chapter 3.

Something ought to have bothered him.

It was nestled, sharp and intrusive, just beneath his surface thoughts, and he knew, really, that he ought to be paying attention to it. Knew that it was important, if he could just make his mind focus for long enough to pick it apart and figure out why.

But there was an awful, screeching, yowling sound somewhere nearby, and every time he managed to get his thoughts into some sort of a working order, the pain from the sheer volume of noise that it was making brought them shattering down around his ears.

Vaguely, Ed wondered if he could shut it up—attempted experimentally to lift himself, see if he could move to any position besides this one. Because the floor was hard and dirt and pressed against the side of his face, and he probably ought to care more about that, too, but he just couldn't seem to manage it.

But his real arm, when he shifted it, only shuddered weakly before collapsing, and the automail twitched once, vaguely, as he attempted to persuade it to move. He was just gathering himself to try again when the pain set in.

It came in a blinding mass of agony, a rolling wave that stole the breath from his lungs. Vaguely, he had the presence of mind to reflect that a limb that isn't even there shouldn't fucking hurt so much—but then he was retching helplessly, squeezing his eyes shut as he fought to keep still, because moving made it worse, moving made it worse and he didn't think he could stand it anymore.

The sensation subsided slowly, slipping out bit by bit as he forced the muscles around the area to relax. And for a time, he simply lay still, panting and drained, too dazed to focus properly on much of anything.

When coherent thought began to drift back in over the buzzing in his ears, a part of him realized somewhat bitterly that the first thing he became aware of was the incessant noise.

Almost against his better judgment, the boy opened his eyes to narrowed slits.

The floor was there, stretching away to a rough wall not three feet from where he lay, but that wasn't what made his expression shift so quickly to one of bewilderment. It was the panicked stare that met him from behind grey bars that held his attention, eyes as shockingly golden as his own, wild and furious and terrified.

The creature yowled again, and began to pace awkwardly in its confined space; the tufts of its ears brushed the ceiling when it stood at full height, and it barely had room to turn, but it moved anyway, restless and agitated. Ed stared at it blankly for a time, even as his mind worked to convince him that something really should be bothering him.

He only became aware of the other sounds gradually—a soft scritching noise behind him, steady and unidentifiable, and a frenzied, erratic flapping. It sounded, Edward thought vaguely to himself, as though someone was shaking out clothing with a desperate abandon, and he nearly turned to see before he remembered that moving had proved a very bad idea indeed.

And so he watched the cat as it paced in its cage, stared dully at its stubby tail and at the sharp, lashing quality of its turns. The boy's thoughts were shuffling slowly about in his head, attempting to settle; the noise that the animal was making seemed not quite so intrusive any longer, and Ed considered, distantly, that it might have less to do with the volume and more to do with the fact that his head seemed to be fighting its way clear of... of... something.

The conclusion didn't come, and he watched idly for a moment longer, wondering why a part of his mind was insisting with some alarm that he ought to be every bit as panicked at the creature caged not far from him.

It was the voice that brought realization crashing home, that calm, interested, detached tone: "Are you prepared, Fullmetal boy?"

And he knew suddenly, was aware that the little tracts in the dirt would be a part of something much larger, much more complex. Remembered, in fragments, struggling against the needle—remembered biting, drawing blood, meeting flesh with his fist, and then... a vague, disinterested confusion. Confusion, and a dragging sense of lethargy, and that bastard had fucking drugged him again!

He was surging upward bare seconds later, the last vestiges of the sedative swept away by the force of his anger. But moving was still a very bad idea indeed, and the sheer hurt undercut the drive behind the attempt, left him doubled over, forehead pressed to the ground, breath coming in sobs.

And then the array glowed to life beneath him, and the agony of the automail was eclipsed by a new pain entirely.

Ed woke with a sob—a deep, shuddering, gasping sound that left him clinging desperately to reality in its wake.

It was a dream for fuck's sake, he told himself roughly, and almost moved to wrap his real arm around himself before remembering, with a shudder, that he shouldn't. He tugged the jacket draped over his bare shoulders closer instead, too caught up in the remnants of the nightmare to even be bitter that he couldn't wear it any longer. It didn't matter that it had really happened—didn't matter that he could still remember the depth of that pain, when he thought too hard about it. All that mattered, really, was that it wasn't going on now. That right now was alright—a fact that he repeated to himself once, twice, three times, just to hear the sound of his own voice, hoarse and soft.

Nearby, the candle had burned down to a guttering pit of wax, the dim flicker all that kept the room from darkness. Its fading light cast shadows over the illustrations of the open books nearest him, black and white ink drawings labeled with small, neatly printed words: "Felis pardinus" and "Rhinopoma hardwickei". The rest of the small library formed untidy mounds on the floor; getting the volumes there had been a triumph that it took Ed three days to achieve, and he'd been too exhausted when he finished to care about putting them in any sort of order.

The earthen steps were still there, too, just as he'd transmuted them, leading up to the high shelves that lined the rough room. He hadn't bothered to return them to the dirt floor when he'd finished clawing his awkward way back down, hadn't bothered to do much of anything, in fact, but lie panting at the foot, eyes half-closed. Now they, too, were bathed in the wavering light of the dying flame—and he fixed them firmly in the sight of golden eyes, reminding himself quite forcefully that they were only there because he'd gotten past this already, dammit.

But thinking it and believing it were two different things entirely—and when the candle light at last gave out, Ed remained crouched in the darkness, shaking.

Walking was difficult, now.

At first, he'd tried to reattach the automail—but the attempt had left him unconscious from the pain, barely coherent enough when he woke to scrabble for the release mechanism before it could happen again.

Then he'd thought that a crutch might help. And so he'd made one from some of the metal lab equipment, had ignored the fact that it was clumsier than anything he'd transmuted since childhood, refused to acknowledge that if his alchemy was suffering, he had to be very weak indeed.

Edward had tried to make it work.

He'd needed the support of a bench just to stand, had fumbled awkwardly just to get a hold of the thing, had tried and failed and given up on the crutch and then tried again, sobbing with frustration all the while. If only his fucking fingers would work, he could do it. If only he could just—

But he couldn't, and in the end he'd shoved hard with his good leg, had sprawled himself over the wood of the bench on his stomach before pushing himself to stand from there.

It wasn't until the moment that he'd tottered awkwardly on one leg, hooked his thumb around a bar on the crutch to keep it steady, and attempted to tuck it under his arm that he'd realized how logistically impossible the effort was.

He'd screamed then, pure frustration and rage and agony, had thrown the crutch from him and not noticed when he collapsed awkwardly back to the floor. Ed hadn't cared that he'd cried after promising himself not to. He hadn't cared about anything but the fact that only his thumb and forefinger would curl when he attempted to make a fist, that when he tried to vent his helpless fury on the floor, what was left of his arm made a leathery flapping sound.

In the end, he'd made himself a new leg. Or something to serve as one, rather.

Really, it wasn't much more than an empty space for him to work the remainder of his half-limb into, a crutch that attached to the remaining stump. And it was awkward to wear it over the automail port, bulky and strange, an arrangement that he had to check periodically, to ensure that it hadn't begun to slip as he walked. What's more, he needed to watch his feet as he moved, didn't have the nerve attachments to control the false limb.

And so walking was difficult—a slow, shuffling affair that required concentration. A step with his good leg, a lifting of the false limb, sight check to make sure that it was firm against the floor, that the half-crutch was still in place—and then the weight shift, arm trailing along the wall to help support some of it before beginning again.

When he thought he could get away with it, Ed tried not to move around much—but the library was in a separate room from the lab, and so he had to make his painstaking way back and forth between the two every time he hit a hitch and needed to look something up. It didn't help, the boy suspected, that he was always so exhausted; several times, he'd fallen in the dim mine shaft and simply lay still, waiting until his limbs stopped shaking and he felt strong enough to move on.

He could only suppose that the weakness was from malnutrition. After all, his wounds had begun to heal, and though he'd reopened several with his attempts to maneuver himself about the lab, the bleeding hadn't been particularly heavy. Food, on the other hand, had been hard to come by; Ed's last decent meal had been nearly two weeks ago by his count, just after the cave-in.

The boy had been ecstatic to discover a small stash of dried biscuits hoarded in a tin in the library, apparently for snacking purposes. He'd eaten enough to make himself sick and been so unreasonably grateful that, for the better part of an hour, he'd left off hoping that the fucker who brought him here had died an excruciating death, crushed under a ton of rock. Slowly.

It was some time later before the part of his mind that still had some hold on standards had managed to be horrified that he'd considered it a decent meal.

Things had gone downhill since. In desperation, Ed had turned at last to the few remaining specimens not buried when the majority of the lab was destroyed, repeating to himself firmly that it was no different than catching his own food while traveling. And besides, he'd reasoned—even if he hadn't been there, they'd have died locked in the cages anyway with no one to bring them food or water.

When the thought had occurred to him to wonder whether this counted as cannibalism, he'd thrust it aside violently and spent the rest of the day refusing even to consider the notion.

But by now the last of the animals were long gone, and there was nothing else to have, and so the boy willed his limbs not to tremble as he made his way down the darkened corridor, golden eyes trained on the bottom of his crutch. Silently, he promised himself that he'd find the nearest town in a few days, that he'd buy an obscene amount of whatever he wanted and eat himself sick again.

But just—he couldn't go like this. In a few days he'd do it, after he'd set things right, but... not like this.

And so he shuffled awkwardly down the corridor—step, look, shift, step, look, shift—so intent upon his own thoughts that he utterly missed it at first.

Only when Ed glanced up from his own leg did he catch sight of the beam of light, the dusty air of the mine in its path turned into a pale stream filled with flecks of gold. For an endless moment he froze, pressed against the wall, heart beating so loudly that he was sure the sound echoed in the mine shaft.

There had been a cave-in... hadn't there? The man had really died... hadn't he?

If Ed didn't move, maybe he'd just pass by—maybe he'd be heading the other way. Maybe—maybe he wouldn't notice, or Ed could scratch an array into the wall before he got here, or—

But the beam of the flashlight flicked briefly down the opposite corridor before turning his way, and the boy felt his breath shudder to a stop. It skimmed along the wall across from him, dipped onto the floor, and then—brilliance, in his eyes, blinding him. He couldn't block it with his arm, couldn't take the support away from his half-limb, and so he squeezed his eyes shut instead, waited with his heart pounding in his throat for what felt like an eternity.

And then the word reached his ears, soft and intent and so utterly, utterly impossible that it made his heart ache.

Because even in his best dreams, Ed had given up imagining that anyone could find him here, and for it to be—

The flashlight beam wavered, came forward just a bit further.

"Brother?" Al asked again, and the world slid out from under him.