He woke to the sound of movement in the other room, the quiet rustle of fabric and the dry, leafy sound of pages being turned. It took him a moment to realize what that must mean—that, despite the moonlight streaming in silver under the thick fall of the curtains, and the relative silence that had fallen onto the streets beyond their little apartment, his brother must be researching, still, too caught up in the results of the day's trip to the doctor to consider sleep.
It had happened before, Al knew, and likely it would again; he'd scolded Ed until his voice gave out the last time, insisted that exhaustion wouldn't help the problem.
His idiot brother had, of course, ignored him.
And so he took a steadying breath, deep and slow, and ignored the way it caught someplace in his lungs. Steeled himself for the pain that was sure to follow and, with the air of a person attempting to lift the most fragile of ice sculptures, sat up.
The wave of dizziness that accompanied the motion passed in the space of several seconds, and Al squeezed his eyes shut against the sensation, breathing just a little sharp as he rode it out. A heartbeat more and he was scooting toward the edge of the bed, touching his feet to the uncarpeted surface of the floor and hissing sharply at the chill.
The short trip to the doorframe was a quiet one, the boy making certain that his steps were hushed as he crept to peer around the edge at his brother's form, sprawled on his stomach in the center of the floor, notes spread before him. A smile tugged at Al's lips despite the shortness of breath that had come from even such a small exertion, eyes softening with a fond sort of light as he watched the smaller boy swipe absently at the strand of gold dangling haphazardly into his eyes.
And then Ed reached forward to begin writing again, and the force of the shock felt like someone had doused him with icy water.
"Brother," he said, too alarmed to notice that it was reedy and breathless. "Brother, you..."
"Al!" And the boy's hand was everywhere at once, flipping books closed, turning sheets over so that only the blank sides faced up. But it was, of course, too late; because Alphonse had seen the arrays, so carefully drawn, as his brother had penciled in the final line.
The younger boy approached him with cautious steps, every movement as though he suspected the floor wasn't entirely stable beneath him. Edward didn't meet his eyes; golden bangs fell into his brother's face, obscuring whatever expression lay beneath from view, and there was no response as he closed the rest of the distance between them, no sound as he settled crossed-legged beside the notes spread across the floor.
He didn't say anything for a time, simply listened to the sound of his own breathing, shallow and unsteady, and to Ed's, a bit quicker than usual with... anxiety? Shame?
Quite suddenly, Alphonse was struck with an overwhelming sense of desperation by exactly how much the two of them had lost, and had to close his eyes against the force of it.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, when he could trust himself to speak.
And that was enough to lift Ed's gaze from where it had been fixed on the floor between the sheets of paper, was enough to cause those expressive golden eyes to flash with hurt and anger and violent denial. But he didn't give his brother a chance to speak—knew that, if the smaller boy had the opportunity, he would rage about how Al didn't need to apologize because it wasn't his fault, insist that it never had been.
He'd heard it a dozen times before and still cringed every time the words left Ed's mouth—because no matter how often they came, the words still stung with the weight of the guilt that bubbled up in their wake.
And so he spoke, as much to stem the inevitable response as to receive an answer to his question: "Can I ask you a question, brother?"
It was so unexpected that it cut off the coming tirade entirely, left Ed to hesitate just a fraction of a second before a tense, uncertain little grin forced its way across his face. "Sure, Al—anything. You know that."
"What's it like?"
The change was immediate and complete; where before his brother had been all energy and emotion, coiled to forge his way through an explanation that remained passionate no matter how often he gave it, his eyes now grew wary and shuttered. There was pain beneath the guarded set to his features, sharp and impossible to hide, and Alphonse wished quite suddenly that he'd left the question unvoiced.
The younger boy was just opening his mouth to ward away the answer that he knew was coming, was on the verge of saying that he hadn't meant it—but then Edward was speaking, and Al found that he couldn't interrupt. Not when his brother's voice was so quiet and sad, sounding as though every word were carefully measured and entirely too close to breaking.
"It's a bit... like losing a tooth. Y'know—the same as when we were little." Those expressive golden eyes were distant now, thoughtful; it showed in the set of the boy's features as he groped for the words to describe it properly. "It sort of aches to think about it too hard. And..." He hesitated here, ducked his head so that hair obscured his face from view again. "And there's that feeling. Like whenever I put my tongue where it used to be, I'm surprised there's only a hole."
It felt as though someone had shoved the world sideways; for a moment, Alphonse could do nothing more than stare, eyes wide and pained, struggling for balance against the depth of the emotion behind that explanation.
And then his brother was forcing a grin, expression devastatingly, nakedly hurt.
"I'm getting used to it, though," Ed told him, and shook his head as though to dismiss the haunted look that had crept in around the edges. "I mean, it's not like—"
But Alphonse didn't let him finish. Didn't think he could stand to hear the rest.
All at once he was moving, surging forward to wrap his arms tight around the smaller boy's shoulders, was clutching at the threadbare fabric of Ed's pajamas and squeezing his eyes shut against the world. "I'm sorry, brother," he whispered again. "I'm sorry."
For just that moment, there was no pain—or rather, what pain there was seemed muted and distant, nothing more than the chronic sort of hurt he'd come to expect. Everything had faded away to the steady rise and fall of breathing beside him, the familiar smell of his brother: machine oil and the cheap soap that they shared, and something else beneath it, comforting and mild.
He wasn't even aware of the fact that Ed was awake until gentle fingers ran carefully though short-cropped hair, tracing their way around to make a path up his jawbone and end with a soft touch against his cheek.
Alphonse opened his eyes, lips curving into a slow smile at the sight that greeted him: a warm golden gaze made dark with the shadow in the room, half-lidded and fond, and a return smile that held nothing but love.
"You should be getting your rest," Ed told him, voice still rough with sleep—but it wasn't a real complaint, not with the teasing tone that his brother's voice had taken on.
"Maybe," Al answered, and leaned down to press kisses over the other boy's face: forehead, then cheekbone, then nose, chin, lips. "And maybe I don't want to."
The light in those stunning eyes grew heavier then, more intense, took on a shade of mischief combined with something quite distinctly interested. "Oh?"
"Oh," he answered firmly, by way of response—and leaned forward to kiss his brother properly.