Author's Note: Welcome back, everyone! I hope you're all enjoying this change of season, and I hope you enjoy this chapter. Also, congratulations to guest reviewer Grilled Cheese for being lucky number 500! Thank you all so much for your support of this fic.
Disclaimer: WolfishMoon does not own Fullmetal Alchemist or Harry Potter. She does not claim the contrary and makes no money from the online publication of this free-to-read fan work. WolfishMoon also sends her support to the trans community. There is no space for TERFs in this fandom.
It was properly Tuesday, October 1st, a good month into Hermione Granger's sixth year at Hogwarts, when the previous Defense Against the Dark Arts professor made an abrupt and unsettling return to her radar. Breakfast that morning, she'd decided, was marmalade on a muffin with strong, lightly sweetened, black tea. She took one bite of her food, took one sip of her tea, and unfurled her fresh copy of the Daily Prophet over the Gryffindor table.
Last year, a subscription had been paramount to her information gathering. This year, it's mostly just been depressing. She still dutifully paid the owl that dropped the newspaper into her breakfast plate every morning. And this morning, she was glad she did. Right on the front page, was coverage of Dolores Umbridge speaking on the Wizengamot floor. Hermione looked deliberately away from the newspaper. She took another sip of her tea to reset herself before looking back. Sure enough, Dolores Umbridge paced back and forth across the cover photo, loudly addressing the members of the Wizengamot.
Odd, thought Hermione. She's wearing less pink than I remember. But she supposed that an unexpected encounter with Grawp and a herd of rampaging centaurs might change anyone's fashion sense a little. The demands of physical recovery alone would probably encourage an appreciation of comfort and simplicity. The odder thing was that she was speaking on the Wizengamot floor at all. Last Hermione had checked, Umbridge had only just finished her convalescence at St. Mungo's. And while she had never been formally removed from her role as the minister's Senior Undersecretary, she hadn't been actively on the job since before Fudge had been replaced with Scrimgeour. Her return to work must have been abrupt.
Hermione searched the photograph for clues, tracing the smart lines of Umbridge's charcoal grey pantsuit and tracking the progression of her steps across the floor. Umbridge gestured expansively at her audience, then fixed the camera with a straight stare. Hermione froze at the sudden eye-contact. Umbridge's eyes, never warm, seemed colder than ever.
"She's just an awful woman, Hermione," said Hermione aloud, freeing a hand to wrap around the comforting warmth of her teacup.
"Who is?" Ron said through a mouthful of toast.
"Umbridge," Hermione said. She sent him a reproachful look. "Please swallow your food, Ronald."
"Whoops," said Ron, giving her one last glimpse of his toast before swallowing. "Anyway, what's got you thinking about Umbridge all of a sudden?"
Hermione gestured at the newspaper. "She's working as the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister again. She only just got out of hospital."
"Probably wants to get back to her slimy job with slimy people as quickly as possible," said Harry darkly from his seat on the other side of the table. "Can't expel students for defensive magic from a hospital bed, can she?"
Harry knew how to hold a grudge, but Hermione could hardly blame him. "That she can't," she said. "Still, in hospital two weeks ago and already speaking on the floor?"
"Well, what are they trying to get through?" said Ron. Hermione tsked. He was speaking with his mouth full again, but at a certain point that was just Ron.
Deciding to ignore the food in Ron's mouth this time, Hermione checked her newspaper. "A tax bill," she said.
"Thought it might be something about centaurs," said Ron. "I'd get back to work early if it was about what put me in hospital."
"Why taxes?" said Harry.
Hermione felt a certain sense of foreboding. "The article doesn't say," she said. "It's really just a feel-good piece about her return to work."
"Feel-good," Harry grumbled. "Right." He poked at his plate of eggs and, with no small amount of dread lacing his tone, said, "I have a feeling we'll find out eventually." Hermione liked to be rational. She didn't like to bet on her feelings. But Harry's gut? Hermione didn't often bet against that.
Over at the Ravenclaw table, one of the school owls dropped a letter in front of Alphonse. She was a pretty bird. Tawny feathers, appropriate for her species but stunning all the same, opened her face brightly. Al gave the top of her head a little scratch and fed her a bit of bacon before untying the letter from her foot.
It was from Edward. Of course it was. "Can you wait for a response?" Al asked the owl. "It will only take a minute." The owl blinked at him and settled herself more comfortably. "Thanks," said Al.
Al unfurled the bit of parchment, looked up at the teacher's table. Ed was sitting at it, looking shockingly alert for someone who'd apparently spent the entire night working with Bill Weasley. Al wasn't sure whether he wanted to resent him for that. Al hadn't slept well since Saturday's kitten incident. He hadn't crept over to Ed's quarters since the first night, because that had only helped a little. Instead, whenever he woke from another Nina nightmare, he went looking for Eve. Sometimes she was already curled in the crook of his knee, other times she was surveying the Ravenclaw common room. Last night, Al hadn't been able to find her anywhere. He'd managed to fall back asleep in the early morning, and Eve had woken him up by sitting on his face less than thirty minutes later.
Alphonse loved cats. Really, he did.
That's how Alphonse knew he needed to prioritize getting some sleep, because it was only after his moment of reflective griping that he realized the gravity of the situation. An actual curse-breaker was here, evidently taking a nap in the guest chambers. Finally, thought Al. I can get that curse off of Professor Dumbledore. Maybe, with that bit of tension off his shoulders, he'd be able to get a good night's sleep, refocus his attention on what to do with Voldemort's horcruxes.
He turned over Ed's parchment, and wrote back, again in one of their codes. I'll be there, brother. Let's get this done.
The owl, seeming to instinctively know that Al was done writing, stuck out her leg. Al rerolled the note, secured it, and gave the owl one last piece of bacon before she soared back off to the teacher's table. He saw Ed nod. That was enough.
When classes finished for the day – and honestly, Al could not begin to say what they'd covered, he was so distracted – he went immediately up to Dumbledore's office. Ed was already there, and so was the eldest Weasley child, who Al honestly hardly remembered. Fleur had been just so dazzling by contrast, and even six months into recovery, Al's brain had still been a little foggy from malnutrition.
He was more handsome than Al remembered. His long red hair was pulled back from his face, emphasizing the sharp cut of his cheekbones and the earing that sat jauntily in one ear. Al blinked. Maybe Bill had only read plain in contrast to his extraordinarily beautiful fiancé. "Nice to meet you again," Al said hastily, realizing he'd been staring a little longer than was probably acceptable. "I hope you and Fleur have been doing well."
Bill grinned. "Mum still can't believe it, but me n' Fleur are doing very well."
Al laughed. He remembered, vaguely, that Mrs. Weasley had disapproved. "Zat's so good to hear!"
More pleasantries were exchanged, where Al was obligated to say that he was well, and that school was interesting and fun. He wasn't lying, not really. Al could see Ed watching the exchange with hopeful eyes; Al shrugged at him helplessly. He could half-lie to Bill, but he wanted his brother to recognize that his mental state was a little more complicated than pleasantries could cover.
Ed grimaced, pulled a blue-green phial from his jacket, and handed to him. Al looked at it, and then at his brother, quizzically. It pinged in his memory – probably one of the early-year potions that Hermione had talked him through over summer. "Wideye potion," Ed said by way of explanation.
Oh. "Sank you, brother," said Al, touched. He downed it in a single gulp, reveled in the sudden feeling of being fresh off an excellent sleep.
"I thought you were gonna drink that," said Bill.
"I did. Sanks, by zee way. Really needed zee boost. I grabbed Al's from Greasy." Ed pulled another phial from his pants pocket, handed it over. "Here's one to replace zee one I drank."
Bill looked mildly uncomfortable at the offer. "Oh, no. It's fine. I'm the one who dragged you out of bed."
"You can't obtain anysing wisout first giving somesing of equal value in return," said Ed. "First law of Alchemy. Please take it."
Bill still looked uncomfortable, but take it, he did. Al wasn't sure how he felt about the whole exchange, but the wideye potion sat comfortably in his system. He felt rested, alert, and ready to face Professor Dumbledore, who so desperately needed help he didn't want to take.
Professor Dumbledore had sat quietly through the conversation. His face looked haggard behind the forced flamboyance and color of his clothing. That hand had to be painful. Poor man, Al thought. We have to get that curse off. We just have to. Alphonse wouldn't stand for letting one of his teachers languish in extended pain. And sure, Professor Dumbledore wasn't Teacher. But the Hogwarts faculty was the closest thing he had, here in this magic world.
"How are you feeling, Headmaster?" Al said, before Ed and Bill could get any more uncomfortable.
"I am as well as can be expected," said Dumbledore, resting his hands on his desk, healthy atop the cursed.
"Zat's good to hear," said Al. "I hope we can make real progress tonight."
"Me too," said Bill. "After I woke up, I went over my notes. I have a few things I'd like to try, with Alphonse on standby."
Alphonse pulled his notebook out of his breast pocket and waved it. "Notes," he said. "I took a lot of notes about his chi flow. It's certainly not what a trained alkahestrist could put together, but we might still see some useful patterns."
Bill pulled out his own notebook and, earlier awkwardness forgotten, Bill, Ed, and Al lined up their respective ideas and began to put together the pieces. It was fascinating, how Bill's magic-flow diagram lined up with Alphonse's chi-flow diagram. The magic worked to inflict the damage, and it lined up neatly with how Dumbledore's chi reacted to it.
Ed took one look at the maps, covered a length of parchment in ink, clapped his hands together, and produced an image that superimposed them on top of each other. Bill whistled, long and low. "That's something," he said. He paused. "Both. The alchemy's something, and so is the way this is interacting."
Sure enough, the connections that Bill and Al had started putting together showed starkly in Ed's composite image. Where magic pushed, chi recoiled. Where chi seemed to gain some ground, the magic waned. And so, Al's sketch and Bill's twined around each other on Ed's parchment.
Dumbledore leaned over his desk to join them, looking sour. "Impressive work," he said. "I wish I had encountered your alkahestry as a younger man."
Alphonse didn't mention that the only alkahestrists who could have taught that younger Albus were, as far as he knew, across the gate in another universe. But still, there were some alchemists here. Then there must be alkahestrists. Where are they? he wondered. And why is alchemy dying off?
"If zere are any alkahestrists here to teach you, and if I have anysing to say about it, you'll be alive to study it a little," Alphonse said. Professor Dumbledore did not look comforted. Instead, he gave Al a small, sad smile. Al tried to beam at him in response – if the Headmaster wasn't communicating in words, Alphonse had every right to pretend he'd missed the signal. "Anyway. Bill. You mentioned zat zee curse might be trying to function in two layers – would you like to try poking at zee first one? Just poke at it to start, I'll watch how zee chi reacts."
Bill nodded. "Probably best to write out the runes for this sort of thing," he said. "It's delicate. May I, Headmaster?"
Dumbledore gave them both a long-suffering nod, and Bill took the damaged hand. Alphonse had realized, earlier, that Bill used arrays in his magic that were very much like alchemy. But this was his first time seeing it in action. Instead of chalk, Bill etched his runes on the desktop with the tip of his wand. Still, the surety of his movements was achingly familiar.
"You haff to walk me srough zose runes, Eldest Red Child," said Ed. "I want to see zee results of a real comparison study."
Bill did not even hear him. Al exchanged grins with Ed, who looked delighted to have another research-minded wizard among his acquaintances. While Al had not managed to befriend the goblin Nyorok in any real way, he did write Ollivander regularly himself. On top of the letters, Al had near-nightly escapes into Pandora Lovegood's Laboratory. The group study rooms off the Ravenclaw common room were not quite ideal, but they were convenient.
Al didn't even have to leave his tower to interact with the writings of a scientific mind. Ed, on the other hand, must see his letters from Nyorok and Ollivander as rare gems. It was no wonder that he looked at the runes etched on Professor Dumbledore's desk with wide eyes and a wider smile.
"Alright," said Bill, pulling Al from his thoughts. "I think this is a good starting point. Do your weird chi watching, Alphonse!" Al closed his eyes, listened for the thrum of the Dragon's Pulse. He kept them closed until he could see the threads of life energy and watch them dance. His eyes opened just as Bill tapped the first of his etched runes with his wand. It lit not with a familiar blue, but with a golden brightness instead. Al followed it, watching how chi reacted.
While the magic drawn on the composite diagram forced the Headmaster's chi into tangled knots of retreat, this magic, visible in its brilliance, gave those knots breathing room. Though the magic of the curse itself wasn't visible, Al could quite clearly picture the curse's path in the diagram, imagine where Bill's magic might be eroding it ever so slightly. Where the magic hit brightest, the knots of chi seemed to expand. They weren't untangling at all, but the individual threads became a little easier to parse. This is beautiful, he thought. Bill was focused intently on his task, but quick glances to Ed and Professor Dumbledore confirmed that they were as captivated by Bill's magic as Al was. And they could only see half of it!
Al blinked away a stray tear, his whole consciousness flooded by a sudden rush of gratitude to Mei and what little she'd had the time to teach him. Alkahestry was a gift. Alchemy was also a gift, but the reassuring pulse of life that alkahestry made visible was -. Well. Alphonse didn't really have the words to describe it. He stopped trying to articulate it, instead cradled that warmth in his chest.
The light of Bill's magic died down. Al reluctantly let go of his chi-sight, turned to Bill, said, "I sink I know how I can alkahestrically help zat along."
The life that had pulsed meekly in Professor Dumbledore's snarled chi had shown Alphonse exactly where he could prod – gently, carefully – to support Bill's curse breaking. But Bill was still reeling from his magic. "What?" he said, and Alphonse knew how that felt.
"Zat was zee coolest sing I've ever seen magic do," said Ed. Ed still said magic with a twist – like it was something dirty and mind breaking. Al reflexively buried the twinge of hurt that came with it. Ed continued. "You were too focused to hear me when I said zis, but we haff to run a comparison study on magic and alchemy rune systems."
Bill blinked, clearly unprepared for the sheer force of Brother's curiosity. Most people were unprepared for the sheer force of Brother's curiosity.
"It would be interesting," Al said, stalling to give Bill's mind a little more time to catch up with reality. "I'm not taking Ancient Runes because I had so much to catch up on, but if you and Bruder run zat study, I'd love to look at it."
Something cleared in Bill's eyes. "Right," he said. "Right. That would be awesome."
Dumbledore, on the other side of his stately desk, looked like his world was ending. Alphonse ignored him, gave Bill his very best dimpled grin. "And I sink I know how I can support your magic wis alkahestry."
"That easy?" asked Bill, looking from his rune work to Al.
Al nodded eagerly. "It's quite simple! I sink anyone who knows even as little as I do about alkahestry might be able to piece it togezer, honestly."
Ed looked at him, then leaned over to get a better look at Bill's runes. "How does it work?"
"Well, I can't see zee energy of zee curse, but all of us could see Bill's magic. So, I just watched how Professor Dumbledore's chi responded to it. I could see where it needed help, too!"
"Huh," said Ed.
"Well," said Bill. "It means we could take another go at this, at least. But we should be careful about it."
"Absolutely. "I'll be writing out an array and everysing," said Al. He produced a piece of chalk from his pocket and gestured at Bill's runes. "May I?"
Bill looked a little nervous, but after a moment's hesitation, he nodded. "Go for it."
Alphonse tried to look reassuring. Ed, for his part, was smiling at the chalk. Al almost wondered why, before refocusing on his task. The Headmaster had withdrawn his hand from the circle, so Al addressed him next. "Would you put your hand back, Professor?"
Professor Dumbledore did so. "I appreciate all the effort you're putting into this, young Mr. Elric."
The hand, still black and gnarled and burning, was slightly off center of Bill's array. Alphonse nudged it gently. So gently. Professor Dumbledore did not flinch – his nerves were probably too dead for him to feel much dermal contact at all – but his shoulders tensed at the proximity. Al could hardly blame him.
With the hand in the correct place, the spatial sense of Bill's array made easy sense. Al looked at his piece of chalk and hoped that he was remembering Mei's alkahestral arrays correctly. He was almost nervous enough to tremble, but long alchemical practice kept his hands steady and his chalked lines and circles perfect. He could only hope that they were the right lines and circles. Sometimes, it was so much easier to just clap his hands and go.
But an array made focusing his attention easier, and he needed that directionality to try something so very new. He lifted the end of his chalk from the table, stepped to the side. "Alright," said Al, nodding at Bill. "Let's do zis."
Bill rolled his shoulders, brandished his wand. "Let's." This time, as the tip of his wand activated his own circle, Alphonse activated his own array. The golden glow of Bill's magic and the blue light of alkahestry and alchemy crackled together in the air.
Even with Bill Weasley looking unspeakably cool while etching an array with his stupid stick, Al still reflexively uses chalk, Ed thought, with no small amount of satisfaction. That satisfaction was supplanted pretty quickly by awe when both the magical and the alkahestral arrays lit up simultaneously. He knew even less about alkahestry than he knew about magic, and the scientist in him squealed at seeing this new kind of collaboration. So many things to measure! So many things to analyze!
Both his brother and Bill were completely focused on their task. Ed wondered if that's what he looked like when he was focusing on an especially difficult equation. It probably was, but that speculation was nowhere near as interesting as the interaction happening over the Old Man's hand.
He'd memorized the lines of Bill's magic flow diagram and Al's chi flow diagram when he made the merged copy, but he hadn't been able to really see the give and take of it until this moment. Admittedly, Bill's magic was doing almost the exact opposite of the curse, but in seeing the curse's potential reversal interacting with chi, Ed rather thought he could see the curse itself in his imagination. He could see how the curse constricted in how Bill's magic tangled around Al's alkahestry, almost as if it was fighting to give the alkahestry space.
Belatedly, Ed noticed that the oxidation reaction that was eating at Dumbledore's hand was beginning to flare. Right. That's why he was here. He clapped his hands, envisioned arrays for oxygen manipulation, set his fingertips on the healthy-cursed edge of skin on the Old Man's wrist.
His alchemy joined in with what Alphonse and Bill already had going with surprising ease. He didn't feel any resistance as he carefully shifted the oxygen around Dumbledore's hand away. The trouble was, that even though the oxygen neatly removed itself, the fire didn't go out.
"Shit," said Ed, switching fluidly to Amestrian. "Al we've got a fuckin problem."
Al looked up from his own work, said, "Crap."
Ed tried to find the English to alert Bill, but Al forwent the need for words and nudged Bill with his shoulder. His hands were still occupied with his alkahestry, but he gestured with his head.
"Shit," said Bill, reminding Ed of the English word for it. "The curse did feel like it was bucking up."
Dumbledore had gone terribly still. He was clearly trying to project his usual serenity and failing badly. Still, if he was afraid, he wasn't showing that, either.
"Should vee back off?" asked Al. "Can vee stop here?"
"Don't think so," said Bill. "I think I can get to a good stopping point in a moment though, just do your best to keep this stable, boys!"
Ed didn't like the sound of that, but whatever. Fuck it. He rethought his array. Only with the next one in mind did he stop his current transmutation. He pulled a lump of coal from his pocket and clapped his hands again immediately, touched them to the Old Man's smoking flesh, tried to ignore the sting of heat. In the split-second absence of his influence, oxygen had flooded back into the space. Ed pushed it away again before focusing on the second part of his new array: reversing combustion. He'd brought that lump of coal for this very eventuality. He could do this.
Carefully, so carefully, he began to undo the oxidation combustion reaction currently happening at Dumbledore's wrist. The lower parts of the hand, of course, had long since turned to an oddly solid ash. But if he reversed the reaction at the wrist, in connection with Bill trying to undo the curse magically and Alphonse attempting to repair Dumbledore's chi flow, then maybe he could stop the reaction in its tracks.
If he could just nudge that stubborn bit of – oh! Something in Ed's alchemy clicked and the ground dropped. Ed's braid slapped him in the cheek, and he landed with a thud, several feet from where he started.
He sprang to his feet, mind lost to reflex, looked from left to right. His eyes unerringly sought Alphonse, who had crashed into one of the Old Man's shelving units, magical debris falling around his head. But he was okay. Ed exhaled. And there was Bill, who'd crashed near the door to Dumbledore's quarters. Ed took stock of his own location – he'd landed near the door to the office itself. It was frankly a wonder he hadn't fallen through it and tumbled down the stairs.
There was a groan, and Ed was reminded of the person he'd just been trying to save. Dumbledore was still in his chair, but the chair was now slammed against the wall behind it. He was clearly alive, though he looked pale. His cursed hand was cradled to his chest, obscured by the sleeve of his other arm.
"Vat happened?" said Ed.
"Good question," said Bill.
"Headmaster! Are you okay?" said Al.
Ed looked to the desk, the epicenter of that little non-explosion. At the center of Bill and Al's intertwined arrays was a pile of ash.
Word Count: 4097
Date Posted: 4/6/2021
I hope you enjoyed this latest installment of TSL. Things are starting to move again. Leave a review and tell me what you thought – your reviews shape this story more than y'all probably know. Thanks for reading! Stay safe and healthy, everybody.