Title: Paid Too Soon
Author: [livejournal.com profile] skyvehicle
Rating: PG
Characters: Ed, Al
Warnings: Post COS, so film and series spoilers.
Summary: He had his brother back; now he just had to believe it.

AN: Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] truths_in_lies for the beta!



Like a penance paid too soon, and with too much eagerness to know what is true.
(Lisa Hannigan, Teeth)


While his face still bears likeness to both of his parents, it is no longer the face of a child, almost unrecognizable to that frustrating first glance that still refuses to believe that he truly is whole again. He no longer towers or casts shadows over anyone, standing just tall enough to give his brother something to complain about. The Al that Ed remembered - the real Al, not the suit of armor with the voice of a child, the one that Ed was working to bring back all those years - is a ten year old boy, and Al now looks like the dead German boy who built a rocket. So it’s hard, to have to get used to what feels almost like a new brother.

It’s weird.

Ed always knew that Al had survived, always believing in his brother with the fiercest, most illogical determination, but there had been no way of knowing what had actually befallen him. During the past two years, he had run every possibility through his head over and over, trying to find just one that made any sense.

But then they are reunited again, and Al is alive and human, older, smarter, taller, not that little ten year old boy anymore. That first glance at him is the expectation that he’ll look and see that little boy, and Ed actually has to make a conscious effort to get used to this.

He tries not to hit Al so hard when they spar, not only because he’s toast if he breaks his automail, but because Al can feel every hit now. When an thoughtlessly aimed kick has Al flat on his back and wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve, Ed knows that he has to be more careful, that he can’t just fix his brother with alchemy anymore.

He tries not to expect that there will be someone to talk to if and when he is kept awake by nightmares. With only the sound of his sleeping brother’s heavy breathing for company, Ed can only will away the images of his dreams that keep him up until morning anyway.

When Al walks into the kitchen and Ed jumps because he knows that Alfons died and has no business walking into the kitchen, he blames it on lack of sleep and other kinds of distractions. He is just trying to make sense of why he still has so much trouble recognizing his own brother, who is alive and human and stuck with him in this other world, which should be almost completely fine. But it isn’t.

--

He is aware that he has been staring at the same fixed point for some time now, unable to drag his eyes away from the pile of rubble a few yards away. Feeling the way that his body fills up with every deep, slow breath, every part of him tingling with the sensation of it, he can think of nothing else. The lights flicker, fade a little. Maybe there are sounds, maybe there are people touching him, shaking him, but he cannot take his eyes off that spot they had fallen on when he first opened them.

Not until he is dragged away.

He stands, dreamlike, among ruins. He knows not where he is. He is alone. There is no pressing urge to move his limbs, and he can’t feel anything, not the ground under his feet, not the temperature, not the hands that touch his face, his cheeks, his forehead.

He is suddenly terrified, his stomach twisted in on itself. Time passes. He is numb.

Numb to the hands that are gripping his shoulders and shaking him, shaking him. There are no words. There is no sound. There’s someone kneeling in front of him, but he can’t bring himself to look at them.

And then he hears a rasping, unsteady breath in his ears, every shuddering inhale, every exhale forced out in a rush, until he suddenly recognizes that it’s his own breath, unsteady and hysterical.

“-are you doing here? Who are you?”

And then he remembers the light, a powerful glow, his finger stinging where it was cut, something pulling, pulling him, and his legs can no longer hold him. He pitches forward, into arms that hold onto him.

He lifts his hand up to his face, holding out his finger to see if it was still cut. He finds himself completely unharmed, not a mark on him. He then remembers why.

“Mother...” he hears himself whisper, almost too afraid to even ask, and the terror building in his stomach grows and grows. “Did we do it? Did it work?”

--

Ed still fondly refers to him as a tin can, even though there is no longer any reason to, and Al still smiles at it. Al still calls him ‘brother’, even if he once tried to wake Ed up from a nightmare and was shoved aside so violently before Ed said, “oh god, Al, it’s you” like he wasn’t even sure. Of course, he wasn’t even awake, really, Al figures, making excuses for his already apologetic brother. He couldn’t be blamed for his natural instincts. But he can be resented for it, just a little, and he spends the next two days alone, until Al comes back with a black eye and a kitten in his arms, grinning like nothing had happened.

“I’m not angry,” Al says that night, with a nonchalance rooted in maturity rather than the defiance that still burned so strong in his brother. But he is still young, and it shows in the way he can’t bring himself to look at his brother as he says this, his eyes trained instead on the grey kitten in his lap. “I just needed to figure that out.”

“You should have said something. I was terrified,” Ed snaps, even though he knows that it’s his fault and that he’s a terrible brother who has no right to ask Al to do anything. “Something could have happened to you and I would have had no idea...”

“I’ve never been angry about it,” Al says, continuing on with his own thoughts rather than addressing his brother’s, but Ed’s lack of a response to this unnerves him. “You know that, right?”

And for a long stretch of silence, the only sound is the kitten purring as Al scratches its ears.

“It’s weird for me, too,” he eventually admits. Ed still hasn’t said a word, which Al knows is because he is embarrassed and angry and trying to work things out in his own head before he says something he might regret later.

The kitten lets out a feeble mewl, and Al smiles as the tiny thing rolls over onto its side and stretches its paws out as far as they can reach.

“You know, I never forgot this,” Al says. “Even though I had forgotten everything, I’d still go after strays.”

Ed smiles fondly at the memory of a meowing suit of armor. “Because you always did, even when you were little.”

“But that’s not it. I mean, I was still under military supervision, and they would have let me take in a hundred animals if I wanted. But I’d hold myself back. Something in me hesitated, made me think twice and leave it.”

Considering the fact that Al had lost all memory of his life as a suit of armor, Ed didn’t know what to tell him. If he didn’t remember, then he didn’t remember, and that was that.

“Like I always knew someone was always going to be annoyed about it,” Al said, still not looking up from the kitten. From where Ed sat on his own bed, he could see that the black eye he had given Al still looked swollen and painful, even after two days.

While Al was patient and accepting enough to not let Ed’s trouble faze him, Ed knew that his patience would not last forever. Little things like kittens and memories would be trivial if Ed couldn’t get his erratic responses under control. Losing Al, again, was not an option. He had his brother back; now he just had to believe it.

--

They kept him in a hospital, even though he wasn’t sick. Soldiers came and went, asking him simple questions like how do you feel? are you hungry? can I get you anything? and then hurried off. No one ever told him anything, or answered his own questions. Doctors never spoke to each other in his room, and the soldiers who came and went never told him why.

They told him that he had been in an accident. That was all.

He had the suspicion that he was a prisoner. It made sense. The military must have found out about what he and his brother had been doing and arrested them. Maybe they had been hurt from the transmutation. But he wasn’t injured, wasn’t in pain, and he didn’t know where he was, or where his brother was.

He had read the notes and the books with him, and he knew the risks just as much as Brother did. He knew what could have happened, just not what had.

During his time in the hospital, he had learned how to keep his panic at bay. Every time he lost control and screamed or tried to get away, doctors would sedate him, and he would wake up hours later, sick and dizzy, and have to remember where he was all over again. So he learned to be quiet, to not scream and cry try to run, and eventually they told him what they knew.

--

“Everyone I met,” Al is still idly stroking the kitten. “They all expected me to know them. When it became clear to them that I didn’t, couldn’t, they tried to remind me, thinking that it was just amnesia and would pass. But the memories I had made as the armor... it’s like they weren’t even my memories.”

“They were your soul’s,” Ed says. “The memories were always part of at least some of you.”

“I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize you, if I ever found you.” Al had known that years had gone by since he had seen his brother. For all he knew, he could look completely different from the way he did when they were children. When they finally were reunited, Al felt like an idiot for ever thinking he wouldn’t recognize his own brother.

Ed made a face. “Automail arm and leg? Yellow eyes? Seriously, Al?”

It went unspoken between them that even though Al had used the stone to restore Ed’s body, Ed had given it all up to get Al back. Al never asked why he had done it, because he knew, and Ed never asked if Al was ok with it. For all he knew, maybe he wasn’t.

--

The kitten was still there in the morning. Al wasn’t.

Of course, he could have taken his breakfast outside. He could have gone into town to get groceries. He could have gone to buy food for the cat.

But he could have left. He could be halfway to Paris. He could be anywhere. He could have given up on Ed ever being able to accept that he was there, that he crossed the gate too, so they could stay together.

But when Ed wakes up, the kitten is there, and Al isn’t; and Ed doesn’t know what to think.
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