The world is filled with thunder, constant vibration coming up from the floor and from the walls. After months on months of living in the still and peaceful quiet in Riesenburg, the cacophony is overwhelming.
Under different circumstances, he might have even called it deafening.
Al must have felt his tension, because his hand on Ed's shoulder squeezes briefly in reassurance. Ed forces himself to relax. Al is taking care of things; he should trust his brother more. And there is nothing new here, nothing threatening; God only knows he's spent enough time on trains in the last five years. There's a familiarity to it still—the hard edges of the wooden seat that grip his thighs, the smell of machine smoke drifting in through the windows, the gentle back-and-forth swaying of the car that accompanies the constant thudding roar.
But it was one thing to travel on a train, even one headed into new and possibly dangerous territory, knowing he could rely only on his own wits and resources to get him through any trouble. It's something else entirely to travel—even into known and safe territory—relying entirely on someone else's wits and resources, knowing that if anything should go wrong, he would be completely helpless to deal with it.
A jolt shakes the train, and Ed grabs for the edge of the seat. His metal hand closes tightly on the edge, until he thinks he feels splintering under his fingers; Al's hand on his shoulder tightens again, guiding him back to his place.
This is a bad idea, he thinks, not for the first time. We should never have left Riesenburg...
Safe Riesenburg, quiet Riesenburg. Winry and Auntie Pinako's house, comfortable and pleasant and oh so quiet. He knows every inch of the walls there, every step of the floorboards; everything there is laid out for him, until some days, if he is careful, he can almost pretend that he was self-able.
Empty Riesenburg, when Al is gone. Al spends so much of his time in Central, lately, feverishly shuttling back and forth between the town and the city as he tries to split his time between caring for Ed and his research on human transmutation. The strain on him is growing too much, and the long, cold periods of his absence have been slowly driving Edward mad.
This is the best solution, he tells himself, also not for the first time. He and Al will share an apartment in the heart of Central, less than an hour's walk from the great libraries. With the long distance between them cut short, Al can make much better progress in his research, while still being there for Ed all the time. And he will be right there, at hand, should they need to do more practical experiments for Al's findings.
He'd been the one to suggest it, because Al wouldn't have dared. Winry and Auntie objected—or so Al relayed to him—but there was nothing they could say to change his mind. It was his idea, it was the best solution... but it's hard to remember just why it seemed like such a good idea, with the clattering tumult all around him and his safe and lovely garden fading mile after mile behind them.
How long now? His time-sense is completely disoriented. He thinks of asking Al the time, but can't bring himself to do it. He doesn't want to open his mouth and try to speak in this roar, not when he knows that the train car is undoubtedly filled with other people... who would notice if he spoke too loudly, or got a word wrong. If they stare at him, if they whisper and point at him, he would never know... but he can't bring himself to ask, all the same.
The body beside his own moves, as Al slides down the wooden bench. His arm wraps around Ed's shoulders, and then warm hair tickles the side of Ed's neck as he buries his face in Ed's shoulder. Ed stiffens in alarm, wondering what the other people in the car must look like... but Al is speaking to him, and that commands his attention, as always.
"We've got at least four hours to go before we reach Central," Al murmurs to him, and it occurs to Ed that if he were hearing him aloud, Al's voice would be drowned out by the roaring of the train. "Why don't you take a nap until then?"
"A nap?" He feels his voice crack, and winces.
"You always used to."
He doesn't quite know how to explain that things were different, back then. That it's been a long time since he slept on a train seat, and he thinks he's lost the trick of it. Or maybe the trick of it was just that he wasn't afraid then.
Al's hand on his shoulder hugs him close, and then pulls him down. There's no point in objecting, and he pulls his legs—heavy metal things—up onto the bench next to him, and rests his head on Al's lap. He figures he can at least pretend to sleep, and Al won't know the difference.
Somewhere in there, though—through the rocking of the train and the warmth of Al's fingers in his hair—he thinks he does fall asleep. He can't always tell the difference.
A lessening in the beat of the tracks wakes him, and then a sudden lurching jolt nearly pitches him off the seat onto the floor. He steadies himself against the back of the seat in front of them, and then pushes himself up to a sitting position. His neck and back ache, from the cramped sleeping position, and he feels ridges dug into his nose and cheekbones from the sunglasses that cover his eyes. He reaches up to rub at them, carefully, but drops his hand hastily as the train lurches again.
Al's hand slides down to take his, and he stills, then takes a deep breath and shakes the fog from his head. Getting to the Riesenburg train station and onto the train was hard enough, letting Al lead him... it's a much bigger station, now, with so many more people.
The noise finally drops away, as the train creeps to a halt, and he bends all his concentration to trying to make out the world around him. Impacts vibrating the floor; footsteps, as the other passengers get up and gather their things, but Al stays put and he waits for his cue to move.
They're the last ones off, he thinks; Al guides him carefully down the steps to the platform, holding onto his hands, and he remembers to be grateful for the protection of the long sleeves and gloves against the winter bite. Al has just one bag, slung over one shoulder. Everything else of theirs is already at their apartment, he knows; Al came here the last week to get everything ready, so that he could devote this trip entirely to transporting Ed.
Al tugs his hand, but Ed resists for a moment, until Al shifts around to look at him, placing an inquiring hand on his shoulder. Ed blushes a little, ducking his head, but it's easier to speak now that the noise has gone down. "Al," he says. "Uh, bathroom?"
Two brisk taps on his right shoulder; their shorthand for yes. Al leads him off in a different direction, and Ed follows along willingly. They pass through a bar of sunlight, Ed can feel the warmth on his face below the sunglasses, then shadow again. Somewhere along the line the ground under his feet changes from concrete to wood, a difference he can feel in the echoes traveling back up his metal legs.
Suddenly Al stops, and Ed nearly runs into him, pulling himself up with an unsteady jerk. A thread of panic touches him, and he grabs onto Al's arm with more haste than dignity. Al doesn't move, and the panic spreads a bit. "Al?" he says aloud.
Al's hand moves to the back of his neck, sliding under the collar; Ed twitches, before he understands the reason for the touch. Ross, Al writes in the limited space. Sees us.
The unformed panic settles down to a more specific panic, mixed with mortification. He'd thought, of course, he'd envisioned the scenario of running into somebody he knew in Central... Armstrong or Ross or Havoc or oh God forbid Mustang. But it was more of an anxious nightmare than anything else, and he certainly hadn't made plans for what to do if such a misfortune would occur. "I don't want to talk to her!" he blurts out in a panic.
A hesitation, then two taps on the right shoulder. Al grips him by the shoulder, above the left automail, and hustles him off in a different direction. They pass out of the sunlight into some place cooler, and then Al is pushing him down on some kind of bench, and leaving him there. A swift kiss on the forehead, lips moving to form the word stay! and then Alphonse is gone and he's alone.
The footsteps face, and the heat fades next. Ed stays where he's been put, and tries to imagine what's going on. Alphonse will go to meet Ross, certainly, to head her off; tell her... what? How much? Everything, or only what he has to in order to make her leave them alone? She's a kind woman, who cares far too much about them, and the last thing he wants is for her to come check on them sometime.
Time passes, and Ed grows more and more anxious. He's sure nothing is wrong—but he doesn't know, and the fact that there's absolutely nothing he could do if something were wrong is enough to kill him.
Where is this place, anyway? Cold and damp with winter chill, but not cold enough to be outdoors. Is anyone else here? Could someone be watching him, and if so, what would they see? Nervously, he checks to make sure his glasses are still in place; they are, pressing sore lines into his face at the touch.
Footsteps approach, and Ed looks up just as though he can see who's coming. He listens hard, and decides it's probably not Alphonse; too heavy, too slow. He looks back down again, expecting the footsteps to pass him by—but they stop in front of him, instead, and he imagines he can feel the presence of a body, standing over them.
Now what? What should he do? This isn't Alphonse, but he has no idea who it is—friend or stranger or foe. He can't see the person, can't hear them. If they're talking to him now, expecting some kind of response, he can't give it to them. He folds his hands in his lap, barely-feeling the rub of cloth over cloth, and looks down. Hopefully he looks like he doesn't want to be bothered. Where's Al, anyway?
At last, the heavy footsteps turn and walk away, and Ed is relieved at the same time he's chagrined. Fortunately, it's not too long before Al comes back, his quick, light step as familiar to Ed as his own. He sits on the bench beside Ed, and throws an arm over Ed's back—and he's ashamed to realize just how much a relief that is.
"Sorry, Niisan," Al says into his neck, and he's breathing quicker than usual. "Got her to go away. Let's go someplace safe."
Ed nods, and slips his automail hand into Al's flesh one with a feeling of relief. Alphonse squeezes hard—he thinks, he can only sort-of feel it—and pulls him off the bench. Gratefully, Edward follows him. All he wants is to find that someplace safe.
One coach ride, seemingly endless amounts of walking, and three flights of stairs later, and they're finally in their apartment. The first thing Ed does is find its bathroom—immediately identifiable by smell, and fortunately the layout of all bathrooms were similar—while Al unpacks their bag. He comes out a few minutes later, and gratefully allows Al to sit him down on the edge of the bed with a groan of relief.
Al sits next to him, and pats him on the shoulder. Sorry, he says briefly. Ed, still breathing hard to get his wind back, just shrugs. It's not Al's fault that Ed's been little more than an invalid these past months, that he's completely lost his stamina, that something as simple as a ride on a train and a walk should exhaust him. At least his automail legs don't tire, he thinks as he rubs at his right thigh, although the human parts are killing him.
It's chilly in the apartment, but the next thing he does is to fumble with the buttons on his high-neck, long-sleeved shirt. He wants it open, he wants it off, so he can talk with Al. There's something he needs to ask, something that's eating at him far more than the dull ache of his muscles.
After a moment, Al realizes what he's doing, and his hands catch Ed's and pull them away. Cold, he admonishes him.
"I'll put it back on in a minute," he says irritably. "Wanna talk to you. Couldn't all day."
Al gives way reluctantly, and he helps Ed with the extremely annoying buttons, until Ed can shrug out of his shirt and leave his chest and back bare to the room. He shivers, as the chill creeps over him, and Al shifts around until he's sitting behind Ed on the bed, leans forward, and blankets Ed's skin with his own.
What's wrong? he writes, fingers tracing carefully over Ed's stomach. You've been holding up great, but we're safe now.
"Al, please tell me," he says, slowly, forming each word carefully. He wishes for a pad of paper and a pen, something he's had more practice with. "Were people... were a lot of people... staring at... us?"
There's a moment where Al stills, and Ed clenches his teeth to hold back any further words. It's a stupid, pathetic question, he knows, but he needs to know. He can live with people staring at him, for his automail, for his glasses, for the way he doesn't react properly to the world around him, hell, for staying in such close contact to another man. He's used to being stared at; he doesn't care what people think. But imagining the eyes on him, and never knowing if they're real, or imagination... it's driving him crazy. He needs to know.
At last Alphonse answers. The people who were on the train when we boarded stared for a little while, but after a few miles they lost interest. The people at the platform were too busy to look at us. The coach driver stared at you and asked me what was wrong. I told him you were blind. We passed our next door neighbor on the stairs but she didn't stop to look.
Honest answers. Ed relaxes; that was all he wanted to know. He nods, letting his shoulders slump in relief. Al crosses his arms over his chest and hugs him, leaning over to kiss his cheek. You're amazing, you know.
He flushes, and shakes his head, and feels Al chuckle. "It's true," he whispers. "We got here okay. It'll only get better from now on."
They're here; they're really here. Ed lets this sink in, then sighs and nods. When he moves his head, the metal frame of the sunglasses bumps against Al. He'd forgotten about those entirely. Reminded, Ed reaches up and pulls them off, and lets them drop onto the bed beside him; without knowing where a table is to put them on, that's the best he can do.
The glasses leave dull aches on his face, around his eyes; his sinuses throb in time with his head, which seems to pulse along with the angry ache in his legs. It's pathetic, how tired he is. "What time is it?" he mumbles, reaching up to rub his face with his metal hand. He definitely fell asleep on the train; something dried and flaky crumbles off his skin as he rubs at it. Eew.
A little after eight. I'm going to get us some food in a minute, and then we'll go to bed. Tomorrow I'll go shopping for real food. He nods, and Al uncurls himself from around Ed's chest, getting off the bed.
Ed gropes for his shirt, finds it, and starts to untangle it to put it on. He manages to get it on, but stops before tackling the buttons, rubbing harder at his face. His skin itches—his eyes itch like crazy, they've become gummed up, and it's all he can do not to scratch them.
Al is suddenly there, one hand tilting his chin up, and he feels a warm, damp cloth brush against his cheek. He stops—drops his hands and goes completely still—out of ingrained habit, as he does whenever Alphonse does this.
In the months that Alphonse has been caring for him, Edward has had to completely redefine the word indignity. Things got better once he had his automail—once he could move himself and tend to most of his own needs—but there were still many tasks he couldn't accomplish himself, whether for lack of senses or lack of the necessary fine coordination. Of them all, this was probably the worst.
After his last encounter with the Gate, his eyes had gone the same was as his arm and his leg. What was left was nothing but hollow lids sealed over empty sockets, useless and ugly. But they had bled, and scabbed, and scarred with the rest of his wounds, and they needed cleaning. They still do, every few days, and no matter how ugly and horrifying it must be, he can only imagine it must be, Alphonse accomplishes this task with the same mindful patience as any other.
Gentle, experienced fingers move over his eyes, the damp cloth—warm, but not hot—soaking the encrustations away. When the water trickles back behind his eyelids, he shudders, and sets his jaw. It doesn't hurt, not really, but it's always strange, sensation on nerves that were never meant to be exposed; like a touch on the stump of his arm or his leg.
It's always frightening when Al touches him there, much more so than even the first time they'd made love. Always frightening, sometimes painful—but he doesn't move, not so much as a muscle, until Al is done. Because the touch is so gentle, so caring, in the face of what he knows must be a hideous sight; as though he's something precious.
Al is done, and the washcloth moves away. Ed relaxes with a shuddering sigh, lowering his head, and Al combs slightly-damp fingers through his hair. He stays there for a minute, offering reassurance and support, and something else—Ed can't quite figure out what it is—before Al moves away and goes back to his promised task of dinner. Apology? Surely not.
The food is good, even though it's leftovers from some stall in the city, cold and a little stale. Food is always good, but tonight Ed can barely taste it, he's too exhausted and overwhelmed. He licks the final crumbs from his fingers—the most efficient way of cleaning what he can't feel—and he's almost falling asleep in the chair, stifling a crushing yawn with one hand.
He lets Al shepherd him into bed, and he's too tired to notice or care about the differences from this bed—chillier, narrower, stiffer than their bed back in Riesenburg. That's all right. What matters is that Al is here.
He sleeps in late the next day, finally waking when heat creeps up his outflung metal arm and tingles in his shoulder; the sun on his automail. Al gives him a cheerful good morning, teases him about how long he slept in, and promises to have a table set up for him by the end of the day.
His stomach growls, and he rubs it and asks after food. There's none in the apartment; Al was waiting for him to wake up to go shopping. You'll be okay while I'm gone? he asks, as he brushes the tangles out of Ed's hair and puts it back in the braid.
"I'll be fine. It's not much different from being in Riesenburg while you're gone." He smiles. Actually it's much better, even if he really is alone without Winry or Pinako around to help if he needs it, because he knows Al will be back soon. "I'll get to know the place while you're gone."
Al gives him a hug, and he steals a kiss before is brother goes. He waits for a while, after Al leaves, just to make sure he's gone, and then pushes himself off the bed and begins to explore the apartment.
This is something he'd much rather do alone; it's slow, and painstaking, and sometimes awkward and ridiculous. But the best way to learn the apartment, to build the picture of it in his head, is to go and learn each of the walls by feel, not only with his hands but with what remains of his human skin.
He remembers from last night that there are three rooms; the bedroom, the bathroom, and a larger room that includes the kitchen in the corner. He starts with a slow, careful tour of the bedroom, going over every inch of the walls and floors, learning the shape and feel of the bed and desk. No chair yet. One cold glass window, in the wall above the bed; a metal grating that he assumes is an air shaft, on the opposite wall. There isn't much furniture; he'll have to ask Al if they plan to get more, or if this is all they need.
He bumps into the desk when he goes into the living room, and discovers papers and pens scattered across the surface. No way to tell if they're blank, intended for his use, or if they're something Al needs; he leaves them, for now, and goes to explore the kitchen.
It's easy to find things here; the faint smell of gas lingers about the stove, even when it's off, and the cupboards and pantries, though empty, still contain stale, slightly-off scents of the food that the last occupants kept here. His stomach rumbles again, and he hopes Al will get back soon with the food.
At last he feels confident enough to walk back into the bedroom without touching the walls, and sits back on the bed to rest. There's still a bit of sun coming in through the window behind him, warming the chill air, and he relaxes in it.
He likes it here; at least he thinks he'll be comfortable here. It's much smaller than the house at Riesenburg, and he'll still miss the garden, but at the same time it's comforting to have a smaller space around him, something easier to deal with. Maybe in enough time he'll get restless in this confined space and long for the open air, but in the winter he's just as glad to stay inside out of the cold.
As if to echo his thoughts, a sudden draft of cold air washes over his face. With a frown, he turns his face into it. Where had that come from? The window is closed, and he hadn't felt any moving air here before—
The blow rocks his world without warning; a sudden explosion of force that throws him back against the mattress and forces the breath from his lungs. It takes his scattered wits a moment to resolve the impact to a throbbing pain on his right cheek; something liquid trickles down his cheek, and he reaches up to touch the blood. What—how—
A strong hand tangles in the collar of his shirt, fisting tight, yanking him back up. He grabs wildly with his automail, and closes his hands around his attacker's arm. There's no give in the grip, no matter how he yanks, and how strong is this person, that they don't even mind the force of his automail? Changing tactics, he lashes out with an automail foot at the place where his attacker's body must be; the shock of impact travels back up his leg, jerking him back against the collar of his shirt, but the grip doesn't lessen, doesn't let up at all.
A hoarse shout tears out of his throat as he's lifted up, smoothly and effortlessly, in a terrifying rush of motion. There's nothing to brace himself against, no point of reference, nothing to hold onto. Who—-
The dizzying movement ends in another agonizing shock, this one spreading through all of his body, all of his world, until he knows nothing more.