had to duck just to get through it. Ed slammed the door bitterly and tossed his collection of papers toward the desk in the corner. They weren't clipped together, and the small wave of white sheets went fluttering around, landing on the floor just shy of the chair. He sunk onto the bed in a huff, resting his chin in his hand. Alphonse regarded him carefully for a moment before crouching to collect the stray papers and trying to put them back in order atop the desk. He tapped them twice to straighten the stack and set it down on the corner. Those papers had been all the information about their most recent lead… and failure.
Having managed to quietly clean up the only result of his brother's frustration (thankfully…) Al sat down silently opposite him. He moved slower than usual to avoid making any noise, but even Ed was aware the armor desperately needed some oil, and it creaked as he sat down.
"Somebody up there hates us," Ed mumbled quietly, his face still resting against his hand. "You'd think if there was a God he would try to be nice to us once in awhile."
"You shouldn't say that," Al replied softly. He knew well enough that his brother had given up on religion a long time ago, saying that scientists didn't believe in things as improvable as God, but Al had never whole-heartedly believed that to be the only reason. "We'll get another lead, Ed..."
"Yeah, after the colonel screams my ear off." He sighed. The idea of reporting back to Colonel Mustang to offer a feeble explanation of their failure for the umpteenth time didn't appeal to him by any means. "I'm sick of this."
Alphonse couldn't help but feel dejected on Edward's behalf. They were both tired and frustrated, but they had nothing left to do but keep looking. He wished Ed could have a break. He never seemed to permit himself one. "You should take a break, brother," Al offered. "We could go somewhere quiet for awhile and forget about the Philo—"
"—No!" Ed's tone was startlingly forceful and his whole body straightened with the word, causing Al to freeze. The blond haired boy exhaled, and his muscles seemed to go along with it until he'd relaxed back into his original sulking position facing the wall. "That's not what you want, and it's not what I want, either. Who cares if I'm tired? I'm not giving up." He was quiet a moment, and all Al could do was watch the black flamel on the back of his red coat. "I'm not letting you stay like that." He frowned slightly, but didn't say anything else.
Sometimes, Edward felt the overpowering need to cry. To cry over Mother, to cry over their failed transmutation, to cry over the loss of their home, to cry over being in the military… just to cry until he didn't have anything left to cry about. He knew on the inside that they could let go of the sadness if they could just get that over with, but he didn't intend to do it any time soon. It wouldn't be fair.
Where was the fairness in it for him to cry until all the sadness and pain were gone? His little brother couldn't cry with him, so he would have to face those feelings all by himself when they arose. This way, at least they could share the sadness when it came back. They could draw comfort from knowing that at the very least, they still had each other. Ed wasn't going to leave his only brother alone to deal with something they were meant to share.
Autumn at home with Mother was always a nice time of year. She didn't bake much in the summer because of the heat, but once autumn came, she would start to bake again. The whole house would be filled with the aroma of cinnamon or chocolate, and sometimes she'd spend all morning just to bake a pie with fresh fruit from a friend down the road. The boys would stay in the kitchen just to spend time with her and watch her while she made sweets out of magic. There was nothing like watching her bake.
The later months had also meant nightfall would set in faster, so they couldn't stay out quite as long to play. When they came home, Mother would greet them with warm smiles and sometimes an evening snack. But what was especially nice about Mother was how soft and sweet she was. The way she would hug and kiss them whenever there was a chance.
Mother always did whatever she could do show her boys she loved them, and in return, they would do anything to make her happy. Alchemy in particular was their favorite means of doing so because it never failed to make her smile, and her smile was the prettiest thing in the whole world. All they had to worry about was being home on time in the evenings, and learning new alchemic arrays to impress Mother. Each cool evening when she came to tuck them into bed, she would tell them fantastic stories and send them to sleep with a kiss on the forehead.
One night, Alphonse was unable to sleep because a rough wind outside was playing with the big tree in the yard and kicking up some noise. Mother stayed on the edge of his bed a good long while, insisting the tree was nothing to worry about, and that the wind was just bored because it hadn't been stormy lately and it hadn't had much to do. Al was still nervous, though, because the wind seemed to be awfully, strong—stronger than his big brother, even… He pulled the covers up to his nose. Only one thing would relieve the fear, and that was Mother's love. And so he said, in all his six year old innocence; "How much do you love me?"
Mother smiled warmly. "As much as the sky." And the sky was a whole lot, so Al went to sleep feeling much better in general.
Gold and fiery orange leaves sailed down past the inn's window, landing on the paved streets and rushing around people's ankles as they walked by. Al watched them abstractly, thinking of how the bright colors seemed to contradict the cooling weather outside. He couldn't feel it cooling down anymore, however; he merely knew of the climate changes from experiences long since passed. He also realized with a hint of sadness that he could no longer remember what it was like to be cold…
Ed was still sitting, hunched over and now reading over his failed leads with a blank expression. He sighed, tucking the paper back into a stack and dropping it to the floor. Flopping backwards onto his bed, he stared at the ceiling; arms spread and face still blank. Al felt bad, but he didn't want to say anything. For some reason, his brother seemed to temporarily regard him in a different manner every time they failed. He never fully understood why, nor had Ed cared to explain. He just averted eye contact and sulked. "Guess we'd better head back tonight," Ed muttered. "The colonel will want to hear what we've been up to so he can criticize us."
"Yeah… I think there's a train headed out around ten tonight. We could take that one." Al studied the metal plating on the back of his hands for something to do. It had seemed that for the past few years all they'd done was wander in circles. "You know, we haven't been out to the cities in the east much."
Ed snorted at the change of subject. "You mean those dustbowls out in the desert? I'm not going out there."
"We could ask some people for information. It's a little obscure, but we're running low on leads, and it might do us some good." He paused. "What do you think?"
"We could try it," Ed answered half-heartedly. He sat up again. The sky outside had become a little less light since they'd trudged back. He would get his stuff together now to save the trouble of having to rush. There wasn't much to pack anyway. With his notes written in travelogue, he could just trash them and try to forget about his millionth flop at finding a cure-all for the two of them. Kneeling down on the wood floor to fold some of his things inside the trunk, he was well aware of Al watching him. Edward hated failure because it meant more time staring at that stupid armor instead of the face his brother ought to have by now. The face he should never have had to lose in the first place. "Want to go get rid of my notes for me?" Without looking, he picked up the stack of paper and held it out behind him. In a moment, it was taken from his hand.
"Alright." There was a clunk as Alphonse rose to his feet, and Ed tried not to listen to the creak-clunk of metal limbs as he crossed the room to drop the stack into the wastepaper basket. Shoving a few last things into the trunk, Ed timed it so that he slammed it shut the moment Al sat down again, defeating the sound of the armor.
"Edward, Alphonse, could you boys go out and get some more wood for the fireplace, please?" Trisha's voice was flawlessly sweet. She straightened her apron. "I'll make you both some hot chocolate once you get in, alright?"
"Okay!" It had been awhile since they'd been able to use the fireplace. The heat of summer had been sufficient for months, but late October was cooling the air, especially at night. Edward looked forward to seeing the orange flame, warm and glowing within the hearth. "C'mon, Al." Little brother in tow, he headed outside.
It was just starting to get dark. The air was chilly, and not even their long sleeved shirts managed to protect them from it. The wood pile sat at the side of the house. As the fireplace was still clean, they'd both have to bring in wood in order for there to be enough. Usually Ed just tricked Al into doing most of the work, but now was his chance to exhibit his manly qualities. It was, after all, up to him to be the man of the house.
"I didn't think it was gonna be dark now…" Al whimpered, shivering slightly as he followed him out and around the side. "It's scary."
"Don't be a baby," Ed said. "We'll only be outside for a little bit. Here." He loaded his brother's arms up with wood and then took some for himself, and the two managed to get back indoors without dropping the lot. Mother looked pleased.
"What strong boys I've got!" she marveled pleasantly. "It'll be nice to sit it front of the fire again, won't it? I'm lucky to have you two to help me out. I certainly couldn't have carried all of that by myself!"
Her children beamed.
Soon, the three of them were all cozily seated near the fireplace, each with a warm drink in hand. The fire crackled and the flames licked at the wood, burning it away to charcoal. The embers at the bottom glowed hot orange. Trisha's boys cuddled close, content from the all-around warmth in the room, and beginning to grow drowsy from it as well. "The fireplace is very special," Trisha told them both softly. "I think that if you ever felt cold and alone, you could just sit in front of the fireplace with the people you love, and forget about your troubles for awhile, no matter what they were…" She knew they probably didn't understand, but she felt she was speaking more to comfort herself than anything. She rested her cheek against Edward's blond head, and pulled Alphonse a little closer against her. "I love you both, you know."
"…love you too, mom," Ed mumbled in reply.
"Mm-hmm…" Al agreed from his half-asleep state.
"And I always will," Mother added, her voice as warm as the glow from the fireplace.
Eight-thirty rolled around, with its streets illuminated by lamp posts and only the occasional person hurrying home to avoid the evening chill. The Elrics still had awhile before they'd have to leave to catch the train. Trains in towns like this were rarely, if ever, on time. Even in the dark, there'd be no thugs to worry about, especially with a seven-foot tall suit of armor as a companion. Ed watched from the window with a slight smirk as some guy ran down the road after his paper in the light of the lamp posts. He shivered slightly even under his layers of clothing. He didn't know what to do to kill time at this hour of night, and he didn't intend on unloading his troubles on his brother. Al already had problems of his own. That squeaking problem wasn't getting any better, for one thing. They'd have to get some oil before they went to see Colonel Jackass. At least that would be one less thing to be criticized for.
"There's still at least an hour before we have to leave," Al remarked from just across the room. "What should we do, brother?"
"There's nothing we can do, except think," Ed answered, whilst looking out the window. "…But there's somewhere else we should do it."
The manager was leaning on the front desk reading a book when the two came downstairs. He didn't so much as throw them a glance, so Ed returned the favor. The lobby was dark for the exception of the misty dull glow of the light mounted in the middle of the ceiling. The corners of the room were obscured by dark. Al still wasn't sure why they'd come down in the first place. If anyone bothered to pay them any heed right now, they'd probably think it strange for anyone to be 'wearing' armor like this at night. Edward stopped and looked off toward the far wall, his hands jammed into his pockets. "Huh. Looks like I'll need to go get something, then. Give me a minute. I'll be right back."
"Alright…" Al responded. He was slightly startled when the blond boy headed for the front door and disappeared outside. He'd have preferred to know what was going on before Ed decided to wander off by himself. It occurred to him to just follow along, but before he could head after his brother, there was a flash of alchemic lightning from outside the window, and not a moment later, in came Ed with a stack of wood.
"This ought to get it going." He regarded Al with a slight smile that seemed unusual for him after such a recent failure. He usually liked to act pissed off for longer than this.
"What are you doing, brother?" the armor queried as the other figure knelt down and promptly began unloading his wood into the dark fireplace. There was no reply for a minute except for the sound of the wood as he rearranged it just so. Ed felt fortunate to have saved what remained from that pack of matches. He'd last used it for the purpose of destroying a bunch of his last notes he'd been convinced were too easy to decipher. With a quick strike of the match, a small flame leapt to the wood and slowly began to burn there. Satisfied, Ed stepped back, watching as the fire carefully edged a little further onto the material laid out for it.
Still ignoring Al's question, Ed walked briskly across the room and pushed two wooden chairs up in front of the fireplace. The legs scraped noisily across the old floor but even that didn't draw any attention to them, and as soon as he had them aligned right where he wanted them, he flopped down onto one. Ed closed his eyes and exhaled deeply as he heard the first few crackles from the fire. It was growing fairly quickly now, clawing at the wood with hot orange fingers and popping now and then. He patted the chair next to himself with a white gloved hand. "Come sit down."
Al was purely baffled by Edward's change of heart. He seemed so… mellow all of a sudden. But, of course, Al didn't decline the offer, and thus trudged over and tentatively sat down. The chair merely creaked a little in disapproval. After seeing it didn't plan to collapse under his steel self (as a chair had done once before), he settled onto it a little more. Ed had a funny look on his face, happy and sad at the same time. The warm light strayed softly over them, flickering and dancing in the dark that surrounded it. A little bit of light from the room behind them flooded just past the doorway, keeping the room comfortably lit. The two of them were quiet awhile, and as the flame reached the peak of its size, it must have gotten warmer in the room, because Ed peeled off both of his jackets.
Ed scooted his chair over half a foot so their chairs were close, and leaned against his brother just a little. He sighed.
"It's almost like home," Al said softly.
"Almost," Ed replied with equal hush. "But not without her."
By twenty after nine, Ed fell asleep against the suit of armor, and at quarter to ten, Al gently roused him. He shifted his arm a little. Ed's eyes flickered open halfway. "Time to leave?" he mumbled, half asleep. The fire had kept him comfortably warm, but was now deteriorating to glowing embers. He sat up properly. "I better go get my stuff…"
"No, I'll do it," Al offered. "You can stay here."
He went upstairs by himself and made sure to hurry. He didn't like being late, even if it was probable that the train itself would be late, too. The trunk didn't weigh anything to him in his state, but he doubted it weighed much normally anyhow. Picking it up, he hurried back downstairs, taking note that his right leg seemed to creak more than his left when he walked on it. That would have to be dealt with before they reported back. Returning to the other room, he found that Ed had managed to fall asleep again. The town wasn't that big, and it would hardly take any time to walk to the station but… he hardly felt like having to disrupt his brother again. Even FullMetal needed to sleep sometimes, and his sleep seemed so much less disturbed or uncomfortable than usual. Well, Al could do with not waking him up.
The streets seemed so peaceful in the dark of night. The streetlights glowed warmly, but they weren't surrounded in moths like in early summer. Al had to admire that about the world. Even when some parts of it managed to be so loathsome and vile, and filled with wrongful people and things, other parts managed to lazily drift onward like nothing horrible was going on, minding their own business.
Ed's blond head bumped softly against Al's steel rerebrace as he walked, empty steps resounding on the quiet of the paved street. He hadn't bothered to wake him up a second time. The only trouble had been trying to get Ed's jacket back on without waking him up. Al realized he must have looked a little strange; this hulking suit of armor cradling a small figure with one arm and carrying a trunk in the other, walking down an empty street at this hour of night.
The train station wasn't very far. Upon arrival, Al gently set his brother down on a bench, and sat down on the one opposing it. It seemed strange to see Ed like that. He seemed so small and so vulnerable, and his face masked the pain and concern of years worn with travel and doubt. It seemed strange for that, the small quiet thing there, to be his older brother. His feisty brother. His brother who defied his elders and screamed at people for calling him short. There was no clock, and Al realized he no longer could keep track of the time. He could only assume the train would arrive soon.
Watching Ed sleep made him want to feel tired again. He felt so excluded from the world, thinking that he was no longer able to fall asleep in someone else's warm embrace. Even if he could feel, there was no longer a mother waiting at home for him to offer such a comfort. If there were, none of this would have happened in the first place. It must have crawled closer to ten, or even past the mark, as other people trickled into the station. There weren't many. Late trains like this often excluded anyone with small children because they wouldn't stay awake this long. Ed often opted for late night trains just so he had an excuse to fall asleep without paying a lot of money for it.
Al got up quietly and purchased their tickets as soon as he managed to locate the booth, keeping a watchful eye on his brother as much as possible. He found a clock at the booth, too—twenty after ten. The train was late. Not long after, the familiar rumble of the sleek black engine came down the tracks, clacking and chugging before it came to a halt. Steam poured out the top, clogging the view of the clear sky and the bright moon that reminded Al of home so far away. Ed groaned, sitting up against the back of the bench and rubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand.
"You're up," Al remarked with soft surprise.
"…damn benches are worse than the train seats," Ed mumbled, pushing his entanglement of bangs from his face. "Time to go already?"
Edward Elric rose to his feet, rumpled red jacket falling down around his calves. His right sleeve was pushed up, exposing glinting metal underneath. He tugged the sleeve down roughly, effectively covering what had been visible of his prosthetic.
The train was quiet, as it often was during night runs. Ed's head was back against the seat, his eyes closed. It was moments like these where Al felt he had far too much time to think altogether. At first it had depressed him, being in the state he was. After the first year of being stuck in armor, he started to desperately miss all the little things he couldn't have anymore. Cold snow, sweet candy, the smell of grass after it had been freshly cut… He had grieved inwardly for Mother and for the things he couldn't have anymore. Left with just Brother, but being unable to hug him or breathe his heady musk, he felt wholly deprived.
But that was just at first.
By now, he had all but come to terms with it. He didn't complain about it anymore. He knew better than that. Occasionally he'd voice his longing to feel or to hurt, but he didn't go into as much detail as he used to. The look in Brother's eyes was too much. He knew it wasn't Ed's fault.
Right now, Alphonse was thinking of Mother, though. It was hard to remember some things about her. He could only vaguely remember the way she smelled of fresh air and laundry soap, and knew that those memories were mostly of words. He couldn't actually remember the smell itself now—only the words he used to describe it after she was gone. Across from him, Ed was still sleeping. His braid was a little untidy now, and his clothes weren't very straight, but he would moodily fix them on the way to HQ. Then he would swear about "that damn colonel" until he felt a little better. Al tilted his head and smiled inwardly at him.
Ed shifted a little and shrugged off his jacket.
"Silly Brother," Al said softly. "I don't want you to catch cold…" He rose to his feet, moved over to Ed and carefully pulled the fabric back up over his shoulders before plunking himself back down. He wished he could fall asleep, too. A funny feeling washed over him; one of regret and confusion, and fondness and warmth. Watching his brother sleep, he couldn't remember ever wishing more that Mother would come and tuck him in. The fireplace had invoked nostalgia, and memories of time before bed, and he felt so badly like asking Mother again how much she loved him. The feeling welled within his empty self and with only a moment's hesitance, there was nothing more to stop him from asking, with or without a response.
"How much do you love me?"
Groggy gold eyes opened only a little, and Ed looked as though he was pondering a response. Maybe he wasn't actually asleep before... Al felt silly and childish for asking now that he'd actually done it, and even more so because it seemed like his brother was actually looking for an answer. Just as Al began trying to come up with some way of taking back the ridiculous query, Ed came up with an answer.
"This much," he said simply, holding his arms out wide. And just as he did, his sleeve pulled away just enough to let the steel prosthetic shine.