The dark girl stands on her petticoat hem, ripping the bottom flounce out, and ties her brat to her back with it. Frowning, she bends over me. "Can you stand?"
With her help, I can. The brat whines; I flinch, but she holds me steady. She's stronger than she looks. We shuffle into the street; then she stops. "I don't remember the way."
"I do," I say. I'm not staying here while he ... does whatever he's going to do. He said he'd destroy the whole city, but I don't believe him. Humans lie all the time.
I wish I could.
Granny and Winry have a patient: a boy who needs a new arm and leg. I haven't met him; Granny says he isn't up to it. Winry says there's nothing I can do to help. Rose taught me how to feed and burp the baby, how to change and bathe him, so I help her instead. We're always outside when Granny and Winry are in the surgery. The baby is learning to crawl while their patient learns to walk.
They tell me Ed had automail, too. If I could see this boy, maybe I'd understand what that means. Or remember.
They try to keep me in bed, but I don't need "time to heal." They keep me away from him, too, which is funny because I don't want to face him. He asks too many questions. I watch him from my window as he chases the dog around the yard or shows the brat butterflies. That's as close as I want to be to him.
Today the blond girl handed him a letter. I never saw someone look happy and frightened together. "Teacher's coming!" he shouted.
Then I saw myself in the mirror and knew it was time to leave.
I've never been lonely before. Even after Mom died, even when we studied forbidden alchemy, Ed and I were always together. Now he's gone and a crack four years wide separates me from everyone I love: Granny, Winry, Teacher ... When I talk, they hear echoes of my missing memories and answer questions I never asked. What I really need to hear, they don't say.
But lately I've felt someone watching me, someone I can't see. I know I have enemies, but I haven't told anyone about this. I can take care of myself. And I don't feel so alone anymore.
When she shouted at me across the factory floor, I knew she didn't love me. Mommy always smiled at me, but her mouth was sad. Mommy's eyes were sharp like mine; hers were soft and blurred with guilt. She wanted me to kill her. I'm her sin, not her son.
(I won't touch her—I won't!)
Now he lives at her house, studying alchemy. He thinks she loves him, but he's wrong, too. I've seen her face when his back is turned, and it's the same one she showed me. If I'm her burden to bear, then so is he.
I catch a glimpse of the spy, slipping around the corner of Teacher's house, so I chase him—but run into her instead. "Where are you going?" she asks after we pick ourselves up.
"Nowhere, now," I say. "I've lost him."
"A boy with long black hair. He's been following me."
Her shoulders stiffen, but she shakes her head. "It's only Wrath."
"Wrath?" I ask. "Who's that?"
"Never mind," she says sternly.
But I do. Friend or enemy, he's watched me all this time, not her. I know he's still nearby. I've seen him once; I'll find him again.
I saw him at the train station and laughed so hard I had to run away before he noticed me. I laughed until I hiccupped. (I've never had the hiccups; I was a little scared until they stopped.) But the way he was dressed! He's been letting his hair grow; it's browner than his brother's and he wears it in a ponytail instead of a braid, but you can't miss the likeness. And now he's off to Central or somewhere wearing a black suit, white gloves and a red coat ... I just had to laugh.
Otherwise, I might have cried.
I'm hunting rumors these days, rumors of my brother. Nothing but old news yet: at least no one's dared claim his name since he disappeared. I have to be careful myself, though: last month something I did got mixed up with something Ed did once and I ended up tracking my own footprints. I hate to boast, but I make sure to tell people my name now. I can't waste time going in circles. And I try not to look over my shoulder at the rumors that follow me—especially the one knocking over rubbish bins, slier than a fox.
The panther chases me half a mile before I find a clearing where I can turn and wring its neck. Then I have to backtrack to where I left him. I don't know what he's doing in this drippy, panther-infested forest, but I wish he'd hurry and finish.
I'm tired and careless; he sees me first. "Wrath?"
I freeze, but he only beckons me toward his campfire. It's tempting: I'm wet through with sweat and damp. I step forward. He sits; I sit. He smiles. I don't.
"Thanks," he says anyway. "It's not good to be out here alone."
They finally told me the story: Wrath—a homunculus, the embodiment of Teacher's sin—stole my brother's limbs, tried and failed to take my brother's life, and lost everything he wanted. Winry gave him automail, but it couldn't make him whole. Now he's shadowing me.
That worries everyone but Winry. Granny and Rose warn me to avoid him; Teacher shows me how to seal a homunculus, after enough deaths have drained its power. But I don't want to kill Wrath; I don't think he wants to kill me.
I've heard from everyone except him. What does he have to say?
We stand on opposite sides of the stream. He watches me, but he isn't afraid. I'm a puzzle to him, an equation that won't balance; he wants to figure me out. (Good luck!)
"Why are you following me?" he asks.
"I haven't got anything better to do," I answer.
He shakes his head. Maybe he can't imagine someone not obsessed with doing things, like he is. Like his brother was. But I'm not human; I don't lie. I haven't got anything better to do than follow him ... like the moon follows the sun.
Maybe, someday soon, I'll blot him out.
"What will you do when you find him?" Wrath asks me.
Staring into a fire destroys your night vision, so I look out at the desert while I think. We're camped away from the waterhole, among the rocks. I've checked my blankets for snakes and scorpions; nothing else should bother us. "I'll hit him," I answer finally.
"You'll what?" This is the first time I've heard Wrath sound startled. He tosses his hair back and glares at me. "Why?"
"Because," I say.
Because he's an idiot. Because he left me. Because if I can hit him, I'll know he's real.
All my dreams are nightmares. They chase me through the island's bushes, down every alley in the city, around and around the theater while She laughs and tells me to run faster. And I do, I do, but they always catch me and make me dream about the waiting dark behind the Gate until my body wakes up screaming.
But last night I dreamed of her, standing in a brightness like sunlit mist, holding out her arms to me, smiling like Mommy, only more so. "My little one," she said.
I woke thinking that it was time to go home.
All my dreams are strange. What I can't remember, I imagine: the armor, the automail, the Philosopher's Stone—four years traveling with Ed, leaving stories behind us. When he taps me on the shoulder or calls my name, I think, "This is a dream." And it always is.
(Sometimes I feel my body shredding into nothing and I wake breathless, because I know that was real.)
But last night I dreamed of Teacher, standing in a brightness like sunlit mist, holding out her arms to me, smiling gently. "Alphonse," she said.
I woke thinking that I should never have left.
Her grave is a gray stone with her name on it and some numbers. I don't have a grave. I had a death, but it didn't take. And another after that, and another and another ... I've lost count. I don't need a grave, except maybe to lean against when my back hurts, like it does now. My automail would hurt if it could: it's dented and rusted and doesn't work right anymore. No, I haven't been taking care of myself—why bother, when nobody scolds me?
Next time I'll bring flowers. I can use the ribbon someone put around these.
I lie in bed, my eyes closed. No dream, no story—a memory, now: my armored soul, fighting beside my brother. He lives, just out of reach, in that strange, loud, bright-and-dark world. "I could bring him home," I whisper. "I know it."
"Then do it!"
I roll to my feet, but it's only Wrath, sitting on the windowsill. I wipe my face, though he's seen the tears. "I can't," I say. "Not here."
His chin drops. "I know a place," he says from behind his hair. "Come!"
What he knows, what I know ... together, we might succeed.
"Why are you doing this?" he asks as I lead him down the stone steps into the buried city.
I shrug. "It doesn't matter."
I could say: humans tell stories, don't they? Stories about monsters who eat princesses and make beds of stolen treasure in caves; stories about the heroes who slay them and claim the treasure and live happily ever after. So what about your story? Even I can see it isn't finished. What kind of end will you make, Alphonse Elric?
And me? I know who I am. I know what I want. That's why it doesn't matter.
I closed my eyes on my father's study and a transmutation exploding into disaster and my brother's fingertips straining toward mine. I opened them here, in a world without a sky. Four years gone in an eyeblink—literally. A price paid? I'll pay the same again to bring my brother home.
I owe Wrath something, too. He doesn't like it here; he had to force his foot down the first step, but after that he never hesitated. Without his help, I'd never have found this place, this transmutation circle. Equivalent exchange: I'll pay my debt to him, whatever it costs.