Chapter XXXVIII – #89 – The Crimson Charm (Part 1)

Winry stood in the middle of a disaster she'd made on the upper floor of the house amidst the dusty afternoon light that filtered into the house from beyond the windows. Sheets, towels, linens of all sorts, clothes – her entire wardrobe, clean and dirty – all of it was thrown everywhere.

Winry looked around the upper floor in a panic. Where is it? It had to be somewhere. Winry gathered up as much of the disaster as she could into an armload and pitched it into Ed's bedroom, adding to what she'd already piled in there.

When a knock came at the house door Winry sighed and stormed down the stairs. The rule in place since the disastrous weekend was to keep the door closed to strangers – even the mail man – but Rudolf Hess was not 'a stranger' and Winry opened the door.

"Good afternoon," he gave a modest smile.

"Good afternoon," Winry let him in. University classes let out at three while Edward was out of work at four thirty, so it wasn't a surprise to see Hess show up before four that afternoon.

Stepping into the house, the guest tapped the snow off his boots, "How have you been?"

"Alright," she replied, wishing he would state his purpose and leave, "what can I do for you?"

Hess began unbuttoning his coat like he'd intended to stay for more than a moment, "I came by to see how you were doing and to find out how you enjoyed the concert."

Winry shrugged, "I'm good, concert was good… uh, yeah," she clapped her hands together at her stomach.

With a laugh, Hess stepped out of his boots, "You sound busy; may I help with anything?"

"Naw," Winry gave a wave of her hand, "I just have laundry upstairs that I need to get done."

"I can help with that," Hess made his way to the stairwell.

Despite Winry's attempt to intercept him, she still found herself stumbling backwards up the stairs as the intrusive man made his way to the second floor, "I don't really need help with the laundry, it was just what I had going on – don't worry about it." Her stomach sank a little when Winry could tell by the look in Hess' eye that he could see the mess in the hall, the avalanche of things falling out of Ed's bedroom door, and that her room had been stripped bare. She laughed sheepishly – could he just leave?

"I'll help you sort it?" Hess offered.

Winry wanted to either shrivel up or punch him for the nearly condescending smile he gave, "Why are you here? You didn't show up to help me do laundry… did you?"

Hess laughed, "No, I actually came by to talk to you about Edward."

"Oh yeah?" Winry turned to the fabric avalanche coming out of Ed's door, "what about him?"

Hess's brow rose with interest as he watched Winry grab up an armful from the floor, "I don't know anything about him really, even Hohenheim didn't talk much about his son or their past," the man 'oof'd when Winry shoved the pile into his arms – instructing him to 'hold this!' Hess stared blankly at the bundle, "I uh… just know they were reunited during the war while Edward was still a teenager, shortly after an air raid that took his arm and leg," the man's eyes widened as he saw the oncoming sheet fly towards him and cover his head, though it didn't deter him from talking, "you seem to know him well enough, I thought perhaps you could fill in some blanks."

Winry's hands came back to her hips and she admired the human fabric tower she was building; this gave her an excellent opportunity to shake out her things! She quickly searched her thoughts to make sure she had enough of their fictitious life story beyond the Gate in order before responding, "Yeah I heard that's what happened, but Ed's the one who should be talking about himself, not me." Winry threw a couple of skirts and a sweater over Hess's head.

"How proper of you," Hess's stifled voice came out from beneath the pile. He gave a thought to uncovering himself, but with a few more clothes and two pillow cases stacked on top of him, the man figured he may as well stay put, "I'm very interested about some things Winry. Edward has opened up around you in a way none of us have seen from him behave before. He was very withdrawn until recently, then you showed up and drew him out into the sun. I thought perhaps you would be our best insight to get him to open up a little more than he already has."

Winry snorted a laugh, making a few disgruntled faces at the man who wasn't able to see them, "I've known Ed since the day I was born, and he's a private person and I respect that. He's trying to deal with some really hard circumstances and I'm trying to support him while he does that," she added another few bits of clothing to Hess's tower, "ask Ed yourself and if he wants you to know, he'll tell you, otherwise it's none of your business."

For a few moments Winry regretted burying this man in a mountain of things, because she couldn't see if he was resigned, annoyed, or frustrated with her refusal to cough up information on Ed.

"I asked his father once, but Hohenheim was sly," Hess's words came out smooth, even with what he was buried under, "have you and Edward been involved at all?"

"Invol…?" it took a few seconds before Winry blanched at the question, "no… absolutely not. Why would you even think that?"

Edward Elric had the good sense to walk through the door right then and there, ending Rudolf Hess's line of questioning and preventing the German's demise if he'd kept on talking.

"I'm home," Ed called into the house.

Winry's eyes widened in horror and she quickly shot her attention to the absolute disaster the upper floor was – how was she supposed to explain this? "… Y-you're early!" she cried out.

"Got out early," Ed's voice echoed in the stairwell.

Winry looked between the pile burying Hess, the disaster she'd filled Ed's room with, the vacancy her own room was, and the scattering of random things all throughout the floor. Her fingers danced around at her lower lip, "That's nice… um… help yourself to something in the fridge!" Winry scrambled over the pile she'd thrown inside Ed's doorway.

"I'm gonna change first," Ed hauled himself up the stairs heavily, feet thumping down on the steps tiredly.

Winry's hands ravaged through her hair with each step Ed took and she looked around his room frantically. Could she heave this all inside the room, shut the door, and deny him access? No. Could she get it in the closet? No. Under the bed? No. Crap. Winry scrambled out of the room and tumbled into the hall again, coming to a dead stop when she saw Ed standing with one foot on the upper landing, the other on the second step from the top, and a stunningly perplexed look on his face as he eyed the mountain burying Hess.

"… What the…?"

Winry giggled nervously, watching while Hess shed the sheets from his arms and discarded what had been thrown over his head. Winry's hands slapped down over her hips in resignation over the debacle.

"What are you doing in my house?" Ed's German question finally came out as he drew up to the top step, having to double take at the trail of things escaping his bedroom door.

"I came to see how things were," Hess patted down his hair, "seems things are domestic."

"Right… don't you have anything better to do? Other people to annoy?" Ed gave the man a wary eye before sharply turning and gawking at the disaster his room had been turned into, "holy shit Winry, what have you DONE?"

Winry threw in a grumble as she folded her arms, "I've misplaced something and I'm trying to find it."

"By doing this to my room?" Ed's face twisted, though he backed off on his question when Winry's glare was an absolute 'yes' to the question, "… what'd you lose?"

Wrinkling her nose, Winry shuffled a little, picking up a few things from the pile that trailed out of Ed's room and tossing it back into hers; she felt like an absolute heel. "The doll you got me for Christmas," she mumbled, "I can't find it."

Hess's brow rose at Winry's admission, though his bemused question fell to Edward, "You bought Winry a doll for Christmas?"

Ed's annoyed and pointed finger flew out into Hess's face, "Shut. Up."

The older man grinned at the embarrassment Ed tried to hide behind a wretched scowl. Hess laced the buttons down the front of his coat and gave a nod to the two of them while his grin never wavered, "I'll be on my way."

"Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out," Ed snarled.

Hess laughed at the quip and both Edward and Winry watched with similar frowns as the man disappeared into the lower floor of the house.

"Where'd you see it last?" Ed asked, taking the focus off of Hess.

"On my bed," Winry frowned, "it's always on my bed, unless it got caught in the laundry Saturday morning, because I don't remember moving it."

Ed shrugged, the steps he took pulled his shadow through the hallway into the afternoon light, "It'll turn up. Don't worry. We'll look for it after dinner," a strong hand landed on Winry's shoulder as the front door of the house slammed shut. The building fell silent for a moment in the wake of the sound, even the faint tick of the downstairs clock began to creep into their ears before Ed spoke again, "What the hell was Rudolf doing here?"

"Oh," Winry laughed a little as she shook her head, "he was poking his nose around about you; wanted to know if I had any juicy stories to tell about Edward Elric."

"Yeah?" a frown worsened into Ed's brow, hissing his disgust through his teeth, "that slimy bastard doesn't know how to back off. I'm gonna have to put my boot up his ass," Ed's hand tightened around Winry's shoulder and his voice picked up, "whatever. We're getting out of here, so he can waste all the time he likes."

"We are?" Winry raised her brow, attaching a non-verbal expression of 'finally?'

Golden eyes suddenly shuffled from side to side, "Yeah, well, I left work early feeling a little 'sick'… and I'm gonna still be sick tomorrow. We're going to grab the measurements of the Thule Hall during the day."

Winry nodded, very thankful they were finally on their way to getting that task over and done with, "Okay."

Izumi wished she had a wristwatch to keep track of time, because she'd lost track of how long they'd been at the Gate. She was certain they'd been at the Gate for some time greater than twelve hours, but less than twenty four… maybe… she had no way of telling. The teacher felt as though her internal clock had been shut down; Izumi hadn't felt hungry, sleepy, or tired and it was growing unsettling.

Giving a hefty sigh, Izumi resumed her pacing around the white nothingness of the Gate space, "Alright Aisa, all over again, how'd I manage to get us here? You haven't answered my questions at all."

"Your compensation factors were inadequate," was the same answer given every time – like a ritual game, "my Red Stone facilitation is more than what you compensated for."

The excuse was really getting old and Izumi was more than ready to beat an answer out of the woman… if the threat of who-knows-what happening didn't exist. Reaching over and strangling the woman to death wouldn't do her any good; Aisa was dead already.

"Maybe you should find a way to go home," Al moved up beside Izumi.

"Absolutely not," was her firm response.

Al sighed, "What good does it do anybody if you just stay here with me?"

That was a very good question, one that Izumi did not have anything beyond rhetoric to answer with, because she did not know what good she was doing there. But the thought of abandoning the boy to this space… that was unfathomable. She'd left a child behind here once and she didn't have the strength to do it again.

"Aisa!" Alphonse called out, "maybe if you tell my teacher what she did to get here, she'll go home! Can you tell her, please?"

"I have told her, would you like me to repeat myself again?" the continual disinterest Aisa had in answering the question ground down on both Al's and Izumi's nerves.

Al sighed, shuffling away from the teacher giving him a nasty look for the request he'd just made, "Look Aisa, I'm sure Dante told you not to tell anyone, but aren't you better serving Dante if you're with Dante? Shouldn't you want to tell us so my teacher will know what to do and then you can go home? I'm okay here, really."

The nurse's eyes shifted from Izumi to Alphonse and then back again, "It might be in Izumi's best interest to remain here with me. Dante's wrath when she finds out I've been used in this way will be unsettling."

"I like how I've already been sentenced for something I don't know anything about," Izumi scowled, lines zipping through her brow.

"Then you should tell her what happened!" Alphonse pleaded.

Aisa's words drawled out monaurally, "The compensation factors in her transmutation were inadequate…"

Alphonse threw his hands up as Aisa finished her spiel.

"Let it drop, Al," Izumi waved for him to come back to her, "even if she tells me, I'm not leaving."

With a determined look in his eye, Al continued to attempt some kind of conversation with Aisa, "Can you tell me how it works at least? Like the procurement process for the Red Stones inside of you?"

Aisa looked back at the youngest Elric brother, intrigued by the question, looking as though she'd begun thinking the question over and debating if it was a safe to answer or not. Izumi's brow rose curiously at the woman actually attempting to entertain one of their questions.

"Where do you store it?" Alphonse approached Aisa, "all the excess stones and things keeping you alive?"

"Those aren't things you need to know, Alphonse," Aisa finally answered.

The young alchemist frowned, starting to walk a wide circle around her, "Yeah, I'm sure it's some big secret you and Dante keep." Alphonse continued his circle around Aisa before coming to a stop in front of her again. His hands came down onto his moderate hips and Al gave her his most inquisitive frown, "and you really don't have a pulse, like Sensei says?"

Aisa shook her head, "My body is also room temperature, so it feels cool to the touch." With a shrug of her shoulders Aisa extended her right hand, "Go on."

A little burst of excitement pushed Al forwards. Though there was nothing about Aisa that was in any way exciting, this woman was still a fascinating 'something' that was different than all the things he'd learnt about the Gate. Now they were learning about what Dante could do, even if it was just little bits at a time.

Yet Alphonse Elric had no idea why the closer he came to Aisa, the more the leery sensation she gave him began to crystallize in his mind's eye. She was like an enigma hidden in a dense fog and the woman whose physical figure had not changed, morphed, or mutated in anyway somehow felt like she'd transformed into a monster of nightmares by the time Al was close enough to touch her. Alphonse froze before taking hold of her wrist, eyes wide, and heart racing for no reason he understood. He looked to Aisa like she should have been able to tell him what was wrong, yet all the nurse did was look back with moderate confusion to the boy's hesitation.

"Al?" Izumi called; a hint of concern in her voice.

Al glanced to his hand; poised to take hold of the wrist he'd been offered. A realization suddenly hit the young Elric – Aisa terrified him.

"Is something wrong?" Aisa looked down to Alphonse, confusion in her voice.

Without another thought to his hesitation, Al moved quickly and pushed through the unidentifiable fear, his right hand taking hold of the nurse's extended wrist.

The Gate pulsed the moment the boy's warm fingers landed on her flesh.

Izumi staggered further back from the yawning doors as baby Diana – silent for the woman's entire tenure at the Gate – let out a torrential wail. The point of contact between Alphonse's grip and Aisa's wrist shot a deafening crackle into everyone's ears before exploding into wild red transmutation sparks, strings of power thrashing about madly and without control. Suddenly it was Alphonse joining the frenzied screams Diana made.

Izumi hadn't finished her dash towards Al before she began to stumble. The sudden syphoning of air into the uncontrolled transmutation flying around Aisa and Alphonse, and the power that blew out from the Gate because of it, made it almost impossible for the teacher to remain standing. The currents began to blow past Izumi with raging force, the pressure of the air growing exponentially, and the fear in Izumi's stomach sickened when two large, wide opened eyes appeared within the voided black space of the Gate. The pupils cast a rancid, raging gaze over the doorstep visitors, pounding down on Izumi through to her core. The teacher broke herself free from the terrorizing glare and scrambled to take hold of Alphonse as he screamed, nearly unable to keep standing as she grabbed him. Izumi wrapped her arm around the frantic boy's neck, looking over her shoulder to Aisa amidst the disaster. The woman had fallen pale, her eyes had rolled back, and she was completely unresponsive to everything Izumi yelled. The teacher tried again and again to break the hold Alphonse had taken on her wrist, each time being burned by the sparks of the alchemical reaction.

Pulling Alphonse into her body, Izumi's teeth clenched while the ends of her hair were flung madly around her head, still watching the open doors as the eyes of the Gate began to grow unruly, sending Diana into a frenzy. Again the teacher tried to pry Alphonse away and all Izumi could do was watch while the boy's fingers begin to literally sink into the flesh of Aisa's wrist. With a desperate burst of energy, Izumi's right arm flew above her head, her left knee came up to her chest and, with all her body weight, Izumi slammed her elbow down on the sparking connection point between Alphonse and Aisa. The woman had put her knee into the young Elric's chest while she'd moved and Alphonse was thrust away as the connection was finally severed.

Al hit the surface with a shrill cry and Izumi fell to the ground with Aisa at her back. The chaos their connection brought forth from the Gate wasn't quelled by the separation – the winds still raged and the air remained thick, but the cascading transmutation ceased and Alphonse fell silent. Izumi scrambled through the raging alchemical winds towards him.

"AL!" Izumi's hand landed on the boy's chest. Her fingers gripped into the front of his shirt and she rattled him, "ALPHONSE!" The woman's hand gave a sharp slap across his face when he didn't respond, hoping for some reaction and receiving nothing in return.

A pained cry leaked out from Aisa's lungs and the woman came to her hands and knees, cradling the wrist Alphonse's fingers had damaged, "We need to go!"

"What have you done to him?" Izumi's panic swung around and she flared her rage amidst the torrents of the Gate.

Aisa slowly drew to her feet, "He reacted to me! We need to leave - now!"

Izumi's eyes shot between the non-responsive child and the woman with asinine claims, "He reacted to you?"

"YES," Aisa hollered, looking up at the raging Gate. Her jaw moved, but her voice struggled to follow, "You have to clap your hands and get us out of here, or when the Gate breaks down Diana it will pull us all through!"

Izumi took a few swallows of the maddening winds attempting to rip the white coat from her body. Izumi's jaw slipped open as her hands gripped Al's shoulders, "WHY?"

"I wouldn't have let him touch me if I knew why!" Aisa's response was loud and shrill, "Dante always claps her hands to return from the Gate, you should be able to do the same. I am the catalyst, so when I'm gone the reaction should end and this will all stop."

Izumi's eyes flew around the erupting space at the Gate amidst winds and power blowing so wildly past her the currents could be seen. She looked at the raging set of eyes trapped at the Gate staring back on them with more than hunger in its stare.


Izumi's hands gripped the soft cheeks of the unresponsive Elric and the teacher took a deep breath.

"It's not Dante's wrath people will fear if you don't come out of this alright."

Izumi clapped her hands.

Ed was up nearly as early as he would have been for work, waiting for the world to be buried in mundane life before he and Winry ducked out of the house and headed to the Thule Hall. The day was nice enough for it; it was only a few degrees below zero, the sky was clear, the sun was strong, and the day was bright. Ed was thankful that meant the Thule Hall would be well lit for their measurement task.

The pair had arrived at the hall before nine and both of them figured that the cold winter weather in the days and weeks prior had been drawn into the underground realm, because the wide room and all its stone was bitterly cold – even with the sun shining in.

Both shivered a little as they entered the sunlit hall, looking around at a place that they'd last seen when it had been covered in spilt blood. Ed and Winry centred themselves in the room, neither saying a thing, no one setting their bags down, nobody's voice offering to take the lead – they only stood on the sunlit centre; the place where Hohenheim had died. Winry pried her eyes off of the three doors in the far reaches of the hall; once upon a time, when her adventure began, she'd come out from behind one of them and she couldn't remember which. Winry glanced to Ed whose expression had locked down firmly. Her free hand snuck out to find his, to see if he could be unlocked, but Edward moved away before she could try.

Ed knelt down and put his bare hand on the cold stone surface of the Thule Hall floor, his left index finger slipping into the carved grooves and he explored the etching. Ed balanced on his knees as Winry finally set their bags down on the sigil, sending a light wave through the still and frigid air. Sliding along the ground, Ed's fingers continued to feel their way along the depth of the transmutation circle's grooves before he finally sat back and looked up at Winry.

"Can you feel that?" it sounded more like a statement of fact that she should feel something rather than a question.

Winry shook her head, "Feel what?"

Ed mulled her response over, "Must be an alchemist's thing, but it's… like static," he explained, rising to his feet again, "it's transmutation energy and it's really faint. I've felt it before when I was here… Dad said it was caused by the Gate doors being open back home – the transmutation circle is recognizing a source of power."

Winry's eyes narrowed at the statement, "I thought you said this thing didn't work? No alchemy and all."

Ed nodded in agreement that the transmutation circle didn't work, but "Alchemy is possible here, it's just our bonds aren't connected and the power flow only goes one way; that's what makes it impossible," his hand slipped into his pocket and Ed took a few slow steps over the surface of the sigil, "think of a transmutation circle like a mediator between the alchemist and his power source for altering matter. The circle establishes the power source so it can relay the energy to the alchemist for a transmutation, from there it's up to the alchemist to control it and transmute things with it," golden eyes slowly drifted upwards, looking into the high, stain glass dome above their heads, "and Dante's got the Gate doors open right now, that's how it's sending us feedback – the transmutation circle is reaching for the Gate, recognizing the power source," Ed's hand reached up, curling his fingers and clawing the air, "the circle is clawing to get a power source because it's designed not to mediate the energy properly and ultimately rebound, but since the power flow is only one way, it doesn't actually draw power, but we can feel the residue energy from the futile effort."

Winry looked at the ground beneath her feet warily, "It's not gonna like, come alive and bite me cause Dante's there, is it?"

"No," Ed laughed. He took a slow glance around the stone fringes of the room, following the lines of the pillars up to the roofing, through the dome, and beyond the windows to the sky, before pulling himself down again. Edward's gaze landed on the circle they stood on and his eyes cut grooves deep into the fissures already carved. His brow knotted, "Wonder if I could get a message to go through…"

"To Dante?" Winry squeaked.

Ed shook his head quickly, "Not to Dante specifically," his feet suddenly moved along the floor, the cold soles of his boots clapping off the cement with each step. It wasn't a measuring tape or written formula being used to plot the floor piece Ed walked on, it was the lengths of his steps and the speed at which he took them that helped Ed's thought process map itself out as he moved sharply around the transmutation circle carved into the stone, "I wonder if I could send a message through with the open doors like this," the faint echo of his feet came to a stop and the eldest Elric squared himself off in a section of the circle, "get it to ride on the transmutation circle's draw to the Gate, and power it with the residue."

Epiphanies were sometimes like the moment a child realizes the power of their accomplishment to stand on their own for the first time; it was always a bright, wondrous, and proud feeling.

"Could I use the feedback energy to piggyback a signal along the draw to the Gate and send a message home?" The fascinating idea tumbled through Ed's thoughts wildly.

"What kind of message would you send?" Winry tilted her head thoughtfully, looking around the room as Ed had done, looking up to the same sky he'd questioned, and then looking over to him as his mental gears began to run faster, "S.O.S.?" Winry offered her own answer with a smile.

The response brought a laugh out of Ed, a sound that echoed lightly off of the frigid stone walls. Ed wandered over to the belongings Winry had placed down on the circle, rummaging through a bag until he found the package of white chalk sticks. Though the chalk sticks were for marking their measurements, it had been a long time since a stick of chalk had been in Ed's hand for any purpose. He stared at it for a few moments, rotating it around in his fingers.

As he looked up, stern, thoughtful Elric eyes cut through the room sharply, expertly picking out his most crucial points, stopping when the gaze hit the apex of his mental map on the floor. With a few steps to meet the target, Ed came down to his knees, "If I drew the transmutation circle here… literally overlaying it on the Thule's circle…" the white chalk stick snapped properly into his grasp and the beginnings of a white insignia from his youth was drawn over the stone – never skipping over the carved lines of the Thule Hall sigil, always digging into the groves of the floor, making sure his circle never broke form or lost shape, "get a message to the Gate without actually activating the master rebound transmutation."

As the final stroke of Edward's chalk lifted from the ground, Winry knelt down beside him, eyes looking over the transmutation circle he'd adopted as a child. She asked him again, "What kind of message can you send?"

"I can't," it was a surprisingly abrupt answer from Edward, given how seriously he'd taken his task of plotting the circle he'd just drawn, "I don't know what I'd use to trigger it to go through, but if I could, I'd do it with this."

Edward had plotted, orchestrated, and drawn the whole thing out – a message home that he'd known had no chance of being delivered to anyone, since he had no trigger to start it. Yet, Ed let himself live out the experience of wrangling out a successful and complicated double-layered transmutation that he could have done if his circumstances had been different. Winry looked at the accomplishment drawn on the floor, her heart sinking as she realized it had no more value to either of them than a piece of a child's sidewalk chalk art.

Ed glanced at the white stick in his hand, then at the transmutation circle he'd drawn; he'd nearly tucked the stick away and stood up to get to work, but Winry stopped him. Ed's gaze turned to her as Winry's hand came down on his shoulder and her eyes on the floor.

"If you could have sent a message, what would you have sent?"

Ed paused, glancing to his work while trying to figure out an answer, "It wouldn't be a normal message. It wouldn't advertise that we're here… it'd be more like a knock on a door, or a gust of wind that I'd made to blow a window shut, or something like that," the chalk stick was turned over in Edward's hand and finally slipped back into his pocket, "if I could make it work, I don't know how anyone would know it was me," golden eyes fixated on the stubborn, uncooperative floor, "It'd still be a message home though… I'd send something home."

Winry pushed to her feet, deliberately bumping into his arm as she rose, trying to draw his attention out of the impotence of the world they were in, "Let's get to work. You don't want Dante knowing you're knocking on the door anyways. Better this world be in your hands than available to hers."

He glanced up as Winry straightened herself and smoothed out her coat, grinning down to Ed and extending a hand to help bring him to his feet. He took the offering and stood up, questioning whether or not he would give up part of this world to Dante if the exchange meant they'd get home.

The east was almost secured. Everyone under Brigadier General Mustang understood that the east was a triumph to secure, but it was going to be the north and northwest that would be the most challenging – the upper class existed there, and the upper class supported the government that pampered their cozy lives. It was hard for Mustang to get a feel for the mood of that district; however, that was a bridge they'd all cross at a later date. Right now the vast majority of the population in Central City was in the streets – they continued their protests over anything and everything they could think of, growing angrier with each passing day that the government refused to acknowledge their presence, let alone their cries. Mustang watched the uproar, a few of his closer men ribbing the officer for the growing number of people in the streets calling out their support for him, before Mustang moved himself up a floor to a mostly emptied office in their building and gave himself a few moments of peace at a window.

"Bradley told me I'd never get support if I attempted a coup…" Mustang's thoughts were spoken aloud.

"When it's those in charge of Central who shoot innocent people in the streets, common sense emerges," Hawkeye joined her superior officer at the window.

Roy's brow rose, "You think this has anything to do with common sense?" he glanced to Riza, "common sense would have the government stepping down and my name on an election ballot."

"Common sense tells people who will protect them and who will not," Riza withheld her grin, even if it did shine through a touch, "if you look out for people in their darkest hours, they'll know who to turn to when it's light."

Roy's expression loosened and he gave a twisted grin to Riza, "That was incredibly profound, Major."

"It was a line from the book I read last night," she responded promptly, snapping up a file folder thick with papers, "reports for our stance in the northern portions of Central, sir."

Taking the file folder from his officer, Mustang turned his nose up at the paperwork and dropped it on the floor, "I'll deal with that when the east is entirely secured. I won't get ahead of myself."

Before Riza could at least tell her superior officer to pick up the file from the floor and put it somewhere safe, both officers were sent stumbling off their feet, falling to the side – a portion of the far exterior wall suddenly blew in with an explosive bang, throwing debris through the room and sinking the occupants beneath a thick grey cloud of dust. Hawkeye's gun was drawn and Mustang's glove was on before either of them had gathered their bearings.

A shrill scream raged through the room, neither officer able to see what was coming but clearly able to hear it charge. From the floor, Hawkeye fired four bullets towards the sound in the smoke, at least one connecting if the screaming animal's sound was any indication. The noise grew wild again and the major scrambled to get up off her backside, only to be blindsided by Mustang – his arm reaching around the back of her shoulders and throwing her face first to the floor.

"GET DOWN," he curled to the floor with her, right hand snapping out and igniting the dust cloud. As quickly as the dust had burst into flames, it vanished – burning off almost instantly.

Both officers looked up from the floor, rising up to their knees, Hawkeye's sidearm readied and Mustang's fingers poised. Slowly they stood, the midday sun leaking in from not only the windows but the gaping hole in the wall as well. They looked around the singed room sharply, trying to find what had attacked them.

"That hurt…"

Mustang and Hawkeye snapped their focus to the voice, brows rising as they looked at Wrath standing in the middle of the room, a little burnt from the momentary fire and poking at the wound on his chest.

"… Wrath?" Mustang asked carefully – the last time he'd seen the homunculus it wasn't in this state.

The wild violet eyes of the homunculus looked between the two officers, focus landing on Hawkeye and the gun she'd shot him with. Wrath rolled his AutoMail shoulder and moved like he'd planned to run the woman down. Hawkeye's weapon locked on and Mustang's fire was ready, but before Wrath could make his first move he was blindsided by a body that struck him, sending him flying into the far wall. The officer's defences lowered quickly as Izumi landed on the floor and dropped to her knees, hand to her mouth.

"Mrs. Curtis?" Mustang stepped forward in alarm.

Izumi's forehead hit the floor and blood from the woman's mouth spilled through her hands.

"I told you to leave me alone!" the homunculus screamed, retreating from a barrage of bullets shot at him from Hawkeye's gun. Before anyone could act on Wrath further, the creature gave a disgusted look to them all and broke out of the room through a far window.

"Get a doctor!" Mustang ordered, crouching down next to Izumi as Hawkeye rushed by.

"Don't bother!" Izumi coughed out the response, breathing heavily as she held herself hunched over, "it'll pass."

"Are you okay?" Hawkeye turned back, sweeping a collection of napkins off a desk and bringing them down to Izumi who'd begun to straighten up.

"I'll be fine," the teacher wiped her hands and face down with the napkins, "it's normal, it'll pass."

"This is normal?" there was no way in the world Mustang would believe that. The officer's good eye looked Izumi over, attention veering from the blood she'd coughed up on the floor, to the burns down her sleeveless right arm, "what happened to you?"

"Doesn't matter," Izumi's eyes glanced to the white gloved hand that grabbed her shoulder.

"Where's Alphonse?" Mustang demanded.

The teacher's hands came up and rubbed her face down, "Out of reach for the moment."

"What is that supposed to mean?" the impatient question escaped Mustang.

"Don't get your panties in a knot," A very bitter and disgruntled tone echoed in Izumi's words. Quickly and without warning she snatched Mustang's hand from her shoulder, firmly holding him at his wrist, "This pyro-mitten you've got? If you get anywhere near the heart of Central and find Aisa, don't start using this, it won't end well."

Mustang's good eye narrowed, taking back his hand, "Why?"

"There's a damaged building and a lot of broken windows that explains why," Izumi's eyes narrowed back at him.

That certainly confirmed that it was Izumi who had fallen out the window with Aisa. Mustang's shoulders fell as he looked to the hole in the building Wrath had created. The officer's ears perked when the clap of Izumi's hands was heard and he watched as the hole in the wall was repaired. Mustang ran his hand through his hair, rising to his feet, "We were discussing that Aisa might have been used in Red Water experiments and been used to crystallize red stones."

"Yup," Izumi didn't even bother padding the truth as she stood up, "and not just that…" the teacher's words vanished suddenly while she pushed her hair off her shoulders and let it fall down her back. Examining her thoughts, Izumi's eyes snapped through the room, "I picked up something about Dante trying to bring Ed home."

Both officers couldn't help but find Dante's actions suspicious and Hawkeye stepped into the conversation, "What motive would she have for bringing Edward home? I thought she wanted to obtain knowledge from beyond the Gate?"

A thoughtful hum spun through the room as Mustang mulled the concept over, "Ed buries himself in books and texts. If the world he's in – the world that Dante wants – has knowledge on alchemy that we don't, he'd seek it out," the officer nodded to himself slowly, swallowing the terrifying idea of just how much knowledge Ed would come home with, if they could get him, "he could have a dangerous amount of knowledge if he was brought home," a very bizarre thought struck Mustang that he spoke aloud, "Edward himself could be dangerous."

"He certainly wouldn't tell Dante what he'd learnt," Riza shook her head, finally re-holstering he sidearm, "he'd know better than anyone the power of the alchemy he'd learnt beyond the Gate."

A light pop echoed in the room as Izumi's lips parted. Her hand came to her chin, her eyes moved between the two officers, and a very solemn voice emerged, "Dante seems to have been working on a trick with human transmutation," she watched the seriousness darken the two officers eyes, "one that works like behaviour modification; like brainwashing. I watched how a seven-year-old controlled the thoughts and behaviour of a room full of adult men… and that's incredibly hard to do."

Mustang's arms folded as silence settled onto the room; human transmutation required the transmutation of the mind, body, and soul. Though all three elements were unfathomably hard to transmute, transmutation of flesh qualified as the easiest, transmutation of a soul appeared to fall second if all the examples of extracted souls attached to armour or other people were any clue, but transmutation of an active mind? He couldn't imagine even attempting that… and perfecting it to a science where it could be manipulated? A person would end up as a vegetable if there was even the slightest misstep.

"Look," Izumi finally snarled, "I got out of the underground city by the skin of my teeth a few hours ago and came up to find myself face to face with Wrath. I don't have time to stick around and entertain you - Wrath's hopped up on red stones and I need to stay on him before he kills someone."

"No, wait," Mustang ordered an end to Izumi's pursuit, "you don't just burst in through my wall—"

"This isn't your wall."

"—and puke blood all over MY floor—"

"That is none of your business," Izumi barked.

"—chasing some rogue homunculus," Mustang's voice began to boil, "after running away with Alphonse Elric, then coming back without him, and expect me to think that is just fine —"

"Yeah, I do!"

"I want an explanation!"

Hawkeye raised a finger, "Excuse me."

Both sets of narrow eyes snapped to the third person in the room.

Hawkeye's gaze shifted between the two of them abruptly for a few moments before she finally cleared her throat, "Havoc's team is out that way," she motioned to the escape route their little terror had taken, "Wrath is hard to miss because he draws so much attention to himself, so I'm sure he caught the lieutenant's eye. Our men can keep watch over him, I think Ms Curtis needs a breather…" again the major glanced between the two of them as things seemed to deflate, "when was the last time any of us had something to eat?"

That was a longer time than Izumi could count if she included all her time at the Gate. The woman's lungs emptied, her head hanging with the sigh as her hand slapped over her forehead, "Fine."

"And we'll get that looked after," Mustang grumbled his statement.

The teacher gave a flat stare to the officer, "What looked after?"

One finger at a time, the Brigadier General began to remove his white glove, "You think I don't know what an alchemical burn looks like?" he made a gesture to the burns and sores marring Izumi's right arm, "that needs to be looked after."

Izumi flipped her focus from the wounded arm to the man whose hands sunk firmly into his pockets. She snorted and shook her head, "You went from bitching me out to offering aid pretty fast."

Mustang shrugged – the longer he kept Izumi around, the better chance he had of getting answers, "I'm a really a nice guy."

The alchemy teacher frowned, rolling her shoulders and gingerly rubbing the sore arm, "Do you say that to all the girls?"


Izumi rolled her eyes, "I'll remember to tell my husband to kick your ass."

Ed put his cheek down onto the cold stone floor and his eyes again scanned the level of the floor – was it flat from this angle? Did it slope? Did it have hills? Did it dip in the centre? If water were spilt on the floor, which direction would it drain? It could have all been important.

By this point in their day, Edward and Winry had mapped out the transmutation circle and the Thule Hall down to the depth of the grooves dug into the stone.

Ed shook his head to finish off a conversation that had been going on for some time, "Naw, I only opened a Russian dictionary so I could try and read Tsiolkovsky's work."

"But you never went?" Winry flipped her pencil and took an eraser to her sheet.

"Hell no," he wrinkled his nose at the suggestion, "after the Romanovs were killed, that country had more issues than Germany… didn't need to deal with that."

Winry took a few steps forward, opening her mouth to speak, but her words, motions, and actions suddenly froze like her world had been paused. Edward watched her stop and chilled over as well. Neither spoke, neither moved – both of them listening… hearing the sound of the hall's ground-level entry door creak and crack open. A rush of winter air flooded down the stairwell and blew into the hall; neither body moved nor breathed. They both waited with pounding hearts, listening for a footstep or a voice.

The ground level door slammed shut.

Ed burst to his feet, sweeping his spreads of notes into the shoulder bag they'd brought, Winry doing the same. The sound of footsteps from the intruder made their way down slowly, casually, and uninterested. In a flurry motion, the bag was thrown over his shoulder and Ed rushed to grab Winry as she tossed her notepad and loose sheets into her own shoulder bag. With a yank on her arm, Ed brought her to the edge of the transmutation circle closest to the exit and they turned to face the wretched symbol – their backs to the hall entrance.

They had not wanted to be interrupted; Ed was hoping to high hell that they would not get interrupted. He was so close to getting this finished, why couldn't he have had another thirty minutes of peace? At least there was a plan to deal with this and Ed took a deep breath. Winry glanced nervously to him and they stood, facing the centre of the room, waiting for the visitor to arrive.

Footsteps slowed and echoed clearly as the final few steps into the lower floor came to pass. Ed turned over his shoulder casually, watching as the moving feet and legs belonging to the footsteps came into view.

"Hello?" Ed called out in German.

"Good afternoon," was the German answer. Like he'd ducked under a curtain, Rudolf Hess dipped his head as he slipped into the light falling in from overhead, "what in the world are you doing here, Edward?"

Of all the people Ed had not wanted to encounter – he could see the subtle insert of Nazi propaganda coming from miles away and Edward had pretty much had enough of it. Despite that, Ed's response was deliberately slow and casual, "Winry and I came by to pay some respects," he answered.

Hess gave Ed an odd glance for his answer, "That's surprising. I didn't think you were the type."

"It was Winry's idea."

"Ah," the visitor nodded and the answer became acceptable. Hess moved forwards, coming to stand next to Winry's open side and he looked down at the girl hopelessly lost in the German conversation. When she didn't even acknowledge his presence, Hess reached out and swept away the hair that framed her face, ringing a finger around Winry's ear and tucking her hair behind it. He mused over the frown she gave him and the appearance of Ed's hand firmly on her shoulder.

"How'd you two get in?" he asked.

"I still have dad's keys," Ed glanced down to his pocket, "What are you doing here? Aren't classes in until three or something?"

The man gave a nod, "I normally have class until three, yes…" Hess took a hefty breath and gave a forceful sigh, "but I've been out since my first class finished; business and things to tend to. It's been a long and boring day."

Any fledgling thought Ed had about dotting the Is and crossing his Ts on the Thule Hall map was erased – Hess would probably be here for a while. Ed mentally filed away their day's task and decided it was time to leave.

"What's that?" Hess raised an eyebrow at the white markings drawn on the floor.

Ed looked at the transmutation circle he'd drawn with white chalk and his thoughts seized up on him. He'd completely glazed over his circle even being there and suddenly found himself floundering for an excuse, "I… Dad enjoyed alchemy…" Ed began, "that was something I learnt from one of his books when I was a kid. Kind of a uh…" Ed's mouth went dry. Shit.

Hess saved Ed from his failed recovery, laughing and shooting him a grin, "I learn something new about you each time we meet. You're far more sentimental than I'd pictured you, Edward."

"Yeah…" Ed glanced away; sure, whatever satisfied Hess was fine with him, "Um, I'll find a broom or something to clean that up. Sorry."

"No, don't worry about it," Hess waved his hand dismissively, "I haven't done anything all day, I can take care of it for you."

Ed brow rose at the statement, "Thought you'd been dealing with business all day?"

"I have," Hess nodded, slipping his hands into his pockets, "I've been upstairs all day… waiting for whenever you decided to come up."

The room somehow managed to turn white to Edward's eyes, and all he reacted with was a lengthy blank stare, the darkly dressed silhouette carving into his mind amidst the bleached imagery. Ed had never experienced a more simply spoken statement that had turned the dynamics of his heartbeat, lungs, and stomach inside out so quickly.

"So it seems you've spent quite some time paying your respects," the words came out as smooth as running water, "it makes me wonder what you were actually doing."

There weren't too many times in his life where Ed had wanted to completely abandon an engagement and run, but this was one of them. Rudolf Hess unnerved Ed in a way Adolf Hitler could not – Hitler was proud, controlling, abrupt, and abrasive; when Hess wanted to be, he was powerful, stern, cold and calculating. Ed had seen this man kill without the slightest flinch more than once.

"Why the hell have you been waiting for me? How'd you know I was even here?"

"We've been observing you since your father died."

Ed swallowed the answer slowly. His arm secured around Winry's shoulder and Ed slowly pulled her away, "What for?"

"Curiosity," the man gave a shrug. Hess turned away from where Ed and Winry stood, slowly walking along the precipice of the light within the hall. His hands sat in his pockets, posture casual, interest in them appearing aloof. Each step he took through the hall sent ripples through the air, "I've been told you've been here since quarter to nine, what have you been doing?"

A hesitant pause came through in Ed's voice, "You've been observing us…" something snapped in the back of Edward's mind at a sickening realization and Ed's left arm unlatched from Winry as he took a step forward, his pointed finger flailing about. "You knew who attacked us… you've known all along! You fucking asshole, you've known who's attacked us the whole goddamn time and you played me at the Haushofers!" The ire in Ed's voice rose and the calm conversation came to an end, "Were the Haushofers in on it too? Were you all in on this for shits and giggles to see how I'd take it?"

"No, the Haushofers don't know," Hess shook his head, his words remaining flat and stoic in behind Edward's rancid outbursts, "but I am glad they listened to me when I suggested they retrieve you for your birthday and I'm glad you stayed with them when it was suggested, because your alchemy materials were catalogued over the nights you stayed," the man gave a moment of silence, deliberately allowing Edward's raging storm to flare; the look in the older Elric brother's gaze was incorrigible.

The daylight from above crashing in heavily from overhead as Hess's hand slipped behind the front fold of his jacket and produced the thick, leather bound book Hohenheim had written out for the Theory Beyond the Gate.

"Everything your father and you kept in that house, tucked away in shelves, shovelled into drawers or hidden under the couch was all carefully documented. I had this collected while you've been out today and I've been reading it while I've waited. But, for everything else, we did our best to be as unnoticeable in the house as possible. If we did leave anything slightly astray, you had been too out of sorts at the time to notice," from behind sealed lips, the man's tongue ran along his teeth, watching how the presentation of the book unnerved Edward further. Hess' footsteps came to a stop and he looked pointedly at the pair, "In fact, you had so much information I needed to send you away to that concert because there were a few things we wanted to double check." The book was rattled in Hess's hand.

The chilled air of the underground domain surged through Edward's lungs; if he had two good hands to rip this man to shreds with… "You people had no right to go through our house!"

"You have no right to that house," Hess's words continued to be firm and unwavering, "You have no rights in this land what so ever. You aren't German, you aren't even British, you are nothing to this world," there was finally a show of interest and a spark of life in Hess's words, and with weak joviality, he nearly smiled at Ed, "You are something called the FullMetal

Alchemist, who has no right and no claim to anything in this world."

What Edward Elric wouldn't have given to be able to burst at the seams and show this other-world man exactly what it meant to be the FullMetal Alchemist, because he obviously did not understand.

"You are a liar, a snake, a magician, and above all else: you are a sinner. As I have come to understand it, you have committed acts so astoundingly vile that I can't even begin to fathom what punishment still awaits you," Hess's words rolled off his tongue with a touch of revolt, "and this 'manuscript' further exemplifies the depths of your family's greedy, sinful desires."

The longer Hess spoke, the more Edward became aware that the amount of danger being forced down his throat was unfathomable. His heart thundered in his chest; they needed to leave – now.

In one quick sweep of his arm, Ed secured Winry's hand and began a hasty march away from the circle, out of the sunlit hall and towards the blackened exit; even the thought of attempting to retrieve his father's book from Hess wasn't entertained. Staying in the hall, with those kinds of words flying around, couldn't possibly be worth it, "I'll save you the effort of kicking us out."

Edward's eyes looked ahead to the darkened stairwell that even the sunlight couldn't reach. As his footsteps stormed along the cold floor, the dark shadows hiding in the stairwell moved. Ed's grip around Winry's hand tightened and his next steps retreated backwards; watching as the darkest points of the shadows swayed and rose, breathing like they wanted to be human. The darkness developed slow footsteps that echoed with strength and echoed with a voice that spoke with crass hate and malicious amusement, "Before you encounter the company we have waiting for the two of you upstairs, could you tell us about the FullMetal Alchemist… in your own words?"

Ed took another step back into the room, securing Winry behind himself, watching Adolf emerge from behind his dark veil in the stairwell, "He's retired."

Hess began a slowly paced circle around the outer most portions of the room, his footsteps clapping down like the powerful pendulum in a grandfather clock.

"A simple answer," Adolf nodded, sweeping each step he made towards them emphatically, "Now, would you recount for us the circumstances that you've shared to everyone here in Germany, and 'home' in London, regarding the cost of your arm and leg? So we may all hear it in your own words."

"I…" Ed's voice vanished as he stared horrified at the very first lie he'd had to take on to exist beyond the Gate. He saw the cataclysm coming and had no idea how to free himself from it, because Envy had undoubtedly told Adolf the truth. His grip on Winry's hand tightened, "You asshole."

Adolf's voice exploded, bursting like he carried the power to blow the stone walls out of the earth, "You lost them attempting to resurrect your family and you failed! You defied God: you attempted to take something from him that was no longer yours. You were greedy and selfish; a stupid child. While you served your ultimate punishment here, to hide all those perverse sins you had the nerve to tell any and every ear that would listen that you lost them in an air raid – a German air raid on the streets of London!" the man's arms flew out to his side, each movement of his body and point of his fingers emphasized by a snap in his body, "You dared to place blame on Germany to hide your true filth? God punished you and now you tell people that you are not at fault? You have people believe that we Germans are at fault for your decrepit form?"

Ed felt the free fingers of Winry's other hand curl deep into the fabric at the back of his coat, his hand still held tight, and Ed took a heavy breath – how was he supposed to get out of this? His heart raced madly, "I've never told anyone I wasn't at fault for that and I've never blamed anyone but myself for my arm or leg. Putting a wrinkle to your glorious German rise wasn't something I was doing."

"But you still let every man believe that an innocent German pilot was responsible for you. Every time a person looked at you with undeserved pity, you let this nation shoulder the blame to hide your sins," Adolf's words boomed in his chest, "Shameful cowardice seems to be one of your many detrimental companions."

Edward's jaw clenched, trying to take some solace from the hand that rubbed in between his shoulder blades, trying to keep him calm. Winry had no idea what this ragingly loud German conversation was about, but Edward had quite enough of this world's verbal bullshit.

His voice began to rise.

"Your country has killed millions of people. They went to war. They shot them in cold blood. They threw bombs and killed more," each sentence spoken drove Edward's voice a notch higher and his enunciation that much stronger, "This world created gasses that killed people slowly – you let people suffer to death. You tortured them. You flew in from the sky and killed innocent people without seeing their faces, and once the ammunition was gone the planes fled like cowards. Everyone on both sides, not just Germany, but everyone terrorized everyone else and when it was all done there were four million… four million people dead. FOR WHAT? What could you have possibly gained from four million deaths?" the inability to comprehend the world and the rage Edward felt for it echoed in the dome of the hall, "you kill people in droves because they aren't who and what you like! This world is nothing but death and you do it to yourselves. Why aren't you the coward? Why isn't everyone in Europe a sinful coward?"

A question posed for the entire world beyond that no one besides their non-existent God could answer.

Adolf's response came out sounding absolute, "It is the British and the French who are the sinful cowards, Edward Elric; both nations are run by the Jews. You have to fight a coward with coward's means."

Edward's jaw dropped, "You are fucking crazy."

Rolling his eyes, Adolf straightened his jacket with a sharp tug, "As your carcass has been deposited on our soil and your sorry existence has been brought in front of my eyes to clearly be seen, the ongoing sentence delivered to you from a world beyond shall continue to be administered at my discretion," his brow rose as his gaze strengthened with a thought, "we have established that you have no right to valuables or wealth from this land, so I will allow Envy the opportunity to see you lose everything."

Edward's eyes widened at the proclamation. As he searched the man's words for understanding, Edward's heart stopped when he realized he'd lost the location of Hess in the scene. Ed didn't use the moment he needed to place him, he didn't take the seconds needed to fully comprehend what Adolf had meant, and he didn't waste the time needed to determine the severity of everything. While Adolf Hitler stood unmoving before him, Edward Elric choked on his own breath and he spun on his toes, capturing Winry as she shrieked at the sound of two gunshots that burst deafeningly within the confines of the stone hall.

Crying hadn't been something Alphonse had expected to do.

The Gate was quiet again, so was Diana, and more or less so was he. The status quo of the Gate before Izumi had arrived had been reset, though Alphonse certainly didn't feel status quo, but the situation around him was.

The little Elric had cried for hours; just curled up on his side like a distraught young child. He wasn't in any physical pain, or excruciating circumstance, he just simply wanted to cry for so many things so badly… it felt like he hadn't cried in years.

When Alphonse had been in Rizembool with Izumi, Winry, Pinako, and everyone, he'd been told by Izumi that his memories had been part of the sacrifice Edward had used to bring him back.

That wasn't entirely right.

It hadn't been that Alphonse's memory had been sacrificed, it was what Ed had left out of the transmutation he executed to reclaim his brother.

Al had sacrificed himself first to save his brother's life and then Ed did the same to reclaim him. However, with the resurrection of Alphonse Elric, the transmutation had been a fundamentally incomplete process. While Al had been the Philosopher's Stone, Dante had instructed Gluttony to devour a portion of his metal body, because within Gluttony's stomach the Philosopher's Stone would crystallize. Since he'd been partially eaten, Al himself hadn't been whole when he'd vanished trying to transmute his brother, and the fact he had been the Philosopher's Stone drastically skewed his essential makeup. So when Edward had tried to bring his younger brother back through human transmutation, Ed had the formula complete, and everything was right, it was just the Gate didn't have enough material for Edward to wholly recreate his younger brother, because a portion of Al's existence remained attached to the Philosopher's Stone in Gluttony's stomach. Rather than leaving out an arm or a leg from the equation, Ed offered a chunk of Al's memory to make up for the deficiency. Memory carried more weight than physical form, so the Gate willingly accepted the deal and allowed Alphonse to be restored at his eleven-year-old state.

Now, that crystallizing chunk of his metallic Philosopher's Stone body – extracted from Gluttony's perishing form – was within Aisa. The moment Alphonse touched her he'd known it was there; he'd known instantly that it was Aisa's body now, infused with these Red Stones to preserve her flesh and human state, that was being used to continue the agonizingly slow process of crystallizing the Philosopher's Stone Gluttony had eaten. The wary feeling he'd perceived from Aisa as they stood at the Gate was a culmination of the emotional sense that missing five years of his life had been – a life that had been preserved as an imprint within the remaining Philosopher's Stone Al had once become.

Because of that, Alphonse Elric reclaimed every memory once he'd touched Aisa.

Being so close to the mouth of the Gate, the pinnacle point where all sacrifices are negotiated, a window had opened for Al to reach into and the boy ripped out his missing memories of from his imprint on the stone inside of Aisa. The reclamation of his memories had actually been easy, if not terribly uncomfortable.

Al had gotten something back for nothing, a lot of something: five years worth of memories. He'd completely bypassed the laws of Equivalent Exchange and the rules of the Gate. He hadn't used the Philosopher's Stone to take something; he'd taken something from the Philosopher's Stone itself.

Al spent the next several hours in tears on the ground – he'd been 'alive' for the last nine months, but from the perspective of the suit of armour he had just woken up. Al didn't have any one particular thing he was crying over, just a number of different things that made up to one big thing that was five years of his life and nine months of memory-less frustrations.

If Alphonse could look at himself as two different people, he could see the joy from the memory-less boy getting his memories back and also the sadness of what the whole of those memories were. He understood a little better why his family had been so reluctant to tell him so much of this information. From the boy who'd been armour for so long, he wanted to scream with joy or pass out from exhaustion. Every fear he'd had, even the lingering thoughts that Barry the Chopper had put into him, they had all been abolished because now Al was existing again as flesh and blood. He'd been actualized. The feeling of actualization was one of the things Al cried over – it was such a relief to feel free from the insecurities of the armour's inhumanity. Now, he wanted to do so much. He'd been doing things for nine months already, but Al's missing memories wanted to feel like they were now finally part of the process of sleeping, eating, drinking, showering, brushing his teeth, dressing, undressing… oh he could do that!

In a flash, Alphonse had himself undressed and twisting around in all sorts of ways to show his lost memories what it was like to be restricted by flesh and bone again and to know what it was like to move and not make a sound. The limitations of muscles and ligaments were nice to feel - he could stretch and feel the pull. The sight of his wiggling toes was fun to see. The general understanding over how his own human body looked, felt, and moved was wondrous to experience. Alphonse threw his clothes back on, savouring the feeling of how his head just popped through his t-shirt and his hair puffed up because of it.

Of all the things the little Elric wanted to accomplish, first and foremost he wanted to find a way to get his stupid older brother back, which was still the exact same plan as it had always been, he was just acutely aware of the whole situation now. He couldn't exactly scold Ed for sacrificing himself – Al had done it first, but he hadn't brought Ed back just so he could go and literally throw away his life! Brigitte even described Ed without a normal right arm or left leg, what the heck did he do with them? Scolding Ed for performing a human transmutation was hypocritical given their track record, but he wanted to give his older brother a good shot to the head for it anyways.

Al let himself fall back onto the ground and lay about, wishing the surface area of the Gate had some kind of texture to it, or sensation – hot, cold, pebbled, rough, smooth, something… really it had nothing.

Neither set of his memories did Al any good for his current situation at the Gate. Nowhere in the extra five years of his life did Al have any information about what the heck he was supposed to do about this situation. He was still stuck at the Gate with no idea how to get out of the situation and he suddenly worried about Diana's after the thrashing the Gate had given her as it tried to break her hold. The poor child was certainly the most innocent victim of them all.

Another string of questions struck Alphonse out of the blue and the new golden eyes looked around with concern. From the right shoulder he laid on, Al rolled to his stomach. He shuffled a twitch through his face before coming to the abrupt realization that his cheek, pressed into the sensation-less surface of the Gate's void space, could feel the surface!

Al picked his head up, pulling his face off the ground with a strange slurp.

A dark sludge, the deep red colour of blood, flowed from the base of the Gate and filled the clear space where Al had laid. The young Elric looked down at himself – the slick had stained his face, his hair, his hands, and his clothes. Al stood up, watching the liquid slowly fill in the space he'd laid, a sick feeling catching in his throat while he looked on. Brushing his hands off on his pants, Al walked through the mess, looking back at the impressions his shoe prints left before they smoothed away. He stopped nearly nose to nose with the black Gate and looked up to Diana; she lay silent.

Al crouched down to his knees again and skimmed his fingers through the liquid. It smelt like blood, and yes, when he put a dab down on his tongue, it tasted like blood. With a deep breath, Al put his hands down to the surface again and slipped them along the ground, pushing into the heavier resistance he felt beyond the Gate. When he cupped his hands, Alphonse successfully pulled a light swell of the red substance back to his side.

"Okay, so it's on both sides," Al sat back on his knees and looked up to the towering structure. There was no rumble that seemed to be forthcoming… not like last time – just the running of blood and silence. It was a lot of blood too; how many people would need to have died to create an expanding, shallow lake on both sides of this Gate? The number Al dreamt up was astounding and the thought made him queasy.

When Al picked his attention up from the substance spreading out around him, his eyes widened and he sat back, focus trained at the front of the Gate. An impression began to show in the black tar – it protruded towards him, like a stamp being pushed in from the other side. Amidst the overwhelming silence at the mouth of the Gate, Alphonse watched the impression strengthen in spots and begin to unevenly develop form. Shaking himself from the stupor of witnessing any substantial activity within the Gate, Al stood up again and stepped away to get a clearer look at the imprint.

Alphonse's heart raced the further back he stepped and the stronger the imprint became – he knew this image.

The youngest Elric brother soon stopped moving and stood silently, the bloody residue on his hands dripping from the tips of his fingers as he watched the scene unfold, his posture more rigid than the Gate had been at any point in time. The impression wasn't as big as the Gate, it might have only been the size of his arm span, but the longer Alphonse watched, the clearer the image became. He finally shook off his hands, wiping them on his shirt, eyes never leaving the activity of the black Gate. Breaths sounded heavier, eyes grew wider, his shoulders became tighter, and Alphonse Elric watched the impression of his brother's transmutation circle become clearly stamped into the black surface of the Gate's opened doors.

To Be Continued…

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