Edward bristled when Hoenhiem caught him looking at the boy who delivered boxes of cabbage to the beer house. He refused to give his father anything freely, no filial love or respect, and certainly not the opportunity to watch Ed caught in a moment so unguarded and predatory. Hoenhiem said nothing, but turned his significant look from the boy to Edward and back, and Edward snapped, "Keep your nose out of my business."
"Edward," Hoenhiem said, his voice sharp, "come along. We must go."
"What's your hurry, old man?" Ed raised his mug of beer to drink, but Hoenhiem grasped his wrist and insisted, calling Ed's bluff, winning another small victory in the many battles they fought but never acknowledged. Edward squawked and flailed a little, but there was a small, stubborn need in him, hidden somewhere under the alchemy circle he'd once drawn on his chest for Al, that never could resist having his father close.
"It's past time we left," said Hoenhiem.
"I'm not finished." There were only dregs of beer, a little sausage left; he wasn't hungry for food. This was a hunger matured and sharp, and he couldn't stop a glance at the door behind the bar.
The grasp on his arm tightened. "Now."
"Okay, okay," and Ed set down his mug before he dropped it, angry that he'd let his intent show naked on his face. He wanted to concede nothing to his father. Nothing.
Outside the beer hall Edward slouched into his overcoat, hands thrust deep in his pockets as he walked. Hoenhiem walked with him, though Ed would have preferred to walk alone, and they said nothing, just walked. The sidewalk was theirs—it was the dinner hour, and the sky was paved with stonily gray clouds—and they said nothing until rain pattered down. Hoenhiem paused and shook out his umbrella, offering room beneath it for Ed. Ed shrugged and walked closer.
He had to adjust his stride to keep even with Hoenhiem. Rain on the umbrella made a muted thrumming, soft but pervasive. Ed still said nothing to his father, but it wasn't a stony silence anymore. He turned his head to watch a dog trot briskly along the buildings, unconcerned to be wet. He scratched his nose, avoided a puddle with a little hop, and realized his hands were out of his pockets, his back was straight, and he was no longer seething.
"Edward." Hoenhiem spoke carefully, oddly hesitant and defensive at once, and so unlike him that Edward looked at his profile, wondering if his face would be as soft as his voice, but it wasn't. "About the young man in the beer hall. I doubt you think I've the right to say this—"
Ed's hands curled. "You're right. You don't."
"Forget whatever sins you think I've committed, and listen," he said. "Living here is not like home. There are laws of science that bind this world and make it different from our own, but the laws that dictate social behavior are different, too."
Ed blinked at him, confused, but showing nothing this time.
"Love," said Hoenhiem. "Sex. There are rules. Men go with women, and women go with men. There are no other choices. Not here."
Edward felt his face heat with embarrassment for discussing—talking about—listening to his father talk about sex. The heat spread to his chest, the tips of his ears, his embarrassment licked with anger at having been caught looking in the first place, and then treated like a child for it.
"Choices. That's rich, coming from you." Edward hunkered deeper into his coat and walked away from the shelter of his father's umbrella.
"Ed," his father said. "Edward."
Edward didn't look back as he lifted his right hand, an ironic little wave. He would go home to his father and abide his own hatred for the man who had abandoned his mother, even as he loved Hoenhiem, the tall father who had forecasted Ed's future—yellow eyes, quick mind, a reluctant itinerant who had come to love travel. There was an uneasy balance between the love and the hate that ran deeper than the practicality of living together, one Ed couldn't discard. He would go home to his father's house now, but the time to move on was fast approaching.
When he could, Edward visited the beer hall without his father. He discovered that, though the laws might dictate one thing, human nature had something different to say. The casual attitude he remembered from Central didn't exist here. In Central men and women came together or drifted apart; most signed the family registry and had children, but many did not, and if two men or two women set up house, it was an act as joyful—and no more significant—than when a man and a woman did the same.
Here people cared a great deal about the unions of men and women, and if a man sought out other men for companionship, it was considered a sin. Edward had learned that from mean-spirited gossip in beer halls, and he'd heard it said by people in the street he'd thought kind, too. Such intolerance made him angry, unwilling to make any connection to the people in this world. But the cabbage boy seemed to like Edward just fine, and Ed decided he could keep company with him more easily than wither away, unconnected to anything. The boy knew how to keep a very low profile, a sensible precaution Edward adhered to, though he thought the necessity stupid beyond belief.
Over the next two years, his search for a way to return home usually distracted Edward from all of that.
"Pull over behind those trees, Edward," Alphons pointed to a dark smudge in the field off to their right.
Edward stepped on the gas pedal and turned the car sharply. Gravel flying, the car careened off the road, bounced and tilted to a stop. In the headlights he saw the smudge had become a little strand of poplar trees. Edward ground the stick shift into low gear, jerking the car over roots and gopher holes until the car was more or less lined up against the trees and all he could see was the rutted field, dotted with bushes, and he cut the engine.
"How's that for parallel parking?" He threw an arm across the seatback and turned to grin at his friend. Alphons picked himself up from the floorboards and regained his seat. Ed's grin tilted, and he asked, "What are you doing?"
"What am I doing?" Alphons retorted. He tugged at his shirt collar, and then ran a hand through his hair. "You'll kill us driving like that."
Edward grinned at him. "But I didn't kill us, did I?"
Alphons sighed and slowly shook his head.
"Ha!" Edward said, and punched the air. "I love driving!"
Alphons ignored him, but Edward didn't care, too pleased to be having an adventure with him, even one so small. At a university in Transylvania months ago, fatherless again but content to be traveling, Edward had seen a young man who looked back at him with the same hunger Ed had looked at the cabbage boy. The floor of Ed's stomach had hitched up, a moment of recognition that went unanswered: he didn't know this person, but it seemed he should, and when the young man had gone into the library, he'd followed. They had flirted, Ed enthusiastic but clumsy, and the young man sincere and shy.
They'd agreed to go to a coffeehouse, and just before the young man went eagerly down the steps of the library, he'd said, "It's past time we should know each other's names. I'm Alphons."
Ed had stepped back. Shock was a freezing, drenching wave that'd broken suddenly hot, and he'd staggered. Of course the young man had been familiar. He'd just met this world's Alphonse. He was less similar to Ed's brother than Ed had been to his own doppelganger. Subtly different, but in so many small ways. Older, yes, and more fair. Hair as light as Winry's, and light eyes, too: blue-gray instead of brown. A little mischievous and a little skeptical, in ways less mature than Al, even though he appeared older. He was a version of his brother if he'd grown up, but fainter, as though he'd been diluted in the bright light of the Gate. Edward had just met this world's Alphonse, but this world's Alphons had not been Ed's younger brother.
Now Alphons was Edward's friend, the only friend he allowed, the only friend he couldn't resist making and keeping. This Alphons was the peer a brother could never be, unbound by the complicated ties of family and guilt and sorrow. Ed missed his brother beyond pain, but there were some parts of this world he took joy in. Here, Alphons was a beloved friend, something he'd never had the opportunity to experience; he'd only had friendships with adults, and they couldn't be peers, though he knew now Mustang had only been waiting for him to grow up. He thought of Winry. She had been his peer and his friend, but she was family, too. She'd confused him then, and she confused him even now.
But Ed couldn't think about the convoluted mess for long. It made his head hurt. Too complicated to understand, and who cared when the night was gently warm and there was a soft breeze every so often? The stars were so close he could almost touch them. Ed raised his open hand to try. Nights like this reminded him of home, of his brother, of sleeping out under a sky just like this.
Alphons leaned forward and whispered into his ear, "I don't think anyone can see us." Ed felt the warm breath on his neck. "But you should turn off the headlamps."
"Aaah," Ed said, disgusted with himself, and flailed at the switch that would dim the lights. The night dropped on them, leaving them in the heavy dark as the stars lightened the top of the sky, and his mood turned again and struck off in a different direction. He clambered over the driver's seat and joined Alfonse on the bench.
"Are we hidden, do you think?" asked Alphons.
Irritated, Ed pushed Alphons against the door. "It's dark. There're trees. It's late. Who'd be out here?"
"We are. We should check," he replied, though he let Ed hold him and pull his shirttails loose. Ed wanted him do the same, remove his shirt for him, and then unbind his hair. Simple physical intimacies he always craved, having gone for years without. But when Ed opened all the buttons on his shirt Alphons slid Ed off him and opened the door.
Edward thumped his thigh, wincing because he was frustrated, and angry because he couldn't judge his movements as well with this artificial arm as he could with auto mail. He'd have a bruise tomorrow, and he was ready to bite off his own metal arm now if Alphons didn't get back into the car.
"I'm just going to look around." Alphons walked towards the road, his open shirt a ghostly blob of white drifting away.
"Fine," muttered Ed. He jerked the door open and made his way stiffly across the field in the opposite direction, looking around because he knew he was supposed to but seeing nothing. He promptly tripped over an old furrow and sprawled flat, cursing.
Fine. He flopped over and lay on the lumpy ground, looking up. It came to him that this was a fallow field, one that had grown crops but was resting this year. No soft green grass, no flat horizon, only bald patches hemmed in by trees. His eyes attuned to the dark, the stars seemed brighter than ever, a pale stream of light that split the sky. So close.
But he was here, in this field, in this life, and Edward had never been one to sit still for long. He closed his eyes and listened, heard no traffic, heard no voices, heard no sounds of livestock or town. He got up and looked carefully this time. No lights. Nothing.
They were alone.
Alphons was leaning against the car, arms crossed, when Ed returned. "I'm sorry, you know."
Edward stopped several steps away. "What for?"
"To make you do that. Check to make sure we're alone."
"We are alone."
"I can't endanger my research. If anyone found out, we would be thrown in jail. Maybe worse."
Ed's shoulders drooped. It still amazed him. Jail, or worse. For what?
"Eh?" Ed shook himself, tossing the thoughts away. He couldn't see Alphons' face clearly, but his shoulders were rounded. He looked dejected. "You know, I understand about wanting to protect research." He went to Alfonse and put his warm hand on his shoulder, gripped. "I understand about wanting to protect a lot of things. Don't apologize to me for that." He closed his arms around Alphons and laid his cheek on his bare neck. Flesh to flesh, sharing their warmth.
"No more apologies," Alphons murmured, and his hands drew up Ed's back to fret with the hair tie until his hair fell loose. Edward's muscles unclenched, as though he'd just dropped a great weight, and he sighed. The car springs creaked and groaned when they climbed into the back seat. For a while, there was no this world or that world, just a small, shared space.
Later, his shirt buttoned crookedly against the falling damp, Edward leaned back against Alphons and looked at the stars. This world had taken so many wrong turns, had twisted so many things, it was hard to understand it, and when confronted with reasoning that encouraged the invention of forces for destruction and death beyond insanity, when faced with prejudices that dictated how people should look or live, or rules that governed how men and woman should love, it was hard not to hate this world.
But Edward had learned a long time ago that everyone had terrible shortcomings, and it wasn't how people followed the rules that made them good or evil, it was how they overcame their faults. When he was honest with himself he knew damn well that it was true on either world, proven in both by his father and himself.
"Mm," said Alphons sleepily. "This is easier in a bed, but aren't the stars beautiful?"
Screw the rules and to hell with the larger issues of morality and love on this side of the gate. Edward held up his right hand, bright lights framed between his outstretched fingers. The stars were beautiful and if he refused to give up reaching for the stars, he wasn't about to give up reaching for love.