"This had better be good. I ought to be in bed."
"Asleep," Ed added with a raised eyebrow, just in case she was getting the wrong idea, or just in case he was giving it to himself. He was still hard and aching, the embarrassing discomfort standing as a reminder of activities left unfinished, but it was just as well that his liaison had been interrupted. He needed a break from Envy, from the passionate emotions that consumed him and threatened to consume them both ever more gradually. Ed could feel Envy screaming—could feel it at the base of every hair, in his pores, in the nerves that ran underneath his skin, he could feel it. And there was only so much he could tolerate. There were things which weren't meant to be shared. There were things which neither of them wanted to have shared.
"You're walking strangely," Sosostris said, pausing to glance backwards at Ed. The implication was left hanging, along with so much else. "It will be good. Our esteemed employer has returned this morning. He wishes this opportunity to finally make your acquaintance. I hope you're awake enough to confer with him."
She turned again, flashing a smile upon that stolen face which gave Edward such chills. "If not, do I need to feed you first? Do you want something to eat? Maybe that's a good idea."
The good idea sounded very appealing; impossibly appealing, for the knödeln had not filled Edward up in the least; no, he'd gotten distracted from finishing the full plate, and the dumplings really seemed more a side dish at best. His stomach voiced its anticipation of more food to come, but on the other hand... on the other hand, he was none too pleased with the source of this potential meal. He glared, tensing the places around his eyes, silent but for a grunt.
Ed still hadn't forgiven this woman for taking the face of his mother, and who the hell was she to offer him food as if she really were in the role of a parent? He was a fucking adult, legally so in most places and unofficially so elsewhere, given the role he'd adopted. If he had the ability to speak the native language of this place—something he'd been picking up on and would've eventually picked up on to a greater degree—he could get work and provide for his own damned self. He'd been working; hard, dirty work, and this was more comfortable, sure, but now? Now, getting treated like a child or a pet? How degrading. He was a fucking scientist.
"I don't want any of your damned food," he muttered. "It's all crap, anyway."
"Your stomach doesn't seem to be agreeing with you."
"What the hell do you know? You're not my mother. Stop acting like you are."
"Edward," she said, and his blood froze for a second, because she really did have that tone of authority which only a mother could evoke over a boy. Sosostris stopped walking and stood there, arms by her sides, not facing her company. "Sometimes I believe you take a perverse delight in arguing. Is that why you like Envy so much?"
"The hell? I do not like arguing!" It was then that his brain caught up with the rhetorical question—or accusation, such as it were. "And I shouldn't even validate this with a response, but I don't like Envy. Like, in this context, sounds like something you'd throw out at some fuckin' little kid writing love notes to other little kids on the playground. Give me more credit than that, please. I don't know what you see me as, but we're both adults and I'm sure you know as well as I do that life is more complicated than like and dislike."
"That's a good point. I concede it. Though, really, you don't have to be so defensive with me."
"So you say. But talk is cheap, lady. Don't think you can impress me with fancy accommodations, either. If you want me to be less defensive with you, then maybe you oughtta give me a goddamned reason to be less defensive with you."
He wanted to add that all but forcing him to come here in the first place, as well as stealing his mother's face, had exactly the opposite effect, but he knew the latter was an irrational response. Moreover, he wasn't keen on letting her know just how deeply that aspect of her being bothered him. Perhaps she knew anyway, what with having access to knowledge passed through the Gate, and that pissed Edward off, too.
Ed found himself in a terrifically, spectacularly bad mood. Envy had a tendency to put him in a mood such as this, a mood where he wanted to go out and pummel something or another half to death, but this wasn't really Envy's fault. Well, at least it wasn't directly his fault. Envy's mind had contributed its share, thanks in no small part to the Gate, but Ed knew his ire was raised more by circumstances. He was sick and tired of feeling helpless against fate. He hated being a pawn. He hated being unable to use alchemy. He hated not knowing anyone, not knowing the location well, not knowing the language. He hated starving, agonizing, worrying, waiting for someone else's whims. He hated this colour-deprived world and he hated the clothes he was in and how he felt dirty and awkward and his hair was a damned mess and he hadn't taken a bath or gotten any fucking sleep yet and he was cranky and he hated that he felt like he wasn't necessarily in control of his own fucking mind anymore.
Edward and Envy had broken the connection between them and pushed the Gate backwards, but for how long? Ed could already feel it at the back of his head once more, waiting on the doorstep like an uninvited guest of a headache budding in his temples. He didn't want to go crazy, of course. Nor did he want to know Envy's thoughts or feel Envy's memories. Such information was pointless; Ed couldn't in good faith act on anything he learned. He had no right. Even the wicked deserved their privacy, and it only irked him to know how much Envy really did keep from him. He didn't want to know that. And he didn't want Envy to know anything which he didn't actively tell him, for that matter. The mutual destruction of privacy forced an intimacy that was beyond physical, and it was not an intimacy Edward appreciated.
All people had natural rights. The sanctity of one's own thoughts was among them.
And he could still feel Envy screaming.
So much suffering. Suffering taken. Suffering given.
But he wasn't supposed to know that.
Edward shook his head and shoved his hands in his pockets. Stupid. He was being fucking stupid. The past didn't matter. His own past in so far as it pertained to this world didn't matter, either. Al mattered. Home mattered. The world where colours were alive and vibrant—that mattered. This world didn't. Nothing that had happened here was of any consequence. It was just a dream. It would be a dream. And he needed to be thinking about how to get home so he could wake up and start living the first day of his second opportunity at a real life. He'd have his brother and his friends. He wouldn't have to work for the military any longer if he didn't want to; he could work as whatever he liked. He could get schooled for a time and have a proper career and a degree and hell, his knowledge as a State Alchemist was invaluable.
The doors of opportunity opened from here unto forever for him if he could only manage to open that most important set of doors.
"I hope Envy didn't leave the room, you know," the woman said, her voice smooth like a knife dripping poison. "There are many dangers here. That bedroom you two are staying in once belonged to King Ludwig himself. A king's bedroom, the finest in the castle. And it's safe, though I can't vouch that other places are, or that other places will be."
Rambling. Ed rolled his eyes. "And how the hell is that my problem? Envy can handle his own damned self."
Still, he swallowed at his words. Well, it was the truth, wasn't it? He couldn't shapeshift and his strength wasn't what it had once been, but Envy was hardly helpless...unless he'd lost his sight again. But Ed didn't think that was the case, because if Envy had lost his sight, Ed thought he would have felt it. Yet he wasn't sensing the connection that had the potential to exist between them, and he took it as an indication that the Gate was leaving them the fuck alone for the time being. Good.
But. But then, Ed had watched Envy fumble about the bed blindly; Envy hadn't known he'd been watching, of course, because he'd been blind and Ed had been busy eating, but he'd been observing everything.
It was so interesting to watch Envy make his way around like a curious child investigating the world for the first time, and Ed had had to resist his urge to go over and meddle with him, but he had resisted it. Stupid. Envy was evil. Envy wasn't human. Envy was a monster. A monster with a disgustingly cute (and Ed would've never, ever, not in a million years, said this aloud, or even thought it within proximity of Envy for fear of him reading his mind) appearance and disgustingly cute expressions and—when he poked around looking deceptively innocent—disgustingly cute body language.
It pissed Ed off and just made him resent Envy more, because it was all so phoney and contrived. The embodiment of crocodile tears. Envy's shape made Ed feel manipulated into moments of false sympathy, moments wherein he found his fingers aching to pat him; moments when his arm wanted to curl around Envy's back, and that just made him so fucking irritated with himself. Envy didn't deserve that. Ed wasn't even sure if Envy deserved compassion, but he certainly didn't fucking deserve petting, and what the hell would coddling him help, anyway? The idea was that Envy needed to get over the past and let it go. Ed figured if there was any way he could help with that, it had to be through being firm with Envy; being too nice to him would just spoil him into thinking his behaviour was all right, tolerable. It wasn't. Envy had killed him, had killed his friend, had ruined many lives. Envy didn't need a hug. Envy needed a foot to the skull. That's what Envy needed.
Why the hell had he kissed that bastard before leaving, anyway? Hell. He didn't even know why he was remembering this. It bothered him that he was. More of his own mind manipulating him into thinking he wanted things he was sure he didn't really want.
He was going crazy. That's what it was, when you got down to it. He'd kissed Envy because he was going crazy.
"You said I should give you a reason to be less defensive with me, right?" Another smile, this one warmer than the last, and Edward shivered and momentarily stopped in his tracks, teeth grinding together. Sosostris had stopped walking and was looking at Edward, hands on her knees, crouching slightly as she surveyed him at his own height. How patronizing, he thought. Her hair was pulled back into that impeccable black bun; she smelled of heavy perfumes and she was wearing several layers of clothing, cloths around her shoulders and sleeves and hair. "I'm giving you one."
And with that, she reached into her clothing and produced a—-the hell? A syringe, Ed realized with sinking distrust. He nearly took a step backwards at the sight, but held his ground, though his eyes remained warily glued to the object. "Whatever's in there, you're not gonna shoot me up with it," he said automatically.
"It's not for you. This—" Carefully, she held the syringe out in front of her. "—is morphine. Opiate, sedative, anaesthetic. Pain relief. I'm sure you have something similar in your world. This drug was first isolated right here in Germany, in 1804, by a pharmacist named Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner."
Ed knew where this was going. He raised a hand in the hopes of silencing her, for which he won an inquisitive stare. "Impressive memory of pharmaceutical information you have. Really, I mean it. But you're wasting your time and your breath, and giving Envy that drug would be another waste. Homunculi aren't affected by that kind of thing. They can't get drunk or high or sick in any real sense of the word."
"Sorry to correct you, but yes, actually they can. Homunculus physiology is similar to human physiology in that a homunculus has all the same parts as a human, down to makeshift blood and makeshift semen. The reason you've never heard of a homunculus getting intoxicated or affected by sedatives or stimulants is because of how a homunculus's circulatory system functions. The alcohol won't have any effect in that fake blood. That's a faulty transportation system. But can you think of any other possible circulation route to a central nervous system...for a homunculus, of course?"
"Wait, what?" Ed felt absurdly blindsided by this conversation; he'd been lost in thought and steeling himself for something challenging like this once the meeting had actually begun, but he hadn't foreseen such a sudden onslaught of corrections and questioning. Instantly, his mind was working ten miles a minute to catch up to what he'd rather abruptly found himself discussing. He frowned, brow pinched in thought. So strange to be having this discussion with someone who looked so akin to his own mother. That factor was still throwing off his concentration. "A second circulatory system? Is that what you're trying to imply here? Just how the fuck would you know that, even if it is true?"
"I have access to channels of information, as I've told you before." She cleared her throat, coughing against her forearm. "But doubtless some of the alchemists who created these homunculi are aware of what I'm telling you. You don't think that woman who tended this homunculus knew all his secrets of pain and vulnerability?"
Pain and vulnerability... The cryptic words struck a chord within Edward's mind. "Oh. You're talking about those dark markings on Envy's back and shoulders, aren't you? You want me to inject him there?"
A nod. "Well, that much is up to you, but I'm giving you the option. This will ease Envy's pain and put him into a temporary rest. Give it to him if he's hurting and wants succor, or if you want respite from him."
She reached out, twisting the lid of the syringe tightly before handing it to Edward, who accepted it reluctantly. He pressed his lips together, pinching, considering, and he held the item up before his face, inspecting it with a measure of icy detachment and caution. He wasn't familiar with "morphine", but from the description, Ed had a pretty good idea of what it did, and what its effects resembled. Granted, he'd rejected similar treatments during his automail surgery, because anaesthetics unsettled him and he didn't like his mind wandering elsewhere (ironic, in light of his current predicament), but afterwards his days had been filled with so much chronic pain that he'd gotten shot up with needles—like it or not.
Consequently, as it stood now, Ed despised needles. Hypodermic needles. Repulsive little points; they filled him with nameless trepidation, a kind of muted horror that lurked quietly as he stared at the small, offensive object, as if he might will his discomfort away with a lengthy glower. Pragmatism and Edward were old comrades and he didn't like the idea of paranoias, of any fear he couldn't rationalize into nothingness; he'd dealt with blades and science and fires and monsters and losing his arm and leg, so why should a little needle bother him in the least? But it did, logical or not. He shuddered and pocketed the syringe. Disgusting, he thought. He'd probably be fretting about this all day.
It could've been a trick, he supposed. Ed pondered over that as Sosostris turned and led the way through further rooms of the castle; maybe he'd been given poison, or maybe whatever he'd been given was just something else that played into his captor's plans. It would make sense if he were handed a tool by which to immobilize Envy for someone else's benefit, though there'd be no real way of knowing for sure without a process of trial and error.
Damn. It was exhausting to have to question everything so thoroughly, but what the hell else could he do in his situation? If he made a wrong move, the world might quite literally crash down around him.
Still, there were times when he just wanted to sleep.
"May I remind you..." came the gentle voice "...that the homunculus's pain would benefit my cause. I stand to gain nothing by giving you a means of lessening it. For whatever that's worth."
Ed didn't want to discuss the subject any further.
They walked in silence.
Ed dragged his feet, delaying his inevitable encounter for as long as he could manage. The castle passed by in comfortable, still silence, embracing and taunting him with its walls and stairs.
One room Ed took for a kitchen, an airy space with high white arches that appeared far too welcoming and cheerful for Ed's liking or Ed's mood. Pillars and wood and people milling about; a counter, a stool, a lit stove, a spit, and something was hanging from the ceiling which was black and circular and reminded Ed of a design one might encounter in a book dealing with alchemy. He eyed it clinically, feeling detached from the world as he chewed the inside of his cheek. It was incomprehensible, walking around like a human machine, overwhelmed, unthinking and unfeeling. His world was a world of parts with no sense of wholeness, like Winry's automail when she broke it down, or a butcher's table.
He took a deep breath, waiting.
Soon enough, Sosostris began an ascent up the large spiral staircase. Edward followed, staring upwards into the highest reaches of the castle, soundlessly marvelling at its vastness and at the beautiful decorations. He had visited many different locations in Amestris, but never anything quite like this. Cornello's church had been nice to look at for its statues; churches usually were, and the underground city beneath Central had been an unnatural wonder in its own right, but this was something else. This was like one of those mythical castles from the old legends, yet here it was, right in the modern age, in this strange world. Amestris architecture was more practical, less ornate. People there lived in solid houses and worked in square buildings; there was none of this elaborate, impractical nonsense floating about every which way. This place was a museum, not a home. It was not and could never be anyone's home, certainly not Ed's.
All at once, his companion gripped her chest and lowered her head, as if in sudden pain.
Ed took a step forward, animosity forgotten in the face of natural concern.
One of his flaws, he'd decided: he couldn't not reach out in concern, even if his hand was offered to someone he didn't like.
And she had the face of his mother...
She waved a hand, wordlessly signalling for him to halt his gesture. "This area is dangerous. Evil. The Gate is nearby. You should tread cautiously. You don't want anything affecting your mind, given the predicament you're—"
"The h—stop! Stop that babble!" Ed shook his head, concern vanishing as quickly as it had arrived. He didn't want to hear that shit. It made him uneasy and soured his entire disposition. "Stop speaking in riddles. Just what the fuck are you trying to say, really? That this place is haunted?"
One shoulder shrugged lightly and she turned to give a fleeting smirk. "In a manner of speaking, yes."
"Heh. I'm not afraid of ghosts, spooks, the Gate, or you."
Again, she spun around. Bracelets jangled. Ed watched her earrings shake against the tiny, curling strands of hair which had escaped the bun.
And then she sighed, long and low.
"Because there is so much in this world that I fear, Edward."
A slight turn this time, enough for Ed to glimpse the side of her mournful face.
Her eyes were narrowed as if tired or sore or wary and Ed found himself thinking that those were some amazing mechanical eyes, to be so expressive. It was the first time she had truly looked frail and vulnerable; it was the first time she had sounded honest, breathy and sincere, as opposed to speaking as if she were rehearsing a script or quoting lines from a book (which, at least where the 'morphine' was concerned, she almost certainly had been).
Morning sunlight fell around them.
"You're a victim, too, aren't you?"
Whose face do you really wear? The one I see now, or another? Is that an illusion? Glinting. Beams of light on the ageless white stone, on the twisting stairs. If Ed were to lose his way, he knew he might wander this palace for an eternity. Well, he was going mad, was he not? Going mad, and in his madness he saw that face, and that face that faced him now was that familiar face, colours darkened, shadowed, like her face had she painted herself with a harsh shade of make-up, and inside the little hurts came, all kinds of little pains and little deaths. It couldn't be real. He had to deny his eyes or else he thought he would truly relinquish his claim to sanity, and yet. Yet. Maybe I need the little hurts to remember that I'm human.
Ed felt. He hurt. He hurt with compassion, even in his grief. He felt. He was human.
And whatever the state of his consciousness, he remembered to be human.
"Tell me what's going on here." He lifted his hands as if prepared to hold them out to her. "Tell me the whole story."
"I'll help you." Ed licked his lips in consideration. "You're the one who's always saying you have all this knowledge, all these channels of information. Tell me what to do and I'll help you escape. I'll help us all escape. You said it'd be a shame if we were to oppose one another. Maybe we don't have to."
You have to help me, a tiny voice inside pleaded. You have to help me. You have her face. How dare you not help me? How dare you look at me with such sad eyes? There's no defense for eyes like those. I can't not feel compassion for you, with those eyes. It's not fair, taking advantage of my sympathies that way. Ed felt disoriented. He reached up and scratched the back of his head, just under the ponytail; then, he shrugged a little, trying to shake off the uncomfortable feelings he was experencing. No matter his earlier bravado, the longer he stood on these stairs, the more he found his head spinning with a bizarre, intense sensation. It was as if he stood in the middle of a cloud; a smouldering cloud, with lightning and wind and energy, and if he looked around, he thought for sure he would see nothing but blackness.
Yet he did not see anything. The air was clear. The blackness was all in his head.
A hand closed around his wrist, jerking him forward.
The next few seconds were blank, but a few seconds must have passed, for when Edward's eyes and head cleared again, he found himself at the top of the stairs, with Sosostris's hand holding his wrist in a warm, delicate grip, and when Ed had the stupid notion of looking backwards, he saw the mind-twisting spiral stairway winding its way into some unseen oblivion. He shuddered, awash with vertigo.
And then the stairs were just stairs again and nothing out of the ordinary had transpired at all.
Ed yanked his hand away with sudden ferocity. Impulse.
She wasn't supposed to touch him. He couldn't understand, couldn't say why, but she wasn't supposed to. Ed glared at her with a mixture of not yet dissipated confusion and exasperation—not exasperation because of any one thing, but just a general, constant sort of exasperation over this whole fucking situation. Sweat ran down his temples. His mouth hung open like a door swung off its hinges. He couldn't speak. He wanted her to speak, to take the words from his mind before they could gather dust and continue to clutter it.
Her eyes were impassive. As usual. Lips formed a hard line.
"Edward." She blinked, and he watched her blink, thinking upon those false eyelashes batting away as if they could manage any sincerity whatsoever. "As you may have figured out or may be figuring out as we speak, this place is a refuge for lost souls. No one comes here without a history. No one comes here if they can be better off somewhere else. You and Envy cannot be better off somewhere else, because there's nowhere else you can go, nowhere you can reach. The same is true of me. We are lost. We are the devil's proudest triumphs."
"I don't buy that. Everyone has choices. Everyone has options. Circumstances haven't put any of us in a very good situation, no, but now that we're here, we control what we do in that situation. You think you can change the future of the world with the Philosopher's Stone, but you're afraid to take the reins of your own future. That? I don't understand."
But actually, he did. The instant the words left his lips, he thought he had a good idea of just exactly what this woman was about. She was a victim. For all her power and knowledge, she was helpless because of the Gate's influence on her mind and body; it made her dependent on the aid of others, one other in particular, and perhaps it was from that sense of helplessness that she needed to feel as if she had some influence over the future as a whole, over the greater future of the world and Germany. Poverty and hopelessness gave way to ridiculous dreams of spirits and monsters and heavens and good luck charms, because the road was a hard thing to walk on when one didn't have shoes, and sometimes fantasies were what people turned towards to keep the pain at bay.
Ed knew. He knew too well. He'd been there. He'd walked that path. His own folly was looking back at him.
Madame Sosostris scowled.
"Even as far as I have..." She winced and clutched the side of her head with one hand. "...even as far into hell as I have gone—and I assure you, I have gone far—it distresses me to know that you may have gone just as deep in your life. And Envy has gone farther than us both. It is frustrating, so much so, because what good is your suffering if you can't wear it as a badge of honour? What good is suffering if you can't take pride in saying you survived it?"
"Well, what's stopping you?"
"The fact that I don't know."
"I don't understand."
"I thought I knew hell. I grew up on the streets. I am Roma. My people have nothing in this world. I have starved night after night. I have..."
She sounded short of breath. It was the first time Edward had seen her appear to become truly emotional, and it was indeed a new, baffling thing to behold. Her eyes were wide and her mouth curled downwards, pinched at the sides, and any moment, he thought she would begin to pant with exertion. It was as if she were working herself into a frenzy.
"...what do you suppose happened to this woman, to this body—" the accent became stronger "—in the streets, in the garbage, in her blood and the blood of another? I am no child. I took the loss of my childhood with dignity. But in those nights...years later... when I had only the Gate to keep me company, when I looked up into the ceiling and saw hell, and I thrashed in the sheets, sweaty, screaming, and crying, until the time came when I could not cry...and I thought I'd combed hell as deeply as any alive...what right does he have, what right does anyone have to have gone deeper than I?"
Suddenly, she was composed again.
She swept a hand through her hair.
"I fear I have already said too much. But that man took me out of it. That man is my saviour; I am beholden to him. I was numb and I had gone silent and I was blind, and he gave me sight and reconstructed my body and this body you see before you would not exist without his technology. It is his. I am his to do what he will with."
Ed didn't react, but those last two statements...the way she'd said them...
Even if there were no implications there, his mind could readily supply the idea that there was more that remained unsaid. Those statements stuck out. They seemed profound, notable, not remarks given in passing or words chosen casually. He didn't ask into her meaning. He didn't want to know.
"It's not a competition," Ed said quietly. "What the hell is wrong with you people and this world that you measure worth in terms of pain? You know your hell. Envy knows his. Hell is different for everyone. No two people suffer exactly the same. The point isn't suffering. The point is trying to end this suffering before it becomes all that we have in our worlds. Is that what you honestly want? Look at where Envy is. He can't be happy, except through others' grief. And you can't be happy unless you think you're doing the world some big favour, even if it means stepping on the people who are here before you. Even if it means stepping on me."
"You have not seen what I have seen. I have seen into the future, into the years to come. This war is as nothing next to it. Our lives are as nothing next to it." She wrapped her arms around her chest, looking positively morose. "But the Philosopher's Stone—"
"—is not some magical cure-all. It's not this easy solution, this perfect fix you think it's going to be. That's what I've been trying to tell you and you aren't listening! I spent years searching for that damned thing and do you see how much it's given me? Maybe my brother is whole. I'm whole, in a way. But it's a joke, because look where I am. I only appear to be healthy, and I can't see Al, can't touch him. Can you honestly see me here and say I'm well off? Can you argue that I'm fortunate? And if I've had the Stone in my possession and I'm still in this mess—me, just one person—then how much do you really suppose it can do for your country's future?"
When Sosostris did not respond instantly, Ed looked off to the side.
"It's not that I don't have any sympathy for what your Germany is going through. In my world, there have also been wars. I wouldn't say I've ever been in a war, not exactly, and I think the hopelessness of war is still beyond my imagining...but I've fought through most of my life, in one way or another. My country was always fraught with problems in government, conspiracies, and revolts. I didn't even understand a lot of what was going on when I lived there, and I see that now. A country's conflicts can be very...complicated. You know that."
"And I sincerely hope your country works to better itself over the years, and I don't know what you've seen, no. I don't want to know. I don't think humans are meant to know the future, and I think the fact that you do is just another joke of the Gate. But, I think Germany has to deal with Germany's government. People here have to lift themselves up and figure things out for themselves. Envy and I are not from Germany. We weren't born in this world. We didn't ask to be here. We just want to go home. And—" He raised an eyebrow. "I don't want to, but I'm willing to fight to get there."
"Yet in my position, if you knew what I know, and if you saw what I see—what I perceive to be a hope—then you would make the same decision I have made. You would make the same decision I am making. To save thousands of lives, you would take this risk."
She clasped her hands together at her waist and gazed around the room, seeming to regard their surroundings with cool indifference. Ed's eyes followed the movement, taking in the scenery. They stood at the top of the spiral staircase, located in some circular area; pillars decorated the walls, pressing against them. In the room's centre, one giant column in the form of a tall palm tree rose upwards into the starry-painted ceiling. Unlit lanterns hung on two sides of the room and the windows were covered with wide-spaced metal screens, diamond after diamond of white sunlight beaming around the figures inside the space.
A room at the top of the world. At the top of the world, side by side with mountains and lakes and engulfed by blistering cold air, even if it was truly summer. Edward had never expected to find himself standing at such a place. Here he stood at this dizzying altitude, while the ceiling rose and rose and rose overhead and the sun beat down and shone through the crystal air like a smile at a joke that wasn't funny, had never been funny; the ceiling rose and his thoughts rose and darkness rose and cut through the sun and up into blackness in the middle of the light, a sword. Black knife through butter, pale. Above the world. Above the seas and the gulls and the rocks and the sand and the cities and towers. Above reason. Above logic and dreams.
Above himself. At the sky. In the clouds. Grey clouds turning to ash.
Everything becomes ash.
What makes you so sure I won't torch this world and everything in it?
Then I guess that makes both of us cripples, doesn't it?
Top of the world. End of the world.
"Maybe," Ed said. "Probably."
"You never know what you would do, in someone else's life. In someone else's world."
Wetness in his eyes. Heavy wetness. Damn. She'd think he was crying. The woman with the face of his mother would think he was crying. She might, at that, reach out a hand to stroke his cheek. And that was intolerable. Wetness. His vision blurred. As if he were underwater, watching her through the water. Through the bright, high, cold air he was inhaling; body was processing it, draining the sunlight.
Curled in the corner, that creature. Watching him with eyes like topaz.
I must kill it.
"Envy's killed people. Tens. Hundreds. Thousands. I couldn't hazard to guess how many. You believe in equivalence. It'd be fair for him to die to save tens, hundreds, thousands more. The penalty for his sins is death, and a death through which others will live. Your emotions may betray you into thinking this sounds suspicious. It isn't. It's just. Be logical, Edward."
I must kill it.
"I don't want any more death."
"No." Teeth on teeth. "Just be compassionate. Just let us go. Just please. Please."
"I really am sorry. I don't want there to be any more death, either. But sometimes, as in this case, death is a cruel necessity. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Sorry. Sorry, sorry coming up screaming from the inside, from the soul, from his hollows, the past, the bottom of the world. Sorry. The word he'd heard. Heard all throughout the screaming silence, the murderous silence that shook the fountains and foundations and rafters of the inside of the earth. Sorry, from his own lips, his own mouth. That night during the storm, he'd said it then. Sorry. Sorry, the word unsaid, lost in time, and he couldn't believe he'd heard it, unspoken, hanging, for dead years. Lost. Never given. Sorry. A million sorries. Sorry all throughout the ages. One word to kill him. One word before the end.
"You're going to do it. You're going to make me..."
She closed her eyes—her false eyes on her lying body.
A protest, weak.
No, he didn't want to do it. He didn't want to kill Envy. He didn't want to kill anything. Please. No more blood. He just wanted to live, to be all right again, to be home, with Al, and he wasn't weak, couldn't be feeling this shit, but the tears were flowing down his cheeks, spurred by the knowledge that this was absolutely never going to end. The topaz eyes had changed to gold, his own eyes looking back at him from a thing of darkness, a thing of darkness that did not really exist save for in his mind, and it sat off to the side, looking at him. Laughing at him. Laughing with its eyes.
Must kill it. Must kill him. These hands were going to be stained with blood.
And he cried because he didn't want that, but he wasn't himself and he still had sense enough to know it.
Sense enough to feel the shadows growing to take him. His mind.
He was not going to be who he'd been all his life.
Those days were past.
Arms like the arms of his mother wrapped around him. He felt warmth against him, pressing close, surrounding him, and he smelled perfume. Felt cloth, hair, and she was shhhhing him like his mother always used to when he wept, and he tried to tell her to go away, that he could deal with his emotions all by his fucking self, but his self was fast becoming a different self, cold and alien, and Edward wept and wept, mourning Envy and mourning himself, his true self, whose name and body he still wore but whose existence was slipping into doubt. Lurking. Cloaked.
Wept and wept and imagined only blood in the future. Screams that would go unheard.
Treacherous arms embraced his captor. Edward let himself be lulled.
How long had it been since he had been hugged? How long had it been since he had allowed himself to be hugged? How many lifetimes ago was it that he had been someone's child, and loved? The feeling of being loved, cared about, cherished—was something Ed had lost entirely in this empty world.
His heart was numbing. Little by little. Day by day.
Sunlight around them, through the glass, through the diamond shapes on the screen. It glowed cheerily over the face of the white dragon statue and the palm tree column; it smiled out from the sky and the upper atmosphere, from space. Yellow and white teeth of the sun, locked in a jaw of helium and hydrogen—light, making water droplets glisten and dust shine with such strength that the room seemed to be one great white fire sprinkled liberally throughout.
Mocking, numbing sun.
In the corner, something laughed and laughed, then vanished into the light.
Envy pulled out a chair, sat down, and kicked his feet up on the table.
He stretched his arms, popping a few muscles, then reached down to the small of his back and pressed hard. A chorus of pops bubbled up as his back answered the attention he'd bestowed upon it. Envy moaned at the release of tension and rubbed for a little longer, toes curling. Still sore, and rather tired, but not so aggressively sore and tired as he had been recently. His head had cleared somewhat, too, and that was a relief, but for the fact that perhaps it had cleared too much. Envy felt suspiciously lightheaded, as though he'd been injected with helium and his head had swollen up like a balloon, and quite in spite of himself, he kept bursting into shakes and uncontrollable snickering. Nerves, maybe?
It was a strange mood. He wasn't sure whether to class it as good, as it might have been little more than a post-shock haze, but much of the constant, blaring noise in his head had settled down for the nonce, and his body felt strong and comfortable beneath its skin, as "alive" as a creature of his ilk could be.
He'd fought. He'd won. He'd killed something. That had to be it.
For far too long now, he'd felt as though he had no control over his own life, as though he were some helpless thing whose actions and emotions were dictated by peculiar, unfathomable internal workings that were contradictory to everything he was sure he believed. He'd been treated like a tool, a possession, and he was fucking sick of it. He was a person—a real, perfect person, not like those shitty humans—and he deserved to be treated with respect.
Against his better judgment, he'd given Edward a chance. He'd tried to talk to him. He'd tried to reason with him. Not that Ed deserved it after all he'd done, but Envy was generous that way. His efforts had been rebuked. He'd been strung along, used at Edward's convenience, treated like a pawn. Everything he did these days, it was done as Ed wanted it, when Ed wanted it, how he wanted it. Envy couldn't even fuck the way he wanted to fuck; whatever happened to blood and spikes and knives and chains? Oh, that's right. Ed couldn't handle them, so Envy always had to take the brunt of everything if he wanted any blood and abuse in his sex life. Sadomasochism lost much of its sport when it was by necessity reduced to masochism. Well, that was just a load of shit. For someone who gave so little, Ed sure expected a lot in return. What did he do for Envy, anyway? Nothing, except mess with his head. He did plenty of that.
Envy brushed his ankles together, then crossed one foot lightly over the other and rubbed back and forth, lost in thought.
Maybe—he considered, chewing a fingernail—maybe because of how Dante had treated him, he was stuck with some unfortunate but natural tendency to get stuck in mismatched, damaging relationships. Maybe, Envy thought, he really had developed a bad habit or two over the years of... no. Fuck. No. He was perfect. He couldn't help that others weren't, but it wasn't his fucking problem.
And anyhow, it wasn't a fucking relationship.
"Cigarette?" offered his companion.
Envy rolled his eyes, but said, "Yes."
A hiss of a word, yes; short and sibilant.
The man sat across from him, elbows on the table, fingers laced together beneath his chin. Pale blue eyes regarded Envy with scrutiny, suspicion, curiosity, and a kind of restless, yearning hunger that made his skin crawl to witness it. Envy recognized that look. Not lust for anything immediate; not necessarily physical lust, no. Maybe. But no, probably not. Lust for a possession. Lust for power.
The stranger stared at Envy as though he were a wind-up doll. A belonging.
Envy made eye contact, sneered, and tilted his head. He pushed his hand beneath his jaw and twisted his neck.
Crack. Crack. Crack.
Long fingers slipped beneath the table, fumbled. Eyes on Envy the whole while. Rustle of cloth, rustle of paper; then the man held a lighter in one hand:—Zippo, it said—and he held a cigarette package in the other. Envy could not read the brand; fingers hid it. The man looked down, seemingly unconcerned and unafraid; whistled a little, tweezered a cigarette from its pack and lit it, holding his palm over the display so that the back of his hand faced Envy throughout. Then, he shook the match and tossed it aside, lit a second cigarette, and passed it across the table.
Envy plucked the cigarette from the table and raised an eyebrow at it.
"Gustaf," the man said through a mouthful of cigarette stem. Smoke drifted around his face, through his whiskers, and he swatted it away—a thin, swirling grey cloud, and Envy thought it smelled disgusting. His nose wrinkled, and the man added, "Neumann. My name, as far as you're concerned."
Neumann. Sounded like human, which of course he was.
Envy slammed his empty fist against the table. Nails digging into his palm, but not yet hard enough to tear. Neumann. Human. Cold, clinical, appraising eyes; hungry eyes. Grin. Keep grinning. Ha ha ha. I want to kill you. Keep grinning. Cigarette in Envy's other hand; lit, burning. He could jerk forward, push it into the eye, burn the thing out so it wouldn't look at him that way. He was strong. Stronger than any human. Getting stronger. And he could hurtmaimkill, break bones, rip out sinews and ligaments and tendons, send them flapping in the breeze, stomp on innards. He wanted to. Cigarette. Needed something to crush. Stress relief. If only he could—but no—
Hand flat on the table, palm down. Fingers tapping.
"I don't care," Envy replied, strained, and he took a deep breath. It was a sunny day outside. "I don't give a damn about names. I only care what you can do for me."
"No." He wanted to laugh. He wanted to laugh hysterically. Because he was going to die if he didn't kill something; someone, this someone. He could almost feel the skin of the eye beneath his fingers, could imagine those fingers scooping it out—"Not really. Not really, you see, because I want answers. You said you knew a way for me to get my powers back. Well. What is it? I don't have the greatest patience. I have plenty of virtues, really, but patience? Nah."
He didn't like the way he was being looked at. It disgusted him, but truthfully, Envy was used to being perceived as a tool. That was how it worked with humans. Either they looked through him, unseeing because their eyes were tricking them and they didn't understand what they saw, what stood before them, or else they looked at him and saw a lie, what they wanted to see, or else—that third option—they looked at him and saw something utilitarian. Something to be used. People didn't look at Envy. They looked at whatever they imagined him to be, whatever he wanted them to imagine, or they looked and saw opportunities for themselves. That was how humans were.
There was only one human who had ever even come close to looking at Envy, seeing him, and he apparently hadn't liked what he'd seen. Heh. Well. It wasn't like Envy had really expected to find out otherwise, had he? No expectations, no disappointment. Maybe Ed had thought he'd be able to handle looking, really looking, but he hadn't had the stomach for it, and that was just that. Whatever. Envy was only...embarrassed that he'd...whatever he'd done. Acted like a fool. At his age, and with as much experience as he'd had, he should've known better.
"Three hundred and sixty-nine."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"Your age, if I'm calculating correctly. I never was much of a mathematician. That's what we have men like Oberth for. Hn. Three hundred and eighty-eight. Eighteen years. A year in between the death and the making of you...yes, I think I'm in the vicinity of the correct age. Three hundred and seventy, otherwise." He nodded to himself, again looking away dismissively. Another puff of smoke. The cigarette glowed. "Hn. Don't know the month. S'pose you aren't the sort who would like to be wished a happy birthday, are you?"
Wariness belted Envy hard.
His face almost collapsed, almost became a landslide of a grimace, but by some miracle he managed to hold himself in check.
His face couldn't display too much; he wanted to reveal his shock and rage over the fucking human's audacity, let it rain from his expression in torrents of contempt, but that was no good. Couldn't show that he'd been reached. Couldn't show that he'd let that shit get to him. After all, that was probably what the asshole wanted. Inside himself, Envy shook and seethed. He'd lost track of his exact age as the years of undead existence had blurred together, one moon after the next, but he'd always rounded up. Four centuries was a good enough estimate, and why the fuck would a homunculus need to remember his specific age? It wasn't like he got cakes or any of that crap. He'd even thought maybe he was older than four hundred years, though he'd been uncertain.
But an age. A real, solid age? If the number was true, then—
Sunlight on his face. There was a little warmth. Just a little of it, seeping through the chilly air.
Envy took his feet off the table and turned in his seat, facing outward—away from the table and away from the window and away from the person who was telling him things about himself that he hadn't even known. He placed one foot on the chair and propped an elbow on his knee, conversationally. One hand rested beneath his chin and the fingers of his other rolled the cigarette back and forth across the table. Back, forth. Back, forth.
As much as it fucking pissed him off to be told a fact about his being by some haughty bastard human in a terrifying, foreign world (where such secrets should've not merely died, but never existed to begin with), an age was...well. It was something. A something. An age was something that could be written down, something that could go in a book, something by which a person could be judged. It was his, Envy's; no one else's. Nine years past a circle.
The skin and the body that the sunlight touched felt more tangible, more honest beneath it. One more step towards a wholeness that would likely never be realized.
"And you're telling me this, I guess, to prove how much 'secret knowledge' you have about me. So I'll be impressed. Intimidated, or something. Or I'll ask if it's true, and how you know." He was insanely curious. He was, but he wasn't going to let Neumann or what –the-fuck –ever-his-name-was know that. "You're going to be so disappointed. Because I don't care. I don't care about any fucking thing you could possibly think I'd care about, except what you offered."
Because he couldn't care. Caring, asking; that was damn dangerous.
He wasn't going to play along with any kind of trap. And he wasn't just going to stupidly and blindly walk into one, either.
"Reuestadt. That was it, wasn't it? You know, much of the etymology of the names in your world sounds German to me. That's interesting. It really is. And Reuestadt, if I'm remembering right, burnt down—"
Envy leapt to his feet.
"Where is she? Where is she?" His earlier vow not to care and not to ask questions was shattered as effortlessly as a certain mirror back in the bedroom.
His age had been one thing. The vicinity of the time period during which he'd been born had never really been a secret; it could've even been prized from the Gate, as he'd come from the Gate. Or it could've come from Ed, if Ed had talked to anyone—well, not that exact number, but it would have been easy enough to make up something that sounded plausible. But Reuestadt? There was only one person to whom that name would hold any meaning. Fuck, Envy hadn't even remembered it himself until the Stone inside him had given him a glimpse through the past. There was no way...he refused to believe...
"Well! Where the fuck is she? She, her, the one who left that place with me...are you her?"
Envy glared hard, brow creased beneath his hairband, sweat coursing down his temples and cheeks.
The glass shard from his earlier kill lay on the table, within easy reach. Envy glanced at it.
She couldn't be alive. She couldn't be. Not still. She'd been dying in her body, rotting away, and she hadn't been able to get to the Philosopher's Stone. Envy knew that, because the kid had used it, and now he was whatever was left of the damned thing. The bitch had certainly perished without the Stone to give her what she needed when she needed it, and even if she had by some miracle survived, she was on the other side of the fucking Gate!
The servants' quarters were somewhat in disarray due to the fight Envy'd just had in them, with the candelabra knocked clean off the table and onto the floor. As Envy watched, Neumann rose to his feet, picked the item up, and placed it upright in the middle of the table.
A warmth was entering the rooms from somewhere besides outside; perhaps the castle was ventilated and had internal heating and air.
"Dante," Envy sputtered.
"Yes, I love his work," said Neumann, "and I think he's a better writer than Petrarch, indubitably. But well do I understand that we can't always control what writings have meaning for us."
Enraged. "Don't fuck around with me! You know who I'm talking about. How the hell does my ma—Dante—how the hell does Dante factor into all this? Is she your employer? You'd better answer me. Look."
Envy shook his hand as if it had cramped up, peeled his glove off, and tossed it over the top of the chair.
And he grabbed the cigarette—the one he'd been offered—from the table.
The burning tip connected with (was crushed into) his palm. He pushed it in as hard as he could, curling his fingers around the instrument of pain and the wounded skin.
"This—" He shook. Swallowed. "—is your life. If you fuck with me. Snuffed out. See? Understand? No one will ever fuck with me again. Never."
The pain—it was just a little pain, a dose of pain; burst on the palm, throbbing quickly before it was blotted out, skin healing. Envy didn't shiver. He threw the cigarette down, stepped on it, brushed his long hair from his face. A dose of pain, enough to excite him, stimulate his nerves, take the stress from his mind just slightly. Slightly.
He'd rather hurt than be hurt; anything to give that silence that he thirsted for, anything to calm the noise in his head. A drug, then, a little injection of pain to take his mind off the thoughts he was entertaining, brooding over, loathing, but only briefly. How his hands longed for blood. Now that was a better tonic.
But Dante was back. She was alive, somewhere; had to be alive. Dante, his master, and she was going to save him from all this shit, and she was going to feed him stones and restore his powers and get him back home and then he'd be able to forget this place and this cold, dreary, drab world of grey and rain. And he could kill that bastard, finally, and Edward, and he wouldn't have to worry about all the things in the nights that frustrated him and drove him out of his mind—
No. Fuck. No.
Dante wasn't his master. He was his own master.
She was the one who had manipulated him, tortured him, played the gramophone in his head. She'd set the needle on a never ending record of pain and spite, and now the music was always playing in the background of his mind, whether he wanted to listen to it or not. She had been afraid of Envy; oh, how obvious that observation seemed, in retrospect, though he'd never realized it at the time. Why else would she have needed to keep him beaten down, subservient enough to be useful to her? He'd been powerful, perpetually reckless and perpetually disobeying her in small ways, testing the limits of her patience. She'd had to shorten the leash. He'd choked himself on it.
But at least... well. At least he knew what to expect from Dante. He knew how she operated, more or less. She was home. Yes, she hurt him, but she also said it was for his own good; discipline makes you a better person, and she'd had a plan for the future, for their future. She gave Envy routine. She gave him some freedom, even if his jealousy and mischief had botched it at times. She took care of him and saw that he was provided for. She told him what to hate and how to think and she told him he was right when he hated and thought as she wished him to; nothing like Ed, who was always trying to contradict his beliefs. That bastard. Why the hell did he always do that, anyway? Envy didn't like being contradicted. He didn't like being asked to think about the world in a new light. That wasn't even fair. Especially not coming from Ed, from a human, from his enemy.
He just wanted to go home.
"I'm a writer myself. A not very good one, as I've had to make my peace with. I write non-fiction, literary criticisms, reviews. Currently writing one on Thus Spake Zarathustra. Thou lonesome one, thou goest the way of the loving one: thou lovest thyself, and on that account despisest thou thyself, as only the loving ones despise. Hm. I—"
"Stop." Envy hurt. "That means nothing to me. Nothing! I don't give a fuck!"
"You have feelings for that boy."
Envy turned aside, winced, eyes closed, laughed. Once. Twice. Dryly.
"Fool. Not a chance."
His control was slipping between his fingers. Had to kill—thing—what—Dante. Needed her.
"Really? I should hope you're being honest. You're a perfect specimen, Envy. The final perfect specimen. No one wants you to be, ah, how to put it? Influenced by less perfect forces."
"Who the fuck are you?"
"I've told you my name. Why would I be anyone else? Heh. I'm a writer. Bit of a journalist sometimes."
"Fucker. If you keep talking that way, I'm going to kill you. Can't you see that, you idiot? I'm going to kill you. And then I'll never know what you were going on about earlier, and you'll never know anything, ever, again."
"I really do think, in some ways, you might find yourself in agreement with Nietzsche." Still sitting, one leg resting idly across the opposite, Neumann lit another cigarette and put it in his mouth, such that he was smoking two at once. "Sorry. This isn't a healthy habit. Stress, you know? Stop looking at me that way, Envy. I'm here to help you; I'm an insider. I'm not with the others, though they think I am. My interests are different from theirs—which is quite fortuitous for you, let me tell you, sir, as their interests lie rather more towards you being in pieces."
Envy calmed a little. Of course he was still standing there, heart pumping rapidly, arms shaking at his sides, biting down and suppressing groans and grumbles, half-mad with rage and anxiety—but he did calm a little. His mind was racing, parts of it barely registering what was transpiring within the room. Could his master really still be alive? Was he assuming too much? He hadn't even heard any confirmation that his suspicions were at all accurate; maybe he was "jumping the gun", as humans called it.
"What do you want with me?"
It was an honest inquiry. Envy knew better than to think anyone would talk with him unless they wanted something from him. Fuck, it wasn't as though he was great social company. People didn't just come up to him for idle chatter. No, this human was after something. The Stone, probably. Every-fucking-body was after the fucking Stone. He was almost glad to have the useless thing inside of him, just because it gave him something to lord over everyone else, something everyone wanted and no one could have. No one except him, of course.
"I want to employ you."
Envy heard, "I want you to serve me."
"Employ me?" Smirk. "Really? And here I thought I wasn't much of a writer."
"You have a sense of humour. I like that. Writing is my official profession, but I have other social concerns, you know."
"Concerns that involve a Philosopher's Stone?"
Neumann removed one cigarette from his mouth. "Concerns that involve the war, and Germany, and a man who is a worse artist than I am a writer. It's a long story. A very tiring story. Suffice it to say, you are not the only one who has seen into the dark doors."
Envy laughed. "You humans." He placed one hand on his hip. "What did you think you saw, eh? Heaven? Hell? The future? The truth? Ooh, so enigmatic. You think you're special? Wanna become a fucking prophet? Dream on. I'm so unimpressed I can't even seem to get angry. I was born in that place, you jackass."
"Not heaven. Not hell. Something of the future. Could've been the truth. But no, to answer your question—" He gazed solemnly at the cigarette between his fingers, raising it to eye level; those blue eyes were half-closed, as if their owner had grown immensely bored or withdrawn. Envy didn't think he was really looking at the object in his hand. "—I saw art. Inspiration."
Envy growled. "That's the most ridiculous fucking thing I've ever heard, even from a fucking lousy human."
"Please, no need to be so formal. Mr. Neumann will do."
"Keep pushing it. You really won't look good with your nose broken. That's the nicest thing I'm considering doing to you right now."
Mr. Neumann ignored him. "There comes a time in every young man's life when he's lost, confused, wondering what the future will bring, seeking solace and seeking inspiration. You know how it feels, don't you? When your own skin becomes a burden, when you realize you're hungry and broke, sitting in an empty house with only the clothes on your back, horny and bored and itching to search out the world. It's at about this time that a young man realizes he doesn't own the world. The world owns him."
"Adorable, but was there a point to that little speech?"
"Didn't it sound familiar? Be honest with yourself, Envy. Even if you can't be honest with me, be honest with yourself." He pressed the cigarette to the table, extinguishing it on the wood. Ashes fell; a small black mark surrounded by a grey halo was left behind. "How long has it been now? A few days, I suppose. A few days ago, were you not in a similar place? When you were alone, wandering off by yourself. I saw you then. You were my charge."
Envy opened his mouth to reply, but found himself without words. He remembered. Of course he remembered. But had it only been a few days ago? How the fuck long ago had it been? He didn't remember. He wasn't used to keeping track of the days, and he was not good at it, especially when it came to following the sunsets in this strange and worthless land. His weeks alone—that aimless eternity—felt as if they had transpired in another lifetime.
A lifetime before the transmutation, before the Gate, before the castle and the voices in his head and the darkness.
Those days... such curious days they had been. Lost, delirious, wandering; assaulted by lusts, visited by dreams, wondering if the screams he'd heard had been in his head or all around him. Alone in the wide, empty world—the world that was either rainy or parched, grey with water or grey with dust, dry and dead. Frustrated, bored, horny, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and nothing to kill except pests; rats and the like, and somehow that didn't have the same allure. It wasn't as if it was those pests who had ruined his existence. But Envy could pretend. As he'd sat on crates in the middle of nowhere—in some warehouse or something, eyes glazed over at the passing sunsets and the twilight and the rain—they had run by his feet and he had stepped on them, crushed their necks, reached down to twist their heads off.
Vermin. He had pretended they were humans. Hohenheim. Edward.
Somehow, every little death had only made Envy more miserable, more aware of who and what he hadn't yet succeeded in killing.
And now thinking about that was pissing him off, because whenever he remembered Ed was still alive, he was only reminded of his own failure, and of all the times he had felt grief over that failure.
He couldn't kill him. Yet. Not until they arrived back home. But oh, what a glorious reunion that would be. A red, red reunion. And Envy found himself grinning.
If Edward died, then who—
"You were my charge," the man repeated.
"So you saw me high as a kite, rubbing my prick with bloody fingers. Nice."
He crushed the other cigarette against the table.
"I saw a young man in that time of life I described before."