"Don't be afraid," a soft voice whispered.

He barely heard it over the tumult raging in his own mind, visions swirling, shrieking through his brain, the noise raucous and clamouring. But when he felt the bracing arm slide around his shoulders, he fumbled blindly – oh, the sudden irony of the terrible word! – until his hands met another hand and closed around it in a throbbing grip.

"It can't be!" came a second nearby voice, ragged, shaking. "He – he just can't be – "

Ed. Ed was close by. And though the commotion still raced through his mind, he sensed the cold dank openness of the space around him and heard, at the edges of his awareness, a booming, unearthly Voice, equally as cold. Answered, very distantly, by what sounded like the voice of a young girl.

It was so confusing – he didn't know them – didn't know where he was – couldn't see – the Gate – he couldn't see beyond the images rushing, careening through his head – he couldn't see

"Don't be afraid," she said again, and he gasped the panic down.

"Who…?" he faltered, broken hands still clutching.

"Izumi. Ed's teacher. You're going to be all right, Colonel."

"But he's not all right!" Ed again. High-pitched. "This wasn't supposed to happen to him!"

"Brother, don't."

Al? Alphonse was here too?

His mind reeled, the strange, booming voice reverberating like an earthquake in the open space. It roused screaming echoes that vibrated in his head. Fear drummed in his chest in a jagged, staccato rhythm.

"Colonel, you'll get through this." He clung to the voice with all the desperation of a drowning man. Izumi spoke quickly, quietly, as though trying to escape notice. "The shock will wear off and you'll be able to survive this," she said. "The visions will slow down in a minute. We've all been to the Gate, and we've all made it through. We'll help you – "

"You've been there?" he gasped. "You've seen it? Seen – oh god, please, it can't be the last thing I'll ever – "

"This wasn't supposed to happen!" Ed cried.

Why was he this upset? For the first time, a thought beyond his own terror. Why was Ed so horrified? "Fullmetal…?" he breathed.

"He's the Flame Alchemist!" Ed's voice was rising. "He's supposed to be invincible – I never wanted him to go through what we did – he hasn't committed any taboos! I never wanted him – "

"Edward, will you shut up!" The irritation in the woman's voice might have made him laugh at any other moment. He felt her arm shift slightly on his shoulders, as though she had turned away from him. "What are you," she demanded, "still twelve years old? Or no, younger than that. When you were twelve you met the Gate and lost your limbs and still kept your head."

"But – but he's been hurt – I never wanted him to be hurt – "

He sounded so young. Despite everything, still so very young.

Like the girl, whoever she was, with the accent…Xingian?...still bleating at the other Voice. As though trying to annoy it. Or maybe…to buy time?

"Ed, just stop," the woman snapped. "You need your wits about you, so stop being such a baby before I really get mad. And you, Colonel, I know you've suffered a terrible ordeal, believe me, we all know what you're going through. But there's no time for fear or pain. We'll help you in every way we can, but we need you to pull yourself together."

Pull himself together! With his wounded, bleeding hands pulsing with agony – the knowledge and uproar of worlds screaming through his mind – and oh, the terrible injustice, the awful punishment for the one crime he'd refused to commit – he couldn't – he couldn't –

"Brother, be careful!"

"They'll pay for putting him through this. I'll make them pay!"

The same rage he himself had felt, not half an hour ago. The rage he'd repudiated. And Ed himself suddenly dangerously close to the same precipice. He wasn't sure why Ed should be so undone at the sight of him in such straits, but there was no time to understand.

"Colonel, can you hear me?"

Still the visions swirled through his head. So unfair – that he should see so much but not be able to see what he needed to. He reeled, losing his balance, falling out of his crouch to his hands and knees. Gasping at the stabbing pain as his hands slapped the floor.

Useless – useless! He'd brought everyone this far, roused the whole country – people were up there dying for the vision he'd had – and he was useless!

Failed…he'd failed them all, when they most needed him. Bradley had immobilized him so easily…had always done so…he'd been overmatched and useless from the moment he'd received his State certification…

"Colonel, do not do this," came the hurried, whispered voice again, the arm across his shoulders giving him a little shake. "Whatever you're telling yourself, it isn't true. You are not less than you were. You are more. Do you hear me? And we need you."

Need him! With no way to initiate his alchemy without the destroyed arrays on his gloves, and no way to aim even if he could?


Ed and his clapping hands. Alchemy without an array.

The visions slowed, just a little. Shifted. Maybe even began to settle. Just a little.

Clapping his hands? Could he now…?

He could. He didn't know how he knew, or how it worked, but he realized that he could.

What had the Voice said? When the first terrible shock of understanding had hit him, when he understood what the watcher at the Gate had taken from him? He'd barely heard, barely been able to concentrate on anything but the blackness, and yet…

"Of all the alchemists here, your abilities were the most troublesome."

His breath caught and he sat back on his haunches. "The most troublesome." And they rejoiced because they thought they'd put him out of the picture entirely!

He reached out a groping hand and felt it clasped. He used the fresh pain to focus himself, to drive him through to the other side.

"Colonel…?" Izumi breathed.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"This is the last straw," Ed was growling. "I'll never forgive them for doing this. The one person here who never committed any taboo and they ruin his life anyway – "

"Edward Elric!" Roy snapped, cutting across the diatribe. "It's time for both of us to stop snivelling and get on with what we came here for. So calm down, and that's an order. I'm still your superior officer and you will do what I say for once in your life. Is that understood, Fullmetal?" He struggled to his feet in the sudden silence, Izumi lending him with a hand under one elbow. He could vividly imagine his young subordinate's jaw dropping open, and suddenly wanted to laugh. Instead he whispered, "Ed. Your teacher is right. I'm going to be fine. Just make me a spark when I ask you, and let me know where to send it. We're far from finished yet."

"See, Brother? I knew he'd be all right." Staunch Alphonse, a glad smile in his voice. "After all," said the boy, "he's the Flame Alchemist."

You are not less than you were. You are more.

"Yes," Roy nodded. "I'm the Flame Alchemist." He turned in the direction the eerie Voice had come from and clenched his hands closed around the pain. He growled, "And whatever that thing is, it's never going to know what hit it by the time we're finished."