It was pure luck that Havoc happened to be at the Target that night. Normally he would go to Chad's bar, which was in a better part of town and served better food. The Target was a darker, more anonymous place, where people pretty much went to get themselves quietly drunk.
When he went in, he immediately felt that something was rather off. The regular patrons were rather edgy, which seemed to be a result of the blue-uniformed soldier sitting at the far end of the bar. Soldiers usually kept to their own clubs.
Havoc did an abrupt double-take when he realized that the non-regulation blond braid was familiar from somewhere, and that he really was seeing Elric in a bar.
"You know him?" Warren the bartender jerked his head over to where the alchemist was sitting. "Do us a favor and get him out of here. The kid's a nasty drunk, and we don't want trouble with the military or its alchemists."
Havoc nodded and went over to Elric, leaning heavily on his crutch and dragging his still-paralyzed right leg along. What the hell is he doing here?
"I am not too young to be drinking," Elric snarled immediately. "I'm fuckin' over eighteen."
"I didn't say anything," Havoc defended himself.
"He called me fuckin' short!" Elric slammed a fist down on the wood of the bar, and glared in Warren's direction sourly. "Give me some more."
"I think you've had enough," Havoc suggested, but Elric just glared at him and got himself another drink.
"Shut up. Don't call me a fucking lightweight. Don' call me short," he paused to gulp down half of the cup. Havoc shuddered when he realized Elric was drinking practically undiluted vodka.
"Din' always used to care," Elric said morbidly. "But then firsht- first thing people notish about me is 'Man he's short', and they remember 'Oh, that short guy?' and they go on and ON until I want to fucking rip out their bloody THROATS!" He slammed his automail fist on the abused bar again, this time cracking the wood slightly.
Warren shot Havoc a half-pleading look, to which Havoc nodded. He really needed to get the kid out of here.
"Grownupsh are fuckin' liars!" Elric announced glaring at Havoc accusingly.
"Why?" he asked curiously. He couldn't help but be fascinated, in a rather sad sort of way, by this look into Elric's way of thinking. He also couldn't help but worry at how different he was now from how he usually behaved. Really, the boss hadn't exploded over short jokes nearly as often in the past few months.
Elric squeezed his glass, and Havoc was surprised to see tears start in his eyes. "Because they shay drink is supposed to make you feel better, but I jusht feel like shit."
“Well, now you're a true adult,” Havoc answered, rather sadly. “That's one of the most perpetrated lies in the world.”
“It'sh not fair,” Elric mumbled, tears running down his face. “I'd do anything for him. I'd die for him, really really, but he'd probly yell at me.”
Havoc gently took the glass out of Elric's now-unresisting hands. “Come on, Boss, I really think you've had enough.” He awkwardly tugged at the alchemist. “Help me out here; I can't carry you.”
Elric reluctantly slid off the stool and allowed himself to be tugged away, to the relief of the other patrons. He was unsteady on his feet, though that was hardly surprising given the amount he had drunk. Getting him home was going to be more difficult than he thought.
“Does Alphonse know you're here?” he inquired tentatively.
Elric hung his head sullenly, and snapped his mouth shut in a grim line, only to lurch sideways into a wall. “Tol' him I was at the library. Wanted to make me a fuckin' birthday party. Don' wanna party. He's still shtuck.”
“I don't think he feels the same way.”
“Shut up,” Elric snapped harshly, “you don' know what ish like.” His golden eyes were animated by a deranged look. “I should fix him up. Tha'sh what people think. They think I'm a fuckin' liar. I don' lie. I really hate me.”
This was wrong, very wrong. He hadn't seen the Boss for a while now, but the kid had definitely not been like this last time they had met. His apartment wasn't far; he'd take Elric there for the night. The kid would probably have one hell of a hangover in the morning.
Besides, there was no way he'd leave him alone when he was talking like this. Alcohol does have a tendency to bring out the truth in people.
The apartment he shared with his roommate was messy as usual, but Elric was definitely beyond caring about mundane things like messes at this point.
Elric had been mostly silent on the way to the building, though he had stopped to vomit in an alley at some point. Now he looked around fuzzily, and Havoc gestured towards the bed.
“Think you can make it that far?”
Elric nodded and took a few steps, only to stop when his eyes fell on the gun in the half-open drawer of the nightstand.
When did I leave that out? Havoc hobbled over, intent on shutting the drawer, his subconscious already sending off warning signals.
Elric picked up the gun and inspected it. It was clear from the way he handled it that he had some practice using the weapon.
“Leave that alone, Boss, it's not safe-”
Elric grinned, “I know,” and pointed the gun at him.
“Put that down,” Havoc said calmly, though his mind was already flashing red alerts all over the place.
“You're gonna help me,” Elric said, finger on the trigger. “I won't have people shaying I don't keep my promises. I'll need you to get Al over here.”
“Why?” Havoc stalled.
“Well, after I draw the array, of coursh. I'm gonna fixsh him up for sure thish time.” Tears were running down Elric's cheeks again, the earlier look of anguish returning full force. “Help me bring him back!”
Despite the drunken state of its holder, the gun didn't waver nearly as much as Havoc would have liked, certainly not enough to pounce and confiscate it. “I can't help you with that,” Havoc said patiently. “I'm not an alchemist.”
“Don' need to,” a fanatical expression was on Elric's face. “I'll do the alchemy. You call Al over here. Jusht don' tell him what happened to me after I'm gone.”
“Boss, I really don't think your brother will be happy if you do this.” Just until the gun moves, just until I can get him away from the gun--
“He's...not happy anyway,” Elric rubbed his eyes with the hand that wasn't holding the gun and swayed on his feet. “How can he be happy the way he is?” The gun wavered, now pointing at the floor. Havoc advanced immediately, cursing his paralysis which prevented him from moving quickly. “He doesn't want to lose you, Boss.” Havoc took Elric's wrist and shook it, the gun falling from lax fingers. “You're drunk as hell, kid.” A slight push, and Elric was sprawled on the bed, staring at the ceiling listlessly.
“Shtop callin' me that.”
Elric made no move to help when Havoc started to pull his shoes off, just lay there seemingly oblivious to the world.
“Jush- jusht b'cause I can' do ane-anythin' right doesn' mean you can laugh at me,” Elric mumbled, his breath starting to catch in sobs. He rolled over and curled up into a ball around a pillow, nearly catching Havoc in the face with his automail foot.
No use trying to get him out of those clothes, Havoc thought as he watched the form shaking with muffled cries on his bed. Comforting wasn't his strong point, but he still reached out to pet the alchemist's hair and murmured soothing nonsense until the kid had cried himself to sleep.
He had fallen out of contact with Mustang in the past few years, partly brought about by his own sense of uselessness. Now though, maybe he should contact his former commanding officer, not for himself but for the Boss. He heard from Fury occasionally, and sometimes Fullmetal was mentioned. He matured, Fury said. He didn't throw temper tantrums like he used to, not even when people called him short.
In light of the recent evening Havoc found himself seriously doubting Elric's emotional maturity. 'Not minding' was very different from 'not letting your emotions out'.
“People care about you,” Havoc whispered at the still form, “don't let us down.”
General Roy Mustang scowled down at the analysis, at the stark black letters that marched persistently across the stiff white military-issue paper and absolutely refused to make sense to him. He transferred his gaze to the issuer of the report and glared at the twenty-year-old Fullmetal standing in front of his desk. “The psychological analysis is back,” he informed the silent colonel. Fullmetal just looked at him, as listless as always, but his mouth did twitch slightly.
“According to this, you are a well-balanced man, with a slight temper, intensely loyal to your brother, and showing guilty tendencies. Overall, coping.” Fullmetal didn't bat an eyelid, just waited stiffly at attention, his shoulders tense. Roy wished once again that he would slouch on a sofa like he used to. Once, Edward would have tried his best to ignore Roy, but he always knew the boy was listening. Now, he felt like he could talk for hours, and not one word would penetrate the wall around the no-longer-quite-so-young alchemist.
“Everything's fine, then,” Fullmetal commented disinterestedly.
“No, it's not,” Roy snapped. “I find it rather strange, actually, considering the feedback from people who have worked with you. According to them, you're obsessive, violent, and borderline suicidal.”
“Obviously that's not true. Whose report will be accepted, a few lay-soldiers', or a trained army psychologist’s?” Irony riddled the comment.
Roy looked down at the paper, a new thought deepening the crease in his forehead. “There are psychology books in Central Library, aren't there?” he asked grimly.
Fullmetal smiled a dark smile at him, which made his dull amber eyes burn for an instant. “I'm sure there are,” he purred.
Roy stared hard into Fullmetal's eyes, and understood that he was looking at what might be the worst kind of madman. He can hide it. The thought made his insides turn strangely cold.
For years now, people had been speculating about how the Fullmetal Alchemist would grow up, given the environment. He had tried to help the boy, tried to help him mature so as to survive in such an unforgiving place as the Amestris military. Now, he found himself remembering what Havoc had told him months ago, and wished he had paid the tentative warning more mind.
Fullmetal no longer had temper tantrums when people called him short. In fact, he hardly yelled at people at all anymore. But there was a disturbing phenomenon where people who angered him found themselves prey to accidents. Nothing severe or life threatening, and nothing that couldn't be explained away easily; cracked floors or ceilings, flat tires, weak ladder rungs. Nothing at all that could be traced to a certain alchemist.
There was never any outward sign.
Edward had never been mean before.
“Why are you looking so displeased?” Fullmetal asked, his voice heavy with humor. “I thought this was what you've been trying to teach me for so long. How to think ahead and all. You should be proud of me.” He suddenly leaned on the desk, putting his face close to Roy's. “After all,” he said softly, “I learned how to be a bastard from the greatest bastard of them all.”
Roy heard the bitterness in the words, and wondered when a teenager's frustration had turned into hatred. It was true – he had been the one to mold Edward through most of his formative years. He should have done something earlier. He felt a sinking disappointment in himself, and wondered if this was how parents felt when their children left them for a darker path.
He let none of this show on his face; instead he turned the topic of conversation to one he knew would elicit some kind of response. “How is Alphonse doing?”
Fullmetal's eyes suddenly widened, and he jerked away almost violently, taking a few steps back. “You bastard!” he hissed, his face twisted in a snarl. “You're just like all the others, aren't you? Wondering why I'm hedging about restoring Al when I could have done it years ago. Saying I'm a coward and a hypocrite for not being willing to sacrifice myself!” His eyes were wild, but Roy noticed they did not quite focus on him.
“What others?” he wondered, having heard nothing of the sort from anybody.
“Shut up, you motherfucker! I promised Al, and I'm going to find a way!” Fullmetal's breath came heavy, and his hands clenched and unclenched at his sides, the automail squeaking slightly in protest. “I don't care what you say, I don't care about any of you! I'll do it, I'll prove it to you all! I... just wait! Just give me some more time, that's all I need...” he backed away and bumped into the door.
“Wait!” Roy spoke sharply, and Fullmetal froze with his hand on the doorknob.
“Just ask,” he said softly. “That's all you ever had to do. Let me help you.”
Fullmetal stared at him, wavering. His fingers twitched, and his throat worked soundlessly. A strangled look of anguished longing flitted across his face, lighting Roy’s own secret candle of hope for the alchemist’s future. But the moment was lost, and Fullmetal squeezed the doorknob hard. “Quit looking down on me, you bastard! I hate you. I fucking hate you, liar! I will succeed!” He fled, slamming the door behind him.
Roy suddenly noticed he was standing, and wearily sat down. So blind...how can he be so brilliant and so blind at the same time? It seemed, as time went by, that Fullmetal's vision had become an enclosing tunnel, which narrowed progressively until all he could see was his brother.
He should have done something differently, Roy thought. Been supportive sometimes instead of sarcastic, perhaps called him short a few times less. Maybe if Fullmetal had had someone to lean on, things would have turned out otherwise. Right now, guilt was cutting the alchemist off from everybody, even from his beloved Alphonse.
He would have to try something, find a way to bring back the lively boy Edward had been too many long years ago. He had to try to do something.
There must be some way.
“How could you let him do this?” Al demanded, torn between outrage and betrayal.
“He went over my head,” Roy explained tiredly for what seemed to be the hundredth time. “The Fuhrer approved a year and a half's leave for research. By the time I heard about it the papers had been signed and he was on his way out.”
“Why didn't you tell them to rescind those forms, then!” It was rather strange, hearing Alphonse shouting.
“Alphonse,” Roy said, understanding the younger brother's pain but getting irritated by the constant rehashing of this conversation. “I told them I felt the course of action was inadvisable, but I cannot go against the direct orders of the Fuhrer. There was nothing I could do,” he admitted tiredly. It was difficult to think how he had completely lost influence over the boy, hurt to think of the colossal failure he represented. Good thing I don't have any kids. I seem to make a terrible mentor.
Al's shoulders slumped slightly, the armor now radiating depression. “He didn't even say goodbye, just left a note...I don't even know where he went!” Al said brokenly. It disturbed him how in the last few years Ed had grown more silent, introverted, and driven. His constant fear that Ed would be taken away from him seemed to be finally realized. He only wished he understood why his brother was acting the way he was.
“Do you know what he discovered?” Roy asked urgently. “He wouldn't just disappear on a whim. If we know what he's looking for, maybe we can track him.”
Al looked ahead blankly. “I don't know. All I know is that a few days ago he told me he had an idea for an alternate source of energy to trade at the Doors, but he didn't say anything about what it might be.” He looked back at Roy, red eyes glowing earnestly. “Sometimes I wonder if he doesn't love me so much that he hates me.”
“Al, Al, thank goodness! I'm so sorry, I should've called, I know I should've, but he made me promise, swear, that I wouldn't. I couldn't break my word to him, please don't hate me!”
“Winry?” Al finally recognized the distraught voice on the other end of the line, “Why would I...wait, Ed was there?!”
“Yes,” she said reluctantly, “He...” she gulped, “he needed new automail. Oh Al,”she broke down, “he needed new automail! He lost his other leg!”
Al couldn't actually feel dizzy, but he was starting to wonder if he was stuck inside a very bad dream.
“His right leg? What do you mean 'lost'?!” he couldn't make himself understand it.
“Not completely, it's just...just up to right below the knee. At least this time he saved me work in terms of joints....” The pathetic attempt at humor fell flat.
“If he's got new automail, he was there...Winry, my brother was at your house for at least a YEAR and you didn't tell me?!”
Silence crackled along the line before Winry said shakily, “I knew you hadn't heard from him for over a year, then, but when he called and asked me not to tell...I was so happy he trusted me enough to call. And then, when I saw what he needed, I couldn't break my word. I didn't want to risk him going to some other mechanic. He needs the best. He left not even five minutes ago, on a train east,” she finished.
“You should have told me,” Al said coldly. “I don't care what he made you promise. He's not okay, Winry!”
“I know, I saw him!”
“Swear to me that if you ever see him again, or even if he just calls you, you'll tell me!” Al demanded.
“I promise.” A sense of relief permeated the promise. Now she could do what was right for Ed, since she promised Al first.
“I want him back, Winry. I don't care if you have to knock him on the head and tie him down 'till I get there. I won't lose him!”
Almost a year and a half after Edward's disappearance a request for additional leave was lodged by mail, and granted. Two years after, not long after Winry's call, another request was filed. He was grudgingly given six more months and told to present some results at the end of this time. Nobody was honestly surprised when he didn't show up. Four months later he was declared AWOL and there was a warrant for his arrest upon sight.
He wasn't in Amestris. An exhaustive search by both the military intelligence and Alphonse followed his tracks to the desert east of the country, and promptly lost them. Xing informed Amestris that if they found the wandering Fullmetal they would consider divulging his whereabouts.
Four more years passed.
Envy perched on the window of the dingy room Fullmetal was staying at. “Hmph, you sure led us a merry chase,” he commented in annoyance. “We've had to put off our plan for years because you vanished. I hope you're...pleased....” He trailed off in shock when the shrimp turned towards him, and he finally got a good look.
He frankly didn't know what to worry about first; there was the horrible thinness, and the dull sunken eyes. Fullmetal's left hand was bandaged as far as he could see, and there were more bandages on his face and neck. The once-bright blond hair was now thin and wispy with some bald patches showing, and hung listlessly around his pale face. Two crutches lay discarded on the grimy floor.
“Hey...what did you do to yourself?!” Envy demanded. “We need you healthy to be a sacrifice, you know!”
“Sacrifice, huh,” Edward said slowly, his voice hoarse. “That's right, the Philosopher's Stone. I made something like that, you know. Want to see it?” He tilted his head, and regarded Envy thoughtfully.
Envy frowned. How the hell could the shrimp have created a Philosopher's Stone?
Edward fumbled with a heavy metal box Envy only now noticed he was holding. Actually, 'holding' was probably too mild a word; 'clutching' was more like it.
The alchemist was speaking. "He got me thinking, that 'Father' of yours when he said that stuff about alchemy. Now I understand that I don't really understand alchemy, not then and not now. But I understand other stuff. Like physics." He finally undid the many catches and alchemized the box open. "I made it so if you only open it with alchemy, it'll self-destruct." He sounded very pleased with himself. "Come take a look."
Envy regarded him skeptically. He probably shouldn't get close, but what could the pipsqueak possibly do to hurt him? Especially looking like death warmed over the way he was now. He'd have to tell Father about this quickly, so he could fix him up. Curiosity getting the better of him, he stalked forward, and looked into the box held open invitingly in shaking hands.
Inside was a pitch-black jewel about the size of a goose egg, which seemed to glow green in the corners of his vision. Looking at it made his body feel strange, as if he was standing in very hot sun, but the feeling was fleeting.
"What is that? It's not a Philosopher's Stone."
The alchemist smirked at him, a tired, nasty sort of smirk. "No, it's not. Maybe I'll call it the Physicist's Stone or something. Look," and he touched the stone with one automail finger. The stone flashed a sick green for an instant, but nothing else happened. Envy was just contemplating the fact that the shrimp's automail had looked rather weird, when the first jolt of pain hit him.
"Ugh," he doubled over, his head swimming, feeling strangely nauseous. "Bastard, what did you do…" he got a good look at his legs, and nearly screamed.
"You…you…stop it!!!" he glared up at the alchemist in a mixture of fury and desperation, and realized by the horrified look on the shrimp's face that what was happening to his legs must be happening to the rest of his body.
Unable to stand any longer, Envy collapsed on the floor, his body convulsing helplessly while pain lanced through him. He no longer had any attention to spare the alchemist who was retching on the floor, metal box forgotten beside him.
It took him a long time to die.
Gluttony walked in rather late, under the circumstances. He had wondered if he should go in to help Envy when he first heard the cries, but Envy had told him to stay outside. Finally he could stand it no longer, and decided to go check.
Inside the sacrifice's room the sacrifice was sitting on the floor looking rather sick, next to a pile of …something he couldn't recognize.
"Where's Envy?" he asked. The sacrifice shuddered and clutched a metal box.
"Something happened to him," he said, his voice sounding strange. "It wasn't on purpose, but I don't think he'll be coming back."
"You killed Envy?"
The sacrifice shook his head quickly, then stopped with a small moan. He really wasn't looking very good; he looked like something had been eating him. "He did it to himself, actually…Gluttony, can you help me? I need you to take something to Father. Can you do that for me?"
Gluttony didn't answer, his eyes focused on the pile of something. "Can I eat that?" It looked good.
"Uh…it might give you a bit of a stomachache..."
He was already lumbering towards it. The sacrifice tried again.
"Father is really going to be happy if you give this to him." He looked away while Gluttony ate. For some reason, people around him did that often.
"He'll be happy?"
"Very happy," said the sacrifice convincingly. "But I can't give it to him, only you can. That's 'cause I can't walk well, see?" He held out a seamless metal box about the size of both of Gluttony's fists. "Can you take it to him for me?"
Father wouldn't be happy that the sacrifice couldn't walk, Gluttony thought. Father also would want to know what happened to Envy. He wondered about that too. Envy was annoying, he didn't just vanish.
The sacrifice rubbed his head. "If you take that box to Father, it'll explain exactly what happened to Envy, ok? Now can you please take it to him?"
Gluttony finally nodded, and picked up the box. Take the box to Father. Father would be happy. Right.
He trotted off.
The soldiers who took Fullmetal into custody made sure to keep a safe distance from him. After the alchemist's dark assurances that he was quite contagious, they wanted to be as far away from him as possible. It wasn't like he could go anywhere, not when he was limping along on two crutches, and even then making very slow progress.
"What are you rushing for?" he laughed madly when he noticed their impatience. "It's been years, a few more minutes won't matter much to anybody. Believe me, you won't get promoted for this. They're going to curse the day I came back…" he trailed off, not really having enough breath to walk and talk at the same time.
Word that Fullmetal had returned spread through the base at Central like wildfire. Returned willingly, they said in amazement, not a single attempt to resist arrest.
Roy Mustang hurried towards the gates, along with what seemed like half of the base. Some soldiers were blocking the way, sending lay-soldiers back to their tasks, and clearing a path for the Fuhrer's contingent.
"Let me get to him!" came Al's oddly hollow voice, as he fought the soldiers clearing the way. "That's my brother! Dammit, get away from me! Edward!"
The blond head looked up and his slow pace paused while he looked for his brother. Roy gasped when he saw the mess the alchemist had made of himself, for there was no question in his mind who had hurt him that way. Then Edward looked his way, recognizing him immediately.
"Get away!" he shouted angrily at Roy. "Stay away from me, you hear? Far away!" Then he was nudged on by rifles, and Roy was swept away from him.
The top brass of the military and the Fuhrer himself had turned out to greet the return of the Fullmetal alchemist. He entered slowly, brightening when he saw who was waiting for him.
"I finished my research," he said, forestalling any questions. "You can see from how I look that I wasn't able to get here before. I was very…sick for a while there," he chuckled slightly.
"Your purpose in this research was to discover a new source of energy. If the results you provide are deemed sufficiently important, the charges against you may be dropped," the Fuhrer told him.
"I'll show you." Edward let go of his crutches and immediately collapsed to his hands and knees for a moment, panting harshly. "It's right here…" He sat up, pulling a dark metal case out of a bag slung across his shoulders. There was complete silence as he undid the locks, everybody's attention, generals and soldiers alike, focused curiously on what he would show them.
Fullmetal finally fumbled the last catch open, and pulled out a faceted black stone. "Look, Fuhrer," he grinned up at the homunculus, "It's possibly a greater source of energy than the Philosopher's Stone. But unlike the Philosopher's Stone, this needs no human lives to fuel it. The only damage is to the creator…" here he seemed to be laughing at some private joke, "and the Philosopher's Stone brings life, but all this stone can do is bring death!" At that the stone glowed, and greenish lighting crackled from it, too fast for anybody to escape from it.
The Fuhrer stared down at him, furious. "Did you think you could kill me with that, Fullmetal?"
As the first convulsions started, Fullmetal looked away. "I know I can."
He didn't need to see it again; he knew what would happen. For the first few seconds it would seem like there was no effect, but then the headache started, and the nausea. After that the body started changing, growing bloated and misshapen, tearing itself apart from the inside. Some limbs crumbled away, while others grew out of all proportion, blocking the veins, the lungs, the heart, tearing nerves to shreds. Blood flowed in red spurts out of wounds created when bones punched through the skin as the body tried desperately to heal itself, only to fail again and again. The more it healed, the more deformed it became, until what was left was not even recognizable as ever having looked remotely human.
Yet still the body lived, as the Philosopher's Stone in its core forced it to regenerate again and again, until finally it used itself up and allowed the tortured souls within it to die.
This one went a lot faster than Envy did.
Horror permeated the silence when it was finally over, punctuated by occasional retching, until it was broken by the clicks of guns being cocked.
"That was incredibly stupid of you, doing it here in front of everybody," a hook-nosed general Edward didn't recognize told him. "Any last words before you die?"
"You won't kill me," Edward said confidently. "Didn't you see what happened to King Bradley? That's what's gonna happen to you. That's what happened to me. That green light is going to kill you all in a few years, only it's going to be quite a bit slower and probably more painful." He now had their complete attention. "I would've been dead years ago, but I know how to cure it, even though the cure isn't permanent either. The doctors won't be able to do anything for you."
He had them, and everyone present knew it.
"Edward!" Al finally broke through the soldiers blocking the entry, and ran into the large room. He wanted to hug his brother, and punch him in the face as hard as he could, but with Edward looking like that he didn't dare touch him. Ed looked up at him, a hopeful, thankful look crossing his features.
"You're still here," he said brokenly. "I was so afraid…Al, we have to do it quickly!" Ed said urgently, "Before something happens!"
"What? Do what?" He wanted to demand that Ed explain where he had been all those years, what was wrong with him, but before he could speak-
"Your body, silly! I've got the stone!" He showed it to Al excitedly, and put it on the floor between them. "C'mere!" he beckoned his brother close enough to touch, and clapped his hands together.
Al didn't notice how the other military personnel had fled upon seeing the stone, couldn't look away from Ed's face as he pressed one hand to the stone and another to Al's breastplate. Fear engulfed him, fear that this would be the last time he ever saw his brother's face, since it was already far too late to stop the transmutation. Then everything turned white and he saw himself, standing in front of two Doors, and then-
Edward looked around the now-familiar white nothingness broken only by his own personal set of doors. His own personal hell. At least his body didn't hurt, here.
So you're back again, eh? The figure of Truth, now owning Ed's arm and both of his legs commented. I wondered how long it would take you.
"Here," Ed held out the stone. "I want to trade this."
I have to say I'm rather impressed by what you've done.
Puzzled, Ed looked down at the stone and back at Truth. "I don't understand…I thought you knew everything?"
Knowing is very different from applying. You're at least a thousand years ahead of your time, you know that? With that thing you could power all of Amestris for over a hundred years and still not use it up. He grinned. That information comes free.
"I don't care. I want Al to have his body back."
I'm not sure you can trade that, Truth hedged. It's not really alchemy.
"Alchemy wouldn't have killed Father."
He's not quite dead. Do you even know what he is?
"No, and I don't care. As long as he no longer exists physically anymore and can't bother us, I don’t care what happens to him. And this stone is made with alchemy, it just uses other principles."
You're supposed to trade Life.
"I'm giving you a hundred thousand years of entropy here, can't you take it and shut up!?" He was getting heartily sick of the conversation. "I'm giving you a universe broken up into particles. Do whatever you want with it, just let me have Al!"
Truth was rather miffed. No need to get snitty with me. And it's more than a hundred thousand years, if you want to know.
"Just take it and let me go!" Ed looked close to tears.
Done. Truth took pity on him. But you can't get your limbs back. I'm not that nice.
Ed nodded, not caring a whit, and handed over the stone. The Doors started opening, and he whipped around to look at Truth in horror. "What's happening?!" he shouted. "I thought I gave you enough!"
Truth laughed. You've got credit, and I won't keep it waiting for you. Better decide what you want to know quickly!
Al sat up. It took him several moments to understand what the sensations he was experiencing meant, and then he realized that he could feel. He stared at his hands, so much bigger than they had been as a ten-year-old, and incredulously reached up to touch his face.
He was truly human again.
Al picked up Ed's coat, which had been discarded on the floor and wrapped it around his terribly thin naked body. He really could use a good meal, he mused. He looked down at his brother's prone form, scrutinizing him in silence. Edward was looking up at him through half-lidded eyes, his face relaxed.
Ed's happiness was enough to calm the panic that threatened to overtake him. He touched gentle fingers to Ed's face, marveling at how the skin felt under his fingers, detecting the start of faint worry lines on his forehead. Worry over me.
"Wake up," he said, starting to get worried. "Wake up, Ed!" he tapped him on the cheek, and was horrified to see a dark bruise form. "Ed, what's happening to you?"
The frantic tone penetrated Ed's happy haze, and galvanized him to respond even though he was far too tired to move, almost too tired to react at all. "Nothing, Al, it's…"
Furious, Al started pulling off the bandage covering the right side of Ed's jaw, ignoring the protests that he really shouldn't.
"Oh my God…!" he stared in horror at the deep wound. The skin around the sore was an angry red, and in the center was a large hole in the flesh, in shades of brown, red and sickly yellow. "What…how much more of that is there?!" he looked at Ed's body, noticing the bandaging that went all the way down his left arm, and probably continued under the clothes.
"It's not as bad as it looks," Ed protested as Al hefted him up.
"I'm getting you to the hospital this second," Al snapped. "You're an idiot, Brother."
"It doesn't even hurt." Ed leaned his head happily on Al's chest and snuggled closer, apparently perfectly happy to stay where he was.
"I don't believe you." Al was running now, his long hair blowing in his face and being a general nuisance. He would have to cut it, he promised himself.
"Goddamn it, Al, I'm just dying! Quit acting like I'm some sort of invalid, will you?! I've been dying for five years now and been ok with it, and now that it's gone…" he suddenly jerked up in horror, and started struggling. "Fuck it, Al, let go of me! The automail ports are contaminated! Get away from me! Please Al!" Ed was starting to become desperate.
Al grimly hung on to the struggling body, though it wasn't an easy task as his body was undernourished and weaker than he would have liked. "Talk sense, Ed! I don't know what you're talking about!"
Frustrated, Ed clapped his hands together and pressed them to his left thigh. With a flash of alchemical light the false leg dropped to the ground with a hollow clunk, ceramic pieces shattering and plastic getting crushed by the weight of the metal automail port. Another flash and the right leg received the same treatment, more twisted bits of metal, plastic and ceramic falling to the ground.
"What are you doing?!"
The arm was disconnected as well, and joined the others in a heap. "Fuck it," Ed nearly sobbed, "I don't want the same thing to happen to you. I can't do alchemy now. Fuck. You got chalk?"
I hate it when he doesn't tell me anything. "Tell me what you need and I'll do it." Ed was clutching the front of Al's borrowed coat with his bandaged left hand, biting his lower lip. "It won't help, you don't know how to make Vitium."
"That's what I called it…" Ed suddenly brightened. "Wait, you probably can, you've seen the Truth! You need to create an element, the densest metal I could synthesize, it's got fourteen energy levels, numbered 2, 8, 18, 32,18, 32, 8, 18, 32, 50, 72, 32, 18 and 4. 511 neutral particles (we'll need to find a name for those, really), weighs uh…"
Al stared at him, but the words resonated with some knowledge inside his mind. "That's insane. It would use up an insane amount of energy. I think you're crazy," he informed Ed, but clapped his hands together all the same. The strange element materialized, leaving a sharp smell of ozone in the air, and he coated the bits of automail completely, leaving not the tiniest crack. The pile of slag seemed to almost sink into the concrete, the Vitium was so dense.
"Embed it in the stone now," Ed instructed. "We don't want people digging this stuff up again."
Al complied, then picked his brother up again. "Well, I guess there is a good side to all this. You definitely won't be walking anywhere now, so you'll have plenty of time to explain exactly what you've been up to for the past eight years." There was a note of steel in his voice.
Ed looked down, closing his fist in the fabric covering Al's chest once more and tried to hide his face. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. "Or rather, I'm not sorry. I fixed you, and that's all that matters. Now they won't be looking at me like I'm a coward any more."
Al bundled Ed into the car that Farman drove up. It was obvious they were headed for the hospital. "That's another thing we need to talk about. I have no clue where you get these ideas, but I think you've got a whole lot of gross misconceptions going on here."
Edward just grinned at him, seemingly not even noticing what Al had said.
Despite his intense hatred of hospitals, Ed didn't put up any resistance when he was rushed through the ER at Central Hospital. He was still caught up in a happy haze; as long as Al stayed somewhere near him, they could do whatever they wanted to him for all he cared.
For his part, Al refused to be parted from his brother. He watched as Ed was transferred to a stretcher and wheeled into his own room. He refused to look away when the doctors started peeling off the bandages, revealing more and more of his dying body.
His legs were rotted stumps, parts of them turning black. Mottled purple skin ran up nearly to his waist, further on the left side than on the right. Discolored patches and burn-like marks flecked him, punctuated by deep pock-marks. His right shoulder was a mess, the flesh dark and peeling, looking almost cooked in places.
Al stood there, feeling utterly numb, unable to cope with the knowledge that this was what was left of his indomitable brother.
X-rays showed that the bones the automail ports had been riveted to were cracked, parts of them half-corroded away. The palm of his left hand was hardly recognizable now that the bandages were off; it looked like there might be a hole practically clear through it. His fingertips were worn down to the first joint.
Through it all Ed lay there with an almost drugged-looking smile on his face, though that smile started wavering when he saw the way Al was looking at him.
“I told you...it doesn't hurt me,” Ed said in a small voice, trying to reassure Al.
Al shook his head, fighting down nausea. He refused to look away; Ed had taken these injuries for him, and he'd be damned before he was disgusted by them. “You're dying,” he said, tears blurring his vision.
“I told you that already,” Ed's forehead creased, and he looked at his brother helplessly. “I'm all washed up, Al. I've got to fight for my life every day. But now....Damn, I'm so tired.” He looked away from his brother, his voice becoming distant. “I have everything I ever wanted. Maybe I can stop fighting now.”
Al's first reaction was to shout 'No!', but he suppressed it. He felt cold. Edward didn't ask for much for himself. If what he truly wanted was death...then he should let him go. Ed had been willing to sacrifice his life for Al, and was now suffering the consequences. He had to find some way to lessen the burden.
“Brother,” he said softly, “if that's what you really want, it's ok.”
Ed stared at him, completely nonplussed.
“I mean,” Al tried to smile reassuringly, “I want you to be happy. Even if...death,” he forced the word out, “is what it takes.”
“I...uh...” Ed found himself at a loss for words. He might have been capable of simply doing nothing, allowing himself to fade away quietly, but deciding outright to give up on life was beyond his abilities. “I guess I'll hang around for a little longer,” he muttered. “I mean, somebody's got to make sure you don't get into trouble.”
Al sighed. It looked like it would take some time to get his brother used to the idea of doing things for himself, and not Al. But it looked like it was a moot point, really, since the doctors estimated Ed would live another week at best.
“You don't get it,” Ed suddenly said. Al looked at him in confusion.
“I've been on my 'deathbed' for five years now. That's what's so hard- putting my body back together again.”
“What do you mean?” Al hardly dared hope.
“Like this,” Ed raised his hand, then suddenly frowned. “Fuck. I don't have my other arm. I can't do alchemy like this! I need a new arm, fast.”
“The doctors have made it clear that you're never going to be able to have automail again. Why don't you draw the array normally?”
“Because it would take me several years!” Ed snapped. “Human transmutation isn't easy, you know!”
His brother was nearly speechless. “How...when?” he managed.
Edward frowned at him in puzzlement, clearly wondering how dense his younger brother could possibly be. “I've been doing it practically every day for the past five years or so. How else do you think I managed to stay alive?”
It was quite a while later, when a doctor finally handed Al a pile of clothes and requested that he put them on that Al noticed he was still stark naked, but for his brother's red coat.
"Now it's your turn," the doctor informed Al, "follow me please."
"What are you talking about?"
"You need to be looked at. It seems you're suffering mild kwashiorkor. That's undernourishment," he added, at Al's blank look. "Don't worry, the checkups won't take long."
Ed looked up curiously at the colonel who had just entered with two soldiers as a guard.
"Colonel Jameson here," he saluted. "I'm here to present the demands on behalf of the generals of the Amestris military."
Ed smirked. "They're in no position to make demands."
Colonel Jameson frowned at him grimly. "I have been told to inform you that if you do not take care of the infirmity immediately, actions will be taken against you…and your brother."
All traces of a smile had left Edward's face, and now he just looked pissed off. "Tell them they can go fuck themselves. If anything happens to Al, I blow up Central. Or possibly all of Amestris. If anything happens to me, I won't treat them, and if they try to kill me, I'll blow them up. If they so much as lay a finger on anybody I know, I'll blow them up."
"You're bluffing," said Jameson. "You can't even do alchemy without your automail."
"I'm sure that's what they'd like to think," Ed said calmly. "I didn't come here unprepared. Before I came, I activated a time-bomb with enough power to blow up the whole country. It needs to be fed a code every so often, or it'll explode. Meaning, if something happens to me you all die." He looked at Jameson crazily. "See, if anything happens to Al, I really don't give a damn about you. I don't give a damn about anybody, if he's gone. If they capture him, I'll simply refuse to treat them, and they'll die. If they hurt him…well, they'll wish they had died."
"You wouldn't kill a country full of innocents just to-"
"Oh don't worry, I'd warn you before the countdown started. You'd probably have time to evacuate most of the people before Amestris went up in flames. But like I said, I'm really beyond caring at this point. C'mon," he urged in a crazy whisper, "just give me an excuse…"
Jameson had come full of anger, hoping to take this alchemist down a peg or two. But one look at his face showed the man clearly wasn't bluffing; in fact, he was probably slightly insane as well.
"Run along and tell them I'm willing to discuss terms," Fullmetal said, leaning back on his hospital bed and closing his eyes. "They have some time; the headaches and vomiting should be stopping within the next few days, and they'll have almost two weeks before the real sickness sets in." The prospect seemed to amuse him no end.
Roy thought long and hard about what he should say to Fullmetal. His inner debate over whether to talk to him at all had been resolved when the other generals informed him that he had been nominated to discuss terms with Fullmetal, as the only general not struck by the strange disease, and possibly the only one Fullmetal might listen to. Fat chance.
So far everyone who had been in the room or the general vicinity of Fullmetal when he had destroyed the Fuhrer was starting to come down with symptoms. Mostly it was just headaches so far, but they were already getting paranoid.
Which brought him back to why he was the only one untouched. Edward had warned him away. No matter how he turned over the scene in his mind, knowing what he knew now, he always reached the same conclusion. Edward had tried to protect him.
What should he say? he wondered to himself. It seemed that Fullmetal wasn't the only one who had judged hastily.
He stepped into the room. Fullmetal was sitting on his hospital bed reading a book, which lay on a pillow he placed across his lap. The ends of both his feet were conspicuously missing. He looked up indifferently when Roy stepped in, then did a visible double take and gripped the book harder.
"I've been sent on behalf of the generals of the Amestris military to propose terms," he said, momentarily disappointed at himself for taking the easy way out. "The proposition is this: As of today you are officially discharged from the military. You will receive a pension and a house in Central, and complete access to the library and laboratories. You will also receive whatever medical care you need. No actions will be taken against others because of you. In return, you will heal every soldier you poisoned, to the best of your abilities. If we are not convinced you are fulfilling your duty properly, then actions will be taken against you." He felt a moment of regret for grouping himself with the military.
"I'll do my best," Fullmetal promised thoughtfully. "Just warn them that I'll never be able to heal them to the level I can heal myself. See, I'm not completely familiar with the make-up of their bodies; unlike my own, which I know practically inside-out."
"I see. It seems that everything is settled, then."
"Yeah," Fullmetal looked down, around, his hands twitching nervously. The silence between them stretched uncomfortably.
Roy wanted to leave, but he paused, wondering again when he had gone wrong with the boy.
"When?" Fullmetal's voice cracked, and only then Roy realized he must have vocalized something. "Way back," he laughed hoarsely. "Remember right after the State Alchemist examination? When you told me what you held over my head?"
Roy was taken aback.
Edward wasn't finished yet. "It was the first time I realized the world was out to get me. I don't think I can ever forget that you were the one to hammer that lesson home. I almost wish—" He broke off and fell silent.
So long, Roy thought, his stomach sinking slightly. How could there possibly be any hope left at all? Better cut his losses now, scratch Fullmetal off as a failure and forget about it, before he hurt himself any more. He steeled himself, and turned to go.
"Hey…" Fullmetal protested, making Roy look at him curiously. "Isn't there anything else? I mean…uh…have you seen how good Al looks? I know you got along with him, sorta…" Edward struggled with the words, trying to say something completely different but failing miserably.
He's trying to stall me. It was like a revelation. He wants me to stay? "Speaking of Al, where is he?"
"Ah, he had to go out," Edward looked down at his book again, his hands nervously playing with the binding. "He said he'll be back as soon as he could…he'll be back…you could wait for him, if you wanted to."
It seemed for a moment as if Edward wasn't a man verging on thirty, but a young boy terrified of being abandoned. His father left, his mother left, and he was hard-pressed to believe his brother wouldn't leave him as well. His surrogate father was on his way out.