Alphonse wasn't quite sure what had gone wrong. HE'D certainly done everything right. He'd ducked out at the appropriate moment; he'd stayed out for the appropriate length of time. He'd even made sure to rattle the doorknob when he returned, on the hopes that perhaps someone would breathily tell him not to come in. But unfortunately, when he did, the only voice that had answered had been his brother's—grumpy, gruff, and most certainly, alone.
"All right, what happened THIS time?" He sighed, shrugging his coat and discarding it on the hall rack. His sibling, he noted, was on the couch in the living room—never a good sign.
He was, however, shirtless, pantless, and sitting on the couch dressed in only rumpled boxers. THAT, Al noted with a raised eyebrow, was a very, very definitely good sign.
"Wait, don't tell me—-"
"Good," Ed groused. "Cause I won't."
"What!? What went wrong?!" Marissa had really been into his brother. He could tell because she'd all but thrown him bodily from his own apartment.
"I don't KNOW!" Ed sighed, obviously frustrated. "It was going like she was about to—" Here his brother flushed and stopped. He was always verbose except when it came to these matters, which was strange, because Alphonse certainly knew he had the vocabulary for it. "—well, it was going, okay, and then all of a sudden she just got pissy and stormed out."
"Just like that?" Al asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
"Yes, just like that! I swear, I didn't say anything this time!" Ed said. "I was kind of concentrating, it wasn't like we were having a debate!" He was pointedly avoiding looking at something, though, and Al couldn't help but step closer and investigate the coffee table himself.
"...brother? What's all this?"
"Oh uh, that." Ed said, flushing even darker. "Well, uh...so like I said, things were um, going. And she wanted to, you know, and I thought—I thought we should use something. In case."
"In case? Brother, could you speak English please?" Al sighed and eyed the myriad tinctures and scraps of what looked to be rubber suspiciously. "And what were you doing with the bunsen burner?"
"I was trying to make us a prophylactic, okay!" Ed hissed, ears now red unto flaming. "It's not safe otherwise!"
"Oh," Alphonse colored as well. It was one thing to set his brother up; another to think too hard about the actual physics of it. Then, he thought again.
"But wait—I thought I left you some condoms!"
Ed looked about ready to melt into the couch. "They were sort of too small, all right? Six fucking inches, how the fuck is that supposed to fit!? They're like two inches short!!!" Al briefly felt his own brain melt out his ears.
"...I really, really did not need to know that."
His brother was in full scale rant now though, and there was no sign he was about to slow down. "I was going to just make one longer, but this rubber is a really crappy compound—there's not enough raw material to extend, and if I added anything in it weakened it more, and jeez, that stuff's not too strong to begin with, do you know how easy it must be to break these things!? What if it got a hole in it when you were doing stuff, you'd be fucked! So I started making my own, see?" He gestured proudly toward several small scraps of rubber, brightening considerably as he did. "If you use this petreoleum compound you can make a much sturdier rubber, and it still stretches pretty thin. Check it out, I've got the chemical structure labeled on this sheet," he pushed a piece of paper toward Al, "and as you can see—"
"Wait," Alphonse interrupted. "You mean you were sitting here building a better condom while Marissa was waiting for you in bed?!"
"No," Ed snorted. "Jeez, I'm not stupid! She was out here with me. She seemed pretty interested, she was all tugging on my shoulders and stuff. I seriously don't know what happened! I kept telling her she could bloody well move if she wanted to see!"
"Brother...I don't think it was your experiments she was interested in," Al sighed, rubbing his temples. He could just picture it, the whole sorry mess. Marissa was a pretty girl, but he'd dated her before and she certainly had a temper, and he could see her sitting there on the sofa, waiting for his brother, getting madder and madder until finally she exploded into sudden raven-haired fury. Damn, that was going to be some expensive apology-chocolate.
"Oh." Was all Ed said, staring down at his hands. "Well, that sucks." He poked viciously at the compound in the bunsen burner, stirring it with what looked to be a stray swizzle straw. "She could have just said." His countenance brightened, though, as the swizzle stick came up with a string of creamy, horrid smelling plastic. Apparently for Edward that had some sort of significance.
"Hey! Check it out! I even came up with a low heat melt variety!" His brother announced proudly. "You could cast this without protective wear!"
Alphonse pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to think.
The trouble with his brother was, he was a genius. Which unfortunately, in the public sphere, was regarded as a positive thing. There wasn't a man, woman, or child in Central who hadn't heard of the Fullmetal Alchemist, and quite a substantial fraction of the populace seemed willing to make a more personal acquaintance. The problem was, Edward was already well acquaintanced with alchemy—his first love, and to Alphonse's constant chagrin, apparently the most enduring.
"Do we still have cucumbers? Or I guess I could transmute a mold, do you need this dining chair?"
Alphonse pinched the bridge of his nose and drew in a deep breath.
"All right," Alphonse said. "I might be able to fix this."
"Hm?" Edward replied, sounding bored. He was sketching something furiously into a notebook.
"I think I can talk Marissa into coming back—-"—beg and plead and promise to take her annoying sister to the General's Ball, more like—"if YOU put this stuff away first."
Edward's expression was immediately petulant. "But I'm really close to a working model," he complained.
"Brother, do you want to do this, or not? Because at the rate you're going, you're going to die a virgin!"
His brother came to a boil as if there were an open flame under him, bolting upright and spouting all sorts of frothy nonsense. Alphonse felt bad, but fair was only fair. If it were left up to Edward to organize social outings, they'd only ever make it to Mustang's office and back. Or perhaps the local bar. Or perhaps the local bar with Mustang's office, a scenario which had been known to cause waking nightmares.
"Oh come off it, you know I'm right!" he said, feeling momentarily vindicative, and something in his tone must have hit home because Edward shut up immediately, shot him a wary glance.
"...all right." He huffed, still flushed bright red. "But I'm not getting all dressed up for her again." Edward viewed ties the way some men viewed a hangman's noose.
"Oh, I doubt you need to get dressed at all," Alphonse said, as innocently as possible, and his brother choked on his own spit.
He made a break for it while Edward was still distracted. "I'm headed out! AND CLEAN UP THELIVING ROOM!" Alphonse called from the door, and set out on his quest.
"And you're SURE he's not gay?" Marissa asked him again, eyeing the stairs to their flat distrustfully. She seemed to have taken it as a blow to her personal pride when Edward refused to willingly "mattress tango" with her (a metaphor that almost made Alphonse reconsider taking her home again).
Gay? Hell, I'm not sure he's HUMAN, Alphonse thought mean-spiritedly, and then, as usual, immediately felt like he should take the sentiment back. He did want his brother to be happy, after all. He just thought he might be happier if he had more company in life than just work, family, and work.
"Believe me, he'll be very happy to see you," Alphonse said, and sincerely hoped that Edward was not about to make him a liar.
They climbed the stairs and Alphonse palmed a key into the lock, made sure to enter ahead of her. He slipped ahead to the living room, half afraid of what he was going to see, but to his decided relief the alchemical mess was cleaned up. No trace of the rubber was left on the table. Edward himself was also nowhere in sight, but that he cared less. At least Marissa was not likely to hit him in remembrance of a "humiliating" experience.
"Edward? Sugar?" Marissa purred, and Alphonse tried not to dislike her for the pet names, either. She was a nice girl, he reminded himself; he'd vetted her thoroughly. There were worse things out there by far.
"Brother?" He called. When there was no answer, he tapped on his brother's bedroom door. Tried the doorknob, and found it to be locked. Good sign, he thought to himself, he's at least thinking ahead. Perversely, he was very much hoping his brother was waiting in there naked. There was no way he could possibly mess things up then. Marissa's eyes were glowing like polished coins, and Alphonse blushed when he saw the way she was licking her lips.
"Marissa's here..." He called. He thought he heard something, but it was faint. "Brother?"
"Boo boo?" Of for the love of...
Alphonse pressed his ear to the door.
What he heard alarmed him, a low frequency buzzing that crackled like radio static. Any alchemist worth his salt, though, could recognize that as the sound of transmutation in progress—a transmutation which, as he continued listening, did not seem to be abating. Normal reactions should take no more than ten seconds. Something this big, and with no one to spot—
Nameless fear clawed at his throat, and Alphonse slammed his hands against the door. "Brother!?" A low, wordless cry echoed somewhere within, and that was all Alphonse needed to transmute the lock open.
"Are you all right!? Brother, I'm here—"
And stopped short, no longer quite sure what to say.
"Mr. Elric!?" Yelped Marissa, shocked all the way into proper formality.
"Don't look at me! Gah, don't look—" Edward choked out, but of course that only drew their attention. His brother was naked in bed all right—in the middle of an array, an active, glowing array, with coils of energy surging around him. And the mattress—Alphonse wasn't quite sure WHAT the mattress was doing, but it certainly wasn't very polite. It was rippling around his sibling's lower half in a rhythmical, clenching way that looked to be either particularly pleasant or particularly painful, Alphonse honestly couldn't say which.
"Aw, fuck!" Edward cursed and shuddered at the same time, brought the reaction blazing to a halt, and Alphonse finally found the presence of mind to turn his eyes away. Marissa was standing there in shock, her mouth a tight, round o of horror, and she finally found words and turned to him, looking utterly scandalized.
"You couldn't PAY me." She sniffed, and with that turned on a dime and marched right out of their apartment altogether.
"Brother," Alphonse said weakly, and slumped against the door frame.
"Yeah, WHAT?" Edward snarled, and there was a brief burst of light as he enacted another reaction, probably to free himself. "Al, you MIND?"
"Ah, er, right," Alphonse stammered, and slid obediently into the hall, seeing nothing, thinking nothing. He had just—but then his brother had—and they had seen—how did you *control* an array like that?! A perverse portion of his mind was morbidly curious.
When it became clear several minutes later that Edward was not about to emerge, Alphonse cautiously poked his head back into the room.
No answer. There was a distinct and motionless lump swaddled in blankets on top of the newly reconstructed mattress, but Alphonse was not fooled.
"If you're trying to pretend you're asleep, it's not working. You usually talk more."
"Fuck off," Edward hissed.
"I didn't mean to, honestly." Alphonse said, and meant it. "I thought you were hurt..."
"Yeah, sorry to disappoint." His brother peeked his head out far enough to fix him with a ferocious glare. The self-loathing was thick in his voice, nearly tangible.
"Brother!" He gasped, not sure what to do. It hadn't been this bad in ages. "I'm sorry..."
"Why? It was my own fucking fault." His brother barked out a single, humourless laugh. "Pun intended. I knew you were coming back sometime. Just got goddamned impatient and...fuck. I'm sorry. I know you didn't wanna see that."
"Well, we're guys." Alphonse attempted to make light. "It happens."
"Most guys catch their brother in a tantric array?" If words literally dripped with sarcasm, there would probably be a puddle of it on the floor.
"Well no, but—" Alphonse took a deep breath. This was territory he didn't want to be getting into. "I mean, you caught me with my hand down my pants that one time. And we both walked in on the General, the time when—" Edward made a particularly disgusted face, and Alphonse realized he didn't particularly want to relive that memory either. "I guess the point is, we all screw it up sometime. It's really hard to wait."
"It's not just that," Edward groused softly.
"The array thing, uh..." His brother shifted beneath the blankets restlessly, fidgeting. "I um...don't you ever feel like you need something more to make it work?"
"So you see, I used to try it with my left hand and stuff, but I'm right handed really and it doesn't work so well, and I'd try with the other but then there's the automail, and so—" Edward drew in a sharp, shuddering breath. "I came up with that array at one point, and I dunno, it just works better. So I don't bother with anything else."
"Really." Alphonse kept his tone bland, scrunched his eyes closed. He was not having this conversation with his brother, he was not having this conversation with his brother...
"Only now it's kind of like, fuck, I know what a reaction feels like, and so I'll be transmuting something and I'll start to think about it, or I'll be trying to uh, do stuff with people but then I start thinking chemisty, so..." His brother's voice cut off abruptly, and the covers slid back up over Edward's head. "So yeah, your brother's a fucking pervert. I'm just going to curl up and smother to death now, you do whatever the fuck you want." The last line was muffled through many inches of comforter.
"No, you are NOT going to smother yourself!" Alphonse ordered, and strode forward to flip the blankets off his brother's face. What little of his brain was still functioning knew to say that much, at least. "And you are not a pervert. You're just, ah—alchemically reactive?"
"Al," his brother said warningly.
"'In love with your work?' 'Have a passion for chemistry?'" His brother groaned and swung a pillow at his face, and Alphonse was more than happy to intercept. He grabbed a pillow of his own and bopped his sibling with it, who of course was honor-bound to fight back, and within seconds they were enveloped in a flurry of feathers, flying pillowcases, and the weirdness between them had vanished.
Edward growled as he was finally vaniquished in the conflict, flipped off the bed onto his back as the pillow fight turned aggressive. Alphonse offered him a hand up and he complained but took it, looking a hell of a lot less stressed than he had a few minutes before.
"Thanks," Edward said finally, curling up next to Alphonse on the bed. "I needed that."
"Well, you're my brother." Alphonse said simply. "And I love you the way you are."
Besides, he thought, it gave him an idea.
Edward made a small, contented noise and burrowed into the comforter lying between them, apparently drowsy. Alphonse waited until he started drifting off before extracting himself from the bed and slinking to the phone. He dialed a number.
"Ms. Sheska?" He asked, when the other end picked up. "How are you with alchemical texts?"