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The Other Side of Shadow


On the nights of the full moon, the dunes are white. Glowing, bleached, they unfold throughout the desert, dimples on the face of God's lands. The cities are gone now. Only the bivouacs remain, and within them live the lost. Children of Ishbala wear darker complexions than most, but their tears and blood are the same colours as all other humans'.

The days are beyond hot, desiccating flesh. Ishbala's sons and daughters have long since adapted to their environment. The yellow eye far above them is neither an enemy nor a cause for strife; it is nothing more than an aspect of reality. Desert dwellers make their peace with it, respecting the sun just as they respect the sands, water, spirits, and the cycle of life.

Prayers are exchanged in the mornings, noon, evenings. Some are murmurs. Others never reach the lips of those who give praise to God. The desert is forever silent. The desert is never silent.

Among them he walks, the man whose name only God remembers.

Children build castles in the sand, play games, and retain the laughter of the young. The man sees them; he recalls his youth. Laughter echoes in his ears. The desert is alive with echoes through which it fills the long silences, and he is also an echo. He who should not be alive: is. He is reborn—like the moonlight, reflected from the sun, collecting in craters and surfacing to paint the evening world of the desert.

His sun is set. He is dead, slain. But like the satellite in the sky, the Gate has caught his spirit and returned it to the plain from which it came. He is dead, a ghost: moonlight from the sun. Yet he walks among the living, and he does not question Ishbala's will.

His existence must continue because he is to carry out God's plans. There is no other explanation.

The avenging arm is gone. From both sockets, two new arms, flesh now runs smooth—bronze, the colour of coffee into which cream has been poured. The scar, for whatever secret reason Ishbala has in mind, remains. An X marks his forehead, a brand of pain and loss that he sees each time he catches a glimpse of a mirror or reflective water. Ishbala does not wish for him to forget. Neither does Ishbala require more blood, more vengeance. The price has been paid.

Twice the sands have been doused with blood. Equivalent exchange, the alchemists might call it. The man could not save his brother, but he has saved the brother of someone else, and in so doing, countless lives have been spared. For what purpose he has been returned, he is uncertain. If destruction is not the goal of Ishbala—and somehow, he knows he is not here to bring God's wrath—then it could be that he is here to heal. The elders assure this. Multiple times each day, he prays for guidance. He knows he will someday have a vision. An answer. It has not come yet, but he is content. The man has been through enough in his life, and now his patience is as wide as the desert itself.

Alchemy is destruction, then remaking.

He has scorned it, this science which profanes God.

But Ishbala made a tool of it; through his arm, through alchemy, there was obliteration. Now, a new dawn grasps the world; it is time for reconstruction. His scar is visible, apparent to any set of eyes, but he knows he is not the only soul who has been hurt. All around him, red eyes are dry. Tears evaporate quickly in the heat of the desert. The man is still aware of their presence; he knew of Alphonse Elric's tears, even when Alphonse had no eyes with which to weep. He knows of pain. Loud or silent, he can always feel its presence.

At night, he dreams of faces from Before: his brother, Edward Elric, Alphonse Elric. One is with God. The other two are a world away, literally. He hears little of them now, and much of what is whispered of in the encampments, he doubts. Stories are heavy with superstition. At any rate, he hopes they are doing well. God be with them, he thinks upon waking, and no matter the extent of Edward Elric's atheism, the man thinks he has not fallen out of favour with God—not wholly.

The nameless man has no family, no true friends. He does not know his mission in life. He does not belong; however, he is here, and there must be a reason.

Ishbala does nothing without purpose. The man has work to do.

One night when the moon is swollen and bright, he dreams of an oasis among the desert. My people, he thinks. Our people. It is a beautiful, but not an unexpected vision, and he makes nothing of it. The next night, he dreams of the same place. This time, he looks downwards. In his still hands, he holds a mound of dirt, from which sprouts a tiny plant whose name is as hidden as his own. I don't understand, he thinks upon waking. What are you trying to tell me, Lord?

Although he does not know the meaning of his vision, he does not struggle to give an interpretation to it. He knows the answer will be forthcoming.

Then, come the sunset of another day, there is a commotion at the outskirts of the encampment the man is currently passing through, and something tells him he is about to find what he seeks—or perhaps what has sought him, as the case may be.

Voices are raised in anger. Standing amidst the tents, the man sees the gathering of a small crowd, and the flurry of movement. Something is happening. Someone is causing trouble, and others are clearly showing their displeasure. The man knows it is none of his concern, and he could look away and walk off without a second glance. He knows this. But a feeling comes to him, a sense that he needs to act. God be with me.

Once his strides have carried him to the ongoing encounter, he sees the source of the others' ire: someone—a robed figure—is yelling. Growling, even. Snarling insults and gesticulating violently. From the short distance between them, Scar can see that the stranger's skin is unusually pale. Not descended from Ishbal. The figure's cowl obscures his or her facial features and hair; the voice emanating from the short body is high, and it sounds like a timbre easily given to taunting.

From the small portions he overhears, the nameless man discerns that the argument is over whether this person should be forced out of the community.

Despite claiming not to care either way, the stranger is making his or her contempt known in the most vocal manner imaginable.

"Fuck you all!" he says. He. Yes. It is a he. The man simply knows. "You shit smears...you're nothing! You're all trash, even for humans. I don't need to be here; soon, there probably won't even be a here. You idiots'll get wiped out just like the rest of your sorry race!"

Caustic words. Bitter as the wine the priests disseminate at holy ceremonies. Beneath their roughness, hurt and fear threads through the syllables—soft and forgettable as a breeze in the desert. But the man hears. This is his time. O Blessed God, guide me.

"Leave this one to me, Elder," the scarred man says.

The request does not part the seas, but it does prove enough to split the muttering crowd. Many sets of red eyes turn upon the man, seeking to meet his own. He looks past them, gazing at the Elder. Then, he steals a glance at the troublemaker, and the object of his interest seems to do the same to him.

When he turns, the stranger's hood slips a little, and shadows slide across his face. Purple eyes become visible; within them, the man sees myriad emotions: shock, annoyance, hatred, a flash of fear as the scar is presumably taken into account, and finally, apathy descends like a shield. There is an audible humph, and then he looks away. Purple eyes vanish, but the mouth below them is still apparent. It is wide, oddly wide, and it lifts on one side to form a smirk.

Some might think the expression is one of confidence, but when the man looks lower, he sees how the hands tremble ever so slightly.

"Heh. No thanks." The smirk becomes a sneer. "I'm not about to let you blow my head up. So sorry. I'll take my chances with the desert."

"You have nowhere to go, and no home," the scarred man says, and the other bristles visibly. It is the truth, and they both know it, but truth can sometimes be the greatest cause of enmity among men. "You will return with me, or you will perish alone in the dunes...and I have heard it said that starvation is a cruel, slow death."

An Adam's apple bobs when the figure swallows. He is definitely a man. When he looks up, the sneer is gone, and a scowl replaces it. The wide mouth opens, probably to unleash another barrage of insults, but the elder of this encampment cuts him off with practiced ease.

"Do not trouble yourself, son of Ishbal," he says, expressionless. "This creature is not one of our Lord's children. It is a product of alchemy, the art which scorns our Lord. It does not belong here. It does not belong anywhere."

Once, the man knows he would have agreed. Indeed, he would have been the first to say so. But the time for destruction has passed; God's vengeance has come and gone. The war has ended, and even if its echoes live, this is now an era of reconstruction; a new eternity has been born. The scarred man suspects that new souls have been conceived, as well.

"Once, that being was dead," the man concedes. "Once, I was also dead. Now, we live again, reborn. It is Ishbala's will. It may be that, in the eyes of men, neither of us belongs anywhere. But our souls are not guided by men, and here we find ourselves, among the children of Ishbala. I shall take care of this one. He'll cause no more problems."

Uncertainty wavers in the Elder's eyes, but the scarred man can see that he is considering his words. Weighing. Gauging. The other must have his doubts, but he knows Ishbala's will is absolute; thus, at length, he says, "So be it."

This is sufficient to snap the object of their discourse out of his brooding, irritable silence. "No!" he exclaims, and even without sibilants, the word is a hiss. "No, no, no! Fuck that. Fuck you! I don't need your help; I don't want your help! Take your—" he licks his dry lips. There is a tense moment of searching, in which the right phrase is sought after. "—religious bullshit elsewhere."

And with that, he proceeds to stomp away. A child pitching a temper tantrum.

The scarred man does not attempt to halt him. If he knows anything about children, it is that their petulance is best not catered to.

The man raises his own hood and returns to his home. He knows to bide his time. Ishbala guides them all, and this is not the end of their meeting. Of that, he is certain.

Several nights later, when the moon is more emaciated and the air is as chilled as though a rain might soon fall, the man hears movement outside of his tent. It is time, he thinks. The flap which passes for a door is thrown open, and the stranger invites himself inside. He mumbles words which are so vile, yet their frequency is such that they seem more akin to harsh exhalations than true, cutting barbs. It is impossible to tell the extent of his remaining malice, but he is too small and too frail to be a threat, and the scarred man knows this.

The stranger does not bother to greet him. He looks around the tent, assessing it, and the man hears him say something like, "What the fuck is this?" but no matter how disinterested he says he is, he is there. There, alive in spite of what he surely wishes, shivering though surrounded by heat, and bleeding.

His shirt is some black thing with a high collar, foreign clothes; his companion can see no blood on it, but the darkness of the fabric would hide the substance anyway. On skin the colour of the moon, red poppies are splattered across neck and shoulders. Somehow, the new human has gotten himself injured. He does not ask for help. The scarred man knows he will not ask for help.

He remembers being much the same in the face of his elder brother, though his penchant for spite was noticeably less than this person's is.

Then the stranger steps forward and grips the table; his steps become awkward, stumbling. He leans over heavily, panting, sweating. His knuckles are whiter than the rest of his complexion, his breathing is laboured; perspiration drips down his forehead and cheeks. In one swift motion, he jerks his robe away, revealing the clothing and body that the man recognizes from Laboratory Five. He quirks an eyebrow and, for the moment, keeps his distance.

"How is it that you came to this place?" he asks the androgyne. "It seems far out of your territory. Did someone bring you here?" Did your master command you to come here for some purpose?

No answer but a scowl. Then, the former homunculus—and the man knows he is a former homunculus; Ishbala guides his knowledge, and he has been through the Gate, Truth—exhales a shuddering breath and slumps. Dark hair conceals his face as he makes a pillow of his forearms and leans his forehead against them. He still has not asked for help. He still will not.

Candlelight reveals the gash that runs across his shoulder, near the juncture where the neck is met. It may well be that soon they will both carry scars.

The man takes the initiative to aid his uninvited guest.

As soon as his hand finds its way to the new human's back, the other rounds on him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he spits. "Don't touch me!"

But he does not make a move to push the hand away, and the scarred man knows that his help will not be refused with more than hollow words. It would be easy to turn this person away; this life is not any of his direct concern. He has never known this figure, never loved him, even though they have in common one woman that he did love. But no, he refuses to think of her. She is dead. All of the old world is dead, and a new eternity has been born. The other homunculi are gone, yet Ishbala has given one another chance, and though the scarred man wonders why, he knows it is beyond his capacity to ask into.

"Envy," he says. "That is your name, is it not?"

He barks a laugh. "Was. I don't have a name now. I don't even exist."

And there is loathing in the tone, but there is also pain—sadness at the realization of what he is and what he is doomed to be. Envy bristles like an animal caught in a trap, ready to bite off any fingers which come too close. They are both orphans: nameless, forgotten by time...but not by God, and not by the dark doors of the Gate.

Alive and dead and alive again. The scarred man knows that, in their own ways, they both personify the facets of Ishbala. Birth, death, a thirst for vengeance, and now rebirth. The high priests say that Ishbala has been slain, but rose again.

"When I was a child, I learned about the times Ishbala grew angry with humanity," says the scarred man; his tone grows lofty, mimicking how the holy masters sound when they recite these tales. "His wrath kindled, He turned against them. Many were destroyed, for Ishbala's anger is mighty. None could stand before Him. Then, He came to live among men, to walk as one of them—"

"—what the fuck?" Envy's expression contorts into one of horror and revulsion.

"—and in so doing, He eventually forgave the humans. His empathy grew, and the Sins of His children were washed from their souls. Afterwards, Ishbala, who had once wandered the lands as a warrior, changed His form to that of a humble farmer, and so He lived for the rest of His human days, until the time came for Him to return to his throne in heaven."

And Envy does not understand, cannot understand. His new soul is too newborn, too raw; the man can see the fear in his eyes, the hate he clings to because it's the only thing he knows. He has forgotten everything else, everything that might have meant anything. Raw as an infant, bloody, shaking, with weak, wobbly legs. But hate is there, easy to reach for. The alternative is obviously terrifying.

"Fuck." He winces, plainly sore from his injury. "First those stupid brats...those stupid brats..." He pants. "...I'll kill them. I'll kill...and then...then you...talking nonsense at me. Shut the fuck up. Leave me alone."

He ignores, conveniently, the fact that he has come here. He swears again and again that he'll kill everyone and everything, even though a child could see that he barely has the strength to walk. Whatever he was, he is no longer; whether he is ever willing to make peace with this, the other informs him, is his own choice.

Envy has no response for that. There is a long, aching moment of silence.

"I didn't want to come here," he grouses at length. The words are whiny. "I can't control where that damned Gate puts me!"

He complains of other things. Of everything. He rattles off about one hundred hates in the span of fifteen minutes; Envy does not seem to notice that he has been led to a cot. He collapses into it, still complaining, appearing entirely unaware of his surroundings. Even when his eyelids begin to come together, he is still voicing his dissatisfaction with all things beneath the sun and moon. The scarred man says nothing. Attention will only make the new human more obstinate.

He never explains why he has come. He does not have to. There are courses in the world which logic does not dictate.

Soon, he is asleep. Eyes the colour of hers are closed, leaving memories and old hurts to fade into the night. Beneath white sheets, the white body rests. Carefully, the man binds the wound, then leaves it to heal. Blood seeps through the bandages, staining them red. Human blood—unmistakably so, as it carries an iron tang.

The man kneels and prepares to say a prayer, the final prayer of the evening. Before the first words are murmured, however, he hears a voice.

"...a corner."

Although he assumes Envy is speaking in his sleep, the man returns his attention to him just in case he is mistaken. As it happens, he is.

The former Sin is lying on his side, eyes fully open, knuckles buried into his cheek. His countenace is once again a study in the word moping. When he catches sight of the other man's recognition, Envy sits up fully and heaves a sigh. He has that tense look about him, that look of having repressed words which need to be uttered, but he is silent. Another short eternity of silence drifts by. The Ishbalan decides to resume his prayer.

"...a fucking corner," he hears as soon as the attempt is made. Envy flails, looking like he wants to hit something or someone, but his fists meet with nothing more than the hard mattress. "I got this—" he points to his injury. "—from the corner of a fucking box."

The man nods. "Undoubtedly from one of the crates you were attempting to steal food from."

If it is possible, ghostly pale skin acquires a lighter tint. "You saw?" he asks in a heated, surprised whisper.

"You should learn to be more conscious of your current physical limitations. The flesh you once took for granted is now subject to harm, whether intentional or accidental." He presses his hands together and places his focus back onto Ishbala. "God has given you a second chance. It is too precious a thing to waste."

With his peripheral vision, the man sees Envy's face go blank at that.

Another silence follows.

Then, the howl arrives: long, high, despairing, rising on the wings of a sob and bubbling like a pot which has just begun to boil, and while the man closes his eyes and proceeds to pray, Envy bewails his predicament. He is not soft-spoken, as the mourners at Ishbala's temples are; instead, he shrieks in horror, demanding to know why the Gate has always tortured him, taken from him, ruined him. He swears that killing Edward was not sufficient revenge; nothing, he says, will ever be sufficient to fill the hole inside of himself, the chasm within all homunculi.

And yet he is not a homunculus.

The soul sits within him, eager to reach out. It is intangible, yet now that both have been through the womb of the Gate—and consequently returned again to this plane—the man can feel the unseen tendrils. In each hesitant pause, in each moment when his words do not match his actions and he demands to be left alone despite that he pushes no one away, the man can see a grain of hungry curiosity looking out from those bright eyes.

He knows Envy feels it, too. And he knows it scares him, unsettles him; it must feel like being cold, almost frozen, and wanting to reach for warmth, but fearing the burn.

Surely, it feels maddening. But the Ishbalan says nothing; he lets Envy have his tirade. Even in the heat of the desert, some things need to thaw slowly. A dam of hatred is released in every word, draining like pus from a wound. While Envy says what he desires, the other man is content to pray and thank God on behalf of the both of them.

Let him free the rage, he thinks. It is the only way to be rid of it.

There are scars that linger until death.

Yet new skin can cover the old, stopping the flow of blood. Humans suffer. Humans endure.

Long after Envy is asleep again, having exhausted himself, and long after prayers have been said, the moonlight is still upon the desert. He, the son of Ishbal, stands outside the tent and stares at the glowing landscape. They are both nameless—he and the other—both who once desired vengeance, who were both willing to kill for their own ideals; their paths were entirely different, dissimilar in all but the blood that paved the way and the sensation of needing to bring wrath to certain others.

Once, they would have tried to kill one another. Once, the Ishbalan would have also tried to kill Edward Elric. They are not parallels, nor are they opposites. Their goals meet at turns; at other turns, they diverge.

The man knows, somehow—and he is certain—that neither of them shall ever kill again.

That was an eternity ago, in a world that was and was not this one.

The Sin of Envy and the one who has envied. He, child of the desert, hears the whispers of his brother in the dim hours of morning, when twilight's fingertips stroke the desert's visage; the wind grows loud, sighing and singing, and the man pulls up his hood. Orphans they may be, in a womb so dry as that which surrounds them, but even moonlight—only an echo of the sun—can be brilliant. Ghosts or mortals, their spirits are here.

After what they have been through, some alchemists might call this "equivalent exchange": second chances in return for existences of grief.

But this man is not truly an alchemist.

"Amen," he says, then returns to the tent.

Amen.