The cottage offers other answers than the three companions were looking for. *Warning*: From now on, several scenes will be heavily influenced by the anime and the manga.
Beregond didn't move. Instead, he looked at the automobile with dismay, getting the feeling that this would end up much like the way his travelling prowess with the train did. After all, looking at such contraptions from a distance was one thing, one could get used to it after a time; but being in one of them proved too foul an experience.
Frankly, he'd give everything for a horse right about now.
"Don't even think about it," Ed said at that moment, glaring at him. He clearly sensed what was going through Beregond's mind and he certainly didn't want to have another incident like the train fiasco.
Beregond sighed and got in the car, looking glum. He only hoped now that the trip would be over soon enough.
The trip wasn't over soon enough, but at least Beregond had managed to retain his cool expression throughout the whole ordeal. That is, till they had finally arrived at the cottage and Beregond stepped, or rather, jumped, out of the car - fast.
"Is your friend unwell?" Miss Shaughnessy asked Ed as she looked curiously at Beregond. The man had put quite the distance between himself and the car in a matter of seconds and Al had to go after him to see if he was all right.
"Yeah, he's just got a sensitive stomach. He'll be fine in a bit," said Ed, hoping that that kind of explanation would suffice for now. He turned and looked at the cottage for a moment. "Strange. It doesn't look abandoned."
"I always believed that your father would return, so I kept the place clean for him," Miss Shaughnessy offered as an explanation.
Ed nodded in approval. "It will serve just fine for us three then."
"I think it would be best if my brother, the sergeant and I stayed here so we could gather all the notes and study them properly," explained Edward. "Besides, we couldn't possibly impose on you more than necessary."
Miss Shaughnessy smiled. "It's a good thing I've brought some food then." She took out from her car a bag filled with bread and other groceries. "They should be enough for a couple of days; till I come again and see how you're doing."
"Thank you," said Edward, gladdened.
"No need to thank me. I know how important your work is." And with that Miss Shaughnessy's smile broadened.
As soon as Miss Shaughnessy drove off, the boys and Beregond stepped into the house, spending about a quarter of an hour acquainting themselves with their new surroundings. The house wasn't big, but it was cosy enough for three people to settle in. And so, as soon as everyone placed their things at a small room, they decided to start their search at once. Al and Beregond went upstairs, whereas Ed said he would go downstairs.
"So what are we looking for?" asked Beregond, looking at the attic with interest.
"Anything that so much as resembles alchemic notes," answered Al, who had already started opening several boxes and emptying the contents.
Beregond blinked, bemused. "Aren't alchemic notes written in a code only known to the alchemist who wrote them in the first place? How will we know what we're looking for?"
"We'll just know," said Al.
It was obvious that Beregond had his doubts, nevertheless he nodded his understanding. He went up to a small dusty nightstand and pulled out the drawers one by one. He was still looking at the contents when he decided to go ahead and ask what was in his mind.
"Alphonse, what exactly is a philosopher's stone?"
Al didn't answer at once. It was clear he wasn't sure how to explain matters.
"Basically, it's what its name implies. It's a stone that serves as an amplifier to an alchemist's abilities. Even the unskilled alchemist can do complicated transmutations and become powerful when he has a philosopher's stone, because he's not bound to the principles of Alchemy that restrict his skills. Back in Liore, Brother exposed a fraud that posed himself as a messenger of God because of the abilities he had acquired from such a stone. He had the stone attached to a ring and, whenever he wished to perform some 'miracle' to awe the people, he'd use the ring for that purpose."
Beregond faced Al abruptly. "Did you say a ring?"
"Yeah, I did." Al looked at the man in a puzzled manner. "Why?"
But Beregond didn't heed Al anymore, too lost in thought. Because what Alphonse said intrigued him, for it reminded him too much of the Rings of Power: rings that gave the strength and will to their bearers to govern.
This couldn't be a mere coincidence.
Beregond finally snapped out of his reverie. "Hm?"
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, don't worry. I just forgot myself."
"Oh." Accepting Beregond's explanation, Al resumed with his work.
Silence reigned for a couple of moments. "Alphonse?"
"You said that an unskilled alchemist could become powerful if he used a philosopher's stone, correct?"
"But what you left unsaid was that a powerful alchemist could become even more powerful if he used a philosopher's stone." He eyed Al hard. "Why do you and your brother want to find such a thing?"
Al's answer was a simple bow of his head, his eyes dimming. That made Beregond soften and sigh.
"I see. To fix another wrong."
Just then, the man caught sight of something small on the bottom of the last drawer. Instinctively and before he could help himself, he picked it up and had a closer look at it.
It was a picture, just like the ones Hughes kept talking about. And this one was a picture of two small boys, smiling and waving happily. Beregond recognised one of them instantly - there was no mistaking that blond hair and those amber-coloured eyes. And, of course, if that one was Edward, the other must be...
"Yeah, that was me," sounded Al's voice from his suit of armour.
Beregond turned, just in time to see Al's large hand reach for the picture and trace the form that used to be his; and even in that motion, he could tell the regret that his young friend was feeling.
Suddenly and in an attempt to regain his calm composure, Al turned and quickly resumed with his work. "We'd better carry on."
Beregond didn't move. He merely looked at the picture and then at the suit of armour thoughtfully.
"You haven't changed," he finally declared.
Al froze, those words surprising him.
"I'm a suit of armour, Beregond. I'm as different as one can be," he said with a shake of his head.
But Beregond was serious as he gently prodded Al to look at him. "Yet the suit of armour, which you are now, can't hide the soul within it." He held up the picture, smiling a bit. "The soul is what still makes you that boy, no matter what you look now. You're just a bit more mature, a thing that comes naturally with the passing of time."
"I realise that but..." Al sighed, and when he continued on his sadness could easily be detected in his voice. "I want to feel again. I do want my body back."
"I know you do. Your body is a part of you and you long for it; I won't deny that," Beregond said. "But remember, there are many people out there who have bodies, yet they lose their soul and that makes them hardly human." His hand rested on Al's shoulder. "Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"
Al nodded slightly, the small flickers of light in the place of his eyes flashing brilliantly. And then, before Beregond could realise what was happening, the suit of armour was holding him in a tight embrace.
In all honesty, Beregond didn't know what to do at first. He registered that his feet didn't touch the floor anymore, which made him realise with some slight uneasiness just how much strength there was in that armour. If Al had wanted to, those same arms could have easily crashed Beregond as if he were a mere doll.
Yet those same arms were now wrapped around him, their tight grip on him reflecting the boy's gratitude.
And so he smiled and kindly returned the embrace just as tightly - though he doubted Alphonse could feel that.
Moments later, however, he remembered himself and he prodded Alphonse to let go of him. "I think we should carry on now, or Edward will turn us both into fish."
That made Al chuckle. He gently put the man down and the two started searching through the drawers once again, their conversation drifting to other, lighter matters.
That, Ed supposed, was also his cue to discreetly step away from the door. He had overheard enough.
Later that evening, Ed was still working on the basement, when somebody calling him made him turn around. It was Beregond, holding a small tray with slices of apple on it.
"I was hungry and I figured you might be, too. Care to join me?" he asked, smiling a bit.
Ed was certainly surprised at that kind of gesture, nevertheless he welcomed the meal gladly - his stomach had been grumbling its protest for quite some time now. He picked up a slice and started eating. "Thanks," he said through a mouthful.
"You're welcome." Beregond settled on the floor and patted the place beside him, so that Ed would sit down next to him. "Did you find anything of interest here?"
Ed shrugged. "Not much. This place is filled with papers, but most of them have nothing to do with what we're looking for," he admitted. He pondered on Beregond's offer for a second and, deciding to indulge the man, he settled next to him. He picked up another slice. "How about you and Al?" he asked, chewing once again.
"The same," Beregond replied and started eating, too. But then his face lit up as though remembering something, and he instantly wiped his hand on his trousers before diving it into one of his pockets. "I found this though," he added, and handed the photograph to Ed.
Edward looked at the picture, glad that his patience paid off; he had meant to have a look at it ever since he overheard Al and Beregond talk about it.
He couldn't help but smile slightly when he saw himself and Al in it. "We must be really young here. I don't remember when this was taken."
Beregond nodded. "Really young... and quite unburdened," he said, his expression unreadable.
Ed didn't speak at once and, when he did, it was only to say a soft: "Yeah. That, too." He pursed his lips together momentarily before returning the picture to Beregond with a shake of his head.
Beregond didn't say anything either, though Ed could have sworn that there was a strange flicker in the man's eyes as though he was contemplating something. Ed wasn't sure what it was, but he knew he had seen it earlier when Beregond was talking to Alphonse.
Which reminded him...
"By the way, thank you."
"For what?" asked Beregond, not really understanding.
"For treating Al the way he deserves; like a human."
The man smiled. "You two also treated me like a human, welcoming me in your home and offering your help." But then the smile faded, and when Beregond faced Ed again, he was looking quite sincere. "I know I said long ago that I didn't need favours. But, truth be told, I don't think I would have managed to live in this world without your and Alphonse's guidance. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I'm grateful for what you did for me and I want to help you in your quest in any way I can. Not just because you're my superior or because I'm to follow your orders."
Though taken aback by that kind of statement, Ed instantly shook his head. "That's a path that only Al and I must follow. It's our bodies that we're trying to recover."
"Yet your path has now crossed mine," Beregond insisted. "And now both of us have to reach to a decision that, whether we like it or not, will determine the paths that we're all destined to walk. For my part, I believe I was meant to meet you, and I wish to determine why. I can only do that by sticking with you."
"You know I don't believe in such things as fate," said Ed.
"Fate or not, we still met," Beregond said simply. "Hughes told me that I shouldn't be afraid to ask for help when problems present themselves; that you guys would be able to put me back on the right track. Is it wrong of me to offer you the same thing?" He boldly clasped Ed's hand in his. "Ask for my help when problems present themselves and I'll give it more than willingly. I'm not useless; I know you understand that. Please, don't treat me like one."
Ed's eyes widened at those words. And the young alchemist now realised that, in spite of all his efforts to keep a certain distance between him and his object of observation, Beregond still tried to reach out - and still would.
Frankly, he didn't know if he should feel dismayed or touched.
"I'll accept your offer," he said in the end. "But not before I set something straight."
Beregond raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "What?"
"I know you're remembering far more than you let on, if not everything. And the others in the military are aware of it, too." Beregond didn't say anything, so Ed went on. "However, Al's been claiming from the start that you are a good man, no matter what secrets you've been withholding. Now I've come to accept it as well, and I think I can speak for the others as well when I'm saying that they don't think ill of you either."
Beregond smiled sadly. "I know. I've seen how every one of you tried to shelter me and I was dearly hoping you wouldn't think wrong of me for not opening up in exchange. Half truths are often worse than lies and, believe me, such kindness from all of you makes it all the more painful to me that I can't tell you the whole truth."
"Why can't you say it?"
Beregond and Ed instantly turned, surprised to hear Al's voice so close to them. The suit of armour was indeed behind them, now stepping out of the shadows.
"Al? How long have you been there?" asked Ed.
"Long enough," answered Al. He sat next to his brother and the man. "Why can't you say it?" he asked Beregond again.
Beregond heaved a sigh. "For the same reason that you don't talk openly about what happened to your bodies."
"We told /you/," argued Al. He placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "Don't treat us like useless either."
Beregond didn't have anything to answer to that. Nevertheless, it was clear that he still hesitated.
"Remember Hughes' words, Beregond. Ask for help when problems present themselves," Ed prodded with unusual gentility. For he realised that he was on the verge of victory now; that Beregond would open up at last and reveal his secret, and there was no room for any mistakes.
There was silence again for several moments as Beregond kept contemplating matters. Ed waited with bated breath, mentally urging Beregond to speak.
"All right; I'll tell you," Beregond repeated, steadying his rapidly beating heart. He looked at both brothers. "But, please, save any of your objections and reactions for after I've finished my tale. For though what I'm about to say will certainly sound strange, preposterous or downright the figment of a lunatic's imagination, I swear to you it's nothing but the truth."
The brothers nodded. And so the Gondorian soldier unravelled his tale, keeping it as simple as possible. After all, he was certain that even in this way, the story would be just too unbelievable.
"I was born in a world much different than yours. A world filled with kings ruling their people justly and knights to protect those very people and their lords. The name of that world can be translated in your language as Middle-earth.
"My part in the history of Middle-earth was to become a knight under my Steward's command and protect the people of Gondor, my country. And, after a most terrible war that changed everything I knew, all I desired was to live in peace, serving my new lord, Faramir, the late Steward's son, in a city known as Emyn Arnen.
"Yet that was a desire that wasn't meant to be granted. Two years after that war, a number of unexplained murders started puzzling and frightening the citizens. The victims were of various ages and there was no connection whatsoever between them, except that they were found in the most secret of places a city could withhold, their throats slit open and terror reflected in their eyes.
"After much search and speculation, the reason behind those murders was finally found. They were used as sacrifices for a most appalling gift: immortality. Such a practice had become common when our world was still at its dawn, through false hopes and foolish pride; yet it was condemned because of the depth of corruption that went along with it. And now there was someone willing to disregard all that in defiance to what a man's destiny should be. The worst surprise of all was that that someone was my lord's advisor, a man named Durinas.
"When Faramir and I attempted to proceed with his arrest, however, Durinas fled, using my own son as hostage. We found him, of course, and a great struggle took place within that terrible cavern he had made especially for his purposes. In that struggle, my son was killed."
The last words came out so forcefully around the lump that formed treacherously tight within his throat that he felt there was no more air left in him. And he certainly didn't like that wet sensation in his eyes, blurring his vision as he attempted to look at the boys.
"He was a little bit younger than you, Alphonse. I-I think..." his voice hitched, and he had to pause momentarily just so that he could finish his sentence. "I think you two would have made good company."
And with that, the man averted his eyes, almost at the same instant as two droplets of tears landed on the ground.
He never saw the rueful look that the brothers exchanged, the same thought crossing their minds; that the feeling within Beregond's heart was all too familiar. Instead, in a matter of moments, he wiped the rest of the tears off his eyes with a huff and an abrupt movement of his hand, clearly dismayed that he had let his emotions run away with him and actually cry in front of them; took a couple of deep, quaky breaths in an attempt to control himself; and he carried on, his voice sounding toneless and tired.
"The last thing I remember clearly was holding his body in my arms, shouting at the top of my lungs that it should be me; that I would offer myself if he lived. Then there was all-mastering pain as I felt my body like it was torn from limb to limb; I recall as in a dream passing through the Gates of Mandos, the halls the dead keep; and, after that, nothingness. And so I thought that it was over; that I was dead.
"But then I woke up, and all I wanted to do was run. And run I did, until Havoc hit me with the car."
The moment Beregond stopped talking, there was dead silence in the room. The man dared an apprehensive peek at the brothers, torn between relief to have finally got all this out of his chest - and fear as to what their reactions would be.
"You're right, Beregond. It sounds like the most ridiculous story I've ever heard," Ed said in the end.
Beregond's heart sank.
"Even so, I still believe every word of it."
"Me too," declared Al.
"You do?!" exclaimed Beregond incredulously, eyes widening ten-fold.
"Yeah," insisted Ed. "Now everything falls into place."
"It does?!" The man still couldn't believe it.
"Of course!" said Al. "The odd-looking armour, the strange language..."
"The fact no one's heard of you, the weird name..." piped in Ed.
"Your fascination and fear over machines..."
"Your... unique... approach on things..." Ed shuddered.
"I have apologised for that knife more than once," mumbled Beregond, his face becoming crimson with embarrassment.
"Not to mention your ignorance on the geography, history and society of this world," continued Ed, not taking notice of what Beregond said. "What kind of amnesia would that be?"
"In other words," Al said, "you couldn't be anything else but from another world."
"Or a crack-pot," Beregond completed half-heartedly.
Al actually laughed. "A crazy person never admits that."
Ed, however, was sober now. "You aren't crazy. If you were, then that would have to mean that I am, too."
"What are you saying?" Beregond asked, surprised.
Ed's eyes locked on the man's. "I'm saying I've seen the Gate, too."
There was silence once again in the room, and both man and suit of armour looked in disbelief at Edward.
"You've seen it?" faltered Beregond. "You didn't say of that before!"
"And you didn't tell me, either," said Alphonse.
Ed sighed and bowed his head. "We were in too bad of a situation to tell you before, Al. And it didn't matter afterwards."
"It would matter to me," Al said softly, his tone clearly dejected.
Ed's expression saddened and he looked at his brother in regret. "I'm sorry."
Alphonse nodded a bit, though half-heartedly. It was obvious he was trying to understand his brother's reasons for not confiding in him sooner, but it was difficult.
It was then that the brothers noticed something else, almost just as important.
Beregond didn't talk, and his eyes were slightly unfocused as though lost in thought.
The answer Ed got was a gentle murmur.
"The Gates work both ways." The voice came out shaken, clearly showing in the state of shock Beregond was in.
"It appears so," was all that Ed said, nodding. "You said it yourself. Gates of Mandos, where the dead linger. That must be where all the souls go; and it must be from where I got Al back."
"Yet I, apparently, crossed the gate, and I'm alive." There was a small pause. "This can't be right, can it?"
There was no answer.
Beregond winced. "So I was... an accident?"
"That seems to be the best logical explanation for the present," said Ed, looking at Beregond. "Are you sure you can't recall anything else from... there?"
"Nothing," Beregond replied at once. "Just the Gates and then I was in an alley."
"But, Ed," said then Al, "What kind of accident could have done this?"
"I think I know," answered Beregond instead. "There was a circle drawn on the floor and I was kneeling on the centre of it when I was taken; a circle with symbols on it."
"An array?" asked Ed.
"Can you remember what it looked like?" Al asked.
This time, the Gondorian shook his head. "It was too long ago." He looked first at Al, then at Ed. "But still, how could I have made it work? I only learnt the ways of Alchemy through you."
"Then how could you complete an array without any help? And you managed to grasp the alchemic theories we've been teaching you in several weeks, when it took us months and years," wondered Al.
"The Gate," said Ed. "When I reached it, it felt as though a great deal of information was forced into my head and I suddenly could understand a lot of things about Alchemy." He faced Beregond. "That's what must have happened to you, even though you didn't realise it back then."
"That still doesn't explain what happened before I passed the Gates," said Beregond thoughtfully. "I mean, Alchemy exists in a form in my world, too; that much I can understand. But the only thing I knew about it was to fear it and condemn it as a corrupt art."
No one spoke for a while.
"Beregond," Al said then, "perhaps you wanted to return your son so badly that the circle was triggered anyway."
The man looked at Al, puzzled.
"Think about it. The transmutation circles are only the means to accomplish the alchemic reaction. But the real force behind Alchemy is the strength and will of the alchemist himself. That's what separates a good alchemist from a bad one."
Ed smiled, understanding what was his brother saying. "You're right, Al. And Beregond has shown his strength more than enough times."
Beregond only saddened. "I don't feel strong. I couldn't save my son from death."
"That doesn't mean anything. We couldn't save Mother," argued Ed. "But you are strong, don't doubt that. And what has happened to you has only made you stronger." He placed a flesh arm on Beregond's shoulder. "Trust us on it. We know."
"Look at it this way," Ed interrupted. "If I had any doubts about your strength in so many aspects of your character, I'd never have considered accepting your offer to help."
"You mean you don't have any doubts?" asked Beregond, surprised.
"None whatsoever. Do you, Al?"
"Nope," answered Al. One could almost sense the grin that was in the armour's face.
"Then it's settled!” declared Ed and extended his hand to Beregond. "We're in this together, all of us. You'll help us on our quest for the philosopher's stone, and we'll help you find your way home."
Beregond's eyes widened. "You mean--?"
Ed grinned. "If something gets in, it must be able to get out also. And an alchemist's duty is to fix any wrong."
Beregond stared at the brothers for many long moments; then, for the first time in a long time, a broad smile brightened his features and placed his hand on Ed's.
"So be it. We'll fix both wrongs."
"Right!" Al said enthusiastically, and placed his own metal hand over the other two flesh ones, thus sealing the agreement.
At the sound of a door knocking, Colonel Mustang turned away from the window and gave out his standard command: "Enter!"
He was certainly surprised to see Edward coming in, followed by Beregond and Al.
"Back so soon?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Disappointed?" asked Ed sarcastically.
"That would depend on the reason of your return," said Roy, smirking. "So... do you have anything worthwhile to report?"
"Sir?" said then Beregond, stepping forward and standing in attention. "It is I who wish to report. It concerns my identity and the truth I've been hiding from you and the others."
Roy immediately straightened up, his bored expression replaced with an eager one.
"Indeed? You may proceed, Sergeant."
Far away, on the East side of the country, there was the fair city of Liore. A city that was graced with prosperity and harmony for many years, though it was a prosperity and harmony gained through the deceit of an over-ambitious man and a little trinket wrapped in his ring finger. Of course, being unaware of it, the citizens simply accepted Father Cornello as the saviour of their city, and praised him and the god that supposedly sent the holy man to them.
That is, until a young alchemist and a huge bulk of armour exposed Father Cornello for what he was: a fraud.
Since that day, everything had changed in Liore for the worst. The citizens were torn between those who were still blindly loyal to Cornello for giving them hope when there was none; and those that wished nothing more than revenge the man that had conned them so shamelessly, for they had realised that that kind of hope was false.
That in itself resulted to a crumbling cascade from which there was no turning back. It began with the exchanged words of accusation, only to be followed by the first fists landing on some people's faces, to end up in a massive fight that destroyed everything and everyone. And when the military was sent to try and drown the riot that was threatening a peace that was gained after too much sacrifice during the Ishbal War, the fair city of Liore was replaced with a pitiable sight of ruin and blood.
"Foolish, aren't they? Humans are so foolish."
Those words were said by a woman standing at the balcony of the massive temple built in honour of Cornello's Sun God. And as she saw the catastrophe that was unveiled before her violet eyes, there was nothing but satisfaction reflected in her features.
"Foolish, foolish," agreed a short man with large arms and beady eyes, who stood beside the woman and watched on with an almost childlike look on his face.
It was then that Father Cornello stepped out of the shadows, an almost demonic smile tugging his lips. "When things proceed this smoothly, their foolishness is rather refreshing."
Surprisingly enough, Lust was far from alarmed. She simply turned and smiled, too. "Why, hello there, Head priest, sir."
Cornello walked up to the balcony as well and looked outside too, seeing the massacre and desolation. "No matter how many times they repeat it, they never learn from their mistakes. Humans are really sad, foolish creatures," he declared with a chuckle. "Now I can finally return to my cute form."
Suddenly, light surrounded the form of Father Cornello and, when it vanished, there was no old man. In his place there was an androgynous-like person; his lithe form clad in black; and his hair, which had a strange greenish hue, fell in unruly strands down his back.
Lust raised an eyebrow. "That again? You sure like to look young."
But Envy just shrugged. "I don't have a choice, do I? I've forgotten what my original form looked like."
"What's going on here?!"
At the sound of that incredulous voice, the three turned and saw that a bewildered man was staring at them.
"What's going on here? Where's the head priest? Where's the real head priest?" the man demanded, angrily.
Lust straightened herself, and looked at Envy. "What shall we do?"
Envy contemplated matters for a moment. "I suppose we can say that the head priest is already..."
However, Gluttony, who had remained silent all this time, offered his own solution.
"Can I eat him?"
That was a solution welcomed. And so, not thinking twice about it and letting Gluttony have his way with the man, Envy and Lust leaned over the railing once more.
"Now that you mention it, I've just received information about that guy. He left Central and is headed for East City."
"You mean that State Alchemist killer?" Lust asked. "That is interesting. In East City there's the Flame Colonel and..."
"The Fullmetal kid right now," Envy completed.
Lust actually frowned. "That child is the closest person to our goal. We can't let anything happen to him."
"Lust, I'm done eating!" Gluttony cried all of sudden, waving a bloody hand at the woman's direction.
"Wipe your mouth, Gluttony," she replied in a motherly fashion before turning back to Envy. "So what do they call him?"
"A simple enough name: Scar."