It is raining when they step out of library, Ed's bag filled with books and Al carrying a bunch more under his arm. Ed flinches as a fat drop lands on his cheek; grits his teeth at the heavens as Alphonse pauses to fumble for the umbrella he carries, strapped around his wrist, and unfolds it to serve as some protection. Ed bobs underneath it—flashes him a grateful grin, all sharp, white teeth—and says, "Thanks. Don't want the books to get wet, after all, right."
"I was thinking more about you," Al replies, a hint of reproachful warning in his voice. "The books, we can dry out, but if you catch pneumonia, it sets us weeks behind on the project—"
"Yeah, yeah," Ed interrupts, waving a flippant hand. "C'mon, let's get home. I'm starving."
Alphonse heaves a sigh. "You're always starving, Ed," he complains, "And you eat at least six times more than I do."
Ed grins, smug and proud, teeth flashing again. "That's because I have a bigger brain than you, Al," he says, "I need all the extra nutrients I can get for it."
Al lifts his eyebrows and smiles, reaching out to ruffle his friend's hair. "People who feel the need to belittle the size of another's body part, Edward Elric, can safely be said to have inferiority complexes."
Ed glares at him. "Who told you that?"
"Your father," Al replies honestly, and laughs at the other blond's expression. "When he came to attach your limbs last summer."
Ed snorts in distaste, shifts the weight of his books. "Yeah, well," he mutters, "I'd take anything that bastard says with a grain of salt. Can we get moving? It's kinda cold."
"Oh—of course." Alphonse hefts the umbrella again, presses close to Ed. "Come on. It's not far."
Ed grins at him, proud. "See? I said moving close to the Great Library Of Munich would be a good idea—"
"No you didn't," Al says; "You wanted to move to Paris, you idiot. Don't lie." He gives Ed a playful poke in the ribs, and his friend squirms and bites his lip to suppress his snort of laughter.
"Bastard," Ed manages, after a while; bumps his shoulder against Al's hard enough to knock the taller blond off-balance. They continue to wrestle as they walk through the narrow German streets; Alphonse has the advantages of height, and weight, but Edward is as devious as he is scrawny and has no compunctions against using a metal leg to trip his friend up, or a lightning-jab to a sensitive pressure-point to render Alphonse defenceless.
It's hard for them to stop squabbling long enough, when they arrive at the run-down apartment paid for by Al's pathetic wages as a University research assistant, to work out which of them has the key, let alone where it is or how to get it in the lock. Alphonse manages only by twisting his fingers in Ed's ponytail and using it as a very short leash with which to keep Edward at bay; Ed stomps, hard, on his foot and Al winces and sighs. "Quit it," he says, tone sharp, and Ed reluctantly does so.
The interior of the apartment is just as dilapidated as the exterior. The sparse battered furnishings are coated in dust, and most are broken and lie in splinters of pine. Since the apartment is used solely as a place to sleep and a place to study—and occasionally a place in which to eat—neither of them have ever felt any pressing need to fix or replace anything.
"There should be some French stick in the breadbin," Al calls, as he heads for the bathroom. ""It shouldn't be too stale."
There's a crash from the kitchen, as Ed investigates. "Nah, it's okay," he replies. "Want some?"
Al wipes some of the grime from the mirror over the sink with a towel lying relatively near the laundry basket. "Have we got any jam?" he asks, as he turns the tap on.
"Er... no. Nope. None at all."
Al heaves a sigh, and flings the filthy towel into the bathtub. "Have we got any jam, Edward, including the remnants of the strawberry which I know you've found and are attempting to hide from me for reasons of your own, most of which—should I be bold enough to inquire—will probably sound extremely odd?"
"... We might have some of that jam, yes," Ed's voice announces a moment later through the thin bathroom walls; Al grins and runs his hands under the cold tap water.
He's just soaping them when the door opens and Ed pops his head in, waving a freshly-washed plate—on which lies the bread and jam—as if it were some sort of peace offering. "The hot water's gone," he says, as though Al hasn't noticed.
"Yeah, I couldn't pay the bill. The electricity and the heating's gone and the phone's dead, too."
Ed sighs. "Is there anything—?"
"No, it's okay," Al interrupts. "I know you tried to get a job. I don't mind. I can pay the rent and buy some food, we should be good for a while."
Ed ducks his head and mutters something; Al slips two fingers under his chin and tilts his face up. "Edward," he says, and smiles. "It's okay. Quit worrying."
Ed smiles a little—more a twitch of the corners of his mouth than anything else—and shoves the plate into Al's hand, vanishing with a flick of his ponytail. Alphonse sighs, and takes a seat on the edge of the bath to eat his supper. He'd rather eat it out in the living room, but something tells him Edward is having one of his guilt-trips and won't appreciate the company.
Really. The boy is a good friend, faithful, and loyal, and honest in that special way that some petty criminals can be; but he's almost more trouble than he's worth, sometimes.
Edward wanders into the lone bedroom after he's given Al his food; sits gingerly down on the edge of the bed and huffs a sigh of relief when it doesn't collapse under him. One of the legs needs fixing; he'd promised Al he'd get around to it, but promptly forgot about it when the Welsh scholar he'd written to last summer had replied with some interesting theories of his about space and time. As always, however, there was a note at the end; 'Try asking Einstein for more detail; the man's a genius.'
Yeah, he thought grumpily, and also somewhat shifty. He had the same quality that Hohenheim did, from the one time Ed had met him; smiling, seemingly quite nice and yet somehow fake, in a way. This world's Al—well, he wouldn't hear a word against the man. "Einstein holds the key to advancing German rocketry," he'd said, when Ed had asked; "We can regain our national pride only with his help. Why?"
"No reason," Ed had replied, warned by the sharp, curt question at the end of the statement, "Pass that book on astrophysics, won't you? The one with the blue cover."
Edward doesn't understand patriotism, same as he doesn't understand religion, or anything of the sort. In Britain he'd listened to the natives bragging about their triumph in the Great War, claiming God had been on their side and that this was the reason they had won.
"No," he'd thought, stirring his tea with one hand and resting his chin on the other, as the men on the next table left off their boasting in order to pay their restaurant bill, "You were just lucky." Lucky for a number of factors; God had had nothing to do with it. And when he'd arrived in Munich, he'd heard the same thing here, too. That God had been on the German side, had prevented more casualties than had already incurred from taxing Germany beyond recovery.
He hadn't understood patriotism back in Amestris, either; had vaguely comprehended that that was what soldiers had had, when they charged into Ishbal, and that was what they came out of the war without. Patriotism was for the fools who understood nothing of war, nothing of what it was to kill someone... even Heiderich, here, who hadn't seemed to grasp that any breakthroughs he or Einstein made for the glory of Germany would be modified into a new, even more powerful weapon than any seen before in the world before they could even blink.
He leans back on the bed, with a sigh that turns into a yelp as the wonky leg collapses and takes the other with it. He catches himself before he tumbles off the now diagonal surface; heaves a sigh and pushes himself to his feet. Might as well take the other pair off, now; he can sleep at a forty-five degree angle, but Alphonse certainly can't.
The door opens just as he crouches by the first leg, reaching out with his metal hand to unscrew the bolts that keep it in place. They were in just as poor a condition as everything else in this damn apartment, rusted in place, and he scowls when they thwart him. "Need any help?" asks Alphonse, coming to stand behind him. "Want me to fetch a screwdriver, or something?"
"Are you kidding?" Ed asks, lifting an eyebrow. "The only screwdriver we had is just as bad as this bolt, here... hmmm. A bit more power should do it."
He rolls the sleeve up on his metal arm, reaching into the elbow joint to find the generator rip-cord. Alphonse sighs. "Every time you do that," he snaps, "You melt the coating. It's getting hard to afford the paint, Ed, let alone the rubber."
Ed glances up at him, fingers still gripping the cord's end. "So what do you propose?"
"Simple." Alphonse reaches over his head, sinks his hands into the mattress, which squeaks in response. Ed eyes it warily; but it had only been the springs protesting, not an invading rodent. It's bad, but not that bad. Not yet, at any rate. "We sleep on the floor," Al says, frankly. "My pay check comes tomorrow; we'll buy a new bed. It means we're gonna have to go hungry for a few days next week, but we can manage, right?"
"What about that thing Amelie had?" Ed asks, referring to the daughter of an innkeeper whose hospitality they had enjoyed in France. "What was it called, now..."
"No," Al replies. "She imported it from Asia, and it probably costs more than this entire damn apartment."
Ed shudders, and sighs. "Fine," he agrees; stands and helps Al manoeuvre the mattress to another corner of the room. "What're we gonna do with this thing?"
Al shrugs. "No idea," he says, "You sort it out."
"You lazy bastard," Ed retorts; rolls his eyes. "Honestly, Al."
Al beams at him. "It's only fair," he says, meaningfully. "After all, I have so much to do nowadays—what with work and cleaning up after you and feeding you, since God knows you can't feed yourself, either—God knows how you've managed to survive until now... "
Ed waves him into silence. "Yeah, yeah," he says, trying and failing to hide a grin. "I get it. I'll sort it out, give me a few seconds."
"Sure," Al replies, and smiles. "Don't take too long dumping that thing, Ed. I don't know if you noticed, but we got a reply from Goddard."
"The American?" Ed asks, with a frown.
"No," Al snipes, "The Australian, who else?"
"Don't make fun," Ed says, but grins. "Sarcasm is, after all, the lowest form of intelligence."
Alphonse clears his throat, and snickers. "It's 'the lowest form of wit,' Ed, as well as the highest form of intelligence."
"Oh, shut up, you know what I mean," Ed says; pushes himself to his feet. "Fine, fine, I'll go ditch the damn thing. Anything to spare me from your oh-so-cutting barbs."
Alphonse watches him go, hands resting on his knees, and can't help but be amused.
They never plan anything of this nature; it just happens, and they are powerless to disobey. The last time it happened, the last time Alphonse had awoken to find Ed sobbing, as quietly as he could, into the seal of his arms, they'd been able to escape with merely words; but Al knows as soon as he drifts, slowly, out of his sleep, that this isn't going to be like last time. Ed has never told Al why he cries at night, but Al doesn't need him to. After all, he's missing a sibling, too; he wants that sibling back, and he knows he's nowhere near as attached to his brother as Ed is—was—to his.
Alphonse Heiderich is a Christian by birth and upbringing. His birth certificate lists him as a member of the German Protestant church, and he doesn't believe that science and religion are mutually incompatible; but nevertheless, he is an atheist.
Still, he always feels guilty when he raises a hand, dyed silver in the light let in through their ratty curtains, and strokes Ed's hair, as though some divine spectator is watching and judging. How many times has he done this? He can't quite remember. Edward has been living with him for two years, but this is not a regular occurrence. He thinks he lost count after the fortieth time, or was it the forty-fifth? "Hey," he says, instead; wipes moisture off Ed's cheeks when Ed turns to him. His friend is blushing, ashamed to be seen in such a condition—and this is not new, either, this is not new at all.
"I want to go home," Edward whispers, when Al's hand stills on his cheek; the taller boy smiles sadly, brushes one of his bangs out of his face. That's not what Edward means, and he knows it, and Edward knows that he knows it. But if Ed wishes to cling to this facade, then that's acceptable, too.
"We're working on it," he says, softly; "We're nearly there." He's been saying that every time for two years, but nevertheless Ed closes his eyes and leans into his fingers. This is routine, too, and Al reaches out with his other hand, runs the tips over Ed's face, along his nose and lips.
"I don't belong here," Ed murmurs, ducking his head to once again hide his face behind his hair. Al patiently brushes it out of the way again. "This isn't my world, it's yours. I'm just a stranger." A pause, and Edward squeezes his eyes tightly shut, dislodging the last tears. They slide down his cheeks, two streaks of moisture, and stop at Al's thumbs. "I want to go home," Edward whispers again, and bites his lip; Al leans forward, sweeps him into a tight embrace, and just holds him as the smaller blond begins to shake. There are no more tears—Edward has cried himself dry—but the shudders and gasps that rack his body are unnerving. Alphonse holds him until they fade, making soothing noises at the back of his throat as though he's dealing with a frightened wild fox cub, back home in the countryside village in which he'd been raised.
"It's all right," he whispers, as the shudders slow. "It's okay, Ed, we'll get you back home. It's all right, Edward, you needn't be ashamed of being homesick."
He pulls away, smiles at Ed with bright blue eyes, and Edward doesn't return the gesture. Damn, last time this had been enough; but it had been longer since then, and now, and Edward had more emotion locked inside him than he had then. Alphonse brushes the back of his hand over Ed's cheek, sweeping the last strands of hair out of his friend's face, and leans forward to kiss him.
Edward doesn't open his mouth at first, as usual, but Al simply brushes the blond's lips with his tongue, nudging and coaxing. It takes a fair bit of effort, but it works, and Ed shifts and parts his lips, silently touching Al's tongue with his own. Permission, need, desire, and underneath it all, a silent plea; Al draws back, and answers it with his hands, which are unbuttoning Ed's pyjama top, and his words. "It's all right," he says, "Just—relax. Let me. Please, Ed?"
And his friend breathes out, slowly, eyelids fluttering shut, and nods; Al curls his hands around Ed's shoulders—one flesh, the other a layer of painted rubber, over machinery warm with energy—and pulls the blond up. The pyjama top hangs off Ed, partially unbuttoned, but Al ignores it in favour of wrapping his hands around the back of Ed's neck, rubbing their noses together before brushing his lips against Edward's. "It's okay," he whispers, when they part for breath; claims Ed's mouth again, and slips one of his hands down from its resting place at the back of Ed's neck to resume his fumbling with the pyjama top buttons.
He doesn't break the kiss as he pushes the item of clothing over his friend's shoulders; doesn't break the kiss as he helps Ed get his arms out of the sleeves. Edward is kissing back, now, forceful and hungry, as if he seeks to swallow the words neither of them can nor will say straight out of Al's mouth; as if he seeks to keep Alphonse here, with him, by the power of mere suction. Freed from the sleeve, his good hand rises to bury itself in Al's hair, working its way through the fine blond strands, and Ed begins to make the strangest noises in the back of his throat.
"Easy," Al reassures; strokes down Ed's spine, coaxing muscles into relaxing. He shifts his legs out from under him, the better to support him when he leans his weight into Ed, bearing the boy gently back down into the mess of sheets and pillows. "Relax, Ed. Lie down. That's it. Don't worry, I've got you."
The pyjama bottoms are next, worked down around Ed's knees, boxers pushed down to follow them. Al doesn't get undressed himself just yet; although normally the thought of Ed naked would be enough to encourage him to strip—and strip fast—he can never find it in himself to be aroused during these nights, during Ed's distress. He touches Ed's good hand; tangles their fingers together and pushes himself onto his stomach, hovering above Ed's erect cock. Ed closes his eyes and wets his lips, and Al gives his hand a firm squeeze before reaching out with the free one, lightly brushing a finger over the tip. He trails that finger—keeping the contact feather-light, keeping it soft and gentle, meant to arouse further—down to Ed's balls; wriggles a little further forward and carefully, still keeping hold of Edward's hand, wraps his lips around the head of his friend's dick.
Ed makes a small noise, his good foot pushing against the sheets, and wriggles a bit; Alphonse chuckles, throatily, the touches with his tongue the spot he'd touched with his finger. He's not in the mood—nor, really, does he have the capability—to deep throat his friend, but he knows what to do and how to do it, wraps his hand around the base of Ed's cock as his tongue leisurely explores the differing texture of the foreskin and glans. He does his best to ignore Ed's hitched gasps and soft, quiet whimpers as his friend struggles to refrain from thrusting into his mouth, the growing tension that indicated orgasm is fast approaching; and, when Ed comes, shuddering, into his mouth, he tries to ignore the soft whisper of "Alphonse..."
Because he's not the Alphonse Edward is thinking about, he knows. He knows Ed appreciates him—loves him—in his own way, but the little needle of rejection stabs into his heart anyway.
"How are you?" he asks, keeping his voice low and even, free of his thoughts and bitterness.
Edward's eyelids flutter as he pulls himself out of the post-coital daze, and he pushes himself up on the metal arm, glances down at his left hand and Al's right, tangled together and resting casually on his hip. For a long while, he doesn't say anything, just watches; then he smiles, and says, "Better now, thanks to you. Jeez, Al, I owe you one."
He sounds more like his usual self, and that's a good thing. Al breathes out, runs his tongue over his teeth, and sighs. He can still taste Edward's semen, but knows there's nothing left in the fridge to wash it out with and—well, he wouldn't trust the tap water in this hovel. He pulls a face, and then blinks, startled, as Ed's false hand slips under his chin. "Hey," Ed murmurs; shifts awkwardly to put them eye to eye. "Um. Al."
"Thanks," says Ed, and gives him a quick kiss on the lips before pulling back, blushing furiously.
Al couldn't keep the smile that slowly dawns upon his face at the gesture away if he tried. "Don't mention it," he replies, wriggling further up the sheets, towards the pillows. "Can you get to sleep now?"
Ed nods through a large yawn, which Al promptly mimics. "Yeah," Ed says, "'course I can. Thanks again, Al."
"Don't mention it," Al beams, still smiling, surreptitiously arranging himself against Edward so that his friend can lean back against his chest; without a word, Ed accepts the offer, eyes closing slowly.
"Night," he mutters, and Al weaves an arm around his waist. "See you... in the mornin'..."
"Good night, Edward," Alphonse agrees, tightening his grip. He shouldn't be surprised, he thinks, when Ed raises a hand and settles it, gently, over his. But he is, anyway; surprised, and more than a little touched. He opens his mouth to say something—and pauses, realises Edward is sound asleep, eyes shut and breathing gentle and even. "Sweet dreams," he whispers instead, leaning forward to kiss the back of his friend's neck. "And thank you."
He doesn't fall asleep immediately, instead perfectly content to lie there with Edward warm and soft in his arms. Ed's brother is a lucky creature, he thinks sadly, to have a sibling such as this; he can only hope that the boy appreciates the gift he's been given. If not—well. Al might have to have a word with him.
Somehow, he knows that that won't be necessary, and hides his smile in Edward's fine golden hair. The plans really are nearly completed; Al can see a month, at worst, in the theory stage before they begin the practical side of their work. He'd give himself three more months, maximum, with Edward before the boy goes home.
Well. There'll be two seats in the rocket they've designed. "Maybe there'll be space for one more in Ed's own world," he whispers, drowsily, and gives a short bark of laughter. Idiot. Oh well, a guy can dream... can't he?
For a short while after Alphonse drops off to sleep, Edward keeps his eyes open, thin slits of gold as his mind processes what he's just heard. His fingers twitch as though itching for pen and paper, but he tilts his head slightly, buries his face in the pillows. They'll talk about it tomorrow. Alphonse still has a sibling here, and there is, as Edward has discovered, nothing worse than feeling out of place in an entire world. He wouldn't want to inflict that on Al, not unless Al is certain of his decision. If Al asks, Ed thinks, amused, there's no way he'll say no. He owes Al too much for that.
His last thought, before he slips into a real, true, deep slumber, is to wonder whether his little brother will mind sharing.