He wakes up suddenly, yanked out of comfortable oblivion between one moment and the next. The sun is warm on his face and his back is cramping on the hard concrete and—wait a moment, concrete? Just where is he?
Panic overwhelms him and he snaps his eyes open. He cannot help squinting; the afternoon sun is slanting directly into them. Through a blurry haze, he sees tall, grey buildings sillhouetted against a blue sky and—there are no tall, grey buildings in Riesenbuhl. How did he get here? Why isn't he back home?
He attempts to stand but fails, wincing. His entire body feels raw and every movement makes new waves of pain shoot through him, as if his limbs aren't quite used to the idea yet. It takes several tries until he manages to sit up, gritting his teeth against the unexpected pain.
What happened to him?
Attempting to remember causes even more pain—in his head this time—and he lets out an undignified whimper. How lucky that Nii-san isn't here to see this, he'd never let him live it down—
Of course! Nii-san! They had been trying... they had been trying to bring Mom back, and... and... he can't remember.
Al looks around desperately. His eyes can't quite focus yet, but there is still no mistaking—he is alone.
Where is his brother? Is he all right? He must be back in Riesenbuhl—the transmutation must have gone wrong, perhaps they miscalculated the angles of the third interior triangle of the second circle, he remembered reading about Marinus's hypothesis that an imbalance there would cause a transposition—
Nii-san must be worried about him. Especially if... if the transmutation went wrong, then Mom wouldn't have...
Al puts those thoughts out of his head. He has to find his brother.
On his fifth attempt, Al manages to stagger to his feet, clinging to a wall for support. He is in an alleyway between two buildings; he can hear cars from one end. Lots of cars. He is obviously in a large city.
The pain is starting to fade, so walking is easier than he feared. He still trips and stumbles several times. He cannot shake the feeling that his legs ought to be longer. Which is nonsense, of course.
As he slowly makes his way out of the alleyway, he tries to remember exactly what happened again. They finished the preparations—re-checked the circle (they must have missed that one triangle)—measured out the ingredients—cut their fingers—added the blood—started the transmutation—then...
If he strains himself, he sees fleeting glimpses of—something; a red coat, a huge suit of armour, a dark-haired man in a military uniform, the symbol of Ouroboros, an incredibly complex array—
A gate with arms of shadow, reaching for him—
He shakes his head and the impressions vanish. Perhaps he'd dreamed.
He's made his way to the street. It is bustling with traffic, people rushing by on their own errands, cars honking. He can see more cars, interesections, even more streets in the distance—
Is this Central?
Al has never been to Central, but he doesn't know of any other city this big.
As he cautiously steps out onto the sidewalk, he doesn't realise that the cut on his finger is gone.
Careful inquiring of passers-by yields that yes, this is Central. One lady is even kind enough to point him the way of the train station.
Even though he takes several breaks, Al is utterly exhausted when he arrives. The transposition must have affected his body quite badly, he decides; it is the only explanation. Perhaps he is coming down with something, but he has been ill before and it has never felt like this. His body feels raw, new and wrong somehow—he keeps misjudging distances, his limbs still feel too short, his muscles twitch and spasm, his head hurts, his stomach roils...
All right, perhaps he is sick.
He buys a ticket with a crumpled bill he finds in his pocket—lucky, that—and learns that a train to Riesenbuhl is leaving within the hour.
As he thanks the ticket-seller, he notices something.
"Um, excuse me? You may want to adjust your calendar; the date is wrong."
The man looks at the calendar then turns, mystified. "What d'you mean, the date is wrong?" he asks.
Al has already left and doesn't hear him.
The ride to Riesenbuhl takes a long time, Al thinks. It's strange—he's only been on a train twice before, and although Dublith is farther away from home than Central is, the journey seemed much shorter. Perhaps it is because he is feeling so badly, or perhaps because this time he has no Nii-san to run around exploring with. Or perhaps three times is enough for the novelty to wear off—at any rate, the journey feels very long and very boring.
And strangely familiar.
He must be imagining things again.
Finally they reach Riesenbuhl. Al hops off with a smile—soon he will be home! Nii-san must be really worried about him.
The train station looks different, somehow. The old wooden benches appear to have been replaced, and he is sure that booth wasn't there before...
Of course, he hasn't been here particularly often, and when he was last here, it was dark and they were in a hurry. Nii-san always said that the station was due for a renovation; perhaps the construction work had been done while they were in Dublith and he simply hadn't noticed when they came home.
Yes, that must be it, he tells himself, but the cold feeling of dread welling up in his stomach does not go away.
Al runs along the path that leads through the village and past the Grover's house to theirs. He runs quickly, not looking left or right, so he does not see the other changes—the new building just past the village proper, the tree-stumps lining the path where trees used to stand. He doesn't want to see anything else; he is tired and hurt and confused and he wants to go home.
And then he is running past the old apple tree and reaches the crest of the hill, from here he will be able to see their house, perhaps Nii-san will be standing in the doorway and—
Their house is gone.
He rubs at his eyes and blinks. Still nothing. He pinches himself—a bad dream sounds like a very good explanation for all of this.
Unfortunately, he seems to already be awake. He is awake and where the house should be standing there is just a green mound.
But... not just a green mound. Al approaches cautiously and he can see black beneath the green, charred wood and beams, cracked shingles under the grass—
This is their house. Or rather, it was their house, now a burnt ruin.
Perhaps Nii-san knocked over a candle after I disappeared- but that cannot be true and he knows it. There is grass growing on the cinders, ivy covers the old stones. Al is no botanic, but even he can tell that this place has been a ruin for years.
He realises he is running, he has left the impossibility masquerading as his home behind him and is sprinting towards the Rockbell house. If their house is gone, Nii-san will have gone to Winry and Auntie Pinako, is probably there right now worrying—
Al's lungs hurt as he takes deep, ragged breaths and—Rockbell Automail hasn't changed at all since he last saw it. Perhaps this is just a nightmare and Nii-san will tell him he is being foolish and they'll go back and home will be there...
He is pounding on the door now, almost frantic. He wants Nii-san or Winry or Auntie Pinako to come and tell him he is just imagining things again and everything is all right.
The door opens and Al's heart stops.
It is Winry, yes. But... Winry is tall and different and old, much older than she was this morning. Her hair is longer, reaching all the way down her back—
And—Al blushes and looks away—she has... curves... like a girl. Winry's not supposed to have those, Winry's not supposed to be taller than him, Winry's not supposed to be old—
"Al? Is that you?"
And Alphonse realises that something is horribly, horribly wrong.