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Catalysis

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I : Culmination
01

Even as you look into the abyss, the abyss looks also into you.
( Friedrich Nietzsche )

~

 

         Something.

         There was something quite captivating about how the blood seeped into the cracks of their rundown dank basement. Past the whiteness of chalk and down the veins of the hundred-atom-wide crevasses, it flowed and spread like a plague pushing itself upon the cleanliness that was its victim. Even in the half-darkness he saw its path quite clearly, a gleaming crimson red in the bluish-white glow of the still crackling circle. But by this time reality was lost on him—the pain the pain the pain

         my leg is not there my arm is not there

         was eating him from inside out and there was nothing he could do about it, nothing at all. Left there lying prone on cold, cold stone he stared at the still form of his brother across the basement and he felt a speckle of relief. At least, he told himself with a dead inward laugh, Al will live on.

        His mother too. Bare-naked in the middle of the circle and splayed for all to see but whole and breathing and alive. They had done it—he had done it. He allowed himself one moment of basking in the enormity of what he had accomplished almost entirely single-handedly. Al had backed out midway, left the house and ran out somewhere only to come back right when he was about to perform the transmutation. He vaguely remembered his younger brother’s scream of warning as the sputter of energy surged into life with one touch on the edge of the circle—Alphonse had not believed in their theory enough to try it out on their own very dead mother.

         But he had.

         It was his theory, after all, a solid and fibrous thing. It lived (which for some reason his brother did not see) and it breathed its own air and it grew itself until it was complete. He had his father to thank for the basis of it (if he ever got out of this mess, which was at the moment looking highly unlikely) but most of the work he really did on his own. All of it in the end paid out.

          The blood was beginning to ebb and his vision was beginning to blink out. As time passed—a minute, a minute, a minute—his awareness meshed with memory and the preconscious, a ton’s worth of jumbled information and images as head-splitting as his two-time trip into the Truth. (Bullshit; that was no Truth.)

          The very last thing he remembered before the creeping black engulfed him was a frantic voice somewhere in the distance and warm arms wrapping around him.

          “Hold on,” the voice said, “you’ll be fine.”

 

~

          And so very rudely he was jarred awake by a loud whirring he could hear even in the drowning pain. What that was he had absolutely no idea, though he was not quite sure he wanted to find out. There were voices but sometimes they faded too, just as the darkness faded into the haze. The constant whirring noise was all that stayed.

          The pain was somewhere below the sounds. The pain was there, a saturated but ever present monster hiding its ugly head inside its little cave of bones, and that was all he did know.

          it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts make it stop make it stop make it stop

          For some amount of time that seemed incredibly long to his pain-inebriated brain, he floated side to side with these waves of appearing-disappearing noises. Those were the only outer realities he had. He had no idea who he was or where he was or why he was here, only that he was, and that was more than enough for him, because he really could not process much else.

          As time slowly crept by, he became aware that there were other noises too—crackle-and-boom in the background, an insistent discordant pattering on glass, boots on wooden floor walking about with heavy thuds for steps. And voices. The voices were getting clearer and clearer, and for the first time since emerging from the black nothingness into the haze, his mind formed a thought, an image, coherent and relevant to whatever his current situation was.

          Alphonse.

          Alphonse.

          Alphonse.

          Each echo of the name in the stuffed emptiness of his head tugged him back, closer towards the sounds, closer towards the light, farther away from the darkness.

          And then he was screaming—a loud, hoarse scream as his senses fully woke and the pain slammed hard and fast as a tidal wave against his brain, and it kept slamming one after another after another, and he kept screaming, and screaming even louder—

          The base of his head ached and added only to this cacophony, and the ache spread like dribbling water on parched land, upwards until he could feel the weight of the world in between his eyes. Such was his agony that he failed to notice the hands on his chest keeping him against the bed

          it hurts it hurts my leg it hurts my arm it hurts Alphonse Alphonse

          he failed to hear the voices, the jumble of words he was given until the height of the pain peaked and shot past his threshold, and all he felt then was a dragging, stiff, light-headed numbness. There was a massive easing of the ache—now only an invisible weight—in his head as the cacophony quieted and the scramble of impulses ended. Coherent but not quite, he heaved breath after glorious breath into his starving lungs. He tried to open his eyes but found that he could not—there was a wet towel draped over them.

          “...calmed down,” a frail voice, somewhere to his right, “He probably can’t feel the pain anymore.”

          “Do you think he can talk?” somewhere to his left.

          The one on his right—Pi... Pinea... Pineapp... Pinako?—gave a snort, “You’re asking for too much. The boy just lost his arm and leg.”

          He opened his mouth to speak but all he could do was pant; he could not see, but he could hear very well—in fact, everything seemed obnoxiously and unnaturally loud. The storm outside was raging, raging against the windowpane, and the pitter-patter on the roof was a repetitive and maddening thing.

          “The boy did perform human transmutation and soul transmutation.” Ed did not know this voice from his left, but the voice knew who he was—or at least, what he had done, and quite well at that.

          “Edward is eleven, Lieutenant Colonel, and with all due respect to alchemists, an eleven-year-old boy remains an eleven-year-old boy no matter what groundbreaking thing he has accomplished,” Pinako sounded extremely annoyed, which would be right if the person was a person of the military. It did not cross his mind to question why such a person was here, now. “If you could hand me the towels, please.”

          Something wet and rough dabbed against the sides of his wound, making him hiss and jerk in the sudden sensation of stinging pain.

          “H-Hurts,” he croaked, finally, and the dabbing stopped.

          “Ed?” Pinako placed a hand on his forehead, and though he could not see her, he could imagine the crumpled look of disappointment and anger and worry in her aged face. “Edward, can you hear me?”

          “Yes,” he rasped, and then broke into a cough. “A—Alphonse? Mom?”

          “They’re safe,” the unknown voice said, deep and comforting.

          “Alive?” his voice was a mere whisper now, fearing and childlike.

          There was a pause as if the voice was contemplating something. Ed remained tense through the silence, and when the voice confirmed, “Yes, they’re alive,” Ed sagged tiredly into the bed (which he only now realized he was on). The silence returned, disturbed only by the noise the pouring rain made against the walls and roofs of the old house. Pinako was clanking about somewhere to his right, perhaps getting more water to wash the blood away from the towels. He would have to thank her after all of this is over.

          “That was an impressive thing you did,” said the unknown voice, “human transmutation, followed up by soul transmutation.”

          Ed gave a snort, which faded into a rough cough and catch of breath. His throat felt like sandpaper, dry and irritating. A cold nudge of glass on his lips, and soon water was saturating the dehydrated cells again.

          “Better?”

          He grunted.

          “Do you know what a State Alchemist is?” no dillydally, curt and straight to the point. It was a blank question. Somewhere from inside the room came a loud clank of metal against metal, a protest. Pinako.

          “Dogs of war,” he sneered—or at least he thought he did. He had realized that he had patchy control over his muscles under this pain, after having quietly attempted (in vain) to raise his remaining left arm.

          The faceless voice gave a quiet chuckle. “Yes, indeed.” A pause. “But it is also true that State Alchemists get the most impressive amount of research funds from the military.”

          “This boy will not be going anywhere,” Pinako declared stoutly. Her steps were light against the floor, and she returned to his side and began dabbing at his wounds again. “This boy will stay right where he is with his mother and brother. I will not allow you to make him into a murderer.”

          Another stretch of tenser quiet. Pinako did not cease her motions, clanking about with metal things Ed could not see, but were probably the equipment for automail.

          Automail...

          “Granny,” he bit his lip, “do you think you can equip me with automail?”

          Again, Pinako paused her dabbing.

          “You’re too young, Ed.”

          “If it’s just the pain, I can take it,” he gritted his teeth and tried to shift position. His arm was responding a little bit better now. “I can bear it, just—I don’t want to be an invalid, Granny—“ he tried moving the stub of his leg and quit that immediately when an outrageous number of now woken pain demons shot up to the base of his spine and began stabbing their evil little forks into it.

          “Edward, do you realize what you’re saying? Grown men die of the procedure! Just from the pain!”

          He laughed a dry and mirthless laugh. “Well, having my arm and leg ripped away separately was good warm up for it, then.”

          “This is no laughing matter, Edward.” If Ed could see her face, he would probably have backed off. But he wasn’t seeing her; that was the thing.

          “I’m serious, Granny, please. I know I really can’t pay for it now, but I promise I’ll pay it off in the future, alright? Please, Granny.”

          Her light footsteps reached his ears again as she took the basin of water and the presumably blood-soaked towels to the washbasin to rinse and drain. She was mumbling under her breath—he only caught, “...child’s not even in his right mind...”
But he was, oh he was.

          There was the pain, and it was painful, but it was being nice for a change, and the fangs were sheathed for the moment. He could think clearly, though he could not move, because that would wake the pain again. He was lucid, maybe because of the adrenaline, yes it was because of the adrenaline—he understood what he was asking for. He was asking for some semblance of a life returned to him. Spending the rest of his days—a lot of days—missing an arm and a leg, unable to walk and do the things he used to do and hell, unable to hold up a goddamned book, would be unimaginable. He did not want that. He seriously did not want that.

          “I’ll pay for the automail, then,” the other voice said, up until now quieted, “if you still decide to go for the operation.”

          Ed stilled for a heartbeat, a heartbeat, another heartbeat—reached up with his good hand and removed the towel from over his eyes. Blinking against the offensively bright white light, he squinted to his left at the figure standing there.

          Standard issue blue military uniform, with specks of blood on the front—probably his. Damp hair hanging limply into dark, dark eyes; smooth brows sloping into aristocratic cut of jaw. Ed had to admit---this person was rather handsome.

          “...it’s expensive, you know,” he blinked stupidly at the person.

          “I believe I can afford that much,” there was an air of arrogance and amusement about the statement that Ed could not bear to stomach. He scowled up at the man for good measure before turning to Pinako.

          “Granny, I’m getting your best set,” Ed declared in a solid and demanding voice. “The most expensive set.”

          “I have not agreed to anything, young man.” Pinako had a set glare for him as she carried the umpteenth basin of water and a fresh towel over.

          “Granny,” he pleaded. “I don’t want to be like this for any longer than necessary!”

          “Then you should have considered that before you played around with your alchemy!” she was obviously close to losing her temper, and since she could get rather scary when pushed, Ed shut his mouth. For now. Even if he itched to tell her that he was not playing around. She took a calming breath and secured the bandages around the stump of his arm. “I do not understand you, Edward. I do not understand why you did what you did. But I will not ask you of it now—I would rather have you explain it later, when your mother has woken up and is here to listen to your reasons. Do not mistake this as my condoning your actions. You were rash, Edward, and you hurt your own family.”

          He collapsed back into the bed, limp from the exertion of inching upwards to a somewhat upright position. He was careful to keep his eyes closed against Pinako’s seeking ones. She failed to understand his reasons, and she failed to understand his science (he had not been rash, thank you very much; in fact, he had been very careful about the entire process!). Moreover, nobody else but he and Al knew about Trisha’s sudden death (but Pinako could probably hazard an accurate guess by now).

          “I still want the automail, and I don’t really care if you like what I did or not,” Ed petulantly barked. “Why else do you think I went ahead with it? Things could have been much worse than this. I’m lucky I only lost two limbs.”

          “Lucky, ha!” and she was really pissed now, Ed could see it in the spit of her eyes. “Still a child, you are, Edward. Don’t you realize the value of your own body?”

          “I do, but in exchange for what I got, I think this much is cheap fare,” he mumbled, turning away from her.

          The Lieutenant Colonel leaning against the wall nodded wryly. “Very cheap fare.”

          “You,” Ed snapped, before Pinako could say anything else, “Why do you care, anyway? Why would you pay for the automail? I don’t even know you.”

          “Oh but I know you,” the person smiled again, and it raised Ed’s hackles for some very strange and unexplainable reason. “Think of it as a token from a friend of your father’s.”

          Ed froze. “...you—“ he began, but his voice caught in his throat, and he had to struggle and push it out. “You know my father. You know Hohenheim.”

          “Yes.”

          “Where is he?”

          “I don’t know.” Ed could not tell if the person was being honest or not. He was too far away to see into those eyes properly, and he was too far away to threaten with a punch. “I was hoping you would know, so I went here in search of you. I received one of your letters.”

          Ed itched to ask which one, but the Lieutenant’s tone was so final that he was hard-pressed to continue the conversation. The nameless arrogant bastard obviously did not want to talk about this now.

          “So are you getting the automail?” the person asked again, “Because I need to know so I can write a note for the money.”

          “Well, Granny won’t let me.” He turned to Pinako again. “Granny, please?”

          “Edward—“

          “You might as well let him now,” the Lieutenant gave a nonchalant shrug, hands in pockets and silver watch gleaming under bright light. “The wound is a clean cut, and it’s still fresh. It would be much more painful for him if you let it stay and heal and then cut it open again later for the attachment.”

          “He’s got a point,” Ed followed up cleanly, though he felt off having to agree with this stranger.

          “Winry’s occupied with watching your mother and brother; I’m missing a pair of hands,” now she was only making excuses, and worst, he could see right through them.

          “Well, this, err, Lieutenant can help.” It shamed him to beg, but he could not help it. He turned to the stranger with imploring wide eyes. “You will, won’t you? I heard military people had medical training...”

          Wheedled he did for a little bit more, with the help of the (much amused) stranger, until Pinako sank into a contemplative silence, and it was then that Ed knew he had won. That particular sheen in the old woman’s eyes only appeared whenever she was deep in thought about automail—she was probably weighing her choices and building in her head prototypes of the best kind of port and arm for him and his body make-up.

          He settled back into his bed, gave the stranger a grin while Pinako had her back turned, and closed his eyes. He did not notice at all when he fell back into a light and tired sleep.

 

~

          “Brother, let’s not do this,” Al said.

          Ed turned away from the perfect circle and disbelievingly set his eyes on his little brother. “We’re stopping now?” his voice was rough from disuse—he had gone nowhere but the basement for the past two, almost three days now. “We can’t stop now. It’s done, Al, we can bring back Mom—“

          “But—there’s no guarantee this will work.” There was fear in his brother’s voice.

          “There’s no guarantee it won’t,” Ed set his mouth in a grim, determined line. “We’re doing this, Al.” He looked again at the circle, and at the middle, where their mother’s body lay supine and still.

          “You’re just doing this now for the sake of doing it, not for Mom!”

          His eyes tightened and before he could stop himself, he was lashing out with a fist, squarely cracking against Al’s jaw. “Don’t you dare say those words again, Alphonse. Don’t you dare accuse me of experimenting on Mom.”

          Al sneered, “Well, aren’t you?”

          Another punch, but Al dodged and threw a kick in retaliation—Ed’s back hit the side of the table and lost his footing, stumbled, and fell against the circle, his fingertips grazing the static circle—

          Rush-crackle-boom was the energy against his ringing ears, and he struggled to right himself against the gust of it, placing his palms flat against the floor, his skin colder than the concrete. Screaming—there was screaming somewhere behind him, and then the weight of the transmutation was lighter, and beside him was Al, a frantic Al, a scared Al, flattening too his palms on the circle, their fingertips almost touching as they spread over the glowing limit glyphs.

          They watched, both of them, wide-eyed and wary and in wonder as the crackling light, pure energy, rushed through the sweeping lines and was bound and shaped and directed by Ed’s chalk script. The body

          their mother their mother Mom please please please work

          was lifted and before their very eyes renewed, the hue of healthy skin—not blue and not dead—returning lost vivacity to her. He could even see, yes he could see when her chest stuttered into life once more as she drew a staggering first breath, and with her his chest staggered as well, in joy and relief and victory and

          she’s alive it worked we did it

          then Al was collapsing beside him and his pain in his leg was tearing him apart and the light was gaping its mouth open wide so he could see a black hole in its midst and as if being slammed against the wall face-first his head began aching the longer he looked at it

          what what what what

          oh but he could not look away because it was all too captivating, all too fascinating, the information, the knowledge

          show me show me show me more

 

~

          He sprang up in bed and heaved for breath, forcing his eyes open wide and bowing his back until his forehead touched his one remaining knee. Sweat poured in gratuitous rivulets underneath his shirt and down his spine, slithering as if it was a snake seeking shelter somewhere south. Over and over in his brain he convinced himself he was awake. He was awake now. He was awake.

          “Easy, mind your leg,” it was the stranger again, with another glass of water to offer. Ed wondered absently if this guy used water alchemy and had some sort of affinity for it. “Here, drink this.”

          And so he drank, and with each gulp he felt more like himself. Water really was a wonderful little molecule, so very versatile, so very life-giving, and yet still so very dangerous. He ended up draining the entire glass.

          The light-headed numbness was still there, and he still felt like his head was rounded and filled with air. Lucidity was not lost, however; he was more than glad to still be capable of logical thinking. It was the one thing he would fight tooth and nail for to retain at all times; it was the one thing that defined him as Edward Elric. Otherwise, he was just another organic body here to pass and rot.

          “Your grandmother is preparing the tools for the operation with the young girl—Winry?—as we speak,” said the stranger as Ed reclined back into the bed. It was a different bed, he noticed. It was the operation bed. “She said she was going to set the ports up for now and leave the limbs for later, since they’ll take time.”

          Sleep held him for more than just a few hours, he realized, when the stranger pulled the curtains back to let in some sun, revealing then the sprawling hills of Resembool, soggy and laden with rainwater and storm debris. He faintly smiled. Even then, it was breathtakingly beautiful. A couple of simple minutes in silence under the morning sun left him pleasantly refreshed.

          A short while afterward and as if on cue, Winry knocked on the open door and brought in a heavy tray laden with food for two. She walked up to Ed, eyeing his injuries mindfully, and after a split-second’s consideration, beamed up at him.

          “How are you feeling, alchemy freak?”

          “What do you think, mechanic freak?”

          “Call me that again and I’ll poison your food,” she snarled, dumping the tray on the small coffee table the stranger dragged up to Ed’s bedside. A wary glance was all she gave the stranger, before she hurried out of the room with a faint, “Unlike you, I’m busy, since I’m helping Granny with your ports,” in parting.

          Grimacing at the door she disappeared through, he was left mumbling acid words and unceremoniously stabbing a sausage from one of the plates. And toast. He was busy with his mastication when the stranger casually asked:

          “Do you like her?”

          He choked.

          “Do I what?” he sputtered, blinking owlishly up (damn that height) at the stranger.

          “Like her,” and the bloody bastard was smiling. Coyly smiling. “You know, possible blossoming future romantic interest? She is rather catching.”

          “...you’re a pedophile, aren’t you,” he said it more as a morbidly horrified statement (which it was), and this time it was the stranger’s turn to choke.

          Indignantly, the stranger drew himself up and sternly frowned down (damn that height!) at Ed, “I am most certainly not. I will have you know that I have perfectly healthy relationships with legal adults—“

          “—which is more than I need to know, thank you very much,” Ed’s face fell into a grimace again when his prodigious brain quickly picked the lack of specified gender in that statement. He quietly and very subtly inched as far away from the older man as he could without paining his injured leg any more than it already was.

          They lapsed into a somewhat awkward-non-awkward silence after that, and through it they made quick work of their breakfast. Once or twice Ed filched himself a piece of ham or toast from the bastard stranger’s plate, and though each time he was given a sharp glare for it, the stranger did not retaliate.

          The longer they lulled within the silence (with the food entirely gone), the deeper Ed fell into thought. Now that he was well-fed, rested, and in substantially less pain than the previous night, his lucidity was heightened and his awareness was whole enough for some rigorous analytical thinking. Clearly there were things to be picked apart, given his current situation. He had lost two limbs, which had not been part of his initial calculation, but so remained the fact that he had lost them, therefore there had to be just reason. (He consoled himself with the thought of his mother and brother alive upstairs and resting. That was a relief.)

          Finding the discrepancy was easy enough: the theory itself was perfect in all its parts, but the problem was with the execution. He had a major lapse of judgment, and forgot about the exchange for the soul altogether. Forgot. It shamed him, the thought. He struggled and failed to reconcile himself with his careless ego. Izumi had warned him against this. He had forgotten the simplest and most obvious thing in his mindless haste and subsequently endangered his brother’s life in the process. How stupider could he get.

          “Don’t beat yourself up now,” Ed’s eyes snapped up to the stranger’s passive face. “I don’t want a sulking brat on my watch.”

          “Who asked you to watch me anyway?” Ed grumbled.

          “Your grandmother, with whom I most certainly do not wish to argue with again.”

          “...how do you know I’m beating myself up anyway?” Ed scowled.

          “Your face,” there was disapproval in the stranger’s dark eyes, though why, Ed could not figure. “You wear your heart on your sleeve, kid.”

          ‘Kid’—fuck this infuriating bloody bastard is trying my patience— “Who the hell are you calling so sub-microscopic he would fit a hundred million times in the smallest cell of the human body?!”

          “How did you do it?” the shift in subject was so sudden that Ed was left staggering in wordlessness. In a soft and patient tone, the stranger repeated, “How did you do the transmutation?” as if he was deaf and retarded, either of which he was not, how dare the bastard patronize him. And insult him, all in one sentence. (Only he was allowed to do that to people.)

          “You’re a good alchemist?” he frowned in slightly (only slightly, since he was being nice) condescending evaluation.

          Lieutenant Colonel Bastard smiled indulgently. “Why don’t you try me yourself.”

          Slowly, his eyebrow—one—crawled up towards his hairline. A devious grin, an inheritance from Izumi, spread upon his face. “Try not to be left too far in the dust, bastard.”

          Mentally he debated where to start, and decided to begin from the crux of the matter.

          “Well, our Mom died, as you probably already figured,” he shrugged. “It was the epidemic, I think. She collapsed once a long time ago—about three years now—but the doctor dismissed it. Stupid. I knew there was something wrong.” He fisted his well hand into the bed sheet. “Anyway, she got sick really easy after that one time, but then she would always bounce back as if nothing happened. You know, normal flu, or maybe tiredness. We—Al and I—we were away too, training with our teacher for most of the time, so we didn’t get to look at her well enough.” Maybe we shouldn’t have left.

          “She’s been sick for a while now since we got back. She tried to hide it, but I could see. She wouldn’t listen to me, though, and Granny Pinako was gone with Winry to East City for their yearly supply trip. Then three days ago, she just—collapsed and—“

          Something was holding his throat tight and captive, and it took him a good while to loosen it well enough to speak again. He did not cry, though. He could not bring himself to cry.

          "So I thought, maybe I could bring her back,” he allowed himself a dry grin of triumph, “and I did, didn’t I. The theory was perfect—I was the one who fucked up.”

          “Your theory?” prodded the Bastard, “and watch your language,” to which he waspishly snapped:

          “Don’t interrupt a story while it’s telling!”

          The Bastard returned to his quiet.

          “The premise of it is simple, really,” he shifted against the bed, his brain racing ahead as the pieces fell together into a neat picture. This time they were even faster, and among them were bits of information—they were from the Truth. They were not there before, he did not know them before—but now he did. Now he did, now he owned them, now he realized his mistake. Which he should have realized even before he saw the Truth, idiot that he was. “Human transmutation is a conglomeration of two ideas—“

          “—creation of a body and creation of a soul,” the Bastard nodded.

          “Nice to know you remember your basics,” Ed rolled his eyes, to which the Bastard mumbled a faint, “Human transmutation isn’t basic,” but he ignored that and continued.

          “The body is simple,” he began again, “painfully so. The ingredients are easy to get a hold of—but we didn’t even need those, in our case. Our mother’s body was still there, even though it was decaying by the minute, which was why I was hurrying. The more she decayed, the more I had to pay.” He turned to the Bastard. “You saw the circle?”

          “Yes. Those were rather ancient seals.”

          “They’re just barely over two hundred years old, that’s hardly ancient,” he snorted. “The Khalic seals are lateral to the Aryan seals. Khalic’s for body, Aryan’s for soul, to make it simple. The limit glyphs are a mix of both to balance and limit both kinds of the energy drawn. The two reactions begin separately and pull together by a conjoining script crossing all three of the major seals. So basically the circle would restore the body and create the soul separately, and then bind them together into one.” The Bastard was quiet, so he added (rather cheekily), “If you have no idea what I was just talking about, go do some research. You’re probably getting rusty.”

          The Bastard glared at him; he smirked back.

          “So then what went wrong, if your theory is so flawless?” the Bastard was in fact serious and not goading, though Ed half-expected him to. “How come you lost your limbs?”

          “I miscalculated,” and he did, magnificently so. He only now knew how hard this was to admit aloud; his teeth and tongue refused to cooperate, and he had to pause before continuing, “The Gate took my leg for my Mom’s soul. I forgot to calculate for the soul.”

          “The what took your leg?”

          “The Gate,” he gave a vague gesture with his arm, about as vague as his understanding of it. “I think it’s some sort of... it decides the equivalency rule. It takes when you give; if you don’t, it still takes whatever it can. If it can’t, the transmutation fails. I think that’s mainly why all other efforts have failed—because they didn’t have enough to pay for a soul.”

          “You... saw this Gate.”

          “Yes.”

          “No mistake?”

          Ed scowled. “You think I’m lying.”

          “I have good reason to,” the Bastard leaned against the windowsill, “but I’m not.” Only now did Ed notice that the Bastard, clearly at ease, had removed his blue military top. The sleeves of the white undershirt were rolled up and the topmost buttons undone, revealing a small patch of creamy white skin. He looked away.

          “Well, I’m not,” Ed could still visualize the bright light and the gaping darkness within it, the flash of a shitload of information being rammed into his head, the eyes and the hands taking his leg away— “I saw it, okay? Twice.”

          The Bastard was quiet for a while, looking out the window into the sundrenched hills and fields, where it was as if a storm had not passed at all—a markedly different atmosphere from inside the tense house. Try as he might, Ed could not read what the Bastard was thinking, so he gave up and immersed himself in his bisection.

          Question marks peppered his understanding of what happened. He understood that his leg he had exchanged for his mother’s soul (totally worth it) and his arm was taken for Al’s (equally worth it), but how was a limb equal to a soul? It could not be, he could not fathom it—but it was. He had revived both his mother and his brother by giving only two of his limbs. Would a soul normally not be equal only to another soul, like how a pail of water was only equal to a pail of water? He was confused. He did not like being confused.

          True enough, he had miscalculated. (Actually, now that he looked at it, that statement was a mistake. He had not calculated at all, which was where he fucked up.) But even then, the Gate should have taken his soul in order to revive his mother. And Al should have been safe, even if he participated. Which reminded him—

          “Hey, what happened to my brother?” he asked, and he must have been sudden, because the Bastard, who was still thoughtfully gazing through the window (perhaps theorizing on his own), startled at his voice. He asked again, “Do you know what’s wrong with my brother? Nothing should have happened to him—I don’t know what happened to him! He was just there, dead—“

          “He lost blood, a lot of it, but he’ll be fine,” the Bastard spoke reassuringly, with deep and understanding eyes. He wondered if this man had a brother too. “He was almost entirely dry when I got him here. We got him immediately on transfusion; it’s quite lucky your grandmother has blood stocked for her customers.”

          “Blood,” Ed echoed. He could feel the lines marring his forehead in the intensity of his thought. “But—that’s impossible, he wasn’t wounded at all, unless—“

          “Maybe the Gate took his blood, too,” suggested the Bastard, following his line smoothly. “Because surely a soul can’t be worth one limb—“ he stopped, frowning at Ed, and then haltingly said, “Wait, you said he was dead. Does that mean—your arm, you—?”

          Self-conscious, Ed placed a ginger hand on his shoulder, fingers tracing where the limb had been attached once. The wound was a clean shear-through, from what he could see of it and what he remembered. But it was securely bandaged now, thankfully so; he was not all too eager to see that again. There was something incredibly nauseating about seeing one’s own disfigured body, despite his desensitization to such gore. He knew it was just a human body missing some parts but—

          “I had to,” he said, slumping against the bed. “I had to, he was dead. I couldn’t just let him die. He’s my baby brother, you know.” Suddenly he felt tired, drained of energy. Blindly, he reached for the glass of water, only to be harshly reminded by a stab of vengeful pain that he had no right arm anymore. He sighed and swallowed his pride. “Could you hand me that glass of water?”

          The Bastard did—not much of a bastard now at all. For a stranger, he was unusually kind and conscientious.

          Ed paused.

          “How can I be so sure you won’t be babbling all the information I just gave to you to anyone else?” his eyes narrowed into suspicious slits of gold, and he glared up at the man, as if to dare.

          The Bastard only gave him as much as a smirk. “You should not have told me in the first place, then.” He returned the now half-empty glass. “An important thing to remember, Edward,” he started at the use of his name, “that very few people respect intellectual property rights. Many pretend to, but given a good chance, they would take hard-fought research and assume the credit for it, unjustly. This happens often—information out in the open is free game for any alchemist. Which is why you need to be careful with what you know. You know quite a lot, for such a young age.”

          Ed’s scowl deepened even further. “What does age have to do with it? It’s a science. Anybody can learn it.”

          “Ah, but there are those given a talent others can only dream of.” The Bastard slipped his hands—long and tapered fingers, calloused from heavy use, neat nails and a strong wrist—into his pant pockets. Again there with the casual pose. “Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for you, I am a State Alchemist. The military watches my research attentively, and will want for proof. I cannot prove something I admit I only half-understand.” Ed itched to crack an insult, but could not—the Bastard’s eyes were painfully intense. “And I do not wish to stain my friendship with Herr Hohenheim by plagiarizing his son’s work.”

          “Hah!” Baring the column of his neck, Ed threw his head back—and winced in pain. With a pinched frown, he eased his head against a pillow. “I don’t think the bastard would care at all, wherever the hell he is.”

          “Language,” the Bastard reprimanded again, the prude. “And he would care. He is very proud of you. He talked about you a lot. You look exactly like him, did you know that?”

          “Yeah, I’ve been told,” darkly muttering he decided to turn the conversation around. Being reminded of his father made him itch for a nice, long, loud rant, which would be nice, but he figured it would be wiser to conserve his energy for later (the operation, still weighing on his mind) instead. (He refused to admit it, but he was rather apprehensive about the looming pain. From what he had seen in the past, the process was not very nice.) “I don’t think the blood was for the soul. If it was, then I should have lost my blood when I paid for Al’s soul. I didn’t.”

          There was a momentary pause, and then, “Didn’t you say she was decaying, and the more she did, the more you had to pay?” Ed gazed at the Bastard, an increasingly human-seeming bastard the longer they talked, and the blocks in his brain clanked into place even before the man could get the rest of his thoughts out. “The blood must have been—“

          “—for what her body lost while she was dead, of course, of course. Genius.”

          Epiphany was a funny thing, coming at odd times from odd places. He was left staring at the Bastard’s face, mind racing a mile a minute. He had assumed the body was fully in tact and that he needed to give nothing else. He was stupid. He had entirely forgotten about the soul factor and lost his leg in the process. He was stupid. He had Al die for his stupidity, and gave an arm in exchange for the soul, and bound it back into—

          “Did you—was there a seal on my brother’s skin? On—on his chest or back or something—“

          “There was a red multi-chord circle on his chest, why?”

          “...oh, okay, yeah.” Ed nodded, closing his eyes and releasing a momentous sigh. “That’s good.”

          “The connection of the soul to the body?”

          “Yes.”

          He remained with his eyes closed, running over the big picture in his head. It was clear to him now exactly what had happened, and what was paid for by which exactly—but that was not where the questions ended. In fact, that was where they really began. What was the Gate? How did it work? What did it use as a quantifier? Because clearly there was a quantifier, a standard, a value it used to decide what was worth how much. If a limb was equivalent to a soul, then it was either the soul was very cheap, or the limbs were extremely expensive. Or both.

          One thing he did glean from this little escapade of his was the truth about creating a soul—that it was impossible. That was the one part of his theory that was ill-conceived. Human transmutation was not about creating a new soul; it was about retrieving a soul from the Truth, paying for it, owning it, and attaching it to a body.

          He itched to get out of bed and experiment. He desperately itched to read a book, a decent one, one that had something significant about the Gate. (He refused to call it the Truth, what bullshit; by giving him his mother and brother’s soul each for one limb in exchange, it was telling him that their souls were that cheap. Fuck that.)

          Opening his eyes and settling them on the Bastard—again gazing through the window—Ed remembered the previous night. Faint and hazy in his memory, but still somehow concrete; he recalled being offered the title of State Alchemist. It was a weighty achievement, this much he knew from what he’d read and heard, terribly tempting with all its benefits. Simply imagining the amount of money and resources for research he would have at his disposal sent a wanting shiver down his spine. But of course, as everything in life, the title came with its strings attached, and being a State Alchemist meant being an obedient soldier to the state when called for duty. Now, while this was all well and good if he was going to serve people and help build houses, the world was not so gracious. He would be called to war, to massacre people, to destroy lives. He did not want that.

          And he figured he should not be thinking of such things at all, in the first place. He sighed and looked away. He had his mother and brother to take care of. He did not think he was up to leaving them again. The simplicity and quiet of Resembool was something he would just have to live with. Research would be easy enough to conduct even in a small and relatively old town like this; he would simply have to go to East City every now and then to buy his supplies (after earning some money for himself, of course). Maybe, he thought absently, I should write a book.

          In the lengthy process of fantasizing and formulating what he would write if ever he should, he fell into another light sleep.

 

~

          And was again quite rudely woken by a loud noise, this time Winry’s voice grating against his ears. He flinched away, turning his head and screwing his eyes shut. The light was far too bright for comfort, and he was uncomfortably warm. He could feel the back of his neck beginning to sweat and his hair sticking to the skin there. Incredibly unsavoury.

          “Are you awake, Ed?” Pinako.

          He grunted.

          She sighed. “It would have been better if you continued to sleep. We’re beginning the operation. Your ports first, and we’ll finish your limbs within a week. Time enough to let your body rest.”

          "I’m fine,” he opened his eyes and blinked furiously under the light, averting his vision towards his left, where the Bastard was standing a ways away in close watch. He closed his eyes again when Winry placed a towel over them. “No anaesthetics, please.”

          Winry balked. “Hah?!”

          “Edward!” Pinako sounded offended. “Grown men—”

          “—die of the pain, yes, I know, damnit,” he growled, baring his teeth. “But anaesthesia can cause significant memory loss and impairment of short-term memory. I value my brain highly, thanks; I’ll take the pain.”

          “You can’t be serious—don’t underestimate it, Ed!” Winry rapped something thin and metallic on his chest, a blunt and sudden sensation. “You’ve seen our other patients! They scream and cry and lose all that pride!”

          “It’s not pride, it’s practicality. Two totally different things. No anaesthetics, period.”

          Pinako and Winry were both quiet—in disbelief, no doubt. Ed waited (rather impatiently) for them; he had no choice but to. However, there was nothing they could do to change his mind. They probably knew it, too, from the set of his jaw and the clench of his fist. He had grown up with them, after all, and Pinako had known his father. The old lady had always remarked on how much he mimicked Hohenheim in pigheadedness. In this right, Al was left in the dust.

          The tense quiet was abruptly brought to an end when the wet roughness of a towel touched Ed’s lips, and he heard the Bastard say, “Here, bite on this. I don’t think you’d want an injured tongue and broken teeth to add to your list.”

          Obediently he did, seizing the towel with his teeth and sucking on its wetness. He was scared, of course—who would not be? He knew it was going to be painful; he had seen other automail patients. It was not pretty.

          But what other choice did he have? None.

          “Come on, let’s get it over with,” he grumbled into the towel, words garbled and funny but comprehensible nonetheless. “Make it quick.”

          As such, they had no choice but to proceed according to his wishes, since he was the patient, and he had rights to his own body. Technically he was a minor and was legally unable to decide for himself, but they knew that they would never be able to stop him anyway, even if he had to crawl to another automail shop to get his arm and leg substituted. It was their best reassurance that they were the ones operating on him; at least, they would be sure to do the job properly. Ed knew how the Rockbells prided their work as much as he prided his alchemy. It was in the blood, and hesitate though they might, they never turned away from a job.

          “Brace yourself, boy,” Pinako said with a resigned sigh. “This is going to hurt.”

          Yeah, duh, he wanted to snort, but then there was a lightning surge of bright white burning hot painpainpainpain shooting up his neck—he strained to keep still, grunted and gasped and grit at the towel, hand fisting into the sheets, remaining leg jerking up in reflex. The towel over his eyes was dislodged when he turned his head away from the pain by instinct, panting and in shock.

          “About three more of that for your arm, two for your leg,” Pinako idly informed him. She was doing something to his arm wound, he could feel the pressure of something cold against it, but he could not see, and he could not feel that pain anymore. He was temporarily numbed, that spike having shot even through his heightened threshold. “Think you can take it?” she asked him.

          Gasping for breath, he grunted and resettled into the bed, resolute. “Yeah, this much is nothing—”

          (oh but he was lying because the pain the pain the pain)

          The second time he had his eyes open but the world swam in his vision and all he could see of the Bastard was a blue-and-white blotch against the quiet grey. There was a static hum in his ear, and through it he could barely hear Pinako’s voice—but he was not screaming, he knew this, because his throat was locked, his teeth clenched, his tongue still in the wake and break of the pain.

          He was given time to breathe.

          And then againslam came the pain—this time he did make a sound, a grunt, into his gag, muffled and dead the moment it left his lungs. Suddenly he felt suffocated, and turned his head to spit the towel to the side. He gasped, gasped, air air air

          oh dear god what the hell possessed me to do this it hurts it hurts make it stop

          the next one was the last one for his arm, and he heaved upwards for breath, gasping, his back straining into an arc as shockwaves rippled through his spine. Sweat poured in buckets off his skin and on his clothes and on the sheets, bathing him. His hair was matted and sticky now, all through. He collapsed against the pillow in dizzy shock.

          There was a muted quiet.

          “I’m surprised, Edward,” Pinako’s voice was subdued. “Even the toughest of men scream in this pain.”

          He only blinked.

          “Your leg’s next. Do you want me to continue, or do you want to rest for a while?” she asked. “It might be best for you to rest a bit—”

          “Now, please,” his voice was hoarse and unlike him. His voice was suffering in pain, pinched, rough, used, shackled. “Now while I’m still in the aftershock.”

          No more questions were asked. Pinako moved her station and switched places with Winry, who was hovering behind her grandmother, watchful but wary, her face twisted in a horrid mix of sympathy and fear. Both for Ed, doubtless; she had always been a kind girl.

          (PAIN)

          His back snapped into an arch, taut, his one fist white as the sheets. It dragged, this time, and Pinako had given no warning at all. Air stuttered and caught in his chest, rattling as his throat clenched and unclenched and he gasped and gusted air. In the background was some noise—coming from upstairs? who else was upstairs?—but he could not be bothered about that at all, no, no, because

          pain pain pain he was in worlds worlds worlds of pain

          and there were only so many ways one could describe that to someone who had yet to experience it before, from one who has experienced nothing quite like it before, so he stopped thinking, stopped likening it to anything else, because he could not think of anything else.

          As the surge ebbed, he registered a firm hand on his right shoulder, keeping him steady and down, keeping his recently wired nerves in tact. The warm was hand, no, the hand was warm

          he swam in warmth and heat

          unbearably hot now through his shirt and against his feverish skin. Blearily he blinked up at the man but could not muster a word. His brain was busy being overwhelmed.

          Only very slightly did he note it when the door banged open and there was hysterical screaming—and then the screaming was gone and the warm hand on his shoulder was gone—shoved away—and frantic cold hands were on his face and he jerked away

          cold don’t want the cold warmth warmth where’s my warmth

          “No,” he groaned, straining away from the insistent palms, his left hand seeking for the warmth, pleading for comfort. The warm hand seized his almost immediately and he sighed, in relief or in joy or in ease it did not matter any longer, just that he sighed and sagged against the bed. The hand was firm and reassuring, unlike the frantic cold ones offering no shelter but fear.

          “Your Mother, Edward, she’s awake,” the Bastard was saying; he was the only one Ed could pick out from the cacophony.

          “…nish it,” he mumbled, weak. Tiny droplets of saltwater tickled and threatened to fall from the edges of his lashes, but this was excusable—he was in pain. “Finish the wiring.”

          The confusion of babble continued above him, dragged for longer and longer as the pain ebbed away, farther and farther like a retreating wave, leaving him dry and shivering in the wind—he did not want this, he wanted the pain constant, because it lessened the next shock, because the brain could only take so much at a time

          “…boy asked for it, Trisha, you know how he is—”

          “He is eleven, Granny! Eleven, do you understand that?!

          “Mrs. Elric, please calm down, you are in no condition to be—”

          (noisebabblebabblebabblescreambabblenoise)

          He snapped. “SHUT UP!”

          They shut up.

          “Finish the wiring,” he panted in pain, “now.”

          “Edward—”

          “I said shut up!” and yes he was fully aware that he was yelling at his mother, but he was in pain goddamnit, how could any one of them miss that? “Granny, finish it.”

          The warm hand kept firm in holding his smaller, fisting, pale one. The last nerve—tibial nerve, a memory of a book from somewhere parroted into his ear—blotched the ceiling in black and blue and hazy shapes of different hues. The white-hot was a stabbing blade up into his brain, and when he sank, finally, into the darkness, he felt the warm hand still there.

 

~

          Something.

          There was something quite captivating about how the blood seeped into the cracks of their rundown dank basement. Past the whiteness of chalk and down the veins of the hundred-atom-wide crevasses, it flowed and spread like a plague pushing itself upon the cleanliness that was its victim. Even in the half-darkness he saw its path quite clearly, a gleaming crimson red in the bluish-white glow of the still crackling circle. But by this time reality was lost on him—the pain the pain the pain

          my leg is not there my arm is not there

          was eating him from inside out and there was nothing he could do about it, nothing at all. Left there lying prone on cold, cold stone he stared at the still form of his brother across the basement and he felt a speckle of relief. At least, he told himself with a dead inward laugh, Al will live on.

          In exchange for his sacrifice, Al will live on.

          From inside his head, the Truth laughed.

 

 

~

 

tbc
arc I chapter 01 ver. 4-01
first draft: 2009.06.14
last edited: 2009.06.14