Warning: manga spoilers for chapter 53 (but not much else).
"A man's messenger is like unto himself."
He tweaked his braid one last time and stared at his reflection in the mirror. Dull golden eyes looked back at him, framed by bright blonde hair. He was slightly tanned, and there was a determined set to his chin. The face was perfect, down to the small scar on the left cheek. Except it wasn't his face, it was-
A knot in his chest, somewhere between a wail and a sob cut off the thought. Pure misery washed through his mind, and he found himself clutching the sink in a death-grip, his automail leaving small cracks in the porcelain.
Who are you? his tormentor demanded, sending another wave of mental pain at him.
"E-edward El-ric!" he sobbed helplessly, incapable of fighting any longer. It was easier to give in; the longer he fought, the worse it inevitably was. Every time he lost one of these battles he could feel him entrenching himself deeper in his consciousness, eroding his identity further.
Mustering his old hatred he smashed the mirror, shattering the black-and-gold image of Edward Elric. If only he could do the same to the real one.
"I hate you!" he screamed, but he wasn't quite sure if it was truly the other he hated or himself for submitting. He wasn't even sure where the boundaries between himself and the other ended any more.
Don't you think that one of us hating me is enough?
He felt the roiling at the edge of his mind which usually heralded the beginning of another attack of self-hatred. Icy fear gripped him, the expectation of pain.
"N-no," he gasped out. He sank to the floor and clutched his head, trying to create wall to block the pain out of sheer will, though he knew from experience that he could never succeed. He hated these mental attacks, hated how they left him exhausted, hurt, and wanting to slit his wrists just to get it to stop. "I did what you said!" he pleaded, trying to buy time.
…true, his parasite seemed rather mollified. Abruptly the pain lessened, and he felt the other's hope slowly resurface, and with it, determination. We'll restore Al.
He felt the determination as if it was his own.
He had never meant to kill Edward Elric. On the contrary, he knew that severe penalties would befall him if he failed to protect the human.
But that didn't mean he had to refrain from taunting him. It was so amusing to watch the shrimp explode in anger. Amusing, that is, until the alchemist insulted him back and attacked him; that he could not forgive.
Before he knew it, he had lost control –only for a moment, but it was enough. By the time he managed to restrain himself, the damage had already been done. Fullmetal lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, choking on his own blood.
He knew from experience that when a human's breath bubbled in their lungs like that, the human wasn't going to live. It was pathetic how fragile these humans were.
He knelt by the fading alchemist, and wondered morbidly what he was supposed to do now. Father would kill him…
Edward watched him hazily, despairing, before one last spark lit his eyes. The alchemist painfully brought his hands together –he didn't stop him; was there a chance the shrimp could heal himself? -then, with the last of his strength he grabbed the homunculus' arm. A rapid alchemic reaction occurred and when the red lightning cleared away, the alchemist was dead.
Not completely dead, he suddenly realized as he felt an alien presence inside him. It had been years since he had felt the confusion of other consciousnesses conflicting with his own; not since Xerxes, actually. Edward had sacrificed his life to his Philosopher's stone.
At first the situation was ironic, amusing even. He could sense Edward's despair at his failure, feel him curling helplessly around the stone he had sought for so long, which was now irrevocably beyond his grasp.
But it had been so long since the sacrifice of Xerxes that he had forgotten what it was like at the beginning. He had forgotten the terror of living inside a mind full of other people, forgotten the confusion and lack of identity when one's own conflicts with thousands of others. He knew, dimly, that the him after the transmutation was radically different from the him before it. On the other hand, the sheer numbers at that time had also provided a defense; with all the conflicting personalities around, there wasn't a single personality strong enough to consciously affect him.
Now, though, he could distinctly sense Edward's emotions. He had underestimated the despair a frustrated perfectionist was capable of. Day by day, the unrelenting knot of anguish inside him grew.
It was no longer remotely amusing, now that he was forced to suffer the pain as well. At first he tried to ignore it, but as time went on it got harder and harder to tell whether it was his own pain or external, and he began to realize that he simply wasn't equipped to deal with it. Nothing in his life had prepared him for coping with depression. It was wildly different from the jealousy that he had to put up with all the time. No amount of external violence worked, nothing stopped the unhappiness welling up from the depths of his mind and the incessant sobbing at the edges of his hearing.
Oh, he had no doubt that the bastard was doing it on purpose. The crying was overdone, but that didn't stop it from driving him absolutely out of his mind. The pain itself, however, was all too real. He tried to isolate the morbid creature, but Edward always managed to evade his mental traps. Granted, they were rather clumsy since he had never tried to do anything like this before, but where the hell did the shrimp get this level of psychic skill! Then he tried to block him out of his thoughts, but the attempt was completely wasted. Finally he tried to project his own thoughts at the other, but they always seemed to overshoot the mark. Apparently Edward was as small in death as he had been in life. If any thoughts did reach him, Edward gave no sign, and they did nothing to decrease his sense of failure.
The situation was getting worse; he couldn't rest, he couldn't think. He didn't dare get close to any of the other homunculi, for fear that he would attack them like a rabid animal.
Desperate, he tried to confront Edward directly.
"Stop it already!" he yelled at him. "You're driving me crazy! Why can't you shut up!" It took several minutes for an answer to arrive.
Al...it was unmistakably Edward's voice, though nothing like he had sounded when he was alive. This voice was lost, hopeless, defeated.
He had always wanted to hear Fullmetal sound like that, see that indomitable spirit broken, but now it cut him to the bone because the same despair was eating away at him too.
I'll never fix him now…betrayed him…failed…
He felt Edward spiraling down again, and his own breath was coming short. Really, it was better just to die, he deserved to die –
It was an effort, but he wrenched himself away and focused on the present. "What the hell do I have to do to make you stop!"
"To…to make you…happy?" That would work, he suddenly realized feverishly. If the shrimp was happy, then he'd stop broadcasting that damnable depression all the time. To be able to think clearly…
The bleakness lifted slightly, making him almost gasp for air in relief. The world around him suddenly seemed brighter.
Al…fix Al? A spark of hope tinged the voice.
Restore the armor? he thought doubtfully. It was impossible, ridiculous that he'd even think of –
The spark vanished, sending a wave of despair in its wake, made all the worse by the brief respite that had preceded it.
He was driven to his knees, hugging himself reflexively. "Dammit," he whimpered, hardly noticing that tears were running down his face. "I'll do it, ok? I'll fucking do whatever you want!"
He left the building, the battle lost once again. He was already nearly resigned to being Edward Elric. He was nervous; it was his first time outside in his new guise.
It's your body now.
"They'll never believe me," he muttered. It was hopeless, ridiculous. He could never pull this off.
Yes you can. We can.
At least he hadn't triggered another depression attack this time. Try to control yourself, he told him. I'll never get anything done if I burst into sobs every five minutes!
He dimly noted that his self-esteem seemed to have taken a rapid nosedive in the past month or so. He didn't care anymore; it wasn't worth anything. All he cared about was keeping the bastard happy, which meant that he could be happy too.
He stiffened. The voice was familiar. Squinty-eyes. I'm not ready for this! he wanted to scream, but that was a luxury he didn't have. Despite everything, when he was capable of thinking clearly, he didn't want to die. What he didn't understand was his own increasing determination to restore Al.
He turned around. "Ling?" he stammered slightly.
The black-haired Xingan regarded him severely. "Where have you been for these past three months? I've had nobody to mooch easy lunches off of."
He felt a stab of pain from the other's direction, though thankfully he seemed to be muffling it, not broadcasting it the way he usually did.
Maybe he was feeling magnanimous because of the gesture, or maybe he simply had gotten into the habit of keeping the other happy. Whatever it was, he glowered at Ling. "You should watch what you say," he snapped. "You never know what could happen to someone."
Ling looked at him sharply, but he turned away. He wouldn't answer any questions. Once he was with Al, he would be more protected. The sooner Al was restored, the sooner he would be free, even though he wasn't quite sure anymore what it was he wanted freedom from.
Are you happy now? he silently asked.
Edward Elric pressed his finally-restored hands against the glowing red walls of his prison, and rested his forehead on it. A small, tentative smile made its way onto his face. It wasn't how he wanted it. Will be happy when Al is fixed.
But this was better than nothing.
I love him…tell him?
He sighed. Sure, he thought. I love Al too.