Author's Forward: While I enjoyed the ending of the movie, Conqueror of Shamballa, I still feel that there is something missing. The chase they are on regarding the uranium bomb is historically a futile one -- it will be used in 1945 no matter what Ed and Al do. And given how long Al spent inside the Gate in limbo, I felt that there had to be some gain on his part for that period of time he spent there...
Disclaimer: I don't know very much about the time between WWI and WWII in Germany. I'm trying to learn, but meanwhile I am making stuff up, or being deliberately vague, as I go. For reasons I won't go into, I am extremely uncomfortable researching the Nazis, so this isn't easy. Also, this is NOT Elricest. I don't like Elricest, because I personally believe it cheapens the brothers' relationship (I have yet to see any fanfic of Elricest convince me otherwise). However, I do particularly like the close sibling bond of the two, and considering how long they were apart, I wanted to explore their relationship. But it is NOT, I repeat NOT, Elricest. At all. And at no time will it ever be so. I have no intentions at this time of even bringing romance into the story.
Note: This is based primarily off the dub, because I liked the dub, dammit.
About the titles: "Tobira no Mukou e" is the title of the second closing theme for the TV series, and the title means "toward the other side of the door/gate" which I felt was appropriate, since that's what they're trying to do. "Zeitgeist" is a German term used a lot during the Third Reich, literally meaning "the spirit of the time" but the term is more than an abstract reference. It is regarded as something almost sentient in its own right. Go to Wikipedia and look the word up for more information.
"Tobira no Mukou e"
Part One: Zeitgeist
The eighth of November was a date he'd never be able to forget. Equally, it was one he'd just as soon forget. But like anything that one wishes to forget, the very desire to forget it makes the event or date itself unforgettable. The perverse nature of the human mind makes forgetting the most unsettling events impossible.
No, he wasn't going to be able to forget November eighth. But wading through and sorting the memories into place would be a chore in and of itself. So much had happened. So many lives thrown away...
"Brother? What's the matter?"
Edward Elric shook himself mentally and blinked rapidly to focus his vision. "It's nothing, Al."
"Are you sure?" His brother Alphonse put a hand on his shoulder. "You look like you're going to start crying."
"Can you blame me if I do?" he said wearily, willing his eyes to stay dry. "In less than five hours, I've crossed the Gate twice, undergone a crude automail operation, and witnessed the deaths of two people I care about. I've seen my home world turned into a battlefield, and witnessed with my own eyes the corruption of humanity when it encounters the Gate. And, up until just now, I thought I was going to be alone. I don't know how much more of this I can take."
Overhead, the physical gateway that bridged this world with Amestris began to flash as one of its terminals began to unravel. It appeared that Roy Mustang was indeed breaking the circle that held the gateway open on Amestris' side.
"So how do you think we should destroy that?" Alphonse asked, tentatively looking up at the ominous light. "We can't leave it open. We should at least close it off, if we can't break it right away."
"I'm thinking, Al." Edward brought a hand to his forehead, trying to force his thoughts to arrange themselves into a straight line. They just kept chasing each other around in his mind. Images of Envy biting down on... and the shower of blood... and... Dammit, Alfons, you weren't supposed to die like that!
Abruptly, he sank to his knees, his frustration, grief and anger leaving him too exhausted to stand. Silently cursing his weak constitution, Edward slammed his hands to the floor.
"Edward?" Noa said softly. "Is this your brother? The one you've spoken so much about?"
"Yeah," Edward let out a gusty sigh, thinking privately to himself that Noa had chosen a poor way of wording it. How many times had Alphonse addressed him as "Brother" already since arriving? How hard was it to understand? He shifted back and looked up at the gypsy's concerned face. Gesturing wearily, he beckoned both Noa and Alphonse closer. "Noa, this is my younger brother Alphonse Elric. Al, this is Noa. She's been keeping Alfons and I company lately."
Alphonse bowed respectfully, bewildering Noa. Bowing wasn't common here in Germany. Edward made a private note to go over everything with Alphonse that he'd been taught about society here. "Thank you for taking care of my brother, Miss Noa. I know he's a pain if you're stuck with him for long periods of time."
"Oh shut up, Al," Edward chuckled tiredly. "Good grief, you even remember all our squabbles?"
"Of course I do, Brother!"
"Please, Al, less of that."
"Less of what?"
"Call me by my name. That's more common here. Ah, nevermind. We'll discuss this kind of stuff later. What we need to do is break that gate, or at least close it." He sighed. "And I can't seem to get past all the crap that's happened today. My mind won't think in a straight line."
"Then let me help you, Brother. You never let me help you."
In his emotionally-weakened state, Edward could not answer. Instead, he looked up at the glimmering gateway. "Well, we need to break the array. The problem is..."
"The problem is that the circle is on the ceiling," Noa said softly, "which is where the gateway is. Which means you'll get sucked into it if you get close, right?"
"No," Edward said. "The problem isn't that it's dangerous to get close to it. It's dangerous to go through it, but you have to go into the gateway to reach the dangerous part. The problem is much simpler: we have to get to the array, which the gateway is blocking, and we have to figure out a way to get up to that level without going through the gateway. I've always disliked cathedral ceilings, but in this case, I really hate them."
Alphonse rubbed his chin in contemplation. "What if we destroy the whole ceiling? That should destroy the array."
"We can't do that, Al. This building belongs to someone; we can't just destroy it. Though, I must say, I can't understand why the portal is still holding, since one of the terminals is gone. No array that I know of can hold a gate that large open for that long."
"I think they're bracing it open with cross-beams," Noa said. "The professor spoke of 'stabilizing' it, but I couldn't get a solid read on what he meant."
Edward cast her a disgusted look; "I'm still not thrilled with you, Noa. That was a dirty trick you played on me. I told you that my home wasn't Shamballa, nor is it a paradise. There's just as much persecution, war and death. And with you having learned alchemy from me like you did, without paying a price, you would probably have wrought unspeakable chaos on Amestris."
Noa looked down and away, abashed. Edward returned his gaze to the array on the vaulted ceiling. He heard a rustling noise nearby and glanced, his battle-honed senses on the alert for possible danger. What he saw out of the corner of his eye bewildered him.
"Al, what are you doing?"
Alphonse was loading, albeit clumsily, a rifle that had been discarded in the soldiers' mad dash out of the building.
"Al!" Edward said urgently. "What are you doing? You don't know how to use one those, someone could get hurt!"
"Just watch, Brother. Lieutenant Hawkeye taught me how to use one of these things, and I think I see a way to knock out the support beams. It can't hurt to try." He raised the gun to his shoulder, sighted down the barrel to a point near the edge of the array, and pulled the trigger. With a sharp report, the gun kicked back and knocked Alphonse off his feet. Edward sighed and plucked the firearm from his hands.
"You're too young to be handling one of these, Al."
Alphonse stuck his tongue out at him. "That thing is primitive! At least the ones Hawkeye taught me with didn't have that violent a reaction!"
"Tell me where to aim."
"That beam over on the far left, right at the twelve-o'clock position in the array. It seems to be the lynch-pin. If you take that one out, it should break the array just enough to shut the portal for now."
Edward just stared at his brother. "What beams? All I can see is the array, and the gate within the array."
Alphonse hesitated. "You... you can't see the beams? At all?"
"No. All I see is the array."
Alphonse frowned. "Okay, give me a moment."
"Edward," Noa said urgently, "the police will be here at any moment."
"I'm not running away, Noa. If you're afraid of getting caught, you may leave, but I have no intentions of leaving with that gate still open. I have no reason to run from the police anyway."
Alphonse tapped the barrel of the gun to get Edward's attention. "Aim for the point at the twelve-o'clock position in the array. Like I said, that's where the beam is, and that one is the lynch-pin."
Edward raised the rifle up and sighted the top of the circle with the view-finder.
"Higher!" Alphonse said urgently. "You'll miss the array altogether at that angle!" Edward found himself obeying without question. Then, with a squeeze to the trigger, he fired.
The gun's loud report hurt his ears, but he heard the bullet strike something. Unfortunately, nothing happened.
"Dammit, Edward!" Alphonse grabbed the gun out of his brother's hands, cocked the barrel to load another round and aimed. Before Edward could interfere, he fired another shot, and the kickback of the weapon threw him against Edward, sending them both stumbling. However, his shot rang true and the bullet struck its target, causing several pieces of wood to come loose and plummet to the ground. One bounced off the crashed rocket and ricocheted toward them. Reacting with his battle-honed senses awake, Edward swatted the wood away with his metal arm, silently thanking Winry's expertise when the automail limb sustained no damage despite the wood probably weighing more than Edward himself did.
From above, the array started to shudder, dropping pieces of the support beams as the portal strained to close. The physical edges of the gateway began to fold inward, and the wooden braces finally caved under the tremendous pressure, showering those below with splinters of wood.
"Well, it's a temporary fix," Alphonse said as he looked up after the wood had stopped moving. "The gate's still partly open, but now it's harder to get to. It buys us some time."
"Where'd you learn that?" Edward asked incredulously. "That wasn't just alchemy."
Alphonse grinned at the underlying compliment. He'd wanted so badly to impress his older brother, especially now that he had regained memories of his lost years. The things he remembered seeing Edward do were even more impressive than the stories said, and he aspired to be Edward's equal. "There's more to alchemy than just the circles, you know. Teacher taught me all kinds of little things that she'd never taught us before. I'm more surprised that you didn't see it first, Brother. You're the one who's learned a lot more than alchemy."
Edward hesitated. "I... don't think my eyesight is as good as yours, Al. I couldn't see anything but the array, and the array's blurry."
The dull thunder of footsteps as the police arrived forestalled any further comment. Alphonse dropped the rifle just before a small cadre of police officers came through the doorway.
"Al," Edward said under his breath. "You let me handle this. Stay close to me and let me do the talking. And whatever you do, don't greet people you think you recognize."
Alphonse nodded subtly, moving over to stand just behind Edward's left shoulder. His head spun with images from the Gate, and he was more than willing to let his brother take control of the situation. Even with the portal mostly closed, he could still hear the Gate wailing in the distance. The back of his mind teemed with images of unspeakable horrors that would make the Amestris military's darkest secrets look tame in comparison. He saw what he could only guess were scientific human transmutations, death marches, and mass extermination by poisonous air. And somewhere also lurking in the back of his thoughts was a gargantuan red-and-gray cloud of death billowing into the sky. But had it only been images, he might have been able to ignore them. However, the whole experience was shot through with the distant cries of entire populations being immolated in the flames of worldwide warfare.
With his head so full of the screams of the distant dying, Alphonse could only numbly follow his brother, sticking close and barely able to comprehend the situation. The screams became louder, and he could almost smell the noxious odor of chemical death. His head screamed in protest, as he blindly stumbled along behind Edward, only abstractly noting that Noa steadied him and guided his steps. He could hear Edward talking to the officers, and with some effort he managed to break through the cyclic thoughts when he nearly tripped over someone on the ground. His temporary madness subsided long enough to register the cadaver of a young man about Edward's age laying on the floor at their feet, dead of a bullet wound to the torso. His face was startlingly familiar.
"The other Al wanted to get me home too, to feel like he'd done something meaningful..." Edward's words back in war-torn Central suddenly made sense.
The "other Al" was this person.
In an attempt to block out the cacophony in his mind that threatened to overwhelm him, Alphonse dropped to his knees beside the body. "Brother, who is this?"
Edward looked down at him in surprise. For a moment he looked like he was going to scold Alphonse, and then the next moment, his eyes brimmed with unshed tears.
"His name was Alfons Heidreich. He was my roommate, and the closest thing I had to a best friend here. He seemed to understand me better than anyone, and he... he believed me when I told him I was from Amestris." His voice wavered. "Working with him was like being with you, Al. It was the only thing that made these past two years bearable, after Dad left."
"Come along, Mr. Elric," one of the officers said. "We need to take you to the station and question you further."
"I understand," Edward said wearily. "However, I don't know how much help I'll be, since I don't know very much about what the Thule Society was up to."
Alphonse found that putting physical distance between himself and the portal didn't help dull the shrill wail of the Gate itself. The images and indistinct screams of the sacrificed all gradually subsided, but the Gate's muted roar still haunted him.
He slouched in his seat, arms folded across his chest. Edward was seated next to him, calmly reading some periodical while they awaited the police officers' verdict. Between the two of them, Edward and Noa had relayed a disturbing tale of intrigue and betrayal. Edward spoke flatly about his recently-deceased roommate, and it took Alphonse a while to realize why it was that his brother seemed so cold about it: he was burying his pain under a mask of indifference. He'd done the same thing back in Amestris when he'd decided to take the rocket-airship back to this world and leave his brother and friends behind. It was the same kind of thing he always did. He bottled it all up and didn't let anyone see how much he grieved, how much he ached. The only emotions Edward ever let anyone see on him were anger and brief flashes of joy
For whatever reason, this angered Alphonse more than perhaps it should have. When even he couldn't figure out what Edward was thinking or feeling, it was frustrating. Dammit, Edward, there's a time and place for being the hero. It's okay to show your grief once in a while. Why can't you figure that out?
Some officers strolled by, talking between them, complaining about something called a mark. It sounded like they were complaining about the national currency. From their conversation, Alphonse deduced that inflation was making the currency -- if that was what they were talking about, which he imagined it had to be -- virtually worthless. It sounded like this country had been badly worked over by surrounding countries, being forced to its knees and denied aid. Edward had said they were in a country called Germany, but beyond that he hadn't said anything. In listening to Edward and Noa relay the story of the gateway, Alphonse had figured out that there was massive social discontent, enough that political parties were trying to stir uprisings.
A resurgence of the Gate's roar in his thoughts drowned out whatever else those officers said as they disappeared around a corner.
Alphonse cradled his head in his hands, struggling to regain his consciousness from this latest invasion of the Gatedwellers. He could see that hideous cloud again, and an island of rock in the middle of an ocean, where the tide ran red with blood as wave after wave of soldiers fell to the hidden gunfire of the enemy. He heard men crying out for their mothers as death crept over them. And he heard men screaming in pain and despair as they were roasted alive...
"Al! Al, snap out of it!" A sharp slap across the face brought Alphonse to his senses and slammed a door on the cacophony... for now, anyway. He blinked to focus his eyes, and found himself on the floor, curled in a fetal position, his hands over his ears. Edward was kneeling before him, his automail arm against Alphonse's shoulder, while his other hand was poised to strike again.
Alphonse coughed and sat up. "What... what happened?"
"I should ask you that. You started groaning and whimpering, and next thing I know, you're on the floor crying. I couldn't get you to respond, so I had to slap you. What's going on?"
Alphonse tried to say, but found his mouth wouldn't form the words. Try though he might, he just couldn't do it. Somehow, it felt like admitting the images he saw doomed them to be real, and he couldn't bear to have that on his conscience.
"Those images you've been seeing," Noa said gently. "Are they from your world, or from this one?"
Alphonse looked up at her in disbelief. "How did you know?"
"She can read minds," Edward said, with a trace of bitterness. "All she has to do is touch you and she can see what you see. That's how she figured out how to do an alchemic transmutation circle. She stole the information from me when I wasn't aware of it."
Noa looked away. "I'm sorry, Edward. They got my weakness. They promised me they'd take me there too, and let me live there. I wanted it so badly, I fooled myself into thinking it was okay."
"I told you that my home isn't Shamballa."
"I know you did! But they were more convincing, can't you see that?"
Edward shook his head disgustedly. "I'm not up for this, Noa. Al, are you okay now? Can you tell me what's been happening?"
"I'm sorry, Brother," Alphonse said, closing his eyes. "I just can't talk about it. I don't dare. If I do, I'm afraid I'll make them become true."
"Those images," Noa repeated, somewhat urgently, "are they from your world or this one?"
"I think they are from here. I'm sure that Amestris doesn't have that kind of technology. Flying machines that are faster than trains? It doesn't sound physically possible!"
"You don't understand physics, Al," Edward said gently, helping Alphonse to stand up. "It's more than possible, it's relatively easy to harness once you grasp it. The key is speed and the airfoil."
"Forget it, I'll explain it to you some other time." He dusted off his brother's coat, quelling the urge to ask why Alphonse was dressed this way. That was a question for a later time.
"All those bodies," Noa said with a shudder. "And that cloud... are those signs of weapons to come?"
Alphonse looked away from her, declining to answer. Seeing his discomfort, Edward instinctively put his arm around his brother, ruffling his dark blond hair out of old habit. It was amazing, a part of him marveled, that he had fallen back into these old, almost-forgotten habits after so long, with so little effort. Old habits really do die hard, I guess.
Uncharacteristically, Alphonse leaned into the impromptu embrace. "Brother... I -- I missed you so much. I tried to be strong, for Winry and Auntie Pinako's sakes, but when I was alone, it was so hard... all I could do was think about how they said you were probably dead, that you'd probably been crushed in the collapse of that underground city. But... I just couldn't bear the thought of you being dead too. Even though I couldn't remember any of what happened after... after that transmutation, I just knew you wouldn't die on me like that." His voice choked up as he pulled away again, shrugging Edward's arm off. "I didn't want to be all alone, Brother. I had to find you again. And then, when I did find you, you tried to abandon me again! Do I mean so little to you?"
"Al..." Edward found himself unable to speak. The look of complete hurt in Alphonse's eyes was heartbreaking. "I..." Dammit, I can't think straight!
One of the officers stopped in front of them. "Right, Mr. Elric, you're free to go home now. Sorry for the interrogation"
"Huh? Oh. Right. Um, no big deal."
"Do you need a ride home?" another voice said from a nearby doorway. Edward spun around in surprise. It was Fritz Lang. "I can give you a ride home if you need it, Edward."
Okay, this just keeps getting weirder. This guy keeps turning up. Hmm, but I shouldn't turn down the offer, I haven't got a mark to my name right now, so no money for a cab right home. And Al looks like he's ready to collapse, so walking would be a bad idea.
"Yeah, if you don't mind."
"Not at all. I got pulled in here as well, if you're wondering why I'm here. Come along, come along." Fritz smiled encouragingly as he gestured for them to follow him. Edward noticed that his brother hesitated before following. I suppose he's thinking the same thing I thought when I first saw Fritz. He does look like Fuhrer Bradley...
"And who is this strapping lad? He looks familiar."
"This is my brother Al. Al, this is Fritz Lang. He's a movie director and a recent friend of mine."
Alphonse stopped in his tracks and gave his brother a long, hard look.
"Look, Al, we'll talk more when we get home. I'm beat, and I can see that you are too." When Alphonse didn't budge, Edward internally kicked himself and resorted to pleading. "Please, Al? I promise, we'll talk about it once we've gotten something to eat and had a chance to sit and relax."
"Answer my question, Edward," Alphonse replied coldly, using his brother's name as a lever against him. "Do I mean so little to you that you could so easily abandon me? Does family mean so little to you now?"
Edward sighed and massaged his forehead with his left hand. "Look, Al, I wasn't thinking rationally. I wasn't really thinking much at all. All I could think about was how that portal was nothing but a gateway to hell. And I feared that if I left it open, someday something would come through that and kill you. I'd rather have been separated from you forever, and know that you're still alive, even if on the other side of the Gate, than watch you die in front of me because I wasn't strong enough to break the gateway myself. Like I said," he added with a helpless shrug, "I wasn't being rational. I just didn't want to see anyone else die. Even if we were separated by the Gate, as long as I knew you were alive, I could bear it. That's what haunted me these last two years anyway, the fear that my sacrifice wasn't enough, that you were still lost to me." Here he sighed heavily. "Now, can we leave this place, Al? I really don't want to stand around here any more. I just want to go home."
"Home is Amestris," Alphonse said in a near-whisper.
"Fine, I just want to go back to my flat. I'm exhausted. Come on, Al, please don't be stubborn."
Alphonse looked up at Fritz and then at Noa. Finally, he sighed, his shoulders slumping. Without another word, he followed them out the door, to Fritz's car. Noa hesitated as they were getting in. Edward looked her over curiously.
"Are you coming or not, Noa?"
She tilted her head at him. "Am I still welcome? After what I did?"
Edward shrugged. "You've got nowhere else to go, right? We'll talk more on this later, maybe tomorrow."
Noa smiled with relief and got into the car as well. Fritz remained silent, though his knowing smile was telling. As he drove, he glanced back at the two brothers in the back seat. Alphonse was drowsing, his eyes heavy with fatigue. Edward was lost in thought.
"Pity about your friend Alfons," Fritz said finally. "He was a bright young man. And unfortunately, the man who shot him was later killed by the police when he refused to give up. I guess there's no justice in the world."
"Justice," Edward said archly. "What are you talking about?"
"The fact that the man who killed your friend can't be brought to justice by the legal system."
"Hmph," Edward snorted tiredly. "Knowing Alfons, he probably would prefer it this way." His voice choked up slightly on the name. "He told me he'd be here. He said not to forget him, that he'd be here. And then he turns around and dies on me. I don't know whether to be angry with him or not."
"You do know that your friend was dying, don't you?" Fritz asked finally. "The rocket fuel he worked around wasn't helping, but he was already terminally ill with consumption. I doubt he had more than a few months left, with the way he disregarded his own health."
Edward closed his eyes, trying to shut out the truth. "I didn't want to believe it. I guess I just didn't want to believe his coughing meant anything serious."
"Even though it was sudden," Noa said in a whisper, "the way he died was better for him. He died almost instantly, rather than wasting away, which is what I think he feared most. He told me once, Edward, that he was afraid of how you'd react once he was gone. He said he thought you were more fragile than you were willing to admit."
"Fragile?" Alphonse said, surprised. "Brother isn't fragile. You should have seen some of the stuff he's been through."
"I believe they meant that emotionally I'm unstable," Edward said dryly. "And I suppose that's partly true. I mean, before I came here, I had you as a touchstone, as a way to staying grounded. Without you, I was... well, I guess like an unmanned boat that's come loose from its moorings. I guess you kept me sane, Al. I just never realized that until now. Funny, isn't it?"
Uncomfortable with the turn of conversation, Alphonse changed the subject: "Whatever happened to Dad? You said he was here with you."
Edward looked away. "He was the sacrifice that opened the Gate on this side. He transmuted himself with Envy."
"Envy? Envy was here?"
"As a giant serpent, yes."
"So... he's gone?"
Alphonse paused a moment before saying, "Is that what you meant about seeing two people you cared about die? Your roommate... and Dad?"
"Yes. Can we please wait until we get home... er... to the apartment... before we talk anymore, Al?"
"No worries, Edward," Fritz said gently. "I won't tell anyone. And besides, we're here."
"Ah," Edward said sheepishly. "Look, Fritz, thanks for the ride... in fact, thanks for everything. I don't know why you've been so helpful to me, but I do appreciate it."
"You might want to lie low for a while, Edward. This uprising will have some serious fallout, I imagine." The filmmaker paused as he shook Edward's hand in parting. "I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you that I knew your father some time ago. He was a good man, and you take after him a lot. I find it comforting to know that there are youth in this world, as cruel and disgusting as it is, that think the way you do. I have some hope for the future of humanity, because of youth like you." Fritz laughed then, self-consiously. "Listen to me! I'm rambling on like an old geezer. You take care, Edward, and if you need anything, please don't hesitate to call me."