"If we hurry, we can catch the 11:23 train to Central," Al said, quietly. "The next train after that is the 18:08 one, and we'd have to switch lines before we get there." He examined himself carefully in the station's bathroom mirror as he spoke, hardly daring to believe this wasn't a dream. He'd had this body for just less than two days, and it was only for Ed's sake that they needed to go back to Central so soon.
"All right," Edward replied, still leaning against the wall behind him. Alphonse glanced up at the reflection of his brother's hard, cold expression, glittering cruelly in the mirror.
"Stop that," he snapped, flicking the tap on. "Change into something a little more appropriate. You're not him, brother."
"Sorry," Ed muttered, stirring himself from his casual position. "This better?" There was a sense of motion, a brief crackle of energy, and Edward's clothes blurred into something less noticeable.
Alphonse glanced up, still rubbing the soap onto his hands, and nodded. "Yeah."
He towelled his hands dry on the hem of the red coat, reaching for the gloves lying discarded by the washbasin. "We should grab something before we get on. You know, to eat on the train," he said, sliding his right glove over the automail. He turned, peered over his shoulder, golden eyes meeting Edward's violet ones. "You do still eat, now, right?"
Ed shrugged. "No idea. Probably. Let's find out."
"Good," Al breathed, thinking of the hulking suit of armour he had been, and the terrible pain when he first realized that he couldn't eat. He'd hate it if he'd done something similar to Edward. "Come on, brother."
The train was unusually empty, and it was easy to find an over-night compartment with just two beds and a small table between them. He ducked down, sliding his suitcase underneath one of the beds, and sat on the other. Edward sat opposite him, still munching at the cheese sandwich Al had been persuaded to buy.
The shrill whistle of the stationmaster warned him before the train began to jog into motion. He reached into a pocket and found a deck of playing cards, shuffling them, and dealt out a hand of blackjack to himself and his brother. Edward's purple eyes sparked with interest, and he placed the half-finished cheese sandwich down as he picked up his hand. Alphonse grinned at him, hiding the sudden clench in the pit of his stomach at the unnatural, predatory expression on Ed's face, and chose instead to raise a hand to rub at his aching right shoulder.
"Don't," Ed said without looking up. "It doesn't help."
Al sighed, but had to concede that when it came to this body, Edward had more experience than he did. He placed down a few more cards, rapping sharply on the table as he came down to his last one, and asked, "Can you feel him?"
Ed took a bite of the cheese sandwich, and put a Jack of Clubs down. "Yeah. He's there, but not very strong. Mostly it's like he's...sleeping, but sometimes he almost awakens. When he does that I feel... crueller. Colder. Like I hate everyone around me, and I don't know why."
"Oh," Al said, looking out the window. How could I do this to you? "When we get to Central, we'll search for what we need to kill him once and for all."
Ed took another bite out of the sandwich and asked, "Why did you choose this body?"
Al paused, thinking a moment before answering. Ed didn't sound like he was angry, blaming Al, or upset; just curious, with a vague hint of confusion. "It was the nearest thing to hand, brother," he replied, quietly. His automail hand picked absently at the edge of the table, scoring lines in the synthetic wood. He gazed at his cards, but couldn't seem to concentrate on a strategy, and eventually slapped the first card that matched down. "You'd just put me in this body, and I could feel your soul slipping away to make room, and I was... I was scared, okay? I didn't want to lose you."
Ed simply looked at him through Envy's feral eyes, placing his last card onto the pile. "You think I should hate you," he said, softly. Al flinched and looked away, only to find one of his brother's hands grasping his left. "He does, but I don't, okay?"
"Why not?" Al demanded. "You're not human anymore—homunculus—"
"—And I can taste this sandwich and feel your skin against mine, which is more than you could when I fucked up," Ed replied, shortly. Al blinked at him, still looking a little lost, and Ed smiled. He began to change his shape, still holding Al's hand tightly in his. Damn little brothers. They weren't allowed to feel guilty like this, they weren't. They should be...happier.
Al gave a tiny smile when he'd finished, looking up a young man with tousled, honey coloured hair, several inches taller than Edward's old body. "I suppose it's only fair. I got yours, you wear mine. Part of the cycle, or something like that," Al said thoughtfully, collecting the cards again. He shuffled them absently as Edward finished off his meal, and began to arrange them for a game of solitaire. "What time do you think we'll arrive in Central?"
"After the library closes," Ed replied, crossing his arms over the table and resting his chin on them. "We'll have to break in. If I remember correctly, there's a little window over the librarian's bathroom which doesn't close completely."
"I could just transmute us a door," Al replied with a grin, deciding not to comment on Ed's knowledge of how to break into the library. Researching after closing hours evidently taught you more than just the contents of the books themselves.
"You could, but I know how to turn off the alarms."
Alphonse put the four of Hearts on top of the five of Spades, nodding agreement. "All right. But once you've done that, you come and fetch me, okay? This has to be a joint project."
Edward smirked. "Even though I can't use alchemy any more?"
"Even though," Al replied firmly.
They argued alchemical theory over several card games throughout the journey, and for a while, everything seemed all right. The towns that occasionally blurred past the window were starting to become more frequent, though the train wouldn't stop until the next morning at a large market town named Musden, then that evening at East City, then straight on until the next evening, when it would arrive in Central.
Ed had fallen asleep, figure reverting back to Envy's preferred spiky haired form as soon as he lost concentration. Alphonse watched him for a while, unsure of whether he even trusted Ed's control enough to sleep in the same carriage, so close to this creature of grace and malice. Reminding himself that no matter what, Edward would never let Envy hurt his little brother, he wrapped himself up in the thick, itchy wool blankets and tried to sleep, calming his breathing and relaxing his body.
His dreams were dark and vivid, memories of opening his—Ed's—eyes to the awful realization of what his brother had done clouding his thoughts. Envy had been pacing, watching with a kind of amused detachment, that irritatingly smug grin on its face as it watched Al sit up, eyes wide with horror.
"Awww, the Fullmetal Shrimp isn't quite dead!" it'd crowed, and he'd turned his head to see his old body slumped, huge and bulky, next to him. Envy's feet pattered as the creature advanced, perhaps to taunt, almost certainly to harm, and Alphonse had grinned wolfishly as he turned back towards it. He'd had some inkling of what Ed must have felt when he bound his soul into the armour, the desperation and fear raging below the calm determination, and when Envy was within kicking distance he'd lunged, making sure to keep his foot on the huge lump of steel.
The sin yelped with surprise as his arms crossed around its waist, automail thumb tearing through the flesh of its back and forming the outline of the array he knew tied in with Ed's soul. It had beat frantically at his face, not really understanding what he was doing but not liking it all the same; the heel of its hand had broken his nose, but he'd gritted his teeth against the pain—if Ed could transmute his soul with the stump of one leg bleeding all over the floor, what was a broken nose?—and pressed on. It had seemed futile; Envy's skin was healing over, and though it still hissed in frustration, its calm was beginning to return. He'd been crying, tears mingling with the blood on his face, and Envy had begun laughing, all hissed triumphant gulps of air.
He didn't know what made him let go of the creature enough to wipe some of the blood and the tears off his chin with his flesh hand, not when Envy could have pushed him away with the weakening of the hold—but the homunculus had been too slow, automail tearing through flesh as his left hand reached out, and he'd drawn the array on Envy's back, activating it with both hands.
He'd kept his face pressed into Envy's waist until the sin dropped both hands to his hair and stroked, almost softly. "Alphonse?" it inquired, still with Envy's spiteful drawl but toned down, seeming kinder, somehow. "Al... What have you done?"
"I had to," he'd whispered. "Please, forgive me."
Ed had kept on stroking his hair, and somewhere in there he'd fainted, waking up to find himself outside, with his brother curled against his side, not awake but not asleep. The movement had roused Ed, who had offered him what might have been a genuine smile, but Envy's face distorted it horribly. He'd cried, then, in anger and in sorrow, and Ed had wrapped his arms around him and held him, and Al had cried harder at the coolness of Envy's body and the wrongness of what should have been a perfect moment—how long had he dreamed of being able to hold his brother? How long had he imagined getting his body back and being able to touch Ed, only for it to end like this?
Ed had rocked him, awkwardly, in a pale imitation of what their mother used to do when they had nightmares. And Al buried his head in Envy's shoulder as his brother whispered soothing nothings; things sounding odd and clumsy coming from Ed, never mind Envy. Alphonse had listened to the voice, not the words, and let Edward calm him that time. The anger, grief and fear stayed, however, and formed a drive all of its own.
He hadn't known that Envy's mind hadn't been completely suppressed until they arrived back at the Rockbell's. Winry had offered them a place to stay until they decided what to do next, and Alphonse had accepted, gratefully. Getting ready for bed, he'd made a remark to Ed about how his blood seal had become a dark black circle burned into his flesh, and whether this meant it would be easier or harder to destroy it. The next second, Ed had flung a pillow at him hard enough to knock him over, and when he turned to complain, Ed had lunged and pinned him to the floor by the shoulders, straddling his thighs, expression fierce and terrible. "I hate you," he'd hissed, shaking Al hard enough the younger Elric could have sworn the bangs of the back of his head hitting the floor must have woken Granny and Winry. "I hate you so fucking much, you smug little bitch."
"B-brother?" Al had managed fear dawning in his eyes; and a half-formed suspicion wrenched his gut when Ed grinned at him, teeth sharp and pointed, cold hatred burning in his clear violet eyes.
"I fucking hate you," Ed had sneered, hands squeezing so hard he seemed in danger of dislocating Al's shoulder, and then it was like a light had been turned off; the terrifying expression had faded, and he'd blinked a few times in confusion, letting go of Al's shoulders and jumping back, hands pressed over his mouth and eyes wide with horror as soon as he realized what he was doing. "Fuck, Al, I'm so sorry!"
Al curled into a tight little ball right there on the floor, too stunned to even cry, and Ed stood over him with torment on his face. "I didn't mean to," he whispered, sinking ungracefully to his knees. "I didn't want to hurt you. Al, I'm sorry. I don't hate you, I don't," and Al had raised himself enough to see Ed's eyes shimmering as his older brother blinked back tears, squaring his jaw against them. Older Brothers Didn't Cry, and Al had always wondered about that. He let his left hand slide over Ed's cheek, sitting up, his expression placating, forgiving, and Ed relaxed marginally.
"It's not okay, but I know it wasn't you, brother," Al said, metal fingers drumming on a covered metal knee as he thought about how to say what he suspected. "Can I see the blood seal? I need... I need to know something."
Ed had blinked at him but nodded, shifting so that he could present his lower back to Al, biting his lip as Al gently prodded it. It was whole, perfect, and Al let his forehead rest against the knob of Ed's spinal cord, as he tried to work out what to do. "It's Envy, I think," he said after a while. "Not his body—that's yours now—but his mind. You remember Wrath told us that a homunculus is born with body and mind but no soul?"
"Yeah. But... I transmuted both your mind and your soul, together, and you must have done the same with me, but... Dante and Hohenheim put their souls into different bodies for centuries, Al. I don't think Dante destroyed Lyra's soul before transmuting her own into the body. Surely they must have displaced the souls of the new body's old occupants when putting their own inside."
"I don't think they tried to transmute themselves into a homunculus," Al said slowly. Ed turned, sharply, the line of Envy's jaw visible over his shoulder, and Al raised his head from his brother's back. "I did it with the Philosopher's Stone, like they must have done, and I used all of the Stone when I did so. But still... Dante struck me as the type of woman who if she could have, would have transmuted herself into a homunculus. Think of all the benefits; they don't die, they don't age, they can restructure their bodies at will—what stopped her from putting herself in, say, Lust, if it wouldn't have had this sort of side effect?"
"But how would she know? There were no cases of successful homunculi before her minions, remember? And we saw all of them, and they were all fine."
"I—" Al began, and froze. "Maybe she did try, and had father rescue her when it failed? You weren't there, but when Greed was fleeing the Devil's Nest with me and—and Martel and Dorchet and Law, Lust and Gluttony came after us. Greed didn't recognise Lust, and she said something about being the 'new' Lust. Maybe Dante used the old one to practise on...?"
Ed shuddered, violently. "Dante was one sick fuck," he muttered, and Al hummed agreement. "So... what are we going to do?"
Al frowned. "I don't know," he said carefully. "But I think the answer may be found, somehow. I think... I think we can try to find out how to kill Envy's mind, or we can try to find out how to make his body human. Because if it really is only the fact that Envy was—is—a homunculus that prevents your mind from displacing his, then making him human should get rid of him for us."
"Where do we start?" Ed asked, tilting his head.
"Central. We'll need to sneak in; you're still wanted for the entire Lior mess and I can't change my shape."
"Neither can I, yet," Ed protested, and Al smiled at him.
"You've got tonight to learn, then," he said, and laughed as Ed pulled a face. It was... soothing, somehow, to still be able to see his brother despite the unfamiliar body, in the gestures and expressions and body language. He had never wanted it to be like this, but as he'd learned, long ago, it was better to work with what you had rather than wishing, futilely, for things to be different. "We'll catch the train first thing tomorrow morning. Sleep well, brother."
"You too," Ed said, watching him climb between his bedcovers, and wandered over to his own bed to practise this new skill.
The windows of the library were dark, and they paced all the way around the building and didn't see a single light. The window Edward had mentioned turned out to be on the second floor; he chose to climb onto a small rainwater reservoir and scuttle up the drainpipe, far more agile than usual. He paused on the windowsill, turned back to Alphonse with a mischievous grin, and Al forced an expression of fond exasperation onto his face. It seemed to satisfy Ed, as he ducked into the building without looking back. Al tugged the hood of his coat even further over his face, sidling to wait by the front doors, and counted five minutes under his breath before the lock clicked and Ed poked his head out of the narrow gap, grinning wickedly. "Told you I could do it," he said, all smugness and pride, and Al shook his head and rolled his eyes before following him in.
The library interior was just as dark as Al thought it would be, and Ed's eyes shone a bright violet in the feeble light let in through the windows, catlike, the vertical pupils dilating slightly. Al bit his lip at this reminder of Envy's inhuman nature, but decided to ignore it. "I'm turning the reading lamps on, brother," he warned. Ed shielded his eyes with one arm as he did so, blinking a little to let them adjust, and then he crossed to the head librarian's desk and dug underneath it until he found the catalogue.
"There won't be much about homunculus and soul transmutation in the State Alchemist's report section, but we can't ignore it entirely," he said, brow crinkling with concentration as he flicked through the pages. "Of course, it would help if the titles weren't coded—though I guess there's always the second names. 'A Study of Ethics in Divinity'—Er, no. 'Horoscopes For The Years 1745-1900'—why? 'The Properties of Seatbelt Resistance in The 7XG-15 Car'—my God, that sounds fascinating... Take the normal shelves for me, would you, Al? Try the ones about why human transmutation is banned, then see if you can find any notes on the 5th Laboratory and what they were doing there."
"Of course," Al said with a small grin, having already starting to do so while Ed was busy mocking other alchemists' codes.
Half an hour later, a small heap of books had been assembled on a table in the middle of the library and Alphonse was fervently thumbing through a battered copy of a book named 'Alchemical Myths Revealed', attributed to a wordy author known only as 'Anon'. Ed hadn't found much luck, giving up on the reports and instead concentrating on a rare book named 'Human Transmutation and its Unknown Specifics', occasionally frowning at the pages before scribbling something down on the pad beneath him. Alphonse couldn't help but notice that he still used his left hand to write with, and was strangely touched.
Three hours later, dawn tinting the sky, there had been no great breakthroughs. It was always this way with research, however; Al scribbled a last jotted note ('Things to check: r.s effts on hom, blood seal effects with r.s., hom+ what makes unhmn? The Truth—how? Find copy of Ethel Brigg's—-Efforts of the Soul.') and shut his book, popping tired knuckles. "We should pack up unless we want to get caught," he said with a frown. "I need to sleep, I'm exhausted. You could try the public library if you adopt another shape, if you're not tired."
"Will do," Ed replied, closing his own book. "Ugh. If you've got something to say, you bastards, say it, don't encrypt it in wordy pompousness."
Al smiled at his exasperation, drawing his chair back and scooping up an armful of books. "Meet back in front of the building at seven, okay?"
"Sure," Ed said, sifting a hand through his dark blond hair and reaching out over Al's head to slide another book back on the shelf. "If you're sleeping, I'll take your notes."
"Fine," Al said, stifling a yawn and taking a step back, forgetting that the only reason his head was at this height was because of stepladder he stood on. He flailed his arms frantically, failed to grip the railings, and tumbled into Ed, knocking them both to the floor. "Ow, brother—"
"You all right?" Ed asked with a frown, helping him sit upright again. "Be more careful, Al. You're not as big as you used to be, okay?"
"...Okay," Al replied in a small voice, rubbing the back of his head.
Ed smiled at him and stood up again, brushing dust off his pants, and offered him a hand. Al took it, noticing how Ed's old body's hands fit neatly into Ed's new form's, the form that his own body might have taken, and forced back a sudden, unprovoked blush. Would he really have been as attractive as Ed obviously thought he would, he wondered? Would his eyes have been that same burnished bronze, his jaw line so similar to Ed's own, but with their mother's cheekbones?
"What?" Ed asked, and he blinked and really did blush this time.
"Nothing important," he said, gathering up his notes and handing them to Ed. "I'm going to look in the east side of the city for a bed and breakfast, or something. Take care, brother."
"Of course I will," Ed replied scornfully, shuffling the paper in his grip and beginning to switch the lights out. He ushered Al out the front door, whispered, "You too, Al," and locked it behind him. Al tugged his hood up, gripping his suitcase, and kept walking; halfway down the path, he turned back to see Ed sliding out of the window and dropping back onto the cistern, engrossed in their notes.
It would take time to find a solution, time Al hoped they had, but he promised he would not quit until he found it. They'd made a little bit of progress tonight, and hopefully Ed would make a bit more today, but it might take several months, at least, until they found anything useful.