It was almost closing time before Al got to the bar; he'd had to stop and check two others on the way. The barman looked up when Al rushed in, and nodded in some satisfaction. "Evening, Alphonse," he greeted him neutrally. "Was just about to give your place a ring."
"Thanks, Mr. Vimes," Al said, still out of breath and side-stitched from his hurry. "Is everything all right? How is he?"
"In fine form this evening." Vimes nodded unsmilingly towards the end of the bar, where a ring of stately gold and brown glass surrounded a collapsed puddle of gold and brown on the counter. Al bit his lip, and sighed.
"He's out-drunk his tab again," Vimes added, and Al winced. Al's paycheck from his clerking job was supposed to go to cover groceries this week, and Ed's labwork earnings, while much more substantial, didn't come in till the end of the week. Al sighed again, and ran one hand through his hair.
"Could you put it on credit for now? Please? I'll pay it up as soon as possible, I swear. I know it's a lot of trouble to you, but..." He gave the older, stern man his best pleading, sincere gaze.
Vimes hesitated, then gave a little shrug. "For now. It's not good policy, but he's a good customer. Never starts fights or breaks mugs... you have till Friday, anyway."
Al let his breath out again. "That's all I ask," he said, relieved—temporarily, at least. Ed was drinking up next paycheck before he even got it, now; how much further would they fall behind? If only his brother would stop and think!
It was hard enough, being trapped in this world, so far from their home... but that had been a choice they'd both made, for different reasons. Ed had been willing to give his all to protect his homeworld, and Al... had been willing to give up the world to stay with Ed.
Maybe that was the difference between them now, Al thought, approaching the corner. Al still had his purpose; he still had Ed. Ed's purpose had ended with the destruction of the Gate on this side, and he found himself... drifting, almost, purposeless. He'd taken up first cigarettes—to calm his nerves, he said—and then liquor, to calm his sleep. Al walked by the mouths of opium dens on the way to the bar, and feared what would be next.
The collapsed pile of sodden blond stirred as Al approached, and Ed lifted his head out of his arms to squint up at his younger brother. His whole countenance brightened immediately, and he found the energy to sit up straight. "Alllll!" he caroled cheerfully, nearly singing the word. "You're here! What're you doin' here? Is it time to go home... already?"
"Yes, Brother," Al said, struggling to keep his voice neutral against the irritation and hurt that welled up in him. "In fact, you were supposed to be home hours ago. You said you were going to come straight home after work. You also said we needed to save money this week, food prices are going up again. So what are you doing here?"
Ed wilted, visibly and immediately, and Al sighed, and pushed his hurt and disapproval aside. The problem with Ed was that there was just no middle ground with him any more—as if there ever had been. It was all or nothing. When he was sober, he was standoffish, aloof, cold—Al's disapproval slid right off his uncaring skin. But at times like these, with the alcohol coursing through his system, he hung on Al's every word.
Ed was normally a cheerful, friendly drunk, thank goodness, but the slightest hint of reproach or anger on Al's part would send Ed into a crashing depression. He could work himself into a tower of self-recrimination and despair that would take Al all night to undo, and it was far easier on both of them just not to begin.
"Never mind," he said firmly, and put his hands on Ed's shoulders, steadying him as he swayed on the stool. "You've had more than enough for tonight, Brother; let's get you home and in bed."
"Sure you don' wanna drink?" Ed offered considerately. "'S good stuff, for the cheap stuff. Don' taste like a thing."
Al shook his head. "You know I don't," he reminded his brother, and put a hand under his arm, helping him stand up off the stool. "Besides, Mr. Vimes has to close down now, and we're in his way."
"Oh... Mr. Vimes... that reminds me..." A puzzled furrow crossed Ed's face, and he wobbled away from Al's supporting arm and blundered heavily against the bar, nearly bouncing off the polished wood. "Heard about... little Sam's birthday is in a week, yes? Give him... you should give him this from me..."
Ed managed to fumble his wallet out of his inner coat pocket, only to stop and stare in dismay when it proved to be empty. "Could have sworn..." he muttered.
"You spent it all, Brother," Al said firmly, and put his hands over Ed's, refolding the wallet and tucking it back in his coat pocket. He gave the barkeep an apologetic look, trying not to let his embarrassment show; Mr. Vimes was almost a family friend by this time, after all.
"I did?" Ed seemed taken aback. "Wait.... on what?"
"We'll bring it on Friday," Al promised the barkeep somewhat desperately; Ed's expression lightened, and he nodded. "Yeah... Friday."
The barman shook his head, then hesitated, obviously weighing his next words against his guarded disinterest. "Will you boys be okay on the way home?" he inquired at last. "There are some rough types out there this time of week, you know. It's a sad business, but there are even some roughnecks who might start trouble with a few harmless types like you."
"Oh," said the former Armored Alchemist, companion and bodyguard of the legendary Fullmetal Alchemist, and prime student of Izumi Curtis' fighting technique, "I think we'll be okay."
"A-allll," Ed said, and bumped his hip clumsily against Al's, sending them both nearly stumbling into a wall. Al regained his balance and shot a glare at his brother, who was grinning at him with sloppy affection. "You're my favorite... favorite brother ever, did you know that?"
"I'm your only brother," Al pointed out, and leaned him against the wall so he could dig in his pockets for the keys.
"Yeah, yeah you are," Ed agreed, amiably, and made an effort to fend off the wall with his hands. He wasn't very successful at it. "But I think... I think you'd be my favorite brother anyway, I mean... I'm the other brother, and I like you more than I like me." He gave up and leaned against the wall again. "I don't like me very much sometimes."
Al sighed. "I don't like it when you do this to yourself, Brother."
"Awwwww, Al..." After several wobbly false starts, Ed managed to shove himself off the wall and onto Al's shoulder again. "M'sorry, really... won't do it again ever... I'm really really sorry..." He'd wrapped both arms around Al's neck, somewhere along the line, and was trying to clumsily nuzzled Al's shoulder through the layers of coats. "Sorry..."
"I'm not mad," Al said, with a touch of asperity in his tone despite the words. "Really, I just worry, that's all."
"Don't wanna make you worry," Ed said, in a fabric-muffled voice. He rubbed his face against Al's shoulder, probably smearing snot all over it, too. Oh, well, at least he wasn't vomiting again.
Al managed to get the door open, and the keys safely stashed in his pocket. "Here, Brother, we're home." With Ed clinging to his arm, he more-or-less dragged him inside; Ed tried to shuffle along without taking his face way from Al's shoulder, and didn't have nearly the coordination for it.
He turned up the lights on their home; a fair-sized studio flat, with the kitchen on one side and the single mattress up on blocks on the other, with a couch dividing the flat down the middle and wallpapered on all sides with bookshelves. At least there was a reasonable-sized bath, enough for them to both use without knocking elbows if they were careful. It wasn't much, but it was cheap and fairly dry and the walls weren't too thin. It was a good place to be, Al thought; as long as they could keep up the rent payments, that was.
He peeled Ed off his shoulder and deposited him on the couch, keeping one hand on his brother's shoulder to keep him from slithering off onto the floor. Once he was sure Ed could manage that, he carefully detangled his brother's clutching hands from his sleeve and headed over to their sink to get a glass of water.
Behind him, Ed moaned and flopped over onto his side, curling up slightly. "I hurt," he complained.
"That's because you drank too much, Brother," Al said quietly, shutting the tap off hurriedly and heading back over to the couch. "Here, sit up, you know you shouldn't lie down."
"S not the damn drink," Ed grumbled, groaning a little as Al pulled him back up. His unfocused eyes didn't seem to register the glass of water by his head, and he nearly knocked it out of Al's hands as he swung his left arm around to his right shoulder. "It's the automail... hurts," he said, rubbing at it through his clothes.
Ed would never say that if he was sober, Al thought. Just another one in a list of a dozen, sometimes it seemed like a hundred things he wouldn't say to Al while he was sober. He never wanted to admit to pain, never wanted to show weakness, not even to Al. "Drink your water, Brother," he said softly, catching Ed's attention again and waving the glass in front of him. "You've got a lot of rehydrating to do before you can sleep."
Ed looked briefly queasy. "Not thirsty," he mumbled, pushing Al's hand away. "Pretty full."
"Just drink it, Brother," Al said sternly, steel creeping into his voice and his eyes. He saw Ed's face fall, and relented a little. "Tell you what," he offered a compromise. "You drink while I rub your back. Then you can lie down sooner."
"Ah, okay." Ed took the glass from Al's hands, and started to gulp it down; somewhat ironic, Al thought, that the only coordination movement he could manage while this plastered was to lift a glass to his lips. "'M being good," Ed mumbled around the glass, watching Al warily.
Al snorted. "We'll see about that," he said. Nudging Ed sideways on the couch was sort of like molding putty, but he managed to get him turned sideways and sit down behind him. As Ed stopped in the middle of his glass of water for a heavy gulp of air, Alphonse started kneading his back.
Even through the layers of coat and shirt, he could still feel the distinct, heavy muscles of Ed's back, the promise of powerful strength. Now, because of the alcohol, they were loose, very relaxed—otherwise, he'd never have been able to really dig in and knead. Loose everywhere, that was, except for around the automail port. It really must have been hurting him, Al thought sadly, if even the influence of the alcohol couldn't fully ease the tension around the ports. He sighed.
Ed sighed too, happily; his head tilted back as he melted into Al's hands. "Feels so good," he murmured, completely unselfconscious. "More, please..."
Al's heart twinged, but he pushed the feeling forcefully aside. "You'll have to take your coat off, first," he suggested, reaching forward to pluck the half-empty glass out of Edward's drooping hand. Better to try and get him undressed for sleep under his own power, so he wouldn't have to wrestle the coat off him like a mannequin. Obediently, Ed began to struggle out of the rumpled coat, with Al helping to detangle him when the sleeves seemed like to defeat him. "And drink the rest of your water."
With the thick, rough material of the coat out of the way, Al could feel the heat of his brother's back radiating through the damp linen shirt, the muffled ridges and bumps of scar tissue. He kept an ear out as he rubbed and rolled the pliant muscle, listening to Ed's breathing gradually grow deeper and rougher. Ed gave a little moan whenever Al rubbed out a painful ache, sounds that made Al feel uneasy for a reason he desperately refused to acknowledge. But he wouldn't have broken this contact for the world.
The backrub was offered as a tempting bribe for Ed's cooperation, a grudging compromise, but the reluctance was a lie. If Ed's peace only lay in drinking these days, then Al's peace lay in this; moments of closeness, of intimacy and affection with his brother that were becoming all too rare these days. He longed to touch Edward, to hug and rub and kiss him well, to breathe in the scent of his brother's skin and just be with him. It was a wistful ache all the more potent for the guilt behind it, the suppressed longing that he knew too well could never be allowed to surface in his touch.
This was the only time, nowadays, that Ed let him get so close; that Ed would show Al how he was feeling, his little pains and pleasures. The only time that Ed let him touch, any more. He didn't know why they'd grown so distant, or when. Did Ed know, somehow? Had he figured out that Al's feelings towards him were more than brotherlike? Al tried his hardest to be cool and practical, strictly platonic, but it was so hard sometimes, loving Ed. He sighed.
Ed had been sagging steadily forward, under Al's patient hands, until finally he bestirred himself and tried to turn around. "Wan' lie dow'," he said groggily, his voice much further along towards sleep than it had been before.
"Ed, you can't lie down, and you know it," Al said, and he managed to rescue the now-empty glass before it hit the floor. "You need more water and milk before you can sleep—"
"—or at least orange juice, and you know if you throw up while you're lying down, you could choke to death," Al scolded him. "Stay awake, Ed."
"But 'm so sleepy," Ed whined. "Couch so soft... wanna... just wanna lie down... head hurts... please, Al, 'm so tired..."
Al bit his lip, trying to resist the puppy eyes Ed was giving him. Ed had taken to nuzzling his shoulder again, apparently in an effort to convince him. Finally, Al sighed. "Fine," he said. "Come on, let's do it this way. Scoot down, you can lie down in my lap. And don't throw up on me!" he warned.
Scooting the uncoordinated Ed was a task easier said than done, but after a few false starts he'd managed to arrange himself crowded against one arm of the sofa, with Ed stretched out to disproportional length on the rest of it, head in his lap. Al's hands hovered over Ed's temples for a moment, then dove into his damp, unkempt hair and began lightly tracing his scalp. Ed's lips parted on a little blissful sigh, and Al's heart lumped sideways again.
Al stared down at his brother's face, his closed eyes, and he gave his own sigh. Maybe he shouldn't be doing this, if not for his own sake, then for Ed's. Classical conditioning, Dr. Freud called it. Behavior that was rewarded was repeated. Maybe if he didn't coddle and pamper Ed so much, every night Ed came home drunk... then maybe Ed wouldn't go out drinking so often. Maybe if he let Ed suffer the full force of his hangover, the discomfort of collapsing on the floor or the couch, he'd be more reluctant to do it again. Maybe Ed's uncontrolled drinking was his fault.
He knew better than to claim all the blame for it, at least. Ed had first started drinking to try and control his nightmares, months ago. He'd never talk about the bad dreams, never let Alphonse comfort him from them. Al couldn't really fathom why Ed's dreams were so strong; after all, he'd been with Ed through the darkest of their trials together, and his nightmares did little more than unsettle him for a few hours the next day.
But even if he couldn't understand the nightmares, he couldn't fail to see the pain they caused. Bad dreams kept Ed up most nights; bad enough that he would spend his days disoriented and stupid from lack of sleep. Even Al couldn't touch the source of them, couldn't soothe them; but alcohol at least would let Ed spend a few hours in dreamless, drugged stupor.
At first Ed only drank to drunkenness at the end of the week, enough to let him catch up on his sleep debt. Then it became every other night. Then every night. Al didn't understand it; didn't know how to stop it, didn't even know if he should. While sober, Ed refused to even discuss the issue at all, much less try and find a solution; when drunk, pressing him with questions or recriminations would only distress him to tears.
It seemed like all Al could do was chase after Ed, as always, and clean up the mess. Make sure Ed got home from the bars safely, keep him from getting hurt or sick, try and ease some of his suffering. It didn't feel like much, sometimes, watching Ed slide slowly towards his own destruction.
Ed's eyes flickered open, and he made a soft whining noise. Al realized that he had stopped the petting, his hands pressing lightly at Ed's temples instead. He heaved another sigh, and curled up enough to lay a small kiss on Ed's temples. "You know I love you so much, Brother," he said, unable to keep a small catch out of his voice. "Why do you do this to yourself?"
Ed's face crumpled at Al's obvious unhappiness. "M sorry, Al," he said again, turning to rub his cheek on Al's thigh.
"I'm not mad at you, Brother," Al said tiredly. He had pulled Edward out of too many drunken, despairing funks to want to let Ed get weepy on him tonight.
Ed continued on as if he hadn't heard. "You're so good to me... too good to me. Comin' to get me, takin' me home... feels so nice... feed me water and stupid milk... just because I'm a stupid screw-up."
"Brother, I like taking care of you." Ed was wavering quickly towards the depressed end of his drunken spectrum of emotions, and Al was immediately sorry he'd said anything. He petted Ed's hair soothingly. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't, so don't feel bad, okay?"
"But I am bad... I mean... really so bad." Ed was visibly distressed now, and he tried to struggle up out of Al's lap. "You love me, but I mean, you shouldn't. You don't love me because I suck so much. I don't deserve you loving me, you don't deserve me loving you like this."
While Al tried to work this one out, Ed continued ranting drunkenly, warming to his subject.
"I'm the worse brother ever. You don' deserve that. Do everything wrong. Came here because of me, you shouldn't of... you shouldn't come. Shouldn't come after me, I'm all gross. Really gross, Al, I mean really gross. What kind of big brother, the disgusting kind, I mean, what kind of disgusting brother wants to kiss his brother?"
"You mean don't want me to kiss you?" Al was extremely confused now; even for Ed's standards, this made no sense.
"No! No, no no no no! I do! I mean, I don't, because it's not the same. I'm not the same. I don't love you right, Al, I'm all wrong. I say all the wrong things, do the wrong things. Push you away... want to hold you close. Make you sad, but I wanna make you happy. Most happy. I'm your brother but I wanna kiss you, touch you bad, I mean bad things. I wanna lick you and make you squirm, feel good, that would feel so good. Wanna kiss you so bad, Al..."
Ed blinked a few times, and Al jumped as he felt spots of warm wetness soak through his pants legs, cool quickly on his skin. "So bad," Ed mumbled, and sniffed loudly. "So sorry."
"Brother," Al whispered, shocked. He tried to gather Ed into his arms, but Ed had dug his hands firmly into the couch cushions and refused to lift his face from the rapidly spreading wetness on Al's legs.
"Miss everything," Ed continued, apparently ignoring Al's reactions. "Miss home, miss Winry, miss Al... Alfons... if you found out, you'd go away, and I wouldn't have anything at all... just bad dreams. All alone..."
"Brother," Al repeated sharply, and managed to loose Ed's grip on the cushions, and pull his brother up to face him. Bleary golden eyes squinted, as if trying to focus on Al's face, and then widened in sudden panic. Al felt Ed take a deep breath, whether in preparation for speech or struggle or flight Al didn't know; but he wasn't about to let Ed get started. Instead, he yanked Ed forward and kissed him on the mouth.
"A-mmmmph!" was as far as Ed got, before Al's mouth covered his own. His lips kept moving jerkily against Al's own, as if he were still trying to talk; Al almost lost his nerve, and pulled away, before Ed suddenly melted against him.
Unfortunately, after a moment of beautiful, docile response, Ed attempted to kiss back. With Ed as drunk as he was, the effect on Al was rather like having his face attacked by a St. Bernard who had gotten into its own rescue brandy. Ed sucked wetly on Al's lip, slobbered on his cheek, and ended up nibbling on the corner of Al's lip, missing his mouth entirely.
Suddenly he stopped, his body freezing and tensing up. Al pulled back, and regarded his brother's face anxiously. Ed's face was turning greenish, overcast by an expression of sickened dread. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Ed? Did I..."
Ed swallowed, hard, and then took a breath. "Sick," he said.
"Oh, Brother, you're not..."
"Gonna be sick!" Ed blurted out, and doubled over, hands clamped over his mouth.
Al's hustle reflexes, honed by far too many nights of practices, managed to land them in the bathroom before Ed lost his lunch, dinner, and the last four drinks. Unfortunately, he'd only gotten them as far as the sink, not the toilet, and he couldn't help some of the mess splashing onto Ed's front. He held Ed steady while his brother coughed and gagged, and finally slumped back against him with a moan. The smell of alcohol in the enclosed space was almost overpowering, but Al was used to it.
Setting Ed carefully to sit on the toilet seat, doubled over his knees, Al got to work. He turned on the tap in the sink, flushing away the mess, and then got to work warming up the water in the shower. He let that run while he turned back to Ed, unfastening his beslimed shirt and pants and carefully peeling them off of him.
"Sorry," Ed said in a tiny voice, not meeting Al's eyes.
"It's okay," Al reassured him, like he always did. With Ed's clumsy, guilty cooperation, he managed to get his brother stripped out of his dirty clothes and maneuvered into the bathtub. Once there, Al checked the water temperature, sat his brother down on the bathtub floor, and turned the shower on him. For cleaning purposes, showers are better than baths; and besides, they need to conserve water.
Ed shivered, as the cool water from the faucet hit him, and then sighed as it quickly warmed. Al stretched to his toes to pull one of the washcloths off the rack on the opposite wall, and began efficiently, gently cleaning his brother up.
"Sorry," Ed whispered again.
"It's all right," Al repeated, managing to keep the exasperation out of his voice; he's sure that Ed would apologize a dozen more times before the night was over. "I don't mind helping you out, Brother."
"I, I meant," Ed stammered, and ducked the swipe of the washcloth across his face. "I'm sorry for, for, kissing you."
Al stopped a moment, doubt freezing his heart—but no, this is just Ed being Ed, making everything his fault. "I'm not," he said firmly, resuming the washcloth strokes. "After all, I kissed you first."
Ed shot him a confused, blurry look. "Did you..." He trailed off, then ducked his head under the stream of water. The shower flattened his golden, frizzled hair into a wet, smoothly gleaming brown on his scalp. "Did you mean it?"
"Yes," Al said.
"No, I meant..." Ed floundered a bit, sending little splashes of water. "Did you mean, you know..."
"Yes, Brother." Al sighed. He splashed the washcloth down onto the spotted porcelain, and looked his brother in the eye, ignoring the drops of water that spattered into his hair. "I... I mean it when I say I love you, you know. And I mean it in all ways. I came to this world because I wanted to be with you forever, I didn't want to be without you. I want to be with you in every way that I can think of, and that means lovers too. Anything you want, I want too. I just... thought you didn't feel the same way," he ran down, and looked down at the floor.
"Oh." He looked up at his brother's quiet exclamation to see Ed's golden eyes huge, with surprise and relief and half a dozen other emotions mixed in. "Well, uhmmm, I mean, me too. All that stuff. Do you wanna kiss some more?"
"Ed, you just threw up in the sink."
"Oh. Oh yeah."
Half an hour later, he had Ed clean, dry, gargled, and dressed in their last pair of fresh pajamas. The physical and emotional stress of the last hour had apparently drained all of Ed's reserves, and he clung to Al's arm, barely awake, as Al bundled him into bed.
"Don't go," Ed whispered, hand tightening on Al's sleeve. "Please."
Al had been about to go and get a towel for his own hair, but he came back and sat on the edge of Ed's side anyway. "Okay," he said.
Ed sighed, and swallowed, then closed his eyes and settled down again. Al carefully stroked his still-damp bangs out of his eyes and squeezed his hand.
"Brother," Al said after a while; he could have sworn Ed was already passed out, but his eyes cracked open enough to show a sliver of gold. "Brother, please stop going out every night. I'm so worried that you're going to hurt yourself, or get sick. And then I'd be alone here."
Ed swallowed again, and Al could tell that his words had affected his brother. "I... Al, I don' think it's that easy," he mumbled.
"I know. I know it's not easy. But please?" He stroked his brother's hand, then up his arm to squeeze his shoulder. "Please, Brother, say you'll try."
Ed turned his head to face him, and opened his eyes fully. His eyes were wide and dark in the low light. "Will you be here? If the nightmares come?"
"Of course I will. I swear I will."
Ed sighed, and shut his eyes again, burrowing deeper between the covers. "Then I'll try," he said.
No shamming this time; Ed's hand slackened in Al's grip, and he began to snore within a few minutes. Al stayed by; he had to, in case Ed got sick again in the night and choked to death in his sleep. But he felt his chest and his head expanding, filling so full with light and happiness that he thought he could light up their darkened home all on his own.
"Al," Ed moaned, his face buried in the pillow. Sweat streamed down his skin as he screwed up his face in a grimace, biting at the pillowcase. "Al... oh God, Al, I'm begging you... you love me... you love me, don't you?"
"Yes, Brother," Al reassured him, yet again, for what felt like the tenth time since this ordeal had started.
Ed pulled the pillow further down over his face, trying to block the least glimmer of light from his hangover-tormented eyes. "Then do me a favor and just kill me, okay? Just make it quick, that's all I ask."
Al sighed, and reached for the pills and glass of water on the nightstand.