The train station in Liore was destroyed, Fuery said, reduced to red-stained rubble, and the trucks that carried Roy's troops are spluttering and dying in the heat of the return journey; which is why they're bivouacked now, tents spread across a flat plain of sand and glowing steadily like fireflies in the growing dark. Al crouches down on a dune looking down on the camp and draws an array in the sand, thinking of Gunnar with a dull pang of grief.
"You okay, Al?"
Ed's standing between Al and the last of the light in the west, hands stuffed into his pockets, hair drifting into his face; and he's beautiful, so beautiful that it takes Al's breath away. He's also hurt and angry and trying not to show either, and for one of the few times in their lives Al doesn't know how to fix it.
"I'm fine," he says. "Just—thinking of a friend."
Emotions chase each other across Ed's face—sympathy, pain on Al's behalf, jealousy and a slow, hurting loneliness. "Not the other alchemist, the one who lived," he guesses.
"No. Not the one who lived," Al says quietly, then glances up at Ed with a wan smile. "Him I never liked much. He sucks his teeth. It makes an awful noise."
Ed just looks at him for a minute, then comes to sit next to him, slipping a little in the sand. "Al," he says, looking down at the camp. "Why didn't you write?"
Al closes his eyes. He knew this was coming, but he wasn't looking forward to it. "I'm sorry, brother."
"I didn't ask you to apologize, Al, I asked you to tell me why," Ed says sharply.
Al doesn't know what to say. Ed could hear a lie in Al's voice over a telegraph line, and everything he could say—It's not you, it's me; I needed time—really will sound like he's trying to dump his brother, and that's so far from the truth that the phrases sound in his head like a foreign language.
He can't say: I couldn't write because I was afraid I'd break and everything I can't tell you would come gushing out, and then you'd get uncomfortable and kind and distant, or worse, and I can't live without you, brother. "I don't know how to explain," he says weakly.
"Try," Ed says between his teeth.
Al wants to crawl into Ed's arms and be held, petted, comforted, forgiven everything; but the certain knowledge that Ed would do it if he asked keeps him where he is, because he doesn't deserve it. "I missed you so much it hurt," he says instead, looking out over the camp and not at Ed. "At first I was waiting for it to get better before I wrote, but it never did, and then I missed you and I felt terrible for not writing. I thought I needed to do this, that I needed to pass the exam and be on my own before you started wondering why I was twenty years old and still tagging along after you like a puppy—"
"Al, I—" Ed starts to protest, but Al cuts him off. He only has it in him to say this once, and he wants to have it said.
"—and then I started thinking that I'd made a horrible mistake and been an idiot, and I—I was afraid things would be different. I was afraid I'd lost the place I had in your life, and I don't know where else to be," he says, before his throat mercifully closes and cuts him off.
"Al, you idiot," Ed says, and there's forgiveness and affection and quiet love in his voice, and Al is probably going to cry. "Come home where you belong and stop trying to prove shit."
It's not that easy, Al wants to say, because it isn't. There's still the fact that he's head over heels in love with his brother, which in some way does not seem to preclude being nearly as desperately in love with his commanding officer, and both of them are insurmountably far out of his reach but not out of each other's.
"I just," he says. "I wanted to leave before it got to the point where you didn't want your little brother hanging around you all the time."
"Al," Ed says quietly, and there's a pain in his voice that runs deeper than it seems like it should. "I will never not want you. Shit, don't you know that by now?"
"You're in love with Roy, brother," Al says desperately, and this is saying far, far too much and he's past the point where he can stop himself.
Ed explodes like a spectacularly misdrawn array. "I'm WHAT? Who are you saying is in love with that pompous—"
"ED!" Al snaps, and he doesn't call his brother to heel often but it works every time when he does. "You are, don't be stupid, you know it. You are, and if you want him you'll have him, and three's kind of a crowd in that situation, you know?" Then he realizes what it sounds like he's saying, and his face burns hotter than the midday sands. "I mean—I wasn't talking about that situation, but you'll want time alone, eventually you'll want to make a home with him and—"
"Alphonse," Ed says in a strangled voice. "Did you just marry me off to a man who, A, chases skirts—women's skirts, Al—like his promotion to Fuhrer depends on his belt-notch count, and B, thinks I'm too short, too young, and too difficult?"
"No, Al, goddammit, you listen to me!" Ed shifts to sit on his heels facing Al, moving himself into Al's line of vision, gloves curling into the sand. "Right, okay, maybe I do have some—weird and unfortunate thing for Roy fucking Mustang. But I—Al, I—"
Al looks at him, and something in his eyes makes Ed stop in mid-rant.
"Oh, god," Ed says. "You're in love with him."
"I wouldn't ever stand in your way, you know that," Al says desperately, because Ed is moving back, moving away, looking like he's just been gutted.
Ed shakes his head. "You don't get it."
"Then explain it to me, damn it!"
"I can't, Al," Ed says miserably. "I just got you back. I need—I need you not to leave me for a while longer, okay?"
"I love you, Ed," Al says.
Ed closes his eyes for a moment, then reaches out to yank Al to him, burying his face in Al's hair as they cling to each other. "I loved you first," he whispers.
He dreams of Liore that night, and wakes shaking in Ed's arms. Ed is crooning softly to him, stroking his hair, pressing gentle kisses against the crown of his head that ask nothing in return; and maybe under different circumstances Al would be having to fight the reaction of his own body to those quiet touches, but right now he needs his brother.