Roy stood in silence, head high, waiting for the nearly faceless figure to reply and decide his fate. The featureless white that seemed to stretch infinitely on all sides of the Gate made him think of ice and cold, and he almost felt he should shiver, but in reality he felt nothing. Neither hot nor cold – nothing. It was as though the concept of temperature did not exist here.
Here, where he had come with only two-thirds of the last existing philosopher's stone, clutching it in a clammy hand, hoping it would be enough.
It had to be enough. But even if it wasn't, his insistence that the stone first be used to heal Jean Havoc's injuries had been the right decision. He would never regret that, even if it meant he would be blind for the rest of his life.
At least he was able to see, here. Even if there wasn't much to see but the strange shape of the crouching figure before him, and the heavy, carved Gate towering behind him.
“You really believe you should receive your vision back? Why?” The bloodless, sibilant voice hissed away to what might have been a great distance.
Roy answered carefully, “I think I still have something to contribute to the healing of my country. I don't feel my work is finished yet.”
“And if you do not do this work, there are no others who could finish it instead?”
His heart sinking, Roy closed his eyes, then opened them again, quickly. Might as well savour the gift of sight for this brief interval, given the implications of the question. Not that he had much to look at, in this white emptiness.
“You're right,” he conceded. “Others would finish the work. They'd leave me behind to do it, if they had to. I would order them to.” He swallowed around the sudden constriction in his throat. “I would just feel...useless. Like I had abandoned the job when it could finally be done properly, out in the open. Maybe that's just pride, I don't know. But I feel obligated to finish the work I started.”
“I...see. Yes, I see.” The figure had a mouth, if not eyes, and now it smiled almost impishly, as though it had used the word “see” just for Roy.
If he was being baited, Roy refused to rise to it. “There's one other thing,” he said, proud that his voice didn't falter. “If this philosopher's stone isn't enough to bargain with...if there's more of a price to pay...I will do what Edward did. I'll...sacrifice my alchemy.” He wondered, briefly, that the ground beneath him did not quake at the very words. If, of course, there had been such a thing as ground, here.
The crouched figure said nothing, as though pausing to consider this extra bargaining chip. Then, “No,” it said at last.
“What else do you need, then?” Roy forced out the words. “Arms...legs...just ask. I'll give you anything.”
A pause. “Anything?” The timbreless voice sounded almost smug, if that were possible.
A sudden memory. Facing Hawkeye deep in a tunnel, after viciously torturing a humunculus, and doing battle with himself. And I've hurt you again...
“No,” Roy said quietly. “Not just anything. I won't surrender anything that would result in more pain for my...” The word 'subordinates' was wrong. “...for my friends,” he finished.
“I see,” the voice said again, and nothing more.
Roy closed his eyes again. So that was that, it seemed. “If hurting them is the price of getting my vision back...then no thank you. I've done more than enough of that in my life. I'll do no more.” He held out his hand, opening his fingers to display the philosopher's stone. “But even if I go back blind, I want you to keep this here. The souls in this stone need release. And I can't allow the stone to be used again in my world. This is more power, and more potential destruction, than any alchemist should ever wield.”
Despite the figure's lack of eyes, Roy could feel it scrutinizing him. He waited with as much patience as he could manage. It was time to go back, and do whatever he could do to help the rebuilding, blind though he might be.
“Very well,” said the voice. “The stone is sufficient.”
“So you'll keep it safely here?”
“No,” the figure said. “The stone is a sufficient price.”
“Wait—so—you mean—” Roy hardly dared to hope, even though his pulse had begun to thud. He felt a whoosh at his back, and glanced over his shoulder. The dark, towering Gate was cracking open. Shadows already stirred in the opening.
“You will have your vision back.” The voice intoned. “There will be no other price.”
“Thank you.” The words seemed to gush directly from his relief. “Thank you. I mean it. I'll do my best to justify—”
“But remember, Roy Mustang,” again the figure smiled, its hissing voice surrounding him, as though the shivers he should have felt had been translated to whispering sound. “There are always consequences. You may receive more than you bargained for...”
The shadows reached out, slithering and curling their way around Roy's limbs. He felt the philosopher's stone disintegrating in his hand, and for the merest instant, sensed the minds of others, swirling around him, flashing hints of old pain, fear, and even fresh gladness. “Wait!” he cried again. “What do you mean by—” But his voice already sounded thin and faded in the vast whiteness, as though the space before the Gate were substantial and he was not.
He felt the shadows engulf him, encasing him in darkness until all he could see before him was a swiftly narrowing vertical band of bright light. The tendrils of shadow pulled him back and back, into the depths of the Gate, and he saw the band of light narrowing even further as the two heavy stone leaves began to close. The light shrank to a mere sliver, and then vanished altogether, the Gate slamming shut with a thundering boom.
Roy tried to call out, but the voice suffocated in his throat. He floated—flew?--in a total Void, empty of all. Until...
His mind peeled open, helpless and unprotected. Knowing what was coming, he tried to shrink away, but the multitude of visions sprang into existence all around him. Scene upon scene, fact upon fact, truth upon truth upon truth, streaming into and around him with stunning speed and volume. All the knowledge in the world and out of it, rushing at him, pouring itself into him, engulfing and overwhelming him. More truth than any human mind could encompass, more knowledge than any man should ever, ever know. It thrust relentlessly into, around, and through him, until he had no choice but to scream.
I will survive this test! he thought, since he could not speak. I'm almost there! I won't lose myself again. I'm coming back! Wait for me! Wait—
Even here, he would not allow himself to say the name. But already he saw her face in his mind's eye, and reached desperately toward her.
The swift, final sensation of travel through the Gate rushed over him: the feeling of falling and shrinking, tinier and tinier until he was almost nothing. He came back to himself—in the real world—gasping with claustrophobia, wanting to claw his way out of his suddenly confined body. The massive visions scattered away, his consciousness narrowing once again to human proportions. There was an instant of regret at losing that great rush of truths, and then all was normal again.
He was on his hands and knees. Finally, he could feel the surface beneath him. (It was rather cold, actually.) He sat back on his haunches, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.
He heard a voice. Her voice: “Stay back for a moment, everyone. Give me a chance to talk to him.”
“If he needs medical help, we have to give it to him right away.”
“Give me a moment, Dr. Knox.” A brush of movement in front of Roy. “Sir?” she said. “Are you all right?”
Roy lowered his hands, and blinked. And she was there, kneeling before him. The reason he was alive, and sane. The guide and bulwark of his life.
Roy blinked again, and smiled. “Hi there,” he said.
Riza smiled back, her eyes shining. “Hello,” she said. “I knew you'd do it. Welcome back, sir.”
“I think it was touch and go for a while, there, but yes. Everything's fine now. And are you ever a sight for—” He stopped abruptly, as it finally dawned on him what he was seeing.
She must have done it during one of the few periods when she had left his side, in the past few weeks after the upheavals. Roy blinked again, his vision strangely bifurcated: there knelt First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye of the military, his partner in grief and guilt, indispensable support in all the years of labour to save the country and redress the evil they had both done. And in the same place he saw the young girl, the daughter of his teacher, the girl he'd dreamed of at night, yet hadn't dared to give more than a glance, for fear her father would cast him out.
Riza Hawkeye had cut her hair.
Roy murmured in bewilderment, “What have you done to your—” He lifted a hand toward the short crown of gold, then stopped halfway, knowing that even now, he had no right.
But Riza grabbed his hand instead, pressing it between both of hers. She leaned toward him and said gently, “Sir. It's all over now. It's time to let it go.”
“What do you m—”
“I mean it, sir. I mean Ishbal...Hughes...everything. It's time to let it go now.”
Roy gazed at Riza, taking in the quiet smile, the calm eyes, and the short hair. His eyes moved to the others: Knox, Marcoh, Armstrong, and all his other closest subordinates, standing near the emergency hospital bed, in the operating theatre where he had decided to make his attempt. (Just in case he came back with missing limbs.)
Ishbal. The fire. The burned cities, the blood, the smelled of charred flesh that had haunted his dreams through countless endless nights.
Hughes. His greatest friend. Every day without him remained a deep loss.
Envy. Dying and dying and dying, in burning agony. Over and over and over again. While Roy laughed.
Regret, guilt, self-loathing, anguish, grief...
Finally his eyes returned to Riza's face. The short hair, the warm calm...the peace. Shining from her eyes.
Let it go?
Roy sagged. His fingers moved a little, between her hands. He managed a smile. “So,” he said quietly, “a fresh start, then?”
She nodded. “That's what we all need. And we've got the chance for it now.”
Roy gazed at her competent hands, wrapped around his. She had been wiser than he, from the very beginning. “All right. A fresh start,” he agreed. But as she released his hand, he moved it the rest of the way, until it rested on her golden hair.
Riza froze, eyes widening as it was now her turn to watch his face. He moved his fingers lightly on her soft, thick hair, watching the way it glowed under the operating lights as he swirled it this way and that. Dammit—he'd wanted for years to touch it like this.
Roy let his hand slip down until he could lay his palm gently along Riza's cheek. And now, to his delight, he saw the spreading pink tinge in the skin under his fingers.
“All right,” he said, feeling more like himself—perhaps more like his true self—with every moment. “A fresh start it is.” Adding, his voice a tone lower, “In every...possible way.”
He couldn't help but laugh at the way she stammered, “Well...I don't know about that, Roy...I mean, Sir...”
Roy murmured, “You couldn't expect to greet me, looking like that, and not face some consequences, could you?”
He smiled his quizzical smile, tilting his head. She was definitely blushing now, and more than ever resembled the shy girl she had once been. Just a decade ago? He could barely believe it.
“Come on,” he said, getting to his feet. Riza followed suit, brushing the knees of her uniform and not meeting his eyes. Roy held out his hand. “A fresh start,” he repeated. “Let's do this the way we should have done, all along.”
Riza hesitated for one more moment. And then at last, she took his hand, and they walked together toward their waiting friends.
More than I bargained for, indeed, thought Roy with a smile.