"It's going to storm tonight," Edward had said, some three hours earlier, and now the rain pours down in sheets from a blackened sky as though in answer to the words.
The two small figures caught beneath the force of it hunch low against the wind, heads ducked and blonde hair plastered to faces that glisten wet and streaming. The dirt path beneath them has become a mess of churning mud already, and by the time the smaller of the two steps up onto the porch and out of the rain, the boys' feet are caked with it, sticky and moist and clinging.
"Don't forget," Alphonse calls, raising his voice to be heard over the roar of the wind, "to take your shoes off, brother."
Most of Ed's response is lost under the noise of the storm—but as the boy works the key into the lock and forces the door open, all but falling inside in his gratitude to be out of the elements, he does indeed kick the sodden, muddy mess from his feet, leaving them in a careless pile just outside.
It isn't until Alphonse has followed suit, carefully lining his own shoes up side by side beside his brother's, that he glances up to see the light in Edward's eyes, so much brighter than what's usually ignited by a good thunderstorm.
"I knew this was a good night for it," Ed says, and his grin is all white teeth, nervous and anticipatory. "No way Granma'd chase after us in weather like this, even if she does figure out we're gone."
Beyond the walls of the too-silent house, there is a crack of thunder, loud enough to shake the windowpanes, and Alphonse flinches with the intensity of it. His brother does, too—but Ed recovers faster, pretends not to have been bothered.
And when the sound comes again, as they pick their way down the darkened hallway, both boys are ready for it.
The array has been prepared already, chalked onto the floor this afternoon by small, steady hands. It is all careful lines and angles; each segment has been written and checked against the pages of a book—then erased and written and checked once more.
And nothing is out of place. Every curve has been painstakingly measured, every ingredient weighed.
But the attention to detail does nothing for the nerves of either boy as they kneel alongside their masterpiece, going over the markings that they've created one last time. They are silent, tense; Alphonse's eyes lift from the floor more than once in order to seek out the expression on his brother face.
"There," Edward says at last, and closes the book.
It makes a dry-paper sound as the thick halves come together, and then there is no noise but the howl of the wind, muffled by the sturdy walls of their house.
Neither brother seems willing to speak, but their thoughts dip down into similar wells, dredging up the questions that most haunt them. Are we ready, the boys' minds whisper. Should we study more? Try harder to find a teacher before this one last step?
And above the rest, stringing them together and drowning them out, a doubt more solid than all the others: Will this work?
It is Edward that breaks the silence, voice as low and determined as on that day not terribly long ago when they'd watched their mother lowered slow and steady into the unforgiving earth.
"C'mon, Al," he says, and golden eyes lift, full of tentative hope, to catch hold of his brother's gaze. "It's time to see mom again."
Alphonse doesn't have the strength to say no.
He knows when it has gone wrong.
Sees it in the fade of lovely golden light to a sickly blue and watches as horror that mirrors his own dawns slowly in Edward's face.
And he doesn't understand, at first, exactly how badly they've been mistaken—doesn't realize until he's watching something long and black and grasping begin to close around his brother and pull. Even as he feels the touch on his own body, so cold and other, comprehending refuses to come—leaves him reeling, helpless, in the face of blank disbelief.
Until those tendrils close down upon his flesh, and he knows quite suddenly why it is that Edward is screaming.
"Brother!" he wails, as the first wave of pain hits. The sound is torn from him as though something he can't control, and it grows in volume as the tips of those black things—not fingers, not fingers, his mind babbles frantically, because if they're fingers he'll have to come to terms with the fact that they must be attached to something, and the horror of that is too great to process—settle in more deeply, as though taking a better grip.
And then they begin to take him, and he begins to tear, and for one sickening, terrifying moment, Alphonse realizes that there's nothing, nothing he can do about it.
"Brother!" he cries again, desperate, and tries to wrench away—but whatever holds him is too strong, and he's sobbing now with the pain of it.
It takes him a moment to realize that other hands have closed around him.
Not Edward's, no, but small and strong and steadying all the same. And before he can think, before he even has the chance to be grateful that the pain has stopped, he's being torn away from those awful, clutching fingers—because that, the child's mind insists, petrified beyond rational thought, is what they are.
He is on the floor then, and lies where he has fallen; his breath comes in hitching, gasping shudders, and his heart is pounding hard enough to hurt. If he turns, he knows, he'll see the circle that he'd drawn with his brother and whatever dreadful thing is going on within it—but for several long seconds the rush of terror is enough to freeze him in place, and instead he watches as the light flickers against the wall, that glowing, sickly blue before it fades slowly away.
When he thinks he can push himself up to hands and knees without his arms shaking badly enough to drop him, Alphonse does. Lingers trembling where he's risen until the world settles into something marginally tolerable around him.
And before he turns to look, Alphonse braces himself.
Because a part of the boy knows, instinctively, that nothing good could have come from such horrible, grasping, unnatural things, and though he isn't sure what precisely to expect, he knows that it will be terrible.
The knowledge isn't enough.
He will think, later, that nothing could have prepared him for the sight that greets his eyes, but all he is able to do in that initial moment is stare.
Because Alphonse has never imagined, in any of his worst nightmares, the way that people would look with parts of them missing. He has thought, in preparation for this day, about the way that human bodies are put together—but never stopped to consider the way one would look if you took it apart.
For a moment, his mind refuses to process the scene before him; a whimper works its way up from a throat that's suddenly clenched half-shut, and he notes in a distant sort of way how close that thick puddle of red is beginning to creep to his hands.
But he cannot think clearly enough to wonder, as he will later, what Grandma Pinako and Winry had been doing there. That will come with time, a guessing game of the worst sort. But right now, Alphonse cannot even realize whose hands had closed around him—cannot make his mind understand who's pulled him away from whatever unspeakable place those fingers had intended to take him.
All he knows is the parts that aren't there any longer—the red stain where a chest should have been, the raw edges of flesh around the white of hip bone, the gaping hole where there ought to have been eyes.
He sees something glistening beyond that horrible lack, something thick and chunky and dripping, and his stomach turns in protest, shock spilling over him in icy waves.
"Brother," he whimpers, the sound tiny and desperately frightened. "Brother—"
And it is only when he turns to look that realizes how much of the blood on the floor belongs to Edward.
His brother is a terrible, ghastly pale, face pulled up into an expression of such indescribable agony that it steals Alphonse's breath away. One small hand is clutching desperately at the place where an arm used to be, and whatever's left clean of the boy's shirt is being stained by a growing creep of crimson.
"She tried," are the first words from Ed's mouth, "to pull me back."
"Your arm!" Alphonse cries, and is scrabbling forward before he's even decided what he means to do. He knows revulsion for a fraction of a second, as his hands encounter something warm and liquid, smeared across the floor—but he's reaching for his brother then, so desperate for contact with something alive that the blood barely slows him down.
"Winry," Edward is saying, sounding distant and stunned. "She tried to pull me back." His brother's eyes, a much darker shade than gold in the dimly-lit room, lift to Alphonse's face, fragile and pained and pleading. "I only wanted—" He cuts himself off with a choked sound. "But everything is ruined."
"You're bleeding everywhere," is all that Alphonse can manage. "Your arm, brother."
"Even," Ed rasps, voice so thick with hurt that the younger boy must lean in to hear it. "even mom."
The words are like a knife wound; he has forgotten, in his horror, the reason for their actions.
But now, with his brother's reminder, Alphonse lifts his gaze—and beholds the rest of what they've done.
By the next day, Edward has stopped bleeding—and it is that fact for which his little brother is consistently, profoundly grateful.
The world moves in a fragmented daze, and Alphonse's memory of the long night behind them is patchy at best. He recalls the way that his brother trembled when he helped the boy to stand—the harsh cry of pain as he'd tied the bandages—the blood, congealed and drying, coming away under a damp cloth.
At some point, he's found the time to pull blankets over the mess of parts left in That Room—has closed the door and struggled to drag one of the low, comfortable chairs from their living room to block the entryway. Because he can think of nothing at all that could force him to go back, now that what they've created is no longer exposed to the open air—can think of nothing that will make staring into the gaping lack of flesh and that still-twitching pile of organs worthwhile.
Somehow, it helps to think that the chair is there, blocking the way in some tenuous, superficial manner. He isn't certain why.
It isn't until Edward awakens, sometime toward evening, that the thought first comes to him—it is given form in his brother's voice, weak from lost blood, but there is conviction behind the words.
"We've got to go," his older brother tells him—and when those eyes find him, flat with exhaustion and pain, Alphonse suddenly doesn't need any further explanation than that.
Ed tries to give it, of course—stilted, garbled half-sentences, so strained that the younger boy attempts more than once to make him abandon the effort. But the words spill out anyway: that they've made a mistake, that they've done something horrible, that they've killed people, and if they stay, everyone will know. Those terrible consequences that they've never considered too closely loom suddenly very large and very real—because what they've done is forbidden, and the law, too, operates on a manner of equivalent exchange.
"We'll go," Alphonse tells his brother, desperately, to try to make him stop talking. "We'll go, as soon as you can walk."
Edward quiets down after that—settles back and falls, by degrees, into a restless sleep. He shifts occasionally—whimpers, and cries out for their mother, or pleads for some nameless horror to let go of him.
But his little brother is awake long into the night, staring into the shadows and imagining that he sees things there that move.