At the End of the Dark

Al screams, when Greed puts him back into the box. Even in the room down the hall, Roy can still hear him, through the layers of silk and steel and wooden doors that separate them. There are words in the scream, that Roy can't make out, but the anguish and terror in that voice crawl in his ears and under his skin and into every corner of his soul, burning him with the need to do something to stop this, to help him, to save him.

There's nothing he can do. Greed made it clear that this was to be his punishment—for some stupid mistake, some totally asinine, invented excuse for the creature to exert his power over them and remind them of his dominance. For Roy's sins, one day in the box. For every finger he places out of line, another day.

Roy urges the hours to crawl forward, curled on his (Greed's) bed with his hands clamped over his ears. Nobody told Al about the time limit. For all the boy knows, he will be alone in the dark for weeks. Or months. Or ever. He wishes he could tell Al to hang on, it won't be long, you'll be free soon enough, I swear to God I'll never let this happen again. He doesn't dare. Doesn't dare.

For a while he tried to sit by the door, the locked door to the tiny closet, to hold vigil; it wouldn't help Al, won't help him now, but at least he would feel he was doing something, rather than lying in this obscene comfort while Al suffers for him. But Envy was hanging around in the hall, lounging against the wooden door, and he grinned at Roy with such vicious smug satisfaction that Roy had to leave. Two more seconds and he'd have lost control and kicked the Sin in the teeth, and Al would be punished. More.

This is far more effective, he thinks grimly, than any threat of physical violence against his own self. He hardly cares what happens to his own body any more—could take a dull satisfaction in imagining every hurt reflected back on his doppelganger. But he cares about Al. Foolishly, deeply. He's always cared about the Elric brothers' welfare, and it would take a much colder heart than his not to soften towards that gentle soul, the quiet genius, the tragic kindness.

Al is the one person in Roy's long acquaintance who really, truly, honestly deserves to be protected and preserved from all ills. Unfair, that life should have dealt him so much more than his share. Unjust. Roy feels a strange kinship with Fullmetal now, the boy's driven obsession to protect and save his brother, and the crushing guilt the boy feels for causing him, no matter how indirectly, no matter how accidentally, to suffer.

The screams die away, at last, only to be replaced by echoing sobs. Roy doesn't understand how Alphonse can cry without tears, any more than he understood how the boy could talk without breath, see without eyes, move without bones and muscles and joints. How he could go on living, if living it was, when his whole universe was narrowed down to a few square inches of stale air in the blinding, crushing, despairing darkness.

Roy takes his hands away from his ears, and the words in Al's cries become audible. He wishes they weren't, that he couldn't hear the repetitive pleading of wake me up, wake me up, brother, please wake me up.

There will be no awakening from this nightmare, for either of them.

Sixteen hours in and Roy breaks; tracks down the monster and, without even a word to answer Greed's questions, slides to his knees and starts giving him head. He's already learned not to bite, or gag, or spit, but there's a line between passively accepting and actively doing his desperate best to please and he crosses it now, dredging on every scrap of experience to make Greed growl and moan. Digging his hands in Roy's hair, drawing blood from his scalp, it doesn't take Greed long to come, and Roy obediently swallows.

Greed slumps back against the pillows, the expression smug and dazed, and Roy licks—he can't bring himself to kiss that skin, even now—his way up to crouch beside Greed's chest. "Let him out," he whispers seductively, persuasively. "Let him out, and I'll give you another."

Greed cracks an eye open, lazily petting Roy's hair. "What makes you think you're in any position to make demands, or bargains?"

Roy's stomach clenches, sinks, and he damns his last five words. Should have just begged. But Greed is satisfied, pleased—it shows in every line of his smirk—and he stretches, taking his sweet time before he pushes up against the pillows. "But then, I should reward good behavior," he said. "Very well."

He pads naked across the room, out into the hall towards the source of the sobbing cries. Behind him, Roy kneels on the floor, resting his forehead against the edge of the mattress, and just breathes.

Punishment over, Al is back on his place on the nightstand. Not, Roy thinks bitterly, that this is all that much of an improvement. But at least there is open space, and light.

Al has gone quiet, silent in fact. It frightens Roy even more than the disembodied screams, his resemblance to a piece of ordinary, dead scrap iron. In the end Roy has to strangle his guilt, shove down his twitchy paranoia: he didn't say we couldn't talk it's not a rule he can't punish him for that oh yes he can, and seat himself gingerly on the edge of the mattress.

"Alphonse," he whispers into the quiet, and for a moment gets no response. "I... I'm... sorry, that all this happened to you. It's—my fault. Not that I wanted this to happen, I swear I never did, but..."

He has to stop and start again. "I never dreamed that you—or your brother—would be dragged into my—my messes. It never occurred to me that they would think to use you—or, or anyone I cared about—as a handle on me. It should have. I knew my ambition was dangerous, drew fire from dangerous quarters, but I never dreamed so much..."

He trails off. This is becoming unbearable. "I'm sorry," he repeats, humbly. "I think I'd better leave." Leave, find Greed again, and initiate sex wherever he is, before the monster comes back and forces it right here, where Alphonse has to watch. He shifts, getting ready to rise again.

"Please don't."

The words come out of nowhere, and Roy nearly starts off the edge of the bed. "Al?"

"Please don't leave me." Al's voice is strange; not hoarse, as a normal voice would be after screaming for so long, but strangely thin and unsteady. "Please don't stop talking."

"Al?" Roy hesitates, then sits back down again. "Are you... all right?"

"Please," Al says, with a thin whimper. "I think I'm losing my mind and I can't stop it and the only thing that helps is listening to you talk so please keep going."

Al can't be alone right now, Roy realizes with a twist in his stomach. He needs company, human company; even his, as shameful as it is. "I'll stay as long as I can, then," he says, hating to be honest. "But if he comes to get me, I'll have to go."

"I know," Al says, and he still sounds wobbly, but at least he's attending. "He—he told me. What you did. Why he let me out er-early."

Roy wouldn't have thought he had any scrap of humiliation left in him, but apparently he was wrong. He buries his face in his hands, to hide the ugly flush, and twists his fingers in his hair. "Did he?" he says, voice muffled.

"Yes," Al whispers. "I—I'm glad you did, though. And I'm sorry you had to."

Roy has to laugh at the irony of that, dropping his hands to his bare thighs. "Funny to hear that from you, coming to me," he says. "When it ought to be the other way around. Ultimately, this is my fault. I'm the cause of it. I'm sorry."

There is a moment of heavy silence between them. Roy is just searching for something to say, to keep Al with him, when the boy speaks again. "Aristotle," he says unexpectedly, "talked about four kinds of causes, that makes things what they are. Material cause, which is the immediate physical way that things happen. Efficient cause, which is the person who decided why and how to make it happen. Formal cause, the official explanation that person gives for why they're doing it, and final cause, which is the ultimate motivation that starts off a chain of events. You might be one of them, but I think that he accounts for the rest."

Roy blinks, scrubs and his face for a moment, and then blinks again. The incongruity of sitting in a homunculus' boudoir and debating ancient philosophers with a disembodied scrap of soul is a little too strong for him for a moment. But at least Al sounds a little more steady, talking about these things. "Did you ever manage to convince your brother of all that?" he manages.

"No," Alphonse sighs, "but Brother is pretty stubborn."

"He is at that," Roy chuckles, but then lets it fade. He glances over his shoulder, as if he can run a scan for invisible watchers, but there's no way of knowing how close the homunculi are, or how far away they can hear. He drops his voice as low as he can, and says, "He's stubborn enough that he'll look for you, Alphonse. He'll never stop looking for you until he finds us. I think Greed made a mistake when he brought you here. Your brother might never have noticed the difference between him and me, but there's no way he'll ever give up on you."

"Really?" Al's voice has gone unsteady again, so thin and trembling that Roy fears for the seal's integrity. "You r-really think so?"

"You know him," Roy says firmly, as encouragingly as he can. "Sooner or later, he'll track you here. Just hold on. Be brave. He'll come for you." Not for me, he thinks, he'd never come for me, but for you, he'll come. And even if Greed takes me and leaves you here, at least you'll know, you'll be able to tell the world that the monster isn't me.

There follow several moments of truly alarming sounds, like stifled tears without breath, that have Roy hovering, unsure whether he should talk more, leave, or just wait it out. But at last Al says, "You're right. I shu-shouldn't have doubted him. Brother will f-figure it out, he'll come."

The alternative, which Roy doesn't say, is that Ed will find Al's empty armor, the hole where the seal should be, and despair. Assume Al dead, and Roy knows better than to foolishly think that Ed would survive without Al. Then his men will be left with two bodies and no leads, and no doubt Greed will come up with something smooth, to cover the gap. But he doesn't say this and he's glad he didn't, because the next thing Al says is, "I'm glad you re-reminded me. Because the next thing I was going to ask you to do was to break—the seal. I only didn't ask because I wuh-was afraid that things wouldn't change. That I'd still be... here. Only I couldn't speak. And I'd be in the dark fuh-forever."

And all Roy can think is to say, "You won't be in the dark ever again, Alphonse. I promise you that."

"I don't think you can," Al says, tiny and apologetic and resigned.

Roy knows it's the truth, that he's as powerless to help Al as he is to help himself, and he shouldn't make promises he shouldn't keep. "But I'll try," he says. "I'll try with everything I have. My word on it."

Greed made a mistake, Roy thinks, in bringing Al here. Not just because it's a gap he can't cover, not just because it will bring Edward down like the wrath of heaven (because Roy knows Ed too well to think that despair will overcome his powers of denial and self-delusion.) But for all that Al is his blackmail, the collar and leash on his soul, he also provides Roy with a purpose again. With a charge; with a command, of a sort. Somewhere, in the shattered remains of his dignity and pride, Roy can look at himself again and say: I am doing something.

Protect Alphonse.

It becomes his mandate, his duty. All his actions begin to center on it. Even as he plays the whore to Greed, submits willingly (eagerly, almost) and swallows his humiliation to Greed's little rules and games, he is working towards a goal. Protect Alphonse, keep him out of the dark, and someday, maybe, find a way to get the boy out.

He can't be allowed to think of himself right now, of escape and salvaging his life and his reputation; Greed has shown him the error of that way. But Greed has given him Alphonse in his place. Any free hour spent sitting with Al, talking of his past and childhood and memories, is an hour well spent. Even the endless excruciating rounds with Greed, satisfying the inhuman Sin's lusts and hungers, are well worth his time if Greed is happy. For when he is happy, Alphonse is safe. And Al's redemption will become his own.

When he finds himself humming a little tune, in the corridors, Roy thinks that for the first time, he truly understands Fullmetal.