Alphonse opened his eyes to an unfamiliar, dimly lit room. It was cold, and he felt very weak, his left shoulder blade throbbing to the rhythm of his heart.
"Alfons, you're awake." Rose was there, but no, this wasn't Rose, not exactly. She looked concerned as she leaned to peer into his eyes. "Are you hungry? There is soup."
"Yes, thank you Noa," he said, or he didn't. The words felt unusual in his mouth, too deep in his throat. Not his words.
'It's a dream!' Alphonse realized, elated. It had been days since he'd had one, and he'd been very afraid he wouldn't dream like this again, forcing someone to stay behind and close the Gate on this side when the time came. Could he move? He concentrated on his right hand, concentrated on making a fist. The fingers twitched closed and he held them tight. Then his whole body jumped, sending a lance of pain through his chest.
"W—what in the name of God . . ." he didn't say, staring at his clenched fist.
The fist struggled to open, and for the first time, Alphonse became aware of another presence. The Amestrian immediately loosed the fist, and the other began flexing his fingers, relieved.
'Can you hear me?' Alphonse thought hopefully. No response.
The alchemist quickly considered his options, and then concentrated on speaking. He would say something simple and friendly.
Okay, it was kind of lame, but he had been so concerned that he wouldn't be able to link up with his double again that he hadn't thought through what he would do if he did. Alphonse could feel his heart begin to pound fearfully. Well, if his own mouth suddenly started up a conversation all on its own, he guessed it would shock the living crap out of him, too.
"Um, I'm sorry to scare you like this, but I need your help," the Amestrian said apologetically.
Now that he'd become aware of the other's presence, Alphonse felt the touch of another's feelings, fear and confusion an adrenaline rush through the body he was sharing. He regretted frightening his brother's friend, but what choice did he have? He didn't want to forcefully take control of his double, if that was even possible. This friend of Edward's was in a unique position to help them, not only with closing the Gate, but also for intel to locate the two Amestrians stranded here, making it easier for Hohenhiem when he got here himself.
It was some moments before Alfons responded, speaking aloud self—consciously. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm Edward's brother. My name is Alphonse Elric. I need your help to get my brother home."
"I might have known," Alfons said, literally to himself. "Even far away, he still manages to make me crazy."
"Far away?" Alphonse prompted.
"Zurich, last I heard. He and his friend escaped from the Thules there, or so I'm told. Where they are now I have no idea."
Relief surged through him, followed closely by worry. Edward and the General weren't locked up, which was good, but on the run they'd be much more difficult to locate. Before Alphonse could offer a response to that, Noa returned with the promised soup, and neither Al was inclined to continue their bizarre conversation with the gypsy present. Alphonse settled back to wait for the girl to leave, impatient to tell his otherworldly counterpart how he could help. At any moment this dream could end, and the Amestrian boy wasn't sure when he might be back, if ever. It seemed like forever, but finally Alfons finished his soup and the young woman left the room, taking the empty bowl with her.
"Are you still here?" Alfons asked quietly.
"Yes," Alphonse answered, exhausted from the simple act of eating. "Why are you so weak? What happened to you?"
"I'm ill. I have tuberculosis. And I was shot a few days ago. By one of the Thule Society's people. I'm afraid I will not be very much help to you, confined to this bed."
Alphonse thought this over, frowning inwardly. In all of his twelve remembered years, he couldn't recall ever feeling as physically fragile as he did right now. It was a chore just to talk. How could he expect to do what he had to when he would be hard pressed just to get out of this bed? Frustration welled up, but he pushed it aside. Instead of worrying about the negatives, he should be focusing on the positives. If nothing else, Alfons would be a reliable source of information. Now, if he could figure out a way to make his connection with this Al a little stronger . . .
"Do you have a piece of paper?" Alphonse asked. "I want to try something."
Alfons reached to the bedside table and came up with a notepad and pencil. "I'm guessing that you're going to try your alchemy," the German Al said, surprising his counterpart. "I think you will be disappointed."
Alphonse took control of the hand holding the pencil, feeling the disquiet of the hand's natural owner. With practiced ease, the Amestrian sketched his signature arrays, one over the other for easy activation. If he could leave a piece of his soul here, passively anchored to his double, perhaps it would be easier to return.
"This is exquisite," Alfons said with pleased surprise. "The circles are perfect. The lines beautifully straight. I have never seen such an artistically rendered schematic. Amazing, that you can draw something like this freehand."
"It will be even more amazing if I can activate it," Alphonse muttered, laying aside the pencil and rubbing his hands together. Odd. They seemed to be very far away, and he couldn't feel them anymore.
The room dimmed. A rushing noise filled Alphonse mind and his vision tunnelled. There was a sense of motion, high speed through a dark tunnel, then nothing, as he returned to his regularly scheduled sleep state.
Alphonse awoke to the light of day in a large, elaborately decorated room, momentarily unsure of where he was. Then recent events slotted back into place in his mind. Ah yes. The Armstrong family estate, day two.
The entire rescue team had moved into the Amrstrongs' ancestral home at Alex urging. The estate's Master and his wife were vacationing in their southern holdings, but Alex insisted that in keeping with family tradition, the family was honour bound to accept and support his decision to assist in this effort any way they could. Alex' older sister, Olivier, was away as well, in the far North. A fully decorated General, the eldest of the Armstrong clan was Base Commander of the infamous Briggs Wall, final defence against Drachman incursions into Amestrian territory. The giant's other three sisters were present however, making every effort to prove Alex right about his family's level of commitment to each other.
Amue and Strongine were both older than their gigantic brother, and were similar to him in height, but that was where the physical resemblance ended. While Alex was a solidly built oak, the two girls were slim and graceful willows. The two elder sisters also matched their brother in spirit however, not shying away from the business at hand. When the particulars of the operation were outlined to the rest of the Armstrong household, Amue immediately took steps to ensure they had adequate supplies in the event of an extended stay by their guests. Not to be outdone, Strongine took on the task of setting an efficient security rotation that included everyone except Alphonse.
Catherine, Alex' younger sister and the baby of the family, was another matter. Soft spoken and tiny compared to her siblings, the youngest Armstrong was more comfortable staying in the background. Not that she didn't get involved in the activities. Her preferred duty was to take care of the details otherwise overlooked by those doing the bigger jobs, regular meals her specialty. She also took a special interest in Alphonse and his unusual role in the operation, making his comfort her priority. It was Catherine who chose the room he would sleep in, well away from any activity that could disturb him. And she always made sure there were fresh flowers there as well, explaining that the natural incense would promote a peaceful slumber.
The dynamics of this venerable family amused Alphonse to no end, particularly Catherine's subtle control over all her elder siblings. Though shy and unassuming, the petite blond had them all wrapped around her little finger.
Alphonse stretched and then slipped out of bed rubbing sleep from his eyes. He let his mind wander as he went through his morning routine on autopilot, waiting for his waking mind to link up with what his sleeping mind had been up to. The youngster knew that trying to force himself to remember what he had dreamed tended to push those memories even farther out of reach. His stomach grumbled about the length of time since supper the night before. Even some of Noa's weak and watery chicken soup would be nice right about now. Wait a minute. Noa? The memory of his dream conversation with Alfons sprang suddenly into sharp focus, and the young alchemist gasped. He had to find his father and tell him what he had learned!
The young man quickly dressed and raced out of the room, making his way to the basement and the improvised lab where the Gate array was taking shape. Sure enough, Hohenheim was there, along with Alex Armstrong, working steadily away. Everyone in the manor was working almost obsessively at whatever duty was set them, but Hohenheim seemed the most driven, refusing to sleep until he was collapsing from exhaustion. Al knew how he felt. If his dreams weren't such an important part of the plan, he'd have given up sleeping in favour of completing the transmutation circle as well. The old man looked up at his son's approach, then jumped down from the scaffold he was perched on to meet him.
"What's wrong" Hohenhiem asked, concerned. Alphonse expression had obviously given away his agitation.
"Nothing! I did it! I made contact!" the youngster told him.
The old man's face relaxed into a relived smile. "Ah, I knew it was only a matter of time. Were you able to take control of your double?"
"I didn't have to, and I don't think I could, even if I wanted to. Alfons wants to help brother. He's his friend." Alphonse crossed his arms over his chest and frowned critically at his father.
"You were able to communicate with him?" Hohenheim asked, surprised.
"Yes. He says that brother and General Mustang are on the run, and the Thules are after them. The last place they were spotted was Zurich. Do you know where that is?"
"I do, but I'm sure Edward won't stay there. He'll want to get to London. The General will need documents to establish his identity, and Edward knows people in London who can arrange that." The old man scratched thoughtfully at his beard. "The next time you're there, get Alfons on a train to England."
Alphonse frown deepened. "I'm not sure I can do that either. He's sick. He's got tuberculosis, and on top of that he got shot by the Thules. He's very weak."
Hohenheim considered this, eyes distant. "Hmm. I'll just have to go to Munich and pick him up first so we can travel to London together." He turned to Armstrong. "How much trouble would it be to get the antibiotics necessary for a course of treatment for TB?" he asked.
"No trouble at all," the big man answered, climbing down from the scaffold to join the two men on the floor. "Antibiotics are not controlled substances. I will alert Amue to your needs. You will have to be careful administering the medication however, in case the young man is allergic to it."
"Are you allergic to any antibiotics Alphonse?" Hohenheim asked.
"No," the boy replied, frown still in place.
Hohenheim clapped a hand on his son's shoulder. "Then your double likely won't be either, but we will be careful. With my help on the journey and treatment underway to rid him of his infection, we can easily get our German friend safely to London." The old man smiled at his son's doubtful expression. "Don't worry Alphonse. We can work around these problems."
"I'm more worried about my role in all of this," the younger alchemist said. "The dream link is too unreliable. I can't control when I cross over, or how long I stay. I wanted to try attaching a piece of my soul to Alfons, just to anchor myself in place, but I ran out of time before I could activate the array. And there's no guarantee it would have worked anyway, since alchemy can't be done by conventional means over there. I'd need to use my blood, but I'm not really there." Grey eyes downcast, the young man's frustration was evident.
"Perhaps I can be of assistance," Alex Armstrong's booming voice interrupted. "I have been giving this problem a great deal of thought, and I believe I may have come up with a solution." Father and son waited for it. "Hypnosis."
Honenheim kept his voice completely neutral. "Hypnosis."
"An artificially induce altered state of consciousness characterized by heightened suggestibility and receptivity to direction," Alex elaborated.
"I know what it is." Hohenheim rubbed at his beard. "Are you proposing this as a sleep aid, or in terms of post hypnotic suggestion?"
"I'm suggesting that young Alphonse might be able to consciously link to his counterpart while under hypnosis. I practiced the art for fun and amusement as a child, and in the process became quite an accomplished hypnotist. It's all just a matter of using the specially developed techniques passed down through the Armstrong family for generations."
Hohemheim looked to his son, and Alphonse shrugged.
"It's certainly worth a try," the youngster said. "The array will be finished by tonight, and I'm the only part of the plan that's not ready."
Alphonse looked at the transmutation circle, nearly completed, beautiful in its form and complexity. Hohenheim had proposed that they draw it on a vertical surface, and the advantages were so immediately obvious that no one objected to this unconventional idea. A gateway opening on a wall would be much easier to step into, as well as out of.
It wasn't simply tradition that dictated most alchemic circles be composed on a horizontal surfaces however. Often the sheer size of a multifaceted array made a floor the easiest plane to work on. And this array was one of the most intricate, finely detailed creations Alphonse had ever seen. As it was, the assembled alchemists had had to transmute an upper room into their workspace to accommodate its five meter diameter, and erect a scaffold in order to sketch in its higher quarters.
The three alchemists had checked and rechecked their arcs, angles and symbol placement, and had found no miscalculations. With the power of the Stone, Hohenheim could use this alchemic masterpiece to open a path to the other world. Then he would be in a position to recreate the array on the other side and link the gates in order to return, bringing Edward and General Mustang home with him. And if Alphonse was unable to play his part in this operation, he knew Hohenheim would elect to stay behind when the time came, to close the Gate himself. The young man could feel the truth of this in his bones, and he couldn't allow his father do it. He had to forge a reliable link with his double, so he could ensure that no one would be left behind. He had no alternative. He couldn't let everyone down again. He'd try anything, take any chance, if it meant getting all of his family back home safe.
"How soon can we try your idea Mr. Armstrong?" Alphonse asked, determined. "Is there anything we have to do to prepare?"
The big man rolled his shoulders, and if the seams of his shirt could have screamed, they would have. "We need a quiet room, dimly lit, and a small object to centre your attention." Then Armstrong focused on the younger blond. "But Alphonse! You have only just awakened, and have not yet had breakfast! You will find it much easier to relax with your stomach comfortably full!"
As if on cue, Catherine stepped into the room, smiling shyly at the three men. "If you please, might I suggest that all of you follow me to the dining room? Breakfast is served."
Though all Alphonse really wanted to do was try this hypnosis thing to see if it would work, he meekly followed the petite young woman out of the lab and up the stairs to the main floor. Preoccupied with his dilemma, the friendly exchange between the two Armstrong siblings and his father wasn't actually registering in his conscious thoughts. The small party arrived at the dining room, and Alphonse eyed the food on the sideboard with little enthusiasm. Hohenheim reached past him for a plate, making small talk with Catherine.
"It's very kind of you to take time off from the University to assist us," Hohenheim was saying, causing the girl to blush. "I hope your studies won't suffer."
"They won't. I have a friend who has agreed to take notes for me, and she'll inform me of any upcoming assignments as well," Catherine explained.
"That could only be the young Cartwell, girl," Alex put in. "A lovely young lady, and a fine friend to our Catherine."
'Yes, Nina has been a great study partner too," Catherine added.
"Nina Tucker?" Alphonse asked, still looking over the breakfast buffet, distracted.
"Nina Cartwell," Alex corrected, giving the younger alchemist an odd look.
Alphonse wasn't listening. In front of him stood a small girl, perhaps four or five years old. Orange blossoms crowned the auburn hair that framed her freckled face and hung past her waist, braided in two. Her deep blue eyes twinkled in the bright light of day, happy and trusting. He heard her voice, calling him big brother and laughing, watched her face tilt up, tongue licked out to catch snowflakes. He reached down, his leather gauntlet huge as he laid it gently on her head.
And then she changed. The head his palm rested on had become a tragic composite of human and canine, auburn hair now thick fur. The creature's deep blue eyes held only pain and confusion, and a plea for help. Alphonse' hand trembled, suddenly empty as the scene changed from a dimly lit basement to a moonlit alley, cracked brick splashed with auburn clotted gore. He spun away horrified, and was in the basement of his childhood home in Resembool, Edward beside him. The array designed to bring back their mother was active on the floor, a transmutation in full rebound. He heard his brother scream his name, saw Edward reach for him as Alphonse' ten year old body was pulled into the Gate and reduced to its most basic components, scattered into the darkness.
The dam had broken. Memories were surging through his mind now, crashing into him, drowning him. So many memories of so many people and places and events, and the sensations . . . what he was feeling was overwhelming, devastating, all the fearloveguiltjoygriefangerhope . . . it was crushing him, he wanted it to stop, it was too much, but it wouldn't, so he did the only thing he could. He gave himself up to it, and it carried him away.
Jean Havoc hurried toward the dining room and breakfast, trying in vain to keep up with Heymans Breda. The big redhead was at his most agile where food was involved, and the generous fair provided by the Armstrongs was worth a bit of exercise as far as Breda was concerned. Havoc had just come in from making his rounds on the estate's grounds, cigarette smoke clinging lightly to him. He enjoyed outdoor duty for the freedom it gave him to indulge his addiction, but tried not to overdo it. He had a job to do after all.
It was Tuesday morning, and the team should have been on post, but Strongine had once again been way ahead of everyone in the facilitation department. A friendly call to Headquarters in the name of retired General Phillip Gargantos Armstrong, requesting the assistance of a few specific officers for an unspecified, personal undertaking, and the need for everyone involved to call in suspiciously sick was eliminated. Fortunately it was common practice for officers of high rank, retired and otherwise, to occasionally requisition the services of military personnel for non—military duties ranging from yard work to guard duty, so no eyebrows should be raised. Nevertheless, the security rotation continued. And Havoc had long ago discovered that he did his most dangerous thinking while on guard duty.
As they had been since arriving at the estate, the Lieutenant's thoughts were on the youngest Armstrong daughter. Although Catherine had made it abundantly clear that he wasn't her type when they had previously met, Havoc couldn't help but admire the young woman. Her sweet nature, her endearingly shy demeanour, her impressive family heritage, not to mention her equally impressive physical attributes, were a temptation he couldn't seem to ignore. He wanted to try his luck with her again, even though his common sense was shaking its head at the sheer stupidity of the notion. In all probability he would be in for another disappointment, shot through the heart, but his track record in the romance department was an ongoing litany of poor choices and bad judgment, and that had never stopped him before. Ever the optimist, Havoc always hoped that his next attempt at romance would be different. He knew he wouldn't be able to resist the urge to ask the girl out again, even with the odds stacked against him.
Arriving at his destination, the Second Lieutenant was pleased to note the object of his current romantic quest was in attendance, speaking shyly with her siblings and their guests. Everyone in the manor was on hand for the morning meal, but the dining room was large, and not overcrowded. Havoc edged closer to his quarry, surreptitiously including himself in Catherine's circle. Then he noticed Riza Hawkeye, seated across the room at the long dining table, lips pressed into a thin, annoyed line, giving him the hairy eyeball. What the hell?
The Armstrong girl was immediately forgotten in favour of more pressing concerns, specifically, avoiding high velocity projectiles. Havoc began searching his memory for some recent indiscretion he must have committed to earn the First Lieutenant's censure. Nothing came to mind, and he decided it probably had something to do with his smoking, a frequent complaint of the First Lieutenant's. Still, he hadn't lit up indoors, and his sentry rotation had been outside on the perimeter of the property, so the occasional cigarette shouldn't have presented a problem. Havoc was leaning back against the buffet, frowning his way through the last couple of hours, when out of the corner of his eye he saw Alphonse sway and begin to fall, and he was only just fast enough to catch the youngster before he hit the ground.
The boy was limp as a rag in the taller blond's arms. Havoc carried him to a couch by the window and set him gently down, then knelt on the floor beside him. Ever grateful for his field medic training, the Second Lieutenant made a quick check of Alphonse' vital signs, relieved to discover that the boy was in no obvious physical distress. Hawkeye, Breda and Falman were keeping the concerned Armstrongs and Hohenheim from pressing in too close, giving Havoc room to work. The room was dead quiet as the tall blond made his examination.
Jean timed Alphonse pulse and breathing, lifted one of the boy's arms and flexed it, then lay his palm over the young alchemist's forehead, noting the rapid movement of the boys eyes behind his eyelids. The older blond gently peeled back a lid. Alphonse eye darted around, unfocused. He gave the boy's shoulder a shake, calling his name. No response. He rubbed his knuckles painfully over the youngster's sternum. Nothing. The kid was out cold.
Havoc ran a frustrated hand through his perpetually messy hair and looked up at the anxious bystanders. "His heart rate is normal. So's his breathing. He doesn't appear to be feverish, but I'd like to get a thermometer and make sure. His muscles seem to be unnaturally relaxed, and his eyes are moving as if he's having a dream, but this definitely isn't sleep." Havoc sighed and sat back on his heels. "I'm wondering if this has something to do with that dream link you were hoping for," he said, and looked questioningly at Hohenheim.
The old man looked stricken, and Havoc realized that this was the first time he'd seen any sort of strong emotion on the old alchemist's face. "I . . . don't think that's the problem," Hohenheim said, and was that a tremor in his voice? "This happened in the underground city too, just before the Gate closed." The bearded man looked like he was going to say more, but didn't.
Hawkeye put a firm hand on Hohenheim's shoulder and leaned in, eyes steel. "If you know anything else, I suggest you share it with us. We're all in this far too deep to start second guessing each other now."
The old man rubbed an embarrassed hand on the back of his neck and grimaced. "I honestly don't know what's going on," he insisted. "The last time this happened, Alphonse thought he might be getting the memory of his time in the armour back, but even he wasn't sure about that."
"Do you think he's in any danger?" Alex asked. The big man looked close to tears.
"He came to on his own the last time, and he didn't seem to suffer any ill effects. Physically, I don't think he's in danger," Hohenheim said, eyes still on his son. "I think we just have to wait this out."
Havoc exchanged a quick glance with the Hawk, and as usual, the woman understood what was needed immediately.
"Let's get Alphonse back up to his room," Hawkeye said, taking charge of the situation. "We all have things we should be doing, and hovering over him isn't going to help. Lieutenant Havoc will keep an eye on him and let us know if his condition changes."
Alex nodded and strode forward. He carefully lifted the unconscious youngster, cradling him in his massive arms as he carried the boy upstairs to his room, Havoc and Hohenheim following close behind. The gentle giant placed the boy on the bed he had only been out of for a short time, and stepped back reluctantly to let Havoc take his place. Catherine hurried in with a thermometer and a cup of steaming black coffee, placing both on the bedside table, then took her big brother by the hand and led him out of the room. The door closed quietly behind them.
Havoc placed the thermometer under Alphonse' arm, and soon confirmed the absence of fever, but was at the limit of his medical abilities. Hohenheim had pulled a high backed chair up to the opposite side of his son's bed and sat, silently brooding, watching the youngster's face, and Havoc wasn't inclined to break the silence. The Lieutenant pulled a chair of his own over to the bedside, and relaxed into it. Sipping the coffee left for him, he absently noted that it was just the way he liked it. Thanks, Hawkeye.
Occasionally checking on his young patient's condition, Havoc kept a covert eye on Hohenheim as well. The older man was sitting still as stone, gaze never shifting from his son. The quiet knock on the door had no effect on him at all, and if he noticed Havoc rise to answer it he gave no sign.
"Hawkeye wants to know if you think we should be getting the kid to a hospital or something." Breda leaned to peer around his comrade, trying to catch a glimpse of Alphonse. Everyone in Mustang's old command had always been very fond of the boy. It was hard not to like Alphonse, flesh and blood or a ghost in armour.
Havoc scratched his head, frustrated. "He's not having trouble breathing or anything like that," he said, keeping his voice low. "I don't know that he'd be better off in a hospital. I'll watch him. If he gets into trouble, we can move him, but I think the old man's right. This is something that's going on in the kid's head, and we should just wait it out."
"Do you need anything?"
"No. Wait, yes. Some more coffee," Havoc said, and cast a glance at the room's other conscious occupant, frowning. "Get some for the old man too. Looks like he's planning to stick around. For a change."
Breda pulled a face at his friend. "Don't be too quick to pass judgement, man. You know that old saying."
"Which one?" Havoc asked warily, knowing he was going to regret it.
"The one about walking a mile in someone's shoes before you get all critical and shit."
Havoc snorted, then looked behind him at the old alchemist, who still appeared oblivious to anything but Alphonse. The Lieutenant continued, voice even quieter. "Like I'd be stupid enough to criticise someone who could transmute my dick into dental floss."
"That's why those old sayings are so important. Think about it. If you piss him off, then you're a mile away, and you've got his shoes."
The blond took a swat at his friend's head, but the heavyset redhead dodged away and headed down the hall in the direction of the dining room. Shaking his head, Havoc returned to his seat by the bed.
"I know that I haven't been much of a father," Hohenheim spoke up, eyes still on Alphonse. "But believe it or not, I do love my sons."
Havoc said nothing, and Hohenheim too remained silent after that, the coffee Breda soon returned with accepted without a word as well.
Havoc continued to sip his own coffee, keeping an eye on his patient. Checking his watch, he was surprised to discover that nearly an hour had passed since Alphonse had collapsed. He still showed no signs of regaining consciousness, and Havoc wondered if he should be doing something more drastic. Fingers once again on the boy's pulse, he found it reassuringly strong and steady, but that didn't ease the older man's concern. Perhaps he should be getting the kid to the hospital after all, just to be on the safe side. It took the tall blond some moments before he realized he was being watched, and not by Hohenheim. Tired grey eyes observed him, seeming too old for the young face they looked out of.
"Alphonse. How do you feel?" Havoc asked quietly, and Hohenheim was suddenly at his elbow.
"Hungry. Can I have something sweet?"
"I think something lighter would be better for a start," the Lieutenant said with a grin. "You passed out, and you've been out for almost an hour. What's the last thing you remember?"
The boy laughed without humour. "I remember . . . everything," he said flatly.
"Relax Alphonse. Listen to the sound of my voice. Watch the candle's flame. Concentrate on your left foot. Your toes are relaxing, one by one." Alex' voice was deep and soothing, and Alphonse tried to let himself be soothed, but it was proving difficult.
It had been two hours since he'd woken up, the four lost years he'd spent searching for a Philosopher's Stone with Edward finally found. It was like he was two different people, one superimposed on the other. One was an older Alphonse, centered despite his lack of flesh and blood to inhabit, the one that had stood and fought beside his older brother, striving to regain what they had lost, together. The other was a younger Alphonse, off balance due to the discontinuity of his years, the one that had reaped the benefit of his brother's forgotten sacrifice, but never gave up hope of seeing that brother again. Missing pieces of the young man's puzzle were gradually slotting into place, the filled, four year gap in his life giving Alphonse a new perspective on his present. It was going to take time for the two similar though distinct personalities to mesh, but right now he had no time to spare. He had to get his role in Hohenheim's grand scheme on track. And oddly enough, he had to hitch a ride in someone else's head to do it.
Alex Armstrong had wanted to wait a while longer before testing his hypnosis theory on the youngster, worried that the process would be too stressful after the ordeal of recovering his past, but Alphonse wouldn't agree to any further delays. If he had been driven to get Edward back before, regaining his memories made the youngest Elric even more determined to accomplish that goal. And the first thing Alphonse was going to do when he had his brother home, safe and sound, was kick his stupid ass. Because Edward had broken his promise from long ago, made after their first encounter with Scar. Back then Edward had chosen to let the Ishballan kill him in order to protect Alphonse, and he'd promised not to choose that path again. But he'd had no intention of keeping that promise, had he, because Edward hadn't even hesitated to trade his life for Al's at the Gate, and that just pissed Al completely off.
He could remember all of it now. Standing at the Gate, Edward in front of him, the black doors looming over them. Alphonse had still been on the Gate's edge, fresh from using the Stone to restore Edward, his soul's container spent in the transmutation. He could hear the trade his brother proposed, himself for Alphonse, a one for one exchange. When the doors swung slowly open and Edward moved towards the dark void, he hadn't even looked back. It wouldn't surprise Alphonse to discover that Ed had also arranged for his little brother's memory loss, insurance against the younger Elric attempting to offer the same trade for the older. The thought made Alphonse grind his teeth that much harder.
"You must empty your mind, Alphonse Elric," Alex advised his subject. "You must concentrate on my voice, and the glow of the candle. Let the tension flow from your body just as the smoke rises from the candle's flame."
The youngster forced himself to calm, pushing his anger at his brother into the background with difficulty. Listening to the soothing rumble of Armstrong's suggestions, his body gradually relaxed, taking his mind along with it. The candle's flame wavered, a victim of random currents in the still room's air. Alphonse eyelids became heavy, and he closed his eyes.
It was an odd feeling. Physically, he was still in the room with Armstrong. He could even feel the plush armchair he was sitting on against his back and under his arms. But Alex' voice was receding, fading as if a great distance was opening between them, and in the darkness of his mind, Alphonse saw a glimmer of light. It looked like a thread of spider silk, but it glowed as if moonlit. Examining it more closely, he saw that it stretched away into the darkness, how far it was impossible to tell. Al reached out his hand and gently took hold, his fingers tingling where they touched the shimmering strand. He opened his eyes.
The room was dim. A single small lamp by the bed cast yellow light on the book he was holding in his lap. The words he was reading were unfamiliar, but he understood them anyway, the advantages of using the intrinsic knowledge stored in someone else's brain he supposed. No light seeped through the thin curtain closed over the window, telling him it must be evening. His back still ached, propped up on thin pillows against the headboard. He was alone in the room.
"I'm back," he whispered.
He started, but more in surprise than fear this time, though his heart rate did ramp up a notch. "I was hoping you would return," Alfons said, also in a whisper. "I have heard from Noa that the Thules are searching for your brother in London."
"That's where my father thought he would go," Alphonse said. "He wants you to go there too, but . . ."
"He's alive?" the German blurted out, then once again lowered his voice. "Professor Hohenheim is alive? We thought the serpent must surely have killed him."
"He's alive, and he's coming back here to get Ed and the General. We're going to have to get you to London too, though," the Amestrian said apologetically.
Alfonse breathed a frustrated sigh. "That will be a problem. Noa, the girl who is staying with me, is working with the Thules, and even if I did manage to slip away from her, I doubt I could make it to the train station alone in this condition."
"That's why dad is coming to get you. He's bringing some med . . . "
The door suddenly swung open. Noa stood framed in the light from the outer room, peering in, scanning the bedroom. Stepping inside, she closed the door behind her and stepped over to open the closet. Finding it empty, she moved to the bed and stooped to look underneath it. Frowning, she turned her attention to Alfons.
"Who were you talking to?" she asked.
Alfons yawned and rubbed his eyes. "Was I speaking? I was having the strangest dream just now. I must have been talking in my sleep."
"In both German and English, without a trace of accent?" The girl moved closer and reached her hand out towards the young man, her eyes narrowed.
Alphonse felt the cool hand on his forearm, and the sudden, even cooler touch of something that ruffled his mind like the pages of a book. The gypsy's eyes flew wide, shocked, and she started to pull away.
Both Als' reactions were pure reflex. Alfons grabbed the girl's wrist, and Alphonse clapped the hands left behind in the Armstrong's manor, activating the twinned arrays on his gloves. The Amestrian felt the transmutation take hold, and without stopping to consider what he was doing, pushed a small piece of his soul through Alfons' hand into the woman. Everyone froze, Noa and Alfons in shock, and Alphonse in hopeful anticipation.
Alfons very slowly eased his grip on Noa's wrist. Her hand hung in the air, trembling slightly, Alphonse realized, with the effort to move it. Her eyes were wide, terrified, staring into Alfons', but considering the telepathic assault she had just attempted, Alphonse didn't feel the least bit sorry for her.
"Go to sleep," he whispered, pushing all the exhaustion he was feeling into that little piece of himself attached to Noa. The girl settled gracefully to the floor and curled up on her side. Head pillowed on her hands, she closed her eyes and was instantly asleep.
The Als studied the sleeping gypsy for a few moments, until Alfons finally broke their silent contemplation of this completely bizarre situation.
"I thought you couldn't do that sort of thing here," he said, sounding slightly offended.
"Well technically, I'm not actually here," Alphonse countered, somewhat testily.
Alfons regarded their slumbering dilemma for a moment longer, and came to a decision. "I think I should be elsewhere when she wakes up," he said as he threw back his sheets and swung his legs to the floor. He slouched on the edge of the bed, and Alphonse seriously doubted he'd be able to make it out of the room, but instead of trying to stand, Alfons stamped his feet on the floor. The Als sat in silence for a few moments, and the Amestrian was just about to ask the German what he was waiting for, when there was an answering knock from below. Alfons stamped his feet again, and some minutes later they could hear someone enter the flat.
A head of short, light brown hair poked into the bedroom, followed by the rest of Gracia Schmidt. Her grey green eyes widened when she saw Noa curled up on the floor.
"Does this mean that you have decided to take my advice and sneak off to visit my sister in Stuttgart?" she quietly asked with a grin.
"It does," Alfons confirmed.
As Gracia moved to assist his frail host from the bed, Alphonse silently cursed, hoping that Hohenheim knew where this Stuttgart place was. Then, with a jolt of astonishment, he suddenly realized that his clap had ignited a transmutation. He could feel his hands folded neatly in his lap, his body waiting as patiently as ever for his wayward soul's return. And his hands were bare. He was not wearing his array—stitched gloves.