Here we are at last—the final chapter~

For anyone interested, I have an alternate ending started! It's called Atonement, if any of you want to read it.


XXI
We Are But Human

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This is the end.

They are not prepared.

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"Are you sure it would be the same theory? I never brought it up because I thought...Pride himself is a Philosopher's Stone—Nicholas only had one..."

"Absolutely sure," Al said, nodding and accepting the parchment Dumbledore offered to him. Ed leaned over to see, trying to interpret the circle inscribed on it. The array seemed simple at first glance, but as he continued to study it, he realized how complex it really was. The strange letters around the outer edge, the foreign runes in every corner...

"You're going to have to explain what all of these mean," he said at last, looking up at Dumbledore. They would be able to figure it out on their own, given enough time, but he knew they couldn't take that chance. "These are magical runes, right? I've never seen them before..."

Dumbledore nodded. "They were the runes I knew best, and since Nicholas was reluctant to help...but they are relatively easy to understand once you know what they mean. It shouldn't take very long..."

"Let's get started, then," Ed said decisively, gesturing to the parchment still held tight in Al's grasp. "If we both learn it, we'll have a better chance of getting him..."

But that was the problem, he realized suddenly as they all made their way to the table. Getting to Pride. As soon as he caught wind of their plan, realized they were trying to get him within arm's reach...

Surely, he knew what happened to Envy in the north. Nothing escaped his Father's notice, and Pride was never far behind. Pride would protect his container—where, surely, the Stone resided—with everything he had if he realized what they were doing.

Even with this near-miraculous answer, they were leaving far too much to chance.

The runes were easy enough to memorize once Dumbledore explained their meaning: an inverted phoenix, the sun crushing a dragon...all the reverse of the original runes used in the Stone circle from Amestris.

And yet...the runes the Homunculus had used had symbolized the act of swallowing God. Had Dumbledore simply assumed that they would be satisfactory to destroy a Stone, or had Flamel also tried to deify himself...?

There was no time to mull over that, though. In addition to the semi-familiar runes, there were several Ed would have never thought to put in. The words around the edge—in some language called Latin—needed to be fully understood before they could activate the circle, and while Dumbledore was patiently translating it for them...it would take a while.

Draco's and Sirius' faces were not shining in elation as they had been. They still looked hopeful, yes, and more alive than they had in weeks, but reality had finally crashed into them as well. To pull this off, one of them would have to make it past Pride's shadows, past near-invisible attacks and impenetrable defenses, to get his hands on the small container. And then he would have to hold onto him long enough to activate the circle...

And, if they failed the first time, Pride would make it nearly impossible to get close enough to try again.

They all knew it, yet...

It was hope—something they had not felt in what seemed like forever.

And were there any other options anymore?


Ron wasn't blind, no matter how oblivious he often seemed. And when he walked into the Great Hall for breakfast that morning, he noticed a decided shift in the mood at the staff table.

McGonagall and Snape, especially, seemed to be in much higher spirits. She seemed to be trying to hide a broad smile as she ate her eggs, and he had not sent one scathing glance in Harry's direction all morning.

Something had happened. Something good. Ron had no idea what it was, but the whole atmosphere in the Great Hall was somehow brighter... The despair and fear that had clogged their minds, had stopped their breath, was lifted, if only a bit. Somehow, even the twinges of pain that had long assaulted his shoulder were gone. McGonagall and Snape—usually so stoic—were barely keeping in shouts of joy. Surely, the rest of the school felt it as well...

As the day continued, as moods lifted and eyes brightened and hope bloomed, Ron finally felt something aside from the all-consuming grief, the perpetual terror, the insatiable rage. Whatever had happened, whatever had caused this shift in their small world...it was doing them good, repairing their minds and their hearts the tiniest bit.

It wasn't much, but it was a start.


Ed could see the confusion on Sirius' and Draco's faces as their analysis of the circle wore on; however, for him, it was all starting to come together. The runes, the lines, the foreign words...he ignored his doubts and just immersed himself in the alchemy. This was something he knew; he had done it all his life; learning these runes was just like memorizing others back in Hohenheim's study. They were different, alien, but the sameness was comforting as he and Al discussed possible symbolisms, argued different ways of channeling the power, tried to decide on the quickest and most efficient method of activation.

Dumbledore looked on with a bemused smile; this was, apparently, far above what he knew of alchemy. It was advanced, very advanced, but the two of them had performed other transmutations just as complicated.

(Visions of the grotesque form that was not their mother were pushed to the back of his mind. They would not fail, not this time. More than their own selfish happiness rode on this transmutation, after all.)

He allowed his mind to speed through all the possibilities this circle offered, basking in the familiarity of it, and knew, somehow, that they would reach the solution.

Their solution.

The solution to wake them all from this hellish nightmare.

He would do whatever it took.


Their last class of the day, Transfiguration, started off as any other. Ron did his best to stay awake and pay attention...

(The nightmares had kept him awake nearly every night. The shadows drew ever nearer; everyone he loved was trapped, was bleeding heavily and couldn't possibly escape, and he was powerless to save them. And then the shadows turned into hundreds of snakes and struck.)

(Harry wasn't the only one who woke up screaming anymore.)

But it was daytime now; the shadows weren't quite as terrifying...he had dozed through Divination and History, so he needed to pay attention to McGonagall as she demonstrated how to turn a lizard into an eagle.

(Mundane, unimportant. But it was what the Ministry told her to teach. That night, she would show them how to transfigure the hardest carbon known to man, show them how to survive the war pounding on their front door.)

But even those poisonous thoughts were not as hateful, as dangerous as they had been before. McGonagall was smiling, genuinely smiling, and handed out house points for even the smallest things. When he accidentally gave his lizard talons, wings, and a beak, too preoccupied to focus on the anatomy of both species, she only patted his shoulder and patiently told him what he could do to improve.

Whatever had happened—was happening?—was something incredible, he quickly realized. To put Minerva McGonagall—who, before, had been the picture of worried, vigilant professor—into such a cheerful mood...

He turned to shake Harry awake, allowing the ghost of a smile to grow on his face. Maybe they'd get that bastard after all.


The day wore on into the afternoon before Ed and Al were satisfied they understood the circle well enough. There was no way to test their knowledge, no way to know for sure, but Dumbledore had used it only four years earlier...with devastating results.

And it was alchemy. Alchemy didn't change; it only expanded. It had stayed constant for centuries, and it was one of the few things they could count on in their uncertain lives.

(The only other thing Ed could truly trust at the moment was his brother. As he watched Al's eyes light up with long-absent hope as they finalized the minutiae of the circle, Ed knew he would never let him down.)

"Anyone want me to get dinner started?" Sirius asked, walking back into the kitchen. He and Draco had left hours ago; while they had not been any sort of bother (indeed, Ed had hardly noticed their presence at all), Draco had muttered something about them being too smart for their own good. Sirius had agreed, the smallest of smirks adorning his face. Now, the five of them were congregated again, staring around at each other with the first genuine smiles they had seen in weeks.

"I'm afraid I must decline," Dumbledore said, standing up. "I need to inform the others that you think this will work...and we must find a way to lure him within reach of that circle."

Ed nodded, standing up as well. "The sooner we beat that bastard, the better." He stuck out his hand suddenly, and Dumbledore shook it before smiling around at them all, Apparating away with a crack.

Somehow, it seemed final, like an abrupt ending without any sort of conclusion. But to Ed, their newfound hope far outweighed that trepidation...

It was quickly pushed aside and forgotten.


Harry was not waking up.

Ron turned fully, worry creasing his brow as he shook his friend more harshly. In the past, when Harry didn't awaken, he was either in the midst of a nightmare or witnessing another vision... Neither of those was a good situation, especially in a class full of curious students.

"Harry," he muttered, causing Hermione to turn and McGonagall to step closer with a frown. "Mate, c'mon, we're in class..."

Harry's eyelids were twitching violently; his entire body was shaking as Ron continued to attempt to wake him. He had rarely been so agitated, even in the throes of a nightmare...Ron looked up at Hermione in desperation, but she looked just as terrified as he felt.

"Rennervate," McGonagall said from his left, her voice full of confusion and worry. Harry's eyes snapped open, but for a moment, they showed absolutely no recognition. He was staring at a point past them as he sat up, far past them...whatever this terrible vision had been...

"Mister Potter, are you well?" McGonagall asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. Most of the class was watching, now, as she stooped to be at his eye level. "Do you need—?"

All at once, Harry's eyes snapped to attention...but the terror on his face only grew as he met McGonagall's worried gaze. He shoved her hand away violently, not saying a word, and stood up, grabbing his wand. The door slammed shut behind him as he raced out of the room.

It all had happened so fast; Ron had barely seen his friend move. But the unadulterated horror on Harry's face had been impossible to miss. There was no time to wonder why; Ron knew he needed to find Harry and figure out what was wrong before it was too late.

(Too late for what? He had no idea.)

As one, he and Hermione stood up, grabbing their wands as well, and followed him out the door. McGonagall was calling for them, but they paid her no heed; surely, whatever Harry had just witnessed had been something beyond their wildest imaginings. They had to find him, find out what had happened—

They found him trying to break open McGonagall's office door, only down the hall. Heaving sobs wracked his body, and tears flowed freely down his cheeks as the door refused to open. Hermione reached him first; she grasped his arm desperately, trying to get him to turn. "Harry, please, what's going on?"

"I have to save him!" Harry did not stop his hysterical attempts to get into the office, and he did not turn to look at them as he continued—"They said—don't tell the Order—I have to—"

He slammed his shoulder into the door one final time; when it stood as strong as ever, he collapsed into a shaking heap on the floor. "Mate, what're you talking about?" Ron asked, his gut clenching in terror as he knelt down next to him. He put a hand out to try and steady his friend as he sobbed, but he was pushed away; Ron toppled sideways, overbalanced, and his still-sore right shoulder smashed into the stone floor.

His pained yelp seemed to snap Harry out of his stupor, but his eyes were filled with just as much pain and sorrow as he helped Ron up carefully. "I'm sorry—I'm such an arse—so useless—"

"Harry, please, calm down," Hermione pleaded, pulling them into a nearby niche as McGonagall came around the corner, looking very worried. Only when the clicking of her shoes had long faded did she dare speak again. "Just calm down, it'll be okay—"

"No, it won't be okay, Hermione!" Harry said loudly. His eyes were flickering all around, only occasionally meeting either of their gazes. Whatever he had seen—"They—they've got Sirius! In that place I saw at my hearing, the Department of Mysteries! They'll kill him if I don't get over there!"

It took a moment for this horrible piece of news to sink in. "Pride and—and Voldemort?" Hermione finally asked, her voice scarcely more than a whisper. "Are you sure?"

"I saw it! Just now! Just like all the other times—"

"But—Harry—think about it a minute," she pleaded, though Ron could see her eyes filling with tears. "It's barely three o'clock—the Ministry's still full of people—how would they—?"

"Pride's controlling the Ministry, though," Ron cut her off, a sick pit of realization forming in his stomach. "He'd just threaten them all into doing what he says, right?"

"But—wait! Please!" Hermione's voice cracked, and Harry turned to her with what looked like a great amount of effort. "What if this is what they want? You're one of his sacrifices—what if he's just luring you there?"

"I'm only one of them," Harry countered, looking up and down the hallway before heading for McGonagall's door again. "The way Al was talking, he needs all five of us. If I go and save Sirius and get myself caught, it won't matter, because—"

"Harry!" Hermione sounded nearly hysterical, and Ron wasn't far behind. Had Pride, this war, everything finally gotten to him? He was talking nonsense—sacrificing himself—"Please! We can figure something out! Talk to McGonagall, or Snape, or—"

"He said Sirius will die if I talk to anyone in the Order," Harry said, and his voice caught as he tried different spells to incinerate the door. "Look—I don't have a choice—I can't just—"

"Well, it's a good thing we're going with you, then, isn't it?"

Ron spun incredulously, and even Harry turned to face the speaker. Ginny stood there, flanked by Neville and Luna; a spark was in her eye that Ron had not seen in months. "We're not going to just sit around if that bastard's got Sirius…"

"Wait a minute!" Hermione said, her voice rising in terror as she looked around at them. "You all have seen Pride—know what he's capable of—we can't just—"

"Sirius is a good person," Neville said quietly. "We can't just leave him to die. And Pride needs to pay…"

For too many things. His father, his arm, Romilda, Padma, everyone else who had suffered to fulfill Pride's sick dreams… He and Ginny had gone through Hell when their father was killed, and Ron would do anything to make sure Harry didn't live through that nightmare.

Because once it started, there was never any way to wake up.

"We're all going with you, then," he said decisively, his grip tightening on his wand. "How are we getting there?"

"No—wait!" Hermione sounded desperate and hysterical, so Ron turned to her reluctantly. It sounded calloused, but she was the only one who had not seen Pride in action. She did not know how truly terrifying that monster was, didn't know the pain Sirius must have been feeling at that very moment, the horror and fear and—

"That makes four of you, right? Four of his five sacrifices!" Hermione was saying, her voice reduced to scarcely more than a strangled whisper. "Ed and Al—they said—if he gets all five of you, the whole country is gone—"

"Well, it's not like Malfoy's going to show up, is it?" Harry asked loudly, returning to the office door. "Look, Hermione, he's the only family I have left. I can't just—if he dies—I have to at least try!"

Ron could clearly hear the desperation—bordering on hysteria—overwhelming his best friend's voice. Sirius was the closest thing Harry had to a father, especially after Ron's own father had died… Sirius would do anything for his godson, and Ron was sure Harry felt the same way.

That horribly lost expression, that tortured, terrified voice made up Ron's mind for him. Even if it was to the depths of Hell, even if it meant his own long and painful death, he would stand by Harry's side. He was a Gryffindor; he was a Weasley; but, above all, he was Ron. And to Ron, all that mattered at the moment was Harry.

He wasn't going to leave his best friend when he needed him the most.

Hermione, apparently, had come to the same conclusion; she squared her shoulders, looked into Harry's eyes with a determined expression, and asked, "How are we getting to the Ministry?"


Grimmauld Place was quiet, but it wasn't the suffocating silence they had lived under for months. They breathed easy, now; there was a certain lift to their gaits; the perpetual worry had finally been muted, replaced by something Draco could only call hope.

They had all congregated in the living room, unwilling to leave each other's sides. Draco merely sat in one of the large armchairs, basking in the silence. Ed and Al were fast asleep, exhausted from their nonstop research; Sirius was staring off into space, though a small smile graced his features.

It truly was peaceful.

Those past two months—spent in the musty, desolate place Sirius and the Elrics called home—had shaken his life at its very foundation. It had come out, after Ed and Al left Hogwarts, that they were technically Muggles; Draco had, of course, viewed them with the contempt appropriate of his class. But then when all Hell was breaking loose, when he was sure he was going to die, they had come charging in, commanding professors decades older than them, pushing that monster out of the school and saving countless lives.

He couldn't quite find it in him to see them with anything more than respect and the slight, lingering fear instilled by his father. Lucius had come stumbling home from the raid on that café, covered in blood, with a gaping hole in his arm…

But when Draco heard the whole story—that they were sent to bring the Elrics to Pride, dead or alive—he didn't think he could blame Ed for the defensive measures he took.

(His mother's screams when his father arrived, however, still haunted his nightmares.)

But right now, Edward and Alphonse were none of those things. As Draco watched them sleep on the couch across the room, he was struck by how normal, how young they looked. Ed's head was lolling against the back of the couch, and one arm was wrapped protectively around his brother. Al's head was resting on Ed's shoulder, and his mouth was wide open as he snored softly. There was nothing of the determined, brilliant heroes who were sure to save the entire country; the fear, the stress, everything had been stripped away.

It was only then that Draco truly realized…they weren't any older than he was.

"They look so peaceful, don't they?" Sirius' quiet voice cut through the room. Draco jumped and turned; he had nearly forgotten the older man was there. While decidedly a Gryffindor and a long-time enemy of the Malfoy family…Sirius had been relatively nice to Draco. (He was sure Al had a say in this change of attitude.) At any other time, in any other situation, they would be at each other's throats, but…

They both hated Pride, were fighting for the same thing. A common goal like that, inevitably, created bonds much stronger than hatred ever could.

"Mm," he agreed, watching as Al's cat walked up to its owner and nudged his leg. Al stirred but did not awaken; eventually, the cat—really nothing more than a huge ball of fur, Ed had jokingly remarked—gave up and wandered over to Sirius. "You think they'll really be able to pull this off?"

It wasn't exactly that he was doubting them; he just wanted to hear it said aloud, made concrete, because he needed something to hold onto. They had found a solution, yes, but was it enough to beat Pride?

(He so desperately wanted the answer to be yes. But the Slytherin, the Malfoy in him forced him to look at the situation realistically.)

(He needed this to be over, because he was sure he would go mad if it lasted much longer.)

"You're over-thinking everything again," Sirius said, laughing as he scratched the cat's ears. "'Course it'll work—"

The room was suddenly full of blinding blue light. Draco and Sirius jumped, and the cat yowled terribly; Ed and Al started awake, looking around the room with sleep-gummed eyes before they finally found the tabby Patronus in the middle of the room.

"Potter and his friends have left Hogwarts. We don't know when or how, but portraits who overheard their conversation say Pride and Voldemort lured him to the Department of Mysteries. Edward, Alphonse, get there as soon as you can. Draco and Sirius—stay in the house."

The Patronus dissipated, leaving behind an old, broken quill—a Portkey, most likely. The Elrics were already moving, all traces of grogginess gone. Ed was swearing fluently under his breath in what sounded like several different languages, and Al was as pale as a ghost. As they neared the quill, not sparing a glance for either Sirius or Draco, the older man stood up quickly—

"You can't expect me to stay here! That's my godson risking his life—I can't just—"

Ed gave him a long, level look before nodding and gesturing for him to come forward. Draco was sure there would have been an argument if they had any time…but if he knew anything about Sirius, it was that he was stubborn. Arguing now would just waste precious time…

He also stepped forward, having half a mind to join the fight. If Pride and the Dark Lord were there, surely they would have brought Death Eaters. If there was even the slightest chance that his father was there—maybe they could get away, get his mother, flee the country—

"You stay here," Ed said quickly, putting a hand out to stop his progress. "We don't know who else he got over there—if Neville and Ginny and Luna are there as well—"

He hesitated before nodding, albeit a bit reluctantly. He knew he was selfish—it was practically required for Slytherin house—but he wasn't sure he was selfish enough to risk the life of every person in the country.

(Even if the majority of the population was Muggle…if this war had taught him anything, it was that humans were humans, and that was what really mattered.)

(He was sure he would have to have a long chat about that with his parents when he got home.)

But he was getting ahead of himself—who knows if I'll be going home at all—and the other three were preparing to go save the world. So he did all he could think of—he offered a small smile and a wave, saying "good luck" in the most optimistic voice he could manage.

They all smiled back, obviously trying to comfort him, to assure him everything would turn out for the best…then they disappeared with a crack.

Grimmauld Place was quiet, and this time, Draco found it nearly impossible to breathe.


"Harry, I don't like this…"

Hermione's nervous voice echoed back to Ron, who was walking at the back of the group with his sister. He had to admit…there was definitely something going on here. When they had finally gotten themselves to a fireplace connected to the Floo network, they had arrived in a completely deserted Ministry of Magic. It had only been half past three…there should have been hundreds of workers…

That, more than anything, seemed to decide for them all that Harry's vision had been devastatingly accurate.

Once they had found their way downstairs to the Department of Mysteries, their path was eerily clear. The first door they opened—one in twelve spinning around the room—was the correct one, leading through a strange space with all sorts of clocks. Ultimately, they arrived in a huge room full of small glass spheres.

The rows stretched farther than Ron could see in the dim candlelight, and they were stacked at least a hundred shelves high. They slowly made their way toward row ninety-seven, wands raised, eyes peeled for any sign of movement. This was more than enough light for Pride to materialize—he could be anywhere—

Hermione choked back a sob as they reached the correct row. Ron hurried to look down it, ready for nearly anything…but there was absolutely nothing there.

They all stood in silence while Harry desperately checked the adjacent rows… Surely, Sirius had to be here; the Ministry was deserted when it should have been bustling with life; Harry's visions had been horribly accurate ever since they started—

Suddenly, a label on one of the orbs right in front of Ron caught his eye. He approached it cautiously, raising his wand to read it better…

S.P.T. to A.P.W.B.D

Dark Lord

and (?) Harry Potter

There was something about this that sent chills up his spine. Harry—his best friend in the world—was grouped together with their worst enemy in the Department of Mysteries?

A quick look at the nearby orbs showed no other names he recognized. It was strange…too strange…

"Harry," he said quietly, not taking his eyes off the strange sphere. "You might want to look at this…"

Harry returned, looking very worried, glancing around as if expecting a beaten, bloody Sirius to appear out of nowhere. That was their main goal, certainly, but this was far too strange to just ignore. He gestured to the orb wordlessly, and Harry sent him an incredulous look before stepping closer.

He seemed to stare at his name, adjacent to You-Know-Who's, in some sort of trance before he slowly reached to pick it up. "I don't think you should do that," Hermione said with a sort of hushed desperation. "We're here to find Sirius, Harry, we don't know what these things are—"

"It's got my name on it," he insisted, and his fingers curled around the sphere, lifting it from its pedestal. They all stared at it for a moment, expecting it to do something, anything, but it only reflected the flickering candlelight, glowing eerily and casting shadows all around.

Shadows.

Ron's brain suddenly kicked back into gear, snapping out of the strange dream-like state. He thought he heard something move behind him and spun around, ready for Pride, ready for You-Know-Who, ready for—

A dozen Death Eaters were emerging from the aisle, their faces masked but their gaits decidedly triumphant. "Very good, Potter. Now, give me the prophecy, and nobody gets hurt."

.

.

They were running; they were running faster than Ron had ever run in his life; they had smashed the countless shelves of prophecies, but he didn't know if it would be enough to get away—

He had a tight grip on Ginny's hand, and he felt someone holding fast to his right shirt sleeve. Hermione was nearby, distracting Death Eaters, collapsing more shelves—still, hopefully, keeping up with the rest of them.

Reality had hit Ron as soon as Malfoy started talking to Harry—they had been tricked, played like the children they were. He had not been able to see through the lies and convince Harry…it was so obvious now—

They reached an intersection, but Death Eaters were coming from both sides; they could only race forward, creating as much chaos as possible, trying to stay alive…

For the second time in three months, Ron was sure he was going to die.

A door appeared in front of them, and they dashed through it, not caring where it led. Hermione was the last one through; she slammed it shut, putting nearly a dozen spells on it that would—hopefully—keep the Death Eaters away…for the time being.

The room was quiet. Too quiet, Ron realized as he circled in place, looking for threats. The other rooms had always had something going on; the time room had that strange bird and the endless ticking of the clocks; even the room with the prophecies had nearly hummed, full of the pure magic concentrated in those small glass spheres.

Suddenly, something straight ahead of him caught his eye, and he stepped forward cautiously. The others (thank Merlin we're all together) followed him, their wands raised, ready for action. The room was dim, but not terribly so; as they moved closer, Ron could tell the figure was human, shorter than any of them… Dark hair, an old-fashioned vest with a white shirt…

Every instinct was screaming at him to run, but Ron could only stare, entranced. The alternative was a dozen grown, insane men outside; he thought he would take his chances with the child in here who didn't even seem aware of their presence.

Hermione seemed to realize first…she let out a low moan from next to him, shoving Harry back, standing in front of him with her wand outstretched. Ron wanted to ask her what she was doing, what was wrong, but then the boy turned around, revealing terrifyingly purple eyes and a wide, predatory smile.

Ron pushed his sister behind him, baring his teeth and raising his wand even before his mind registered what was happening. This is Pride. They had seen the shadows, fought the shadows, but this, certainly, was his container…

It was just as terrifying as the Order had described.

"So good of you to come," the monster said, his metallic voice echoing around the empty room. "If you four would come with me…" Shadows wrapped around Ron and Hermione, flinging them to opposite walls while more reached for the other four. They were yelling hysterically for Ron, for Hermione, screaming obscenities at Pride, but he paid them no heed. As Ron picked himself up slowly, his vision unfocused and head bloody, he saw Pride leaving the room, not sparing a glance for Ron or Hermione.

Then the door slammed shut, and the room was quiet.

"Hermione?" Ron called as loudly as he could manage, standing up slowly despite the tipping floor and the overwhelming nausea. "—ione, you okay?"

No answer. He made his way over to her (if she's dead it's my fault), holding onto walls and the scarce furniture when he could…he needed to go save Harry and the others—if he didn't the entire country was doomed—but first, he had to make sure Hermione was alive.

He finally reached her side, dropping to his knees and groping for her wrist. After a few seconds of unbridled terror, he felt a pulse—faint, slow, but there.

If he didn't get her to a Healer soon, though…

All at once, the vertigo hit him, and he toppled sideways, vomiting on the floor and Hermione's robes. The room was spinning—he could barely sit up—but he had to—

There was a distant, echoing laugh, and then there was only silence.


The three of them tore through the Department of Mysteries, desperately searching for Pride, for Harry, for a Death Eater, for anyone. But the entire complex was completely deserted; not a soul was in sight.

Dumbledore had said Voldemort was after a prophecy being held there, but when they finally found their way to the correct room, it was completely trashed. A huge swath of the room was demolished, glass shards lay everywhere…the path was so complete, so widespread, that, for a moment, Ed could only stare. Then he swore, staring to run toward the wreckage. If anyone was trapped in there—but, surely, Pride would have already retrieved any of the sacrifices—

"Over here!" Sirius called, heading for a door that was hanging off its hinges. "They might have gone through here—"

With one last glance toward the massive pile of glass and wood, Ed changed direction and headed toward Sirius. Any sort of clue at all—

Sirius was already inside the room, casting his lit wand around in search of any hints of what had happened. Then, with a strangled cry, Al dashed to the left wall, dropping to his knees beside a prone figure. "Hermione!"

Ed and Sirius rushed over; she lay there, her hair bloody, covered in vomit. "Is she alive?" Sirius asked, his face pale, dropping down next to Al. Ed was about to join them when something on the ground caught his eye. There was text written on the stone floor in a horrible, deep red—

Help her—I've gone after Ginny and the others.

It was short, to the point, and nearly illegible, but Ed easily recognized it as Ron's handwriting. Either he was hurt as well or he had used Hermione's blood to write the note…they had to assume the former…

And he's going after Pride on his own.

He cursed under his breath, standing up quickly. "Sirius, Apparate her to Molly or—or someone—head injuries are too dangerous—"

He hesitated before nodding. "I'll meet you two in the spinning room, all right?" And then he was gone, Hermione in tow.

"Ron's gone to save the others," he said as explanation to Al as they left. "We have to assume the rest of them are his sacrifices, and he just left Ron and Hermione…"

Al unconsciously picked up the pace, his jaw set. "Even if he doesn't have all five of them here, he'll probably just take them until he can get Draco and anyone else…"

Ed nodded his agreement as they arrived back in the circular room. "Right. Where are Tonks and Mad-Eye and the others, do you think?" They had all arrived at roughly the same time, but they had split up to cover more ground. Evidently, they were still searching one of the other rooms…or they were locked in battle with Pride.

Once the room stopped spinning, Ed was ready to start just opening doors until they found the others, leaving a marker for Sirius; however, Al nudged him, pointing to one of the doors to their left. There was an X carved into the wood—faint, but visible. "You think that's where they are?"

"Might as well check," Ed shrugged. "What do you think's taking Sirius—?"

The man in question came running through one of the other doors, his face white and wand at the ready. "Where are the others? Hermione should be okay, Molly was calling Madame Pomfrey when I left…"

They waited impatiently for the room to stop spinning. Thankfully, the correct door was still marked, and they raced inside, ready for anything, ready to take out Pride once and for all…

The room was large, set up like a coliseum, with a raised dais in the middle. Pride was halfway up the risers on the opposite side of the room, easily blocking the attacks from the various Order members. Four figures were suspended in the air around him… It was difficult to see his face at such a distance, but Ed was sure he wore a triumphant smirk.

The monster looked up as Sirius slammed the door, and his grin grew wider. "Edward and Alphonse…so kind of you to come…"

"Let them go, you bastard," Ed snarled, taking the steps two at a time to reach the bottom of the room. He thought he could hear a sort of…muttering…from the archway in the center of the dais, and gave it a wide berth as he continued, "You won't win, so just—"

"Oh, I won't? Unless I'm mistaken, I am dangerously close to obliterating this ridiculous country…I have four here, and it will not be impossible to take the Malfoy boy…"

"Do you really think we'll let you just take Draco?" Al asked harshly. He held no weapon, but one would be useless; the stone surrounding them, surely, did not contain enough carbon to be of any use. The only effective weapon they had was Ed's arm…and their transmutation circle. If they could coordinate their attacks…Al could find an opening…he had always been faster…

Pride laughed, pulling his bound captives closer. "Do you really think you have a choice? You cannot hide him forever. The boy's parents mean everything to him—if I threaten them…"

Al snarled outright this time, baring his teeth up at Pride. "You'll be dead before you hurt anyone else—we can promise you that."

The sneer turned even more sinister. "You are a fool. If you expect me to give them up to fight you…unless you would rather I use them as shields…"

Ed saw Harry's eyes shift from the group of Order members to a point somewhere behind them, but he could not chance turning around. Unless it was Voldemort himself, they likely didn't have to worry—

"Let them go, you bastard!"

Ed heard something tear, and then the room was engulfed in total blackness. Fred and George's Powder. He never thought he'd be so happy to hear Ron's voice as he yelled for them to get Ginny and the others out—the large-radius Powder didn't last nearly as long—

Several things happened at once; Ed heard Pride scream in rage and scramble for something—a wand?—and the adults sprung forward, toward where the children had been suspended, preparing to Apparate them away. Something smashed near where Harry had been held, and a new voice entered the fray—ethereal and far away—but Ed could not make out what she was saying. He could only wait, holding a defensive stance in anticipation for the moment the Powder wore off...

As light slowly returned to the room, he could see Pride standing—alone—on the risers. The Order members were Apparating back in, holding their wands defensively toward him.

There was a glint of something nearing madness in Pride's eyes. "You have successfully made me angry, boy." His voice was low and dangerous as he looked over their heads, across the room toward Ron. "You just won't die, will you?"

And before Ron could reply, before anyone could react, shadows were shooting across the room with blinding speed. Ed yelled a warning, but Ron was already diving away, down into a row of seats, crawling desperately to safety.

"Get him out of here!" he yelled to no one in particular, charging Pride with his blade at the ready. Nobody had the chance to, though; Pride was just as quick about attacking the half a dozen Order members as he was Ron.

Ed saw Mad Eye take a nasty slice through his shoulder—barely missing his neck—but it wasn't life-threatening; he and Al continued up the steps, blocking and dodging shadows, doing their best to reach Pride before he caused any more damage.

"Do you really want to get back to your father this badly?" Ed yelled over the chaos of the battle—Death Eaters, it seemed, had found them, engaging the other Order members. He forced himself to tune out their battles; if he didn't focus entirely on Pride—

"He is my father—of course I will do anything for him. You would have done the same for your mother, would you not? That is why you—"

"We wouldn't have killed fifty million people, no!" Ed roared back, noticing Al circling out of the corner of his eye. Trying to get closer…he needed to keep him talking…"We loved her, but we would never—"

"But would you kill fifty million insects to see her alive? Just one more time?" There was a mocking tone to his voice, now. He seemed unaware of Al slowly making his way closer, but they couldn't know for sure… "You humans are only ants to us. A power source. It is no different—"

Ed only snarled in response—distract, distract, distract. "At least Mom loved us! You're just a pawn to that bastard! I bet—if you get home with all these people's souls—he'll just take them and leave you to die!"

"But he is my father. I live to serve him." A shadow made it past Ed's defenses—a high-pitched yell—Tonks had been hit. Ed couldn't chance a look back, however—"We know nothing of human emotion. We have no need of it. We only—"

The tide of battle had moved them—Ed was level with Pride, now, while Al was lurking a few steps below. He was still several feet away, but if he took a flying leap—

It was as if Al had read his mind; he slammed his hands together, the sound echoing around the large room, and propelled himself upward, getting a tight grip on Pride's head. Ed took several steps back as the power crackled around his brother and the Homunculus, lighting the room with a terrifying blue glow.

Pride was screaming, trying to attack him with shadows in a last-ditch effort to survive. Al suffered several gashes but did not loosen his grip on either side of Pride's head—the power was only growing—if he could just hold on for a few more seconds—

Ed's world exploded.

He was sent flying several feet back, hitting his head hard on a bench. He sat up quickly, though, looking wildly around for Pride. If it hadn't worked, if he was still alive, there would be hell to pay—

But he saw nothing. He could not see Al, either, but he trusted the Order to tend to him if need be—as much as his chest ached at the thought, he had to make sure Pride was gone—

The spot where Pride and Al had stood was scorched; a small humanoid figure lay at the exact center of the explosion, perhaps two inches long and curled up like a newborn. Ed thought its lips were moving, but it was impossible to tell what it was saying over the battle below…

Most of the fights seemed to have ceased, in fact; Dumbledore had arrived at some point, rounding up the remaining Death Eaters. Tonks, bleeding heavily from her leg, was helping Ron up—Sirius was the only one left fighting—but Ed could not let his guard down just yet.

Where was Al?

Panic rose in his chest as he scanned the room again; he saw no shock of blond hair, moving or otherwise—

Remus was looking up at him with worry and panic in his eyes. "Where's Al?" he asked loudly, running down the steps to speak to him easier. "Did you see where he fell? Is he all right?" Pride—whatever he had been reduced to—was the least of his worries at the moment. His little brother was nowhere in sight—he didn't know if he was okay—

The older man put a hand on his arm, the pain in his eyes only increasing. Ed's stomach plummeted. Al—he couldn't be—

"The—the force of the explosion, it threw him across the room," he said carefully. "He—"

"Is he all right? Did he hit his head? Let me see him—we can get him to Madame Pomfrey, he'll be fine—" He was rambling, he knew, but it kept him from thinking of the terrifying possibilities. Al was fine—Remus was overreacting—

There was a loud, barking laugh, and then a bright flash of red light. Ed turned quickly to see Sirius flying through the air—directly toward the archway in the center of the room—

But there was no thud as he hit the ground on the other side.

Remus turned as well, spinning wildly to try and find his friend. But the woman was cackling; Sirius was not there—

Suddenly, he understood.

"What the fuck is that thing?" His voice cracked, but he paid it no heed. That—archway—swallowed people whole—Sirius had disappeared through it—Al was not there—

Before he could take another step toward that thing, before he could do anything but scream, Remus grabbed him around the middle, holding him back with badly shaking arms. "They're—they're not here. They're gone…"

"No! They aren't! Al! ALPHONSE!"

But then he saw a flash of white as the cloth fluttered, heard the too-familiar childlike laughter, and he realized.

"LET ME GO!" he roared, fighting against the strong arms holding him back. "That's the Gate—they're—I have to—"

"Ed, listen to me—"

"GET OFF ME!"

"It isn't your Gate, it's just a death veil, there's nothing you can do—"

"Edward." Dumbledore's soft voice came from behind him, and he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. "There is truly nothing you can do. I am very sorry—"

"Let me go, or I'll make you." His voice was reduced to a low growl, but he knew he sounded no less threatening. "You shouldn't give a shit about what happens to me—Al beat Pride—there's nothing else for me to do here—"

"Edward, we will discuss this back at Headquarters. Right now, you need to calm down. There is nothing you can do for your brother—"

"Shut up!" With one final yank of his automail, he flung himself from Remus' grip, making a mad dash for this death veil. If he wasn't too late—just like so many months ago—maybe he could strike a deal, get at least Al and Sirius out alive—

People were screaming his name, begging in terrified, hysterical tones for him to stop, but he ignored them. His little brother was at the Gate—Sirius had no idea what he was up against—there wasn't a choice anymore.

He dived through the old, fluttering cloth and did not look back.


What…the hell?

Sirius picked himself up slowly, holding his head, and tried to figure out where he was. He had been fighting Bellatrix; of that much he was certain. The last thing he had seen was Remus turning as he fell through that archway, terror in his eyes—

Am I dead? I must be dead. There was no other explanation. That veil—the Department of Mysteries had always been bizarre—he wouldn't be surprised if it had killed him. But, if he was dead, what was he supposed to do now?

"Is anyone there?" he tried. He wasn't sure if there was something wrong with his eyes, but all he could see was white. He wasn't expecting an answer—was trying to figure out what to do—how to get back to Remus and Harry—when a familiar voice called back—

"Sirius? Is that you?"

"Al?" Of all the people to meet in the afterlife—if Al was dead…Ed was gonna be pissed.

"Can you see anything? Besides the white?" he yelled back. His voice sounded incredibly far away…which made sense, Sirius supposed. He couldn't see even a hint of the boy. He spun slowly again, wondering if there was anything else he was missing, and was suddenly face-to-face with a huge set of stone doors.

He swore loudly, eyes widening in terror as he took in the sight…and the strangely humanoid figure that appeared in front of it. It was exactly his height, exactly his build…but it was made of the whiteness and wearing a sickening grin.

He swore again, because, quite frankly, he had never seen anything so terrifying. (He wasn't sure there was much else he could do, anyway.)

"Don't say anything! Don't move!" Al called, his voice going slightly higher. "I'll figure something out—just don't—Brother?"

Sirius exhaled heavily but decided it was wise to heed Al's warning. So Ed had jumped through the veil after them, huh…? Unless he had some way of getting them all out of here…

"Take me," Ed was saying loudly, but Sirius didn't dare avert his attention from the…thing in front of him. "Send Al and Sirius back to England, that's equivalent, right?"

"Not quite." The voice came from all around him, and he jumped at the sudden noise. It sounded like it was several people talking at the same time, and simply the sound of it sent chills up his spine.

Then, realization hit him all at once, and he exhaled again, looking up toward the nonexistent sky, trying desperately to stay calm and silent. This was their Gate, one of the only things that truly seemed to scare them. And equivalent…it sounded a lot like their alchemy. An eye for an eye, things like that, he mused to himself. But as long as they knew what they were doing—

It sure sounded like they didn't, though…Ed's tone was becoming increasingly desperate. From the sound of it, he was trying to find some way to get at least Sirius and Al back to England…or Amestris… somewhere that wasn't dead. But again and again, he was denied—it wasn't equivalent.

Disregarding Al's warning and throwing caution to the winds, he addressed the figure still standing in front of him—"Who are you, exactly? What the hell is going on?"

Its grin grew wider. "I am the one you call the world, the universe, God, truth, all, one…but most importantly…I am you."

"That's not creepy at all," Sirius muttered, raising an eyebrow. "Can you tell me what's going on? Or is that some godly thing we mortals aren't allowed to know?" He was fighting against the panic rising in his throat, falling back on his crutch—snarky comebacks. But if this really was "God," was there anything—?

"Well, you're never returning to your precious Britain," it said, cheerful—sadistic—grin wide as ever, "but you're not dead—yet—so—"

"I can be used as equivalency."

Sick realization was forming in his gut. When Ed and Al had talked about a cost, a price they had to pay at the Gate, they had never meant money. They had meant themselves—body parts—

Suddenly, Ed's missing limbs made far too much sense. Sirius wanted to be sick.

And yet, something else nagged at his brain as well. Falling through that veil had permanently separated him from home…he would never see any of them again…even if he travelled to Amestris, learned alchemy, somehow found the proper equivalence, he couldn't—?

"Very good, Mister Wizard. Lucky for you, though, the alchemists are trying to get you out alive."

"But what could get all of us out?" It didn't make sense—he only knew the very basics of their equivalent exchange—but, surely, even several limbs would not be enough to get them all out alive, to Amestris—?

"You're not bad at this," the figure said, tilting its head for a moment. "If there was any way for you to survive, you would not be a bad alchemist…"

A plan was forming in Sirius' mind, even as it was talking. It was insane—they would hate him for it—but if he really—"So I'll never see Remus or Harry or anyone else ever again," he said slowly, his gut clenching at the thought. His best friend all alone…he and Harry would be…

The grin grew wider. "You are correct."

Before Sirius could reply, Ed's loud voice carried from so far away—"Magic bypasses equivalency, right? Sirius is a wizard—can you—just—take his magic out of him? Send him with us to Amestris as a Muggle, at least—I won't let anyone else die—"

"That would be acceptable," the omnipresent voice said, sounding almost thoughtful, "if taking the magic from a wizard were possible."

Ed let out a low moan, but all at once, Sirius knew what he had to do. If he could never return, would be stranded in a place he did not belong, the least he could do was help these two boys find their way home.

"Sirius, don't even think about it!" Al's voice, panicked and terrified, echoed through the whiteness…but Sirius knew it was the only possible answer. His chest physically ached at the thought of leaving Harry and Remus and everyone else—forever—but there was no way to see them again. He would do anything, absolutely anything…but he wasn't sure his anything would be good enough against this all-powerful being.

His jaw set, his mind made up, he turned to face this "god" head-on. Even if he was utterly terrified, was still fervently hoping that this was all a terrible nightmare, he would not meet his fate acting like a coward.

"Take me—send Ed and Al back home to Amestris."

It rang loud and clear through the whiteness, and he could hear the boys' desperate refusals as they screamed at him to take it back…but the Truth's grin only grew wider.

"You are willing to sacrifice yourself for two alchemists who brought chaos to your world?"

"They deserve to live there more than I do. And—you have Ed's limbs, right? Give those back to him, too. Is that equivalent?"

God grinned wickedly over at him, and Sirius immediately knew the answer.

"Yes."

With that single word, it seemed, their fates were sealed. The great stone doors before him opened; long, black arms extended from the darkness within, heading straight for him. Edward's and Alphonse's screams rang in his ears, but the deal was made; there was no turning back now. He did not struggle, even as chills ran up his spine, as the hands drew back toward the infinite blackness…

He saw God's wide grin as the doors began to close…

And then there was nothing.

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is this the end?


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The aftermath, Ron decides, is always the worst.

He did not see Al fall through the veil—was shielding himself from the unbelievable amount of power coming from his attack (if he didn't respect the boy before, he definitely does now)—but he watches Sirius fall, watches helplessly as he disappears forever through that strange archway.

(Dead, they say. He doesn't want to believe it.)

But Ed is the worst. Ron sees the comprehension as it forms in his eyes, watches as he realizes that his little brother is dead and gone. The desperation in his voice as he screams, the terror in his gaze, is perhaps the most heart-wrenching thing Ron has ever seen. Alphonse was his older brother's life…and now he is gone.

Before anyone can react, before anyone can stop him, he is gone as well, diving through the veil without hesitation, never to return. Ron does not know if it was grief or madness that drove him to do it, but either way…

As they send the remaining Death Eaters to holding cells, as they try to pick up the shattered remnants of the battle, Ron feels strangely empty. It is over, so why has the grief not vanished, the anger not dissipated into nothing? Sirius, Ed, Al—they are gone, forever, just like his father, but surely Pride's death should ease the pain, if only a little…

Instead, it has only increased tenfold, eating him from the inside out, destroying him until there is nothing left. Three of the people in his life are gone. The scars from his father's death, while still there (they will never be gone—of that he is sure), had started to heal, had not been so blindingly painful. But Al, and Sirius, and Ed…they ripped those open again, and this time…

Sirius has always been one of the most important people in Harry's life, he knows. A link to his parents, security, and a father figure all at once…for him to be torn from Harry so abruptly and completely…neither of them deserve that. They've both already been through so much…

And the Elrics. The two of them were so different—so wildly different—that it was hard to imagine that they would be so close…but they were inseparable. And he's not sure he can blame them, either, if that accident from years ago was as bad as they said…

When he looked at Ed, he saw a protective older brother, someone willing to sacrifice anything for his family. Ron thought he had been an all right brother; he thought he and Ginny had gotten along well…but looking at Edward Elric, he realizes that he could be doing so much more.

(Sacrificing an arm when he's already bleeding out from a missing leg…all to save his little brother. Ron only wishes he were that strong.)

And Alphonse. He's been through Hell—is only fifteen years old—but he's still the kindest person Ron has ever met. Whatever hardened Edward, whatever created those ghosts in his gaze, it seems to have spared the younger brother. (Or else, he's even better at hiding it.) To have lost both his parents so young, to nearly die himself, to be thrown into a foreigners' war and be expected to win it…How did he stay so kind? Ron will never know.

Those boys…they deserve to live. No matter what their pasts may have held, no matter what guilt they carried… To sacrifice themselves for a country that rejected them, for people who didn't appreciate them… They were good people, better people than Ron has ever known, but he hasn't realized it until now…when they are already gone.

He never got to thank any of those who have been ripped from his life—thank them for helping him, helping Harry, helping the entire country…and that will haunt him forever.

And then he realizes.

Harry still does not know that Sirius is gone…

And he is the one who must tell him.

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Harry has been sitting by Hermione's bed in the Hospital Wing ever since Tonks Apparated him and Ginny to safety. He is injured—his hand still bleeds freely from the broken shards of the prophecy—but he will not leave her side until she wakes up, until the danger is past…

It is all his fault, and he knows it.

Ginny, Neville, and Luna also escaped, returned to Hogwarts, but Ron is still at the Ministry, fighting…if he is hurt, is killed

He does not know how long he sits there in silence, begging Hermione to wake up… But eventually, the hospital doors open, and Ron walks in.

Harry wants to cry, to shout for joy, because his best friend is alive. His hair is still matted with blood, but he has not lost any more limbs, is walking under his own power, and Madame Pomfrey should be able to fix his head easily…

Nobody else was hurt because of his own idiocy.

But then he sees the way his hand shakes, the way his face pales and his eyes refuse to look at Harry, and his stomach plummets again. Ron is all right, yes, but—?

His friend waves off Madame Pomfrey, sitting down next to Harry and looking him in the eye with a great deal of effort. "Are you all right?" Harry asks at length. Was he hurt more than they thought when Pride threw him aside? Harry's mind spins with possibilities, each worse than the last, but Ron shakes his head slowly.

"I'm—I'm okay…"

"But…?" Harry's stomach is roiling as his brain switches gears, begging him to say everyone is fine. Maybe they've got a few cuts, but nobody's dead—

"Al—Al was able to destroy Pride, but the explosion sent him through that veil," Ron says slowly, his eyes flickering away again. "And—well—Professor Lupin called it a death veil…and Ed freaked out and went in after him…"

Harry can only stare for a moment; his mind refuses to process this. They passed the veil while Pride was walking across the room—he thought he heard voices—but he had not had time to dwell on it. But—"They're—gone?"

He doesn't want it to be true—two boys his own age—two boys he respected greatly—two boys who gave everything to protect a country that wasn't even theirs—two boys who only ever wanted to go home—

They're dead.

Gone.

Forever…

And it's his fault.

He is ready to stand up, to scream his guilt and anguish to the heavens (I've killed two innocent people it's my fault they're dead), but Ron takes a deep breath and continues—"There's more…"

"What else could have happened?" he asks hoarsely, tears filling his eyes. He cannot think of much worse—Pride is gone (but the victory seems hollow in the wake of such a tragedy); what else—?

"Sirius was—was dueling Bellatrix Lestrange…"

Oh God no.

"He's—he's okay, right…?"

(Please no let it be anyone but Sirius he can't be dead that's impossible)

He feels a trembling hand on his arm, looks into Ron's eyes (they're filling with tears—this can't be happening), and he knows.

He jumps to his feet, rushes to leave the room, leave his life, leave everything behind…

The war is over, but his world is crumbling to ashes all around him.

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Hermione wakes up two days after the battle with a splitting headache, and it takes her a moment to get her bearings. The last thing she remembers is seeing Pride in the Department of Mysteries, trying to protect Harry and the others—

But she failed. Her eyes snap open, trying to figure out what is going on. Has he succeeded? Is the entire country going to die because of her own incompetence—?

She realizes, rather belatedly, that she is lying on a bed. All she can see is white for a moment—the Hospital Wing. Of course. This does not ease her mind, though; the Order very well could have arrived too late to save Harry and the others. If they are all gone, pawns in Pride's plan—

She turns her head to look down the long room and sees Madame Pomfrey emerging from her office. "Miss Granger!" She apparently sees Hermione moving, for she speeds toward her, a smile growing on her face. "We were starting to worry that you wouldn't—"

"What about the others? Are they all right?"

The nurse seems to falter for a moment at her interruption; Hermione's heart plummets. "Pride's got them? Oh God—oh God oh God…"

"That's not it," she assures her quickly. "Alphonse managed to destroy Pride…it's only…he, Edward, and Sirius Black…"

"What? Are they hurt?" She glances down the row of beds, but she only sees a small blonde girl halfway down the room. But they're fugitives—maybe she has to treat them in secret…

"They're…they're gone, Miss Granger. The fight was in a room containing a death veil…"

Her heart stops for a moment; her breath is caught in her throat. No. She's wrong. "Are—are you sure?"

"I am sorry…once someone falls through, there is never any way to bring them back."

She cannot think; she can barely nod to the nurse as she steps closer carefully, beginning to inspect the top of her head. This can't be happening…

After all Ed and Al went through for a country that wasn't even theirs… Ed, with his stubborn determination, and Al with his patient optimism…

They'll never get to go home to the people they loved so much…

And Sirius. She can't even imagine what Harry is going through; even if he could be childlike and immature at times, Sirius was an excellent father figure for Harry…the only one he could trust with anything…

He's gone…

And if she had been stronger, hadn't been knocked out by Pride's attack, maybe she could have helped fight. Maybe they'd still be alive…

The guilt is eating away at her insides like acid, threatening to destroy her. If only she had been better…

When Harry and Ron come in after the bell rings, she can only fling her arms around them and sob.

They all wanted Pride gone…but this price is far too high for any of them to pay.

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(Draco Malfoy gives her Al's cat before he flees the country with his parents; they all wear identical, haunted expressions, and she doesn't think she can blame them for running.)

(She takes the cat in, just as she promised so many months ago… But he only ever wanders her dormitory, Gryffindor Tower, the castle, looking lost. It's as if he's looking for Al, for Ed, for people he will never find.)

(She can only hug him and Crookshanks tight, sob into their soft fur, and wish the war hadn't ended this way.)

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Albus Dumbledore contemplates the small, humanoid figure that Pride has been reduced to, and wonders whether the end of his reign of tyranny is worth so many innocent lives.

There is still a war raging—Pride is not there to threaten the Ministry into silence, and Voldemort is still alive and far too powerful—but his mind constantly wanders. Mostly, he thinks of the three people who never belonged in this world yet had such a great impact on it… He reminds himself that he should be continuing the Order's work, planning the war against Voldemort, finding and destroying whatever horcruxes he has made…

But he keeps remembering the desperate determination in Edward's eyes as he threw himself through the death veil.

The Unspeakables have never been able to truly explain it, what it is, how it works, where it leads…all they know is that whoever goes through it never comes back.

And in the span of five minutes, three important members of the Order—three of his friends—had met their end because of it.

He never told the Elrics what he truly saw, all those months ago when he attempted to access Edward's memories. He never did it because he suspected them to be a threat; the moment he heard what language they spoke, he knew they were just as confused as everyone else.

No, the reason he wanted—needed—to see into their memories was to understand. Edward was clearly a teenager—both of them were—but the pain in his eyes…the way he was far too protective of his younger brother…he needed to know why, to ensure that the boy was all right. He has been a professor for more than a century, yet he had never seen a child look so aged as that boy did.

And what he saw in Edward's mind…he saw everything.

He saw their mother's death, their attempted resurrection, the Gate. He saw the empty shell Alphonse was confined to, saw the desperate insanity in Ed's eyes as he swore to make it right…

He saw the military, the Homunculi, the Promised Day. He watched as Alphonse's link to life was destroyed, was forced to watch as Edward tried to sacrifice himself just to bring his little brother back.

And even if the lifespan Legilimency that he used gives only a rough outline, has no time for details…he saw enough. Alphonse, staying so perfectly, painfully sane in such a hellish situation… Edward, selfless and protective and willing to sacrifice absolutely anything to make his brother's life worth living…

No, he never told them any of this, never told them what he saw and how much he knows…because they would hate him for it. Both of them…both boys were so private, so desperate to keep their past a secret, as if telling others would ruin them. But Albus knows better. He could see it in both of their faces, the way the guilt and anxiety ate away at them, because it's my fault if the Homunculus wins and I'd rather be back in the armor if it means keeping everyone safe and I just want to go home…

And Albus knows, he knows, that it would have made things better for those boys if they had only told someone, had confided their worries in him or Sirius or Miss Granger or anyone. But that wasn't how they operated; they refused to bring others into their own mess; they would fix the problem they caused, make things right again, and then they would disappear as if they had never existed.

But that was an impossible goal; no one could ever forget those two boys, with their genius and their selflessness and their genuine desire to help…they have made an impression on everyone they've met—a lasting impression—and Albus is sure no one will ever forget them.

(But now they are gone, and there is nothing anyone can do to bring them back.)

He knows very little of the Gate the Elrics often spoke of, knows nothing of the death veil hidden within the depths of the Ministry… But as he thinks on it, watches the scene again and again in the Pensieve…he realizes that something in Edward's eyes as he struggled against Remus' grip makes Albus want to believe. Maybe Edward was right; maybe the veil is a portal to the Gate, to another world they have never heard of.

Maybe he and Alphonse and Sirius are still alive.

But he can't focus on such things for long, no matter how much he wishes to. They are gone, lost to this world…and even if the three of them have found their way to Amestris, whole and happy…to the people of this world, it does not matter. They are only trying to stay alive… There is a war to plan, a school to defend…and shards of innocence to collect and preserve as much as possible.

Harry is due in his office in five minutes, and Albus knows that he cannot keep things from him anymore…no matter how much he wishes the boy could stay ignorant of these horrors. (Edward and Alphonse had to grow up far too fast, and Albus would do anything to spare his students from the horrors those boys faced.) But Harry's innocence is gone…if Albus does not treat him like an adult, it would only be an insult to everything he has been through, to everything he has become.

But before Harry arrives…there is one matter that must be dealt with. He considers the homunculus on his desk; its quiet voice—"Mama…Mama…"— fills his office. It sounds harmless, innocent, like any other child—like his students and the Elrics should be.

He has been duped, used, lied to by immortals in the past…he knows this now. Who knows how the boy will grow up…if he does at all?

There is a pause, and then a flash of green light fills the room.

Fawkes lets out a long, mournful note, and then the office is silent.

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or is it only the beginning?


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The office is hectic, just as it always has been. There is always paperwork to file, superiors to obey, missions to complete…

But for the last seven months, it hasn't been the same.

The Promised Day has been won, if only barely, and the country has set about rebuilding itself from the ground up. Bradley is dead, the Homunculus is destroyed, Pride…

Has disappeared, he's always told himself.

If he says that bastard is dead, that means they are as well…

After the war was won, after the homunculi were—gone—and the wounded were tended to, he had started a massive underground search for the Elrics. He knows the chances are slim—when they had not returned from the Gate, they all knew the truth—but for that bastard god to not even give back their lifeless bodies…if only for some closure…

He rubs his eyes vigorously and makes his way toward the office door. He opens it (forcing down the nostalgia growing in his throat. The number of times Edward smashed it off its hinges…) and greets his team, planning to grab a cup of coffee from down the hall. Then, he supposes, he'll have to accept the mountains of paperwork from Riza…

Before he can make it even halfway across the outer office, however, there is a loud and crisp knock on the door. "Brigadier General Mustang has visitors, sir. I can send them away if now is not a good time…"

"No, send them in," Roy says loudly, raising a mental eyebrow. He isn't expecting any visitors…unless some of the higher-ups need a word with him…

(Is his mind playing cruel tricks on him, or can he hear a too-familiar voice muttering on the other side of the door?)

A sergeant opens the door, looking rather baffled as he salutes the officers. Roy sets him at ease quickly, gesturing for him to explain. "He—well, they say they're the Elric brothers, sir. The one has a watch, but…"

Roy's blood runs cold. It can't be… "Well, I'll see for myself. Let them in."

He hears no clanking of armor plates; in fact, he doesn't even hear the uneven steps of someone with an automail leg. He is ready to write them off as fakes, throw them out of the building, stew about the bastards who have the gall to try and trick them…and then two boys hobble into the office.

One does look remarkably like Edward Elric—so much so, in fact, that for a moment he can only stare. But his exposed right hand is decidedly made of (very bony) flesh and blood, and his footsteps…

"What, no short jokes for me, General Bastard?"

That voice—Roy hears several chairs crash to the floor behind him—he can't tear his eyes from the boy who looks and sounds exactly like Edward. He stands in the doorway, bold as brass, supporting the other boy and at the same time greatly favoring his left leg.

"Boss?" Breda seems to find his voice first, but it's hoarse with disbelief. Roy still can't find it in him to speak, only staring at the boy, trying to find some imperfection. Aside from the automail, however, he is the spitting image of the Edward Elric who had so often stormed into this very office.

It can't be…

But it is.

The sergeant has left, or else Roy doesn't even see him as he runs to Ed. He opens his mouth to say something—anything—but his throat has run dry, his mind produces nothing, so he only claps a hand on the boy's shoulder and smiles.

Ed smirks, and the other boy laughs quietly. "You really thought you'd get rid of us that easily?"

Before he can say anything in response, before he can express just how happy he is to see Edward alive, something off about the situation stops his tongue again. Alphonse's blood seal had been destroyed; they had retrieved the remnants of his armor after the battle, and there was no way the boy could have possibly survived. But why would Fullmetal be so happy, if—?

"Boss, who's your friend?" Havoc sounds worried as he steps closer, looking the other boy up and down. "We should get you two to a hospital—that's a hell of a lot of blood…"

Roy wrenches his gaze from Fullmetal, turning to inspect the other boy for the first time. Something about him seems familiar, but the great amount of blood is alarming…if they didn't get him out soon—

Both of them laugh this time—hearty belly laughs, the likes of which Roy has never heard from Edward. "You don't recognize him? C'mon, we don't look that different…"

The identical, face-splitting grins, the same hair color, very nearly the same height and eyes…

Good lord.

"Alphonse?" Riza is suddenly at Roy's side, staring at the two of them with shock and joy flooding her face. It's incredible—too incredible—but it all makes a wonderful amount of sense as their grins grow impossibly wider.

The boy—Alphonse—gives them a shaky bow and says, "It's great to see you all again."

His voice is the same—just the same—and for a moment, Roy sees the ghost of a towering suit of armor where Alphonse stands. He shakes that away quickly, though, as Riza leads them to vacated chairs, telling Fuery quickly to call an ambulance.

The boys seem totally unbothered by their injuries, however; they are talking at high speeds to each other, almost seeming to relish speaking the language. If he listens intently, Roy thinks he can make out bits and pieces of their conversation—

"If I ever see him again, I'll kill him—"

"That's a little harsh, Brother…but he shouldn't have done that, we could have figured something out—"

"Bastard wasn't supposed to die! That's just—"

There is pain in their eyes and voices, Roy can tell, but they seem to shove it deep down as the rest of his team interrupts. They want to talk to them, ask them far too many questions, simply bask in the presence of the two friends they thought they had lost forever…

The pain of that man's death—whoever he was—is still clear in their eyes, in the way Ed grasps his brother's hand tight in his own, and Roy knows they must tell him everything later. But now, there is only time for joy, for celebration as they all continue talking about everything and nothing, welcoming them home with the exuberance only his team can possess.

He is moving even before he realizes it; he is standing in front of the boys now, and, for a moment, they can only stare at each other. For Roy, this is far too surreal. He's still waiting to wake up from this wonderful dream, to learn that they've not found their way back, whole and well…but then he realizes.

This is real. This is real, and by some miracle, the Elric brothers are sitting in front of him in the flesh.

So he throws caution to the winds and embraces both boys in a hug. There is a time for explanations; there is a time for phone calls and others' joyful reunions…but now is not it. Now, they just need to relish and find happiness in the fact that they have returned after far too long.

And instead of rebuking him, instead of pushing him away like Roy is expecting, Ed and Al both return the embrace. In that moment, nothing could be more perfect.

"Welcome home."

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