The first night was a wonder, a precarious balance between exhausted and too excited to sleep.
He'd lain awake for hours, intimately aware of the cotton sheets, worn soft with age—of the faint tang of metal, when he breathed in deeply—of the nearness of the boy beside him, solid and warm. And each time Edward took a breath, steady and even, a thrill shot through him to realize that he could feel the pressure as his brother's chest expanded; they were lying that close.
His hands had moved as though with a life of their own, needing to explore—had stroked tentatively through the smaller boy's hair, marveling at the way it fell through his fingers like strands of heated silk. Had traced along Ed's cheekbones and lips, watching his brother's expression teeter between pleased and embarrassed in the quiet semi-dark of the room. Had fallen curiously to the smooth, chill surface of the automail, discovering the feel of the metal.
It was because of him, Alphonse realized with sudden surge of warmth, that the limb existed. Because of him that the sleek, heavy thing had taken the place of flesh and blood and bone. And for the first time, in all the long years that Edward had worn it as proof of exactly how much he would give up for his little brother, Alphonse touched the hard planes of it with marveling hands.
The water reached his knees, and Al waded out further still, heedless of the chill wet that pierced him through now-drenched pants. It as a beautiful day, after all, and the boy had missed cold as much as any sensation—and there was something unearthly and lovely about the way the pink light of dawn reflected in the lake's glassy surface.
"Isn't it cold?" Ed asked dubiously from where he stood on the shore, still bleary-eyed with sleep; waking the boy this early had taken considerable effort, and actually dragging him from the house had required coercion.
"Oh, yes," Alphonse agreed, expression bright with wonder as he bent to scoop some of the liquid into his hands. "Freezing." The water streamed clear and icy through his fingers—and all at once he straightened, laughing, to flick the last few drops into his brother's face.
He received a startled yelp in response, just seconds before Ed took the gesture for what it was: an invitation. And all at once the smaller boy was launching himself from the safety of the shore, was wrapping arms tight around Al's waist and throwing his entire weight into the effort to send them both tumbling.
He succeeded with a phenomenal splash—and Al grinned at him, when they'd surfaced, delighted by the cat-in-water expression that his brother was wearing.
"Fuck!" Ed declared, as though it were a revelation, and shivered violently. "It's freezing!"
"Pay attention, brother," Al advised, tone light. "I said that already."
The wicked glint that surged up to fill those golden eyes was warning enough for him to dodge the next would-be tackle.
And even if Edward's metal limbs kept the boys from swimming as dangerously near the lake's center as they'd dared during childhood, it seemed an unimportant detail by the time they hauled themselves up onto the sandy shore some hours later, breathless and laughing.
Alphonse maneuvered the door open with his foot, wedged it wider bit by bit so that the stack of folded clothes cradled so carefully in his arms wouldn't be jostled.
He was halfway to setting them on the bed before he realized that the intended space was already occupied.
"Brother?" he asked, and cast about vaguely for someplace else that would hold the garments. A moment longer and he'd discovered the dresser, nudging aside a stack of Edward's books to make room.
"Mm," the boy answered noncommittally, voice muffled by the pillow in which he'd buried his face. Judging by the utter disregard with which the small form was sprawled out on top of the blankets, Al mused with a small smile, he was lucky to have gotten even that much by way of response.
Sitting himself carefully in one of the spaces not currently occupied by his brother's splayed limbs, the younger boy reached out a hand for Edward's shoulder, grasped lightly and shook.
"Here I am cleaning up after you," Alphonse sighed, tone filled with mock-exasperation, "And you're sleeping? Really, brother. Up now—you can help with dinner."
There was a second's silence, and then the mumbled words: "Don't wanna."
Alphonse pouted minutely, hand traveling a few inches to prod him ungently between the shoulder blades. "But, brother—"
And the sentence didn't get any further than that.
Because Al couldn't miss the sharp intake of breath at the simple contact, nor the way his brother's entire body had tensed.
Very carefully, Alphonse set the pad of his thumb against the place once more, applying slow, even pressure. It didn't take much before Ed jerked minutely beneath it, a quiet hiss of pain leaving him.
"Brother," Al began, not quite able to keep the hurt from his voice. "I wish you'd tell me when it gets like this." Shifting so that he could reach more easily, the younger boy set his palms out flat against his brother's back, beginning with a gentle stroking motion—no weight behind it, but it served as an attempt to ease some of the tension away. "You're not invincible, you know."
Ed gave a snort that may or may not have been assent, but beneath Alphonse's fingers the muscles in the boy's back began to relax marginally.
"I mean it," he insisted, adding a bit of pressure to the touch. "People aren't meant to be part metal—of course you ache all the time." His fingers entered the fray now, not stroking so much as digging, seeking out the places that made his brother flinch and kneading them mercilessly; beneath him, Ed made a quiet sound that was near to a whimper. "If you'd tell me, I could help before it got like this."
Edward turned his head to peer cautiously upward, pain threading through the expression. "It's not so bad, most of the time. I'm sort of—ah!" Ed cried out as attentive fingers began working through the knotted mess they found at the small of his back, and the sentence was momentarily forgotten.
It was only after Alphonse had moved on to other areas that the boy offered a shaky smile and finished weakly: "Sort of used to it."
The younger boy favored his brother with a look that described exactly what he thought of that particular protest and didn't deign to answer.
Instead, he focused upon the task at hand.
Because Alphonse liked touching his brother, and it had become more difficult of late to coax the boy into contact as close as they'd shared just after his body was restored. He loved the warmth of solid flesh beneath fabric and the the rhythm of Ed's heart, barely discernable through the skin of his palms.
Alphonse had dreamed of this, trapped in a shell that hadn't allowed him these simple delights—knew now, by comparison, how empty the world could be.
For a time, there was silence—nothing but the soft noises that his brother made as both boys enjoyed the simple pleasure of human touch. And gradually, the pain in the sounds was eclipsed by pleasure, drained away as Al worked the tension from overstrained muscles.
By the time the younger boy had finished the area surrounding his brother's arm port and reached for the left thigh, Ed only shuddered, heaved a shaky sigh, and leaned into the touch.
It would be a week before Winry could come to Central to do the repairs.
She was busy caring for a patient who'd recently had a port installed, and much as she wanted Ed mobile, the girl had told Alphonse firmly over the phone, there were more important things.
And so his brother sulked, and hobbled awkwardly about the apartment with his crutch. Flushed scarlet when Al had to cut his food or help him button a difficult shirt or change the bandages. Groused about not being able to get up and walk to the bookshelf to select new reading material after he'd finished the volume he was working on.
And had already complained five times in the past two days about how unfair it was that a single fight do enough damage to both limbs that wearing them was more of an encumbrance than a help.
"I mean, he wasn't even that good," Ed protested again, waving his flesh arm about as though for emphasis. "And what kind of fucked up luck does it take for his rebound to leave me with broken automail?"
"In all fairness, brother," Alphonse reminded him, "It could have been much worse. Now stay still, or your braid will be crooked."
Carefully, the younger boy tugged a strand of golden hair neatly between two others, trying very hard not to think about what had been troubling him since Ed's return from the mission. It didn't work, of course—exactly as it hadn't for the past several days.
Because the part of his mind that always worried when his brother was away just wouldn't stop running the thought through his mind: had it not been for the metal limbs, Ed might easily have been killed in the avalanche that buried his opponent. Might have been lost under a slough of earth when the mountainside above the man's house had given out, loosened by the explosion of the rebound.
But the automail was strong—strong enough that the boy had been able to force his way out from under a boulder that a hand of steel and quick reflexes had kept from crushing his head. Strong enough that, even bent from the force of the impact, the arm had worked well enough to claw his leg free and, mangled though the limbs were, Ed had been able to limp into town using two legs.
Strong enough that Alphonse still had an older brother.
And that, the boy thought, as careful fingers tied off the end of a newly-formed braid, would have to be comfort enough for the times when Ed was away.
He'd always known, of course, that metal drained heat—and understood, even as armor, that his brother's false limbs bothered him more than usual when the onset of winter began. Old wounds ache when the weather turns bad, Ed had explained to him once, when he'd asked how it felt—and for years, the younger boy had been content to leave it at that, not remembering extremes of temperature well enough to consider a different angle.
And so he'd been shocked earlier that morning when his brother had handed him a plate of toast at breakfast. Because, just for a second, as their fingers brushed under the dish, he'd been startled by the intensity of the cold in the metal limb, deep and sudden.
The contact had sparked a new and uncomfortable awareness within him—left him watching his brother surreptitiously, attempting to gauge how badly the chill seemed to be affecting the boy.
But still, most of the day had gone by before his brother's impromptu declaration: that if it was going to be so fucking cold, it might as well just give up and snow inside, as well. With that, he'd stomped to the couch and curled up in one corner of it, announcing as though he expected Alphonse to protest that he wasn't going to budge until spring.
And Al had spared him a long, considering look before disappearing down the hallway.
He returned a moment later, of course, arms full of a blanket from their room—dumped it over his brother's head and settled beside the boy, smiling at the curses that streamed up from below the thick quilt as Edward tried to fight his way free.
It was Al's patient hands that untangled him, resettling the fabric so that it covered both of them, and though the smaller boy grumbled about presumptuous little brothers, he scooted amiably over to make room.
There were several seconds of silence, and then, grudgingly: "You're warm."
The words reminded Alphonse with a pang of the shoulder brace that covered nearly half the smaller boy's chest, leeching the heat from him.
A careful arm worked its way around Edward's waist, drew him nearer. "What did you expect?" Al answered lightly, quietly pleased to realize that the tremors threading through the small form were already subsiding.
And when Ed nuzzled a bit closer, tucked so neatly up against his chest, it was only natural to lean that little bit extra and press their lips together.