Suits of armor do not have to wear tuxedos, Al thinks glumly, and tries to loom a little for old times' sake.
Of course, he had the loincloth then. It's possible that the General would have made him wear one with ruffles down the front. Then he would have looked even stupider and been unable to blend into the background besides, so possibly he should count his blessings. And it isn't as if he's the only one who's uncomfortable; a ballroom full of State alchemists, every man and woman of them packed into itchy dress blues when half of them are used to slinging their uniform jackets over their heads to ward off the Eastern sun—well, Al is a bit surprised that no one has accidentally created a chimera from three other alchemists and a punch bowl, that's all.
Mustang brought Riza Hawkeye. Al saw them earlier, gracefully navigating the room's occasionally choppy social waters, and found himself trying to ignore whatever that was that was twisting in his stomach.
It isn't jealousy. True, Al doesn't have a date himself—or, well, not really. Strictly speaking, he is the "and guest" that followed "Edward Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist" on the invitation, so he supposes that he's Ed's date, metaphorically speaking. He tried to get Ed to summon Winry up for the event, but Ed crumpled the invitation in his automail hand and gave Al such a desperate, lost-puppy look that Al found himself renting a tux in spite of his firm intentions to stay home and let Ed fend for himself.
He's on his second glass of watery military champagne, and he keeps hoping that it'll take away the visions of what the evening might be like if Ed really were his date. They'd dance, to begin with. Al thinks he'd like to dance.
The crowd thins enough for him to catch sight of Ed by the bar. By rights Ed should be scowling impatiently, shifting from foot to foot as he waited for the bartender to get his drink. Instead he's looking across the floor toward—yes, toward where Mustang is dancing with Hawkeye; and Al has never seen that particular expression on Ed's face before but he knows desire when he sees it, and suddenly he feels a little hot and ill, like he's had far too much to drink, and that same whatever-it-is is twisting in his stomach again. It's possible Ed is looking at Hawkeye with that slow smouldering heat in his eyes, but somehow Al doubts it,
Then, so suddenly that Al is caught staring, Ed's gaze is locked with Al's, heat lingering in his eyes like a long roll of thunder after summer lightning.
Al's hand tightens on the glass and he finds himself unable to look away. Ed's looking at Al with that strange quiet intensity he gets sometimes, as if nothing else in the world were real; and Al wants, oh how he wants, for this evening to be over so that he can take down Ed's braid and comb through his hair as they get ready for bed, just that, he only wants that. Only the thick weight of gold hair spilling over his hands like water, and he'll never want to touch anything else again.
"YOUNG ALPHONSE!" someone booms in his ear, and Al jumps a foot into the air. His nerves throwing out sparks in a way that reminds him of that disastrous thing with Ed and the console with all the wires, he turns and looks up—and up, and up—and gives a weak smile.
"Hello, Major Armstrong,"
Armstrong smiles benevolently down at him. "Have you thought any more about taking the alchemist's exam?" he asks.
Al finds himself looking at the watch chain dangling from Armstrong's pocket. "I've thought about it," he says, and he has. He wants it, if for no other reason than that it's a challenge, a hurdle, something to test himself against. He just isn't sure the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
He's terrified of being separated from Ed. And he doesn't even know what he's more afraid of—that Ed wouldn't be able to function without him, or that he would.
"It isn't as if you'd need much coaching," Armstrong says. "And you wouldn't lack for volunteers to give it. Why, I myself could give you infallible pointers that have been passed down the Armstrong line for generations—"
Armstrong's doing that thing where he sparkles again. Sometimes Al thinks that somewhere back in the Armstrong family tree lurks an alchemical accident in a sequin factory. "That's very kind of you," he says.
"Al, you need another drink. You should have said," Ed says, coming up on Al's flank and standing close. He peers up through his hair at Armstrong, clearly out of sorts. "Hey, Armstrong. Trying to move in on my date?"
"I'm fine," Al says, his face heating like a furnace. Armstrong is sparkling kindly at both of them. "I don't need another drink. I've had enough as it is."
Armstrong, clearly scenting Ed-being-difficult on the wind, bids them good night and wanders off to corner a nervous-looking blonde alchemist with a sharp nose and watery, suspicious eyes. Al sighs and looks down into his almost-empty cup.
Ed glances quickly around to make sure no one's looking and leans in, hummingbird-quick, to rub his cheek against Al's shoulder, his human hand winding briefly around Al's arm and then edging back, and Al realizes he's forgotten to keep track of how much Ed's had to drink. "You aren't having fun," Ed accuses.
"Mustang's having fun," Ed interrupts, glowering across the dance floor, and the pit of Al's stomach does extremely unpleasant things. "With Hawkeye. I hope he puts the moves on her and she shoots his balls off. No, I take it back, maybe—"
"I think I should take the alchemists' exam," Al says.
He half expects Ed not to even hear him. Instead, Ed cuts off abruptly in mid-tirade, staring up at Al with that expression he gets when he's bleeding and doesn't want anyone to know. "You—why, Al?"
Al looks down and slips his finger into Ed's pocket, sliding it past the sharp plane of Ed's hipbone, crooking it softly under the chain and pulling. Ed's watch falls out into his palm. "I just think I should," Al says. Then, because he knows that won't be enough: "I can't even get into the library as a civilian contractor, not all the way in to where the really valuable research is. It's not fair for me to depend on you to get things for me."
"Yes, but there's that whole thing where you have to be a dog of the military," Ed points out, his voice too brittle under the ostentatiously patient tone.
"You've been one for years, brother. It hasn't killed you yet."
Ed opens his mouth, closes it, looks around, and scowls at his drink. "Next year, okay? Not this year. I just—want to be sure you're ready. I mean, not that I don't think you are now, you've been ready for as long as I have, I just—you, we might not—"
Ed doesn't like things to change. He's perfectly willing to rearrange the entire world on its axis in the interests of keeping some small part of from changing faster than he can keep up. But he wants Roy Mustang, even if he doesn't see it yet, and Al wants—
Al wants things to stay the same, too. And he's just as willing as Ed to change everything else in the world so that one small thing will stay as it is. Al slides the watch back into Ed's pocket. "It's a while yet before the registration deadline," he says.
"Having a good time?" Mustang asks from behind Al, then blinks, raising an eyebrow. "Sorry, did I interrupt something?"
"Al wants to take the exam," Ed says sullenly.
Mustang studies Al slowly, making him blush all over again. "Are you sure, Alphonse? You make just as much money as a contractor as you would in the military, and you have more freedom."
"I just think I should," Al says stubbornly. "Major Armstrong said he'd sponsor me."
There's a long, airless silence before the General finally says, "If you have your heart set on it, I'll sponsor you—"
Ed gives a cough that sounds like bastard.
"—-but before I do, I'll want you to tell me why you really want this."
Major Armstrong is across the room, flexing his muscles for an admiring group of girls. "I'll think about that, General," Al says. "Thank you."
Hawkeye appears by the general's side with that strange gift she has of getting from one place to another without crossing the intervening distance. Her eyes sweep over the three of them, sharp and too observant, before she settles in beside Mustang like a cross between a bodyguard and a prison matron. "Would you like another drink, Al?" she asks politely.
"No, thank you," he whispers.
"I would," Mustang hints.
"You've had two already, sir," Hawkeye reminds him repressively.
She's calling him "sir," Al thinks, and then thinks of Roy leaning in the doorway of his kitchen, barefoot and rumpled. He wonders if Hawkeye has ever seen him like that; he doesn't want to know, not really.
"I'm tired and this stupid outfit itches," Ed announces, but he looks a little more cheerful, and Al has no idea what to feel. "Me and Al are going home."
"Don't you think you should consult Al about that?" Mustang asks, smiling into Al's eyes.
Al downs the rest of his drink too fast. "I'm tired too," he says. "Goodnight, General, Colonel."
"Al," Roy says, serious again. "Think about this. Take your time. Then come talk to me if you want."
"I will," Al says, and colors again out of sheer unhappiness, because he doesn't like to lie.
They don't need the lamps, not really. The moon is full, and the light from the streetlights coming through the window is enough. Al sits cross-legged on the bed behind Ed and captures the end of his braid as it flops loose from the discarded uniform shirt. More by touch than by sight, he slides off the band, sets it on the nightstand, and begins unwinding Ed's hair.
"Will you talk to him about it?" Ed asks abruptly. It's the first time he's spoken since they got home.
"I—no," Al says, because he can lie to the General but not to his brother. "I'll just ask Major Armstrong."
"Good," Ed says, quietly but fiercely. "I don't want you telling him things you won't tell me."
Al sighs and keeps unbraiding. Ed's hair falls over his hands, tangling in his fingers in long crinkled strands. It smells like smoke and feels like a silk gown sliding to the floor. "Don't be difficult, brother," he says. "Not about this."
Telling Ed not to be difficult is like telling the rain to fall up. "But you've, ow, you've never said anything about wanting to take the exam, and now all of a sudden ow!"
"Stop trying to twist around," Al scolds. Ed ignores him and finishes wriggling around so that he's facing Al. Their knees are touching, sharing warmth through two thin layers of pajama bottoms, and Al pulls Ed's braid forward over his shoulder. "I just think it would be a good thing, that's all."
"Bullshit, Al. You've got that look on your face like you get when you don't want to do something and think you should anyway."
"I do want to take it," Al says, and lets Ed see the truth of it in his eyes.
Ed's face falls and he looks down, picking aimlessly at a loose thread in the seam near Al's knee. "Look—forget Armstrong, all right? And Mustang too. If you really want to take the goddamned test, I'll sponsor you."
Al has no idea what the requirements for sponsorhood are, and suspects Ed doesn't either. It doesn't matter. His hands are at Ed's neck now, unbraiding as slowly as he can, and he lets himself brush a thumb across the sharp ridge of Ed's collarbone above the automail. Ed shivers. "Sorry. And, brother—thanks."
"I love you, Al. You know that, don't you? I mean, I don't say it very often, but you know, right?" Ed still isn't looking at him. His hand is resting on Al's knee, and there's a strange, bleak misery in his face that nearly breaks Al's heart.
"I know," he says, running his fingers through Ed's hair so that it falls around Ed's face, the last of it freed from the braid. "I love you too."
Ed shifts away and wriggles under the covers. "Stay over here tonight," he orders. "It's cold."
It's warm. Al, not protesting, slides under the covers, glad even now that somehow they never quite outgrew this. They wind around each other, breath warming each other's air, Al patiently unsnagging wisps of Ed's hair from his automail shoulder. "Maybe they won't send me too far away," Al whispers.
"Shut up, Al," Ed whispers back. "You're too far away already."
It isn't me who's moving, Al wants to say, but in the end he just holds Ed closer.