When Alphonse Elric turned nine, he started his birthday celebrations ignominiously by falling into the river just south of where their old house used to be. Winry hadn't pushed him, he wasn't standing too close to the edge, it was just one of those things that sometimes happens. A little mud, a misplaced limb, and then he was tumbling down the embankment and into the cold water below. For a moment there, he had almost thought he was flying—and then he was sinking, with no time for thought at all until Ed had plunged his way in and hauled his shivering self out.
Given that, he thinks, it should only be logical for him to develop a fear of water—now, in this armor, it is his enemy more than ever, with an even higher chance of removing him from this mortal coil. (Or what passes for it; always a sticky question of technicalities for him.) HE had had the bad childhood experience. HE was the one who could dissipate if too much moisture got into his blood seal.
It utterly failed to explain what his brother's problem was.
Hydrophobia, his medical text said, "An intense aversion to water, often coupled by morbid dread of same. Common in mammals with the raving sickness; caution should be taken around dogs and other house pets exhibiting said symptoms." Well, that wasn't any more enlightening than the last book he had read—he was pretty sure that Edward wasn't terrified of being swept away by fast-running currents in the shower, and he should hope his sibling wasn't secretly rabid! Though he WAS scratching himself right now, in a manner that if not dog-like, was certainly bestial. Alphonse could only vaguely remember what it was like to go for days without a shower (firstly, he had to struggle to think of an occasion when he actually had), but he knew from Edward's increasing irritability that it couldn't be too terribly comfortable.
"Your skin's going to get irritated." He stated mildly, and Edward deigned not to respond to that hint either. "Sweat trapped against skin can lead to chafing, according to Gray's."
His brother made a noncommittal noise and continued scribbling at an array, what seemed to be his standard thing to do when he didn't want to admit he was stuck. He scratched his arm again, and then actually started licking at the spot...for a moment Alphonse was actually tempted to ask him if he was playing kitten for a reason, or if he had just completely lost his mind. He didn't want a cat THAT badly to make his big brother into one.
"Brother...come on, you stink!" He growled, exasperated.
Ed's head jerked up and Al could practically see him fighting down the reflexive "how would YOU know?" It was terribly endearing, really, that his brother was more offended by slurs on his bodiless condition than he was.
"...yeah, in a minute." Ed finally grumbled, and pulled out another sheet of paper. "Just lemme finish this first."
"That's what you said an HOUR ago." Al pointed out. "Come on, just take a break and get in the shower!"
Honestly...it wouldn't be so bad if Ed weren't just being so ridiculously unreasonable about the whole thing. The lack of bathing while they were out in that desert colony was completely understandable—the lack of cheap water and slightly more relaxed morals had led to a somewhat, erm, rural arrangement at the inn they had been staying in, and Alphonse had NO problem agreeing that they shouldn't bathe in a communal tub with the owner's daughters. Funny how one of them was always just going in when his brother wanted to use the bath, too...based on the rate of occurrence, they must spend at least a third of their days soaking. Still, he couldn't imagine what the problem was now that they were back at home. Well, on base. (He wasn't quite sure he was ready to call THIS home yet.) It was familiar territory, at the very least, and there really was no explanation for how religiously Edward was avoiding the showers.
"Your clothes are bound to be filthy, too." Al pointed out, after a space. "Here, if you go wash up now, I can take them out and have one of the cleaning ladies take care of them."
"Dammit, Al!" His brother spat, and again Alphonse was amused to picture him as a cat—the sorriest image in the world, because his skin is so sallow right now he'd probably translate into a mangy creature with hair falling out all over the place—"Would you stop HOUNDING me?"
That did it. He saw the image of himself with Den's body, chasing a ratty ginger-furred Edward all over the place, and began snickering uncontrollably. His brother turned a bright blotchy red and shot out of his seat like a bullet, no doubt finding some way to interpret Al's amusement as a slur on his stature. He clapped his hands together, then pressed them solidly to the floor.
He would have been able to dodge if he hadn't been so busy giggling, and as it was the transmutation only caught one of his legs, but Alphonse was still not terribly pleased to find himself imprisoned by the floorboards.
"HEY!" He protested, just as Ed clapped his hands again and pressed them to his collar. The reaction ghosted all the way down to his boots, sending a cascade of dust and grime with it, until his brother was standing in the center of a small ring of dirt.
"There, are you happy now?" His brother stuck out his tongue and returned to his chair, kicking a bit of the sludge pile with his toe as he did so. "Now leave it alone."
Alright. That was just about enough. Alphonse pulled off his left gauntlet and shook out the spare chalk end he kept stashed in its pinky finger, and began chalking furiously on the wood panels holding him.
"HEY LEMME GO!" Edward shouted a moment later, as his own transmutation had been reflected back at him. Alphonse plucked his brother neatly out of the wooden hand and dragged him, flailing, out into the hallway, careful to only grip to the automail parts so he wouldn't inadvertently crush his brother's limbs.
"You are being ridiculous!" Alphonse informed him, and kicked open the door to the bathroom. The few people shaving (company B, from the uniforms) took one look and made a break for it, one even choosing to dive into a stall than face the Wrath of Elric head on. He made a brief mental note to apologize to their commanding officer later, and resolutely marched his brother into the shower room.
"OFF. Now." He demanded, pointing at Ed's shirt, and his brother just aimed a roundhouse at his shin. Al caught it one-handed and flipped his sibling into the wall, with only a slight bit of sympathy for the resounding crack. It seemed like they sparred on a daily basis, recently; he knew Ed could stand up to heavier abuse than that.
He could also stand up to a little water, and Al turned the shower on full blast before his brother had a chance to get his footing back and fly at him. Ed skidded to a stop in the middle of the spray and flipped like a dog, clearly unwilling to chance flinging water at his vulnerable younger brother. Al had no such compunctions—he was annoyed, and the crappy barracks water pressure wasn't high enough to breach his visor, anyways.
"May I borrow that?" He asked a shell-shocked ensign cowering in the corner, indicating the man's washcloth. "Sorry, we forgot ours."
The recruit offered it up with shaking hands, and then joined the rush to get out of the showers.
"DAMMIT, Al!" Ed was sputtering. "I'm gonna HEAR about this one, why did you have to go and do that, I was gonna—"
"What, in another week?" Al admonished, and slapped the washcloth against his brother's chest. "Here, get your clothes off."
Ed narrowed his eyes and lashed out again; Al responded by snagging his undershirt and yanking it over his head. It got caught around his shoulders and his sibling protested loudly, flailing at the restrictive material instead of Al's limbs for the moment.
"I told you to get it off." Al said, and began running the washcloth over his brother's exposed torso in large, no-nonsense strokes.
"C'mon, Al, let me do that!" He hissed, and grabbed for the washcloth. Al flicked his hand aside and continued scrubbing.
"That's what you get." He announced, more to annoy his sibling than anything else; he knew it must be driving his brother crazy to have someone else wash him behind the ears. He was actually turning purple, which was a rare sort of victory usually reserved for Colonel Mustang, and Al was amused to note that Ed was even starting to squirm underneath the rag. Another few swipes and he'd leave him to his own devices, and then take Ed's clothes out for cleaning, and then maybe they could go out and be among polite company again...
...but his brother was practically shaking and looking agonized, and Al let go of him like he'd been burned.
"Brother? Are you okay?!"
"Go. Away. Al." Ed ground out, and oh god he was hunched over and looking absolutely miserable. His back, maybe. God, what if he'd hurt his brother's spine?!
"What's wrong? Did I hurt you?" He reached out slowly, not quite daring to touch his sibling again, and Ed swiveled around to face the wall before he could make it.
"Just GO, okay?" He hissed, and Al couldn't think of anything to do but apologize and back away. He didn't hear his brother use that tone often, but he knew what it meant when he did.
"I'll finish up here, okay?" His brother said, a little gentler this time, and Al nodded meekly. "You go on back to the room."
As he slipped through the doorway, it occurred to him he wasn't even sure if Ed would appreciate him bringing a towel.
As it turns out, his brother would have appreciated it, very, very much; he came stomping through the door not five minutes later, dripping both water and curses from head to toe. Al handed him the biggest clean towel he could find and tried not to cringe as Ed tossed his sopping shirts onto the bed (he's going to complain about that later!). At least he was still wearing his pants—he could be thankful for small favors. In the past, Ed had proven himself perfectly capable of storming down the hall in nothing but boxers, which he always found incredibly embarrassing after the fact.
Ed glared at him murderously, then sat down on the edge of his cot and started toweling himself off.
They sat there in silence for a while, Al picking at a piece of lint that had gotten caught in the chinks of his wrist joints and trying to concentrate on anything other than how loud his brother's breathing seemed. His brother flipped his hair back and forth beneath the towel but still, still said absolutely nothing.
"Brother, I'm sorry." He wailed finally, unable to take the suspense; Ed gave him a cross look and flung the towel at his head.
"Yeah, whatever." He looked sulky and what—a bit guilty?—and clapped his hands against his pants to rid them of the excess water.
"...well, that's kind of like washing them, I guess." Al ventured. Ed looked up at him sharply, but when no more argument was forthcoming, he sighed and flopped down onto his belly.
"Heh. Yeah. I removed the dirt AND I rinsed 'em."
"Would still be good to do it the normal way once in a while."
"I'm just saying!" Al said, mentally kicking himself. His brother was in a world-class funk right now (which was his own damn fault!), and the least he could do was stop acting like their mother. "Brother, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to harp on you like that, it's just—"
"'s alright." Ed said, burying his face in the comforter. "You worry, I know." He squirmed around a bit, sliding away from the wet spot, and when he spoke again his voice was thick with self-loathing.
"I didn't mean to make you worry."
He turned his head to the side and gave Al one of his lop-sided grins, the kind that never quite managed to make it to his eyes. The same way he always did.
Sometimes, Alphonse wondered if Ed would ever be done with apologizing for the entire world. It really got old.
"...how's your back?" He asked finally. "Does it hurt much?"
"My what?" Ed blinked at him owlishly.
"When I threw you. I didn't mean to hit that hard. You were all stooped over."
Ed wiggled uncomfortably and turned his face back toward the bed.
"You didn't hit me that hard." He mumbled, uncomfortably, and it was curious to see that his ears were turning a peculiar shade of red.
Al tilted his helmet down in the gesture he had adopted to pass for a skeptical shrug. "Oh really?"
"I'm fine, seriously."
"I'm gonna take a nap now, okay?"
"On your stomach?"
Slowly, Al picked himself up and moved to kneel beside his brother's bed. Ed turned his head to one side and looked at him, but he made no move to roll over and sit up.
"You don't have to talk about it, if you don't want to." Al said, touching one hand gently to the nape of his brother's neck. "But you don't have to lie to me, either."
"Shh." He ran his hand softly down his brother's side, in what he hoped was a calming gesture, and his brother shivered visibly beneath the touch.
"Did that hurt?" He asked, worried.
"...no." Ed clamped his jaw shut after that, and refused to say anything more even when Al dragged his gauntlet over the larger part of his back.
"How about this? Does it hurt here?" He asked, getting bolder, pressing a little bit into his brother's shoulder blades. It was probably just bruised, but if his brother had torn something and needed a doctor...
"No, I—" Ed's eyes were anguished, as if being honest hurt worse than the muscles in his back. "It feels good, okay? My back is FINE."
He stroked lower, just to prove his point; Ed wriggled a little but remained silent. Lower, still—surely it would be his lower back that was hurting; that's where he had hit the wall, and that's how he'd been hunched over. He watched his glove carefully as he pressed it into the flesh at the base of his brother's spine—he didn't want to risk applying too much force and aggravating an injury.
Ed stirred beneath him and let out a long, breathy hiss.
"There, right?" He asked, and pressed once more for good measure. "Brother?"
But his brother's expression was relieved, and Al blinked at the tiny sigh he got as he rubbed his hand over his brother's back again. He didn't seem injured—if it really hurt, he would be breathing through his nose and clenching his jaw shut—and even arched up into his gauntlets a little, as if he wanted more, not less.
Pressure helped then, maybe. If he thought about it, he could remember Winry and Pinako kneading at the muscles around Ed's automail ports when they had to reattach his limbs; something about working out the knots in the muscles. It had been a long time since Al had had musculature himself, so he couldn't exactly remember what that felt like—could you really find tiny bumps, like knots in an oak tree, or was it just a figure of speech?—but if it helped his brother feel better... He applied his fingers again and slid them slowly down along the curve of Ed's spine, and was rewarded with a shaky sigh.
He continued rubbing in slow, controlled strokes, and watched in rapt fascination as his brother's eyes fluttered shut and his lips parted, as his breaths evened out and became prolonged and shuddering. He wasn't really sure what to do, so he just tried what he knew—from nape to rump, like stroking a kitten, and just like stroking a kitten, his brother started arching up in the back to follow his strokes. It was almost like he was inflating, the way he was gathering his legs beneath him and arching his rump higher into the air, and Al narrowly avoided cracking a joke at his brother's expense. Because Ed was disturbingly interesting like this, stretching up and seeking his touch, and he was just a little afraid that if he said anything...it might have to end.
He really wasn't sure he wanted it to.
"Al..." Ed said, a little breathlessly, and for the life of him Al couldn't tell if he was warning him off or asking him to continue. He brought his other hand to stroke along his brother's flank in response, and Ed gasped and flung his head back, and rocked his hips down into the mattress.
He nearly, nearly stopped then, but the star-struck expression on his brother's face more than made up the difference. This made him feel good, Al could tell, and he was inordinately pleased at this fact. He could put that tiny smile on his brother's face. He. He continued petting slowly, and his brother's shoulders finally collapsed and he hung his head back down. Good. That would be most comfortable, and he wanted his brother to be comfortable.
Ed was squirming a little under his hands, now, and his legs were actually twitching, ever so slightly. Al was a little concerned, and touched one large index finger hesitantly to the back of one—back rubs were one thing, but leg rubs were just plain weird—and his brother jerked forward and pressed his lower half into the mattress again, as if he'd been shoved from behind.
"—'s enough, Al..." He panted (panted!), but god, it was beautiful to see how flushed his cheeks were and how rosy his back had gotten. He had color again, for the first time in a week, and Al marveled at how much better he looked with it. His brother was meant to be oranges and golds and reds and all sort of high colors, and he realized for the first time that Edward, who he was used to seeing shadowed by blood and sweat and his own private sorrows, was actually beautiful.
And so maybe he wasn't quite paying attention, or maybe he was paying too much, because somewhere in between his brother trying to wiggle forward out of his grasp and him trying to get him to stay, he ended up with one hand riding low on his brother's hip, and the other pressed high on his rump, and he was encouraging Ed's hips to move in a sharp, circular motion against the bed. His brother's whole body was trembling and he could see every muscle in his naked back, the rigid lines of his thigh muscles standing out through his pants, and for the love of all that was holy, the expression on his face...
And then suddenly his brother jerked hard and shook beneath his hands, and it was all so beautiful and terrible and other all at once that his heart might just have stopped if he'd had one.
"Brother?" He asked, after a while, because everything had just stopped. His brother had sunk so deep into the comforter he might as well be trying to bury himself, and there was no response at all when he hesitantly rubbed Ed's shoulders again. "Come on..."
Edward stayed stock-still, not showing any signs he was even listening. Alphonse bent forward to see and was alarmed to see that there were tears in the corners of his brother's eyes, and Alphonse began to wonder if he had somehow done something terrible.
"What's wrong?!" He yelped, and Ed did stir at this, giving him the most grief-stricken face he had seen in years.
"Oh, fuck, Al..." Edward whispered. "Fuck, Al, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry—fuck. I have to go take a shower. Fuck."
He scooted backwards off the bed and Al nodded wordlessly, merely watched his brother gather his things and go. He tried to say something, as Edward left, but the words caught in his nonexistent throat. He wasn't quite sure he understood. He wasn't quite sure he was ready to understand.
When his brother came back from the showers, Al was not surprised to find that Edward's hydrophobia had vanished...replaced instead with an aversion to being touched.