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ambre

Wasteland

chapter 9.

Before, Edward had known pain as a single experience, or, at most, a series of loosely connected experiences.

A wound would open, blood would stray from its customary course, and hurt would follow. Time and Amestris's latest medical technology eventually saw to it that the pain assumed a past tense, and life went on with a new memory gained, a new experience to keep the boy in check; a fresh caveat, and a lesson well-learned.

That had been before.

Pain was now an anthology, a sweeping collection of poems, each grander than the last. When one had read enough poetry, one ceased being impressed by fancy terms, and when one had felt enough pain, one ceased screaming over every new pin prick administered to exposed nerve endings. From mild inconvenience to crippling agony, Edward had only thought he understood the full spectrum of pain; most of what he experienced now was neither. Desire was worse and better, easier on his body and harder on his conscience.

I'm lost, he thought, and his eyelids moved. There was something covering them, some thick crusty glob. Ed could almost imagine that he saw his sleeping body, but in his mind's eye, it was not in an alley. He smelled his mother's cooking, saw the lights of the house, then the stars up in their black cradle. Voices, voices, whispers, mutters, murmurs, every cadence a human could imagine...he heard them, each one, and soon they mixed like paint, grew large, then whittled themselves away into a shrill whine. He remembered being a toddler, barely above an infant, and trying to swim in the lake near his house.

There had been water in his mouth, flooding his esophagus, filling his belly, his lungs...

And the water distorted all sounds...so that they became one...

But before the water had whelmed his consciousness, there had been a hand on the back of his shirt—a broad hand, one belonging to a familiar set which had often held the boys in place as they had been dandled upon a comfortable lap. (Father?) And then Edward had been above the surface, gasping and spitting, kicking as he was pulled into a grip that had felt so safe, so secure, all strength and warm flesh, a sturdy chest, stubble touching his cheek.

Then, a reassuring voice had come through the terrible quietness like sunshine through clouds, and said...

(...no...don't go...)

"Hold the fuck still."

(...NO—Idon'tWANTtobehere...)

Cold water rushed down his throat.

Instinctively, Edward struggled to twist away, belaboring himself against the hard wall and assaulting the ground in shaking kicks. No sooner had his foot struck something than he felt a hand gripping his jaw, covering his mouth (drowningdrowningDROWNING), preventing him from spitting out the killing deluge. He tensed, whole body going as stiff as his automail. Water hit his belly and settled, but it was cold, too cold, and too unexpected. His throat felt scratched, as though nails had been dragged along the tender vocal chords; water burned against the sensitive openings, the bloody channels, the pink-red pipes that descended into his stomach.

It wanted to come up.

Edward lacked the strength to protest his form's wishes, so he succumbed to the tremulous heaving. Water changed direction, but it could not come out. There was no exit. The hand held him more tightly, pinched as nails pushed into his skin, and right back down the drink went. He thought he might have screamed, but he could not tell, and then he sensed presence—real, true presence, not its mere dream-spectre—and a voice whispered into his ear,

"Swallow."

And he swallowed.

He accepted life, or death...whichever it was. This was a violation of his body and spirit; forced life...but he wanted to live, wanted to live for—

(thefutureAlandhopeandhome)

—the possibilities of things to come. So he swallowed the substance of pain, killing, and salvation, the otherwise innocent covalent bonds of hydrogen and oxygen that now felt like stiffening tendrils of fluid transmuted into a solid; from water to a fish within it, flopping thick and white in his stomach. He was quaking, unravelling like cloth into threads, but someone was holding him. The same lilting voice from before encouraged him; words reverberated in his ears like mountains and valleys singing with echoes, and Ed continued to swallow. It seemed an infinite spill, an unending torrent flooding his insides and coating whatever else was in there.

(...reallydrowning...)

Then, it stopped.

Briefly, Ed was aware of moisture on his cheeks, dribble on his lips, but no hand and no pressure. Following that, he was aware of nothing at all. Next came darkness, and visions that might have been dreams; he could never be sure what was real anymore. Faces metamorphosed; from his mother and father to Alphonse, Roy, and everyone in between. Like Envy, Ed thought, and that realization seemed to mean something, so he grasped and forced himself to hold onto it. Wish I still had automail fingers, he supposed, but most of his other thoughts did not come together coherently at all, and then there was more blackness, strange heat and wetness and nightmares.

He could never have guessed how much time had elapsed before his eyes finally opened and stayed open for a few seconds, then a few minutes, until at last it dawned upon him that he was awake. Ed reached up, scrubbing the lingering crust from his eyelids with his remaining knuckles. The disorientation—the sensation of having lost an unknown number of minutes in his life—was terrifying. His mind had been floating (dying), but now it was anchored, and whether he liked it or not, his surroundings had begun to assume concrete shapes.

At least there was no sunlight, nothing he needed to shield his senses against.

—Earth—

—-alley—

—-Envy—

—-and I'm—

Sick.

Sick, plagued by fever. But he was now aware enough to know that he was ill, which he took for a sign that maybe he was slowly getting better. And I'm thinking, he realized, blinking as a night sky mottled with stars and a silver crescent of a moon descended into his personal reality like a moth-nibbled velvet curtain. I'm thinking. I'm...reasoning...understanding...living...

Had it been a few days? A few weeks? A month?

Time had deserted its meaning, and Edward's mind began to sift through flashes of memories that burned like novae before dissipating and running between the channels of his mind like sand or water. He had been sick, so sick, and he was sure he still was, but there had been more—words, actions, and Envy; always Envy, the creature who had taunted him, who had hurt him, who had taken from him...

In ways he had no right to. That was never his place.

A hand raised on a wobbly arm, touching a burning brow. Ed saw it; retinae burned, and the image divided and folded in upon himself, but he was pretty sure the hand was his own.

...Sweat...

The skin wrinkled. Fjords of sweat ran down his temples, his cheeks; they slid over his pores and made an oily mask of his face. His tongue lolled, then remembered itself and investigated the lips. Dry, dry, but there was no hot taste of iron. No hemoglobin. No blood. Ed's body was beginning to find its nerves, shuck off the numbness, and compose a working system of flowing blood and supportive bones. Shoulders eased back, felt stone; muscles popped. Alien constellations decorated the cloudless sky, and Edward lived.

Pulled from drowning again.

(...but it's not the same...)

Drowned with life, drowning in demise.

(...lifted by the hand that kills, tasted by the enemy in the night...)

He opened his mouth to scream, to invigorate his wilting lungs, but nothing left his lips; he felt as though dust had filled his mouth, and it was then that he remembered the breath which had been stolen from him, and nails (minetheymustbemine...) were suddenly burrowing into the epidermis, the dermis, drawing blood, but he knew better—knew this was wrong, knew he was damaging himself, knew what he wanted (Godhelpmeifyouexist), but nothing meant anything to those erratic movements. With blunted, dirty crescents, he tore until his legs kicked into life, until his stomach relaxed, until sobs at last rose with a warbling cry and bubbled as thickly as glue and beeswax.

His throat unclogged. The dam broke.

Edward wept.

No singular reason, no one specific pain; even the medley had no exact focus. Tears swimming with starlight hurried the blood and sweat down his chin. Ed looked down, watching the shadows suck away his pooling juices as he had once sucked the life from oranges. A litany of chemical compounds was suddenly being recited within his head like a broken phonograph; glorious letters and numbers were typed in pristine text within scientific journals, scratched into life on notebooks in Ed's own messy handwriting, but each time his eyes closed in an attempt to bar the tears, he saw only short script engraved upon a tall grey stone.

But these tears were not shed in mourning. This release was akin to a baby's wails—life tearing into existence, screaming at the sensory assault of the world's sounds and colours. The fever had ebbed, so now the recovery began, and Edward had a hard time discerning which was worse. At least the height of his illness had stolen his comprehension. Now he was both in pain and disgustingly aware of the fact, just as he was aware of all the unsavoury details of his surroundings.

He was going to live.

Thankfully.

And damn it all.

The boy had never been indecisive, not even as a child; he could never have imagined that it was possible to be both relieved and upset by a single piece of news. So here it was: the greatest gift, and the most depressing. Here was a million futures' possibilities clasped in his balled fist alongside ten-thousand days of sunshine and a thousand tears unspent, from birth to moments of heart-crushing sorrow to the terror or respite at the end of the journey; such was life.

Terrifyingly beautiful, incomprehensible, and the sum of what he had left to him.

Edward looked up. The now steady hand raised to his head, pushing aside his fringe, and his drying eyes began to adjust once more.

So here was the alley that had become his home—drab walls and putrid fumes, with the still present pile of garbage having come to resemble a misshapen, sleeping behemoth. Ed sucked in his breath and gathered the remainder of his senses to the best of his ability; the fever had left him so drained that he could barely take in all the details of his surroundings and ponder the future, and he was not at all certain that he was capable of arising. The automail leg was good, of course, but the flesh one felt like dead weight beneath him.

Why couldn't Envy do a better job than this? Ed found himself wondering as moonlight lent some sludge in the trash a luminescence not so unlike copious slug slime. Maybe Envy had not wanted to do better, but this wasn't just about torturing Ed, and surely both of them knew it. Maybe, after four-hundred years of having life fed to him by a spoon, Envy really was as incapable as a child without its parents. Or maybe the goddamned bastard's just been too focused on other things.

A combination of all those explanations seemed to be the most apropos answer.

Damn...so thick it feels like a second skin, Ed thought with a grimace and no shortage of disgust as his awareness increased and he finally felt the exorbitance of filth covering his body. His clothing was rumpled, soaked with a caked and drying mishmash of goo, and he didn't want to think too much about what ingredients comprised the stains.

Ed shrugged, rolling his shoulders. He shook, and something dislodged and ran down his legs. The grimace became more pronounced; Ed's whole face scrunched up and a groan of abhorrence slipped from his mouth. Fingers scampered along the ground, wiggling to feel out the water-swollen pockmarks. The skies had been filled with either fire or water since his and Envy's arrival upon this world, and had it not been for the accompanying chill, Ed would have gladly removed his clothes and let the rain wash him clean. He could not take that chance, though, not with his immune system already having been compromised.

Energy was slowly but surely finding its way back to his tired body. The fog had lifted from his aching head, and he thought that with another ten minutes or so, he might even be composed enough to arise. Whether he wanted to arise or not was another matter entirely, but in a literal sense and in terms of more longterm needs...he really had no choice. He laughed a little, brokenly, and muttered a curse for his own damned sense of unyielding perseverance; it was an important quality, a life-saving one on many occasions, and one of Ed's most dominant personality traits, but damn! Sometimes it hurt so much to be so relentlessly determined; he broke himself, both literally and figuratively, but he never gave up, and that was his greatest strength...though also his most painful.

He might have remained all right, had he possessed sense enough not to look at his arm socket.

Good judgment was not really among his greater assets just then, so without taking into consideration what he might see, Ed flicked a casual glance at his automail port...or, rather, what was left of it. The clinging bits of metal had mostly been eroded, revealing the brown and green of scaly, rotting dead flesh. Upon it, a bevy of maggots feasted on the necrosis—little white forms standing in stark contrast to their meal.

"...no..." was all he had time to say before his eyes went wide and a shudder passed through him; then, a feeling he had grown accustomed to assailed his stomach, and slush rushed into his mouth.

As if that had been an invocation, Ed found his head slammed against the wall so hard that his teeth rattled. Fortunately, his tongue managed a swift escape to the back of his mouth.

"Don't be such a pussy," an effete voice chided. "Didn't your bastard old man ever tell you that maggots are used in medicine? Get rid of dead skin and all that."

That piece of logic did nothing to suppress Ed's involuntary reaction. Vomit trickled over Envy's knuckles and what was left of one glove. The homunculus's grin twisted on one side, hooking downwards as amusement became distaste. Once Ed had—like a dog trained to react to certain prompts—swallowed, Envy quickly removed his hand from Ed's lips and pulled the glove off, shaking his dirty fingers.

"Fucking...eh. What the hell is wrong with you, pipsqueak? Do you have any idea how disgusting you've been?" Envy stepped close, kneeling in front of Ed and regarding him with purple eyes that drank the moonlight and shimmered like sharp knives.

As Envy reached forward to brush Ed's bangs aside with his naked hand, Edward found himself wondering if he had been there the whole time. Standing in the shadows and watching me weep... he thought, miserably. Probably snickering the whole damned time, too.

He tried to focus on that idea, tried to use it as a basis for bitterness and strength, but neither came. Narrowed eyes stared at Envy through a window tinted with exhaustion. Their bodies were close, touching, breathing upon one another, and Edward felt warmth, but there was no solace. Two bodies, two lives, and not a shred of comfort between them.

Not comfort, but maybe a hint of acceptance.

"Heh. You're supposed to be feeding me, not the rats and bugs." Envy removed his hand from Ed's bangs and lowered it to the exposed socket. Ed flinched away, but the homunculus's other hand fisted the bunched fabric on the front of his shirt and held him in place.

One swipe of Envy's hand, one gasp for breath between Ed's teeth, and the clumps of dead skin were ripped away. It hurt more than yanking a bandage off of a sore, but it was not as painful as Ed had expected, and at least Envy had not been slow about it.

Edward shivered, inhaling rapidly and gulping down saliva as he struggled to keep himself watered and conscious. Cold air seared his nerve endings; pain flared, then dulled, then flared again. Ed ground his teeth together and looked forward, but of their own volition, his eyes seemed inclined to wander. Once or twice, they glanced downwards and sideways, catching sight of the rotting skin that had just been torn away from him. I'm going to live, he told himself—assured himself—as he watched the dead, insect-covered flesh sink into the shallow water. Two good legs. Go forward. Gotta be strong. Ohgodithurtssometimes.

Light and darkness covered Envy's face in a checkerboard of shadows; he was practically against Ed, and grinning a cadaverous grin, teeth pronounced and glinting as though smeared with phosphorous, stark bones revealed by lips pulled back like those of a snarling wolf. Strands of dark hair hung in front of and around his face like coloured ropes, and Ed thought he saw circles beneath his eyes, but he knew they were just smudges of dirt. Envy's sudden nearness summoned a flood of memories and questions—

—did you—?

(or was that a dream? can't remember...)

—Why?—

—I think I remember. Yes. What do you want from me?—

—but nothing quite made perfect sense, and the final question echoed again and again as Ed looked Envy in the eyes and awaited some words of revelation about what the fuck had been happening to him over the course of the last (few days, week, few weeks, month), though Envy was silent, possibly contemplating something himself.

"See? And you don't like me talking about how homunculi are superior. Least I'm not puking up my insides and shitting myself," Envy said instead, and Ed found himself thinking oh shit, not this again, but Envy's words sounded so recited and meaningless...as though they were offered in place of really knowing what else to say—a default response.

He's being avoidant, Ed realized.

Then again, when he thought about it, he wasn't so sure he wanted to discuss whatever events had transpired during the course of his waking slumber, either. Ed did not remember much, and he decided that was how things should be.

"...Heh...no, you're just..." He coughed. "...relying on someone like that. What does that make you?"

Predictable comeback, Ed supposed, but Envy had surely expected something, and even though Ed didn't particularly care if he disappointed the homunculus or not, this had simply come to be the way of their interactions: insult, quip, retort. It was one of the few parts of Ed's life in which he found any continual regularity, and so he kept the pace; any little thing he could hold onto for sanity now was something.

Rather than give a verbal response, Envy chuckled dryly and jerked Ed forward, pulling him to his feet. Automail clinked, and the flesh foot swung awkwardly; his sole slapped the ground while he made an ineffectual attempt to gain footing; then, it arced upwards, kicking air. Ed stumbled and grabbed Envy's forearm, only to be surprised by the speed with which his hand was swatted aside. His back hit the wall, but by grace or miracle, his feet caught the ground; though he swayed and stumbled, he did not fall.

"...wha..." he tried. His lungs gave no power to the release of breath, so the question died before it could be properly asked.

Envy's face was mostly shadowed, too much so for Ed to glean an expression. The homunculus's sudden shove seemed a sign of hostility, but his body language did not appear to match his action; when Envy bristled, it was generally very obvious in his mannerisms.

Then again, I'm sick and probably reading things the wrong way.

The Sin shook his head, looking either mildly offended or maybe just startled by Ed's sudden touch. Edward would have wondered what the hell gave him the right to act offended by anything, but at the moment, he had more important concerns. They both did.

Once the latest round of fever-induced dizziness subsided, Ed looked around, glancing first at his nearly nude companion, then at the alley within which they stood. With his usual toothy smile gone for the nonce, arms wrapping his waist and dark hair draping his facial features, Envy looked thinner, smaller, and strangely vulnerable. Of course, that was just a mirage, and one look at his eyes (the eyes of a predator) told the truth, but he had not instigated a new round of physical conflict with Ed, and while the alchemist was certain this was not for a lack of desire to do so, it did lead him to suspect that maybe Envy had finally grown wise to the futility of maiming a person whose help he desperately needed—or thought he needed—like it or not.

Well.

Irony was a bitch.

So...what now?

His eyes fixed upon the flotsam at the back of the alley. Flies and gnats were buzzing around it, around him, around everything. A swarm of disease-spreading black insects seemingly comprised their only companions for the night. You're such a fool, Envy. Ed lifted his head and wiped his face. Maybe you can't get sick from this sort of thing, but I can. Did you ever even stop to consider that? Now that he was standing, the wretched mix of liquids and solids on his skin and clothes felt more noteworthy than it had when he was sitting. Every inch of him felt grainy, like sandpaper. An immediate shower was in order...and for some reason, Ed did not feel too worried that Envy might deny him, not after he had nearly died from getting sick due to lousy hygiene. Guess not. Guess you're just too myopic. Can't see anything but your own wants, huh? Well, I always knew that...I just never suspected how deep your stupidity runs.

He swallowed.

The silence felt heavy, filled with thoughts. Maybe that was a good thing, but it made Ed itch just as much as the dirt in his pores did. He fumbled and straightened his pants, since all of his clothing currently fit as though it had been haphazardly slung onto him...irrefutable proof that at least the pants had been tampered with.

Damn. Even fixing his clothes wasn't easy with just one hand. Pissing properly was going to be a nightmare.

"So..." he started, hoping Envy would finish.

Envy said nothing, thereby confirming Edward's dire suspicions.

He wants me to do everything...to find our way...to...maybe...be his new Dante? Except that couldn't quite be right, because Envy had no respect for Ed. He had grudgingly tolerated Dante, but he outright hated Edward, so there was no way he could want to exalt Ed to such a position of power over him. ...Of course, this situation isn't exactly about what either of us wants, so maybe he sees this as some kind of necessity to put up with for a temporary goal...

A truce? Funny concept, and it wasn't a truce, not really, not with Envy's loathing still so very palpable. But he thinks he needs me so he can kill Hohenheim...I guess he's willing to tolerate my presence if it means getting to that. Ed almost laughed in spite of himself. It was amazing to think that even Envy's pseudo-kindness was done for the sake of hatred. Maybe I can use this to my advantage.

They had both been traumatized; Ed by fever, Envy by the possibility of going back to his original homunculus form, and even though the alchemy had been doomed from the beginning, the idea of a demise by the same force that had birthed him had surely shaken Envy more than he let on. The homunculus's behaviour had been odd, erratic, and completely unpredictable, and even if Envy was, by nature, a fairly insane creature, his madness had previously maintained a sort of consistency. Now, none of his actions added up...at least, not to Ed. There were all those incidents in the alley, but...

"No money. No way around. And we speak a different language from everyone else."

"...yeah," Envy replied without hesitation, and a smirk flickered to life upon his face. "So, besides stating the obvious, does the great Fullmetal Shorty have anything to say? Or are you just going to tell me that you're soaked in piss?"

"I was making a list of our difficulties, Envy..." Ed said, sighing. He raised his forearm and wiped his face again. He was still weak, too weak; contemplation was not painful, but it did put a strain upon his mind—the same strain one's eyes encountered after having been crossed for too long. At least Envy's petulance did not bother him as it would have done if his nerves had been responding at their usual speed. Still, focusing was difficult—a chore—and a part of him wished he could lie back down, mess or no mess, and nap for a few more days.

Two good legs, he reminded himself. Even if one of them is metal.

"...and now we need some way of solving those problems...which I guess you want me to find, right?"

When Envy once again failed to respond, Ed wondered if he was at all chagrined. Well, he should be, he decided. I would be, in his position. But that thought seemed vaguely ludicrous, given the position that he was in. Oh well. Still feverish. Not so quick on the uptake.

"Wait...I think I...agh...damn..." Fingers dug through the greasy tousle of blond hair, raking away flakes of dead skin. Blood had found its way back to his formerly resting muscles, and he felt steadier now, slightly stronger; with each moment, a little more awareness returned to him. "...I'm thinking...if Dad is able to get along here, then someone must know our language...or, at least, some of it. Enough for translation to be possible. So...there's hope for that, I think."

"Yeah, and? Doesn't solve anything."

Nothing will solve anything for you, since alchemy just doesn't work here, but I guess you're not going to believe that, are you? Ed saw no point in mentioning his suspicions to Envy, not when his future hinged on Envy thinking otherwise. Fighting back was obviously pointless, but playing along might give him the time he needed for Envy to grow weak enough to overcome once and for all. Provided that the homunculus could be strung along for a while, his present good health could even be a helpful asset.

It was a good plan, and Ed would have been proud of himself for thinking it up despite his current condition, except he hadn't really thought it up. With Envy's help, the pieces had arranged themselves of their own accord. Still, Ed allowed himself a hair's breadth of grudging admiration for the Sin, whose determination...if nothing else...was impressive.

It's the only thing we have in common, he found himself thinking as his teeth grazed his bottom lip and worried over the broken edges. And right now, it's the only thing we need to have in common.

"No," Ed said at last. "But me getting a job would solve a lot of things."

He spoke the words with deliberate slowness, gauging Envy's expression and body language as best he could in the starlit darkness. When the creature bristled, Ed could not help but feel his hair made him look the part of an oversized hedgehog.

He only has a handful of arguments against it. Wonder which'll come out first...

A low hiss. "I've waited—"

Ah. That one. Thought so.

"—for four-hundred years." Ed shrugged. "So you can wait a few more months, I think."

He brushed his shoulder, shooing a moth away from it. Whatever decision they came to, it needed to be reached quickly, as the open air was beginning to make Edward feel distraught. The walls on either side of the alley kept most of the wind out (and, as a result, they kept most of the stench in), but every so often a cold breeze tugged at Ed's exposed wound. Fear of catching another disease wove anxiety throughout him, though at present, he kept it hidden. Envy never responded well to the sight of fear; it only seemed to enhance his violent tendencies. Because he's scared, too...

Edward was only amazed he hadn't seen it sooner. No creature was as violent and angry as a caged predator in the throes of fright.

"Besides..." He smiled; eyes grim, mouth a hard curve. "...it's not as though you've been doing so great on your own."

A daring statement—practically a challenge. Ed knew he was taking a risk by acting assertive...or aggressive...with Envy, but he counted on the homunculus being more cautious than usual after having nearly lost Edward...and by extension, himself. It was a wonderful irony to exploit, and inwardly, Ed sneered over the way Envy stiffened and twitched and growled with hatred he did not dare to express physically...at least, not yet. The boy didn't doubt what ultimate goals Envy had in mind with regards to his captive's health and longevity.

"Job, eh?" Envy laughed. The irate look exchanged itself for another oversized grin. "And just where in the hell would a fucking cripple like you get a job at?" His voice was higher than usual, almost whiny, but still demanding and somewhat firm.

Ed lowered his hand, forcing it to stay still by his side. This had become a chess game of words, and his tongue needed to find the right pieces as well as the proper tone. Pauses and uncertainty might instigate kicks to the gut. Envy was wary, true enough, but Ed kept his companion's short fuse and lack of self-control in mind when dealing with him.

"Crippled physically; yeah. I am." Once the comment had been uttered, the pain in Ed's socket seemed significantly more prominent. He resisted a wince. "But I'm a prodigy, and no matter what stupid, shitheaded sarcastic remarks you want to make about that...you know it's true." He inhaled deeply, glowering at Envy, teeth clenched.

And there's you, too. You're still hale and able...and you're not just gonna sit on your ass. His facial muscles relaxed. You won't have a free ride. You're going to do your part, Ed swore, and the idea behind the vow made him feel relieved.

"So they say," Envy answered. "For your sake, you'd better hope that people can see beyond your ugly stump and your broken little body...but I don't know. I've always thought humans aren't so good at helping their own kind when one of 'em can't even wipe his own ass. Ha. Guess I'll get a chance to test that theory some more now, eh?"

Yeah, well, fuck you. "Oh? Well..." Ed coughed, looked away, and spat out a glob of phlegm. He wiped the remnant off his chin with his sleeve. "...For your sake, you'd better hope that people can see beyond your ugly personality. I've always thought humans aren't so good at not beating the shit out of assholes like you."

Checkmate.

Edward was seasoned enough in conflict to know when he had won.

Not bad for a guy who was on his death bed a few days ago, Ed decided, pleased with himself for his ability to bounce back from trauma. There was an old saying about things killing a person or making them stronger, and after all that he had been through, Ed definitely adhered to the theory that hard times bred courage and forbearance.

Hands on his hips, Envy strode past Ed, and the blond watched him, biting back annoyance at the sight of his arrogantly swaying gait. I won, he repeated to himself, nails biting into his palm. "What are you doing?" he called after Envy, swallowing to refresh his parched throat. "Hey...what are you doing? The exit's the other way..."

Envy's body smelled so strongly of iron and blood that Ed was taken aback by the scent. He wondered whose blood was upon him, or even if it was his own. He smells like...me. The discovery made Ed feel a little surprised, a little nauseous, and a little aroused. Animal hormones, he assured himself. Just that. Would happen to anyone in my position. His reasoning did not help the nausea subside, though.

"Of course it is, dumbass!" Envy called out from over his shoulder. "I'm not the one who got half his brain rotted from fever!"

"Then what are you doing?"

The homunculus ignored him, preferring instead to rummage through the trash.

"Don't tell me you're wanting to eat garbage now..."

Envy did not turn. "Fuck you," he mumbled, and Ed heard the clacking of tumbling cans and bottles. A cold wind rose up; Ed shivered, hugging himself with his single arm. He was glad for the darkness. Best not to let Envy see any of his vulnerabilities.

"What are you doing?"

"None of your fucking business."

Ed sighed loudly, not caring if the Sin heard him or not. "Envy..." He shook his head and considered taking a step in that direction, but when Envy gave him an irritated, dismissive glance, Ed saw the vitriol in his eyes and reconsidered making any move which might be interpreted as hostile. He had done such a good job of treading on thin ice up until now; no sense in being foolish.

I guess I can always figure it out later. Might not be important, anyway. "Well, I'm ready to go when you are," he noted, simply. Envy could have his little idiosyncrasies, act secretive, play games...whatever. Ed did not care except in the way it pertained to his own well-being.

On that thought, Ed turned and stared out the mouth of the alley. Freedom, he thought...but he guessed it wasn't; not really. Only with Envy gone could Edward achieve true freedom. But even then... even then... a little worm of suspicion was growing within the back of his mind; quite simply, Ed was not sure if life could ever be the same again.

Maybe not, though. I did lose both my arm and leg, and even so, I stayed the same person. Same heart, same mind. A shiver passed through him as he continued to gaze at the hazy yellow glow of the city streetlights. It was a clear evening, brighter than any Ed had seen since coming to this world. The sight of the city without fog and rain instilled hope within the boy. Nothing's changed inside of me. I'm still me...same person who joined the military at twelve, left Riesenburg, became the hero of the people...died...

...died...

His thoughts hung there, whispering the word as if it were a riddle with some hidden meaning, some valuable piece of lost lore. He frowned, flexed his fingers, and tried to focus on continuing and finishing his train of thought. Life continued, he insisted to himself. It's still continuing. But he didn't know any positive way to categorize his time upon Earth, and increasingly, he found himself growing scared of how he might look upon it once all was said and done. I'm still me...memememememe...

Ed was just about to yell at Envy again, to tell him to come along (because even that mocking epicene voice was better than the silence), but something caught his attention.

Since the first time he had come to this world, he had known that the sky might explode in fire at any moment. He had always anticipated it, yet he had never really expected it; understanding that something could occur at any time was far different than experiencing it as a daily reality, so when the hum of a great beast tore through the air, Ed had no comprehension of what was happening, nor any theories.

Instinct turned him, opened his mouth to help him along, but he didn't say anything; couldn't say anything. The sky spread above like a bloody red sunset, moon and stars blazed out of existence for the time being. First, Ed observed the familiar inferno within the heavens. Then, he noticed the beams far above his head.

Strange, he thought. He had been in the alley for what felt like an eternity, but he had never taken its composition into account. Not until now.

I must still be dreaming, was all he could think as he watched metal snap and bricks tumble as though a giant fist had slammed into the walls. He had not seen what had instigated this, but the stone aftermath crumbled and rained down, and Ed watched, numb, certain that he was dreaming, because he wasn't feeling anything and he wasn't quite registering this because it couldn't be happening, and...

And he was just standing there.

Unmoving.

Watching.

I didn't expect this, so it's not happening, he kept telling himself, except that something plainly was happening, as there was dust on his face, and heat, and he thought maybe he had taken a few steps backwards...but he couldn't be sure...

For one long heartbeat, everything went bright. White. Orange. Red.

Ed saw—saw exactly how filthy his location was, saw the shock and horror on Envy's face (it would be so beautiful if I had put it there...), saw the sky and the moon, saw his feet and the blood and water and muck beside them, saw all that existed within the vicinity. The image flashed before him like a scene captured by an exceptionally luminous camera. So much to take in during one heartbeat.

All sound crashed together; metal twisted and fell, bricks broke and rushed to kiss the ground. The cacophony was one of shrieking, tearing steel and a loud rumbling not so unlike thunder, a deafening boom which shredded the air and ripped the remainder of Ed's senses from him. Darkness, he expected next. Darkness and silence. Death.

Instead, he found himself staring at a mountain of rubbish. All white light was gone, replaced by the heavy orange of a fire that blazed throughout the black honeycomb of debris. Ed raised his hand, wiping away the dust that flew into his eyes. Bleary. Dripping. Tears of agitation running down his cheeks. Heat, and light, and darkness—a great shadowy body breaking apart while blazes roasted it, stones bleeding orange-red heat like a simmering volcano.

Twenty feet of distance saved Edward from being crushed.

Envy had not been so lucky.

Inconceivable. There was no other way to describe it. There was no way one moment could change so much. But Edward looked on, gaping, eyes like golden glass overflowing with tears he barely realized he was shedding; he did not feel sad, or thrilled, or even confused; he felt nothing save for the vague tugging that demanded he list this as a fever dream.

I don't have to accept this. I don't have to deal with it. Fingers twitched. Smoke puffed into his face, choking him, reddening his cheeks. Because I'm sick, and tired, and this isn't real. I can just turn and walk out. Walk out, walk on. Two good legs.

He started to do that, too. Just shrug his shoulders, walk out, and start a new life as best he could. Just like before. Just like when he and Al had burned down their house—cleansing themselves, purging their past with fire as some would purge sins with water.

Reborn in fire. Again.

He meant to turn, leave, and never look back.

The whole time he stared at the blazes, he intended to leave at any second.

But his feet never moved. He did not turn.

Instead, time hiccupped, and Edward could not turn aside the memories which absorbed the present and twisted all reality into pandemonium. He gazed at the fire, at the darkness, and he could not help seeing different darkness—blackness alongside golden light, Truth alongside malice, and black tendrils rushing out to rend his limbs from him. All at once, he was right back in his basement, screaming for his brother, and he was being ripped apart; the world was tearing them asunder, Truth had betrayed their quest for knowledge, and...and...

And he could not separate the pictures.

In an instant, Ed was upon the ground, beneath the smoke, inching toward the rubble. Small ridges tore into his clothes and nipped his chest like rows of sharp little teeth, but he ignored them. Above, smoke pooled in grey and black clouds, but Ed ignored that, too. Before he knew it, he was panting, bleeding again, dragging himself along with his lacerated forearm and reaching forward blindly. No sense, no reason; he simply grasped—grabbing, clawing, pleading, quelling sobs, because it was the only thing he could do.

Just like before.

By the time he reached his destination, his throat was burning, he was dizzy and newly reminded of his sickness, and his good arm was covered with shredded black cloth decorated by red wetness. Just cut skin, he thought, although around such unsanitary conditions, it could easily get infected, but damn it, he didn't have time to think of that now!

He did not think about what he was doing. Not now. He simply offered his hand.

It was hard to see an inch in front of him, though he thought he had the right place. Flames and disease had burned away his good sense, but he knew; he was certain he would get a response once he proffered his hand. In the light, his arm looked as though it had been eaten by thorns.

"Take it!" he yelled. Thought he yelled. He could not hear himself over the bellowing fire. Salvation. Pulled from drowning. Pulled from fire. A gasp, then a wheeze, and next thing he knew he was on his knees, coughing, automail supporting him. The tears were dry on his eyes before he felt the answer in the form of a tug, cool wet fingers embracing his own (not like before, not like when I lost...when I lost...all...everything...but this time I...), and all he could think was, I didn't make the same mistake as I did last time. He didn't consider that the sentiment could be mistaken, that this was not before. He simply pulled back. Hard.

It was not strength that dislodged his quarry. Stones peeled away flesh like knives opening fruits; Ed did nothing but offer leverage. The rocks cut their victim from them after a few quick jerks, and Ed didn't even have time to think about who he was saving until he held against him one bloody, naked homunculus. The weak, watery arm collapsed around Envy's back, and Ed felt fingernails digging into the muscles of his own. I'm being clung to, he realized, although it seemed awfully strange when one considered that Envy was also spitting and hissing and swearing at him (or at something, since apparently homunculi were capable of going into shock), but holding fast to his body all the same.

Stone fluid covered the ground, enormous puddles winking with firelight. Chunks of white skin turned fuchsia, then disappeared. Thousands of lives vanished like morning mist.

It was only when Envy turned and gave a startled wail over his loss that Ed finally divided the past from the present and concluded that this wasn't right, but by then he couldn't undo his action, so he simply sat there, accepting the intimate but unloving touches.

He had been wrong about his earlier reasoning, and he saw that now. He had wanted to believe that he had not changed since his death, but that was untrue.

Things can never be exactly like they were before...never again...

His hand absently touched the dark hair. As glazed eyes watched Envy's body heal, he wondered if things would ever be the same for either of them.

It might have been ten minutes later, thirty, or an hour, before the smoke lessened and the fire exhausted itself. By then, Envy's shivers had died away, but he still held tight, fixing Ed with a baleful, mopey glare.

"...Heh...what...what did you do that for, you..." Teeth chattered. Envy's jaw clenched, muscles going taut. "...you...s-stupid fucking human...?" He laughed, brokenly, and pushed his hair away from his face. His head then buried itself against Ed's shoulder, and he bit down on what was left of the automail, mumbling and muttering about dumb humans.

Ed would have ignored the question, as he had grown accustomed to tuning Envy out, but he had to wonder the same thing.

Because I'm still sick and I don't know what the fuck I'm doing, obviously.

Because I don't want to be alone.

Because you're all that I have left.

Because you're all that remains from home.

He might have given any of those explanations. Instead, his eyes levelled upon the heap of broken bricks and beams, and he licked his lips, laughing coldly before he said, voice low,

"Because you dragged me into this hell...and you're not going to get out that easily."