For Edward Elric, fighting with his younger brother was not quite like fighting with anyone else. As a child, he had frequent fights with his neighbor and friend, Winry Rockbell. These fights would usually escalate to Ed being hit with whatever loose objects were handy, and Winry running off in tears. After the initial anger and pain (which usually took no more than five minutes to wear off, ten for a particularly heated argument), they would find each other once again, mutter their apologies, and Winry would fetch a bandage for the wounds she had inflicted on her friend. That would be the last either would hear or think of their fight, and they would resume whatever game they had been playing at the time. As they grew older, they still fought each other (quite viciously at times), and they still apologized quite quickly after the offense had been made.
Fights with Ed's Master Izumi Curtis were always one-sided. Master was surprisingly strong, and her strength was coupled with excellent reflexes. She never let up on Ed or his brother, despite their young age. Fights between Master and pupils, whether as punishment, training, or simply to make a point, generally ended with the two boys lying on the ground, moaning and nursing quite a few cuts and bruises. Master would bandage their wounds, correct their mistakes, and gently encourage them. Even though the two boys never won these fights, Master never let them become discouraged.
When Ed fought with his superior officer, Colonel Roy Mustang, he found that they were pretty evenly matched. They could both hurl stinging insults at each other, and they were widely hailed as two of the most gifted State Alchemists in the country. Apologies never quite came in the aftermath of their fights, however. When they had sufficiently worn each other out, they would part ways, panting heavily. The next time they saw each other, their fight would not be brought up. Mustang would order Ed about, Ed would retort hotly, and they would resume their tasks. Apology and forgiveness were either neglected or unnecessary, Ed could never decide which. Whatever the case, there was some kind of unconscious understanding between the two men that their occasional fights had little to no bearing on their relationship.
But when it came to Ed's little brother.... That was a completely different matter.
Edward and Alphonse Elric had fought much more frequently when they were younger. They would fight over whose turn it was for the first bath, who had the bigger cookie, who had won the game they were playing, who was going to marry Winry. And every time they got into a real fight, Al would go racing off to sit by the river. Ed always knew exactly where to find him; Al was very predictable. Unlike when he fought with Winry, Ed always waited a while before he went to fetch his brother. Usually he waited at least an hour or so. He wasn't sure why; maybe it was because whenever he did end up fighting with Al, it hurt more than when he fought with anyone else.
Ed never actually apologized to Al; he never said the words, "I'm sorry." He would come to Al, who would leap up, ready to fight. But Ed wouldn't want to fight; he would say, "C'mon, Al. Let's go." His voice would be uncomfortable and reluctant, but Al always understood the unspoken apology in his words. The brothers would walk home together, friends again, their fight forgotten.
As Ed and Al grew older, they fought less and less. Perhaps this was due to a semi-conscious knowledge that their brother was all each of them had. After their mother died, their only family was each other. They couldn't endanger that small family with petty quarrels. They had got along quite well before that, but they became even closer friends because they depended solely upon each other. And yet, even as their fights and arguments became less frequent, they generally became fiercer as time went on. Ed took to waiting all day before he sought his little brother out, and sometimes they were in places where there was no river for Al to sit beside, and it took hours for Ed to locate him. Both brothers pretended not to notice this, but a lingering uneasiness clouded Ed's mind even in the joy of having successfully retrieved his and his brother's bodies.
Everything came to a head one day as they arrived in Central after a strenuous inspection of the East. "I ache all over," Al moaned, rubbing his back, as they left the station and made their way to Central Military Headquarters. "Those train seats are so hard...."
"Now you know what I've felt like all this time," Ed grumbled, heaving their bulky suitcase along with him. It was amazing how much more luggage they had to carry now Al wore clothes as well.
"I wouldn't have to feel like this if you hadn't used the Stone on me," Al muttered bitterly, sounding as though he had been wanting to say this for a long time.
"And that's your way to thank me?" Ed snapped. "I thought you wanted to feel things again, Al! Or would you rather go back to being just a heap of metal again?"
"Maybe I do!"
Ed stopped and turned to face Al, dropping the heavy suitcase onto the sidewalk. "Is this what's been bugging you for so long?" he demanded angrily. "I risk my own life to get your body back, and you just want to go back to being a suit of armor again?! Well, be my guest! Do human transmutation on somebody, and maybe I'll attach your soul to a tin can this time!"
"At least then you wouldn't drag me all across Amestris!" Al cried. "I'm tired, Brother! I'm tired of not having a home!"
"Go back to Risenpool then! Nobody's stopping you!"
"Fine then! I might just do that!"
"Yeah, well, good riddance!" Ed grabbed the suitcase again and started stomping towards Headquarters again.
Behind him, Al let out an enraged cry and screamed, "I HATE YOU, BROTHER!"
Ed swivelled around to find Al running away from him, his red coat flapping out behind him. "WELL, I HATE YOU TOO, SO THERE!" Ed called after him and continued on his way, muttering dark threats and half-coherent curses under his breath. The people around him gave him a wide berth, but he was only too glad to be left alone. He felt hot all through his body; he wouldn't have been surprised if steam had been pouring out of his ears. When he finally arrived at Central Headquarters, he barely noticed the concerned looks he was attracting from Hawkeye, Havoc, and Fury as he passed them in the hall. He slammed his written report down on Mustang's desk, snapped a curt reply to his superior's questions, and left Headquarters in a huff.
Al sometimes wished there was a river in Central City. He had thought through some of his most complicated problems while sitting in front of a river. There was something very calming about water rushing past in an endless flow. It reminded him of the first lesson Master had taught him and his brother: the world flows along like an unstoppable river, and if you try to stand in its way, you will only be drowned. This lesson always put things into perspective for Al, and he thought that was probably why he always found himself drawn to rivers after a fight with his brother. Momentary anger meant nothing to the world, so what was the use of letting it control his actions?
The problem was, Al had let his anger get away with him. His irritation, his discomfort, his disappointment in his own body, had all drawn together and lashed out at his brother. I shouldn't have said those things, he told himself over and over again. Brother was kinder than words can say to give me back my body. I should be more thankful. But thinking those thoughts wouldn't take back what he had said. I bet Brother hates me. Al trailed his fingers in the basin of the fountain. It was the closest he could find in this bustling city to the calmly rushing waters of a river, but it just wasn't the same. There was something overused and almost boring about the way the water in the basin continuously spouted upward in graceful arcs, recycled over and over again. Al pulled his hand out of the water, watching tiny sparkling drops of water splash back into the pool. It occurred to him that, had it not been for his brother, he would not be able to feel the cool wetness against his skin, nor the sharp breath of air that evaporated the water on his fingers.
Something reminded Al of an incident a few years ago, in the desert city of Lior. That had been when he and his brother were still searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Ed had been completely worn out from the long trek across the desert, and had slouched along the streets complaining of thirst. Suddenly he had seen the massive fountain of wine in the city square, and gone rushing like a madman towards it, shouting at the top of his lungs, "Water! Water! Water! Water!"
Al smiled briefly; his brother was always so enthusiastic about everything. But then the smile slipped off his face with a sigh. He missed his brother already, and they had barely been apart for an hour. He wondered what Ed was doing right then, wondered if Mustang was giving him a hard time about his height, wondered if Ed was screaming his lungs out at that very moment. He wondered if Havoc and Breda were laughing at him, if Hawkeye was rolling her eyes, if Farman was tutting impatiently and Fury was peeping timidly around the door. He wanted to be there, he wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to be next to his big brother, because that was where he belonged.
But Brother probably won't want anything to do with me, he realized with another melancholy sigh. Not after all that horrible stuff I said to him. He gazed for several long moments at his shimmering reflection in the fountain pool, at the face of flesh and blood with the large grey eyes and slightly upturned nose. It was the face he had been given by his brother in the place of the stiff metal visor of his helmet, which had also been given to him by his brother. Al slapped that face in the water with his hand and launched himself away from the fountain, running away as fast as he could.
When the sun began to set behind the tall buildings, Al began to grow worried. It had been hours since he had run away from his brother, and still Ed hadn't come to fetch him. He had never had to wait this long before. Al kept on seeing people from behind or in the distance, and thinking they were his brother. His heart would leap in his chest, and he would hurry forward only to find that the person was too tall, or that it was some girl with a long golden plait. As the shadows deepened and streetlamps turned on, Al trudged dejectedly along the streets, his gloved hands stuffed into the pockets of his red coat. He glimpsed his reflection in a few glass shop windows, and realized that with his bangs shading his face like that, he almost looked like his brother. Several times when he passed a large glass window, he almost thought his brother was walking along beside him. But each time he looked over, it was only his reflection.
His body was weary beyond measure from the hard train seats and his wandering since the afternoon. His stomach rumbled with hunger, but that only served to remind Al painfully of how much his brother had done for him. If it hadn't been for Ed, he wouldn't be able to feel hunger. But though he passed several well-lit restaurants, and though his pockets were filled with travel money, he did not stop to satisfy his grumbling stomach. Somehow, it didn't seem right to seek bodily comfort when his heart was so heavy. Al had no idea where he was, nor where he was going, but he continued to walk all the same.
Al only realized how long he had been walking when he heard a loud BONG. He jumped and looked up at the large clock tolling out the hour: one o'clock. Al looked around the square, dimly remembering the times he and his brother had sat under that large clock and discussed things. He especially remembered the time his brother had asked him what he wanted to do as soon as they got their bodies back. Al had said he wanted to eat apple pie. That had been the first thing he ate when they went back to Risenpool after reclaiming their bodies. Al wearily sat down under the large clock and pulled his red coat closer about himself. He remembered what his brother had said he was looking forward to most: seeing everyone's smiling faces when they were told the Elric brothers had gotten their original bodies back at last.
Who was Brother most happy to see smiling? Al wondered suddenly. Was it Winry? Or.... Brother did say, "I really want to see you smiling." Al rested his forehead against his knees and clasped his arms around them. It was cold, sitting on the stones like that, cold and hard like the train seats. And the only reason he could feel that at all was because of his brother....
Al's grey eyes, which had been half-closed, suddenly snapped open. He raised his head and got to his feet with a frown. He couldn't stand this anymore; he wasn't going to wait for Ed to come find him and say, "C'mon, Al. Let's go," as if nothing was the matter. For once, Al was going to take the initiative, to confront his brother instead of simply waiting for Ed to come to his senses. Just because he was the younger brother didn't mean he couldn't make decisions of his own!
Al gave a quick nod to no one in particular and set off to find the hotel he and his brother usually frequented. His legs were sore and his back ached; his feet felt hot and pinched in his shoes, but he didn't stop to rest. Nothing was more important now than his brother.
Ed hurried down the stairs, pulling on the red coat that matched his brother's as he went. Sleep had completely evaded him so far; every time he closed his eyes he saw his brother's angry, tearful face. He could see the pain shimmering behind those big grey eyes, could hear the tremble of sorrow behind the hate-filled words Al had spoken. And then Ed's own words would echo back at him, mocking him, accusing him. What right had he to snap at Al like that, to say 'good riddance', to tell him he hated him? He wished there was a river in Central City; then he would know where to look for Al. As it was, he would have to scour the entire city. And what if Al had taken him at his word and gone off to Risenpool? Or what if - and this thought turned all his insides to ice - he had gone and tried to do human transmutation, or tried to fix his entire soul onto a suit of armor, like Ed had suggested, trying to go back to his old way of life? Ed knew he couldn't wait any longer. He had to start looking for Al now.
Ed was almost to the foot of the stairs that led down into the nearly-empty lobby when he heard low voices. "Yes, he checked in around nine o'clock," came the voice of the night receptionist. "He's in Room 209; should I use the master key to let you in?"
"No, thank you," came a soft, slightly high-pitched voice. "I wouldn't want to wake him up."
"Very well, Mr. Elric," said the receptionist.
At that moment, Ed stepped off the last stair and looked over at the front desk. A familiar form stood talking to the receptionist, and turned around when he heard Ed's footsteps. "Brother!" he squeaked in surprise.
"Um...hi...Al...." Ed returned awkwardly, uncomfortably conscious of the receptionist watching. "I was...just going out to look for you, you know. Guess you beat me to it." He tried to laugh, but his voice cracked and died away to nothing. The receptionist suddenly seemed to remember some job he had to do, and hurried away. The two brothers were left alone in the quiet lobby. Ed's stomach squirmed guiltily as he met his brother's gaze. "Um...where've you been all this time?"
"Oh...around." Al shrugged and looked down at his feet. "I...I needed to be alone for a bit, I guess."
Ed nodded, too choked to answer. Once again, the words he had shouted at his brother earlier rang in his ears: Good riddance! I hate you too, so there! He took a deep breath and said, "Listen, if you...if you really want to...you know, be a suit of armor again...I suppose I could-"
"No!!" Al cried, making Ed jump. "I don't want that! You should know I'd never want that!"
"Oh. I-I just thought.... You know, since you said...." Ed fell silent, realizing that he should have known his brother would never want to go back to such an existence. Man, was I stupid, he thought.
Al must have been thinking something along the same lines, for his eyes suddenly filled with tears. "Oh, Brother!" He threw his arms around Ed and cried in a muffled voice, "I'm so sorry!"
"I'm the one who should be sorry," Ed replied, awkwardly hugging Al back. "And I am sorry, Al. I shouldn't have said all those things."
"Me either! I don't know what made me say all that terrible stuff. I'm really grateful you brought me back, Brother. Really grateful." His grey eyes were wide and sincere, brimming with tears and sorrow.
Ed couldn't think of anything other to say, so he muttered, "You're welcome." But there was still something left to say, and he wasn't sure what it was. He had the feeling it was something very obvious that nevertheless had to be said in words.
Al beat him to it. "I don't hate you, Brother," he whispered. "I could never hate you."
"I know that. You don't have to say it, Al. I know." All the same, he felt the guilt inside him loosen with relief. Even if it didn't have to be said, he was very glad Al had said it. "Well, come on, Al," he said briskly, turning away from his brother and surreptitiously wiping his eyes. "I think it's high time we got to sleep."
The two brothers made their way up the stairs to the second floor. From behind, they looked very much like each other, with their long golden ponytails, their matching red coats and white gloves, and the twin smiles on their faces. Fighting with Al was not quite like fighting with anyone else, Ed realized as he said goodnight and got into bed. Every time the two of them fought, it hurt terribly. Before that night, he had never truly acknowledged it, but at long last he had realized that he needed to apologize in words. Somehow, it just wasn't enough to fetch his brother and not mention their fight again. It was a strange relief to have said, 'I'm sorry,' to his little brother, and he couldn't think why he had never said that before. Ed smiled and closed his eyes.
Just as he was drifting off to sleep, he heard a small voice from across the room whisper, "Oh, Brother? I forgive you."
"Me too," Ed murmured sleepily, and within moments the only sound in the room was that of two boys' contented breathing.