House of Flowers
They get off the ship and sway a little, not yet sure of their land legs. Al brings his hand up to his eyes to shade them from the sun and says wonderingly, ďWhat is this place?Ē
The best way to describe it is lush; lush like giant green fern fronds that drip with atmospheric moisture and riotous flowers that expose their faces to the ribbons of muggy air. Al breathes damp deep into his lungs and remembers how his mother would drape a blanket over his head and a steaming teapot to clear the cough from his lungs. The thickness of it grounds him, weighs down his bones. He watches Edís face because he recalls the way Ed held his arm awkwardly under the arid Ishbalan sun like he was trying to get away from it, but only sees a smile and the sheen of a sweaty flush.
As soon as the sun comes up they retreat under the trees. The sunlight only manages to paint the ground in faint splatters. Shade presses in around them like a great chirruping blanket, woven in with birdcalls and the chattering of monkeys. Tributaries cut the undergrowth in great winding arrays that have no logic or reason to them. He loses Ed when he stares too long at a massive, vine-covered tree whose trunk spanned at least six of him, standing arms spread wide. His hand against the mossy bark felt slime and life and he fancied he could hear the tree breathing with each lazy rustle of the leaves.
He loses Ed at the tree, finds him again at the riverbed surrounded by a group of grinning natives who are ineffectually trying to help him pick the leeches off his arms. Every time they get one off he yelps and they burst into laughter, white teeth flashing bright in their brown faces. Al joins in when they flip Ed over and make him drop his pants, he canít help it; the look on Edís face when he realizes heís got one in his asscrack is worth all the sulking that will inevitably come of the whole incident.
Nights are spent on grass mats in houses that are built on stilts. The air gets no clearer and the jungle gets no quieter, but there is a kind of silence in this endless droning noise that puts Al to sleep almost as soon as his body hits the ground. Sometimes he makes the effort to keep his eyes open, propped up on one elbow, tracking the blue moonlight as it plays across his brotherís features. Ed is no more relaxed asleep than he is awake, all scrunched up faces and flailing limbs. His hair spills across the floor in a shining colorless puddle. The moon rolls across the sky, expressionless and disinterested.
Ed refuses to talk about the Colonel and to be honest, Al doesnít really know what to say either. He knows that Ed doesnít like being indebted to anyone. The ship they sailed on took exactly nine days and four hours to cross the ocean, nine days and four hours of clear skies and gray waters. Gray waters, that is, until they hit the bay and Al looked over the railing and realized the sea had turned a sparkling cerulean blue that outshone all of his previous conceptions about the color. During the journey Alíd had to feign seasickness so his brother would stop pacing the decks and come sit down, flesh fingers carding through Alís hair and automail palm cool against Alís forehead.
All roads in this place are paved in dirt, stamped flat by hundreds of sets of bare feet and rutted in places from wagon wheels. They are soft; earth loamy between his toes with bits of decaying leaf matter. Tiny brown children that arenít wearing anything run past him with exuberant shouts, the slap of their feet on the ground a temperate satisfying sound. For breakfast they eat green leafy things and brown crunchy things that Ed looks like heíd rather not think too closely about and talk about nothing in particular, maybe what is to be done that day or what had been done the day before. It becomes a whispering stream of indistinguishable moments, where time flows not in a line but in an eternal circle.
Ed likes the markets, the tiny stalls at the edges of the trees under the deep blue sky. The money here is an incomprehensible system of bones, beans, beads, fur, and misshapen metal so Al doesnít even try to learn the equivalent values, but instead trails behind his brother and watches him try to bargain in broken sentences with amused shopkeepers. It only took Ed a week to figure out the basic grammatical structure of the language, which dropped all articles and reversed the order of the modifiers. Al is better at plain vocabulary, stringing words together on half-realized instinct. They both make the natives laugh, but there is no cruelty in it.
They wander the village a lot, reinforcing stilts that have cracked and plugging up holes in roofs in preparation for the torrential rains they are told will be coming soon. A child with only four fingers on one hand brought them a straw doll that was missing an arm while her brother stood a distrustful distance behind her. Instead of taking her doll back she clambered up into Edís lap and stuck her grubby hands into Edís hair with an expression of intense concentration. Her brother found the courage to poke at Edís automail, which gleamed with the light of the sun in such a way that it refracted broken white patterns on flat shadowy surfaces. Al couldnít stop smiling, not even when the little girl decided to see if Edís hair was something good to eat and Ed shot him look of such overwhelming suffering that Al was almost tempted to feel sorry for him.
The women give them wooden cups of steaming chocolate, bitter and thick with spices. Al sips it slowly and lets it roll over his tongue, feeling for the delicate complexities of the flavors. Criollo, he learns, the word for it round and warm in his mouth. Ed prefers the tangy clear fruit juices, with their ridiculous colors and even more ridiculous flavors. Some of them stain his mouth red.
It had been terrifying, before, when the Colonel locked the door behind himself and turned around, words like court-martial and experimentation falling from his mouth like stones. At that point Alís body had still been new enough that the sharp sick feeling flooding through his limbs made him cry out involuntarily. Ed enfolded Alís shaking hands furiously between his own and turned a thunderous countenance on the Colonel, right until the Colonel sighed and held out a thick sheaf of papers that made Edís eyes widen in surprise and confusion. Emigration papers, tickets and emigration papers with false names and forged signatures that would get them the hell out of this country and let them rebuild their lives.
Roy saw them off standing on the dock in his gray suit with a thousand unidentifiable emotions flickering through his gray eyes. He was startled, Al thinks, when Al threw his arms around him in wordless gratitude, inhaling spicy cologne and silent regret.
It was Alís decision to ask to be let off at a port where they were only supposed to stop to refuel, in the middle of some southern jungle with only the bare bones of hastily constructed civilization. They got someone from the outpost to tell them about the lay of the land and everything he knew about the indigenous populations, then slipped out under the cover of the night into the deep forest.
Fishing consists of whittling two sticks sharp enough to be able slice them through the water while standing in the rivers. Ed is still kind of leery of water, even though the villagers had assured them that this particular spot was clear of leeches, probably. The cool water slips across Alís bare legs and the sun is warm across his back. Every once in a while a fish brushes past him, quick and faint like the beating of butterfly wings, and he lets his spear go slack in his hand and tips his face up to the sky.
Behind him, Ed splashes and curses, new language strange on his lips. He jumps whenever something grazes his legs, convinced that the leeches are coming back for him because once they get a taste they canít help themselves, clearly. Al snorts and grabs him by the arm to stop him from scaring all the fish away, pulls him flush against his own body. Water beads on Edís skin and on Edís hair, which is coming loose from its braid. Edís eyes are wide and his nose is peeling with sunburn, so Al dips his head down and touches their lips together.
ďOh,Ē Ed says.
ďYeah,Ē Al says, because sometimes his brother is a bit of an idiot.
The bonfire reaches for the stars. The heat pulses against his face and the sweat pours off him. Al marvels at the dancers, ringing the flames, clapping, stomping their feet against the ground. The women sit off to one side, pounding on the drums and singing yyeo ayahui ohuaya, nonsense syllables for forest and the rain. Ohuaya ohuyaya, for the faces of the lions and the jaguars, ehuaya for the rivers and the flowers, the call of the birds and heartbeat of the earth. Ohuaya ohuyaya ohuaya ehuaya ayahui! Soon the storms will come.
His brother dances with them, naked arms flashing in the firelight. Edís hair is heavy with perspiration; it sticks to his face in stringy clumps as he spins and ducks, feathers shaking and colored bits of cloth flying every which way. One of the women refills Alís mug with chocolate, touches her hand lightly to his shoulder and smiles. Yyeo ayahui ohuaya!
Ed drops boneless next to him, breathing hard and grinning. His breath smells like fermented fruit, sweet and sharp. He lets his head fall on Alís shoulder and laughs when Al tells him that he is sticky and kind of reeks. When he whispers quiet and hot against Alís skin that they should leave, Al closes his eyes to let the world shift and settle.
From the hut, the sounds from the bonfire fade back into the constant familiar droning of the jungle. They move slowly, languidly, backs and knees against the straw mats. Ed licks a line all the way from the base of Alís spine to just above his shoulder blades, where the blood seal sits dark against Alís skin. The inside of Alís mouth has been burned by the hot chocolate and Edís tongue feels rough against it. He buries his fingers in Edís hips and chokes brother into Edís moonlight hair as he comes, like finding home.
The air gets even heavier, hanging over their heads like a giant waterskin just shy of bursting. Repairs speed up, and sometimes Al feels like he must have alchemized every single wooden slat on this side of the mountain together in preparation for this incoming thing. He comes home sticky and exhausted, warm happiness threading through his limbs.
Walking through the forests brings him across giant stone heads half-buried in the ground. They stare unseeing into infinity, wet green moss draped across their eyes. Ed asks their guide where they came from and what they were used for, but he just shrugs his shoulders. He doesnít know. When they reach the top of the mountain the land opens up before them in a stunning panorama of jade forests and diamond waterfalls and curling mists. A bird the color of new leaves wings by slowly, and Alís breath catches in his chest. He turns to show Ed, but Ed has already seen and is only looking at Al.
He follows Ed to the tree, watches him clap his hands together and transmute some leaves into fluttering sheets of paper. Ed scribbles something furiously, crosses it out, and balls the paper up and throws it against the ground. When Ed runs, Al picks the paper up and unfolds it carefully. Dear Colonel Bastard, it reads, then the stuttering handwriting stops abruptly.
The sky shudders before the rain comes, lightning and thunder rolling together in a great explosion of sound. Al presses his hand against the slimy trunk and feels the water sliding down. The leaves rustle with the droplets.
He loses Ed at the tree, finds him again at the riverbed kneeling on the ground and poking ineffectually at the water with a stick. The river is already rising, splashing closer to his feet every times the waves break. Lightening arcs through the air above them as Al drops down in the mud next to his brother and waits for him to speak.
ďI never told him, for, for you, and thisóĒ Ed begins, and stops because even now he canít bring himself to say it out loud.
ďI never told him,Ē he starts again, staring at Al helplessly. Al takes his brotherís hands between his own and tugs him against his chest. They are both completely soaked through, shirts sticking to their bodies and damp skin pressing together. Monsoon, the earth whispers. Al breathes the damp air in deeply, listens to the drumming of the rain on the ground, and tangles his fingers through Edís hair.
ďI think he already knows,Ē Al says. Ed twists around and lets himself tuck his face into the juncture between Alís neck and shoulder. His breath is quiet and hot against Alís skin.
ďYeah?Ē he asks.
ďYeah,Ē Al says. Sometimes his brother is a bit of an idiot.