Edward faced Alphonse, whose gaunt face was lit up with joy, confidence lighting his golden eyes. With the older supporting the younger, the two brothers turned towards the dark door to leave the blank space between the worlds, a place they had already spent far too much time in.
Edward smiled as he never had before, exulting in his mind. He wanted to share his joy with the world, shouting their victory from the rooftops: he had finally achieved the goal he set for himself, five years ago now. His brother had regained his body of flesh, blood and bones. He was able to feel, eat, sleep again; all the sensations that Al had been deprived of by Ed's arrogant mistake. The loss of his alchemy was insignificant compared to the joy of his promise being fulfilled.
Certainly, he could not deny, deep within him, that he would miss the power of alchemy. It was a hard drug that he was accustomed to. Winry was not completely wrong when she accused him of being obsessed with alchemy. But he also knew that all his words addressed to the Truth were true, and it was liberating to say the words, truer than all the knowledge the Gate had granted.
The sound of the voice he knew so well, from both many meetings and his nightmares, glued him to the spot. He slowly turned to face again the strange entity. Confused thoughts mixed with anxiety, revulsion and a lack of comprehension jostled in his head: the former alchemist wondered what he could have done wrong. He had won. He had defeated and understood his truth! Did he not deserve to return with Alphonse? Did he have no right to live a happy life with his family and, he hoped, Winry? Would he not be able to tell others that their long journey was over?
But, drawing deep down with the little courage he felt, he managed to regain control of his emotions and asked with the most unemotional tone he had in him:
The Truth seemed to look at him carefully. Seemed, as it was difficult to describe a being that had no clearly defined face. But at least it wasn't smiling that sarcastic smile that had haunted Ed's many nightmares. No, it just stared at him, despite its lack of eyes, as if contemplating something extremely interesting. For some reason, this was not reassuring in the least.
"Do not look so scared, Edward Elric. I just want to make you an offer…"
Although Edward claimed to be an atheist, he had, during his adventures, acquired a holy fear of this being who defined itself as God. The past year had pushed the limits of what he had believed. However, there was a notable difference between believing in God in a purely intellectual and reasoned way, and believing in Him with faith and confidence, and the latter was definitely not the case for the former alchemist. So, it was hard to believe that this entity simply wanted to make him an offer, especially one that he would be free to accept or decline. First, though, he needed to protect his brother. Ed turned to Alphonse and asked:
"Do you think you can cross through the Gate without my help?"
"What are you talking about?! I'll wait for you, big brother. I know you'll do something stupid without me being there-" Alphonse protested, outraged by the reaction of his older brother before he was cut off.
"Al, we both know what happened the last time I did something stupid: you paid the price. No- don't interrupt. I know what you're gonna say. You'll tell me you helped, too, that it wasn't my fault you lost your body, etcetera, etcetera. We could talk for hours. But the fact is that you were my responsibility and I've only just fixed what I did to you." Seeing the look on his brother's face, Ed reassured him. "I'd prefer if you at least had a head start, okay? I'll be back, I promise," Edward Elric said with a serious look.
"But Ed- I would- What'll happen to you? What should I tell everyone?" asked Alphonse, deathly worried.
"I don't want you to be part of the equivalent exchange, Al. You're priceless to me and I don't want to lose you. Don't worry, I will return. Have you ever seen me break my promises?" asked his big brother with a smirk.
"Yes, but not the most important ones. I understand, and I'll go. But, Ed, if you don't come back... you know what I'll do!" warned Alphonse. He exchanged a last look, tinted with warning, with his elder brother who smiled with an assurance that almost convinced his younger brother. Almost.
Edward escorted Al to the Gate and watched him cross the threshold that would bring him back.
When he was sure Al had returned safely to their friends, Ed gave a small sigh of relief. Then he turned to face the Truth that was still sitting and appearing to gaze meditatively at him.
"A beautiful speech - almost worth the one you gave me before I returned your brother," said the entity appreciatively.
"... Well, what's your offer?" Ed, reluctant to discuss rhetoric with a being well beyond his comprehension.
"You are always so eager. I have a proposition for you, or more accurately, a favour to ask. You are free to accept or reject what I offer and there will be no consequences, good or bad, for you if you refuse. You will forget that this discussion even took place." said the Truth, rising.
"What is it? I can't agree to carry out a task if I don't know if I can do it." Ed asked, frowning.
"I believe you are quite capable of fulfilling this task. It is neither more nor less than to save a world, or rather, a world that a power hungry being in search of immortality seeks to destroy," said the entity, unusually serious and without his usual ironic smile.
"Just that-" Edward was completely flabbergasted, before something the Truth had said snagged in his mind. "Wait, you just said a world? There's more than one?"
"Yes. This place is ... for lack of a better term, a crossroads between multiple realities. Some like yours are for the living, others are reserved for those who are dead; what you commonly call the beyond," explained the Truth. Edward silently listened to his words, hoping that the guardian of the Gate didn't intend to send him to this famous beyond now.
"It is not the second category of the world that concerns us, but the first," continued the being, as if he had read Edward's mind, which was probably the case. "Each of these worlds has unique features, most notable of which is the way their inhabitants use the power that animates the universe."
"Like alchemy?" Ed asked.
"Indeed. Different rules govern the use of this energy in these universes. In your home world, you use alchemy and the law of equivalent exchange to access that power. In another, the control of the spiritual elements is this method, for example. But there is a world that has become increasingly complex and frustrating in keeping the balance."
"And let me guess, this is the one that has the problem," deduced the former alchemist, knowing this was his chance.
"Exactly. This world is special for a small minority of people who have what they call magic. Unlike your world, where anyone could become an alchemist by training, the ability to use magic is genetic, with an average of one in ten thousand having the ability, and even that is decreasing. The vast majority of the population lives in ignorance of the existence of that power and evolved through the use of science and technology," described the Truth, who then waited for the reaction of the young boy.
"But ... this magic, it has to have limits, right?" Edward asked, completely incredulous.
"There are very few, mainly that they have no power over life and death."
"It's not very fair," Ed could not help saying, "A minority of people having that much power without having done anything to deserve it, without sacrificing anything to get it…"
"Who are you to say what is right or not?" said the Truth.
"I'm only human, but I don't understand the justice of the Truth!" exclaimed Edward. he was well aware that he was venturing into dangerous territory, but his anger overrode his caution. "I mean, you knew that Mustang refused to perform human transmutation and you still blinded him. Between us, Alphonse was the least responsible for our sin, and you made him lose everything while I only lost a leg! I don't understand your justice! "
Edward fell to his knees, suffocated by his own words. He dumped everything that had been weighing heavily on his heart for years, all his rebellion, his incomprehension in the face of an omniscient and omnipotent being. This could only end badly for him. He eventually raised his head to look the Truth in the face. The white figure still seemed calm, with an indecipherable air and after a few moments, it said:
"I might as well tell you. You would normally have been entitled to it on the day of your death, however, it is better that you understand this now so that you can make your decision freely. You must know that there is a difference between the price to pay for the knowledge that you get and the price of your arrogance. Ordinarily, the price of knowledge behind the door relates to individuals, but during your human transmutation, you and your brother mixed up your spirits, and so you received the same amount of knowledge. But Alphonse Elric needed more knowledge than you to be at your level of knowledge, and thus lost more."
"You're telling me that my brother needed more than I did?" growled Edward.
"Did I say that? You've lived longer than your brother, you have more memories, more knowledge. And even if you are both brilliantly intelligent, you surpass him in the intellectually. But if we consider a person as such, we see that each one is unique and invaluable, and so the comparison is not relevant. But you already knew that," the Truth said, smiling.
"Yes ... and what about the price of arrogance? Father talked about it with us." Edward asked, surprised by the response that reflected his thinking.
"The price of arrogance ... in the case of your brother, the price of his pride and of the knowledge acquired were confused and therefore he lost more. In your case, it was to know that you were responsible for much of the state of your brother. You spoke of Colonel Mustang, he paid the price of knowledge, namely his sight. If he had performed human transmutation he would have lost much more: the love of the woman he loves and his ability to guide his people; for what leader would sacrifice his people for the price of arrogance. Above all the suffering of the soul and not that of the body, are the price I demand, although the two can be confused."
"I think I see," said Edward, lost in his thoughts for a moment before returning to the original subject. "But in this world you mentioned, the magical one, if I understand you correctly, there's no equivalent exchange. How can they have virtually unlimited power without exchanging something?"
"I can give you some aphorisms of their world, if it will help you understand them. 'With great power comes great responsibility' and 'From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.' Each of them will have to be accountable for their use of magic," stated the Truth without saying more.
"I hope they are aware of this," Ed murmured, a little pale. "What do you intend for me to do in this world, then?"
"Normally, I would have left things as they are. But there is a wizard there who has approached as near to immortality as he can, to the point of pushing the limits of his world. He wants to subjugate the world. If it were only that, I would have just waited for those of his world responsible for his elimination to act. The problem is that he is about to succeed and if that happens, he could gain knowledge of information that would allow him access to this place between worlds. This must be prevented at all costs."
"Why do they do this, all these megalomaniacs that seek eternal life and infinite knowledge? And why can't you prevent them from doing that?" Ed grew angry.
"I cannot act directly in this world, but I can send someone from another universe to act as an agent of change," replied the Truth, smiling knowingly.
"And I'm the lucky one?" asked the former alchemist, annoyed at the rhetoric and trying not to growl.
"Good answer. You are free to accept this challenge or not."
"Wait a second! Won't this take a lot of time? If I don't go back soon, Al'll probably make a stupid mistake to try and get me back! I can't risk that!" Ed cried.
"No one will notice you've been gone. Only one second has elapsed in your world. You would return the age you are now, no matter what happens in this other world," the silhouette answered.
For the first time since the beginning of the conversation, Edward seriously considered the proposal: if he accepted, Al wouldn't know ...But what would happen if he died during the mission? How would his brother react?
And there was also the fact that this mission might last a long time: it took him five years to discover what lay behind the mystery of the Philosopher's Stone, a year after they had finally discovered his plans to undo the Dwarf in the Flask's threat. Who knew how long his adventure would last. And this time, Alphonse would not be at his side: he would be alone in a world he knew nothing about, with no one to talk to. He would be experiencing the pain of separation by himself and he did not know if he would even be able to stand it.
He really wanted to refuse: after all, he had just saved Amestris from total annihilation and fulfilled the most important promise he had ever made in his life. he wanted nothing as much as to find those who had supported him and thank them for their help, celebrate their victory, pay his respects to the dead, and tell Winry she could cry tears of joy this time.
But he could not. He remembered too well the last few months he had lived: the terrible anguish that had grabbed him when he thought that, perhaps, they might fail; the terror he carefully concealed, hiding his cracks, because otherwise he may never recover. He remembered terrifying nightmares in which he saw himself wandering alone, the same as his father, in a country whose inhabitants had been converted into a Philosopher's Stone by a genocidal abomination. And he still felt the pain from injuries he had sustained during the battle against Father, seeing the walking corpses the Homunculi had created in his mind again and again. He couldn't stand back and allow other worlds to suffer, and face the same threat his own had. Thinking that he was definitely too selfless, too dumb and too brave for his own good, he turned to Truth who was still observing him, took a deep breath and blurted:
"I'll do it!"
"Thank you, Edward Elric." The voice of being in front of him was devoid of any trace of sarcasm, as if it was truly grateful, then, it continued in a tone far too cheerful for Ed's taste. "Now for the formalities..."
Edward began to wonder what trouble he had just gotten himself into. The Truth then waved his arm and snapped its fingers, a gesture Ed judged unnecessarily pretentious. A second later, the Gate, symbol of all his alchemical knowledge, the one he had sacrificed in exchange for his brother, appeared in front of him.
"Well, first of all, know that you have become an alchemist again. Congratulations, Edward Elric."
Seeing that the young alchemist was still staring at the door with mouth agape and eyes bulging, the being took it upon itself to make some clarifications:
"Don't worry, your brother has nothing to do with the return of your door. This is part of equivalent exchange: you finish this mission for me, you regain your alchemy. It'll help you integrate you there. When you return to Amestris once your mission is complete, you will be able to keep all your newly acquired knowledge to offset your time spent separated from your loved ones."
"Wait a minute!" Edward exclaimed, having just recovered from his amazement. "How do I infiltrate a magical world knowing that, by definition, I am not a wizard?"
"Congratulations, you're a wizard, Edward Elric," answered the Truth with a second dramatic finger snap, before returning seriously. "You are now a wizard, but it's acquired, not innate. If you have children in Amestris, this provision will never be passed on to them. You will be the first and last magic-user of your original universe."
"That suits me." Edward replied with a shrug: alchemy was his favorite, and had reassuring limits.
"Otherwise, there are few rules: Never reveal to people of this world where you came from or how you got there. On this point, I'll give you a small advantage to avoid any involuntary revelations from you, just to avoid problems … but this will not last forever. Secondly, do not teach alchemy to anyone living in this world, you can use it but you cannot explain it. Although some believe it would help them, they already have enough power without it. The third rule is that you cannot be killed. Finally, I have a recommendation: your new powers will reveal themselves in a few weeks, until then you are a Muggle, a person without magical powers to witches and wizards. Do not disabuse them of this. You will find a good excuse. Good luck, magic alchemist!"
"Wait, you're gonna dump me in an unknown world that I know nothing about, there's going to be a homunculus-wannabe, and I'm already hurt! You haven't even told me how I should solve this!" exclaimed Ed, somewhat peeved.
"Yes," said Truth.
Edward Elric did not even have time to swear at it before black arms reached out of the door and dragged him through the opening into a world of which he knew nothing.
Translation Notes: It took me a bit to get the second quote the Truth gives, as a literal translation didn't sound right, and I didn't know where the quote was from. However, my good friend Google says it's the French translation of Luke 12:48 in the Bible, so I simply used the English version here.