chapter 5.

"Brother," Al began again, carefully. "I wish you'd be more reasonable about this."

Ed ignored him, leaned hard against the younger boy's body, and positioned the false limb so that he could take another shuffling step forward.

When a moment had passed and there was still no response, Alphonse began speaking again. "It's getting dark, you know." He paused to see if that warranted a reply, only venturing on when his brother remained silent. "And it's still quite a ways to town."

The older boy faltered, muttered a curse under his breath—shifted forward again stubbornly. Gold eyes flickered briefly up to Al's face before they fell to watching the ground again. "We just took a break."

And they had. After making desperately slow progress for most of the afternoon, Ed stubbornly refusing to rest or allow himself to be carried, the older of the brothers had stopped quite suddenly and announced that he needed to sit down for a few minutes. He'd clung awkwardly to Alphonse's arm as he lowered himself to the ground, settling on a small patch of grass in what was otherwise a rocky landscape—and, a moment later, insisted that the other boy join him.

The stop hadn't been prompted by the exhaustion that made his leg tremble with every step, nor even by Al's soft, persistent appeals for him not to push himself too hard. Actually, the true reason had been quite entwined with the fact that the sky, as they'd walked, had grown a steadily deeper shade of blue, the sun's light inching toward orange as it neared the horizon.

And that particular sunset, spent leaning comfortably against his brother's shoulder and with a gentle, steadying arm around his waist, was the first that Ed had seen in nearly two years.

Alphonse hadn't said anything, not even when he'd felt warms tracts of tears begin to creep down his face and been too enraptured by the sky to bother hiding them. And when at last Ed had declared himself ready to go on, the younger boy had accepted the roughly muttered "Better now—fucking hard to walk on this thing," without comment, helping him to his feet instead.

He seemed to be making up for the silence now, Ed reflected with a certain amount of wry amusement. Since they'd begun moving again, his little brother hadn't let five minutes go by without suggesting that the older boy really shouldn't be walking to begin with, a point that he seemed more inclined to push as Ed's strength began to flag.

And much as he hated to admit it, his reserves were running low. Every step was an effort now, but despite the exhaustion that he could feel surging below the surface and the fact that their progress would probably be faster if he just conceded the point, this was an argument that Ed wasn't willing to lose. He'd spent the past seven years smiling hard enough to hide the pain so that his brother wouldn't worry—and whatever else his time in the mine had taken from him, he wasn't going to let it be this.

"You're wounded, brother," Alphonse said softly, plaintive, as he slowed to a stop—and beside him, Ed faltered before stilling as well, having little choice but to follow suit.

Carefully, he shifted his weight, determined to use the brief rest to give his good leg a chance to recover. It was beginning to cramp by now, and it ached horribly; he winced as he flexed it, trying to work some of the soreness out. "But it's stupid for you to carry me when I can walk on my own."

The younger boy's eyes were on him, then, the concern in their depths reduced to naked pleading—precisely the sort of look that Edward had never been able to resist when they were younger. And Al knew it, damn him.

"I know you can," Alphonse told him softly, and there was something wounded in the tone. It made the older boy shift uncomfortably, suddenly guilty that he'd caused it. "But just being able doesn't mean you have to."

Pale fingers sought Ed's face in the dim twilight, and the boy wondered briefly whether his brother intended the cautious, searching touch as a means to gauge his expression. Not for the first time, he found himself grateful for at least one aspect of the change: even in the rapidly fading grey of dusk, his own vision still allowed him to pick out Alphonse's features as clearly as though by daylight. The advantage wasn't one he minded, Ed considered absently, watching as the younger boy's brows knit together in concern, as his tongue darted out to wet his lips before continuing. It was fascinating to realize that, as close as they were, Al must only be able to make out a shadowed outline of his face.

"It's like you're trying to prove something," Alphonse began again, this time with the pleading in his eyes seeping down to touch the words. "But I don't understand, brother—you've done it already. We've come all this way." A thumb traced Ed's cheekbone, soft and searching. "Now let me help."

The words came like a blow, forcing the breath from his body, and in their wake, he was helpless to do anything but stare.

It may have been the ache behind the voice, or maybe the echoing sorrow that he could see cast deeply in his brother's eyes. Or perhaps, suggested a small voice in the back of his mind, it was because the way Alphonse was touching him evoked recollections of dreams that had been buried under almost two years of suffering. But suddenly, Ed was glad of the darkness—abruptly, fiercely grateful that the younger boy couldn't see the flush as it burned its way across his face.

"I guess," he conceded reluctantly, ducking his head to break the contact—and when he glanced up to see what response the words had won him, the force of Alphonse's smile was breathtaking.

Ed hissed in pain, bit his lip to keep silent.

Five seconds after, he gave up. "Ow—fuck, Al! Be careful!"

The boy kneeling in front of him glanced up with worried bronze eyes, hands stilling momentarily. "I'm sorry, brother. But I'm not sure..." Alphonse trailed off helplessly as he considered. "...maybe if we finish your bad leg first?"

"Fine," Ed grumbled, bracing his arm against his little brother's shoulders so that he wouldn't fall. He felt the tug of hands at the waist of his pants again, had time to think bitterly that, however often he'd imagined this moment, it had never gone quite like this.

And then Alphonse was trying to pull the fabric away from a wound whose blood had long since dried, and he stopped thinking again. "Al!"

"It's almost off," the younger boy soothed. "Just lift your leg a little higher."

Ed complied, though the limb trembled in response, and a moment later the tiny, tearing pains resumed in his thigh. "Would you just fucking rip it free already?"

"That would restart the bleeding, brother." Another series of tugs left him practically draped over Alphonse in an effort to remain upright. Another pause, and his brother's voice, regretful: "If your pants weren't leather, we could soak the fabric through and it would come free."

"Yeah," Ed muttered viciously, "I'm realizing that now. If someone had—" But the rest of what he'd meant to say was lost as Al resumed the efforts, words cut off by a renewed burst of pain.

And then there was a tear much sharper than the rest, and he yelped in response, half-limb jerking as he attempted to pull back. Wearily, Alphonse smiled up at him; there was a patch of fresh blood on the boy's right hand, but it was small. "There," his little brother reassured him. "One down."

Freeing his other leg from the pants took almost three times as long, and by the time Alphonse had managed it, Ed was dizzy from the pain, breath coming in quick, shallow hisses. He forgot to complain about the cold of the tile on the bathroom floor when his brother settled him to rest, forgot everything except the mental litany that he'd needed to cling to in order to remain conscious this long.

Almost, his mind repeated doggedly. Just a bit more.

Distantly, a part of him was grateful that Alphonse had insisted on carrying him, after all; he really was exhausted at this point, felt the creeping arms of sleep threatening to steal around him if he gave up on the struggle to cling to waking.

Almost, he told himself firmly, and tried to ignore the temptation.

In the background, Al was drawing a bath; the water was like thunder in his ears, low and distant, and despite his efforts the sound of it had him drifting off by the time the touch on his bare thigh prompted him to open his eyes again.

Alphonse's gaze met his—gentle, probing, concerned—and Ed didn't even need to look at what he'd seen to know the answer to an unspoken question. "Naw," he managed, and dredged up a smile from the depths of somewhere, unsure whether it was particularly convincing. "They're not bruises."

And this time he watched, golden eyes intent, as Al explored the place where his skin began to mottle. The contact was light, searching; his brother's fingertips traced hesitantly along the change in pigmentation, and Ed had to suppress a shudder at the touch.

The marks began just above his hips, a light smattering of what looked to be particularly large freckles, and traced the outside line of both his legs—down to the ankle on one and to the automail port on the other. By the top of his thighs, they darkened to black, grew closer together—small and uneven, splotchy ovals roughly an inch in length, much too pronounced against skin pale with being so long hidden from the sun.

The first time he'd seen them, Edward had thought with an undertone of hysteria that they really didn't look as good on skin as fur—and the wave of gratitude that had struck him then had been so great that he'd doubled over, forehead pressed to the floor, and waited for the light-headed sensation to pass so that he could move again. Because at least, his mind had insisted feverishly, he didn't have the fur.

If Alphonse's thoughts followed the same line, it wasn't obvious in his expression; the smile he offered when he raised his eyes to meet Ed's again was kind, and encouraging, and tired.

"Come on, brother," he said, softly. "The bath water's done."

Edward tried to do it on his own.

He ordered his little brother from the room, announcing that he could fucking well bathe himself, at least—but soon the effort had gone the way of his attempts to undress. And when Al called cautiously through the door, asking in a worried voice what the thud had been and whether he was alright, Ed swallowed the last of his pride and admitted that maybe the younger boy would have to help him, after all.

And so it was Al that lifted him carefully over the side of the tub, Al's arms that supported his weight and lowered him slowly. When the just-this-side-of-hot water got into the automail port on his leg and left him doubled over, shaking with the pain, it was Al's voice, soft and gentle, that kept him grounded through the hurt, told him that it would be alright if he could bear it just a bit more. And he did, even when the younger boy coaxed him quietly that they really ought to subject the arm port to the same—that they could wait to try and clean them really well, but that this, at least, was something that ought to be done.

When he discovered that a thumb alone wasn't enough for him to manipulate the soap, he'd knocked it away in a fit of frustration, cursing sharply and turning his head so that Alphonse wouldn't see the tears that spilled down his cheeks. His little brother didn't say a word—not about the outburst or the fact that he was crying again, helpless to stop it and furious over that, as well. He simply crossed the room to retrieve the bar of soap, lathered up a cloth, and urged Ed to lean forward so that he could begin washing his back.

And, humiliating as it was, it felt good.

Alphonse's touch was gentle, the motion soothing, and it had been a long, long time since he'd been so warm. Distantly, he wondered how badly he'd be embarrassing himself if his body was in any state to take an interest in sex—because even now, the pain in his old wounds had faded to a bearable ache, leaving the rest of him suffused with a content, lethargic sort of bliss.

He'd fallen into a doze by the time Al told him softly that they were almost done, the words dragging him from the brink of sleep as his brother lowered him gently backward. A moment later he was lifted again, hair dripping, and he felt fingers at his scalp as the younger boy began to wash.

This, too, was a steady motion, tender and cautious, a mix of massaging fingers and the careful attention paid to untangling the knots without causing pain. Ed couldn't quite stop the shaky sigh of pleasure that escaped him in response, the way he tilted his head instinctually into the touch. And when Al's hands stilled just briefly as he worked his way around to the side, the older boy made a quiet noise of protest, too drowsy to realize what had caused him to hesitate.

Ed drifted off completely after that, waking only once as Alphonse lifted him from the tub. He was aware of being wrapped in a large, soft towel, of mumbling an incoherent protest that he could do it himself, of a gentle, reproving voice telling him that it was alright, brother, go back to sleep.

By the time Al set him carefully in the room's shabby bed and pulled the covers up over him, he'd taken the advice.