Risenberg in winter was not the paradise he remembered, Alphonse thought, tugging his red coat tighter across his chest. In his mind's eye, his hometown was a green place, fragrant with heather, and the hills perennially blazed with warm midsummer sun—the same sanctuary it had always been, where he and his brother could race endlessly through the lush river valley, maybe find a fat frog to take home and show Mother.
The Risenberg of late November, however, was nothing remotely like his memories and he was kicking himself for not considering a thicker coat. His brother's old clothing was layered enough that the temperature itself didn't bother him, but the bitter, howling wind sweeping down through the train yard had a way of weaseling in around the edges. He had pulled the floppy hood of his red coat up to protect his ears but that did nothing for his cheeks. They were like wax-polished apples, a bright, unhealthy red, and throbbed dully with each new scouring gust.
"Hey Al, are you coming or not!?"
Winry's voice echoed around the corner of the station, a slight edge to it that he knew had nothing to do with the crummy weather. The Risenberg depot was a small train yard, and passenger and freight and letter-mail traffic alike was routed to this single station open only a few hours a day, leaving a precious narrow window of opportunity to rescue parcels and post. Because he'd woken up so late, as she'd kept reminding him on the drive down, they were nearly out of time to retrieve her precious shipment from Rush Valley.
As he kept reminding her, he didn't understand why she couldn't just go without him, and that had fueled the terseness between them to brand new heights today.
"On my way!" he said, trying to sound valiant, tugged his hood tighter down around his ears. The wind merrily retaliated by trying to sheer off his nose instead, but he did his best to ignore it. He didn't want to be in a bad mood, he didn't want to be mad at Winry. It was the weather and the circumstance, he told himself. Too much cold seeping into his bones, compared to the desert's searing heat.
A torn timetable flapped merrily on the stationmaster's door, a little yellow flag beckoning out to him, and he was powerless against its crinkly siren's voice. He looked once toward his destination and then hung a sharp right, pressed the ripped page flat and tried to make sense of it.
To his relief, the relevant information was there. The wind had torn it nearly in half but the tacks at the corners had kept the pieces from flying away. The next train to Lior was due on Tuesday...another Thursday...again next Sunday...
Al started and nearly shredded the schedule further as he jerked in Winry's direction. She was poking her head around the bend to glare at him, her full lips pursed in a brilliant pout. A lot of Winry had filled out in the years he couldn't remember, of course, but it felt like she'd changed even more in the few months since he'd last seen her. He didn't remember her being so Motherly, either physically or emotionally.
"What are you doing?! C'mon, we've only got ten minutes, I need help with this pallet!" That tone even made him feel like a recalcitrant child, and the brisk manner in which she turned away shamed him for not following in step.
"Sorry!" he yelped and started trotting after her instinctively, before his higher logic kicked back in. He stopped dead in his tracks, balled his hands into fists. The looks that she gave him might sometimes remind him of his mother, but the schedule whipping behind him made him think of his brother, and he knew without a doubt which one he would choose.
Al doubled back and clapped his hands together, let the energy spiral out and weave the paper fibers once more into a solid whole. He admired it for a second, then sullied his achievement by tearing the schedule down at the corners and stuffing it wholesale into his jacket pocket. He could take the timetable home and plot his plan of attack later. Right now, he needed to help Winry before she made good on her usual playful threat to brain him with a wrench.
He trotted around the corner as fast as he could manage with the headwind, its icy needles making his eyes sting. Thankfully, the freight storage area had a high fence around it that warded against some of its violence.
"Sorry, that wind is sure fierce," he said as he entered, mimicking Gramma Pinako. "'Thought my ol' bones were gonna freeze.'"
Winry looked up from the wooden pallet she was kneeling beside and rolled her eyes.
"Your 'old bones' better get down here and help take these straps off, if they don't want to be broken." She gestured at the heavy tethers securing her shipment down. It was a veritable mountain of crates, most of them marked FROM RUSH VALLEY.
"C'mon, it's not going to kill you to be out for five minutes, it's just a little chilly."
"A 'little' chilly!? I don't see why you're not freezing!" Al complained. In accordance with her alien adult-ness, Winry had taken to wearing odd things, skirts and leggings and buckled boots that only came up to mid-calf. He would have thought her knees would be turning blue.
"I'm used to it," she said simply. "Of course, I wasn't in Lior for all of fall festival."
"...I thought we were through with that," Al sighed. He came over to 'their' pallet reluctantly, eyed the boxes and boxes of waiting automail parts.
"We are. I'm just saying, you're not in the desert anymore. Now come on, help me get this hook off."
Al nodded warily and complied, tugging down on the nylon tether to give Winry enough leeway to wiggle the hook at the bottom off the pallet. He sincerely doubted that the festival issue was really over, but what could he even say? It was true he hadn't been home for their regional harvest festival. Same had gone for the year before. It was a tradition he found sweet but out-dated, and it wasn't like any of them were big into the agricultural community.
If you just want to have family dinner, we can do it when I get back. We can even have sausage and pumpkin, I can buy some in Central. That's all we ever do at the festival anyway, go and eat at the food stands, he'd said then, and Winry had still argued with him. Gramma Pinako, on the other hand, had said nothing outright, but she'd stood in the background and quietly Disapproved nonetheless. In a way, that bothered him more.
Certain people need to learn to compromise, he thought, tore off straps with savage intensity. He was already visiting every chance he could spare. He was writing letters home, he was being conscientious. And yet, they behaved as though he were the one being unreasonable...like they were only giving lip service to supporting his search. Their actions made it clear that they'd rather keep him home.
Al buckled down, hauled boxes, attempted not to stew to death in his own juices.
I saw brother. I sawhim and talked to him. Not for very long, not about any of the important things—IloveyouI'vemissedyouhowthehellcanIfindy
He plunked the last box down into the trunk, shut it and leaned forward against the chill, punishing steel of the trunk lid.
It's hard enough to hope without having to share it around, Al thought, pressing his forehead. Closed his eyes, let the cold bring focus. Brother, just give me the strength to keep moving forward.
"...Al?" Winry's voice was right in his ear all of a sudden and he started, jerked fully upright once more. She was staring at him with worry in her eyes. Perhaps even a little wariness.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Al rubbed his eyes, which had started to sting from the cold. "Just...tired." Of everything, some days.
"Are you sleeping all right?" Winry's voice was all patient concern, saintly, motherly tones, and again it aggravated him.
"If it's too cold in your room I can check the furnace vent."
Al checked the latch on the trunk and then went around to the passenger's side of the car, waited for Winry to unlock it.
"Actually, it does get pretty cold at night in the desert..." Al said by way of conversation. "I just never went outside much then. The people live in the most interesting clay houses—you'd think they'd bake, you know, since you always hear about cooking food in 'clay ovens', but the mix of soils the Ishval use is actually very slow to absorb heat. It's a great insulator, if I'd had more time I'd have brought a sample back for you. Maybe you could use it in the workshop somehow."
"Mm," was all Winry said. She climbed into the driver's seat and put the car in gear, quite clearly not actually paying attention. Al bit back the urge to comment that he'd hoped she'd appreciate him showing an interest in what she did. Just because he'd gained the knowledge out in Lior...was it going to be taboo forever? Was he never going to be allowed to think of the place again? The train schedule in his pocket weighed heavy, infuriated him more. He'd bet good money if she knew, she'd take it away from him.
"I had another dream last night," he said instead, swinging his legs idly over the edge of the tall passenger's side seat.
Winry's eyes flicked to the right, lingered on his face despite the icy roads. It was snowing again and here and there, little patches were starting to stick.
"Did you now?" she said. There was a terse note to her voice even though she looked back ahead, feigning that everything was normal. Al watched her out of the corner of his eye, saw her grip tighten on the steering wheel.
"Yeah," he said, pursuing the opening. "I saw brother again in those same Drachman clothes. The brown tweed, you remember?" The same strange outfit that so far no one had been able to confirm his brother even owned. Al had checked through his brother's old dry-cleaning, his personal effects once the military had released them. He could only assume it was a fashion Ed had picked up in the land he was trapped in.
"You told me about that one, yes." Winry's voice had risen another octave, had a high, thin vibrato. Her nostrils flared. He knew he was upsetting her and he tried to tell himself he didn't care, damn it all—sometimes he had to let it out, whether they wanted him to or not.
"There was something different this time," he said. "Maybe a new clue. I think I saw—" He paused to wrinkle his nose. This was the part he was less sure of, the part that had left him staring at the ceiling long after he should have fallen back asleep.
"I think I saw Him." Always a capital 'H' in his mind, always a capital 'O'ther for the stranger whose eyes he watched his brother through. "He looks...rather different than I expected. Kind of hang-dog." He'd spent a portion of those awake hours in the middle of the night trying to come up with the perfect description; he was rather proud of 'hang-dog'. "He has floppy hair, like it hasn't been cut for a while. Kind of thin. He's really pale, kind of sickly, and his eyes are the same color as yours—his hair too—"
"Al!" Winry's voice snapped like a bead of spun glass, a thin thread pulled out beyond its endurance.
"Would you listen to yourself?!"
"Well, I'm sorry!" he hissed back, though something twisted at the pit of his stomach. Guilt had finally arrived with its usual afterburn of nausea. Also, frustration. "It's a dream about brother, I wanted to tell you about it!"
"That's all you do since you came home," she accused. She made a savage right-turn and something shifted in the trunk; the car lurched hard to the outside. "Day in, day out. You talk about these things like they're real."
"Because they—might be," he said, only narrowly avoiding the word 'are'. "How many times do I have to tell you, the facts fit?! When I talked with him at Lior, he had the same clothes as he does in my dreams. He said it was another world. What I see in my dreams—it isn't anywhere on Amestris, Winry. I know...I've looked."
Winry scowled at the road like she expected it to throw them, looked over at Al the same way. The windshield wipers clicked back and forth like accusations, tsk-tsk, tsk-tsk.
"That's the part I have problems with, Al," she said. "You talk about that armor like it was real, but there's no proof that wasn't some kind of dream, either. You put so much stock in this..."
Anger surged, eradicated any vestiges of guilt at making her worry.
"Well, what am I supposed to put stock in, when my own family won't believe me!"
"Believe what?!" Winry slapped her hand down on the dash control, kicked up the windshield wipers until they were screaming, an overkill response to the few flurries kissing the windshield. "Al, they shipped you home from Lior in a coma, what were we supposed to think!? You were out cold for two days and then the first thing out of your mouth was you wanted to go right back there. It doesn't sound sane, okay? There, I said it!"
"You weren't there," he said through gritted teeth. It felt like every muscle in his jaw had frozen up, in his fury he could barely speak. "I know it sounds crazy, we've been over that. It was a major alchemical event! Rose can tell you, we were both at ground zero when it happened."
Winry's foot pushed harder on the accelerator. He could hear the engine rev as their speed increased sharply up a steep hill.
"Rose also told us you tried to throw yourself into it." Her voice was tight now, angry—and fearful, he realized. Her eyes were unusually bright. "She said she had to hold you down to keep you from going with those things back to wherever they came from, and after that, you collapsed. Al..."
A hitch in her breath, though whether it was an angry sob or sheer sadness he could not guess.
"You're not the only one who misses Ed. I want to believe he's alive too, don't think that I don't. But this is just crazy."
"Well, if you want to find him, you've got a lousy way of showing it," he ground out. It was like poison, the words bit at his tongue and he had to spit them out, or risk having them destroy him. "I sent a piece of my soul through, I saw the other side of that gate. Do I have to demonstrate for you again!? It doesn't get more eyewitness than a piece of me physically IN another world, why can't you guys get that he's really alive out there—"
"That's not it!" she snarled, hit the dashboard with a fist. In frustration she was always terrifying, physically expressive to the point of swinging fists, wrenches. "What's crazy is how you two throw away everything, everything you have! I know you don't remember, I've tried to hold it in, but I'm so, so sick of seeing you two destroy yourselves for each other!"
"We've been keeping you home because we're trying to protect you, when will you get over it? I know you don't remember all of what you two went through, maybe that's your excuse, but I remember for you. And I can't watch you go through that again, Al, I can't. I can't."
She rubbed furiously at the corners of her eyes and stared out hard at the road, blinking every couple of seconds, organic wipers beating in time to the metal ones screeching against the car's windshield.
For a brief moment, a flashbulb went off inside of his memory, lit up a time where previously there had only been darkness.
You two won't cry, so I'll have to cry for you.
All the anger drained out of him, leaving nothing but a cold, sick feeling deep in his chest.
"...I'm sorry," he said quietly, feeling awful. "Sometimes, I think I forget...how much I really don't remember."
"I know," she said. Her voice was shaky. For long moments she just drove, staring straight ahead into the ice and snow, shifting gears every so often. "That's why I want to be here. To remind you to be careful."
Al just nodded, closed his eyes against the tears glistening at the edges of hers. His late teacher's voice was in his head now too, berating him, mocking his foolishness.
All is one and one is all...what affects the one also affects the all.
"I'm sorry," he said again. It was the only thing he could say.
"We do support you, Al," she said. "For the record." All the fight had gone out of her; she was concentrated on the road. "I just want you to know...we'll support you if you don't find him, too. No one would ever, ever say you haven't tried. I just...I don't want to lose you too."
She went silent after that, and Al said nothing either. There was a chill in his bones that the heater couldn't chase, a light missing from her eyes that he couldn't rekindle. I'll find him, he thought, but for once the words wouldn't form on his tongue. They were frozen inside, much like his tears.
He just watched the snowflakes hit the window shield and vanish without a trace.
Winry disappeared shortly after they got home and unloaded the car, which was all right with him. He knew she wasn't angry at him, not anymore, but they both needed space. Maybe reorganizing her already meticulous workspace was Winry's way of getting it. He himself retreated upstairs to the guest room, ƒhis' room, Gramma kept telling him, whenever he wanted it, as long as he needed it. Al tried his best not to leave personal effects there—everything he owned fit in a suitcase, and he wanted to keep it that way. He compromised by unpacking when he visited, but every now and again he felt the need to put everything back in, just to assure himself he could leave if he had to, within the half-hour, if someone called with a lead, a sighting, a fresh contact, anything.
It was one of those days today.
He flopped down on his bed next to his suitcase once it was packed and closed his eyes, trying to collect his thoughts now that he'd collected his things. The next train to Lior left in thirty-six hours. Thirty-six hours to convince his family that no, he wasn't going crazy.
Maybe another demonstration of what he was coming to call his soul alchemy would help...or maybe that wouldn't make a whit of difference. Winry and Pinako had seemed less than thrilled at the knowledge that his consciousness could easily leave his body; his master had outright forbidden it. So as much as it had cut him when she had sent him away, in a certain light the past two months had been great. The Ishvals' Art held promise, he could see it in even this short a time. The runes in his memory had to be a part of it...they had the same form, followed all the right ley lines. Every time he put his soul into something he could see them in his mind's eye, and when he'd transferred himself into those strange humanoid monsters in Lior, he had seen the layout proper, the way it was Supposed to Be. Only the Ishvals' art incorporated the human body like that, running lines of power throughout the entire body as though limbs and and head were part of the array. So far no one had been able (or willing) to source it, but he was certain once they did...
Lior is the key, the insistent, persistent thought kept screaming at him. It started in Lior.
And now Lior had been the victim of one of the most unusual invasions in history, fueled by an array that he had unfortunately not been able to see (and how much would he give to have made it to the cantina just a few moments earlier? More than he was willing to admit.) but that others had assured him was terrifying, grand, disrupted huge swaths of the plaza. It all connected, this vague memory of runes and Lior, and now armors with his soul in them, one of which had made it through a hole in the sky itself to an invisible other world, where his brother lived.
He fingered the schedule still in his jacket pocket and turned over onto his side, holding onto it like a talisman. One way or another, he was going to get back there. Rose and Mr. Armstrong (Major? why did he keep wanting to call the man 'Major', was that really a memory that he was ex-military, or just the impression the huge man gave off) may have shipped him home, but they had no say as to whether he stayed.
He had been under 'medical observation' long enough. Come Tuesday, he was leaving on that train, whether Gramma and Winry liked it or not.
Al curled up in a ball next to his suitcase and attempted to get some shut-eye. He was still exhausted from waking up in the middle of the night last night, and as long as he had the chance, he should probably try to catch up on his rest. If he did have to hoof it down to the train station on foot Tuesday morning, he would have to set out before it was light. And to avoid suspicion, he would have to go to bed at his usual late hour Monday night, which would be even worse if he were already sleep deprived.
Really it would be better if he could just convince them, but he wasn't sure he could bank on that. He'd been trying for days now already, and what had it gotten him? Anger, frustration...and Winry's tears, three things he was certain he didn't want to go through again. If there was one wish he could have come true—besides getting his brother back- it would be for no one else to be hurt.
You two won't cry, so I'll have to cry for you.
That same half-memory chased itself around and around in his head, a faint, restless ghost just clear enough to haunt him. He settled in deeper into the mattress, but unfortunately, somehow sleep was proving impossible despite his fatigue.
He kept drifting in and out of consciousness, jerking back awake whenever something bugged him—the creak of . He kept thinking he felt sand all over his bedspread, a familiar, invisible itch tickling his hands and neck, just abrasive enough to be annoying. Probably from the damned suitcase. Out in the desert, sand got into everything, the cracks in his brother's boots, the hinges of his watch and suitcase. He got up and chucked it back onto the floor, picked up the bed sheets and shook them out hard.
Still no good. If anything the prickling had increased. Great, flipping the sheets about must have spread it around. Al said a particularly nasty word and scooped the entire mess up wholesale. He tromped out into the hallway carrying his bedding in front of him, annoyed at the prospect of washing everything just to take a nap, but he would be damned if he slept in grit while at home in river country.
"Gramma?" he called down the stairs, "are you doing laundry? I need-"
The rest of his sentence ended in an alien rasp as something caught in his chest and he coughed, hard. A strange spear of pain lanced its way through his lungs and Al stopped dead in his tracks.
He shifted the linens he was carrying to one arm, pressed his freehand experimentally over the source of the hurt. His skin felt hot...feverish...even to his own touch, even through his clothes.
No wonder I was so tired this morning.
"Gramma, I think I'm sick!"
He dropped his armful of blankets right there on the hallway floor and peered anxiously over the banister. Pinako was there at the bottom of the stairs looking up at him from the foyer, her gnarled hands twisting endlessly over and over in a dishtowel—why a dishtowel, he'd thought for sure she was in the shop. He clomped his way heavily down the stairs toward her, leaning on the handrail for support.
"I'm sick," he said again and his voice sounded awful, rough and low and raspy. Damn, he knew he should have worn a heavier coat to the station...but how could he have expected it to set in so quickly? He was right as rain the night before.
Right as rain before he'd shared yet another dream with the Other, the stranger who was always watching his brother and coughing quietly, never feeling at all well.
The stranger whom he was starting to suspect might actually be real.
Are we sharing this too, now?
Pinako was just staring at him, watching his labored progress with dark, lidded eyes. She still hadn't said a word yet, and that was somehow the most terrifying part of all.
"That cough doesn't sound right," she said in a strange voice, still turning her dishrag around and around. "Have you had that looked at?"
"N-no, I didn't have it until a few minutes ago."
Pinako turned away to face the drawing room, also known as the waiting room they used to impress clients with. The drawing-out-transactions room, as Winry called it—always for visitors, never for family.
"It's going to be a hard winter," Pinako said, staring through the open doorway. "I think we'll have to close off the parlor, we need to save heat."
He could feel another cough burbling its way up through his chest with an urgency that terrified him, and Gramma's words weren't helping.
Pinako turned around again, and her dark eyes bored into him like they could see down to his soul.
"I should know, I've been here since the first stone was laid," she said with a deadpan expression. "You best go out and bring your brother in, it's going to get bad."
She pointed north out the skinny foyer window, and what else could he do but to spin around and look? He was starting to realize something wasn't right, something was indeed very, very wrong, but all that paled when he saw a familiar golden head of hair cresting over the rise.
He lunged for the front door like his life depended on it, threw back the deadlock. His lungs burned like twin coals in his chest but he had suffered worse pains. Ed, for the love of god, his brother was right there, so achingly close he could already feel him in his arms.
"STAY WHERE YOU ARE, I'M COMING TO GET YOU!"
An invisible spray of grit peppered his ankles as he drew the door back, and Al jerked his feet back instinctively, alarmed. Something skittered across the floorboards, so fine he could barely see it, but it reminded of something, something he should recognize.
Sand? Why sand—
He was opening the door into a nightmare.
The green hills of Risenberg were sloughing away, a high wind peeling back all the grass and revealing sand, mountains of sand, vast yellow dunes as far as the eye could see. He could feel the heat radiating from the doorstep, matching the heat radiating up from his chest, and Al sank to his knees with a low groan, not caring that the grit was stinging his cheeks.
"It's a dream," he rasped to no one. Slammed a fist down against the fake porch step, howled up at the fake sky. "It's a fucking dream!"
The wind seemed to pick up the epithet and howl it back to him; Al turned and ran back inside, slammed the door on the horror.
Gramma Pinako was gone now, the foyer quiet and dark. A dream, it was just a dream—what did you do when you knew you were dreaming? Al had the frustrated feeling he was supposed to be able to control it now, wasn't that what the experts said? Yet his chest still throbbed with an uncomfortable ache, the raging wind outside refused to stop. Sand was pouring in through the cracks in the front door, the windows. It was starting to accumulate enough to be visible as little ripples of grey all across the foyer floor.
He watched the miniature dunes numbly, wondered if eventually the room would fill and he'd drown. Maybe that meant he could finally wake up then. There was no furniture to stop its progression into the drawing room; they'd sold off the parlor furniture long ago for food, save for one ratty sofa which not even the pawnshops would take, and so they had by necessity kept.
He heard a noise on the stairs and looked up to see a stranger coming down, a dark-skinned girl in long woolen dress. She looked like Rose, if Rose were thinner and her eyes were dead. He knew Rose had seen hard times in her life (like her son, the one named after his brother), but this girl...her eyes caught his for a moment and seemed to suck all the life from the room, an old gaze, her stare older than the hills.
"You can't have what you can't keep," she said. "You can't buy what you won't pay for."
"Shut up," said Al tiredly. "I know you're not real."
It was too much, this latest disappointment. Never before had he thought his dreams cruel. He couldn't even summon the strength to be curious; all he knew was that his brother was gone. He'd been there...and then he was gone.
The girl's lips quirked up in a savage smirk, and she whisked her way into the parlor with a triumphant look on her face.
Only then did he realize what it was she was going for.
"BROTHER!" Al cried again, looking up to see that shock of golden hair cresting through the murky gloom. His brother was in the drawing room somehow, since when had he gotten there—was his luck finally changing? He tried to see what else he could will to happen but unfortunately nothing changed. He did not teleport magically to his brother's side, he did not suddenly know his brother's real life location. Despite his best intentions, the scene just kept playing.
His brother stood up—and the stranger embraced him.
The girl whispered something into Ed's ear and he turned to her, let her put an arm around him—he'd never do that, he never let anyone hug him, just what the hell was going on!?—and then she looked over her shoulder at Al, smiled at him as she escorted Ed toward the door.
Ed didn't even so much as look at him, didn't so much as raise an eyebrow or wave. It was like he looked in Al's direction and saw through him, saw nothing. As though Al were nothing.
"But why!?" he cried out, lungs on fire. He wanted to lunge at them but it was like an invisible hand held him back. "Why are you leaving with her?"
Why did you leave with her? A strange echo called back.
Ed said nothing, just stared straight ahead with that same silent, unreadable expression, and the pain in Al's chest worsened. It was the woman who finally moved, shook her head indignantly. Her brown curly hair spread about her head like a corona.
"What else could you have expected?" she said, and laid her hand on the bare skin of Edward's cheek. "When you don't value what you have, someone else will take it from you."
"But he's not yours to take!" Al howled, breathed in pain.He was mine! the echo screamed with him, growing louder. "He's mine, he's my brother—"
NO, he's MINE-
The searing in his lungs cascaded, built exponentially, and then suddenly his entire body was on fire. Like a firecracker he went up, and then all of a sudden his pieces exploded. There was a bright flash, and a moment of darkness, and then there was nothing but an endless field of yellow light, a primordial sea of nothing that went on and on forever——save for the strange, yet familiar boy straight across from him, hanging in the middle of that preternatural glow. Pale, sickly skin; a hang-dog expression. A dopey mop of hair that could use a good cut.
Eyes as blue as Winry's, as blue as a cornflower on a summer day.
The Other was right there and staring at him, so close he could reach out and possibly touch him, and all Al could think do to was wonder.
Who are you? he asked, not for the first time, not expecting an answer.
The Other tilted his head down, inclined it politely to one side, as if considering.
...my name is Alfons Heiderich. Who the hell are you?