Al blinks at the demand and the scissors Ed is holding out to him. He's barely been with his brother two days—and it has been a bizarre two days, it hasn't made up for two years by a long shot, but this seems like a strange place to start rebuilding.
"My hair?"Al reaches up and runs his hand down his ponytail. "But brother, I kind of like it long, it—"
"It's like looking in a goddamn mirror." Ed pushes the scissors into his sibling's hand and scowls. "Cut it."
Al frowns, but walks into the bathroom of the little apartment, sticks his fingers in the metal loops, raising his hair, and cuts. He fiddles with getting it to a reasonable length, but since he can't see the back of his head, he eventually gives up and returns to Ed, who smiles wanly and fixed it for him.
"You look like yourself now." He says, and Al grins, hoping that's what his brother wants.
It's rather uncomfortable to be attending the funeral of someone you never met.
He tries not to shift in his new clothes, but the sun is hot, the suspenders are tight, and he cannot fathom why on earth a woman—-and a woman his brother seems to be living with, no less—would be dancing before the grave of this...Alfons Heiderich.
Al wants to chalk it up to the customs of this new world he's in, but it bothers him, and he's not sure if he's more bothered that he doesn't understand what's going on, or that the dead boy had his face and his brother's company for the past two years.
Al sleeps in his brother's bed, and his brother sleeps on a couch in the common room, and it hurts, somehow.
Didn't they sleep in the same room for years? Weren't they always together? Suddenly Ed is grown up, too grown up, and wants his own space and Al knows he should be able to deal with that, but didn't they always talk about all that they'd do when they were whole and together?
Maybe, Al thinks, his brother is angry that he's still missing his limbs, and every with Winry's masterful new automail, he'll never be whole again. Maybe he's begun to regret the sacrifice that restored Al and brought him to this strange world, where he met people like this Noa or this Alfons, or the man who must be Hughes in love with someone who can be no one but Gracia—this world that taunts him with death and familiar faces.
Maybe he's upset that Al followed him back at all.
He doesn't like those thoughts, but they stream in through the folds of so many tangled and conflicting memories as he tries to sleep in his brother's scent; that scent that he wanted to embrace the moment he saw him, and every moment after, and yet Ed never moved to hold him or even touch his human hands.
He often doesn't fall unconscious until deep in the night.
They're traveling, Ed says, and asks Al to pack his things.
There isn't much, certainly, just the clothes they've bought so he he fits in with the society. But as he packs, the younger Elric realizes he can't find his red coat. He searches the apartment from top to bottom, even politely asks Noa if she might have borrowed it, and eventually notices his brother looking uncomfortably at his papers.
"Brother, do you know where the red coat is?"
Ed's response is mumbled, but as soon as Al asks him to repeat it, he wishes he hadn't.
"I threw it out."
"You...you...brother, you threw away—"
"It didn't fit in, okay? And it was old. It was getting ratty."
"No it wasn't!" It's like the floor has been pulled under him, and he's clinging to the windowsill. "I...Brother, that's your...our..."
"It's gone, Al, okay?" And Ed's tone is underlined with irritation—-he's always so irate now, Al never sees him smile—so he doesn't push it.
"O..okay, brother. Okay."
The place names on the map are foreign to him—-Bonn, Zurich, Freiburg, Berlin—but he likes tracing the train routes they're following, imaging what they'll find or what they'll see.
Ed has brought along a book of physics, and when Al expresses interest in it, he is as engrossed as his little brother has yet seen him. It's almost like old times, he thinks, Ed's face lighting up with intelligence and maybe even pride as he explains the basic principle that force is mass times acceleration, that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, that the graph as a whole is not what's important, but what's between the axis and the line and knows that Al understand all of them instantly.
It's exciting, and the ride goes by quickly. When they disembark, Al is in such a wonderful mood that he can't help hugging Ed and thanking him, gushing about how he's looked forward to this for so—
But Ed pushes him away very quickly, gathering up their suitcases and walking towards the turnstiles.
Perhaps, Al thinks to himself, a public platform was not the place to express such affection, though Ed had never been so cold about it before.
Maybe it's this new world.
Everything seems to go wrong with Ed so easily these days, although it seems to be worse when Al tries to get close to him.
He has tried subtle things. A hand on his arm while they walk to point out something new. Brushing his bangs off his cheek. Both of those things have been met with what is almost a cuff, and increased speed.
The worst is when Al falls asleep on another train on the way back to Munich. He feels it coming and in its own way, it's thrilling too, because so many times Ed fell asleep on trains and Al got to be his pillow. But it's not even intentional that he slumps over and his head end up on his brother's shoulder as he dozes off, startling the elder from his reading.
Granted Ed hates to be disturbed when he's deep in study, but the resulting shove that jolts him awake is rough even by Ed's standards. Al hits his head on the window and Ed doesn't even check to see if he's all right, just hunches over the book and tells him to stay on his side.
Ed must be tired too, Al muses sadly at the dark scenery outside. Tired and cranky. He should have known better than to bother him.
He should have known better in general.
It's at breakfast one morning when Al realizes that Noa has feelings for his brother, and he can't help but wonder if Ed returns those sentiments, and that's why he's so cold to Al. The possibility turns his stomach immediately, and he begs off doing the dishes to go run some necessary errands, only to find himself wandering Munich hours later, hopelessly lost and terribly lonely.
He sits down at a caf—and folds his hands in his lap, looking at them miserably. Things have not turned out well, and perhaps it's the tangled mess of memories that overlap and contradict and confound each other and him.
It's those memories, after all, that had led him to believe that his brother loved him and then some, that maybe the strange recollections of conversations whose gist was "I want to touch you" really did give credence to his awful secret: that sometimes he'd lock himself in a bathroom, or lie very still until everyone else around was asleep, and then he'd think of Ed and think of Ed's hands until his own were sticky and he felt empty and alone.
He'd sustained the hope, wish, desire that Ed had these thoughts too, that they weren't unwarranted, that maybe across whatever worlds that had separated them, his brother was waiting for the same thing.
It hurts to have been so wrong.
Al is learning to smile even as his chest is hollowed out with each passing day.
They hitch a ride from a roma couple that look too much like—-couldn't possibly be, but what if?—Lust and Scar, and that makes him chuckle slightly, but the grin he flashes his Ed as they talk about the future of this world is nothing but the best of his resolve, held together with faint bits of hope.
It's that same day that he understands Noa's affections are unrequited, and that Ed is always looking elsewhere. That's almost a relief until it hits him what exactly Ed is seeking.
It's in the middle of an intense conversation about gravitational pull. Al coughs—-the book is old, and there's dust in his throat—and that's when it slips out.
"Alfons, are you all ri—"
And both of them freeze, staring at each other as the syllables crash to pieces on the floor.
"I...Al, I didn't..."
"It's okay, brother." He is lying, he's lying so hard it can't even be through his teeth because they'd break with the strain, he flashes that dead smile and hopes Ed buys it one more time. "It was just a mistake."
"Yeah, um." Ed clears his throat and starts again. "Alfons used to...So anyway, I was saying..."
He doesn't hear any more of the discussion, and when he gets up later to use the bathroom, he stands in front of the mirror and looks at his clothes, looks at his hair, and knows. And it isn't fair, because he was the first, that should have been his place, two years ruined everything and he curses Ed's dead friend for taking what should have been his. But the anger doesn't last long.
Al has always thought that you had to stop crying before you fell asleep.
He is wrong about that too.
The next time they travel, Al is in miserable health. Something he's eaten, or something he's inhaled has not agreed with him, and his stomach has been cramping for two days by the time they get back, meeting the Hughes-policeman on the way home.
Almost as soon as they get to their flat, Ed is called out again, and Al and Noa are left alone.
She makes him tea that does nothing to soothe the ache, and he smiles through the pain and thanks her, because he knows she trying.
But he wants the real Rose, he wants Winry, he wants his mother, and not all these fake people who are just parodies of what he once loved, and before he knows it he's sobbing about how much he wants to go home, and that's when Ed comes back, the room dropping ten degrees and Noa immediately taking her leave.
"You want to go home, huh?"
"I just...I'm just...homesick, that's all." Al wipes his eyes with his fingers, embarrassed to be acting the age he looks, instead of the age he is.
"Yeah, I know how you feel." Ed sits down across from him. "I was so homesick when I got here, and all I had was that bastard until I met Alfons...but, we're together now, you know."
Al jerks his head up so fast he's dizzy, and for a moment his heart starts working again.
"Yes, we are together. And I'm happy to be with you brother."
A pause, and then...
"You sounded like you were going to say something else."
"Well, I..." The cramping returns with a vengeance, and it's all he can do not to double over. "Sometimes, I want to see Winry again. Or Auntie Pinako. Or the Colonel."
Ed is visibly disturbed by this, and his face turns from vaguely comforting to scowling in terrible time.
"You made the decision to come here, you know. I told you to thank Winry for—"
"You didn't even tell me to say goodbye to her! You just left! You didn't even say goodbye to me! What was I supposed to do?!"
"Well no one said you had to fucking follow me like some kind of idiot!"
"I wanted to be with you, brother! Like you just said, we're together and I wanted that!"
"Then why are you so fucking unhappy?!" Ed roars, knocking Al's mug off the table. "Why are you crying about it if you wanted to be with me?"
"Because I'm not who you want to be with!"
The wail is out before the words had formed in his mind, and Ed stares at him, mouth hanging slightly open.
He is still sitting like a broken marionette when Al gets up from the table and locks himself in the little bedroom, crouching in the corner as far as he can be from the bed, curling around the sour pain that has moved from his abdomen to his chest, pouring the bottomless hole that has opened there and it's almost a welcome change from tears.
If there is a Hughes in this world.
If there is a Gracia.
If there is a Bradley, a Lust, a Scar...then somewhere, Al thinks, there must be a Mustang, a Hawkeye, a Pinako, a Winry.
If his parallel persona was interested in science as he was interested in alchemy, if Hughes was a military man once and then a policeman, then it must follow that all the occupations of all the alternates he's seeking must be corresponding as well. It's just a matter of figuring out where an army colonel like Mustang would be stationed, where a female mechanic like Winry might be able to help people.
Al scans the atlas that he's taken from the bedroom and rubs the back of his head. It's a big world, with many countries and many oceans, far larger than he had ever imagined Amestris or even Xing being. But he's traveled like this before, and the hope that it won't end in failure a second time is, at this moment, enough.
He reaches the train station just as dawn is reaching up from the bottom of the world, and places some money down on the counter.
"Where to?" the cashier asks.
Alphonse Elric, alone, looks at the cities this train line services for a moment then covers his eyes, and puts his finger down on the map.
When he gets on the train, he sets the suitcase on his brother's side of the seat, folds his arms, leans into them, and closes his eyes.