A brief chapter to serve as proof that I really, really am not dead, and haven't given up on this fanfiction business quite yet. Thanks to everyone who has continued to read, review, and ask for more – you guys make this worth it :)
Chapter Four – Signs
The only thing that he was immediately aware of was the fact that every part of his body ached horrendously. He moaned.
"About time you woke up, Alphonse Elric!" A shrill voice cried.
About time…? a thought managed to escape through the roar and pound of his mind Am I still at The Gate… The Gate?
Al groaned again, and sat up. His eyes flickered open just in time to see something rushing towards his head.
Before he could even comprehend how, his head hit the ground with a sickly sounding crack. Small bursts of darkness lit up the back of his eyelids, and he let out a hiss of pain. Al's body curled up on reaction, feebly trying to defend itself from the unexpected attack. He distantly heard the clang of metal as a wrench hit stone.
"Ow…" he breathed, still squeezing his eyes tightly shut.
"Winry!" Another voice yelled," What in the world are you thinking?"
The female voice replied," Knocking some sense into that idiot, you idiot!"
"I think you just knocked the life out of him!" the other voice snorted.
The two voices began bickering loudly, their voices ringing in and out of Al's hearing. The under eyelid fireworks display began to die down with a few more bangs, and Al again attempted to open them, this time not bothering to sit up. Seemed safer.
Al stared up at the wooden supports of the dark basement, wishing to ingrain himself deep inside one of them. The floor was hard and cold, but the wood seemed so soft and comforting… he blinked, vaguely wondering if maybe he had hit his head too hard. The arguing continued on the other side of the basement.
"If you had-!"
"Well he shouldn't-"
"But he was-"
"I don't care!"
"Would you two please just shut up?"
Winry and Ed stopped, and turned to face Al, stupefied. Al propped himself up on his elbows, and stared back. Their two faces were out of focus. He shook his head, which throbbed violently, but his vision slid into clarity. He then pushed himself into a standing position, and clutched his head. Ed and Winry remained still, watching almost warily as Al hobbled over to where they stood. He paused for a moment, then walked past them.
"Al, where are you going?" Winry asked, finally startled into words.
"Away from you two…" he grumbled, beginning to trek up the stairs. Al heard the two shuffle behind him, but he ignored them. He made it up the stairs and walked through the living room, past Pinako and a complacent looking Den, and then up the stairs to the second floor. Ed and Winry continued to follow as Al expected they would. Reaching his room, Al wordlessly flopped onto his bed, enjoying the feel of the soft pillows. He shut his eyes as Winry and Ed entered.
"Al, what were you thin-?" Winry began, but he cut her off.
"I'm going to bed. Wake me up when I regain my sanity." he said, pressing his head deeper into the pillow.
Al felt a weight push down on the bed, and he cracked an eye open to see that Ed had sat down on the end.
"What happened Al?" he asked quietly. Al saw that Ed had changed clothes, and Winry must have coerced him into allowing her to braid his hair. He looked exactly the same as the brother Al once knew, spoke the same, even fought with Winry the same way. But it was all different, and Al couldn't help but be aware of it. The change didn't make Al love his brother any less, it was just… alien.
"Winry hit me in the head with a wrench."
"He didn't mean that Al, he meant-"
"Winry, please." This time, it was Ed who cut the girl short.
Winry nodded meekly," Sorry, I'm just anxious…" she mumbled.
"Did you get to The Gate?" Ed questioned. Al nodded his head into the pillow.
"What did you see?"
"Nothing." Al replied truthfully.
Ed paused, and a confused look crossed his face.
"But besides vast and unending nothingness, I saw It. And now I have to save the universe in order to get your memories back."
There was a moment of silence. His brother blinked.
Al sighed and pushed up from the pillow some to face Ed.
"What is It?"
"It is… this… " Al shook his head and scowled," I don't know how to describe It! You would have to see It! But It created The Gate and everything, and now I have to go and close the gates to save all of existence and get your memories back and-"
"Alright, stop right there and start at the beginning," Ed commanded, shaking his head in bewilderment," So it is The Gate that did something to my memories?"
"Yes – well, kind of. Winry was right but you see, you g-" Al stopped, suddenly thinking about what he was going to say. If Ed knew that he had given up his memories for Al… how would he react?
He sighed," The Gate didn't just take your memories. You gave them up. For my body."
Ed raised an eyebrow. "I did?"
"Good. I was afraid that I might have just lost them, or had them taken from me needlessly."
It was Al's turn to look surprised," You're glad you gave away your memories?"
The other man nodded," Well, I can't say that I'm glad that I don't remember anything, but if I gave them up so that you could get your body back, then it doesn't bother me."
"But you mentioned that you could get them back, didn't you Al?" Winry asked, sounding hopeful," Is that true?"
Al nodded, moaning as he thought of his prospects.
"But you have to… save the world?" Ed asked incredulously.
He nodded again.
"And how exactly do you plan on doing that, Alphonse?"
Pinako leaned against the doorframe. The crow of a woman peered out behind thick frames with dark beady eyes. Ed shuffled slightly closer to Al, seeming almost intimidated by the miniscule woman.
"Well… I'm going to do some alchemy, and save the world, and…" Al hedged," Get Nii-san's memories back!"
The wizened automail mechanic snorted, and shook her head.
"Children," she muttered," I'll never understand the youth of these days." Without any further questioning, she turned to leave, but then paused, pipe quivering in her mouth.
"The large suitcase is still in the basement closet, but you'll have to wait until I get the clothes off the line before you can start packing, Al. In the meantime, I'll go down to the station and get you a ticket for the next train to Central. How soon do you plan on leaving?"
"Leaving?" Winry spat, making a face as if the word left a foul taste," Why would you be leaving? You just got here!"
Everyone in the room turned to Alphonse, and for a split second, he longed for the faceless comfort of his old tin can. That moment passed quickly, but Al continued to keep his face calm.
"I'm not sure yet. Soon."
She shrugged, as if not surprised, merely resigned," Just tell me when you decide." The old woman then trotted downstairs, leaving the three 'children'.
"It seems as though Granny has a perfect understanding of youth these days," Al whispered.
"So all of Ed's memories will be returned to him as soon as you close the final Gate?"
Al nodded," Mmhmm. He'll progressively receive his memories with each Gate I close, but full mind restoration will require sealing all of them."
Winry, Al and Ed sat in the kitchen at the square wooden table where so many of their childhood years had past. Pinako bustled around the kitchen, two eyes on the meal preparations in front of her, and two ears on the conversation behind her.
"It seems almost too easy," Ed mused, leaning his chair back on two legs and propping his feet up on the table. Al was amazed at the ease of this familiar action, and he wondered if possibly Ed's body was kicking in where his mind was not. "You know, go out, close a few Gates, save the world. There has to be a catch."
"Don't be such a pessimist Ed! You always look on the dark side!" Winry exclaimed, crossing her arms.
"Do I?" he questioned, and she quieted.
"Oh, I think there's plenty of catches to the whole arrangement," Al sighed," One, I don't know where these gates are and two, I've got no clue how I'm supposed to seal them."
Winry slumped back in her chair, going limp," Good points. So where do we start?"
The kitchen lapsed into near silence, broken only by the occasional clank of pots and pans as Pinako cooked.
"Well, I know where I'm starting." Al finally said," And apparently so does Granny."
Still turned away from the three, Pinako nodded knowingly. The man took a deep breath, malaise hovering above him like a sickly vulture.
"I'm going to Central. To join the military." He mumbled sheepishly.
"WHAT?" Winry screamed, causing Ed to tip over in his chair much as she had the day before," You've got to be joking!"
Al tensed and gripped the table corner, ready to push off if Winry came at him with her wrench. He'd been expecting her reaction, but knowing beforehand still made it no less pleasant. Ed's automail hand appeared, followed by his human hand, and then a head. He looked rather disgruntled by the woman's ravings, but said nothing. Winry stood up and spun around, as if about to storm out of the kitchen. She let out a frustrated growl, turned, and slammed both fists on the table, eyes about to spill over with tears.
"Why in the world would you even consider joining the military, Al? Even after the Fuhrer's overthrow, the army is no safe place! You could get hurt, or killed, and you'd be a dog of the military and-"
"I could get hurt or killed while trying to seal the Gates anyway. If I go out on my own to find the gates, I truly am on my own. But, Winry, please understand, if I join the military as a state alchemist, I'll have all the funds I need, and the ability to travel. Besides, the only place I'll ever be able to find any sort of information on the gates would be in the State Libraries, which only state alchemists have access to. Brother put up with being a 'dog of the military', and so can I! I'm willing to risk joining the military if it means getting Ed's memories back and saving all of existence."
"Ed!" Winry snapped. Her turned her head to the other man, who seemed to shrink under her glare. "Please tell your brother what a ridiculous idea this is!"
Ed finally righted himself in the chair, and glared back at Winry in challenge. "Al is his own man, and can do what he pleases. Besides, this entire issue is about my memories, in case you've forgotten. If Al's writing his own death sentence by joining the military, then maybe it's not worth the risk. But there's also all of existence to consider, and the fact that it seems to me Al is accomplished enough to take care of himself."
"Don't say that!" The woman hissed," You'll only encourage him!"
Ed shrugged," Winry, I think he had his mind made even before he made his decision public."
Al nodded, appreciative for his brother's intuitive aid.
"I'm going, and nothing can change that. Everything is at stake. I'll leave the day after tomorrow – I need time to get used to my body, but I just don't have enough."
"Can't you at least wait a while? You said you needed to retrain your body and…" Winry's voice was desperately quiet now. She knew she was fighting a losing battle.
"It just can't wait Winry. I'll have to train as I go. Until my body is up to strength, I'm going to need to rely on my alchemy. I've got no idea how long it could take for the Gates to open, but I have a feeling that the sooner I close them, the better."
The woman slumped back into her chair, shaking her head miserably." Fine. Go. Leave me and Granny again. There's no way that I could ever stop you, Al. I thought that you might have had at least a tad more sense than Ed, but of course, I should have expected you to go off and do something crazy like this. You are brothers, and you've never been able to stay in one place for very long."
Winry's downtrodden expression was one that Al had seen multiple times in his life, and while he hated more than anything else to hurt her, this was something he had to do. Ed turned to Al.
"I'm guessing that this is something we go through often."
"You two have been putting yourselves in danger since Al was ten." Winry answered for Al.
"But we didn't start doing dangerous things until I was eleven." Al said, trying to joke.
The blonde rolled her eyes.
"Just don't get yourself killed. Again."
The sky outside of Alphonse's window was still dark when he woke. Despite the lack of day, his eyes sprung open, and he was immediately awake and aware of his surroundings. He guessed that he still had about two hours until the sun was up. Quietly, he got out of bed, wincing as he stood and his joints creaked, not from pain, but out of fear of waking the man in the other bed. For a moment, he simply stood, debating whether to go back to sleep, or start his day. Knowing there was no way he could fall back asleep, Al quickly changed into his day clothes, crept out of the room and went downstairs. Every sound he made seemed to be muffled by the blackness of the house.
As he made his way to the kitchen, Al would pause, stopping to touch something - a picture, a vase, some tool that Winry had left out. Each object felt deliciously real under his fingertips, each thing was familiar again. He finally reached the kitchen.
"Good Morning Alphonse."
Al startled slightly at Pinako's greeting – none of the Rockbells were ever up this early. But there she was, leaning up against the kitchen sink and holding a steaming tea cup.
"Are you going to be leaving without saying good-bye to Winry and Ed?"
The man scowled," Am I that predictable?"
"Not always, Alphonse Elric, which will work to your advantage as you travel, keep you alive."
Al couldn't help but be puzzled by Pinako's curious words or by how clear and young her normally grating voice sounded. Then it hit him-
"Am I to expect visits like this from you often?"
It smiled with Pinako's mouth, and set the teacup down." From time to time, if I find you might be straying from your path."
"You know, I don't really appreciate you invading the bodies of my family and friends."
"Invading?" It/Pinako clucked her tongue," I prefer to call it… sharing. Besides, it causes no harm. Pinako Rockbell will wake up after I leave feeling awake and refreshed. But maybe you have another suggestion for when I come and visit you? Oh, I don't know, messages in the clouds, writing in the crops, talking animals, fiery meteorites…? Or maybe old hermits and oracles would work better?" It taunted, and Pinako's eyes shone with youthful mischief.
Al sighed and sat down at the kitchen table," Fine, come as you will."
It/Pinako nodded," I came to tell you that your time is limited. The Gates have already begun to open – you have only a few months."
"A few months?" The shock was apparent in Al's voice," I was at least expecting a few years, maybe a decade or two! Large scale events in alchemy don't exactly happen quickly!"
"You are correct. The Gates have been closing and opening for centuries since they were built. But now, they are swinging wide, and your deadline grows shorter. That you leave today is wise."
Al was silent as he processed the information given. Only a few months. He only had a few months to seal the gates and restore Ed's memories before everything was over.
"Your tickets." It stated, procuring a single ticket from empty air. Al stood up and took the ticket from It/Pinako. As he did, the one ticket stretched, and became three. He looked back to Pinako/It.
"I'm human now. I don't take up more than one seat, thank you very much."
It snorted. "I find it amusing that your sense of humor came out after we opened the can."
"It's all relative. Now, I'll be going as soon as you are."
"Is that a hint?"
It cawed with Pinako's laugh," No. It's a sign."
With a flick of a wrinkled finger, a heavy weight lashed across Al's chest, forcing him back out of the kitchen, through the living room, and into the front hall where the suitcase Granny had packed for him last night stood.
"Time to live." It's voice brushed across Al's ears. Sighing, he lifted his small suitcase and put a hand on the door knob. The brass was icy and unwelcoming, as if the door had no desire to let him leave.
"I don't want to leave," he hissed to the door knob," I want to stay here in Resembol and live a normal life, but I've got no choice, so just let me go!"
The doorknob shined dully in the near dark.
"Come on Al," he muttered," You can do this. You've got to do this!"
His hand tightened around the handle, his resolution building.
"Alright. I'm going."
The door swung open as he turned and pushed, opening himself to the rest of the world. The land around him pressed on him, filling him with sights, scents, sounds. He couldn't stifle a gasp as he stared out across the fields, the hills, the sky. It was more spectacular than he ever remembered. Al fumbled to keep a grip on the suitcase he held.
"Alright," he whispered," I'm going."
Al took off along the single dirt road that meandered through Resembol. While his mind and feet knew every curve and bank, his senses seemed to be lost, desperately trying to tell him that he had never been somewhere so strange and unfamiliar.
Slowly, the sun began to rise, its soft citrus glow spreading across the fields, turning them from a deep black to a warm green. A light breeze picked up momentarily, ruffling his hair. Everything was silent, but at the same time, everything spoke to him. He could hear every word muttered by the quiet breeze, the awakening fields, the gentle sun. The world filled him up, until every nerve seemed to burst and tingle excitedly.
His stomach twisted as every new sense pressed upon him. He was trapped in the dawn, being frozen by the night as quickly as he was being thawed by the day. Alphonse stopped in the middle of the road, standing straight and still. The sun seemed unable to decide whether it wanted to rise into the unexpected brilliance of day, or sneak back below the horizon, into the comfortable blanket of night. For a moment, Al wondered what he was. Motionless sunbeams lay flat and heavy on his blonde hair, which had always been browner than Edward's radiant gold but now he wondered if he were to see himself, would the sun make his hair gold too or was it that he had become the sun and he was trapped at dawn or had it become twilight and could he just sink below the horizon again and-
"Whoa. Sensory overload." Alphonse breathed.
At that moment, both he and the sun seemed to burst forth from the iron grasp of time; a radiant burst of sunlight pierced his eyes, temporarily blinding him. It was morning. The sun had made its decision, and so had he. Al was nearly the center of the village, and would soon reach the train station. Digging the tickets out of his pocket, he saw that he would only have to wait for about an hour.
It had gotten him the early train out.