New story time, Number 15! Well, as everyone knows, FMA Day was October third (six days ago), and, unfortunately, I completely forgot/didn't even remember it was a day to celebrate. So, I'm sorry. I mean, it's the 100th year anniversary since the Elric brothers set out on their journey! As a result, my story is a late FMA Day present that takes place about three-and-a-half weeks before A Brother's Smile, so it's in the Brotherhood universe. And just to warn you...this one has fluff, just like my others! I'm not really sure what made me want to write this one, but I just had to do something for the big day, once I found out it was a big day. Hopefully, I can actually remember next year to have something ready for October third ;) I am not the owner; Hiromu Arakawa is, and anyone else affiliated.
The hour was past midnight, a time when most of the normal world was fast asleep in their beds and lost to dreams, tossing and turning with the tides of slumber. But Alphonse was awake, eyes holding just the smallest traces of sleep circles, and he sat calmly on the wooden deck, resting his back against the side of the house and looking across the yard. Tonight, everything was illuminated by light, the moon full and bright and shining, and he could see things he hadn't been able to just nights before: the road that led to the house, fading away after a few yards, and the fence that lined it; several trees, their leaves and branches rustling softly in the breeze, almost like a song; the dew already beginning to settle on the grass, shining like crystal. The sound of cicadas and crickets rang throughout the world, their chirps and stridulations creating a resonance that echoed all around, a lullaby of insects singing away. It made Al think back to his childhood, memories of being outside at night with Edward and chasing after the insects that produced these noises, and he smiled, sighing gently through his nose.
Legs stretched out in front of him and hands flat on the worn wood, Alphonse cocked his head slightly to the right and gazed up at the moon, standing out from the stars and planets around it against the blackness overhead. It was unusually bright tonight, pale and creamy and so clear that he could almost see the craters that covered its surface, cold light flowing down from it over everything, over him, giving him the appearance of almost unnatural fairness. It felt amazing to his bare skin, caressing his arms and neck and cheeks, like the touch of something familiar and deeply loved he'd long forgotten and had finally recalled years later. In actuality, it had been years since he'd felt anything like this, felt anything at all; five years, in fact. And so he was determined to enjoy every minute of this, to make up for all those moments when he had been unable to remember the way he felt at night, in the open, cool air on his skin and the moon casting pale shadows over his body.
Al hadn't realized it until a few months ago, but even after five years without sleep, of being alone and the only one in the world awake, maybe nighttime wasn't so bad. Now, he could actually fall asleep without being aware of it, could take a nap for and hour or sleep for eight, secure in the cocoon that now enfolded him, loved and protected and without fear.
Most of the time, at least.
He closed his eyes, the light of the moon dim against his closed lids, and he tried to push the musings from his mind and just enjoy this moment. Because there were some nights, not so often as during the first month of actually living in his human body again, when the shadows crept back, just as he knew they always would, and he would dream he was still in that empty shell, trapped and suffocating. Only he wasn't controlling the armor; his body, as it was now, was locked inside, and he would scratch at the metal and punch it with bloody knuckles to try and find a means of escape, shouting for someone, someone he knew could only be Edward, to save him, the ice of the prison flooding his veins and bones and steadily congealing his blood. But he never could escape, and Edward would never come, and when he would finally pull his hands back, they were nicked and broken, palms slashed and fingernails ripped, rust caked underneath them. His voice raw with screams and so thick that breathing began to grow impossible, he would collapse against the back of the jail, the thud of impact reverberating all throughout his head, and his eyes would cloud over. With death or tears? Both. His vision soon became blurry, then eventually ceased altogether, but the tears did not, and they streamed silently down his face and onto his hands, mingling with the rust and blood.
And then he would wake up, heart wild in his chest and skin covered with sweat, because he wasn't sure if he was really out of the armor or not.
It wasn't always that nightmare; sometimes, they were memories of The Portal, or Truth, or having his body ripped from his soul, from his consciousness. And sometimes, he saw Edward: Edward, slumped against the wall and blood seeping through the thin material he had used to bandage his stumps, almost to the point of death; Edward, his automail arm shattered and in pieces, his good arm pinned to a piece of rubble, blood spurting from the wound, the whole while struggling to escape the steady advance of Father, his impending death growing nearer.
Seeing Edward so weak and injured and surrounded by so much blood was worse than almost anything Alphonse himself had experienced.
He tapped his head against the house with enough force to pull himself away from the darkness of his mind, and he opened his eyes once more, then, glancing down, as in an afterthought, he examined his hands. They were pale, smaller than most fifteen-year-old boys because of the nutrition he'd missed these last five years, but they were still hands, hands with evenly filed nails and thin fingers, the skin of his palms milky white, veins dark beneath, a thin scar on his left one, shiny in the moonlight. They were his hands, not the nightmare Al's hands, covered in gashes and blood and rust and tears, fingers broken and nail beds clotted.
It was ridiculous, he knew that, but the knowledge of how absurd the action was still wasn't enough to stop Alphonse from simply staring at them for a moment, the whole while repeating I'm here silently.
He was ashamed of his weakness, not only for himself, but for Edward. Al knew he was alive, that he was real and with Brother, but that didn't mean the fear got the better of him at times, leaving him with a somewhat empty, yearning in his chest, one that only Edward could quench, whether it be his presence or his voice or touch. What would Ed say if he knew just how breakable he had become lately, so weak that he needed to be told he was safe? At the moment, even with the enjoyment of the night still flooding through his system, Alphonse was fighting against that ache as it tried to take control, to revert him back into the child he had been ten years ago when his mother had died and the child he had been five years ago when he had lost himself and, for a moment, Edward, and into the child that he still was.
Because he was a child, even with the evils he had seen and the monsters clothed in human skin he had faced. There was still a pureness in his being, something untouched by time and the wickedness of the world, a goodness that he refused to let go of, almost at times appearing to be childish innocence, yet at the same time tainted by his sins, sins he had forgiven himself for and had let go of as best he could.
Alphonse let his eyes slip shut again for a few moments, then opened them to blink slowly up at the stars, wishing his thoughts—and soul—could be as high as they were; weightless, if just for a moment.
The crickets sang on, the wind continued to call to him softly, and Al lowered his eyelids as the moon slowly moved over the sky, its light still a cool kiss on his skin.
After a few moments, when he felt the ache in his chest returning, he opened his eyes once more to look at the sky-
And stared into a pair of angular gold eyes.
A yelp escaped his lips, but was quickly muffled into nothing but a high gasp by Edward's hand, his palm large on Al's face, and he received a "Shush!" from the older boy. Ed lifted an eyebrow to Alphonse, smirking slightly as he rolled his eyes, then pulled his hand from his little brother's mouth.
For a moment, Alphonse hadn't known who in the world Ed was, so close was he to him that Al hadn't been able to make out his features. But when he thought about it, he had instantly recognized those eyes, eyes imprinted into his very soul. He blinked, wondering how he hadn't heard him open and close the door.
"How long have you been out here?" he asked, heart still frantic in his chest, but gradually steadying into its normal rhythm.
"About three minutes, but I spent the last two staring at you." He grinned, a half smile, as he knelt in front of Alphonse, clearly amused.
"You watched me?" Al asked, tone slightly disbelieving.
"Well, yeah. I mean, you were asleep and all."
This came as a surprise to Al, who had only thought his eyes had been closed for a few moments; instead, he had dozed off. "I was?"
"That's what I just said," Ed replied, once again rolling his eyes, this time with the slightest bit of exasperation.
So that's why Brother was watching me, Alphonse realized, no longer skeptical in the least. It had become one of Edward's habits, watching him sleep, and while it must have been such a miraculous thing for Ed to see, it was even more so to Al, not because he was actually sleeping, but because Edward was right there beside him, making sure he didn't disappear, shielding him.
Al looked past Ed to the moon; it was still where it had been the last time he'd seen it, so he must not have slept long. He looked back to Edward and, giving a tiny nod, smiled somewhat timidly.
Whatever vexation had implanted itself in Edward immediately evaporated at that small pull of the lips, and Alphonse watched as his brother returned the smile. The elder didn't say anything, able to read Al's thoughts from his expression and see the pleasure it gave the younger to know Edward still took the time to watch him sleep, even though it would have been odd under normal circumstances. But these times weren't normal, and Al secretly enjoyed them as much as Edward did.
Ed moved to Al's right and sat down, his shoulder brushing Alphonse's when he put his back to the paneling of the house, and Edward straightened his legs out like the younger boy's were, his legs only slightly longer than Al's; Ed's feet were about two inches past Alphonse's.
"What are you doing out here anyway?" Edward asked, looking at him. "And don't say 'I couldn't sleep', because you just were."
Al gave a small laugh. "Well, that's kind of why I am out here, or it was earlier. I woke up about…hey, what time is it?"
"A little after one."
"Oh, then I've been out here for about an hour."
"Doing?" Edward asked, drawing a knee up and propping his arm up, placing his chin on the palm of his hand.
Al looked away from Edward. "Just sitting. I can sleep at night now-"
"Thankfully," Edward muttered softly, but Al continued as if he hadn't heard him.
"—so I'm never awake at night, not like now. I haven't just sat outside and looked at everything since we got home."
He wasn't looking at his brother, but Alphonse could still see from the corner of his eye Ed watching him intently, but when he did turn back to look at him, Edward was glancing at him nonchalantly, expression without any true emotion.
"Oh," Ed said, then turned to face the dark yard.
Most people would have said Edward Elric was cold at moments like this, but Al knew him better than that. The moments when he had stared back at Ed, waiting for a response, his brother had appeared unimpressed but not quite bored; however, his eyes had been very soft, stirred even, by Al's words. And Alphonse understood this all just by the way his brother looked at him with his eyes, knowing Edward was unable to express his feelings with words, incapable to say anything more than 'Oh'.
Al didn't mind in the slightest.
So he turned away as well, voice soft and understanding as he said, "Yeah," knowing Edward would be able to decipher what he hadn't said.
Alphonse was one for silences, most of the time, and now was a time that he felt at peace and relaxed, perfectly comfortable with the quiet between them. Edward, however, was not a person who liked to leave off on something as uncomfortable as sentiment, and Al could almost see him fidgeting where he sat. It wasn't that he didn't exactly like silence; it was just that moments like this, with his emotions dangerously worn on his sleeve, or when an uncomfortable quiet grew between them, and Alphonse didn't like the last one either.
Knowing it would come sooner or later from Edward anyway, Al went on and changed the subject by asking, "How long have you been up?"
Ed seemed to relax at the question, and he looked back at Alphonse. "Not long. Got up for some water and saw you were gone." His lips formed words to continue, and then it was like he chocked on them, eyes widening slightly, and he stared nervously at Alphonse.
The change of subject had worked, but only for a moment, and Al realized it before Ed did.
For both brothers now, waking up and seeing the other wasn't in the neighboring bed was, still, somewhat of a fright. Having been side by side for the majority of the past few years, it would have been understandable for the brothers to request different rooms once they had moved into the Rockbell house; time apart was probably for the best, in most cases. However, Al had felt a reluctance swell up in him at the idea when it had been proposed not quite a month ago, and before he could even say anything on the subject, Edward had told Pinako they would be sharing a room, just as they had always done. Surprised by his brother's words and greatly relieved, Alphonse had looked to Ed to see a similar look on his brother's face; one of satisfaction and relief, the traces of nervousness and slight distress still evident.
Both brothers craved being near each other, even though they had been with together the whole while; but not like this, where both could feel touch and warmth, the security they each gave the other.
And now, Edward had accidentally brought up another emotion that he didn't often talk about: fear of being without Al.
Alphonse understood this fear, maybe not quite as deeply as Ed did, but it was ever present within him, and, instead of continuing the conversation in the direction it was headed, Al took a different path. "Did you get your drink?"
Edward, realizing instantly what his little brother was doing, smiled gratefully. "Nah, I didn't really need it that much."
Al smiled back, bumping his shoulder against Ed's gently, to which the elder Elric repeated the action on Alphonse, and Al laughed softly just before turning to look back up at the moon, now beginning its drop over a tree.
After a minute of silence, a comfortable stillness between them, Edward looked at Al curiously. "I know you said you've just been sitting here, but what else?"
Alphonse looked at his bare feet as he flexed them thoughtfully, considering how to word his answer. "Discovering things, I guess."
When silence greeted him, Al turned to see Ed watching him, eyebrows furrowed and mouth pulled into a cogitating line, clearly confused. The expression was one he had worn throughout his childhood and had still not outgrown, even at the age of sixteen, and Alphonse gave a soft laugh.
Having given up on trying to interpret the meaning, Edward asked, "Care to explain?"
"Well…" Al looked back toward the sky, expression peaceful and at the same time somehow melancholy, although he didn't know it was. Edward, though, noticed it immediately, the way Alphonse's mouth was pulled into a loose smile but his eyes held traces of sadness, irises bleached of their color in the pale light, just exactly as Ed's were. He was instantly nervous, unsure of what was causing these emotion in Al to conflict.
Alphonse continued after a moment. "When I was in armor, I pretty much memorized my surroundings, since I couldn't sleep and had so much spare time. I knew where everything was in your room when you had your automail installed; where your books were, the clock. And then I memorized where everything was in the hotel rooms over the last four years. But I also remembered everything about this place." He stopped for a moment, pulling his knees up and curling his toes underneath to keep them warm. "I learned where everything was, like how far the fence went before I couldn't see it, and how many trees there were and which houses were visible on the hills. I saw all this with my new eyes. It was…strange, seeing everything differently. Like I was really seeing things, but I wasn't; like I wasn't completely there. I guess it makes sense now, because I wasn't." He sighed softly. "And now, since I'm back to normal, I'm just trying to see everything through my real eyes again."
Al looked over at Edward, who watched him with large eyes, eyes already filling with guilt and pain, his hands clenched into fists. He was tempted to roll his eyes as Ed had done earlier at the silliness of his brother, but he instead gave a crooked smile, winking quickly, letting Ed know he was fine.
Because he was, for the moment. It was just nice to tell someone this, to tell Edward this.
By the time Edward's hands had relaxed and Al was once again looking at the sky, the older boy was able to speak without his voice cracking. "Is it weird?" he asked.
"Kind of," Al admitted, looking back at his brother. "But it's nice, and I like it."
Ed's eyes were still slightly clouded by that guilt he refused to release, but he smiled gently, a small laugh exiting his mouth. "Yeah? Okay then, good."
There was a moment where neither spoke, and then Al was the one who couldn't take the silence, strangely enough; that retched longing was returning, and he needed to hear Edward speak again. The problem was, though, that he couldn't think of anything to say.
He glanced up at the moon again.
And there it was.
"I like the way this light feels," Al said softly, repeating to Ed the first thought that had popped into his mind.
"What, the moonlight?"
"Yeah. I know this sounds weird, but it's like I can feel it almost, like it's cold on my skin." He looked curiously at Edward. "Is that normal?"
Ed thought for a moment, a hand on the back of his head. "I don't know," he confessed, clearly unsure if this was good or bad.
Alphonse watched Edward for a moment longer as he lost himself in thought, then looked back up at the white orb, still able to feel the soft, cool light that it shed on him. He knew it was strange, because he could remember back before he'd been in the armor being outside at night, unable to feel this amazing glow, then only able to admire the beauty of it. It was a strange feeling, pleasant and alien at the same time, somehow like the coldness of snowflakes brushing against his skin, the white powder gentle as it kissed his lips, but it was at the same time warmer than snow; snow in the late spring, his body warm with just traces of coldness. It was a peaceful feeling, one he hadn't felt until just that night, when he'd first gone to sit on the porch and allow himself the pleasure of it.
"Maybe it has something to do with your body being in The Portal for so long," Edward said, pulling Al from his thoughts. He jerked his head over to his brother quickly.
His chest was tight, the beginning of fear settling in at Edward's words. Nothing was wrong with him, right? A feeling that wonderful couldn't have been bad.
"I mean," Ed continued, biting the inside of his jaw, "your body was in their for five years. I don't know, maybe something changed."
Alphonse wasn't sure what exactly his brother was thinking; he tilted his head closer to Ed. "What does that mean?"
"Give me a minute."
A minute was all he was going to give him, because while Edward sat in thought, Alphonse was in torment, waiting, anxious, afraid of what the truth was going to be, what his brother would say. Even though his body seemed alright, what if it really wasn't? What if something was wrong, something he'd lost over those years in The Portal, something now long gone and out of reach?
What if he was dying?
"Touch," Edward said after a moment, voice shocked, but Alphonse couldn't tell if it was in a pleased way or a horrified one.
"Huh?" he asked, voice rattling with fear and nerves.
Edward was looking at him with very intense eyes, ones that bore right into Al's, and his expression was…strange. Not quite serious, but…
"You know how since you got your body back, you've been really sensitive to feeling things?"
"Yeah, but isn't that normal?"
"It's normal because you haven't felt anything in five years, but it's weird because you can feel things like moonlight and darkness."
Al blinked, taken aback. "Darkness?"
"You know what I mean," Edward said quickly. "Anytime the power goes out, it's like you seize up. Not like you're scared of the dark, but like you feel something. And you always reach for me when that happens."
He could feel darkness? Alphonse had never even thought about that, yet now that he did, it seemed almost natural to feel the dark, a blackness silent and without light. He could faintly remember it, an pitch-black feeling that made the hairs on the back of his neck rise as it flowed over him, and he could remember instinctively reaching to grab Edward's arm. It was so different than the feeling the moon gave off on him, but it was still a new sensation, one he hadn't felt before; but he hadn't thought anything about it because after being in armor for so long, he hadn't been able to truly remember the feeling darkness gave him.
At the realization, Al relaxed slightly, but he moved closer to Edward for the comfort and warmth anyway. "Yeah, I remember it now. So what does that mean?"
"This is just a guess," Ed began, and Alphonse knew that even though Edward was guessing, it was going to be correct; this was the genius of Ed, "but maybe your sense of touch enhanced over the years. You can feel things I can't, even though my arm and leg were there too, but that's because they're just limbs. Your entire body was there. That's why you can feel things thing, because it's your most sensitive sense: touch."
This was…incredible. Alphonse hadn't even imagined anything like this, never thought it a possibility. He knew that when he touched something or someone and was in turn touched, it left a warm tingle on his skin, pleasurable, like it was the first and last time to feel something, and he treasured it immensely. The way the grass felt beneath his bare feet, slick and soft, cool; water, flowing and twinning and cold at times, hot at others; Den's hair beneath his hand, silky in places and coarse in others, short. Then the new touches, darkness and moonlight, maybe even sunlight. Darkness, black ink and deep chill; moonlight, cool snow and warm spring; sunlight, something he hadn't thought about being able to feel until now, a beautiful heat from within and bubbling with life, summer. All of these feelings were new at the same time, yet somehow old and familiar, pleasing.
But they were nothing compared to Edward.
The first time he could remember Ed touching him outside of The Portal was when Alphonse had felt Edward's hands gently take hold of his shoulders and cradle his frame, pulling him into a sitting position. For just a moment, it had been like an electric current had traveled through his entire body, from head to toe, his nerve endings alive at the feel of Edward's hand on his arms, palms hot, one calloused and the other smooth. And even when he had shaken his father's hand for the first time in his life, the warmth it gave him was miniscule next to that of Edward's.
The first night in the hospital, his body punctured with tubes and needles and hardly able to move by himself, he had lain in pure enjoyment while Edward's fingers had danced over his face, rediscovering the line of his jaw, the shape of his eyes and lips, his nose and forehead, traveling up into his hair and down over his neck and throat, and the whole while, Edward had watched Al with the utmost gentleness, mouth almost a smile but not quite.
It was a sensation he had loved as a child, one he knew could be hard and demanding at times, yet oh so soft and loving at others, devoted and filled with strength.
Being able to touch Ed was almost as remarkable as feeling his touch. When Alphonse's hand descended on Ed's forearm in the hospital, his palm had been on fire, burning in a good way at the feel of his brother's skin, and then he had explored his face in the same fashion Edward had his, clumsy fingers gliding over closed eyes and cheekbones and eyebrows, over lips pulled into a tender smile. Each touch left his fingers trembling.
But more than actually feeling Edward, Al had missed his warmth. It was all consuming, filled with protection and soft words, heat and comfort and thick with light and life, the scent a mixture of their childhood and present; a natural smell, clean and crisp, autumn and automail oil. Safety, love.
That was the best feeling in the world: Edward.
Gradually, over the course of this epiphany, Alphonse had begun to smile, very softly at first, then growing larger and larger, until he was grinning at Edward. And Edward, in turn, was smiling back, and Al realized that was what he had seen in Brother's expression earlier: the beginning of a smile.
"I like that," Alphonse said, looking at Edward with steady eyes, telling him every thought that was running through his mind, namely what it was about touch he loved the most.
Edward's smile softened, as did his eyes; the answering look that told Alphonse he knew exactly what he meant.
Al nodded, closing his eyes for a moment, smile still present as he muttered half to himself, "Alright then. I'm definitely real."
Ed smiled crookedly. "Of course you are, dummy."
"That's not exactly what I mean."
Alphonse turned to face Edward, mouth opening-
And then he shut it, painfully aware of the fact that he was about to spill his guts.
No one knew about the nightmares better than Edward did; he was the one who would cradle Al in his arms, murmuring words of comfort late into the night until Alphonse finally fell back asleep. He was the one who Al searched for when he had woken up, hands reaching for Edward, and he was always there to hold him until the nightmare faded. But as a strict rule, Alphonse never told his brother about the dream of dying inside the armor; maybe it was what would have happened had he not been able to get his body back when he did.
So he sat there, frozen, unable to say anything for fear of what Edward would say
"Al?" Ed's hand was on his shoulder, soft but holding force, and he shook him gently. "Come one, what's wrong?" he asked, voice growing anxious.
It would be so easy to tell him the truth, to finally tell him how he sometimes still found himself scared that his soul would be rejected, even in his true body, and then he would be lost forever. But he couldn't tell him, ever, because this was his burden to bear, to somehow get over this fear that burrowed its way into his heart. This was his weakness, and he wouldn't have Edward trying to take it upon himself or, worse even, push Al away because of it.
He knew his brother. He knew Edward would never reject him for being weak. But he was still afraid.
"Alphonse?" Edward asked softly, both hands now on the younger boy's shoulders.
And then a choked whisper broke from Al's chest against his will and he said, "I'm scared."
Edward wasn't very good at being a comfort; still, at the moment, one of his hands somehow made its way to cup Al's cheek, fingers in his hair. "Of what?" he whispered back.
Feeling Edward's hand on his face nearly broke all of Alphonse's resolve to remain silent, and he nearly let everything out as a cry, but he managed to press his lips together long enough that this urge past for the most part. Ed wanted to help, to reassure him, but he didn't deserve that. He swallowed thickly, closing his eyes. "I'm scared I don't exist anymore."
He heard Ed's sharp intake of breath, could feel the shock radiate from his brother's frame. "What?" Edward asked, his voice no longer anxious; it was downright afraid.
Alphonse looked away, too ashamed. "I dream a lot. About the Portal and you and being separated from my body. But there…there's another one, one where I'm me, but I'm in armor, and I can't get out. And…"
He was actually admitting to the nightmare, actually telling Edward about it, even after he had sworn he wouldn't. But once he had begun, he couldn't stop, and now he sat, trembling and unable to continue until he received the push he knew Edward would give him, just because it was Ed.
Ed's thumb brushed over Alphonse's cheek, feather light. But it was enough to make Al finish telling Edward the truth, the push he'd been waiting for.
"And I try and try to get out, and I call for you, but…you never come. And…and I die." He shuddered, terrified to look up at Edward but knowing he would have to to get this out. Al glanced up slowly, nearly whimpering at the look on Edward's face and the emotions his eyes: fear, a mirror of his own, and sorrow and guilt, his brother's lips trembling. "I don't think I would have lasted much longer in the armor," he said brokenly. "I think I was about to die, just like in the nightmare."
As soon as it was out in the open, Alphonse looked down, away from Edward, hands shaking as he balled them into fists and vision blurring behind a very fine mist of tears; but he wouldn't to let them fall. He couldn't.
He chest was lightened somewhat, but not his conscious, and he hated himself for needing Ed to protect him from everything, for being a burden, for being so weak. And the thing was, he needed Edward to protect him at the moment, but Alphonse didn't know if he would. Al held back the tightness of sobs that were trying to rack his chest as he remained vulnerable in front of his brother, head lowered.
A hand descended on his head, fingers scratching his scalp and catching in the strands of pale gold hair, and Alphonse looked up into the eyes of Edward, who watched him with the strangest expression, a mixture of emotions: tender love and sorrow and soft anger, all in one. He gently pulled Al's hair, smiling slightly.
"Honestly, that's why you were worried? Idiot."
Humiliation ate at Alphonse, painful and sharp, and he shook under his brother's hand, eyes darting quickly back to where he was staring at his feet.
"Oh, not you don't," Edward growled.
In an instant, Alphonse was halfway pressed against Edward chest, the older boy's arms tight around him, hand still in his hair, and Al's chin was on Ed's shoulder as he found himself being hugged.
"You're real," Edward said softly, voice extremely soothing and like that of a parent; maybe because, to Alphonse, he wasn't just his brother and best friend, but a mother and father, the one who had raised him and made him who he was. Ed's hand continued stroking through Alphonse's hair. "You're right here, and I'm not letting you go anywhere."
Al's arms were frozen at his sides, but his entire frame was shaking now, and those damned tears began streaming silently down his cheeks at Edward's words and the knowledge that his brother still loved him, sobs catching in his throat as he even now tried to force them back.
Ed knew exactly what he was doing, able to tell from the way Al's chest heaved against his own, the younger boy trembling in his arms. He held him tighter, pulled him closer, arms around his shoulders and hand firm on the back of Alphonse's head. "It's okay, you know."
And then a wail finally broke past Al's lips and he cried, "I'm sorry!" burying his face in Ed's shoulder as his arms wrapped tightly around his brother's strong back, hands grasping fistfuls of his shirt.
These tears weren't of just relief or sorrow, but were both. He still felt the weight of his nightmares, but Edward had taken most of the burden for him, taken it gladly. He was real, he existed, he was with Brother, and that was all he wanted, and he sobbed as Ed pulled him partway onto his lap, once again cradling this fragile soul. A hand was rubbing his back, the other over his head, and Alphonse buried his face deeper against Edward as more tears leaked out from his eyes. "I'm sorry," he hiccupped, tears streaming into his mouth.
"Hush, stupid," Edward murmured softly, his head resting atop Alphonse's as he cupped his brother's head. "Don't say sorry, because you didn't do anything wrong. Just don't forget that if you need to be reminded that you're real, I'll call your name and let you know you're with me."
Still, Alphonse cried, but more now out of relief and joy than guilt, Edward's warmth seeping into his body and filling him with that delightful light that he loved so much. He felt Ed's lips press gently to the top of his head, and then his weight was shifted as to where Ed had a more comfortable hold on the boy, supporting Al's head with his left shoulder.
Edward knew he was real, and with that on his heart, Al felt his existence become genuine, tangible.
Alphonse sat up slowly, eyes sticky as he looked at Ed and sniffled. He placed a hand over Edward's heart, a few stray tears finding their way out of his eyes and down his cheeks. "Thank you, Brother," he whispered, smiling gratefully up at Edward.
Ed chuckled softly as he lifted a hand, wiping his sleeve over the child's damp face and removing most of the tear tracks. He ruffled the boy's hair affectionately, moving to rest his chin against Alphonse's head. "Anytime, honey."
Al felt himself blush at the name Ed had just called him, one he had never heard come from his brother's lips; only their mother's, long ago. But it was nice and made him feel safe, and he sighed in satisfaction and put his head on Edward's chest, eyes slipping shut.
He was real; he was real because Ed had said so.
In what only seemed like moments, Alphonse felt himself being lifted up, but he was too warm and sleepy to open his eyes; besides, he knew it was Edward who was carrying him. He was faintly aware of the squeak of a door opening, then the sensation of floating, arms supporting his limp body, and then he felt the softness of a bed beneath him, a hand push the bangs from his eyes, and lips press to his forehead in a tentative touch. He sighed softly in contentment.
The last thing Alphonse was aware of before falling into sweet slumber was Edward smiling against his forehead.