He was filthy. Dirty. Disgusting. Alphonse was covered in blood; filled by it, its taint leaving nothing pure or clean. It oozed through the joints of his armor, and pooled around his body. Despite being filled by it, though, he felt more hollow and empty than he could ever remember being: he couldn't feel, he couldn't think, he could only stare blankly at the blood that wasn't his own.
Alphonse Elric didn't want to open his chest plate: he didn't want to see the fate of one who had trusted him to protect her. Martel... who had hid in the very depths of his body, and had still been killed in the end. It's my fault, he thought over and over, It's my fault. If she had kept running, she would have lived.
He sat there for what seemed to be an eternity: he couldn't feel tired or hungry, neither cold nor heat meant anything to him. So... hours, days, could have passed without him noticing. All he knew was that the blood was soaking through his armor, and he could never truly be clean again. How could he be?
Then, softly, he heard an urgent voice. "Al? Al!? Where are you? Al!"
Brother... The suit of armor couldn't raise his voice; that would have taken more effort than he could muster. Besides, it really didn't matter, did it? He was a suit of armor, he could wait for an eternity.
"Al! Damn it, where are you!?" The voice was closer now, and Al dimly recognized the distinctive tread of his brother: one step soft and human, the other harsh and metallic. "Al! Where are... oh god..."
Slowly, Alphonse raised his helmet, gazing blankly at the outline of his brother as Edward stood at the door, a large bucket of water in his right hand and a sheaf of towels slung over his shoulder. With a rustle of that red coat, Edward dashed into the room, dropped the extraneous materials, and placed both of his gloved hands on his brother's shoulders. "Al... what happened? What happened to you?"
No answer. Al simply stared at his brother, his normally blazing eyes dead and dull. After a moment, Edward grunted, and reached for the straps that secured his little brother's chest plate. Again, Alphonse did nothing, and he watched on as Edward grunted in displeasure: after a moment of struggling, he opened the plate.
Martel fell out. Edward managed exactly one undignified squawk before the combined weight of metal and chimera forced him to the ground, and it took some struggling before he could throw aside the dead weight. Alphonse was vaguely interested in his brother's reaction to the event: his golden eyes widening and tremors running through his small frame. "Al... who did this to you?"
It was a question that Alphonse could answer. "Bradley." He saw his older brother wince at the tone of his voice: completely without emotion or cadence. Almost as cold as he felt himself.
"Bradley? You mean... King Bradley?" Al gave nothing in response. "Al..." To a trained eye, the conflict going on in Edward's mind was easy to see. He wanted to protect his brother, but what had happened was a betrayal beyond anything he could have imagined. That, and the fact that there was so little that he could do, in the end... "It's going to be all right. Let's get you cleaned up, okay?"
Again, Al didn't make a sound, and Edward's concern was becoming ever more apparent. "Al, talk to me!"
"I'm okay." Again, dead and emotionless; the exact opposite of the impression he wanted to leave.
"You are not, Al!" Edward picked up one of the towels, soaked it in water, and began cleaning the inner surfaces of his brother. In a lighter moment, it would have been humorous: he had to stretch, one foot balanced on his brother's leg, in order to reach the top. "How did this happen?"
Alphonse saw through his brother's game immediately: Edward just wanted to keep him talking, to get him thinking and as close to feeling as he could. To... will away the pain. Al gave a hollow laugh as he changed the subject. "You can't do that to humans, Brother."
"What?" Golden eyes narrowed in concentration.
"You can't reach inside normal people. You can't just take off their heads and jump inside them, or open up their chests, or anything like that. Humans just aren't that way."
"Al!" Edward was trying to summon up his trademark fury, but he couldn't: not when his brother was so obviously hurt. "We've been over this! You are human, no matter what kind of body you have! You're my little brother, and that's never going to change!"
"But... Half of my body was destroyed by Scar, and you just brought me back with alchemy. You can't do that to humans, either."
"Al..." Edward threw the towel away, and picked up another and soaked it: the first one had become too dirty to be usable. "Your soul's still there. You're still talking to me, and you're responding to what I'm saying. You're real enough for me."
"It's right here, Brother." Before Edward could move or respond, a leather gauntlet closed around his right arm, and thrust it right into the middle of the metal back: only an inch away from the precious array that kept his soul attached to his armor. "Just one swipe with that towel would get rid of it. You can't do that to humans, either."
"What are you doing!?" Edward struggled, and by using both arms, he eventually managed to wrench his auto-mail out of the grip. For just a moment, he was tottering; the blood coating his brother's armor nearly caused him to fall, but he righted himself. "That would have killed you, you idiot! You wouldn't be destroyed, or erased, or whatever. You would be killed! I would have murdered you!"
"You keep saying that," Al countered, with no more energy than usual, "You keep saying that my soul's there, that the array keeps me alive. But am I really alive?" His arms slumped into the pool of blood. "I can't feel anything, Brother. I haven't felt anything for years."
For a long time, Al just stared as his brother continued his futile attempt to clear away the blood: he managed to get most of the inner surfaces clean, but most of the towels were tainted with the red fluid, and the water was no clearer. Finally, the older brother managed, "Al... we need to head home. I'm not going to let you stay like this."
"Why, Brother?" Alphonse was genuinely curious at this. "Why are you so concerned about me? It really doesn't matter what you—"
"Shut up!" Edward's body was contorted with rage; but Al knew it wasn't directed towards him. Like always, his brother saved his deepest anger for himself. "It's my fault that you're like this! If I hadn't been so stubborn, and I had listened to you, then we wouldn't be like this! I'll give up anything to make that right again." His golden eyes bored into Al's helmet, then he sighed, and slumped down. "And besides... you're all I've got, Al. If you aren't real, then I've spent years talking to a construct. Wouldn't that be sad? The great Full Metal Alchemist... is completely, totally insane. Wonder what Mom would say..."
The wistfulness in his eyes, combined with his inattention, caused Edward's boot to slip on the blood; he flailed for a bit, but just before he hit the ground, a pair of metallic arms grabbed him. "Brother... you need to be more careful. Unlike me, you can feel pain. And... a fall will hurt you, Brother." Unlike his usual lectures, though, there was no tone of concern in Al's voice: he was merely stating facts.
Slowly, so very slowly, a grin managed to creep on Edward's face. "Al..."
"What?" That actually brought a new tone to the metallic voice; one of confusion.
"You're warm, Al. I think it's from the water, but... you're warm. Not cold at all."
"That's impossible. I'm always cold, Brother."
"Al... can you feel it?"
"No, Brother; I can't feel anything. You know that." There was just a hint of pain to that voice, now; Al wanted to believe his brother, so badly. But... it was impossible; while he was a suit of armor.
"I can. And I say you're warm." To emphasize his point, Edward placed the leather gauntlet against his face, and Al could easily see that his older brother didn't shiver at all.
"I'm... warm, Brother?"
"Mm." The grin mellowed, and Edward slowly stood up. "Al... I know that you can't really feel anything. But I can, and until I get you your body back, then I'll do whatever I can to help you. You're my little brother, Al: I'll do anything for you."
For a moment, Al could only regard his brother with mixed feelings. Then, as he saw the blood that now stained his brother's face and hair, he reached for one of the towels. As he soaked it and his gauntlets in the water, he asked, "How does this feel, Brother?"
With no further warning, he began rubbing the blood off of his brother's face. Edward was caught by surprise, but he couldn't make a sound: his face was full of towel. When Al pulled away, leaving the skin of his brother's face red and tender, the older brother answered; "Too hard, Al; that hurt."
"Sorry, Brother." Al tried again, softer this time, and leaving his brother's mouth free this time. "How's this?"
"Much better. It's... fluffy. A little hot, but not bad. Wet, too; mind using one of the dry towels?"
"Mm." Alphonse did as prompted, and dearly wished that he could smile as Edward grunted in pleasure. "How's that?"
"Really good. Nice and warm."
For a moment, Al contented himself with repeating that simple motion over and over; but eventually, his gaze drifted lower, and he regarded the blood stains that covered his brother's body; he probably tainted himself why trying to clean the armor. "Brother... you didn't need to get yourself dirty, too."
He shook his head, the golden hair flying. "I'm no cleaner than you are, Al. We're in this together, just like always. No matter what, we'll always be there for each other. That's never changed."
"Mm." Alphonse considered this, then nodded. "Take off your shirt, Brother."
"What!?" Edward's indignity was automatic and quite comical.
"You said that you'd do anything for me, Brother. Take off your shirt."
The older brother was confused, but he wouldn't dare go back on his promise, so he took off his coat and black overshirt. "Good?"
"No. Take off your other shirt, too." Alphonse had to fight to keep the need out of his voice.
Once again, Edward did as his little brother asked, and he shivered slightly. "What are you trying, Al?"
In response, Alphonse dipped another towel in the water, and wrung it out. "Brother... tell me how this feels. Please?" Then, with one smooth motion, he began rubbing his brother's chest.
It took a moment for Edward to form a response. "Really... really good. Water's gone cold, but that rubbing... Don't stop."
"Mm... what about my gauntlet?" He rubbed the leather across his brother's stomach, and Edward shivered at the touch.
"It's cold, too. Soft, though; must be the water soaking it."
"That's too bad..." Alphonse was genuinely disappointed. "I... I wanted to be warm again. Sorry, Brother." He let the towel fall to the ground, and he reached for his chest plate. Attaching it, he added, "Thanks."
"Al?" Edward's tone was positively dangerous, now, and he placed both hands on his hips.
"Brother?" Al raised both hands in a placating gesture, and he could almost feel nervous tension building. If he had nerves, of course. "What is it?"
"I told you, Al..." He clapped his hands together, and placed them on the basin. There was a flash of alchemy, and suddenly, the water was boiling. "...don't stop. Not right now."
"Brother!" Instantly, the suit of armor picked up one of the towels, soaked it, and pressed it to his brother's skin...
...Who hissed and arched away. "Hot! Ow ow ow!" He grabbed the offending towel with his auto-mail, and drapped it on the metal. "You need to wait a second, Al!" But despite his pain, Edward couldn't really be angry: he was far more happy that his brother was actually taking the initiative.
"Sorry, Brother..." Carefully, now, he reached with one of his gauntleted hands, and gently rubbed the now-pink area of his brother's skin. "I'm sorry."
Edward arched, but for an entirely different reason. Namely, the towel had been applied to one of his nipples, and now his brother was rubbing said nub of flesh. "Ah..." He couldn't manage anything more for a moment, but as soon as Al started to reach away, he grabbed the metallic arm and pressed it to his skin. "Don't stop, Al. It feels really good."
"And hot, Brother?" The voice was hopeful; Al wanted to be anything but hard and cold.
"No such luck, Al." Edward's grin widened, as he softly moved the gauntlet across his chest. "You're warm. Nice and warm and soft."
"Does it... feel good, Brother?"
"It feels great, Al."
"I'm..." Words failed Alphonse. He himself didn't feel emotions: they were the results of chemical interactions in the brain. So, then, what was the proper term for the euphoria that almost made him feel alive again? Eventually, he settled with, "...Glad."
"C'mere." Edward draped the now-warm towel against his brother's chest plate, and wrapped both arms around Al. "See? We'll be fine, Al."
"So long as you're still here... I think I can keep going." Al gently pulled on his brother; desperately trying to feel some of the warmth that Edward had said he felt: even if he couldn't feel it himself, though, he could manage if Edward provided those emotions for them. "Don't ever leave me, no matter what. Promise, Brother?"
"I promise. I won't leave you. Ever."