As soon as the nurse was gone they locked the door to the hospital room. Although “locked” was perhaps too mild a term—Ed fuzed the door with the wall.
Mei made a face at the machines and tubes and muttered about them being “barbaric” before she yanked the blankets to one side. Placing a hand on Roy’s stomach, she took a deep breath and settled in to focus.
Yu glanced over at Ed and put a hand on his arm. He hunched his shoulders. This was something he still not familiar with. In fact, Yu realized, he had never seen medical alkestry in action. He was putting the life of his lover in the hands of someone he did not trust, using a practice he did not understand.
“Your healers are lacking,” Mei remarked. “No regard for the body’s natural flow of qi at all.”
Ed scoffed but—uncharacteristically—held his tongue.
Mei was already sinking knives into the mattress on either side of Roy. Yu had a passing thought that if the hospital didn’t hate them already they were certainly going to now. But that thought was quickly dismissed as energy arched up, enclosing Roy in a cage of light. A second later—Yu was left blinking the dazzle from her eyes, peering through the relatively dim hospital lighting. She hardly dared breathe.
“I’ve stopped the bleeding,” Mei said. “I had to work around those—those stitches, but I realigned his qi and he should—”
Ed darted forward as soon as she started speaking, causing Mei to take a hasty step back to keep from being shoved. She scowled.
Yu put an arm around her to dispel the gathering storm. “‹Forgive him this once, Princess. Please,›” she said. “‹And thank you.›”
Ed was bent over the bed, cradling Roy’s face between his hands and speaking softly. And Roy—was stirring. Small shifts of his limbs, a tiny tilt of his head. Yu held her breath. “Hey. You in there?” Ed was saying. He stroked his hair, his cheek. “Time to wake up.”
Roy grimaced. His head jerked as he tried to shake himself back to consciousness. Then his single eye blinked open.
“Hey you!” Ed smiled, tears running down his cheeks and dripping from the end of his nose. “About time. Lazy-ass bastard.”
“Ed . . .?” Roy mumbled. “What . . . what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” the young man insisted. “Nothing’s wrong now. Everything gonna be fine.”
Roy’s hand bumped into his arm and slid back down to the bed. “You’re crying. . . .”
“Oh. Yeah.” Ed rubbed his cheeks. New tears immediately replaced the ones he wiped away. “Guess I am. Stupid, huh?” He caught up Roy’s hand, kissing his knuckles. “Everything’s fine now.”
Yu could feel the tears on her own cheeks. She desperately wanted to embrace her son, to reassure herself that he was all right now. But the moment in front of her seemed so intimate and so complete, she wasn’t sure how she could break it. Or if she should.
The hospital staff had no such qualms. A pounding on what had once been the door made them all aware of the angry voices and the growing commotion outside the room.
Roy looked to the wall-that-had-been-a-door and back to Ed, to the wall, and then to Ed. The look on his face said I have no idea what’s going on but I’m sure it’s your fault.
Ed was grinning through his tears. “I should, um. Go deal with that. You just rest, all right? I’ll handle things.”
Roy made a dubious but resigned-sounding noise. Ed kissed him beneath his eye (“Ugh, you smell like hospital”) and straightened, wiping his face on his sleeve.
"He still needs rest to heal," Mei said. "Alkestry doesn't make miracles."
"You heard her, Bastard." Ed pressed Roy's hand between his own for a moment more. "I'll worry about everything else.”
Roy glanced to the fuzed door, then back to Ed, his smile both amused and trusting. He clearly had no qualms about leaving things in this man's hands, even if he didn't know what was happening.
Ed grinned again, and kissed Roy’s fingers before relinquishing his hand. “Lemme go see how badly I’ve pissed them off.”
* * *
Al sank down to the sand, his back against a clay wall. This side of the building was still in shade, shielding him from the growing heat of the day. For the time being.
He had just given away . . . everything. To someone he barely knew and had every reason not to trust. Ling had admitted he was seeking power and Al had all but handed him the secret to the Philosopher’s Stone.
He and his brother had never discussed it, but they had a tacit understanding that this knowledge was too dangerous to be shared. Had Al just doomed another country to the same path Dante had taken theirs down for centuries? His instincts told him Ling was genuine in his intentions, but good intentions only meant so much.
Well. They’d stopped it once. If it came to that, Al was prepared to do whatever was necessary to stop it again.
He could hear the men approaching, sounding nervous. Ling must have spooked them; Al regretted not being able to see that show. He grinned to himself as he put his hands together and pressed them to the ground.
The wind kicked up immediately. It was such a simple transmutation he often wondered why more alchemists didn’t use it—just change the relative temperatures in two areas, and physics took care of the rest.
The hard part was keeping it under control. He wanted enough of a wind storm to cut them off and maybe bury their trucks, but not enough to compromise the city. He clapped again and brought his hands down to contain the gusts.
Al edged back to keep out of sight, pulling his shirt over his nose and squinting against the sand flying in his face.
“This whole area is cursed, I knew we shouldn’t have—”
“Shut up with your superstitious nonsense. We just—we just have to keep our heads down and wait. It’ll blow itself out.”
“I’m telling you it’s cursed. That Ishvalan cursed this city—”
Al clapped and sent a gust of wind straight at them.
He had been so focused that Ling’s voice made him jump. Not that that was hard right now.
“I have alerted your large friend and some of the town elders,” Ling said as he shielded his face with his sleeve. “They know where to look.”
Al nodded, peering through the sands at his handiwork. The trucks wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon.
Now came the tricky part. Once the wind got going, it wanted to keep going. He clapped and put his hands to the ground to even out the temperature. Get the air to stop rising and the wind will stop rushing in behind it. At least that was the idea. He clapped again to make another adjustment and counteract some of the inertia.
The windstorm finally sputtered to a halt.
“Cursed,” one of their quarry whispered into the sudden stillness. “It’s cursed I tell you.”
One of the other men hissed at him to shut up.
“What brings you to our fair city so early in the day?” Armstrong’s voice was cheerful enough, but Al could hear the edge of steel beneath it. He smiled at the ripple of panic that went through the men. “You should have called ahead! We would have sent a guide to escort you. Steered you away from the, hm, less picturesque areas.”
Al crept around the far side of the building and peeked at the show. People from the town were walking in from all sides, surrounding the strangers. no one was being threatening, not yet, but the men from the train looked like cornered animals.
Ling leaned back and braced one foot against the wall. “A clever man could talk his way out of this,” he mused. “But these are not clever men.”
Al sighed. “They’re smart enough to clam up. I have a feeling we still won’t know who’s behind this.”
“But I get the sense that whoever it is has been rushed. A rushed person makes mistakes.”
Al eyed the Xingian prince. “You got what you wanted—more or less. Why are you still here?”
He shrugged. “I have nothing else to do at the moment.” He sighed, running a hand through his hair and shaking sand loose. “To meet honesty with honesty—I am not at all sure what I am to do with these scraps of knowledge you have given me. It would be enough to gain favor with my emperor-father—perhaps for my entire clan. But it may be . . . too much.”
Al rubbed his face. “Our teacher tried to impress on us that death is a part of the cycle of the world—and that interrupting that cycle creates imbalance. Throws everything off. We thought we understood—but we also thought we were clever enough to get around it.”
“You weren’t,” Ling surmised.
“No one is. It can’t be done. If you try . . . well, the results you get aren’t ones you’re going to like. If your father tries to extend his life . . . a lot of people are going to suffer. Including him. He won’t be able to escape it forever.”
The Liorian citizens were confronting the men with items that they had found—items they insisted had not been there when they’d dug their city out of the sand four years ago. Armstrong was doing his best to keep the peace but the situation looked delicate.
“Why is your general friend so hated?” Ling asked. “Someone is going to a lot of trouble just to make him look bad.”
“He was trying to change things.” Al shrugged. “Four years ago he even succeeded. Some of the men who were in power at the time . . . don’t like that.”
“Don’t like that he killed the last ruler?”
“Or at least that’s the rumor.” Ling continued to watch the men from the train, a small, sly smile on his face. “According to those three.”
“Is—is it?” Al cringed at how transparent he sounded. He was far too short of sleep for this.
“I’m very impressed. I would love to discuss it with him. Knowing how to kill someone that high up and get away with it would be very useful to me.”
Al grimaced. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
He shrugged, his standard shit-eating grin not giving away anything. “So where can we find some breakfast?”
* * *
Yu wasn’t sure what she felt. Relieved, of course, and grateful. But also betrayed. Maybe it was irrational—Mei had helped, in the end—but seeing her son’s life used as a bargaining chip had left her queasy.
All she wanted to do was sleep. But her mind kept going over and over the last few hours, like a record with a faulty groove.
Mei perched on the edge of an easy chair in Roy’s—Roy and Ed’s—living room. She looked so uneasy, Yu wondered what was going through her mind. They were waiting for Ed to get off the phone so they could talk—or more likely, so Ed could give the Princess a piece of his mind. The young man had been profoundly grateful, but his anger at being played was clear.
“Then stick a note on her door or something,” he was saying to whatever unlucky soul was on the other side of the phone. “Oh for fuck’s—I don’t know, think of something! Just make sure she gets the note. Look, if she goes and steals a car it’s on your head, I fucking tried!” Ed slammed the phone down and leaned against the small table for a moment.
When he turned around he looked, not calm exactly, but restrained. But any hope Yu might have had for peace was shattered as he unceremoniously rapped Mei on the head.
He rapped his knuckles against her skull again. “You fucking deserve it. Playing politics with people’s lives—” He swatted her once more and then stalked off.
“‹You should be grateful,›” Yu muttered. “‹He could have used the metal hand.›”
Mei grimaced, rubbing the top of her head.
“All this fuss about living forever,” Ed ranted, pacing the room. “It’s not like dying’s any big deal—”
“Edward, it’s really not that simple—”
“Don’t talk like you know these things!” Mei cut in.
“I did die and I’m telling you it’s no big deal,” Ed snapped. “We only care because we’re selfish. Human beings don’t like giving anything up.” He waved a hand in a vague gesture. “But for one who dies, it’s the easiest thing in the world.”
He continued on the circuit of the room as if he hadn’t just blithely contradicted one of the fundamental laws of the world. “Nothing—nothing matters any more when you’re dead. You don’t matter. None of us do.”
Yu could only stare. Ed hadn’t seemed the type to use hyperbole and was far too honest for outright falsehoods, but he couldn’t have meant that—he couldn’t.
Mei had jumped up during the speech and dashed to the phone table, scribbling something on a piece of scratch paper. Now she slammed the pen down and snapped the paper in front of his face. “If you know so much—tell me what this is!”
Ed went chalk white and jerked back. His heel caught the edge of a chair and he stumbled, hitting the floor hard.
“Ed!” Yu reached for him but he flinched when she touched his arm. “Mei, what is that?”
Mei stood with the paper crumpled to her chest, looking just as shocked as Yu felt. “The—the huang-ting—I think. I—I found it in some old journals—”
Edward made an odd choking sound. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes with a shudder. “Shit. I haven’t gotten nearly enough sleep for this. Lemme guess: those journals talked about coming back from the dead, or the land of the dead, or gaining knowledge of life and death or—something about life and death, right? You found them ’cause you were looking for immortality?”
“I . . . yes.” Mei’s hands tightened on the paper. “What . . . is it?”
“The Gate of Knowledge,” he replied. “The Door of Truth. Gateway between worlds, between life and death—mostly we just call it the Gate.”
“This is . . . known here?”
“Nah.” Ed scrubbed his hands through his hair. “Just to idiots like me. Idiots who thought the rules didn’t apply.” He waved a hand at the paper. “Nice rendering, by the way. You must have studied that journal pretty closely.”
Mei tentatively straightened out the paper and stared down at it.
For a moment, no one said anything. Yu was at a loss, unable to make sense out of any of it.
Ed let his arms rest on his knees. “You’re right in thinking that that deals with life and death. But it won’t give you what you want. You can’t cheat it.”
Yu stared at the young man, then at the drawing Mei held. Something wasn’t adding up, and if she wasn’t so exhausted she was sure she’d be able to figure out what.
“I don’t want to cheat it,” Mei was muttering. “Not really. I just—I just need—”
“You need it to look good,” Ed finished for her. He climbed to his feet and flicked a hand toward the drawing. “Well, unless you’re ready to lose a chunk of your body, that is more trouble than it’s worth. And no, I won’t tell you how to find it. You don’t want to meet it early.”
It finally clicked. “Ed—you said you died!”
“O-oh, that,” he said through a yawn. “Right. I hadn’t gone through yet. My soul had left my body and I was standing at the Gate, but it hadn’t opened yet. Then Al healed me. So I guess I was—sort of dead. But not all the way dead? My body was dead.” He staggered over to the couch and dropped down, rubbing his face. “I guess I was mostly dead. Am I making any sense? I haven’t had enough sleep for this.”
Yu pressed a hand to her eyes. None of them had had enough sleep.
“My body had died,” Ed continued. “Got run through the heart. And I stood there—my soul—waiting for that damn thing to open, I realized—it didn’t matter. I didn’t matter. Whether I lived or died—the world would go on. And dying—it was no big deal. It’s just going through the Gate. But when I was meant to. I was sad because of the things I hadn’t managed to do—promises I had broken—but I didn’t matter any more. I never had. And that was—sort of—comforting.”
Ed shook his head and waved a hand, cutting himself off in mid-ramble. “And then Al healed me with the Stone, and here we are. Yeah, we had it—we hadn’t made it, and we didn’t want it, but we were stuck with it. And then—save one lousy life and it’s all used up. So much for unlimited energy, huh?”
Yu sank down into one of the arm chairs. It all seemed surreal. “This . . . this ‘Gate’ . . . this is what you saw when you—died? No wonder it frightened you.”
Ed paused, an odd look on his face. “Actually . . . that was the one time I wasn’t terrified of that thing. It was . . . I was standing right in front of it, and it was—just—fuck.”
He started to laugh. As he covered his face with his hands and fell back against the cushions, Yu couldn’t help but wonder if the past few days hadn’t been too much and he’d lost his grip on sanity entirely.
“I’ve been thinking about that thing all wrong! It’s—fuck. The Gate’s only terrifying if you’re not meant to be there. Otherwise. . . .” He dropped his hands. “It . . . in the normal course of things, it just . . . is.” In a quiet voice, he repeated, “It just is.”
Mei was keeping her thoughts to herself, her face carefully inscrutable as she watched the other alchemist.
“You’ve figured it out, haven’t you,” Ed asked her with a weary half-smile. “You know what the Stone is.”
“It’s life,” Mei whispered. “People. Isn’t it.”
“Yup.” Ed dropped his hands. “And you wanna know the kicker? The real kick in the teeth? All those soldiers who died in Liore—on top of I don’t know how many from Ishval—and we didn’t even have a complete Stone. Got used up in just a couple transmutations—the last one being me. Thousands of lives—for one. How’s that for equivalence?”
Yu was sure that once she’d had time to process everything she would be properly horrified. Right now she just felt numb.
“I’m still not telling you the process. And I’m not telling you how it could be used to keep a person from dying. As far as I know it’s just me and Al who know it from beginning to end now. It’s gonna die with us. But what you’ve got already might look pretty damn impressive, wouldn’t it?”
Mei looked ill as she lowered herself down into a chair. “He would try. My father-emperor. He would take this knowledge and try—and he would take from the least of the clans first.”
Ed rubbed his eyes. “All the shit that happened here—Ishval, Liore, all of it—that was one woman who didn’t want to die. Who thought she could cheat the Gate. But you can’t cheat it. It caught up with her eventually. Just like it caught up with my dad. You can’t cheat it.”
Exhaustion won out before they could launch into what would no doubt have been a fascinating debate. Edward ended up sprawled out on the couch, the little grey-and-white cat curled up on his stomach. Soon after Mei was curled up in the armchair.
Yu slid the much-abused drawing out from under Mei’s hand and smoothed it out. To her eyes it didn’t look like much; a double door with an eye symbol, flanked by scribbles that suggested human figures. A bit macabre, maybe, but hardly intimidating in and of itself.
She folded the paper and tucked it next to Mei.
Yu searched the hall closet and found a couple of blankets. One she tucked around Mei, and then she turned to the couch, eyeing the cat. “I don’t suppose you would be so kind as to move.”
Magpie stretched out his paws and settled his nose between them.
“Fine.” She shook the blanket out and drew it over Ed, cat and all. Magpie mrrped in protest. “We’re all making due here, cat.”
Now there was no one left to take care of. Nothing more for her to do. Yu stood there in the living room for a moment, looking at the two sleeping alchemists. Her princess, heir to the clan her family had served for generations. And also, she had liked to think, a friend; before today, she had never questioned that.
And the young man who loved her son. Her son-in-law, she supposed. She wondered if that would ever stop sounding strange.
Maybe once she had more sleep the world would start making sense again.
Long gone were the days when she could crash in the living room and not regret it in the morning. She seemed to remember a small spare room off the living room. She opened the door and found it to be small, but homey enough, with a neatly made bed and a wardrobe. It would be more than adequate. After last night it seemed palatial.
Yu shut the door and leaned back against it, staring up at the ceiling as the tears started to fall.