The word was too loud in quiet of the room; it echoed softly down the stairs, fell into the dark, empty space that collided with their base.
Alphonse ignored the feeling that he was intruding, took a slow breath, and switched the bowl to his other hand. "Brother? Are you awake?"
There was no response, but that was not unusual—and so the boy proceeded, feeling his way along the wall to the small, round table that he knew would be waiting. A moment more and he was groping for the lamp, light flickering in to chase away the darkness of the basement.
Winter really had begun to set in, Al noted with distaste as the lamp's glow rushed in to push back the shadows; the wall was slightly damp, slick with the moisture in the air, and there was a definite chill to the old stone of the room. He would have to try harder, the boy promised himself, to convince Edward that a room upstairs was a good idea.
"Brother?" Alphonse said again.
But Ed didn't respond—gave no indication, in the steady rise and fall of his breathing, that he was even awake.
If Al hadn't known how often the older boy feigned unconsciousness in order to stave off these visits, he might have been fooled. Instead, he closed the distance to the foot of Edward's bed in a few practiced paces.
"Brother… it's time to get up." Carefully, he lay his free hand on Ed's back, attentive not to press too hard, trying not to notice how prominent the jutting forks of bone seemed, beneath the skin. "I made stew for dinner."
And that was enough to elicit a reaction: a quiet sound that may have been approval, a meticulously slow shift of limbs, a single eye slit open to stare at him with an expression not at all his brother's.
And then the eye was blinking closed again, covering up the cat-slit of its pupil, and two more fluttered wide to take its place. The ones in the right place, this time. Edward's eyes.
"Are you hungry, brother?" Alphonse asked, and managed a smile that wasn't quite as sick as he felt. "Do you think you can eat this time?"
There was no response in words, of course, but the reply came as clearly as though Edward had spoken it. One of the arms that lay pale and malformed among the covers twitched and roused itself, creeping with cautious slowness toward the bowl Alphonse held cradled in his lap. It was with an unpleasant shock of realization that he recognized exactly how thin the wrist of that limb had become.
"T-try to eat it all, brother," Alphonse advised, softly, and looked away from the sight of Ed attempting to lower what was left of his mouth to the rim of the dish. "I-I know it hurts, but… you've got to try, okay?"
For a moment, there was no sound, no movement. And then, quite distinctly, something tore with a wet, sudden force, and Edward hissed quietly in pain.
"Maybe," Alphonse said quietly, when the gentle slurping informed him that his brother had begun to eat, "We could file your teeth down." There were tears stinging at the corner of his eyes, and the boy blinked against them, hard. "Just until we get you fixed. That way, it won't be so bad when—"
It was the touch of a hand that brought him skittering to silence.
And the fingers were longer than they should have been, certainly, the joints twisted and stretched too tightly. The pinky was missing entirely, or perhaps so stunted that it couldn't be discerned. Below the skin, translucent from hiding so long from the sun, it was a simple matter to see the places where the bones didn't align correctly—to see why every movement caused his brother to flinch and shudder with the pain.
But the touch was warm, and the fingers tightened gently over Alphonse's in what could only have been considered a reassuring squeeze. And in what was left of his brother's face, above the place where teeth much too jagged to fit within the flesh had torn new wounds, those astonishingly beautiful golden eyes were fixed upon him, sober and watchful and worried.
Worried. For him.
Alphonse gave a choking little laugh that came out closer to a sob, and wrapped his arms around the form that was no longer the body of the boy he'd known from childhood.
And when Ed made a soft, hurt little noise somewhere in the back of his throat as he fumbled to return the embrace, all that his little brother could recall was the day when he'd stood amidst the thick, roiling smoke that filled the rogue alchemist's laboratory and seen what a difference arriving just a few minutes too late could make. The day that his mind had first fallen upon new eyes and arms and legs and reeled back in horror, scrabbling to keep itself intact in the face of the wrongness of it all, the horrific, grasping, clutching way that all those extra fingers were reaching for him.
The day that he'd discovered for certain what his first reaction would be, when his brother needed him the most: to turn aside and vomit, throat burning and eyes streaming, onto the hard paneling of the floor.
"Until we get you fixed," the boy promised again, voice breaking. "Just till then."
Alphonse pulled his brother closer, and began to cry.