Title: Blood Ties
Author: Jordanna Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for fantasy violence and blood.
Characters: A whopping big ensemble across two worlds, although the strongest focus is on Ed.
Setting: First anime. Same timeframe as CoS, two years after the end of the series.
Summary: Alternative to Conqueror of Shamballa. An old enemy plunges Ed into the dark secrets of his new world, linked to the alchemy he thought lost to him—while in Amestris, Al faces a life-or-death choice. Will the nightmare Ed is drawn into provide the key to both their fates?
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: This story started with a simple idea. Instead of a dragon, what if a homunculus would actually become a vampire on the non-alchemic side of the Gate, preying on human life in the form of blood rather than Philosopher’s Stones? Things snowballed from there into a full-fledged AU. Along the way, this also became a means of writing my own ending to FMA, as a substitute for the bizarreness and lingering injustices of CoS. Here, the story of the Elric brothers’ journey reaches the conclusion (or not quite?) that I would like to have seen.
That said, you can forget everything about CoS here. This story opens at the same point, two years after the end of the series; but other than that and certain functional details of alchemy, the only element I’ve retained from the movie is Noa, and my interpretation of her is nothing like her film characterization. So as you read, please bear in mind that even the most minor differences from CoS are not oversights on my part, but deliberate rewrites. (Yes, including Ed’s braid. *g*)
My sincerest thanks goes to Kristen Sharpe, who followed along through the process of writing this beast and gave invaluable moral support; and to Zanna, the artist I was teamed with for the FMA Big Bang, who created wonderful illustrations. Thank you also to readers who are kind enough to leave feedback! This is by far the longest and most complex fanfiction story I’ve ever written, so reader response to the work I put into it is especially valued.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Blood Ties
Terrific… Two days back in London, and I’m completely lost.
Standing in the middle of the narrow, brick-paved lane, Edward Elric scratched thoughtfully at his blond head. Dim streetlamps caught a glint of metal between glove and coatsleeve as his right hand dropped to his side, and he heaved a frustrated sigh.
He had a definite impression that this was not one of the nicer parts of London. Many of the buildings around him were either abandoned or should have been, shadowy hulks with broken windows that gave him a feeling of being watched. Unseen creatures scampered in the darkness of side alleys. Filthy puddles had collected on the sidewalks, and the dank mist that saturated the air was not a fog so much as a miasma.
In every sense of the word, literally and figuratively, it was a place where Ed should not have been.
He should have been back in his own world, in his native country of Amestris, with his brother; but even after the sacrifice that had stranded him in a world without alchemy, he didn’t really know whether Alphonse was alive. The very fact that he himself had survived made him fear his final gamble on Equivalent Exchange was rejected.
If Al was dead, there would be nothing left for Ed in any world… but he couldn’t be sure. That uncertainty was the only thing that gave him the will to live, to study, to search for a way home.
All he wanted was to know.
Compared to the years he and Al had spent on the quest to restore their bodies, the last two were anticlimactic: one long tour of libraries and universities, filling his head with the maddeningly intangible theories that passed for science in this world. It was a far cry from the wonder and beauty of alchemy, the true science that had been torn from him along with everything else he knew. This learning might still have fascinated him if it had been only academic, but its seeming uselessness to his cause led him only to despair, time and again.
He had never even found anyone here who he felt he could share his secrets with… except, of course, the one man who was equally a part of those secrets. The man who was his reason for returning to England, only to stupidly lose his way in the London fog.
Because his father had disappeared again.
Ever since he received the concerned letter from one of Van Hohenheim’s local associates, Ed had been mentally cursing his father. He should have expected something like this, after all. It was foolish to have thought he could rely on the man who left his sons to grieve alone for their dead mother—left them to nearly destroy themselves for want of a parent’s love, the simple thing he was never there to provide in her place.
And yet, during these two years, things had been different. Hohenheim was resigned to this world, slowly weakening in a body that could not sustain him for many years longer, and he declined to join Ed in chasing the dream of a way home; but the more passive support he provided was invaluable. Somehow he had gained an astonishing array of contacts, and his notes of introduction seemed to open every door. No matter where in the world Ed’s research took him, his father’s keen insight on his theories was always just a letter or a long-distance call away… and every now and then, simply hearing the voice of someone who knew was all that kept him from cracking.
After all that, the sudden absence didn’t feel right… so Ed had put aside his latest line of study in Prague, and returned to London.
It was one of the more overwhelming cities he had experienced. Although it was where his father chose to reside, and where his own journey on the other side of the Gate began, he hadn’t visited there between his far-flung travels in months. It was as unfamiliar as the rest of the places he had wandered.
Unfamiliar—and depressing. Colorless. Empty.
Hohenheim’s neighbors and local colleagues knew nothing of his whereabouts. He was simply there one day, and gone the next. There were no obvious clues in his living quarters, no signs of violence or belongings out of place. Denied any immediate leads, Ed’s next step was to widen his search. His father’s mail brought a daunting assortment of letters from all over the world, and it would be a painstaking chore to get in touch with every correspondent, but for now it was his only recourse.
Tomorrow, Ed conceded wearily.
Tomorrow he would begin the long process of letter-writing. For tonight, he was weary and dispirited, and the damp chill of London caused an ache in the right shoulder and left thigh that bore his automail. All he wanted now was a little food and sleep—assuming he could ever find his way back to his father’s flat.
With a futile shrug, he turned and started walking toward the nearest intersecting street, in the hope that a street sign would help him get his bearings…
But by the time he had taken ten steps, he was sure he really was being watched.
Two years spent largely buried in books had not dulled Edward’s physical abilities—or his instincts. In obedience to his teacher’s philosophy, he still trained his body as well as his mind, and his years of experience in genuine life-and-death combat had never faded. He couldn’t quite pin down what triggered his alertness now: perhaps a footstep, a displaced shadow, the mere sense of a presence. Yet whatever it was, he knew.
He slowed his pace, and finally stopped beneath the yellowish light of a streetlamp, listening and watching.
Really, it was much too long since he had taken any exercise against an active opponent. Perhaps a brief interlude of inflicting damage on some street-rat thief would make him feel better.
Seconds lengthened into more than a minute. Ed began to wonder if his quiet unease about Hohenheim’s latest vanishing act was getting the better of his imagination—
And then he turned sharply at the sound of a loud metallic clang, as a heavy weight landed on a fire escape above him and to his left.
That voice stopped Ed’s heart, as a chill shot down his spine like cold lightning. It was a voice he knew, and would never forget, even though he had heard it only once before… because in the moment after he heard it the first time, he had tasted death.
The deep breath Ed took shuddered in his lungs, and he was suddenly, intensely conscious of the emptiness of his hands. He had no weapon, save for his own skill and the solidness of his automail. There was no power of alchemy here to transmute a blade or a shielding wall. He was in the open, defenseless, facing a thing that hated him with all its nonexistent soul; a thing that just might have been incapable of dying.
His thoughts went to his father. The connection with Hohenheim’s disappearance was all too easy to trace… and for just one moment, he dared to let himself close his eyes.
Perhaps it was just as well, after all.
That traitorous thought was followed in an instant by rage. Fists of flesh and steel clenched, and he raised golden eyes to the lurking shadow on the fire escape.
An ugly chuckle writhed in the darkness. The black-clad shadow moved, leaning into the light, and Ed’s breath caught.
It was true. It was Envy—but not as he once chose to appear in their own world. This was a face Ed had seen only briefly, in the moment before a killing blow had ripped through his body: delicate but not unhandsome features, flowing golden hair, amber eyes a shade darker than his own. A face that was just a little too like a mirror’s reflection, betraying the common origin of both their lives.
The true face of the homunculus brought into existence by Hohenheim.
Ed remembered that face, the shock, the pain; but his subsequent brief eternity of dead-alive lingering within the Gate was a mere shadow. He was only vaguely aware of Envy’s passage, driven by vengeance even into that hell and what lay beyond it. Still, after becoming a prisoner of this world himself, his fear that Envy might have succeeded in crossing over as well was very real. He had warned his father, but Hohenheim assured him it was impossible.
It seemed the impossible could happen in this world, too.
Envy’s slim hands closed upon the railing of the fire escape. He vaulted over it, landing catlike on the street with a ghostly silence.
On instinct, Ed recoiled into a fighting stance, but a tinge of fatalistic hysteria clouded the edges of his mind. A part of him found it sublimely ironic that he should be looking at that face now. If nothing else, it had to mean Envy had lost his power to change shape—because he never would have chosen to wear the face of Hohenheim’s firstborn, a constant reminder of the man he most despised.
But if that ability was lost to Envy… how much more?
Perhaps he wasn’t unkillable, after all. Perhaps he was just as mortal now as Ed was.
That thought sharpened Ed’s focus. He drew a deep breath, studying Envy across the meager width of the street that lay between them.
“Where is my father?”
For an instant, there was something guarded in Envy’s face… and then he smiled a nasty smile.
“I think I’ll let you die wondering that.”
The malevolent implication struck to the heart of Ed’s fears, and he snapped, hurling himself at the homunculus with a choked snarl of rage.
His steel fist lashed out with all the power he could throw behind it, grazing Envy’s jaw. It was followed by a foot that struck home against ribs with what should have been a bone-breaking impact—yet the blow elicited only a faint grunt. Envy was not winded by it, not even moved.
Still not so mortal after all, then.
Envy rebounded with a swipe at Ed’s throat, and there was something terrifyingly grasping about his slender fingers. Ed dodged the clawing hand with a backwards handspring that sent him into a crouch, his body coiled to concentrate all of his strength. He shot upward like a striking serpent, his automail fist aiming once more for Envy’s face…
And his wrist was caught and twisted with superhuman speed, using his own momentum to slam him face-first into the ground.
Ed’s left temple cracked on the brick surface of the street. He flirted with a blackout, and before he could fight off the darkness, a powerful hand seized the root of his blond braid. His head was jerked upward, almost forcefully enough to break his neck, and his face was smashed against the ground again; once, twice. Warm blood ran down the left side of his head, trickling into his eye.
A savage kick sent him sprawling onto his back, almost certainly fracturing ribs. Some part of his mind screamed at his automail arm to move, to at least try to shield his body, but the signals just didn’t seem to reach from his brain to the communicating nerves.
The homunculus knelt over him, pinning him down. A long knife emerged from beneath the black cloak, gleaming in the light of the streetlamps. For an instant it hung over Ed, filling his sight, poised for a murderous blow.
The blade came down, penetrating beneath Ed’s breastbone with a cold so intense it burned.
Just as well…
As the knife slid out again, a choking cough gurgled in Ed’s lungs. His left eye was almost completely blinded by blood, but he still managed to glare out defiantly at Envy with his right. Perhaps it was merely a trick of his tainted vision, but he thought the eyes that met his were no longer golden; they seemed to have flushed to a brilliant red.
The homunculus’ expression was like that of a child who had been given a highly coveted toy—only to find it was somehow disappointing.
That look told the story of why Edward had never believed in revenge.
“Finish it,” Ed rasped. “If there is an afterlife… maybe my family is waiting for me there, after all.”
Envy flinched and scowled. The idea that Ed might find release in death must never have occurred to him, and it caused the fury in his face to grow still more intense.
“Oh yes… I’ll finish it.” A corpse-cold hand wrapped around Ed’s neck, effortlessly dragging him up from the ground. “But not until I’ve taken everything you’ve got left.”
Were it not for the suffocating grip on his throat, Ed would have laughed.
Joke’s on Envy, then… Got nothing left at all.
Incomprehensibly, Envy gathered Ed into his arms and drew him closer, almost embracing him. As the lips of the homunculus parted in a rictus of a smile, Ed caught a glimpse of canine teeth that were inhumanly long and sharp.
Then Envy’s head bowed over his shoulder, and he felt those fangs bite down deep into the base of his neck—and the swift pain that followed was mingled with the shock of utter disbelief.
Can’t be… It’s not possible…
In the next instant, Ed was unable to think anything at all, as a sudden torrent of images and sensations flooded through his mind.
Resembool. Alphonse, Mother, Winry; Hohenheim, standing in the doorway on the morning he went away. Alchemy, the Gate, the horror that came of human transmutation. Teacher. Colonel Mustang. The recollections flashed through Ed’s mind at a dizzying rate, and he couldn’t stop them, couldn’t focus on anything else. Even in his own world, he had heard the saying about one’s life flashing before one’s eyes in death, but he had never imagined it could be so very literal.
There was only one realization that somehow cut through the onslaught at last.
He’s absorbing my memories—!
Ed didn’t know how he understood that, but he knew it was true. He also knew he had been wrong: this was the one thing left that Envy could take from him. The thought of that, of the homunculus even touching something so sacred—the very fabric of his broken, gifted, extraordinary life—was the one motivation strong enough to renew his struggle.
The impulse he acted on then was purely instinctive, a response ingrained upon him in the world he had lost. His gloved hands came together behind Envy’s back, and dropped onto the shoulders of the homunculus.
Blue-white light flowed over Envy’s body, and he shrank back with an animalistic scream of pain.
With the release from that fatal embrace, the rush of memories ceased, but Ed’s mind was still reeling. Through sheer willpower, he forced his automail arm to brace underneath him, pushing himself halfway up from the cold brick street. Envy crouched a few steps away, trembling and clutching his sides, but the blood dripping down his chin was not his own. Ed wasn’t even sure what transmutation his instincts had resorted to, but it wasn’t enough; although Envy was clearly in pain, the damage did not seem to be life-threatening.
But if alchemy had worked once…
Ed struggled to twist his battered, bleeding body, to push himself onto his knees and raise his hands for another clap—but he was too weak, and his left hand slipped on his own blood that was splashed across the bricks. He crumpled, and his chin jarringly hit the pavement, stunning him.
The futile movement only caused Envy to look up ferally, eyes ablaze with rage and most definitely blood-red. He snarled like a beast, the knife reappearing in his hand as he sprang.
A black shape suddenly flowed between them like a shadow, and Ed heard the harsh ring of metal blades colliding.
Seemingly from nowhere, a third combatant had joined the fray.
Darkness crept into the edges of Ed’s vision, but he fought it back, forcing his eyes to focus on the presence that had interrupted his murder. A slim figure in austere black garments, the right hand grasping a sword, the left likewise armed with a narrow dagger. Long dark hair, brown skin that was tinged with an underlying paleness. A face that could hardly have been older than his own…
The face of a girl.
What little breath Ed had in his lungs hissed out in surprise. This was… different.
Envy had recoiled from the blocked strike, withdrawing a few paces to take stock of the unlikely interloper. Strangely, a look of wry amusement came over his face.
“You Hunters are just too stupid not to meddle, aren’t you?” he sneered. “Take my advice, and walk away this time. This is no concern of yours. It’s just personal business between me and the runt.”
For answer, the tip of the girl’s sword lifted fractionally, and she braced her slender body in readiness.
“Then die with him!” Envy bellowed, and lunged forward.
The girl met the attack without a flinch, fending off Envy’s knife with her sword, as her dagger sought an opening for a thrust. She twisted and parried, giving no ground as Envy struck at her repeatedly. Her skill with the blades was apparent—but beyond that, her physical abilities were uncanny. She wasn’t an even match for Envy’s predatory ferocity, but something about the way she used her agile strength and quickness was disquietingly similar.
Only once she miscalculated, her sword slipping just a little too low, and Envy seized the opportunity. The blade of his knife sank deep into her left shoulder. She recoiled with a stifled grunt of pain, and her dagger slipped from her hand, clattering onto the bricks.
Envy pressed his advantage, his knife crashing with renewed fury against the wounded girl’s sword. She fell back one step, and then another. As unnaturally strong as she was herself, Ed knew she couldn’t hope to outlast Envy’s monstrous power.
The fallen dagger lay only a few feet beyond Ed. Gritting his teeth, he dug his automail fingers into the cracks between the bricks and dragged himself forward, the wound in his chest leaving the street painted with a smear of red. His trembling flesh fingers reached out, straining toward the blade with all of his fading strength.
He saw the girl stumble, and only a swift contortion of her body spared her from a murderous slash of Envy’s knife. Her catlike balance faltered for just an instant, but that crack in her defenses was all the homunculus needed.
Envy drew back his knife for a killing thrust—and Ed’s fingers closed around the handle of the girl’s dagger.
In one burst of adrenaline-fueled strength, Ed pushed himself up with his automail arm and hurled the weapon. There was nothing but graceless desperation in the throw, and his muscles gave out the instant it left his hand. He crumpled onto his side, curling into himself, and the darkness that pressed down on him almost took him away from the world… until Envy screeched with pain.
The sound forced Ed’s clouded eyes to focus again, and he saw Envy’s body jerk and stiffen, the thrown dagger buried between his shoulders. If the homunculus was still the undying beast he had been in their world, it could mean no more to him than a pinprick, but his reflexive spasm was enough to buy the girl one moment’s reprieve from his assault.
She arched back and kicked Envy’s ribs viciously, a blow that threw him off his feet. Before he could twist himself to face her, she raised her sword… and his head was cleanly parted from his body with one powerful stroke of the blade.
And some part of Ed realized it was no longer a question of who the girl was, but what she was.
The Hunter, as Envy had called her, quickly pulled her dagger from the back of Envy’s headless body. Sheathing her blades, she moved to Ed’s side and knelt down, to staunch the wound below his heart with a piece of cloth torn from her coat. The blood that had poured from it, pooling beneath him on the street, now threatened to rival what he had lost the night his arm and leg were taken from him.
There was no help for it, not now. Bandaging the outer wound wasn’t going to stop the internal bleeding. Ed could feel it, and he knew his time was short.
A brown hand that was as cold as Envy’s touched his cheek, lifting his head to meet the girl’s gaze. Her eyes were dark, intent, a grim purpose masking the horror he recognized somewhere underneath.
She knew he was dying, too.
“Listen to me.” Her voice was gentle, but insistent. “I’ve got to know how you wounded that vampire. Tell me!”
That vampire… Envy.
Ed swallowed hard, and managed to find the voice for a question of his own. “What… are you?”
The girl flinched, a different shadow entering her eyes. “But he knew you. I thought…” She turned to look back at Envy’s body in the middle of the street. Then she met Ed’s eyes again, with a frown of cautious uncertainty.
“We have to get away from here. That won’t keep him down for long.”
She delivered that astounding declaration with a stark matter-of-factness, and whatever the source of her knowledge was, Ed didn’t doubt her. Homunculi were all but unkillable in his own world, even by the forces of alchemy. It was no surprise that decapitation would hardly slow them down here as well.
But… was she also a homunculus?
He had no time to repeat his question. She stood, pulling the dead-weight that was his body up against her; and then, incredibly, she slipped her arms beneath his shoulders and knees to pick him up like a child. Her strength was more than human, and she showed no sign of pain from the shoulder Envy had wounded.
Some part of Ed wanted to resist her, but he had nothing left.
He lost a few of the minutes that followed; if he actually blacked out, it was a surprise to him that he woke up again at all. When he regained awareness of his surroundings, the only thing he could be sure of was that the girl had taken him from the scene of battle to… someplace else. Someplace abandoned, from the looks of it, dark and cold and cluttered, with a single candle providing the only dim circle of light. He was lying on what might have been a table, or merely a board set up on some old crates, and the girl was in the act of bundling his coat under his head for a pillow.
Her quietness was eerie. Ed stole a moment to observe her, trying to pinpoint what was wrong about her… and then he realized it. There was no sound of her breathing, no gentle rise and fall of her chest. Except for when she had spoken to him, she didn’t breathe at all. Whatever she may have been, her body was cold and passive, failing to fully reflect the life that so clearly burned within it.
The aching, unbidden thought of Al in his armor shell passed through Ed’s mind.
At that moment, the girl looked at his face, but she must have taken his stricken expression for purely physical pain. Heedless of the blood that stained his shirt, she laid her hand on his chest, and met his eyes with what seemed to be mingled sadness and hope.
“Please. You’ve got to tell me, while there’s time. You wounded that vampire—can you kill them too? What is this power you have?”
Ed squeezed his eyes shut, turning his head away.
“Shouldn’t have worked… Not here.” Belatedly he was struck by the girl’s choice of words: them, referring to so-called vampires in the plural. It raised anew the question of her own nature, and his glance shifted back to her warily. “Are you a—vampire too?”
Judging by her startled and faintly indignant look, she was genuinely affronted by that question. “Of course not. I’m only a dhampir.”
The word meant nothing to Ed. He stared at her, and she sighed.
“When that vampire said there was something personal between you, I thought you must have known everything… but you don’t really know anything at all, do you?” Her hand slipped away from his chest, and she stared down ruefully at his blood on her palm. She appeared to gather her thoughts for a moment, and then continued, in a soft, somber voice.
“The creature that attacked you was a vampire. They aren’t really anything like you read about in books, but they do prey on human blood. As far as we know, nothing ever kills them. We’ve been trying for hundreds of years now—I mean the Hunters. Dhampirs… things like me.”
Her eyes darted to his quickly, and then away.
“Sometimes a human is infected with vampire blood. Maybe it’s a wounded survivor of an attack, or someone the vampire wants to use in some way. When they die, those people become dhampirs—half-vampires. We aren’t as powerful as true vampires are, but many of us use the power we do have to fight them, and try to limit the damage they do. Since we can’t kill them, all we can do is track them, and intervene when they go on the hunt for humans.”
It was an overwhelming story, and a cold despair sank over Ed as he listened. Were there really more things out there like Envy—homunculi who somehow found their way to the wrong side of the Gate, and became the bloodsucking monsters of legend? If that was true, surely it could only be the fault of other alchemists in his world who had dared the sin of human transmutation. What horror might their transgressions have unleashed on this unsuspecting society where alchemy didn’t even exist?
“I’m sorry,” Ed heard himself whisper.
The girl raised her eyes to his, and he was startled to see tears brimming there.
“You have nothing to be sorry about. I’m the one who’s sorry, because I wasn’t in time to stop this attack. I’d give anything in the world for a second chance to prevent it—but if you know of a power that might kill vampires, you can still save countless others.”
She flinched back as Ed inhaled a sudden deep breath, struggling to collect all the strength he had left. With an effort, his hazy mind focused on a simple transmutation. He forced his hands to rise above his chest, bringing them together weakly, but adequately; then his automail hand stretched out toward the candle that sat on a crate beside him, and he touched the soft wax.
With that failure, all strength as well as hope drained away. His steel arm dropped, sagging limply over the side of the table.
“Some kinda fluke,” he murmured distantly. “Maybe… Maybe because Envy is from the other side, too…”
There was a vague idea in that, but Ed couldn’t begin to grasp it now. The light of the candle seemed to have become dimmer, leaving the girl’s face in shadow. Her expression was startled, even a little frightened, and he tried to think of what she reminded him of.
Mother, he thought. Mother when he was very small, and sick with a fever, and she had sat anxiously at his bedside.
Then he thought of Alphonse, because he wanted Al to be his last thought.
The girl realized he was slipping away, and she moved sharply, leaning close to him. “No—you can’t—!”
Her hand fell to the dagger at her waist, sliding it from its sheath. With one swift movement, the blade flicked across her own left palm, drawing blood.
“Forgive me… but I can’t let you die yet.”
She pressed the wound to his lips, and Ed tasted a bitter tang like cold metal.
He gagged on sheer reflex, but she quickly threw down the dagger and grasped the back of his neck: holding his head, forcing him to swallow. The coldness turned to fire in the pit of his stomach, a hot shock that burned away the pain of his wounds, overwhelming his senses like a jolt of electricity.
The girl’s face was very close to his. Her eyes were all he could focus on, dark and pained and filled with tears.
A sensation like falling rushed over him, and he was plunged into inescapable blackness.
It was the first time in years that Ed was sure he had slept without dreams.
That was his first bleary thought, as his entire being slowly dragged itself back to awareness—if it was really possible to be aware of anything through the relentless throbbing in his skull. His head ached, and his body ached, and there was a strange, rusty taste in his mouth.
Al’s gonna give me grief for getting beat up again.
It was one of those thoughts that surfaced sometimes, in the grayness between sleeping and waking; a moment’s bittersweet forgetfulness that took him back to another place and time. For just a second or two, as he gingerly stretched his protesting limbs, he expected his steel knuckles to connect ringingly with the armor that was always so close beside him.
Then he remembered… and then he remembered more.
His eyes snapped open. Nothing had changed. He still lay on a makeshift table, in a place that was desolate save for shadowed hulks of crates and sawhorses and abandoned things. The room seemed quite a bit brighter, and he noted that the previous stub of a candle had been replaced by a taller one, proving the passage of time.
And the girl…
Turning his head, he found her curled up on a pile of tattered canvas nearby. Her arms were wrapped around her body, her head bowed. She looked as if she felt more than a little miserable.
At least she was still around to explain why he wasn’t dead—and seemingly no longer in any immediate danger of becoming dead, either. Given the brutal injuries Envy had inflicted on him, that was something else to be scratched off the list of impossibilities in this world.
Very carefully, Ed moved his left arm. His automail probably would have been steadier at the moment, but he wanted to use his sense of touch. Pressing his hand to his midriff, he found that the girl had removed his bloodstained shirt, and apparently washed away the blood from his face and upper body. His state of half-undress seemed to have left his skin remarkably chilled, but the cold caused him no discomfort. A symptom of shock and the loss of blood, perhaps.
His fingers slid gently up his rib cage, searching for bandages, for the knife wound; but instead he felt smooth, unbroken flesh.
He started in surprise, and dared to push himself into a sitting position with his mechanical arm. The movement was dizzying, and his body still felt as if it had endured a very sound beating, but there was nothing like the sharp, intense pain he expected.
Almost reluctantly, he looked down at himself, and found only a bruise darkening the pale skin where Envy’s knife had penetrated.
Ed caught his breath—and was suddenly aware of how strange that breath felt. His lungs felt no urge to stir. The involuntary reflex that should have compelled him to breathe was simply not there.
His gaze keenly sought out the girl, the lovely wraith whose body held no warmth. She had been watching him through hooded eyes, but now she turned her face away, her expression betraying something that was all too much like shame.
The beginnings of a monstrous, unimaginable suspicion crept into Ed’s mind. Slowly he pressed his trembling left hand to his chest… and his touch was met with stillness. His heart was silent beneath his breast.
He had become like her—and like Envy.
The makeshift table toppled and crashed to the floor as Ed violently launched himself from it. His leap was fueled by a raw, animal power he had never possessed before, but he didn’t pause to marvel at that fact. One stride closed the distance between himself and the girl; he threw himself upon her, pinning her to the floor, and she gasped as his steel fingers closed around her throat.
“What have you done to me?”
She winced and swallowed hard, turning her face away, as if his burning gaze was the one thing she wanted to escape from.
“You were dying,” she whispered. “Whatever your secret is, I couldn’t let you die without—” She hissed slightly as his grip tightened a little more. With no need to breathe, it seemed unlikely that she could be strangled, but the crushing pressure still had to be unpleasant.
“You heard me,” Ed ground out. “Alchemy doesn’t work here. I couldn’t help you if I wanted to!”
“Then—the vampire that attacked you will go on killing.”
A beat of silence passed… and his grip on her neck suddenly released. He rose and turned from her, eyes shut tightly, automail fist clenching.
He couldn’t begin to fully make sense of what had happened, but that thought was the one thing that mattered. If he hadn’t known the power of the homunculi in his own world, he could have convinced himself that Envy was even then lying dead on the street with his severed head in the gutter—but Ed knew. It couldn’t be that easy, even here. Not with a creature like that… and not after seeing the way even his own wounds had healed. Envy was still out there, and as long as that was true, people’s lives would be in danger.
Maybe because Envy is from the other side, too…
Ed remembered the dim thread of a theory his mind had grasped at. His failure with the candle proved that he still couldn’t transmute objects of this world, but perhaps Envy was different. Perhaps the homunculus was vulnerable because he was not a creature of this world. All that was certain was that alchemy had done damage once, and Ed had not been able to try it again.
He needed that second chance.
But… what had he become himself?
Automail fingers slowly uncurled as Ed forced himself to take a deep breath. He felt no need for oxygen now, but the simple action helped to clear his mind at least a little.
Whatever else he was—even if he was no longer quite human—he was alive. Wasn’t that always the one thing he and Al clung to? Survive to learn. Survive to keep fighting. It was all they had and all they knew, and he would be betraying Al’s faith in him if he gave up now.
The one thing he needed more than anything else was information. About himself, about what his changed body was capable of… and what its needs were. He knew the standard myths about vampires, many of which were shared by both this world and his own, but now it was clear that his preconceptions were less than useless. The involvement of a homunculus was enough to prove that.
“Are we… like him?” he asked, in a rough-edged voice. It wasn’t the kind of constructive, enlightening question he had really intended, but it tumbled across his lips before he could stop it.
“No!” The girl’s tone was fierce but soft, tinged with sympathetic pain. “True vampires are monsters that were never human at all—but we were human, and we still have human hearts. That’s why dhampirs are nothing like them, and we never will be. Please believe that.”
Reluctantly he opened his eyes, turning halfway, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to look at her. “Your blood is what did this to me?”
From the corner of his eye, he saw her gaze fall guiltily. “Yes. Dhampirs can spread this poison, just as true vampires can—but the Hunters are sworn never to do that. By turning you, I’ve broken a terrible taboo. Even to save someone from death… passing on our curse to another is a sin to us.”
“I know something about sins,” Ed muttered quietly, staring down at his flexing automail fingers. “And taboos.”
Envy was his father’s sin—and if Hohenheim was really dead, that left only Ed to atone for it.
His hand fell to his side abruptly, decisively. He raised his eyes to the girl.
“Maybe there is a chance I can do something to fight that homun—” Ed interrupted himself, choosing to use a term the girl understood. “That vampire. I don’t know yet… I need to know what I’m dealing with.” He hesitated. “There are really more like him?”
“In the last three hundred years, the Hunters have tracked dozens of vampires,” she answered grimly. “Maybe hundreds. They slip away from us for years at a time, so it’s impossible to keep count.”
Ed’s silent heart sank even further. If it was true that all of those creatures were homunculi, the thought that so many might have emerged into this world—and over the course of centuries—was monstrous. In his own world, he had known of only seven. Was it actually rare for them to appear on their creators’ side of the Gate? Did a far greater number of them somehow end up here?
He also wondered at the shape they took. In his world, homunculi consumed human lives, distilled by alchemy into Philosophers’ Stones; but that was impossible here. Perhaps it made sense that on this side, their bodies became adapted to preying on blood. It was merely the essence of human life in another form, after all.
A sudden jolt of horror struck him. Just how similar were the needs of those homunculi, the “true vampires”, to the half-vampire race they had evidently spawned—and he was now initiated into?
“Tell me… about dhampirs,” he said faintly.
“We’re stronger and faster than humans. Our senses are sharper. We don’t become sick or grow old, but we’re not indestructible the way true vampires are. It just takes a lot of killing to make us die.” The girl grimaced. “Except… sunlight is our weakness. It’s harmless to them, but it burns us as badly as fire. That’s why there are humans among the Hunters, as well as dhampirs. Only humans can protect their own during the day, when the sun forces us into hiding.”
That revelation filled Ed with a sudden, brutal sense of loss. It was almost unbearable to imagine a future of literal darkness, never touched by the light and warmth of the sun.
He swallowed hard. “What about—blood?”
Had the girl possessed a normal physiology, Ed thought her cheeks might have flushed at that; but her pale, cold skin didn’t respond that way, and she could only bow her head with a trace of uneasy shame.
“Some dhampirs gain a taste for human blood. They become killers, just like true vampires… and we have to destroy them when we find them. But we don’t need human blood, and Hunters vow never to take it. We’re dedicated to protecting humans, not hurting them.” She gave a small, sad shrug, her eyes still downcast. “The blood of animals is enough.”
Ed’s stomach twisted violently. The thought of preying upon the veins of a living creature, of actually drinking—
He screwed his eyes shut, stifling a groan. It wasn’t true—it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real, because it just couldn’t be possible.
A tight, trapped feeling of panic overcame him. He suddenly wanted nothing more desperately than to get away from that dark place, and the living-dead girl who was telling him he had become a monster. His feral glance raked over the room, searching its cobwebbed walls and boarded windows, until finally he saw escape: a closed door, surrounded by trails in the dust on the floor that proved its recent use.
Rational thought collapsed, and he made a break for that promised exit.
Behind him, the girl gasped. “Wait, don’t—!”
The warning meant exactly nothing as Ed threw himself at the door. It was locked, but only with one flimsy bolt; automail fingers ripped it from the splintering wood, and he flung the door wide open.
It might as well have been the door to a blast furnace. Light blinded his eyes, and an instantaneous wave of heat poured across the bare skin of his upper body. It was a physical blow that knocked him backward, forcing him to the floor in a sightless, clawing struggle to escape from the assault. He dragged himself across the dust-layered boards, groping for the door, aware of nothing but the desperate need to shut it.
His steel fingers hit something solid. He pushed, and the door slammed. The searing heat was cut off—but its fire lingered on every inch of his exposed flesh from the waist up. He was burned.
She had warned him, but he was still a reckless, stubborn fool who would learn the worst truths only by his own horrific experience.
His eyelids stuck together sickeningly, but he managed to force his eyes open; although the room was dark and blurry in the light of the candle, he had shut his eyes in time to spare most of his sight. As he shakily pushed himself up onto his knees, he could see the girl throwing off the heavy black inverness coat that had shielded her, and he finally understood the purpose of such a garment for a creature that felt no cold.
“You idiot…” Her tone was a mix of disgust and pitying dismay as she knelt in front of him, shaking her head at the blistered burns on his face and body and left arm. “You were unconscious for hours. It’s the middle of the day now—we can’t go out there.”
An awful laugh choked in Ed’s throat, and he forced words across his burning lips. “Sorry… I don’t listen too well.”
“You’re not much different from most Hunters, then.”
It was a joke. The undead girl who battled monsters and had made him into one himself was joking with him.
He hissed in pain as she touched him, slipping her hand under his chin to lift his head. She grimaced at the ruin of his flesh.
“You’ll be scarred if these burns aren’t healed quickly,” she pronounced with authority. “But what little energy you had went into healing from the vampire’s attack. You need blood to regain your strength, but it will be hours before we can leave here, and that means…”
She hesitated, and at last a deep sigh escaped her. “It means there’s only one other way.”
Once more her dagger slid from its sheath, and she loosed the top buttons of her high-collared blouse to bare her left shoulder. Ed watched in a kind of mesmerized horror as the blade slid across the skin at the base of her neck, leaving a thin red line in its wake.
“Come here,” she said softly, and leaned close to him, as if to take him in her arms.
Ed understood what this meant. He had been on the other side of such an embrace only hours before, when Envy sank animal fangs into him and tried to take everything that was his life, and the thought of doing any such thing himself made his throat tighten and his stomach churn. He averted his face, refusing to look at those glistening, perversely tantalizing drops of crimson; but as he drew a breath to protest, he caught the scent of her blood, and his altered body took the decision upon itself.
The pure, aching need that welled up from deep within him was overpowering. It wasn’t hunger as he knew it—he didn’t know what it was—but it seemed to bypass every shred of rational thought and take complete control of him. Instead of pushing the Hunter away, he reached out to pull her tightly against his chest, clutching her to him with a primal possessiveness: not the desire of a man for a woman, but of a predator for its prey. A soft groan escaped him as golden eyes eclipsed to scarlet, and he felt the new sharpness of fangs against his tongue.
His head sank onto her shoulder. His lips found her self-inflicted wound, and the cold bitterness he had tasted before; but now he didn’t gag. A very different impulse drove him to bite instead, tearing flesh to quicken the flow. The part of his mind that should have felt revulsion for this act had simply shut down, perhaps for the self-preservation of his very sanity… and for a moment, he was nothing more than a starved animal, drinking deeply and urgently of her blood.
Then the visions came again—but this time they were not his own.
Gypsies, proud nomads, living out their lives on endless roads. A large family: children, old women, strong men. Caravans of painted wagons, campfire nights and ancient songs. Dancing at village carnivals, telling fortunes for pieces of gold. Happiness, after a fashion… but never quite contentment.
The Great War. Separated from the fleeing gypsy band, trapped in a besieged town. Seized on the street by a gang of invading German soldiers. Raped, beaten savagely, left to die in a dark alley.
A hooded man emerging from the shadows, kneeling with a knife to cut his own arm. The harsh taste of blood, the broken taboo of the Hunters. The hood falling back from dark hair, hazel eyes, a strong-jawed face…
Edward wrenched himself away from the girl with a violent gasp, dragging his fist across the blood on his lips.
The face of that man in her memories, the dhampir who had defied the Hunters’ laws to turn her and spare her from death—
On the other side of the Gate, that face had belonged to a fallen comrade named Maes Hughes.
Eyes shut tight, Ed clenched his fists against the floor, trying to process what he had just experienced. Even without that last image, he would have been shaken to the depths of his soul, but now he struggled with yet another new layer of emotion.
It wasn’t the first time he had seen a person in this world wearing the face of someone he knew. He had learned quickly of the strange parallel between worlds, the ways so many people and things were the same—and the sometimes startling ways they were different. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the discovery that the Maes Hughes of this world was a dhampir, an inhuman hunter of homunculi.
Gingerly Ed opened one eye and glanced at the girl, kneeling only a few inches from him. She looked less than steady herself: head lowered, left arm folded against her body, right hand clasped over the wound between her neck and shoulder. She was trembling a little, and he felt sickened by the realization of what he had done to her. Although she offered herself voluntarily, and he was completely unable to stop himself, he could still see it only as an abhorrent violation—no better than the brutal acts of the men who had taken what was once her life.
Opening his other eye, he looked down to examine himself. His burns from the sunlight had already disappeared, leaving his skin unblemished but for a faint and fading pink soreness.
Was it worth such a cost? His head ached worse than before, his brain buzzing with memories and fragments of knowledge that hadn’t existed there a few minutes earlier. It went far deeper than those most intense perceptions that had flashed through his mind. A part of him knew things now about this world, and about the Hunters, that he had never learned by himself. It was all a crazy jumble he felt he might never unravel, but it was there.
His disgust only heightened as he wondered whether Envy had taken that much from him.
“That—was…?” He tried to put together the words for a useful question, but his voice cracked, and he faltered into silence.
The girl raised her head to meet his awkward, guilty gaze. She was now more pale than ever, her expression faintly embarrassed and startlingly vulnerable—so unlike the stalwart defender who first came to his aid against Envy. Her gentle smile was a strange punctuation to the savagery he had committed upon her.
“My life.” She raised her left hand, brushing her fingers against her temple. “The blood is the life… When dhampirs share their blood with one another, they share their memories and knowledge as well.”
Ed bit his lip—prompting him to realize, in a bizarrely offhanded way, that his newfound fangs had reverted to the shape of normal human teeth. Another impossible phenomenon, but at the moment, not quite so important as the equally incredible fact of having absorbed another person’s life experiences by drinking their blood.
And yet, he knew all too well the power blood was capable of. A seal drawn with his own blood had fused his brother’s spirit to a suit of armor, one slender crimson thread binding soul to steel—so perhaps it was only an ironic justice that his own soul had become tinged with the blood of another. Although he was a stranger to the girl, she had surrendered the very core of her being to him: her joys and pains, the horror and undeserved shame of her last mortal hour, her resolute pride in her purpose as a Hunter. Being given to share things so intensely intimate was appalling, and humbling, and more than a little frightening. Ed sensed she had done it for the sake of her dedication to the Hunters, filled with a burning desire to learn whether he possessed a power that might help their cause… but there was also something else, the echo of a feeling he couldn’t yet identify.
His unsettled glance strayed to her again, and for the first time, she was not simply the girl or the Hunter.
“Your name is Noa,” he whispered in faint surprise, handling the name as if it was something delicate.
Noa. A gypsy, a wanderer, whose quiet heart had longed only for a home. A victim of war, reborn as a hunter of monsters.
She ducked her head, with a small, crooked smile. “Yes.”
Ed suddenly realized the transfer had not been mutual. For all she had given up to him, she still didn’t even know his name—and he winced as he judged the weight of her memories, her blood, and her trust on the scales of Equivalent Exchange. No matter how much he resented the fate she had thrust upon him, he owed her more than he could bear to think about.
“My name is Edward Elric,” he said softly. “And if my secret means that much to you, I’ll tell you… but you won’t believe it.”
It was almost funny. He had thought that if he ever divulged the secret of his true past to someone in this world, it would only be after months, even years of trust and kinship. Not to a girl he had known for a matter of hours. Certainly not to a living-dead phantom who took advantage of him when he was powerless to resist; who took from him the humanity that was all he’d had left.
Yet in a single moment, he had come to know her more deeply than any person had a right to know another.
Really, it didn’t matter anymore. He should have been dead, but now he was… something else. His existence from that time forward could be no part of what he once was.
As for his precious dream of going home…
No. He had done enough damage to his world when he was human. He was certain vampires did not exist there outside of folklore, and if he was now a carrier of this disease or curse or whatever it was, he could never again think of returning. Even if it was possible, he couldn’t risk spreading such an infection to Amestris, or harming the only people he loved. Perhaps even harming Al, through mischance… or temptation.
He could never dare to be with his brother again.
And with the death of that one hope he had cherished, Edward felt he too had died, after all.
In this new less-than-life he was condemned to, then, all that mattered was the enemy he had in common with the Hunters: Envy, and any other displaced vampire-homunculi who preyed upon the innocent in this world. If he could learn how to destroy even one of them, it was worth the sacrifice of his secrets.
“You see… I came here from a different world.”
So distant were his thoughts, and so foreign was the very idea of revealing his past, that for a brief moment he wasn’t even sure he had spoken aloud. It was confirmed only when Noa’s eyes widened slightly, her expression surprised and uncertain.
“You mean—another planet, like in stories of outer space?”
“Who really knows… but that’s not exactly it.” Ed shrugged uneasily. “The same people live in my world as in this one—only not the same. In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a lot of faces I knew on the other side. Like the man in my world who was a killer named Scar. I met his double in Germany a year ago, and he was just a truck driver who would never have hurt anyone. That’s only one example.”
He gave Noa a guarded glance. “The dhampir who turned you… he’s another.”
“Maes?” Noa asked with a start—confirming at least that Hughes had the same name in both worlds. “He leads the Hunters in London now. He had a family once… but a vampire killed his wife and daughter, and left him as a dhampir.”
Even as Noa said those words, a part of Ed anticipated them, the facts surfacing from the tangle in his mind—but it didn’t make his sudden hurt any less sharp. The Hughes family seemed destined to suffer at the hands of homunculi. On the other side, it was Maes himself whose life they took, while here his beloved Gracia and Elicia paid the price. Ed knew what such a loss would have done to the Hughes he knew… and now, he also knew what it had done to the Hughes of this world.
Lurid fragments rose up like ghosts: an awareness of what had happened to the soldiers who left Noa to bleed her life out in the street. She had seen them, or what was left of them, as Hughes carried her away. The kindly, exuberant family man Ed knew had also possessed a dark edge, a breathtaking capacity for killing in the defense of those he cared for—but that held not the palest comparison to what the dhampir Hughes had done to those men.
“How did you come here from that other world?” Noa asked softly into the silence, mercifully stirring him from his contemplation of the horrors she had endured the night she was turned.
Ed sighed, shifting from his knees to a cross-legged sitting position. This could be nothing but a long story.
“Alchemy. Do you know what that is?”
Noa frowned uncertainly, shaking her head, and Ed was neither surprised nor disappointed. Her keen natural intelligence was unmistakable, but not quite the same thing as educated knowledge; and besides, this world had recorded alchemy as merely an obscure historical curiosity.
“Alchemy is the science of understanding the structure of matter, breaking it down, and reshaping it,” he quoted solemnly. “The people of this world gave up studying it centuries ago, because it doesn’t really work here—or at least, it’s not supposed to. But in my world, it’s the greatest power there is. It can do more good for mankind than you can imagine… but when it’s misused, nothing is more dangerous.”
He didn’t want to go on, but he had to. After Noa had laid bare her soul to him, he owed this much to her.
“Some people in my world have even tried to…” He paused, lest his voice catch tellingly, and swallowed hard. “To raise the dead. But not even alchemy can bring back the soul when it’s gone. All the alchemist succeeds in doing is creating a—a thing that has no soul at all. A thing that won’t die… and has inhuman powers.”
Ed raised his eyes meaningfully to hers, and her expression of dawning horror told him she understood.
“Are you saying… people in your world create vampires?” she breathed.
“After what’s happened… I’ve started to think so.” Ed grimaced, feeling a stab of shame for the full magnitude of what alchemists like himself had evidently done. “In my world, those creatures made by alchemy are called homunculi, and their powers are a lot different. But the thing that attacked me—he was a homunculus there. I knew him. I fought him. I was afraid he might have come across at the same time I did… and now I know that on this side, he’s changed into what you call a vampire.”
Noa shook her head dazedly. “But we’ve tracked so many vampires—and they’ve been here for centuries. For your people to have sent them all here… Is it really that easy to travel from your world to this one?”
“Not for humans.” Ed felt a longing to escape her gaze, and discreetly did so by resting his forehead against his automail fist. “But newly-made homunculi must slip through to the wrong side of the Gate much more easily. They’re so rare in my world, we thought almost no one was stupid enough to create them, but now… I think most of them are just being born here as vampires instead.”
A long moment of silence passed, and when Noa did not reply, Ed laughed humorlessly without looking up. “You must think I’m crazy.”
“No… I believe you.”
That was the last answer Ed could have expected. He glanced up in surprise, and Noa gave him a sad smile.
“Most people in this world wouldn’t believe I exist,” she pointed out quietly. “And besides… I’ve never seen anything like your arm and leg.”
Ed’s gaze fell to his metal arm. With everything else that had happened, her reaction to the automail was something he hadn’t even considered. For a moment he was surprised that she also knew about his leg, but then he remembered she had carried him there, and she would have felt its weight and hardness then.
“My automail.” Ed flexed his steel fingers thoughtfully. “It’s not unusual in my world… I’m just lucky I got it back when I crossed over.”
This was one more caprice of Equivalent Exchange he had never quite figured out. It was baffling enough that when he transmuted himself in his attempt to save Al, the Gate hadn’t killed him, but merely settled for reclaiming his limbs and depositing the rest of him on the other side. Yet instead of leaving him with bloody stumps as it had at the first, it further took the whim to return his automail, which must have lain abandoned in the Gate during the brief time his full flesh was restored to him. It was damaged in those final confrontations with Dante’s homunculi, but his father was able to repair it adequately enough, even making a few minor adjustments for his growth later on—although it would never again feel as right as Winry Rockbell’s gifted handiwork.
At least the fact he still had it was a mercy he could be grateful for. He wasn’t sure he could have survived at all in this world as a true cripple… or even that he would have wanted to.
The subject raised a new question in his mind, and he glanced up hesitantly at Noa.
“But I’m curious now. If I could heal of those burns…” He regarded his prosthetic arm rather awkwardly, refusing to admit to the tiny shiver of nervous hope that crept through his insides.
“Oh.” Noa’s expression became suddenly apologetic and uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work like that. There’s only so much damage we can regenerate—and only while our wounds are fresh. The scars we carry with us from our human lives… don’t go away.”
Perhaps she wasn’t thinking only of physical scars then, but the statement told Ed what he wanted to know. His firmly unacknowledged hope died a swift death—a blow that was thankfully not too harsh, because it was, after all, what he expected. He gazed down ruefully at his automail hand, closing it into a fist.
“I see. I thought it was too much to ask… and besides, it’s more than I deserve.”
Noa gave him a puzzled look, and he sighed.
“You should know the truth. In my world… I was one of those alchemists who tried to raise the dead.” His gaze slipped guiltily away from hers. “That’s how I learned at least part of the price for alchemists’ sins. I lost my arm and leg, and my brother lost even more—and all we achieved for that was to create a homunculus. It was one of the ones that appeared there instead of here… but still.”
When he considered it, the idea that Sloth could have entered this world was unbearable—even worse than what had actually happened. He was horrified by the thought that his own manifest sin might have become a predatory beast like Envy, tearing open innocent throats for blood. Her victims’ last sight would have been a ravening corruption of his mother’s beautiful face…
Ed had to find a way to stop these monsters.
In the guilty silence that followed his confession, Noa’s hand reached out, coming to rest on his automail fingers. He glanced up, and saw her gazing at him with unaccusing sympathy.
“But you can fight them,” she said hopefully, almost echoing his thoughts. “You have a power no one else has.”
“Don’t be too sure of that. What you saw last night was the first time I ever made alchemy work in this world—and I don’t even have any idea how I did it.” Ed gingerly withdrew his hand from beneath hers, to scratch his head as his mind retraced the problem. “I was thinking it might have worked because the… vampire came from my world, too. I don’t know, maybe that makes the whole substance of his body fundamentally different somehow. The only way I can really figure it out is to try it again.”
“But if it’s true, and you can destroy vampires—you could show others how as well?”
That suggestion gave Ed pause. As far as he knew, even if his theory was true, the people of this world might have been physically incapable of alchemy. He may have been the only person on the non-alchemic side of the Gate who could do it. And if he wasn’t… the idea of leaking any functional alchemic knowledge to this society frightened him. They may not have developed automail, but they possessed machines of war that were like nothing known in Amestris, and it made him feel almost glad the immense power of alchemy was untapped here.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly, and regarded Noa with a sudden faint skepticism. “But if you thought I knew a way to kill vampires, why didn’t you just try to take that knowledge from me—instead of making me this way?”
“Dhampirs can’t absorb memories from humans. Only true vampires can do that.” Noa dropped her gaze uneasily. “And I wouldn’t do it now, if that’s what you’re wondering. I don’t take it lightly… the way some do.”
What passed across Ed’s consciousness then was not so much an image as a dark, disquiet feeling; but there was a name attached to it.
“Hughes,” he murmured.
The Hunter’s head turned sharply. “It’s not like that. Maes is our leader… Sometimes he needs to gain our information quickly.”
Even if her words had not been just a little too hurried and defensive, her memories were already enough to betray Hughes’ volatility. She could no more deceive Ed now than she could herself—and knowing that, he wondered why she would try.
“If you say so.” His voice sounded distressingly flat even to himself, as he drew his knees up and braced his elbows on them, resting his head on his arms. Every part of him that wasn’t made of metal still ached, while mental and physical shock congealed in his soul as a heavy weight of exhaustion. He didn’t want to think any more until he had achieved some kind of true rest, just for a little while.
Noa’s voice grew soft again in the stillness of the shadowed room.
“Come with me tonight, to see Maes and the others. We’ll give you a safe place, and look after you while you adjust to being a dhampir. If that vampire is still looking for you, we can protect you—and if you meant what you said about fighting them with your power, we’ll do anything in the world to help you.”
“Maybe.” Ed raised his head a little, blinking wearily. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to go now… and before I do anything, I need to know more. How much longer do we have to stay here?”
“The sun won’t set for another three hours,” Noa answered promptly, without consulting any sort of watch. She studied his face, and added, “You should use the time to sleep. We both should, while we can.”
Ed managed a sad, crooked smile. “Just tell me I don’t have to sleep on a bed of my native soil, like in Dracula… ’cause that would be kind of a problem.”
He was rewarded by an elusive twitch of Noa’s lips. “If we needed that, I wouldn’t have lasted long, either. I was born in the back of a wagon—somewhere near the Danube River.”
She gingerly shifted away from him then, moving back to her nearby nest of canvas, and settled down on her left side to lay facing him. He was aware of how intently she still watched him… and the way her right hand rested at her waist, close to her dagger in its sheath.
Yet he didn’t take it personally because of the image that flashed through his mind, a bright swift flare like distant lightning: her past suffering at the hands of men. That feral wariness was an impulse driven painfully into her psyche, a scar branded on her soul. It was a guard she could still never let down for anyone, and he didn’t begrudge her that, because she had already given him a trust so deep it made his unbeating heart ache.
Feeling spent and overwhelmed, Ed laid down where he sat, heedless of the hard floorboards and the chill in the air. He still felt those things, but only in an indifferent manner, immune now to ordinary discomforts. In many ways, he had become a curiously detached observer within his own cold and silent body.
Oh, Al, if you could see me now…
But I’m glad you can’t.
Firmly he shut away the part of him that would have given anything to feel his brother’s gentle, anchoring presence. Now he knew he was on his own forever…
But then again, perhaps not quite.
His gaze shifted furtively to Noa, his unlikely guide to the underworld in which he now found himself. From the little he had fully grasped of her memories so far, he sensed discordant notes about the dhampir Hughes that still troubled him, and the faces of her other comrades remained mere shadows… but even so, when the night came, he decided he would go with her to meet them. The Hunters evidently had vast experience with the creatures he suspected were homunculi, and that starting point was as logical as any other.
He didn’t know how his deluged mind could possibly quiet itself enough to sleep, but he closed his eyes and tried.
Sleep proved to be a rather generous word for Ed’s state of being over the next few hours. In fact, he was not really asleep at all so much as… dormant, immersed in a dreamless darkness that felt quite different. More disconcertingly, there was a level of his senses that remained aware of his environment in a way unknown to natural repose. He would have felt the slightest sound or motion in that lifeless room, and even in the depths of his not-sleep, there was a primal new edge to his instincts that brimmed with readiness to react.
His return to consciousness was swift but impassive, his only movement the abrupt opening of his eyes. He did not feel the languid haziness of waking from human sleep. His mind was immediately clear and focused, and however strange his rest had been, he found it had served him well: the aches in his body were gone, the once-dizzying pain in his skull now faded to a faint twinge.
As he sat up, his first impulse was to glance at Noa. She remained at rest, and while it unsettled him to see her lying inert and unbreathing as a corpse, he resisted the urge to lean over and seek a pulse he knew was not there. Although her hand had moved from its cautionary place near her dagger, he still knew better than to startle her.
In spite of himself, Ed half-smiled crookedly. The shadow of post-traumatic fear Noa carried was unworthy of her. Judging by what he had seen when she faced off against Envy the night before, any man who thought he could have his way with her now was in for a nasty shock.
He let her alone, and rose to look for his coat where it had fallen the night before. The dark stains and the smell of blood on it made him shiver, but in its pockets he found his few personal articles. A handful of coins from three different countries, a dented pocketwatch that proclaimed the hour as not yet half-past six, a stub of a pencil and a small notebook in which mathematical fragments and titles of books were scribbled… It was almost laughable that such flotsam was the last remains of what had been his life. Perhaps he had lost nothing in his turning, after all.
Tearing one of the few blank pages from the notebook, he carried it back across the room with the pencil. He sat on the floor and began to draw, slowly and deliberately, with several pauses for thought; the passage of two years had made him a bit rusty, and the equations were always so much easier in his head than when he bothered to lay them out on paper.
“What are you doing?”
Ed raised his eyes to see that Noa was now awake and sitting up. She was studying the piece of paper beneath his pencil, and with a sad smile he pushed it forward, to give her a better view.
“It’s called a transmutation circle. Most of the alchemists in my world have to draw their equations, like this. I can transmute without a circle—or at least I could, and I did it last night—but I haven’t tried it this way since right after I came to this world. After what happened, I thought I should try again, in case something has changed.”
He filled in the last few lines, completing the array for a simple transmutation of the wooden floorboards beneath the paper. As Noa watched in apprehensive curiosity, he placed both hands on the border of the circle, reaching within himself for the reaction… and was utterly unsurprised when nothing happened.
“I’m convinced now,” he muttered, absently crumpling the paper in his automail hand. “Alchemy still can’t transmute things that belong in this world. It has to be something about Envy that made it work.”
“The homunculus. The vampire from last night. If he can be transmuted, theoretically, I should be able to stop at breaking down his body—just take him apart and leave him that way.” Ed scowled reflectively. “In my world, destroying homunculi took something more than just alchemy, so I don’t know if even that would kill him permanently here… but it’s worth a try.”
It was then that a startling thought occurred to him. Homunculi carried within them the energy of all the human lives they had consumed, and there was no particular reason to believe Envy’s metamorphosis into a vampire had altered that fact. If he or any other vampire-homunculi like him could be transmuted, then perhaps…
Just perhaps that energy could even be used to open the Gate.
With a pang of gut-wrenching grief, Edward swiftly buried that idea in the deepest depths of his mind. The theory came a day too late; now that he was a dhampir, possessed by an unholy hunger for lifeblood himself, he belonged irrevocably to this realm of darkness on the other side. A single drop of the poison in his veins might be enough to destroy his own world, and he would never let that happen.
“You have to find him first,” Noa observed, forcing him to shake off his agonizing moment of thought. “That’s where the Hunters can help you. Tracking down vampires is what we do.”
“I’ve got an idea he won’t make himself hard for me to find,” Ed muttered grimly. “But tonight, I will go with you, and talk things over with your people. Envy is my own personal business—but if it’s true that all the other vampires you’ve tracked are homunculi, they have to be destroyed too. Assuming alchemy will even do the job, I know I’ll never find them all on my own.”
Noa was clearly pleased by his decision. She smiled at him, and began to rise; but before she could even stand upright, she stumbled slightly, and sank back down onto her knees. “Oh…”
“What’s wrong?” Ed asked in alarm, moving quickly to her side.
“I’m alright. Just a little unsteady.” Noa looked up at him, not quite succeeding at a nervous smile. “Earlier, you… took more than I thought.”
When she raised her head, the open collar of her blouse slipped down a little, exposing the wound on her neck. Unlike Ed’s own burns, the cut had only partly healed, and it was torn by two vicious fang-marks that were equally raw and discolored. Ed’s stomach roiled at the sight, a fresh reminder of the horror of his deed.
“Noa, I’m sorry, it… I mean, I didn’t…” A violent shudder passed through him, and he turned his face away.
“Don’t blame yourself. You needed it too badly, and you haven’t had time to learn how to control your instincts. I’ll be fine…” Noa hesitated, and at last added faintly, “I just need blood myself now.”
Flustered by his guilt, Ed stood up. “Okay. I… I can do that. Stay here.” He grimaced. “I’ll find an alleycat, or something…”
“Oh, not that!” Noa objected, looking distressed at the idea. “We have a different way. The butcher’s shop three streets west of here belongs to one of the human Hunters I told you about. He’s our… supplier. If you tell him I sent you, he’ll know what to do.”
Frowning, Ed tried to dredge a name or a face from his mind, but the information was a blank to him. He seemed to be assimilating Noa’s older memories more readily than her newer ones—which was not convenient, because her more recent life as a Hunter was the experience he needed now.
He gave up the effort, and turned to a more immediate question. “Is it safe to leave yet?”
“Yes. I felt the sun set. That’s what woke me.” Noa smiled hollowly at his bemused expression. “It’s true—we can sense day and night. Soon you’ll begin to feel it, too.”
“Okay, that’s just creepy.”
Without comment on Ed’s lack of enthusiasm, Noa cast a wry glance over his deficiencies of clothing. He was still stripped to the waist, his shirt, coat, and gloves having been irredeemably blood-soaked. Even his trousers were darkened by a few red-black splashes, but that couldn’t be helped, and for the moment he had no means of replacing them.
“You can’t exactly go out like that,” Noa observed pointedly, and picked up the black inverness that lay beside her. “Take this.”
A little reluctantly, Ed took the coat and slipped it on, examining the gash Envy’s knife had made in the left shoulder. A faint trace of Noa’s bloodscent jangled his nerves, but her wound had bled very little before it healed, and there was no alternative in any case. At least the damage did not expose any glint of metal from his automail, and he could hide his hand from sight in the coat pocket. Now of all times, he had no desire to draw attention to himself.
He looked back at Noa, and she held out her sword.
“If you meet that vampire, you have to cut his head off again. It won’t kill him, but it’s the only thing that will really give you enough time to get away.” Her eyes held his, with a trace of anxiousness in their dark depths. “Please, Edward… don’t take any chances yet. You’re still not strong enough.”
For a brief moment, Ed had to wonder if her concern was for him, or for the knowledge of alchemy he had yet to divulge to her; but either way, it amounted to a genuine desire for his safety. More than that, regardless of what she wanted from him, she trusted him enough to let him take her best weapon and leave her in this weakened state. It was a faith he didn’t quite understand, but he had no thought of betraying it. He accepted the sword, buckling its scabbard under the coat.
“I’ll be back soon,” he promised, and crossed the room to leave.
As he confronted the door he had opened so unwisely that day, Ed struggled with a moment of apprehension. The memory of being burned by the sunlight was still potent and painful—but Noa had assured him it was safe now, and he knew she would know. So he hesitantly opened the door, and found beyond it a night-darkened street, lit only by scattered streetlamps.
For the rest of his unnatural life, he would see the world only through shadows. It was a thought that made him swallow hard, blinking back the sudden sting in his eyes as he quickly shut the door behind him.
The street was as unknown to him as the rest of London, but Noa’s memories of it stirred a vague familiarity, like deja-vu. With that instinct to guide him, he started westward on a course he felt he had traveled before, although he knew he never had. The air was colder than it had been the previous night, but it no longer troubled him, and his newly nocturnal eyes pierced the darkness as easily as daylight.
On the other hand, the sounds and scents that surrounded him were an inordinate distraction. Having moved beyond his unstimulating refuge of the past day, the new depth of his senses became painfully clear. In the past he had secretly feared that Alphonse, upon regaining his body, might find the slightest sensations overwhelming—and now Ed thought he understood how that might feel. The few tentative breaths he dared to take brought him powerful odors of dampness and dust, horseflesh and automobile exhaust and heavy city smog, and the softest scurrying of rats among ash cans made him flinch.
It wasn’t only the intensity of his perceptions that strained his nerves. He couldn’t shut out a faint, predatory awareness that each living thing he sensed around him was full of warm red blood… and that terrified him.
Yet one myth of vampiric traits, at least, was soon dispelled. As he passed by a glass-paned storefront, his own unexpected reflection caught his eye, and he paused to study himself with a dimly horrified wonder.
Edward’s skin had always been fair, but now he was ghost-pale, bloodless and colorless. His amber eyes seemed unnaturally bright in a gaunt, shadowed face, and his hair was disheveled, still flecked with traces of dried blood from the beating Envy had given him. He looked as if he had freshly clawed his way out of the grave—which was not so very far from the truth, after all.
Impulsively he leaned close to the glass and drew back his lips, examining his teeth. They seemed perfectly normal now, and the scientist in him puzzled over their transformation into the fangs that had so cruelly marked Noa’s neck…
He drew a willful breath, and tore himself away from the morbid fascination of his monstrosity.
The butcher’s shop was a few buildings down from the intersection of the third street, but Ed found it with ease—a fact that owed nothing to Noa’s memories. He smelled the place from half a block away, a rancid perfume of blood and raw flesh. Were his reactions still human, he would have found it nauseating; but to his altered senses, blood now meant food, and it only aroused in him a dark, unwelcome craving.
Outwardly, there was nothing to set the establishment apart from any average butcher shop. It was small and unpicturesque, with hand-drawn advertising placards in the grimy front windows, and an upstairs apartment where Ed assumed the stout-stomached butcher lived. The lights in the shop itself were on, so he tried the door. It was unlocked, and he stepped inside rather apprehensively, triggering a bell that hung above the threshold.
The first thing to meet him was an enormous black-and-brown dog that bounded toward him with a growl.
Ed froze in an instant of panic. Had his heart beat at all, it would have stopped; but under the pressure of the moment, he felt Noa’s knowledge helpfully intercede, almost as if she was speaking to him herself.
Animals don’t like true vampires. The Hunters use dogs to track them, and to guard against attacks.
Indeed, as the dog scented him, its growl faded to a noncommittal whine. It nosed at his automail curiously—reminding him to tuck his hand out of sight in his pocket—and then it turned with sudden disinterest, to lope back to its bed of old blankets in the corner. Apparently dogs, or at least those trained by the Hunters, had no problem with dhampirs.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Ed spared a glance around the unremarkable interior of the shop. A high counter stood at the back of the room, and he approached it in search of the proprietor. There was a man behind it, bending over a cutting board, but Ed could see only a pair of mountainous shoulders and a head of dark hair.
As he came near, the butcher turned… and a gasp caught raggedly in Ed’s throat.
It was unmistakably true. Sig Curtis, the husband of Ed and Al’s alchemy teacher Izumi—or at least Sig’s doppelganger in this world.
For a moment Ed felt himself go weak in his organic right knee, but he managed not to buckle. Even so, his expression must have added further color to his bedraggled appearance, judging by the dubious way the Sig-but-not-Sig looked at him.
“Uh…?” Ed blurted ineloquently.
In any world, Sig Curtis was a canny and observant man. One glance sized Ed up; then he strode around the counter, moving with a graceful quickness that seemed as if it should have been physically impossible for his bulk. His craggy, bearded face was dark with concern.
“You alright?” he boomed laconically, in that seismic-disturbance of a voice Ed knew so well.
It was no time now to be tripped up by the bizarre vagaries of this world. The man in front of him may have worn the face of a friend, but he was really an absolute stranger—and there was urgency in Ed’s errand. He marshaled his wits as best he could.
“I… Noa sent me here. From the Hunters.” He gulped slightly, at an utter loss for how to put the request into words. “She—she needs…”
“Yeah,” Sig cut him off with immediate comprehension, his eyes narrowing. He gave Ed another hard look, and asked, “She hurt?”
Ed flinched, remembering the ugly mark of his bite. “Not… badly.”
A thoughtful growl rolled around in Sig’s chest, and he turned, moving toward a doorway behind him that appeared to open onto a back room. “Stay put.”
Obedience to Sig’s phlegmatic yet terrifying presence was thoroughly ingrained upon Ed, and in any case, he still felt a little dazed. He stood rooted to the spot, trying to process this new development. Sig Curtis a Hunter, one of Noa’s mysterious colleagues who tracked and battled indestructible vampire homunculi… At least he wasn’t a dhampir too. Noa had said as much, and while it was hard to detect through the native stench of the shop, Ed had briefly picked up a scent from the man that his new instincts somehow labeled as human.
Even so, none of this positively meant he could trust the Hunters—or even Sig himself. Of the several doubles he had already encountered in this world, some were very much like the people he once knew, but others were quite different. It was far too early to tell whether this Sig was the innately kind and protective man his counterpart had been.
After a moment, Sig emerged from the back of the shop. He wordlessly placed a brown paper bag on the counter, and the clink of glass bottles inside left no doubt as to what it contained.
“Uh… thanks,” Ed murmured awkwardly, and with his automail hand still hidden in his pocket, he carefully gathered the bag into the crook of his left arm. His curiosity about Sig would have to be satisfied later. For now, Noa was waiting for the blood that would heal the damage he had inflicted on her.
As he was turning to leave, Sig’s voice spoke up behind him.
“There’s enough there for you, too.”
A startled shudder raced down Ed’s spine. Shamefaced, he turned back, and met Sig’s unreadable stare with difficulty. “How did you know?”
Oddly enough, the rumble that emerged from the butcher seemed to be some distant relative of a chuckle.
“When you’re around humans, remember to breathe sometimes.” His eyes darkened then, studying the young dhampir more intently. “You’re new at this. How long?”
“…Last night,” Ed admitted faintly, dropping his gaze.
“I see.” Sig slowly moved from behind the counter and came closer to Ed, looking down at him thoughtfully. “Noa?”
Ed wasn’t quite sure what Sig was asking, but he remembered that it was forbidden for a Hunter to spread the curse of dhampirism to others. As loathsome as this new existence was to him, he had no wish to see Noa punished for sparing him from the finality of death.
“She saved me from a vampire,” he said, choosing words that were cunningly truthful, yet unrevealing. “But it was too late for me.”
“Then it’s true. There’s a vampire in London again.” Sig folded his massive arms, and his expression became just a little more dangerous. “Noa hasn’t gone back to report it yet. That’s not like her. You sure she’s alright?”
“Yes!” Ed winced at the defensive yelp that crept into his voice. “She’s just… She was held up for the day, trying to help me. But she’s taking me to the other Hunters, as soon as she’s had this.” He nodded to the ominous bag he carried, and then glanced at Sig with an inquisitiveness he couldn’t quite disguise. “Will you be there too?”
“Not tonight.” Sig’s stony face softened a little, and he leaned down, meeting Ed’s eyes. “But you don’t have to be scared, kid. The Hunters’ll take care of you. Count on Noa to make sure of that.”
A part of Ed railed against Sig’s patronizingly kindly tone; but for all this Sig Curtis knew, the bewildered teenager who stumbled into his shop was just a random, ignorant victim, a chance survivor thrust for the first time into extraordinary circumstances. He could know nothing of how unusual Ed himself truly was, or how brutally his life had conditioned him to adapt to unimaginable new twists of his reality.
“How did you end up with the Hunters?” Ed asked impulsively.
The butcher’s face fell, and he straightened, looking away. There was a tangible pain in the silence before his reply.
“It was a vampire that killed my wife.”
Of all the answers Ed might have anticipated, he was unprepared for those words, and the sudden pang that tore at his heart. His breath caught, and in spite of himself, his teacher’s name slipped faintly across his lips.
At that hint of recognition, Sig raised his head, his eyes dark and wary. “What did you say?”
“I… I said excuse me,” Ed covered swiftly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Sig’s suspicious look faded, a thoughtfulness settling over him once more. After a moment’s consideration of Ed, he offered a final piece of advice that was both unsolicited and unsettling.
“You’re alright, boy. So listen to me. It’s true that the Hunters will help you—but be careful around their leader, Maes Hughes. Noa won’t see it… but he’s not right.”
Recalling the conflicted impressions of Hughes in Noa’s memories, Ed frowned. “How so?”
“Just… not right.” Sig’s stare turned flat. “You better get that blood to Noa.”
The topic was clearly closed, and Edward had been dismissed. Inwardly reeling, he could only bow his head in thanks before he turned to leave the shop, carrying his detestable but necessary package.
Outside, the stars were bright, at least by the standards of urban London. He gazed up at those distant points of light as he walked, clutching the bag to his chest, trying to put the entire startling encounter into place. Added to Noa’s trust, his own gut told him Sig was truly reliable and well-meaning—but that cryptic warning about Hughes only heightened the off note Ed had already sensed. Noa’s feelings for the dhampir who turned her were still too confusing to be of much use, but even from her, there was something he could only classify as dark.
Unfortunately, if his meeting with Sig’s dog was any indication, experience was the best key to unlocking the puzzle-box of memories Noa had given him. Perhaps seeing Hughes in person was the only way to grasp his secondhand knowledge of the man… but by then, he might already have learned the hard way what that veil of darkness meant.
Beyond the immediacy of those concerns, Ed hurt for Sig, and for the other Izumi. He couldn’t imagine his formidable teacher falling prey to a monster, but perhaps the Izumi of this world was not as strong. In a painful way, he was glad she had been spared his fate. He could never have wished upon anyone the horror he was experiencing now, condemned to a shadow existence in an undead body that hungered for blood.
His steps quickly returned him to the refuge where Noa waited. Seen from the exterior, it could be identified as the ruin of an old townhouse, its upper floor destroyed long ago by a fire—or perhaps by a bombing during the War. Inside, he found Noa sitting where he had left her, waiting with trusting patience for his return.
He thought his walk had given him time to dispel his shell-shocked expression, but he was proven wrong when she peered at him with curious concern. “Are you alright?”
Everyone seemed to be asking him that tonight. It was a rather ridiculous question.
“…Yeah.” He gave her the bag with its ghastly contents, and sat down an arm’s length away, hugging his knees to his chest. “I just have a lot to think about.”
Noa said nothing further, and Ed couldn’t blame her for having a more pressing concern than conversation; it was his own fault, after all. She reached into the bag with a faint sense of urgency, withdrawing a glass milk bottle full of thick red liquid. Impatient fingers fumbled it open, and she raised it eagerly to her lips.
Ed looked away then, grimacing at the smell of the beef blood. He had no heart to watch Noa drink, to see such a tender and beautiful creature succumb to that animal need… or to imagine what he had looked like in an even worse state, when bloodlust forced him to take his nourishment from its source. The indelible fact of that deed made him feel wretchedly inhuman and unclean.
He wished he could at least think of it as only Noa’s blood that had changed him, but he couldn’t forget that his infection was ultimately traced to a monster like Envy—to the same monster, in fact, who had slain the family of the dhampir Hughes. What sort of alchemist on the other side had created that homunculus, whether for love or ambition or pure scientific curiosity, never knowing how far the consequences would extend beyond even the loss of their own flesh?
Having discerned what vampires really were, it was far worse for Ed than if he had been an innocent native of this world, aware of himself only as the victim of an inexplicable horror. Instead he knew he was part of the cause, and that shame was even more terrible.
With a morose sluggishness, Ed raised his head. The empty, red-tinged bottle in front of Noa attested that she had sated her need—but there was now a second one beside it, still full, and this she gently pushed forward. “You need it, too.”
A shiver passed through him. He swallowed hard, and let his chin sink down onto his knees. “I don’t want it.”
“Do you think any of us do?” Noa leaned forward intently. “You’ve got to stay strong, Edward. If you don’t take what you need this way, you might—”
She faltered into silence, but Ed didn’t need the help of her memories to understand what she was trying to say. His own experience was more than adequate to tell him that.
“I might lose control of myself again?” he finished for her bitterly, and squeezed his eyes shut.
After a few hesitant seconds, he heard Noa move, shifting closer to him. He wasn’t surprised when he felt the touch of her fingers on his left hand. The contact was not particularly welcome, but he had no will to brush her off.
“I know it’s hard to believe now, but it will get better,” she said softly. “What happened today made it worse for you, but you’re still adjusting, growing stronger. Every dhampir goes through this at first. So did I… and if I could bear it, I know you can, too.”
For a long moment, there was absolute stillness.
Then, very slowly, an automail hand reached out, steel fingers ticking against glass as they closed around the neck of the bottle.
Edward turned his back to Noa then, trembling with shame, and let his body have what it craved. In his mind, the taste of the animal blood was foul; but every corrupted fiber of his being yearned for it all the same, compelling him to drink until the bottle was dry.
Such, it seemed, was the supper of the damned.
Noa’s physical response to the blood was swift. By the time Ed could bring himself to look at her, the wound on her neck had entirely healed, and her eyes were bright with fresh energy. He couldn’t deny that he felt the same effect; still, he loathed the thought that the life now in his veins had been the life of something else, even if he hadn’t killed it himself. Fundamentally speaking, all creatures were nourished by the death of other living things—it was part of the flow of the world, the basis for change and renewal, as he and Al had learned on Yock Island so long ago—but drawing that life directly from the blood itself felt different, unnatural, wrong.
There was nothing to do but bear this new weight of sin, as he had borne his automail for seven years. Edward had work to do now, and a great deal to learn. It was time to meet the Hunters… and the dhampir Maes Hughes.
Perhaps out of respect for the memory of his world’s Hughes, Ed felt an impulse to make himself more presentable. Guided by his reflection in a piece of broken glass, he combed the traces of dry blood from his hair with his fingers, and rebraided the long blond locks. In lieu of his ruined coat and shirt, he kept Noa’s inverness, but he gave back her sword—realizing the Hunters’ weapons were far more personal to them than the intimate memories they exchanged so freely. If Noa was seen to have entrusted her blade to him, there would be questions, and he feared they would both face enough of those as it was.
When he was ready, they left their improvised shelter, and began to travel south. Ed allowed Noa to lead him, although as before, the streets he had never seen became increasingly familiar to him as they walked.
“What are you going to tell Hughes?” he finally asked, breaking a long silence between them.
The sideways glance Noa gave him was difficult to read. “That’s not important. All that matters is that there’s a vampire in London.”
It was a nice try, but Ed wasn’t buying it. He knew the questions of who he was and how he became a dhampir would be no small matter to the Hunters. Hughes would require an explanation—and if Ed’s idea of his controlling nature was accurate, he might take the truth from Noa’s own blood if he was not otherwise satisfied.
“Will you get in trouble for saving me?”
Noa’s slight flinch was not lost upon him, but she quickly squared her shoulders. “Of course not. When the others know there’s even a chance you could kill vampires, they’ll understand why I had to do it. Maes will take care of everything then.” She hesitated. “I just… have to find the right moment to explain it to him.”
“Who is he to judge? He did the same thing himself… And for that matter, if it’s such a taboo, why wasn’t he punished for turning you?”
“He was. This assignment was a demotion.” Noa smiled ruefully. “London is an unimportant post for us, because vampires don’t often do their killing in large cities. The last time the Hunters tracked one here was in 1888.”
Something stirred in Ed’s mind; not from Noa’s memories, but from fragments of this world’s history he had offhandedly acquired over the past two years. “Wait a minute. 1888? That wasn’t…?”
“Jack the Ripper. Yes.”
She strode ahead of him, and Ed stared at her back, marveling at how casually she acknowledged such a gruesome piece of information.
Another half-hour of walking brought them at last to their destination. The large, ornately gabled four-story building must have been a hotel sometime in the last century—but since then, it had clearly been redesigned as a fortress for creatures of the night. Nearly all of its windows were filled in with bricks, and the strategic few that remained were equipped with steel shutters to block out the sun. The lawn was bare of trees and shrubs to maximize visibility, and a high wall surrounded the entire property.
“Do you know this place?” Noa tested him gently, as they neared the single wrought-iron gate that provided access.
Ed frowned, attempting to sift something pertinent from Noa’s memories. What he found was hardly what he would have expected for such an ominous-looking structure.
“All I can remember right now is that to you, it’s… home,” he answered in quiet wonder. The very feeling was unfamiliar; not since his mother’s death had he known a specific place he cherished that way. On this side of the Gate, the entire world that was lost to him had become achingly identified as home in his heart, but that was something rather different.
Noa looked surprised, and Ed suddenly realized that as a detached examiner of her experiences, he could discern truths she herself was not fully aware of. This was her home. She found here a stability she could never have imagined during her nomadic human life as a gypsy, and a sense of security after the brutality of the night she was turned.
“I suppose it is,” she said, smiling wanly. Then her gaze sharpened upon Ed again. “You don’t know anything else about it?”
“Not yet. Your memories are… kind of hard to pin down,” he admitted uncomfortably.
“That’s not surprising. It’s never easy at first… and when you took my blood, your mind and body were still in shock from your turning.” She lowered her gaze demurely. “As your system adjusts, you’ll start to absorb my memories more fully.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Ed murmured sincerely.
“It’s alright, Edward. I’m used to sharing my life. It’s part of the way Hunters work. And I want you to know what I know, if it will help you to understand my world, and learn how to use your power… your alchemy here.”
Her confidence in him made Ed just a little uneasy.
He watched her press a button beside the gate that was presumably connected to a buzzer somewhere, and then he studied the building again, folding his arms thoughtfully. “It must take a lot of money to run an endless underground war against things you can never kill.”
“We’re funded by the Council.” Noa’s questioning look returned. “Does that mean anything to you?”
“They’re based in Paris. The Hunters all over the world answer to them,” she prompted.
A dawn of comprehension overcame Ed’s puzzled face. “I’ve got it now… It’s an elected group of leaders, always made up of five dhampirs and five humans. They organize information about vampires’ movements, send Hunters where they’re needed—and they’re in control of the money from investments the first Hunters made hundreds of years ago, to finance this work.”
“That’s right. And they also judge any Hunters who break our laws. Like Maes… and me.” Noa shook her head at Ed’s look of concern. “Don’t worry. They always consider every side of these cases. I know they’ll believe I did the right thing…” She hesitated. “That is, if you do.”
It suddenly struck Ed that his own willingness to bear his fate would be taken into account in Noa’s judgment. The thought was sobering; he wasn’t even sure how he could answer that question. He had never asked to become a monster, and even now, a part of his soul yearned darkly for release from the sheer wrongness of this existence. His one reason for accepting it was his will to fight the even more terrible monsters that roamed this world.
Before he could say anything, movement in the darkness across the lawn caught his eye. Someone had emerged from a service door at the side of the building. It was a man, and as he approached them, he seemed to be talking to a dog that trotted beside him.
A bemused smile was forced from Ed as he noted the animal, and found it hauntingly familiar. Small for a guard dog, but a sprightly pup, with a dense white-and-black coat and a brisk attentiveness of demeanor…
Then the man raised his face to the moonlight, and the shock staggered Ed like a physical blow.
It was the incarnation of Roy Mustang who was coming toward them.
There was no question of it. The refined features, the slender frame, and the glossy black hair were all the mirror of Ed’s erstwhile commander. A few differences were distinct: he wore his hair in locks that flowed loose to his shoulders, and his left eye was covered by an eyepatch, from beneath which emerged a long scar that extended down his cheek to the jaw. Yet none of these things could disguise the face Ed had known so well, and argued with so often… and occasionally had nightmares about.
Noa’s quick, uncertain glance told Ed she had noticed his reaction, but he breathed deeply and closed a tight grip on his emotions. Once again, he forcefully reminded himself that he was facing a stranger.
And yet, to find the counterparts of both Sig and Mustang among the Hunters, as well as Hughes…
Still more strikingly, this Mustang was a dhampir. Ed knew it even before he registered the man’s scent, tinged with a quality his instincts told him was not human. He knew it from the bleak paleness of Mustang’s face, the subtle difference in his movements that betrayed the stillness of his lungs.
Man and dog stopped at the gate. A single obsidian eye skimmed over the speechless Ed; Mustang breathed in once to scent him, doubtless identifying him as a dhampir as well, and the eye narrowed dubiously before shifting to Noa.
“You’ve been busy,” Mustang said, with a careful tonelessness that still managed somehow to raise Ed’s hackles—and not only because that voice had endlessly, gleefully grated on him for five long years.
“I’ve got to see Maes, right now.” Noa’s voice sounded slightly impatient in turn.
With a noncommittal shrug, Mustang produced a key and unlocked the gate. “You’ve got him pretty worked up over your neglecting to check in. He was about to send the rest of us out to look for you. What happened?”
“A vampire happened.”
That answer silenced Mustang, as a different sort of chill came over his expression… and it was the first time Ed could remember having ever seen fear in that face.
Mustang dragged the heavy gate open, and Noa strode through it, with the graceful self-assurance of the fighter Ed had first seen in her the night before. At least she was at ease. He followed her with some reluctance, beginning to wonder just how much more his nerves and even his sanity could take.
At the sound of a soft whine next to his knee, he absently reached down with his flesh hand to let the un-Hayate sniff him. A tail wag welcomed him as no threat—but Mustang’s approval was clearly less generous. His tall form abruptly loomed over Ed, eyeing him keenly but speaking to Noa, as if the disheveled teenager she had brought home was some sort of stray animal.
“So what’s this?”
Ed bristled, and in his indignation, he briefly forgot both his restraint and the situation itself. “The name’s Edward Elric, Colonel Ba—”
“Leave him alone, Roy,” Noa interrupted, addressing Mustang in a short, commanding tone that startled Ed—and also privately delighted him. “He was the vampire’s mark, and I wasn’t in time to stop the attack. If you want the whole story, you can come upstairs to hear my report… but I don’t think there’s much reason for you to bother.”
A trace of anger flickered in Mustang’s eye. For a moment it seemed as if he might argue; then he turned wordlessly and started back across the lawn, with the dog trailing after him. Ed moved automatically and somewhat dazedly to follow, only to find himself halted by Noa’s hand on his automail wrist.
“You knew him too, didn’t you—in the world you came from?” she asked in a low voice.
Gathering his wits, Ed slowly nodded. “Roy Mustang was my commanding officer in the military. Er… loosely speaking.”
The truth was that Ed had never remotely come close to possessing military discipline, and he certainly never behaved as if Mustang was his superior in anything. In hindsight, a part of him marveled now that the Colonel had put up with his rebelliousness… but another part of him still faintly resented the amused tolerance that was an adult’s condescension toward a child.
“I hope the man you knew was different.” Noa began walking slowly toward the building. “This Roy was a soldier once, too.”
“What happened to him?” Ed asked as he followed her.
“Terrible things. Much worse than what I went through.” The gypsy grimaced. “You have to understand, the War was a feast to the vampires. They came from all over the world to follow the armies, feeding on the destruction. When Roy was wounded at Flanders, he was left for dead on the battlefield… and that’s where one of them found him.”
“But he fought back,” Ed surmised immediately—and he was startled by the insistent note in his own voice, his irrational need to believe that Roy Mustang would fight to his last breath against the monsters of any world.
“He tried. At least, he made the vampire bleed enough to infect him through his wounds. But all his struggling really accomplished was to make it angry, and it… it did things to him.” Noa shuddered. “What happened to his eye was just a small part of his torture. Somehow he survived it for another two days, but when the human life that was left in him finally died, and he turned… a dhampir’s strength only meant his body could endure even more suffering.”
Ed’s gut twisted, and he cursed. He knew very well what a homunculus with a grudge was capable of. Their vindictiveness was something he would never have wished upon Mustang or anyone else.
“Maes was tracking the vampires in the war zones then,” Noa went on, more gently. “He saved Roy, and tried to train him as a Hunter. But Roy was…”
“Was what?” Ed prompted, although he knew very definitely that he didn’t want to hear the answer.
Noa sighed. “Some of us have it within us to cope, Edward—and some don’t. Living with what we are is more than just a matter of courage, and Roy is the kind who never adjusted well. Maes had hopes for him, but the first time he faced a vampire… he lost his nerve, and another Hunter died. And that only broke him even more.”
This tragic narrative loosened a thread in the tangled tapestry of Noa’s memories, and Ed found he was beginning to follow it himself.
“He shut down so badly that the Hunters gave up trying to make anything of him,” he murmured. “And after Hughes found you a while later… he took you as his apprentice instead, didn’t he?”
“I was all he had then. When he was sent here as punishment, Roy and I were the only ones who came with him.” Noa’s eyes hardened. “Maes chose to be responsible for me when he turned me. He sacrificed the powerful position he’d earned. He cared for me, and I wanted to stay with him—but Roy only tagged along because no one else would have him. Besides, hiding here under Maes’ wing gave him the security of being a Hunter in name only, without actually having to face any vampires… at least until now.”
“Shirking duty and playing politics,” Ed muttered with a halfhearted wryness. “At least that sounds familiar.”
Of course, the story was deeper than that. The subject had evoked more details from Ed’s secondhand memories: the dhampir Mustang was a troubled man, a loner even among the Hunters, spending much of his time with the guard dogs he looked after. Most of the Hunters shunned his embittered personality, but Hughes had a sort of pitying fondness for him, and treated him with tolerant kindness—another skewed echo of a different place and time.
And there was something else—someone else…
By this time, Ed and Noa had reached the main entrance of the building. Here they were met with double doors of heavy steel, and yet another buzzer. As she pressed the button, he slouched against the wall and sighed.
“It’s all crazy, upside down. Homunculi running around as vampires, duplicates of people from my world fighting against them as dhampirs…” He raised his eyes to hers, with a sad and weary smile. “A part of me can’t help wondering if this is all a dream—or a nightmare.”
“Sometimes I wish it was only a dream,” Noa said softly. “Sometimes I’d give anything to wake up to the smell of a campfire, and the sound of my people’s voices… and the light of the sun.”
“Only sometimes?” Ed asked her pointedly.
Noa’s eyes darkened. She drew a breath to answer, but before she could speak, the door opened—and Ed nearly fell over himself at the sight of the petite, pixie-faced brunette who stared out at them.
The familiar figure started and caught her breath, her large green eyes widening at Ed.
“What… Nobody ever called me that except—!”
She moved like lightning then, and Ed learned in a decidedly painful way that she was also a dhampir—as a small but inhumanly powerful fist drove into his stomach, followed by a chop to his throat that decked him.
Consequently, he found himself on his back, staring up at the astonishingly not-Sheska who nonetheless wore the face of that shy bookworm. She was crouching like a cat on the threshold, her fists balled for a fight. Her face was indefinably different than he remembered; no eyeglasses, he realized. Of course, if her vision was as enhanced as his own had become, she wouldn’t need them.
“Francesca! Wait, it’s alright!” Noa exclaimed in horrified protest, interjecting herself between Ed and his antagonist.
“Who is he…” the not-Sheska ground out, her voice an almost literal growl, “and how did he know—?”
“Trust me, he doesn’t,” Noa interrupted. “And he doesn’t have anything to do with him. I promise, I’ll explain everything later. Please—just go tell Maes I’ve come back, and I have important news. Alright?”
Francesca, as she apparently called herself here, maintained a burningly suspicious glare on Ed for a moment longer. Finally she turned and disappeared beyond the doorway, and Noa heaved a sigh of relief.
“I don’t have to ask if you knew her before,” she observed in a longsuffering tone, offering a hand to help Ed up.
Rather sheepishly, Ed allowed her to haul him to his feet. His unbreathing body was not winded by Francesca’s blows, but they left his flesh stinging a little—and his pride considerably more.
“And I thought you were jumpy…” he mumbled, gingerly rubbing his neck. “What was that—and who is ‘him’?”
“That was Francesca. And him was her boyfriend who went to fight in the war… only to come back as a dhampir. Unlike Roy, he wasn’t lucky enough to be found by a Hunter, so there was no one to teach him how to survive without hurting anyone. At first he managed alright on his own, but when he finally got up the courage to see Francesca again…”
“He couldn’t control himself, and he ended up turning her,” Ed summed up flatly. “So now she’s here. What happened to the guy?”
“He lost his mind, and murdered three other people before the Hunters caught him… and then he was put down, like all dhampirs who become killers.” Noa fixed a hard gaze on Ed. “We don’t say his name around Francesca—and we never call her Sheska, because he was the only one who did that, and it brings back unpleasant memories. But I don’t think you’re going to forget that now, are you?”
Her expression warming, Noa clutched his arm and led him toward the open doors. “Now I’m just curious to know what Francesca was in your world.”
Had he the blood for it, Ed knew he would have blushed. “She was a librarian, okay?”
Noa stifled a chortle into her fist, and Ed glared at her.
Upon stepping through the doorway, they entered the antechamber of what had indeed been a hotel at one time. There were still faded traces of opulence all around them: rich Victorian wallpaper, marble tiles that echoed underfoot, a crystal chandelier suspended from the gilded dome of the ceiling. Beyond this space sprawled an equally luxurious lobby, its grand staircase leading to a deserted mezzanine. The place should have sparkled in its extravagance, but instead, it felt hollow and ghostlike…
At least to Ed. Beneath his own perceptions, he felt the sense of safety and familiar affection that was Noa’s response to her home, and it made him just a little sad.
Yet the vast emptiness of the building’s ground floor was deceptive. Originally designed to awe hotel guests, it was only a decorative waste of space now, for the Hunters were hardly apt to entertain such company as might appreciate it. Ed realized they occupied the floors above, where the rooms were smaller, more private, and more practical.
Bypassing that showpiece of a staircase in front, Noa guided Ed to the back stairway, and they climbed to the second floor. The former guest rooms there had been partially gutted and rebuilt into more functional spaces. Here the Hunters could meet for discussion, study newspapers for signs of vampiric activity, and even spar to maintain their fighting skills. The lighting was soft, measured to suit human needs while giving no discomfort to the sensitive eyes of dhampirs.
“You may not have seen a vampire around here in decades, but you sure seem to keep busy,” Ed noted, peering curiously through the open doors they passed.
The Hunter at his side tensed slightly. “We still have our share of work… dealing with rogues.”
With an unpleasant feeling, Ed stopped. “You mean—dhampirs who kill humans?”
“Mostly it isn’t their fault. Not all dhampirs are as strong as you and I, and the unluckiest ones… they go mad when they turn.” Noa closed her eyes in silent pain. “We can’t let them hurt anyone. It just isn’t easy to do what has to be done sometimes.”
Involuntarily, shadowed half-images rose in Edward’s mind—and he knew these memories were not simply difficult to recall. A part of him had willfully suppressed them, because they bore the ugliness and guilt of Noa’s work. Her experience wasn’t limited to the impermanent beheading of homunculi. With her own hands, she had killed other dhampirs whose bloodlust turned to violence.
He also realized how easily he could have been one of them. Noa had gambled on his strength, because she wanted more than anything to find her world’s salvation in his abilities; but if the shock of his turning had destroyed his sanity, she would not have hesitated to terminate the undead life her own blood endowed him with.
A shudder crept down Ed’s spine, and he swore quietly. “I’m sorry…”
“Because of what we do, there are a lot of people out there who can still see the sun.” Noa’s eyes opened, hard and bright with determination. “Hunters bear this burden so others will never have to. That’s worth the price we pay.”
But where is the Equivalence in that? Ed questioned silently, as a pang of guilty grief squeezed his chest.
It was all so wrong. If his father was correct, the energy released by death on this side of the Gate was the fuel for their own world’s alchemy—yet all this society received in return was a plague of monsters that caused still more death. There was no balance between the two worlds, no Equivalent Exchange at all that Ed could see. There was only the injustice of one world suffering for the other’s gift.
It had to stop. He had to make it stop.
Before he could say anything further, Noa had shaken off the moment herself. She touched his arm, and nodded to the far end of the hallway that was lined on both sides with doors. “This way. Maes will expect my report in the meeting room, down there.”
At least connecting with Hughes and the other Hunters might be the first step toward fixing things. Ed let himself be led, continuing to glance into the rooms on either side; but when they drew level with one open door, he stopped abruptly.
The small room appeared to be a sort of communications center. An entire wall was taken up by radio equipment as powerful and advanced as the open market could offer, and perhaps a few things no one outside of a military was supposed to have. The gadgets were interesting—but it was their operator who caught Ed’s eye. He was a very young man, black-haired and slight of figure, and he smelled human.
Feeling Ed’s stare, he looked up from his dials and knobs, his eyes half-obscured by a glare of light on glass lenses. “Uhm…?”
“It’s alright, Kain,” Noa said hurriedly, and gave Ed a discreet push to propel him past the doorway.
He continued to walk, but the flesh hand he pressed over his eyes was beginning to shake just a little. His shoulders twitched with a faint bark of a laugh he suspected was not entirely healthy.
“Fuery, too…” His hand slipped down from his face, and he shook his head incredulously. “Are they all here?”
It seemed Noa had accepted this baffling pattern of recognition by now, because she didn’t even comment. She merely guided him to the room where the Hunters met to confer and deliver reports. Its dominant feature was a long meeting table, while the walls were covered with large and detailed maps of London, the British Isles, and the whole of Europe.
Edward dragged a chair away from the table, and sank down gratefully onto it. “I need to think for a minute.”
“You probably need to think for days,” Noa retorted wryly, but her expression quickly sobered. “It’s all confusing for any new dhampir, but for you… I don’t know how you bear it.”
“I have a job to do. Somebody’s gotta fix what the alchemists of my world have done here.” Ed’s automail fist clenched, and he closed his eyes, distracting his mind with another attempt to delve into Noa’s memories. “Fuery… He’s here because a vampire killed his parents, isn’t he?”
“Yes, when he was very young. Hunters practically raised him. He’s skilled and passionate about our work, but a childhood illness left him a little frail—and that’s why he was sent to us.” Noa smiled bitterly. “All of us here are the unwanted.”
The sad self-assessment caused Ed to raise his head and frown at Noa. He was about to reprove her, but when he inhaled a breath to speak, he caught a peculiar whiff of dog hair… and it amused him tremendously that this smell presaged the entry of Mustang, who stepped in from the hallway two seconds later.
Mustang glanced back and forth between Noa and Ed, and his disapproving gaze settled on the latter. “You’re in my chair.”
“Really.” Ed leaned back with an exaggeratedly comfortable stretch. “So that’s why it smells like wet dog.”
A faint growl rumbled in Mustang’s throat; but without another word, he slunk away to a different seat at the table, and Ed marveled ruefully at that submissiveness. The man he had known would never have let it go at that. He once would have thought a Roy Mustang he could torment without reprisal would be terrific fun… but in fact, it was just sort of depressing.
Of course, this Mustang might simply be plotting a more subtle offensive…
Before Ed could pursue that paranoid thought, he heard approaching voices—and from the corner of his eye, he noticed the way Noa glanced at him, as if to see whether he was bracing for a further potential shock. Without acknowledging the look, he sat straight and intent, watching the open door for the new arrivals.
Francesca entered first, but Ed ignored her doubtful scowl at him. He was focused on the faces of the three men who came into the room behind her… and this time, his only reaction was to become very, very still.
Jean Havoc, Vato Falman, Heymans Breda…
By now, Ed could immediately read the clues of scent and breath-movement, and he realized Breda was the only human of the three. Jogged by the sight of them, his borrowed recollections at last came more easily, supplying details about these mirror-lives before him: Havoc was undone by his familiar old womanizing ways, inadvertently turned by a female vampire who seduced her prey. Falman was another battlefield casualty, just as Mustang was. Breda had been a soldier too, an infamous human killing machine, who escaped infection but was left half-mad the night he watched a vampire tear out a comrade’s throat. Each of them was broken, judged unreliable, rejected by the Hunters who worked more active assignments.
This accounted, then, for everyone Ed had known as Mustang’s people—except for one piece on the chessboard. The most important of them all.
The queen, he thought, wryly following the analogy to its logical conclusion.
But in this world, these were not Mustang’s men. They were Hughes’ men instead, and Mustang himself was just an afterthought to them, kept around to feed the dogs and answer the door. How the mighty were fallen… and somehow, Ed took no pleasure in that fact.
All of their eyes were on Ed, looking at him as if he was a zoo specimen. It was uncomfortable, but he had an odd feeling he shouldn’t speak up until Hughes arrived, or at least until Noa gave him an introduction. Instead, he studied these too-familiar figures with equal intensity. He was used to seeing them in the blue of Amestrian military uniforms, but here they wore black, dressed for stealth in their largely nocturnal work—and perhaps out of suspicion toward the stranger brought into their stronghold, they came to this meeting armed. Swords and knives adorned their belts, and Ed also noticed the bulge of a shoulder holster beneath Breda’s coat.
“So who’s the fresh meat?” Breda rumbled, muscles straining his shirt fabric as he folded his beefy arms over a barrel chest. Ed didn’t like the sound of his wording one bit, and might have spoken if he hadn’t felt Noa’s staying hand touch his arm under the table.
Mustang shrugged. “Apparently he’s Noa’s foundling,” he said caustically, and the word made a connection in Ed’s mind. In Hunter parlance, a foundling was a lone and often newly-turned dhampir who a Hunter took responsibility for, to teach and protect them until they could survive on their own without doing harm to others.
Ed bristled slightly. However he felt about having been turned without his consent, he was grateful for Noa’s care of him since—but he didn’t appreciate being thought of like some adopted pet who needed housebreaking. He had his own reasons for being there. Furthermore, he feared certain conclusions were brewing that might be dangerous for Noa.
“Eh?” Havoc murmured, eyeing Ed with unpleasant interest. It was strange to see him without a cigarette in his mouth; smoking, it seemed, was unsatisfying for those who did not naturally breathe. “Foundling’s gotta mean there’s a rogue around, or else… Noa, what gives?”
When Havoc turned to look at Noa, his expression and voice were entirely different, and Ed registered another bizarre fact. While dhampirism had cured the man perforce of his flirtations, he had feelings for Noa that were deeply and helplessly genuine—but unrequited. Remarkably, Ed sensed that this Havoc was gentleman enough to respect Noa’s disinterest, and suppress his unwelcome attraction.
“Wait, Jean,” Noa answered wearily. “It’s all too complicated to go through more than once.”
Fuery scuttled into the room then, hurrying to take a seat. “Maes is coming.”
“Now maybe you’ll finally start talking,” Francesca sniped at Noa. Her tone was irritated at the moment, but Ed found that Noa’s feeling toward the other dhampir girl was the warmth of a friendship.
A brief, anticipatory silence filled the room, and Ed was glad to find the Hunters’ stares had shifted from him to the door. Although there was no rank among them, and they addressed each other by first names, there was a certain hierarchy—and their respect for their leader would have been clear even if Ed hadn’t learned it from Noa’s mind.
At least this time, he had the advantage of knowing what familiar face he was about to see… but it was still a shock when the tall, strong figure of Maes Hughes appeared in the doorway.
With the Hughes he had known dead and buried for some time before the end, Ed hadn’t seen his face in an even longer time than the others. Even so, now he felt as if it was only yesterday. This Hughes was a little more gaunt, and like Francesca he wore no eyeglasses, but otherwise there was no outward difference. There was only a shadow in his eyes that the other never had, even in his most dangerous moments.
He wasn’t alone. A woman entered with him, blonde, statuesque, unmistakable—and human. She looked immediately to the place where Ed sat, with a puzzlement that meant something very different from the way the others had looked at him… and then her eyes sought the man she had expected to see in that chair.
Riza Hawkeye met the gaze of Roy Mustang, and Ed felt the last missing pieces fall into place.
In this world, she was his girlfriend before the War. After he became a dhampir, he was too afraid and ashamed to see her, but she tracked him down herself… and even what he’s become wasn’t enough to keep her from his side.
Edward had no time to fully realize the wonder that crept into his heart at that discovery. Hughes was moving toward the end of the table where he and Noa sat.
Noa bowed her head. “I’m sorry I didn’t check in last night, Maes. I was…” She glanced at Ed, and concluded awkwardly, “delayed.”
“I can see that,” Hughes murmured, studying Ed with an unnerving intensity—and making him quite self-conscious of the fact that he still wore Noa’s coat. He had an idea that Hughes might be frighteningly possessive of Noa, his own foundling, for whom he had sacrificed his blood and his status among the Hunters. Already Ed felt uneasily like the young man brought home to meet an overprotective father, and when Hughes learned what Noa had really done…
“It’s been a long time since we had a survivor on our hands,” Hughes said, not unkindly. Then his focus shifted back to Noa, and he asked a simple, terse question that belied the horror of the meaning behind it. “Did you put down the rogue?”
“It wasn’t just a dhampir, Maes,” Noa replied softly. “It was a vampire.”
A ripple of gasps and muttered curses circled the table. Hughes himself gave a start, and for a long moment, he weighed the cold certainty in Noa’s eyes.
Then he relaxed, abruptly and deliberately, and put on a mild smile as he turned to Ed. Evidently the vampire would not be discussed until they had attended to him. Perhaps Hughes meant to avoid upsetting him, if he was as frightened and confused as any normal victim would be—but they didn’t yet know that he was no ordinary foundling.
“It’s alright, kid. We’re on top of this—but first of all, we want to help you. I’m Maes, and I’m in charge around here. What’s your name?”
Hughes’ tone stirred a pang, because for a moment it was that of the father figure Ed had appreciated only too late; the man who cared without condescending, and treated the Elric brothers like the young innocents they had never been, just because he honestly believed they were. The very sound of that voice made Ed want to give in a little, to take the comfort it offered.
“I’m Edward Elric,” he answered, and an irrational part of him longed to see just one of these familiar faces react to his name with recognition… but there was no such response. Hughes only looked at him with what seemed to be a faint admiration for his composure.
“Well, don’t worry, Edward,” the Hunters’ leader said encouragingly. “We know what you’re going through. I won’t ask any stupid questions like whether you’re okay—but I promise, we’ll see you through this. Do you need anything?”
“No… not now.” Ed glanced at Noa, deciding to let her disclose his visit to Sig’s shop if it was warranted, but she was silent.
“I guess Noa’s had some time to explain things to you over the last day.” Hughes eyed Noa with just a hint of doubt, but the look faded before his gaze turned back to Ed. “You understand what’s happened?”
“I do.” This much Ed asserted with an unhesitating firmness, but beyond that, he was reluctant to say more—only because he wasn’t sure how much he could say without creating trouble for Noa. If she felt it was best for her to explain things to Hughes in her own time and her own way, she was undoubtedly right.
Noa chose that moment to make her attempt at just such an explanation. She leaned forward, placing her hand on Hughes’ arm.
“Listen, Maes. Edward is… something different. We need his help much more than he needs ours.” She exchanged a glance with the alchemist, found unspoken consent in his eyes, and continued. “He has a special power. I saw him use it on the vampire who attacked him—and I saw him make that vampire hurt.”
More murmurings passed around the table, and it was Hawkeye who voiced the general consensus. “That’s impossible. Nothing hurts them.”
This time Ed spoke up for himself. “But I did hurt him—and I think I can do more than that. I think… maybe I can even kill them.”
“It’s true!” Noa confirmed fiercely, looking at the startled and skeptical faces around the table. “Edward knows more about vampires than we ever have. He knows what they really are, and where they come from—”
“Where they come from is straight outta hell,” Breda interrupted with a snarl.
That remark coaxed a bleak chuckle out of Ed. The sound drew all eyes to him, and he slowly rose from his seat.
“Hell?” he repeated quietly. “In a way… maybe you’re right.”
Until this point, his hands had rested in his lap, out of sight; but now his left hand reached up to unfasten his borrowed coat. He let it fall from his shoulders, exposing his automail arm and the scarred upper body that bore it, and raised a clenching steel fist beneath the astonished stares of the Hunters.
“Wh-what is that?” Fuery whimpered, jerking to his feet.
“It’s what happens when one of your vampires is created—in the place I come from.”
A tense silence gripped the room for a moment. Then Hughes reached out, slowly but with no evidence of fear, and closed his fingers around Ed’s automail wrist. Ed allowed him to turn it over, examining the prosthetic limb that was unlike anything known to this world.
“What are you?” Hughes asked him simply.
“I was human, before last night. I just come from a world that’s different from this one.”
Francesca let out a piercing squeal. “You see, I told you aliens were real!” she exclaimed, prompting a collective wince and sigh from the rest of the room—Edward included.
“It’s not really like that.” Ed eased his arm out of Hughes’ unconsciously white-knuckled grip. “But there’s a power in my world that you don’t have, and when it’s misused… sometimes a vampire is born. The problem is that nobody there even knows this world exists—much less that the things they’ve created are coming here to kill.”
Mustang rolled his eyes to one side. “The kid’s crazy.”
“No he isn’t!” Noa snapped, and turned to face Hughes with beseeching eyes. “You’ve always known you can trust me, Maes, so believe me now. The power Edward has—it’s hope for us. It’s what the Hunters have spent centuries searching for. If I wasn’t absolutely sure of that…”
She faltered into silence, her gaze falling to the palm of her left hand, and Hughes’ eyes suddenly darkened.
“Noa, what is it you’ve done?” His hands came to rest gently on her shoulders, but she flinched when their grip tightened. “Tell me you didn’t do this! Haven’t you learned anything from me?”
“Leave her alone!” Ed protested, and tried to bluff, even though he knew the effort was wasted. “She didn’t do anything… It was the vampire.”
Hughes gave Ed a hard, skeptical glance. Then he released Noa’s shoulders and took a deep breath, looking hard into the eyes of his favored disciple.
“Give me the truth.”
Noa’s face fell. She bowed her head with a desolate resignation, and reached up to unbutton the collar of her blouse.
Realizing instantly what the gesture meant, Ed reached for her arm. “Noa—”
Only a moment too late, her memories warned him of how badly Hughes would react to the hand of a stranger touching his foundling.
Ed never saw the fist that swung up at his jaw. He only felt a blow so powerful it almost blinded him, pitching him against the edge of the table. He instinctively braced his arms underneath him, making a feeble attempt to push himself upright; but in the moment when he was face-down, a broad hand wrapped around the back of his neck, pinning him there with his chin pressed to the tabletop.
Hughes leaned down over him, and Edward felt the sudden sharp pain of fangs sinking into the back of his left shoulder.
He had time enough for one instant of relatively coherent panic, his flesh and steel fingers clawing futilely at the polished wood surface of the table. Time enough to hear Noa shouting at Hughes to Stop, don’t do this, he isn’t like us…
Then his muscles fell slack with the first bright shock as he began to bleed, and he felt his memories pouring out of him.
It was the same as before, when Envy bit him. His entire life was flowing like water, all the pain and wonder and joy of it, and there was nothing he could do to make it stop. Some foolish part of him thought he could, and he struggled within his own mind against the onslaught—but that only made his head throb with pain. Still the pieces of his past fell without ceasing, childhood happiness fading into agonies of battle, dates and places merging in a dizzying jumble.
The day he became a State Alchemist. The day Mother died. Lior, Resembool, Central—
His psyche gave a violent burst of resistance, but it meant absolutely nothing, as the memory of his twelfth birthday welled up irresistibly from his veins. Nina. Alexander. Snow.
Major Maes Hughes of Amestris, smiling on the sidewalk.
Gracia, and the miracle of birth. Tiny Elicia, soft and warm as a breath.
The confetti of photographs her father left in his wake for the few remaining years of his life.
Abruptly the visions ceased, as Maes Hughes of the Hunters ripped himself away from the contact with something like a sob—and even in his stunned condition, Ed knew that cry of soul-shattering anguish would forever haunt him. It was the sound of something dying on the inside… or the sound of something terrible being born.
For a moment Ed could only sprawl limp and shivering against the table, feeling savagely violated and completely exhausted. Hughes probably hadn’t taken much blood, but its loss did nothing to help the raging ache in his skull, and his soul felt as raw as an open wound.
At last he dared to open his eyes, wincing at the gentle light in the room, and turned his head. Hughes had sunk into a chair hardly an arm’s length from him; he was shaking too, his face buried in his hands, and he might have been weeping. Francesca and Falman were bending over him in anxious concern. Most of the others remained standing or sitting where they had been, looking uncomfortable or interested, or merely bored by a process they must have witnessed or even experienced innumerable times before.
As for Noa, her arms were twisted behind her back in the restraining grip of Mustang and Havoc, and Ed could almost feel the tension pouring off of her. She was breathtakingly furious, and when the men finally let her jerk free of their grasp, it was not Hughes’ side she rushed to—but Ed’s.
“Easy…” She slipped a hand under his flesh arm to help him sag into a chair, and when she knelt down beside him, he could see the dampness brimming in her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
She was sorry. It was in her eyes and expression and the entire attitude of her being. She had never intended this, and she was angry at herself as much as her mentor who committed the deed, even though she had clearly tried to intervene.
An almost imperceptible shrug hitched Ed’s shoulders, dismissing her guilt. He took a needless breath to see if that would help clear his head, but it only brought him the smells of Mustang’s dogs and Breda’s sweat—and the faint tang of his own blood. His stomach lurched, and with a grimace, he gave up the effort of breathing.
Her fury boiling over, Noa rounded on Hughes. “Maes—”
“We’re going to talk later.”
Even in her outrage, Noa was paralyzed by those words, and by the voice that delivered them. It was the most deathly tone Ed had ever heard, warning that the promised conversation would be very, very unpleasant… because now Hughes knew for a fact that Noa had broken the taboo of the Hunters, by turning Ed with her own blood.
Hughes slowly raised his head to stare at Ed. At that moment, his eyes were the color of the blood he had consumed, hollow and fever-bright. It chilled Ed to see those predator eyes in such a familiar face.
“That world you came from… My family is really alive there?”
“No. Not your family.” Ed set his jaw, trying to control the quiver of disgust and latent fear in his voice. “The family I knew belonged to the other Hughes—not you.”
“But that man…” Scarlet eyes widened as Hughes searched his stolen memories, apparently with a far greater speed and clarity than Ed himself was yet capable of. “He’s dead. He was killed by—Envy. The same creature that turned into the vampire you were attacked by.”
Ed let his head fall against the back of his chair. He was fatigued and hurting and deeply shaken, and he desperately didn’t want to be having this surreal conversation.
“Forget about it,” he muttered faintly. “Because… I plan on making Envy pay for that myself.”
The other Hunters were looking increasingly confused and uneasy—which was understandable, considering their leader was now talking in the same otherworldly terms as Ed. It was Falman who finally took it upon himself to try to shed some light on the discussion.
“Wait a minute. Maes, are you seriously saying all those things the kid was talking about are true?”
Hughes glanced at him, and nodded unsteadily. The red hue was fading from his eyes, but they still looked unhealthy.
“It’s all he said—and more. Vato, my… my family is there, in that world—”
“I told you that’s wrong!” Ed ground out.
“No. It isn’t. How could it be? I lost them, and they lost me… We need each other.” Hughes rose and lurchingly began to pace, like a caged cat. “And it—it can be done, can’t it? …You think it can.”
At those quick, halting words, Ed remembered his speculations about transmuting a homunculus-vampire to open the Gate, and his unbeating heart plummeted.
“No, Hughes! You can’t possibly think of… Don’t you realize you’d only hurt them?” He gathered his strained and aching nerves and leaned forward, fists clenching. “They’ve buried their dead and moved forward… and you’re not that man, no matter how much you want to be. You may look like him, but you’re not. How do you think they’d feel if they saw you this way—and if you do love them, how could you risk letting them become like you?”
But Hughes wasn’t listening. He was still pacing, rubbing his hands together, eyes glazed with feverish thought—and Ed knew he was thinking about alchemy, letting arrays and equations flood the scarred mind that was fracturing before their eyes.
“What we need… is Envy,” he murmured slowly.
Havoc frowned. “Chief?”
“The vampire! It’s the key to everything…” Hughes turned on his heel, seizing Havoc by the shoulders with a sudden manic excitement. “We have to capture it!”
“Are you kidding?” Mustang gasped. “Nobody’s ever taken a vampire captive, and the ones that’ve tried have—”
Hughes turned to his lowest subordinate with a look that made Mustang physically shrink back.
“They didn’t have alchemy,” he said, with an unholy eagerness.
“And you think you do?” Ed was clutching at straws now, but it didn’t matter. This was insanity, pure and literal madness, and he couldn’t let it unfold into tragedy for either of their worlds. “For all I know, and for all you know, I might have been the only person in this world who could use alchemy—and maybe I can’t even do it anymore, now that I have homunculus blood in me. And even if I could, I’ll never help you open the Gate.”
“Then let’s hope I don’t have to ask you.” Hughes spoke in something very close to that terrible, chilling tone again, studying Ed as a spider might inspect a fly trapped in its web. “But in case I do… Oh, don’t worry, Ed. We’re going to take good care of you.”
They were so like the words he had said only a short time before, when he was still a shadow of the kind man Ed had known.
Don’t worry, Edward… We’ll see you through this.
It was Ed himself who had corrupted Hughes, allowing his sanity to crumble under the influence of memories he should never have possessed. Ed had broken the mind of Noa’s cherished patron, endangering her and the other Hunters and perhaps even his own world, and the guilt of it made him want to be sick.
“Maes…” Noa said faintly, her voice trembling.
Hughes ignored her, turning to glance at his other followers around the table. “Roy, Vato—let’s make Ed comfortable.”
The Hunters looked back and forth between each other uncertainly. There was a long hesitation… and then Mustang and Falman obediently came forward. They took Ed by the arms, and when he felt the inhuman strength of Mustang’s grip at his left, he knew he was in no condition to even try fighting both of them.
As he was led from the room, his last glimpse of Noa was her bowed head as she wept.
The piercing train whistle awakened Winry Rockbell from an unintended doze. She opened her eyes and stretched, turning her head to see the rambling outskirts of Dublith beyond the window… and the letter she had absently slipped into her jacket pocket the day before felt suddenly heavy.
Alphonse is ill, and wants to see you. Please use the enclosed train ticket to come as soon as possible. – Izumi.
In the two years since Edward’s disappearance and Al’s return to flesh, Al had lived with the Curtises, in the hope that his alchemy teacher could help him regain his memories—and consequently, his beloved brother. Winry had seen him only a few times, and the last was more than eight months earlier. She knew little about his life now, for he had become as unreliable at letter-writing as Ed had been. She only knew they had not yet found a way to reverse his amnesia, nor uncovered any new information about Ed’s fate.
Now she could only suspect Al had pushed himself to exhaustion or worse in the effort. Even during that last visit, he hadn’t looked very well, although he tried to hide it. How much worse was his condition now, that Izumi should send for her with that subtle note of urgency? Could it be that Al’s struggle to regain what was lost had led him to yet another sacrifice of flesh and blood?
With those fearful wonderings in mind, Winry had made her travel arrangements quickly, and boarded the earliest train.
The journey did not take as long as it would have if she were traveling from Resembool. She had spent most of these two years in Rush Valley, working as an apprentice to the master automail craftsman Dominic. He was a demanding teacher and employer—but beneath his hard surface, he was kind. Upon learning the boy she loved like a brother was unwell, he tersely granted her leave for as long as Al might need her, and that was the end of it.
When the train came to a stop at the Dublith station, Winry picked up her suitcase and disembarked. It had rained there that morning, leaving a cool freshness in the air, but also splotching the ground with oily dampness. She gingerly began to navigate the busy station platform, trying her best to dodge puddles and passersby alike—until, with her eyes on the next water crossing, she suddenly bumped into what seemed like a one-man wall.
“Whoa, careful!” a familiar voice exclaimed, as a broad hand caught her elbow.
Her cheeks flushing slightly, she looked up at the brawny young man who towered over her. “Oh… Mason!”
Mason Curtis, Sig and Izumi’s nephew, had lived with the couple for years as an employee of their butcher shop. He was almost as enormous as his uncle, but where Sig was intimidating, Mason was sweetly goofy. Winry harbored a deep fondness for him, and she knew he liked her—really liked her. It wasn’t the sort of skin-deep, hormonal reaction some males had to her, but something deeper and gentler. Other young men’s indulgent eyes and wolfish smirks nettled her, but Mason’s shy attraction had a curious way of feeling safe.
“Izumi was pretty sure you’d be on the first train you could catch,” Mason offered with a grin. “She sent me to check for you, so here I am. Let me take that suitcase.”
A bit dumbly, Winry handed over her suitcase, and followed Mason as he used his muscular frame to plow through the crowded station. Her gladness to see him warred briefly with her concern for Al, and it was the worry that finally won out.
“Izumi’s letter didn’t really tell me anything. What’s wrong with Al?”
The question caused Mason’s swift stride to falter, and he turned to face her with a troubled frown.
“I won’t kid you, Winry. He’s… he’s not so good. It might be kind of a shock when you see him, so I guess you’d better get ready for that.”
Winry’s heart skipped a beat. “What’s happened to him? He hasn’t—transmuted part of himself, or…?”
“Oh no, it’s not like that!” Mason assured her quickly. “It’s just… he’s really weak, and he looks awful. He’s a sick kid.”
“Sick with what?” the automail mechanic demanded in exasperation.
Mason fidgeted, scratching the fingers of his free hand through his short dark hair. “You’ll have to ask Izumi that. As far as I can understand, it has something to do with alchemy, but it… it’s complicated.”
“I knew it had to be alchemy,” Winry said bitterly. “Hasn’t it done enough by now? When is it going to stop taking from all of us?”
She dropped her gaze. It embarrassed her to feel the warmth of tears spilling over onto her cheeks, and she hastily scrubbed them away with her fists.
“Sorry,” Mason murmured awkwardly, and from the corner of her eye, she noticed he was giving her the courtesy of looking away as she tried to compose herself. “I guess… nobody else has had any luck finding Ed, either.”
A touch of frustrated, directionless anger mingled with Winry’s hollow sadness, and she sniffled and straightened. “The military’s still looking for him even now, but… he’s just not anywhere. And sometimes I—I start to think…” Fresh tears stung at her eyes, tinged this time with guilt, and she shook her head fiercely.
“Al has never thought that way for a second,” Mason said quietly, as his strong hand came to rest on Winry’s shoulder. “Just do one thing for me, okay? Don’t let him hear talk like that. And don’t let him see tears. He still believes—and he’s still fighting.”
Those words were enough to pull Winry together. She drew a deep breath, blinked back her tears, and nodded.
The Curtises’ home and shop were within an easy walking distance of the train station. Winry kept pace beside Mason in silence for some time, fully collecting herself, before she finally launched into the polite conversation of a visiting friend.
“So… how is everyone else doing? How is Miss Izumi?”
“Oh, the rest of us are pretty good. Izumi’s really doing well. The doctor who’s taking care of her now has her on some new medication, and it’s made a big difference.” Mason frowned. “She still… you know… has one of her attacks if she really stresses out. So try not to upset her. But she’s handling things the best way she can—and Al couldn’t be in any better hands than hers.”
“I believe that,” Winry said sincerely.
For the remainder of the walk, they continued to talk lightly of other subjects, catching each other up on their relatives and their everyday lives. The conversation itself helped Winry to unwind a little, even though every step brought her closer to learning just how sick Al really was. She needed to calm herself before she faced that situation, and Mason’s earnest warmth was oddly calming. She even managed to chuckle at a few of his tentative jokes.
When at last they arrived at the Curtis household, they found Izumi Curtis sweeping the front step of the shop—and Winry couldn’t help but smile at the sight of her. The tall, dark-haired woman looked as strong and lovely as ever, wielding the broom like a weapon as she attacked the stray dead leaves around the door.
“Miss Izumi!” Winry called out, quickening her steps.
Izumi looked up, and smiled; and although there was a trace of sadness in the smile, there was also welcoming warmth. She set aside the broom and held out a hand as Winry came up to her.
“Hello, Winry. Thank you for coming so quickly—it’s nice to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you too.” Winry gave the offered hand a brief squeeze, but she couldn’t quite return the smile. “Where’s Al? How is he?”
The alchemy teacher sobered a little, withdrawing from Winry’s grip. “I’ll explain after you’ve seen him.”
She led the way into the house, and as they passed through the kitchen, they picked up Sig. The big butcher made a rumbling noise at Winry that vaguely resembled a greeting, and joined the procession on its way to Al’s bedroom upstairs. It was the same room where Al and Ed had stayed ever since they first came here as Izumi’s students.
Mason deposited Winry’s suitcase in the next room, and wandered back into the hallway with a questioning glance at Izumi. “You want me to check on him first?” he asked, and at a nod from his aunt, he knocked gently on Al’s door that stood closed. Then he stepped inside, and could be heard nattering cheerfully at someone—and Winry could barely make out the sound of a small voice in reply.
After a moment, Mason poked his head out. “Yeah, he’s awake. Got excited when I told him Winry’s here. He just wants a minute to sit up and get himself together… ’Scuse me.”
The young man retreated from the door, and when he presently returned, he beckoned for Winry to enter.
Almost reluctantly, Winry stepped into the bedroom. Like most of the other rooms in the house, it was sparing, furnished with little more than a bed, a bureau, a chair, and a shelf full of books… as well as an amorphous something that sat covered by a sheet in the corner.
Under other circumstances, the last object would have aroused Winry’s curiosity, but all that mattered to her now was the occupant of the bed. Her gaze sought him out urgently, even as her heart dreaded what she might see.
Alphonse Elric lay in bed, halfway sitting up against the pillows behind his back, his hands folded on top of the covers. His eyes were bright as they lighted on Winry… but they were set deep in a gaunt, ashen face. Even through his nightshirt and the blankets that covered his lap, it was clear that his too-small body had become shockingly thin. When he breathed, there was a ragged little catch to the sound, and his head leaned back against the pillows as if he didn’t even have the strength to lift it.
He should have been strong and healthy and almost an adult, but alchemy had robbed him of five years of hard-won life. Instead, his body was that of a mere child of twelve—and now it seemed he was even being cheated of this. The fragile flesh that may have cost his brother’s life was visibly wasting away, as if something was consuming him from within.
Then Winry noticed that his topmost blanket, deep scarlet in color, was not a blanket at all. She recognized the symbol of sin that was inscribed upon it in midnight-black… and she was forced to gulp down a lump in her throat before she could speak.
Her childhood friend smiled at her, but his voice was little more than a whisper. “Hi, Winry. I’m glad you came.”
“Oh, Al, you know I’ll always be here for you.” Winry sat on the bedside chair, refusing to let herself look away from the painful hollowness of his face. “I had no idea… You should have sent for me a long time before now.”
The faintest ghost of color touched Al’s sunken cheeks. “I didn’t want you to see me like this.”
She longed to take him by his bony shoulders and hug him for all she was worth, but she was too afraid his frail little body would break. Instead she laid her hands over his, and felt on his skin the clammy chill of something already half-dead. It startled her and made her want to pull away, but she resisted the urge. After all, she wasn’t afraid of contagion; Mason had already hinted that alchemy was at the root of this disease.
“I just don’t understand this, Al. How long have you been sick? Are you in any pain? What’s happening to you?”
Al squirmed a little at the rush of questions, and even that movement looked tiring. “Nothing hurts… I’m just so weak, it’s hard to move at all. It hasn’t been this bad for very long, but I haven’t really been well ever since…” He looked away with a troubled frown, and Winry wasn’t sure whether they had struck on something he didn’t want to talk about, or whether he truly couldn’t because of his amnesia.
“Since Ed disappeared?” she suggested faintly.
The question made Al wince, his brown eyes darkening. “I didn’t start to feel it until a couple months later. But… yeah.”
“Oh, Al… Does this mean something has been wrong with your body ever since you got it back?”
He gave her what passed, in his condition, for a mildly fishy look. “It’s still kinda weird hearing people say things like that. No, Winry, it’s not my body, it’s…”
By the end of the sentence, his voice became almost inaudible. He sighed out the little remaining air in his weak lungs, and his fingers twitched under Winry’s, as if making a small effort to pull away from her grip.
“Sorry. I can’t talk much this way. Teacher…?”
Whatever question was left unspoken, Izumi clearly understood. She frowned thoughtfully at Al for a moment, and then gave Sig a glance that sent her husband lumbering toward the mysterious thing in the corner.
Curiosity won out at last. Winry stood up for a better look… and gave a start when Izumi’s iron hand unexpectedly fell upon her shoulder.
“Don’t be frightened by anything you’re about to see. Al may be physically weak, but he’s still a gifted alchemist, and his experiences have left him with some… unique gifts. His way of finding relief from his illness is something you know very well.”
It was a bizarre warning that left Winry speechless. Baffled, she looked from Izumi to Sig—just as he withdrew the sheet from the large covered object.
The unveiling revealed a shockingly familiar, human-shaped hulk of polished steel, slumped lifelessly on the floor like a child’s forgotten toy.
Winry’s heart dropped into her stomach. “Al’s armor!”
It was true. The left shoulder bore a flamel cross, matching the one on the precious coat that lay in Al’s lap, and there were a dozen other marks on the metal that Winry recognized as surely as fingerprints. This was no mere reproduction: it was nothing less than the original suit of armor that had borne Al’s soul for five terrible, extraordinary years. Winry hadn’t even known it still existed.
“The armor was with him when he woke up in his own body,” Izumi explained solemnly. “With the confusion in Central at the time, no one gave it any thought—until a few months later, when Al suggested that seeing it again might jog his memory. It was General Mustang who found it at a military warehouse, and brought it here. I’m afraid it hasn’t stirred any definite memories for Al, but…” She gave a half-smile that was almost a wince. “He did discover another use for it.”
As Izumi was speaking, Mason moved to the bedside and scooped Al up in his sinewy arms. He carried Al to the corner of the room and knelt down beside the armor, placing it easily within the boy’s feeble grasp.
With a heartbreakingly obvious effort, Al raised his hands and brought them together in a gentle clap. Then he reached out, laying his hands on the chestplate of the armor; and in spite of Izumi’s warning, and all the things Winry had seen over the years, she couldn’t help being just a little bit terrified by what happened next.
The armor moved. It shivered and clanked and sat upright, raising its helmet to reveal behind the eye slits a soft glow of disembodied life… and at precisely the same moment, Al’s own eyes closed. His body went limp in Mason’s arms, like a puppet with its strings cut.
And Winry, of course, did the only sensible thing.
She let out an ear-piercing shriek.
With the intangible but very real expressiveness Winry had never been able to explain, the armor radiated an embarrassed alarm. It lurched to its feet so quickly that it almost bowled over Mason and his frail burden, its leather gauntlets flapping in a desperate calming gesture—and Al’s voice resonated from within the steel, sounding suddenly much stronger beneath the familiar metallic echo. “It’s okay, Winry! Really!”
“Oh, both of you settle down!” Izumi snapped, incomprehensibly reacting with nothing but irritation, as she strode brusquely to the armor’s side. “It’s not permanent, Winry. There isn’t a blood seal—you see?”
With that, she seized the upper edge of the armor’s chestplate, roughly yanking it down and forcing it to bend forward. Al’s voice gave a little yelp as Izumi’s other hand wrenched the helmet off, and she pointed to the inside of the hollow metal shell.
It was just as she had said. There was not one drop of blood to be seen on the smooth, cold steel… and yet somehow, all the same, it was clear that Al was once again inhabiting the armor.
With her heart still beating so hard she almost felt sick, Winry sagged into the bedside chair. She was trembling, and it didn’t make her feel any better to watch Mason gently place Al’s insensate body on the bed—or worse, to see the newly re-armored incarnation of Al watching, with as calmly detached an interest as if seeing his own body secondhand was a normal experience.
She noticed Al’s body was breathing, faintly but steadily. That much was a relief, at least.
Alright… she could deal with this. Somehow Al was in armor again, but it seemed to be of his own volition, and neither he nor the Curtises were the least bit distressed by the fact. Izumi had said something about this state of affairs being temporary, and at the very least, Al’s real body lay alive and intact on the bed.
“What is going on here?” Winry asked flatly.
Mason fidgeted. “Nothing he doesn’t do every day, actually…”
Izumi sighed. “Calm down, Winry. Al is alright. His soul is still firmly attached to his body, where it belongs—but even without a blood seal, he somehow has the ability to transmit his consciousness through the armor. At least for short periods of time.”
“It just seemed to come to me naturally when the General brought the armor here.” The steel monster that was Al had recovered his helmet from Izumi, and rather sheepishly proceeded to replace it on his shoulders. “I’m sorry I scared you, Winry. But I thought… You told me before that you used to know me like this.”
“I did!” Winry snapped, suddenly angry at the fact that Al would even touch the armor again—much less allow any part of his being to return to that steel prison, even for a moment. “I knew you this way when the one thing you wanted in the world was to get back your real body. And that was before…!”
Before Ed gave everything to make that happen.
Winry managed to halt those words on the tip of her tongue, but perhaps Al was able to fill them in for himself. The helmet bowed sadly, and he moved closer to her with a rattling of steel. When he spoke, his resonant voice was soft.
“I don’t remember that, Winry. All I know is that in my own body, I’m so weak and useless that I… I can’t look for Ed.” Phantom eyes turned to the fragile body in the bed, white soul-light shading to the scarlet of intense emotion. “I’d gladly give it up, and be stuck this way forever—if it just gave me the chance to find him again.”
Tears welled up in Winry’s eyes, and she was only barely able to keep them in check, remembering that Mason had asked her not to cry.
Surely Al felt enough guilt and grief for his brother’s absence, even if he couldn’t remember the terrible events recounted to him by others. He didn’t need her to remind him of the sacrifices made for him—and he didn’t need her protesting his one means of respite from the ailing fraud of a body those sacrifices had won. He only needed her to understand that a wish to trade back what he had gained was not ingratitude, but the highest measure of love.
His body wasn’t what he cared about most, and it never had been. It was always his brother.
So Winry swallowed hard, and breathed deep, and forcibly pulled herself back together. Without looking up, she gently laid her hand on Al’s vambrace—the unfelt touch a token of acceptance. “I’m sorry.”
“No… I’m sorry. I should have thought about how you’d feel. I just—I want to enjoy having you here, Winry. It’s so hard now in my own body.” Al hesitated, and finished with an audible reluctance: “But I’ll go back to it now, if you want me to.”
Winry wasn’t quite sure the mist had cleared from her eyes, but she met his gaze nonetheless, and shook her head with a broken smile. “No, Al, it’s okay. If you’re really alright, I can handle it, but…” She wasn’t able to stop the smile, tenuous as it was, from twisting into a worried frown. “Are you absolutely sure you won’t get stranded in that scrapheap again?”
Al’s voice brightened. “Sure I’m sure. That can’t happen without a blood seal. I can go back to my body anytime I want—and if it needs water or food, it’ll pull me back anyway. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t stay in the armor for more than a day or two at a time.”
The suggestion that Al had been testing the armor’s limitations frightened Winry.
“A day or two?” She glanced anxiously from Al to Izumi and back again. “This isn’t what’s making him sick, is it?—You’re not… draining your strength away or something by switching between your body and the armor, are you?”
“Oh, no! Using the armor is the only way I have to get away from feeling bad. It has nothing to do with my being sick.” Al paused, and the brief silence was like a thoughtful frown. “It’s kind of hard to explain, but—”
“Alphonse, I think it might be best if I tell her,” Izumi interrupted coolly. “Why don’t you and Mason go out and play with the children on their way home from school.”
It was something more than a suggestion, and although Al’s spiked shoulders slumped a little, he gave his teacher a small bow. “Yes Ma’am,” he said, and turned to follow an equally obedient Mason out of the room.
Winry blinked. “Wait a minute. So… you’re just going to walk away and leave your body here?”
Al looked back, and had he been capable of an expression then, it would have been the flustered incredulity of a child who found it necessary to explain the obvious to an adult. “You didn’t think I’d take it with me, did you?”
He clattered away into the hall, and Winry stared down dazedly at the small, sickly body that lay abandoned on the bed.
It might all have been funny if it wasn’t so unspeakably awful.
“What’s wrong with him, Miss Izumi?”
Winry and Izumi were standing on the rooftop balcony of the Curtis home, looking out over the small patch of grass that constituted the front yard. Al and Mason were down below, making a regular ruckus with a gaggle of neighborhood children. Judging by the way the kids climbed all over them, the armored boy and the strapping young man were the next best thing to a jungle gym—and they seemed to enjoy the sport just as much.
Mason was always playing with children, every time Winry had ever visited. It was one of the things she liked about him.
After a long moment of consideration, Izumi leaned against the parapet with a sigh. “Biologically… nothing is wrong with Alphonse. At the personal request of the Füehrer, the finest doctors in Amestris have examined him, and they couldn’t find a trace of any disease or defect in his body.”
“What? But that’s impossible! How could he be so sick unless…” Winry paused, her wide eyes narrowing slightly. “Wait. You’re not going to try to tell me this is all in his mind, are you?”
“No. What he’s suffering now is very real… but it goes deeper than his body or his mind.” Izumi turned to Winry with shadowed eyes. “Tell me, how much do you know about the blood seal that was on his armor before?”
The young mechanic winced. “I know it was what tied Al’s soul to the armor when his body was gone. I know Ed drew it with his own blood… and he gave up his arm to do the transmutation that made it work. That’s all I know about it, and I don’t even understand that.”
“Through alchemy, Al’s soul was bound to that blood, and the blood was bound to the steel by the iron it contained.” Izumi smiled bitterly. “It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Except that nothing is simple about the soul… especially when someone’s tampering involves two souls instead of one.”
Winry’s heart skipped a beat. “Two souls? What do you mean?” she asked, and saw an oddly demure expression pass across Izumi’s face.
“Honestly, even my understanding of it comes mostly from Al himself. You already knew he could transmute without a circle—and now you’ve seen what he can do with the armor. He may not remember the years of his journey with Ed, but something of the alchemic knowledge he gained in the Gate still comes through sometimes… and then he’s…”
The teacher’s pause, with the hundred possible conclusions that might have hung in it, was perhaps the most frightening thing of all.
At last Izumi broke the spell, with a firm shake of her head. “But that’s beside the point. The point is, a part of him grasped what’s happening to him, and he’s done his best to explain it. In the simplest terms I can give you, Al has grown so weak because something is still missing from his being… and this time, it’s a portion of his soul.”
Those bewildering words were slow to penetrate Winry’s mind, and she could only stare at Izumi. “…What?”
“It was Ed’s mistake again, really.” The faint tremble in Izumi’s voice was the hard edge of a laugh, and a little bit of something else. “Of course he didn’t know it then, and it can’t be helped now—but when he used his own blood for the seal, he managed to get himself tangled up in the transmutation. Instead of bonding to the blood seal on the armor… a part of Al’s soul bonded to him instead.”
Winry’s knees suddenly felt like water. She stumbled backward, and it was only her good fortune that a patio chair was there to catch her.
“Did Ed…” She swallowed hard. “Could he have known?”
“Obviously not. If he’d known he was carrying a fragment of Al’s life inside him, he wouldn’t have been so boneheaded about risking his own.” Izumi attempted a wan smile, but it faltered, and she sighed. “No, Ed would never have realized it—but it might account for the trouble Al felt he had with his memory, even before he regained his body and lost those five years.”
“But how could missing a part of his soul have made his body so sick now? Why didn’t it affect him like this before?”
“The reason is simple enough. The force of life itself is in the soul—and when it was bound to the armor, Al’s compromised soul didn’t have to bear the strain of supporting an organic body. But now that he has a body of flesh and blood again, with all its amazing complexities…” Izumi’s eyes darkened, and she looked away. “His soul just isn’t strong enough to sustain it.”
The implication underlying those words nearly stopped Winry’s heart. She clutched the arms of the chair, feeling herself begin to tremble.
“Miss Izumi… what’s going to happen to him?”
Izumi turned to gaze down at Al. To his delight, a little girl had brought a cat into the yard; one of Chiko’s kittens all grown up, Winry thought distantly. Al laughed as the friendly animal rubbed against his greaves.
“He’s dying, Winry.”
The words were like the sudden ending to a step off a cliff. Something clenched up tight in Winry’s chest, and she wanted to cry now… but no tears would come.
“The end is very near. His body needs more strength than his soul can provide, and without that… it will just keep feeding on itself until it kills him.” The teacher hesitated. “A week’s time may be too much to expect.”
“Does he know?” Winry asked faintly, and heard the words as if someone else had spoken them from far away.
“Oh yes. As I said, he understands it all better than I do.”
“But… isn’t there something we can do? Some way to replace what he’s missing—or get it back?”
“There’s nothing in the world that can replace the soul. You know what happened when Ed and Al tried.” Izumi turned to face Winry, looking tired and worn and far older than her years. “Only regaining exactly what he’s lost could save him. He thinks if he could reach Ed somehow, his soul would reabsorb the missing piece of itself, and he could recover. But…”
“But Ed is gone,” Winry whispered.
It was useless to deny it any longer. Ed was gone—and soon Al would be gone. Her best friends. Her brothers.
“…There’s still one chance.”
At the sound of those unexpected words, the tightness around Winry’s heart suddenly became a little less painful. She raised her head to stare at Izumi in desperate hope, blinking through tears she hadn’t even realized were streaming down her cheeks.
“It may not work—and you won’t like it. I told you how Al’s incomplete soul was able to survive when it was attached to the armor, without the stress of a body drawing life from it. Even now, if he was to give up the flesh he can no longer maintain, it’s possible his soul could live on by the same means as before.” Izumi lowered her eyes. “That’s why, in a few more days… he’s going to attempt a blood seal.”
A rush of instinctive horror swept through Winry. “You mean… he’ll try to permanently attach his soul to the armor again?”
“But isn’t that human transmutation? It cost Ed’s arm before—who’s going to pay the price now?”
“I promise you, we’ve thought it all out carefully. No one else is going to be involved. He’ll use his own blood for the seal, and his body will be the material for the transmutation. He has no reason not to sacrifice it now, because he can’t exist in it much longer either way.” Izumi shook her head gravely. “Binding his soul with his own blood might not even work, or a hundred other things might go wrong—but if we do nothing, it’s certain he will die. His only hope of surviving is to go back into the armor… and this time it will be for life.”
The crushing heartache closed in again, and Winry’s head sank into her hands.
“So that’s it, then.” Her voice was a tremulous whisper. “Even if it does keep Al alive, he’ll be the way he was before. He’ll never sleep or eat or be able to feel anything again… and now he won’t even have Ed to give him hope.” She raised brimming eyes that desperately asked Izumi for an answer to make sense of the pain. “What’s going to be left for him at all?”
With a gentle sadness, Izumi stepped closer. Her hand came to rest on Winry’s shoulder.
“The strength to go on looking for Ed,” she answered. “You were wrong. Ed is his hope… and in a terrible way, I think it would be a relief for Al to leave behind the body that’s held him back from searching. The one thing he wants to live for is his brother—because he truly believes Ed is still alive.”
Winry sniffled and inhaled deeply, forcing up the courage for a question she feared the answer to. “Do you?”
A heavy-hearted smile crossed Izumi’s lips for only a moment. She straightened and turned away, to watch the antics taking place in the yard.
“Al has dreamed of Ed almost every night. He’s told us that in his dreams, Ed was the age he would be now, wandering in great cities, studying in the libraries—always alone. And knowing that a part of Al’s soul was with Ed, I… I wanted to hope…”
“That what Al dreamed was real?” Winry breathed.
Although Izumi’s back was turned, a visible shudder passed through her shoulders.
“Three days ago, Al woke up screaming from a nightmare he couldn’t remember. After that, his condition suddenly grew much worse… and he hasn’t dreamed of Ed since.”
With those words, the last fragile thread of hope Winry had nurtured was broken… and for the first time, she knew Ed was truly dead. She was sure of it because something within Al himself finally knew, even if he would refuse to accept it; even if his own hope was his one reason to exist.
“I see,” she said faintly. And she rose from her chair, because that pointless effort of movement was the only way to calm her sudden, intense desire to hit something.
“I’m not going to stand in the way of Al’s hope… and as long as I have anything to say about it, no one will.” Izumi’s voice was suddenly hard, like a warning. Then her tone softened just as quickly, and she managed a painful smile.
“But for now, all that matters is to give him as much happiness and comfort as possible. At least he knows what it’s like to be in the armor, and he’s preparing as best he can to live with it permanently—but he’s also taking his last chance to experience the senses of his body. That’s part of why we sent for you, Winry. At first he didn’t want us to tell you until it was all over… but he wants to taste your apple pie, one more time.” At long last, a trace of mistiness crept into the iron-willed teacher’s eyes. “You will make it for him, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Winry whispered.
She told herself firmly that she wouldn’t cry anymore. For Al’s sake, she couldn’t. She scrubbed her fists over her damp eyes and cleared her throat, inwardly attempting to build a wall around the misery in her heart. “Can I… just have a few minutes alone?”
The older woman nodded, reaching out to give Winry’s arm a gentle squeeze. “I’ll ask Mason to start peeling the apples,” she said, and turned to go inside.
At the threshold, she was stopped by Winry’s voice, strained and numb with a grief that was simply too much to feel all at once.
“I’m kind of surprised. I didn’t think you’d approve of another human transmutation for anything… not even Al.”
Izumi did not look back, but her shoulders tensed, her left hand gripping the doorpost tightly. She was silent for a long moment, and Winry was strangely glad the look on her face was hidden.
“I can’t lose them both,” the teacher replied softly, and disappeared into the house.
Winry stayed where she was on the balcony for what felt like a long time. Children’s laughter continued to drift up from the yard, and at some point she heard Izumi at the door, calling Mason in for kitchen duty. Shadows were growing longer as the sun moved lower in the sky.
Finally, moving in a daze, Winry went inside and made her way downstairs to the kitchen—and she halted in the doorway as she saw Mason at the table. He was bent diligently over a heap of apples with a paring knife, and a woman’s ruffled pink apron that was far too small for him was stretched over his muscular chest.
And Winry started laughing, high hysterical peals of it, and she couldn’t stop herself; not even when she choked on the laughter, and it turned into dry, gasping sobs of uncontainable sorrow that wracked her entire body.
Mason dropped the knife and hurried to her. Strong hands seized her shoulders, and without a word he pulled her hard against him, wrapping his arms around her so tight she barely had the breath to cry anymore.
That was something else she liked about the Curtises. They rarely gave hugs, but when they did, their hugs were great and mighty.
“Two years…” she breathed against the fabric of that ridiculous apron, leaning into his arms. “Is that all Ed bought with his life? Two years for Al to live in a body he’s become too sick to even use? Where’s the Equivalent Exchange in that?”
“Shh…” Mason whispered soothingly, brushing his cheek against the top of her head. “I know it doesn’t make any sense. I guess we’ll never understand. All we can do is try to keep Al alive and make him as happy as we can… because that’s what Ed would want.”
What Ed would want…
The words gave Winry pause.
From the time they were small children, Ed always used to hate it when she cried. He would squirm and cross his arms and look away from her, with that awkward expression on his face that said he would rather be anywhere else. Once she had even become angry at him for never crying himself; but now she understood. She understood why he didn’t cry, or dwell on the past, or even let himself rest.
All of those things wasted time he could devote to taking care of his brother.
He wouldn’t cry now either, if he were there. He’d pick himself up and throw every fiber of his being into doing whatever he could for Al… and that was exactly what he would want Winry to do in his place.
She sniffed and straightened, gently pulling herself out of Mason’s comforting embrace.
“I’m okay now,” she said quietly. “Let’s get to work on those apples.”
Alchemy was beyond her, but there was one thing she could do. Alphonse wanted apple pie—and Winry was going to see to it that he had as much as he could eat.
Enough for a lifetime…
In the two nights that followed Edward’s disastrous first encounter with the Hunters, his boredom had grown as intense as his fears.
On the instructions of Maes Hughes, Falman and Mustang had forcibly escorted Ed to a small and windowless room on the upper floor of the Hunters’ headquarters: a makeshift holding cell, used in certain cases to contain rogue dhampirs. There his left wrist was handcuffed to a chair that was bolted to the floor—and for the ultimate assurance of his good behavior, his automail was taken from him. Hughes removed the steel arm and leg himself, having learned from Ed’s memory how to disconnect them.
At least Hughes hadn’t felt the need to carry them away. They sat on a table across the room, in plain sight; but with only two limbs left to him, and his remaining hand secured to the chair, the prosthetics might as well have been miles away from Ed.
Even if he was able to slip the handcuff somehow, that small measure of freedom would be short-lived. He may have been without alchemy, but Hughes understood his ingenuity too well to take any chances, and posted one of the other Hunters in the room to guard him around the clock. At various times, Falman, Breda, Francesca, Havoc, and Hawkeye had all taken the watch.
Caged and crippled, Ed could only wait for an opportunity, a change in the situation… and in the meantime, he worried.
From Hughes’ rambling spoken thoughts in the meeting room, it was clear enough that his plan was to capture Envy, and try to use him to open the Gate. Even if such a transmutation was possible, Ed felt his own world would be safe from that intrusion, at least for now; he was sure the homunculus was too savage and cunning to be taken by the Hunters. However, he feared the price they might pay just for trying, in their blind obedience to Hughes.
These doubles of the people he once knew had grown deeply familiar to him in their own right, as his mind further assimilated Noa’s memories. Through her eyes, he could see beyond their bitter pasts and misfit reputations, to the hearts they allowed each other glimpses of. He knew the sad, wistful way Havoc glanced at Noa when he thought she wasn’t looking. He knew Falman was a skilled artist, using brush and canvas as a catharsis for the evils he had seen and endured. He knew Breda secretly loved to sing, but hated being caught in the act. He knew Francesca’s girlish friendship was the only thing that made Noa feel like the feminine young woman she should have been, instead of a hardened hunter of monsters.
Most of all, Ed knew why the Hunters were so unquestioningly loyal to their leader. Just like the Hughes of his world, this one had been a kind-hearted collector of broken people, even when his charity cost him dearly. He offered purpose and comradeship to those who would otherwise be dead or lost or mad themselves—and unlike other Hunter leaders who welcomed only the strong, he never asked his people to be anything they were not. If they ever doubted him, the entire life he had built for them would crumble, and they would be nothing again.
But if they continued to follow Hughes now, refusing to accept that he himself had become broken, it was entirely possible they would die. Ed tried to warn them, to talk some sense into those who guarded him; but his words fell on deaf ears, and he realized Hughes had fully convinced them not to listen or speak to him.
They wouldn’t even tell him what had become of Noa—and it was for her that Ed worried the most. He was certain Hughes, even in his current mental state, would never do physical harm to the foundling he had turned with his own blood and protected as fiercely as a daughter… but what if she was to be sent away, as Hughes himself had been exiled for breaking the same taboo?
Apart from these inner anxieties—and naturally, his sporadic efforts to think up a means of escape for himself—there was nothing outwardly to engage Ed’s mind. There was not even the distraction of physical discomfort. After two days largely spent sitting as impassively as a stone, he had yet to feel the slightest tingle in his undead nerves. Nor did the chill in the unheated room have any effect on him, although Hughes had stripped him to his shorts to get at the automail port on his thigh.
What he did feel were the continuing subtle changes within him, as his body adjusted fully to its new dhampir physiology. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation. He felt as if what remained of his humanity was still ebbing away, leaving him only more of the dark, animal energies that had already taught him to fear himself.
Impossible as it seemed, his senses were even sharper now, and there was a curiously different feeling about his muscles that promised new strength and agility. True to Noa’s words, he had also begun to sense the shifting of daylight and darkness beyond the walls. By day he felt a faint tension in the depths of his being that swiftly relaxed at dusk, providing a natural warning of danger when sunlight shone in the outside world. His incorrigible inner scientist speculated that it might have something to do with the magnetism of the Earth or the sun.
In some ways, that part of him could have been fascinated by his transformation, if not for the horror of its origins in homunculus blood—and if not for what it demanded.
He had not been given blood since he was imprisoned. Hughes’ bite and its effects on him had healed, but not as quickly as it would have if he was completely nourished, and by now he could feel once again the loathsome awakening of… need.
In an effort to ignore that nascent craving, and with nothing better to do as he awaited an opening for escape, Ed rested. He found he needed little of what passed for sleep, but his less-than-living body permitted him to lapse into that dormant phase almost at will. Although he felt an ever-present awareness of his minders, he was resigned to paying them no heed after his arguments had proved fruitless…
At least until the late evening of his third night in captivity, when the creak of the door signaled another changing of the guard.
Ed no longer took interest in which one of them was on watch, as they all gave him the same silent treatment. Half-waking, he stirred himself no further than to sniff for the newcomer’s scent—and for the first time since he was locked away, he perceived a distinctive dog-smell.
Furtively he opened his eyes. Roy Mustang was in the doorway, quietly speaking to Hawkeye, who had taken the last watch. He was reporting his instructions to relieve her.
This was new, and interesting. Until now, Mustang had not been assigned to the guard duty, and Ed suspected it was because no one really trusted him to handle tasks of any importance. Perhaps his being put on the job meant the other Hunters were being called away for something bigger.
Perhaps Ed’s moment had come.
Watching the pair through half-closed eyelids, he noticed the way Hawkeye looked at Mustang, the fleeting glance of heartache before she turned to leave the room; and he couldn’t help feeling pity for them, because now he understood the true state of their relationship. Even after she had forsaken every semblance of normal life, joining the Hunters’ dark world to remain near him, there was still an impassable gulf between them. Mustang could never again touch Hawkeye as the lover he had been to her, because she was human, and he was not. If he ever dared to take her in his arms, to breathe her scent and feel the warm pulse of blood beneath her skin, it was almost certain his predatory instincts would overcome him… and then he would kill her.
In a very different way, Ed knew what it was to love without being able to truly touch. For seven years, he had ached with the desire to feel Al’s hand in his—and the cruelest twist of fate was that during those last days in Amestris, when Al bore the Philosopher’s Stone within him, even his unfeeling armor could not be permitted to touch Ed’s skin. As difficult as that divide had been for brothers, Ed couldn’t imagine how much worse the pain of longing would be between lovers.
When Hawkeye was gone, Mustang locked the door behind her, and pocketed the keys she had turned over to him. Shooting a disgusted look at his apparently sleeping prisoner, he sat down on the chair beside the table. His solitary eye regarded Ed’s detached automail with an uneasy interest.
And Ed surreptitiously moved his left hand, testing the handcuff on his wrist.
In spite of his increased strength, he knew he couldn’t break the few inches of chain that tethered him to the chair. The handcuffs were made to withstand rogue dhampirs who fought with manic fury. However, they were also meant to accommodate larger builds than his own… and as he measured the circumference of the cuff by feel, he began to think it might not be impossible to work his hand free of it. The effort was likely to be painful, and leave his skin lacerated and bruised, but it was worth trying.
If he did free his hand, getting any farther was another matter. With two limbs, he could do little to move, much less fight—but if he could catch Mustang off-guard, lure him closer and take a crack at his jaw, one very good or very lucky punch might lay him out cold long enough to reach the automail. Assuming, of course, that Ed’s new strength was enough to overpower a fellow dhampir’s stamina.
For a few moments, he worked slowly and silently at his attempt to squeeze his hand out of the cuff, trusting the stump of his left thigh to hide the movement from Mustang’s view. The ring of metal was tighter than he had hoped after all, and its hard edges gouged his skin viciously, but he refused to utter even the slightest grunt of pain.
Then Mustang’s curiosity about the automail shifted. His one-eyed gaze turned to Ed, appraising the ports on his body where the prosthetics were meant to be connected.
Ed froze. He thought briefly of continuing to feign sleep until Mustang’s attention strayed again—but he realized his watcher would need some working on as well, if he was to be drawn nearer. So instead, the alchemist raised his head and opened his eyes fully.
“It’s not pretty, is it?”
Mustang flinched and scowled, looking away, clearly annoyed to have been caught staring at Ed’s scars.
“Hey, I don’t mind. Keep looking—I’m an example of what not to do.” Ed’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Take a closer look if you want.”
Declining to take the bait, Mustang only stirred uncomfortably and glared at the far wall.
“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” he murmured at last.
“Uh-huh… and of course, you always do everything you’re told.”
The words and their tone were a blunt challenge, a test of the reluctant Hunter’s discipline, and it did the job of nettling Mustang. He glanced back at Ed sharply, fists clenching, and Ed wondered for a moment if he might be the one to take a punch before he could succeed in freeing his hand.
Finally Mustang’s taut muscles relaxed a little. He glowered at Ed, but his mouth twisted thoughtfully.
“You really come from a place where you knew someone like me?”
This was entirely acceptable as a breakthrough. He was curious and he wanted to talk, and he was just disenchanted enough with his comrades and his station in life to ignore his orders to the contrary.
“Not just someone like you. Someone who was you. Just as much of a jerk, too—except he actually had a backbone.” Ed smirked. “Last time I saw him, he was busy taking over a country. And what have you done lately?”
It was quite possible that needling a dhampir with superhuman strength and the advantage of not being chained up was an extraordinarily bad idea. Ed’s gamble was that making Mustang angry enough to lash out was one sure way to bring him closer; but the effort backfired, and not in the way he expected. A black look flickered across Mustang’s face for only a moment, and then his expression grew sullenly quiet again.
“So does that mean there’s someone else here who’s supposed to be you?” he returned calmly.
The funny thing was, he couldn’t possibly know how much that question hurt.
“There was,” Ed murmured after a moment. “He died during the War.”
Mustang said nothing to that. A lengthy silence fell between them, and Ed tried not to think about his own double in this world, whose death he still felt responsible for. He could wallow in all his guilts when he was dead. As long as he was alive, he had too much work to do.
At least he had never met Al’s counterpart here. He knew that would be more than his heart could bear.
Inwardly shaking himself, Ed focused his mind by discreetly twisting his hand in the handcuff. The sharp sting of pain redirected his attention nicely, although it forced him to suppress a startled hiss. He had worked the cuff down to almost an inch below his wrist, and it was only going to get harder. Furthermore, his earlier efforts had scraped the skin until it bled—and it was only a matter of time before Mustang picked up the scent of the blood.
“…That other Roy Mustang,” his minder spoke up suddenly, forcing Ed to become still again. “Did he… did he have a Riza?”
“She was there, alright. Usually keeping him from getting himself killed.” Ed smiled humorlessly. “But I never did really figure out if there was something else with those two.”
The dog trainer’s one eye blinked, his expression softening reflectively.
Ed sensed this was a moment when the man’s better nature might be reached. He leaned forward, taking care to ensure that his bleeding hand remained hidden by his thigh. “Look, Mustang, just tell me one thing. What has Hughes done to Noa?”
At that, Mustang’s eye narrowed, his jaw tightening with a faint bitterness. He envied Noa, his replacement as Hughes’ favored foundling, who succeeded in conquering her pain and fears where he had failed.
“Other than giving orders that she’s not allowed anywhere near this room? Nothing—yet.” The shadow in Mustang’s face took on a different shade of darkness. “Maes has been too busy planning vampire traps.”
Both statements confirmed what Ed had already more or less surmised, but neither was a particular comfort. He frowned.
“Hughes has something big planned, doesn’t he? That’s why you’re here. You’re the only one he’d leave behind.”
It could have been unwise to remind Mustang of his low esteem in the Hunters’ organization, but he seemed to welcome the opportunity to get deeper concerns off his chest. He scowled, his fists clenching on his knees.
“They’re going out tonight—probably to get themselves killed.” Frustrated anger crept into his voice, tinged with fear. “We’re only supposed to drive vampires away. Not…”
“Not kill them?” Ed supplied. “I don’t know that yet. It may be possible… but that’s not what Hughes is trying to do, is it?”
“He keeps babbling about that other world. About his family, and—alchemy. He’s…”
He’s gone mad.
The words were there, even if Mustang couldn’t bring himself to say them.
“Well, this is a surprise,” Ed murmured. “Turns out you’re the only one who has any sense. You know what he’s doing is wrong.”
“All I know is that the things he saw in your memories made him crazy. Whatever you are—you poisoned his mind somehow.” Mustang glared resentfully at Ed. “You did this.”
Fresh guilt twinged painfully in Ed’s chest. “I know that. You think I meant it to happen? The Hughes in my world was a friend… and in a way, he died because of me. The last thing I ever could have wanted was to hurt your Hughes. I only came here with Noa because I thought I could help… but instead, I just made things worse.”
He drew a deep breath, forcibly dragging himself back from the ledge of self-recrimination; and down at his side, very slowly, he began to work once more at easing his hand out of the handcuff.
“I can’t change what happened. All I can do is try to stop it from going any further. Envy isn’t like the other vampires in this world, because he understands what alchemy can do—and if he finds out Hughes has that knowledge, he won’t stop until he kills him, and anyone else who gets in the way.” Ed stared hard at Mustang. “You’ve got to let me go, so I can try to keep Hughes from getting himself or any of the others killed.”
A disgusted incredulity crossed Mustang’s face. “After what you’ve done, you can’t possibly think I’m going to turn you loose.”
“Then stop them yourself. Talk to the others—make them see that they can’t follow Hughes into this!”
“They wouldn’t pay any attention to me.” Mustang’s gaze fell bitterly. “I’m not that other Roy you knew. The one you say was a leader.”
“Maybe not—but I think you still have it in you to be what he was.” Ed tried to soften his expression, even through the burning pain he felt in his hand as the cuff ground away more skin. “I don’t believe you’re a coward, Roy. All you’re missing is some faith in yourself.”
Mustang glanced up sharply. He almost looked a little confused… but when he spoke, Ed wasn’t sure whether that sudden doubt was because of his own words, or something more dangerous.
“Wait. I thought I smelled…”
A stab of alarm shot through Ed. Mustang must have finally scented his blood. He clenched his jaw for one more swift, torturous effort to pry his hand free, even as the other dhampir began to rise suspiciously from his chair.
At that moment, Mustang’s attention was distracted by a soft knock on the door.
With a scowl he completed the motion of rising, fishing the keys from his pocket. He unlocked the door and roughly jerked it open, to reveal Noa standing at the threshold—and the sight of her forced Ed to stifle a gasp of startled hope.
“Are you crazy?” Mustang snapped at her, physically stepping back in his surprise. “Maes told you not to come near the kid.”
“It’s alright, Roy.” Noa’s tone was commanding and slightly impatient—the same demeanor that had caused Mustang to back down when he first met them at the front gate. “Maes gave me permission himself. Edward needs to be fed. You know he’ll become difficult if he isn’t.”
As she spoke, she produced a bottle of red liquid from beneath her coat, and Ed was ashamed to feel himself salivate at the sight of it.
Torn between suspicion and submission, Mustang glowered at Noa as she strode past him into the room. “How do I know Maes cleared it?”
“You can always go ask him, can’t you?” Noa retorted briskly… and then she froze, her face stricken, as her gaze fell upon Edward. Undressed and devoid of his automail, he knew he must have been a pathetic sight, even if the only pain he felt was secret and self-inflicted.
She quickly controlled her expression and approached him, with Mustang following warily. Going out to seek Hughes would mean leaving Noa alone with Ed, and as the disgruntled guardian was obviously not about to do that, he could only settle for watching her every move.
As Noa reached him, Ed dropped his eyes to his hand, just for a moment. She followed the gaze, and he saw the flinch she suppressed as she hurriedly stepped to his left side, letting the edge of her coat hide the hand from Mustang’s view. Then she opened the bottle she carried, and a new bloodscent immediately overtook the trace of Ed’s own that Mustang had detected before.
This time, Ed didn’t try to resist the repulsive desire that surged up fiercely within him. There was no escaping that basic biological need, and if he was going to survive, he had to learn to overcome the horror it made him feel. When Noa raised the bottle to his lips, he drank down the beef blood without protest, and tried not to think about the fact that Roy Mustang—the dhampir Mustang, but a little too familiar all the same—was watching him take it.
Having emptied the bottle, he turned his face away from it with only a slight shudder, and reluctantly lifted his eyes to Noa’s. “Thanks.”
Noa said nothing, but her gaze was intent and meaningful… and Ed realized she had a plan.
“Alright,” Mustang said brusquely, folding his arms. “You’ve fed him, so he won’t flip anytime soon. Now you can go.”
With a final significant glance at Ed, Noa turned, and crossed the room as if to leave; but she stopped at the table where his automail lay, and for a moment stood studying it pensively.
“Maes didn’t hurt him by doing this, did he?” she asked.
“I guess not. He knew what he was doing with it—and the kid didn’t complain.” Mustang reached out, idly lifting the automail arm at the wrist, to watch the shifting of lamplight across slender metal fingers.
Ed raised his chin and narrowed his eyes, half-smiling bitterly. “Hey, keep your hands off me, pal.”
Mustang turned, with a wryly reproachful look. “As if you could—”
The keeper of the kennels got no further. Behind him, Noa calmly picked up Ed’s arm herself… and with the preternatural strength and precision Ed had come to expect from her, she clouted Mustang across the back of the skull with it.
There was a comical look on his face as he thudded bonelessly to the floor.
A sudden, startled laugh of perverse delight hiccupped out of Ed. “That was awesome!”
“Shh.” With a finger raised to her lips, Noa set down the automail, and bent to search Mustang’s pockets for the keys. “Remember, most of the others can hear as well as we can.”
Ed accepted the admonishment with a small nod, and spoke in a voice that was barely more than a whisper. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, but I see you’re not.” Having laid claim to the keys, Noa hurried back to his side, and knelt to unlock the handcuff on his bloody hand.
“That’s nothing. I’d almost gotten my hand loose. Then I was planning to do roughly what you did…” Ed stifled a grunt as the cuff fell away, but the pain had already diminished. When Noa took out a handkerchief and wiped away the blood, he could see the scrapes and lacerations fading. He realized he must have healed just as rapidly after he was burned by the sun, but it was rather unnerving to watch it happen.
“It’ll be alright in a minute.” Noa sat back on her heels, looking up at him. “I would have come to you sooner, but Maes has been watching me closely. This was my first chance—and I couldn’t do it without help. Kain is distracting Maes with a false radio message.”
Prying himself away from the uneasy wonder of his skin healing before his eyes, Ed met Noa’s gaze. The gravity of what she was doing for him began to sink in.
“You’re betraying Hughes… for me?”
Noa looked away abruptly. “Maes is… not himself,” she said tersely, and before Ed could reply, she turned to regard his automail on the table. “Your arm and leg—they’re not damaged?”
“No.” Ed shook his head. “Mustang was right: Hughes learned from me how to detach them. It’ll just take me a few minutes to reconnect them.”
“Then we should hurry. I don’t know how long Kain can keep Maes busy—and then he may start to wonder where I am. Can you use your hand?”
Gingerly Ed flexed his hand. It still felt a little sore, but there was almost no sign left of its injury.
“Yeah. Just bring the automail over here. I can handle the rest.”
With a faint nod, Noa crossed the room to retrieve the prosthetics. She carried them back to him, and watched with troubled eyes as he rather awkwardly maneuvered the arm into position with his one hand.
“Are you sure you don’t need any help?”
“It’s nothing I haven’t done before.” Ed frowned at her anxious nearness. “Just step back a little. It can be kind of rough.”
Looking anything but reassured, the Hunter backed away slightly. Satisfied that she was beyond the range of his reactions, Ed gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and pushed the automail swiftly and firmly into its port.
For all its familiarity, the pain was never any less shocking, and he choked off a cry in his throat at the sudden white-hot burning of his nerves. Muscles spasmed violently, steel fingers clenching in response to his tortured flesh reflexes. In the past, he was always left gasping for breath; but now his lungs were still, and the torment trailed away into mere aching shivers as he sagged against the back of the chair.
Distressed and damp-eyed, Noa knelt beside him, her hands hovering uncertainly over the reattached arm. “I… I didn’t know—”
She fell silent as Ed raised his automail hand, and did not flinch when the cold steel of his fingertip gently touched her cheek, tracing away the tear that had escaped her.
“It’s okay.” He smiled hollowly. “This is the bed I made for myself.”
A little impulsively, Noa took the hand in hers and squeezed it, entwining her flesh fingers with his metal ones. Ed couldn’t feel the pressure of her grip, but all the same, he was not unappreciative of the gesture.
He rested for a moment more, and then repeated the process with his leg, enduring the swift flash-flood of agony once again—but he found the aches that lingered afterward were fading much more quickly than they ever had before. His inhuman nerves did not cling to pain for long. That, at least, was one advantage of dhampirism he was willing to welcome.
As he sat with his head leaning back and his eyes closed, allowing himself a brief recovery from the reattachment of the leg, Noa’s voice softly broke the silence.
“You know I’m coming with you.”
“I guess I figured that about the time you clocked Mustang.” Ed opened his eyes thoughtfully. “But I still don’t understand why.”
“I have a promise to keep.”
“But you never promised me any…” He trailed off as understanding dawned, provided to him by her memories.
“No, it wasn’t to me, was it?” he whispered. “Your promise was to Hughes.”
Her gaze lowered, Noa nodded.
“Maes knew for a long time that he was losing himself—that something would push him over the edge one day. I tried to hold him together, but it was only a matter of time. If it wasn’t your memories, Edward, it would have been something else.” She raised her eyes, and unspilled tears shone in them again. “He asked me to promise that when he lost his fight… I’d do what was best for the Hunters.”
Ed blinked and frowned. “And you think what’s best is this? Just walking away and leaving them, with him the way he is?”
“The others won’t listen to me. Maes’ power over them is still too strong… and this is more important than anything I could ever do for them here.” Her eyes held his intently. “Your alchemy is the only hope we have of destroying vampires. The best thing I can do for the Hunters, and for the rest of humanity, is to keep you safe—so you can learn to use your power to save this world.”
Those words left a resonating shock in Ed’s soul. Already he had seen glimpses of her belief in him, but the true intensity of it made him feel humbled and terrified. She was prepared to leave behind all she had known for that belief. To live for it… and to die for it.
“Oh, Noa…” He looked away from the keen, sincere light in her face, flustered. “I told you, I don’t know if it can even be done.”
“I do. And I know you will do it.”
“And just what makes you so sure?”
The gypsy tilted her head thoughtfully, her gaze briefly turning inward.
“My people have certain ways. Powers of understanding that others don’t have. Second sight, extrasensory perception—whatever you choose to call it. From the time I was a child, it was strong in me… but I lost it after I turned.”
She glanced up at him, and a soft smile crossed her lips. “But then I saw you the other night, and what you could do… and the sight came back to me, one last time. From that moment, I knew what my life was meant for. I knew it was my fate to protect you—and the gift you have.”
That frighteningly absolute faith was more than Ed could find words to answer. In an effort to gloss over the unworthiness he felt, he retreated behind an old argumentativeness her words had aroused.
“I don’t believe in fate, Noa. There’s no destiny decided for us but what we choose for ourselves… like I chose this.” He clenched his steel fist.
“Then tell me one thing. Of the people you knew in your world, why are so many of them together here too, if there isn’t something more that binds us?”
“There are plenty of people I knew who I haven’t met here, you know.” The argument sounded weak to Ed’s own ears. He knew he could offer no better explanation for why so many of the same people had found each other; but there had to be one. In any world, nothing was truly able to happen without some scientific cause, even if humans—or dhampirs—had not quite learned how to define it.
But Noa only smiled bittersweetly, and offered him her hand.
“It’s alright, Edward. You don’t have to believe… because I can believe for us both.”
Returning a defeated smile and a sigh, Ed gave up the debate. Whatever it was that inspired her motives, Noa’s goals and his own were the same—and he knew he still wasn’t ready to find his way in this new life alone. He placed his flesh hand in hers and let her help him to his feet, cautiously testing his weight on his reattached leg.
Then he looked down at himself, frowning wryly at his almost complete lack of clothing.
“I won’t be going anywhere without some new clothes,” he murmured… and his glance slid calculatingly toward Mustang’s unconscious form on the floor.
Noa chuckled and shook her head. “I planned for that too. I left everything you’ll need in another room nearby—that is, unless you want to go around smelling like dog hair.”
“You think of everything, don’t you?” A grin flickered across Ed’s face, but then he sobered. “What about…?”
“Kain isn’t the only one helping us. Sig is on our side, too. We can’t risk being seen around his shop, but he’s going to leave blood for us, in a place I’ve arranged with him.” As she spoke, Noa moved across the room to unlock the door. Giving Ed a glance that warned him to be silent, she cracked it open, and peered out into the hallway.
“It’s clear. Hurry.”
Quickly and quietly, Ed followed Noa to a room down the hall that was used for storage. As she had promised, a bundle of clothing awaited him there: the black garments of a Hunter, and a protective inverness coat like her own, as well as boots and gloves. Beside these lay a sword and a sturdy knife, the Hunters’ standard equipment for battling vampires.
Once he had dressed in the clothes and fastened the sheaths of the blades to his belt, he turned toward the door of the room, but Noa caught his wrist.
“Not that way. This place gets busy when everyone is preparing for a hunt. We’ll never make it downstairs without being seen.” She stepped toward the room’s window—one of the few in the building that was not completely sealed up—and forced the long-disused latch that secured its steel shutters.
With a sudden apprehension, Ed sidled closer. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember anything like a nice convenient fire escape on the outside.”
“That’s true,” Noa said matter-of-factly, and pushed the creaking shutters open to the night air beyond.
Ed leaned on the windowsill to look down—and his heart sank. There was indeed no stairway or ladder, not even so much as a growth of ivy, and the grooves in the brick facing of the building were too shallow to offer any handhold. There was only a four-story drop to the lawn below.
He glanced uncertainly at Noa. “What now?”
“It’s easy. In chasing down rogues, I’ve dropped farther than that all the time.” Turning from the window, she saw the baffled alarm on his face, and laid her hand on his arm. “Trust me, Edward. You know how much stronger you’ve become. You can do this—”
She was interrupted by running footsteps in the hallway, and a shout that sounded like Mustang’s voice.
“He woke up!” Ed breathed in dismay.
“We’re out of time. He’ll let the dogs loose.” Noa’s hand moved to his shoulder, gripping firmly, as if willing him to feel her own confidence and resolve. “Edward, please!”
Her plea galvanized something in Ed. Perhaps her faith really was contagious—or perhaps it was only desperation. Whatever it was, it spurred him to turn impulsively to the window, stepping up onto the broad sill. The distance to the ground was dizzying, and his stomach knotted up in fear.
Thinking about it for even a moment would be one moment too long.
Ed took a deep breath, and hurled himself from the sill.
In the amazing and terrible adventures of his past life, Ed had survived a few unpleasant falls, but none were as long or as horrifying as this. A part of him felt he was plummeting forever, even as the ground rushed at him with sickening speed…
Then something seized his will that was partly an inhuman new instinct, and partly Noa’s own experience. He simply knew how to relax instead of bracing rigidly, how to twist himself for an upright landing like a cat. His body obeyed those impulses before his mind could even give them any conscious thought—and in the instant before he touched down, his fear had vanished.
He hit the ground in a sinuous crouch that helped to absorb some of the shock, along with the thick softness of the grass. The impact was still enough to jar every bone in his body, sending a new lance of pain through the flesh and muscles around his automail ports. In the moment after he realized he was still in one piece, he was more concerned for his metal limbs than his organic ones, but a quick flex of his fingers and stretch of his leg assured him that the strong and skillfully-made prosthetics had survived intact.
Thank you, Winry!
Before he even had time to look up toward the window, Noa landed beside him. The moment she touched the ground, she was running, and he followed her.
Behind them, from the side of the building where the kennels were located, came the sudden baying of dogs.
The high wall of the property loomed ahead. With almost no break in her momentum, Noa skidded into a crouch and sprang upward, grasping the iron spikes that topped the wall to swiftly pull herself over. Ed duplicated her movements, trying not to remember that the feline leap would have been impossible for the human he no longer was. To his surprise, he succeeded almost effortlessly, and his unbreathing lungs were not even winded as he dropped down onto the sidewalk beyond.
“Where to?” he asked Noa quickly.
He let Noa lead him, and soon realized her intent was not simply to put as much straight-line distance as possible between themselves and the Hunters’ headquarters. She followed a more circuitous route that led them deeper into the maze of the city, often doubling back on their tracks. It was an effort to throw Mustang’s dogs off their scent.
The winding course eventually brought them to a derelict building such as they first took refuge in—this one a restaurant that had been gutted by a recent fire. They picked their way around crumbling walls to a mostly-undamaged cellar door, and descended the steps into the cavernous darkness below. It reeked of smoke and ancient stains of spilled wine, and broken glass crunched underfoot, but it seemed to be secure against the danger sunlight would pose to them.
A spark flickered in the darkness as Noa lit a candle. Its light was plentiful for their nocturnal eyes, and Ed saw her wan, apologetic smile as she turned to face him.
“I’m afraid it isn’t the nicest place to stay, but we can’t go to any of the daylight shelters I’ve used before—Maes knows them all. It was Sig who told me about this place.”
“I’m convinced Sig doesn’t have a sense of smell,” Ed retorted wryly. “As long as we’re safe here, I’ll take it. How hard do you think Hughes is going to look for us?”
Noa frowned. “The way he’s been… I’m sure hunting the vampire will be much more important to him. He only locked you up in case he can’t use your alchemy himself—and to keep you out of his way.” Her face fell. “It will hurt him that I’ve betrayed him. But compared to the idea he’s obsessed with now, of joining his family again in your world… none of us here matter to him anymore.”
Ed winced. “I’m sorry. I should’ve thought about how he’d react to my memories… I should have tried harder to stop him.”
“No, Edward. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. Maes trusted me to help him stay focused on what was right—and I failed him.” Noa shook her head fiercely. “But I won’t fail him in this. I’ll do whatever it takes to help you find the answers.”
“You have anything in mind?” Ed asked curiously.
The renegade Hunter considered that question for a long moment.
“I think… I think we should make our way to Paris, and see the Council for ourselves. When they know what you may be able to do, I’m certain they’ll listen.”
Sudden uneasiness tightened in Ed’s gut. He trusted Noa, and he trusted her judgment—but after everything that had happened, he was not at all sure he was willing to trust anyone else, no matter how well she thought she knew them.
“I’m not crazy about that idea,” he murmured, and his automail hand strayed to his left shoulder, where Hughes had bit him. “How can we know the same thing won’t happen again? If alchemy can work here, I can’t let just anyone have that knowledge. It’s too dangerous—for your world and mine. Before I put myself in anyone else’s hands… I have to be sure.”
“But what do you think we can possibly do on our own?” Noa asked, sounding a little agitated.
The question was entirely fair. They were only two dhampirs: one still unaccustomed to his new nature, one now a traitor to her leader, both limited to the dark of night. The threats they faced were a homunculus-vampire who wanted nothing more than to destroy Ed, and a maddened dhampir who hoped to use that homunculus to unleash a power he was in no condition to understand. All they had to their advantage was Ed’s own grasp of that power… if it would even work at all.
If Noa was right, Hughes was going to be fully preoccupied with his search for Envy. Ed still felt that quest could achieve nothing more than to get Hughes or the other Hunters killed—and he didn’t want that to happen. At the same time, he also needed to learn how much truth there was to his own theories about the use of alchemy in this world.
“First of all… I want to find Envy,” Ed announced at last. “Getting to him before Hughes does may be the only way to save the others—and it is the only way to find out if alchemy will really work here. Once I know that for sure… then we can figure out who to trust, and how to help the Hunters use that knowledge.”
“You want to start by going after that vampire?” Noa gasped. “Just the two of us?”
Ed shrugged awkwardly. “I know it’s not the way you’re used to working… and it’ll be dangerous. But if we’re going to keep anyone else from getting hurt, I think it’s the first step we have to take.”
“But what if he—?”
What if he kills you?
Those were the words Noa couldn’t bring herself to finish, but Ed could hear them, all the same. Underneath that breathtaking faith in him, there was still fear. A fear for the safety of his secrets that might change her world; but also, he realized, a heartfelt fear for him.
She cared far more about his survival than he did himself.
“It’s possible,” he admitted quietly. “And if he does… I’d like to know the secret of alchemy is safe with someone I trust.”
With that, he unfastened his coat and let it fall to the floor. He sank to his knees, opened his shirt, and lifted his chin: baring his throat to her.
Noa needed no explanation for that submissive gesture she knew so well. Her eyes grew wide, and she physically took a step back.
“You know it’s the only way. If anything happens to me… you’re the only one who could understand what to do.”
The hesitation was long and painful. Noa wavered, staring at him with brimming eyes, uncertain and afraid. As readily as she had touched his hand or arm before, to give reassurance and comfort to him—or perhaps to herself—she looked at him now almost as if he was something too sacred to touch.
At last, slowly, she stepped forward to kneel before him. Trembling hands clutched his shoulders to hold him against her, and he closed his eyes tight as her lips grazed the left side of his neck, seeking a vein.
It was familiar now, the sting of the bite and the rush of memories; but this time, offered without resistance, it was not painful. Ed felt only the soul-aching intimacy of giving her everything that had forged his being. His desperate love for his brother, the pride of his extraordinary gifts, the guilt and the rage and the grief… He gave it all to her, just as she had given him the essence of her own life.
The time was far less than it seemed when she withdrew from him—or almost did. As the haze cleared from his senses and she began to pull away, he realized his arms had slipped supportively around her. He had no idea when that had happened. A little abashed, he moved to let go… but when he realized she was shivering as if frozen to the bone, he impulsively held her a little closer instead, even though he had no warmth of flesh to give her.
Unresisting, she laid her head on his shoulder, and he felt the dampness of cold tears on his skin.
“Noa?” he whispered anxiously, a sudden fear clutching his heart. Had he harmed her mind, as he had inadvertently done to Hughes?
She leaned a little harder into his arms, seemingly unaware that she was doing it, and sniffled softly. Her head tilted just enough for him to see the fading sheen of scarlet in her eyes.
“So much sorrow,” she whispered. “So much pain… and you were only children.”
A pang of guilt wracked Ed. In truth, he had thought of nothing but the alchemic knowledge he wanted to give her; he never considered how deeply his inner burdens might affect her gentle soul. Forcing her to feel their weight had been cruel, and selfish, and careless.
“Oh, Noa… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
She cut him off with a squeeze of his shoulder, and beneath her hair that half-concealed her face, he saw a broken smile. “It’s alright, Ed. After all… you took my pain, too. I just don’t understand why anyone should have had to suffer as much as you.”
He noted vaguely that her informality with his name was a new development. It had always been Edward before.
“Don’t be sorry for me, Noa. I told you, I’ve always made my own choices… and when they’re wrong, they’ve always hurt other people more than me. They hurt you too, so I don’t deserve your sympathy. I don’t even deserve your help in fixing my mistakes.” He glanced away from her bitterly. “Now you know what a fraud you put your faith in.”
Noa shook her head against his chest. She looked up into his face, and although her cheeks were tear-streaked, her eyes were bright with a fire that was somehow familiar.
“Now I have more reason than ever to believe in you,” she said softly. “Because now I know you’ll never give up on us.”
That much was the one truth Ed was sure of.
“It’s a pretty nice day out here,” Mason observed absently, with a stretch of his strong muscles, as he walked along the main street in Dublith at Winry’s side.
The past two days had been like an awful waking dream for Winry. She moved through them with a dazed slowness, dragging the sorrow in her heart like a solid weight, even as she desperately tried to put on a cheerful face for Al—knowing she would soon see his smile for the last time. If he survived his impending transmutation attempt at all, his soul would be imprisoned once more in cold steel.
Aware as Al was of the fact that his body would soon be gone, he still chose to spend much of his time in the armor. It was the only way he could leave his bed, and he wanted to do more than simply lie there while he had Winry’s company. When he did withdraw into his languishing flesh, it was to indulge his senses, trying to burn into his memory all the sensations that would shortly be lost to him forever. As well as he was able, he stuffed himself with his favorite foods, and he also asked for various objects to be brought to him: simple things, like fragrant flowers and rough stones, that he could smell and touch. It was a heartbreaking process to watch.
In her own stoically shielded heartache, Izumi had even relaxed her rules against keeping pets in the house. As a special pleasure for Al while he could still feel softness and warmth, the gray cat Winry saw the other day had been borrowed from his young owner. His name was Cobie, and now he could always be found purring on Al’s lap, as if he knew exactly where he was needed.
Winry did her best to be brave, for Al’s sake. She cooked for him and read to him while he was in his body, and when he chose to go roaming in the armor, she would join him on walks or in romps with the neighborhood children. There was no fear in him that she could see, and she tried to live up to his courage.
Still, there were moments when her pretense came close to falling apart… and at each of those moments, it was Mason who held her together. When he saw her on the brink, his intervention could be as simple as a quick squeeze of her arm to bolster her nerves, or as complex as coming up with some casual excuse to take her away from Al for a little while.
Then he would guide her to some private place, and hold her while she wept.
This stroll down the street began as one of those occasions, with a good hard cry against his chest on the Curtises’ back porch. He would usually let her go back to Al after her tears were spent; but this time, rather shyly, he had asked if she would take a walk with him.
His bland observation was true enough. The weather was nice, sunny and breezy, with just the slightest hint of crispness in the air. Winry liked the temperate climate in Dublith. It was much drier than Resembool, where heavy storms had frightened her since she was a little girl.
To this day, storms still reminded her of that night, when she and Pinako had found a nightmare of blood and steel on their doorstep.
To this day, she wished it was a nightmare she could wake up from.
“So… how’s your apprenticeship with Dominic going?” Mason asked tentatively at her side.
The mechanic blinked and glanced up at him. It was a subject they had touched on the day she arrived, during their walk from the train station, but not in any detail.
“It’s been really good. I’ve learned a lot of things I never could have back in Resembool—and Dominic even put me completely in charge of the work for a couple of his best customers. He won’t say it, but I know how much it means, coming from him.”
“That’s no surprise to anybody. You’re the best there is.” Mason gave her a curious sidelong glance. “It sounds like… maybe, by now, you’ve even learned about as much as he has to teach.”
“I’ve thought about that,” Winry admitted. “I don’t think I’ll ever have the genius he has, but… I’ve wondered if it’s time to go back home.”
“Have you ever thought about setting up shop for yourself?”
Surprised, Winry frowned. “I… don’t know. I guess I’ve always thought I’d just keep working with Granny, until someday I take over for her.”
“There’s places with more business than Resembool. Places that need your talent more, too.” Mason stopped walking and turned to her. “Take Dublith. We’ve got a lot of old soldiers and people like that who have automail, or who don’t have it and could use it—but we don’t even have a full-time automail mechanic in town now. Anybody who wants some decent work has to go all the way to Rush Valley.”
Winry’s eyes widened. “You think I should go to work here?”
“Just look at this.” Mason pointed to the building they had stopped alongside, a few blocks down from the Curtis household. It was a prim little storefront with a red brick façade, striped awnings, and small flowerbeds nestled beneath large plate-glass windows. A For Sale sign hung on the front door.
“I’ve been… you know. Kind of thinking,” Mason murmured haltingly, a blush creeping over his cheeks. “Ever since the last owner moved out. Seems to me like some automail designs would look pretty nice in those windows. And it’s just down the street from our place, and… well. I mean. If you were interested, I’d like to… I mean, I could… sort of help. Or—more than sort of. A lot.”
Really, he was adorable when he was bashful.
“Oh, Mason,” Winry breathed, feeling her heart flutter oddly, and found herself almost as lost for words as he was. “Are you saying… I mean, are you asking…”
He smiled awkwardly and rubbed the back of his neck. “I… yeah. I guess I am.”
A swell of confused emotions blossomed in Winry’s chest. She felt excited, and bewildered, and terrified, and altogether overwhelmed—but it wasn’t such a bad feeling. It was kind of nice, in fact.
She glanced back at the storefront. It was a perfect place for a shop, and not beyond her means. She had saved up her earnings from her work with Dominic, and Granny would want to help her, and the Curtises might too; and if business was half as good as Mason suggested, she was certain she could quickly pay back anything she borrowed.
It would be fun to become the teacher for a change, and train him to work with automail. He was strong, and clever, and sweet… and he wanted her near him.
And she could be close to Al too, if…
Something clamped down cold and hard on the warmth that had arisen within her, and she felt a little sick as she remembered the realities of the present. It made her feel suddenly, horribly guilty to even consider her future, when Alphonse might not have a future at all.
“What’s wrong?” Mason asked, watching her face anxiously.
“I just…” A mist of tears welled up in Winry’s eyes, and she shook her head. “I’m not ready to think about all this yet. Not until…”
Mason’s eyes darkened, and he put his arm around her shoulders. “Yeah. I know.”
Speaking little, the two walked slowly back to the Curtis home, and Mason went to take over for his uncle in the shop. Winry herself returned to the house, trying not to think too hard about their conversation, or about anything but the immediate situation.
When she stepped inside, the first sight to meet her was a slender blonde woman who sat on the living room sofa… and Winry’s heart skipped a beat as she recognized Riza Hawkeye, dressed uncharacteristically in civilian clothes.
For a moment, Hawkeye almost looked a little unprepared to see her as well. She rose quickly, with a flash of uncertainty in her henna-colored eyes.
“Miss Rockbell… Hello.”
“Oh…” Winry murmured, and swallowed hard, cursing the sudden awkwardness and anxiety she felt. She liked this woman, and always had… but in her mind, Hawkeye was inseparably linked to one man, and a history too terrible to think of.
And if she was here, then…
“He’s here, isn’t he?” Winry almost whispered, too shaken to return the greeting with proper politeness.
Hawkeye’s gaze darkened. “Mrs. Curtis didn’t tell you?”
Winry shook her head dumbly, but she realized it wasn’t Izumi’s fault. Although the teacher could be terrifyingly prescient about many things, even she didn’t know what this meant to Winry. She would have had no particular reason to warn her of other impending houseguests.
“I see.” Hawkeye hesitated for a moment. Then her shoulders stiffened with a dutiful, dispassionate poise, and at last she nodded.
“Yes… The General is upstairs, visiting with Alphonse.” Another pause. “It was Al’s own request that brought us here. He doesn’t remember the things that happened before, but—”
“But the General has done everything he could for Al in the last two years. I know that.” Winry breathed deeply, trying to look calmer than she felt. “Then you’re going to be here until…?”
“Yes—discreetly. If the human transmutation Al is planning should ever come to light somehow… obviously, we can’t let it be known that the commander of the entire State Alchemy Corps had any connection with it.” Hawkeye’s expression grew gentle. “Even so, nothing would have stopped him from being here.”
The words were sobering, and Winry felt her insides twist a little. The General’s risk was no surprise to her; she was well aware of how much he cared for the Elrics. It simply reminded her of how complicated and painful her own feelings were.
“I think…” She faltered, rubbing her arms nervously. “Would it be alright if I… if I talk to him, just for a minute?”
It wouldn’t be easy. She didn’t even know what she would say—but if they were going to spend the next few days under the same roof, one of them had to do something to put them on level ground for the duration. She wanted to ensure that herself before the Curtises, their gracious yet unknowing hosts, sensed anything amiss.
For only a second, Hawkeye looked slightly startled. Then she nodded solemnly.
Winry glanced at the stairs, and after a long moment, she began to move leadenly toward them.
This would be no easier for General Mustang than it was for her.
In the wake of the coup against Füehrer Bradley, Roy Mustang took power himself for all of two months: time enough to sweep away the entire regime that had been manipulated by the homunculi, and to set in place the leaders of a new government that was intended to serve the people. Then, just as suddenly, he announced he was stepping down to take charge of the military’s State Alchemists. So soon after the upheaval that had already taken place, his resignation confounded his supporters and enemies alike—but it paled in comparison to the shockwaves when he named Alex Louis Armstrong his successor.
Few people could understand his choices as well as Winry felt she did. To her, it all made perfect sense.
Mustang had accomplished everything he set out to do. He had wrested the country from powers bent on destruction… and incidentally, in the process, he had achieved some measure of vengeance for the death of Maes Hughes. Once that work was done, he was not the man to heal the people’s wounds, and he knew it. He could best serve Amestris by commanding the State Alchemists, and working to ensure that such evil was never created by alchemy again.
And as for the man he chose to be Füehrer in his place, Winry thought there was a certain beauty to the selection. Gentle-hearted Armstrong’s sentimentality belied the true wisdom he possessed. He would never tolerate injustice or harm, never be the aggressor in any conflict; but if his people were threatened, no one knew better how to defend them. Furthermore, as an alchemist, he too understood the need for eternal vigilance against powers that could reshape the nation or the world.
The political pandemonium came and went… but far from Central, in unchanging Resembool, no one paid it any attention at the Rockbell home. A more personal confusion and heartache took root there, as they contended with Al’s return to a ten-year-old body and mind—and with their futile efforts to find Edward. For Al and Winry and Pinako, even for Izumi and Sig, the troubles of an entire country were insignificant compared to the absence of one cherished life.
Yet it was their own concerns that unwittingly helped shape those affairs of state, almost exactly forty-eight hours before Mustang announced his resignation as Füehrer. That was the night he appeared at the Rockbells’ door, alone, without even Hawkeye to lean on.
It had been raining that night, too.
Upon reaching the upstairs landing, Winry saw that Al’s bedroom door was closed, but the door to the balcony was half-open. With growing trepidation, she crept toward it, and glimpsed Roy Mustang standing at the parapet.
The commander of the Amestrian State Alchemy Corps was gazing down upon the quiet street. His back was turned to the doorway, but Winry could see that he too was out of uniform, wearing somber black instead of familiar military blues. She also saw the clench of his fists, the weary curve of his spine… and she knew the crushing weight he felt on his shoulders.
He had seen Alphonse.
Winry spent a long moment gathering her courage, while Mustang stood motionless. At last she pulled the door open the rest of the way and stepped out, hesitantly edging toward him. She expected him to see her from the corner of his eye, but she was almost at his left side before he turned with a startled flinch—his ungloved fingers instinctively pressing together for a snap.
For a few seconds, every fiber of her being turned to ice, and she watched the color drain from his face as his hand fell swiftly to his side.
His voice came as a hoarse half-whisper. He cleared his throat, with the distinctive sound of a lump of emotion being forced down, and failed to meet her gaze.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” The words weren’t right somehow, but they were the first ones that came into Winry’s head.
“I’m sorry. It’s…” Somewhat awkwardly, Mustang’s left hand touched his temple, and he cleared his throat again. “My eye was damaged when I fought with the homunculus that called itself Füehrer Bradley. You couldn’t tell by looking at it now, but—I’ve lost part of my range of vision in it.”
The revelation took Winry by surprise. She had known or at least guessed the true fate of Bradley, having previously been told what he was by Ed and Al; but she never did guess the price Mustang paid for that battle. He hadn’t even let a sign of it slip the last time she saw him… on that torrential night back home.
“I’m sorry,” she said impulsively, but she meant it. “I didn’t know.”
If it was possible, she thought Mustang turned a shade paler, but he smiled emptily and made a wiping-away motion with one hand. “It isn’t the kind of weakness I want to advertise. What just happened is… it’s why Major Hawkeye always stands at my left side now.”
Winry answered with a vague nod, but the ache in her heart shifted painfully.
It was a far greater weakness she and her grandmother had been privileged to see on that night two years past. It was a gaunt scarecrow of a man who stood on their doorstep, soaked through to the skin; a man shaking from more than the chill of the storm, his face wet with more than the rain. It was a man whose fulfilled vows had freed him at last to come before them, to pour out his years of guilt and beg their judgment.
He had offered them nothing less than his life, by way of a trial for war crimes and the inevitable verdict of guilty. At their word, he would turn himself over to the military authorities, confessing to every despicable order he had carried out in Ishbal—and in that event, the soon-to-be Füehrer Armstrong would not interfere. That was Mustang’s one stipulation to him.
But such a thing would be superfluous, because the punishment Mustang carried inside himself was far greater than anything law or vendetta could ever mete out.
Instead, Winry had passed a different sentence on him. She delivered it in the form of two simple words: Find Edward.
The plea was impulsive and fierce, but when she looked back on it later, in the cold light of day, she felt no regret. She could never bear to be responsible for someone’s death, and Mustang could never return her parents’ lives by dying; but alive, as a powerful influence in the military, he could see to it that nothing was left undone in the search for Ed.
Of course he would do that anyway, and already had—but that wasn’t really the point.
In any case, Mustang accepted her words as a mandate. Winry knew it was no small part of the reason he took charge of the State Alchemists. Under his leadership, they would never stop searching for one of their own who was lost.
If it was alchemy that had stolen Ed away, perhaps it was only alchemy that could bring him home again.
“We’re still trying to find him.”
The words eerily echoed Winry’s thoughts, wrenching her back to the present. Mustang had turned to lean on the parapet once more, looking up at the swift-moving white clouds in the sky.
“I know,” Winry said faintly. She leaned beside him at arm’s length, but her own gaze turned downward. “And I know you did everything you could to find him in time to save Al.”
The muscles in Mustang’s jaw tightened, and he turned his face away, his fists tightening.
“I’ve failed them both.” The edge of a terrible, bitter smile was just visible at the corner of his mouth. “When we do find him, and he sees what kind of care I’ve taken of his brother… Fullmetal is going to kill me.”
Winry’s eyes widened. Even now, Mustang was still saying when—not if.
“You really believe… he’s still alive?”
Mustang turned to her, studying her face thoughtfully for a long moment. It surprised her that she felt no urge to look away from his eyes.
“…Yes,” he whispered, and she realized he meant it.
Further words failed Winry. She knew Ed had meant more to Mustang than he would ever admit to, but she had never imagined he could still have such faith in the brilliant, broken boy who never was a soldier in his eyes.
Not a soldier at all… but something far more than that.
The silence stretched taut. Winry bowed her head, feeling hot tears begin to fall again.
General Mustang hesitated for a long moment at her side. Then, uncertainly and very gently, his hand came to rest between her shoulders.
It was a hand she would never be able to hate—and she wasn’t sorry for that.
For Edward Elric, that once-prosaic event was no longer a sight, but a sensation: the release of an indefinable pressure within him, his signal to rise from the undreaming quiescence of the day. It meant darkness, his new native element, had descended over London.
He opened his eyes to complete blackness, for he and Noa wasted no candlelight during their daytime rest. At this point, after all, there was no need for light to orient himself in their cellar refuge; scent and touch were enough. A part of him somehow thought that fact should have made him feel monstrously animalistic and degraded… but in reality, it was one of the many things he had found himself growing used to, in the three days since their escape from the Hunters.
His turning was complete, his body and senses—and his instincts—having achieved their full dhampiric strength. He was now sure of what he could expect from his changed nature, and that at least helped to dispel his fear of the unknown in himself. Even his need for blood had become something less than unbearable, if only because its very routineness was numbing him to the revulsion of it.
Indeed, this in-between existence had quickly fallen into a pattern. Nourishment was the first order of business each evening, and Noa would go alone to fetch the blood Sig left for them in a prearranged place. After she brought it back to Ed, and their needs were satisfied, they would set out together to spend the night on the hunt—searching the city for Envy. Ed had half-expected Envy to find him, but there was still no sign of the homunculus, and he wondered in frustration if the Hunters’ larger-scale search efforts had driven their quarry to ground. Already he and Noa had barely avoided crossing paths with Falman and Breda, presumably out vampire-hunting like the rest of Hughes’ disciples.
As for the daylight hours, when the two dhampirs were forced back to the cellar to take shelter from the sun, that time was of no use to them. There was nothing to do then but sleep… and when they bedded down at sunrise, Noa would lie much closer to Ed than she once had, her sword and dagger removed and set aside.
Ed was moved by this lapse of Noa’s compulsive guardedness. He knew there was a deeper reason than her sharing of his memories, because she had never even permitted herself such vulnerability with Hughes, or with any other Hunter whose blood she had taken—no matter how sure she was that they would not hurt her. He could only assume he alone was granted this privilege because of her fantastic belief in him, her assurance in her fate that surpassed all reason.
Perhaps it was only that faith of hers rubbing off on him again… but sometimes, he almost began to feel things might work out.
They would find Envy eventually, and with any luck, it would be before the Hunters did. However much it inconvenienced him to be hunted, he was unlikely to leave London until he was convinced Ed was dead; and if somehow he was driven from the city, Ed and Noa would track him down. At the very least, they would first find one of his fellow vampire-homunculi on which to test the possibilities of alchemy. They would discover how Ed had injured Envy before, and whether they could use that transmutation to destroy vampires completely… and if they could, they would set out to eradicate these monsters, with or without the help of the Hunters.
There would never be any joy in such work, and the lost hope of any reunion with Al still left a gaping hole in Ed’s heart, but at least this new purpose filled a fraction of the void. The thought of saving lives and undoing the sins of other alchemists was reason enough to go on, even as what he had become.
He could live this life… at least, so long as he wasn’t completely alone.
As Ed gave an idle waking stretch in the darkness, his left hand brushed Noa’s sleeve, and he felt her stir as she too sensed the arrival of night. There was nothing unchaste in her closeness, merely a gentle soul-presence that both offered and sought a warmth not of flesh, but of heart—a comfort that was bittersweetly familiar.
As he sat up, a match scraped, and a candle flickered to life. Noa set the light to one side and smiled thinly at him.
“Another hunt tonight, then?”
Ed shrugged and drew his knees up to his chest. “I don’t have any better ideas. Maybe this will be the night—Envy is probably trying just as hard to find me.”
Noa grimaced. “So he can try to kill you…”
“We’re out to do the same to him,” Ed muttered. “And we will be the ones who win this fight.”
“I know that,” Noa replied, in a quiet voice of simple assurance, and reached out to collect her blades. “It’s time to pick up Sig’s delivery.”
Ed watched her fasten the sheaths to her belt, and then somberly handed up her coat, which she had spread on the floor as makeshift bedding. “You think Hughes might suspect Sig of helping us, don’t you? That’s why you haven’t wanted me to come with you.”
Although Noa’s back was turned, he saw her flinch. She looked over her shoulder with a sigh, and gave a small nod as she turned to accept her coat from his hand.
“Maes hasn’t fully trusted him for a while, because he knows Sig doubted his judgment—even before all this happened. Sig is a skilled enough Hunter to avoid being tracked himself, and a dhampir can’t take memories from a human. But if Maes…” She trailed off with a shudder, and her gaze fell. “If he were to get the truth out of Sig some other way… I just don’t want you to walk into a trap, Ed.”
“I don’t like this,” Ed growled, rising to his feet. “I can take care of myself—and after going against Hughes, you must be about as high on the Hunters’ hitlist as I am. If there’s any trouble, we should both face it.”
“Don’t worry. After all, I don’t really think anyone ever could make Sig talk.” Noa gave him a warmly reassuring smile. “This will only take a few minutes, just like it has before. I’ll be fine.”
After a moment’s frustrated uncertainty, Ed sighed and nodded in resignation. He watched Noa climb the steps to the cellar door and slip out into the night; then steel fingers snuffed out the candle, and he settled down in the darkness, to lie lost in his thoughts as he waited.
Perhaps consequent to his new sense of the sun’s rising and setting, Ed’s general awareness of time was now uncannily precise as well. On the past two nights, it had taken Noa less than twenty minutes to fetch their supply of blood and return… but this time, those minutes stretched on to thirty, and then forty, and then fifty.
By the time an hour had passed, Ed knew something was wrong.
At that point, it took very little debate with himself to choose action. He gathered his own weapons and left the cellar. Although he never went with Noa to retrieve the blood, she had told him where the dropoff point was, and he turned his steps toward it now—his anxiousness growing with each step.
If she had fallen into a trap laid by the Hunters, they would surely be waiting for him at that place too. He was certain he could avoid capture himself, so long as he was wary of their presence. He would take them by surprise instead, and beat her location out of them if he had to.
But if it was Envy who had found her…
Ed shut that horrific thought out of his mind, and quickened his pace.
In his rush, he reached the dropoff point in a little more than five minutes, and approached it with all his senses on the alert. There was no scent of any other Hunters nearby; if they had been there in the last hour, they were long gone, any lingering trace of their passage obliterated by the evening breeze.
The location was just as Noa had described to him, a well-kept block of flats with a garden in the courtyard. At the center of the garden stood a large, ornate fountain, its water cascading from four successively smaller basins. When Ed sprang up onto the broad rim, the topmost tier was still above his head. He peeled the glove from his left hand, reached up into the cold water… and his searching fingers found two smooth glass shapes that rolled and clinked together.
His heart sinking, he lifted down a pair of carefully-sealed bottles of beef blood. It was their full night’s ration, left untouched in the place where Sig had hidden it—which meant Noa had never reached it at all.
Snarling a curse, Ed impulsively hurled the bottles into the bushes across the courtyard, and heard the sharp crack of shattering glass. Some long-neglected inner voice of prudence warned that he might later regret skipping the meal, but the fear rising in him was enough to dampen even his unnatural dhampir appetite. He leaped down from the edge of the fountain and ran back to the street, to set out on a direct course for the Hunters’ headquarters.
He would lie in wait outside the walls. He would seize the first Hunter to emerge, and if they knew where Noa was, he would make them tell. If he had to, he would even take another dhampir’s blood and memories by force to find out—and if they had her, he would tear their entire fortress down to free her.
And if they didn’t…
Ed shook his head sharply, and with Noa’s memories of the local streets to guide him, he turned down a long alley that would shorten his way by a few minutes. With high building walls on either side blotting out the moonlight, it was particularly dark there, but that was no difficulty for his eyes.
Something black and flowing suddenly plummeted down from above, landing in a crouch on the bricks ahead of him.
As the figure rose up, Ed saw golden hair and scarlet hellfire eyes, and caught a scent that was far more familiar than it should have been. Noa’s knowledge catalogued it simply as vampire, but a more subtle nuance repulsed him to his core as the redolence of pain, of evil, of death itself… and he knew his deepest subconscious remembered that scent even from his worst moments in his own world.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Envy announced silkily, with a sneer of a smile on his face.
At that moment, it felt to Edward as if any remaining human warmth in his soul drained away. He was ready to kill with ice-cold gladness.
His automail hand twitched toward his sword, only to fall to his side again. Any damage the blade inflicted would be temporary at best. He was going to have just one chance at this—and it would be alchemy or nothing.
“What did you do to Noa?” he asked slowly, and Envy’s head slanted to one side as his smile twisted a little more.
“So that was her name.” The vampire chuckled viciously. “You just keep losing people, don’t you, pipsqueak? First Baby Brother, then Daddy Dearest… and now even your little Hunter whore.”
Ed’s innate temper bled into his dhampir instincts, and he felt his eyes burn crimson with half-animal rage as he threw himself forward. His knife somehow found its way into his hand. At that moment, he wasn’t thinking about alchemy, or anything else but his desire to tear Envy apart by the force of his own flesh and steel.
Their knives collided with a bone-shuddering scrape of metal. Even as a dhampir, Ed couldn’t fully match the homunculus for either strength or reflexes; Envy shoved Ed’s mechanical arm away with a quick, powerful movement, and his blade swiped downward. A sudden fiery shock bit into Ed’s right side, jarring him so that he stumbled back with a hiss of pain.
Vampire and dhampir froze just beyond one another’s reach. Ed smelled his own blood as he took a breath to center himself, but he didn’t even glance down at his ribs. The sting of the long but shallow gash above his hip was already fading, the damage regenerating to become flawless skin once more.
Then he realized it was his opponent, instead, who was staring at the half-exposed wound as it healed.
“You’re one of them,” Envy breathed, with an entirely unpleasant wonder.
The flames of fury iced over again, and ruby eyes slowly softened to amber as Ed remembered his purpose. If it was true—if he had lost Noa to this monster as well—he was once again the only sane soul left to carry the secret of alchemy. For the Hunters, and for this entire world, he had to prove it was truly the hope Noa believed in.
He smiled at Envy, and there was the cold emptiness of death in that smile.
“Not much fun, is it… trying to kill something that won’t die?”
A shudder of rage passed through Envy’s body. He knotted his fists at his sides, exposing his fangs as he drew in a rasp of a breath.
“But you can die,” he murmured, and for a brief moment, it seemed almost as if he was trying to convince himself—having already seen Edward survive death at his hands twice over.
“You can die… and this time, you will!”
Envy made a headlong rush, knife raised; a reaction Ed anticipated. The alchemist dropped his own knife and clapped his hands together… and for the first time in his life, the array he formed in his mind was calculated to break down the very molecules of a body of flesh.
His reflexes were just fast enough to let him duck under Envy’s furious swing at him. He rebounded and struck upward, his outstretched hands slamming solidly into Envy’s chest—
And nothing happened.
For a single, absurdly anticlimactic second, they stood frozen in their positions, as they both grasped the momentous reality of that failure. At last some flickering message of Ed’s nerves made its way to his automail hand, spurring metal fingers to make a grab for the sword that was his only remaining weapon.
Envy was quicker.
A cry gasped from Ed’s lungs as Envy seized his flesh arm and wrenched it, bodily spinning him around. He felt more than heard a sickening crunch between elbow and wrist, and somewhere amid the explosion of pain, he sensed his sword being dragged out of its scabbard by a hand that was not his own. Before he could regain his bearings from the dizzy, excruciating shock, his back smashed against a hard surface—and his reeling vision went red as an inconceivable new fire blazed in the center of his body.
It felt like the first time Envy had killed him.
For a small eternity, there was only the pain. The haze his vision swam in turned white, and then faded slowly into the darkness of the alley. His eyes focused suddenly as a small, involuntary spasm shot through him.
Envy’s face was an inch from his own. The homunculus was smiling with a savage triumph.
In a second that seemed to take a very long time, Ed pieced together the meanings of the agonies in his body. His left arm was going to do him no good anytime soon; it was broken, the bones fractured too badly to heal until they were set. His steel right arm was intact, but Envy held it by the wrist, twisted back in a monstrously powerful grip that Ed was not now in any condition to fight.
As for the conflagration raging in his torso…
Lowering his eyes, he saw the cross-guard of his own sword pressed snugly against his stomach. Its entire blade had passed through his body and beyond, the point sinking deep into the stout wooden door behind his back—pinning him like an insect.
Incredibly enough, even this was not a mortal wound for a dhampir. The sword penetrated only resilient skin and soft tissue, coming just shy of a far more critical strike to his spinal cord. He could still heal.
But Envy would never give him that chance.
Ed wasn’t sure whether the sound that escaped him was a laugh or a sob. The convulsive shudder that attended it made the sword tear a little more at his insides, but that didn’t matter any longer.
Nothing mattered. End of the line. He had failed for the last time, and now, he would die for the last time.
“The alchemy didn’t work…”
He only realized he had faintly whispered those words when Envy let out a snort of disdainful laughter. “Of course it didn’t, you fool. It didn’t work for your friend Hughes, either—or at least the one that lives here.”
A gasp half-choked Edward as air and blood mingled in his lungs. “Hughes—?”
“Oh, don’t worry. I didn’t kill this one—not yet. It was more fun to hurt him. And to keep hurting him, until he needed blood so badly that…” Envy smiled languorously, as if at some pleasurable memory. “Well. Let’s just say the woman they found dead in the street this morning wasn’t my doing.”
The sword through Ed’s body caused new sparks of pain as his gut tightened with a visceral horror. He understood what Envy was saying. If the homunculus was telling the truth, Hughes had sustained so much damage and blood loss that, in the Hunters’ terms, he flipped: all rational thought was driven from him, and like a rabid animal he would attack anything in his path, to satisfy his need for healing, nourishing blood.
If Hughes, in his already unstable state, had been pushed over that line—had turned rogue and taken human life as prey—he was finished. His mind would never recover, and his body would compel him to keep killing. Even his faithful Hunters would know the only mercy was to put him down, to end that maddened suffering and spare him the bloodguilt of more lives.
By now, perhaps they already had.
“And now it’s your turn…”
There was something exceptionally chilling in Envy’s tone. With a smile of ominous indulgence, he grasped Ed’s hair and pulled at it, forcibly turning the teenager’s head to expose his soft throat.
“I’ve already ripped you open three times, and you’re not dead yet. This time, maybe we’ll see what happens when I cut your head off…” Envy paused. “But first, now that you’re one of them, I’m going to do to you what I did to Hughes. You’ve always been so proud of how precious human life is to you. I want you to feel what it’s like to need to take it, to be so starved for it you can’t stop yourself—just like a newly born homunculus. Then you’ll know the hunger you made your mother feel, the hunger I felt from the moment he brought me back. This is what you’ve done to your most beloved dead, alchemist!”
The diatribe climaxed in a ringing shriek, promising a new and unspeakable level of horror. Ed was prepared for death, even for the most grisly torture of his own person to precede it; such was the price to be expected for his ultimate defeat. But to be starved into madness, to become a ravening predator unleashed to stalk and kill the innocent for Envy’s vindictive amusement…
New embers of resistance glowed to life within Ed, and he tried to fight. His automail hand shoved back so hard against Envy’s grip that he was sure it would break, and his left leg kicked. Even his crippled flesh arm flailed out, his fist seeking Envy’s face.
Envy was unmoved. With lightning quickness, his right hand released Ed’s braid to capture that swinging fist, and his head snapped forward to connect violently with the dhampir’s chin. The blow created a double impact as the back of Ed’s skull cracked hard against the door, blinding him with pain.
In that moment of stunned helplessness, Envy’s fangs sank into his throat, and he felt the surge of life escaping his body.
With his blood, Envy also took from Ed the knowledge of everything that had happened since their last encounter. His entire brief existence as a dhampir, his time among the Hunters. Noa, Hughes, Mustang, Sig, all of them.
His last clear realization was that they, or whoever remained of them, would be Envy’s next targets. Even after Ed was dead, that unquenchable thirst for vengeance would drive Envy to obliterate every last familiar person in this world—and it would not end with the Hunters, his enemies in their own right. He would kill anyone he found whose only crime against him was to wear a face Ed had remembered with kindness.
As Ed felt his life physically drain away, the aching bloodlust Envy sought to induce was swiftly creeping over him; but that fleeting sense of a threat to the Hunters aroused something more. Deep within, he understood it as a simple animal impulse to defend his pack.
Perhaps he had forgotten that the Hunters were not the old friends he had known. Perhaps it didn’t matter. For a moment, that feeling of primal devotion was indescribably beautiful and pure… and then it merged with his hunger, igniting a rage beyond anything even Envy was prepared for.
Ed’s eyes blazed to scarlet, and his automail arm lashed out, breaking free of the grip Envy had unconsciously relaxed during the mesmeric rush of feeding. The fist landed a punch to Envy’s chin that would have shattered a human jaw, and a metal knee simultaneously cannoned into the vampire’s stomach. He was pitched backward, leaving open red gashes where his fangs were torn roughly from Ed’s throat.
Steel fingers clamped down on the grip of the sword pinning Ed’s stomach. He twisted it, and the hilt snapped off—and with an inhuman roar of pain and fury, his body slid forward, lurching off of the blade that had impaled him.
It only hurt more then, but that was alright. That was good. It would spur him to fight harder.
With his broken arm tucked against his body, and his flesh hand clutching the bloody hole in his middle, he took a few unsteady steps. Suicidal as it was, he knew nothing then but a burning desire to continue his assault on Envy, and it was his nose more than his pain-clouded eyes that allowed him to track the homunculus.
Envy. Envy half-sprawled in the middle of the alley where Ed’s blows had thrown him, still dazed from the force of the unexpected resistance, as well as from the lingering dream-haze of stolen memories. Envy bleeding from a split lip that was already beginning to regenerate.
Homunculus blood, the very source of the infection that condemned dhampirs to exist as predators of the night. Its smell was bitter, unnatural, like a harsh metallic poison; but it was blood nonetheless, and Edward’s fangs emerged as he stumbled toward that promised manna.
The very intensity of the reaction caught Envy by surprise. He was by far the stronger one, especially now that Ed was weakened by injury and blood loss—but the deranged directness of the attack was enough to give even an immortal monster pause. He squirmed backwards, his eyes flicking about in search of the knives they both had dropped earlier in the battle. Without a blade to pierce through the heart or sever the head, a blood-crazed dhampir would challenge even his expertise at killing things.
Ed reeled toward his nemesis, delirious and shaking with need. Blood to survive. Blood to heal.
Envy suddenly made a quick feint to one side, like a rat attempting to scurry back into the shadows. Reacting on instinct to the seeming escape effort of his prey, Ed lunged—unaware that the move was in fact a scramble for one of their fallen knives. Once more Envy was armed, and Ed’s irresistible compulsion to sink his fangs into the homunculus could only end in his own death; but in his current state, like a wild animal looking down the barrel of a gun, he was incapable of grasping the danger.
Almost tasting the rich torrent of the blood he smelled, he reached out…
A step away from Envy, something plowed into Ed from his left side, pushing him down and away. He hit the ground with a wordless snarl at the pain that jarred his body, the fury of his thwarted kill, and turned to spring at whatever it was that dared to interfere—but he caught a scent that froze him in place. He didn’t understand what it was, but it was deeply familiar, a strange tang of decay veiled beneath a heady musk.
Then a burst of brilliant, crackling light exploded before his night-sensitive retinas. Envy let out an animal shriek, and as Ed’s automail arm rose reflexively to shield his eyes, he glimpsed only the silhouette of a tall figure bending over the vampire.
Darkness again, made even deeper by the aftershock of the light, dimming and blurring his vision. He fell back on his other senses to detect running footsteps, smells of fellow dhampirs. Ones he knew, and humans as well; but names were beyond him at the moment.
There was a shout, a wave of noxious gasoline odor, and then a far more natural spark flared somewhere in front of Ed. It traced a glowing arc through the air, to fall with a crash of glass at Envy’s feet—and flames blossomed over Envy, clinging to him like liquid, mingling the fuel smell with the stench of charred flesh.
For an instant, an odd, half-coherent thought came near to the surface of Ed’s mind.
I didn’t hear a snap…
The burning homunculus screeched and ran flailing into the night, unchallenged by the other presences in the alley. He was finished for this battle. Fire was no more deadly to him than any other weapon, but even if the pain and damage was temporary, it would drive him miserably into hiding for hours as he healed.
A moment’s tense silence fell. Still crumpled on his knees, his broken arm pressed tight against his punctured body, Ed unthinkingly processed the changes to his surroundings. The fire-smell was fading away, leaving the scents of people, both dhampir and human. The bitter musky note he had discerned before… and blood.
With that trigger, all other perceptions were swept away by the renewed urgency of his hunger, and he swayed to his feet. Blood. Life. Relief from his pain. He tracked the scent, and his eyes focused on the personage he had seen bending down over Envy. Crouched and panting as if exhausted, or perhaps grieving, this one was the source of that mysterious familiar fragrance—and the bloodscent.
Blood. Survival. Nothing else mattered.
Giving vent to a growl of impatient desire, Ed stalked toward this new prospect of nourishment. The sound startled his prey into turning, and he glimpsed a shimmer of long blond hair.
It was Noa’s voice that rang out. It was Noa’s scent that met his intake of breath, and Noa’s form that was suddenly thrust between himself and his target. She tore open the collar of her blouse, tore the skin of her own throat with her fingernails to leave trails of blood.
Dhampir blood. Not quite so enticing as the other—but she was closer.
His eyes never met hers as he fell upon her, biting deep into the wound she had made in her neck. Greedily he dragged her to the ground, and she offered no resistance while he drank as if he would bleed her dry. New memories swam into his consciousness, half-recognized faces and fragments of information he was in no state to comprehend.
Sig and Havoc, waiting together to meet Noa at the fountain. Visitors from Paris, carrying important news. The tall blond-haired man…
For one incandescent moment, a spectacular shock of recognition seized Edward.
Then something crashed down on the back of his head, and a merciful darkness swallowed him up.
Winry wondered how Ed had done it all those years.
Alphonse was restless that morning, and roaming about in his armor again. When she found him stretched out on his back in the Curtises’ tiny front yard, he had invited her to join him in cloud-watching; so she gingerly settled against him, propping herself up on his metal side to gaze at the sky. Edward often used to do that, and she thought the closeness might be a comfort to Al, even if he was physically numb to it.
And even if she wasn’t his brother.
Half an hour later, her shoulders were cramping and her spine was knotted up with stiffness, and she wondered how Ed had done it. How he had always endured this discomfort with every sign of complete contentment.
The otherwise mild edge to the morning air was seeping into her skin through Al’s steel, too—and this was balmy Dublith. She remembered the cold of Resembool’s first winter after the transmutation, when Ed was still recovering. No matter how warmly Pinako had tucked him into bed, the morning almost invariably found him nestled in Al’s lap, heedless of the night’s chill.
But then, at that point, it was the only place where he slept without nightmares.
In any case, Winry was determined not to let on about her growing aches, because Al seemed glad enough for the contact. He spoke little, save for his occasional observations about the shape of this cloud or that, tracing it in the air for her with a pointing leather digit. If it wasn’t for his hard shell against her back—and the empty void beside them where Ed belonged—she could have closed her eyes and imagined they were just kids on a Resembool hillside again.
There was solace now in memories. She liked the ones of childhood best, tempered with sadness yet still innocent; but she couldn’t deny that even those awful months after were precious to her, too. As much as she complained about Ed’s stupidity and hard-headedness, and the work and grief he caused for her and Granny, a part of her had cherished the chance to take care of him for a while—when he had no choice but to let himself be taken care of. It was even more bittersweet because she knew all along how fleeting that time would be.
She knew Ed and Al would never be hers again. They had touched something great and terrible, and for all it took from them, it made them much more than they ever could have become otherwise. More than she alone could jealously, pettily lay claim to. They belonged to the world, to use their gifts for a good Ed had never anticipated when he set his own seemingly impossible goals. He would have scoffed at her if she said it, but she knew there was a destiny for the brothers.
And in the end, that destiny had blazed with such brief brilliance that it burned them up.
“Al… Have you decided when you’re going to do the transmutation?”
Winry felt a slight quiver pass through Al’s armor. He hesitated for a moment, and then moved to sit up—causing her back muscles to shriek a painful protest as she shifted in response. She suppressed her wince and turned to face him, noting the troubled darkness of his soul-light as it met her gaze.
“Soon.” His voice was a resonating whisper. “I’m not really exactly sure yet.”
The answer frightened Winry a little, for Al’s true body already seemed to be on the edge of death. Since her arrival, he had only grown weaker, until he could scarcely even eat. In the last day or two, he’d hardly even mustered the strength to transfer his being to the armor… or perhaps he was just clinging more dearly to his last fading hours in his own flesh, as he realized what he was about to lose.
She knew how gut-wrenching it had to be, working up the courage to abandon his body forever, knowing he might still die in the attempt—but time was fast running out. It was risky enough to have stretched it this far. At any moment now, she feared the life in his body might slip away completely, taking his soul with it.
“How much longer do you think your body can hold out?” Winry made a mighty effort to keep her voice from trembling, and didn’t succeed. “I know you want to hold onto every moment you can, but if you don’t do it soon—”
“I know.” There was something flat and brusque in Al’s tone. He looked away from her, his metal shoulders creaking as they shifted uneasily, and a heavy strain of emotion crept into his voice.
“It’s only, when my body is gone… I won’t be able to dream.”
Winry’s heart clenched up tight. She suddenly understood, and this time, she couldn’t keep her tears from welling up.
“Oh, Al… You’ve been hoping your dreams about Ed would come back, haven’t you?”
Al’s helmet dipped downward, to stare at his clasped gauntlets in his lap. “I don’t know why they stopped… but I know a part of me is with Ed. It still is, no matter what’s happened.” He looked up at Winry, exuding a sudden determination. “And if I could just dream about him one more time—about the place where he is—then maybe I could finally see something there that would tell me where to find him.”
It hurt to hear the fierce conviction in his voice, and Winry felt again the agonizing confusion of her own emotions. Of course Al would go to his grave, if it came to that, believing Ed was alive; and it said something extraordinary that Mustang believed too. On the other hand, she also knew the secret despair Izumi was harboring. Only the teacher still remembered the terrible power of the thing they called the Gate.
Torn between the two impulses, Winry didn’t know what to think or feel. She couldn’t decide whether to go on hoping, or finally let go of hope and properly grieve…
But even if she did choose hope, there wasn’t enough of it left to risk Al’s life on.
“You can’t push it any further, Al.” Blinking back her tears, she grasped his gauntlet and squeezed it. He wouldn’t feel the touch, but he would see it and understand. “If you wait too long, and you die… you won’t be able to look for Ed in your dreams or in the real world.”
“I know that. I just have to do this in my own way.” The leather hand she held returned a gentle grip. “Don’t be scared for me. I’m almost ready. And when it’s over… I’ll be glad. Because then I can finally leave here, and try to find those places where I’ve seen Ed.”
A sharp sadness pricked Winry, but the words were only a confirmation of what she had already known deep down. Of course Al would leave. Once he had permanently traded feeble flesh for strong steel, he would devote himself to scouring the farthest ends of the world for his brother. Free of physical needs, and perhaps free of death itself, he could search forever if he saw reason to continue beyond the span of Ed’s natural life. She might never even see him again.
He would still never be hers—but at least he would be alive.
If the transmutation succeeded at all.
It suddenly struck her more painfully than ever that in a day or two, a mere handful of hours, Al might be dead. Alchemy might finish the job it had started seven years earlier, and take the last thing that was left to be taken from the Elric brothers. Al’s life.
Perhaps, if he died… he would finally be with Edward.
Tears flooded Winry’s eyes. She sat up quickly on her knees and threw her arms around what passed for Al’s neck, hugging him so tightly that the hard edges of his armor would leave her bruised. She didn’t let herself sob, but the effort of holding it back made her body tremble.
Al seemed taken aback for only a moment. Then he put his arms around her, and one massive gauntlet cradled the back of her head.
Except for the tender hand that petted her hair, he sat patiently motionless, and said nothing. She clung to his steel embrace for so long that her muscles grew stiff and aching again—but she didn’t care anymore.
It was Al who broke it off at last. He gently took her by the shoulders and drew her away from him, and she knew by the tilt of his helmet that he was studying her face. Her cheeks were damp with tears, and he shook his head at the moisture with a wry disapproval.
“Now I’ll have to polish my armor again. I don’t need it getting rusty already, you know.”
Winry smiled. It hurt, but it was genuine.
“I can help—”
The words died on her lips as a sudden spasm gripped Al’s armor. Just once his huge frame jerked rigidly, as if electrified by a live wire; then he slumped forward, bracing his gauntlets against the ground. Strange shudders began to course through him, rattling every joint.
“Al!” Winry gasped, reaching out to him uncertainly. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’s…” Still shivering violently, Al lifted one hand to his chestplate. His fingers clutched futilely at it, as if the steel itself was struggling for a breath it was incapable of taking.
“My body, Winry—stopped breathing—”
The convulsions ceased all at once, as his distressed body of flesh instinctively drew his consciousness back into itself. Suddenly bereft of its occupying soul, the lifeless armor crashed to the ground at Winry’s feet, its helmet tumbling loose onto the grass.
Edward was awakened by his own panicked thrashing against strong hands, and the rim of a glass bottle being forced into his mouth.
“It’s alright, Ed!”
Noa’s voice. He relaxed a little at the sound, almost involuntarily—and he quieted considerably more when he tasted blood. The thick fluid was fresh and soothingly warm, and as he gulped it with shameless eagerness, the grip he sensed on his arms was cautiously released.
His hazy sight came into focus. Noa was sitting close beside him on the edge of the bed; and it bemused him that he was lying on a proper bed, for the first time since he became a dhampir. As she lowered the now-empty bottle from his lips, he turned his head to see Jean Havoc standing nearby, and realized the Hunter had been the one holding him down a moment earlier.
Havoc did not look pleased to see him.
Noa cupped Ed’s cheek in her hand and studied his face, first intently, and then with growing relief. He realized uneasily that she was searching his eyes for recognition, for sanity… and he began to remember, if only through broken fragments of sensation. Hunger and rage and violence. The feel of his fangs piercing flesh.
Noa’s flesh. Again.
A wave of horrified nausea lurched in his stomach, and he made a sudden move to sit up. “Noa—”
“Shh.” Her fingers touched his lips. “Lie still. You’ll be alright now… but you still haven’t healed completely.”
Ed blinked in confusion and sank back against the pillow, slowly realizing she was right: he hurt terribly. It felt as if there were shards of hot shrapnel in his stomach, and his flesh arm ached. A quick glance discovered bandages wrapped around his forearm and the middle of his body. He was healing rapidly—he could feel his bones and organs knitting together again—but it would still take hours for him to recover completely.
The pain troubled him less than other things that were wrong with him. He felt more animal than human, nervous and disoriented and vaguely trapped. His memory was an uncooperative jumble, especially where the last several hours were concerned, and it was still a struggle to think instead of reacting purely on instinct.
“I… I flipped?” he asked shakily.
“Bad,” Havoc muttered, his voice hard. “I’m still amazed you’ve pulled yourself back together—and you only got the chance because Noa fed herself to you. Another second and we would’ve had to—”
“Jean, don’t,” Noa interrupted. She sounded tired, and Ed wondered with a shudder how close he had come to killing her.
“I’m sorry.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “And thanks. For stopping me, and if you couldn’t… for being willing to do what you had to.”
Noa’s hand rested lightly on his bare chest for a moment, and her voice was thick with suppressed emotion when she spoke. “Just rest, and try to clear your head. There’s so much we have to tell you when you’re stronger.”
A little reluctantly, Ed obeyed, and lay quietly as he tried to drag his mind up from the depths of primitive impulses. He wanted answers, but he wasn’t fit to take them in yet. He was confused as to why they were with the Hunters again—for this was their stronghold, he was sure. More than that, he sensed terrible, important things nagging at his memory, just beyond his grasp. Some of it would be the same information Noa had to impart; he had already taken it from her with her blood, but there was little chance of his sorting it out that way anytime soon. He was having enough trouble remembering what had happened to him.
Dimly he recalled doing battle with Envy. He knew something significant had happened during the fight, a terrible and tragic discovery, but it was nearly impossible to remember anything past the pain and the awful bloodlust at the end of it.
Ed changed tactics. Since the animal part of his nature was stubbornly refusing to subside, he tried to put it to work instead, and focused on the smells of the previous night instead of sights and conscious perceptions.
Blood, and lots of it. Envy’s subtle, chilling foulness. Scattered sniffs of the Hunters when they arrived on the scene. Gasoline and fire.
A deep chill turned his undead blood even colder, and his eyes opened. He could almost…
No, not almost. He could smell it.
The cologne was not exactly the lingering ghost-fragrance that had permeated every room of his childhood home, but it was the closest thing to be found in this world. Now, with his senses as acute as they were, it could not completely hide from him the scent it was intended to mask: the faint, appalling bittersweetness of corrupted flesh.
Ed’s frantic, incredulous gaze sought the doorway of the room. There stood the man from the night before, the one he had glimpsed kneeling over Envy in a burst of light—alchemic light. He hovered diffidently at the threshold, tall and broad-shouldered, his long blond hair tied back at the nape of his neck, his golden gaze filled with sadness behind prim eyeglass lenses.
Van Hohenheim, Edward’s father, who he had believed dead at Envy’s hands.
For one instant, a soaring gladness and relief welled up in Ed’s heart… and then he remembered what he was, and what his father had seen him do. What he might even have done to Hohenheim himself, were it not for Noa’s intervention.
A fierce shudder wracked his wounded body, and he averted his face, overwhelmed with a crushing shame.
His eyes were screwed shut, but his animal-sharp senses filled in every detail of movement in the room. He heard Noa and Havoc move away from the bed, on their way to the door. Hohenheim waited for their exit, and then his firm footsteps approached. The familiar scents he exuded grew stronger as he sank onto a chair beside the bed—and somehow Ed measured the disease-scent well enough to know the breakdown of his father’s body had grown worse. The dhampir half-opened his eyes, staring only at Hohenheim’s coat buttons, wondering dully how much more deterioration was hidden beneath the well-tailored clothes that covered him from the neck down.
“Oh, Ed,” Hohenheim breathed, and reached out to stroke his son’s hair.
Instinctively Ed flinched away from the touch, heedless of the pain that shot through his wounds at the movement. For a moment Hohenheim’s expression was faintly hurt, but then he seemed to understand: Ed’s repulsion was not from his father, but from his own inhumanity, and the lethal impulses he struggled to control within himself.
With a heavy sigh, Hohenheim let his hand fall to his side, but his head tilted down a little to search Ed’s eyes. “It’s alright, Ed. Whatever may have happened to you, it doesn’t matter. You’re alive—that’s the only thing I care about.”
“I’m a monster,” Ed whispered.
“No you’re not. You’re a survivor, just like you’ve always been, and you’re still trying to fight for what you believe is right.” Hohenheim smiled sadly. “I’m proud of that, Ed.”
“Envy told me… he made me think you were dead,” Ed amended, in a flat voice. He vaguely realized now that Envy hadn’t explicitly claimed to have killed Hohenheim, or Noa either. In both cases, the homunculus merely implied it. He had wanted Ed to take those coy bluffs to his grave, the twist of a figurative knife in his heart to precede a literal one.
“He almost had me, a month ago. If it wasn’t for the Hunters, he might have—but it gave me the chance to learn the truth.” Hohenheim braced his hands on his knees, leaning forward gravely. “How much of that truth have you figured out?”
Slowly and with no little pain, Ed pushed himself up into a sitting position with his automail arm. He waved off Hohenheim’s move to help him.
“I know Envy turned into a vampire when he passed through the Gate,” he muttered. “Since there are more of them here, I guessed that a lot of attempted human transmutations from our world land here as vampires, instead of becoming real homunculi there. And since I used alchemy on him before, I thought Envy must be vulnerable to it because he came from the other side.”
Suddenly he remembered the terrible lesson of his failure against Envy the previous night. His face fell, and he gazed down bitterly at the palms of his hands, laying flesh fingers over steel.
“But it didn’t work last night… so that must mean dhampirs can’t perform alchemy at all. Not even on homunculi.”
His father blinked. “But Ed, that isn’t exactly true. You were right about everything else—but that’s not why your alchemy failed.”
Ed looked up sharply, eyes widening, as a surge of hope rose in his chest. “Then what’s the answer?”
Hohenheim extended his left hand, and Ed noticed for the first time that a bandage was wrapped around the palm. He remembered the previous night, the bloodscent mingled with his father’s other smells.
His mouth watered at the memory, and with a stifled choke, he glanced away quickly from the faint redness spotting through the gauze.
“Were you bleeding when you made your alchemy work against Envy?” he heard Hohenheim ask.
Distrustful of himself, of the easily-aroused predator prowling within him, Ed avoided looking directly at his father.
“I was dying.”
Hohenheim winced, but he nodded. “That was the key, then. Listen. I told you before how death in this world generates the power for alchemy in ours—but the Gate only processes that energy in one direction, from here to there. There’s no corresponding flow of power from our side to enable alchemy here. Even so, anything that originated in our world is still susceptible to being transmuted… but the life-energy to fuel the reaction has to come from a different source.”
“Blood,” Ed breathed slowly. “Oh, hell…”
“That’s right. Even though homunculi—or vampires—carry an incredible amount of energy from the lives they’ve consumed, human blood is still necessary here as a catalyst for alchemy. The more complex the transmutation, the more blood it takes.” Hohenheim looked delicately at Ed. “And I’m afraid dhampir blood doesn’t work. Only living human blood will do. That’s why you couldn’t transmute Envy last night.”
Ed let out a frustrated snarl, clenching his metal fist. “Then it’s still true. I can’t use alchemy.”
“Not exactly. I didn’t say it had to be your own blood.” Hohenheim’s bearded chin tipped downward as he regarded Ed grimly. “You could still perform transmutations using the blood of someone else.”
The suggestion sent a pulse of shock through Ed, and he gaped at his father. “Killing to use alchemy is no option either!”
“Ed, you saw me use it on Envy, and I’m still alive. Most transmutations would require far less than a fatal amount of blood. Of course it isn’t something to be taken lightly—but with a little help, alchemy is still within your reach, even now.”
Unsettled, Ed hesitated. Even if the blood was willingly given, the thought of using a human partner’s blood to transmute vampires frightened and bewildered him—and as he was now, high-strung with predatory urges that felt as if they would never fade, he feared he would endanger any donor who opened their veins to aid him. Few dhampirs who survived having flipped were ever quite right again. What if his stability never fully recovered, and he permanently remained this close to the edge of being overcome by his instincts?
But this wasn’t about him. It never really had been since the night he was turned. There was a far more important struggle than any he might face within himself, and that was the Hunters’ war against homunculi. If he could give them this weapon, enable them to destroy with alchemy the very evils alchemy had created… then he would triumph, and the pain of this second life would not have been in vain.
“Tell me one thing,” he said quietly, closing his eyes. “Can alchemy be used to kill vampires—without costing a human life?”
“Remember the basic principles of alchemy. It takes far less energy to break down a thing than to rebuild it.” Hohenheim sighed. “Yes, Ed… it’s possible to destroy homunculi in the form they take here. And the human who provides the blood for it would survive that transmutation.”
A tension released in Ed, almost like the feeling of sunset, and his body physically relaxed. He smiled brokenly and let himself sag against the headboard of the bed. Now he could give Noa the hope she had believed she would find in him, and the Hunters could slay the monsters that had been unleashed on their world by alchemy.
It was almost funny, really. The Hunters had searched for this answer for hundreds of years, but it had taken Ed only seven days to discover it. Seven days and the loss of his humanity… and in the end, his father was the one to have held the key.
Yet again, Hohenheim had come home too late.
“Where were you?” Edward asked, too tired to raise any anger in his voice. “Why did you disappear, and how did you find out all this?”
Hohenheim shrugged ruefully. “Maybe you never realized it, but for all this time, I’d been doing research of my own—looking for anything that might help you find a way home, no matter how fantastic it might seem. Last month, I stumbled on clues that made me begin to see a connection between homunculi and rumors of vampires. So I traveled to Paris, to find the Hunters’ Council…” His eyes darkened behind his glasses. “And that was where I crossed paths with Envy.”
“And you found out you could use alchemy on him, just like I did,” Ed murmured.
“Yes. But Envy still would have killed me if a Hunter hadn’t appeared. He saved me, and took me to the Council. They helped me piece together the truth about the things they know as vampires… and to study what was possible with alchemy.”
For a moment, Hohenheim paused cryptically. Then he spread his hands, and a rather forced lightness entered his tone. “There’s much more to tell, but not yet. I’m afraid I’ve already caused you too much excitement for now. They told me rest will help you heal, and I want you to be well when you hear what else I have to say.”
Ed’s interest was impatiently piqued, but he couldn’t bring himself to argue. Coping intelligently with this conversation had already made his head ache. What he wanted even more than a healed body was clarity of mind, and he suspected his form of rest would do more than anything to help further settle him. He gingerly slid down against the pillow and stretched out on the mattress, closing his eyes.
With the knowledge that he could teach the Hunters how to destroy vampires, he held the greatest victory he could have hoped for in his new life, but there was so much he had yet to understand. It puzzled him that he and Noa were apparently in the good graces of the Hunters again—unless it was his father’s presence that had changed things. Perhaps Hohenheim had already offered the secret of alchemy to the Council itself. Surely then they would have fallen over themselves to ensure that their savior’s son was treated well.
And Ed would be well and truly upstaged.
How typical it would be of his life. To find himself almost believing he could be the hero Noa thought he was, almost convinced the suffering he endured had a purpose… only to find it was not his father, but he who had been too late.
It didn’t matter now. Ed’s life was insignificant in the scheme of things, after all. It wasn’t important who first shared the knowledge, as long as it was received by those who would use it wisely in the battle against homunculi. That was all he wanted, the one hope he had lived for since his turning, when his own hopes had died with his mortal life.
He was only sorry to think Noa’s sacrifices for his sake might all have been wasted. She needn’t have broken the taboo of the Hunters for him, spilled her blood for him three times, suffered the pain of his past and watched those same memories tear her beloved leader’s mind apart…
Edward sat bolt upright as Envy’s hideous words chased themselves through his mind. How could he have forgotten that?
“What is it?” Hohenheim asked anxiously, startled out of a brown study by Ed’s sudden movement.
“Hughes…” Ed clenched his jaw, swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and stood up. “I’ve got to talk to Noa and the others.”
But the younger alchemist didn’t wait. Although exertion painfully strained the healing muscles in his torso, there was nothing wrong with his legs. He snatched up a fresh shirt that lay folded on the bedside bureau, and wincingly pulled it on as he headed for the door.
He quickly stepped out into the hall… and stopped.
From Noa’s memories, he knew he was on the third floor of the former hotel, where the Hunters had left most of the rooms intact to serve as a dormitory. The elaborate Victorian architecture of the building was riddled with curious nooks and niches—and a few steps beyond the door, at the end of the hallway, he found himself facing such a random alcove. It had been left in its original arrangement as a sitting area, equipped with a few antique wicker chairs and a low table.
Noa and Havoc were there. Both were standing, as if they had paused to speak with someone after leaving Ed’s room; and when they turned to look at him, he caught sight of the man who was sitting in one of the chairs.
He was a tall man, with the suggestion of a powerful build beneath his black Hunter clothes. His skin was swarthy, his hair slick and black, and a mustache was perched above an enigmatic half-smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes.
Two eyes, where Ed had once been accustomed to seeing an eyepatch over the left one.
“Good morning, Mr. Elric,” said the facsimile of Füehrer Bradley, calmly and cheerfully. “It’s good to see you up and around… although I can’t honestly say you look very well just yet.”
Doubles of humans were something Ed had learned to deal with, but in his slow-witted condition, an apparent double of a homunculus was a little more than he could rationalize. He gaped and took a step back, only to bump into his father, who placed a steadying hand on his shoulder.
Ed’s reflexive, startled intake of breath captured the scent of the not-Bradley, and it registered as dhampir.
“I beg your pardon. Your father warned me that my face was apt to look… rather unpleasantly familiar to you. Not that I quite understand all of this Gate business—and in any case, I’m afraid it’s the only face I have.” The curve of the man’s lips deepened a bit more, and he rose urbanely to give Ed a small bow. “I’m Councilor Bradley. I was responsible for bringing your father here from Paris.”
For a long moment Ed continued to stare. Then he took another breath, deep and slow, and eyed Hohenheim over his shoulder.
“It’s alright,” Hohenheim sighed. “He’s a member of the Council—and more importantly, he’s the Hunter who saved me from Envy. You can trust him. I promise you that.”
“But how can there be a double of a homunculus here?” Ed demanded.
“Remember, the homunculus you knew was just a replica of a real man who had died. Councilor Bradley is that man’s counterpart.”
The explanation made sense—or it would have, Ed knew, if his mind was quite up to speed. Trying to think of this Bradley as something other than an enemy was still bizarre and somewhat difficult, but he could work through that later. For now there was a more urgent question, and he refocused himself with some effort.
He turned anxiously to Noa. “Where is Hughes?”
A look of pain flashed across Noa’s face. Her gaze fell, and Havoc touched her shoulder gently before fixing a grim stare on Ed.
“He’s gone rogue. When he found out what Kain did to help you and Noa run out on us, it sent him over the edge. He went out of his mind… and he killed the poor kid. Tore open his throat—and took his blood.”
Ed choked on the sudden rush of sick horror within him.
His fault. Even before the torture Envy had lovingly described, Hughes had already gone mad and killed Kain Fuery, and it was all Ed’s fault. The blood of that brave and innocent young Hunter was on no one’s hands but his own.
“Did you…” He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “Did you put Hughes down?”
“We didn’t get the chance. He was wild—but he’s still got all the smarts of the guy who taught the rest of us everything we know. He took off out of here and disappeared, and we still haven’t found him.”
“Envy did,” Ed whispered. “He told me Hughes had tried to use alchemy on him. It didn’t work, but Envy said he didn’t kill him. Only that he… he left him starved for blood.”
With a half-sob that wrenched Ed’s heart, Noa turned away, hiding her face in her hands.
“You think Envy was telling you the truth that time?” Hohenheim asked.
“Yes. He told me too many details about the things he did to Hughes. If he was going to bother making up stuff like that just to upset me a little more, he would’ve done it about you and Noa, too.” Ed reluctantly raised his eyes to Havoc. “Did the police find a woman’s body drained of blood yesterday morning?”
Havoc flinched. “Yeah. We got that from our insider at the coroner’s office, but we… we weren’t sure it wasn’t the vampire.”
“It was Hughes. Envy cut him loose to watch him hunt… just for fun.” Ed’s fists clenched, and he could barely restrain his urge to smash the metal one through the nearest wall. “It means Hughes has killed at least two people now—because of me.”
Noa’s voice was soft and trembling, but it was firm. She raised her head to look at him, and although tears were running down her cheeks, her eyes were resolute.
“You couldn’t have known this would happen. I was the one who knew Maes was barely holding himself together. It’s my fault for letting him keep going until he came apart… and it’s my job now to stop him. It’s the last thing I can do to keep my promise.”
Seeing the look in her eyes, Ed knew better than to argue. Noa intended to kill her guardian and teacher with her own hands, to give him peace because she loved him, and it would be a horrific cruelty to let her carry out that task herself—but keeping her from it would be more cruel. She was still a Hunter after all, and this was part of the duty she had embraced as the foundation of the life Hughes gave her.
There was a long and somber silence, and then Bradley spoke, rather delicately.
“We have other complications on our hands as well, Mr. Elric. I presume your father hasn’t yet told you the situation in Paris.”
“Situation?” Ed repeated in a dull voice, absently sidling forward to wilt into one of the chairs and relieve the aching stress on his wounds. He suddenly felt an awful fascination in wondering just how much worse things could get.
Bradley sat down on the edge of the table, back straight and arms folded, a leonine image of casual but powerful authority.
“Allow me to begin at the beginning. I came across your father while he was in the midst of an encounter with the vampire you call Envy. After I—shall we say, removed him temporarily from danger, and took him to the headquarters of the Council, he began to puzzle out this matter of the ‘alchemy’ of your world assailing ours with vampires. Of course we were skeptical of his story at first, and we couldn’t absorb his memories to verify it… but he is a very convincing man. Enough so that we took a chance on him, to let him test his theories about destroying vampires. It was agreed that if he succeeded, he would teach us that power, in exchange for…” Bradley smiled faintly at a sudden twitch from Hohenheim. “For helping him make a small experiment of his own. So, along with a team of our finest Hunters, we went to see what he could do with an especially nasty vampire we’d been chasing all over Russia for the last hundred years or so.”
“You didn’t mention that little field trip,” Ed remarked dourly, glancing at Hohenheim.
The elder alchemist shrugged helplessly. “I told you it would wait until you were rested—but you obviously had other ideas.”
“To continue,” Bradley said pointedly. “We suffered losses on our mission, but in the end, Hohenheim achieved exactly what he’d promised—and I watched with my own eyes as he made that vampire simply cease to exist. So we returned to Paris in triumph, to report his success… but I’m sorry to say that in my absence, some of my colleagues had been doing a little too much thinking.
“If you do share your father’s ability, Mr. Elric, I’m sure you can understand that it’s frightening for those of us who have never seen such a thing. Hohenheim has warned us that the vast energy locked within vampires could be used for more than just to kill them—and that it might be misused in unspeakably dangerous ways. Never has there been a power like it in this world… and some of the Council members began to feel that perhaps there never should be. They questioned whether the destruction of vampires, an evil we at least understand, is truly worth the risk of alchemy falling into the wrong hands. And as for a few others, well… they were concerned that freely sharing the knowledge of how to kill vampires would undermine the Council’s leadership of the Hunters.”
“Why don’t you tell it like it is,” Ed muttered. “Some of the Council members have gotten pretty used to the power and money they control, and they don’t want to be put out of a job.”
“You’re very cynical, Mr. Elric—and also very astute.” Bradley sighed. “Yes, I’m afraid that was an ulterior motive in some cases. But the fears of others were genuine. I myself can understand the concern of what your alchemy might do to this world… but in our fight against an enemy that has caused so much misery, I don’t believe we can refuse to move forward.”
Ed smiled wanly at the familiar phrase.
“In any case,” Bradley went on, “the Council was divided, and that division soon became… violent. Two members even suggested that for the good of the world, Hohenheim should be killed to eliminate his knowledge.”
Had Ed possessed an entirely living heart, it would have skipped a beat. He shot a horrified glance at his father, but Hohenheim stood with an impassive expression, listening in silence to Bradley’s account.
“At that point, it was clear to me that I had to take Hohenheim out of Paris in secret, for his own safety. I brought him here because this Hunter post is lightly regarded by the Council… and because Maes Hughes was an old friend I trusted.” For a moment Bradley paused ruefully. Then he shook off that fleeting dismay, and gave Ed a keen glance.
“We also chose London because your father thought you might come looking for him here—and he was afraid Envy may have expected that as well. It seems he was right. I’m deeply sorry we were too late to spare you from what you’ve suffered.”
Bradley’s voice was sincere, and it surprised Ed to realize he accepted the good intentions of the Councilor.
“There’s no use being sorry for what’s past,” he replied, quietly but steadily. “All that matters is what’s ahead. You have the weapon you need to destroy vampires now.”
Bradley frowned. “I’m afraid that’s only partially true. We have both of you to teach us, but equipping other Hunters with that knowledge is another matter. At this moment, the rift between those who welcome alchemy and those who fear it is tearing the Council apart—and even if its supporters gain the upper hand in Paris, the same conflict would surely be repeated among the lower ranks of the Hunters. In time, the choice of whether to accept or reject this power could splinter every Hunter cell in the world… and my worst fear is that those who oppose it may decide alchemists are an even greater threat to society than vampires are.”
Ed’s eyes widened as he slowly realized the implications of Bradley’s words. “You’re talking about a civil war.”
“Or perhaps a revolution. I was a doctor in my human life, Mr. Elric. I would never have destroyed a life-saving drug just because an overdose would be poisonous—and I regard your alchemy the same way.” Bradley leaned forward. “Now that we have the chance to take our fight to the vampires, I believe we have to try. We have to take the risk and the responsibility, even if it means breaking away from those who have become too selfish or fearful to do the same.”
Noa looked up at Bradley, her eyes bright and hard. “You know how far I’ve already gone for my faith in this. I’m with you.”
“I guess anything’s better than what we’ve been doing,” Havoc murmured lazily.
Ed closed his eyes for a moment, his mind reeling under the weight of everything he had learned. He wondered now if the gift of alchemy would save this world after all… or destroy it. Given the ease with which knowledge passed between dhampirs, it was inevitable that it would fall into the wrong hands, and then it was very likely that people would die.
But people were already dying, or worse, at the hands of vampires and the rogue dhampirs they infected. Besides, alchemy was in the wrong hands every day on the other side of the Gate, and yet somehow that world had always managed to keep turning. Alchemists of good will, like himself and his brother and even Colonel Mustang, had always fought to tip the balance for what was right; and in this world, he knew Noa and Havoc and many others were prepared to do the same. Perhaps knowledge was a double-edged sword, but ignorance was no weapon at all, and he could never leave this world unarmed against the evil spawned by his fellow alchemists’ sins.
A sin he was guilty of himself.
“Okay,” he said softly, opening his eyes. “I can’t speak for my father, but if this is what you want… I’ll teach you. And I’ll share this fight with you, to the very end.”
He tried not to notice the way Noa looked at him, with shining eyes and that soft, dawning smile. She still thought he was a hero—but he knew better.
Hohenheim stepped closer. “Wait, Ed. You still haven’t heard everything. I’m willing to help you teach alchemy to Councilor Bradley and his supporters, because that’s the bargain I made. But when that work is done… it will be time for you to go home.”
Ed’s heart and mind were seized with a sudden shock so strong that he physically flinched back. His jaw sagged, and he stared up at his father, unable to fully take in those words.
“Bradley told you my part of the bargain was a chance to make an experiment. The entire reason I agreed to help the Hunters was because they could get me close enough to one of these homunculus-vampires. I didn’t just kill the one in Russia, Ed… I used its energy to open the Gate. Only for a few moments, but long enough to prove it could be done—and just long enough for someone to pass through it.”
Ed closed his eyes tightly. It was true, then. The theory he had conceived and willfully pushed away days ago—the one that had led Hughes into madness—was correct. The doorway leading back to their world could be opened.
Too late for him.
And the toll for setting foot on the threshold of that bridge…
“What did it cost?” Ed asked in a trembling whisper. “It couldn’t be just a little blood. The Gate would never be satisfied with that.” He opened his eyes, and felt them stinging with unfallen tears. “Who died for your experiment?”
Hohenheim winced, and slowly let out a deep sigh.
“It’s true. The transmutation required a human life. The man who gave himself for it was a Hunter, a scientist who had spent his life looking for a way to destroy vampires—and before that, a dhampir also died in the battle.” His gaze shifted away from Ed’s eyes. “The dhampir was named Kimbley… and the human’s name was Marcoh.”
After an agonizing moment of silence, Edward’s head dropped into his hands, and his body shook with a hard, ugly laugh of despair.
Grimacing at the reaction, Hohenheim reached out to touch his son’s flesh arm. “Ed—”
“Don’t touch me.” Ed shied away, raising his automail arm, unconsciously echoing the defensive posture he had often used in their world—in times when the steel would bear a transmuted blade. “You murdered them.”
Bradley spoke up, calm and clear-voiced.
“Mr. Elric, before you judge your father so harshly, allow me to tell you the way it really happened. Marcoh had already been mortally wounded in the battle. Realizing he was dying, he insisted Hohenheim use him for the transmutation, to fulfill our bargain and let the experiment be made. As for Kimbley, he was killed while subduing the vampire—fighting to gain the proof that this evil could finally be destroyed. I witnessed it all, and I assure you, there was no dishonor in your father’s actions.”
The words were a cold comfort. Whatever benefit Bradley thought had been gained by their agreement, it was clear to Ed that Hohenheim was only using the Hunters. The people of this world meant nothing to him; he had no empathy for their struggle and suffering, no remorse for his share of the blame as an alchemist. Even if he did feel a sense of guilt toward his sons that he wanted to atone for by reuniting them, Ed himself could never accept that gift at the expense of a human life.
Much less could he forget his own poisoned blood, the contamination that now made him belong inexorably to this world.
“So what was your big plan?” he asked Hohenheim, his voice low and bitter, glaring down at his fists. “Who were you going to sacrifice to send me back? Was another life included in your deal with the Council?”
“The Hunters have nothing to do with this. It’s between you and me and Envy—because I owe it to him to give him peace, by destroying the monster I made of him. When I transmute him, I’ll open the Gate for you… and the only life I’ll give to pay the price is my own.”
“No,” Ed snapped, looking up with hard eyes.
“Listen to me, Ed. You know what’s happening to me.” Hohenheim’s hand moved furtively to his chest, pressing against the hidden ruin of his flesh. “You know I don’t have much longer to live. At least let me give what’s left of my life to try to undo something of the wrong I’ve done, and give you back to your brother.”
“So my conscience can be guilty instead of yours?” Ed’s voice rose angrily. “No one is going to die to open the Gate—not even you. I won’t let anyone else sacrifice themselves for me and what I want! That price is too high to pay… and even if it wasn’t…” He flinched and looked away. “I could still never go home.”
“What are you talking about?”
Ed closed his eyes, taking a deep, shuddering breath. In his fragile state, the anger and disgust roiling in him were dangerous… but he needed his father to see.
With a sudden lunge, he was out of his chair, his automail fist seizing the elder alchemist’s coat to shove him against the wall. Burning crimson eyes met Hohenheim’s shocked golden ones, and Ed inhaled an intoxicating fear-scent through parted lips that revealed the sharp curves of his fangs. Behind him, he was aware of Noa starting forward with a gasp; but Havoc, oddly enough, had the insight to hold her back, while Bradley observed as impassively as a statue.
“Look at me,” Ed growled in his father’s face. “I’m not human. I’m not even completely alive. I’m an undead thing with an instinct to kill… and someday, I might snap like Hughes did. And even if I never hurt anyone myself, one drop of my blood could lead to hundreds of monsters just like me. I won’t let that happen to our world—and I won’t let Al have to face what I’ve become. Never!”
On the last word, knowing he was far too close to the edge, Ed pushed himself away from Hohenheim. He returned to his chair and sank into it, shaking, his head bowed and fists clenched. With a tremendous effort, he struggled to shut down the emotions and impulses he had allowed to rise to the surface.
There was a heavy, chilled silence for a long moment before Hohenheim spoke again.
“Ed, it may be that in our world… alchemy could cure you.”
The man was impossible.
“Like it cured this?” Ed flexed his steel fingers, staring down at them emptily. “I won’t take that chance. I won’t gamble with other people’s lives anymore. The life I had is gone, and it’s not coming back. Whether I like it or not… I’m a part of this world now.”
“Then what do you plan to do?”
Slowly, Edward raised eyes that had softened once more to gold—looking not at his father, but at Noa. She stood frozen in apprehension, her own dark eyes brimming.
“I’ll become a Hunter,” he answered quietly, with a sad smile. “Alchemists made this mess. It’s only fair that an alchemist should help fix it. I’ll teach them how to kill the monsters we’ve sent here… and I’ll fight beside them, for as long as it takes.”
Noa’s tears spilled over, and she looked away from his eyes.
Hohenheim stepped forward, drawing near again; but not as close as before, Ed noticed, and he moved just a little more warily.
“Then you’ll be fighting that battle forever. Think about it. Even if you were to destroy every vampire that exists here now, there would still be alchemists on the other side who attempt human transmutation, and most of the abominations they create will go on emerging here. If you really want to help the Hunters, and prevent more homunculi from entering this world, the best thing you can do for them is go back—and teach our people the consequences of trying to raise the dead.”
Ed had not considered the ongoing creation of homunculus-vampires. He was silent for a long moment, thinking over that terrible prospect.
“No,” he said at last, and turned to Bradley. “I’m sorry, but I won’t risk spreading this infection to the other side of the Gate—not even to stop more vampires from being born. Now that we know how alchemy works here, we can study it. Maybe someday, we can even find a way to open the Gate without sacrificing a life, and send a message across… but I couldn’t be the one to carry it.”
Bradley inclined his head. “I respect that choice, Mr. Elric. Even if your world is unwittingly responsible for our hardship, no Hunter would wish our fate on your people.” He smiled ruefully. “As for you, I’m afraid all you’ll find with us is danger and an uncertain future… but if you truly wish to join us, no one would be more welcome.”
A thin smile touched Edward’s lips in return. He nodded once at Bradley, and looked to Noa for some sign of gladness; but she did not lift her downcast gaze to meet his.
The day was high on the relatively long list of occasions Winry wished she could forget.
Al had survived the morning’s crisis, but only narrowly. It was General Mustang himself who resuscitated the boy, forcing breaths into his lungs until they began to breathe again on their own. By some miracle Al was conscious and responsive after the scare, but he had barely the strength to speak a word, and his pallor was a ghastly gray-white. His body had reached its limit.
The stress and terror of nearly losing him took its toll on Izumi. Winry had glimpsed her afterward through the half-open door of the washroom, coughing blood into the sink. The teacher was pale herself when she came back to sit in silence with her ailing student; yet she said nothing at all. She did not reproach Al for having waited so long for the transmutation, or even insist that it could wait no longer.
With Cobie nestled in his lap, Al drowsed through the afternoon. His snatches of fitful repose were far too light to bring dreams—yet still he refused to give any indication that he was ready to leave his body forever.
Winry couldn’t help feeling a frustrated urge to shake him and shout at him. She couldn’t bear to see him struggling like this, fighting for one last chance to chase his dreams of Ed, when there was so great a risk that he would never open his eyes again. She only managed to stay silent because Izumi did as well, but she didn’t understand why even the teacher hesitated.
Was there still some part of her, too, hoping against hope that Al would find the way to his brother in one last dream?
Sig and Mason had hauled the abandoned armor in from the front yard, and for a few hours Winry occupied herself by polishing it, mindlessly scouring the same parts of it over and over with a soft cloth. When she was done, it sat gleaming in its corner, waiting for Al’s soul to be sealed within it forever… if he would just give the word.
Early in the evening, Winry made the token effort of warming some broth for Al, and carried it upstairs on a tray. As a probable last meal, it was pathetic, but it was all he could eat now. The Curtises and even Major Hawkeye were gathered in his room, watching over him, or simply giving him the comfort of company—but Mustang was absent. He had gone out on the balcony shortly after reviving Al, visibly shaken, and had not come inside once in the hours since.
Forcing a ghost of cheerfulness into her expression and voice, Winry sat down on the bedside chair and settled the tray on her lap. “Time for dinner, Al.”
The boy managed to make a thoroughly unenthused face.
“Come on. You have to eat.” The cajoling was halfhearted. Al’s time was so short that getting any more nourishment in his system was surely pointless—but Winry needed to do this. She needed to do something.
With a tiny sigh, Al tilted his chin up and opened his mouth, permitting Winry to spoon the broth onto his tongue. Of course he was doing it for her sake, and she felt more guilt than gratitude at his tolerance of her need to fuss futilely over him.
In a way, this pale, emaciated shadow of a child seemed more mature than he had at any other time in the last two years. He still didn’t remember growing to the age of fifteen in his familiar steel husk, made wise beyond his years by grief and hardship, but it was as if a little of that wisdom had stirred in him again. Perhaps it was some latent sense of how often he had faced death before, instilling him with a quiet confidence that he could conquer it one more time.
The bowl of broth was still half-full when Mustang appeared in the doorway, looking gaunt and strained.
“I don’t know about the rest of you,” he said quietly, moving to the foot of the bed to gaze down at Al with dark, anxious eyes. “But I can’t see how we can push this any further.”
Al frowned up at him with manifest disapproval.
Izumi sighed. “I trust Al to choose his time, General. He knows what he’s going through better than any of us do.”
“He obviously couldn’t predict what happened earlier. And it could happen again at any time.” Mustang met Al’s stare with equal hardness. “I know you’re hoping for one last dream about Ed, but it isn’t worth dying for. And how do you even expect to be able to sleep, knowing what’s ahead of you when you wake up—if you wake up?”
A slightly wheezing breath filled Al’s chest, and he whispered, “Have to try. For Brother.”
“Al, you told us yourself, these dreams stopped days ago. What do you think the chances are that you’ll have one more?”
“I will. I can feel it.”
“But you can’t possibly make it through another night,” Mustang insisted in exasperation. “You’ll stop breathing again, or your heart will stop, and next time we might not be able to bring you back. Or even if we do, you might not be in any condition to perform the transmutation on your own—and we can’t help you without the risk of getting caught in it ourselves.”
“Don’t try,” Al murmured, his eyes darkening.
“I for one have no intention of it,” Mustang retorted, with a forced callousness. Then he glanced at Izumi, who bristled slightly. “But I wouldn’t bet on Mrs. Curtis not to. You see, it’s not just yourself you’re endangering if you wait any longer.”
Al’s eyes narrowed. Faint though it was, his voice was astonishingly steady and firm.
“Morning. I promise.”
The General heaved a sigh and ran his hand through his hair, drawing in a breath for another objection. “Alphonse—”
“Oh, let him try!” Winry burst out, surprising even herself.
Mustang turned to her, one eyebrow arching.
“Let him try,” Winry repeated with a lump in her throat, her own voice almost dropping to a whisper. “Give him one last night to try to dream. I know the only reason he wants to go on living in the armor is to find Ed… and if it’s all he wants to live for, it must be worth the risk of dying for too. I’ll sit up and watch him all night, to make sure he keeps breathing and his pulse doesn’t stop. I won’t let him die…” Her face flushed as tears ran down her cheeks. “Just give us this much.”
She saw Al looking at her with wide eyes, and a part of her wondered exactly how and when the belief in his dreams had shifted from him to us.
For a long moment, Mustang stared awkwardly at her. Then his shoulders slumped, and he let out a windy breath, shaking his head.
“I’ll stop arguing on one condition,” he said wearily. “I’m going to stay in this room tonight, to be close by if we start to lose him again. And if either of us even thinks he’s getting any weaker… we wake him up, and he goes through with the transmutation then and there.” He glanced ruefully from Winry to Al. “Agreed?”
The dying boy didn’t quite smile, but the faintest trace of solemn warmth crept into his eyes.
From the shallow depths of dhampiric sleep, Ed heard the creak of the bedroom door. It was accompanied by a familiar waft of musk… and for a moment he was three years old again, awash in a drowsy feeling of safety and love, as he sensed his father looking in on him.
Then full awareness seized him, and he shoved that memory aside with a simmering irritation.
After the morning’s overwhelming revelations, Ed had returned to his room alone, to give his body the further rest it needed to heal. Lingering physical exhaustion was enough to defeat the tremendous turmoil in his mind, and he lapsed quickly into dreamless twilight. He lay dormant on the bed through the ensuing daytime hours, until that unmistakable intrusion.
His sense of day and night told him the sun had not set, and in any case, he was not in the mood to think yet. Without opening his eyes, he filled his empty lungs with a breath—and in so doing, he ceased to entirely mimic a corpse, which in itself seemed to give Hohenheim a start.
“What do you want?” Ed queried brusquely.
After a hesitation, the elder alchemist’s footsteps approached. “I’m sorry, son. I just wanted… to see how you were.”
There was an unwonted note of tenderness in Hohenheim’s voice that Ed didn’t particularly welcome. The teenager heaved a sigh, opened his eyes, and sat up, to see his father standing rather hesitantly between the door and the bed.
“I’m fine.” Ed flexed the muscles in his previously-fractured left arm, and then his fingers cautiously probed his belly through the fabric of his shirt. There was no longer any pain, and the bones in his forearm felt as strong as ever. “It’s all regenerated. I can do that now, you know.”
“Yes… I’m not sorry for that part of it.” Hohenheim smiled painfully.
Something about the old man’s melancholy look softened Ed in spite of himself. He almost returned the smile, but not quite.
“Really, Dad. I’m gonna be okay. There’s a lot of work to do here, and a lot more to learn—but I’m ready to do the best I can with this life, and the powers I have.” He shrugged ruefully. “Maybe Noa is right. Maybe there is a fate for us all… and maybe this is mine. Maybe all the things I ever did were meant to put me here, to fix what alchemists have done to this world.”
His father’s gaze fell. “I’m sorry I can’t see it that way. The only thing I know is, you’ll always do what you believe is right—and I have to do the same.”
Ed frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
Hohenheim stepped to the bedside. His eyes held Ed’s gravely for a long moment.
“I’m going after Envy,” he announced quietly… and his fist exploded upward from his side, smashing into Ed’s chin with all his strength.
The time must have been brief before Ed came to his senses with a start, sprawled across the bed where the punch had laid him out. His jaw was still aching, and the last thing he remembered was the intent look in his father’s eyes.
He could still feel the presence of daylight beyond the walls. He was not yet free to go after Hohenheim.
Spitting out a violent string of curses, Ed flung himself off the bed and stalked into the hall. He began pounding on doors with a metal fist, and within moments, alarmed Hunters spilled out of the rooms where they too had spent the day at rest. All of the remaining dhampirs were there: Noa, Havoc, Falman, Mustang, Francesca, even their guest Bradley. Only the humans were absent. Ed knew Hawkeye and Breda would be just about to stand down their day watch, and Sig would be at his shop.
“What’s wrong?” Noa asked quickly, moving to Ed’s side.
“My father is gone.” Ed announced it for the rest of the Hunters to hear. “He told me he was going to hunt down Envy.”
Bradley scowled. “What does he think he’s doing? Even with his alchemy, we learned in Russia that it would almost certainly be suicide to face a vampire alone, without any help to subdue it. Why is he so impatient to put this particular one out of its misery?”
“It’s a long story,” Ed sighed, and his eyes searched the faces of the Hunters. “But no matter what he’s done, or what he’s trying to do, I can’t let him fight Envy on his own… and I need your help to save him. Please.”
He started slightly when he felt Noa’s hand slip into his. As he met her gaze, she squeezed his fingers briefly. It was all the answer she needed to give.
The Hunters exchanged glances. There were shrugs of shoulders, and thoughtful raisings of eyebrows.
“Well, saving humans from vampires is kinda what we do,” Havoc drawled.
Falman nodded. “And Hohenheim is one of the two people we’ve got to teach us this alchemy of yours. We can’t have him getting killed on us yet.”
“That brings us to an interesting point,” Bradley remarked, eyeing Ed firmly. “Envy is just as eager to kill you as your father—and as the only other alchemist in this world at the moment, your safety is too valuable for us to risk. Much as you may dislike the thought, I see no choice but for you to stay here, and leave this job to us.”
“I can’t do that!” Ed choked.
“And we can’t let both of you alchemists get killed,” Francesca retorted levelly.
“But that’s just it.” Golden eyes hardened as Ed looked fiercely between the gathered Hunters. “When we do this… there’s no reason why Dad and I should still be the only alchemists around.”
Noa gasped softly. “Ed—”
“All of you, listen.” Edward clenched his fists, gathering his courage. “It’d take time for Sig and Riza and Heymans to learn alchemy the hard way, but the rest of you can know everything in just a few minutes. That way, with their help, you’ll have a weapon to use against Envy if we face him tonight—and later, any of you will be able to share that knowledge. You can even leave someone else behind, to make absolutely sure the secrets of alchemy survive. But I’m not staying.”
The other dhampirs were silent for a moment, soberly taking in that proposal.
“If you share your blood, you won’t have enough time to build your strength back up,” Mustang observed at last, his one eye narrowing at Ed. “You won’t be any good in a fight anyway.”
“He doesn’t have to do it alone.” Noa turned to the others, taking in a deep breath. “I didn’t tell any of you this before… but I know everything Ed knows. I know alchemy. You can learn it from me too, and if we divide the job between us, we can both still be fit to fight.”
It was not lost upon Ed that Havoc glared at him. As casually as dhampirs treated the exchange of their most intimate memories, Noa’s rejected suitor still seemed rankled by the fact of her sharing with her foundling.
After a long moment of consideration, Bradley nodded. “Very well, then. I for one am willing to accept this plan. I’ll pass no judgment on any of you who prefer not to take the knowledge of alchemy—but I will myself.” His subtle smile twitched under his mustache. “After all, if I’m going to champion the use of it, I of all people should know what I’m dealing with.”
Francesca looked uncertainly at Noa. “The whole thing gives me the creeps… but okay.”
“I’m in,” Falman agreed.
Havoc glowered challengingly at Ed. “Same here.”
All eyes turned to Mustang, and he shifted his weight uneasily.
“I’m not going to do it.” He unconsciously backed against the wall, defensive under the strength of their stares. “You all know what happened to Maes when he took what’s inside that kid’s head. I’ve got no desire to go crazy.”
Ed snorted contemptuously. “If anyone here was going to crack up over my memories, it’d be you, alright.”
Noa shot Ed a reproving look. Then she turned to Mustang, and spoke in a pained but firm voice.
“Roy, listen to me. Maes only broke because his mind wasn’t well to begin with. I took the same memories from Ed. Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No… but you’re stronger than I am,” Mustang replied bitterly. He squirmed and pushed off from the wall, turning to walk away. “You know I can’t help you.”
“One moment please, Mr. Mustang.” Bradley’s voice arrested the dog trainer in mid-stride. “If you don’t wish to join us, that’s your decision, but there is one service you can perform. I understand you’re the master of the kennels here—and we need a dog to track Hohenheim. Will you be so kind as to prepare one for us?”
Without turning, Mustang nodded, and moved off toward the stairs.
A grim shrug moved Ed’s shoulders, and he glanced at Bradley. “We still have to get Riza and Heymans sold on this—and Sig too. Without human blood, there won’t be any alchemy.”
“I’ll see to it,” Bradley agreed, and swept a glance over the other Hunters. “Let’s prepare.”
Before the sun had completely disappeared beneath the horizon, Sig arrived with blood: several gallons of it, more than enough to thoroughly sate all seven of the dhampirs. Ed found himself glad for the awful feast, because by that time, he had already opened his own veins for Bradley and Falman.
They took his blood from his arm, just above the inner wrist. That at least gave an illusion of being more clinical and impersonal than a bite to the neck—although it really wasn’t. No matter how he shared it with them, he was still giving them his life, quite literally. Beyond the equations of alchemy, they would know all his mistakes, all his fears and weaknesses.
And yet, besides his knowledge and his darkest secrets, they had to share his pain as well. They had to relive the agonies of lost friends and lost limbs, scarring wounds and bitter failures. Both Bradley and Falman suffered this without complaint; and if it was called for, Ed knew they would offer everything within themselves to him in turn, to take the good and the bad just as equally.
In his time as a dhampir, Edward had seen Equivalent Exchange with new eyes, and it put to shame the principles he had known by that name.
Noa, meanwhile, had shared her blood with Havoc and Francesca. To all appearances, she was far more businesslike about the process. It was something she had done many times before. Ed couldn’t imagine how he would ever become so used to that utter exposure of his soul… but if he was going to live as a Hunter, he knew he would have to.
Having given his blood and then quickly replenished it with the sustenance brought by Sig, he sat resting for a short time at the meeting room table. The other Hunters were around him: some sitting quietly like him as they processed their new knowledge, others preparing their weapons. He watched them with interest and a strange sense of growing affection. The souls behind these familiar faces were not the ones he had known, but somehow he still felt connected to them, and he was sure it wasn’t only because he shared Noa’s memories of their comradeship. Perhaps she had been right in that, too. In any world, perhaps some people were meant to find each other.
Of course, a few things hadn’t changed. Hawkeye had deigned to equip herself with a sword, the better to behead vampires… but now she was methodically inspecting a very large gun.
She would not look at Mustang, who knelt on the floor in a corner of the room, fitting a harness and leash onto the double of Black Hayate.
Ed sighed softly and pushed himself to his feet, experimentally flexing his flesh muscles and automail limbs. He had recovered completely from both his injuries and his recent bloodletting. He felt as strong and alert as he ever had, and he could only hope the savage instincts still lurking beneath his consciousness would benefit him in the heat of battle. If they were to meet Envy that night, he was more than ready to finish what they had started the night before—and now he knew how to do it.
Slowly he moved to the far end of the table, where Noa rested after her own sharing of blood. Her eyes were closed, but she opened them when he drew near to her. She did not smile.
“Are you alright?” Ed asked her gently.
Noa nodded. “I’m ready… and so are Francesca and Jean.” She hesitated for a moment. Then she leaned toward Ed, her expression troubled. “You know what your father is trying to do, don’t you?”
“…Yeah.” Ed’s eyes hardened. “There’s only one reason he would’ve told me what he was up to before he punched my lights out and took off. He wants me to go after him. He wants to get me together in the same place with Envy—so he can try to open the Gate and send me back.” The young dhampir stared down at his clenching flesh fist. “But I can’t let him do that.”
“He was right about one thing. The war here will never really be won until alchemists on the other side stop creating more vampires.”
“I know that.” Ed shrugged futilely. “We’ll find a way, I promise. But not that way. I wish I could see Al again more than anything… but not at the price of exposing his world to this hell. If we’re ever going to get a message across safely, it’ll take research—and Dad should be helping us with that, instead of trying to get himself killed.”
Councilor Bradley’s voice interjected, smoothly and politely, as he leaned forward in his seat near the center of the table.
“Forgive me for listening in. If this was truly your father’s plan, Edward—I agree with you that we can’t allow it, for the sake of your world. But I’m a little curious as to how you propose to keep him from repeating this stunt.” The ranking dhampir smiled thinly. “I realize more clearly than ever now that he can be as… obstinate as you can.”
Ed lowered his gaze with a scowl. “You’re right. If I know Dad, he’ll keep trying, no matter how much I argue. Even if we stop him from getting his hands on another vampire, his own body comes from the other side, which means it can be transmuted too—and he might do something as crazy as trying to open the Gate using nothing but himself. The only way to prevent that is to make sure he can’t use alchemy on his own.” He breathed deeply, raising shadowed eyes to Bradley. “So when we find him… I’m going to infect him.”
He had the attention of the entire room now, and his declaration was met with startled gasps.
“How could you do that to your own father?” Francesca blurted.
“Look, I know it’s forbidden. But it could be the only way to save his life, and maybe other lives too. Just carrying the infection won’t kill him, but it might be enough to make his blood useless for transmutations. And when he does die naturally, and he turns… he can decide for himself if he wants to go on as one of us.” A faint, bitter laugh shuddered out of him. “Anyway, he always did want to live forever.”
From the corner of his eye, he noticed that Hawkeye looked especially horrified by the idea. She had suddenly grown very still and pale.
By contrast, a pained smile crossed Bradley’s face, and he folded his hands on the table. “I continue to find your logic difficult to argue with, Edward. When we retrieve Hohenheim, if you do as you suggest… the Council will never hear of it from me.” He shrugged. “Assuming, of course, that a Council still exists to enforce our laws at all.”
“If it doesn’t, we’ll help you build a new one, Chief,” Havoc asserted. “One for a new breed of Hunters—to try to control what we’ve let loose. I still don’t know if using alchemy is the right choice… but one thing’s for sure, we’re in this all the way now.”
The words were sobering, and Ed had to admit they were true. Noa, Havoc, Bradley, Falman, and Francesca were not simply Hunters anymore; they were alchemists, and the knowledge they possessed would inevitably spread, even if those who feared it would fight to stamp it out. Yet those fears might be well-founded. There was no way of knowing how alchemy might change this world… and any destruction it caused would be a terrible new burden on Ed’s conscience, for he had made it possible.
But there was no time to think about those things yet. He needed to focus on saving his father—and possibly sending Envy into oblivion, if the homunculus found Hohenheim first. All while avoiding Hohenheim’s misguided intent to return Ed to a world he could only hurt.
His gaze shifted to the corner of the room where Mustang was fussing over Hayate. Cyclone. That was what they called him here, and just like the other, it was Fuery who had first picked him up as a stray. He was the Hunters’ best scent-tracking dog now, but as a pup he had barely survived among the large, vicious watchdogs in the kennels… except that Mustang had protected him. To this day, Mustang would steadfastly refuse to admit that Cyclone was his favorite.
It was the kinship of one misfit for another.
Slowly Ed wandered over to dhampir and dog. When his shadow fell across them, their tug-of-war over an old rag ceased, as Mustang let go of the tattered cloth and looked up warily. Upon seeing Ed, the one-eyed man sat back on his heels and stared blackly at the teenager.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” Ed asked. “That firebomb last night.”
Mustang’s expression relaxed into pensiveness, and he shrugged, tossing the rag aside for Cyclone to chase. “Just something I learned in the War.”
The beautiful symmetry of it all forced a chuckle from Ed. “Different world, different Mustang, and you’re still playing with fire…” He eyed the former soldier with a wan smile. “It was a pretty handy trick, you know. Maybe you’re not so useless after all.”
At that pointed suggestion, the other dhampir’s face hardened, and he dropped his gaze.
“You can’t hide from yourself here,” Ed persisted quietly.
Mustang glanced up sharply, making his best effort to look indignant. “I’m not hiding from anything. I just know my limits.”
“The only real limits any of us have are the ones we place on ourselves. It was the other Mustang who taught me that.” Ed bent down, bracing his hands on his knees. “Hughes gave you the chance to become everything you could be. If you failed him at first, that was just reason to try harder—not to give up.”
“Stop trying to make me out to be something I’m not—”
“If you weren’t what I think you are, you wouldn’t even be here now. When you were taken by that vampire, you wouldn’t have fought so hard to live that you were infected by it—and afterward, you wouldn’t have wanted to survive as a dhampir, to try to make the life you had left mean something.” Ed glanced toward Hawkeye across the room, saw her furtively watching them, and smiled bitterly. “You wouldn’t have wanted to protect her from vampires… or from yourself.”
Snarling a curse, Mustang lunged from his position on one knee. His fist made a furious upward jab. Ed caught the knuckles head-on in a steel palm and pushed back hard, shoving the older man gracelessly onto his backside.
The others were all watching now, but no one interfered.
“I guess it’s your choice just to sit there while the rest of us try to make a difference,” Ed growled. “But as long as you want to stay shut away here, watching your own back, you’re gonna do something useful.”
He drew his knife from his belt, pulled up his sleeve, and slid the blade across the skin of his own inner forearm. As drops of red blood welled up, he stretched out his arm toward Mustang.
The dog trainer stared at the gash with one wide and horrified eye. “What… I told you—!”
“Yeah, I know, you don’t want to do it. I heard you. And I don’t care.” Ed leaned forward, his eyes hard. “I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight. Maybe the rest of us will find my dad before Envy does… and if we don’t, maybe none of us will come back. If that happens, there has to be someone left who can still give the knowledge of alchemy to others. Since you want to stay behind—you’ve elected yourself.”
“I…” Mustang stammered weakly.
“No more excuses, Roy.” Ed held his arm closer to Mustang. “Take it.”
A shudder passed visibly through Mustang’s thin frame… and then, slowly, he sat up on his knees. His trembling fingers grasped Ed’s wrist, and after a long moment of hesitation, he lowered his lips to the wound.
For all it still disquieted Ed emotionally, the physical process had at least become much easier with experience. He closed his eyes, allowing the flood of memories to rise and crest, until Mustang pulled away from his arm with a spasmodic twitch. It was a relatively brief contact—but still enough to transmit the full sum of Ed’s life.
Clasping his metal fingers over the cut as it regenerated, Ed looked at Mustang… and his heart twisted. The other dhampir had wedged himself into the corner with his back against the walls, curling into a fetal position. His head was tucked down against his knees, and he appeared to be shivering a little.
Perhaps Ed had pushed it too far, after all.
“Just shut up.” Mustang’s voice was a hoarse mumble. “Leave me alone. I’ll be fine.”
Ed stepped back with a wince, starting to regret his insistence. After all, he had known this man’s double far better than any of the others—and felt much more strongly about him, in many ways. Perhaps that familiarity was simply too much, as it had been with Hughes.
Feeling a touch on his shoulder, he turned to find Noa beside him. There was no reproach in her gaze, but she shook her head gently, and her eyes shifted meaningfully toward the others. Her message was clear: let him be.
Reluctantly Ed turned and went back to the other Hunters, leaving Mustang to cope on his own.
“I believe the rest of us are ready,” Bradley said solemnly. “Edward—this mission is yours to lead, if you wish. We may have your knowledge, but you’re the only one of us who has actually practiced alchemy.”
The invitation was a little overwhelming… and yet, somehow, it made Ed feel even stronger. He nodded, thinly smiling his thanks at Bradley. Then his gaze singled out the three human Hunters: Sig, Hawkeye, and Breda.
“If we go up against Envy tonight, our lives are gonna depend on you three. Alchemy can only happen with your help… so be ready if we need your blood.” He glanced at his fellow dhampirs. “Remember, we’ve got to protect them, no matter what.”
Nods and murmurs of agreement passed through the group. Havoc, Breda, and even Francesca looked less than thrilled to be taking commands from Edward—but at least they hadn’t openly objected.
“Who’s handling Cyclone?” Ed asked.
“I am,” Hawkeye replied firmly. She whistled a sharp signal to the dog, and caught up his trailing leash as he trotted obediently to her side.
Of course… Ed half-smiled crookedly and nodded. “Okay. If that’s it, then…”
His gaze drifted anxiously back to Mustang. The older man had raised his head, and was watching the group; his face was strained, but his one dark eye was clear and steady.
“Get going, hero,” he muttered, and there was the faintest hint of something different in the tone of his voice. Something… familiar.
Teasing. He was teasing Ed.
A sudden swell of emotion rose in the teenager’s chest, and he broke into a smile. “We’ll be back.”
He could have sworn he saw Mustang’s lips twitch in return.
For a little while after the other Hunters left, Roy Mustang continued to slouch uncomfortably on the floor of the meeting room, letting his mind process the knowledge he had absorbed from Ed. The twinging in his skull was a natural side effect; but on another level, these memories made him hurt inside, in a way he had never encountered before when sharing the blood of other dhampirs.
It wasn’t so much the overwhelming raw information from the mind of the young genius: the mind-boggling complexity of alchemy, an entire alternate science. It wasn’t even the ghost-pain in Ed’s memories of half-dismemberment, of automail surgery and years of battle wounds. What haunted Roy most was seeing himself, in another world and another life, as a man he could scarcely recognize—and knowing that somewhere, this strong, arrogant figure who commanded flames with a snap of his fingers was a reality.
As for the feelings Ed associated with that other Mustang…
They were the most conflicted and wrenching perceptions Roy had ever felt. Contempt and aggravation jostled against respect and grudging gratitude, juvenile spikes of rebelliousness—and a suppressed ache of childlike need. Things Ed didn’t even feel for Hohenheim, he had felt for the man who brought him into the military, shamelessly taking advantage of his talents in one moment and fiercely protecting him in the next. The man who left an impression on Ed’s life that his own father never had.
No wonder the kid found Roy to be such a disappointment in this world.
Roy couldn’t imagine a more painful way to be forced to consider what might have been. As a dhampir, he was incapable of having children, even if he could have loved his Riza without the fear of hurting her. But if he could have… he would have wanted his child to see what Ed saw in the other Mustang. Not what Ed saw in him as he was.
And there was the friendship of the other Mustang and his world’s Hughes. Perhaps Ed wasn’t privy to much of it—but enough to know that a large part of the man’s reason for taking down an entire government was to avenge his Hughes’ death. It only made Roy more sharply aware of his failure to be worthy of the Maes he knew. Maes had saved him from slow torture, taught him to survive and offered him a life he could have been proud of, but the foundling had given his teacher nothing in return.
Yet his weakness back then, when Maes tried to make a strong Hunter of him, was nothing compared to his recent willful ignorance. If Roy had only listened to Ed’s warning and his own instincts, and intervened in Maes’ slide into madness, perhaps that great and gentle man could have at least been saved from becoming a rogue with the indelible stain of human blood on his soul.
A bitter smile fluttered across Roy’s lips. Ed—Fullmetal—was a cunning little brat. His gamble had gotten him just what he wanted. Roy could never go back to his safe, worthless life in the kennels now. Not with all of this seething inside him, crying out for some kind of atonement.
“You don’t look so good, Roy.”
The voice was as familiar as it was unexpected. It caused Roy’s eye to snap open, while a shudder crawled down his spine like a living thing. His fists tightened until his nails dug into his palms, and he swallowed hard.
Not this. Anything but this.
He forced his gaze to turn toward the doorway.
Maes was standing there. His clothing showed tears and faint splotches of dried blood, and his dark hair was disheveled; but his figure was tall and straight as ever, like the lean black line of some catlike jungle predator. Although his eyes were clouded and bloodshot as a drunken man’s, there was a restless alertness in the way they moved. One side of his mouth was turned up in a parody of a companionable grin that only made the feverish stare more terrifying.
Roy didn’t question how Maes had gotten into the building. This was his domain. He knew every inch of it better than the rest of the Hunters combined, and the guard dogs knew him. If he wanted back inside, no lockdown the Hunters devised would have kept him out—and they had never thought to mount such a defense against him in the first place. It was inconceivable to them that he would have returned there, knowing it was now their duty to put him down.
The question was not how, but why.
“Maes…” Roy murmured. He put his back against the wall and began to push himself to his feet, slowly and carefully, as if facing a wild animal. He felt irrationally grateful that the meeting table was between them. “It’s—good to see you.”
The rogue’s unhealthy grin widened a little. “You’re usually a better liar, Roy.”
This encounter could go in any number of directions, and Roy was certain not one of them could be described as good. He desperately wished he had his knife, or even one of Riza’s guns, but it was not customary for Hunters to carry arms inside their own headquarters.
It didn’t matter, anyway. Even if he had a weapon, he was sure he wouldn’t have had the nerve to use it.
“We… we heard you met Envy. We know he hurt you.” Roy breathed deeply. “Maes, whatever it is you’ve done—”
“I’ve been keeping an eye on this place, you know. I saw the others leave earlier, with Ed and old man Bradley leading the way. So interesting.” Maes took two steps farther into the room, his unsteady eyes narrowing on Roy. “They’ve gone out to hunt Envy, haven’t they? I know they have—but they can’t have him. I need him. He killed me before, took me away from my wife and daughter… but now he’s going to take me back to them.”
Roy swore under his breath. The lines had clearly blurred altogether for Maes now. He didn’t know his own life from that of the other world’s Hughes, or know Envy from the vampire that had murdered his family.
“Listen to me, Maes, you’re not—”
“I couldn’t make the alchemy work right. Didn’t do a thing to him.” The rambling rogue cocked his head strangely at Roy. “But if they’re going after him, they must have fixed it. And I need to know.”
With an effort, Roy quelled his rising feeling of panic. Maes didn’t know human blood was the key to alchemy in this world, or that a human life was the cost of opening the Gate. As long as he remained ignorant of those facts, he would only be dangerous to those who might physically confront him; but if he gained that knowledge, he could carry the dhampir infection to the other side, or perhaps unleash some untold horror on this world purely by accident.
“You’re wrong,” Roy bluffed quickly. “Alchemy still doesn’t work here. They went out to find Ed’s father… and I swear to you, that’s all.”
The chilling grin returned. “You’re lying again, Roy.”
Some part of Roy saw the attack coming, but he was completely unprepared for the animal ferocity of it. With leopard-like grace and a snarl that was nothing human, Maes sprang onto the table and over it in two massive bounds. His forearm caught Roy in the throat before the slighter dhampir could take a step, smashing him skull-first against the wall.
Roy saw stars… and then he felt the shock of fangs at his neck.
By the time the Hunters had left their fortress, the dhampirs smelled no trace of Hohenheim, but even their senses were no match for a dog’s—and if nothing else, Cyclone was certainly an enthusiastic tracker. Having been given the scent from one of Hohenheim’s changes of clothes, he took off at once, insistently straining at the leash in Hawkeye’s hand. The Hunters followed his wagging tail, letting him lead them at a pace that was sometimes just short of a run.
The streets they traveled proved not to be especially busy, but Ed was aware that they must have been a strange sight for the people they did pass under the streetlamps. Even in London, it couldn’t be every day that one saw nine very different figures all dressed in black, taking a dog for a none-too-leisurely walk in the dark.
However, in short order, Ed found something else to make him uneasy. He had no firsthand memory of the path they followed, but from Noa’s knowledge, he began to realize they were retracing the Hunters’ steps from the night before.
His suspicion was confirmed when Cyclone hauled them determinedly into a long and shadowed alley. The air was tainted with lingering traces of blood and smoke—and near the middle of the alley, Ed noticed a door set into the brick wall on one side. Its wood was freshly splintered by a gouge that penetrated clear through it.
Ed remembered the pain of a blade piercing his body, trapping him. His stomach lurched, and he looked away quickly, to see Cyclone prancing excitedly around a small spatter of red on the ground.
“Cyclone, what’s the matter with you?” Ed snapped at the dog. “All you’ve shown us is where Dad cut himself last night!”
“I don’t think so.” Francesca crouched to examine the ominous droplets, frowning. “Vato and I came back afterward to clean up—you know we have to do that when a dhampir is wounded, to keep anyone from coming in contact with our blood. But this blood is fresh…” She leaned down close and closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of the bloodstain through parted lips. “And it smells like Hohenheim.”
Ed’s heart twisted. “You mean he came back here?”
“It makes as much sense as anything,” Falman murmured grimly. “He wouldn’t know where to look for Envy. It’d be natural enough to start in the last place we saw him.”
“Then Envy found him here and…” Ed shut his eyes and swallowed hard.
Noa spoke to him, touching his shoulder. “Your father’s body isn’t here, Ed. He might still be alive.”
“He probably is.” Opening eyes that were suddenly hard, Edward clenched his fists. “If Dad wanted to use himself as bait, he got his wish. Of course Envy wouldn’t kill him yet. He’ll want me to find them first, so he can take us both together, and kill me while Dad watches… or maybe the other way around. But Envy is the one playing into Dad’s hands that way.”
“If the three of you are in one place, Hohenheim might find his chance to use Envy to open the Gate and send you through,” Bradley followed. He eyed Ed intently. “The rest of us have the knowledge to do this without you. Are you still sure it’s wise for you to continue?”
“Maybe not wise—but it’s what I have to do. If Dad is hurt too badly to make it, I… I need him to know…” Ed shivered and turned away, with an uncomfortable shrug. “Anyway, we can actually count on Envy’s help there. He knows Dad can still hurt him with alchemy. He won’t let him have the chance to try that again.”
Havoc let out a dissatisfied grunt. “Or maybe Envy’s taken Hohenheim’s blood. Then he’ll know everything about how alchemy works here, and exactly what Hohenheim wanted to do. Not so good for us.”
“Maybe. I’m just hoping Envy is as creeped out as I would be by the idea of knowing all Dad’s secrets.” Ed grimaced. “Somehow I don’t think he’d want Dad’s memories of…”
“Of his first son,” Noa finished for him softly. “The young man he meant Envy to be.”
Ed shook his head aggressively, as if to shake out the painful thoughts that were in it, and turned to Hawkeye. “We’ve gotta pick up the trail. It shouldn’t be hard. Envy wants us to follow it.”
“Right,” the woman acknowledged briskly, as she bent down to scratch Cyclone’s ears and murmur a command.
In response, the dog turned quickly to continue down the alley. His nose swiveled back and forth over the ground, and within moments he was pulling at his leash again, with eager whines and tail wags.
“He’s got it,” Hawkeye announced, and they were off again.
For nearly twenty minutes they continued to follow Cyclone—but the Hunters might have been able to find the trail even without his help. Here and there along the way, a few more drops of recently-spilled blood were splashed on the pavement, at intervals too regular to be random.
Envy was drawing them a map.
As the number of scarlet clues mounted, so did Ed’s sick feeling of anxiety. He could only wonder how badly his father was injured, and it felt to him as if hours passed before Cyclone pulled them away from the street, to cross the dirt and gravel covering the grounds of a construction site.
In the center of a fenced-in lot cluttered with building materials and heavy equipment, a half-finished structure rose several stories into the sky. Exposed girders and the towering steel framework of a crane stretched blackly into the moonlight from the topmost completed floor. Through blank openings where windowpanes had yet to be installed, a dim, shadow-filled light could be seen glowing from light bulbs inside the empty concrete shell.
Cyclone made straight for the gaping portal that was to be the building’s main entrance. At the threshold, a smear of blood stained the cement, much larger than any of the other droplets that had dotted their path.
“It seems Envy is advertising his address,” Bradley muttered grimly.
“Or marking his grave.” Ed turned to face the other Hunters. “Sig, Riza, Heymans… Stay close, and don’t try anything heroic. We need you alive to make this work—and if Envy has found that out from my father, you’ll be his first targets.”
Breda uttered an ambivalent grunt, but Sig and Hawkeye nodded.
“Okay…” For the first time Ed realized how strange it was, to have a heart that was utterly silent instead of pounding when he felt so tense and fearful—but his fear was not for himself. It was for Hohenheim, and for the Hunters. Noa and the others didn’t deserve to be caught up in what was, at its most fundamental, a monstrously ugly family matter.
Ed took a deep breath, drew his sword, and led the way into the hollow structure.
Beyond the entryway was a broad open space that would eventually be the ground-floor lobby. There were no furnishings or decorations, only a few abandoned tools and a pile of bricks sitting on the dusty concrete floor. The elevator shafts were empty black chasms with a flimsy line of rope tied across their openings as a barrier, but the steps in the corner stairwell lacked only a coat of paint.
At the end of his leash, Cyclone whined and jerked toward the stairs, but the Hunters no longer needed his help. Under stifling odors of mortar, sawdust, and machine grease, the dhampirs could smell Hohenheim… and blood. The injured man was not far away. At this range, they could track the scents themselves, and the trail led upward.
Quickly and quietly, the Hunters ascended to the second floor, and found themselves facing intersecting hallways. On this level, interior walls partitioned future office spaces, creating a maze that could hide danger around every corner. Only two light bulbs were strung at the opposite ends of the hall, casting precious little illumination into the dark rooms on either side, and the elevator shafts yawned open like twin abysses a few steps away.
There was a rust-colored smudge of blood on the wall facing the stairwell. Hohenheim’s scent was still strong in the air, and now, it was mixed with Envy’s.
“Another arrow pointing the way?” Bradley muttered.
“Or just bait in a trap.” Ed warily approached the bloodstain and reached out, nearly touching it, but not quite. The smell of it made his veins stir with a hideous yearning, and he silently cursed himself. He could still be almost as dangerous to his allies as he was to his enemies. On top of everything else, he didn’t need the fear of how he would react when they found his father, bleeding rich warm life…
His flesh hand clenched, thumping the plaster angrily. He shook his head and pushed away from the wall, as his automail fingers tightened their grip on his sword.
“Come on. We’ve got no choice but to search the whole floor. Let’s split up—two dhampirs to each human. Sig, you’re with Noa and me.”
The Hunters promptly reshuffled into three parties. Havoc and Francesca gravitated to Hawkeye, leaving Breda with Falman and Bradley. Then the groups separated, starting off down different hallways to make a thorough sweep of the rooms.
Ed and Noa moved with cautious slowness, inspecting the dark, empty offices around them. Rather reluctantly, Sig kept pace between them, positioned to be defended if a sudden threat appeared. It was clear that the brawny man hated being protected, instead of doing the protecting himself; but without him, the two dhampirs would be incapable of alchemy.
Only a few minutes’ search was enough to determine that the hallway and its bare rooms were clear, and the other two teams of Hunters met the same result. Either Envy had moved Hohenheim from that floor to another, or he had left the traces of their presence as a diversion.
“Nothing?” Ed asked tersely as the Hunters converged again by the stairwell, already knowing the answer.
There were murmured negatives and shakings of heads, and Francesca volunteered, “Only a really big spider.” She shuddered and grimaced. “I hate spiders…”
Noa scowled at her, and Ed couldn’t help half-smiling. His secondhand memories told him spiders were the one subject on which the two girls’ opinions sharply differed, leading to past heated arguments about their disposal.
“Okay,” he sighed, shrugging off the brief moment of nervous humor. “On to the next—”
His words were cut off by a sudden, loud rattling of metal from behind him, seizing the attention of them all. He turned to see a blacker shadow bursting out of the darkness of the elevator shaft.
The two seconds that followed were a blur to Ed. He saw golden hair and glittering fangs flying at him, and then something shoved him roughly to the floor. Bodies tangled above him with shouts and gasps and a few soft thuds. The nearest light bulb was smashed, abruptly dimming that end of the hallway.
As Ed clawed his way to his feet, he glimpsed Envy flowing into the stairwell.
Hawkeye had lost her grip on Cyclone’s leash in the confusion. The snarling dog raced after the homunculus, and she gave chase, ignoring the shouts of Bradley and Falman for her to stop.
Of course. Cyclone was her lover’s favorite dog, after all.
Bradley swore and went after her, followed by Breda and Falman. Ed was about to do the same; but that impulse was arrested when he glanced back at those who remained, and realized what damage was left in the wake of Envy’s tornadic passage through their midst.
Sig was leaning against the wall, his left hand clutching his upper right arm. It was bleeding fairly heavily from a deep gash. Havoc was nursing a cut on his left cheek as well, but his wound would heal rapidly.
But on the floor beside Edward, where Noa knelt…
Francesca lay cradled in Noa’s arms, her eyes wide and lips parted in an expression of quizzical surprise, her face paler than even a dhampir’s should have been. Bloodscent radiated from her, and Ed’s stomach turned as he faintly made out the fast-spreading stain on her dark clothes. Blood was pouring from her chest.
From her heart.
“No!” Ed gasped, falling to his knees beside the two young women.
A small cough shuddered through Francesca. Her eyelids fluttered a little, and her lips twisted wanly as her gaze turned up to meet Noa’s.
“Biggest… s-spider I ever saw…”
Her last breath exhaled softly as her eyes closed, and her body relaxed in Noa’s arms.
Noa bowed her head, hugging Francesca’s still form tightly against her chest. Her shoulders shook with silent tears.
“We’ll kill it for you,” the gypsy whispered tremblingly. “I promise.”
Ed felt a vast, sick hollowness open up in the pit of his stomach. He stood slowly, looking away from the grieving Hunter and her best friend’s body, staring at nothing.
Some leader you are, Elric.
Not now. He couldn’t do this, couldn’t indulge himself in the luxury of self-blame. He was still a leader here, and his people were in disarray. Half of them were pursuing Envy blindly, and two of those still with him were wounded.
His golden eyes rose gravely to Sig. The big man’s hand was clenched around his arm like a tourniquet. He was breathing hard from more than pain or exertion, and his pupils were dilated. He was trying very hard to look calm—but he was dripping with the scent of fear.
He had been cut by the same blade that pierced Francesca’s heart.
With a sudden cold resolve, Ed stripped off his gloves and approached Sig. His left hand touched the blood oozing from beneath the human’s fingers. Fighting back the vile urge to taste it, he drew a thick smear of it across the back of his automail hand.
His father’s repairs to the prosthetic had dealt mainly with small and complex moving parts in the fingers. The larger sections of outer plating on the hand and arm were still the original Amestrian steel, and if Hohenheim’s claims were true…
Closing his eyes in concentration, Ed clapped his hands together, and his flesh fingers touched the streak of blood on the metal.
Blue-white light flared beneath his hand. The upper surface of his steel fist warped and flowed, extruding four clawlike, inch-long spikes from the knuckles.
Sig watched, and his entire body slumped with the release of his breath. He didn’t need Ed to tell him what the experiment proved: Francesca’s blood had not been transferred to him on Envy’s knife. He was not infected with dhampirism.
Grimly Ed studied his handiwork, flexing the joints of his mechanical fingers under the claw-spikes. It was only a small transmutation, as much a test of this world’s alchemic technique as it was of the integrity of Sig’s blood—but it would not be without its uses. Before that moment, his successful use of alchemy would have been a thing of joy and wonder, but now he only wanted to push his newly augmented fist through Envy’s face.
“Noa,” he said tonelessly.
For a brief moment, Noa was still. Then she lowered Francesca’s body to the floor, slowly and gently, and stood up. Her face was awash with tears… but when she met Ed’s gaze, her eyes were a burning scarlet.
He had never seen that fury in her before.
“Let’s go,” she said, in a hard, steady voice. “Before we lose anyone else.”
Havoc lowered his hand from the already half-healed slash on his cheek. He started to speak, but Ed cut him off with a short gesture.
“Take care of Sig’s arm first,” the teenager said firmly, trying to pretend he felt even close to comfortable giving orders. “You can catch up with us then.”
“You can’t use alchemy without me,” Sig rumbled.
“We’ll make do until we find Riza or Heymans—but you won’t be any help if you bleed to death,” Ed snapped. He shot a final glance at Havoc, and was surprised to receive an intent, obedient nod. The older man’s belligerence toward him had vanished.
“Come on,” Ed murmured to Noa. He picked up his sword where it had fallen in the chaos of the attack, and straightened to move on toward the stairs…
Only to freeze as a tall, dark figure suddenly loomed into the doorway of the stairwell.
It wasn’t Envy. It was Maes Hughes, bloodstained and wild-eyed, with a sword clenched in his two-fisted grip.
“What the—?” Ed gulped, instinctively backing away and raising his own sword. Sig and Havoc shrank back against the wall as well; but Noa stood paralyzed between the Hunters and the rogue, her sword lowered halfway in uncertainty.
“Sorry for crashing the party.” Hughes grinned derangedly and took a step closer. “Cyclone was easy to track, you know. Especially after I had a friendly little visit with Roy.”
Noa gasped. “Maes, what did you do to him?”
“Nothing that won’t heal. I didn’t need to hurt him much. All I really wanted to know was how to make alchemy work, and I got that… plus a few other things.” Hughes’ fevered gaze shifted to Sig—and then to Ed.
“I wanted to use Envy to go home… but you’ll do, won’t you?”
With that, Hughes lunged, sword raised. Ed lifted his blade to meet the blow, but Noa intercepted it, bracing herself between them. Hughes’ sword clashed against hers, almost forcing her to her knees, and he growled in anger at the interference.
Edward started forward—and then, with an effort, he stopped himself. He didn’t dare move within Hughes’ reach yet, when a source of human blood was so near as well. One misstep in the narrowness of the hallway, one clap of the rogue’s hands, and his life and Sig’s would be over… and the Gate would be opened, to let Hughes and his poisoned blood carry the horror of dhampirism to the other side.
In a burst of inhuman strength, Noa shoved against Hughes’ sword with her own. He staggered backward, barely avoided being pinned by her blade, and came on again all the more savagely.
As Noa battled with the man who was once her protector, Ed shot a desperate glance at Havoc and Sig. The dhampir was wavering with sword in hand, torn between defending his wounded human comrade and moving to Noa’s aid.
“Jean, get Sig out of here!” Ed shouted.
Havoc flinched. “But—!”
“Hughes can’t transmute me without Sig’s blood! We’ll handle this—just go! Find the others!”
Reluctantly, the other Hunter obeyed. Noa had forced Hughes back a few steps, giving Havoc the chance to seize Sig by his uninjured arm and hustle him into the dark of the stairwell.
With Sig removed from the battle zone, Ed was free from the danger of becoming material for a transmutation. He lurched forward to join Noa, knowing his risk was now less than hers. If Hughes killed Ed, he would be forced to seek out Envy or another vampire as his key to opening the Gate, and one of those monsters would be far more difficult to subdue. For his own convenience, then, he would hesitate to harm Ed; but in his maddened rage, he might do anything to his own foundling who stood between them.
Hughes was larger than Ed or Noa, almost as strong as both of them together—and the tight confines of the dead-end hallway were a difficult space for combat, giving them no chance to maneuver around him for an attack from a different angle. He met their combined strike, parrying their blades, and shifted his weight to kick out at Edward. A swift contortion allowed Ed to avoid the kick, but it also threw off his balance. He stumbled against the wall and went down hard on his automail knee.
“Don’t make me hurt you, Noa,” Hughes ground out as he advanced on the pair… and there was something chilling in his low, rough voice. The words were a plea. She was the one person some part of him was still struggling to protect from his own madness, because a little of his life was in her veins.
“You’re the only one who can stop this!” Noa cried out, planting herself in front of Ed to shield him. “Remember how you felt about me, Maes. I can’t let you hurt my foundling—any more than you could!”
For a single moment, the words reached Hughes. His eyes softened, and he paused, the point of his sword sinking a little.
Then the moment slipped away, and with an animal snarl, he renewed his siege on their tenuous position.
His blows were less calculated, but more furious than ever. Noa gasped as her arms and knees buckled under the savage force of his swinging blade. She fell to her knees, unguarded for one instant, and Hughes struck the left side of her head with the blunt pommel of his sword. It was not meant to be a killing blow, but it was enough to bring her down, dazed and bleeding from her temple.
The sight of Noa’s fall caused a fresh rage to well up within Ed, pushing him past the restraint of mere defense and into a willingness to kill. He flung himself at Hughes with a wordless cry, aiming for the larger dhampir’s neck, but Hughes dodged the sweep of the blade. His sword came down hard on top of Ed’s, pinning it to the floor, and one fist launched upward at the teenager’s face. Although Ed recoiled, the punch still sent him sprawling beside Noa.
With eyes gleaming red, Hughes stalked toward them.
Suddenly he let out a screech, his body twisting violently. He fell forward onto his knees, one hand clutching his sword and the other clawing wildly over his shoulder, and Ed saw the handle of a knife protruding from the center of the rogue’s back.
“Miss me, Fullmetal?” asked a maddeningly familiar voice from the threshold of the stairwell.
Relief and joy blossomed in Ed’s heart as he looked beyond Hughes to the doorway, and saw Roy Mustang standing there. The one-eyed man looked shaken by what he had just done, but there was a trembling ghost of a smile on his lips.
Old habits rushed to the fore all too easily, and Ed bent his own smile into a dirty scowl. “Way to safeguard the secrets of alchemy, moron!”
“Yeah, well, some idiot tried to convince me I could be a hero…” Mustang flinched as Hughes reeled to his feet and staggered against the wall, still groping for the knife in his back. “Get out of here—I’ll finish this!”
Offering no argument, Edward stood, and pulled Noa up beside him. She was still stunned by the healing blow to her head, but as he rushed her past her snarling and writhing mentor, she jerked away from him slightly in resistance.
“It’s my place to do this—I owe it to Maes—”
“You paid your debt to him a long time ago.” Mustang reached out and seized her elbow, helping Ed to propel her toward the stairwell. “This is the last chance I’ll ever have to pay mine.”
At the doorway, Noa hesitated; and behind Mustang, Hughes finally managed to grasp the handle of the knife. He wrenched it out of his back with the roar of a beast, and turned to seek his escaping prey.
“Protect Fullmetal!” Mustang shouted at Noa, as he drew his sword and braced himself to face Hughes.
Those words were enough. With a shuddering half-sob, Noa tore herself away. She allowed Ed to pull her onto the stairs, and they hurriedly began to climb, as the sounds of clashing metal resonated from below.
A sudden movement above them caused Ed to tense instinctively, but it was only Havoc emerging from the fifth-floor doorway, as if he meant to come back to their aid. Seeing Ed and Noa below him, he quickly leaned over the railing. “You alright?”
“Somebody’s gotta help Roy!” Ed shot back imperatively.
“Mustang! He’s down there with Hughes!”
Falman appeared at Havoc’s side, and had the good sense not to ask any questions. He seized Havoc by the arm and began to haul him down the stairs.
“The others are up there,” Falman supplied quickly, as the two men passed Ed and Noa.
Upon reaching the fifth-floor landing, Ed could immediately see the rest of the Hunters through the doorway, grouped together in a cavernous open space where interior walls had yet to be built. Bradley and Breda were standing guard, while Hawkeye bandaged Sig’s arm. It was a relief to see the wayward human woman, and even Cyclone, who whined and paced restlessly at the end of his leash.
As Ed and Noa emerged from the stairwell, Bradley stepped forward. “Jean told us—”
“Yeah. Hughes,” Ed muttered. “Apparently he attacked Roy earlier… and Roy followed him here.”
Hawkeye gave a start. “Roy is here?” she gasped, and began to rise.
Ed clamped his steel hand on her shoulder. “You can’t go down there! Neither can Sig or Heymans. Any one of you would be half the material Hughes needs for alchemy. If Envy was to jump into that fight too…” He shook his head firmly and withdrew his hand. “Jean and Vato went back to help Roy. They’ll be alright.”
Reluctantly, Hawkeye accepted his insistence. Her shoulders sagged a little, and she turned to finish tying off the makeshift bandage on Sig’s arm.
Judiciously Ed avoided looking at the red-spotted cloth. “What happened up here?”
“Nothing.” Hawkeye’s voice was flat and hard. “Envy got away from Cyclone and me. I think he’s still climbing the elevator shafts somehow.”
“He’ll be back. Now that we have alchemy, I’m pretty sure even he knows better than to take us all on at once. That has to be why he’s playing this cat-and-mouse game—to pick us off one by one.” Ed scowled. “And he’s gonna have an even easier time now that we’re split up to deal with Hughes.”
“And still no sign of Hohenheim,” Bradley added. “We checked for his scent on the third and fourth floors, but there was no trace of him there. The trail still leads upward.”
“Envy could be with him now. He could decide he doesn’t need Dad now that we’re in his trap.” Ed clenched his spiked fist. “We have to keep going!”
“Shouldn’t we help put down Maes first—or at least wait for the others?” Hawkeye protested.
Bradley shook his head. “Edward is right. The more quickly we act, the better our chances of finding Hohenheim alive. Let’s move.”
Even as the nominal leader of the expedition, Ed was glad to have Bradley’s authority behind him. The others might have balked further at the orders of the teenaged interloper, but the Councilor’s word spurred them to obey without argument. Hawkeye and Breda helped Sig to his feet, and as a group the Hunters began moving toward the stairs.
Standing nearest to the doorway, Ed naturally fell into the lead, with Noa close behind him. His sword had never left his hands since they came up from below, but he gripped it more tightly as they approached the stairs. With each step, he deliberately filled his lungs with a breath, almost tasting the air for smells of danger.
The Hunters cautiously ascended. There were no scent traces at the sixth floor. The trail led on toward the seventh—and when they reached the landing half a floor below, they saw open sky above them. A draft of cool, fresh air filtered down, carrying the scents of Hohenheim, Envy, and blood.
Slowly and silently the Hunters crept up the stairs, and with his sword at the ready, Ed warily peeked over the edge of the landing. The seventh floor was the last completed level, making it the de facto roof of the unfinished building. The partial walls were little more than uneven parapets from which bare girders protruded, and to the left, the crane they had noticed from the outside rose up against a blue-black night sky. The only illumination was the light of the moon.
There was no immediate sign of Envy… but Hohenheim was slumped in the far corner. His arms were stretched out at his sides and his wrists tied tightly to a heavy girder, a binding that was clearly intended to prevent him from using alchemy. A powerful bloodscent rolled off of him. His downturned face was cut and bruised, his lips were torn, and his deteriorating flesh was visible through rents in his shirt: red and fibrous as raw meat, now cracked and bleeding from a monstrous beating.
He was still breathing, and that in itself was miraculous.
“Dad!” Edward gasped. All caution forgotten, he bounded up the last few steps and ran forward.
Hohenheim flinched and raised his head. His eyes flashed with sudden alarm, and he opened his mouth to utter a warning—but his voice was drowned out by an explosive, ear-splitting shriek and groan of tortured metal.
Ed turned in horror to see the crane falling, bursting the chains and steel straps that secured it. With the majestic grace of an ancient oak, the towering machine sagged and plunged forward… straight toward the opening of the stairwell, and the other Hunters who were just poking their heads over the edge.
Bradley and the three humans obeyed their instincts, diving back down into the stairwell as the crane fell; but Noa leaped forward, determined to stay with Ed. As she scrambled to escape from beneath the crane’s shadow, Ed’s shout of her name was inaudible beneath the screeching of steel, and he had no time to do anything else but hit the deck.
With a desperate lunge, Noa tumbled to her hands and knees and rolled aside, as the crane’s several tons of framework crashed down over the stairwell opening. The upper end sliced through one of the half-erected walls, raining chunks of brick and concrete to the ground seven stories below.
Cement dust billowed up, suffused with gravel and knifelike shards of flying metal that tinkled as they fell… and then there was silence.
Sick with fear, Ed seized his fallen sword, pushed himself to his feet, and stumbled forward. The dust stung his eyes and coated his throat when he inhaled a breath to call out. “Noa!”
“Here…” A shadow moved in the thickest of the dust. Noa sat upright, and as Ed approached her through the chalky cloud, he realized she was clutching the back of her right leg. Her coat had protected her for the most part, but a jagged piece of shrapnel had caught her in the calf.
“Easy,” Ed murmured, and bent down to lift her up in his arms, trying to ignore the scent of her blood. He slipped his flesh arm around her back to support her, and started to move; but as he turned to lead her toward his father, Bradley’s keen voice suddenly penetrated from beneath the wreckage of the crane.
“Edward! Are you alright?”
“Yeah, we’re okay—but Dad isn’t!” Ed shouted back. “Do what you can to get through. We have to get him to a hospital!”
The only response was a sound of scraping metal, as the Hunters on the other side immediately threw themselves into the effort of forcing their way through the tangle of steel bars.
At last the dust was settling, and Ed could see his father again. Hohenheim was still slouched in the corner with hands tied, but he was clearly more alert than before. His eyes were fixed on his son and the young Hunter, the two dhampirs who had come to rescue him.
“Ed…” he began waveringly.
A sudden flash of helpless anger at the entire situation sparked in Edward. He growled loudly and moved toward Hohenheim, almost dragging Noa as she limped beside him.
“Don’t you dare say anything! At least one person is dead now because you decided to be an idiot! This time you’re going to listen to me for once in your miserable life—so shut up!”
Hohenheim closed his bleeding mouth, visibly taken aback… and from behind the dhampirs, a morbid chuckle oozed through the darkness.
A chill rose in Ed’s blood, and his automail fingers clenched tight around his sword. He turned, awkwardly pulling Noa with him, but she let out only the slightest grunt of pain as her healing leg was twisted.
“A happy family, as always.” A dark form sprang up onto the top of the crane’s wreckage. Envy leaned into the moonlight with a bitter smile, and gave the torn metal beneath him a meaningful tap with his foot. “I knew you’d bring your friends—but this is a family affair.”
Very slowly and deeply, Ed drew in a breath, and whispered to Noa.
“Can you get to Dad?”
“Then protect him. But whatever you do, don’t untie him as long as I’m still alive.”
Noa gaped and clutched his arm. “Ed—”
“Don’t untie him!” Ed reiterated harshly, and pushed himself away from her, moving toward Envy with a singular deadly purpose.
He wasn’t even quite sure how this could possibly work anymore. The three human Hunters were cut off behind thousands of pounds of steel, and without them, he was as devoid of alchemy as he had ever been in this world. The only human blood within reach was his father’s—and he seriously doubted Hohenheim had enough blood left to survive the transmutation that would send Envy into oblivion. All he could hope was that he could hold his own long enough for the other Hunters to break through.
Envy leaped down from his perch and strode forward, drawing his own sword. His elegant, ruthless face glowed with an unholy anticipation.
“I’ve had enough of you!” Ed roared, and with all his might, he hurled himself at his father’s living sin.
Never in his life had Edward physically fought harder. Never before had he been able to fight so hard, with dhampir strength and reflexes fueled by instinctive, inhuman rage. The murderous power surging through his being was a drug unto itself, numbing the pain when Envy’s blade met his flesh, driving him to strike out all the more savagely.
For the Maes Hughes of both worlds. For Francesca and Noa and his father, for himself and for his brother. For every life that monster had ever touched in centuries of indulgent destruction.
Once again, Envy seemed startled by his underestimation of Ed. Between the relentless blows of Ed’s sword, his own blade landed only small swipes at Ed’s limbs and body, nicking automail plating and cutting fast-fading gashes into resilient undead skin. The strikes he sustained were equally minimal, but like a relentless swarm of insect bites, they maddened the vampire into lashing out ever more rashly.
Ed began to think he just might be able to keep it up long enough.
In the corner, Noa knelt beside Hohenheim, watching the battle with pain in her eyes; but at least for the moment, she obeyed Ed’s wishes, and held herself back from coming to his aid. Hohenheim strained uselessly at his bonds with whatever strength he had, pleading with her to untie him, but she would not.
Envy began to edge back from Ed’s furious attack. That apparent uncertainty aroused a new confidence in Ed, and the dhampir lunged—
The homunculus sidestepped abruptly. His left hand shot out, seizing Ed by the scruff of the neck to jerk him backward.
Something like an electric shock jolted through Ed. His sword fell from his open hand, and he looked down at his suddenly paralyzed body… to see the bloodied point of Envy’s sword protruding through his chest.
As Envy tore the impaling blade out of his back, Ed heard Noa scream his name, but he couldn’t answer her. His entire body seemed to have shut down, leaving him no voice, no movement, not even any pain. He crumpled forward like a broken doll, his open eyes staring toward Noa and his father, feeling only the strange sensation of his life gushing out of his punctured heart.
He knew this time would be the last.
Dimly he saw the crimson fire in Noa’s eyes, heard the sob that caught in her throat as she pressed her hands to Hohenheim’s blood-soaked shirt. She turned, clapped, and strode forward, and in that moment, all the gentle humanity in her was set aside. She became the monster Ed had seen in himself, but never in her: an enraged animal, a vengeful ghost with blood dripping from her hands.
One way or another, Envy seemed to realize the danger that blood posed to him. He hesitated for only a second, and then his shadow withdrew from above Ed. The homunculus leaped away and vanished over the top of the fallen crane, heading for the empty elevator shafts that remained unblocked.
Envy chose his battles cunningly. He would surely return before long, to finish off Hohenheim and Noa—but Ed could do nothing for them now. In a few more moments he would die, just as Francesca had died, for the heart was a dhampir’s one truly vulnerable organ. Its piercing was swiftly, inescapably fatal, and no amount of blood would regenerate that damage, even if there had been time for blood to be given.
For the first time since he was turned, he felt cold… and nothing else at all.
“Untie me, Noa!”
Hohenheim’s words arrested Noa in the act of moving toward Ed. The scarlet faded from her brimming eyes, and she turned despairingly from the son to the father.
“No matter how this ends, you know I won’t live to see the morning,” Hohenheim said, in a voice of firm and quiet authority that might have compelled a mountain to move. “You can’t save me—so at least let me try to save my son. Untie me!”
For a long moment, Noa hesitated… and then she surrendered, her bitter tears spilling over.
Moving as if in a daze, she limped back to Hohenheim, drew her dagger, and slashed the ropes that bound his wrists. He struggled to rise, and she pulled him to his feet, letting him lean on her as he stumbled toward Ed’s motionless body.
A mute, futile yearning to protest fluttered within Ed, but he was unable to express it. Darkness clouded his vision, and he could feel his body letting go of his soul.
Hohenheim fell heavily to his knees beside Edward.
“I never meant this,” he whispered, leaning down tenderly over his child. “And now I… I don’t know if my life is worth enough to set this right. All I can do… is try.”
The sound of a clap rang clearly in the night air. Hohenheim’s hands came to rest on the bare skin of Ed’s cheek and the back of his neck; and somehow, for a brief moment, Ed felt the warmth of his father’s touch.
A burst of light coruscated around him, like the heart of an electrical storm. Somewhere far too close to him, he heard Noa scream, and then his own lungs echoed her cry in a blood-curdling shriek as his soul slammed down fully into his body again—only to rediscover pain.
An agony beyond comprehension exploded in his chest, flooding outward into every fiber of his being. He choked and thrashed as his insides convulsed under the onslaught of alchemic energy, his undead flesh overwhelmed by its living power. At the very epicenter of the torment was his heart, throbbing dully beneath his breastbone as the transmutation closed his wound…
Yet the healing was not the cause of the most intense pain. Something more than mere regeneration was happening to him.
After seven days of silence, Edward’s heart had begun to beat again.
Maes Hughes had always been the most formidable of the London Hunters, but with madness to fuel him, he fought like a demon. He seemed untouchable, untiring, heedless of pain, and it was all three dhampirs could do to contain him in the second-floor hallway.
Vato was finished for the fight now, pressed tightly into the corner by the stairwell, clutching a deep sword wound that had penetrated between his ribs. He would live, but it would take blood and many hours of time to restore his internal damage and renew his strength. Jean had also lost blood from a slash to his shoulder, but he was still fighting as it healed—and Roy Mustang knew it was only because of them both that he was not yet seriously wounded. It had been a long time since he’d actively fought, and knowing they were more practiced, they had borne the brunt of the battle so far.
And yet, even now, Maes was not deliberately trying to kill them. He merely wanted them disabled, out of his way.
It only added insult to injury that he wouldn’t shut up.
“Get—back!” the rogue snarled, punctuating the words with staggeringly powerful blows against Roy and Jean’s swords. “Elicia is waiting for me!”
The other dhampirs had ceased trying to argue with Maes’ disjointed babblings, drawn from a mixture of his real memories, and those his mind fabricated from Edward’s less-than-intimate knowledge of his counterpart. Mostly it was that imagined life: shining and perfect, acknowledging no part of Ed’s peripheral awareness that the other Hughes had also endured the horrors of war and conspiracy. It was no wonder he longed so desperately to escape into that fantasy.
Painfully, Roy understood the desire to become the man Ed had known and in some ways idealized—but not literally. For himself, he would wish only to achieve that here, in his own world, by living up to Ed’s perceptions of Colonel Mustang’s better qualities.
Granted, Fullmetal thought those qualities were few and far between… but the ones he did see were worth wanting.
Beside Roy, Jean overbalanced and stumbled forward a step. The pommel of Maes’ sword caught him in the back of the head, and he dropped, stunned and groaning.
Now it was one on one.
“It’s not supposed to be this way, Roy,” Maes said, shifting his grip on his sword as he eyed the last Hunter standing. “We’re supposed to be friends.”
“I am your friend, Maes.” Roy’s voice trembled, and he swallowed hard. Knowing what he meant to do, it sounded like the hollowest, bitterest lie he had ever spoken; and yet it was true. The Maes he owed his life to would have been horrified to see himself now, as the murderous, tragic creature he had become. He would want his Hunters to stop him from hurting anyone else. He would want to be given peace, and he would be grateful to the hand that gave it.
At least his soul might find his real family waiting for him.
Roy struck, quick and hard, but his sword met the same unmoving resistance Maes had put up since the fight began. Indeed, Maes was the one who had made some progress, advancing a few feet closer to the stairwell doorway. If he broke through, he clearly intended to go on the hunt for Ed again—and Roy had a terrible feeling the kid’s mismatched hands would be full enough by now.
“Come on, Roy! There’s not a trick you know that I didn’t teach you!”
That at least came from Maes’ legitimate memories. It was also a fact Roy was all too aware of. He didn’t have a single move his erstwhile leader would not know how to counter.
Frustrated, Roy swung his sword with graceless violence. “Will you—stop—talking!”
Maes smirked. He adroitly flicked Roy’s blade aside, and punched the leaner dhampir hard in the chest with the knuckles clenched around his sword’s grip. There was no real breath in Roy’s lungs to be forced out, but the sheer power of the blow caused him to stumble back against the wall.
In the next moment Roy’s sword was gone, and Maes’ blade hovered below his throat, sharp enough to take his head off. Aside from a pierced heart, decapitation was the only guarantee of immediate death for a dhampir.
Heaving a sigh of genuine disappointment, Maes shook his head. “You never did want to listen to me.”
“I did listen,” Roy murmured faintly. “Just not until too late.”
A small, regretful shrug arched Maes’ shoulders. With an oddly apologetic look, he drew back his left fist for a sledgehammer of a punch…
And then he froze, his eyes darting away for an instant, as the simultaneous sounds of a gunshot and a woman’s scream echoed down loudly in the stairwell.
Roy’s insides twisted into a sick, tight knot, and he instinctively seized the second of distraction. He grasped Maes’ arm, forcing the sword away from his throat, and his right elbow plowed into the rogue’s jaw. Maes reeled backward, and Roy bolted for the stairs, suddenly faced with a far more intense and primal imperative than the duty of putting Maes down.
Sounds of a struggle led him upward. On the sixth-floor landing, he found Sig; the bulky human was bleeding from a head wound that smacked more of blunt trauma than a blade, and his right leg was visibly twisted, evidence of having been thrown down the stairs. In spite of his injuries, he was struggling to pull himself to his feet with the aid of the railing.
Seeing Roy, Sig turned his eyes upward, and spoke one word that explained all.
His fear intensifying, Roy rushed onward, only to find a monstrous tableau on the landing between the sixth and seventh floors.
Heymans was slumped halfway onto the lower steps, breathing but insensate from a blow to the back of his head. Councilor Bradley was quite literally pinned, both hands tugging desperately on the grip of a sword that had been thrust through his right shoulder and into the wall. And Riza…
Riza was limp in the arms of the nightmare that stood on the steps above the landing, his mouth fastened on her gushing throat.
The agonized shout prompted Envy to raise his head and look down at Roy, fangs bared and chin stained with blood. Without a word he slid Riza’s sword from the scabbard on her belt, and dropped her carelessly on the steps as he began to descend.
Roy felt his solitary eye flush scarlet, every particle of his being flooding with a dhampiric rage he had never dared to let himself feel before. He braced himself to spring at Envy like an animal.
Something hit him hard from behind, throwing him to his knees, and a tall figure swept past him.
He looked up to see Maes on the landing, hurling himself at Envy with a manic power that made his fighting down below pale by comparison. Even the vampire seemed to be taken by surprise at the rogue’s assault of snarling, frenzied hacking. Their blades clashed, and under the force of Maes’ heavier body, the astonished Envy tumbled backward onto the steps beside Riza.
A homunculus and a human: the two components necessary for alchemy, and the transmutation that would open the Gate.
With the stifled beginnings of a cry rising in his throat, Roy leaped forward, but he knew there was no time.
Maes’ sword clattered to the steps, leaving him completely unguarded for one all-or-nothing effort. He clapped sharply and reached down, his left hand clutching Envy’s jaw, his right hand pressing against the blood that flowed down Riza’s mauled neck.
One interminable second passed before something happened—but it wasn’t alchemy.
A single violent spasm arched Maes’ body as the point of a sword burst up through his back. For a moment he hung frozen on the blade, blood trickling from his mouth, his expression filled with a desolate, baffled disbelief; and then his rigid muscles relaxed. He collapsed heavily on top of Envy, and moved no more.
The vampire pushed him off with a growl and scrambled to his feet. Scarcely glancing at the other Hunters, he wrenched the sword from Maes’ chest and vaulted over the stairway railing, disappearing into the darkness below.
For a brief, trembling moment, the stairwell was gripped with the silent stillness of a world that had ceased to turn.
A dry sob choked abruptly from Roy’s lungs, and he stumbled across the landing. On the way he passed Bradley, who had paused his struggle with the blade that pierced his shoulder. The Councilor watched him sorrowfully, and said nothing.
One glance was enough to know that Maes was dead. His heart had been all but cleaved in two by Envy’s sword, killing him instantly, and his glassy eyes still held that final look of confusion and betrayal.
The alchemy he had poured all his hope and strength into had failed him, and he didn’t understand why.
Roy turned his back to that painful sight. He sagged down onto the blood-streaked steps between Maes’ body and Riza’s, and gently gathered the woman he loved into his arms. She was still breathing—but she would not breathe for much longer. Not with the left side of her throat torn open by Envy’s fangs.
Her eyes slowly opened to see Roy’s face. She gave him a tiny smile, and whispered, “Sorry…”
Bewildered and grief-stricken, he pressed his quivering fingers to her savaged throat. The very fact that she was not already dead, her blood consumed as fuel for the transmutation, was as inexplicable to him as it had been to Maes.
He shook his head dumbly. “It didn’t… Why didn’t it…?”
Sudden understanding gripped him, and his leaden soul was struck by a jolt so powerful, he almost let go of her.
Riza was infected.
It was the only explanation. Her blood was tainted, rendered useless for alchemy, just as Edward had meant to do to his father. Riza carried the poison of the dhampirs in her veins, and when her last living breath had passed from her… she would be one of them.
He wasn’t going to lose her—but she was going to lose a precious part of herself.
“You knew?” he breathed softly.
It twisted his heart to see that ghost of a smile deepen a little, as if she was glad of it. “A long time.”
Involuntarily he wracked his memory, trying to remember an occasion when she might have been exposed. He could pinpoint nothing. She had been injured now and then by the rogues the Hunters put down, but never had the blood of one of them mingled with hers. Perhaps she could have hidden such a thing from the others—but not from Roy. He alone knew her carefully hidden emotions too well.
“But—whose blood?” he whispered urgently, overcome with his irrational need to know.
For a moment, her smile positively glowed up at him. Her shaking hand rose to caress his cheek.
“Whose… do you think?”
Then Roy understood, and the horror he felt was suffused with an incredible wonder. He closed his eye tightly and leaned his forehead against hers, breathing the scent of her mortal life as it drained away—knowing now exactly what it contained.
His blood was the poison that would turn her. Somehow, at some point, Riza had obtained a little of it without his knowledge, and taken it into her own veins. Defying her knowledge of the torments of existence as a dhampir, she had deliberately infected herself with the monstrosity that was in him.
There was no need to ask why. He already knew the answer to that question.
Riza closed her eyes. Her breaths were growing quicker and more shallow, and the warmth of her body was fading. It would not be long.
The sound of running footsteps on the stairs below spurred Roy to raise his head sharply; but it was only Jean, looking somewhat dazed but unhurt. When he saw the carnage on the landing, he quickly averted his eyes and swore under his breath.
Bradley’s pain-roughened voice spoke, giving him something else to focus on. “Where is Vato?”
Jean blinked and shook himself. “He’s okay. Just too hurt to fight any more. I left him someplace safe. Sig’s still alright too—if he doesn’t break his neck trying to climb up here with a bad leg and a concussion.”
Unasked, he moved forward and grasped the sword that pinned Bradley, bracing one foot on the wall to pull it out. The Councilor clenched his jaw in pain as Jean worked the blade loose, and when it finally slid out of his shoulder, he sagged against the wall with a grunt.
“Edward and Noa were cut off above us, with Hohenheim,” he explained tersely, clutching his wound. “We were trying to reach them when Envy took us by surprise.”
Upon hearing that Noa was trapped, anxiety crept into Jean’s eyes, and he looked up the steps toward the blocked passage. “What’s happened to them?”
“I don’t know… but we still have to help them.” Grimacing painfully, Bradley straightened and began to move toward the steps. “Jean, see how badly Heymans is hurt.”
Rather reluctantly, Jean turned and knelt down next to Heymans. At his not-too-gentle prodding, the brawny human groaned and attempted to slap his hand away.
Still cradling Riza in his arms, Roy swallowed hard and looked up at Bradley. “Sir, shall I…”
“No.” The ranking Hunter gingerly reached down to squeeze Roy’s shoulder. “For now, take care of Riza—and stand lookout for Envy while we try to break through.”
With that, very carefully, Bradley moved past Roy and started up the stairs. Jean went after him, and a moment later, Heymans dragged himself groggily onto his feet to follow as well. In short order, sounds of shifting rubble and scraping metal filtered down from above.
Spent and aching in heart, Roy pushed himself and Riza a little farther away from Maes’ body on the bloody steps. It was unbearable to think that the same monster had taken the life of Maes Hughes in both worlds… and yet, at least he had spared the Hunters from the duty of putting down their leader, once the kind and courageous man to whom each of them owed all they had become.
It might have been the only act of mercy Envy had ever committed.
A soft whine caught Roy’s attention, and he smiled sadly as he saw Cyclone padding toward him across the landing. The dog was limping just a little, but he seemed to be otherwise unhurt. He sniffed gently at Riza’s still hand, and then he laid down faithfully beside his masters, resting his chin on Roy’s knee.
Roy absently ruffled the fur of Cyclone’s neck, heaving a deep sigh of exhaustion and bitter sorrow. Then he braced his back against the wall, wrapped his arms tight around the woman who loved him enough to be cursed for him, and proceeded to watch and wait—alone with the dog, the dead, and the not-quite-dying.
Ed wondered for a time if he had discovered the Hell designed especially for alchemist sinners.
He didn’t know how long he lay writhing, not entirely successful at holding back screams, as alchemic energy crawled through his flesh and organs and lit them ablaze from the inside out. It felt as if the very cells of his body were tearing themselves apart and melding together again. His lurching heart stabbed like a knife with each random thump in his chest; his lungs felt seared by every breath, yet they were compelled to suck in deep, desperate gulps of air. The process of coming back to life seemed to take just a little longer than eternity, and some primal part of him longed for escape into the nothing he had felt when he was only dying.
At long last, the torment did begin to subside. The liquid fire that was his blood started to cool. The unpredictable thuds of his heart steadied into a regular rhythm, and his ragged breathing quieted.
He couldn’t think or consciously move while in the full depths of the misery, not really… but somewhere along the line, his soul and body came to an abrupt consensus, and he jerked violently upright with a mouthful of scathing curses.
In contrast to the dull, hot pain that gripped him, he realized he felt cold—and that perception of discomfort was something startlingly new. The night air around him was cold, and the hard concrete beneath him was colder, and he truly felt the chill of it. He felt himself shivering from more than his pain, felt goosebumps rising on his warm flesh.
His human flesh.
The full realization crashed down on him in a shock of dazed wonderment. He was no longer a dhampir, an undead; his body was entirely alive. His heart was beating, his lungs craved oxygen, and his nerves felt raw with reawakened sensitivity. Every inch of his flesh was brimming with the bright, fresh tremors of life, filling the void where he had felt only silence within himself for the last week.
It was a life-energy that came from Hohenheim, transmuted from his own being and alchemically force-fed into his son’s lifeless body.
A lump caught in Ed’s throat, and he squeezed his eyes shut, struggling with a surge of anger and guilt and fathomless gratitude. It was a rare gift for a man to give life to his child twice. He wondered if Hohenheim could have anticipated this result of his sacrifice: the restoration of true human life, instead of dhampiric undeath.
Still, there was a limit to the terrible wonder he had performed. Ed carefully stretched out his right hand and left leg, noting the familiar weight of unfeeling steel without surprise or bitterness. His father’s life had not bought back his flesh limbs in place of automail… but that was alright. He had already received more than he ever would have asked for or expected.
On the scales of Equivalent Exchange, one life for another was an unusually generous bargain.
And yet… had it truly been just one life?
Ed remembered hearing Noa cry out as the transmutation took hold. His newly living heart skipped a beat, and his eyes flew open.
A panicked glance found Noa several feet away, curled fetally on the concrete, her face hidden behind her arms and her tumble of dark hair. She was sobbing and shivering, clearly in pain, and Ed’s stomach gave a horrified squirm as he wondered whether his father’s life had paid the price alone. Although Noa was a dhampir with no living blood to offer, perhaps Hohenheim’s human transmutation had aroused the Gate to reach out hungrily for more, to take something from her as well…
Choking back his own childish whimper of pain, Ed dragged himself to his unsteady feet and lurched over to Noa. As he collapsed on his knees at her side, he spoke her name softly, almost beseechingly. When she did not respond, he reached down to touch her. His steel hand clasped her shoulder, and his flesh hand slipped under her cheek to lift her head.
He felt dampness beneath his fingers—and warmth.
With a staggering shock, Ed realized the fitful heaving of Noa’s body was not simply due to pain. She was breathing, her lungs gasping for air between the shudders that wracked her frame. Her skin was warm, and her tears were hot, and the face he turned toward his was flushed with a beautiful, rosy tinge he had never seen there before.
The transmutation had not taken from her. Somehow, it had given the same gift to her as to himself.
Noa was human.
Any initial delight in Ed’s own change had been muted by the realization of its cost; but as he saw and touched Noa’s new living warmth, the emotions spilled from his heart. Seized with a thrill of nameless joy for both their sakes, he gently slid his arms around her and lifted her upright, pulling her close to him.
Her tear-filled eyes focused hazily on his, confused and frightened by the pain and the heat and the needful panting of her lungs. Ed suddenly realized that while he had existed as a dhampir for just seven days, Noa had known undeath for years. She had forgotten the very sensations of mortal life, and may not even have recognized now what was happening to her.
“It’s okay!” he exclaimed swiftly. On an impulse he hugged her to him fiercely, marveling at the sensation of her quick, fearful heartbeat against his chest. He spoke soothingly close to her ear. “We’re alive, Noa—really alive. We’re human again.”
She gave a violent start in his embrace, and buried her face against the crook of his neck—yearning not for his blood that pulsed there, but for the simple comfort of human contact. Her trembling hands clung to his shoulders with that instinctive need.
“Your father…” she breathed, her voice quivering with a renewed sob.
“Don’t, Noa.” Ed leaned his head back just far enough to search her eyes, cupping her cheek in his flesh hand. “It wasn’t your fault. It was his choice to make—and this was what he wanted.”
Struggling with a survivor’s guilt himself, Ed knew Noa must have felt even more torn, because she was the one who released Hohenheim and allowed him to perform the transmutation. He didn’t want her to feel she was to blame. Guilt was pointless now, and in the end, perhaps it was just as well that Hohenheim had gotten his way one last time. They both knew he was right: with his wounds, in his condition, they could not have preserved his life for more than a few short hours. In giving that life to them, at least he might have been able to feel there was meaning in his death.
His life had been worth more than enough, after all.
For a few long, bittersweet minutes, Ed was content to hold Noa and let her weep softly, as he attempted to come to grips with this new reality. He didn’t even try to make sense of his emotions; they would take much longer to heal. For the present, simply adjusting to his physical state would be victory enough, because there were things missing in him now that he had grown disturbingly used to. His body felt weaker and less quick to react, his perceptions dull and stifled. Without the extraordinary added dimensions of awareness his dhampiric senses had given him, he felt almost shamefully vulnerable and uncertain of his surroundings. Even his normal human strength had been sapped by the trauma of the transformation, leaving him exhausted and still in considerable pain.
It was a dangerous condition to be in. He couldn’t forget that Envy was lurking somewhere nearby—and having failed twice to defeat him as a dhampir, Ed feared the thought of how he would fare against the powerful homunculus now.
Ed lifted his head with a frown, straining his feeble human sense of hearing, and heard exactly what he had thought he heard. Rough scraping sounds, coming from the stairwell opening beneath the wreckage of the crane. The other Hunters were still trying to dig their way through.
A hopeful gladness buoyed his spirit, and he squeezed Noa’s shoulder gently. “Will you be alright?”
The gypsy sniffled and pulled away from him a little, wiping her eyes with a dust-streaked sleeve. As she looked up at him, the tension of pain was still in her face, but she managed to give him a smile that was not completely unconvincing. “I… I think so.”
“Okay. The others are trying to reach us—and we’d better see what we can do to help. We’ll all be a lot better off if we can face Envy together when he comes back again.”
Safety in numbers was the credo of the Hunters, and this night had proved the value of that strategy to Ed. Invariably, vampires and even mere rogues were solitary predators; but Hunters typically fought as a team, overwhelming their adversaries until someone could succeed in getting close enough for a crippling strike. Even Envy knew he could be brought down if he faced them all at once. There might still be casualties, but if they just had the chance to combine their full strength against him, one of them was sure to reach him.
They had gained another advantage, as well. Unlike the dhampirs who still required the blood of human partners to transmute, both Ed and Noa would now be able to perform alchemy alone, using their own blood.
With a grimace at the burning ache that still lingered throughout his body, Ed pushed himself to his feet, and offered Noa his flesh hand to help her up. After rising, she did not let go, but stared down with a tender pensiveness at his hand that lay in hers.
“You wouldn’t have to be afraid to go home now,” she said softly.
Ed breathed a quiet sigh and slipped his fingers from hers. Placing both of his hands on her shoulders, he sought her downcast eyes.
“But I still can’t,” he answered steadily. “Opening the Gate would still cost a human life—and you know I can’t accept that. We’ve got to study the alchemic processes here, to find out if there’s some way to do it without paying that price.”
He chose not to tell her what he further resolved in that moment, as he looked at her sweet, troubled face. If they ever did find a way to cross to the other side without hurting anyone… he would take her with him. In Amestris, she could find the peace her own dark world of monsters and blood had never allowed her to know.
For now, any such future was still too far beyond the horizon to consider. The solution could take years of research to discover, if it existed at all; and in the meantime, he meant to keep his word. He may have been human now, but it was still his choice to be a Hunter, to join Noa and the others in protecting their world for as long as he shared it with them.
To his surprise, he was alright with that. It was painful and dangerous work, but he would be in the best of company.
His only regret was that he couldn’t let Al know he was okay.
“Come on,” he said softly, tugging at Noa’s sleeve with a wan smile. “I think we’re gonna have a lot of explaining to do to the others.”
A little reluctantly, he turned and moved toward the wreckage of the fallen crane, stopping only to pick up his sword. He had dropped it when Envy felled him, and it lay beside a horrific splash of scarlet where dhampir blood had earlier spilled from his heart. Even with his blunted human sense of smell, he was aware of its scent, and it made him a little nauseous.
No longer would he hunger for blood. No longer would he fear the light of the sun… or the awful, animal darkness he had known within himself. It was a precious thing to be free of those monstrous bonds of dhampirism, even if he was now far less powerful and more fragile.
When they reached the tangle of metal that was the crane’s crumpled frame, Noa stood watch as Ed cautiously climbed halfway up onto it—feeling just a little sorry that he had lost his dhampiric night vision. Peering down in the moonlight, he could see through a small gap the other Hunters had carved out of the scrap metal. Havoc and Bradley were in the stairwell directly below, attempting to pry steel bars out of the way without causing the whole mess to crash down on them.
“Hey! Is everyone okay?” Edward called out.
Both dhampirs looked up in surprise, and Bradley drew a breath to speak; but he paused as Ed’s altered scent registered, and his eyes widened. At his side, Havoc mirrored his incredulous expression.
“You’re—!” Bradley gasped.
Ed cut him off quickly and grimly, feeling a sudden sense of guilt, because he could not share with the others the wondrous cure he and Noa had received. “Yeah. Somehow, my father did it… and we lost him. But Noa’s human now, too.”
He was keenly aware of the torn expression that crossed Havoc’s face, an impossible combination of joy and grief. Because his unrequited love for Noa was so startlingly genuine, he would rejoice at her release from the curse of dhampirism—but he would also be thinking he had forever lost all chance of winning her. Just as Ed had observed between Mustang and Hawkeye, Havoc’s suppressed desires could now endanger Noa if he failed to control them, to avoid being pulled down too deep by her scent or the chance touch of her skin.
Ever the intently focused professional, Bradley swiftly gathered his wits. His shocked expression grew more solemn, and he inclined his head.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your father. He was… unique.” The Councilor glanced over his shoulder, as if taking stock of the situation below, and glanced back up at Ed. “In answer to your question—Envy attacked us, and we’ve suffered several injuries. Maes Hughes did not succeed in an attempt to open the Gate, and Envy killed him. And Miss Riza…” He paused, searching for words, and a sorrowful smile twisted under his mustache. “She will soon be Roy’s foundling.”
The meaning of those words was all too clear to Ed, and he squeezed his eyes shut with a curse. “Then Envy’s still alive?”
“Unfortunately so. This two-person system of alchemy is something of a problem. He managed to take down our human associates before any attempt could be made to transmute him.”
“Problem solved,” Ed muttered fiercely. “Noa and I both know alchemy, and our blood is human. If we can get close enough, one of us can kill Envy by ourselves—but our odds’ll be a whole lot better if we’ve got some of you to cover us.”
“We’re working on that. I think you should be able to slip through this hole in a few more minutes.”
Edward eyed the few inches of opening the Hunters had so far succeeded in creating—and an old irascible spark flickered in him.
“Who’re you calling small enough to fit in a thimble?”
A familiar voice drifted up from somewhere farther down the stairs. “You, Fullmetal…”
Mustang sounded tired and strained, rather as if he was desperately grasping at humor to stave off tears. Knowing now what had happened to Hawkeye, Ed could understand, and he was instantly sobered.
“You’re gonna pay for that,” the teenager retorted in a soft voice, gently playing along. “Once we take care of Envy, I’m kicking you all the way down those stairs.”
Ed heard a weary half-chuckle in response, and his heart lightened a little. Mustang was coping remarkably well. He would never have wished for Hawkeye to become what he was, but at least that painful barrier between them would soon be gone. And as his foundling, the poor woman would have him to guide her in the ways of dhampir survival…
Somehow, Ed suspected Roy would be a fine teacher.
With a halfhearted smile, Ed sheathed the sword that was still in his hand. Very carefully he began to help widen the hole from the upper side, tearing broken pieces of metal from around its edges.
“Look out, Ed—!”
The warning cry came from Noa, and Ed instinctively turned, reaching for his sword. He was just in time to see the glow of red eyes as a dark shape retreated, springing backward across the concrete.
For a moment Noa’s body was braced halfway in front of Ed, in the place where she had rooted herself to shield him… and then she sagged backward with a soft groan. He caught her as she crumpled against him, and his eyes swiftly searched her limp, trembling body.
Her eyes were wide with pain, her breaths short and harsh. She was clutching her left ribs with both hands, but the pressure did little to staunch the bright blood welling up between her fingers.
A single shudder passed through Edward, as a burning chasm of rage and despair gaped open within him.
He looked up at Envy. The homunculus stood halfway across the open space with sword in hand, his black cloak and golden hair flowing in the night breeze… and he was smiling.
Had he wanted to, he could just as easily have taken Ed in his attack—but he hadn’t.
“Why?” Ed screamed at him.
“Because I missed the satisfaction of killing the old man. Because it’s more fun when you really have something to fight for… and because I want to end this.”
Inside himself, Ed suddenly felt a cold, deathly stillness, even deeper than the void he had known as a dhampir. He bent down with Noa in his arms, and gently settled her against the wreckage of the crane.
Noa gasped and shifted feebly, her bloody hand reaching up to clutch his wrist. “Ed…!”
Ignoring the soft plea, he straightened. The claw-spikes of his automail fist dug into the flesh of his left palm. He clapped hard, heedless of the pain, and pressed his bleeding hand against the plating of his right arm.
The steel rippled beneath a haze of pale light, erupting into a long, familiar blade.
Envy’s eyes widened—and Ed realized his renewed ability to perform alchemy alone was one thing the vampire had not expected.
With a savage cry, Ed launched himself at Envy. His blade threw sparks as it smashed against Envy’s sword, and the homunculus fell back a step, displaying a level of caution he never had in their previous encounters. He knew now that Ed had discovered how to hurt him.
Dhampir instincts were dying far harder in Ed than the physical traits. He may have lost the strength and speed he had possessed before, but something of the animal fury was still in him, a primal protective drive unleashed by the sight of harm to someone he cared for. Under any other circumstances, that lingering impulse would have disturbed and dismayed him, but now he welcomed it with all his being.
His. Noa was his, and Envy had hurt her… and now Envy would pay the price, the store of life-energy within him transmuted to save her. There was nothing left in Edward’s heart but that resolve.
She would live, even if it cost his life as well. She would feel the warmth of the sun again, even if he never did.
In spite of Envy’s new awareness of his vulnerability, he still had sheer physical power in his favor. Their blades clashed, and he shoved Ed backward, forcing him to stumble against the fallen crane.
“Don’t fool yourself.” Envy stalked forward, his eyes blazing. “You’re nothing but a human pipsqueak again. You don’t have a chance. Give it up—and I might make it quick.”
Between gasps for breath, Ed smiled bitterly.
“Go to hell.”
A snarl of rage rumbled in Envy’s throat. He rushed forward, swinging his sword furiously against Ed’s blade, and it was all Ed could do just to parry the overwhelming blows as Envy struck repeatedly. There was no chance for him to bring his hands together, much less to reach out and touch the cold flesh of the homunculus.
Under the onslaught, Ed was nearing the limits of his frail human body, his battle-scarred automail. The shock of a particularly massive blow coursed through his entire lean frame, and he felt something in his mechanical arm begin to give…
The collapsed framework of the crane suddenly buckled and groaned, parts of it sagging as the Hunters below continued their struggle to force their way through it.
For a single instant, Envy’s focus on Ed faltered.
Unthinking and unfeeling, driven by pure instinct, Ed seized the one and only chance he would ever have. He lunged forward, and thrust his blade upward into Envy’s chest.
Envy screeched and twisted away, causing the battered blade to break off of Ed’s arm entirely. He clawed at it as he reeled backward; and then, to Ed’s astonishment, the vampire suddenly toppled, stumbling over something that moved on the concrete behind him.
That something was Noa. Unnoticed by the two combatants, the wounded Hunter had crept closer to their battle, and one glimpse of her hard, determined eyes was enough to fill Ed with a horrified comprehension.
He heard an echo of his own desperate clap as he threw himself forward. His automail arm stretched to its creaking limit, the hand reaching out for Envy’s face.
A sudden scream of earth-shattering agony erupted from the homunculus… but it was not Ed’s hand that had touched him.
Then an explosion of light and a physical shockwave hurled Ed backward.
For a timeless moment, there was silence and stillness, but Ed could feel the pulsation of an immeasurable alchemic energy in the air. It was a dark, terrifying power, a thing he had felt just once before, in the desert on the outskirts of Lior—and he knew. Before he raised his head, before he shook the blackness from his vision and saw Noa… he knew.
Envy was gone, his deathless body and sadistic mind utterly erased from existence; but Noa was kneeling a few feet from Ed, her back partially turned to him. Her head was sunk over her chest, her arms were wrapped tightly around her body, and her ribs heaved with painful, rasping breaths.
At Ed’s cry of her name, Noa flinched and stumbled to her feet, still clutching her wounded side. She turned to him, slowly and unsteadily, and the nightmare he had sensed in the deepest part of his alchemist soul was confirmed.
The eyes that met his, streaming with tears of pain and apology, were luminous with a soft scarlet light. Her tears themselves glowed with it. Even the blood that was still seeping from under her hand glowed.
From the life-energy Envy had consumed through the centuries, Noa had transmuted a Philosopher’s Stone within herself.
Sick and shaking with horror, Ed pushed himself up from his knees and took one step toward her. He vaguely heard more shifting of steel and concrete behind him as the other Hunters began to break through, but his mind scarcely even acknowledged their existence. There was nothing else in that moment but Noa, radiating a vast power that was not even supposed to exist in this world—and yet still damaged. Still dying.
“Noa, use the Stone to heal yourself!” he pleaded, his voice quivering with a desperate tremor.
A faint, sad smile twisted Noa’s lips, and she slowly shook her head. She took a deep breath, and clapped her hands firmly; and the scarlet light that spilled from her grew brighter, spiderwebbing across her skin in the form of intricate lines and symbols. They were alchemic equations, and although Ed could see only a small visible portion of them on her face and neck and hands, their purpose was as clear as day to him.
The array she had made of her flesh and blood invoked the Gate. She intended to open it, transmuting her own body as the key.
She staggered toward him. Had he possessed any sense, perhaps he would have backed away from her, but he could only stand paralyzed by shock and grief.
Within a step of Ed, she swayed faintingly and tipped forward. He reached out instinctively to catch her—taking care, even in the panic of that moment, to make no contact with her exposed skin. He remembered all too well the way it was before, when Al carried the Philosopher’s Stone in his armor. As an alchemist, even Ed’s slightest touch might cause a dangerous reaction.
As he cradled Noa awkwardly in his arms, she let out a deep sigh, and her broken smile softened. He held her close enough now to see her eyes through the light of the Stone that shone from them, and they were filled with perfect peace.
“Don’t do this,” he gasped roughly, his throat tightening as his own tears brimmed. “This isn’t your fate!”
“No.” Her voice was a trembling whisper. “This time… it’s my choice.”
“My work is finished, but yours… hasn’t even begun.” Noa closed her eyes, hiding their scarlet glow from his sight. “Remember this world, Ed. Take the truth to your people… and save mine.”
Ed felt his tears spill over. “Noa, please—!”
He was able to say nothing more. Noa’s hands came together behind his back, completing the circle, and her dark world fell away from him in a blaze of golden light.
For an endless age that followed, Ed knew only the sensation of plummeting upward, tumbling through that infinite glowing haze. Somewhere within himself he was screaming, he was weeping, a part of him desperate to give back what Noa had given for him, another part of him simply yearning for escape from the terror of the void; but he couldn’t even feel his own body, much less control it. An irresistible force dragged him onward, caught up like driftwood in a vast current of pure, surging energy.
The energy released by death on Noa’s side of the Gate—a ceaseless torrent flowing through to the alchemic world, pulsing with the limitless potential for good or evil.
An unknowable portion of forever passed before his senses rushed back into his flesh, and he felt his movement halted with a sharp tug on his automail. He could suddenly sense he was not alone. Something was moving around him, beneath him, anchoring him by his metal arm.
He looked down… and this time, he did hear his own scream.
Myriad unblinking eyes stared up at him. Grasping, oil-black fingers crawled over his automail arm, inquisitively caressing hard steel, finding no flesh to seize and questing on toward his shoulder. The guardians of the Gate, or its parasitic invaders, or whatever they were: all-knowing and yet knowing nothing of human life, hungering for flesh to give them feeling in their eternity of nothingness. Whether they consciously sought a toll for passage, or only preyed instinctively on any life that came near them, it didn’t matter. The consequence was the same.
Ed thrashed and struggled against their swarming clutches on his arm. The rushing tide was in his favor, pulling his body away from them, but their grip was inescapable. They clung and groped, reaching up greedily in search of skin and blood and bone to sear away.
Something had to give, and it was the automail that finally did, the entire mechanical limb tearing away from its connection port at the shoulder. A cluster of half-existing voices snarled angrily as the inert metal crashed down into their grasp. It was not what they had wanted.
For a split second, Ed felt the current begin to sweep him clear of the writhing entities, but the freedom was short-lived.
Icy fingers seized his right ankle, slithering over his skin. His body was jerked down again, and more monstrous hands latched on, drawing him toward their midst to divide his limbs and organs among them.
With a final sob of agony and despair, Ed closed his eyes. Noa had sacrificed her life for nothing, and now, this was how his life was to end. His body would be torn apart by these monsters of the Gate, and his soul… he didn’t know what would become of it. Perhaps they even had some way of taking that. Perhaps it would exist forever here, untouched or discarded by them, disembodied and helpless. Or perhaps, if he was truly lucky, it would find the release of death when its mortal shell was ripped to pieces.
As a dozen hands pawed over his chest, he braced himself for the living torture of his heart being torn out.
Suddenly, with demonic, shrieking wails, the creatures around him shrank back… and a supernova of warm white light forced his eyes open.
The piercing scream awakened Winry from an illicit sleep at Al’s bedside—for in spite of her promise to monitor his breathing, she had begun to doze unknowingly after the exhausting fear and grief of the day. As her eyes blearily opened, she felt a slight, insistent weight press against her, almost falling into her lap.
She blinked her vision into focus. Al was standing beside her chair, gasping, frantic, clutching her shoulders.
Al was standing.
A sharp gasp fluttered from Winry’s lungs, and she instinctively reached out to put supportive arms around the boy. His rail-thin body was quivering with more than a surge of emotion, and he leaned into her heavily as she held him; yet he was out of his bed and standing on his feet, when a mere few hours earlier, he had hardly possessed strength enough to breathe.
General Mustang was sitting on the other side of the room, and Winry noticed the way his hand was frozen halfway to the pocket that held his gloves. There was still confused astonishment on his face, but he had registered that there was apparently no danger. His glance shifted to the doorway as Izumi and Sig, and then Mason, and finally Major Hawkeye crowded into the bedroom, each halting in wonder as they too saw the sudden change in Al’s condition.
“What—?” Winry stammered, her gaze traveling up and down Al’s no-longer-bedridden figure in baffled wonderment.
“Ed! He’s come back!” Al shrilled wildly at her. “Brother is back!”
He was brimming with an excitement that almost bordered on panic. His eyes were fever-bright, and Winry could feel his heart hammering as he leaned against her.
Maybe he was confused, not fully awake. Maybe he had dreamed of Ed again…
Yet a mere dream would not have given him the renewed physical strength to sail out of bed and pounce on her, to cling to her so fiercely.
Then Winry began shaking—because she knew.
Izumi provided the clear head the moment required. She strode forward firmly and turned Al to face her, gripping his shoulders as she looked into his eyes.
“You know?” she asked simply.
“Yes.” Al caught his breath, his eyes suddenly brimming, a hundred emotions chasing themselves across his expression. “The missing part of me is inside me again. I can feel it. I’m not dying anymore. My soul is healed, and I… I remember. I remember everything.”
It was true. All of it was there to be read in Al’s face. His body was still a child’s, but he was not the lost and bewildered boy they had known since Ed’s disappearance. Behind his intent, shining eyes was the Al who had been strengthened by his years within steel, the Al who knew himself fully—and knew the full meaning of his brother’s love and sacrifice.
For a moment, there was a breathless silence in the room.
Then, downstairs, the telephone began to ring.
Edward awakened slowly, drifting up from a peaceful darkness, and the first thing he felt was soft warmth.
His senses gradually checked in. There was a quiet stillness around him, and familiar smells, although he couldn’t quite identify them. All they meant to his reluctantly roused subconscious was someplace safe, and for the moment, that was enough to know. He felt no hurry to part with this untroubled rest.
It took some time for the memories to connect with his brain—but when they did, they slammed down hard and fast.
His father, and Envy, and Noa… and the Gate.
As his heart gave a sudden lurch, his eyes shot open. He remembered hungry obsidian creatures swarming over him, his automail arm being torn from its socket—
Three inches below his chin, a steel hand was resting on his bare chest. It shone with polished newness, as did the arm it was attached to… and that arm was very much attached to him.
In a haze of wonderment, he exerted the effort of moving the hand, and its fingers clenched in response to his will. It was a little bit stiff, not yet broken in—but the feel of its gifted workmanship was as familiar as his own flesh.
He suddenly felt himself begin to tremble, inside and out.
Now he knew the aromas in the air. There was only one place he had ever known to possess that curious mélange of spiced apples, machine oil, and old books.
This was Resembool, and the home of the Rockbells, and the very bedroom where he had spent a large part of his childhood.
Even as his half-awake mind reeled with that discovery, he felt a double shock in the realization that he was not alone. His bandaged flesh hand was clasped tightly in the hand of another; but the fingers entwined with his own were not made of rough leather. They were soft, and warm, and oddly small.
Ed swallowed hard and turned his head, to find himself looking into the soft brown eyes of his brother.
He was years younger than he should have been, and he looked thin and pale, as if he had been ill—but these things could not even begin to disguise him from the brother who loved him, who had cherished his face in memory for seven years. It was Al, warm and alive in his own flesh and blood, and he smiled crookedly as his eyes brimmed with tears.
Shaking, Ed struggled to sit up, with a choked sound that managed to vaguely resemble his brother’s name. “Al…”
And that was where his words began and ended, because Al flung himself at Ed, clinging to his neck and all but crawling into his lap.
Overwhelmed, Ed wrapped arms of flesh and steel around Al’s small but blessedly living body, and the emotions became too much to contain. He laid his head on Al’s shoulder, clutching him desperately, feeling his warmth and listening to his heartbeat… and he wept.
For ecstatic gladness, and for bitter grief. For the sheer joy of homecoming, and of finding Al at his side, no longer imprisoned in steel. For five years of mutual pain and struggle, and the two years they had not shared, and the sins that were the cause of it all. For the horror and guilt of the things he had experienced as a dhampir. For the other world that suffered for alchemists’ crimes against nature, and the terrible truth he was sent back to bring to light. For their father, and for Noa.
Al cried just as freely, his wet tears on Ed’s shoulder as precious as jewels. He petted Ed’s hair and murmured soft words of comfort.
“You’re home, Brother. It’s okay. It’s over. I won’t ever let you go again. You’re home.”
Ed thought if he could just hold Al and hear those words for days, he might finally start to believe it was true.
Eventually, Ed pulled Al back from him and shamelessly indulged his need to touch, to ground himself in the reality of his brother’s physical presence. As a blind man would, he traced Al’s face, fingertips gently exploring his nose and lips and eyelids. He ruffled Al’s hair—a shade or two darker now than he remembered. He felt Al’s hands, squeezing his fingers, rubbing the lines of his palms.
Al responded in kind; and when he touched the new automail arm and the old scars around its port, finally able to feel with his own hands the heavy burden of Ed’s sacrifice for him, he cried again. Then it was Ed who whispered soothingly, and the act of giving comfort quieted his own emotions far more than receiving it ever could have.
He was hesitantly beginning to accept what his heart and senses were telling him. This was no dream or illusion. He was home, and he was with Al again… and although the price of this gift was more than he could ever repay, he already knew where he should at least begin to try.
At long last, when that first flood of tears was spent, the brothers sat talking through the night. They told each other everything of the last two years of their lives, leaving nothing out. In the process, each had occasion to weep a little more: Ed when he heard of the unnatural illness that had almost cost Al his body or even his life, and Al when he learned of Ed’s dark suffering and their father’s self-sacrifice.
But all of those things were past now, and could never truly hurt them again.
Al was also able to fill in the gaps in Ed’s understanding of exactly what happened after his return. Evidently the Gate had disgorged him there in Resembool, on the nearby hillside where their childhood home once stood—a telling fact that made Ed squirm with a sort of embarrassment, although Al just smiled knowingly and made no comment on it. In any case, Ed was found there with his automail arm missing, still covered in the dust and dried blood of his last battle in the other world, although the only wounds seen on him were the punctures he had made in his own hand. He was taken to the Rockbell home, where he lay unconscious for another two days in deep physical and mental shock. Al didn’t say it in so many words, but Ed rather guiltily gathered there had been some fears about whether he would wake up at all.
Winry, of course, had held her fear at bay by working. Still tucked away in the workshop were an automail arm and leg she had designed for Ed, and she spent anxious hours fussing over them, adjusting and calibrating them until they were perfect. These were the new limbs that were now attached to his body.
Ed couldn’t resist a smile as Al described the familiar way Winry covered her emotions, with a furious rant about his turning up on the doorstep without his arm again… but when he thought of the way his old arm was lost, it wasn’t funny at all.
“I still don’t understand,” Al said pensively from his perch on the edge of the bedside chair, as Ed was finally concluding his long and painful story with the horrific account of his passage through the Gate. “How did you get away from those monsters there?”
Sitting in the middle of the bed, dressed only in his shorts and with his long gold hair unbraided, Ed drew his knees up to his chest. A shadow passed through his eyes, and he found himself not quite able to meet Al’s gaze.
“I still don’t really know, except—I wasn’t alone. Something fought them back.” He closed his eyes. “I think… it was Dad.”
“What?” Al breathed.
“I felt him, Al. It was kind of like the way I felt your soul there, when I traded my arm to put you in the armor.” Ed glanced up from beneath his bangs with a dark expression. “I think a part of Dad is still inside the Gate.”
Sudden tears filled Al’s eyes. “Oh, no…”
“Don’t, Al,” Ed replied firmly. “I don’t understand it, but somehow, he made me know he wanted it this way. Who knows… Maybe he’s found the immortality he always wanted there. Maybe from the inside out, he’ll be able to learn about the Gate in ways we could never imagine—even find some way to use it.” He smiled wanly. “I wouldn’t even be completely surprised if… if we see him again one day.”
If the words had been anything less than absolutely sincere, Ed knew his revelation would have haunted Al forever; but he truly meant what he said, and Al sensed that. The younger brother still looked troubled, but he relaxed just a little, dropping his gaze.
“Why have so many people been hurt for us?” he pondered sadly.
The question did not seek a reply from Ed, but he gave one anyway, shrugging wearily. “I don’t know. I don’t think we’ll ever know—but I do know this. We’ll never atone for what we’ve done if we just go on trying to make things the way we want them. We’ve grown up now, and it’s time to start thinking about something more than ourselves.”
“But what about your arm and leg?” Al queried in dismay. “I promised I’d get them back for you.”
“Al, you did keep that promise. I had them back for a little while, after you used the Philosopher’s Stone to save me.” Ed gave Al a feeble grin. “I was the idiot who lost them again.”
“But that happened when you brought me back,” Al protested. “That means this time your leg is my fault, too…”
“Stop it.” Ed reached over to grasp Al’s hand with flesh fingers. “We’re not gonna do this—never again. If we keep trying to make everything perfect, we’ll always be stuck in this vicious cycle of sacrifices, and more people than just ourselves will keep getting hurt. In the end, someone has to pay the price for what we did… and this is a price I can live with.” He smiled sadly, gazing down at his automail hand. “Besides, if I want to teach other alchemists the price of human transmutation… it’s just as well that I can show them what I lost.”
A look of faint distress passed over Al’s face. “Then you’re really going through with it?”
“Of course I am. I owe that to Noa.” Ed closed his eyes and sighed, his steel fingers clenching. “So if you really want to do something for me, Al… help me do this. Help me stop the creation of more homunculi, so her world won’t suffer any more because of alchemy.”
There was a brief silence, and then Ed opened his eyes as he felt Al squeeze his hand more firmly.
“Okay,” Al said quietly. “I don’t think I’ll ever completely give up looking for a way to get back what you’ve lost, Brother. But if this is what’s really important to you… then it’s what I care about, too.”
A fresh surge of gratitude and love filled Ed’s heart. He leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Al, to hug his brother tightly.
With a contented little sigh, Al rested his chin on Ed’s shoulder and returned the embrace. Then he stirred after a moment, looking toward the window of the bedroom.
“The sun is coming up.”
Ed flinched back, his heart skipping a beat in a fleeting second of alarm… and then he smiled painfully, realizing how damaged a part of him still was. He had not seen sunlight in days, forced to hide his dhampir flesh from its fire, and that harsh instinct still lingered. Intellectually he knew the sun would not harm him now that he was human again, but he needed to overcome that twitching mote of primal fear.
He took a deep breath, slid himself off the edge of the bed, and moved gingerly to the window on his new automail leg. Al followed him to stand beside him, and Ed was calmed simply by his quiet nearness.
The hills of Resembool lay outside the window in the predawn grayness, unchanged from the picture Ed had carried in his mind for the last two years. Pinako’s chicken coop still stood in the corner of the yard, its roosters waiting to greet the morning. Past the fence lay the neighboring fields and orchards, and beyond a distant stand of trees, the edge of the pond where the brothers had often sparred was just visible. Farther on, forested hillsides bordered the horizon, dark and silent beneath a rosy, cloudless sky.
Together they watched that sky brighten. Ed found himself holding his breath as the sun rose above the far-away trees… and its light washed over him in a wave of gentle warmth. He closed his eyes to the brilliance and stood very still, just feeling it.
“I wanted Noa to see the sun,” he whispered after a long moment. “I wanted to tell her…”
He never had the chance to complete his somber thought. At that moment he was interrupted by the explosive sound of someone kicking in the bedroom door behind him, throwing it open with such violence that it crashed against the wall and rebounded.
“Why didn’t you tell me he was awake?”
Both Elrics nearly jumped out of their skins, turning as one to face Winry with a combination of sheepishness and terror. She stood framed in the doorway, still clad in robe and slippers, her hands planted on her hips—at least absent a wrench or other blunt instrument, Ed noticed with relief.
“Winry,” he breathed, with a feeble smile.
He didn’t bother to say any more, because Winry’s blue eyes started brimming, and he could tell what was coming. As he expected, she rushed across the room to throw her arms around him.
“Welcome home, Ed.”
His face flushed a little, and he gave her shoulders a light squeeze. “Thanks, Winry. For… for everything.” He looked down at his new automail hand, flexing it meaningfully.
Winry leaned back from him, and gave her latest handiwork a misty-eyed smile. “Yeah… well. The welcome-home hug wouldn’t have worked so well if you only had one arm—but don’t think you’re not getting the bill.” She sobered, looking him up and down. “Are you alright? When they brought you here, Granny said you looked like you’d been through hell, but… if you don’t want to talk about it… I won’t ask.”
This tactfulness was a change that caused Ed to raise his eyebrows. In the old days, Winry would have pestered him forever at any attempt to keep his experiences to himself, no matter how painful it was for him to rehash them; but now, she seemed willing to accept no more or less than he wanted to share.
She had grown up, too.
In any event, Ed had already decided he would tell the story to those he knew were in the house then. Winry and Pinako, and the Curtises, and General Mustang and Major Hawkeye, would all hear his tale of the other world—at least to a point. Both he and Al were agreed that he should not even try to explain the existence of doppelgangers beyond the Gate. The facts about vampire-homunculi and dhampirs and blood-fueled alchemy would be hard enough to believe. There was no need to further confuse them with the idea that he had met doubles of people he knew, including some of them… or to arouse heartache by revealing the tragedy that was the other Maes Hughes.
“Yeah, I’m… I’m okay now.” Ed smiled wanly at Winry. “I’m just hungry.”
The mechanic snorted fondly at him. “Still the same Ed. But I guess you would be hungry—you haven’t eaten in two days.”
His smile turned a little paler, as he realized how hard it would be to explain what his sole nourishment had been in the week before that.
Al was perceptive enough to intercede on behalf of his brother’s awkwardness. He latched onto Ed’s left arm just a little protectively, inserting himself into the conversation with a bright smile at Winry. “Is anybody else up yet?”
“Granny’s downstairs making breakfast… and General Mustang is awake, too.” Winry smiled somberly. “I’m not sure he’s even slept at all since we got here.”
Ed returned a wry, bittersweet grin. “In that case, maybe I should tell him a story to put him to sleep.”
“There’s no way I’m missing that.” Winry gave Ed’s metal shoulder an affectionate shove. “All the old clothes you left here are in the drawer. They still oughta fit you, after all…” She smirked and backed away from his simmering glare. “I have to get dressed too. Don’t start talking without me!”
Gleefully Winry ducked out of the bedroom, and Ed grumbled his way over to the bureau, where he found and jerked on a light shirt and pants he used to wear for sparring. Contrary to Winry’s insinuations, they were a few inches too short and tight on him now. Without even thinking about it, he calculated an array to alter the fabric, and clapped his hands together—only to wince at the sudden bite of pain from the bandaged punctures on his palm.
He muttered a curse and wrung his hand, glancing up at Al’s grin with irritated embarrassment. “What?”
“I’m just happy to see things coming back to you so easily, Brother,” Al replied, and when his words left Ed frowning in puzzlement, he nodded at Ed’s hands. “You’re right back to using alchemy, without blood—just like you never left.”
Perhaps Al hadn’t intended it, but the observation sobered Ed a little. He looked down at his hands thoughtfully.
“I guess so,” he murmured, and a humorless chuckle escaped him. “Now that I think about it, somehow it feels like my first transmutation in this world again oughta be big and important… not something so trivial.”
Nevertheless, he touched his clothes and completed the process, redistributing the fabric’s mass to better fit him. The flow of energy felt rich and limitless, so different from the few brief, dark flashes of alchemic power he had drawn from blood in the other world. It was a reassuring and even comforting sensation—as long as he didn’t think too much about the fact that both energies ultimately came from the same source.
Just one more reason to use that gift to give something back.
Hurriedly he ran a comb through his hair and braided it, and then he left the room—with one faintly anxious glance over his shoulder to assure himself that Al was following. Now that he had his brother back, there was a nervous, aching need in him to keep Al close, to never lose sight of him. It was a childish urge he knew he would have to break himself of… but not just yet.
The brothers made their way downstairs, and Edward stopped abruptly at the threshold of the living room. The comfortable space was almost completely unchanged from the way he remembered it, but that was not what gave him pause.
Major Riza Hawkeye sat on the sofa. Although she was dressed attractively in civilian clothes, she still possessed the erect poise of a soldier on duty. Her eyes were focused on the book in her hands; but at the moment, it seemed her main preoccupation was the task of utterly ignoring her superior officer.
Roy Mustang—General Mustang, commander of the Amestrian State Alchemy Corps—was in the middle of the floor. He was pacing back and forth across the rug, his hands passing over one another restlessly, for all the world like…
Like an expectant father.
Suddenly perceiving the brothers’ entry, he looked up. His eyes met Ed’s, and the expression on his face was one Ed would never forget.
Inside the teenager, something cracked open just a little, and for this one moment in his life, he let it break. He strode forward quickly and flung his arms around Mustang’s ribs, seizing the Flame Alchemist in a fierce hug.
Above the top of his head, he heard Mustang utter a rather bewildered and uncertain sound. “Ed…?”
“Shut up.” There was a half-laughing quiver in Ed’s voice, but the sound ended with the suspicion of a sniff as he pressed his cheek a little closer against Mustang’s shoulder. “It was either this or a fist in the jaw, and Pinako doesn’t like fighting in the house.”
He felt a small tremor pass through Mustang, but he couldn’t tell whether it was a suppressed laugh or something else. Either way, the General slowly relaxed. His hands came to rest on Ed’s shoulders and gripped tightly, accepting that rare moment of fragility for all it was worth.
“It’s good to have you back,” he said quietly, with a slight roughness in his voice.
Then Mustang abruptly flinched back a little, letting go. Ed glanced up at his face, saw his awkward expression, and followed his gaze to see that Winry had come into the room. She was standing beside Al, her lips quirking with a wry thoughtfulness.
With an unpleasant jolt, Ed remembered the history between his mechanic and his superior, each of whom held such a vital place in his life.
“Well.” Mustang straightened his spine, folded his hands behind his back, and took a deep breath. “So Ed is home safely, Miss Rockbell… and I had nothing to do with it at all.”
Somehow Ed felt there was a question of some sort in that plain statement, and he didn’t understand it in the least; but Winry clearly did. For a barely-perceptible moment, her eyes glistened, and then a pale shadow of a smile crossed her face. She started forward, sauntering past them a little too casually on her way to the kitchen.
“And this time you’d better take care of him!”
To Ed it was another stray puzzle piece without context, but the words had a profound impact on Mustang. He suddenly looked as if someone had let all the air out of him… or perhaps taken a great weight off his shoulders.
“Oh, and one other thing, General,” Winry added, pausing in the kitchen doorway with her back to them, and Mustang tensed again.
“Don’t keep Major Hawkeye waiting anymore. She doesn’t put up with you just to get promoted, you know.”
The mechanic went on into the kitchen, without looking back at any of them.
Mustang turned white, and then red; and from the sofa, there came the soft sound of a book thudding to the rug.
A sudden wicked grin lit Ed’s face, but before he could think up a properly scathing remark, Al took it upon himself once more to defend other people’s dignity. He seized Ed’s arm and tugged at it, hauling him off toward the kitchen in Winry’s wake. “Come on, Brother, you haven’t seen Aunt Pinako yet…”
The truth was, Ed really didn’t mind being dragged away, leaving Mustang and Hawkeye to sort the matter out for themselves. He knew it was long overdue. Although he still wasn’t sure how much was already between them in this world, their counterparts had shown him something he sensed truly was meant to be, no matter what world they lived in. Whatever the next step was for them, he would be glad to see them take it. He only hoped the future for them here would be brighter… and somehow, he felt it would be.
In the kitchen, he was first greeted by a wave of delicious aromas. He suddenly realized how starved he felt—and for a moment he paused to enjoy that sensation, basking in the way the scents of bacon and eggs and pancakes enticed his appetite. Even a week of feeding on blood, abhorring its foul bitterness and yet craving it uncontrollably, was enough to make him almost forget what hunger for real food was like. He had always hated to feel hungry, but now even that was a vivid pleasure.
Ed felt a little sorry that Al had missed out on a similar sense of rediscovery. After five long years of anticipating every first taste and smell and touch when he regained his body, his amnesia had robbed him of the awareness that he ever missed anything at all. He admitted that regaining his memory had in itself given him an intense new appreciation of his flesh, but—for the worse in some ways, and undoubtedly for the better in others—it couldn’t be the same as the exquisite joy or the unbearable shock they had both imagined and feared he would experience.
So many things had happened in ways Ed never could have expected… but some things were still exactly what he expected.
Pinako stood by the stove, changeless as the Resembool hills, imperturbably puffing on her pipe as she turned the bacon in the skillet. At the sound of Ed’s mismatched steps, the old woman faced him. She calmly took the pipe from her mouth, and her eyes crinkled with a smile.
“It’s about time you wandered back.”
With a sweetly sentimental grin, Ed ducked his head. “I always do…”
Then his stomach abruptly offered up a prodigious rumble, and he reddened.
“And ready to eat me out of house and home, as usual,” Pinako chuckled. “Sit down, boys. Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”
Nodding a little sheepishly, Ed turned and moved off into the adjoining dining room—where he and Al found the Curtis family at the table.
Sig and Mason kept their places, but Izumi rose slowly. When she stepped toward the Elrics, her expression was sternly inscrutable, as it so often was; but this time it was Ed who found himself engulfed in a sudden strong hug. Izumi held him tightly, and after only a brief hesitation, he gave her ribs a gentle squeeze in turn.
“Hello, Teacher,” he whispered.
Izumi said nothing. She merely reached out and seized Al’s shoulder, pulling him into her arms as well; as if she needed to hold them both just once, to physically grasp the reality of the fact that they were together and safe. When Ed remembered that Izumi had cared for Alphonse in the past two years, watching him slowly sink deeper into illness, he could understand.
Over Izumi’s shoulder, for the first time in his memory, Ed saw that Sig was smiling.
After a long moment, Izumi let go of the brothers and took a step back. Ed caught a brief glimpse of a trembling smile on her lips… and then she planted her hands on her waist, narrowing her dark eyes at him.
“And just where have you been, Edward?”
It was her patented Teacher roar, and Ed couldn’t resist his ingrained reaction of flinching back in youthful terror.
“I’m sorry, Teacher!” he blurted out. “It’s—it’s a long story—and I’m going to tell it. I have to tell it.” He gulped slightly. “I’d just… like to eat something first.”
His newly rediscovered hunger was not the only reason food was his first priority. It was a practical matter as well. He needed to get some nourishment into his empty stomach before he explained his journey, because he knew the talk of blood and vampires and impaling would kill his appetite.
As always, Izumi knew when to soften. Her hands dropped from her hips, and she gave him a small, rueful smile.
“Sit down, then.”
Mustang and Hawkeye must have been called in for the meal as well, because they soon came to the table. A few minutes after that, Winry and Pinako emerged from the kitchen, carrying a breakfast spread fit for royalty.
For a little while, Edward devoted himself completely to the meal. He demolished three huge helpings of everything that was put in front of him, and he was certain he had never tasted anything so good. Stuffing himself with real, normal food again was a blissful pleasure… but it was also bittersweet. Like the sunrise, he had wanted Noa to feel this, too.
He couldn’t change the choice she had made. He could only honor her last request to him, by bringing the truth about human transmutation to his world—and that task would start with those closest to him.
Al ate just as heartily as Ed, and it was clear that he needed the nourishment just as much. Although his soul was healed, it would still take time for his body to rebuild itself after his long illness. At present he was still thin and fairly weak, and he tired easily, but in a mere two days he had already regained a remarkable amount of strength and vitality. He had even begun to talk about sparring with Ed to restore his fit condition of old. That prospect made Ed a little nervous; it had been seven years since he sparred with Al’s flesh body, and now he was larger and stronger than Al, to say nothing of having automail. He wanted to take things slowly, and if nothing else, assure himself of how much roughhousing his brother could take.
Once again, Al’s mental resilience was his real strength. At seventeen, he was trying to reconcile his recent existence as a twelve-year-old with often-painful regained memories that only caught him up to the age of fifteen. It was understandable that he admitted to being a little confused. Even so, he was handling his predicament with splendid grace, and Ed still suspected he was in many ways the more mature one. Clearly he was embarrassed that his body was too small and too young for his true age—but Ed wasn’t terribly sorry for that. He was glad to think that for the five years Al suffered within empty steel, the Gate had at least given him the recompense of adding back those years to his life. Al would grow quickly enough, and soon this anomaly of his extended youth would no longer matter… and in the meantime, Ed would have the chance to see him become a man, the way it should have been from the beginning.
Ed’s only reservation was Al’s ability to transfer his consciousness into the armor. He had not yet seen it demonstrated, but Al had explained it to him fully, and he already had a feeling it would be hard for him to come to terms with. After everything he went through to put Al back in the flesh, he was terrified that using this gift might one day leave his brother’s soul trapped in the armor again, no matter how much Al assured him that wouldn’t happen.
But Ed felt he had no right to object. After all, it was really his own fault that the armor had become a part of Al’s being in the first place. In his wish to go on making use of it, Al was by no means expressing ingratitude for having his true body back. To the contrary, he valued the unique ability Ed had inadvertently caused him to have, and he wanted it to serve a good purpose.
So Ed resolved to bear in silence the fear he knew he would always feel deep down, every time Al entered the armor.
All of these were things to be worked out in the days and weeks to come. For the moment, Ed needed to focus on the task at hand: convincing the people around him that the story he was about to tell was true.
It was Mustang who prompted him to begin, after everyone had eaten their fill, and cups of tea and coffee had been poured.
“Well, Ed? Are you finally going to tell us where you’ve been for the last two years?”
A sigh escaped Ed as he glanced up over the rim of a steaming mug of tea. “Yes.” He looked around the table, studying each of the curious and expectant faces that surrounded him. “I can tell you now, it’s going to be hard for you to believe—but I need you to believe. I need all of you to understand what I have to do, because… I need your help to do it.”
With that, Edward began.
He started with his last battle against Dante’s homunculi, and his father’s revelations about alchemy in that first unfortunate excursion of his soul beyond the Gate. Those things were important to understand before the rest of the story could be told. Then he uncomfortably skimmed over the fact of his first would-be death at Envy’s hands. At that point, Al spoke up for the only time during the tale, acknowledging his effort to save Ed with the Philosopher’s Stone.
The elder brother resumed, describing his awakening, his restored limbs, and his attempt in turn to bring Al back. He recalled finding himself in the other world again, with steel in place of flesh once more, and only Hohenheim to help him.
Of the two years of futile, uneventful study that followed, there was nothing relevant to say. He summed them up in a few sentences.
Finally Ed came to his last week on the other side… and he told everything, in all its horror and grim wonder. His mortal wounding by Envy as he searched for Hohenheim. Noa’s intervention, and the things he learned from her about vampires and dhampirs. His own transformation, with all the monstrousness it instilled in him. The Hunters, their leader’s fall to madness, his escape from them with Noa. The reappearance of Envy and Hohenheim. The last pieces of the puzzle his father had put in place. The desperate, costly battle that ended with Envy’s destruction.
Noa’s sacrifice to send Ed home, and her final wish on behalf of her world.
There was only one thing Ed left out. As he and Al had decided, he did not reveal that the Hunters were doppelgangers of people he knew. He gave them fictitious names, altering the details of his experiences just enough to hide any hint of their real identities.
And his audience listened: by turns horrified, bewildered, incredulous. There were few interruptions for questions. Each of them was caught up in the long nightmare he described so vividly.
Al looked pained by the retelling, even though he had already heard every word of it and more. Izumi knew enough about the power of the Gate to believe the tale was true; she gripped Sig’s hand in both of hers until her knuckles turned white, her eyes dark and troubled. Winry accepted it all as fact in her implicit trust of Ed, and sat shivering, tears running down her cheeks at several points. Pinako chewed the stem of her pipe so hard she almost broke it. Sig and Mason and Hawkeye maintained a grave silence. Mustang was quiet as well—but a deep frown of disturbed uncertainty took up residence on his face.
“…And the next thing I remember is waking up here last night, and seeing Al.”
Having come to the end of the story at last, Ed felt physically drained. Telling it this time, to a larger audience and in its slightly edited form, had been much harder than his first account to Al alone. He sagged wearily in his chair, cradling in his hands a cup of tea that was still half-full, but had long since grown cold.
“Oh, Ed,” Winry breathed, wiping her eyes. “I never imagined you went through so much…”
“At least something good can come of it,” Izumi said quietly, her eyes hardening with resolve. “You’re right, Ed—it’s long past time for the truth to be told. Even those of us who know the price of human transmutation on this side have always been too afraid and ashamed to speak out. But if I had only told you the real consequences when you and Al first came to me as students… you never would have been hurt.” She winced and dropped her gaze. “This suffering has to be stopped for the sake of our world, much less the one beyond the Gate.”
“Thank you, Teacher,” Ed answered demurely. Then he turned to Mustang, the one alchemist at the table whose reaction he was most anxious for. “What about you, General? You believe the things I’ve said, don’t you?”
Mustang frowned and pushed his coffee cup from one hand to the other, his eyes shifting to the far side of the room.
“I’m… not completely sure yet, Ed.”
“What?” Ed leaned forward, his eyes widening indignantly. “Mustang, I need you to believe me more than anyone else! You’re the top State Alchemist now. I can’t do this without your support!”
“I know that. But that’s why I have to be the one to play devil’s advocate here. Before I do anything to act on your claims, I need to know this information is fact. You’re really sure it’s not possible that…” Mustang hesitated. “That all these experiences you had weren’t just some kind of dream? A vision your mind created to help you hold onto your sanity while you were trapped inside the Gate?”
“No!” Ed snapped, jerking to his feet. “I swear to you, Mustang: it was real. Every word of it happened, exactly the way I told it.”
“Okay—alright.” Mustang made a calming gesture. “I know you truly believe it did, Ed. And I want to take your word. If you could only prove a single part of the entire story…”
Ed sank back into his chair, glancing at Pinako. “Grans, what was I carrying when I was found?”
“Oh… I’m sorry, Ed. The only things on you that we could salvage were a sword and a knife, and a few coins in your pocket. Your clothes had so much blood on them that I… I burned them.” Pinako grimaced. “I hope that wasn’t a mistake.”
“No,” Ed answered quickly. “Most of that blood… it came from me, while I was still a dhampir. That means it might have been an infection risk, so you were right to destroy the clothes—but I’m glad you saved the other things. Will you show me the coins?”
With a short nod, Pinako stepped out of the room.
A thoughtful frown crossed Izumi’s face. “Ed, I’m not sure what you expect those to prove. Even the most novice alchemist could transmute a lump of metal into coins that don’t look like any currency known here.”
“That’s just it. I’m betting they can’t be transmuted.” Ed smiled grimly. “Materials from the other side were impervious to transmutation. If I’m right, those coins and weapons I brought across with me are the only things in this world that alchemy can’t touch.”
Pinako returned with several coins, which she placed on the table in front of Ed. He gazed down for a long moment at the handful of shillings and sixpence. He had carried those bits of pocket change as an afterthought, but they were now among his last surviving mementos of his long sojourn—and potentially his only proof that it had ever really happened.
He selected a shilling at random, and pushed it across the table toward Mustang.
“You’re the one who needs convincing here. You should be the one to try using alchemy on it.”
The General raised an eyebrow interestedly. He unfolded his napkin, and after receiving a nod of permission from Pinako, he drew a simple array on the cloth. Then he placed the shilling in its center, and pressed his fingers to the edge of the circle… and nothing happened at all.
He tried a second, slightly different transmutation, and then a third, but the results remained the same. The otherworldly substance of the coin did not respond to alchemy.
Finally, looking just a little pale, Mustang pushed himself to his feet.
“I’d like to use your telephone, Mrs. Rockbell. I… think I need to speak with Füehrer Armstrong.”
Telling the tale of his journey had been difficult for Ed, but the rest of the day more than made up for it. He spent the time doing nothing at all except basking in the presence of the people he cared for, and hearing their own stories of the last two years. Apart from Al’s illness, it seemed as if everyone had gotten along fairly well without him after all, and that was a thought he now found comforting. With the new mission he had set for himself in life, he was sure he would still need frequent reminding that he didn’t have to bear this entire world on his shoulders.
Lunchtime brought a picnic in the grass outside, under the warm sun, and that simplicity was the most splendid luxury Ed had ever known. After he ate, he promptly fell asleep on the picnic blanket; the nocturnal hours of a dhampir were yet another item on his list of lingering habits to break. It touched him deeply that his brother and his friends stayed with him until he awoke, because even in his sleep, he felt safe and well with them near him.
The obverse of his daytime napping was that, when the evening grew late, he still felt wide-awake. Al, Winry, Izumi, and even Mustang gamely pretended not to be tired after the long and emotional day, but Ed took pity on them at midnight, and announced he was going to bed. Leaving their company was really the last thing he wanted to do, but everyone else needed sleep, and the process of readjusting his circadian rhythms had to start somewhere.
When the Elrics had retired to their childhood bedroom, Al turned out the light and crawled into Ed’s bed without a word, and the elder brother had to struggle to resist glad tears.
So Ed snuggled close and laid his cheek on the top of Al’s head, the way he had when they were very young. Just for tonight, he told himself. He was getting far too old to treat Al like a security blanket, and given the indignities the younger Elric already faced in his underaged body, Ed didn’t think Al himself would put up with it for long… but for now, it was okay.
It was okay to lie awake in the dark, listening to the miracle of his brother’s breathing, flesh fingers gently caressing soft hair he had thought he would never touch again. It was okay that when they woke up to each other’s warmth, they would both know this day had not been a dream.
Real dreams did come to Ed, for the first time in days, when he finally slept. Not all of them were good; Al had to soothe him back to sleep once after he woke up sobbing, assailed by ghosts of fear and grief that had followed him from the other world. It was better after that, though, and he slept on undisturbed until late in the morning.
Al was still asleep when Ed awakened, reedy limbs tangled awkwardly around his older brother’s flesh and steel. Ed was perfectly content to go on holding him, half-drowsing in the glow of the sunlight that streamed through the window…
Somewhere in that bittersweet happiness, the exact moment came when he truly and fully accepted that he was home.
By the time Al stretched languorously and opened his eyes, it was almost noon. He grinned lazily at his brother as Edward sat up—and then he raised an eyebrow at Ed’s expression. “Hmm?”
Gulping down the beginnings of a fresh lump in his throat, Ed blinked and shrugged. “Oh… nothing. I was just thinking.”
“About… how ticklish you used to be.”
“Oh no, Ed, wait—not that—!”
The resulting pillow fight did not exactly qualify as a round of morning sparring, but it was an acceptable substitute.
When the brothers finally made their way downstairs, they headed straight for the kitchen, eager to make up for the breakfast they had skipped. They found Pinako busily preparing a lunch of soup and sandwiches, with the help of Winry and Mason.
As Ed and Al approached, Pinako turned to them, and smiled almost fiendishly.
“Well, I thought you boys were going to sleep all day. You already missed breakfast. Not to mention the arrival of an honored guest…”
“EDWARD AND ALPHONSE!” a tremendous voice bellowed behind the brothers—and Alex Louis Armstrong caught them both up in a bone-wrenching hug, sobbing joyfully.
Ed was really starting to miss his dhampir senses. They had made him so much more difficult to sneak up on.
“Ngh,” he groaned, fighting to inhale a breath as he squirmed in the Füehrer’s crushing squeeze. “At least he kept his shirt on…”
“That is one thing we convinced him to do, for the dignity of his office,” General Mustang chuckled, coming up behind Armstrong. “Ah… most of the time, anyway.”
With some effort, Ed managed to pry himself—and Al—out of Armstrong’s embrace. After a gulp of much-needed air, he folded his arms and frowned up at the enormous alchemist. “You didn’t have to come all the way to Resembool, you know. I was expecting to come and see you in Central.”
“Perhaps, but when I heard you were safely home, and that Alphonse was well again—I couldn’t wait another hour to share my gladness with you!” Armstrong thundered bombastically. He stretched out his massive arms, his eyes welling up once more.
“Okay already, we get it!” Ed yelped, waving off another affectionate chokehold. Then his shoulders slumped, and he sighed, smiling up at the Füehrer. “I’m glad to see you, too… and congratulations on your new job.”
Only a walking contradiction like Armstrong could pull off such an expression of demure humility while at the same time proudly puffing out his chest. He smiled and bowed his head. “My one wish is to be a worthy servant of our people.”
“You already are, sir,” Al offered fondly.
Mustang pointedly cleared his throat. “In any case, celebrating this turn of events isn’t the only thing that brought the Füehrer here. He does want to discuss the things you’ve discovered, Ed. Of course I haven’t told him the details of your experiences, but if you’d prefer not to go through it all again…”
“No, that’s alright. I’ll do it,” Ed answered somberly.
Then he glanced over his shoulder at the bustling activity in the kitchen, and smiled.
As he had at every meal since his return, Edward spent lunchtime quietly marveling at the gathering that sat around the Rockbells’ table. Had anyone told him two years earlier that this collection of people would one day come together amicably, he never would have believed it. Izumi Curtis was cheerfully breaking bread with officers of the military she once despised, and Pinako and Winry…
They were treating Roy Mustang with kindness and acceptance. Not as someone who had caused their pain—but as someone who shared it.
Ed didn’t want to know the details of how time had healed wounds in his long absence. He only wanted to embrace the fact gladly, because he needed these people. He needed all of them, and if the bonds between them were stronger, then he would be stronger too.
After the meal was over, Edward, Mustang, and Armstrong retired to the study. Without a word, Al invited himself as well, and the two older men knew better than to object to his technically-civilian presence for what was effectively official military business. The brothers sat together on the sofa, adjacent to the deep armchairs Mustang and Armstrong settled into, and a grave meeting commenced in that pleasant household setting.
In due course, Ed gave the slightly altered account of his experiences beyond the Gate once more, for what he hoped would be the last time in his life. This retelling was not exactly as difficult as the previous one, but it was the most awkward… mainly because Füehrer Armstrong bawled through most of it.
When the tale was told and they had quieted Armstrong down, he seemed quite prepared to take Ed’s word for the truth of it. Nevertheless, Ed offered the same proof he had given to Mustang, allowing Armstrong to experiment with the untransmutable coins from the other world. It was still just as effective a demonstration, and it left the Füehrer speechless with wonder.
“So what do you suggest, Edward?” Armstrong finally asked. “I’m sure General Mustang has told you that in your absence, a law was passed that expressly prohibits human transmutation. It isn’t simply a taboo anymore; it’s legally recognized as a crime.”
“I know that, and it is a start,” Ed sighed. “But it’ll be a hard law to enforce—and still, nobody really understands why human transmutation is wrong. I think most of the people who try it must be like Al and me. They don’t mean any harm, but they have no idea what the consequences are. That’s why education will do a lot more good than enforcement. And it’s why…” He grimaced, lowering his eyes.
“It’s why I want to go public with my case. If other alchemists out there are thinking of human transmutation, I want them to look at my body… and see the price I paid.”
Armstrong caught his breath sharply. “Edward—”
“It’s the only way. Someone who knows the truth has to speak out. Alchemists need to know that trying to bring back the dead will cost them a part of themselves… and they’ll get nothing in return but a soulless monster that only looks like the person they loved.”
Mustang frowned. “That’s the part that worries me. The idea of creating a homunculus would appeal to certain people.”
“If someone wants to use human transmutation for the wrong reasons, they’re going to do it anyway,” Al spoke up. “At least the truth would change the minds of well-meaning alchemists, like Brother and I were. We never would have done it if we’d known what would happen, and most alchemists must be the same way. We’re sure the truth will save more lives than it risks.”
“And what about your side of the story—those five years you spent as a tin can?” Mustang eyed Al thoughtfully, and then glanced at Ed. “Or the existence of the world on the other side of the Gate? Just how much of the truth do you plan to share, Ed?”
The older brother scowled. “Al and I have already agreed: we’re leaving what happened to him out of this. I’m the only one who’s going to take the blame for trying to bring our mother back. People don’t need to know alchemy can be used to bind a soul to steel.”
The Füehrer widened his eyes at Al. “I’m surprised you’d be willing to let your brother take this responsibility alone.”
“Ed is right,” Al admitted ruefully. “The transmutation that attached my soul to the armor is too dangerous to let people know about. We’ve already seen how it can be misused too—and I don’t want anyone else to suffer that way. And besides…” He shrugged and smiled thinly. “I’m still going to help Ed however I can. If an alchemist does try making a homunculus on purpose, or if more existing homunculi turn up, I’m ready to fight them with him.”
“And as for the other world… I don’t plan to tell that, either,” Ed continued quietly. “I don’t want anyone trying to cross the Gate. Supposing someone stupid enough to do that actually survived—no one from this world should ever have the chance to hurt Noa’s people any more than we already have. Or to bring the dhampir infection back here somehow.”
“For being so eager to teach other alchemists the truth, you seem to be very selective about it,” Mustang remarked mordantly.
“Hey, a minute ago, you were the one worried about the truth inspiring people with evil plans!” Ed shot back. “I never said this solution would be perfect. I’m just trying to make the best choice to protect both worlds. The one goal that will help everyone is to stop human transmutation. Learning that I lost my arm and leg when I tried to raise the dead, and then the thing I created tried to kill me—that should scare any decent alchemist away from the idea. That’s the only point I want to make.”
Edward hesitated for a brief moment. Then he concluded, softly but firmly: “I’m serious about this, General. As serious as I used to be about finding the Philosopher’s Stone. Someone I cared about sacrificed herself to send me back to our world—and this was the reason why. I’m not going to fail her. Nothing will stop me from using every means I have to fight against human transmutation. I want to do it with your help, but if I don’t have that… I’ll go it alone.”
“No you won’t, Brother,” Al asserted fiercely. He grasped Ed’s flesh hand, fixing Mustang and Armstrong with the hardest gaze his adolescent face could muster. “If you want to stop Ed, you’ll have to stop both of us.”
Mustang made a face and spread his hands. “You’ve heard my concerns, Füehrer. I think the benefits and the risks of this idea could go either way—but I’ll support whatever decision you make.”
Armstrong was silent and thoughtful for a long moment. At last he turned to Ed… and nodded grimly.
“Very well, Edward. I’ll accept your plan to publicly expose the consequences of human transmutation. Aside from defense and research, the State Alchemy Corps will adopt education as one of its primary missions. General Mustang—I want you to give the Elrics all cooperation in this effort.”
The head of the State Alchemists frowned. “Sir, are you absolutely convinced this is wise?”
“Perhaps only time will tell,” Armstrong said solemnly. “But of one thing I am sure, just as Edward was when he gave the power of alchemy to his comrades in the other world: ignorance is more dangerous than knowledge.”
Ed cracked a smile at Mustang. “Looks like you’ll have to do what I say for a change.”
“Don’t get cocky, Ed. It’s the Füehrer’s judgment I trust—not yours.” Mustang’s glower softened, and he sighed. “I may have reservations about your plan, but that doesn’t mean I won’t give you all the support I possibly can. If we’re going to do this, we have to make sure it works the way you hope it will, for everyone’s sakes.”
“Okay. Then here’s my first suggestion: offer amnesty to alchemists who come forward and admit to having tried human transmutation. If they cooperate with a State investigation of what they’ve done, let them be free from punishment under the new law.”
“After everything you’ve suffered to make amends for your deeds, you don’t believe we’d punish you by that law, do you?” Armstrong asked gently. “I have the authority to pardon you, Edward. You can consider it already done.”
“It’s not about me,” Ed replied with a frown. “Whatever human transmutations have been performed, a small number of them may have caused more homunculi to be born into this world—and you know they can only be destroyed here when they’re exposed to the remains of the person their creator meant them to be. That’s why we have to reach out to those alchemists and try to work with them, not just punish them. If the homunculus they created is here instead of in the other world, we’ll need their help to identify and kill it.”
“I’ll admit… that’s a valid point.” Mustang touched his left cheekbone, and Ed knew he was thinking of his battle with the monster once known as Füehrer Bradley. The General knew as well as anyone what it took to destroy a homunculus.
Armstrong nodded. “It’s not an unreasonable proposal. I’ll take steps to enact it immediately on my return to Central.”
“I also think more State Alchemist candidates need to be accepted each year,” Ed suggested. “The more alchemists have official training and a chance to do something positive with their skills, the better. It’d also encourage people to bring their alchemic research projects to the military, where they can be properly supervised.”
“That’s already been done,” Mustang said. “Once the new government came into power , there were a number of State Alchemists from the old regime who we felt we needed to discharge. We’ve had to accept more recruits to start replacing them, and that increase will be permanent.”
Füehrer Armstrong leaned forward, studying Ed thoughtfully. “That brings us to the question of your position, Edward. I realize you never had any great love of the military you served, and that it was simply a means to an end for you. If you prefer to take charge of the State Alchemists’ education initiative as a civilian advisor, that can be arranged. However…” He smiled, with a sudden, fond warmth. “If you do want to reclaim your status as a State Alchemist, you’ll be most happily welcomed back—with a promotion to the rank of full colonel.”
Ed grinned pensively. “I’m pretty sure the military isn’t what it was in the old days. Teacher wouldn’t be caught dead under the same roof with either of you if it was.” Then his expression sobered. “I’m more than ready to come back on the job as a State Alchemist, but there’s just one catch. If you want me… you’ll have to take Al in the bargain this time.”
Both of the older men gaped at Ed, and then at Al. He folded his hands and smiled back at them, in a way that was nothing short of smug.
“You’d honestly be alright with Al becoming a State Alchemist?” Mustang asked Ed incredulously.
“About as alright as I am with him leaving his body lying around while he goes wandering off in his armor,” Ed admitted candidly. “But in spite of appearances, Al is old enough now to make these decisions for himself. And besides that…” He shot an irritated look at his brother. “He’s blackmailing me.”
“It’s not blackmailing,” Al retorted. “We made a deal. I promised I’d keep my part in our human transmutation a secret—if you agreed to let me become a State Alchemist too. Equivalent Exchange, Brother.”
Mustang stifled a smirk behind his fist. “Alphonse, your devious streak has outdone itself.”
“There’s no sense in arguing with him,” Ed sighed. “Just like our old journey, I know nothing’s going to stop him from helping me in the work I plan to do. If he’s determined to follow me again, he might as well have all the benefits of the title this time.”
“And now there’s nothing to keep me from being certified,” Al pointed out cheerfully. “I can pass any physical I need to… well, at least when I get a little more of my strength back. I already passed the written exam six years ago. As for the skills test, I can transmute without a circle, just like Ed—and you know what I can do with my armor.”
Armstrong let out a deep chuckle. “There’s no need to sell your abilities to us, Alphonse. We know your worth… and if this is what you want, I have no doubt you’ll be as invaluable a State Alchemist as your brother.”
Al beamed at the Füehrer; and beside him, Ed smiled thinly and drew a deep breath, struggling with mixed emotions of pride and apprehension. Under the leadership of Armstrong and Mustang and the government they established, the military was indeed something very different than it had been while Dante pulled the strings. No longer the military’s dogs, the State Alchemists were moving into the future as a force for good. It was an honorable and worthy calling now—but it would still be dangerous.
At least the Elric brothers would face those dangers together, just as they always had.
“So does he get a cheesy new name too?” Ed queried fliply, to gloss over any sign of the conflict in his heart.
“That’s something else we’ve changed,” Mustang answered. “State Alchemists are allowed to choose their own titles now—subject to official approval, of course. Do you have anything in mind, Al?”
The younger Elric looked thoughtful. “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? …The Armor Alchemist.” He shrugged and smiled. “I owe that to the suit. It kept my soul safe for all those years—and it’s still a part of who I am, and what I can do.”
At that, Ed resisted another pang of unwelcome emotion in himself, because Armstrong’s eyes were tearing up enough for both of them.
“The Armor Alchemist,” Armstrong murmured, smiling gently at the self-appointed bearer of the name.
The Füehrer reached down to his side, to unfasten the chain of his pocketwatch from his belt. He slid the bright silver casing from his pocket, and held out the watch. With wide and shining eyes, Al accepted it, running his fingers proudly over the Amestrian crest it bore.
Ed couldn’t suppress an aching little smile at that sight. He reached out to ruffle his brother’s hair… and then he glanced at General Mustang, raising a very expectant eyebrow.
Mustang made a sound that was something between a snort and a chuckle.
“Fine,” he groused, with ill-disguised amusement and affection. He removed his own pocketwatch, and casually tossed it to Ed.
The Fullmetal Alchemist caught the watch easily in his automail hand. He studied it for a long moment, silently cherishing its new and different meaning to him. At last his steel fingers closed over the silver lion on its surface, and he smiled at his commander with a grateful warmth, and a sense of promise that was as deep as it was rare.
I won’t let you down.
Then Al’s hand fell upon Ed’s metal fist, and the badge of office it held.
“No date inside the watch this time, Brother,” he said gently, meeting Ed’s gaze with hopeful, loving eyes. “No more looking back at the past. This time, it’s all for the future.”
Ed’s smile faltered just a little. He blinked mistily, and clasped his flesh hand over Al’s own.
It was late morning, and the sun shone down warmly on the green hills of Resembool. Birds sang amidst the rustling leaves of the trees, while bright butterflies flitted between the wildflowers that dotted the grass.
A week after Edward’s return, his healing had come a long way. He was sleeping through the nights better, and he had finally stopped being surprised to find himself back in his rightful world each time he woke up. He still struggled with an anxious, irrational need to have Al and other loved ones near him constantly, but with some effort, he was fighting off that feeling.
To their credit, his brother and his friends were patient with him. They could all see that his experiences had changed him, and he knew he was expecting a quicker readjustment from himself than they did.
Physically, he was in perfect health. There were a few lingering mental aftereffects from his dhampir instincts, but they were ones he didn’t mind having. Although his senses were only human, he was more keenly aware of his perceptions than he had been before, and his reactions were a little quicker. Moreover, there was still a faint trace of the intense, protective sense of pack that had lurked in him when he was a dhampir, and this he chose to deliberately nurture in himself. Except for Al, he had never properly appreciated the people in his life; but strangely enough, a new love for them had arisen from that fiercely tender impulse he gained in undeath.
This time, he was resolved to do more to show them how he felt.
Füehrer Armstrong had returned to Central after only an overnight stay, to begin putting in motion some of the changes they had discussed. However, General Mustang and Major Hawkeye remained in Resembool, and Ed was touched. Mustang understood. Unasked for, his familiar presence was one more comfort to help ground Ed, as he focused on absorbing the reality of being home.
But Ed’s rest was over now. The more at ease he felt with being back in this world, the more restless he became to start his work on behalf of those in the other world. He was ready to move on, to write a new chapter in his life that he hoped would serve a greater good. It frightened him a little to think of facing the judgment of other alchemists, baring his scars and confessing his sins, perhaps in some cases being received with horror or contempt—but if it would make them understand, it would be worth it.
As a symbol of that purpose, he wore the flamel cross once again, a mute warning of the folly of pride. Al had given Ed’s old scarlet coat back to him, and he found it felt comforting on his shoulders. The clothes beneath it were black as before, but they were different from those of his younger years, trimmer and somewhat more like a uniform.
Only Al had discerned the truth: they were patterned after the garments of a Hunter.
Edward still counted himself as one of them. His separation from their world did not negate his promise. On this side of the Gate more than ever, he was determined to fight for the same cause as they, because now he was the only Hunter in the world of alchemy. He was the only one with a chance to stop vampires before they were ever created…
Except, perhaps, for Alphonse, who had followed him to hell and back, and gladly would again.
Whether Hunters or State Alchemists or a little of both, the mission they had taken upon themselves began today. In another two hours, along with Mustang and Hawkeye, the Elric brothers would board a train for Central. From that moment on, Ed would devote himself fully to teaching and fighting for the things he believed in. Just as Al had entreated him, he would spend the rest of his life looking forward.
But this morning, he was looking back one last time.
That was why he was at the cemetery, standing before the grave of Trisha Elric, with a dozen transmuted roses in his hand.
Four yellow roses for his mother, because she had loved the color of sunshine. Four white roses for Hohenheim, because Ed had finally made his peace with all the things his father had been and done. And four roses the deep crimson of blood for…
“The red ones are for her, aren’t they?”
The small voice at Ed’s side rang with the echo of steel. Al was occupying his armor this morning. The newly christened Armor Alchemist’s easy duality of forms was still strange to Ed, and he doubted it would ever cease to make him worry, but he was trying to accept it.
His heart ached as Al voiced the unspoken meaning, and he sighed deeply, closing his eyes. When at last he looked up to meet the gaze of Al’s metal proxy, his face was hard-set with determination.
“She’s the last, Al. The sacrifices end with her. I won’t lose anyone else to my mistakes.”
“I know, Brother,” Al said softly, and his gauntlet came to rest on Ed’s right shoulder, leather gently clasping over steel.
Al was trying his best to accept Ed’s choice, too. He was trying to accept that his brother alone would bear the final price for their shared sin, in the weight of automail that would be Ed’s burden for life. That he must never again risk his own well-being in an attempt to relieve or share that burden, because Ed refused to allow it anymore…
But in flesh or armor, Al’s shoulders were more than broad enough to bear all of Ed’s other burdens with him.
Ed reached up with his left hand, firmly squeezing Al’s unfeeling fingers, and they were silent in their own thoughts for a long moment. Finally he bent down to lay the roses on their mother’s grave. As he straightened, he gave Al a smile that was faint but genuine, and his steel knuckles tapped against the armor’s chestplate in a familiar, affectionate gesture.
“We’d better head back. We still have to get this walking junkheap of yours crated up for the trip to Central, you know.”
“You’re lucky you never called me that when it was the only body I had!”
With a snicker, Ed turned and started walking. Al followed him, and together they retraced the winding road that led back toward the Rockbell home.
After a few minutes, they rounded a corner to see a slim blonde figure coming their way. Winry smiled and waved a hand, quickening her steps until she reached them.
“Granny sent me after you,” she explained, with a small grin and a shrug. “You’ve been gone a while, and she wanted me to drag you back so she can feed you one more time before you go.”
Al chuckled. “It seems like all we’ve done for the last week is eat!”
In all fairness, the daily feasts Pinako cooked up had served Al especially well. With nourishment and exercise, the weight and muscle tone of his proper body were already dramatically improved. From looking at him, one would never have guessed he was only a week removed from a dire visit to death’s door—not that it was apparent in any case while he was using the armor, of course.
The trio continued on in silence for a short time, taking in the fresh brightness of the day. It was Ed who finally spoke up, glancing sidelong at Winry as she walked beside him.
“I’m kind of surprised you’re not upset about us leaving so soon.”
His mechanic gave him a thoughtful look, pursing her lips slightly. Then her gaze dropped to the ground before them.
“I know you have a job to do now that’s important to you. I guess… maybe I’ve learned what it’s like to feel that, too.” Winry shrugged. “With all the things that happened, we lost so much of our childhoods, and I used to just—want to have back what we had. But now that I’ve gotten a little older, I know life doesn’t work that way. Things change, and people change.” She raised her eyes, and Ed was surprised to see her smile. “But just because things are different now, that doesn’t mean they can’t be as good as they were… or even better.”
Nothing Winry could have said would have done more to lighten Ed’s heart. She had put his own feelings into words, and he smiled back at her with gladness.
“Besides,” Winry went on, “I won’t be staying here with Granny, either. When the Curtises go back to Dublith tomorrow, I’m going with them. They need a good automail mechanic there, and Mason wants to help me set up shop.”
The news was not quite a revelation. All week, Ed had observed the increasingly obvious warmth between Winry and Mason with an amused satisfaction; but he played along, raising an exaggeratedly shocked eyebrow at her. “Mason, eh?”
“I know he used to drive you a little crazy sometimes—but he’s been good for me, Ed. He’s really the one who held me together when I was so afraid we might lose Al. He’s sweet, and funny, and he’s…” Winry blushed vividly, lowering her eyes, and her voice fell to an abashed murmur. “He’s great with kids.”
Ed stopped walking, and for a brief moment, he stared at Winry. Then he let out a short laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Winry asked, glaring at him.
“You are.” Ed smiled at the girl who was a sister to him, and proceeded to thoroughly astonish her by putting his arms around her shoulders for a quick, tight squeeze. “I’m happy for you, Winry.”
When he let her go, it was Winry’s turn to stare, her cheeks darkening a little more. At last she ducked her head and grinned.
The three continued to walk. Al looked down at Winry, and in spite of the armor’s lack of expression, he radiated a sudden mischievousness.
“You know what having Teacher for a great-aunt would do to your children, don’t you?”
“Al!” Winry exclaimed in a scandalized shriek, more red-faced than ever.
At that moment they rounded a bend in the road that was obscured by a screen of trees. The pond came into view at their right, sparkling under the sun—and the brothers and their friend halted at the sight of two familiar figures in the middle distance, sitting together on the grassy bank that led to the water’s edge.
Riza Hawkeye’s left hand lay in the hand of Roy Mustang. For a brief moment, something glinted brightly on her finger, as she leaned forward to meet him in a gentle kiss.
Al’s armor gave off the rattle of a quick, startled quiver. Winry grinned and clapped her hand over her mouth, her pinkness taking on a different hue… and Edward simply blinked and smiled.
“You think we should tell them that’s where we always used to fight when we were kids?” Al mused quietly, his impish tone returning.
Winry let out a snort and seized both brothers by the arms, pulling them away before Mustang or Hawkeye could notice them. “Don’t spoil the romance, silly.”
Although Al balkily craned his nonexistent neck, trying to catch another glimpse over his shoulder, Ed was content to walk on. The teasing he had in store for Mustang would come later—but for now, the couple deserved this moment. In their own ways, he knew they had come through just as much as he and Al had, and they would be alright.
They would all be alright.
Ed closed his eyes and smiled, raising his face to the sky, and the sun’s light was almost as warm as the warmth in his beating heart.
London — forty minutes after the opening of the Gate
Roy Mustang of the Hunters felt a strange, indefinable sense of loss.
It wasn’t the loss he felt for Riza. She had breathed her last human breath half an hour ago, and now she lay cold and still in his arms, as he sat quietly on the ground outside the empty building that had so recently been a war zone.
Within a matter of hours, Riza would awaken to her new existence as a dhampir—and when she felt her first dark hunger for blood, she would fully understand the horrors she had condemned herself to. Then Roy would grieve with her, and teach her… and he would give her again the lost love that was her reason for making that choice. No fear of harm would stand between them now. In time, when she was ready to bear his terrible memories of the things he had endured, they would even share their lives with one another through their blood.
She was strong enough. Roy knew that—and he knew he would be stronger for her.
It wasn’t even the loss of comrades that caused the particular melancholy Roy felt. He had never properly appreciated Francesca and Kain, or even Maes, to whom he owed everything; that realization made his heart ache for their deaths all the more. Yet that sorrow was also different from the wistfulness he felt now, the vague feeling of missing something he had never really had to begin with.
The most badly wounded members of the party, Sig and Vato, had reluctantly gone off to see the doctor who was a faithful ally to the Hunters. In spite of his work as their inside man at the coroner’s office, planted there to gain information about any mysterious deaths in London, Nash Tringham was fully qualified as a physician to the living. However ungodly the hour of the night, he and his sons were always prepared to tend the battle wounds of humans, or to fortify weakened dhampirs with the blood of the rabbits the boys raised. He would take excellent care of the two men.
Meanwhile, Jean and Heymans and Councilor Bradley were making a thorough search of the building, but it was only a formality. They all knew the same fact Roy was already sure of—and that fact was what made him feel such a peculiar sense of bereftness.
Edward Elric was gone… and somehow, Roy felt their world was a far poorer place for his absence.
Boots scraped on concrete as Jean and Bradley emerged from the gaping main entryway, and the Councilor shook his head with a shrug. The confirmation that they had found no trace of Fullmetal was hardly necessary.
“I told you,” said a quiet voice, a few feet to Roy’s left. “You won’t find him. He’s—home.”
Jean Havoc winced at that voice, and moved quickly to the weary feminine figure who sat on a stack of lumber. Kneeling beside her, he looked up into her eyes, his expression filled with distress and bafflement.
“I still can’t believe this. It’s… really you?”
The young woman nodded slowly. And Roy marveled once again, because the fair, round face that gazed down at Jean was Francesca’s…
Yet, impossibly, it was Noa’s soul that looked out from behind those large green eyes.
Noa’s spirit was occupying Francesca’s body. There was no mistaking it. Francesca was dead, slain by Envy; her soul was gone, but somehow, it had been replaced by the soul of the gentle young gypsy. This presence spoke and acted like Noa in every way. More importantly, it felt like her, in a way Roy keenly sensed but couldn’t begin to explain. It was Noa, regardless of the form she now inhabited.
“Tell us again,” Bradley said gently. “How did this happen?”
With a heavy sigh, Noa stared down at the hands resting in her lap: white skin instead of brown, shorter fingers, broader palms. Roy couldn’t imagine what she felt, finding herself in the flesh that had belonged to her best friend.
“My body was the price I paid for opening the Gate.” The high, sweet voice was Francesca’s, and yet not, its entire character distinctly altered by Noa’s soft tone and natural inflections. “I should have died, but somehow… my soul instinctively searched for another vessel to survive in. There must have been just enough lingering energy from the Philosopher’s Stone to make it possible. And this body was…”
“Empty,” Roy concluded for her solemnly.
Bradley studied the displaced girl with a grimace of sympathy. “And after all of that—you’re a dhampir again.”
This fact was also evident in Noa’s pale and unbreathing new form. Although her true body had been restored to humanity, that mortal life was not transferred to Francesca’s undead shell. Whatever the alchemic power was that transplanted Noa’s soul, it had healed the previous damage to her new body’s heart, and nothing more.
“It’s just as well,” Noa said faintly. “I’ll be stronger for our fight this way.”
“But—how long will it last?” Jean swallowed hard, searching the downcast green eyes that now belonged to Noa. “I mean, how long will… will you live like this?”
She turned her face away slightly. “I don’t know.”
It was an unsettling question. From Edward’s memories, Roy knew Hohenheim had spent hundreds of years moving from one body to another. At least in the beginning, before his soul reached its limits, he was able to live out the full years of his stolen hosts—but a single human lifetime was not the immortal existence of a dhampir. Even if Noa’s new body was still inhuman in its endurance, there was no way of knowing how long her soul might sustain the flesh that was not its own.
Perhaps it didn’t make any difference. With the work they did, no Hunter ever expected to live forever… especially now. If alchemy made them enemies in the eyes of their own kind, all of their futures might be far too brief.
Jean hesitated for a moment. Then he lightly placed his hand on Noa’s arm.
“I don’t care about this—and I don’t care how much time you have. I want to help you, Noa… if you’ll let me.”
Noa smiled painfully at him. She almost touched his hand; but she abruptly stopped herself, gazing down at her fingers as they closed over the unfamiliar lines of her palm. “Just give me time, Jean.”
Roy nodded faintly to himself in satisfaction. He had once pitied Jean’s lonely love for a young woman who did not return his feelings, but now he was oddly grateful for it—because this change proved it was Noa’s soul Jean cared about after all, and not her body. His devotion would be the best thing for her. Even if it took time for the rest of them to adjust to Noa’s plight, Jean would treat her as if she was normal, and that would do much to help her feel normal.
Perhaps one day, Jean might yet win Noa’s heart.
A muffled grunt from the entryway of the building interrupted Roy’s wistful thoughts. He glanced up to see Heymans trudging out into the moonlight, with a limp and heavy burden in his arms.
The Hunters watched in silence as, with a surprising gentleness, Heymans laid Maes’ body on the rough ground. Their former leader’s staring eyes were still open, and Bradley knelt down reverently to close them.
“I know what Maes was to all of you… and I know what he became was no fault of his own.” Bradley looked up at each of the Hunters in turn. “The way his life ended will not be remembered, I promise you. His loss will be recorded as an honorable death in battle. The pain he suffered will detract nothing from the memory of his greatness as a leader… and a friend.”
With a stifled sob, Noa looked away.
“The question is whether we still have a Council to report to,” Roy said grimly. “What happens next? What will we do with this alchemy now—if other Hunters decide it makes us too dangerous?”
“We go on with the work each of us vowed to do. Even if those who fear alchemy drive us deeper underground, we keep hunting vampires—and this time we destroy them, one by one, for as long as it takes.” Bradley cast a kind glance toward Noa. “Edward gave us more than alchemy. For the first time, he brought us hope. If he succeeds in teaching his world the truth, and if we do our part faithfully here… perhaps someday, there will be no more vampires.”
“But there’d still be us,” Jean muttered darkly.
Bradley sobered. “That’s true. Even if this world could be rid of vampires, there would still be dhampirs who turn rogue. Not one of our kind will ever cease to be a potential danger to the mortal world. Some innocent souls will continue to break, just as Maes did… and some will choose to do harm. It may be that one day, we will be the only monsters who remain.” He breathed a deep sigh. “I don’t know what might happen then… or whether we could find the courage to destroy our own race for the good of mankind. Only time will answer that.”
“Time…” Noa murmured, with a sad smile. She wiped her pale new cheeks with the back of her hand, and slowly stood up.
“I’m going to keep fighting, no matter how much time I have. Ed won’t fail us—and we can’t fail him. It’s up to us now to protect our world with the power he gave us, and to make sure it’s never used for harm. No matter what stands in our way, we have to do what we know is right… the same way he did for us.”
Her eyes brightened, and there was something familiar about her hard, determined smile.
“It’s time to move forward.”
© 2011 Jordanna Morgan