If you haven't read Penance, parts of this may not make a ton of sense to you...but I guess the main thing to know is that Sirius, Ed, and Al are at the Gate, and nobody's going anywhere without paying some sort of price.
"But what could get all of us out alive?"
Sirius doesn't think he's been so terrified in years. This huge blank landscape, the sadistic grin on the creature—Truth—before him... He's faced down Lord Voldemort himself, spent twelve years in the Hell that is Azkaban prison...
But the only thing that compares to this is the moment when he realized that James and Lily were gone.
He's doing his best to keep up a calm facade, to not do anything stupid, because that's what Al said to do and he obviously knows more about this than he ever will...but he cannot see this ending well. Ed's voice from across the great whiteness is becoming increasingly desperate, offering everything—offering his life—just to get Sirius and Al out of here alive...
(That's not going to be enough for two people, and they all know it, but Sirius doesn't know what else to do.)
Truth is talking to him, but he can barely hear; Ed's voice is blocking out everything—yelling, screaming, pleading with this "God" to spare the others. Sirius wants to tell him to stop, because clearly this isn't the answer; if they just ask what it wants—
But then Ed falls silent for a moment. Sirius strains his ears, terrified that something has happened to them, that they've delayed too long...but then he speaks again, and instead of desperation, there is a note of hope in his voice. "Magic bypasses equivalency—can you—just—take the magic out of Sirius? That's equivalent, right? Right?"
The Truth's grin, in front of Sirius, grows wider; the blank universe around them seems to pulse in reply. "That's not the answer I was looking for...but it will do, Mister Alchemist. So long as the wizard agrees."
"Yes," Sirius says immediately, barely thinking. Losing his magic—becoming a Muggle—that is so much better than any of them dying. After all, if he has been permanently separated from the magical world, what is the point in practicing it? "Take it—that'll send us all to Amestris in one piece, right?"
Truth does not reply; its grin only grows wider, the pulsing grows stronger, and the great stone doors before them open. The arms are reaching for Sirius, but instead of picking him up as Edward's boggart did, they only dig deep into his body.
The attack is sudden and unexpected; he only realizes that he is screaming after several seconds of undiluted agony. It feels as if he is being turned inside-out, as if someone is trying to extract his innards through a single pore of his skin—
The Elrics may be screaming as well; he cannot hear. All he knows is that, suddenly, the pain is gone, and blackness is all that remains.
The next thing he knows, he is lying on a patch of grass, staring up at a cloudless sky.
"Sirius? Sirius! Are you all right? You were screaming but you were in a different dimension of the Gate and we didn't know what was going on and—"
Al's terrified voice greets him as he turns his head, and the boy helps him sit up. (There is an alarming amount of blood covering him; deep gashes cut across his cheeks and arms...but he is disregarding them, and even if Sirius is worried, Alphonse will not give him time to ask.) "Do you feel all right? It was just supposed to take your magic, but—"
"I'm—I'm fine..." And he is, he thinks. He realizes suddenly that he feels a sort of emptiness within him, as if there is a hole that wasn't there before...but the strangeness is not painful. It is only an absence of something he's had all his life, and that is not indispensable.
They are alive, and that's what matters.
Edward is sitting up a few feet away, staring at his right hand in something akin to awe. It is bony—hopelessly bony and emaciated—but the fact that it is made of flesh and blood rather than battered steel...
"You're the best," Ed says, his face splitting into a wide, rare grin as he looks up toward Sirius, waving his hand around to emphasize. He opens his mouth again, as if to say more, but it seems that words have failed him; he only continues to smile, looking utterly elated as he starts to look around. Sirius doesn't recognize any part of the landscape—there is a huge building several hundred yards in front of them and several smaller ones on either side—but both Elrics' face are lighting up in something he can only read as joy.
(Sirius doesn't know where they are, but the Truth promised they'd be in Amestris...is this what it looks like? He's always thought alternate universes would be something truly bizarre, with orange skies and purple trees...but the Elrics look human—are human—just like him...he supposes it makes sense that their worlds look the same.)
"Brother..." Al's eyes are growing impossibly wider as he takes in the people bustling around outside the buildings...and Sirius realizes, suddenly, exactly how important this is, that there are people here at all. That monster of a Homunculus—the one, unimaginably, who was even more terrifying than Pride—had been upon the brink of victory, might have possibly won the war...turned this country into a Philosopher's Stone. But there are people here; there are lives happening all around them...and even if he does not know anything about this strange place, Sirius feels a surge of blinding, irrational relief, because this means that they have truly won...
These boys can finally be happy.
A voice he does not recognize snaps him from his trance abruptly; he jumps to his feet and spins around, instinctively reaching for his wand before realizing that it will be useless. (He may not mind giving up his magic to save their lives, but he feels naked without it in the face of this unknown threat.) He can see a man running toward them; he is perhaps in his mid-twenties, wearing a deep blue uniform...military.
The man continues to talk, but the language he is speaking is utterly foreign. He is looking at Sirius as he speaks—likely because he is the oldest of their little group—but he can't even begin to figure out how to reply—
Amestrian. He's speaking Amestrian.
He can't help the wide grin that splits his face at this realization. He is by no means fluent, but he remembers enough to recognize the cadence. The number of times the Elrics lapsed into their native language, back in the summer...and more recently, when they were up to their eyes in research...
This young man is undoubtedly speaking Amestrian, which leaves him with no choice but to come to the obvious conclusion that we've made it back.
Ed strides forward—heavily favoring his left leg (Truth must have given that back as well)—grinning from ear to ear and speaking with the man. He does not look convinced, is frowning deeply as Ed continues to talk, and the boy sighs resignedly before rummaging in his pocket. After a moment, he produces something on a long, silver chain.
A pocket watch. What the hell is a kid doing with something old-fashioned like that?
Ed's never pulled it out, at least in Sirius' presence; he's never checked the time, never shown it off as part of his home world...and he has no idea what the implications of such a thing are. But the man seems taken aback by it; he stares hard at the boy before shifting his gaze to Al and Sirius. He's just wondering whether the guy is going to draw one of those—Muggle wands? He can't remember the name—to try and kill them...but then Ed says something else—rather forcefully—and the man sighs and nods, gesturing for them to follow him.
"Uh...what just happened?" he asks Al in an undertone as they walk toward the main building. (He's supporting the boy as he continues to bleed freely; Al insists that he's fine, but he's decidedly wobbly on his feet, and Sirius isn't willing to take any chances.) "Where are we going?"
"Oh! Right," Al says, grinning rather sheepishly up at him. "This is—Central Command, where Brother worked before we wound up in England? Civilians aren't supposed to be here, and he's not convinced by Brother's watch...but he still managed to pull rank, so the sergeant's escorting us to Mustang's office to make sure we're not fakes or anything." He almost shrugs, but then freezes as he seems to realize something. "But the colonel was...that means he's not...?"
He trails off, glancing toward his brother (he didn't hear them) before allowing an even wider smile to grow on his face. Sirius really only understands about half of the things Al implies with this statement, has no idea why the idea of Mustang is making him so happy, but he shrugs it off for the moment and simply continues walking. There is a time for questions and explanations, but now is not it...not when they've found themselves back in Amestris, exactly where the Elrics belong.
They weave through crowds of people wearing that same blue uniform—some are barking orders to subordinates; some are harried-looking secretaries answering things Remus once called telephones; only a few have time to spare a glance for the motley group making their way through their midst...and fewer still seem to recognize them.
(Sirius supposes that's a good thing—they won't get slowed down... But it strikes him as odd that people don't seem to recognize Al, that they only spare a passing glance—albeit a confused one—for Edward, in his bright red coat and blond ponytail.)
They make their way up several flights of stairs—Al insists that he's fine, but Ed keeps glancing back nervously and Sirius is supporting more and more of his weight—before the man stops before a large wooden door. He knocks crisply and yells something through it; a voice, deep and authoritative, calls something back, and the man opens the door.
He's blocking the entryway, speaking to whoever is inside, but that same male voice says something else—it sounds almost dismissive—and the sergeant sighs and steps out of the way, allowing them inside. There are about half a dozen people assembled there; a man a few years younger than Sirius, with dark hair and striking black eyes, stands in the center of the room, clearly sizing up the three of them.
But his eyes gloss over Sirius and Al and focus quickly on Ed; they widen marginally, and his mouth drops open a bit as he realizes who he's looking at. (Sirius supposes, if they've been gone for seven months...but why is he paying no attention to Al?) Nobody says anything, though; the other people at the desks are similarly silent, as if they're waiting for something to happen, waiting for the other shoe to drop...
But then Ed says something in a decidedly triumphant voice, a huge smirk plastered on his face, and all Hell breaks loose.
Everyone is on their feet before Sirius can even blink; their jaws drop and they take huge, bounding steps forward as if they can't get there fast enough. (It would be almost comical, if Sirius didn't know the gravity of such a reunion.) The dark-haired man is suddenly standing before Ed, staring straight into his eyes as if waiting for him to disappear...but Ed is just as solid as the rest of them, and after a moment, he only claps a hand on the boy's shoulder and smiles broadly.
Al laughs under his breath, and Ed grins, saying something in that same snarky tone that Sirius has not heard in months. (The stress of war, of protecting fifty million innocents from Pride, left no time for such frivolity. But now...) The others are crowded around Ed as well, and even if Sirius has no idea what they're saying, has no idea who they are...he can't help but feel an elation he hasn't felt in years...since he got Remus and Harry back.
This is how it's supposed to be.
Ed looks younger than he ever has, in this moment; he's laughing raucously and talking loudly in the language he's known all his life. Because even if he speaks English fluently, could pass as a native speaker if he really tried...Sirius has always been able to tell that he hates the language. He hates what it represents and what speaking it means. It means he's not home; it means he's not with the people he loves...
But that's all been resolved now.
A tall, blond man nearest Sirius and Al glances over, sees the way Al is listening to the conversation and laughing heartily (but is decidedly woozy from blood loss and exhaustion) and asks something of Ed in a worried tone, gesturing to Alphonse. Both of their faces split into impossibly wider grins—Ed's seems wicked and dangerous, the way Sirius' was when James was still alive—and only stare around at them all, waiting for something to happen...
(What's going on?)
But then the blonde woman gasps loudly, her eyes filling with recognition and astonishment and joy, and she croaks a single word that Sirius has no trouble understanding—"Alphonse?"
Sirius does not know why their reaction to the boy's presence is so violent; he has no idea why they all look so shocked that he is here. But the blond man and another—a redhead—quickly pull Al from his grasp, leading him with bright eyes and excited tones to a vacated chair as another rushes to a telephone nearby. Sirius can only stand there, alone for a moment while Ed converses with the woman and grey-haired man, and wonders whether he should leave them to their reunion...
But then the dark-haired man steps in front of him, his eyes dark and narrow and mistrusting, and asks something of him in a tone that Sirius can't quite identify.
He has no idea how to answer; he doesn't know what the man wants, doesn't know what he'll do to him if he is silent...but how can he possibly reply? He can't even understand what is being asked of him...
But Ed glances over and sees what is happening; he pulls himself away from his companions and limps over, grinning at Sirius and punching his arm before saying something to the other man.
And whatever he says, it seems to be exactly what he needs to hear; the man's face instantly relaxes, and his eyes soften; he says something in a decidedly nicer tone. Sirius can only stare at him uncomprehendingly, though, glancing to Ed for help.
But he seems to be enjoying this immensely; Sirius realizes, a bit belatedly, that this must have been how he and Al felt when they arrived in England...with no knowledge of the language here, facing potentially dangerous people whom you know nothing about...
The man's brows are scrunched in confusion, staring at Sirius and clearly wondering why he is not replying. And since Ed doesn't seem about to step in, Sirius sighs, opens his mouth, and hopes he gets the message—"I don't speak Amestrian."
His eyebrows shoot up and he stares at Sirius uncomprehendingly until he glances over to Ed, who is still grinning like a loon. Finally, Ed seems to take pity on him (obnoxious, immature kid—but Sirius knows he'd be doing the exact same thing) and says something to the man...hopefully relaying what Sirius can't make him understand.
His eyes widen in comprehension as he turns back to Sirius, clearly hiding his immense surprise. But he only nods, sticking out his hand and saying, "Roy Mustang."
It takes Sirius a moment to realize what he's saying, but when he does, he almost smacks himself for his stupidity. Of course, this is how we started with Ed, too... So he shakes the proffered hand, grinning and replying, "Sirius Black."
So this is the Mustang we heard so much about. Whatever image his mind has conjured to describe the man...this is not it, because he is so very young (a high-ranking officer in a militaristic country who barely looks thirty), but his eyes hold a sort of old, terrible pain that Sirius has only seen in a few people.
Dumbledore. Ed. Al.
He is so young and yet he looks impossibly old, and Sirius can't hope to understand this. But he supposes that it doesn't matter, now; he has a world to live in, a language to master, and people to meet—immediately if not sooner, if Al's cheerful calls from across the room mean anything. He is saying something to the people surrounding him, gesticulating wildly and grinning like a child, and the smile on the red-haired man's face looks genuine as he jogs over, grabbing Sirius' arm and pulling him toward the group.
He has no idea what they're saying, but the camaraderie is clear and undeniable as he's given a chair as well, patted on the back and shaken by the hand until he thinks he might bruise. Names are rattled off to him at lightning speed, and he can barely keep up, let alone decipher which words are introductions and which are excited chatter in the background, because the light in these people's eyes is so bright and so full of happiness that it seems to illuminate the room.
He realizes, all at once, that this is where they truly belong. Edward and Alphonse...they were friendly with people, back in England; they were helpful and kind and risked their lives for those they didn't even know...but they always seemed so out of place. And Sirius has never truly understood why...not until now.
The way Ed's eyes are crinkled in laughter as the blond man—Havoc? Or was it Falman—claps him on the back and says something loudly...the way Al is totally disregarding the blood on his face and body, smiling genuinely and laughing all the while as Breda—or maybe Fuery—ruffles his hair affectionately—
This is home. This is Amestris; this is everything to those boys...and as Sirius watches the reunions continue with undiluted joy, he truly understands why.
He will never be home again...not really. He'll never see Harry or Remus or Molly or Dumbledore ever again...and he knows that it will haunt him until the day he dies. What could he have done differently? and How could he still be at home with those he loves?... But he also knows that this—all of this—is worth it, in the end. Because even if he isn't home, these boys are, and he's not sure he's selfish enough to wish for his own happiness at the expense of the children who have already given so much.
The hole Remus and Harry left in his soul—so much larger and so much more painful than that left by his magic—will never heal...of that he is sure. But he can learn to live with it, remembering the years he's spent with those he loves and learning to make a new life in this strange new world.
He's free. He's finally free.
Here, there is no price on his head for a crime he only wishes he committed; there is no Peter in whom he put so much trust and by whom his life was irreversibly shattered. There is no James, no Lily, no Harry or magic or anything even remotely familiar...
But he's a Gryffindor, damnit, and even if such a thing does not exist in this world, that doesn't make him any less a member of the house that changed his life. He will persevere. He will carve out a new life for himself, learn to live as a Muggle...and maybe, if he's very, very lucky, he might even learn to be happy.
But what will happen to him does not matter right now. What matters is the group of people surrounding him, accepting him and joking with him like nobody has since his Hogwarts days. What matters are the two boys who never had the chance to be children, laughing and chattering away at such high speeds that Sirius isn't even sure the others can understand...
He is certain he's never seen them so happy. He's never seen Ed's grin quite that wide; he's never seen Al's eyes quite that bright...and he knows, now, that it is because they weren't truly happy in England. Just like he never will be here...
But even if he's been torn away from his home, they've finally found theirs...
And that, he thinks, is good enough for him.