It was weird, Ed reflected, how Al could be too weak to stand up or even sit on his own, and yet even in sleep cling to him strongly enough that his older brother couldn't escape his embrace. It was weird how still he was; as if all his time as a haunted armor had stolen all these little instinctive twitches and moves. Asleep, Al lay still and heavy, arms wound around Ed as far as they could go. Ed would have thought him dead, but for the warmth of his skin and the still unsteady beat of Al's heart against the side of his chest.
He knew that his brother needed his rest, needed that heavy, unnaturally still sleep, but there was his own strong need to reassure himself that what he was holding wasn't just a reverse of the suit of armor with a soul, wasn't just a body without mind.
So at regular intervals, he lifted his hand -- the metal one, the one Al didn't touch -- and used the tip of his braid to tickle his brother's nose. And Al's nose scrunched up just like it had when they'd been children, and he mumbled things about a mean brother, and then Ed smiled and let his arm fall back on the blanket, relieved for yet another length of time, and closed his eyes to concentrate on the soft breath against his neck.
He knew that people had checked on them regularly -- he'd seen Pinako, and Winry, and Lieutenant Ross, but he hadn't talked to them. Maria Ross had proposed her help to untangle Al's limbs, but he'd refused. What was a little thing like the explosion of his bladder compared to the sheer bliss of basking in his brother's presence?
That and he was scared to death of Al waking and not finding him there. He'd promised. And the stutters of his heart, and the hitches in his breath -- Ed felt like, if he wasn't there to witness them, to wait them out, heart in his throat, the still sluggish organs would just stop working altogether, as if it was only his hope and his will that kept them going.
Auntie Pinako had called the town's doctor the second Ed kicked the door open, Al's motionless body in his arms. He'd been told again and again that Al was healthy, that his body worked perfectly well, that the doctor didn't understand why it seemed to be slowly waking, like, the man had said, a snake after winter, but that so far there wasn't any need to panic. Al seemed to be bringing himself out of his weird stasis state on his own. He would be hungry, the doctor had said, and smiled at him with wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, and enjoined him to look over his brother, and then he'd had to leave because there was a woman giving birth three farms over.
Edward had been partially relieved; he didn't want the old doctor, friendly and easygoing as he was, to ask too many questions. But he'd also been quite ready to freak out. What if something went wrong? He was too used to things going wrong. Intellectually, he knew there wasn't much a country doctor could do to help if something did go wrong; he doubted he'd ever covered cases like Al's. But it would still have been reassuring to have the doctor there, especially in that first hour, when Al stopped breathing almost every minute and his heart couldn't decide between fluttery and sluggish.
The arrival of Maria Ross and her partner Danny Broche had barely registered at the time, but now he was grateful for the way she'd maneuvered him into bed with Al so he would stop pacing and freaking out, made sure to wrap the younger brother in the softest blankets so his soft skin wouldn't suffer from even the mildest itch, plugged the draft under the door.
He was also grateful that Pinako had needed to keep Broche from getting underfoot, because as well as the old lady held together in the face of this unexpected event, if she'd stared down at Alphonse and him as if she was going to cry a second longer, HE would have started to cry, and he didn't want to cry, not today. Tears were for days of grieving; there was nothing to grieve today. Today was a day for hope. And if he started to cry like a girl just because he felt too much, he would never stop, and there was no way in hell he'd let Winry or anyone else even hear him sniffle. Even though anyone managing to hear him over Winry's bawling would be performing a miracle indeed.
And as the hours went, and the sun rose and fell, a streak of light traveling on the far wall, whitening then changing to gold and then orange, as the stretches of peaceful breathing lengthened, hope and peace rose with them. And there wasn't any reason to cry, any reason to be scared or angry or weary. There was just Al's weight against his side, Al's arms around his chest, Al's cheek on his shoulder, Al's surprisingly bony knee in his thigh, and that bladder that kept threatening to quit on him and yet didn't matter at all.
It was only when he heard the first crickets chirp behind the house and realized how dark it now was in the bedroom that he finally, reluctantly, tried to escape his brother's clutches. Al had apparently decided that it was not happening, though, so he resigned himself.
Finally, it was the growls of Ed's stomach that woke his brother up.
"... niisan..." Al breathed; there were other words, but they were too soft, too mumbled, Ed couldn't understand them. For a second he felt a spike of fear -- maybe it was important, and he'd missed it.
With the way Alphonse's lips jutted in a discontent little pout, there was something making him uncomfortable. Ed made sure all the blankets were still cocooning them properly; the doctor had said it was doubtful he would be up to regulating his temperature for a while. He was careful not to touch his brother with his steel hand, it was cold and too harsh, but his other arm was wrapped around his brother's shoulders, serving as a pillow.
"... 'hngry..." A soft whisper again, barely loud enough to be heard. Ed carefully rolled on his side so he could look at his face. He saw indecently thick eyelashes flutter and a low whimper of pain escaped Al's throat as he closed his eyes again, wincing against the faint light spilling through the cracks of the door. Ed leaned over him slightly, guided his face into the crook of his neck. Al's arms squeezed his waist, more a reflex than anything else, really. Edward allowed himself a fond, utterly silly grin before he reached for the thin rope that slithered under the door and looped over the headboard and tugged. In the living room, a little wood carving toppled over with a dull thud, bringing the soft whispers to an immediate halt.
The lights dimmed outside the room before the door opened, slowly, just a crack, and Winry's head appeared. Her eyes were huge and red-rimmed, hopeful and scared, and she held onto the door tight enough to whiten her knuckles.
He grinned at her -- Edward Elric didn't beam -- pointed at Alphonse's stomach and mouthed, food. She started bawling again, except she was laughing too, and he started searching for something to throw at her head. He didn't know if the noise would bother Al like the light seemed to, but he didn't wish to test it.
"Nnngh... stop movin, niisan..."
Obediently, he stopped moving, and reflected that if only Mustang could project the same soft weariness, he'd never have to complain about Ed's discipline again. Thank god the man was a smug bastard who wouldn't sound less than superior even on his deathbed.
It was Maria Ross who slipped back in, and she was beaming shamelessly as she put down the bowl of broth on the bedside table. Winry and Auntie Pinako were watching from the door.
"Need a hand?" Ross offered quietly. He sighed -- there was no way he could feed his brother alone, even though he wanted to -- and rolled on his front, gently bringing Al with him. Lieutenant Ross fluffed up the pillows just so, and was very careful when she helped Ed to sit his brother up.
Alphonse looked like a puppet with cut strings, slumped bonelessly against the headboard, but the eyes -- through the thick lashes and the heavy, sleep-swollen lids -- were clear and tracking her slow movements easily enough. Ed sat up too, wincing discretely --he was sore from staying unmoving for so long and his bladder was definitely not happy with the change of position, but there was no way he'd leave the bed to stretch and take care of business. Al's hand was closed on his own, weak enough that he knew it would be no trouble at all to shake it off, and yet served to keep him in place more surely than shackles.
He made sure the blanket covered Al's chest, nodded his thanks when Ross covered Al's bare shoulders, and reached over Al with his free hand to pick up the bowl. She took the bowl back, though, when he realized that he couldn't hold it and feed Al.
It was weird, to be spoon-feeding his brother like a baby. But good also. Intimate. Grounding. And he didn't mind Ross; she'd always watched over them with a mix of tenderness and fierceness, like a tigress with her cubs, even though they were so much more able to defend themselves than she was.
In the living room, he could hear Winry whispering excitedly, barely waiting for the other person to reply. She must have been on the phone, because he couldn't hear anyone else talking. He hoped she wouldn't call anyone who would want to drop in; he wanted to keep his brother to himself a little while longer.
He wiped broth off his brother's lips with his thumb, smiling back when they quirked under his finger and Al's hand closed around his braid and tugged, a little jerkily.
"Hey, Al," he whispered. Ross busied herself with the bowl and the spoon and it was just as if she hadn't caught the trembling in his smile and his voice. "Anything you need?"
And he meant anything, too. Alphonse knew it, because his eyes were laughing, even though he didn't emit more than a rusty cough that would barely pass as a chuckle.
"Uh. Pee," his brother admitted, and glanced at Ross in askance. She grimaced briefly, probably imagining the logistics of the action.
"No way he can sit up on his own," Ed admitted with a frown, and he didn't like the idea of moving his brother when it was so cold outside. Al was already alternating between sweaty and clammy a bit too much for his tastes.
With a nod, she slipped out of the bedroom. She exchanged a few words with Auntie Pinako and went to look through the closets. She came back holding an old milk jug. Edward stole it from her hand and glared her out of the room, because as nice as Maria Ross was, he wasn't about to let her see his brother naked and help him piss. Al might be weak as a newborn right now but he was still a teenager. If it was him needing people's assistance to take a piss, Ed was sure he wouldn't survive the indignity. And all that thinking about it made the pressure on his bladder intolerable, but he told himself that he could hold out just a few minutes longer; Alphonse's needs were more important.
It was a good thing Al was nude under the blankets, because it would have been even more complicated otherwise. He managed to roll him on his side, and more or less placed the jug where it should be, and nudged Al's arm so his hand would be in position to handle himself. Then he looked elsewhere and pretended that he wasn't there, even though he was still reaching over Al to make sure neither him nor the stupid jug didn't roll off the edge of the bed. He didn't listen either. Because considering how much he wanted to be doing the same, the noise would have been enough to make him whimper in pain, and he wasn't one to whimper in pain. No sir.
"... finished, niisan."
He leaned over Al, his chest against his brother's back, as he put the jug back on the floor, then rolled Al on his back, and then on his other side. Al, he had discovered, breathed more easily when he wasn't on his back, and he didn't want him too close to the edge of the bed.
Apparently that was enough to tire Alphonse out; his eyes were closing slowly and he yawned. His hand searched for Ed's arm, as if to tug him down, to cuddle in the warm nest of blankets. It killed Ed to have to refuse, but there was simply no more room for procrastination.
"I, uh, I'll be right back."
Al made a dissatisfied sound when his brother rolled off the bed, and Ed felt horribly guilty when his brother started to shiver. From his calculations, he would need thirty seconds to get back into his clothes -- what the hell had possessed him to wear such form-fitting pants -- plus thirty to run past everyone outside and to the bathroom, and then -- no, it was too long.
Well, he decided, there was always the emergency plan.
It was very good to hear his brother laugh, however wheezy the sound was, even though in the situation it was a little embarrassing. But they were way past that, as he reminded himself while pulling his briefs up.
"Auntie Pinako will kill you," Al chuckled, eyes gleaming with tears of mirth.
"What?" he groused, torn between blushing and laughing with Al. "She never waters the old thing anyway. It was dying. I bet it's grateful to me."
"She'll still kill you. But -- won't tell if you won't."
And then they were laughing so hard as he slumped on the bed and crawled under the blankets, and laughing as Al wound his arms around his neck and they clung to each other, laughing so hard that in the end Al ended up coughing like an old man with pneumonia, but even though Ed felt horribly, horribly guilty for provoking such a coughing fit in his still weakened brother, he still couldn't stop grinning.
Al would be okay. Everything would be okay.
And if someone else was willing to handle the stupid jug, things would be damn near perfect.