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Wasteland

chapter 3.

Edward still could not be certain if this was the same world he had previously seen on the other side of the Gate, but he knew that no matter the name of this listless city, it had hemorrhaged internally.

Large and sturdy it was, a reality of wrought-iron, hard edges, and precise architecture; tall buildings licked the jaw of the hazy skyline, the streets were smooth save for the occasional pockmark, and people in finely tailored threads decorated the sidewalks. If one demanded metonymy, slum would not have been the first word Ed's mind might have conjured to describe the city.

But a city sure as hell isn't a paradise when people on the street won't do a damned thing to help a bloody, one-armed boy, he thought, glumly. At the moment, a mixture of bitterness and pity swelled within him. He graciously split the latter between denizens of this bruised world and himself, deciding that he had earned the right to feel miserable about his sorry predicament.

Surely anyone in the vicinity could tell that the blond was a captive, and an abused one at that. Envy had been anything but subtle in his handling of Edward. Logic dictated that kicking a person to the ground in front of various passersby should have merited something more than assorted furtive looks.

Ishbal...was it like this there? he wondered as he stared upwards, all the while hoping the rain might clean him a little. Fat and cold, the droplets popped on his nose, brow, and cheeks. Tears, he thought, strangely, as the water cut through the trails of dirt, blood, and vomit that streaked his face. He blinked as the rain quickened suddenly, lashing his eyelids, creeping into the edges of his lips. Tears...moisture...no, it couldn't have been like this in Ishbal...not in the desert...

He remembered Lior: the ever-present sound of guns firing while adults and infants alike sobbed, the looks of hopelessness upon the faces of the village's citizens. War. He remembered war; not Ishbal, no, but surely its echo. In this world called Earth, hot sands had been exchanged for cold rain; still, Edward thought he could hear the blasts of rifles and the rumbling of bombs far off in the distant chasms of his mind. Further away than that, somewhere in a place Ed could barely conceive of as reality, there must have been a sun, green fields as far as the eye could see, apple orchards and scintillating automail, as well as a little boy with dimples and dark blond hair.

It has to be real. Equivalent exchange...Al has to be safe out there somewhere. Fate's been too damned cruel to us; it can't deny him this one gift...I can't...won't believe that...

A familiar, forceful shove interrupted Edward's train of thoughts. He bit down hard and ignored the grating laughter and taunts which followed, choosing instead to occupy his mind with thoughts of warmth and home. Pain lanced through his belly, gnawing him, reminding the boy that he had not eaten in quite some time. He winced as floaters riddled his vision; his head was spinning and once again he found himself struggling to fight away an overwhelming sensation of dizziness.

not the ...right world, is it...? ...not right...and...and Envy is gonna kill me when he figures out...

Edward had become accustomed to the assurance of his eventual demise in this foreign world, a dollop of grim resignation having settled so thoroughly that his body and face forgot to respond to the morbid thoughts. His mind had taken the initiative to leap upon the ugly, jagged question of where in the hell the Gate had taken them to, but its skimming came up empty. Maybe this was Earth, Germany or otherwise, or maybe the Gate had vomited its entrants into some new and wretched landscape. Either way, the soggy realm of grey and granite may as well have been a personal, specialized hell, one reserved for hubris-blinded creatures who had challenged the gods.

Or a grave, at the very least.

Edward supposed that the cruel irony was a fitting one. He had flown too close to the sun, so what could make a more suitable resting place than a world where people truly did kiss the skies with metal lips? Any science-obsessed alchemist would have drooled at the sight of this beautiful wasteland.

In a hell of science...persecuted by the mad result of science gone wrong...story of my life and death.

Edward sighed as Envy pulled him off of the street and toward a three-story building. He glanced up briefly, catching sight of a woman in faded clothing hanging her laundry up on the top floor. Faded clothing, faded skin, faded eyes...

The next thing Ed knew, he had been dragged beneath an overhang. Pewter shadows effaced the milky gray of the stormy sky. A peal of thunder resounded in the distance; a sudden wind assaulted tangled blond locks, and a door groaned loudly as a black-clad hand ripped it open. Edward found himself pushed into a musty establishment smelling of wet wood, mothballs, and a faint trace residue of cleaning solvent.

Almost immediately, Ed noticed the man behind the desk giving them a dirty look. He suppressed a sigh of annoyance, reminding himself that he was filthy as hell, probably wearing a stench larger than he was, and flanked by a scantily-clad androgynous being who was—at the moment—only barely more presentable.

And breathing down my neck, too...the bastard...

They looked poor, in short: him worn ragged and missing a limb, Envy barely dressed and particularly lascivious in appearance (if not in attitude). Edward had never agreed with mistreating the poor and downtrodden, but he was not so childish as to believe that sooty faces usually elicited bright, white smiles. He remembered Youswell and Xenotime well enough; he knew what a preoccupation with wealth and luxury could be responsible for.

Please...please don't be difficult, he pleaded silently, approaching the counter one shuffling footstep at a time and chewing his cracked, bloody lips as he did so. A part of him wanted nothing more than to hurl himself across the counter, wrap his arm around the body of the nearest human, and scream for help. All moisture sank away from his mouth; his flesh had grown clammy, and his teeth insisted on grinding themselves together. Had tension implanted any more pressure into his facial muscles, then tears would have been squeezed from his eyes.

He would have called for help, but with Envy standing behind him, he had no chance of doing so. Maybe Envy was sparing him for the time being, for as long as the homunculus needed the alchemist, and until he concluded that Edward could not assist him-but Ed knew better than to think Envy would be so generous with the life of anyone else. The effeminate homunculus still had one hand upon his enemy's shoulder; Ed could feel the passion within the creature's body, the sheer intensity of being.

He tried to force his muscles into relaxation, tried to push a shaky smile onto his lips, tried to think pleasant thoughts, tried to ignore Envy altogether, but most of all, he tried to pretend that he really knew a way out of this awful mess. If he could believe that he had some hope of escape, then maybe...

Smilesmilesmilesmilesmilefakeitfakeitfakeitfakeit.

A stern face of flat planes and hard angles regarded Edward with deep-set flinty eyes. The man had a hard jaw, a blunt ball of a nose, and a brow as thick as a cowl, upon which bushy dark eyebrows clambered toward one another. Crow's feet lined the edges of the eyes, while tiny crevices eroded various lines around the lips and nose. The man was large, though not so much so as Shigu, with a body formed of thick as ropes muscle, fat, or some even combination of the two. From the ruddy skin to the ageless wisps of salt and pepper hair, everything about the inn owner suggested an air of severity.

And poverty, Ed's mind added in a mouse-like little voice.

Ascertaining this to be a situation in which coins and notes would have more of an impact than kind words, Ed shifted from one foot to the other, steadying himself as his fingers rummaged through his tattered clothing. His automail arm had been the right arm, the good arm, but over time and out of necessity, the boy had trained his remaining human parts to function as best they could. After much awkward shuffling and muttered c'mons, the probing digits at last closed around a soft, smooth, pleasantly familiar texture.

If Edward had believed in a God or gods, he would have given thanks in that instant. All along, he had been sure that he had dropped his wallet in the sewer, no matter how greatly he had hoped otherwise. And yet, here within his hand, there rested some of his monetary supply—safe and sound, though maybe a little worse for wear. He secured a grip upon the leather encasing and flung the wallet down onto the counter. Its hard thud echoed his satisfaction and momentary triumph as he basked in the simple if unfortunately short relief brought about by his discovery.

The lips of the wallet opened; bills flooded the counter's dusty surface. The man looked down, inspecting the money Ed had proffered. A dirty stub of a thumb wedged itself onto one of the bills, easing it forward. Ed watched, not comprehending this pause, this inexplicable delay.

Envy, strangely enough, saw exactly what the problem was.

"Is that the right kind of money?" he demanded, leaning so close that his lips and teeth were very nearly poised to take a bite out of Ed's ear. "It's not, is it? You fucking stupid shit!"

Ed winced at the swift clip of a kick dealt to his shin in response to his oversight. His attention drifted toward Envy for a second, but then he heard himself being addressed. Heavy words in a language he did not understand tumbled forth without any semblance of ambiguity in the tone. Shit, Ed had the time and sense to think to himself. Shit! Envy's right! There couldn't...can't possibly be a currency exchange. The money is...

His stomach sank, knots neatly wrapping and tightly hugging each section of his innards.

...useless...

What happened next was difficult to reason out in any mechanical, straightforward fashion. Ed's mind began frantically combing through options for what to do next, while at the same instant, the drone of rigid, hostile words continued in the background. Ed pressed his hand to his temple, thumbing it as he tried to concentrate, tried to focus, tried to...to...

In the next moment, his eyes went wide and his jaw dropped, merciless in the speed of its descent. His hand remained against his scalp for a few dead seconds, then fell away as would a husk without its gloved cob. Blood drained off somewhere within him, leaving his fingers white and stiff and his wrists trembling.

Blood...

...all over the floor...everywhere...

...quicker than...

quickerthanicouldseequickerthanicouldthinkquickerthanicouldstop...

Numbness came first, followed by a pause in which the blur of movement Edward had just seen coalesced into something comprehensible. Shock swept away reason; his body shivered with the urges of shattered nerves...still, no intelligible reaction had begun to form. Blood, he saw. Hot blood, dark in the shadows of the sparsely windowed room, dark in the absence of sunlight, dark and so thick on Envy's hands as to look a shade away from black.

A body slumped, offering only a dull, nonchalant sound to indicate its absence of a spirit. Another peal of thunder sounded loud enough to quake the floorboards and rafters, and suddenly, everything solidified into a horrendously clear reality: In a movement so precise and fluid as to be nearly invisible, Envy had slain the man who had been speaking to Edward...

...speaking to me just seconds before, oh God...how could...so fast...howcanlifeendsodamnedquickly...!

Splinters and dust from a shattered chunk of counter had scattered in the air. Envy glanced at a makeshift spike of broken wood before casually discarding it. Not a minute after the wood had hit the floor, Edward had launched himself at the homunculus, body acting even in the absence of thought. Ed's hand flew toward Envy's back and shoulders, to the nodes he had seen lurking behind the creature's impressive mane. Envy flicked Ed a disinterested, bored look, then responded by knocking him to the ground with an elbow to the chest.

The force of the fall knocked all of the wind from Ed's lungs. His howl of protest died and was quickly replaced by a stifled cough. Violent sobs built up inside of him, each more painful than the last. His eyelids pressed together as he tensed up, wincing, facial muscles contracting as he forced himself not to cry. He would have done so, dignity be damned, just because he was so furious, so far gone, his emotions stretched upon such a thin wire and hammered into ugly, grotesque shapes...

How could you, how could you, how could you...!

...but he could not afford to lose control entirely, not if he were to stand a chance of...

"Haven't we been through this before, Shorty?" Envy's foot upon his captive's neck proved to be far less surprising to Ed than it probably should have been. Cold toes wiggled, poking the jugular vein and tapping the carotid artery. "Enough is enough, y'know."

"You bast—"

Ed felt his windpipe compress, his sentence split by a turn of Envy's heel. The blond flailed—writhing, kicking, punching, and slapping at his captor's calf.

"Actually, you oughtta say 'thank you', pipsqueak! I just got us a free room."

Ed groaned loudly once he was free, though he soon found himself face to face with Envy, the other's hand having wound its fingers into the fabric of Ed's shirt. Envy laughed and pushed away the blond bangs with his free hand, smearing Ed's forehead with blood before proceeding to drag his limp victim up the stairs. Ed closed his eyes, letting the anger and hate siphon off for the time being. No point in trying to fight back at that moment, he knew. As his automail leg beleaguered the floor with a clunking, dismal tempo, Ed's mind wandered in a stupor, an inebriation borne of pain and anesthetized contemplation.

Nodes...

Once again, he found himself considering the bizarre wine-coloured lines which adorned Envy's shoulder blades. Points...places of control... His ears buzzed as his head bounced up and down with each of Envy's strides. Glazed golden eyes—as void of emotion as if their owner were drunk—looked upwards. Ed's vision focused on his target, on the markings which stood out like a swollen, pumping heart would have stood out for Envy. Heart...like a heart...like...chakras.

Edward had never believed in any of the religious, ritualistic notions which were sometimes attached to alchemy or associated with its study, the pseudo-science and spirituality which danced alongside real science and fed off of grains of truth; occasional verified facts underscored piles of mythology large enough to fill the library in Central. Still, Ed prided himself on being pragmatic; he had never adhered to any of that lore. All the same, he remembered the knowledge, having neatly filed it away in the back of his mind.

Seeing the apparatus upon Envy's body, Edward had no doubt that it must have been a conduit for energy, something which could be turned against the homunculus...a tool for control and authority. Ed flexed his fingers longingly, but kept quiet, swallowing down the copious saliva which had filled his mouth.

Ed closed his eyes again, listening as a door was kicked open. Ribbons of pain looped his body, primarily encircling his chest and head, though his injured lips stung unrepentantly, too. Blood...everything smelled of blood—his own and the dead man's. Ache settled within Ed's muscles, took up residence, and began carving open his insides. Dendrites and axons orchestrated a symphony of agony, a painful sonata comprised of quiet notes in the temples and loud discordant noise buzzing about the abdomen and ribcage.

As soon as his head hit the wall, Ed's eyes flew open and he began kicking ferociously; his automail foot moved back and forth rapidly as he tried to drive the nerveless metal into the lurid, malleable homunculus. Envy wasted no time pinning Ed to the wall, clamping his wrist with a grip like a vice. Ed gnashed his teeth together, snarling and struggling feebly as Envy held him.

A dreadful ripping sound followed. Rickety bed springs bewailed Envy's cruel treatment of their covering, and before Ed knew it, he found himself bound and wrapped so tightly that he thought his circulation might have been tourniqueted. When Ed opened his mouth to complain, a white ocean of linen sheets drowned his words. He gagged, eyes bulging.

"There," Envy said, sheafing the destroyed sheets into a ball. He smacked his hands together, then proceeded to smear drying blood all over the cloth now enshrouding Ed's mid-section. Cackling like a mad hyena, the Sin held Ed's shoulders and smushed their noses together. Ed tried to pull away from Envy, but there was nowhere to back up to. A still gory hand moved to cover Ed's mouth, pinching the boyishly sleek face.

Envy's silky breath—

(homunculi breathe...?)

—feathered the alchemist's countenance. The back of his hand touched Ed's cheek with a deadly caress. What the fuck is he doing... Ed wondered, frightened by the sudden, inexplicable closeness. Had Ed been able to speak, he would have growled at Envy to fuck off. Envy's knee slid into Ed's belly, pushing into the hard outer layer of muscle and the softness beneath. Envy's face was a mask of childlike wonder and unconcealed abhorrence.

Even as he dusted Ed's rumpled clothes with his fingertips, even as his eyes widened with curiosity, Envy's lip curled wryly, hastily taking on the look of one who had gulped curdled milk. What Ed saw within Envy's feline purple eyes was not the scientific reverence a man like Tucker regarded his malformed aberrations with. No...this was more akin to morbid fascination. Edward remembered early childhood, times when he had bestowed similar looks upon the fetid corpses of animals. Repulsive though they had been, something about tiny dead bodies—physical manifestations of the cycle of life and death—had intrigued Edward. No matter how much he had wanted to, he had scarcely been able to tear his eyes away from carnage.

Was this...how Dad looked at Envy...?

"Y'know...you're not any better than I am," the Sin insisted softly. "You've got no right to be so smug, you little bastard." At the accusatory words, Ed shook his head. In response, Envy's grip tightened. A taut, cruel smile stretched his lips, visibly straining muscles around the creature's lips. "You broke your brother; you played God when you tried to bring your mommy back..."

Broke?

A low rumble in Ed's throat signalled his rising displeasure. Envy raised an eyebrow, then yanked the gag from the blond's mouth. Ed gasped, swallowing several mouthfuls of air.

"You got something to say, Shorty?" Envy challenged, already sounding frustrated that Ed had even made an attempt to respond to his accusations. "Well, go ahead and say it before I shove this into your fucking guts!"

"It was an accident—" Ed started, not bothering to hide his exasperation.

"Wrong!" Envy's knee moved back and forth against Ed's gut, eliciting a startled yelp. Cold skin rubbed warm, living flesh. Hair covered Ed's vision, and Envy pushed himself against his prey, insisting on being far too close for comfort.

Although he still looked sickened by what he was doing, the homunculus clung to Edward with mystifying fervor, as though letting go would cause his death. "'Accident' implies that you didn't know what you were doing, but you did! It's not like you just knocked over a damned vase, so don't give me that shit! You knew what could happen! You went ahead with it! Accident my ass!"

Near...Envy was too near, and Edward hated that whenever his captor shifted slightly, bare flesh stroked much of his bound form. He smells like...like alchemy...and shit, a little...but mostly alchemy... "I...I didn't mean to..."

"No one ever means to," Envy said, giggling with false (or was it genuine and mean?) glee. "He certainly didn't... You're just like him! Make something, then run off on it!" His hands closed around Ed's shoulders; teeth glittered brilliantly in a maniacal grin.

Shadows slid across Envy's face as he leaned against Ed. Outside, the heavy patter of rain could be discerned; tree limbs slapped at the windows and walls of the hotel, knocking in agitation and growing loud whenever Envy paused. The homunculus licked his lips, keeping his smile fierce and coruscating as he lowered his voice to a husky whisper. "No one ever means to..." he repeated.

Ed levelled a severe glare onto his assailant. "...why would you blame me for that?" he asked in a whisper of his own, voice spread like a fine powder, stretched like a tightrope, hammered into a tenuous wire. "You...think homunculi are superior..."

"We are!" Envy snapped back, pupils constricting even more than usual as his breathing hitched. The grin had transformed into an expression of pure rage; Envy's tone had become caustic, rabid, damned near laced with froth and bile. Inhuman strength slammed Edward into the ground, bloodying his nose against the shaky floorboards. Dust motes made Ed cough brokenly until he found himself flipped onto his back, Envy's hand having seized his golden locks.

If I ever get out of this...I'm going to fucking kill him...

The thought gave Ed some small measure of solace.

"We are superior, and that's why I don't like you stupid fucking humans treating us like..."

By now, Envy was straddling the boy, and shivering—perhaps from sheer anger, perhaps from the intensity of his memories, but certainly not from the cold; distilled moonlight lit his figure; his flesh shone wan, slick with sweat droplets and contrasting beautifully with the darkness, with the long, flickering shadows thrown across the walls. Starlight poured a trickling silhouette onto the darkness of Envy's hair, eyes, and clothing—a halo around the blackness, soft and ghostly. Then, the moon eased behind the clouds, and all light was gone. Silence fell, disturbed only by the hollow moans of thunder.

"...garbage," Envy finished at last, seething. "Refuse! Something to just fucking throw away!"

But I didn't know... Ed thought helplessly, transfixed. He was beginning to feel oddly bemused, maybe as a result of sleep deprivation and blood loss, or maybe just because the room and all life within it had taken on an eerie, ethereal feel, one he could not help but be mesmerized by, much as a plaintive voice within him insisted that this was a folly. I didn't know what I'd done; I didn't know about my 'Sin'...how the hell can I be condemned for something I didn't even realize I'd done...?

Of course, Edward had the good sense to know that this was not about that at all. Irrational, stupid, and pointlessly vindictive as it was, this was about Hohenheim; Envy based his grudge solely upon the sins of the father. The room spun; rain, moon, dust, blood, darkness, light; all elements crashed together into a vicious kaleidoscope.

Envy's fist struck the floor beside Ed's head, shattering the boards. Splinters exploded into the air, and Ed's mind screamed at him to act. Nownownownow! it said. Moment! You have a moment! You'll never have a chance like this again!

Ed clenched his jaw, suddenly amassing his will, strength, and drive into one bundle of energy and nerve; he could imagine the fingers of his missing automail hand closing, compressing into his ephemeral desires into a tangible, solid fist. Though it had been removed, abandoned, he could feel the iron and the craftsmanship, the metal which had given such an ironic emphasis to his State-issued title.

One roll. One chance.

Ed grimaced. Automail leg first, then.

Lithe as ever, Envy moved to curb the action, but it was too late. Fabric shredded against jagged edges; automail tore free. Only due to a flood of adrenaline was Edward able to maintain consciousness and some semblance of rational thought when the anticipated blow struck, landing directly on his back before being followed by another. Ed launched his hand outward, praying to nameless gods that he would find what he sought. Lightning flashed, and mercifully, the creeping fingers found what they had sought.

Fell.

Envy fell, and Ed almost screamed in triumphant ecstasy. His arm was probably going to be fucking limp after this harsh exertion, but at the moment, he could not worry, could not care. The marginally smaller alchemist rolled over and threw himself onto Envy, tangling their bodies as he gave a series of savage kicks. Envy would have surely overpowered him—if he had been given a chance to move. Ed knew that; he offered no generosity, no spare opportunity. One twist sent the homunculus sprawling on the floor, and another pierced the nodes with a firm kick.

Envy's shriek of pain cut through the thick, repetitive sounds of the night like a whetted razor. While he stepped upon Envy's back with enough force to crush the spine of a normal human, Ed wiggled and ripped out of his confines, inhaling sharply while he savoured the feel of freedom. His hand tugged the nodes, holding fast even when his body shook and his breath exited his battered lungs in long, laboured pants. Laughter spilled from Ed's lips, rising and falling in octaves; fractured, staccato, and maybe just a little insane, it punctured the suffocating miasma and sent the darkness fleeing. A sliver of light peeked out from the clouds, slowly immersing the room in haunting effulgence.

Success.

As he continued suppressing Envy's thrashing, Ed wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. Miracle, he thought, amazed. Damned miracle... If his automail had been even slightly more unreliable at the moment...if his coordination had not been exquisite, flawless...if he had not moved at precisely the right instant...

But I did.

"You lose," Ed purred, mimicking the falsely amicable tone he had heard Envy use from time to time.

He halted, then introduced the back of Envy's head to a metal foot.