The Rituals of Infinity

When Al settles comfortably into the leather sofa in the General's library, books stacked next to him and his toes pushed companionably under Ed's thigh, it's getting on for evening, warm slanting light glowing amber from the bookcases. He starts to read; and the next thing he knows there's a cat jumping onto his lap and jolting him out of his book, there are lamps lit all around the room, and the dark presses against the windows, unbroken. In some corner of his brain Al realizes that he hasn't yet made dinner for the General and he promised to; but most of his brain is occupied with squealing Cat! Aww, lookit the kitty! in a thoroughly undignified manner.

"I didn't know you had a cat," Ed calls back over his shoulder, somehow contriving to sound both lazily unconcerned and vaguely accusing. He moved at some point and is propped against the opposite arm of the couch, his legs almost but not quite entangled with Al's.

"I don't," Mustang answers. Al looks past Ed to see the General curled into a large armchair, not bothering to look up from his own book to answer. There's a pad of paper balanced on the arm of his chair, the top sheet half filled with notes. Al wonders what he's studying.

"Whose cat is this, then?" Al asks, a bit concerned.

Mustang finally looks up, his face as unreadable as ever. "She's a stray, I suppose," he says with a shrug, getting up to return his book to the shelf. "She keeps getting in. It's not worth the time to put her back out."

Ed smirks and opens his mouth. Al puts a stop to it by poking Ed hard in the leg with his foot and scowling fiercely. It's not cold out, but if the cat wants in then she should be in, and if Ed says something to make the General put her back out again he'll be eating cold leftover noodles for a week. Ed gives Al a grimace that's half exasperated and half apologetic and slides his hand affectionately onto Al's ankle, his thumb brushing the hollow behind the bone.

Mustang's eyes follow the movement, his gaze sliding like hot silk over the intersection of their bodies, lingering there for a breath too long before he turns away to search for something on the shelf.

The General came to see Al not long after he got his body back, while he was still laid up in Grandma Pinako's guest room trying to sort out newborn limbs and muscles that felt as awkward as a colt's—a particularly trying form of adolescence, if one wanted to put it that way, trying to cope with a body that was a grown man's but seemed tiny and frail from the inside compared to the armor. Al was fine, he really was, until the General started to talk. That dark, honeyed voice did things to Al's nerve endings that he was entirely unprepared for. And then—

Are you all right, Al? Mustang asked suddenly, interrupting himself in the middle of a discussion of the arrangements he'd made to explain Al's new form.

I, Al said faintly. I think there's something wrong with my new knees.

Mustang's eyes flicked down to Al's knees, then began to slide back up—and got stuck halfway, just as Al became agonizingly aware that whatever was wrong with his knees had affected areas rather farther up as well. That problem he recognized, by repute if not through experience; and for a moment he genuinely wanted to kill his brother, or at least have some sharp words with him when he got back from taking Winry to town for supplies.

Ah, Mustang said, only smirking a little. That happens sometimes.

I thought it was supposed to happen with girls, Al said a little frantically, pulling up his still-watery knees as best he could.

Al, you just got a human body for the first time since you were a child, Mustang said, not unkindly. It'll probably happen with girls, boys, pastry, and farm implements for a while.

I'm going to kill Ed when he gets back, Al told the General. I just thought I should tell you in advance in case there's paperwork.

He hadn't killed Ed after all. He was too busy being frozen with misery when Ed burst into the room smelling like wind and sunlight, when Ed insisted on leaning over him to fluff his pillows and rearrange his sheets. Al muddled through the rest of the day as best he could and then brought himself off for the first time that night, trying desperately not to wake Ed in the next bed over, trying even more desperately to think of girls, of Winry, of farm implements, of something besides Roy Mustang's smooth voice and dark eyes, or Ed's warm-metal smell and the tanned silk of his skin.

He came thinking of Ed's mouth on Roy's skin, and refused to come out from under the blankets the next day.

Dinner would go faster, Al thinks, if Ed didn't insist on helping.

Ed is rummaging for another pot and the cat is winding around Al's ankles, and it's a toss-up which one Al has tripped over more often. Possibly he ought to start keeping score and the first one to reach twenty gets kicked out of the kitchen—though it's a foregone conclusion that the kickee will be Ed, both because he has a gift for being perpetually underfoot and because the cat doesn't know any better. "Brother, are you sure you don't want to go back to your reading?" Al asks without much hope; Ed followed him into the kitchen with the jackrabbit speed of a man desperate not to be left alone with Roy Mustang, a thing that causes Al some concern in and of itself but mostly means that he probably won't go quietly back into the library and stop trying to persuade Al to put strange things into the rice.

"Nah, I got to a good stopping point," Ed says, pushing his hair back out of his face. It's warm in the kitchen. Ed has stripped off everything above the waist but his tank top, and his hair is escaping from his braid in wilted strands. He leans over the stove, crowding Al. "You know, at that little restaurant in Aquroya they grilled the fish and put it right in with the—"

"Edwillyouwatchoutplease!" Al yelps, shooting out a hand to catch Ed's braid just as it's about to land on the lit burner.

"Oh. Sorry," Ed says. There's an odd note in his voice, and it's just about then that Al realizes that he has an armful of his brother and a fistful of Ed's hair.

Ed smells of soap, heat, and faint sweat. Al swallows hard and prays, too late, that his body won't realize it until long after his brain.

Oh, there's something so wrong with me, he thinks miserably. Ed, you twit, you made my body work all wrong.

But it isn't fair to blame Ed, and Al knows it, and now he feels even guiltier. What he needs, he decides, is to have sex. With someone else. Someone whose skin he can touch and taste without this miserable terror-laced guilt. But he and Ed have always been together, and the thought of doing something like that, that big and important, without Ed makes something inside Al curl up in sick, lonely misery. Even if it were someone they knew, like—

They need another philosopher's stone. Al's body clearly needs to be taken apart and rebuilt from scratch with everything having to do with sex rewired completely differently. Maybe they can use Havoc's brain as a template.

"Al? You all right?" Ed asks, poking his face into Al's like a worried cat. There's something almost frightened in his voice, and Al nearly panics—What if he knows, what if he—-

"I'm fine," he says faintly. "It's hot in here, that's all."

"It does get hot in here when you're cooking," the General says from the doorway, and Al freezes like a deer in headlights. "Maybe you should sit down, Al."

The cat is weaving around Mustang's ankles now—bare ankles, bare feet crossed casually as Mustang leans against the doorjamb, under loose linen pants and a v-necked shirt that's definitely not regulation. Suddenly there's no way that Al can fit this contented, lazy, sleepy-looking man back into the box properly labeled "General," and somehow that just makes things worse. Couldn't the man wear his uniform at home too, just for Al's sake?

"I'm fine," he says in a voice that doesn't sound like his own, and just in time the faint smell of overcooking reaches his nose. "Oh! The rice!"

"Ow!" Ed yelps as Al snatches his hand back and forgets that it's still wrapped up in Ed's braid.

"Oh, hell, brother, I'm—OW!"

"What?" Ed exclaims, doing an odd dance as he tries to figure out whether to move closer to Al or away.

Al gives a valiant try at removing the rice from the burner with his left hand while attempting to stick his right dorsal forearm in his mouth. "Your automail was sitting on the burner. How could you not have felt it?"

Ed flails. "Goddammit, I knew those nerves weren't hooked up right—I—Winry was—Al, sit down and let me put some ice—"

"Ed, dinner's going to—"


Arms reach around them suddenly, effectively pinning the two of them together. Roy isn't much taller than Al, only by a couple of inches, but it gives him a long enough reach to move Ed's braid away from the burner again and move the rice to a safer spot. There's a soft whuff of breath against Al's neck as Roy, who may never be "the General" again no matter how hard Al tries, snickers—which he really shouldn't have done because now Ed is nervous and furious. "There. Dinner's safe," he says in a voice that somehow manages to be soothing and mocking at the same time, and Al takes refuge in fierce annoyance. "Alphonse, go sit down. Edward, get some ice for Al's arm—here, wait—"

Ed scowls as Roy stuffs his braid unceremoniously down the back of his shirt. "We're not kids!" he protests—a little too intensely, even for Ed, and Roy gives him a thoughtful look.

"No, you aren't," Roy agrees. "You're my guests, and I'd be a poor host if I let you set each other on fire. Go on, both of you—I'll finish dinner."

"But," Al begins, and doesn't want to think about how much of that protest is sheer disinclination to move from his current cozy position.

"No buts," Roy says. "You said you'd make dinner and you did. All that's left to do is fluff the rice and dish everything up, no?"

"Well, yes," Al says reluctantly; his arm really is starting to hurt.

Roy steps back, studying them openly, and for a minute Al despairs of what they must look like, burns and ratty hair and all.

"What?" Ed demands. "You're staring at us."

Roy tilts his head, looking at them for a minute more before he speaks. "Whatever your parents' other sins might have been, or lack thereof—they had beautiful children." He lowers his gaze, long lashes veiling dark eyes, and turns to fetch the potholders off the counter.

"Ice, Edward," he says over his shoulder, smirking at them, that strange sober thoughtfulness vanished. Ed stands rooted to the kitchen floor for a moment more before Al's possibly-exaggerated wince galvanizes him into action and he races for the icebox.

Al sits down with a sigh. The cat jumps into his lap, purring as he scratches her between the ears. You're lucky, cat, he thinks.

Then there's cool ice on his arm and Ed's fingers warm against his skin, and Roy is humming something slow and lilting as he dishes up the dinner Al made, and Al thinks he'd probably better give up trying to decide who's luckier, him or the cat, and why, and the relative weights of having and wanting what you can't have.

He's probably got a long night ahead of him, staring into the darkness and listening to Ed's slow breaths. Right now, he'll take what he can get and hope the rice isn't burned.