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ambre

Wasteland

chapter 19.

He guessed it was just some sort of hangover effect from his first sexual encounter, but Edward found it difficult to look at Envy without...without...well, he couldn't explain it, really. It was stupid, but he felt the urge to do something. What, he didn't know. Grab Envy's hair, put his hand on his shoulder, or something equally childish; the distance annoyed Ed, made him feel agitated, but at the same time, his desires repelled him—repelled him so much that when a fluttering feeling tickled up his stomach, he instantly recoiled.

Who the fuck...who the fuck let things they didn't even believe in get to them so fucking much?

"You wouldn't," Envy concluded. For the time being, he appeared to have given up on his efforts to get to his feet. He collapsed and rolled onto his side once more, looking especially winded but not especially injured.

As Envy had refused his earlier offering of aid, Edward made no move to touch him. He sat, rocking backwards a little, knees on the floor and thighs on ankles.

Blankets of heat broiled the room, and Edward felt like he and the Sin had found themselves in an oven, basted in their liquids and ready to be turned crisp and golden; gravity betrayed them and multiplied itself a few dozen times so that every twitch felt as heavy as a pendulum swing. The coupling of darkness and heat was crushing, compressing; it weighed and pinched like an unseen vice while both bodies lubricated the walls and floor 1with sweat.

He didn't know what to do. Indecision somersaulted across his nerves, hopping up his skin like a flea. Fuck it all. Obviously, he was incapable of assuaging Envy's pain; he wasn't even sure anymore that he knew what in the fuck was wrong with Envy. And he couldn't go outside for air, couldn't wander about the train yard; well, he could, but it wouldn't have been right to do so, even if he did feel as though he'd situated himself within someone's hot, stuffy nose, or perhaps some even more abhorrent, sticky part of the human anatomy.

At least he could let a little air in, if nothing else.

Ed twisted, relieving his sore foot of the pressure of his body weight, and proceeded to pull the door open. Cool air winnowed his skin like the flutter of butterfly wings. He inhaled it eagerly, reaching down to tug his shirt and bat at the dirt and sweat across his chest, neck, and face. He groaned feebly as his heart sped up as though given an injection of caffeine; tired muscles revived themselves. Nerves scampered out of hiding, clicking their on switches. He felt alive again. Somewhat alive, anyway.

Then, unsurprisingly, he heard a groan.

A sort of syrupy groan; the kind of noise a person might make if their lungs were swelling with blood or some other viscous liquid. The word congested danced along Ed's mind, but that didn't seem right; Envy couldn't get sick, not like a human could. Homunculi didn't get colds, did they? No, no, surely they didn't. If Envy were susceptible to illness—true illness, not a plague of rather unglamourous starvation—then Ed wouldn't have been the only one oozing a multitude of unattractive substances back in the alleyway; if a homunculus had an immune system resembling that of a human's, then Envy should have already succumbed to malaise. And he hadn't. Until now.

No matter. Edward was beginning to suspect that some other force might have been at work on the Sin, besides the obvious efflux of so-called red water.

He turned.

"Any..."

Envy looked up. Looked up and looked at Ed, who suddenly choked as hard as if he'd just chugged a jar of nails.

Oh God. It would just figure that working up the nerve to hold polite conversation with the bastard would be more difficult than working up the nerve to fuck him. How incredibly stupid.

"...any idea what's...uh...wrong...?" His pause took the form of a forced cough. "I mean...yeah, do you know what's wrong with you...by any chance?"

The expected reaction to the query was, for Edward, a hiss, or a growl, some threat of violence, possibly an insult to his stature, intelligence, or manhood, or (quite likely) a request that his life please be ceasing to exist. Any and all of those would've been suitable, standard Envy-isms. Instead, the silence swallowed them both as Envy stared, eyes runny; Ed couldn't tell if his vision was lapsing in and out of focus or what. It was still dark, so fucking dark. If I close my eyes now...maybe I'll wake up and...

"...can't remember..."

As Ed watched, the thick, buttery-looking tears formerly corraled by Envy's lashes managed to break free; slowly, they rolled down his cheeks like portions of loosed egg yolks, heavy and full of who knew what.

What the fuck? Edward had never seen such goopy tears. It was as though pieces of Envy's sclerae had melted and proceeded to ooze out of his sockets, and for all Ed knew...for all he knew...maybe...

That did it.

The boy made his way over to where Envy rested, lifted his own shirt with his hand, grimaced, hurled a glob of spittle into the bunched fabric, and proceeded to scrub Envy's face with the cloth. The Sin's answer came in the form of a growl, alongside several convulsions; Ed had no way of knowing what the creature's current awareness level was, but he seemed thoughtlessly hostile, rather like a sore animal. And what strange beings homunculi were, Ed thought as he cleaned this one, taking care to remove the gunky residue from his cheeks. Animate yet not alive, not exactly the living dead as some theories postulated, but rather dolls, imitations, creatures in their own right; childish things, animalistic, certainly not governed by any sensibilities to be found within the human spectrum of emotions.

Mysteries. Homunculi were still mysteries.

If Envy was the last among them, they might remain so forever.

Yet perhaps more so than mysteries, homunculi were echoes, shadows, reminders; in as much as they could not tolerate being faced with the truth of the humans they had been created to embody, Ed had found that it was sometimes difficult to face them. He didn't know what to make of Envy, didn't know whether to hate him or pity him or both, didn't know if he wanted to make some attempt to reason with him or not (or if he could be reasoned with); he didn't, in short, understand Envy, but more perplexing than that, he did recognize the emotions he had seen and often continued to see within the other—fear, anger, resentment, rage. The symptoms were all there, but what the hell was the disease? What made Envy Envy? What fed his hatred?

Ed swallowed another lump.

His throat was becoming a tad too adept at forming them these days.

The face was like grey-white putty against Ed's press; moist, but not cold: warm. Heat poured into his fingertips as they traced the occular bones, gently digging away oil and grime with a few scoops of the nails; Envy made a strange sound and slumped, blinking as if he'd just been flooded with light after many hours in the darkness. He shivered.

"Hold still..." Ed said, quietly. "...asshole..." he added, lest Envy process what he was saying. "Oh jeez, Envy. This is fucking disgusting." He pulled his hand away and shook it, grimacing at the feel of the snot-like substance sticking between his fingers. "Oh, ew. Argh. You had better be nicer to me after this, you fucking bastard. And you say humans are gross?"

This instance called to mind memories of Edward's childhood, of the way his mother would fret and worry over him if he had a cold or some other nagging little illness; she'd taken a tissue to his runny nose and urged him to blow; she'd patted his cowlick and felt his forehead for fever, wiped his face with a warm, damp rag. She'd done the same with Alphonse when he'd been sick, and Ed had often wondered how she'd managed to find the stomach to tend to such wretched aspects of life as pus-leaking children. Doctors and mothers were miracle workers in that sense, he'd concluded later. Superhuman. Capable of tugging down the barriers of revulsion which naturally sprung up in the face of all horrors ranging from small scale nasal emissions to the nightmares of war.

Ed had never dreamt that he'd one day find himself showing his mortal foe similar consolatory gestures, but what the hell else was a person supposed to do in his position? You didn't just let someone lie there and suffer.

I could put him out of his misery.

Oh yes, how neanderthal of him. He could just toddle outside, find a boulder, and perhaps bash Envy's brains out until his regeneration ceased. How practical; how brutish! Was he really no better than that—no better than Envy himself? Cold-blooded murder was assuredly a bitter pill, but how could he allow Envy to live when there was no rehabilitating the monster? Rock and a hard place, indeed. To kill or to pardon a killer; Ed thought this a decision meant for a better man than himself; this was the sort of choice which was supposed to be confined to seers, wise men, noble knights of old stories, and so on and so forth.

Now he, still a boy, had crossed into the jurisdiction of a man.

Like Dad? he thought scornfully, suddenly, and bile rose within him.

Maybe there were no such things as wise men, or good men. Maybe all the fathers of alchemy had been fools and sots. Maybe there were only difficult decisions, and those who got stuck with the misfortune of making them. And maybe now his name could be added to that list.

Saying nothing, Ed sponged Envy's face with his shirt, then raked his fingers and nails over the crusty rosettes forming about his hair, scalp, nose, and mouth.

The homunculus flopped against him as though his body had just turned to gel and was slowly being solated into a nameless liquid. He was warm, skin a touch scratchy, hair damp and dirty; Envy was a mass of dead weight, marked as "alive" only because of his steady breathing. A doll. A broken doll. Distantly, Ed recalled a memory of having once asked the Sin if his strings had been "severed"; how ironic that seemed, now.

"I am sorry," he breathed in a husky whisper, breath fanning Envy's lashes. He continued picking dirt from the seaweed nest of hair, wishing he had some water, soap, shampoo, even a damned comb. It occurred to him to take Envy out to the water pump, but that wasn't a reasonable option; he couldn't lift Envy with one arm, and dragging him would only get the jerk more filthy and injured. "I'm not sorry because you didn't deserve it; you did. I think you deserve worse."

He trailed his hand downwards, touching Envy's forehead.

Smooth, save for the spots of grime here and there. Those felt like crystal flakes, but Ed thumbed them away easily enough. It was strange to see Envy's skin like this—flat, not hosting the usual wrinkle of downturned eyebrows. Funny thing about Envy; he pretty much always scowled, even when he smiled. It was as though his eyebrows were fixed into a perpetual expression of anger and annoyance. Usually, at least.

But not now.

Now, unconsciousness had blotted out his peevish look, replacing it with faux solemnity. Bereft of his triangle-decorated hairband, Envy's brow was visible; the skin was tight, much more so than one would have expected after a four centuries long scowl, but with his flesh being a sort of amorphous, instantaneously-healing clay, it was no real surprise that his complexion was so flawless and youthful.

Ed sighed. "I'm sorry because what I did was wrong, period. You're a terrible person, but I'm not, and I shouldn't have..." He pushed Envy's hair away from his face. "...I shouldn't have done what I did, and I don't know what I'm going to do with you, and I don't know if this changes anything between us, but I do know I was wrong, and I'm sorry."

It was more than a little surreal to be here like this, to be together and mutually tired and not attempting to kill one another...not at the moment, for whatever that was worth. It was weird to think that they'd been trapped in this prison of a world, to think that Ed had seen Envy kill, to think that they had fought one another, tried to murder one another, raped one another, fucked one another with agreed upon consent; they'd helped each other even when they hadn't wanted to, they'd argued, and hell, sometimes they had even talked like a couple of rational, sane individuals, but only because the circumstances had forced it. They were at once both intimate and aloof, close yet distant. Ed knew there was much about Envy he still didn't understand and possibly never would understand, but he supposed the reverse was true, as well.

Like soldiers on opposing sides of a war, Ed decided: in ways, they had similar temperaments and rightfully should have been allies, but their Ideals would not sit down with one another to sign peace treaties, not under any circumstances, and as they were two beings governed strongly by their need to cleave to their own Ideals and specific views, there was no surrendering any battles.

In as much as Edward had always believed himself to adhere to any tenet of alchemy, he thought Envy was by far the more religiously determined one. He seemed to regard hatred as a sort of creed, a sacred text, not so unlike Ishbala's followers regarded their holy works. There was no lessening the Sin's "faith"; not unless one wished to dig aside four centuries' worth of conditioning, and genius alchemist though he was, Ed didn't think himself capable of such a feat.

And like soldiers—like brothers, like lovers, like two weary spirits—they needed, as all people needed, moments between moments: in which the war and the world paused for them, in which they could just sit and rest, finding some fleeting contentment amongst the darkness. Rare moments of happiness, slumber.

Everything was a fight, always a fight for both of them; life was one uphill struggle, and so was unlife in Envy's case, yet Ed recalled an age when he'd lain in the grass and the air had tickled his bare toes and he'd had nothing to do but look up at the sky and dream.

He wondered if Envy ever remembered being in such a position.

He doubted it.

They were, both of them, as alive as they were dead. They could remember dying, as absurd as the notion would've sounded to any uninformed party; they had seen the Gate, Truth and the lies born from it; Envy had come from the Gate and Ed had gone into it, and here they were now, alone and together in the unlikeliest of places. Physically, they were torn, crippled; they'd pretty thoroughly kicked the shit out of one another and been on the receiving end of a metaphorical fist to the teeth from the planet, its atmosphere, its cities' conditions, its lack of a language they recognized, and so on, yet Ed knew that if he were to place his hand upon Envy's chest, he would feel a heartbeat not at all different from his own—a signal of life, thrumming its war drum, refusing to be still or silent despite the poisons of the world, despite everything.

Different as they were, they had both tasted death, and they had no desire to go for seconds.

This will was, in its own absurd way, beautiful—a grotesque variety of beautiful, akin to a flower blooming before a sepulchre; loveliness amidst a wasteland, a disorienting sight. Lilacs lived for so short a time, dying every year, yet their will remained steadfast, unbroken; come the spring, they returned again.

And somehow, like he'd been lifted from a dream, Ed knew he wouldn't die yet—not yet—and neither would Envy.

His gaze edged over to the blanket pile Envy had left behind.

It would be prudent to wrap the homunculus, wouldn't it? Prudent. Practical.

In his current state, Envy was losing heat quickly. Exothermic. Yes, Ed knew the scientific jargon like the back of his hand (or the back of his automail hand, at that), and he knew, in a more common sense sort of fashion, that grabbing a blanket and wrapping the Sin would benefit him, maybe alleviate some of his discomfort. He knew that. His mind knew that. Whether his body wanted to act on the unspoken self-advice was a separate matter; his hand didn't seem especially interested in the notion, given that it was suddenly trembling violently, nerves resisting the idea of reaching out.

Tidying Envy up a little was one thing; that was acceptable, but how could he bring himself to actually go step a further and bundle him up? Too far. Too fucking far. Envy wasn't Ed's child, his brother (not really), his girlfriend, or his pet.

In life, people held varying degrees of relevancy towards one another, various positions and stations and levels of closeness. Different touches felt appropriate for different individuals. One wouldn't, for instance, grope one's mother's breast, because that would've landed them straight into a new level of eww. Even though the act of compassion Ed faced himself with at present was of a far more innocent variety of touch, it still added up to the same wrongness value. His hand—his body—was used to wanting to fight Envy; the feeling held scant malice and was more an expectation than anything.

Conflict was the definition of their relationship, its rightful name. Even sex could be included within the equation.

But here Envy was, unconscious, silent and still. The usual option of hitting him remained intact, but in this instance, it wouldn't accomplish anything. Yelling at him didn't seem a very positive course of action, either. The anger that had previously inspired such acts of violence was not to be found within Edward at this point in time, not without an impetus, and what better impetus had there been than Envy himself?

With a slight grunt, Ed eased back, wondering at the puddle of Envy flesh currently slumping against his chest.

Slumping might not have even been the word for it. Stuffy as the room was, it felt more like their bodies were plastered together, skin and sweat and a thin layer of clothing between them, and Ed had rather begun to feel as though he were being meshed into some kind of homunculus-human chimera linked at the ribcage or thereabouts. Not a very pretty sight, he was sure.

His rage having been depleted for the nonce, Ed found that he felt surprisingly hollow towards Envy—an aching sort of hollowness, like a dull and distant gnaw in one's eroding bones.

He couldn't believe it, couldn't fucking believe it at all, but it was starting to dawn on him that he wanted his ire raised. Anger was filling, hard, real; it gave sustenance, made the boy want to go out and do something. He couldn't sit around feeling sorry for himself if he was appropriately pissed off.

If Envy would just wake up, say something stupid, irritate the shit out of him, then maybe he could summon the energy to feel like tackling what he needed to tackle. As it was, the gloom and listlessness were growing by the second, as cool and heavy as a mist rising within his lungs. He had so much to live for—for home and for his brother—but thinking about that only made the depression almost overwhelming in its strength.

Apathy needed to be kindled, and there was no more perfect blaze than a strong, driving emotion. Joy was out of the question.

That left anger.

(...but that...sounds like...)

"I'm not like you," he said, nudging Envy away from him.

He'd not meant to verbalize the thought, yet once the first syllable slipped from his tongue, Ed thought, why not? It wasn't as though anyone could hear.

"Not like..." he trailed off, leaving the unfinished sentence hanging between his teeth.

As though some magic had been worked—as though Edward had said "Open Sesame"—Envy's eyes shot open.

Well—

The Sin's lips parted, mouth round as if an invisible ball had been placed within it.

—damn.

He froze in that position for one infinite heartbeat, muscles arrested, irises swollen with a spate of blackness.

Then, Envy screamed.

And screamed.

And screamed.

An ear-slicing scream—long, jagged as a lightning bolt, and inhumanly shrill.

"Envy."

The name rattled out. Two syllables. Ed didn't know if he meant it as an expression of thanks or an order for silence. Didn't know. He just knew that there was sound, sound everywhere, sound right in his face, yet somehow, it all seemed a thousand miles above his ears. Distant. Unreal.

"Envy."

Maybe it was finally over. Maybe Envy really was about to die. But Ed didn't think so. If the Sin were ready to expire, then why hadn't he done so already? If he were starving to death, then sickness shouldn't have grabbed him all at once. That didn't make sense. Wasn't logical in the least. There was something else at work here, some trigger. Could've been that Envy was turning human; he had gotten warm and...different, somewhat, but why now? If that was it, then why hadn't it happened when they'd gone through the Gate? And Envy didn't seem human; he still healed instantaneously, for one, and the mark of his birth coloured his thigh in deep red ink. One glance downward confirmed it.

Lastly, why the hell was he still in his chosen form? Without his stones, shouldn't he have reverted, or begun to revert?

Unless that had been a lie, too. Unless the man with the long face and the hay-like hair had simply been the best of Envy's illusions; Dante had corroborated the story in a hurry, but that didn't mean anything. Dante was a liar. A con artist.

My brother is dead, Ed thought dizzily, noting how absurd his mind had begun to sound. The image of the man wobbled in his mind, haunting, more significant for what it made Ed feel than for what it was; something squeezed his throat, made it difficult to breathe.

Then the picture cracked.

And there was howling, only howling.

"Shut up!" Ed boxed the homunculus's temple, already growling and feeling the urge for a fight springing up within him. After all the time he'd wasted being dispirited and leaden, it was a good sensation, like an adrenaline rush, a burst of fuel; and yet it was... "Just...shut up! What the hell is wrong with you?"

To Ed's amazement, the blow had an effect. Envy stopped screaming and froze, arms hugging his waist, hair everywhere. He looked...kind of silly. Disheveled. Mouth was still open; too big and too many teeth. Such an elfin face. Prior to this night, Ed couldn't remember having ever touched it except when he was hitting Envy; any sort of gentleness, any sort of intimacy of that kind felt...twisted.

Envy was shivering. Clear wetness slicked his face, sparkling with moonlight.

"What's wrong with you?" Ed tried again. "Did something...did someone hurt...?"

He hadn't expected to feel indignant at the possibility.

"Are you turning human?"

Envy's eyes rolled. It was the first real indication since he'd awakened that he even recognized Edward; his mind seemed to be in and out of varying levels of unreality, more so than was typical even for Envy. He switched his expression to one of cool indifference, mouth a thin, squeezed line, but he was still shivering, and his eyes had turned a particularly dark shade of violet. "Don't be an idiot, Ed," he muttered, the words broken by tremors. "How the fuck...why the fuck would that happen?"

Edward blinked. "So you do know what's—?"

Some weird, wolfish look passed over Envy's face, but only briefly. Then, he looked away and hissed; the Sin was being less insulting than usual, less ranty than usual, and less talkative in general than usual...leading Ed to suspect that he was in much more pain and was in a far greater state of misery than he was letting on. As if the screaming alone hadn't been suggestive of such. It reminded Ed of how Al could be at times, especially when the two of them had been children. Hell, it reminded Ed of how his mother had accused him of being with regards to denying his own aches and pains. The boy found that he really wanted to clock Envy upside the head for being so damned difficult.

"—you know what's the matter with you. You've known it all along, haven't you?"

Envy hmphed.

"You must be pretty fucked up inside if you're not even calling me names. And I notice you never denied that you're turning human." Ed looked down at his hand, examining the homunculus-mucus which had all but dried by now. "Not that I'd necessarily believe you if you did, given what a liar you are. You might as well stop being evasive, though. Looks to me like you've got nothing to lose but your pride, and I don't get how you can hold onto that when your eyes are practically...drooling."

Drooling? Ed thought he should've come up with a better term than that, but crying just didn't seem to suit the sort of gooey, blubbery spill Envy had been unleashing onto himself.

Lashes drooped.

When had Envy's eyes become so damned eloquent? For all of one moment, the homunculus looked absolutely crestfallen and vulnerable, but just as Ed found his heart skipping a beat too fast in unwanted concern, the muscles of Envy's face twisted and curdled, going hopelessly sour. He bared his teeth, revealing the most raw, desperate manifestation of hate and despair that Ed had perhaps ever seen. Stunned, he watched as Envy panted, shook, wept.

Hysterical. Completely hysterical. Reminded Ed of someone who was freezing, or perhaps a person who had just been pulled from a near drowning accident.

Ed found that he didn't know how to react beyond sitting there and giving Envy an odd look. It was inconceivable to him that his very existence could upset someone so damned much. Sure, people irritated one another, often accidentally, but to know that his simply being alive caused Envy to wind up with tears and nausea? What the fuck? If Envy were human, it would've been hurtful, but his enigmatic homunculus nature made it easy for the object of his grudge to merely write the feelings off as nonsense and irrationality.

"Why—" Envy shivered hard. The strain on his face was so evident that his skin looked as though it were trying to tear off his bones in bloody strips of muscle and flesh. Ed stared at his teeth, his gums; lips pulled away, broadcasting white bone and raw pink. Sweat and tears ran freely down to his chin; the area around his nose wrinkled with the tuggings of nerves. "—the fuck would I want...to tell you—fucking hate you—why'd I..."

The sentence got considerably more garbled as Envy continued, spit butchering his vowels, but Ed caught the final word: anything.

He didn't answer.

They had no reason to trust one another.

But Envy hadn't stopped speaking. He rambled on, hastily beginning to slander his companion; as soon as Ed discerned the phrase fucking rapist—another rather inaccurate title—he found himself overtaken with an urge to shake his head at Envy's logic, or lack thereof. Yet he felt...odd. Insulted, certainly, but not furious. Envy was in no position to be taken seriously; he seemed too much like a hissing wet cat taken in after a torrential rain shower, minus the fur and warm towel.

Without thinking, Ed stared forward, eyes slowly going out of focus. Dark green and pale blurred, fading against the shadowy backdrop. Slivers of light appeared. Morning was drawing close. Harsh words were still being uttered—accusations—as if Envy hadn't yet noticed that Ed's mind had begun to wander.

Ed reached up.

Fingers met skin, hair.

Envy's eyes widened, then narrowed; he grimaced and grew silent for a moment, as though shocked, as though wondering, considering. Ed thought he heard a great deal in the ensuing white silence, but he didn't think he understood it. He looked down, just as Envy shuddered and jerked away; the thick, rope-like hair was lost to his fingertips.

"Don't touch me!" Envy protested, the words partly growled, partly sobbed, and partly moaned. He tensed, body language turning ever more hostile; breathing was quick and strained, eyes crazed, and a slurred grumble rumbled about the air between the two bodies.

Ed wasn't listening.

He was looking downwards, vision obscured by the loose blond hair falling around his face. Something caught his eye. There, on Envy's thigh—

"W-wha—"

Unable to finish the question, he stared in amazement.

He knew. He recognized

He knew what was going on.

Distracted from his tirade for the time being, Envy scooted backwards as if suddenly self-conscious, but it was too late. Ed had seen.

He looked up, trembling, eyes watering as he met Envy's curiously blank expression.

He had one word left.

"How?"