He thinks of home, a green field, a house beside a tree. His mother is there, hanging out the washing; she hums as she does so, her light brown hair secured in a loose ponytail. He shouts, but she doesn't seem to hear him, and runs towards her with his latest gift in his hands. He and his brother made it together, out of clay scooped from the river; only Winry ruined it by breaking off its arm. "It needs automail now," she'd said, rummaging in her play-toolbox.
"No it doesn't!" his brother had flared. "We can use alchemy to repair it."
"Alchemy can't fix everything," she'd replied, matter-of-fact. "Granny says that's why we automail engineers exist."
Later, skulking along the river, his brother had drawn the array in the soft mud with a stick. "Stupid Winry," he'd grumbled. "She doesn't know anything."
"She has a point, though, brother," he'd said, hopelessly. "We should leave it like it is."
"No!" Ed had snapped. "We were gonna give it to mom, right? You've seen the way she looks at those soldiers. She doesn't like broken stuff, or things with bits missing."
"That's not true, brother," he'd replied, a little hurt. "Mom isn't like that."
"Yeah?" Ed had pushed golden bangs behind his ears and set his hands down on the small array. "Well, we shouldn't give her a broken doll anyway. Put it in the circle, Al."
Al had refused, and when Ed tried to wrestle the toy from him, thumped his brother in the face and fled back home. Mom wasn't like that; hadn't Ed seen how she cared for those two baby robins last summer, when they'd broken their wings?
"Mom!" he shouts as he sprints up the hill. He's seven, all gangly limbs and clumsy sweetness. (He's also already taller than Ed, but he tries not to let Ed notice that for fear of what his brother might say. It's not his fault he's afraid of the dark, after all, and he knows Ed will bring that up immediately.)
His mother pauses and looks up with a smile, hands still smoothing the creases out of a towel. "Alphonse," she says, lightly. "Where's your brother?"
"He's by the river—I just wanted to show you—look, mom! Winry broke it but I said you'd still like it!" He thrusts the doll in her face and she takes it, smiles at it. She crouches, arranging her skirts carefully, and ruffles his hair.
"It's wonderful," she says, with a smile that warms Alphonse to the very marrow of his bones. She looks at the doll again, runs her fingers over the contours, and Al flushes with pride.
Her expression changes slowly to something sad, and when her fingers brush over the doll's face, it blurs. Al rubs at his eyes, and blinks to clear his vision.
When he opens his eyes again, the doll is his mother, in an evening dress he doesn't recall her ever wearing. There's a strange tattoo on its chest, and the missing arm has grown back. He starts in surprise—"That's not the doll brother and I made—"
"It is," says his mother, and when he looks up she's wearing the same attire as the doll, her eyes purple where before they were green. "You made me, Alphonse."
"I don't understand—" Al whispers, backing off a step. "What's happening? I—"
Sloth smiles at him, languidly. "Al-phon-se," she murmurs slowly, pronouncing the name in three exaggerated syllables. "Don't you remember me? I am your sin. You made me, and then you killed me."
And memory courses through him even as her form dissolves, as he's smothered in water, her face so close he can feel the breath she does not take. "Mom! Mom! Stop it! Mom—brother! BROTHER!"
He wakes with a jolt, skin slicked with sweat, and for a moment can't concentrate on anything other than that he's being drowned here, too, and his lungs rattle as he gasps for breath. He thrashes, and succeeds in kicking the covers off. He can do nothing for a long while but lie on his side, panting helplessly as his skin cools and the panic fades.
It takes him several minutes to notice that the bed is empty, and has been for a while. The pillow on the other side is undisturbed, and he sits up and touches it thoughtfully. Ed must be pulling another all-nighter. He knows better than to disturb his brother when he's working, but he feels shaken and—cold, somehow, inside. He slides out of bed and shivers—he slept in only a pair of boxers, and winter is fast approaching—before slipping on some socks, wary of cold floors.
The light is on in Ed's study, just as he thought it would be, and he pushes the door open carefully. Ed is buried behind a huge stack of books, and doesn't notice him straight away; Al pauses on the threshold, wanting to flee and not disturb his brother; but the clenching of his gut urges him into the study proper, letting the door swing shut behind him. "Ed?" he calls softly, padding around the desk and the book-barrier.
"What is it, Al?" Ed's voice sounds flat and tired, though not necessarily grumpy. Al hesitates again, but rushes ahead anyway, resting his hands on the edge of the desk in order to see over the books. Ed looks terrible; he's wearing a pair of glasses, and his eyes behind them are rimmed and dark. The latest assignment is exhausting all his reserves, and Al has hardly seen him for the last four weeks.
"I—I—I had..." he trails off weakly, suddenly feeling less sure about his decision. Ed pushes up the glasses and rubs at his eyes with the heel of his hand, and forces a weary smile onto his face.
"You had a nightmare," he says, and downs the last half of a nearby mug of coffee. He pulls a face—Al dips a finger in the remnants, and is unsurprised to discover the thing is stone cold—and then holds out his hands, an invitation Al takes eagerly. He crawls over the desk and settles himself in Ed's lap, letting his brother close his arms around him, and buries his face in Ed's shoulder to breathe in his scent.
"I dreamed about mom," he whispers, once he has calmed down a little. "And about Sloth."
"I know," Ed says soothingly, and Al doesn't bother to ask him how he knows. Ed can read him like a book. "Al. You know Sloth wasn't our fault."
"She said we created her, and then we killed her," Al replies quietly. "We did, didn't we? We made her and then we abandoned her—"
"She wasn't mom," Ed assures him, tugging him away from the protective warmth of his body. His mouth is a hard line, and his eyes and cold and hard; Al finds himself reaching up, gently, to run soft fingers over the stark creases in his brother's skin. Around his eyes, pushing his glasses up to trace the line they've left over the bridge of his nose, the worry-line on his forehead, the lines around his mouth—"You scowl too much," he says softly, and Ed smiles—a smile as tired as the rest of him. "You should go to bed, brother. You're exhausted. You'll fall over if you stay here," Al fusses, his own fear forgotten in the face of his brother's health.
"I can't," Ed groans, and waves a hand at the pages of paper that compromise this assignment. "I've got three days left, and I still haven't finished it—"
"Bed," Alphonse interrupts firmly, leaning up to seal his mouth to his brother's. Ed stiffens beneath him in surprise, and then lets him deepen the kiss, tilting his head to give Al further access. Al's hands slide up his body to cling to his brother's shoulders, and don't let go when Ed breaks the kiss.
"All right," Ed agrees, sliding his glasses off and rubbing at his eyes with his free hand. "Bed it is, then."
Al follows him up to the bedroom, and it says something about how tired Ed is that he doesn't even pause to brush his teeth or take his clothes off. He simply collapses over the bed, asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow, and it's left up to Al to get his clothes off and rearrange him into a more comfortable position, draping the blankets over him.
Ed sleeping is not such a far cry from an Ed awake. He's still tense, his brows drawn together, and his shoulders are hunched up. Al curls against his side, nuzzling his brother's ribs, and idly tangles his legs through Ed's. "Love you," he whispers into Ed's skin, presses a kiss into the dimples of his rib cage, and then closes his eyes to follow his big brother into sleep.
Ed awakes late the next morning, and alone. The curtains have been opened, and by the intensity and angle of the sunlight pouring into the room, Ed can tell it's mid-afternoon. Al is downstairs, crashing around in the kitchen, and Ed stifles a smile in the pillow.
He pushes himself upright, and pauses—he's only wearing his boxers, and he certainly didn't get undressed last night. Al must have done it for him, he thinks, and tries to resist the urge to shudder. He reaches clumsily for last night's rumpled shirt and pulls it on, taking a moment to free his hair from the neck. He can't be bothered to brush it, and instead grabs his pants—just as creased as his shirt—and slips into them as he hears footsteps on the stairs.
Al carries the tray into the room carefully, and Ed freezes, staring at it. Al's made him a breakfast of bacon, eggs and sausage together with a mug of coffee, and the sight of so much of his favourite foods is making his mouth water. Al settles the tray on his lap and sits beside him, grinning sheepishly, as Ed scoops up a forkful and jams it into his mouth, hardly pausing to chew.
"I thought you'd be hungry," Al says softly, and smiles.
"Thanks," Ed manages around a mouthful of bacon, and tosses it down with the aid of a gulp of coffee.
"Brother..." Al sets a hand on his shoulder and leans over to kiss his cheek, blushing. "Happy valentine's day," he says, refusing to meet Ed's eyes, and Ed pauses to blink at him.
"I—I know you didn't get me anything this year, and—that's okay. I know how much work the military's been giving you." He fidgets restlessly, seemingly fascinated by his own hands as they lie in his lap. "I love you anyway, brother," he adds with a hopeless smile, a blush colouring his cheeks red. Ed carefully sets the tray down.
Sometimes he feels like an actor, playing to an especially difficult audience. He doesn't feel like himself much, anymore; it's like he's living in a dreamy haze, and there's some part of him at the back of his mind telling him: do this, act like this; and Al need never know.
"I love you too," he forces himself to purr, and pulls Al flush against his body in a long and deep kiss. Al laughs helplessly as Ed pushes him back down, unbuttoning his little brother's shirt as fast as he can and kissing and nibbling every part of his body the movement exposes; throat, collarbone, shoulders, nipples and ribs, navel—he's used to this by now, and he can cope just as long as he never sees the seal on the back of Al's neck, the reminder of who this really is that he's touching with such dirty, sinful hands.
Al's laughing, hands slipping up under Ed's shirt to run up and down his back, tracing muscles and scars. Ed forces his mouth to curve into a grin, and unzips Al's pants and his own as urgently if he were desperate—it's what he'd normally do in this situation, he knows, and what Al would expect him to do.
Sometimes he thinks he's slipped; his mask has dropped, he's forgotten his lines and there's no prompter lurking behind the curtains to help him. Al never notices, but then he's so in love with his brother, Ed thinks bitterly, so far gone that he probably wouldn't notice anything until too late.
He surges upward to claim another kiss, and Al opens his mouth eagerly, tongue meeting his. Ed screws his eyes shut and imagines it's Winry that he's kissing like this, Winry who tastes of sugar and cherries, and feels heat spread to the very tips of his toes. He thinks of Winry with her blonde hair unbound, draped over the pillow; imagines that it's her short nails he can feel scraping his shoulder-blade as she pulls him closer. The thought sends a sharp spike of longing through him, and Al chuckles against his throat as he feels the physical results of this digging into his hip.
"Let go," he whispers, and Al's fingers tighten on his shoulder before pulling him down to claim another kiss. "Al, I need to get—"
"Okay," Al whispers, releasing him with obvious reluctance. "Love you."
He should stop this, he knows. He should get up, get off Al, walk away and never come back. But he's been doing this for too long for that to be a viable option anymore; he should never have started in the first place. It had been Al's expression which had convinced him, that soft, frightened expression as he backed off, the lingering sensation of his kiss wet and warm still on Edward's lips. And he'd known, back then, that he could have just let his little brother down gently; but the helpless fear on Al's face had threatened to break him, and so he'd forced himself to smile and say, "You too, huh?"
He fumbles for the little bottle of oil, thumbs the cap off, and hesitates. He hates this part, how intrusive it seems, how violating. Al smiles as he lifts his legs and exposes himself, and Ed tries not to think about what he's doing as he slicks one finger and touches it there. He manages not to shudder only by supreme willpower as Al gasps, his spine arching. "Ed," Al manages, his voice thick and raspy. Lustful, wanting. "Thank you."
"What for?" Ed asks, then clears his throat. "What for?" he repeats, playfully.
Al's smile is sweet and warm, but he doesn't answer. Ed keeps working, feeling somehow absurd, like he always does when he does this. But his little brother is now panting softly in pleasure, eyes half-slitted and shining, skin glistening with perspiration; if Ed could love Al like Al does him, then, watching him right now, he'd probably find him beautiful. But he doesn't; instead he feels like a pervert, taking advantage of him, fucking him until he reaches orgasm, abusing his love, and trust. This is for Al, he forces himself to think, gritting his teeth. I'm doing this, because it makes Al happy.
Preparations are done, and he swallows despite himself as he draws his hand out, wipes it surreptitiously on Al's shirt then bundles it up and tosses it aside. Al is watching him, eyes still slitted, bronze glinting softly.
He always takes Al like this, looking down at his little brother's face, watching the contentment, satisfaction and pleasure drift over his features. It doesn't stop him from hating himself, but he likes seeing Al's happiness, so painfully visible. "I love you," he whispers, and Al's eyes open, startled. He blushes—he's almost adorable when he does that, but it hurts Ed, seeing his brother look so childish—and raises his hands to brush fingertips over Ed's jaw and cheeks.
"Love you too," he whispers, mouth curving into an affectionate smile.
Winry, Ed reminds himself, as he pushes all the way in and Al stiffens under him with a cry. Think about Winry.
And he does, imagining her smile, her hair, her eyes, her blunt nails and oil-smeared hands. He builds a picture of her in his mind, even as he closes his eyes and blocks out the reality of what he's doing, and only just remembers not to cry out her name when he comes.
He lets Al finish himself off, withdrawing wearily and flopping down besides him. Al snuggles up to him, and he starts—his brother hasn't bothered to clean himself off, and his come is hot and slick between them. "Love you, brother," Al whispers, busy kissing every part of Ed's exposed skin that he can reach. "Love you so much." He's smiling, when Ed peers down at him, expression soft and tender. Ed feels his stomach sink, but forces himself to lean over and press a kiss against Al's temple, and ruffle his hair with his good hand.
They lie there quietly for several long moments, until the feel of the cool wet fluids smeared between them becomes too much for Ed to stand. He pushes himself up, untangling limbs from Al's, and doesn't protest when Al asks if they can bathe together, despite what he feels inside. Al slips their hands together and lets Ed pull him to his feet, flinging his arms around Ed's neck and nuzzling his older—smaller—brother's throat, and it takes considerable effort on Ed's behalf to get him into the bathroom.
The bath is warm, but Ed feels so cold inside when Al steps into it with him, naked and skin gleaming with droplets of water. He snuggles up to Ed immediately, and the older brother just makes room; no complaints, only silence, blank, miserable acceptance.
And though he scrubs and scrubs, until his skin is red and hot and Al steals the sponge from him with a reproachful, "Stop that," he can't make himself feel clean.
Al sends him back to bed after the bath, with strict orders to nap—he hasn't been sleeping well lately, according to Al, and it is evident that his little brother thinks of the stress of the assignment rather than anything else. Ed feels in no hurry to correct him. He lies down, as ordered, and lets Al dig the tension out of his muscles; it's not enough, however, to entice him into sleeping, not when his little brother is so close, hands dragging lovingly over his back, pressing gently into his shoulders.
"I love you," Al tells him, again, affection warm and thick in his voice. "You need to stop pushing yourself so hard, brother. It's not doing you any good." He kisses the back of Ed's neck, and lets him down next to Ed, throwing an arm over his back.
His brother is a warm, soft presence beside him, and the sound of his breathing is gentle and regular. It's not Al's fault that Ed can't sleep for the feel of his skin.