The biggest problem with traveling so much, Edward found, was that there wasn't anything to do on trains.
You could look at the scenery, but after enough hours spent that way, even new destinations got old. It was a good way to occupy the eyes while letting the mind wander, but considering the sorts of places Ed's mind tended to go when left to itself, he really preferred not to let that continue too long.
You could read, and if he could, Ed would have loved to spend those otherwise dead hours pouring over some of his endless backlog of books. There was just one problem with that, and it was a maddening, humiliating one – Edward Elric got motion sick. He couldn't read inside a moving vehicle without subjecting himself to headaches, nausea, and all the teasing reactions that got, so that was out.
You could sleep, and that's what Ed usually ended doing, for long stretches at a time. Loath though he was to admit it, his height did have one advantage – he fit onto most benches. The only problem was, Al couldn't sleep on trains; there wasn't nearly enough room for it.
And so, to ease his conscience, Ed always ended up spending at least part of every train ride just talking with Al, or playing cards.
"I'll match you," he said, and tossed down two small coins and a loose screw.
"Hmmm," Al said, sounding uncertain. "I wonder what I should do..."
"Just do it quickly," Ed said, eyes on his cards.
"All right, then," Al said. "I'll call, Brother. Show me what you've got."
Ed's eyes flickered up to meet Al's, and he suddenly smirked wickedly. "Hate to admit it, Al," he said, "but I've got a royal straight flush." With a well-practiced flourish, he set the hand of red cards out on the board between them.
"Oh, is that so?" Al's voice sounded surprised. "Well, as it turns out, Brother... so do I." He carefully laid out his own hand, a run of spades to Ed's diamonds.
Ed stared at Al's cards, then his own, and then looked up into what passed for his brother's face. "Al," he said, "what's the point of playing cards if both of us are going to cheat?"
"I wouldn't have to cheat if you would just play fair for a change!" Al sounded injured. "Besides, I thought you were getting bored, winning all the time."
Ed groaned. "Anything gets boring if you do it for too long," he grumbled. "Especially riding on stupid trains, going on stupid missions, and taking orders from that stupid Colonel Mustang!"
He slouched down further, moodily kicking the wooden panel of the seat across from him. Alphonse obediently edged sideways to make room for the brotherly temper tantrum.
"Brother," Al started again. "Why did the Colonel pick us for this investigation, anyway? Do you suppose it has anything to do with the... you know?"
Ed snorted in disgust as he sat up again. "I asked the same thing," he said. "He said no. So then I said, if that's the case, why should I care? Sir. And he said," Ed sat up straight and pitched his voice deeper, in imitation of Mustang's.
" 'Not everyone spends their life obsessed with silly goose-chases like the Philosopher's Stone, Fullmetal. You don't have to care, you just have to obey and go.' Smug bastard!" Ed's voice returned to his usual range.
"I see," Al murmured. "Well, even if it doesn't have anything to do with human transmutation, what does he want us to do there?"
"How should I ever know what he wants?" Some of the irritated tone faded from his voice, though, as Ed focussed on the problem at hand. "It's a job for a National Alchemist. Or so he thinks. I don't see why he can't just ask the local police to get some more details in the situation before sending people in to clean it up, but I guess that's what I'll find out when we get there."
"This town—" Al hesitated.
"Elliotsburg," Ed said.
"Elliotsburg," Al repeated. "What's happening there?"
"We don't know for sure." Ed rested his chin on his metal arm, gazing unseeingly out the window. "But people go in there, and they don't come out."
"What?" Al's surprise and disbelief was plain. "Not at all?"
"No, people can still pass through there," Ed replied. "There's a shipping train that passes through every week, and the conductors and workers come out fine. But travelers, people who are just stopping in Elliotsburg for a night, just... stay there. They never leave."
"Are they... killed?" Al said hesitantly.
"They don't seem to be." Ed shrugged. "They're still there. A few wrote letters to their family or their employers saying that they won't be back. They just all, for some reason... decide to stay."
"That's odd," Al agreed. "Why doesn't the local unit investigate, then?"
"Hah," Ed grinned blackly. "That's the catch. There isn't a local unit. There are no soldiers posted at Elliotsburg."
"None?" Astonishment was even plainer this time. "Why not?"
Ed pushed away the cards from the table and unearthed the thin folder of information he'd been given before he boarded the train. "There was never any need," he said. "Elliotsburg is an interior town, not near any borders. It hasn't seen any fighting in almost a hundred years. Because of its isolated location in the hills, it's not a midpoint on any of the major routes. And it never had any significant ore deposits nearby, so there was no concern about the town being used to manufacture weapons."
"If there's no mining, and it's not on any major traveling routes," Al said thoughtfully, "then what do the people there do for a living? If it's in the hills, there can't be that much farming."
"There is some," Ed said. "But apparently, Elliotsburg grew wealthy about twenty years ago as a town that produces a lot of cloth. And that's another odd thing..." He trailed off, and frowned at the sheets of paper.
"Lately, Elliotsburg has been selling a lot more than usual. Their production rates have gone way up. But a lot of people have been defaulting on their taxes. That was the first thing that caught the attention of the military," he added with a trace of bitterness. "They only noticed the missing people after they started investigating."
"So a lot more money has been going into the city," Al summed up, "but people can't pay their taxes. And people who enter the town... don't leave again. You think these are all related somehow?"
"Probably." Ed dropped the folder, and yawned. "Either they can't pay them, or they won't. But the brass doesn't want to send in a unit to investigate until they know what's going on. They don't want to start a civil war in their own backyard, after all."
"That's one good thing about being away from the borders," Al allowed. "Also that it doesn't take that long to get there, even if it is isolated."
"Middle of nowhere is where it is," Ed said. "The train only goes there once a week, so unless we want to walk down the highway, we're stuck here until the next one comes through." He gave a theatrical sigh. "At least we won't feel in a rush to do things."
"What's your plan?" Al wanted to know. Ed froze, and looked away guiltily. "Or do you just plan to play it by ear again?" he asked, an amused edge in his voice.
"I don't know," Ed said defensively. "We can talk to people. We'll find an inn and a place to stay. People in inns always like to talk. Ah!" He brightened up with a smile. "Maybe we'll run into one of the other migrants there, and we can ask them why they stayed."
"We also might look in the town's jail," Al suggested, "even if they aren't conveniently hanging out at the pubs. Maybe they're locking up people who try to leave, and making them write the letters."
"Even if there isn't anyone like that there," Ed said thoughtfully, "we could probably find somebody there to tell us a lot. People who have gotten arrested are less likely to—"
Their conversation was cut short by the wailing of the train's brakes, as they began to slow for their arrival at the Elliotsburg station. Ed looked as if his birthday had come early. "All right!" he cheered. "No more boring riding on trains! Al, let's get our stuff and go!"
Elliotsburg was a big town, bigger than Ed was expecting. He caught a glimpse of it over the roof of the station house as he climbed off the train into the platform. Patchwork squares of fields trailed off the edges of the town, made hazy by the late afternoon sun. The town proper crowded together into the fold between two hills, dipping off to the east around the larger one. The buildings that Ed could see were also larger than expected, a number of them several stories high, blocky and dark against the smaller surroundings. There was nothing Ed could see that ought to inspire alarm; nothing that seemed like it should swallow people whole.
"Where are we going first, Brother?" Al asked him, drawing his attention down from the view. Ed glanced around the station, then up at the sun.
"It's getting late in the day," Ed said. "Let's find an inn that we can stay at, and decide what to do from there."
"Don't you think we should start our investigation?" Al said somewhat doubtfully. Ed shrugged.
"Well, we're not on any fixed schedule, and the town isn't going anywhere," he said. "Besides, I'm tired. I didn't get much sleep last night, and then I had to get up this early to fill out paperwork and catch the train for a six-hour ride!"
"It's your own fault you stayed up late to read," Al reproached him gently. Ed only sneered at him briefly, not bothering to answer that. They were both terrible about that; if there was some book that really caught their attention, they would stay up until the small hours of the morning finishing it.
"At any rate, we still have to find an inn," Ed allowed. "We can look around the city while we're looking for one of those. Let's go."
Al nodded, Ed picked up his suitcase, and they left the station together, passing under the wide brick arch into the street beyond. Off to their right, the street widened, following the train tracks, until it came to a broad flat loading dock. Ahead of them towards the hills, the houses and streets seemed smaller and greener, and less imposing. The brothers decided without consulting to head that way first; it seemed more likely to hold homes and businesses. When you had been in as many cities as the Elric brothers had, you learned to quickly get a feel for their layouts.
"Brother," Al said after they'd gone several blocks. "Doesn't something feel strange?"
"We're on the lookout for strange, Al," Ed said. "It's not surprising. What do you mean?"
"Well." They went a few more minutes in silence. "A couple things don't seem right. For a city this size, you'd expect to see more people out in the streets, doing business, wouldn't you?"
"This doesn't look like a business district," Ed said, playing devil's advocate. "But I see what you mean. It's pretty quiet. Is that all?"
"This is a nice area," Al replied. "When you look at the houses, they're very big and beautiful. It seems like it should be a good place to live. But it looks like it hasn't been well-tended to. The gardens are overgrown, and little things haven't been repaired."
"The street is filthy, too." Ed kicked at the thin layer of muck lining the road. "You'd expect a certain amount of dirt, but there's not just this, but garbage all over the place."
"It's like the people living here don't have any pride in their homes," Al said slowly. He sounded somber.
"Yeah." Ed hunched over a bit. "Why haven't we found a damn inn yet? My feet are killing me."
"We could ask someone for directions, Brother," Al suggested. "...if we could find someone around to ask." That last was said somewhat uneasily, as he looked around him. There was still that eerie lack of movement, of life in the city.
"Let's just keep walking," Ed said. "You were the one who wanted to investigate the city, so let's do that. We'll run into someone sooner or later."
"Okay, Brother." Al fell silent – well, except for the clanking of his footsteps – and fell a step or two behind. His brother looked bored, or perhaps slightly annoyed – but Al knew well enough to read his posture, and his expression, past the surface appearance. Ed was already in mission mode, even if he didn't want to admit it yet – still at the research stage, absorbing information without choosing to act on it yet. Al knew the signs.
Slowly the buildings changed, the houses becoming fewer and falling behind, to be replaced with shops. Many of these were closed, and seemed a bit dusty and unkept; but perhaps it was just too late in the day.
At last they found an inhabitant; an old man sitting propped up against a low fence outside a restaurant. He had a pipe in hand, which he occasionally took pulls on, seemingly watching the sunset over the hills.
"Excuse me," Al called, ever polite, and they headed over to him. "Can you tell us where to find a good place to stay the night around here?"
There was a long moment of silence, as the old man seemed to take in their presence, and then consider what to do about it. "Travelers, aren't you?" he said at last.
"Ah, yes," Al said. "We just got in on the train today. We were hoping to stay over a few days, so..."
There was another of those long, drawn-out pauses. Ed fidgeted, but left the talking to his more diplomatic brother. "Is there an inn nearby?" Al repeated his original question.
"The Cat's Return is nearby," the old man said thoughtfully. "If you're looking for a place to stay, that one is good. That one is very good. The lady who runs it will see that you kids are taken care of."
Ed nearly growled. "Who are you calling a kid, you..."
Al grabbed him and slipped a hand on his mouth with the ease of long practice. "Thanks," he told the man. "That sounds perfect. Where can we find it?"
"One street over," he told them, nodding his head absently. "And down two. It shouldn't be too hard to find. It hasn't changed much lately. Master Doring approves of it. You kids should be welcomed there."
A growling noise came from behind Al's hand, so Al thought it would be prudent to clear out. "Thank you very much, grandfather!" he called out as he hauled his brother away. "We really appreciate this!"
"Brother," he hissed as they moved out of earshot. "You really need to work on being more polite to people."
"He called us kids!" Ed snapped.
"I'm thirteen, Brother," Al returned heatedly. "And you're only one year older. We are kids."
Ed growled slightly, and stalked along beside his brother in silence. The sun had sunk the rest of the way over the crest of the hill, dropping the street into shadows, before Ed said, "The older people get, they'll call people twenty or twenty-five 'kids.' It's not about age, Al. We haven't been kids in a long time."
Al didn't have anything to say to that.
"Ah, welcome, welcome!" The innkeeper beamed at them as she ushered them inside. "Meanne, look, we have guests tonight. Go and turn down a few of the beds!" she called, and then turned to them and said, "Will you kids be staying in just one room?"
Ed fumed, but surrendered to the inevitable. "Yeah," he said. "We don't know just how many days we'll be staying for, you see, so we wouldn't want to take up extra room."
"Oh? You don't have solid plans?" The landlady hesitated for a moment, but then turned away, closing the door behind them. "What's your reason for visiting Elliotsburg, anyway?"
"Oh," Al said. "We're here for inspec – ah!" A faint echo sounded from where Ed had kicked his brother's ankle. Ed stepped neatly in to cover the gap.
"We're going to visit some relatives in the South," he said smoothly, "but we're not in any hurry. They aren't expecting us for a while, so we thought we'd stay and see the city."
Al shot a faintly puzzled look down at his brother, but didn't even think of contradicting him. "Yes, that's how it is," he added.
"In that case," and the woman was beaming again, "We are honored that you chose to stay with us. This is a truly wonderful city, thanks to Master Doring, and I'm sure in a few days you'll come to appreciate it as well. I will make sure that you have a wonderful time in your stay here."
"Ah – thanks," Ed said. He looked around at the inn, as the landlady disappeared through a door at the far end. The downstairs area seemed to be one large room, filled with tables and chairs, with the kitchen at the far end. Stairs running along the side of the room led up to a second floor, with doors opening along it. All of them that he could see were closed and darkened, and aside from a young woman in a handkerchief wiping tables not far away, they were alone. "Are you sure we won't be an imposition?"
"Not at all," the landlady said, with unruffled calm. She brought a steaming pitcher out from the kitchen. "As you can see, there aren't too many patrons here. We get guests, but usually only a few in a night. If you stay for several nights, you'll probably see some more people trickling in, but for tonight it's just you."
"The townspeople don't come here to talk and eat?" Al said, with interest.
He almost thought he imagined it, but the woman's smile faltered, and she spilled a few drops of steaming liquid on the table before quickly pouring into the cups. "They do, on some days," she said, "but at this time of night, many of them are still busy."
"Still busy? Even after dark?" Al sounded surprised.
"Some of them are farmers," she explained, busily setting out the cups of tea, "but many people also work in the cloth factories that Master Doring owns. The shift runs from noon until well after sunset."
"That's a weird schedule," Ed observed. His feet were killing him. He considered sitting down, and taking the offered tea; he also considered heading up to their room so he could dump his suitcase.
"Yes, but it suits most people," the landlady answered. "The factories have been running very well since Master Doring began running them. They have brought this city a great deal of money."
"He sounds like a good man," Al said. He hoped Ed wouldn't want to stay for the tea. It would be embarrassing to sit there and not be able to drink it, and he didn't want to offend her. "Ma'am, is it all right if we go on up to our rooms? We're both very tired."
"Yes, of course, you children must be tired after traveling so far!" she quickly answered. "I'm terribly sorry. Meanne will show you to your rooms; I'll just go and tend to dinner. It will be ready shortly." She looked from Edward, to Al, and her eyes were assessing. "You're quite tall, for someone so young," she said. "I'll have to make sure to feed you properly."
"Brother," Al said as they climbed the stairs, once the landlady had disappeared back into the kitchen; "Why didn't you want her to know you're an alchemist?"
Ed gave his brother a pained look. "Please," he said. "I'd like to spend at least one night in a hotel, in a real bed, before I get kicked out on my ass for being a dog of the military. Besides," he continued as they found their room, the only one with lamps lit in the entire hall, "we still don't know who's connected to who here, or what they're doing. It's even possible that there are people in this town gearing up for a rebellion, and if they hear there's a National Alchemist in town, it'll spook them."
"You don't really think there's a rebellion, do you?" Al said dubiously as Ed dumped his case on the bed.
"Nah," Ed said. "But why give away free information? If we don't find anything out tomorrow, I'll drop our names, see what that flushes out. In the meantime, we can go shopping. I bet we can find some nice souvenirs for Winry."
"Brother!" Al said reprovingly, shutting the door firmly behind them. "There you go, slacking off again! We're not on vacation, so try to take things more seriously!"
"Yeah, yeah," Ed grumbled. "If you insist, tonight we'll go over our notes, look for connections. What are you, my keeper?"
"Lord knows you need one," Al replied testily.
By the time the maid came up with the promised dinner, Ed and Al had already spread out over the room. It was mostly Ed's doing, really—Al didn't have a suitcase to unpack, nor boots to kick off, nor did he really have Ed's knack of sprawling all over a piece of furniture out of proportion to his size. Their notes were already decorating most of the flat surfaces in the room – the small table Al was sitting at, the bed, and the floor.
Al answered – Ed didn't bother to stir himself – and the maid gulped and looked slightly daunted to see his armor up close. Al sighed to himself, and did his best to duck his head in a non-threatening manner.
"Thank you for the dinner," he said politely, taking the tray. He noticed with some amusement that there were two pairs of bowls and plates – one small, almost child-sized, and the other huge. It would have been more than enough to feed a grown man, so maybe it would satisfy his brother. "We really appreciate it."
"Mistress says she hopes you enjoy her dinner, it's her special, er, her specialty," the maid stammered. She fled as soon as she politely could, and Al suppressed another sigh as he took the tray into the room and set it down on the night table.
Ed looked up, caught sight of the tray, and predictably, scowled. "What's with the two different sizes?" he grumbled, grabbing off the smaller plate first and starting to inhale with his usual lack of manners. "This is barely enough to feed a kid!" he said around a mouthful.
"You know you can have mine, Brother," Al told him, and pushed the tray towards him. Ed hmph'ed and traded the plate for the bowl.
"I'm going to hit my growth spurt soon," he said between bites. "I need all the fuel I can get. Al, pick up that file folder again, will you? I wanted to look up what passes for alchemy in this town."
Obediently, Al picked up the file and leafed through it. "According to this," he said, stopping at the page Ed had marked, "there are two registered alchemists in Elliotsburg."
"Only two?" Ed finished off the bowl with a quick slurp, and traded it for the larger one. "In a city this size?"
"There weren't any in Risenbourg, aside from us," Al reminded him. "And none in Youswell, except the ones attached to the military. East City and Central City are exceptions, because of their importance as capitals."
"Yeah, those places attract 'em like flies to rotting meat," Ed snorted around a mouthful of noodles. "Okay, only two. How old is this file?"
Al checked. "Three years," he said. "The first one is Readman, G, class 2, Al., mt., sm. Class two means that he took the state exam, right, but didn't pass?"
Ed nodded. "Either didn't pass, or didn't go on to the practical," he said. "Apparently there are a lot of guys who just want the qualification, without actually wanting the status."
"The mt. and sm. refer to metallurgy and smithery," Al went on, "is that right?"
"Yeah. Probably set up shop doing repairs in the city." Ed put down his dishes, and eyed the last helping. "This is really good."
"Oh, go on, you won't be any use until you're full," Al said with a sense of humor.
"I'm listening," Ed said, but he picked up the larger plate and began to demolish it as rapidly as he had the others. "Go on. The other?"
"Doring, K, Dr.," Al read off. "Class 3, Al., Ch., ph. bot. Class 3?"
Ed snickered. "That's the one for 'didn't even make the door,' in polite militarese," he said. "Pharmaceuticals and botany. A doctor, huh? Guess he makes his living making medicines for people." Absently, Ed dropped his chopsticks back on the tray besides the empty dishes, and burped loudly.
Al sighed, but didn't even bother to reprove his brother's lack of manners. "That's all the file has on them," he said. "Do you think either of those are involved with the disappearances?"
"Might be," Ed said. "Or it might be someone practicing alchemy who's not registered, though they're pretty anal about that sort of thing. It's a felony to practice unregistered. And who knows, it might not be an alchemical matter at all, although if it's not, I don't know why the hell they sent me here. Maybe tomorrow we should pay a visit to this Readman or Doring." He sprawled out backwards on the bed, folding his hands behind his head to make a pillow.
"Doring," Al said slowly. "Brother, does that name sound familiar?"
"I'm pretty sure I've read through those files before." Ed tilted his head up to look at Al, then flopped back.
"But I know I haven't, and I recognized it," Al protested. "Brother. Master Doring, isn't that what the landlady called him?"
"Called who?" Ed said.
"The man who owns the textile factories," Al said. "And the grandfather mentioned him too, when he was talking about this inn. 'Master Doring approves of it,' he said. That doesn't sound like they were talking about a man who just sells cold remedies."
"He could be doing something else," Ed said. He ran a hand through his hair, frowning slightly, and tugged at the ends. "The file said he was a chemist as well as an alchemist, right? There's plenty of things for chemists to do in textiles. The process of bleaching, alone, is..." He trailed off. What was he saying?
Maybe it was just a full stomach of good food and a comfy bed, on top of a long and tiring day of traveling, but Ed felt incredibly good. Enough that he didn't really want to move. He found himself grinning foolishly at the ceiling, and realized that Al had called his name several times.
"Oh, yes," he said, reminding himself to get back on track. "That guy – Doring whatsits – maybe he got involved with the textiles trade through bleaching, enough to get him a lot of money, and he..."
Something teased at the back of his mind. The connection. The factories. The houses. The people in the streets. Doring. For a moment he almost put his finger on it, but then it slipped away. Ed could almost feel the slithering thought, like a wet piece of string, worming its way through his brain. It was a disturbing sensation, and he pressed his hands against his head, trying to pin it down.
"Brother?" Al sounded anxious. Ed jerked his head up – when had he curled up enough to hide his face in his knees? – and saw his brother looming over him. He made the bed shift, and Ed had to snatch out a hand to grab for something solid, because that one tiny motion seemed to set off an entire cascade of motions that rocked him and rippled him until he thought he would slip away. "Brother, what's wrong?"
"Al," he gasped, then stopped. Was that really his voice? Did he really sound like that? It reminded him of the time he'd heard his own voice on a recording machine, flat and tinny and crackling with static.
He moaned and curled up again – it seemed like the easiest position. It made it hard to breathe, though, with his arms tucked up tight to his chest, and he found himself gasping, trying to breathe through air gone thick and heavy. His heart thudded, a painful impact inside his ribcage. At any moment now it would burst outwards, spraying the bed with blood and splinters of bone – or perhaps it would dash itself into pulp against the unyielding frame. What was happening to him?
"Al," he tried again, and managed not to shiver at the sound. "Al, something is wrong."
"That's what I've been saying for the last ten minutes, Brother!" That was Al, voice sharp with annoyance, edged with fear. It was strange, imagining his brother's voice as a metal blade, one that sawed across the edge of his ears. He shuddered again.
"What—" He tried to sit up. Nooo, that was a mistake. The room pitched around him, sending his head swimming. He turned his head, searching for his brother, but his eyes didn't want to focus; his vision was covered by bursts of searing white.
Something loomed up by his elbow, huge and metal and forbidding. Ed shrank away from it, mouth gone dry, his throat filling up with the taste of fear and revulsion. "Don't come near me," he hissed. "Get away!"
"Brother!" That was Al, sounding shocked and hurt. He could hear his brother, but he couldn't see him. There was no Al, there was only this thing, stealing his brother's voice, looming dark and menacing. It was hollow, he knew, and he could hear the whispers from inside the dark and empty space, like snakes or worms sliding against each other.
"You're not him. You're not him! You're just a filthy impostor!" Ed shouted. "Al, where are you?" He tried to get to his feet and failed, ending up swaying drunkenly on his hands and knees.
"I'm right here!" the suit of armor protested, and Ed growled in rage, because that thing had stolen his brother's voice, and was using it against him.
"Give him back!" he snarled, and flung himself against the thing, cold and alien and inhuman. "Give my brother back to me! What have you done with him?!"
His hands met cold metal plates, slamming with a resounding metal echo. He tried to dig his fingers in, to claw his way beneath the iron skin and expose the slimy, slithering thing he knew was underneath. His fingers slipped and scrabbled against the surface, and suddenly strong, cold hands were closing on his wrists, wrenching them apart, holding him up off the bed. "What are you talking about, Brother? It's me! It's only me! Stop it, you're hurting yourself!"
"Give him back!" Ed screamed, panic mixing with fury as he struggled and kicked. "Al! Where are you? I can't see!"
And then he stopped struggling, letting himself hang limp in the giant's grasp, eyes wide and staring.
He could see.
He could see the faces in the walls, the ceiling, where before there had been nothing but plain whiteness. He could see the faint, shifting pulses, like somebody had tried to transmute the walls into humans and stopped halfway. And now he could hear their voices, too, faint whispers and moans of despair and agony as they quivered and pulsed, masquerading their agony behind a facade of blank stillness.
He shouldn't have looked at them, though, because now they knew he could see them. They knew, and they strained towards him, blank sightless eyes and filmy, straining mouths. And he knew, with a blinding clarity, just what they wanted from him. Escape, from their blank prison; eyes to see and mouths to breathe and legs to walk with. Real flesh, not the half-alive mockery.
His throat began to hurt, he realized, and it was a bit before he could hear himself screaming at them not to come near him, not to touch him, that they couldn't have his arms or his legs. Screaming for Al to get away, to run, before they noticed him too. That thing – that metal monster that was holding him down, holding him in place while they came and chewed him apart – was shaking him, speaking in that high, sweet mockery of his brother's voice. He renewed his struggles, lashing out with all the strength and fury that had kept him alive this long.
His arm connected with something – or so he thought, though he couldn't really feel his hands any more; had the walls already eaten them away? – and the grip holding him loosened. He kicked out, hard, and managed to tear himself loose. He hit the ground, and started to roll away, to get to his feet in the center of the room where he could defend himself.
Another mistake, he realized with horror, as he felt the whispers starting to crawl up his arms, a shivering carpet on the floor that quickly threatened to envelop him. Shaking with fear and revulsion, he tried to brush them off his skin, but they only laughed and giggled and twisted themselves under his skin, crawling through the layers of subcutaneous fat to twine through his blood vessels and worm their way into his heart.
"No!" he cried, and rolled away, slapping and kicking at the whispers as more and more tried to crawl under his skin. On an instinct, he clapped his hands together, and transformed his auto-mail. The blue light crackled and spat like an angry animal, spilling over his hands and arms to run down onto the floor like hungry flames. They made the whispers cry out in horror and shrivel, so he did it again. And again.
"Brother, stop this now!" his brother's voice came to him, dimly. "There's nothing there, do you hear me? You're imagining things – it's just you and me in here!"
"Stay back, Al," he growled, feeling his voice crack and bleed. "Don't let them touch you—"
One of the whispers under his skin shivered up through his neck, then, crawling into his brain. He cried out, wordlessly, convulsing hard enough that his head banged against the floor. They were in him now, eating holes through his brain and in his heart – he had to get them out, before they killed him. He lashed out with his automail, his only weapon, seeking the source of the threat, to destroy it.
He almost had it, almost, when the suit of armor slammed down on him again, pinning him to the floor where the whispers could race over and over his body. He writhed in pain, trying to throw the metal thing off of him, but it was far too heavy, and far too strong. It lifted him off the floor like a rag doll, holding his arms up and apart – helpless—before slamming down on some hard unyielding surface.
There was a flare of light, that smelled like scorching, and then something hard against his wrists, his ankles, trapping him in place. He snarled and fought, spitting curses he didn't even know he remembered, but to no avail. He flung his head back, eyes wide and wild, searching for the source of his torment. "Why – why do this?" he said, hardly able to force the words out of his mouth. "Why—no! Don't make me see!" He screamed, and screamed again, as the walls and floors and ceilings opened up, revealing the empty space that they'd been hiding up till now. More and more of the whispers were in his head, now, twisting in among his thoughts – his memories – chuckling at him gleefully and promising that he'd have lots to look at in just a minute. "No! I don't want to look – I don't want to see!"
The last thing he heard was Al's voice, in a fading whisper so that he knew his brother was gone. And what he said made so little sense, that of all the things forcing their way into his head, it was this that Ed thought he must have imagined. "I'm sorry, Brother," Al whispered. "Forgive me."
Me, thought Edward. You have that backwards. It's me.