scimitarsmile

Menu

ambre

Wasteland

chapter 26.

The light was so beautiful.

The sun. The true sun.

Edward wondered, looking at it, why he had the impression that a fake sun existed somewhere. But it was probably just one of those throwaway nagging feelings with no real weight or meaning.

He stood on the grass, slightly away from the dirt path that connected to his home. It must have rained not long ago, as that path was muddy and indented with the footprints of children. Actually, when he thought about it, Ed noticed that everything in the vicinity had a slick, shiny look reminiscent of dew, and yet clothing hung on the lines and swayed in the breeze. Odd, but perhaps his mother had just placed it there. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.

It's time for dinner, he thought.

Or lunch, maybe. But he needed to eat; he knew that. He wondered why he wasn't in school. Perhaps it was a weekend. He didn't really pay much attention in school, anyway. It was boring; better to play with Al and Winry. Better to work on drawing arrays and experimenting with alchemy. Where were Al and Winry, anyway? Ed didn't see them. He supposed they were out by the creek. Maybe. Or maybe they were hiding from him, waiting to pop out from behind a tree and scream, "Gotcha!"

Maybe they were already inside, eating his food.

For some reason, he felt as though something or someone was missing. Someone else. His mother. Where was she? Inside. She had to be inside. Already sitting at the table and waiting for him, probably prepared to smile gently and shake her head disapprovingly at his tardiness. And then she'd run her fingers through his hair and that faraway look would enter her eyes. That happened often.

Ed proceeded up the walkway to his house. Overhead, there were clouds, and the clothesline had disappeared entirely. A wind caught hold of his hair and tossed it. Damn. He hated those sudden storms. He hoped Al and Winry were inside already, whether at the home of the Elrics or the Rockbells. If Al was still outside and the storm hit, Ed knew he'd have to go looking for him. Somewhere, a dog (Den?) barked.

When Ed opened the door to his house and stepped inside, he saw not the dining room, kitchen, and living area, but instead a bathroom which looked suspiciously similar to the public restrooms within Central's facilities. Ed glanced around, thinking maybe Winry and Alphonse and his mother were here somewhere, perhaps in the stalls. Although that seemed incongruous with the fact that most public restrooms were either for boys or girls, not both. But he knew, somehow, that he was not alone. Someone else had to be here.

He walked up to the counter and placed his hands upon it, one on either side of one of the multiple sinks.

Water dripped from the faucet into its porcelain basin, and Ed saw a gauzy reflection of himself, though he did not see anyone else. The lighting wasn't very good. Flickery. Shadowy. Needed to be repaired, obviously.

He twisted one of the knobs and placed his dry hands under the faucet.

There were rust stains, and everything had a certain dingy look about it.

No water, merely the answer of an echoing gurgle.

And something else. Scratchy.

Ed paused and turned, glancing into the open doors and surveying the empty stalls. No one was here, not even Alphonse, or Winry, or his mother, or Granny. No one was here. His mind must have been playing tricks on him, dividing the sound of creaking pipes and attributing a partial element of that sound to something else. Only because his nerves were a little raw, he told himself. Only because he still hadn't found his family and friends, and they had to be around somewhere. He started to call out, but it didn't work; there was nothing but mute air, and he licked his lips. Might as well try the faucet again. Might as well.

This time, there was water. He placed his hands under the flow and scrubbed them eagerly, hoping to cleanse the dead skin cells off. He was feeling weirdly, bizarrely dehydrated, and his hands were a little wrinkled, as if he'd just gotten out of a bath. Having no other options in sight, he considered putting his head under the tap and taking a drink, but ultimately he decided against it. The water was white noise, soothing, like the humming of a vent somewhere nearby or far away, and the room had a lull about it. Quiet. Hushed.

Then, a whiff, a smell. What—

Another noise. A clunking. Behind Edward.

He spun on his heels.

No one. Nothing. No sign of movement, but for stretching shadows running across the tiled floor. The shadows swayed a little, as if cast by tree limbs, but as there were no trees...

He turned again, back to the sink.

A shape. A vision.

He knew that shape.

Mother.

"Edward."

Effigy. Shape. Blurred. Eyes closed, tears sparkling, blood on the lips.

In slow motion, it poured, oozed, and her lips pulled back as she smiled, sadly—white, white, until the teeth began to crumble and fall away, tearing down her lips and jaw, unzipping the flesh as bones cut through the skin, and Ed shuddered and turned away from the image that tore at the corners of the mirror, letting it shiver and fade—

"Edward."

—until he thought he perceived only her head and shoulders before him. Then that floated up, away, and he was alone. Alone. Alone.

He whirled again, back to the counter, eyes scanning the mirrors for reflections, and he heard voices, voices laughing, sing-song, chittering (like the Gate, like the Gate) and suddenly he realized that the hum of the room was not an air conditioner, no nothing like that at all. The walls were stuffed with life. With life...or something like it. Eyes. Eyes. Thousands of eyes. And he felt them, though he did not see them. The Gate...the Gate, he'd been in the Gate...

"You're dead," said another voice, a little voice. Timid. Meek.

Ed knew that voice.

"You're dead. This is hell."

Nina.

"Sorry, big brother."

And then he saw her, standing beneath him.

In spite of his shortness, the child stood only about as high as the length of his legs. Like a martyr, an angel (a product of alchemy's sins), but though she looked in all ways similar, she was not as she had been. Ed felt it. Different. She was different.

He didn't believe in hell. He needed to tell her he didn't believe in hell, but he couldn't say anything with all of those voices laughing, laughing, laughing, causing his skin and vocal chords to curl away, sticking in his throat and clogging it. No. She was wrong. Hell was fake. A lie. And she was a lie, because she was...

—wan, grey, one eye burst and dripping gore down the curve of her little cheek—

All of a sudden she growled and her countenance altered, becoming animalistic. Her nose swelled, sprouted forth like a snout, and her teeth grew longer, sharper; canines lengthened. Dog-like. Fur, white fur; growing from the skin in clusters, and then she lunged forward and Ed looked down, horrified, seeing that he was covered with blood, hands ripe with tumours, red and pained and dripping, and the smell was himself, his own rotting flesh.

As the teeth bit into him, claiming skin, bones, tendons and muscles—one finger, then another and a third, pulled away into the creature's gullet—he tried to scream.

And tried.

And tried.

And—


It didn't come out as a scream, really. More like a half-choked gurgle, and Ed felt himself kicking at something that was covering his legs.

A good ten seconds of overwhelming, incapacitating breathlessness later, he realized that the malicious chimera child had vanished, as had the bathroom, as had Riesenberg.

As had everything else in the nightmare.

Nightmare.

Edward lay still a moment longer, staving off the urge to shudder in revulsion at the images which had assaulted his subconsciousness. What a disgusting nightmare! Fucking hell, he hadn't had such terrible nightmares since...

...

The Gate.

Recollection struck like a blow to the head and Ed sat up, wide-eyed, inhaling in a gasp. The Gate. The fucking Gate. He remembered now; suddenly, he remembered all of it. A rush of adrenaline shot through his body, superseding the apparent heaviness of his drowsy mind, and his hands covered his chest, crossing as if hoping to protect his heart from harm, from being plucked forth by the tendrils of the Gate. Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, that fucking asshole of an interdimensional portal! It had tried to destroy him! The goddamned thing had tried to kill him and he remembered...

Edward gulped.

...h-ha...hands...HANDS...

Plural.

Sheets scattered as the boy toppled from the bed, hitting the ground on his side, banging his elbow on the wooden floor (wooden floor, planks, different than before though; what the fuck?) as soon as he fell. He hissed in pain, jerking his legs (legs, flesh and flesh!) from their cloth entanglement, grunting and whining and trying to scrape together a few words to ask someone—anyone (Envy?)—what the fuck was happening here.

It wasn't the house he'd been in when the transmutation had taken place. He was still shrugging away drowsiness, but he knew that already. This, wherever it was, was a bedroom—obviously, given that it housed a bed. A bedroom, with a bed (nondescript bed, plain white sheets) and a cleaner, not so dusty spread of floor. Everything here was in better shape, the kind of shape a place had if it was actually inhabited by real, live people. Ed arranged himself, cross-legged, left hand gripping his right wrist as if to verify its pulse.

Eyes darted around the room warily, taking in its scenery. Bed. Nightstand. And on top of the nightstand, a little floral, frilly tablecloth and an oil lamp. Ed blinked and stared at the wall facing him, noting the painting that hung from it. The person depicted was an elderly man, maybe a member of whatever family owned the home or maybe some important person in German society. The hell? By now, it had become overtly apparent that someone—someone who was quite probably not Envy—had relocated him here. Carried him.

Forcing his mind to ignore the aberrational addition of the two limbs (for the time being), Ed sat up on his knees, then slowly rose to his feet.

The recovered leg proved suprisingly quick to steady itself, although Ed stumbled initially. He was used to having to his right leg compensate for the faltering automail, and now it didn't need to. It didn't need to carry extra strain.

In spite of everything which had befallen him since his arrival on Earth—or perhaps because of it, because he had endured so many hardships—he found himself smiling a little, relieved by the knowledge that now at least, he wouldn't have to suffer another crippling disability...one which had been nothing short of terrifying. Slow demise was a cruel prospect, and anticipating an injury from which he'd never recover had been a torture more harrowing still.

His smile wilted.

What use were two arms, if he could not wrap them around his brother?

This was incentive to try harder next time. Partial success was enough to lift his spirits, to encourage him, and he felt better for it, but he still hadn't met his goal, and he wouldn't stop working towards that goal. He didn't feel as terrible as he would've if the transmutation had been a complete failure (well, if it'd been a complete failure he probably wouldn't have remained alive to feel poor, but barring that...), but neither was he satisfied.

This healthy injection of optimism was a start. He needed to find a finish.

So...where the hell is Envy?

Ed turned and fisted a hand in the sheets, yanking them down and wrapping them around his waist. Either the Gate had stolen his clothing or else whoever had brought him here had taken his clothes from him; he wasn't going to jump to a conclusion about that, not that it mattered. Minor inconvenience, but all the same he grumbled as he waddled forward, carefully stepping over the pooling white fabric.

The arm and leg were good, solid; perfect and not withered by the Gate, and he was thankful and surprised by their symmetry, but they worked unsettlingly well—dubbed thus for the Gate had a dark sense of humour, and it was not one to give freely without a price, not even with the Philosopher's Stone in hand. Since Ed himself had been less than aware throughout the experience of the transmutation, the only person who might know the value of it would be Envy.

They had to talk, even if it meant another damned struggle with the homunculus.

And then Ed heard it.

A sound. No, a set of sounds.

Footsteps.

Envy? Ed thought, at first.

Then, he remembered something.

Envy never wore shoes.

Ed nearly jumped where he stood as soon as he heard the knob turning, and a moment later another figure entered the room, eyes widening and mouth falling open...presumably in surprise over his status as conscious and alert. The woman stared at him wordlessly, eyes never dropping to offer an odd look to the boy's rather chagrining position with respect to the bed coverings, but Ed felt a blush spark to life on his cheeks. A woman. Great. Just great. Of all the people to have placed him in this situation, of all the people to have walked in on him naked, it just had to be a woman. He gripped the sheets hard and felt his breath escape in an awkward semi-whistling noise that slipped out between his teeth.

And then, after a long moment in which they stared at one another, both silent, Edward cleared his throat and said,

"You."

The word seemed to animate her. She removed her hand from the knob and lifted both hands, adjusting the cloth over her hair. Edward expected her to look away shyly or suspiciously, like she'd been "caught", but instead her gaze held level, and there was a stiff look to her jaw, as of a person considering how best to say something. Edward didn't know what he expected—a speech, or an apology, or some stuttered words of concern or alarm, maybe something along those lines.

"Whatever you've heard about me isn't true," she said instead.

The words were accented but comprehensible, not like much of the German-garbled English Ed had been subjected to, and the accent itself was not German. Soft-spoken, carrying a surprising degree of command and clarity. Ed did not immediately respond, still thinking she would elaborate, but she did not. She didn't even move. She just stood in the doorway, illuminated vaguely by the sole window in the room. Her clothing was different; not pink and orange now, but red skirts, a white blouse, a brown smock draped over that, and a red scarf covering her dark brown hair.

Edward almost expected to see red eyes, like those of a person from Ishbal, but instead they too were a very dark shade of brown. Shiny; insightful-looking, one might've mistaken them for sable.

"Is that so?" He worked his jaw. "Then why don't you tell me just exactly who you are, and why you were watching me, and why you've brought me here?"

It was odd, not knowing whether to feel grateful and relieved or whether to feel as though he had good cause to be on the defensive. Words from the night before rang through his mind—

Zigeuner woman, fortune teller; thinks...forces speak through her. Some say she's the wisest woman in Europe, and some say she's crazy. Comes to the station a lot; big on travelling. And why, little boy with the big yellow eyes, why would a woman such as that have an eye for you? That's what I want to know.

—and he was awed at the memory of Wagner's comments, the comments which had been given just minutes before he had begun his journey to getting piss drunk for the first time in his young life; had that really been only one night ago? It seemed as though already days and weeks had passed since the incident and the accompanying remarks, but Ed knew better. Maybe, he thought, licking his lips...maybe, when he'd been drunk off his ass, maybe then something else had been said on the subject of the woman, but Ed couldn't wring the recollections from his brain. Damn. He felt like there was a piece hidden from his field of vision, and it wasn't like Edward Elric to confront a mystery without his hackles raising. He'd been through too much to endure nonchalance. Too much.

"Sosostris. Madame Sosostris." She lifted her hand and coughed into it, closing her eyes. Her otherwise lovely voice had a raspy edge, as of a ragged cold. "I have water for you. Food. Clothing. For your homunculus as well. I...ah..." She lowered her hand, opened her eyes, and coolly stared at her younger companion. "I see the Gate has made you as new. Your homunculus, too."

"My homunculus?" Ed gaped for a minute before closing his mouth and wriggling a little, suddenly all too conscious of his ridiculous predicament. "Envy? Where is Envy? What have you done with him?" (What had the Gate done with him?)

"I found you both unconscious. I wanted to reach you last night, but I was not on time. My employer needed me...and he needs me to speak with you. You're lucky to be alive, you know. You have no idea of the forces at work here." She took another step into the room and closed the door behind her. "Your homunculus is still unconscious in the other room. I don't know when he will awaken. Do you remember what you did? What he did? I don't think you have any idea of the...magnitude..."

Ed felt like he'd been given a trick question, like the whole damned situation was a trick question. His head spun with fact intake, with an inquisition unto itself: what had happened in the Gate? He didn't remember, and he wasn't so sure he would've wanted to volunteer the information to a stranger if he did remember. The transmutation had gone wrong. Envy had been there...pain...blinding pain...voices...the usual accompanying factors of the Gate of worlds, yes, but then something else had occurred, and he didn't know what. He felt shaky, like he needed to lie down again; his knees went weak.

"How long..." A line of sweat trickled down his brow. "...were you watching me? Us? You gave Envy the stones, didn't you? And you...you...if you just want to use us, well—"

He didn't dare mention the Philosopher's Stone, not when it was possible that she truly might be innocent on that count. No point in arousing suspicions and revealing their vulnerability. Slim chance she didn't already know of it, though.

"I appreciate your concern," Sosostris said, "but I have no desire to use you. I came here because I want to speak with you, reason with you."

She waved her hand as if to dismiss his worries, then stepped over to a chair on the side of the room opposite Edward and took a seat, lifting one leg over the other beneath her skirts and clasping her hands together on her knees. "I didn't expect to find you awake so soon. But the Gate has made you as new. Did you have a nightmare?" She coughed again, more softly this time. "I haven't been watching you from the beginning, if that's what you're wondering. I felt you cross over from Shambala, but it took us a while to locate you. I didn't really find you until I saw you at the train yard...once the Philosopher's Stone had been revived once more. That's how I found you."

Ed couldn't stand being on his feet any longer. Slowly, carefully, he dropped to sit on the bed, pulling the covers up to keep his lower parts concealed, never once taking his eyes off the lady who had rather bizarrely inserted herself into his life.

He didn't like it when someone knew more about him than he knew about them; it put him at a disadvantage, made him feel small and vulnerable and annoyed and militant. He was beginning to comprehend what she meant by "the Gate has made you as new", though: his body—not just his limbs. His limbs were the most obvious improvements to his physique, but there was more than that: his bladder had been full prior to going into the Gate, as he had never urinated the last of the liquor in his system, but now it was empty again. His hair, skin, muscles...all aspects of his being felt as unblemished as a newly born infant after it had received its first bath. How could that be? Had the Gate "baptized with fire" and cleansed him? What was the price for such newfound health? And Envy...

"I have access to valuable channels of information thanks to my employer, but if you're wondering how I know as much as I do, then I will say I have...other means..."

She pressed her lips together. Ed shook his head.

"I don't believe in magic and hocus pocus, if that's what you're driving at." He noticed her body language had relaxed, becoming less anxious, and consequently, he found himself acclimatizing to this new environment, these new twists. He was fully awake now, no longer startled or frightened or shaken up, and if she wanted to talk, then so be it. He'd talk. And he'd ask a few questions of his own, while he was at it.

"But you do know a lot. I'll give you that. And you speak English pretty well, too. You'll forgive me if I'm wondering what the hell you want from us, though, because if you know as much about the Stone as you're implying, then you know it has a way of attracting—" His eyes narrowed. "—undesired attention. And y'know, I seem to have a talent for doing the same. So if you want me to be cooperative, why don't you tell me who you are, not just your name? That, and tell me how you know what you do, and no bullshit about magic or whatever. Stop hinting around."

"This world calls it magic. Your world calls it alchemy. The Gate." She reached up, tapping the side of her head. "You've been told before, I'm certain, that all people have a Gate inside of them, though it lessens with age. And all people in your world have duplicates in this one."

"Yes," Ed agreed, thinking upon his own duplicate, the poor bastard in whose body he had perished once before. "I know that. Wait, are you saying—"

She chuckled and lowered her eyes demurely, a mysterious smile tugging at her lips. "—I'm saying that I am connected to the Gate, and that I was connected to someone who lived in Shambala through the Gate. Yes. Your homunculus is connected to the Gate as well, and now you are, too. Unfortunate, that. But the Gate is why we need to talk, Edward Elric, because it's not as it was before. It's changing. Malfunctioning. That is why your transmutation failed. It had no chance and I am here to warn you that no alchemy you try your hand at will have any better success. Next time, you might not escape with your life."

She paused a moment, then added, "I knew you'd have a nightmare."

And in a hushed voice, "That's why. The Gate. I don't want to frighten you, but—"

Too late. His knuckles turned white from gripping the covers so hard and so fast, and his teeth slammed together behind his lips. The Gate. The dream—so vivid; it flashed across his waking mind, replaying itself in grisly detail: sound, smell, touch, sight. So many more facets of reality than any dream should've had a right to embody. Maddening. Ed didn't doubt that this woman was telling the truth, that it had come from something beyond himself. Didn't mean he was happy about the prospect, though.

"—when your transmutation went awry, it seems you drew an array with your own blood, and you drew it on your homunculus's chest. It's still there. A blood seal. Only, because of the Stone's influence, it can't be washed away." She exhaled with a long sigh. "You bonded your spirits together, and in return for your limbs, the Gate took a piece of your mind. Unless you are disconnected somehow, the nightmares will grow worse, Edward. They will haunt you even when you're awake. Visions. Terrible images. There will come a day when you won't be able to tell truth from falsehood; you'll question your sanity, and you will be as lost to reason as is the homunculus."

"You're saying I'm going crazy?"

Disbelief hit first, offering persuasion and insistence by asserting that, well, he didn't really know this woman, did he? Why the fuck should he take her comments at face value? Maybe she was lying, or just wrong. He couldn't simply accept what she was saying—except... well, well...

"If what you say is true," he swallowed hard, "then tell me how to fix it. If you're not lying..." His voice trembled, but he quickly steadied it. "If you're not lying, if you're really connected to the Gate, and you know so fucking much, then you ought to know how to fix whatever's gone wrong!"

Sosostris linked her fingers together, twiddling her thumbs. It was evening now and the light from the window was smoggy and poor, casting shadows onto her face and creating an eerie, unreadable terrain of expression. She was pretty, maybe much more or less so in the light, but Edward couldn't have guessed her age—twenties, upwards of thirty. Something like that. And there was something familiar about her as well, but Ed couldn't put his finger on it.

"It's over, Edward. Your suffering is over." She looked up again, and the dwindling sunlight caught in her eyes, making them flash. "I'm a mother myself. I hate to see the pain of children. And I'm a Roma, so I too know how it feels to wander, to face persecution by other cultures. I know what it's like not to be accepted, and to desire a better world, and to know that world exists. But someone saved me. I want you to come with me so he can do the same for you."

"I'm not a child."

"I hate to see children forced to live as men, and suffer as men," she amended.

"Stop it. Just stop it. Lady, you're starting to sound like that lying prophet Cornello, or some other religious nutjob!" To judge from the look on her face, she had not expected such a response, but Edward did not relent. "I'm not naive. I've been a pawn of too many people in my life—the State, the homunculi, Dante. I'm through with it. I'm not going to be anyone else's pawn again, ever! If that's what this is about, if you want to use me, then forget it. You come here talking like you're so virtuous and self-sacrificing, like you just want to help me, but if that were the case you could've helped me way back when! You didn't. So I have a pretty good idea that there's more to your intentions than you're letting on, and I'm not going anywhere until you come clean with me."

"I'm not trying to lie to you. There's no easy way to explain what I'm trying to get across. No matter what I say, you're going to react poorly. I was told of your temper beforehand, and your past experiences...but I was sent because..." She trailed off, chewing her lip, then continued with a different subject: "It's true that I'm acting in part because of my own interests. I'm acting in part because of many people's interests. The greater good. Before, when I said the Gate was malfunctioning, I did mean that. You see, Shambala and this world are coming together once more, and I've seen the future, Edward. I've seen the war that's to come. A war much worse than this one. An alchemist..."

And there it was. Finally.

"...we're all someone's pawns," she pressed, surely noticing the way his countenance altered and darkened at where her words had obviously been leading. "We all have to answer to someone higher than ourselves, whether you believe in God or whether you only believe in man's superiority. Yes, I—we—want something from you. I think it's fair, in exchange for being saved from the life you've been living."

"You want Envy, don't you?"

Hesitation. And because the woman didn't immediately have anything to say, and because she in fact seemed to be thinking of how she wanted to phrase whatever she did have to say, Ed knew he was right. She wanted the Stone. She wanted Envy. And presumably she—or the people she served—also wanted him: Edward Elric, an alchemist.

She had the dignity to look flustered and uncomfortable about it, but it didn't change the fact that, as far as Edward was concerned, she was just one more person who wanted to take his freedom from him in some capacity.

Soft-spoken and pretty and female or grimy and boisterous and male, it was all the fucking same. Everywhere he went, someone tried to force him to serve their will.

"Well, you're looking in the wrong place. I don't speak for Envy. He's his own person. He can decide what he wants and what he doesn't want. What I want is to go home to my brother, and I think Envy wants to go home, too. So if you really want to help me, then don't try to convince me to go anywhere. Instead, help me get to my destination."

"I can't, Edward. Have you not been listening? That would require a Philosopher's Stone, and the Stone is dormant again. It was in the homunculus from the time the two of you came to Earth, but it only 'woke up' when presented with sufficient suffering, misery, rage, and...other emotions. I assume you know the final catalyst which brought about the Stone's life."

She lifted her chin higher at that, giving him a very knowing look, and another furious blush branded his cheeks. He just knew she was going to make some condescending remark on the subject—imply that he was immoral or disgusting or something like that, and he was all ready to be pissed off about it and inform her that his sex life was no one's business but his own, but she kept her silence on that point, and instead said,

"The transmutation, the blood bonding, exhausted it once more. It's still there. I can feel its life, its 'heartbeat' if you will, but I can't bring it to the surface. I can't pry it out. I can't recover its power. I'm thinking perhaps you're the only person who can. So until you find some way to activate the Stone, no significant alchemy can be performed. I wouldn't even risk minor alchemy, with the Gate being as it is."

Parsing those statements led Edward to several conclusions: in order for Sosostris to have been unable to "bring it to the surface", she must have tried to bring it to the surface, which almost certainly meant she had been meddling with Envy while he lay sleeping. Additionally, the puzzle pieces were coming together and the shape of the matter wasn't looking to be a very pretty one. If everything said here was true—and Edward couldn't shake the terrible feeling that it was—then he'd lost his Stone for the time being, he was stuck to Envy by spirits or lives or whatever the fuck stood in place of a "soul" for Envy (what did that even mean? Ed wasn't sure he wanted to know), he couldn't do much in the way of alchemy without the Gate trying to eat him alive, and now he got the vibe that he was being very patiently invited to be someone's hostage.

Oh, and of course he was also going crazy in the process. Couldn't forget that.

But at least he was clean, bathed by the Gate (in a manner of speaking), and he had all his limbs. That counted for something, right?

"So, in a nutshell..."

Ed dropped his eyes, letting the covers pool around his stomach as he lifted one arm and flexed the muscle experimentally. Thoughts settled. Somberness overtook frustration.

"So...basically, what you're telling me is that I have no choice but to go with you, right?" He looked at her again, and she did not move. "If I say no, you'll just try to take me prisoner. Or whoever you're working for will. If that's the case, then why did you even bother trying to speak to me? Who are you working for, lady? Is his name...?"

She cut him off before he could utter his father's name, and Edward was nearly grateful.

"I wanted to talk to you because contrary to what you might think, I harbour no ill will towards you. Everything we are doing, we are doing for the greater good. You were once a hero for the people, weren't you? You went against your world's military. You did what you felt you had to. I was sent to speak with you because my employer thought I might have the best chance of persuading you to see our perspective." She had hinted at that before, Ed noticed, though she had never elaborated as to why. "Come with me, Edward. You shall be treated gently and given all the hospitalities you could ever desire."

"And if I refuse?"

"Refusing would be foolish. Are you better off being poor and starving?"

"Not the point I was trying to make and you know it."

She shrugged, for once beginning to seem petulant—ruffled. Sosostris's cool exterior wiltered before she composed herself again in a flurry of rustling skirts and moving hands and shadows that smiled every which way about her clothing and body. "Your talents as a scientist will be cultivated one way or another, Edward. If you don't come with me, then yes, there are others standing outside. Everywhere. It would be stupid to struggle, to use alchemy when you know doing so is as dangerous as it has become. Not that it would be much of a struggle, since I presume you want to carry your homunculus off as well...and I believe you would need both arms to fight anyone, would you not? You would not get very far, I assure you. Accept my invitation and come with me gracefully, as an honoured guest. You're a brilliant boy. Make an intelligent decision."

There was no decision. The choice had been made for him.

"You said you had clothes...bring them here already."

She smiled broadly, flashing teeth for the first time Ed could remember. "You've made the right decision." And with that, she arose and opened the door, turning to leave the room, but not before casting a glance backwards at Ed and saying, "You'll need to speak with the homunculus when it wakes up, of course. You know you're the only person it will listen to."

"He. And if you think he listens to me, then you've not gotten very good information at all."

The woman did not answer. She merely exited the room, leaving Ed to sit on the bed and contemplate where he'd ended up and what his remaining options were. The most prominent impression he had derived of his kindly captor's persona was a sense of zealous idealism; Sosostris liked to speak of the greater good in a way that made Ed cautious. She seemed genuine enough, but that didn't mean her enthusiasm wasn't a problem in and of itself. Many good men and women had committed evil, terrible acts in the name of a greater purpose, religious or otherwise. Sincere or a charlatan, it didn't matter much in the end.

The first type was harder to blame, harder to hate, but it didn't make its followers any less deadly. Scar had been proof of that, what with his quest to eradicate all alchemists in the name of justice; the Philosopher's Stone was born from such blind goal-seeking, such determination to search for a Greater Purpose, a magical cure-all. And what of Dante? Edward had no way of knowing how honest she had been in what she claimed, but she had seemed to fashion herself some kind of benevolent saviour, shepherd of humanity's flock. From what Ed had seen, she had been deluded enough to believe that she really was doing the world a favour, and if she hadn't still believed that in the last days of her life, she must've once thought it true.

The Philosopher's Stone was created from idealism, naivete—the perils of youthful indulgence and the crippling wounds of adults.

Germany, suffering as it was from war, was the natural breeding ground for such hopeful, eager, dangerous mindsets, the kind of which he felt had been espoused here today.

And once upon a time, he might've jumped onto the idea of joining the cause. But not now. Now, he was an adult, a man. He questioned, he scrutinized, he thought into his decisions, he considered all options, all paths, and he asked himself what Alphonse would do, what Alphonse would think. How would his actions affect himself, Envy, Alphonse, and the population in general? It wasn't as though he could talk Sosostris out of what she and her people were doing, not when they were driven by such profound zeal—content and convinced of their righteousness. However, Ed couldn't dismiss this turn of events, either. He could go along with the woman for now, investigate her stories and her concerns about the world; he could meet her employer and speak with him, and perhaps in so doing he might find a way to activate the Philosopher's Stone, best the Gate once again, and return to his brother.

If anyone wanted to use Edward Elric, they had better learn beforehand that he could use them right back. And he intended to.

Madame Sosostris returned to the room with clothes draped over her arms and shoes in one hand. She dumped them onto the bed unceremoniously and stepped out of the room again, giving Ed space and time with which to dress himself. Edward said nothing, but was grateful that he now had two arms, for it made this task so much easier. The clothing was nothing special, standard Munich browns and whites—brown vest, white long-sleeved shirt beneath it, brown pants, nondescript shoes, and a tie for his hair. Once Ed had gotten everything else on, he went for the tie and gathered his long, clean hair between his fingers, working it into a proper, non-lopsided ponytail.

The clothes fit surprisingly well, no loose or hanging portions, but the texture was slightly scratchy against his new, Gate-washed flesh. Good enough, though. They'd suffice.

For the first time in ages, he felt like a real human—not just some flawed model, some inferior construct.

And speaking of inhuman things...

The woman hadn't come back to the room yet, but Ed was of a mind to go exploring on his own.

Edward climbed off the bed and pulled up the covers in some half-hearted effort at making up the bed, more out of habit than out of courtesy, and with that aside, he made his way to the other end of the room. A step-hop jerkiness characterized his movements—the sort of shifty-eyed, start-and-stop slide of one who was far too accustomed to figures leaping out at him from corners and dark places. None did, and he reached the door and gave an experimental turn of the knob, still glancing over his shoulder warily as if expecting someone to be peering in at him through the window. He hated feeling so fucking watched, spied on, cornered, and so on. No matter what these people's ultimate goal was, and no matter if they felt "the end justifies the means", it didn't change that Ed resented feeling like a guinea pig subjected to caging and experimentation.

He and Envy had cages in common, at least. Envy had always been under Dante's thumb, but how had he felt about that? Had he resented her, or seen her as a caretaker? Ed wasn't sure he knew. He guessed Envy probably didn't know himself.

And Ed, well, he had always gone after his own goals, but he'd always been a pawn in the process. Used, and a user. He supposed he and Envy were alike in that respect as well, presuming Envy had only served Dante to get what he desired. The boy hadn't quite worked out what he thought of Envy's role in this game they'd rather abruptly been dragged into, but he knew it wouldn't be pretty. The Philosopher's Stone brought nothing but grief, despair, misery. The question Ed had to ask himself was, should he care?

And the answer was...well, possibly not. Maybe. Maybe not.

But that was all irrelevant, because he couldn't not care.

Envy had been a true and utter bastard, and he still was, and he'd ignored Ed's attempts to reason with him and had been nothing but a complete pain in the ass throughout their entire stay in Germany. They'd driven each other to hysterics and Envy had provoked Edward into doing certain actions which he felt were beyond idiotic, so why not get rid of his presence? That made sense. It was logical.

Only...

He sighed as he walked down the hallway and tried the first door on his left (and the first door, period).

Only life was not always logical.

And Envy, terrible as he'd been, really did seem to be turning into a real person and not just a...whatever. Monster. Creature. The changes had been so slow and crawling that they had been high imperceptible at the time, but looking back, it was easy to see a difference in the Sin's demeanor. He actually seemed angrier these days than he had when they'd both been in Amestris, but Ed was sure that was because he'd lost his powers, his control, and his confidence. Envy no longer had the luxury of being aloof, cold, and smirking every few seconds. His rage was so raw and full of so much hurt that it was a little difficult to keep from having a visceral reaction to it, even if Ed knew (and he did know) that it would be better for his own sake not to get pulled into the homunculus's problems.

The first door proved a lucky guess.

Envy lay on the bed, frighteningly and misleadingly lovely beneath the sunset. His pale skin was drenched with colour, saturated with orange and red glow. He was so white, near translucent; his pores invited the sunlight into them. The moment...that moment...Ed stood in the doorway, quiet, admiring the bright silence that sparkled like life, like charged dust particles, like something magical from another world. It was from another world, Ed realized suddenly: he hadn't felt so many colours in one scene, one instant, since he had been in Amestris. But now his limbs had been returned, and one by one, colours were being born in the world again.

The light was hopeful.

Ed was hopeful.