"We’re going out," Envy's master says, pulling his white gloves on over broad, blunt hands. The workroom is warm and dark, and Envy has been catnapping, stretched out over the rug in front of the glowing fireplace, while his master draws experimental transmutation circles on blank charts hung on the far wall. Now he stretches and yawns.
"Whatever," he mutters, feigning disinterest, but rises quickly and banks the fire.
There are stairs which lead up into the main house; the workroom is in the basement, away from distraction, but also away from sunlight, and the luxurious, yet bare halls are bright in comparison. Envy's eyes sting as he trails his master past the neat rows of closed doors and out to the many-windowed atrium, where his master dons coat and boots, then pauses briefly to glance at Envy.
"Change into something more appropriate," he commands after a beat. "We're going into town." This last, Envy knows, is an expansion on the definition of 'appropriate', which can mean any of a number of things at any given time. He calls up in his mind the image which fits the current sense.
Then, with a blue crackle of electricity, he obeys.
His master eyes the new form fleetingly. It is not the form into which Envy was created, for his master has forbidden him to use it, and Envy himself prefers not to. His master's eyes go dark with an unnamed, mixed emotion when the homunculus wears that form, and he becomes distant... so distant that it makes Envy afraid. Envy hates to fear anything.
At any rate, it's idiotic. He is his master's, and his master is his. That is the way things are.
The form Envy now wears—that of a young man, slighter than his broad-shouldered master, with short, dark hair, dark brown eyes, and a marginally gentler mask than his usual one—is the one which he has always used to follow his master into town. The people there are under the impression that Envy is his master's apprentice, remaining at his side to learn the art of alchemy. Envy's master encourages the rumour by making no move to dispel it. The townspeople are neither sharp enough nor imaginative enough to perceive the truth, and so long as that stays a secret, they can think what they like.
Now that Envy is ready, the two step out into the front garden. Abundant now with the scent of climbing autumn roses, this garden is always filled with leagues of herbs and growing things; Envy's master cultivates them regularly, both for simple pleasure and for varied uses in his experimental chemistry, pharmacy, and botany. He is a man of diverse talents and interests, and he cares well for whatever will further these pursuits. Envy himself is one such thing, and so he too is well cared for; but he holds no illusions about being well loved. There are times, he is sure, when his master would prefer living alone with his garden to living with Envy, and yet their relationship is stronger because they need no affection. They are homunculus and master, and as such are bound by a tie which runs deeper than fleeting emotions.
They have been together for centuries now; not always here in this place, for Envy’s master is a restless man, always needing to learn more, always ready to travel somewhere new, with many houses to call his own and nowhere he calls home. They have journeyed across the world, the two of them. Many of the places they have settled have been cities, rife with great ideas to compliment Envy’s master’s, but now and then the man becomes nostalgic for the open air of the countryside, and so it is this time. Envy himself rarely cares where they are. His duty is the same wherever it pleases his master to make house.
His master is silent as they pass the front gate and begin their two-mile walk into town, but this is nothing new. It is a rare occasion when the man speaks to his companion except to give orders; he finds his conversation among the people in the town, and in speaking aloud to himself during the heat of an experiment, and Envy, often stifled by the silence, makes his own methods of letting his inner thoughts out. If his master has ever minded that there are no longer any live animals within a mile of his house, he has never said so. In any case, there is always plenty of meat for the table.
Well-trained by years of practice, their feet carry them quickly and with little weariness. The miles fall away like inches in bland silence, and Envy keeps a half-conscious vigil over each tree, each clump of grass, waiting for the moment when some danger might present itself. The urge to keep this watch is a constant companion for him, but it is never so strong as when he and his master are out of the house. The world is a wide place, full of hidden pitfalls and traps—not only those of the natural world, which are bad enough, but also the dangers presented by humans...
And by That Person.
She is the greatest danger. She strikes without warning, and seemingly without pattern. Envy met her, once, but it was a brief meeting; he knows her mostly from comments which his master has made, and from his own vague memories of her during those pain-bleached first years, before the Red Stones, before his master’s resourceful care. He knows little of her nature, or of her as more than a concept, really; but he does know that she is a strong opponent in her own right, and that she has others of his kind to protect her as he does his own master.
He grimaces at the image of them. Two, he has only set eyes on: Lust, she called one, and the other, Gluttony, in those brief moments when he stood behind his master and waited for his call. The one called Pride was not there, though Envy knows that he exists. But the homunculus Greed—he was an enemy worth destroying! His mockingly broad grin, the self-importance in his eyes as they fought... these things stick in Envy’s memory like the keen barb of a fishhook, and they still eat at him whenever he recalls them.
"Be quiet," Envy’s master says abruptly, pulling Envy from his daydream, and Envy realises that he has been gritting his teeth. Irritated at himself, he subsides into silence and pricks up his ears. The road is still quiet, but ahead is the curve which hides the little town of Resembool.
"Stay close," Envy’s master warns, as he always does, and Envy ignores him, as he always does. He ought to know by now that Envy never strays far, and is never out of earshot; in town, among the unpredictability of humans and their selfish little lives, he is never more than a single leap away.
Side by side, they pass the curve. The houses, small and tidily kept, close in around them like the bars of an elaborate cage, each tucked into its own niche of hillside or field and surrounded by simply tended vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. Envy smells the smoke of a farmer burning brush, and in a distant hayfield to the left of the road, three gangly, half-grown children chase each other in circles, laughing and kicking a ball between them. Their voices make Envy’s master smile faintly, and though his eyes never leave the road ahead, Envy can see the nostalgia in their suddenly faraway depths.
Scowling, Envy walks faster in hopes of encouraging his master along. He hates children.
Ahead, the houses begin to cluster more closely, and it is with some relief that Envy spots the familiar shape of the train depot and the tiny shops beyond. These outings always put him on edge, and he knows he will only relax when his master is safely inside his house once more. Still, his master rarely takes the time to mingle here. If tradition holds true, they will stop briefly at a few of the shops, exchange the petty pleasantries of which humans are so fond, and then they will go back the way they came, with only the harmless sighing of the grass to mar the silence between them. It will all go by in the same insipid way it always does, Envy tells himself sourly, and strains his ears further for the slightest sign of a risk.
They come into town regularly, but not very often. Often Envy’s master will have something made with his alchemy, either to sell, or to trade in exchange for more materials and the foodstuffs which Envy cannot get for him. Occasionally he will take the day and settle himself on the outskirts of town, on the further side nearest the farmers, and word of him will travel by mouth until people appear from every farmstead around, bringing tools and toys and all manner of things for him to fix. From early morning until near sunset they come, and Envy’s master always takes lunch at the hands of one or more of the town’s women. Envy, too, is forced to accept one of their sappily handmade meals, and to eat it while they coo and fawn over him as if he were starving.
This time, Envy knows there is nothing to sell, but what his master might need he neither knows nor cares. Something to do with alchemy, he is certain, but alchemy holds no interest for Envy, who cannot perform it himself and is never invited to know what his master’s plans for it are. This is one area in which distance has never offended Envy. Lofty ideals, perhaps, but human ones, those ideas of his master’s. Envy is a homunculus—he has been touched by alchemy once, and only once, and he has no desire to come in contact with it again.
The depot slides by, and now they are in the heart of town, with its little dry goods store and its blacksmith shop and other scattered, trivial businesses—a flower shop; a little market where the farmers and farmwives sell their fresh produce back and forth amongst each other; a house where the owner rents out bedrooms and calls it an inn. A gaggle of women, previously engaged in looking over the vegetables in the market stalls, glance up and catch sight of the man and the homunculus. Immediately, their faces turn coyly towards one another, pretending to be shy in order to hide their burst of fascinated chatter, and Envy, prickling with disgust at their idiocy, slips himself in between his master and their prying eyes. His master regards the women with a gentle smile. Abandoning their pretense of seeing only their shopping, they burst into high-pitched, falsely embarrassed giggles.
Trying not to appear as murderous as he feels, Envy directs his master as forcefully as is possible towards the dry goods shop.
Inside, the atmosphere is marginally better. The proprietor is a stodgy man of sixty or more years, who takes no interest in gossip or staring, and while Envy cannot like him, he feels more kindly toward him than toward any of the other townsfolk whom he has ever had the displeasure of meeting. At least he seems to take to heart the meaning of the phrase ‘minding one’s own business’.
Bland-faced once more now that he has no one at whom to smile, Envy’s master browses the simply stocked shelves in thoughtful silence.
Presently, after moving from aisle to aisle with no apparent success, he gives the faintest of sighs. "Well," he says softly. "Perhaps in Central..."
He trails off, but Envy's interest is already piqued. Central—? It is immediately obvious that there is some vital item which this tiny shop does not stock, but to go all the way to Central for it seems quite drastic. There are many towns larger than Resembool between here and the close, barren streets of Central City.
On the other hand, perhaps there is some other need—one which can only be fulfilled in Central’s expensive shops or in the tomb-like aisles of its many libraries. Perhaps Envy’s master will seek out one of the State Alchemists whom he is acquainted with, and use his influence to gain access to the deeply hidden materials within that greatest of Libraries. It would not be the first time such a thing has happened.
He waits skeptically, hoping for more clues to his master’s purpose, but he does not bother to ask. Asking is an exercise in futility, as Envy learned long ago, when the world was so new and empty that he could do nothing but reach out to his master for information. In those days, Envy learned many things from the man, the greatest of which was that a homunculus is a servant and not a confidant. What things Envy learns of his master’s nature, of his future and his past alike, are those things which he has divined on his own, and nothing more.
Thus, Envy has become adept at divination. Often he can piece together his master’s intentions from words casually dropped, or from subtleties within his actions, but there are also times when his master is like a smooth wall of stone, unyielding in his impassivity.
This is one of the latter. Envy’s master’s face is good-naturedly expressionless once more. He starts toward the front of the shop, presumably to leave, and Envy follows impatiently in his wake.
As they round the corner of the shelves, they come into abrupt contact with a young woman.
At the last second, Envy realises what is about to happen and jerks his master back by the sleeve of his coat, but there is no time left to thrust between the two, and the girl herself is too slow in reacting for Envy’s intervention to have any effect. Her own forward motion carries her past the vacated space and into the man’s broad chest before she can stop herself, and Envy catches a glimpse of startled brown eyes and a round mouth as they disappear into the folds of his master’s shirt. She drops her rather large shopping basket. A variety of items, most of which mark her as a humble homemaker, scatter and spin across the floor.
Envy stifles the urge to pull his master away from her. He has been reprimanded many times for intervening unnecessarily, and he can see at a glance that this wisp of a farm girl is no immediate threat. His master is completely able to disentangle himself, he tells his thrumming heart, and forces the adrenaline rushing through him to return to its proper place.
When the feeling of threat has dissipated, Envy sees the dour reality of the situation.
"Oh!" the girl gasps, predictably, flushing an appealing shade of pink, and Envy can scarcely restrain himself from rolling his eyes. Now he will be forced to stand idly by through hours of apologies, rebuttals, and half-deliberate wooing from both parties at once.
"Oh, I’m so sorry!"
"Not at all," Envy’s master refuses her, as expected. Rubbing his hair rather shamefacedly, he adds, "I should have been watching where I was going, too. Here, let me help you." Gallantly, he bends to assist her in the retrieval of her fallen goods.
Envy debates whether or not he should be aiding in this task, then decides that, since neither of the two are paying him heed anyhow, he might as well not.
When her parcels are all in her basket once more, the girl and the man straighten and regard each other: she blushing, he smiling.
"I do apologise," she says again, sounding sincerely sorry. "I hope you’re not hurt."
"Of course not," Envy’s master assures her. "And you?"
"Oh, no. We’re all right," she smiles, swaying her basket a little to indicate its wholeness. Then, surprisingly, she notices Envy.
Envy’s master, following the trail of her eyes, abruptly recalls his presence as well. "Ah. May I introduce you to my apprentice? Raster," he adds a little belatedly, and Envy takes offence, recalling the young court lord of almost two hundred years previous and his excruciatingly bubbly mannerisms. Nevertheless he smiles back in the charming manner which satisfies most humans.
"A pleasure," he lies cordially, and his master continues the introduction.
"Raster, Miss..." He pauses, in a manner which for many would be meaningful, and for him is merely naively questioning.
"Elric," the girl supplies, smiling pleasantly. "Trisha Elric."
Unwillingly, Envy concedes that it is possible that she had no ulterior romantic motive in bumping into his master. A difficult scenario to believe, but still, it is possible—especially since her honest, cheerful smile suggests that she has nothing in her head with which to plot.
"You’re the alchemist, then?" she queries shyly, glancing once more at Envy’s master. "You live in the forest, along the old road?"
"Yes," Envy’s master agrees, although his home is in actuality on the forest’s outskirts, and nowhere near the mountain road of which she speaks. "My name is Hohenheim, Miss Elric. I’m happy to have made your acquaintance, even under the circumstances."
He smiles. The girl laughs, and her cheeks tint pink at the memory, but her voice is now carefree and devoid of the humiliated remorse which previously colored her face.
"Well, I ought to be getting home," she tells Envy’s master bashfully. "My mother is sick... I told her I would only be a moment getting these..."
"I’m sorry to hear that," Envy’s master sympathises, and there is a warmth in his voice which surprises Envy, for the homunculus knows that it is a distant kind of emotion. It has been long since Envy’s master knew family, and even Envy, who has never known family himself and does not care to, can see that his master has forgotten what love of that type is like. No, it is not the sickness of the mother for which he is sorry. He feels badly for the sake of the girl, Envy thinks suspiciously, and cannot help but wonder why.
Trisha Elric heads home, leaving Envy strangely relieved and jealous. He is more than glad when his master, after speaking briefly with the shop’s proprietor, decides that his business in the town is complete and they, too, can go their way.
As they leave Resembool, Envy’s master seems to come to a decision.
"We’ll go to Central in the morning," he says abruptly, and Envy listens faithfully, although his master does not even glance his way as he speaks. "I have several things which I may need, and I’ll gather them this evening. Then, in the morning, we’ll walk back and take the train."
"I can’t be Kingsley," Envy reminds his master impassively, referring to the cover he took during the time he and his master spent in Central years ago. He knows how futile it is to expect the man to recollect the passage or the significance of time. "It’s been nearly a decade since we were there before. Even a loyal student would have gone on to other things by now."
He does not make mention of the suddenness of the decision, or of any of the inconveniences in it which a human might find. It has always been his place to adapt quickly to his master’s ends, and he has gotten quite good.
In response to the interjection, Envy’s master waves a dismissive hand. "Never mind. Stay as you are now—if one apprentice is gone, it won’t be hard to believe that I’ve taken another. At any rate, it will prevent confusion if you're the same person both here and there."
Envy grimaces. "Sure," he mutters, ruing the marginally preferable name of Kingsley and resigning himself to being called after the ill-fated Raster for the next ten years.
"I have work to do," Envy’s master continues in a low, distracted voice. His face is turned to the ground, and his gaze is made vague by deep thoughts, but he walks on, the simple movement powered by the automatic functions of his unconscious brain. Envy, walking behind and a little to the side as is his habit, watches him closely.
They walk a few paces in silence before Envy’s master sighs and raises his head.
"It may take some time," he says, with a note of cheerful expectancy at the prospect of whatever he plans to do. But he does not know then how true his words will turn out to be.
They catch the noon train out of Resembool. Envy manoeuvres his master nonchalantly into the seat by the window while he himself takes the one opening on the aisle, penning the man neatly away from the mass of nattering humanity which shares their car. Most often, his master will sleep on a train, showing little desire to get up and move about... but even so, it is better to be prepared than to be forced into a troublesome situation.
As it turns out, the precaution is unnecessary. The ride is completely banal. Envy’s master spends most of the long hours snoring, slumped against the window-frame, disturbing other passengers with his racket and giving Envy the small satisfaction of allowing the disturbance to continue. By the time they reach Central the homunculus is sure that they are hated passionately, and he rather enjoys the knowledge.
After they disembark, however, theirs is a very different story. The station is moderately familiar, although it has obviously had some remodelling done, and Envy’s master weaves his way out into the streets of Central with nearly as much alacrity as he once had. But they have not visited this town in ten years, and among humankind ten years is nearly a full childhood. The town itself has also changed in their absence—grown greater—and the colorful whirl of people, buildings, and their sharp, close smells makes Envy’s head ache fiercely.
Humans! he sneers as he tries in vain to shield his master from the hustle. Always so eager to improve upon their surroundings, and inevitably fouling them up.
The flurry of talk and movement abates somewhat as Envy and his master stray further from the train depot, but it is pure chance when the two locate a hotel.
Envy would much prefer to stay in their hard-won room, but his master is intent on finding what he needs. So it is that, after a short rest, they venture once more into the chaos that is Central’s streets. They wander for what seems like hours. Shops which they once knew are no more; streets which they walked have been renamed or renovated. At last they stumble upon a shop which sells books, including alchemic texts both new and old, and Envy follows his master gratefully into the dimly lit, musty hush of the small building. He keeps watch while the man browses through the newer volumes, wading through the fresh discoveries and misconceptions within their crisp pages.
Customers come and go while Envy’s master reads unperturbedly on, frequently tucking another book into his stack of purchases. After a while, Envy begins to pay more attention to his master’s intractable spending than the other patrons of the shop. He takes careful note of which volumes are too expensive, and resolves to bully his master into returning nearly half a dozen of his choices to their places on the shelves before they leave.
Suddenly, into this domain of disgruntled calculations breaks a familiar, unwelcome voice.
Envy swallows a groan. His master, however, looks up with an expression of mild surprise and calls back to the intruder.
Humphrey is an old acquaintance, dating from a brief experiment in collaboration with Central University. Envy remembers him with dislike, as he does nearly all of his master's acquaintances. A mousy, unassuming young man, Humphrey was then an assistant to the university’s Professor of Alchemic Research, and he had many theories concerning the legends of the Philosopher's Stone and their possible validity. His faithful tenacity in clinging to these inflammatory (albeit true) ideas had made him a favourite of Envy's master—partially due to the obvious brightness of his fledgling mind, but also, in part, to quietly dissuade Humphrey from testing his theories.
Envy knows little about alchemy, and even less about the making of a Philosopher’s Stone, but the sound of his master’s voice whenever the subject comes up tells him all he needs to know.
Humphrey, too, though infatuated with the legendary Stone, seemed to understand over time that research into the matter was a better method than experimentation. When Envy and his master left Central, Humphrey’s attention had turned to old tales of an ancient Ishbalan Philosopher’s Stone, which Envy’s master had predicted with an air of personal insight would keep him occupied for years to come.
Now here is Humphrey, with his hands in his pockets, looking simultaneously pleased and taken aback. His eyes are shadowed and a little glassy, as though from a lack of sleep and overuse of the brain, and his previously slight frame is slighter still; but otherwise, he looks as healthy as ever. He extends a thin hand to Envy’s master, who clasps it warmly.
"A pleasure to see you again," Envy’s master tells the other man, and for once, Envy identifies a note of truth in the greeting.
"For me as well!" Humphrey claims, with his familiar hesitant smile. Releasing Envy’s master, he then turns to Envy and offers him the hand in turn. With a courteous smile instead of the sneer his face wants to express, Envy performs his social duties and is then content to blend into the background once more while his master and the new arrival continue their chat.
"So what brings you to Central?" Humphrey asks. "I haven’t seen you in years—I thought you had retired to the countryside permanently! Have you discovered some new marvel to reveal?"
He says this last in the tone of a joke, but there is a nervous note in his voice which peaks Envy’s curiosity. Why nervous, as though Envy’s master’s return is some portent of doom or a threat to Humphrey’s own livelihood? It has been many years, but certainly Humphrey cannot have risen so high among his peers that Envy’s master could be a menace to his position. A mere insect he was when they last saw him, and an insect he will likely remain to the end of his meagre days.
As is usually the case, Envy’s master pushes on with an quaint complacency all his own, seeming to overlook all of the subtleties in the conversation—yet Envy, who is nothing if not familiar with the habits of his master, knows that this is never the case. His master is a man of great genius, wise to the world and all those in it, and is attentive to the smallest of details.
"No, no marvels," he discounts, smiling. "I was in pursuit of a theory when I realised that I had a loose end—something missing, if you will. I came back in search of that missing piece."
"So you won’t be staying long?" Humphrey muses, wilting a little. He seems simultaneously eager and upset. "I had hoped you would have time to do a little catching up. Everyone at the university has missed you, and I have some friends I would like very much to introduce you to."
"That would be nice," Envy’s master admits, "but I really don’t think I have time to make that many calls..."
"Ah, but there’s a presentation at the University tomorrow evening!" Humphrey blurts. "A man came, from the East City University, to discuss new methods of conserving alchemic energy during a transmutation. It’s the new concern nowadays, if you didn’t know," he adds, slowing down. "It’s supposed to make the reaction more powerful... There are going to be refreshments served afterward, so everyone who came will stand around and talk... and I’m sure most of the old crowd will be there..."
He trails off uncertainly.
Envy’s master considers the offer for a long minute. Secretly, Envy hopes he will decide in favour of business and refuse, but this desire is frustrated when the man looks up again with a smile.
"I think I have enough time for that," he says.
So it is that, after two long days of roaming the new Central, Envy finds himself in evening dress, attending what amounts to an alchemic party. His master, who seems satisfied that the secret which he covets is hidden in one of the multitude of books he has purchased, sits through the presentation in rapt silence, with his legs crossed, arms folded, and chin in one hand. Envy, who cannot understand most of what is being said, merely slouches in his chair and is bored.
At the end, when the imbecile speaker has finally completed his spiel and left the stage, the entire assembly rises and files out into the enormous atrium to partake of the refreshments laid out there and to further discuss what has already been discussed in minute detail. Voices, both friendly and argumentative, fill the high-ceilinged room with a whirlwind of noise; dark-suited men and brightly gowned women mingle slowly, weaving in and out amidst their peers in a dignified dance which keeps the room in constant, gradual motion.
In the midst of this Humphrey, as eager as a puppy, leads Envy and his master about the room, introducing them to several new faces and forcing them into conversation with a multitude of old ones. Most of the conversation is as tiresome to Envy as the presentation itself was, yet Envy’s master seems to enjoy the complex discourse he finds among his fellow alchemists, so Envy grudgingly fades into the background and refrains from intervention. The only thing in which he can find any interest is the fact that everyone they speak with comments on how long it has been since they last saw, not Envy’s master, but Humphrey himself. Apparently, Humphrey quit the university not long after their departure from Central, and has been working alone, with the benefaction of a young noblewoman.
What intrigues Envy about this is not simply the events, but Humphrey’s reactions to them. The comments seem to perturb the younger man, and he leads Envy’s master from one person to another, preferring to remain with those who are willing to leave the subject of his own life alone.
Of course, all of this is forgotten when the homunculus sets eyes on her.
Envy, always on the lookout, catches sight of her before his master does. Instinct makes him dig in his heels and pull them both to a jolting halt less than six feet from where she stands surrounded by others, smiling that faux smile which he recalls so well that it is instantly recognisable even in this new, younger body. When his master looks questioningly down at him, he motions discreetly in her direction.
Humphrey, abruptly realising that he is no longer being followed, blinks back at them with an expression of bewilderment.
"Is there something wrong, Mr. Raster?" he asks, glancing at Envy’s restraining grip on his master’s elbow.
Annoyed, yet playing his part, Envy smiles as falsely as the woman six feet away and shakes his head.
"I thought I saw someone I knew, but it was someone else," he lies, releasing his master’s sleeve. Humphrey’s face clears as he accepts this excuse.
"That’s good." He smiles with a hint of embarrassment. "For a moment I was afraid I had run you ragged."
Envy bites back an acid remark.
"And just when I was about to introduce you to the one person I really wanted you to meet! She’s been my benefactor since soon after you left, and I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I have without her. Ah, here she is. Lady Dante!"
The woman called Dante glances up from her talk with a gaggle of admiring alchemists. Envy is not certain whether they are admiring her brains or her body, for she is certainly showing enough of both. Encased a full-skirted ball gown of wine-colored silk which bares her shoulders and covers her arms to the wrist, with her long, brown hair gathered up atop her head in an artful pile and pinned in place with gold clasps, she is certainly physically beautiful. Yet, when she looks past Humphrey and lays eyes on Envy’s master, an expression flickers across her face which is far from beautiful.
In an instant, the expression is gone.
"My Lady, this is the friend I told you about," Humphrey says as they draw up beside her, and adds, a little breathless with pride, "Mr. Hohenheim, may I introduce the Lady Dante?"
"A pleasure, my Lady," Hohenheim tells her, with a warm smile on his lips and expressionless eyes. Her eyes tell a different story, one of radiant delight at his predicament; but her mouth tenders the same polite lie.
"The pleasure is all mine," she retorts coyly, and offers her hand. Envy struggles to maintain his calm facade. His master, however, simply takes the hand and kisses the back of it lightly, with a bare brush of skin against skin.
He straightens as promptly as is socially acceptable, but the damage which Envy envisioned is already done. For one scant blink of the eye, the poisonous pleasure in the woman’s eyes spreads to her rouged lips, and the victory in that brief smile sets Envy’s head abuzz with bone-deep fury. Only his master’s calm, and the thought of his heated displeasure afterward, prevents the homunculus from leaping forwards and thrusting a fist into the hateful woman’s hateful heart.
He tightens his jaw until he can hear the joint creaking inside his head, but the rage does not subside.
"I have heard so much about you," she is now saying smoothly, disregarding the presence of the homunculus entirely, although she must know what and who he is. "Mr. Humphrey speaks of you often, and with high regard."
"I’m glad to hear it," Envy’s master replies with the easy, credulous grin at which he is so practiced. "A man’s true reputation is only as good as what is said of him behind his back."
"Then your reputation is unimpeachable!"
The three share a laugh, which rings hollow with the sound of social graces. Mr. Humphrey blushes through his laughter, embarrassed, but there is no reproach in his eyes when he glances at the woman—there is only a dreamy glow. With deep disdain, but no surprise, Envy realises that Humphrey, too, has fallen under the woman’s poisonous spell. He likely thinks himself in love—what humans call ‘puppy love’, though he was already twenty ten years before and Dante herself cannot be younger than twenty-five now. Still, in their case it is well named, Envy thinks acerbically. The idiocy of infancy, not by age but by mental development.
With the introductions completed and the false honours made, the conversation turns to the latest news in alchemic circles and then to Envy’s master’s accomplishments. Envy’s master makes a few concessions in this subject before quietly averting the discussion to inquiries about Humphrey’s work.
This is where the conversation becomes interesting.
"Lady Dante generously offered to fund my research," Humphrey says, his pale cheeks reddening once more, when asked how the two met. "She is actually a very accomplished alchemist in her own right."
"Is that so?" Envy’s master murmurs politely, and if there is even a hint of sarcasm in his voice, Envy cannot find it. Nevertheless, Dante’s slow smile makes apparent her own knowledge of its existence.
Humphrey, however, is oblivious. "Yes," he reaffirms, as grandly as though it were his own accomplishments being discussed. "Although she’s not involved with alchemy professionally, she’s better than a host of those who are—certainly better than myself," he adds with a modest chuckle.
Another false laugh ripples through the trio.
"But she seems to have taken an interest in my work," Humphrey goes on. He seems torn between pride and incredulity.
"The Philosopher’s Stone is a very deep subject," Dante appends, with a smile which does not quite hide her dark humour. "There are so many legends surrounding it, but to my knowledge, no one has ever made the attempt to piece them together and make a coherent study of the possible truths within them. I believe that there may be many things which we can learn from Mr. Humphrey’s research into the topic." Her smile intensifies sharply.
"Don’t you, Mr. Hohenheim?"
"With caution," Envy’s master allows agreeably. "As I’ve told Mr. Humphrey before, I myself have studied a legend or two. It seems easy to go too far."
"And by too far, you mean... the making of a Stone?" Dante laughs, and for the only time that evening, says something which sounds something like herself, and not the character she is playing.
"Why, Mr. Hohenheim, do you believe such a thing of me?"
Envy’s master does not answer, and Humphrey, bewildered, soon changes the subject—but the true answer hangs in the air, unspoken, for quite some time.
To Envy’s extreme unease, the evening continues without incident, and though he keeps a close eye on her, that person whose presence so unnerves him goes no further towards his master than a few veiled insinuations. Even the hunger which he witnessed in her on that day years before makes no appearance now. She clings closely to Humphrey instead, and this presents one of two possibilities. Either she has become very stupid, or she is contriving something which Envy will have to prevent.
But the evening ends, and still nothing has happened. Humphrey prepares to escort her home.
"I need one last word with Mr. Hohenheim," he tells her. "Would you mind waiting by the door for me?"
For the first time Envy sees something other than venom in her. It takes him by surprise, but he thinks that it is reluctance, and its presence fills him with mingled exultation and wariness.
Despite whatever doubts she may have, she cannot politely refuse. "Of course," she agrees, and goes to stand by the doorway, where she busies herself with collecting the furs she must have worn to protect against the autumn’s light chill.
Humphrey faces Envy’s master with something resembling determination.
"You won’t be in town much longer," he says, without question.
"No," Envy’s master responds, "not much longer. But perhaps long enough," and Envy feels the beginning of fatherly coaxing in his tone. He curses the man’s all too human desire to intercede.
Whether it is the tone or the choice of words, some part of the sentence draws Humphrey’s attention. For a full half a minute, he stands in thoughtful silence, staring downward at the once polished, now slightly scuffed floor; but after a moment he shakes it off and lifts his face, holding out a welcoming hand. Envy’s master shakes it firmly.
"It’s been good to spend time with you again."
"I’ve missed you," Humphrey agrees with deep feeling, and his hand clasps more tightly around the other man’s for the briefest of seconds. Envy’s master nods. His hearty smile does not waver.
"Why don’t you come and visit us before we leave town?" he suggests. "It’s been quite a while since we last spoke freely together, and I would appreciate your opinion on some of my work."
This, Envy knows well, is an outright lie. His master never shares his work with anyone—he hardly shared it when he and Humphrey were associates. Humphrey, for all his naiveté, must realise this, but if he does he appears not to care. His reflection lightens with all the hope of a foolish child.
"Yes, I would like that very much. I—I think I’ll do that," he agrees, and there is honest relief in his voice. He seems to be wavering in his determination, Envy notes drily—whatever that determination may be. With Dante here and devoting herself to accomplishing his work, it cannot be anything good.
The two decide to meet the next day, after the noon meal. Humphrey, especially, appears eager to meet soon and is content with the early date. Envy’s master has gotten through to him after all, Envy thinks. He is remembering the dangers of delving too deeply.
Dante, too, seems to realise that his resolve is slipping. After the two have said goodbye, as they vanish into the heavy darkness of the early morning hours, Envy sees her bend close to Humphrey’s ear and whisper there a few light words, accompanied by a sweetly seductive smile. He nods softly, turning to face her, and in his eyes blazes that same infatuation which so effortlessly blinded him before. She will be strengthening his conviction for the rest of the night, Envy imagines, and all the next morning, and he will lap like an eager dog at her every virulent word.
He sees Humphrey’s doom in that exchange, and can only feel that he will deserve it.
Envy’s master is a dedicated man, and though he does not interfere in the affairs of others very often, Envy has always known him to take special interest in those people whom he considers his responsibility. Envy has only witnessed a few such people in his master’s life, but like the garden in the country, those few are always well looked after. Envy’s master will not abandon Humphrey until he has done everything he possibly can.
Yet Dante, too, can be obstinate. When Humphrey appears that afternoon, more than a half an hour late, it is instantly plain that Envy’s master has his work cut out for him. The young man is visibly nervous; though he holds his end of the conversation well enough, he seems ever on the defensive, lashing out whenever Envy’s master frames a comment even vaguely suggesting negativity toward his secret project. Dante has done her duty thoroughly, Envy notes dismissively, listening to his master ease the younger alchemist gently toward his own point of view. Love is no more than a weapon for her—a weakness to be exploited. In this one case, he agrees with her.
Envy’s master stays at his work long after the homunculus himself is bored, dotting the more commonplace talk with a hint here, a suggestion there. Amazingly, Humphrey eventually begins to soften, but even this astounding feat soon becomes dull. Excusing himself quietly under the pretense of ordering a tray of tea, Envy escapes to the hotel lobby. He remains there for some time, simply prowling; then, unwilling, he decides that his master has been alone for long enough and ferrets out the promised tea.
When he returns to the room with the tray in hand, the terse discussion which he left has escalated into a one-sided shouting match.
"Her!" Envy can hear Humphrey shouting as he approaches the door. "She's spent her life on research like this! She is as qualified as you are to decide whether or not this is a worthwhile project!"
Raising an eyebrow, Envy balances the tea-tray on one hand long enough to twist the knob. He pushes open the door just in time to hear the end of his master’s mollifying reply.
"—about her qualifications."
"What is it you have against her!" Humphrey growls, remaining unimpressed. He sounds surprisingly bold, and equally unwilling to listen to reason. "You barely even know her, yet you make judgments in an instant!"
This, Envy thinks, is far more interesting, yet rather a waste of his master’s time. Smiling, he crosses the room and sets the tea down, with more force than is strictly necessary, on the chest of drawers against the far wall.
Startled, Humphrey glances at the homunculus. He flushes angrily—most likely embarrassed to be caught berating such a man in front of his student—and without further ado turns and makes his way to the door, his steps crisp and furious. At the last moment, he turns his face back.
"Perhaps is it you whom I should learn not to trust," he bites, and goes out, shutting the door behind him with a sharp bang.
In the silence which follows, Envy selects a cup of tea and takes it to his master. The man accepts it, although he pointedly avoids looking at Envy while he does so. His expression is one of malcontent.
Only partially rebuked, the homunculus withdraws to his previous seat on the bed, from which vantage point he watches while his master drinks the full contents of the cup. By the time the man has finished, a modicum of determination has come into his face. He rises, crosses to the chest of drawers, and sets the empty vessel back on its tray.
Envy waits for the decision which he knows is to come.
Now that Envy’s master has decided to act, he throws himself into it with the attention commonly reserved for his alchemical studies. Envy aids him, but in actuality he has little interest in the outcome. If Dante’s plans are frustrated so be it, and if Humphrey dies (or worse), he could be content with that as well. As long as his master remains unharmed, he is not particular in the least.
The first order of business, of course, is to discover where Humphrey is, and what precisely he intends to do with the Philosopher’s Stone. The university has his old address filed, but a visit to the squalid little flat soon verifies that he has not lived there for some time, yet is keeping up with the rent quite nicely, as the landlady testifies. That, however, is the most she knows of the matter. Visiting a few of Humphrey’s old friends proves fruitless, and, with all options exhausted, Envy’s master now decides to try a new tactic. Envy does not know what it is, but when he thinks the circumstances over, he finds it a simple thing to guess.
If Humphrey is employed by that person, and has not been occupying his own home, then where else would he find shelter but with her?
They trail back towards their hotel in deep silence. The crowds around them ebb and flow as they walk on, side by side, Envy aware as always and his master wrapped in his own deep thoughts. Where is she? is now the question which dogs him so. Where would she go?
Suddenly, the man pauses in the middle of the street. Envy halts in front of him, watching his face closely.
"Perhaps..." his master mumbles, his forehead creasing. "It would be brazen, but for her..."
His expression darkens like a thunderhead.
"Come," he orders, and there is a shade in his tone as well, which sends a hateful quiver up Envy’s spine. "A place where she knows no one but I will find her. A place where even you have been only once before."
At first Envy is hard pressed to imagine where they could be going, as his master leads the way through the bustling marketplaces of Central and into quieter, more grimy quarters. The people they pass become fewer, though Envy can hear others lingering in the shadows which line these long-forgotten streets. He draws closer to his master, warily waiting for an attack, for, although he knows that these filthy, hollow-eyed people are essentially the same as their cleaner fellows from uptown, he knows too that humans with their silly manners stripped away are more likely to make use of their inner beast.
But Envy’s master does not take note of them. In fact, he does not appear to take note of anything as he and the homunculus pass through this area also, arriving in a section of Central even more silent than the last. He strides ahead with purpose in his step. He is not searching. He is going to a place where he has been before—a place to which he knows the path. Envy can only watch and wait.
They arrive at last in what appears to be a temple, and here, Envy’s master comes to a stop. Envy stretches out his hearing, but there is no one near enough to hear; the last of the people are far behind. Satisfied by the silence, he casts a quick look at the building’s interior.
Though high-ceilinged, with ornately moulded walls and pillars, it houses only a single room which it itself surprisingly bare. Near the front is a tall podium, which he guesses must have been used by some long-dead religious man, and the two long rows of vacant benches in which his followers once sat almost fill the room, leaving only three narrow aisles, one between them and one along each wall. Huge windows, mosaics fashioned of colored glass, stream dim light inward; there is an especially large one, surprisingly whole, situated at the very back of the building above the speaker’s position.
Envy’s master, standing in the colored light cast by this window, claps his hands together and touches the podium’s carven front panel. The stone ripples, drawing back toward the sides in two waves and creating a square opening like a doorway, which Envy’s master ducks through at once. Envy, at first taken aback, now sees that there are many stairs leading downward, and follows quickly on silent feet.
They come out onto a railed ledge, a walkway of sorts which seem to encompass a wide cavern, filled with a dim, all-embracing light which makes Envy’s eyes hurt after the long darkness of the stairway. He squints, frowning. It takes him some time to realise what sight is laid out before him, at the bottom of the cavern many yards below.
A city beneath Central...? Envy thinks hollowly, blinking out at the vision.
There are houses—miles of houses, all stretched out in untidy rows. The effect of their presence within the cavern is surreal: houses indoors, made to seem like models by the walls surrounding them. This aura is only added to by the fact that some of them are actually settled askew—in fact, the entire city gives the impression of having been built jumbled, as though it were a toy dropped abruptly into this chasm by some giant hand.
Stranger even than this, there is a huge, black transmutation circle inscribed in a ring all around the messy clutter of buildings.
Yet Envy’s master does not seem at all affected by either city or circle. He makes his way downward into the sea of ancient buildings with not so much as a pause, and Envy has to follow.
The dead city opens up before them in a desolate, somehow sinister parody of its living counterpart no more than a hundred yards overhead, and their footsteps seem to echo in the fat silence, like the sounds of ghosts tapping out the paths which they used to walk. The houses, long empty, loom disquietingly close as they pass by. Their doors are like wide, dark mouths. Envy feels the faint, unwelcome prod of familiarity, but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot force a lucid memory to the surface of his mind. He wants badly to know what his master meant by his over-dramatic little speech; when he, Envy, was ever here before; and why he thinks that Dante will be here; but he dares not ask. Rather, he worries at the idea, searching his memories closely in the futile attempt to understand.
Something shifts in the distance.
Startled, Envy pricks up his ears. It could be meaningless—surely rats must have found this place, even if no human has—but if Dante truly is here, it could also be very dangerous. In a place like this, even her homunculi could live uninhibited, walking the streets openly, he thinks, and the image needles at him. He stalks edgily at his master’s side, memories forgotten, keeping all his senses well trained for the attack.
When it comes, he is more than prepared.
The signal is insignificant—a tiny hiss, a gust of air displaced by slender projectiles—but Envy whirls toward it, forcing his body to gain height with a suddenness which knocks the breath from his lungs. In a split second he has become taller and nearly broader than his master, and yet it is none too soon. Long, black-clad fingers punch through his chest like bullets; he clenches his teeth, feeling them explode outward past his spine, hoping against hope that his master is making himself a shield.
Even as he hopes, the familiar crackling of alchemy touches his ears. A wall appears at his back, its hardness pressing close against him, and he feels the fingers falter in their forward movement. For a fragment of a second, they seem to hesitate; then they recede, whipping back through his body with a faint tug. He braces himself, intent on not stumbling in front of the enemy, and when they are gone, he melts rapidly into his standard form. The five wounds in his chest shrink quickly and disappear.
Comfortable in his body once more, he takes up a fighting stance as his master returns his wall to the earth. His opponent, smiling adroitly, steps forward with her companion into the centre of the subterranean road.
It is Lust, accompanied as always by Gluttony, whose memorable mushroom-like shape and round, childish face are now twisted by his maliciously eager grin. Lust, too, is immediately familiar; although Envy has never fought her before, nor even heard her speak, the voluptuousness of her figure and the seductive curve of her dark red lips are easy to associate with her given name. Yet even beyond this he has some knowledge—some innate recognition of who and what they are—which speaks more clearly to him than any of his five senses ever could.
A case of like calling to like? he thinks contemptuously, and steadies himself for the bound which will carry him into combat.
"Stand back, Envy," his master commands.
Thwarted, and more than a little annoyed, Envy stops short. His master pushes him aside and steps in front of him, and for a moment, Envy considers arguing the issue... but the urge fades quickly. Fuming, though still taking care not to show it, he remains behind and a little to the side and allows his master to take control.
Slowly, with an expression of cool gravity, Envy’s master regards the two enemy homunculi. In the hush the examination brings, Gluttony relaxes, becoming once again the vacuously grinning toddler-man whom Envy recalls; but Lust only inclines her head slightly, as if the weight of the man’s eyes is too much for her slender neck to bear.
"Lust," he says at last, in his matter-of-fact way. "Why has she sent you?"
Lust considers this question, and fleetingly, Envy thinks that she will not answer. Then she nods graciously, her long, dark ringlets shifting against the dark cloth of her low-cut dress with a faint, silken whisper. Her head lifts; her eyes seek Envy’s master’s golden eyes and hold them, as though by sheer force of will.
"To curb you, Hohenheim of Light," she says simply, smiling that artful smile once again. "You have power, and if that power is not with her, then it is against her."
It is a taunt, and they all know it. It hangs between them, an invitation to anger, and Envy vibrates with the desire to wipe the smile off of the other homuculus’s beautiful face.
"Is that so?" Envy’s master murmurs, sounding amused. "You’re to keep me at a distance?"
"Until she is ready for you," Lust concurs cordially.
"I see," says the man. He bends to touch the earth.
A spike rises from the ground, clipping Lust as she leaps backward. Gluttony dodges with surprising speed for his size, but immediately afterward he lurches forward again and bites with his huge teeth into the spire of stone. It breaks into pieces like a stick of rock candy, most disappearing into his mouth. Saliva drips from his tongue to the tooth-marked base, melting the stone like ice under warm water.
"Finally," Envy grits out gleefully, and is off into the melée.
Lust leaps forward again, past Gluttony, lashing with five fingers at Envy’s master, but the man replaces himself with three thick pillars and diverts the blow. Thus armed the dubious knowledge that the man can protect himself, Envy sets his own attention to driving the other homunculi back. He aims for Lust first, for, although the strength, teeth, and sheer weight of Gluttony make him the more formidable opponent, they also render him unable to launch a surprise attack. It is Lust, with her long-distance attacks, who poses the greater threat to Envy’s master.
At first she simply avoids her fellow homunculus, leaping from place to place as she sends out her assault on the alchemist, but before long it becomes obvious that she cannot fight two battles at once. Envy can see the moment when she makes the decision to turn her attention to him, the closer of the two, leaving his master to Gluttony, and he grins at her, elated. This is what he needed her to do. He throws himself into the attack with all of the swiftness he can muster, focusing simply on forcing her away from the man. Many of his blows fail to land, and her sharp fingers pierce flesh more than once, but he rains kicks and punches on her with such unrelenting rapidity that she never has a chance to regain her grip on the situation. It is all she can do to dodge and block.
Yet even this favourable situation has its downsides. Envy, too, has no time to look around him. It is only when Lust finally lands a deep blow to his throat and upper chest, puncturing a lung and pinning him briefly to the once-glorious outer wall of some long-dead human’s mansion, that he realises that they have battled far into the city and his master is now close by. Gluttony is foundering, but fights doggedly on, bleeding from half a dozen rapidly healing wounds. Seeing her chance to intercept them, Lust draws her fingers back to their normal shape and runs off in the direction of her comrade.
Envy scowls, swallowing blood, and catapults after her with a fist upraised. At the very last second, having gained her goal and taken up a position back to back with Gluttony, she wheels back to face Envy and raises a hand in his direction.
"Enough!" the woman’s voice orders loudly.
Gluttony makes a frightened sound and ceases his attack, and Lust stops in mid-thrust, but Envy does not. Smirking, he completes his motion, taking deep pleasure in Lust’s sucking gasp when his fist collides with her cheek. Bone crunches under his knuckles.
The imperious voice is not his master’s, but it jerks the homunculus to an involuntary halt just the same. A scrap of insight dislodged by the words bobs upward in his mind, a corpse long dead beneath waves of forgetfulness, and all at once the remembrance which he sought so hard is within his grasp—the voice, the place, the long stretch of days which he has succeeded so well in erasing—
"That is enough, Envy!"
"I’ve named him Envy. A sin for a sin, how fitting... Still, don’t they say, "Do unto others as they would have done unto you?"
It is her voice; her words. Yet somehow it is his master’s face which predominates the memory, and the faint echo of a reply in his voice:
"Why did you keep him, Dante?"
He falters with the half-formed implications of that brief image, and, unable to bear it, pushes it away once more. Now simultaneously furious and terrified, he abandons the fallen Lust, and faces the woman Dante where she stands in the middle of the empty street.
Dante smirks at him. "But I’m sure your master would say the same. Is that right, Mr. Hohenheim?"
"I’ve come for Mr. Humphrey," Envy’s master tells her, ignoring the question. He is behind Envy now, with the cringing Gluttony, but Envy cannot bring himself yet to turn his back on Dante. He remains as he is.
"Where is he?"
"Doing his work, of course. In fact, within a few hours, it should be complete, in spite of your interferences. He is as human as the next man, after all. He has his own ego to look after, and he will need to work quickly to make this year’s State Examinations. He would enjoy that, I think. Showing all those people how wrong they’ve been about his accomplishments." She smiles mockingly.
"So I’m afraid you can’t see him right now."
"Move aside, Dante," Envy’s master says softly.
Unexpectedly, the woman turns away from him. She fixes her gaze on Envy.
"Did you know that the Philosopher’s Stone could make you human?" she asks lightly.
"What makes you think that I’d want to be human?" Envy snaps, falling instinctively into a tensely defensive stance. Looking at her, she seems far from dangerous, but his more recent memory warns of the terrible things which this frail-seeming woman can do. She wants to turn him against his master, he thinks darkly, but she knows nothing about him.
She laughs at him. Her face is rampant with scorn.
"He never told you why you were made," she says quickly. The words bite, a challenge which Envy does not yet understand. "He never told you why he hates you, and why he keeps you."
He doesn’t hate me, Envy wants to say, but he recalls the looks his master sometimes gives him, and the words will not form on his tongue.
"Dante!" Envy’s master warns.
"One day, he will leave you," she cries, her voice drowning out his, and this lone sentence tears at something buried deeply inside the homunculus, hidden in the void of the heart he has never had.
"He can’t," he spits thoughtlessly, and she laughs once again.
"Why not? Because he created you? Men destroy the work of their hands every day, abandon their own sons and daughters—!"
"And why not you? He keeps you out of guilt, out of love for what you once were—and when he can find someone else to fill the void, he won’t need you any longer. He will abandon you."
"Be silent!" Envy’s master bellows.
Her face does not contort, but her eyes flame with a plethora of unpleasant emotions and her slender hands fist. In her aspect, Envy sees a thousand things in conflict—love, hate, sorrow, exhilaration, bitter determination. Her words jumble in his mind: poison darts, fallen in an inert, yet still deadly heap to the ground as he struggles to make sense of them.
But Envy’s master is like stone before her. He stares at her with a shadowed, angered face.
"Be silent," he repeats, with a voice far more controlled. "Attack me if you like, but never try to turn him against me."
"And will you stop me?" Dante whispers. "Have you forgotten, Hohenheim of Light? I studied at your feet, too, and put to use far more of your discoveries than you will ever be willing to do. You can’t prevent me from doing anything. If I take him from you, it will be no more than you did to me."
She raises her voice.
Dante starts and looks back over her shoulder. In a doorway three houses away stands Humphrey, wearing over his mouth and nose a triangle of closely fitting cloth. He glances questioningly at Dante—then at Envy and his master. His expression becomes black with recognition, and he tears the cloth mask from his face.
"Go back inside, Mr. Humphrey," Dante says, but he moves forward instead and places himself squarely in front of her.
"You!" he spits bitterly. "I should have known you would find this place. Are you here to try and force me to stop again?"
"I have no desire to force you to do anything. Only to warn you."
"Do you know how many have?" Humphrey asks bitingly. "No one but I and the Lady Dante ever believed the Philosopher’s Stone existed. And now, Lady Dante, I believe that the tanks of Red Stones are ready. A few more touches on the west edge of the circle, and then..."
"You must not go through with this, Mr. Humphrey," Envy’s master interrupts loudly.
If possible, Humphrey’s expression becomes even blacker. "What do you know about it?" he shouts, whirling to glare at the other man.
"That the Philosopher’s Stone is made from human souls!"
The assembly falls into instantaneous silence, as though the words are an alchemic reaction which suctions the air from within the broad space. With a gasp like a drowning man breaking surface, Humphrey reels backward, nearly knocking into Dante as he does so.
"You’re lying!" he cries, even as he shrinks. "I’ve studied this more than you ever could have! You can’t know something like that! It’s a lie!"
"Of course it is," Dante says quickly, sounding shocked and outraged. Perhaps she is. "He’s simply trying to shake your confidence."
"It won’t work," Humphrey shouts. "The Philosopher’s Stone is made from the distillations of red water, also called Red Stones. I’ve waited years for this moment. You can’t stop me from proving the truth of what I’ve worked so hard for!"
"But it’s truth, Mr. Humphrey. Did you never wonder why, if the recipe was so simple and the circle existed, there have been no other Philosopher’s Stones? Did you never wonder why the Ishbalans, who knew how to make the Stone, no longer allow their people to touch what they once called the Grand Art?"
"Because men are power-hungry fools! They use the Stone to subvert others, so people have come to fear the Stone itself!"
"Perhaps, in part. But the greater reason is that each Stone takes thousands of lives to make. That is why the circle is so large. It must have souls, for, although it allows a man to disregard the law of Equivalent Exchange, it can only do so because the payment is already contained within the Stone itself."
"I am not lying. If you activate that circle, the reaction will stretch only as far as the circle allows, but it will travel upward through the ground until it finds what it needs, and it will encompass nearly all of Central City. Every man, woman, and child who lives there will disappear in an instant. The city itself is to be the exchange."
Briefly, Humphrey’s anger seems to dwindle. His mouth tightens and his brows draw downward, as though he is in mortal pain.
"I chose this place," Dante interjects, and though her words are soft she wields them like a weapon.
Humphrey realises instantly what she means. Envy’s master’s unintentional accusation spring up like a wall between he and Humphrey, and the anger sweeps back like a tidal wave, blotting out the younger alchemist’s will to listen.
"I won’t stand here and listen to you speak of Lady Dante that way," he hisses, and spreads his arms as if to shield her all the better. "Please leave. Now."
Envy’s master tries one last time.
"Ask yourself this, Humphrey! Are you willing to sacrifice the lives of all the men, women, and children in this city to further your own ends? If you fail you may die in the transmutation, but if you succeed, you will have to live with what you’ve done for the rest of your life!"
The echoes of the man’s voice fade, leaving behind them a deep, restive second of silence, like an inhalation all across the cavern. Humphrey quivers once and stills.
"Go," he says again, but it is faint and pleading.
Without further argument, Envy’s master obeys. Lust and Gluttony have long since disappeared into the shadows, making their escape during the distraction of the argument. Envy, wishing that he knew where they were, casts one last, mistrustful glance at Dante and goes also... but slowly.
"You can perform the transmutation tomorrow," he hears her say to Humphrey as he leaves. Her tone is full of triumph. "Or even this evening, if you would like. Now that the circle is complete and the Red Stones are in place, there is nothing more needed."
Envy snorts, expecting to hear affirmation. Instead, there is only silence. He pauses in his steps, as does his master, but neither of them turn around, fearing to break the moment.
Humphrey makes a desperate noise in his throat.
"I—I can’t," he whispers. The horror in his voice is unlike anything which Envy has ever heard.
"He was lying!" Dante cries out, exasperated. "Surely you can’t believe him!" Again Humphrey makes that desperate, abortive sound, but this time there is no pause.
"I can’t," he repeats.
The words drop like a stone, leaving rippling echoes in the silence. Dante’s face goes cold and very still.
Finally, without a word, she turns and begins to walk away.
"Please, Lady Dante!" Humphrey begs, panic-stricken. "I’ll find another way! I—"
"Kill him," the woman says sharply, without turning her head or even pausing in her smooth stride, and Humphrey subsides quickly, stunned into silence. Statuesque, he stares after her ever more distant form with wide, disbelieving eyes.
Out of the shadows by the nearest house steps the homunculus Greed.
"Envy," Envy’s master murmurs, and moves closer to Humphrey. Envy nods, his lips drawing back from his teeth in an expression that is half excitement, half hatred.
"Are you ready to finish our fight, Greed?" he calls, and shifts swiftly into his fighting form. Behind him, he hears Humphrey’s gasp, his strangled "What—?", but he pays it no heed. If his master wants Humphrey alive, he will have to manage the explanations on his own.
Greed grins broadly, showing a generous amount of teeth as well, and the spastic glow of his skin reacting shrouds his body for a second. In its wake, he wears a crust of black, as hard as diamonds. Envy recalls the feeling of that shield against his knuckles and his heels, and he bares his teeth once again. He has more than one reason to hate Greed.
"Are you ready?" Greed taunts, his eyes gleaming.
They clash in the middle of the street, sword against shield, and Envy’s first kick, launched at high velocity across a narrow distance, knocks his opponent backward but does little else. Greed grasps at Envy’s feet, trying to catch him and swing him, but Envy flips backwards and away before he can take hold. Greed leaps after, a fist at the ready.
Quickly, Envy ducks under the blow, but he is not fast enough to escape it. It clips him over the top of the head and slows him down enough that Greed lands another one in the centre of his chest with a hard, vigorous knee. Coughing, the green-haired homunculus places his hands flat against the dusty cobblestones and flips himself over backward, kicking the other full in the chin, and Greed stumbles backward a little, unbalanced. Envy springs to his feet and flies forward again.
They continue this way for long, breathless minutes, fist over fist, ducking and weaving with Envy flying in and out of the fray. The motion is constant and almost too fast for the eye to follow, but for the most part, neither is winning or losing. Now and then Envy lands a kick, or Greed lands a blow, and sometimes one or the other stumbles and their opponent briefly gains the upper hand. For the most part the fight is a mass of quick arms and legs, neither opponent yielding or weakening in the least, and, except for the pain of continually healing bones in his hands and feet, Envy finds the action almost enjoyable. It makes his heart pound and his feet fly, and the satisfaction when he hears the other homunculus grunt with irritation after a well-placed blow is more entertainment than he has had in long years. Greed, too, does not seem very anxious to find an opening and complete his duty.
Then, unexpectedly, Envy sees a chance. As Greed tilts to the side, prepared to evade the airborne Envy, he leaves his face open to attack. With a mighty twist, Envy throws himself sidewise and plasters his body to Greed’s chest. As expected, Greed staggers but does not fall.
Quickly, without waiting for good aim, Envy plunges the two first fingers of his right hand downward into Greed’s left eye.
He feels his middle finger break against the other homunculus’s eye socket, but his index finger manages to force its way in. The eyeball pops with a satisfying sound. Greed howls.
"How do you like that?" Envy hisses with satisfaction. With a kick of his heels, he catapults himself off of Greed’s chest and lands lightly more than two yards away, between Greed and his master.
Greed clutches at his face. His good eye glares at Envy, the lid half-closed in a grimace of pain.
"Little bastard," he growls.
Greed leaps at him, his new eye glowering in its black socket, and the struggle begins anew.
Greed’s blows are heavier now, but that is understandable, and Envy adjusts his defense accordingly. Now it is a constant draw, neither side gaining or losing ground, and the pace is much too fast for enjoyment. It is simply kill or be killed, a continuous dance of split-second decisions and actions with no room for mistakes.
In the midst of this intrudes a faint, quick hiss, faster and deadlier than a snake.
Envy, distracted by the familiarity of the sound, is knocked sprawling. By the time Lust’s keen fingers snake past him he has already opened his mouth to warn his master—he even sees the man twitch, alarmed, in Humphrey’s direction as they draw near. But it is far too late for that.
One moment, Humphrey is standing in the shadow of a house, and in the next moment he is pinned to its wall. He chokes. His arms spasm, weakly, toward the intrusion in his chest. Only his expression does not change. It remains, as it has been since Dante’s departure, wide-eyed and bewildered.
Envy vaults to his feet, panting, and backs away from Greed, all while tracking the receding fingers back to their owner with his eyes.
Greed turns toward the female homunculus as she steps from the shadows.
"Lust," he addresses her, and though his words are harsh, his expression is elated. "Didn’t I tell you never to get involved in my fights?"
"Your methods are too slow," Lust retorts, unruffled, and would say more, but Envy seizes his opening while Greed is distracted and springs onto his back, drawing the bones within his right arm into a sharp, deadly point.
He is a fraction of a second too slack. The soft surface before his makeshift blade transforms before it can be punctured. Bone splinters and snaps with the force of the impact and drives jarringly upward into the joint of Envy’s right elbow, dislocating the shoulder above it with a wet, hollow pop. Envy hisses like an angry cat, pivoting upward and away to a safe distance while his damaged arm shifts back into its proper configuration.
He sees Greed start forward, his eyes bright with fierce joy, and falls quickly into an aggressive position, but Lust says something which makes her compatriot pause.
"She wants us to return to her as soon as the man is dead!"
Resentment darkens Greed’s expression. "He’s not dead yet," he grinds between clenched teeth, and begins to stretch out toward the battle once again.
"He will be," Lust responds levelly. "Come now, Greed."
There is a hint of unspoken threat in her voice.
Greed hesitates a moment more, but swears sibilantly under his breath and straightens to depart. Envy, not forgetting the pain which the other homunculus has inflicted on him, laughs mockingly.
"Called home so soon, Greed?"
Greed bares his teeth. "We’ll finish this another time," he spits, and in an instant both he and Lust are gone. Their footsteps patter briefly beyond the doorway, following the course of their mistress, and soon even those sounds have disappeared.
"Bastard," Envy rasps, grinning, and prepares to go after the other homunculus.
Disappointed, Envy glances back over his shoulder at his master. At some time in the midst of the battle, he has knelt and taken the wounded Humphrey in his arms. The younger man’s head lolls against his shirt-front, which is now soaked, like Humphrey’s own, with a viscid liquid as red as fresh paint.
"He—he..." the young man mumbles unsteadily, staring, hollow-eyed, at Envy. At first Envy believes that he is speaking of the alteration which he, Envy, underwent, but that theory soon crumbles. Turning from the homunculus and focussing with difficulty on his master, Humphrey says waveringly, "She let him...?"
Envy’s master nods slowly. Gradually, Envy realises that they are discussing Greed.
"I—I don’t understand," Humphrey stammers. He stares up at Envy’s master with an expression of pathetic supplication—a dog, betrayed by someone it had trusted well. "I thought—"
"I tried to warn you," Envy’s master says heavily. "She never wanted you. It was the Stone."
For a moment Humphrey continues to stare blankly, uncomprehending. Then his blood-stained lips twitch. He smiles, but it is not a happy smile; it is the smile of one who has lost it all, and has nothing left over which to cry.
The smile turns to a hollow, self-deprecating laugh. "The Stone," he whispers, as if it is the greatest joke ever conceived. "The Stone..."
"I’m sorry," Envy’s master interrupts gravely, "but there is nothing I can do for you. You are going to die. Do you understand?"
Still laughing feebly, Humphrey nods as best he can while lying prone. A wet cough catches him mid-nod, a punctuation to the complex meaning behind the simple words, and Envy’s master turns him a little more to the side. Blood spills easily from his parted lips and spatters the floor with red.
When the coughing has passed again, Envy’s master shifts him back into his former position. Humphrey is now rather pale, but still calmer than Envy had imagined he would be. Even so, watching his life ebb slowly away is somewhat revolting, and Envy hopes it will be over soon.
"I was angry at you," Humphrey murmurs, half to himself, wheezing between words. "Angry because I knew that what I was doing was wrong, but also that I had to go through with it... to be with her. But none of that matters now. Was it really such a waste...?"
He lets out a shuddering sigh, as though he has come to his own conclusions and cannot bear them.
"Is there anything you would like?" Envy’s master asks quietly. "I believe in no god, but I recall a few prayers I’ve heard. Would it be better for you if I recited one?"
Faintly, ironically, Humphrey shakes his head. "No. But..."
"Even if she doesn’t love me, I would have liked to see her again," the young man murmurs wistfully. "Just... just to see her."
Envy’s master glances up at him with a tiny, curt nod. Envy nods sourly, knowing what is being required of him. He considers going a little distance before changing, so as not to be within sight... but one glance at Humphrey’s vacant eyes and he changes his mind.
The blue light flickers briefly in the darkness, and Envy glides forward with the self-assured grace he recalls from the woman's bearing, to stand before his kneeling master and the bleeding bundle of humanity in his arms.
"Look at me, then," he commands lightly in Dante’s smooth, careless tones, and Humphrey squints upward at him. His smiles softens. He is so far gone that no surprise at the miraculous appearance registers on his face.
"Were... you listening?"
"Yes," Envy agrees. Humphrey flops a weak hand at him in a vain attempt to touch, and so he settles himself obligingly down, arranging the wine-coloured skirt around him as he knows she would do. His master is avoiding his eyes and will hardly know if his act is accurate, but in this at least, Envy is the master. If he must do this, then he will do it well.
Eagerly, Humphrey lays hold of Envy’s nearer hand and grips it with weak fingers. "I love you," he mumbles quickly, and the realization that his time is almost over shines emptily from his eyes.
"I love you. You know that, don’t you?"
"Yes," Envy says shortly, and a bitter revulsion wells up in him at this raw example of the human condition. He restrains himself from pulling his hand away, but feels that he has never acted a part more disgusting than this. Is this the thing which humans call love? he thinks, casting a dark glance at his master. This mindless slavery?
Could something like this truly be what holds his master to him?
"I suppose that’s all there is to say," Humphrey sighs vaguely, and turns his head away, hiding his face in the stained front of Envy’s master’s shirt.
His fingers, still twined with Envy’s, go still and heavy, and that is all there is.
They go back to their hotel room in their usual quiet way, and Envy’s master holds his coat carefully shut so as to cover the broad crimson stains on his white shirt. The body they leave behind; Envy’s master seems to have little interest in it, and if he has none, Envy has less. He did not like it when it was inhabited, and now that it is only a shell of flesh and bone, it is completely meaningless.
Envy’s master orders a very late dinner up to the room, and when he has finished eating, he begins to pack.
"We’ll go back to the country," he says to no one in particular.
"Whatever," Envy mutters darkly, and gets up from his perch by the window to help him.
The memory of the woman’s words cuts at Envy for a time, but eventually, the monotony of day to day life with his master is enough to wear the edges away. It is not a good thought, that only the perishable bonds of love are his protection against his worst nightmare, but even if it is true... even if... they have lasted almost four hundred years now. They can last a while longer.
It is not a good argument, but while is lasts, it is enough.
In the second month after their return, Envy and his master again make the trip to town. Their supply of money is running low, but Envy’s master has a few small ingredients which he needs, and Envy is unable to persuade him otherwise. Disgruntled, he settles for a promise of sales in the near future. The payment which farmers give for a repaired plow, an alchemically destroyed stump or boulder, or a shining new tool is not exceptional, but it will keep Envy’s master fed and his work funded, and that is all that truly matters to Envy.
It is late autumn now, and the open air is bitterly cold. The gardens and the orchards which were thick with fruit two months previous are now bare, and the roadsides are dotted with tall, dry weeds which rattle like skeletons in the chilly breezes. The children play closer to home, closer to their source of heat and comfort, and for this Envy is glad. He pulls his coat close around his shoulders and hunches into its high collar, observing his master from beneath dark, hooded lashes, basking in the old silence which hovers between them.
But as they round the curve which leads into the town, all gladness evaporates into the cold, brittle air.
The girl from that day in the dry-goods shop so long ago is standing at the edge of the roadway, wrapped in coat, hat, and prettily knitted scarf. Her brown hair is woven into a smooth braid at her nape. Her eyes, softly rueful, are focused on a patch of browned, frostbitten wildflowers by the side of the road, and her fingers caress one bloom with gentle reluctance.
"Miss Elric!" Envy’s master calls to her, and the quality of his voice drops a cold lump in Envy’s stomach. He sounds... almost eager... as if he has been searching for this moment for a very long time.
Startled, the girl looks up from her perusal of the flowers, and her eyes search all about herself before finally settling on Envy’s master. And something in the smile she gives him...
Something in the smile he gives her in return.
"And then he will leave you," Dante says knowingly in Envy’s mind. "Abandon you."
Slowly, Envy inhales, and his breath is like ice in his lungs. He watches his master leave his side and walk to hers; watches him bend and touch the flowers, his palms crackling with alchemic power, coaxing them into full and riotous bloom. He watches her face blossom as well, blossom into awestruck pleasure without a hint of fear, and the words of That Person—that person whom, it would seem, was wise after all—echo in his head like the flutterings of a hopelessly trapped bird’s tiny heart.
Do unto others what they would have done unto you, Envy thinks with sudden savagery, and blends noiselessly into the background which has always been his home.