Alphonse made his way down the narrow winding stair under the abandoned church towards the underground city, Winry and Shezka following close behind. None of the three spoke, but the silence between them screamed with tension all the same. Al had tried to talk the two women out of accompanying him into the cavern, but they had bluntly refused to let him go alone, worried looks in their exchanged glances. They perhaps thought he might try to jump through the Gate instead of closing it, but if that had been his intention, Alphonse would have gone aboard the other world's aircraft himself instead of urging Roy Mustang to go in his place. He'd opened the Gate on this side with the selfish intention of getting his brother back, and was responsible for letting the invasion forces through. The resulting destruction was his responsibility as well, and worse yet, it had all been for nothing. Edward was gone, stuck cleaning up the other half of his little brother's mess, and Alphonse would be damned if he let his big brother down by being selfish once again. He would close the Gate, ensuring that nothing else from the other side would ever get back though. Including Edward. And that was the most painful part of this devastating end. Alphonse move forward with grim determination and regretted what he had to do, but was determined to do it nevertheless. He didn't know how he was going to live with himself after this.
Because on top of the guilt, he was ashamed. Ashamed that his impulsive actions caused so much pain and destruction. Ashamed that his selfishness and pride blinded him to risks he was taking with the lives of others. And ashamed that Edward had seen him at his lowest. That was the Alphonse his brother would hold in his memory now. A weak, irresponsible, reckless Alphonse. The young man gritted his teeth as the trio emerged from the stairwell into the main chamber, the sound of their footsteps on smoothly polished stone swallowed by deep silence.
The golden glow of the Gate lit the large cave like inverted sunlight, amber rays flashing and tracking across the cavern's ceiling, an easy destination to target in the tangle of narrow streets. Wrath's sacrifice, the red stones contained in his and Gluttony's bodies, were likely framing the energy to brace it open. Reaching the courtyard that bounded it, Alphonse took his time as he approached the massive construct, considering his options. He didn't want an impulsive action on his part to result in even more damage to the city above. If the red stones were indeed focusing the power, he had to find a way to pull the plug. He could disrupt the array that described the channelling of that power, but how could he ensure that the enormous amount of energy he suddenly unleashed didn't whiplash out to tear apart the cavern and the city perched on top of it as well?
The young alchemist looked at his two companions. "I think you should stay back," he advised. "The Gate can be very unpredictable." An image flashed behind his eyes for a split second — greasy black ribbons sliding around him, wrapping him, small, cold hands pressing, clutching, groping — and was just as suddenly gone. Alphonse put his hands over his face and rubbed the heels of his hands hard at his eyes, stomach roiling queasily. What was that?
"Al?" Winry's strong hands gripped his shoulders tightly. "You should sit down. I thought for a second that you were going to fall over!" Sheska nodded a confirmation, hovering beside him, wringing her hands nervously.
"No, I'm alright," the young man insisted, though he took a moment to make sure he was steady before gently freeing himself from the automail mechanic's supporting grasp. "I have to get this thing closed up."
"Then do it," Sheska said, voice trembling. "What are you waiting for?" Her eyes kept darting towards the golden chaos marring the polished stone floor as if expecting some new horror to spring from it, and really, it was a perfectly reasonable concern.
"I'm not exactly sure how to go about it, and I don't want to rush and cause even more harm than I already have." Alphonse eased Wirny back, and her worried eyes followed him as he edged closer to the Gate's edge, hoping to see, or perhaps sense, a clue to the action he should take.
A low groan and movement from the surrounding rubble caused Alphonse to spin around, crouched and ready for some new hostile encounter. Whatever he was expecting, it certainly wasn't what he found.
Van Hohenheim lurched upright not five metres from the group of young people, buck naked, his thick blond locks hanging loose around his hunched shoulders, arms dangling limply in front of him. He looked at the trio blearily, then at the surrounding cavern, and finally took in the yawning Gate with a grimace.
"Wasn't expecting that," he said, speech somewhat slurred, and took three shambling steps towards his youngest son before falling to his knees.
"Dad?" Alphonse' incredulous gasp drew the old man's attention, and though he seemed confused and disoriented, he smiled at the youngster's shocked expression.
Winry finally shook off her freeze of astonishment and rushed to Hohenheim's side, quickly checking for injuries. The older man endured her prodding with a bemused smile and the occasional wince, until she finally pronounced him free of critical damage. In fact, given his state of undress, it was blatantly obvious that Alphonse' father was in excellent health, his skin amazingly free of any scar or blemish. The blonde mechanic helped as he struggled once again to his feet, Alphonse seemingly frozen in place, staring, Sheska hovering behind him, unsure of what to do. The older man pursed his lips, frowning at his son's stunned immobility.
"Don't I even get a 'welcome home'?" he asked, disappointed.
Alphonse, Winry, Sheska, and Hohenheim sat on convenient chunks of shattered stone, the Gate like some weird campfire shimmering in front of them. The ancient alchemist, Alphonse' long red coat draped over his lap, was spinning the tale of his adventures in the other world to the three rapt young listeners. The old man had been annoyed to learn that Edward had returned through the Gate to close it, but had easily given in to his younger son's demands that he explain his presence. Hohenheim was nearing the end of his story, almost caught up to present circumstances.
"When William, who you knew as the homunculus called Envy, bit down on me, I didn't even have time to register the pain before I was standing in front of the Black Gate," Hohenheim said to his spellbound audience. "My blood paid the exchange for opening it, and I had expected only death, but still I could feel it shuffling through my mind, making whatever judgments it needed to. Then finally the great doors cracked open, and I saw a thousand pairs of greedy eyes eagerly peering out at me, their latest victim, through the widening gap. The long black arms snaked out, reaching for me, binding me, the hands clutched at me, pulling, but I didn't struggle. It would have been pointless, and I just don't have that kind of strength anymore, to fight against what can't be fought."
Alphonse frowned. The description of those black arms brought back the vision he'd had earlier as he'd approached the Gate's edge. That must have been some kind of flashback to when he had been before the Gate himself! Did that mean his memories weren't lost forever, as he had assumed? Hohenheim was looking at him oddly.
"Yes, I'd forgotten that you have seen that Gate as well, Alphonse," the old man said, expression mild.
"Well, up until about an hour ago, I'd forgotten that myself," Alphonse admitted. "Please finish telling us what happened to you. How did you end up here?"
Winry frowned her worry again, and Hohenheim looked as though he might pursue an explanation for his son's strange comment, but instead he concluded his story. "Nothing more to tell, really. I was pulled into the darkness, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up here." The old man waved a hand to encompass the cavern.
"Well, I'm certainly glad to see you, and not just for the obvious reasons," Alphonse said, casting his gaze towards the eerie shimmer in front of them. "For one thing, I have to close that, and I'm really not sure how to do it safely. Do you have . . ."
"Close it?" Hohenheim straightened up in surprise. "I thought you said Edward had gone back through. We can't close it yet, not until we get him back."
"You can do that?" Sheska asked, voice squeaking, nervous. "Without, like, levelling a city or anything?"
"It will take some careful planning, but yes, I believe we can do it," Hohenheim said, eyes unfocused as he thought it over, already making plans, and Alphonse was suddenly blindsided by another image — Edward, not the eleven year old haunting his last recollections, not the eighteen year old he had just met, no, this Edward had lived some when in between, a teenager, sharp of feature, sitting at a long table stacked high with books in a dimly lit room, chin resting on a cupped metal hand, thoughtful amber gaze a match to the one he'd just seen cross his father's face — and then he was back, laying on the ground, head in Sheska's lap, looking up at three concerned faces gathered around him.
"I'm alright," he said immediately.
"What happened, Al?" Winry knelt at his side, peering critically into his eyes, hands firm on his shoulders.
"I'm not sure," the young man said slowly. "I just . . . saw something. I think it was a memory from the time I was in the armour. I think I might be starting to remember." He struggled to sit up, and Hohenheim's strong right arm supported him.
"You don't remember anything from that time?" the old man asked, his expression guarded.
"Nothing. But lately I've been having dreams about living with brother in a different world, and just before we found you, I had another memory, about getting wrapped up in black ribbons and clutched at by little black hands like the ones you described inside the Gate."
Before anyone could comment, the sharp sound of approaching footsteps interrupted. Into the shattered clearing rushed a small platoon of tense armed soldiers, lead by Riza Hawkeye. With her were the rest of Mustang's old team: Jean Havok, Heyman's Breda, Vato Falman, and Kain Fuery. Spotting Alphonse and his companions, Hawkeye strode over, eyes casting around the scene, taking in Winry and Sheska, frowning at Hohenheim, and searching beyond them. Alphonse could easily guess who she was searching for. The rest of the soldiers present shared their incredulous gawks between the shimmering Gate and shivering Hohenheim in turn, and Mustang's former command closed ranks protectively around Hawkeye and the crouched civilians.
"Alphonse." the First Lieutenant squatted down beside the young alchemist. "Are you alright? Can you tell me what happened?"
"I'm fine Lieutenant Hawkeye," Alphonse assured her. "And as for what happened, you probably know as much as I do. I opened this gateway and an invasion force came through."
"And Edward." This wasn't a question.
"Yes," Alphonse answered with quiet unhappiness.
"He took the flying machine back through that gateway, didn't he," Hawkeye asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yes," was Alphonse' cheerless response. "And General Mustang went with him."
The Hawk's slow nod and exchanged glance with Havoc showed no evidence that this news surprised her, confirming what Alphonse had long suspected about Mustang. The conclusions he'd come to from overheard speculation and quiet innuendo by the Flame Alchemist's former staff concerning the General's self imposed exile to the North, all when they assumed Al was out of ear shot of course, were the reason Alphonse had urged the General to join Edward on the aircraft in the first place.
With a deep sigh, Hawkeye turned towards Hohenheim and gave him an appraising once over. "Van Hohenheim?" she asked. "Did you come through this gateway as well?"
"I'm sorry, miss," the old man said apologetically. "You seem to be confusing me with someone else. I'm just an innocent bystander."
"If you insist," Hawkeye said. "Though I do wish you weren't. I suspect we'll need as many talented alchemists as we can find to safely close this monstrosity."
"Ah. About that," Hohenheim rubbed the back of his neck and gave the officer his most disarming smile. "Seeing as how two of our citizens have gone through there, and closing this gateway would cut off their only escape, don't you think it might be better to leave it open, even if only for a little while?"
Another commotion of approaching footsteps interrupted, and more soldiers poured into the wrecked area around the Gate. Alphonse recognized General Hakuro as he came on the scene, and the man obviously recognized him as well, as he quickly made his way over to crash the discussion.
Hakuro glanced suspiciously at Alphonse and lifted an eyebrow at the half naked spectacle of Hohenheim standing casually by, Alphonse' red coat tied around his waist by the sleeves. The General then turned to his subordinate and barked, "Lieutenant Hawkeye! Report!" as he returned the woman's waiting salute.
"General Hakuro Sir!" Hawkeye started, stiffly at attention. "This alchemical construct is the means by which the invasion forces gained access to Central. These civilians were on hand to witness the airship as it went back through the construct. It appears that General Mustang was aboard at the time. We have yet to discover how the invaders were able to transmute this gateway, or how it can be closed."
"Closed?" Hakuro turned to gaze almost lovingly at the object in question. "I hardly think that closing the door on that incredible level of technology would be prudent," he said, giving Hawkeye a condescending smile. "Think of the tactical advantage our military would realize with weapons like those in our possession. Coupled with our superbly trained contingent of State Alchemists, our forces would greatly surpass those of our neighbours. We have to keep this open, carefully guarded of course, so we can use it to get to that weaponry."
"If we don't close the door, the owners of that weaponry could come back through at any moment and attack us with it again!" Alphonse piped up. "I was on that airship! Its commander was only interested in our destruction! Keeping this thing open presents a terrible risk!"
"But our people are over there!" Hohenheim cut through Hakuro's response. "Yes, we have to close it, but not yet! We have to get them back!"
Hakuro held up a hand, attempting to gain control of the debate. "This is a military operation! Any unauthorized attempts to disrupt this gateway . . ."
Alphonse spoke over the General's rebuke, addressing Hohenheim. "The only reason I didn't go with brother was because he told me to close this side of the Gate, and that's what I'm going to do. He's closing the other side, so this one won't be usable anymore anyway."
"Not necessarily," Hohenheim said, again ignoring Hakuro and earning an exasperated snarl. "I have passed through the Gate twice now, and counting this time, Edward has been through five times that I know of. The majority of those passages have been successful even though the Gate was opened from one side only. This side. Closing this now would only mean reopening it later, and if you're not familiar with the risks associated with that kind of undertaking, I'd be happy to outline them for you."
Alphonse thought it through carefully. He desperately wanted to get his brother home safe, but didn't want to again endanger others to do it. At the same time however, he didn't want to arbitrarily dismiss this opportunity if the risk of collateral damage was low. He was done making rash decisions, in the name of getting his brother back or otherwise. "How long do you think we'd have to keep it open?" he asked after a few moments. "We really don't want to get invaded again."
Hohenheim considered the variables and answered cautiously. "I think between the two of us, we can come up with a viable plan of action inside of a week."
"You were over there. How long would it take the otherworlders to mount a follow up attack?" Alphonse pressed.
The old man could see that he was winning his son's agreement, and thought carefully before answering. "The rocket they sent through was a prototype. I believe it would take them much longer than a week to prepare another one."
"Then our deadline is one week," Alphonse said with finality. "If we can't formulate a workable plan within that time frame, we close the Gate and work on getting Ed and General Mustang back some other way."
"Agreed," the old alchemist said reluctantly.
"No one is closing anything!" Hakuro barked, frustrated, just as the Gate erupted, belching out a glittering silver spray of iridescent mist, accompanied by a high pitched whine trembling just on the edge of human hearing. It raised the hair on every head in the cavern.
Soldiers and civilians alike scrambled to put some distance between themselves and the edge of the gapping disparity as the ground began to shake convulsively. More of the glowing silver mist puffed up, joined by an occasional chunk of something more substantial, ejected at high speed. From his vantage point behind a half crumbled wall, crouched between a whimpering Sheska and a cringing Winry, Alphonse was certain that the diameter of the transmutation circle was tightening. The Gate was closing. Looking wildly around for Hohenheim, wondering if they should try to stop it, the young alchemist almost missed seeing the serpentine creature that appeared within the churning mist, glowing emerald coils wrapped in oily black tendrils, struggling to break free. It was only visible for a moment before it was snapped back into the golden confusion below it, but Alphonse was sure it had been looking directly at him with almost tangible malice.
The ground was shaking so violently now that it was nearly impossible to stay upright. Alphonse clung to the dubious stability of the damaged wall, watching as the Gate appeared to swallow itself. The gap was shrinking more rapidly with each passing second, along with Al's hope that it wasn't too late to fetch Edward back through it. In no time at all it was a pinpoint of light much too bright to look at directly, and then it vanished entirely with an ear—splitting thunderclap. The ground stopped shaking just as abruptly as it had begun, and an eerie silence settled once again like a thick mantle over the underground city.
Still dazzled from the brilliance of the dwindling Gate, it took Alphonse a moment before he noticed that a dimly glowing something was lying directly in the centre of the spent transmutation circle where moments before the Gate had disappeared. The boy was just beginning to stand, intending to go and see if the object was what he suspected it to be, when Hohenheim pounded past him at a dead run, bare feet slapping the polished stone, Al's red coat flapping around his legs as he wove through the scatter of rubble. Without even breaking stride, the old man scooped up the glowing crimson article and disappeared into the tangle of underground buildings.
Sheska blew out a shaky breath. "Well, that's settled," she said.