"I'm afraid this information isn't enough to find you an immediate fix," the clerk said. She had a sympathetic air about her, obviously used to the plight of people like Ed, yet at the same time it was clear—he wasn't unique, he wouldn't be the last, and she still had a lot of work left, so if he could please move along to the accepting part of it...?
She also had green hair with bright yellow stripes, what appeared to be a row of metal studs embedded in the skin down the side of her face, and something strange in her ear that flashed colored lights every so often.
"But," Ed said, speaking at the small black metal button they had told him to speak to, "I don't understand...."
"Look, mousie," she said patiently. Ed hated random endearments, and hated it when people had to be patient with him. He would have stormed out of the office long ago if the outside hadn't been so fucking... the word 'terrifying' sprung to mind, but he was loath to admit that he found anything more frightening than the Gate. Also, he couldn't tell where the door was.
"How about we run over your details one last time and I'll try to get a match?"
He nodded desperately.
"Right." She did something with her hands, and the white sheet in front of her that was most definitely not paper shifted and glowed a bit. He was distracted from the queasily shifting lights when she waved a hand at him. "Don't look at the screen, remember? It'll make you sick. Now, Earth-type world, yes? Spoken language identified as late pre-Galactic English."
After each sentence she paused, waiting for him to nod. He wasn't clear on what English was, but they had asked him to speak into the metal button, and then suddenly the girl had started talking Amestrian back at him. It was all horribly confusing.
"Local date 1916, late steam-era technology save for medical aberration. Your mechs are called automail, right?"
Another nod. He looked down at his hands, and was surprised to find he was shaking. Nothing in the room was safe to look at, it seemed. One of the walls shimmered strangely, just like the 'screen' on her desk. At least the desk and chairs looked fairly normal, though they were made of a slick plastic he didn't recognize. Or maybe it wasn't even plastic. The room had no windows, and on the walls were pictures that were evidently meant to be soothing, though he didn't know how a mountainscape with three moons could possibly soothe anybody. Other pictures were worse, containing strange chimera-like animals.
His gaze fixed firmly on the worn leather covering his knees, which were apparently the only normal thing in the strangely rounded, soft-cornered cubicle, that didn't have a door, though he had to have come in somehow.
Claustrophobia had never really bothered him before, but now he found the incomprehensible urge to scream and run rising from somewhere inside him.
"Spectrum at .374... standard chromosome count..."
"Alchemy," he blurted, his fingers tightening. "Don't forget the alchemy." That had to make a difference. Alchemy didn't work here, it couldn't be that common....
The girl—she had said her name earlier, it had sounded something like "Shzzdzya", and Ed wasn't about to try and pronounce that—sighed and shook her head.
"I'm sorry, mousie. Functional alchemy only narrows it down to about a hundred million alternatives."
A hundred million worlds... he couldn't even wrap his mind around that. A hundred million worlds, a hundred million possibilities... his thoughts spun in wild spirals. Were there more parallels of himself? Was alchemy the same everywhere?
"Listen up," she said, waving a hand to get his attention. "You're going to get waitlisted for a W.S., that's a world-search, but in the meantime we're going to set you up with a host to show you the ropes."
She paused, and he nodded faintly, unsure what he was supposed to do.
"Here," she handed him some sort of small iridescent chip on a bracelet. He stared at it dumbly, captivated by the colors, until she snapped her fingers in front of his face.
He looked up at her, then back at the bracelet. With a sigh that was part frustration, part pity, she took his wrist and clipped the band around it.
"Don't take this off," she admonished. "It's your I.D, and we need it to keep you from getting lost."
He hated the pity, hated being labeled, and was starting to realize that he hated pretty much everything about this world, from the huge buildings to the invisible sky to the incomprehensible mess of languages everybody around him spoke.
"Yeah," he managed, wishing he could take the thing off his wrist. It was an effort to tear his eyes away from it, but he finally succeeded—only to see that the girl had walked out a door that had suddenly appeared in the wall and was beckoning him to follow.
Through the door they came to what seemed like a hallway, and then into a smaller, more claustrophobic room that closed behind them. Against his will, he could feel his breath coming faster, and he pressed back against one of the walls, eyes darting madly around the tiny room.
"Calm down," the girl said to him softly. He latched on to her voice as a distraction.
"Don't you have any windows?" The edge of desperation in his voice startled him.
The small hesitation before she answered did nothing to calm him down. "...You'll see," she finally said.
With a soft hiss, one of the walls dissolved into a doorway, and they exited into the large, cheery room (also windowless; the light came from brightly colored glowing panels in the walls) that they had left Ed in earlier to wait. The room wasn't too big and had several other people in it, obviously out of place, though none of them seemed to exhibit the same nervousness that Ed found himself unable to control.
"Sit here for a bit, I'll be back in a few moments with your host."
Then he was left alone to eye the strangely-colored chairs warily. Earlier, he had taken the advice and sat down, only to discover that the chair actually moved, shifting beneath him. He had gotten up immediately, and decided not to risk them anymore. Even now, he didn't really feel like it, and finally decided to sit on the floor.
He was so tired; it felt like this day would never end.
With a certain jealousy he looked at the other people in the room, who appeared to have figured out how to make the walls give them food. He hadn't eaten in... days, probably, and though the strange "Shzzdzya" had offered him something to eat, he couldn't force himself to even try the strange pudding-like purple paste. She had apologized and said something about food synthesizers and expense, which he hadn't really followed. How could you have fake food?
Inaction calmed him, for a while. It was difficult to freak out when he was getting bored, though he kept on feeling like he had forgotten something important, which gave him something to mull over while he waited.
Familiar voices made him jerk his head up, and panic nearly set in again—he couldn't understand them. The language was completely strange, the same sort of gibberish that everybody around him had talked at him before they had picked him up off the... "streets" was as good a word as any he supposed, done that language-identification test and given him the button, which must be some sort of machine that translated his words (however something like that was supposed to work).
But the button was gone now, that was what he had forgotten, he must have left it back in the cubicle—
Then the girl was in front of him, bending down to hand him two strangely-shaped tiny machines, and he stared at them helplessly. She said something incomprehensible and mimed putting them in her ears, so he gingerly took them and tried to fit them in—and nearly had a heart attack when the machines took it upon themselves to assist him, and reshaped themselves to fit more snugly.
At least now he could understand, though he had absolutely no idea how. The voices sounded exactly the same, but the words were replaced with clear Amestrian.
With some urging he got up off the floor, sort of embarrassed at how pathetic he was, and finally lifted his gaze to see who was supposed to be babysitting him.
The sight took his breath away.
There was absolutely no logical reason Al should be here, tall and proud and in the flesh, and talking to the strange girl about "credit chips" and looking like he understood what was going on.
For that matter, Al wasn't supposed to have blue streaks in his hair (that matched his eyes—weren't Al's eyes gray? He felt a moment of disorientation), or a row of metal loops along his eyebrow, another row running down his ear and blinking little colored lights. Unlike the girl's ears which were mostly covered by her hair, Al's doppelganger's ears were clearly visible, so Ed could see that he, too, sported small machines in them—possibly twins to Ed's own.
"Edward, this is Alfons Heiderich, he's going to be helping you out," Shzzdzya was saying. Ed wasn't listening; he couldn't take his eyes off Al—not Al—
"Hey!" Alfons said brightly, and after some hesitation held out a hand to shake. Ed stared at it, captivated by the strange rings on his fingers (which were also blinking. Did everything in this fucking world have little blinking lights?), and the black line of a strange design (a tattoo? The lines were oddly iridescent) that snaked about his wrist and up his forearm to vanish into a bright orange sleeve. The clothes were strange, brightly colored, layered, and full of holes, and Alfons was so tall and loud, somehow—
He hardly noticed when he took an instinctive step back.
A slightly hurt look flitted across Alfons' face at his reaction, awakening an instinctive stab of guilt that he had to quash, while the girl next to him sighed and shook her head a bit. Alfons lowered his arm awkwardly.
"I guess they don't shake hands where you come from?" he said with a small smile. "That's okay, we don't either... I just thought... Shzzdzya said you were early Twentieth Century..." he glanced quickly at her for affirmation and got a helpless shrug.
Ed was acting stupidly, he knew that, but he couldn't help it. It was either stay silent, or try and attack everything in sight in a desperate attempt for something to make sense, if only the feeling of his knuckles connecting solidly with matter.
Alfons seemed to be waiting (hoping?) for him to answer, looked to Shzzdzya for help, but no assistance was forthcoming. His brows creased and he bit his lip, then his expression cleared.
"So, Edward, do you want to get home? I bet you're tired, and we can see about some food?" Now Alfons' tone was almost desperately cheerful, hoping that Ed would cooperate.
He couldn't go with this person, Ed realized helplessly. Even if he was only here temporarily, staying with somebody who looked so much like Al but not... it would be hell. Already he was torn between drinking in his visage with his eyes, screw the strange clothes and the blinking lights, his heart told him this was Al, it was Al's voice, Al's expressions, and wanting desperately to look away because it wasn't Al. He couldn't function, he couldn't think.
Swallowing, he found his voice. "No," he managed, looking away from Alpho-Alfons and at the girl. "I don't want to go with him."
"Why?" Shzzdzya's voice was sharp, and Ed focused on her rather than Alfons, who looked baffled and unhappy.
"D-did I do something wrong?" Alfons asked in a small voice, not sure whether he was asking the girl or Ed.
"No, you didn't," she answered anyway, and said sternly to Ed, "I'm afraid that it's not possible to make a change right now. You were found compatible."
"I can't be with him," Ed tried to explain desperately, but just then something about Shzzdzya's person made a beeping noise and she waved away his explanation, listening to something he couldn't hear.
"I have to go," she said. "In a week you can put in an application for changing hosts, if you want to. Alfons will show you how to use a computer."
This announcement, if anything, made Alfons look more nervous than ever.
"Mr. Heiderich, don't forget to fill out those forms and get them to us."
"But," Ed began, then trailed off when she deliberately turned and walked away.
"Uh, um, Edward? Is it okay to call you Edward? Let's get going...?" His small, apprehensive voice trailed off when Ed looked at him, but he managed to hide his nervousness fairly successfully and mustered up a smile.
"Fine," Ed said in defeat. He was tired and hungry and he was beginning to wonder if any of this was....
Oh. Of course.
His steps came to a halt and he stared off into the distance, awed by the epiphany. How silly of him not to realize this before! It would certainly explain the bizarre clothes, the insane people wandering around everywhere, why nothing made any sense... why, even Alfons—
"Edward?" Alfons paused and turned back, looking worried again. He looked taken aback by the manic, desperate grin Edward now felt himself sporting.
"I know what's going on," he announced triumphantly. "This is a dream, isn't it? That's why everything's so damn bizarre."
If Alfons had denied it, Edward would have ignored him. For that matter, if Alfons had agreed with him it probably wouldn't really have had any effect on his plans to just sit down right where he was and do his best to wake himself up.
But all Alfons did was look apologetic, and shake his head slightly. "Come on," he said, and there was a... gentleness in his tone that made Edward's self-confidence wither instantly. Even in his dreams he was a problem, an outcast, and even if none of this was real, it was awfully nice of Alfons to volunteer to take care of him (he hated that he needed to be taken care of, but he did. He did).
So he didn't resist when his hand was taken in Alfons' larger one, the rings slightly warm and strange against his skin, and allowed himself to be led down the hall.
Nothing was safe to look at, it seemed. Nausea-inducing screens lurked in every direction, flashing signs and lights as the smaller hallway gave way to a wider thoroughfare. Everywhere he looked were people in the same awful, clashing clothes Al—fons was wearing, and where the hell did anybody get off treating him like he was the crazy one here? People were standing around on corners talking at the air, waving their fingers around in seemingly random patterns. This whole worl—dream was absolutely crazy.
The noise was like nothing he was used to, full of strange creakings and humming and beeping, conspiring to give him one of the worst headaches of his life. He was so tired, he wanted to fall into a corner and just sleep until forever.
"Edward?" Alfons tugged on his hand tentatively, and only then did Ed realize that he had stopped in place. He couldn't think, he couldn't focus, he wanted it to stop. Needed something simple, something white and quiet and empty where he could just shut down.
"Hey," Alfons said from far off, but Ed wasn't listening. He clenched his eyes shut, but that didn't help, the awful buzzing was just getting worse. He jerked his hand away from Alfons'—at least he was strong enough to do that—and pressed his hands over his ears, trying to block out the sound.
He was horrified to realize that it wasn't working, the machines were amplifying ambient sound to make up for the obstruction his hands were creating. Machines weren't supposed to do that, how could he make it stop? How was he supposed to function when he couldn't even cover his ears and block out sound when he wanted to, didn't dare open his eyes for fear of what he might see, couldn't—
It took him a moment to realize why he felt his thoughts had shuddered to a sudden halt, why the world had vanished. Silence, blessed, wonderful silence. He didn't move, and slowly allowed impressions to seep into his consciousness—the smooth hardness of the wall that his back was pressed up against, the pull on his hair where it had tangled in his automail fingers the—
"Is that better?"
Alfons' voice cut through the blankness, making Ed open his eyes and look up.
"W-what did you do?" he managed, looking around and realizing that he could hear nothing but Alfons' voice, as if he were underwater.
"I turned down the volume and set the filter to my voice," Alfons explained. The words themselves didn't make much sense, but what Ed could understand was that somehow Alfons had the ability to essentially turn off his hearing. The thought made something in his stomach twist queasily. If they installed a machine that could control his hearing, what else could they do to him?
He wanted to get away from Alfons, who suddenly seemed much more frightening, but he had nowhere to go. Alfons was in front of him, the wall behind him, and to the sides he could see people, some of whom had paused to watch the spectacle, pitying looks on their faces.
"Turn it back on!" Ed demanded, practically shouting. His own voice came to his ears strange and echoing. He couldn't tell how loudly he was talking, and he had to make noise to fill up the endless, suffocating silence.
"Sorry," Alfons said, hands at his sides, looking helpless. "You were freaking out, I thought it might help—"
"Turn—" he lunged forward, grabbed the front of Alfons' shirt, bunching the strangely-textured bright orange fabric, "it back on!"
Alfons' blue eyes widened a bit in startlement and he jerked instinctively backwards. It felt good, having something in this world yield to him, if only a little.
"Okay," Alfons placated, just a little bit breathless. "Okay, I'll turn them back up, don't worry, just hang on...."
Ed watched warily, still keeping his hands tightly fisted in Alfons' shirt, as the—teenager? How old was Alfons, anyway?—raised his hands and made some fluttery motions with his fingers (similar to the weird movements everybody seemed to be standing around making), and suddenly Ed could hear again. The relief of having his hearing returned overrode the headache that had started up along with the buzzing, at least for now. His arms fell, and he sagged back against the wall.
Alfons hovered worriedly. Ed ignored him. He didn't want to move. He didn't want to do anything right now.
"Edward," Alfons tried, made to reach for him again but aborted the movement. "Come on—can we—-" he subsided, took a deep breath, then made an obvious effort to look cheerful. "We can wait here if you want," he said comfortingly, "as long as you need."
At that Ed glared up at him and pushed himself off the wall. He hated being patronized, hated being pandered to like he was some pathetic, helpless—
"I'm ready," he growled, just so he wouldn't have to think about how helplessly pathetic he actually was.
"O-okay!" Alfons almost yelped, recovered, and started to lead Ed down the hallways again.
He wouldn't break down, he thought furiously. Focus. Ignore the lights, ignore the buzzing, push the headache to the back of his mind. Eyes forward, locked on one spot on Alfons' back, an irregular hole in the orange where the black of his skintight second shirt peeked through.
He was moving on pride and sheer willpower now, putting one foot in front of the other, trying to not notice the train-like vehicle they boarded at some point, pay no attention to the sidewalks that moved beneath them, the hopelessly colorful people—and worse, non-people, like bizarre chimeras—
Far away he thought that Alfons was trying to make conversation. At least, sometimes Alfons' face flashed in front of his eyes, mouth moving, though Ed could make no sense of the words, couldn't separate them from the rushing in his ears.
Finally they separated from the rushing crowds, went up curving stairways and small corridors, then stopped before a plain white door. Alfons looked at it for a second, then made some more of those hand movements, and suddenly the door slid open into the wall.
At least it was away from the crowds, lights and sounds. It should have been comforting, but the room seemed... warped, somehow. The floors were light brown and sloped irregularly into walls and an arched ceiling that at some point became a glowing light fixture at the apex. The colors were light and cheerful—pale, soothing browns and greens and white, though they did nothing to calm Ed. He was so far beyond calm he couldn't even remember what it felt like.
Alfons was talking again, rambling about something or other, though Ed had no energy to even try and focus. Wasn't the fact that he was actually still standing upright in this awful room enough? The room swam in his vision, the warped non-angles making him suddenly feel queasy.
He sank to his knees, and suddenly Alfons was by his side, his voice sharp and urgent. Ed wished he could turn off his ears again. His world narrowed to one thought—to keep his stomach from overturning completely and spare himself the painful dry heaving that would surely result. Breath came heavily, the air tasting strange at the back of his throat, and his entire body ached with the strain.
When the nausea passed, leaving him quivering with reaction, he became aware of Alfons next to him and felt a wash of gratefulness mixed with just a hint of shame. At least he wasn't entirely alone....
A cup was held to his lips, the rim cool and thicker than he was used to. With some gentle coaxing by Alfons, he opened his mouth to take a few small sips. Chilled water flowed into his mouth, definitely water, though it tasted strange and flat. East City's water was a lot tastier, he thought vaguely, though the water in Central was definitely worse, being as it usually had an aftertaste of what Ed fondly referred to as sewage.
Alfons was petting him now, making soothing noises, and Ed desperately wanted to throw him off.
Don't touch me, he tried to say, but his tongue was thick and clumsy. His thoughts were sluggish, and he didn't resist when Alfons pulled him to his feet.
"I don't think you want any dinner," Alfons crooned, his hands heavy on Ed's shoulders, steering him. "Do you want to sleep?"
Sleep. That sounded good. Docile, Ed allowed himself to be led. At some point he realized, in a burst of clarity, that there had been something in the water, he was drugged, he couldn't resist even if he—
But he didn't want to, and then Alfons was pushing him down on something soft that shifted under him, but even that wasn't enough to bother Ed right now. He was floating, he was warm and oh so sleepy....
Alfons' worried face appeared briefly then retreated from view, and the room went black. He slept.
Soft cheeping of birds penetrated his sleepy haze. Briefly he fought his way to consciousness, to feel the warmth of a comforter tucked under his chin, flickers of sunlight red against his closed eyelids. Comfortable, he decided that he could probably sleep in, rolled over on the mattress and sank back into oblivion.
Later, feeling more refreshed, he opened his eyes blearily, and found himself staring up at a nondescript white ceiling. Something was wrong with this picture, he thought, perplexed. This was...
He rolled his head to the side, the soft down pillow giving way easily. A plain wooden writing desk entered his field of vision, resting on a wooden floor. Pale, flowered wallpaper covered the walls, interrupted only by a closed door on one side, and a window on the other.
This was... Ed pushed himself upright, his heart threatening to pound its way out of his chest. He was still wearing the clothes he had had on yesterday, but this room was nothing like anything he remembered from then. Where were the horrible, curving walls, the endless humming and beeping and—and—
He staggered over to the window and stared out. A city stretched before him, the vista from what appeared to be the second story of a plain brick building. Across the street was a woman hanging laundry, the linens fluttering in autumn sunlight. Smoke rose from chimneys in the distance, and through the slightly irregular glass he could hear the muffled sounds of a city—people talking, the rumble of trams, birds in the distance calling to each other. The city was unfamiliar, but not... it didn't make sense! Where was he? What happened to the awful mess of a dream-world the Gate had dropped him in?
Had it all been nothing more than a fevered dream?
Scrabbling furiously against the slightly worn wood, he tried to get the window open. He had to see for himself, had to breathe some real air, the room was so stuffy and stale.... Why wasn't the window opening? The latch was off, there were no obstructions, why wouldn't the window open?
Nearly sobbing in frustration, Ed drew his automail hand back to smash the glass. He had to get the window open; his automail might be only minimally functional, but it would get him out of here.
The metal of his fist smashed into the glass—and bounced back, jerking his entire body with it. Ed staggered, staring at the window in horror. What was it?
He raised a hand to his temple, to run through his hair, and suddenly remembered. Almost afraid of what he might find he brought his human fingers—slowly, slowly—along the side of his face, to his ear, where they encountered—
Machine, rubbery and just a little warm, with a raised bump of what must be a little flashing light. Everything here had little flashing lights.
It was real. The machine was real, which meant the nightmare maze of hallways from yesterday was real. The empty rooms where he had wandered alone, hungry and exhausted and lost until he had been picked up and taken to the tiny office were real. And this....
So what was this?
Alfons. Ed whirled around, heart leaping into his throat, and braced himself against the wall—window, to keep from overbalancing. The wood of the lower sill was cool and smooth against his fingers.
"Are you up? Can I come in?"
But he could see a city outside the window, a normal city with houses and trees and, and, what the fuck was going on?
The handle turned, the door swung inwards, and Alfons stood framed in it. Alfons, with his blue-streaked hair, now wearing a horrible bright green shirt with blue squares splattered over it in irregular designs, marred by long rents in the fabric through which his black undershirt showed. Alfons with tattoos and rings in parts of his face that should not have pieces of metal stuck in them, who kept acting like all of this was normal.
"Good morning!" Alfons said brightly, looking far too cheerful. "What do you think of the holo? I got one approved so quickly, it's amazing! I never thought I'd get to have a holo of my very own, let alone such a fancy one! It's got full sensory output and everything!"
Ed swallowed, and managed to creak out, "Hollow?"
Alfons looked confused, his mouth framing the word soundlessly. Something probably translated wrong, Ed thought, which could have been hilarious under other circumstances.
"No, it's a hologram," Alfons said, as if that made more sense than 'hollow'. "It's a..." Alfons' mouth was moving, but all Ed heard was static, interspersed with occasional snatches of meaningless words. Frustration welled up; he was finally getting what appeared to be a detailed explanation, and the translator couldn't deal with it. Stupid piece of shit.
"Look," Alfons said, giving up on trying to explain in words. He made a few strange movements with his hands, and suddenly the room—dissolved.
Right before Ed's eyes, the wood floor faded to pastel, undulating into walls and ceiling. The window at his back vanished into thin air, the simple metal-framed bed morphed into a weird lump of light yellow. Everything suddenly seemed hazy, amorphous. His throat closed up, and he gasped for air which refused to come. It wasn't real. His eyes darted around the room wildly, trying in vain to latch onto something that made sense. It wasn't alchemy, because alchemy didn't work in this world, and there had been no alchemical reaction at all.
"See?" Alfons said, flicked his fingers again, and the room turned back into the one Ed had woken up in. "A holo."
What the hell. The floor under his feet was flat again instead of curved, and the wall against his back was vertical, only they weren't because none of this was real.
Maybe he was crazy, he realized, like a dash of cold water to his face that sank immediately into his lungs and froze his very heart. This wasn't a dream, it wasn't an illusion, he had simply lost his mind entirely, disconnected from reality. There was no reality. For all he knew, this was the real Al, and he was gibbering in some padded room in Central asylum, which would be fucking rich.
"Edward?" Alfons asked—or maybe it was Al? Far off, his voice was strange and warped—everything was warped. His lungs had constricted to the point where he could hardly breathe, and he knew that if Alfons would only go away he might be able to get a grip on himself. This wasn't enough to break him, he had died once, this should be nothing. He just had to have some time alone.
"Oh shit," Alfons said.
Shit was right, Ed thought hazily, got tired of leaning against a wall which he kept half-expecting to go all curved on him suddenly, and sat down on the floor.
"Edward." Alfons knelt before him, looking worried and earnest, and Ed narrowed his eyes in suspicion. Alfons was worse than even Envy, because while Envy might have been able to change his shape, at least he couldn't affect anything else. He couldn't turn people's hearing on and off, or turn a bloody room on and off, without using even a hint of alchemy.
"Please, listen to me, it's just technology!" Alfons pleaded. "It can't hurt you, I promise..." then, more to himself than Edward, "Shit, I'm such a bug."
"Could you go away for a bit?" Ed managed, though his voice sounded artificial to his own ears. Faking calm lent him a measure of composure, and he managed a wan smile that convinced Alfons that he was serious.
"If you're sure...."
He nodded, and after a while he became aware that Alfons had indeed left, and managed to relax a little bit.
For a while, he simply shut down. His heartbeat was loud, and he felt his mind empty as he listened to it, felt it thudding in his temples and chest. With his eyes shut, he could forget everything around him, and felt calm creeping in. Teacher had always said that he should meditate more.
Slowly, his body relaxed against the wall, and his felt his cheek resting against the coolness of it. He wondered if it was real or not, felt the panic rising again, and made a conscious decision to just not care. Inhale, exhale. Pretend the air was fresh and sweet, like in the hills around Resembool. Imagine that the warmth of the patch of sunlight by his feet was real, and not that hollow thing Alfons had talked about.
For a while, he dreamed. He thought of Al, and wondered if the transmutation had succeeded, if Al was even now alive, whole, what he was doing with himself. He imagined the clean, light hallways of Central base, and wondered if Mustang was still alive, if he had taken down Bradley. Winry's image flashed through his thoughts, and for a moment he could practically smell the machine oil, the metallic odor that often hung about her.
He might never know, he suddenly thought, his breath catching. Everybody would continue living their lives without him, and he would never know.
Why was he here? If he wasn't dead and this wasn't Hell—which it very well might be, he wasn't going to ignore that option just yet, then either he was crazy—another quite plausible idea, or he truly was stuck in some strange parallel world.
But the other world, where he had inhabited another Ed's body and met his father, had been utterly different from this one, even if it had had weird flying machines. If he accepted that he had visited a parallel universe that time, it stood to reason that this was another one—just a wildly different one from last time.
The prospect of not being crazy was a cheering one, though it raised other problems. He knew nothing about this world, and from what little he had seen of it, there was a lot to know if he wanted to be able to function at all.
Eyes still closed, he thought of all the questions that had already risen in his mind, and just the prospect of learning so much exhausted him. For the first time in his life, he realized he simply didn't have the strength to tackle the problem head-on.
He might never see his home again. If he didn't know why he was here in the first place, and couldn't use alchemy to get out, what was he supposed to do? Bereft of alchemy, having no clue about the basic rules of this crazy world, he was helpless.
And if that was the case, then Alfons—
"Edward?" Alfons' voice came muffled, and the door swung open silently. He peeked around the side of the door, looked startled when he met Ed's eyes.
—Alfons was his only help, his sole connection to the outside and source of information.
"Hey," he said, advancing cautiously towards Ed, one arm held stiffly, something held carefully in his palm. His clothes swished with his movements, in a strange, light rustle Ed wasn't used to associating with clothes. He watched Alfons warily, but made no move.
This is idiotic, some part of his mind whispered. He was sitting here in a corner, being treated as if he was a feral beast liable to attack any moment, and him half-terrified of what ability Alfons would exhibit next. He wanted to laugh, but suppressed the urge.
Alfons knelt in front of him, then hesitantly held out his hand. In it was an apple—red and perfect, the peel reflecting the soft (fake) light from the window.
"Are you hungry?" Alfons asked, his eyes meeting Ed's (so innocent, so hopeful. Would Al be like this?). "This is a real apple, I promise." Alfons swallowed convulsively, his eyes flicked down towards the apple, then back at Ed.
Ed was silent, so Alfons spoke again.
"I get real food subsidized, for you," he said, and held the apple out closer to Ed. "So you won't have to eat the synthetics."
Ed found his voice. "I'm not hungry."
Shocked, Alfons stared at the rejected apple, then back at Ed. "B-but... how can you not want..."
"You can have it, if it's such a big deal," he said curtly, and looked away. His stomach roiled, but how much of that was from hunger, he didn't know.
"Oh no, I could never!" Alfons protested. "I wouldn't ever take your food!" He paused, tried to smile. "I'm so silly, I forgot that natural food probably isn't such a big deal for you... of course, it's what you're used to, otherwise you wouldn't need to have it..."
Now Ed recognized the look Alfons was giving the apple: hunger. What kind of world was this, where something as simple as an apple was a big deal?
"Eat it, I don't care," Ed said, though now tendrils of curiosity started to wind through the haze in his mind. "Haven't you ever had an apple before?"
"Never," Alfons said, seemingly unable to take his eyes from the fruit. "But I—"
"Go ahead," Ed said. He wanted to see what Alfons looked like when he bit into it.
"If... if you're sure..." Alfons wavered, but when Ed nodded, he pulled the apple back towards him. Hesitating only one last moment, Alfons sank his teeth in, and Ed watched his expression hungrily.
It was part astonishment, liberally mixed with pleasure, bliss, and an awakening desire for more. This was what Al would look like when he ate his first apple, Ed thought. This wonder was what Al would feel, this joy was what Al would experience. Involuntarily, his lips twitched in a smile.
"You don't eat the core," he said, amused, when Alfons had bitten his way down to it, and looked like he would keep going.
"Huh?" Alfons looked up, his mouth full. Chewed, swallowed, then asked, "Why not?"
"It's not edible." Amusement managed to temporarily push away all other feelings when Alfons looked mournfully at the core he couldn't eat, disappointed.
Alfons sighed, then got up suddenly. "I'll throw this away, then," he said as he exited the room. Ed looked after him, a strange pang in his chest at watching him leave.
He wanted Alfons to come back, he wanted Alfons to smile at him, he wanted to hear Alfons saying his name and—
He's not Al, Ed told himself harshly, and felt his throat constrict. Was this another kind of Gate-induced fuckery? He wouldn't put it past those chittering hell-spawn to purposely throw him into a world that contained Al's exact double just to mock him, or to lock him inside that sort of deranged fantasy.
Alfons reentered the room, and Ed forced himself not to look up. He managed to suppress the urge when Alfons stood for a moment in front of him, when Alfons went down to a crouch, and finally when he sat down next to Ed, leaning his back against the wall. As if Ed telling him to eat the apple made them friends. As if he actually cared.
"Edward?" Alfons said, when several minutes of silence passed. Damn, the guy was a chatterbox.
"What's your world like?"
Ed's heart stopped, and he looked up against his will. His world. Before he could stop himself, before all the reasons why this was a bad idea could take form in his mind, he was talking, his voice wild and choked, the words tumbling over each other in their haste to get out.
His world, with it's blue skies and small, homey houses, cobblestoned streets and laundry hanging to dry in the windows. Military personnel seen around Central City, paperboys calling out the day's headlines, the acrid smell of smoke and metal that hung around the firing range in Central Base.
Alfons listened quietly, only encouraging Ed to talk more. Even so, he managed to stop himself—he didn't talk about taboos, and made only a passing reference to alchemy. He said nothing of the people. Nothing of Al.
Somehow, if only Al were here with him, he could have made a joke of it all. Al would have given him somebody to be strong for, an incentive to keep himself together.
But he had nothing here, save for this double of Al's who had been appointed his guardian
"I heard you got a real Twenner. This him?"
"Hm? Oh, yeah, early Twentieth Century. He was fritzing all over the office. I keep telling them they need to redecorate if they don't want to freak out the Spuds."
"Tsk, Shiziya, 'Spatially-Displaced', please."
"Hmm. Wait, this Heiderich... you placed him with a prep schooler for hypernautics? Aren't the anthropology kids up in arms about that?"
"Nobody from anthro or sociology fit his profile, Heiderich did, so Heiderich got him. And his parents were hardcore Scadians."
"Scadians... oh. That would definitely make him eligible."
"This one's going to be trouble, though. If we can't get him settled by the end of the week, there will be hell to pay."
"I saw the ruckus the Human Rights people raised over the Mendez case—-"
"Ah, I hate suicides. The poor bastard. Another week and we would have had him matched and sent home.
"That's right," Alfons said encouragingly. "And this?" He pointed at a row of small silver buttons, set by a handle.
Ed reached out and pulled the handle tentatively. It revealed a drawer full of metal racks. "This is the machine for washing dishes that you told me not to touch because it's buggy," he repeated what Alfons had told him. He wasn't quite sure why one might need a machine to wash dishes; it wasn't that big of a deal....
"Good!" Alfons said, sounding far too enthusiastic. Fine, so the buttons could get confusing, but Ed wasn't quite sure why this was such a cause for celebration. "And how do you—"
"I stick my hands under the faucet and the water turns on by itself," Ed snapped. "And that over there is the food synthesizer, and that's the icebox where you keep my food, and the garbage is in that drawer, but I'm not supposed to throw anything away until you've explained recycling." He pointed at each thing as he mentioned it, then looked back up at Alfons, annoyed. "I am not an imbecile."
"Of course you're not," Alfons said, looking troubled. "I didn't mean—"
"Shut up," Ed snapped, bristling. He hated Alfons being so apologetic almost as much as he hated being treated like an idiot.
Alfons shut up, looking helpless and hurt for a moment, recoiling from Ed, who abruptly hated himself as well. He couldn't stand seeing that expression on Alfons' face, and dropped his gaze to the floor.
Sorry, he wanted to say, but couldn't.
Alfons swallowed. "That's it for the house, in that case," he said, the irrepressible cheerfulness back in his voice. "Now, there are a few more things we need to do. We need to get your files in order, and get you some clothes and basic necessities, but I bet you'll want to shower before that. What do you think?"
"Shower," Ed blurted. He didn't even have to think about it. Getting back into his dirty clothes wouldn't be so great, but he just wanted to get clean. For god's sake, he still had (his own) blood crusted under his fingernails.
He suddenly felt cold.
"Okay," Alfons said, drawing him back to the present. "Do you remember how—"
"Yes," Ed cut him off, the flash of anger a welcome distraction.
"Sorry." Contrition flitted briefly across Alfons' face. "So just let me clip on your ID, and then you can get in."
"ID?" Ed followed him into the living room. "Didn't I get one, already? What happened to it?" When he had woken up, it had already been gone.
"That was just a temporary one," Alfons assured him as he took a nondescript white box off the low (crooked!) table (what the hell was the point of having a table with a crooked surface?). It looked seamless at first, but Alfons opened it easily, a crack seemingly materializing out of nowhere.
"I got rid of that one earlier. This is your permanent ID. For as long as you're here," he added quickly.
Inside the box was an iridescent white bracelet with a row of dark, yellowish panels along one side. Ed scrutinized the thing, waiting for little blinking lights to appear.
None did (disappointingly), and he made a face.
"It looks girly," he said, mildly disgusted. Wearing a bracelet was bad enough, but did it have to be shiny and white and cute?
"Girly?" Alfons looked startled, and looked between Ed and the bracelet. "I don't think it looks 'girly'." He said the word as if it was unfamiliar on his tongue.
"It's shiny," Ed gestured. "Why can't I have a black one, at least? With spikes?"
"It's regulation, they don't make any other kind," Alfons said, then looked perplexed. "Spikes?" he murmured to himself. "Punk wasn't early Twentieth...."
Ed ignored the aside, sighed mightily, and resigned himself to wearing a sissy white bracelet. How Mustang would laugh at him if he ever found out.
The thought was so normal that it cheered him up a bit, and Ed surrendered his left hand without an argument when Alfons took the bracelet out of the box, and clipped it around his wrist.
There were the lights.
Ed drew his hand back, and inspected the bracelet curiously. He wasn't quite sure what part of it constituted an ID, but he was starting to just accept that things in this world were fucked up. It felt strange against his skin, some too-smooth type of plastic, and just small enough that he wouldn't be able to slip it over his hand. Ed twisted it, looking for the catch to take it off, and realized suddenly that there wasn't one. The bracelet was seamless.
"What the... how does this come off?" he demanded, shaking his hand wildly.
"It doesn't," Alfons said, sounding puzzled. "Why would you want it to? It could just get lost. Don't worry, they'll take it off before you're sent home."
The sent home reverberated in Ed's mind for a moment, but he was too distracted by the bracelet which refused to come off. "What do you mean it doesn't come off?" he yelped. "What, am I some kind of—of animal? Are you going to collar me as well?"
Shocked, Alfons forgot to be nice about it, and shouted back. "Of course not! It's just for identification, and so you can go places and use public transportation and buy stuff! What's wrong with you?"
Ed didn't answer, entranced by how Alfons' face crinkled up when he got angry, how his blue eyes flashed, how when his eyebrows furrowed the rings in them were pulled along. Alfons did have fire in him, just like Al, and Ed felt a strange wash of satisfaction that he could bring it out. He couldn't trust a person until he knew which buttons to push.
He must have stood silent for longer than he thought because next thing he knew, Alfons was apologizing.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it!" Alfons cried, "I was just startled, I—" he gulped. "I had no right to say that," he said shakily, looking at the floor.
Ed wondered at that, a little. If anything, he should be the one to be endlessly apologetic and grovelling, after all, Alfons was doing him a huge favor by consenting to take care of him.
"It's fine," he said absently, and watched in desperate interest as Alfons' eyes flicked up at him, the slightly confused tilt to Alfons' head, how he chewed the inner part of his lower lip pensively.
"But," Alfons finally ventured.
Ed cut him off. "I'm going to go shower," he said, and didn't wait for Alfons' answer. He knew where the bathroom (only because he couldn't find a better word. The cubicle had almost nothing in common with what he considered a 'bathroom') was, and after a few moments of thinking, remembered how to work the toilet (another appliance that pushed into the wall) and shower (which couldn't be pushed into the wall, but resembled a closet with opaque glass-like walls).
'Shower', however, proved to be a misnomer, as the process of getting clean here involved some kind of strange, warm mist, and a light green foam that dissolved after a few moments. The result left him physically clean, but with none of the calming properties of a proper bath.
He hadn't realized how much he had looked forward to that bath until he realized he wouldn't have it. Suddenly tired, he sagged against the slick wall of the 'shower', then slid to the floor, breath coming short. The bracelet made a soft clicking sound against the smooth plastic, drawing his attention. Machines in his ears, a machine locked on his wrist... what could this one do to him?
He was completely helpless, here, subject to Alfons' whims, until such time as... until they sent him home. They had said something about this being temporary, hadn't they? Nobody seemed particularly excited by a traveler from another world, apparently this was a common occurrence.
For a moment, Ed allowed himself to hope. Could this have nothing at all to do with the Gate? But if so, how did that factor in with his last sacrifice for Al?
His head fell back against the plastic, which was faintly warm against his skin, his damp unbound hair brushing his shoulders. What kind of shower doesn't even leave your hair properly wet? he wondered glumly.
He needed to get up, the thought trickled vaguely through his mind. How long could he spend staring at the dimly lighted panels in the bathroom's ceiling?
A long time, apparently. Without volition, he found himself slipping into an almost meditative state, eyes half-lidded and unfocused, the light wavering in his vision.
Soft knocking snapped him out of his reverie, and he felt a moment of annoyance. Couldn't Alfons just leave him alone for a while?
"Edward? I just wanted to make sure that everything's okay with you...."
"I'm fine," he called back. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself up, wavered a moment, then exited the cubicle. The pile of clothes on the floor seemed profoundly unappealing—dirty and torn, though he would rather die before asking to borrow something of Alfons'. Sighing, he put them on, making a grimace of distaste.
On one wall was a small mirror, and Ed glanced at himself in it briefly. He didn't like what he saw. His reflection looked worn, eyes just a little wild, mouth tight. He looked... scared.
Ed frowned at his reflection, then glared, until the last vestiges of fear had vanished and he just looked pissed off. Then he tried to smile, but it felt—and looked—so artificial that he gave up. Deliberately, he straightened his shoulders, tried to look cocky, and stepped out of the bathroom.
"Ready to go?" Alfons asked, and Edward nodded. "Okay," Alfons said, when it became clear that Ed wasn't going to say anything. "Now, just remember, try to keep your eyes off the screens. We can pick up some adblockers on the way, which should help you with that. What kind of clothes do you want?"
It took Ed a moment to follow those three sentences, trying to figure out the logical connection between them. He gave up, and answered the question. "Something normal, not like that stuff you're wearing."
Alfons laughed, then paused to think, tapping his index finger against his chin. "More formal, less colors, is that what you'd like?"
Ed nodded, then watched as Alfons stared off into space again, and made those strange hand movements again. He wanted to ask what was going on, but it looked like Alfons was really concentrating, so he suppressed his curiosity.
"Right," Alfons suddenly said. "There's a clothes shopping franchise district nearby—Shinakihabara—but it's two skippers and a tube to get there. Are you up to a skipper ride?"
"Knowing what a 'skipper' is would help," Ed said tiredly. How had Alfons learned those things? Did all the people in this world have some kind of weird telepathy that allowed them to know new things in the blink of an eye?
"Ah," Alfons focused on him, and looked just a bit sheepish. "There are two major public transportation systems: tubes, which are like..." he searched for something that would make sense to Ed, "trains, but run inside the buildings, and skippers, which run between blocks."
Ed mulled this over, feeling ill. Trains inside buildings? "How big are these buildings?"
"They mostly run between fifty and a hundred and fifty floors, and there are about ten thousand people in a building. I'm lucky, because I live right by a tube and a skipper station," Alfons said brightly. "So? Ready to go?"
"Sure," Ed said weakly, and followed Alfons out. A building with the population of Resembool. No wonder Shzzdzya hadn't answered him about the windows. With buildings so huge, it was a miracle people went outside at all
The skipper ride came as a big relief. Ed practically glued himself to the windows, watching the watery blue sky avidly. Not that he could see much of it—the tall buildings blocked it out, looming claustrophobically. The skipper snaked its way along the sides of the buildings, and then slid along (fucking horribly flimsy-looking) cables between the buildings. Occasionally he caught sight of other skippers, and on the side of one of them managed to catch a word in Amestrian.
"NATAR," he read, and turned to Alfons curiously. Upon seeing him, Alfons blinked his eyes back into focus. It was strange how Alfons seemed to be able to shut down, almost as if listening to something nobody else could hear.
For that matter, everybody else on the skipper seemed to be doing the same thing (well, the ones that weren't talking to the air, or waving their hands around, or both). Ed chalked it up to another strange thing about this world, and dismissed it.
"What does NATAR mean?" he asked.
"I don't know," Alfons answered, shrugging. "Just the name of one of the major skipper construction companies. I can look it up for you, if you want."
"Never mind." Ed turned his attention back to the windows. "Where are we, exactly? What country? What city? Do you even have cities?"
"Of course we do," Alfons said. "This city is called Dover, in England. Does that mean anything to you?"
"No," Ed sighed, slumping down in his seat. From the way Alfons was shifting around, it seemed that he found them uncomfortable, but Ed liked these benches, which were situated in parallel rows along the sides of the skipper, because they didn't move.
Shinakihabara appeared to be Freak District, as far as Ed was concerned. Everybody he had seen so far seemed to be wearing clothes that exhibited a horrifying lack of taste, but this took the cake. Some of the styles were actually familiar to him, such as hoopskirts, but never had anybody in his world worn a gleaming purple skirt with glowing neon coils on it. Styles and colors clashed, and he was surrounded by people wearing things far more hideous than what Alfons was (which was hard to believe, come to think of it). This was where Alfons had brought him to find something "normal"?
Even worse than the masses of colorful, noisy people (holy crap, there went a girl dressed like a cat. Why were people wearing these things outside?) were the constant blasts of color. Pictures flashed along the walls, actually following them as they advanced. More of them flashed along the ceiling, blinking text in a variety of languages (hah! More stuff in Amestrian!), at least one of which looked like Xingian. Strange, semi-transparent ghosts of people floated dizzyingly above them and sometimes followed them along the wide corridor, exhorting him to buy things.
The whole thing was frankly overwhelming. Despite the headache he was rapidly developing, Ed found himself distracted, fascinated by what he was seeing, craning his head to catch the sights like some country bumpkin on his first visit to the city. At least here he didn't stand out so horribly, with his torn, dull black clothes.
Alfons was calling him, beckoning him to the wide maw of a storefront. A row of semi-transparent people posed in front of it, supposedly showing off its merchandise.
On the inside, the store was approximately the size of the mess hall in Central Base. Racks of clothes lined the walls and marched in rows down the center of the room, a transparent display hovering over each one. Thankfully, Alfons headed off the salesgirl, freeing Ed to browse. Despite his initial misgivings, the store proved to have a variety of quieter, more recognizable clothes. He found some shirts in shimmering grays, reds and blues which weren't too horrible, and had the minimum of straps and random holes in them. They were still strange—the gray one was longer than he was used to, tunic length, with straps that wrapped around his torso and neck and seemed to be held in place with magnets. Actually getting it on took quite a bit of figuring out. The blues were simpler, loose and sweeping, reminiscent of what Alfons wore, only less insane. For pants, he found something baggy and comfortable with lots of detachable pockets, connected with more of the magnets. Even the fly closed with a magnetic
(he assumed it was magnetic, it sort of behaved like it) strip that closed when he stroked his finger up it. Remarkably convenient, that.
He paused by a display of shoes, more out of curiosity than need (his boots were still in excellent condition). He contemplated the bizarre heels (were these actually men's shoes?), thinking that their only redeeming feature was that they would probably make him taller.
Giggling distracted him momentarily, and he looked up to see a pair of (fucking stupid-looking) teenage girls. Disturbingly enough, they were probably about his own age. Thank goodness Winry didn't behave like that.
"Ohmygod, I think he's a spud," one of them (she had neon orange hair, and wore something that looked like a torn yellow potato-sack) stage-whispered to the other (who wore such a jarring motley of colors Ed noticed nothing else about her). "I've never seen a spud before!" The hell? Translator or not, being called a potato wasn't particularly flattering.
"Ohmygod, I think he heard you!" the other squealed. "You've gotta be nice to them!" she shoved her friend a bit. What the hell. Ed decided to ignore them, and turned back to the display. Except the girls weren't going away, whispering and giggling to each other in a completely distracting manner. He wondered vaguely why he felt so much older than them.
"Excuse me? Excuse me?"
One of them was badgering him, and he finally looked at them, annoyed. "What?"
They both squeaked and jerked backwards, then potato-sack-girl hissed quietly, "Oh, look at his eyes, do you think they're mods?"
"Makes up for his hair, so boring, god..."
Still whispering to each other, they scampered away, leaving Ed thoroughly disturbed and self-conscious. What was he, some sort of... novelty? Disgusted, he turned away from the shoes, to find Alfons hurrying towards him. Now the guy remembers to show up.
"Were they bothering you?" Alfons asked. "I'm sorry, I didn't notice, I was just—"
"They called me a potato," Ed cut in. Repeating it, it was almost funny. Potato. Ha. Made a change from being called a bean.
"Potato?" Alfons looked confused, repeating the word to himself again, uncertain.
"Well, spud," Ed clarified, and the confusion was immediately replaced by a sort of ashamed anger.
"Oh!" Alfons said, then looked in the direction the girls had gone in, as if he would chase them down. "They shouldn't have, calling you that to your face...." He looked genuinely upset, and Ed wasn't quite sure why.
"What does it mean?" he asked.
"It's... well, it's a derogatory term for Spatially-Displaced people. At least it wasn't one of the worse ones," he added in a mumble.
Spatially-Displaced. Shzzdzya at the office had called him that, too, and Ed wondered, suddenly, just how many of them there were.
"What other names are there?" Ed asked. Curious that you had people so eager to help out, yet at the same time so dismissive of Spatially-Displaced.
"Well," Alfons looked uncomfortable. "There's space-cadets. And Lost Boys. Neanderthals. That sort of thing."
Obviously he was censoring out the worse ones, but Ed didn't feel inclined to argue. Funny how he kept on just being part of a group of people that seemed to be mostly reviled. At least he had chosen the military himself.
Thinking of the military (which he had hated, but seemed so much nicer in hindsight), he felt like his mouth was full of ash, and his curiosity withered away to nothing. He offered no resistance when Alfons took the clothes out of his hands and led him to the cash register to pay. Following him, Ed wondered how he was supposed to—he didn't exactly have any money, and he would hardly expect Alfons to pay for him—but it turned out to be strangely simple. He relegated his curiosity about why all he had to do was show his bracelet and he could take whatever he wanted, to the back of his mind, and simply accepted it for now. Though freebies made him suspicious, he was just too tired to do anything else.
They picked up other stuff for him—underclothes and socks and a hairbrush (which he wouldn't have though of, on his own), and Alfons said something about taking him to get his automail looked at the next day, to see what could be done to fix it.
Alfons picked up some food on the way back, but didn't get anything for Edward. They had natural-grown food at home, and they would fix some lunch for Ed from that. Too much synthesized food, even if he could bring himself to eat it, would probably make him sick, Alfons explained.
Back at Alfons', Ed was rather surprised to discover that Alfons knew the rudiments of cooking, even though he exclaimed with delight over the vagaries of vegetables and their various inedible parts. Ed found the whole thing rather ridiculous.
"How the hell do you know anything about cooking and you don't know potatoes should be peeled?" he asked.
"My mom likes cooking," Alfons explained sheepishly, twiddling a bit of peel in his fingers. "She would get our synthesizer to make vegetables, and then cook them up. But most home sythesizers aren't fancy enough to get the texture completely right, and everything that comes out of a synthesizer is completely edible, otherwise it would be wasteful."
"Well, you're peeling them all wrong," Ed snorted. "You need to hold the knife lightly, don't cut away all the potato!"
"I wasn't!" Alfons protested, but did as Ed said, and tried to be more careful.
"Don't cut in, run it gently over the—"
"Oh for goodness' sake, stop being a backseat pilot!" Alfons complained, but the effect was ruined by the half-smile on his face. "Let's see you do any better!"
Ed sniffed. "I'll have you know that I'm wonderful at peeling potatoes, when my automail isn't busted."
Which reminded him exactly why his automail was busted, and the smile dropped off his face. He's not Al, Ed reminded himself savagely. He might look like Al, and sound like Al, but he wasn't, and Ed needed to stop treating him like he was.
"Edward?" Alfons must have seen his sudden serious expression, and looked worried. "Is something—"
"I'm fine," Ed snapped, and turned savagely to chop what Alfons had peeled. Al was gone. He could never allow himself to forget that.
He didn't speak to Alfons any more until lunch, when looking down at the makeshift stew (which had potatoes in it) reminded him of the girls from the store. Which brought up another interesting question.
"How old are you?" he asked Alfons. The guy looked startled—probably because the question had come right out of the blue.
"Eighteen," he answered, and Ed felt a little miffed, yet at the same time unspeakably relieved. Alfons being two years older than him bothered him, but wasn't it just proof that Al and Alfons really had nothing to do with each other? If Alfons had been a year younger than him, it would have been downright creepy.
Yet.... For some reason, it had been easier, thinking Alfons was younger than him, or at least the same age. Ed looked down at his white plastic plate, and pushed the stew around with his fork, watching the liquid pool.
"Is... is there something wrong with that?" Alfons asked in a small voice.
"No," Ed answered glumly, still not looking up. At least Alfons being two years older made the fact that the guy was fucking tall just a bit easier to stomach. "I need to wait a week before I can ask for a transfer, right?"
The clatter of Alfons' fork against his plate made Ed look up, and the expression on Alfons' face abruptly made him feel like an utter dick.
"You really don't like me," Alfons said, sounding miserable. "Can you at least tell me what I'm doing wrong?"
"It's not..." Ed hedged, then rushed in with, "I don't understand why you're doing this anyway. Don't you have better things to do with your time than take care of me?"
"Oh no!" Alfons said quickly, as if he really was that happy to have Ed with him. What the hell.
"I get two weeks off from school while you're integrating," Alfons continued. "And getting to host an Sp.D is really difficult! I've been waitlisted for months, and I never expected to be approved so soon. It's only right to take care of Sp.Ds, it's our fault people are torn away from their homes, after all."
What the hell. Now Ed was listening. He was definitely listening. Shzzdzya hadn't said anything about this.
Alfons looked down at his plate, a half-smile quirking his lips. "I'm hoping to get accepted into the Ecol� Polytechnic hypernautics department, so I feel especially responsible. It's the least I can do."
Before he knew what he was doing, Ed was standing, leaning over the table, gripping the edge so tightly his knuckles turned white. "What do you mean, it's your fault? What's hypernautics? How are you responsible?"
"Aiya," Alfons blinked up at him, guileless and worried. Shit, how did he manage to look so innocent with that crazy line of rings through his eyebrow? "I don't think I was supposed to say anything, yet." He bit his lower lip. "We have a meeting with somebody's from the Ministry of Displaced Persons to explain everything, either tomorrow or the day after. Do you think you could wait until then...?" He trailed off hopefully, and Ed knew he would wait.
Sighing, he sat back down (forgot to be careful about it, and nearly jumped out of his skin when the chair shifted under him, then was embarrassed at his reaction). Alfons looked so vulnerable, and he couldn't bring himself to demand. If it were Al in such a situation, volunteering to take care of some poor sod who had lost his home, he'd bloody well want that sod to treat Al right.
Not that this is Al, he thought, and felt a lump in his throat.
Apparently taking his silence for acquiescence, Alfons started chattering about something else, and Ed did his best to tune him out. He was so tired, and a glance at the clock (conveniently equipped with normal, recognizable numbers as well as bizarre symbols) told him it was barely past one o'clock. Painkillers wouldn't be amiss, either. He thought about asking Alfons for something, then remembered that he had been drugged once already, and decided not to.
"So what do you want to do after lunch?" Alfons was asking brightly. "We can..." The translation deteriorated into fizzes and squeaks. Waving away the options, he wondered just a bit weakly if maybe they could just stay here, and if Alfons had any books...?
"No..." Alfons said, looking apologetic. "They're all on screens. But," he added, "I bet you can watch the set without any real side effects! Mine is pretty small, but the resolution is decent."
According to the explanation and demonstration that followed, the 'set' appeared to be some form of very fancy, home-use, movie theater. Only the movies had sound, and weren't in black and white, and were in fact three-dimensional, just like the strange semi-transparent people Ed had seen earlier.
"It was invented by a team of geeks with an awful sense of humor," Alfons explained, while fluttering his fingers which apparently flicked through the channels (so many channels, far more than even the radio back home had). "The official name is Surround Holographic Image Transmitter, but well, companies could hardly market something whose acronym was 'shit', could they? So they called it 'surround television', or STV... or just the set. Here we go, TFX movie channel. Is this okay?"
"I, uh, I guess," Ed said, distracted by the small, moving figures floating against the white of the walls in the set viewing corner. Fascinated, he sat down on the conveniently placed chair, and watched the story unfold, not even noticing when Alfons left.
It didn't take him long to decide that the story itself (something saccharine about two young lovers) didn't interest him in the least, but that here, finally, were some answers. During the two hours of that movie he learned more about this world than he had in all the time since he had arrived, and found his mind opened to things he had never dreamed of. For example, he realized that the story was taking place on the moon, and people apparently lived there. Strangely enough, though, the longer he watched the less things seemed to make sense. More words were blipped out of his translator, and some sentences were just nonsensical.
He should ask Alfons about taking out the translator, and learning the language properly so he could—
No, what was the point of that? He wasn't planning on staying here. Hopefully he wouldn't be here long enough to actually learn anything, anyway. The movie ended in the expected manner, and Ed found himself drifting, watching program after program, for sheer lack of will to get up and do anything else. He slumped in the chair, which shifted under him, actually becoming more comfortable. Uncanny these chairs might be, but maybe they had their uses. He sank into a sort of stupor, not even caring when the movies were intensely boring or impossible to follow. Getting up would take too much effort.
He watched the set until his eyes were burning and his mind felt fuzzy, and he could practically feel his brain oozing out of his ears. At that point he decided that enough was enough and dragged himself away from the latest program (what appeared to be a documentary about somebody called Caroline Wessom). Standing up he staggered, tried to catch the back of the chair, and ended up flailing because the chair did not actually have a back. He recovered, shot a glare at the useless piece of furniture, and aimed a kick at it. The material gave way before his foot, a shallow dent appearing in the chair, which inflated back to its former shape as Ed watched. Made kicking furniture bloody useless. Just another reason this world was fucked up.
Yet another reason this world was fucked up was that he couldn't figure out how to turn off the set. After a few minutes of fruitless searching for anything resembling an 'off' button he gave up with a curse and just walked away from it. As soon as he was about a meter away the sounds of the program vanished abruptly from the machines in his ears, though he could see that the set itself was still on. Must have a limited range.
Alfons was sitting by a desk in the living room, absorbed in his work. The surface of the desk was a screen which he was writing on with some sort of pen. As Ed watched, he put the pen down and raised his hands, staring off into space, and making strange finger movements which looked frankly insane. Though... he was beginning to see a pattern. Those rings on his fingers, could they be some sort of ... interface that allowed him to... well, whatever it was he was doing. But what the hell was he looking at? People here could listen to voices seemingly out of thin air, because of the machines in their ears. Maybe there were also... no, no way people also had machines in their eyes.
He shuddered at the thought.
"What are you doing?" he finally asked. Alfons immediately refocused his eyes and looked right at Ed, dropping his hands.
"Homework," he replied. "I know it must look strange to you—"
"The rings are some sort of controller, aren't they?"
"Why, yes," Alfons said, sounding impressed. "Did you see computers on the set?"
Ed rolled his eyes. "It's sort of obvious." How stupid did Alfons think he was? Though, he had heard people mentioning 'computers' several times.
Nonplussed, Alfons looked at his hands, then back at Ed, and smiled. "I suppose it is," he said. Then he shook his head in bemusement. "You know, you're really not what I expected."
All Ed could do was laugh bitterly.
Thankfully the hour was late enough that contemplating going to sleep was not out of the question. Ed discovered that Alfons slept naked, which he found disturbing as all hell, and had absolutely no intention of emulating. He would just sleep in his clothes, thankyouverymuch.
The next shock came when they were cleaning their teeth (Ed trying very hard not to ogle Alfons' very many tattoos. He couldn't help but remember other people with tattoos, and what they could do-). Alfons took out a small case from a cabinet, then leaned over in front of the mirror and stuck a finger in his eye. Ed nearly dropped his toothbrush in sheer horror, and stared as Alfons removed something thin from his eye and dropped it into the case. He repeated the process with his other eye, and Ed just stood there with his toothbrush (which, by the way, brushed his teeth all on its own) in his mouth, staring.
Then Alfons straightened up, and against all biology he nearly swallowed the toothbrush, because Alfons' eyes were gray.
No way. No fucking way.
"Oh, I forgot," Alfons said sheepishly, correctly interpreting his look of horror. "My lenses are tinted. Most people have tinted lenses, though some get implants if they want to jazz up their eye color."
No way. All the pain he had managed to suppress, all the longing, came bursting suddenly to the surface. This was Al, it was really Al, and if he didn't get out of here he was going to start crying or something even more embarrassing. Ed spit into the sink, dropped the toothbrush, and fled to his room.
Slamming the door behind him, he paused for a moment against the door, gasping. He knew nothing in this room was real, it was all a 'holo', but... it looked real, and it felt real. It felt like home. The surroundings weren't his, but they were normal; they could have been his in another time or place. Soothed in spite of himself, he crawled into the bed, and stared across the room at the window, and the landscape beyond it.
If only that world were real! Being an exile would be so much easier if things weren't so alien. He felt the beginnings of a pathetic, self-pitying sob, and clenched his teeth until the urge went away.
He fell asleep, and dreamed of Alfons calling him "Brother".
But the highlight of that day was definitely the part where Alfons took him to some sort of 'comfort group' of other spatially-displaced. From the moment Alfons told him about their plans for the evening Ed found himself incapable of thinking of almost anything else. He couldn't decide if he was deeply insulted by the whole idea, or burning with curiosity at the prospect of meeting others like him. What kinds of worlds did those people come from? Would they finally get some answers as to why the hell these people apparently thought that it was their fault that Ed had shown up here?
Finally six o'clock rolled around, and he could barely contain his impatience as Alfons closed up whatever he was working on with his little eye-screens and was ready to go.
Alfons led him to the same skipper station they had taken the day before (god, it felt like years ago). It was a shorter ride this time, only two stops, but then they switched to a different skipper and took a tube, before finally Alfons told him that they were almost there.
Then down a corridor that looked pretty much like all the other corridors Ed had seen (outside of Shinakihabara), and he was starting to get an inkling why everybody here seemed to dress like a rainbow had vomited on them. There was such a horrible lack of color around, the least people could do was wear it.
Alfons did something fluttery with his hands in front of a door marked with a large '1872', then motioned for Edward to show his bracelet to what looked like a small electronic eye that appeared suddenly from behind a panel in the wall. The door slid open, and they entered into a cheerful round room.
It was immediately obvious who were the spatially displaced and who weren't. The people looking ill at ease, standing silently while casting wary glances at everybody and everything were obviously out-of-dimensioners, while the gaudily dressed people watching the pile of fruit set out longingly and trying to look as if they weren't, were obviously local.
Until that very moment, Ed hadn't even admitted to himself that he'd been hoping that at least one of the people would be from his world. Not a carbon copy like Alfons was, but another displacee, someone he actually knew. Hell, he wouldn't have cared if it was someone he hated, just so long as he could see a familiar face. He felt like an idiot, because what would somebody from his world be doing here anyway? Nevermind the fact that he was here—that was just his rotten luck.
Not only was nobody from the same world as him, but they didn't even look to be from a similar time period. Though, it was hard to tell because almost nobody was wearing what Ed would have called "native clothes." People in clothes that were familiar to them didn't normally look so ill at ease.
Alfons was watching him warily, probably waiting for him to do some other crazy thing. Ever since he had stormed out of the bathroom last night, Alfons seemed to have given up trying to expect what Ed was going to do at any given moment, which Ed would have found amusing under different circumstances. Well, no point in standing around like an idiot like everybody else was. There was free food, and the one thing that Ed had learned wandering around in Amestris for all those years was you never turn down free food.
He walked over to the table and was unsurprised that nothing looked terribly familiar. Those purple fruits looked like strawberries, but they were purple. They might not be strawberries. Or they might be strawberries from the moon or something. He thought maybe he was finally beginning to figure things out.
The moon strawberry, when he bit into it, tasted a pretty much like a regular strawberry, which Ed found a little disappointing. What was the point in having a moon strawberry that tasted like a regular strawberry?
He wished somebody would just say something and not stand around waiting for the executioner, and he wished everybody would stop watching him like he's done something wrong.
"Hey," he poked Alfons. "You take a strawberry also."
Alfons looked scandalized. "But I'm not supposed to take anything! It's for you."
"How do you know?" Ed asked. "There's no sign that says you can't, is there?"
"C'mon, just take a fucking strawberry."
Alfons caved like Ed knew he would and took a piece of fruit also. Immediately, all the attention in the room focused on him, as if watching someone eat a piece of fruit was the most interesting thing these people had ever seen. This was driving him crazy.
He was right on the verge of picking up the table and just throwing it across the room when his and everyone else's attention was drawn to the door that opened in one of the walls.
"Hello everybody!" somebody announced in an overly-cheerful and terribly familiar voice—of course. It just figured that none of the other spatially-displaced would be from his world, but he kept on running into parallels in this one.
He turned to Alfons just because looking at parallel Al was still less painful than looking at parallel Hughes.
"Let's go home," he said. Hughes must have heard him because next thing he knew, the man was right next to him looking entirely too jovial—and alive—for Ed's peace of mind. He wouldn't wish death on anybody but he really wished that this Hughes could've been somewhere else. Preferably as far as possible from Ed. Like on the other side of the planet.
"Now, now! We can't have that!" Hughes said, still sounding hideously cheerful.
Not Hughes. Not Hughes.
"I'm sure that all of you are very curious as to what exactly you are doing here. I'm here to give you some explanations. Surely you don't want to miss that?" And yeah, not-Hughes had him there. He could use some explanations. With some cheerful cajoling, not-Hughes herded everybody into the room he had come out of and here was the first sign that this person actually had a clue what he was doing. The floor was flat and even, the walls far more geometric than anything he had seen in this world yet aside from his holo, and there were chairs—real chairs! With backs and armrests and everything. Ed saw unfeigned relief on some of the other displacees' expressions, realized he must be making the same face, and stopped.
"Sit down, sit down!" Not-Hughes said, waving his arms enthusiastically. "Hosts, sit next to your Sp.Ds. We'll start off with introductions. Go around the circle and everybody will introduce themselves and say a few words."
Fucking great. Why couldn't they skip straight to the explaining part? He didn't care who these people were.
"A few words about what?" one of the Sp.Ds asked. She was a young woman whose long red hair was her most remarkable feature.
"Why, anything you'd like!" Hughes said cheerfully. Nobody seemed particularly interested in volunteering to be first, avoiding Hughes' expectant gaze like the plague. "I'll start then!" he said cheerfully, absolutely undeterred by the silence. Ed wondered how many groups of sullen out-of-dimensioners he had dealt with.
"Maes Hellinger, at your service, and here to answer all your questions!"
And then, of course, Hugh-Hellinger turned right to them. "Why don't you boys start?"
Alfons, the traitor, cleared his throat and started to speak, ignoring (or not noticing) the glare Ed shot at him for cooperating so easily.
"My name is Alfons Heiderich, finishing a year at Y�o Center of Technology. I hope to get into Ecol� Polytechnic next year."
"Hypernautics?" one of the locals asked softly, sounding impressed. Alfons nodded.
"Wonderful to meet you, Alfons! I'm just sorry we had to meet under such difficult circumstances for our friends, here." In his gaze, he included the entire room, and then turned to Ed expectantly. Shit.
"Edward Elric," he mumbled grudgingly, trying to look away from those vivid green eyes. Were they brighter than Hughes', or had he simply forgotten...? "Come from Amestris."
"Tell us a bit more about yourself," Hellinger prodded. "What year are you from, locally? Is your world anything like this?"
"Nineteen sixteen, and no, it's doesn't look anything like this place."
At his words the other locals around the tables suddenly perked up, murmuring excitedly.
"Twentieth century? Parallel our twentieth?"
"Quiet down, now," Hellinger admonished. At least he wasn't looking at Ed like a lab specimen. "Let's listen to the others."
The next to speak was another Spatially-Displaced, dark-skinned like a Lioran and wearing a suit. "Gopal Chandar, Section Manager at Monosen Ltd., India branch. I don't know what I'm doing here, but these games may cost me my job." He spoke in clipped, grim tones, and his words created just the tiniest spark of interest in Ed, which he quashed quickly. He refused to consider the lives of the rest of these lost people, to get involved in their problems. He had enough of his own. Resolutely, he tuned them out, wishing they would cut the crap and get to the part where the explaining started. Who wanted to hear about their sob stories, anyway?
"Okay! Now we'll get to the part which I'm sure you all are waiting for. If you'll direct your attention to the screen over there—don't worry, it's specially calibrated not to cause you any problems!—we have a short movie to explain everything."
Ed straightened up in his chair. This was what he had been waiting for. It had better be good.
The movie appeared to be with real people, but there was something... off about them, that led Ed to believe they weren't actually. A round, blue globe which the narrator described as Earth was shown, and then little space ships left it, heading for the stars. Apparently in this world humanity had started colonizing other planets approximately 500 years before, but in those days colonization took years and years. Ed wasn't quite sure why, but apparently flying through space was very difficult. He was fascinated by the concept—airplanes? Spaceships? How did they work?—but relegated the curiosity to the back of his mind, to ask Alfons about later. For now he wanted to get to the real issue.
After a while, somebody invented something they called the hyperdrive, which allowed ships to move between planets really fast. Only apparently there was still some glitch with it, because it tore through the dimensional barrier and made people from other dimensions appear in this one. Which was why the Ministry of Displaced Persons was created, to deal with all the people who got lost, and send them to their home worlds. Just hold on, people and we'll send you home! No harm done! The end.
Then the movie blinked off and the lights were turned back on, and Ed just sat there in shock. That was it? All this because of a spaceship glitch? What kind of crappy half-assed explanation was this?
"But why does this happen?" he demanded, jumping to his feet. "How does the hyperdrive work, what's wrong with it? Why don't you fucking fix it instead of tearing people away from their homes and—"
"Edward, calm down," Hellinger said, and Ed suddenly saw that behind his jovial expression he was just as smart and calculating as Hughes. When the people in charge knew to watch you, it made doing what you wanted more difficult; he had learned that early on. Still, he couldn't contain the fury of the scholar within him at being thwarted, fuck that, the fucking Fullmetal Alchemist's fury at having the answer waved tantalizingly in front of his face.
"Fuck you," he snarled, "why won't you give us any more information?" Far off he felt Alfons' hand on his arm, trying tentatively to calm him, but it was easily ignorable. He couldn't move his eyes from Hellinger's know-it-all green ones.
He was surprised to hear a rumble of assent from the other Sp.Ds.
Seeing how keyed up everybody was, Hellinger sat back with a resigned sigh. Ed suddenly noticed that unlike Hughes, this man didn't sport glasses. How had he missed that earlier?
"Come on, Edward, please sit down," Alfons pleaded, tugging at his arm again, but his voice tugging on Ed's heartstrings was the stronger incentive. He sat down, and relished the thanks Alfons breathed.
"As far as we know," Hellinger began abruptly, "this is the only dimension to have this particular glitch in the hyperdrive. Even when encountering people from other space-faring versions of humanity, even humanity that has developed a faster-than-light drive similar to ours, we have yet to discover another universe which suffers our difficulties." He looked around the circle, meeting their eyes with practiced earnestness. "The havoc unethical and unmoderated use of the hyperdrive can wreak is unbelievable. Even here, only a select few are chosen to learn how to build disruptors, and the physics behind the engines are a closely guarded secret. We can't risk letting people spread this knowledge to other dimensions. I assure you that our greatest scientists are working as hard as they can to solve this problem. It's not something you need to worry about. Even as we speak people are working on finding your worlds, and you should be getting departure dates within the next two weeks."
So they were hiding it. Now that he knew the knowledge was out there, though every part of him rebelled against sitting by passively to let somebody else solve his problems. But right now he didn't have even the most basic know-how to try and figure it out on his own.
He would have to remedy that. Now that he knew what Alfons' field of study meant....
There was nothing more he could learn here. Decidedly, he stood up and turned to leave.
"Where are you going?" Hellinger asked, a sharp tone in his voice. Ed knew this was a bad idea, but he just couldn't stand being here any longer.
"Come on, Alfons, I want to leave." He pinned Alfons with his gaze, watching as the man looked between him and Hellinger, flustered. What if Alfons decided to stay? He could storm out on his own just as well, but he wouldn't get very far before getting lost.
Alfons still wasn't moving, and Ed's heart sank. He couldn't leave him here, couldn't leave behind his only support—
"Okay," Alfons said quietly, standing up next to him. "I'm sorry, Mr. Hellinger."
For a moment Ed was so shocked he nearly forgot to follow, then stumbled after his host, his heart fluttering strangely. Alfons had defied Hellinger for him! Such a small thing, but surely it meant Alfons was on his side, that he could be trusted? Until how his heart had told him they were connected, but now Ed felt his mind gleefully join in, crying out completion. Surely... surely the fact that Alfons was Al's double had to mean something, and if Alfons could feel it too....
He sped up, catching up to Alfons' brightly-clad form, and looked up at him. Slight worry was on Alfons' face, discomfort at what he had done. Ed felt the overpowering need to make him smile again.
"Hey," he said gruffly, punching him softly on the arm. "Thanks."
Alfons missed a step, and looked down at Ed in slight surprise, then his face softened. "You're welcome," he said, and Ed's heart flipped over again. How many years had he waited to see that smile—
Stupid, Alfons wasn't Al. He wasn't, and there was absolutely no reason for Ed to give a damn whether Alfons liked him or not. He knew that.
"Did something there upset you?" Alfons asked hesitantly, wary after all of Ed's explosions of temper.
"I want to understand," Ed said, before he could think of lying. Matching his stride to Alfons', he instinctively lowered his voice. If this issue was truly such a taboo here, no sense in getting in trouble right off. "How does it work?" He looked up at Alfons sharply. "You want to learn about the hyperdrive, don't you?"
"Well, yes," Alfons hedged.
Perfect. Excitement building, Ed realized that his initial thought—that setting him up with Alfons was some kind of sadistic cosmic joke—was completely wrong. Rooming with Alfons was a blessing in disguise, because all the information he needed was right at his fingertips. "So you can teach me!" he said enthusiastically.
Except Alfons didn't look nearly so taken with the prospect. "I'm really sorry but—"
"Please!" Ed said, almost desperately. "Aren't you supposed to help me out?"
"I can't do that." Alfons looked unhappy, his eyes sliding away from Ed's. "It's too much of a risk, Edward. I want to help you any way I can, but that is just too much."
Or not. His eyes fell to the ground and he followed Alfons silently, trying to clear disappointment from his mind. It had been too good to be true, anyway. On the other hand, Alfons had admitted that he wanted to help Ed; that was something. With the right amount of cajoling, maybe he could be brought around to Ed's way of thinking....
Uncomfortable with the silence, Alfons fidgeted all through the skipper ride, every so often opening his mouth to say something but aborting at the last minute. Alfons seemed to be chronically helpless concerning him, and it made Ed uncomfortable. Was he so strange, so impossible to deal with? So abrasive Alfons didn't even want to try?
Sudden terror: had Al ever felt that way?
When they reached their corridor, Alfons finally cleared his throat and spoke. "Eh, Edward? If you really want I suppose I could try teaching you some physics..."
Hope flared, powerful and frightening.
"... because I'm not actually learning hypernautics yet, I wouldn't be giving away anything..." he sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than anything, but that was okay, Ed was absolutely fine with that. He nodded vigorously to show his absolute agreement, already wondering to himself how far he could push Alfons' boundaries.
"Just, not tonight, yes? I think we've had enough excitement for one night."
The slight patronization grated, but Ed was willing to overlook it for now. If Alfons taught him the rules of this world and set him on the path to understanding this hyperspace business, he would be more than willing to put up with a little shirtiness. Besides, Alfons had nothing on Colonel Shit in the smugness department.
Barely two minutes after they had entered, Alfons emitted a strange beeping sound, and suddenly started talking animatedly to the air like an old friend. Tension Ed hadn't even known was there seeped off Alfons' face, and he flopped down on a chair, relaxed and cheerful. Ed figured it was some kind of telephone, probably another function of Alfons' ear-machines. He wondered if his had the same capabilities.
Uncomfortable with eavesdropping, Ed wandered off to look for something to do, but there wasn't really anything. Nothing around even to draw with. He ended up in his room, and sat down next to the window, watching the outside. The "outside". The (fake) lady who lived across the (fake) street was leaning against a windowsill, a man beside her. They appeared to be chatting. Down on the street an urchin ran by with his dog, squealing in glee. Everywhere he looked it seemed there was new detail, added depth. He had to look away. Had to leave this lie of a window, this nonexistent world constantly tempting him. But he couldn't help but want to keep watching for just another minute... couldn't help but wonder where that young woman was going, what was written in the letters the postman had just delivered....
The door behind him open, and the scuff of footsteps drew near.
"Sorry, Edward, that was a friend of mine, haven't seen him in a while... He wanted to invite me out, but I told him it would have to wait for another time. Are you very bored?"
"You can go," Ed said dully, feeling strangely betrayed, which was stupid. Of course Alfons had friends, and family, and a life outside of Ed. A wonderful life where he didn't even have to worry about vanishing into another dimension.
"I wouldn't leave you here alone," Alfons said quietly, coming closer.
"Yeah? Well, I don't need a babysitter."
"I wasn't implying that!"
Ed looked over his shoulder to where Alfons stood, indignant, and sighed. Alfons was so... emotional, he made such a big deal out of everything. Why, imagine what Ed's life would have been like if every time he blew up at somebody for calling him short they stood there with a wounded look in their eyes and made him feel all guilty.
"Edward." Alfons stepped closer, determined. "I know that you don't want to be here, and it's totally justified. You lost your home and your family—"
Ed closed his eyes against thinking of his lost home and family. He didn't even know if Al was still alive, and that knowledge suddenly stuck in his throat.
"Shut up," he grated. "You don't know what it's like. My brother might be dead, do you understand?" He rose to his feet in a smooth movement, furious, and hating the fact that he was stuck looking up at Alfons. "Until I get back I won't even know what happened to him! Everybody I care about might have gotten killed, and I don't even know!"
Alfons looked taken aback, silent and shocked.
Holy hell, how dare he be surprised? "What, you don't expect people who lost their homes to be pissed off?" he sneered. "Shut up about your understanding," he was unable to stop himself, had to say it, "and just get out!"
Face stony, Alfons spun and left, leaving Ed to watch his retreating back. It had worked this time, it had definitely worked. He stood there alone, shaking, and tried not to think of the fact that he had probably driven Alfons away for good, this time. Better this way, he told himself bleakly, but he didn't really believe that life without any Al at all could be better than life with Al's double.
Yet at the same time he found himself tempted to go, because listening to the others talking about themselves was starting to give him the feeling that something was very wrong.
"I just vanished!" Rinnatya (conspicuous with her wide skirts and modest clothes) said often, shaking her head each time. "I heard my son crying, and I was just going to him—and then everything warped around me and I was in the middle of somewhere completely different!" Then she would cover her face with her hands and sometimes sob, "Oh dear, what happened to him? I hope to God he's okay."
Everybody would nod stonily at that, and Ed wondered. What about the Gate? Where did that factor in?
The first few times he had refused when they asked him to speak of when and where he had vanished from, but Hellinger wore him down. It would help them pinpoint him, he said. Help them set him right back from where he had left, didn't he want that? Except Ed wasn't sure he entirely trusted them to get him back. Doubts niggled at him despite Hellinger's assurances about how many people had been sent home easily. Nothing in his life was easy, nothing was simple, and the price was always heavier than imaginable.
Convinced against his will to speak, hope winning out on cynicism, he finally cleared his throat on the third meeting and gave in.
"I was in the underground city... beneath Central." His throat was dry, and he swallowed convulsively. This was a bad idea, and he would have stopped but for the sudden encouraging and intent silence that followed his words.
"I was fighting Envy—he's a homunculus, that's an artificial human being—nevermind, it's complicated," he added at the blank looks. Just his luck that he seemed to be with a group who mostly came from boring worlds (except for Jonas, who was apparently a dragon tamer). "So I fought him, and..." oh god, was he going to say it? Was he really going to say it? If he never saw these people again, would it matter? "And I died." The words sounded strange in the silence, and everybody was staring at him now, like he was some kind of freak. Envy's gloating, disgusting face swam before his eyes for a second, he felt a flicker of memory of the feeling of a blade sliding through his stomach, and tried to ground himself in the present. Skip ahead.
"Al brought me back. Al's my brother." He blinked a few times to stave off the emotion thinking of him evoked, and wondered what the hell had possessed him to spill all this to a bunch of strangers. "But then he was gone." He wished everybody would stop looking at him. Wished Alfons wouldn't look so compassionate and worried, because it threatened to undo him. Skip to the end. "Then I was gone," tell, don't tell? Tell, see what the reaction was. "There was this huge eye thingy, and then I was here."
Recognition? He scanned the faces around him, desperately hoping one of the others had seen, or heard of somebody who had seen the Gate, but nobody was clicking. They looked uniformly horrified and disturbed, but that wasn't what he needed. Looking to Hellinger for help was no improvement.
"An eye, you say?" he sounded perturbed. "This was after you left your world?"
Ed nodded, but all Hellinger did was flick his fingers in a note to himself and shake his head.
"I'll look into it, don't worry," he said, and that was the last useful thing that happened that night. Ed roped Alfons into an escape as soon as he could, his mood bleak. Stupid, why had he spoken? He felt like an utter moron, ashamed to meet anybody's eyes, as if they could see on his face how pathetic he was.
For a change, Alfons had to hurry to keep up with him, he was walking so fast. The sooner he could close himself in his room the better.
"Edward?" Alfons said. Oh shit. Now Alfons was probably going to say something mushy and embarrassing.
"Yeah?" Best get it over with as soon as he could.
"I'm glad you talked, today," Alfons said softly. "I hope that your brother is safe. I had no idea you were in the middle of something like that, when you were taken away."
Ed looked up at him sharply to find Alfons' expression achingly honest. No discernible pity, though. At least that.
"Yeah, well..." he looked down, feeling suddenly drained. If Alfons had been Al, maybe he could have confessed more, admitted his panic, but Alfons wasn't, and right now Ed couldn't pretend he was. No matter how similar they looked, he didn't speak to Ed the way Al did.
"It's pretty strange that your brother's name is so similar to mine," Alfons said, trying to keep the conversation going.
And how, Ed thought bleakly. Aloud he said, "You also sort of look like him."
"Oh." Alfons was quiet the rest of the way, which should have made Ed happy but for some reason didn't. He wanted to talk to Alfons, but had no idea what to say.
It took a while, but he ended up managing to convince Alfons to skip the next session. He couldn't stand seeing the others so soon, not after what he had blurted out. The downside was that it meant still more hours of attempting to amuse himself and usually failing. There was just nothing for him to do, but Alfons seemed to have no such troubles. It became quickly obvious that Alfons was almost desperate for Ed to give him some time alone, because Alfons had important things to do. Oh, he wouldn't say anything, but Ed didn't miss that any time he wandered off, Alfons was immediately seated at his desk with a pen in his hand and writing away industriously, or staring into space and fluttering his fingers, or talking to people on the other side of his earpieces....
Most exasperating was the fact that Alfons was sitting there writing formulas and solving problems that Ed was absolutely dying to learn. Even without the incentive of trying to figure out a way home on his own, the prospect of putting his mind to better use was utterly tempting. Alfons had promised to teach him, but a few days had passed and he had yet to make good on that promise. Ed would have liked nothing better than to remind him of it (several times, possibly loudly), but felt too uncomfortable to say anything. He was a burden, he could feel it, though Alfons had practically begged him to stay.
He pretended he was going to watch the set, waited a few minutes, and then sneaked back into the living room to watch Alfons' back bent over his work.
Would Al be so serious, so studious? Would Al have that atrocious posture, hold the pen against his third finger in what looked like an awkward angle, but which seemed to work for Alfons? Was Al a pencil-chewer like Alfons (whose pens were all ruined at the tips from teeth-marks), or a doodler like Ed? He must have known these things, once, he had spent hours and days and weeks closeted with Al when they were learning alchemy years ago... but all he could remember of those days was a dim haze. When he thought of Al, he remembered a hulking suit of armor who clanged when he walked, and a gentle, echoing voice. Now when he imagined Al's human body, he wondered if the hair wasn't just a bit lighter than he remembered, and how tall would Al be, anyway?
Guilt choked him, then, but suddenly realized that it didn't matter. If Alfons was Al, what did it matter? Was there really something wrong with finding the similarities, just to remind himself of what he had lost?
He had walked forward without even noticing, until he was close enough to touch, and only then did Alfons turn around, and looked startled to find him there. Startled, with just a hint of tiredness. It was what, a week, and Alfons was already sick of him. His stomach twisted in a kind of panic and he wondered what he could say to make it better. What would make Alfons pleased with him?
"Do you need something, Edward?" And no, he wasn't imagining it, Alfons did sound sort of tired.
"I, uh." He couldn't think of anything. "If, I..." he swallowed, had a brilliant idea, and rushed ahead. "I do want to stay with you." Alfons had seemed so worried about that, surely this would make him happy?
"Oh." Alfons looked rather surprised, then understood what Ed was getting at, and looked if possible, more surprised. "Ei? You mean that?"
Ed nodded vigorously, then wondered if that didn't make him look too pathetic, and stopped. What if Alfons didn't want him around anymore?
But that didn't seem to be a problem, because Alfons suddenly looked all kinds of relieved and the tension suddenly leaked away from Ed.
"Yeah," he said, and didn't say anything about the fact that he was sort of afraid of what would happen if he were relocated, who (if anybody?) he might end up with. A familiar face was always better.
"I'm really glad, then," Alfons said, and smiled at him—though, there was a sort of edge in that smile that Ed wondered at. There didn't seem to be much more to say, and Alfons looked like he was just itching to get back to his work. The work that Ed desperately wanted to learn about, and now was maybe his only opportunity to ask. Agreeing to stay was pretty much his only marketable commodity since that seemed to be all Alfons wanted from him. If he was to plead, it had better be now.
"So... so... can you please teach me some physics?" He could hardly breathe with anticipation. Something about Alfons' expression dulled a bit, and he looked away. Shit, he was going to refuse, and then what would Ed do? In this bookless world, without a screen of his own he couldn't do anything.
Before he could say anything, though, Alfons gave him a sunny smile that made Ed wonder if he had only imagined the shadow on his face.
"I don't mind trying," Alfons said, "but come here, sit down for a minute." He gestured next to him, and Ed took a seat quickly. "Look, you come from more than three hundred years ago, in our time. Do you really think you can learn so many years' worth of physics so quickly?"
"You're only two years older than me!" Ed protested. "It's not like you spent the last three hundred years learning physics! What, you think that just because my world is less developed technologically I'm stupid?"
Alfons opened and closed his mouth, then swallowed. "Of course not," he stammered, and Ed was furious. These goddamn superior-!
"Just because I haven't ever learned this doesn't mean I can't! The only major difference should be alchemy. And I don't think that anything you learned is more difficult that deconstructing materials in your mind!"
Alfons gaped. "Ah! You're an alchemist? I know your world has alchemy, but you didn't tell me you could do it! What is it like?"
Ed preened just a bit, and thought, maybe he did have something to offer Alfons. "Teach me some physics, and I'll tell you about alchemy."
"Hm, okay..." Alfons looked down at the desk, then back at Ed. "I just don't want you to be disappointed," he said nervously. "Look, there's loads of things Twenners can't do. I got this whole file of diseases to watch out for, and there's the thing with the food and the screens and all sorts of materials you might be allergic to. You might really find it difficult to learn this stuff."
The most insulting thing about the whole speech was that Alfons honestly believed it, and was trying to be nice. What kind of stereotypes were rampant about people like him, that they even warranted their own cutesy little fucking nickname? Ed couldn't keep the disgust off his face.
"How about if we just start and see how it goes?" he suggested, keeping his temper in check with an effort.
With a soft sigh, Alfons flicked his fingers at the desk a few times, and it shimmered to life, abruptly becoming a hazy blob of color in Ed's vision. He swallowed, trying to fight down the nausea, and keep his eyes focused on the shifting thing at the same time.
"This is another problem," Alfons said, his voice sounding far away. Ed gripped the edge of the desk until his knuckles stood out and his hand was aching, and the desk protested at the scrape of his au—mech's fingers.
"I'm fine," he snarled hoarsely. Several convulsive swallows later, and he was pretty sure he wouldn't be throwing up. He let go of the table edge long enough to wipe his streaming eyes, and clenched his teeth. No stupid screen was going to get the best of him. He had stared down the myriad eyes of the Gate, he would conquer—this—stupid—fucking —screen!
"Okay, talk," he managed. "This isn't getting any easier." Concentrating while trying to keep his eyes focused on the screen and attempting not to upchuck wouldn't be easy, but he could do it. He would do it.
"Hm, if you're sure..."
Ed nodded stiffly.
"Right." Alfons paused, and Ed resisted the urge to scream at him to start talking before he couldn't take this anymore. "So. How much math do you know? Can you use variables?"
"What about vectors?"
Ed shook his head, and grunted when he realized what a horrible idea that had been.
"Vectors then." Alfons drew an x, y axis on the tabletop. "Every force has a direction," he began, and started explaining how to calculate the components of a given force.
Ed listened in fascination. What Alfons was saying resonated with knowledge he already had, with all sorts of calculations he had always done in his head, instinctively. Of course instinct was necessary for rapid application; when transmuting a cannon he hardly had the time to sit and start calculating the force of the explosion against gravity to figure out exactly how much force he had to exert on the cannonball to achieve his desired trajectory. Knowing how it all worked would be cool, though.
After a bit he lost track of time, immersing as much of himself in the math as he could, disassociating himself from the burning in his eyes and stomach. It was feasible, though he would certainly pay a price for this later. As it was, he only lasted a few hours before he couldn't stand it anymore. Finally he gave up and closed his aching eyes, pressing his forehead down on the cool tabletop. He had made progress, though. He was learning new things, and all the pain in the world couldn't make him lose the glow of happiness at putting his brain to good use again.
"Are you okay?"
He felt a hand on his shoulder and flinched, not expecting the contact. The hand vanished abruptly, and he felt a sense of loss. "Head hurts," he grunted, which was a sort of summary of everything that was wrong with him. "Did good, though." He smiled against the table.
"Come on, it would probably be better for you to lie down a bit," Alfons said, helping him up. Ed allowed himself to be dragged to his feet, suppressing a groan at the brightness of the lights. The world spun around him, a blur of color, and the curvature of the walls just made it worse. Fucking stupid architecture.
The spinning stopped after a while and he found himself on his back, in his room, staring up at the plain ceiling. Harsh light came in from the window, and he squinted instinctively and rolled his head to the side to protect his eyes, for once completely uninterested in checking what was going on out there. The movement made the world roil again, and he groaned pathetically.
"You're very smart, you know." Alfons' voice was faraway, but Ed could hear that he was impressed. It eased his misery, in some small way. "But there has got to be a better way to do this." The last was said more to himself than Ed, who didn't bother answering. There was no other way; in his life the painful way was always the right one.
Life had a routine, if a terribly boring one. The highlight of his days was easily the few hours Alfons was willing to devote to coaching him in physics, though for some reason his easy advances of the first day were not duplicated. Alfons' explanations, which had seemed so clear and obvious at first, started becoming strange. Whenever Alfons manipulated the numbers they did his bidding, but whatever Ed tried seemed to come out wrong, to his great frustration. He was doing what Alfons told him to do, but it kept out coming out wrong!
And Alfons, damn him, accepted it. Every time Ed got something wrong he did this little thing with a sigh and an eyeroll that said clearer than any words that it was to be expected. At any other time he would have exploded in anger, but mustering the energy for it was beyond his abilities these days. Hellinger had commented on his red eyes once already, and Ed had mumbled something in response about having difficulty sleeping. The man didn't push it at the time and Ed thought his excuse was accepted. Later when he saw Hellinger grilling Alfons about it, he knew that it hadn't been.
"Hellinger says I'm supposed to keep you away from screens," Alfons told him afterwards. "He said they could do you permanent damage if you're not careful."
"Screw Hellinger," Ed mumbled. Alfons had better not back out of it now. "Look, they're my eyes, right? I can use them how I want."
Alfons took a different tack. "Is it really worth the risk? I know you did really well at first, but it's just going to get more complicated from here, and you've been having difficulties."
Ed didn't deign to answer. He had to learn as much as he could about what was behind his appearance here, because he was really feeling that something was wrong. It was nearing two weeks, and there was no date for him, not even a hint of one. Two weeks, and he caught Gopal and Ben talking about their scheduled departure dates, and then Helen was gone, yet every time he asked Hellinger told him to be patient, some matches took longer than others.
A glance in the mirror one morning told Ed that in addition to the puffiness around his eyes, his skin was sallow and sickly looking. He decided to stop looking in the mirror, and turned his attention to figuring more ways to make staring at the screens more bearable. Spacing out the study sessions helped, though as the days passed it became clearer that Alfons wouldn't be at his beck and call indefinitely. Alfons had work of his own to do, so sometimes Ed found screens on his own and practiced looking at them, just to build up tolerance.
Alfons still taught him, though his heart was clearly not in it. At first Alfons had been excited at his apparent intelligence, and Ed himself had no idea what was wrong with him. The fact that Alfons thought he was dumb spurred Ed to try even harder, causing him to push aside his frustration to try again and again. It was bad enough that they kept on stumbling across basic concepts he wasn't familiar with, having never studied any of this properly, but there was some further obstruction he couldn't pinpoint. Back home he could inhale books, no theorem was too complicated for him to solve, no technique impossible for him to master. So how could this world's pathetic little beginner's physics stump him? Yet stump him it did, and the quality of his work teetered on the edge of abysmal.
Something here was really fucked up, and it was driving him up the wall. He was making idiotic mistakes, and every time he got something wrong Alfons looked so damn smug and pitying, occasionally making noises about how Ed "shouldn't feel bad".
"Fuck that!" he snarled after trying to multiply two vectors for the fifth time and getting it wrong yet again.
"You're supposed to do an absolute value on the product and then multiply by the tangent squared."
"I did!" Ed had to restrain himself from breaking the pen. He had a feeling they were more expensive than the ones he was used to back home.
"No you didn't." Alfons covered his face with his hands and slumped in his chair. "Bloody hell, Edward, can you please admit you have no talent for this? I'm sorry, I tried to help, but this is too much!"
It made no sense. No sense at all. What the hell was wrong with him? Could there actually be something to what Alfons was saying, and he was just incapable of learning this stuff?
"One last time, c'mon Alfons," he pleaded, wiping the screen of his latest attempt. "Multiply by the tangent, right?"
"No!" Alfons groaned, "I said tangent!"
"That's what I just said!" Ed slammed his fist down on the screen, ignoring Alfons' yelp.
"Edward, please be gentle with the screen. I said to multiply by a tangent, you're multiplying by a cosine."
What the hell. He felt his mouth hanging open and closed it. "Are you fucking with me?" he howled, leaping to his feet. "I fucking know the difference between a tangent and a cosine!"
"But you keep doing it wrong!"
Ed would have probably enjoyed getting into a towering rage if he wasn't so damn frustrated. Right now Alfons' face was looking like a really attractive place to plant his fist, and that would not be conducive to further learning. Inhale. Exhale. Try again.
"Tell me again what I'm supposed to multiply by." There, he didn't even sound like he wanted to kill something.
"That's what I've been doing!"
"No, you're multiplying by a cosine."
"I've been multiplying by a fucking tangent!"
Alfons raised both his hands. "Hallelujah!" he shouted. "That's the problem!"
"But you just said that I've been multiplying by a cosine." Do not punch Alfons. Do not punch Alfons.
Who now looked completely bewildered. "No I didn't. Are you sure your translator is working properly? I'm pretty sure I said cosine."
"Write it." Ed snapped, suddenly getting a sick sort of feeling. It couldn't be, could it? "Write it in Amest—English. Right here."
"I don't think that's going to change anything."
"Just do it."
With a long-suffering sigh that said he didn't think it would change anything, Alfons took the pen and in a clear, distinct hand wrote 'cosine'.
"Motherfucker," Ed breathed in disbelief. "Okay, read that word aloud."
"Stop cursing," Alfons snapped. "What is it?"
Ed sat down, his entire body shaking. This was worse than anything Mustang had done to him, more insidious than those freak-of-nature homunculi. "The translator is fucking with me. You say 'cosine', I hear 'tangent'. Those sons of bitches fucked with my translator!" Impotent fury burned through him, lacking any decent outlet.
Alfons didn't understand the enormity of it. "That can't be," he said, sounding honestly confused. "I'm sure it's just a glitch in the programming."
"Really now." It was cute how innocent Alfons was, but no way this was a simple mistake. "Read this aloud, then." He wrote 'tangent' on the desk.
"Cosine," Alfons said.
"And this?" He scrawled 'derivative'.
"My point is proven. No program is going to glitch enough to call derivatives integrals and fuck up sines and cosines, and get everything else right!" He twirled the pen in his hand idly, then shook his head. "You heard Hellinger. They don't want us Spuds learning this stuff. It's gotta be on purpose."
"Edward, there's no way they would do something like that!" Alfons sounded horrified, but didn't believe what he was saying. He was trying to convince himself. Ed knew the tone, knew how it felt; he had tried it often enough.
"Can we shut off the translator and see?" Ed asked quietly. "I have to know."
Biting his lip, Alfons raised his hands and flicked his fingers a few times, then shook his head. "I can't access the programming, it's blocked. You can't take the earbuds out, either, that needs a code too."
"Shit." Ed leaned back in his seat, clenching his fists at his sides to try and keep from lashing out. "What are we going to do?" His breath hissed between his teeth, as he entertained a highly satisfying but ultimately unrealistic fantasy of punching Hellinger several times with his mech, Hughes' face or not. He was used to fighting the system, but until now he had always done so with some knowledge, and some power of his own. In this world he had no defenses, no alchemy, not even the basic rules to assist him. He was helpless, and the bastards in charge of this whole farce of a program probably knew it.
"We could get you a hack," Alfons said slowly, eyebrows furrowed in discomfort but looking determined nonetheless. Ed stared at him, hopeful because despite the fact that he wasn't quite sure what he was talking about, it sounded like help.
"What's a hack?"
Alfons' eyes abruptly refocused, meeting Ed's, and at that moment he knew they shared something. "I can't break through this, but I know somebody who can."
Between them was solidarity, a kind of bond, because maybe he was trouble and maybe Alfons didn't really like him all that much, but Alfons wasn't going to leave him helpless.
"We'll figure this out," Alfons said. "I promise.
"What is it?"
"It's our Twenner. He's—-"
"Have you shut down the information leak?"
"I hate when you interrupt me. Yes, we closed the leak. For a while there we got a real high concentration of technical terms, but I put in a scrambler and now the pings have pretty much vanished. But that's not the thing. I'm not getting a match on him."
"... That's not good."
"No, it's not. And it's not like the others, where I get near misses on the variables. I'm turning up blank on him. The lab did a search three times, and came up empty. Zip. Nada. It's like his world doesn't exist."
"The media has been sniffing around him. They want an interview."
"You've been heading them off, right?"
"Of course. Especially now that you tell me he's not getting any matches."
"Keep an eye on him, Maes. I don't want to lose another one."