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Phantasmagoria

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There’s something wrong with Ed.

Well—for as long as Roy’s known him, probably as long as anyone has known him, there’s been something wrong with Ed.  There have always been pieces of him that are unsettled and misaligned and off-kilter—mismatched, too-brilliant, young-old and scared and angry.  He never quite meshed with other people, with the very concept of humanity—like there was a barrier between; like there was a wall of glass, a barbed-wire fence, a ditch, a trench, a searing stretch of desert.  He watched everyone around him like they were curious things—he observed closely, too closely.  Like human beings were a code to be broken; like they were a cipher that he knew was simple underneath, and if he could just find the lynchpin, he’d have them unraveled in an instant, and everything they did would suddenly make sense.  Like what he’d done and what he’d learned and who he was beneath the crowing rage and wild bravado had shifted him to another level, a parallel plane—like the blinding gold light at the core of him was fundamentally incompatible with the little candles carried by the other members of his species.  Like he just didn’t know how to touch them without getting burnt.

But that, at its basis, was just… difference.  There was something different about him.

Now there’s something wrong.

Now he startles at shadows, tenses at swift movements—now his tired eyes flicker to the holsters at people’s hips before they lift towards faces.  Now he gazes into space with an expression like he’s swallowed something bitter, something cold, and jars awake again like he’s surfaced from the thickness of a restless sleep.  Now he looks through the quirky stalwarts on Roy’s team—like there’s another image of them on the other side, like there’s something behind them, like their silhouettes speak volumes, like he knows something, like…

Like they’re haunting him without ever having died.

Like the guilt will kill him if the ghosts don’t get him first.

This is worlds apart from a precocious child flailing defensively, striving desperately to relate.  The child is long gone—this is a man.  This is a man who has been kicked at and trod on and battered down and beaten until something shattered underneath the skin.  This is a man who has seen things words are insufficient for, even if he didn’t think they’d hound him harder if he tried to summon language to describe the things that he’s endured.  This is a man who knows how the blood of the dead smells mixed in with the sweat and the grit and the piss and the fear and the brisk sharpness of the unfathomable night.

This is a man who still smells it.

This is a man who’s been to war.  This is a man with all the death and dreck and filth and fucking misery still hanging just behind his eyes.

Roy remembers.

Roy still sees that man in the corners of the the mirror sometimes.

Roy still has nights where the dreams rip all his feeble tries at sleep into a pile of scraps—a mound of bloodied bandages, of splintered bones and tortured shreds of skin; the sick indifference of corpses thrown one on the other like they weren’t people once—

Roy knows.

So Roy wonders—

Where?  Where the hell was he, all these years?  Where did this happen; where did he go?  What hells did he crawl through, on hands and knees, metal sinking in the mud—what did they do to him?  How much, how many, did he lose?

Did he have to watch?

Where was he, and how much of him stayed there?

Funny, how when people change, it’s like a divergence—and every time the tree sprouts a new branch, all the others die.  Did Roy ever really know this man?  He knew a wisp—a sapling, a single leaf; he grazed his fingers once across the bark, but lightning struck somewhere out there, and all the features that used to be familiar have burned away.

Alphonse must know.  But extracting the information from him would be an unrivaled trial of Roy’s manipulative skills—it used to be the work of half a dozen sentences to back Edward into a conversational corner, but Al always knew immediately when he was being had.  He won’t cave; it would be a betrayal of Ed’s confidences, and anyone with their eyes intact can see that Ed has been betrayed enough.

How, then?  How is he going to claw his way to the bottom of this?

Ed needs someone, needs something, needs some kind of assurance that the world is not as dark as he believes right now; he needs a lifeline, or the nightmare inside of him will spread until it’s all he knows.

Roy could speak into that silence, perhaps, if Ed would stop moving long enough for Roy to catch his sleeve, if Ed would let his eyes focus fully on the room before him, if Ed would give him even half a chance, if Ed would even meet his gaze for more than thirty seconds at a stretch—

If Ed would stop looking at him like of the whole pantheon of demons, he’s the worst.