Their mother would have told them that eavesdropping wasn't a nice thing to do. While Al usually took it on himself to keep up the standards in their family, he made an exception for Ed. A lot of things about Ed required exception, and one of them was Al's respect for his privacy. If he didn't, he'd never have any idea what was going on with his brother, because Ed didn't talk to him.
Well, that wasn't fair. They talked all the time. They would talk over breakfast, when Ed came out covering a yawn to find Al standing at the stove cooking eggs. They would talk over books, if Al stumbled on a passage he wanted to read aloud, or if Ed suddenly burst into vicious complaint about some long-dead author's incompetence. They would talk if they got in the mood to spar, though that was mostly Ed grousing about still not being able to beat Al in a fight. Sometimes, they would lie awake at night, staring into the dark space between their beds, and talk about the past, or Al's progress in getting used to things again, or Winry's latest bouts of temper, and that was nicest of all.
But there were still some things that Ed would never talk about, some things he would never mention to his brother. And those were the things, Al knew, that were most important.
So, he eavesdropped.
He'd folded himself back against the wall, beside the door into the workshop, and practiced holding still. His head was tilted back against the wall, and his arms were crossed tightly over his chest, one of them gripping the edge of the doorframe. It was a position he could hold patiently for as long as need be, and not make any noises that might give him away. The nice thing about having a real body back, he reflected, was that he could move silently as a cat when he wanted, even if the advantage was slightly offset by needing to breathe again.
Winry and his brother were in there, doing one of Ed's checkups. She'd come to see him three times in the past week, and that worried Al; she wouldn't normally need to do that level of fine-tuning, unless something was wrong. But if there was something wrong, then Ed hadn't told him, and that was why he was here.
"It's definitely starting to pull," Winry said, in a half-scolding, half-worried tone. Ed grunted, and there were clanking noises, and bodies shifting around the workbench. Then Winry sighed. "You aren't doing the stretches I told you to. At this rate there'll be no saving it!"
"I can't do them on my own," Ed said somewhat sullenly. "Winry, a person can't twist his own arm behind his back. Besides, what's the use? It'll have to come out sooner or later."
"Later is definitely better than sooner," Winry snapped. "Why don't you get Al to help you, then?"
There was only silence in response. Yeah, why? Al brought up his free hand to press over his mouth, just to keep any of his thoughts from spilling out loud.
"Ed, don't be ridiculous!" Winry was saying. "You're both fine now, so why do you insist on brooding all the time? Al has gotten over it, so why haven't you?"
His brother snorted, a sound full of bitter weariness. "He hasn't gotten over it," he said dully. "Five years—Winry, he spent five years in that form, because of me. Every day he has to struggle to do ordinary things that should come easily and naturally—"
That was an exaggeration, Al thought indignantly. Lately he could go for days at a stretch without having any trouble at all.
"—and it's hard for him," Ed finished, subdued. "Damn hard. I can't add my own problems on top of his."
Says who? Al growled mentally, tightening his hand on the doorframe.
"Edwa~ard!" Winry complained. "You want to help him with his problems, because you care about him, right? What makes you think that he doesn't feel the same way?"
Yes, Winry! You tell him! Al cheered silently.
Ed's next words came like a physical blow to his stomach. "Why should he?" Ed murmured, tone drained and lifeless. "He only stays here with me because he hasn't got anywhere else to go. I've left him with no-one else to turn to."
"HEY," Winry objected loudly, snatching up a wrench from the workbench with an aggressive scrape. "What are Auntie and I, chopped liver?"
Bad move, Ed. Al had to bite his lip to keep it from twitching into a smile, but his brother's next words killed his growing humor.
"I bet he just feels some kind of obligation." Ed's voice was muffled, as though he were talking at a wall or... into his hand, Al wasn't sure. "But after everything that's happened, everything I've done, he can't... There's nobody alive who can have all those horrible things done to them, and just be... okay with it. He must... I'm sure he hates me."
No! Al barely kept from shouting the word aloud. Winry came to his rescue again.
"He said he didn't," Winry reminded Ed, her anger vanished. "You asked him, that time, and he told you. Why should that have changed?"
"He would say anything that he thinks would make me happy," Ed said, shifting around on the bench. "He's too nice that way. I keep telling him that, but he doesn't listen."
Winry sighed, and mumbled something Al couldn't hear. More clinkings and thumpings followed, and Ed grunted, but didn't say anything more. Carefully, Al eased his grip on the wooden doorframe, noticing the faint dents his fingers had left with a rueful wince. There was nothing more to be gained by staying around and listening, and if he let himself think here, he would undoubtedly storm in and try to shake some sense into his brother's thick skull, and that would disturb Winry and there would probably be wrenches involved. It was a much better idea to go somewhere isolated, where he could think and possibly kick things in peace.
He ended up perched on the stump of a tree that used to border the property, watching the sun setting behind the hill. The fiery golds and scarlets of the light playing over the clouds seemed like an appropriate mood theme for how his thoughts were running just then.
So, Ed had been hiding things from him. Not really a surprise, or Al wouldn't have bothered eavesdropping in the first place. But while he was expecting the don't-make-Al-worry mentality that led to such stupidities, he hadn't expected to come abruptly face to face with the ghost of a fear he thought they'd laid to rest long ago.
He'd known, after That Night, that Ed would feel guilty. It was typical of Ed, and only fair, he figured, since they'd both had their hand in the making of this disaster. But he thought he'd made plain to Edward, that day by the lake, that it was a burden they shared in equally, and would bear together, and that whatever happened, Al still loved him and wanted to stay with him.
That should have cleared things up, and he thought it had gone unsaid, then, for the next three years. When Ed suddenly spoke of it again, with his face lined and strained as he told Al, There's something I've been meaning to ask you... well, it was just bad timing that Ed's fear and guilt had resurfaced at a time when Al was besieged by fears and doubts of his own. But in the end Ed had asked him, straight out, do you hate me? And once again Al had told him, no.
That should have been it.
That should have been it. Why was Ed still letting this fear haunt him? How long was the lingering pain of these old wounds going to hang between them?
He probably hates me now...
I don't hate you, brother.
Do you hate me, Al? For putting you in that body?
I don't hate you.
I'm sure he hates me...
He hunched a bit on his seat, glowering off at the oblivious crickets. What would it take?
Indignant fury brought him into their bedroom like a storm, banging the door against the far wall. Ed was sitting on his own bed, undressing for sleep, as Al whirled on him. "What's it going to take?" Al demanded.
"Huh?" Ed looked up, eyes wide and shocked, socks still in hand. He looked strangely vulnerable in this half-way state, and that only egged Al on.
"It's been six years, Brother," Al said, slowly advancing on the bed. "Six years since we made that mistake. We both made it. I didn't blame you then, and I don't blame you now, so why won't you get that into your head?"
Ed's eyes widened, then narrowed in sudden suspicion. "Winry," he growled. "Dammit, I told her to keep it secret! What has she been—"
Al cut off his brother's tirade with an impatient chop of his hand. "I was listening in," he said, "so don't try to blame this on Winry."
"You were listening?" Ed choked, and the blood drained out of his face, horror overtaking his expression. "Al, you—"
"Heard everything," Al growled. He folded his arms across his chest; it felt like the safest position, where they wouldn't be tempted to clock his stubborn brother over the head. "What are you thinking, not telling me important things? What's wrong with your automail? Why aren't you doing what Winry tells you?"
Ed stiffened, and turned around on his bed, presenting Al with his back as he finished getting on his pyjamas. "My automail is my business," he growled.
"It's not just your business!" Al felt like tearing his hair out. "Argh! You're so short-sighted, Brother!"
That got Ed's attention in a hurry, and he nearly knocked himself off the bed, with how quickly he sat up again. "Who are you calling so short you can't even see him before you step on him?" he yelled.
"That's not what I said and you know it!" Al stalked towards the bed, glaring at his older brother. "Why couldn't you trust me enough to tell me?"
"It's not that I don't trust you," Ed objected loudly, a high flush decorating his cheeks. "I just didn't want to worry you with something that isn't your fault..."
"That," Al said, and pointed at the automail arm, "is my fault."
"What?" Ed gaped at his brother, in disbelief, and then shook his head violently. "You've gone off your rocker, Al. Everything that happened that night is my..."
"We've been over this, Brother. We're over this, already! I don't blame you for what happened, understand? I'm not angry any more!"
"You're too nice!" Ed yelled. "That's your problem, Al! You'll let anyone do anything to you and all the while think they're doing you a favor! That's just dumb! Why won't you just grow up already?"
"Where are you getting this idea that I'm still ten years old?" Al shouted back. "I'm not some kind of baby or pet that you always need to protect, Brother! Don't do that to me!"
"Somebody's got to look out for you, you're hopeless on your own!"
"Well, then it had better be someone who can do a better job of it than you have!"
Al regretted saying that almost before he'd said it. For one, it completely undercut his entire argument here. For another, while he'd wanted to stop Ed arguing, he had not wanted him to fall back like that, like somebody had just slammed ten pounds of steel into his stomach. Al was at his brother's side in a moment.
"I don't hate you." His hands settled on Ed's shoulders, gripping them gently, pulling Ed to face him. "I never did, Brother. How many times will I have to tell you before it sinks in?"
"It was all my fault," Ed said in a small voice.
"You weren't the only one at fault," Alphonse corrected him, gently but firmly. "We walked that road together, Brother. We paid our debts. We deserve to be free."
"Al, I... no." Ed started to raise his hand, either to touch Al in return, or to push him away; Al wasn't sure, but Ed dropped his hand before making contact. "You should... you deserve... I never..."
Ed had stopped making coherent sense, and Al sighed, in frustration and sadness. He knelt in front of the bed, hands still on Ed's shoulders; that brought his face down level with his brother's, only an inch or two below his gaze. "Brother," he said. "I don't hate you. Don't you understand? I love you."
Ed was just looking at him, shaking slightly, that devastated expression on his face. Sometimes, thought Al, even saying things aloud just won't do. He slid his hand up Ed's shoulder, resting his palm on his brother's cheek, and tilted his chin up slightly. "I love you," he repeated, and kissed Ed.
It was warm, and sweet, and lasted quite a few seconds longer than Al had initially intended. He wasn't going to complain, though, because Ed felt and smelled and tasted like everything Al had ever admired about his brother; strong and sharp with an underlying core of sweetness. When he finally broke away, licking his lips, he found Ed's hand clutching at the sleeve of his shirt. He wasn't trying to pull him away, though, or at least he didn't seem to be; just... holding.
"Al..." Ed said weakly. His expression was open, unsure, and more than a little bit uncertain. It stirred Al's heart, his trust and affection for his brother along with the part of him that always wanted to pick up and cuddle and comfort things that were scared and hurting and alone, and right now Ed was all of those.
"You are my one and only older brother," he said, softly and earnestly, his hand cupping Ed's chin and making sure their eyes met. "and I love you. I don't understand how you could doubt that. I never forgot that you loved me; how could I, when every day I could see how hard you were working to help me?"
"I had to," Ed said, and his voice sounded funny. "It was my..."
Al shut him up with another kiss, and this time he ran his hands over Ed's back and shoulders while he did, slipping his fingers under the thin white shirt that Ed had already put on for sleep. Ed kissed back this time, which pleased Al greatly, but not as much as the feel of warm skin under his hands and the slight hitch of Ed's ribs when his fingertips grazed across them.
When he pulled back again, he rested his forehead lightly against Ed's, taking quick and steady breaths. "I do not want to hear," he said, "the word ‘fault' coming from you... well, ever again really, but for the rest of this evening will do. Got it?"
"Al, why are you..." Ed still sounded—not quite together, Al decided. Still a little confused, and a little lost. And under that, a lot of wanting, and Al didn't think that all that could have come from just five minutes of touch. No, this was something that had been locked inside his brother for a long time. "Are you sure you should..."
"I love you." Al answered the need, not the words, and he saw the shiver run through Ed in response. Powerful words, Al observed, and filed that away for later consideration. For now the important thing was kissing Ed, not just on the mouth but all over his face, on his jaw and under his throat and finding out just how his skin smelled.
"So this is how you feel after all," Al murmured against Ed's skin. Another shiver ran through the body in his arms, and Al's fingers curled around the seam of the nightshirt Ed was wearing and began to pull it up over his back. It seemed that while he was talking, his brother wasn't inclined to resist. So, Al kept talking.
"I wondered for a long time, you know," he murmured, running his palms up Ed's back and over the bony knots of his spine. "A lot of times at night, I'd look at you, and try to remember how things like this felt. And I'd wonder how something like this would feel. When I forget the feel of my own skin, brother, I dreamt of yours..."
"Should have had skin of your own," Ed said, faintly. Al looked up and saw flickers of guilt trying to break into the hazy pleasure in his brother's eyes.
"Shhhhh," he said, and tugged insistently, pulling the shirt off over Ed's head. "None of that now." Ed's hair spilled out from the neckhole, messy and disorganized and golden, and Al just had to stop everything else he was doing to run his fingers through it, put his face to it and revel in the taste and the smell.
Ed sighed, the air brushing against the side of Al's neck. "Missed you, Al," he said, and his voice was low and rough.
Startled, Al pulled back; he eyed Ed a little warily, but his brother didn't seem inclined to put a stop to things, not now. Not quite knowing what to say, he kissed Ed again, since that worked even better for keeping Ed quiet and pliant. At least now his brother's shirt was off, and his hair was a mess around his shoulders, and the fascination of touch and sight and scent was more than enough to keep him occupied for a while.
This felt good. So good. Why hadn't they done this ages ago? "I should have shown you before," Al said aloud, slipping hands up and down Ed's body, then dragging his smaller—older, but still smaller!—brother into his arms, so they could press their bodies together. Ed made a noise, that might have been question, or agreement, or more; it was rather hard to tell, so Al went with the latter.
It was convenient that Ed had gotten undressed for bed; they'd already done away with the shirt, and now the shorts could go too; Al pressed Ed back against the bed, alternating kisses with hungry nips to his throat and shoulder. "Lie back," he whispered. "Lift your hips up. I want to show you something..."
Ed blinked, and wariness chased a little bit of the haze from his eyes. "Al, are you sure?" he said. "Why?"
He thought about it, honestly he did; the answers came to mind immediately. "There are a lot of reasons," he said. "It feels good for me. It feels good for you. It shows you what I feel for you in a way that can't leave any doubts. And besides—" He bit Ed's chest just above a scar, which drew out a gasp, the smoothed it over with his lips. "I like to touch you, brother."
That might have been enough to satisfy Ed, or maybe not; Al didn't give him the chance to ask any more questions. He did get Ed out of his clothing, and somewhere in there his own shirt vanished and his pants came open and he just barely got rid of the shoes before he put a hole in the sheets.
His brother was beautiful; Al had been aware of this for a long time. He'd watched Edward very closely for a long time, had seen him mature and change—grow, yes, even if he didn't gain in height. He'd seen Edward's body plenty of times, in pieces in bed at night, as a whole when Edward bathed, and distressing flashes when Ed was hurt and needed to be sewn up. And he could admire the beauty of Ed's form, lean and muscular and brimming with youth and power and unconscious grace, without needing to feel resentful of his own cold, hollow, empty body.
If there was anything he was jealous of, those times, it was that he would never have the chance to touch that beauty, to lay his hands on it and feel the warmth and power under his fingertips, to press hard and leave marks, and see it move at his direction. He could, now, and he took shameless advantage of it, of Ed's unusally pliable state to fulfill every half-suppressed desire that had lurked in his dreams and half-dreams for years.
It was good. It was better than he'd imagined, certainly more than he'd ever had before, but Al was pretty sure that even repeated experience couldn't come close to this, this heat and sweetness and rightness of the moment. And Ed ended up hopelessly tangled in the sheets with Al between his legs, touching his thighs and hips and stomach and every part of him he could reach, and Ed was crying out Al's name as Al sucked at his cock, and things got too bright and too good to think for a while after that.
They were still and quiet for a while afterwards, Al lying partly on top of Ed and both of them a little overheated and a lot sticky. Finally Al stirred enough to move, to roll over in the bed and look out the window; the moon was all the way risen, by now, and casting a faint light into the yard.
He hmm'd a bit, and snuggled back against Ed, who was tolerant by now of his brother's irresistible cuddling urges. Ed's face ended up pressed against Al's shoulder, his human leg tangled between Al's, and his arm tucked under the sheets. His eyes were closed, but he wasn't sleeping. He was waiting for something, and as Al played with strands of his brother's hair, bleached almost silver in the dim light, he thought about what that might be.
"It's not that I never felt angry," Al said finally, and he wasn't sure why. He hoped this wouldn't set Ed off on a guilt trip again, but something told him no; he only had to be honest, explain his true feelings, and Ed would understand. "Or that it never hurt. It did, and sometimes I was mad. I didn't think it was fair. I didn't want to be so big, so clumsy, so ugly. It was scary, and I was afraid of what would happen if I had to stay that way forever."
Ed's chin was pressed hard against his shoulder, and his arms were around his brother's back. He could feel the increase in Ed's heartbeat, the slight catch in his breathing, but Ed didn't interrupt.
He moved his head, and placed a kiss against his brother's hair. "But I never blamed you," he whispered. "And I never hated you. Maybe it wasn't fair that they took more away from me than they did from you, but you sacrificed a part of yourself to save me."
He reached out, and grasped Ed's automail arm in his left hand. His palm slid along the cool, smooth wires, almost as much a part of his brother's body as the other, normal limb. "You did that," Al breathed, still feeling the echoes of that awe resonating in him. "And from then on, whenever I saw you struggling with the surgery, or to learn to use your automail... then I was reminded of what you'd done for me, of how much you cared for me, and I knew that whatever happened, you'd find a way to save me."
Ed shifted, his arm tugging against Al's pull. Al just slid his hand the rest of the way down the arm, and twined his fingers with Ed's with a sigh. "Do you have any idea what it's like," he said, "to be that loved?"
"I think I'm getting a taste," Ed muttered, sounding somewhere between embarrassment and awe. Al smiled at the tone, and then couldn't stop smiling.
"All right," he said, suddenly businesslike, and sat up, peeling his chest away from Ed's. Ed raised his head from the blanket and glanced back at Al, looking suddenly bereft. The smile broke into a grin.
"All right, Brother," he said again; "face down on the bed, right now."
"WHAT?" Ed squawked, sitting bolt upright and gaping at Al like a fish. "Umm, Al, are you, I mean, I don't think we should, right now? Do that? Don't you think we're, it's just—"
That did it. The laughter wouldn't stop. "Brother, you're an idiot," he gasped out, between spasms. He collapsed against the wall, letting it support him as he wheezed. He wasn't sure when the last time he'd laughed so loud had been, but he was obviously out of shape for it. "Ow, my ribs!"
"Don't laugh at me!" Ed said, outraged. "It's not funny, it's my ass we're talking about here!"
"You pervert!" Al wheezed. "Automail, automail, I want to take a look at your shoulder!"
"Oh." He only thought Ed had been blushing before; now he turned a red fit to rival a tomato. "Well, fine, if that's the way you're going to be." Grumbling, he nevertheless turned over and flopped down onto the bed on his stomach. He shifted around, gathering blankets and pillows under him with his left arm to support his chest.
Al's laughter died, or at least, he managed to control it, as Ed's automail shoulder became more visible, more prominent. Ed glanced back over the shoulder at him as he began to move forward. "No funny stuff back there," he said warningly.
"Of course not." Although sitting so close to Ed's back, with only a blanket between their hips, well, it was giving him ideas. But for now his target was the automail, and he leaned forward, trying to use the dim light as best as he could. He made an annoyed face, and leaned over—almost squishing Ed in the process—to turn on the lamp by the bedside, so he could get a better look.
There was definitely something wrong with it; he didn't have to be an automail engineer to see it, just the years of traveling with his brother and watching him use and maintain his automail gave him that experience. The arm seemed somehow twisted in the socket, not properly aligned, and the port—the port itself wasn't quite straight, Al decided with a critical eye. The skin around the joint, too, was puffy and reddened, and a crack of damage showed at what should have been a clean seam between metal and skin.
"What happened here?" Al said, gently prodding the shoulder. "Did you wrench it badly?" He was pretty sure he would have remembered anything Ed had done that could do that much damage.
"Ow," Ed said. "Of course not. How clumsy do I look to you?"
Al decided to go for the gusto; he set his hands on Ed's back, and the juncture of his shoulder and neck, and dug in. Ed yelped, nearly jackknifing off of the bed, as Al pressed down. "Brother, your arm and shoulder are twisted into knots!" he said scoldingly. "It's like rocks back here. What have you been doing?"
Ed winced and flinched as Al's hands prodded his shoulder, pressing out the knots and unkinking the muscles. "Ow, ow! I haven't been doing anything! Gah, not so hard! It just happens, all right, because... well, the port's shifted a little—grk—and Winry says—OW! Fuck! Al, are you sure you don't hate me?"
"Very sure. Why has it shifted?" Al's hands lightened, now that the initial resistance had been broken down. He switched to a gentler rubbing, watching the skin move over muscle and bone.
Ed sighed, and it was hard to tell whether the cause of it was discomfort or relief or resignation. "She and Auntie think I might be outgrowing the port," he finally admitted. "Not the arm, that could just be readjusted to fit... but the bones that the port are attached to have been moving around and separating, she said. They're..." He trailed off, words ending in a moan as Al dug a particularly bad knot out of his neck.
"They what?" Al shifted, leaning further over his back. He wondered if it might be easier to do this if he were straddling his brother's waist, thighs and sides touching.... he shook his head, to himself; no. They had plenty of time.
"They're pretty sure that they're going to have to remove it and install a new one," Ed said, voice muffled by the blankets, but resigned.
Automail adjustments always entailed some pain; more if the limbs had to be taken off entirely and reattached. But at least that pain only lasted a few minutes, with a residual ache of a few hours. However, the price of that efficiency was paid by the painstaking—in the most literal sense of the word—installation of the automail port. That work took hours of grueling surgery, for both the engineer and the patient; usually in three or four bouts as corrections had to be made for the nerve connections and the resettling of the bones to which the frames were bolted.
Al knew most of this from Winry's chatter or Pinako's more careful explanation of her trade. He hadn't been allowed in the room the first time Ed had undergone that surgery; hadn't gotten more than a fleeting glimpse of Ed with countless wires trailing from his shoulder before he had been firmly kicked out. He thought about that time, sitting out in the hall and listening to Ed thrashing in agony in the next room, unable to see, unable to help.
He sighed, and lifted his hands from Ed's shoulder, resting them lightly on his lower back. Ed twisted his head around, wincing at the movement of his sore neck, and tried to read his brother's expression. "What is it?" he said grumpily.
Al leaned down, hands still on his brother's back, and kissed his cheek. "I'll be with you," he said simply. "I'll help you through it."
Ed had no right to look so surprised, Al thought with annoyance. He scowled, and flopped down with a sigh next to his brother, making sure to keep him pinned with his arms and legs. He'd put himself on the outside of the bed, and raeched over to turn the lamp off, plunging them back into darkness.
"Go to sleep," he said. "We're up way past bedtime."
"Huh. Whose fault is that?" Ed looked like he might pull away, but he didn't. In fact, he only moved to pull out some of the blankets from under his chest, laying down flat again. His neck and back and shoulder moved lighter now, letting him lie comfortably for the first time in a while, and Al snuggled against him, keeping him warm just as well as any blanket.
They slept, not deeply, but well. Every now and then one of them would come up out of a muddle of warmth and comfort and faint pain to see the other there, in the tangled blankets and the moonlight, and, reassured that everything was all right, would go back under.
One time Al came awake almost completely, and rolled over to find Ed also awake, staring out the window. He put an arm over his brother's collarbone, and when Ed turned his head to look at him, a little bit of wetness got away from his eyes and slipped into the pillow.
"I wanted to see Mother again," Ed whispered, as though that were the last, the deepest of his most shameful secrets. The source from which all other sins arose.
Al laid his head down on his brother's shoulder, the real one, human and living and warm. "I know," he said. "I did too."
They slept again until morning.