There was a warm weight next to him, and its shifting made Al come awake all at once, blink at the ceiling and rub his eyes. His fingers, still clunky and unsure and feeling entirely too small, almost scratched the corner of his eye and Al dropped his hand to his side, clenching it in the bedcover.
"Al...." Ed yawned through the 'l' and flung out an arm, hitting Al's chest with the warm heaviness of one still very much half-asleep. "Whacha doin' up s'early?"
"I wasn't up," Al said back, as quietly as he could—any louder and he'd wake Ed up completely, and Ed this early was never a good thing. "You moved around and woke me."
Ed yawned again and didn't reply. Al blinked, pushed himself up on his elbows and peered down at him, then sighed. Ed's eyes were closed, mouth lax with sleep, the irritated crease in his forehead, grown deeper in recent months, smoothed out. Al flopped back down, crossed his arms behind his head. Ed could sleep, he thought, because to Ed this was nothing new; he was lying in bed with his little brother like he had so many times, and the times when they hadn't done this had only been a brief interruption.
Al, though... he was used to the clanking of his own body, his own cold weight pressing him into sleep, the creaks and groans as he shifted into sleep and the answering moans from Ed, who slept across from him.
Ed rolled over, cutting off his thoughts, and Al had to shift and maneuver his arms and legs around so he wasn't bumping against Ed, who ended up with a cheek pressed out fat against Al's stomach and his metal arm slung heavily over Al's hip. Al flinched away from the cool metal a little, biting his lip.
"Brother," he whispered, hesitating, then touching Ed's shoulder. "Brother."
"Whaaaa—?" Ed snorted and scowled and opened his eyes.
"Your arm," said Al, smiling apologetically. "It's kind of heavy."
Ed's eyes narrowed to little gold slits, like the sun just before it dipped below the horizon; then the gold disappeared completely, and Ed affected a loud snore with his arm still on Al's hip. Al sighed.
"You're so childish sometimes, brother."
"Mmm," said Ed, reaching around with his other arm to pinch a bit of fat on Al's side.
"Hey—! Jerk," said Al, batting his hand away. He rubbed at the spot and frowned down at it, white skin crimsoning sourly. He didn't remember being so colorless, and it was kind of fascinating, now, to see a brighter, more vibrant color on his washed-out skin. He ran his hand over it, rested a finger on it, felt its warmth. "It hurts," he said, still a bit in wonderment. "It hurt."
Ed's eyes went heavy, then turned away. "Sorry," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Don't apologize, Al wanted to say, but the words caught in his throat as he watched Ed, his brother, turn onto his stomach and rest his chin in his hands, the pose of the defeated, of the martyr, the sinner and the saint. Ed was all those things and none; you did what you had to, those words were always in Al's mind, and you did it for me. You did it because you thought it was right.
Al knew he was not so courageous. All the times he had thought it would be better for Ed if he would just disappear, lift his burdensome self from Ed's shoulders—he'd never done it, in the end. And Ed had taken up the slack. Taken up the cross. And now the world crucified him for it, and he flayed himself.
Al touched his shoulder, the flesh left shoulder facing towards him, marveling at how warm it was, warmer than his own skin and darker—nearly as gold as his eyes when Ed looked at him. "Brother," he said, and reached to touch Ed's other shoulder, too, and leaned forward to rest his forehead on the back of Ed's neck. "Thank you."
Ed's shoulders moved up in a huff and a slight shrug. "Nothing to thank me for. I'm the one who got us in the whole mess in the first place."
"No—" Al said, but Ed's shoulders hunched sharply and Al stopped, feeling tension knot Ed's muscles. "Brother," he said, more softly, "it doesn't matter anyway, because I don't blame you."
"Heh. You never do. That's okay," said Ed. "I think I've made it up to you—a little, right, Al? I can never give you back what I took, but I would if I could. I'd give you my whole life if it would make you happy, you know that."
Al nodded, said against Ed's skin, "I know. And you've made it up to me a thousand times, brother. You did that when you gave up your arm for me." He smoothed his hand over the arch of the metal shoulder, where if you curved your fingers under the plating you could touch the wires that connected Ed's metal arm to his flesh body.
"But you're happy now, right? You're glad to have this body back? Tell me, Alphonse."
"Truthfully?" Al said. He put his hands to Ed's braid, unraveled by sleep, little strands of hair sticking out everywhere, and began to untie it deftly and twist it into its sections again. "I'm happy, brother, but I'm so scared, too." He stared at his hands, at fingers he wasn't even really making move, that were tying and twisting and tightening all on their own, it seemed. He'd had to work so hard to be gentle in that huge suit of armor, applying the right pressure to tying bandages to bloody stumps and to lifting a broken body so it could be bathed. "Sometimes I look at myself and I'm startled, because it doesn't seem like me—I don't even know I'm moving. My eyes don't look like my eyes, and my face does things I don't want it to. My body feels funny. It's weird for someone else to touch it. I don't know, brother. It's hard—and you sacrificed so much," Al paused and cursed his quavering voice, letting go of Ed's braid and watching it swing against his shoulderblades, "and I'm so ungrateful, but—it's hard, brother. Sometimes I think I'll always be a freak."
His brother was silent, shoulders tense under Al's fingers. On a breath, Al said, "I'm sorry, brother."
"Alphonse," said Ed, crossing his arm behind his back and resting his hand on Al's. "You're not a freak. I'm the freak, always have been." He turned around and smiled at Al. "Come on, little brother," he said, wrapping his arms around Al's neck, nestling his head in the space between Al's shoulder and collarbone, "you're the most normal person in the whole world."
Ed's hair was rougher than it had been when they were small—when Ed would read him bedtime fairytales and Al would tuck his head into Ed's hair—but still slid smoothly through his fingers, and glinted gold when Ed turned his head and caught the light. Al lifted his hands, too, and settled them on the back of Ed's neck, ducked his smile into Ed's braid. "When we're being compared—I guess I do come off as pretty normal."
Ed huffed onto his neck, tickling him, and said, "Yeah, yeah, you always do. You're gonna end up married with kids and I'll still be the solitary weirdo. Hell, strike that—I'll probably still be doing Mustang's bidding. I'll be fifty and still filing paperwork for him... Al?"
"I've never kissed a girl," Al said, and was surprised at how detached he sounded—even more at how he felt. He had thought of girls, in the armor. Seen them, certainly, and seen how others reacted; a pause in conversation, friends nudging each other and making lewd eyes at a girls' backside. And he had tried to feel something at those times, but the only thing he had ever felt was an echo, like the way the armor turned his voice tinny. Echoes of other people's thoughts, echoes of his younger self's feelings. "I've never even," and he trailed off, face heating. "You know," he finished, making a vague gesture.
"Heeee-eh—" Ed lifted his head, backed away from Al a little bit so he could stretch out, prop his chin in his hands. "That's right, I guess you couldn't. I never really thought about it. Well! You can start getting to it now, right?"
"Brother-" Al clicked his tongue and looked away, cheeks burning hotter. "I can't—I mean, I don't—how do you—argh!" He threw up his hands.
"It's not alchemy, Al."
"Alchemy seems easier than all this," Al admitted, "having a body.... when I first woke up, I couldn't even stand, and everything felt weird on me—it was like even the air hurt. And I've just gotten used to—to walking, and talking, and keeping my balance, and then there's all this other stuff to...."
"Get caught up on, right." Ed tapped his fingers against his cheek, and his face split into a wide smile, fond and exasperated. "Just take it like it comes. There's no rushing anything. We'll stay put as long as you need to."
"I feel ungrateful," said Al, looking at his hands.
"I guess, then, you feel human."
Al glanced at him, so casual and comfortable in his own skin, the heavy limbs that divided his body making his golden colors stand out even more, making his grin seem even lighter. "Yes," he said, "yeah, I think I do. How strange, right?"
Ed stretched out his hand, and Al took it, settling Ed's hand in his palm. His hand was bigger than his brother's and heavier; his fingers were flat and blunt. Ed smiled wryly when Al glanced up at him. "Small hands," said Al, touching his finger to a water-blue vein in Ed's wrist. "I remember Mother always said you had small hands."
"And dirty fingernails," said Ed.
Al smiled. "And dirty fingernails." He folded his hand around Ed's, curling those fingers into his palm; bent over, touched his head to Ed's wrist. "I'm afraid," he said against warm skin, skin that felt so comfortable and natural compared to his own. Sometimes he felt like he was walking around in a shell, in a layer of skin that he would have to shed soon, shrug out of and walk away from. "But I don't know what I'm afraid of... losing myself again, maybe, or never being comfortable in my body again. I don't know. I don't even know if I really am afraid—maybe it's my skin tricking me. Brother?" he turned his head against Ed's wrist, clenching his eyes shut. "I just want to sleep."
"Then sleep, Alphonse," said Ed, touching his hair. "Just go ahead and sleep."
"I can't," Al said. He looked up at Ed, framing his brother with his own hair so that one of Ed's eyes and half his mouth and his nose seemed to disappear. "I know it's stupid, but I keep thinking if I fall asleep, my skin will fall off. All this will have turned out to be a dream."
Ed wrapped his arms around him, pulling him close, and Al tucked his head into Ed's chest and squeezed his eyes shut. He kept his grip on Ed's wrist, suddenly afraid, in a weird and childish way, of letting go. "You remember those kites we had when we were kids?" Ed murmured. "You wouldn't know, I don't think, but Father made them for us. Yeah," he said when Al looked up; "he did. Yours was the cat and mine was the fox, remember? He called me fox boy when he took me out to fly it. You were too young to come. He let me fly it for a while... I remember being pretty happy about it... then he took it from me and let go of it. Mother told me that things only fly away if we let them. Maybe that's a bit like your body, now." He ruffled Al's hair. "You're what you should be," he said. "You'll remember soon."
"You always remembered."
"Yeah," said Ed, eyes softening. "I had a picture of you in my head. Not just what you looked like when all that happened, but what you'd look like later. What you look like now."
They stretched out together, just the two of them like they were kids again. Ed was smaller but Al still curled into him, against the stronger protecting curve of his arm, and pressed his head to Ed's chest to hear his steady heartbeat, thump-pause-thump-beat. His fingers rested on Ed's wrist and the beat there, lighter but just as steady.
"You know," his brother drawled from above him, "I haven't done it in a while, either."
Al blinked at him, then widened his eyes as the words became clearer. "Oh."
"Always felt bad, you know, since you were in the room, too. Big brothers aren't supposed to do that in front of their little brothers, it's a bad example."
"Brother," said Al, "we're only a year apart." Sometimes the difference seemed only a day; sometimes that year was as wide a separation as the length and breadth of the ocean.
"But now," Ed said, a little smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, "my little brother isn't so little anymore." He picked up Al's wrist, held his arm out, measuring it to his. "You're bigger than I am. Seems funny, doesn't it? Everyone always thinks you're the older brother. I guess you probably should be."
"That's not true." Al cocked his head, looking at their arms stretched out together, his milky-white, Ed's darkly bronzed and finely toned. He looked back up at Ed and smiled, too. "Older brothers are supposed to show their younger brothers things. And you've always shown me things. You've always gone ahead of me, in everything." In reading, writing, having a body—Ed had always been the first, and Al was a step behind. Didn't matter if he might get better at it later, because Ed always won, in a way, by doing it first.
"I show you everything, huh?" Ed's eyes narrowed to slits, catlike.
"Ah—yeah," said Al, suddenly uncertain before that intent gaze.
"Then," said Ed, disentangling his arm from Al's grip, "I'm gonna show you this, Al."
"Brother?" Alphonse cut off on an inhale, startled, as Ed's hand touched his chest, lifting up his shirt and touching his skin. His hand was warm, almost hot, and it made his skin flinch away from contact he hadn't felt in... too long. "B-brother...." he trailed off again.
"Don't worry," said Ed, who was maneuvering around on the bed, squirming his way down so that he was level with Al's stomach and gazing up at him. "I'm just giving something back that I took away from you. It's all right."
"You didn't.... hell," said Al as Ed's tongue flicked out, just a brief swipe across his hipbone but enough to make even his fingertips tingle.
"And now I know how to make you swear," Ed grinned, and dipped his head down again.
"Swearing is bad?" Al bit down on his lip, staring down with a mix of confusion and disbelief and—something else at his brother, who had his fingers splayed across Al's boxers and were slowly, inch by inch, pulling them down his waist. They ended up tumbled around his lower thighs and Al crimsoned, hands going automatically to cover himself.
"Shh, Al." Ed grabbed his hands, brought them to his lips, and with his mouth on them looked up at Al. "Al. You know I love you. And I would do anything for you. I don't like seeing you feel like this."
"I know, brother," Al whispered. Hesitant, he detached his hand from Ed's and touched it to his brother's head, curling his fingers into silky bangs, moving up to his crown and stroking through the hair there. "Honestly... I don't like seeing you like this, either."
"Eh?" His hands had been moving again, skating over Al's hipbones, but now Ed paused, blinked up at him. "Whaddaya mean?"
"Upset over me. You shouldn't be—you've done everything for me. You didn't have anything to make up to me," said Al fiercely, tightening his fingers in Ed's hair, "but I know you think you did. Believe me, you've made up for it. And you didn't have to, anyway. I love you, too."
"Al." Ed bent his head down and smiled against his stomach. "You're too nice, is your problem."
"No, I'm not." And how, Al thought sourly, did he come to be defending himself against allegations of being 'too nice'? Only Ed could make him feel guilty about that.
"Still...." Ed grinned, flicked out his tongue again, and—shit, had he just used his teeth? "I'm a bastard, like everyone says. Maybe I just want to see the one everyone thinks is the oldest squirm a little." One hand moved in a lazy circle around Al's hipbone, dipping into indentations and hollows, and the other one traveled to Al's backside and touched, hesitant at first, cautious, like an army's first foray, then became bolder and stronger, moving in swift, sure, circling strokes.
Al hadn't been kissed since he was five. He hadn't been touched, not really, since he was ten—not touches that he could feel. He had been trapped inside of a body that never felt, never grew, while he became ever older and began to learn about those things, those things that filtered tinnily through his metal confines, those things he could never feel—strange noises coming from bedrooms, hasty liasons in alleyways; things he was careful to never tell Edward he'd seen.
And his brother, of course, his brother had never touched another person in Al's presence—not even himself; and maybe he'd never touched himself, either. Ed was that way; he saw the world in strangely black-and-white vision, as a series of punishments and rewards. A lost body for a transgression. Lost family for trying to bring family back. Lost pleasure for terrible crime.
But now Ed's head was tilted down, away from him as he moved towards Al's growing erection, and Al had a sudden sense of how absurd their lives had been and how terrible, and how much they had both lost. "Brother," he said, gripping Ed's hair and tugging his head up. He made a vague gesture toward his mouth, and Ed tilted his head, a lazy smile tugging at his lips as his eyes lidded in comprehension. He balanced himself on Al's hips and surged up, locking their mouths together—timid at first, just a brushing of lips; then he grew more bold, as Ed always did, and touched his tongue to Al's lips, sweeping it along the seal of bottom and upper lip.
"Brother," Al breathed, and Ed grinned against his open mouth and darted his tongue into Al's mouth, touching his tongue briefly, a greeting, then plunging deeper. Al made a noise into the kiss—a name, maybe, or more likely just a moan; wrapped his arms around Ed's neck, tilting his head deeper.
"Al," Ed said, huffing against his lips. He pulled back briefly, looking at Al through heavy eyes, eyes that seemed more golden than usual. Ed kissed him again, harder, sucking on his tongue and briefly sharpening his teeth on Al's bottom lip. He shifted against Al and reached around him, sliding his legs under Al's thighs and hefting them up; automatically, Al wrapped them around Ed's waist and let his feet fall, thumping, onto the bed. Then Ed tilted forward, catching himself with his hands on either side of Al's head, sighing into his mouth and grasping his jaw to deepen the kiss even more.
Ed's shirt was still on, which Al didn't really think was fair; he let one hand fall from around Ed's neck and touched his back, slipping underneath the tanktop to slide his hand along smooth skin and feel the shift and slide of muscles. He slid his hand over until he touched metal, so much colder, harder and more unyielding than Ed's flesh. He tucked his hand into the shoulder joint and felt his fingers brush through wires, and Ed froze against him.
"No good?" Al asked, stilling his fingers. "I'm sorry, brother...."
Ed brushed their jaws together, and Al could see that his eyes were narrowed in a thoughtful expression. "Not bad," said Ed. "A little..."
"Scary?" Al supplied. These wires were as good as Ed's nerves; cut them and you destroyed his arm, stripped him of his alchemy. It made him cold to realize how easy it was, really, to disable Ed.
"Yeah." Ed flexed his shoulder, and the wires glided over Al's fingers. Ed's expression shifted again. "But... not bad."
Al fingered them one last time, then continued moving his hand up the sweep of Ed's shoulder to the junction of flesh and automail. He rubbed there, where he knew Ed had the most pain, and lifted his mouth to Ed's again. This time, Ed's tongue against his was slower, more thoughtful, and Al was the one who had to coax him into something harder. He brushed his fingers along raised scars and closed his eyes.
"Alphonse...." Ed breathed into his mouth, breaking the kiss with a wet sound. He raised his metal hand and touched Al's face, eyes narrowing. "I love you, you know."
"I love you, too?" Al intended to say more, but Ed cut him off again with a hard kiss, sucking at his tongue then darting back into his own mouth, making Al chase after him.
"I want to show you, Al. What it's like. So you know that everything is real...." Ed clutched at his hips, hefted them up again, and brought their groins together; Al groaned, tilting his head back while he lifted his hips into Ed's. Shit. "So the next time you feel this, you'll recognize it." He dropped his head down and ground hard onto Al, lifted his hips and dipped them down again, and Al moved with him, Ed's mouth forgotten in favor of this. Al clutched at the bed sheets, clenching and unclenching his fingers in them, and he groaned when Ed tucked his hand into one of Al's and closed their fingers together.
"I love you, Alphonse," Ed breathed against his lips, hovering over them but not touching, not entering.
Al opened his eyes a slit and peered hazily at his brother. Ed had his head ducked down, showing the rise and fall of his spine, the arch of his back and the mess of his braid, sweat-damp and coming unraveled again. Lifting his hips into Ed's again, Al squeezed their hands together, tight enough that Ed's nails felt like they were biting into his skin.
"Brother?" he gasped, tightening his hips and letting his head fall back as everything sparked, as heat pooled in his groin and spread to his fingers and toes and scalp. His other hand scrabbled for purchase, and through half-lidded eyes he saw Ed pick it up and mouth his fingers. He stilled, came with a strangled, hoarse cry, and through his orgasm was dimly aware of Ed kissing his mouth again, gently as you would touch a newborn kitten.
He might have blacked out, but, as Winry had explained to him once, guys his age were young and energetic. Al let his spine fall back onto the bed and let out a great sigh. There was a heavy weight sprawled out across his stomach; he pushed himself up on his elbows and saw Ed lying on him, legs splayed on the bed, one arm tucked to his body and the other dangling over the bed. His eyes were closed.
"Brother," he said quietly, touching Ed's shoulder. Ed just moved his arm away with a snort and huff, mumbling something about sleep and coffee.
Al smiled. So much for energetic youthfulness. Smile falling away, he skirted his hand through Ed's hair, tugging through sweaty clumps and the tangled remains of Ed's braid. He ghosted his hand across Ed's face, gently touching his blue-veined eyelids, his nose and his mouth, swollen and reddish, and let his hand rest on Ed's cheek. It had thinned lately, as had the rest of Ed's face with his seventeenth birthday. He was all angles, still tiny but somehow harder-edged. It gave him an air of quiet dignity when he was still, one that Al had always thought would be suited to him. An air best suited for great men. Edward Elric was certainly a great man.
He stroked Ed's cheek fondly, the way their mother had always patted their cheeks or their heads before sending them off to brush their teeth for bed. Al wondered if anyone else ever felt this way; if anyone lay in bed next to someone and had the sense that that person was so important, so grand and bigger than life, so unsuited to pettiness and hardship and pain.
"Mmmmnn coffee," Ed mumbled, shaking his head and disturbing Al's hand. He frowned and rolled over, off of Al, and rearranged himself so that he was taking up a good deal more than half the bed. Crowded to the edge, Al set his chin in his hands and sighed.
Of course, great men had their moments, too. Usually before they'd had their morning caffeine.
"I'm not getting it for you," Al informed him. "It stunts your growth."
Even half-asleep, Ed twitched his eyes and nose at him.
"And even I have to say, you could use a few more inches, brother."
One eye opened to a slit. Ed bared his teeth. "Al, how can you sit there and slander your brother like that." Yawning widely, he sat up and rubbed both hands across his face; then his face froze. He grabbed the hem of his boxers and held it away from him, then peered down and pulled a terrible face.
Al peeked into his own boxers and had to laugh sheepishly, rubbing at the back of his neck.
When they had changed and gotten into bed again, with a lot of slapping and tussling, Al pressed his cheek into Ed's collarbone, shifting so that Ed could slide an arm under his back. "Brother," he said as Ed got out the book he was reading and flipped on the table lamp, "are we going back to Rizen Pool again soon?"
"Aa," said Ed, scowling at his book as he rifled through the pages. "Soon as I get paid and can afford the tickets."
Al turned the pages for him until they fell open a dog-eared page, then dropped his hands back down into the blankets. "I'm glad. It'll be different, going back home. I wonder if things will look the same."
"Of course they will." Ed's lips started to move as he found the place he'd stopped at.
"Thank you, brother."
Ed glanced sidelong at him, then back to his book. Clearing his throat, he shrugged, turned the page and said, with affected casualness, "It's my duty as an older brother, of course."
"Of course," smiled Al, closing his eyes to slits. Through hazy vision, he saw Ed's face change a little, sober, eyes narrowing until only a hint of gold could be seen. Closing his eyes the rest of the way, Al reached out, groping through the bed until he touched Ed's hand; wrapped their fingers together, and squeezed the cold metal.
"Good night," he murmured, and Ed echoed him.
Ed's hand stayed in his until Al fell asleep.
The sun was setting, a jewel surrounded by a crown of red and orange and pink, when Ed stood from his kneeling position and stepped backwards to stand by Al. He clapped his hands together, brushing the dirt from off his white gloves, and absently flicked dirt from his wrist before tugging down his glove, covering the flash of metal that peeked out.
Al had to shade his eyes from the sun. One hand lifted, the other clenched by his side, he murmured, "I'm back, Mother."
Next to him, Ed bent down and opened his suitcase, taking something out and turning it over in his hands. He held it up and, on the next gust of wind, released it into the sky. A small black cat tumbled into the sky, drifted forlornly on the breeze, hovering for a second before being picked up and carried off again. It floated away into the sun, black burning away into red until it looked like it was on fire, and then disappeared.