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Life's Blood

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The coughing was loud enough, that evening, that even drifting from behind the closed bathroom door it roused Edward. He sat up drowsily and turned on the lamp; adjusted the strap of his prosthetic arm under his nightshirt, and stumbled his way across the bedroom floor, past the empty bed on the other side of the room and down the hall. He considered just flinging open the bathroom door, slinging Alfons over his shoulder, and carrying him to the kitchen to force-feed him cough syrup, but decided against it. Instead, he knocked.

       Alfons turned on the tap, presumably to drown out the noise of his spasming lungs – as if I didn’t already hear all of that, Edward thought. “In a minute,” Alfons’ voice floated to him feebly, hoarse. The coughing started up again, harsh enough to resemble sobs. Edward cringed; it sounded painful.

       “Alfons?”

       “A minute!” Alfons wheezed from the other side of the door, followed by the sound of water splashing. It was a bit amazing that he managed to sound so testy with so much of his breath gone. “Will you just give me a minute!”

       Edward frowned. “You’ve been coughing like that for the last twenty minutes.” You woke me up, he added with a bit of lack-of-sleep irritation, but didn’t voice it. “At least let me get you some water, or something.”

       Time enough between hacking for Alfons to pant, “I’m in a bathroom, Edward, I have plenty of water if I need it!” Cough, cough, cough. “Just – go back to bed.”

      “I can’t, now,” Ed snapped. “I’ll just – I’ll wait for you.”

      He stalked to the kitchen, poured a dose of the awful cough syrup they kept stashed for just this kind of occasion, and then moved with considerable more calm back to the bedroom to set it on the nightstand beside Alfons’ bed. He returned to the bathroom doorway and planted his feet, firmly intending to bully his flatmate into taking his damn medicine when he exited – but jumped a bit when he heard something slam against the floor, and heard the coughs turn to heaves that ended with harsh, wet gasps. Without even thinking, he threw open the door, catching sight of Alfons slumped in front of the sink, one hand still clutching the porcelain and the other scrabbling at his chest.

      Edward moved on auto-pilot; he quickly turned off the faucet, disturbed by the red he saw splattered in the sink, and knelt beside his flatmate, who gasped and swayed on the floor like he really couldn’t get enough air.

      “Alfons,” Edward urged, taking him by the shoulders – there was a trail of blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. “Alfons, it’s okay, calm down, it’s okay.”

      Another of those horrible, wet gasps – and then a cough, and drips of blood into the other boy’s waiting hands. He drooped, still struggling for breath; Edward moved his flesh hand to the side of Alfon’s face, felt the fever-flushed skin. Really, he thought through the panic beating his heart into almost deafening loudness. He’s almost as stubborn as – well. Me.

      Alfons breathed in again like he was emerging from some deep lake, his eyes closed and lashes glistening with pained tears. “You’re okay,” Edward soothed, as though saying it would make it so – he hadn’t even realized he possessed any calming tone of voice before now. “You’re all right, you’re all right.” Slowly, Alfons calmed, breaths still sounding rather painful, but fuller. He opened his eyes, all traces of his previous anger replaced with simple unhappiness… and anxiety.

      And then, very suddenly, Edward had no idea what to say or do. Alfons was looking to him, and he had no idea how to make it right.

       “You… here,” said Edward awkwardly, making a vague motion toward Alfons’ face. “You’ve got blood – let’s – you should wash it off.” He helped the taller boy to his feet, helped him rinse off the red dappling his hands and face; Alfons was moving mechanically, either thoroughly tired or thoroughly embarrassed, or a mixture of both.

      “I don’t even know where it comes from,” Alfons spoke up hollowly through breaths, staring down at his hands as Edward moved about. “All the blood, I – it’s never been – like this.” He clamped his mouth shut, looking suddenly very young and very vulnerable.

       “You’re okay now,” Edward said definitively, the only thing he could say with real certainty, carefully maneuvering his pajama-clad friend through the door and toward the bedroom. “You’ve got a fever, though. You should rest.”

      Alfons looked at him, for a moment, like he’d spoken a foreign language (Did I say that in Amest – English by accident?), but then he turned and silently allowed Edward to lead him toward his bed.

      “There’s – uh – there’s cough syrup, there,” Edward informed him. “I’ll just – go get you some water.”

      The trip to the kitchen was quiet, the only sound in Edward’s ears the pounding of his own heart with panic and the soft rush of the water into the glass. He returned to find Alfons lying down in bed, curled facing away from the door, quite still; Edward stood for a moment and watched the lamplight play off the other man’s back, watched his shoulders tremble with cold or, more, likely, fear. He felt something peculiar grip at his heart and pull; he knew Alfons thought himself to be dying. Edward did not really know how to judge one way or the other – or perhaps didn’t want to know how – but the thought that Alfons, his friend and his bed companion and the only good thing Edward had found in this world, the last person who deserved to die – that he might someday soon perish with his own life’s blood filling his lungs… it made him feel cold.

      Worse, still, was the knowledge that he could do next to nothing about it. There was nothing to search for, no alchemy to learn, no new body to form for an Al that looked like his little brother but was not, could never be. People in this world were unbearably helpless. If Alfons died, he died.

      Edward knew death, now, but the further he got from remembering, the more it frightened him. This whole world could be frightening.

       Swallowing his thoughts, Edward padded back into the bedroom and set the glass of water on the table beside the bed. The cough syrup sat still where he’d left it, untouched. “Here,” he said simply, when Alfons looked up at him with tired eyes.

      “Thank you,” Alfons said hoarsely, voice barely there. “I’m not thirsty.”

      “For later, then,” said Edward, settling down on the edge of the bed by Alfons’ knees. He listened to Alfons’ breathing even out, still too quick for sleep, and again felt awkward. What should he be doing? Edward knew that he, himself, did not like to be fussed over when he was in pain, did not like to be doted on when he was depressed – but that was more out of embarrassment and shame than anything else, and that had always been before – before – before he’d been intimate enough with anyone to lose some of that embarrassment. Intimacy often made him feel better, and he liked being intimate with Alfons, but he was not usually the one to initiate. Alfons would probably not benefit from anything that made his breath quicken in this state, though, anyway. Maybe if he just tried to…

      “Do you want anything?” Edward found himself saying instead, his voice scratchy like he had been the one to nearly cough up a lung minutes before. He cleared his throat. “I could get you a – a book, or something, or a blanket. Or something to eat, if you want.”

      “It’s nearly three in the morning, Edward,” Alfons breathed, eyes closed in a strange sort of concentration. “Don’t make any food.”

       Edward pressed his lips together, a mixture of worry and defensive annoyance bubbling up in his chest – he was just trying to help. The feeling quickly faded, however, when the other boy shifted a bit and opened blue eyes, too bright for just the lamplight to excuse, to look at him. He breathed in once, quickly, almost like he was about to cough again, but then swallowed.

      “Could you just –” he started, and then swallowed again, thickly. “Could you just – stay here?”

      Something in Edward seized and released, spreading warmth to the ends of his flesh limbs. “I – yeah,” he said, leaning forward to turn off the lamp. “Of course. Anything you want.” He slid in carefully beside that too-warm body, curled his arms around those still trembling shoulders – almost instantly, Alfons leaned into him, resting his forehead in the crook of Edward’s neck and breathing deeply. Edward was momentarily overcome with the urge to just kiss him, kiss him until he forgot about feeling sick and scared – but resisted. The skin beneath his hands was hot; he pulled the quilt up around them both, remembering old advice from childhood – sweat the fever out. Maybe Alfons would be fine by morning, maybe it wasn’t as bad as they thought, maybe they could look for a cure –

      But what, Edward thought with an abrupt flash of panic, would Alfons do if no cure was found, and Edward returned to his home world? The first half, at least, was certainly likely -- even in Amestris, Edward's own mother had perished from something as incurable. Would Alfons die here, alone, never again to feel the touch of Edward’s hands? Would he ever find success with his rocketry? Would he wonder about Ed, the same way Ed would inevitably wonder about him – lonely for another body beside him and a (living, alive) breath against his neck?

      Alfons stiffened, pale hands fisting in the front of Edward’s pajama shirt, as though his thoughts had gone a similar route. Edward shifted their bodies a little closer, feeling a bit angry with himself; really, he was no good at caretaking, he couldn’t even focus on making his friend feel marginally better without his thoughts spinning in depressing circles. He reached around with his good hand and rested it at the nape of Alfons’ neck, idly stroking the soft strands of pale hair that rested there. Behind Alfons, on the side table, sat the glass of water and medicine.

      “I don’t blame you for not wanting to take that cough syrup,” Edward murmured into the other boy’s forehead. “It tastes like shit.”

       Alfons rewarded him with a shaky chuckle; Edward could feel the hot breath against his neck, stirring his heart into faster motion. “I would say it’s more like rubber.”

       The corners of Edward’s mouth curved in the beginnings of a smile. “Well, whatever, I wasn’t going for an exact comparison.”

       Another breathy laugh; they lay in silence for a few minutes, unsleeping. Alfons sighed against Edward’s neck.

      “It tastes better than… blood, though,” He ventured, resignedly. Edward swallowed. He knew the taste of blood, both his own and not-his-own; anything was better.

      “Yeah.”

      Abruptly, Alfons sat up, leaned over the side of the bed to grab the cough syrup, and downed his dose in one gulp. With a grimace, he set the cup back on the table and then settled himself back down into Edward’s arms, a great deal calmer.

      “I don’t know if it even helps,” he whispered into the dark, “but I suppose it can’t hurt.”

      Edward said nothing, but tightened his embrace, and waited until that precious breathing evened out in sleep. For now, his arms filled with a body that was warm and alive, blood pumping sure and steady through veins instead of filling lungs, he couldn’t allow anything to hurt.