There was another river that ran through Central proper; two small branches that joined together in the downtown to provide a river just large enough for Central's shipping. It was something of an eyesore, though, made dirty and ugly by the businesses crowding along the sides. Concrete banks hemmed it in for most of its length; the few stretches that were open and untainted by industries were always crowded and busy with sightseers.
A much more pleasant spot to picnic was out here, on the outskirts of Central, where a smaller but more peaceful river wended its shallow and slow way to the south. The sky was so blue that the drifting clouds were an eye-dazzling white, and the calm and steady waters reflected the surrounding trees and grasses in faithful green on azure.
Ed and Al carried the picnic basket between them, one to each handle. It was heavy, and Al had to hold it carefully to keep it level so that it wouldn't bang against his already bruised legs. It was made worse by the fact that the basket was tilted by their significant difference of heights, not that Ed would ever admit such a thing.
The trees opened up in a sudden flat stretch, and the grasses rolled down a steady slope to the water. Ed stopped short, and the tug on the basket necessarily stopped Al, too. His sore shoulders complained, but the warm sun felt nice shining them, and when Ed said, "This is a good spot, Al, don't you think?" Al had to agree.
"I guess so," Al said, somewhat dubiously. Ed set his end down on the grass abruptly, and puffs of silt went flying. Al gasped as the basket banged out of his control. "Brother! Be more careful!"
"Why?" Ed said. He sat on the grass, and folded his arms tightly across his chest, gazing off across the river. "It doesn't make any difference now."
Al bit his lip, and his eyes prickled slightly at the tone in Ed's voice, smarting in time with the stinging scrapes on his cheek. Don't you even care? he wanted to shout, but he didn't, because he knew Ed did care. Did care, but wouldn't let himself show it. Instead, he sat hesitantly down on the grass, flanking the picnic basket between them.
For a few minutes they sat in silence, looking out over the sun-dazzled water. There didn't seem to be much to say.
After a while Ed dug into his pocket, and pulled out a wrinkled, grease spotted napkin. He gave Al a meaningful glare as he unwrapped it to remove the sandwich inside, and with slow reluctance Al went digging for his own. It was smushed and wrinkled from riding in his pocket all the way out to the river, but still edible.
"You should eat," Ed said through his mouthful. "That's something I learned when we were, you know, looking for the Stone. Never pass up an opportunity to eat, 'cause you don't know how much energy you'll have to burn before your next meal."
"That's a fine way to excuse being a total glutton, Brother," Al said softly, but he dutifully nibbled at his sandwich. It was tuna fish and lettuce, standard for Tuesday at the officer's confectionary. It was strange; he'd bought the sandwiches himself, while his brother had been filling the picnic basket, but he couldn't remember having chosen the sandwich filling at all.
Ed finished his in a few minutes. A glance at Al showed his sandwich still more than half intact, so he sat back, fiddling with the paper in his hand. He folded his paper in half, then half again, folding and folding it until he had to crush it with his automail hand, then flung it forward into the river.
"Maybe we should have brought something to drink," Ed muttered, brow furrowing slightly in a frown. "Got to stay hydrated, too. That's important."
"Seventy percent of the human body is composed of water," Al said softly, thinking about it. "Sixty pecent oxygen, nine percent hydrogen, eighteen percent carbon—"
"—-nitrogen, three percent," Ed interrupted, taking over the recitation in a detatched, clipped voice. He had the entire formula written down in a notebook in his suitcase, but they didn't need it anymore. They knew it by heart. "Calcium, one percent. Phosphorus, one percent. Potassium, one-half of a percent. And sixteen other trace elements."
He seemed to return from some faraway place, and slanted a look over at his brother. "But it's no good, Al. You can't bring a dead person back to life."
There was nothing to say to that, so Al said nothing, just stared at his hands and past it to the muddy bank falling off into the river. The sun was ducking in and out of the high, fluffy clouds, and Al shivered as a chill breeze wafted past them.
"This is a nice place, though," Ed said, breaking the silence unexpectedly. His automail was plucking ceaselessly at the ground under his hand, pulling up stems of grass, but his eyes were focused out over the river, the trembling play of silver glints on gray-green and blue. "I can see why Roy recommended it."
Al shivered harder. He didn't want to talk about Roy, not here, not now. Didn't want to call the man's image into his mind, tall and neat and pressed in his navy blue uniform, white gloves, the array picked out in red thread on the back. They'd been rougher than expected, those gloves, scratchier.
Ed was looking pensive, now; he pulled up a pebble from the dirt and chucked it against the surface of the water. "You know, I guess he really was looking out for us," he said lowly, and for Ed, stubborn Ed, this might have been the hardest admission he'd ever had to make.
Al knew that. He remembered everything the Colonel had done for them, ever since the beginning when they were ten and eleven and lost and scared in a new world, not knowing what to do next. He hadn't forgotten the way the Colonel had helped them, pushed them forward and encouraged them, and he'd never forgotten the fear in the Colonel's voice—for their sake!—or the rage and the pain he'd felt for them when they'd broken his trust.
He hadn't forgotten those things, no matter how much he wished he could.
...and there were some things that he had forgotten, when he got his body back after being in the armor so long. Like how emotions felt when you had real chemicals to back them up, how passion and rage and fear could rush through your blood and take hold of your limbs, haze out your sight and block out your thoughts until you had to fight for clarity.
And he'd forgotten all that, and more importantly, he'd forgotten how to fight against it, how to stay in control when your traitor body was running high off its own chemicals, and that scared him, scared him more than he ever had believed was possible. Because Ed counted on him to be the calm one, the reliable one, and Ed counted on him to be the one to clean up the mess when the dust had settled.
It wasn't fair to force this on Ed, to make him be the sensible one and cover up for Al's weaknesses, Al's mistakes. But Al couldn't help it, and now they had no other choice.
"Hey," Ed's voice broke into his thoughts, and Al came back to himself with a start. He looked over the flat top of the picnic basket, sitting between them, to meet his brother's concerned eyes. "Eat your sandwich. Don't dribble on it."
Al managed a watery smile, and forced himself to choke down the rest of the food. Because Ed was right, it wouldn't do to waste food, not when you never knew what was ahead. It tasted like ashes in his mouth, somehow; like carbon and steel.
The sun had gone under cover again, muting the glints of silver on the river and on his brother's limbs. Ed was looking out over the river towards the spreading bulk of Central, the metal hand resting on the basket. Sometimes, Al reflected, it was like his brother was steel everywhere under his skin, never doubting, never wavering.
Al swallowed, and said, "Do you think we'll ever come back here again, Brother?" He crumpled the paper in his lap, and looked down at it. "Central, I mean."
"I dunno, Al. It just depends." Ed flashed him a tense smile, and stood up. "Come on. Let's do this."
"Okay," Al said in a small voice, and scrambled to his feet. Automatically, he looked around for some place to throw away his paper; there was no trash can in sight, however, so after a hesitation he followed his brother's example and dropped it into the river.
Ed bent down, and took one of the handles on the basket. Al followed suit, and looked up to find his face close to his brother's, the steel-hard determination on his face. "Together," Ed said. "We're gonna do it together, Al."
He nodded. Couldn't speak.
On an unspoken count of three, they lifted; swung the heavy hamper back, forth, back again for maximum momentum, and then heaved it forward into the river. It bobbed for a moment, floating along with the slow current, before water trickled in to fill the empty space and it sank out of sight.
The sun came out suddenly, dazzling on the water, and Al was blinded. The tears caught him by surprise, his throat and his eyes filling in a rush, and before he had even realized he was crying, Ed was hugging him fiercely, protectively, hard. "I didn't mean it," he choked out. "Oh, God, I didn't mean to—it was an accident, Brother, it was an accident, I swear—"
"Shhhhh," Ed said fiercely. "I know. I know. It's gonna be okay, Al. It's gonna be okay."
"He just kept—" His voice choked off, all the excuses and reasons and terrible justifications locking each other and disintegrating in his throat, dissolving, because it didn't matter any more, it didn't matter any more, and of all the people in the world Ed would not judge him, Ed would not blame him, no matter what he said or didn't say, and he couldn't stand to lie.
Ed let him have his moment, Ed let him have his silence, and whatever his brother was feeling, he kept it locked in place, behind that iron-hard steel-hard will to be strong. And after a long moment his brother gave him a little squeeze, and then released him, stepping back. "We should get going," he said, and Al could only nod, without speaking.
Behind them, in the peaceful slow-moving river, the picnic basket was surely dissolving, disintegrating, breaking apart; wet straw unraveling in the current, releasing its silt passenger in the gentle sun-warmed waters. But not a hint of disturbance marred the smooth river's surface, and neither brother looked behind them as they went.
INVESTIGATION ONGOING IN MISSING STATE ALCHEMIST
Investigation continues on the mysterious disappearance of Brigadier General Roy Mustang (the "Flame Alchemist," certified,) who went missing from his Central office on Tuesday morning. There was no sign of a struggle. However, a large quantity of water appeared to have been poured over the desk and chair, although the sprinkler system had not been triggered and no fire damage had been reported. There is some speculation that the water could have been used in an ploy to disable him.
Military police are continuing to give interviews of workers and acquaintances of the missing Brig. General, but refused to comment on the interviews or on any leads that might have turned up. As of this time no charge of desertion has been laid.