scimitarsmile

Menu

ambre

Wasteland

chapter 22.

Everyone believed, hoped, and prayed that the war would end soon.

Until then, there was an Allied blockade of foodstuffs, and Germany remained in the hands of the Weimar Republic. Poverty reigned supreme, the Mark having been devalued as it was. Famine lay apparent in the malnourished bodies of many men, women, and children.

Edward, like various others, found himself subsisting on bread, withered sausages, and turnips—a diet his body had not altogether taken to for the first week or so, during which he'd agonized, his stomach flipping restlessly as his insides battled their contents into submission. He wondered, sometimes, what Envy had shoved down his throat when he'd been sick and delirious, but he didn't let his mind wander towards that subject very often; probably best not to know. After a solid week of eating the small rations he received in exchange for his services at the yard, his stomach adjusted and the next days heralded less ache.

At least, he reasoned, he was eating and washing himself again. Definitely a change for the best, though he couldn't tell if he'd yet regained any of the muscle mass he'd lost in his prior sickness and deprivation; when he stole glances at himself in the station windows, he thought he looked much healthier (and cleaner) all the way around, but it was probably still too early for any significant alterations.

Ed had picked up certain German words and sentences, though thanks to Wagner (who, he was pretty sure, still didn't like him very much—or found him suspicious, or something, but he did seem to be tolerating him better now) he'd gathered more about his location, the time period, and what others were saying, and through translations, he could talk to others a little. But it was still all business; he didn't have any friends, was wretchedly lonely, and he had no idea when—or if—he'd graduate from running errands and move onto better paying duties. He shared clothes with the other youths at the yard, largely adolescents, and garbed himself in drab browns and whites.

Now, it had been nearly two weeks (or perhaps a full two weeks; his sense of time had taken a turn for the worse) since he'd arrived at München Hauptbahnhof: two weeks since he'd lost his virginity, two weeks since his first day of failure, two weeks since Envy had awakened him one foggy morning, hysterical and wailing about someone or something.

Retrospectively, it felt like a dream.

Envy was crazy during the best of times and utterly sick in the head during the worst, and Edward had instinctively taken his ranting as that of a madman. He ignored the Sin at first, content in slumbering for as long as possible, but when Envy literally began pummeling his shoulders, he woke up, shoved him away, blinked a good many times, and blearily stumbled out into the yard. Searching turned up no one, save for the linemen.

Ed quickly grew irritated about having been disturbed at all.

Plainly, Envy didn't know what in the hell he was talking about, what he saw and heard or thought he'd seen and heard; probably, more than likely, he'd had a nightmare or something. And Ed wasn't having any of it. He told Envy as much.

Envy screamed, shrieked in the highest pitch Ed had ever heard him emit, voice sharp and cut with undercurrents that rang like silverware crashing together.

"How the fuck else," he demanded, "could I be able to beat your ass again?"

The Sin had thereafter launched himself at Edward. They fell to the floor in a tangle, though what exactly happened, Ed wasn't sure. He had to admit to himself that yes, some of Envy's strength seemed to have returned, and yes, Envy had miraculously gotten healthier over night, but the next thing he knew, they'd separated, his lip was bleeding, and Envy had run off. Edward found himself wanting to yell at the idiot that maybe having the Stone inside of him had been the catalyst for his abrupt recovery; after all, who knew what the arcane object was capable of? But that, Ed supposed, was a logical perspective, and Envy was in no mood for logic. Envy was never in the mood for logic, as demonstrated by his thoughtless decision to scurry off naked.

He came back later, still huffy (but quieter), collected the change of clothes, and vanished.

Ed didn't think much about the incident at the time, mostly because he physically couldn't. For two nights in a row, he'd suffered drastic sleep deprivation on account of Envy, and although he needed to get up, needed to try to work, he just couldn't manage it; he slept all day and into the morning of the next day, awakening to twilight and harrowing stomach cramps; he was pissed off, fucking angry that he still wasn't getting enough food, enough sleep, enough money, and when in the hell did it end?

Life improved in small degrees.

The first day was a disaster, a setback, but Edward worked doubly hard over the course of the next few days in the hopes of making up for it. Food he received, but not much else. Generally, he found people liked him better if he acted cheerful and unassuming; if he didn't talk too much or ask too many questions. Among the poor, natural charisma and scientific know-it-all theories would've been held in as much contempt as the alchemist's flamboyant red cloak; here, nothing mattered besides sweat and hard labour, honest work, and as little attitude as possible was appreciated. So rain or searing heat, he suffered through the days, enduring his tasks even when various parts of his body wanted to surrender to sleep or worse.

He didn't complain. And he smiled.

Smiled even when he could barely stand, when his flesh foot was torn and bleeding, blistered and oozing. Smiled in spite of the way he could feel the automail wearing on him, biting his skin, slowly and gradually disintegrating without Winry around to take a wrench to it. He was limping ever so slightly, but he hoped no one noticed; if they had, they hadn't said anything. Most were more disdainful on account of his missing arm.

But the automail was only a symptom of a much more dire and pressing question: what was he doing? What was he trying to do? What in the hell was he attempting to achieve?

This, unfortunately, was a matter he couldn't stop turning over in his head. He had work now, enough food to keep him alive, and shelter, but was that all he could really get out of life? He didn't like to think he was doomed to the bare necessities for the rest of his days, but even if he got better work, even if he got more money, there wouldn't be home and there wouldn't be Alphonse and he couldn't really, really feel as though he had anything meaningful in his world.

And Envy...Envy having the Stone inside of his body...what the fuck? Well, no, it made sense...in an absurd, nonsensical kind of way. He'd jumped into it, directly into the damned thing, and it had obviously infected him...so to speak. Grown in him, affected him, and Ed was by no means sure what to make of this twist. After all, it was the Philosopher's Stone! The goddamned Stone! The ne plus ultra of everything in alchemy! Everything he'd spent years striving for, and it was here, at his fingertips, and the worst irony—the biggest fucking joke—was that he couldn't do a thing about it. No alchemy, for a start, and the item was embedded in the bosom of his worst enemy turned...

—something? No. Just. Worst enemy.

Just another obstacle; that was all it was. Something to make Envy crazier and something to make Ed feel compelled to keep him around, wonder where he was, worry about his well-being. It was tiresome, maddening! He had more immediate concerns, yet a significant part of him wanted to focus on the Stone—the elixir of the damned, the device that destroyed and ruined the lives it touched, and nevertheless, even knowing all this, even realizing his own caution, he could feel his heart flutter in anticipation at the mere thought of its might and magnificence; home, it whispered.

Home. Beyond the horizon and its cloak of unfamiliar stars, beyond the universe, beyond the Gate, beyond the weariness of his body and soul. A key. A ticket. Something to unlock the doors and open his eyes to the sun that had shone over him when he'd been a child. The Stone...if only he could reach out, activate it again...

He buried the hopes. Mentally dug a grave for them, tossed them in, and kicked cold soil over every ember of eagerness. He couldn't get excited. He couldn't let himself get excited. False hopes. Fool's gold. He couldn't just drop everything and begin drawing arrays; he couldn't lunge after some hypothetical cure-all, not when the more grounded problems of daily sustenance assaulted him. If he tilted his head to the sky, he wouldn't see what was before his face, and tempting though it was, he found that he couldn't bear to take that risk.

Long days. Would've been terrible if he weren't used to pain.

Tedious, mind-numbing; all the colour in the world had perished and grey thoughts dyed Edward's mind—everything from questioning Envy's whereabouts to chewing mental nails over the prospect of being exiled from his temporary and unlikely sanctuary.

Envy stuck out like a sore thumb, even if the light within him had somehow been extinguished; it might revive again at any time, and Ed didn't know how he'd managed to bring it forth to begin with. Didn't understand at all. It wouldn't do for him to get in a fight, to get wounded and heal instantly before someone's eyes. It wouldn't do for anyone to see the automail, the curse Ed wore. He took great care when he showered, but with all he had on his mind, he was afraid he might fuck up. Might get caught. Carted off. Arrested. Experimented on. He didn't know, but he wagered he'd meet a fate worse than turnips swimming in his belly.

Nights he slept away in the station; the yardmaster had taken a liking to him, he thought, because he smiled at him occasionally, though he didn't say much. He was a busy man, and smiles looked strange on his lips, but Ed thought maybe he reminded him of someone he'd known before, or something.

Maybe. Or maybe his feigned charisma had gotten through by way of his striking set of teeth. Certainly hadn't been any eloquent speeches on his behalf.

When Ed was invited to sleep inside, he suspected it was because someone liked him a little, but he didn't ask. He dreamed to the lullabies of trains and shouts heard through the walls and tiny, unseen skittering things. Mornings saw him fumbling with his collar, tucking his pockets in with one hand, hiding his dust-licked hair beneath a cap fit for a paperboy; when he tried to communicate with the other kids, he felt eight years younger, though his bones had aged centuries. He made himself laugh when the others did, as if he understood the jokes; he experimented with the crude syllables on a confused tongue, won laughs of a different variety.

He could mimic, pretend, but he couldn't be a child again. Not now.

Sex. That was a start. He'd had sex. And not the romantic, adorable kind.

Not even close. More like the "killing myself inside" kind—melodramatic, perhaps, but true.

The kind that hurt, even when you were the one doing the hurting; he wasn't really sure why he'd done that and he didn't particularly want to think about it, yet it seeped into dreams sometimes: like rust. Or mould. Rot.

He'd died once. Twice, if you counted dying as an alternate version of himself.

Not just taken sick; he'd actually died. That little fact almost certainly negated any claim to childhood he might've otherwise had left.

"Hallo," he greeted the others daily, along with, "gutenmorgen", and, "guten tag", because he remembered those words. He watched the people come and go in the station sometimes, when he wasn't working, when he didn't have a task at hand; faces blurred until they were all faceless—one stream of people, lives, souls.

Once, he thought he saw a girl with auburn hair and pigtails; a sweet face, familiar, hand clasped in her mother's, but then she was gone, on the train, those eyes lost again forever, and he wondered, truly, if he were going as mad as Envy.

The dead milled around him, the odd stars above, the dryness below, with the Gate on some unseen plane hovering between worlds and dimensions, and Ed himself hovered between the everythings and the nothings, trapped in the seconds, the nuances of the days. Routine settled. Ed settled, trying all the while not to question what disease he might next find himself in possession of.

Sometimes he thought he felt eyes.

Just stares, he told himself. Stares because sometimes he was dirty, and because his arm was gone, and because it was a train station and everyone looked at everyone. Yet he often turned and saw no one, and the wind sighed long and low, whistling over the land.

Could've been that Envy's paranoia had affected him, because when he wasn't keeping his focus firmly locked onto whatever he was doing, creeping suspicions invaded his consciousness. What if it hadn't been a dream? What if the fluid on his lips hadn't been vomit, but—?

It went nowhere. Every pondering went nowhere; aborted.

Ed had, in the past, indulged in his moments of grief; he'd wept and poured his emotions out on sobs so violent as to grind ache into his nerves and make his automail rattle with the force of his shaking. This was different. If this was depression, then it was a deflating of the soul; it was a mind without any fire, any burn, an ocean in which the water had evaporated and the basin yawned down to the centre of the world. This was the death of every emotion, until Ed found he could stare at the firefly glow of street lamps or the skinny trees before the station while his mind drifted away, anchored to nothing. He went through menial tasks, an automaton, missing all the greens and the reds and blues he had known before. Here, the most colour rested within his eyes, and he imagined those had paled.

Thus life went for about two weeks.

Then, one day, something unusual happened.

Everyone's shifts ended—early, and abruptly.

It was evening, though Ed didn't know the hour, and a sunset slashed the sky, painting over the grey storm clouds with hazy pink, orange, apple red and apricot, a palette of spilled fruits. It wasn't uncommon for at least some of the rail workers to toil late into the nights, but as Ed looked on, eyes wide, cheers erupted, and filthy, broad-shouldered men congregated, stepping over the lengths of tracks; their usual fierce scowls and demeanors seemed to, by some miracle, melt. Smiles were exchanged. Backs were slapped.

And an eyebrow—Edward's—was quirked, as he realized that the language barrier was causing him to miss a hell of a lot.

Happy to be off work early, he guessed, but he didn't bother to consider why. He himself was standing with one foot on the tracks and one on the ground, sweat and dust cloaking what was left of his limbs, as well as his face and chest. He removed his cap, ran a hand through his messy locks, wiped his brow. He smelled oil but tasted dust, and brushed a tongue along his lips as thoughtfulness descended; it would be best, he supposed, if went back to the station and tried to get some rest.

Hopefully I can rest, he thought with a touch of anxiety. Lately, thoughts of using his metal toes to scribble arrays on the station floor had begun to plague him.

He dreamt, often, of alchemy, his mother, brother, and Envy.

Edward placed his hat back on his head and turned to depart, noting the way every muscle in his body seemed alive with tingling.

"Aren't you coming, boy?"

At first, it didn't register that he'd just been spoken to. He took about five steps, then noticed a loud cough emitted from somewhere behind him.

For an instant, Ed's reverie broke. He turned on his heels, blinking. Me? he wanted to ask, but didn't. Since when did any of the adults initiate conversation with him? If they did, it was only to peck him with questions—barbed questions, never the friendly sort. Even the only adult who seemed to like him never did much more than offer a smile or two, and while that might have been on account of the language barrier, Ed didn't particularly think that was the case.

"Yes, I was talking to you. I don't see any other midgets in the vicinity; how old did you say you were? Sixt—"

"Going on seventeen," Ed finished for him, not bothering to keep the gruffness from his tone. He sucked his breath in sharply, jaw stiffening. "Yeah. And there are younger kids here. What's it to you?"

Cort Wagner stood with the sunset at his back, the colours of the sky flaring over his white-blond hair and the planes of his face; his eyes were as dark as ever, strangely so, given that the rest of him was so fair. Arms folded at his chest, lip hitching to hint at a budding smirk, smudged skin. The man was a signal operator, and since Ed thought his own best job prospect was as a signal or switch operator, he figured there'd be no escaping working alongside him. Damn.

"You look about twelve. But you have the attitude of a man, though you work a boy's job. So, scheisskopf, don't you want a drink?"

The English accent made the words a little difficult, but once Ed's ears untangled them, he blurted, "A drink?"

And he was dumbfounded for all of about ten seconds.

Then, it hit him that—

"A drink. We're going to the pub."

Perhaps in response to the quizzical look that Ed could feel himself giving, he added, "The yard is closed tomorrow. Repairs. We're off for the night. This last week was a good one—enough papiermarks earned for drinks all around. Come on. I'll pay for you."

Ed didn't respond. He didn't know how to respond; suspicion came before anything else, insisting that no good could be found here. After all, the man had been nothing but vaguely (often even passive-aggressively) hostile towards him, so why would he suddenly extend an invitation like this? It didn't make sense, not unless he wanted to humiliate Ed. The cynical side of the boy's personality decided that was probably the case. Bastard. Muscles tensed; he felt a frown place creases on his forehead. Who do you think you are, trying to show me up? Like I'd fall for that.

He'd just about had it with arrogant assholes. He didn't have the nerves for this kind of thing anymore.

"No thanks," he said, coldly—unapologetically. Venom laced the words.

Wagner laughed. "You're a smart boy. Don't be stupid. We're going to the pub, drecksau. Might not go again for a long time. Trust me when I say you don't want to miss it."

"You're right. I'm not stupid. You don't like me, so don't pretend otherwise, all right?" He shrugged, rounding an arc with his shoulder joint. The old, familiar anger had begun to leak back into his pores, though after weeks without feeling much of anything, it wasn't entirely unwelcome. "Just...leave me alone."

"Who said I liked you? I won't claim that. I'm an honest man, you see. I don't make a habit out of lying and pretending. But you, boy, do. I couldn't like you even if I wanted to, because I don't know you." He unfolded his arms and lowered them to his sides. "I only know the lies you've told."

Cold sweat. A chill. Surprise and confusion and guilt mixed to clog Ed's throat.

He forced himself to breathe out slowly, suppressing an irate exhalation. It didn't feel good to be called a liar. It felt a hundred times worse when it was true; something like chagrin blazed through him, but he tried to push it back. Yeah, he'd lied, but so what? So fucking what? It wasn't like he wanted to lie, like he was a liar at heart or whatever Wagner was insinuating. It's not like that, he wanted to scream. He stared back into the eyes that seemed to be boring holes into him. I don't just go around lying all the time! What do you want from me? What the hell do you want me to say?

It wasn't like the truth would be believed. Stranger than fiction, absolutely. He had lied not because he loved doing so, but because it was the default for making ends meet here, and even if this man thought he was doing the world a service in uprooting a liar, he really wasn't achieving much besides prying and generally making Edward uncomfortable...not that Ed could explain that to him. The situation was one in which he couldn't win. No point in trying.

"You don't know anything," he said after a moment, punctuating the comment with a derisive snort. "You just think you do."

He looked down, finding himself unable to maintain a staring contest. Really, he knew he should just turn and walk off; it wasn't probable that the man would try to physically force him into going out with the others. That seemed a little much, even to prove a point.

But, then again...

"I know that the boy with you before isn't your brother." Ed heard the smirk—could imagine it upon the face, quirking the lips. "At least, I would hope he isn't, since you're fucking him."

Ed's chin jerked back up, eyelids shooting open.

The strength of his reaction undoubtedly cemented the truth of the accusation in the other's mind, but at that moment, he couldn't care. Blush emblazoned his cheeks; he knew the feeling of a blush and that was what sparked in his skin at the remark. Jaw went slack, and he almost, almost gasped. He'd never ever expected, or thought...and? And it was all he could do not to ramble off a startled apology.

"Wha...? WHAT?"

It hurt. It hurt. He didn't want anyone to know about that, didn't want to hear about it, didn't want to act like it'd happened. The mere mention made him feel dirty, frayed his nerves. Fucking. Ugly, ugly word. And it slithered over him, coiled in his stomach, looped in his head. Like a taint he'd gladly rip out of his skin if he could, but nothing would wash it away. Nothing, ever.

"Fucking," Wagner said calmly, unfazed by Edward's outburst. "Buggering, as we say in England. Cock up the arse. Ficken, in Deutsch. Don't look so upset. I don't care what end you're sticking your dick into or what end of you is getting stuffed; point is, you're a liar. You sound like an American to me, but some think you're more foreign than that. We're going for that drink now. You have a lot to tell me; maybe the beer'll loosen you up and get it out."

Ed swallowed.

The man looked behind himself, glancing at the various others who had already begun to exit the train yard. "And maybe then I can tell you something which you'll find useful, too."

Ed said nothing.

Sometime later, the sunset bled across the sky like a hemorrhage, deeper now as night came, and Ed found himself stumbling through the dark streets, nipped by the air and wishing for a coat to wrap around himself. The world was colder when you weren't running around accumulating a hot sweat, and Ed didn't think he liked where his thoughts were trying to go. He forced them to take detours and instead focused on the path of his feet as they made soft noises upon the stone; the lamps were lit all around him, but the lighting remained sparse. Ed had no idea where he was going, so he simply followed the lead of the others as they proceeded along like some herd of massive beasts, conversing in their guttural tongue and grunting along amicably.

Ed trailed behind, glancing from side to side, more preoccupied with his surroundings than with the others whom he accompanied. Buildings and streets were good, solid distractions; Ed noted the architecture, as well as how every house and workship seemed to have turned off its lights. A scant few still had them on as he strolled by, but when he turned, he discovered that those too had been removed. Munich at night was a quiet place, a place where a whisper felt like sacrilege; there were night patrolmen, identifiable because of their hats, as well as the homeless—on the streets and in the alleys—and if you saw those, you had but to pretend you didn't. Or so the others seemed to. Ed couldn't not see them, but he could look away.

That was what he did.

He couldn't be a hero for everyone. He knew that. Humans suffered. Humans would always suffer. There was no escaping that. Still, to see the poor was to see what he was—what he had been, and he ached with empathy.

Envy's out there somewhere, he thought as they took a shortcut through an alley, emerging on the other end. Was he still alive? Well, he had to still be alive. Ed found that he somehow didn't doubt that much. Envy was out there, assuredly alone, and Ed suddenly felt a tugging of guilt. That bastard—that insufferable bastard—had come to him for help. In hindsight, Ed realized he'd not made much of an effort to help Envy, and moreover, he'd written his concerns off as insanity, and while he felt his behaviour was perfectly justified in response to Envy's prior actions, it didn't change the fact that the Sin had come to him, wanting his aid. And maybe that was something in and of itself—something he shouldn't have scoffed off. He'd wanted Envy to open up to him, to act more human, to trust him, and maybe in his own weird little way...maybe he'd been trying to do just that, even if he hadn't actually known it. And Ed had rebuked him.

Well, too late now.

Eventually, they reached the pub. Ed stole a glance at the sign whose writing he couldn't read and followed the others in, using his one hand to close the door against the now sable night, the lamps, the streets, the homeless and the prostitutes, the animals, and whatever else lurked within this world. Inside, he removed his hat and held it at his chest, and once everyone had seated themselves, he moved over to the far corner—as far away as possible—and settled on one of the stools. The place was not lit well, though Ed could see dark reds pouring into browns and black on the walls and furniture, colours changing according to where the light fell. Across from his location, Ed saw a cabinet and within it, various bottles of wine that peered outwards, necks stretched, gleaming a little here and there. Watching, like pigeons on a windowsill or prisoners looking through bars.

Apprehension roiled in Edward's stomach.

He didn't want this. Didn't want to be here. He felt awkward and claustrophobic and panicky, and he knew an interrogation was about to follow; he'd have to answer, would have to endure being pricked by question marks he'd rather not touch. He couldn't run off, not when he doubted his ability to navigate Munich during the day, let alone at night. In spite of how quiescent they seemed, the alleys and streets of Munich held a dangerous feeling—a feeling of destitution and suffering that could only lead to a vicious desperation, and Ed didn't think he wanted to be the victim of this conditional morality lapse.

But he still didn't want to be here. Rock and a hard place.

Yeah, no kidding. He looked down and released a sigh he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

"You don't seem terribly concerned about your lover," said a familiar voice beside him.

The warmth and heaviness of a large, muscular body filled the space next to Ed. The man wasn't close enough to touch his skin, but Ed felt the invasion of his territory—and all at once, he felt small, very small, like a crouching mouse in a corner.

"He's fine." He didn't bother to look up, nor did he bother to deny the title. No point in that now, not when it wouldn't be believed.

"You know where he is?"

"No." Ed tapped his fingertips on the counter. "But he's fine."

No reply.

The bartender came around and Wagner said something to him. A nod was given. Then, he disappeared again, off to service the others. Ed took note of the man's plumpness; he seemed unusually heavy about the middle, with grey hair, a thick moustache, and a hideous set of teeth—though Ed had only seen them in passing. Barely noticing that he did so, he raised his hand to his lips and poked them thoughtfully; what if his own teeth rotted, gave way, grew crooked or yellowed? He'd always had a stunning white smile, but Munich was not a healthy land to live in. The food wasn't exactly filled with nutrients, and much of the water was hard.

"I'm a Protestant man. I pray to God. Who do you pray to?"

Ed gave a dry laugh and hoped that was answer enough.

"If you're wondering, I knew you were special because she likes you so much."

Finally, Ed looked up and over at the man who seemed intent on invading his life and personal space. Cort Wagner had propped his elbow on the counter and now leaned heavily on it; shadows drew strange angles on his shaved face, giving a sharp prominence to the cheeks and chin, as if blackness carved apart the bones. Up close, his eyes were not simply a thick brown; Ed saw hints of other colours within them. Presently, he saw no malice on that face. Only—curiosity? Or perhaps he was taking an emotional pause, a time out by which his more vile intentions might reshuffle themselves.

"Who? What are you talking about? What—" Ed lowered his voice to a whisper, then threw a cursory look around the bar to ensure that no one's attention was thusly focused on them...though he couldn't have said why he cared. "What do you want from me? Tell me. Just fucking tell me, you complete bastard."

"Sosostris."

"I—who?"

"Madame Sosostris. A Roma woman. Dark skin. Don't tell me you were so blind that you didn't notice her watching you."

Roma. The word itself didn't sound familiar, but the description sure as hell did.

"Fortune teller," Wagner went on. "Thinks she can see things no one else can. Thinks...forces speak through her. Some say she's the wisest woman in Europe, and some say she's crazy. Comes to the station a lot; big on travelling. And why, drecksau, why, little boy with the big yellow eyes, why would a woman such as that have an eye for you? That's what I want to know."

"Yeah, well. I'd like to know the same thing."

Motion. A heavy mug of some foamy brown liquid punctured with bubbles was slammed down in front of Ed. He flicked his gaze over it, watching as the hand gripping it pulled away and the man on the other side of the counter became a silhouette tending to some bottles and towels. At the revelation of his...appraiser's identity, Ed had begun to feel curling tendrils of heat rolling one after the next over his neck, shoulders, and face. He didn't know anything about this lady, true enough, but he did have a few suspicions as to why a person might find him to be of especial interest...all of said suspicions defaulting back to the point that he was an alchemist, from another world, and he had been accompanied by a homunculus, at that. But no. No sense in jumping towards any conclusions.

Courtesy of the impossible tiredness and apathy that had plagued him these last two weeks, Ed didn't have the strength to uphold his paranoia. He couldn't manage lasting anger, couldn't manage to interrogate his mind for possible reasons as to how someone in this world might know the truth of his heritage, but moreover, he wasn't sure if he was erroneous in worrying about this. He just didn't know, and presently, he felt he was under an interrogation of a more external sort; Wagner wanted answers he couldn't give, and he wanted to know why, but more to the point, he just wanted to be left alone. His head was buzzing with jumbled inquiries and possibilities and he just didn't—couldn't—couldn't think—too drained—

Ed took hold of the glass, lifted it to his mouth, and drank.

And drank.

Afterwards, he felt his face scrunch up.

The mug thudded back down on the counter in one swift movement; beer sloshed and droplets tumbled over the edges of its clear confines, spilling onto the wood like a few sprinkles from a dirty shower of rain.

Half the contents downed in a single gulp.

Strong. Very strong. Nasty. Tasted about as good as dried bread crushed to powder, flooded with wine berries, and served with a side order of shoe. Rather reminiscent of boot, if boot had a watery counterpart. Ed shuddered, but at least it was cold—and filling. He needed something icy to beat away the intense warmth that seemed focused upon him: as if an exceptionally brilliant lamp hung directly over his head.

"The Roma are fickle, lying creatures. Sosostris is a con artist."

"Thanks for the warning," Ed muttered. Irritation fizzled in his nerves, but the drink was strong and gave him a peculiar wave of dizziness that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but like nothing he had experienced before. He knew what alcohol was, of course, and how men like his former superior officer drowned their sorrows in it, but he'd never really been interested in experimenting with the substance. Wine didn't taste good; it was too heavy, and whatever this was (ale, maybe?) wasn't any better, but it was a distraction, as well as something tangible to coat his empty belly. In spite of the taste, he finished his drink in another gulp, this time actually shaking his head and rubbing his temples when the cool dizziness leapt through his mind.

"And yeah. He's not my brother."

The drink wasn't getting him intoxicated...at least, not based on what he knew of intoxicated, because he still felt perfectly coherent, but it did cause a fuzzy sensation over his tongue and something that felt like a mental tickle—like little fingers were at work on his brain, hoping to elicit mental giggles. After a moment, the sensation passed.

"Honesty." A laugh. Ed looked down and to the side, staring absently at the stained white shirt and the strong, muscular arms protruding from the sleeves. Every man at the yard was many times larger than himself and many times more powerful physically. Even Tabbart, the smallest man Ed had met, looked like he'd be a worthy opponent in a hand to hand fight. "Rare honesty. I like that. More ale for you."

What followed, Ed could never remember afterwards with any great amount of specific details. There was laughter; he remembered laughter, and talking, and rowdy shouting from most of the bodies in the room; noise, plenty of noise. The pub was a birthing centre for noise, until it grew so large it seemed physical, some invisible entity swelling and crushing Edward with its own gravity well, pounding on his eardrums. He spent time—didn't know how long; an hour or two or maybe only thirty minutes—with his eyes tilting ever downwards to the grimy table, pinning hard looks on the shiny spots and the rough blotchy areas that blossomed here and there with the seeds of caked on grit.

Ed drank mug after mug of the presented beverage, at first merely glad for the fact that it gave him an easy excuse to look away, keep his mouth occupied, and effectively ignore his surroundings...but after a while, he found it didn't taste so bad. It didn't taste bad at all, in fact. It tasted kind of nice.

Better still, Ed found his muscles relaxing as a comfort he hadn't known in a long fucking time returned. He felt...good. Content. Happy, even.

The atmosphere of the room coagulated; the intense smell of various kinds of alcoholic drinks wafted through the air, filling Ed's nostrils. Sickly sweet, overly ripe, but it was all good; everything was all right. Nice. There was yelling, singing; everyone seemed to be getting happier. Everything felt happier. Cursing. Ed thought those words were swears, insults or something, but he didn't know, and everyone was laughing at everyone and the corners were blurry.

He was smart. He was so goddamned smart; why didn't anyone else appreciate this? Ed felt the sudden need to make everyone appreciate how smart he was. Because he was.

Wagner was going on about the Roma, about God, about spirits. Like prophetic bullshit, Ed thought. Believe and save yourself, or some shit. Yeah right, fucker. Was that what it boiled down to? Or was it entertain me, or let me use you, if you've got some mystical value? Was it tell me how fucking special you are? 'Cause that's what Ed heard, oh yes. Lemme nose into your life, pry, bully, pester you, pretend it's for some mutual benefit. Oh, right. Rightright-right-o.

"Yeah...yeahyeah," he heard himself saying. "Point, though? Whas tha fuckin' point?"

"Help me and I'll help you," the other said. "I'm a simple man myself, but I have access to valuable resources. I can get you supplies, chemistry books, train tickets..." He smiled a sabre, and Ed found himself thinking huh...the shadowy lines on the face had dissolved, it seemed, and the man looked smoother and a bit younger. Handsome, yeah. Maybe he did have an eye for guys. Huh. Huh... "Equivalent exchange. Isn't that what you said?"

Equiv—? Huh? Was that what he'd said? Fuck. What the fuck?

"Yeah, guess so. Yeah...but you're jes tryin' to bribe me...fucker. Like that fuckin' Mustang. Fuck him, too." He laughed. He couldn't not laugh, as that tickling feeling had tickled his body into a rubbery numbness and everything felt rather more sensational than it had sometime ago. "And...fuck off..."

"You're drunk." The man made a small heh sound. "Already a regular little sot."

"Drunk?" he managed between breathless laughs. "NO! If I was fuckin' drunk I'd-know-I-was-fuckin'-DRUNK."

"Just remember—if that alleged mystic approaches you, don't listen to her."

Pfft. Pfffffffffffffftt.

"You're a smart boy. You've said as much yourself. Don't buy into that...hocus pocus." Wagner placed his hands on the counter and pushed himself to his feet, looking down at Edward with another expression that appeared to be detached curiosity or even a poor attempt at false affection; all at once, he slapped the boy's back and gripped his shoulders gently. "You want friendship? I can give it, if you give back to me. Harsh, you'd say, but it's a dangerous world we live in—and dangerous times, boy. Dangerous times. You may always be someone's pawn, scheisskopf, but sometimes you can at least chose who you belong to, eh? Family is important, and the family I left behind in England wasn't fit to belong to anyone."

Family. Family. Of course family was fucking important. Al...Al...

Al didn't hurt as much tonight.

Ed felt like there was a shield inside of himself, something big and substantial and...goopy. Like foam. Foam that bullets would just sink into harmlessly; his heart felt distant and protected, safe and secure far away from his body, which was sore from so much laughter, and he felt like he could do anything, could be anything. He was brilliant and beautiful and funny, so very hilarious. He was just perfect, fucking perfect, and he could do anything. Anything. Anytthiiiinnnggg.

Huh. He'd just had a conversation, hadn't he? What the hell had he said, anyway?

Kind of foggy.

Ed found himself rubbing his forehead and messing with his hair, pulling individual locks in front of his eyes and staring at them until he went cross-eyed, admiring the gold. He was all gold. Everyone probably wanted to fuck him. Fucking Wagner probably wanted to fuck him. Fucking woman probably wanted to fuck him. Ed laughed again, because that was funny—some lady he didn't even know, some magic-selling woman who...who...it was funny...terribly funny...

God.

His skin was hot, painfully warm, alive again; phoenix from the ashes—and the fire was in him now, oh yeah, and it filled and everything was louder, huge, more important. Ed felt tall and eloquent and amusing; he felt carefree and giddy, elated, because the words just unfolded so fucking naturally from his tongue.

When most of the men in the room pitched themselves into either participating in or watching some kind of brawl, Ed took the opportunity to grab his hat and get the hell out of this suffocating place. All of a sudden, he found himself needing air; his throat was sore, raw, constricting with emotion, and he was blinking and adjusting his hair and wiping away his sodden bangs furiously. As soon as he stood, he nearly fell down, but he didn't fall, and he made his way across the floor, wondering when in the fuck it had gotten so uneven and hard to stand on. Fuckfuckfuckityfuck. Fucking floor. It looked like it rushed at him, all splinters, but he didn't feel it could hurt him. He didn't feel that anything could hurt him.

Uhhhhhhhhh.

He groped for the streets, then thought he heard someone behind him call his name, but in the next minute he was over the threshold and everything behind him was just a mess of lights and sounds, a dissipating fucking cloud, and none of it meant a damned thing. Ed sucked in the fresh air, giggling as he made his way down the streets. Several times he stumbled and started to topple, but he managed to swing over and push himself upright by leaning on the nearest wall or street lamp. Ohshit. Shit...he didn't think he knew the exact way back, but...but well, he was sure he'd find it. Munich couldn't be that big, and he was a fucking genius, and he was in a good fucking mood.

Somehow somewhere some place...

Yeah...he'd shown them...he'd shown them all, and he bet they were plenty unhappy now, 'cause they hadn't expected him to have the balls to walk off and...

Somehow somewhere some place, some alley, some stinking pit

Something—

Something—

Something took hold of his arm.