It was getting harder and harder to read for more than fifteen minutes at a time. There was too much on his mind, and Ed really preferred to think about one thing at a time. But all the time he'd spent burrowed into his books lately had been wasted on idle thought. Thoughts that weren't getting him anywhere. So he threw the book down, and searched for a cookie. Hishead hurt too much, it was time for a break.
The smell of baking cookies wafted through the air, mixing with several other appetizing aromas. Alphonse, obviously, was preparing for lunch. Or dinner. Depending on how one looked at it.
Ed sighed, then picked himself up from the chair, making his way to the kitchen. His need for solitude was less than his need for comfort food at the moment. He poked his head in, hoping to steal some dough, at least. "Al...?"
"Oh, Brother? Would you come here for a minute?" Alphonse carefully kept his back to his brother, pretending to be busy with the stove.
"Sure." Ed came into the kitchen, not suspecting anything but a taste test. "What's up?" he yawned, rubbing his eyes.
That was, in fact, exactly what Alphonse was hoping for. He shoved a spoonful of chocolate chip cookie dough into Edward's now-open mouth, carefully to not gag his older brother, and asked, "How is it, Brother?"
Ed swallowed convulsively, coughed, then snatched the spoon and tasted it more carefully. He made an exaggerated show of cocking his head, closing his eyes, then nodding. "Good, as always." He darted forward with the spoon. "More!"
"Brother!" The suit of armor snatched the large bowl of dough, and lifted it above his head, knowing that Edward couldn't reach. "Wait until the first batch is done."
Ed jumped for it, then realized what he was doing and glowered. "FINE. I'll just go sit DOWN," he announced testily.
Alphonse sighed. After a moment, he ventured, "Brother? They should be done in a few minutes. Mind grabbing that basket?" He pointed towards a large wicker basket that had been set on the edge of the table.
Ed grabbed it and wandered back over, not so much in an ill temper as tired and frustrated. "Here," he offered, handing Al the basket. "Thanks, I needed some cookies..."
The younger brother accepted it with a "Thank you, Brother," and opened the oven, unable to register the glorious aroma and therefore having to gauge their readiness by sight. Off-hand, he asked, "Brother? When was the last time you actually left the house? Besides to speak with Mr. Mustang, I mean."
"Um..." Ed stuck his head in to watch the cookies too, wincing at the 'thunk' as his head bumped what should have been Al's waist. "I took the trash out two days ago..."
Alphonse sighed, both at the reverberation from his brother's head and from the comment. "That's not what I meant, Brother. When was the last time you were out? And the library doesn't count, either."
Ed sighed, then pulled back, returning to his chair. "I don't know, Al," he said a little peevishly. "I don't have time for that sort of thing."
Alphonse reached down and grabbed the pan, not wincing at the blazing hot temperature or even bothering with mitts, and set the cookies on the table. "Try one, Brother. And... yes you do." Alphonse gestured towards the basket. "We're going on a picnic." He stated this as though it was unalterable fact.
Ed took the time to shove a cookie in his mouth, wince and jump at the heat, and then stared at him. "We're going on a WHAT?" he gaped, mouth still half full.
Alphonse was half-way tempted to tell his older brother to 'not eat with his mouth full,' but decided against it. "A picnic, Brother. It's a nice day out, and I think a break will do you good." He nodded slightly, with a soft screech of metal on metal.
Ed blinked at him, then sighed, swallowing his cookie and reaching for another. "Al," he said quietly, "thanks... but, I have to work, I have reports to do and books to read..."
Easily, Alphonse snatched the cookie sheet and maneuvered it to the basket. "Well, in that case, I'll go on a picnic, and you can stay here and work on those reports. But they aren't due for another two days, you know."
"Allllll!" Ed fairly wailed, reaching for the cookie sheet. "I need those!"
For just a moment, Alphonse wavered... then, with a definite nod, he slid the cookies into the basket. "I know, Brother. And I can't eat them, either... it should would be a shame to let these cookies go to waste... Especially after I worked for hours to make them just the way you like..."
Ed scowled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Fine... I guess I'll take a break and go with you, it's the least I can do..."
"Great!" Alphonse carefully packed a small cloth around the cookies, to keep them nice and warm. "Central Park's only a block or two away, so the cookies will still be warm when we get there." He closed the basket. "Hm... don't know if you'll need your coat or not, though..." He gazed at his brother, contemplating this.
"I'll grab it anyway, it's not heavy to carry if I don't need it." Now that the decision had been made, Ed seemed cheerier about it.
Alphonse carefully maneuvered the basket's handle around his armor, and sighed happily. Maybe this would work out, after all. "Let's go, then, Brother. Your coat's in the hall, where it usually is. At least, I think it is." The younger Elric started walking towards the door.
"Yeah, I think so..." Ed darted off for it and was back at Al's side in mere seconds. "Yeah... maybe some rest will do me good..."
With a single motion, Alphonse opened the door and stepped outside. As he had hoped, it was bright and cool, but not cold, with just a hint of wind. "I think... it's this way," he pointed to the right. "I think."
"Well, if we get lost, then we get lost." Ed shrugged, falling into step beside him. "No big deal."
Alphonse was glad that his emotions couldn't be transmitted through his armor. It most certainly would too, Brother! I want a picnic, not an expedition! Be that as it may, he started walking. After a moment, he asked, "It's... a nice day, isn't it, Brother?"
"It is, yeah..." Ed scratched the back of his head, smiling a little and slinging his coat over his shoulder. "Good day for a picnic.
Alphonse nodded, reassured at this. "I thought so." He faltered a bit, and would have been frowning in concentration if he had a mouth to do so with. He hadn't really planned this far; getting Edward out of the house had been as far as he had gotten.
Ed's mood was beginning to falter, too; walking always made him think, and thinking hadn't been his friend lately.
"Brother..." Alphonse thought for a bit, then tried, "I... have a question. About... back then."
Ed tensed a little, then nodded. "Go ahead."
For a moment, Alphonse tried to force the question through... but couldn't. Maybe after the picnic, he promised himself. "What... were my birthdays like? I mean, what kinds of cakes did I have? It's been driving me crazy for weeks now." He offered an apologetic laugh.
Ed laughed, relieved. "Cakes? Ha, anything and everything... you could never pick, it was different every year."
"Really?" Alphonse pondered this. "What about... my seventh birthday's?" One before Mom died, he didn't add. He knew that the park was getting closer, but... every step seemed like an eternity, for some reason.
"Um... I dunno... vanilla with the orange icing, maybe?" Ed pondered.
"You... don't remember?" Alphonse suddenly laughed, ever-so-slightly. "I... don't know what's come over me. I'm sorry, Brother."
Ed stopped, then looked up at him, unsure. "Al... what aren't you asking me?"
"It's nothing, Brother. Really." The suit of armor kept marching, because he knew that, if he stopped, he'd have to give some sort of answer. "I think the park's over here, actually..." Without being able to see color, it was hard for Alphonse to distinguish the park from the local gardens.
"Al!" Ed snapped, chasing after him. "Answer me... it's not nothing, not when you sound like that, it never is!"
"I'll... I'll ask you when we get there, okay, Brother?" Alphonse needed time to think, to compose his thoughts and not seem like a rude, prying little brother.
"Ask me now!" Ed demanded. "There's nothing you can't say to me."
Alphonse slowed, and pondered this. "Are you... sure that there's nothing I can't say, Brother? Nothing at all?"
Ed paused, then nodded, knowing somewhere that he'd never say the same for himself. "Yeah, Al. You can tell me anything... ask me anything. I promise."
"And..." Alphonse chose his words carefully, "Will you... answer me? Honestly?" He started fidgeting with the basket's lid; trying to find some outlet for his emotions.
"...Yeah." Ed nodded, meaning it. "I will. No matter whether I want to or not..." He sighed, sliding his hands into his pockets, uncomfortable. "I owe you that much."
Alphonse crossed his arms, nearly cradling the basket in his arms; and would be pouting if he had a face to do so with. "I don't want you to answer because you feel obligated to, Brother. That's... that's no good at all."
"Well, if it's something you're so scared to ask, it's obviously something you think I won't wanna say," Ed said sharply. "So why else would I, other than I think you deserve honesty from me?"
Those words were like a proverbial slap to the face, and Alphonse stopped cold. "You're... right, Brother. But it's not because I think you don't want to say it. I know that you won't want to say it. And you haven't told me it ever since you brought it up."
"Well, if you really wanna know, then ask." Ed bit his lip, a lump rising in his throat. "Just be ready for whatever it is, then, huh? I won't pull any punches."
The words spilled out before Alphonse could call them back. "What did you mean when you said, 'It's nothing you need to concern yourself with, it doesn't matter'? What were you talking about? What are you hiding from me?"
Ed stopped walking abruptly, the hands in his pockets clenching tightly. He'd suspected, all right, but... it still knocked him flat to hear it said. "I..." He bit his lip and turned his head away, unsure of exactly how this feeling welling up inside his chest was going to overflow.
Alphonse gently reached forward to capture his brother's chin with a gauntled hand and tilt his face so that they were staring into each other's eyes. "Please, Brother. I have to know."
Ed shuddered under the cool touch, biting down harder. "I-" he tried again, not knowing what to say. What could he say? "Al, I... promise me," he managed. "Promise me first that you won't go away. Please."
"Brother?" Alphonse was genuinely concerned. "If... if it's that bad, then I don't want to know. Especially if it's painful. But..." He thought about this. "Nothing can seperate us, right? Nothing can get between us. Nothing." It was almost as though the suit of armor was trying to reassure himself, as well as his brother.
"Nothing but..." Ed laughed sharply, humorlessly, trying to fight back the wetness in his eyes. That was the last thing he needed, to break down. "Nothing but each other... oh, God, Al..."
"Brother?" Instinctively, Alphonse wrapped a metal arm around his brother, kneeling down to get to his height. He tried to keep his voice as even as possible. "You can tell me."
Ed found himself clinging to the empty armor, knowing Al was in there somewhere, even if he couldn't feel him. "I love you so much, Al," he whimpered, shoving his face into the ridged metal shoulder, hiding the childish tears he'd been storing back for what seemed like forever. "I love you, and I can't say how, Al, I can't..."
"I love you too, Brother." Alphonse was thoroughly confused. "You know that. So..." His mind started racing, trying to understand what his brother was trying to say.
Ed felt his automail hand scrape against Al's back as he attempted to hold tighter, his flesh one aching. "No," he whispered harshly into the metal, closing his eyes. "No, Al, I... I love you, I..." The armor tasted of tears and metal as he kissed it fervently, wanting to pretend that Al would know. "I want you..."
Alphonse froze. The arm that he had wrapped around his brother went limp. "But... I'm your brother. And even if I was human again... I'd be a man too, wouldn't I? So... how is this... even possible?" Alphonse was desperately trying to apply some sort of logic, of reasoning, onto the tears that he couldn't truly see and the kiss he honestly didn't feel.
"Because your big brother's a lousy pervert, Al," Ed said bitterly, letting go of him, looking away to hide his face. "That's how."
A mental connection was made. 'Lousy pervert' = 'Roy Mustang.' 'Roy Mustang' = 'Sex with every woman in Central.' Therefore, if 'Brother' = 'Lousy pervert,' then 'Brother' = 'wanting to have sex.' The armor slowly started shaking, like a volcano before it's eruption. "So... what does that mean, Brother? When you say you 'want' me... what, exactly, do you want?"
"Al..." Ed waved his hands, still facing away. "I... I can't explain, I... I love you... in a way I'm supposed to, and a way I'm not."
"You said that you'd answer anything I asked you, Brother." Alphonse's eyes were gleaming as he reminded his brother of this. "I want answers, not evasions. What do you mean, 'a way you're supposed to, and a way you're not'?"
"This is hard to explain!" Ed snapped, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve. "Al- look, are you familiar with the idea of incest?"
"Yes, Brother, it's when two people of the same family... oh." The final connection was made.
Ed just crossed his arms over his chest, looking at the ground and waiting for it to fall out from underneath him.
"It all makes sense now..." Alphonse's voice was even more hollow than his armor. "So that's why you always wanted to keep me around... and that's why you made me promise not to go anywhere. And that's why I feel this way... it all makes sense." The armor was trembling enough now that the metal plates were starting to screech in protest.
"...Why you feel what way?" Ed covered his eyes with one hand, trying to breathe.
Alphonse continued on, as though he hadn't heard. "So that's why you kept promising to bring me back. Why you always do everything I say in the end. And... that means..." He shook even more, "I can hardly believe that I'm the one who planned this. It's all... just too convenient."
"What- no! That's not why I'm doing this!" Ed whipped around, not caring that his face was tearstained or his eyes wild with shock. "Al- I'm not- I didn't even plan on ever telling you! I'm not... that's not it..."
Alphonse felt a knife go through his heart when he saw his brother's face. He wanted, more than anything in the world, to go and comfort him. "That's... what you say, Brother. But it happened anyway. And... it explains so much." He contemplated his gauntlet. "It explains everything that's happened to me..."
"...How?" Ed wiped his face again, his eyes starting to redden. "Al, I don't understand what you mean... I'm not trying to do anything, I just want you to have your body back because you should have it, I'm not that horrible of a person- Al... what do you mean...?"
Slowly, calmly, Alphonse clenched his gauntlet. "I know that there was a person named Alphonse Elric. I know that he existed, that he loved you, and that the two of you... the two of us, tried to resurrect our mother. We failed, I died... and you lost your arm bringing me back. Right? These are facts. I can't argue with them." He straightened up and glared down at his brother.
Ed just stared helplessly. "Yeah... that's what happened, Al."
"Winry knows all of that. Everyone in Resembool knows about the two of us. But only you know what actually happened down there, when we tried to resurrect Mother. I went from being torn apart to this," he motioned to his armor, "in a moment. And do you know the first thing I saw, Brother? The first thing I thought?" If he shook any further, Alphonse swore that he was going to fall apart.
"...What?" Ed felt like his heart was going to burst. He didn't know what was happening... he didn't understand, but it was ripping him apart. It was ripping them apart, just like he knew it would.
"I saw you, Brother. I saw you bleeding and clutching your arm... and the first thought through my mind was, 'Brother loves me so much.' Not 'where's Mom?' or 'how did I get here?' 'Brother loves me. And I love Brother.'" Alphonse pointed an accusatory finger. "Mr. Tucker said that he could implant memories, thoughts, even feelings into the homunculus of Nina. That's what you did, didn't you? That's the only reason I could feel like this!"
Ed just stared at him, quivering, for a long moment. Then he just whispered, voice shaking with both sadness and something that could only be called rage. "You think I would do that to you, Al...? You think that I'd deliberately try to destroy what chance you had for a normal life with someone, like's happened to me? You think I'd want you to feel anything like I do? You said you know that I love you- and I do, goddammit, all this shit aside, I love you more than anything else in this world and I'd never try to hurt you. Ever. I thought you knew that."
"I thought I knew that I was a real person, Brother." The shaking stopped, and he calmly reached for the basket. "But I'm an alchemist. I deal in facts. And what other explanation can I draw?" He reached into the basket, and pulled out a small bottle. "I... know your favorite vintages. I've memorized your schedule, and just hearing the smallest word of praise or thanks makes me happy all day, Brother. I'd do anything for you, no matter what it cost me... and some times, I'm even glad that I'm like this, because it means I can protect you. And now... I find out that you're 'confessing' the exact same thing that I've wanted to say for so long... what other conclusion can I draw? Normal people aren't like this, Brother!"
Ed just stared at him still, trying to take in what Al was saying. "I'm like this," he said lamely.
"And... and... I'm like that too, Brother!" Alphonse fought the competing urges of embracing his brother and holding him close... and beating some sense into him. "That's my point. The original Alphonse didn't, couldn't have shared your feelings... so you altered him. Just slightly. So that he'd love you more than anything else. So that, when you confessed your feelings... he'd follow you to the ends of the earth. And when you did restore his body to him..." The armor shuddered, unable to complete that train of thought.
"I didn't do anything like that. I didn't do a goddamn thing." Ed was shaking. "I didn't! I was- I didn't even THINK about it then! I haven't really been sure 'till... well, it was after then, and God, Al, I wasn't thinking anything that sadistic then, I was just scared I was going to lose you... that was all."
Alphonse wanted to believe. He wanted to believe so badly it hurt. "Then why can't I remember?" Alphonse ambled over to a nearby alleyway, out of the daylight, and started sinking down. Brokenly, he whispered, "Brother... if what you say is true, why can't I remember what happened? Why are all of my memories of you good ones? Why... why do you always seem so perfect? Even your flaws seem perfect to me, because it means I fit with you! I... you... you're the only reason I keep going. Where else could that feeling have come from?"
"Well... Al, I..." He sighed, then leaned against the wall, knees weak. "I can't tell you. Where does any feeling come from...? It's not something we can see, or make... and, I... I don't know, but... I feel like that too."
"Stop it." Alphonse tried to push his brother away with his words. "Stop... stop trying to comfort me. Like... like everything's all right, or that this is all right. That I'm okay, even after all of this."
"I never said it was all right, Al." Ed's voice was tired, shoulders sagging. "I know it isn't, I know it's sick. And if I put it in your head somehow, without meaning to, I don't know. I just... I know I never wanted to change you. Ever. I never wanted to hurt you, and... and I'm so sorry."
He needed to protest. He needed to scream and pitch a fit and get as far away from his brother as he could. He needed to get away... but he couldn't. He was rooted to the spot and absolutely miserable. "Stop apologizing." Alphonse's voice was, somehow, even more broken and defeated than before. "Stop... stop making me think that I've done something horrible to you. It's... it's all there, in black and white. You... you had to have done something to me. And it had to be on purpose. That's the only rational explanation. And... and... I don't want to think about if I'm wrong."
"I didn't!" Ed snapped, voice breaking. "I'm telling you I didn't! You're my brother, Al, I'm supposed to take care of you, I'd never try to- Al, if I had some kind of horrible disease, do you think I'd try to give it to you, just so I wouldn't be lonely? Do you? Haven't I been- Haven't I been a good big brother, Al?"
"Good big brothers..." Alphonse ground out as he got back up to his feet, "don't do that to their little brothers. And..." He glared down at Edward, "...I don't know. I don't know if you'd pass a disease onto me or not. I can't catch diseases, remember? But Mom died from a disease, and she kept it inside so that we wouldn't be affected by it." He let the implication dangle.
"You were the one that wanted to know, goddammit!" As humiliating as it was, Ed burst into tears, burying his face in his arms. "I never wanted to say anything! I was gonna keep it a secret for the rest of my fucking life because I didn't want this to happen! I've been- I've been trying so hard, Al, don't you understand?"
"I think you're the one that doesn't understand, Brother." The suit of armor advanced to the entrance of the alleyway, and turned back to face his brother. "I wanted to know the truth. About me. I've guessed about it for so long, and it's been eating me inside, Brother. And now that I know it... I need to think about what I'm going to do. What can I do?" The younger Elric looked up to the sky, staring into the sun without blinking. "What can I do, Brother?"
"It isn't true, Al... what you keep saying isn't true." Ed slumped to the ground, covering his face. "It isn't... I didn't change you, I didn't make you up, you're my brother..."
"Be angry with me, Brother. Please. Don't make this harder on me than it has to be." Alphonse slowly turned around to face his brother, and gestured towards the basket. If he could just yell at me again, I can let go. I'll make him do it. I'm so sorry, Brother. "I cook for you. I clean for you. I do your laundry and I even make sure that you care for yourself. That's not what a brother does... that's what a mother does. Or a wife. And now I know why I act that way." He spat the last sentence out with a shudder.
It was always feeling helpless that made Ed do this, break down and sob like a child. And now he couldn't stop. "I didn't do this to you," he wept. "I swear to God, Al, I... I didn't do this to you..."
A crying Edward was like a magnet to Alphonse. Before he knew what he was doing, he had crossed the distance and knelt next to his brother, arms outstretched and inviting. "I'm sorry, Brother. I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm so very, very sorry." It was half his will, and half not... but he couldn't deny his brother. Not when Edward needed him like that.
"I didn't want to say... I didn't want to, Al, please... don't hate me, I didn't want any of this..."
The worst part about it was that Alphonse was starting to hate himsel. His hatred towards anyone that would dare to make his brother cry was now directed fully at himself... impaled on his own petard, and the worst hypocrite imaginable. He gently placed the basket down, and placed both of his hands on his brother's shoulder. "I... I know, Brother. I'm sorry for putting you through this. Just... please, Brother. Stop crying. Please?" And he hated himself most of all for the fact that he couldn't offer his brother the comfort he needed.
"Goddammit, Al, you don't believe me." He couldn't stop, not knowing if there was even a point. "Can't you just... can't you just trust me, that I'm telling the truth? Please?"
"I can't." Alphonse's arms went limp, but he didn't remove his hands. "I can't believe you, Brother. Because I want to, so badly, and that could be another sign that this is what you wanted all along. I... I can't even trust myself anymore, Brother. There's no one, in this entire world, that I can truly trust anymore. Everyone I know and love knows and loves you more."
Ed clung to his arms and cried, hiccupping. "If I hadn't... if I hadn't been so stupid, to think we could resurrect Mom... Al... this is all my fault, I know it is, but if you can believe anything, just.. please, believe I never wanted any of this to happen...?"
"B-because... because you've been the best older brother in the world, and I still think that you are... I believe that much. I... I believe that you didn't want this to happen." Alphonse stood up, and turned away. "I'm... going to go think about this. I'm sorry,
Ed nodded, pale. "I'll, um... be here. For a while. I'll see you later... I guess."
"Be... be sure that you eat everything, okay? And... and... don't catch a cold." Alphonse wanted to hit himself. Why can't I just let go, like I'm supposed to? "I'll... see you later, Brother." And with that, he walked out, not sure where he could go.
Ed laid his head against the wall, knowing he wasn't going to eat a thing. He didn't know if he could go back... he didn't know if he could stand it. Not like this, not anymore.