It takes less than a week before he recognizes that their arrangement is not going to work.
It's not so much the loss of research space (his desk was filling up with bills and denied grants anyways) but the loss of Edward's personality itself. Something about the place seems to be sucking the life out of him; the more time he spends indoors, the more he seems to wilt. It's as if, by moving in, he's become another fixture of the study room. By day five, he's taken on the same walnut hue of the desk chair and by the sixth, he might as well be a permanent part of the floor.
"Edward?" He asks again, watching his friend droop suddenly into his bowl of oatmeal.
"Tired." He says simply. Always tired. It is an irritatingly vague sort of answer. Alfons wonders if there is some sort of conspiracy against him, that everyone named Edward must be so completely impossible. His own brother used to give him one-word answers when the truth was too inconvenient, and as always the superficial similarities are striking.
But again, his own brother would not be sleeping in his breakfast—he would not be content to be someone's furniture. This Edward is all too happy to obey him, never says a damn thing to contradict him, and it troubles Alfons that his friend won't even trust him enough lately to burden him with the truth.
"Are you sure?" Alfons presses. "We went to sleep at ten last night!"
Edward gives him a look that speaks for itself.
He does look peaky. Alfons reaches out one hand to touch his forehead. He doesn't think about it, he just does, the same, casual kindness he might offer his own Edward. His friend bats it away with a horrified hiss, as if Alfons has insulted him with the mere implication that his body is (so obviously) weak.
" 'm just tired." He says again, same glazed and dead look in his eyes, but with a slight curl to his lips that makes Alfons understand.
He has probably been too familiar, again. He will have to be more careful. Edward Elric is not someone who welcomes, or appreciates touch.
The situation deteriorates rapidly over the next couple days, though, and he begins to rethink his hands-off policy—Edward looks so hang-dog that even the neighbors are noticing, and his eyes are so red-rimmed that they're almost painful to look at. He keeps hoping that Edward will just tell him something, but he's no longer optimistic that will ever happen. Watching him nod off (again) into the pages of the same thesis he's been reading for the past three hours is excruciating for both of them, and sadness mingles with rage in nearly equal parts.
"Are you having trouble sleeping?" He blurts out suddenly, before he's really even planned out his argument.
Edward starts with an energy Alfons hasn't seen in quite sometime, and Alfons can see the pistons start chugging to turn out a lie immediately. He heads it off at the pass.
"Don't tell me you aren't; I have eyes, you know. Is there anything I can do about it?"
"Well..." A nervous shuddering of prosthetics against the floor. "There's a bit of a...hole in the guest mattress. I mean, it's not that bad, don't get me wrong...I really do appreciate you letting me stay here and all."
Alfons gapes in disbelief. The mattress. The cotton-picking, god-forsaken mattress. He worries for a week, watches the man fall apart at the seams, over a goddamned piece of cushion.
The anger explodes out like a wild thing, and he barely checks it before it pounces on its unsuspecting victim.
"The mattress." He says again, and it is a measure of his self-restraint that he doesn't even start tearing his hair out.
"Yeah." His friend says, looking miserable—whether from sheer exhaustion, or from his illusory sin of Being a Burden, it is impossible to know. Edward's eyes are pleading, though his lips will most likely never, and the rational part of Alfons' mind understands that this is the probably best he can expect. Sullenly, he wonders how much it would cost this proud creature to admit he even has desires, if he can't even ask for something so necessary. Definitely nothing like his brother. His own brother would scream until the rafters rang if something wasn't to his liking. Cocky, infuriating bastard.
Charming, likeable bastard. He misses him, sometimes, and honestly hopes he is doing well. But Edward is not his brother, never will be, and for better or worse this is what he has to work with.
"You sleep in my bed tonight. I'll take the guest bed." He says, tight, clipped, and Edward predictably opens his mouth to protest. "I insist. I won't be able to sleep either, if I'm worrying about you."
And yes, there it is, the pin that makes the whole works come down—Edward shuts his mouth immediately and closes his eyes, trembles slightly. When he opens them again, his entire countenance has changed to one of careful obedience.
He doesn't like how easily he can guilt-trip his friend, doesn't like it at all, but finally, finally they are playing ball.
"Thank you." Edward is saying, earnestly now, as if Alfons has somehow given him permission to have physical needs. He feels slightly ridiculous, but the unadultered relief on the boy's face is so open, so honest, that he finds he cannot voice the abomination.
I am not your brother, and even if I were, I wouldn't want you to love me like this.
Not like this.
He starts to understand about the mattress almost immediately, though, and that at least makes him feel better. He still wants to bash his friend's skull in for not saying something about it, but at least it is a very tangible and real reason for walking around like a zombie. In fact, "hole" might just be an understatement. This is a cavern, a vast nothingness beneath his back that reaches up and makes a bid for taking his soul as well.
Unadultered. Pure. Agony. Fall asleep, to wake up again in a few hours; impossible to find a comfortable position to stay in. Sometimes, his limbs thrash about by themselves randomly. The bed frame jabs up at his hips through the thin cotton mattress pad, and sends spikes of pain through the bone if he moves the wrong way. He thinks then, of the large metal prosthetics Edward has drilled (drilled!!!) into himself, and shudders at the thought.
He finds himself trapped in his own body on the morning of the third day, just a hair above sleep and sliver below waking, unable to move a muscle but somehow, horribly able to think, thoughts drift in and out of focus with barely any rhyme or reason. He tries to open his eyelids and shed some light on the mystery, but they are no longer a part of his body as he knows it.
Edward's beautiful, maddening face swims before him and merges with the body of his older brother, refuses to leave him alone so he can think more appropriate things.
Please God, if I have to think about him, take my brother out of it first.
There is no God for you here his mind giggles deliriously back at him. You're in Hell where you belong, you sick, sorry fuck. He thinks you ARE his brother. Least you could do is return the favor.
I don't want another brother. Really, I don't.
What DO you want, then?
Edward and Eddie split into two, smiled at him, wove back together, broke apart again. What the hell, sometimes it was all one.
He lies there, thinking everything and nothing, and inexorably comes back to the question of Edward's strange eyes, and wonders whether or not they see these same sheep when they're trapped between wakings. His body is entirely thought, nebulous ideas about rockets and death and life and (love) and people, and he rides it all the way until someone shakes his shoulder and releases him from the fire.
"Alfons?" Breathy, beautiful voice. How could you help but turn toward it?
The image blurs above him, refuses to come into focus. Golden hair, swaying loose into his face.
"Eddie?" The name is out before he can stop himself, and watches the way Edward's face crumbles. Beautiful, beautiful eyes, so sad because of him. Beautiful, beautiful eyes that he's not sure he should think are beautiful at all.
He thought he understood the nature of nightmares, but realizes now that the worst ones happen when you are already awake.
It is only after he's pushed himself to where he too is the living dead that they finally come upon their truce. There is only one place they can go, and they are both nervous about it. The couch is no option. They need that couch for guests (leeches! The ghost of his principled Aunt Margerite screeches. hangers-on!) and anyways it is barely a step above the Mattress; all the springs are broken and the couch-crack swallows one's buttocks. There is only one solution, or so he's told himself; they are going to have to share.
They stare at each other across the bed at an impasse, each watching the other like he's a dangerous cobra. Alfons fiddles with the edge of the comforter, not really sure what He feels strangely naked in his own bedroom, even though he is wearing full winter pajamas. Edward has done him one better, and is clad fully head to toe in his usual attire.
"Well?" He asks, and Edward shifts nervously, but does not run.
"Yeeeeeah." His friend says slowly, reaches for the covers. They slip in at opposite ends almost simultaneously, like synchronized swimmers.
And it is impossible not to touch. The bed is too small to allow them more than a few inches of personal space. His fingers flick and rub startlingly against the sharpness of Ed's wrist bone. Edward shudders, says nothing.
He had thought the Mattress was hell; this was beyond compare.
"...this isn't going to work." Edward mumbles, sounding miserable. "I'll go back to the other room."
He makes no move to get up, though. Alfons wonders angrily if he'll have to guilt-trip him into this, too. Sometimes he just wants to GRAB Edward and SHAKE him, get on top of him and SCREAM until he agrees to be a PERSON and have NEEDS around him, goddammit—
The arm next to him quivers violently, and he realizes that he has closed his fingers around that slender wrist. Edward's heart is pounding loud enough for both of them to hear it.
This makes no sense. By all rights, they should be just like brothers. Edward sees him as his brother. He's been trying to respond in kind.
They should be just like brothers and Edward is shivering, breathing uneven and fast next to him. Alfons steals a glance and stares in wonder at the expression on his friend's face. It occurs to him that the boy is somehow terrified, as if this one slight contact might unravel everything.
Carefully, hesitantly, he brushes his palm along the flat plane of Edward's forearm. A slow, shaky gasp answers him, and the bedsprings groan as his friend leans toward him. He brushes his fingertips along the edge of Edward's flank, and is fascinated by the way the muscle twitches. It is warm and firm and everything that Edward is, and the relief is so powerful it is tangible. This is Edward. Edward. Edward. He wants to laugh, sing, skip, dance a jig on the goddamn living room rug. He is no longer seeing double.
Edward is on his side and staring now, so much raw emotion in his eyes that it is dizzying. He is still shaking a little, looking down at Alfon's hand on his bicep like he can't believe it is real. Looking back up at Alfon's face with a wince he can't disguise.
Are you even seeing me now? Alfons wonders, but he's too afraid of the answer to ever voice it. He can probably already guess, and if he knew then he might have to stop. As it is, all he can do is close his eyes and give Edward some blessed respite. They have always been too blue for his liking.
He knows they are lost even before Edward makes a choked noise and pulls him to his chest, shatters the rest of his better sensibilities in a desperate embrace. Edward Elric secretly loves to be touched, and Alfons secretly loves to touch him, and dear God in Heaven, they are both going to burn for it.