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ambre

Wasteland

chapter 27.

This was the true sun, if he made it so. Alchemy could make gold from lead. A difference in perspective, wings to the spirit, might make the dying evening sun into a harbinger for the night and day to come.

(But how to convince Envy, he who lived in a world without a sun, to see the light?)

Ed couldn't be his sun forever; he knew that. He had to pry the Sin's blind eyes open, force them to see the simple beauties of the world. Edward was strong as automail, but he was not automail; Envy couldn't always use him for support because like automail without good hands around to keep it repaired, tuned, and aligned, Ed would give out, break, and fall by the wayside. He didn't have strength enough for both of them. He'd told Rose to stand on her two good legs, and now Envy needed to hear the same, needed to do the same.

Having never walked on their own, Envy's legs were as weak as those of a newborn colt, useless and spindly, but thrown from the Gate and born into this new existence—still green and developing in infancy—perhaps someday he could run with them, and have grace. Perhaps.

Summer was coming. Ed could feel it in his bones, could see it on Envy. The room was stained with summer.

Edward approached, catching sight of himself in the window. The reflection was partial, faded; a splash of motion as he saw his body raise its hand: bright hair, curious eyes. The light dipped through him, dragging along with it the evening colours and shading him with smudges of peach. The curtains (red curtains) had been pulled wide open, giving the quiet, unconscious homunculus to the light as if he were a sacrifice to Leto. Soon it would be night, and all the shadows would disappear. Strange how he and Envy always seemed to encounter one another not during the slipstream conscious hours in which they both lived their restless lives, but during those delicate times when one was asleep and the other was not.

They connected at the bookends of wakefulness; between the pages, their hands brushed only in passing.

For whatever reason, Envy's former attire had been returned to him; Ed supposed he should've been stunned by that, but he was not. The power of will dictated what the Gate created, and Envy had been birthed from the Gate in the first place, so somehow he had gotten the portal to return what had belonged to both it and himself. Strange, but not surprising. Ed's hand brushed over the sleeping homunculus's chest, barely touching it at first, then gently scraping back the black fabric. He held it between his thumb and forefinger, pulling back a little when his nail caught on the tip. The top was tight and resistant to the idea of peeling aside; Ed exerted more effort, knowing but not especially caring that he might wake Envy in the process.

He needed to see it. If it was there, as Sosostris had implied, he needed to view it for himself.

The mark. The blood seal.

The same blood seal as...

Like an accusing eye it looked out from Envy's chest.

Ed's blood and Envy's own mixed together, dark and dry; Edward scratched at the lines, all the while alternating his gaze back and forth between the blood seal and Envy's face. Amazing. Amazing that he had drawn this even when his body had been dying, even when his brain had been drowned and put out of service. He couldn't even remember his fingers tracing this organic array, but they had; it truly was incredible what the body could do to ensure its survival. Something within the soul had leapt into auto-pilot mode to preserve his life; it had worked, and now he and Envy were fused in a way which could kill them both.

Wonderful.

But it wasn't as though he'd had any choice; hell, it wasn't as though he had even been aware enough to make any kind of choice. He'd just...acted. But what the hell did it mean, being stuck together? And how were they stuck together? Something breathed life into Envy, sure, but he didn't have a soul. Did being bonded to Ed mean he would consume his soul, or share it? Would their thoughts, hopes, and silent prayers to nameless forces now become one? Ed sure as hell hoped otherwise. He'd probably already shared too much with the bastard; he didn't want him to have his mind, his heart, his privacy; he didn't think Envy wanted him to have his privacy, either, contrary to how it occasionally seemed, and Edward was by no means certain he wanted any part of his companion's burdens, not when he had so many of his own to deal with. He'd asked, he'd offered, he'd tried...but actually receiving? Having to feel whatever it was that had driven Envy mad while his own mind floundered perilously close to annihilation? Not a danger he wanted to face. And if it came to that...

"You know..." Ed lifted his head, turning it to glance over his shoulder. "...you say being connected to the Gate will cause me to go nuts, but you seem pretty together. Together enough to sit and talk to me and convince me to play a role in your little schemes, at least. What gives?"

"'My little schemes?' Sounds like you still disbelieve in my good intentions."

She took a step into the room and closed the door behind her. Edward had known she was coming by the unmistakable sound of those loud footsteps.

As the boy watched, Sosostris pulled her scarf away and ran her hands through her dark hair, adjusting it before returning the cloth to its former position. Nimble hands, Ed noted.

"No. I am convinced of your good intentions. If I weren't, I'd fight back, and you don't see me throwing any punches, do you? But I think there's an old saying about where good intentions pave the way to. Good intentions doomed a lot of alchemists who sought the Philosopher's Stone in the first place, not to mention how they ended the lives of those who went into the Stone. Good intentions caused wars. Maybe, for all I know, the war that's going on right now is being fought because of someone's good intentions."

"You're mistaking good intentions for greed and selfishness, but that doesn't surprise me. Your own quest for the Stone was always selfishness for your brother's sake, so I suppose the two go hand in hand for you, and you're still so very young..."

Ed turned fully at that, gesticulating in a violently dismissive gesture. "Oh, yeah? And what makes you any different? You're being selfish for 'the greater good', whatever you think it is. You don't care about my well-being, or Envy's. Don't even patronize me by lying and pretending otherwise! You're just like the military and Dante and a thousand other people, using others for some ambiguous 'big finish'. Well I may be leaving with you today, but don't think for a minute that you're going to be able to do whatever you want to me. Push me too far and you bet I'll push back. I'm through with handing over my freedom to anyone but myself."

"And what about him?" She nodded in Envy's direction. "You don't seem to be capable of having any kind of true freedom, if you rely on caring for someone else. Control cannot be equated with freedom. You may call the shots, but so long as you have a mouth to feed, you're hardly free."

Ed sucked in a deep breath. Like talking to a fucking wall! "First of all, according to you, no one is free anyway. Everyone is someone's pawn. So don't make a hypocrite of yourself. And secondly, you said you're a mother. So if you're any kind of good mother, then stop fucking JUDGING my interactions and ties with others—my brother, Envy, or whoever. Somewhere along the line, you're contradicting yourself, unless you're willing to admit you think of parenthood as a lack of freedom, or you think you're a bad parent. You can't have it both ways, or all ways, you know."

Hands at her sides, Sosostris approached the bed; Ed's eyes followed her, body bristling at her proximity. Once at the bed, she placed her hands on it, fingertips not far away from Envy's mid-section. Ed looked on cautiously, dread filling his stomach.

"It really is something, isn't it? It. He. It is occupying a male form. But do you not wonder how many times he has inhabited the body of a woman? Or an animal? Or an object, even? Many possibilities." She raised her hands and swept one across Envy's forehead as though she were verifying the presence of a fever. "I wonder if he thinks of himself as this body, this gender. I wonder if he's ever imitated someone for so long that he began to take on their traits; I wonder if he ever imitated someone for so long that he lost himself within them for a time. Sometimes that happens with actors."

Ed said nothing. The woman continued.

"We humans mix body and personality. A body holds its personality, and if one or both change, our perception of the person might change as well. We like to believe love withstands all tests, but love is really quite fickle. Filial love is not; most families will try to help one another no matter what, but romantic love can disappear if looks shift, or if a personality does. I suppose Envy's mind is not confined to looks, or gender, or even personality. But Edward—"

She looked up at him and smiled softly.

"—you should know by now that actors can also sweep you into their roles, if they play them well enough. A good actor can make you cry and shake from the force of enacting something fictional, and if you're caught up enough, you can even allow yourself to believe that you are experiencing everything they are, that you share the same role. I wonder if you believe you and Envy have something in common. Have you ever considered that you've played witness to the biggest drama of your life, and been fully drawn into someone else's role? You seem to empathize with this creature a lot now. I wonder if you aren't seeing yourself in him, and things which were never real for either of you."

Ed laughed and shook his head. "I have to hand it to you. You've got a pretty good way with words. If I were impressed by rhetoric, I'd be on my knees now. But I'm a little more jaded than that. I'm not saying Envy is human. I'm not forgiving him for the people he's killed, including me. That's not my place. But it's also not my place to go around handing out justice like some kind of hand of God; I believe in equivalent exchange. If you know so much about me, then you must know that. Meaning Envy will pay his dues, same as everyone else—same as me. I think everything that's happened since we've come to Earth is proof that equivalent exchange does work somehow."

He abandoned eye contact with Sosostris and regarded Envy once more. Sleep was kind to the Sin, making him look peaceful and boyish and warm beneath the sunset. His lips were parted, but barely. Beneath the blood seal, his chest moved slowly with the intake and the release of breath, and when Ed had touched him before, he'd felt his heart beating away somewhere in there. Dark green hair surrounded the resting form; it was clean now, truly and perfectly clean for the first time in quite a while, and it looked considerably less stiff...as did its owner.

"I was starting to doubt it. Equivalent exchange. Because it didn't seem fair to me that I kept going through so much. It still doesn't seem fair, not entirely, but I believe it will balance out in the end. I have faith in that, and I don't care what you think about it. Everyone believes in something, and that's what I believe in. Someday, things will be good for me again. I'll make sure they are."

"Then we're not so unlike one another. You believe in a grand purpose, and so do I."

"You didn't let me finish." He reached over and gave the blood seal one final push with his thumb, then fixed Envy's clothing so that the array was hidden from sight as it had been before. "That—" He patted the black clad sternum. "—is real. That seal is real. The heart in there is real, too. You can say what you want about actors and roles, and maybe you're right to a point, but I know what happened in the Gate. I know what Envy did. There's no overly empathizing about it. It was real. It happened."

"Saving you for his own ends."

"I'm not gonna deny that he was, but what I'm getting at is that he has changed; I've seen it. He's not tried to kill me, nor really tried to hurt me in a long time, and he could've. I only had one arm. So I'm not saying he's a saint, or that he doesn't deserve to suffer. He has suffered, and as long as he lives he'll continue to suffer for one reason or another—probably now thanks in small part to you."

Ed glared at her briefly, but she merely folded her arms at her chest and continued to smile, facing him now. "That's justice in the world: Envy paying for his sins. But he is a person—not a human, but a person. Not a very fucking rational person, but you seem to think he's just about roles, and I know better. He has a sense of identity and things he wants and feels and all that. I've seen it. You seem to think I'm his keeper, or that I speak for him, and I don't. So I'm not going to talk to you about this anymore. You can just wait until he wakes up and talk to him. He may not give you a straight answer, but I definitely won't."

He took a deep breath, feeling physically and emotionally winded.

His face was probably tinged red from speaking too much and too quickly, but otherwise, he thought he wasn't showing any signs of agitation, though he couldn't see his reflection clearly enough to be sure. He was mildly afraid he was about to begin shaking, but it was hard to say what was causing his nerves to commit mutiny. Fear? No, he wasn't afraid. Tension? Well, possibly. Probably. With two arms and two legs, he had considerably more nerves to flash signals of frustration straight into his brain, but there was more to it than that. Discussing Envy had been making him uncomfortable, partially because he felt as though he were revealing too many of Envy's secrets and even more so because he felt as though he were revealing too many of his own.

It'd been a while since he'd had a real conversation with someone (besides, weirdly, Envy) and he felt guarded, like an untame animal on the receiving end of a petting hand which could easily clamp around its throat.

It would have been easy to say more than he should've, to let something of himself and of Envy spill into the static silence of the room, but he couldn't let himself. Ed didn't know how to express what he was thinking, and he wasn't entirely positive that he knew what he was thinking, only that it was difficult. Confusing. Twisting up his brain, wringing it out and sinking into the fissures. He and Envy had suffered in their own private hells, then their own private hell—together—and as ridiculous as it seemed to bottle that up inside when confronted with others, Ed wasn't too keen on letting anyone else inside of what was his. It had always been his brother and himself versus the world outside, then only himself versus the world, and somehow a little pinch of Envy had slipped through the cracks and he'd slipped through Envy's cracks a little, too, and that was that.

An unintended sharing, but a sharing all the same.

Edward had worked hard to get as much truth from Envy as he had so far; and as irrational as he deemed himself for thinking thusly, what right did some stranger have to come in and hear any of their secrets, no matter how trivial those secrets were? This woman—these people—had done nothing to earn anything from him. Envy may have hated him, but he at least harboured feelings towards him as a person; he didn't see Ed as a chess piece to manuever, an alchemist, a brain in a jar, an open book of math and science.

Madame Sosostris may have been a talented orator with a kindly smile, but she wasn't here for him; she wanted only the knowledge he carried, as did those she was working with. Ed felt embittered towards her for it, all the more so because it was hard to stay angry and guarded with her...and as a rule, he didn't like it worth a damn when he wanted to be cold to someone and found himself met with a challenge. Something about her seemed familiar, comfortable. Ed begrudged her for that, even if she couldn't help it.

What right did she have to seem human, she who didn't grant him the luxury of being seen as one?

(What right did Envy have to seem human...?)

"I like you, Edward Elric."

Ed cringed. When he looked up, he caught a glimpse of the last few rays of the sun running through his hair. Moments later, there was nothing besides stars and the evening street lamps.

"I like you a great deal, in fact." She flashed a grin, revealing her teeth—teeth that were in surprisingly good shape, better than most Ed had seen in this malnourished land. "In other circumstances, other times, other places and lives, we might have been allies. It would be a shame if we were to eventually oppose one another, but I am prepared for that. Just in case you still think I'm playing nice; there's your honesty."

Edward didn't know what to say to that, but he ended up not having to say anything. The woman looked down at Envy again and added, "When I first entered the room, you asked me about my connection to the Gate. I'll answer you now. I've had this...gift or curse, depending on your perspective, since I was born. But even so, I have paid a price. Do you want to see what it costs to fight against the Gate, when it aspires to drive you mad?"

Ed did not answer. He did not have time to answer, and he didn't know what to say anyway. Sosostris bent over, cupping her face with her hands as if weeping into them; Ed looked on, curious but silent. Hair fell loose, obscuring most of his view, though he saw her fingers moving as if she were scrubbing at her eyes. When she jerked her head back up, her palm covered one eye, digging against it as though it were sore and throbbing, and there, between her thumb and forefinger, she held—

Edward's mouth fell open.

"This—" She waved her hand back and forth, showing off the oversized marble of an eyeball. "—is an example of the sort of coin the Gate accepts as its fare, though it's certainly not the extent of my loss."

It was mechanical Ed realized as she held her hand still and tapped something on the back of the ball, demonstrating whatever delicate mechanism instigated blinking. A sheet of fake skin dipped demurely, swallowing the sclera like a closing curtain. Where the device had been, there was only a pit, dark and red and unsightly, marring the otherwise attractive face.

"Wh-who made that for you?" Ed asked when he finally found he could speak again. "Did he make that for you? Is it his work? I thought automail and its likeness didn't exist on this world, but that's—"

Delicate craftmanship; it even had fucking eyelashes and it moved when the nerves triggered it—

"The master designed it for me when he saved me. I wasn't always well off. Far from it. I've suffered poverty, as you have. But that's a story for a different day. The other eye is fake, too. I can see perfectly with them, but I can never cry. So you see, being attached to the Gate is nobody's blessing. Lift him and come with me. We're going to the train station."

She turned away from Edward and the bed, facing the door as she looked downwards and went about replacing the eyeball with about as much effort as one would generally expend in filling their mouth with a set of false teeth—a musing which led Ed to wonder if her dental work was false, too. Her teeth were superior in whiteness and straightness to all others he'd seen on this world, which didn't really make sense for someone who had once lived in such poor conditions. However, Ed decided not to pry into the subject; he had his own problems to worry about—his own, and Envy's. It wasn't every day a woman popped her mechanical eye out for his inspection, but he had seen weirder things in life. Problem was, he didn't want the Gate taking a single damned thing more from him, mind or body.

"We can't. Wagner told me the train station was closing for repairs today. We'll have to wait until tomorrow."

"Repairs? Is that what you heard?"

Starlight was on the woman's back; she faced the shadows. When her arms moved in a series of steady movements—jerking intermittently—Ed saw a silhouette of moonlight cling to them like a thin white film. One fisted hand twisted, rubbed, and then she struck the socket with the bottom of her palm, sinking the eye securely in with a pop that made Ed shiver in place as his imagination conjured the image of a ball being hit too hard and ramming right into soft grey matter.

Sosostris was clearly experienced in the proper amount of pressure to apply, however—such that, brutal as the display sounded, she looked to Edward with two blinking eyes immediately thereafter. "You should know that's a lie, Edward. Train stations never have off days. If the tracks needed repairing, they would be repaired during the course of the day. There would never be any reason for the whole station to be closed; nothing short of a national emergency would cause that. You've been travelling by train for years, am I right? You should know this."

Ed didn't even have energy enough left to be surprised by this latest revelation.

"I don't know why he has your sympathy, anyway. I've offered you housing and food. What has he ever offered you, save hatred?"

Ed shrugged. "If you were really generous, I don't think you'd ask for anything back. Your question answers itself. Envy is the devil I know. You're the devil I don't."

Madame Sosostris advanced in the direction of the door, folding her arms beneath her breasts and tucking her hands beneath her armpits. Her gait was steady, untroubled, as if she walked to the lull of a distant music, eyes open while slumbering, and with that same wan and mysterious smile upon her lips that was so characteristic of her mien, she glanced over her shoulder and said, "Poor Edward. You only think you know the devil. There are evils in this world, and in the Gate, and that shall someday exist in this world, the likes of which you've never dreamt. I pray that you never have to see them, for your own sake. The near future might hurt you, but at least, if nothing else, perhaps it will teach you to rid yourself of your stubborn adolescent idealism."

Moonlight swept the curve of her shoulder when she resumed her former path and line of vision, slinking around her body like rows of tiny white mice. She walked out of the room accompanied by the thud thud of her feet, leaving Edward to a silence heralded by that final, ominous note. For the first time, he found himself noting two potentially important facets of the woman's being: one, her entire body was covered with cloth; only her hands remained free, nails tipped with stars and moon and street lamps. Two...she smelled of perfume. Heavy perfume.

Not a familiar scent, and yet—

The intangible teeth of a shiver gnawed their way up Ed's spine.

The room was warm.

It was done. Edward Elric had been offered an invitation he literally could not refuse.

The day had been so eventful and his mind was heading off on so many journeys that he felt himself getting caught in the middle of yet another mental tug-of-war, one in which his body sat back and sipped a cool drink, trying to keep score as it watched its poor knotted thought processes pull each other until his nerves were as tight as the rope between opposing parties: Alphonse, Alphonse, Alphonse, the dormant Philosopher's Stone, the transmutation, alchemy, nightmares, the Gate, the connection to the Gate, the connection to Envy, Envy, Sosostris, her people; where the hell were they going? What could he do? How could he get out of this and back to his brother now? What if Sosostris was lying? But even if she wasn't, could he really risk the Gate doing that again? It had nearly killed him, and true to what she'd said, it had seemed different somehow. Malfunctioning.

Rock and a hard place? Hell, this was more like being pinned amid a cluster of mountains which had sprouted legs and walked into one another.

Ed prided himself on having grown into a man, an adult, but in ways he did still think of himself as a boy, and it was undeniably stressful to be faced with so many problems and possibilities all at once—roads and dead ends, but he was driving blindly with no signs to identify which was which. No, that wasn't true. There were signs, but ones which might've been painted on by amateur, lying hands. This was driving down a street in which there were roads and dead ends, but some signs were sloppy, childish scrawl, some were cursive, and some were upside down, and for all he knew, everything might be a dead end.

But he couldn't return to the station; not now. Not now that he had two arms. What sort of suspicion would that instigate? He couldn't just drag Envy off, dump him in the street, and then attempt to fight shadowy figures who were intent on bringing him back to their base of operations. And there was absolutely the major chance that no one was out there, that his inability to use alchemy was a lie, but Ed found those to be unacceptable risks; he was now more determined and desperate than ever to make the array work, to get home to his brother, and he owed it to Alphonse not to throw his life away stupidly and carelessly.

I'm an adult, not a kid any more, and I have to think like an adult.

He didn't commit (waste) any more time to idly standing around pondering—he couldn't, not when his mind briefly halted in its marathon run. Paused. Jerked to a stop.

Jerked to a stop and realized its setting.

A strange room, a strange house, no sunlight, no artificial lighting turned on within.

A moment before, it had simply been a location.

—the dream, bleeding eye, fangs—

Terrible images flashed through his third eye and he felt the hairs on his arms stiffen and rise.

A strange room, a strange house, no sunlight, no artificial lighting turned on within.

No sounds, but for the groaning of boards and the creakingmurmuringsinging of the ghost-laden wood, tuneless and mournful. Shadows from outside—what outside?—swayed, but Ed stood motionless.

Motionless save for his eyes, which drifted. Slowly. To the corners.

Someone is at the window.

The sensation of presence was at once overwhelming and impossible to ignore. It was the kind of feeling one encountered when awake at three in the morning with a hyper imagination and a head full of spooky stories, the same primitive and petrifying terror as he had experienced when with his brother on the island and suspicious of the predator hiding amid the trees, watching him. And oh, that was the wrong memory to conjure, even if by accident—wet leaves, the wind howling with dark promise, silver lightning carving the sky—

The shadows had been Nothings. Now they were Somethings. Weighing, squeezing; gravity, life. Life. Alive.

Slowly. To the corners.

The window.

A new gravity from a black hole on the other side of his subconscious fixed his eyes on a corner, as if looking an inch away would cause the organs to roll from his skull—

(bleed, like Nina's eye, dissappear like Sosostris's eyes; empty sockets, empty sockets)

—because there was someone-something in the room and the shadows were movingmovingalive; not just shadows, no, but marionettes, and some supernatural force was pulling their strings and if he looked at the window he would see it and it would kill him. Little Nina risen from her grave to exact revenge on the boy who had failed to protect her. Alphonse, returned to a body but not his real body; rather, a golem, a knitted calamity of rotting and living flesh, worm-eaten, with hollowed eyes; his brother, poor brother, damned by another failed transmutation, and the loud wind was surely the breath bellowing from those chimera lungs, gushing from his chest and beating the window, and Ed could almost feel the oversized, mouldy hands closing around his throat, could almost hear the sobbed why, why, Brother, why

The window.

He jerked around.

And released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Not gracefully; no, rather than exhale slowly and in a measured stream, his lungs all but retched the air. Heartbeat thundered. Hands unclenched (he'd been clenching them?). Droplets of moisture beaded in his eyes from too many seconds spent without blinking. Mouth was parched, and open, tongue firmly in the bottom.

Beyond the glass lay empty back streets. Something around one of the street lamps—a bag perhaps—fluttered rhythmically in the wind; weakly, for the most part, but with bursts of fury here and there.

No face. No eyeless sockets. No undead chimera child or deformed amalgamation of a brother.

Only a sleepy evening in Munich, Germany—spring descending into summer with so much ferocity that Ed could almost imagine he smelled flowers and grass, when really all he smelled was the lingering whiff of Sosostris's perfume. Nothing remarkable at all. The moment, the strangeness and the certainty, had passed. The room was just a room once more, and the twilight outside was now just a pretty star-sprinkled and moon adorned dusk, blemished by the dreary atmosphere of poverty, depression, and hopelessness; blemished by alleys and sooty streets, blemished by its refusal to be filled with laughter, lovers, people, or the lights from nearby windows.

Blemished by much, but not blemished by ghouls and goblins and demons.

On the bed, Envy was still dozing away, sleeping the sleep of absolute tranquility and looking for all the world like a man whose cares weighed less than feathers—as opposed to the creature who had, mere hours ago, been desperately clawing and crying and screaming obscenities. Bastard.

Stupid, stupid paranoia. Ed closed his mouth and fumbled with his sleeves, shrugged his shoulders and straightened his back, popped a few muscles, and scooped Envy up in his arms (arms!), preparing to get the hell out of this house. The homunculus was not as easy to lift as Ed had guessed he would be, and it took two tries and a successful angle before Ed was able to drag him off the bed, loosing a soft grunt in the process.

Though small and lithe, Envy was all lean muscle mass, bones, and organs. He was not heavy as such, but he wasn't precisely light, either. Still, Ed was powered by the twin fuels of adrenaline and restless animal need. Envy slumped bonelessly in his arms, head lolling, and Edward adjusted him with a jolt. In the gloaming, Envy looked strange and vulnerable and sad: skin absurdly pale in the face of white light, exotic hair wilting around his head like the leaves its colour suggested a resemblance to, eyes and mouth marked with quiet grief—the sort an apt poet might compose a few lines of verse to capture.

But then Ed joggled Envy again, fixing his position so he wouldn't slip and crash onto the ground.

The appearance of sorrow passed. Envy was just Envy again. No, not just Envy. Not even Envy, for he was too far lost in his dreams for his customary identifying emotions to be present, and without the personality for which he had been named, he was merely a warm weight.

It was comforting to hold a real, breathing life form, something which was undeniably not a figment of his aggravated imagination or a cold wind nipping the back of his neck.

Content in his assurance that the Sin was secure within his arms, Ed walked out of the room at a brisk pace. He didn't run, because running would've been noisy; running would've rattled his nerves, exhausted him, and lent more of a probability to the risk of dropping Envy and causing him to wake prematurely and unleash a level of grumpiness which Edward certainly did not need to deal with right at this moment. Indeed, he was not afraid of hurting Envy. Even weakened, Envy was formidable, strong. The nights in the train car had proven that to Ed's satisfaction. A mere bump on the floor would not hurt him, but it might potentially rouse him, and if he found himself being carried off—if he learned what was happening—he'd pitch a fit, or worse. For once, Edward found he didn't blame him very much. Envy always handled everything in the worst possible manner, but Ed himself was hardly pleased with this turn of events. Every fiber in his body urged him to fight, to run, to escape. Two arms. Two legs. He was no cripple, and yet he was.

As he swiftly made his way down the hall, Ed found himself contemplating Sosostris's promise of future madness.

He had lost many things in his life. A father, a mother, a home, his brother's body, two lives, his brother, his world, everything he'd held dear. The list sounded like such a hyperbole that, had someone recited it to his Younger Self, the little boy probably would've laughed and thought it a joke. And that wasn't even counting what he'd lost on Earth: an arm, virginity, his alchemy, wealth, fame, his reputation and good standing in life; even his morals and guiding principles had begun to hang precariously in the balance.

But throughout it all, he'd still had his mind.

What the hell would he do without his mind?

"Hang on," Ed whispered, and he did not think he was speaking to Envy.

In his arms, he held the key to his salvation: the Philosopher's Stone. If everything else failed, surely it could fix the Gate, could bypass the flaws of the dark doors. It was within inches of him, yet it might as well have been back in Amestris for all the access he had to its power. Somewhere, nestled in a place where the sunlight could never touch, the Stone lay near Envy's dead, black heart; hundreds of years of heartlessness now overcompensated in a twist of poetic irony and poetic justice. More full than he had ever been, and as empty as before—both of them. More whole than they had been, and now more incomplete.

"The stones I gave him two weeks ago ought to still be tiding him over. They will continue to do so for a little while longer, then he'll need a new handful or two from my employer." Madame Sosostris stood at the end of the hall, somewhat to Ed's surprise. Due to his surreality-induced haze, he'd been lagging, and he had expected her to go on outside without him, but here she was waiting patiently. Ed wondered if she suspected why it had taken him longer than it should've, but he did not ask. When he approached, she bent over, smiling warmly at the sleeping homunculus as though he were an infant cradled within Edward's arms. "He's done himself no favours by getting so worked up, though. Stress and self-harm lead to wastes."

She brushed several long strands of hair away from Envy's face and Ed marvelled over how maternal the gesture looked, especially coming from someone who regarded the Sin as nothing more than a tool.

The thought sat there for a moment, having no particular resonance beyond a casual observation of an event. Then, like a flash of lightning, it struck hard and sank in, and Ed stared at the woman as though he could see through all her clothing to her heart beneath.

Just who was her alternate self in their world, anyway?

It couldn't be. She would've been dead years ago...centuries...

Sosostris pulled away from Envy and Ed, turned, and led the way through the gloom.

Ed followed her down the hall, through doors, and over the threshold into the open air beyond. He kept one arm beneath Envy's shoulders and the other underneath his thighs, noting the contrast between Envy's warmth and the comparatively cool night breeze. In spite of everything, Ed didn't feel especially bad. Restless. Yearning for home, appetite whetted by his recent transmutation, Edward felt more determined and hopeful and nervous than ever, all rolled into one. He was daring to dream again, and dreaming was harder even than surviving, fighting, or struggling, because dreams opened the door for disappointment, and he had been so bitterly disappointed for so long now. Any more, and he felt he'd certainly die.

But physically, he was great. Two arms, two legs, not scarred, clean, clothed, hair arranged nicely, with only the barest flutterings of thirst and hunger beginning to swell within him. Even if the difference did not naturally extend into his mental health and his overall perspective of the world, it was hard not to be infected by the sudden burst of health and comfort. Even though his previous lifestyle had been rough in ways—much travelling, intermittent fighting and conflict, limited stability—he had never as now so thoroughly appreciated how much he'd had access to money, the functionality of his automail parts compared to what he'd be without them, his attractiveness and strength and general physique. Now he wasn't taking any external qualities for granted, not in the least.

If his mind was declining, then he knew his happiness would be short-lived, but something else he had learned was that good moods were to be caught, held on to, and savoured for however long their duration might be.

These good spirits might perish on the way to wherever Ed was going, or before he even boarded the train, but for now, they were his, and he cherished them as one would cherish the the rainbow after a storm—colours shining through even when the sky was reloading its clouds.

Now, all he had to do was win.

Nights in Munich were different from nights in Riesenburg or nights anywhere in the countryside; Central had been more like this, but without the hollow suggestion of poverty seeping into the framework of the cityscape. There were no lush green fields, no trees blowing in the wind or little night snails creeping along the wet earth. Street lamps and stars and moonlight; the city was not lacking for illumination in one form or another, and the sky was bright with a white smear of twilight spread across the dark heavens. Yet Ed noted that even at this early hour, windows to houses were shuttered and he couldn't glimpse lights on within many of them. They walked quietly save for the sounds of their footfalls, spared from being alone only by the homeless and the occasional passerby who said nothing when making their way past, not so much a greeting, and Ed wondered if this were unfriendliness or something else. Sosostris had said people were outside, waiting and watching; were they to be found nearby? Did they even exist, or was she lying?

A wind called to them now and again, prompting Sosostris to pull her collar up and bury her face against the cloth. Edward, arms full of sleeping Envy, had no such luxury. Wind tossed his bangs, splashed cool against his cheeks and nipped them as he strolled along behind the lady, following her step by step and not feeling tired or overexerted in the least. He felt like—and was—a new man. The night was clear. The weather was favourable, and the moon was plump.

Yet housed within the evening was something else, something restless and unpleasant. Why was no one giving them more unusual looks? It couldn't be common for such bizarrely trifurcate individuals to journey together at night, at an hour when most people in this working district had already locked themselves away behind shutters and doors and twisted keys. Edward estimated his company to be in unusually high financial standings (if not she herself, then those for whom she worked), probably receiving money from black market channels and illegal or dubiously legal means, but as she had said, she was Roma, Zigeuner, an ethnic group Ed suspected many were not fond of. And no one was speaking to them, regarding them with nary a look.

Ed wanted to be on the train as soon as possible. He felt exposed out here—out here in these open spaces, vulnerable to the talons of the shadows.

The memory of the dream came to him again as he walked in the quiet: the memory of the dream and the feelings it conjured, like spiders running along his arms and mites crawling up his veins as though they were silver threads. Flashes of dark potential: the haunting image of Sosostris's empty eye socket bereft of its empowering device, the horrors of alchemy when used for evil, the laughter of the Gate within whose gold there gathered terrible, slithering nightmares. The sense of presence had returned, though not so strong as it had been in the bedroom. Now, it was more that Ed couldn't shake the feeling that there were faces and bodies and voices around him, lurking in the corners and alleys and just out of view of his eyes. Pregnant, heavy darkness.

A cloud hung, unseen except in his mind, low and oppressive and dark grey.

The evening felt like murder.

Ed shuddered and twitched, willing the perceptions to leave him.

He needed to concentrate on where he was going, and on steadying Envy. He needed to concentrate on what he would say and do when the homunculus awoke. He needed to concentrate on what he would do once their destination was reached. He needed to ask Sosostris about the other variables in the equation, though he didn't expect her to be too forthright. But his head was drowned with fog.

So hard to think. So hard to focus.

Though he was breathing steadily, perfectly, it felt as though someone had cut off the oxygen to his brain. His mind felt suffocated, restricted; he coughed, shook his head, eyes watering as he trembled and then caught himself. The sensation dragged by, leaving a vague nausea in its wake. The sense of presence diminished, dulled and cooled until it was no stronger than late night paranoia, but it did not vanish entirely. Edward made his way onwards, Sin in hands, keeping his eyes firmly away from the alleys or anywhere especially shadowy. Distraction. He needed a worthwhile distraction. Math, that would do the trick. Math and science.

The train station was much different when one approached it from the other end, under a cover of stars no less. As Wagner had indicated, it did appear to be closed; the station was dimly lit. Ed heard no trains.

"Here," Sosostris indicated, coughing as she made her way up the steps to the station. The night air appeared to have enhanced the effects of her cold. "It's not closed, Edward. That's a ruse. Business is afoot, I assure you."

Who were these people that they had such unlimited access? Government?

Ed felt his heart climb the ladder into his throat.

His arms and legs were tired already. No surprise—two of them were unused to existing, let alone working.

Inside of the station, Ed saw no one. It had the appearance of being abandoned, though a small number of overhead lights had been turned on, casting white puddles into the eerie shadows. Edward was breathing heavily but steadily, a thin sheet of sweat (sweat which, for once, was surprsingly free of grime—how amazing it felt to be clean!) clung to his skin and Envy was warm within his arms, so very warm and alive. Ed held onto him; his short, bitten nails pinched the sleek flesh and the tight, strange clothing. The homunculus's flesh was slightly moist with his own sweat, which smelled of stone fluid—odd, a little vanilla, cool like concrete and wet leaves in the fronds of some dark jungle plants, but also in Envy's cells, there was the faint burnt tinge of the alchemical reactions which formed him, which fused his parts and tore them asunder at the Gate's will.

Even though Envy had been reset and there was no possible way he could still have any odor of sex or blood, Ed could've sworn he smelled them on him, in him, like stains in his flesh that sank into the marrow; that odd, iron tang of clots and scabs, but how could that be? Envy's blood was nothing like a human's, anyway. Blood was actually a misnomer for the soul-fuelled liquid coursing through the creature's veins, but Ed thought of it as such. Whereas Envy had once smelled so very straightforward and simplistic, there was now a complexity to his scent, a mingling of chemicals, and Edward really didn't think he was imagining this.

It was all a part of Envy becoming Real; his scent was different, more intense and warm like a sea of pheromones. While his skin was still snowdrifts and cream, his cheeks flushed more brightly; a healthy pink glow could touch them, could touch other parts of him; Ed had seen it, felt it, tasted it. Envy's eyes had changed as well. When he had been younger, in his days of chemical exploration, Ed had mixed strontium and copper compounds, burning them, and the incandescent result had been a glow akin to a homunculus's eyes—bright, fiery, like a laser, violet lightning slashing the white skies.

Now, Envy's eyes were darker, plum, pupils thickened like an oil spill had occurred inside of the irises; lust and rage and sorrow had bled into his eyes, lost at sea, and drowned there. All the tears in his body could never cry the colour away, and the emotions lay, not yet fully spent.

The station isn't empty.

Ed swallowed and kept his eyes on Sosostris's back, holding Envy closer than he meant to, only because his knees were trembling again. Above, the few lights flickered, and he was sure he was back in the bathroom, in Central, soon to be ambushed and torn to shreds.

Couldn't look around.

Had to look straight ahead. Had to keep going straight, one foot in front of the next in front of the next in front of the next. Envy in arms, still and quiet, an anchor; the world was beating down on Ed and his eyes tipped towards the ground, then back up, long bangs falling before his face, jaw clenching. Jugular vein pulsed, throbbed. There were people here, he knew. Or not people. Creatures. Demons. Monsters. The Gate had entered the world, entered his mind. He couldn't look. Oh God, Al. But he didn't believe in God. Al, then. The future. Home. Needed to dwell on those, imprint them in his soul; Envy, so real, while the world was itself a phantasm; skeletons of wood and metal bars, dry leaves blown through a dead existence.

And Ed realized, in that instant, the irony of it all: Envy had become real even as he himself had become a dream within a dream.

Somehow, somewhere, he found himself boarding a train, though he did not recall walking the full length of the station. Furthermore, he did not remember anyone purchasing a ticket, nor did he remember sitting and waiting for any announcement that it was time to board. But here he stood, the train before him brown and slate grey and liberally marked with red to indicate that it was more than a common vehicle for freight.

Ed looked around, unnerved by the sudden lapse of time and by the vehicle that loomed before him—not like the ones he'd worked with in the yard. He stood at a part of the station he'd never been to before, on the platform in front of the train tracks. Around him were posts and benches and waste baskets, wood and bricks, with a roof above that ended right where the platform did. When he took a step forward and placed his foot into the open door of the car, Ed found that he could look up and view the starry night, complete with the fat white moon. Smoke rose from somewhere in the distance, thin and wispy. The night was beyond lovely. He never thought he'd make it to this segment of the station, but here he was, one step away from a device which could take him away from Munich forever. Away from Munich, but to where? Freedom, a better life? Or was he heading straight into hell?

Heads or tails?

Ed chewed his lip relentlessly, hesitating. Sosostris had vanished. No one was around. He couldn't see anyone, yet he felt many anyones, as though the hosts of the dead had gathered to watch him depart to whatever his destination was. And what the hell was his destination? How could he just step onto a seemingly empty train and go speeding off to some unknown location? Madness. This was madness, as if he weren't already going mad, and where the fuck was his host? At once frantic, his eyes darted back and forth, and he opened his mouth to call for someone, but no sound came out.

This was it. This was really it. Whatever he did now, whether he took that next step or not, it would influence the outcome of his future forever. Everything he did, dependent on one little motion, and his knees were going to give way and he was going to collapse and Envy was going to collapse and they were going to die even now, even in fucking good health and good clothing, and everything was about to fall apart. He couldn't breathe.

"Young man," said a voice, and the world was real again.

Ed blinked.

"Go ahead and enter the train, young man. Don't be afraid. Our employer knows people who have influence in the Railway Administration, but he's no god."

An old man, fifty-something or more. Ed hadn't perceived him until now, but he sat on one of the benches, dressed all in dark brown but for his white undershirt—hands in his pants pockets, broad of gut. He grinned a grin of dirty teeth; his hair was gray-white and messy, wispy like the rising smoke. It stuck out here and there in tufts, unkempt. Though his clothing was clean and looked less threadbare than most, the rest of his appearance did not suggest any sort of wealth. Quite the opposite.

"And though she likes to think she consults with the spirits—" The grin grew, now amicable beyond measure. "—the lady is hardly a goddess."

"Who are you?" Ed asked. Not what he wanted to say. He wanted to blurt that surely the train was a ghost train, occupied by spirits and crewed by the damned. It was on its way to some nefarious afterlife, perhaps the burning hell specified by the old, dead religion, or perhaps some other nightmare. But that sounded ridiculous and he knew it. He felt ridiculous. Even the warm comfort in his arms had diminished, thanks to a growing numbness.

"Only Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs." He tipped an imaginary hat. "I was sent to back up Madame Sosostris's efforts, should she need the help. And you, my boy, must be the one I've heard so much about. Here, here, let me have a sight of you before you get on that train."

"I don't understand. What's happening?"

"Well, from the looks of things, I'd guess you're having your first bouts of difficulty with what the Gate's done to you. That's just my outside opinion, though. Can't see inside your head, of course. A-ha." He stood up and approached. Involuntarily, Ed flinched, but did not run. "Yes, that must be it. I'm sure you'll be fine once you get to the castle and settle down, maybe get some rest and food and a nice bath or two."

"CASTLE?"

"She didn't tell you, then? Neuschwanstein Castle. We have so many people working there who will be excited to meet you. A whole group, a whole society. A-ha. It's an extraordinary place. You and your friend will love it, no worries. Wait, now, I want to see this friend. Her, him, or it. It, they say, but it looks like a woman to me. Will you give me a better view? Lift it into the light a little."

Castle. They were going to a castle? Now Ed could hardly breathe for another reason altogether. A castle. What the fuck? There were castles in parts of Amestris, ruins, and there were castles in Xing and in older, more far away lands, but Ed had never actually been to a castle before. He'd been born a country boy, and while he'd seen Central and other cities and desert lands and underground towers hidden where the sun might never peer at them, he'd never actually gone to a true castle, and the idea of visiting one now was intriguing, fascinating, but also—in his current state of mind—frightening.

Where would he be staying? What if he were in the upper floor of a tower, where he might walk in his sleep or in a waking state of dreaming and run out an open window to a swift death far below? Dangers lurked in castles. Dangers, echoes of the dead. Ed didn't think he needed to be in such a place; it would make escape difficult, if he found he needed to escape. Damn. Shit!

"What a beautiful creature," the man remarked, extending one wrinkled hand to brush the pads of his fingers along Envy's face. As per the stranger's request, Ed held Envy up so that his flesh was rich with moonlight, and only when the old man inspected the sleeping homunculus did Ed realize with a start that Envy's eyes had begun to open. "A-ha. Yes. No eyes like this to be found anywhere else in all of this world, are there? Timeless face. Good body. The master will be excited to see the two of you. Two pairs of eyes, the likes of which have never been seen in this world before and which will never exist in it again...after you're gone."

Ed blinked, realizing the elderly gentleman was also speaking of his eyes. Tiresias, as he had called himself, pressed his lips together and smiled, and in so far as eyes went, his own were small and grey, nearly colourless, crinkled around the edges like old paper, but there seemed to be a certain kindness and affection in them.

"I don't want to lose my mind," Ed blurted, voice hushed and trembling.

"Of course you don't. What man does, my boy? What man does? And you being so young, so full of promise. Ah, but the master wants your mind intact as well, and as long as you cooperate and work with us, then maybe we can get you right again. Maybe you can get yourself right again. You do have that Stone, don't you?"

He wasn't sure how to respond to that. The man seemed so affable that a part of Ed wanted to trust him, was in fact eager to trust him, but the life of an alchemist, a sinner—a stranded soul and a waning mind—dictated caution and care with words. So Ed didn't answer the question. Instead, he said, "We're leaving now."

We could have referred to the two conscious, speaking individuals in the vicinity.

But it did not, and the old man recognized as much.

"So you are. And so am I. Have a good trip, the both of you."

We won't, Ed thought, lips pressing into a tight smile. He should have asked something more of Tiresias, should've pried and dug and insisted and demanded and forced answers out of him, but the night was full of spectres, and this spectre Edward knew he would see again soon. If he asked, he might get asked of, and he wasn't ready for that yet. Something was off. He'd missed something. The world was fast turning into a game, a deadly game of consequences, and he needed to see, to strategize, to plan and think and figure out what he'd do next before he did a damned thing.

He needed silence. He needed to gather his thoughts and decide upon a course of action.

With this in mind, he turned—ponytail swishing and following him—not offering a final glance backwards to verify whether Tiresias was real or merely a ghost of the night's mind.

The train car was empty and spotted with lights which glowed around the ceiling and windows. Exhausted anew, Ed ascended into the lit darkness, the emptiness, his mind wondering how best to protect itself, how best to extract from the homunculus what he needed.

Envy stirred. The door slid closed.

Maybe you can get yourself right again, the old man's words—echoed, a mental whisper.

When the train came to life, grinding on the tracks, humming loudly, Ed looked out a window, but the only ghosts he saw were his mother and brother, sweet and sad, round faces like wintry moons. Edward laid Envy down on one of the seats and pressed his newly reformed fingers to the glass, as if he might reach into some other dimension by doing so, as if he might draw strength from his memories.

But then the moment passed, and they were gone.

Somewhere, a whistle blew, and Ed knew he might never see Munich again.