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ambre

Wasteland

chapter 20.

A body.

His body.

Somewhere it was, feverish and sweaty.

Somewhere.

He felt nothing save for the rush of fake blood that pounded in his temples and ears, resonant and blaring, seemingly miles away from any other agglomerate of flesh.

Life.

No, no, not life.

Fingertips pulsed, fizzed and tingled like a tongue at the presence of a sugar-filled substance. The remainder of his body gave little indication that it still existed.

It felt—he felt—like an outline, a wan pencil sketch, thin curliques of granite awaiting harder lines and colours. The body remembered being something, being perfect, and the body remembered the fall, gravity, lead weights for limbs and bellows for lungs.

Now, it felt nothing, knew nothing. Aether. Jellyfish membranous flotsam, invisible and bloated, swollen and fuzzy. Darkness spread outwards, marked sometimes by flares of light, flashes of bright red, purple, orange, white. He couldn't tell; didn't know what he saw outside of himself versus what was created by the insides of his eyelids. Didn't know if he was awake or sleeping, dreaming. Didn't know if it mattered.

Ed had seen.

Envy. That was his name, wasn't it? Seemed like it was, like it should've been, but the world was shaken, jostled. Like his memories were darts thrown at a board—some stuck, others fell to the floor.

A mansion, or he thought it so. Copper and candlelight. An antique mantel, high ceilings, ivory and green, smoke and warmth in the dark. A woman with dark hair: tumbling, rolling ringlets, a hint of a smirk wedged on one side of her lips; beautiful they said of her then, and she was. But they saw only the jewels, the rings on her fingers, the figure suggested by her clothing—the tight, concealing attire of the day; they saw her pretty eyes, her smiles. Wealthy and demure young thing. No one saw the rot. No one but her. And Envy.

"Envy." The name on her lips. Spoken not like an insult, but like a dismissal. Her eyes shone. He smelled the perfume that practically oozed from her, but his body had no reaction; a homunculus could perceive sensory information, but their responses were lessened, if they had responses at all.

Come the changing season, her hair was red, brightened by the flames. Freckles. She dressed like autumn and sat in her chair, her throne; the board was laid out before her, chess pieces, and noble men and women came to play. They held their games, talking late into the nights. In that dark eternity of hangings and plagues and pain, she was elevating her status in the world—she who had once had nothing.

The years trickled by, ebbed and flowed, until time seemed to reverse and Envy knew not what order the visions were in; he couldn't catalogue them, couldn't place some before or after others. A grave, a casket within it, roses dropped liberally from a broad set of hands. He wondered, in the aimless terror of the years to come, why he'd never seen his own body; he wondered—in the nights when he lay in bed and peered at the ceiling in his ceaseless state of awareness—where his cadaver was, his skinless face. He despised it, but wanted to see it, wanted to confirm, to know.

One winter he dug through the frost, through the hard soil, layer after layer, until his hands dripped red, forearms shredded. They were healing even as he found the coffin, pulled it open. Empty. Why the fuck was it empty? He'd howled his displeasure long into the night; foolish, so foolish. It would've only hurt him. He knew. She'd said. Dante had said. But it—something wasn't—

The bitch must've hidden it.

And he'd screamed, but said nothing to her.

And in his mind's eye, the flame of the candle swelled, fattened, became a blaze.

Fires. "The Sty" had gone down in blazes, ashes black and grey on the ground, a charred ruin. The manor had been reduced to cinders, gone forever was much of Dante's work—a setback for another Stone, and then it had been her turn to scream. She'd complained so much of the village in which she'd lived, saying she had deserved better. Better. Always she wanted better. And then her manor was incinerated, laid to waste during one of the Great Wars Amestris had participated in, and she and Envy had stood atop the hill and surveyed the wasteland, broiled in an inferno not so unlike the one from which she had purloined her name.

It would have been well and good, she'd said, if the destruction had been hers, if it had been for her, for her Stone, but luck had soured, and her cathedral of unearthly wonders, horrors, and delights had been laid bare; rage had twisted Dante's features into something grotesque as the smoke pelted her skin, creating an unnatural blush and dirtying her hair.

Reuestadt.

He remembered the name. Four centuries buried. Town of regrets, indeed.

One novel Dante had salvaged in her haste to escape: Die grosse Wundartzney, written by Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim.

Envy hadn't known what the title meant. In the later years, he had learned a number of languages, but he'd never learned that one, and the hilarious thing was that it eventually turned out to be the one he might have needed most. But that was Fate. Always against him.

What he remembered most about the book was not its title, nor the ornate covering which bore the words in a "lovely" (in Dante's words) gilded script. No, what Envy recalled distinctly about the tome was what lurked inside of it—a note written by Hohenheim to Dante, hidden amidst the pages and lying in wait like a snake ready to strike.

Envy had discovered it only after the move to Dublith. He had been putting away Dante's belongings, only to notice a slip of paper that had drifted from its prison to lay on the floor, looking out of place but entirely innocuous. He'd looked at it for a moment, pondered whether or not he gave enough of a shit to read what it said. Didn't. Definitely didn't.

And still his fingers had ghosted across it.

And still he lifted it, held it up to his face.

Afterwards, he calmly, quietly placed the item back within its original location so Dante would be none the wiser.

Afterwards, he went outside and massacred about a dozen people in the nearest village.

He hadn't understood then, and he hadn't realized just how little he'd comprehended until years—perhaps centuries—later. Thrust into the world as a curious creature, he'd been innocent in an ignorant sort of way; oh yes, very innocent at first, but also very stupid, entirely unaware of consequences or the relevance of one event to another. His own experiences lent credence to his growing theory that naivete was a farce, nothing more than a euphemism for idiocy. Newborn raw, dripping life and death, and his creator, his father, had left him. Left him. Left him!

Dante told him he should be angry. Wroth. "You should want to murder him," she insisted. "Think of reducing his body to the sort of shape he hoped you'd die in. Just imagine, Envy. He despises you, because he loved that which came before you, and you'll never be that, to him. You'll never be good enough. He'll always see you as inferior, second rate."

Initially, the words barely fazed the homunculus, yet over time, as Dante reiterated her point, he did come to feel wronged, stabbed, injured. How dare he! How dare that fucking bastard! He was new; he'd done nothing wrong; what the fuck had he done wrong, besides existing? The aborted child who had survived and walked the world, broken. He hadn't died. Hadn't just fallen over and stopped breathing. And he was hated for it. Loathed. And what the hell gave that bastard the right to feel such contempt for him, given that he had fucking created him?

The unfairness—the injustice of everything—seared Envy, scorched him on the inside, flared up within his nerves and heart and mind like a wet, bloody pain. He'd been cut open before; he'd bled his guts onto the ground, and it hurt like that, that damned liquidy hurt. Gushing blood inside, in a place he couldn't see; and it didn't simply heal like his physical parts, nor could he bandage it as a human would. It was intangible, but there. Abandonment, abuse. People hurt him; he watched them hurt each other: saw wars, battles. Fires rose into the sky, reduced the village to ashes; destruction, always so much destruction, and that, Envy realized, was life.

All things perished, and he, immortal, would see the end of everything, forever and ever until all humanity was dead and the sun burnt out, leaving only the dark world and its lightless moon.

He thought of that future sometimes, let his mind wander toward it, and it frightened him, made the shivers dance up his vertebrae. Just how fucking long would he live? He didn't want to die; humans were weak, pathetic creatures. They died.

He was better than they were, so much better. And the thought of them all being dead brought him orgasmic glee, sent him to planes of ecstasy that nothing else could manage—not even sex—yet what would happen if every ounce of humanity was removed from the world? His food source would be gone. It'd be over for him, as well! That was it. The goddamned monkey's paw behind his greatest wish. Even when they died, even when every last one of them died, they'd still ruin him, and he hated them a thousand times more for that, for dooming him even in death. Hated that he was dependent on humans. Hated that he was dependent on Dante.

Living forever? Risking seeing an age where everything returned to the shadows of the Gate? Scared him. Terrified him. Yet he didn't want to die, didn't want to give the bastard the satisfaction of having what he wanted. Spite was enough of a cause to live for, and what creature could be asked to willingly end his own existence? Sacrifice? Ha! And what the hell had that ever done for anyone, except make others think better of them? Envy didn't want others to think better of him. He just wanted them to die, to endure pain so that he could feel better. Didn't matter. None of them mattered.

So he lived on: terrified, hurt, and most of all, enraged.

Dante said she cared for his well-being, said she was the only person who could ever care for his well-being, and he needed her for her incomplete stones. Yet she didn't give him the attention he wanted; she never gave him enough attention! In the beginning, when his form was just beginning to lose its original hideousness, she held him, cried long and hard about Hohenheim—her absent husband whose own attentions she coveted—and allowed her tears to moisten his slimy skin. She petted his hair, told him stories, sang on occasion, taught him to walk on two legs and helped to form his body into something functional.

Then she threw him from the nest; a discarded baby bird.

She sent him on missions, had him do whatever she desired—which usually consisted of playing a role in her plots and schemes. Even when the two were in close physical proximity, Dante rarely wanted anything to do with her adopted homunculus. She tended to regard him with either indifference or vague amusement, as though he were a gnat on some days and a child on others. He was neither, and he didn't like her attitude. If he became too argumentative or too rebellious, she would beat him, break his fingers; more than once she flew into a rage and transmuted his body into horrible shapes, literally unravelling his lower half or bending his back into an upside down U, sticking his limbs in the floor, binding and twisting him until he vomited stones everywhere. Then, he could do nothing but ache.

Dante's wrath was a terrible thing to bring down on one's head. Either she would let Envy hurt until she had decided he'd sufficiently learned his lesson about opposing her wishes, or else she would leave him in a state of being in which he could still work his mouth, and he would eventually apologize and beg for mercy.

She knew all the right buttons to push to make him as angry and sore as possible, and she certainly was not afraid to use them.

Following the torture—and only after Envy had grown submissive enough for her approval—Dante always held him like she had long ago, insisting that everything she did was for his sake as much as hers. She told him that she was only so harsh with him because he was important to her and as such, she had to hone his manners, stay firm so that he'd be the best he could be. Envy merely lay there, muscles and nerves whining and screaming in agony as he transformed them back into place.

He wasn't sure if he believed her, even then. But the fact of the matter was, it was of no consequence whether she was lying or not, because she was his only source of "life"; so one way or another, it'd be better to accept her words as the truth, as he couldn't do anything about them if they weren't. Thus Envy drank the poison, swallowed everything straight from Dante's lips. She was nice to him, but she made him bleed; kindness was nothing but a lie for the gain of whosoever held up the ruse.

And then to discover that Dante had kept that love note...that letter from him...their mutual enemy...

That had torn him worst of all.

Betrayal, pure and simple. A betrayal of everything.

Years and years. Day into night, sun into moon; light springs gave way to sweltering summers when the fruits grew plump and juicy. Autumn, when the trees turned colours and the air was cool and Envy began to remember the Before. Winter, short days and black nights and ice on the roads. Long hours he stood before the mirror, forehead to the silver-backed glass. He didn't cry, never cried. Making noise was only worthwhile for getting Dante to pay attention to him, and these days, that never worked, either. Yet the pain filled him, shocked his system until he could barely move because it just stuck, like something stabbing through him, reducing his lungs to pincushions through which he couldn't seem to circulate air. He didn't actually need to breathe; his insides—his whole fucking body—lies, lies, more LIES!

He didn't wish his form to look too human, too male, too female. He didn't want to look in the mirror and see an imitation of what others saw; he didn't want to see his false reflection and remind himself of any other person. What if he looked in the mirror and saw a face reminiscent of a human he'd killed, someone he'd despised? What if the resemblance managed to sneak in? That would've just hurt him, annoyed him, pissed him off to no end. He wanted his own unique identity, his own body apart from anything else.

Obviously, he had to make his new appearance as contradictory to his loathed former self as possible, or else see Hohenheim staring back at him with his terrible glaring countenance.

Purple eyes. If Envy didn't actively switch his eyes, they always defaulted to violet, and that was fine. No human had eyes like those. He selected a humanoid template for himself, although he made sure to keep it much smaller and thinner than his broad-shouldered sire. He also very nearly opted for his preferred form to be female; it didn't really matter much one way or the other, and besides, he'd spent time as a woman and even been fucked as a woman when duty required it. More to the point, Hohenheim was male.

But Dante was not.

In the end, Envy had just shrugged and decided he'd change his genitalia every few decades. Whatever. Wasn't important. His mind barely qualified gender; it was too much of a fixed quality to apply to a being such as himself. He could even have a body without gender, and some years, he did. Sex was nothing but an act, playing a role; Envy'd always seen it as a job to carry out, a chore; his mind was too preoccupied with getting to his goal to be able to enjoy himself, thus he got little pleasure out of intercourse or any other sexual practices. He didn't want pleasure, anyway. That was fucking disgusting—taking cock from a human.

But he knew how to close his eyes and make the right noises, even if he was cringing inside; knew the words to say, the questions to ask. His mind blocked out whatever he might have otherwise felt and he was left afterwards with the impression of being filthy and disgusting; he didn't like being a goddamned waste basket for fluids and blood and hair, and the more he avoided humans, the more out of touch he got with their odors, so they all smelled like deer piss to him. Hairy, stinky, wretched beasts.

He didn't want hair on his body; he prohibited everything save for eyebrows, eyelashes, and of course a copious helping of hair atop his head. Long hair was the style in those days; Dante had long hair, as did Hohenheim; hell, male humans often wore wigs so as to have more fashionable coifs. But he couldn't have hair like anyone else, and this was one aspect of his appearance over which Envy worried and preened more than any other; curls were too feminine, too bouncy. Dante had curls, in certain bodies. No, no, he didn't want to convey the idea that he was demure and ladylike and fuckable, but in all his vanity, he wanted beautiful tresses. Long. Straight.

Black was the initial colour he chose, simply because humans tended to be so superstitious about black. To them anyway, it conveyed a mood, an idea. It made him seem aloof, beautiful or not, and he appreciated that. He opted for green overtones only after it occurred to him that he needed something to suit his name, and besides, the colour enhanced his eyes perfectly. Dante clucked her tongue and made the remark that he looked like a plant. Well, he hadn't intended that, but if there was one thing a person could say of aloe vera, it was that its lanceolate leaves did keep one's fingers at a safe distance; few would dare a poke at something like that. And with that reasoning, Envy made his own strands spiky enough to carry a sort of warning in spite of their thick but harmless texture.

He didn't want to look completely inviting. The body was boyish. Small. Cute. Pretty, maybe.

And inviting. To a point. But as with a porcupine or a hedgehog, the added message was there: reach forward and get a handful of quills, draw your fingers back to see the blood on them.

And he understood his body, anyway. He didn't see why no one else could make heads or tails out of his sense of fashion. But then, that really did not matter. He didn't care what anyone else thought. They were all stupid. The world was filled with stupidity.

He'd spent a while on his face, though it hadn't taken as long as the hair. With the face, it was more a matter of trying to push all of the features into a kind of submission. He wanted lips, but he didn't want them to be huge and piscine. He wanted eyelashes, but not prominent ones—not overly glaring. He didn't want a nose like a beak, nothing too pointy. The nose was by far the most annoying aspect of his visage, because he just couldn't decide on a good enough shape for the bit of protruding cartilage; he tried several noses but hastily swiped them away, removing them in irritation. Nothing looked right! Nothing fit properly!

Envy settled for a pixie-like nose, something small and cute to fit with the overall package. Hohenheim had a long, horse-like countenance, and Envy didn't want that, so he made his own more heart-shaped, with flat features and a delicate jaw line. Androgynous. Neither distinctly male nor female, though members of either population might find it attractive. And yet he didn't want to be obviously beautiful, or obviously handsome. He wanted to be a little of everything and much of nothing.

His mouth was the one characteristic he did exaggerate on. He made it too wide. And Envy had no remorse for that, because he liked grinning. He liked it a lot.

During and after wars, he grinned daggers at the blood red sky.

He grinned down on the dying, teeth sharpening as the lust for carnage ran rampant within him. Killing was an aphrodisiac; it made him feel.

The body had been easier, so much easier, than the hair or the face. It had been nothing more than a matter of selecting the right width for his thighs, what genitalia he thought best, how much fat and muscle to give himself, whether he wanted breasts or not (no, easy no), and other such trivial concerns. Pale skin because it stood in impeccable opposition to the hair and eyes, and because he didn't want to look too alive, too human; he wasn't, after all.

His abdomen curved inwards, like small sideways v's on both the right and left ends; the shape of the rectus abdominis echoed a woman's hourglass build, but everything was compact and firm. Envy's much puzzled over (and sometimes derided) clothing originally began as a black body suit, until he realized that he didn't like hiding away the body he'd designed. It would've been as ridiculous as concealing the canvas on which one's favourite painting lay.

Fingerless gloves and toeless socks signified that Envy's hands and feet were of especial interest to him—and, by proxy, to anyone he might encounter.

More warnings in plain sight. He was ready and more than willing to make use of those parts, and he did want cloth coverings to keep off the worst of the blood and guts and bone shards, please and thank you.

He didn't like shoes. Envy wondered, sometimes, if his human self had liked shoes. His memories of his former life were so foggy in so many ways; he really had no fucking clue. But it was unimportant, since he hated shoes. Men's shoes in those days had been especially large and clunky, and whenever Envy heard a male's especially heavy footsteps, he was reminded of Hohenheim's footfalls. It set his nerves on edge, recalling the sound of Hohenheim walking around in his basement laboratory while Envy had hurt and bled.

But it wasn't just that. He liked having an aerial grace, and shoes made him feel weighed down. He didn't like any extra weight, and he didn't like something which pinched his toes, and he didn't want any goddamned boxes around his feet. So no shoes.

Besides, he could kick through a ribcage without them.

He hid his crotch and his chest because humans deemed those to be very important areas—very erogenous areas—and while he liked displaying his handiwork and being lusted after made him feel flattered, the concept of just letting any old fucker eyeball his so-called "private parts" pissed Envy off in a way he couldn't quite explain. He fancied himself an idol of sorts, something sacred to be admired but not touched. Irrespective of how shameless Dante or Greed or anyone else considered him, he was inaccessible.

The wrap over the shorts was to particularly enhance the point for whenever he did deign to be male.

Additionally, it made his nether attire look enough like a skirt to bring his gender into question, and he liked that, too.

Lastly, there were three other identifying parts of Envy: the symbol of his birth on his thigh, the nodes on his back, and the hairband he wore. The third was to keep his hair in check, of course, but it also gave something to the overall athletic look; he was a fighter, a soldier. He didn't wear a uniform or military boots, but he was strong and ready to battle anyone he needed to; his power had grown to such an extent by then—from years and years of being nourished by incomplete stones—that he didn't fear adversaries. And maybe he got a little cocky.

The water symbol on his forehead was perhaps the greatest warning, if one could interpret its meaning. Whatever form he took, Envy was a leviathan at heart, a dragon.

Out of all the aspects of his physique and his psyche (and being a shapeshifter, the two went hand in hand like lovers), this he was the least willing to admit to, more of a secret even than his gender (which wasn't so much a secret as it was a question of the moment, though that was splitting hairs). Not that the feeling was silly. Not really. He could be whatever shape he wanted, dragon or human. But to admit that he thought about the legendary reptiles—

—to admit he held a certain respect for what they represented—

—to admit he remembered the stories from the murky time in which Dante had recounted tales and nursed him to health—

—to admit there was something, some concept in the world which he didn't hate—

Stupid. Childish. Idealistic.

Envy remembered the stories. Every. Damned. One.

He shelved Dante's words away.

Many years later, he wasn't sure if he really recalled Hohenheim's actions on the night of his creation or if he merely saw them so vividly in his mind's eye because Dante had painted the portraits accordingly. His own human life felt like a faraway dream, something fuzzy which he caught glimpses of here and there; he never knew what was simply a summer vision, a product of heat or fatigue or some unexpected stimulus, a delusion; Envy was uncertain about how best to decipher the real from the imaginary when it came to the uneven slivers of time caught in the bottomless abyss of his mind.

But even so, he remembered the stories.

Dragons, knights, kings, queens, princesses. Faraway kingdoms. Dragons, most of all. Xing and its emperors and empresses, battles for land, wars, the fall of the underground city at the hands of that bastard. The Gate. The world on the other side of the Gate, the heavens and hells witnessed by the man from which Dante had taken her name. He didn't care. He said he didn't care. He wasn't the sort who stored anything like a child would; he didn't believe in fairies, none of that nonsense, and he knew better.

Only...

It wasn't so much the stories themselves. That was it. It was the fact that they represented a time when he'd been different, when he'd been hopeful, when Dante had assured him that he meant something and that the world would be all right with time.

He would never admit, not to anyone—never, EVER—that he'd wanted that to be true. Because he'd been a fool, duped once and he'd never trust again, and the world would never be all right. Everything on all sides of the Gate was a wasteland. Nothing more.

Envy didn't care for books. Didn't care for any sort of literature, novel or poetry anthology or whatever. That was all human shit. It didn't mean anything to him, didn't speak to him in any way.

Or so he maintained.

There was one poem, by Petrarch, which he remembered even centuries later, though his tongue had trouble replicating the words smoothly. Envy wasn't one who could recite poetry from memory; he had to stop and stutter and think, and he was horrible with songs, too. But it was of no consequence, as both were so damned human.

Yet he still recalled the words of a poem:

My galley, loaded with forgetfulness,

rolls through rough seas, at midnight, during winter,

aiming between Charybdis and sharp Scylla;

my lord, ah no, my foe, sits at the

tiller;

each oar is wielded by a quick, mad thought

that seems to scorn the storm and what it means;

an endless wind of moisture, of deep sighs,

of hopes and passions, rips the sail in half;

tears in a steady downpour, mists of hate,

are loosening and soaking all the ropes,

ropes made of ignorance, tangled up with error.

The two sweet stars I steer by are obscured;

reason and skill are dead amid the waves;

and I don't think I'll ever see the port.

"Poem 189 out of 366 in the Canzoniere," Dante informed Envy coolly when she observed him reading the opened pages. She smiled at him. "Why, Envy, I didn't know you had any interest in my books."

"I don't!" he replied, a touch too forcefully—but with a reasonable amount of honesty. "I was just walking by and noticed the book was open." He shrugged, bouncing his shoulders. "Wasn't interesting. Just human trash. Worthless."

"Dante was a better poet than Petrarch," his master said, as if she hadn't heard him. Perhaps she hadn't. She approached, lifted the book from the table, and closed it loudly; then she proceeded to run a slender finger along the tome's spine. "Passa la nave mia colma d'oblio." Her eyes glimmered.

In those days, he'd known more Italian. It was a language Dante was fond of—rather blatantly, at that. She'd imparted her knowledge onto Envy, but it didn't hold. For maybe a century, he remembered enough Italian to hold conversations with Dante and read her poetry, but when it became obvious that he would never go to Earth (or well, he'd thought as much at the time), he dumped that foreign tongue and concentrated on others.

Dante looked down at her book. "You know, he was a very smart man, Hohenheim of Light. A true genius." She eyed Envy. "You were smart, too. You appreciated poetry, fine wine, philosophy."

"Yeah, well," he returned, "didn't stop me from dying."

He sneered then, and walked out of the room.

The poem stayed in his mind like a hanged body, cobwebbed over the years and living in echoes. He hated that anything made by a human might reside in his head; it wasn't as though he cared about stupid human shit. He hated them; hated everything.

Years fell away.

Dante and Envy lived comfortably in Dublith. Well, Dante lived comfortably. Envy was as miserable as ever, but at least this estate seemed better than the one they had left behind in Reuestadt. The new mansion was cleaner, more nicely furnished; there were gardens right outside the window, and although Envy had absolutely no use for flowers, Dante seemed to enjoy toying with them when she wasn't doing more important work. She took to growing herbs and other medicinal plants for her alchemy, saying Hohenheim wasn't the only one who could master toxicology, oh no. She'd show him.

The woman and her servant had left the burnt ruins of "the Sty" with almost nothing; Envy walked the length of the remains as per Dante's request, and he salvaged a few handfuls of incomplete stones. Dante had been much more wasteful in those days—the folly of youth. Her first form had been blonde, her second had had dark hair, and her third had had a mane of auburn tinged with fire. Of course, the first of those body switches had only been possible because Hohenheim was with her at the time. Their combined alchemy had been so much swifter, more efficient.

But Dante, like the embodiment of her Sins, was greedy and gluttonous. She always demanded more.

Envy didn't remember his predecessor's life perfectly, not even back then. As through the looking glass of a dream, he could see a boy with hair like straw, standing amid pews, standing in the cold late winter rain, face grim, eyes dull, dressed all in black. Envy watched, remembered he guessed, but he didn't feel anything when he looked at the child. That boy was nothing to him. Weak. He was weak, overshadowed by his mother's murmured insistence that they deserved better, that it was Hohenheim's fault. It was all his fault; she said that even back then, and Envy recognized her even though he'd never known her in that form. He'd never known her with blonde hair, a true girl and not just a woman in the guise of one, but looking on the pair, Envy knew.

"We deserve so much more, you and I," said the woman whom Dante had been. "Your father is nothing but a man who looks at the stars and gives unfulfilled promises to the air. A drunken fool."

She sighed.

The boy looked up.

Beneath the powder that smothered her cheeks, one dark spot sat on the woman's face like the imprint of a grey, squatting frog.

The boy understood. Sort of.

Envy understood.

Dante and Hohenheim fought hard. Yelled. Some nights it happened in front of the child. He didn't think they noticed him; they were too full of spirits, too angry. He stood on the staircase, peering through the bars, knuckles white from gripping them. Dante hit the ground, crashed; he saw, saw the man put his hands on her shoulders and shove her, heard him tell her to be more of a mother and more of a wife and less of a whore. She stood up as quickly as was possible in all her clothing, and even though the boy couldn't see her face, Envy could fill in the details; he could imagine how darkly she must've scowled in response to her husband's violence.

After the fact, Hohenheim never claimed to be remorseful. Not as such. He'd say it should be put behind them, that his wife should forget about it—that they both should forget. It was the closest to remorse that one could ever hear him get, and Dante would rage in response, would scream that he didn't respect her, that he never had.

"It's hard to respect a woman who doesn't act respectable," he replied.

Then, he straightened his shirt, adjusted his glasses to view her coldly over his severe slope of a nose, and turned his attention again to his work.

Hohenheim never hit his son, but then, he never had much to do with him at all. He was always at work, saying he wanted to save the three of them, to give them the kind of lives that they deserved. But the boy knew his father thought he was mute, dumb, a fool. Weak seed. His father saw him as ailing and he wanted to fix the child into something he could play with, laugh with, talk about science with. The son wasn't like other children and even at a young age, he had a certain awareness of that fact. He was given to quietness, brooding; he was solemn, aloof, miserable.

Maybe he'd just inherited his father's nature, but that apparently wasn't what Hohenheim desired.

He desired, in his own words, "a live child, not a walking corpse".

And his son, standing just within earshot, heard as much.

Hohenheim didn't insult him directly. Didn't get angry. He merely aspired to improve his creation.

It hadn't hurt the child. The child hadn't thought much of it at all, at least from what Envy could tell.

But seeing it, Envy had a hell of a lot of an opinion on the matter.

Dante had treated her son in a very different manner, though she was abusive in her own way. She didn't neglect the child; she paid him attention, hugged him and cuddled him and doted upon him, petted him and told him he and she were alone in the world and someday she'd really gather the courage and strength to leave Hohenheim once and for all, but until then she swore she'd just manipulate him. Retrospectively, Envy didn't believe her. She'd been too devastated by Hohenheim leaving her; she never would've left him, but in those days, she'd sworn otherwise. She had promised her son freedom from her husband's tyranny, but she was selfish and desperate herself; she clung to the possibility of immortal life to the point of being driven mad by its tantalizing hope.

The Philosopher's Stone was Dante's drug, her opium; although she and Hohenheim destroyed themselves, their marriage, their child, and their life in their pursuit of the thing—and though perhaps somewhere deep inside they hated themselves for it—they pushed onwards, driven like religious zealots on a crusade.

"No one will ever love you like I do," Dante assured, petting her son's head.

Now, Envy heard the ugly insult in the words: No one can ever love you like I can, because you're too damaged.

Dante doted on her son, but she seemed to have the same opinion of him that Hohenheim had. "It's your father's fault that you're so queer," she said, "but I love you, and some day I'll spirit us both away and you'll grow into a fine man. I'll show him."

She crouched low and looked into her boy's large, dull golden eyes. One hand reached out, smoothed the golden curls at the base of his ear, tucked them behind it. The child said nothing. "Ah, my sweet," she began, "how sorry I am that he's polluted you with his blood, but at least you'll be a grand alchemist someday. You'll make me proud, I don't doubt."

It hurt Envy to remember, to hear the sweetness in her voice. Speak like a nightingale and kiss like a viper, that was Dante's way.

She'd succeeded where Hohenheim had not when it came to making her child have a high opinion of her. He grew into a teenager, Momma's Boy, wanted to please her, didn't care a thing about appeasing the often absent old man.

But the ironic thing was that the teenager was more outgoing, moodier; arrogant, had a sharp tongue—father's coldness with the mother's penchant for caustic remarks; then, only then, Hohenheim wanted something to do with his son. Envy saw, remembered. This was the point when his mind rushed forward, when the cloud came and there was darkness.

Darkness, and he didn't know what happened next. He never saw his own death. Never saw the mercury; couldn't bring its taste to his mouth from the waters of memory; the closer his mind neared to that moment, he tasted only the Lethe.

And it was bitter.

Eighteen years.

Eighteen years in exchange for four centuries.

Eighteen years and everything went black.

Eighteen years and Envy saw the young man in the portrait; well-dressed, with a sneer of a smile and a head full of alchemy and mischief.

Envy knew that expression. Ash and oil on the tongue.

He knew the boy so well, but not the man. The boy his mind's eye saw through foggy glass, but the window to the man was smudged with blood and dirtied by smoke. A life drowned by mercury, Dante said. A life full of promise. But Envy looked on and saw only a ghost, a wisp and a spectre; his mind couldn't wrap around the pictures he'd seen. The pain was his, oh assuredly, but that wasn't him. He wasn't weak. Not now.

"He brought you back because he wanted to use you," Dante explained when Envy asked about his origin. "You may have been a slow and difficult child, but as a man you were outgrowing your demons and your father wanted you for an apprentice. But don't think for one second that he cared about you. He didn't."

She looked into the mirror while speaking, dabbing herself with perfume as she was wont to do, and Envy kept an eye on her distant, vague gaze. "You see, Hohenheim of Light wanted nothing more than control. He wanted to control me, and he wanted to control you. You defied him by dying. You entered a realm he held no jurisdiction over, and he couldn't stand that. A scientist is supposed to have an open mind, but your father held contempt for anything he didn't understand. And he didn't quite understand death."

Her words combined with what Envy saw of the boy's life...everything added up.

"And do you know what he said when he saw what he had made of his son?"

She turned to face him, hands in her lap and legs crossed as she perched on the stool. Her skirts spread around her like a mushroom of white and pink.

"He said in neither all the heavens nor all the hells had he ever witnessed such a perversion unto nature. He told me he had an epiphany...that he saw he'd challenged the gods and been the worse off for it. Hubris had taken him one step too far, he said." A scornful laugh. "And then he, this supposed changed man, walked away. Not only did he see you as a failure, but he saw you as the failure which made him think he'd been in the wrong for years and years and years. Now there's a legacy for you."

But there was one question which always made Envy itchy:

What had his bastard of a father sacrificed to bring him into the world?

He knew the rules.

The old man had given something up. But unlike the Elric shits or the woman who created Wrath, Hohenheim hadn't seemed to be missing any parts. Not that Envy had seen him directly after the transmutation, but he did remember the sound of his footsteps—clunking on the wood, like the worst heartbeat of all time. If a crucial part had been missing, he shouldn't have been able to walk around afterwards. He should've been on the floor bleeding, maybe coughing up blood. He would've needed Dante's help. And he obviously hadn't needed Dante's help, or Dante, or his own son.

What the hell had he lost?

"Not enough," Dante replied coyly.

She was cagey about this issue, insisting that she had no idea what the Gate might have taken from Hohenheim. She hadn't seen the transmutation, she claimed. She'd only seen the results. But somehow, Envy suspected that she knew more than she was letting on. The bitch was evasive. She was hiding something; Envy knew she kept a lot of secrets stashed somewhere deeper than up her skirts, but he had no way of prying the knowledge from her. His best weapon was resentment, and even that paled before his need for what she could feed him.

Destitute, Dante and Envy left Reuestadt with the meager amount of belongings remaining after the fires had claimed their other possessions. Dante had no care to travel on her feet and her corset often made her short of breath, so more often than not she made Envy transform into a horse on which she could sit and order him around.

Their travels were bleak—at least for Envy. Dante seemed to cope well enough, though maybe she only upheld a facade of cool confidence.

They began in the northeast, at the Reuestadt ruins; their trek took them south to Fisk, where Dante asked Envy to turn himself into a pretty girl—her supposed daughter—and then she gave him to others for a bedmate, again and again. Envy made himself a frail-looking blonde girl with big blue eyes; he—or rather she—had no difficulty enticing the soldiers stationed in Fisk. They were homesick. Lonely. Weak, Envy thought, sneering inwardly. He became adept at sucking cocks, picking pockets, and slitting throats tidily. He also learned how to endure an annoying amount of pillow talk.

Murder was easy. Murder was just shifting into the form of a known person in the village and shooting a soldier. Envy always took the shape of alchemists whom Dante had worked with, as per Dante's request. She got around, managed to meet other underground groups of alchemists. They shared their secrets with her, and then she had Envy cause a little commotion between them and the military. Consequently, the alchemists and the soldiers fought, and Dante waited on the sidelines, picking up whatever spoils she could.

She was never wealthy enough to be a noblewoman in Fisk, but she left with money and secrets. Once the village had become ensnared in warring and blazes, Dante summoned the Gate. Everything was transmuted in the blink of an eye.

No one had noticed the giant circle.