Disclaimer – Don't own Fullmetal Alchemist. Making no money. Please don't sue.
This is a present for author DevLeigh, for all manner of reasons – mostly a pick-me-up and for being an outstanding feedback of the Perfect After All series. This really is a one-shot, though. Per DevLeigh's prompts, we have a little brotherly luff, non-creepy style. It's pretty fluffy, actually. Set post-Shamballa. Rated T for violence and a little language.
Hope you like it, Dev! And thanks bucketloads. )
- x -
It was astonishing how swiftly things could go from bad to worse.
Alphonse didn't look up at him; he couldn't. It was all he could do to hold his head off the ground, and his neck was trembling from the exertion of it. But somehow he managed a smile. Edward could hear it in his voice.
"Now I . . . know how sensei . . . felt."
Even in their situation, he couldn't stop his eyes from rolling. "That's my line, stupid."
But he didn't move them. They could wait a few more moments. Long enough to catch his breath. Long enough to get his second wind.
He's not going to get a second wind, his mind whispered. He doesn't even have the first.
Edward growled aloud, low in his throat, and chanced a peek over the sour-smelling barrels.
They had ducked behind what was undoubtedly a brothel. The brace of empty wine casks had offered welcome cover as well as an indication of how business was going. The front had also been draped with enticing, scantily clad women, which he hoped would be enough of a distraction that their pursuers would lose interest.
Though given how long and how hard they'd been pursued, he wouldn't bet so much as a mark on it.
There were shadows dancing around the far end of the alley, the flame lanterns making it all but impossible to tell what was going on near the establishment's front doors. He'd have to get closer to really tell.
And he wasn't about to do that.
Alphonse Elric retched again, the sound wet on the rancid dirt beneath their knees. There wasn't much point to the drugs tucked safely inside Edward's shirt, now. Even if they had water, he didn't think Al could keep them down.
And he needed them. Needed them desperately.
They needed to find a place to spend the night. Give Al a chance to recuperate. Just to breathe.
The retching was followed by the coughing, which was followed by the retching. He'd been bad enough when Ed had been willing to leave him, but in just an hour and a mile run, Al had gone from a fever and a chest cough to –
Alphonse laid his forehead on the rotting wood shipping crate that corralled the empty wine kegs, gasping and obviously trying to be quiet about it.
Don't be an idiot. Just keep breathing.
Ed knew what this was. And he knew Al did as well. He knew that if there was more light coming through the cracked glass square of the kitchen's back door, he would see that Al had blue lips. Blue fingertips.
Cyanosis. Lack of oxygen in the arterial blood.
This was what they called La Grippe. The Spanish Flu. The mortality rate in their age group was over 50.
And that was for people whose immune systems hadn't taken a four year hiatus in a completely sterile environment.
Edward left his arm around his struggling brother, casting a critical glance the buildings surrounding them. Outside of the brothel there wasn't much. To his right appeared to be a warehouse that supplied the brothel, and behind them was a thick stone wall that sectioned off such an unsavory business from the rest of Dessau proper.
There was no way he could get Al into one of those rooms. The moment the establishment laid eyes on him they'd know him for infected. Once that happened, they'd be taken into custody immediately, heavily fined, and sent to an 'emergency hospital' for treatment.
And surrounding Al with the sick would kill him. Even the pills that Edward had paid so dearly for were probably not going to help. He would probably have been better off throwing them to their pursuers – since that was clearly what they were after – than having made Al run.
But he'd been fine when they'd started. Not exactly fine, but not like this. Twenty minutes ago he hadn't been half this bad-
Edward shivered slightly in the night air. Though the evening had started out temperate, there was now a bite that was bothering even him. It was amazing the girls could sit out on the porch in what little they were wearing without appearing uncomfortable.
He needed to get Al someplace warm. Someplace safe. The brothel was out, the street was out –
Warehouse it was. Maybe the security was lax, maybe they'd been sampling the wine. Maybe they'd get lucky.
Maybe they'd eat an automail sandwich and it wouldn't really matter.
"C'mon, Al," he murmured as Al hacked into the mud beside him. "We have to go now."
He felt his brother nod, reluctantly clutching weakly at his waist as Ed hauled them to their feet. He should have noticed that the automail was giving him too much of an advantage. Al was taller, thus had a longer stride, and normally they ended up running about the same speed. But the automail leg gave Ed added strength and he'd been so damn desperate to keep those pills-
"When we get to the door I'm going to put you down, okay?" He'd never met a brothel that didn't have a veritable militia of thugs to keep their girls safe. The storehouse containing the food and booze was likely to have guns as well. If he were sure their pursuers were gone –
But he wasn't going to risk getting spotted again. Not with Al like this.
"Brother-" Al gasped, stumbling to his knees as he retched again. He was vomiting up blood, the blood he was inadvertently swallowing as he coughed it up. Falling pulled at his chest, which further restricted his lungs, and Ed grimaced as he too knelt, to make it a little easier. They'd only made it a few steps, and even with the noise of a badly tuned piano and the cries and laughter of the customers inside he was sure it could be heard to the street-
"C'mon, Al, it's only a little further," he soothed, pulling Al onto his feet again. Al clung stubbornly to his waist, and with an audible swallow he stumbled another few steps. Just far enough to get across the alley.
There were enough bundles of trash that Ed felt relatively safe in laying Al down by the side of the warehouse. There was even less light here than by the wine casks, so it wouldn't be as easy to pick out his profile. Except for the telltale wheezing and coughing –
So he'd just have to take any staff out fast. Or better yet, sneak in. If he could get past the door, then open up one of the venting windows in the back, they could probably conceal themselves until morning. There had to be bales of tobacco in there, and crates to deflect sound. Blankets, if nothing else.
The only door to the warehouse that Ed could see was just across from the kitchen's back door. It was this doorway he approached, letting his bangs fall in front of his face as he eased open the reinforced wood. If they mistook him for a drunk, he'd have the advantage.
He needed to make sure he wasn't shot. That was all.
The inside of the storage warehouse was pretty much what he'd thought it would be, with a twist. Gas lanterns, exactly like the ones that lit the brothel itself, hung from barn-like rafters between fat, salt-cured hams. From floor to loft it was filled with crates, sacks of sugar, bales of tobacco, pillars of canned goods and barrels of liquor. Considering both the war and the pandemic that followed, the sight was almost enough to shock him into stillness. He hadn't seen such a collection of food in . . . months. Possibly since they'd come to this world.
And directly in the center of the staging area, right across from the door and with plenty of room to maneuver, four large men surrounded a poker table.
This time Edward did freeze, waiting to be recognized. They were too far to charge, and he'd give himself away as sober if he did so. There were glasses half-filled with amber at their elbows, which meant they might not be well off themselves, and they were obviously playing cards, but it shouldn't take them long-
But they weren't exactly playing. They seemed to be considering the cards, which seemed to be on the table, because all four had their heads bowed.
They were also unnaturally quiet about it.
Cautiously, eyes peeled for additional personnel, Edward eased the door open enough to slip through. It creaked horrifyingly loudly, but no one at the table moved.
Not so much as a grunt.
Not so much as a snore, which would have been the next sound he expected.
The only thing he could hear was the hiss of the gas flames, and a soft trickling noise, like gently flowing water.
Edward watched them critically for a moment before advancing. It was possible they'd all fallen asleep –
Possible, but not likely. Were they baiting him? Had they heard Al coughing, and were just waiting for him to approach close enough to grab?
Ed stalked forward on the balls of his feet, readying himself for flight, and as he came closer they came into better focus. The one on the east side of the table was in profile to him, eyes half-open, with a heavily freckled face-
Not freckles. Dark red spots on his cheekbones. On his eyes. Burst blood vessels from the force his body had used to expel the foaming discharge out of his airways, so he could keep breathing.
Edward just stared, almost too shocked to continue forward.
He was dead.
He had died playing cards, and none of his tablemates had noticed?
Stunned, Edward circled around the table. The second man's chin was dropped to his chest, and it was rising and falling gently. No cough, no wheeze, and no snoring. He appeared to be merely sleeping.
The men at the west and south edges of the table were in the same condition as the man in the east. Blue lips, blue skin, red spots, half-open eyes. None of them had a particularly pained expression, unlike the news had reported, and Edward stepped up the table, surveying it briefly before his eyes fell on a small, empty glass vial.
More than one. There were eight or nine of them all told, though some had rolled to the floor. He knelt, keeping an eye on the only living man, and picked up one of the vials. There wasn't enough liquid left in it to sample, but he passed the vial beneath his nose and caught a whiff of an almost pleasant, sweet scent. As he straightened, a dull glint from the pile of chips in the center of the table caught his eye, and Ed risked leaning over to grab it.
This one was full. It gave off the same sweet scent, only this time far stronger. Strong enough that he was able to tell what it was – ethyl alcohol.
They had all the beer and wine they could want, and what Edward held in his hand was even cheaper.
Laudanum. Tincture of opium.
He glanced at the half-filled beer steins, then scanned the pile of chips for any more of the opiate. Finding another vial, he pocketed them both before stepping away from the table. Obviously they'd drugged themselves to escape the pain, only one of them hadn't been ill, so while he slept comfortably his tablemates had slowly suffocated.
And given the amount of the opiate that had been obviously added to their drinks, he was probably going to sleep the rest of the night, assuming he ever woke at all.
Edward did another quick once-over before hurrying back to the door. He peered out into the alley, finding it as empty as it had been when he'd left, and squeezed his thin frame out the half-closed door, hurrying the few strides to where he'd left his brother.
Al's eyes were only half-open, but a gurgling wheeze reassured Ed that his brother was still alive. Cold, boneless hands reached out as Edward hauled him up, and Al did the best he could with shaking legs to help as they made their swift and clumsy way into the warehouse.
Because there were gas lanterns, there was a source of heat. It would be warmer up top than it was below, and there'd be less chance of discovery. Ed eyed a steep ladder a moment before opting to take a quick walk around the perimeter. Surely they had a better stairway than that; no one could haul anything heavy up that ladder.
He wouldn't be able to juggle Al up there.
"Brother," Al choked, but Ed didn't even look. He didn't need to. He knew what Al had spotted.
"They're dead, Al."
The arm around his waist tightened slightly, and Ed hauled his brother closer, moving quickly to the opposite side of the warehouse.
They were in luck; a wide stairwell was tucked into the far corner, and beside it a smooth wooden ramp to roll the rum barrels down. The going was painstaking, with two stops for Al to cough and clear his lungs before they could continue, but with every step Ed could feel the air temperature rise.
The loft was as welcoming as the ground floor had been; crates, barrels, and sacks galore. The rich smell of the hams penetrated almost everything, reminding Edward it had been a long time since the apples and loaf of bread they'd shared at lunchtime. About twenty yards from the stairs he found a likely looking spot; empty sacks that had once held sugar or rice were stacked neatly on a pallet, and had obviously been used as a bed by someone else. It was this he headed for, gently dumping his brother on his side.
Al instinctively curled into a fetal position, which was the easiest for breathing, and for several minutes Ed watched him, waiting for some sign that Al was catching his breath.
He couldn't see one.
". . . they were . . . sick."
Ed just nodded, glancing around before sighting and grabbing a few more sacks. He folded them into a neat square and sat, ignoring the scratchy burlap for the luxury of being off his feet. Running hadn't been the problem; hauling Al was. He hadn't known how tired he was until he sat down, and the stifling warmth of the loft washed over him in a relaxing wave.
Something sharper than the burlap pricked at his skin, and Ed almost jumped when he realized it was the paper sack that held Al's medicine. He fished it out of his shirt and vest, which had seemed the safest place at the time, and carefully opened the crumpled back. If the envelope holding the pills had fallen open-
No. There it was, holding its treasure. Six small yellow pills, each oval and almost the size of his pinkie nail. It was said to be American-made, and that the Allies had been working together to combat this deadly influenza longer than the Germans. The medicine was extremely hard to come by, and it was rumored to be ineffective by the time a patient's skin was starting to darken.
Now that they were still, and in decent light, he was almost afraid to look at his brother.
Al didn't look as bad as he'd feared. The red splotches on his cheekbones were starting to become apparent, and his extremities were cold to the touch, but his lips still held some amount of pink, and while his eyes were closed with exhaustion, they flickered open from time to time and there was no sign of burst blood vessels.
But there was also a trickle of blood, from the corner of Al's mouth, that was smearing color on his otherwise pale cheek as it pressed against the burlap sacks. The run. That was because he'd made Al run.
They'd had no choice. Even if they'd handed over the pills, they still could have been beaten for their money. There had been too many to fight, and they'd all looked relatively healthy. Obviously they'd been scrounging for medicine for loved ones. He knew he would have pursued someone far more than a mile to get this medicine for Al.
Less than a year. They'd been here less than a year.
"Do you think you can swallow yet?" He kept his voice soft, lest anyone from the brothel come in and overhear them. Hopefully he'd hear the creaking door before that happened; that was probably why no one had bothered to oil the hinges.
Al's eyes opened, and he struggled to suck in a deep enough breath to talk. "Take them."
For a moment, Ed didn't understand what he'd meant. "Al, you have to get them down-"
"You . . . take them." He opened his eyes wider, though they watered slightly as though he was suppressing another cough. "Too . . . too late for me."
Ed stifled another growl. Al had had a fever before; by now it was probably roaring. He reached over to lay a hand on his brother's forehead, but Al tried to shift away.
". . . sick, brother."
"No kidding," he retorted. "Which is why you need to take the medicine-"
"Won't work." This time Al couldn't stop it, and engaged in a long coughing fit that ended with heaves. The yellow and red-specked froth he vomited was unlike anything Ed had ever seen before. They'd passed many men and women on their journeys suffering with all kinds of horrible ailments. He'd learned to recognize mustard gas burns on sight, yellow fever, measles, even pneumonia. This was close; it had the same chest-deep, rattling cough, but it couldn't set in this quickly. Nothing could set in this quickly –
Which is why it was killing. It was reported that the influenza alone had killed more than the war. A war so all-encompassing it was called a world war.
Now they were fighting a world war against this flu. Fighting and losing.
But not this time. Edward leaned forward, as close as he dared, and laid his human hand on his brother's face. Al had been coughing on him for the better part of three hours, now, so there was nothing to lose.
Besides, his body hadn't spent four years in the Gate. While Al's human body had apparently grown inside the Gate, as evidenced by the fact that he appeared to be seventeen, there was no reason to think it had been exposed to all the same bacteria and viruses that Edward had. Getting beat up, visiting Central and East's hospitals, sleeping outside, helping the sick – all of those times Al had been with him, but not really.
Armor was an inhospitable place for an infection.
So it was no wonder that Al had caught this illness. And that it was progressing so quickly. And without medicine, he was certain to get worse off.
He was measurably weaker than he had been; despite his struggling Ed was able to get a hand on his forehead, and he'd been right; Al was burning to the touch. He helped support his brother's head the best he could while Al struggled to stop heaving. "You have to swallow the pills, Al-"
Al spat weakly off the side of his impromptu cot before dropping his chin back to the burlap, gasping.
"You're . . . sick too."
Edward shook his head. "I'm fine. I'll be right back, I'm going to find you some water-"
"No!" The weak hand that had been trying to fend off his brother now clasped his wrist. The warm air was helping Al; his hand wasn't as cold as it had been. "Listen to me. You're . . . flushed."
Ed raised his automail hand, patting the clammy one wrapped around his human wrist. "I'll be right back, okay?"
Al's bright eyes bored into his. "You have . . . a fever, brother."
Edward shook his head. "It's the other way around." He found himself swallowing a tickling in his throat, and frowned. Great. Now he was going to have psychosomatic symptoms. The last thing he needed to do was convince his delirious brother that he was coming down with the same thing –
Of course, he was feeling a little tired –
No. He was not getting sick, and that was that.
Despite Al's protests, Ed extricated himself and stood, ignoring that same nagging weariness, and scoured the crates. The stuff up in the loft would be stuff they didn't use as often, such as hard liquor, so probably plates and glassware as well –
He headed for the crates, choosing a smaller one with rough handles carved out of the sides.
Now that he had a glass, he needed something to put in it. Outside of the two vials of laudanum, the only other liquid he could see was casked or in the beer steins downstairs. Of course, that meant they must have tapped a keg, somewhere, and while giving Al something to dehydrate him was probably not going to help, the alcohol would dilate the blood vessels close to his skin, allowing him to cool from the fever faster. And the amount contained in a swig or two of beer was unlikely to do anything.
Beer it was.
Once down the stairs, it was much harder to hear Al's coughing. He chose to think of that as a good thing; if someone from the brothel came looking for supplies, they probably wouldn't hear him. Of course, with three of their guards dead and the forth sound asleep, he could expect a shift change at some point, probably soon. That might include a search. He should probably move Al's cot elsewhere, it was too visible from the top of the stairs.
It didn't take him long to find the keg of beer, and he drew a generous amount. Grain alcohol in excess would make Al nauseous, but so would the drugs. Getting something with a little yeast into his system would probably help.
So would bread, but he didn't see any. Just sugar, rice, flour . . . the basics. No oven to bake any even if he'd wanted to. There were canned vegetables and meats galore, but no sweetmeats or fruit.
Al's blood sugar was probably also tanking. On a whim, he headed with the full glass of beer to the sacks of sugar. One of them had split across its seam, and a thin stream of white baking sugar was steadily trickling from the bag, making an almost liquid-like sound. He held the glass beneath the rip, noting the smooth way in which the sugar was flowing. It was dry, then; these supplies weren't new. He allowed several tablespoons before removing the cup, and he swirled it as he hurried across the open space in the center of the warehouse back towards the stairs.
Getting spotted now would be just his luck.
Surprisingly, he was able to make it back up the stairs without a hitch. Al was exactly where he'd left him; as soon as he topped the stairs he could hear his brother wheezing. His brother cracked an eye open when he rejoined him beside the sacks.
"It's not water, but it's wet."
Al just closed his eye again. "Thanks." He made no effort to sit up or accept the glass from his brother.
Edward frowned, setting it down so he could more easily shift Al. He allowed himself to be pulled somewhat upright, and despite giving his brother a nasty look, he accepted the glass pressed into his hand. He swallowed around another cough, taking a sip of the sweetened beer. If it tasted bad, he didn't comment.
"Let's just see if that'll stay down." The pills wouldn't do any good if he vomited them up before he could absorb them.
Al closed his eyes, which Ed took for agreement, and he took the offered glass as his younger brother lay back down. For a while they sat in relative silence, listening to Al's lungs whistle and bubble. He was exhausted, and his lips looked darker than they had earlier.
Very rarely did Al call him by his name, and he reached up to pat his brother's right arm. "I'm here."
"Take the pills."
He was a fairly stubborn person, so this was not unexpected. "I'm fine, Al. I'm not sick."
"You will be . . . soon."
"We've talked about this. Your body was in the Gate for four years. We don't know what that might have done to it. You grew older, but we don't know how your body was nourished. You didn't have any calluses, remember? Your hair wasn't oily." Al's arm seemed to be almost the same temperature as his own skin, now, and Ed continued rubbing it encouragingly.
It was just the flu. It was insane, to think that something so . . . normal, something that happened almost every year, could suddenly turn so deadly.
This just wasn't possible. Then again, he'd been as desperately ill as Al was, once. Maybe this was just Al getting him back.
"Remember how sick I got, a couple years back? After Colonel Bastard was assigned to East?"
Al didn't open his eyes again, swallowing back another cough, but Ed knew he did. He had to have. Neither of them were likely to forget it. It was possibly as scary as the beating he got when discovering Laboratory 5, and he'd ended up in the same hospital.
"I was maybe fourteen? I've never upchucked so much in my life." He'd been hospitalized after Hawkeye had seen Al having to catch him when he'd tripped over nothing on his way out of HQ. "Probably lost ten pounds."
"Stunted . . . your growth."
Ed narrowed his eyes as Al's blinked open again, and his brother offered a ghost of a smile.
"Good. Maybe this one will do the same to you and give me time to catch up," he groused. Anyone else might have been encouraged that Al had tried to tell a joke, but it just made Ed's gut curl uncomfortably.
Al knew he was worrying. And he had good reason to worry.
They remained silent only a few moments before another coughing fit swept through, leaving Al winded and, eventually, beer-less. Though he hadn't made a face when it had gone down, he certainly was grimacing now.
"I . . . I'm sorry. I can't-"
Ed made a soothing noise, rubbing his brother's arm more vigorously. They had to stop this vomiting, and soon.
He kept throwing up because he kept swallowing blood. The more he coughed, the more his throat and lungs would bleed. If they were going to get the drugs into him, they had to stop the bleeding. To stop the bleeding, they had to stop the coughing.
But he needed to cough to live. If he stopped coughing, his lungs would fill and he'd suffocate, exactly like the men below.
Ed stopped rubbing his brother's arm, wondering if perhaps his fever was making him sensitive to touch. "Still here."
"You need . . . to get away from . . . me."
He half-chuckled. "It's a little late for that. Stop worrying about me." He was strong and had been sick before. He might come down with it, but probably not nearly as bad as Al was. After all, even if more than half the people who contracted this influenza died, almost half of them survived it.
They were just going to have to be in that smaller portion.
Al's eyes flitted open again. "You're sick," he insisted, in an oddly rasping whisper.
Ed sighed and shook his head, scooting forward on his little pile of burlap so Al didn't have to move to see him.
A long time ago, he could recall their mother making a cough remedy out of honey and lemons. Neither of which seemed to be on hand, though he hadn't thoroughly searched the entire warehouse. The brothel served alcohol, which meant mixed drinks, so lemons weren't as farfetched as the honey was. But even so, these coughs were resonating deep in the chest. Honey might help coat Al's throat, but it probably wouldn't make a significant difference. And that much concentrated sugar wouldn't make Al's stomach any happier.
But it was far too late to find a pharmacy, even if he went knocking on doors. He couldn't think of anything else that would either stop the coughing or the nausea.
Then again, obviously the laudanum downstairs had not been prescribed; he was pretty sure it was something that was served at the brothel, much like food and drink. Perhaps to help customers relax, certainly as an aphrodisiac. But it would depress the respiratory system, which meant possibly in small doses it could minimize the urge to cough while still allowing the user to clear their lungs when necessary.
. . . of course, he'd be completely guessing on the dose.
And it was an opiate. Terribly addictive, and recent research hinted at far worse side effects . . .
But he couldn't think of a much worse side effect than death.
"What . . . are you thinking . . . ?"
Ed glanced up to see Al watching him, apparently happier to do so now that Ed was very directly in his line of sight.
"The men downstairs. The ones that died." Might as well tell him; Al was just as smart as he was. "They had some laudanum with them. They overdosed, but I think it might actually be helpful in small amounts. It could make you cough less, make it easier to keep things down."
Al blinked slowly as he assimilated this information. His reply would probably be a pretty good indication of how fevered he really was.
". . . okay."
Ed stared at him a moment, bemused, and Al gave him another attempt at a smile. "Can't hurt. Besides . . . I hear it's fun."
That was a slightly better joke. "I'm not a very good older brother," Ed remarked easily, shifting to fish one of the vials out of his pocket. "Here I am pushing recreational drugs on you."
"You're not . . . treating yourself, either," Al observed. "If we . . . both get sick . . . this won't end well."
Edward carefully uncorked the thick glass vial, moving again to help Al sit up. Psychosomatic or not, there was no denying the slight feeling of dizziness, the weakness in his human knee. Al was right; he had a fever. Or he'd convinced himself that he did. He had no thermometer, and Al would be a poor meter to measure heat-
Edward reached out, again taking Al's hand. His fingertips, not just the nails, were starting to turn blue, yet the flesh felt the same temperature as Ed's.
So Al wasn't warming up, like he'd assumed. Instead, they were both cold. Or hot.
Al was too wrapped up in trying to sit up to notice, and Ed handed him the vial. He'd seen people use this before, on toothaches. They would get a bit of the liquid on their finger and then run it along the inside of their lip. That would also get it into the bloodstream very quickly, but this was more than a toothache. Still, how much was enough . . . ?
"Just a taste," he cautioned, but he didn't need to. Al barely touched his tongue to the glass before he withdrew it from his mouth, and he made several interesting faces as he tasted the liquid.
Then he swallowed it.
Unsurprisingly, he immediately began to cough again; he wasn't a heavy drinker, and the alcohol fumes had probably attacked his already raw throat. He began dry heaving soon after, but in the end it was unproductive, and he swallowed the last spasms back.
"It tastes like liquor," he finally rasped, seeming somewhat more alert than he'd previously been. "It's not bad."
"That's because it's sitting in a solution of ethyl alcohol." He took the vial away from his brother and held it up to the light being cast from the lantern above them. Al had taken less than half a teaspoon. Probably not enough, considering his body weight, but they could always give him more –
Another coughing fit.
Ed helped his brother lay back down, still hacking, on his left side. He was hoping the discharge and liquid in Al's lungs would settle into one or the other when he laid on his side, but it didn't appear that was the case. This fit lasted into chokes, which became gags, and soon Al was spitting out another mouthful of the oily froth.
And the laudanum.
As quiet as Al was trying to be, Ed almost didn't detect the creaking at all. Just as he hadn't been able to hear Al very well from down below, it seemed they could expect the same. He moved to crouch in front of his brother, letting Al continue choking into his chest in an effort to muffle the noise, and cocked his ear toward the stairs.
The next thing he heard was a hoarse yell. Definitely masculine, and definitely shocked. Apparently the dead men had been discovered.
With a muffled word he guessed was an apology, Al finally caught his breath, and leaned heavily into his brother's chest. Ed just rubbed little circles on his back, hoping it would loosen some of the hardened muscles he could feel even through Al's coat. It was hard to tell if his brother was shivering or trembling from the exertion of keeping himself so tense.
He'd have to keep up with what was going on downstairs. By the time he'd hear their footfalls on the stairs, it would be too late to hide.
Murmuring an apology, he moved away, pushing Al's weight back onto the cot. He offered the vial of laudanum when he saw he had Al's attention.
"I'm going to keep watch," he whispered. "When you think you can keep it down, take some. I'll be right back."
Al's fingers closed around the vial and he nodded, showing that he'd at least heard if not understood, and Ed gave his back a final pat before moving towards the stairs.
The warehouse was wood, but the timbers were thick and didn't have the same whorls he'd see in construction around Resembool. He had to make due with a crack between two of the massive beams, watching for shadows to move on the visible floor beneath. Edward lay flat on the floor, pressing his eye as close to it as possible. The board was a little warped, so it wasn't a bad view, but there wasn't much to see.
Eventually he heard the hinges complain again, and after almost ten seconds he felt a brief gust of air push up from below. Several figures passed by; large men, just as the others had been. They were speaking, but it was hard to make out. It didn't even sound like German. Possibly . . . French?
Large Frenchmen. That was a new one.
For a while they stayed out of sight, closer to the table and dead men than the door, but soon enough they passed back into view, carrying something between them-
A body, wrapped in burlap.
Edward frowned. If they ran out of sacks, and came upstairs to collect the empty ones Al was on . . .
Then he'd take them out on the stairs. But if he did that, they couldn't spend the night. The moment the second shift didn't come back, someone would become alarmed. More alarmed than three dead men made them, at any rate. They almost acted as if the body itself was just another heavy sack of goods.
But again, it was a brothel. If ever anyone wanted to catch this influenza, he couldn't think of a better place. Almost every human fluid imaginable was traded in a place such as this. It was really astonishing it hadn't been closed down by the city officials yet, but he supposed in part such places were crowd control.
Much like religion, to appease the 'great unwashed' and keep them paying taxes.
They came back for the second man, still acting very nonchalant about the whole thing, and Ed found himself wondering if they were going to realize that one of the men was still alive. If he wasn't sick, so long as he hadn't overdosed too steeply he'd probably just wake up in the alley in the morning with a headache.
Unless they were burning the bodies.
Distantly, he heard some muffled coughs, but the shadows moving below didn't seem to notice. They didn't seem to be running out of sacks, either. The third body was carried out without fuss, and shortly the two reappeared.
Did they know their coworker was still alive? Or had he already been carried out with the dead?
For a long time, there was no motion. The minutes dragged on, and while Ed had an ear cocked back, he didn't hear Al cough again. Just as he was about to abandon watch, the hinges complained with a loud screech. For a long moment, there was nothing, then he heard rather than felt a low rumbling sound. It continued unsteadily for a short time, before the hinges creaked again.
Rolling a keg out the door?
So they hadn't carried out the other body. They'd simply left their colleague to sleep at the table. And they didn't seem too intent on searching the place, either.
Mollified for the moment, Edward pushed himself to his feet, ignoring a tight feeling as his skin stretched over his face. He must have been exposed the same time Al was, if they were going to both become ill so close to one another.
Maybe Al was right. If he became as sick as Al was, he wouldn't be able to get them out of here. If they were caught, sent to one of the temporary hospitals –
If Al couldn't keep the pills down soon, they really would be useless. He would have aggravated Al's illness for no reason at all.
Edward came around the column of crates that had hidden his brother from him, and found Al sitting upright, looking rather peaked. He grinned lopsidedly, not quite the real thing, and waved weakly but cheerfully as soon as he noticed him.
Nonplussed, Ed hurried over. "Al, what-"
He held up the vial with an appropriately contrite expression.
It was empty.
Edward blinked at it for a moment, refusing to believe what he was seeing. The entire thing? If each of the dead men had dumped two into their beers, and only managed half the mixture before passing out, then he'd just taken a fatal amount of the laudanum –
"Tell me you spilled it." He kept his tone neutral. He kept his expression neutral.
Al bit his bottom lip and shook his head, wheezing something that might have been a fake laugh. "Well, I sort of choked, and dumped it all in, and then it was either swallow it or inhale so I swallowed-"
"Did it occur to you that you could have spit it out?!"
Al blinked at him, almost owlishly. "Not so loud, brother. Besides, there wasn't any more. And you can't risk going to get any more."
It was the first time he'd heard Al complete a sentence that long without interrupting it with a gasp for breath.
Yet it was clear, from the way Al was rattling and wheezing, that his lungs were just as filled with fluid as they'd been before. Ed was fairly sure opium was supposed to be a depressant, not a stimulant, but seeing his brother's bright eyes and alert expression, he was beginning to wonder if the stuff was laudanum after all –
He frowned at his brother, closing the distance between them and considering choking him. "Al, you need to start coughing," he hissed. If he coughed, he'd throw up. If he threw up, he'd bring the laudanum with it. "You took too much-"
"You don't know that," Al informed him, his voice still hoarse from all the hacking. "Feel loads better."
"Yeah, I bet," Ed ground out. "Listen to me-"
The doors whined again, from far away, and Ed dropped his voice. "Al, you have to get rid of it-"
Something shifted in Al's eyes, almost calculatingly. "Only if you take the pills."
Ed stared at him. Bargaining now, was he? What was he? Ten? They didn't have time for this; the narcotic would be absorbed into the lining of his stomach quickly. If he wasn't afraid of making noise, he'd punch his brother in the stomach.
As before, it took him a minute to realize what Al had really said.
His expression must have changed, because Al dropped the goofy attitude. "Take the pills," he repeated.
. . . no . . .
He'd done it on purpose?
"What the hell are you thinking?!" He didn't bother to watch his volume. "Are you insane?"
"Inside voice, brother," Al reminded him in a loud whisper. "The pills can't help me anymore." He swallowed something – a cough? "I really do feel better."
Ed took a step towards him, not sure what he was doing but knowing he needed to do something. "Are you trying to kill yourself?"
Al just shrugged. "I could ask the same of you."
He opened his mouth, to shout, to point out that he wasn't the one purposefully overdosing himself with what would amount to poison and refusing to take the only medicine that could possibly help-
But then he'd be a hypocrite.
Infected blood stained his shirt and vest. He'd been inundating himself with Al's illness, and while he knew he wasn't past the point the medicine was rumored to be useless, the six pills only comprised two full doses. The bare minimum that had been shown to improve symptoms.
He ground his teeth, his hands curling into fists at his sides. "Dammit," he snarled at no one in particular. "Al-"
His brother coughed, a single chest-rattling sound rather than a series, and he made a face before spitting up a healthy amount of the froth.
He didn't vomit it. He coughed it up, coughed up blood, without swallowing it.
And despite the fact that he was no longer gasping, his face was looking a little less pale, his lips a little less blue.
Of course. The opium was relaxing him, so his tense muscles weren't consuming all the oxygen in his blood. In small amounts, it was helping him.
But an entire vial was not a small amount.
"Fine," he growled. "I'll take one dose, you take the other."
"This is not negotiable," he interrupted flatly. "Otherwise I make you bring it up."
Al stared at him a long time before closing his eyes, which Ed took as assent. He reached for the envelope, still laying where he'd left it, and emptied the pills out onto his palm. He picked out three, tossed them into his mouth, and picked up the warm glass of beer. The sugar did nothing to help the taste, but he choked it down all the same, then caught his brother's eyes and glared. Al was watching him carefully, but seemed to conclude he'd really swallowed the pills, because he held out his hand.
Ed shook his head. "No. First you need to get rid of the opium."
"Already did," Al admitted, still holding out his hand. "Spilled half the vial when I choked on it."
His brain turned over the words, trying to make sense of them even as Ed felt his left eye start to twitch. Al relieved him of the pills, popping them into his mouth before swigging them down with the beer. This time he did make a face. "What did you do to the beer?"
His brother glanced back up.
"I'm going to kill you," Ed announced flatly.
Al flashed him a weak smile. "Sorry about wasting the rest of the laudanum."
Ed reached violently into his pocket, yanking the second vial out. "I was thinking I should save this, to wean you off the addiction, but now I think I'll take it, so I don't strangle you in your sleep."
"If I thought I could have gotten you to take both doses, I would have," Al said softly, laying down on his side again. "You're such an idiot sometimes."
His brother made an odd hacking sound, then spat up some more blood. "It's helping."
Ed huffed and took a seat, back leaning against the bags, and stared at the stairway. He didn't dare leave his brother's side now. Incoming shadows would have to be warning enough.
For a while they were quiet, save an occasionally cough from Al. Though they were less frequent, they were certainly more productive, and as Ed had predicted, stopping the coughing stopped the blood. It was almost an hour before Al was taken by a fit as violent as the previous ones, and though it made him gag, he kept his stomach in line.
Not that it mattered. The pills were long gone, the drugs in his system.
"Tired," Al finally croaked, and Ed lay his head back on the burlap, letting it fall toward his brother. He didn't have the urge to cough yet, but he could tell he was becoming ill.
"Can't sleep," he warned him, almost apologetically. "Have to stay awake."
Al nodded slowly. "I know."
Ed watched him for a long time. His lips were starting to turn a little blue again, and his eyes were red-rimmed. His lungs were filling.
"Were you intending to take all of it?" he heard himself ask, suddenly.
Al blinked, then looked away, focusing on one of the gas lanterns. "You wouldn't have taken the pills," he said, finally. "Just to be stubborn."
That was probably true. If Al had intended to overdose himself, he would be dead now, and preventing his own sickness from getting worse would have been the last thing on Ed's mind.
"It's my fault," Ed said softly.
Al made an odd wheeze that was probably supposed to be a snort. "You're sick too," he reminded him.
Ed was quiet for a long time. "You're this sick because your body was in the Gate all that time. I put it there, Al. And . . . you shouldn't have come here."
Al picked up his head slightly, brows furrowing in mild anger. "That was my doing, thank you."
Edward closed his eyes a moment. "I only just got you back."
He heard Al sigh shallowly, then cough for his troubles. "Not that it would mean anything, if we both died next . . . to a whorehouse in a nowhere city in Germany."
A few moments passed in companionable silence, then Ed forced his eyes back open. If whatever portion of the laudanum that had wound Al up was fading, he'd be that much harder to keep awake.
Al started to laugh, which led to a significant coughing fit. It took him longer to recover, and he was starting to shiver again.
Ed lifted his head about a centimeter to show he was listening.
"This stuff really is pretty good."
He gave his younger brother a withering look. "No, you can't have more."
"You going to stay awake?"
Al took a semi-deep breath. "If-"
"You're not going to die."
His younger brother gave him an exasperated look. "I was going to say, if you start getting drowsy, I think there are coffee beans in the sack over there."
Al indicated a small, dark sack flopped over a crate of cans, and smiled as he saw Ed's face light up.
"But there's no water. And I'm not putting them in the beer."
His brother shrugged lightly. "I suppose you could always just eat them."
Ed eyed the sack consideringly. That would be vile, but it was certainly be an efficient way to ingest the caffeine. And there was no doubt he could use some-
"I'm going to wake you up every ten or so minutes," he warned, leaning forward. If he was going to get as sick as Al was, he should probably eat those coffee beans now, before he couldn't keep them down.
"Okay," Al murmured agreeably. "What about the men downstairs?"
Ed got to his feet, taking a deep breath to ward off the faint dizziness. "They probably won't come up here. The brothel will be closed by morning. We'll leave then."
He heard his brother half-heartedly cough up some fluid, and cast a worried look back. Al's eyes were closed, and he had wrapped his arms up tight against his chest. But the wheezing continued, even as Edward tentatively tore open the coffee bag and popped a bean into his mouth.
He couldn't help but make a face. It was unbelievably bitter. He swallowed it down with effort, finding the aftertaste . . . very coffee-like. With some kind of sweet coating to take the bite off, they really wouldn't be half bad . . .
Grabbing a handful of the beans, Edward made his way back to the stack of burlap, settling himself in for a long night. Al's eyes briefly opened, noting his return, then closed again, his breath rattling softly.
"Ten minutes," Ed said softly.
He'd let him sleep for ten minutes.
- x -
Author's Notes: So, it was really total fluff. Long, drawn-out, babbling fluff. With just a tiny hint of angst. It could have been horribly angsty, but that wouldn't be much of a pick-me-up, would it? Thank you, DevLeigh, and congratulations! I hope you liked it!