His students didn't understand their latest reading assignment. When he asked what they had thought of chapter 3, a room full of square-set, stony faces stared back at him; someone coughed and shuffled their papers, and someone else fidgeted their pencil across the table. Finally Anthony, one of his best students, raised his hand—timidly, it peeked up from behind their classmate's head inch by inch—and said, flatly honest, "I didn't understand a damn word."
Alphonse laughed, and the class laughed with him, and everyone relaxed. They opened up their books and he explained the chapter, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, defining words they didn't know, going over definitions they weren't sure of; he drew the arrays they weren't familiar with on the board and diagrammed each piece, point by point.
"I still don't get it," someone said as he finished off an eight-pointed array and stood back, dusting his hands on his pants; "so what's he saying? These two arrays, they're drawn like this... but if you invert it, then...."
An hour later his students looked exhausted, peering at him at and at their books with narrowed, drooping eyes. Girls picked at their nails and boys sprawled out across their seats, tapping their feet on the floor, leaning on their elbows.
Al said what everyone was thinking: "I don't think we're getting this very well, huh?" He grinned and turned back to the board, erasing two arrays to draw two more. "I don't know," he said as he circled the points, "maybe we should just ask him."
Everyone knew who they were; that Edward Elric was Alphonse Elric's brother, that their teacher had grown up with the most famous alchemist currently living on the continent. It had made them shy around Al at first, all of them afraid to say something stupid, to reveal their ignorance. They were still afraid of Edward; most people were. At fifteen he had been intimidating; at thirty, he could be terrifying. His brother was not a teacher and it showed: he had no patience for slowness, no tolerance for questions, couldn't explain things in a way that made sense to anyone other than himself to save his life, and he still had a penchant for annoyed sighs and huffed breaths when he got annoyed. Which was often.
Al broke the silence this time. "Maybe not," he said with a wry grin, and the lecture hall filled with nervous smiles and quiet laughter.
"He's just... it's hard, you know, Professor? To read a text by someone who's so smart. He just can't get down to our level."
Al nodded, folding a hand under his chin. Ed had little patience for such sentiments, he knew; he believed everyone could rise to his level, or worse, he sometimes believed that everyone already *was* at his level. He didn't dislike stupidity; he just couldn't conceive of it, really. "I know," he said, smiling again. "Well. I'm sorry to do this to you, but see if you can chug through another chapter for Friday, all right? I'll go over it in class and smooth out some of the wrinkles. See you Friday. And *relax,* all of you. You're as tense as wires."
His own shoulders were in knots when he left the hall.
A crash and a curse, outraged, breaking a little at its apex, greeted Al as he stepped through their backdoor. It squealed with displeasure as he closed it behind him, and he looked around for Ed. He saw only the remnants of their breakfast—it was officially Ed's task to clean while Al was out teaching, but Ed usually pretended to a forgetfulness uncommon for his age—and a pan sitting on the oven, steam rising out of it. Al reached over and turned it off, peering into the pan: toast burnt straight to its bottom, bits of it flaking off and covering the bottom of the pain in crispy darkness. He made a face, picked it up and set it in the sink, turning the water on high.
"Brother," he called out; waited for a response for a few moments, sighing when none came, turning off the water and moving further into the house, putting aside his things as he went. His boots went next to Ed's, in a neat little line in the living room; his coat went on top of Ed's, dark and brown against Ed's token red, both of them worn and tattered. Ed's gloves were on top of his coat and Al picked them up, tapped them thoughtfully against his lips. They smelled like oil, like metal, and like sweat and Ed's own skin. "Brother," he called again; this time Ed responded.
"Al!" He appeared in the doorway suddenly, disheveled and sweaty, hair poking out of his braid. He raked Al over, then turned away with a distracted air and said, "Hey, c'mere, would you? Oh and get me those gloves, could you. Damn, I'm so glad I took them off, they'd probably be in the trash heap by now if I hadn't—how was class, by the way?"
Al followed him down the hall, tossing his gloves to him with a tolerant smile. "Class was fine. I'm making them read your book, did I tell you that?"
"Um—" Ed stopped for a moment. Then he continued, heading briskly towards his workshop; Al could smell grease and chemicals from here. *How many times* had he told Edward to close the door against the smell.... "Yeah, I think you did. And I told you not to, if I remember right."
"It's heavier reading than I thought."
"I abuse the semi-colon," said Ed. He flung open the door to the workshop and ushered Al in with a smile that looked like he was showing him a candy shop. "And I use too many clauses. Here, here! I've been working on this for days. You wanted one, didn't you?"
"Oh—" Al stopped near the door, with Ed pressing into him from behind, and could only put his hand to his mouth and *breathe* for a second. Now he understood the weird noises coming from the room at night, the strange smells, grease and sweat, wood shavings and grass; he flashed over Edward's secret smiles in his head, the way he would pause while they were walking to rest his hand on a tree, his behavior over the past few days like it was before Christmas and he was shopping for Al's present. "Brother... this is...."
"I was trying to remember Mom's." Ed had slipped underneath his arm and leaned against his side now, arm against arm, hip to hip. "But I really couldn't, so I just went around the shops and picked up stuff from the ones I liked best. The carving—" He pushed off Al and crouched by the rocking chair, and ran one metal finger over some of the grooves and swirls on its arms. "I designed the carvings, but I had old Biggs from town do them. I can't replicate real wood-carving with alchemy. God knows I tried." He pulled a rueful smile.
"Even so... you designed them?" Al stepped a bit closer, then paused, hesitant to touch it. It was beautiful, heavy-looking and solid, with long sweeping arms and short, rounded legs, crowned at its middle by a low-crouching, wide-berthed seat. At its center was the Flamel cross; the hand that carved it had been solid and steady, nothing uneven about it. He blew out a long breath against his hand and shook his head. "How did you know I'd been wanting one?"
"You always liked Mom's," Ed shrugged. "You liked it when she rocked you."
I didn't even know you noticed. Al closed his mouth on that; he didn't know why he was surprised. Ed rarely missed things. "It's beautiful," he repeated. "Thank you. *Thank* you, brother."
Ed's smile was pleased, curving his lips, rounding his cheeks. He played it off, crossing his arms and shrugging: even now the cocky kid, at thirty. "Yeah, well. My last birthday present to you sucked. I thought I'd make it up to you."
His last birthday present had been Ed's book, the first edition, with a little note tucked inside it in Ed's long, sweeping scrawl. He still took it out and read it sometimes, and pressed it underneath his nose. "It didn't suck," Al said, finally reaching out and touching the chair, just lightly settling his fingers over it. "But this. This...."
"Wanna try it out?"
Al stroked the wood, running his hand down the curve of the arm and across the seat. Then he turned around and settled in it, slowly; it was a perfect fit, as if it'd been made for him, and he leaned against the back with a quiet sigh, reached up and settled his elbows on the chair's arms. Bracing his feet against the ground, he gave a push and, when the chair began to rock, he grinned at Ed. "Wow. This really brings back memories."
"For me, too." Ed smiled. "Mom always used to rock you in her chair when you got fussy. She sang songs and you would always quiet down, like you were listening."
He pushed harder, and this time the air brushed against his face, gently, and the chair made a quiet creaking sound as it rocked on its supports. "I think," he said, "I remember that, too. Her voice... it was always so gentle."
Al wanted it to rain. He wanted to hear the patter of it on the windows as he sat in this chair, with Ed leaned against one of its arms, metal fingers brushing across Al's knuckles, face drawn in pensive strokes. Al lifted up his free hand and rested it on Ed's temple, tracked his way through Ed's bangs and into the rest of his hair, drawing his fingers through Ed's eartails and the silkier hair at the nape of his neck. He had braided his hair today; Al began to undo the braid with one hand, separating each section painstakingly so it wouldn't tangle.
By now Ed had leaned his head into Al's knee, giving him better access, and Al could see that his breathing had evened out, become smoother and more relaxed. He smiled and slid his other hand out from Ed's, and touched it to Ed's face, lifting up his chin. "I remember now," he said, softly, afraid that loud noise would break this quiet-crystal perfection; "Dad used to rock us, too."
Ed didn't say anything, just lifted his eyebrows.
"I wonder if it's a real memory, that. You and him on the chair together, and the sun was coming in through the windows." Al closed his eyes, seeing it in his head. "It shone until it was like you both disappeared, and all I could see was gold. It always used to frighten me."
"Yeah," Ed said, narrowing his eyes. "It frightened me, too. Being near him... it *was* like disappearing."
Al laughed a little, skirting his hand over the deep groves Ed's scowl wrought in his face. "Sometimes it's like that with you, too," and shrugged in apology when Ed reared himself up. "I mean, not in a bad way. It's just..." He shook his head, giving up on words and instead touching his hands to Ed's face again, stroking his cheekbones.
Ed snorted under his breath, closing his eyes. "Some teacher, Al. You suck with words."
"Yeah, I know." Ed's hair was spilling over his shoulders, split ends and all, still uneven from the last time Al had tried to trim it to save money. He smoothed it out, raked through the tangles and the tuft-out pieces, then dropped his hand to Ed's shoulder to massage the scarred skin. "Thank you," he murmured.
Ed's lips curved, just before he reached out and gave the chair a great push, knocking it and Al away from him. He kept at it, rocking it with his hand, settling it into a steady motion, and Al leaned his head against the back, relaxed into its curves and closed his eyes.
If he concentrated hard enough, he could feel as if he were still small, tucked into the curve of his mother's body with Ed curled in between them, head nestled on his shoulder and their mother's hands on theirs.
It rained that night, like he'd wanted, and Al sat out on the porch, one leg uncurled and sticking out into the rain. It was a warm summer rain, so it was pleasant, like a cool shower after a hot day. He leaned back on his hands, curling his toes into the mud, and sighed.
"What's with that noise?" Ed plopped down next to him, a sweater wrapped around his shoulders—he'd never liked the rain. "Al. You do know you're not coming back into the house until you wipe that foot off."
"I know. Although you're not one to talk about keeping the house clean."
"Shut up! I just did the dishes, for your information."
"Oh." Al blinked. The dishes had been piling up for weeks, and they'd both been assuming the other would do them; actually, well, *he'd* been assuming Ed would do them, since Ed did most of the household chores. "Sorry about that."
Ed just raised his eyebrows, nudged Al's leg with his foot. "Yeah? What are you doing out here, anyway?"
"I'm watching the rain."
"How boring," said Ed, yawning.
"I'm *not* going to play poker with you again, brother."
Ed drooped; then sat up, grinning, and scooted closer to Al. "Not even strip poker?"
"Especially not strip poker."
"Man," said Edward. "You're getting stuffy in your old age."
"Since when is twenty-nine old?" Al poked his ribs, then looked up as lightning flashed across the sky, purple-white and followed by a thunderous crashing. "Wow," he whispered. "Did you see that?" He looked over at Ed and saw his face illuminated by the lightning, face turned white with the shadows under his eyes and around his mouth inky black: old black-and-white photography.
Ed caught his eyes and blinked. "What? What are you looking at?"
Al smiled, clasped the back of his neck, drew him down for a kiss. Edward's lips curved against his and parted; the inside of his mouth tasted like coffee and pastry. Al stroked down his back, slipping under his black shirt to run his fingers over the scars cutting across his skin, criss-crossing his spine; he buried his other hand in Edward's hair, in the silky strands at the nape of his neck, then smoothing into his braid.
"I love you," Al said, drawing back and pecking Ed on the lips. "And thank you."
"What for?" Edward patted Al's cheek, looking a little bemused. "The chair? You already thanked me a dozen times for—"
"No." Al scooted closer to him, pushing their thighs together, and wrapped an arm around Ed's shoulders. "Just—for this."
"Oh," Ed said softly, and smiled. He kissed Al's cheek, then picked up Al's free hand and linked their fingers together, setting their hands on his knee. He cleared his throat, and then his voice was back to its usual volume and cockiness: "Well, you're welcome. Since I'm so wonderful and all, I understand you must be overwhelmed sometimes. So yeah."
Al rolled his eyes. "I love you, too, Ed."
Ed's canines flashed. He patted Al's hand, and said nothing. They pressed together, like when they were children and would watch the storms before Mother called them in for cooking. Mother would never call them again, but Ed was here at his side, hand warm in his; Al smiled, nestled his head on Ed's shoulder, closed his eyes, feeling the cool mist on his cheeks. Ed squeezed his hand and murmured into his hair: "I love you, Al."