chapter 4.

"Brother?" Alphonse asked again, the tightness in his throat making it hard to speak, let alone breathe.

Because the boy standing pressed up against the wall was Edward.

Filthy and painfully thin, unbound hair falling tangled into his face and past his shoulders—but it was his brother, and for a moment, Al's mind wouldn't process anything more complicated that that.

And then Ed shuddered, swayed—tipped forward, and rational thought abandoned him entirely.

It was instinct that moved him, instinct that washed the shock away and urged the frantic pace that closed the distance between them. He was falling to his knees before the boy seconds later, dropping the flashlight to the ground beside him as he joined his brother in the dirt of the mine shaft.

He didn't care that the beam of light spun wildly before slowing to a stop, didn't care that he couldn't see Ed's face for the darkness. All that mattered was that both arms were free to wrap around narrow shoulders, both hands empty to clutch in the worn, shredded fabric of a familiar red coat. He was close enough to feel the trembling in his brother's shoulders, to hear the tiny hitches in his breathing—and then Ed was leaning into him, forehead pressed to the crook of his neck.

"...Al?" The word was soft, so uncertain and full of hope that it made him ache inside. There was no pretense in the tone, nothing but naked, just-dawning relief and the unvoiced plea for an answer.

"I'm here, brother," he said, as gently as he could. Carefully, he forced himself to relinquish the grip on Ed's coat with one hand so that he could run it slowly over the older boy's back.

The quiet, choked noise that he received in response made him pause mid-motion, stilled by a brief flash of alarm that he'd caused unintentional pain. But then his brother was pressing in close again, so desperate to get near that Al had to catch him as he overbalanced, had to move his other hand to Ed's waist so that he could help to support his weight.

And when the touch came at his side, tentative and uncertain, as Ed raised his arm to return the embrace, he was too caught up in his brother's presence to notice that the limb did little more than apply pressure.

"It's okay," he heard himself say, and was glad that his voice only shook a little. Now was not the time, his mind pointed out, to get emotional. He had to be strong for Ed's sake, had to hold himself together for long enough to get his brother to town.

And with that thought, realization gripped him with icy fingers: if the older boy was here, it stood to reason that whoever had done this to him still was, too. Raising bronze eyes to peer warily into the darkness beyond the glow of the flashlight, Alphonse strained to catch sight of movement. "It's okay now, brother," he said again, just as softly—but there was something fierce in it now, protective.

Ed's only response was a peculiar, muffled keening noise, and Al started as it reached his ears, leaving off his survey of the area to stare down at the boy in his arms.

Because his brother shouldn't be making that noise. Nothing living had any right to make a sound with that much pain in it, and it was his brother, shaking and hurting and sounding for all the world like a wounded animal.

Suddenly, the tightness in his throat was too much to speak through. Alphonse wanted to say something, to promise with all his heart and until his voice gave out that it was alright, that nothing would ever hurt the older boy again, but the words just wouldn't come. And so he reassured by touch instead.

Slowly, carefully, Al began to stroke the boy's back—cautious and gentle, a motion that he hoped was soothing—but the trembling was giving way to great, gasping sobs, the collar of his shirt growing warm and damp. And then abruptly, rational thought was abandoned after all, left washed away by the pain in his chest and the stinging in his eyes.

Later, Alphonse wouldn't be able to remember how long he held his brother and cried, wouldn't remember anything but the wrenching, bittersweet sharpness of the moment. But when at last he'd cried himself out and Ed had subsided to little hitching shudders in his arms, his legs had gone numb as he pulled back to look at the older boy's face.

His brother was in shadow; the flashlight beam faced the other wall, left him straining to see details in the dim lighting. But the expression there was gratitude, was hope, and the beginnings of a shaky smile tugged at the corner of the older boy's lips.

And then Ed lifted his eyes to meet Alphonse's gaze, and he felt his mouth go dry. The return smile that he'd been forming froze on his lips, forgotten as the beginnings of an awful suspicion began to settle within him.

Because as they rose to meet him, Ed's eyes glowed a pale, iridescent green in the dim light of the mine shaft: an animal's eyes in darkness.

"Al?" his brother asked again, and the expression was quickly shifting; there was uncertainty there, now, and Alphonse knew that he needed to stop staring, needed to give Ed his most reassuring smile to calm him. But he couldn't seem to move, couldn't seem to do much of anything—not when his thoughts were scrambling to insist that they knew now, knew very, very well why Ed's kidnappers had stopped demanding permission to experiment on humans.

He saw it on his brother's face the moment that Ed realized. Saw those eyes widen—green at just the one angle, but when he turned they were the right color, gold darkened nearly to brown by the lack of light—saw the rush of panic that flooded his features before the older boy ducked his head, hiding his face behind the messy fall of tangled hair.

"Brother," he breathed, and the word was weak, shaky. "Brother, did they...?" But he couldn't finish the sentence. Couldn't say it, and so he sought to confirm it with his eyes instead.

And for the first time, he really looked at Edward. Saw the way that he was crouched huddled with the jacket draped over his shoulders, that he was shirtless underneath despite the cold. Realized at last that his automail was missing; a makeshift half-crutch had worked its way free of his leg, was lying forgotten on the dirt floor near the flashlight.

He took in the awkward way that Ed held his real arm away from his body and the sudden, reflexive motion as he shifted to keep Al from getting a closer look. And among the tangled golden hair, the errant, fly-away strand that his brother could never manage to tame had gained companions—two of them, shorter, on either side of his head. They were black.

"Brother," he tried again, and was surprised to discover that the word didn't betray the trepidation in his heart. He kept his tone gentle, voice low, as he reached a hand to remove the red fabric from his brother's shoulders. "Let me see."

But Ed flinched backward, met his gaze with pale green eyes that were bitter and frightened, the self-deprecation there an expression that Alphonse had seen too, too often. And when his brother's gaze skittered away again to fix on the beam from the flashlight before speaking, the words made Al's breath catch in his throat.

"I think he fucked it up," Ed was saying, voice rough—and Al couldn't tell whether that was because he'd been crying or because he wasn't used to speaking anymore. "Cause it's not there all the way... you know?"

And then his brother's eyes met his again, a familiar, determined edge to the expression. "But that's alright—it'll be easier to fix, this way. Less to pull apart." But there was something vulnerable behind the words, and when Ed grinned at him to bear a mouthful of tiny, jagged teeth, there was something so hurt behind the smile that Alphonse couldn't even begin to think of all the ways that it was wrong.

"Brother," Al said again, and this time his voice was tense, slightly unsteady. "Let me see."

And then those eyes were on him, green to gold and back again as Ed watched him with a wary uncertainty; he could see the fear in the set of his brother's lips, knew from the way that he hunched his shoulders exactly how terrified the older boy was to agree. But the nod came anyway, shaking and slight, with words of warning: "It's... pretty bad."

The arm that reached to pull the jacket from his shoulders moved as though the air had weighed it down; he wasn't aware when the red fabric pooled around his brother's waist or of the fact that the older boy's breathing was coming in tiny, rapid gasps. He didn't stop to think it now, but he'd realize later that in all likelihood it was Ed's fear of his reaction that caused the terror pooling in his brother's eyes.

And Ed was right, a part of Alphonse's mind had time to think as the older boy presented what was left of his arm for inspection. Whoever did this hadn't finished.

Because it wasn't an arm, exactly—not anymore. But nor was it really a wing.

He could see what was supposed to have happened—could see where it had begun in his brother's smallest finger, where the bone had lengthened and thinned and grown in ways that it shouldn't have. It was the longest of them—a foot more than it ought to have been, Al's mind noted distantly, feeling the creeping numb of shock, and hinged far, far too steeply downward—but the others had tried to follow suit, all the way to his brother's thumb. That was the only thing unchanged, it seemed—his thumb, so normal against the rest of the digits that it was nearly out of place.

And a wing, of course, couldn't be a wing with open spaces—and so they'd closed.

A bat, Alphonse's mind supplied helpfully, from that vague, disconcerted place that it had settled, and carefully he reached to touch. The skin stretched loose between his brother's fingers was warm and soft, leathery, and as he moved to explore it with his own hand, unaware of the distress that the attention caused Ed, he ran across the reason for the older boy's state of half-dress.

Because the space between the pinky and his back had been filled in as well, a folded half-wing large enough to make anything with a sleeve logistically impossible.

It was almost a full minute before Alphonse had finished—nearly twice that before he'd managed to get the new information settled in a position that didn't leave his mind reeling. But when he spoke, the voice was gentle, and firm, and matter-of-fact.

"Come on, brother," Al said softly, "Let's get you out of here."