Forward the Machine

chapter 1.

There was always the lingering sensation of being watched when he came here, though his eyes told him his heart's fears were groundless. Who could be watching, when there was no one here but himself, and nothing around but an endless, waving green sea—meadow grass and other flora stretching out to the horizon, cut through by a river that looked like a long, shining snake.

The name of the place would never come. Perhaps that was why it bothered him. He knew only that he was in the country side, on the crest of a ridge, and the word for all this welled up and died at the very tip of his tongue, rose and subsided with each gust of sweet, heather-scented breeze. He looked out over rolling hills carpeted in verdant grass, and that river winding through to the edge of the world, and he thought: I have seen this place before.


Someone was calling out to him. He wheeled around and nearly fell, startled to realize that there was someone else in this place after all. Down the rise, a little to his left, a sunny-haired girl was waving up to him. She had great big eyes, cornflower-blue like his own, and he had the stray thought that indeed, she had grown up beautiful—though a moment ago he would have sworn he had never seen her round, expressive face before in his life.


He tried to call back to her but the greeting stuck in his throat, the same way the name of the place did. He didn't know what her proper name was, nor what he should say to her. His right arm rose of its own volition though, and he felt his throat begin to move, his lips begin to speak.

"Hey, Winry!"

His voice didn't sound at all right. It was high-pitched and breathy, cracked on the second syllable as if he were thirteen again. He thought he was raising a hand to his throat, but his hand lifted up and then up again past it, extended out to wave.

Down below, the girl's eyes shone. "Alphonse!" she cried out joyously, and began to climb up the hill toward him. "There you are! Alphonse!"



Alfons Heiderich started awake in his chair and found himself staring straight into the fleshy expanse that was his supervisor Franz Kessler's jowls.

"Gah!" he started and nearly pitched backwards, chair and all, before he managed to catch himself on a corner of his work bench. "Dr. Kessler!"

"Yes, indeed," Kessler frowned, tilting his head down at Alfons. His entire face quivered when he did so. Kessler was a large man, square and thick, with a curious distribution of corpulence. His chin flowed down from his handlebar mustache as if it were suspended there by magic, endless ripples of puffy pink flesh that terminated in a tight, no-nonsense shirt collar. Miraculously, somehow the works held together by a single collar button. Kessler was not so much a man as a solid section of moving wall, and there were other, less charitable parallels Alfons could draw from that.

Sometimes speaking with an actual wall was less frustrating.

"You were expecting?"

"No one," Alfons lied. His next breath was a little too deep and the sudden influx of chill air seared down in his sore lungs. He coughed discretely into his hand, hoping Kessler wouldn't notice.

His luck, of course, did not hold. "Ah, how is that cough of yours doing?" Kessler asked. "It's been sounding rotten for a while now..."

His small, dark eyes intensified on Alfons, and he sucked in his next breath and held it fast, breathed out slowly through his nose despite that itching, burning feeling in his lungs.

Please don't let him guess, he begged, to whatever saints watched over dogs and scientists. If Kessler knew...if anyone knew what was really wrong with him...

Kessler clapped a massive hand down on Alfons's shoulder, nearly eclipsing it. His face split into a grin.

"Have to take better care of yourself, my boy," the man announced. "A healthy man is a successful man, as the saying goes." Kessler sucked in a deep breath and thrust his massive chest out proudly, not so subtlety announcing that he, at least, was a paragon of health.

Alfons carefully breathed a sigh of relief.

"Yessir," he said obediently, and ducked his head down. "I'll be sure to watch it." As if that would do any good.

Kessler drew back and eyed him, massive jowls still jiggling. Alfons swallowed hard. The room he had been given for his office was small, originally an old storage closet; scarcely large enough for his table and chair and notes, let alone Kessler's massive presence. The man dominated even a large space with his personality and size—in an enclosed space like this he was altogether overwhelming.

"I know how easy it is to let ambition run away with you," the man boomed at him. "You are a young man still, I know...and don't think I don't remember the rashness of youth! But Alfons, you cannot neglect yourself and think you are capable of doing your best work."

"I'm not neglecting myself," Alfons protested weakly, though it was no use. Kessler's mind, some of his fellow aeronauts liked to whisper, was like a steel trap—a rusty one. It had the tendency to bite down hard on an idea and never open up again.

"You were passed out on your work table!" Kessler said. "Come now, boy. Get up, go home tonight, get some proper rest. You are no use to the cause if you cannot even think straight."

"My mind is perfectly clear," Alfons muttered under his breath, but he knew when he was bested. There was no arguing with Kessler when he was like this. Kessler's focus (and, to hear him talk, the entire world's as well) was always on the Cause. All for the Cause. The greatest honor was to serve the Cause, the Society, the Society's Causes, on and on ad nauseum, despite the fact that seniority wise, Alfons had been with the organization longer than Kessler. Not that it mattered. Alfons didn't know how to tell him he didn't give a damn what the Thule stood for, only that they were a vehicle through which he could finally carry out a Cause of his own—the culmination of his life's work, the practical demonstration of a rocketship that could carry a human passenger, ahead of all those naysayers in the Americas and Britain and the rest of the world. He intended to prove, once and for all, that German scientists were not backwards, merely unfortunate...and that despite their unfortunate circumstances, his people could design rings around anyone else on the planet.

It was likely to be the only chance he would ever get.

"I really do worry about you sometimes, boy," Kessler said. The blond forests that were his eyebrows knitted, if not in genuine concern, then in a passable facsimile, and Alfons felt a bit bad for feeling so resentful. "Take a couple days off, in fact. Go home and see your family. You act like the devil himself is at your back."

Easy for him to say. The resent was back full force. After the Great War, Alfons no longer had a family, and Edward—Edward was something he really didn't want to think about right now, because that hurt was still too new, and the guilt was too thick. He held his tongue, smiled up at Kessler instead. Ham-fisted condolences from his supervisor were more than he wanted to bear. He was already ill and angry, and being forced to go home.

"I'll spend the night at home with Miss Greta," Alfons assured Kessler, and the man nodded, looking eminently satisfied with himself.

"Good. See that you do," Kessler said, and turned toward the door. That was the one good thing about his boss, Alfons thought sourly. As pompous and tactless and generally a nuisance as the man could be, he did have a knack for resolving matters quickly. If Kessler were the type to want to sit around and chat all day...Alfons was not given to violence, but he thought he could probably make an exception in that case.

Though this afternoon...Alfons realized belatedly that he had outstanding business with Kessler.

"Ah, by the way!" Alfons called after him.

"Yes?" Kessler paused, one large hand completely obscuring the door knob.

Alfons wet his lips. "About the rocket...have you heard anything about the launch date?"

Kessler tilted his head, considering.

"Not as such, no," he replied. "Though I have it on very good authority that it won't be too much longer."

Annoyingly, he winked.

"Have patience, my boy," he said again—must Alfons go back to being a 'boy'? He had thought that fight was over, when the Society had named him Chief Aerospace Engineer. "Rome was not built in a day."

And another one of the man's obnoxious little proverbs. "Neither was my rocketship," Alfons said, voice a little strained, but if Kessler noticed he gave no sign. He raised a ham-sized fist in salute and then bustled out the door, no doubt off to terrorize someone else.

Alfons slumped back in his chair and finally gave in to the urge to cough. Now that he was free to be alone, he could afford to hack a lung out.

If only I actually could, he thought with dark humor, looking down at the horror in his handkerchief briefly before tossing it away into the rubbish basket next to his desk. He couldn't risk using it again. Blood was a dead give-away, it was one of the great hallmarks of consumption, and as his doctor had cautioned, one of the signs the illness was advanced enough to be contagious. Although it seemed the past week had been better...perhaps because the rocket was finally complete, and the pace of his job had abruptly switched from murderous to down-right idyllic.

Alfons gave a wan smile. As much as it pained him to admit it, perhaps Kessler had the right of it. It had been a while since he slept in his own bed, or had a proper bath, or a dinner that wasn't bread and beer on the assembly floor. And it wasn't that he hadn't had time. His supervisor certainly seemed to find time to eat three square meals a day. Really, how did the man manage to be so huge? Kessler must be awfully rich to afford to be so well-fed, Alfons thought with annoyance.

Or he'd been on the Thule Society's payroll longer than Alfons thought he had, Alfons considered, a nameless bit of disquiet stealing over him. The Thule Society, with some of its members' ties to big countryside farms, was smart enough to pay its employees in food—good food too, bacon and eggs and potatoes, not just the withered produce that the boarding house had been subsisting on. He had thought Miss Gratia might weep when he had brought home his first 'paycheck' from his new sponsors—a whole side of cured pork and real butter, and winter cabbages that were good for more than thin soup. It had paid his back rent, and Edward's, after one meal. Such a godsend, this job was, and yet...

There's just something off, a part of himself kept complaining, and alone, Alfons had a hard time not listening to it. He looked out over the pile of new schematics he had yet to look through and fingered one, considering. The Thule Society was supposed to be sponsoring and showcasing his team's aerospace ventures, right? Then why hadn't they let allowed them to take his rocketcraft outside for testing yet? They had a man willing to be the test pilot—namely, himself. The one good thing about a terminal illness, he considered with a twisted smirk, was that it did put risks into proper perspective. What did it matter if the rocket blew up in his face? He already walked with two ticking time-bombs in his chest. His greatest concern was that he live long enough to test his invention, period.

But whenever he asked Kessler, or anyone else at the Society for that matter, just when the launch was going to happen, all he ever got was 'soon'. 'Not long now'. 'Just be patient'. And so far he'd grinned and born it...but eventually, he was going to run out of 'soons'.

Alfons sighed and scrubbed a hand through his unruly mop of hair, then set about tidying his desk as best he could. He swept the top layer of papers into a satchel and gave everything else a cursory once-over, honestly not sure what he should be taking with him, if he should be taking something with him. He wasn't even solid on what he was working on right now. Their main prototype was just barely finished—not even tested!—but the Thule Society had already requested him to design more rocketkraft...larger, faster, and most bizarre of all, they had assured him that fuel would not be an issue.

"We're close to a breakthrough," Kessler had said to him privately, after Alfons had promised to keep it in confidence. "There's a new method...the society should be able to liquefy all the oxygen you need, don't worry about efficiency. Design the largest vessel you can to accommodate the greatest payload possible, and we'll take care of the rest."

"Sure they will," Alfons muttered darkly, looking out over his tiny little makeshift office, the single lamp jerry-rigged to give him light. He turned it off and headed for door, coughed briefly into his hand.

He looked at the soiled, bloodied handkerchief lying in the rubbish bin and kicked the basket hard into the corner.

He really didn't have time for this.

He picked up a sack of vegetables for Miss Gratia on his way out of the laboratory and requested a car to take him to the train station. Haushofer's villa was an amazing place in Alfons's eyes—despite being situated outside the city proper, in a vale in a so-called suburb that was more than half wild, they had more here than most people living at the heart of Munich herself did. Old money, it seemed, had deep pockets, or at least more resilience than the common mark. The complex was a veritable fortress, sprawling out to include a sizable garden space and some farm land in addition a vast garage for motor cars, and an indoor atrium large enough to play host to a rocketcraft.

One of said motor cars puttered up exactly on schedule, and a professional though unsmiling driver stepped out to usher Alfons in. Alfons gave the word, and they pulled away smoothly, his hands clasped tightly around the handle to his work satchel, marveling as always at the strange turn of fate that had earned him chauffeurs as a replacement for his totaled car. The fair where he and Edward had laid it to rest seemed years in the past.

"I can take you as far as the station," the driver informed him once they were clear of the gates. "You'll have to take the train into the city on your own."

Alfons nodded. Security had tightened again, he noticed with concern. Two men with guns at the gate, instead of just one.

"Something going on?" he asked as they passed, pointing back at the young men standing stiffly with their rifles. They looked like ex-military types, from the set of their faces and the natural way they held their weapons, ready and alert.

The driver's sour face twisted into something even more unpleasant.

"Dangerous times," he said simply. "It is best for us all to keep a low profile. When the deposition failed us..." He trailed off and glared at the road, and Alfons nodded slowly. The man meant the coup that had just recently almost-happened, the demise of which seemed to have left many without mooring or direction. He hadn't been in Munich the night it happened because he'd been too close to finishing with his baby to be anywhere but the laboratory. His November 8th had been spent riveting the last of her hull together and then he'd slept right where he fell, too tired to be concerned with tripe like politics. It was only much later he'd learned, to his considerable surprise, that Officer Hughes and his goofball buddies had actually made good on all that idle beerhouse chatter. The Socialist Worker's Party had indeed risen up, just like Hughes was always waxing poetic about—and they had been beaten back down, their forces scattered, their leaders arrested. If Alfons had the energy to expend on the tumultuous world of politics, he might have almost thought it tragic. Something had to change, and the current government was certainly not up to it. The fact that he was holding his salary in turnip-form was proof of the pudding.

Interesting how so many of the Party were finding their way to the Thule Society of late, though. Kessler liked to go on about that, how the Thule were doing great things for Germany, how the Worker's Party would be foolish indeed to ignore what they had to offer. Always before, Alfons had dismissed it as irrelevant gossip. But to actually see the ranks swell, new faces flitting about the motor pool and shop made him wonder.

"You are a socialist, then?" Alfons asked the driver, probing a little. "I don't think I've seen you around."

The driver shot him a sharp look in response, his dark eyes like fire on Alfons's cheeks. He would be a handsome man, really, if not for the thunderclouds hanging over his head.

"I take it you aren't?"

"I didn't say that," Alfons said quickly. God in heaven, those eyes were fierce. "I am with the Society, that's where my focus lies currently." Technically not a lie, though not the whole truth either. To explain why politics didn't matter to him would be to explain that he was fated for something far less grand than revolutions and medals, and likely only hasten his ultimate end. If Kessler—or anyone else in the Thule Society, which preached as if weakness was itself an assault on morality—realized that he was a closet consumptive, they would not welcome him back from this little vacation with open arms. They would direct him to the nearest sanatorium, and that would be where he would finish his life: surrounded by doctors and white walls, and he would likely never know if his baby, his blood, sweat, and tears, lifted off.

Or if Edward had seen fit to forgive him.

The driver seemed satisfied with that answer though, lending weight, again, to the notion that the Thule name counted for something in the ranks of the Worker's Party.

"As does mine," the man admitted. "Only just come aboard after the march—after it all went to hell, nobody was willing to step up but Haushofer and his lot." The man waved a hand expansively—a hand missing two fingers, Alfons suddenly noticed. He tried to look as if he weren't staring. Even living with Edward and his amazing detachable limbs had never made it any easier. The eye was simply drawn to gaps in the human body. It was human nature, he thought, to notice when something that should be there wasn't.

He didn't want to think about how ironic that was, and so, he didn't.

The driver was still talking. "A man comes to appreciate leadership, I think. I served two years in the War...that's where I lost these..."—and now he had his disfigured hand right in Alfons's face, and Alfons turned what he hoped was a respectful shade of pale—"and after that, I learned there's some that fight by talking, and some that talk by fighting, and what this world needs is somebody smart enough to do both." He gave Alfons a conspiratorial grin and waggled his few remaining fingers. "How about you?"

"They hired me to do some construction work," Alfons hedged, careful not to give away too many details about what exactly it was he was constructing and why. Until they went public with their invention (and the Thule Society had promised they would help him, that they would use their university connections to help him promulgate his triumph!), it was as much to his benefit to keep the secret under wraps as to the Society's. "Afraid I can't tell you much more than that. You know the drill—orders are orders, eh? The brass says leap and you frog right into the frying pan."

And a calculated allusion to past military history despite the fact that—as much as it pained him sometimes—he had been too young and too well-to-do to go to war for his country. He had understood his father's reasoning at the time...he was young and in the middle of his education, and hell, everyone had thought the war would be over straight-aways. They had talked about the troops being home as soon as Christmas, and so the neighbor ladies had all planted victory gardens and waited for a feast that in the end, never came.

Now his father was gone, along with most of the rest of his friends and blood relatives, and Alfons had learned it was not wise to let others know that he'd survived the war at a boarding school.

He did feel a bit bad about misleading the driver so grievously. It was clear the man was so eager for camaraderie that he'd gone hook, line and sinker for Alfons's feeble bait. The driver cracked his first real smile since Alfons had met him and thumped the steering wheel, chuckling out loud.

"Ah, yes, I catch your meaning." He winked at Alfons and then shook his head. "Higher-ups always know best, don't they? Even when you've dug so deep you might as well be diggin' your own damn grave, and they keep telling you it's not enough, you have to keep working on them trenches."

He sobered instantly then, face snapping back into his previous sneer.

"Not that I mean to question, mind. Just that I understand—we regular Joes, we don't get the information that lets us know why they do the things they do, you know?"

"Of course," Alfons said. The man seemed a bit anxious, he noted. His fingers were tight against the steering wheel.

"Funny," the man said. His voice was rough. "To think, once upon a time, I was going to be an officer."

He didn't say anything after that, just drove, and Alfons didn't press him. Whatever horrors the man had seen, it seemed he wished to keep them to himself. Alfons leaned his arm against the side of the car and concentrated on breathing, slow and steady so as not to cough too often.

They arrived at the station and parted ways, Alfons with his satchel and sack of vegetables, and the driver even smiled again as he waved good-bye. He really was handsome when he did so, after all.

"You should smile more," Alfons muttered as the automobile pulled away back onto the street, but if the man heard, he did not acknowledge it. Alfons bought a ticket to the city and boarded a train for home.

Despite the upheaval of the past few weeks, it seemed little had ultimately changed about the part of town Miss Gratia's boarding house was in. The main drag was its usual contained chaos, motor cars and lorries and bicycles and pushcarts all jockeying for position, and Officer Hughes at the corner smack dab in the middle of it, yelling out directions. Alfons, on foot, snuck down through a back alley and around a couple roundabouts to the back of Gratia's flower shop and let himself in through the side door.

"Good evening?" he called hopefully from the main foyer of the house, holding the sack of vegetables out in front of him.

"Ah, Alfons!" Gratia's pleasant alto sang forth from direction of the kitchen. "Hold on, I'll be right there."

Alfons did as he was told, pacing idly about the common area while he waited. The widow's house must have once been a truly splendid place. It was apparent in the lines of the wainscoting, the pristine, glossy oak floorboards. Even though the furniture in it had largely been sold off piece by piece due to the inflation, it was still obvious that the house itself was lovely and well-cared for. Alfons had never seen it in its heyday, but he could imagine Gratia had kept things just as impeccable before she'd started taking in boarders like him—the woman was sweet but very fierce where proper housekeeping was concerned. The only time he had ever seen his landlady raise her voice, in fact, was the night Edward had stomped his way across the parlor with muddy boots. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned", so they said, but after that incident Alfons's money was "on a woman who's just waxed the floorboards". Even lackadaisical Edward had remembered to wipe his feet after that.

His stomach twisted a bit and he paused, suddenly nervous. He wondered, not for the first time, if Edward had seen fit to forgive him yet.

Gratia appeared through the kitchen doorway, looking tired, but she was still smiling same as always. Her smile brightened even more when she saw what Alfons was carrying. She was a plain, mature woman, with brown hair that clung stubbornly to her cheeks like a silky shield, but her expressions were gentle and worth the effort it took to make them out beneath her hairdo. Time and hardship had aged her prematurely, but she still clung to the vestiges of her former class. Her husband had been a banker before he'd perished in the war, and she wore pearls with her aprons and gardeners' gloves. Alfons had once hesitantly asked her why she didn't give those fineries up, rather than parting with her furniture, and the woman had simply shook her head and told him that there were some things a Lady could not put a price on. That was also why, she said demurely, she had yet to marry again.

"Good evening, Alfons," Gratia said. "How have you been?"

"Fine," Alfons lied. He hoisted the brown paper sack higher. "I've brought you this week's rent."

"Oh, bless your heart!" Gratia said. She took the vegetables from him and began to inspect them. "Just in time, I was needing a potato or two for this soup." She looked up. "Dinner should be ready in another half an hour. Shall I call you?"

"Please," Alfons said, though in truth he was feeling more fatigued than hungry. Just riding the train into the city had taken it out of him, its rattling sway almost leaving him dizzy. Maybe Kessler was right, he considered. Maybe he had been working himself too hard.

Or maybe he just didn't have much time left.

Gratia nodded and turned back toward the kitchen, groceries in hand, then paused and looked back over her shoulder at him. Her brow knotted.

"By the way, Alfons..." she said, and he knew in an instant that his earlier hopes were about to be dashed. "Do you have any laundry that needs doing? I went up earlier but Edward wasn't in, so I didn't want to intrude. Surely you two have some built up though. It's been a while."

"I'll bring it down later," Alfons promised. "And..." he swallowed hard. "You haven't seen Edward at all this week then, I take it?"

"No?" Gratia looked a bit puzzled. "I thought he was with you, at your work."

"Ah, not as such, no," Alfons said. He licked his lips, not sure how he should explain. He had never actually told their landlady that Edward had given up on being gainfully employed, for fear that she would misunderstand their situation.

"Tell you what—if you see him, would you mind telling him I'd like to talk to him? We um, had a falling out a while back. If he's not been here, it's likely because of me," he concluded glumly.

Gratia's mouth rounded into a small 'o' of surprise. "Oh, I didn't know...I'm sorry to hear that." She rallied immediately though, and gave him a motherly pat on the arm. "You two are good friends, though. I'm sure it'll blow over."

"I hope so," Alfons said. He was feeling a familiar tightness in his chest, one not entirely born of illness. He bid his landlady good evening and started slowly mounting the stairs to their rooms, not at all eager to get there now that he knew for certain they'd be vacant.

"It'll all blow over," hah, as if he hadn't told himself that lie before. Alfons shook his head. He had kept hoping, those last few months, that whatever was eating the man might just work itself through naturally—Edward had been so enthusiastic about their project when they'd started, his insights were at the heart of the rocketship's design. They had argued about it occasionally, but for the most part Alfons had bit his tongue when Edward had announced he was leaving the team. Surely once the ship was built his melancholy would lift, Alfons had though. Surely, it all would pass.

In the end though, Edward's depressed mood had only gotten worse, and more and more outwardly obvious, until even Herr Tucker and his oblivious boozehound buddies had pulled Alfons aside to talk about it. It was their opinion, they relayed in whispered tones, that the poor fellow was probably shell-shocked, like so many others who had come home from that horrid war, and they had urged Alfons to treat his roommate with care. They didn't even know the half of it. Edward was missing two limbs, a fact that he kept a tight secret because he had experimental prosthetics in their place—'trade secrets', he'd admitted to Alfons when Alfons had asked how they worked. His father was developing them and that was the most Alfons had ever gotten. The same father who had subsequently disappeared one day and left no note or forwarding address, causing Alfons to end up with Edward and his creepy box of false limbs, his crazy delusions. He told stories about folk heroes as if they were reality until sometimes Alfons got the uncomfortable notion that maybe the man really didn't understand where he was and what he was doing.

And he did care about Edward—cared more in some ways, he was afraid, than was probably healthy—but he himself was only human. The last night he'd spent at the boarding house before completing his rocket, in some ways the most important night of his life to date...and Edward had just wandered around the house after him nagging him not to go to the construction site, because he had nebulously learned that the Thule Society was Evil. This of course, after he had showed up at dinner saying he'd met his baby brother (whom Alfons suspected was in reality dead, though Edward seemed to cling to the notion that someday they'd meet again), and carrying a knight's helmet that Alfons could only hope wasn't stolen. He cared about the man, to the point where he felt like he was going crazy sometimes too, but damn it all -

His hand tightened on the hand rail of the stairs and he wheezed a little, the tightness intensifying within his chest. He could justify it all he wanted but in the end...hell. He had hit the man, right here on these very stairs, hit a poor, crippled, defenseless man and screamed at him, and the look on Edward's the time, he had relished it, Edward realizing just how his constant inanity was driving Alfons nuts, but in retrospect, he wasn't proud of himself at all. As exasperating as Edward could be, it wasn't his fault he was broken. He had looked so...startled and lost, like a puppy suddenly turned on by its master, and Alfons realized in hindsight that what he'd really wanted to do was just pick him up and hold him, pet on him until the madness went away.

He was only human though, and he had given into his rage at having to deal with Edward's dysfunction—and now Edward was gone, and it looked more and more like he might not be coming back.

Alfons let himself into their rooms and smelt stale air, dust circulating. Gratia only came in to clean when her boarders were home to allow her. For the room to be this dusty, no one had been in here for days.

"Hello?" he called, just in case.

The walls echoed his voice back to him, and Alfons leaned hard back against the door.

He took his supper upstairs, washed up only perfunctorily, and after that went straight in to bed. He would go back in to Haushofer's villa tomorrow, he decided.

He curled up in the center of his bed, coughing slightly to himself, and prayed, as always, simply for the both of them to wake up and be safe the next day, no matter where they might be.

Sleep was rather long in coming, but when it did take him, it was with a vengeance. Alfons fell hard and was only gradually aware, sometime later, that he was starting to dream.

That had been happening to him more and more lately, to be asleep and yet aware of that fact, aware that he could look around and know that what he was seeing was part of a dream. He'd had so many of these visions lately he couldn't begin to recount them all, but a disproportionate number seemed to center around a tangle of fields that he swore he'd never seen, a green smudge of river valley and little farm houses and dales that he, a born and bred city dweller, scarcely cared about in waking. He blamed that solidly on Edward and his over-active imagination. Alfons had no doubt that somewhere out there was a tiny hovel that had given rise to the oddity that was Edward Elric; he merely doubted it was in another dimension. Edward's words were compelling though, Alfons had to hand him that. Before Edward, he had never had such immersive and memorable fantasies.

Tonight he did not find himself in the midst of the river valley though; instead, his mind's eye was full of sun, sand, windswept dunes. Desert, he identified, although in waking he had only experienced them academically. It was a strange, alien landscape too bright with a shade of yellow that somehow disturbed him. It didn't feel real enough. He sank down on top of the swell of a dune and shut his eyes, blinded. He did not like this place.

I never much cared for the desert, the knowledge was simply there, not a musing but an axiom. Too much sand gets in my brother's joints and they freeze up. And I sink.

On waking it was the kind of sentiment he would ignore as dream-thought, or more often, just forget. He had had a fuzzier dream once in which he had felt elated, ecstatic to have discovered the solution to inflation. Upon awakening, he had retained only the nonsense phrase "it starts with the bonds maturing". Dreams meant nothing, right?

Except when they were about Edward. He was aware that was what he was searching for, Edward; he had what seemed like a bucket and pail in his hands all of sudden (or perhaps they had always been there? things were so impermanent like that). Had to dig. Somewhere in this crazy, shifting golden noise was the true gold, Edward's high-colored hair and eyes, and there was a horrible sense of urgency. If he didn't shovel fast enough, perhaps Edward might drown. Perhaps he already had. Perhaps perhaps perhaps...

He left because of me. His earlier fears, but sounded out in a higher, more youthful mental voice. It is my fault that he's gone. Now I can't find him... He shoveled faster, harder, deeper, terrified. The sands were hot and shifted over his legs and feet, started prickling unbearably. He was going under—

—and then the dream shifted, and they were back in his rooms, though it was all still quiet and no one was saying a word. No one was saying a word, but Edward was sitting in his usual chair observing him gravely. It wasn't clear if this was his bedroom or the downstairs dining room. With dreamscape, it was somehow both at once.

Please, I missed you! he cried out silently, in that same boyish tone. For some reason, he didn't seem to be looking down at Edward like he normally would. Perhaps he was small himself? He hadn't sounded like this to himself since he was just hitting puberty.

Edward said nothing, merely stared at him, face shadowed. At the same time, he had the solid and very real remembrance of what it was like to have the back of his hand connect with that pretty face. The sound of Edward, falling, that sickening thud against the stair.

There was a sudden, immediate feeling of regret, and he wanted to fall to his knees. He watched in a detached sort of way as his body did just that, though somehow the perspective remained unaffected. It was sometimes that way in the land of dreams.

I didn't mean what I said, he cried, and his voice was his own this time. I screamed at you, and I'm sorry. I just hoped you would be happy for me...

The shadowed figure remained silent.

I never meant for you to leave.

I didn't want you to leave because of me, either, his younger-voice echoed faintly, only he was aware now that it wasn't his voice at all. He looked to his side to see a boy kneeling beside him, a boy who looked very much like him when he had been that age—thirteen? fourteen?—but somehow he suddenly knew that this was not himself at all. It wasn't just the brown hair and hazel eyes, it was something more fundamental than that.

Something other.

Their eyes met briefly, and his smaller self started, blinked. Gave him an eerie look, which even later on waking Alfons would find stuck with him.

Wait—who are you?

The dream shattered and Alfons woke, coughing so hard it was amazing he didn't spit out a lung.