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ambre

Wasteland

chapter 32.

Envy collapsed.

He crumpled to his knees.

With bloody hands, he tied the band about his forehead.

His ribs suffered, hurting as though bruised and fractured by how thoroughly he'd winded himself. He hugged them.

He who was living was now dead. And those who were living would soon be dying.

No. No, it hurt. Remorse, it might've been, but it couldn't be remorse, because he didn't have a soul. He didn't have feelings. But when he thought about Edward, about now, something roiled and sloshed within him. A reverberation. A feeling of wrongness he couldn't name. And he hated it and thought to vomit it from wherever it had taken root inside of him, but it stayed. It multiplied. He looked back on those images, that past, and the coolness was gone. The aloofness was gone. Four centuries of numbness hidden under icy sarcasm had ended, even if he could still don the mask, even if the mirror assured him he was the same. He was not the same. He hated it. He hated them.

He needed to get out. It was the room. It was cramped, confining. He was a prisoner again, and alone—again. He couldn't think.

He was a survivor, and the past was the past. It never ended, but it was still behind him. He had to look forward, and now.

Envy arose and patted the stone fluid from his body with his now-healing hands. It dried and disintegrated at his touch, leaving him reasonably clean, though the shattered mirror lay as proof of his tantrum, and he was breathless. A mirror could be glued together once more, but it would never again be flawless, and Envy saw no manner through which to reconcile the broken pieces of his personality. Apparently he was many contradictions somehow inhabiting the same mind. It was difficult for him to see his future in a straight line, let alone think in one, but he knew he needed to try.

He ran his hands through his hair and shook his head slowly in long, waving motions. Gently, he ran his hands across his body, across what little clothing he wore, feeling himself out, enjoying his warmth, glancing at and tracing the tattoo on his thigh, that symbol of his strength and immortality. On his chest, his brand—his array—felt fiery hot, and he could feel the Stone trying to rise like a phoenix, trying to be reborn from the depths that never died. Envy coughed and panted. He was so sweaty.

Beneath his bare foot, a shard of red-stained glass.

He pressed his heel down, driving it into the carpet.

I'm getting out, he thought to himself. Let's see who the fuck will be fool enough to try and stop me.

Envy grabbed the largest of the glass shards and held it carefully, placing his fingers on the dull parts so as not to cut himself again. He'd had his high, his dose of pain. He'd crushed himself when he'd crushed the mirror; he'd put himself through every mental torture and agony imaginable and then he'd remade his spirit, revitalized himself, if only partially. Now was the time for action, for doing. Envy stalked about the room, shooting vengeful glares at the upholstery, the walls, the artwork, the fucking architecture.

And then, at once, he dashed towards the door and landed his foot against it.

Unlocked, it slammed open with no fight.

Envy smiled.

Smiled, and walked into the morning.

The Gate purred into his ear, enticing like a lover, but Envy found that he was able to tune much of its dialogue out. If Ed could be out there doing productive deeds to get them out of this mess, then why couldn't Envy? He was sickened at how delicate he had been acting of late (compared to how he'd once been, in the least) and he resolved to remedy this. Now. He wouldn't kill anyone, no. His hands wanted to, of course, as they knew how to kill and murder and Envy counted that among his best talents, but Edward would surely leave him permanently if he ended the lives of those stupid fucking humans. Then again, Envy thought, why did he give a fuck what Ed would've done? He hated Edward. He wanted to kill him. Didn't he? He must've. That's what he'd always told himself. That's what she'd always told him he wanted to do. Hating all things Elric was so ingrained into Envy's pores that even when he felt himself cleaving to the Shorty, he was sure it must've been a dream and a lie and that regardless of what his body was trying to accomplish, Envy just knew he would kill the kid at any moment. And yet he hadn't, had he? Strange.

Dante's teachings were unquestionably flawed, doubtful. Envy saw that now.

(He hated her.

He understood her manipulation of him in a way that he'd not seen so well before.

His wrath was savage.)

But even when one is acutely aware that no monsters lurk in one's room at night, one might still feel spooked in the wee hours, and even when one has abandoned all belief in a God or gods, one might still look up ominously when cursing a deity's name, if one has been indoctrinated from a young age.

She was dead, but her ghost lived on in Envy, in every instance that he was sure he'd be punished for giving of himself, for daring to say or do or think the wrong thing.

Envy had no idea where he was going.

It didn't matter.

Hallways, walls, embellishments that were the stuff of dreams. The castle seemed to go on forever, and the rooms Envy passed through were eerily empty. Disconcertingly, distractingly empty, but he didn't let that bother him. He knew he wasn't alone, and he knew he'd been forbidden to leave his room. Ed had said to "stay put" (as if), and prior to that, worse warnings had been given, but Envy wasn't fazed. What the hell could be done to him that hadn't been done to him already? He assured himself: he'd seen it all. He'd done it all. He was beyond jaded.

A part of him was afraid, nonetheless, but he continued reciting his unspoken pep talk. He hated the fear, because it wasn't real fear, but rather some silly kneejerk terror induced by his memories and the darkness that ate at him, and the only way to combat it was to look it in its ugly mug and punch out its teeth. Exaggeration. Overcompensation. It'd never failed him before. The more confident he acted, the more confident he'd be. He'd beaten the Gate, the goddamned Gate! Nothing could touch him! Nothing!

Footsteps pounded as Envy made his way along to a destination unknown, shoulders stiff, hands at his sides, makeshift weapon in tow. Morning light was entering the castle, flooding it, but twilight stuck in the air like something tangible.

The surreal, twilit air was cold. Mountain air.

Envy disregarded everything save for what he was doing at the moment. He didn't know his goal, but he knew someone was out there. Someone wanted to see him.

He wasn't supposed to see them. That was why he'd been blinded. He wasn't supposed to see this person, but Envy knew he (or she) was out there, waiting. And he was magnetized, hypnotized, drawn by the Gate, by the voices, by the buzzing, the static, the powers that lay in the mystic, fecund, dirty castle air. Someone was waiting for him. He was going to them. Maybe playing into their hands, but that didn't matter, because he was choosing this. It was his choice!

From the bedroom, Envy made his way through a dining room, some place of Romanesque style, a throne room, and through a portal, until he eventually came across a spiral staircase. It took every ounce of effort he had to keep from pausing to stare at the stories that covered the walls, to keep from filling the gaze with the architecture and the designs and the furniture, and moreover, it took even more effort to keep his hands off all of those things, to keep from smashing the fucking pieces of shit. They infuriated him. Everything about this lousy set-up infuriated him.

Something told him Edward might be a wee bit angry about all this.


Envy almost stopped in his tracks to contemplate, but he didn't. He couldn't.

Who gave a damn what Ed thought?

Envy certainly didn't. Wasn't like Ed had given him a moment's consideration before running off and abandoning him. Everything that stupid bastard said about compassion was clearly a load of pure shit.

Envy sneered.

The spiral staircase.

Ed had kissed him. Kissed him goodbye. Kissed him with deceitful lips, those of the boy who was better to look at by far than all the extravagance surrounding them.

Edward with his lips and his skin and his hair that fell through Envy's fingers when he looped it around them; the way he curled his toes or the way he walked slightly off-kilter due to his body compensating for the presence of an automail leg, or the awkward way he used his new arm. Edward, with his ridiculously heavy shoes and the way he fidgeted like a boy and the way his eyes grew furtive and distant and full of secrets when he looked away, or sometimes even when he looked at Envy but looked through him. His spirit; his arrogant, bold spirit. He'd challenged the Gate, demanded of it, and he'd been fearless in doing so. Just a boy. He was just a boy, stupid in spite of his intelligence. Envy had no use for him. He swore to himself he had no use for Edward, but to possess him.

One step down the stairs. Then another. Another. A fourth.

Cautiously and with deliberate slowness did Envy navigate this winding monstrosity of lovely white steps, knowing not what might lurk below. He did not grip the rail. His hand held its blade fiercely, anticipating hostile movement at any instant.

Echoes danced inside the castle and inside Envy's head, but he didn't let them distract him. If anything was trying to distract him, it was thoughts of Edward. Envy kept his breathing even and cursed irritably, resenting Edward for all the pain he had not experienced. How could he know? How could he ever hope to have any idea?

For such a judgmental boy, he knew nothing about the real fucking world; that was certain. His life had held its nightmares, to be sure, and there were softened, sad pussies the world over who might declare how harsh the universe had been to Hohenheim's beautiful son, but when had Edward ever been without eyes that regarded him with light? A golden child who flowers would rise to be near, Edward's pain had only made him all the more fawned over, all the more cherished, all the more protected. Those idiotic fucking humans spoke of him in hushed whispers, with reverence. His hurt was a glamourous kind of hurt, the kind from which (and Envy nearly spat in disgust when he thought of this word) "heroes" were born.

Deprived of parents, deprived of two limbs, but Edward had still had his beloved fucking brother, and he'd entered into a sort of adopted family by way of the military, who had treated him well—too well—and he'd gone on to wear an arm and a leg which had gleamed like everything else about the bastard. Because of his talents and his brain, he'd become a hero of the people; how the fuck was that suffering? Glorified, pretty suffering was all it was; the kind of suffering newspapers liked to print because it looked good and photographed well. The brat's life in Amestris hadn't come within a thousand miles of the kind of depravity and misery Envy had seen during wars. The closest Ed had come to knowing such despair had been here, in Germany, when he'd lost his brother and one of those gleaming, polished limbs—when he'd been damn near reduced to begging, when he'd been poor and reviled.

And how Envy had savoured the sight of that, of Edward finally getting a sip of true hardships.

But to Envy's extreme displeasure, such affairs had been cut short, and here they were again: with Edward destined to play the hero again. A-fucking-gain!

No. Envy wasn't going to let it happen. He was going to get them out of this shit, if anyone did.

Envy twisted his arm, jerking and slashing a few times in practice. He spaced his legs accordingly and paced so that his thighs did not grind together and his strides were long and purposeful, his footsteps loud.

The thirst for violence was rising high within him, surging through his veins. His heart pumped with eagerness, anticipation. His body felt supple and strong, sleek and murderous; stomach and jaws tightened at every tiny sound. Ears listened intently. Eyes darted every which way.

His lack of powers had distracted him, caused him to get out of practice. He'd always thrown his strength around very specifically, paying care to his level of dexterity and flexibility, a level which had once far surpassed what any mere mortal could hope for. But on Earth, he'd allowed his ire to get the better of him, and more precisely, he'd allowed Edward to get the better of him, and he'd never quite recovered from that one fateful kick to the back of a skull delivered swiftly on a stormy night. Envy knew why he'd deteriorated; no difficulty figuring that out: his past coming back to haunt him, his preoccupation with a certain small someone, his lack of practice at fighting with the new limitations imposed upon his once remarkable attributes. He could invent a perfect argument for why he had fallen so magnificently, but that didn't change anything. There was no excuse—no fucking excuse—for not having fought back harder, for not adapting to become just as graceful and quick even if his might had withered.

He'd wallowed. He was disgusted with himself.

It was humiliating for Envy to know to what extent he might be crippled by affection and care given to him. He counted himself as fortunate that he had experienced so little of either, if this was the result.

Mirror glass wasn't straight and smooth. It had teeth. One or two cuts and it could tear a throat out. Envy imagined the ripping feeling of opening a neck; tendons snapping, muscles severed never to connect again, tender vessels gushing blood warm over his expectant fingers. That sweet, vulnerable expression on the face of one who knew they had no choice now but to gag their last pitiful breaths and die, cupping their precious arteries as if to apologize to them for landing their bodies in a situation whereby such violence might erupt. Such an intimate way to die. Envy wondered what went through a human's mind in those final, agonizing seconds when all words bubbled and failed.

Triumph, and a touch of nausea. Edward wouldn't like him thinking like this.

But again, who gave a fuck what Edward thought? Envy winced. He didn't. He didn't!

And he had to like these images, these sensations, because the memories told him he did. Everything he knew of himself and his reality that was and had ever been...everything was telling him it was accurate that he loved and needed carnage. It helped him feel better, and once he'd succeeded in creating more, his mood would improve. But then—

Envy's stomach hurt.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fucking fuck. The homunculus wrapped one arm around his waist and urged the tumult in his gut to go the fuck away. The hell? He'd barely even eaten anything.

"The dead are out and about this morning, from the looks of it," a voice whispered into his ear. "But you are so beautiful, I might even forgive this trespass."

Behind him.

Envy didn't turn. This was unquestionably the most difficult act of self-control of any creature since the world began.

"Nice to know, seeing as I've got someone to meet." He didn't even know what he was talking about. He hadn't planned this far ahead, but the words seemed right. Sarcasm. Sarcasm was his weapon. He reminded himself that he didn't care, that nothing could touch him. He wasn't threatened. It wasn't possible to threaten him. Envy looked straight ahead. "And if you make me kill you, it's going to...inconvenience us both. Run along now, little human."

Bright from the amount he'd managed to sweat, Envy could feel his hand quivering. It was taken by the agonizing, all-consuming need to spin in a flash and bury its shard into the neck or eye of whoever had accosted him.

His cells screamed for blood. His very spirit screamed with the voices of a thousand by a thousand graves.

I'm going to pass out, he thought in a mad panic. The force of his concentration was aggravating his sickness, and the pain was so sharp that had he been a human, he was sure he already would have passed out.

"How wrong you are," the voice went on. As Envy listened in stark horror, it changed.

This can't be real.

An arm joined his own, wrapping his stomach. Another hand roamed his thighs, coming teasingly close to his ass.

"You're even more beautiful when you're confused and tormented," the voice—now familiar—added.

"Edward?" Envy didn't mean it as a question. It came out as one anyway.

Then and there, he was very startled, very unsure of what to do, and he felt very, very stricken and helpless.

No, wait. He'd missed something. Envy's mind dashed backwards, grabbing a previous ambiguous comment and pondering over it within the short space of several thumps of his heart.

How wrong you are.

It wasn't Edward. It wasn't even human.

"You came from the Gate."

Accusation given, Envy heard it laugh, and he seethed with outrage that it had tried to trick him, that it had tricked him, that he'd looked vulnerable for one devastated instant. And now it was laughing. At him. At his folly.

Envy rounded on the creature so fast that few humans would've been able to follow his movements. The exploring hands disappeared, slithering away with matching speed, like Sloth's water tentacles yanked back into flesh forms again.

No characteristic chunky feeling of flesh, no spray of blood. First swipe was a miss.

Envy caught a glimpse of what looked to be an effigy of Edward, but with an unusual sneer and dead, pitted red eyes around which the skin was bruised as if smudged with charcoal. Envy knew he'd remember those eyes in his nightmares to come, even if he only saw them in the time it took for his arm to carve its deadly arc.

Black-grey smoke unfurled from nowhere, obscuring Envy's view of his opponent, though he heard it leap backwards, its shifting presence identified by a swishing noise which sounded eerily reminiscent of a broom sweeping the ground.

Envy stumbled backwards as well; not good one when considered his precarious location. His foot managed to hit a lower step without falling off the edge and toppling backwards, but there was a fraction of a second during which his heel skidded against the back of the step and he just knew he was going to fall down and snap his fucking neck. Not so, and once he'd gotten both feet secure, he realized that his most immediate concern was gaining the advantage of elevation.

Now, how to get above his enemy without charging blindly and stupidly into immediate peril? He didn't even know specifically what the fuck he was up against, not yet. No sense in rushing into it without some kind of quick analysis.

If only I had any goddamned time.

"What the hell are you?" His voice rang out in the dusk as he challenged the...whatever it was. Homunculus? No, that didn't seem quite right.

"You're old," it said by way of reply. "Old and broken. Useless and full of weaknesses."

Envy's eyebrow twitched. Old? Old?

He still couldn't see its body, but he was beginning to think that was because it didn't have one. Pure, unadulterated Gate creatures had forms only in the loosest definition of the term. Concentrated blackness, smoke and spite and spirit. The Gate was the home of everything disregarded by the infinity of the stars in the universe—dark matter, the trash and refuse and excrement of the light. Materials no one needed, left out of the grand universal plan, abandoned by God and gods and science, yearning and petty and envious, clinging to faint memories and knowledge of form enough to sprout membranes and limbs and vestigal parts, but never for long, and never with any sense of art or structure. Only an alchemist and the wine of red water could give them that.

The smoke spread. Envy shielded his face with his right forearm.

"Not a fit shell for the grand elixir. Best you let me relieve you of it."

Yeah, right. Envy bared his teeth with all of the malice his face was capable of producing. He tasted smoke, and not a moment too soon he dashed sideways, barely missing a black tentacle that literally shot from thin air.

As soon as he was up the steps a second tentacle crashed into him, slamming him hard against the solid railing.

Shit. Envy felt a fleshy, cold, slender thing wrap around his ankle, jerking him down. And yet in the tiny amount of time he had to take in the sensation, he realized that it didn't feel anything like a real tentacle, nor like a real anything. It felt hollow, insubstantial, like a wet pouch of ashes brushing against his naked flesh. With a grunt, he kicked it away and scrabbled at the stairs, cursing the fact that (just his luck) they happened to be composed of marble.

Another touch. Envy kicked harder, afraid of dislodging himself and angrier for it. For fuck's sake, why couldn't the damned stairs just have carpet, or something else he could bury his fucking fingernails into?

Twisting quickly, Envy felt the roving not-limb disintegrate, vanishing as if transmuted into dust. He took the opportunity to push himself up, bounding to his feet. The movement taxed his abdominal muscles to the point that he nearly doubled over with the force of it. He wasn't used to fighting with such diminished strength, but he knew then and there that he'd best get used to it and fast.

"Kill me," he challenged, laughing hoarsely. Talk, his instincts were saying. Distract it.

He leapt another grab at his ankles and swatted a higher tendril aside.

"Kill me. You won't be the first."

A few steps backwards. Envy edged away, relinquishing his elevation for the time being, though he hated to do so. On top of lessening his tactical advantage, it made him look to be cowering, or planning an escape. Not that Envy would've fled from such taunting, relentless, personal conflict anyway, but he didn't think he could get away even if he wanted to. It wanted the Stone, and as much as he cursed the fucking thing for having landed him in this situation, it was Envy's Stone and no fucking piece of shit Gate escapee was going to take it from him.

Mouthless laughter tickled over Envy. Had any hairs lined his arms and legs, he was just sure that series of needling vibrations would have caused them to stiffen and rise.

Now came the game: how confident was this thing that it was winning? More to the point, how confident did it have any right to be? Envy thought if he could play into its arrogance, it might get clumsy. That had worked with past enemies. But alternatively, he felt terribly obvious with the fact that he was baiting the creature, given that he was in no uncertain manner backing up slowly, smirking even as he gasped for oxygen, and daring it to attempt his destruction.

It hadn't reached for him again, which meant it was either hurt, sizing him up, or else considering another method of attack. Last two, he decided. Nothing from the Gate could be hurt so easily, himself included.

Experimentally, Envy took another step backwards, feeling his way down the spiral staircase. His enemy advanced with matching speed, floating (crawling) forward, undulating inch by inch.

A wicked thing it was to behold. Formless, looking like a mass of writhing shadow-snakes, changing here and there as if attempting to replicate the powers Envy had once had; its not-muscles and not-bones stretched so loudly that Envy heard them grind and crest over one another, and an empathetic feeling that was not quite pain (but close) rippled beneath his own skin like a series of mites burrowing into him, just out of reach of his nails. He felt the colour drain from his already pale face.

He knew what those sounds felt like. If in that very instant he were to be swiftly and thoroughly drained of all other memories, that one turmoil would remain. He knew what those sounds felt like. He could never forget.

Humans were at least granted the mercy of forgetting their births. Homunculi were not.

Faceless, nameless, without an identity or purpose, this thing did not belong in this world or any other. Maybe he didn't, either, Envy considered, reflecting on the inherently mimicking nature of being a shapeshifter. But after so many years, he'd fucking earned his right to be here, and if anyone wanted to take it away from him, they had better be prepared to out-bastard him; he would not settle for being broken by any but the meanest, nastiest, most vile and evil bitch or son of a bitch of all time, and he didn't think this newborn know-nothing qualified.

"Go ahead and kill me," he said, one final time. "You're not even original. Secondhand murder went out of style last year, or didn't you get the memo?"

With a lingering smile, Envy turned and ran.

The choice was a split-second decision his mind had arrived at after tossing options over and over like coins, flipping heads or tails and weighing each with all the importance of a ten second interval of peace. No way did he think evasion would work; bait, just more bait, and it was risky as hell to turn his back to the thing and go flying down the stairs, but even the simplest creature would've taken stepping backwards tentatively for the ruse it was.

This was his shot.

Go.

Go.

GO!

Blood drumming in his ears. Air blurring his vision, coldness pricking his eyes; stinging.

The spiral staircase wound down, down, down; a treacherous conch shell waiting to trip him up (sending him hurtling downwards to impale himself on his own self-made dagger, splitting his chest or perhaps his throat, and visions of tearing straight through his wrist and jamming it out his fingernails sped through his mind, along with memories of the exact popping sound of a snapping neck), but Envy ran as if it were a straight, even road—trusting his feet not to betray him by wobbling or missing a beat or growing unsure of themselves. Absolute faith. And then he found himself focusing on nothing at all, nothing but the endlesswhitewinding thoroughfare.

White. White. White.

Pat. Pat. Pat. Pat.

He felt it coming.

Envy tossed his blade to his left hand and threw himself against the railing on his right side, nailing it with his shoulder and wincing through the pain (necessary,, he reminded himself) as he let himself drop; he pushed with all of his limited weight and begged silently for the momentum to slow as he slid down the steps. It must've been the most tragically hilarious sight to see; a figure running with such fluid grace before landing on their ass and banging it repeatedly, along with the foot he'd stretched outwards to catch his plummet.

Sharp corners scratched open the backs of his legs, and they bled in furious, blistering rawness.

His ankle broke.

Wait for it...

He heard the fracture.

Wait for it...

And Envy was still falling.

There.

Over his head: the largest tentacle he'd seen yet. It seemed to fling out in slow motion, unwinding like a ribbon plucked from someone's dress and streaming overhead with the beauty of a shooting star twinkling its life away in the night.

It had come for him and missed, just as planned.

(Sucker...)

Fighting was not about beauty. It was about playing dirty and honing one's ability to feint, a talent which Envy valued even more highly than his physical prowess, and a talent which he had never, ever stopped believing himself to have.

(If only you could see me now...)

With an insane cackle that sent a spurt of foamy spittle from his lips, Envy lunged upwards and grabbed an armful of the slimy appendage. Sunlight drenched his eyes. Faster. Faster they descended, bumping most of the steps on the way down. Gambles: sometimes you won. Sometimes you lost.

Now.

Envy pulled the tendril forward and hurled it.

Smoke between him and the sun. He halted his breath for the time being, so as not to inhale the oily, goopy, fetid substance. Like a dream, darkness lay over his head. The next thing he knew was that the pain of the stairs was gone and the ceiling had disappeared into unnatural murkiness, and he'd flipped himself over with the force of his throw and he was falling. Falling, falling, falling.

They were falling.

Then they crashed.

It was almost laughably anticlimactic, in truth. The steps had broken the worst of the journey downwards, so that when Envy landed on his adversary (who in turn had landed on the floor), he didn't emit so much as an oof. However, his mouth did betray him by slipping open to allow the noxious vapours into his lungs. Instantly, he was hacking in two simultaneous manners—coughing dryly as his eyes dribbled wetness while his hand stabbed and chopped and stabbed and chopped, generally attempting to cleave and skewer the unlife from whatever the fuck this mess thought it was.

Cool liquid trickled over his fingers.

Trickled, then gushed.

Bright red, crimson, dark red, purple, deepening to brown, to black. Like oil, but much thicker and more glutinous and entirely, entirely repulsive to the touch. The not-skin rumpled and seized as if in the throes of vomiting, convulsing like the insides of a human, crinkling as if it were paper, then filling to plumpness and reaching for Envy's fingers, latching on—leech-like—and pulling them downwards. The sensation was the absolute antithesis of pleasure or arousal, resulting in Envy feeling as though his own skin wanted to climb off its bones to escape this undead muck. If an epidermis had feet, then his surely would have run away at top speed.

Well, epidermes might not have had feet, but this entity's skin apparently could sprout teeth.

Envy found his empty, clutching palm and wrist being bitten by tiny, mean teeth reminiscent of a weasel's. He jumped in surprise, and apparently that was all the opening it needed.

Next thing he knew, another limb had wrapped around his leg.

Next thing he knew after that, he was flying through the air.

Whatever room they were in now, it seemed to be a servant's quarters of some kind, so Envy didn't even have a very grand ceiling to look at before he found himself crashing into it. Dull, blunt pain flared through his bones and he fell, another hard tendril strike catching him in his clumsily opened mouth. A second strike landed and somehow flipped him over. He soon found himself hanging upside down, both ankles bound, his crude weapon far from his fingertips and glinting with morning light amidst a forest of blood and shadows and bursting, pus-leaking boils.

"A brave and stupid creature you are to willfully hurt yourself just to get an advantage over a foe," said the voice, that voice which was now like a wave of heat fanning from the furnaces at the bottom of the Earth. "I underestimated the extent of your stupidity. Apologies."

Like a tongue, that mucuous skin rubbed against Envy's bare legs; he felt it licking him up and down, coating his (exposed, still somewhat tenderized, not yet healed) exterior with a thin film of black-silver. The pain of having blood roughly lapped away from a dermis of whose nerves were now closer to the surface was excruciating, but when teeth clamped down, it became unbearable.

Tentacles wrapped around his desperately clawing hands, shattering his wrists. Bones jutted through the skin.

Envy screamed.

Over that and the misery of being molested by tongues and teeth which were quite literally licking and sipping his life away as though he were a popsicle to be savoured, Envy had three thoughts.

First was that wherever the fuck Edward was, he'd better be having it just as fucking bad, because this was getting ridiculous.

Second was that in order for his person to have been tossed into the air in the first place, Envy knew he must have wounded his adversary. It wanted his Stone. It wanted his stones. Shoving him off would have been a stupid, pointless move unless it had been suffering from the wounds he'd dealt it, so even taking into account the remarkable healing abilities of Gate produce, this had to be a good sign.

Third was that he'd better wrestle his way out of this situation. He had little time to spare, what with the way he was now being gnawed and slobbered on; fucking bastard of a monster was drooling his own stones onto his legs as it drank them out of his body, and he felt an oncoming tiredness which nearly paralyzed him with fear. Tiredness wasn't good, was it? In a human, gradually increasing tiredness from blood loss was synonymous with—

Envy thrashed and flailed, body overcome by the throes of intense panic. He was being eaten. He was being eaten alive. And it wasn't fair! It wasn't fucking fair, because he'd gone through so much and he'd come so far and if he died, he'd never kill Hohenheim; he'd never have his proper revenge and he'd certainly never have Edward as his to possess. And if he died because he'd wandered out of the bedroom, then it meant Edward would have been right for telling him to stay put, and Edward being right about that pissed Envy off beyond the point of reason, because he could just hear Ed saying "I-told-you-so" with that sad, pathetic, head-shaking-slowly look he was prone to using with Envy—except Envy wouldn't actually see it this time, since he'd be dead permanently, but he could imagine it all the same.

Like hell. Like hell was he going to let himself get killed. Like hell was he going to let Edward be right.

Dangling helplessly, Envy had a skewed sight of the table below him. Simple oak furniture with a candelabra. If only he could swing hard enough to dislodge himself and land on it, then maybe...maybe...

No, he was in bad trouble now. Looking up, he could see the creature swelling in size as it consumed his stone fluid. Its body was like a storm, a tempest of flashing colours and silhouetted thorns, and as Envy gazed from his ineffectual position, his eyes widened at the sight of people in the middle of the ceaseless gloom: Edward, Dante, Greed, images from the past. Whispers and echoes tore at his ears and he heard voices he hadn't heard in years and he saw himself, or himself as he would have been ages ago, and he saw—(no, nononono NO) the man with dark blond hair.

And the man smiled at him. A quirking, endless smile of hidden knowledge.

Was this his life flashing before his eyes as he perished, as some humans claimed happened to them? Or was it simply the efforts of a monster trying to assume form by taking his identity: his stones, his memories, his very nature as a former shapeshifter?

(Every sorrowful beast within the Gate wanted to mimic the scientific truths of a body, its own body, not a shell of the alchemist who had dragged it howling into the world...but he was the only one who had ever been really been able to replicate...the only one who had fashioned his own body...)

The air was heavy with longing. Envy realized the emotions he was feeling weren't his own.

The air was also heavy with stench, and Envy could no longer feel his legs. Either they had numbed, or else there wasn't much of them that hadn't been devoured. Just like being boiled again.

His hands were throbbing and useless.

And finally, his vision went out, plunging him into the abyss.

At first, he thought he'd died. Then, he realized he was still thinking, still hearing. So his eyesight had been lost again. Fuck. Lousy timing. Not that it mattered now.

Nothing mattered anymore.

Edward wasn't going to save him. No one was going to save him. And he couldn't save himself.

So this is it.

Feeling as resigned as it was ever possible for such an emotional spirit to be, Envy hung limply and barely bit down when he felt the final tentacle plunge between his teeth, swiftly maneuvering through his windpipe and into his lungs, rending the flesh and shattering the bones on its way to its destination. The Stone within him leapt at the intrusion, leaving Envy feeling as though someone had just jolted him with a defibrillator. Well, what the fuck do you want me to do? he thought, irritably. As if it would actually answer. Hah. He must have been losing the remnants of his mind.

The Stone, of course, did not reply. The Gate was curiously silent as well. But beyond the ringing in his ears and the fading feeling of, well, everything his body consisted of, an idea struck Envy. It was a crazy idea, and it pounded him in the chest like an automail fist. Incessant. It would not be ignored.

Submit, the idea said. Accept. Take.

Submit? What the hell was he thinking? He didn't need to submit. The asshole was taking what it wanted, wasn't it?

Submit, instinct insisted. When you can't win, submit. And take. It's in you. Take it deeper.

Instinct could go fuck itself for all the "bright" thoughts it seemed to be having. Still, Envy didn't have any other options now, and his time was running short. Scratch that. The last grains of sand were dropping through the hourglass's neck.

Accept.

Envy swallowed.

And swallowed.

And swallowed.

And swallowed.

He didn't know what was happening, but even though his windpipe and esophagus were being clogged and something repugnant was flicking his larynx and plucking at his vocal chords, there was also...

Envy tasted...no, that wasn't the right word, because it didn't really have a taste. Envy felt something.

Something more.

(Life? Energy? Spirit?)

He felt the Stone.

It was hungry. Ravenous. It craved satiation in the form of ether, disembodied concentrated power. For a moment, Envy forgot the disgusting flesh that was gagging and covering him, and remembered to think of this entity as a pure phantom animus, which was what it had been when he'd seen it exiting the Gate during Edward's failed transmutation (oh how long ago that felt!). It wasn't real. It wanted to be real, but it wasn't real. Not yet. Not without all of him, and as long as the Stone was still lodged inside of Envy, sleeping dreamlessly, he was more real, a thousand times more real.

It had turned to ashes before. It had been struggling to sustain a chemical composition—

(And now it was filled with his stones, and filling him with itself, within which those stones lay. The solution had been so obvious from the start!)

Envy continued to swallow, clenching his stomach and feeling the acid rush to dissolve the material it was given. With a fresh handful of stones pooling in his distended belly, he kept taking it down, biting with renewed strength. Once he'd kept at it for a while, he no longer tasted the bile and phlegm that the thing had assaulted his taste buds with (next to this, he mused wryly, dumplings would be a cause for rejoicing). Instead, the tentacle in him felt like a giant root, bland and protuberant.

More stones emptied into his gut.

The Stone was hungry. It had clamped down on the ephemeral ghost of that which had assailed Envy, and it held fast.

Now the air was heavy with outrage. The sniggering vibrations changed in pitch to become furious cries. How dare you, Envy heard in every corner of the room. How dare you! I can't lose! I can't lose! It's not fair!

The last would have made Envy grin, had he been able to. As it was, his eyelids were squeezed together tightly and he felt a tremendous amount of pressure on his cheeks, as if the bones were trying to exit the skin by pushing their way out, little by little.

All at once, he found his hands had been freed. They ached with that grinding, chafing feeling of bones re-organizing themselves, sorting out their relationships with nerve endings, and knitting skin over them like a stitched quilt.

Envy tasted wet leaves. Then ashes. Then nothing.

He hit the table face first.

Eyes opened. They saw. Immediately, Envy grabbed his belly. It was taut and flat, though something in it flip-flopped for a few seconds, then was still. And astoundingly, he felt empty, as if he'd simply absorbed both matter and energy, and as if his body had converted the former into the latter. He shook with wet, gurgling gasps, hearing a mulchy splick between his tongue and teeth, as though his gums had acquired a suction force, as though they were a mudhole from which a foot had just been lifted. He shuddered again and again, tremors wracking him (shock, pinching hurt to nerves that were in the process of growing back, revulsion over what he'd just experienced), and without thinking twice, he glanced over his shoulder at his legs.

They weren't in the best shape, to say the least. Meaning, naturally, that they had been partially dissolved and digested. But the damn things existed again, and even though Envy lay there panting and half-mad with pain, it occurred to him that this hadn't been the first time his body had been dealt such a severe blow, and it might not be the last time (his luck being what it was). Envy looked away, letting the stones do the work of healing him.

Envy pillowed his arms and rested his head within them, bathing in the relief of the subsiding hurt.

Like an earthquake, the suffering left its mark, and there were aftershocks, as if for a while Envy's skin refused to believe it existed, while his mind simultaneously assured him that he'd died permanently and this was all little more than a delusion. He lay and waited until he could have faith in his own reality before finally, finally standing up and taking the few uncertain strides necessary to get to the end of the table and hop off, landing lightly on the floor.

The remnants of his opponent sat in the corner, huddled and drawn into itself and melting. The smell had vanished, as had most of the sounds, leaving only that sizzling, frying noise that Envy was uncomfortably acquainted with from his own youth, from before he'd even understood what he'd been hearing during those early, bleak days.

Sunlight filtered through the lone window in the room, catching on the glass shard, which now scintillated gorgeously, still buried where Envy had left it and looking all the more resplendent due to its putrid surroundings.

Hands on his hips, Envy walked up to the nameless nothing and placed a foot on its sludgy, rapidly collapsing body.

The Stone was glowing.

Envy cocked his head and looked sideways and downwards, regarding the thing with a raised eyebrow and a narrowed, derisive stare.

He hmmmed idly.

"Hasn't anyone ever told you—" He eased his foot down, then dug his toes into the skin, taking extra care to pierce it with his long toenails. "—that if you try to steal hot coals from a fireplace at full blaze, you're gonna get burned?"

Pouches of flesh gave way. Shedding, sloughing off, releasing shiny black fluid and crumbling in the air, becoming particles of dead dirt and floating upwards or puffing down to line the floor. Shrieks and groans Envy heard, or liked to imagine he heard, though with the way the thing was breaking apart, he couldn't be sure if that was a matter of pain or whether the noises were those of a demolition in progress.

"Guess not. You should have known better than to have thought I'd ever let the short-ass be right. Tsk."

He twisted the blade a few times, screwing it deeper into its victim.

(over)

Then, with a sneer, he jerked it from the pulpy membranes and let loose, slashing away remorselessly.

(endless sunlight)

Only in demise was the Gate creature beautiful. With its spirit and its thieved stones all but gone, consumed, it had little left to support its physical framework; like a husk bloated with pollen, it exploded at every touch, scattering dust in all directions, and that dust glowed white when the sun's rays set it aflame with light. Like falling snow, or perhaps dandelions in the summer breeze, and Envy watched in wonder, still riding the near orgasmic adrenaline rush of his chance victory and the subsequent murder his hands had wrought. The air was thin again, and quiet, sparkling in a blanket of tiny stars. The Gate wind had entered; Envy felt it, knew it. It gently lifted his hair and he closed his eyes, spreading his arms wide and letting the current hum through his skin, through his bones, through his very spirit. It was at moments like this that Envy might have even claimed he felt spiritual. The Gate, whose soul Dante so perfectly embodied for him, may have tormented him, may have tortured him, but sometimes it embraced him, and sometimes it swept the tears from his cheeks and carried them off into the infinite golden plane. Envy relished the silence. It was the closest he ever came to peace.

The Stone within him opened up and devoured the energy left to it; when Envy opened his eyes again, there was not one single particle lingering brightly within the atmosphere of the room.

The wind vanished. The red glow cooled.

Envy was full. More full than he'd been before. More powerful, for now he'd imbibed the power of another. It was impossible to convey in any logical sense, but he simply felt more alive, like more of a person, as if his size had grown and his shadow had stretched to the farthest corners of the room. He held his position, breathing regularly and adjusting to the feeling of having this new addition to his badly abused pseudo-soul.

(...healing...)

He dropped the jagged shard and looked down at his hands, distantly noting that his clothing had been once again ruined, primarily by his own self-harm.

At once, with a sound like a twig being crushed between a thumb and forefinger, Envy heard the fabric snap back into place and he jumped backwards in amazement to witness his outfit fixing itself.

(Like his skin did...like his attire used to, back when everything about him could change with a simple act of will)

Immediately, he willed himself to change forms. Back in the day, he'd needed only to think about what he wanted to be in order for the transformation to occur, so he thought about being Edward (because, unfortunately, Edward was the first person to come to mind), but as he watched an arm expectantly, no pigmentation altered. He pulled a lock of hair into view and discovered that neither its texture nor its colour had seen fit to morph. Envy growled his displeasure at this, but he was too busy contemplating the significance of the part of himself he had been able to shift to feel too bothered by what he could not. Eating that creature had been a step in the right direction. It had given him strength and a tiny glimpse of his old powers; the window within him had opened a crack. Now it was merely a matter of pulling it wide.

Thud, thud, thud—ticked his heart, in his ears.

Before Envy'd had a chance to contemplate this most intriguing, most exciting turn of events (and, sadly, his brain was still catching up to what the fuck had just happened, as most of it was still somewhere back on the stairs, blinking and looking around blankly), the clapping decimated his concentration.

(Clapping...?)

Slow, potentially sardonic clapping, one palm hitting one palm.

Someone's here.

Bizarrely, Envy's thoughts conjured an image of un-Edward's red, red eyes. Perhaps they unnerved him so for the very reason that he'd only seen them for the most meager extent of time, thus blocking all opportunity to get accustomed to them, to get over them.

(Behind you, idiot!)

Envy swung around; tense, fists balled and ready to go, stomach tight with compressed oxygen. Just try me, fucker. Just you try me.

"Well done," said the man who stood in one of the far corners. "Good show. Though you gave me quite a scare there. Had me thinking you might be beaten, but I trusted you'd mechanize a solution. You haven't survived this long without having a sort of cleverness about you. I'm glad to see that you understand equivalent exchange means taking and giving can truly go both ways."

Oh, hell. Not another condescending human! Did this place have the goddamned market covered on them or what? "And just who the fuck are you?" Envy considered. "No, wait. I must be tired for asking that. Let me try again: I don't give a fuck who you are. Piss off and leave me alone before I off you, too."

"Don't turn away just yet. You might change your mind when you hear what I could offer you."

Envy scrutinized him. A regular human, he seemed to be. Indeterminate age, black hair, black mustache. No beard. Thin, wiry, small-eyed, nondescript, wearing a suit that looked expensive, and altogether utterly like pretty much any boring human Envy had seen ever. Most of the things really did look the same to him, enough that while his powers differentiated amongst them when he needed to shapeshift, he himself often had difficulty telling which was which. Was this the human he'd been feeling like he needed to see? If so, the Stone didn't seem to be reacting in any unique way to him, which Envy found odd and suspicious.

The man looked down and patted his fancy suit, presumably ridding it of dust. Envy hadn't replied to the very loaded statement, but he hadn't turned away as he'd been planning to, and he wasn't making any effort—no matter how miniscule—to get out of the simply furnished servants' quarters. Curiosity. Always curiosity that got the better of him.

"How would you like..." He looked up. Blue. The human's eyes were blue. "...to have your powers back?"

Envy didn't move a muscle.

"Yes." A smile. "I thought that might interest you."

Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit...

— T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"