Side by Side

Chapter Twenty-Five
The Beginning and End of the End

It was crowded, this much-anticipated spring festival, Ed thought as he walked through the gates of the high school already dressed in his karate pants with a long-sleeved shirt on top - the night was slightly brisk, too brisk to make short-sleeved shirts worth it. He was jostled on all sides by throngs of people. Who knew a festival hosted by the school would be so popular? But then again, nearly everyone in Central viewed this as the social occasion of the summer, and groups that were affiliated with the high school by only the merest thread were also participating - take, for example, Izumi-sensei and her karate class, of which Ed was a part.

And speaking of Izumi-sensei and her karate class, if Edward didn't get there soon, he was in for a world of hurt.

He quickened his pace, dodging through clumps of people, the bag containing the rest of his karate uniform and a change of clothes swinging loosely from his shoulder. The group was getting together in one two adjoined classrooms co-opted by the festival organization committee to serve as dressing and preparation rooms. One of them was actually his English classroom, and as he hurried through the door he thought for a moment that Nikuya-sensei, "Barry," would be waiting for him with a demented grin and a butcher knife.

Luckily - or perhaps unluckily - the figure lurking behind the door was Izumi-sensei, with a wooden bokken instead of a knife. Ed dodged out of instinct, but her hand had come out to clap him on the back. "Made it just in time, Edward," she said, perhaps with an anxious edge to the cheer in her voice. "I'm giving everyone two more minutes, and then the latecomers will be getting a taste of this." Her grin was, quite honestly, terrifying as she hefted the short wooden staff.

Ed winced and dodged again out of reflex, then moved into the next classroom. It was filled with people and chatter, and he hurriedly placed his bag down on top of a desk and stripped off his shirt - when in locker rooms, modesty tended to vanish. As he shrugged on his uniform top, he idly wondered whether the school had installed security cameras in the room, and whether some security guard in an office somewhere had this room on every screen, drooling voyeuristically at the shirtless (and occasionally pantsless) people that filled the room.

That was a rather unpleasant thought and he made a face as he tied his belt, tightening it decisively. His stomach had begin to twist in anxiety over the presentation ahead, even though, rationally, he knew he was going to be at the very back of the stage, he only had to execute several simple moves, he had been practicing for almost as long as he could remember (okay, that was a lie, but it summed up his feelings well enough), and it wasn't like anyone was going to see him, anyway. But he would still be on stage, there would still be lights shining on him, he wasn't sure if he could remember the third move in the second musical sequence...

He drummed his fingers on the desk and looked around for Roy or Envy. Surprisingly - or maybe he wasn't that surprised at all, really - neither were in sight. At that moment, from the outer classroom, there came the sound of shouting and crashing desks. Perhaps Barry had somehow popped out from underneath the teacher's desk, Ed thought irrationally. Perhaps he and Izumi-sensei were currently fighting a grand battle royale for control of the karate school, using kung fu moves and, in Nikuya-sensei's case, a large cleaver. That image was so strong, Edward nearly went to the door to look out - but all his questions were answered when Roy and Envy, both looking rather wide-eyed and disshevelled, tumbled into the dressing room.

Envy spotted Ed almost immediately, hurrying over and wrapping his arms around him. As Edward blushed and looked around nervously - was this really appropriate behavior in a dressing room? - Envy squeezed like a python and buried his nose in Ed's neck. "That Izumi-sensei," came his muffled voice, "tried to kill us. She would have killed us, if Roy and me hadn't been in the front row!" He shuddered in mock terror, or perhaps he was actually terrified. Ed wouldn't put it past Izumi-sensei to strike the fear of God even into Envy's heart.

He patted Envy's back. "That's what you get for being late, isn't it?" he asked, unable to keep a note of amusement from creeping into his voice. He looked at Roy, who had already begun to take off his shirt and change into his karate uniform. Roy seemed the most coherent of the two at the moment. "Why are you two late, anyway?"

Roy shrugged. "We have another -" He was cut off by a muffled noise of protest from Envy. "I mean," he amended, giving Envy a disparaging look over his shoulder, "we had some, uh, preparations to take care of, and things, and yeah, took time, yup."

"Well, that was vague," Ed commented, rolling his eyes. He poked at Envy's shoulder. "You should get up, get changed, En."

"Don't wanna," came that muffled voice. "You smell nice."

Roy hummed as he tied his own belt. "I'm pretending I didn't hear that," he said in a sing-song voice. "If you two want to be a mushy pair of lovebirds, save it for after the festival. Izumi-sensei is standing in the doorway, and she doesn't look happy."

Izumi-sensei was, indeed, leaning against the doorframe, slapping her bokken against her hand menacingly. Ed coughed and poked again at Envy's shoulder awkwardly, trying to ignore the way Envy's breath tickled the side of his neck and, more importantly, how Envy had slipped his hand into Ed's gi and was currently tracing designs on his chest. "She's looking this way," he told Envy. "I'd start getting dressed if I were you."

With a groan, Envy peeled himself away from Ed and took stripped off his shirt. Ed looked away - perhaps modesty was oft forgotten in the claustrophobic heat of locker rooms and surrogate locker rooms, but he didn't want to be salivating over Envy, especially this close to a performance on stage. When Envy was tying his belt, Ed turned around again. "Five minutes," he said after an instinctive glance at the clock. His stomach knotted a little tighter. Soon they would be out on the stage set up in the large central courtyard of the school, the spotlights would be shining, the musice would be turned on...

Envy seemed to catch the worried note in his voice. The teenager's eyes flicked to Ed and as he finished pulling his hair into a striped green ponytail, he had smiled. "Don't worry, Edo," he said, and, his messy ponytail finished, patted Ed's shoulder. "You'll do great."

Ed believed him. "Yeah," he said, feeling warmth spread back into his cold fingers.

"Anyway," Roy added, slapping Ed on the back as he passed, "you're in the back row; it doesn't even matter."

"Gee, thanks," Ed replied. At least Envy had been nice about it. Truth be told, he didn't really mind being the back row. Or rather, Envy and Roy were in the front and he was excited to see Envy, at least. He flexed his prosthetic limb, forming it into a fist.

At the door, Izumi-sensei was already yelling at them to line up. "Come on, come on!" she called, her strident voice carrying over the ambient noise of the changing room. "We're on in ten! Everyone, line up!"

They had practiced lining up together before, filing in by height and skill level. Ed took his place near the back; Roy and Envy were at the front. He passed Martel, who winked, and Paninya, who grinned widely and gave him a thumbs up.

The rest of the waiting passed like a heady dream, where Ed was dazzled by the stage lights and the loud music. They had practiced to this routine before, of course; he was simply not used to it being played so loud, and on such large speakers. The crowd cheered wildly as they set themselves up on stage. Being in the back, Ed couldn't see Winry or Al or Pinako or anyone at all. In fact, he could barely see Roy and Envy - not, mind, because he was the s-word (short) or anything like that, but because there were lots of people okay and he had to focus on what he was doing.

And focus he did, timing every movement to the beat of the music, feeling in sync with the other performers as though all of them were part of some vast moving, breathing organism; a single creature that moved with a single mind.

He was actually surprised when the performance was over, and so was the audience, it seemed, for there was a tiny, breathless pause before applause and cheering broke out louder than Ed had ever heard it. He beamed. Even though he was in the back row, he beamed, because he knew they had done well and he knew that he had been a part of it all.

Izumi was beaming as well, though the next moment, as she stepped out onto the front of the stage, she had resumed her normally stern expression. "Thank you, thank you!" she said, waving to the crowd as they began to file out, those in the back leaving first. "Once again, those were my students demonstrating the style Shizuka na Ame!"

In the changing room, the chatter was loud and elated as the various students congratulated each other (and themselves) while returning to their festival clothes. Ed looked around for Envy and Roy and found them already dressed. "Hey, guys, great job!" he said, coming over with a smile.

Envy whirled around to blink at Ed, startled, and grabbed Roy's arm. Roy grinned. "You too, though I didn't really see you through the crowd," he replied. Was that a short joke? "We have to get going now."

"Now," Envy said through clenched teeth, and Ed noticed his grip tighten on Roy's arm.

"Uh," Ed said intelligently.

"Sorry, pal; it'll be worth it," Roy said and saluted Ed before Envy dragged him off without a backward glance.

Edward watched the pair leave, feeling... well, left out, quite honestly. Because Envy and Roy had been best friends before he had even met Envy, and would be best friends even after he was gone. Especially after he was gone...

He sighed. But his melancholy was short lived, interrupted by Winry and Al bursting into the changing room. "Ed!" Winry said as Al called, "Brother brother brother!"

Ed couldn't help but laugh. "What?" he asked, bemused, as they tugged his arms.

"Come on!" Alphonse said. His face was glowing. "You guys were great on stage, but you need to change quickly!"

"Why?" Ed asked as Winry shoved his shirt into his face.

"Hurry, hurry!" she said, not answering. "Otherwise you'll miss something!"

Alphonse was already undoing Ed's belt, and Ed hit at his hands. "Get off me, I can do it!" he said, laughing but at the same time more than a little curious. "Really, what's up?" he pressed, removing his belt and tying it carefully.

Winry was bouncing on the balls of her feet. "It's a surprise," she said breathlessly, grinning, "but if you don't change now, we're going to miss it!"

Ed gave her a pointed look, and she turned around. "Sorry!"

"Thanks." Quickly, excited for the surprise in spite of himself, he changed his clothes and rebraided his hair. Which reminded him (for some odd reason)... "Did you guys see Roy and Envy? They ran away pretty fast and I was wondering if you had any idea..."

Alphonse opened his mouth, as if to reply, but Winry smacked him on the chest ("Ouch!") and grabbed Ed's wrist, pulling him towards the door. "Don't worry about it!" she said. "Just get over here!"

The mechanically-fixated girl was stronger than expected, Ed thought wryly as he stumbled forward, unable to help but be dragged by her superior strength. "Alright, alright," he said, tugging on his shoes and hurrying to catch up. Alphonse, beside him, grinned, and the three stepped out into the festive spring night.

Winry and his brother brought Ed to another stage, this one set up for what looked like a band - if the keyboard, guitar, bass guitar, and microphone already on stage were any indication. The instruments were only now being set up and plugged in by a crew of tired-looking men, all with the red STAFF shirts.

"Really, what's going on?" Ed asked as he found himself being shoved to the crowd so they could get closer to the stage. "Sorry!" he said almost immediately, as Winry nearly pushed him into an elderly couple. "Winry, calm down, no one's even out yet!"

Of course at that moment the emcee finally decided to saunter onstage. He was wearing a traditional yukata even though his hair was spiked and dyed red at the tips. It was... an interesting fusion of cultures, Ed though.

"Good evening Resembul!" the man shouted, waving at the assembled crowd. There really were a lot of people here, Ed though, and he recognized many of them from high school. "So far you've seen some of the finest bands our area has to offer, from the traditional taiko drumming groupHyoushi to the teenage pop quartet Love-Beat! But now it's time for the act we've all been waiting for!"

The audience cheered. Ed, nonplussed, stared at the emcee.

"While the members of this band are still in school, their catchy rock tunes, along with the eccentricity of their lead singer, have helped their steady rise to fame, both in the Resembul area and around Tokyo! For these boys, there's nowhere to go but up! I introduce Orobouros!"

The audience screamed as the emcee bowed and jumped off the stage. The lights dimmed; several spotlights were focused on the stage. There was a sudden flurry of activity in the wings and then Ling stepped out, waving and looking around with his characteristic smile, stepping up to the piano.

Oh, Ed thought as Roy Mustang followed, slinging the bright red guitar over his shoulder and strumming a loud chord. And then another oh, but for an entirely different reason, as Envy walked out onto the stage, looking absolutely gorgeous.

He was wearing - really, it didn't matter what he was wearing; lots of black and skintight garments that, with his violet eyes and feral grin, made him look like a predator. Ed forgot to clap, so lost was he in admiing Envy's appearance.

The teenager picked up the bass guitar, putting the strap over his shoulder, and then cleared his throat, stepping up to the microphone. "Hey there," he said with a wink.

Right now, the screaming crowd seemed to consist mostly of preteen girls, or maybe those were the loudest ones. Ed, now at the front and in the row closest to the stage, was nearly deafened.

"So," Envy said once the cheering had died down, "I'm Envy. That's Mustang, we call him Ponyboy for short." Roy Mustang made a face, and Ed chuckled. "And back there is Ling. If he stops smiling, something is very, very wrong, and you should run." Ling stuck out his tongue. Envy grinned and turned back to the audience. "So, since this is a spring festival and all, I'd thought we'd start out in a more traditional manner, yeah? Here goes."

He stepped back from the microphone as Ling began to play a keyboard solo, with rising and falling arpeggios. Roy joined in with long, sustained chords. And then Envy opened his mouth and began to sing a simple, traditional Japanese melody.

Somewhere, somewhere...
Spring is on its way.
Somewhere, somewhere...
A stream begins to flow again

The cold east winds of March still blow
But somewhere, somewhere...
Spring is on its way

He took a breath and let the piano and guitar melody drift across the hushed crowd. Roy broke out into a guitar solo, quietly at first but then crescendoing into a crashing series of chords, Ling backing him up on piano. The melody speeded up and Ed tapped his foot with the increasing tempo.

Finally, Envy opened his mouth again.

It's cold out here, but I know
You're in there somewhere, waiting;
My bated breath, my frozen breath,
Signals something changing.

His voice was loud and confident, and his face seemed to glow under the stagelights. This, Ed thought, was what Envy was meant to do.

It's you, or is it me?
Beyond the edge of that winter sky;
It's us - so could it be?
I'm waiting, wondering, asking why
And you, your perfect eyes,
And your smile; it gives me all the answers
I need

The rest of the song seemed to pass in a fast-paced blur, Ed caught up in the motion of the crowd. It was an experience similar to their karate demonstration, when he had felt himself but one human in a mass of humanity; a single cell in a living, breathing organism. He could feel Winry to one side of him, jumping up and down excitedly, and Al to the other side, more reserved as usual, but still thrilling to the music. Most of all, though, he could see Envy, he could feel Envy on stage, breathing to the rhythm, singing so his lungs might burst. He had never felt so connected to another human in his life.

With a decrescendo, a slowing down, and a last, light tinkle of piano notes, the song ended and the crowd burst into applause. Ed applauded too, finally breaking out into a smile as he came back to himself. Envy's face was glowing with a faint sheen of sweat under the bright lights; he wiped his forehead and searched the crowd. Ed waved - a little - and Envy found him. Their eyes met for a second and Envy beamed as well.

"All right!" he said. "Now that we're all warmed up, let's get down to business." He gave a wild, toothy grin as the crowd screamed again, and Roy let loose with a loud major chord. "I'm gonna rock your world with a rendition of my theme song, Envy."

Edward laughed at this blatant egotism and watched as the song began. Once again he felt part of the crowd, this time pulsing with the heavy beat provided by Envy's bass and Ling's keyboard. This song, though, wasn't as surprising or as engrossing as the first, and so Ed let it pass by in a haze of motion, noise, the light reflecting off Envy's eyes and skin.

The same happened with their next song, the title of which Ed didn't quite catch, but the melody of which was quiet, a slow crescendo, and somehow imbued with enough foreboding to make him, in the front row, nervous of some impending catastrophe.

It was a good song - but he was glad when it was over. "And now," Envy said, grinning at the crowd (which was looking slightly more subdued; that, Ed thought, was the mark of a good artist, to emote so much that the crowd made those emotions their own), "it's time for our final song. This song... I wrote it pretty recently, y'know, so it might not be the best." He grinned sheepishly, rubbed the back of his neck. "But I also wrote it with a certain person in mind, so hey," and now he looked through the crowd and found Ed's eyes for the second time that night, "you know who you are."

Ed blinked, mouth slightly agape, but Roy had already launched into the first sustained chord. "Side by Side, folks!" Envy said, and began to sing.

As I look into your eyes
(And they're golden just like you),
I see some paradise,
Some place that's wholly new.

This first stanza was a capella, backed only by the fading noise of Roy's single guitar chord. As Envy took a breath to go to the next verse, Ling launched into a quiet piano backup that grew slowly but inexorably louder.

When I feel your hand in mine
And run my fingers through your hair,
It's like we've been here before,
It's like we're already there

Here, Envy took a break to smile down at Ed, who felt his throat constrict somehow. This... he hadn't expected this, it was beyond all his dreams and... Hell, he wished he could even come close to reciprocating this gesture.

But the song went on and Envy looked back up, glancing at Roy, who launched into the guitar part. It was a series of chords and arpeggios that provided a counterpoint to Envy's voice.

And I can write all kinds of words
Or I could say these silly things,
But when it comes down to it,
You're the one who makes me sing.

Envy hummed as Roy launched into a guitar solo, with Ling's backing. He really was a good guitar player, Ed thought, but that was only a momentary observation and really, he was thinking of the way Envy's hair fell over his face and the shadows it cast over his lips; the way Envy's left hand, the one not grasping the microphone, was hanging at his side, fingers curled together loosely.

And then Envy took a breath and Ed's attention was suddenly drawn back to his face. Their eyes met. Ed couldn't breathe.

"So..." Envy said, and then laughed because his voice had come out a little weak. He swallowed, smiled, and started again.

So I'll say it once again for you,
Though we've both already tried.
Just take my hand and come with me,
We'll walk together, side by side...

Envy held out his hand for the last few chords of the song, as it wound down into silence, holding Ed's eyes all the while. Then the wild applause broke the spell and Envy grinned, looking out onto the crowd, his hand falling to his side. Ed wondered if he had missed some kind of vital opportunity, if that moment had meant everything and was now gone. He let his own hand fall back to his side as wel, still dazed.

"Alright!" Envy said, waving madly to the crowd. "That's the end of our concert! Hope you loved it!" He waited for the ensuing applause to die down before he continued. "We have CDs for sale at the front - they're professionally recorded," here he winked, "and t-shirts and things. Have a great rest of the night!" And then he saluted, put the microphone back in its stand, and strolled off the stage, Roy and Ling tagging along behind him.

The night quieted down substantially as the spring festival petered out. First the performances ended and then, one by one, the small booths and rides closed. They were extinguishing the brightly colored paper lanterns now, Ed could see from their spot atop a grassy hill overlooking the area.

He didn't really care about the lanterns, though.

"I know it sort of sucked, as a song, I mean," Envy was saying, tracing a design on their entwined hands. "It didn't really have a refrain. It was more of a poem than anything. But I thought, you know..." He laughed.

Edward smiled. "I liked it. I thought it was the best." He lifted Envy's fingers to his lips and kissed them. "I... I can't believe you wrote that. For me."

"Well," Envy demurred. "It's what I do, you know? Music, and songs, and stuff..." Ed felt Envy's lungs expand as he breathed in, and then heard him exhale into the night. "Figured it would be a good... you know."

At first, Ed didn't know. But then he thought about it. "A good goodbye," he said, finishing Envy's sentence. "Yeah." He... he supposed this really was goodbye, in the most permanent, irrevocable sense. "I can't believe I'm leaving tomorrow."

There was a long pause and the only thing that alerted Ed to Envy's presence was the steady rise and fall of Envy's chest against Ed's arm. "Yeah," Envy said finally. "I... It kind of sucks, doesn't it?"

"Yeah," Ed agreed. He didn't want things to end on this strained, awkward note. They were barely more than just friends. They hadn't really even done anything, and so help him, they weren't going to do anything because the last thing either of them needed was to make this any harder. "You know," he continued, mostly to fill up the silence before it grew awkward, "I never imagined any of this would happen, when I came over to Japan." He smiled a bit. "The most I hoped for was for things to suck less than they did at home."

Envy laughed after a moment of (Ed imagined) debating whether or not it was acceptable to laugh. "That... I hope they got better," he added, sounding almost shy.

Edward smiled and wrapped his arm more securely about Envy's waist, touching his cheek lightly with his other hand, the automail one. "Oh, they did," he said, and brushed his lips against Envy's cheek. "They got so much better. And when I go back," he added, because these things needed to be said for his own sake as well as Envy's, "I'm going to miss you more than anything. But... I think things will be better, too, because I've known you."

"You're so fucking sappy," Envy said, shoving at Ed in mock disgust. "It's ridiculous." But he laughed anyway and brushed his lips against Ed's cheek. Then he seemed to diminish, and sigh. "I wish... I dunno. You weren't here long enough."

"I know, I know," Ed said and stared up at the stars, which had been visible for a while. It was a wonderful cloudless day. "Here feels like home, more than anywhere I've ever been."

There was another silence, where Envy occupied himself with brushing his fingers lightly over Ed's face and Ed continued to stare up at the sky. "So why don't you stay?" Envy blurted out finally. "Pinako would let you! And it's not like you have anything to go home to and here there's Hughes and Izumi and Winry Roy and Ling and... me."

Yeah, and that's the problem, Ed thought. "I know," he said again out loud instead. "I know that here, I'd be happier. Or at least, it's easier to be happy here." Gently pushing Envy off him, he sat up. "But... there, I have Al. I have my school. I have a life I just sort of left, without really explaining why or saying goodbye. I have friends and really, now... I realize things aren't as bad as they seemed. I just... I have responsibilities."

"And they're more -" Envy began, and Ed had a feeling he knew what he was going to say. But then he stopped. "I guess... I see what you mean," Envy continued after a while, amending his previous statement. "I mean, if I just up and left... I have a band, and people that count on me, and Sloth and her baby..." He sighed. "Responsibilities suck."

"They do," Ed agreed and smiled, reaching down to run his fingers lightly through Envy's hair. "I'm going to miss you so much."

"... Me too," Envy said, leaing into the touch, catlike as usual. "But I mean, we're not together. Together together."

Ed had a feeling that Envy was asking a leading question, and resolved to tread carefully. "Er..." he replied. "Not... officially, no?"

"Alright," Envy said and sat up, removing Ed's hand from his hair only to lace their fingers together again as he crossed his legs and leaned forward, nose only centimeters away from Ed's cheek. "Can we be together? Can we make it official? Even though I'm stuck here and you're all the fucking way in Germany, can we try?"

It took Ed a few seconds to consider the consequences of such a relationship. With Envy, the costs were far outweighed by the benefits. He tightened his hand on Envy's. "Yeah," he said, and leaned closer so that their lips were nearly brushing. "We can." And then he kissed him.

It was his last night in Japan.