Rating: Eventual NC-17. PG-13 maybe for this chapter
Total word count as of this moment: 6,518
I'm a little behind. I worked the polls for the election (15 hours straight on two hours sleep is not a particularly good idea, for the record) and then slept most of the next day to make up for it. I'm hoping to be caught up soonish though. I got a bit stuck on some plot details (like, lol I had no ending), but I think I have it all sorted out now. Anyway, this chapter is in desperate need of work, but in the spirit of NaNoWriMo's OMG PRODUCTION, I refuse to edit it until I hit 50k. This is the bones of the chapter at the very least. :)
The all too familiar halls of Central’s hospital passed under their feet in a litany of thudding steps. He glanced over at Ed, the strange doppelganger who was currently hanging off of his automail for balance. Ed breathed hard through his nose, jaw set against his lack of balance and obvious pain.
Edward rolled his eyes, but said nothing. What good would it do? Ed had vehemently refused a wheelchair, balking at the idea of letting himself be wheeled out even more than Mustang’s suggestion that he stay here at the hospital another night if need be. Despite having accidently volunteered himself as Ed’s crutch, Edward was almost glad for their similarity. The sooner they got out of here, the sooner he could get back to something resembling normalcy.
Besides, much as he hated to admit it, when he and the General had discussed the situation, Mustang had definitely been right about one thing. Every moment Ed spent in a public place was dangerous, not just to him, but to Edward as well. If the military caught wind of what had happened, there was no telling how they’d react. He was pretty sure even Mustang couldn’t protect them from the possibility of being thrown in a lab. It was nothing more than a sense of self preservation that was motivating him.
Alright, so maybe it wasn’t just that. It was disconcerting, interacting with this other him. He felt hostile at first, wanted to be angry that this weirdo was encroaching on his world. Somehow, though, it just seemed cruel to hold a grudge against someone who was so miserable. Maybe it wasn’t obvious, but he knew the signs, knew the dull look in a pair of eyes just like his own all too well.
It sounded like Ed had had it pretty rough lately. Even if Mustang hadn’t told him about their conversation, Edward would have had to have been blind to miss it. His clothes dangled, barely clinging to his alter’s body as if he’d hung them on a skeleton. Ed’s hair had fallen out of its braid, frayed and knotted and dusty from heaven knows what. His face was drawn severely in pain and utter exhaustion. More than that, though, he looked broken, completely defeated as if he were some sort of walking dead man. Well, hobbling dead man, anyway. It made Edward feel awkwardly protective.
So what if he cared, though? It was like…family, sort of. Besides, he would be utterly devastated without Alphonse. He could hardly imagine what it must be like for Ed, not even knowing if his Al was alive. The situation was weird, and he wasn’t immune to that, but that didn’t mean he had to be heartless about it.
The going was slow, but eventually they reached the hospital’s front entrance. The had just stepped outside when Ed’s foot slipped, despite his support, sending them both stumbling down the front. Edward growled, righting them at the bottom, his automail sliding tightly under Ed’s arm. Ed glared at no one in particular, visibly disgusted with his lack of coordination.
“Why are you helping me? You don’t have to do this, you know,” Ed muttered as Edward nudged him towards the car Mustang had called for them.
“What’s the alternative? It’s not like I can just leave you here. You’re not going home any time soon, and Al would kill me if I just abandoned you,” The moment the words left his mouth, Edward regretted them. Ed paled visibly, looking angry for a moment, before descending into something uncomfortable, and painfully bereft. Edward frowned, easing Ed into the car as gently as he was able. That could have easily been him if his luck hadn’t held out.
“Look, I…I didn’t mean it like that. Just… come stay for a while. We’ll get it sorted out. If there’s a way back, we’ll find it,” Edward forced a smile and shut the door, pausing for breath before he made his way to the other side.
Edward opened the other door, sliding in beside his alter. The driver, wisely, did not comment on their resemblance, and the ride to Edward and Al’s apartment was silent and subdued. Edward thought to try and make conversation, but really, there wasn’t much worth talking about. In the end, by the time he turned to Ed, tired of the uncomfortable quiet, his later had turned away, shoulders set as he gazed out the window.
He wasn’t sure, really, whether it was a blessing or a curse that the trip was short. Their ride came to a halt in front of their apartment building, and he couldn’t get out fast enough. Even with the space between them, the car had felt cramped, not nearly enough for them and their burdens both. Ed’s misery was a catching thing, palpable and suffocating, and Edward wanted nothing more than to get away.
Still, even as he helped Ed from the car towards the building, scowling and cursing in an eerily familiar voice the entire way, his stomach twisted. It was a different sort of tension that blanketed them now.
It was slow going, though Ed was obviously pushing himself beyond his own limits, and Edward had never been so sorry he’d wanted an apartment two floors up. Ed stumbled time and again, probably still should have been in the hospital, but said nothing aside from a few angry words at his own limitations. Edward considered picking him up and just carrying him the rest of the way for the briefest of moments, but knew it would only make things worse. He settled, instead, for glaring at the stairs and pulling Ed along a little roughly.
“Just go. I’ll catch up if you tell me where the apartment is,” Ed grated out, pupils dilated in pain.
“What kind of jerk do you think I am?” Edward hissed back, feeling guilty for dragging Ed on like that.
“Look, it can’t be that much farther. Just tell me where I’m going and I’ll do it myself,” Ed was flushed with obvious agitation, humiliated by his body’s refusal to just cooperate. There wasn’t really a good solution, and so Edward released him, following wordlessly behind Ed in case he fell.
They reached the apartment without further incident, and Edward flung the door open, ushering his alter inside. Ed paused in the foyer, wide eyed, as if he’d never seen an apartment before.
“What on earth are you looking at?” Edward asked finally.
Ed shook his head, a rueful smile smearing across his lips, “You…have a home.”
They’d spent years without one, and it had only been since he’d restored Al that he’d dared try to settle anywhere. It struck him then, that this doppelganger of his had never gotten that luxury, barely seemed to be holding himself together. Of course he didn’t have a home.
“It’s about time you got back,” Al peeked out from the kitchen. Edward might have answered, but he caught Ed’s reaction from the corner of his eye. His alter appeared stricken, awkwardly meeting Al’s gaze as if it were something painful. The younger Elric frowned slightly, troubled by the discomfort his presence caused.
“I’m going to go finish dinner. Ed can show you where your room will be.” Al offered a small smile and retreated back into the kitchen. Ed shook his head like he was trying to free himself from some sort of daze and turned to Edward. He wobbled a little on his feet, obviously tired again, though he refused to admit it.
“I didn’t have time to fix it up, yet,” Edward admitted sheepishly. He scratched a hand through his hair, considering his options. He didn’t really want to do it right now. He was hungry, and there was no reason to put undo stress on his body. Ed looked dead on his feet though, so Edward led him down the hall, letting him into his own bedroom.
“You can nap here until dinner is done,” he offered.
“I…” Ed looked around the bedroom like it might bite him if he let his guard down.
“It’s okay, really. I’ll get your room set up after dinner, okay?”
Ed nodded, relaxing visibly. His eyes roved over the contents of the room once more, slightly more interested than nervous this time. Eventually, he seemed to accept his surroundings, leaning heavily against the wall to toe off his shoes.
Edward turned, and was almost out the door when he heard Ed speak, “What if there isn’t a way?”
He wasn’t ready to think about that possibility, that somewhere out there, there might be a version of his little brother who lost Edward and would never get him back. He could not believe in a world where he failed. They would find a way.
“Get some sleep.” Edward left Ed to his nap, heading for the kitchen, where at least his company was familiar.
“Everything okay?” Al asked, looking up from the pot he was stirring.
“Yeah, fine,” Edward murmured. Al’s gaze was sharp, and he cursed inwardly at his inability to hide anything from his brother.
“Thank you for doing this. I know it’s a little weird.”
Edward couldn’t help the short, sharp burst of laughter. This was well beyond “a little weird”. This had long since entered the realm of completely bizarre.
Al glared halfheartedly at him before speaking again, “I don’t think he likes me very much.”
“He doesn’t dislike you, Al.” Ed didn’t even have to stop to consider. He knew what had wrought that reaction. Had their situations been reversed, he’d have done the same thing.
“Then what is it? He looked at me like he couldn’t get away fast enough.” Al seemed very distressed over Ed’s behavior, and Edward honestly couldn’t tell if it was just that Al wasn’t used to adverse reactions to his presence, or if it was because Ed looked just like him.
“He’s just lonely and worried about his Al,” Edward responded, as reassuringly as he could manage.
Edward wasn’t nearly ready to face his double again when Al announced that dinner was ready. Still, he supposed it was less cruel than forcing his brother and his double to confront each other again in such close quarters. With a heavy sigh, he took off down the hall towards his bedroom.
Ed had left the door ajar, perhaps too uncomfortable in a house that wasn’t really his, a room that belonged to someone who only looked like him, to close it completely. Edward knocked anyway, struck by the ridiculousness of knocking on his own bedroom door. No answer came, and after a moment, Edward was too impatient to wait. He flung the door open, glancing about in the dim light of sunset that shone through the window.
The blankets and sheets had been summarily kicked away, a heap of blue piled at the foot of the bed. Ed sprawled across the generous space the mattress provided. The pants Edward had loaned him barely clung to his hips, the only thing keeping them from dislodging from his form completely. His shirt was hiked up, baring his stomach, and a hint of the rib bones that threatened to poke right through his skin. He murmured incoherent apologies, looking frail and troubled, even in his sleep.
It was a bittersweet thing to look on, to be reminded how much of a wreck he’d be without Al. Alphonse was always the one who made sure he didn’t catch cold, that he ate and slept with some sort of regularity. Edward’s lips turned down, Ed didn’t have that anymore, not right now, anyway.
Edward supposed he should wake his doppelganger now that dinner was done. After dinner, he could fix up the spare room and get Ed out of his bed.
“Hey, wake up,” Edward called. Maybe it would have worked more to call Ed by name, but that was just too creepy.
Ed, for his part, didn’t stir, except to smack his lips in his sleep and shiver at his lack of cover. Edward tried again, speaking a little louder.
Finally, he came to the conclusion that Ed was every bit as deep a sleeper as he was, and nothing short of shaking him silly was going to dislodge him from slumber. He leaned down, feeling awkward, as if he were taking advantage of Ed’s vulnerability somehow.
Is this what I look like when I sleep? Ed’s bangs were scattered across his face, the remnants of his ruined braid splayed across the pillows. He whimpered at whatever it was that invaded his dreams, and Edward cursed under his breath, feeling uncomfortable again.
Edward tapped Ed’s shoulder, careful to use his human hand. Ed groaned, lips pulling apart and settling with his mouth slightly open. His eyes shifted behind closed lids, and for a moment it looked like he might be waking. In the end, though, he only shifted on the bed, settling back into a relaxed sleep.
“Hey…Ed.” Edward shook his shoulder harder, the name sounding ridiculous on his tongue. Ed jerked, his eyes flickering for a moment before flying open, golden orbs becoming twin saucers on his face.
“The hell? Al? Where am I?” Ed peered up at him, his eyes glassy with confusion and sleep. Even as the words were being spoken though, realization seemed to be beginning to take hold. His shoulders drooped as he grasped the reality of the situation, and the empty, lost look returned to his features.
“Dinner’s done,” Edward explained. Ed only nodded, making no move to get up.
“It’ll keep, though. Maybe you should just go back to sleep. You look awfully crappy,” Edward noted. Ed seemed to attempt a glare, but it was half hearted at best, faded with exhaustion.
“No, I’m up. Thanks,” Ed mumbled, his words thick in his throat. His eyes slid shut, and he was already succumbing to sleep once more, shivering occasionally with cold.
Edward shook his head. That must have been some ordeal to have him in this bad of shape. Then again, he’d obviously been in a bad way for some time. He supposed he could give up his bed for the night, just this once.
Edward turned to leave the room, pausing at the foot of the bed. He snorted softly, leaning to grasp at the discarded blankets. They were gently pulled up Ed’s body, tucked around the sleeping figure’s shoulders. Ed mumbled something indecipherable in his sleep, and shifted under the covers, but the trembling stopped, and his dreams seemed to have turned to something less distressing. His features smoothed, flat and expressionless, and Edward ushered himself from the room, closing the door behind him with a very soft snick of metal in the doorframe.
Dinner was subdued, though neither brother spoke of their houseguest. There was nothing to say to make the situation easier, and Edward only hoped that it would be better tomorrow. Maybe once Ed recovered a bit, he wouldn’t be so dismal and hopeless. As he was now, his attitude was barely recognizable. Edward did not know the meaning of giving up, and was sure that, deep down, neither did Ed. He just needed some rest, and things would be alright. They had to be.
Edward shook the thought away, wondering why he even cared so much. This other Ed was not him despite their resemblance, and it was not his Al who was in jeopardy. Still, when he looked at Ed, he saw a world of possibilities that had haunted his nightmares. Sadly, his doppelganger was living in the sort of hellish existence he could only imagine. It hurt to think about, and so he tried to focus on something else.
It was a good thing at least, he decided, that Al had picked out their couch. It was a fluffy affair, overstuffed and ridiculously comfortable. Giving up his bed wasn’t really much of an imposition, and he happily settled in for the night, glad to have an excuse to fall asleep with his books. At least this once he wouldn’t have to endure a lecture about how he shouldn’t spend all night up reading.
Al sat with him for a while, the mood between them lightening as they fell into old habits. They compared notes on their current projects, passing books back and forth as they discussed theory, nearly always a safe topic. For a few hours, the figure sleeping in Edward’s bed was entirely forgotten.
By the time Al finally decided he needed to sleep, the clock had crept around, settling somewhere in the wee hours of the morning. Edward chided his brother gently, simply because he could for once, and Al rolled his eyes, flashing a warm, brief smile before heading off to his room. Edward’s chest burned at that. There could not be a world worth living in without that smile. He’d lived and bled and nearly died for that smile.
One by one, Edward shut out the lights, creeping back to the couch in the dim glow of street lamps through the curtains. He settled back against the cushions, exhausted, and easily lulled near sleep by the ticking of the clock on the mantle. Somewhere distant, he heard a voice that was and was not his own, whimpering sad, lonely sounds. Edward sat up, wondering what he was meant to do, but by the time he was considering getting up, offering what solace he could, the sounds had stopped, plunging the apartment into silence once more.
It was just as well, he supposed. He was not Ed’s brother, was not anything to Ed, actually, and could offer nothing but a cruel imitation of the comfort his doppelganger sorely needed.
With an exasperated breath, Edward rolled on his side, face half buried in the back of the couch. He forced his eyes closed, in desperate search of a mind blank enough to allow him to sleep. In time, his body seemed to succumb to his wishes, settling near sleep, and finally drifting off.
Still, the question plagued him, following him off into slumber.
What if there is no way?