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Quarantine

Chapter Text

Edward Elric was bored. Really, utterly bored. He'd have thought that, now that everything was over, now that they'd put things right, and won, accomplishing everything he'd been hoping for and more for years, he'd finally be able to relax. But it seemed his inability to sit still was innate, and wouldn't be deterred by victory, and yeah, staring at the cracks in the tiled ceiling of a sterile, fluorescent-lit hospital room wasn't doing much to abate his restlessness. He wasn't even tired, not anymore, not after a nurse came in and informed him that he'd been asleep for two days.

He was just bored.

Oh, and his arm really hurt.

The left one, not the right one. The right one was fine. Weak, tingly from renewed sensation, and slightly atrophied, but wonderfully there, and therefore fine.

Thanks to Al.

That idiot.

The left one, though, it was pretty impossible to forget, had been impaled. The doctors said it was just muscle damage, through the bicep, and that it should heal up fine. But in the meantime, it was a solid, burning throb that radiated from his shoulder to his elbow, which only served to make him irritable and keep his attention span short. He'd only been lying in this stupid bed for less than an hour since he'd woken up, been given food, and been told what was going on, and already he couldn't take it anymore. He figured there was nothing for it, he might as well get up and go find Al.

It'd been really weird waking up alone when the last thing that he remembered was hanging out in one of the many impromptu medic tents with Al, having finally gotten a few minutes alone where they'd presumably been forgotten in the chaotic aftermath of the battle, and stuffing his face with provisions—somewhat stale sandwiches— that had been left for them. Al had initially, eagerly planned on eating too, but when it got down to it, the sight of food made him turn faintly green, and they'd decided it'd be best to wait for doctors' orders before he tried to keep anything down. Apparently, somewhere along the line, Ed had fallen asleep—or blacked out—and he and Al had both been taken to the military hospital. He'd been a little disconcerted by the fact that they weren't rooming together, and had almost panicked by force of habit when his drowsy eyes had darted around the room and found himself sans giant suit of armor, before sense kicked in. A nurse had calmly explained that they were all out of double rooms at the moment, and that Al—who's got his body back, you numbskull, he informed his still muddled brain—was in another room not far away, doing just fine and resting. The thought of that brought an involuntary, excited smile to his face.

He got himself out of bed and did a quick self-inventory before heading out into the hallway. First order of business was to pull out the stupid IV line he was attached to: he swore under his breath as he ripped off the tape and pulled out the little tube, internally cursing whoever had taken advantage of his unconscious state to poke him with a needle the moment the tape came free. Other than that, he was okay, if still a bit battered, the abrasions on his chest and torso protesting a bit as the bandages shifted with his movement, his wounded arm a solid ache. Eh, could be worse. Certainly not enough to stop him from seeking out some form of diversion from boredom, or checking on Al. And if Al was asleep, fine, he could go see Lieutenant Hawkeye, or Izumi, both of whom were supposed to be here, or maybe if he was really desperate, the Armstrong siblings. He owed them both a visit, at some point, but the idea of being bear-hugged by the younger Armstrong, and snapped at by the abrasive elder Armstrong-regardless of the fact that she did mean well-did not seem appealing at this very moment.

…And Mustang. He'd need to find out what Mustang was up to as well. Last Ed had seen him, Mustang had shaken his hand with his own heavily bandaged one, sightless gaze trained somewhere above Ed's head, congratulating him with a smile that was genuine but incapable of hiding deep devastation. The thought made his heart heavy.

He stepped into the hallway, reminding himself to thank whatever nurse was merciful enough to put him in scrubs rather than a hospital gown—it'd have been a pain for either of his arms to have to reach behind himself and hold an open back closed—and looked back and forth. It was midday and hardly very busy, but he could see a few nurses conversing down on one end of the hall and headed that way. He passed a few rooms with open doors; even though he only got brief glimpses of the patients in each, he knew none of them was Al. And even though it was stupid, and that he'd been told only an hour ago that Al was totally fine, he had to clamp down on a tiny surge of panic. He was being stupid; he hadn't even checked the other half of the hall and after all, this was a big damn hospital.

With some measure of relief, he recognized one of the nurses as the one who'd come to see him earlier. She looked utterly exhausted, but she was kind, blonde, with fine lines around her eyes and mouth. Doubtless she was worn down from the sheer number of casualties she'd had to contend with over the past few days. He waved at her as he walked over. She looked up and smiled, while the other nurse, younger, brunette, and rather disheveled, looked visibly startled at his appearance. As he approached, he saw the brunette mouth something to his nurse—Fullmetal, he was pretty sure—and the blonde nodded once in response. The other's eyes grew round, and when he was finally standing in front of them, she ducked into what he guessed was some sort of awkward curtsy, and muttered something, pink-cheeked, about needing to check up on a patient before turning on her heel and hurrying away.

"What's with her?" he asked, watching the nurse's hastily retreating back.

"My guess? She's being shy. You're forgetting just how many people were watching you that day, Mr. Elric," the blonde nurse replied wryly, quirking an eyebrow. "I think it's fair to say you and your brother both can add hero worship to the list of things you'll have to contend with in the aftermath of all this. I've already had to send people away because you were sleeping."

"Uh…yeah? Who came?" Despite himself, he felt his face getting a bit red. There was nothing wrong with acknowledgement in itself—he'd certainly flaunted his state alchemist status and used it to his advantage in the past—but the idea being acknowledged for this particular victory, especially by strangers, was a little less savory, given that the circumstances had been so uncomfortably personal for him and Al, and were therefore inextricably tied up with a lot of pain, and terror, and unwanted memories. But they'd done it. And things would be okay now. He could suck it up and face people; that was a small price to pay. He'd probably handle it better than Al would, anyways—Al might have more people skills than he did, but he was also more inclined to get flustered by an excess of attention.

She rolled her eyes, but looked amused. "Who didn't come? But during my shifts, the two Generals Armstrong, as well as Colonel Mustang."

Ed felt his smile fade. "Colonel Mustang?"

"Mhmm. I believe he was here to check on a Lieutenant Hawkeye? Anyway, he wanted to see how you and your brother were doing."

"And, uh, how's he doing?"

"Alphonse?" she asked. "I've told you, he's—"

"No, Mustang."

"What? He's fine too. Why wouldn't he be?" Her brows knit.

"Huh? But he's—"

"He's what?"

"Blind," Ed blurted, unable to think of a way to put it delicately.

"Blind?" The nurse blinked. "What are you talking about?"

"What?" Edward said, blankly. "But he was…how did…huh?"

The nurse frowned a little. "I…don't know what you heard, Mr. Elric, but I assure you, Colonel Mustang isn't blind."

"You're sure?" he asked her, voice a little sterner than intended. "Absolutely sure?"

"Yes," she said slowly. She was looking at him peculiarly, as though wondering if the fight had somehow managed to addle his brain. "He was reading some files when he came in."

"When?"

"Earlier today."

Could it be—

And then he was grinning again, and he probably looked like a moron for it, but he hardly cared. How the hell... And then it occurred to him. The stone. Dr. Marcoh. Must've been. "Does Al know?" he asked, eagerly. "Did Mustang visit him?"

The nurse's face suddenly turned a fraction graver. "No."

"Why not?" he asked, eyebrows raised, not liking her expression. "Has he been passed out for two days too?"

"No, actually," she said. "He's been awake during the day. He's only been sleeping at night, or, ah, so we hope."

"So you hope?" he repeated, that uneasy feeling creeping back into the pit of his stomach. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," she assured him in what he guessed was an often-used and well-practiced placating tone, hazel eyes kind and motherly. "He's just having some trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep, is all. And based on what he's told us about, ah, how he's spent the last few years, we're guessing that's only because he—"

"He hasn't slept at all in that time," Ed finished, with an unpleasant jolt of realization. "Five years..." His eyes drifted away from the nurse and to the scuff marks on the white linoleum floor.

"Right," the nurse said, her voice odd, as though she was having trouble fully grasping that concept. "Well. I'm sure he'll get used to it again, and in the meantime, we offered to give him something to help him get some rest so his body can recover properly, but…"

"But?" His eyes snapped back to hers.

"But he's refusing it," she said, delicately now, as though she could sense Ed's mounting unease. "He says he wants to readjust on his own."

Well that, straight off, Ed knew was bull. Something was up, and he was determined to find out what. "What room is he in?" he demanded, glancing back down the hall. Then, remembering, he added, "And why wasn't Mustang allowed to visit him, anyway?"

"Nobody's been allowed to visit him," she said, words still careful, full of a nurse's tact. "Doctor's orders."

"What?" Ed spluttered. "Why?"

Her lips pressed into a thin line, the look in her eye suddenly, unsettlingly sympathetic.

"Quarantine."

His blood froze. "What….what do you mean 'quarantine'?" His voice sounded small even to his own ears, and he cleared his throat—Get a grip. "He's not…he's not sick or anything, right? I thought you said…"

"No, he's not sick," she confirmed, her voice kind but firm, "And we're trying to keep it that way, which means no visitors."

"Why not?" His own voice was louder than appropriate for a hospital hallway, fueled by anxiety and a sudden pang of guilt—had Al really been left alone for two days while he himself had been asleep?—and the nurse put a finger to her lips before waving him over to a nearby metal bench that stood against the wall. As he sunk down onto the bench, he bit back a grimace at the surge of pain in his arm and chest, or the audible creak of his automail leg—chances were he'd busted up something inside it during the battle, and chances were Winry would kill him for it—and turned to face the nurse, also sitting. Closer to her now, he could see how tired she must be—her shoulders were slightly hunched, and the bags under her eyes bespoke many long shifts. "Why not?" he repeated, his voice slightly quieter.

"Because, Mr. Elric, if what you both say is true and your brother has been imprisoned for five years without any human contact, what kind of a state do you think his immune system is in?"

And Ed felt vaguely though somebody had socked him in the stomach. "….Oh," he said, rather unintelligently.

"You can speak to his doctor about it if you want," she continued, "But I'm telling you, if he were to contract something, I seriously doubt he's got the strength to fight it off in his current state, especially if he isn't sleeping."

Ed gulped and nodded. He felt a little sick. Dammit… After everything they'd worked for, everything they'd lost and everything they'd achieved, he didn't want to even contemplate the possibility that Al could—

Well, you're the one who wanted to give him back his mortality, right? A traitorous voice whispered in his mind. You asked for this.

"Okay," he heard himself say, his voice a little hoarse. "I understand. Where is he?"

Now the nurse looked uncomfortable. She smoothed out the front of her skirt, eyes studiously avoiding his. "Mr. Elric, when I say 'no visitors'…"

"What?" he said, for what must've been the hundredth time during this conversation. "No! Come on, you can't—"

Her face grew stern. "We can, and we will. Would you rather him be sick?"

"I—" he broke off with a frustrated growl. "I don't want him to be alone for—how long?"

"Best case scenario, we're thinking a few weeks, but it really depends on him," she said.

"Well why can't I see him?" Ed asked her. "I mean, I'm the one who brought him back from—uh, who brought him back. He's already been exposed to anything I might be carrying, and I haven't had any visitors either." He was working hard to keep his voice even; the nurse was just doing her job here, after all. And though she obviously cared about the situation, Al was far from the only patient in her charge.

She exhaled slowly. "Listen…"Her features softened into a small, understanding smile. "I know you're eager to see your brother, but this is an…unusual situation, so we're approaching it with maximum caution, for both your sakes. You need to think about what's best for him."

Now Ed kind of wanted to hit something. Because she was right, but...

Damn it.

He huffed a sigh, agitated, and stared at the floor, hands clasped loosely between his knees. "Look, lady," he said, with as much patience as he could muster, which admittedly wasn't much. "Keeping him totally locked up isn't gonna do him much good, either. It'd probably be almost as bad for him." If Al wasn't sleeping, when by all rights he should be too weak to do much else but sleep, something was definitely up with him, something that solitude was not going to help. Because if fifteen years' experience with his brother had taught him anything, it was that Al and solitude didn't mix. He looked up at her. "Let me see him. Please."

"I'll have to ask his doctor—" she began.

"Then ask!" he snapped, patience wearing precariously thin. His arm throbbed.

"As you can imagine," she replied tersely, "he's a very busy man at the moment." Now it was her eyes that flashed with irritation. Ed knew it probably had something to do with having to deal with a rude 16-year-old who wouldn't take no for an answer when she was already beat to hell from trying to keep half the military alive in the wake of this mess, no matter who said 16-year-old happened to be, and he couldn't really blame her for it. Didn't mean Ed could help being pissed right back.

Abruptly, he stood up. "Forget it," he muttered. "Tell Al hi for me." He turned and started walking back towards his room, knowing he'd owe the nurse an apology later, but finding he didn't really give a damn at the moment. His leg now creaked audibly with every step he took. He'd have to do something about that—maybe muffle it with cloth—if he wanted to be any kind of stealthy when he went to go find Al himself.

He was halfway back to his room when the nurse's voice made him pause.

"Mr. Elric!"

He glanced behind him. "Yeah?"

"He's…" she paused, and closed her eyes for a moment, as if steeling herself. "He's in the south wing, fourth door to the right," she said.

He blinked, surprised. "Uh…thanks?"

"Mmm." She regarded him with a resigned sort of smirk. "I only tell you this because I get the feeling you'll go find him whether we permission or not. You might as well not be wandering the halls while you're at it; you're not exactly in pristine condition yourself."

"Thank you," he said, sincerely.

"Don't thank me, this conversation never happened," she said briskly, turning around and beginning to walk in the other direction. "I'm leaving a face mask in your room for you. Wear it. And keep your hair tied back," she added over her shoulder.

He flashed a grin. "Yes ma'am."

TBC

Chapter Text

 

It just about killed him waiting the additional hour for the nurse to bring the mask by, but wait he did, because just because he was anxious to see Al didn't mean he wasn't incredibly paranoid now that he had been so abruptly reminded of the concept of mortality as it now applied to his brother. She'd walked in, wordlessly tossed the mask onto the foot of his bed, turned on her heel, and left as swiftly as she'd come. Moments later, he slipped out of the room after her.

The south wing wasn't that far, but what was difficult was evading people, keeping his eyes trained on the ground in case he got recognized, sidetracked, or sent back to his room. Fortunately, he made it to the room without incident. He loitered on a bench just outside for a minute or so, making sure there weren't any doctors going in or coming out of the room, before looping the elastic straps of the mask over his ears, noiselessly opening the door, and slipping inside. It wasn't locked, which struck him as odd—either the nurse had left it open for him herself, or somebody hadn't gotten the memo about Al yet.

The room was dark, the lights out, the air stuffy and uncomfortably warm. His heart skipped a beat when he looked at the bed, against the right wall, and saw that it was empty, the sheets and covers in a tangled heap. But then he looked at the window, opposite the door. There, perched on the wide window ledge with his knees drawn to his chest and his forehead pressed against the glass, was Al. His hair was no longer long or unruly, but had been cut, visibly choppy and sticking up in odd in places but just as short as it had been when they were younger. And, though he was in the same scrub pants that Ed himself was wearing, he wore no shirt, and Ed had to bite back a little surge of nausea at the sight of all-too-visible bones jutting out under sallow skin that seemed stretched too tightly over a spindly, breakable frame. Ed could've counted his ribs. One skinny arm was taped and tethered to an IV line, the pouch of which was hanging from a metal stand that had been pushed up by the window—he was willing to bet solid food wasn't quite on the menu yet. And yet again, the only word that seemed to come to his mind, looking at this frighteningly feeble version of his brother, was mortality.

He cleared his throat, plastered a smile on his face behind his mask. "Y'know," he drawled, his voice muffled by the mask, "if they wanted to keep visitors out, they should've locked the door."

He heard Al's breath catch, and his head wheeled around to face him. "Brother!" His voice was raspy as though from disuse, and he looked just as terrible as Ed remembered, all sunken cheeks, dark circles, and grayish white pallor. But at the sight of Ed, his eyes, though faded from gold to a dull, tired hazel, lit up with what could only be called joy.

"Hey, Al." Grinning for real this time, he walked over towards the window.

"You're limping," Al noted, looking pointedly at Ed's leg.

"Eh, hardly," Ed said, tapping his foot on the floor a few times and listening its hollow, metallic tap. "Nothing Winry can't fix."

Al's smile widened at the mention of Winry, and Ed knew what they were both thinking, his own heart swelling a little at the prospect of home..and of Winry herself, though he wasn't about to admit as much. But a moment later Al's eyes narrowed as they gave Edward a critical sweep. He thought Al's eyes lingered a little longer on the obscured lower half of his face than they did anywhere else on him, but all he said was, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well they told me…they said you were unconscious for two d—whoa—" As he'd spoken, Al had been trying to pivot himself around to face Ed, but he'd lost his balance and began pitching forward off the sill. Ed bounded forward to catch him.

"Whoa, hey there, no breaking any bones on my watch, okay?" he said, taking Al by the bony shoulders and pushing him back up onto the ledge, leaning him against the sill once more.

But Al didn't answer. When Ed had touched him, he'd gone stiff as a board, drawing in a sharp hiss of breath.

Ed let go immediately, frowning in confusion and alarm at Al, whose eyes were shuttered, jaw now tightly clenched, his shoulders shuddering a bit. "What's the matter?" he asked, urgently. "Are you hurt?"

He opened his eyes. "No," he said, tightly, before letting out a breathy chuckle and letting his shoulders relax. "It's just…it's weird, is all." He attempted a grin, but it came out as more of an uncomfortable grimace.

"Oh…right," Ed said, realizing what he was talking about. Al had mentioned it within an hour or two after he'd come back, when he'd kept wincing as Ed had half-supported, half-carried him to the nearest hastily-erected tent.

"Yeah," Al said, drawing his legs up a little so Ed could sit opposite him on the other side of the ledge. "It's nice after a moment, but at first it still feels kind of like, I don't know, a bunch of little static shocks."

"Sorry."

Al shrugged. "Don't be. I'd take that over broken bones any day."

Ed glanced at both Al's newly-cut hair, as well as what he now realized was a discarded scrub shirt hanging on the armrest of an empty wheelchair standing by the IV. He pointed at it. "Is that why—"

"Oh, uh," he chuckled again, uneasily. "Yeah. Couldn't stand the feeling."

"But you left your pants on," Ed pointed out, knowing that Al would know he was being smirked at even if he couldn't see it behind the mask.

"Of course I left my pants on," Al said, tone defensive, and jerked his head toward the wall of glass by his head. Below them was a little courtyard, walled in on all sides by wings of the building, with a few trees, benches, and a koi pond with a fountain. A uniformed soldier and another patient in scrubs were over by near of the benches, deep in conversation, while a nurse taking a smoke break stood by the edge of the pond. "I wasn't about to sit in a window sill overlooking a public place without my pants!"

Ed laughed. "Good call."

"It's why my hair's gone, too, in case you were wondering," Al said. "A nurse cut it for me."

"Dang it," Ed said, in a tone of mock disappointment, reaching back to grab a strand of his own hair from its ponytail. "And here I thought you were taking after me." He noticed, now that he was close enough to get a good look, that Al's hair color was slightly different than he remembered before he'd lost his body—if memory served, it'd been around the same color as his own, though maybe very slightly darker blond. It was paler now, color leeched and faded from years spent before the Gate.

"Nope, sorry." Al shook his head. "It felt…weird. On my back and all. Don't know how you do it, brother." His shoulders tensed a bit, as though the mere memory of it made his skin crawl.

"Suit yourself," Ed said. "But we gotta get it cut better than that before we go home, Al. You know Winry's gonna tell you it looks scruffy."

"Better this than no hair at all," Al said wryly. "But, uh, I haven't really seen it yet. Does it look that bad?" he asked, looking uncertain, reaching up with one hand that had been braced against the sill towards his hair, his other arm wobbling a bit as he tried to keep his balance.

"Geez, Al, I told you not to fall!" Ed exclaimed, lurching forward, hands hovering over his brother as Al slammed his hand back down on the sill and regained his balance.

"Sorry," he said, breathlessly.

"And I was kidding, by the way. Your hair's fine. No need to break your neck over it." He glanced from Al to the bed and back. "How did you manage to get yourself all the way over here, anyway?" he asked.

Al jerked his head at the wheelchair. "A nurse helped me."

"Yeah, well," Ed muttered, not liking that one bit, "If they're gonna leave you like this, they should at least make have somebody here to make sure you don't fall."

Something in Al's face darkened for a moment, but then he looked up at Ed and shrugged, expression impassive. "I'm sure they just didn't think of it, brother. It's wide, and it's not very high. And besides, you're here now, right?"

"Right," Ed agreed, though he hadn't missed that look on Al's face. "Not going anywhere. At least not 'till somebody throws me out."

"Should you….shouldn't you go get some rest, though?" Al said, eyes too big for his thin face now wide and anxious. "You're hurt. You were out for two days, right?"

"Don't worry." Ed shook his head. "I was just asleep, Al, not comatose."

Now it was Al who was smirking. "With you there's hardly a difference."

"Shut up," he groused, though it sounded more affectionate than annoyed. "I'm fine, though, really. Been up for a few hours. Hospitals are boring."

There was a beat of silence.

"You're right about that," Al said finally, eyes suddenly distant. His gaze drifted back out the window. "Have you seen anybody yet?" he asked.

"No, not yet," he said, a disconcerted by Al's sudden change in demeanor, and closed-off expression. "I heard Colonel Mustang tried to visit, though."

"…Oh?" Al said, without much enthusiasm. "Cool."

This was…weird. It was like somebody had flipped a switch in Al's entire demeanor. Thirty seconds ago, he'd been totally fine. Something was definitely amiss here.

He'd been about to tell Al what he'd heard about Mustang's restored vision, but he reconsidered. That was important, but finding out what was up with Al, preferably before anybody came in and made him leave, was more important. His best guess was that it was the result of loneliness, 48 hours' isolation, but he needed to make sure. "So they haven't let anyone visit you yet, huh?" Ed asked.

"No," Al said quietly. "I haven't seen anyone." He turned from the window toward Ed, and the suspected loneliness, as well as hurt, couldn't have been more evident in his eyes. "You're wearing that mask, so I take it you know why."

"Yeah," he admitted softly, after a moment. "They told me. But you know they're only doing it to help you, right?" he added. "Give you a chance to get stronger before you have to face half the population of Central and their germs."

Al didn't respond.

"Al?"

Then, "You had to sneak in here, didn't you?"

There was no point in lying about it. "Yeah."

Al took a stuttering breath and let it out before answering. "I see." His fingers scratched at the tiled sill. "And do you think that they're right, brother?" he asked. "To keep me away from everybody?"

"Al…"

"Do you?" His voice was harsh. A fierce desperation burned in his eyes; it cut Ed to the quick.

Didn't mean he was wrong. "What I think, Al, is that I'm not gonna let you catch some stupid disease and die when I just got you back."

"I'm not sick!" Ironically, the words came out in a near-croak. That fear in his eyes seemed to solidify, harden into anger, and his too-sharp jaw clenched. There were high spots of color on his cheeks, and his breathing, harder and more ragged than it should be, had sped up.

"And we're trying to keep it that way," Ed snapped back, "so don't be a brat about it, okay?" He regretted his words when Al's shoulder's slumped, and his lips quivered. He looked down, in the vague direction of Ed's feet.

"Brother?" The word was barely audible.

"What?"

"Take the mask off."

"Al, I'm not gonna—"

"Please." His voice was strained, quiet.

Scared.

"Alright, what's up with you, Al?" Ed asked, frowning. Whatever was upsetting Al this badly was leaving a sour taste in his mouth; he was determined to get to the bottom of it. "This isn't like you."

Al's gaze was trained on the people below in the garden once more. "Just take it off," he whispered.

Ed reached up to unhook one of the elastic bands from around his ear. As much as this made him nervous, he really did think—or was 99% certain, at least— that if Al really was going to catch any random deadly diseases from him, it'd be too late by this point anyway; he'd been exposed. "Alright, but if I do, will you tell me what's wrong?"

Al's throat bobbed, but he nodded. He wouldn't meet Ed's eyes.

Ed took the mask off and threw it aside. It landed on the floor, near the base of the IV stand. Al glanced down at it, and his eyes fluttered closed for a moment before he finally looked up at Ed. Relief and gratitude were palpable on his face, but he still looked pretty damn miserable. "Thanks," he rasped.

"Sure." He glanced at the mask too, before fixing Al with a steady look. "Now talk to me, okay? The nurse I talked to said you weren't sleeping. Why?"

"Uh…well…" His mouth pinched, as though he was trying and failing to think of a way to articulate himself.

"I know sleeping's gotta be weird for you," Ed offered, "After, uh, you know, not being able to for awhile, though if your body really needs the rest that badly, it shouldn't be this much of a problem." He paused, thinking. "But earlier your nurse told me they're trying to give you sleep aids, and you won't take them. Which means…" he gave Al a long look. "You're keeping yourself awake, aren't you?"

Al said nothing; that was all the confirmation Ed needed.

"Al, you moron," he growled, anger flaring hot before reason was able to catch up—there was a good reason for it, there must've been, but right now worry, no, fear for this frightfully weak body sitting before him made it little hard to be reasonable—and Al looked away again. "Are you trying to sabotage yourself here?"

"No." He was staring fixedly at the tops of his knees, but his voice was sincere.

"Then why?" He asked, failing to keep exasperation at bay.

Al was silent for a long, tense moment. Then, all in a rush, he blurted, "Because every time I shut my eyes I—" he broke off and shook his head. He was blinking rapidly.

"You what?" Ed asked, though he was suddenly filled with foreboding.

"I'm at the Gate," Al finished, voice barely more than a shaky whisper.

Then it clicked in Edward's mind.

Oh.

The reason why he didn't want to be alone.

But that meant….

"What do you remember about that, Al?" He asked slowly. He felt like a total idiot for not having even considered this as a possibility, and he dreaded the answer.

Al let out a long breath before he answered, and Ed nearly winced at the shallow, wheezy sound of it. "I guess…I guess it wasn't me, or, uh…. not completely, because my soul was here with you and all, b-but…." He was definitely blinking back tears now, his words halting. "But I was…alone, a-and cold, and empty, and everything was all white, and the Gates wouldn't let me through."

"Al…" Ed felt sick. He hadn't considered that the mind and body, apart from the soul, could take in memories of their own, or realized that once all the parts were back together again, those memories would be intact and fresh, and that Al would finally, retrospectively feel the full traumatic force of them.

"And I knew I had to wait, for it to come back," he went on, his voice low and awful. "My soul. The other one…Truth, I guess…told me I had to wait for it…but it didn't come... And I waited for so long…" The last words came out as a half-sob.

Five years…

With a horrible jolt Ed remembered having heard mention of the pair of Briggs soldiers, found after only mere days in Father's tunnel: useless, reduced to nervous wrecks, on the brink of insanity.

And Al, even if it was just a part of him, had spent a third of his life that way.

Oh no…

Al's forehead was pressed to the window again. Without much conscious thought, Ed reached forward and nearly set his hand on Al's knee. He almost withdrew it when he remembered the way Al had flinched before, but reconsidered, and set his hand down firmly. Al jumped a little, startled, and looked back at him. His eyes were desolate, tear-filled.

"Were you planning on telling me about this?" Ed asked, gently, though he was pretty sure he already knew the answer to that. Guilt writhed like some terrible living thing in his chest, constricted his heart like a vise.

Al shook his head slightly, the movement knocking a few tears free. "No point," he said in that same low, barely restrained voice. "I knew…I knew that you'd be stupid and blame yourself for it when I know a-and you should too that there was nothing either of us could've done."

"Al, I—"

"You came back," he said, with a small, watery smile. "You promised you would, when I said I couldn't come with you, and you did. I remember that too."

"…Yeah," Ed managed, now fighting against his own slightly swimming vision. "Of course."

Al nodded. "So it's okay now, but…"

"But you don't want to be alone anymore," Ed finished, glancing at the wadded up, discarded mask lying on the floor. He understood now.

"I need to see people, brother." Al's voice was broken, his own eyes following Ed's to the mask. "I need to, or else I-I'm alone and it's just like I'm…back there again, and I can't—" His voice trailed off into a harsh, strangled cry, half-stuck in his throat, and his face crumpled. "I can't…"

Ed moved forward on the ledge, and as gently as he could manage helped swing Al's legs around so they dangled off the sill, his toes sweeping the floor, and scooted himself closer so that he was sitting next to him. A second later, the dam had finally broken, and he found himself with his arms full of emaciated, helplessly sobbing, choking, and gasping little brother, his bony frame wracked with tremors. Ed said nothing, not trusting himself to speak, but put one hand on the back of Al's head and one on his back, pretending he couldn't feel every rib and vertebra under his palm so distinctly. Al went stiff as a board at his touch at first, but eventually relaxed into it. Ed's left arm and chest throbbed painfully at the contact, but he ignored it.

As his shirt steadily went damp at the shoulder, anger began to simmer somewhere deep in Ed's gut-- surely this was negligence, for these idiotic doctors and nurses to have let Al go for so long until he was reduced to--to this, sent reeling into blind panic at the mere thought of being left alone. But at the same time, who could really be faulted here? They were taking every measure they could to ensure that Al was cared for physically, and now that he actually had his arms around him Ed was acutely aware of just how much his brother needed all the protection from the outside world he could get right now. As to the rest of it, they couldn't have known, because it wasn't like Al had told them. And the only other people, aside from Ed himself, who might've guessed that seclusion would be so detrimental to him--Mustang in particular came to mind-- were now deeply embroiled in the chaos of a fallen state, and were inevitably being pulled in a million different directions at once. And as for Mustang himself, who by all rights should still be in the hospital himself come to think of it, even if he did know about the quarantine--which he likely now did after having tried to visit--he would more than likely consider Al's physical well-being to outweigh temporary separation anxiety. And Ed couldn't exactly fault him for that.

But still. 

He was willing to bet that, while Al was obviously being seen and taken care of by doctors and nurses at least some of the time, they were so caught up in trying to deal with the battle's aftermath that they didn't have much time to spare on any one person. Just the fact he'd been left on this ledge when he could easily fall off and hurt himself spoke volumes about how strained things were- he wouldn't be surprised if the "nurse" who'd left him there had been an amateur but well-meaning civilian volunteer, recruited by the hospital to run errands and take orders from medical personnel. If that was the case, and they really were that understaffed, he was willing to bet that Al was being left completely alone in here for hours at a time. It was no wonder he couldn't stand it anymore-- Ed wasn't sure he himself would've been able to take more than a few minutes if it were him. 

"I won't go anywhere if you don't want me to, Al," Ed said, eventually, when those heart-wrenching sobs finally subsided, turning into shuddering breaths. He'd exhausted himself completely, his whole weight resting against Ed.

"Until y-you get caught and t-they kick you out," Al muttered into his shirt.

"I'll see what I can do," Ed replied, glancing out the window. The soldier and the patient out in the courtyard were sitting on the bench together, laughing. "The word of a state alchemist's gotta be good for something, right?"

The words hung heavy in the air as he realized what he'd just said. State alchemist.

Former state alchemist, that was. He'd nearly forgotten.

Al stiffened again. "Brother…"

Ed shrugged. "Hey, it was just a means to an end, right? It always has been. We got what we wanted."

"Except your leg."

"Are you kidding? Winry'll be thrilled with this arrangement. She's still got a chance to make big money off me."

A weak laugh. Then, "But still, you—"

"Save it, okay? I'm not sorry. Who wants to be a dog of the military, anyway?"

Silence. Then—

"Thank you."

"Anytime. And thank you for my arm, you dumbass."

That elicited a real laugh. "Anytime."

"Not anytime, Al. Never again. You got that?"

"Yup." Which was bullshit, they both knew. Now it was up to Ed to make sure Al was never in a position where he'd be tempted to take any figurative—or literal, for that matter—bullets for him. Because given half the chance, the idiot was likely to play big damn hero all over again.

"Anyway," Ed continued, refusing to dwell on it any longer, "you've already been exposed to whatever deadly diseases that might be hiding up my sleeve, so maybe they can just shut me up here with you."

Al's breath caught, and his fist clenched. "Don't wanna be shut up at all," he mumbled.

"The goal is to keep you away from that Gate, Al," Ed said, eyeing the IV bag and the wheelchair with immense distaste. "Preferably for the next eighty or so years, at least. And to do that, we gotta get you healthy again. You know that." And if it took him breathing down the necks of the hospital staff and being generally paranoid and obnoxious on Al's behalf to make sure that that happened, so be it. He almost pitied them. 

A few seconds passed, then Al nodded against his shoulder.

"And at any rate," he went on, "I got a theory about that anyway. About you, and the Gate. And me, for that matter." He hadn't really vocalized this, even to himself—it had been little more than a vague notion before now— but even as he spoke the idea began to solidify itself in his mind.

Al shifted a little, leaned back, and looked up at Ed. His eyes were bloodshot. "What is it?"

Ed steadied him, helped him sit up. He leaned against the sill again, head slumped back, one hand clutching the sill's edge for dear life. He looked totally spent, but he was watching Ed intently.

Thinking on his feet, Ed kept talking. "Well, I mean, whether or not I've lost my alchemy, if our souls are bonded together to the point where I was eating, sleeping, and growing for you while you were still at the Gate, what do you think's gonna happen when one of us dies?"

Al blinked. He looked a bit stunned. "What?"

"Think about it, Al. Especially if it's you who goes first. I don't have a Gate anymore, and we both came through yours to get back, so I'm willing to bet I gotta go through yours again when the time comes."

His eyes widened. "You think?"

"Like I said, just a theory, but yeah, maybe," he said. He figured that it was probably more likely to be true for him if Al were to die first, but he left out mentioning that he wasn't as sure whether or not the opposite was true, that if he himself died, he wouldn't just pass through the Gate while Al kept on living until his time came. Ed would've infinitely preferred it that way, especially because, after healing himself in the aftermath of the Baschool explosion, he had no clue by how much his own life span was going to be cut short in recompense. But he didn't think it was quite what Al needed to hear right now.

"Or, maybe," Al said, expression turning grim, "It's not my Gate anymore, but both of ours. Maybe it'll be just there for either of us no matter who dies when."

"Yeah, there's that," Ed said, a little put out by this potential flaw, though he wouldn't say as much. He knew neither of them would be willing to admit how comforting the prospect of not having to worry about living on alone really was, for fear of inciting each other's anger, so they let it drop. On a sudden inspiration, he added, "You are forgetting that you can still do alchemy, and I can't, so maybe it's still completely yours, after all, and I've just gotta use it…" He shrugged and gave Al a pointed look. "It's not a theory I wanna put to the test, though, so get better, okay?" He leaned back against the sill himself, mirroring Al's posture. "Personally I wanna take a little more time to revel in our victory before I die, how 'bout you?"

And with that, he knew he had him. Al knew it too. It was low, using his own life as motivation for Al to comply with doctors' orders, but nonetheless effective. "Fine," he murmured. "I'll do the quarantine." Al wasn't the type to pout over things, but he definitely looked pouty right now. Ed would've teased him for it if the reason behind his reluctance wasn't so terrible. "But…" he started, looking uncertainly at Ed. "Do you really want to be stuck here with me? I mean…I understand if you don't…you're right that they probably wouldn't let you see anybody either, and I know you hate hospitals…"

Really, now?

After all that, he's seriously trying to feed me reasons why I should ditch him? Ed thought.

Unbelievable.

"Are you nuts? Of course I want to stay," Ed laughed. "For the first time in a long time, I've got nothing to do. Besides," he added, mischievously, "If we lay low for awhile, it'll only build up the anticipation. The whole of Central will be thrilled to finally meet Alphonse Elric in the flesh, I'm telling you."

Al looked a little daunted at the thought of that, but he smiled. Ed could tell it wasn't a totally unpleasant notion.

"Look, it'll be better anyway if you deal with all that when you can actually shake someone's hand without it feeling like a tazer, won't it?" Ed asked.

Grudgingly, Al nodded.

"Plus, there's Armstrong," Ed pointed out, quirking an eyebrow.

"Oh." Al visibly shuddered, obviously envisioning being on the receiving end of a bone-shattering hug. "…Right. But…" his mouth twisted, fear of abandonment warring with (completely idiotic) guilt on his face. "It's not fair to keep you away from people, too."

"Oh, come on, Al, after something like this?" Ed scoffed. "The military's in chaos. Hell, the government just got overthrown. You think I wanna get in the middle of that? At the very least, that'd mean miles and miles of red tape. No thank you."

"You'll be bored to tears within twenty-four hours, I know you will," Al said dryly. He gestured out the window. "You'll want to be helping out, with rebuilding, or relief, or whatever else needs doing out there."

"Eh, we can leave it to everybody else for awhile. I'm sure there'll still be plenty to do when we get out," he said dismissively. "And, uh…I hate to admit it, but I think I'd be pretty useless to them right now." He held up his arms—one thin and weak, and one tightly bandaged. "I've gotta wait for these to start working right again, and I think Winry'd better take a look at my leg too." Not to mention he wasn't going to be a massive help anyway without alchemy. At any rate, he still was making up excuses, they both knew that, but that didn't keep Al's face from splitting into an ear-to-ear grin.

"So you want to stay?"

He returned the grin. "Couldn't get rid of me if you wanted to, little brother."

"I don't know how long it's gonna be…they won't tell me…" The grin diminished somewhat, and Ed knew he was dreading being stuck here for an indefinite amount of time.

"Doesn't matter," Ed said, waving a lazy hand. "We got all the time in the world now."

"You sure you don't mind?"

"Yeah, I'm sure, so quit asking," he said, rolling his eyes. "Besides," he added, "I owe you for sticking by me for a year's worth of automail recovery."

"No, you don't." It was Al's turn to roll his eyes. 

"Still." He tapped his left knee. "That big old tin can body of yours was a hell of a lot better than any icepack, let me tell ya."

That had been especially true that winter and early spring. His memory from that time was a haze of fever, delirium, drugs, the agony of nerves being fused to wire and screws being drilled into bone.

And the long days and nights between and after the surgeries spent curled up against cold steel.

Of course, all the fleeting relief that that had provided had always been followed fast with the raw, gnawing fear that Al hated him for what he'd done.

He wished he'd realized then that the contrary was true.

He could tell from the way Al was watching him now, brow furrowed, mouth taut, that he was traveling down the very same memory lane that Ed was.

Time to change the subject.

"Hey, speaking of ice packs, aren't you burning up right now? It's like a sauna in here. We should crack the window or something."

It was true; his own shirt was beginning to stick to the back of his neck, and he didn't like how flushed Al's face now looked.

"Is it?" Al looked around curiously. "Huh."

"What, you didn't notice?"

"Still kind of hard for me to tell that sort of thing, I guess," he said. "We can open the window if you want. I should get down though…" He looked at the ground, then the wheelchair, then the bed. "Um," he began, a little sheepishly.

Ed chuckled, and hopped off the sill, and pushed the wheelchair up against it. "Need some help?"

"Mhmm."

Al reached up and looped his arms around Ed's neck, letting Ed lift him up off the ledge and down into the chair. Ed's stomach churned at just how light Al was, and he found himself regretting the fact that, despite his rather formidable appetite, he obviously hadn't eaten enough for the both of them.

It took much awkward maneuvering, and negotiating Al, the IV, and the wheelchair and somehow moving all three from the window back to the bed all with arms that were almost pitifully weak, and then having to reach a window latch that was only very slightly too high for him while Al, the little smartass ingrate, made a few snide comments about how as soon as he could actually stand on his own, he was pretty sure he'd be able to reach that latch without having to hop for it. Ten minutes later found them both wiped out and sweating, but dissolved into peals of helpless laughter at a volume that Ed was sure had to be against hospital protocol. Really, he expected somebody to finally stick their head into the room and bust him for being here at all any minute now. 

Whatever.

Though a part of him suspected that the nurse from earlier probably had something to do with the fact that they had not yet been interrupted.

Eventually, Al let his head flop back against the pillow, and closed his eyes, a tired smile on his lips. "We're kind of a pathetic team, aren't we, brother?"

"Who are you calling pathetic?" Ed snapped back. He'd parked the wheelchair by the side of the bed and had sat in it, but was supremely irritated to find that his chin barely cleared the top of the mattress. Al had found this hilarious, and had pointed out a stool standing in one corner, which Ed had grudgingly gone to retrieve, pumping the pedal under the seat to make it taller while Al looked on, trying and failing to keep a straight face. Now, Ed was slumped forward on the foot of the bed, his chin resting on his recently restored arm, which sat on the bed, while his wounded arm sat on his lap.

"Just saying," Al said with a yawn, and Ed was reminded of a day more than a year ago, where almost the exact same words had been spoken—a day that had found them both leaning against some brick wall in a random alleyway having just faced down a serial killer and lost badly, his arm blasted into a thousand steel pieces and half of Al's body totally missing, having hit rock bottom in every possible sense, but laughing and laughing, because that was all they could do.

But this? This wasn't rock bottom by any stretch of the imagination. It wasn't perfect, but they'd fixed things. They'd won. He was okay with this.

And whether they were stuck here for two weeks or for two months, it was fine by him.

He snorted softly. "No. Not completely pathetic."

After a moment, Al half-opened his eyes and peered over at him, blearily. "Don't go anywhere, okay?"

"You got it."

*End*

Art by dzioo: 

"But you don't want to be alone anymore." "I need to see people, brother." 

Art by me: 

His memory from that time was a haze of fever, delirium, drugs, the agony of nerves being fused to wire and screws being drilled into bone. And the long days and nights between and after the surgeries spent curled up against cold steel...