He should have expected it.
Should have guessed by the state of the streets and the uncertain, guarded looks that they gathered from those crouched huddled among the wreckage that, even though the bulk of the fighting had ended, there was still plenty to be worried over.
But picking his way through the rubble that cluttered the ground was more difficult than simply walking along the path to Central had been, and most of Alphonse's attention was focused upon keeping his breathing even so that his brother wouldn't be inclined to stop every few minutes and make him rest. He would regret it, later—would think that, maybe if he'd paid a bit more heed to his surroundings, the situation could have been avoided entirely.
As it happened, however, the boy didn't even realize there was a problem until the voice reached his ears—and by then it was too late.
"Well, well," it drawled, and Al's eyes tracked instinctively toward the sound, searching out a form that leaned casually against the shattered remains of what once had been a building. "What do we have here?"
He felt the tension radiating off his brother before he turned to look, felt that thrumming, before-a-fight sense of wariness in the tone of his response. "Just a couple guys passing through."
There was a challenge in the words, Al realized as he glanced toward his brother's face—a challenge in the set of his shoulders and in the way his eyes were narrowed, openly suspicious. Dread settled out slowly into the younger boy's stomach at the sight of it, a part of his mind calling dimly for Ed not to make trouble when neither of them could defend themselves. But his brother's fist was clenched tight by his side, and his face was all blatant mistrust, and he was moving, by bare inches, to better put himself between the younger boy and the considerable bulk of the new arrival.
And then Alphonse heard the footsteps behind him and understood, with the words that followed, that what he'd mistaken for hostility in his brother's tone was nothing more complicated than the budding fear an animal feels when it realizes it's been cornered.
"A couple guys, huh? You sure about that?" A quick glance revealed that another man had followed them into the shattered remnants of the street, was taking up the easiest path back the way they'd come. "Pretty little thing like you…" The smirk that drifted in lazily to accompany the words sent a cold chill down Al's spine, and he glanced up just in time to see his brother's lips draw back from his teeth in a gesture not at all close to a smile.
"Who's some helpless little girl?" Ed snarled in response—but before it could go further than that, the younger boy reached out a careful hand to still the outburst, shook his head once, urgently.
It might have worked, had his brother's temper been the worst of their problems.
But the figure crouched off to the side of them was rising into view from behind the twisted remains of what had once been a car, and two more were moving to flank the men that had already made their presences known. And it was too much of a coincidence, the way that any clean shot at escape had been neatly severed, much too intentional to have been by accident.
The man they'd seen first was walking forward, then, coming up to stand uncomfortably close to his brother, and in the space before he began to speak, Al had time to think was that this was going to be very, very bad.
"I think you know that, sweetheart," the man smirked, lazy and amused. "But tell you what." One of those hands reached out toward Ed's face, and he saw the tension running through his brother's shoulders, felt the sickening twist of fear as the smaller boy shifted again to put himself the rest of the way between Alphonse and the source of the threat. "If you're real nice—"
The sentence never reached its end.
Just before the man's fingers came into contact with Edward's cheek, his brother's hand sealed around the thick wrist in a grip tight enough to turn his knuckles white.
And Al couldn't see the expression on the smaller boy's face, couldn't see the rage that must have been bubbling up to make those stunning golden eyes burn, but he could hear it in the response, low and dangerous. "Hands off, asshole."
"Oh, I see," came the reply, on the heels of a grin that showed more teeth than strictly necessary. "Little cripple girl's trying to be brave. What—your boyfriend won't take care of you?"
There weren't even words this time—just a growl, guttural and warning.
Had it been Before, Al might have felt sorry for the man—might have cautioned him quietly that it would be a good idea to stand down before anyone got hurt. But things were different now—and his brother was diving in headfirst again, heedless of the fact that the only thing below him was jagged, unforgiving rock.
"That's just too bad," the man was saying, but Alphonse's eyes weren't on him—they were tracking back and forth between the other figures that boxed them in, moving steadily closer. "Pretty thing oughtta have a someone that can take care of her. Haven't you heard?" The grin grew a bit wider, a bit sharper. "It's dangerous around here."
"For you, maybe," Ed answered, voice low, "But then, you don't strike me as the kind of guy that knows when to worry." And the younger boy could hear the strain in his brother's tone, knew very well that beneath the fury there must be fear that this was a fight he couldn't win. "Or maybe I just didn't maybe myself clear enough: Go. Fuck. Yourself."
"Brother," Al whispered, urgently, just as the man reached out his other hand to run a considering fingertip along the smaller boy's jaw line.
"If you ask real nice, I might pretend you didn't say that," the man purred, and moved to grip the sides of Ed's chin with a hold that couldn't be anything less than painful. For a moment, the spike of alarm that rose up in response was so strong that Alphonse didn't realize why his brother wasn't pulling away—didn't think to look to the place where the wrist he'd been holding had twisted free, had closed over the boy's hand in a grip that all but swallowed it whole. "But I'll need something to prove you mean it." The grin twisted upward a bit further, a blatant leer. "Money works. Or if you don't have any…"
The world exploded into motion.
His brother jerked back at about the same moment that Alphonse moved forward, allowing him a stunning view of the smaller boy's fist connecting with a sickening crunch to the man's nose. He didn't have time to hesitate, though—didn't have time for anything but raising his own arms, one in front of the other, to block a blow that came in from the side.
And when he fell back under the force of the punch, shaking with the effort and already winded, he knew with a slow, sick understanding exactly how much chance they had of winning.
And for the space of several seconds, he simply let the words wash over him, unable to make sense of them—because there was nothing more than a jumble of noise, a collection of ideas that wouldn't take form.
Pain rushed in with understanding, a deep, thick wave of it, and Al gasped a breath, coughed, struggled to open his eyes. Air didn't seem to want to come, though; his throat closed up midway; the cough turned wet and shuddering, lengthened into a fit that left him shaking on the stone of the ground.
"Al!" his brother was calling when it had passed, and he opened his eyes cautiously to peer up at the source.
And almost, he wished he hadn't. Because the first thought to enter his mind upon sight of his brother's face was that they must have kept beating the boy long after Alphonse had given up and passed out.
Because one of those lovely golden eyes had swollen shut, and his bottom lip was split wide open; the boy's left cheekbone was red and raw, some of the skin scraped away, and Al didn't even know what they could've done to cause that; his shirt, torn open in the search when Ed refused to tell them where the money was, revealed skin mottled dark with just-forming bruises.
And by the way that he was crouching, lips drawn back in a grimace that he couldn't seem to help, breath coming quick and shallow between his teeth, Edward was in no small amount of pain.
"Al," the boy was saying, voice soft and urgent, "Al—are you okay?"
He took a breath to reply, long and slow, just to make sure he could do it without bursting into a new fit of coughing. "I'm alright, brother," he said—and hesitated, alarmed by how weak the reply sounded. It was less than a whisper, really, nothing more than air with noise behind it. But he forced a smile anyway, tried to ignore the agony of desperation that sprung to the smaller boy's face at the sound of it. "You should worry more about yourself."
"Don't be a fucking moron," his brother scowled in response, and moved to stand, not quite forcing down the wince that the movement caused.
But he was offering his hand a moment later, anger washed from his expression by the warmth of concern.
And the soldiers wouldn't budge: beyond the blockade, they claimed, was a safe zone open only to military personnel or those with severe war wounds.
So they'd been turned away, the devastation on his brother's face a tangible presence when at last he realized that they truly wouldn't be able to pass—but Edward never had been very good at being told ‘no', and so an hour later and close to three kilometers away from the gate, they stood staring up at the wall.
It had been built with alchemy; he could tell by the way it curved gradually into the stone below it and by the bits of rock and lose dirt that that dotted the structure, pulled up from below the street to join the surface material.
Had Alphonse still been a suit of armor, he could perhaps have lifted his brother high enough to allow the boy to grasp the top and pull himself up, or had Ed still been able to use alchemy, he might have simply made a hole straight through. But the world had moved on since then, had left the brothers injured and staring up at a monstrosity of rock and earth, rimmed with barbed wire and towering like a thing impassable.
"Well fuck," Ed said at last, lips tight with displeasure. His worry showed in the set of his shoulders and in the uncertain light that flickered through golden eyes, strong enough that Alphonse forced himself to relax a bit and offer a smile in reassurance.
He stood beside his brother as confidently as he was able, painfully aware of the hitching little whine his lungs gave every time he took too deep a breath in, stood staring upward and knowing what needed to be done—but not whether he would be able to do it.
"Give me a few minutes," he said at last, "And we can try then."
The boy was already lowering himself to the ground to lean against the earthy structure by the time he saw understanding flash in his brother's eyes, saw the alarm begin to surface, bright and vivid across Ed's expressive face.
"No," came reply, sharp with worry, just as the younger boy was settling into place. "No way, Al. If you think I'm gonna let you—"
"Brother," he said, and though the word was soft, Al's tone was enough to stop the tirade mid-sentence. "We have to." He hoped that there was a feeling of finality to the pronouncement, a sense of inevitability that not even Edward would argue with—because more than anything, he needed the time to catch his breath. Needed a chance to gather his strength and prepare for what was coming.
Ed was pressing on, though, shaking his head in a violent denial of the plan. "You can hardly walk, much less climb," the boy insisted, "And besides—what if there's someone watching on the other side?"
Al took a long, slow breath, ignoring that it caught on the way in. "Then that's a chance we'll have to take."
Somewhere deep in his chest, it felt as though there was a sharp, quick pull every time he tried to get air, a flash of hurt that made him close his eyes against the sheer intensity of it. The boy was aware, vaguely, of his brother kneeling over him, of the just-this-side-of-panic in Ed's voice and the desperation building in golden eyes.
And Alphonse wanted to reassure him, wanted more than anything to reach out and run his fingers through that lovely hair, to kiss away the fear and tell him that everything was fine—but for some reason, all that would pass his lips when he opened them was a peculiar sound, high-pitched and reedy, keeping time with the short, shallow gasps hissing up from his throat.
And Ed's hand was on his face, then, touching his cheek as the boy leaned in closer, voice thick and distraught. There was something about love in there, and a promise that they would make it if he just held on a little bit longer, but the fingers on his cheek were warmer than they should have been, moist and a bit sticky, and the sensation was distracting him.
Realization came like a vague but unpleasant shock, filtering in as though through layers of cotton: Edward's hand was bleeding, scraped raw from the attempt to drag himself up and over the rough wall one-handed. It was the blood that was almost-hot against him, thick and fluid against his skin, sliding down in trails to catch in the short strands of hair at the nape of his neck.
Idiot brother, Al's mind mumbled distantly, and he struggled to take a deeper breath, intent upon insisting that the boy find something to serve as a bandage.
But there were peculiar blotches of grey pressing in at the sides of his vision, and they swarmed together in a violent rush, smudging out his brother's face from view. For a moment, only the voice remained—growing in pitch, breaking in places, and Alphonse wanted more than anything to tell smaller the boy not to cry.
But then the darkness rose up to take the rest of him, and the world went away.