"Anything," he said, and spread two perfect arms as though to welcome the wicked black fingers that groped toward him. "Take anything."
Arrays drawn in blood glowed brighter in response, a pure blue that was blinding in the empty space surrounding the Gate. The alchemical radiance set his skin alight, turned his face to something angelic—compelled the creatures to surge forward with eyes that were viciously intent, cruel and spiteful and hungry.
It wasn't until those terrible, grasping hands reached through his flesh and to something deep inside that Edward screamed.
He straightened bare seconds later, turned to cross the room again with brisk steps, and then the Fullmetal Alchemist began lifting food out of a thick burlap sack as though such a pleasantly normal scene was commonplace.
Spinach came first, a huge shock of bright green leaves, followed by a block of something wrapped tightly with white paper. Nimble fingers soon revealed it to be meat—a thick slab of it, unidentifiable—and then pressed on to search out the rest of the bag's contents.
He was just moving to light the stove, casting about for a match to begin the flames that would cook their dinner, when the voice drifted in from the other room.
"Brother?" Al asked, and despite himself, Ed felt a little leap of joy at the fact that the sound was strong enough to reach his ears. It must be a good day.
The boy abandoned his search for matches in favor of moving to stand beside the door to the apartment's single bedroom, very nearly reached to open it from force of habit. At the last moment, though, he reigned in the gesture, lingered just outside. "Yeah, Al?" he called, "What's the matter?"
"You were gone for a long time, brother," came the reply, tone just a little hoarse. "I was waiting up so we could play poker."
"In a bit, alright?" Ed promised lightly. "I was just about to—" Not cook dinner, the boy's mind interjected. Not cook dinner. "Uhm. Clean up out here."
There was a long pause from the other side of the door, and Ed cringed, picturing the I'm-not-stupid-brother look that Alphonse must be leveling in his direction. "It's just one room," the voice pointed out levelly, "And we don't own enough to clutter the floor."
"Yeah, well—I thought I should dust." It was perhaps the worst excuse Edward had ever made for anything, and he was ashamed of it by the time it left his lips. But of course it was too late to turn back now, and so he pressed on instead. "It's getting pretty bad. You can practically write your name on the bookshelf, its so thick. And—"
"Brother," Al said softly, and the worry and pain in his voice cut the smaller boy off mid-sentence. "Come in here."
Resigned, Ed let his eyes fall closed. Took a deep, steady breath, and closed his single hand around the cool metal of the doorknob.
He stepped inside.
And for a moment, there was silence; he could feel Al's eyes on him, flinched away from the tears that stood at the corners.
"You promised," the younger boy managed to choke out at last. "You promised, brother."
"I've still got the leg," Ed mumbled; his eyes had found the scuffed wood of the floor, steadfastly refusing to meet his brother's gaze.
"That's not the point!" It came as a wail, a denial, and his little brother's voice cracked on the last word; the younger boy's frame, still as pale and thin as it had been the day of the restoration, shuddered as it forced down a fit of coughing. But Al pushed on regardless, heedless of the fact that he could scarcely finish the sentence for the reedy, breathless quality that the shout had lent his voice. "It was—was yours. Winry made it for you, and you just—just—sold it, like some kind of—"
And that was too much. Because Ed could stand the thought that he'd upset Alphonse, could listen to accusations that he'd broken his promise—even that he'd outright lied, because when all was said and done, it was true, after all. But he wouldn't sit back and let his brother scream himself hoarse—not when it had needed to be done.
"And what," the smaller boy demanded abruptly, cutting off the accusation before it went any further. "Would you have me do instead?" His eyes flashed dangerously as he stalked the few feet to the bed where Al lay, leaned down so that he could meet those lovely bronze eyes that were caught someplace between enraged and devastated. "We need food, and you need medicine, and the city's a fucking mess—how else was I supposed to get money?"
There was concern that joined the jumbled mix of emotions now, but Ed cut him off before a protest could surface. "If I have to cut off flesh parts and sell them, I'll make sure you have whatever you need." Bitterness crept into the words, and he knew, knew that it would only make his brother more upset, but he couldn't keep it away. "I know... I know I fucked everything up again, and I'm sorry."
"But I'll fix it, Al." The guilt rose up to choke him, as it always did—how could he have gotten this wrong, the only transmutation he'd ever needed to perfect—how could he have made something defective for his brother, who'd looked forward so long to having a normal, healthy body once more? "I swear I'll find another way. I might not be able to—to try again, but there has to be something, somewhere, and until I find it, you've just got to hang in there."
"Brother," Alphonse said softly, and reached out a hand toward him; Ed moved in closer without thinking, let those pale, gentle fingers trace along the line where metal met flesh, the place where a limb should have been. "You've given up too much already." The smile that tugged at the corner of those lips felt as though it was attempting to tear out his heart. "It's enough; you don't have to—"
"It's not enough." Anger forgotten as abruptly as it had come, the smaller boy fell to his knees on the bed, leaned in to close his brother in a crushing embrace. "I won't let you die, Al—I won't. Not after everything we've been through. Not after—"
"Shh," the younger boy told him quietly, and it hurt for Ed to hear the wheeze in his breathing that came from having spoken only this little bit. "It's okay, brother."
Ed fell, uneasily, into silence, battling the sting in his eyes and the tightness in his throat. And when one of those hands reached to stroke his hair, the smaller boy hid his face in the warm cluster of blankets obscuring his brother's form.
It wasn't Alphonse's fault that with every shallow, rattling breath, so easily heard with his ear pressed up against the younger boy's chest, he hated himself a little more.