Dying is not like falling asleep.
Sleep is gentle; sleep is kind, and slow, and tender, and the moment where consciousness is lost is unrecognisable amidst the warmth.
Edward dies screaming.
He dies when he’s eleven years old, his hand outstretched, grasping at empty air, so-close-so-far to brushing the tips of his brother’s fingers. He knows he’s screaming because his throat burns, like he’s swallowed hot glass shards; he knows he’s screaming Al’s name because Al’s screaming his. It’s with a kind of morbid fascination that he watches the matter of his body peel away like the skin of an orange, and it feels similar to what he imagines it’d be to have a knife held to the surface of his flesh and dragged until swathes of skin were scraped off. It takes his legs, first; that happens slowly enough for him to watch as much as feel; then it quickens, hungrier, greedier, insatiable, swallowing his torso and peeling away stretches of his face. He doesn’t cease screaming, even though the pain in his throat is too much to bear; even if his lungs can’t find enough air to keep up.
His hand is the last to go. Al’s close now, eyes wide and terrified and so very young. Ed thinks their fingers might just brush, just for a half-second; maybe it’s wishful thinking; maybe the pain’s so raw that he can’t see straight; maybe he has a chance of holding on.
Halfway through a scream, Edward dies.
When he wakes next, he isn’t dead anymore.
He isn’t quite alive, either.
Blood is the first thing Ed sees. It paints the floor in smears and splashes, running along the familiar cracks in the basement tiling and over the chalk lines of the array. It coats his hands in dark red.
The funny thing about the blood is that he can’t feel it, and the funny thing about his hands is that they aren’t his own.
“I’m sorry,” Al whispers as Ed scoops him into his arms. “I’m sorry, brother, I’m so s-sorry—” he gasps, teeth breaking the skin of his lip as the gaping stump of his arm gives out a another sluggish pump of blood—“I’m sorry—the armour in the corner—it was the only thing I could—I’m sorry—”
Ed shushes him. He pushes to his feet and says, “Don’t speak, Al, don’t speak—it’s okay—it’s gonna—fuck, it’s gonna—”
It’s strange, talking without a mouth. Ed supposes he should be grateful he can’t smell the heaviness of the blood; the pulsing mass of organs and stretched black flesh and jutting white ribs in the centre of the room must give off the stench of decay too. He tries to retch, to grasp any relief whatsoever, but he can’t even feel his face like this—
He makes it into open air. The apple tree in the yard sways barely in the wind, and the old rope-swing creaks softly. He stumbles along the dirt path lined with flowers, Al writhing in his arms, dripping a slobbering trail of blood on mom’s pansies. Ed keeps expecting his legs to give out, for shudders to lock his joints and bring him down. Halfway to Granny’s house and forced to watch his little brother bleed out.
His legs, of course, stay strong.
Thirty-two hours later, knuckles rap against the door. Granny answers with a huff, hushing the dog and setting aside chopped vegetables for Al’s soup.
“Hey!” she protests, attempting to slam the door as figures in military uniform storm past. “What the—who the hell do you think you—”
The man, dark haired and dark eyed, says, “Where are they?” A severe woman is at his side, her eyes flickering across the room, over messily strewn tools and dirty dishes and discarded towels crusted with blood. “The Elrics—where are they?”
He sees them, then. Words seem to fizzle out in his throat, but he strides forwards in three long steps, and Ed watches as he hauls Al up by the collar.
“What did you do?” When he shakes his hand as if it’ll force a response, Al sways with it, limp and glassy-eyed like a rag doll.
This man—he thinks he can just treat Al like that—Ed’s little brother, who’s missing a fucking arm and leg—
“Don’t touch him!” Ed snarls, reaching a large hand to fix it on the man’s wrist. He must’ve held harder than intended—how’s he supposed to know?—because the man cries out, hand going slack and dropping Al back into the chair with a thud.
There’s a resounding click as the woman points her gun at Ed’s head.
“Step away from him.” Her voice is steady, but her eyes burn.
Ed stares into the barrel with churning in his guts, except—that’s just in his head isn’t it? He doesn’t have guts, and it’s not possible for his ears to ring sharp, but—
“How dare you,” spits Granny, eyes furious behind glasses. “Who are you, to point a gun at a child?”
They come to a halt. In the woman’s hands, the gun trembles, and the man looks faintly sick, but Ed can’t force his hand back to his side—he’s trying, but it’s like it won’t even budge even though he’s begging it to—
“A child?” says the woman, gun slipping back into its holster.
“These are your Elrics,” says Granny with no small amount of spite. “Ten and eleven years old, and they’ve just been through hell, so this better be goddamn important, mister—”
“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang.” He drops his arm.
“Mister Mustang,” finishes Granny.
Mustang nods as if he accepts the judgement. He turns his eyes to Al, gaze lingering on the bloodied bandages, before travelling to Ed. He looks as if he wishes he could step away without being impolite.
“I’m sorry,” Mustang says. He swallows thickly. “I didn’t realise there was anyone inside there.”
Ed rests his clumsy hand on the handle of Al’s chair, and almost, almost, says, “There isn’t.”
Rather, he snorts, and Mustang looks taken aback, but Ed soldiers on and says, “What the hell is it you want with us?”
Wariness clouds his eyes, as if Ed might attack again. Finding himself tilting his head down to even get a chance of meeting Mustang’s gaze, Ed guesses he can’t blame him.
“We heard tale of two alchemic prodigies here.” Mustang stands straighter. “I have the feeling it was more than a tale.”
Al’s wheelchair sits on the porch. His head is tilted back, eyes fluttered shut, honeyed sunlight flitting over his hair.
“You can go to talk to him,” Winry says, nudging Ed with her elbow. There’s a clank, and she rubs the sore spot with a wince.
From the safety of the kitchen, Ed shakes his head, yanking his gaze from the window and flipping onto the next page of another alchemic text. It rips. He slams the damn thing shut and dumps it on the growing pile.
Winry sighs. “I’m going into town today. Would you like to come, Ed?”
“You can’t stay inside forever.”
“Why not? It’s not like a need sunlight.” Ed fiddles with the hem of the stupid loincloth. He curses and rips it off, but he can’t tell if he looks even more ridiculous without it. “‘S not like I need anything, actually.”
“You need human contact,” Winry says.
Ed balls up the cloth. “I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”
Winry’s hands—god, they’re so small next to Ed’s, and it’s so wrong because they haven’t been smaller than his since they were eight—pull the fabric from his harsh fingers, straightening it out and folding it into a neat little square.
She whispers, “No one has to know it’s you.”
“What? I just pretend I’m someone else for the rest of my fucking life?”
Flinching, Winry sets the cloth aside. “Not forever. Al’s going to be a State Alchemist, and then you’ll both be gone.”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “That’s probably for the best.”
“Ed, I didn’t mean it like—”
“Tell Al to come in soon,” Ed says, getting up. His thighs knock against the table, shunting it forwards and splashing coffee from a mug, and he doesn’t bother lightening his footsteps when he crosses to the back door. It swings wide on its hinges, banging as it collides with the wall. “It’s growing cold outside.”
Al asks Ed to stay home while he takes the exam. Ed tells him with a firm hand on his shoulder that he’d be fucking damned if he let his little brother go to the city alone, to which Al rolls his eyes and mutters something snarky about stubborn older brothers, but his smile doesn’t go unnoticed.
He has his certification within the year. Ed sits on the other side of the door while he receives it.
When Al steps out of the Colonel’s office clutching an envelope too big for his gloved hands, he’s beaming, bouncing on his heels and looking much like he did after winning the science fair three summers ago. Ed stands, and the creaks of his joints are unbearably loud in the silence.
“They gave me a code name,” Al rushes, eyes bright. “Fullmetal. Isn’t that so cool?”
Ed laughs. “It’s gaudy, that’s what. Which is why it’s so cool.”
“We’re one step closer to getting your body back, brother,” Al says. He rests his right hand on the centre of Ed’s metal belly, which is about as high as he can reach.
“You, too, Al.”
—the truth is that couldn’t give less of a shit about his body if he could just restore Al’s.
He did this to himself. He locked himself in this prison, and there is no key.
“Hungry?” Ed says. On cue, Al’s stomach gurgles, and he blushes furiously.
“Yeah.” He clips his silver pocket watch to his belt and rubs his neck. “I’ve been starving all the time lately. It’s probably the automail.”
“Let’s get you something to eat. We could go fancy? Find a posh-ass restaurant as celebration, now we actually have the money for it.” Ed begins to walk. He wants to get out of here as fast as possible; he isn’t a fan of the way they’re looked at, a slight little boy flanked by a hulking metal monstrosity. It’s alright, on the streets. Here, in the heart of Amestris’ military, he leaves fingers ghosting over the buttons of gun holsters.
“Are you sure, brother? I can eat—later.”
Ed descends the steps without waiting for Al to keep up. “I’m not going to break down into tears if you eat in front of me.” He leaves I couldn’t if I wanted to unsaid.
“You’re too blunt, brother,” Al says, panting as he catches up, but his shoulders aren’t quite as tense as before.
“I can do what I want,” Ed says. “Hey, get outta the way.”
They find a restaurant, Al apologising profusely to everyone Ed knocks aside as he walks, and according to Al the pasta tastes just as godly as the steak, but even better is the smoked fish, and the three ice creams he makes his way through afterwards are the best he’s ever had.
“We should remember this place,” Al says, licking his spoon. “So we can come back when you get your body back.”
“Jeez, Al, you sure you won’t’ve eaten them outta business by then?” Ed says, and Al swats at him with the spoon.
He wishes he could say what he’s really thinking.
“Your look isn’t very good.”
“Thanks, brother, that means a lot.”
Ed shoots his best approximation of a glare. Al doesn’t look up from his book.
“I mean—you’re the Fullmetal Alchemist,” Ed explains, cracking another egg and dumping it into the pan. Only one piece of shell gets stuck in it, so he considers it a win. “You seen what they’re calling you in the papers? The People’s Alchemist. You’re a big deal, little bro.”
“Please don’t call me ‘little bro’ ever again,” Al snorts, setting aside his book and rolling over onto his back, stretching his arms and yawning in his best effort to look like an actual goddamn cat. The shitty barracks bed creaks ominously.
Salt. And pepper. That comes next, right? Ed’s crap at this cooking thing, but it helps with his dexterity, and Al forgets to eat when he’s researching, by which time he doesn’t care how much Ed’s meals actually resemble food. He’s getting better, though—at least, no fire alarms lately.
“You’re an icon, but you’re not iconic,” Ed says.
“I did not understand a word of that.”
“Your outfit, Al!” The sausages sizzle as they hit the pan. Some hot spittle flies out, but Ed doesn’t bother flinching anymore. “People take to you because you don’t show up in military get-up, but you’re plain as a board right now.”
“Wow. Thanks. Great to know what you think.” Uneven footsteps pad closer, and Al picks up where Ed left off with the half-chopped mushrooms.
“We need to establish you a look, Al.”
“Is there a point? We’re just doing this to get our bodies back.”
“Raising your popularity could help us in the future.”
Al runs his hand through his hair. It’s longer than it was a year ago, but not by much; shaggier, curling a bit around his ears and neck, kind of like Ed’s was before he—
“When did you get so responsible, brother?” Al says, grinning like a little brat as he chops the mushrooms into neat little slices. Ed’s mushrooms, once okay-ish, are now uneven chunks beside them.
“Since my little brother started galavanting across the country in awful, uncoordinated outfits.”
“Fine!” Al throws his hands into the air. “I give in. You’re a stubborn idiot.”
The mushrooms join the pan. “Anything for you, little bro.”
The following morning, Ed drags Al down to the shops, where he makes a face at just about everything Ed suggests. He, personally, thought leather pants were a stunning idea, and the red-soled combat boots would’ve completed that look with a particularly badass finesse.
“Maybe if you wear them you’ll almost be as tall as me,” Ed snorts, holding them up and very much wishing he had feet.
“I don’t care enough about my height to wear platform boots, brother.”
Al concedes that the white-trimmed black jacket works well, but the long red coat is apparently ‘impractical, and also disgustingly gaudy, what the hell, brother’. He eventually settles on a coat of a similar cut but of less airy material. Ed convinces him that black is the optimum colour for concealing machine grease and blood stains—two in one!—so Al sighs and gets that one, and it’s kind of a compromise because the inside lining is the same dark red as Ed’s previous choice. He figures they can add something cool to the back when they’re done shopping.
Looking damn good in his new—black soled—combat boots, Al’s eyes suddenly spark, and he shouts, “Wait here! I’ll be back in a minute!”, and he darts into a fabric shop.
Ed kills time by seeing how threatening he can look to passersby, which is, as it turns out, pretty damn threatening. It’s fun until a girl maybe a few years his junior sees him and blanches, looking terrified to her core.
Ed wishes Al would hurry up.
He rushes out the shop with his arm behind his back and a smile stretching his cheeks. “Here,” he says, holding out his hand. In it he clutches a swathe of red fabric, much thinner than it is long, fluttering in the wind.
“Uh,” Ed says. “What is it?”
Al looks nervous. “You took off the cloth that came with the armour, right? I thought you could tie this round your waist instead. Like a sash.”
“Was it... a bad idea? You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I just thought...”
Ed takes the fabric and traces the edges in his large fingers. It’s a rich colour, matching well against the silver of his body.
He ruffles Al’s hair, wishing it could be a hug without hurting him, and says, “It’s a great idea. Thanks, Al.”
It ties neatly around his waist, knotting at the side of his hip and leaving the ends to dangle almost to his knees.
“Now we’re both iconic,” Al says.
“It sounds awful when you put it like that.”
“It was always awful, brother.”
“Woah,” Elicia gasps, mouth agape and upturned eyes comically wide, “You really are a big brother.”
Ed scoffs. “You bet I am, kid. Much taller than this scrawny thing.”
“Ow, Ed! Don’t poke me!” Al laments, rubbing his arm, even though it’s the automail one.
Hughes laughs, and Gracia smiles. Al catches Ed’s gaze from the corner of his eye, a clear question of whether he’s doing okay, and Ed wants to scream—he wants to bash his helmet against the floral fucking wallpaper even though it’d do more damage to the peony print than his own head, because he’s not fragile; he’s not going to shatter at the mention of his condition; he’s more than everything he can never be—
Then again, maybe he isn’t doing so okay.
The evening passes slowly. Hughes’ family is nice, they really are, and Gracia’s patient even when Ed’s a rude fuck-up that says shit completely unacceptable in the homes of happy families going out of their way to host some haunted kid and his monstrosity of a brother.
The night passes even slower.
Al doesn’t sleep well, but better than usual at least. He tosses and turns and whimpers, and at one point Ed gets up to hold his automail arm down so he doesn’t hurt himself in his thrashing. In the end, Ed dismisses waking him, because this is better than he’s slept in weeks.
It hurts. It hurts so fucking much.
“Soon, Al,” Ed whispers as Al settles back into some semblance of peace. “Not for long, okay? I’ll get you back to normal. I will. Just you wait.”
One of these days, he’ll start believing himself.
On maintenance visit number two, Ed goes to check on Al and Winry. Al isn’t a fan of Ed seeing his automail process; it’s probably because he’s guilty that Ed can’t feel pain, or some equally pure-spirited bullshit.
He cracks open the door a fraction. “Hey, guys, do you need any...”
Al’s lying back on the table, arm outstretched, and he and Winry are deep in enthusiastic conversation. Winry’s waving her spanner about as she gesticulates, laughing off her ass, and Al’s smiling broader than he has for a year and a half.
Ed doesn’t hear what it is they’re talking about. He doesn’t want to.
(You, his mind supplies. They’re laughing at you, the stupid failure of a big brother and his junkyard body that sounds like pots and fucking pans, and the way you always have to get in the way, full of empty promises and pathetic desperation for reassurance.
They don’t even need you around.)
Winry says something that makes Al flush, laughing with his head tucked to his chest, and her cheeks dust pink too.
The door clicks shut behind Ed as he returns to the darkness of the corridor. Their conversation muffles into indistinguishable laughter.
The nights only get longer. Ed only gets worse.
He’s tired; he’s tired of memorising all the cracks in the walls of every new hotel; he’s tired of holding Al’s head in his lap on rocking trains in the dead of night; he’s tired of stumbling outside for fresh air to escape the box-sized rooms and knowing he can’t open his mouth to breathe.
Ed’s tired, and sleep is a memory.
The first time he returns to their single-bed hotel room with scrapes and dents and twisted gashes marring his iron, Al drops the water he’d been nursing with his painkillers.
“What happened, brother?” Al’s uneven hands skitter over the damage, his brow creasing.
“Figured I’d check out some leads while you slept. Put my extra time to good use, y’know?” Ed brushes Al’s hands away and dumps breakfast on the table. Pastries, straight from the bakery. Al likes the ones with jam. “Ran into some trouble. I’m fine.”
Al doesn’t spare the food a glance, even though he’s unfailingly ravenous in the mornings. “Be careful, brother. You’re not invincible.”
Al slumps into his chair. “I’ll patch you up after I’ve eaten.”
The second time goes about the same. The third has a little more scolding, and the fourth is draped with a heavy shroud of resignation.
By the tenth time Ed stumbles in as dawn breaks, there isn’t enough left of him to heal the cracks in his metal.
“Just leave it, Al.”
“No, brother. You’re a mess. You can’t—you can’t walk around like that. People will—”
“They’ll do what? Stare? Point?” Ed slams his fist against the wall. It shudders, the plaster denting inwards, and dust falls like ash from the cracked ceiling. “Whisper about how the hulking suit of armour’s a fucking freak, and they don’t want him near their kids, and can someone just get him removed already, and make everyone here more comfortable?”
Al’s expression crumples, and he stutters, and this is the bit where tears well up and he apologises, and Ed holds him and tells him it’s okay; it’s okay, because they’re still working on it; things like this are bound to happen, little fights and scraps when it gets too much and the leads go dead; they’ll carry on, they always do; they’re strong, the two of them, and the shit they’ve lived through can’t touch them now—
Al slams the door when he leaves.
He comes back. Of course he does.
They don’t talk about it; they should, but they don’t.
Ed keeps collecting cracks, but he can’t help but feel like something else has been broken too.