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kaltia

Once Upon a Time


I. ab initio

The north of Amestris is a quiet place, come winter. By spring there will be war again, the Drachnians pushing to claim the land, the Amestrian army moved north to defend it; but war has never touched the tiny village of Navastock. Some of the women whisper that they are blessed, that their village is protected by angels of God, but their husbands slap them, and scold them for being silly. There are many different stories, told in the village, for they are a superstitious folk, caught on the rim of two different cultures.

They say that there are werewolves out there, in the snow-covered forests. They say they hide between the trees, watching you with eyes as red as blood, hunched, fur as black as charcoal and they flit from shadow to shadow, hounding you until they grow bored and kill you. They say that a werewolf can only be killed with silver and fire; silver hunting-knives are presented to the children, solemnly, in the grand ceremony that marks their coming of age. The rest of the children stay out of the dark forest, mostly.

They say that come spring, when the snow-caps on the mountains melt and the stream engorges, becomes a river, that there are water spirits shimmering beneath the surface. They warn the children that the water spirits make the river look so enticing, but get too close and they will reach out, grab you and pull you in to drown. They say the water spirits can only be killed with flint, and so the older children are presented with flint arrow-heads, come the coming of age ceremony. The rest of the children stay away from the silver gleam of the river, mostly.

They say that a wizard lives in the log cabin, on the other side of the dark woods and the silver river. They say he wears black, and has a familiar; a demon, an imp in the shape of a man. They say he feasts on human flesh, and the werewolves in the woods bring him those they find; they say the imp lives on human hearts alone, crunches them until the crimson blood trickles off his chin. They say neither of them can be killed, and the older children are presented with solemn warnings at the coming of age ceremony. The rest of the children, too, stay away from the log cabin, guarded by wood and river-moat... mostly.

Valerie is a precocious child, nine years old and she has been to the woods, she has fallen in the river, and her mother suspects it to be on purpose. She straightens her daughter's smooth red coat; brushes her hair and reiterates the warnings, and Valerie listens, but does not. Valerie's mother gives her a basket and some beads, colourful and bright, to barter in the market for food to take to her grandmother; Valerie thanks her, face so still, so strange for a child, and leaves without looking back.

She purchases some bread, some cheese, and on consideration, a bright red apple, the skin smooth and shiny. The trader attempts to tease her about her height, but she looks at him, and he quiets. He watches her go, watches her cross the bridge over the river, and watches her enter the forest without raising the alarm, for he is a foreigner, and foreigners do not know about the water spirits, or the werewolves.

They say there was a little boy, once, a few generations ago, by the name of Adelei. They say he was out playing, by the riverbank, under his mother's eye, as his father watched their sheep. They say he tripped and fell, that his mother's screams bought the village elders, and they watched the boy drown until one of the elders dove in to save him. The water spirits, they say, could not take the pureness of this self-sacrifice, and fled long enough for the elder to bring the child to safety.

But there is another version of the story, one the children are not supposed to know until the coming of age ceremony, and they are men, or women. They say it was not the elder who rescued him, but a figure cloaked in black, with hair like burnished wheat; they say he waded in and saved the child as the others floundered upon the bank. They say he bought the child to his mother's arms, but he received no thanks; he was a demon, they whisper, with eyes as cold as the chips of amber they trade. They say he cursed Adelei's soul, and so they drove him from their town with weapons and words.

Valerie, listening through the floorboards, had thought on this for a long time. She thought about demons, and she thought about human hearts and souls, and about the rumours she'd heard from her father about the angels that protected the village, that stole supplies and ammunition, wrecked the vehicles of the military when it came here, keeping them safe. And she thinned her lips, and went to her mother and informed her that she wished to visit her grandmother.

The snow crunches under foot and the twigs snap; there are no shining red eyes in the dark, eyeing her. She throws stones at the trees because she can, knowing how conspicuous her red coat to be. The branches block out the weak winter sun, and the woods are still, silent. She is not scared.

The wizard's cabin is a disappointment, she thinks when she first sees it. It is battered, the roof covered with a fine layer of snow; looking over the hollow it is nestled into, Valerie can tell that there will be a garden around it, when the snows melt. So much for human flesh, she thinks, and walks forward, circling the building, seeking the entrance.

She is not surprised when she finds it, and nor is she surprised by the figure cloaked in black, his golden hair free over his shoulders, standing in front of it. He watches her and she watches him, thoughtfully; reaches into her basket and collects the apple, holding it out like a ruby before a dragon.

"Here," she says, tilting her head to one side. "This is for you, imp."

The figure grins, exposing teeth sharper than they ought to be; she is not scared. They say crows have teeth, too, inside their beaks, and yet crows are nothing but scavengers, feasting on the flesh of the dead. Crows are not killers.

"Why an apple?" he asks softly, even as he reaches out with a gloved hand and takes it, running his thumb over the skin. It is so bright his reflection glints off it, curved and filtered red. "Why not a human heart? I can hear yours beating, you know."

And she lifts her face and glares at him, and he merely laughs. "You don't eat human hearts," she says flatly. "You rescued Adelei and he is still alive. He still has a heart."

"Obviously he does. If he didn't his pulse would be a lot slower, and his skin would be a lot colder," the demon replies, evenly. "Why are you here? Do you have something you want from the big bad wizard?"

And Valerie draws herself up, so that she reaches his chest—the demon is small, shorter than her next oldest sister—folds her arms across her chest and says, firmly, "Answers."

And the demon smiles, sharp-toothed, and nods. "Bit of an odd thing to trek through werewolf-infested forests for, but..." he says, and gives the door a push. "Go on in."

She steps through the threshold, the pace of her heart quickening despite herself, and lays eyes upon the wizard for the first time.

He's old, is her first thought, tinted red with disappointment. He looks nothing like the young man in his castle of bones, gnawing on a human bone with ease; he is dressed in a plain black tunic, but it is not a midnight black, like they say. It is a scuffed, scrubby black, nearly grey. He is also drinking a cup of tea in a fine porcelain teacup, sitting at one side of a battered, uneven wooden table, and she thins her lips, sticks her jaw out and marches across the wooden floor, grabbing the chair opposite him and pulling it back, climbing into the seat to glare at him. The imp ghosts past her, moving to stand behind the wizard, and places a gloved black hand on his shoulder.

"What is your name?" the wizard asks, and his voice is soft and firm. He takes another sip from the cup, but does not stop watching her.

"Valerie Yakanov," she replies, firmly, and jumps when the imp grabs at something, sharply, locking his fingers into a fist as if clutching something invisible an inch away from her forehead.

"You told us your name," he says, face utterly still and eyes glinting darkly, "And now we have your soul."

She tenses, horrified despite herself, then forces her shoulders to relax; the wizard carefully puts the teacup down, and then places a gnarled, liver-spotted hand on the imp's outstretched forearm, pushing it gently away. "Don't be silly, brother," he says softly, and Valerie cocks her head.

"What are you?" she says, softly. "If he is not an imp and you are not a wizard, what are you?"

The wizard looks down at his teacup, and the imp carefully places the bright red apple on the table next to it.

"We're brothers," the wizard says quietly.

II.

The hospital is the same as any other, Alphonse supposes; the same as all the ones he's sat in, waiting impatiently, scared, for his brother to come out of surgery, or to wake up, or to stop being hurt. Grey corridors, nurses in starched uniforms, doctors with pale, pinched faces and wielding stethoscopes like weapons; the only difference is that it is he who needs to be patched up, this time, not his brother.

He's on an IV, now, resting. He lies back against the pillows, eyes closed; the sooner he gets better, the sooner he can get out of here, begin the work that lies ahead. He's so tired, has been since his long trek from West City, throughout the long and difficult train journey. He lost a lot of blood, and even a month later, he's not recovered.

There is a knock at his door, and he opens his eyes wearily. He knows who this is; cannot put this talk off any longer. "Come in, Fuhrer," he says softly, and the door clicks open and Roy enters, closing it behind him.

"Alphonse," Roy replies with a terse nod, and the man shrugs off his coat, drawing up a seat. This is going to take a while, and they both know it.

"It's been a while," Al offers, softly, and it has. Two years since he left, left with only the things he could shove in his suitcase, and lots of things have changed.

"A long while," Roy agrees quietly, holding his hands together and leaning forward, resting his elbows on the side of Al's bed. "Alphonse..."

"Where is my brother?" Al asks, settling back. It's weird, being without Ed; he's had to keep such a close eye on his sibling over the past month, and it was only with great reluctance and the fact that there was no other option before he agreed to let them be separated. He was taken up to have his arm looked at, and he doesn't know where Edward is.

"Hawkeye offered him her guest bedroom," Roy murmurs, leaning back in his chair. Alphonse turns his head slightly towards the man, weary, but tensed for the inevitable. "Alphonse, what did... what did they do to him?"

Alphonse pauses before answering, his voice low and tainted with his exhaustion. "They tortured him," he whispers, strained. "They tortured him for nearly two years, because the old Fuhrer wouldn't agree to... wouldn't agree to their demands."

Roy stares at him, then looks down at the covers of the bed, Al's wrist with the needle taped to it. "Alphonse, I—"

"No," Al interrupts, fighting the tired that sings in his bones, "I know you couldn't do anything about it. It's not your fault. I don't blame you."

"And Edward...?" Roy looks apprehensive, and Alphonse can't blame him; his heart sinks down to the pit of his stomach, however, and he finds the next words hard to choke out.

"I don't know," he whispers, feeling his eyes prick and tensing against the tears. "I don't know if my brother even remembers. They... they ki—they killed him, Roy, in his mind. They broke him, so many times." He breathes out, shakily; squeezes his eyes shut and isn't surprised when the movement dislodges water, which spills over his cheeks. There's a pause, then a rustle of fabric and Roy is leaning over him, pressing a handkerchief to his face and wiping the tears away.

"I can see to it that you two get funding," he says quietly. "Whatever you do, for the rest of your lives. I can get your surgery financed, but... what are you going to do with your brother?"

"I don't know," Al replies, voice barely above a breath. "He needs—I don't know what he needs, but... Is he talking, yet? Is he—bothering Miss Hawkeye at all?"

He opens an eye and Roy's shaking his head; the older man frowns, then looks away. Alphonse privately thinks it's a good thing, a sign of improvement; he doesn't think he could stand it if his brother had been wandering through Riza's house naked, and it shows that Ed listens and learns from what he says (clothes, brother, exist for a reason—no, stay here, put these trousers on—brother!). Edward had been naked when Al found him, stretched out beneath the scorching sun; he wonders, sometimes, how long it's been since his brother was last clothed. Last fed three meals a day.

He decides he doesn't want to know; doesn't think he can stand the answer. God, Ed had been all of seventeen when he was kidnapped, on a routine mission in some back-ended village a day's journey by train away from West City.

They'd said it had been a hostile group from Xing, seeking Amestris' withdrawal from a tiny province of southern Xing. The Fuhrer had said it was an important tactical position, Roy had said it was twenty miles square of sand, and Al had cried, because they had his brother and he wasn't there.

"Do you want me to order intelligence to find you somewhere to stay out—outside of Central?" Roy asks, and Al opens his eyes and the man's face is tilted with worry. There is grey in his hair, and Al knows the man's not old enough for that, and didn't have it before he left on his search and rescue mission; he feels a stab of respect for the man, and smiles weakly.

"No," he says softly. "I just... I think a house in this city that... that is not surrounded by anyone should do. Somewhere quiet. I think my brother just needs to be... surrounded by those who knew him. Maybe he'll come back to himself."

"He's never going to be the same again, Alphonse," Roy offers gently, and Al wants to laugh in his face, for all the respect he feels, because Roy doesn't know. Doesn't know how different Ed really is, and hopefully never will.

"I know," he says instead, because what else can he say? It's going to be difficult, trying his hardest to pull Ed out of his... condition and back to sanity, back to humanity, and he feels weary when he thinks about how much so. Still, he will do it because he loves Ed, and so he supposes he ought not to complain but instead get to it. "Can I see my brother?"

"I... I am not sure if that is a good idea when you're like this, Alphonse," Roy says carefully, and Al can see the thought processes behind his eyes, the wheels turning softly away.

"He won't do anything stupid," he offers softly. "He listens to me, at least. He'll be fine. I just, I want to keep him as close to me as possible. I..." I what? Al thinks briefly. I think I need to force him to develop an attachment to me? But it's the truth, and he knows it. If Ed has been regressed to a child, then Alphonse must be his parent.

"I'll... I'll bring him to you the day after tomorrow," Roy hedges. "Miss Rockbell called the head office, apparently, and said she should be here tomorrow morning."

"Winry?" Al jerks in surprise, and the flinches as the movement jolts his IV needle. "Who called her?"

"I did," Roy replies, puzzled. "Ed was in no condition to do so, and you were asleep, so I assumed..." He frowns, looking caught off guard. "Should I tell her to leave, then?"

"No... no. I just... I think she should see... Ed... herself," Al says quietly, eyes on the IV tube. "I just... she has a right to know what those bastards did to him. Roy, could...?"

The older man nods, solemnly; there is a rap on the door, and after glancing at Al for permission, he raises his voice and calls, "Come in."

It is the nurse who steps in, gives them a thin smile and says that visitng hours are nearly over and Alphonse needs his bandages changed, and after that really ought to be sleeping. Roy glances at Al, who smiles softly, the corners of his mouth indeed tinged by exhaustion, and waves slightly with his hand, careful not to disturb the needle.

"I will see you tomorrow, Alphonse," Roy says, shrugging on his coat and hooking his hat off the end of Al's bed. "Do you want me to bring you anything?"

Al shakes his head and smiles softly. "Thank you," he says quietly, "On behalf of the both of us."

Roy pauses, his coat nearly on and his hat in one hand, and for a moment his expression is soft, and sad, and so unfamiliar it makes Alphonse nervous. Then—it's gone, and Roy settles the hat onto his hair and gives Al a courteous nod. "It's fine," he says, "Goodbye."

The door closes after him, and then the nurse gets to work. As Alphonse sits up for her, quiet as she strips off his bandage, he thinks about his brother; closes his eyes and pushes away the pang of hurt that resounds in his chest.

"So, is anybody coming to visit you tomorrow?" the nurse asks casually as she begins winding new bandages over his collarbone; Al watches her do so, feeling only a sort of detached horror at the sight of his injury—he's had a month to get used to it—and smiles.

"Yeah," he murmurs, watching the nurse's calloused, capable hands. "My automail mechanic."

The nurse pauses for a second, and Al can hear disapproval heavy on her voice. "I don't think you should be having automail surgery just yet," she scolds, "You're still weak, my lad, and that sort of thing—"

"No, not yet," Al agrees, shaking his head. "But as soon as possible." He flexes the fingers of his left hand, and feels the other set, the ones that no longer exist in this world, attempt to mimic the gesture. Phantom pains, still there after a month; he hates them, but he tolerates them.

He wonders if they'll ever fade, like his scars do; it was not something he spoke to Ed about, when Ed was still—whole, was still Ed, and he worries.

Ed will be Ed again, though. No matter how much it takes, he swears he will see to that.

III.

Winry hugs him hard when she visits, clinging to him enough to make him hiss in pain. The stump where his arm ought to be is sending flashes of pain throughout his body; Winry eases up as soon as she realises, and runs soft fingers over the bandages, expression tortured. "Al," she says, and he's shaking his head before she even begins, hoping she hasn't really spoken to the hospital staff.

"It had to be amputated," he says gently. "I took a bullet hauling Edward out of there and I... didn't have time to do anything about it except a rough tourniquet and it got... infected, you know?"

She does; she works with a lot of amputees, and knows how easily a little cut can grow sour, leaking pus and needing to be severed. Most of her patients are actually farmers and lumberjacks; so easy to misjudge your axe swing, or cut yourself come harvest time and not pay any attention to the wound... "Al," she says again, stroking the bandages and the side of his face. He smiles at her, weary; there are circles beneath his eyes, and he's surprised when she presses her face to the follow of his throat, crying softly.

"Winry?" he whispers, surprised, and raises his sole remaining arm to rub at her back, makes soft, soothing sounds into her hair. He's tired and his arm hurts and he's got a headache, but he knows this is something that has to be done; she cries herself out into his skin and then clings to him, shivering, for some time after.

"I saw Ed," she mutters into his skin, voice hoarse and pained. "I went over to Lieutenant Hawkeye's house and I, I saw him, Al, what did they do—how could they do that to him? He barely recognised me, he wouldn't speak, he acts like a—like a child, and it's... oh god..."

"I know," he whispers into her hair, closing his eyes and thinking that it is better, now, than it had been while he was trying to get the pair of them back here. Only one arm, and an Edward who is all but unrecognisable. Sometimes he dreams about giving one of his patient lectures, staring into those gold eyes as he buttoned up Edward's soft shirt, explaining that clothes existed for a reason and that it was unacceptable to run naked through a town. "I know, Winry, but he can get better."

She narrows her eyes, the blue flashing wildly and her expression stubborn. "I know he can, and he will," she says firmly, "What's your plan? Roy said he's willing to find specialists, psychiatrists—"

"No," Al replies fiercely, determined. "I've heard about—about these psychiatrists. They electrocute people to make them better, and that's the last thing brother needs right now."

She blinks, but nods thoughtfully, and releases him, drawing her hands back to her lap. "Al... are you going to-?" She gestures at the cut-off shoulder and he nods, quietly. "Are you sure?" She sounds in her element, here, and she is; she has dropped Winry, their childhood friend who worries about Ed, and become something else. The automail mechanic she was every day they were away from gone, perhaps.

"I have to, Winry," he says softly, evenly. "I can't cope with Ed like this with only one hand. Roy says the military will—will pay for everything."

"I'm not accepting payment from you," she says flatly as she runs a quizzical eye over his shoulder, hands barely an inch away from the bandages.

"I'm not offering to pay you. I'm saying the military will."

She purses her lips but nods, and pulls a notebook out of her jacket pocket. "Do you know how tall you are?" she says, lips parted slightly, and Al realises, with a lurch in his gut, that she is beautiful. The sunlight is gleaming through the window and she has her long hair over one shoulder; her eyes are bright and wise, and he thinks, sadly, that it is a shame he does not have the time to court her.

"A hundred and eighty centimetres," he replies quietly. "Seventy one inches. How soon will—?"

"We need to build the port onto you," she says, not looking up from jotting numbers and calculations into her notebook. "You're lucky, we have spares from someone who paid and then changed his mind—we gave some of the money back, but. You're broader across the shoulders than he was, so we'll have to make some adjustments; installation should take a month, if we do it in bouts. Better that way, minimises the pain; what're you going to do with Ed, though...?"

And he has no idea. The world lurches, darkly, scares him. He never thought about it, but oh god, he should have. He'll be unconscious for the better part of that month, in blinding pain for a while after; what is he supposed to do with Ed?

"I'll... I'll tell you when I know," he mutters, stiff, and is surprised when Winry reaches up and strokes his hair, strokes one of his bangs out of his eyes and kisses his temple, sisterly.

"If you need any help," she says, and it's not really a question.

She stays for a while after that, not saying anything, just stroking his hair and being there. She is warm, smells of cotton and summer, and when they do talk, it is about neutral things. She feeds him gossip of Rizenbourg; it has been over two years since he was last there, before he set off on his prolonged search for his sibling, and Alphonse is grateful beyond words for the simple comfort, the reminder that he is not alone.

But maybe he is, and Edward's visit the next day only confirms that. He is asleep when Roy and his brother enters; wakes up to find Edward standing over his bed, rhythmically prodding the centre of Al's palm with his index finger to see how Al's fingers move. Someone has bathed his brother, and scolded him into clothes, and even brushed his hair, which Al hadn't been able to do on the way back due to the lack of a comb. When they arrived, it'd been a filthy, matted mess.

"Hey," he says, to let Ed know he's awake. His brother glances up sharply, like he's been caught doing something wrong; looks mildly puzzled when their eyes meet, but then smiles brightly. "Good morning, brother," Al whispers, encouraged by the fact that Ed recognises him, and raises a weak hand to gently place it to one side of his face. "Talking yet?" he offers, and Ed attempts to lick his palm; he raises his voice slightly, and says, very firmly, "No."

Edward doesn't whimper, and Al is glad for that; he doesn't think he could stand it if Ed did. Instead his brother nods, which is a very good sign; there's something in there, and it's watching and learning. Slowly. As it is, it's a good enough sign that he drops his hand back to the bed and doesn't protest when, awkwardly, Ed climbs onto it, draping himself over Al rather than to the side of him and pressing his cheek out fat against Al's chest.

"Alphonse?" Roy offers quietly, and Al turns towards the man, standing stonily by the door, and smiles softly. "Is there anything I can get you...?"

"No," Al replies, shifting to more comfortably distribute the weight of his older brother. "No, I'm good. Um, not to sound rude, but—-?"

"Of course," Roy interrupts smoothly, and closes the door after him; as soon as he's gone, Alphonse relaxes slightly, and wishes he had a hand left to stroke Ed's hair with. He doesn't, though; he gave it up of his own accord for his brother, and he does not, can not, will not regret the trade, not when Ed is right there, making little noises that could pass for snores if you didn't know him. He's grasping the ropes of many things again, very quickly, and one of them, unfortunately, includes lying; Al supposes that's a good sign, a sign that there is still some measure of Ed in this body, waiting to be coaxed out.

(Brother, did you eat all of the dumplings by yourself? Don't shake your head at me, you were the only one here!)

"I miss you," he whispers, into his brother's soft hair; Ed raises his head and blinks at him, gaze sharp, and alert. Al smiles to reassure him—it's okay, you're not in any trouble—and shifts again, trying to settle down; Ed rolls off him, and snuggles into the side of the bed furthest from the door, the side with the missing arm. He begins to play with the covers or something over there—Al can't see him over the curve of his shoulder, and so he looks up at the ceiling instead. "I miss you," he says, and has to blink back tears from nowhere. "I wish you'd come back to me soon. I didn't make you to live like this."

Ed hums peacefully beside him, and Al can't help but give a bitter bark of laughter. "I'm sorry for doing this to you," he says, and turns his head sidewise to find his brother has managed to unfasten the pin holding his bandages together; holds it up proudly and says, "Lu!"

And Al stares, not because Ed's just managed to crack the protective layer between his stump and the air, but because the way he says the word 'lu' makes it very clear that he means look.

And he remembers a cramped train carriage, his brother next to him and holding his one hand with both his own, Al's coat spread between them; remembers pointing at things, urging Ed to look at them and repeat their names aloud, only to be met with a beautiful, blank smile.

He wants to scream or at least yelp in glee, wants to hug his brother tightly enough to hurt; instead shifts a little, hissing as the bandages become slightly unravelled—the nurse is going to have his head for this—and leans forward, kissing Ed on the forehead. "That's right," he says, warmly.

IV.

When Alphonse is judged to be in good enough condition for release, he collects his brother from Riza Hawkeye—hates the way she looks at him, expression calm but eyes sympathetic. Edward hates trains, for some reason—Al's not really sure he wants to know, and the trip back to Rizenbourg is miserable, his brother curled up on the seat, arms around his shins and face buried in his knees, pressed close enough to Alphonse to hurt.

Alphonse regrets doing this to his brother, but he doesn't have the strength for another trip by foot, like he had bringing his brother back to Central. The train trip only lasts three days, he tells himself when Ed presses his face into the hollow of his neck and whimpers quietly, unsteadily. The train trip only lasts three days, and Edward is strong.

He takes the opportunity of the trip to try and teach Edward how to eat politely, or at least without making much of a mess; his time with those damn terrorists had weaned him out of the use of cutlery, and even of eating very much. Edward normally picks his meals apart with his fingers, only eating when Al glares at him, and he actively shies away from forks—not knives, oddly enough, just forks. Al makes him sleep with a fork under his pillow in the swaying hammock they share at night, in an effort to teach his brother that forks are not innately evil. It sort of works; by the time they disembark, Edward will hold cutlery without flinching, although he hasn't yet progressed to using them.

The first meal in the Rockbell house is strained; Winry cuts Al's meals for him, and both Rockbell women eye Ed, who is rolling a potato around his plate with his forefinger, expression one of distaste. "Edward," Auntie Pinako says gently, "Do you not like potatoes? Would you like something else?"

"No," Al answers for him, "He does this with everything. Eat it, brother."

Ed squishes the potato in his fist and licks the mash off his palm, and Winry takes a slow, hitched breath. Al looks away, brushing his hair out of his face with the back of his hand, and Pinako very carefully looks away from Trisha's older son and says, "Winry took your measurements when she was in Central, Alphonse, and we've already built all the parts. If you like, we can start the surgery as early as tomorrow, but I wouldn't—"

"Yes, please," Alphonse interrupts, quietly. "Tomorrow sounds fine."

"You should think about it for a while," Winry offers softly. "It's an exhausting process, Al, and it hurts like," she glances at her grandmother, "heck."

"Tomorrow," Al says shortly, hand tightening on his fork. He doesn't say what he thinks, that he needs two hands to look after Edward—that the sooner he gets the artificial limb installed, the sooner he can begin really working towards his brother's recovery process.

Edward reaches out and places a slender hand over Al's own; it's the metal one, still slightly sticky with potato mash, and Al smiles slightly at the sight. "Hey," he says gently, "You finished?"

"Fork," Edward says cheerfully, and Al nods.

"That's right," he agrees smoothly, shaking Ed's touch off and gently pressing the utensil into his metal palm. "Fork." He points to the knife beside Ed's plate, and names that, too; Ed snorts and brushes it off the table to clatter against the wall, clearly unimpressed. "Brother, go pick that up."

"Es."

"Now," Al says sternly, and Ed sticks his tongue out, like he used to when he was five, just as insolent now. Al wonders where he learned (relearned?) the gesture from, and points over at the fork. "Now, brother."

"Al?" Winry says softly, the word almost an exhalation, "When did he start... speaking again?"

"A week ago," Al replies quietly. "What you're witnessing is pretty much the extent of his vocabulary at the moment, but we're working on it. He still doesn't know my name, though. Brother, how many times? Go pick that up!"

"Fork," Edward says sharply, and reaches out, grabbing Al's hand and pressing the fork inside. He then slinks away from the table, picking the knife up, and drops it on top of Al's plate before folding his arms over his chest. "Jerk," he snaps, and before the word can really register with Al's conscious, the smaller boy turns and wanders off.

"... If I ever find who taught him that, I'm going to kill them," Al snarls, seconds after the fact, and Winry laughs. It's an odd sort of laugh, with a razor-sharp hint of hysteria in it, and Alphonse suddenly knows that he doesn't want to deal with this, not now. He knows he should, but he doesn't think he can; makes his excuses to them both and heads off to look for his brother.

As he moves around the house, calling, he thinks he hears crying from the kitchen; stiffens his shoulders—or at least, his shoulder—and heads upstairs.

He spies his brother from the balcony—Ed is wandering down the dusty path that leads to town, and Alphonse swallows, bolts downstairs and out the door, calling "Wait, brother—" like it's going to make a difference. Ed doesn't stop, doesn't even slow; just keeps on walking at the same speed, steady, going-somewhere speed.

"Brother," Alphonse breathes, drawing even beside him and grabbing Ed's wrist with one hand. Ed is so small, feels so fragile under his hand; when his brother turns back to face him, stopping in the middle of the road, all Alphonse can think of is how delicate Ed looks. "Brother," he says again, heart in his mouth. "Don't do that again, you had me worried!"

"Fork," Ed says, pouting, and Al pulls him into a tight hug, pinning his brother—s head beneath his chin.

"Yes, fork," he whispers, screwing his eyes shut and seeing his brother in the desert, naked and tiny and new, crying like he would never have, before, and clinging to Al's chest for dear life.

Ed wriggles as if to escape, but Al doesn't release him; finally his brother settles for shifting into a more comfortable position against his chest, slipping both arms around Al's waist. Al strokes down his spine with his lone hand, humming quietly as if to soothe his brother. "Never going to let anyone get you," he whispers softly.

Ed bites thoughtfully at the fabric of his shirt, and then says, wetly, the cloth still in his mouth, "Father."

And Al tenses, enough to make Ed whimper; draws back and swallows, raising a hand to brush Ed's hair out of his face, tug his shirt out of his brother's mouth. "I'm not your father," he says gently, "I'm your brother." Ed tilts his head to one side and Al kisses the tip of his nose, softly. "I'm your brother, okay?"

"Fork?" Ed offers brightly, and Al sighs. He wonders if Ed knows what the word 'father' even means; it's not been one that he taught Ed, and while that's a very good sign, he has to worry about what it means. Yes, he made his brother, created Ed for the price of seven lives, a bunch of stones and an arm; shaped Edward's body with tears in his eyes the whole while. It still doesn't make him Ed's father.

It makes him the boy who found his brother's rotting body in the midst of the desert, the gaping, rusted automail ports the only way to identify the corpse. Ed had been thrown out amidst a bunch of household waste; Alphonse remembered being oddly clinical about it, staring down at his brother's dead body and wondering just when it was that Ed had died. He remembered thinking a month ago, with the desert sun and the carrion eaters, which'd put the date of death around the same time that the Fuhrer had issued his final refusal of the terrorist group's demands.

He remembered burying Ed out there, beneath the sweltering sun and the vultures. Then he'd gone in and decimated half the fucking evil sons of bitches who could do that to a teenage boy, rage like none he'd ever felt guiding his movements. Ed had been reborn from the survivors, flawless and different.

"Love you," he murmurs, and Ed smiles cheerfully. "Love you lots, brother."

"Al," Ed says happily, and before Al can respond, leans forward and kisses him on the mouth.

V.

His brother is lurking outside the door, quiet as anything. Winry and Pinako won't let him inside, and isn't that a bitter reversal of roles?

Only Ed never screamed for this pain, and even as Al thinks he's being ripped apart, he can't help but admire his sibling for it.

"Nearly done for today," Winry promises, giving him a pinched smile he barely sees as she puts down the drill. His arm screams even when his voice does not, and feverishly he wonders which of the two is louder. He asked Pinako once, and she responded by making him drink an excessive amount of rum. Disgusting stuff.

Winry is working alone this time, Pinako watching; through his drunken, pain-filled delirium he watches her and wants to tell her that he's sorry, he should've known better, but oh god, it hurts and even now he doesn't want to reverse anything. Ed's not allowed in the room even when they're off surgery—his arm is raw and open and painful, and Ed cuddles against it without thinking, snuggling hopefully and nearly knocking Al out with his innocence.

Winry wipes her brow with her forearm and twists a metal-clad nerve so sharply his hips arch off the table, a raw, agonised scream ripping its way out of him. She flinches and carefully puts down the surgical pliers, pulling him up to a sitting position. He's on an IV, too weak and nauseous to keep any food down, but they need to wrap the port and the connections there to keep infections at bay and still allow it to settle until the next bout.

The door clicks open and Ed noses his way in; he's got this beaten-puppy look on his face, and he flees like one when Pinako clicks her tongue at him harshly. "Fool boy," she says, but there's no bite in it as she holds out a roll of bandage to Winry. "You need to get better soon, Alphonse, and beat your brother into eating."

Al rolls his head, weak and weary, and blinks at her. "Why?" he asks, voice thick and slurred, and she snorts. "He's not eaten anything?"

"Not a thing," she replies, lips pursed into a thin line, and Al blinks at her sleepily, wondering if Ed even really needs to. He never saw any of the others eating or drinking, and Ed hasn't either unless Al pressures him to do so. His head swims abruptly as Winry pulls the bandage a little too tight, and then it's right there in front of him; he shakes his head sharply.

"Stones," he mutters, and then passes out.

The port isn't fully installed until four weeks later; Ed's was done faster, but then Ed was a masochistic little bitch when he was eleven. Al feels briefly uncharitable for thinking of his brother like that, and then Winry takes him off his pain meds.

He spends the next week curled into a whimpering little ball in bed, and it's only a small consolation that Ed is allowed to be with him. His brother snuggles against his side, watching over him; he's able to form vague sentences now, normally just linking a pronoun with a few verbs.

On the last day of his recovery period, he's sitting in an uncomfortable chair, gripping the armrest with his one hand and watching Winry tweak the automail arm out of the corner of his eye. Pinako stands in front of him, puffing on her pipe, and Ed is sitting on the edge of the table, swinging his legs; Al smiles at him and Ed smiles back, then jerks his chin over at Winry. "I fear," he says simply, and Al can't help but laugh.

"I think I know why," he says, and Winry gives him a brief smile before undoing the protective forearm plate and screwing in the handle that'll allow her to push it in. "Lie back," she advises him, padding over, and Ed screws his eyes shut and tenses. He's not the only one.

The pain of automail reattachment is much more severe than Al thought it would be, and he wakes up ten minutes later with Winry passing a cool damp cloth over his face, stretched out on the low couch. "Ow," he offers quietly, and she grins ruefully.

"I figured it'd be worse if I gave you the old one-two-three warning," she offers. "Try moving it."

His fingers flex in order, thumb to pinky, and he watches them with increasing amazement. "Wow," he says softly, curling his hand into a fist. "I forgot what it was like to have—" He shrugs apologetically, unable to describe it, and she gives him a brief smile.

"I know what you mean," she replies quietly, "We get the same reaction from a lot of patients. How are you? Are you up to anything else, or is it straight to bed again?"

"I feel fine. Well, sore, but otherwise fine." Al swings his legs over the edge of the couch and winces abruptly, his whole body sagging sharply. "Ow, this thing's heavy."

"That's where the therapy comes in. You should walk around with it for a little bit. Here, take these." She hands him a couple of pills and takes a glass off the table. "The weight'll hurt the skin around the port like hell, so you won't want to go very far. You could try collecting, uh, Edward and going to bed."

"Has he eaten yet?" Al asks, sharply, his memory jogged by the expression on her face, and is somehow not surprised when she shakes her head.

"Al," she says, and opens her mouth to say more; then shakes her head again and sighs. "Go on. I'll wake you up tomorrow morning."

"I need to go back to Central," he says in a low voice, and she raises her eyebrows. "You know what he is, Winry, I know you do."

She looks away, fiddles with the fabric of her jumpsuit. "Yes, I do," she admits softly, "And I want to know what—what possessed you to make him in the first place, Al. Wasn't your mother enough?"

He looks away, and after a while she leaves. He can hear the door to the kitchen closing behind her, and the scrape of a chair as she sits down; he stands slowly, his shoulder, as she promised, whimpering in pain, and heads clumsily to the door to call his brother in.

VI.

His brother is just as nervous on the train back to Central as he was on the one to Rizenbourg, and Al can't help but wonder if Edward would've been better off back there, playing with Den and running around like a small child. He'd had five months, though, and Al hopes that would be enough.

"Where we going?" Ed asks quietly, both his arms wrapped tightly around Al's metal limb, and Al winces and reaches up with his other hand, touching his brother's cheek gently.

"Central," he replies. "Going to get you some food." Ed pulls a disgruntled face and he chuckles, pressing a kiss against Ed's hair. "Not that sort of food. You'll like this stuff."

Roy is waiting for them at the station when they arrive, just like he promised; he helps them into a cab and says he found a place in the suburbs. Ed blinks at him thoughtfully, like maybe he's remembering something about the man, but doesn't make a sound; Al makes him carry their suitcases from the car to the house, a comfy detached place with a large garden. It looks more suitable for families than the two of them, and Al frowns, thinking about how they'll rattle around in it. Still.

He goes out the very first night, leaving Edward alone in their bed. He feels guilty for it—his brother is paranoid of being abandoned in the night, hence his ability to wrap around Al like some sort of blond anaconda—but it needs to be done; midnight sees him with a shovel over his shoulder, staring down at a heap of weed-infested rubble. It's been nearly three years since the fifth laboratory exploded, and Al's not entirely sure of what he needs will be here. He can only hope so; hope that the red stone in such plentiful supply inside the place hasn't vanished.

He gets back early the next morning; showers and makes a breakfast of bacon and fried egg, and cracks Ed's egg open for him in the kitchen, slipping a small stone into the white. He suspects his brother isn't eating because he doesn't find food particularly filling; hopefully the presence of a stone will change that. He feels kind of guilty, given the origins of the stones, but what's done is done; the souls in these stones are gone, and nothing will ever, ever be able to help them now.

Ed pokes at his food, grumpily—glares at Al from where he's still in bed, obviously not too pleased at being abandoned—but reluctantly eats anyway; scoops out the egg without looking at what's on his spoon, and his eyes widen as he crunches the red stone.

The unfortunate effect of feeding homunculi stones, Al discovers over the next twelve hours, is that once they've had one, they become all sorts of bouncy, clingy, loving and plain annoying. Al spends most of the day on the couch with his brother, stroking and petting and generally placating Ed's apparent endless need for contact.

Honestly, the damn things are like sugar. Still, Ed eats his lunch and dinner without even needing to be prodded, and that can't be anything but a good thing. Al slips stones into his breakfast for a long time after that, and there he runs into another problem.

His brother is starting to remember.

He'd thought that was what he wanted. He wants Ed to be Ed again; less with the clingy, co-dependent creature and more with the sassy, sarcastic big brother. He cried over the loss many a time, late at night with the covers over his head, making as much of an effort as he could to be silent; missed Ed, his brother, wished for him to return and pick up the slack. Al wasn't used to having to be the strong one.

Except... Ed's memories seem to be returning... backwards. Al wakes up early every night for a week to piercing, desperate screams coming from right beside him; Ed is becoming visibly more rattled and haunted every day, and shies away from more things. Forks. Anything leather. Green fabric, no matter what shade, no matter what type. Keys. Bottles, windows, loose change, any open flames... the list went on, and each new item discovered sends a wave of sick, angry agony lancing through his head.

He'd wanted his brother to remember, but he hadn't realised that that would mean remembering everything, even the bad parts.

He tries to remember the good side, that Ed's remembering anything in such clear detail is a sign that there's something there. That his brother is in there, somewhere, and maybe he'll be recovered eventually; that he successfully bonded Ed's soul to his new body, and that it was worth the sacrifice.

Still, when he wakes up to Ed screaming again—rolls over and pulls his brother into a hug, stroking his hair and whispering soothing nothings over and over—he can't help but wonder if he's made the wrong choice; if bringing Ed back and forcing him to remember this pain, live it all over again, is for the best.

"I'm sorry," he whispers in the dark, late one night or early one morning, he's not quite sure. "I'm sorry for doing this to you, I—" I was selfish, and oh, he was. Couldn't let Ed go, even when it was for the best; couldn't release his brother-lover. Too many memories of Ed, lazy mornings and heated kisses and warm, seductive bedroom-eyes; incest is a foul taboo, and for a while Al had thought that maybe it was because when you knew someone as well as your sibling, when you knew all their filthy little habits and their dark secrets and were capable of loving them anyway, then that was some kind of hubris, some kind of crime. People shouldn't be as wrapped up in each other as he and Ed were—brothers shouldn't be that close, lovers should still have space between them, and oh, there was never any distance between he and Ed.

"Al? Ed whispers in the dark, every muscle tense, and Al kisses his forehead softly. "What did you do?"

"I loved you too much to let you go," Al replies, softly, and closes his eyes. I loved you too much to let you go, and I let myself do this to you because of it.

The real crime isn't in loving his brother too much, or trying to give him life when his had ended; the real crime is in attempting to get himself too much of a good thing.

VII. In media res

The small battered clock on the mantelpiece counts down the minutes after Valerie leaves, and Edward quietly rubs Al's shoulders. "You didn't tell her all of our story," he says softly, and the old man shakes his head.

"The half that remains is not mine to tell," he murmurs, eyes closed, leaning back into Ed's hands. "She will be back tomorrow for the rest. Will you tell it to her?"

Ed shrugs, sighs. "Maybe," he says softly. "She's a real brat, I don't think she'll stop until she knows."

"You were like that, once," Al points out dryly, and Ed chuckles.

"I wasn't that stubborn, was I?" he asks, already knowing the answer and grinning as he says it. Al turns and throws him an amused look over his shoulder; old age has been graceful with him, and Ed reaches out and traces the curve of his brother's lips with his thumb.

"I love you," and they're not sure which one of them said it, but it doesn't matter, anyway, Ed bending down and Al leaning up and them meeting somewhere along the middle, for a warm, firm kiss.

VIII.

it is bright and sore and hurts and everything is screaming in pain and he's crying with it and—

father's there and he's safe, he's being fed, there's red stuff all around him and he can't see it deformed as he is but he knows it's not food so he eats because father wants him to and besides it feels good and—

and nothing hurts any more and father says he's perfect and he supposes he must be, if father things so, though he feels awkward-clumsy with arms and legs and he falls over a lot and father picks him up and laughs and kisses him and he thinks, this is right, this is right—

but then comes the day when he realises father isn't always right because father is in pain, too, and he's got two legs and two eyes but only one arm and ed wait when was his name ed—

his name is was may be edward elric and he's not sure how old he is but father says he's eighteen and if father says so he must be right and father says they have to go someplace called central and ed thinks, okay, and so they pack up and—

he doesn't like trains oh god rumbling noise constant motion reminds him of dusty wrongbad memory that's not his, all motion and an iron bar rising and falling and pain and pain and scarring and the boy that was being beaten can't be him because he has no scars, right, so he's got someone else's memories and he's not sure whose—

and father hands him a fork and he looks at it for a long time and remembers the pain of the tines in his eyeball and he throws the fork away, shuddering at the pain of other-boy's memory, oh the poor thing—

central is really big and he thinks he's been here before but no, no he hasn't, he was born in the desert other-boy must've been here before iron bar and fork and father kisses him on the head and says, be careful now, and he thinks of course and—

Father looks weak and tired, and Ed worries about him this is the first time he's been allowed to see Father since they got to Central and father's in bed and he's got this weird white stuff over his arm and Ed undoes it and wants Father to be proud, so he says, look, and Father—

Is not Father, Father is his brother and it's an important difference. His name is Al, and Ed repeats that to himself in his head and he kisses his brother on the mouth in sunny Rizenbourg—

Red stones in his egg and he knows what they are, but he's not sure if he should tell Al that; his brother's going through pains to keep it a secret. Problem is, the stones are unearthing other-boy's memories, all blood and pain and torture, and Ed's heart aches for the poor hurt thing whose memories are his—

And eight days solid of screaming nightmares, and that's when it clicks, what his brother has done. Oh. Oh. He is the boy in his memories, the boy who met the iron bar, and on the ninth day everything rushes together and he wakes up and says, I know everything now, Al.

And his brother laughs, long and free and not entirely sane.

IX.

He feels weird in his body, the same way he had when the Stones restored him to humanoid form the first time. He's much stronger now than he was before (and despite what he told Al, his memories of Before are fuzzy and in some cases missing entirely)—can probably bench-press a wardrobe—and yet his body feels paradoxically light. Al doesn't know why that is, and isn't willing to hazard a guess. Ed supposes it's because his brother has the same vague suspicion he does.

"It's because I'm missing a soul," Ed says flatly one day, watching his brother cook. Things have gotten tense between them recently, and he's not entirely sure why; a week since the red stones unlocked something in him, and the first day Al spent holding him and crying and whispering things into his hair. Edward hadn't said anything.

"No, you're not," Al replies after a tiny pause, smashing an egg on the side of a measuring jug and prying it open with his nails. "I... I know you have one." He glances pointedly at the gleam of metal between his shirt sleeve and the glove he's wearing, and Ed rolls his eyes.

He slinks off, rather than cause a fight over something he's not entirely sure he understands; Al finds him twenty minutes later, sprawled over the couch in the living room, flipping through alchemy textbooks with a quiet, pensive expression on his face. "What are you thinking?" he asks, sliding down to sit behind his older brother, who makes some room for him.

Ed shrugs uncommunicatively. Some days he feels like a traitor for identifying himself with that name; a traitor to the boy who died out in the desert, the one Al loved. Still, he's not sure what else he'd rather be called, and until then, he supposes the name will do. "Nothing," he says softly, and Al sighs.

"Brother," he murmurs, gently, and raises a hand to touch. Ed flinches away, then tosses the alchemy textbook onto the little rickety coffee table beside the couch and stands, frowning. Al swallows, closes his eyes, and whispers, "I'm sorry." He says it multiple times a day, mostly during the night when he clutches Ed to him and begs for forgiveness. Ed knows what for; for the sins he's done. He thinks he ought to hate Alphonse for this soulless life he has, for the terrible memories that awake him every night, whimpering and helpless; he ought to, and sometimes he thinks he's close, but he's never been able to succeed. Some part of him, the old-him, loves Alphonse with such strength and intensity it hurts.

"I know you are," he says simply, wrapping his arms around his chest, and Alphonse draws his legs up on the couch, wrapping his arms tightly around his knees. In that moment, Ed hates him and loves him so much he aches; he ruffles Al's hair over the back of the couch instead and turns, heading up the stairs, knowing Al won't follow him.

He closes the door of their room and flops over their bed, and has a striking double-memory of having done something just like this before; a bunk-bed and a suit of armour tucking a blanket over him, thick leather fingers pressing against the flesh of his shoulder. "Al," he thinks, and sighs. His right arm isn't really automail anymore, for all it looks like it. That was Winry's first clue—Al made his brother perfect, but Al doesn't know anything about automail, the complicated twist of wires and the placement of bolts and the shape of the metal support structures. He'd tried, but what was there, where Ed's arm and leg were silver and cold, was an organic structure.

There is a brief rap of Al's knuckles against the wood of the door, and Ed rolls over; Al tries the handle, but the deadbolt's been drawn across. "Brother? Brother, I bought you some soup..." Al voice trails off, and Ed snorts.

"I don't need to eat," he points out acidly, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed but not attempting to stand up.

"No, but doing so doesn't hurt you," Al replies, and sighs. "Brother, please unlock the door, or else I'll transmute it open."

"What, like I can't?" Ed snipes, and is more put-out when Al snorts. "What?"

"You sound like a stroppy teenager," Al says and Ed can hear the grin in his voice. "Brother, please open the door. We need to talk."

Ed growls under his breath, but jumps to his feet and draws the deadbolt back, opening the door for Alphonse. Al has a tray in his hands, and true to his words, there's hot tomato soup in a green bowl; Ed snorts at it, but takes it anyway, and balances it on his lap when he goes to sit back down on the bed.

Al sits carefully beside him, not close enough to touch, and Ed hunches his shoulders slightly at the feel of his little brother's gaze on him. He eats the soup, regardless; it doesn't fill him at all, but he can still enjoy the taste, so he might as well.

"Brother," Al says, and sighs. "I don't..."

"I love you," Ed interrupts flatly, "Or rather, he loves you. It's making resentment hard. Father."

Al flinches at that, and he feels guilty for saying that. Still. He was born in the desert, made from seven lives and an arm; he loved his father unconditionally and all his father ever wanted was the old-him, the tortured boy. He was fed stones to bring back his memory, and the memories were harsh and cold and cruel; his father wants him to live through more of them, progress backwards through the life that was not his until he can become old-him again, the Edward who laughed and lived and fucked Al senseless in a house nineteen blocks from here.

"I love you," Ed continues softly, "And I hate you because of it. Why did you do this to me, Al? I—I can't even do alchemy anymore, I'm a soulless being and I can't die."

Al screws his eyes shut, looking away; takes a deep breath and shakes his head, pressing the heel of his hands to his eyes. "I did it because I didn't want to lose you," he whispers, "I did it because I... because I..."

"Because you were in love?" Ed offers with a derisive snort. "Don't pussyfoot around it, I know what he felt.

"Yeah," Al replies quietly, "Because I was in love."

X.

Despite what he says, Ed keeps sleeping in Al's bed. He gets some measure of comfort from it, or at least old-him does; he's not the only one, though, and Al sleeps a lot easier with an arm over his waist, face pressed into the curve of his neck. It's a position Al's obviously long used to adopting.

Ed's really not sure on where he stands, despite his words of contempt and resentment, his feelings of pure acid jealousy and his guilt at being so. Old-him doesn't need to be hated, and he knows why with every powerful, flashing nightmare.

He reads up on the nature of the human soul, whether Al's looking or not; pours over books and says nothing when he writes lists of book titles he wants for Al to call Roy and ask him to bring over. They don't have many visitors other than the older man; Al takes up gardening to pass the time, and sometimes Ed helps him. One day he pauses, on his haunches with dirt over his hands. Each of the brothers took a flowerbed on either side of the lawn; Al's is bursting with spring flowers, crocus and daffodil and snowdrop, bright and colourful. Ed's is filled with poppies, bright red and vivid.

"What are you thinking about?" Al asks quietly, standing perhaps three feet behind Ed, a mug of hot cocoa in each hand; Ed runs a thumb over the petal of a poppy and shakes his head.

"Do flowers have souls?" he asks quietly, and Al shrugs.

"I don't see why not," he says softly. "Animals must do, surely, why not plants?"

"Yeah," Ed murmurs, "Humans, animals and plants. But not the undead, right?"

"Brother, you're not a zombie," Al replies wearily, and Ed snorts.

"I'm not your brother, either," he snaps, and storms inside, leaving Al out there with the cocoa and a forlorn expression on his face.

This is the twelfth time he's said something similar, and Al has reacted the same on each occasion; the thirteenth time, however, brings change.

"I'm not your brother," he says, and then loses all the air from his lungs when Al, instead of crumpling into himself, gives him a good hard shove to the chest, knocking him onto the couch.

"No," Al snarls, and his eyes are dancing bright with an emotion the old-him remembers and cherishes: anger. "No, brother, you listen to me. You. You. Are my brother. Got that?"

Ed rolls his eyes, which proves to be a mistake; Al growls and leans forward. He's taller than Ed, if not as strong, and definitely broader; his body is lean and strong, and Ed tells himself that's why he doesn't try to escape when Al kisses him, wetly.

It doesn't explain why he sits up, hauls Al onto his lap, and proceeds to make out with him as passionately as old-him ever did. Al tastes the way his dusty memories sing that he always has; feels the way that he always has, snuggles close the way that he always has and sharpens his teeth lightly on Ed's lower lip, nibbling and nipping, the way he always has.

It occurs to Ed in a moment of shock that the only non-painful memories he has yet from old-him have been of Al.

"I love you," Al is whispering frantically into the lines of his face. "I love you, I love you, I'm sorry, I was—"

Ed closes his eyes and can feel the tension bleed from him, quiet as anything. "Shut up," he says instead, and slips his hands up the back of Al's shirt.

Afterwards he leaves Al sleeping on the couch and throws on a pair of boxers and a shirt, padding over to the kitchen. He finds a skillet in the cupboard and some bacon in the icebox, and settles to making Al some fried bread and bacon for what passes for lunch.

It's three in the afternoon; the kitchen is silent, save for the clock fastened to the wall over the sink ticking merrily away. Alphonse doesn't even snore, back in the living room, although at one point he does roll right off the couch.

As he pokes the bacon around a bit to make room for the bread, Ed bends down and quietly rubbed at the tattoo on his left thigh, the smooth black lines marking him as something non-human. But does it even matter? When he was old-him and newly sixteen, he and Alphonse went and got matching tattoos, on the back of their hands. Right hand for Al, left for Edward, and he remembers the pain of the needle. The flamel, the old symbol stamped on the back of Ed's red coat and the shoulder of Al's armour.

"This doesn't mean anything," he remembers saying to Alphonse, drowsy and content. The air had been heavy with sex and spice; Alphonse had been pressed tight against him, eyes mere crescents of bronze as he watched Ed trace the lines and curves of the tattoo with an index finger. "This doesn't make us closer or anything. It's just a way of telling the world what we already know, right?"

Al had smiled, the sweet smile of an angel, though Ed could have personally testified that he wasn't. "That's philosophical, for you," he'd said, and Ed had laughed and kissed him, whispered multiple I love yous into the wetness of his mouth.

And he did, and he does, he realises, softly. He's still sore about being used, but there was never any old-him and new-him, there was just him, always. And Alphonse saw that, he thinks; saw that and knew the second transmutation was successful. Al didn't give his life to create his brother; he used those who had taken it in the first place to do that, and turned the others into food. He gave up himself for the second transmutation, the most powerful one; affixing Ed's soul into the new body, making Ed... Ed.

Al is on the floor still when Ed returns to the living room, the food on a small plate; his brother moans weakly and cranks open an eye, giving him a smile tinged with caution. "Hey," Alphonse says.

"Hey," Edward replies, and steps over him to put the food on the coffee table. "I made lunch."

"For me?"

"For us," Ed corrects, and the shy, sweet line of Al's smile is beautiful.

XI.

Al watches him as he does the dishes, plentiful after a wonderful Sunday roast. It is dark outside; spring is bleeding into summer, but there is enough winter still present for the night to come early. "So what made you think you didn't have a soul?" Al asks, running his thumb over the edge of a chipped orange plate, holding a purple tea towel in the other hand.

"I felt weird," Ed replies quietly, honestly. "I mean... I felt too light all the time, right? Like something was missing? And I thought, okay, it must be the soul, since the soul apparently weighs twenty-one grams, but..."

"But?" Al asks gently, stacking the plate and taking the last item, the gravy jug, as Ed pulls the plug and winds the chain around the tap. "What was it?"

"The automail," Ed admits sheepishly. "I mean, for years I was carrying around pounds of metal and then... well... this stuff works, but it isn't exactly steel." He flexes his arm, folding his fingers and hearing them clink. Close enough to the real thing to fool casual observers.

"Of course," Al says with a chuckle. "I wonder why I didn't realise that."

"Because you were too busy dealing with me being an irritating adolesent homunculus?" Ed offers with a grin, and Al flashes a bright, beautiful smile for him.

"I love you," Al whispers, leaning over and giving Ed a kiss on the forehead. He whaps at his brother with the towel, and Ed rips it out of his hands and bundles it up, pitching it at the kitchen counter, before comfortably slipping both his hands around the back of Al's head to tug him down into a heated kiss.

"Love you too," he says quietly, and nips at Al's lower lip. "Bedroom?"

"Bedroom," Al agrees firmly, even as his hands slip around to Ed's hips, pulling the smaller blond comfortably against him.

They barely make it to the bed as it is, leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel trail behind them, if of their clothing rather than crumbs. Ed pushes Al down first, following eagerly soon after; straddles Al's hips, pulling at those of the buttons on Al's shirt he hadn't managed to rip apart on the stairs.

"Al," he whispers, voice low and scraped and dirty, and Al moans at the hoarse sound and bucks up against him, hard cocks pressing together through three layers of cloth. "Al, God—" He paws hungrily at the shirt, eventually managing to unfasten it, and throws it hard at the wall; that done, he devotes himself to Al's nipples, laving licks and pinches on them until Al's rolling his eyes in his head and whining like he's going to come in his pants, if he has to, and that reminds him.

It's a bit difficult working Al's trousers and pants off—his brother is whimpering and writhing, jerking his chest and then his hips up in the air in a very obvious gesture—but he does so anyway, and his own boxers make it down to maybe his knees before he's sliding down the bed, fixed on his destination. Al yelps at the first draft of warm air against the head of his cock, and it only makes Ed harder, makes him thrust into the mattress even as he opens his mouth for his little brother's dick.

Al's cock is big, bigger than his is, and Ed has no particular wish to choke deepthroating the thing, even if he won't die from it. He settles for licking a slow line up the soft vein on the underside of the shaft, swirling his tongue around the head and teasing the foreskin; his brother's hands are fisted tight in the sheets and he's whimpering breathlessly.

Ed backs off just before he makes Al come; reaches out to the bedside cabinet for the tiny glass bottle of lube and hopes they remembered to cap the stuff from yesterday. They did, and he moans as he pours it over his hand, penetrates Al roughly with a slippery index finger. Al throws his head back, gasping; bitches briefly about the lack of warning, but his heart isn't really into it, and there's no such complaining when the second finger is added.

Ed keeps his fingers there and fumbles the bottle over, accidentally spilling half the contents over the covers and his free hand, the faux-automail one. Purring quietly under his breath he slicks the oil over his cock, gasping as he imagines what Al will feel like inside—his baby brother, his father, his creator, his lover—and withdraws his left hand, grabbing Al's hips firmly as he lines himself up.

Al flings his head back when Ed pushes in, baring his throat in what has to be the sexiest thing since... since... since when he did it yesterday. His younger brother is intoxicating, dizzying; when he growls fuck me Ed can't help but obey, slipping all the way in. He ought to be worried, he thinks vaguely with the part of his brain not fried by the sex, by the scent and heat and taste of Al, that his little brother has so much power over him; but then he withdraws and Al cries out at the loss of him, and he thinks, amused, I have as much control over him as he does over me.

Al comes first, with a soft breathless sigh and a rush of hot, sticky liquid over Ed's chest. His eyes close and he seems perfectly content; Ed can't help but come soon after, pulling out and flopping next to his brother. He's not tired, though he is temporarily sated. Homunculi have astounding recovery time, and sometimes he wonders if he were born Lust.

He's not aware he's said this out loud until Al rolls over, kissing his forehead, and says, "You were born Edward, brother."

XII. aeternum vale

The imp is sitting on the roof of the house when Valerie returns, early in the morning. He is dressed entirely in black; black boots, black trousers, black tunic, black gloves, and she thinks it is a silly thing to do. "You know you really stick out in the snow dressed like that, don't you?" she asks, sharply.

"Werewolves are blind and hunt by scent alone," he replies solemnly, with a perfect poker face. "Did you bring another apple?"

She tosses it up to him and he catches it, neatly. "Where's the wizard?"

"Al?" He raises his eyebrows and she pulls a face at him. "He's inside, gnawing on children's bones. When he's stripped the meat off them, we're going to build a sleigh out of them."

"I'm not five," she snaps, in a tone of voice that suggests that she thinks that maybe he is. "I wanted to give him this." She holds up her basket, and he hops off the roof to take it, removing the cover and poking through the contents. Silver hunting knife, flint arrowheads, a block of cheese, three more apples and a fresh loaf of bread; not bad.

"Thanks," he says, and grins at her. "You want to go in and give it to him?"

"Sure." She pauses on the threshold of the door, however, and turns to him; her expression is thoughtful. "Edward?"

"Yeah?" He's pulling his gloves off, revealing a hand of metal and a hand of flesh, an odd tattoo on the back of the flesh one. "What's the matter, Valerie?"

"Thank you for stopping the Drachnians last month," she mutters, and he glances up at her bright eyes and grins.

"You must be wrong," he says cheerfully, "'s angels that protect your village, everyone knows that."

"Angels cause technical failures in military tanks? They really are amazing creatures," she says with a grin, and he smirks and takes a bite of the apple. "How is Grandpa Alphonse today, anyway?"

"He's fine, and I'm so not letting him live that nickname down." Ed's grinning, his teeth very white in his tanned face; Valerie chuckles and pushes the door open. "Happy twentieth birthday, Valerie," he calls after, and she waves acknowledgement as she closes it behind her.

He flops on the doorstep, stretching his legs out in front of him and munching on his apple; Valerie's a good kid, and Al really appreciates her company. She was the only child brave enough to come and face that which the village feared, and even now, years later, she returns every month to hear a little bit more of the story.

Theirs is a story which goes on forever, always changing; someday, and someday soon if her talk of Ivan is an indication, Valerie will tell that story to her children. Their story evolves, adapts and always shoulders on, Ed thinks... just like them.

He stands, brushing off his clothing; pitches the apple core several metres away, and goes inside to hear it again.