The sticky thing about traditions was that the moment you neglected to feed them, they started to starve and die. They didn’t cry out as they withered, either—just writhed, and faded, and diminished into a silence that you couldn’t resurrect.
Enough of their history had been smothered over the years that Al wasn’t about to let this piece disappear. Minor and meaningless or otherwise, he was drawing the line right here. He was going to save this one—no matter the cost, no matter the consequences, no matter what it took.
“If you want to see it so bad,” Ed said, elbowing Russell in the ribs, “then you do it.”
“No way,” Russell said, elbowing back. His elbow always hit Ed’s bicep. Al felt it was kinder not to comment. “If he was gonna incinerate you, he would’ve done it by now. You’re the only one who’s safe.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ed asked. “No, don’t answer that. C’mon. It’s stupid. And he doesn’t know about it, so it’s not even fair.”
“Life isn’t,” Russell said.
“Get fucked,” Ed said.
“You will,” Russell said. “That’s my point. You’ll still get action whether you shove his face in the cake for the milestone birthday—like you’re supposed to—or not.”
At a tender twenty-six years of age, Ed still went scarlet when you talked about his sex life too frankly, which never failed to make Al want to clutch one hand over his heart at his precious elder brother’s unintentional adorableness. He felt it was kinder not to mention that either.
“That couldn’t be less of your damn business if you tried, Tringham,” Ed said. “And it’s beside the point, ’cause I’m not gonna do it, because—I mean, Chrissake, what if he got one of the candles in his other eye?”
“You wait ’til he blows them out,” Russell said, “obviously.”
“They’re still pointy,” Ed said. “They could do some damage. And he’s just—come on. He’s been through enough.”
Al had circumvented the other protest he’d expected from Ed—which was that if, as tradition dictated, they shoved Roy’s face into his birthday cake to celebrate his fortieth year of lovingly terrorizing the planet, Ed would not be able to eat said cake afterwards, because it would be splattered all over Roy and the tabletop. Al had considered simply answering that with “You have no problem sucking on Roy’s face the rest of the time, Brother,” but he was concerned that that might short-circuit Ed’s brain, so in the end he’d just bought a second cake.
“You have to do it,” Russell said. “Or you can never tell anybody you’re from the East ever again.”
“It’s factually true that I’m from the East,” Ed said. “I can say it whenever the hell I want to. I could say it sixteen times a day. Try and stop me.”
“You’d have no right,” Russell said.
“You’re about to have no head,” Ed said.
“You’re about to have no friend,” Russell said.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Ed said. “You were never—”
Al cleared his throat as loudly as he could without hurting himself.
They looked over at him.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
Both of them blinked. Or Al was pretty sure Russell did; his hair always made it difficult to tell whether he was winking or blinking or just had a bit of a momentary twitch.
“No guts, no glory,” Al said.
“If you die,” Russell said, “I will tell your story for the rest of my life.”
“Thanks,” Al said.
Ed’s expression dipped into consternation before he wrangled it back under control. He’d never been any good at that until Germany.
“I really don’t think this is a good idea,” Ed said.
“Me neither,” Al said. “But we have to do it anyway. It’s a part of our heritage, albeit one that may end in ashes and frosting stains.”
Ed eyed him. Al beamed.
“Come on, Brother,” Al said. “Birthdays are supposed to be fun.”
“It took fucking years to get you back, Al,” Ed said. “Last thing I wanna do is have to scrape the cinders of you off the floor.”
“Roy would never do that to me,” Al said.
“Because he knows that if he reduced me to a streak of soot,” Al said, “you’d never sleep with him again.”
Ed’s eyes widened, and then they narrowed, and Al had to bite down on his own lip viciously so that he didn’t laugh.
Russell wasn’t as restrained, but that was pretty par for the course.
“You know what, Al?” Ed said. “You go right the fuck ahead.”
So Al did.
He wandered around, loitered, made small-talk, complimented Elysia on her barrettes—that part was sincere; some of the rest of it was… less-sincere—and all the while watched the doorway to the kitchen out of the corner of his eye. The cake’s grand entrance wasn’t far off, and he’d probably be able to see it coming from a great distance, heralded by the glow of well over three-dozen candles.
He wasn’t going to share that pearl of wisdom with Ed, either. Sometimes he felt it was a terrible pity that nobody really knew just how good a brother he was, based on the sheer weight of the uncharitable thoughts that he kept to himself. Ed had said that once, actually—something like it, anyway, in Ed words. All niceness really is is there being something shitty that you could say or do, but you pick the other thing instead.
Hopefully today wouldn’t stack up too badly against Al’s lifelong niceness tally, though. This wasn’t an especially humanitarian act.
It was, however, very simple—exceedingly simple. Foolproof. Very nearly Ed-proof, which was a different metric entirely; and which didn’t revolve around intellect, but around the towering might of Ed’s improbably bad luck. In any case, Al was flushed with confidence, or some phrase like that, because this was going to be very easy, and very funny, and everyone would have a good laugh, and the tradition would live on unmarred, and Ed would have an excuse to tenderly wipe frosting off of Roy’s face without getting jumpy about whether they’d be seen publicly displaying affection. Everything was good. No problem. Simple and straightforward; smooth sailing ahead; not a single ornery little stormcloud on the horizon—
The only thing was that he had to position himself perfectly. A part of him felt terrible taking advantage of Roy’s blind spot, especially given the circumstances under which it had been gained, but he didn’t have a choice, especially since Riza was standing with a little cluster of their friends off to the opposite side. That made it very likely that she’d end up on that side of the half-circle that would inevitably form when they all gathered around to sing off-key and wait for Roy to extinguish flames, for once. That positioning was optimal for Al’s slightly nefarious purposes: Riza Hawkeye had reflexes like a striking cobra and was probably a little bit telepathic, so every quarter of a second that he could add to her potential intervention time increased the likelihood of him successfully shoving Roy’s face into the frosting.
He didn’t understand why Ed kept protesting, anyway. It was completely harmless. The odds of Roy getting a candle in the other eye—let alone with enough force to hurt him in any meaningful way—were negligibly low. The only reason anyone would have to worry about such a faint statistical improbability would be if…
Well, if they were as unlucky as Ed.
But this was something Al was going to do, right? So it didn’t matter if Ed happened to be present. Ed’s incredibly poor fortune only pertained to himself, didn’t it? There wasn’t some sort of expanding bad luck ripple moving ever outward from him. Al and Roy were not going to get caught in the undertow just because Ed was standing nearby. Ed just experienced remarkably infelicitous coincidences on a regular basis; he didn’t create the effect and radiate it like some kind of detonation device in the middle of an ocean of average mathematical cause and effect—
This was ridiculous. Honestly, Ed’s luck was probably improving—currently, at least, it had relatively consistently been on the rise. Good things had been happening to him on a larger scale, like landing them back here just over a year ago, and finally pairing up with Roy about a month after that; in addition to which they’d managed to carry two cakes around on several streets with mediocre paving as well as up a flight of stairs without any incidents. It was absurd to assume that Ed’s crap luck was sentient and forceful enough to do something like bide its time.
Al wasn’t the tiniest bit worried about that, come to think of it. Not even a little. Not at all.
“Hey,” Russell said, and an elbow jabbed into his ribs—Al had also kindly not pointed out to his brother that Russell’s elbows tended to make contact with his frame a full five inches higher than they did Ed’s, and that that margin was likely to widen as Al’s Gate-bewildered body eked a few more centimeters out of his genome. “The cake, Elric!”
A small, soft part of Al’s psyche always warmed and swelled and preened a bit when somebody addressed one of them by their shared last name, indiscriminately. Even if unintentional, it felt like a recognition that they were two facets of the same gem, and everything they’d strived for and scrounged up and suffered through to reunite was worth it.
At the moment, though, the pastry parading into the room had to take precedence.
Al wasn’t sure whose idea it had been to make Fuery the cake-bearer, given that it rivaled him in size, and raising it high enough to carry brought the candles within singeing distance of his face. It was possible they hadn’t trusted Havoc not to trip, or Breda not to sample it, and Falman had given the requester a blank look, and—
No time; Al had a job to do. Places to be; traditions to uphold; death by torrent of alchemical flame to flirt with.
Fuery proceeded closer, mostly-steadily, and Al tried not to tense his shoulders too visibly; Riza was remarking faux-idly on the number of candles, so that was good—but then a metal finger prodded Al’s arm, and Ed’s voice hissed “I swear to God, Al, just don’t—”
“I have to,” Al said, and as his voice came out low and strained and solemn, he realized that it was true.
Fuery set the broad crystal cake plate down onto the table with a crisp clink; as he slid it closer to Roy, it made a scraping sound; Al swallowed; he stepped forward; he shifted his arms but didn’t quite dare yet to raise his hands—
He had to time this perfectly and angle it exactly right; and if he applied too much force, Roy would kiss the crystal and potentially damage his nose instead of just splattering cake innards hilariously. Al got the feeling that he would pay dearly if he was responsible for damage to Roy’s nose; Ed liked it a lot. Not that Ed would ever say so, but vengeance would be small, swift, and unmistakable all the same.
Roy gave everyone a wry look—which took a while, since he had to turn his head relatively far to make sure everyone could see the un-veiled half of his expression—and sighed pointedly. Then he leaned in, and then he drew a deep breath, and then—
The candles winked out; tiny trails of silver smoke twirled upwards.
Al stepped forward. He reached out. He planted one hand flat on Roy’s back, right between his shoulder blades, and shoved.
Roy’s whole body bent forward, and his head went down—
But not before his right hand snapped up and batted the edge of the cake platter—
Which sent it skidding clear on the tablecloth, such that the only thing he buried his face in was his own sleeve.
The silence was so pristine for a long second that Al thought that perhaps it was possible for an entire room to forget, simultaneously, how to breathe.
Roy sat up, tossed his head, tossed it again so that his hair would fall over the eyepatch properly, and then swiveled in his chair until he could favor Al with perhaps the single most sardonic smile ever worn by a human being.
“I turned twenty at Eastern Command,” Roy said. “And I’ve been paranoid a whole lot longer than that.”
“Oh,” Al said. He reached for additional words in his brain, but the whole thing seemed to be a giant, roaring blank. “That’s nice.”
“It is,” Roy said, smiling slightly wider, and for some reason the hairs on the back of Al’s neck were standing up.
The part of him that had lived the Other Years in armor appreciated that—savored it, really; basked in the bizarre, inconvenient physicality of so many of his emotions.
The part of him that had stayed with Izumi tensed up.
“You know what’s even nicer?” Roy asked.
“Yeah,” Ed said, squeezing out of Russell’s restraining grip and sidling over to elbow Al in the… waist region. So many elbows today. “Listening to your brother when he tells you not to mess wi—”
“Two cakes!” Riza said. Their assembled friends laughed nervously and parted to let her pass; she looked remarkably pleased for someone who so rarely emoted. Other Years Al knew a thing or two about that. “How fortunate we are that someone thought to buy another—whoops!”
Ed yelped; Al gasped; the cake flew; everyone else made noises muddled by their relative distance—and, for Al, muddled by the fact that Ed was pushing him sideways, and—
There was a very wet-edged whump sort of a sound, and Al had closed his eyes instinctively. When he cinched one open, he found…
Ed. Or Ed’s body, at least, with a cake tray obscuring the region where his head should have been.
The tray slid, slowly, with a sound like dragging your boot out of mud when it’d gotten itself suctioned in, and then clattered to the floor, taking a mangled pile of about three-quarters of a squished cake with it.
The remaining quarter stayed on Ed’s face.
“Oh,” Al said, stupidly. “Oh, dear.”
“You know,” Ed said, sounding deeply pained, “I’m not even surprised.”
“Oh, Lord,” Roy said, getting up, and he was biting his bottom lip, and somehow one eye did all of the suppressed-laughter mischief-gleam work of two. “Ed—I’m sorry—”
“You are not,” Ed said. “Not even close. Not even in the neighborhood. Not even in the postal code.”
Roy stepped close and reached one hand out very gently towards Ed’s face, poised to cup Ed’s jaw tenderly for some kind of mushy apology that Al was very sure he didn’t want to see.
Then Roy swiped a fingertip-load of frosting off of Ed’s nose instead, and stuck it in his mouth.
“That’s really not bad,” he said. “It’s a good thing Al brought two.”
“Who’s Al?” Ed asked, managing to look moderately intimidating for someone with cake crushed into his eyebrows. “I used to have a brother, but he’s dead.”
“It’s not like cake is the worst thing he’s ever gotten all over your face,” Al said.
This silence made the last one look like a tiny baby silence with a rattle in its hand.
Riza shattered it by laughing—and not delicately; all at once, loud and delighted and uproarious. Everyone around her was too startled to follow suit for a good two seconds, but then it spread like… well, wildfire, and…
And Ed still looked like someone had rained on his parade, or perhaps elaborately decorated his visage with a substantial portion of a gâteau.
“I’m sorry, Brother,” Al said, helplessly. “I mean it! I really am!”
“I’m not,” Russell said. “This is the best birthday party ever.”
Wordlessly, Ed gave him the finger.
“I’m sorry, too,” Roy said, and this time he really did forge a few fingers through the cake to stroke them down Ed’s cheek. “That really wasn’t intended for you, but I suppose I should have known you’d valiantly hurl yourself in the path of danger to save your brother.”
Ed scowled. Al had to swallow very, very hard to keep himself from laughing, because the cake made all of Ed’s already-exaggerated expressions that much more hilarious.
“Was that what it looked like?” Ed asked. “I thought it was me being a dumbshit again.”
“No,” Roy said. “I’m quite familiar with selfless valor, and that was it.”
Ed almost—almost—cracked a smile. “Yeah, you and ‘selfless’ are two words I put together in sentences all the time.”
“What a coincidence,” Roy said. “Me, too.”
“Wow,” Ed said. “Modesty is a good look on you.”
“I try,” Roy said. He smirked, long and slow and lethal, and the tension in Ed’s shoulders changed visibly. “Cake is a good look on you.”
Roy settled his free hand flat on Ed’s chest, stroking Ed’s hair back with the one lingering among the smeared frosting. Ed was scowling again, but it didn’t stop him slinging his arms up and around Roy’s neck, and—
It occurred to Al, very suddenly, that someone needed to take care of this cake all over the floor, or it was going to stain the carpet and get trampled underfoot. The revelation had nothing whatsoever to do with his interest—that was, either visceral disinterest; or even more visceral vested interest; and he wasn’t sure which was worse—in watching their childhood benefactor slip his only sibling a substantial amount of tongue.
He wasn’t going to think about it. If he didn’t think about it, he didn’t have to figure out how he felt about it; and if he didn’t figure out how he felt about it, he didn’t have to address the fact that the way he felt about it might be weird.
…that sounded eerily like Ed logic.
By the time he came back from the kitchen with a little trash bin and a wet rag, Roy was attempting to wipe some of the frosting off of Ed’s face with a bright yellow cocktail napkin, and Russell was standing by critiquing the effort while eating a piece of Roy’s cake. Ed was pouting so much that he was making it more difficult for Roy to remove the reason he was pouting, and Roy was giving him crap about it, which was making him pout harder, and if that didn’t sum up all three of them, Al wasn’t sure what could.
Ed squeezed his eyes shut the instant the corner of Roy’s napkin came close. “If you get frosting in my eyeball, so help me, Mustang, I w—”
“That’s why you have two,” Roy said. “One to use as a frosting repository, and one spare.”
Russell licked the tines of his fork extensively, but somehow it looked more childish than obscene. “S’that what happened to you, General?”
“Yes,” Roy said solemnly; and then, “Sorry, Alphonse,” at the way Al was nudging meaningfully at their knees to try to coax them away from the cake mess so he could clean up. It only seemed fair when he’d been partly—mostly—arguably, entirely—to blame for its existence. “There was a terrible frosting accident, you see—a very large truck full of cakes for a party at the Führer’s mansion came careening down the road, and I saw that there was a kitten in the middle of the street, and—”
Ed started laughing so hard his whole body shook.
Roy clicked his tongue and curled one hand into the front of Ed’s shirt. “How many times do I have to tell you to stay still?”
“At least one more,” Ed said. “Prob’ly two.”
“Probably six,” Roy said.
Russell’s eyes were huge, and he’d frozen with the fork hovering in the air halfway to his mouth. “You got hit by a cake truck? All this time I figured it was—y’know, some kind of epic battle with alchemy, or… something, like—”
Al was shaking his head vigorously while he scrubbed at the carpet. Ed wriggled out of Roy’s grip long enough to reach down and pat him on the back.
“You know what happens when you underestimate the damage a pastry can cause?” Roy asked.
“Uh,” Russell said. “Not r—”
Roy gestured, grandly, to Ed’s frosting facial.
“Right,” Russell said.
Roy tapped a fingertip under Ed’s chin and leaned in again, breathing, “You know, it really rather suits you,” but Ed was scrambling back.
“Quit it!” he said. “You’ll just get it all over you, and then there’s two of us who’re gonna be sticky all night lo… fuck. Al—don’t—don’t even s—”
It was Alphonse Elric’s sacred duty to jump to his feet, clasp his hands, and chirp, “Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?”
Russell said, “Wait, what?”, and Ed buried his face in both hands and then raised it again and made a strangled noise, staring at the frosting all over his palms, and Roy was laughing again, and then catching Ed for another one of those possibly-too-interesting kisses—
And that was when Al heard the shutter click.
They all turned to look at Elysia as she lowered the camera and beamed.
“You guys just looked like you were having so much fun,” she said. “I wanted to commemorate the moment.”
Ed turned to Roy. His eyes were both ablaze, and halfway-ringed with pale blue frosting. “You,” he said, “are never having a birthday ever again.”
Roy grinned, and dabbed a bit of smeared blue off of Ed’s cheek. “Sounds good to me.”
“What’s really amazing,” Russell said, “is that my friends at school don’t get like this until they’ve been drinking.”
“Your friends suck,” Ed said.
“You haven’t met them,” Russell said.
“I don’t need to,” Ed said. “They’re friends with you.”
“Well, Brother,” Al said, “in a manner of speaking, you s—”
There was a very cold, very metal, very frosting-y hand pressed over his mouth.
“Not another word,” Ed said.
The shutter clicked again, but this time Elysia didn’t even pretend she wasn’t laughing at them.
“May I have prints of these?” Roy asked.
“Of course!” Elysia said.
“Happy fucking birthday, asshole,” Ed said.
“Thank you, my dear,” Roy said. He winked. Somehow, despite the definition of the word and the solitary eye involved, you could always tell. That was, perhaps, the real magic of Roy Mustang, Flame Alchemy aside. “Any chance you have a present for me that I can’t open right now?”
“Yeah,” Ed said, yielding at last to the way Al had been hauling on his wrist to get him to lower his hand. “A swift kick in the ass.”
“Kinky,” Roy said. “I’ll take it.”
Ed’s face was a masterpiece of horror, with a tiny bit of damning fascination. Slowly and deliberately, he raised his left hand, gathered a thick dollop of frosting off of himself, and reached out to smear it down Roy’s visible cheek.
“Fuck you,” he said.
“I’ll take that, too,” Roy said.
The noise that escaped Ed’s clenched teeth was perhaps best characterized as “Argh.”
Roy’s eye had lit up. He gestured to Ed again. “Isn’t he sweet?”
“Eew,” Russell said.
Al gave him a high five.
The only real downside was that he was pretty sure Ed was never going to want cake ever again.