It had taken some time to find Otus.
In a world where several things that could constitute a miracle had already happened, it was a miracle he had survived the fall; it was a miracle he had hung on long enough, even weakened from his efforts, to be found.
But whatever Otus’ faults (of which certain people might have said there were many), his stubborn tenacity was certainly not one of them. He was found, brought back, fretted and fussed over and tended to with care. He had a whole village to care for him now; he was surrounded by friends.
And Alphonse? He found himself at a loss.
He lingered, mostly, because Otus wanted him there (because Geddy and occasionally Twig wanted him there, too). He was reassured that his presence wasn’t threatening, or a bother, though often he caught fearful glances and ignored them, because it was understandable.
(Some part of him longed to take to the skies again, to fly. Not as a pirate - no more need for pirates, now that Molstrom was gone - but as an adventurer.)
Here is a memory, clear and bright:
Otus is sleeping - he always seems to be sleeping, and though Alphonse sensibly tells himself that it’s just because Otus has suffered so much, had done so much in such a short time, that the toll on his body was immense for one so small -
there’s still fear.
He counts in his head like clockwork, watching for those steady breaths, the rise and fall of the boy’s chest. The young have an incredible resilience, he knows; he remembers -
Alphonse watches over him regardless.
The repetitive motions are so vital to him that he tunes out everything else there is in the world, and thus he’s startled when someone touches his hand; he moves his gaze to Otus’ face, to find that the owl’s eyes are open.
“Master Otus. You’re awake.” He keeps his voice low and quiet. “Is there something you need?”
Otus blinks tiredly, already fighting the urge to go back to sleep. Alphonse is about to tell the boy just to relax and let it happen - because if anyone deserves rest, it’s him - and then Otus lets out a soft whistle and grabs onto the pirate’s hand.
Alphonse is keenly aware, with all the sensors and magic that keep him running, allow him to touch the world, of how weak that grasp is. He clasps Otus’ small hand in both of his, and says, softly:
“Very well, Master Otus. I’ll stay.”
And Otus smiles, tired but reassured, and drifts back into slumber.
It’s all the convincing he needs.
(Dirk would say: “You’re too soft.”
He would say a lot of things. Alphonse finds himself filling the dialogue in, more and more, as the days go by and stretch into weeks, and months.
Always, always wishful thinking.)
Otus recovers, slowly at first, and then faster. He takes wobbly steps around his room; he limps outside and takes in the new world, a place wholly foreign to him now. Once there were floating islands; now the sky is so much more open, despite the wreckage of everything he’s known.
Alphonse supports him, sometimes, on his walks. More often it’s Geddy or Twig or even Solus, who are more suited to hold Otus’ hand or to carry him around or do ridiculous things that make him smile and give off that cheerful whistle.
Sometimes Otus wants him there, instead of anyone else, and he’s uncertain why. But they share that comfortable silence, together; Alphonse doesn’t always know what to say, so he says nothing much.
He’s become so much less talkative, after the rush of everything. Perhaps it’s because he feels like he lacks purpose. Perhaps he feels like he has nothing to say. Even he doesn’t know.
He feels empty and strange, in this new world. But accompanying Otus gives him a little brightness back. It colours the days; they seem longer, and greyer, without such diversions. (Sometimes Geddy or Twig drag him off to do something. Sometimes Solus timidly asks for his advice, for opinions, or simply wants to talk nervously until he runs out of words; or he asks for history, for stories and memories of the old owls. He is an avid listener, and Alphonse hopes he is not imparting the wrong message.
Not that he could impart worse messages than what Solus has put there himself, really.
Sometimes - more often as the days go by - it’s Asio, uncertain of what’s ahead, always asking after his student. Wanting to be gentler; wanting to be better.)
“I feel like I’ve failed him,” Asio says, weary from long days of work. They are standing at the lookout point that once commanded a scenic view of the sky, of floating islands. Now it is a cliff, overlooking a patchwork landscape. “He shouldn’t have had to do....so much.”
His shoulders slump. “I should have done more.”
“You’re trying to learn, Master Asio,” says Alphonse, quiet, patient. “Not all is as lost as you think it is.”
Eventually, though, the urge to wander is too strong (or perhaps it’s the urge to fill that emptiness inside himself). Otus is well, and flying once more. Asio is less strict than he was, prone to sudden displays of tenderness. Twig is less present, presumably because he’s patching things up with his family; Geddy is happy by Otus’ side. Solus, too, is beginning to decide what he wants to do with his life.
It is time for Alphonse to move on.
He explains this, to surprise and, to his surprise, tears from several parties. (He promises he’ll come back, hastily, after seeing that.) But he has to go away, he says, there’s something he needs to do. It might take weeks, or months, or even years. He doesn’t know yet.
When he says his goodbyes, Otus steps forward, and clasps one of Alphonse’s hands in both his own (Alphonse notes, with a preciseness that sometimes he wishes he didn’t have, that Otus is still just a little bit slower than he was, even now). He whistles lightly, and smiles through his tears, and rushes into his arms.
Alphonse lets the hug last for as long as Otus wants it to.
It’s a pleasant morning, the day he departs Vellie. It’s good traveling weather. He walks, noting the wind and the bright sun, the green of the trees. Birds are singing.
He stops when the sun is high in the sky, to rest beneath a tree. He doesn’t quite know where he’s going yet, but he knows what he’s looking for; airships and others of his own kind.
Without much fanfare, reaching into a pocket and taking out a little bag; it sags with the weight of its contents. He tips it out, onto his hand; a sphere, clicking and whirring softly in the musical cadence of an artificial heartbeat he knows as well as his own, rolls out into his palm.
“Well, Dirk,” he says. “Looks like it’s just you and I now. Just like old times, eh?”
(It’s not, really. A core contains all the information that their kind needs to function; memories and personality. Heart and brain all in one.
Theoretically - he’s seen it before, sometimes, in desperate situations - it works. He’d aimed to wound, not to destroy, for this purpose. Even when Dirk had fallen apart from the damage he’d received, he had still left his core behind, and because Alphonse had good aim even with a gun that shot incendiary rounds, it had been a little scorched but otherwise unscathed.
It should work, mechanically. That, he knows.
But he doesn’t know - is terrified, deep down - that even if he rebuilds the body, even if everything is exactly as it was - whether Dirk will want to come back.
He doesn’t know
if Dirk will ever forgive him.)
He sighs, and puts the core back into its little bag, and looks up at the sky.
His rest is over. Time to keep going.
Sometimes, back in Vellie, there’s news of Alphonse.
He never seems to give his name, but descriptions and the occasional picture are more than enough to go on - he’s very distinctive. Most often it’s Solus who comes flying in, excitedly stuttering over whatever he’s heard this time.
(Occasionally, there’s even letters, written in a florid but neat hand.)
The things that they glean from news are scattered and vague rumors. But Alphonse seems to be wandering all over the land, as if he’s sightseeing,
“Wonder what he’s looking for?” Geddy pores over the newspaper, rereading the few relevant sentences as if they’ll shed light on the former pirate’s motivations. Otus whistles questioningly, peeking over Geddy’s shoulder; he’d like to know that, too.
occasionally, in his letters, there’s a mention of him having visited somewhere obscure and strange, former haunts of the old owls and their civilisation and their technology,
“I-I didn’t e-even know that w-was still there!” Solus is wide-eyed with wonder, like a child, holding the letter in his hands. “D-do you think h-he’ll tell us about it when he gets back?”
Asio shakes his head in slightly amused exasperation as he counts supplies. Solus is still easily distracted by his favourite subjects, as ever, especially in the middle of more mundane tasks. But perhaps it’s fine, to be that way. Stifling it had led to worse things.
but it’s too vague to pinpoint his location. Even in his letters, he staunchly mentions nothing of his motivations for going on the journey in the first place.
“Maybe he just wants to find himself or something? Like I did when hanging out with you guys, except like...serious.”
Twig is more comfortable with his family now. He still refuses to be parted from the spider outfit, because it ‘looks cool’. It lets him do things that stick insects don’t normally do, like sneak in through an open door and hang stealthily upside-down from Otus’ ceiling.
“Twig, don’t do that!” Geddy practically jumps out of his skin. Twig cackles and mocks him.
Otus continues to read Alphonse’s newest letter while they bicker. Beside him, there’s a little box, worn but tenderly polished, the lid put aside. The box is almost as old as Otus is; he once kept things he found precious or pretty inside.
Now, it contains neatly folded letters.
Otus doesn’t speculate much about what Alphonse might be doing. He simply waits, patient, as Alphonse had done for him when he was healing.
He thinks, though, that perhaps Alphonse needed the journey to heal, too.
Alphonse finally puts together what he’s collected and scrounged up over his journey in a place he thought was long gone. But the forge, battered and crumpled though it is, is just intact enough for his purposes.
It has taken at least a year, by his count. Perhaps more. It could have taken less, if he was less insistent on perfection - or as close as he could get, to perfection - but no.
If he was going to put his friend into a new body, he would have to do it the right way.
He’s no engineer, but he can follow a schematic at least, and he can follow his memories. And surely, Dirk will be able to fine-tune himself.
He just hopes it’s enough.
“Power, power,” he mutters, hunting in the darkness. The forge won’t work without it. If he goes to look for a power source, then perhaps it will have caved in, and he’ll have lost his chance-
-and then he stares, at the mechanisms, and at the place where a battery should be, with new purpose.
He’s only done this once before, in a desperate situation. But this is a desperate situation.
As he fumbles with connections and cables, he braces himself for the shock.
The forge roars to life. The sudden drain brings him to his knees; his vision strobes and flickers. But if he can just hold on, this will work. He can make this work.
“Wasn’t so bad.”
These are the last words stored in his memory banks, in his core. When he jolts back to life, a lot of new words shuffle in to replace them. They are unprintable, and not suitable for small children.
Alphonse had shot him despite his insistence on not wanting to, and he’d been destroyed, and that was it, wasn’t it? But apparently not. Maybe some of the less aware robots had rebuilt him, but this doesn’t look like Molstrom’s ship, this looks like--
“Alphonse, you idiot, you didn’t-”
He scrabbles at the door of the little chamber and curses and works at the hinges--
The forge powers down, abruptly.
“--u’d better not have drained yourself completely because if you’re dead I can’t yell at y--”
“Oh,” Alphonse says, feeling rather weak and fragmented from the abrupt disconnection and from being shouted at and shaken. “It worked.”
Hearing Alphonse’s voice seems to bring Dirk back down from whatever rant he’d been winding up into. His legs give out from underneath him, even though the parts are, mechanically, perfectly fine (he’d made sure of that, so why)--
“You’re as sentimental as ever, Alphonse.”
There’s no bite to the words, which is surprising, because Dirk usually says ‘sentimental’ like other people say ‘disgusting’. Alphonse isn’t sure what’s changed. Perhaps something went wrong in the process--?
It’s not surprising when Dirk grabs him, because Dirk is fond of roughhousing and manhandling (robothandling?) practically everyone if they’re too slow for his tastes, so Alphonse considers that normal. It is surprising that Dirk is grabbing him in what appears to be a hug, burying his masked face in the other robot’s shoulder.
“You’re not stabbing me,” Alphonse says in a wondering tone, which probably wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say, but he’s running very low on power right now and all eloquence has fled the scene.
“You didn’t bring my knives, you idiot, of course I can’t stab you,” Dirk mumbles, and that’s just stupid enough for Alphonse to start laughing, because what was he supposed to say to that, but also how could he have forgotten? And Dirk laughs too, because he can’t not, and they’re both laughing stupidly at each other for no other reason than because neither of them can seem to stop.
It lasts for far longer than it has any right to, and after that, it’s only silence.
“You didn’t need to do this,” Dirk says, after he’s managed to stop himself.
“I had to,” Alphonse replies, quiet and achingly sad, and Dirk seems about to say something and then just sighs like he’s given up.
He holds onto him longer than Alphonse expects, which is ‘at all’.
“I’m not going, Alphonse,” Dirk says, crossing his arms, after the topic of returning to Vellie is broached.
“Are you damaged? Are you--” Dirk gestures wildly. “Did you just forget? We crashed a ship there! I tried to stab people, which, by the way, is a category that includes most of your other friends! We will not get along, Alphonse!”
“You’ll have to apologise, of course,” Alphonse says, mildly, like he didn’t hear him.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“You’re not going to apologise for trying to stab people, Dirk? I thought you were better than that.” Alphonse sounds mildly incredulous. Dirk is beginning to suspect he’s being wound up, because Alphonse can’t be this oblivious.
“Forcing me to apologise is the least of the problems you will have if I walk into Vellie with you.”
Alphonse wins out, in the end. Dirk can’t find it in him to deny him anything for long, not after everything.
(Regret and guilt are new and strange feelings to have, but Dirk certainly can’t keep them at bay now. He’s admitted to things that he can’t take back.
The old Dirk would say “You’ve gotten soft.”
But he’s not that person any more.)
“You’re sure about this.” Dirk states the words like they haven’t had this conversation many times before, on the way to Vellie.
Dirk sighs, resigning himself to his fate. He’s snatched relics from lava, fought for Molstrom dozens of times, stolen from and fought in some truly ridiculous places.
This is the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do.
“And I have to....apologise.”
“Even to that annoying s-”
“His name is Twig.”
“.......Even to Twig.”
“...Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
Alphonse chuckles in satisfaction. Dirk is annoyed by this, but he has to admit to himself that with things as they are now - he has the choice to go anywhere he wants, certainly. Alphonse had made it clear that he wouldn’t force Dirk to travel with him; if they parted ways, they’d part as friends, amiably.
But while Dirk could go anywhere - while his skills could open doors for him, while his much looser grip on morals could take him places where Alphonse would never go - it’s only with Alphonse that it feels like he belongs.
And that’s such a disgustingly, terribly sentimental thing to say, even in the privacy of his own head, that he’s never going to say it out loud because he’d definitely have to stab himself and probably anyone else listening out of sheer embarrassment.