There was the quiet click of the door as Alphonse let himself in, and Ed glanced up from the text before him for long enough to flash his brother a smile. "Find any?"
"Not as such," Al answered evasively, drifting into the room with a distracted air—and even before his brother approached to hover thoughtfully above him, Ed knew by the tone that something had changed.
"What would you think" Alphonse began, and the words sounded painstakingly casual to Ed's ears, "About leaving for Riesenburg tomorrow?"
The bed shifted its weight as the younger boy settled himself on the edge of the mattress, and golden eyes found their way to his brother's face. There was a slight crease in the brow, a tiny tug of worry that pulled down at Al's lips. "Why?" he asked slowly, and closed the book. "What's tomorrow?"
But Alphonse avoided meeting his gaze with a sense of purpose too great to be coincidence, finding a section of the quilt to consider instead. "Nothing—I just thought it would be a good idea," And when the boy shifted, awkward, Ed decided absently that he must be aware of the lie's transparency. "That way, you could finish resting up someplace you'll be more comfortable."
"Al," the older boy pointed out, "You do realize you're not fooling anyone." And, because Ed was fairly certain of the fact, it wasn't really a question at all.
"Besides," Al pushed on resolutely, ignoring him, "I'd rather you see a doctor before I try and get you back to normal." Bronze eyes rose to meet the gaze that was studying him so intently, the emotions in their depth a curious blend of determination and shame and pleading. "That makes more sense, doesn't it?"
It was the expression that cut short what Ed had planned on saying; he closed his teeth on the words with an audible click, considered his brother's face once more. "What happened?" he asked, at last. And when guilt flared up to join the rest of the mix, Ed knew he'd guessed correctly.
"Why does something have to have happened?" the younger boy countered, and looked away again. He seemed to be studying the tips of his fingers now, where they lay against the fabric of his pants. "Why can't it just be an idea?"
"Because you're a terrible liar, Al." Carefully, Ed pushed himself into a sitting position with the remnants of his arm, unsettled by the slow creep of dread that his brother's actions had spurred within him. And when no answer came and the silence stretched too long, the boy opened his mouth to prompt again—but the sound of Al's voice, low and uncertain, cut him off.
"You've seen—the reports." His brother's eyes flickered to his face again, and there was worry now, thick and deep and startling.
The words were enough to dry his throat out, leave him stunned into silence for the space of several seconds. "Yeah," he managed at last, and cringed at how fragile the word sounded.
And Al must have thought so too, he considered bitterly, because a pale hand was closing over the top of what remained of his own, squeezing gently. "They came... every day," the boy said, softly.
And Ed knew. Of course he had. He'd known for nearly two years, had spent weeks thinking that the worst of it wasn't the torture at all but the knowledge that someplace else, someplace safe and calm and normal, people were reading about what was happening to him. He'd had nightmares that someday, those accounts would reach his brother—that the younger boy would understand in far, far too much detail exactly what had befallen him.
But bronze eyes were watching him, expectant, and Ed realized that an answer was anticipated. "I know," he said, simply, and forced down the rest of it.
"But brother..." And a second palm settled atop the first, enveloping his almost-hand in warmth. "...you said you only saw one person." The younger boy paused, meaningfully, to let that sink in. "And the reports came every day."
With the finality of a key clicking in the lock of a door that held back something horrific, he understood—heard, in a distant, vague sort of way, the whimper that escaped his lips.
Al's arms were there, then, around his neck, pulling him in for an embrace—and Ed leaned into it, shuddered against the terror that had settled out in his stomach and hated that he needed the contact so badly. For a little while, the younger boy didn't say anything at all—and when at last he spoke again, it was quiet, almost hesitant.
"There's more, brother," he offered, clearly uncertain. "Do you want to hear?"
The only response Ed managed was a nod that he was sure could be felt, pressed as he was against the warm column of the other boy's throat.
"I found out what the decorations are for," Alphonse admitted, slowly. "It's easy to dig up gossip in a small town." And for a fleeting moment, Ed wondered what, precisely, holiday streamers had to do with anything—but then his brother was pressing onward, and everything began to make the same terrible shade of sense.
"They're for a welcome back party," the boy told him softly. "One of the women in town has a daughter who's been away for six years, and she's just been discharged from the military." There was a pause as Alphonse took a breath, and then he was pushing onward. "She was expecting a promotion, kept writing home about it—but after the coup... well, her mother says she didn't take very well to the new government."
Ed turned the new information over, struggled for words. "That's..."
"A very interesting coincidence, maybe," Al conceded levelly, "But also not a chance that I'm willing to take."
It was a long moment before his mind had settled itself enough to sort through the conflicting feelings that fluttered past, sharp but elusive. "I'm not going to Riesenburg," he said at last. "Not yet."
"But, brother—" Al began, voice bright with worry, but got no further than that—because Ed was talking again, trying to get the rest out before it choked him.
"I can't yet, Al. I can't—can't see Winry or Granny, and have half an arm and pretend nothing's the matter." Those bronze eyes were startlingly near when he looked up, his brother's lips parted slightly with surprise at the vehemence behind the statement. "I didn't want anyone to—to know. And I don't think I can—"
But his brother was shushing him as though quieting a restless child, and a part of Ed bristled at the treatment even as the rest leaned into the touch of warm fingers threaded through his hair. It was a crime, the part of his mind that wasn't so alarmed murmured quietly, for such a simple touch to feel so good.
"I know, brother," Al was saying softly, and those fingertips were gentle, as soothing as the tone. "We could stay someplace else. We wouldn't have to see them—could go back home to Central, even."
And it was tempting. It was so, so very tempting—to leave the place that had caused him so much pain, to return to the little house that was the closest thing he'd had to home in a long, long time. To pretend that he might never have to set foot in a dimly-lit mine shaft again—that if he spent long enough getting used to it, he could even learn to live like this.
But his mind caught up with the direction his thoughts had taken, then, and Ed shuddered at the realization that he'd considered it. When he raised his eyes to meet his brother's again, they burned with golden fire. "I won't run away."
And evidently, Alphonse realized he must have said the wrong thing—because the younger boy was quick to reassure, words falling over each other in an effort to placate. "Of course not, brother—I just meant until you were well enough to come back. We could let the Fuhrer know where the lab was, let the military clean up the mess, and then—"
But Edward wasn't listening—and when he smiled, it was with the same slow, dangerous expression that had frightened anyone unfortunate enough to come up against him two years previous.
"Or," he drawled, and the smile grew wider—an unsettling baring of teeth. "We can change me back now."
It was dark—and really, that shouldn't have bothered him.
After all, the dirt of the walls and the heavy wooden beams that lined the ceiling were plenty clear, even without the skittering too-bright spot that the flashlight made on the ground. But the fact wasn't as much of a comfort as Ed would have liked, and he felt his thumb tighten in the fabric of Al's jacket of its own accord, the not-arm attempting to pull the younger boy just a bit closer.
"We don't have to do this now, brother," Al's voice said, softly.
"Yes," Ed ground out, and took another awkward step forward. "We do." Golden eyes lifted from the bottom of his makeshift leg for long enough to flicker up to his brother's face. "You promised," he insisted—and when Al fell silent again, it was with a look of anxious resignation.
For a time, there was silence again—and the dark. Which, Ed told himself stubbornly, shouldn't make any sort of difference. He could see plenty well, after all, even without the flashlight.
But a quiet, devious little voice in his mind carried on insisting that a candle would come to pierce the blackness, and that pain would follow.
He just wouldn't look, Ed decided. Just wouldn't look, and they would be able to leave soon.
The boy had meant to help his brother check the arrays, of course. He'd planned to make himself useful before the transmutation, at least, even if Alphonse had strictly forbidden him from actually helping.
But there were, he'd been alarmed to discover, things in the lab. Unpleasant things, wrapped far too tightly in memories he didn't wish to recall. And Ed didn't know how he'd missed them before, shuffling his awkward way through the mine without Al's presence, but likely, a part of him suspected, the reason lay somewhere in the fact that the first time, he'd simply been too hurt to care.
And so he waited, sitting up against the wall, and tried not to see them.
Because when he did, Ed noticed that there was the spot where he had woken on the first day, groggy and uncertain, to realize that he couldn't even move his fingers—where he'd understood, with a sinking feeling of dread, that he wasn't going to be able to defend himself against whatever was likely to follow the first of many, many blows.
And that was the table on top of which he'd discovered the agony of having glass shards picked from his ports with tweezers, the nearby alcohol unmoved since—and if he closed his eyes, he could feel it screaming along his nerves, burning away what was left of his self control.
He'd leaned into that wall, weak and retching, dizzy with pain—had pressed up against the cold, unforgiving bars of the last cage in the row and been grateful that he was so small—had writhed against the dirt of the floor when his pinky was folded backward with a meaty snap.
"Brother," Al was saying, and a worried face was before him. "I asked if you were ready."
Edward took a deep, shuddery breath—and then he nodded.
Any time, now.
His brother could begin at any time, and Ed couldn't help but fidget—couldn't quiet the little voice that kept wondering what would happen if he got it wrong.
But warm bronze eyes were watching him levelly from outside the transmutation circle, and Ed struggled not to let it show. Managed to pull a smile up from somewhere, and wondered whether Al could even see it.
"Brother," the younger boy said, as though in response, and Ed could see his throat bob as he swallowed. "Before we do this... I want to tell you something."
The laugh that forced itself from his throat was a sharp, unstable thing, and Ed was abruptly very glad that the accompanying expression must be half-faded in the darkness. "It can't wait?" he managed, and was proud of the fact that his voice sounded marginally normal.
"It's waited too long already," Al answered, softly—and then he was crawling forward into the array, and Ed's thoughts insisted distractedly that now they'd need to re-draw the outside edge again.
"Al?" he asked, dubious.
Those gentle eyes were close now, close enough that Ed knew he couldn't rely on the poor lighting to shield his expression from view. Hopefully, he thought fervently, the blush at least would be hidden—because the way his brother was looking at him was enough to wash away the fear, to remind him of a time when he'd been well enough to want the younger boy with a fierce intensity.
And then Alphonse parted his lips to speak—but the only sound to ring out in the hollow darkness of the mine was a metallic one, sharp and sudden: the hammer of a gun.