Ed entered the laboratory with his own brand of stealth; that is to say, he kicked the door in.
The place was more spacious than he would have expected, for an underground lab. Bulky pillars set at intervals around the interior walls gave it a cavernous, rather than an open look. Oddly colored lights glowing in places gave enough illumination to see by, but not really enough for him to feel comfortable. The little he could see of the plaster walls—and the benches and tables crowded against them—were filthy, but much of the mess was fresh and new, not old.
Ed found himself glad, once again, that Al was safely on a train back to Central with their 'report'. Neither Ed's commanding officers, nor Ed himself, were particularly happy that Al insisted on tagging along with his older brother on assignment even now that his body had been restored. The military wasn't happy with it because Al was now most emphatically a civilian, and an underage one; and Ed wasn't pleased with the prospect of risking his baby brother's new body to the kinds of lunatics and weirdoes that he somehow always got stuck with taking care of.
Like this one.
Robert Marchant was an Alchemist gone rogue; he'd been practicing without a license for fifteen years now, ever since his last failed attempt at passing the State exam. For the most part the military had been happy enough to ignore him, as long as he was neither a potential resource nor a potential threat. Lately, however, there'd been reports of strange disappearances in the area, and of a creature that witnesses couldn't properly describe, except as "dog-like" and "fierce."
If Marchant—whose specialty had been listed as agriculture—was breeding aggressive chimera...
Better safe than sorry, Ed decided on an impulse, and he clapped his hands and dropped them to the floor, pulling a weapon out of the stone. The bright light of the transmutation momentarily lit the lab interior, illuminating the dull sheen of metal instruments, glinting off metal grating set in the floor, and reflecting in a pair of green-violet eyes in the dark.
Well—that answered that question. Ed straightened up, dropping his spear into a ready position, as a menacing snarl split the eerie quiet of the lab.
"Come on, you stupid mutt," Ed told the pair of eyes, beckoning with his automail hand. "Let's get this over with. I promised my brother I'd take the next train out of this dump."
The snarl increased in volume as the eyes crept forward, and Ed's eyes widened briefly as the rest of the creature became visible. Holy shit that's one ugly dog was all that had time to pass through his mind before the creature lunged.
The fight was short. The chimera was fierce, and well-equipped with fangs and heavy, filthy claws; but Ed's weapon had reach, and Ed had the benefit of experience. Two or three passes with the spear and several overturned lab benches later he had the beast yelping in pain as it tried to drag itself away with two paws, and Ed stepped up swiftly behind it to finish it off cleanly.
"Ugh, what a mess," Ed muttered as he knelt beside the creature's corpse. "No wonder you were so vicious, this had to have hurt. This guy might be making chimera, but he sure isn't too handy at it. What's this, hyena and... armadillo? For fuck's sake, the armor's completely useless if it's not going to cover the vital places..."
"I entirely agree," spoke a voice unexpectedly behind him. Alarmed, Ed jumped to his feet and whirled around; even as he turned, however, he felt a hot stinging sensation in the side of his neck.
His hand flew up to clutch at it, and ripped out a gleaming metal tube. He raised his eyes to see a shadowy figure of a man, lowering something long and gleaming. "You cheating bastard!" Ed said in disbelief, even as his vision began to blur and darken. Damn, but whatever this shit was, it acted fast.
Ed lunged into the concealing darkness, hoping to take out Marchant quickly.... but the darkness swallowed him first.
Ed woke up slowly, and wished he hadn't.
His head was pounding, and his mouth was filled with some particularly rancid taste. Because of the drug, he thought hazily, before he could connect enough to remember who had drugged him and why.
Drug... He fought his way closer to consciousness, ignoring the flares of agony from his headache. I... was fighting... he drugged... me...
With that thought his eyes flew open, and he jerked forward, trying to bring himself up into a fighting position. He stopped short before he'd gotten more than a few inches, and a gasp of pain escaped his lips as his joints and muscles protested painfully.
His eyes flew open and he began to thrash wildly against the unexpected restraints. It was a long moment before he could get hold of himself enough to settle down, stop panicking and try a more scientific approach.
He was sprawled on his side on the floor and something was wrapped tight around his legs, his waist and holding fast to his automail arm. Nothing would give, no matter how fiercely he yanked.
Taking a gulp of air to steady his breathing, Ed tried to twist around to get a look at his restraints, but the angle was bad and it was too dark. Instead he looked up, trying to figure out where he was.
The first thing to meet his eyes was stone, rough dark stone barely illuminated by sickly yellow light filtering in from somewhere overhead. The light made curious crosshatches on the wall, and as he craned his neck backwards he realized the ceiling above him was some kind of metal grating, through which fragments of drab and filthy walls were visible.
The lab, he recognized. Marchant's lab... so he hadn't been moved far.
"So you're awake, are you?"
"Marchant!" Again, Ed tried to pull up against his restraints, to stand up and face his enemy, but again he was brought up short. The best he could do was torque his spine uncomfortably to turn his face up to the ceiling, a vulnerable position that he did not like at all. "You crazy bastard, what did you do to me? How long have I been out?"
The older Alchemist's smirking face appeared over the edge of the grating above, dark hair hanging down in greasy lanks. "You're pretty rude, for a brat who broke into my laboratory, smashed up my experiments, and killed one of my prize chimera, aren't you? Ha! Not long, not long. Just about long enough, I'd say."
"Long enough for what?" Ed grunted, twisting awkwardly as he tried to work himself against his bonds.
Even through the grating, Ed saw the angry expression on Marchant's face twist into something oddly resembling fondness. "Long enough for my lovely Hazel to get a good hold on you... isn't that right, Hazel?"
The older man leaned forward—from where he'd apparently been crouched at the edge—and reached out to stroke the bole of the large pillar rising through the center of the grating—
—the pillar was a tree! It all fell into place from this new perspective; the towering pillar rising up from the pit was a tree trunk, one of the bizarre, twisted specimens he'd seen when he'd first entered the lab.
He was at the bottom of a specimen pit in Marchant's labs, and he was ensnared in a tangle of—
—thick woody roots.
Now that he had a better idea of what was happening, Ed tugged fruitlessly at the tough, resistant fibers, testing how each tree root had wound its way around him. His right side was aching faintly from bruises, where he had apparently landed after being tossed into the pit unconscious.
Heavy roots were looped around his right leg from ankle to knee, thinner roots twining above them; he could get little feedback from his automail, sprawled slightly further away, but it seemed to be fixed fast. His right arm would not give at all, and as he twisted around he realized with a sickening shot that the roots had grown right into the automail, gripping a firm hold on the metal skeleton and twining with the wires.
"Son of a bitch!" Edward swore, fear and anger exploding. "What the hell are you up to, you motherfucking lunatic! Come down here and fight me fair, why don't you?" He thrashed against the roots, not so much seeking to escape now as simply needing an outlet for the panic and outrage welling up in him.
"Pah!" Marchant spat onto the grating, although it dissipated before it landed on Edward. "You State Alchemists, you're all the same. Riding on your high hobbyhorses like you're better somehow, when the truth is, you're no more than a group of blundering arrogant numbskulls! Everything's about brute force to you lot, isn't it! You don't have the brains to appreciate refinement, or subtlety..."
While Marchant ranted on, Ed took the opportunity to squirm frantically against the roots, seeking the tiniest bit of give that would let him free his left arm. He just needed a surface to draw on, or scratch an array... if only he had something, anything, to draw with...
"...toss me aside, will they? Eh? Don't think me plants have the right offensive capability, is it? Is that what you think?"
"I think..." Ed grunted, straining his left shoulder against the weight of the roots, "you're a bitter... old... dropout..." Every time he thought he'd gained a bit of slack, it was as if the vine curled around him tighter. No, it wasn't just his imagination! He realized with horror that the roots around him were growing, slowly but still unnaturally fast for a simple plant. But then, this was no ordinary plant, he ought to have figured that out from the speed with which the roots had grown around him while he was out.
What the fuck was Marchant doing with these plants?
"Well, I'll show you!" Marchant stood up and took a few paces around the edge of the pit; Ed craned to see what he was doing, and caught a glimpse of the edge of some kind of array, embedded into the thick pillar of a trunk. "All the prestige, all the glory is in research on animals, eh? But with plants you can get so much better... control..."
He touched the array, and it glowed to life, casting yellow sparks even down into the pit. A moment later Ed yelled as the roots around him suddenly came alive —more alive—and began surging around him almost frenetically.
Thick brown roots slid up Ed's legs towards his body, growing with unnatural speed, growing faster than Ed could kick them off. Tiny sprouting rootlings on the underside of the roots dug in a secure grip, and he could hear fabric ripping as the roots climbed their way up his clothes.
Briefly, a heavy pressure enveloped his chest, as a huge taproot slid over him, and Ed found himself pulled and tumbled inexorably with the direction of the roots' growth. The pressure tightened, and the dark pit darkened further as Ed gasped for air.
"That's enough, my sweet," he heard Marchant's voice coo from somewhere up above, although he seemed to come from a great distance. "We don't want to crush him too quickly."
A moment later, the pressure eased, and Ed panted heavily as his vision swam. "What..." he gasped out, but couldn't find the air to complete the question. His left hand clutched and scrabbled for purchase, but a cold, rough textured root had twined its way around his wrist, holding it helplessly out and away from his body.
In fact, Ed discovered as his eyes cleared, he was spreadeagled on his back in the mass of ropy roots, both limbs and automail pinned somewhere under the heavy plant. The roots were like a bed of snakes, surging and wriggling around and under him, and panic gave him his voice back. "What the fuck are you doing, you asshole! Are you trying to kill me, or not?"
"Oh, you'll die," Marchant's cold voice came down from above, and the alchemist's sneering face reappeared above the grating. "But not until you know humiliation, real humiliation, the kind I had to suffer at the hands of arrogant State Alchemists like you!"
"It's not my fault you're too much of an incompetent for the State," Ed gritted out, but he was sweating, not only from the fruitless effort of resisting the plants but from fear as well. This thing was too strong for him, it was just too strong, an elemental force of nature. He couldn't reach a suitable surface, had nothing to draw with even if he had, and he could feel nothing at all from his automail any more.
"Incompetent, am I?" Marchant snarled. "We'll see about that, won't we? You'll see..."
Ed regretted his taunt a moment later, when he heard the distinctive crackle of alchemy again.
Immediately the roots began to move again, but with a much more restrained, almost purposeful motion. What the hell, it's a plant, Ed thought desperately, it can't think, of course it's not purposeful... Just how much had Marchant altered these plants, anyway?
A handful of smaller, more slender rootlings were beginning to sprout from the thicker taproots, creeping up Ed's legs and from under his stomach and chest. His shirt began to shred under the pressure of their passage, and the roots slipped in to slide and grow along his bare skin.
To his horror, the roots seemed to have a deliberate goal in mind, converging inexorably on his stomach and between his thighs. He yelped and thrashed when the first one slid under the waistband of his pants, and before long he could feel even that leather material giving under their force.
When the first slender tendrils began to curl around his penis and balls, sending cold shocks of terror up his spine, he really began to panic, bucking and yanking indiscriminately at his heavy, living manacles. "No, nonono, get off me, get away!"
From somewhere above him, he heard Marchant's high, cold laughter, but he wasn't really paying attention. All he could focus on was the feel of those cold, slippery tendrils sliding around his sensitive genitals. Even as his mind curdled in terror at the thought of them digging in, or tightening their hold, another, more primitive part of his brain was waking up and taking notice of how pleasurable the stimulation felt. "No," he choked out.
He twisted his hips, desperately trying to pull away from the unwanted, disturbingly sexual touch, but that only served to increase the pressure of their touch. An involuntary gasp escaped his lips, and his hips jerked again, almost of their own volition. He was getting hard, oh fuck, he was getting hard from this, and it didn't seem to matter how much he freaked out about it, because his body wasn't listening to him. "Fuck!"
"You're getting the idea now, boy!" Marchant's voice shouted gleefully down at him. "Amazing, isn't it? The precision, the degree of control? Consider yourself lucky, that you get to experience it firsthand!"
"You... sick... bastard!" Ed spat out, in time with his involuntary spasms. "What kind of... twisted... perverted mind... would come up with... this?"
"You call me the pervert, eh, boy? I'm not the one who's enjoying it!" Marchant sneered.
"Not so arrogant now, are we?"
Ed bit down on a strangled groan of fury and humiliation, every muscle tensed against the assault, and forced himself to still. The tendrils were still writhing, the soft susurration of movement and growth assaulting his ears from all directions, and the sensations were almost unbearable, but he held down on his movement with an iron will. It wasn't any good, he wasn't any closer to escaping this way...
He didn't have to play along with Marchant's perverted game... he didn't! He couldn't help how his body was reacting, but it didn't mean anything—it was an involuntary natural reaction. So long as he didn't... move... fuck... fuck... fuck!
It took Ed several long minutes of agonizing self-discipline to realize that simply not moving was not an adequate solution. Because whether he moved or not, they kept up their merciless teasing, and nothing he could do could make them stop. He gritted his teeth, feeling sweat slick off his skin and mingle with the gritty slime that the roots were coated with. "Stop it... cut it out..." he whispered involuntarily, almost under his breath, because every swear word or angry demand just made Marchant laugh even more.
A fine involuntary trembling was overtaking the muscles in his legs, already exhausted from futile straining. It was only a matter of time before his struggling collapsed, his muscles gave out, and he could no longer prevent the insistent pressure forcing his thighs apart. He whimpered—then cursed himself furiously for the weak sound—as he felt a root tendril slowly slide its way up his leg, under his thigh, and began to inch along the cleft of his ass.
He clenched his muscles, instinctively trying to defend himself, but it was no use against this mindless, relentless, inexorable pressure. No amount of frantic writhing would allow him to move away from the intruding root, and Ed couldn't stifle an agonized cry when his resistance finally gave out, and the root drove forcefully inside his ass.
"You fucker!" he screamed, more to distract himself from the violation and to give himself back some sense of control than out of any hope of moving his enemy. "I'm going to fucking kill you, you hear me, Marchant, I'm going to crawl out of this fucking pit and fucking kill you..."
"What a one-track vocabulary," Marchant's taunting reply floated back to him. "Got something on your mind, boy?"
"I'm going to fucking... make you... eat this plant!" Ed howled, nearly wrenching his arm out of its socket as he arched up away from the bed of plants. The root inside his ass was pushing steadily further in despite his attempts to escape, and the forceful roughness of it burned despite the cold slimy ichor coating it.
Yet through this all, the slender tendrils had never ceased their writhing, pulsing movements around Ed's cock, and he couldn't fight the pleasure those sensations stoked in him. Even as he writhed, panting, in the unforgiving grip of the roots, the invading tendril brushed against something inside him that shot vibrant arcs of pleasure up his spine and down his legs. He arched again, with a helpless cry.
"Oh no, boy," the voice came down to him, poisonously cold and vicious in its satisfaction. "It's you who'll be eaten."
"Wh—what—" Ed couldn't form a protest, or even demand an explanation. The more the unforgiving root inside him swelled, the more often it pressed against that spot within him, shocking his body with pleasure and stopping any attempt at coherent thought. Any time he moved his hips in the slightest bit, it struck again—and with the tendrils ceaselessly working around cock, it was so hard to try and hold still. "Ahh—-ahhhhhh!"
"You see, you're worthless to me," he faintly heard Marchant say, over his pounding pulse, "except as a sack of fertilizer to feed my beloved plants. I'll just leave you all to Hazel—she's earned a treat. Plenty of nitrogen and calcium in those bones, eh? You're an alchemist, you should know the formula by now."
Ed would have liked to make a scathing reply, but all that emerged was an inarticulate gurgle. The swelling root inside him pressed hard against his prostate, a non-stop counterpoint of ecstasy to agony, and his body jerked once, hard, in the wooden cage of roots as he came.
"Oh, good show, boy," Marchant sneered, as Ed's shivering form went limp. Ed could hardly even muster up the energy to despise him.
Something was slithering at his neck, creeping up the side of his jaw. Ed recognized the form of another rootling just in time to slam his mouth shut, before it could creep between his jaws. He turned his head away, but there was another one on the other side; blindly seeking, it wormed its way between his lips and slipped insistently along the tight barrier of his teeth.
With a growl, Ed snapped his teeth and bit down hard on the tendril—it wriggled disgustingly in his mouth for a moment before he managed to bite through it, and spat it out to the side. It left a foul, slimy taste in his mouth, and he spat again, to try and relieve it. "You're a fucking—"
Speech was a mistake; it gave the roots access to his mouth. He bit down hard again, but the roots were too fibrous, too tough for him to sever, and Ed gagged as the root slowly forced its way into his mouth, spreading his jaws apart. He jerked his head back, trying to rid himself of it, but it only followed him, pinning his head back against the writhing mass of roots.
"Tell me, boy, have you ever seen a solid stone boulder split in half—inch by inch—by the roots of a tree?" Ed's wild, staring eyes could barely make out Marchant's face as the man leaned down, gloating at him. "Patience and time, that's all it takes, while the tree seeks out the stone's weak places.... worms its way into every crack and crevice... and just keeps on pushing and pushing... and slowly, tears that stone apart..."
Ed could imagine. Vividly imagine. Cold sweat broke out over all his skin, his shaking limbs.
"Well, guess what—you're about to find out what it feels like to be the stone. How's that sound for military applications, eh?"
Marchant left after that, mocking laughter and fading footfalls floating in his wake. Edward's muffled shrieks after him went unheeded, whether they were raging curses or desperate pleas alike.
With Marchant's departure, the alchemical glow had faded, and the plant had returned to its former, half-dormant state. The snake-like susurrations of growth and movement around him were barely perceptible.
But the plant still grew, still grew and crept forward with deadly persistence. When he lay still, he could feel the roots growing and tightening around him, inside him, a steadily mounting pressure in his ass and a nauseating choking sensation in his throat. He could feel them crawling under his clothes, sliding blindly over his skin, seeking the smallest flaw in his defenses in which to mount a new assault. Images flashed in his mind of the rootlings digging into his skin, his flesh, as they would into fresh turned earth, and spreading along through the fat, through his veins...
He tried not to lay still for too long at a time.
Even with his automail completely unresponsive (he was going to have to leave it behind, he knew, if he was going to get out of this, and please let him still be alive for Winry to cream him for it) and his muscles weak and trembling from constant, fruitless resistance (he couldn't even spread his legs, to try and ease the pressure, even if he wanted to) any effort, no matter how futile, was better than just giving up.
Marchant was gone, he hadn't heard the man's footsteps or deranged mutters for some time now. Without him, the plant moved slowly, so very slowly, he had time (how much time?) in which to make his escape. He could draw an array, weaken the monster, fight his way free; leave his automail behind, come back for it a little later. He could still get himself out of this—if he could just—get—
Ed concentrated all his willpower on his left hand, out of sight somewhere behind his head. Again and again, he twisted his wrist, chafing it against the roughness of the root binding it, until the burning pain of friction gave way to the slickness of blood. He strained his fingers down, nearly bending his wrist in half to catch a few precious drops of blood on his fingertips.
He inhaled deeply, forcing himself to concentrate over the wriggly, creepy sensation of a rootling crawling along his ribcage. Thanks to the angle his hand was caught at, there was no possible way for him to touch his own palm with his fingertips; instead, hand cramping with strain, he had to bridge the impossible few inches to touch the surface of a taproot instead.
But no sooner had he drawn the first few lines of the array, than the plant shifted again, moving him one way, and his half-formed array another. He'd schooled himself, gripping his self-control in both (metaphorical) hands, and tried again.
He'd endured worse hurts, he'd been in stickier situations than this. The tears dripping down the side of his face were pure frustration, Ed was sure, nothing more.
I'm going to die here, Ed realized numbly; he blinked, and another salt tear escaped the corner of his eye to slide into his sweat-soaked hair. As soon as it touched the surface of the root below him it vanished, soaked up instantly into the thirsty plant's heart. I'm going to die and be plant food for this monster of a chimera and that motherfucker Marchant.
It was despair, more than the exhaustion or the mounting pain, that finally stilled his struggles. Even the slightest of twitches sent tearing pains through the overstretched skin around his entrance, forced wide by the girth of the root still growing and moving inside him. No attempt to push upward and off the root was any use; the blockage in his throat already threatened to cut off his air before long. He was trapped, hopelessly pinned and bound, and with no way to to distract himself from thinking too much.
He wondered again what Marchant had done to alter this plant; it kept shifting out of his reach, every time he tried to draw an array, until finally a root tendril had clamped tightly around his wrist, preventing him from reaching any further. Alchemy had always saved him before—always gotten him out of the deadliest of situations—but it was almost as if the plant sensed the danger of letting Ed draw an array, and moved to stop him.
Where the root had touched the raw, bloody skin on Ed's wrist, little tiny sproutlings had begun to form, and dig into the open wounds. He could feel them moving under his skin, digging spikes of agony through his muscles and bone, but there was no escaping it; yanking his hand away only served to widen the gashes. Little streams of blood trickled down his arms, and were instantly soaked up—just like his sweat, just like his tears—by the voracious plant.
What would happen when the roots inside him swelled past what his fragile tissues could bear, and began tearing new holes inside him? Would the plant send out tiny roots like that, spreading through his insides? It might actually be better if the damned plant did cut off his air; at least if he passed out for lack of oxygen, he wouldn't have to be awake when the plant began to tear him open from end to end, as effortlessly as a cook gutting a fish.
He didn't want to die, but more, he didn't to die like this, slowly and agonizingly and awake to feel every one of his tissues tear. How much of him would have to break and burst and bleed out into the hungry roots before he finally lost consciousness, let it all go? Or would the plant keep him alive for hours, days like this, sucking out his salts and waters and blood and and flesh and down to the bone?
What if Al came back, in a few weeks' time, to try and find out what had happened? Would he find bones and automail mixed up in this pit, or would there be nothing left to—
Footsteps. Above him, in the quiet of the lab, came the soft echo of footsteps.
Marchant! Ed thought all his adrenaline had burned out (hours?) ago, but apparently he was wrong; his pulse began to quicken and his constricted breathing began to increase. His throat tightened involuntarily on the hard, foul-tasting root blocking it, and he tasted bile. He forced it down through sheer force of will.
But the footsteps didn't approach the pit, not immediately; instead, they seemed to be making a slow circuit of the lab. They were lighter than he remembered, too; slow and deliberate, not Marchant's heavy ungainly tread. What was the man up to? Wasn't he going to come check on his precious plant's progress, gloat over Ed's final hours (minutes?) Oh, great, the last thing I'm ever going to see will be that fucker's ugly mug...
But the hushed voice that eventually broke the silence was not Marchant's at all.
Hope ignited again in Ed's chest, so suddenly and fiercely that it was almost painful. Al was here, he was HERE, what was he doing here and not on the train to Central, like he had promised? At the moment Ed would have forgiven a hundred broken promises, a thousand stray kittens. Al had come for him... Al would save him...
On the heels of hope, came terror. What if Al didn't find him? He was out of sight, down here in the drainage pits, effectively gagged and silenced. Would Al even think to look for him here? What if he didn't? What if he gave up searching, and left, leaving Ed behind?
Summoning up the last vestiges of his strength, Ed began to struggle again. It was hard, after being still for so long—he was practically trapped inside a wooden cocoon, without the slightest bit of give in any direction. He strained to kick against one of the taproots, make a bang—snap one of the wooden limbs in half, make a crack—if only the roots weren't so damp, so flexible, they just shrugged off any dent he tried to make in them.
"Brother? Are you here?"
As he strained, a new and more horrible thought came to him; what if Al didn't leave, and Marchant came back? Marchant had taken out Ed easily enough, with that trank gun—what if his baby brother fell into the same trap? Would Al end up ensnared in the same horror as him, waking from the drug just in time to watch Ed be ripped apart, knowing the same fate was in store for him? Al! Al, why'd you have to come back?
He had to get Al's attention, somehow, not just to find him but to warn him of the danger. In unthinking desperation, Ed thrashed against his bonds, twisting all his muscles in one last spasm.
Unwittingly, the jerk of his hips pushed him just an inch further down on the root penetrating him—just an inch too far. He thought he'd been prepared for this moment, but nothing could have prepared him for the sudden tearing sensation, the burning pain and hot slickness of blood as his flesh gave way. The last of his air left him in an agonized cry, strangled by the lack of air and muffled by the root filling his mouth—but still distinct.
Through the haze of pain and the sound of blood in his ears, Ed distinctly heard the footsteps up above stop, stand still for a moment, and then begin again in his direction, stepping more firmly. "Is... was that you, Brother?"
Like the sun coming over the horizon, Alphonse's blond head appeared over the edge of the pit. Ed could have cried. "Brother!" Al's cry was a mix of gladness and worry. "What happened? How did you get stuck down there?"
I got ambushed by a crazy scientist with a trank gun who is STILL AROUND, Al! Be more alert, damn you! But all that he could manage was a weak, muffled grunt.
"Hang on, Brother. I'm coming down to get you." Al stooped over, hands on his knees, and began shuffling around the edge of the pit. After a moment, he apparently found what he was looking for—he hmm'd for a moment in consideration, then reached into his pocket to pull out a length of chalk.
There was a crackle of noise and light, and then Al hooked his fingers into the grating and hauled upwards. It swung back on a hinge somewhere outside of Ed's vision, and for the first time Ed got a clear vision of the ceiling unbroken by the grating. A moment later, Al dropped into the pit beside him, landing as lightly as a cat.
"Okay, Brother. I'll get you out of these... What are..." Al's initial smile melted into a frown, as he began to take in more of Ed's condition. Even as he stood there, a particularly lively root began to curl its way over his foot, climbing up his ankle. Al lifted his foot, easily breaking his grip, but then had to keep hopping. "What did he do to these plants?"
Ed made an unintelligible noise deep in his throat, and Al's eyes widened as he leaned forward, moving over Ed's face and the taproot that was gagging him. "Hang on, I'll get rid of that in a second," he promised softly, and after a moment of groping took hold of the root a little farther down and began to pull.
Al had the leverage that Ed had not, and after a few seconds of initial resistance, the root reluctantly began to give from its burrowed resting place. It hurt much worse than the root had initially going in, dragging along the inside of Ed's throat like sandpaper, but he squeezed his eyes firmly shut and endured it until it was finally gone, and he could inhale freely again.
Al's cry of dismay opened his eyes again, to a blurry vision of his brother's horrified face and Ed choked on the first words he tried to get out. A spasm of coughing grated on his abused throat, but then Ed was finally able to gasp out his warning. "Al! Marchant's here—took me by surprise—trank gun—look out, dammit!"
Alphonse whirled around, looking up to follow Ed's frantic gaze, and saw Marchant standing near the edge of the pit just seconds before the muzzle of the trank gun lowered and fired.
Al threw himself to the side, and the metal dart buried itself in a taproot just inches away from Ed's eye. Al came up in a roll, crushing the rootlings under his foot, and darted over to the side of the pit, flattening himself against the wall out of Marchant's line of sight. Marchant cursed—a sentiment Ed vividly echoed—and reached out one hand to slam the grating back down on them, turning and disappearing into the lab right after.
"Al, look out!" Ed shouted again, but Al hardly needed the warning—he drew out the chalk again and his hands didn't waver at all as he sketched the array on the stone side of the pit. The reaction crackled, flaring up and down the stone wall, and Al pulled his hand back with a heavy quarterstaff even as the side of the pit molded into hand and footholds. One handed, he heaved himself up the makeshift ladder and banged back the grating on his way out of the pit.
Within a moment, he'd vanished out of sight, and Ed was left with only the sounds of combat, shouting and swearing, the crashes of lab benches overturning and thuds of a body striking a wall or the floor.
Silence fell after a few moments, and Ed waited, heart in his mouth. The alchemical activity seemed to have stirred the plant out of its semi-dormant stage, because it had taken up its more active motions again—wriggling and stretching around and inside of him. "Al?" he called tentatively, afraid of what answer he might receive.
Small tendrils began to creep over his face, as if to make up for the one Al had freed him of, and crept across his temple towards his eye. He pulled his head away, stymieing it briefly, but two more began to follow the first. "Al!"
"Here, Brother," the breathless reply came, and with a scrabbling thump Al reappeared over the lip of the pit. "I had to knock him out. I'm not sure what to do with him. I want to get you out as soon as possible, but I was looking around for any tools I could use."
Al hadn't realized at first glance, just how far the plant had penetrated. Ed was just as glad, really, that his clothes were still on his person, albeit in shreds. But it wasn't until Al began tugging and pulling at the roots wrapped around Ed's human arm—drawing embarrassing, involuntary whines of pain from Ed—that he began to realize the full extent of the damage that the roots had done, and his expression of affectionate, exasperated concern vanished into shock and horror.
Ed saw the panic rising in Al's eyes, a delayed reflection of his own, as his younger brother's hands flew from one black, twisted root to another. With a strangled cry, Al fell to tearing at the roots everywhere they touched Ed's skin, every place they had penetrated. Ed bit his tongue to stifle a scream when the fine root network was ripped out of his wrist, sending waves of pain and rivulets of blood back down his arm.
"Al, Al, stop," he begged his brother through gritted teeth. "Come on, Al, you have to listen to me. You can't... get it that way... without making it worse, okay?"
Al pulled back a bit, eyes brimming with tears, face twisted in anguish. "Brother, you..." he said, and then had to gulp back tears as his words failed him. "What has this thing done to you... I have to get you out of here..."
"One step at a time, Al," Ed said faintly, then gasped and swallowed hard against a rising scream. "First you have to kill it, Al, you can't get me out of here while it's still alive and growing oh God Al kill it, please kill it!"
Al stared for a moment, shaken by the raw desperation in Ed's voice, and then a shutter seemed to close behind his eyes, and when he straightened up he was all business. "Okay, Brother," he said in a calm tone. "Hang in there for just a minute more, while I think of the array."
Ed hadn't been able to see whatever array it was Al used, sketched on the looming bulk of the pillar, but whatever it was, it was effective. Within seconds, the plant began to curdle and die, the writhing roots freezing and curling in death, diseased-looking leaves beginning to fall off as if in a rain.
Ed tried not to take too much personal satisfaction in the almost agonized thrashing of the plant's upper limbs as it died. On one level, he knew that it was a mindless pawn of Marchant's twisted manipulations, even less thinking than a beast. On another, more visceral level, he hated the monster with more dull passion than he'd ever felt towards any living organism before—even deeper and more personally than Marchant himself—and he knew that some primal part of him would never be free of fear while it lived.
Of course, even with the plant dead, it still hadn't been easy to free Ed from its grip. Even when the roots were o longer clinging and grasping, their hold was tenacious. It took them over an hour to extract Ed from the clutches of the plant, even with the aid of the industrial strength sheers that Al eventually transmuted from scrap. Ed had been right; they had to leave the automail behind, at least at first. The roots had grown almost solid into the metal contraptions, and had begun to burrow even into the port connections before Al's array had brought the plant to shivering death.
Al's hands were steady and calm as he handled Ed and pulled him gingerly out of the pit, laying him carefully down on the lab floor. Ed almost passed out as he was moved, the blood rushing away from his head and the root still lodged inside him sending fresh tears of agony through him. He didn't think he had ever—with the exception of a few bad nights during automail surgery—hurt so much in his life.
Al had laid him down on his stomach, with his numb and bleeding arm stretched out in front of him; with difficulty he managed to prop himself up enough to look over at Al. This is Al, he reminded himself, the twisting in his stomach that had nothing to do with the damage inflicted by the root. There's nothing you can be ashamed of in front of him.
If his brother had noticed the dried white stain on his stomach and the rags of his pants, he made no sign of it. Al was crouched by his side, one warm hand resting on his back through the torn shirt as Al studied the object of Ed's torment. "How deep is it in, Brother?" he asked softly, matter-of-factly, although behind his eyes a cry of dismay was still waiting to be loosed.
"Pretty deep," Ed grunted, and then almost wanted to laugh at the understatement. "I don't think... you'd better pull." If the one in his throat had been any comparison, he'd have no guts left at all after that sandpaper was dragged through it.
"Okay," Al said firmly. "Hold still and... and relax, okay Brother? I'll take care of you."
"For once in your life," Ed mumbled, but he turned his face the other way and rested his temple against the cool stone floor.
"Ha, like I'm not always the one cleaning up after you," Al's voice came from behind him, and then a jostling which made him keen softly. "Sorry, Brother," he said more contritely.
There was a crackling noise, and the hair-raising feel of alchemy performed entirely too close for comfort... but an instant later, the burning hardness inside him suddenly seemed to melt away and shrivel into nothingness, leaving behind a glaring expanse of painful emptiness in its place. He gasped, as the skin and muscles around his ass were finally able to relax and relapse to their natural state, after who knew how long of painful forced expansion. "Fuck," Ed gasped, then hastily added before Al could misunderstand, "it's okay, it's just, feels a lot better."
"Okay, it's gone," Al reported, and Ed pushed himself up on his still-numb hand to see Al throwing something violently away into the pit. Nausea churned in Ed's stomach, and he felt suddenly light-headed, but the relief of being free of the roots was so great that he couldn't help attempting to level himself up onto his—
—hand and knee. That didn't work too well, and he collapsed after a spike of agony flared up from his guts. "Damn," he muttered. "Al, I don't think... I'm going to be able to walk."
"Walk!" Al's voice had gone high with indignation. "Brother, in case you hadn't forgotten, you're missing your leg! You can't even stand, much less walk! And even if you weren't, you aren't going to walk anywhere, d'you hear me? You're hurt, you're... all torn up and bleeding all over the place! We're going straight to the hospital from here and I am going to carry you every step of the way!"
Al's voice trembled slightly on these last few words, and as Ed looked back at him, he could see the high emotion that still wanted to break through that practical facade. Al wouldn't let it, though; he'd hold up the calm factuality like smooth steel armor until they were both somewhere safe, because one of them had to. "Al," Ed said again, weaker this time. "I..."
"You scared me," Al said, and rubbed his face hard against his forearm. "What if I hadn't... what if I hadn't come back... and you'd be..."
"Yeah," Ed said, throat dry just at the prospect. He'd meant to say something flippant, that he hadn't been worried at all, that he'd been just a few minutes away from pulling a marvelous escape act, that Al hadn't just come a train ride away from losing his older brother; but nothing seemed to want to come out of his mouth.
Without warning Al pulled him into a fierce hug, one that hurt like hell for the first five seconds before Al remembered to gentle up, and then hurt only mildly. But it was an embrace Ed wouldn't have broken for the world. He still had to yell at Al, he reminded himself, for not obeying Ed's orders, for going and walking straight into a crazy alchemist's trap... but he thought that could wait until his own shaking had eased up some.
After a bit, Al reluctantly pulled away, all control once more. "Hang on a moment, Brother," he said, and then stood, turning back to the pit. A few minutes later and some cracking noises later, he reemerged with Ed's automail, the arm and the leg messes of snapped wires and splinters wound through with dead root pieces.
Ed looked at it dolefully. "Winry's going to kill me," he said.
"No, she won't, because I won't let her," Al shot back calmly, as he crouched and began to shove the unwieldy things into a knapsack. Standing up, he slung the back with Ed's automail back over his shoulder, then turned back to Ed. "Come on, Brother. I want you in the hospital as soon as possible."
It was a long trek back to the town from Marchant's lair, on foot and heavily burdened, and Ed wavered on the edge of consciousness for most of the trip.
Only once, well out of the forest and back on the main road, did Ed manage to stir himself to ask. "Al," he murmured, against his brother's shoulder. "What did... where did... what happened to Marchant?"
"Oh him." Was it just his imagination, or did Al pick up the pace a moment there? "Don't worry about him, Brother."
Ed wavered up towards alertness with alarm. "You didn't kill him, did you?" On one hand, it was true that there weren't many people in the world he'd rather see dead than the crazy alchemist. On the other hand... Al wasn't a killer. Was never a killer. It would destroy Al, to become a killer, no matter how much Marchant deserved it.
"No," Al said, although it didn't sound entirely convincing.
"You didn't let him go, did you?" Ed said warily.
"Of course not." This time Al perceptibly picked up the pace, as though he could somehow outwalk the question. "I left him back in the lab."
"Well, he didn't have just the one plant," Al said, and he sounded almost... embarrassed? "So I... well... I left him down in one of the other plants. He might even be waking up right about now."
"You what?" Ed felt his stomach lurch sickeningly despite himself.
"Don't worry about it, Brother," Al said steadfastly. "When we get into town I'll alert the authorities about where he is. They'll be able to get to him before the plant eats him completely." Several more steps passed in silence. "I think."
"Oh." The world was wavering out again, trickling out of Ed's grasp like a liquid. "Al."
"Yes, Brother?" Al's pace was steady, careful.
"Thank you," Ed said softly. "For coming back just then. I thought I was gonna die in there."
"Don't be stupid, Brother. Just rest. We'll be in town soon." Al's voice was just like his footsteps; steady, familiar, soothing. It reminded him of the times when Al had been in armor, and he'd ridden on his brother's back when exhaustion would overtake him, on their long quest. Stupid of him, really, to ever try and send his brother from his side, or to even imagine that he could possibly die alone.
"Good," he said sleepily. "Let me know when we get there. I'm starving. I think I could really murder a salad..."
"If you say so, Brother." Damn Al, he had no right to sound so amused...
The world slipped away again.