The soldier who greets them is young, a cigarette in his mouth and blue eyes wide and innocent. He reminds Al of Havoc, a little; but he is green as summer grass, talking mile-a-minute as he reassures Al and his brother that the apartment is secure, sir, and not one of 'em homunculuses is gonna get in if he can help it.
Al smiles his thanks and looks over the man's head, to the veteran leaning back against the front door, and is only reassured when it is this scarred, grey-haired man who gives him a slow nod.
Behind him, Ed is counting out the tip for the taxi driver; he hears his brother come to stand next to him—Ed's breathing is very careful, slow and deliberate, a sign that his ribs are hurting him still—and the car moves off with a squeal of rubber on concrete. "Who're they?" Ed mutters, and Al puts an arm around his shoulder—three taps, on the left shoulder: 'wait until we're alone' before withdrawing.
"There's another pair around the back," the older soldier says, calmly, "next to the window."
Al thinks of the air duct, and frowns. The window isn't the sole exit from the apartment, not if the intention was never to capture but to maim, and unconsciously he reaches out again to rest his hand on the cool steel of Ed's shoulder, as if contact is the only thing that will keep his brother safe. Ed shifts under his touch, and gives him a patient smile; it's frayed around the edges, though, and Al knows his brother must be tiring.
He shouldn't be out of bed yet. That was what the doctor had said, and that was what Al believed, when he saw how breathing could hurt Ed, let alone walking. But the nurses had said that it was okay for Ed to start walking, that exercise would be good for him; and just whom had Edward 'I'm so stubborn I can master automail in under a year' Elric sided with, despite his brother's protests?
"Thank you," he says, quietly to the soldiers, and with a hand on Ed's back, begins to nudge his brother inside. They just cross the threshold of the door when the younger soldier swings around.
"Sir," he blurts, and Al pauses. Ed turns too, following Al's lead, and watches the soldier's lips with an intensity that is entirely his. "We had to block up the air duct, so it'll be really hot in there. Sorry."
Ed frowns, but Al feels relief cross his face. "That's fine," he says, raising a hand to toy with the end of Ed's braid. "That's fine."
It is hot in their bedroom, despite the window being open. Al dumps the bag of hospital clothing on the bed, along with his jacket, and stands on his tip-toes to peer at where the air duct was; it is now an expanse of white concrete, a different colour to the wall. When he raps on it with his knuckles, the sound it makes indicates that it is thicker than the walls, too, and he steps back, pleased. He puts his hands on his hips and glances over at the windowsill with a grin. "Pretty good job they did," he says, and inwardly curses as he remembers his brother needs to see his lips to understand what he's saying. Ed's gotten extremely good at lip-reading, even to the point that sometimes even Al forgets; but that doesn't make him feel any less guilty.
Edward is standing in the hall where he entered, back pressed against the door and eyes wide as he cranes his head to take in his surroundings. Al feels a stab of remorse; this dump of an apartment shouldn't be Edward's home. The first 'home' he should have seen should have been his garden, back in Rizenbourg; the one he had loved so much. "I'm sorry," he says, and Ed's gaze snaps back onto his face, drawn by the movement of his lips. "It's not much, but it's all I could afford..."
"It's fine," Ed says firmly, and takes a few steps closer. He folds himself gingerly against Al, heavy metal arms going around his brother's neck to pull him close, and squeezes his eyes shut. "Anywhere you are, is okay with me," he whispers into Al's skin.
Al circles his arms around Ed's waist, gentle, careful not to apply too much pressure to still-healing bruises and fractures. "I guess," he says, pressing his mouth into fine golden hair. "I just—"
"Don't," Ed says, pulling away. He opens his eyes again and smiles, warm and bright. "Let's just be glad that I can—that I can see anything at all, okay?"
Al bumps his forehead against Ed's. His brother is warm and soft, despite the automail, and fits so easily into his arms; Al is relieved, and thankful, that he can still do this. That whatever Envy tried to do, he couldn't stop this, couldn't break this bond between them. "All right," he says, and pulls up a gentle smile which Ed returns, somewhat wearily. "Come into the kitchen. I'll see if I can make us something to eat, okay?"
He slips his hand down Ed's right arm, over hard, cold steel plating, and takes the metal hand in his, giving it an affectionate squeeze. Ed blinks at the contact—something he can see, rather than feel, and Alphonse supposes he should be grateful for that much—and then cautiously squeezes back, and Al grins as he pulls Ed into the kitchen after him.
It's a start. They're not finished yet, and this is just one step on the path they have to take; but it's enough, after so long with no hope. They're safe, for now, and can finally begin to make some real progress.
They stay up late that evening, talking, and it's only when Ed is swaying in his seat and his eyes are too bleary to make sense of Al's words any more that Al decides unilaterally that it's time for bed.
He turns off all the lights, locks the doors, but leaves a light on in the kitchen and the bedroom door open for Ed. It's important that a little light always comes in, even if it's only enough to see shadows and outlines, and not words at all. They talk in the old fashioned way as they get into bed, with a hand on Ed's shoulder and a quick brush of lips against Al's neck. When they finally get settled in, wrapped up together to try and fit on the narrow bed (really, he should get around to expanding it, Al thinks) and Ed heaves a careful sigh of relief and satisfaction, to be lying down, Al feels like they've ended a journey of a thousand miles.
Al expects them to go to sleep right away; the day's events have left him exhausted, let alone Edward, whose careful, laboured breathing is slowly easing out to something more natural. So it's a surprise to him when Ed nudges him in the ribs—with cold, painful automail—forcing him back so that Ed can carefully roll over in the bed facing him. He can't see Ed's face, in the low light, but the kiss that claims his lips a moment later leaves his intentions pretty unambiguous.
Maybe it's not totally unexpected; after all, this is the first chance they've had to be alone, really somewhere private, in... weeks, practically months, since even before Ed's kidnapping. Al's surprised, but he makes up for it quickly, kissing Ed back with an eagerness he hadn't really expected. It's been months, dammit, and his own body is young and free of trauma, except for stress-related ulcers.
Ed takes the lead, which is good, since Al's still a little worried about going too far or too fast for him. Automail fingers—cold, but warming quickly—worm their way under his shirt and there's a good deal of squirming that almost results in Al falling off the bed before they can get it off. Ed's shirt, a loose button-down, comes off more easily, and finally the annoying clothes are out of the way and they can get down to the business of skin, trading kisses and caresses.
Al lets Ed take the lead, for the most part—he keeps an ear out for Ed's breathing, listening for sounds of stress or pain, and he puts his foot down firmly when Ed starts to crawl to the bottom of the bed with the clear intention of sucking him off. That's a feat that would practically require acrobatics, on this narrow bed, and he doesn't think Ed is up to it.
"No," he whispers, although he knows that Ed can neither see nor hear him; he apologizes for the refusal with more gentle kisses, combing his fingers through Ed's hair. "Not tonight, anyway. We'll have time."
Ed grumbles in annoyance, but the sound ends in a gasp when Al takes him in hand, pulling them close until their hips grind against each other. This is plenty for now, the friction and the rhythm, moving together in a symphony of heat and pleasure until they both see stars. Ed is shaking more than a little and the blood beats in Al's ears until he can hardly hear Ed's soft, unconscious cursing.
Ed comes in a sudden spasm, sticky warmth covering Al's hands and his thighs and the covers. The flooding heat is enough to overwhelm Alphonse too, and it isn't until several minutes later that it occurs to him to curse his lack of foresight; there's no towel within easy reach.
In the end, the sticky cooling wet spot annoys him enough that he wriggles out of Ed's heavy, clutching grasp and goes to hunt up a towel.
He cleans them up and gets back into bed, cuddling against Ed's back again with a contented sigh. He could drift off to sleep right then, but for some reason, Ed is lying tense and stiff in his arms, face turned determinedly away from the light.
Al rouses himself with concern, petting Ed carefully and growing more worried as Ed fails to relax. Did he make a mistake, did he push things too fast? Or did he make a mistake the other way, by restricting their activities, make Ed feel rejected?
"Niisan?" he whispers, hugging him close; at least Ed isn't trying to pull away from him, is willing to be held close, but there's a tension running under his skin and a trembling beginning to grow in his body that Al can't identify.
It's not until the quiet noises reach his ears, muffled gasps and rhythmic hitches of Ed's ribcage under his hands, that Al registers that Ed is crying, and trying desperately to hide it.
At first Al is stunned. Ed hasn't cried in years. He hadn't cried when he lost his eyes, his ears, his limbs. He hadn't cried all throughout the automail surgery, the long terrible struggle to get him walking and functional again. He hadn't cried when Envy took him, beat him bloody and tortured him to the point of death; he hadn't cried all throughout the long and wearing hospital stay that followed. Why, why now, why here, when they're finally together and safe and—happy—at last?
Al considers rolling Ed over, forcing him to face him and talk about this, so he can comfort his brother if he can—but it seems evident by Ed's behavior that he's trying to suppress it, doing his best to hide it, doesn't want to talk about it at all. So Al just sighs softly, resting his forehead against the back of Ed's neck. It is a release thing, he supposes, a catharsis, and one that has been very long in coming.
When it becomes apparent that Al is not going to tease or scold him, or try and force a confrontation, Ed slowly relaxes, the sound of his quiet sobs becoming more audible. The sounds do tear at Al's heart, although he knows this is something Ed needs, and he strokes lightly along Ed's spine and shoulder blades until he finally calms.
Ed's deeply asleep almost before Al knows it, sedated by exhaustion and hormones and tears. It takes Al a little longer, as tired as he is; he spends a long time watching the dim light play over the outline of Ed's shape and catch in strands of his hair, before he too follows his brother into sleep.
Al wakes up the next morning feeling unexpectedly good. Maybe it was the sex, after a long period of abstinence. Maybe it was a good night's sleep, back in a place where he finally felt secure, with his brother safe by his side. Maybe it was just the morning's bright sunlight that made everything that still lay in front of them look more manageable. Whatever it was, he yawns and stretches and sits up even without benefit of the alarm clock he hadn't set.
Breakfast first, and then they'd decide what to do. Al turns over in the bed, to shake his brother awake long enough to say what he wants.
The pillows and sheets under Edward's head are soaked in blood.
Al's next thoughts can mostly be described in a series of wordless exclamation marks. It's a long moment before the white static can clear up enough for him to properly panic, and even then he can't make sense of his thoughts. What flickers through his head, as well as Envy and how and hurt and attack and What the hell?
Finally, it occurs to him to put his hands on Edward's throat, feeling frantically for a pulse, and a moment of OH THANK GOD as it registers; slow, but steady and strong, and is that just because Ed is asleep? His fingers fly over Ed's neck and head, frantically trying to find the damage, the source of the blood; there's no bumps, no gashes, no injury anywhere, and anyway how could he be injured just lying in bed with his brother?
It's not coming from his scalp, or his neck. It's coming from his face, oh God, it's coming from his eyes.
Ed certainly doesn't act like he's hurt; under his brother's fussing he grunts and scrunches up his nose and swats sleepily at Al's hand without ever coming fully awake. Heart pounding in his chest, feet shaking under him, Al rolls out of bed and dashes to the bathroom to get a wet towel. The wordless punctuation marks are still going off in his head, but he thinks that maybe he'll be able to see more if he cleans Ed up.
Ed wakes up with a yelp when a wet, cold towel descends on his face, scrubbing with more energy than delicacy. The redness comes off easily on the towel, at least, revealing still more unharmed (at least recently) skin underneath; the only part of Ed he can't see is his eyes, screwed up under the assault.
Al pauses a moment to stare at the towel. It's not quite like blood, or is it? He can't tell. It's still too bright, even after sitting until it dries. But if it's not blood, where did it come from?
"Al, what the hell are you doing?" Ed says aloud, voice sleep-blurred and martyred. "Damn, you're too obsessed with cleaning—"
Al isn't listening to a word, though, because at least Ed has opened his eyes, and he focuses on Al's face just fine, pupils dilating in the light, moving from one point to another normally.
But there's still a drop of wetness gathered at the corner of his eyes, and when he blinks, it dislodges, running down the side of his newly-scrubbed face in a crimson streak.
Silently, hands shaking, Al reaches out and wipes it up on his finger. Tears. These are Ed's tears.
Al nearly shoves the stained towel in Ed's face. "Care to explain this, Niisan?"
"Huh?" Ed's eyes almost cross, but then widen as he identifies the towel and what's on it. "What the fuck!"
He sits bolt upright in the bed, coming to a halt with a pained gasp as his ribs and abdomen protest; but not even clutching one hand around his stomach stops him from snatching the towel out of Al's hand and looking from the towel to the pillow in shock and panic.
It gives Al a little bit of visceral satisfaction that his brother is just as freaked out by the grisly sight as he is, but that's overwhelmed by concern. "You're not hurt at all?"
"No, nothing hurts..." Ed blinks rapidly, then squeezes his eyes shut and rubs them hard, forcing the last few drops out. He opens them again and stares at the red liquid decorating his fingers. "I don't understand this..."
"It must be some kind of side effect of—whatever Envy did," Al breaks off, flustered, as he is reminded that he doesn't know what Envy did. "Niisan, do you remember...?"
"No! I have no idea what that bastard did!" Ed snaps, but it's clear he's shaken. "I... I... this doesn't look like blood, though, it's not sticky..."
"This is the first time anything like this has happened," Al says, trying to regain calmness and analyze the situation. "Because this is the first time you—I mean—since then—the first time this has happened."
"The first time I broke down like a baby, you mean," Ed says flatly, raising his gaze to glare at Al. There's hostility in his eyes, his tone, but Al can see clearly that it's a cover for self-recrimination.
"Niisan, don't say it like that," Al says quickly. "After everything that's happened... you... well, you have more reason to... to lose it for a little bit than anyone else. In fact..." Al frowns, then looks down at the bloodstained towel in his hand.
"I don't understand how you've kept it all in until last night. Why... why then? I mean... I thought things were all right... was it because..." He can't dare to voice what he suspects, what he fears; that the reason Ed wept was because of the sex, because of him. Because he did something wrong or went along with Ed when he should have put his foot down, again, and caused his brother harm.
An automail hand nudges Al's face up, but Ed doesn't answer at first; at last he sighs, shoulders heaving, and confesses, "It—it was the first time I've been someplace I felt—like I could... like I could trust..."
He doesn't need to say any more than that. Al understands.
Ed starts to shake, as something new and disturbing occurs to him. "Al, what if this is—whatever it is—runs out? What if—what if this is the first sign of them disintegrating, or falling apart, or whatever? If Envy—"
He breaks that off, and raises his red-stained fingers to his face, touching ever so gingerly under his eyes. "What am I gonna do if I lose them again? I can't—I can't live like that again, Al. I just can't—"
"Shh." Al captures Ed's hands in his, and swiftly darts in to place a kiss on Ed's cheek. "Don't panic. Nothing's changed, has it? You can see as well as you could before?"
Ed hesitates, blinking rapidly, then nods. Al smiles determinedly. "Then at the worst, this only happens when you—when you cry. And if..." he hesitates, then blurts out. "If I have to, Niisan, I'll spend the rest of my life making sure you never have to cry again."
They don't get out of bed until late that morning, despite the early—and somewhat unwelcome—awakening. Alphonse is perfectly content to lie there all day, despite his earlier plans; Edward is a warm and comfortable presence beside him, curled tightly against his body like an overgrown cat—albeit an overgrown cat exhausted by too much emotional stress on a weakened body first thing in the morning.
Edward isn't sleeping—when Al brushes his bangs away from his face he gets a growled 'stop it', and supposes that this is due to Ed having cried for the first time in years. It just makes him lean over to press a kiss onto his brother's temple, and run a hand gently down Ed's side.
Toast, he thinks. The cupboards have been stocked for them, and though he knows that he should be monitoring Ed's diet—something he picked up in Rizenbourg, back when Ed couldn't move without him, when Ed was a cripple—no, he thinks, sharply, angry with himself; when Ed was an invalid.
His brother has legs to stand on, now, and eyes to see with. They may only be false limbs, made of steel; and his eyes may only be an illusion, and might crumble with his tears—but they're his, in a way, and that's enough. Isn't it?
He nudges Ed in the ribs—not hard, though his brother squirms a little—and whispers, "Breakfast, niisan," when Edward glances up at him. Ed makes a little noise, but sits up, and swings his heavy, awkward legs over the side of the bed; Al hugs him from behind, presses his lips against the back of Ed's neck first in a kiss and then, lingering, to say, "We need to talk about you helping me with my research, niisan."
Ed cranes his neck, attempting to see Al over his shoulder. "What bought this on?" he asks, raising an eyebrow and voice thick with confusion. Al just smiles, and gives him a gentle push on the automail port to coax him into standing up.
He makes breakfast for Ed—toast, cereal, fruit and even a glass of milk, which Ed pushes away from him and glares at for the entirety of his meal. "You should drink your milk, niisan," Al says, without looking up from his notes, scattered over the table. "You need it."
"I'm not that sick," Ed grumbles, and pushes his grapefruit around his plate with his spoon.
"Calcium encourages healthy bones," Al lectures, glancing up. "And you'll need healthy bones if you and I are going to spar again."
Ed blinks at him. "Spar? What? When? Where?"
"The park should do, right?" Al reaches over and begins to organise his notes, stacking them into a neat pile. "Niisan—you're... not in the best physical condition right now, okay? But—when you're healed..." He looks down at his hands on the paper, and the lopsided sprawl of his handwriting. "I don't want that to happen to you again," he whispers. "I want—I want you to be able to defend yourself again, niisan. I—I don't think I can live with myself, if you... can't, okay?"
He spares a somewhat guilty look at his brother, who is frozen with a slice of toast half-way to his mouth. "I'm going to get your limbs back," Al continues, fiercely, "and your hearing. And I'm going to—to find some way to make sure your eyes are safe, right?"
"Al..." Ed sets his toast back down slowly, expression unreadable.
Al slips his notes back in the folder, and gives Ed a wan smile. "I'm sorry," he says, leaning forward to push them across the table to his brother. Ed catches them without taking his eyes off Al's lips. "I know it's selfish, but I just want to keep you... safe, and I can't think of a better way than helping you defend yourself."
"It's all right," Ed says, metal fingers tugging at the folder's opening. He doesn't look at Al as he speaks, the equivalent of ignoring any protests he might make. "I was planning to help you in your research, right? And at any rate, god knows I'm hideously out of shape." He pulls a face and pinches a bit of puppy fat from his side with a metal hand; Al feels a little offended. He's been monitoring his brother's diet so thoroughly over the last few months that Ed hasn't put on or lost so much as a pound.
He doesn't have a chance to voice his complaint, as Ed continues without pause. "But still. I need to get back in shape, right? Even if E—Envy doesn't come back, I still need to... you know." He waves his free hand, evidently at a loss. "Carry books, and stuff."
Al opens his mouth to say something, and stops. It makes sense. If anybody should be involved in his brother's restoration aside from himself, it's Edward, after all. And, well. He can't claim that the idea of helping his brother regain his muscles is entirely unappealing, either.
He pushes himself to his feet, toast forgotten, and comes to stand behind Ed, stomach roiling, with hope and a vague sense of fear. He drapes his arms over his brother's shoulders and drops a quick kiss against his temple; keeps his mouth there so that Edward can 'hear' him when he asks, "Do you remember nothing about what Envy did to you, niisan?"
"No," Edward replies, and shakes his head. "I just—I just remember that it hurt, okay?" His voice rises slightly, almost defensively; but Al squeezes gently with his arms and kisses his temple again.
"It's all right," he whispers, and closes his eyes. "I'm never going to let that bastard lay his hands on you again, niisan. Never."
Ed's breath hitches and his brother twists to look up at him, eyes wide and gold and beautiful. Al rubs their noses together, and smiles. "I promise," he says, easily, and takes a step back, holding out a hand. "Come on, brother. We've nearly wasted half a day—we need to get moving now, before the library closes. Come on!"
Ed blinks at him for a while, and then leans forward to take his hand. The metal is cold and hard, but when Al chafes some warmth into it, he can almost imagine that it is real, that it is flesh and blood and bone.
Well. Soon, he thinks, with grim satisfaction, it will be.
Overall, Private Senior Grade Charles McKinley (Chuck to his mates) is pretty happy with his new assignment. Sure, it's boring, but anything in the military is boring when you're under three stripes—if not deathly dull, then deathly disgusting, or just plain deathly.
At least they get to be stationed in what appears to be a nice part of town, with some good options available for babe-watching (if he had anyone besides this stick-in-the-mud Sergeant to watch with) and he thinks, all things considered, that it's for a good cause. The Elrics are nice kids—really good kids, from what he's seen. And though he doesn't know why someone would be after them—the brass hasn't seen fit to inform him—if he can defend them from this dangerous menace that's supposedly prowling around, well, he considers that a duty worth doing.
So far this Sunday, he hasn't seen any homunculuses, but they've deflected two salesmen and a Jehovah's Witness from the boys' front door, and all things considered he's feeling pretty proud of himself.
McKinley leans back against the brick wall, attempting to get as much shade from it as he can as the morning draws towards noon, and contemplates a cigarette. The boys opened the window to their apartment some time ago—much to the Sergeant's grumbled disapproval about security—and their voices drift down from overhead.
Somebody's laughter sounds through the window. "Niisan, wait!" he can faintly hear a voice say. "It's the middle of the day, and I already made the bed, and besides—Are you even listening to me?!"
"Stop that! I hate when you play deaf, and—ohh—it's annoying and I'm—Niisan! Stop doing that when I'm talking to—ohhhh—"
There's a thump and a crash, and McKinley abruptly straightens up, staring up at the window, as the sounds and moans coming through it definitely do not sound like a conversation.
Disturbed, he makes his way around the corner of the building, to where the Sergeant is standing his post in front of the door. "Did I just hear what I thought I heard?" he asks disbelievingly.
The Sergeant raises his eyebrows. "What did you think you heard?" he asks, sounding bored.
"I thought I heard them—" He stops, staring back at the open window. "Aren't they brothers?"
His partner only seems amused by his confusion. "Haven't been on this post very long, have you?" he says.