Alphonse would have liked to claim that he'd known something was wrong the exact second he walked through the door. Knowing his brother as well as he did was a source of pride (if a dubious one on occasion), and even though their souls were no longer bound by alchemical blood pact, he liked to think he was still on some level tuned in to his elder sibling's innermost workings. When Ed was pleased, Al celebrated his triumphs with him. When Ed was sad, Al could see it in his eyes.
And when Ed was displeased, Al knew just when to grab his hands to prevent unnecessary property damage. It was reflexive, damn near automatic, a sixth sense that came ingrained in his youthful new body, and he was happy to claim the title of brother-wrangler.
However, as omniscient and all powerful as he usually liked to be, every now and again even demigods have off days. That was why, to his great chagrin, it was Russell Tringham who first noticed the problem with the apartment.
"Hey," Russell said, sticking his head cautiously into the foyer, "it's quiet in here."
A moment's pause and Al confirmed it, slightly embarrassed he hadn't noticed before. Silence was minor miracle considering that when they'd left, Ed had been in the middle of yet another round of 'prove my roommate an idiot.' Al had used his powers of clairvoyance to duck out for a cup of coffee with the Tringhams just before Ed had hit the full stride of his rant; he'd seen the rest coming and he was not interested in refereeing a marathon argument. When they'd first moved in here at Central together maybe that would have not been the case, but he was coming to read Alfons pretty well now too and their roommate had been right on pace behind Ed, ready to take the lead with a blistering counterargument, likely in the wrong damn language, and from what Al did understand he could give as good as he got. He could take whatever grief Ed wanted to give him when they were literally arguing the pros and cons of milk in a recipe.
"Think they figured out what it was they were doing with the Theobroma sample?" Russell asked.
"I don't know," Al said. He took a cautious step toward the living room. "They were still arguing hypothesises when I left."
Russell poked his way further into the hallway, emboldened no doubt by the fact that Ed wasn't waiting to rag on him. That was another story it had taken Al forever to piece together, how it was that Russell had once been arrested for stealing his and Ed's identities and yet passed with nothing more than the typical friendly haranguing Ed dished out to all their friends. "Cause he's fake-me," was the most Ed would say. Bah. Al loved his brother dearly, but half the time his personal research into the life and times of the Fullmetal Alchemist was more detailed and accurate than the information Ed himself provided. Ed tended to present the world in terms of what he felt was most important, which didn't always tell Al what he needed to know.
"This is Mr. Armstrong, formerly Major, don't let him shake your hand or he'll break it", "this is Mustang, formerly Colonel, don't let the smile fool you, give him an inch and the bastard will talk you into giving him ten miles." Russell and Fletcher were "imposter-us's we met in Xenotime." And Alfons Heiderich was Ed's "roommate from the other side of the gate," which apparently translated also to "roommate in Central", as occasionally vexing as that situation might be.
He entered the living room-come-mad scientist's lair and was not at all surprised to find it trashed. They generally kept things sanitary, but whenever there was a Project on the horizon all hope of organization went out the window. Ed had dragged both the end tables and the coffee table together to hold up what looked like every notebook in the house, most of which were open and filled with arrays. Russell followed on his heels like a puppy, trying and failing to pretend he wasn't interested in sneaking a look. Al couldn't help but smile. Russell had been the one to introduce them to Xingian firewater, it would have been a crime to leave him out.
"Looks like they're working on a different extraction method," Russell said, sounding excited, bending over the collection of notebooks. He fingered one of the arrays. It had a single brown almond-shaped bean at the center, one of the many Russell and his brother had sent over. The Tringhams had an amazing greenhouse, and one of their most recent additions was an exotic plant that bore pods filled with those beans. Apparently in Xing it was all the rage to roast and prepare them like coffee. According to their Pharmacists, the bitter ‘firewater' tonic that resulted had valuable medicinal properties.
And it certainly did taste like a medicine, Al thought snidely. He picked the sample bean up and wrinkled his nose at it, set it back down on an end table away from potentially live arrays. The "Xingian firewater" Russell had prepared for them the other night had been one of the bitterest things he had ever tasted, and no amount of table sugar had been able to make the grainy mixture palatable. Absolutely no one had been able to finish. Al would have been happier to chalk it up to experience and never ‘experience' firewater again, but Alfons had hit the roof. He couldn't stop going on about ‘chocolate', some theoretical confection from his mysterious homeland.
At which point Ed had decided that of course they should recreate it, even though they had no sample, even though he didn't know the compound. Of course he could do it in no time flat, if the Tringhams would only donate a sample. So far ‘no time flat' had spanned the better part of a morning and (Al presumed) a loud and raucous argument about the pros and cons of involving milk in their grand Work in Progress.
"It looks like he added alkali," Russell noted. He held up a page, eyes shining with quiet hero worship. "That's brilliant, I hadn't even thought of it. But that would tone down the bitterness."
"Mm, yeah," Al said noncommittally, shuffling through a few pages of his own. It wasn't like his brother to actually write arrays out by hand, he usually didn't bother. Not unless he wanted others to be able to follow what he was doing. And since neither Al nor Russell nor Fletch nor any other alchemist had been there...
Sure enough, there were scratches in another color of ink across half the lab notebooks. Most of them were ripping Ed's results to pieces. Al groaned. They'd both been trying to teach Alfons how to read arrays so he wouldn't feel so left out when everyone discussed theory, even though the man was incapable of actual transmutation—but so far, Ed only seemed to do so when he wanted to flaunt his alchemical prowess, which was often. It always seemed like Ed was trying to show off to their roommate, and Alfons always seemed to respond in an equally ridiculous manner, like his utility was somehow being challenged. Al had seen the way Alfons had glowered at his brother that night, and he had not been at all surprised that Alfons had gotten right in the thick of things today, rather cheerfully announcing that all Ed's test batches were failures.
He looked closer and was certainly not surprised to see a little used litmus strip sitting at the top of one page. Too much Acid -what about Base? was scrawled next to it in Alfons's eccentric handwriting. There was more to the suggestion, but it was barely discernible—the consonants looked like jagged river rapids, the vowels like little boulders lodged in the middle of the stream.
Ed's response was more legible. It was an array drawn so forcefully that the point of his pen had gone through the page in three places.
Al stood up and brushed invisible dirt off his pants.
"You know what, I'm going to go find them real quick," —and make sure they haven't killed each other— "You mind waiting here for a sec?"
"Huh? Not at all," Russell said, still engrossed in the set of designs he was leafing through. "Go ahead."
Al excused himself and slipped into the hall, unnerved now by the silence. He was beginning to wonder if Alfons and his brother were even around, or if they'd annoyed each other enough to go storming out in opposite directions. It had happened once or twice before, and the more he looked, the more it looked like history had indeed repeated itself.
There was no one in any of the bedrooms. No one in the bathroom. It wasn't until he entered the kitchen that he saw any remote sign of life, and that was a small saucepan simmering on the stove, lidless and apparently unattended.
The scent wafting up from it was absolutely delicious.
Al took a few steps closer and took a cautious peek, curious but also concerned. It was one thing to get in a stupid argument and stomp off; it was another to leave an open flame going. When he found his brother and their roommate, they were both going to be sleeping in the proverbial doghouse, even if he had to break their legs to make them fit. This was a safety hazard (if an apparently delicious one), and now he was in the difficult position of figuring out what to do with the solution.
It was a fairly smooth dark brown liquid with a rich, heady scent he could smell from the door, the slightest undertone of burnt sugar. No sign of directions or lab notes anywhere. Usually if there was a compound that needed to be kept hot (or cold) to be stable, Ed would leave about twenty DO NOT TOUCH notes. And annoyed as he was that this project had so far left him out—he could neither test nor develop a compound he had never experienced himself—he didn't want to ruin their progress if he could avoid it. Al thought for a second, then reached into the drawer next the stove. There was a clean steel ladle there, and given that the mystery compound was currently being housed in a steel saucepan, he figured it was safe to contact with that utensil. He risked dipping some out for a quick look, rolled it back and forth in the bowl of the ladle. It seemed harmless enough, though of course without knowing the toxicity, he wasn't about to try it.
He poured a bit into a steel mixing bowl to investigate further, intrigued by the way it rolled about in the bowl. The aroma the solution gave off was absolutely to die for, if not for safety protocol he'd be hanging his head over the pot to absorb more of it. The texture looked tempting too, velvety and smooth like very expensive fondue sauce; rich, possibly from milk fat. Judging by the empty bottles sitting on the counter, Alfons had gotten his way and incorporated milk after all—not a downside in Al's book, he loved heated milk with any sort of flavor. His fingers itched to draw an array to deconstruct the mixture and find out if this incarnation of ‘chocolate' was safe to sample.
An unexpected noise from the dining nook caught his ear—one of the chairs creaking, it sounded like—and suddenly Al felt silly for having missed his brother before. The table, of course—it was around the bend from the kitchen itself in this funny, L-shaped room, but if Ed and Alfons had finally settled their differences and were busy trying out the fruits of their labor, he wanted in on the action. (Or, if they were dying of food poisoning, he needed to know so he and Russell could call the appropriate authorities. He was a little concerned they didn't have enough charcoal on hand.) Al trotted around the corner, bowl in hand—then stopped short, utterly stunned.
For a second he didn't understand what it was that he was seeing, and then his brain kicked in again and registered several things in rapid succession.
A) His brother and his roommate were indeed alive and well.
B) His brother and his ‘roommate' suddenly made a lot more sense.
C) His brother's constant attempts to impress his 'roommate' made a lot more sense.
D) His brother. His brother.
Al stared in horror at the scene before him, twitching a little. "Action" was right—only instead of chocolate, they seemed to be busy sampling each other, and ew, he ate on that table occasionally! Alfons had his brother pressed up against the edge of it and seemed intent on devouring Ed's face; Ed for his part seemed to be attempting to swallow Alfons's tongue. The weirdest part, really (other than that this was his BROTHER kissing someone, siblings weren't allowed to have sexuality, that was just something he'd never wanted to think about) was that his brother wasn't being all...growly and aggressive, the way Al had figured Ed would be (were his brother ever allowed to be anything other than his sibling, which Al had until this moment never even considered could happen). Ed was his hero. His champion. His lifelong, if occasionally overbearing, protector who was sometimes so zealous he had to fight for the right not to be protected.
His brother-sense had failed him, all logic was entirely out the window. Ed was not smiling and grinning and snickering just because he'd managed to nip some guy's chin. He wasn't.
At least neither of them had noticed him yet, thank heaven for small favors. Al was free to gape in abject disbelief as Ed went up on his tiptoes so he could murmur something low and growly into Alfons's ear. Whatever it was made Alfons go bright red. Then the man shoved and...and hugged at his brother some more, and Ed laughed and accepted it, did hugging back of his own volition. Al couldn't remember the last time he'd been able to get Ed to agree to being hugged—he hardly ever touched people of his own accord, he seemed awkward when anyone tried to get touchy-feely. And yet, there it was, his brother being flirtatious and oh yes, definitely touching someone, urging Alfons close. There was a smudge on his Alfons's cheek—chocolate, Al identified numbly—and he watched as Ed pulled his roommate's head down so he could lap at it, cleaning Alfons's face like a cat. Alfons flushed again and that was it...it was too weird for Al to bear.
His brother was, heaven help him, being romantic.
He backtracked with a speed Parliament politicians would have admired, though the things he had just seen regrettably could not be unseen. He stumbled out into the living room like a ghost, feeling rather like he had just been reincarnated all over again.
Russell looked up from the pile of failed experiments, a sunny smile on his face. He gestured to the mixing bowl that Al was still clinging to with one tight, white-knuckled little hand.
"So how is it?" Russell asked eagerly.
"...too much sugar," Al replied faintly. "C'mon, let's go out for coffee."
Bitter, blackest coffee, he decided, for the next two or three hours.