He stood at the window, robed like a plagiarist king in the crimson cloak of the true scion who had gone before. The woman who had assumed dual roles as teacher and substitute mother lingered outside, making a circuit around the yard as she tended to the shoots of spring flowers, of which a vast array had recently arrived to populate the garden.
Alphonse watched as gloved hands—delicate, calloused, impossibly strong—prowled through lilac bushes, sifted soil, and scattered the seeds of annuals who would struggle to maintain existences until their heads bowed to the fall frosts. A chilly spell had just vanished, but not before weeks of intermittent cold rain had fallen, ornamenting the trees with a late puberty of white pimples.
Memory told him the summers in Riesenburg were warm and often entered the world early, but he had no recollection of Dublith. No recollection. No expectations.
Izumi cut a cluster of lilacs from one of the bushes, and Alphonse turned away, thumbing the palm of his right hand. Both of his hands and wrists were aching from the number of arrays he had drawn under Izumi's tutelage, and his body was freckled with yellowing bruises—each a remnant of his master's firm and unforgiving style, and the youth relished the marks as brands of his constant struggle for self-improvement, his quest to hone his alchemical knowledge until he could discover a method by which to open the Gate and find his brother.
Noon never ceased to remind Alphonse of his brother, of Edward's gold and light and life, and the April storms called to mind memories of the elder Elric's vicious temper. The wind was his will and the sunshine was his smile, and the blood red roses popping up throughout Izumi's garden were—each of them—reflections of Edward's clothing, just as winter rot would offer an image of the boy's quiet, brewing rage.
Ed was everywhere, and in everything. Yet he could not be seen, touched, or conversed with, and Alphonse tried to hold onto this idea, conceptualizing it as an echo of how his own spirit would have been, had not his brother bound him to a suit of armour. Even though his memories of that time continued to elude him, Al liked to believe that he now understood the pain Edward must have felt for all those years. Unlike Edward, however, he did not persist in blaming himself. He kept his mind and body too busy for that sort of thing.
But noon was Edward's eternity, and Alphonse would often peer at the shadowless outside world with caramel-coloured—one could have even called them golden—eyes. That had been another of life's little ironies: the years, or perhaps even alchemy, had altered lead grey eyes to a richer, more auric shade. Time, it seemed, performed its own transmutations, distributing Trisha Elric's features alongside her husband's until Alphonse could glimpse his brother's characteristics peeking back at him from the mirror.
Edward was alive. Edward had to be alive.
Official reports claimed that he was dead, but Al knew better. He had been in contact with Mustang and the military; he knew that suspicions of Ed's whereabouts abounded, and when Al slept at night, he dreamt again and again of his missing sibling, and when he awoke to the morning sunshine dripping gold across the floor, he vowed—at least once each day—to perfect an array that would open the Gate, the Doors between worlds...and if that happened...then he would return to Amestris arm in arm with his brother.
Well, no. Not if. When.
Were he to dwell too much on the present state of his world, Al supposed his current good disposition might sour, and he didn't want that. He preferred to focus on hoping for the best as opposed to expecting the worst, though already it had been over a month without Edward—a month and two weeks of uneasiness, a million moments of adjusting to the fact that he was Someone to a number of Anyones whom he didn't know. He endured their thoughtful eyes and their vaguely pitying smiles, though each one shot a lump into his throat.
Friends, he reminded himself. They were his friends. But it was unnerving—no, frightening—to realize that they knew him more than he knew himself. He took comfort in Winry, Pinako, Izumi...but they were different, newer versions of the people he had met years before, and the Edward looking back in a number of pictures was a different Edward than Al had known before: taller, for one, with long hair woven into a braid, and in addition to having a more muscular body, one arm and one leg each gleamed with automail. Edward was no less handsome for the changes in his physique, but he was different. New. Changed.
When such ponderings came to mind, Alphonse was quick to shake his head and push the doubts away. No matter what differences the missing days had bred, Al had to have faith (as if this were all some religion, which for what it meant to him, it may as well have been) that his brother's love for him was as strong as it had ever been, just as his love for Edward was.
But he wondered: how often did Edward think of his brother? Were Edward's memories still with him, or had they disappeared as well? How did Ed dress now? How did Ed live, if indeed he still lived? And of course, he had to still live; Alphonse was more certain of that than he'd ever been of anything else.
Was it day where Edward was? Did the sun shine brightly? Was it warm and always golden, or was it a cold and rainy April fading into May? Was it night forever? Did stars like the ones above Amestris glow far above Edward's head? Could the other world be so darkly beautiful—golden and black and wicked—as the Gate itself? Did Edward have friends there? Loved ones? Hohenheim?
Who kept his brother company? Could the Gate be so unfair as to give someone that privilege, when the boy who carried the same blood in his veins was an entire world away?
(Or was Edward alone...alone and...?)
Some nights, Al woke up crying. During the time he had lived with Winry and Pinako, Winry had often come to his room and attempted to soothe him, as his efforts to stifle his sobs had apparently not gone far enough to muffle them entirely. In the morning, he had been "fine" again, cheerful and calm and pleasant, but the nights had teeth, and slumber had become a study in how it felt to be chewed like a leaf covered by caterpillars; consequently, this was how Alphonse saw himself—green, too fresh for the world he existed within, and littered with holes.
He lived in a land with a gap, a valley, and even when he shoved his concerns aside and looked toward the future, he saw figments of his missing past everywhere. They hooked to his ankles and weighed him down, burdening his consciousness until his frustration grew to the point that his head ached while his eyes watered and his alchemical texts blurred beneath him. He never said anything about this; he simply rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, massaging the tension away.
There was no letting the abyss devour him. That could not be allowed.
When he had made it known that he was growing his hair out, and when it had grown just long and fluffy enough to tickle the soft spots beneath his ears, Winry had seemed caught between slapping him and hugging him. Ultimately, she had opted for the latter, but her embrace had been so fierce and aggressive that Alphonse had counted himself as fortunate that she had not been wielding a wrench. They were all dealing with their grief and their joy in different ways, and Al had hated to leave his friends in Riesenburg, but his future was somewhere beyond the sea, beyond the sunset, beyond the horizon and the city lights glimmering in the distance.
And now he had taken up temporary residence in Dublith, living with the woman he had known in the Before, another who knew him better than he knew himself.
And now he stood before the window, smirching the glass with puffs of breath until the reflection of the boy in the contraband red cloak began to vanish beneath a moist, translucent white sheet.
And now he squinted a little, trying to forget that there was so much he did not remember.
The telephone ring slashed through the boy's silent reverie like a bolt of lightning, easily piercing his thoughtful uneasiness. A mild shudder of surprise gripped Alphonse. Shoulders jerked upwards, then downwards, and the accompanying exhalation was abrupt and soundless. As the phone protested his inaction with all the vehemence it was capable of mustering, Al again stroked his throbbing temples with his blistered, oily palms. The nail of each finger was short, chewed until the white crescents had been eroded into caricatures of their former selves. Bad habit, that. He made a mental note to work on breaking it.
Phone. Ringing. Screeching. Crying. Sobbing.
Alphonse shook his head and quickly wiped the window with his sleeve, trying to seek out Izumi, but the clean window revealed—in its innocent, unassuming manner—that the woman had disappeared, having already relocated to some other part of the yard.
Only one thing to do.
The teenager sucked his breath in via one sharp inhalation, then proceeded to manuever through the timberland of Izumi's dining room, bumping his shoulder as he pushed past a copse of varnished chairs. He ignored the pain—the sudden facula of soreness—and kept going, walking briskly while restraining his urge to run.
By the time he had stumbled into the sunlit kitchen, darkness and unfocused colours see-sawed over his vision as a miscellany of ceramics met him with painted eyes. Little animals held a meeting upon the table—cups and plates collaborating with the salt and pepper shakers, and an arched curio cabinet armed with knickknacks loomed in repose, looking quietly satisfied with itself as its wooden body rose toward the ceiling. The leaf motif wallpaper had been deemed gaudy and, subsequently, it had been scrubbed out of existence, but its fingerprints still clung to the corners, garnishing them with a stray vine or two.
And there, lurking on one of the recently whitewashed walls (soon to be turned a lemon yellow colour, if Izumi had her way), hung the phone.
A dormouse salt shaker and the rabbit napkin holder beside it danced to Alphonse's heavy footfalls. Meanwhile, forks and spoons recited rumours born on sterling silver tongues. Everything in the house felt unmistakably alive, and the boy found it something of a trivial miracle that wood and porcelain could hold so many more memories than flesh and blood.
Hang on, he thought, heading forward.
The ring was incessant, brutal. It seemed to drive a nail through his temple, his cranium and brain; the vast emptiness inside of him was touched by the blaring siren of a phone, and it felt as though a nerve had been pinched, such that when Al finally jerked the receiver to his ear, he felt shaken, and his tired eyes were leaking unexpected tears—perhaps as a result of the jarring encounter with a certain piece of furniture.
Too strong of a reaction, Al reasoned when clicking, shuffling noises overtook the now quiet room. To have been so perturbed by something so ultimately insignificant, Al realized that his physical condition must have been worse than he had suspected.
Too little sleep. Too little nourishment. Too little sunlight. Too little Edward and home. Too strong of a reaction.
"Curtis residence," he supplied into the onerous device, one hand holding the phone to his ear while the other dangled uselessly by his side.
A nasty case of vertigo announced its presence; Alphonse could feel his heart leaping, but his mind was already ahead of his body: he would need to go and find Izumi and tell her that whoever-this-was had rung and...
And no one answered.
"Hello?" Maybe I should see a doctor, he found himself thinking, absorbing the quietness on the other end of the line with the practiced nonchalance of one whose mind had already attributed the awkward moment to a wrong number; perhaps someone had heard an unexpected voice and had then erroneously presumed themselves to have dialed the wrong number. Even if I can't do anything about the memory loss, I don't need to beat myself up constantly; Brother wouldn't—
With the speed of gunfire, his full attention snapped back onto the telephone. Eyes darted warily. Fingers clamped down hard, twisting the long, curly cord. The unoccupied hand instantly found its way into dark blond hair.
All life in the room perished, and there was only this voice—this voice drifting into his ear from an unknown distance, maybe miles and miles away. Smooth. Male. And soapy, somehow; it sounded as though it had been rubbed down with greasy adipose tissue, though Alphonse wasn't sure how one voice could conjure such strong qualities.
Without making the request, this person's tone explicitly told the boy that his senses were to be shuttered against all other stimuli. And, simple as that, they were.
"Speaking," he muttered after a pause in which the confusion dropped and took root, sprouting throughout his mind. The telephone's infantile whine still resounded within his ears. In every broken spurt of decibels, he heard: Ed-ward, Ed-ward, Bro-ther. Edward. But-but-but—!
But the voice was not familiar.
Yet these days, that didn't necessarily mean he hadn't met the speaker before.
"Who is this?" he asked in a guarded near whisper. The phone was now so close to his face that its pressing weight was causing a slight pain to nibble the skin of his ear, but he did not breathe down hard into the receiver. Quite the contrary: involuntarily, his breath held.
Silence beat each second away, ticking them off with a thudding heart.
If he's someone I know, I hope someone's told him about my... Problem?—-Condition? In the infinity of a short gap between responses, Al swallowed audibly. Odd, speaking to a stranger who might have once been a friend.
"A soon to be friend, but no one you know," the other said at last, and Al heard the smile in his voice. "We share a mutual interest."
Thumpthumpthump. "...My brother, you mean."
"Correct," the man said cheerily, as though they had just exchanged pleasantries.
Something was wrong and Al knew it; no one should've sounded so smug and complacent when bringing up such a potentially devastating topic. There was a small sound, as of something—teeth or lips—being licked.
Shifting. Static. It purred at Alphonse in a crackling timbre, like the whisper of the ocean or leaves set ablaze in autumn. Following a period or an ellipsis, the lack of voices birthed an expanse that felt as wide as the ocean, a valley of aching and wanting and silence.
"Where is he?" he demanded finally, unable to stand the waiting for one second more. "I mean..." He was getting ahead of himself, and he knew it. "I mean...do you...?" He's alive. He has to be alive.
"I know, yes." The unseen smile seemed to elongate, and even without having seen its owner's face, Al could imagine lips pulling aside to reveal teeth in the same fashion as a sheath being removed from a sword. "I know where your brother is. I know how to find him. I know—"
Another pause, long and clawed and oily. "—I know whose company he's in. I think it might surprise you. Care to see him again?"
A quick inhalation. Breath sucked through teeth.
"Of course you do. I expected no less. So here's what you're going to do. Listen. Are you listening?" The crackle grew more intense, threatening to drown the remainder of the instructions. "—Stay on the line. Can you hear me? Alphonse, I want you to come and see me and I'll take you to your brother. I'm going to give you directions on how to get there. Alphonse...can you hear me?"
He could. But his throat seemed to be contracting as if in an attempt to crush his vocal chords; his fingers gripped the phone so tightly that his knuckles turned white, bones upheaving skin. Warm air seeped like a hemorrhage through bloodless lips, and the only word he could squeeze from his lungs was, "Where?"
That accent, he thought, dazed. What is that accent?
Then, the static ebbed, followed by a moment of intense silence in which the fisherman held his prize, suspending his captive on a noose of telephone wire.
Faintly, Alphonse heard a heh.
"Soon, soon," said the stranger with the accent. "You shall see."