part 2 of The Darkest Hour

There must be a limit, Ed thinks, to how many times the same thoughts can go round and round in his head, wearing deep grooves into his mind and eating away at his sanity. There must be a limit, but after all this time, Ed hasn't found it.

No limit to the number of times that day—that hour plays over in his head. Every little mistake, his carelessness, his arrogance—oh god, oh god, his arrogance—every moment that led up to that blinding burst of light, flinging his arms up uselessly to shield his face. Energy that wrapped around him like nettles, like barbed wire, digging in deep before ripping him apart.



It's Al's face that hangs in his mind, grotesquely overlaid with garish new tints of purple and green. Al, scrabbling back over the stone floor away from him, face twisted in horror—hands clamped over his mouth—before turning away, vomiting in the corner. Ed doesn't blame him for that, when those distorted hands reached for him. He would have done the same thing himself, if he could. If he could.

Al had picked himself up again, white and green and shaking, terrified and determined, but Ed can never get that first image—that honest image, that true image—from his mind. It seems to hang with him even in the deepest darkness, dance endlessly in his mutilated dreams.

He suspected the spaciness is a result of the drugs, partly. But it's far better than going without.

Every moment.

Every little mistake.

God, he had been so arrogant...

Footsteps on the stairs shatter his endless train of thought, going round and round in his head like lab rats in an empty cage. The return of light, of company, of Al into his world always has the unpleasant effect of pulling him back to his body—his loathsome, twisted body.

Old, bad habit makes him shift, to try and sit up and greet his brother, but the movement aborts even before it's born. His lower backbone has fused with something unforgiving, and it's left him as paralyzed from the waist down as if his spine has snapped. He can only lay there, panting shallowly, and wait for the agony to recede once again behind the hazy tide of the drugs that make the pain, just barely, bearable.

The lights come on, and Ed blinks, eyes watering madly, as a soft voice cuts across the stone room.

"Brother? Are you awake?"

There's no point now in saying he's not, so Ed only exhales, softly and carefully, and cranes his neck around to look up at Al. His brother is standing at the bottom of the stairs, one hand on the light switch and the other cradling a book to his chest.

"How are you feeling?" Al asks, somewhat rhetorically, as he pads softly across the basement. He doesn't quite look at Ed as he approaches, scrapes the wooden chair to the side so he can sit down. "Are you in much pain? Do you need more medicine yet?"

Al knows he doesn't; he had his last dose only a few hours ago with his last meal (and was it breakfast? or dinner? there are so few foods he can eat, he can't tell them apart any more) and the medicine is strong, long-lasting. But Al is worried, solicitous, and so fucking caring, so he shakes his head a little, in answer.

"I brought something new this time, Brother," Al says, settling into the chair by the bed and opening the book on his lap. "Aesop's Fables. Doesn't that sound nice?"

It sounds like cheap fantasy escapism, which sentiment Ed can appreciate. Al licks his thumb and turns a page, eyes carefully on the book, and not on Ed, and begins to read.

The chair has its back to the light, slightly tilted away from the bed so that Al isn't looking directly at Ed as he reads aloud; as he gets more into the story, his voice warms and strengthens. The light is soft, his presence is warm and caring, the book paints a distant picture of wondrous kings and princes and palaces and it's no good, it's no good.

Not when his swollen skin twitches constantly under the blankets, when mangled bones shift and grind against malformed organs and ragged nerves. Not when his unnatural, skewed vision paints everything in lurid tones of orange and green, when every breath rattles over exposed membranes and into and out of deformed lungs. Not when he can't move and can't speak and he can feel something has burst underneath him, soaking the blankets, and it will torment him for hours unless he tells Al, and Al will have to change the blankets for him.

"When the young Prince saw this, his grief at being thus confined burst out afresh, and, standing near the lion, he said: 'O you most detestable of animals! through a lying dream of my father's, which he saw in his sleep, I am shut up on your account in this palace—' "

No more. He can take no more, no more... He doesn't even realize when the convulsion overtakes him, too many limbs spasming and clawing fruitlessly at the sheets and blankets, voice gasping in rattling sobs in his throat. The agony comes roaring out from behind its thin veil of painkillers and it is all too much. This is just too much and it will never get better, it will never, ever get better, and he will be a horror and a cripple and a monster for the rest of his life, a long, dwindling, dark corridor of agony and sickening burden to his brother.

He wants it to end.

He wants it to stop.

He wants to die.

"Brother? Brother!" Al is standing over him, hands on his arms, holding him down against the bed, calming and pleading. Ed blinks away scalding tears to see his strained, anxious face floating above him. "Do you... do you need more medication?"

Hopelessly, Ed shakes his head; there's no medicine in the world that can make this better. Al already has him drugged to the gills, as much as he can without putting Ed into a coma, or worse.

Or better.

Or better...

"Well... all right, Brother..." Slowly—but not reluctantly—Al lets go of Ed's arms. Before he can retreat from the bed, though, a spasm of impulsiveness leads Ed to grab Al's wrist, keep him from leaving his side.

"Wha—" Al starts, his wrist jerking against Ed's hand, then relaxing. He could easily, so easily break Ed's wasted grip, but he doesn't; he just stares. Ed meets his eyes, holds them, and then—slowly, painfully, but deliberately, traces his free hand in a line across his throat.

Immediately Al goes tense, drawing back, even as his eyes widen. "What?" he says. "I don't understand."

He pulls at his trapped wrist, much harder before, but Ed hangs on with a newfound strength. Al isn't stupid, Ed knows. Al knows what he wants; he just doesn't want to listen.

A small sound escapes his throat, despite himself, and he holds Al's eyes as fiercely as he holds onto his wrist, pouring into them all the pleading force he can muster.

He knows he's gotten through when Al's arm begins to tremble under his fingers, when he draws in breath almost as sharp and hissing as Ed's own. "No," Al says. "No, I can't. Don't ask me to do that, Brother. I—I can't—"

Ed closes his eyes, and swallows with difficulty. He hears Al choke, and then his brother is no longer standing, but fallen to his knees by the bedside, clutching his wrist with both hands. "Don't give up, Brother!" Al begs him, tears swallowing his voice. "Please, please, I can fix you, I know I can find a way! Jus—just be strong a little longer, I know it hurts, I know, but I can't... I can't..."

Al's miserable pleading tears at Ed's heart, drags at his resolve. But it's not enough. It's strange, but for the first time since that flash of golden light he has something he wants again. He wants this horror to end. He wants peace, and he can't get it without Al's cooperation. He's trapped in this bed, nearly paralyzed, dependent on Al for everything. Even this. The last favor he'll ever ask of Al—the last.

"I can't." Al is sniffling, and he feels a brief sting as tears drop onto his skin. "I won't do it, Brother. I won't, I won't. Just a little while longer, I'm making progress, I promise, I'll work harder..."

Ed opens his eyes again, and turns to look at Al, who is a miserable picture with tears overflowing his eyes and running down the still faintly baby-soft cheeks. It's an agonizing effort, but he opens his mouth, forces his throat into gear, and shapes his tongue, forcing the syllables out against the razor-jagged rows of teeth. "Pleasse."

There's blood in his mouth by the time he's done, but it's done the job; Al's tear-soaked face crumples in on itself, and he squeezes his eyes shut as he presses Ed's twisted hand against his cheek—the tenderest touch he's ever given, since Ed was trapped into this form. "No," he whispers, still sobbing, but there's no force behind it now. ", no..."

Ed swallows blood, rests his head against the sweat-soaked pillow, and waits.

At last Al's sobs die down, although when he raises his head there's still tears leaking steadily from the corners of his eyes. "All right," he says raggedly. "If that's what you... all right. But I'm not going to... I'm not going to do it that way, all right? I won't." He stands up again, reluctantly releasing Ed's hand, and swipes at his face with an angry hand. "I'll... I'll be back soon."

He drags himself up the stairs again, and Ed takes a careful breath, then lets it out. Another. Time marked in endless breaths, endless pain. He begins to wonder if Al will renege, go back on his word, and leave him here; irrationally, he wonders if Al will refuse to come back at all.

But eventually Al's heavy footsteps return, on the stairs, and Ed struggles to attend. Al's carrying a glass, full of liquid, and his other hand is holding... something, which he doesn't seem to want Ed to see; he places it on the little table, out of sight, before kneeling by the bed again.

"Drink this, Brother," Al says, so softly. His eyes are swollen and red, but he's calm, only the tiniest of tear tracks coursing down his face now. "It's much stronger than what you usually get, so you should... you should just... go to sleep."

Al. He barely mouths his brother's name, the word more familiar to him than any other he knows. He almost wants to tell Al that he's not necessary—he's not afraid, and he's used to pain, so saturated with it now that the touch of a sharp steel blade would hardly even register.

But he recognizes that this is for Al's sake, not his, so he lets his brother help him up, clinging weakly to Al's arm as the cup is lifted to his lips. The liquid is bitter, terribly bitter, much more so than the taste of his meals, and it stings in his lacerated mouth, but with difficulty he drinks it all down.

It must be a psychological effect—he knows the drug doesn't take effect that quickly—but by the time his head hits the pillow again he already feels better. Almost lethargically, he reaches out one more time, blindly groping for Al's hand. This, too, is for Al's sake, not for his.

Al takes it, and holds it tight in one of his, and his other hand goes to stroke so very gently through what is left of Ed's golden hair. If he could, if he were capable of it any more, Ed would smile for his brother, tell him it's all right. Instead, he resolves that for as long as he can, he will meet his brother's eyes.