It had taken him the better part of an hour to realize that carrying his brother was out of the question.
Edward had attempted it one-handed, ignoring the agony that screamed white-hot through his ribs as he'd held the unconscious boy close—had realized, within the first few seconds, that walking would be near impossible this way. The weight was too much, and the blood slicking his hand made the grip precarious.
He'd carried on as long as he could manage, though, arm wrapped around the younger boy's waist and cursing himself for being too small to make a full circle—because that way, at least, he wouldn't need to stop every few steps to get a better hold.
And when at last he'd had to rest, arm shaking with the strain, tiny black dots dancing in his vision from the pain that came with every step, every breath, the boy had tried another way.
Attempted a feat that would have been awkward two-handed, breath coming in short, sharp gasps as he'd kneeled and tried to sling Alphonse over his shoulder.
That had lasted longer, not quite so awkward as the first attempt; but without the other hand to steady the unconscious form, his progress was soon staggering and lop-sided, and when his foot caught on a piece of rubble in the street, unnoticed until too late, the boy plummeted forward face-first.
The sharp half-cry that tore from his throat was unbidden, the sudden pain of impact making the world black out around him for the space of several seconds—but when consciousness returned, Ed's first thought was not of the searing, maddening burn that laced through ribs he had little doubt were broken. It was of his brother, pinned beneath him in the fall, and a moment later the boy was scrabbling to turn Al face up, golden eyes frantic and searching.
The breath was still there—unsteady and weak, with hitching little wheezes, but Alphonse was alive, and that was the important thing.
When he managed to stand at last, bending down to wrap an arm under his brother's armpit and haul him up, he didn't bother trying to lift him again. The world was unsteady beneath his feet, after all, and the effort had him trembling.
And even if it meant having to half-drag the boy, Ed wasn't going to drop him again—not when there was the off-chance that the fall could compound damage too profound already.
But he could go on no longer; walking had been difficult enough with his own weight to support, and Alphonse's on top of it made every inch of progress a test of will, a battle to see whether he'd remain standing.
And so he moved the boy to the side of the road, was careful to work the unconscious form over the rubble of the building gently, half-lifting and half-dragging his little brother into the shattered remains of what once had been a house. Most of the side was missing now, and half the roof had caved in—but they were shielded from prying eyes, at least, and after their last run-in with remaining citizens of Central, Ed wasn't willing to take chances.
Not even if they hadn't seen another living soul since they'd clawed their awkward way over the wall some five hours before.
It was to this thought that Ed finally drifted off, his body positioned protectively between Al and the open side of the building, worry not enough to keep the exhaustion from overwhelming him.
When the boy dreamed, it was one he'd had many times before; he could taste the smoke, thick and acrid, in the back of his throat, hear the sound as it drifted up from the floor, unsettling and so very far from natural that it set his mind on edge.
By degrees, the thickness in the air began to part—revealed pulsing mounds of flesh and twisted lumps of something that might have once been human.
There was something different in the angle of the pale limbs this time, though; something strange in the shape of a face that should have been one he recognized. The jaw was stronger, just a little, the hair hanging down below those demon's eyes, glowing bright and hot and hateful, shorter than it ought have been.
And there were words amidst the growls that escaped it, wet and guttural, words that reached inside to tear at a part of him left open and vulnerable.
"Brother," said the thing on the floor of their house, the remains of what should have been their mother. "You ruined me."
The boy woke screaming, heart racing and mind struggling desperately to twist away from the image—but when at last the initial shock of horror had subsided, the first thing that met his eyes was Alphonse's still form, pale and fragile in the dusky light that filtered in through the remains of the roof.
It was, Ed thought in those last few seconds before the dream-terror had gone completely, nearly as bad.
Always before, it had been impressive; even during the time that he'd needed to report between missions and the city had become a familiar presence in his life, Ed had continually been amazed at the fact that, no matter how often he returned, there was always something he'd yet to see.
Now that every step had become a challenge, something to be fought for against the screaming protest of his own body, it was a size that seemed daunting. And finding one building in the war-torn cityscape was a fool's errand—a fleeting gasp of hope that Ed felt slipping away.
Because Central had so changed that the boy wasn't certain he would recognize the way to the hospital if he found it.
It was a matter of moments before he'd moved his brother to the side of the street, was easing him gently down and watching with a mixture of anxiety and relief as bronze eyes flickered open to focus uncertainly on his face.
And Ed had never known, before that moment, the joy that could come at hearing a single word. Hadn't really understood, until then, exactly how terrified he'd been that he would never hear Al's voice again—not telling him fondly what an idiot he was, or asking whether he'd finished that new book, or whispering quiet words of love, soft and healing against his skin.
"Don't ever fucking scare me like that again," Ed demanded, fierceness and worry threading their way into the tone in equal parts.
And the boy smiled, an expression achingly beautiful, gentle and pained and patient all at once. "Sorry, brother," came the response, barely loud enough to be a whisper. "No promises."
The older boy made him rest every ten minutes or so, of course—as soon as his breathing became labored—but compared to the to painfully slow progress they'd been making before, the pace they settled upon was actually an improvement.
They didn't talk much as they picked their careful way through the remnants of other people's lives—the faded print of a three-month-old newspaper; the sharp, delicate edges of a shattered glass vase; a discarded banana peel, just beginning to ripen to a slick, oily brown. Edward's thoughts were too caught up in the space between hope and dread to put much effort into a conversation, after all, and he could only imagine what must be running through Al's mind.
After hours spent alone with the excruciating knowledge that what he was carrying might soon become his brother's corpse, however, the new variety of silence was a welcome change—companionable, almost. And when the boy tried hard enough, paid attention only to the sounds of his own heartbeat and the comforting presence beside him, he could imagine just for a little while that things were like they'd been before, in that strange and distant time when they'd walked the streets of a city lit up with the existence of ordinary people.
It was hard not to miss.
There were the blackened remains of a fire off to one side of the street, perhaps not so different than the other scorch marks but for the small rocks arranged around it to prevent it from spreading. A collapsed building that had flooded the street with debris had been partially cleared away, leaving a pathway in the center. A child's hand had left a drawing on a still-standing portion of wall, black stick-figures, and a small pile of charred wood had been collected nearby, evidently the artist's utensil of choice.
And then they reached the place that the old woman must have been speaking about, and Ed stared, blinking, at the street before him. The difference was so profound that it felt as though he was stepping into another world.
Because behind him was the evidence of war—of carnage and pain, lives lost and hopes killed—but before him, emerging gradually from the wreckage, was Central. Colors muted with the ash of the fires that must have raged, but Central all the same.
Two rows of houses stood facing each other, so like the city he'd known that the boy had to fight down an expectation that people would come down the steps at any moment now, intent upon going to the bakery, or visiting a friend, or walking a dog.
Beside him, Al made a soft noise of surprise, and the smaller boy reached for him automatically, feeling for his brother's arm as though to prove it wasn't a dream.
"Al," he began—but the younger boy was already nodding, eyes bright with joy.
"Brother," came the soft response, in the hoarse little whisper that had become Alphonse's voice. "This must be the place."
And with the crashing force of realization, Ed knew what he meant—recalled reports from the days when word of the war had been constrained to a distant, tinny voice on a radio: parts of Central evacuated; huge losses suffered; a supposed retreat; hard-won victory, gained in the city's streets.
To stand here, in this place that had been saved with the blood of men and women he knew—respected—liked, even—brought to the surface a mix of emotions that were unsettling and powerful.
"Yeah," the boy managed, after a long moment. He smiled despite himself, and the expression was as shaky as his voice. "I guess it is."