The first thing Al became aware of as he swam through the murky, choppy waters between oblivion and full consciousness was pain.
His head and back throbbed dully, and breathing was hard—like the air had been knocked from his lungs—and the thought that shot through his mind was of how he shouldn't have tried to follow Brother so far up that old oak tree; he had known that he would fall, and it had been stupid to let Ed bait him into climbing higher than he felt comfortable, and now, of course, he was going to have bruises to try to hide from Mother...
...but that wasn't right; that couldn't be right. At first, he couldn't pinpoint how he knew that was wrong, but then his mind started clearing and he realized that the ground underneath him was not part of the soft, warm countryside of Rizembool; and that there were no fresh summer breezes—the air was, in fact, thick with the stink of ozone and sulphur; there was no melodious birdsong or rustle of tree leaves.
He didn't hear the gritty scrape of Ed's boots as he slid frantically down the trunk, nor his voice calling for him...and the absence of his brother's worried cry—was there ever a time when he'd been hurt that Ed had not been by his side to comfort him?—hooked into Al's heart and pulled at it as though trying to turn his chest inside out; the feeling was terrible, and the sheer strength of it was bewildering and terrifying, as though his soul had been wounded so deeply that it had frozen in shock, refusing to relay the traumatic information to his mind for the sake of his sanity.
That stench lingering in the air...
The transmutation...! What happened? Did we...?
Al's eyes fluttered open wide, and he twisted up off the floor with a faint groan; his spine cracked painfully and the room lurched first to one side and then to the other like a capsizing boat. The room...
Where am I? This isn—t...
...was still full of sickly yellow clouds, residue from the reaction. His eyes were overflowing with tears, he noted with surprise as he reached up to scrub at them, and he wasn't sure if this was because of burning smoke or because of something else, whatever...
...this premonition was that gripped him with icy claws. He stared at the moisture marking his fingers, and a tremor worked its way down through his small frame.
Something had gone horribly wrong, and he needed to find Brother right now. Nothing else in the world mattered: not whether they had succeeded, not where he was nor why—as he suddenly realized—he was nude, nothing...nothing if it wasn't Edward.
Brother would know what to do, what to say.
How to make sense of the chaos.
Al gathered his feet under him and stood up, wobbling alarmingly before he caught himself against the wall—the wall, he noted, which he must have been thrown violently against during the reaction, which explained why he'd lost consciousness and woken up aching, and why he was covered in plaster powder—and he had to pause there longer than he liked as he got a deeper lungful of the smoke, coughing and shuddering and wiping at the spill of tears.
Something deeper in the room moaned.
The fine hairs on his neck prickled at the pain-choked sound, and heart thudded in a series of hard, irregular beats. He swallowed the last of his coughing fit down as best as he could and licked his dry lips, chills sweeping down his bare skin. He wanted—oh, how he wanted more than anything else in the world!—to believe that was Ed, but he knew his brother's voice, knew more intimately than he knew his own, and these tones were too high-pitched, unfamiliar.
Still...someone was there. He wasn't alone.
Al stumbled through the thinning clouds, coughing again and unable to cry out for this unknown person. He didn't know if the smoke was mildly toxic or not, but it burned deep in his chest and every shaking breath he took simply made it worse; his eyelashes were clumped and gumming together from his unstopping tears, and he was starting to feel nauseous. He needed to get out of here—wherever here was—soon...but that thought was shoved away. He had more important priorities right now.
Whoever it was moaned again, and then also broke out into harsh, broken choking and gasping, such utterly pitiable noise that Al hurried a few more steps, knowing he was close but unable to determine how close...
...at least until his foot caught under something—someone?—and he tumbled over, crashing awkwardly into the floor, his legs still tangled over something that felt suspiciously like a human torso. Al rolled off of the other person, spinning around on his hands and knees.
"Yuh—you...alright?" he managed, his voice thick. His hands found thin, delicately rounded shoulders and for an absolutely inane moment he thought how embarrassing this was, to be naked and pawing at a young woman and how was he ever going to explain this?...but then hard logic clamped back down on him, banishing all concern for social niceties in this situation, and he pulled the girl upward.
He noticed the red triangle marking her forehead first, and that gave him a nasty jolt though he didn't know what it meant, and then the sweat-dampened mop of long dark hair and pale skin that appeared sallow in the hazy air. There was a strange array nestled in the hollow between her collarbones, and he reached out with trembling fingers to smudge it away, not knowing why it was there or what it had been designed to do, but disturbed by it nonetheless. Looking again, he saw that there were more of them, and that was even more troubling; methodically he wiped away them all, trying to stop his hands from shaking. This was a very different kind of human alchemy... There was sacrifice written into those arrays, and even the premise was chilling.
Her eyes—are they really purple?—opened slowly as the last mark was removed from her lean torso, but she didn't seem to be able to focus on Al very well at first, and then she jerked in his hands, breaking his grip with a snarl of fear and anger.
Al was taken aback at the fury in her tone, but that didn't change what he had to do. And if he was right about the nature of those arrays... "Gotta get you out of here..." He tugged her back up again, though strangely, she seemed determined to fight against him as hard as she could, brokenly cursing him, his brother, some gate, and, from what Al could determine, most of existence...and all the while trying to pull him down to the ground and throwing weak punches at him.
"Hate you... Hate...fucking...short-ass brother...hate... Fu-fuck—! Hate th—that bastard... How dare you d-do this...to m—m—me! Kill you! K—Kill you all!"
Her tirade was cut abruptly short by another coughing fit, and Al took advantage of her momentary distraction to lever her up to her feet and shove her out of the array. He didn't know where the door was, and he hesitated at first, but then the still-wheezing girl pointed vaguely in a direction and he nodded. Seemed she'd finally decided, despite whatever personal feelings she had about him for whatever reasons, justified or not, that getting out of this place first was more important, and she was too weak to manage it on her own.
She was a bit of a handful, even being cooperative, staggering as her knees shook uncertainly under her; Al slid a steadying arm around her waist and they leaned into each other, slowly making their way to the door and then to the fresh air of an abandoned street which Al did not recognize. It appeared that they were on the decrepit outskirts of a major city, but he didn't know which city or how he'd gotten there. Fear bloomed again in the pit of his stomach at the realization; he'd come a long way from the rural countryside, and he didn't know how or when...and Ed was...
Al half-lowered, half-dropped the strange girl on the sidewalk, panting out a brief apology, and then whirled around, determined to head back into the building. Why wasn't Edward here? What had happened? There had been some transmutation, and though he couldn't quantify the feeling, he knew that something had gone wrong and he had to save Brother...!
A cold hand clamped down on his wrist and yanked him back, and Al's free arm pinwheeled rapidly as he struggled to maintain his balance. He snapped around to stare at the stranger.
"What are you doing? Brother... My brother's still in there! I have to..."
The girl snorted, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. "Stupid...just like your precious shrimp." She climbed slowly to her feet, and Al noticed then—rather belatedly—that her lean body lacked the usual feminine curves at bust and hip; it was a boy, then, albeit a particularly pretty one—prettier than many of the girls he'd known growing up, actually—and he flushed deeply, far too aware of his own inexplicable nakedness.
"He's not in there," the stranger said distinctly, enunciating as though talking to someone a little slow or touched in the head. "He's gone. The Gate took him, and you'll never see him again. Fuck, you're a dimwit... You saw it all; I know you did, because I could hear your stupid, babyish squalling—Brother! Brooother! Noooo!" The mockery was coarse, accompanied by a disgusted eye-roll. "Not that it did you any good."
But Al's world had already stopped in its orbit and began its slow fall through freezing space; if there was no sun, the gravity holding everything in place also ceased to exist, and it was cold...so damned cold...
"Nnnn..." His head swayed back and forth in denial, eyes wide and dilated as though he'd taken a moral blow. It wasn't true... It couldn't be true! Images flashed through his mind, jumbled together like the bones from a mass grave as some of the interior barricades came tumbling down with a crash; images that battered and caressed his soul in turns—the affection of an abusive lover. "No. No!"
The Gate... The Gate... The dark things that linger in deep darkness... They take they take they take—equivalent trade but never fair there was not fairness here no bargaining—they took... they took... brother was screaming screaming fighting it was fighting those hands that wrapped around him heels dragging but it wasn't enough and he didn't want to... he was calling for...
The strength ran out of Al's legs and he dropped painfully onto the ground, and he barely felt the burst of pain from his knees' hard contact with the concrete. His free hand touched his chest, and he wondered if he'd feel the blood running fresh from his breast—surely he'd taken some physical injury to correspond with this emotional one—but all he felt was the irregular, faint tempo of his heart, somehow still beating despite being broken.
"It's not true..." he whispered. His vision wavered, and suddenly the sidewalk was marked with the dark drops of his tears. "Say it's not..."
He didn't see the way that Envy was looking at him, in one breath licking up his suffering as though it was sweeter than a draught of warm honeyed milk and more satisfying than a twelve-course buffet, and in the next looking absolutely furious, violet eyes wide and teeth bared in an insane grimace, and when he gave Al's wrist another yank to pull him close...very close, too close, kissing distance close, Al still didn't see him for a moment—the world was dark, grungy toned in melting black and sepia, and there was only one thing he wanted to see...wanted and couldn't—and then he was able to piece together the abstract patches of shadow and light enough to focus on Envy's face and recognize the primary emotion scrawled across it.
"It is true," the Sin hissed, twisting the blade in deeper. "That little bastard got less than what he deserved, though—he didn't pay enough for his violations against the natural order, and he sure as hell didn't suffer enough for what he's done to me."
"Guess I'm going to have to kill you now, instead."