Disclaimer: Fullmetal Alchemist and all affiliated characters and settings are the creative property of Hiroaki Arikawa and all companies holding the title to its license and distribution. Not mine.
Warnings: some potential spoilers (if you don't know what the Gate is, haha), violence, and Ed's potty mouth.
This particular piece theoretically takes place when Ed is about 15, and Al 14 - during those four years they spent wandering around looking for the Philosopher's Stone just before the incident in Lior at the beginning of the series. At least, that's where I'd planned on placing this in terms of timeline. Sorry I didn't clear that up sooner!
to the following folks: Varethane (who did a quick beta of the first
9 pages or so), Kellen (who let me throw it at her for a quick
chara/plot check), Nekotsuki and gure (who commented on what I'd
posted at LJ). I love you guys! Other than the quickie check-over on
the first couple parts, this hasn't been edited.
The Ninety-nine Percent Rule
As with all science, there is a method of exactness used in every statement a scientist makes. Significant figures, exact measurement conversions, precise calibrating – all are part and parcel of what gives science its namesake. But even with that sense of exactness, there always is room for human error. For instance, when one determines that something is ninety-nine percent impossible, then it may as well be impossible, regardless of the one percent chance that it could happen. It is always that last percent that catches us off guard.
Edward Elric had spent a great deal of time in his early years as a State Alchemist building up his reputation throughout Amestris. By doing as many good things as he could and by keeping his own set of morals, he was able to get around the common stereotype that State Alchemists were corrupt dogs of the military, and when more people heard that there was at least one sho—err, young State Alchemist who worked in their favor, they were less inclined to throw rotten produce his way when he walked into town. And thus it was safe to say that in ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Ed's reputation worked in his favor.
It was a small town in the middle of a forest that became the one exception to that rule, the one chance in a hundred that threw him off guard.
As always, Alphonse accompanied Edward on his latest assignment – investigate a potential wayward alchemist that was reportedly holding hostages in the small town (Ed couldn't remember the name, nor did he particularly want to) in exchange for renewing his State Alchemist certification. Disturbances like these were not uncommon during the renewal period, unfortunately; some of these alchemists relied heavily on their careers and acted out of desperation when they were unable to present suitable research or project proposals. It was the most desperate ones that caused the most tragic circumstances, as in the case of Tucker. He hated dealing with these, but the bastard Colonel had been insistent that he be the one to carry it out. Move in, get the hostages out, and detain the alchemist and bring him back to Central for proper punishment. Preferably with as little bloodshed as possible.
Edward had been more than prepared for a conflict when he strutted into town with the animated suit of armor of his brother in tow, but he hadn't expected to find the conflict with the villagers. Upon arriving at the inn he'd been recommended, he was most certainly on the receiving end of many dark, seething glares and cold shoulders. At first, Ed had shrugged it off as lingering resentment for State Alchemists as a whole. And by judging from the state of the room he'd been given at the inn, they really didn't like State Alchemists.
Neither did the people at the café in town, either. He and Al got the worst service he'd ever had; they were the last to be served, the food was burnt, and the water tasted brackish and stale. No matter; he'd show them who the real hero was. He forcefully grinned and bore it, and was even kind enough to tip the waitress… after Alphonse glared him down as much as he possibly could in that expressionless mask of the suit of armor.
After many more glowers from the townspeople even as they were just walking down the street, Ed started to wonder if the whole town had it out for him. Everyone was purposely avoiding him, most turning away when he looked their way or whispered harshly to their companions. He had to wonder what he'd already done in the whole two hours he'd been in town to piss them off so badly, and it wasn't until he'd caught one of those whispers on his way by that he finally started to get a picture of the situation.
"Didn't you know? He's the one who ordered Major White to hold those poor people hostage for human experimentation."
"Those poor people… my sister's friends with one of them, and she's scared out of her mind for her. I wonder what they'll do to them…?"
Ah. So that was it. The bastard wasn't only doing exactly what he was reportedly doing; he was spreading rumors about the twisted and evil Fullmetal Alchemist while he was at it. The man somehow had known that he would be the one sent there and had already started manipulating the villagers against Edward.
Joyous. Just freaking peachy.
Well, as long as they stayed out of his way, he could complete his task and win their approval that way, and then he could leave with a smug smile on his face and another Fullmetal-friendly town under his belt.
Even if he had to take a lungful of dust every time he sat down on the bed at the inn.
"Al," Ed managed between coughs, blinking desperately as the dust stung his eyes. "Remind me to kill the bastard Colonel when I get back."
"I'm sure the villagers will understand once the situation gets cleared up."
"I'm going to make my report so illegible that he'll need an interpreter and a decoder to even get the gist of it," Ed continued, ignoring his brother's attempt to placate him.
"Nii-san… Colonel Mustang—"
"And maybe I'll even bribe Havoc to slip laxatives into his coffee…"
"…and see if Breda wouldn't put some dust in his vent. Hoho. Then we'll see who has the last--"
"What?" Ed snapped, glaring at the armor mask. Al flinched slightly, and suddenly Ed felt a little guilty and looked away.
"Colonel Mustang probably didn't have anything to do with the villagers," Al said softly. "I'm sure there's a perfectly good explanation for this."
Ed scowled. "Of course there is. That damned White turned the entire village against us before we even got here. They had to have known we were coming somehow."
"Do you think there's a leak?"
"Damn straight, there's a leak. I'll be informing Hughes in my next report of that. That is, after we scope out the good Major's little hideout and see if we can't figure out a way to extract his hostages before he figures out what hit him."
"We don't even know where he lives," Al reminded him.
Ed smirked. "Then that's what we'll be doing tonight – reconnaissance."
Al sighed, knowing that Ed's typical version of reconnaissance usually involved some kind of loud conflict. And if White was treating his hostages cruelly, he knew that his older brother wouldn't keep his emotions in check long enough to form a coherent plan before he acted.
Ed peered out the window, watching as the last bit of color in the sky gave way to the dark and stars. With a sigh, he said, "Well, we should head out in another hour. It's almost dark enough."
Al hummed an agreement, and watched as his brother leaned against the bed's headboard and began scrawling notes in a tattered notebook he usually used for his reports. Probably writing an angry word or two about the villagers, and possibly even about the Colonel as well, but at any rate he was keeping himself busy. Turning his attention back out the window, Al hoped that the task would be completed quickly and peacefully, though he had a bad, niggling feeling that this wasn't going to be such a smooth mission. But when he told Ed that, Ed had merely smirked and reminded him that they had yet to go on a smooth-sailing mission.
And with that, Ed snapped the notebook shut and trotted off to find a telephone. He was going to have a few words with that 'bastard Colonel,' he said when Al asked him what he needed one for. Al sighed; there was no use in convincing his brother otherwise when it came to finding ways to annoy the hell out of the Flame Alchemist.
Just don't do anything stupid, Nii-san.
Ed hated it when Al was right. And damned if he wasn't this time around – he could feel Al's gaze boring into the side of his head as he panted heavily, sweat pouring down his face, gripping his now-damaged – and also now-detached – automail arm tightly in his good hand. The two of them were hiding behind a set of bookcases in the study of White's mansion's large estate. In Ed's book, the excursion had officially gone from crappy to utterly shitty.
No, things had not turned out well at all. Ed was sure Al was cursing himself for leaving his napping brother alone back at the inn, even if it was just briefly. They both knew the villagers didn't like them, but neither honestly had expected them to try kidnapping Ed in his sleep. They hadn't succeeded – Ed had woken up in the middle of the scuffle and managed to fend them off with many loud protests – but Ed was pretty sure they'd done some damage to his automail arm in the process.
In his rage, Ed wouldn't allow the intruding villagers out of the room, and finally yelled at them and explained what the situation actually was. At first, they'd given both brothers skeptical looks, but as Ed started filling in details and asking questions about where the bastard Major's estate was and how many people were missing, they finally started to believe him. With sheepish looks they'd told him where they could find White's large estate, and warned him about the fact that nobody who had stepped foot on that premises uninvited had come out alive.
"We'll see about that," Ed had said haughtily.
I'm seeing, dammit, he cursed to himself with a wince. He knew now why people kept disappearing on White's premises – the crazy alchemist was turning them into soulless puppets, which were inhumanly strong. Strong enough to pull his automail arm straight out of its socket. Ed knew now why the man had been called the Soul Stealing Alchemist. The trades he had to do to remove the souls had to be costly and more than taboo, along the lines of human resurrection. There had to be something like the Philosopher's Stone involved in order for White to balance the cost without getting himself killed. He wondered what the man was getting in exchange for the souls, and sincerely hoped that he wasn't selling them to the homunculi.
Speaking of them, maybe he should keep an eye out for them; this kind of situation would definitely attract their attention. And if they were around, he would have to reattach his arm.
Fuck. It hurt badly enough as it was, but putting the arm back on? The thought made him cringe. He could feel Al's glowing lights-for-eyes fixated on him, but he didn't dare look back. No, he wasn't in the mood for pity right now. He just wanted to pound the damn Soul Stealer to a bloody pulp. And to do that, he'd probably need to have his arm reattached.
"Little alchemiiist!" said White, his eerie, sing-song voice echoing off the dark marble walls of the grand estate library. "Come out and play with me!"
Ed gritted his teeth in frustration and tightened the grip on the detached metal arm. The man had called him little. It was now or never. He could feel Al shift uncomfortably near him, but he didn't have a choice. Looking down at the arm with a scowl, he removed his jacket and stuffed it between his teeth, baring the open socket at his shoulder. Al started to protest, but with a determined expression, he grabbed the arm and shoved it back into the socket. White-hot lights dotted his vision as fire spread along the metal arm and across his shoulders, and for a few moments he was blind. Though he gripped the jacket between his teeth, he still heard a small pained gasp escape through the cloth regardless, and felt the tears form at the corners of his eyes. Damn but it hurt.
"Nii-san, are you okay?" Al breathed, and was suddenly next to him as he desperately tried to control the shudders shaking his aching body.
He couldn't answer that no, he wasn't okay. His shoulder was on fire, and he was practically choking on the jacket as he tried to catch his breath. Sweat trickled down his back and he could tell his good hand was shaking as he tried to steady himself. He didn't have time to lie around and get over it; he needed to be moving now.
"I can hear you, little alchemist!" White's voice was a lot closer than it should have been.
Al shot Ed a worried look, and Ed barely managed a shaky "Damn it…" before he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, still trying to blink the little dots of light from his vision. This was not going to be fun, not at all. In fact, it had stopped being fun the moment the disgruntled villagers had given him the cold shoulder. How badly he wanted to just say screw this and go on home. Let the villagers drown in their delusions. Let White fuck them over.
But he couldn't, damn it. Not with—
He never had time to finish the thought. With a strangled yelp, he back-flipped out of White's grasp as the crazed scientist finally came into view and found his hiding spot. Reflexes slowed as the last of the prickling pain along his arm and shoulders fizzled out, he was hard-pressed to defend himself – forget attacking. If things didn't change quickly, he was going to die. Fast.
And as if the fates agreed with that sentiment, he suddenly felt his boot catch on the corner of a fallen bookshelf, and he went flying briefly before he hit the ground with painful force. Stunned, he lay still as he heard White's gleeful bark of laughter marking his approach.
And suddenly Al was there, standing between him and White, arms up and legs spread in a defensive stance. He heard the cry go up as Al attacked the crazed alchemist. If White managed to get his hands on his brother… If White could steal Al's soul…
That was not going to happen.
White's hands glowed. Ed found his feet and moved, diving at Al to move him out of the way. He barely felt the brief shock of White's hand tapping his automail arm in a glancing blow, felt the strange sensation of part of him leaving his body. But when he landed on top of Al in a heap and noticed that he still had control over his own body, he knew he'd barely made it in time.
"You're fast," White noted with glee. "I guess I should have known, considering your size."
"Who are you calling so small that you can't tell them from a speck of dust under the bed?" Ed growled, back on his feet with a snarl on his face.
White frowned. "You're noisy, too," he said soberly. "I don't like noisy guests."
Ed clapped his hands together and tapped his right hand over the automail in his arm, forming the familiar blade as he sank down into a crouch. "And I don't like crazy alchemists!"
White bounded to the side as Ed charged, ducking the blade as it arced where his neck would have been. Ed jumped over the leg sweep and moved to the side when White's hand glowed again, feeling the strange fuzzy sensation pass by his face when White's attack grazed past his face. The near-hit stunned him just long enough for White to lash out with a foot and catch Ed in the knee, sending him to the ground with a surprised yelp. White plunged down at him with the damned hand, and Ed rolled to the side out of its path. He heard it hit the ground with enough force to crack the tile floor. Ed rolled backwards over his shoulder, landing and moving to his feet. As soon as he put his body weight on his right leg, however, the knee buckled under him and sent him down on his automail leg.
Shit…His leg barely supported his weight after that first try; the knee felt unsteady and numb under him. He'd have to come up with something more creative to deal with the issue. White smirked – he knew. Ed scowled. There were only a matter of meters between them, and he could barely stand. If he could tell what direction White was going in, hopefully he'd be able to dodge the next attack; after that, he could only hope that Al picked up on the fact that he couldn't run, and would grab them both and retreat. He hated retreating. It was worse than losing, but he didn't have a choice.
White charged, hand ablaze with that same strange white light. Ed waited, ticking off the space in his mind by the centimeter during White's approach, watching every move slow before his very eyes, saw the hand aiming for his forehead. And as he ducked under the hand, an unexpected opening presented itself. With a grimace – this would be unpleasant – Ed brought the blade on his automail up and swung across where White's arm had been. A spray of hot red blood and an enraged scream told him he'd hit his mark – half a forearm, glowing hand still attached, flew past the side of his face. He moved automatically, bringing up his other arm to muscle White into a roll that landed his enemy on his back on the ground, his own metal knee pressed into a heaving chest, tip of the blade pointed at the older man's throat. White stopped thrashing under him.
"Game over, Soul-Stealer," Edward spat, a triumphant smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Looks like you won't be stealing any more souls, or performing any more alchemy." White glared. Ed's smirk widened. "Al, be sure that there isn't a ring with the Philosopher's Stone on the hand. Don't want this bastard to–"
He was cut off by the sickening sound of metal punching through flesh and a sudden sharp pain in his side. Looking down, he saw the bloody tip of a blade protruding from the right side of his stomach, just under where the metal ended. Casting a surprised look at a now-smirking White, he turned back to see what had hit him, and was surprised to find a child's face – a little girl – with blank eyes staring, empty, back at him.
"You bastard," Ed hissed, breath hitching on the pain that flared from the wound. "It's bad enough to use villagers, but you were using children for your twisted experiments."
A feral grin spread across the alchemist's face. "And what exactly are you going to do about it now, Fullmetal?"
"I'm going to make you restore their souls, and then I'm going to kill you."
White chuckled – a dark, ominous sound in the echoing library. "That's not much incentive for me to fix the problem then, is it?"
Ed snarled in warning, pressing the blade closer to the man's throat, close enough to draw a bright red line across the flesh in his neck.
"Do it," White spat. "I dare you."
"Fuck you," Ed said shakily.
"The Philosopher's Stone isn't on the hand, Nii-san," Al's voice reported from across the room. Suddenly, another blank-eyed child emerged from the shadows, and Al cried out in surprise as it charged at him. Ed looked up at his brother at the sound of the commotion, swore, and then glared back down at the alchemist in his grasp.
"You're hiding it somewhere," Ed accused. "There's no way you can possibly do what you're doing without it."
"And what if you're wrong?"
Ed hesitated, and in that brief moment, White's remaining hand suddenly gripped the front of his clothing. He heard his brother scuffling with something else – perhaps another child, like the one that had stabbed him – but he couldn't seem to move even as White's other hand began to glow.
He didn't even make a circle, Ed noted distantly, suddenly feeling light-headed. I wonder how…
Ed snapped back into focus. Damn it, he couldn't afford to let this happen, not without a fight! With an infuriated yell, he forced his left hand to ball into a fist as he struck White across the face. The grip on his shirt faltered, but only slightly. He struck again, and again, but White's grip didn't give. He grabbed the glowing hand in his own and tried to pull it off of him, but the man's grip was too strong and he was losing too much strength. The girl behind him wrenched the blade in his side, twisting it further into his flesh, and he cried out, arching his back.
Panic began to settle in, and with one last desperate move, he gritted his teeth and pulled the automail blade up, grimacing as he felt the slight resistance of metal against flesh and bone. He tried to ignore the second hot spray of blood as it hit his face, the metallic tang leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, and the anguished screams of the man below him. He didn't have time – the man thrashing beneath him was bound to do something stupid in this rage, and he had to get moving. Retracting the blade on his automail, he reached behind him and tugged the sword free from his side with a sharp gasp of pain. Rolling free of the now-handless alchemist and his soul-puppet child, Ed landed in a crouch several feet away and realized that his knee had no intentions of supporting him. He really must have done some damage, then.
"You little shit! I swear I'm going to kill you!" White roared as he writhed. And then something began glowing on his chest – a small red stone attached to a necklace.
It was the incomplete Philosopher's Stone.
Fuck, how did I not see that? Ed berated himself, trying to get to his feet, shaky and out of breath. He saw his brother incapacitate the other child – god, it was hard fighting children – but even before he could make a move towards his brother to get him to escape, he caught movement in the shadows.
More soulless dolls, under White's control. How was he doing it without hands? How the hell–
"Nii-san, behind you!"
Ed whirled and barely avoided being impaled again by the same sword, though the tip managed to scrape across his ribs. With a surprised grunt of pain, he offered the girl an apologetic nod just before he brought his automail arm across the back of her head, knocking her down. That would hurt later. When he tried to turn again to face his brother, his knee finally collapsed under him and sent him down.
"Al! A little help here!" he said, grimacing. They had to get out of here fast to regroup, or find whatever it was that White was using to control these bodies and restore their souls.
If that's even possible. Doubt crept into the back of his mind, bringing a heavy sense of dread along with it. No. No, it has to be possible. These are children, damn it!
He maneuvered his hands beneath him and began pushing himself to a sitting position when he felt a strong hand grip his shirt from behind. Took Al long enough to get over there. But when he turned to find another soulless villager – an adult male, this time – staring blankly back at him, he yelped and tried to pull free. The villager's grip was too strong, and he'd lost too much blood; his struggles ended when a second villager came up and flipped him onto his back and then pinned his arms above his head. The man who had grabbed the back of his shirt placed his palm on Ed's chest over his heart, and much to Ed's surprise, the villager's hand also began to glow.
"This is the end, Fullmetal," he heard White shriek with maniacal glee as the world blurred before his eyes, his body and mind separating with painful force.
Ed tried to struggle free, but his body barely obeyed his commands anymore. With a frustrated cry, he slipped one hand free of the villager's grasp, clapped it against his automail hand, and slammed it into the ground. The tile rippled and shattered as it broke and reformed into sharp spikes beneath the power of the transmutation, the new weapons hurtling towards the cackling Soul-Stealing Alchemist. Several sick, wet thwacks echoed off the walls as the tile-spikes impaled the alchemist, and his cackling ended abruptly in favor of one brief, infuriated shriek. Ed's vision wavered, but with no measure of satisfaction, he saw White fall to the side, probably dead. This wasn't what he'd wanted, damn it.
The hands gripping him suddenly released their hold on him, and he heard his brother calling out to him as though he were underwater. The task had been finished, and the mess taken care of. He could rest now, if only his body would obey him and if the world would stop blurring so damned much. He saw Al approaching him and muffled voices over his head and hoped that they could bring the world back into focus, but it was too late; the world slowly faded anyway and was finally snuffed out like a candle, and Ed knew no more.
Except that the Gate was suddenly there.
When Al saw the extent of the attack his older brother hurled at White, he knew there was trouble. Ed wasn't the type to take such potentially fatal measures against an enemy unless there was something very wrong. The instant White's soulless puppets went limp, he approached his brother just in time to see his golden eyes dull and slide closed. A small puddle of blood pooled beneath Ed's prone body.
Al panicked, especially when the villagers didn't stir either. Had White managed to take Ed's soul as well? What should he do? He suddenly felt very alone, despite the large number of bodies strewn about the room.
"Nii-san, wake up!" Al pleaded, kneeling beside his brother and shaking the metal shoulder lightly. "Please – please open your eyes!"
Ed was motionless, limp as a rag doll like the rest of the villagers. He looked dead, and Al almost thought he was until he confirmed his brother's heart was still beating when he put the side of his helmet to his brother's chest. He was alive, for now. Al knew well enough that a body without a soul wouldn't last long, not without a particular Gate getting involved in the problem. Perhaps that was where all the souls had gone. Al sincerely hoped that Ed was simply exhausted, and not missing an important part of his essence.
Somehow, however, he knew that it was wishful thinking.
Help. He had to go get help, some of the villagers – a doctor, another State Alchemist, anyone who might be able to figure out how to bring the souls of all these people back. Someone who would bring back his brother. He needed to get to a phone. Did the village even have one? They did – it was back at the inn. Damn it, he couldn't even think straight. Stop panicking! Stop panicking, stoppanickingnow…
With a frustrated cry, Al reached under his brother's shoulders and knees and lifted him to his metal chest, a hold eerily similar to the one he'd used to carry his bloodied brother to the Rockbells' one rainy night over four years ago. He couldn't run back to the village fast enough, looking for anyone who would be willing to lend him a hand. The only people who would actually be awake were the ones waiting for news on their loved ones back at the inn; after all, it was the middle of the night.
He tapped his foot insistently on the door to the inn, afraid to drop his brother. The innkeeper looked startled – but awake – when he saw who stood behind the door, but he stepped aside and let Al into the main room.
"Is there a doctor here?" Al asked, his voice high from panic. "Please, my brother needs help!"
The innkeeper looked at him skeptically, but then his eyes softened when he looked at Ed's still, bloodied form cradled in Al's arms. Al suddenly noticed that there were many other villagers in the room, all looking at him expectantly. They wanted news.
"Unfortunately, our doctor is one of those who was taken by White, but I'll see what I can do," the innkeeper said, motioning Al to lay his brother down on one of the clear tables. "Do you have any news from White's estate?"
They'll never help me if I tell them, Al realized with sudden panic. But at the same time, he knew that they had a right to know.
"If I tell you, will you let me use the phone?" he asked cautiously. "Please, this is an emergency. Nii-san is all I have left."
Several people looked upset at the answer, but it was the best he could hope for. The innkeeper nodded after a moment's consideration.
"As far as we could tell, I think they're still alive," Al confirmed. "But it looks like White was stealing their souls – I think he might've taken Nii-san's as well – and we couldn't get the information we needed out of him before he was…" He caught himself; he hadn't bothered to confirm if White was dead yet. Ed would be pissed if he knew that he'd made such a big mistake. "Before he was incapacitated," Al said, trying to keep his voice calm. "The danger is gone from the estate, so I think it should be okay for anyone else to enter now. Just be careful in case White isn't actually dead."
It seemed like a decent enough explanation, and several people were already on their way out the door by the time Al had finished speaking. The innkeeper had begun peeling away Ed's shirt to find the source of the blood when he motioned towards the phone. His wife brought out a basin of heated water and some linen strips, and both made sympathetic noises when they saw the damage. Al shuddered, but he figured that Ed was in as good of hands as he could be in at the moment, so he rushed over to the phone. Ed would be angry about this too, but he couldn't think of anyone else to call as he dialed the number for Colonel Roy Mustang's office.
He got through on the second ring, and by the time he was done with the conversation, it was little relief to know that help was merely on the way when his brother needed it right now, if the innkeeper's worriedly shouted orders were any indication.
You'd better not die on me, Nii-san, or I'll kill you!
Ornate stone doors stood tall; ominous symbols were etched into the frame and doors, and a statue of a handful of people trying to hold up a child adorned the top. Details, all of which had been carefully carved into this piece of strange work. A thought, fleeting at best, asked who might have been insane enough to create such a monstrosity.
But even if someone had created the Gate, nobody was left to keep it. Nobody, except for the greedy eyes and hands that occupied it – perhaps they had been the ones to devour the creator. As it were, they devoured almost anything they could get their hands on, any feeble scraps that the foolish humans might offer them from one world in exchange for something from the other. After all, that was what the Gate had been created for: an intermediary between two alternate worlds. Only those who had crossed through the Gate – those lucky to make it out alive on the other side without being pulled to pieces by its greedy inhabitants – knew this, once they learned of the Truth that dwelled inside.
One young man stood before the Gate, stepping backwards as its doors opened and reached for his shoulders, legs, thick blonde braid that hung down his back, anything that could give them purchase to drag this new offering into the between. It took him a moment to realize that he should be struggling against these hands, and that he didn't want to go through the Gate. But once his brain finally connected with his body and he began to struggle, the hands dropped him and the hands' owners hissed angrily from behind the large stone doors.
"Another one – this one's alive, too! He's just a soul; probably still has a living body back on the other side!"
"Put him with the others, then! We'll eat them when we run out of real food."
"He looks familiar, though!"
"What if he's one of those people who's helped feed us before?"
"Then he gets his due justice. Do you want to starve? Keep looking for something better to eat."
Ed's stomach dropped; he thought he'd seen this place before. It was a nasty remnant of a nightmare he'd rather not recall, the night he nearly killed his brother – and himself – trying to resurrect a person who could never be brought back. He hadn't known really what it was then; there hadn't ever been a record of this place, after all, but now he started to get a bad feeling. The voices and hands that accompanied them were unnaturally gleeful-sounding, no matter what they were saying. It finally occurred to him the reason this whole situation was so off: this Gate only seemed to show up when an alchemist performed something that was strictly forbidden, something taboo. Like human resurrection, which is what he'd tried to do in the past, and... and stealing souls.
And then he remembered why he was here.
Suddenly, it all made sense – that he really was just a soul, with a live body back in his own world; that the other villagers whose souls had been stolen would be here; that his brother's body had to be around here somewhere as well. At the very least, he had to get the villagers' souls back to where they belonged, and that destination surely was not in the world behind the Gate. The voices said that he was being put with the "others;" he could only assume that they meant the other villagers.
When the hands finally released him and moved away from his eyes, he was surprised that he was still in the dark. He hadn't seen this place before, either. Suddenly worried that he'd been left alone, he reached out in the darkness. His fingertips brushed soft cloth – cotton – and he knew he wasn't alone. The cotton's wearer shifted suddenly, cloth rustling.
"Who's there?" a small voice asked in a scared whisper. One of the children?
"It's okay, I'm not here to hurt you," Ed said soothingly. "I'm here to help... I hope."
More cloth rustled about him, and suddenly he realized that the child wasn't the only one nearby. There were others all around him as well.
"A new voice? We haven't had one of those in a while."
"Who is he? Someone we know?"
"Can you really help us?"
"Can you keep them from eating any more of us?"
Gods, some of them had been eaten? No wonder they were frightened. A queasy feeling gnawed at Ed's innards as he heard just how many voices there were around him – so many people that White had fed to the greedy hands of the Gate. He recalled seeing White incapacitated, and Ed hoped that he would be the last one to ever see this place, even if he knew that such a hope was merely a pipe dream.
Ed cleared his throat to try to quiet the voices around him down enough that he could speak over them, but they kept murmuring. Apparently, his arrival had caused quite a stir.
"Hey! Do you want me to answer you guys or not?" Ed shouted. The others were immediately quiet. "Geez. Okay, I'm pretty sure I know what's going on here, but I'm not entirely sure how to fix the problem. If I could have your help, then we might be able to get all of us out of here in one piece. Understood?"
More murmurs, but this time they seemed to at least express a general agreement rather than general confusion. Once that died down, Ed quickly explained – in the simplest terms possible, since these folks were most likely unfamiliar with alchemy-related terminology – that this place was more like a bad dream than reality, and that they were put here as a result of White's experimentations. While some of his explanations were rather outrageous by rational terms, Ed was pretty confident at this point that they'd believe just about anything he told them, after what they'd seen. And they did.
A sudden thought occurred to Ed, and he told whoever might be standing near him to step clear – he was going to test a theory. If it worked, then they might be able to get out of there sooner than he'd anticipated. He clapped his hands together, and stopped. Both hands were flesh; he hadn't expected it, even though his soul technically didn't lose limbs. Shaking his head, he pulled his hands apart and slammed them into the ground. Blue light flashed around the room, blinding those who were in the strange place long enough to have eyes accustomed to the dark.
In that brief moment of light, Ed saw three things: one, they were indeed in a room; two, there were far too many other people there with him; and three, he saw the way out.
The walls of the room were bare, save for one section of ornately-decorated stone panels. He'd seen those before – they were on the outside of the Gate itself. And if that were the case, then perhaps the same could be said for the inside of the doors. The light from the small, rather useless transmutation flickered out, but his eyes remained locked on where he'd seen the doors.
"Follow me," was all he said as he moved forward.
He could hear the rustle of cloth as hands grasped onto the back of his shirt and to his arms, and the resistance of a great number of people tugging on him for direction. All he could do was continue to move forward, and guide these people to the only way out. He hoped their combined strength would be enough to force the Gate open long enough for them all to get out.
"Oh? And where do you folks think you're going?" a sudden voice called from above their heads.
Damn it, they're already on to us!
"Run!" Ed shouted, surging forward against the restraints of the villagers' hands.
They couldn't be far from the Gate if Gate-dwellers had noticed their approach at this point. He couldn't wait on the others; he had to make sure at least some of them got out. Startled cries burst around him as the hands of the Gate-dwellers began seeking out and dragging back any of the souls they could get their hands on. Ed's shoulder connected almost painfully with the wall, and with a quick brush-over of fingertips, he knew he was at the right place. With a determined cry, he hurled himself against the door as he tried to force it open. It wouldn't budge. The cries behind him were getting louder and more desperate; he didn't have enough time. He pressed harder, grunting from the effort, and then he felt – rather than heard – a number of the other villagers closest to him do the same.
With an ear-piercing creak, the massive doors of the Gate cracked open, allowing a sliver of light inside. The Gate-dwellers shrieked angrily, most of them dropping the villagers they'd snatched in the fray. More villagers finally saw what was going on, and moved forward to help push on the doors. They opened further, enough for a few people to get out at the same time. The harder they pressed, and more villagers were able to get out. Ed lost count of how many people were left, and only could press harder against the door with the hope that they'd all make it out alive.
That hope was dashed the moment the hands of the Gate-dwellers found his ankles, and pulled him forcefully away from the Gate. He swung upside-down, glaring fiercely at the countless pairs of wide, purple eyes that stared back at him.
"You're a feisty beast," a voices taunted, one of the pairs of eyes narrowing in correlation. "Maybe we should eat you first before you cause us to lose any more of our carefully-stored food, you punk."
"Oh yeah? Well guess what – those won't be the last that you lose today," Ed snapped back.
Quickly, he looked back down to see how many villagers were left; they looked like they'd abandoned pushing on the Gate just to get out. Wise choice in the end, he decided – there weren't many still left inside of the doors, meaning most of them had escaped, thankfully. Taking one last look at the eyes, he clapped his hands together and reached up for the hands around his ankle. The hands glowed blue, and the screeching that came with the sudden dissipation of the arms nearly deafened him. With the restraint on his ankle gone, he dropped to the floor and barely managed to twist enough mid-air to avoid landing on his head.
"You little piece of shit!" another voice shrieked at him as he pushed himself to his feet and took off towards the open Gate.
Ed bristled and turned to yell at them over his shoulder. "Who are you calling so short that–"
He didn't finish as he was suddenly knocked down from behind and rolled several times before he came to a stop on his back. Stars dotted his vision as he tried to sit up, but he was too slow; half a dozen hands were all over him in an instant, holding him to the ground.
"We ought to kill you for that," one of the voices hissed, "but it would be so much more fun to see you struggle a bit first."
Before Ed could reply, he felt one hand drive down into his chest, knocking the air from him. Gasping for air, he felt more hands clamp tightly around his wrists, pulling his arms out to the side, holding him in a spread-eagle position. With the light streaming in through the partly-opened Gate, he could see several malicious grins above him as they brought forward a body.
"We should stuff him into this body first, and see what happens," one voice suggested.
Shit! Ed renewed his struggle against the hands, but made it nowhere. He refused to look at the body they'd brought forward. If it was... Oh gods, if it's Al's body, I'll... I'll never forgive them!
"Oh come on, you know that isn't going to work. We've already tried it before," another voice cut in disparagingly. "It was no fun at all. I say we kill this one and eat it."
"But that's boring, too," the first voice said, whining. "We always do that."
"Give me a better suggestion, and maybe we'll do that instead."
Ed managed to pull one hand free as they argued, and as he clapped his now-free hand against the one still held against the ground, he snarled, "I've got a better idea. Why don't you guys let me go, and I'll fucking solve your problem!"
They stilled briefly in surprise, just long enough for him to throw his free hand up and break apart the hands that were holding his other hand down. Loud shrieks filled his ears painfully, but with his hands free, he was able to get his feet out of their grasps as well, and he rolled to his feet to make a quick break for the still-open Gate.
He was two steps away from the door and feeling rather proud of his own escape when a sharp pain stabbed him through from back to front. He looked down to see a hand protruding from his chest, and with a strangled cough, he made one last grab for the Gate's doors. More hands curled around his ankles and calves as he tried to pull himself out, but instead his legs were pulled from under him. Breath stolen from him as he hit the ground, he refused to release his grip on the Gate's ornate stone doors, even as the stone cut roughly into his hands as the grip slid towards the ground. His chest was on fire, and he knew he was going to die if he stayed here any longer. If he could just get himself out the doors...
With vision bleary with pain and anger and tears of frustration, he pulled himself far enough out that he could see out the doors, and into what he thought might be his own world. His breath – short as it already was – caught in his chest when he saw himself on a bed, doctors fluttering over his prone body and shouting orders.
He was dying.
In the corner of the room, he saw his brother being held back by Armstrong, panicking, frantic with worry and fear. He thought of what might happen to his brother should he die, and then who would help him get his body back?
Like hell I'm going to let that happen!
With a final cry of frustration and determination, Edward found a strength he didn't know he had, and pulled himself out of the Gate. The hand in his chest retracted, its exit out his back excruciatingly painful, and the hands pulling at his legs slipped on their grip. And suddenly, Edward was free-falling, bright light engulfing him as he fell back towards reality, towards Alphonse, and towards his own body.
It felt like a lifetime had passed since he'd last opened his eyes. Grit stung under his eyelids, and the light was too bright in the room he was awakening to. He had been dreaming of something unpleasant, and wondered if this too was part of that dream. Hopefully not. When pain flared across his chest, he knew he was back in reality; but something had happened. He was uncomfortable, despite the fact that he knew he was laying on a soft mattress – his body was stiff and sore. And it hurt, he quickly learned when he shifted to remedy that situation. Grunting with frustration, he glared at the light in the ceiling above him.
"Nii-san, you're awake!" he heard Al's voice say from across the room.
"Yeah," he said, surprised at how hoarse his own voice sounded. "Where are we?"
"Back in Central," Al answered. Ed frowned, trying to remember where they were last. Al didn't seem to catch the lapse as he continued, "They took you to a nearby base, but they were afraid that they didn't have the proper technology to treat you, so Colonel Mustang ordered that you be brought back to the main headquarters."
He'd had something to say to that bastard Colonel, but he couldn't remember what it was. Everything seemed jumbled and distorted in his mind.
"Why am I here?"
"Nii-san, don't you remember? You were badly hurt in that fight against that alchemist who steals souls. I was so scared he'd taken yours for good, too!"
Bits and pieces of a bad dream flickered through his mind, but as soon as he tried to fully remember them, they were gone. But he did remember a few things, like that damn little town with paranoid and obnoxious villagers, and the crazy alchemist who stole souls and placed the blame on him for it. He frowned again; there had been a lot of missing villagers in that situation.
Al hesitated, and suddenly his tone turned sad. "They couldn't all be saved, Nii-san. Some of them had been without a soul for too long."
Ed grimaced and closed his eyes. So he hadn't entirely succeeded, and... and why did the Gate come to mind? "How many?"
"Out of ninety-nine souls taken – one hundred, if we count yours – twenty-six of them never came back."
"Shit." Seventy-five percent was not a good success rate when it came to human lives. "They still hate me?" Probably, with such poor results.
Al sighed and shook his head. "No. They sent their apologies."
"They better have, the ingrates. I'm never going back there again." Ed paused for a second, shifting uncomfortably. "What about that son-of-a-bitch White?"
"He was barely alive when Major Armstrong got there; he's in custody now. Hughes-san said that there'd probably be an ongoing investigation into the matter, but for now your role in that situation is done."
At least the bastard didn't die after all, Ed noted with a wry grin. He slowly pushed himself into a sitting position, wincing as dull pain from his wounds reminded him that he shouldn't be up and going just yet. Al was suddenly beside him, fluttering nervously.
"Nii-san, lie still!" he admonished. "The doctor said you needed to rest. You're lucky to be alive, you idiot!"
"Damn it, I don't want to get bedsores!"
"The nurses are more than capable of keeping that from happening."
"I'm sick of lying still," Ed muttered.
"You've been awake for less than fifteen minutes; you'll live."
"But I was asleep for… Wait, how long was I out?"
Al hesitated. "Five days," he replied reluctantly.
Ed scowled, and was sure Al would be scowling back if he could with that metal mask of his.
"Then I've been lying around more than long enough. I want up."
"No. Not until the doctor lets you get up." Al folded his arms when Ed wiggled again. "Stop fidgeting. You're going to pull stitches."
Ed shifted again out of sheer spite, but grimaced and sucked air through gritted teeth when the movement shot pain through his side. Al sighed, arms dropping to his sides.
"Colonel Mustang wants a report from you when you're feeling better," Al said. "If you're so up to moving around, then you can do that instead."
"Bastard Colonel—" Ed growled.
Al was being particularly stubborn, something Ed normally wouldn't expect out of his usually demure younger brother. He must have scared him pretty badly this time around. Ed pursed his lips into a pouting gesture, staring down his brother. But it was no use staring down (no, he refused to say up, because that would acknowledge a height issue) a suit of metal – his brother didn't need to blink. He grunted, relaxing as he relented.
"I knew you'd see it my way," Al said, almost too cheerfully. "I'll go let the doctor know you're awake; he wanted to ask you a few questions."
As Al turned to leave, Ed suddenly reached out for his brother's metal gauntlet, but even when he felt Al turn to look at him with a surprised noise, he couldn't meet Al's eyes. Chewing on the inside of his cheek thoughtfully for a moment, he finally mustered the heart to look up.
"Thanks," he said quietly. For not hating me.
Though the suit of armor couldn't smile, Ed could almost see his brother's face smiling in the helmet's metallic reflection instead. Al probably didn't understand entirely what he meant by it, but it was enough for him to see his brother happy, at least for the time being.
"I couldn't let you die, Nii-san," Al replied simply, then turned as Ed released his hand.
Alphonse knew his older brother well enough to know that despite all the complaints of boredom and the insistence that he was perfectly fine, the entire ordeal had exhausted him. As soon as the doctor left, Ed's eyes were drooping and he was showing all signs of nodding off. Might as well, Al rationalized; his brother could use all the genuine rest he could get. A sleeping Ed was far more peaceful and... alive-looking than the all-too-still soulless shell of his brother had been over the last several days. If he hadn't seen his brother breathing, Al would have thought he was dead.
Al was surprised the doctor hadn't been more specific in his explanation to Ed about just how close he had been to... to... Al couldn't even finish the thought. Ed really was lucky to be alive. Perhaps what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him, in this case. Al had a feeling that Ed somehow knew it had been a close call, even though the doctor hadn't actually told him that his heart had stopped at least twice before they had stabilized him once he'd reached the main military hospital in Central. That had been rough enough as it was; the doctors had been baffled, since the actual damage to Ed's body – while serious – should not have caused it to shut down. Al remembered that Hughes had come by at some point during the chaos to get a status report, only to look incredibly concerned at the news of Ed's failing condition. Well, after receiving the disturbing (and incomplete) temporary report on White's research methods that Al had hastily put together, it was no wonder Hughes had been concerned. Any alchemy dealing with human life – souls, resurrection, healing – all seemed to have a nasty taboo attached. Mustang would want a better explanation once he caught wind of the mission's results.
Surprisingly, the doctor hadn't said a word of any of that to Edward when he came in to talk. The doctor had simply told Ed that he had been badly injured and needed to rest if he wanted to fully recover, ordered more bed rest, and said he wanted to do a few more tests before he released Ed from the hospital. And even if Ed wanted to be back on active duty, he wouldn't be able to walk with his knee in such bad shape. He would have to do some physical therapy to get the strength back after nearly tearing a few ligaments. It was a bad sprain, and Ed – again – had been lucky it wasn't worse. Al wondered if the doctor was concerned about exciting the notoriously energetic state alchemist with too much bad news, an understandable fear considering Ed's typical behavior. Fortunately, Ed seemed too exhausted to put up much of a fuss over or question the orders he'd been given, and for that, Al breathed a sigh of relief.
It wouldn't last long, after all. Once Edward was fully awake and off the painkillers, he would probably be finding ways, excuses to get out of the hospital far sooner than he should. Ed hated hospitals, and shots, and everything that went along with it. Stupid, stubborn Nii-san.
Al had half a mind to tell Ed – later – everything that the doctor hadn't said. Maybe then Ed would realize that he was actually mortal, and would try to take better care of himself. To be honest, Al realized as he thought about it that he wasn't really angry with his brother as much as he was afraid to lose him. Ed was all he had left, and his only hope for getting his body back.
But for now, Ed was alive, and was still as damned lucky as ever.
It was mealtime, and much to Ed's glee, the dinner menu included stew for him. He had a niggling feeling that Al might have had something to do with that, but at any rate it was a very pleasant surprise. Al wasn't around anyway; he had left while Ed had taken a nap, and wasn't back yet. And his nurse remembered that he'd refused to drink the milk last time; this time, he had water to go with the meal instead. While the stew wasn't as good as Granny Pinako's was, it wasn't bad, as far as hospital food went. Ed was just about to finish his dinner when the nurse knocked on his door.
"Mr. Elric? You have a visitor," she said.
"Yo, Edward! How's the invalid? I brought you some new pictures of Elysia to cheer you up!"
Ed's stomach dropped and he had to suppress a groan as he recognized the voice, pleasure over the stew suddenly gone. Pleasantries aside, Hughes wasn't here for a social call – Ed knew the man well enough to understand that. He wanted to know what happened, so he could pass it on to Mustang before the report was finished. Ed really, really didn't want to deal with him right now. Suddenly, his vision was obscured with an image of the smiling toddler holding up one of her many toys proudly for the camera.
"Look! See how much she's growing up! I'm sure in a few years the boys will be swarming around her and I'll have to fend them off with a shotgun."
Ed did the only thing he could do when Hughes went on an Elysia-spree: smile and nod, and wait for Hughes to get to the damn point. After a few more rounds of the latest news on his daughter (and several dozen pictures to accompany his tales), Hughes finally finished up a story before he turned to look at Ed with a serious expression.
"You look like you're doing better," Hughes noted.
Ed grunted. "Yeah, well tell that to the staff here – they might actually let me walk around a bit without those damn sticks." He waved his spoon dismissively at the crutches propped up beside his bed. "Whoever invented them should be shot for idiocy."
Hughes chuckled. "That bad, huh?"
"The damn things cut into my armpits. Hurts more to walk with them than without them."
For a moment, it was awkwardly quiet, and Ed fidgeted, swirling the spoon around in the last few bites of stew as he waited for Hughes to speak. But he knew Hughes was a master at getting information, and might very well wait for Ed to speak first and offer it himself. No, no. He was going to make Hughes ask for it; Ed didn't know what the older man wanted out of him, or what he already knew. And Ed didn't want to say anything that could potentially get himself in trouble, especially after how he'd reacted to the villagers' initial ill treatment.
When Hughes cleared his throat, Ed felt himself jump – he was far too tense, really. If he truly was in trouble, he wouldn't have ended up in the hospital.
"You know why I'm here," Hughes stated. Ed nodded slowly; this was part of the investigation Al had mentioned, he was sure now. "Then you know that I need you to tell me everything that happened, and try not to leave out any details."
Ed sighed, putting down his spoon, taking a sip of the water before he answered. He told Hughes everything from how the villagers had been upset with him from the moment he set foot in the town, and that they had already known he was coming because of the rumors White spread about his supposed involvement in the experimentations. He even mentioned his concern over a potential leak in the information department, which Hughes looked mildly surprised about. The incident where the villagers had attacked him was included in the story, as was the infiltration of White's mansion and what he'd seen during his fight there. He paused to take a sip of the water, then he said he didn't remember anything after he'd "passed out," as he carefully phrased it. That bad dream he'd had – and vividly remembered – couldn't be part of a memory, he told himself firmly. It was just a bad dream, and nothing more.
Hughes sat quietly with arms crossed, leaning back in the chair; absorbing the story, Ed assumed. When Ed had fallen silent after the last statement, Hughes brought one hand up to his stubbly chin and stroked thoughtfully.
"And that's all?" he said, tone neutral – Ed couldn't gauge the man's thoughts at all, and it made him slightly uncomfortable. But when Ed nodded, Hughes nodded back with a small smile, Ed felt himself relax a little. "Well, then. I'll make sure I look into the security breach issue in my department. Thank you for your time."
Ed dipped his head in another half-nod. "And White?"
"White has been dealt with," Hughes replied simply.
"Good," Ed said quietly, looking down into his hands with a wry snort.
"Well, I think I'll let you rest up. You still look like you need it."
With a grunt, Ed glared at the man. "You said I looked better."
"I did, but you still don't look like you're entirely recovered," Hughes corrected himself. "If you're still up for it, though, I have more pictures of Elysia that you might–"
Ed yawned largely, interrupting Hughes. "You know, I think I could use a nap."
Hughes pretended to look offended, but the facade quickly fell to a chuckle. "Well, then. Get better soon, Edward. It's too quiet around Mustang's office right now."
"Hah. Colonel Horseshit should learn how to find better ways to entertain himself, then," Ed scoffed, settling back down on the bed with a small wince. He turned on his side, facing away from Hughes and the door. "I'm off-duty as court jester."
This time, Hughes actually laughed. "I'll be sure to tell him that," he said, the chair creaking as he stood. "Take care of yourself, kid."
Ed bristled at the kid addition, but he really was too tired to make a fuss over it. Instead, he waved a hand over his head as a small token of a farewell, and then Hughes' presence was gone. Ed wondered briefly if Hughes had thought he'd left something out, but since the man didn't press him for any further clarifications, Ed supposed he hadn't. But the most troublesome doubt in the back of his mind was the one that perhaps that nightmare hadn't really been a dream. He recalled it so vividly, and even remembered seeing his own body below him like some weird out-of-body experience, or whatever they were called. There even was a little ghost pain in the middle of his chest where that hand had punched through, and it almost made Ed wonder if he'd see a mark of some kind there if he looked.
And if there really was such a Gate... what exactly did it lead to, then? Was Al's body really behind those doors somewhere? He had seen it three times now – twice before this, with his mother's failed resurrection and then another for the retrieval of his brother's soul. This time had been different, somehow; it hadn't entirely been something he himself had done to end up there. That made him think about what kind of transmutation White had done in order to manage sending souls to the Gate, seemingly without any cost to himself.
All this thinking – which Ed was usually good at – was giving him a headache, and keeping him from falling asleep. With a frustrated grunt, Ed turned back over to face the door in an attempt to clear his mind enough to at least catch some sleep. A flash of white caught his attention just as he tried closing his eyes again – something was on the chair that Hughes had been sitting on earlier. Eyes opening wider, Ed saw that it was a rather thick stack of papers; no, it was a report.
The report from the investigation into White's case.
Had Hughes forgotten it? No, that wasn't it. Hughes was not a careless man, and wouldn't leave behind such an important document if he hadn't intended for Ed to read it. Sitting up slowly, Ed reached over for the papers and pulled the stack into his lap one half at a time – it was quite a hefty pile – and thumbed through it. It was a compilation of information notes from a variety of people – Ed's early reports before he sneaked into White's estate, Al's reports after the fact, what had been recovered of White's notes from his lab, interviews from villagers, interrogation results from White (Ed couldn't help but cringe), and even medical records, a copy of his own included in the stack.
The best way to tackle a large stack of detailed reading, Edward knew from experience, was to start from the top and work down.
He knew what his own reports said, but he read them once again to remind himself. Ah, yes; he had been quite angry at the time. Probably around the point when he'd gotten a mouthful of dust when he'd plopped his suitcase on the bed. Alphonse's reports were scrawled hastily, and Ed couldn't help but sense a feeling of urgency in how he'd written them. They covered mostly basics and hardly touched on detail, but those were likely going to be filled in by other information in the report.
For the time being, he skipped White's lab notes, despite his science-brain's gnawing curiosity to know what the hell the man had done to these poor people. If he started thinking about that now, he'd never be able to sleep, and he was scared as hell of the nurses drugging him because it either meant shots or secrecy, neither of which sounded pleasant to him. Next was the villager interviews.
Hah, these should be amusing, at least.
Edward's heart painfully skipped a beat when he read the first report. The villager had been one of the last ones to fall to White's experiments, and was a middle-aged father of four. In his interview, the man had stated something about a strong dream he had when he awoke from what he thought was a bad dream. He had no recollection of anything after someone – unidentified, noted as related to White somehow – coming into his home and taking him right out of his bed. The dream he recounted was of a dark, dark place run by strange creatures with cold, bodiless hands and creepy voices. There had been other villagers there with him in his dream, and once in a while one of their voices would disappear, and nobody would know what had happened. The dream seemed like an eternity, the man had said, but at some point a young man had been brought in by the room's keepers, and he had helped lead them out of there. When asked what this young man looked like, the villager had said that he only caught a glimpse of him once the doors that let them out were opened, but he knew that the young man was blonde.
Gods, it was the same dream.
And it didn't end there – several other villagers had noted a similar kind of dream, and suddenly Ed's mouth went dry. These people wished they would have known who that young man was, because "he saved them all," but they hadn't seen him get out. Some of them seemed to express a concern that the young man had died, even if they thought it was just a dream.
Something hot pricked at the corners of his eyes, but damn it, he wasn't crying because he was no longer a child and adults weren't supposed to cry. Al hadn't lied when he said the village wanted to send their gratitude. He hadn't failed them, after all.
But... but that meant... that meant that the Gate did exist, and that there was something more to this situation that Ed really didn't want to think about right now. All he knew was that he was lucky to be alive – damned lucky. He pressed a hand to his chest, where he remembered the hand running through him. Quickly flipping to his own medical records, he saw with a pang of annoyance that the doctor had not told him everything, and neither had Al. But it only confirmed that he really had been fortunate, because he knew – from experience – that more than ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Gate got what it wanted. It was greedy like that.
Perhaps this rule wasn't such a bad standard to live by, if it was going to save his life.
Ed continued reading for a long while – he lost track of the time – and didn't even notice that he'd fallen asleep until he heard his brother calling his name and gently shaking his shoulder.
"Nii-san? Come on, wake up," Al was saying gently. "Your doctor wants to change your bandages, and you need to lay back down."
Ed's eyes opened slowly, and he realized that the report – which had been scattered across the bed when he'd fallen asleep – was back in a nice, neat stack on the nightstand. Grunting around a stiff neck and protesting, sore back, he let his brother's hand slip behind his back to help him readjust so that the doctor could change the dressings.
The injuries still hurt, Ed noted grumpily as the doctor prodded and poked and scolded Edward for not resting properly. Then next time tell me what the hell is wrong with my body, you ass, Ed wanted to say, but he kept his tongue in check. He'd pester Al about that later. The wound in his side was healing nicely and wasn't showing signs of infection, and the stitches would be coming out soon enough. Ed didn't really care, but Al looked relieved and content by the doctor's news, so he supposed he was as well. At least, until the doctor had to prod at his tender knee and open his damn mouth.
"But you'll have to keep using the crutches for another few weeks to let the swelling go down," the doctor said, and might as well have taken a crack at Ed's height for all the anger that statement suddenly summoned.
"The hell I'm going to–"
"I am not using those damn things any longer!"
"Elric, sir, please calm down–"
"I said, I am not–"
"–ii-san, be reasonable–"
"– could always have the nurse–"
"– I will burn those godforsaken pieces of shit sohelpme–"
"– should ask the doctor about a wheelchair instead–"
"– Fine. If you would calm down, young man, I will be willing to discuss alternatives with you."
And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when Edward Elric did not want to do something, he simply didn't.
I debated splitting this story in half and posting it as a two-parter (like I did on LiveJournal, mostly due to post size limitations), but I decided that I'd leave it in one piece even if it's somewhat long (shush, 24 pages is a long one-shot for me!). I'm kind of glad I did it this way, even if it means people will be less likely to review (but hey, nobody will be hounding me for an update, at least!). And yes, I know I left parts of it open-ended, but it's because a lot of the questions get answered over the course of the anime - and are slowly being answered in the manga, even if it's entirely different.
Thank you to everyone who read this all the way through. While this is a complete story, comments and critiques are always appreciated (heck, I can always come back and tweak this sucker, right?). Oh, and if you would be so kind, please forgive the crack theorizing. Silly plot bunny. I hope you enjoyed reading it.