It didn't fool Al one bit when his brother tried to sneak into their dorm room long after curfew, but that didn't stop Ed from trying. When the rustling from Ed changing into his sleeping clothes on his side of the room had ceased, Al said mildly, "Welcome back, Brother."
Ed squawked, then groaned sheepishly and reached to turn on the bedside lamp. "Uh, hi, Al," he said, and grinned weakly at his brother.
"So where were you this time?" Al asked, sitting up with a creak.
"Oh, I was at the library," Ed replied glibly. He lay on his back in his bed, putting his arms underneath his head. "Got caught up in things, lost track of time."
Al eyed his brother suspiciously. If he was right... "And which library would this be, Brother?"
"The east—Central one." Ed stumbled over the name, and Al nodded internally in satisfaction.
"The east branch—that's the one where Scieszka works, isn't it?" Al asked innocently.
"Oh, does she?" Ed said in a completely unconvincing tone of surprise, studying the nails of his real hand nonchalantly.
"You've been spending an awful lot of time there lately," Al observed.
"Umm... well." Ed coughed. "That branch has a lot of the older books, you know, in the Marlith collection in the back, I've found a couple of things that looked like good leads—"
"And what did Scieszka think of those flowers, Brother?" Al interrupted, in a mischievous tone. He was rewarded with a profound blush on Ed's part.
Instead of giving an embarrassed groan and hiding his face with his pillow, though, Ed decided to tough it out. He sat up, and tossed Al a confident smirk, trying to work through the blush. "Oh, she thought they were great," he announced. "You shoulda heard her squeak when I showed them to her. I swear she must have gone through half of the floridae genae trying to identify them before I told her I'd put them together myself."
Al nodded, this time with a faint metal clank. He'd helped his brother create those flowers, although Ed had posed it as a theoretical question; he thought they'd come out quite pretty, vivid blue with deep purple centers in a starfish-petal arrangement. It gave him a warm feeling of pride to know that they'd been appreciated. "I'm glad she liked them."
"Yeah, she did." Ed flopped back down, a silly grin overtaking his face. "You shoulda seen her, Al. She's got the most gorgeous smile."
Al studied his brother for a few minutes in silence, and wondered just how far he should push. It's like Mother's smile, he thought, but he didn't say so aloud; Ed wouldn't appreciate the comparison, or the reminder.
It seemed obvious to Al that it was Scieszka's smile, together with her green eyes and brown hair, that had first drawn Ed to her. Al had observed the pattern starting a month or two ago; whenever they were in Central, Ed had started paying more attention to the quiet librarian, spontaneously transmuting things to give her, doing random favors that wouldn't have occurred to anyone else. It was the same way they had as children competed to make beautiful things for Mother, just to see her smile.
But it was equally obvious to Al, although Ed seemed to be completely oblivious, that Ed didn't regard Scieszka just as a proxy for their mother. He looked for excuses to hang around her, and came back blushing or with a silly grin on his face. He'd never said anything to Al, nor attempted to ask the girl out on any kind of date. Al ventured, "You like Scieszka a lot, don't you, Brother?"
"Well—yeah. For a girl, I mean," Ed quickly qualified. "But she's smart. And she's pretty cool, like Winry, except unlike Winry, she doesn't nail me in the head with things. And she knows practically every book in the library inside and out, which can be pretty handy—"
"That's not exactly what I mean," Al interrupted. "You like like her, don't you?"
Ed sputtered. "How exactly is that different?" he demanded. "What, you mean, like... a girlfriend or something? We've got a purpose, Al, in case you'd forgotten, I don't have time for that!"
"But would you?" Al persisted. "If things—were different, and we didn't have to move around all the time."
"Huh." For a while Ed didn't answer, staring up at the ceiling. Al glanced over, to see him chewing on his lower lip, brows drawn down in thought. At last, when Al thought he'd been ignored, Ed offered, "...would that bother you?"
"No, of course not," Al said firmly. And in a way, it was kind of a relief—Ed was forced into too many hardships for his sake. To know that he was still capable of the sorts of things that boys their age should be interested in—girls, dates—relieved a lot of his concern. "I think it's sweet, Brother!"
"Heh. You would, you sap," Ed snorted, but he seemed vastly relieved. Al felt a little guilty. The way he said it, it sounded like he was being unconditionally supportive and self-sacrificing, and yet... if it were Winry that Ed was showing interest in, Al didn't think he could have voiced such unenthusiastic support. It wasn't like he wanted Winry for himself, it was more like... well, it was more like it would feel unfair, for Ed to get a head start when he couldn't keep up.
"Anyway, it's a purely hypothetical question," Ed said firmly, interrupting Al's vaguely melancholy thoughts. "Scieszka's nice, and all, but I still don't have time for a girlfriend. No girl would want a boyfriend who won't stay in the city for more than a week at a time, anyway. You're still my first priority, Al, and that's just the way it's gotta be."
"Yeah." Al didn't say anything more than that, but the little warm glowy place inside of him seemed to grow a little larger at his brother's words. He lay back down, with a creak and a clank, and reflected on how selfish he actually was; he didn't mind Ed having someone he liked, just so long as Ed stayed by his side.
Besides, nothing that made his brother smile like that could be all bad.