Edward drank too much at the party. Throughout the evening, as Edward grew more boisterous, louder, and his grins more wavering around the edges, Al thought of maybe suggesting to his brother that he had enough to drink.
But they were no longer young, and they no longer lived together, and Al wouldn't embarrass his brother in front of their hosts by trying to take care of him. In fact, the only reason Al even noticed it, despite the fact that he was circulating the room, conversing, and generally having a good time, was because he was still remarkably attuned to his brother.
The years of separation hadn't been enough to overcome the habits born of years spent together. Al shook his head a little, and forced his mind away from his brother. Ed had made it clear that Al wasn't to worry about him too much.
Their lives were separate now, and sometimes, Al wasn't sure whether or not he was happy about that.
"You look oddly melancholy," a voice spoke near his shoulder, and Al turned in surprise, not having heard anybody stepping up to him.
"Oh, General Mustang." Quickly, he banished the thoughts, and worked a genuine smile on to his face.
Mustang nodded a greeting. "I saw Winry earlier, and looked for you." He chuckled. "I confess I was worried I had missed you. You and Edward have a tendency to try and escape these parties as soon as you can."
Al laughed a bit sheepishly, conceding the point. "Well, we haven't vanished yet." He found his gaze drawn to his brother again. Ed had apparently lost his conversation partner, and was alone for the moment, looking oddly bereft. "How are you and Riza doing? It's been a while since we last got together."
A fond smile flashed across Mustang's face, though tinged with sadness. They had been married for over two years, and were starting to feel acutely the lack of children. Still, though, it was early to be actively worried. Mustang answered with a few generalities, giving Al the excuse to relate the most recent escapades of his daughter, who was just now learning to walk.
The conversation lagged a bit, and almost against his will, Al's mind returned to his brother, who seemed to be losing his alcohol-enhanced energy.
"How is he?" Al found himself asking.
Following his gaze, Mustang's eyes came to rest on Ed as well. "I doubt I have any news to give you. Don't you talk to him all the time?"
At the office, Ed certainly talked about Al often enough, about his successes in medical alchemy, about Winry's amazing advances in automail engineering, about his niece whom he loved to pieces.
"He always says he's fine," Al said, a note of frustration creeping into his voice. More and more often now he missed their closeness, but it felt like whenever he tried to inquire further into Ed's life, to renew the bond between them that had been deeper than oceans, Ed found ways to cleverly evade him.
Of course, he followed his brother's exploits on the news. Not a month went by when his brother wasn't interviewed on the radio about the Situation, or had his name in the scientific journals because of some alchemic advance, or was all over the papers because the People's Alchemist had kept a bridge from collapsing, a car accident from happening, rescued somebody's pet cat...
"He is fine," Mustang said contemplatively. "Though I suppose the question you could ask yourself is, why is he 'fine' and not 'great'?"
Dark eyes turned to regard Al, who looked up, startled. That sort of game of semantics would never have occurred to him, and he was sure that Ed would probably have never thought of it, either. But all the same, Mustang had a point.
He looked across the room to Ed, who was now leaning against the wall, his head lolling to the side a little.
"I think it's time to vanish," Al murmured, suddenly sick to death of the sheer propriety of the place. He knew he was only invited to these affairs because he was an acquaintance of General Mustang and brother of the famous Fullmetal Alchemist. And he only came because Ed always begged him to come, and because Winry, surprisingly enough, truly enjoyed these functions; from the dressing up, to the mingling and polite flirtation, to the expensive buffets.
For his part, Al enjoyed an afternoon with his brother, Winry, and some invention, elbows deep in grease, far more.
Mustang nodded understanding, and raised a hand in farewell. "I'll tell Winry you've gone ahead," he said.
Al nodded, and started threading his way through the guests, making for his brother. Ed looked up when he got close, and smiled, his eyes a bit unfocused.
"Hey, Al," he said, his voice surprisingly clear. With Ed, you could never tell his state of drunkenness by his voice; he always spoke perfectly, even when halfway unconscious. The real indicator was when Ed started talking utter nonsense in the most reasonable tone imaginable.
"Hey," Al answered, leaning against the wall next to his brother for a moment. "I'm getting sick of this. You want to get out of here?"
Ed laughed. "Sure I do, but I don't think I'd make it to the door. Gravity's gone all weird. Sometimes it's too strong, sometimes it's too weak, and next thing you know I'll be facedown on the floor."
A smile flickered across Al's face. "Come on," he said, laying a hand on Ed's shoulder. "I'll help you."
Suspicious, Ed regarded the hand. "I don't know what makes you think that you're more gravity-resistant than I am."
A few minutes of tugging and Ed gave in, and started speculating about gravity-controlling arrays. By the time they were out the door, Ed was pretty convinced that it was part of a Drachman plot.
"Because, y'know, those Drachman bastards are still sore over the fact that we beat them in the last war. I bet you this is their idea of revenge."
Suppressing laughter, Al protested, "But you always say that Drachman alchemy is stuck a hundred years ago." Once, it hadn't taken alcohol to get Ed to loosen up about his silly pet theories, Al thought with a stab of regret. He could remember evenings when they had sat together, weaving the most ridiculously fabricated science-fantasies.
"Hm. You're right. Not Drachma, then."
Al hailed a cab, waiting to hear what his brother's next stroke of brilliance would be.
"It could be Xing," Ed said. "Xing has weird-ass alchemy."
"I thought you liked the Xingians."
"Doesn't mean they don't have weird-ass alchemy," Ed insisted stubbornly.
Al resisted the urge to laugh, because he knew it would make Ed belligerent.
The cab stopped near Ed's building, and Al encouraged his brother to get out. Despite many protests by many people, Al not least among them, Ed refused to live anywhere that reflected his status. Year after year he clung to his old apartment on Halloway Street. While Al had to concede there was nothing really wrong with it, he always felt a sort of pang whenever he came by.
Ed knew Al didn't like it, and that was probably why he hadn't been inviting his brother over nearly as often, lately.
"You don't have to come in with me," Ed said suddenly, watching Al search through his key-ring for the spare key to Ed's apartment.
"Give me a break, I bring you all this way, and you're going to leave me out in the cold?" Finding the key, Al slid it into the lock, and the door swung open with a soft protest that spoke of hinges needing oil.
Silent, Ed followed him inside, still swaying a bit. A few minutes of searching later, Al found the light switch, only to discover that the lightbulb in the foyer was burned out.
Maybe this was why he kept on harping at Ed to move out, Al thought to himself, looking around at the slightly messy, worn-down place. The walls had only the barest hints of decoration, a few pictures (mostly presents from him and Winry), interspersed with sketches of arrays tacked onto the plaster. The rugs were comfortable but worn, and books lay around haphazardly, some with multiple scraps of paper marking their pages. A fine layer of dust stirred up as they advanced towards the living room, and Al sighed softly. He didn't like the thought of his brother living alone in this sort of place; Ed deserved so much more, so much better.
"Thanks," Ed said, pausing beside Al. "I'm glad you came with me."
Touched, Al smiled down at his brother. He knew that Ed didn't begrudge him the height Ed himself had never managed to achieve, but some part of Al wished that he could have remained shorter than Ed. He missed looking up to his brother, physically as well as emotionally.
There was something quietly wrong about Ed being smaller than him.
"I should get you something," Ed offered. "I don't have so much—do you want juice? Water?"
"Juice, thanks." Truthfully, he didn't really want anything. But Ed probably wouldn't believe him if he said that, and anyway, it made Ed happy to do things for Al, to the point where Al sometimes felt like he was taking advantage of his brother.
Unbidden, his thoughts returned to what Mustang had said. Why was Ed just 'fine', and not 'great'? Why did it seem like when everybody had moved on to the happy days of 'after', Ed had fallen between the cracks somewhere, and had been left behind?
Uneven footsteps heralded Ed's return from the kitchen, holding a glass of some sort of juice, unidentifiable in the partial gloom. Judicious tasting proved it to be mango. By now, Ed was starting to look more alert, and was quite a bit steadier on his feet.
"It's dirty here," Al observed, between sips.
Ed groaned, running a hand through his hair. "Will you lay off? Every time you come here you rag on about the damn place." Frustrated, he flopped to a sofa, his feet splayed out in front of him.
Scrutinizing his glass, Al allowed his finger to draw idle designs in the mist from the cold. "Sorry," he offered, not knowing what else to say.
"I don't like seeing you alone," he added, trying to soften the words. "Haven't you ever found somebody?"
Body still flopped lazily on the couch, Ed's suddenly pained expression was at odds with the apparent ease of his body. Ed's answer, when he finally spoke, was quiet, speaking of hurt that had yet to scab over. "There's been only one girl I ever loved."
Surprised, and not a little abashed at never having known this before, Al set the glass aside and sat down next to Ed.
"Who is she? Didn't it work out?" For some reason, the thought of his brother losing his love hurt him in a more personal way than he would have thought. Maybe because, being so happily married to Winry, he wanted his brother to be able to fully share his joy.
There were so many things he wanted for his brother, but above all, he wanted Ed to be happy. He was so tired of leaving this place knowing that Ed would be alone in the silence.
The smile that crossed Ed's face was rueful. "She loves somebody else. She's married now, from what I know." Ed hesitated for a second, then confessed quietly, "Sometimes I wish I could have been the man to make her happy."
"And you... she didn't like you?" It wasn't fair that after everything his brother had done for him, Ed was left feeling inadequate. Unexpected anger roiled hot in his belly as he thought of whoever-it-was that hadn't been able to return his brother's feelings.
"I was too late," Ed answered quietly, a faraway look in his eyes, remembering. Judging by his expression, the memories were unhappy. "By the time I dared say anything, she had..." his voice trailed off, then he rallied a bit, just enough to finish the sentence. "She found someone else."
Disquiet filled Al, and he looked down at his glass, frowning. It was unlike Ed in the extreme to show such passivity, and he couldn't conceive of any situation in which Ed would give up on something he wanted, without so much as a fight. "You didn't even try...?"
He couldn't condone a man trying to steal another man's girl, but this was his brother. Ed deserved at least a chance.
An odd smile quirked at his brother's lips, and Ed reached for Al's glass, drawing it towards him and taking a gulp. He seemed mildly puzzled to taste the juice, and Al reminded himself that Ed was always drunker than he seemed.
"He's a good man," Ed said, tilting the glass this way and that, watching the liquid slosh around. "I couldn't compete."
"Ed..." Dismay tinged his voice. He hadn't heard that sort of sentiment from Ed in years; he thought it was done with. Who could Ed possibly have looked at, and immediately concluded that he was in any way inferior to them?
"Shit," Ed said, suddenly shaking himself. "Shit, what am I doing, bringing this up?" He forced a grin onto his face, and it was so brittle it hurt to look at. "You don't want to hear me moping uselessly. It's over. It doesn't matter."
But it did, Al thought sadly, because the wound was evidently still fresh. He ached to realize that this was an aspect of his brother's life that he had known nothing about, that his brother had endured heartbreak without a shoulder to lean on.
Ed had been in pain, and hadn't turned to him for support, and Al wondered what he had done to cause that.
More than anything, though, Al ached for his brother, who had finally found the courage to want for himself, had gathered the strength to try and move forward into a new life, but had been thwarted and somehow left by the roadside. Ed went through the motions of life, but something was lacking: when he came home at the end of the day and stopped being the Hero of the People, it seemed there wasn't too much left.
"Do I know her?" he wondered aloud. He wasn't sure what purpose knowing her identity would serve past holding a grudge for what she had done, but he still wanted to know.
Ed abruptly looked at him intently, the light catching in his gold eyes, which were always somehow more intense than Al's own, though they were practically the same color. Tension stretched between them, and Al felt his chest tightening with it.
Then the moment was gone, and Ed looked away, his laugh muffled in the gloom. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know if you know. I always wondered."
Suddenly he stood up, only the slightest unsteadiness in his movements. "You should go."
Turning a bit, he held out his hand—the human one—and hauled Al to his feet, his grip strong.
Al wanted to stay, wanted to protest at cutting off contact yet again, but the words died within him. Ed's grip on him was inexorable, guiding him out, and Al couldn't press, couldn't fight it, because he knew that if he pushed too much, Ed would break. When it came to him, Ed always broke in the end. There was truth to Ed's words that Al could always beat him in a fight, because Ed had made it so. The least Al could do was not push at Ed's barriers, not take advantage of that weakness.
Still, he paused at the door, turning back, looking for hope. "Maybe somebody else...?"
He really hated leaving Ed alone.
Looking up at him, Ed sighed a bit and shook his head. "Who knows. It just never worked out. That's all."
With a creak and a groan, the door swung shut, and the sound of a bolt being thrown seemed abnormally loud in the hallway.
He could have opened it with alchemy, could have pounded on the door and demanded to be let back in, insisted that he stay the night. But there was no point, because eventually he would have to leave anyway, and the situation would be no different. The door would shut between them, creating a barrier behind which Ed remained, alone with his books and memories and pictures—remnants of others' lives, and of a time when he still had a home where his family waited for his return.