When Alphonse got back from his final debriefing at Central Headquarters, he wasn't at all surprised to find Hohenheim sitting inside his hotel room, reading the paper and sipping a cup of black coffee, fully clothed this time thankfully. Ever since they had parted company in the underground city three days prior, the young alchemist had half expected to see his father around every corner, but the old man had not made an appearance until now.
Even with Hawkeye running interference for him at every turn, the very private 'public' inquiry had been little more than an ongoing interrogation of the youngest Elric. Following the Lieutenant's lead, Alphonse hadn't mentioned that he was the one who had opened the Gate in the underground city. His story, as counselled by the Hawk, was that he had discovered the already open Gate under Central while looking for the source of the earthquakes, citing the incident in Lior as his motivation to search for one. The panel of Generals and Parliamentarians conducting the inquiry had easily accepted that explanation. What they had been particularly interested in discovering however, were the whereabouts of the man currently relaxing on Alphonse' rented bed, catching up on the local news.
"Ah, Alphonse, at last!" the old alchemist said, laying aside his paper. "Tell me about these dreams you've been having."
"Hi Dad!" Alphonse chirped, noting that his red coat was back, hanging on the coat rack. "What's that? Why yes! I'm very well, thank you so much for asking!"
"Well of course you are," Hohenheim observed, eyebrows raised. "I wouldn't expect a few hard asked questions to do you any harm."
"And I should have expected you to disappear at your earliest opportunity," Alphonse retorted. "It's not like I haven't been abandoned by you before."
The older man looked chagrined. "Yes, and I do apologize for taking off like that. But I'm sure you must realize I couldn't afford to allow myself, or what appeared out of the Gate, to fall into military hands."
Alphonse felt his annoyance fade. "Was that . . . what I think it was?" the youngster asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
The old man nodded solemnly. "I'm not exactly sure why a Philosopher's Stone would result when the transmutation circle imploded, but I can hazard some guesses. There were three homunculi on the threshold, all animated by red stones. It's possible that those incomplete stones absorbed the lives of the other world's soldiers, killed when they passed through the Gate. Then the intense pressure that resulted from the Gate's collapse concentrated the raw materials into a perfect Stone." Hohenheim gave his youngest son a wry smile. "Of course, that's all speculation. I'm not entirely sure why I'm not dead right now either."
Alphonse frowned at his father. He had been little more than a toddler when the man had disappeared from his life, and so his memories of him were just simple impressions and faded images. The reality of this man lounging on the bed talking Gate theory was nothing like he had imagined his father to be. Al's internal picture was of a scholarly sage, coolly capable though mild mannered, supremely confident in his abilities, an inspiration to everyone around him. The actuality was this nondescript middle aged man, mild mannered, yes, but self disparaging, inspiring very little. The full blown hatred Edward had for Hohenheim stemmed from his abandoning their family, and Alphonse knew his brother would have been perfectly happy never to see their father again, but Alphonse had always hoped his father would one day return. Now that he had his wish, the youngster felt a mild disappointment that Hohemheim didn't exactly measure up to his expectations.
"What are you planning to use the Stone for?" Al asked.
Hohenheim looked surprised. "I would have thought that was obvious," he said, eyebrow raised. "We'll use it to bring Edward home." He smiled a smile of serene conviction.
Al suddenly felt a little more inspired. "How are 'we' planning to go about it?" he asked.
"First of all, I need to hear about these dreams you've had about living with Edward in another world," Hohenheim started, swinging his legs over and sitting on the edge of the bed, inviting Alphonse to join him with a beckoning pat on the mattress.
Alphonse took the indicated seat, willing to indulge his father's curiosity if it would help get Edward back. "I started having them about a year ago. I thought they were just normal dreams at first, the kind where you get what you've been wishing for. It wasn't long though, before I realized they weren't normal at all."
"How did you come to that conclusion?" Hohenheim's eyes never left his son's, gaze intense.
"Well for one thing, although I'm taking part in the dream, I have no control over what I do. I'm talking, or doing something, but I'm not. It's like someone else is doing it, and I'm just along for the ride. Sometimes I don't even understand what I'm talking about, or I didn't until I saw the rocket that came through the Gate." Alphonse closed his eyes, trying to see the memories more clearly. "And nothing much ever happens in these dreams. Sometimes I'll be walking around with brother, doing mundane things like getting groceries or a newspaper. Other times we'll be sitting at a table eating, or working in a lab with other people, building something. We never do any alchemy either; never even talk about it, which I also found strange."
"Not so strange, if you're really seeing into the other world," Hohenheim murmured. "What else do you remember?"
Eyes still closed, Alphonse thought hard. "Sometimes I see familiar people, people I know. Lately I've been seeing a girl that looks a lot like Rose, but not exactly. I don't understand why I would see people from this world in that other one, but I still believe I really am seeing where brother is. I'm sure I have a connection with Edward in that other world."
"You definitely have a link to that other world, but I'm not sure it's with your brother, at least not directly," the old man said.
"Who else could I have a link with? It can't be General Mustang. I've been having these dreams since well before he crossed over," Alphonse pointed out. "It has to be Ed."
"Then tell me this, Alphonse. When you are seeing things in your dreams of the other world, whose eyes do you use?"
The youth opened his mouth to make a sharp retort, then stopped, thinking it over very carefully. He had been about to say the eyes he used were his own, but that couldn't be. They weren't Edward's either, because he could see Edward, an external point of view. It had to be someone close to Edward. Al frowned at his father and admitted, "I don't know."
"I think I do," Hohenheim rubbed his bearded chin thoughtfully. "You told me that sometimes you see familiar faces in these dreams. That's because that other world is actually a different version of this one, what this world would be without alchemy, and the people there are doubles of the people here. I think you are seeing through the eyes of your double."
Alphonse stood and walked to the window, gazing out at the busy street as he collected his thoughts. A world without alchemy? His father had mentioned this before, but it didn't seem plausible. How would that even work? The young man tried to imagine it, but it was very difficult. Alchemy was wrapped up in so many different aspects of everyday life, it would be just as hard to imagine a world without gravity. "Did you know my double in that other world?" he finally asked.
"Yes. His name is Alfons Heidrich. He was a university student when I first met him, a gifted physicist. He and Edward met when Heidrich was in London visiting a colleague of mine, and they became friends. That was about a year ago." The older man didn't bother to point out the significance of the timeline.
Alphonse continued to watch the traffic in the street below his window. "How is this relevant to your plans to get Edward home?" he asked.
"Tell me about your particular brand of alchemy," the older man said, and Alphonse frowned at the apparent change of subject.
"I can attach a piece of my soul to inanimate objects, and gain control of them." And suddenly Alphonse could see where this was going. "You want me to try to attach a piece of my soul to whoever I've been linking up with in that other world, don't you?"
"That's part of my plan, yes."
"There are a couple of problems with that," Alphonse told him, turning to lean back against the window sill, crossing his arms. "First of all, I've never tried to attach myself to anything alive, let alone another person."
"That's not a problem unless you try and it doesn't work," the old man pointed out.
"Depending on the details of your plan, another possible problem is the duration of the transfer. It's very short lived," the youngster continued.
"My plan takes that into account, as I assumed multiple transfers might be necessary," Hohenheim explained.
"I also haven't had a dream about Edward in that other world since he went back," Alphonse finished.
Hohenheim pursed his lips, frowning. "Okay. That's a problem," he admitted.
"Why don't you tell me the details of your plan anyway?" Alphonse pressed. "Maybe we can work out the wrinkles."
Hohenheim leaned back on the bed and folded his hands behind his head. "I want to open the Gate from both sides again, and the transmutation circles have to be synchronized for proper alignment. We got lucky the last time, because you opened a stable gateway here at the same time that the Thules used me to open one on their side. The circles weren't synchronous though, which made passage impossible without the aid of a powerful, fast moving vehicle, and even with the advantage of speed, the passengers were still tainted by contact with the Gate."
Alphonse thought of the oily black resin that had clung parasitically to the invaders' bodies, Dietlinde Eckart's included. "You believe that a synced passage would protect you?" the young blond asked.
Hohenheim nodded. "A clean, clear path straight through is what we need. Think of it as a tunnel, or better still, a sewer. You want to walk through a nice wide passageway, not one that winds and constricts, so you don't accidentally brush against the tunnel's walls, and anything contaminating them." Alphonse wrinkled his nose at the visual, and his father continued. "If we do this right, I should be able to step through unhindered. Most of what I'll need the Stone for is to open both ends of the Gate, and since we don't have any homunculi available to hold the door open for us . . . travelling expenses."
"So you want me to make contact with Edward and General Mustang through my double so that they can open the Gate on the other side?"
Hohenheim paused, eyeing the floor, and Alphonse realized that the older man didn't really want to tell his son what he was about to disclose. "I don't think that your brother or the General will be free to help us with this," the old man finally said.
"What do you mean?" Alphonse asked anxiously.
"Now that I'm not there, Edward and General Mustang are the only people the Thules know of that can do practical alchemy. If the otherworlders want to make another attempt to open a passage to this world, they won't want to lose track of our people, so they'll probably have them locked up. The Thules will also need them as a resource for . . . raw materials necessary to initiate transmutations."
Alphonse frowned, confused. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."
"As I said, alchemy can't generally be performed on the other side of the Gate, Alphonse," Hohenheim explained. "The energy required to activate alchemic arrays comes from there, but can only be used by someone from this side, and only if the alchemist includes his own blood in the activation process. Mixing our blood into an array makes the necessary connection to the Gate that allows the transmutation to take place."
Alphonse grew cold at his father's explanation. "So these Thules will want brother and the General because they are alchemists, and because, for their arrays to work, they have to be drawn with their blood?" The young man felt his stomach twist.
Hohneheim nodded, expression grim. "I worked with the otherworlders for a time because I wanted to find a way for Edward to get back to Amestris. When I discovered that they were actually planning an invasion, I tried to slip away, but they caught me. I seriously doubt the Thules allowed your brother and the General to simply leave their villa when they returned through the Gate. The Thules would have locked them up, and having been their prisoner, I can assure you their treatment won't be pleasant. That's why we have to hurry and get your brother and General Mustang home."
Alphonse felt numb, his father's revelation chilling him to the bone. There was no time to waste. It was time to call in the cavalry.
When Riza Hawkeye opened her door to late night knocking, the last person she expected to see was Alphonse Elric. The gentle young man had always been polite to a fault, and it just wasn't in his nature to disturb someone in the middle of the night without an urgent reason. The lieutenant immediately looked the young man over for obvious injuries and was relieved to find none. Then she stepped back and invited him into her apartment without a word. Black Hayate, stationed behind her, was wagging his tail so violently his whole body shook from the effort.
"I'm sorry to come calling so late, Lieutenant," Alphonse said, and the determination in his eyes gave Riza pause. He hadn't displayed this kind of intensity since before the Gate invasion disaster.
"It's quite all right Alphonse," the woman reassured him. "What's the matter?"
Alphonse looked around the small living room, and then shoved his hands in his pockets. "I need your help," he said. "But it's a lot to ask, so please hear me out. Then, if you don't think you can risk the possible consequences, no hard feelings. I only ask that if you aren't up to joining me in this, you keep it to yourself."
"You should know by now, Alphonse, that your secrets are safe with me," Hawkeye smiled at the youngster unperturbed, and took a seat in the armchair by the darkened fireplace, inviting Alphonse to make himself comfortable on the couch.
Alphonse nodded and sat, hands clenched in his lap, then took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. "My father showed up in my hotel room this afternoon," the youngster started. "He has a plan to get brother and General Mustang back through the Gate, but it's . . . risky. It's going to mean another gateway open in both worlds, and I'm not just afraid of what might come through from the other side. I'm also worried about who'll want to use it on this side."
Hawkeye nodded her understanding. Hakuro hadn't been the only General disappointed when the gateway had closed. It was one of the reasons that the military was on the alert to locate and apprehend Von Hohenheim, as it was assumed that he was the one who had opened it in the first place.
"What do you need?" the blonde woman asked.
"We need a place to draw a large transmutation circle, approximately five metres in diameter. It's an extremely complex array, and it will probably take a couple of days to complete. The army is crawling all over the underground city, searching for dad, so we've had to eliminate anywhere down there as a possible site."
"So you'll need a safe location, and a security detail," the woman said thoughtfully as an obvious ally came immediately to mind. "I can think of at least one suitable place, if you don't mind a trustworthy old friend knowing about this. You wouldn't remember him, but he greatly admires both you and Edward, and he always did everything he could to help in your quest to regain your natural body."
"I trust your judgment Lieutenant," Alphonse said, offering the woman a tired smile. "I'm planning to talk to the rest of General Mustang's old team about this too. I think they'll be interested in helping to get brother and their commander back home safe, but I'll understand if they don't want to risk a court martial for getting involved in this."
Hawkeye pursed her lips, considering their options. Tomorrow was Sunday. "I'll invite the team over here tomorrow, and you can talk to them then." The blonde woman smiled at Alphonse' nervous determination. "I'm sure it won't take any persuasion at all to enlist their aid. I'll also invite that old friend I mentioned, so you can get reacquainted."
The young alchemist still did not appear relieved. "Time is also a concern," he said apologetically. "We have to get going on this as soon as possible, because brother and the General are likely in danger. My father thinks the otherworlders will try to force them to reopen the Gate."
"Then I'd best make some phone calls tonight," the Hawk said. "And if possible, I think your father should also be in attendance for this meeting."
"Actually, that was something else I was going to ask you," Alphonse said reluctantly. "He needs a safe place to hide out, and I was wondering . . ."
"How soon can you get him here?" Hawkeye asked, and was suddenly treated to the sweetest relieved smile she was sure she'd ever seen as the young man proceeded to tell her everything his father had told him.
When Alphonse returned to Hawkeye's apartment with Hohenheim less than an hour later, he wasn't at all surprised to find most of General Mustang's former command in Riza Hawkeye's living room. Jean Havoc, unlit cigarette at a jaunty angle in the corner of his mouth, leaned casually against the mantel piece, offering a smile and a lazy salute as the pair were ushered into the small apartment. Kain Fuery looked up from his crouch by the armchair and smiled as well, pausing in his efforts to give an ecstatic Black Hayate's head a luxurious scratch. Heymans Breda nodded nervously at the new arrivals from his seat, pressed as far into the opposite corner of the room as he could be, wary eyes on Riza's canine companion. The woman herself invited the new arrivals to make themselves comfortable, then sat once again on the armchair closest to the hearth, fire now burning briskly in the grate.
"I took the liberty of explaining what you and your father were up to, Alphonse," the blonde sharpshooter began. "And we are all in agreement. We're ready to help in any way we can."
The rest of the gathered soldiers nodded gravely, Havoc treating the young man to a wink, and Alphonse felt some of his apprehension ease, realizing that he hadn't been wrong in placing his trust with these old friends. He wished he could remember his days in the armour, just so he could know them all the way they obviously knew him, and to recall what he and Edward had done to earn the respect and admiration of this group of genuine, courageous people.
"We're just waiting for Vato Falman," Hawkeye continued. "I sent him to fetch . . ."
An urgent knock at the door interrupted the blonde woman's explanation, and she quickly went to answer it, motioning Hohenheim to stay out of sight.
Moments later, Hawkeye was back. With her were Vato Falman, and a familiar, bald—headed giant, blond handlebar moustache quivering with emotion.
"Alphonse Elric!" the giant boomed, advancing to embrace the cringing youngster. "First Lieutenant Hawkeye told me that you were in need of my assistance, and so of course I only too happy to place myself at your disposal!"
"Mr. Armstrong," Al squeaked from his buff, muscular confines. "Nice to see you again. I can't breathe."
The former Strong Arm Alchemist regretfully eased his embrace, keeping one massive hand on Alphonse' shoulder to steady him as the young man caught his breath.
"Ah, so you've already met." Hawkeye was pleased. "Alex Armstrong, this is Alphonse' father, Von Hohenheim."
The older alchemist smiled and started to offer his hand, then froze. Armstrong's angry glower rooted Hohenheim to the spot, and Alphonse watched the friendly grin drop from his father's face to shatter on the floor.
The giant looked Hohenheim over with obvious distaste, crossing his massive arms over his chest. "So this is the man, and I use the term loosely, that abandoned his terminally ill wife and his two defenceless children, leaving them to fend for themselves when he should have been there to guide and protect them," he said disdainfully. "I'm sure you are well aware, sir, of the responsibilities a father has for his children's wellbeing?"
Hohenheim nodded, looking intently up at his accuser. "I am aware of my culpability regarding my sons, yes," the old man replied, solemn eyes on the giant's. "I also know that I can never make up for deserting my family, however compelling my reasons at the time. All I want right now is to bring Edward home safe, and I hope you will agree to help me do that. Not for my sake, but for Edward's, and for Alphonse' too."
Armstrong's glower was unrelenting. "I understand you have formulated a plan. I would like to hear the details," he said, arms still crossed.
Hohenheim sat on the edge of the couch. "I plan to open a gate to the other world, cross over, open a complimentary gate on the other side, and bring Edward, General Mustang, and myself back through it."
The scowling giant was not impressed. "As an accomplished alchemist in my own right, I am well aware that a great price would be exacted to satisfy the exchange for such an undertaking. I suspect that nothing short of a life would be required as payment, and perhaps more than one. Who do you plan to sacrifice?" Startling blue eyes narrowed dangerously.
"No one. Not even myself," Hohenheim told his interrogator. "I have a Philosopher's Stone."
The giant alchemist's scowl deepened, his opinion of Hohenheim obviously sinking to an even lower level. "I am also very familiar with what is required to produce such an object of power," the bald man growled. "For you to have one in your possession . . ."
"This Stone appeared when the gateway that the otherworlders used to invade us collapsed, Mr. Armstrong," Alphonse cut in, wondering what was required to produce a Stone outside of the Gate. Judging from the giant's scowl, Al decided he was probably better off not knowing.
Hohenheim had seen the look of frank curiosity on his son's face however, and didn't allow his youngest offspring the luxury of ignorance. "The energy necessary for an alchemical reaction is the same energy that makes us alive," the old man explained to the gathered allies, laying all his cards on the table. "A Philosopher's Stone is really just a storage cell for that kind of energy, which means that the main ingredient is live people. And it takes a lot of them, which results in a huge concentration of power. That's why it's possible to do quantum transmutations, ostensibly disregarding the first law of matter equivalency."
"Okay, I'm perfectly willing to leave all that technical stuff to the experts," Havoc cut in, snagging a chair from the dining table and straddling it, arms folded on the backrest. "I'll take your word for it that you can get over there and open up a gateway. But didn't Ed and the General go back there to close that thing up so we wouldn't get invaded again? What are you going to do this time? Just leave it open?"
"No," Alphonse told him. "That's where I come in. I've been linking up with someone in the other world when I sleep. Dad thinks that I might be able to take control of that person and shut their side without even leaving the comfort of my bed."
Breda looked doubtful. "Sorry kid, but let me get this straight. You have dreams about your brother, and you think you can dream the gateway closed?"
Hohenheim took over the explanation before Alphonse could make a testy reply. "We aren't just guessing about Alphonse' connection to the other side, Second Lieutenant," the older man said. "That world is a mirror image of this one, people and all. The first time Edward passed through the Gate, he left his body behind and his soul entered his double in the other world. I was there at the time. I witnessed it firsthand. Alphonse has been having dreams of that other world for some time now, and I'm certain that he has a link with his own double. If that's the case, and he can attach a piece of his soul to that other person, he can close the Gate after Edward, General Mustang, and I use it to return home. Problem solved."
Armstrong looked unconvinced, and Alphonse realized he saw the big hole in their plan: whether Alphonse was actually capable of attaching a piece of himself to his other, and if he was, if he would then be able to guide the other's actions. But before the big man could voice his scepticism, he was interrupted.
Furey spoke up timidly from his place by Black Hayate. "It sound like you'll need a lot of alchemical energy to get the job done. If the Philospher's Stone is like a battery, do you think there's enough of a charge to do everything you need to?"
All eyes swung back to Von Hohenehim for his answer. "I told Edward the first time he crossed over that equivalent exchange was a lie, because while it took the conservation of matter into account, it completely disregarded the fact that transmutations require energy as well." Hohenheim noted the thoughtful consideration on Armstrong's stern features, and continued. "In passage through the Gate, I discovered the energy to perform natural transmutations in this world comes from the expended life force of people from the other world, accessed by alchemists through an internal link we have with the Gate. People have to die over there for us to be able to transmute over here. I thought that alchemy couldn't be done in that other world because while the energy was there, it had to pass through the Gate in order for an alchemist to harness it. I was obviously wrong; else I wouldn't be here right now."
"What was the flaw in your theory?" Armstrong asked the old man.
"People die here too. What happens to that energy? Unless it's soaked up by something like a Philosopher's Stone, I believe it's freely available to be used, recirculated by the Gate. An energy cycle, just as natural as the physical cycle of life and death."
"All is one. One is all." Alphonse said softly, and Hohenheim nodded affirming it.
"So why can't this energy be used on the other side of the gate?" Breda wanted to know.
"It can be," Hohenheim told the portly redhead. "The difference is in how it can be harnessed. It has to be focused externally. People from this world have an intimate connection with the Gate, right down at the cellular level. Something of ourselves, blood for instance, mixed into an array, acts to absorb the energy just like the red stones do. But the people over there are missing that link to the Gate. They are blind, for lack of a better word, to this type of energy. It builds up on that side of the gate because nobody uses it, and the more I've thought about it, the more convinced I've become that the energy transfer between worlds is a natural process, like osmosis or diffusion."
"I can't believe I'm asking this, but what's osmosis?" Havoc asked, folding his arms across the back of his chair.
The old man thought for a moment before speaking. "Everything that occurs in nature follows a path of least resistance. A lot to a little. High to low. Downhill all the way. If you want to go against that natural flow, it takes energy to do it." Hohenheim noted that his audience was with him, and continued. "Now think of the flow of alchemical energy as a river. It runs downhill from the other world from ours, high concentration to low concentration. Across the river is a barrier, a screen that lets only water pass. That screen is the Gate."
The huge, bald man's blue eyes widened with understanding. "You plan to use your Philosopher's Stone to penetrate the barrier, and as a source of energy to swim upstream, so to speak, to the other world, but will use the natural back flow of energy to carry you home," he said, keeping his booming voice surprisingly quiet. "Can you be sure that the initial passage won't exhaust the Stone's power?"
"No, and I certainly hope it doesn't," Hohenheim grimaced. "I'll still need its energy over there to open the Gate on the other side, and I don't want to have to bleed for it." The old man turned to Armstrong, determined. "Alphonse and I have mapped out the array and we're ready to go. All we need is a secure place to draw and activate it." His gaze settled on each person in the room, one by one. "Will you help us?"
Armstrong at last uncrossed his massive arms as his glower softened into a smile. The radical change to the big man's stern features seemed to fill the air around him with sparkles.
"Never let it be said that an Armstrong turned from a friend in need!" he boomed, his muscles straining the fabric of his jacket as he struck a dramatic pose. "The Armstrong Estate is private, secure, and has ample room for us to create this array and carry out your plan. Come my friends! Edward and General Mustang cannot afford to be kept waiting!"
Everyone in the room agreed that they couldn't have said it better themselves.