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The Simple and the Subtle

Chapter Text

Al stood by a low fountain, hands opening and closing around the handle of his suitcase. It was baking hot under the afternoon sun, even though it was autumn elsewhere in the country, but he made no move for the shade of the wide porch across the square. There had been too many doubtful or questioning looks directed at him as he crossed the city, and he wanted to start off on the right foot, here; his eyes searched through the knots of people sitting among the pillars, looking for a face that seemed receptive or curious or welcoming. Unfortunately, everyone seemed very wrapped up in whatever they were discussing, in some cases quite loudly and with vigorous gestures.

Al sighed. Getting to New Ishvar had been simple. Finding the temple had been even easier; it was the tallest building in the city and by far the most finished-looking one. The next step was proving a little harder.

"You can drink from the fountain, if you like, young man."

Al turned to see a comfortably plump woman smiling at him, offering a tin cup of water.

"You look like you've just gotten here," she added.

"Yes, ma'am." Actually, water sounded really good now that someone mentioned it. Al took the cup with a bob of thanks and sighed with pleasure as he washed the grit out of his throat. "Thank you very much."

"We don't get many travelers," she observed to the water as she went back to filling a large jug.

"I was hoping to speak to some of your scholars." Al felt deeply self-conscious, now that he actually came to say it. "They, um, all seem to be very busy, though."

The woman laughed. "Ah, half the men up there are just arguing for the fun of it." She set her full jug down in the shadow of the fountain and beckoned. "Come along, I'll show you to someone who can actually help."

"Oh. That's very kind; thank you again." Al trailed behind her, surprised.

She tossed a wry grin over her shoulder. "I think anyone who comes to learn instead of shoot should be encouraged."

Al flushed. "Ah. Yes." How did you answer something like that?

She led him between the knots of gesticulating debaters and finally tapped the shoulder of a square, strong looking old man. "Sensei, you have a visitor."

The man looked up from the group of boys he'd been speaking to, smiling. "A visitor? How unusual. Thank you, Nahal." He waved to the boys, who scattered looking cheerful; Al suspected he'd just interrupted lessons of some kind. The old man nodded to him courteously as the woman shook her head and went after some of the children. "And how can we help..." He trailed off and frowned. "You...?"

"My name is Alphonse Elric." Al hesitated as the man's eyes widened. "I... may have met you before sir. I don't remember that time, though. Please excuse me."

"Hm. Well, you certainly look rather different than I remember." The man waved to one of the benches beside him. "I take it," he said quietly, as Al sat, "that your brother succeeded in healing you."

That was actually a very good way to put it, Al thought. "Yes, sir. He gave all of himself to do it, though, and..." Al's hands tightened on each other, "now I'm trying to find where he's gone."

"Where he's gone?" the man prompted softly.

"He isn't dead," Al told his hands. "I'd know if he were dead."

"You must know, Elric-kun, that we do not teach or learn the old Art." The man's voice was kind but utterly inflexible.

"I know." Al looked up, meeting his eyes. "I don't think it's the Art I need to learn. There's..." He took a deep breath. "There's a Gate. It's spoken of in some of the old books of your people, and nowhere else I've found. I've passed that Gate. Twice. But I don't remember it."

The man sat back, looking startled. "Twice?" He examined Al in silence for a long moment and finally said, "I think you had better tell me the whole story, Elric-kun. If you can."

Al's mouth quirked. This should be interesting. "Well, I suppose it starts from the fact that my brother and I inherited our father's gift for alchemy..."

Dusk fell while he spoke, blue shadows sliding over the sand and stone.

" I came here, hoping I could learn more about what happened. Maybe enough to find the Gate when I'm awake and find my brother through it."

Al turned one hand palm up and waited as calmly as he could for his answer.

"If he has passed through the place you speak of, I do not know if it will be possible to call him back. He was not bound to this world, as you were by the blood seal." The old man stood. "Nevertheless, you have come to us honestly, to share learning. As long as that honesty does not fail, you are welcome to learn what you may."

Al let out the breath he'd been holding. "Thank you, sir."

The man's teeth flashed in a smile. "My name is Amos. And now, we have to find some place for you to stay." He chuckled. "I'm sure Leo and Rick will be happy to see you again, but Maria has her hands full looking after them; lodging you there might not be the kindest thing to her."

"I don't want to make any trouble," Al said, hastily, already imagining the look this Maria would give him. "Of course, I'll do my best to help out wherever I stay, but I can stay outside of town, too, if that would be easier." After Sensei's ideas of training, camping in the nice, calm desert would feel like a vacation.

"Hm. No, no I think I have a better idea. Come along." Whatever he had thought of put a glint in Amos-san's eye, Al saw as they passed into the lamplight spilling past the temple doors. Al braced himself and followed along as Amos-san led him out into the city.

The buildings got less and less finished as they went until, at the edge of the city-in-progress, they were mostly wood and stone frames with tent canvas for walls. Amos-san finally stopped at one and rapped on the frame beside a drawn door-curtain.

"Gil! Are you in?"

The man who drew the curtain aside was even bigger and more solid-looking than Amos-san. He had a young face though, as far as Al could make out past the old scarring over most of it. "Shifu? What can I...?" He trailed off as his eyes fell on Al and widened.

Al tried not to sigh, and got ready to repeat the pertinent parts of his story. Again. He got very tired of explaining why he didn't remember people.

"Gil, this is Alphonse Elric. I believe you've met." Amos-san sounded just a little too bland, and Al glanced at him with some suspicion.

"Alphonse?" The man, Gil-san, stepped forward, frankly staring. "You're alive," he finally whispered.

Al paused. He didn't remember the name Gil, but it sounded like this man knew a great deal about him. "Yes," he said, finally, and borrowed Amos-san's words for the rest. "My brother healed me."

If anything, Gil-san's eyes got wider.

"He's come seeking a different kind of learning than the last time the Elrics visited us," Amos-san said, quite calm. "I think it would be best if he stayed with you, while he's here."

There was some kind of protest in Gil-san's expression as he turned to Amos-san, but it died as their eyes met. Finally Gil-san dropped his gaze and nodded.

"Excellent. I'm sure the two of you can help each other." Amos-san patted Al's shoulder and turned back toward the center of the city.

Al didn't know exactly what was going on, but he was sure that Amos-san was doing something for someone's own good. He'd sounded far too much like Sensei at the end, there, not to be. "I don't want to impose, Gil-san," he said, cautiously.

Gil-san snorted a little at that. "I'm sure you don't." He shook himself and held the door-curtain aside. "You might as well come in."

The house was bare and simple; interior walls were half built or only marked out and the furniture was makeshift. Al was reminded of his thought about camping in the desert, and smiled.

"You are welcome," Gil-san told him, waving a rather sardonic hand at the crates and bed-rolls. "If you really want to be."

First things first, Al decided, firmly. "Gil-san, I'm afraid I don't remember the years I traveled with my brother. It's clear we met you, but, I'm sorry, I don't recognize you at all."

Gil-san stopped by the scuffed table, looking at him for a long few breaths with unreadable eyes. Finally he nodded. "Only your life could buy your life." Al blinked at this succinct summing up of the price he'd paid as Gil-san turned away and rummaged in a flat chest, coming up with an extra bed roll. "There's space in the bedroom; sharing shouldn't be a problem."

Al was a bit bewildered by how Gil-san knew what had happened to him, and how simply he'd accepted it. Maybe a good night's sleep would make it all make more sense. "Thank you, then." He bit his lip and added, "If, ah, I seem to be having strange dreams, please don't be concerned. It... happens lately."

Gil-san's hands paused for a moment, spreading out the bedding. "I see."

Al was starting to suspect that Gil-san did see, and he wasn't sure whether that comforted or alarmed him.

"I'm sorry if I, um, miss anything," Al said the next morning as he cut bread for Gil to toast. "I'm afraid I didn't recognize your name."

"I'm not surprised."

Al sighed. This was the third time he'd tried to imply that it would nice if Gil-san said how they'd met and none of them had gotten anywhere. He had a bad feeling it had been in Lior, where an Ishvarite could probably go unnoticed, and that had sounded like it had been a very bad time, when Winry and Rose told him about it. He didn't want to push harder. Amos-san wouldn't have brought him here if there had been problems between them, right?

Al would have felt better believing that if Amos-san's smile had been even a little bit less like Sensei's.

Al put the worry aside as well as he could, though, and set off for his first day of new research. Amos-san had said Al should look for someone named Alec.

"A gate, hm?" Alec-san turned out to be an old man with brushy gray hair and long hands and extremely sharp eyes. "A number of things have been called that." Alec-san paged through a book pulled down without looking from the shelves surrounding them. "Hm, yes. Human transmutation. Life and death, that. Does this look familiar?"

He held out the book, open to a sketch: an eye made up of eleven concentric circles. Chills slid down Al's spine and he nodded positively. "Yes." He wasn't sure where he'd seen it, but he recognized it. Which was fairly good evidence right there.

"Hmm." Alec-san set the book aside and leaned back. "The Gate before the Crown. That's what our scholars and teachers have called the thing you seek after."

"Before the Crown?" Al asked, slowly. That was new.

Alec-san gave him a wintery smile. "Divinity, young man. The sum of all that is. That is the Crown."

Al's eyes widened. "Oh."

"So it's not surprising if you don't remember it," Alec-san added, a bit breezily Al thought. "I doubt it's possible to reach the Crown and remain your limited, mortal self. The Gate, though..." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "That I suppose you might do. It will be interesting to see."

Al nodded politely and tried not to feel like a lab animal.

Alec-san pulled down another book. "Start with this. You'll need to understand the concepts of the eleven realms and how they're connected, if you want to understand what the Gate is. Don't take it out of the library, here, we don't have copies of any of these yet."

"Yes, sir. Thank you." Al settled in one of the other chairs and opened the book, determined to make as much as possible of his opportunity. He had one end of the thread, now, and that meant he could unravel the whole picture if he just worked hard enough. He'd follow that thread all the way to his memory and his brother, and be damned to anything that got in his way.

Behind him, Alec-san made an amused little hmph. "Two of a kind, you are, you and that boy. Amos got that right."

That nudged at Al's attention, but he was already into his note-taking and what Amos-san had gotten right would have to wait for another time.

Chapter Text

Gil had not been surprised when Alphonse mentioned nightmares. The boy had died, been hauled back by his heels and bound to a suit of armor, tramped all over the country running after the false hope of the Stone, been transmuted into the Stone, and finally sacrificed those years of love and effort to be returned to true life. Nightmares were surely to be expected. He hadn't quite expected his new houseguest to start up in the middle of the night, screaming, though.

He certainly hadn't expected it to happen every night.

That wasn't quite true, of course. Two nights, even three, in a week, Alphonse slept quietly. The others, well Gil was twice over glad he had no near neighbors here at the edge of the city and that doors and windows were shuttered tight now winter was on them.

He did wonder, once or twice, whether his teacher had known about this, and thought it proper for Gil to deal with.

Either way, it was fair enough resititution for the part he'd played. He leaned up on one arm, half awake, to reach across the space between their makeshift beds and shake Alphonse's shoulder as he started to thrash around. Alphonse came awake with a harsh gasp, eyes wide and staring before he fell back against his blankets.

"Ah. Gil-san. Sorry."

"Mm, don't worry," Gil mumbled, settling back into sleep already.

He barely remembered it in the morning, until Alphonse looked up from staring into his tea. "It really seems like there should be two circles on the Gate, not eleven."

It must, Gil decided, have been a dream of the Gate itself, last night, then, for Alphonse to break into philosophy at the breakfast table. Usually he waited and beleaguered the older men at the temple, in the evening.

Still, he probably owed Alphonse this help too. "Why?" he prodded.

"Well it's only one step away from this world; there don't seem to be any others in between."

Gil considered that while Alphonse wolfed down his toast. "I don't think distance to divinity works in a straight line like that."

"Oh." Alphonse blinked and laughed a bit self-consciously. "Of course." He rubbed a hand through his hair. "I suppose I've been drawing arrays for too long; it's hard to shake the habit of geometry."

"Most habits are hard to shake," Gil agreed quietly. The habit of revenge; the habit of wrongheadedness; the habit of solitude; they were all hard to shake.

Though Alphonse was making an impression on that last one, and Gil suspected that had been his teacher's real purpose in lodging Alphonse here.

"Well, I can think about that more later," Alphonse said with that alarming determination of his, draining his tea. "What is there to do today?"

"Walls. There's a new load of stone in."

Alphonse brightened, and Gil raised a brow at this rather odd response to the prospect of hauling stone blocks in the desert sun and stingingly dry winter air. "Good! I think the house frame is cracking in the east corner, I heard it last night, and I knew you wouldn't want me to strengthen it."

"Thank you," Gil muttered, surprised all over again by Alphonse's restraint; he hadn't used a single flicker of alchemy since he'd come to New Ishvar. Of course, Gil probably shouldn't be surprised. Alphonse had never had his brother's brash edge.

Or, at least, didn't have it in the same way.

As they walked through the outskirts to collect the first pallet of cut stone, Gil watched smiles come out everywhere in answer to Alphonse's.

"Al-kun, you'll come play with Rick and Leo later won't you?"

"Alphonse-kun, I'll have that book for you tonight!"

"Al, you and Gil will stop with us for dinner, won't you?"

"If Gil-san agrees," Alphonse returned, laughing. Gil snorted softly.

"You can go without me."

"Yes, but Eli-san invited both of us," Alphonse told him, firm and scolding. "You should accept more often, Gil-san."

Gil's mouth tightened. "I have no right."

Alphonse stopped in the middle of the street-to-be with his hands on his hips and glared. "Why not?"

Gil glowered down at his houseguest, though it never seemed to have quite the effect on Alphonse that it did on anyone else. "The price for what I have done is exile. I knew that from the start. I will pay it," he bit out.

"Even when no one is asking you to?"

"Some things aren't required by other people."

"No, they're just required by your stubbornness," Alphonse snapped, sounding thoroughly exasperated. "Gil-san--"


After a moment Alphonse sighed. "We should fetch the stone."

Gil nodded agreement to that, at least, and ignored Al's muttering about how well the blocks would match certain heads. He was starting to wonder whether Alphonse had gotten this way because of Edward or whether Edward had gotten that way because of Alphonse.

It was two loads later before Alphonse said anything that wasn't to do with hauling and stacking.

"Gil-san, may I ask you something?"

Gil made a noncommital grunt, hoping Alphonse wasn't going to badger him more about dinner invitations.

"Will you tell me how I met you?" Alphonse looked up as Gil's hands froze over the mortar he was mixing. "You know so much about me, but I don't even remember your name from the things people have told me about those years."

Gil could feel his jaw tightening.

"How did we meet, that you don't want to tell me?" Al asked quietly.

Gil bowed his head over his hands. Alphonse had left off asking for so long, he'd hoped to not be asked at all. He should have known better. Sooner or later, it would have to be said. Gil took a slow breath. "You didn't know my name, then," he said, voice low. "You called me Scar."

The broken beam Alphonse had been using to lever the stones up clattered to the ground. His eyes were wide, when Gil looked up. A flicker of dark amusement tugged the corner of Gil's mouth up. "I suppose that transmutation gave both of us our lives back. I don't know that it did either of us a favor." He looked away, not wanting to watch the shock in Alphonse's face any more. "You've done more than enough work here, Alphonse," he gestured at the half-laid walls, mouth twisting with the double edge of his words, "if you want to go think for a while."

"I... I'll... yes, for a while." Alphonse tidied his tools with a blank stare that didn't see them, and walked away toward the temple, steps slow and halting.

Gil rested his forehead against a stone, eyes closed. He'd thought he already knew where he stood with the world. He hadn't thought it would hurt so much to see that shock in someone's eyes--to know it would unfold into fear or disgust.

It was only, he told himself sternly, what he should expect; it flowed naturally from his own actions and choices.

When he had made those choices, it hadn't seemed like such a high price as it did now.

It didn't take long before Amos showed up.

Gil's shoulders tightened, but his teacher only picked up the lever Al had dropped and helped to lay the last row of stone. It wasn't until Gil had poured them both a drink of water that Amos spoke.

"Well, it doesn't seem that you think Al-kun's life is unclean."

Gil flinched. "Of course it isn't," he muttered. "He isn't one of us, to live by our laws. Besides, his brother chose freely to make that sacrifice for him." Unlike the men Gil had killed to form the Stone. Not that he felt sorry for those soldiers, he thought stubbornly; they'd made their choices too. But the fact remained. "Alphonse wasn't the one who killed and used the lives to live."

Amos took a drink and leaned back against Gil's new wall thoughtfully. "No, he didn't. Instead he took those lives and used them to bring his brother back from death." He tipped his head at Gil. "You still don't think that was wrong?"

"It..." Gil's thoughts stumbled. "The killing was already done," he said at last.

His teacher's silence was eloquent of the inadequacy of this answer.

"At least those lives and deaths meant something in the end!" Gil finally burst out. "At least they did something worthwhile!"

Amos smiled at him. "So they did."

Gil's eyes widened. "But I'm... I'm not..." Not worthwhile, not worthy.

His teacher patted his shoulder, heaving himself to his feet. "Well, perhaps I'll give young Al a bit longer to work on it, then."

As Gil watched Amos walk back into the city he thought about the enthusiasm with which Alphonse threw himself into rebuilding Ishvar and the raw determination of his search for answers among the books of old and new learning and the stubbornness he already showed in trying to draw Gil out. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that his teacher had a ruthless streak.

It was late when Alphonse came back, and Gil watched his face warily, in the lamplight.

Al just smiled and set two loaves of bread and a travel-bruised pomegranate on the table. "We're running out of bread so I stopped at Sarah-san's. She said to take the fruit, too."

"That was kind of her." Gil fetched cups of water for them, waiting for the rest of it. He was sure there was more.

"Gil-san," Alphonse said, softly, as he peeled the pomegranate, "will you tell me what happened?" He looked up, honey-colored eyes dark. "No one else was there."

And so no one else could tell it. No one else could explain the dreams, if Alphonse had dreamed about it. Gil set down his bread; he doubted he'd be able to eat through this. "I had planned to lure soldiers into Lior and create the Stone with their lives. For the sake of all the citizens who had been killed, the people of Lior were willing to let me do it. You and your brother stumbled into the middle of it, though. You and one other. The Alchemist who did this," he gestured to the scar across his face, "and you were too close. When he tried to kill you, by transforming you and breaking your blood seal... I made you the focus of the Stone's creation instead, to preserve you."

He watched Alphonse's fingers, breaking the pomegranate seeds into smaller and smaller clusters, as he spoke. He didn't want to watch Al's face, and perhaps that was more cowardice, but he didn't think he could finish if he was looking Alphonse in the eye. Alphonse's eyes were far too expressive.

"After it was done," he finished, "I was left with a whole body and the empty desert and nothing else. I..." his hands clasped hard around his cup, "I had thought to make the Stone for revenge; to carry out a destiny. But it seemed to me, then, that whatever there was of my old destiny had passed to you." He was silent for a moment before adding, voice low, "It was then that I realized how heavy I had made it. I'm sorry."

"Yes. So am I. But I'm glad, too."

Gil finally looked up from Alphonse's fingers, stained a little red with the seeds' juice, to see his housemate looking reflective and not shocked or disgusted at all.

"I wish those soldiers hadn't died," Alphonse said, softly. "But you saved my life. And what you did saved my brother's life, too. And I can't help being glad for that." Alphonse looked directly at Gil and smiled, eyes clear. "I wish you hadn't. Thank you, Gil-san."

Gil felt himself settle into stillness with those words. It was not forgiveness Alphonse offered. It was more real than that. "So do I," he said, quietly. "And you're welcome." His own sincerity surprised him.

Alphonse pushed a wooden plate with half the pomegranate seeds on it across the table. "I suppose I should tell you what came next. I only really know it from what other people have said, but I know Nii-san and I ran for it."

Gil listened and ate the sweet, crunchy seeds one by one. It was late by the time Al finished, and Gil felt tired--more than tired, wrung out.

He also felt more at peace than he had for a long time.

He turned over new thoughts, as they cleaned up. "You and your brother succeeded in your search, last time," he said, finally. "But the cost was one I think you wouldn't pay again."

Alphonse nodded firmly as he swept away the fresh stone chips in the bedroom and unrolled his bed. "The Stone isn't the right way. I know that, at least."

"Knowledge might be, though," Gil offered, knowing that he would once have denounced any outsider seeking the old knowledge of his people. "You are... welcome here for as long as you search." He started to unroll his own bedding and hesitated. He'd long since moved his bed across the room, next to Alphonse's, the easier to wake him from nightmares.

Alphonse smiled up at him, smoothing his bedroll, and it struck Gil that that was what he had wanted, why he had spoken: to see Alphonse's hope, undamaged. That hope seemed... very important. "Thank you for that, too, Gil-san." Alphonse helped unroll Gil's bedding the rest of the way and patted it briskly into place beside his.

Gil lay down silently, accepting Alphonse's wordless assurance that it was well.

He was surprised to wake the next morning from a sleep unbroken by nightmares. He had expected telling over some of the ugliest parts of Alphonse's lost past to call to those memories.

Then again, perhaps it had. Alphonse slept quietly, but his arms were wrapped tightly around one of Gil's and he refused to let go. After a few gentle tugs, Gil gave in and turned on his side to settle Alphonse against him more comfortably until the boy woke. His mouth tugged up helplessly into a faint smile as Alphonse relaxed with a sigh and moved closer.

Gil lay and watched the light grow slowly outside the window, thinking back to another life when his older brother had read him to sleep on stormy nights and stayed with him, safe and warm.

He was smiling for real by the time Al woke and stared at him with wonder in the morning sun.

Chapter Text

Al mentioned Gil-san's thought, about divine geometry being very different than regular geometry, to Amos-san. Amos-san chuckled.

"Oh yes. Gil has a good instinct for these things. It's a loss to us all that he probably won't ever go on in his studies and join us here." His wave took in the whole temple, not just the corner of the porch that he and Al sat in.

"Mm." Al sighed a little. He thought it was a waste, too. They both had new lives; Gil-san should do something with his.

Nahal-san told him, while they screwed together pipes to plumb her sink, that Gil-san never stayed in the houses he built.

"Whenever he finishes one he gives it to some couple or family and moves out again, like he's chasing the edge of the city," she said, grunting as she tightened down an elbow. "Here, hand me that long bit. It's a crying shame. No one blames the boy for being a little off his head after what happened at the old city." She sighed, gazing down at the pipes scattered in the summer dust around them and, if Al was any judge, not seeing them at all. "I suppose that won't be any good until he stops blaming himself."

Al hoped it would happen; he thought it would. Gil-san had been kind of scary, or at least it sounded like he had in all the accounts, but he'd also saved Al's life and he'd been kind here and now.

Al was sleeping a lot better, now.

Al scrubbed a hand through his hair and sighed. "Why is the same thing drawn different ways?" he muttered to himself. Even after almost a year studying, he still found many of these things peculiar.

"So that we remember to look at the truth from more than one perspective," Alec-san said briskly from behind him.

Al jumped a bit. "Ah. Well, yes, I suppose so..."

Alec-san waved a hand. "You must remember, Alphonse-kun, all these drawings and descriptions are only metaphors. We can only see as much of the greater truth as our souls are prepared to see. If we could see it as it is..." his wintry smile flashed, "well, then we'd be one with divinity, yes?"

Al thought about that. "So, you're saying that everything I've seen is... not really real?"

Alec-san snorted. "Of course it's really real. It just isn't complete."

Al frowned, puzzling through this new thought. "So it's more like a... a parable."

"Exactly." Alec-san looked pleased.

"So why do different people see the same thing?" Al shot back.

Alec-san's smile grew. "Because, Alphonse-kun, you aren't the only one involved. What you see is telling the story along with you."

Al shivered. The idea that the Gate was talking to him unnerved him. He might only be able to remember dreams of memories, and almost nothing of the Gate itself, but he remembered fear.


He frowned down at the sheaf of papers in front of him, the delicately colored and carefully labeled concentric circles and the dissertation below on their interrelations. "All these accounts and explanations... they all talk about joy," he murmured.

"Of course." Alec-san blew on a carefully copied page to dry it and pulled up a fresh sheet of paper, turning to the next page. "They speak of the pathways to completion, to perfection, if you will."

Al frowned some more, tapping his pencil against his chin. If that was so, then why was it only fear that he remembered?

"Not everyone studies that branch," Gil-san pointed out around a mouthful of nails as he attached the back to a new chair and Al cut up a handful of tiny potatos for dinner. "Even of those, not many seem to see this Gate. Perhaps you have to be prepared properly for it."

Al made a rueful face. "I guess we were about as unprepared as two people could get."

"It was irresponsible to allow children access to such learning," Gil-san growled.

Al's mouth quirked. "So you mean Amos-san and Alec-san are being irresponsible now?" he teased. Gil-san glowered at him, but Al was learning that he did that regardless, and it didn't always mean Gil-san was angry.

"You are not a child, Alphonse."

Al's brows rose at that and Gil-san looked back down at the chair.

"Whether you remember them or not, those years left a mark on you," he said, quietly. "You were a child when I first met you. You are not, now."

Al scraped the potatos into their pan and watched them start to sizzle. "I suppose not," he murmured. It was, in a way, a sad thought. But he also found himself sneakingly pleased that Gil-san thought so.

Al went to sleep thinking of joy and memory and his dreams started out more softly than usual. He was running through grass with his brother and Winry. He was arguing with his brother over cheating at cards. He was playing marbles with a little girl and if, in the dream, his hands were metal, she still smiled at him and crowed with happy triumph over her small, glassy winnings.



A part of him thought the words and then he was standing in a galleried ballroom, filled with light and fire, and a feeling of perfect calm. His brother's body was at his feet and he knew that Nii-san was dead. That didn't change the calm. The part of him that knew this was a dream clung to that perfectly balanced heart with wonder, burying himself in it.

The Eye flashed before him and doors opened. There was darkness beyond it, and light, and things Al couldn't name. He stepped past the doors and held out his hands.


His voice echoed and re-echoed and tiny, dark hands unreeled, reaching back in answer.

Knowing it was a dream, Al still flinched, afraid.

Within the dream, Al brushed the hands away, calm, and they recoiled.

His brother's hands clasped his and Al felt himself unravelling, the power of his body spooling away and leaving only...


And he started, slowly, to walk beyond the Gate, beyond the hands and mocking, angry voices, towards the things without name.


Al's eyes were wide open on darkness and there was a warm arm around him.


Al dropped back down to his bedroll as if all the strings of his muscles had been cut at once. "I... I'm okay." He was shaking.

Gil-san didn't comment, only rubbed Al's back quietly while he caught his breath. Al pressed his forehead against Gil-san's chest, grateful beyond words for the solidity of him.

"I remember," he whispered. "Something in the Gate. Something to be afraid of. But I wasn't afraid. And past that..." he frowned, puzzled. "I don't know what it was."

Gil-san's voice rumbled in his chest. "Beyond the Gate is the Crown, isn't it?"

Al stilled. "Oh." He could almost hear the click of thoughts coming together. "The Gate before the Crown," he whispered, eye wide for a different reason this time. "Peace. Joy. That... that balance. That's the Crown. What's at the Gate..." He sat up, catching Gil-san's shoulders in his excitement. "What's always in the Gate, what stays in the Gate, that must be separate! Of course!"

Gil-san eyed him thoughtfully. "As souls pass the Gate," he murmured, "perhaps some things must be left behind before we can go on."

"Everything that isn't ready for that oneness, yes, of course!" Al nearly bounced. "It makes sense now!" He paused. "What?"

Gil-san's eyes were gleaming in the dimness and a corner of his mouth twitched. "Did you wake up your brother, often, to discuss philosophy in the middle of the night?" he asked.

Al cleared his throat, flushing. "Ah. Sorry." He settled himself back down on his bedroll. After a moment he muttered, "Actually, yes."

Gil-san hmph-ed and a large hand ruffled Al's hair a little before withdrawing. "I'm not surprised."

Al smiled shyly and snuck a little closer into Gil-san's warmth before closing his eyes again.

"Hm. Interesting." Alec-san scratched his chin with the end of his pen, looking up at the ceiling. "I can only speculate, you understand, not having experienced these things myself."

Al made an encouraging sound, impatient, for once, with Alec-san's pedantic precision. He got one of Alec-san's small, frosty smiles for his pains.

"I would speculate, based on what you have told me, that these creatures in the Gate are indeed the remnants of souls that have passed through and beyond. Echos, if you will. Being without form or soul, being only scraps of will, of course they would be hungry for both body and spirit, if they find one they can reach. Living, presumably, rather than dead and passing beyond."

"Then," Al said slowly, "they don't really have anything to do with the transmutation process at all. Or with passing the Gate to other worlds."

"Never having witnessed it, I can't say. But the hypothesis does match your experiences." Alec folded his hands and regarded Al sharply over his knuckles. "The price you pay for transmutation, in strength or life, is one thing. But if these things truly are the will that returns in a homunculus, and if the homunculi are incapable of alchemy, then it follows that the bargain these creatures made with your brother to release your soul once they had captured you was their own and apart from alchemy as it is known to our world. They were likely," Alec-san conluded, "merely taking what they could get from children strong enough to open the Gate but not to guard themselves properly from what lies within it."

Al closed his eyes and took a slow breath for calm agains his sudden anger. "It does make sense," he said, low and even.

After a long moment Alec-san added, "As the Crown is perfect oneness, it also makes sense that the Gate is the point at which all worlds touch and join. How a living, embodied soul that does not seek the Crown can pass the Gate and move between with impunity, without falling prey to these creatures is a question we have not yet answered." His eyes sharpened still more. "Will you keep looking for it?"

Al's chin came up. "Of course."

Alec-san's smile was amused and, briefly, affectionate, and Al ducked his head, abashed.

"Well. After all, my dream might have given me a clue."

Alec-san raised his brows and made interested noises.

"In my dream," Al said, softly, looking up at the sunlight streaming in the skylight, "I wasn't afraid."

Chapter Text

Gil wasn't entirely surprised when Al came to him and asked for help. That didn't mean he didn't have misgivings.

"Are you sure Shifu wouldn't be a better choice?"

Alphonse looked stubborn. "I need to not be afraid. If I'm afraid of the Gate, I'll just keep running away from it and forgetting and I'll never be able to find Nii-san through it." The stubbornness shifted into the earnest entreaty Gil was far more wary of. He had fewer defenses against it. "Please, Gil-san. I do think it should be you."

Gil stifled a sigh. He wasn't at all sure he was ready for the burden of that trust, but if it was laid on him already he couldn't bring himself to break it. "Very well."

And so he found himself sitting beside Alphonse's bedroll in the middle of the day, one of Al's hands clasped in his, while his young friend sought, by all accounts, creatures that would happily devour his body and soul.

He hoped this would be enough to give Alphonse the courage he needed.

Gradually Alphonse's breathing slowed and evened. His eyes stopped flickering under his lids. Gil watched the sunlight creep across the floor and waited, sinking himself in the patience he had once employed to hunt and kill. He thought this was a better use for it.

Abruptly, Al's hand tightened on his. Gil leaned forward, intent, frowning, carefully tightening his grip in return. Alphonse's eyes were moving again, now. When his breath stumbled Gil couldn't keep from resting a light hand on his hair and speaking in a bare whisper. "Alphonse. I'm here."

Al should know that, whatever he faced, he was not alone. Gil knew too well how that felt to leave someone he knew lost in it.

Alphonse's grip on Gil's hand firmed and he drew in a long breath.

It wasn't long after that he relaxed, bit by bit, and his eyes opened, dark and dazed. Gil brushed light, flyaway hair back out of them and waited.

Finally Alphonse looked up at him and smiled. "Thank you." The smile grew wider, gained a triumphant edge. "It worked! I found it and I remember!"

Gil smiled back. "I'm glad."

Al hauled himself up off the bed, wobbling just a little, and rummaged for his notebooks, muttering to himself as he scribbled and chewing the end of his pencil. Gil stood and went to see about some dinner. He was hungry and he'd only watched.

As he pulled out bread and onion to cut, he found that he was still smiling.

Gil couldn't deny that he was very impressed by Alphonse Elric. Days turned to weeks and still Alphonse burned with the light of his discoveries, focused and intent. Gil often had to remind his housemate to take a break to eat.

And even in the midst of his ferocious research, Alphonse turned a hand willingly to the neverending chores of building New Ishvar. He sawed wood and laid pipes, helped paint and mortar, heaved blocks cheerfully. The house they stayed in was finished, and Gil wondered if he shouldn't move on as usual. But somehow he didn't want to disturb Alphonse, didn't want to dislocate him when he seemed so close to finding what he needed.

Didn't want to leave him behind either.

So he stayed and soothed his vague discomfort over it by going out to work on newly laid foundations each day. Many days Al came with him, and if Alphonse banged his thumb every now and then when he was thinking too much about his latest reading and not enough about where the nail was, most of the citypeople were indulgent. By now everyone knew of the outsider who had thrown himself so whole-heartedly into their studies that even Alec approved of him. If Alphonse still gathered a few dark looks in the evenings, when he joined the everlasting debates on the temple steps, there were only a few.

If Alphonse still woke, some nights, shaking and tense, Gil found some satisfaction in the knowledge that Al could sleep calm the rest of the night as long as Gil held him.

His hands could do something besides destroy, now.

His teacher found him stitching canvas into window covers against the deepening cold of winter nights.

"It seems you've decided to stay in one of your houses, finally."

"It's Alphonse's house, too," Gil answered, eyes on the canvas.

"So it is. Many of our people approve of that young man." This was said in such a bland tone that Gil looked up, wary. Amos was smiling at him. "Many of our people approve of you, too, you know."

Gil looked down again. "I shouldn't... I don't have the right..." It was harder, lately, to say the words with conviction.

Amos sighed. "Do you think the proper restitution for bringing death is to create still more absence in all our hearts?"

Gil bit his lip.

Amos reached over and gripped Gil's shoulder with a hard hand, shaking him a bit. "Stop being so stubborn, boy."

Gil managed a small smile for his teacher. "If you wanted me to become less stubborn, are you sure you should have housed Alphonse Elric here?"

Amos laughed. "He's just stubborn enough to match you." He leaned back in his chair and added, "Many of us would be pleased enough if he chose to do so for longer."

Gil shook his head, trying to ignore the twinge at the thought of Alphonse leaving. "He won't stop searching for his brother, wherever that takes him."

"Mm. Journeys usually end in returning, you know." Amos' eyes on him were dark and thoughtful. "If they last long enough. Maybe the both of you have further to go."

Gil sat, after his teacher left, hands smoothing the canvas. The memories of his last journey were dark ones, and he knew many of Alphonse's were also. He had to wonder, just a little, if the return was worth that kind of price.

Gil woke a little as Alphonse turned restless, reaching out to rub his back. Al's tossing increased, though, and the sounds he made were desperate and stifled, and Gil roused all the way.

"Alphonse." He gathered Al close, calling his name quietly. "Alphonse. Wake up."

Al woke with a start that was half a scream, sitting up with a jerk. "Seal... close..." he panted, eyes wide and blind.

"Alphonse," Gil called again, quiet and insistent.

Al's eyes finally focused on him. Gil started a bit himself as Al flung himself back down, burrowing into Gil's chest, shaking. "I was changing," he choked. "It was almost at the seal. I was almost gone."

Gil remembered the steady creep of corruption over steel armor, moving toward a small seal drawn in old blood. That certainly explained it. Gil rubbed Al's back silently.

"And then... I changed again," Al went on, muffled. "I was back, I was all right. There was just this... light inside me." After a slow, shaky breath, he looked up. "You saved me."

Gil made an uncomfortable sound. "It was the only thing I could think of that might halt the process." And it wouldn't have been needed if any of them had just been more alert to what that insane State Alchemist was doing as he died. Al could have been spared all of it. Although, if he had, he could never have saved his brother, nor been saved himself. Of course, neither of them might have been in that danger if Alphonse hadn't been turned into the Stone. But then neither could have been restored... Gil tried to make his thoughts stop spinning. Done was done and he couldn't pick apart the threads of the past.

Al managed a tiny smile. "Thank you."

Gil looked down at him, mind still full of causes and consequences. "For what?"

"For everything."

After a long moment, Gil breathed out and smiled faintly in the dark, feeling the whirl of his head and heart settling. "You're welcome," he murmured.

Chapter Text

Even asleep, Al could tell this dream was different.

He sat beside his brother in a deep lecture hall, and the lecture was all about extremely combustible fuels and some kind of nozzle and someone named Goddard. Nii-san's hair was longer than in any of the pictures Al had from those lost years, even the oldest ones, and he was dressed so respectably Al wanted to stare.

But he couldn't.

Al leaned closer to Nii-san, which he hadn't intended to do, and murmured "So? Do you think this one can make it?"

They weren't Al's words. They weren't his thoughts.

"Maybe," Nii-san murmured, eyes fixed on the lecturer. "But making it out of atmosphere is just the first step."

Al laughed--only he wasn't--and spun a pen between his fingers. "Ed, you're obsessed."

"I'm getting back," Nii-san stated, with determination that Al remembered in a way, from other dreams. And then he glanced over, mouth curling wryly. "Besides, you're just as obsessed with your own stuff, Alfons."

Al's start woke him up.

And that was when I got stuck for a little while, and other series intervened, and I eventually admitted that I wasn't going to finish writing this.

How it was going to finish: Al would realize he'd found Ed in an alternate world by dreaming contact with his alternate self, and head back to Izumi with his insights to figure out a way to bridge the worlds and retrieve his brother. Gil would, with a little prompting from Amos, realize that he really has bonded deeply with Al and would go with him, and there might even be a kiss somewhere in there to get Al to understand why Gil wants to travel with him. Al is entirely pleased with this and shows Gil off to Izumi, much to Izumi's amusement and Gil's exasperation. Gil and Sig bond over the trials of being an alchemist's lover while Al and Izumi get as far as stabilizing Al's contact between worlds while he's waking, but can't figure out how to get someone through without them getting caught by the fragment/creatures in the Gate.

In the meantime, Ed would be researching furiously on how to get to another world via space, and Hohenheim would be sneaking around trying to stop a Nazi experiment in human sacrifice involving the mass death of asylum inmates. Hohonheim would, of course, be captured, and Ed would chase after him, bursting in on the scene just in time to stop the bad guys, but not in time to save his father. Hohenheim would alter whatever inscription/array the Nazi would-be-magicians were using to make it actually work, and sacrifice himself to open the Gate and send Ed through, where of course he promptly enters Al's perception and is dragged back home on the strength of Al's knowledge of what the Gate truly is.

(I don't actually remember if I even knew what I was planning to do with Alfons; maybe he meets a nice mechanic and falls in love.)

Once home, Ed would be delighted to see Al whole, threaten Gil on older-brother-principles, be appalled to find out that Mustang had entered politics but glad that Lisa is keeping an eye on him, and be happy for Winry and Rose that they'd made a match of it. He and Al would bury themselves in theory for a while, hammering out what it was that happened to them, and what it means about the universe. Eventually, though, Al would drift more toward the philosophical end, and he and Gil would return to Ishvar while Ed took up his travels again, looking for fellow alchemists who would listen to the new theory and also for trouble.

The end.