As far as Alphonse Elric had traveled, across the desert, the ruins of Xerxes, homeland of his father, through the enormous kingdom of Xing, and into the expanse of counties of the distant East, there was still no place that gave him greater comfort than the town of Resembool in southeastern Amestris. Standing on the little train station, hands firmly in pockets, with no luggage, Al breathed in the country air of his childhood. The wind rustled through his blond hair. One moment. He would allow himself one moment of serenity before he continued on. …What he had seen the night before left a fire in his veins and a ringing in his ears. This fresh air dulled those senses and made him feel at peace for a moment.
A moment passed. The fire returned.
With a hasty step and a creased brow, Alphonse Elric made his way to the house of his older brother, Edward Elric, formally the Fullmetal Alchemist.
He found his mighty brother locked in an arm-wrestling competition with his daughter. His back was to Al as the younger brother came up along the path, but there was no mistaking that golden tail into which Edward always pulled back his hair. He and his daughter were sitting on the porch outside their home, hands locked, and Edward crying out on the entire countryside.
"Oh no! No! It's too much! She's too powerful! I can't!"
Alphonse watched as his brother made a show of trying to use both hands to overpower his toddler. However with a whimper, he cried out that her strength was too great for him! Edward Elric's right arm thumped onto the wooden picnic table, not with the old clang of metal Alphonse was so accustomed to, but the sound of normal, natural flesh.
Edward had become engaged to his and Alphonse's childhood friend, Winry Rockbell, just before setting out on his own journey, to the West in his case. Winry and he had been eighteen years old. Once back in Amestris, one year later, the couple had lost no time in starting a family. Edward was now twenty-five and had a cheerful six year old boy and a determined four year old girl. Edward himself had become a renowned professor of Alchemic Theory. His time as the youngest State Alchemist, as well as his heroisms during the Promised Day, meant that there were always an abundance of universities inviting him to lecture. Of course, unlike Alphonse, he was unable to demonstrate any of the alchemic discoveries he had made in his travels, having bartered his Gateway of Truth, the source of his alchemy, for his brother's life.
So, for all of Edward's fame, it was Winry and her automail engineering that brought the money in.
Though… Alphonse sometimes did wonder about his brother. They were not every day in each other's company as they had once been. With Edward's family and life here in Risembool and Alphonse's affairs in Central, there was no helping it. …So Alphonse could be certain of nothing. Edward seemed content with his lot. But Alphonse could not help but question it. His older brother was an alchemist born. There were days that Al entertained himself with the idea that Edward's work in the universities was only a front, and he lingered on the idea that the Fullmetal Alchemist might have regained his craft in his travels to the West and become an undercover alchemist for Roy Mustang.
The theory was neither here nor there.
Edward looked up and saw his brother on the fringe of his yard. "Al!" He was up and vaulting over the fence, pulling Alphonse into a tight hug. "Oh man, what an awesome surprise! How have you been?! How's May? How are you two settling in Central?"
With the sudden jolt of the embrace Alphonse's purpose for this visit came flooding back to him. He took Ed by the shoulder and pulled him away to arm's length.
"…We need to go, now."
Edward's golden eyes, which had bristled at the sight of him, now darkened. Alphonse felt his brother's shoulder tension under his grip. Even if his brother had not regained his alchemy in the West, Edward Elric was still a force to be reckoned with.
"I'll tell Winry. Back in five."
With that, Edward disappeared into his house, scooping up his daughter on his way. She waved her tiny hand back over his shoulder to her Uncle Al. Al smiled and waved back.
At heart Edward was still a State Alchemist. He rallied quickly and asked questions on the way to the mission. He did not dawdle. As Alphonse watched that blond pigtail of his swing back and forth on his retreating back, he remembered why men had been willing to follow his older brother into hell.
Alphonse's jaw tightened. I just never expected one of them to make the trip back.
Five minutes later Edward was standing by his side, coat over his shoulder and briefcase in hand. Winry, her grandmother Pinako, and the two children were in the doorway. At another time Alphonse would have come into the house and made a proper greeting. Perhaps even stayed for tea. Now, he just called a quick "Hello," up to the house and waved at them, smile fixed to his face. It was one disadvantage that came with having a human face over an armored one. He had to make an effort to hide what he felt.
Pinako held her great grandson by the hand and Winry her little daughter in her arms and they waved back. Al knew that they understood. They had spent so many years waiting for the Elric brothers to come home. They remembered all too well the missions and scrapes Edward and Alphonse had thrown themselves into to reclaim their own bodies, to save this country, to protect those they loved. If this all worked out well, then Alphonse would make another trip down to Resembool with Ed and would tell them all about it. If not, it was best they never know. Till then, they would wait.
Winry and Pinako Rockbell were masters of the art of waiting.
Alphonse watched as, outside the train window, the countryside fell away to be replaced first by the suburbs, and then by the outskirts of the capital of Amestris, Central. It would have been easier to simply call Ed on the telephone and ask him to come up to Central, rather than Alphonse making the round-trip journey. However, the thought of sitting in his apartment and doing nothing until his brother arrived had almost driven Al mad in and of itself. He had grabbed the first morning train to Resembool and fetched Edward for himself. He did not look at his brother and politely diverted any questions that Ed tried to pitch at him. Edward had never been very patient.
This was not the sort of thing that Alphonse could describe. This, Ed would have to witness with his own eyes.
The Elric brothers disembarked from the train in good order. They spent so many years traveling together that they now seamlessly fell into step. All of Central was abuzz with activity. There was rumor going around that Grumman was stepping down as Führer. Whomever he put forward as candidate (if he was stepping down at all) would have a noticeable advantage in the race. All of this faded out to dull noise as Alphonse and Edward got into a car that Alphonse had arraigned to be left for them, and began to drive once more to the outskirts of the capitol.
"I still can't fully wrap my mind around it," Al finally whispered, unable to keep the silence any longer, speaking more to himself than to Ed. "Ten years since it happened… an entire decade… and he never even left Central."
"Huh?" Edward look at him from the passenger seat. "Who? Al… when are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?"
Alphonse brought the car to a halt. They had arrived at a little homey clinic in one of the more rural parts of the city. It looked as though it had once been a large private home. There was a wrap-around porch, many well-tended flower beds, and even a chimney. Someone was waving to the two of them from the front steps.
Edward got out of the car and blinked. His face brightened. "Is that you, Sheska!?"
Wordlessly, Alphonse followed his gaze, unsmiling. He'd had much the same reaction when he had seen Sheska at that exact spot the day before. Ten years earlier the Elric brothers had gotten Sheska work in the Investigations Office of the Amestrian State Military. A petite brunette with hair sticking up in every direction and an obsessive love of books, Sheska had hardly changed at all in the decade since they'd known her. Her glasses still appeared too large for her face and her laughter was as nervous as ever.
Though she had reason enough to be nervous now.
"Long time no see, Edward!"
"No kidding," Ed replied. He walked up the cobbled-stone path, surveyed the little garden patches leading up to the clinic. "So what is this place?"
Sheska smiled at him as she opened the screen door leading into the house. Alphonse wondered if she had been this nervous the day before when he had come here, and if he, like Edward, had been too distracted by the chance encounter of an old friend to take any note.
"Well," her voice wavered as they walked into the foyer. It was a pleasant room, with flowers in vases and pastel colored walls. "You might remember, Ed, that I was in quite a tight spot when we first met. I'd been fired from my job at Central Library and had no way of tending to my ailing mother or making certain that she got the care that she needed." Her face brightened momentarily. "That all changed, of course, when you showed up searching for Doctor Marco's research notes!"
Alphonse walked silently behind Sheska and Edward as they passed room after room. Many of the doors were open and within them he caught glimpses of recovering patience sitting in armchairs by windowsills, some even being visited by family.
"It was the start of a whole new career for me! And it all began with that first paycheck you gave me. With it, I was able to move my mother into a really wonderful facility. Here, actually."
"Oh yeah?" Ed said distractedly, stirring awake the old dusty memories which he had of Sheska's worries about her mother. It had, after all, been ten years ago. Ten years ago, when the Elric brothers' mind had been full with Philosopher Stones and magical cures. And Edward and Alphonse had helped so many people in that time, it was almost impossible to remember them all. "Yeah," Ed said more surely, the memory finally clicking into place. "Yeah, I remember. How's the old lady doing?" he asked, looking about, clearly trying to understand why he had been brought here.
"She's doing well. Living at home with my husband and me now, actually," Sheska answered quietly. She stopped short. The three of them stood before the last doorway at the end of the hall. Alphonse closed his eyes and took a deep breath to steady himself. The moment had arrived.
"Allow me," he rasped. He stepped between Sheska and Edward and, with one final pause, pushed open the door and allowed his brother in.
Giving Al a confused look, Edward stepped into a little, tidy room almost identical to all those they had passed. There was a dresser drawer in the corner and light blue curtains hanging on the window. The window was open and was letting in a soft breeze– one of the benefits of living on the outskirts of Central rather than at the heart of the metropolitan soup. The occupant of the room, who had been sitting up in bed, gazing out at the garden, turned to look at his visitors.
Edward Elric's entire body went ridged. He felt his heart accelerate as it pummeled against his ribcage and he felt a cold sickly shiver run up and down his spine. His eyes went wide and his lips parted in shock and disbelieve. His mouth was dry. His throat seized up. He forgot how to speak. How to think. What he was seeing defied thought.
He was an alchemist. The first law of alchemy was that one could not bring back the dead.
"They called me in last night," Al offered hollowly, his eyes fixed on the floor with its innocuous floral carpet. "Dr. Knox reached out to me… because I'd been a friend of… of his." Even now Alphonse could not bring himself to look at the man in the bed. "Knox remembered my relationship with May Chang, and had heard that we were moving in together here in Central, now that she's accepted the position of Xingese Ambassador to Amestris. He thought… perhaps her and my extensive knowledge of Eastern Alkahestry… It is primarily used for healing… it could help with his memories…" His voice trailed off. He looked up at his brother.
Edward Elric had not taken in a word his brother said. He had eyes only for the man whom he had once known as Maes Hughes. He stared at him, unblinking, disbelieving.
Maes Hughes stared back and did not recognize him.