(RIP my dear, beastly, full-screen, matte finish laptop. Everything I have ever written was typed up on you, so you helped me produce much fanfiction in your lifetime. I will miss you. Thanks for not corrupting any of my files when you died… because this chapter, and probably this whole freaking story, would have taken a lot longer if you had. I really appreciated that. Luvs, Yuuki.
Mental note: Backup everything, everywhere, all the time!)
Part XLI - Chapter 92 – From Sunset to Horizon
A chapter for Alphonse Elric.
Something in Al's mind's eye snapped, like the flash from a bolt of lightning, and the young Elric woke up with a start. With free arms swinging and legs swimming beneath bed sheets, Al threw himself upright and his wide eyes were quickly staring into three surprised female faces he didn't recognize.
In the middle of an unknown situation, Alphonse froze.
Where was this! Al's eyes darted around like a startled animal – he was in a large bed, in a room with dimmed lights, furniture, equipment of some kind, wearing plain clothes that weren't his, and in the company of people he couldn't identify. When the boy's eyes snapped to the table covered in equipment and he realized it was medical – instruments and needles and who knows what else – Al's concerns grew by a tenfold. One of the women approached him and Alphonse kicked the sheets off, scrambled along his backside over the mattress, and he thumped his back against the headboard.
"Alphonse, it's okay."
Somebody had spoken to him and Al hadn't listened her – who were these people? What had they been doing to him? How long had he been here like this?
The last place Al remembered being was Dante's ballroom and those memories were fairly unclear. Quick whispers happened between the women, and Al watched with terrified concern as the nurse standing furthest from him picked up a syringe. For a moment, the entire room was encased in ice, frozen in time, and then the two closest nurses bolted forwards to catch Al. What none of them had been prepared for – not even Al – was how the younger Elric brother quickly clapped his hands and the brilliant blue alchemical sparks sent the women scrambling away. Without a moment's hesitation, Al escaped through the hole he'd made in the wall.
Barefoot and in a white shirt and grey shorts, Al stumbled into a hall, staggering on his feet before coming to a stop. Closed doors filled the dim hallway Al stood in, but there was a lit stairwell at the very end and the moment Al recognized the escape route he sprinted towards it.
"ALPHONSE!" One of the women burst into the hall after him.
Al's head lowered and the boy's feet pounded on the wooden floor as he ran.
"Somebody stop him!"
Al's arms flew out to his sides when a door swung open ahead of him. Like he'd seen his older brother do a thousand times before, the younger brother put his palms together again. A body emerged swiftly from the room before Al could even think up a transmutation to perform and it had only taken seconds before Alphonse had his arms forcefully thrown apart amidst useless blue sparks and a second arm jerked up under his chin. The young Elric's legs flew out from beneath his body and Al was flat on his back before he could take his next breath; a much more foreboding presence than any of the three women was pinning him down.
"Since when could you do that!" the looming body growled, a heavy knee came down on Al's chest and two strong hands held his wrists far apart.
Al's eyes flew wide to engulf the figure pinning him to the floor, "Mustang!"
Mustang's gaze shot into the hall as he heard the scampering of women's slippers along the floorboards, "Where's the goddamn tranquilizer?"
"WHAT!" Alphonse shrieked, jerking his body beneath the knee Mustang had on his chest, unable to break from the hands securing his wrists. Al's voice tore out again when two of the women hit the floor next to him and pinned his thrashing legs, "No. NO! My brother and Winry are in trouble! Let me go! I have to get back to the Gate and help them."
The last woman – the one with the needle – arrived at the scene and her knees thumped on the wooden floorboards next to Al's head. The panic rushing through Alphonse was overwhelming and it peaked when one of her cold hands grabbed his wrist.
"NO! They're at the Gate!" all he could do was scream, "You don't understand what happened! Ed and Winry are at the Gate, I don't know if they've come through! We have to save them!"
Mustang's left hand snatched the wrist of the woman readying a needle destined for Alphonse's arm. To everyone's surprise, and Al's overwhelming relief, Mustang held the woman's arm away.
"I got them to the Gate…" the boy breathed.
Al's chest surged with frantic breaths and a pounding heart despite the pressure of Mustang's hold on him. The darkened hallway slowly lit as more doors opened and bleary eyed men and women poked their heads into the hall to see the commotion. Al wasn't allowed to let his eyes drift away long enough to pick out a recognizable face in the crowd; Mustang snatched Al's chin and the boy found himself nose to nose with the officer's interrogative stare. The younger Elric brother stared right back at him, slowly adding a scowl to the look.
Mustang's only eye narrowed for a brief moment, "Let him go."
"Let him go!"
All the hands that pinned Al down released him, but Mustang made sure the knee he had on Al's chest came off last.
"All of you go back to bed," Mustang ordered the lingering eyes out of the hall, "I need you rested, not gawking at nothing."
Slowly, Al sat up amidst the sounds of voices grumbling, doors shutting, and one prominent sound of bare feet walking towards him. Al rubbed his wrists and looked up when an exhausted-looking Lieutenant Havoc walked up next to him, then bent down and picked Al up, putting the boy down on his feet.
"You seem lucid enough," Havoc patted Al on the back, "one outta three ain't bad. Don't need you going postal on us too; Ed was enough of a handful."
It had been an incidental statement and spoken carelessly, but Havoc's words numbed Alphonse's body from toes to fingertips. To the new golden eyes, the entire room vanished and all that remained were the people who could offer words that mattered – Mustang and Havoc. The youngest child of a broken family that had fought so hard to regain what was left to them stood silently for eternal seconds before a painfully exhausted but gleefully excited sound came out in his voice.
"My brother's here?"
If someone had initially answered the question, Al hadn't heard it; the boy's own statement repeated itself over and over in his head until it was no longer a question, but an overwhelming statement of fact. Havoc's few words were definite and concrete; 'Ed' was spoken in present, current tense.
His brother was there.
"Ed is here," Mustang's words found their way into Al's ears, "and Winry."
"He did it…" Al felt a tingling wave sweep through his body as feeling returned and the younger brother's knees suddenly seemed weak.
His brother was home. Edward Elric was home.
They did it.
Al's heart was ready to burst at how fast it was moving.
Yet, even as the overwhelming joy swelled up, a flood of panic swept in and it replaced his euphoria with concern. Al had left his brother behind at the Gate and he had no idea how much time had passed since then nor did he know what had happened to get them both home.
Al refocused his thoughts and shot verbal bullets at Mustang, "Is my brother okay? Where is he?"
Both Mustang and Havoc exchanged glances.
The concern in Al's voice rose when no one responded, "Where is he? Is my brother okay? I want to see him! And Winry!" the words kept stampeding from his mouth the longer the two officers stayed silent, "Is Winry okay? Are they both okay?"
Mustang cleared his throat and stepped forwards, "Edward and Winry are in the rooms behind us," the man's hands came down to Al's shoulders, stopping any sudden movements the young Elric might make, "but they're sedated and they're staying that way for now."
The statement brought so many of Alphonse's questions and emotions to a standstill. Al looked between the two officer's faces, trying to translate the stern look on Mustang's face and relate it to the restrained concern Havoc was showing, "Why?"
"We'll discuss that later…" Mustang began.
"No!" Al sharply looked to the higher ranking officer, trying to step back, "We'll discuss my brother now!"
"I need answers, Alphonse," Mustang's voice grew harsh and deepened as his grip on Al's shoulders tightened.
"Me too!" Al hands clenched fiercely at his sides, "I don't know what kind of answers you need, but mine will all come after I see my brother!"
Stern, stubborn words shut down the actions of all parties in the hall. Curious ears that still tried to listen from their partially opened doors didn't move while the new golden eyes fighting with sword and shield did not back down. If it had been any other person, any other child, boy, or young man, Mustang would never have given in. After a few moments of hesitation and a few more full of careful thought, Mustang's shoulders fell reluctantly.
Al would get his wish.
It was the middle of the night after a ghastly hot summer's day. While the sun was absent, windows and curtains were open wide to allow the cooler evening air free entrance into the rooms. A fan hummed along near the window of this particular room to spread a weak draft around – it was a valiant effort that didn't do a whole lot of good.
Alphonse's fingers touched a purple and blue cheek with five black stitches in it and Al again brushed away the golden blonde hair that shielded his brother's face and stuck to his sweat-dampened forehead. The younger brother just couldn't help himself – Al continued to stare at this person lying in the bed; it was almost unreal. Over and over Al told himself this was his older brother, but it just wasn't sinking in. It wasn't quite disbelief, Al wouldn't go so far as to say that, it was simply surprise and shock.
For yearshe had looked the same: Edward Elric was short, he was nimble, he was strong, and he wore AutoMail – Al's older brother matured mentally during their adventures, but not physically. But this man…
Ed's head lulled to the side, his hair spilling over the pillow, resting on the cheek that wasn't sewn together, with his eyes lightly closed and a sliver of space between his lips for air. This face was obviously the face of Edward Elric, but it was different and Al had to touch it to convince himself whom he was looking at. Ed's face had been moulded, trimmed and defined with lines, then set like some pottery master had gotten a hold of him. His brother's shirt was off and Al could see the marks on his chest where AutoMail anchors had left scars. Strangely, they weren't in the same locations; Al had seen his brother's body dressed in AutoMail for years, but these scars were in different locations from the points on his body where Aunt Pinako and Winry had once installed everything. Al followed the flesh right arm down his brother's body – both his brother's arms were atop the dark green sheet that was across his chest. Al reached out and picked up the bandaged right hand and pressed it between his two palms. Al's eyes examined his brother's body beneath the sheets – Ed filled the bed! Ed never filled a bed; he was tiny and compact like a cat, and no matter how hard he tried or attempted to sprawl out, Edward Elric was never big enough to fill a bed from head to foot.
'This' brother was the most astonishing thing Al had come upon in ages and even the twenty minutes he'd spent standing there in silence wasn't enough time to fully connect his 'old brother' to the new one. Every time Al tried to cement this person into his mind, the younger brother felt a twinge of disappointment – he'd missed seeing his brother 'grow up'.
"Why did you drug him?" Al asked.
"Ed has been suffering from the effects of alchemical shock," Mustang's statement gripped Al tightly enough that the boy pulled his focus off of his brother and gave it to the officer, "both Edward and Winry were, so we're giving them enough time to come out of it. It's too much stress on the body not to sedate them."
Each breath Al took sucked in a million questions, each exhale he gave let out only a few answers. Al had no doubt the rebound transmutation he'd initiated was what caused the alchemical shock; it was a short term mental 'short-circuit' that could hit someone after surviving a rebound. Alphonse could understand and accept the fact his brother was recovering from this, but why in the world had Winry been with his brother in the first place? And why had she been shot? Who'd shot her? Wasn't Winry supposed to have been kidnapped by Dante?
The questions Alphonse had continued to mount – how old was his brother now? How long had he been gone? What had been happening beyond the Gate? What had his brother done to get them through the doors? The Gate hadn't just refused to let Al bring his brother and Winry home… it was more than that. It was so much more than that and Al couldn't begin to find the words to explain it. The youngest Elric found it frustrating that he had clearly understood so many of the Gate's messages while he'd had his hands inside of it, but he had no way of verbalizing most of it. Al was still trying to find a way to explain why the Gate had adamantly refused to let him bring his brother all the way home – Al knew the answer, he just couldn't explain it.
"Do you know what Dante's done to him?" Mustang's voice finally re-entered the boy's thoughts.
Al straightened up with surprise, "Pardon?"
Stepping away from the wall, Mustang's arms folded and he stopped when his knees touched the foot of Edward's bed, "We didn't know what was wrong when we found you three, so I had the doctor conduct examinations when you arrived. Other than what we could immediately see and tend to, they found a number of old wounds and aged bruising on Ed. I'd like to know what Dante's done to him and how long she's had him."
Al blinked and looked to the wound on his brother's face and then to the one on his hand, "When I saw him beyond the Gate, he had the cut on his face already…" the cleanly bandaged right hand was still captured in the boy's two smaller hands and went unmentioned, "a-and Winry'd been shot beyond the Gate… so, if the injuries are older than that, then they happened on the other side. Dante didn't do any of that to them."
Alphonse hadn't realized the air in a room could get thick so quickly.
"… Winry?" Mustang questioned.
Slowly, gingerly, carefully, Al began rubbing the limp hand between his hands; the facts made him angry, "Winry was beyond the Gate."
The abhorred sound that Mustang choked out from his throat made Alphonse's angered feelings inexplicably worse, "She was where?"
"Dante must have done it… but I don't know when," Al didn't realize he could despise any one person as much as he despised Dante right then and there. The boy pulled his lower lip into his teeth as his head began to shake, realizing that Mustang must have thought that Dante was responsible for the injuries that they'd suffered, "is Winry okay?"
"Yes," Mustang's head slowly nodded, "the bullets were removed and her wounds were cleaned and tended to."
Al's brow tightened profusely as the boy looked down at his brother sleeping soundly.
"Alphonse…" Mustang turned his focus onto another issue, "Brigitte described Edward in her drawings as someone who was missing an arm and leg—"
"I got them back," the absolute authority in Alphonse's admission silenced Mustang and the younger brother put down his older brother's unresponsive hand, "I brought my brother and Winry home and I made sure that when my brother arrived at the Gate he would have them back."
Because Alphonse Elric had made a promise years ago to get his brother's limbs back.
Al turned his palms up at himself and looked into the story they had to tell, "When I reached into the Gate, my brother and Winry were standing on the transmutation circle Brigitte had taken pictures of. I realized if I activated it, I could use the rebound to bring them home," Al glanced away in thought, trying to figure out how best to explain things trapped mostly in feelings, emotions, and understandings, "and when I reached into the Gate, I found that there is an energy stream that flows from the other world to ours… it's where the power that we use to perform alchemy comes from. Brigitte's rebound circle would deconstruct them into that energy and send them into the stream towards the Gate, but the Gate isn't designed to process so much information, so they needed to be extracted before reaching the doors," Alphonse looked up at Mustang and took a breath that made so many other actions in his life feel insignificant, "for the mind, body, and soul, the soul is the thing that binds everything together… it makes you a person. So after I started the circle, I picked out their souls as they came to the Gate and pulled the rest of them together, using the souls like magnets. It was easy to do at the Gate and everything that was 'Edward Elric' and 'Winry Rockbell' was drawn together, including my brother's arm and leg – the Gate was forced to give those up as part of the process. It would have choked on their materials if it hadn't."
Deep down, someday Al would acknowledge the perverse pleasure he'd taken in forcing the Gate to sacrifice something it had so rudely taken away from his brother.
Alphonse stood in the wee hours of the morning before the sun had begun peeking out from beyond the horizon, staring at a man who looked so firm, so steadfast, and so completely overwhelmed by the information he'd been given. Silence devoured the pair, Mustang offering nothing to further Alphonse's statement, simply standing and staring, trying to comprehend the mountain of details Alphonse had given out in such a short span of time.
"I brought them to the Gate doors and then it was up to my brother to continue on home from there," Al's open palms closed, his fists clenching, knuckles turning white the harder he held on, "and now they're home and safe."
An uncertain pause preceded Mustang's response, "It's beyond commendable." The man's praise sounded distant and withdrawn, like the officer had spoken because he'd felt he had to, but honestly didn't know what he should really say. Mustang stepped away, his arms stiffly folded across his chest, and he made his way out of the room, "Come downstairs and see me when you have a chance."
Sometime in the hours after sunrise, during a surreal morning where Alphonse's family lay asleep in the care of the man who'd enabled so much of their journey, the younger brother glanced around a room Roy Mustang had taken him into.
"This is what we found with you, Ed, and Winry," Mustang walked deep into a room full of tables littered with unrecognizable things, his index finger directing Al's attention around the menagerie, "their clothes, your clothes, their bags, the contents of their bags, whatever was on the floor, anything that had blood on it…"
Al walked through the room slowly, his attention sliding away from the bloody scarf to the scattering of tools and then over to a heavy brown overcoat and a heap of clothes. Next to the pile of clothing was a table covered in crumpled white paper as well as two empty sacks. Al approached that table first and picked up a few of the top sheets of paper, his eyes dissecting what he read. This was his brother's writing – words printed in the nearly unreadable scribble of Ed's left hand. But Ed's alchemy was always legible; it had to be, alchemy was too important to him to be sloppy, and alongside the mess of Edward's printing were strings upon strings of alchemical theory that piggybacked off of one of many depictions of Brigitte's rebound circle.
"Brother was trying to find a way home…" Al narrowed his eyes at the sheet, "he was taking the diagram and the room… and thinking if he could alter something then maybe he could make this work," the younger brother's shoulders fell as the sheets were lowered. Alphonse swallowed a hopeless feeling that invaded his throat at the idea that returning home had become so impossible that his brother would actually study something like this.
A familiar sound of chain links came into Al's ears and atop the pile of papers from Ed and Winry's adventure Mustang lowered a nostalgic silver watch.
"It was in your brother's coat pocket."
Carefully Al picked it up, cradling it in his hand. The watch was pristine – kept nicely polished and cleaned through every crevice on the device and it looked like it had managed to withstand the wild ride home. Alphonse popped open the lid with the pinch of his thumb. The younger brother had to scramble to get his hands over the table as shards of glass spilled out from the watch. Standing like the rest of the watch might fall apart in his grasp Al waited and watched as the shards glass once protecting the hands of time finished falling away. The second hand continued to tick around the clock face despite the broken shield; the watch hadn't stopped.
"What time is it?" Alphonse asked, shaking out his hands and looking to Mustang who produced a brush and dustpan to sweep the glass into.
"It's eight thirty in the morning."
The hands on Ed's otherworld watch read ten after two. With the shake of his wrist, Al discarded the remaining specks of glass into the dustpan and snapped the lid shut. Al glanced around the tables covered with mystery pieces of an unfathomable story; everything was tagged, labelled, and sorted. Al looked for the spot that the watch had come from – perhaps somewhere near the pile that was his brother's dusty brown, blood-speckled coat? Al headed to that table but the young golden eyes were captured unexpectedly and Alphonse carried the silver watch in his hands over to a little white tray on a table next to a pile of Winry's clothes.
The watch was put down silently and Alphonse's two hands collected a very familiar but very dirtied and damaged little doll. Al stared at the trinket wordlessly, his thumbs brushing the torn fringes of the gaping hole in the side of the smiling doll's face – Al pushed some of the escaping white stuffing back inside.
"We tested everything," Mustang's voice came up behind Al, "that doll has chalk, traces of gunpowder, and Winry's blood on it."
"What happened to them?" Al mindlessly asked the doll.
Alphonse couldn't begin to imagine what all these clues added up to or what story was trying to be told. For a moment, Alphonse's chest swelled with a great deal of pity for the officer standing at his back, because Mustang would have had to extrapolate something blindly from all of this before Alphonse had woken up. For as much as Al didn't know where to begin building a story out of this room, Al couldn't imagine what Mustang must have thought of their situation. The sinking feeling churning in Al's stomach telling him that something disastrous had happened prior to the transmutation that sent all of these clues through with the rebound continued to get worse.
He sighed, not knowing where to start the terrifying tale and Al looked at the doll still in his hands, "Can I take this?"
Mustang hesitated before answering, "It's evidence."
Alphonse's thumbs pushed the soft white stuffing protruding from the tear back into the doll, "Its Winry's… and if its evidence you're never going to be able to prosecute anyone with it."
Silence crept in as Mustang held onto his response, giving the young Elric time to turn the doll over in his hands and see the exit tear that was hidden behind the yarn in the doll's hair. Al wondered how the hair had managed to escape damage.
"Is there any evidence I can gather from all the blood on your clothing?" Mustang finally asked, "we haven't been able to identify it."
"No," Al continued to look at the doll in his hands, his words absolute, "it was blood from the other side of the Gate. You probably won't ever be able to identify it. It's no crime you can deal with."
"Alphonse, would you look at me?" Mustang's request came out quickly, like he'd been waiting for an appropriate time to ask for Al's attention, but had finally given up.
The boy looked up to the officer with a stubbornly tight jaw and stern expression.
The officer frowned, "What happened to your eyes?"
Al blinked and the knots in his face were freed – it wasn't something he was consciously thinking about. It wasn't like every step Al made clanked, or that his voice echoed, or that he'd become disfigured in any way he would notice.
"I don't know," was the answer Al finally gave, looking down at the doll in his hands again, "Sensei and Aisa told me that my eyes were gold… but I haven't seen it yet."
Mustang motioned for Alphonse to head to the door, "Take the doll and go see for yourself."
Al stiffened his expression and held the wounded trinket tightly in his hands, taking strong and steady strides towards the door, "Thank you."
Al stood over the sink in the bathroom attached to Winry's room. Hours after he'd finally seen so many bizarre facts first hand, the change in his eyes was still startling and to Alphonse it was as distracting as a bruised right cheek with stitches would be. Not only did Al think his new eye colour changed the look of his face, altered the tone of his skin, and gave his hair a lighter tint, but it changed the perception of his eyes too. Every time Al looked up from the sink and saw himself in the mirror, he couldn't help but stare for five, ten, sometimes upwards of twenty or thirty seconds, before returning to his task. Sometimes it felt like he was looking at somebody else's reflection, though it wasn't a frightening sensation.
Al plucked the plug out of the sink and let a pool of pale pink water drain away. The dress from Winry's doll was rung out in a hand towel and set aside to dry. Al turned the beleaguered body of the doll over in his hands, eyeing the blood stains on the fabric that he hadn't been able to completely scrub away with a cloth and soapy water; Al wondered if soaking it would help, but that might fray the edges more.
Al looked out into Winry's room, "Major?"
Riza's footsteps came to the bathroom door, "Here you go," she handed the boy a white plastic bag, "does that work for you?"
Al put the bag down on the counter and pulled out a small swatch of pale beige burlap, a tiny match-case with a needle and thread enclosed, and a small pair of scissors.
"Yeah, that'll do," Al looked up from his collection, picked up the doll and bag, and walked back into the core of Winry's room, "thank you."
Al glanced over to the window, watching as a stray gust of wind threw the curtains open, before he sat down in the plush chair next to Winry's bed; the mid-day sunlight was scorching. The room went silent again and the swatch of burlap was taken into one hand while the pair of scissors went into the other and carefully Alphonse cut out a patch from the fabric. Al laid his cut-out down over the torn hole in Winry's doll and wrapped it around the back of the fabric head to make sure it fit. Satisfied with the piece, the doll was put down onto Winry's sheets and Al flipped open the match case of sewing materials, eyeing the few basic colours he had to choose from. Al popped the needle out from the package and threaded it first with white thread, knotting the string off and then picking up the doll once more. His fingers filtering through the blonde yarn hair and Al debated where he should begin.
"Can't you use alchemy to fix it?" Riza asked, picking up the extra fabric and white bag as she set them aside.
Al shook his head, "Someone took the time to hand make this, so it should be hand fixed," the boy slipped his string into the back of the dolls head, "Sensei use to tell us that if we can fix it with our own two hands, do that instead of using alchemy. She made sure we knew how to hunt, how to cook, clean, build, mend, sew…" Al's voice trailed off, "all kinds of things. Lazy men make poor alchemists."
Riza tried to subdue the smile that sentiment left her with.
Al continued to lace the needle through the fabric in the back of the doll's head, "Have you ever been shot?"
"Me?" Riza's brow rose, adjusting the firearms belt around her waist, glancing to Winry laying in the bed, eyeing how the ends of her sheets were not tucked in and knowing that was so the nurses could change the bandages on her leg, "Yes, I have."
"Did you get shot in the leg?" Alphonse asked calmly as he worked.
"No," Riza looked off in thought, wishing she could remember if she'd known anyone who'd been shot in the lower leg, but all the woman could come up with for memories of comrades with gunshot wounds was the immediate afterimages of Mustang laying on the ground after a bullet had struck his eye. She shook her head of the memory.
Alphonse continued to hold his voice steady and composed, "You think Winry'll walk okay when she's healed?"
"She'll walk just fine," it was irrelevant whether or not Riza honestly knew if there was detrimental damage from the gunshot wounds or not, Winry would walk just fine, "and when the sedatives are done and her body says it's time to wake up again tomorrow, Winry can tell you herself."
Alphonse's needle moved through the fabric, winding white thread through the doll's face. With the twist of his wrist, Alphonse pulled the needle through the fabric at the lower cheek of the doll, then slipped his needle off of the thread and began pulling out a bit of the stuffing from the hole he was patching. The white fluff fell lightly into Al's lap and the younger of two brothers snatched up the match case and snipped out a bit of black thread. Al's brow knit as he wrinkled his nose, trying to thread the needle once more, and after he successfully accomplished the task, Alphonse looked abruptly up to Riza.
"Can it be tomorrow now?"
It was such a serious question and, despite how steady and true Alphonse had tried to keep his tone, the question had sounded so childish in his voice. Riza ended up responding with a light laugh, wishing she could give a different answer, "No, I'm sorry."
Al didn't even sigh before his needle dug into the cavity he'd created in the doll's head and he started to recreate the corner of the dolls smile that had been at the fringes of a bullet's destructive wrath.
"I have a patrol group to take care of, so do you need anything before I go?" Riza offered.
Al shook his head, "No, I'm fine."
"Okay," Riza nodded, stepping away and turning towards the door, "you know where to find us if you need anything."
Alphonse knotted up the black stitch work that fixed a smile and tucked his threads inside the doll as the woman left. The stuffing in Al's lap was collected and returned to the doll's head, and then the boy re-strung his needle with the white thread once more and continued his mending.
In the quiet room where people came and went, where the hot mid-day breeze lazily played in the fringes of the curtains, and where Winry Rockbell slept, Alphonse finally knotted off his final stitch and let the yellow yarn hair fall back into place. A softened smile worked its way into Al's expression and he turned the doll over in his hands, looking down at the mending task he'd completed. The shade of burlap was a little pale, Al's stitching wasn't perfect, there were still bloodstains on the fabric here and there, and it was certainly obvious that something had happened to damage the poor thing, but it was in much better shape that it had been before.
"There you are," Al brushed his thumb over the smiling face of the doll, "much better."
Al stood up from the chair and wandered back into the bathroom, picking up the lightly-damp outfit he'd washed and re-dressed the doll. Walking back to Winry's bed, Al stopped at the foot, grinning at how quickly she'd twisted herself around – it was like she'd sensed the room had been momentarily empty. The aid workers and nurses that Mustang had acquired kept trying to have Winry lay on her back, but Winry continued to roll onto her side, nuzzle her nose into the pillow, and resume sleeping soundly.
Still grinning, Al put the doll down next to the pillow Winry had buried her face in and quietly left the room.
Alphonse could have sworn he'd lived through his longest day by the time he'd fallen asleep that night. For all his boring and uneventful time at the Gate with absolutely nothing to do, the day Al had just spent in Mustang's base of operations rivalled complete and utter torture.
With both his brother and Winry unresponsive in their beds, Al had paced the top floor of the commandeered hotel amidst the sweltering July heat. He'd walked the proverbial 'hole in the floor' and tried to calm himself, tried to rest, tried to eat, tried to sleep, and tried to tell himself that things would be okay. None of it was working – Al was sure that his hair would turn grey at some point before puberty hit him.
Once the sun had set below the tallest buildings, Al escaped the summer heat by throwing himself half dressed into a pool the hotel kept out back in search of some momentary relief from everything he had been dealing with. The jaunt outside had been suggested by Lieutenants Havoc and Breda, who'd told Al that if he did nothing but pace around and silently worry over Ed and Winry he'd either turn himself into a wreck or make himself sick.
Al had floated on his back, staring at the magnificent hues of the Amestris evening sky, and tried to pinpoint exactly what was turning him into a spring waiting to be sprung; maybe if Al analyzed it he could calm himself down. Of course there were the nerves and anticipation of his brother and Winry finally waking up and hearing the stories they'd tell, but there was also fear for some kind of repercussions from leaving them at the Gate. Al also wasn't certain how their bodies had handled the transmutation or how much of it they'd even remember; Al dearly hoped they remembered very little. Then there was the unnerving mystery of all the clues that his brother and Winry had come back with from the other world. To make matters worse, no one seemed to know what had become of Izumi – Al could have surely used his teacher's company by this point.
What stood out greater than every other fact was the one overwhelming feeling telling Alphonse that he was indescribably excited.
The boy could see it: a bright glowing light at the end of the tunnel. Their lives had been starved of normalcy for so long, they'd been deprived of the warmth of flesh for just as long, they'd endured so much, they'd been almost irreparably separated, and the search for and realization of some form of success for each brother's journey was right there. Alphonse felt like he was a rabid beast chasing a raw slab of meat, except the beast could run and hunt the prize down – Al couldn't run fast enough to advance time to get what he desired. What Al wanted most of all was for everyone to wake up so he could look at all of their lives together – finally – and see: that after everything, this is who they were today and they're okay. It was a magnificent picture in the younger Elric's mind no matter how many injuries or oddities had occurred along the way.
After Al had worked through the escapade of his own thoughts and had dried off from the pool, Al twisted himself into a knot again when he watched the nurse give his brother one last shot to ensure he slept through the night – Al was dearly hoping they'd somehow forget to do that.
At some point past midnight, nearing the twenty second hour of consciousness, Al had finally fallen asleep in the chair next to his brother's bed and then woken up a few hours later with enough time to see the sunrise, witness the graveyard shift change over, and realize his world was exactly like he'd left it the day before. The silent stress Al had built up over the never ending day that suddenly became never ending 'days', combined with a poor night's sleep, gave the boy a moment where he either wanted to scream in frustration or burst into tears. Alphonse did neither.
That morning Al had braved the trek into the core of the hotel in search of breakfast. The hotel dining room felt like it was nothing more than a fancy disguise for a mess hall. Military personnel of all walks of life from Mustang's growing collection of people loitered in the room and Al quickly realized that the retrieval effort for himself, his brother, and Winry in the days prior hadn't gone unnoticed. From what Al had gathered directly from Mustang and his direct company was that it had been an unexpected rescue operation that the officer had stumbled upon and then the three officers had spent hours struggling to get them back to the hotel. Both Edward and Winry hadn't helped their causes – they'd both been wrapped up in their own deliriums and that had made them not only difficult, but loud. Now the trio had become instant gossip material.
Al's senses were better than the whisperers were giving him credit for; he could hear when their names were uttered and see when the glances looked his way. Al's identity had been kept under wraps until that point, because he'd been referred to as Izumi Curtis' child and only Mustang's inner circle knew who he really was. Al was slightly amused to realize the monstrous size discrepancy between his human self and his armoured body worked to his advantage – no one was buying into the story that the two entities were the same person.
Everyone seemed relieved to know that Winry was in their care – it liberated Lieutenant Havoc from all of the claims and allegations put against him in regards to her disappearance. Al was somewhat relieved to hear amidst the gossip that many had doubted the accusations in the first place, but whispers of Winry didn't last long. Al was content to have her left out of the gossip; the fewer people who talked about her, the less chance Dante had of knowing she was back.
So the real firestorm of stories surrounded the 'someone' resembling Edward Elric, the FullMetal Alchemist, who had been brought in and stashed away in the upper floors. People wanted to know where the former state alchemist had gone, what he had done, and what had happened to him while he was away. People had their theories, but none of the tales were true. Stories were made up about adventurous things, like how Edward Elric had travelled beyond the borders of Amestris in search of the Philosopher's Stone, how he'd headed through the desert to nations beyond to perfect his alchemy, and even some things less harrowing like he'd retired or gone into hiding and Mustang had hauled his ass back into service.
Alphonse at least knew where his brother's journey had taken him, though all Al could see of the journey was the front and back covers, he didn't know the contents of his brother's storybook.
Unable to convince himself to eat, Al gave up on breakfast, leaving it behind on the table, and he returned to waiting for the point where his brother or Winry would come out of their sedated stupors. Desperately in need of something to do, Al gave himself the task of dreaming up everything he wanted to say to his brother once he finally woke up. The list was long and continued to get longer with a mountain of 'whats' and 'whys' and 'hows' and numerous other w-type questions. As Al could figure it, if Winry had been beyond the Gate, she would have told his brother about him, but Al still wondered if Ed would be surprised to see him. It was funny to think – now it was Ed who was so big and Al who was so small. Unlike his excitable older brother, Al didn't mind his size one bit.
With the daydreams of his future life with his brother writing up stories in his head, Alphonse eventually – finally – fell asleep again later that morning.
One of many attendants who came and went throughout the endless day accidentally brushed the curtains and splashed hot sunlight into Al's face after he'd drifted off. The boy hastily cursed the bright summer's day while a voice he didn't recognize apologized for the rude awakening. Al slipped in the chair he'd fallen asleep in and stretched his legs, pointing his toes as far as he could manage. With a sigh, his muscles were all released and Al slouched horribly in the seat. From the sloppy position Al had, with his arms slung over the sides of the chair and his backside nearly falling off the lip of the seat, Al watched the last nurse in the room scuttle about before snatching up a sheet of paper and slipping out the door.
Alphonse yawned, dumped his tired head against his shoulder, and looked at his brother lying on the bed, absently eyeing a matching set of golden eyes tiredly staring back at him.
A good five seconds passed before Al realized…
Al jerked so suddenly that the seat cushion slipped out from beneath him and the boy landed on the floor with a thud. His arms and legs flying, Alphonse scrambled back to his feet, staggering to regain balance and unable to find a reaction in the list of things and ways he'd dreamt up on how he'd properly greet his brother right here and now.
"You fell on your ass…" Ed's words came out slowly and sloppy while a grin worked its way into his face.
"Y-you're up! You're awake!" Al's words were frantic – this wasn't how this moment was supposed to go! "When did you wake up! Wh- Ho-how long have you been up?" the younger brother's thoughts were pulling him a million different directions while the shot of adrenaline made each thought strong enough to tear him apart. Much to Ed's amusement, Al danced in one spot.
"About half an hour…?" Ed shifted on the bed, stretching his shoulders until something cracked, "kept closing my eyes when the nurse walked by… didn't want to cause a commotion, it'd wake you up."
What an absolutely absurd idea! Alphonse's hands slammed down on the mattress and gripped the sheets with enough strength to tear them, "You should have woken me!"
"Pff… I was watching you sleep," an unintelligible noise was forced through Ed's lips as he released himself limp to the bed, "it's been a while since I've seen you sleep. It was nice to watch you breathe."
Alphonse's jaw slipped and it hung open wordlessly; he couldn't find a response for that. Again and again Al found himself opening his mouth, taking in air, and attempting to find something monumental to say to his brother. He had a million questions, had a million more things to just say, and every time Al readied his thoughts with verbal bullets to pepper his brother with, the young voice only shot blanks. Without having said a thing, Al climbed onto the bed at his brother's side and sat back on his knees.
"I feel like I weigh a thousand pounds," Ed squirmed a bit before giving up on moving for the time being and just looked up to Al instead, "I can barely move."
"They kept you asleep so you could recover," Al put his hands down in his lap, resisting the urge to giggle because the medication was obviously still in Ed's system – he sounded drunk.
"They…" Ed pinched his eyes as he sifted through some strange memories, "Mustang-they?"
"Yeah," Al nodded, an excited grin finally beginning to surface, "they found us and have been taking care of things."
Ed opened his mouth to comment but ended up stalling without voicing his thoughts. A single eyebrow lowered with concern as he stared at Alphonse, "What the hell is wrong with your eyes?"
Al blinked; even after staring at himself for hours on end in the mirror, his mind still didn't register that his eyes were a new colour, "I haven't figured that out yet."
Edward decided to take Al's answer and leave it at that. His eyes slipped away, squinting as the heavy curtains failed to obscure the time of day when a breeze came up again, "Is Winry okay?"
"Yeah," Al nodded, "they fixed her leg up, so she'll be okay."
The conversation paused at that point, like neither boy knew where things should go next – there were a million things to say and all of them felt as important as the next. Two brothers soon existed together silently on a borrowed bed waiting for the world to sink in, neither moving until a breath of wind tossed the edge of the curtain, flooding the room with sunlight.
"I don't really remember what happened after I came back through the Gate," Edward sat up a little and he reached his arm out, scrunching a handful of golden brown hair atop Al's head, "but I remember something about finding you covered in blood and I couldn't make you wake up. If I'm the one in bed and you're the one watching over me, I take it you're okay?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," Alphonse nodded as the light breeze from the window died and the curtains settled to dim the room, "the blood wasn't mine and it was the Gate's fault I was asleep."
Ed's hand slipped out of the mess he'd made of Alphonse's hair, "The Gate's fault?"
Al nodded, letting the feeling of accomplishment, pride, and success flood into his chest and invade his smile, "I found a way beyond the Gate, and when I reached in I saw you and Winry there," Al watched his brother draw upright in bed, "I turned on the transmutation circle to bring you home."
A terrified and concerned sound surged into Ed's voice, "Why were you at the Gate?"
"Dante," Al figured the single word was enough of an answer.
Edward's head snapped to the side in disgust, like he was ready to spit at the sound of the woman's name, but then the older brother paused as a realization quickly struck and he looked back to Al, "Wait, can you do the…?"
Grinning ahead of his response, Al crawled across the bed, clapped his hands together, and put them down on the bedroom wall. A blue spark lit the room and both boys looked to the door, watching it close and seamlessly seal as Al presented his answer. Al looked back to his brother enormously pleased with himself, "Yeah, I can."
Edward's gaze eventually slipped away and down to focus in the palms of his hands, "I don't dare clap my hands right now," Ed clenched his fists, "there's all this untested, unproven garbage I picked up beyond the Gate in my head… I'm liable to blow something or someone up by mistake if I don't test my knowledge first. I can't risk that," he swallowed heavily before pulling his shoulders up once more, "I'm going to have to re-learn a few things with Sensei and work my formulas out here so I'm not a danger to anyone," the bridge of Ed's nose abruptly creased, his eyes narrowing with a scowl, "and then I'll use it to get that greedy bitch."
"That was it… I remember," the younger brother's voice swept in while his thoughts ran about, eyes flying wide. Al slid himself up to the side of his brother once again, crossing his legs and sitting on the mattress, holding is ankles as he looked into the confused and concerned expression Ed offered him, "I couldn't get you through the doors. I tried, but the Gate… it… it wasn't that it didn't want you to come home…" Al's gaze slowly looked around the room as he tried to find a way to voice a feeling and a knowledge that was indescribable.
"You weren't supposed to come home."
Ed's brow rose.
"It was wrong," Al stared back into his brother's golden eyes, "I don't remember anymore why it was so wrong, I just remember feeling and knowing and understanding that it was completely, totally wrong. The Gate tried to enforce that on me."
Edward turned his hands over and stared into his palms resting atop his knees.
"I think the Gate was afraid of what would happen if you came back, because you knew too much," Al's words tumbled from his mouth, like if he didn't get the words out quickly enough, they'd disappear, "but it wasn't fear… it was something else. I don't know what, I can't explain it. It was just wrong, it was never meant to happen, so I couldn't bring you all the way home. The Gate still wanted you."
Ed gave his acknowledgement to Alphonse with a slow nod, flipping his hands over between the fronts and backs, "I guess I satisfied the Gate enough that I was allowed to come home."
It was a statement so wide open that no one could have resisted asking and Al jumped in, "What did you do?"
Alphonse watched as Ed lifted his arms and stretched them out in front of his body, facing his palms out into the room. The fingers of his right hand could stretch as well as his left, the bandage on Ed's right hand restricted full movement. The brothers watched as stripes of sunlight slipped into the room from between the slow-moving curtains and painted Edward's arms with white light before the older brother let the two flesh limbs fall down to his lap.
Edward grinned his characteristic, knowing grin, "I opened the door."
Alphonse didn't know if he wanted to drown in fear of that statement or reach over and punch Ed for it. Al knew his brother well enough that the words he answered with were the window dressings for something else. But, if his older brother wasn't willing or able to disclose what exactly he'd done, even in this sealed room, there had to be a good reason for it. Al wondered if there was ever going to be a point in their lives where nothing existed beyond their family that would threaten what the boys could share with each other.
All that remained between this point and that was Dante.
"You said a long time ago that the Gate was full of knowledge and everything we might ever have wanted to know was there," Al looked to his brother curiously, "it was full of all kinds of truths you wanted."
Ed laughed, "Yeah, that world was full of knowledge. I found a million treasures there and read incredible things, studied up on the histories of people who'd died century's ago, ate up their 'mythology', understood the means of things that world couldn't possibly figure out," Ed cleared his throat, sitting up a little more, "fantastical things, impossible things, the history of all other things…"
"But?" Al offered.
"But," a hard, definitive tone came out in Ed's voice, "the 'truth' isn't beyond the Gate."
According to Ed in years past, the Gate had withheld some kind of truth – and it frightened their teacher but tantalized the older brother. A wealth of unobtainable knowledge was there and, though he never had the chance to actively seek it out, so many of the things Ed had thought he'd wanted had been flashed before his eyes during his trips to the Gate. The Gate had cruelly teased a forlorn child and made him feel like it concealed enough knowledge to give Ed back everything that he had lost.
"The Gate didn't have anything I wanted," Ed looked to his younger brother. The biggest truth that no one knew about was the kind of exchange required to obtain alchemy knowledge from beyond the Gate: everything else. "I wanted to leave, I wanted to come home and see you, I wanted to save Winry from it, and none of the massive amounts of knowledge and formulas and history I ever found in that world could do that for me."
Beyond the Gate was a dark world, ravaged by its own doings, and grossly ignorant of its past – Al had seen it clearly and could still feel the sluggish pulse of their lives. At one point in the other world's long forgotten history it had been an alchemy trove, but not anymore. The tangible value the other world had to the Elric brothers' world was buried within history, now the two worlds had moved beyond their historical origins and evolved to carry on a symbiotic relationship. Al was almost certain that if the souls of that world didn't have a place to escape to and didn't have a one-way street to the Gate doors, the world beyond would somehow swell so much that it would explode – alchemy in the brother's world was a necessity to drain the energy from the other world so it could continue functioning safely.
"I had get home to you," Ed's brow creased, his voice deepening, "If I ever stopped, then I was giving up… I couldn't do that. I couldn't give up on you or on Winry."
Al felt the hot air of the Amestris day burn in his lungs with every breath; the younger brother had known something absolute the moment he'd reached into the Gate, so surely if Ed had been focussing so hard on that rebounding transmutation circle he must have known as well…
"Brother, there was nothing you could have done to get home."
By the look in his brother's eyes alone, Alphonse realized that at some point Ed had reached that conclusion. But what Al saw wasn't a resigned gaze or humbled expression – it was steadfast and absolute defiance against the truth.
"I'd have kept searching – something would have turned up," Ed scowled, "There was too much to that world that something someday wouldn't show up for me to use."
Al wouldn't give his brother the courtesy of thinking he was ignorant because Ed was too smart to be that foolish, so he was simply being stubborn – so stubborn that Edward wanted to believe he alone could overcome his own pre-determined fate.
Without warning Al flew forwards, his child-sized arms engulfing his older brother, and the bedding exhaled a puff of air when two bodies fell heavily into the pillows and sheets. The entire room vanished; the light, the sounds, the surroundings, everything, while the two strongest arms the younger sibling had ever known squeezed tight around the boy's shoulders and back. Each brother shut out the world for a few minutes, hanging on tightly to something they'd fought so hard for and had tried so hard to get back.
Both brothers were allowed themselves a moment to feel and indulge in the profound feeling of success.
"I missed you," Ed managed to share.
Alphonse strained to hear the hoarse message his brother had given and the younger brother squeezed his meagre human arms tighter, trying to find a way to match the trembling strength in the arms capturing him. With a deep breath, Alphonse spoke into the ear Envy had violated when the sin had told Edward this journey that had been taken and sacrifices that had been made was an odyssey without rewards; he was supposedly entitled to nothing.
To Be Continued…
Ed's had two chapters all to himself in the story, it was time Al had one. It was time for something less traumatizing for everybody… I can't make Ed's life miserable all the time :)
Alrighty, everyone is home and more or less safe and sound. The last arch in the story covers Dante. Whoo!