Al Elric was certain that waking up every morning was more of a delight than anyone else in the world could appreciate. He loved that he could lie in a soft bed, feeling his chest rise and fall and rise until it had lulled him into a blissful sleep, albeit with the occasional nightmare, but dreams too! Real actual dreams that he couldn’t have thought up himself-- completely ridiculous things, like the Colonel becoming Fuhrer of the moon and sending Ed incredible quantities of the grossest smelling cheese ever known, or Winry using a pair of wrenches and playing his armor like drums, and his favorite; Ed turning into a cat for no reason whatsoever.
Unfortunately, he woke up that morning; frustrated, uncomfortable, and panting and gasping from another nightmare. He’d been on some kind of streak lately, he hadn’t had a pleasant dream in almost a week. His bad mood was made worse when he realized that it wasn’t even morning, and checking the clock revealed that it wasn’t even close-- three am. He screams in frustration, though the pitch shoots to it’s highest peak as he registers someone sitting next to him in the darkness, presumably watching him sleep. Unfortunately, he’s screamed the both of them wide awake by the time he realizes that it’s just Ed, who kicks and flails out of his seat and onto the floor. They reorient themselves in silence for a moment, just panting and letting their eyes adjust. Finally, Al feels put together enough to offer Ed a hand back into his seat, but finds a flaw.
Al had offered his left arm. His own left arm surprised him with a bulky, hard, heavy, sweaty, brace strapped way too tight around his forearm and bicep. Al had not been wearing this incredibly uncomfortable, borderline-painful brace when he went to bed.
Catching Ed’s guilty look, and putting two-and-two together about his horrible sleep the past week, it was all he could do to hiss, “ Explain. ” instead of just screaming.
Ed just shuffles awkwardly and tries to mumble something, but Al can’t bring himself down to his normal temperament. Not now. “Ed, do you realize that I haven’t slept in five years? Do you realize that I enjoy sleeping? That I WANT to sleep, and sleep PEACEFULLY ? ”
Ed chokes slightly after this outburst, and Al pretends he can’t see the tears brimming in his eyes because he’d thought it was just one of those things the he had been sleeping horribly for a week, but NO. Apparently, that was Ed’s idea of a practical joke. Some bitter, ugly thing in the back of his mind whispered that his years in the armor must have been hilarious. That absolute nonsense thought was Al’s breaking point, despite the fact that Ed had already taken his brace back and started scurrying to the door.
“Good night and good riddance !” he spits at Ed’s back, knowing full well that he won’t be able to sleep the rest of the night. Still, he throws himself back onto his side and yanks the covers up to his chin with completely unrestrained violence, determined to at least try to get some sleep. His anger keeps him up for probably three or four minutes.
Al loved to wake up early, but after the week he’d had, the afternoon light filtering through his window was a welcome sight. All was right with the world again; he’d slept wonderfully, had a dream about Ed winning a military medal of valor, for kicking sand in Scar’s eye by accident while playing baseball, and woke up peacefully. Suffice to say, he was in an excellent mood as he scampered down the stairs towards the kitchen, knowing that they’d saved his piece of apple pie for him after he’d stuffed himself last night. Great sleep, apple pie for breakfast, great sleep , no muscle pain yet today, great sleep -- Al didn’t think anything could bring him down until he rounded the corner to the kitchen, and immediately dove back behind it.
Peeking back, he was almost certain that Ed hadn’t seen him, though that had nothing to do with his very deficient sneakiness. No, it was probably because Ed’s eyes were red and puffy, sunken halfway into his head and underscored by dark bags. Also the fact that he was staring, unblinking, into the wood grain of the table as though it was telling him a horribly sad story and he needed to know how it ended, even though it was already making him miserable.
Al wiggles back into the hall and raks his brain for what their conversation last night had actually consisted of. What he does remember was his brainless, unshakeable conviction that Ed was trying to make him miserable by stealing his sleep, and that he’d gotten very angry about that. How he’d convinced himself of that, even dead-tired as he was, he would never know. Especially because the more he thinks about it, the more he remembers that Ed had been upset too-- maybe even more upset than he had been.
Eventually Al accepts that he’s the reason Ed is so upset, and shuffles mournfully back into the kitchen to ask Ed what happened and how he can help.
Ed tries desperately to think of some excuse as to what had happened last night but finds his head so cotton stuffed and aching, he can barely string a truthful sentence together. All the same, he’d rather shrug and mumble and get pestered relentlessly than admit the truth. The horrible, agonizing truth of yet another thing Al had lost when he was in the armor, something Al himself hadn’t even noticed yet.
“Oh, come on Ed, it’s bugging you, so now it’s bugging me anyway. Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out.”
Damn, that was tempting, but Ed still shook his head no.
“Ed, we’ve been through so much together, got through it all together … are you seriously not going to tell me?”
Al was starting to really get stressed. Was something wrong with his arm? Had he broken it without realizing? Did the joint bend backwards and creep Ed out while he was asleep? Was he sleep-walking and doing alchemy like Ed had when he’d joined the military? It’s hadn’t been any trouble for him to take care of Ed during that time, but Ed had a body too, he needed sleep just as much as Al, so the obvious fix was exactly what Al had screamed at him about--
Al looked like he was about to puke, or faint, or both. Ed couldn’t believe he was doing this he couldn’t believe he was about to tell Al that he--
“You suck your thumb while you sleep!”
The Elric brothers stared at each other in dead silence as the words dangled there, in the open now.
After just a little too long, Al closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to actually process those words. But before he could ask how his brother expected him to believe that that, of all things, was the real problem, Ed started to sob, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
Slowly, he started to understand that Ed was serious.
Al groaned and started looking for his pie-- Ed was so far beyond exhausted, he was going to be inconsolable until he’d gotten this out of his system. Maybe Al would be able to understand his brother’s sleep-deprived leaps of logic once he’d eaten his pie.
Ed gasped when he saw his chance-- Al had turned away from him, and the rejection hurt so much more than anything he’d ever felt before, but it was a chance.
Al, frozen, stared at the kitchen window, his eyes wide as they could go and his mouth agape.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT NOISE?” Pinako screamed from her workshop, and Al choked, flinging himself out of the already-broken window.
Ed had walked for about six minutes after running from the Rockbell’s for almost five, before he had to sit down. He’d cut himself on the window, but it wasn’t bad; the thing that brought him to the ground was the thought of Al, ten years old and realizing that he sucked his thumb in his sleep. Al had been so upset about that, worried that it was “baby-ish,” he said he was too big to be sucking his thumb, even if he only did it in his sleep. Ed had gently assured him with all the tenderness expected of him. “Knock it off Al, all the whining is what’s really baby-ish. I mean jeez, you’re gonna grow out of it eventually, just forget about it for now.”
Except just a month after that began “the longest all-nighter of all time” as he’d heard Winry call it last week.
Now Al was 15 and he still sucked his thumb in his sleep, and he was so upset . Ed just couldn’t handle the thought that he had steered his brother wrong again. One more thing that had gone wrong, so of course he had to mess it up more and doze off last night as he tried to fix it without actually telling Al….
Al had fortunately picked the correct direction when he started away from the Rockbell’s, despite the fact that his brother had already been out of view by the time he was making his own escape.
Just a few minutes into his little surprise walk, Ed was in his line of vision, distant, but now moving much slower than Al, before he eventually stopped and… Al himself couldn’t tell if Ed had sat down or fallen, but for safety’s sake, he transmuted a cane and rushed as best he could.
To say that Ed was surprised when Al appeared and sat on the ground next to him, wheezing with exertion that he shouldn’t have been pushing himself to in the first place, would definitely be an understatement.
Breathing heavily, Al eventually turns to him, and instead of any kind of reprimand for breaking the window, with no audible bitterness for the robbed years of his life and all the developmental milestones with those, his brother says “You realize that you’re gonna have to help me up when we go home.” Al asks, though it’s clearly not a question. “Now take a nap.”
Because Al was awesome like that.
Al wasn’t expecting Ed to just collapse when he said that, as though he’d been waiting for explicit permission from Al to go to sleep. The younger shakes the discomfort he gets from the actual plausibility of that idea, and starts tending to the surprisingly shallow cuts Ed had sustained.
(Al hadn’t seen him actually go through-- maybe he’d led with his automail leg? Or that cast iron bust of himself that Major Armstrong had gifted to Pinako. Al knew that the only reason the woman kept it on the kitchen counter was because she enjoyed the disturbed reactions it got, but in the absolutely ridiculous situation he had found himself in, it would have been a viable option for Ed to break the window.)
Pondering this, Al eventually startles awake at the realization that he’d fallen asleep on his brother, who carried on unbothered. After confirming that Ed was still blissfully unaware of the world, he yawns and props himself on his right arm, scrubbing at the tiny tears that prick his eyes from the yawn, and is surprised to note that his left thumb is wet, the tip even slightly pruned.
A little chuff of laughter escapes him as he surveys it-- since getting his body back, he’d made it a point to always take his time to just lay there in the mornings; enjoy snuggling into the softness of the blanket, the early sun on his face, the weaving path his thoughts paved on their way back to lucidity from that once-unreachable place. It was either that, or he’d launch into sweaty, hysterical alertness and oversensitivity. Either or, he wasn’t necessarily surprised that he hadn’t noticed, but he was concerned that Ed had made such a big deal of it. Al knew very well what could happen to Ed’s mental facilities when he tried to stay up for too long-- he’d (unfortunately) never forget Ed’s hysterical conviction that Colonel Mustang’s toupe was made out of live rats when he’d spent more than a week trying to keep Al company during the nights. Still, thinking there were tiny gremlins in his hair was Ed’s normal sleep deprivation mania-- stressing out for what was likely more than a week about something as innocuous as thumb-sucking was not normal.
It’s not long before Al can’t cope with the sharp prickle of the grass under his hands, and his elbows shake under him, threatening to lower his whole body into the sea of tiny knives. He gasps and glances at his brother, still sleeping next to him.
Ed wakes up to a dull, repetitive impact connecting with his hip. As he heaves his bleary-eyed head out of the grass, he grumbles softly and sees that he’s being kicked by a foot, and the foot is connected to a leg, and the leg is connected to a person, that person who is his brother, and that Al is kicking him,-- and that Al is sitting, leaning back on his hands on the grass next to him, and he’s shaking and hyperventilating and trying very hard not to cry .
Launching up, he doesn’t hesitate to pull Al off of the grass and into his left arm-- Al was still only heavy enough that holding his entire body in just his left arm was still do-able. He walks as fast as he’d dare back towards the house, with Al’s head resting on his shoulder, tears seeping into his shirt slowly.
Ed has to choke back tears of his own as he notices them, his thoughts returning to his failures as an older brother-- #1111, running away and forcing his physically indisposed brother to run out after him and overwhelm himself.
It’s only when they’re halfway home Ed realizes that Al has been putting on weight, and regardless of how little it seems when he’s standing on his own legs, it’s very suddenly become too much for Ed and his one working arm. He takes up a mental mantra of Don’t let him down... Don’t let him down… not again…
Al doesn’t know how to tell Ed that he feels better now.
Ed clearly needs to put him down, but he’s obviously fighting some kind of internal battle, which experience says is most likely about Al. On one hand, if Al doesn’t say something soon, Ed could physically injure himself… on the other hand, saying something will leave Ed without a resolution, and he could spend months or years ripping into himself before he opens up and reveals the ridiculous conundrum he’s invented.
He takes a shaky breath when he thinks about the massive crisis that the Fifth Lab had been for both of them. “Ed, something’s on your mind.”
“No.” Ed responds, while Al is still in the middle of ‘your’. His face twists into a grimace before looking at his brother, and more so when he glimpses the raised brow in his periphery.
A beat of judgemental silence passes between the two before Al speaks. “I feel much better now, I’m going to walk the rest of the way home.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Yes. I am.”
“No, you’re too--” Ed cuts himself off before he can say what Al knows he was going to say-- probably because he’s staring daggers into him.
Al is gently placed on his feet.
Shame pools in Ed’s gut as he watches his brother do his best to hobble along at a reasonable pace. #1112… but now Al is scrutinising him very carefully, and he clearly sees the shame.
“Ed, I need you to tell me what’s going on.”
“No, Ed, this is eating you up and I really don’t see any problem-- you need to tell me.”
“... What do you mean you don’t… you don’t see a problem?”
“With the thumb-sucking? Not really. Why did you think it’d be a problem?”
“I… but you were so worked up about it before you lost your body! You-- I told you you’d grow out of it, and then--” He falters seeing Al’s deadpan expression, and knowing that blaming himself will make whatever's coming to him twice as bad.
“Ed, I was ten . I don’t even remember being upset about that, I didn’t remember that I did it at all. And secondly -- don’t think for a moment that I missed that at the end. It’s not your fault. We’ve been bickering about this same thing for so many years now, and I’m sick of it.” Al stops and faces Ed in the golden light of early evening, sticking his pinkie finger out to him. “Once and for all-- we both. Made. Our. Choice. It’s over. The last step is to move forward.” he wiggles his pinkie to emphasize ‘the last step,’ staring hard into Ed’s eyes.
Ed stares back and takes a shaky breath. He reaches out, with his right hand, to promise his brother that they’d take that step together.
Slipping his left arm under Al’s right, they continue down the road in a cathartic silence. This silence is broken when Al turns to him to smirk and ask, “So explain the arm brace, because I still don’t get it.”
Ed squirms and coughs awkwardly, “I, ah… I maybe have made a few leaps of logic…” seeing that Al was waiting to laugh at his gargantuan bounds, he dragged on, “I, uh… figured if I could get you to stop before you noticed there wouldn’t be any cause for grief... right?”
“So you…” Al huffs a disbelieving laugh, and Ed knows he’s about to get it. “I, Ed, just disregarding the fact that it’s thumb-sucking and not sleep alchemy -- you genuinely believed that you could just stick a brace on my arm and I wouldn’t… notice…? How long did you think it would take to break the habit? Not to mention, you seriously--” Al breaks off with strangled laughter as Ed glares at him, adamantly pretending he couldn’t feel the heat mounting in his cheeks.
Al is about to continue, but Ed sees the Rockbell house in the distance and starts dragging him faster than Al can necessarily match. Whatever. He deserved it for bringing up sleep alchemy.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop his obnoxious guffawing.
Al knew that mentioning sleep alchemy would frazzle Ed, it had literally never failed.
Still, finding that he’s struggling to breathe-- mostly because he’s laughing too hard-- Al tries to pull himself together. As he does, he examines the conversation they’d just had and… he does remember now, and Ed wasn’t exaggerating when he said Al had been ‘so worked up’-- if anything it was a huge understatement. It was just… Al had grown up. Ed couldn’t have known that the thumb-sucking wouldn’t be an even bigger crisis than last time, simply because of that-- really thinking about it, it did seem like he could have gone either way.
His brother understandably doesn’t stop dragging him despite his wheezing, but his pace does slow a bit when Al starts talking. “Ed… thanks for trying. I really appreciate it, I do.”
Glancing in his periphery, he sees that Ed’s face was crumpled up… like he was trying not to cry.
Blinking rapidly, it takes him a moment to realize that they’ve gotten to the house-- and that Pinako was waiting for them on the front porch. In retrospect, he probably should have waited until they were safely back in their room. Instead, they’re forced to shuffle up to the porch, but they don’t ascend the stairs; Pinako likes looking down on them.
“Don’t think I don’t see what you’re trying... look, you’ll be in trouble later, just fix the damn window.”
It’s a surprising development, but definitely a welcome one. Fixing a window is child’s play, especially considering Pinako had collected the original glass pieces while they’d been gone. They go to leave the kitchen, Al a little more tired and Ed a little more embarrassed, when Pinako speaks up again;
“Ah-ah-- don’t forget my hunk.” her smirk is obvious, but both the boys shudder and feel a roil of nausea when she shows them the two halves of the Armstrong bust.
Al fixes it and they run .
Showered and laid in bed, Ed stares at the ceiling and wonders how this is so difficult.
He could fall asleep anywhere when he was younger: offices, parks, trains, a zoo one time. He’d literally passed out in the grass earlier. He was still so tired, he didn’t think he could get back up.
But he couldn’t get to sleep again.
Heaving a sigh, he glances at Al’s back in the bed next to him. The solution is simple, but he just can’t… he looks back at the ceiling, rolling the thought over and over in his head, until it’s interrupted, “Careful now, don’t hurt yourself.”
Looking again, he finds that Al is facing him now-- obviously he’s just as tired as Ed, but smiling patiently. Feeling that he’s waiting up for him, Ed decides to just… ask.
“I-- Al? I know it’s childish, uh but--”
Al is already standing up and coming over to him, and he laughs a soft, fond laugh that reminds Ed of someone they still missed so dearly. Wiggling under the covers, he says with no small amount of finality, “Ed. We’re children.”