Ed's letter arrives on a sweet autumn morning, and Alphonse has read it thoroughly at least six times before he's even finished his breakfast. The letter is short and succinct; Ed thinks he's reaching a breaking point with his latest research project, and thanks Al for his help with those last equations he sent. Al smiles and folds the letter up, tucking it neatly into his breast pocket to be read again when he has some free time. He'll start writing a reply tonight, but for now, his first class calls, and he's been delayed by the letter and doesn't intend to be later than five minutes.
Most of his fellow students are already there by the time he arrives in the lecture hall. He sidles in, casting furtive glances back over his shoulder, but there's no sign of their professor, and he slips into his customary seat by the window without a problem. He frowns as he arranges his notebook and a pen on the desk in front of him, and leans over to speak to the student in the row in front of him. "Where's the Professor? If he's sick, I didn't see any notices on the board—"
"He's not, he's off collecting our guest lecturer," the girl replies absently, busy doodling on her notes. Al scowls—nobody told him anything about a guest lecturer—but after a moment shrugs philosophically. It's always a good idea to get differing opinions by experts on their study material, after all, and even if this guest is boring he can't be any worse than their 'Historical Applications of Alchemy' professor. (Al is prepared to swear to anyone who will listen that he nearly fainted with boredom in the man's last lecture, keeping himself awake only by sheer stubborn willpower).
He drums his pen on the notepad, then takes Ed's letter from his pocket and begins to draft a rough copy of his reply. His letters usually cover three, maybe four pages, and he tells Ed everything—all the assignments he's been set, all the odd or amusing things that happen in his lessons, the strange things his friends sometimes come out with, his thoughts and contemplations and—everything. Ed's replies are always short by comparison; brief notes on how his research is going; short, almost curt answers to Al's questions; occasional wry commentary on a dream or a sly stab at his note-taking abilities. Al writes reams of letters to someone who may not even read them thoroughly, until ink stains his fingers and his knuckles are cramped and aching, but really, he thinks as he notes down the lecturer's absence on his pad, if it's the only contact he can have with Ed, it's worth tolerating.
He had a dream last night, and he's still puzzling out exactly what it was when Doctor Daniels sweeps into the room, head bowed as he talks to the guest lecturer. Al doesn't even spare the man a glance, occupied with the chronological order of the dream, but he hears a buzz of interest stir around the room.
"Good morning," Daniels says formally, and Al frowns down at the sentence he's just written. No, he could've sworn the scene in the meadow came before the one in the river... "As you will be aware, you studied a module on twentieth century alchemists from November to January, and only a few of you did well on the papers you handed in at the end of it. Those who are re-writing their papers, you will need to hand them in again on Tuesday the twenty-second of April. To aid you in this end, we have been lucky enough to persuade this young man here to talk you through the branch of his research you have been studying. Everyone please offer a warm greeting to Mr Edward Elric, who came all the way from Risenbourgh to be here today."
Another buzz of voices ripples around the hall, and Al drops his pen.
Ed sets a suitcase on the table and discards his coat on top of it before giving Daniels a polite nod. "Thank you," he says mildly, and takes a few slow steps along the podium, looking up at the students. His gaze catches Al's, and he winks, but pads over to the stand. "So. I hear you guys have been studying my last research project, the separation of two or more organisms merged together? In other words, fixing perfect chimeras? Great. Okay, so where to start?"
He abruptly upturns the stand with a crash and kicks it closer to the blackboard, showing no remorse at all for his actions, then climbs on it. He hooks a chalk out of the little tray at the bottom of the board, sets it to the surface, and turns his head back at the assembled students. His grin is purely mischievous, and Al sinks a little further in his seat, irritated that his brother didn't bother to tell him about this. It's not like Al would run through the campus shrieking the news aloud for all and sundry to hear, after all.
Ed is enthusiastic about his subject, that much is certain. The chalk squeals over the board, still not cutting out his explanations, and the only time both stop is when he picks a student at random and snaps off a question. His legendary impatience is evident; if he doesn't get an answer in ten seconds, he moves onto someone else. Al notes with a sort of detached amusement that Ed doesn't pick him, and returns to his doodles.
The class is lively. Ed's research is complicated stuff, yet he breaks it down easily, and soon students are questioning why he followed this particular method, why he chose this particular design of array, this particular collection of ingredients. Ed answers cheerfully and unreservedly, correcting students when they make mistakes or simply adding that he followed that method and his subject, a perfect dog/cat hybrid, exploded on him. Al winces, remembering that experiment, and plays noughts and crosses against himself in the margins of his paper.
He is interrupted from his reverie by the cessation of the chalk shrieking and Ed's voice, loud and wicked, as he asks, "You. Boy by the window who's been doodling all the way through. What would be the result of this equation?"
Al answers automatically; Ed knows he was the one who found the original answer. "Potassium, sodium, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen, iron, silicone—"
"Good. I guess you're more attentive than you look. Now—" And he's off again, and Al sets his cheek on his palm and watches this vibrant figure with a small smile on his face. Ed's small figure moves across the podium, accepting questions and climbing back on the stand to write on the board, and Al has to hide a snicker at this reminder of just how short his brother truly is, because otherwise Ed might kill him.
A pair of students behind him are muttering to each other, and Al's good feeling sinks to the pit of his stomach when he catches the words, "—Let off the hook for causing the war in Lior. The military looks after its own, I guess—-"
For a brief moment he has to fight the urge to turn and confront the rumour-mongers. It would be futile, though, and he knows it; too many people base what they think of Ed on the newspaper headlines, the radio bulletins, gossip and exaggeration. It frustrates him and distresses him, still, that people who have never even met Ed personally can hate him so much.
He pinches the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath, then another; by the time he opens his eyes the lecture is over and Ed's leaning on the stand—turned upright again—answering questions about it. Al can see his friend Katherine, editor of the college newsletter. She's pushing and elbowing her way through the mini-throng, notepad in hand, and Al knows with a sinking finality the questions she asks his brother are not going to be on the separation of chimeras. He quickly stuffs his notebook and pen back in his bag and slinks out of his seat, joining the small crowd.
"Mr Elric," Katherine says, and Ed blinks at her. "Would you answer a few questions for me?"
Al quietly shakes his head when Ed glances at him. "Only if they're on alchemy," Ed replies, reaching for his coat. "And only if you make it quick. I have a train to catch in thirty minutes, and I don't even know where the station is—-"
Recognising the obvious cue, Al steps in. "I could show you," he offers, deadpan even as Ed slaps his suitcase into his arms.
"Good. I'm sorry, but I have to go," Ed says politely, then practically sprints for safety. Al curses under his breath, arranging the suitcase, and nods at another friend, Christophe. "I don't think I'm going to make the next class. Will you fill me in on it later?"
"Sure," Chris replies, haughty eyebrows drawing together in a frown. "You go helphim out. Catch you later, Al." Al smiles weakly at him—he doesn't know the specifics, but he knows Chris lost a relative in Lior—and tries to ignore the cold emphasis on the 'him'.
Ed's waiting at the campus entrance. He rescues his suitcase, stuffs his free hand in his pocket, and it's obviously all he can do to keep his grin off his face. Al, realising he must still look somewhat sombre, makes a determined effort to smile for his brother, who snorts. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Al replies, and at Ed's sceptic look smiles for real. "Just something someone said. So, brother, the train?"
"Oh dear," Ed says flatly, making a show of examining his silver watch. Al winces and glances around hesitantly; there's nobody in sight, for which he is extremely grateful. "Would you look at that? I seem to have left myself five minutes. No way I can make that train. How tragic. C'mon, Al, as I remember it there's a cafe not too far away which does a great coffee."
They fall into step, Ed still almost-grinning and Al still unsure what to think. Eventually, as they duck beneath the brightly-coloured canopy of a butcher's shop, he asks, "Why?"
Ed doesn't try to fool him. He shrugs, shifts the suitcase to the other hand, avoids a fire hydrant and says, "I felt like it. Besides, your last few letters made it seem like you weren't feeling so good, and I wanted to talk to you."
"I never said anything about—-"
"Al," Ed interrupts direly, eyebrows drawing together. Al quiets. "You don't have to say anything, I know you. It was the wording, anyway." He bumps his flesh shoulder into Al's, and when Al bumps back, nearly knocking him over, laughs. Al can't help but laugh, too, though he's touched to know Ed pays that much attention to his letters.
They head into the cafe and take a seat near the window; Ed removes his coat and drops it casually on the suitcase. Al frowns at him as the waitress bustles up. "Your orders, sirs?"
"One coffee, black, no sugar; and one hot chocolate, four sugars with marshmallow, please," Ed says, as Al sets his elbows on the table and leans forward to study his brother closely. "And also some cheese on toast and a tuna mayonnaise sandwich, thanks." The waitress heads through a swing door into the kitchen; Ed watches her go and says, out of the corner of his mouth, "Is there any particular reason why you're staring at my chest, Al?"
"You've lost weight," Al accuses, reaching out to tug the black jacket aside, and yes, Ed's collarbone is far too prominent, his bones too sharp. He scowls, and Ed sighs with the patience of someone used to this argument.
"We've been through this before, Al. I'm not gonna die just because I lost a few pounds."
Al snorts. "Brother, you don't have any pounds left to lose. You shouldn't be this thin, it's bad for you."
"Don't look at me like that. When you're this skinny it usually means you haven't been eating or sleeping properly."
"Hey, if I hadn't I wouldn't have been able to send you the workings for the experimental array last month!"
"And then what? You might have been delayed by what, two, three days?" Al sighs, and Ed doesn't reply immediately as the waitress returned with their drinks. Al waits for her to leave before continuing. "Brother, what you're doing is incredible, and I am soproud of you. But I don't like it when you hurt yourself doing it."
"Al, while I delay, more chimeras are being created. Somewhere, some idiot has probably just had the genius idea of merging humans and, I don't know, lions together to create the perfect soldier—-"
"Brother. Rushing like this won't help someone like Nina," Al says softly, eyes searching Ed's face as he slowly stirs his chocolate with the spoon. At the name, Ed's shoulders tense, and with a soft sigh Al pushes the mug to one side and leans over the table. He places his hands on Ed's cheeks and tilts his head up so that they are on eye level; lets Ed see the understanding in his eyes. "What happened to Nina was not your fault, brother. You don't need to atone for it. I know you think you do, since I won't let you punish yourself over me, but don't—don't—hurt yourself trying to find some way to reverse what happened to her."
"It doesn't matter how fast I do it," Ed says almost brokenly, and Al slides out of his chair and crouches by his brother's, letting Ed pull him into a tight embrace. "It's always gonna be too late for her." Ed feels far too sharp, smells like oil and metal. Al closes his eyes as his brother takes a few deep breaths, and then releases him. Ed will never be caught crying, of course, not like back then. "There should have been something I could do. There must have been something—-"
"You were twelve, brother," Al says crossly. "There was nothing you couldn't do then, that you could do now. It's stupid to blame yourself for it."
Ed doesn't meet his gaze, instead opting to drink his coffee. His hands on the mug are steady, and Al watches them carefully as he sips at his hot chocolate. "So," he says eventually, putting the mug down. "How's college, Al?"
Al knows he's just seeking a distraction, and doesn't mind supplying it. He tells Ed about the latest group-project they had to work on, or the time the group from the Department of Xing Culture were building a paper dragon to drape over their heads in a mock-festival, only to suffer an argument halfway through—"and suddenly this gigantic bright pink head on legs went zooming past the window at high speed and dived into a bush. The rest of the body turned up fifteen minutes later, wandered over the place, couldn't find the head and left, by which time the head had realised it'd jumped into aholly bush and actually wanted to be found"—to the dream he had last night and was going to include in his next letter. Ed listens, at first with half an ear, but then grows more interested and immerses himself in the stories. By the time Al gets to the one about two of his friends, a thong, two rabbits and a ready supply of alcohol—and even he can't keep a straight face for that one—Ed is sprawled over the table, laughing fit to burst. Al stops first, while Ed's shoulders are still trembling, and says in a tone grown suddenly quite serious, "I missed you."
Ed wipes involuntary tears away with the back of a gloved metal hand, and Al sets his hands carefully on the other one. "Eh, I missed you too," he says glossily, and changes the subject before Al can pick up on it. "So, I originally came here to make sure you were okay. I didn't quite mean for you to end up comforting me, but what the hell. You are okay, right, Al?"
Al smiles and rubs the scars between the knuckles of Ed's left hand with his thumbs. "Now? Yeah. Before?" He breathes out slowly, and then shrugs. "I missed you, like I said. It's weird, still, being without you." Ed smiles hesitantly, and Al pauses, then plunges on. "It doesn't help that some of my friends only know you from what the newspapers say."
"What do you mean?"
"The media just... hasn't been very kind to you. That's all." He doesn't look at Ed, though he keeps hold of Ed's hand, irrationally, like maybe otherwise his brother might storm out and attempt to gut all newspaper editors.
"Eh." Ed shrugs, casually, and covers Al's hands with his metal one. "Screw 'em. I decided a long time ago I didn't care what others thought about me and what I did. Don't let 'em get to you, Al," he says gently, his teeth glinting white in his affectionate smile. "After all, you know me and they don't. Just remember that."
"I—yeah, brother," Al says with a sigh. "I'll try."
"Good." Ed's grin widens to touch his eyes; they are kind and soft, and Al knows he's one of a select few to see this smile. Ed's right, he thinks. He likes his friends, but their views of Ed are based on tabloid headlines screaming MURDERER OF THOUSANDS; a black-and-white picture of Ed on his way to his court-martial, a mug of coffee in one hand and casually reading a folded newspaper clutched in the other; the photograph in their textbook of a scowling Ed with one hand shielding his eyes. They do not know the same Ed he does, will never know that his right cheek dimples before his left when he smiles; that he has a lock of Al's hair tied with a bright red ribbon on his desk back home; that he never screamed in automail surgery, because Al was next door and might worry; that he cried in a small dank alley when a little girl died before her time. These things about Ed are reserved for those who actually know him, Al thinks, and takes a deep breath and then slowly lets it out, releasing most of his suppressed anger at this treatment of Ed with it.
"Thank you, brother," he says softly.
Al smiles as the waitress drops off their food, and doesn't reply; by now it should be obvious just how much he owes Ed, just how grateful he is for what Ed's done for him, and if Ed can't see that then he feels no real pressure to tell him. Instead he takes a big bite out of the sandwich and asks, "How's your research going?"
As a distraction, it works; Ed produces paper and a pen from his suitcase and begins detailing the latest version of the array, comparing it to the one on Scar's arm, the point of some of the newer sigils, how the mass of the chimera affects the distance between the lines of the inner and outer circles. Al's view-point is slightly different from Ed, and he draws attention to weak links in the array, discusses methods of improving them, and changes equations. The cafe begins to pick up around them and Ed's toast grows stone cold; they don't notice as Ed produces more papers and spreads them over the table. The waitress interrupts at five o'clock to inform them that the cafe is closing, and with a disappointed sigh—they were in the middle of decomposition of something with a mass of over five hundred kilograms, as the array will need to be changed entirely—Ed gathers his papers, pays the bill without even noticing the price (leaving Al to collect their change and tip the waitress), and heads out to the station.
They sit side by side on a bench on the platform, waiting for the train to come back in. The weather is tolerable; it is mid-autumn, neither cold nor hot, but certainly wet. "Have you got any word from the military yet?" Al asks. "About ending your discharge?"
"Nah," Ed says with a dismissive wave. "Should have another eight months, at least, until they start being fucking jackasses. Though it's getting harder to get money off 'em. Did I—?"
"You already paid for my next term, brother," Al replies mildly. "You should be moving onto human-animal chimeras in six months or so, shouldn't you?"
"Yeah," Ed says, his mouth a tight line. "I want to get the theory spotless before we start any experimenting, though."
"Yeah," Al mutters, reaching over to grab his brother's wrist. "I wish you didn't have to do this, that it could be easy. I wish..."
"Wishing never gets anyone anything, Al," Ed says, his eyes dull and pensive. "Icould wish for grievous bodily harm to come to that shit Colonel, but it doesn't mean I'd get it."
Al reaches over and pats his cheek, affectionately, and Ed blinks at him. "I don't know, brother," he says wistfully, and stills his hand on Ed's cheek. "My wish came true, after all."
"Yeah, well," Ed grumbles with an embarrassed blush, tossing his head and brushing his bangs out of his face with his free hand.
"Well what?" Al asks, leaning into his shoulder.
Ed looks down at him, and then grins. "Nothing," he says, fitting his cheek against the top of Al's head. "Nothing at all."
Al closes his eyes and smiles, and in that moment, everything seems okay.