Take Anything

chapter 4.

Had someone had asked the boy, he'd have claimed that the decision came largely from one of the radio news reports he passed daily on the street. It was certainly the explanation he gave Al—that, one time too many, he'd caught word of the rising tide of chaos creeping nearer to the little safe haven they'd built, and it was simply time to move on.

If his little brother noticed the inconsistency between that reason and the fact that they were going to Central, the very focal point for the insanity that had descended upon the world, he didn't say a word. Didn't protest that his health might not be good enough for the trip, or that the trains to the city had stopped running a month ago. And if Alphonse so much as suspected that their leaving coincided a bit too nicely with his brother's last trip to the doctor, he didn't point it out.

But then, Ed considered with the beginnings of a wry smile, the younger boy always had been tactful like that.

And so they packed what few belongings they had into two small suitcases—it was pathetic, Ed thought to himself as he closed the second, to realize that everything they owned between them fit easily, the rest long sold to get money for food or his little brother's pills—and bought a pair of train tickets as close to Central as the line still ran.

It was early morning when they boarded, dark and cold with the grey of pre-dawn, and he worried over the fact that Alphonse was shivering by the time they settled into their seats, breathing heavy but struggling not to show it. The younger boy stayed awake until the sun came up, and together they watched it peek above the distant horizon, grass and shrubs and trees turned to a blur of motion in the foreground.

And when Al insisted that they share the same seat, stretched out so that he could lay his head on the smaller boy's lap and smiled, soft and content, at the hand that reached to stroke through his hair, Ed could think only one thing: If only it could have been like this sooner. Better. Differently.

Without the wave of sorrow that threatened to rise up and crush him every time he looked into those gentle bronze eyes.

They disembarked at a station some several days' journey from Central—not close enough, by Ed's estimation, not even as close as their tickets had claimed they could get, but the tracks further on had been dismantled in an attempt to keep the flow of people to the city under control.

And so there was little they could do but comply, making their way into the unfamiliar town in search of a place to spend the night—because if his brother had to travel on foot for longer than he'd expected, Ed insisted fiercely, he was at very least going to get a decent night's rest before he did it.

The inn the boys picked was a cheap one, more a result of habit than need; Ed had long since gotten used to keeping a close watch on their funds, and though his arm had fetched enough to keep them fed and sheltered for now, the time that he'd spent unable to find work in a mistrustful world had left its mark.

They bought sandwiches for dinner, massive collections of meat and lettuce on long, seeded rolls; the smaller boy finished his in just under a minute, inhaling the meal in a series of mouthfuls that drew the stares of several of the small shop's other patrons. And when Alphonse gave up on his own halfway, protested that he'd explode and couldn't be persuaded to take even one bite more, Edward helped himself to the leftovers, privately glad at the gentle teasing his enthusiasm prompted.

Because that, after all, could only mean that his brother had never found out how often he'd been skipping meals to save money.

The journey the rest of the way to Central took the better part of a week.

Even under normal conditions, it would have been difficult—but Alphonse was weak and in pain, and the older boy made him stop to rest every time his breathing became too erratic.

Which meant, of course, that their progress was almost nonexistent.

The nearer they got to the city, the more cluttered the roadway became, filled to overflowing with squatters camped out in scraps of fabric that resembled tents, with men and women that peered out at them with wild eyes, hopeful and wary and filled with the memories of war.

Once, they were accosted by a vulture of a man, middle-aged and with dark beard matted, walking slow and uneven along behind them. The sinners, he told them quietly, voice light with laughter, would be the last to go—all the good ones would die and get it over with, leave those that deserved to suffer alone to tear each other apart.

And when Ed faltered at the words, considered just for a moment that they hit perhaps a little too close to home, the reassurance came in a breathless, reedy whisper that he ought to know better. The madman heard Alphonse's words as well, though, raked the younger of the brothers over with too-bright eyes and laughed, declaring him one of the good ones.

By the time Ed had dropped both suitcases to whirl on him and begin bellowing about what, precisely, was going to be shoved up his ass if he didn't leave them the fuck alone, the man had already turned to go, shuffling away down the road with his peculiar crooked gait.

They didn't speak of it until later that night, lying curled up beside the road in grass that had grown brown with the passage of so many feet.

Shivering beneath his own coat and Ed's, Alphonse fixed his brother with a stare vulnerable with concern, reaching out to brush pale fingers along the side of the smaller boy's face. "Brother," he said quietly. "Don't."

And however his little brother had known, however understood that those words had kicked up great, dark clouds of guilt, the simple comfort was enough.

Edward slept not long after, dreams less burdened than usual.

He didn't recognize the city.

Not the people that had spilled over into the streets, temporary shelters making a labyrinth of the roadways, not the skeletons of buildings, half-standing, wreathed with rings of rubble about the base, and most of all not the smell in the air, the thick, caustic stench of gunpowder and blood.

He'd taken all of two steps before he turned around, seized his brother by the wrist, and hauled him bodily away. Hunched against the remains of the nearest building, an old woman watched with interest, peering with shiny black eyes from a face swallowed by wrinkles.

"You're waiting here," Ed announced, sparing the woman a wary glance when she nodded in agreement, mumbling indistinct consent.

It was a moment before Alphonse could speak to protest, breath coming in short, shallow gasps. "Brother," he managed at last. "Even if I stay, you'll need to come back and get me."

"True, true," came the quiet echo from their spectator, but Alphonse ignored it, pushing on: "And it's not as though it's any safer for us to be alone."

Ed's eyes mirrored the frustration that welled up inside him, sharp and bitter and overwhelming. "I'm not taking you into a war zone, Al—not without knowing what to expect." When the soft assent drifted to him from the place against the wall, he gritted his teeth and pretended not to hear.

There was a pause as Al took this in, nervous tongue peeking out to wet dry lips before he was continuing in the whispery rasp that had become his voice. "You can't just charge in anymore, brother. You have to be careful."

And as though to prove the point, somewhere in the tangled web that the streets had become an explosion rocked the air; both boys flinched with the force of it, the woman's gaze drifting in the direction of the sound with mild interest. Edward beat down the impulse to run toward it by will alone, Alphonse's reminder still fresh in his mind.

Can't help them anymore, he told himself fiercely, and tried to ignore the pang of loss, razor-sharp along his nerves. But a small part of him went further still, asked with quiet malice the question he'd been avoiding all along: what good could a boy with one arm and no alchemy do for anyone?

His thoughts were interrupted not by his brother, but by the scratchy voice of the ancient woman whose gleaming eyes remained fixed upon them still. "Fuhrer's got some sane parts now," she said conversationally, and nodded twice as though for emphasis. Ed wondered vaguely whether it was a nervous tic; she never seemed to stop. "Some parts that're sane."

Alphonse smiled cautiously at her and then at the smaller boy, _expression marred by the pain that still shadowed the corners of his face. "See, brother? We can go someplace like that—it's not all a war zone."

"War's done," the woman seconded, nodding. "Here at least. Just a couple stragglers, but there still ain't nothing cleaned up." She flapped a hand vaguely at the world. "Buildings in the street."

"Something just blew up!" Ed snapped, ignoring the woman to fix his brother with a determined stare. "And I'm not taking you into a city that—"

"-we walked a week to get to," Alphonse finished, meeting his gaze with bronze eyes that were calm but firm.

The smaller boy scrubbed his hand across his eyes. "Fuck."

"Place where there's things standing," the woman continued, as though she'd never been interrupted. "That's where its part okay. But only part, mind." She nodded absently to herself for a few moments after she'd stopped speaking, heedless of the fact that she now had two pairs of eyes fixed on her.

"...thanks, grandma," Ed said at last, and forced a smile. It felt like a lie to him, but he held the expression in place regardless, trying to keep down despair that threatened to rise up and choke him. "Can you point us the right way?"

A single hand lifted, wrinkled old finger marking a direction in the chaos that Central had become.

They turned toward the place that lay before it and began to walk.