It's morning, and mornings start as they always do now: with Alphonse taking his brother out into the garden.

They walk slowly, Al on Ed's right side, with one hand under Edward's elbow and the other on his shoulder above the automail port. The one hand to guide and steer him, although Ed steps with more confidence now; having walked this route every day for weeks, he's learning it for himself. The other hand to support him, if some obstacle catches Edward's feet and he stumbles. Not that it matters too much, if he stubbed his toes on anything; he can't feel them anyway.

Watching them, Winry wishes that he could. She's always been proud of her skills as an automail engineer; she'd always been convinced, on some level, that automail was even better than the real thing. It didn't tire, it couldn't feel pain, not even if it were damaged. Automail was strong and solid, not like fragile flesh; what could be better?

Now, watching them, Winry has never felt more inadequate. No matter how hard she works, no matter how much she invests in the latest automail techniques and the best materials, she can't give Ed what he needs. What he lost, what he gave up to get Al back his human body; what Al was fighting to get back for him still.

At the door, Al signals the change of direction with a squeeze on his brother's shoulder, and a tug to his arm. Obediently, Ed turns, and a few steps brings them outside. He tilts his face upwards as the sunlight washes over him, like always, and smiles.

Al doesn't smile in return; his brother couldn't see it. He doesn't laugh in shared delight; his brother couldn't hear it. He just squeezes Ed's shoulder, again, and leads him over to the chairs and tables set up in a sunny corner of the garden.

A cool, gentle breeze steals into the house, bringing with it the scents from the garden. The three of them—Pinako, Winry, and Al—work in the garden now in any moment of their spare time, and the results are beginning to show. The sun and the shade, the breezes cool under the trees, the smells of the flowers and plants; these are all things they can give to Edward.

Edward settles now onto the bench by the table, one hand groping for the blanket that had been placed there for him. Finding an edge, he tugs on the blanket until it wraps around his legs, insulating the metal from the cooler air of the garden, and up over his lap. His hand then pats carefully across the surface of the table, searching for the pen and paper that are always laid out there for him; his fingertips tap the pen and stop, and he picks it up, holding the implement carefully in his metal fingers.

He can still write, with his automail hand; the fingers have enough fine motor control for that. Not as well as he could have with a flesh hand, perhaps, but well enough. What makes it hard is that he cannot see the paper he writes on, nor the words he wrote, to judge their accuracy. Winry always has trouble deciphering the notes Edward writes, unless he was painstakingly careful with the crafting and placing of each letter. The only one who can read his writing with any speed and ease is Alphonse.

Al now pulls up the lawn chair behind his brother on the bench, slightly to one side, so that he can watch the paper over Ed's shoulder. He takes Edward's sleep-mussed braid of hair and pushes it to the side, letting it fall forward over his shoulder, then opens the buttons of the shirt that lead down Edward's back. The sides of the shirt fall softly forward, exposing Edward's long, lean, scarred back to the air, and Ed turns his head a little, as if to see what his brother was doing. Alphonse reaches into his pocket for his stylus—no ink or lead in this, just a smoothly rounded nub—and begins to write the words on his brother's back.

Winry lets the curtains fall, and turns away from the window. She always feels as though she's intruding on something private, these strange conversations between the brothers. It isn't like she's eavesdropping on them; she couldn't have understood what they were saying even if she tried. And she has tried—sometimes urgently—to duplicate Alphonse's way of talking, just to let Edward know that she was here, that he wasn't alone. It's usually futile, and always frustrating.

She could try to write on Edward's back as Alphonse did, but he has trouble understanding her, and the forced intimacy makes both of them unhappy and nervous. She tries to read his notes, or listen to him when he speaks, but she can never get more than one word out of three, and explaining just which parts she needs repeated is prohibitively frustrating for both of them. Only Alphonse can manage anything beyond the most basic of communications, beyond yes and no and I don't understand and What do you need? Tell us, Edward. How can we help you?

She can't help him.

Taking a deep breath, Winry rubs the heel of her palm against her forehead, and tries to get her brain working properly, out of the too-often rehearsed complaints. There are still things she can, and will do! Even if it's only something as simple as making breakfast, she can do that.

Winry's footsteps fade back into the house, leaving the tray with the steam gently rising into the air. Edward's head cocks to the side, a slight frown on his face, and Al leans over his shoulder to see what his brother wants to say.

Is Winry ok? Ed writes. She didn't say hi.

She's just tired, Al writes back. She stayed up all night again.

Again? That's three nights in a row. She'll get sick if she keeps this up.

She gets plenty of sleep, Al reassures his brother, just at strange hours. Don't worry so much. Breakfast.

Ed nods, and Al shifts around to pull the tray closer to both of them. Ed's metal hand moves carefully over the contents of the tray, closing around an orange. Picking it up and bringing it to his face, he lowers his head to smell it carefully, then brushes his lips over the smooth peel. This is the only way he can identify things now, Alphonse thinks; through scent, and a touch on his face, since his automail arm isn't sensitive enough to tell him things through his hands.

He rests one hand on Ed's shoulder as the two of them make their way through breakfast; Ed can feed himself with only a minimum of help, as long as the tray is arranged the same way every morning. He watches his brother's face as he eats, the changes of expression that come over him as he tastes a food he particularly likes, or doesn't care for, and tells himself again that this wasn't so bad.

Touch, scent, taste... a body of flesh and bone, heartbeat, breath. All of these things he had missed, so desperately missed, in the years he'd spent as an armor. At times he'd thought that these things were what made you truly human, the memories of your skin and your own body and what you did with it. He'd wanted them back, with all his heart and soul, and he and his brother had fought and struggled and searched for years for a way to get them back.

It was Edward who'd managed it in the end, of course. Alphonse was useless to do anything, unable to help him or stop him, assuming he had been brave enough to try. Edward gave him everything back, and the sacrifice he'd made in exchange... everything else, Alphonse thinks bitterly. No, not everything. But too much. Too much for his sake. Whatever it is in the Gate who decides the price for human lives, Al thinks, they put far too high a value on his.

It could be worse, Al reminds himself again, sharply pulling his thoughts away from the furious, helpless anger against the world, against the Gate. What they have now, even if it isn't perfect, is better. Anything is better than that terrible night, the first night after he'd gotten his body back, woken up weak and dizzy in Pinako's bed to the sound of Edward in the next room screaming.

His left arm, his right leg—everything that had been left to him after the first disaster, taken away. What had remained of his left leg, eaten up to the thigh—the automail port had disappeared along with everything else. His sight, his hearing, both of those gone too, and there was no way for him to even know that they were there, no way to let him know that he was safe now, that he had to calm down or he would start the bleeding again, that he was with friends and not horrors.

He'd screamed, unable to even hear his own raw voice, thrashing with terror at any touch of hands on him until Al, dizzy and shaking and desperate, crawled onto the bloodstained sheets with him and wrapped both arms tightly around his chest, burying his face in his brother's neck. Somehow that was enough to get through to Ed; Al's body pressed against him, his hair tickling Edward's jaw, his lips pressing whispered words of reassurance against his skin. Ed had spoken almost incoherently, voice too loud and too scraped and slurred for comprehension, but Al knew what his brother needed, what he wanted to know, and had murmured the answers into his skin until Ed finally stopped shaking, and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Ed can stand, now, and walk on two metal legs. At least the port in his right shoulder hadn't been taken away, so it was only a matter of making him a new arm, even if it was one that wouldn't allow him to feel anything. He can hold a pen, write down what he can't trust his voice to say, and he can talk with Al and laugh sometimes and enjoy simple things, like the warmth of the sun and the smell of the garden. He can touch, and he did—he was never fully happy unless some part of him was in contact with Al, holding onto him like his lifeline to the world, or his shield from it.

Sometimes Al is afraid—afraid that something else happened to his brother in the gate, something terrible even aside from the losses he suffered, but he's never been sure because there was so much blood, so very much blood, and Ed never speaks of what had happened to him there. Never, no matter how many times Al asks him.

Breakfast is finished, he realizes with a start, and Ed is tapping his pen on the table to get his attention. He looks at what his brother has written.

You were up pretty late last night too.

Al blushes, remembering just why that was, and Ed must have done that on purpose, because he grins as he taps the next sentence he'd written. Did you finish reading the Diwali? Was there anything good?

"Oh," Al says aloud. "Yeah, there was." Then he remembers himself, and picks up the stylus to inscribe the message on his brother's skin. I did, and I'm excited about some of the things he said about regrowing tissue in mice. I think we might really be on to something there.

Al hesitates, resting the stylus lightly against Ed's spine for a moment, and then continues. There are some things in his references that I think I need to check out, though, so I have to go back to Central sometime soon. He doesn't like to write, or even think about leaving his brother, but there's no helping it; Ed won't get better if Al just hides here.

Ed smiles, giving a rusty chuckle, and then bends forward to write something on his pad. Al looks over to read it.

Sick of taking care of me already?

Now that's just not funny. Al scowls, and punches his brother in the ribs. Ed yelps, reaching to grab his injured side, and Al digs the point of the stylus hard enough into Ed's back that he knows the words must sting.

I WILL NEVER get sick of taking care of you. Don't say that, idiot.

Ed shrugs irritably, pushing Alphonse's hands away. He half-turns on the bench, and gropes with his automail arm until he can put it around Alphonse's shoulders, pulling him forward. "I was joking," he says aloud, words only a little bit garbled.

Al shuts his eyes tight, imagining for a moment that he can see like his brother does, and writes on Ed's skin without looking. You never gave up on me. I won't ever give up on you. I'll get back what you lost, I swear.

Ed smiles, rubbing his cheek against Alphonse's hair, and hugs him tight. "I know," he said.

Do you know? Alphonse wonders. Do you really believe what I say? Do you really understand that there is nothing in my universe, nothing, that is more important than you? Do you really think that I would leave you to face this alone?

He doesn't ask, though. And he doesn't let go.

Edward knows his brother's scent.

It's one of the first things he learned, since the night in the Gate. If he can't identify people by face or voice any more, at least he can tell them by scent. Winry smells of fresh machine oil, and behind it, a little like flowers; Pinako smells of slightly stale machine oil and tobacco.

It's different with Alphonse, though. Al doesn't smell like anything, except maybe a little bit like warm linen; but mostly it is just a scent that is uniquely his brother, and one that has come to suffuse his waking world.

Alphonse doesn't know, Edward reflects, just how pathetically dependent he is. He told him once, whispered against his skin; how strong you are, Niisan, I can't believe it. I could never do all that you do. He's mistaken, although Ed didn't correct him. But Al doesn't know how desperate Ed is for his touch, his constant, grounding presence, because that is all that separates this pleasant world of warmth and sweet smells from the nightmare inside the Gate. Without sight, without hearing, he doesn't know where he is, doesn't know whose hands are on him unless he can smell his brother's scent nearby, feel the reassuring warmth of his body.

Or maybe Al does know, without saying, because somehow he's never far, and Ed has never had to ask before he's touching, holding, climbing into bed with him. Since he became human, Alphonse is quite cuddly, but what he does for Edward goes beyond all expectation.

A passing breeze tugs at a lock of his hair, falling into his face, and he brushes it back with irritation. Alphonse's hand comes to rest on his shoulder, the touch a sentence in itself; a light inquiry. Some things still don't need words to ask and answer, and Al helps him up, and guides him back to the house again. Ed knows the way pretty well, by this time, and rests his hand on Al's arm only for a guide.

Back in their bedroom, Edward carefully makes his way to the edge of the bed and sits down, reaching back to catch his braid and tug the hair-tie free. He rakes metal fingers through his hair, wincing as the strands catch and pull in the joints, and Al comes back and slaps his hand scoldingly away. Ed drops his hand and turns on the bed until his back is to his brother, tilting his head back expectantly.

For a moment, there's light fingers running over his face; his forehead, his nose, his chin, brushing back to his temples. It's almost as though Al is the blind one, seeking to memorize his brother's features by touch, and Ed shivers. Then the touch firms, the hands leaving to return with a brush, and Ed relaxes completely as Al brushes his hair for him.

So long as Al stays nearby, Ed is... content. He can't say he's happy, exactly, but there's a certain peace in the way things are. Alphonse is human again; he fixed that mistake, made things right again, and he can hold onto that when the darkness gets too thick. Alphonse is searching for some way to restore him, and even though Ed is useless in this search, Alphonse believes so fervently that Ed can't help but believe it a little too.

Maybe his clever, patient little brother will be able to do what he could not, and find a way to perform human transmutation without the terrible cost that comes with it. He hopes so, because there is no way he will allow Alphonse to sacrifice himself for Ed's sake. No way in hell. If Ed has his way, Al will never go through the Gate again; he'll never face the horrors that lie behind it, never see them, never let them touch him.

Just thinking of it makes him nervous, and on a sudden impulse he reaches back and captures one of Alphonse's hands, stilling the motion of the brush. He pulls Al's arm forward, holding it between his cheek and his shoulder, and Al follows, his chest coming to rest against Edward's back.

Edward brings Al's hand to his face, and touches each finger lightly to his lips. Lacking hands of his own, this is the most sensitive part of him to heat and texture and weight, and must serve him in place of fingertips. Al sighs, and shivers against his back, and that brings a smile to Ed's face.

He continues his exploration, carefully, methodically discovering every inch of Alphonse's skin with his lips, and sometimes his teeth and his tongue, to capture every nuance, every scent and taste and texture that is Alphonse. In all the time he has been this way, forced to relearn the world around him in terms of scent and touch instead of sight and sound, he has found no more worthy object of study than Alphonse.

Al is not content to sit back and be a passive part of this, though; he has exploration of his own that he wants to do. Cool fingers slip under the collar of Edward's shirt, bunching it forward, and obediently Edward ducks his head and lifts his arms so that Alphonse can move it out of the way. There's a motion, a vibration that shifts the bed under Ed's thighs, and then Al's arms are around him, pulling him snugly back against Al's chest, and his hands are stroking down the planes of Ed's chest and stomach and sides.

Ed sighs, and he can feel the echo and the motion even if he can't hear the sound, and the same with the low moan that vibrates from Alphonse's lips when Ed arches back against him. He reaches back with his metal hand, hesitant and fearful of touching too hard, or catching metal fingers in hair and causing pain, but he needs even the limited contact that his automail will grant him. No matter what happens he cannot lose himself to this, he must never forget where he is and who is touching him—and who is style="font-style: italic;">not.

Al's hands on him now bring more than warmth; they're pure heat, a gentle fire that lights Ed up from the inside and reminds him once more that he's still human, no matter what he may have lost. He twists free for a moment—just enough that he can turn on the bed until he is kneeling and facing Alphonse, and tugs on his arms until he is close enough to kiss.

He puts all he can into the kiss, searching Al's lips and his teeth and his mouth as if he can swallow the words he cannot hear right off of Alphonse's tongue. Al shivers, clinging hard to Ed's shoulders, making tiny whimpers that Ed can feel right down to his bones.

Later, he'll only care about feeling, but Ed always pays careful attention to Alphonse's reactions during this stage, always slightly tense, always on the lookout for even the slightest hint in Al's body language or his reactions that he doesn't want this. Because if Al doesn't want this, if this is just something he forces himself to do for Ed's sake, then Ed will have to stop, and he doesn't want to stop. He needs this, needs it so badly it scares him. This is all he has left to him, sometimes, the only thing left in his life that he can enter into completely and feel like a whole person.

There's already a feeling of hot fullness, a shivering ache between his legs, and Al's hands skate down his sides—leaving trails of fire in their wake, of his hips as one hand closes on him. Ed's breath catches and he jumps against the contact, muscles bunching in reaction to the jolt of pleasure that shoots up his spine like a firework rising into the night sky.

He thinks of the diagrams of chakrahs of the human body; the centers of power and life force that make up a human being. Groin, stomach, heart, neck, and the crown of the head, and it occurs to him in a dizzying moment that not one of them include the arms or the legs. He's not entirely sure what it means to be human, but surely must include this.

Al's fingers move slowly up and down his length, teasing as they reach the head before traveling back down again, and he swears he can see again, lights behind the darkness of his eyes. His hand clutches on Al's shoulder, pulling his brother down against his chest. He feels a light brush against his collar—Al's eyelashes, as he lowers his gaze, he thinks—and then a warm mouth is laving his nipples, drawing a groan of pleasure out of him that he can't even try to contain.

He has no idea how loud he's being, whether he's making so much noise that Winry and Auntie can't help but hear, or not; they've never said anything to him about it, and neither has Alphonse, so either they don't know or don't mind or Al is just keeping it from him, and he's not sure he cares. He rocks into Al's hand; his own arm skitters and slides over Al's shoulder and the back of his neck, trying not to bruise or scratch, until he can feel Al's hair pressed against the concave under his arm.

Al's fingers on him feel so good, his other hand smoothing over Ed's sides and back, warm and firm, reassuring and kind. Al's breath puffs against his chest, moist and hot, fast with excitement. He can't return the favor, he knows; he's too clumsy, he might hurt. Instead, he surges up on the bed, legs folding under him as he pushes Al back, presses him down on the bed until their positions are reversed and he's the one on top, hovering over the heat his brother radiates.

Alphonse moves under him, places a questioning grip on his shoulder, and in response he just kisses him. His lips move all over Alphonse's face, documenting nose, cheeks, chin, eyelids, forehead, building a picture of his brother's face in his mind as he does. He's beautiful, Ed thinks, and has a moment of sudden aching wish that he'd gotten to see his brother's face, at least once.

There's so much more of Alphonse to touch and taste, so much more than there is of him, but Ed has a goal in mind now and he drags himself down Al's body with a line of feverish licks and kisses, sliding his body against Al's as he does. Al's cock when he reaches it is hard and fever-hot—just as it should be, and Ed revels in the shudders that run through Al's body when he kisses this, too, and pulls it into his mouth to suck.

Al's hands thread through his hair—he can do that, with no metal joints to catch and pull, they're gentle and Ed loves them, willing to let his brother set the pace. This contact between them, this communication, the motion of Al's body and the heat and scent and taste of his skin is what he wants. The chakrahs spring to his mind again, and he envisions a line of fire leading up from his groin, his spine, out through his mouth to join with Alphonse's, until it explodes in a crown of glory from his brother's head. He sucks in time with Al's thrusts, the rocking pulse of his hips and the vibration of his moans.

Suddenly the hands in his hair aren't caressing put pulling, tugging him away, and Ed relaxes his jaw and lets Al lift him, pushing himself up on his arm as he turns his face towards his brother. Fingers are stroking his jaw, now, and his cheek; he feels a trail of moisture wiped away, and tries to work out why Al's hands are trembling.

"Al," he says, although he doesn't know that he said it aloud until the hands pause in response; his body is thrumming too hard with pleasure and need to feel his voice. He licks his lips, refreshing the taste there, and Al's arms slide around his shoulders, holding him tight.

"Al," he says again, resting his chin on his brother's shoulder. "Do you want this, Al? Please, don't lie to me. Do you really want me?"

Al sighs, and presses his face against Ed's neck. Ed doesn't know why it is that he can understand his brother's speech just because his mouth is so close; he shouldn't be able to tell so much from the movement of his lips, the muffled vibrations. But the words are perfectly clear, always have been, and Al tells him, "I'm not lying, Niisan. I love you."

He shudders, as the words burrow under his skin, and with Al's hands under his legs he boosts himself up until he's straddling Al's lap, feeling a hot hard length lying against his own. "I've waited for so long," Al whispers—did he say waited or wanted? Ed isn't completely sure.

He answers anyway. "You wanted," he says, and he wonders how much his emotions are making his voice ragged, "something better than this." He nudges Al's thighs with his legs, pressing the metal against him like a vise. Artificial, incomplete. So cold.

"I wanted you," Al says, and there's a dizzying moment as Al shifts and rocks underneath him, and he realizes Al is leaning over to the bedside table. "I only ever wanted you."

His words undo Edward, as they always do, as thoroughly as the gentle, slick fingers that penetrate him and gently open up his body for what comes next. Ed's body moves with hard, jerky motions, and he's not sure if Al knows that it's not just lust that drives him, but also the muffled force of his sobs; there are no tears, and have not been any for a long time, but he feels like he's crying anyway.

Al's hands on his hips steady him, as he raises himself up and presses carefully down on Al, bearing down and pushing out to try and ease the way. It hurts a little, but only a little ache; he's ready and open and Al is always careful, and he wants this, and that's all that makes the difference. His careful mental map of himself and his surroundings is completely scattered, but Al's cock in him is hot and hard and satisfying and so very human, a point of human contact in the void.

Al lets him set the pace at first, waits till he adjusts, and then they move together. Ed doesn't think any more about how much noise he's making, or chakrah diagrams, or anything except the heat and bliss and feeling of rightness that comes with this. It doesn't take him long, ultimately, before the shaking in his thighs and stomach coalesces into a tight hard knot of need and then he's coming, crying out until he can feel his throat scrape with hoarseness. His brother is shouting, too, he can feel it, the liquid rocking surge inside him as his brother follows him into completion.

Ed collapses, shuddering, drained to helplessness by want and exhaustion. So it's Al who moves them, shifts his unresponsive metal limbs out of the way and lays them down together. Ed manages to twist around and scoot against his brother until his back is pressed against Al's chest, and Ed can feel his heartbeat against his ribs, his breath against his shoulder.

Eventually, it slows, and Al kisses the back of his neck. He could have said something, now, but he doesn't seem to want to speak.

"When are you going to Central?" Ed says, after a while.

Al makes a hmm? noise, shifting his arms to clasp around Ed's stomach. Ed frowns, twists around a little, and tries again, more carefully this time. "When are you going to leave to go to Central?"

Al's fingers trace designs on Ed's skin; no words, just touch. "Tomorrow, if you'll be okay," he whispers to Ed's neck. "I'll try not to be more than two days, if I don't stay over—"

Ed interrupts him, putting a metal hand to still his fingers. "Stay over," he says. "You'll be run ragged if you don't, you'll get sick."

Al nods, submitting without a protest. "If you don't mind," he murmurs.

Ed doesn't answer. Of course he minds, but he won't have Al make himself sick and miserable just so he can stay in Riesenburg and coddle him all the time. When Al is gone he sleeps, mostly; Winry and sometimes Auntie help him with clothes and meals, but they can't talk, and there's precious little Ed can do to occupy his mind. He sleeps because it's the safest place for his mind to go when he's alone, even if his dreamscapes, too, are cold with Al gone.

But Al has to go, he knows, because Al still believes that there's hope and Ed doesn't want to kill that hope, stifle it with his neediness. So he doesn't say anything else, just lies there wrapped in Al's arms and soaks up as much of the warmth as he can for the days ahead. Al falls asleep easily after sex, his breathing deep and even against Ed's back.

At last Ed, too, can fall asleep. There's not as much difference as there used to be, except that in his dreams he can see colors again, and hear his brother's voice.