Map of Stars
Something shattered, a fleeting sound of porcelain shards skipping over the worn floorboards of the kitchen.
Al left his brother's open suitcase and sorted notes half-in half-out. He stopped at the doorway to the modest kitchen, porcelain crunched in fine little daggers beneath the soles of his shoes.
The cabinet doors were flung open in the haphazard manner of wounds. The dislodged handle of a coffee mug lay somewhere between him and the table, and polished curves broken off a simple plate lay all askew. Edward held three dull knives, three dull spoons, three dull forks and three scratched plates in his hands and sighed as a scotch glass cast prism over the floors before it, too, shattered.
Noa's hands were shaking as she sought and remembered over the mismatched pieces of tableware. Edward said nothing. He used old newsprint to wrap the three place settings and set them in an old leather knapsack. Noa's dress peeked out from the overflowing trash, and while Al didn't see the bloodstain that just would not come out, it looked sharper than a handful of broken porcelain.
"Noa?" Miss Noa? Ma'am? What? Familiarity seemed to be expected, but falling from the sky wearing the face of a dead boy, emerging from his armor-coffin only to put Al – Alfons into a real coffin, what rights of familiarity could he build on that? "Are you okay?"
Of course she's not okay.
Edward was silent, packing bread, sugar, apples, jars of what Al had learned to taste, name, and tolerate. Pickled eggs. Smoked, pickled goose. Everything was slightly on the musty side or pickled – who knew how long they'd go (with a Gypsy dogging their steps?)
"These all have to be destroyed." She said, eerily calm.
Crash. "They are unclean."
Edward bristled, busied himself with packing, back to Noa's words.
"Unclean?" Alphonse asked, blandly. Stupidly.
"He would need them." Noa's voice was timidly wistful. She had seen blood on Alfons' lips and his hand. "But they've already –"
Al nodded. Six feet under the ground and final, death was too simple, too defined, in this world. Can't even leave an old, well-loved coffee mug in a friend's hand as a parting token gesture. Or a desperate scramble to glue brown-skinned roots to fair-skinned tradition.
"The landlord's going to have a conniption over the mess." Edward finally said when the clink-clash-clatter of tableware became heavier than words.
Noa sent a plate skittering, cracked, along the floor.
"Just don't touch hi-…the notes. We might need those. Or books, if anything, we can resell them."
Noa wouldn't cry. Edward spoke only of places and items. It was an unsatisfactory compromise. Al, confused, went back to the bedroom and resumed folding his brother's clothes. What else could he do?
He couldn't wear his red coat anymore. Ed's red coat. Ed told him it was 'sacrilegious', and Al wanted to know since when the hell did Edward care, but they were going to a funeral.
Edward's clothes were all wrong colors, dull colors, but if he closed his eyes, he could pretend that the scent there was always brother's scent, the scent of his red coat was his own scent. He had no other comparisons.
They left the apartment cluttered with broken tableware. They left dirty dishes in the sink, they left condolence cards on the entryway table, they left half a month's worth of phone, electricity, water and rent paid for. He left his ponytail on his brother's dresser, and the paper sheers used to cut it. They left pictures and Al was secretly glad for it.
They left mid-day, in a disappointingly anticlimactic dullness. They just walked away, the keys left in the doorknob. Not much had changed, they were still vagabonds in one way or another and a park bench or a hotel bed was the same as any other bed.
The streets had seen better days, patchy and mismatched with new cobblestones alongside worn old ones, filling potholes. The main streets were filled with vehicles that left smoke in their wake, and sidewalks were patrolled by men in distinctive uniform who watched Noa, their mouths set in hard lines beneath the slick visors of their hats.
So they took the side streets, the ones that could barely pass for alleys, where the buildings rose all around them and people shouldered past them with their eyes downcast. The side streets, the back alleys where were the weathered produce stalls were set up, peddling bruised fruit. Between those stalls, bruised, drunken men waited off hangovers on upturned, rickety crates. It smelled of old water and old fruit and old alcohol and old, rotted hopes.
"It's not like this everywhere." Noa whispered to him as she took his elbow, steered him between herself and Edward. The gentle smile she gave him was lost when she looked ahead, stony-faced as leers and stage-whispers of 'Thief!' trailed after them.
Even so, it wasn't much different from some parts of Central.
And struggling Lior - "Eight marks each." "That's too much, they're bruised!" "Which is why they are eight marks! Go spend fourteen somewhere else!"
And the seedier parts of the Xing outskirts – "Two-hundred marks per half-hour." Said a woman to a man as he stood in her doorway, the off-white color of the door peeling, her gentle curves and lovely face were trussed and painted and tired.
Al knew he should have felt homesick for the sunlit market of Rizenbool and the cobbled roads that lead from there to everywhere of Central. He watched in mild dismay as the woman in the doorway turned and the man brazenly tucked his hand over the curve of her hip clothed in old lace. As the drunk leaning against the apple stall finally gave up and uncorked the sick-green bottle in his hand and took a long, long drink.
"Al, hurry up!"
The woman had closed her door, and Al saw some of the apartment numbers missing. An old, stooped lady hobbled past him, a cart of produce and meat in tow, and stray dogs followed not far behind. Edward was scowling at the curious looks cast their way, young and brilliant where everything else was old and unraveling, scowling at him, Let's go already!, always, always one foot in front of the other. Noa quickly looked away, wistful, pained. Neither of them could quite look him in the eye.
He shouldered his pack and hurried his step. No, not much had changed at all.
It wasn't a long walk, as far as stepping foot out on the road with food, clothing and notes went. Al remembered long treks through deserts, train rides where towns and countryside eventually blurred together as the sun set and rose, and dogged hunts through unfamiliar towns for a room that wouldn't completely destroy his wallet.
He remembered field reports and commands over train station telephones and Morse code. He remembered that same dogged hunt for a room, but money was no object. Making sure his brother's silver watch was tucked away and that no one there knew, remembered or believed in the Fullmetal Alchemist was. These memories overlapped, intertwined, the same red coat would always flutter in a passing gust of wind, sit on the train booth or drape, tired-looking, over a nicked wooden bedpost.
They entered a modestly quaint apartment building. Like visiting one of their mother's friends when they were younger, a friend he and Edward had met only as babies, the place had no relevance to him.
His brother and Noa walked softly. The hallway was narrow and dim, and smelled old, well-loved, comfortable. The silence of his two companions cloyed, the sounds of bartering in the market filtered through the single, small window by the front door, the light cast shadows over doorways and the guarded, always guarded mask of Edward's face. Al looked at him, and he knew his brother saw but offered nothing. No words of explanation, no assuring smile and certainly no carefree grin.
New memories and old memories and fake memories in the absence of old memories overlapped again. He was caught off-guard when they stopped, Edward took a key from his pocket, and the door opened to a room that smelled both sweet and rancid.
Al ignored it. He didn't want to be rude. "Shouldn't we have knocked?" He asked, and didn't know why he whispered. The foyer was still, like a graveyard or a place of worship. He didn't want to be rude.
"We don't have to anymore." Edward walked in, his manner familiar with the layout of the apartment, his manner something of struggling relevance.
Noa ushered him in and gently, oh-so-gently, closed the door. Edward shed his coat and draped it over one of the kitchen chairs. On the table, a cup of tea had steeped too long and finally went cold, forgotten. Mold was gathering on the surface.
Al was aghast when Edward began to freely rummage through the papers stacked neatly on the desk and the books lining the bookshelves. Before he could question, chastise, look about for their nameless friend and apologize for brazenness so familiar on his brother, Edward said – "This is the old man's apartment. He probably has contacts or research we could use-" He sighed and slammed a file drawer shut. It closed with a 'bang' that made Noa give a little jump and Al's heart race. "-if we can make heads or tails of his weird-ass way of cataloguing things."
After it all, Al could believe anything. He could believe anything Edward told him. He could.
Noa frowned and pressed the side of her hand to her lips, a bad habit, a worse omen, the first time she'd seen Ed's sweet little brother alight with hope that was truly, honestly free of burden. She didn't want to see that wide smile fall apart. She turned away and took the moldy tea to the sink.
"Dad's here? Oh, that's…brother, that's great! I was so worried you were here all alone, Ed, where is he? Are we going to stay with him for a while? He'll help with our research, right?
He knew what the cloying silence was. It reached to the ever-blue sky as Noa danced, her white dress fighting a sea of black mourning clothes. They had just walked away from an apartment that suffocated in it. Mr. Curtis was a living manifestation of it. Wrath had haunted it in the hallways of the Rockbell home. It was the blood of a little girl staining her teddy bear amidst all the rubble. It probably wrapped around Gracia in the middle of the night, where Brigadier-General Hughes' arms used to be. It was the pause that followed cruel children's questions because Alicia's daddy was never there. It was the ghost behind the commander in Colonel Mustang's eyes. It was the trigger of Lieutenant Hawkeye's gun.
In his memories, it was Roze's horror when her dreams and dedication went up in feathers and down in bile. It was the rasp in her voice that never quite went away. It dulled the spatter of rain that ran red with Nina and Alex. It echoed, sharper than sound, inside where Martel lay, pierced, bleeding through the roughly fashioned shapes that made him.
It was the tearstained letter from the military in Winry's fist as she wept. It was the white lilies that covered 'Trisha Elric' engraved in stone. It was their mother's bedroom before they burned it all to the ground.
It hand-fed him mourning and things he had once mourned but forgotten as he sat on the couch and all he could smell was their father's sickly-sweet cologne. His father's coat had been discarded there, and found a home much too late in his trembling grasp. It smelled like him as he buried his face into it and tried so hard not to cry.
He hated Edward for a brief, flaring moment that made him terrified of himself. He hated his brother's nonchalant degradation of their father's work and life. As notes were scanned and organized into 'useful' and, to quote, 'utter shit', Al's boyhood faith that their father would be seen walking up the dirt road in Rizenbool to home was separated into 'foolish' and 'childish'. It was all he could do to keep replaying that memory where his faith had been rewarded and his father was home and his father looked up at his red, glowing eyes-that-were-not-eyes and called him by his name.
He hated Edward for knowing what it was like to be called 'son', to be smiled down on, to feel the warmth of a handshake because they were their father's boys, but they hadn't been children in a very, very long time.
Hohenheim Elric smoked. There was a pipe and an ashtray on the coffee table. His clothes smelled of tobacco smoke. Al supposed that's what Lieutenant Havoc might have smelled like, too. Auntie Pinako would be smoking right now, but that wasn't anything unusual. Auntie Pinako was always smoking.
Noa cleaned. She cleaned compulsively when she was upset. She cleaned and Edward kept a wary eye on her, all this unseen through the old, large coat pressed to Al's eyes. Edward needn't worry, because she never knew Hohenheim Elric outside of the oddity of a man in a monster's jaws, and it wasn't her place to try to appease the foul luck of the dead she didn't know.
Edward was comparing an old address book to the names of authors on papers he thought useful. Always just 'useful'. Noa was polishing away the thin layer of dust on the side tables. None of them could have told what time it was, and Edward barely looked up when he switched the light on.
"How?" Al finally asked, and raged against that silence. His eyes were glassy because he would not, would not cry. He clutched the coat to his chest, and hated the timid pity Edward's red, tired eyes turned to him.
"Envy." There was a struggle in his brother's voice, and Al didn't know why it comforted him. As he looked, as he listened to the word spoken with such tired venom just so Al could hate something, he saw that Edward held the notes with such tender care, and the 'useless' were stacked neatly in organized piles on the floor. "Eckhart used Envy and Dad as the exchange for opening the gate."
Noa stilled. Shame stilted her posture. In the copies of the Thule Society's 'Vision of Shamballa' Edward held letters became dragon teeth and ink, their father's blood.
"I used Wrath and Gluttony. Wrath…" I had a choice. I had a choice, and I killed them both.
"The little shit didn't give you a choice, did he?" Edward said in the fondness of civilians that hear about but do not see the losses of their own soldiers, in the easy 'that's a shame' demeanor of men who read horrors over newsprint. Al couldn't fault him for it, not when Edward had stopped being…unreachable. Even just for now. "Dad didn't either."
Edward knew Al was prying him with those tear-stained eyes, plain little brother eyes, impossible to meet. He went back to cross-referencing contacts and papers written. "He told me he wanted to die in the body Mom loved. I guess he felt an obligation to her."
He damn well should have.
She's dead, he wasn't, we aren't – why?
"It's not like he had much of an option anyway. Envy would have, with his consent or without it."
"Wrath too." Al didn't know when his father's coat became an impromptu blanket, but it was warm in the absence of a fire in the wood-burning stove.
"Guess we're just lucky bastards, then." It was said in part irony and part bitterness.
"Opening the Gate wasn't lucky, brother."
Noa couldn't take the frosty distance that had turned the small living room into a wide and immeasurable gulf, one brother on one side, the other across and untouchable. In the end, it's impossible to re-forge bonds on mistakes and regrets.
"Maybe you can check his room for something? Edward is busy and so am I." She was timid, stepping into a role she had no right to fill. "Al?"
But she didn't say 'something useful' or 'something we could sell'. Just something. It was, in reality, a stupid suggestion. He could have kissed her, held her and wept for it. He could have scowled at her, snapped at her, and wept for the thought of being alone in his dead father's room.
Instead, he took liberties with the memory of the dead and tucked his dad's coat around his shoulders, close and warm, and found the most precious of his father's thoughts.
It seemed no matter the area – ghetto, main streets, alleys – Munich was a city that never really slept. Like Central with its serial murderers or the Amestris western border pressed against the memories of the Ishbalan Massacre. Or the dusty streets of Lior where a Holy Mother prepared the people for an exodus under the ground while the Amestris military insignia flashed on uniforms and tanks and guns on the surface.
Al could feel the lost hours of rest in beds behind walls and windows, in the weary nods of men in uniform that he returned with timid distaste. In the working class that would rather replace sleep with beer and company, in the bundles of newsprint on the sidewalks. It left Al baffled, snuggled into his father's coat against the chill with his fingers shaking over a stack of journals he couldn't read anyway, with the lights of the streets dull as they were.
"Al? What the hell-" Edward closed the front door after himself, stifling a cavernous yawn with his hand. "-y'doing out here?"
"I couldn't sleep."
"You should try to." Edward sounded more awake, his voice less caught in that muffled, hazy sleep. He flopped himself unceremoniously on the far end of the bench from his brother, and watched the city lights aglow through bleary eyes. "We've got a long way ahead of us."
"Did you find something?"
"A few leads. A few people to talk to." He shrugged, rubbed his automail shoulder, familiar habits. "It's a start."
"Where are we going?" Al wanted Edward to never stop talking to him. Ever, especially to never stop speaking of familiar processes, familiar plans.
A pause, a beat, the gentle whir of a bicycle as a young man peddled furiously to get out of the cold. He came from the direction of the University, and Edward saw only at the boy's angel-blond hair and shadowed face beneath a nondescript cap.
"Back when you were – back when I was working for the Military, there was this nutjob who created this thing called an atomic bomb. Worst dumbass invention ever. Wanted to present it to the military-"
Then Edward finally looked at him, and saw him. He was shorter by a mere few inches, drowning in their father's coat. He had their mother's eyes.
A smile that was only skin, muscle, lip deep half-quirked Edward's lips. Both knew skin and muscle didn't really go that deep at all. "Yeah. You do."
Then he reached over and dug his hand into Al's hair, jostling his head uncomfortably as he ruined the already messy cut. He snickered, low and soft. Edward's hands were bigger, calloused, gentle, and his voice was deeper in comparison to Al's.
Edward pulled away, and regarded the warmth lingering on his palm, the feel of hair between his fingers with a deep-settled surprise. Like a surprise from a friend one knew to be spontaneous, or the bite of a snake one knew was already hidden in the grass. He recovered, his hand shaking, and replaced the texture of his baby brother's hair with his own bed-mussed hair, raking it back into something decent.
"So what about the atomic bomb?" For a moment, Al was terrified it was all lost. His question would bounce off of his brother's stoic silence, where there were no more half-smiles or brotherly hair tussles to be found.
"It came from our world." Edward replied with a stuff shrug. His automail must really have been ornery that night. The ease of the Fullmetal Alchemist really must have been gone, nights ago. "Anyway, did you find anything?"
"Um. Yes." Al held up the journals. They were identical, the two of them, with simple leather covers polished in black and worn with use. They were small, and, it seemed, precious only to him.
"You're going to read them." As if Edward knew him so well. He did, beneath the doubt. Al clung to that belief with starving tenacity.
"I don't know." I don't know if I can.
"I don't know if it'll help. Dunno what's in them."
"Never expected you to snoop into Dad's stuff."
"That…yes. That would have been weird." Edward shied away from Al's little wane smile, with a casual hop off the bench and a hand in his pocket and his eyes to the apartment. "We've got an early day tomorrow. I'm pretty damn sure we can rule out the Thule Society for any leads whatso-fucking-ever, and god-damn if I know where Mabuze ended up. Between him and Alfo…our old sponsors, I think we can dig up a starting point somewhere." Edward stretched, yawned, and Al became bold because his fear and unsettlement were just too tired to argue.
"I have…I think I'll read Dad's journals. Do you think he'll mind?"
Ed shrugged. Shook his head. Rubbed his automail port. Anything to shut Al up and keep from looking at him.
"And after…" His hands tightened on the small stack of journals. There was a stone in his gut that may have once been his courage. The paper between leather covers crinkled from the pressure. "I have a lot of questions, and I know it hasn't been…it hasn't been easy. But…if we could talk?"
Another one of those muscle-deep-lip-deep-skin-deep half-smiles, more city lights went out as people gave way to the sleep they fled from. Ed didn't say anything, just patted his shoulder and headed back into the apartment.
Al was happy with that. It was enough. He wanted more. He still couldn't fathom sleep.
"I would like to say goodbye before we leave."
They were no good with those, Edward and Al. When Noa asked, all Edward could do was nod. Even he must have known it would be terribly cruel to deny her that. With newfound courage, she led the way. Through the back alleys and main streets, through the throngs of the bleary-eyed with another day of work ahead of them and not much else.
Al hadn't slept. He thought on things, yes, but his thoughts went 'round and 'round in circles, chasing memories and fragments of pieces to put together. His quarry was wily as his own sharp mind. He sat on that sidewalk bench just long enough for the sun to rise and provide enough light to read the journals.
The journals remained in his knapsack, orderly and unopened. Carrying it was heavier with little sleep, and he clung doggedly between Noa and Edward. He didn't see the old, worn fruit stands being set up, or the drunks in the gutters, or the married men leaving the conspicuous hotel rooms a few hundred marks lighter in their wallets.
But he knew the smells, the few that wafted through the cloying sweet-decay, rotting fruit on rotting fruit, sweet from a bottle and sweet from the sun.
They were going back, Al realized in an unbearably heavy sense of misery. They were going back, to the dead boy's apartment. He was tired of dead people's apartments. He voiced no complaint.
Still, Noa marched on, her shoulders square, her shield the bland expression of her face. She wanted her goodbye.
Winry had learned to not expect goodbyes.
"Just because they look like them doesn't mean they are them." Edward told him in a hushed whisper, the language of brilliant lunatics.
"Alfo…He looked like you, but he wasn't you." Edward spoke factually, his eyes saw only the path ahead, but the clench of his jaw and the hitch of his voice betrayed him.
He wasn't you.
His bones, the knapsack, they suddenly felt lighter. When they arrived at the semi-familiar building, it wasn't nearly as intimidating or heartbreaking as he had set himself up for it to be. The flower shop was opened, all sun-catching glass and living, vibrant silk. It smelled of fresh-cut grass and water and the way their mother's garden used to.
It wasn't nearly as heartbreaking, until he saw Gracia who wasn't Gracia. Edward greeted her like an old acquaintance instead of the boy who had helped birth her child, but here, Gracia didn't have a child. They were 'big brothers' to no one. Edward said 'Ignore my little brother. He's kinda shy' with an awkward laugh and an overacted nudge of his elbow. Gracia stared at him, because she recognized him after the name 'Alfons Heiderich' and not Alphonse Elric.
Noa was sorry they had to leave, and thankful for Gracia's kindness. Gracia was sorry they missed Maes, said they would miss them, with a dry eye and a polite smile.
Gracia lived alone with her flowers.
It was strange to see Scar without his…well, scar. Strange to see Lust without a deathly pallor, with brown, soft eyes instead of cat irises and violet, violent glint. He knew their names, but they didn't fit because dark skin and intense eyes and a strong, stocky jaw would always equate to 'Scar' in his mind, and such cold beauty would always be 'Lust' in his mind.
He shared a grin with Edward upon seeing them, Scar and Lust, still flint and bitterness and some strange spark that he'd only seen in Ishbalans, in the Roma. Noa chatted quietly amongst the others in her own tongue, talking of mundane things, or perhaps not. Alphonse and Edward seemed to fade into the cargo. For Al, the accepted silence on his part was a respite.
The sun shone, and the buildings of Munich slowly surrendered to overgrown weeds and overgrown grass, to dirt roads lined with half-manicured trees.
Years ago, Al was eleven, he was helping Master Izumi and Sieg clean steaks for the evening's customers.
Al was eleven, and he was watching, pathetic, as Scar's hand shadowed then obscured his brother's eyes, and Edward was not moving. Edward's arm was shredded, metal bits that had sung and skipped over the cobblestone alley like the tableware Noa had destroyed in Alfons Heiderich's apartment. Edward's leg was fine. Edward still wasn't moving. In a minute, Edward would have been like all those other sorry alchemists, like Nina, like Alex, his face left unrecognizable.
Mason had slit a pig open in the back and Al distinctly remembered the smell, the sound, of blood and tissue splattering onto the floor.
He clutched his head and rested his cheek onto his knees and groaned. His mind whirled. He felt ill. The car hit an unsteady patch and the sun, suddenly too bright, bobbed and weaved in the sky.
"Motion sick?" Edward asked, and the smug little bastard bit into an apple.
"Don't be a jerk."
Carnivals were a contradiction set up on tent pegs. There were signs made of wood, painted all manner of color. The signs might have been grand, if not for the chips, the peeling, the dust settled on old paint. There was food, and plenty of it, a lure that Edward followed in an almost zombie-like trance. There was the scent of filthy animal cages mixed with the scent of pastries and cheap food. Al still hadn't quite gotten used to the scent of automobile fuel.
"Why are we here, brother?" To Al, the carnival reminded him of the Armstrong flood into Lior. There really was no other way to call it when the ridiculously upbeat music blared from speakers and the Strong-Arm alchemist addressed the people with his arms spread open as if to embrace each and every single one of them. Behind Alex Louis Armstrong, new buildings and bright colors would rise, strong and proud and terribly bright in the unforgiving sun.
It was a spectacle. It was a movement. It was downright horrifying.
"Some of the people we worked with are doing a demonstration. I'll talk to them after, see if they've heard anything about -" Ed seemed to think better of it, and leaned close to whisper. " -the bomb, or if they've seen anything we might've missed."
Ed found himself on the sharp end of an appraising look. It was something unfamiliar to him, to see the gentle olive color of his baby brother's eyes express.
"Nothing's going to explode, is it? We won't have to make some harebrained escape last minute, right? I mean, we could do it, but…anyway. You're not going to burn bridges either, right, brother?"
Back then, the words would ring and echo in steel. Now it was just so damn cute he had to resist pinching Al's round, rosy cheeks. It was just so damn familiar it hurt.
Instead, Ed held his hands up and grinned. He looked so much more like Al's big brother that way, and the glint in Al's look softened to something less intimidating.
"Relax. Stick with Noa, enjoy the carnival, I swear I won't be long."
Al huffed. "Brother!"
"The strudel's fucking awesome, get some!" Ed called over his shoulder, before he disappeared in the direction of the wooden tower set on the outskirts of the carnival.
Al hissed something not too kind and raked his hands through his hair. Behind him, he heard a delicate chuckle.
"Has he always been like that?"
"Since I could remember. Always food and projects."
"I recall a distinct fondness for food, but his projects were always his focus. The little time I've known him." She gave Al a rather meaningful look, and it was the first time Al wondered just how much Ed told her.
"Come on, then."
Al carried the luggage, Noa carried the knapsacks. The carnival grounds were quickly becoming crowded, men and women and children in their finery, jittery, flitting here and there like a flock of exotic birds with useless, gleaming feathers.
People looked, of course. Curiously, with a bit of scorn, but no one watched.
"Roma work in carnivals a lot." Noa explained when he asked. "Before I met your brother, I traveled with a group of entertainers. Dancers, singers. Here, we are a spectacle, but we aren't rare."
"What did you do?" Al asked, chasing her steps and dodging the crowd. He reminded Noa of a rambunctious puppy. She couldn't deny that the atmosphere of a carnival lent itself to a carefree demeanor. Carnivals were absurd.
"I told fortunes."
Al's eyes went wide, and for a moment, they were so terribly, clearly sky-blue.
"Your brother says it's unscientific." She said with gentle, forced humor.
"He did? How rude! It doesn't surprise me, though." Al cast an immature face over his shoulder in his brother's general direction. "There was a lady in Xing who used sticks, and one in Dublith who used cards. That's all I've seen. What do you use?"
"They think I read palms." Noa's smile was wry with mischief. It was a good look for her. "But really, I don't need anything."
"How?" Al asked, and he was so close to her, as if to find whatever it was that made her tick. So curious with his wide eyes and bright voice, so innocently admiring.
So quick, behind his thoughts. Al, little Al, was still a scientist. Noa wasn't, but she knew enough to know some things just couldn't be explained.
"I'm not sure. It just is. Perhaps a gift from God? Or perhaps…we call it 'bibaxt'. I believe your term is 'bad luck'?"
"Why would it be bad luck? Do you see horrible things?" Now Al was all sympathy, tamping down firmly on his curiosity.
Noa stopped. The crowds parted around them, faceless. "Not more than normal eyes would, I guess."
They began to walk again, lost in thought.
"But it can be bought, sold, used for bad things. Bad luck."
"So can anything. Cars can be used to transport supplies to people who need them, or soldiers to kill those people. It happened in my world before. And –" Al faltered, flustered, unsure. Just how much had Edward told her?
Al turned to her, full of hope. She saw him savor the word.
"I read your brother's fortune."
Behind the grandiose tents and arches of banners and flags, it was a different world. Horses stood, restless, tethered to the bumpers of open cars. Dishes were dried and stacked on crates that held fireworks. Work clothes and costumes were meticulously separated. The pale acrobats and horse tamers lived in plain, canvas tents. The fortune tellers, singers, dancers and men with brown hands who knew a horse's reigns just as well as any other camped alongside the horses.
The man with Scar's face was trying to light a bonfire. The wind kept blowing out the spark between flints. Al lingered, wary, at Noa's side as she exchanged greetings with those they arrived with. The women were beautiful, the men were strong, and the old women were unpretentious in their brightly-colored skirts and dark hair shot through with gray.
Al honestly did not belong there. He looked young, he was young, and was regarded with very little suspicion. He was welcomed by some, and squeaked openly when Lust-who-wasn't-Lust pinched his cheek and rattled off a stream of something that made Noa giggle.
"She thinks you're adorable." Noa translated, and Al blushed at the playfully coy grins cast his way. The old women with gray and black hair didn't look too pleased.
"Um…thank you?" He was favored with a sultry smile and a wink, all in jest. Why didn't she just speak German to him? He was confused, but he saw they were comfortable the way they were. He couldn't fault them for it.
His blush had yet to die down. Winry often told him he was 'adorable'. In Dublith, he'd sit out on the front porch of the butcher shop, scraped and bruised from sparring with Master Izumi, clothed only in work shorts and sweating from the heat. Girls would pass by, blush and giggle.
When he worked at the front counter, girls would say 'Hi' to him, either too friendly or too shy, but they all became shy when he returned their smiles.
'It's because they think you're cute, dumbass.' Master Izumi told him over strew and coffee one night at dinner when he expressed his confusion. After, he had to endure endless teasing on Mason's and sometimes Sieg's part about it.
He still didn't belong there, and found himself surrounded by a language he didn't know. He pet the soft muzzles of the horses, and was given carrots by a boy his age. The boy spoke broken German, but they got along well enough and let the horses lip up the carrots from their open palms. He remembered being seven years old and fighting with his brother over who would feed the old farm nag the last carrot from the market.
He and the boy parted with awkward goodbyes. The boy had to see to the horses, to make them ready for the show, and Al had nothing to do, and knew very little about caring for horses. He watched for a bit as soft brushes and cloths were used to burnish the tawny horse coats to a brilliant shine, and vicious-looking picks were used to pry tiny pebbles and clods of dirt from beneath hooves and steel shoes, and polish was applied to give the flashing hooves a-trotting an extra gleam.
There were many horses, so the boy was soon lost in his work, and Alphonse soon lost interest.
Amidst all the crates and grand costumes and grand props, clowns, jesters half made-up wandering to and fro, between German and Romani words thrown about and gales of laughter that matched no matter what words came before or after, something stole his breath away.
Between iron bars, bejeweled eyes flashed and muscle rippled under the patterns of black and orange. It was gigantic, majestic. With its pink triangle nose and long, white whiskers, its huge paws and lashing tail, it was quite easily the most magnificent thing Al had ever laid eyes on.
He'd seen pictures. Grotesque chimera. 'Tiger - Panthera tigris tigris', one of Shou Tucker's logs had said. The poor beast then looked nothing like the creature before him, though. Al was glad for it.
"Thought I'd find you here."
Al jumped, torn suddenly from his moony-eyed adoration of the big cat.
Ed smirked, looking tired, just a bit frazzled. Al knew that look, it was a look he'd seen Edward wear countless times. A look he himself had worn, alone, staring into a hotel mirror, in a one-bed room.
"Just asked where they kept the tigers. Geeze, Al, you're so predictable."
Al pouted and turned back to the cat. It was curled up; exactly like all the strays he used to keep inside. Little bundles of warmth he absolutely adored. The tiger's tail, with its little tip of white, curled over the tiger's haunches. That broad snout was tucked beneath a huge, flat paw.
He clutched his hands together. He wouldn't do anything girly. He wouldn't.
"I wanna pet him." He blurted out before he could stop himself.
Ed snickered. "I wanna eat. Which one's more practical?"
"Do you think…"
"I think you're crazy. That thing could tear your arm off, and believe me, the prosthetics of this world suck. Let's go find Noa, then go eat something. I'm starved."
"You wouldn't be if you didn't finish all the food on the way here." Al waved a forlorn goodbye to the tiger. The tiger flicked a fly off its ear in response, and perhaps snored a bit.
It could have been romantic. Tents half-opened to the stars, a bonfire, people laughing, music. A lamplight that flickered, seemingly, to the nine-step beat.
Noa worked during the day at a little booth in the carnival's main grounds, with a scarf over her hair, her eyes, dressed like a Roma woman. Like an Ishbalan. The Gypsy Fortune Teller. She worked in a dark tent, where men and women went in, grinning, laughing, perhaps mocking. They expected to meet a hag; they expected old fingernails and a scratchy, reedy voice. They always came out mystified.
Al wasn't allowed to see her work, though. He understood – a kid amidst mystique, a boy who looked German, spoke German, would have killed the ambiance. Still, she made enough to buy all three of them a proper, warm dinner. He was grateful for it, had grown used to the Romani language. A woman's voice trilled a long, high note. The guitar sang, the drums sang, zils and tambourines and the whole encampment alive behind the grandiose circus tents, they all sang.
Inside the big top, the fair-skinned audience cheered. An elephant trumpeted. It all sounded far away. Around the bonfire, the women danced. The men danced, the children, the old women with their grey-streaked hair patiently teaching the steps to the youngest even if their bones and joints protested.
Where were Al's family gatherings? He had none. Where were the dances and songs from Rizenbool, from Amestris? He could remember none. He could rattle off a list of elements, sigils, molecular structures, processes within a circle – the perfect formula to bring a human to life. It never worked.
Al was fair-skinned and far from home. He was rooted and grown in science. It was in his lineage, his blood, his childhood, every single cell in his body. He had many stories to tell, and adventures to speak of. He could probably find within himself that shrill desperation of vagabonds, of outcasts, that painted the music fire. But he had no songs.
So he was, in a way, content to sit on the cot. His legs curled under him and his father's coat tossed around his shoulders. The Roma showed him kindness - smiled and laughed and the women spoke over his head, laughed when Noa translated and he blushed, thanked him in easy German when he helped with unpacking and setting up the tents. But, to them, he was still German, an outsider, and they were content to leave him outside their circle of music and dance as much as he was content to watch from afar. His father's journals remained unopened in his lap.
Edward sat at the table half-in-half-out of the open tent. The stools were old, wooden and multi-purpose. They were sat upon for car repairs, laundry, re-shoeing the horses. They were streaked with motor oil and horse manure clotted the ends of the legs. There were three stools. There were three blond, fair men at the table. If not for Noa's vote of confidence, if not for Al's childlikeness, they would have been denied the valuable secrecy in the Roma camp. The circus' ghetto. Few, if any, Germans cared to visit. That conversation would be safe from prying eyes, from eavesdroppers
One of them looked like Dorchett. Another looked like Loa. Al almost told them what happened to Martel, and how she lived on and her voice became a bitter hiss, revenge, revenge, always revenge. Eventually, Martel got her revenge. Through him. Through Colonel Mustang. They were avenged.
"Elric, you insane little bastard." 'Dorchette' said with no small amount of amusement. "You're right out of fuckin' Journey to the Centre of the Earth' with the stunts you pull."
Edward only managed a halfhearted scowl at the word 'little'.
'Loa' shuddered, produced a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. Al knew he shouldn't have been staring, but he couldn't help it. He'd seen them at the funeral, but he was too busy staring at the memorial pictures of himself but not himself to remember much of anything.
"Freaky how your brother looks just like Heiderich." He mumbled around the filter. Unsmoked tobacco smelled sickly-sweet to Al. Dad's coat.
Edward shrugged the comment off. Silence settled. A moment of silence. Reverence for the dead. Al listened intently to the Roma music, and let it chase away the god-damned silence in his head.
"So why the secret meeting?" The words were spoken lowly. Smoke rose with them.
"You saw what happened." Edward's voice was even, without infliction. Al knew it was best to be wary of that particular tone.
More silence. 'Dorchett' studied the smoldering end of his cigarette. It was bright, bright red against the shadows of the tent. Law nodded.
"A man with your fucking sponsors killed him." Edward practically ripped a cigarette from the offered pack. He was vicious with the lighter. It was a plain, gunmetal lighter. It reminded Al of Lieutenant Havoc, of Colonel Mustang, of soldiers who had the exact same lighter and smoked their cares away, guns propped against their knees.
"Bullet right in the back." 'Dorchette' leaned on the back leg of his stool and hissed viciously. "We didn't sign up for any of that." A beat. Rockets –blood, sweat, tears- through the gate. "None of it."
They were blond, with blue eyes, and lacked the grace and pain of chimera. His last memory of Dorchett was a man with his sword drawn and grinning in the face of death. Dorchett wasn't a coward. But he was loyal to his comrades. Al relaxed, just a little.
"They never told us we were soldiers. Lost a lot of good men that night." Loa ashed on the swept ground. A breeze blew it away, grey and white scattering over well-trodden ground. Lost faith in science. "What makes you think you could trust us?"
"Let's see how proud you are next time you visit him." Edward snapped. Smoke curled his words. Dorchett unstacked the nicked scotch glasses. Amber liquid smelled sour, and shimmered in the lamplight.
"Fucking French." Dorchett snarled. Loa shrugged. Al saw Edward try desperately not to roll his eyes.
Edward took a drag of his cigarette. Ed smoked. Ed drank. Ed was eighteen, and Al was unsettled by it. He wanted to smoke, too. He wanted to taste the scotch. He wanted to put the cigarette out in the scotch, and then realized it wouldn't have been the best idea in the world.
Noa looked tired as she approached, but she was positively glowing. It was like the firelight was trapped in the sweat of her brow. But the men hadn't left yet, and Lust-who-was-not-Lust took her by the elbow and ushered her to another tent. Even though Al knew 'Lust' held no ill will towards him, his heart sank at the coldness in her eyes. She was, after all, Lust.
"Eckhart's gypsy, Elric?" Dorchett seemed disgusted, and full of pity. Ed just dragged on the cigarette. "She'll take your wallet, your heart, and your little brother's virginity too." He waved the glowing red end of the cigarette in Edward's face. "Just you watch."
Al was flabbergasted. He was blushing, but from embarrassment or outright indignant rage on his part and Noa's, he wasn't sure.
Ed smacked Dorchett's hand away from his face. "Jackass, it's not like that."
"For now, anyway." Loa muttered. Ashed on the dirt floor again. "What do you want, you fucking eccentric?"
Edward grinned, self-assured, a tom-cat with sharp teeth and sharper claws and the wit to match. He sipped his scotch. "You lot familiar with new military weaponry?"
He was Al's big brother. He was heartbreakingly handsome.
The lamp oil was almost gone, yet Al couldn't be bothered to feel sheepish about it. Edward slept through anything. Noa slept in another tent. Al's eyes were red and puffy, his mouth slick and tasting of bitter salt. He ran out of tears sometime when the carnival had closed for the night. He was careful to keep them off his father's journals, although the crinkled spots of the pages, the gentle blur of ink told him the journals were no stranger to tears.
The strange thing was, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the first half of the journal. There were arrays, though. Al touched them, lovingly. They were old, fading, scratched in pencil. Hasty, as if his father was so desperate to just not forget.
They didn't glow. He waited, but they remained dull lead and nothing more, and his heart sank.
His father was not someone who put down his feelings on paper. He was a factual man, despite the oddness about him.
It's strange how similar Europe is to Amestris. His father wrote in his tilted-cursive-print penmanship. Sometimes, it's easy to forget the difference between the two. They use technology in this world. It takes ten men a month to build what a single alchemist could do in a day. My coworkers are proud of their accomplishments, but I have yet to see a car that doesn't give off that disgusting exhaust. I have yet to find a decent pub here, in London. Mostly for the sake of being...how was it put? Navigationally handicapped. Beer over work in the cafeteria with co-workers is starting to get very old.
Beer, cars, locations, interrupted by a frantic scribble of what Al easily identified as an equation. To what, he didn't know. Like everyone else, his father talked in circles.
They had to share a cot, but Al was awake all night again and Edward slept like the dead. Edward didn't move. He didn't make a sound aside the gentle wheeze of his nose as he breathed. Edward slept in his brown and white and plain clothes, an old habit.
In Al's memories, Ed was small when he slept, standing out amidst the sheets in his red coat. In his ridiculous, black leather pants. Al towered over him, watched him breathe, watched him dream. For hours, and did not tire. The coat would twist around Ed's shoulders, tangle in his legs. Ed was never loud when he slept, but he said things Al would rather forget. Of course, how could Al forget when his brother begged him in a sleep-slurred voice – 'Give him back. He's my only brother – my arm, my leg, my heart, take whatever you want. Just give him back, he's my brother!'
Something in him never quite forgot it. The journals had lost their magic sometime in the night, and Al thought of arrays, of white arrays in their basement, of arrays etched to the palms of his gloves, of the array he could and could not see drawn in blood.
Something in him never quite forgot it, and he clamped a hand to the back of his neck beneath his shirt. Something in him never quite forgot it, but Edward, so still and quiet seemed to not remember.
Fingernails left vicious, red welts in their wake. Al didn't mind, Al was afraid of that dark part of his mind that cooed its adoration of the sting, the tender skin. Fingernails dug deeper, he wished Edward would wake up – speak, dream. He wished he wasn't so selfish. He wished it wasn't so quiet. He wished there was more light; he wished the early-morning sun wasn't so bright. He had wished for nightmare memories. He told himself he wished for that dead-still peace for his brother. He wished his dad's coat didn't smell like a rotting corpse. He wished his dad mentioned him or Edward or their mother in his journals. At least his journals. He wished he threw away the old, red coat. He wished he could wear it wherever the hell he wanted. He wished he hadn't cut his hair.
His fingers shook against the tender skin of the back of his neck. There was no array there. There was no real array anywhere. He wanted, desperately.
He was uncomfortable between his legs. He was hard. Needy. Wanting. For nothing he could identify. The thought of masturbating in the hole-in-the-ground bathrooms disgusted him, but did not quell the wanting. He refused to be aroused by simple, non-biological wanting.
He was too tired to bother with a half-hard stir anyway. It was cold inside the tent. It was cold outside the tent. His brother's first circle-less transmutation had been to heat water.
Edward stirred. Al quickly slouched over, his sweater folding over the somewhat noticeable bulge in his pants. Edward rubbed sleep from his eyes, yawned, and stretched – strong arms, strong neck, tense jaw, strong shoulders, the cat-like arch of his back. All in marionette-like order.
"Didjeslee?" Edward stared at him through sleep-hazed eyes that actually saw very little. Al hadn't felt more self-conscious in his life.
He cleared his throat, a gentle, rasping sound. Edward's adam's apple bobbed, almost comically. Al remembered, again, that his brother was eighteen. He wondered if he'd ever be quite as handsome when he turned eighteen, because he'd regained five years but still felt like a child.
"Did you sleep?"
"No." Al hunched his shoulders. The half-stir had turned into a full erection. Why wouldn't it just go away? It felt inappropriate, he felt too young – the hair between his legs was still very soft. He was too young.
"That's two nights in a row now, Al."
"Yeah, you will be when we hit the road and you're half-asleep." Edward rolled over. His ponytail had come undone sometime during the night. Ed was fucking gorgeous, and Al was too young. "Find anything?"
"Dad never wrote about us." Al blurted before he could stop himself. He was hard, in a cot with his brother, and talking about their father. He was too young. He needed sleep.
"I meant, did you find anything about The Thule Society? Uranium Bomb? Remember?"
"Oh." I spent the night trying to activate the stupid circles and crying over it. "No. I don't remember."
"You don't remember. Huh." Edward's shirt was rumpled. His vest was rumpled. His hair. He lay on his stomach with his chin propped into the palm of his hand, his eyes closed as he talked. Trying to cling to his last few moments of sleep. "You used to be really good at research."
"I still am! I just didn't know I would be researching something."
"Why bring the damn things anyway, then?"
"Because they're Dad's. Don't you remember?"
Edward had nothing to say to that. He just closed his eyes, his lips returned to that tense line that wasn't a pout, wasn't a frown, miles away from grins and shouting.
Edward hadn't shouted or screamed once since Al came back. Reunited, at least. Peace, at last.
Goddamn, he was still hard, and it hurt.
The horses outside whinnied their demands for food. Elephants shifted uneasily on their toothpick stakes and worn tethers. Men woke with hangovers. Gypsies woke with aching feet. Al had watched the bonfire's glow fade through the tent flap sometime during the night. There were cigarette butts on the floor of their tent.
"Might as well get up, then." Ed grumbled.
"Where are we going?"
"Find Noa. Breakfast." Ed hopped off the cot. Al remained stooped over, humiliated. "Then, France."
Noa noticed his state the second she laid eyes on him.
"Al, what happened!?" She was upset. Genuinely upset. Winry was used to him coming by with lingering bruises and welts and scrapes half-healed. He hadn't seen anyone turn so much as a sad face to him; always bottling the pity behind heavy faith (that Ed would restore him. That he would find Ed.)
Al pressed the cool mug of water to one eye, than another. It wasn't cold enough to ease the redness, but it was a comfort. "Nothing."
"'Nothing' doesn't make you look like the living dead." Lust-who-wasn't-Lust spoke wryly, in perfect German. She had seen their packed luggage. She knew they were leaving.
Al felt the back of his collar pulled away. He really wished he hadn't cut his hair. "Did someone hurt you?" Noa was scared.
Ed snorted into his porridge. "Not likely."
'Lust' was not impressed. "If I showed up with scratches all along my back, my brothers and Father would begin a manhunt."
"I-it's just my neck…" Al shivered. Noa was dabbing at the welts with a dingy, but clean, cloth. The water was cold; the early-morning air was cold. Droplets trickled down his back.
No one seemed to hear him. "Al trained with the best. Believe me, nothing can touch him." Edward said it with such conviction it scared those seated at the table, friend and stranger alike. "Either way, he was with me the entire night."
"Al, where did you get these?" Noa asked, gently. 'Lust' tried to look sympathetic as both women waited for an answer, but Al couldn't comprehend the sympathy. 'Lust' was cold and calculating and tragic. Lust wasn't human. Lust had no family.
"It's nothing, really." Al whispered as he stirred the clotted porridge. "I read my father's journals last night. I suppose I was just being silly."
Edward was listening. He seemed bigger, somehow. His legs spread over the bench, his shoulders squared, his hand a fist, his automail hand a fist. He seemed to overwhelm Al, in his own strange way of bristling like a wolf or a cat. Maybe it was supposed to be comforting. Al was just intimidated. He stared at his breakfast and let his voice die down.
"You did this to yourself?"
Al finally found it within himself to shy away from Noa's care. "It's not really that bad –"
"Al, they're bleeding." She held the grey rag out to him. The water made the blood pink. "Not a lot, thankfully."
"Some people from the war used to do that." 'Lust' nodded to the pink rag. "Caught up in their own memories, they were. Never noticed a damn thing until it started to hurt. Us Roma, we sing, we dance. Gaje cut themselves all up. I don't pretend to understand it."
Noa frowned at her.
Al frowned at Noa. "What does 'gaje' mean?"
"It means…" Noa struggled. All the words that came forth were vulgar to her. Roma could be cruel too, selling each other for money that was both gold and shit in a place where apples cost twelve marks a piece. She was a Roma girl who wore German clothes, unclean clothes, and knew Edward, Alfons Heiderich, Gracia, Alphonse Elric.
"Germans and white-skinned like you." 'Lust' grinned as she said the words that made Edward bristle and tower even more over his scratched, little brother.
"It's a word for 'a foreigner who is unclean'. Superstitions, Al, pay them no mind." Said the fortune-teller who broke a dead boy's coffee mug in an attempt to stop bad luck.
"Oh." Al fiddled with the spoon in his bowl. He wasn't hungry. He didn't belong there. "What does 'gypsy' mean?"
Al cowered at the various glares cast their way. Ed groaned and slapped a hand over his face. 'Scar' glowered at him, his big arms unmarked and crossed over his chest. Beside him, 'Lust' laughed. It was an incredulous laugh, bordering on cruel.
"What does 'Gypsy' mean? Was that a joke?" She cried.
"I -…I'm sorry! I didn't mean to offend…brother's friends said it last night and I just…" He let his spoon drop into his porridge. "I didn't mean to be rude."
"Our father was German, but we were raised in America. He wouldn't know what it means." Edward lied smoothly. Al recalled America, as a patch of land labeled on a cheap map. On the worn globe in his father's study.
The lie appeased most. Noa looked uncomfortable about it, but it worked, and she said nothing.
"That explains the strangeness of your accents, I suppose." 'Lust' said, amused at their American ignorance. "The Germans and white people call us 'Gypsies' because they think we are all thieves and vagabonds."
Someone they didn't know who sat at their table spat his disgust.
"The Ishbalans never had a word like that." Al whispered up to his brother, his voice low and sad. Edward shook his head and said nothing of it. To 'Lust', Al said – "I used to steal stuff too, and I'm German. I think it's silly."
Al seemed so innocent and prim when he said it. Lust reached over the table and pinched his cheek again, and Al had grown comfortable enough to playfully shy away.
It took Edward a few seconds to register the words spoken.
"When did you steal anything!?" He hissed.
Al shied away from him and into Noa's side. "When I was looking for you! Roze and Armstrong tried to send money but they weren't letting any packages from Amestris across the border into Drachma!" Al's fear died into sheepishness. He fussed with the collar of his father's coat. "There's nothing but snow and ice in Drachma. I was hungry."
That took the wind out of Ed's sails. The glare turned to Al softened and Al recognized that haunted look. Or imagined it. It was just a flicker, and Ed turned back to his breakfast, mumbling – "What the hell were you doing looking for me in Drachma?"
"Alaska?" An eavesdropper, a curious bystander, asked.
"Yeah. That." Ed grumped into his food.
Al remembered being alone and cold and hungry in Drachma, where no one would give a fair-skinned alchemist from Amestris any work for something as simple as a couple apples or a loaf of bread. He remembered the small loaf of bread he pocketed tasting bitter and salty as he tried not to cry while he ate it in a back alley amongst frozen trash and snow. He was too ashamed of himself to be brazen about his theft.
He turned to his breakfast with resolution, and forced himself to finish the food he hadn't touched.
When I left Amestris, the newspapers always had news about Ishbal. It really wasn't news, just rumors and very few facts. I don't know how many times someone can rewrite the same things into different stories, but the reporters managed. Somehow.
Al could hear the dry, low purr of his father's cynicism. It scared him, how his father's cold, factual tone began to morph into opinions and wistfulness. He read on.
I'm not too worried. We have a dependable military.
Amestris has a dependable military. Rizenbool is far away from Ishbal, and Ishbalans refuse to use Alchemy. I suppose it's not my place to judge –
Al knew, very well, the sound of a train approaching. It set a nostalgic bend in his heart, as he tucked a piece of scrap paper between the pages of his Father's journals and set the volume back into his knapsack. He remembered waiting for hours, unable to feel weariness, the heat, the cold, unable to feel Ed resting against him as his brother napped. He provided shade from the sun. He provided shelter from the gusty winds.
Some of the more dilapidated train platforms across Amestris hadn't changed, now that he could compare memories that lived side-by-side at ages eleven, twelve, and thirteen. That time around, he sought comfort on uncomfortable, wooden benches and tucked every inch of himself that he could under the red coat. Usually he hummed to himself while he reviewed maps, books and notes. Sometimes he closed his eyes and pretended it was Ed he was snuggled up to, just to keep warm.
Munich was cold. Not as cold as Drachma, but the ill-fitting coat did nothing to keep much of his body heat in. Noa was skittish and couldn't sit out the half-hour wait for the train. Ed decided to spend his wait looking over their father's notes, on the opposite end of the bench. A tired-looking man with a heavy mustache and a briefcase sat between them. It didn't matter one way or another, they were engrossed in their own studies, and didn't talk.
The conductor put a hand on Al's shoulder as he boarded the train, and Edward's, as he did with every passenger. But not Noa. It really didn't bother any of them, as they sat and all breathed heavy sighs of relief. The brothers shared a grin, and Noa smiled at that. They were going to Paris. Noa was coming with them. For a moment, everything seemed to be smooth as silk. The snags of dirty looks could be ignored. Ed was just a little smug, Noa praised God's blessings under her breath, and Al took advantage of his brother's good humor.
"Tell me about this world, brother." He said. His smile felt awkward, but it was genuine.
The train whistled. Lurched. Ed smiled. It was timid, and it never quite reached his eyes, but Edward was in his element. Al could see him cataloguing all the little details – As if the truth had been implanted into my brain.
"Well. What do you want to know?" The narrow train booth forced them to sit close together. Edward's right leg against his warm, and his smile was real. Edward smelled like machine oil. Al refused to let the nostalgia break his heart.
Instead, he waved a hand vaguely to the window. The train was picking up speed, Munich would be left behind.
"Anything. Like…how is it our language and German are almost exactly the same?" Al often wondered about it. It seemed like a good starting point.
Ed stared out the window, watched as the tucked-away neighborhoods and alleys and backs of buildings parted for the narrow train tracks. "We're going to France." He said. "Specifically, Paris. It won't be long before you'll have to let me do all the talking, and my French is shoddy."
It was hardly an answer. Al was overwhelmed.
"So is…it…in France?"
"No, no. We're catching a ship from the western coast of France. Apparently, what we're looking for is in the United States. Or so Law says Biddo says –" They shared a smirk. Absurd, wasn't it? "And Biddo's the most well-traveled of us. His parents have contacts all over the world. Or, well, had. Before the war."
Al made a mental note to ask about this war he kept hearing about. He'd seen the signs, the ruined streets, the mismatched plaster on buildings, the crumbling economy. He figured it would be a good starting point to learn from. As good as any offered.
"Anyway, here." Ed reached into the small briefcase with him, right alongside Al's knapsack.
Al was presented with a map criss-crossed with folded lines. It was dull, and numerous paths marked with tiny notes in the margins in handwriting Al couldn't identify. Germany. London. Transylvania. It was still legible, as Edward folded against the grain of the initial fold and made it smaller, omitting the eastern half of Europe, entirely omitting Africa, Australia, Asia and Antarctica.
"See, that's France. There's Paris." Edward had to lean close to point out the tiny print. Edward smelled like machine oil – his right arm was cold, but his right leg was warm. "Around here is Rouen, and that's where we'll cross the Atlantic, and arrive about here. New York."
Noa leaned forward over the table and was studying the map with them. Her eyes lit, her voice carried a waver of thrill. "We're going to Paris? And New York?"
'Rush Valley's on the way there, you two HAVE to take me!'
Edward's mouth worked around an excuse to refuse what he knew was coming, but Al remembered the way Winry cooed and squealed over the automail shops in Rush Valley. The way she stepped off the train, thrilled with the gleaming fake arms and fake legs and cliffs of red.
"Oh, come on, brother. I'm sure we can afford to make a couple minor stops along the way."
"I've heard that the Eiffel Tower is beautiful at night." Noa was timid, but in love with the idea.
"But…" Edward tried again.
"I'm sorry." Noa suddenly said, and the glint in her eye had died to disappointment. "I didn't mean to be an inconvenience –"
"Brother could probably use a break after all that traveling too. I know I would." Al didn't feel comfortable making such calls in a world where he couldn't tell north from south. He hadn't the first clue what the Eiffel Tower was, but the familiarity of a train to somewhere that would eventually come and go was nostalgic. It was something that hadn't changed, even if the outside scenery was far from what he could remember. It made him foolishly confident, and he sincerely believed he was leaving Munich, and the grieving, still apartments and the barrier between brown and white and the familiar faces pasted onto people he didn't know behind.
I suppose it isn't my place to judge, but reason tells me the skirmish will not get out of control. Or perhaps my thinking has become wishful? I have no way to verify it for myself. I have no way to know. Sometimes –
Words were crossed out with furious scribbles. Al couldn't make heads or tails of the next line. Resigned, he continued, the book covers parted just enough that he could see and nothing more, his nose close to the pages. He needed to protect his father's secrets.
Passing through the Gate seems to have weighed heavily on me. The rot is unbearable at times, but I manage. Age is not a pleasant thing. I've taken up using a cane to get around on the worse days, when the cold is horrendous. The cold is brutal with the rot. But I manage.
A war has started. Germany is on everyone's tongues, they are calling it a 'World War'. It looks to be little more than a civil war to me, but either way, I am only grateful that I have lived as long as I have in London. I have a respectable job at the University of London, teaching scientific theory. A terribly vague and structure-less class at times, but much of science in this world isn't so different from alchemy, if one were to think in vague and structure-less ways.
One of my students looks like Edward. He has the same overconfi
His father had stopped writing there. Three blank pages ahead and Hohenheim Elric was outlining another equation. He wasn't drawing parallels between alchemy and technology, and Al was still haunted by the sudden end of it all. He closed the journal and set it on the table in front of him. Noa slept, her cheek pressed against the window. Edward slept, his head titled back, his mouth open, snoring softly.
Al ran nervous fingers over the spine of his father's journals, and watched his brother sleep.
It was night and Al could make out the silhouettes of passing trees and buildings against the star-less sky, but not much else. Dim lights flickered overhead, lending an eerie feel of stagnancy and, again, that damn graveyard stillness to the train. He shivered. The lights cast vicious shadows over the people, all still, all asleep, all barely moving. He hated the way dead bodies looked.
He couldn't take it anymore. He reached for his brother, and Edward's shoulder was unforgiving steel and hardened muscle beneath his clothes and Al's hand. He remembered automail patients coming and going from the Rockbell house, but feeling the shift between metal and flesh, feeling it on his brother, it made his skin crawl and he pushed guilt far, far back into his mind.
"Brother." He shook. Edward snorted. "Brother!"
Another unattractive snort, a gurgle, and Ed cracked an eye open. "Wha?"
"Can we talk?"
Ed just stared at him, half-asleep. Incredulously, he repeated "Can we talk?"
"Uh. Yeah." Al was a little resentful of his self-consciousness.
"What the fuck about?"
"Something I read in Dad's journals."
"Oh, god." Ed groaned and slouched lower in his seat. "What's with you and the damn journals?"
That slipped nice and sharp under Al's skin. "He's my Dad too, and he's about as communicative as you are."
While Edward muttered something peppered with obscenities about not being anything like their father, Al continued. "I have all these questions, and I'm trying not to bother you with them –" Edward flinched. Al tried not to feel guilty. "- but when I try to find things out on my own, I just end up with more questions! I can read about France and Germany and this 'World War' in books, brother, but this…this thing about Dad, and how he had a student that looked like you, and he was sick but I didn't know and no one told me, and Gracia, and Loa, and Dorchett, and-and me-"
"Whoa, Al! Calm down. You're gonna wake the other passengers."
It was only when Al took a deep breath and stopped talking that he realized his voice had taken a slightly hysterical edge to it.
"I guess…" He continued in a small voice, and spoke to his hands nervously fidgeting in his lap. "I guess I hate not understanding where I'm at."
He looked to his brother for some kind of reassurance. Ed had to know what it felt like. Ed had to know. Ed wasn't looking at him, but nodded – yes, he did know what it felt like.
"Dad drew arrays in his journal, and they…they don't activate."
"They tend to not do that, here." Edward was wry in his tone. It bellied his own bitterness.
"I-I know. But the first thing I saw when I came here, it was the Gate, and the array, and all these people who believed in alchemy. Like a religion. But after that-"
"It's probably best you forget about it. It won't work. Period."
"But that doesn't make sense! How-"
"Al, your voice."
Al fell silent, and hated being so confused, confused to the point of desperate, confused to the point of pathetically clingy, like the red coat at the bottom of their shared luggage.
Confused and needy to the point of lust. Ohgod, not now. He tried to be discreet as he scooted his bottom further under the tabletop, and blushed when his knee brushed Noa's. Noa didn't stir. Nothing was moved, except him, in the most inappropriate ways. The train roared down its tracks, ignorant of his plight. Had he left Munich behind yet?
"Okay. Look." Edward scratched his sleep-rumpled hair, and how come Edward always looked absurdly older and more mature when Al was hard over nothing? "I'm sure either you've read this in Dad's journals, or you've figured it out by now, but here, alchemy doesn't work. That's about all there is to it." It was clear that wasn't all there was to it, but Edward was talking and Al was so relieved. His groin throbbed. He slid lower. Ed just quirked an eyebrow down at him and continued. "The equivalent to alchemy is technology. I studied physics, space, time, 'mathematics applied to the universe'. Needed to know it to work with rocketry. We use physics in alchemy all the time, although we don't apply or utilize most of it in the same way-"
"Why did you study rocketry?" Al asked, before Edward could go on a tangent. Ed oversimplified, Ed complicated. Al was usually willing to listen, and give his input, but he knew nothing by which to give his input and he didn't want a physicist, he wanted an alchemist, he wanted his brother, he wanted answers to questions he couldn't quite pinpoint just yet.
"At first, I thought if I could get into the cosmos on a rocket, I could get back h…back to Amestris. That's what we were working on, a rocket that man could fly."
Edward was so bland when he said it, in expression, in tone. He might as well have been asleep, with unforgiving shadows cast on his face by the flickering lights overhead. Like all the other passengers.
"You did, for a while."
Welcome home, brother.
Edward said nothing, just pulled a reference book and a few of their father's notes from his briefcase and set them in front of him with little of the care he used to show books.
"Tell me if you have any questions. I'm gonna catch some more sleep."
He turned his back to Al. He left Al with one of their father's lesson plans, brilliant and clear. Their father was a scientist, a factual writer, to the point when it came to concrete things. Al hid a sad smile behind the ledger. Al thought in vague and structure-less ways. He didn't sleep, and wished he did have some questions. Ones his brother would have been willing to answer, anyway.
"You didn't sleep again?"
"Huh?" Al looked up, a pen tucked behind his ear and one in his hand. His notes were frantic but neat. "Oh, no, I didn't." And it weighed heavily in his bones.
"You and Edward look very similar when you're studying." Noa smiled, tired, and tried to stretch a kink out of her neck.
"We used to study together all the time." Al didn't see how their looks had one thing or another to do with protons. 'Atomic' had caught his eye. The finding was dated 1911. Al's study was patchwork, and it was clear his father was a man with many connections to the scientific intellectual community. He couldn't help but be proud of it.
"You really don't waste time, do you?" Ed practically yawned into his ear, sleepy and too close. The studying had grounded Al, some. As long as he kept reading, and taking notes, that strange lust for nothing wouldn't make itself known.
"I told you I was still good at research." Al replied, somehow still modest about it.
"Apparently so." Ed yawned again. "Need any help? I want a cigarette."
Al frowned, and it was very difficult for him to say nothing about it. He managed. "I think I'm going to take a break."
"Still want a cigarette. Damn long train ride."
Al slammed his pen onto the paper. It garnered a few looks, but Al didn't care. "Why do you smoke? You know what Master Izumi said about that!"
"Master Izumi isn't here to throw me into a wall about it." Ed said impishly, and stuck out his tongue.
Al grit his teeth and went back to his notes. He said he would take a break. He opened his Father's journal instead. He bit his lip, Ed sighed and rolled his eyes. Al bit hard, to quell against the hysterical laughter that threatened to bubble up from the stone in his gut that may have once been his courage. Then, right then, he would've given anything to be 'thrown into a wall'. And it was ridiculous.
Al spent the rest of the journey in a state of self-made seclusion. He built a lie around himself, in that little train booth, seated at the very edge. If he were to be honest with himself, he could still feel Edward's warmth. If he were to be honest with himself, he might very well have fallen apart right there on the train. He built a lie where he was content with reading his father's journals and the notes he took from his brother's suitcase without so much as looking at him, or asking. Where Noa wasn't hurt by his coldness and refusal to talk.
If Edward wanted to keep him in the frustrating dark, that was fine. It wouldn't have been the first time.
He built a lie around himself where he didn't feel remorseful about thinking something so bitter.
There were constellation maps in Edward's notes, and he was feeling particularly moody and masochistic, so he took them to see if even the stars were different in this world. Were the same, if they were reflected backwards from how they appeared in the sky in Rizenbool, reflected backwards like the faces and names he remembered at the eleventh hour, but didn't remember him in return. Like a mirror. A picture propped up against a coffin, surrounded by white flowers where he smiled at himself. He didn't care if Edward might have been right; reason told him the gate between worlds had been destroyed. It had been destroyed, and he wasn't harboring any false hopes. He honestly wasn't, in his little world of lies.
He spent the morning with Hydra, who crawled from somewhere in the cosmos between February and May to scowl and breathe fire from the clouds. Hydra had many scowls on many faces on many heads, and never died by the sword. The hero of the myth had tried, and eventually succeeded, but heads can grow back, he thought wryly. He remembered Greed's shattered skull and the way he fell but stopped and righted himself. Monsters can grow back.
December 1918 - I don't know how I feel about it. His father wrote. His hand had been shaking, the loops and curves of letters completely out of control. I made the foolish mistake of expressing an interest in alchemy with deeper fondness than a novelty. I think I may be getting old.
The war has barely ended, and the old man in me asks 'Can't we all just get along'? I feel foolish for being so complacent, but it wasn't very long ago when I had my sons redundant job at the University. I am foolish for expecting bitterness to die away. Humans cannot take defeat without some form of fury or another. Through all the years, I have seen it.
The Thule Society makes many grandiose claims regarding honor, innovation, pride in German Antiquity. It isn't a far stretch to see how cruel this pride can be. I am not oblivious. They are close to the Party, the Party seeks the perfect Aryan race. The perfect land for the perfect Aryan race. There is no such thing as a perfect race. We still have the Ishbalans, and the Drachmans. There is no such thing as a perfect human.
Five blank pages later, the entry continued with a more coherent scrawl. His father skipped pages at the strangest moments. Obscure and nonsensical. It was all obscure and nonsensical. Al didn't think too closely on Envy's fair hair and strong jaw and sharp eyes.
The Party likes to point fingers. At the Jews, specifically. The Thule Society is an esoteric group, with its fair share of eccentrics. My hair is blond and I believe in alchemy, perhaps above anything else. I suppose it fits in its own disturbing way.
So far, the average German doesn't regard this message too seriously, from my observations at the least. My students continue to love science, and the common man continues to work, and the economy continues to crumble. Who has time to blame the Jews for what the Germans, Austrians, and Italians did? Or the French, Russians, Serbians, and British?
The common German man doesn't seem to find it within himself to hate any other than the later. I am wary with that desperation, though. The Thule Society, despite their fanaticism, is disturbingly concrete with their alchemic knowledge. For this world, at least. I feel as if I am getting closer to something, and for now, wary is all I'll be.
'Wary' wasn't what Alphonse would have called it. 'Wary' was, clearly, not enough. His skin crawled as he read, and his mind reeled in disbelief at the casual way the events that lead to the upending of Central were addressed. His father was only 'wary', how could he have known until he died? People were calling it the 'Beer Hall Putsch', up and down along the benches of the train the events were discussed. No one knew about the Thule Society's sheer insanity, or the Gate opened in the very city they had left, or that the world could have been upended in that single span of time.
Still, monster heads with mouths full of razor teeth and faces with brutal scowls could grow back. Al snuggled back into his father's coat. It smelled more like him and less like a sweet-scented, rotting corpse.
After more journal entries that left him less and less pleased with Germany, after more equations that Al was delighted he could now grasp, if not fully understand, his father had been raging, ridiculously, almost humorously drunk. Al had to do a double-take at the huge, sloppy handwriting. It left him perturbed, because in his young mind, parents don't get drunk. Brothers do, and brothers paved the way for little brothers, and outshone them.
He tucked the well-worn scrap of paper between the drunk-scrawled pages and spent the afternoon with the chart of Taurus. The child in him adored the myths. Unlike Edward, who had sharpened his appetite on science and only science, Al was softer of heart and appreciated a good story. Their mother always used to say that, when they'd fight over if the bedtime reading would be 'The Finer Balance of Equivalent Exchange' (written by their own father, although their mother never let Ed see the author's name), or something with grand prose and adventure. Al was never at a loss for suggestions. Neither was Ed.
Taurus was Jupiter as a lie. A lovely lie, but a lie. Jupiter-as-Taurus swept his love away across a sea. It was romantic. The actual constellation, the side notes of the sparse myths said, did not reflect a placid, love struck bull but rather one about to goad a man to death. Either way, no one could quite pinpoint Taurus, and a lie was an adequate description in Al's eyes.
February 1919 - If I could change everything. His father wrote at a tipsy slant. Al found it amusing, maybe because he needed to find something amusing about the old words filled with regret. I don't know if I could claim the liberties of changing anything. I shouldn't be alive. I've lived my time, four or five times over, and who would I have saved if I didn't relive my time? I wouldn't have met Trisha.
Al gasped and shut his eyes tightly. Trisha. Mom. He didn't realize he was clutching the journal to his chest until he finally mustered the gumption to continue reading. Noa asked if he was okay, but he didn't hear her.
Edward wouldn't exist. Alphonse wouldn't exist. Genetics are a very strange thing. Al's eyes lingered on his own name. So simple, so pivotal.
But I had to leave. The rot…it sounds so superficial now. But they would have watched their father rot away. Trisha would have had to care for me, eventually. I didn't want her to fall out of love with me. I wish I was a stronger soul.
My children are beautiful. Perfect. Al was just a baby.
Incoherence. It all driveled off into incoherence, spattered with '400s' and 'Philosopher's Stone' and the very last words were 'no more.'
Al wasn't sure why he reached over to lay a shaking hand on his brother's. Noa and Edward both stopped discussing whatever it was they were chatting about so amiably, and Edward took the journal silently passed to him with a delicate touch. Wary.
Wary wasn't fucking enough.
Al watched his fidgeting hands, watched his calloused fingers turn the flap of his father's coat back and forth, back and forth. Edward read quickly and finally gave a burdened sigh. He raked his fingers through his hair, and his eyes were bright, but Al didn't see them with his own vision set on his ever-moving hands.
"I know." Was all Edward told him. Al took the journal back carefully, desperately suppressing the urge to yank it out of Edward's hands, and the eggshell world of lies went back up again.
Trisha died. My wife is dead. My house is gone. My sons-
The rest of the pages of that journal were blank. Not a penmark on twenty pages. Al picked up the next, and the last, with trepidation.
October 1921- I'm not sure if I did the right thing, back in London. The closer I work with the Thule Society, the closer alchemy becomes in my day to day life, the more I cannot forget.
Just when I thought I had constructed something of a tolerable life, the Germans bombed London. When the sirens sound, the only option is to run. I would be a fool to say Edward Heiderich-
Heiderich? Well, Al reasoned. It made sense, as much as anything ever made sense in this world.
-wasn't a source of sentimentality. Favoritism isn't a good quality in a teacher. I had many students who lived along the streets we fled from. But I chose him.
I met my son. I thought I'd never meet him again. I'd like to think the short time I spent in Rizenbool was worthy of something. I was a fool to hope my words would reach Dante. It didn't change the fact that Edward, my son Edward, spoke through the mouth of Edward Heiderich.
While we watched London go up in flames, I made a grievous error. I try not to think about what had happened between then and Munich, if only to retain whatever dubious insanity this old man has left.
I told him the truth while we watched people's lives become shrapnel. He couldn't believe it. Neither could I. I ruined his faith in the science, the art he lived for.
No. I am wrong. He lives for Alphonse. Someone had to live for Alphonse, and I couldn't. Five years spent thinking I ruined my son's faith. I am a truly arrogant man.
Still, I thought I ruined his faith. And I walked away. Edward Heiderich died that night, killed by a zeppelin went awry. That was five years ago.
"What is the truth, dad?" Al asked the haphazard words, the haphazard story. Ed didn't look away from the sunset of France's border, and the pockmarked evidence of the war just finished. Noa studied Al, with the dark eyes of a fortune-teller. Al saw none of it.
Five years from that date, this evening, Edward, my son, wound up at my doorstep.
They left the train on cramped legs, right when the sun had set and the street lights flickered on. Paris lived up to every cliché expectation. It was a romantic city. It was a city of lights. At night, beautiful women were on the arms of handsome men and strolled the pavilions and streets in their finery. Quaint restaurants boasted food that was so well-crafted it would have been a shame to eat it. The general attitude to their rag-tag group of Germans and Roma was one of scornful superiority. They had won the war. Edward, Alphonse and Noa were no threat. Or perhaps it was the immediate-past history clogging their perceptions.
And that was just the train station, where Noa and Al stood to the side and pretended not to know Ed. Ed, who was currently butchering the French language with the help of a phrase book and thoroughly annoying the queue behind him and the ticketmaster behind the warmly lit glass booth.
Al noticed none of it. How many days hadn't he slept? How many days had he lusted after answers to only be teased with more questions? 'What's the truth, Dad?' ran jackal circles around his thoughts.
"They don't have a train heading to Rouen until the eighteenth. Two days from now. I bought the tickets, anyway."
Noa worried. "I don't know anyone here, Edward. I can't promise-"
"Relax." Ed grinned, carefree. He left all his cares in the train, back in Munich, with a casual saunter and nary a glance back. Al was convinced of it. "My old man was smart enough to make some money outside of Germany. We've got enough to cover us for a while, if we can find a place with a decent price."
They walked. The women who passed by them were beautiful. The men, handsome. The food too beautiful to eat, the weather cold like Munich but with a less harsh bite. 'What's the truth, Dad?'
The Eiffel Tower glittered, alight with hundreds and hundreds of diamond lights. Paris' crown. Noa cried out and clapped her hands together, enthralled. She looked younger that way, and Ed humored her with a skin-deep half-smile. Al was stunned by the sight. Central never had anything so frivolous. It was magnificent in the clear air where the lights drowned out all the stars. 'What's the truth, dad?'
Promenades and pavilions eventually gave way to the plainer buildings, with the plainer, unique people. The sort who wore wool pant suites and linen dress shirts like any other workday out while they drank moderately-priced beer and smoked cigars and cigarettes out on café porches.
They found a modest hotel. It was plain white with a wooden door and a wooden sign, and flower boxes on the small windows with struggling blooms peeking over the rims. Ed lit a cigarette and they waited for it to burn out before they checked in. The Eiffel Tower still sparkled.
Al woke from a troubled half-sleep where he chased and ran from monsters born inside-out and missing pieces. He fell asleep wondering what the truth in his father's journals was. He woke wondering it. He lay absolutely still.
He had to share a bed with Edward, and all were too tired to argue the two-bed arrangement.
He woke to Ed's flesh arm wrapped around his middle, holding him close. He woke to Ed's breath on the back of his neck, and a well-muscled, firm chest pressed up against his back. Ed smelled of motor oil, and, closer still, musk. Regular human musk. He woke to his brother's hand having crept up beneath his shirt sometime during the night, and was now rubbing lazy circles over his stomach. His brother's fingertips tickled the incredibly sensitive dip of his bellybutton, the slope of his hip. He woke wondering what the fucking truth was, with half a mind to plant his elbow in his brother's face.
The situation had no right to feel so soothingly good. He had become too used to being cold. Always cold. In armor, in Drachma, in his father's coat that never quite managed to keep the heat in. If the truth wasn't still circling his thoughts like a jackal…if it wasn't. Then what? He'd roll over and give his big brother a nice, big, good-morning hug? He wasn't five anymore. Edward wasn't six. Edward rubbed his chin into the crook of Al's neck, and Al felt the slightest hint of morning stubble. Ed was eighteen, and while Al wasn't five, Al didn't quite know what the truth was.
"B'by brothr." Edward slurred into his ear, and it froze his blood. Ed called him 'baby brother' when he was five and Edward was six and the novelty of being a big brother was Eiffel Tower-bright in his mind.
Al was awake. He was pretending to not be awake. He was confused, always confused, Paris provided no answers, and he was lusting after answers again with the completely un-timely hardness between his legs. Ed's hand sliding, dry and just rough enough to feel very, very nice, across his stomach and onto his hip was not helping.
"Fuck." Edward muttered with more coherency than his previous words. He immediately rolled back to his side of the bed, and the touches, the stubble against Al's neck, the gentle pattern of breathing and the smell of oil was gone. These things left Al in peace to chase around the truth and try desperately to ignore the ache between his legs.
Mere minutes later, Noa announced that they were all going to visit the Eiffel Tower. Edward cursed and threw a pillow in her general direction, then stole Al's. Al hunched over himself and rolled the musty-smelling blanket around his body, and insisted on being the very last person to head to the bathroom. He regarded his body with disgusted incredulousness, but he couldn't stop his lust for the not-wholly-tangible.
Breakfast was a simple affair, bought off a woman peddling some 'decent bread-things' from a cart, as Edward put it. Al had forgotten what hunger was when he refused to do anything but read on the train. Noa took pity on him and gave him the last few bites of her breakfast.
"Tallest building in the world." Edward translated.
"Isn't it amazing?" Noa breathed, reverently.
To Al, it was just a huge antenna. It was magnificent at night, when the lights hid the criss-crossing unforgiving steel beams. It was just an antenna, and the tallest building in that world. Al copied Noa, leaning back to try to see the very top. He tried to be amazed, but the tower had no answers for him.
Noa was happy, and his brother was smiling. Al tried again, and again, but he couldn't understand it and with 'What's the truth, Dad?' running circles in his brain, he couldn't channel their smiles to his lips.
In the end, the old man who worked the admission booth carried over a detest of the Roma. Al was beginning to get sick of it, and Edward tried (and failed) to argue with the man using a phrasebook.
"It was prettier lit up anyway, like last night." Al said softly to her. He still spoke German. He couldn't wrap his mind around the pronunciation of French.
Amestrian. He spoke Amestrian.
Noa was good at hiding her disappointment. Edward cursed in fluent German, with the garbled accent and the horrendous words. Noa put her hand to her mouth, torn between horror and amusement. When she and Al shared a glance, though, they both burst out laughing.
Paris was one big gathering of many pieces of art, Noa concluded. Ed scoffed. Al thought it was a very astute observation.
"Fuck the Eiffel Tower, then." Edward said brashly. "Who needs a fucking antenna when we've got…bridges…and shit."
That got a small chuckle from Noa. Al could admit it was funny, in that quirky sense of humor his brother had.
To Al, Paris was beautiful. Beautiful like Ed's star-charts. Like the scrapes that had almost faded on the back of his neck. Paris made him feel like an outsider, like a tourist, like a foreigner. The French spoke French, and not some knock-off of what Al had grown up speaking. The French ate weird things and made them delicious. Like the Xingians. A damn meal didn't remind him of dinners at Master Izumi's or Winry's cooking.
Al thought he could forget the truth. For a little while, because Noa was smiling and in France, it didn't make him miss Winry so damn much. Quite often, Al was wrong, bibaxt, bad luck. Was he becoming superstitious? He tried to see Taurus in the sky, but all they could see were the Eiffel Tower lights.
Noa was glowing. Edward might as well have been one of those handsome men with a lovely lady on his arm in the pavilions that night. Al knew he should have been happy because they were happy, but he was content that Paris made him feel like an outsider. All travelers eventually get homesick, and write home. Al had letters his Father never meant anyone to read.
"Christ, I'm beat." Edward flopped back onto their unmade bed, still fully clothed. The communal bathroom down the hall wasn't worth the walk to change into sleeping clothes.
"It really is amazing here." Al was annoyed with Noa, and how many times she said that throughout the day. They had spent a good half-hour staring at the Eiffel Tower from the pavilions, saying nothing. Noa and Edward saw the tallest building in the world alight with fake stars. Al wasn't sure what he saw. He wasn't sure about anything.
"Yeah. Hell, I thought Paris would just be a stop-through. Kinda like Xenotime, huh, Al? Completely different, though. London was impressive and Germany got kinda boring after a while."
Al continued to comb his fingers through his hair, stoic as he faced the small mirror mounted on the wall beside the door. He could watch the conversation from there. He really didn't want to, but he could, and he did. Masochist. His brother had given him his face, but took away his ponytail. Al's fingers brushed the somewhat tender scrapes on the back of his neck, and he irrationally wanted-wanted-wanted his ponytail back.
"I haven't been anywhere outside of Germany." Noa said. So meek. Roze went to Rizenbool. Ran an orphanage in Lior. Roze went places and saw things on her own two legs. Al immediately felt rotten for comparing them. "Didn't you travel to Transylvania too?" Al watched them talk across the room in the mirror. Ed took one shoe off, and destroyed the imagery of a man in the Paris pavilions, handsome and unremarkable.
"We met Fletcher and Russel in Xenotime." Al's voice was soft and even. He was scared of his own voice, and it set a chill he honestly didn't mean to set in the room. Noa withdrew. Ed scoffed, and it boiled Al so he raised his voice just a little. "And Germany reminds me of Amestris."
"Anyway." Ed continued to babble stupidly to Noa. But Noa wasn't listening. Noa was worried about Al, and saw the morose slump of those young shoulders. Noa had seen Amestris through Edward's memories, and the colors that put everything she knew to shame. It didn't stop Ed. "I wonder if Rouen's something, too. Right on the coast. If Paris is anything to go by-"
"Aquaroya was beautiful." The way he said 'beautiful', it might as well have been hideous. "Of course, it's completely underwater by now." But you wouldn't know that, would you?
A pause. A beat. A few degrees colder in the room. Noa had nothing to clean. She made her bed, even if she was going to sleep in it in a few minutes.
"You're just saying that 'cause of Psiren." Ed snickered. Al raked his hands through his hair.
"I was, what, twelve? It was a dumb puppy crush. Get over it."
Ed did. "Dad said there's a place like Aquaroya in Italy. He showed me some pictures, you wouldn't believe how similar-" Oh, Al was pretty sure he would. "-Venice and Aquaroya are." He smiled. It was only muscle-skin-lip deep. "Maybe we'll pass through there soon. At least that isn't underwater."
"I heard the Venice canals are terribly filthy." Noa whispered. Neither paid attention to it.
"I don't think it really matters now anyway, brother." Al raked his hands through his hair. Fast. Hard. Strands came loose. He wasn't used to his hair being so short, tawny strands so short around his fingers. Noa stopped fussing with the edge of her comforter and froze like a deer in the headlights. At least Roze had found her voice. Winry might have been quick with her wrench, but she never froze. Lieutenant Hawkeye didn't know the meaning of the word. Sheska. Hell. Sheska burrowed under the military itself with her pen and her papers, her books and her glasses. Martel. Lust. Ross. Gracia. Mom, mom, mom, Oh, god.
Al hated the women of Europe. They were all cowards.
"I'm surprised you remembered her name." Al said before he could stop himself. He wanted to clamp a hand over his mouth. Pride kept him from doing so. He wanted to never talk again. Roze.
"Who, Psiren? After all that bitch put me through, of course I'd remember her name. Out of principle, if anything."
Noa looked uncomfortable with the word 'bitch'. There were plenty of bitchy women in Amestris. They weren't cowards.
"Winry Rockbell ring a bell, then?" Al sneered into the mirror. His face was horrible like that. He couldn't stop. "Or what about Roze? Roze, you know. Kain's mother? Kain's gotten big. She adopted two more kids."
Someone needed to stop him. Al couldn't stop. "Speaking of mothers, Gracia's doing great. So's Alicia. Lieutenant Hawkeye? Good with a gun? Probably misses Colonel Mustang like hell. I mean, Officer Mustang. He got dismissed from the Military right after he recovered. Sits on the Amestris/Drachma border all day now." Ed looked stricken. Good. At least he looked something.
Al hated himself. He couldn't stop. It didn't make sense, because the bitterness in the mirror had long faded from his mind and his heart but not his face or his voice. "No? Certainly you remember Izumi Curtis. 'Crazy witch' that left us alone on an island for a month? Wrath's mom?" Ed flinched. Al bristled. "Wrath isn't the psycho he used to be, you know. He calmed down a whole lot after Master died. But I'm sure Italy and Aquaroya are exactly the same."
Ed seemed to stop breathing. He seemed to just have stopped, and all that strength, the masculinity, the age fell all around his feet in invisible bits of rubble. He was eleven years old again and bleeding all over their basement.
"Al…" Noa called for him. But Al didn't want to hear it. He dug through his open luggage. The red coat was wrinkled. It felt right wearing it. It felt wrong wearing it. It kept him warm outside of the hotel, but none of it gave him any damn answers.
It was only a matter of time before they found him at the bridge. Paris, the section of Paris they were at, had no rivers. None he knew of. But it did have a bridge, one of the patches of the patchwork of a collection of art. Al was in a foul mood, and he hated the bridge. He hated the brown water that flowed under it. He missed the river in Rizenbool, which was so clear he could easily make out the flashing fish tails and fish scales and let it mesmerize him. Distract him. Light flickered in the water in Paris, but didn't really move much at all.
"So what is the truth, Ed?" He asked the lights not moving in the water when he heard footsteps approach. Men laughed in the bar and café patios on either side of the bridge, but stores had closed.
Everything that made Ed a mystery was left behind in their little half-made hotel room. Al wasn't sure if he could face his brother as he was. Not again.
"The truth?" Ed's voice was hoarse and quiet, the dessert winds blowing through the remnants of Ishbal.
"Dad said he thought he 'ruined your faith' when he told you the truth. About alchemy. Let's start with that."
"Al, it doesn't matter-"
"It matters to me. I need answers." He raked his hands through his hair again. It was greasy from the abuse. He needed a new habit. Would smoking make him older, now that Ed was eleven again?
"The souls of the departed humans here transform the shape of things in your world." Noa spoke quietly, and watched him with the dark eyes of a fortune-teller. "I'm sorry, Edward."
Edward sighed. His throat hitched. Al knew he was nauseous, because he was too. The red stones implanted into pregnant women so they can be birthed like bullets were birthed in Germany's factories. Al supposed this is what he should have felt like; when Marcoh's trivial code was broken and went a-flutter around the study with their notes.
He was the Philosopher's Stone all over again, surrounded by a glowing cage, the lives of hundreds of soldiers nothing more than markings and a fifth element in his armor, and Roze had forgotten herself and Kain was left in the arms of a madwoman.
"I didn't want to believe it." Edward spoke like a puppet. Something else was pulling the strings. Obligations and guilt Al thought Ed left behind in his mimicry-of-the-dead sleep. He regretted. "Not at first. But Al, it makes sense, if you consider the Philosopher's stone." Izumi moved mountains. The Fullmetal Alchemist did too. A single soul cannot be used to save the life of another, or a few hundred.
Equivalent fucking exchange.
Noa whispered something to Ed. She was scared of Al. She was a coward. She was a vagabond, a gypsy, she was enthralled with Paris and lived through a war and centuries of persecution. She was an everyface Ishbalan. Al loved her and resented her.
Noa left. Didn't make them a spectacle. Bullshit. She already knew what a spectacle they were.
'Do you hate me?' spoken in the intimacy of a battlefield behind a wall. Someone died to put that wall up, to stop the bullets, to transform Ed's automail into a blade to protect Al.
His head whirled. The lights reflected in the water didn't move. Al knew he should have still felt sick.
"Why do I have to hear it from Dad, from Noa?" Al gripped the edges of the limestone railing. His palms were bare. Gloves with arrays meant nothing. "Noa isn't even an alchemist, and Dad's dead."
Ed came to rest beside him. Away from him, out of arm's reach, but beside him nonetheless. In the following silence, Al was resigned to more of it. Hope made him tired, and he didn't feel young right then. He needed sleep.
"Spar with me."
Al gave him a look. Edward didn't look young and stricken. He looked old and worn. He looked like the Fullmetal Alchemist in his trademark red coat, his hair in a braid, his eyes haunted and tenaciously flashing.
"I mean it. Spar with me." Edward smiled. Or Al imagined it. Either way, there was something shallower than skin, muscle and lips. "We haven't done that in a while, have we?" His voice trailed off. It wasn't strong to begin with. "Years."
Al moved without thinking. He was doing a lot of things without thinking, and it scared him. He placed his foot on the banister, then launched himself in the air. A miscalculation would set him in the canal. His knee bent, aimed straight for Edward's automail shoulder. He never miscalculated. It would hurt, 'like a bitch', as Edward would say.
His knee hit metal. Not the shoulder, though. Edward had lifted his arms to guard. Al distributed the shock throughout his body and used the force to flip back and away. Alchemy training. Physics.
Then Edward grinned. It was an expression that held no humor. It was the Fullmetal Alchemist before he turned his arm into a blade. It was his brother lying to him about their mother's grave. He charged. Al dodged. Opposite legs kicked high and met, flesh on flesh. Tissue bruised. Adrenalin rushed. It was basic. A simple circle drawn on Winry's livingroom floor. Her ninth birthday present. Their first transmutation.
Ed got that little smirk he always got when he thought he found an opening in his brother's defenses. It was old and rusty and it scraped across his face, but it was there. Al knew the signs. So when a flesh fist came low to deliver an undercut to his ribcage, Al twisted to the side. Grabbed Edward's arm. Pinned him against the banister.
It left them both panting. Stunned. Ed shook his damp hair out of his eyes. Cold air burned their lungs. Their lungs. The gesture made Ed's nose rub, sweat-slicked, over the bridge of Al's. Ed's breath was warm on his face.
"Still can kick my ass." Edward tried to sound disappointed, and couldn't, for the life of him. "Still my baby brother."
Baby brother. The words scared Al. Elated him. Snapped him out of the euphoria of adrenalin and aggression release. He was close to his brother, but not close enough.
"You're cold and you smell like cigarettes."
Ed laughed. It had a slightly hysterical edge to it. A deeper echo of Al's mockery in the mirror.
"That'd be my automail, dumbass. Get off me. We'll ditch Noa for an hour or two."
The pavilions and promenades of Paris were made with lovers and the lovestuck in mind. The gentle lights and tender music spoke to couples and single men and women. The buildings and streets were untouched by the war, or rebuilt almost immediately. They were for superficial sin dressed in luxury. Sin that needed no repentance. Anyone could see the Eiffel Tower from there; anyone could fall in love, there.
Al walked alongside his brother, their backs to the pavilions. They steered clear of potholes in the road, they saw the bullets stuck in walls of the middle-class pubs and stores. Paris lost its magic when they saw the back alleys and homeless under the bridges, but they were scientists. Magic was for children, for fools, for gypsies and the eccentrics in Munich who had chanted incantations around an array that wouldn't glow no matter how long they spoke.
It was cold and Edward walked with a slight limp, with mismatched steps. The last time Al had seen his brother's automail, it was hundreds of feet above Central turned to rubble. Mustang held him back. He was hysterical, and only remembered Edward's little skin-deep smile and the flash of a metal fist, then the way Ed's ponytail fluttered when he turned his back.
"Where are we going?" He asked when he could see the moon high and full behind the smog, the clouds.
"Not a damn clue."
"Sightseeing?" The snide beast in Al was dying quickly, but putting every last struggle, tooth and claw it had to staying alive.
"Yeah." Ed sent a loose chunk of brick skittering down the pavement ahead of them with an idle kick. "We never got much of a chance to before." He tried to sound nonchalant.
"No. We didn't."
"But now we can." Ed looked at the bullet-riddled walls, the crumbling buildings alongside those with mismatched plaster, as new was patched over old and decrepit and the common man tried to forget. "Train doesn't come 'till late afternoon. We'll just sleep on the way to Rouen."
"I can't sleep." Al was balancing precariously between anger and weariness. It left him numb. "You know that."
As the saying went – the calm before the storm. Dark clouds were gathering in his demeanor. Ed didn't trust it, Al knew. Hell, Al didn't trust it.
"You know what's really good for sleep?"
Al didn't know what he'd see if he slept. Dreams were peculiar creatures.
"Scotch. Vodka. Beer."
"You're kidding me. No one would let-"
"Never know until we try!" It's not the same here. Ed yelled. Yelled. Drowned out the storm clouds. Held him by his wrist and marched with typical Elric determination to the closest bar.
Al dug his heels in, tried to reason with his headstrong brother. Ed simply found a stronger grasp in his red coat. Who's red coat? Al's? Ed's?
Al took the opportunity to turn around and plod determinedly away from Ed's ridiculous idea. Al had the finesse in fighting, but Ed had the strength.
Al wound up wrapped uncomfortably in the coat. They were jostling each other right in the middle of the sidewalk. People stopped to watch, to stare at the sacrilegious symbol on Al's back, and between Al's incredulousness and Al's determination, it had become a game. Narrow shoulders belonging to a thirteen-year-old boy. Steel. They were sparring in their own way, every damn excuse to touch, and leave angry little bruises on their arms and backs and chests.
They were sparring in their own way, putting every single thing Master Izumi had taught them to shame. It wasn't a time for mourning, but they still had much to regret. Big brothers got drunk and shoved liquor down their little brother's throats and goaded them into swallowing it. Big brothers knew better. Ed drank, Ed smoked, Ed had been there and done that and knew every damn thing
Al shoved hard against Ed, and sent both of them stumbling. They were smiling. They used to laugh uproariously during their tussles. Ed used to wear the heavy flamel on his back.
"Don't tell me you haven't tried once." Ed demanded. The headlock he had Al in was harsh in the desperate need to never stop their play.
"I haven't!" Al kicked behind Ed's flesh knee. Ed toppled, taking Al down with him. The pavement was wet. They didn't care.
"So your first grown-up drink's gonna be with your big brother? Late bloomer, aren't you?"
Ed's first drink was in Youswell, in as grand creation as any alchemist could ask. A home, people laughing. 'Don't give alcohol to minors!' Ed cried, and was surprised when Al humored him just this once. Ed had a single glass of scotch, come to think of it. He fell asleep on the floor with his shirt scrunched up and his stomach full and his mind full of victory.
"Oh, geeze, brother. You wanna ask someone to take our picture while you're at it?"
"Hey, it's like a tradition." Ed stopped trying to twist Al's arm behind his back. "I think."
Tradition was the older setting a beer in front of the younger, and the younger trying to be nonchalant as he took his first sip. Tradition was the older looking smug while the younger tried to swallow the foul taste. Tradition was nursing hangovers and teenage experimentation. Finding a way to sleep without dreams wasn't tradition.
Al would take what he could get. He could believe it was tradition. He could believe 'a few' glasses of scotch were the answer to his refusal to sleep.
"Get off me then, brother. The sidewalk's wet."
The bar was small and quaintly aged. Old men nursed their drinks there. Young men did the same, and the sheer weariness of the previous generation went unnoticed as the young talked over newspaper articles and the day's events.
It was nothing like Al was expecting, and it made him complacent.
"Que sera-t-il, messieurs?"
Al scrambled onto the stools that were just a little too high to be comfortable for his height. Edward hmmed and hawed, flipping through his now rather worn phrase book. The bartender was a man of no extremes, middle-aged, middle-height, middle-temperament. Patient.
"Uh…deux ecossaise…um…" Ed scratched his head. His hair was damp with the condensation from the pavement. "si'l vous plait?"
"Oui. Deux ecossaise."
Al said it too, just to be polite. They both butchered the pronunciation, and even though they were so clearly from Germany, the man gave them a tolerant, maybe even kind, smile. Because they looked young. Did they even look young anymore?
There was no forgiving time between their awkward order and the time said order arrived. The amber liquid was bright in the short, fat, clear glass. It was pretty to look at in the dim light of the bar. Al timidly picked the glass up by the rim and studied the drink. He had the guts and the brazenness, right until it all came down to it.
"Any tips?" Al asked. He faked his brazenness. Ed saw his baby brother's eyes glitter and flash, and Al was small, small but brave, his baby brother about to get drunk for the first time and they tried not to think about where all the years between then and now went.
Instead, he smirked. Al's brazenness was met with a clash of a challenge.
"Just drink it."
Al didn't waste time on a deep breath. He put the glass to his lips, tilted his head back, and got a strongly bittersweet mouthful of tradition half-fashioned.
The Elrics were pensive, quiet drunks. More likely to write or read or go to sleep than laugh uproariously or enter a fistfight, although the later wasn't entirely impossible.
They joined the old and stooped and bone-weary at the bar. Al vaguely remembered expecting some dizzying euphoria. Al vaguely remembered expecting something, and waiting for it for a good, long time. A maiden in waiting. He snorted into his third glass and tried not to giggle. His third glass. Ed was being indulgent – of his little brother, and of the drink.
Honestly, Al didn't know why he kept drinking. It didn't taste good. He didn't suspect that it made him look any older – he'd like to think he was more rational than that.
Ed lit a cigarette and pulled the bar's ashtray closer. Al was beginning to like the smell of cigarette smoke. Like? Tolerate? He took another sip. He listened to Ed rattle on with a hint of a slur. He honestly had no idea what his brother was saying. The words swung between alchemy and physics and engineering, the last of which Al knew little of the details. Sometimes they combined, and he was pretty sure Ed was confusing his facts in some places.
He felt distinctly out of sorts, but not in a terrible way. He became rather fond of the cozy atmosphere of the bar and the pilled and ragged texture of his coat. He was content to let Ed babble, and watch the smoke from his brother's cigarette curl and sway. His mind was still. He didn't feel like himself.
It wasn't bad. Master Izumi spoke volumes against cigarettes, against beer, but Seig had a beer belly to match his gargantuan muscles. Colonel Mustang had a whole cabinet of liquor. In his office. In his cabin? Al didn't feel like himself, but it wasn't so bad. He let his eyes follow the swirls and sways and curves of smoke to his brother's cigarette.
Ed's hand was calloused beneath the white gloves, Al knew. Ed's lips were chapped. Al saw it when his brother put the cigarette to his lips and sucked. His lower lip was freshly nicked, certainly from their tussle. Ed turned his face away from Al's and exhaled. Ed's adam's apple bobbed. Al reached to his own neck and felt for his, but his neck was all baby-smooth lines and gentle curves.
"You look like dad." Al blurted. But Ed didn't. Not really.
"Thank you from the bottom of my fuckin' heart."
Al ignored it, because Ed had a dopey half-smile on his face. The drink accomplished what Al couldn't.
"D'you think I'll look like Dad when I get older?"
Ed shook his head. Exhaled. Smoke curled. Edward was eighteen. He was an adult, a terribly handsome adult.
"You look more like Mom than Dad." He gestured vaguely to his face. "You've got her eyes."
They lost half of their family on that night. Olive eyes turned purple, and turned red.
"I look like a girl?" Al demanded, suddenly self-conscious. Humorously so. He snickered at himself.
"Kinda. Bet you won't when you get older, though. I looked like a fucking girl. Do not tell anyone I said that."
"I look like a girl." Al repeated. He drank more. He didn't know what to make of it. "Are you disappointed?"
"The fuck would I be disappointed?"
"'Cause I look like a girl."
Ed burst out laughing. It was an unfettered laugh, deep from his chest, but it floated from liquor in his blood. "You are so weird, Al."
Al was kinda weird. He thought on it, and came to grips with it. Al always was weird. He was weird.
"I am weird." Al said harshly, and grinned into his glass.
It was late when they stumbled from the bar, soft half-laughs on gusty breathes passed between them. Neither knew what was so funny. Maybe the way Ed sauntered like a rooster when he was drunk. Maybe the looks they got when they passed people on the sidewalk and the people openly gawked at the crowned, winged snake crucified on the cross on Al's back. Maybe nothing. Al didn't need the answer.
Al wouldn't grow up to look like their Dad, or Ed. Al wouldn't grow up heartbreakingly handsome. Al would grow up to look like someone who was dead. He'd age around the inheritance of their dead mother's eyes. It was absurd. Al laughed, but it wasn't funny. It wasn't bitter. He just laughed.
In response, Ed laughed because Al laughed. Ed used to hurt because Al couldn't hurt, but always hurt. It was better this way, laughing because of a few glasses of scotch.
Ed lit another cigarette. Ed smoked a lot when he could get away with it. He tried to light the cigarette, and uttered a stream of disproportionate curses when the cigarette just would not light.
"You're doing it backwards, brother." Al laughed at the second round of cursing. Al laughed at just about anything. Because he was weird.
They took a piss on the wall of one of the alleys on the way back to the hotel, once they righted their lack of direction. Stores were closed. Bathrooms were closed. Ed snickered and wrote his name on the wall, but it was winter and everything was wet and Ed's name didn't really show up. Al laughed uncomfortably. His brother was handsome, but Al wasn't jealous, because he looked like a girl and he looked like mom. A peek at his brother's flaccid penis made him blush and turn away mid-stream. His urine rattled on one of the aluminum trashcans. Al was so fucking weird.
"Did you leave me because I'm weird?" He asked suddenly in the quiet of the inn. He was slumped against the door and Ed was leaning his shoulder into him to keep him upright while he and the rusty key fought with the rusty doorknob.
The door opened. Al fell back. His arms flailed for support. But he always managed to right himself. He always did.
"I didn't leave you." Ed said with a viciousness that would have scared Al if Al was sober. Ed kicked off his shoes and surveyed the room from his seat on the bed. Noa's bed was empty. Neither really noticed it. Noa traveled alone before, Noa was in love with the Eiffel Tower and the pavilions of Paris and ideals that will eventually disappoint. Neither noticed it.
Al climbed into the bed alongside his brother, pawing at the blankets to get comfortable. He kicked his shoes off. One fell onto the floor with a dull 'thud'. One stayed on the bed. "Yes, yes you did. Back in Central when the Gate was opened."
Ed lay back. His mouth was a line of no extremes, expressionless, and he stared at the ceiling.
"It is because I'm weird, isn't it?" Scotch placated him. He felt guilty for being weird. For being young. For looking like a girl, for being weird and having the guts to look like mom. He snuggled up to his brother like he was five and Ed was six, even if Ed was an adult who smoke and drunk and knew how to take more scotch than Al did before making a spectacle of himself.
"I'm sorry." Al sighed softly. Ed smelled like cigarette smoke and scotch and plain human musk. He was warm. So warm. Al's blood was warm. "You're warm, brother."
Ed pulled him close. Al lacked the finessed movement of a trained fighter when he was drunk, but Ed didn't loose his strength. Ed never lost his strength. Al felt small and vulnerable and just like he'd figure a typical girl would feel, except the women in Amestris were all strong in their own rights. Weird, then. And young.
"So're you." Ed's throat hitched. Al reached out and touched it before he could reason with himself not to, but he found he forgot what reason was.
Ed squeezed him close and stared at the ceiling. Ed was haunted and eighteen and old. Ed was old when he was twelve. Al was thirteen, seventeen, and still too young. The scotch didn't quell his need for an answer, even if it soothed his desperation. He relaxed half laying on his brother's chest, and the lust to know was languid and sweet.
He was hard against Ed's leg. His brother's thigh flexed, tentatively, experimentally, and shifted to press just so. Ed's real arm around his waist pulled and squeezed until it hurt. That's when Al opened his eyes. He didn't even know he had closed them, and in the light from the tiny lamp of their room, Edward's eyes were wet and glistened.
"Don't cry, brother."
"Yeah. I'm not." Al's world did not turn upside-down; he had no world to rattle. But Ed gently turned him over onto his back, and Ed was comfortably heavy. He was hard against Al's thigh, and Al saw through drunk-haze eyes his big brother and the man who couldn't quite copy his big brother's grins that were too big and too bright on a boy his size.
Al never really wondered about his first kiss. It tasted like scotch, cigarettes, and a wetter, softer flavor of skin. The salt of blood from the nick on Ed's lower lip. Ed's lips were chapped. His tongue was hot and Al's mouth was full with it. It was an awkward gesture, and neither quite knew what they were doing. Al was enthralled with it.
He cooed quietly against his brother's lips when the automail touched him, his stomach, the dip of his bellybutton and the curve of his hip.
His brother's lips. He didn't care.
Edward's hair came loose when Al whimpered and clung and snapped the hair tie, something in his chest so desperately, desperately broken and warm. His brother's blond hair fell all around him, like a curtain, a veil, hiding how young he was and how weird he was. Dad's hair was nowhere near as blond. Edward was all scars and shameless metal glint and soft kisses and cold touches and spitfire about to sputter out. Al clung, with his lips, his hands, his knees.
Edward's hair caught the modest lamplight of the inn room and shone all around Al's face, and Al could have sworn he smelled the Rizenbool spring sun.
He was tall and terrifying and terrified of himself. It was wet, raining, nothing comfortable like the alleys of Paris. Edward was crying. There was blood on the wall. On his brother's white gloves. It was the only time he'd seen his brother cry.
Al woke in stages. One moment Edward was young and round-faced, like him. The next he was older and more mature and eighteen and framed by a dark alley stained in blood. He was sobbing like the round-faced Edward in his dreams.
Then he wasn't sobbing. He was smiling. Edward wasn't cruel, but the smile was, hundreds of feet over Central and Al was in arms he didn't want to be in and everything was about to crash.
Al was awake. His brother never sobbed.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. God, I'm sorry."
Ed whispered like the sinners in confessionals, shame and humiliation making his words soft. He hid his tears with a hand pressed over his eyes. Al knew they were there anyway. It was morning, the room was bright. Nothing was red, except the coat he had fallen asleep on. Al wanted to retch out the stone in his gut that had once been his courage.
He lay there, naked and cold. The blanket was tucked between his sticky thighs, pulled against his chest, clutched in his fingers because the night before he held onto them and tried so desperately not to sound like a girl. Or too young.
He remembered Ed, pressed flush against him, and how handsome he was when his brother thrust between his legs and right against him and panted against his cheek and the shock of Edward's semen on his chest and stomach.
"I'm sorry. Sick. So sick."
Al uncurled his fingers from the blanket. From the red coat. Timidly, he pressed his fingertips to the white streaks on his chest. He had sex. He wasn't a virgin anymore. Did it make him an adult?
"I don't feel different." Al told himself, but Edward heard. Where had the stoic man gone, when Edward looked at him and froze?
His head spun. He felt sick, scotch tasted horrible after a night of kisses and Edward's breath in his breath. He wanted to retch out the stone in his gut that was once his courage and he couldn't say anything to his brother.
Edward's cheeks were red and wet and his lips were dry and his hand shook when he took the corner of the closest thing at hand – the red coat – and began to scrub furiously at Al's chest. Al let him. Edward hurt to look at the white that smeared and stuck to Al's skin. Al's skin was pink around the streaks of white. The scratches on the back of his neck were almost gone.
Edward bowed his head, and he dropped the coat. The corner was smeared in white. His hand rested on Al's ribcage, as if to hide what was all over his baby brother's stomach, thighs, chest. His face. Al had a streak of it from his cheek and along his baby-soft neck. Ed had stained him there. Bitten him there. The shape of his teeth were dark and his semen was white and none of it belonged on Al.
"I can't ever do anything right by you, can I?" He whispered. His shoulders were slumped and there was no strength there. Ed hid behind his hair. Blond but dull like dad's hair. A coward.
"It wasn't a mistake, brother."
"Don't justify it. Don't fucking-"
"I wanted it." Al had wanted it. Al had wanted, wanted, wanted, ever since landing with a clatter and no grace in Munich.
Al didn't look like a girl, or too young. To Ed, he looked perfect, tasted perfect, had a lovely voice and soft skin and none of it was for him. Al might have known, if he could remember the slurred 'So perfect' and 'Love you, baby brother' beyond the scotch in his stomach.
Ed had no grace as he forced himself to pull away. He wanted to fix it, right his sins. He did it before. He could do it again. He could. He would find a way. But he could. He could.
When Ed's hand lifted from his stomach, Al panicked. He didn't care about the headache, or the foul taste in his mouth, or the unease in his gut, or the way he felt stained and content and unchanged. Ed pulled away. He followed. Al didn't remember how to kiss, he remembered little from the scotch-soaked lessons Ed gave that Ed didn't understand himself. But he pressed his lips against Ed's. Ed's lips were dry. So were his. Nothing like the night before.
Ed stilled and Al almost felt something settle in his mismatched self when he felt his brother's automail hand on his hip. It shifted immediately to his waist, but it was there. His mouth was dry, cottony, he could've used a few glasses of water. He licked his dry tongue over Ed's dry lips anyway.
"No." Edward croaked, an ugly sound. Al was gently pushed away, and Ed stood. Ed was ashamed of his nakedness, but he had no right. He left the blankets for Al. He left everything for Al. He dressed, his flesh hand was shaking. Al was watching. Al was staring at his automail arm.
Last night, Al sighed and cooed into his ear when he pressed the automail to Al's hip. There was a bruise there, the symmetric shape of metal fingertips. Ed knew how to destroy with a steel fist. The military name he left back in Amestris. Winry's automail locked to his nerves didn't know the meaning of tender or gentle.
"But…I belong to you, brother." Al said, and touched the scratches on the back of his neck.
Ed pretended he didn't hear it. He pretended not to see Noa sitting at the café at the front door of the inn, or the wounded look she kept on his back long after he thought he lost himself in the early-morning pedestrian crowd of Paris. He wore crumpled clothes that smelled like sex, like his little brother.
"Noa! Did you see my brother?"
Al. Naïve Al. With his hair rumpled and his lips bruised and dark circles under his eyes. With skin pink from furious, hasty scrubbing, and clothes that smelled stale straight from his suitcase. With panic in his voice, and the shape of teeth on his neck.
"Yes." She said, her voice haunted, timid and frosty because she just did not know how to consider it. She looked into her untouched coffee. Ed was beautiful. So was Al. Ed was flawed, Al was perfect. Somehow, tangled together, they still didn't quite balance out.
"Where did-" Al finally saw her, beyond the kisses from his brother's lips and the apologies of a broken man. His knees buckled, and he fell onto the chair across the table from her. He pleaded without words for her to understand, but how could she when he didn't himself?
She had her knapsack under the table. He accidentally stepped on it. Maybe to make sure it was really there, and he wasn't half-asleep and dreaming of terrible things.
They sat in silence while Edward lost himself in the pavilions and promenades of Paris, and became sick with the romance of it. They sat in silence and Noa continued to swish the little, silver spoon in her coffee mug long after the sugar had dissolved.
Al had stopped hoping. He sighed, and there was a glisten in his eyes, but he was Edward's brother and wouldn't cry. Not for her, or in front of her. Al raked his fingers through his hair, and she could smell the guilt and despondency and the scent of Edward off of him.
She put the spoon down with a delicate, sharp 'clink'. She had no appetite for anything.
"Alphonse." She whispered and couldn't, for the life of her, make her voice gentle. He looked at her with doe-eyes, and in Edward's memories she saw their mother. She was a beautiful woman.
She reached across the table and held her hands open to him. Alphonse's hands were small for a boy, with delicate nails and slender fingers and calloused palms. They were warm and gentle in hers. They were filthy hands. The hands of an alchemist.
Noa bowed her head. She closed her eyes. It all unraveled beneath her eyelids, when she saw the brilliant Shamballa and Munich and France and Paris and their little inn room through the innocent eyes of a trapped boy.
Al stared at her, and hated himself for not knowing the words to say. Noa's jewelry was made by a well-trained hand, a blacksmith of another family she used to travel with. The blacksmith loved her, she had told Al in the unimportant doings of the Roma carnival camp, but how she felt she never said. Her jewelry was made of simple brass, but the man put such gentleness into the crafting that beneath the tarnish it was still beautiful. Her jewelry seemed to fit her. Just like with Winry and her silver earrings and steel automail and sharp, blue eyes that always were alight, Al wished he could have loved her. He really, truly did.
She let go of his hands, and he kept them outstretched but she tucked hers back onto her lap.
"Edward never offered me a home." She whispered. The low shriek of her chair against the pavement made Al jump. Her knapsack was in her grasp. Al didn't want to accept it, but it wasn't hard to believe. "I guess he couldn't share his."
Her smile was forced and the Roma girl he'd come to know from Alfons Heiderich's apartment in Munich to Paris was gone. Noa was a timid girl, a fortune-teller, Roma, gypsy, everyface Ishbalan, and nothing like the women in Amestris.
Like a coward, she didn't say goodbye. It would have been ideal if he lost sight of her in the crowd, but she stood out, rich in her secondhand clothes. She walked toward the direction of the Eiffel Tower. Al knew it would be the last time he'd see her.
Those were the first words his brother had spoken to him. They were the first words Al had even wanted to consider. He pretended the heavy 'I'm sorrys' didn't exist. He didn't want them to exist. He remembered guilt, and it would rend into him, alone, because he couldn't remember anything after his terrified brother reached for him.
The train from Paris skirted the coast. The sea was blue, it was grey, angry and at peace and seagull wishes skimmed the surface. The France countryside was quaint to the point of rickety. They left Paris behind not long ago, and that was fine. Paris was made for lovers and those in love. Anyone could fall in love there, and be lost entirely in the city of lights.
"What do you want to know?" Al hadn't spoken in hours. Al used to speak to strangers – a friendly 'Hi!' in passing. He talked to birds. He talked to cats. He talked to keep himself sane. What answers could he have for his brother?
"Did Noa say anything?" Edward asked the coast of France, and the seagulls wheeling overhead.
"You're lying." It wasn't an accusation. It was proof that he belonged to his brother, when Ed didn't even need to look at him. Al lifted eyes he inherited from their mother, and looked away from his fidgeting hands. Ed was still eighteen, adult, and handsome. Ed was unnamed brilliance against his skin, and the big brother who used to have to look up at him for them to make some false semblance of eye contact.
"She said that you never offered her a home, because you didn't want to share it."
Ed sighed, and was still, as if he sighed the life out of his skin. Warm skin. "She's right." It wasn't an admission of adoration. It was acquiescence to an unchangeable truth, the way he used to say 'Equivalent Exchange' after Lior went up in dust and sand.
But Lior was rebuilt. "I'd hope so."
Ed looked at him, and he looked tired. Handsome but tired.
Al wanted. "I wish you'd kiss me again, brother." Al whispered, without thinking, and touched the back of his neck. Always touching the back of his neck. Last night, Edward used the tip of his tongue to trace the array over Al's cherished scratches. It was drawn on Al's skin, in saliva, and had no meaning outside the press of his tongue to sweetly-pink skin. Ed was drunk, and Al had squealed and laughed giddily.
His brother closed his eyes against the sweet blush. Al had surrendered to their sickness so easily. It was too easy for Ed to be disappointed in his brother, instead of himself.
"Dad told me to tell you that he loved you."
Al's breath stopped. Ed wondered if Al had to remember how to breathe after he got his body back.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I…" It was still, so still, as the train continued along its tracks. Closer to the coast. Light on the water. "I wasn't sure if I believed it."
"Isn't that up to me, to believe it or not?"
"Yes. Yes it is."
"Then it's up to me whether or not I want you." He blushed. "Other than as my brother."
Ed rubbed a hand over his eyes, and Al needed to touch him. Needed to. He rested his hand on the table between them, and it twitched under the cold weight of Ed's automail.
"I told you because that's how real families are supposed to be."
"We are a real family. But we're different."
Ed gave a soft, sardonic laugh. His head bowed, he shook it in disbelief. "Yeah, we are, aren't we?"
"You made me." Al murmured softly. He was in love since he opened his eyes in the city beneath the ground. He just didn't know it. He was convinced of it. He remembered the seal of blood that culminated his entire existence. He could feel Edward's tongue on the back of his neck. "I belong to you."
"Stop saying that." Ed was harsh. "You belong to yourself."
"We're all we've got." Al was wistful. His brother's automail was hidden by a glove, but it was wonderfully cold. He loved it. He hated it. "It that still true?"
"Yeah." Ed hurt. His brows knit together. An eleven year old with a gaping maw where his arm and leg used to be. "You're stuck with me. Sorry."
"I'm not." Al lied, not wholly, but he lied. There was a fire behind the despondency. Crippled, torn apart, bleeding and fake, they would keep walking forward. There was no other choice.
And Al opened his heart in the stories of Amestris, of Roy Mustang's phone calls to the Rockbell home, of Roze and her beloved children and her hoarse voice, of Winry and her automail and her gentleness and the way she loved Ed but never spoke of it and always walked with it on her shoulders. Of her automail on Paninya when he visited them passing through Rush Valley, of Sheizka's promotion, and the letters from her that Winry shared with him. Of Auntie Pinako's crumbling health, of Wrath's haunted face. Of Elysia's seventh birthday, and Gracia who was still gentle and kind and still in love with her husband.
He told his brother of the sunny days in Rizenbool with Kain in his arms and Den at his side, of the Armstrong family in Lior, of the justice to the Ishbalan people, of the skirmishes between Amestris and Drachma, of the National Assembly in Amestris. He told his brother of how he missed their mother's grave and Izumi's grave, and the way their Master kept him and loved him like a son and he tried so hard to let Wrath know it but Wrath was sullen in his own little world.
Of Izumi on her deathbed, and the day he was sent away. She didn't run out of things to teach him, she just couldn't, and Seig and Mason and the stillness of the butcher shop and the way children wouldn't visit that house anymore because Master Izumi was gone and Seig was a widower reliving his wedding in his ever-present silence.
He told Edward Elric of the Fullmetal Alchemist in the eyes of the people, the Alchemist for the People, and how everyone but a select few thought he was dead but there were those who had faith and Al carried it all on his red-clad shoulders. He told of his theory on Equivalent Exchange, when he was on the train again to Dublith and it gave him hope.
He gave all the answers he had, and some he didn't have.
He didn't realize he was harboring some of that old hope he should've left in Amestris. Not until Ed covered his eyes with the skin-warmed palm of his automail, and sighed. Whispered – "This is our world now. Those things don't matter anymore."
Al had seen his brother's tears. There was no beast of cynicism to rip and shred his heart. "Our world will always be our world."
"We left nothing worth anything behind."
They left a city under the ground destroyed, and a house in ashes and char in Rizenbool, and graves. So many graves.
"You shouldn't have followed me here."
"Then you did mean to leave me behind." He shivered, and looked at the sea. "How much am I worth, then?"
"Then you can't ever leave me behind. Remember? You turn into a jerk without me around." Al laughed a marionette laugh.
"This is your world too, then." Edward's words were heavy, and he wouldn't look at his baby brother, and it broke the heart Al had laid in gruesome, naïve trust between them. "I'm sorry."
There was sand between the railroad tracks, and grass grew in struggling patches and tall waves. The air was fresh with salt, and toyed with his short hair like the cat he had always wanted. It was cold in Rouen, as a western wind carried with it the scent of the water and things untold across it. It was cold in Rouen, and Al was all alone on the small train deck. He needed to be alone.
He could see the ships docked in the bays at a distance. He saw the water that didn't seem to end. These things filled him with despair, the balance of his thoughts caught up in the jagged waves of the France coastline.
He tightened his small hands on the rail. He used to be able to bend steel with the will of his soul and little else. He remembered brown, worn gauntlets always dusted with white chalk. He remembered the white of Ed's semen on his cheek when he stared at it, mystified, in the communal bathroom at the inn in Paris.
It was a victory he couldn't have begun to imagine. The cargo ships grew bigger and bigger, fat and bold and breathing black breath to the grey clouds above.
It filled him with dread. His knees felt weak. Men who do not fall, scream. He wasn't a man, an adult. His brother was. But Al had his lungs and his voice.
"I never wanted this world!" He told the seagulls wheeling overhead, and no one heard.
Seven years from that date, this evening, Edward, my son, wound up at my doorstep.
My interest in the Thule Society is deeper than casual now. I do the rites, I discuss halfbaked theories amongst the pompous innovators. I plant the seeds to grow the truth. I use the science of this world to replace my son's wooden prosthetics with something that suits him. He is too young and so full of fire to be walking around with a cane.
Edward rarely speaks. When he does, it is always about Alphonse. I've seen the way he looks when we talk of Alphonse. I do all I can to help my son, but I know I am no true father. I have no rights. None. This considered, Edward talks when he sleeps. He talks to his brother when he's asleep. He regularly cries, or laughs, or screams for Alphonse before he wakes. I say nothing of this. I have forsaken my rights as a father. I don't know how to love, not really, so I cannot guide Edward's love.
We disagree on the best way to reach Amestris. Edward calls the Thule Society a bunch of 'idiotic morons who think too highly of themselves and are stuck in middle-school fantasies'. He's going to Transylvania to study rocketry. His hopes are far-fetched, but so are mine, and we continue to work in ease and unease until it is time for him to leave. To get back to Alphonse.
Edward doesn't see this world. He only sees the stars.
It was the last entry in his Father's journals, and Al felt as if he had just read an unbelievable epic. The ending left him nostalgic, and heartsick, even if the ending would keep going, most likely unwritten, as long as his brother and he lived. They were the last of the alchemists who would keep 'Elric' after their first names.
It was night, and the cargo ship creaked and groaned like a haunted place. They slept in hammocks. They washed alongside crates of finery from China and India and places he couldn't even hope to paint in his mind. He kept the journals in his suitcase. He'd always keep the journals.
On the dock, it was night, and the sea blurred into the sky and reflected the stars. Cosmos. Nothing told where one began and the other ended, and if he let his mind carry him away, he could very well believe a fall over the rail would swallow him in nothingness.
Edward was smoking, sitting against one of the crates tethered to the dock. His ashtray was overflowing. The stars were in his eyes when Al sat beside him and leaned over. Took the half-burned cigarette and dragged on it, forced it, because it tasted something like Edward's kisses and his heart was soft for his brother. It always had been.
Ed took it back. Stubbed it out amongst the others crushed. "Don't you start." He mumbled and the Atlantic wind almost stole the words away.
Al let the taste of the smoke linger on his tongue. He didn't inhale, just blew it out in a thick cloud and watched as it dissipated into the air.
"Tastes like you." He said, and that was all there was to it.
He didn't inhale. Edward's kiss was as much a part of him as the blood seal and the sacrifice that fashioned his young features. He had faith, always faith, and his brother was right beside him. Not the physicist, not the Fullmetal Alchemist. Just Ed. His brother.
"Yeah, Al?" Ed's hair was undone. Ed was coming undone, but Al had faith.
Al pointed to the clear sky overhead. "Isn't that Taurus?"
Ed's smile was nostalgic. The first real thing Al could believe in. "Modification through congelation. Yes. And there's Cancer."
"Union through solution. Which one is that, brother?"
"I don't remember that one."
"Crazy myth, that." Ed had memorized a map through the stars that he never used. "It isn't very relevant to alchemy."
Al closed his eyes. He wove his fingers into his brother's, and squeezed, and reminded himself of his faith. Softly, he said -
"Then I guess it doesn't matter that I don't remember."