Al smelled pine as he drifted out of sleep.
That was right. He and Nii-san were home. They’d come home to… had they…?
Jolted abruptly awake he sat up all in a rush and then had to stop and try not to be dizzy. Nothing was right. There was too much light and strange shadows, and under the scent of rain was the smell of something scorched. Old ash. He stared around him blindly, trying to make sense of what he saw. Dark walls around, but only sky above him. Wet grass under his hands.
“Nii-san…?” he whispered, and then shivered hard. “Nii-san?!”
“Al…?” A soft thump behind him made him spin around, coming up onto his knees. Winry stood on the other side of a crumbled wall, with a basket of flowers spilled at her feet, staring at him.
Only… it was wrong. Winry was too big.
“Al!” Winry-he-thought-probably sprang over the wall and rushed to throw her arms around him and he yelped, a bit stifled, as he was squashed against her. “Al! Al, you’re back! Oh, Al!”
“We got back last night,” he managed. “I’m really sorry we didn’t come see you, but Nii-san wanted to start right away, and…” he trailed off, bewildered. “Is Nii-san with… Are you really…” He pushed away from her and looked around at what he was starting to recognize as the burned shell of his home. A cold, cold thread of terror wound through him. “What happened?”
Winry sat back and really looked at him, and frowned. “Al,” she said, slowly, “you’re… How…” Al thought maybe he could see the same cold feeling in her eyes, too. She shook her head and took a breath. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Her expression was determined, and he took some comfort from the familiarity of that. “Nii-san and I got home from studying with Sensei,” he whispered. “We were going to… bring Kaa-san back.” His voice slowed as he looked around again at the burned house and the weirdly grown-up Winry. “Winry,” he asked, careful and distant, “what happened?”
Winry closed her eyes for a long moment and took another breath. “Okay.” She looked at him again. “It’s okay, Al. I think I know what happened. I’ll tell you everything. It’s going to take a while though. All right?”
“Where’s Nii-san?” He tried to keep his voice from shaking.
“I think he’s still in Central City.” Winry ran a hand through her long hair. “That’s part of the taking-awhile part.”
Al swallowed hard and nodded. “Okay. Tell me.”
He listened while she talked and the sun rose, listened hard, tucking it all away in his head. And when she was done he was silent for a long time.
“Al?” she said at last, hesitant.
“At least I’m back.” He looked up at her with a small smile. “That’s the important part. I can make more memories; as long as I’m here.”
He had to admit, though, it was extremely embarrassing when Winry grabbed him to hug again. She squished a lot more than she used to.
Pinako-baachan took one look at him and pulled out a large bottle of beer to thump down on the table in front of her. Then she sent Winry to the station with a message to Central, care of as many different people as they both thought might know where Nii-san was, and sat Al down and filled in more details for him. She stared into the speckled brown glass of the bottle all the time she talked about his father. That was one part Al deeply regretted not remembering. Or experiencing. Or whatever. He and Nii-san were going to have to come up with whole new equations to talk about what had happened to him and probably some new technical vocabulary too. The thought steadied him, and he smiled.
When a pretty young woman called Rose arrived, a week later, she brought a baby, a badly injured and wild looking boy, a story, and all of Nii-san’s notes. Al listened to the story, and took the notes, and then went up to the room he’d been given, closing the door silently behind him.
He didn’t come out for a while.
Al traveled to Central City that winter, to meet some more people for the first time again. A man named Mustang received Al from a bed and held very still while they spoke, wincing whenever he had to move his head. In a low voice, he told Al many more details about the lost years with his brother. Another man, named Hughes, insisted that Al stay with him and his wife and daughter, and sprawled over his couch when he talked, and told Al many more details about the first man. Al listened politely, and asked questions softly, and didn’t break until the little girl called him nii-san. Hughes’ wife drove everyone else out of the room and held him quietly until he stopped crying. He managed a small smile just for her, when they saw him off again at the station.
It took another season before he could smile without having to think about it.
Al was reading through Nii-san’s notes again. He almost knew them by heart, now, even the terrifying part about Al being consumed by the Gate, and the strange, sketchy part, clearly written in a hurry, about passing through the Gate. That was at the very end of the stack of notebooks and loose paper, and Al always slowed down when he got to it.
This time he stopped completely and ran his fingertip over the hasty curves and slashes of his brother’s shorthand where it read “gt = psg”. The note for “passage” was underlined twice.
Al sat, staring at the second bed in the room. He had ignored all hints that it might be removed.
Whatever the passage was, it wasn’t only one-way. He was living proof of that. And what Nii-san had done once, perhaps he had done again. The Gate. He had to find out more about the Gate.
He had to find a way to open it.
Al’s mouth firmed into a line that would have been very familiar to anyone used to dealing with his brother. He restacked the notes and walked down the stairs with a steady tread.
Winry and her grandmother and Rose all turned to look at him. Al took a long breath.
“Would it be all right if I asked Sensei to visit for a little while? There’s something I want to ask her.”