Break Apart

part 3 of Brothers Apart

'Therefore, if one properly assesses the amount of materials necessary for the sustainment of the conjoining of two separate breeds, then one must also be prepared to assume that the same amount of materials will be necessary for its deconstruction, along with numerous other problems such as a more complicated array pattern, inconsistencies in the original theories—'

"Hey, Al!" A hand dropped heavy on his head and Al blinked himself out of his textbook, taking a few moments to register the feel of fingers scraping through his hair. He tilted his head back just as the hand left his hair and a body settled against his, bumping elbows with him, the owner leaning forward on his knees to grin at him. "Don't tell me you're still studying, huh? We had our midterm weeks ago!"

"Yeah, but I still don't understand this section," said Al, frowning and knocking his pencil against the page. "I guess there's something in the arrays I'm not getting, maybe just a small component or—"

"Al, seriously." Christophe raised his pale eyebrows. "At least tell me you're not planning to study over the holidays."

"No, actually." Which was true; life in Risenbourgh was busy and demanded too much of his attention, no matter how sternly Al told himself he would study over break. Winry always needed help in her shop, or there were friends to visit, or financial matters to settle (which could always end up taking up the entire break, since the military refused to adequately fund Ed's temporary discharge.) Al sighed, closed his book and stretched out his hands, popped his neck. "I really wish I could, but it's Thanksgiving and I can never study on a full stomach."

"God damn, you're a serious student. I wish I had your patience, honestly I do." Chris grinned at him, slung an arm over his shoulders. "But you could learn some stuff from your friends, too. I told you, we're going out drinking this weekend and you said you weren't leaving until Saturday, you could come—"

"I remember the last time you took me out drinking," Al said, giving him a glare sidelong. "Friends let friends get drunk all the time, but I didn't know they let them vomit their guts out in the street as part of the deal."

"Not my fault you got so smashed," said Chris, widening his eyes innocently. Those eyes, baby-blue and heavily-lashed, could usually get him out of anything, but Al wasn't so easily fooled. "But seriously, even Lara can hold her drinks better than you can."

"I'm thin! I can't help it."

Chris ducked under his arms and tugged at his stomach, grinning. "Oh? Thin, are you? Then what's this pudge I feel? That must weigh about fifteen pounds all by itself!"

"Shut up, you," Al said, knocking him with the book half-heartedly, but Chris just ducked away and snickered. "With friends like this...."

"You know you love me, Al-phon-se."

"Honestly though, Chris, I really can't." Al toed open his bookbag and slid the textbook inside, maneuvering it so it wouldn't poke into his back when he walked, and fastened it shut. "I'm staying in Central for part of the vacation, and trust me, I'm not doing anything I want to get messed up by my getting drunk beforehand."

Chris pursed his lips and said, "Sounds heavy."

"Yup!" Al stood, slinging his bag over his shoulders, and offered his hand to his friend, swinging Chris to his feet. His friend had a wry smile on his face; Al kept his smile sweet and innocent, and said, "Okay, honestly, I just hate drinking."

"I knew it," Chris laughed. "You lightweights are all the same. It's a very serious process, Al, cultivating your alcoholic sensibilities—it requires time, dedication, you can't just blow it off—"

"Sorry, my career path doesn't include becoming a drunk."

"Neither does mine!" Chris said, spreading his arms. "Whatever my career plans are, anyway."

"I thought you wanted to be the resident university bum?"

"That was last week." Chris fell into step next to him as Al began walking, his boots thumping heavily against the sidewalk as he deftly maneuvered past potholes and cigarette butts. "I'm thinking of joining the clergy now."

"Oh-ho!" Al looked up, grinning, and breathed in the fresh autumn air. Fall had arrived again and turned everything brown and red; he'd be getting out his mittens soon. (The pink ones with the kittens decorating the backs were long gone and buried; Auntie had knitted him a new pair last Christmas.) "You know, clergy have to give up everything, not just drinking. Gambling, swearing, lying, girls—"

"*Women, Al. Women. Don't let any of that breed hear you call them 'girls.'"

"My girl friends like it just fine," Al said mildly.

Chris shrugged, did a little hop-skip past a puddle. "So, are you going to tell me what you're doing in Central, or is it another one of your big secrets?"

"What secrets do I keep?"

"Plenty," said Chris, arrowing him with a sideways glance. "But hey, we've all got secrets. This one just seems silly. You're not seeing women, are you? Breaking a few hearts at once? You've got the baby face for it."

"Shut up," said Al, tugging self-consciously at his cheeks, which still stubbornly clung to bits of baby fat.

"Hm. You tell Nico you're going to be in Central?"

"I won't be in Central for the entire break, and no, I didn't. Why would I?"

"Because he's your roommate," said Chris, "and because he's staying here, too."

Al's roommate, Nicolai, was one of many college students who had lost family in the wars—his mother was Lioran, his father a State Alchemist. Nicolai didn't talk about it very often, but he stayed most holidays in Central and spent his Christmases with his spinsterly old aunt out west. "I know," said Al, reaching down to tug at a fray in his sweater. "I guess maybe I will tell him. Where are you going, anyway?"

"With my mother, of course." Chris's father was also a State Alchemist. Again, not a topic one readily discussed on the Central campus. "My sister should be coming from her town, too, with the baby."

"How old is your niece now?"

"Five months," said Chris, a genuine and sweet smile lighting his face. His was an aristocratic face, with sharp lines and hard angles that didn't often take well to smiles, but when it did, he shone. "She's getting so big. I remember when she was only a little bigger than my hand."

Al smiled, too, remembering another baby, a girl, born in winter and dwarfed by his huge metal hands. She was big now, too, and smart and talkative, interested in alchemy. ("Because Ed and Al are so good at it, and Uncle Roy, too!") "They're so sweet at that age," he said.

"Yeah." Chris rubbed the back of his neck, smile turning embarrassed. "Well, anyway. You really should tell Nico. He'd appreciate the company. Hey, I've got to go to class now."

"All right," said Al, and they paused in front of the huge fountain with fish spitting streams of water into the basin, and an earth goddess tossing grain. "If I don't see you before you leave, have a good holiday, Chris."

"You too, Al." Chris pressed his hand, offered up a toothy grin before turning and walking away. He stood out amongst the press of people moving to class, tall and lanky, striking in his black overcoat. It made something in Al's heart turn to see him whenever he wore black. (Ed should have been that tall; he'd had the bones for it, until that day.)

Sighing quietly—with fondness and relief; Chris was his friend, but tiring to talk to—Al reached behind himself, unzipped his bag and pulled out the book, and took up where he'd left off as he wandered absently to his dormitory.

His room was at the very end of the residence hall, nestled into a corner behind the administrator's office with a view of the courtyards behind the building. During evenings, Al could draw up his blinds and watch students studying there, smoking cigarettes or sipping tea, heads bent over textbooks, lips moving as they explained things in murmurs to their friends. It was one of the best rooms, with hardwood floors and walls, and larger than average bookshelf space; Al suspected that someone higher up had arranged it so, but he didn't ask questions.

Nicolai was lying on his bed and the lights were dim when Al walked into the room, but his roommate moved his arm from off his head and offered him a welcoming smile. "How was your last day of class?"

"We've still got classes before the winter holiday," Al said, tossing his bag into the corner and sitting on the edge of his bed, "but they were fine. Boring, I guess. I'm not really interested in any of the alchemists we're studying now, and my Practical Theory class is killing me."

"That class is worthless," Nico agreed, putting his arm back over his face. He got migraines sometimes; Al didn't take offense, just leaned over and dimmed his lamp. "Mine were hell, too. I failed my midterm paper."

"That paper was hard, though," Al said. "And you didn't work very hard on it."

"Still." He saw Nico's lips curving beneath his arm. "Guess I kind of expected I could cruise with it."

"Ha!" Al lay down, too, tucking an arm behind his head and using the other to prop up his book. "I learned not to do that last year."

"I did too. I always manage to forget, though. You're smart, though, you can coast."

Al made a dismissive noise. The words were suddenly blurring together and becoming hard to distinguish; he set the book down and stared up at the ceiling, at the patterns in the wood that he counted and dissected before bed each night. Sometimes he imagined he could see faces in them, or words; today, though, they were just lines. "Hey, Nicolai, you're staying here for the break, right?"

"Mm-hm. It's just five days. I need to catch up on my studying."

"I am, too," Al said, turning his head to look at him; "for part of it, anyway. The first three days. Do you want to get together on Thanksgiving?"

Nicolai's arm moved, but not enough for Al to see his eyes. "Won't you be doing something?"

"Yeah," Al shrugged. "Someone in my family is here in Central. But we won't be together all day. He's... pretty busy."

Now Nicolai did move his arm, and he sat up slightly, squinting at Al. "Who's that? I thought you just lived with your aunt and your girlfriend."

"How many times do I have to tell you guys, she's not my girlfriend. She's a friend." Al looked down to pick at a nail. "Anyway, he doesn't live with us. He's, um, older, and in the military."

"Oh," said Nicolai.


"Don't be," Nicolai said, sounding amused. "I don't hate everyone in the military. Particularly if they've just got a desk job... but I guess your relative probably doesn't, huh."

I wish, Al thought. "No, he's pretty high up." He folded his hands together and let out a deep sigh. It was hard, not being able to really talk about Ed, to only be able to reveal small details and to always be careful to not give away too much. His brother was a controversial figure; Al loved him, was proud of him, but military big-wigs didn't want any trouble. "The military's got a grip on him like—" He held up his fingers, index and thumb just slightly away from pressing together—"this."

"I hear that's how it goes. Hey, but maybe I could meet this relative of yours over the break, huh? If you like him enough to spend that much time with him, I'd probably like him."

Al smiled. "Yeah, maybe. You know, Nicolai, you're really nice."

"I try," Nicolai said, not sounding at all impressed with himself. He smiled, though, lay back down and closed his eyes. "I just try and make my parents proud, you know."

"Yeah, I know." Al pressed himself up on his elbow to look at him, envying how easily Nicolai's face smoothed out, how calm he always was even when he was spending a holiday largely alone. On a whisper, he said, "I try to make him proud, too."

"Shall we nap?" said Nicolai, reaching up to turn off his lamp, and Al nodded silently and turned off his own.

Outside, it had begun raining, ever so gently and quietly. Through their open windows he could hear the faint trills of laughter and conversation, and the ring of wind-chimes singing in the rain. Moisture brushed his face, and Al closed his eyes, folded his hands across his chest and tried to sleep.

Nicolai's breathing went even long before Al's, and he lay in the gray light listening to his roommate's peaceful breaths.

Most of Edward's research was being published and was disseminated on campus, but he sent Al scraps of his unfinished and more esoteric notes, and Al would spend long moments in class flicking through them, writing down what caught his eye and trying to expound on his brother's research. It was exciting, the separating of two conjoined species, chimeras—it was perfect for Ed, who hated so much the intrusion of science onto innocent lives. He had never seen Ed actually put his research into practice, although he knew Ed had had great success doing so, and that was the point of their stay in Central. Ed had appointments with the bureaucracy, to try to get the money he was owed for Al's education and for his own living needs, and Al could study and rest on campus while he was busy. When he wasn't, they would have Thanksgiving together, and Ed would separate a chimera from one of the military's failed labs.

He could hardly keep still the day after classes were over and break officially began; his hands kept shaking and he found himself pacing. He was excited to see the experiment, true; Ed's research was ground-breaking. But he hadn't seen Ed in over five months after the military had called him in for emergency deployment, and then Ed had hied off to the south to do some more research without telling him—and days had become weeks, and weeks had become months. Ed tended to forget himself.

"What's up with you?" Althea—a friend since his first year of college, a thin, dark-haired, nervous girl who reminded him of Sczieska—leaned over and tapped his knee, then turned back to breaking her bread off in little chunks. (She was afraid of choking on her food. Al never asked.) "You've been on nails all day. Your aunt and your girlfriend—whoops, sorry, friend, aren't coming down, are they?"

"No." Exhaling heavily, Al pushed his food away—he couldn't eat anymore, just wanted to relax and listen to the fountain splashing behind them. "Someone a bit more important."

"Wow, that's pretty important!" She pushed a crumb into her mouth, chewed quickly and nervously like a squirrel. "Your parents are....?"

"Dead, right."

"I knew that, I'm sorry," she said, looking crestfallen. "But—as important as your parents?"

Al paused for a second, thinking about his mother—her gentle smiles, her warm hands, laundry spreading its clean, newly-washed smell into their backyard and through the windows of their bedroom—and even his father, his absence but constant presence. Then, with a slight smile, he said, "Even more important."

"Like my fiancee," Althea sighed, and dropped some crumbs onto her lap. She brushed them away with a low curse.

"More important," Al said with a grin, dodging her knuckles. "Just kidding, just kidding."

"So, when's this person coming to get you?"

Al glanced at his watch and said, "Oh, not for an hour, at least. He had some stuff to do, first."

"*He*?" Althea raised her eyebrows. "Well, now I'm curious. Who could this mysterious he possibly be?"

"Chris wanted to know, too. But I didn't tell him and I'm certainly not telling you," Al said, bumping her shoulder playfully, "because you can't keep secrets."

"Hey, that's no lie. I admit to that." She started on her pie, cutting it into careful halves and fourths and eighths before spooning it into her mouth. "Hey, how'd you do on the Application exam?"

He had done poorly, he thought; they fell into discussing that, how awful the professor was, how snooty their classmates and how easy the material could be if the professor would just teach it well, until Althea ducked down to look at his watch and swore loudly. "Oh, god damn! I had an appointment with a professor, oh hell it was ten minutes ago—okay, look Al, I'd better go, but I hope you have good holidays and—" She stumbled off the fountain ledge, getting her bookbag all wrapped around her, and Al reached up to untangle her. "Uh, hope you have a great time with this person of yours, and maybe you can tell me all about it when I get back, but I'll see you! Have a good Thanksgiving okay bye!"

Almost an hour passed; he'd told Ed he would meet him at the train station, since neither of them wanted to meet on campus or at military headquarters. Al checked his watch just to make sure, then grabbed his own bag, slung it over his shoulders and began the trek off campus. It would be a bad walk; it had rained all day and half the streets were flooded, and the air was heavy with the stink of dead leaves, humidity and mildew. It would be pretty, though—and besides, it was worth it.

Several cars honked at him as they labored through traffic, and Al, stopping at a busy intersection to roll his shoulders and pop his neck, wished that he could just hire a taxi. Money was tight, though; the stipend Ed sent him every month, and the money he'd withdrawn from the savings their mother had left them, had grown thin from buying books and eating decent food off-campus. He needed a job—he'd have to give his real name on an application, though, and Al wasn't prepared for that fallout. Ed had been cleared of all criminal charges in the Liore war during his court-martial, but news headings and radio broadcasts, more than a decision of the military, tended to stick in people's minds. They wouldn't easily forget him as the spark that ignited the Lioran war.

That made him burn, sometimes, the stigma; the things he read in books and newspapers, the things he heard people saying about Ed. What do you know, he wanted to scream, what do you know about my brother, what he's gone through and how far he's—we've—come? It was easy to say those things about someone you didn't know, whose face you only saw in black-and-white. But Al saw his brother, saw his smiles and his bright eyes and face, saw how he labored to make things right in the world—to give himself some sort of absolution, maybe, and that, too, made him burn. That Ed thought he needed any sort of punishment.

Shaking his head, Al sighed. No one knew Ed's determination, either, like he did, and he knew his anger wouldn't change anything. Ed saw things in a certain light, including himself, and not many things could change his opinion, only cold hard fact. Al appreciated that sometimes; hated it, others.

It was raining again, just a light splattering now, but it would get heavier. Al sighed and looked up, blinking past raindrops, into an angrily black sky painted over with white-gray clouds.

He hoped Ed's day was going better than his.

"And THEN they told me that they couldn't give the money because, I quote, Major Elric, your discharge was not officially recognized, we believe it was the result of a favor owed you by a senior officer and these have no legal standing, so basically because Mustang was ACTUALLY NICE to me for ONE goddamned TIME in his life I get screwed and I don't get paid for five months that I should get paid for, well you know I've got bills and repairs to pay for and you've got college, and DAMN AM I GLAD that I already paid your spring tuition in advance, because otherwise, let me tell you Al, we'd be in hot water UP TO OUR KNEES. Those SONS of BITCHES."

"People are staring, brother."

"Let them stare." Ed popped his metal hand against his flesh one and cracked his knuckles, obscenely loud in the quiet train station. Several of the receptionists, who had been studiously looking anywhere but at them, jerked at the sound. "I've had it up to here with the bureaucrats, I swear. Let them fight their own dirty 'defensive maneuvers'—defensive my ass—and then say that I don't deserve a break. A paid break. I've got to fucking eat."

"But aside from that," Al said, reaching over and brushing away his scruffy bangs, "how have you been?"

Ed blinked as Al removed his hand, then reached up himself to shove back large clumps of his hair. "Well," he said. "Ah, that's a pretty big thing to brush off, but aside from that, I've been doing fine.—Al, aren't you worried? Honestly, if I don't get some of that money, paying for the fall semester's going to be pretty hard."

Al shrugged, opening up the umbrella he'd bought on the street and holding it over both of them. He pressed close to Ed, judging as best he could how thin Ed was and if he had any new injuries. To his surprise, Ed felt as fleshy as he ever did and he didn't seem to have any new bandages or scars. "If you can't pay for it," he replied, "you can't pay for it. If that happens, I can always take a break and help you with your research. Hell, I can even take the certification te—"

"When Hell freezes over."

"Thank you," Al called to the receptionists as they stepped out of the station and into the rain. It pattered heavily against the umbrella and splashed up against their legs; Al pulled a face in distaste, and pressed closer to Ed. "Ick. How long has it been since you showered?"

Face blank, Ed sniffed under his arms. "Um. A while, I guess."

That, at least, made Al grin, and when Ed pulled a distressed grimace he broke into chuckles. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, you really don't smell that bad!" he said as Ed began to fan his armpits. "Brother, you look so good. I'm so happy."

"Al," Ed said, raising an eyebrow, "you think every time you go off to college that I'm going to die while you're gone. I can take care of myself, I swear."

"I know." Al reached for his hand and squeezed it gently, wishing Ed would take off his gloves so he could run his fingers over the scars there. "I can't help but worry, though. I love you too much."

Ed snorted and tossed his head a little, and Al smiled to himself—Ed was like a cat when embarrassed, all wounded pride and whisker-smoothing dignity. "Yeah, well. Anyway. Sorry it's been so long, I got kind of distracted. How have you been? I couldn't get your letters for a while, since I didn't have a permanent address."

Ed always wanted to know everything, even if he didn't ask in so many words; so Al told him about his midterms and papers, the professors he liked, the ones he disliked and who disliked him; his classmates, who tried so hard to be adult and dignified and to hold themselves together even when the military was beginning to tighten their hold on the university. He told him about the worried faces of administrators and some professors as they hurried down the campus, and of the grim expressions of the officers who patrolled peace demonstrations. Ed's face, too, began to tighten as he spoke, so Al hurried through that and talked instead about his roommate and about the sweet shop girl who'd given him a teddy bear for "being so sweet," as she said, and Ed laughed and punched his shoulder.

But—"I'm not in Central very often anymore," Ed said, his lips thinning again. "So I guess I missed it. Mustang told me a little, but I didn't know they were sending soldiers to the campus now. Is it bad?"

Al pressed his lips together, too—a habit he and Ed had picked up from their mother—and glanced out across the street. Someone across from at the intersection was drawing an array on the sidewalk, and someone else was reading a scientific journal. Yet another looked like a craftsman, all strong hands and sculpted arms. "I don't know," he said; "it's just strange. I thought, after the Fuhrer disappeared, that the military's influence might... but I guess it all stays the same, in the end."

"In the name of protecting our interests, yeah, it stays the same." Ed dug a finger into his forehead and sighed. "And I guess it's natural. The university holds the next crop of alchemists, all ripe for the military to pick. And it contains the most anti-military sentiment at the same time. Still." He flashed a little smile. "I guess we still have to grow up a little, Al."

"I guess so," Al said. Tilting his head, he bent forward so he could see Ed's face, then smiled and reached out to rub his thumb against the spot, right above Ed's nose, that crinkled when he was angry. "If you make that face," he teased, "it'll freeze like that. And you already scare little kids enough."

"Do I? I guess so, seeing how monstrous I look," Ed said, lips quirking sourly.

"I was just kidding." Al smoothed away the wrinkle, then pressed both hands to Ed's cheeks. He loved touching Ed, always had, ever since he got his body back. He loved physical contact with all people because he'd gone without it for so long—he loved touching, holding hands, brushing shoulders and elbows—but he was fond most of all of touching his brother. "So," he said, raising the umbrella back up. "Do you have the experiment today, or tomorrow?"

"Today," Ed said. "At five. Tomorrow's Thanksgiving, after all. I've got just a few more meetings I have to attend, and then I can spend all day with you."

"Great," Al said, an involuntary smile stretching his lips. "I'm glad you made the time for me."

Ed flapped a hand, dismissive. "Don't be ridiculous. I don't 'make' time for you."

There was nothing he could say to that, really, so he just linked his arm with Ed's and pressed close to him again. They didn't speak for the rest of the walk, and that was just fine with Al.

The military lab that had the chimera was one of the few the military felt harmless enough to acknowledge its existence; it hadn't been part of a widespread system like the labs Shou Tucker worked at, and the chimeras made there had been only animal hybrids; humans were not a part of the equation. Al was grateful. He knew Ed had tried to separate a human-animal chimera only from a short letter he had written Al, and more from its tone than its words Al figured it had been a spectacular failure. Besides—too many memories. Too much suffering. He hoped Ed never had to do that again.

The officer in charge of the experiment was a fat, red-faced man—almost cheery, really—not a State Alchemist, just part of the normal branch of the military. He nearly exploded with effusiveness when he saw them. "Ah, the Elric brothers!" he said, extending two chubby hands for them to shake. "I am Colonel Ashton. A great pleasure, I can't tell you how great, it is to see you both here, to be able to meet you—especially the younger, I understand you're quite a secretive little commodity, ferreted away, yes—"

"Sorry, Colonel, but could we get this over with?" Ed interrupted, rubbing his hands together. "It's the holidays, and I just want to have a break."

Ashton hardly even deflated; his smile as wide as ever, he inclined his head quite gracefully and said, "Of course, do forgive me, I understand your concerns completely. I'm really only here to watch you and your brother, so anything you wish is fine by me. Shall we go into the complex?"

Complex, Al thought, rolling his eyes. It's only a lab—and not a very impressive one, at that. One building, not very wide or long, with the windows boarded shut and a musky fume rising from the open doors. Ed gave him a significant look as they followed the colonel in through a dilapidated entrance, and Al shrugged and grinned.

"How is it there's just one chimera?" Ed asked as they walked through a winding hall. Behind them, their military escort coughed and grumbled with discomfort from the dust and rotting stench.

"Ah, yes, that." Ashton smoothed his mustache. "Well, unfortunately, the officers who took over this lab from the old branch of the military were very young and inexperienced, and unfortunately they were simply horrified at what they saw here, so they—well—euthanised quite a few of the chimeras before we stopped them and expressed to them that one of our State Alchemists could restore the poor beasts."

"Euthanise?" Al said loudly. "You mean kill."

"Anyway," Ed said, "the file I got on this lab didn't tell me what this chimera is."

"Fox and cat," said Ashton, smiling again. "Quite a beautiful combination, I must admit. Devilishly cunning. Quite wily. And very stunning, appearance-wise, as well."

"Sounds like you're pretty impressed with it."

"Well, yes." The colonel paused before taking them on a left-hand turn and into a short hallway; Al could see a door at the very end, the only one not barred shut. "I'm not an alchemist and am unfamiliar with science, but yes, I admire the feat involved and the beauty of the creature. Of course, alchemists tell me it's quite unnatural and that the animals suffer, so I'm willing to see it separated. Musn't make things suffer simply for our enjoyment, after all."

"I see" was all Ed would say to that. Al was a bit more impressed with the man; but he couldn't tell what Ed thought.

The colonel opened the door and ushered them in; the military escort waited outside, with the two State Alchemists in the escort following them into the room. It was a small, confined space filled with cages, all packed together in messy rows, so close the animals could have smelled each other, maybe even touched through the bars. They were all empty, though, except for a huge cage in the middle of the room. Resting nearby was paper, a few neat files tucked into folders, and chalk; on the only table in the room were various assortments of bottled chemicals.

"We furnished everything you asked for, of course, Major Elric," said Ashton, clasping his hands together and looking like he was having hard work to bite back a proud smile—although the look did waver a little, when the cage rattled a little and a low growl came from it.

"Brother?" Al asked, keeping his voice quiet. "Do you need anything?"

"In a few minutes." Ed turned and smiled a little at him, eyes softening. He gave Al a thumbs up, then turned to the cage and began to walk towards it, steps sure and slow. He paused in front of it, knelt down, and carefully unhooked the latch.

"Ah, sir—" Ashton said, voice going high and squeaky.

Ed ignored him, even when another low grumble came from the cage. He took a few steps back, knelt down again. Al took a step forward, then paused as the creature ambled out of the cage, so low to the ground that the spiky fur at its belly brushed the floor. It was beautiful, he had to admit, with a fox's coloring and long ears and tail, but the cat's sleekness, huge paws and flanks and glinting golden eyes the color of Ed's.

It also, he noted as it hissed at everyone in the room, had a cat's large teeth. A cat'svery large teeth. Ashton and the two alchemists had backed up to the limits of the room and were spread out against the wall; Al took a deep breath and stayed where he was. He wanted to go to Ed—his brother was just sitting there as the chimera stalked over to him—but he didn't want to startle the creature with any sudden movements.

"Brother—" he whispered, but Ed just held up a hand, his flesh one, and then slowly, carefully, stretched it out to the chimera, fingers gently out-curled from his palm. The creature flashed its teeth again, gold eyes glinting. Its huge muzzle moved towards Ed's hand, nose brushing the very tips of his fingers; it huffled loudly, whiskers trembling, then pressed harder into Ed's hand, and Ed reached around with his other hand to carefully touch its face.

Al let out a long sigh as the chimera sniffed at Ed's hands, still cautious; across the room, he could hear Ashton mumbling something to the soldiers in excited tones.

"It's okay now," Ed said, turning his hand over so the chimera could smell the other side. "This one's pretty tame. Conditions didn't seem to be too bad here. Al? You want to come help me?—Walk slowly."

Al shuffled over in a carefully crouched position, slowly as he could manage, and went through the same routine Ed had gone through, holding out its hands for the chimera to smell; when the creature was done, it sniffed—a distinctly haughtyy sound—and went back to sniffing, almost nuzzling, Ed's automail hand. Al breathed a sigh of relief.

"Don't worry," Ed said, flashing him a smile. "I've gotten pretty good at soothing angry animals." He tossed Al some paper and a pen and took some for himself.

"I never thought you would have had the patience for it," Al admitted, heaving himself into a cross-legged position.

"'S'not patience, really." Ed scratched under the chimera's jaw, then reached around to scritch its fuzzy, spiky ears. "I just make sure my hands smell like me, and they're fine. All right, let's start accounting for this kitty's mass."

To break apart chimeras, Ed used the same deconstruction method Scar had used to destroy human bodies, and added a finely-tuned array which had taken him a year to finesse. (Al had helped him and so the array Ed drew on the ground was familiar, even though they had only discussed it in letters.) Scar had only used the array on his arm and so had never been able to adjust it for individual differences; with this array, Ed could. He sat back, wiping his hands free of chalk dust, and Al handed him his calculations.

"Great," Ed said, tilting his head at the paper then chalking in the corrections. "Beautiful."

"Brother, do they really live? Separating won't kill them?"

"They usually do live." Ed combed his fingers through the silky hair around the chimera's head, and it blinked wide gold eyes at both of them. "Whole and healthy, if I'm on my toes. And after that, we can get this fox into the wild and the cat into a nice home. And hopefully the military will give me—" He grinned and wiggled the fingers of his automail hand—"a nice, fat check."

"I think you're too hopeful," Al said under his breath.

Most alchemists didn't, or couldn't, bother to control the individual steps of the alchemization process. Ed had discovered that you could completely by accident, but, unlike others, he'd actually taken the time to study and learn each stage and how it could be controlled. He was a master of the re-construction phase, of course, but breaking apart a chimera required control of the deconstruction phase without going into the reconstruction phase at all. It took effort and careful control. Add to that the fact that Ed was also utilizing a complicated array, and Al wasn't surprised that Ed's research had become so reputed—and so secretive, at the same time. He glanced over at Colonel Ashton, who was watching the proceedings with an open mouth.

"Al." Ed had gotten the animal into the array, where it sat placidly with Ed's hands over it. He smiled. "Wanna help?"

A smile spread across Al's face. He nodded, took his place across from Ed on the other side of the array, and crossed his hands over each other above the array. It was already glowing a bit, like Ed was humming under his breath ever so slightly.

They looked into each other's eyes, nodded, and clapped their hands. Ed pressed his to the array; Al pressed his to Ed's wrists, funneling energy into Ed's alchemical reaction. The room filled with blue light and grew blinding, until all Al could see was the outline of Ed's eyes and the curve of his smile. Al smiled again—he couldn't help it, he felt like energy was leaping off the array and into his face—and squeezed Ed's wrists, gently.

The blue light began to fade, and Al lifted his hands off Ed's wrists, stopping the energy flow. He coughed, waved his hand in front of his face to clear away the smoke. His eyes were watering; he pressed them to a corner of his shirt.

"Ah!" said Ashton. "Amazing, absolutely amazing!"

Al blinked, tears spilling from his eyes, and looked at the array. Ed was seated across from it, arms crossed and lips peeled into a smirk, and curled in his lap was a black kitten. The fox—little more than a baby, Al thought dimly, although Ed might have tinkered with its age on accident—was curled in the center of the array, wet and miserable.

"Oh," he breathed out, pressing a hand to his mouth. "Brother, you...."

"Whole and healthy," Ed said, lifting up the kitten to inspect its face, legs and body while it mewed pitifully at him, "just like we hoped. Pretty cool, huh?"

Al shook his head, but couldn't say anything. It was amazing—Ed had had perfect control of the deconstruction phase and skipped effortlessly past the reconstruction. It only they could have done this for Nina... but no, Al doubted there would ever be anything to do about human-animal crosses. Letting out a shaky breath, he reached out and gathered up the fox, fingers sliding through its wet fur. It made an irritated noise at him and curled up in his hands, hiding its belly from him. "It's okay," he murmured, stroking its ears. It was so small—too small to hurt him if it bit, but it didn't look like it was going to. "It's all right. He fixed you. You're yourself now and nothing else." He looked up at Ed, eyes shining. "Ed, you're amazing."

"Thank Scar, not me." Ed skritched under the kitten's jaw, smiling. "He made me realize I could do things like this. And besides, soon it won't be just me—I'll teach you how to do this, too."

"Elric brothers!" Ashton was as effusive as Armstrong as he came bubbling over to them, hands pressed to his mouth. His face was more flushed than ever. "That was amazing—Edward, my congratulations, the military was right, you're truly a genius! I can't thank God enough for letting me see this day. How wonderful!"

"Well, thank your commanding officer, not God," said Ed, standing up with the kitten still in his arms. "And get these animals to a clinic, would you? I think they're good to go, but they could use a few days under supervision."

"Of course, the military will take care of everything. And if you need me anytime, Elric brothers, please ask, I'm deeply indebted to you—"

Ed saluted him lazily and brushed past. His arms full of fox, Al could only bow a little and return Ashton's smile, which made the man seem genuinely happy. The distinctive metal ring of Ed's footsteps was sounding above them; Al adjusted the fox in his arms pounded up the stairs after him.

Outside the lab, Ed folded the kitten into one of the soldier's arms, and Al did the same for the fox, scratching its ears wistfully one last time. Then he turned and fell into step with his brother, who was stretching out his neck and rubbing his automail shoulder with a tired air.

"Damn, takes it out of me," he said, pressing the back of his neck.

Al touched the small of his back, then inched his hand up hesitantly to Ed's neck and began digging his fingers into the muscles, which were tense as wires and knotted into rocks. Ed sighed and dropped his head down; Al smiled, pleased he hadn't protested, and kept his fingers as gentle as he could.

"What you're doing," he said quietly, digging into the muscles around Ed's spine, "is really amazing, you know."

Ed just murmured.

"I wish everyone could know how wonderful you are. Then I wouldn't have to use a fake name at school. Then I could tell my friends and teachers about you... I could talkabout you." Al changed the direction of his fingers, skirted up into the silky hair at Ed's neck and began massaging there, and Ed let out a heartfelt groan. "It's so hard not talking about you."

"You've done harder things than that," Ed mumbled.

"Maybe. Maybe not." Al sighed and ruffled Edward's hair. "You're about to fall asleep on me, aren't you."


"All right. Here, then," Al said, moving around so that Ed was behind him; "climb on my back, then. We've still got a long ways to walk."

Ed's metal hand thumped his back. "I'm tired," his brother said, "not five. Call a taxi."

"Do you have any money?" At Ed's silence, Al shrugged and said, "Well, neither do I. Come on. You just completed a chimera separation. You deserve a little break."

From behind him there was a wounded sigh; then he felt Ed's weight—which was considerable, considering the amount of metal on Ed's body—on his back, and legs going around his waist. Al hefted him up, biting back a wince when Ed slumped against him. Ed didn't hear it and had gone completely lax against him; he'd been more tired than he was admitting, probably.

With a fond smile, he pressed one hand to Ed's head, and began the slow walk to the hotel Ed had booked.

The hotel was a cheap one—Ed had been planning carefully in case he didn't get his pay from the military. The carpet was slightly damp when Al opened the room and walked in, Ed still slumped across his back, and closed the door behind him. He toed off his shoes and winced when the damp floor touched his feet, gritted his teeth as he slid off Ed's boots, too.

"Wha—?" Ed mumbled into his ear.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep." There was one bed in the room, but it was large. Al inspected it for stains or anything abnormally disgusting, but it looked fairly clean and smelled of detergent, so he pulled back the covers and, setting his back against the bed, carefully spilled Ed onto it. His brother just curled up on his side, sleep never breaking.

Al ran his tongue over his teeth and tried to decide if he should shower, but he was tired, too. He settled for brushing his teeth and running some water over his face and through his hair; used the toilet and dressed for bed, then tiptoed out of the bathroom. Ed had moved into the center of the bed while he was busy, still curled into a tight ball, as he usually slept.

Al pulled back the rest of the covers and slid in, wincing at the cold against his bare legs. "Brr," he muttered, and propped himself on one arm to lean over Ed and begin unfastening his cloak and jacket. It took some work sliding them off without waking Ed up, but he made it, and when he was finished Ed had turned over to face him in his sleep. Al smiled and maneuvered an arm under Ed's back, resting his hand around Ed's neck, and pulled himself close to nuzzle his head into Ed's shoulder. He lifted his other hand to comb, slowly, through Ed's long, tangled bangs and the tattered hair coming out of his braid.

Ed yawned like a cat when he was asleep; he did it now, completely unconsciously, and Al grinned, patting his brother's cheek then leaning forward to kiss his forehead. "Good night, brother," he whispered, drawing back a little, and closing his eyes.

Sleep came more quickly than it had for months. His brother was warm, and always tinged his dreams with a shade of gold.

On Thanksgiving Day, Ed had two more appointments with the bureaucracy, and after he stormed out of those screaming that everyone who had a desk job ought to be shot, he had one more with Mustang. Al elected to wait outside the building during that one, lest his brother need to be stopped from blowing it up.

His brother's footsteps sounded just a little less than ten minutes after he'd gone in, and Al stood up, frowning, as Ed came out of the headquarters looking like a storm cloud. "What happened?" he asked.

"Well," Ed said. He looked like he was trying very hard not to throw a tantrum, clenching and unclenching his fists, taking deep slow breaths. "You know how I was assigned away from Mustang while I was at the front lines, then assigned back when I got back to Central—when he gave me leave? Now they're saying they never assigned me back, and that I've been under someone else's command for a year and didn't know about it. So, basically, the leave Mustang gave me was illegal and I'm lucky, Edward Elric, that I'm not held up on charges for going AWOL."

Al shook his head and breathed out slowly. "Wow. What's the point of getting you away from Mustang?"

"Nothing important," Ed said unhappily. "They're just punishing him because they think he's gotten too ambitious after the Fuhrer died, so they're removing their most important political pawn—"

"You," Al finished, sighing. "Are they really not going to pay you?"

"Half of what I'm supposed to get. Enough to make sure I don't have to beg for money, but like I said, it's going to be hard to pay for your next term." Ed shoved his hands deep in his pockets and began walking, muttering curses along the way. "For fuck's sake! I hate the State."

"Excuse me, Major Elric?"

They both paused in the street, turning to see a young officer standing a little ways from them, looking nervous and harried—probably, Al thought ruefully, at the bad mood hanging over Ed like a cloud. "What?" Ed snapped.

"Um, I'm sorry, sir, but I have a message for you from—uh, a veterinary clinic?" The officer shrugged.

"Oh." Ed blinked. "Well? What are you waiting for? Give it to me, and scram."

"Jeez, Ed," Al muttered as the officer deflated, snapped off a salute and slunk away. Ed just shrugged, unfolding the note. "What's it say?"

Ed touched his hand to his forehead, sighed, crumpled the note into his pocket. "The fox died overnight. Poor little bastard."

"Oh," Al said, biting his lip. He reached out cautiously, touched Ed's elbow, and his brother sighed and drudged up a smile for him. "It's okay. It wasn't your fault. And you don't have to give me that look."

"What look?"

"You don't have to pretend to be okay when you're not." Al reached out and smoothed the edges of Ed's smile with his fingers. "Hey," he said, dropping his hands, "how about we go and see the kitten? I bet it's doing great."

This time, Ed's smile was genuine. "You and your kittens. All right, all right, I can't resist that face."

The clinic wasn't far from campus or from HQ, settled right in the heart of Central. It was a small, pleasant little building surrounded by colorful gardens and autumn-touched trees, and the receptionist at the front desk had red hair and white skin, with green eyes that sparkled with her smile. "You're Edward Elric?" she said, paging through her files. "Ah, right. Doctor Haskins wanted you to look at this kitten you saved. Here, I'll call him for you."

There was a large, happy cat sprawled across the front desk. It had a lazy eye; the other turned on Al when he stroked the fat ruff of its neck, and immediately began to purr and knead the desk with its paws. Al grinned and scratched its flank, and it reared up and headbutted his hand, purring all the louder.

"I see you've met Frankie." Al looked up, stilling his hand on the cat, to see the veterinarian coming through the back door. He had the same coloring as his receptionist and an equally friendly smile; he thought they might be related. "You're the Elric brothers, correct?"

"How's the kitten?" Ed asked.

The vet came around the front desk and opened the cradle of his arms, letting a little black head peek out. Gold eyes blinked at them, and the kitten mewed loudly. Al pressed his hand to his mouth, grinning. "He looks wonderful," he said.

"He's a fighter," the vet said. "Would you like to hold him, Major?"

Ed blinked. "Me?—Uh, sure." He lifted his hands from his pockets and held them out, and the vet settled the kitten into his arms; it curled into its chest and its tail wrapped around his wrist. Al could hear a tiny, tremulous purring.

"Oh," Al said softly. "He knows you, brother."

"Don't be silly," Ed said, but there was a soft curve to his lips as he began scratching the kitten's ears. Al petted the fat, lazy-eye cat one more time, then pressed into his brother's side and lifted a hand to stroke down the length of the kitten's back. Its purring grew louder and steadier.

"He likes you two," the vet smiled. "You know, we were going to look for a home for him, but you could you always take him."

Al glanced at Ed, quickly. His brother just shrugged. "I can't keep it with me."

"Neither can I," said Al, "but I bet Auntie and Winry would take him for us, and he can live with us when we get settled, then...." He knew what was in Ed's head; he was always planning for the fact that he'd never be really settled. Al, though, still hoped for the best. The military couldn't lead Ed around on a chain for the rest of his life.

The kitten was butting its head against Ed's automail hand, darting its pink tongue overs his metal joints. Ed sighed.

"For an early Christmas present," Al wheedled.

"He's had all his shots," the vet said, pushing up his glasses and raising his eyebrows; "and he's remarkably healthy. Good-natured, too. I can see your brother is a cat-lover. He'll grow up very well."

Ed stroked under the kitten's chin. His frown was less secure; Al could see he was struggling. Finally, he sighed and pushed the kitten into Al's arms, and reached inside his pocket. "How much?"

"Free of charge, of course. With my thanks to you for rescuing him."

They left the vet with a few bags of cat food and some cat toys, one of which Al promptly tucked into the kitten's paws to entertain it while they walked. For now, though, they sat on the bench outside the clinic and let the cat sprawl across both their laps, purring loudly. "Thank you, brother," Al said, touching the kitten's whiskers.

"Yeah, well," said Ed, trying for gruffness; but he was still petting the cat with a gentle hand. "Don't thank me when Auntie's all pissed because we brought home another mouth to feed."

"I think we can afford a kitten."

"Maybe." Ed pulled a gloomy face.

Al smiled. "You try so hard to be cynical, brother." He wrapped an arm around Ed's shoulders, pressed their foreheads together. "But I bet you're already thinking of names."

"We'll name it Edward, of course," said Ed, squirming against him.

Al snorted and clapped the back of his head before letting him go. "And let him grow up completely full of himself? I don't think so."

"Al! You wound me."

"Really though," Al said, bending over the cat and nuzzling his face into its soft fur. "Thank you."

A hand clapped his head, ruffled his hair, and Al looked up just in time to see Ed's smile before it dissolved back into a haughty scowl. He smiled, too, closed his eyes and lifted the kitten up to his face. It smelled of clean laundry and sweet flowers.

Thanksgiving passed in a blur of cafeteria food, drinks and a bit of booze—they hopped from restaurant to restaurant, spending the last bit of money Ed had saved up for the holidays ("which means no big Christmas gifts," Ed reminded him, except he was a bit tipsy so it didn't quite come out that way)—and finally ended up back at their hotel, where there was a message waiting for Ed telling him he had been assigned to the efforts in Drachma.

"Another war," Ed said, collapsing onto their bed. The message assured him that his brother would be included in his benefit package, and informed him that he was to leave on the first weekend train out of Central.

Al sat next to him, and said nothing. At least they hadn't sent him back to the eastern front, he wanted to say; but it was small comfort, and he cringed to think of Edward in hostile Drachma. The trade negotiations there had ended in violence; the military was beginning to thin its ranks in order to send soldiers there to subdue guerilla fighters and violent protestors. He reached for Ed's hand and tucked it under his chin.

"Hey, Al," Ed said, looking at him with his gold eyes. "It'll be all right. I'm invincible, remember."

"I'll miss you." The kitten had bounded up, ecstatic that he hadn't been abandoned, and was navigating his way carefully across Al's stomach. Al settled a hand in his fur and began to pet him absently, eliciting a loud purr. "I won't stop thinking of you. God, I wish you could quit the military."

"I'll be able to someday."

"And then we can live in the mountains," Al said, smiling as he remembered their old childhood dream—a house in the mountains with no one around, a little village nestled in a valley beneath them, with running creeks and waterfalls all around.

"And work on our research."

"And you can figure out how to separate a human-animal chimera."

"Yeah," said Ed. "I want to do that."

Al closed his eyes and pressed Ed's hand tighter to him. "Nina wasn't your fault, you know."

"I know." Ed whispered it, lying down and curling around him, with the kitten in between them. He touched Al's face with his free hand, wiping away the tears that were filling the corners of his eyes. "Hey, come on, don't cry. I'll always come back."

"I know," Al said, muffled against Ed's hand, and drew in a wet breath. "Please, brother, don't ever let that be a lie."

Ed just wrapped his arms around him, pulled him tight and pressed their foreheads together. They said nothing else, just breathed in each other's breath, and even the kitten's purr gradually faded until the room was silent.

It rained the day Ed left for Drachma. His brother was wearing his red cloak, and it made him stand out like a bloody thumbprint in the sea of blue soldiers. Al stood at the edge of the platform; Ed leaned out from a window on the train, and held his hand for as long as he could.

The train left in a puff of steam that soon turned the station thick with wet fog, and it cloaked the train's departure so that Al could only see it when it was miles away, right before it disappeared into the horizon. Still, he stood there for a long time, the kitten nestled in the crook of his arm, and stared after it, into the north.

He named the kitten Maes, because he thought Ed—and Roy Mustang—might appreciate it. Winry cooed over him as he drank the little bowl of milk Al had provided, and took off her thick mittens to pet him. "He's the perfect Christmas cat!" she said, scooping him into her arms and holding him out so she could look at him. "He'll look so cute next to all the presents. Ed did this, you say? He broke apart a chimera? That's amazing!"

"Yeah," said Al, digging designs into the thick, newly-fallen snow. "It's pretty amazing."

"So, Al, two more years until you graduate, right?" Winry looked at him sympathetically. "Don't worry. Then you two can be together all you like—I know how you guys are." She huffed a little and hugged Maes to her. "Have you decided on a major?"

"No, I haven't." Al stood up, bent over to press a kiss to the kitten's head. "I've decided I'm not going back to school."

Winry opened her mouth, and closed it. She shook her head, gave a little sigh and handed the kitten to him, and said quietly that she would be in her workshop for the rest of the day if Al needed her.

Al did not. He spent most of the day at their old house, thinking.

"Well, hello," said the front desk clerk, giving him a very motherly look. "What are you doing here all by yourself on Christmas? A little late to be catching a train to visit family, isn't it?"

"I hope not," Al said, smiling nervously. "I think I can still get there in time."

"I hope you do, honey. Where will it be?"

"One way to Drachma, please," Al said, and handed her the wad of cash Auntie Pinako had given him.

We cannot, alas, I know, have the best,

Yet to wish for a part of the past

Once shared is better for man at least

Than that we forget