It was raining again. Edward lifted his face up, shielding his face from the downpour, and groaned at how thick and heavy the clouds were, how dark the sky: more storms tonight, probably. The mud would be awful tomorrow.
Like it wasn't already. He lifted a foot and pulled a face as the mud sucked and groaned, releasing his foot reluctantly. "I have an idea," he said to the young officer standing next to him. "How about we don't go destroying the shit out of places that rain a lot and make reconstruction a bitch?"
The officer didn't even look up from his clipboard. "Sounds like an idea to me."
Edward pressed his lips together, then looked carefully off to the side as he kicked the mud off his foot and onto the officer's crisp pants leg. He was ready with a wide-eyed look of innocence when the man swore, dropped his clipboard and held up his leg to see the damage.
"Where did that come from? I just changed, too! Damn, I hate this place."
"I know," said Edward. "The humidity makes ironing such a pain."
"Damn right," the officer agreed. Sighing, he bent over to extract his clipboard from the mud.
"Well, anyway." Ed put his hands on his hips and looked out over the field—the workers had abandoned the project a few minutes ago, but already the sheets and makeshift roofs they had put up were beginning to sag under the torrent. "Remind me again why I'm the only State Alchemist here?"
"Um. They thought one alchemist would be sufficient?"
"I'm flattered and pissed off at the same time." He sighed. "Look, I'll do something about this mess, you can go on ahead. Just tell the general I'll be late for dinner, I'm sorry to ruin his visit and all that jazz. Actually, you know, if you could get me out of dinner entirely, that'd be great."
The officer looked sheepish. "Well, I promised General Mustang that you'd be joining him. And you know how persistent he is."
"Can't you tell him I got buried in a mudslide?"
"I'm not sure that will—"
"Good man, Kuger, good man." Edward slapped his shoulder. "I knew I could count on you. And if you could tell him, maybe, you know, that I broke my leg or something and get me out of a few other appointments.... "
Kuger lifted his eyes heavenward. "I'll do my best, sir."
There were perks to being the only State Alchemist in an area, and they were: accomodations. Edward been given the run of the only house that had survived the conflict; it was small, one-storied, three-roomed, but it was better than a tent and had a bathroom, besides. With actual hot water. He turned it on and plugged the bathtub, sank onto the floor and closed his eyes, letting the soothing stream of running water clear his thoughts.
The city of Aias had been under siege for three weeks by rebels until the State army thought it fit to show up and take care of things in the way they did best—bomb and shoot the shit out of it. Most of the alchemists were engaged in other areas—mostly border towns—so once the military had taken the town, they'd realized they could do one of two things: rebuild it by hand, or sit on their laurels and pray for an alchemist to grace them with his transfer.
Aias was in the southern part of Amestris, known for its heavy rains, green fields and—also very persuasive—its excellent wineries. It hadn't taken too much groveling for Edward to ask for a transfer from his duties in Central to the area. Of course, then it hadn't taken much longer for him to realize that rain was nice, very nice, but rain every day got a bit tiring. And dirty. And depressing. He hadn't seen the sun or stepped on dry ground for two weeks.
The wine was also disappointing. 'Bouquet of flavor,' yeah, right. More like 'bouquet of ass.'
Rubbing his automail shoulder, Ed turned the water off and tested the water with a finger. Perfect. He grabbed the hem of his shirt and slid it up over his head, then took off the tie around his braid and began to unravel his hair, stroking through it with his fingers.
"Major Elric?" Edward gritted his teeth and prayed whoever it was would go away, but the knock just came heavier and louder. "Major, sir?"
Pulling his shirt back on, Edward tested the water one last time, regretful, before moving to the front hall. He yanked open the door and opened his mouth, ready to let loose and let the military know exactly what he thought of being interrupted when he'd already done his full day's work, dammit—
Alphonse shifted, his bright red poncho rustling. He smiled. "Hello, brother?"
Edward's mouth clicked shut.
"Thank you very much," Alphonse said, turning his smile on the huge soldier standing next to him. "I appreciate it. Have a good night—I hope you can dry off!" He looked back at Edward and raised his eyebrows. "Can I come in?"
Edward worked his lips several times before getting out, "Yeah, actually, I'm not sure about that. Since you're not supposed to even be here, if I remember correctly."
"Don't be a jerk," Al said, brushing past him and reaching over him to close the door. "Honestly." He ran his eyes over Edward, a frown coming into his eyes; he clicked his tongue. "You're almost as wet as I am! They haven't had you working out in the rain, have they?"
"I don't know if you missed the memo, Al, but that's my job."
Al just looked at him.
Ed sighed and let his lips twitch. "It's good to see you."
Face lighting up, Alphonse reached out and embraced him, arms going tightly around Edward's shoulders. He pulled Ed close, bumped their foreheads together. "I'm glad," he said. "I've missed you. It's good to see you aren't in pieces."
"Yeah, yeah." Ed pulled away. "What are you doing here, Al? You're not even supposed to know where I am."
"I have my ways." Al raised his eyebrows; then he grinned, breaking the solemnnity of his face. "Don't worry about it, okay? Here. I bet you haven't eaten all day, have you."
It was years since Al had shadowed him everywhere he went, when Alphonse had accompanied Ed on every mission and they had slept in cheap hotels together, worked to find the Stone together. Now Edward's whereabouts were closely-guarded secrets, and his little brother—no longer little—stayed at home, teaching the children of the friends they'd grown up with Risenbourgh.
Some things didn't change, though. Edward sat at the kitchen table and propped his chin in his hands, watching Al move around his kitchen with the glow of someone who loves to take care of others. In a short time, Al had deposited a mug of coffee in his hands and had the stove filled with pots; vegetables steamed, mashed potatoes simmered, and the coffee in Edward's hands was strong and black.
Al checked the food one more time, then nodded and sat himself at the table across from Edward. "Is the coffee good?" he asked, half-rising. "Maybe I should get some."
"It's good—and sit your ass down. I'll get it for you." Edward poured a cup full to the top, then dawdled by the stove, inhaling the scent of Xing-style vegetables. He lifted a hand, flexed his fingers.
"Oh no you don't." Alphonse slapped his hand away. "Not until it's ready, or you'll make yourself sick."
"Aww," said Edward, affecting a pout. "Man, don't make that face at me again. I'd hate to be one of your students." He handed Al his coffee and sat back down at the table, leaning forward on his elbows. "So—seriously, Alphonse." He narrowed his eyes over the rim of his mug. "What are you doing here? It's still dangerous around here."
"I think I can handle it, brother."
"Plus—" Edward lifted his eyes to the ceiling, which was singing with the sound of falling rain. "It's rainy, and muddy, and shit is everywhere, and it's disgusting."
"I'd noticed," Al said. He dropped his hands to play with the handle of his mug.
Al shrugged. "Look, someone in Mustang's group owed me a favor, all right? Because, in case you had forgotten, your birthday is today."
Ed sat back in his chair. His birthday—how old was he? He rifled through his memory, but couldn't remember exactly. It'd been years since he'd last taken note of how old he was. It was in his file; sometimes it seemed that was all that mattered lately. "I still wish you hadn't come," he said, sipping his coffee to hide his discomfort. "It's not exactly vacation country out here."
Alphonse was silent. Then, "The food is probably ready," and he left Edward to his thoughts while he got up to poke at the stove.
Edward washed down a sigh with coffee. The line of Al's back was stiff; he was offended, for whatever reason. It was just like Al to get pissed that Edward had forgotten his birthday. Probably mad he'd come all the way out here and Ed wasn't throwing a party.
"It's ready," Al said over his shoulder. "Come get some."
They stood side-by-side at the stove, in silence. Ed surveyed the food and felt a rush of warmth: Al had made candied corn, his favorite. He liked the Xing vegetables, too; he'd taken a liking to them when Izumi-sensei had first made them. It seemed so long ago, but he could still taste their spicy flavor. He dished out large portions and didn't miss how Al hid his smile behind a potholder.
They sat at the table, and Al fished inside his shoulder bag and pulled out a bottle of wine. "Dublith wine," he said, uncorking it and carefully holding it away from the table as it fizzed. "Your favorite."
"And the most expensive wine in the country," Ed said, raising his eyebrows. "Wow, Al. Thanks."
Al shrugged, but his lips curved. "Only the best tonight, brother."
The vegetables were perfectly spiced; Ed had to sip from the wine bottle every bite, to soothe the fire in his mouth. The potatoes were salty and thick and the candied corn was just like their mother used to make. Edward ate past the point of hunger, for the pure pleasure of the food—it'd been forever since he'd had anything but rations.
"How's the wine?" Al took a sip and wrinkled his nose. "Gross. I don't know how you like this stuff."
Edward grinned, snorted. "I don't," he said, taking the bottle from Al and tilting a long stream of wine down his throat. He wheezed, set the bottle aside. "I don't really like any wine. Dublith's just gets me drunker faster."
Al shook his head, smiling. "Well," he said, "it's your birthday."
"If you say so."
Al's smile disappeared. He looked down at the table, dragged his fork through his potatoes; looked up again, mouth set. "About that, brother."
Ed paused with the bottle halfway to his mouth. "About what?"
"About... it's just... do you know how long it's been since you've been back home?" The words came out fast, like Al hadn't even planned to say them, like they'd just tumbled out. He watched Edward's face. "You don't know, do you."
"I guess not. What, a few months?"
"A year," Alphonse said. "A year and a half, actually. I expected you to come back for the harvest—that's your favorite time of year. Then I thought, all right, well, surely he'll come back for Winry's birthday." He looked down at his plate. "And you stopped answering my letters."
"Well," Ed said, and knew how lame it was before he even said it. "I've been busy."
"Too busy, brother. And every time I see you, you're just—you're not yourself. The military's been riding you, over-working you, and you seem fine with it. What is wrong with you? Have you even asked for leave?"
He needed more coffee. Ed stood up and went to the coffee pot, then took a deep breath, arms braced on the counter. His shoulder was beginning to ache again. "I don't get it," he said, pouring himself another cup and keeping his eyes away from Al. "Maybe I've finally learned to like my job. What's wrong with that?"
He heard Al snort. "You've never liked being in the military."
"Well, we can't all enjoy our jobs as much as you."
"Is that it?" Alphonse reached out and grabbed his elbow. "Would you look at me?" he said and, when Edward turned, shook his head. "This isn't because of my job, is it?"
Al's eyes narrowed; he looked closely at Ed. "It is. But it's more than that. I know you."
"Look, can we just drop it?"
"We could. And then I'd leave, and you wouldn't come back for another year. And I'd have to track you down again." Alphonse pinched the bridge of his nose. "Brother," he said finally, "I know you had a problem with the engagement."
Ed tensed, fingers tightening on his cup. "No, I don't."
"Yes, you do," Al said; "don't give me that look. I know whatever mystic thought process you have going on in that head didn't think leaving two days after you met Mela would be a clue, but trust me, I'm normal, and it was."
"Al, did you just call me weird?"
"I did. And don't try to lure me off the topic. What's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" Ed looked at him and shook his head. For someone so smart as his little brother—He still felt affronted over the 'mystic thought process' jibe, though, so he set his teeth together.
Alphonse hesitated, then said slowly, as if his words were picking their way through a minefield, "Did you not like Mela? Is that it? If you had just said so, I—"
"It wasn't that," Edward blurted out. "She's the one who didn't like me."
"What? She told me she—"
"Oh, it doesn't matter what she told you. She was probably lying." Coffee gone, Ed reached again for the bottle and lifted it to his mouth with shaking fingers. I didn't want to have this conversation with you, he thought at Alphonse and feeling, suddenly, very righteously angry. He might as well hear it—he'd planned the whole thing, after all, Ed's favorite food and the good wine and the company, all to get him to talk about a fucking engagement! He pinned Al with a glare and said, "All right. You want me to lay it out for you, Al? First of all, I don't know if you've noticed, but most people don't like the military. A natural progression of thought will lead them to like me even less, for various reasons."
"That's—" Al began.
"Shut up," Edward said, and Al did. "Second: Mela wants to marry you, not you and your brother. What girl likes a brother-in-law who hangs around all the time and monopolizes her fiancee's attention? So. She's a nice girl, Alphonse, she is. I like her fine. It's just better for you if I, you know—" He shrugged. "Make myself a bit scarcer. See? I was doing you a favor and you still bitch about it. Jeez."
Al was still staring at him, brows drawn down and mouth tense. He had their mother's jaw—you could tell when he was angry, just from the jaw. "Well," he said quietly. "I could tell you how paranoid and suspicious you are, but I don't think that's going to change. So I'll just tell you that Mela and I decided to break off the engagement."
Edward choked on the wine; half of it exploded out his nose. "What?"
Al handed him a napkin, and raised his eyebrows.
"Okay. Okay." He wiped his face and groaned—his nose was on fire. "Ugh. Stupid question."
"You said it, not me." The corner of Al's mouth quirked. "Stupid brother, you really are paranoid. I can't believe you actually thought all of that."
"I'm smart, not paranoid." Edward sighed, reached out to pat Alphonse's cheek. "You okay?" he said quietly.
"Do I sound distraught?" His mouth curved even further. "It's fine. It wasn't working—for more reasons than you, by the way—and... it was a good decision. I wasn't ready, neither was she. I'm only twenty-three, you know."
"I'm glad," Edward sighed, and immediately felt guilty that it was true.
"You were right, though." Al's hand went up to cover Edward's, larger fingers twining with his. "Mela—and anyone else—they need someone who can give them all their attention, you know? That's not me. You're always going to be the most important person in my life."
"Hey." Ed rolled his eyes and tapped Al's nose with his metal hand. "Don't get sappy on me."
"You're my favorite person in the world. I think I'm allowed."
"Al, are you trying to kill me here?"
"Yes." Al pressed the curve of his smile to Edward's automail. "I love you, brother. Please don't do this again. I miss you when you're gone."
Edward's chest clenched. "If I'd known you'd broken it off with Mela—" He chewed his lip, guilt settling heavy in his stomach. He'd been an ass; as usual, he'd mixed up his good intentions and did something stupid. He tried not to think of all the letters Alphonse had written him, sitting unopened and dusty in his mailbox. He swallowed and forced out the words: "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Alphonse said softly. "I've had enough of your apologies. You're always sorry about the wrong things."
"What, like how much I've fucked up your life?"
"No." Al's fingers on his tightened. "For your life. Ed." He kissed Ed's fingers, a light, breathy touch. "I am fine. You gave me back everything. Everything."
Ed went still, staring at him. Al stared back unapologetically, his breath still ghosting across Ed's fingers. "Al...."
"I love you," Al said, and repeated it quietly as he slid from his chair and faced Ed on his knees, bumping their foreheads together, then their lips. "I love you, please don't be sorry. Please don't be sorry for trying to take care of me."
Ed shook his head. "I—"
Alphonse lowered his eyebrows and shook his head, a smile tugging at his lips. "Oh, shut up, brother." He gripped the arms of Ed's chair and leaned forward, pressing his mouth against Edward's and moving forward until their bodies were flush against one another. Al's hand touched his chest, pushing him back into his chair; his tongue ran across Edward's lips, light—almost tickling—and wet, and when Ed opened his mouth to say something (he wasn't sure what) he pressed forward even more, slipped his tongue into Ed's mouth.
"There," Al breathed against his lips, drawing back a little. "Now you know how I feel about you." He looked up at Edward from his crouch on the floor, eyes wide and soft, mouth tense. Frightened.
Ed shook his head, mute. He swallowed hard, but still had to speak over the clog in his throat as he said, "If you're expecting me to scream like Winry when I've broken my automail and kick you out of my house, you can forget it." He hesitated, then added fondly, "Moron."
Alphonse's smile bloomed. Ed held out his arms and his brother nestled into them, settling his own arms around Ed's neck and pushing forward until he was half in Edward's lap. "Gee," Al said, voice clogged. "I love you, too, jerk."
Ed grinned and patted his cheek, pressed a kiss to the crown of his head. "I know."
Al curled by the bathtub while Ed bathed, arms dangling over the edge, watching as Ed cleaned himself of the day's grime. When he reached for the shampoo, Al touched his arm, said, "Stop. Let me do it. I love your hair, you know."
So Alphonse moved to the back of the bathtub and touched his hands gently to Edward's hair, running his fingers through it to clear it of tangles. He washed it carefully as he did any of his kittens, like Ed was something he could break, occasionally stroking his fingers down Ed's neck and sweeping over his collarbones. When it was clean and soft, he let go reluctantly; Edward stood up, reached for a towel to wrap around his hips, and accepted Al's hand to help him out of the tub.
The night storm had started; lightning flashed in the windows as they sat on the bed together and Al fingered through his hair, dividing it into three sections for braiding. The house rumbled gently, as a cat purrs, and Alphonse tied off the braid, pressing his hands to Edward's scalp one more time before dropping them to his side.
Edward cleared his throat: it was hard to speak again. "Keep going," he said, hoarse.
Al pressed his mouth to Ed's shoulder; Edward could feel the curve of his smile. Then his brother touched his hair again, swept down the braid and down his shoulders, touching his scars gently. He touched the automail even more gently than he did Edward's hair, almost reverently; leaned down and kissed its metal shoulder.
When he spoke, his voice was full to the brim with emotions. "I'm only here because of you."
Edward swallowed; he wanted to protest, but this time he kept silent, too tired, too fragile to say anything, afraid the moment would break. Alphonse smiled again and stroked his hair. "Good," Al whispered. "Maybe someday you'll stop apologizing."
Ed managed a snort. "Don't count on it."
"It'll be a pleasant surprise," Al said, "when it happens." He kissed the automail again. "Do you want to sleep now?"
They curled together under the covers, one of Al's hands on his automail and the other on his hip. Al fell asleep more quickly than he did; Edward stayed awake, watching the flashes of light in the window, feeling the bed vibrate every time thunder struck. He pressed his face into Al's neck and didn't bother to fight back the smile swelling on his face.
Twenty-four, huh? Ten years ago his view of the future had been bleak, deservedly so: he'd pictured himself dead or worse, hadn't even been sure he'd be able to restore Alphonse to his own body. He would never have pictured... this, something so simple; would have, probably, thought it was kind of boring.
Kids, Ed thought, and snickered to himself.
He watched the lightning for a few more minutes and thought vaguely about what would happen tomorrow; then closed his eyes, willed himself to sleep. Al kicked in his sleep. He didn't want to be awake for that.
Tomorrow would just have to sort itself out, dammit.