Title: New Look
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Edward, Alphonse, Elicia, Maes.
Summary: Al has a surprise for Ed.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Silliness with a side of sweet. Completed as sort of a birthday gift for Kristen Sharpe. (And yes, the cow reference is meant to suggest Arakawa's self-insertion character doodle.)
Edward Elric was frustrated... or at least, more frustrated than he usually was at any given moment in his life.
A tip from a retired State Alchemist had led him back to the library in Central, in search of yet another coded alchemic-research journal - this one supposedly disguised as a book about raising rabbits. Unfortunately for Ed, his informant could tell him neither the exact title of the book nor the pen name used by the author, leaving him to scan through every rabbit book on the shelves until he found the telltale signs of a code within the text. (And seriously, now: why did there need to be more than two thousand rabbit-rearing books in the entire world, let alone at the Central Library?)
In any case, Ed was relatively lucky. After about two hours and a few hundred books' worth of browsing - during which time he absorbed more about the feeding and breeding of leporids than he had ever wanted to know - he stumbled upon the correct book. Then he faced the challenge of deciphering its secret system of word patterns. He remained bent over the book for the rest of the day, studying and decoding... but in the end, the results were a letdown. By ordinary standards, the author was a highly advanced researcher, but the knowledge recorded in his journal was nothing the Fullmetal Alchemist hadn't known since he was eight years old.
So it was that in the late afternoon, tired, dispirited, and hungry, Ed left the library and turned his steps toward the Hughes family's house.
When they arrived on the morning train, Ed had insisted on leaving his brother Alphonse with Gracia and little Elicia. Ordinarily Al was very much his equal as a researcher, and with his help, they could have cut through the work in half the time; but when the books to be studied were all about small fluffy animals, there was no chance of the younger Elric maintaining his focus. Besides, the Rabbits section was awfully close to the Cats section, and Ed didn't want Al to start pining for the pets he couldn't have.
Al had protested at first, but once Elicia started tugging on his gauntlet and pleading for him to come play, he gave in. Rather cheerfully, in fact.
After the futility of the last several hours, Ed could admit to himself that he wasn't eager to face Al's cheerfulness now. Not because Al would be let down by the dashing of their latest small flicker of hope, because he wouldn't be - and maybe that was the very thing that bothered him. When Ed felt so dismayed and aggravated himself, Al's ability to quickly shrug off disappointment sometimes rubbed him the wrong way. How did his little brother so easily look forward to a fresh start the next morning, without even the mercy of a night's sleep to help put the failures of the old day behind him?
In his mind, Ed could almost hear Al's calm, philosophical answer: All we can do is our best. If we reach dead ends, getting upset won't help us figure out which way to turn next.
He knew it was unfair to think Al took their quest any more lightly than he did. Not even Ed, with all his guilt, could want to get Al's body back more than Al himself wanted it. It was just that Alphonse was so much more patient. Unlike Ed, he didn't spend the more pleasant days of their journey thinking about the sheer unfairness of all the sensations he missed, or fearing he might never know them again. Instead he lived in the moment, determined to experience life as fully as he could with the senses he did have. He let nothing stand between his gentle heart and the world around him: not his prison of armor, and not doubts and regrets.
That was a good thing - and Ed was a little ashamed that he had to remind himself of that.
Having reached the front steps of the Hughes home, Ed sighed and tried to dredge up a facial expression that was something less than gloomy. Then he gave the door a firm knock with his automail knuckles. Almost immediately he heard familiar metal-on-metal sounds through the wood, and a moment later, the door was flung wide open.
The breath Ed had drawn for a preemptive apology stuttered out of him. His jaw sagged to somewhere just north of the doormat, and he stared.
Al's loincloth - the plain, pale blue double-apron of sorts that he perpetually wore around the waist of his armor - was missing. Or rather, to be more accurate, it had been replaced by another garment that was identical to it.
...At least, as identical as anything made of screaming-pink fabric with large panda bears printed on it could be.
"Welcome back, Brother!" Al chirped brightly, shifting the squirming Elicia into his left arm.
For her part, the toddler burbled happily at the sight of her other favorite Elric. Her grabby little fingers reached out toward long, enticing blond bangs. Ed dodged out of her reach, a response conditioned by painful past experience - but throughout that maneuver, he never took his eyes from the monstrosity around Al's waist.
"What is this?" he hissed at last, in a very low voice.
"D'you like it?" In a gesture that looked supremely ridiculous coming from a seven-foot-tall suit of armor, Al spun around once, to show off the fact that his new loincloth was every bit as horrific in the back as it was in the front. The sudden twirl prompted a squeal of delight from Elicia, who considered Al to be her own personal amusement-park ride.
Ed finally succeeded in wrenching his shocked gaze upward, to Al's metal semblance of a face. "Are you nuts? It's hideous!"
"Aww, I think it's cute!" Al retorted, bending his helmet-head rather awkwardly to look down at his attire. "I did a pretty one with flowers, and Elicia likes the one with ladybugs best, but this one - "
"You mean you've got more of those things in there?" Ed choked out, and shoved past his brother without waiting for a response.
A scene of utter horror awaited him in the living room. Dozens of bolts of fabric were unfurled across the sofa, the chairs, the tables, blanketing every piece of furniture in the room - and each print was more eye-searing than the last. Fat cartoon ponies romped across yellow pinstripes. Giant gumdrops and candies glared out from a purple background. Teddy bears picnicked on fields of grass-green flannel.
Worse yet, true to Al's words, several of the fabrics had indeed taken the shape of additional loincloths. These were spread out on the carpet, as if for critical comparison.
Before Edward could even begin to force some kind of coherent words from his brain onto his tongue, he heard a cheerful "Hi, Ed!" from across the room - and he turned to get a blinding faceful of flashbulb.
"Oh, Ed, you should see the look on your face!" Maes Hughes guffawed from behind his camera. With the furnishings lost under miles of baby fabrics, he was sitting on the floor. Perched on his head was some bizarre semblance of a hat, made from a particularly egregious goldfish-print, and a matching tie was loosely knotted around his neck.
...And with that, the scene was utterly complete.
"You're obviously here to make sure I do see it!" Ed snapped back at Hughes, and rounded on Al. "What is going on here?"
"Mrs. Hughes has a lot of fabric left over from making clothes for Elicia," Al replied earnestly, setting the child down amidst a snowdrift of faux lamb's-wool. "She didn't know what to do with it, and I've been getting kind of bored with wearing the same plain old thing every day, so I - "
"So you thought you could wear these eyesores in public?" A second, even more ignominious thought occurred to Ed, and he flinched as if in genuine pain. "You didn't actually sew them yourself, did you?"
"With these fingers, Brother?" Somewhat plaintively Al stretched out his huge leather gauntlets, displaying their thick, unfeeling fingers. It was true enough that they would have had difficulty maneuvering something as tiny as a needle. "I just used alchemy."
That, at least, was fractionally less undignified than the womanly undertaking of sewing - but it did not resolve the fact that the loincloths were still made from the girliest, most embarrassing, most blindingly ugly fabrics ever conceived. Ed tried to look at them again, but it was too much. They physically hurt. He groaned and covered his eyes with his left hand.
"What are you thinking in that empty metal head of yours?" He glared at Al between his fingers. "In case you've forgotten, you're a teenage boy! You'd look ridiculous wearing that stuff even if you weren't a suit of armor!"
"Aw, come on, I bet he'd be adorable," Hughes piped up, scooping Elicia into his arms, as her face screwed up in distress at Ed's tone.
"You stay out of this," Ed asided sharply to Hughes, and turned back to his sibling, hands planted on his hips. "Al, I'm a State Alchemist. How do you think anyone's going to take me seriously, if you follow me around wearing something that looks like a baby blanket?"
"But maybe I don't always want to be taken so seriously, Brother."
The words were quiet, but they caught Ed completely off guard. His breath caught as he looked up at Al with wide, startled eyes.
Hughes discreetly stood up and stepped out of the room, with Elicia still in his arms.
"It's true. I am still a boy - but nobody can see that just from looking at me." Alphonse eased his bulky steel frame to a sitting position in front of the sofa, and gazed down at the palms of his gauntlets. "I know it helps us sometimes when I look scary to bad guys, and that's fine. But I don't want everyone to be scared of me at first sight, before they even have a chance to know who I really am. So maybe sometimes, when we aren't fighting or in trouble... wearing something a little silly would take people's minds off the metal and the spikes."
Al's voice was as gentle and unaccusing as it had ever been; but his words, and the feelings behind them, were a chastening that struck Ed to the depths of his heart. Utterly speechless, he swallowed hard and slipped down onto the carpet at his brother's side.
He stared for a moment at the garish loincloths laid out on the floor - wondering just how much a touch of absurdity would soften the nervous, uncertain glances Al never spoke of, but surely felt every day.
"I think Elicia's right," he conceded at last, rubbing the back of his neck with his automail hand. "The one with the ladybugs isn't so bad."
And there the somberness of the moment ceased - because Al didn't miss a beat.
"Oh, really, Brother?" He leaned forward, plucking a loincloth from beneath the others, and unfurled it to reveal that it was printed with hand-drawn cows and milk bottles. "I was sure you would have liked this one best!"
Torn between laughter and indignant sputtering, Ed gave Al's shoulder a hard shove to repel the offending fabric. "Hey, don't push it!"
Al laughed too, and settled back a little more against the couch, looking down at Ed with an affection the older brother could feel as tangibly as the warmth of sunshine.
"I needed another reminder not to get so uptight, didn't I?" Edward asked, after a moment.
The younger Elric chuckled. "Yeah."
Nothing else was needed to fill the silence that followed, a silence that was somehow rather sweet - because Ed was grateful. He did need this. He needed the random, ridiculous moments Al brought into his life. He needed to be made to stop and think, and sometimes, just to be made to stop thinking. He needed reminding that the innocence and joy Al kept so alive in his soul were the very reason to keep moving forward, even when the weight of unkept promises in Ed's own soul made his brother's seem too light.
They sat in wordless companionship for quite some time... and then, with an uneasy frown, Ed glanced at the loincloth Al was still wearing.
"You're thinking of keeping the panda one, aren't you?"
© 2012 Jordanna Morgan