There was a time, before he became Armor, when Alphonse had understood what it meant to waste time, or kill time, or mark it by a minute hand. He had assumed (wrongly, it seemed) that Day would just continue the way it always had when he was (human) flesh...but Day flowed into Night without the feeling of the sun on his face at playtime, or the growling of his stomach at dinner time, or the droop in his eyelids at bed time, and he could no longer conceive the hour for any amount of clocks. Time had stopped for him when he was ten years old, and it was only through careful deduction that he could really feel it passing at all.
Edward was his clock now, the measure by which he set all behavior, and he trusted in his brother to guide him through the basics of reality—when one should wake up. When one should eat. When one should sleep (or at least, be put to bed, because his brother was far too driven to pay attention to his own yawning). Alphonse noticed all these things and marked the world by them, and he would always be the first to notice when his brother deviated in the slightest. For him it was always Edward-'o-clock, and he followed it with unwavering vigilance.
It was the reason he was so unnerved when that clock started changing, the progression of its pattern fundamentally disturbed. His brother never took his showers in the morning, not even when they were on the road and converted to Edward Elric Savings Time (shortened meals and even shorter baths, assuming they occurred at all). His brother's body did not want for a shower in the morning, Alphonse could see it in his eyes—there was a sleepy sort of horror there when Edward laid hands on his towel, as if they couldn't believe what they were seeing. Edward enjoyed bacon, orange juice, the newspaper, in the morning. Not soap and shampoo suds. Yet for some reason he persisted in fighting against his baser nature, and Alphonse could only watch as his faithful timekeeper skipped beat after beat.
It was that way this morning, his brother startled awake long before it was natural—snarled at the sound of his alarm clock, smashed it across the room with his automail fist. Alphonse sighed, plucked a spare screw up off the floorboards. One of these days, they were seriously going to lose something and then they would never be able to put it back together again. Edward didn't really need it, though. Alphonse could tell when his brother had finally slept enough to function: he made a certain face and wrinkled his nose at the sunlight, awake enough to notice but too residually indolent to do anything about it just yet. Breathing still slow and steady, resplendent against the pillows with hair fanned out like a halo; the slow slide of his limbs stirring beneath the sheets never failed to wake something inside Alphonse.
Sometimes, he even set the ringer ahead, just so his brother could make it there.
This was not one of those golden days, though; his brother had business to attend to. Five fifty-seven might not mean much to Alphonse anymore, but Edward felt the brunt of it appropriately and would soon start with the cursing. Times like these, it would be especially prudent to skip the shower—his brother's expression, his shivering shoulders, his entire being practically begged for sustenance. Coffee. Sugar. Anything but water.
Edward ground his palm into his eyes, seemingly trying to force them open by hand. His spine curved up slowly off the bed as he attempted to sit up, shaking only a little from the residual exhaustion.
He hissed and froze, and flipped onto his side.
"Brother?" Alphonse queried, just as soon as he could divert his attention from the remains of the alarm clock.
His brother favored him with a brief, pained grin, and then slid out of bed on his stomach. He headed to the closet still trailing the bedding, which he was holding up around his waist.
"'Morning, Al." He said tiredly, and swapped the mess of sheets for a towel. He never turned around, merely slipped sideways out the door.
Alphonse watched distrustfully but let him go. He would return in fifteen minutes or so, hair knotted up messily into the towel, and then in another three he would be clamoring for breakfast, which they had no choice but to provide for themselves at this hour. Seventeen minutes, then, for Alphonse to pull out the mini stove and come up with something remotely edible. He knew the rhythm of his brother's oddities, if not the reason.
Sometimes he wondered though, just why his brother was so anxious to run—why sometimes, he even trailed his cocoon of sheets with him. They always came back sopping, and there was no choice but to wash them. No amount of scolding could change it; it was simply something Edward did. When asked, he just mumbled something vague about being cold. Alphonse let it slide and compensated by making his brother do the laundry, which oddly enough his brother didn't complain about so much anymore. He couldn't remember what it was like to be cold; perhaps it really was just that dire.
Nor could he remember hot. He was so lost in his own thoughts that he almost didn't notice his gloves were smoldering until it was too late. He yelped at the wisps of smoke curling up into his vision and slammed the hot plate down on the desk, cursed himself for a fool for holding it by the burner. He had honestly forgotten he'd turned it on. Had forgotten he was even holding it to begin with.
It was his brother's fault, he thought sulkily as he rubbed his singed gauntlets against the floor, the only way he could be certain they were out. If Edward would just stop taking his damn showers in the morning, he could have breakfast assembled and heated before his sibling ever awakened, at the slow, leisurely pace he was accustomed to.
No, that wasn't fair. Alphonse sighed and looked at the ruin of his fingertips, the blistering cracks in the surface of the leather. It was his fault for not paying attention to where he was putting his body parts. It had gotten him into trouble before, and he had nobody to blame but himself.
He would just have to be more careful in the future, he told himself firmly. He didn't want to have to think about the other implications.
Real people, after all, didn't burn themselves without noticing.
He had only barely had gotten the porridge going when the door swung open with a thud, the heavy sound of automail kicking a little too zealously.
"Mind the wall!" Alphonse reminded, though the doorknob stopper had probably already taken care of it.
Edward's nose wrinkled and he breathed through his mouth, heavily.
"Whoa! What's that smell?!" He asked. "Mustang set his britches on fire again?"
It took Alphonse a minute to connect the question to the answer, and even then it was only a guess.
"It might be my gloves?" He suggested, offering a gauntlet. "And what do you mean the Colonel? As I recall, he was the one who set your pants on fire..."
Edward failed to rise to the bait, though—he stared at Alphonse's hands in absolute horror. A second later, Alphonse found they were no longer his: Edward had hooked his arm around them and yanked them down to his level.
"What happened?!" His brother demanded, running his own tiny hands over ever inch of Alphonse's. "Al, they're all burnt!"
"It was an accident!" Alphonse protested, trying to find some way to extract himself without hurting his brother. Edward merely clamped down harder.
"Brother, the porridge—"
"Forget about that!" Edward snapped, examining the heels of Alphonse's palms. Alphonse jerked his limbs backward, annoyed.
"Brother, let me GO!" He hissed, no longer caring about being gentle. His forearm grated hard against his brother's automail and started to screech, the worst kind of wake-up call there could possibly be. Somewhere down the hall, somebody screamed at them to shut the hell up, and a light switched on across the way. Something about the sound of metal on metal made him stop and really think about it, and Alphonse stared at his errant sibling in wonder.
This was the first time Edward had touched him in over two weeks.
His brother stomped over to their shared suitcase and began tearing the compartments apart, undoing in ten seconds what it had taken them both an hour to organize.
"Side pocket." Alphonse suggested quietly. It didn't take a State Alchemist to figure what his brother was after. Edward's hand snaked to it immediately and withdrew a long coil of hide from their materials kit. It wasn't an exact match for Alphonse's leather trimmings, but it was close. His brother clapped his hands together briefly and turned his automail's wrist into a short knife.
"We'll have you patched up in no time." Edward announced, slicing the leather into short, precise strips.
It was irrational, but somehow Alphonse hated those words. The implied, patronizing image of a father kissing a boo-boo all better. He hadn't been worried at all, just annoyed at his negligence. It was Edward who saw this as an emergency.
"I was going to fix it!" He said sulkily, hiding his fingers in careful fists. "Just got a little too close to the burner, that's all."
"No!" Edward said, just a little too fast. "I mean, I have to do it."
No, you DON'T have to. Alphonse dearly wanted to say, but as always he choked it, left the unpleasantness unsaid. Edward just didn't want anyone else messing with his physical body, not even Alphonse himself. He supposed he understood the sentiment—it was rather sweet of his brother to take care of him, at that—though sometimes it grated louder than their conflicting steel.
"Hold this." Edward instructed, piling scraps of leather in Alphonse's palms. There was a brief clap, and then the world filled with white where their hands touched together.
And a flash of feeling, where by all logic there should be none.
Edward's alchemy crawled up the sides of his hands and sent a shiver of power into his limbs, a strange echo of a sensation he had long since forgotten. For the moment, he fancied he could feel not just the pressure of his brother's hands, but the texture and heat of them, the uneven press of his bony palm into Al's. He could feel pinpricks of something as Edward's fingers danced over what passed for his skin, and the energy curled around him and shot up his arms like a spike.
He wanted to continue feeling it, even as the reaction started to ebb; wanted to ride it out even as the warmth began to fade. Touch, feeling, human contact...his brother's alchemy was touching him in the most private way possible, brushing the binds of his very soul, and he twisted his hands up around his brothers and just squeezed, trying to send just a little of that back to him. Newly formed thumbs stroked over a thin wrist bone, appreciating what little was left of that beautiful heat. His brother's wrists were so delicate, compared to the power of his hands, the coiled muscle of his arms. He wondered why he had never noticed that before.
Edward shivered slightly, and pulled away.
"You okay, Al?" He asked softly, and there was guilt thick in voice again. Alphonse hated that sound, how heavy and dull it hung in the air.
"It was just nice." Alphonse said, somehow feeling he had to justify. "I like it when you fix me."
He knew better than to tell his brother what it felt like; that would be almost unspeakably cruel.
"Wish I didn't have to." Edward hissed, shaking his head sharply to the side. His wet ponytail slapped against his neck with a nasty THWOP and stuck there. The perfect picture of a martyr; a poster child for the long-suffering.
That was enough.
"You don't have to do anything for me!" Alphonse growled, seizing his brother by the shoulders and trying his damndest not to shake the living daylights out of him. "Dammit, brother..."
He tapped his fingers rhythmically over the flesh beneath his gauntlets, his particular nonverbal way of taking a deep breath. Edward jerked and shuddered beneath his grasp, arched a little into the touch. Touch. Dammit, his brother did like to be touched; when his automail hurt, hell, even before that, when they'd snuggled together in the middle of the night. What on earth had gone so terribly wrong?
"What's wrong, brother?" He asked plaintively, rubbing his brother's shoulders again. Edward ducked away, as if injured, though Alphonse knew he wasn't pressing nearly that hard.
"Nothing!" He yowled. "Geez Al, stop clinging so much, would ya?!"
But there was anguish in his brother's eyes, and Alphonse felt more useless and awkward than ever. Now, more than ever, he knew that he must have done something wrong.
"I gotta get going." Edward murmured, reaching for his coat. "Colonel Bastard doesn't like it when he has to wait. I'll be back around ten."
"Brother!" Alphonse tried again, one hand extended. For a moment, it looked as if he might catch him...
But Edward zig-zagged and shied away from his sibling's inhuman touch at the last possible second, and Alphonse could not blame him less.