The wind keens as it passes over stone and sand, hitting Al like the wind out of a blast furnace; it'll become cold soon enough, he knows, when the temperature drops with the setting sun. He kneels next to the dune buggy and draws an array in the sand, then sits back and watches as the wind blows small plumes of sand like smoke over it, obliterating the lines.
"I had a dream about my brother last night, that's all," he says.
His watch partner comes to crouch next to him, cupped hands shielding a cigarette, wind blowing already-dishevelled black hair into sharp, dark eyes. Gunnar is thin and pointy all over and looks as if in another life he would have been a garret-dwelling pianist with a taste for absinthe. "And that's what's got you down? You'd think that'd make you happy."
Al looks out at the endless sand and rock. "It did," he says.
Ed's hair spilling over him, soft and cool, brushing across the hollow of his throat, blown into his mouth by the rain-scented beginnings of a storm.
"While I was dreaming it."
"You should write to him," Gunnar says.
Dear Ed: I miss you more than you can ever know.
"It's hard the first few months," Gunnar reassures him.
Say hello to Roy Mustang for me. Touch him for me, just once. Then let him touch you.
"I know," Al answers.
I love you.
"You'll earn your first leave soon," Gunnar reminds him. "You can go home and see him."
We've never been apart.
"There isn't really enough time," Al says. "With the travel time—I'd only be able to stay a day or two. And he might be out on assignment."
Tell me one day it won't hurt anymore.
Gunnar pats him on the shoulder. His hand smells like cigarettes. It doesn't matter; it reminds Al of Havoc, and home.
"I know it feels like it'd only make you miss him more," Gunnar says. "But it helps, even if it's only a day or two. I promise."
"Thanks," Al says, because Gunnar really is only trying to help. "I'll think about it."
Gunnar flashes him a quick, bright grin and reaches back to rummage in his uniform jacket, re-emerging with a small silver flask. "You know, everyone gets homesick on their first assignment, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone get it as bad as you. You must have left behind someone pretty special."
Al blinks and sees the view from the train pulling out of the station—Ed standing on the platform, looking stricken and uncomfortably small, his chest hitching in that way that means he's about to start hyperventilating; Roy emerging from the shadows behind him, sliding a hand onto Ed's shoulder, looking from the train to the station as if he's thinking hard about the fact that that insignia on his shoulder would let him call the train back with a word. But that's just Al's wishful thinking, he knows. "I did," he said.
"What's her name?" Gunnar says, offering him the flask.
Al frowns. "Gunnar, we're on duty."
"It's only beer. There's not enough there to put your aim off a crow at a hundred yards. The effects," Gunnar pronounces, "are all psychological."
Al looks at the flask, sighs, and takes a drink. Not only is it beer, it's watery beer.
"Now. What's her name?" Gunnar prods, idly drawing arrays in the sand.
Give him a name and he'll have forgotten about it by the end of the watch. "Winry," Al says. She'd forgive him for it, eventually. Probably.
"Blonde or brunette?" Gunnar asks with the air of a man taking a survey about shampoo brands.
"Blond," Al whispers, remembering the feel of it.
"Well—" Al says.
"Ah," Gunnar says wisely. "Spitfire, huh? Nice body?"
Al blinks his eyes hard against the sting of wind and sand. "Can we stop talking about this?"
Gunnar gives him a long, level look. "But you're upset because you dreamed about your brother."
Al closes his eyes. He likes Gunnar, he does, but if they don't get off this topic Al is going to hurt something.
"If I tell you something," Gunnar says, "you have to swear you won't tell anyone else. Ever."
That gets his attention. Curious in spite of himself, Al opens his eyes. "I won't. I promise."
Gunnar gives him a quick, unhappy smile and looks out over the sand. The shadows are lengthening, the sun nothing more now than a brilliant red glow in the east. "My parents are pretty well-off. When I was growing up, they—well, it's not like they didn't want anything to do with me, but they were busy a lot, you know? So I never really got to know them. They were just—just these tall, beautiful, poised creatures that drifted in and out of the house and had parties that I wasn't allowed to go to. My mother, you should have seen her, Al. She was young when I was born and she never seemed to get any older. She wore her hair up and always had gems in her ears and on her fingers, and she wore these gorgeous silk gowns that came down off her shoulders—"
He looks down, aimlessly tracing another circle in the sand. "Well. I got older, and like I said, she never seemed to, except in that way women have where they get older without ever changing. You know? She's a beautiful woman, my mother."
There's something caught in Al's throat. He'd think it was sand if it didn't taste so much like tears.
Gunnar smiles wanly and claps Al on the shoulder. "Hand me that flask, my man, it's going to get cold out here soon."
Al hands back the flask, and wonders if anyone's first love is ever attainable; wonders if Gunnar ever goes home.
Wonders if he's made a terrible mistake.
Al, goddammit, the letter starts out. It's crumpled, as if it were balled up and thrown away and then fished out of the trash. Al winces and settles back in his bunk, prepared for a long-distance reaming. Then he changes his mind and picks up the other letter, which should be marginally safer but he's not quite sure.
Dear Alphonse, it begins in Hawkeye's neat, efficient handwriting. It's courteous and—for Hawkeye—affectionate, and starts out with news of how Black Hayate ate Havoc's shoes and lived, but it's clearly a thinly-veiled request for information: word has reached them about unrest near Liore, and if the General doesn't stop dropping hints twice a day that someone had better bring him coffee and word from Al, Steps Will Have To Be Taken. Because Al doesn't want Steps To Be Taken, he answers that letter first—yes, there's been unrest near Liore; yes, there's talk of dispatching General Hakuro's troops, of which Al is one, to provide backup for the attempts to quiet things back down. No, Al doesn't know anything else, and he's sending money for a new chew toy for Black Hayate, and he doesn't want to actually suggest that Roy cut down on his caffeine consumption but maybe if there's any money left over someone could buy him some nice chamomile tea.
When he can't avoid it anymore, he picks up Ed's letter.
Three goddamned months and you haven't written, Al, what the hell? You promised you would. You can't be that busy. Fucking Mustang keeps asking me if I've heard from you and I have to tell him no, my own little brother won't write and tell me he's still alive, or answer my letters, no, I don't know where he is, he could have fallen off the end of the planet for all I know. So help me, if I have to come out there and see for myself I'm going to kick your ass.
Will you please just
I love you, you jerk, remember? And you don't even write. You can't dump your brother, Al, that's not how it works.
"As if I ever wanted to," Al whispers.
You've never broken a promise to me, Al. Don't break this one. Write and tell me you're okay, because you don't even know what
I mean it. Write. Don't be an asshole. Better yet, find a way to call.
Nothing much is happening here. Black Hayate ate Havoc's shoes but he's okay now. Mustang said to ask if there's anything you need. Tell him you need your br
You better come home when you get leave, Al, or so help me
He's hurt Ed. He's hurt Ed and hurt himself, and this was all wrong, all of it. He wanted to pass the alchemists' exam, and he passed it, and now he has a watch instead of a family. He wanted to see if he could stand on his own, have an identity as something besides Ed's brother, and now he does and he hates it. He didn't want to watch as Ed and Roy found each other, and look where that's gotten them, all of them—letters full of Ed's anger and worry, of Roy's pointed demands for word annoying Hawkeye beyond her considerable patience.
It was a mistake, and he doesn't know how to fix it. But he'd better start by writing Ed back.
Gunnar sticks his head into the room just as Al is reaching for a pen. "We're moving out," he says hurriedly.
"What, right now?" Al asks blankly.
Gunnar makes get-moving motions. "Right now! We're mobilizing for Liore in fifteen minutes. Word is that things have gotten worse there. Pack for your life, man, or we'll be stuck on someone's running-boards."
"Has General Hakuro said what our orders are?" Al always finds himself referring to Hakuro like that, by name; because there's only room in his head for one The General, Al's own personal General, and that General is a long way away.
"Keeping the peace, whatever the hell that means. We'll probably be doing crowd control or something."
Al stuffs Ed's letter into his breast pocket and begins cramming things into his duffle bag. There's not that much—his uniforms, a photograph, Ed's red coat. "How much worse is worse?"
Gunnar smiles grimly. "How much worse can they get?"
"Oh," Al says.
He wishes now that he'd written Ed when he had more time.