The wet clay of the ditch was cold, where it pressed slick against his face. Ed shifted slightly, felt dirt smearing along his cheek as he did, and wondered dizzily what season it was here. Funny, the way the mud stank the same on the other side of the Gate. The rain hit the same way, in cold prickles along his exposed skin, trickling over his bare shoulderblades and pooling icy in the hollow of his lower back.
Weakly, Edward tried to turn over—at least the rain might wash some of the mud from his face—but it was a pathetic attempt, bringing only a fresh wave of agony and another trickle of metallic-reeking wetness from the mangled wreckage of his shoulder and thigh. The noise that escaped him at the pain was the thin whimper universal to things small and slowly dying, muffled by the earth against which he rested.
Of all the places and ways he'd expected to die, and there had been many over the years, bleeding gradually to death among the mud-crusted furrows of an unknown field had not been on the list.
Some farmer, Ed thought faintly, will get a nasty shock when he comes out to check on this corner of his land in a few days. If he bothers to look in the ditch at all.
The rain, if it got stronger, might wash out the track he'd left as he tried to drag himself to the road; the clawing marks of his fingers, over every hard-won inch of ground until he'd finally slithered down into the ditch by the side of the road and found himself at last too light-headed and weak to haul himself up the other side. The thick trail of his blood would rinse away into the thirsty earth. All is one, and one is all. The place where he lay would have a rich and profuse growth of plants next spring, life thriving on his death. The thought hovered, and he wasn't sure whether it made him want to grin ruefully or be sick.
It was meant to be a suicide, clean and easy. He'd drawn the circles on hands and head and heart intending them to be his last, taken a sweet breath of the air of his world before he'd activated them, smiled as he threw himself into the arms of the Gate. His life for Al's, and they could all go home, and maybe have some peace.
He should have known the Gate was never that kind.
In a deserted corner of an alien world, he thought, dropped at random by an unfeeling Truth, alone and unknown and in pain. That's how I go, when I don't have the strength left to even scream for help from a brother who will never come to carry me home. Slowly. Freezing in the rain without a shirt to cover my back. Flat on my face where I fell, among the rotting roots of the cattails and last year's yellowish grass, with mud in my mouth and my own blood soaking into the dirt all around me.
Maybe if I'm lucky, a few birds will visit this grave, to memorialize me with yellow hair woven into their nests next spring.
All hail the mighty People's Alchemist.
He closed his eyes, and felt the numbness creeping up his legs, and the cold, and wondered when it would be over.
Light flashed against his eyelids, accompanied by a distant rumbling that sounded to his exhausted brain as if it echoed down a long tunnel, and the vestiges of his flagging sense of humor wondered grimly if he should hope to be struck by lightning. Then it dawned on him that the light and the rumbling weren't ending, and the sound seemed familiar. A motor—an automobile—?
It was then that the boot thumped down in front of his face. A startled fit of coughing struggled up out of his throat, racking his body. He felt fresh blood welling up with the movement, and the boot shifted back and made room for a knee, which sank into the filth without hesitation.
A warm hand spanned his intact shoulder, paused over the slow throb of his pulse at the hollow of his throat. "He's alive!" came a shout, in a voice heavy with so much relief and emotion that Ed failed to recognize it. It wasn't until the strong, callused hands turned him carefully onto his back and a broad face swam into his vision, framed against the cloudy night sky as he squinted—half with dizziness, half to keep the rain out of his eyes—that Edward finally identified his rescuer.
Too far gone to reach out to that scruffy-bearded face, to strike it or touch it pleadingly. He didn't know which he wanted, even after this, even as he felt the loops of an improvised tourniquet settling around his leg, pulling tight around his shoulder and making him see stars with the necessary sudden squeeze of agony. Even as large arms slid under his back and legs with almost tender care, lifting him out of the freezing mud.
His face had lost feeling from the shock and cold a long time before, along with fingers and toes and most of his brain, but he was fairly sure his lips shaped the word, dad, before the bottom dropped out of his consciousness and he went spiraling down after it at last.
The dreams he wandered in were all of a warm room, and a soft blanket under him, and brand-new limbs that waved helplessly as he learned to recognize them as his own. Deep vast voices thundered around him, comfortingly, and he reached tiny hands up to touch the curtain of soft brown hair that belonged to one; but it was with joy that he felt himself gathered up and bounced into the air, and settled snugly against a warm and steady shoulder.
His father, he realized vaguely in that infant dreamtime. He was safe, always, with this man; because his father would not let him fall.