When the order was given, she lifted her hand, extending her arm, and gloved fingers gently twisted her wrist so that her forearm was bared.
Decussating knots of veins pushed up against the thin skin, highly visible beneath the laboratory lights, and when the needle was driven in, bruises ran like perse shadows up to the crease on the opposite side of the elbow, settling in as soon as the pale fluid was administered.
The liquid may have been acidic; the girl had no way of knowing what it was, and no one ever responded to her questions, but whatever chemicals existed within the substance, it burned.
Doctor Tringham reached forward, gently holding her trembling arm as he gave her another shot, and the waif sucked her breath in and watched the wall, hoping to see something upon it—perhaps a spider weaving a web—but there was nothing, as the laboratory had been sanitized and cleaned thoroughly not long before. The room was white and silent, sterile and barely warm at all, and if she closed her eyes and listened just so, then she thought she might hear the voices once more.
She blinked, coughing as her system fought against whatever the IV needles were filling her body with. Lavender eyes were wet, rinsed with budding tears that her illness had created, and she thought she was dying, but all the doctors insisted otherwise. They were the experts, after all.
"There we go," said the sad-eyed man, and as she watched, he patted her arm with a little ball of cotton, cleansing the stray droplets of blood and the spilled fluid from the needle.
The girl looked at him, looked at his gloomy eyes and his mess of flaxen hair, looked at the age that had begun to show upon his face, and she wondered—as she had before—why, when he smiled at her, he always seemed so shaky and nervous. Afraid, even.
But at least there was softness beneath the fear, and the eyes apologized to her for her pain, even when the lips did not. He was better than some of the doctors, those who treated her as an object.
She liked that about him.
"It's not healing as fast..." she observed, staring bemusedly at the sore place left behind by the injection. She wanted to shake her arm, to stir her blood and make the redness vanish like it usually did, but Doctor Tringham was still holding her, and she was trained enough now to know that this meant she was not to fight back. Still, the reddish pink blossom on her arm caused her to stare with a vague, surreal fixation. Absently, she lifted her other hand and reached forward to tap the little wound, but the doctor closed his other hand upon hers.
"It's not supposed to, poppet," said the alchemist, gently, and he gave her another of his tense, mournful smiles. His lips never parted when he smiled, the girl noticed; his face stretched, and his mouth became a line, a tight crease that curved upwards like a malformed u.
"It's not healing instantaneously, and that's exactly the way things are supposed to be." He leaned forward and brushed her long golden hair away from her brow, and for a moment, she thought he might press a kiss to her forehead. She did not move. "We'll make a human out of you yet, dear child."
She wondered, sometimes, what her original name had been.
They claimed that she had been from Xing, so she supposed it must have been something foreign sounding. She had caught a few glimpses of herself in the glass windows lining the corridors, and rarely did she think she looked Xingian, though again, she wasn't quite sure how she knew that. Her amnesia covered most memories, but a few remained; they were obscure things, puzzle pieces with no puzzle to stick them to, pictures without substance, and sometimes she wasn't sure if they were really memories or simply glimpses from dreams. Perhaps they were simply images in books. Without knowing the source of the visions, the memories themselves were really quite useless.
Whenever the kindly man left, she remembered a little more.
The kindly man was tall, with a beard, and long golden hair of a darker shade than her own, and when he visited, he would speak with her for hours. He brought her presents, trinkets for her hair, and bracelets, and once, he even brought her a necklace.
She had touched the jewel in the centre, rubbing her fingers along the cold surface, and idly, she had asked if it had any connection to Xing, or her people, or even her parents. The kindly man, "Hohenheim", had only smiled and ruffled her hair, and then he had insisted that she lie down for the therapy he wished to give her. She had never understood what exactly the therapy was, except that it consisted of lying in an array and allowing the man to work his alchemy upon her.
If there was one thing she could apply the word hate to, it was the array, and the alchemy that came with it. The sight of the various arcs and triangles looking up at her from within the wide circle caused a chill to enter her blood, and though she could not explain why, she hardly thought it mattered.
In fact, when she neared the array, she did not think at all.
She grew agitated, panting harshly, twisting away, screaming when she was held down, clawing, and once, she had managed to slice open one of the arms pinning her. Afterwards, she would remember that instant many times over, visualizing the dark blood and the horrified look upon the face of the man, and remembering how she had looked on, musing about how fascinating that expression was, and how delightful. Watching blood gush upon the floor made her feel alive and healthy again, and she had smiled. Truly. Wholly. Smiled.
"That's called adrenaline, Justine," Hohenheim had explained after the victim had been bandaged and treated and after the mess had been cleaned off of the floor.
He adjusted his glasses and touched the girl, looking her over, inspecting the slim limbs which had so casually produced something quite bizarre. He had wanted her to explain the sensations leading up to her brief change in composition, but she wasn't sure what to say. She had liked it, but she didn't think he wanted to hear that.
Justine. Hohenheim was the only one who called her that, but he told her it hadn't been her original name, not her real name, or her human name, at that.
The other scientists, doctors, and alchemists called her assorted pet names, and some didn't call her anything at all. Those were the ones who made her feel like a table, or maybe a chair, or some tool to be used. She had no more interest in them than they had in her, but at least they did not make her feel tired like nice old Hohenheim did.
He took her around, set her down in a chair in the middle of an otherwise empty room, and then he made a habit of sitting across from her and speaking. Whenever they conversed, she felt as though he pulled things from her; he talked and talked, and he dragged responses from her lips.
She was his pet project; she knew this, and he treated her with filial affection as he spoke so nicely and tugged her, nudging and prodding until she could form many answers for his many questions, and soon she was able to recite whatever he wanted to hear. He continued with his gentle insistence; he was never aggressive, but he was demanding. He wanted to hear her stories, the memories she had thus far accumulated, and she obliged like clockwork, but that must not have been enough.
He touched her, coaxed her, and all the while, she wondered what it was that she was supposed to do. Hohenheim seemed quietly displeased with her reactions or lack thereof, but she had no way of knowing how best to remedy this.
"You're a homunculus," one of the others had explained, curtly. "And we're trying to make you into a human. It's pretty simple, really. We've never been this close to making progress with a homunculus before, so Hohenheim is excited. Just give him what he wants. He wants to see some humanity from you, so show him your emotions."
"We're going to make a breakthrough with this one," she had heard one of the doctors declare while in her presence, but she didn't really have anything to say to that.
In all honesty, she wasn't actually sure what she wanted with regards to her humanity or lack thereof; she guessed that if Hohenheim was happy, then she would be happy, since he had always been kind to her. She guessed. She didn't wholly remember a time before him, before this laboratory, before the scientists and the needles, but there must have been something more, right?
Whenever Hohenheim used his alchemy, she remembered more, yet somehow, she felt further away from herself...more outside of her body.
She hated the array, the alchemy, the memories which entered her mind like buzzing little invaders, and something inside her insisted that she should revolt...but she didn't know why. There was no reason to oppose these people, was there? They had been kind to her...kind. Humanity was a good thing. It must have been. Hohenheim always said it was, and friendly Mr. Tringham reiterated his sentiments, and they wouldn't lie to her, would they? They were so nice.
And they told her this.
And her memories reminded her that it was true.
And she could pull her lips back when she was instructed to do so, and then what did she have? A smile.
A smile. A flash of teeth.
She could smile. She could pull her lips back and stand there, staring at her reflection in the glass, blank icy blue eyes to blank icy blue eyes, and she could hold that expression until the muscles beside her lips started to hurt.
She tried to imitate them, the humans. And it never felt good. It only felt like she was stretching too much. Straining. Reaching. She wasn't sure what she was reaching for, but it had to be something. Something. And whenever she failed at making her eyes bright like the humans' eyes, Hohenheim sighed and he sounded so sad, but he ran his fingers through her bright red hair anyway. He touched. He soothed. He assured her that everything would be all right, and the more he said it, the more she told herself it was true.
It was true.
It was true.
It had to be true.
It had to be...
("...and someday, you'll laugh truly, with real mirth...nothing fake...and you'll be thankful to all of us...because you can love...just keep holding out; just be strong...you're the first step...")
The first step to freeing all the homunculi. Saving them. The first step toward Hohenheim having what he wanted. His own child...his real child...but she wasn't being used. It couldn't be that she was getting used...because Hohenheim was nice, and the others were mostly nice...because they said so and they told her what to think, and they were the adults, and a person could only listen to the adults.
Adults didn't lie, and if they hurt you, it was only to help you.
When she smiled at her work, upon having smashed the glass that mocked her, she looked at all the pretty little broken pieces...all the shards splashed with red...splashed with red...pretty pretty...and it was a real smile that she could make. Hohenheim had not pulled it from her with all his tiresome words and urgings.
Just glass on the floor. Jagged little pieces.
Pocket full of posies...all red on clear...
Her hand was bleeding. Blood. Blood. Blossoming. Dripping everywhere. Drop, drop, drop...
A lot of noise, for an otherwise soundless room.
It didn't matter that she was hurt, aching, because her body was healing.
The nice adults would scold her, she knew, but it was just a little outburst. She had them often enough, more than ever nowadays. She would have wondered why, but she didn't like to wonder too much. Wondering was for the adults to do. She only...did. Actions, and words, and glass strewn across the floor in a pile of sharp protrusions. Her world.
But it would be good in time, the adults had assured. And she believed them. She could do nothing but believe them.
She walked away from the mess, leaving it behind in favour of going to sit in the chair. Bloody, healing hands clasped together in her lap, staining her clean white clothes, and the broken glass twinkled at her with visions of so many different faces, each laughing, laughing, laughing...encouraging, encouraging, encouraging...
And she looked down, hair dark over one eye, and swore to the glass that she would learn to find her voice for laughing, just as she had found her teeth for smiling...and when they sang together, the bloody shards and she, what a wonderfully rich chorus of chortling it would make.
She could hardly wait.
The next morning, her hair was black.
She pulled a lock of it before her face, regarding the darkness with a quizzical stare. Golden. Red. Black. It was changing more and more these days, as were her eyes, which had recently become a shade of gold not so unlike Hohenheim's.
Gold. Yellow. Like treacle. Or like a serpent's eyes.
She hated monsters; at least, she was pretty sure she did. The nights were dark, shadowed into blackness, and she lay in her bed—in her cell near the laboratory—eyes lifted toward the ceiling.
Vague, unfocused pictures drifted by in her head; her thumbs wrestled with one another as she shifted, agitated, listening to the voices that she could sometimes hear outside of her room. They were talking about her, probably. Probably.
Maybe tomorrow would be the day—the big breakthrough. Maybe she would surprise everyone with a true, irrefutable sign of humanity. That would make them proud, wouldn't it? Mr. Tringham and Mr. Hohenheim and everyone else...they would like that.
She thought about all the possibilities for the future as she lay in bed, awake, blinking dimly at the ceiling; memories tossed about in her head, but unlike the suspensions that the alchemists worked with, the girl's memories never seemed to want to settle. The scientists had allowed her to entertain herself with the more innocuous objects and chemical mixtures in the facility, and when she had been alone with her container of water and sand, she had shaken it again and again and watched the little specks come to rest on the jar's transparent bottom.
If only memories were like that. Maybe the others had memories like that, but hers were different.
Her mind was an emulsion—oil and water; nothing mixed, and no two things felt right together. These men were going through such difficulties to fill her head with memories, but she didn't think that the memories felt right at all; they were like invaders, each forced upon her—visions of emotions that she didn't quite understand, as well as scenes stripped curiously bare of any emotion at all.
She retained them, mostly, and she could recite them later, if asked to, but they meant nothing to her. They hooked to her brain and hung there, swaying like bodies in nooses; every one was like a flat image from one of her books, not anything which she cherished, and sometimes the memories just made her angry and she wanted to shake her head and swipe her hands through her hair and get rid of everything—all the conditioning and all the pictures which had been driven into her with the understated brutality of a soft-spoken rapist who used sedatives and needles as opposed to pushing in outright.
Nothing was real. Nothing was true. Maybe the memories had just been composed by alchemy. That was most likely the case, even though no one had specifically said so.
They had hinted that the memories were genuine, her memories, but why didn't they feel like her memories? Why did they feel foreign and alien?
Was it just because she was a homunculus out of touch with her human life?
Or could it be that those nice adults who had filled her with needles and fluids might also not be above using her as an experiment and violating her mind with things which she didn't want, and which had never belonged to her in the first place?
They kept telling her to be strong, to wait until the gaps had finally been filled in, at which point she would surely appreciate everything that had been done for her, at which point she would be capable of appreciating anything, anything at all...but more and more each day, she was having difficulty with her haunted psyche.
She didn't know how she knew the word, but she did know it.
This was rape.
But all the same, she had no recourse. She could fight back, perhaps, but Hohenheim had trained her so well that she found it unfortunate whenever he became unhappy with her; he had wanted her to obey him, and to that end, his repetitive words and actions had managed to have an effect upon her.
She was used to viewing Hohenheim's displeasure as a horrible thing, primarily because he had quietly assured her that it was not good, and having heard this so many times, she had come to believe it with the blind faith that Ishbalans upheld when endorsing belief in their deity.
She liked Hohenheim, even if he did fill her with memories and drain her of energy. She liked him because he was a well-meaning man; he said so, and she had no one's opinion to trust but his own. His voice was honey, promising a land without sorrows, and he spoke sometimes of his own children—the families he had lost. The girl listened intently, wondering what it would be like to have a family. Silently, she cursed and hated the children that he spoke of—the children who had his true love, while she was afforded nothing more than a grim tattoo of affection. She had heard the other alchemists talking; she knew the truth.
She knew that Hohenheim was devoted to researching the subject of transforming a homunculus to a human for one specific reason: his child.
His genuine child. His son whom he had lost. His little boy whom he would never, ever speak of.
When he patted her head with his large, tender hands, she knew he was contemplating his children, and the child he had made into a monster not so unlike herself, and she hated the very thought of those other families. She wasn't sure if she could say she loved Hohenheim...only humans loved...but the tall golden man was all that she had.
He always told her that she would be able to love, someday.
He always told her that she would be able to live...someday.
But when he spoke to her, she wondered whether he was really looking at her at all.
She wondered if instead of her opal, shifting eyes, he was actually seeing eyes not so unlike his own.
Eyes...eyes on a boy...a son. His son. The blood of his heart from so long ago—the beautiful heir for whom Hohenheim had toiled for untold hours, sweating and bleeding and staying up night after night; he had researched and worked delicately...all to save one little boy...a little boy who may have even died a man...and now a monster. And now a monster...no different from herself.
She wanted to hate the boy she had never known, and sometimes, she even wanted to hate Hohenheim, but the memories had made her budding humanity (for surely, that was what it must have been) swell to such an extent that frosted insouciance murdered scorching hatred whenever the latter attempted to take hold of her heart.
The prospect of feeling love made her uneasy, because she knew that if she loved anyone, it would be Hohenheim. But she couldn't love him; she couldn't want him to stay with her, to be her caretaker, because he had other families and other children whom he truly cared for...and she was nothing more than a path to him. A tool. A ticket. A means to an end.
Even though he spoke so kindly...even though his smiles and his voice were full of warmth... I don't understand, she thought, lying awake in her bed, hair spilling over the pillows in a furious array of colours.
I don't understand you. If I could love, then I could hurt. If I had expectations, then they could be disappointed. You want to free me, to save me. But you don't really want that. I am a homunculus named Justine, made from an orphan girl from Xing...and you're just a scientist working on a project.
In her dreams, she put aside all her conditioning.
In her dreams, she was wild and feral.
Her dreams felt more real than the patchwork quilt reality around her; there was certainly emotion within them—true emotion! She was no longer the child whose mind had gone through one too many cycles in the washing machine and lost its colour along the way; quite the opposite. She felt, and she laughed, and she hated...but only in her dreams. She was strong. Strong...strong...and no one could harm her...but then she would awaken and once again be a lost child beneath the flimsy covers, and she would grasp at her dreams—running, running, calling to her dream self, begging for her dream self to give her power...but her animus only looked at her with a face like she had never seen, and smiled cruelly, and called her weak.
Weak. Weak! And she was.
Weak, with blood gushing from the sores her body had taken while running.
Weak, with wide colourless eyes and a gaping mouth.
Weak, injected with human frailty, weighed down with human memories; in her latest dream—a nightmare—she was herself...the self she knew...but up a cliff, she saw the better version: her ne plus ultra, crouching, a hand on one knee, grinning.
Me, she knew, but it was and it wasn't, and she ran so hard that the ground split her thin shoes and rocks eroded her feet, grinding her toes into raw, bloody stumps. She proceeded anyway, trusting the healing power that the alchemists hadn't quite stolen from her yet. When she looked down, she saw shackles on her feet, and she gasped at the sight, but when her eyes lifted, she noticed that her hands were bound. Bound. Imprisoned. No. No. No! This wasn't right! They were trying to free her! They promised!
"You make me sick," said her dream self who was her real self. "You know that?"
"Who are you?"
It laughed. "You've forgotten me. You've forgotten us. Idiot. You're lucky I'm not around, or I'd beat your ass. You need it right now."
She shook her head. "I haven't forgotten. I've remembered—"
"Bullshit. What do you remember, anyway? That you were some street urchin who got her ass killed and got turned into a homunculus? Really now? And who made you? What alchemist? Think about this for a moment, kiddo: If you're an orphan, and an abandoned one at that, then who made you? Doesn't make much sense, does it? You think it's customary in Xing for philanthropic alchemists to just go around plucking dead kids off the streets and turning them into homunculi?" The other shook its head. "Heh. Get real."
Her eyes went wide. "But that's...not possible. I remember...I remember that—"
"You remember what they want you to remember. They're alchemists, y'know?" The dream self slapped one thigh, then moved forward, tongue sliding over pallid lips. "They're alchemists, and you're an experiment. If you can be turned into a human, then all homunculi can be turned into humans. You don't matter beyond that."
"...You're talking crazy."
"Nope. You're the crazy one, and the stupid one. Pretty pathetic, really. You could be strong. You could be powerful." A laugh. "Like me. We're the same, if you could just shuck off those lies and find me again. Come here."
The girl hesitated, but ultimately, she did as she was asked. Her other—the self that was not her—linked their hands together, lacing fingers, and all at once, they were pulled together: id and ego firmly pressing against one another. "Justine" could not help the comfort which overcame her when she felt the strange embrace of this being...this stranger who felt so truly close to her in a way that none of the humans had managed to match. Not warm. That touch could never be called warm; even in the dream, it felt icy. But it was good; so good and sincere. She wished she would never have to break from it.
"Tell me the truth," she whispered. "Who am I?"
"Me, of course!"
"But who are you?" she persisted, unable to stifle her curiosity.
"That's something you have to figure out for yourself. I'm here. I never went away, and I gave you all the clues you needed. It's all right before you, if you'd just get wise and figure it out. Think, damn it! Stop sitting around like a pretty little mannequin and use your fucking head! So your memories are like an emulsion, right? All right. So here's some basic alchemy for you: when you've got two immiscible things, oil in water and the like, all you have to do is get rid of the oil. Hah...actually, that's not even full-fledged alchemy, is it? Simple chemistry."
"Oil...you mean the memories I don't want..."
"But it's not that easy. They make me take those injections...I don't have a choice."
"Oh, but you do. Just fight back. You've done it before, right? And it felt good, didn't it?" Another lick of the lips. "Really good, right? Don't lie. I won't believe you like the humans do. You're a homunculus. You've got the tattoo. They've stuffed you with cheap lies, but if you look closely, you'll see through everything, and your body is fighting those injections. Why the hell do you think you're getting so sick? Your insides are fighting this takeover like it's a disease...which is a pretty accurate way of putting it. You've got strength left. Plenty of strength. Kill the bastards."
She considered that. In her dreams, her other had killed them many times over; the animus from her dreams had cleanly sliced every stern-faced scientist until ribbons of blood variegated the surreal landscapes her mind had conjured.
And the figment from the dream claimed to be her, so what if that was a valid contention? Monster. Monster. Inner monster, or inner truth.
The influx of memories she had been spoonfed by the alchemists had pacified her homunculus tendencies to the point where she felt no hatred toward the men themselves, and the way they acted so hopeful about the future had been somewhat contagious: they believed so fully in their fantasies of a utopia that it was impossible for the subject of their attention not to feel some spark of excitement flickering over her dead nerve endings.
If they thought so highly of her, her instinctive response was a desire to live up to whatever role their minds had assigned.
Questionable as the memories were, she sometimes really did want to be a good girl...someone worthy of being praised and loved; human or homunculus, it was only natural to want to fit in, to meet the common standard...but then she saw herself—her true self, beautiful rogue, so deliciously dark—and she realized just how much better it felt to be honest with herself, to hold her less "dignified" tendencies and cherish who she was.
She had been an actor playing a part; a character forced into a "role"; when she dreamed, when she saw the truth, then she understood why she could not laugh, and why her smiles were often so weak and wobbly. As long as she catered to her "audience" and sacrified her real persona, then she could never be happy...never. It didn't matter what they said about the hypothetical future, about how gaining humanity would change everything.
None of that mattered, not even if it held any truth. The only thing which mattered was ...the moment. Now. The dream. The dream self whose hand she reached for with ephemeral fingers.
It held her, but roughly, coldly, and there was so much flippancy within everything it did, but she needed that now. She had been treated too delicately; she needed beatings, bruises, blood. She needed to excrete the implanted memories and flood her mind with her own identity, one forged from alchemy only in the sense that she was a homunculus made from the products of an exchange. She wrapped her arms around her facsimile, the her who was not her, and even though she was promptly shoved away with a callous mutter, she felt empowered by the strike, by the yin-yang meeting of light and darkness.
Just get rid of the oil...
When she awoke, her eyes did not shoot open. Rather, her lids separated slowly, and lazily, contentedly, she gazed up at the ceiling. Wings. Her wings had finally sprouted. They were not true wings; their union of feathers was composed of confidence and a hunger for self-discovery.
They would never rape her again.
A smile tugged her face as she watched her id dissipate in the morning shadows, fading from her waking mind in a series of spectral slivers—not so unlike a vision of spreading smoke.
The dream was over, and she was weak again, but she knew that something had finally altered. Her inner defenses had raised to protect the spirit they encased; her metaphorical wings had split forth from her shoulder blades, and even if she was not an untame and free creature again just yet, she at least recognized that she could be. The potential was still planted firmly within her, and no amount of topsoil could hide the seeds that longed to sprout through her surface.
She had her answer. She understood. Pieces were still missing, but now she had estimated the size of the puzzle sections within which they fit.
Now, it was only a matter of time.
It was a shame, she thought, that she was going to disappoint Hohenheim and the others.
It was also a shame that she lacked the capacity to feel bad about what she was going to do.
Alger Kass was smoking a cigarette when he came to visit "Justine", and the odor made her nose prickle.
Sharp. Heavy. Thick and choking. The girl scratched at her arms in mild agitation, ripping red lines into her complexion. Heavy. Too heavy. She didn't like smoke. She didn't like when bits of burnt darkness filled the air and her lungs. But she supposed it didn't matter, since she'd already decided to make her way toward freedom on this day. Therefore, when hard eyes the colour of pine stared at her, she looked away nonchalantly.
A spider made its way up the wall. The girl bit back a smile.
"You're coming with me," said Kass at once, cutting the silence.
The project turned her eyes, weary and wary, and words tried to wrestle their way from her lips. She gummed thoughtful quietness, and Kass chuckled and gave a cough of his own. Shadows stirred on the walls, painting his trembling hand in dark grey. Pretty pretty, thought the girl. Pretty shadows. Soon, she would see the sun which cast a thousand more dark dancers into the world.
"Are you listening?" He coughed again, but this time it was forced and impatient—an attention-gaining strategy. "Stop that. Look at me. No, not there. Look at me. Do I need to hold your jaw and turn your head myself?" He blew out another winding cloud, suffocating all air in the vicinity.
"What? What did you say?" He tapped the cigarette, dropping ash to the white floor. "I don't have time for your games today. I've made a decision. That's all you need to know."
So have I, she thought, giggling, and he gave her a strange look.
The man was one of the scientists who treated her as though she belonged in the utensil category—specifically, he had no name for her but "you". He was tall, willowy, his hair a rat's nest of dark ringlets, and his green eyes were dark, but somehow still too washed...too worn. Creases nudged the skin beneath them; fat lips sucked the cigarette, and hands trembled, though only barely. Like vibrations, the girl had always thought. Like the delicate instruments in the laboratory, he always shook a little. Always.
Maybe he was also sick. Maybe he was scared. Or maybe it was something else that made his hands unsteady. The child never asked; it was not her place.
He's trying to kidnap you, idiot, a voice inside her said, but she found that—to her own surprise—she didn't really mind. Any attempt to remove her from the laboratory would only aid her escape plans. She did wonder why exactly he was planning to run off with her, but there was no point in asking. He wouldn't answer her, would he? He's never answered any of my questions before, so...no.
Perhaps he wanted to rape her in a more literal and physical way than she had ever been raped before.
Bad idea, if so.
He threw the still smouldering cigarette to the ground, then crushed it with his foot. The girl just watched, folding her arms at her chest and blinking calmly. The man seemed agitated. Unfortunate, really, but it wasn't her problem. Fool if he thought he was anything more than one ambitious scientist out of many. The number of scientists she had any patience for had whittled down to one—Hohenheim.
But...in her dreams...she had killed him, too.
Kass grabbed one of her arms hard enough to leave a bruise and yanked her forward. Her feet stumbled over the tiled floor, twisting as her covered toes slammed into the ground at an awkward sideways angle. Hard shoes—already so awkwardly box-like as to pinch her toes—cut into her feet, and she felt something warm flood the grooves where her most miniature toes connected to their neighbors.
"You're not going to get stubborn on me; do you understand that, you inscrutable little whelp?" He backhanded her fiercely, and she would've fallen to the ground had it not been for his hand clamping down upon her arm, short nails drawing blood to the surface of her now honey-coloured skin. "The old man might let you get away with behaving like that, but I won't abide insolence." Verdant eyes seethed. "You're very nearly a human now. Act like it, or else you'll be punished in a most appropriately human manner."
He had never struck her before. He had never even raised his voice to her before; actually, he had barely even seemed to really look at her before. So, she mused, this is what being human means. Good to know.
Humanity: betrayal, pain, and blood. Betrayal from a man she had scarcely known, pain within her swelling face, and blood in her shoes from where her aching feet were releasing the contents of her broken toes.
What a stupid child she had been. What a stupid, naive child...and she shouldn't have been so, should she have? She did know better, but she had let them damage her cynicism. How it had happened was still a mystery, but they had captured her, and one way or another, they had changed everything about her. But she knew better, and she knew that she knew...and now...it really was over.
Kass scowled at her, looking displeased by her silence and the empty look in her eyes. Given that her wounds weren't healing as quickly now, a scream of pain had probably been expected rather than complete nonchalance, and his reaction to the latter told the girl his real reason for kidnapping her.
He said nothing more. He pulled, and she followed on feet marred by broken toes, tripping along as her unsteady body succumbed to the mercy of gravity's power and this man's strength.
Kass opened the door to the laboratory and tugged her towards it, then shoved her into the hallway and in front of himself. When confusion welled up inside of her, the girl turned to see him glaring at her with those dark eyes. Needles, she realized. Eyes like pine needles. Thousands of pine needles.
"Don't move," he instructed. He proceeded to fish into his pockets for something, and the girl heard the jingling of keys. "Don't move, and don't you dare say anything. You'll thank me for this once you're free." He swiped his forearm over his mouth, then lowered it to reveal a shadow-licked grin. "You'll thank me, and the world will thank me for teaching them how to make humans out of homunculi. It will go down as the greatest scientific achievement of our age. Doesn't that make you happy?"
She said nothing.
"I mean, it should make anyone happy to be the cornerstone of a new era in alchemy. We'll go down in the history books, you and I. Anyone would be honoured by that, but you should be especially so, being as much of a freak as you are." He laughed quietly, breathlessly. "That is to say, were it not for your unique origin, you'd be nothing but a pariah. You're too bizarre and far too anti-social, and society as a whole does not look kindly upon people such as yourself. But I'll fix that, of course."
She maintained her silence, waiting patiently for her feet to fully heal.
"I'll train you anew and tailor your—personality—if it could be called that, in its current state—to suit mainstream society. You'll be my adopted daughter. With the money and the fame I'll gain from my discoveries, I'll buy you anything you wish, and you'll be a quiet, happy girl."
He removed his hand from his pocket, displaying a set of keys. "Alternatively, you could be obstinate and refuse to conform...in which case I'll simply make you a ward of the State. But I would rather it not come to that, as my reputation would be furthered by being philanthropic enough to take you in as though you were my own flesh and blood. I'll be a very much 'give to the less fortunate' sort of man."
He lowered his voice. "At any rate, I don't suppose you'd be foolish enough to oppose me now, would you? Don't think to scream. I know you can still heal much faster than a normal person, so I've no qualms about snapping your bones. Cooperate and we shall get on nicely together..."
She nodded. Did it really matter how she got out as long as she got out?
"There. That's a good girl. Be quick now."
Keys in hand, he pushed her forward, and she let herself be guided throughout the dark hallways. The girl did find herself wondering how exactly he intended to complete the process of turning her human, but she guessed it didn't matter. She also found herself wondering how he thought to bypass security and escape, but again, it probably didn't matter. Surely he had a plan, and he was an alchemist, after all.
They had just rounded their third corner when "Justine"'s eyes went wide as saucers.
Behind her, Alger Kass sucked his breath in sharply.
"So," he started, grimly. "you did get here. And quickly, too. I'm impressed. Maybe your reputation is not such an exaggeration after all."
There, in the middle of the hallway, stood Hohenheim of Light.
"It's not," assured the man, calmly, and his voice was honey thick and as sweetly warm as his complexion. He reached up and pushed his glasses back, easing their mid-section up the bridge of his nose. Tall, quiet but firm, just as the girl had always known him. Despite his size, he had never been frightening.
Golden man... She pressed her lips together, wishing she had gained the strength to push words out from between her teeth. Since she lacked such power and grace, she could only stare blankly, pausing once to push her hair back and tuck its stray tufts away behind her ears.
I'm sorry, she thought. I'm sorry...and I'm sorry that I can't really be more sorry...
"It's over, Kass. Let her go."
The girl did not turn. Behind her, her captor cleared his throat. "Over? I think not. I left you a—"
"If you're going to say something about the bombs, don't waste your breath. I know. We know." Hohenheim gestured smoothly, waving his hand dismissively. He tilted his head, and dark blond hair fell when he nodded. "We suspected that you might try something like this. All the signs were there. We simply acted pre-emptively and readied ourselves, so when your traps turned up, disabling them was no difficult task. As I've said...it's over. Give the girl to me."
The girl turned slightly, observing how Kass paled at the words. She couldn't help but wonder why sometimes smart men were so stupid.
"I..." He faltered.
"I'll kill her," he said, suddenly, switching from frightened to bold and defiant in the space of a nanosecond. "I'll kill her, or better, I'll expose you for what you've done. Human alchemy. Forbidden alchemy. What do you suppose the Military will think of that? You can't hide it, you know. If you're not successful with her, then everyone will hate you for having tried."
"I know," Hohenheim said solemnly. He looked down, and his eyes had a heavy, sad appearance. Justine watched him, one small fist curled into a ball, one arm dangling at her side. Something stirred within her, though she didn't know what it was. A pang of ice shot through her veins.
She opened her mouth to speak, to give words devoted to some meaning, but her throat and mind failed to grasp her intended depth, and her lips could only issue a hollow wheeze. Don't look sad. I know I'm going to kill you, or was, but please just...don't look sad. Not like that. Not like that.
"It's over. It's all over. I was not lying before. You've lost, and I've..." Hohenheim seemed to fumble for the words. He looked so tired—as tired as he had ever made the girl feel. "Suffice it to say that all you need to do is return the child to me. I won't have you arrested and taken away, though I'm well within my rights to do so. I'd rather we...I'd rather we all pretend that this never happened."
Me. I...never happened?
"No!" countered Kass, horror obvious within his tone. "No! You...you can't mean that! After all the work you've put into her, you're just...going to...give her up? And waste all our time, our valuable research? We're close, so close! We're a mere inch away from the greatest alchemical breakthrough our era has ever known! A homunculus to a human—true human transmutation! You fool! You stupid fool! How could you abandon something so precious?"
"Something", not "someone".
Hohenheim nodded. "A fool I may be, but not for the reason you believe. I am an idealistic fool for making the same mistake twice. I am a fool for trusting the power and the virtue of humanity, not to mention my own power and virtue. What fools we are, we seekers of truth who profane the world with lies. What fools we are for attempting to create a truth by piling a thousand falsehoods together and binding them with a ribbon of deceit."
"I won't accept that! She's nearly human! A stone's throw away from humanity!" He pointed, as though making an accusation rather than a claim of victory. "She's nearly human, and she's mine! If you don't want her, then give her to me. If you're too much of a cunt to see this project through, then give the child to me and I'll take the glory that you've so aptly squandered."
Hohenheim looked up, raising an eyebrow. "You think she's nearly human? Would you speak of a human as a piece of property, then? No, Kass, she's not human. She may no longer be a full homunculus, but neither is she a human. Humans have separated dogs into various breeds, but they remain dogs. This child is akin to a dog whom man has captured and broken its legs in an attempt to make it a serpent. She is crippled and hurting, and we'd do best to let her go and let her be free of false titles and unfair expectations."
Kass said nothing, and Hohenheim pulled a piece of chalk from his coat pocket.
"I'm going to draw an array instead of clapping. That should give you a moment to consider what you're doing. I can tell from the look on your face that you're having your own doubts about our success and our righteousness in having done what we have. Nurture those doubts. You're not a purely wicked man...simply a blind one, in many ways. Be wise."
So saying, he knelt down and began to draw the array.
There followed a clicking sound, and when the child turned, she saw that the man beside her had drawn a gun. His fingers trembled as he held the metallic weapon, and...
...and tears had welled in his eyes.
The first set of droplets rolled down Kass's cheeks as Hohenheim crafted his circle, and the golden man never looked up, not even when the girl choked on a startled scream and raised her hand—begging, begging, begging for an end to all of this, and just as the gun was fired with a deafening crack of metal rending the air, the scream broke free of the confines of its owner's vocal chords.
All noises came together, crushing the minor scratching sound of chalk on stone.
Blood covered the ground.
"I'm sorry, you know," Nash Tringham said to Hohenheim Elric, and he was...though not for any one thing in particular.
He gave a tired sigh and scratched the back of his head, wishing he could conjure some more poignant words to coat the elder man's grief. It was unfortunate...unfortunate for all of them, but Hohenheim's suffering was the most profound and the most silent...and the younger man simply felt so exhausted and inept. Grey-blue eyes scanned the ground...the white floors washed warm and red.
The cleaning crew still hadn't mopped everything away yet, and the sight of the crimson-splattered hall made Tringham feel anxiety and a very primitive sort of discomfort. He was an alchemist, a man who was more than capable of dealing with the sight of carnage...but these had been a long few months. If nothing else, the cramped environment was making him stir crazy.
Everything...for nothing. Heh, that's some alchemy all right. As if the product input was equal to its output... Hardly so. We never really had a chance, did we? ...But doubtless that knowledge doesn't make this any easier on Hohenheim. It certainly doesn't make it any easier on me, and his hopes for this project were so much more...
It was a shame to think that one greedy man had ruined months of diligent time and effort, and none of the scientists were handling the news well. They were all quiet, melancholy...but not melancholy for her sake. They mourned their hopes, their dreams, their unachieved fame. Only Hohenheim mourned the human who was never to be. Tringham wished he could join the man in lamenting this personal loss, but it wasn't his loss to lament. He had other skeletons in the closet and other causes for bottles of liquor to be drained. They were men of clandestine pain, and in that they could commiserate.
"We never had a chance," Hohenheim murmured, fingertips threading through the child's silky auric hair. Golden...she had changed it golden again...just before... "But I don't regret trying."
"Neither do I, for what it's worth. The others will resent you for wasting their time and money, though."
Hohenheim chuckled dryly. "I'm sure they will."
I suppose this is what happens when men fashion themselves as gods. I guess we're doomed never to learn.
"Step aside," Hohenheim commanded suddenly, much to the other man's surprise.
Tringham obeyed, one eyebrow raised as confusion flickered across his face. As he watched, Hohenheim lifted the limp, blood-soaked little body and placed it in the centre of the transmutation circle, arraying the little girl's hair as though it were a halo, and looking down at her, he smiled a smile like the sunlight—warm and refreshing, eyes glistening behind his shining, flourescent-lit spectacles.
"Wait...what are you doing?" asked the startled onlooker, hearing the bloated fatigue within his voice. He had a feeling that he knew what Hohenheim intended to do, but he realized that asking would be more prudent than leaping to a rushed conclusion.
At first, Hohenheim did not reply. He laid out the scrawny arms, pulling them wide as though the young lady he had affectionately named "Justine" was a sacrificial offering being placed upon a cross, or perhaps a caduceus whose wings were spreading further apart. His breathing was heavy, laboured; he removed her shoes and touched her bare toes against the white, powdery lower arc of the array. Tringham stared, mind blank and bemused, as Hohenheim slowly and carefully plucked the paper-thin white dress off of the supine form, leaving her nude and unbearably pale against the sticky, filthy floor.
"She saved my life," he explained. "She saved my life...and just before I decided to do this to her—just before I embraced the consummation of our human helplessness—she asked me, with sorrow in her eyes, if I would please let her smile and laugh again. That was her final wish." He tapped the array. "I intend to let her have it. For a moment there...in the end..."
"—she was human?"
"As truly as you or I."
Tringham mulled over those words as the array was lit. Cold pale light exploded into life, enshrouding its tender captive, and the man could only stand nearby, numb, jaw set. This was a mistake, he thought, and almost said. This was too dangerous, too much of a risk, and who would be responsible for what followed? But he knew. A man had to bear his own Sins, and this was Hohenheim's Sin to handle. As much as this course of action disturbed him, he could offer no viable alternative...and certainly nothing whose logic could adequately wage war against the delicate emotional bedrock underlining this unusual predicament.
As soon as it had begun, it was over. Just like that, Tringham thought, shaken. Months of work undone...undone in the blink of an eye. Nothing to show for anything. We failed. We all failed. And now...now what? A dangerous creature left to roam free? Or...?
Thinking of other possibilities would have been too much work. Rest. He needed rest, and soon. He placed his hands within his pockets and shuffled awkwardly, wanting to ask Hohenheim why he bothered with all of this—why he bothered changing the homunculus's form, why he bothered implanting those fake memories with alchemy, why he bothered attempting to "re-train" the thing's entire personality; logically, it would have been a breakthrough, to be sure, but on a sentimental level? What joy was there in having a child who was fake? A child who retained nothing of what it had originally been? Even if they had been successful, what would Hohenheim have had to show for it? A talking doll with a personality he'd molded? Or a true child?
...But he could not bring himself to present any of those inquiries to the man at his side.
He looked into himself, into his own nature as a father, and he didn't have a clear answer. He doubted Hohenheim did, either.
"I always did want a daughter," Hohenheim said, smirking sadly. "But I have my living children, and the Sin who torments me, and that, apparently, is what Fate decided I should have. Not Fate, even, but myself, since I chose this route. In blood I carved the way with my own hands—once, then again, and now I'm fixing it. My Sin will haunt me forever, I suppose...and now she—no, he—will never remember what I tried to do for him. That's just as well, I suppose."
He arose, and Tringham offered him a towel to wipe the blood from his hands with. Not once did he turn around, but the younger man knew he would have to, in time. Hohenheim had undone the false memories, the training, the alchemy which had made the girl's body. For so long, he had tried to suppress the natural homunculus side of the being he had contained, but he had never been able to keep the transformation power at bay, and the amoral streak that ran a mile deep in the creature had never sufficiently been buried no matter the effort that was put into the emotions that the waif had been fed.
Nash Tringham gave one final look at the androgynous homunculus who lay in the floor—creature of pretense with all forced pretense stripped away—slender limbs, features of both genders, and peculiar long green hair streaming in tendrils across the stained array, and with a shudder, he thought again, we all have Sins to carry, and with that he turned, leaving Hohenheim to take away the unconscious shapeshifter and return him to the wild.
Fatherly duty demanded that final respect, at least.