Lust brought Gluttony once, for a visit, dangling from her hand like a child, empty button eyes roaming round the lab, fat finger stuck in the corner of his mouth, curious.
"We're just dropping by, don't mind us," Lust said with that implacable smile, and she was still the most beautiful woman in the world, but with each visit fear made him shrink further away, fur prickling, until she could no longer touch him, not with lizard palms, not with anything but nails. "This would be Gluttony—you hadn't met him yet, I believe... Well, Gluttony, what do you think?"
Gluttony had been padding along on incongruous little feet, squinting at all the tanks, but then he'd stopped before the one in the center of the room—the latest attempt, mostly deer, failed incurably with the digestive system, but the face was the best yet, and one hand, by some fluke, was perfect. He couldn't bear to let her go. Perhaps, he justified, there was something to be learned; but, really, he couldn't bear to let her go.
But there had not been much hope as of late, and Lust's eyes were as cold as dead hands.
"Can I eat one?" Gluttony whispered, huge hands flat against the glass of the tank.
"Eat—?" he stammered faintly. Surely they couldn't mean—the world was spinning, he was suddenly lightheaded, floating as he had under Gran's knives. Not Nina. He couldn't let them hurt Nina.
"There's a reason he's called Gluttony, after all," Lust said absently, looking over at him, and Gluttony looked back, begging with little white eyes, and Nina floated hollow in the tank, helpless.
"N-no—" He reached out a paw. "Not Nina—please—"
Lust smiled a smile like ashes.
"Go ahead, Gluttony," she murmured, and the creature squealed, grinned, baring teeth like blocks in drooling maw. "You see, Mr. Tucker—he knows the taste of humans. Maybe he can tell you what you're missing. It looks like something's wrong with the composition, after all."
"No," he whimpered, but begging had never done him any good—he was too pathetic already. I'm sorry, Nina, I'm sorry, I can never save you, I always only hurt you...
"No?" Lust echoed. "But you asked for knowledge. You asked, and we shall give it to you."
Gluttony hopped up gleefully, balanced with unexpected grace on the riveted edge, reached down with long gorilla arms.
He looked away. This one was too close; the face was too smooth, too symmetrical, eyes with indigo human irises and not animal black. He couldn't, he couldn't bear it. Maybe if he just closed his eyes for long enough—she'd be gone, I won't have to see, I won't have to go mad—
Lust's eyebrows lowered in an exquisite frown. Talons shot out, two from each hand to cinch his forepaws between them, little trickles of blood at the knobs of joints, a third to hover menacingly above each pad. He froze; carbon grated against his hide; two points slid an inch closer and his blood was ice.
"Oh, no, Mr. Tucker, you're going to watch. Look at him and don't close your eyes. Don't make me maim you—it would be months before you could get back to work if I did. What's wrong? You transmuted her, you dissolved her body once, why can't you bear to watch it again?"
He couldn't answer. I was wrong, I betrayed everything, transmuting her, and I want to fix that, I want her back—but he couldn't speak, his mouth had turned to dust. He looked slowly back to Gluttony, scooping up the broken half form of his daughter in huge arrayed arms, and realized that, in this body, if he threw up he'd probably choke on it, and would Lust really bother to save him?
This isn't happening, this couldn't be happening; he was flying, severed from reality; Gluttony was sniffing, sausage nose twitching, ouroborus tongue lashing.
And Gluttony bit down, and the perfect face split in two, blank as a doll's with those great shining eyes, not even a flinch of pain. Acid hissed, round baby jaw split and crumpled under obscenely wide teeth. And he watched, because he had to. Flayed raw and naked, he watched the heart of darkness. Not even in his worse nightmares had there ever been this—his baby, his little girl, with her soft bones crunching, with her eyes popped between great teeth, as he watched.
The curve of her neck that had almost been right, almost been the throat he'd painted with indigo brush. Half-congealed spine, long stray hairs falling back into the water turned billowing pink with blood, Gluttony's smile. Wet smackings of flesh, crack and sizzle of dissolving skull. Outsized heart slid from malformed binding muscles and fell red and wet into broad palm, and Gluttony snapped it up like candy. Everything, everything he had done wrong—there, laid bare, ribs translucent like a fish's and wavering round her sides, the tangled mess of lungs and inside-out spleen and liver riven through by hooves where her little stomach should have been. The failed arm had caseated, he knew; he watched as it ran like cottage cheese through Gluttony's mouth, curded gobbets of flesh and pus like whey.
Half the lower body melted in Gluttony's hands; the homunculus let out a little whimper, tried to lick it off his fingers as it slid into the water, desperate for every drop, greedy mad piggy after his broken child.
Spare bits and pieces had fallen into the water; he tasted another hoof, made a face, crunched the marrow out of a bone. Bits of flesh and fur swirled like flies in the air as he combed through.
She had only looked right. He wanted to believe it so very badly—just a creature, just an assembly, just a coincidence, it didn't matter. Roiling stink of acid and ten kinds of rot. But the face, the face which had been true, was gone, vanished, slurry in the monster's gut.
It was as if Gluttony knew—he turned to look at him for a moment, last bite dangling from his teeth, the perfect chubby hand of all his memories bouncing against his chin. The hand he'd been reaching for, dying for, the one good thing in hell.
A snap, and it too was gone.
A pitiful sobbing whimper escaped him; then there was long, long silence.
Gluttony tipped his head back, swirling his mouth like a wine taster. Please let him tell me, he begged in silence, please let him give me some secret, after that; suffering no mere human could have conceived of.
Gluttony giggled, hopped off the tank, bounded back to Lust. The talons slid away; he barely noticed; Gluttony wrapped both meaty hands around Lust's slender wrist, clung to her, just like Nina had to him.
"More sulfur." A little high-pitched snort. "She wasn't that sweet." His nose twitched, he tilted his head. "No deer. Too stringy." Then he squeaked, turned away with the toddler toss of the head, and that was it.
Sulfur is in keratin, the binding protein of skin, the encyclopedia in his mind declared calmly over the churning roar of fear and disgust.
More silence. The world was swimming. Swimming and apart from him, too terrible for him, too terrible for the monster he was.
"Your problem, Mr. Tucker," said Lust with a soft laugh, "is that even after everything, you haven't come close enough to dying yet." She turned away, looked over her shoulder with that pitiless, catlike smile. "Perhaps we should send somebody to fix that one day."
Nobody had come to kill him. Even after Lust's most chilling threats, nobody.
Six rifles stood in his nightmares.
Nina had asked him once, crayons in her hands, head tilted to one side, Papa, what happens when we die?
He hadn't told her Johanna was dead. She'd gone away, that was all, because that's what one tells children. Gone away. He quietly retrieved Nina's scribbled letters from the mailbox, kept them in a locked cupboard in his lab, sometimes burnt them.
Well, sweetie, lifting her into his lap where she snuggled contentedly against his chest, I honestly don't know.
It puzzled him at times, one more little knot for his pitiful rational mind to try and tease apart—why bother to go through with the semblance of an execution at all? Why torture him so? It lead him to think that perhaps Gran was in league with the homunculi. Perhaps he was one—Pride practically was human, Sloth had seemed human at first, before she'd reached out with hand turning to water and impassively blocked all the air from his windpipe, brine unyielding down the back of his throat as he gagged and retched, lights sparking behind his eyes, close again to death.
Could he get any closer?
Maybe when we die, Papa, we go to a magical place with flowers and...and unicorns! Do you think there are unicorns?
He thought there could be, yes. He thought that Nina carried such a place with her; it was wrapped through her skin; she didn't even belong in the dark world of the living.
But when we die, he knew, though he didn't tell her, our bodies just stop, our brains just stop, and when that happens there's no anchor for our thoughts and they just stop too. The end. Nothing. They like to say otherwise, to comfort us like children, but, nothing. That was what he'd always thought, feared—hoped for, too, at times, blindfolded in a prison yard at night, wishing desperate for the very emptiness that terrified him.
Now he wanted to live. Live to bring her back to life, a noble goal, worth living. He rarely, however, felt noble.
Lust did not promise flowers. Lust promised pain, Sloth cruelty, Gluttony destruction. Death held no glamor. Death held no enlightenment. He'd brushed dark waters when the transmutation had backfired; nothing, nothing, and nothing. No light. No answers. No doorway to the beyond.
And just when, he'd thought then, has my little girl started thinking about death?
Do you think we can talk with the dead, Papa? Maybe they're magic like alive people. I think they go to a good place.
Six rifles and the blind, churning terror of knowing he had only seconds left alive.
A good place with fairies. I'll draw it!
There was nothing.
There was one time, just one, when he'd been ready to die—lying bleeding and half-conscious at Edward Elric's feet.
He'd been so fond of them, would have admitted that to just about anyone. Both such brave, brilliant boys, strong as soldiers, good-hearted as children. The best minds and the best souls he'd met in all his beggar life. Even with human transmutation on their hands, even with their mother broken and twisted in their nightmares, they had lived and loved far better than he, dared to dream, dared to run careless with a dog in the garden. Unfettered, uninhibited; nothing ever seemed to get in their way.
When Edward, looking so small, so delicate in the big bed, whispered that they'd transmuted their mother, that he'd lost two limbs, affixed a soul, all so young, the glass between him and the rest of the world thinned for a moment and he felt, just a little, the warmth of pity, the boy's sadness, and gold hair curled wiry on the white sheets like broken angel wings.
Will tempered with sympathy; brilliance tempered with goodness. The boys were like brothers to his daughter, best friends, laughing together in the sun, and he watched him with envy so intense it was painful. He welcomed the weight of the steel fist against his jaw, burning rage, screams and curses, even as the room wavered and spun and he babbled justifications he did not understand, because Edward was better, Edward was right, even as he quavered to the core at the mention of his mother.
Silver watch bright against the cellar floor. His blood on the boy's shining face. Nina's teeth in the red coat, saving him, cruel mercy.
As he swayed dizzy to the second prison van, after Edward toppled the first, reality trickled and spattered through his throbbing head—lost Nina, lost protection, lost position, lost everything. Road rumbled beneath him, sweaty soldier to either side, trucked off to some unknown fate, to some eternal cage—if you're an alchemist and you're put in prison, his father said once, they'll cut off your hands so you can't transmute your escape. The true nature of alchemy, he'd said, he'd believed, faced by burning golden eyes—blind intellect, blind experimentation, no reason, irresistible curiosity, the striving mind, because I can, Edward, you did it too, Edward, don't you see, she's beautiful? Justifications he did not understand, excuses that only made Edward hit him harder, graying vision, welcome pain.
No. He did understand. He couldn't stop himself, not the way they could, transmuting only from love. He couldn't bring himself to regret, not the way they could, burning in atonement. He couldn't bring himself to care, not the way they could, faltering in alleyways. He was different, he was sick, he was mad. That was all the difference in the world.
The red walls of Marco's room were mirrors, the glass tanks of broken dolls were mirrors, and in them as he passed shambled the devil and the beast.
When he was little, he'd loved scary stories, monster stories, goaded his father into buying books of them, other boys into telling him every one they knew. And they all liked to try to scare him, of course—the little four-eyed carrothead, universally despised by all natural laws of childhood—but he was never really frightened, to their dismay. Just gleeful shivers of delight, well I know one that's worse there was this lady eaten by ants inside out, and he'd take off his glasses so the night blurred deliciously. Morbid child, his parents called him, little boy staring at roadkill, isn't right...
But for some reason, about halfway through his teens, the stories began to terrify him. He reread his favorite old northwoods yarns and found himself shrinking back with the protagonists, lost amongst dark trees—no childish glee, no bright excitement. He never really knew why. But he didn't entirely stop reading them, because he'd always loved monsters. He found older ones, too, with an alchemist's curiosity and nose for musty books. Monsters hundreds, thousands of years old, demons of ancient, dead religions. One, the biggest devil of all, who'd once been an angel, the brightest and most beautiful, but got too great, too proud, too close to that god, like flying to the sun, and became some great malformed beast. The tale fascinated him for a few days of intense research, then lay forgotten and dusty for years with all the rest.
He had never told such stories to Nina. Not to his little girl. Nothing morbid for her; but even almost at her age, he'd sought it out like some forbidden drug, fascinated beyond reason.
When he was young, too, one of the older boys had told him to stand between two mirrors in the dark with a candle, and, of course, because he liked looking into the heart of darkness, he did. A million flickering shadows of his face. It had actually scared him a little, in a way that campfire stories never had. And now, round the great phoenix array, a million curving echoes of his lumbering, twisted form slid over smooth glass and the blood legacy of a million echoing souls. In the mirror he was the monster on the mountain, the mad old sorcerer who drank his family's blood, the wandering beast with whom mothers would threaten naughty children. In the mirror he could not escape himself; but he couldn't look away, and the reflections clamored, compounding, endless, his mind eroding every time he met his own wide and mad-lusting eyes.
And he kept thinking of the angel who was the beast.
The fairest angel, his dear Nina, had never fallen. And he, the beast, had never been to heaven. But at least in the story they are one.
"I just need your help with something for the assessment, all right? I'm sorry—careful, don't trip over that!—it's a huge mess down here, your mother always made me tidy up, I'm horrible without her. Now I'm going to...could you hold on to Alexander? He's always so calm with you. I've got to find something out, and I'll need your help, because I know you want to help Papa. I have a chemical that'll make you go to sleep in a funny sort of way, when I line it all up right in that big circle, and you'll have a—a sort of dream. And it might be a bit scary, I'm not sure, but you're a brave girl, right? And then you'll wake up, and you'll tell me what you saw, and it'll all be okay, and I can pass the assessment, all right?"
It almost made it easier that she knew so little about alchemy.
He'd transmuted Johanna when she was passed out from the drink, but that wasn't going to work again. He was at the end of the road. World ground to a halt. The end of it all was Nina in the center of the great array, arms round Alexander's neck to soothe his whimpering at strange smells. The end of it all was the pot of indigo dye in one hand, the thin brush in the other, as he lied to a child who trusted him. The end of it all was transmuting a human, his daughter, conscious, because of the simple fact he'd been fighting for two years—it works better that way.
Alphonse could live with just his soul. A child so good, so innocent—surely what he had been through was worse than this. Surely she could be happy, she could be well. She could run, she could play, she would never have to grow into a woman. He hadn't slept in two days; there was no more justice in the world, no truth, no fair judgment, just his goal, just the end of the road. Do your best, Papa.
She hummed and squeaked, that long low awwww of hers he knew so well, and looked around the circle. "Is it a charm to make wishes come true?"
Everything she said stabbed him through. He'd be dead by the end of this. At least, just once, he didn't have to lie to her. "Edward told you—yes, yes it is."
He was watching himself from very far away. He'd asked her to take her hair down; it always surprised him with its length, how fine it was between his fingers. At least the transmutation didn't require her to strip. A simple one, really, so painfully simple. He couldn't afford a mistake. He couldn't afford anything but this. It had gone too far; he was powerless to stop it.
"I'm going to paint your face first..."
"Will it be pretty like that?" she asked, pointing at the floor.
Wise child, wise, beautiful, betrayed child. She was right—arrays are beautiful, fine and balanced and beautiful. He forced himself to think only of the lines spreading over her forehead, the elegance of them. Forced himself to forget that they were alchemical scalpel lines, paths for light to dissolve flesh. It was harder when he had to close the circle around her neck. She held up her hair for him, giggled. "That tickles!"
The circle and the inscription to decapitate her, the line below which there would be nothing left.
He didn't mark Alexander. He didn't have to. The circle, as he'd drawn it, would force the receptacle body to adapt.
With the last touch of the brush on soft skin, he felt the array close with a sharp tingle
Glyphs for mercury on her cheeks like a child at a fair, outer circle a beaded necklace round her thin throat. The indigo brought out her eyes. She twisted her hair in one chubby hand and wrapped the other arm round Alexander and looked up at him as his foundations cracked.
He turned his back before he could beg her for mercy, took the flask of carbon ice out of the array that cooled it, dashed water over it with hands that trembled almost too much, and corked the gas with his thumb for a moment. Wanted to throw up. Turned back, knelt in front of her.
"It's time for the dream now?" she asked, worry creasing her forehead a little, twisting up the lines that would open the portal between the reaction and her brain. He held her shoulder for the last time, half-grown flesh soft beneath his palm.
"Do you believe Papa that it's going to be okay?" The words wanted to choke and die in his throat. Couldn't let them. She had to believe.
She paused. The world teetered. Her face lit up.
"Yeah! I'll wake up and you'll pass the asseshmthing—" she could never remember the word "—and I'm not scared." She smiled. There in the circle she smiled. "Love you, Papa."
He split in two.
Somehow what was left of him pulled his thumb from the flask, let smoke billow up fibrous and beautiful in the dusty light, stepped back. Glass fell from nerveless hands to shatter on the floor outside the circle.
She would think she was dreaming. Now. Before she realized nothing had changed. Now. It would be kinder to her. The world came to a head, silent as a dying man, silent as strangulation, suspended; the world was ending.
He folded his palms down to the circle.
Lightning should have struck. The ground should have split and swallowed him. His head should have fallen from his body, demons with pitchforks should have come to drag him off, Johanna should've come back to life and burnt him with her lighter for hurting her baby girl.
He couldn't be doing this; he had to be doing this.
For a moment, there was nothing but rising green-gold light and dead, sickening silence.
Then the screams.
Dogs, he'd known for years, gave great ghastly bays and howls when they were in pain. But nothing could have prepared him for the shrieks of a child—his child—as the light of alchemy dissolved little chubby legs, the peanut curve of her back, soft little hands that had clutched at his fingers when she was but newborn.
He wanted to run. But if he abandoned the transmutation now, they would all be destroyed.
He closed his eyes. He had to forget. He had to remove himself. Just alchemy. Just a transmutation. And led by all the spinning splitting serpents of light—there it was, the zygote. The cascade reversed. Joy tore through him, incongruous.
He could only pray her soul was there, twined through the new genome, living, whole, embodied.
As the light died and the chimera snuffled and whimpered in the circle, he curled choking on the cellar floor and sobbed.
Only months later, shuffling monstrous through the empty Lab, did he realize, with a wrench of horror that told him just what kind of a creature he was, that he'd been weeping, partially, in happiness.
She wasn't gone. She was there in his mind, moving.
He had begun to reform his theories of the soul when he realized that Alphonse's armor was empty. He had continued when he'd drawn the circles for Nina, continued when he looked into the empty eyes of the Sins. He had been grounded, once, in the common philosopher's lexicon—what is a soul? men have asked round tables for millennia, and for millennia they have been giving answers like bedrock. But there was a boy who was all soul. There was himself, still embodied in this straining wreck, living through heavy limbs and inhuman paws. There were the prisoners, the condemned, squalling in empty armor down distant halls or writhing in cages with gecko tails.
There had been a girl whose soul had lived still when her brain was transplanted into a dog.
She wasn't gone. She couldn't be gone. The world could not be that perverse. If it was, surely humanity would all have committed suicide long ago.
He remembered her. She whispered in his ear as he worked. She ran playing down the hallways between labs, hopskipped between great vats of red lives and round Marco's array for the Stone, little white shoes incongruous on black carbon-laid phoenix swirls. He'd turn, sometimes, as if catching long braids trailing down the corner of his vision—though he knew, or liked to think he knew, that he was not hallucinating.
She moved of her own will, flickering, without a thought of his. She cheered him from the doorway or dangling her feet from the workbench, do your best, Papa, when he drew out a new circle amongst the cages. She played with the green-feathered rats and the wolves on wheels, laughter running through the lab like wings, and napped curled safe in an unfinished array, and said Papa, remember to sleep, remember to eat, don't get sick, Papa.
She whispered Papa, I forgive you, unbidden, though he'd never imagined it possible.
The best alchemist he'd known during his wanderings had told him once that all reliable thought stems from the basic assumption that you, the thinker, are not insane. If one fails to believe in that basic axiom, one's entire psyche will collapse—it is, in its own way, a self-fulfilling prophecy. And here, now, she was the only thing that could keep him sane.
On good days, he believed. And on good days, there was only one conclusion. He had her soul. And if he could make a vessel, if he could create a homunculus, perfect, immortal, fuse her soul to the empty space within so she could live on, safe as she was now, away from the obscene growth of bodies, white and shining...
This must be, he would think, what they meant by remembering the dead. He had never understood before. There had never been much else worth remembering. He treasured her close within him, joyous.
"I'll bring you back to earth, Nina," he'd whisper to empty walls, starry-eyed. "I promise."
As he stared long at a transmutation diagram—two circles, because Marco had wanted to make the Stone with two circles, and he didn't entirely understand why—the hair waved and pricked against his stomach, as if he was being watched, and when he finally swallowed and turned, there was another homunculus, leaning against the wall, lanky and carefree, bare toes curling on the metal floor. The great serpent swallowed itself on one pale thigh. And he couldn't think whether the creature was male or female; but according to Lust, then, perhaps it was closer to the truth.
"Yo," it said, with a smile like he'd never seen.
"Wh-which one are you?"
It laughed. "I'm the eldest. I'm Envy. And you can thank whatever god you believe in that a four-hundred-year-old homunculus has come to teach you the meaning of enlightenment."
It pushed off the wall with a feral grace, strode towards him on bare feet, and animal instincts in the back of his mind identified the smile—predator. Rabid predator.
"Of course," it added, smile widening even more, sharpening, "you'd better fucking pray I don't kill you in the meantime."
"What do you," he started to ask, shivering pathetic afraid, and Envy laughed, long and joyous and lunatic cruel.
"Oh, I know Gran's little cronies used to knock you about, but really, haven't you ever felt pain? Ever wondered what it could teach you, make you think?"
There was a flash of light rolling over homunculus skin, and in Envy's place stood Johanna, and his heart screeched.
"Didn't you even wonder how I was here? Come on, Shou, you're smarter than that. Start thinking right now, by the way, dumbass husband, about what kind of alchemy would've gone into making this body, 'cause you'll wanna know."
And light flashed again; and he choked and closed his eyes as Johanna's form shrank, but nothing could save him from Nina's soft, piping voice that could, had always, wrench him in two.
"And you must know there's more than one kind of pain, Papa."
He snapped. He bolted, paws thundering clumsy on the floor. But with another flash of light Envy was in its first form, its own form, cartwheeling after him with obscene grace, and the bony knob of its heel, with a flying kick into massed furry shoulder and the vulnerable curve of human arm, felt like a chilled steel hammer, and he yelped in pain, cringing away.
"Stay here, dumbass. We're on a quest for enlightenment. You wouldn't want to run away from that, now would you?"
"No," he panted, ragged with fear. No, it's the only thing I have, no, please don't hurt me—
"Good. Now you'd be familiar, I assume, with the works of that old fart Hohenheim of Light?"
Of course he was, had been since he was ten. "The basics, certainly..."
"Do you know your catechism, or are you even shittier an alchemist than I thought?"
"I do," he whispered—his first teacher had drilled him with a ruler, centuries ago, in another world.
"So." Envy's smile was the jaws of a bear trap. "What is the true and the first matter of all metals?"
"The first matter," he answered, slowly, trying to dredge it all up. Too slow; Envy backhanded him, hard. "The first matter, properly so called! Of a dual essence, in itself of a twofold nature...one nevertheless cannot create a metal without the concurrence of another..."
"Go on," Envy hissed, and he closed his eyes and rocked his heels and clasped his hands, childish gesture in grown, twisted body.
"The first and the palmary essence is an aerial humidity, blended with a warm air, in the form of a fatty water, which adheres to all substances indiscriminately, whether they are pure or impure."
"And how has this humidity been named by philosophers?"
"And by what is it governed?"
"By the rays of the sun and the moon."
"Good boy," Envy purred, kicked him hard enough in an ear to make cartilage crackle. "Again: what is the true and the first matter of all metals?"
He whimpered, backed off, but Envy rolled with him, ran circles round him, ran the catechism twice, thrice, five seven nine times. Blows landed hard in the middles of sentences, fracturing words; phrases jumbled, reformed, twisted. He gasped for air, screamed, "Dual its essence itself of a twofold nature, indiscriminate pure and impure!" and Envy rewarded him with a smash to a paw and snorted, and all the pain was so real, so new, that he met the creature's empty eyes with a flash of understanding.
"Oh, in case you're wondering, which you should be, if you've got half a brain under all that fuzz—of course I'm trying to drive you insane. Absolutely bugfuck. You're lucky Lust won't let me do everything I want to do, so very lucky you have no idea. You think it's bad for you, it could be a thousand times worse." Foot to his temple. The world fractured, slid, darkened; he stumbled. "You've got to be a lunatic to understand alchemy anyway. Alchemy is the fucking nightmare of every fucking world. Say it again. Understand what you're saying. Understand the truth behind it all. Hohenheim on quicksilver is going to drive you fucking mad."
"Rays of the sun and the moon," he whispered, knees buckling, ears ringing, words from far away through the sea, Envy's voice grating like whalesong through endless waves.
"You're fucking hopeless. You gonna make me actually kill you? You'll see it then, what you're looking for. Won't be able to do a damn thing about it though. You'll just die knowing in ultimate frustration all the things you could have done. But since you're one of our pet projects, we can't exactly have that, now can we?"
The blow had stunned him—half of him. The beast was crumpled to its belly, motor control he'd fought after for months fizzing and dying. No more shift and tug of great muscles and fur; no hunger pains, no sore paws. Just cold air on bare human skin. Just a body keeling out of soulless hide. Just one helpless line of gut and ribs and throat, no legs, no hands, no leverage, no movement, a fish cast up on the shore gasping for pain-laced air. Reduced to nothing.
"Shouldn't've left your nerve diagrams out, Doc. Don't worry, I doubt it's permanent. Are you praying yet?"
Envy strolled up, wriggled, straddled his belly, and punched him hard enough in the jaw to spark lights in his eyes.
"Hohenheim on quicksilver," it said contentedly. "From the top."
Johanna spent every third night, it seemed, passed out on the couch reeking of vodka, and only put on respectable clothes around particularly respectable people, and only washed the dishes when there were no clean ones in the house and Nina cried. And he never washed dishes at all, never owned more than a shabby shirt or two and old tough pants that had lasted him for years, stained with paint from arrays and blood from experiments. She'd have to shove his books off the bed every night and his notes off the kitchen table every morning, and he'd have to rinse cigarette ash from the toothcup and wash out her moonshine from the coffeemaker. He liked to study in his underwear, sprawled on the bare floor because they couldn't afford an armchair, and bathed only when she made him; she'd go about with nothing on at all but high heels and the wreath of smoke, and call him a goddamn pervert if he looked. Once a week she'd go out to buy her smokes and some drug or another, and then they'd go hungry. Or he'd publish some small paper; she'd drink half of it, he'd pour the rest into more books. The neighbors would fuck against the wall. They'd fight shrieking with her throwing books at his head, or breaking his glasses and leaving him half-blind for a week. The building was all but condemned. The roaches alone sent most children screaming.
And yet Johanna had insisted upon keeping the baby. His baby. She swore to him it was his baby. She rustled up divorce papers, stood poised with pen to sign them if he so much as protested the pregnancy.
He surrendered, as always.
Any child of ours would go mad, he thought. Any child of ours would smash store windows and steal jewelry, stay up past midnight, think the world was wicked, go to jail. Children were small and soft and tender and did not belong around him. Or Johanna. Or their house, with the rats under the mattress. To have one there was tantamount to a crime. And your girl if she's yours, she'll be a whore. Only a god could produce an entirely positive outcome from entirely negative circumstances, and alchemists did not believe in gods.
But she had been perfect.
And then—after he'd murdered her mother—and then with the certification, with the money at last, he'd spoiled her rotten.
But she was still perfect. Light. Innocence. Purity. The sun he never dared walk in, infinitely merciful, loving and true. Things he'd been too jaded to imagine could exist. Things he hadn't even believed in when he was a child himself. She was liquid gold, the waters of kings, the crowned and conquering child; so many books, so many allegories, speaking of things he didn't think true, because how could the world have held such light?
But it had come to him as his own daughter, and he'd been too blind to see until it was too late. Too foolish, too blind; he had ruined everything; there, that was the fall, the inerasable sin.
It was impossible that so much goodness could have come out of him and Johanna. Nina was proof there was a god.
God was dead.
He had desecrated her, and god was dead.
What else was left in the world?
When he was eight there'd been a dead cat in an alleyway, and he'd looked too long.
It had died fighting another cat, maybe, or a dog? He wasn't sure. There were deep scratches down its side, but half of its head was smashed too, soft brains bubbling out to the pavement. Dried blood and bare flesh the color of crushed raspberries in the cloudy sunlight. One glassy eye, needle-toothed mouth half open. Head back at a crooked angle like it was screaming. The pads on one foot were torn.
His footsteps had scared away flies by the dozens.
He looked too long. He looked until the jagged edges of bone were familiar, until he knew how ligaments unhinged and brains softened. He crouched closer; the smell buzzed at his nostrils. When I die, he thought, maybe I'll look like this.
It has germs, his father would say.
He hesitated, swayed on his toes, reached out. The fur was slack, cold, slid over the flesh beneath. The fine edges of the skull were like his mother's old cooking knives. He waited for it to start up, hiss, bite him, tear his throat out and spill its brains all over his shirt.
Death was still, quiet, absolute, helpless.
Blood stuck tacky under his fingernails. He pried up a leg, slid a thumb into the slit of a scratch to nudge against ribs and something soft and slick. He wriggled the spine, discovered the fracture in the neck. The cat was a bag of indistinct flesh and bits of slime, just shaped like a cat, just pretending. Break the bag, everything spills out. He was beginning to understand.
Rain began to patter down, softening crusted blood, soaking cold fur and the back of his dirty shirt. He paused, looked up to the sky, water beading on his glasses and running into his mouth, spring rain sweet and beautiful. His hands were stained with old blood and he was happy. The cat was his now. He could come back to it every day as it rotted and understand it more.
When he was eight he'd touched the dead cat. Now, cradling the broken form of another experiment—flesh feathering apart at the touch of thin air, empty eyes melting into a face too delicate to live, warm stinking water sluicing through his fur—now, if some terrible angel came down, paced through these long halls, came upon him in judgment, with wrath glorious in judgment, it would say, you looked too long at the dead cat. All else was from there.
Envy had left him with something painted on his chest in his own blood, scraped out with long nails and poured into a flask, his own tears, licked from under his glasses with serpent tongue. This is what you're alive for, it had said. This is what you have to look for, if you want to understand what it is to make a homunculus. Blood, sweat, and tears—all the liquid ingredients for enlightenment. Minus the screaming human lives, of course.
It was hours before he could move enough to prop himself in front of the wavering mirror of a tank, strain his head forward against the natural curve of the animal spine, and see.
It was a gate, a gate ringed by eyes and twisted bodies. The truth, enlightenment, knowledge, everything he sought. There was fear in the bloody streaks of it, imposing weight; he saw it sketched there in silence so monolithic it rang like screams in his ears.
Above the gate was an ouroborus, the endless serpent ring. Life, the biosphere, infinity.
Above that, just below the bruises on his throat where Envy had choked him between phrases of catechism, were two rings joined, the other sign of infinity, the endless twisting loop. At the join was an eye, framed by a gateway. His mind brushed at some vague notion of truth, faltered, stepped back; it was too much. Too much.
He couldn't have washed them off even if he wanted to. They dried and flaked away eventually; but by then, craning in misty mirrors, he had every line burnt deep into his mind. The only clue he had, bought with blood and agony. He would remember.
So, he thought, dizzy with pounding head, I seek the gates of truth. Somewhere in the deepest mysteries of alchemy, somewhere in the light of human transmutation—surely, somewhere, he could find it.
He worked feverishly. He retuned circles with the lines of the gate screaming in their symmetry, tried new transmutations with rays and eyes round the elements, but felt always, always, that something wasn't quite there, something wasn't quite breaking through—no absolution, no truth. He even managed to create a quicksilver array; there were chimeras now who could change their form at will, and that strained the limits of alchemy in ways he hadn't believed possible just a few short years before, an eon before, in the dim and distant world of the surface. But he was no closer to the gate, no closer to infinity, no closer to Nina. How to close that ring of light, how to bind Stone and DNA and soul and the radiance of the world into one complete whole?
He couldn't transmute the Stone. But if he had it, if he could open the way to power singing through red crystal—and his mind, heightened, frenzied, beat against the walls of the lab like a dying bird, a spasm of intellect he hadn't imagined possible as he struggled with mysteries he could hardly comprehend, and he forgot to eat, forgot to curl up beneath his bench to sleep, and his body fell into shock, a fasting trance like a postulant in the wilderness, and reality stretched rubbery round him until he begged the walls and empty air to show him, show me please, I beg you, show me the gate!
Visions swam before his eyes as he pored over notes. The gates of truth and the gates of hell were piled both with dead and broken bodies, doorposts of skinned limbs and split torsos, keystoned with a white dog with a little girl's brain, burst to pieces in the bright light of souls. The Stone was genocide, the world a graveyard; every step he took crunched bones and drained souls, but nothing was fair anyway, so it didn't matter. If he could just see his little girl again...
Closer, closer, Tantalus in the deep lab. He was staggering closer, past all the obscene guardians on the long path, straining down the last legs of an endless quest. Any day, he might see. Any day, he might find that gate, unlock the passage to what was ultimate, infinite, flawless, complete—the thought was so exhilarating he felt his skin might balloon and explode. But Envy had told him nothing of wide amethyst eyes and reaching black hands; though he had nightmares of the other side, they were nothing close to the truth. He walked in a haze, worked in a fog of excitement; the lab was the world, dank and anticipating; Nina tumbled between the tanks, and he looked upon her tenderly. He cared nothing anymore for death; he had unhinged, detached, lost all care, gone mad, because infinity was just that far forever from his paws.
To find his way to the threshold of the impossible—
To pass the gates between madness and sanity, though he never knew now which side was which—
To pry open heavy double doors bubbling like raw flesh under his pads and have Nina run forth laughing to greet him—
And then into the world came Edward Elric, bleeding in innocence, and hell came tumbling down.
Greed was waiting for him by the door.
The other chimeras were with him. The snake eyed him in suspicious silence; the bull let out a long, low rumble of a growl; the dog turned away with sensitive nose high in the smokey air. A man in prison drab who looked too much like the dead Crimson Alchemist to be anyone else quirked an eyebrow dourly.
Greed just smiled, ouroborus dull bloody in the fading light.
The sealed homunculus, the rebel. Held, Lust had told him with a tantalizing smile, by a skull—learn from that, Mr. Tucker. "Greed," he answered.
"Come with me?" Greed asked, smile widening over razor teeth.
"Him?" the bull rumbled.
"I don't think," the dog started to say.
"It wasn't a request," said Greed, and glanced at Tucker over the tops of his glasses, and the sheer possession in those eyes could have consumed any world.
From shadows to shadows; from slavery to slavery. He sighed in relief. Freedom would have shattered him. Let me walk upon dust and ashes always, spilling my blood always, for that I understand. Let me not see the sun.
Greed spread his arms wide in welcome.
On the path to the lost outside world, he asked him what the gate was, how a homunculus was born.
The truth split his hopes in two, and in the hollows of his mind, he heard Envy laughing, saw Dante's withered smile, felt the bloody Gate smudged away.
He could have fallen there, broken, let the military carry him off—maybe to his real death this time, if he was lucky. But the beast kept walking.
Greed shrugged, as if in apology, and opened the door.
He hadn't been outside in years. The night air was cool against his bare skin. The breeze ruffled his fur, dried his tears. The stars were very bright, the moon low.
The bull smashed away the locks on the gate with one blow. Metal bars creaked open to the prison yard. Dust and ashes under his paws.
"I died here," Crimson announced, laughing.
The snake raised her eyebrows, shrugged. The dog sniffed as if for blood.
"So did I," Tucker whispered after a while.
"Serves you both right," the snake snorted.
"This place is gonna be crawling with military soon," the dog warned.
"So, I've been thinking the south," said Greed. "Used to hang out in Dublith back in the day..."
Roofs of buildings swayed weirdly upside-down as he walked. The bull kicked the gates of hell closed. The alchemist's accident waved rawmuscled arms down an alley.
"You're one broken-down old bastard, Doc," he whispered, laughing.
The gates of truth were closing. The nightmare was fading in the moonlight. Cigarette butts in the alleyway reeked of long-burnt tobacco and cloves, and soldiers were shouting in the distance, and for a moment, he was almost happy, but two long pigtails and a fading laugh trailed through his mind, because there was never, in all this world, mercy.