If I had any illusions of controlling the process, I was sorely mistaken. My will, pathetic and mortal, was only the pebble that started the avalanche; there was no force on earth that could control it once it began to slide.
It brought me down. Like a rockslide, or a waterfall, and then all earthly metaphors fell away and the world rushed away towards darkness. There was something bad about this darkness, vast but not empty, packed and hungry, and if I'd had enough presence of mind left for it I would have been terrified. There wasn't time for that, though, as the last of the light began to fade and my soul seeped into the darkness like water into parched sand.
No, someone whispered, I won't let that happen.
No voice, or at least no sound, only a statement of intention. But I found myself caught, all the same, in a grip that ceased that inexorable downwards slide. For one moment more, I existed in that grip, long enough to try and fathom what was happening. Why?
A feeling that was like a brush of laughter, or tears. You saved me. So I'm saving you. It's not even equivalent exchange; it's just the right thing to do.
And then the blackness went to red, red, too much red for any one soul to comprehend.
Chaos, in the truest sense; sensation and thought whirled about me, broken down into pieces too small for comprehension. Every now and then enough of any one thing would congregate together for me to grab hold of it, but it always swept away. Blistering heat. Freezing cold. White sky. Black sky. Loss. Motion and urgency and a dragging pain. A human voice. A howling wind. Why aren't I dead?
This last thought puzzled me more than all the rest, for it seemed to imply that I wasn't dead. And yet I was sure I remembered dying. I was certain that I ought to be dead. Fairly certain that I'd intended to die doing... something, and that I'd succeeded.
Did dead people get sunburn?
Angry voices, foreign curses; pain. Cold hardness that I thought might have been stone. Something at my lips, hot and salty and unwelcome.
"Take it, you bastard," the angry voice rasped, from somewhere above me. "Take it, damn you!"
I had no will to resist. I gave in, and it flooded my mouth with a nasty taste. More cursing from above me, and that was all the sense I got out of the world for a while.
It seemed I was alive after all, for after a time I slept. When I did, I dreamt of cold water, and awoke thirsty.
In front of my eyes was cold stone and darkness. There seemed to be a little light coming from somewhere; enough that I could make out cracks in the stone. I breathed. Air went out and air came in, smelling of dust and sand and stone, and a faint sharp tang that I couldn't identify. An intense smell of human sweat, whether my own or not I was in no state to identify. A foul taste in my mouth. I was terribly thirsty.
That was all I was going to learn by staring at the wall, though, so I made the effort to move. When I shifted, I discovered that I was lying on my side, facing the wall; with determination, I turned over onto my back. More stone above me; the wall tapered up and curved over me. The roughness of it suggested a cave, rather than a cell. The light seemed to be moonlight, coming in through the cave mouth not too far away.
Although the cave was rough stone, I did not seem to be lying on a hard surface; when I shifted, it moved like familiar sand, yet felt like fabric under my skin.
Bare skin. I realized with some startlement that I was completely naked. If not for the blanket dropped over me, I would be cold indeed.
I was still thirsty. Very thirsty; even having grown up with thirst, knowing the scarcity and value of water... I was so thirsty. Now that I'd moved, I could smell water, someplace close. Was any of it for me?
Movement stirred somewhere nearby, and I heard the mutter of a human voice. It sounded male, but apart from that, I couldn't tell anything about the person.
On the third try at speaking, I managed to ask for water.
The rustling movement intensified for a moment, and a shadow came up across the cave opening. "What's that you said?" the voice demanded. It took me long, long moments to attach meaning to the voice; the language was not that of my childhood. It was the language of the Westerners, the conquerers.
I searched my mind for the Western word for water, and came up blank. Strange. I could recall every name on the list of State Alchemists I had memorized, which ones I had killed and which were still alive, and yet I could not remember the word for water.
An irritated grunt, and then the shadow moved and spread. I heard footfalls on a hard stone floor, and then, after long moments marked by heartbeats, the splashing sound of water.
Breath went in and breath went out, and it seemed like forever before the shadowed person came over and squatted down by my head. "You'd better appreciate this, you bastard," the low voice came. "I had to go to a lot of trouble to get it."
A hand under my head, raising me up in a way that dizzied my vision; and the rim of a cup was placed against my lips. Automatically, I tried to raise my hands to take it, and felt a moment of dizziness when nothing responded.
It didn't seem to matter; the shadow figure seemed willing to help me. The hand holding the cup was impatient, and a few drops of water spilled over and ran cold down my neck, but I couldn't care less. I drank till it was gone, and bit at the rim of the cup before it could be taken away, waiting for the last few drops.
A sigh, and then both the hands withdrew, and the shadow figure stood. "Don't think you're getting off this easy," the voice growled. "I'm too fucking tired to deal with this now. In the morning I'm going to get some damned answers."
Footsteps led away, and then there was quiet; I closed my dizzied eyes. Only one out of three of the words had filtered through my mind, but the tone of the voice seemed all too familiar. Whatever it was, it wasn't something I could deal with now, either.
I was still thirsty. But I slept.
It was light when I came to, the dazzling white light of the desert sun. Fortunately—if that was the word—by this time most of my memories had come back into working order.
This was still in desert; probably not too far from where Lior had been. They didn't get sun like this in the Western cities. And if I was still in the East, after what had happened in Lior, then I was not under the care of the military. I only had the vaguest notion of what they would do with me if they found me; I'd never intended to let myself fall into their hands.
I'd never intended to survive to this point at all.
But if not any of the surviving soldiers, then who was the shadow from last night? The person had helped me, which didn't seem to speak of an enemy; but I also remembered the Western tongue, which let out any of my countrymen or the Liorans. I didn't have very many friends among the Westerners.
Alphonse? I wondered, venturing the thought with some wariness. My last thought before the world broke down was that if I could save Alphonse, then some tiny part of this had been worth it. And I had the distinct if uneasy impression that it had been Alphonse who had intervened when I was on the point of death, and just how the boy had saved me was something I would prefer not to think about too closely.
I hadn't been awake all that long, staring at the sun-spattered wall for lack of the energy to move, when there were footsteps and thumpings at the cave mouth. With some effort, I shifted around until I could see better. It was no surprise at all when Edward ducked in through the door—a motion more habitual than necessary, considering his height. He was carrying a netted bundle of... something, his shirt was missing, and he was sunburned. The white light dazzled off his skin, giving the boy a red glow that made my eyes hurt.
Edward stomped inside, raising the dust in the small cave, and dumped his bundle on the cave floor. He then sat down, cross-legged like a tailor, and began to unroll it. It looked like a bundle of foliage; dry grasses and scrubby brushes that grew in the waterless region.
Only when all the contents passed his scrutiny did Ed look up, and meet my gaze. Those fierce yellow eyes gave me the same jolt that had struck me the first time I'd seen them up close. The color was foreign, unnatural, but the shape and intensity were painfully close to home.
"So," Edward said without preamble, "you're awake, you bastard."
Every statement directed at me now seemed to be prefaced with "you bastard." I didn't mind; it was as good a name as any other. I gave a noncommittal noise in response.
Ed was still staring, and I didn't have the energy to muster for a contest of willpower right now; I knew how badly I'd lose. Instead, I let my eyes slip back to the stone roof. "What is this place?"
"Hell if I know. This is your country, not mine," Ed said, an angry grumble behind each word. "Some hole in a ground to the north of a nice shiny new hole in the ground that used to be Lior. The military's crawling over the area. Looking for you."
Which left the rather obvious question as to why Edward was hiding from his own people. I watched with vague interest as Ed moved around the small cave; when he went to the back, well away from the sunlight, there was the splashing of water and I realized where the water from last night must have come from. "You were lucky to find a cave with a spring," I said out loud. "Water is valuable."
Ed turned to face me, and grinned as though the observation had been a compliment. "Lucky my ass," he said. "I didn't find this spring, I made it. Had to burrow through nearly a mile of solid bedrock to bring it to the surface, but it's either that or make it from scratch, which is a pain. Had to do that before we found this place, and it tastes nasty that way."
In what appeared to be a glass cup—more alchemy?—Ed scooped up some of the water and brought it back over, dumping it in the bowl of food and bending over it. He clapped his hands and placed them on the sides of the bowl; there was another blinding flash of alchemy, and then Edward was bending over what appeared to be a bowl of oatmeal.
I frowned. If not for the spring, we likely would have both died in the desert sun; the same for the food Edward had apparently transmuted out of dry grasses. But the last year had taught me nothing if not that the old Ishvarites had been right about the Art. It was unlikely that Edward had ever bothered to consider what effects his transmutations could have on the desert around him; even less likely that he would care. Alchemy, no matter how apparently benign, was an abomination against the natural order of things that twisted even the best intentions to ruin.
I said this to Edward; predictably, the boy scowled. "That old line again?" he said scornfully. "Fine then, you can eat rock and drink sand. There's nothing around here except what I make, you ungrateful bastard. Do you really want to die that badly? I can arrange it quick if you'd like!"
I didn't particularly care one way or the other; I'd never intended to survive Lior.
Hadn't survived Lior.
In spite of his harsh words, Ed brought the bowl of food and some water over and crouched at my side. He set them down nearby and looked at me expectantly. "Go on, eat up. You've got to be hungry by now."
The food smelled good and the water even better, but knowing where it came from was more than enough to quell my desire for it. "Keep it."
Ed rolled his eyes with patently obvious exasperation. "Don't go all chivalrous on me now. I've already eaten plenty, and I can make more, you know. This is for you."
It was a kind gesture, but still—"I don't want," I growled, "anything that's been made by that accursed Art."
Edward twitched, but said, "Well, too bad. That's all there is. It's this or starve."
"So be it." It sounded like a grander gesture than it really was. I had no more reason to stay alive, and since my sacrifice had not gone as planned, it was no more than to me than a choice between the next best road to death.
Ed exploded. "You bastard," he said, "don't tell me you're still clinging to that pathetic doctrine of yours? Now, after everything you've done? You—you—you used people and tricked them and led them like sheep, you did more abominable things than any—than most alchemists would ever do in their life! How dare you try and take that self-righteous tone with me, after you spit on your own faith and turned your back—"
I'd thought myself too burnt out and weary to ever feel rage again. I'd been wrong. It flared down my veins and burned away the fog of apathy that had settled over me. Without even knowing what I was doing, I found myself up off the sand and lunging for the alchemist, hot with the intention to strike and kill, to silence those foul words. Far more foul for being true.
As an attack, it was a joke; Ed reacted after barely a split second of surprise. His shoulder hit my chest and he reversed my momentum, slamming me back into the rough wall and pinning me there. The shock jarred me out of my anger; Edward's leg had overturned the glass of water, and it sank shining into the parched sand of the ground.
"What the hell do you think you're trying to do,?" Ed nearly spat in my face, very up close and personal. "You look like something that's been on a lake floor for a month, and you can hardly move, much less fight me. It's not like it used to be, you bastard—you don't have a fancy killer arm to do your work for you now!"
His human hand slammed my wrist back against the wall in emphasis—and with a shock, that was the first time I realized it was there. I felt nothing from it, it was numb to me as a block of ice and did not move as commanded. I had to look directly at it to confirm that it was there at all.
That shook me, far more than Edward's violence, because I distinctly remembered losing that arm—giving it up to Alphonse as it had once been given to me. The other arm had been lost in the fight with Crimson—and that one was still gone. But somehow, this one had returned to me.
Memories came back to me, fragmentary and overwhelming, and something ached in my gut. Alphonse had saved me. I did not know how, or why, but the one certainty I had carried out of that chaos was that Alphonse had returned me to life—for however much longer—by means of the very power I had died to create.
I'd seen too many people kill with alchemy, and for it, and by it. I'd never wanted my life artificially extended by such obscene methods.
It hadn't been my choice.
"Why did you save me?"
Edward seemed to have been waiting for this question; those words made him quiver like a bowstring. He released me all at once, to lean shakily back against the wall, and leapt to his feet, glaring down from his—momentary—advantage in height. "Well I can tell you, it wasn't because I've got any fondness for you!" Ed snapped out, and it was clear from his tone how much he'd been itching to say this. "You're a filthy killer, you always were. Bad enough when you were doing little girls in alleys and anyone with a watch, but now you've taken out an entire fucking city, and I don't know that there's even a level in Hell for you for that—"
There was. I could have told him that. Instead, I interrupted—"Those people were not innocents." It would seem cowardly to say that while not meeting the boy's eyes, so I made the effort. "Invading Lior was an act of war. They came to torment and kill innocent civilians. If they had not made that move, they would not have walked into that trap."
I saw metal fingers clench; Ed was trembling. "Is that supposed to make it all right somehow?" he raged. "Soldiers or civilians, they were still my people! And most of them had no control over where they were going or what they were doing, they were innocent pawns!"
"They ceased to be innocent when they wore the blue uniform." I closed my eyes; the light coming off of Edward was unbearable. "As you ceased to be innocent when you took that watch and became an attack dog for your military."
There was a long silence, and then footsteps as Ed approached. I opened my eyes to see Edward just a few feet away, burning me with his gaze. "I stopped being innocent long before that," he said quietly. "But I would never have done what you did, not in a thousand years."
"So." So the boy hated me. Well, he had cause for that. If there was one thing I was good at understanding, it was hate. There was no point in trying to justify my actions; we would never come together on this issue. Never should. "Why?"
"Why'd I save you? Two reasons." The boy was clearly making an effort to push back some strong emotion; how uncharacteristic of him. "One, because it's what Al would have wanted. I don't know what the fuck he saw in you, you bastard, but he wouldn't have wanted to let you die there in the sand, and he wouldn't have turned you over to the soldiers, either. He's just that kind of an idiot."
Oh yes. I had a good idea of just how much of an idiot kind, soft-hearted Alphonse Elric was. I couldn't forget the way Al had pushed himself into the fight between myself and Kimbley, trying his best to get us to stop, to end the violence; his interference had only made things worse, but the important thing was that he tried. "And?"
"And the second reason is that I want some goddamned answers!" Ed hissed, and leaned over me; teeth bared and eyes flashing. "All I saw was that burst of light. Al was in that city, you bastard, and now he's gone, I can't find him anywhere, all I found was your worthless hide—"
Ed continued ranting for a bit, but I was more worried about the implications of this. All the memories from that point on were too fuzzy. Too patchy. But I thought I remembered—
"—And also," Ed said, snapping my attention back as he moved his hand to his thigh, pulling something out from where it had been lying against his skin. Ed shoved it in my face, and it made me almost ill to have it so near—red and terrible, terrible—"I want to know what in hell this is!"
I stared. The light hurt my eyes, but I couldn't stop. It was beautiful, there could be no doubt about it; seductively beautiful. A perfectly spherical gem, as round as a glass ball, but with angular facet lines tracing over the surface like an aster. Through its surface and over every line the red light flickered and danced, glowing like a banked coal. In the very heart of the gem there was one flaw, shaped like a hook; the hook to snare the heart of the unwary man who stared too long into its depths. I pulled my eyes away with a shiver. Was this what I had created?
"I would think you would know just as well as I," I said quietly. "Is it not what you were searching for?"
"What good does it do me now?" Edward raged, fire in his eyes and fury shaking his limbs. "What use is it to me if he's not here? I wanted this for him! It was going to be ours! What am I going to do if he isn't here, it's worth nothing, it's just a piece of worthless trash—"
Ed choked on his own emotion, shuddering fiercely; his metal hand clenched at the floor of the cave until rock crumbled in his grip. But not that rock, I noted; even in the midst of his fury, Ed held it carefully, cradled against his skin. It seemed that even now the Stone seduced him.
Or was it that—
I closed my eyes abruptly, the only distance I could put between us. "I don't remember," I said.
"I don't remember," I said again, and it wasn't entirely a lie, not with my memory blown to pieces like it was. "Making the Stone... or what happened to Alphonse."
"If he was in the city when it blew—-!"
"He was already dying."
A sudden movement, and an impact that resolved almost immediately to pain—I opened my eyes to see Edward's face, twisted by fury and grief, inches from my own. The metal hand clenched at my throat, and the jointed elbow leaned hard on my collarbone. "How," Edward choked out. "How is that even possible, he was—how could you, he trusted you, you bastard—that can't be, he either lived or died, he—I'm going to fucking crush your throat—"
"Not because of me," I interrupted, more because I didn't want Alphonse's trust in me to be betrayed, even in Edward's memory, than because I cared about the crushing hand. "The Crimson Alchemist entered the city; we fought. Your brother attempted to intervene in the fight, and Crimson turned on him."
"No," Ed whispered, his hand going slack from the shock.
"It was his habit," I said quietly, distant with the memory, "to play with those he killed, when he could, to grant them deaths as lingering and painful, and frightening, as he could devise. He attacked Alphonse; I struck him down. He refused to die alone. I don't know how, but he transmuted your brother, turned him into a time bomb—"
"No," Ed cried out, and I winced as the metal fist thumped unconsciously against my chest. "Why wasn't I there? I could have turned him back, I could have stopped—Why didn't you fix him?" the boy demanded, unreasonably. "You were there! Didn't you care enough?"
"I did not know how."
"It's not that hard, you fucking bastard, you had hooked up to you the biggest alchemical battery, alchemists would kill—have killed—did kill for! You couldn't manage such a basic—"
"I did what I could to give him time. I could not stay; the military was already entering the town." I didn't tell Alphonse's brother exactly what I had done to try and reverse the transmutation. I didn't tell him what happened after that. It was not entirely a lie; only a lie of omission.
"So he might have gotten out!" Edward was clearly grasping at straws. "Someone from the military might have found... That asshole Colonel was around, Armstrong, if they found him they could fix him up right quick... maybe they took him out again oh my God if you managed to kill them too I swear I will strangle you with my own hands—"
That Edward was willing to spare me despite the deaths of a thousand of his countrymen but willing to murder over the deaths of two was not an inconsistency worth pointing out to him. After all, I had sustained my own righteous rage during the long nights not with the thought of crumbling Ishvar, but of my brother's drying eyes in the sand.
Edward was sitting back now, head bowed and shoulders shaking; the boy released his grip and sank back, rocking on his heels and crossing his arms over his chest. He still clutched the Stone to his chest, cradling it against his skin, and it was as much from the blinding light of the thing as from the display of emotion that I had to shield my eyes.
The day crept by painfully slowly; the patch of sunlight traveled the wall, then began to fade from the cave. I propped my back against the stone wall and tried to will my arm back to life. I wasn't even sure at first that it was mine; it was plain and bare, stripped of the devilish markings that I had accustomed myself to seeing there, and I felt no connection to it. But there it was; and when I bent all my will to it, it finally managed a twitch, and sent back the first faint tingles of life.
Save for my left arm, everything else seemed to be in working order, although weak. That was a good sign, because a rather pressing problem was beginning to grow on me. I had taken nothing since the water last night, but that was catching up to me now.
Carefully, I braced myself against the stone wall and pushed—and nearly fell back down, as another obstacle presented itself.
"Where are my clothes?"
"You're sitting on'em," Ed told me, looking up from whatever he was drawing in the sand. Maps, from what I could see, though of what I didn't recognize. The Ishvarites did not use the birds-eye perspective that the Amestrians adored; it was presumptuous to view the world as if one were God.
"Used them to make the mattress, and the blanket. I can't make fabric out of nothing, you know. Oh, don't give me that look," Ed scowled at me. "They were in rags anyway, and I had to use 'em once anyway to rig up a travois to carry you. You're damn heavy, you know that, you bastard?"
I stared at him. "What am I to wear?"
"How should I know?" he said irritably. "I had to use my own shirt for a net to carry stuff. What does it matter? There's nobody here but you and me, and I've already seen what you've got."
I glared, but there was not very much I could say to that. As humiliating as the entire experience was, he had saved my life, and cared for me when I had not cared for myself, and everything he had done was necessary for that. But still—"I didn't ask you to bring me with you." My dead weight must have dangerously slowed his own flight from the military—because he would not have wanted to be caught with the Stone in his possession, no.
He glared back, just as fiercely. "You're an ungrateful prick, too. I can always leave right now, if you like. See how well you get along without me. It'd be a useless load off my back, that's for sure."
He'd made the threat before, and made no more move to act on it now than before, no more than any of his other threats. I was beginning to suspect that there was a third motive to saving me that he had not confessed; Edward had never been alone before in his life, not for more than a few hours or days at a time. He might hate me, glare, curse, kick, swear, and threaten, but he would not leave, and he would not harm me. He needed me as badly as I needed him.
It felt very strange to be needed again. For anything. I pushed to my feet on the second try, ignoring Edward's stare, and made my way to the mouth of the cave.
It was good to see the sky again.
Eventually, Ed came out of the cave, expression sullen, and carrying the food from before. He squatted beside me on the sand, squinting in the sun, and dropped it with a dramatic thump beside my foot.
"Look, either you're going to eat, or I'm going to hold you down and force-feed you," he announced. "It's up to you."
I ignored him, concentrating on flexing my arm. I could get it to bend at the elbow, now, and the fingers would move all together, if not individually. The faintest throb of life was coming back into it.
"If it bothers you that much, just don't think about it!" Edward said, exasperated. "Look, okay, humans can't eat grass and wood. It's too tough. But everything that's in those plants is in grain and fruit too, just in a different order. There's nothing unnatural about it. Every plant pulls stuff out of the ground and puts it together in a certain way. It's the same food, it just got here a different route. Okay?"
"You still don't understand." The quiet words startled me; I hadn't meant to say them aloud.
"What am I not understanding?" Ed half-shouted, before flinching and glancing around as if looking for eavesdroppers.
I dropped my arm onto my knee, and stared up at the setting sun. "You've seen it," I said at last. "The fifth laboratory. The creatures in black. The chimera. Lior. How can you still refuse to see what alchemy really is?"
Ed stood up, and crossed his arms over his chest; I saw his eyes narrow. "I think you're the one who isn't getting it," he said. "I've used alchemy since I was a kid. I've seen it hold back a flooding river from a town or heal an injured kid. It's pulled gold out of coal, water out of sand, food out of starvation, shelter out of rubble. You're the one who's got a problem with alchemy, and you've only ever used it to kill and destroy. Maybe alchemy is what you make of it, have you ever thought of that?"
I didn't answer.
But, eventually, I did eat.
Night falls cold on the desert, with the moon slowly waxing towards full. There was no fire; any burnable material in the region, Edward needed to convert into food. The cave provided shelter from the bitter night winds, but held a damp chill of its own.
I was not tired; no more so than I had been all day. Weak, but I felt no urge to sleep, not now. I settled into the sand-and-cloth mattress, under the rough blanket, and watched the traces of blue-white light reflect off Edward's automail. He sat propped up against the opposite wall, legs tucked against his chest and forehead resting on his knees.
I heard a long, shivering breath, and then a sigh. This was ridiculous.
I sat up, and turned to look at him in the dim light. "You're cold."
Edward started; he must have thought I was asleep. "What's it to you?" he snapped. "A little cold won't kill me."
His stoicism was an admirable trait—but sleeping bare-chested in the desert night was a sure invitation to illness. And that would turn into a disaster. I closed still-numb fingers on the edge of the blanket, and pushed it aside. "Come here."
He froze, facing in my direction. "What?"
"This is the only blanket. You and I are the only ones here." I waited.
He hesitated, indecisive, but a breeze shuffled over his bare skin and he shivered again. "Fine. You asked for it."
He scuttled across the cave floor and ducked under the edge of the blanket, wrapping it tightly around himself and pulling it almost completely off. "Geez. I thought deserts were supposed to be hot." Another shiver, then he relaxed.
I could feel the coolness of his skin, still, the chill of automail. The blanket was thin protection against that cold. As he wriggled around, trying to get comfortable while staying at the very edge of the blanket, I rolled over and put my arm across his shoulders.
He tensed again. "What are you doing?"
I considered. "For saving my life, body heat is the least I have to offer." I waited, then added, "It is equivalent trade."
It's not even equivalent exchange; it's just the right thing to do.
The whisper echoed sibilantly, and it was my turn to shiver. Ed seemed to accept this half-assed reason, however. He flopped onto his side, and scooted backwards until his back was tucked against my front. When he was arranged to his satisfaction, pulling the blanket over him, he sighed in happiness. "I guess this is okay."
I wasn't so sure. His warmth pressed trustingly against my front, even as the bite of his automail discouraged close contact. His hair, coming out from the rough braid all over, itched against my chest, maddeningly so as he breathed in and out. That he still had his pants on was the only solace I could find.
A deep sigh, and his breathing slowly evened out as the boy dropped off into sleep. His hands, curled protectively against his stomach, slowly relaxed; enough that the moonlight glinted off something red.
I didn't sleep that night.
He was up and out again the next day. After managing a drink from the stream, I moved out to sit under the rocky bluff and watch the sky. It was the same sky as my home, high and wide and blue; the land, too, was the same as the open spaces of my childhood.
But this was not my home. Lior had not been my home, though in my delusion I'd believed it was. It didn't matter, since both cities were gone now; crumbled and burned and compressed into a fraction of red light. There was nothing left of the home I had once known, and all the proud cities of the East were no more than lumps of rock under the dunes. Who could say, now, the difference between the scattered stones that had been the cathedrals, or the highway, or the endless fields of grave markers?
I had thought I would find comfort, or at least solace from that truth, if I balanced the scales of justice. No. Honesty. If I achieved my vengeance. My revenge. For blood and fire in the streets of my home, for my brother's broken body, made pathetic in his madness. I'd thought—if I could complete his last and greatest work—
A snatch of voice from childhood came into my head, and I spoke it softly aloud.
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay of that colossal wreck,
Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.
"What did you just say?" A voice sounded from above me, and I jumped.
Edward was looking down at my from the top of the bluff; he was empty-handed, so I had no idea what it was he'd gone looking for. Or perhaps he hadn't found anything.
He jumped down beside me, and dusted off his pant legs. "It sounded like a song or something. Nice."
Reluctantly, I said, "It's a poem from my own language."
"Really?" He grinned. "I didn't know you were a poet."
I looked at him disdainfully. "I did not write it. It's taught to children."
"It's pretty. What does it mean?"
I didn't feel up to translating. I looked away. "It tells about the inevitable decay. We are only mortal, and no matter how ambitious our works, when we pass on, they too will die in time. Nothing remains eternal save for the will of the divine."
He was staring at me with an unfathomable expression. I looked back at him. "What?" I finally said.
"I hate you," he sputtered, and stomped back into the cave.
That night, he came under the blanket without waiting for an invitation from me. Again, his small body wriggled for a comfortable position against mine, and again, he held the Stone clutched to his chest like a child's comforting toy.
Again, I lay awake for a long time, and wondered how much longer I could lie to him.
And to myself, as well.
On the fifth day, he insisted on a bath.
"It's wasteful," I told him. "This is not a Western city."
Ed rolled his eyes. "How many times do I have to tell you? I can make more. If I have to go one more day without washing the filth off my skin, I'm going to go insane."
At least he had the sense to do it in sections, using no more water than he had to. He transmuted a basin underneath the spring, to catch the water before it sank back into the ground. He even spared a bit of the blanket to make a washcloth, and stripped down to his skin in the cave, washing standing up.
I should not have looked. The forced intimacy of the cave, of the nights sharing warmth, were bad enough, for my body and the state of my soul. I should have averted my eyes; I should have purged my thoughts and cleansed my spirit.
I should have died in Lior.
He was frighteningly, compellingly attractive. For all his small size and years, his body had the definition of an adult. His pale, Westerner skin was badly burned and cracked by the desert sun, but it had the beginnings of an adaptive tan to it. The automail arm and leg, glinting white and gold in the intense sunlight, attracted rather than repelled; the same as his coloring, which should have been foreign and alien. They were brands, marking him with sin, signing him as unforgiven.
I understood about brands.
I did manage to look away; the image of him seared my eyes. It hardly mattered, since he continued to make happy, relieved noises as he splashed, and while I could shut my eyes, I could not shut my ears.
"Your turn, you bastard."
I opened my eyes. "What?" He was clothed again, as much as he ever was, skin scrubbed pink and hair still dripping. He had a feral grin. "No."
"Yes. You stink and I'm sick of it. If I'm going to sleep with you, you are getting a bath, period. Don't your people ever bathe?"
I glared. "Don't be crude," I said, with a hint of a rumble to my voice. "We are not barbarians. Of course we clean ourselves, but survival is more important than sensibilities."
"Geez, sorry." Ed waved the apology aside impatiently. "Fine, call it a matter of survival. If you don't bathe, I'll kill you."
I stared steadily at him, until he began to fidget; however, he showed no signs of backing down. "Fine."
With only one arm, and that not working all that well, I was humiliatingly unable to care for myself. Ed pushed his way in without asking, grabbed the washcloth, and briskly scrubbed my back for me. Glares and judicious threats did nothing to sway him, or drive him away.
Keeping my body from reacting in an all too obvious way was an entirely new kind of penance.
The wind was picking up, towards evening, peeling the tops and sides of the dunes to the east and carrying them away, in twisting towers and spirals of sand. Here, fortunately, the wind kept down to a stiff breeze that quickly dried my skin and hair. It did feel good to be clean; one more step towards feeling human again.
A long, slow road.
Edward came out and plopped down beside me, hair unbound, raking the fingers of his human hand through it in an effort to get the water out. "Man, I'd kill for a bar of soap," he grumbled, and shook his head. Drops of water went flying, hit the ground and were immediately swallowed.
I looked at him and for the first time it was like a switch was turned, and it was no longer the Fullmetal Alchemist that I saw. The image of him before had always been of the State Alchemist, enemy and victim; and then the image of Alphonse Elric's older brother, shadows and shades of my own. My own brother, whom I had loved and hated and admired and despised, who was sometimes crazy, but never wrong.
This would be the first time I had ever looked at him and seen nothing but a teenaged boy, all the affectations of adulthood which only served to cover up the frightening insecurity of adolescence underneath. It was more disturbing than reassuring.
He shook his hair out again, and bent forward to redo the plait. The sight made my eyes water, and I had to look back to the sunset.
"You keep doing that," Edward grumbled, looking up at me from under his bangs.
"I've seen you look right into the sun and not even flinch," Edward complained, straightening up again as he pulled the plait over his shoulder. "But for some reason, every time you look at me you squint like you need sunglasses."
"Mm." It was strange, really; in the rainy West I had worn glasses to hide my coloring from prying eyes. Here in the desert, where the sun was strongest, I had no need of them at all.
Except for Edward. For some reason, the light of him blinded me.
I woke in the dead of night to a weight on my chest and a hot mouth over my own. I opened my lips to gasp, and Edward apparently took that as an invitation; his tongue slipped into my mouth and stroked along the underside of my palate. The touch sent tingles racing through my body, down my spine.
Startled, I tried to move, to sit up and push him off me; but he had leverage and strength and I had neither. Sometime before my wakening he had shed his pants, the last of the clothes left between us, and every inch of his skin against mine was glowing heat.
I had not much experience with kissing. Edward took the lead, drawing down and following an abortive move to pull away; he knew how to do things with his lips and tongue that I couldn't have imagined. His hands swept over my chest, searching. The touch roused me, in more ways than one; I freed my hand from where it had lain trapped between our bodies, and grabbed his wrist as his metal hand reached for me.
I still could not feel much through the fingers of that hand. It was hard to say which, metal or flesh, was the more artificial limb, but it served me, and I resisted his pull. After several seconds, he shifted his weight and rose up above me, hair hanging down in a tangled curtain, obscuring his face in the moonlight.
"Why'd you do that?" he whispered, tugging against my grip. "Are you saying you don't want this?"
I held my tongue. There was no right answer. "No" would be a blatant lie, considering the fire still dancing in my mouth and my groin; but "yes" would be unforgivable.
Ed grinned; I saw the flash of moonlight off his canines. "There's nobody else here but us," he said quietly. "And after all that's happened, what's one more sin?"
Hollow words, I knew. Claims like that paved the road to hell. Did they pave the way out again?
Yes. I wanted it. I wanted someone, I wanted him. I let go of his wrist, the only acquiescence I could offer, and returned his touch.
I needn't have bothered; with my own hand mostly numb and the light so bad I didn't know what I was doing. Edward obviously did. He had a route planned out and he forged along it eagerly, pushing and prodding me to greater heights of desire. He hissed and moaned and made appreciative noises over me, like he had while bathing.
I couldn't find the breath to make noise at all, but I felt it. I felt every touch of his hand on my skin, shivered at the contrast of warm skin and cool metal, hot blood and cold air. He pushed his way between my legs, impatient but not rough, and did his damnedest to unmake me.
It was careful and rough and so very, very good, far more satisfying than anything I had ever done with a woman. I finished first, and reached for him, still moving over me; I only wanted to feel him.
When he came, he shouted his brother's name in my ear.
"Look, I already apologized. Stop being mad."
I didn't turn around. "Go back to sleep, Fullmetal."
A growl, and a thump like a fist striking stone. "Oh, so now I'm 'Fullmetal,' am I? Not Edward?"
"I'm not Alphonse."
No, I wasn't Alphonse. And Edward wasn't my brother. But that did not make what we had just done one bit less shameful. I was more angry at myself than at him. For my weakness. For my desires. Edward was a teenager, confused and lonely and hormonal; I was not any of those things.
I was not most of those things.
At least, I was not a hormonal teenager. I should have known better than to give in to temptation, give Edward what he thought he wanted. It wasn't me; I knew it wasn't me. Bad enough to give in to debauchery, knowing that neither of our hearts were here.
"I know that! Geez! It's not what you're thinking, okay? I don't want to fuck Alphonse."
"Shut up." I didn't want to hear it. "Go back to sleep."
"Like hell. Just listen to me, will you? I don't want to have sex with Alphonse. He's my own brother, for God's sake. And besides that, he was like... he was ten when I last saw him—really saw him, I mean. I know I'm messed up, but I'm not that sick, okay?"
I stared up at the moonlight, and didn't answer.
"I'm serious." Edward swore with frustration, then sighed. "I wasn't imagining that I was doing stuff with him. All right? I was just... thinking abut him."
I turned my head. "Thinking about him."
"Yeah." I could see him out of the corner of my eye; he frowned, and wrapped his arms over his chest.
"You think about your brother during sex."
He stared at the ground; his voice, when it came, was surprisingly soft. "I think about him during everything."
It was my turn to stare. He ran his hand through his hair, then clenched his fingers in the strands. "I think about him day and night. Worrying about him. Wondering where he is. Wanting him back here. I can't stop it. I try to think of other things, but it just never goes away. I have to think about other things or I'll go crazy. But I still—can't—stop."
Being a distraction was not all that great a promotion from being a substitute, but Edward's misery was palpable. I hadn't been terribly angry to begin with. I used to get so angry, so very angry; but now it seemed I'd lost the trick of it. "Go to sleep, Edward."
Ed gave a shaky, unsteady laugh. "Oh, so now I'm Edward again?"
His words were flippant but his tone was wretched. With a small sigh, I levered myself up again and returned to the cave. My shadow filled the entrance, blocking off the rest of the light; I could only pick out Edward by his own glow. I sat on the end of the mattress, legs folded under me, and reached out to touch his hair. "Go to sleep."
"I should have known better than to try and get any sense out of you. It's like talking to a parakeet." He crawled forward, dragging the blanket with him. "Fine. I'll beat a better answer out of you in the morning, then."
He pillowed his head on his thigh, and closed his eyes. When his breathing had evened and slowed, I put my hand on his head and stroked his hair.
The last time I had put my hand on his hair, it was soaked from the rain, and the air was full of screams and blood and gunpowder. I had killed five men that day already and Edward was just another name on my list.
His eyes were the first that had held mine, unafraid, as death came for him, but that would not have stopped me, back then. I could have killed him in an instant, then, if not for the pleas and cries of his brother in the background, begging him to run and save himself, begging for his life. Begging for his older brother to be spared.
You saved me...
Edward slept. I did not. I watched the sky creep towards dawn, and searched the horizon for a smudge of crimson.
When Edward woke, it was hard to tell which he missed first: my presence, or the Stone.
Either way, he gave a shout and a moment later came scrambling out of the entrance to the cave, hair and eyes wild and his pants still not on. He looked thoroughly disheveled, not that I was in any mood to enjoy the view.
Edward stopped short when he saw me, facing the sunrise and holding the Stone in my hand. I could feel it, barely; slightly warm and far too slick to be natural stone, more like oiled steel than glass. It didn't matter. I had known the moment I touched it, known what I had suspected all along; what Edward, too, must know, even as he fiercely denied it with all of his strength of will.
"I intended to die in Lior."
That stopped Edward in his tracks. I didn't look up, keeping my eyes on the center of the Stone.
"My brother had sealed his power into his own body, and then into mine. The array would have used that body as a focus, and the Stone would have crystallized inside my heart."
Edward's mouth dropped open, and he took a step forward. "But," he said, in a strangled tone, "that didn't happen—I mean, obviously it didn't. You, you didn't die."
"But—" A sharply indrawn breath "Then that means—you must have seen—the Gate?"
"Is that how you see it?" I glanced up at him, bemused, then back down. "If that's your word for it... then yes. I did pass through those doors. I died and I would have remained dead if Alphonse had not intervened."
"Al?" Ed whispered. "How?"
"The Crimson Alchemist had transmuted the metal of his body into a bomb," I said. "He told me that the only way to save him was to transmute his body into something else.
"As I told you before, I am not an alchemist. And by this time the soldiers were already moving into the city, fully willing to kill anyone and anything that crossed their path. I did the only thing I could do. I prepared the only transmutation I knew how. I sealed my arm into his body; I made him into the focus of the Array."
I looked up at last, at the end of this. Edward was pale, his eyes terrible and terrified. I thought he might kill me then, just to stop from hearing what I said next.
"It was your brother, not I, who received the power of the Stone; he chose to use this power to return me to life."
"But—Al?" Ed was begging, now. "What happened to Al?! Where did he go!"
"He didn't go anywhere, Edward." I made my voice as soft as I could; harsh as the desert wind, that wasn't much. "He has been with you. You've known it all along."
"You've known it," I interrupted, pushing on past his anguish, "or else you would not have kept the Stone close to you, every moment waking or sleeping; you would not be so desperate to hide the Stone from the eyes of anyone who would want to use it. You would not have buried your head in the sand and refused to look at the truth."
"You're lying," Ed said desperately, "you're lying, you have to be—"
"Take it," I said, rising up and coming to crouch in front of him, holding the Stone out before me. He recoiled, backing away as if I'd offered him a hot coal. "Take it and look, really look for a change. You don't need eyes like mine to see it. Your brother's soul is here."
Edward was trembling. Reluctantly, he opened his hands in front of him, and I dropped the Stone in; feeling an almost palpable shock at the loss of contact. Edward flinched, hard, and then raised his cupped hands to his face, lips moving on some soundless plea.
With a little cry, he ran his fingers over the faceted lines of the gem; an eight-pointed star, with the flaw in the very center, shaped like a hook to catch and hold, to bridge the gap between the material and the ethereal. "No," he moaned, a look of anguish on his face. "No legs, no hands, no eyes, no voice, no no no...."
He choked, and tears spilled over from his eyes, running down his cheeks in sheets. He doubled over, rocking back and forth on his heels, and the tears dripped off the point of his chin to slide down the Stone still held in his upturned hands.
I wondered if Alphonse could feel them.
It was nearing sundown before I approached him again. He had retreated into the cave, to the very back by the spring, as far as one could get from the sunlight. He didn't look up until I dropped into a crouch in front of him.
"I thought you might kill me."
"What would be the point?" Ed murmured dully. "You did it to save him. I'm not stupid. You didn't do anything worse to him than I did on that night—"
His voice cracked, and he had to stop and take a deep breath. I waited a beat, but he didn't say anything more.
"I am sorry."
"What are you apologizing to me for?" Ed ran his fingers over the facets of the Stone, unceasingly. "I'm not the one who's suffering."
"He's not suffering, Edward," I told him; softly, but with finality. "His spirit is sleeping. He knows you are near, and he is content."
He looked up at me, eyes huge with hope at first, then sudden suspicion. "How the fuck do you know?" he demanded.
"It was he who gave me my life again." I looked down into the depths of the red jewel; to my eyes, as brilliant as a small sun. "As well as the rest." I gestured with my new arm. "Apparently that leaves traces that can't be erased."
Edward relaxed, slowly, then managed a smile. "Well," he said, "you said you gave him your arm. And he gave you a new one back. It's equivalent trade, isn't it?"
It isn't equivalent exchange. It's just the right thing to do. "I doubt it," I said.
The sound of the spring was loud in the silence.
"You know," Ed said suddenly, after a while, "I think you might have got the wrong idea. It's not you who's on the run from the military, with me hiding you, y'see. It's me who's on the run." Another rusty, humorless chuckle. "First time we met you were a criminal and I was a cop, or close enough for government payroll. Now I'm the fugitive, and you... you're free. You could go anywhere, do anything you want."
For that, there would have to be something I wanted. "The military will be looking for the ones responsible for Lior."
"Yeah, but they'd have to know it was you, first." Ed grinned. "Hell, you don't know anything about military records, do you? They don't know a thing about you except that you're an Ishvarite male with a scar on his forehead and strange tattoos on his right arm. I could count the number of people who've seen your face up close with my automail off. You could probably walk into any military station and nobody would know."
I gave him a look that hopefully wasn't as confused as I felt.
Apparently it was, because his expression registered astonishment. "You mean you didn't notice?"
"Seriously? You're fucking with me, right? You seriously didn't know?" He scrambled forward, face animated once more, although he still kept the Stone cradled protectively close. "What an idiot!"
He reached automail fingers towards my face, and I tensed—but all that happened was that he brushed them across my forehead, then down the bridge of my nose. And as light as that touch was, I felt it. I felt it.
I found myself over the basin of the spring before I'd even realized I was moving. And there was my reflection—dark, blurred, and wavering, but there was no mistaking it.
Edward was saying something to me, a teasing tone slowly giving way to guarded concern, but the language was all noise to me right now. Because this was, this was—
The Stone, perhaps, could give life to the dying—that was why men sought it. The Doors of the Dead could grant men new eyes, to see past all illusion. Alphonse might have granted me a new arm, to replace what I'd given him—but this.
This was not in the realm of mortal men. Only Ishvarra could grant forgiveness.
I decided to leave the spring. Originally I'd wanted it destroyed, but perhaps it would help some other fugitive or traveler.
"Will you be all right?" I asked. "Both of you."
Ed grinned, a tired and painful smile. "We'll keep out of sight," he said. "And I'll be damned if I don't find a way to fix this—somehow—without hurting him."
I didn't doubt him.
"Where will you go?" Ed asked.
"I don't know." I thought I might search for my people. I thought I might wait on that until I had found more of myself, somewhere out there in the spinning cathedrals of sand.
"Do better than that," Ed said impatiently. "What if I—you know. Want to see you."
I looked at him with some surprise; he was biting his lip. Not with shyness, not Edward. He feared a conflict of obligations.
I made it easy on him. I smiled. "When Alphonse returns," I told him, "ask him—he will know how to find me."
His answering smile was brilliant.
We parted, I walking towards the rising sun, he away. I saw them from the top of the hill; his back to me, the sun brilliant off his hair and his limbs, a powerful red haze surrounding him, protecting him. I looked back; he didn't.
Light on gold and glass. I can see it.
I am not ashamed.