Something's wrong with Ed. Al can see it, but he isn't sure he understands it, and it frightens him; it almost makes him feel alone in this terrible place, and that's something he'd rather not feel, especially with his brother right next to him.
The city should be beautiful. It is beautiful, in a strange, ruined way, gleaming white spires stretching toward the sky, all alabaster and rose quartz and delicate jade carvings. Some sort of climbing vine is everywhere, crumbling stone with patient tendrils, creeping up over statues, blossoming with tiny white flowers heavy with a scent like honeysuckle. He and Ed spent their first day here walking in and out of houses, running their fingers over dusty vases and faded cloth, snapping their fingers fruitlessly in front of staring eyes, checking for pulses—sometimes finding them, faint and thread-thin, and sometimes not.
They would help the ones they could, if they knew how, but they can't get anyone to wake.
At night they sleep in empty houses, curled together for warmth in huge beds under billowing white netting. They whisper to each other even though there's no one else there to be disturbed by their voices, arguing over the probable form of the circle behind the destruction of this city, debating the circle's location. Sometimes Ed forgets what he's doing and strokes Al's hair, his fingers as gentle as his voice is fierce and impatient; then suddenly he stiffens and moves away a little, and that's the main reason Al knows something is wrong, because Ed has never, ever pushed him away before.
After Ed's asleep, Al wonders if it's his fault; if Ed has noticed that Al's touches linger longer than they should, if he's noticed that Al looks at him more than he ought to, and for longer. He doesn't think Ed would ever really hate him, but Al wonders if he's broken something between them that can't be fixed—and how broken it will get before the end, because Al can no more give up the feel of Ed's skin under his hands than he could give up water.
Crushed, he buries his face in Ed's shoulder and holds him tighter, seeking comfort where he can least afford to. Ed wriggles closer and huffs in his sleep, flinging his heavy automail arm over Al's side.
When he dreams, it's of Roy Mustang, wind in his dark hair, smiling that rare, dazzling smile. Al doesn't trust his dreams, here. From the haunted look in those amber eyes when Ed stretches and wakes, it doesn't look as if he does either. They dress silently, subdued, netting from the bed drifting between them like a sail on the sweet-smelling breeze, and go back out into the city without much hope of finding more than they already have.
"This one's dead too," Ed says around midday, and closes the eyes of a pretty woman with a still infant in her lap. He looks down at her, hands on hips, frowning.
Al knows what he's seeing. Al is beginning to see it too, when he closes his eyes—a geometry of the positioned dead, the cold precision of equations in the angles, corpses set along ley lines. Find the center and they'll find the circle, he thinks, as long as it doesn't find them first. He's already catching himself drifting off into dreams with his eyes open, feeling heavy-limbed and lethargic; wanting more than anything to crawl into Ed's lap and wind around him like a climbing rose, to bury his face in the warm curve of Ed's neck and smell sunlight and the heavy perfume of this city's air on his brother's skin. Wanting to taste salt on his tongue, to slowly caress each other, too contented and sleepy to make love…
Ed shakes himself like a dog coming out of the water, jolting Al back into horrified awareness of his own thoughts. "Shit," Ed says, and he's breathing faster than usual, the sharp blades of his collarbones rising and falling, up and down. "We need to figure out what's going on here and get the hell out. Stupid bastard General, I bet he knew—-"
"He didn't know, brother," Al says, and can't stop his voice from shaking. "That's why he sent us. Because no one knew."
Ed spares another glance for the dead woman and her child and grabs Al's elbow, tugging him out of the sunlit garden and into the empty street. "You always make excuses for everyone, Al," he scolds, but his heart isn't really in it.
"Only because you're so unfair to everyone," Al answers automatically, the thousandth repetition of an old and fond argument. Inside him, bouncing crazily through a sudden vast hollowness, something is repeating, I didn't think that, I didn't think that, and it's true, it must be, because he's never, ever thought it. He's done things that didn't count no matter how close they came, but he's never let himself think anything like that, anything like I want to touch my brother like a lover would touch him. Never, in all these years.
Ed's frowning at him. "Al? Are you okay?"
"I don't like this place," Al says, and his voice is still unsteady. "I want to go home."
Ed's frown deepens a little. "And tell Mustang we couldn't figure out what was going on? Not a chance. You know how he is. He'll smirk at us."
But that isn't why, not really, and even Al has his pride. He doesn't want to go back to Roy empty-handed either. If only he weren't so sleepy; the air is warm and sweet-smelling, and it's so very hard to think…
"Brother," he says, and it comes out surprisingly clearly, unless that's just his imagination. "The flowers, the ones on the vines that are all over. They're…"
Ed is already ahead of him. Quick as a flash, he claps his hands and slams them down on the nearest vine-covered wall. The greenery and its blossoms crumble to ash. For a long, still moment Al thinks he can feel his head clearing; then there's an almost imperceptible shudder underneath his feet, a rush of rustling like a wind through fallen leaves, and vines shoot out of the ground through the remains of the others, securing themselves to the wall with grasping tendrils. Pallid white blossoms fall open like small mouths.
"Fuck," Ed says. "There's no getting around it. We'll have to find the source."
"Don't go to sleep," he murmurs into Ed's hair, and thinks of their mother, long ago, telling a story about spinning straw into gold.
"Need some coffee," Ed mutters. Al can almost, almost feel Ed's lips moving against his shirt, and hates himself for wanting to move closer. "And lighter automail."
"We need the General," Al says around a yawn. "He could do something to the air. Burn the flower pollen out of it or something."
"Al," Ed says. "He'd set the building on fire."
"Do you think they're having good dreams?" Al whispers. "The people, I mean. The ones who are still alive."
Ed's silent for a minute. "Have your dreams been good?" he asks.
Al closes his eyes and thinks of Roy with the wind in his hair; thinks of Ed curled drowsily against him, lazily caressing. "How long should we stay here?" he asks.
"Few hours," Ed slurs, his eyes drifting closed. It might be seconds or minutes later when Al realizes Ed is talking again, whispering, "…always love me, Al? Even if—-"
"Always," Al says, because whatever is coming at the end of that sentence, it wouldn't make a difference. His head feels full of sludge and he keeps losing the thread of the world around him, tiny bursts of oblivion surging behind his eyes like riptides, and everything is so heavy.
"We'll show him," Ed says, so clearly that Al wonders if he's saying it in his sleep. "No more short jokes."
Al pokes him. "Wake up, brother."
Ed sighs heavily and shifts in Al's arms, and neither of them sleep.
He leans against a pillar and looks blankly at the circle, trying to summon up a sense of triumph or even satisfaction; but all he can manage is a sort of dull huh, as if the mere fact that he's still awake is all the surprising input his brain can process.
Ed squats down just outside the circle and examines it, rubbing a hand wearily over his face. The circle must be twenty feet in diameter, slashed in brilliant scarlet on the floor. "Who would have done this?" he wonders aloud. "Nah, doesn't matter. Let's get rid of it."
"Careful, brother," Al cautions as Ed lifts his hands. "You don't know what it'll do."
"I know what it's doing," Ed says, claps his hands, and slams them down onto the concrete, and this is why Al would love Edward Elric even if they weren't brothers, and also why he will probably one day have to kill him.
By the time the shaking starts and the cracks appear in the ceiling, Al has already drawn a circle, and it's only a matter of pulling Ed in and closing it.
"It was…" Ed flails, a high, hard flush on his cheeks. "It was kudzu. I mean, not kudzu exactly, but they brought it in—-"
"Fuck if I know, now let me tell this! They brought it in because it was pretty and decorative but it wouldn't grow in the native soil so they set up that circle to feed it, and then the alchemy did something weird to it and they didn't notice until… well, I mean, I guess they never noticed at all, because they fell asleep and half of them died first. The whole thing was some sort of, of, big gardening accident."
It isn't funny. It really isn't. People died, and Ed and Al nearly died, and the snort Al tries to disguise as a sneeze is just hysteria and also dust.
Roy's eyes flick toward him, a gaze that is warm and complicit for such a brief moment that Al wonders if he imagined it. Then the General sets down their report, centers it carefully on his desk, and folds his hands on it. "Thank you, Edward, Alphonse," he says, dismissal clear in his voice.
Ed bows slightly and turns to leave. And in that moment—maybe because he's awake again, and he never understood before how wonderful and giddy and alive that could make you feel—something unidentifiable boils up in Al's chest and he reaches out to grab Ed's hand and turn back to the General.
"General," he says, and Mustang looks curiously back up. And now Al's a bit stuck, because really it turns out he didn't have a plan after all, so he blurts out the first thing he can think of. "You have a lot of books on combat alchemy, don't you?"
Mustang frowns a little. "At home, you mean? Yes. Why?"
"Can we come by tomorrow evening and look at them? Brother and I are having a sort of debate—-"
We are? says Ed's stare.
"—and we'll make you dinner to say thank you. Well, I'll make you dinner. Ed forgets he's put things on the stove until he can't see his book for the smoke."
"I did that once!" Ed yowls indignantly, and untruthfully.
Roy watches them for a long moment, something indefinable in his eyes. Finally, he says, "Don't let it get out. I'm sure there are regulations against that sort of fraternization."
"…not fraternizing," Ed mumbles, and laces his fingers through Al's, looking suddenly uncertain. Well, Al doesn't know what he's doing either, and there's a good chance he shouldn't be doing it, but he doesn't need to want anything from either of them to want their company.
"We'll see you tomorrow evening, General," says Al, who will just have to be sure enough for all of them.