Warnings: Ed's language.
Author's Notes: A sort of speed-fic from Al's POV, since I never write enough of him! Written in an hour or so and read through once. So please, if you spot any typos, point 'em out and I'll get them fixed.
A Matter Of Time
Al wrinkled his nose, groaning as he tried to force his saturated mind to concentrate. A medical journal lay open on the table in front of him, and he had just read the same sentence three times in a row as his brain gave up the fight to learn anything more. He loved his studies, he really did, but did they have to give everything such complicated, hard-to-remember names? He had an exam tomorrow, and he was almost certain he knew everything, but that did not mean he had set his books aside. Whenever he got a spare minute the covers were open again and he was refreshing his memory, hoping to squeeze one more droplet of knowledge from the pages.
However, there were some places where revision was impossible, and a noisy bar was one of them. Now that the working day had drawn to a close, the room was rapidly filling up with civilians and soldiers, desperate for a way to draw the line between the daily grind and the freedom of their evening. Al knew he should have stayed at home where it was quiet and easier to concentrate, but he had felt the familiar, keening need to be around people tonight. He was no good at solitude anymore; the armour had given him too much of that. He sought out company whenever he could – even if it was just another living, breathing body in the room with him.
Now he shuffled together his notes and shoved them in his bag, watching the crowd around him with casual interest. Some people might find being in a packed room intimidating, but Al revelled in it. He knew that no one would ever understand the way he felt, but the heat of bodies pressed close together and the sweet scent of alcohol were far from unpleasant to him. There had been a time when he thought he would never feel such things again.
Thanks to his brother, he had been wrong.
Al's lips tilted in a smile as he glanced towards Ed, taking in that face that was more familiar than Al's own reflection. Ed had changed in a lot of ways over the past year: the desperation had faded from his actions, and the jagged edges of his personality had been polished to smooth edges. However, some things stayed the same, and Al smiled to see that Ed had his nose stuck in a book, utterly focussed and shut off from the world around him.
Reading had always been a major part of Ed's life. Nothing stopped him except darkness and even that was easy enough for Ed to overcome. Al had seen him in a rainstorm, standing with a book open under the eaves to keep the paper dry while he got drenched, so intent on some paragraph or theory that he had forgotten all about the water sluicing down around him. When they were looking for the Stone, he had believed it was Ed's endless quest to put things right that drove him on, but now he could see the strength of Ed's need for answers; it was a thirst Al knew his brother would never quench. He wanted to know everything not just about Alchemy, but the world. Where other people saw leaves dancing in the wind, Ed looked deeper, to a realm of energy and forces and mysteries that Al could never grasp.
The only thing that Ed ignored was other human beings. Al was exempt from that indifference – Ed would move the moon for him if he asked it – but a stranger in the street may as well be a ghost to Ed. Their friends from the office were another matter. Ed's loyalty, once earned, was dogged and unwavering, but even when Ed termed someone as a friend he did not take an interest in the minutiae of their lives.
It was hard for Al to get his head around the fact that he and his brother could be so different, sometimes. He wanted to help people physically, wanted to heal their wounds and ills and set them free to enjoy life again. If anything, Ed seemed determined to clean up the world instead. Al suspected that was why he had not left the military as he had promised. He stayed on, grudgingly renewing his contract because the military needed people like Ed to stop it rotting in corruption at least until the Brigadier-General could start making changes from the top.
A page turned, a whisper of sound almost lost amidst the chatter, and Al marvelled at how his brother could focus with all this noise going on around him. How did he switch off the world like that?
Al couldn't do it. He was too aware of everything. Even now, after almost a year back in his flesh, he was sometimes driven to the point of distraction by the whisper of his clothes against his skin or the gentle caress of the breeze. Sunlight on his face was always enough to make him tip his head up in worship, and the smell of food cooking or a rose garden was something he could never ignore. There was so much of the world to experience, bright and sharp, that Al could deny none of it his attention: he was distracted by the simple things, and he would not have it any other way, but sometimes his heart ached for everything his brother was missing without even realising it. Would he look up from a book one day and realise life had passed him by?
People had been coming and going, letting the autumn wind through the door to breathe fresh air into the bar. Drinkers laughed and talked, gulped their beers and occasionally dropped glasses with a sound like a symphony gone wrong; Ed ignored it all.
Suddenly, Ed lifted his head, turning towards the door like a hound catching the scent. Al followed his gaze, seeing the Brigadier-General nudge his way into the bar, followed by the rest of his command, all ambling along like soldiers who were off duty and wanted to stay that way. Jackets were undone and shirts were untucked. Only Hawkeye looked as presentable as ever, and even the general had undone his shirt and jacket collar to reveal a glimpse of pale skin at the base of his throat.
Al was amazed that Ed had stirred from his reading at all. He had been completely engrossed, and there had been far bigger distractions in the past ten minutes that had not even made him blink. Yet now he was alert, no longer trapped in the cage of the printed word but bright-eyed and focussed.
Mustang looked like he was buying the first round and, as the others made their way over to where he and Ed were sitting, Al watched his brother's face. His gaze lingered after the Brigadier-General's departing back, and there was a brief flicker of something hot in his eyes. It was not anger, at least, it did not look like rage to Al, but what else could it be?
Before he got a chance to figure it out, Ed gave a wry smile and oblivious to Al staring at him went back to his book. Yet something had changed. Ed was no longer lost in easy concentration. His focus more intense than that, somehow edgy as if Ed was brimming with tension where he had been relaxed, and Al propped his head in his hand, greeting the others with an open smile as he puzzled over his brother's behaviour.
There had to be a logical answer, and Al frowned as he went through the possibilities in his mind. If Ed had simply been looking up at the noise of the door opening, he would have returned to the book as soon as he realised there was no threat. No, this was not a case of simple survival instinct kicking in at an opportune moment. Something had tweaked Ed's senses where everything that happened over the past hour had failed to make an impression. Someone had snatched his attention from the book's clutches, and Al let his eyes wander over to the bar where the man he suspected of being responsible stood waiting for the drinks.
The arguments between Ed and the Brigadier-General were legendary, and Al had put those spectacular rages down to his brother's usual disrespect for anyone in authority, but now he was not so sure. He watched as Mustang took his gloves off, shoving them in his pocket before wrapping long fingers around an assortment of glasses and picking his way towards the table, too graceful to spill anything. As soon as he got close enough, he put the drinks down and handed them around, greeting Al with his usual polite friendliness before taking a seat.
Around them, the conversation rose and fell, as easy and casual as it had always been. The soldiers were debating something that had happened in the office, and Al listened with half an ear, the cool tumbler biting at his palm as he stared at the pint glass in front of his brother. It could have been coincidence. It could be meaningless, but Al did not think that was the case.
Mustang had put a drink in front of Ed first, then put another in his own place before handing around the rest. He probably had not realised he had done it, but Al had heard enough of the students at the university go on about animal behaviour to see a flicker of significance. Mustang's actions could easily be read as ranking Ed of higher importance than himself, but why would any Brigadier-General do that for a mere Major? Why would he put Ed's needs above his own?
And why had his brother looked up at the door before Mustang walked through? When they were very young, their mother had done the same thing. He and Ed always knew when their dad was about to walk in the front door because she would lift her gaze from whatever she was doing and smile before their dad even stepped over the threshold, but why was Ed doing that for the Brigadier-General?
Al grinned, looking from Ed to Mustang and back again. It was as if someone had turned on the light inside his head, and all that antagonistic behaviour that turned the air taut with its presence suddenly took on a whole new meaning. It was not anger; it was almost the opposite, and Al realised just how wrong he had been.
'What are you smiling at?' Gold eyes were watching him over the top of that book, and Ed's brow was drawn into a faintly puzzled frown as he reached for the beer that the Brigadier-General had given him and took a sip. 'You look like the cat that got the fuckin' cream or something.'
'Nothing, Brother.' Al hid his smile in his glass, ignoring the weight of Ed's puzzled glare as he took a deep drink and let his thoughts continue their lazy whirl.
All this time Al had watched them both and seen nothing of it, but now he wondered how he could have been so blind. The clues were there in the littlest things they did: the way Mustang's body was subtly turned towards Ed, and the way Ed lowered his book and took an interest whenever the Brigadier-General spoke.
His brother and Mustang… Perhaps they were not in a relationship yet, but Al watched them and knew one thing with all his heart:
It could only be a matter of time.