Chapter 1: Homecoming
Ed walked into the house and dropped his bag on the chair. “I’m home!” he called, and waited. No one answered. He shrugged, and hung his coat up. Winry was probably visiting a patient, and the kids- well, who knew where they were. They usually spent their after-school time playing at friends’ houses or running wild outside, just like he and Al and Winry had done, when they’d had the chance. He took some of his papers and went to the study. He had grading to do, and he needed to check the revisions on his most recent book. He fully intended to take advantage of the empty house to get some work done.
As he was walking towards his study, he was intercepted by a note from Winry asking him to please take the trash out. He knew from experience that the slantiness of her handwriting disguised some serious irritation. He sighed, stopped, and did what she had asked him to do. He only grumbled a little at the interruption.
He was heading back towards his study, ready to make a start on his work, when someone knocked on the door. Ed grumbled some more, rolled his eyes, and opened it. It was a client, looking for Winry. He took a message, chatted with the man for a polite few minutes, and then showed him out.
With some impatience, he turned back towards his study and work. He had just reached the door when the phone rang. Ed growled. That was it. He stomped his way over to the phone. “What do you want!?” he snarled into the receiver.
There was a pause on the other end. “Brother?” the voice on the line said, uncertainly.
Suddenly, all of Ed’s frustration evaporated like it had never been there at all. “Al?” he said, incredulously, clutching the phone with both hands. “Al, is that you?”
“It’s me, Brother,” Al said happily. “Are you having a bad day?”
“Not anymore!” Ed said, grinning as wide as he could grin. “Where the hell are you, Al? You’re not in town, are you?”
“We’re in East,” Al said. “But we’re going to get on the train to Resembool in an hour. We were hoping that we might be able to stay with you?”
Ed leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes against the tears that were threatening to well up in them. “Damn, Al,” he said. “It’s been five years since I saw you last, and you think you’re staying anywhere else? Winry would kill me if I let you stay in town!”
“Well, Brother,” Al said, ruefully. “I wouldn’t want to be the reason Winry finally finished you off. It’s good that’s settled.”
“What are you doing in Amestris, Al?” Ed smiled, still holding the receiver in both hands. “Don’t tell me you just felt like coming for a visit!”
“Not exactly,” Al said. “We can talk about it when we get there, okay?”
“Fine, if that’s how you want it,” Ed said. “Have a good trip, okay? I’ll make sure that Winry has a pie waiting for you.”
Al laughed, and Ed relished the sweetness of the sound. “We’ll look forward to it, Brother. See you soon.”
“See you soon, Al,” Ed said, and disconnected. He held the phone for a long moment, grinning like an idiot. To hell with getting work done, he thought. My baby brother’s coming home!
Al made his way back to the departure area. Mei and the baby were waiting there with their luggage. Mei looked tired. Al knew from experience that taking the new train between Amestris and Xing was far nicer than the desert passage used to be. Still, it was a long, draining ride- especially with a six-month-old. Al sat down next to his wife. He took one of her hands in his and kissed it. “How are you?” he asked. “Would you like me to take Trisha for a while?”
Mei smiled. “She’s asleep now, stupid man,” she said. “She’ll wake up if we move her.” She leaned into him. “Did you talk with Edward?”
Al nodded, planting a kiss on the top of Mei’s head. “He promised us apple pie.”
Mei sighed happily. “It will be such a happy occasion, seeing everyone again. And Trisha will get to meet her other family!”
Al looked down at his daughter. She was wrapped tight against her mother’s chest, and he could pretty much just see a thatch of fuzzy black hair and a nose where her face was squashed against Mei’s breast. He smiled. Then he sighed.
“You are worried about something,” Mei said. It wasn’t a question.
“Am I?” Al evaded.
“I am too well-attuned to your qi not to be able to tell when it’s roiled up,” she said, “Especially when I’m right next to you. Why are you worried, Alphonse? The train will be here soon enough.”
“I know,” Al said, closing his eyes as he leaned against her. “It’s just-” he paused. Really, there was no point in avoiding her question; on some level, she already knew the answer. “It’s been so long since I saw Brother,” he said, helplessly. “Five years since we last came to Amestris, and ten years since he and I were really together. Everything’s changed so much for me in that time, and it must have changed for him, too. What if-” he frowned. “What if we’re strangers now?”
Mei laughed at him. “You are being silly, and you know it. You and Edward will never be strangers to each other! He will be so very happy to see you, and you will be happy to see him. Stop worrying.”
//Very well, my beloved wife,// Al said, switching to Xingese, in the formal style. //You are wise, and I will heed your counsel.//
//Of course I’m wise!// she snapped, in the colloquial style. //And you are brave and kind and good, and your brother will never stop loving you.//
He relaxed. Mei always knew what to say to calm him. //Thank you,// he said, smiling.
//Shush,// she told him. //You’ll wake the baby.//
Ed stood on the platform, waiting. The train hadn’t even pulled up yet, but he couldn’t bring himself to sit down. He’d been a ball of nervous energy since Al’s phone call. Winry had eventually decided that he should go to the station to pick them up, and he should go alone, and he should go now.
“We’ll all see them when they get to the house,” she’d told him. “Now go, I have dinner to make, and I’m never going to get it finished if I’ve got you bothering me every five minutes!”
So now, he was standing on the platform, hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. Finally, the train appeared in the distance. It’s been so long since I saw him, Ed thought, nervously. We barely know each other anymore...
It seemed like it took forever for the train to pull up, slow, and stop. Ed waited with as much patience as he could muster, standing on the platform. Finally, the train stopped. Finally, the few passengers disembarked. And finally- finally- Ed saw his brother step from the train.
Al seemed taller than Ed remembered. Taller than Ed, certainly. He was dressed in Xingese clothes: a black-and-red high-necked tunic, loose, flowing pants. His hair was long now, and clasped at the nape of his neck. He looked tired, but happy. He turned to help Mei off the train, and she looked good too. Happy, healthy- with the bundle of a baby wrapped up against her body. Al’s baby, Ed realized, his heart thudding in his chest. His brother’s child. Ed’s legs ate up the distance between him and them. “Alphonse!” he called. “Al!”
“Ed!” Al said, his face splitting open in a grin. “Brother!” Al dropped his suitcases to embrace Ed, and Ed wrapped his arms around Al, holding him as tight as he could.
“Dammit, Al,” Ed said, grinning like a crazy person. He was pretty sure there were tears on his cheeks, but he didn’t care. “Dammit, little brother, you’ve been away too long. I missed you.”
“I missed you, too, Brother,” Al said, and he was crying too.
Ed turned to Mei, who was looking very pleased with herself. He hugged her, too- carefully, so as not to squash the baby on her chest. “Hi, Mei,” he said.
“It is very good to see you, Edward,” she said to him, when he released her. “Alphonse has spoken of nothing but this reunion for the entire journey!”
Ed grinned. “Come on,” he said, picking up their suitcases. “Winry and the kids are waiting to see you both.”
Al and Mei were mobbed as soon as they got back to the Rockbell house. The kids wanted to see Uncle Alphonse, who they’d heard so many stories about. Winry wanted to see the baby, and she was fascinated by the way that Mei had the infant wrapped up on her body. Trisha was pretty cute, Ed had to admit. She woke up when Mei finally handed her over to him, her little eyes blinking sleepily.
“She’s got Dad’s eyes,” he said, quietly.
“I know,” Al said. “I’m glad. It feels like Xerxes isn’t quite gone, if there are still people in the world with yellow eyes. I’m glad we won’t be the last ones.”
Ed smiled. “And you named her after mom,” he said.
“Is that okay?” Al said, concerned. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted to- but- you had Sara, and you named her after Winry’s-”
“It’s fine,” Ed said, interrupting him. “It’s perfect. She’s so beautiful, Al.”
Al smiled, and took his daughter back. “So are Sara and little Al,” he said, looking down into Trisha’s face. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
“A miracle,” Ed agreed, putting an arm around his brother.
The food of his childhood seemed strange to him, now. It was simple fare, but it tasted too dry and too bland and too full of strange textures. Al knew without looking that Mei felt the same way. Still, he thanked Winry effusively, and wondered when he’d stop feeling like a stranger in his homeland. The pie, though- the pie was everything he remembered. It was flaky, and buttery, and sweet, and spicy. “It’s delicious, Winry!” he said, his face lighting up with genuine delight.
“It is even more tasty than the last time we were here,” Mei agreed.
“Thank Miss Gracia,” Winry said, blushing at the praise. “She’s the one who taught me.”
Suddenly, his joy was too much to contain. Al leaned over and hugged her.
“What was that for?” Winry said, startled.
Al smiled. “You’re so happy,” he said, trying to put his feelings into words. “You and Brother. I can feel-” he stopped, unsure how to explain. “The Dragon’s Pulse,” he said. “I can feel the way that life flows between you all so easily. So happy!” He stopped, knowing that he wasn’t making any sense. He ducked his head, embarrassed. “It makes me feel happy, too.”
Winry looked stunned. “You can feel that?” she asked.
Mei grinned. “Everyone can feel it,” she said. “Everyone’s connected to it. It’s knowing that you’re feeling it that is the difficult part. But anyone would feel good being in your home right now, unless their qi was very twisted up. The flow of energy in your family is very beautiful!”
“Qi, huh?” Ed said, interested. “So you finally learned how to sense it?”
“Yeah,” Al said, pleased with himself. “Mei was about to give up on me, but I finally got it. First, I had to get her to stop going like this at me all the time.” he pointed his index fingers at his eyebrows in exaggerated imitation.
“That is a highly respected meditation technique!” Mei protested, swatting his arm. “Do not mock it!”
“Wow,” Ed said. “How does it affect your alchemy?” he asked. Al watched him, looking for signs of... envy, maybe. Ed, after all, had been the famous, gifted alchemist once. Ed had given it all up for him, and Al still wasn’t sure whether Ed might resent him a little for that, no matter how much he said he didn’t.
“It’s... complicated,” Al said, a little nervously. “I’d like to show you. Maybe tomorrow?”
“Great,” Ed said, nodding. “I’d love to discuss the theory with you.”
Winry cleared her throat. “How long do you think you’ll be staying, Al? At least a few weeks, I hope?”
Al grinned. “Forever,” he said, into stunned silence.
“What?” Ed said, disbelief on his face. “You’re leaving Xing? Nothing happened, right? You didn’t offend Ling or anything?”
“Of course not,” Mei said, sounding slightly offended. “We are still very much in his Imperial Majesty’s favor.”
“It was time to come home,” Al said, enjoying the effect his surprise was having on the others. “I learned so much in the East. I thought it was time for me to start teaching it to others. I’m going to start a school, Brother.”
“You’re-” Ed started to say, and then stopped, shaking his head. “Really? You want to teach?”
Al looked over at his older brother. He looked so much like their father now, save for the beard. His eyes and his hair and his build were just the same. It was strange to see his brother as an adult, as a father, and as a husband. “I’d hoped-” he said, tentatively. “I’d thought that maybe you would help me.”
Ed stared at him for a long moment. He ducked his head, his shoulders shaking. It took Al a few seconds to realize that he was laughing. Then, guffawing. Then slapping the table and wiping his eyes.
“You are so weird sometimes,” Winry said, rolling her eyes at him.
“I’m sorry,” Ed said. “It’s just- you and Mustang, in the same week. It’s too ridiculous.”
Al was confused. “Colonel Mustang visited?” he asked.
“Prime Minister Mustang, now,” Winry corrected.
Ed grinned. “No, I visited him. He offered me a job. That’s why I’m laughing; all these years, and then you and Roy both offer me jobs in the same week.”
“What job did he offer you, Brother?” Al asked.
“Minister of the Interior,” Ed said, leaning back in his chair casually.
Al’s eyes opened wide. “Brother,” he said. “That’s a really important position! Will you have to move to Central? I’d been thinking that the school should be in Central; maybe you could still teach a little, if you have time-”
“Hold on,” Ed said, holding out a hand. “I never said I had accepted it.”
“But-” Al started. Just then, Trisha started wailing. Mei jumped up to look after her. When Al looked back to Ed, he had a curiously thoughtful look on his face.
“Later,” Ed said. “We can talk later, okay?”
They didn’t talk that night, though. By the time all the children were in bed, he and Mei were nodding off where they stood, and Winry pushed them off to the guest room.
When Ed woke up the next morning, Al was the only one awake. He was sitting in the rocking chair in the living room, with Trisha asleep on his shoulder and the air of a man who’s seen the sun come up. “Tea?” Ed offered as he shuffled into the room, yawning.
“If you don’t mind, Brother,” Al said, pleasantly.
Ed wandered into the kitchen and started the kettle. He rummaged around, found the teapot and the strainer, spooned the tea into it, and waited. Some time later, he emerged into the living room with two cups of the strong, sweet black tea that he and Winry favored for breakfasts. He handed one off to Al with no comment, and flopped himself onto the couch to sip his own cup.
“It seems funny to have tea with milk and sugar now,” Al said, after a moment. “In Xing, they usually drink it plain. But they have so many more kinds.”
“You’re really going to miss it there, huh?” Ed asked, awkwardly.
“I will,” Al said, smiling. “But I missed it here, too. I like milk and sugar in my tea!”
Ed drank his tea, watching his brother. Al rocked slowly in his chair, holding his daughter against his chest with one hand, and his tea with the other. He was wearing a loose, sleeveless shirt, and those billowy Xingese pants. His hair was ruffled, but still pulled back in a low ponytail. He and Al looked very similar, but Al’s eyes were rounder than his, his face softer. Al took after their mother, Ed thought, struck by a sudden melancholy.
Al shifted. “Are you upset about something, Brother?” he asked, concerned.
Ed looked up, startled. He looked closely at Al. “Is this more of that Dragon’s Pulse thing?” he asked. “It lets you sense emotions? Like last night.”
Al shook his head. “It doesn’t really work that way. Emotions are hard to sense, unless you know someone very well, and are physically close to them. Even then, you can’t tell emotions, as much as you can tell...” Al paused, then waved his teacup around expressively. “Changes of state?” He said, uncertainly. “You can tell whether someone’s energy is flowing smoothly, or if it’s blocked up. But anger and shame and guilt and fear all pretty much look the same. When energy is flowing, that’s usually happiness, but it could be excitement, or some kinds of anger, or...” Al blushed. “Or lust,” he said, shrugging. “Anyway, sensing qi isn’t a very good way to tell what someone is feeling. It’s much more effective just to watch them. Or ask.”
“Huh,” Ed said, and sipped his tea. “Maybe I should get you to teach me how to do that, if you’re really going to be around.” He frowned. “Unless I can’t,” he said. “Maybe destroying my Gate blocked that off, too.”
Al looked thoughtful. “I don’t think so,” he said. “In Xing, the royal family are all taught how to sense the Dragon’s Pulse, and most of them never learn alkahestry. Alchemy is manipulation, but the Dragon’s Pulse is just...” he waved his teacup around again. “Learning to feel what you’re already connected to? And you still have qi, and you’re definitely connected to the world’s flow of energy.”
Ed nodded, and looked down at his cup. “Good to know,” he said.
Both of them sipped tea in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Al spoke. “Does that mean you are upset, Brother?”
Ed looked up. “What do you mean?”
Al’s teacup was empty now. He held it loosely on his knee. “I asked if you were upset, and you assumed that I could sense your feelings through your qi. Which means that you must have been having upset feelings to begin with.”
Ed shrugged. There was an uncomfortable silence. “I was thinking-” he said, finally. “I was thinking about how much you look like Mom.”
Al smiled then, his eyes shining. “I was afraid to come back,” he said, quietly. “I thought... you and I might be strangers now. I was afraid that I had lost you, by staying away so long.” There were tears in Al’s eyes. Ed set his teacup down, and got to his feet.
“Al-” he started to say.
“And it’s partly true,” Al continued, looking earnestly up at Ed. “So much has happened! I don’t know your life now, and you don’t know mine.”
“But we’re not strangers,” Ed said, setting Al’s teacup aside. He took Al’s hand in his. “We’re still brothers.”
“Yes,” Al said, his eyes wide with emotion. He gripped Ed’s hand firmly. “Still brothers.”
“I’d like to know more about your life in Xing,” Ed offered. “We have to get to know each other again.”
Al smiled. “I want to show you what I learned to do there,” he said, intently. “After Mei wakes up.”
“Okay,” Ed said.
A few minutes later, Sara bounded into the room, followed by a half-asleep Winry. Ed made more tea while she cooked breakfast. Mei came downstairs a little while after that to feed a now-awake and hungry Trisha. She sat on the couch nursing the baby, and talking with Al and Winry, and occasionally a curious Sara who hadn’t seen nursling babies much. As Ed left the room to go wake up little Al, Mei turned to Alphonse. Ed heard her quietly asked a question in Xingese. Al responded, and then Mei told him something else, laughing. Al turned red.
Ed stopped. “What did you say?” Ed asked her, curious.
Mei blushed, as if caught out. “I asked him whether he had had a good conversation with you this morning,” Mei said.
“Then she said ‘I told you so’,” Al said sheepishly.
“I did tell you so!” Mei declared. “You and Edward could never grow apart from each other.”
“Ed and Al?” Winry put in, incredulously. “What a dumb idea.”
“Our men can be very stupid sometimes,” Mei agreed.
“Breakfast is ready,” Winry said, smiling.
After breakfast, Ed suggested that he and Al spar. “I’ve missed having a sparring partner,” he said, grinning. “You’re probably going to kick my ass; I’m out of shape.”
“Brother,” Al pointed out serenely, “I always kicked your ass.” And he was going to do it again, almost certainly. Al didn’t know what Ed had been doing for the last ten years, but Al had been in training constantly for years now. Also (and he didn’t intend to tell Ed this), Xing was a dangerous place. Members of the royal family had to be constantly on guard for assassination attempts. Al and Mei hadn’t had to deal with many, but three times in the last five years was still enough to give him a certain focus when it came to his combat training. Still, he cautioned himself against overconfidence. He knew better than to underestimate Edward Elric in a fight.
They faced off on the field out in front of the house. Mei and Winry and Ed’s kids decided that this was a spectator sport, and took up positions on the porch to watch. Al looked over at his older brother. He’d braided his hair back, just as he used to do when they were kids. He was also wearing a black t-shirt, black pants, and heavy boots- Ed’s favorite combat uniform. It hurt a little, remembering his brother fighting those never-ending battles. Al was grateful that that time was over; that Ed now had the luxury of not being in fighting form. Ed had fought so hard, so desperately in his childhood. It was good that he had found peace as an adult.
“Ready, Brother?” Al called.
Ed didn’t answer, but launched himself into a flying kick at Al’s torso. Al took the hit, and used the force of the blow to propel himself backward into a flip and kick at Ed. They traded blows then, each trying to take the measure of the other. Ed was still fast. It had always been Ed’s biggest advantage, when they’d sparred as kids. He might not have been training aggressively, but he’d obviously kept in shape. Al fought defensively, considering Ed’s moves. Patience had always been his biggest advantage. The next time Ed lunged for a kick, he made his real attack. Al waited until the kick was about to connect, stepped forward, and used Ed’s own momentum to slam him to the ground. Ed hit the dirt face-first. Al waited for him to get up, but he lay unmoving, his arms splayed limply on the ground.
“Brother?” Al said, alarmed. He ran to his brother, hearing Winry gasp in fear behind him. Al knelt down, and gently turned Ed over onto his back. As Ed’s face came into view, Al saw those golden eyes open, alert, and viciously smug. That was all the warning he got before Ed punched him in the face and then kicked him in the gut with both feet. Al dropped, reeling, as Ed jumped to his feet with a wild grin on his face.
That was when Al remembered Ed’s other advantage in a fight: he was willing to use any dirty trick in the book to win. “Brother!” Al snapped, annoyed, and dropped flat as Ed aimed a kick at his head. Al tensed, and flipped into the air, flying over Ed’s head. The flabbergasted look on Ed’s face was worth every long month he’d had to spend learning that move. He landed behind Ed and spun into a kick. Ed rolled with it and came back punching- too late. Al grabbed Ed’s arm, twisted, and used the force of Ed’s attack to push him down into a lock. They came to rest with both Ed’s arms twisted back and Ed forced to his knees. Al held him there for a long, pointed moment.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ed said, panting. “You win. Damn, but you’ve gotten better at this.”
Al released him. Ed stood up, grinning like a maniac. Two seconds later, a gleaming silver object flew threw the air and smacked into his forehead. “Winry!” he shouted. “What the hell?”
“Don’t scare us like that!” she shouted back at him, glaring. “The children were watching, you idiot! Do you want to give them nightmares?”
“Alphonse!” Mei called, wailing. “Look at your face!” Al couldn’t stop smiling all of a sudden, black eye or no black eye.
“I knew you’d win,” Ed said to Al, clutching his head where Winry’d hit him. He was smiling, too. “I could never beat you when we were kids.”
“Except that one time,” Al said, quietly, remembering a hospital roof, and an injured Ed beating some sense into him.
“Yeah,” Ed said, laughing. “Except that one time.”
It was afternoon by the time both brothers had had their wounds treated, gotten washed up, and gotten changed into regular clothes. Or at least Ed had gotten changed into regular clothes. He was wearing a shirt and vest. Al, on the other hand, was wearing a Xingese tunic made of gold fabric with black dragons embroidered all over it.
“You look like Ling,” he told Al.
“Really?” Al said, mock-surprised. “I don’t think I look anything like him, personally. I’m blond, for one.”
Ed rolled his eyes. “If you’re back, are you going to buy some Amestrian clothes? You look weird in those.”
Al shrugged, smiling. “I like them,” he said. “The fabric is beautiful. Besides, Brother, I thought you appreciated bright colors in clothing.”
“Are you sure?” Ed heard Mei say. She was looking worriedly over at Winry as they walked into the living room.
“Mei!” Winry said, laughing, “She’s asleep now, and she can’t possibly starve in a couple of hours. Go! We’ll take care of her!”
“Very well,” Mei said, dubiously.
“Yes,” Winry said, cheerfully. “And Mei- it’s okay. I was exactly the same, the first time I left little Al.”
The three of them walked out of the house. Ed waved to Winry as they walked away, and Mei and Al held hands as they walked. “Where are we going?” Ed asked. Al had been vague about what they were doing now, just saying that he wanted to show Ed ‘what he’d learned in Xing.’
“The creek,” Al said, thoughtfully. “I think that will be a good place.”
“The suspense is killing me,” Ed said. Al just smiled happily, and said nothing.
They reached the creek. It was small, not much water and no more than a few inches deep. The banks were rocky. Scattered here and there under the leaves and grass were irregular shapes- the leftover transmutations of his and Al’s childhood experiments. Al stopped, looking back at him and Mei. “Wait here,” he said, and stepped into the creek. He perched himself on a wide, flat stone poking up from the water. Al lifted up his face to the sun. It glowed on his skin, his hair, the luminescence of his clothing. Ed’s breath hitched in his chest. Twelve years, he thought, and seeing his face still seems like a miracle.
Al turned back to where he and Mei were standing. “Watch this, Brother!” he called, grinning. With that, his expression turned suddenly serious. His body straightened, and he put his hands together in the transmutation pose. He held the pose for a long moment. Ed expected him to drop to the ground, to activate the transmutation, but he didn’t. Instead he shifted into a series of poses. They looked like the combat stances that Teacher’d taught them- or maybe some weird, elaborate form of dancing.
“He is directing the flow of energy,” Mei explained, her voice muted. “The movements are unnecessary, technically, but they help him focus his mind.”
Al flowed back into the transmutation posed and dropped his head. There was a cracking noise. Ed turned to see blue lightning coming from the banks of the creek. It was almost a mile away, but coming toward them fast. As he watched, the rocky ground transmuted itself into vicious stone spikes. As the spikes formed, they glowed and transmuted into glass, vivid with the colors of whatever trace elements were present in the native dirt. Ed flinched, wanting to run as the transmutation rushed toward him, but Mei put a hand on his arm. “Stay still,” she said, and indeed, as the transmutation washed over the ground where they stood, it missed them entirely. There was a column in a foot radius around him and Mei where the transmutation didn’t touch at all. Still, the spikes came up to Ed’s chest. He looked over at Al. Al glanced at the water, and then the creekbed cracked with lightning, too. Clear glass balls sprouted on stalks for the length of his transmutation. Ed stared at them, suddenly realizing that each glass ball contained a fish, flopping and swimming around. The sun sparkled and flashed off of the spikes, throwing rainbows into the air. It looked like something out of a fairy tale.
Al turned to him then, grinning as if to say pretty good, huh, Brother?
“Holy crap, Al,” Ed said. Al laughed. “Long distance transmutation- is that how they do alchemy in Xing?”
“No,” Mei said, with a note of pride in her voice. “Alphonse is the one who invented this.”
“Alkahestry uses knives as anchor points to direct the alchemic energy,” Al explained. “But in Amestris, our alchemy makes use of the energy under the Earth’s crust-”
“-Which means that you’re using the pathways of energy under the earth to direct your transmutations, and yourself as a remote anchor for the array!” Ed finished. He stopped, startled. “You could do this blind,” he said. “What kind of distance can you get? This is-”
“Yeah,” Al said, smiling. He turned, stretched out his hand, and with an almighty crackling of blue light, the spikes and balls collapsed, reverting into their old shapes. The fish swam on.
“The fish,” Ed said, realizing. “You could sense them. You could do that with people, you could-” Ed’s stomach clenched, thinking about what Al could do on a battlefield. “Al,” he said, horror in his voice. “You want to teach this to other people?”
Al stepped out of the creekbed and towards Ed and Mei. “I know,” he said quietly. “I realized that. But I thought-” he paused. “I thought if I were the teacher, I might be able to influence how my students use it. With all this new trade with Xing, I think it’s a matter of time before some other Amestrian alchemist learns how to do it, and if it’s a member of the military...” he trailed off. “And this way, if I teach everyone who wants to learn, then everyone knows. And it can be used not just as a weapon.” He looked up at Ed, his gold eyes wide. “That’s why I wanted to ask you to help me teach,” he told his brother. “You might not be able to do alchemy, but you know more than anyone about what alchemy costs.”
“We have to tell Mustang about this,” Ed breathed, staring straight ahead. “He has to know. If the military finds out first, then they’ll try to stop you.”
“Can they do that, Brother?” Al looked concerned.
“They could try to claim that your alchemy is a secret that’s vital to national security,” Ed said. “Al-” he said, then stopped. He didn’t know quite what to say. He thought of his brother chained to the military, and it made him hurt. “Al,” he said again, “That was amazing.”
Al’s face shone. “Thank you, Brother,” he said.
They took the long road back to the house. When Al and Mei had visited before, Ed and Winry had still been living in Rush Valley. Mei had never seen the place that the Elric brothers had grown up in. They showed her the town, and the farms around their houses. At the end, they took her up to see the ashes of their old house. They stood, looking solemnly at the overgrown ruins.
“Brother,” Al said, quietly. “We were thinking of building the school in Central, but I wanted to have a house in Resembool, too. Would it be okay-” He stopped. “Could we-”
“You want to build a house here,” Ed said. His face was impassive; difficult to read.
“Yes,” Al said, nodding. “We still own the land, and it just seems like... enough time has passed. We should make something new, here.”
Ed smiled. “You’re right, Al.” He turned, his smile becoming a grin. “I’d offer to help you build, but I know you can do it yourself a hell of a lot easier.”
“Yeah,” Al acknowleged, smiling. “Thanks, Brother.”
“Don’t thank me,” Ed said, punching Al’s arm. “It’s your house as much as mine. And you’re right, anyway. We burned it so that we’d keep moving forward, so we wouldn’t have to keep looking at our own mistakes. All that’s a long way behind us now. Time to build something new.”
Mei smiled at both of them, tears running down her cheeks. “That’s so beautiful!” she said.
Ed flushed. Alphonse laughed. “Thank you,” he said to Mei.
That night, Ed sat and watched Winry get ready for bed. She changed into loose shorts and a t-shirt. Ed appreciated the curve of her body, the flush of her creamy skin. She unbound her hair, shaking it out with pleasure. Then, she climbed into bed with him, running her hands through his hair. “Hi,” she said, smiling, settling herself along the length of his body.
He laughed, and kissed her. She growled, pulling him closer, making the kiss into the promise of something more. He stopped suddenly, breaking the connection, resting his forehead against hers. “Winry-” he started.
“What’s wrong, Ed?” she said, concerned. She pulled back, looking intently at his face.
“Dammit, Winry,” he said, closing his eyes, and leaning back into his pillow. “I think I have to take Mustang up on his offer.”
“His offer?” Winry said, concerned. “The job? Why, Ed? I thought you had decided-”
“It’s Al,” Ed said plaintively, sitting up. He pulled his knees up and leaned over them. “He showed me his new alchemy today.”
“I know,” Winry said. “I was wondering why I hadn’t heard about it.”
“It’s amazing,” Ed said, frankly. “And it would make him a human weapon like there’s never been before. If he wanted to, he could slaughter thousands of people and he’d never even have to lift a finger.”
“Al would never-” Winry started.
“Of course not!” Ed said, hotly. “But the military? With Drachma and Aerugo breathing down our necks, and with the East still riled up, and with the food riots in the West? They’d jump at the opportunity, and they’d never even consider what it would mean for Al! They could destroy him, Winry!” He could hear the fear in his own voice.
“They can’t force him to become a soldier,” Winry said.
“Like hell they can’t,” Ed growled. “All they’d need is a good enough hostage.”
“Mei,” Winry whispered.
“Trisha,” Ed spat.
“The military isn’t all bad,” Winry protested. “Some of our friends are still in it.”
“I know,” Ed said. “But not everyone at the top is our friend. Besides, can you really say that General Armstrong wouldn’t do what she had to if she thought Al could save her soldiers? Hell, maybe she’d even convince him that he should go along with it.”
“Is his alchemy really that dangerous?” Winry asked, earnestly. “It can’t be that much worse than Roy’s, or Alex’s.”
“He can do long-range alchemy,” Ed said, dread a lead weight in his stomach. “Miles away. He doesn’t even need to see his target, because he can sense life force. He could walk up to a city and skewer every living person in their sleep without ever getting near enough for them to see his face.”
Winry didn’t say anything, then.
“I didn’t want to take you away from your work,” Ed said, the words choking in his throat. “I didn’t want to uproot the kids.”
“Ed,” she said, soothingly. “I told you before- I’ve had all these years now to build up the Rockbell name. It’s been hard work, and you’ve supported me. If you want this, then how could I not support you, too?”
“I don’t want it,” he said, quietly. “I want to be here with you and the kids. I want our life to stay like it’s been.”
“But because of Al...” she said.
“Roy’s offer,” he said, nodding. “It means a lot of power. I could make Al part of the government on the civil side, and then the military would have to keep their damned hands off of him. I could protect him, Winry.”
Winry pulled him down, embraced him. “Ed,” she said. “If you were the sort of man who could walk away from his brother, I would never have fallen for you. If you need to do this, you know that I’ll be right by your side.”
Ed breathed for a long moment. “Then I have to do it,” he said, finally.
Winry nodded, holding him close. She leaned up, kissing him fiercely. “I’m afraid,” she breathed into his ear, when the kiss ended.
“Me too,” he murmured into her hair, not letting her go.
Ed woke up early the next morning. He was putting on his coat when he realized that he wasn’t alone.
“Good morning, Brother,” Al said. He was standing in the living room, rocking a sleepy Trisha on his shoulder. “Are you going out?” he asked.
“I’m catching the train to Central,” Ed admitted. “I should be back tomorrow morning, though.”
Al looked concerned. “Did Mr. Mustang call? Is there something wrong?”
Ed sighed, leaning back on the wall. “I’m going to accept his job offer.”
“Minister of the Interior?” Al asked. “Wow, Ed.”
Ed tamped down his unhappiness. “Yeah. Wow.”
Al’s eyes narrowed. “Why now?” he asked. “We just got here. Couldn’t you call, and go out there later?”
Ed paused. Part of him wanted to lie to Al, to tell him not to worry and then just leave. “I have to talk to Mustang about your alchemy, and I don’t trust the phone,” he said. “If the military finds out what you can do, there could be problems.”
“Is that why you’re taking that job, Brother?” Al frowned, holding Trisha close.
Ed smiled. “Hey, the money and power don’t hurt, either,” he said, his face bright. “I’ve gotta go, Al. I’ve got a train to catch.”
As he left, he could hear Al behind him. “But you don’t care about money and power,” he said, softly.
Roy Mustang, Prime Minister of Amestris, settled himself down for an afternoon nap. By some miracle, he’d gotten twenty minutes of unscheduled time. He’d told his secretary (a wonderful woman named Ellen) that he didn’t want to be disturbed, he’d turned out the lights, and he was leaning back in his extremely comfortable chair with his feet on the desk. He was showing every sign of drifting off into a pleasant dream about Riza and a hot tub, when he heard the voice.
“I don’t care whether he’s busy or not,” it said. “I came all the way from Resembool this morning, and the bastard can damn well see me.”
Roy groaned. He hit the button on his intercom. “Send him in, Ellen,” he said, trying hard not to think about how Ed had gotten past his security.
Ed breezed into the room. He was wearing a dress shirt and a vest, plus his traveling coat. Roy knew that this counted as dressed-up by Ed’s standards, and he was curious as to why he’d bothered. “Hello, Fullmetal,” Roy said, coolly.
“Yes,” Ed said, baring his teeth.
“Excuse me?” Roy said, politely.
“You heard me, you bastard,” Ed said, gritting his teeth. “You wanted me, you got me. Yes.”
“Ah,” Roy said, suppressing a smile. “Er-” he said, delicately. “Good. But, do you mind my asking... why? I had intelligence that you intended to decline the offer.”
Ed rolled his eyes. “By which you mean ‘my wife talked to your wife, Fullmetal’,” he said, doing what Roy had to admit was a passable Mustang impression.
“Well, yes,” Roy said, smiling. “The question still stands.”
Ed sat silently in the chair. He looked tense, preoccupied.
“Nothing’s happened to Winry or the kids, has it?” Roy asked, with a sudden rush of fear. “Ed, if it’s just that you need money-”
“No,” Ed said, brushing away that possibility with a wave of his hand. “Roy-” he said, “Did you know that Al’s come back from Xing?”
“I knew he crossed the border,” Roy said, cautiously. “Is he staying, then?” He clenched a hand, willing himself to be calm, not to speculate about what might be wrong with the younger Elric brother.
Ed frowned. “Yeah,” he said. “He’s home to stay.”
Ed was being very difficult to read. Usually, Ed was an open book. He wore his heart on his sleeve. He knew it, though, and there were times that he could be cagey, too. “Isn’t that good news?” Roy asked.
“Yeah, it is,” Ed said. He jumped to his feet, pacing the room. “How’s your office for bugs, Mustang?”
“No one listens in on my meetings, Fullmetal,” Roy said, stiffly.
Ed pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket. Before Roy realized what he was doing, Ed leaned down and sketched a transmutation circle on Roy’s desk. “Activate it,” Ed said.
Roy looked over at the circle. He didn’t immediately recognize it. Something to do with sound, maybe, but-
“Just do it, Mustang,” Ed said, irritated. “You don’t know what it is because I made it up myself. But I can’t activate it, so you have to. Do it.”
Roy reached out, touched the circle. Lightning flashed. There was a low, almost sub-audible boom, and the windows shook. “If there were any bugs,” Ed said, “There aren’t now.”
“I think you’ve destroyed my intercom,” Roy observed.
“Whatever,” Ed said, almost nastily.
“Ed,” Roy said, quietly, “What the hell is going on? Calm down, please. Whatever’s happening here, I’m not your enemy.”
Ed sat down hard in the chair again. He leaned forward, covering his face with his hands. “Sorry,” he said. He was quiet for a long moment, and Roy let him gather himself. “Al’s been studying in Xing,” he said, finally. “Yesterday, he showed me what he learned.”
Roy wasn’t sure what to make of that. Surely, Ed wasn’t jealous of his brother. “What did he show you?” Roy asked, neutrally.
Ed’s mouth twisted. “He can transmute from at least a mile away without having to use alkahestry blades first. He barely even has to touch anything to do it. Plus, he’s incorporated the life sense that Ling and Lan Fan and Mei had. I saw him pull out every fish from a mile-long stretch of river with a wave of his hand.”
Roy absorbed that, thought about the possibilities. His eyes widened. “Does he know-” he got out, his voice strangled.
“Yeah,” Ed said. “Basically, I think. I mean, I don’t know how much Al even understands about that kind of thing. He wants to start a school.”
Roy choked. “He wants to teach others how to do that?” he asked.
“He figures that it’s just a matter of time before someone else goes to Xing and figures it out. This way, he’ll have some say in who learns and how they do it. Plus, it won’t just be military alchemists.”
Roy’s mind reeled, putting the pieces together. “You want to make his school a pet project of the Ministry of the Interior,” he said. It wasn’t a question. He’d known that Ed didn’t want to work for the government when he’d offered him the position. He should have realized that this would be the only real motivator for Edward Elric: the well-being of someone he loved. The well-being of his little brother.
“It’s my price, Mustang,” Ed said, firmly. “You want me on your cabinet? Fine. I was the government’s dog before, and I’ll do it again. Just give me the power to protect my brother from the military assholes who are going to come after him.”
I’m not your enemy, Roy repeated, silently. “Accepted,” he said. “I’ll not only agree to that, I’ll back the project myself. We’ll need to give it a little time, and I’ll need to discuss this with Alphonse, of course-”
“Of course,” Ed said, drily.
“When do you want to start? Are Winry and the kids staying in Resembool, Ed?” Roy felt a twinge of remorse about that. Ed and Winry were happy, and he knew that this would change everything.
Ed shook his head. “No,” he said. “We’ll all be moving up to Central. Give me a week, and then I’ll bring Al up. We can find somewhere to live then.”
Roy nodded. “We’ll do the official announcements then,” he said. “There’ll be press, of course. You’re still a minor celebrity, so we can expect there to be a bit of a circus.”
Ed shrugged. He looked tired. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Whatever. I’ll deal with it.”
“Do you need someplace to stay tonight?” Roy offered. “You know you’re welcome to stay with us.”
Ed shook his head. “I’m getting the late train back to Resembool,” he said.
“Dinner, then,” Roy said. “I’ll cook.”
“Okay,” Ed said. “It’s the least you can do, you old bastard,” he added, not quite under his breath.
When the train pulled into Resembool station, it was grey out. The sun was just beginning to streak the sky with pink. Ed stepped off the train with his bag slung over his shoulder. He didn’t expect there to be anyone to meet him, not at this hour. So he was surprised to see Al, standing on the platform. He was wearing a plain, cotton Xingese jacket, his hands shoved loosely into the pockets. “Hello, Brother,” he said.
“Morning, Al,” Ed said. “Did you have a good day with Winry yesterday?” he asked. “Sorry about running out like that.” They started walking down the road. It wasn’t that long a walk, so Ed didn’t mind that he hadn’t brought the car.
“We had a good day,” Al said. “We took Al and Sara down to the pond to swim. There were fireflies when it got dark.”
Ed smiled. “They love that pond.”
“So did we,” Al said.
They walked in silence for a long moment. “I talked to Winry,” Al continued, finally. “Brother!” he said, his eyes wide with emotion. “I didn’t come back to ruin everything for you. I’ve only been back a few days, and already you’re changing your whole life around.”
“Am I wrong?” Ed countered, shifting the weight of his bag. “Winry must have explained. Is there anything I got wrong?”
Al sighed. “No,” he said. “But, Brother- you don’t have to keep fighting my battles for me. I can deal with this on my own.”
“I’m not fighting your battles for you, Al. I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to.” He stopped, looking Al in the eyes. “I don’t want to fight for you, Al. I want to fight at your side.” Al looked back at him, emotion plain on his face. Ed looked away, running a hand through his bangs. “I told Mustang to give us a week. Then you and I will go to Central and discuss our options. Sound good?”
Al nodded. They walked in silence for a while. The air was cool and wet with the morning dew, and birds were singing in the trees.
“I’m sorry,” Al said, suddenly. “This is my fault.”
Ed laughed, and it was long, and low, and full of joy. “Al,” he said. “You’re home. You’re finally home, and I don’t give a damn about the rest of it.”
Al looked at him sharply, and then his face dissolved into a smile. “I’m glad to be back, Brother,” he said, quietly.
“Yeah,” Ed said. “Me, too.”
I started writing this to write some happy, post-canon Ed&Al fluff. I took the idea of Al having been living in Xing and ran with it. This story is a bit near and dear to my heart: my little sister lives and works abroad in an important government job, so I know just how Ed feels here.
All of a sudden, at the end, it started to get plotty without my quite intending it to. I expect I'll probably continue this; I sort of wonder what's going to happen to everyone.
Chapter 2: A Circus
Major Ross met him at the station. “Hello, Mr. Elric,” she said, saluting, a smile on her face. “I’m here to inform you that my team and I will be coordinating your security while you’re in Central.”
“Hey, Ross,” Ed said, grinning. “Look who I brought with me!”
Al stepped off the train, smiling shyly. “Hello, Major Ross,” he said.
“Alphonse!” she said, smiling. “Mustang didn’t mention anything about you coming into town. Aren’t you supposed to be in Xing?”
“I came back,” he said. He squeaked as Ross pulled him into a non-military hug.
“What are you doing in Central?” she asked, after she put Al down.
“Brother brought me along to talk to Mr. Mustang,” Al said. “I’m going to start an alchemy school, and Brother thinks that he can help.”
“You really doing my security, Ross?” Ed put in. “I would have thought that was beneath a Major.”
“What, for the newest member of Mustang’s Cabinet? It’s a plum job,” she said, cheerfully. “Besides, I wanted to thank you.”
“What for?” Ed asked, hoisting up his suitcase and following her as she walked.
“That three thousand cenz!” she said, grinning. “Breda paid up this morning.”
“Why are you thanking Brother for that?” Al asked, curious.
“When we heard that Ed had been offered the position, some of us put money on whether he’d accept,” Ross said, with some satisfaction. “I just won that bet. Brosh owes Falman even more money than I got!”
“Glad I could help,” Ed said, looking sardonic. They reached the car, and Ross opened the trunk for their suitcases.
“This is where we part ways,” she said. “My men will look after you from here. Good luck, Edward.” she called. “You’re going to need it!”
Roy paced his office, looking over his notes.
“It’ll be fine,” Riza said, rolling her eyes at him.
“I hate dealing with the press,” Roy growled, his eyes dark. “And I have a feeling that I’m going to especially hate dealing with the press if Ed’s involved.”
“If you didn’t want him talking to the press, you shouldn’t have made him a public figure,” she pointed out, sensibly. “Now calm down, sir.”
Roy sighed. “You’re calling me ‘sir’ again,” he said.
"It gets your attention," she said, her eyes dancing with amusement.
“I can think of better ways to get my attention,” he said, trying for smooth.
Not impressed, her body language said. Riza Hawkeye was a difficult woman to impress. Roy wondered when it had become one of his goals in life to try.
“Sir,” Ellen’s voice said, buzzing through his newly-repaired intercom. “The Elrics are here.”
“Send them in,” Roy said, smiling at Riza.
Ed sauntered into the room, dressed in a suit and tie. Roy tried to remember if he’d ever seen him dressed that way before. It made him look older, more mature. Alphonse walked into the room after Ed, and Roy had to catch his breath. Al had been seventeen years old when Roy had seen him last. He’d known, abstractly, that Al would have grown up. That abstract knowledge wasn’t really good enough to prepare him for the tall, broad-shouldered man in Xingese clothing that stood before him now. The round, yellow eyes were Al’s, though. So was the gentle smile on his face.
“Alphonse,” Riza said, stepping forward to embrace him. “It’s good to see you again.”
Al leaned down to return her hug. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to visit you the last time I was in Amestris,” he said, sheepishly.
Riza just smiled. “You’re so tall now,” she said.
“How come no one ever says that to me?” grumbled Ed.
“Aside from the obvious?” Roy couldn’t resist commenting.
“Shut up, you bastard!” Ed snapped. “I’m as tall as you are, so if I’m a shrimp, so are you!”
“And yet,” Roy said, “I’m so much more secure in my height...”
“Roy,” Riza said, disapprovingly. “Don’t rile him up before he goes in front of the press.”
Roy shrugged, smiling. “It’s good to see you looking so well, Alphonse,” he said. “I understand we have a great deal to discuss.”
Al nodded. “I think so, sir,” he said, politely.
Roy laughed. “Just call me Roy, Alphonse. You’re not my subordinate’s kid brother any more.”
“It’s time now,” Riza said, interrupting.
Roy looked over at Edward. “I’m going to be introducing you,” he said. “Just stick to your notes as much as possible, okay?”
“I thought Falman was going to do it?” Ed asked, serious now.
Roy sighed. “There’ve been rumblings that the pro-military factions are going to try to oppose your appointment. If I introduce you personally, then it shows that I’m throwing my weight behind you.”
Ed shook his head. “Better you than me, Mustang,” he said. It was his stock response any time Roy bitched about his job.
They walked together down to the press room. Falman was waiting in the wings. “They’re ready for you, sir,” he said.
Roy smiled. “Here we go again,” he said, and walked out onto the platform. He carefully schooled his face into stillness against the explosion of flashbulbs. Once it had died down, he leaned forward into the podium.
“Hello, everyone,” he said. “We’ll try to keep this short today.” He smiled his most charming smile, the one that always played so well in the papers. “I’m here today for two reasons. First, as most of you know, my current Minister of the Interior, Arthur Chester, is resigning his post. Art has been a good friend and a tireless worker for the people of Amestris, but he needs to look after his health and his family. Replacing him as the new Interior Minister will be Edward Elric.”
Roy stopped, gestured, and Ed took the stage next to him. Roy shook his hand, and clapped a hand to his shoulder as the flashbulbs exploded again. It was good, he thought, calculating. Ed was young and handsome. His light coloring would set Roy’s off; it would make for good pictures. Good pictures meant good publicity, and Roy would be able to use that in Parliament. “Edward Elric brings a breadth of experience with Amestris’s challenges to our administration, and a new point of view. We’re very much looking forward to working with him.”
With that, Roy stepped off the stage, leaving Edward to the reporters.
Ed stepped forward and gave the short speech that he and Roy had prepared. “It was a great honor to be asked to serve in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet,” he was saying. “I believe that together, we can make a big difference for the people of Amestris.” He went on like that for another minute or so, and then stopped to take questions. Roy watched the press- excited and eager- and he watched Ed- clearly nervous, but masking it well.
“Mr. Elric,” the first reporter asked. “What contributions do you think you’ll be able to make to Prime Minister Mustang’s policy?” It was a softball question; his media staff had puposefully chosen to start with a reporter from a pro-Mustang paper.
“I spent a lot of my life traveling all over Amestris, trying to solve people’s problems,” Ed answered, “I got to meet and interact with people first-hand, and so I think I understand the local issues better than most politicians who’ve spent their whole lives in Central. I’m hoping that this will give me an advantage in resolving some of Amestris’s internal disputes.”
Not bad, Roy considered. He would have liked to have heard more about Ed’s degree in history and politics. He also might have mentioned his military career, but Roy couldn’t blame Ed for avoiding that.
“Mr. Elric!” a second reporter asked. “Is it true that you used to be the Fullmetal Alchemist?”
Ed smiled, and Roy was relieved. They’d discussed that he’d have to talk about his past, but Ed’s temper was so volatile. “Yes,” he said. “I was the Fullmetal Alchemist. That was a long time ago, though- I thought we were here to talk about current events, not history!”
“That was nicely handled,” Riza whispered, next to his ear. Roy nodded, his attention fixed on the stage.
“Mr. Elric,” another reporter asked. “What would you say to people who think that you’re too young for such a responsible position?”
Ed laughed, short and sharp. “I’d tell ‘em to take it up with Mustang, not me!”
The room dissolved into laughter. Roy covered his face with a hand, massaging his temples.
“It’s not bad, Roy,” Riza whispered. “It shows he’s not afraid of the question.” She paused. “And that he’s not afraid of you, either.”
“More seriously,” Ed said, raising a hand to silence the last of the laughter. “I was certified as a State Alchemist at the age of twelve. My first career ended when I was sixteen.” He shrugged. “Maybe twenty-eight doesn’t look as young to me as it does to some.”
Roy smiled. It was a good answer; emphasizing his status as a child prodigy without sounding like bragging. Ed was politically savvy, when he could be bothered to be.
“Mr. Elric,” another reporter said, raising his hand to be recognized. “Why did you resign as a State Alchemist? There are those who say you left because you opposed the demilitarization of the program.”
Roy froze, watching Ed carefully. Ed smiled, and Roy relaxed, fractionally. “I would think the fact that I’m joining Roy Mustang’s government should be proof enough that I’m not against demilitarization,” he said, lightly.
He turned to take another question, but the reporter interrupted. “But why did you resign?” he asked again.
Ed smiled lightly, and sighed. “I suppose I should get this out of the way,” he said. “I know there’s been curiosity about that over the years.” He took a deep breath. “I didn’t resign. I was mustered out on a medical discharge.”
This was the beginning of the story he and Ed had worked out. And this part was true, actually. Roy had insisted on it at the time. Ed hadn’t wanted to take it; he’d tossed the watch at Roy twice before Roy’d managed to talk him into accepting the discharge. In the end, it had been Ed’s concern over Al’s welfare that had convinced him to take it and the accompanying pension.
“I was badly injured during the fighting in Central twelve years ago,” Ed continued, solemnly. “I no longer practice alchemy.” These were also both true, without touching on highly illegal transmutations or Ed’s unexplainable sacrifice on his brother’s behalf. “Fortunately,” Ed said smiling, “None of that interferes with my ability to work hard for Amestris today.”
The room exploded with questions, but Ed waved them all off. “That’s enough for today,” he said, stepping off the platform.
“Good end there,” Roy said, quietly, as they walked away from the room. “And I’m impressed that you made it out of the room with your temper intact.” He suppressed a smile.
Ed grimaced. “Please tell me you’re not going to make me do that anymore,” he said, baring his teeth.
“It would probably be prudent for you to give a few personal interviews,” Roy said, thoughtfully. “There’s going to be questions about you. But you can rest easy- from now on, I get to deal with the press, and you get to deal with rioting factory workers.”
“Thank god,” Ed said, with total sincerity.
I couldn't resist the idea of Ed giving a press conference. If he seems a little OOC here, it's because he's really trying to put on a good face for the cameras.
Chapter 3: Whispers in the Dark
That evening, after all the excitement had died down, Al found himself in the private apartments of the Prime Minister of Amestris. “We’ll stay with Roy and Riza,” Ed had told him, off-handedly, when they had talked about the trip. “They’ll expect it. Besides, no one else really has space. Roy’ll probably cook; he usually does, unless he’s being lazy.”
That was, of course, exactly what had happened. Roy had gotten caught up in business, but Riza had escorted them back to the Prime Minister’s mansion herself. Calling her “Riza” was strange. Al really wasn’t comfortable calling her by her first name, but she lacked a rank to use, and “Mrs. Mustang” didn’t even sound like he was talking about the right person. The idea of Roy and Riza being married was still strange to Al, too- though not as much as it could have been. Al had always been able to see how much they cared for each other, even back when he hadn’t actually had eyes to see with.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Riza asked, politely, as they settled into the living room.
Ed tossed his suitcase to the side of the room and flopped himself face first on the couch with a groan. “Anything alcoholic,” he said, dramatically.
Riza rolled her eyes. “Al?” she asked, turning to him.
“Could I have some tea?” he asked.
She smiled. “That sounds good. I think I’ll have some myself. Ed? Would you like a cup?”
“Not unless you pour some scotch in it,” he said, his face muffled by the cushions.
"Alphonse," Riza said, "Would you come keep me company?”
Al followed Riza into the kitchen. She took the kettle from the stove and began filling it with water. "You grew up," she said, softly.
"I guess," Al said, and smiled. "You still look the same," he offered.
"No, I don't," she said, smiling. She set the kettle on the burner, and fished for a match. "I'm always losing them," she said, looking around. "I can't even blame Roy; he doesn't use them."
Al looked around and then plucked a box off the shelf behind Riza. "Flame alchemy is still something I don't understand," he said, handing her the matches. "I mean, it's all about transmuting flammable materials and then controlling their pressure and movement, but having enough control to direct the explosions just seems impossible!"
"I understand that you know something about impossible alchemy," she said, adjusting the burner.
Al shrugged. "Brother's very worried about that," he said. He hated that Ed had done this; that he'd signed himself over to the government for Al's sake. Again. If anyone deserved rest and happiness, it was Ed, and Al had dragged him back into this mess- "Can we talk about that later?" he asked. "I don't want to think about alchemy now."
"That's fine," Riza said, shrugging. She busied herself finding cups and warming the teapot. "How are you adjusting to being back in Amestris?" she asked. "I remember how strange it was, coming back from Ishval."
"Xing is really different," Al said, "And I was there for a long time.” He paused. “I think the worst part is how much everyone’s changed,” he said, solemnly. “It’s like I had a photograph in my mind of everyone just the way I left them, and now everything’s different, and I wasn’t there for any of it.”
Riza nodded. “It’s hard to believe how much can change in five years.”
“Riza!” Roy’s voice preceded him into the kitchen. “There’s an Elric drooling on my couch.”
Al got to his feet. “That sounds like Brother,” he sighed.
“It’s fine,” Roy said, motioning Al to sit back down. “Leave him be. He’s had a long day.”
“We had to get up very early to catch the train,” Al agreed.
Roy unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows. “I told him he should have come out here yesterday,” he said, and went to the sink to wash his hands.
“He didn’t want to be away from Winry for a whole extra night,” Al said, smiling. “He wouldn’t like me saying so, though. Brother is so repressed.”
Roy laughed, drying his hands. “To be honest, I think he only managed to propose to Winry because little Al was half-started already.”
Al grinned. “That’s not quite true,” he said. The kettle began whistling, and Roy grabbed it off the burner, and poured the tea into the pot.
“Really,” Roy drawled, with a tone of great interest. “Tell me about this, Alphonse. I must know.”
“He actually proposed to her a long time before they got married,” Al said, slyly. “Winry told me about it. It was at the train station, right before he left to go out West.”
“What did he say?” Roy asked, grinning, pulling food out of the icebox.
“Apparently, he told her that he was giving her half his life, and Equivalent Exchange meant that she had to give him half of hers.” Al smiled. “She called him an idiot, and offered him the whole thing instead.”
Riza half-smiled. “That sounds like Winry,” she said.
“Then he started laughing and accused her of trying to overturn the Law of Equivalent Exchange,” Al finished.
“Very smooth,” Roy commented, dicing onions. “Also very Ed.”
“Smooth enough. She waited for him, after all,” Riza pointed out. “Besides," she added, her eyes twinkling, "It's not as though your proposal was so much more romantic."
Alphonse grinned. "Tell me!" he said.
Riza got up, and pulled the strainer out of the teapot, pressing on the wet tea with a spoon. "It was the day we resigned our commissions," she said. "We'd gone to see Fuhrer Grumman personally. We turned in our IDs and our service weapons-"
"Which was a purely symbolic gesture, by the way," Roy said, interrupting. "I wouldn't want you to think that Hawkeye didn't still have guns."
Riza ignored him. "Before we left the office, Roy insisted that we both take off our uniform jackets. Then, as we were walking down the hall to leave Central HQ, he said-"
"I said," Roy interrupted again, his voice soft. “‘Hawkeye, when we started on this path, you promised to follow me into hell if you had to. I'd like to ask you to walk beside me now instead.’"
Al smiled, accepting a cup of tea from Riza. "What did you say to that?" he asked her.
"She kissed me," Roy put in, grinning. "So apparently it was romantic enough for her."
Riza shrugged. "But I’ve got no romance in my soul," she pointed out.
Roy snorted. “Then it’s a good thing I know my audience, isn’t it?” He scraped his onions and garlic into a pan, and pulled out some carrots. “What about you, Alphonse? Surely Mei demanded something suitably lurid.”
Al smiled. “Yes,” he said. “It was very traditional. Roses, and a moonlit carriage ride, and a ring- which isn’t at all how they do marriage proposals in Xing, by the way, but I knew Mei would like it. She thinks Amestrian traditions are exotic.”
“It’s a matter of what you’re used to, I imagine,” Riza said, and sipped her tea.
“I had to ask Ling for permission before I could ask Mei, though,” Al said, cheerfully. “You’re not allowed to just start courting an Imperial Princess without permission from the emperor, especially if you’re a commoner and a foreigner like me.”
“What did he say?” Roy asked, looking back at Al with curiosity.
“He laughed,” Al said. “For a really, really long time. Then he said that he already knew that my brother liked dangerous women, but he hadn’t expected it of me. Which is hypocritical of him, by the way, because everyone at court knows that he loves Lan Fan even if he can’t marry her, and she’s way more dangerous than Mei and Winry put together. Then he told me, ‘if that crazy Chang princess has decided that she wants you, I’m not going to try to talk her out of it.’ Then he wished me luck.”
“That’s sad,” Riza said, quietly. “About Ling and Lan Fan, I mean. It’s a terrible thing, to love someone that you can’t be with.”
Al nodded. “It’s funny, because here it would be a scandal. I guess it would be a scandal there, too, if he tried to marry her, or she got pregnant or something. As it is, though, they all seem to think it’s terribly romantic. People write love songs and novels about them.”
“Forbidden love is a lot more interesting from the outside than the inside,” Riza said, shrugging.
Roy turned suddenly, pulled steaks out of the icebox, and started trimming them. “Go ahead and wake Ed up,” he said. “Dinner will be done by the time he’s up and washed and ready.”
Al came awake suddenly in the night, not sure what had roused him. A few moments of tossing convinced him that he wasn’t going to fall back asleep immediately. Sighing, he got up, and headed for the bathroom. Halfway there, he realized what must have woken him up. From behind Ed’s door, Al could hear what sounded like muffled crying. Al froze with his hand halfway to Ed’s doorknob. It was probably a nightmare. Back when he and Ed had last been together, Brother had been prone to them. Al had gotten used to comforting Ed in the night- but that had been a long time ago. Al wasn’t at all sure whether his brother would still want that comfort, or if he might consider it an imposition...
There was another muffled cry, and Al made his choice. He opened the door. Ed lay on the bed, twisted up in the sheets. He was sweating, and his teeth were gritted. “Nnnggh,” he moaned, and turned sharply.
“Brother?” Al called, softly. He always identified himself before getting too close. “Brother, it’s me.” Al approached Ed cautiously. He carefully positioned his fingers near Ed’s nose. Scent helped Ed recognize him sometimes, especially if he was having nightmares about Envy. Suddenly, Al wondered whether he still smelled familiar enough for Ed to know that it was him.
“Aahh...” Ed cried, his cheeks dry.
“Brother, wake up,” Al told him, gently. He put his hand on Ed’s shoulder. “It’s a nightmare, Brother. Wake up.”
Ed gasped, his eyes snapping open. “Al?” he asked, shakily.
“Yes, Brother,” Al said encouragingly. “It’s me.”
With a groan, Ed grabbed Al’s wrist and pulled himself to sitting. He leaned forward, his forehead coming to rest against Al’s collarbone. He sat like that, shaking, for a long moment. His fingers clutched Al’s wrist tightly enough that it actually hurt, but Al endured it. “You’re here,” Ed choked out.
“I’m here, Brother,” he agreed. “I’m safe. I’m back in my body. Winry’s in Resembool with Al and Sara and Mei and Trisha. They’re all safe, too. Everyone’s safe.” Al had learned early on that Ed never needed to be told that he was okay. When Ed woke in a cold sweat in the night, he needed to know that the people he loved were safe, that he could rest, that he didn’t have to fight for anyone anymore.
Slowly, little by little, Ed relaxed into his brother. “All safe,” he said, echoing Al.
Ed’s eyelids drooped, and Al eased him back into his bed. He put a hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Rest, brother,” he said, fondly. “You don’t have to worry anymore. Just rest. Dream about Winry, and pie, and little Al and Sara playing in the pond...”
“Okay... Al...” Ed murmured, his eyes closing. Al stayed for another few minutes, watching to see whether Ed’s nightmare would reassert itself. He looked so peaceful, lying there. Al was reminded of all those years he’d spent watching Ed sleep for hours at a time. Ed wasn’t so small anymore. But then again, Al wasn’t as tall as he used to be, either.
He got up and let himself carefully out of the room, trying to make no noise. When he turned away from the door, he was startled to see Riza standing there. She was wearing sleeping pants and a loose robe. Al felt a little awkward seeing her in such intimate circumstances.
“Good,” she said, quietly, nodding towards the door. “I usually do that. It takes me much longer than it did for you, though.”
“Does he have nightmares often?” Al blurted out. He hated seeing his brother in that kind of pain. He’d hoped that, in all these years, Ed’s dreams might have gotten easier.
“Almost never when he’s at home,” Riza said. “Or so Winry tells me. Sometimes when he’s here, though, especially if it’s been a stressful day. We tried just leaving him alone, but he hurt himself thrashing around.” She paused, a smile stealing over her lips. “I don’t think he realizes that it’s almost always Roy who hears him. Roy thinks that Ed would prefer it if I’m the one to wake him.”
“He’s probably right,” Al said, dryly. “You’re also a lot less likely to get punched in the face.”
Riza’s eyes twinkled with silent laughter. “Do you need anything, Alphonse?” she asked. “If not, I’ll be going back to bed.”
“No,” Al said. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Riza said.
I seem to be writing whatever bits of this universe pop into my brain in a scattered sort of fashion. So, today, you get lots of Al and Riza.
Chapter 4: Rocky Beginnings
Ed looked around the room, wondering for the first time if he was in over his head. This was his first meeting with his new subordinates. Almost everyone in the room was- by Ed's estimation- at least a decade older than him. The only ones younger were aides and assistants. "Good morning," Ed said, breaking the awkward silence. The other people in the room murmured and nodded their hellos. After a moment, Ed was compelled to continue. "Ah-" he said, brilliantly. "I'm looking forward to working with all of you," he added, because it seemed like the sort of thing he should say.
“Would you like us to begin our briefings, Minister?” one of the men near the door offered, after a long moment.
“You don’t have to call me that,” Ed said, almost automatically. The people- his subordinates, he corrected himself- stared at him. Ed looked around the room at them. Mostly, their expressions were cautious, maybe a bit nervous. Some of them looked impatient or irritated. Ed knew exactly where that came from. He had spent his childhood holding a title that grown men only aspired to; he was familiar with that particular kind of resentment. He took a deep breath, and considered. He intended to do this job right- partly to prove to Mustang that he could, but mostly because Amestris needed someone who wasn’t going to fuck this up. And if he was going to do this, he had to start by winning over the people at this table.
Ed stood up, his fingers spread on the surface of the table in front of him. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Edward Elric. You can all call me ‘Ed’.” He looked around, making eye contact with as many of them as he could. “Look- we’re going to be a team. We’re supposed to be the ones dealing with Amestris’s day-to-day problems. I want all of you focused on working together to solve those problems, not worrying about who you’re going to have to suck up to.” There was a little bit of nervous laughter in response to that. Which was good, Ed figured- it was a start, at least. “Now,” he continued, trying for a little bit of deference in his tone. It would help with those who thought that he was an arrogant kid, lording it over them. “You are the experts on the real work that gets done in this Ministry. Educate me, please. I need to know everything.”
Roy looked across his desk at the man seated there. “Are you sure you want to do this now, Alphonse?” he asked. “I’m sure your brother would like to be present for this discussion.”
“I’m sure he would,” Al said, firmly. “But this is my project, not Brother’s.”
Roy nodded. He was just as happy that way- Ed could be... emotional, where his brother was concerned. “Fair enough,” he said. “So, explain to me exactly what you want to do, Alphonse.”
Al nodded, straightened in his chair. “I want to start a school. Nothing large, at least at first. Mei and I would teach, and maybe a few other people as well. I asked Brother, but I guess he’ll be pretty busy for a while.”
Roy meant to let Alphonse speak his piece, but he had to break in at that. “You want Ed to teach at an alchemy school?”
Al nodded, firmly. “I don’t want him to teach alchemy,” he said. “Not that he couldn’t teach the theory, of course. But other people can teach alchemy. I want Brother to teach ethics.”
Well, that made a terrible sort of sense. “You understand that we can’t let the truth about your brother’s sacrifices be generally known,” he said, cautiously. “Human transmutation is still illegal, and for good reason. There’s no statute of limitations on it, either. You and your brother could still be prosecuted for it.”
“I know,” Al said. “But still- Brother understands what alchemy is and what it means better than anyone else in Amestris. Or in Xing, probably.”
“And he walked away from it,” Roy said, dryly. “What does that say about the rest of us fool alchemists?”
Alphonse laughed, and his golden eyes looked a little weary. “I’ve considered that a lot, over the last few years.”
“Is it true?” Roy asked, suddenly. He had to know. “Edward gave me a report about what you learned to do in Xing. Is it as bad as he says?”
“Probably worse,” Al said. He looked sad. “My alchemy can be used for many things, you know. It’s not just a weapon. Brother looks at it, and all he sees is the danger.”
Roy caught himself rubbing the back of his right hand, where there was still the faint outline of an array. “Once you’ve seen alchemy used to kill, it’s hard to ignore the possibilities,” Roy said, softly. “Alphonse, why do you want to do this? There aren’t any alchemy schools, and you know why.”
Al nodded. “Alchemy is dangerous. It’s taught master to student, or through coded texts, so that students aren’t given knowledge they can’t use responsibly.” He frowned. “But I’m proof that that system doesn’t work.” He paused. “And please forgive me, Roy, but so are you. Maybe if we stop working so hard at guarding our knowledge so closely, we’ll have the energy to teach people not to abuse that power.”
Roy stood, his body tense. He turned away, looking out the windows of his office. “I swore that I would be the last Flame Alchemist,” he said. “Someone that I love sacrificed a great deal so that no one else would ever be the kind of weapon I was.”
“Brother is frightened that someone will try to make me into a weapon, too,” Al said, glumly.
“He should be,” Roy said, frankly. “Not just for you, but for the world. The idea of living in a world where that kind of destruction is possible...”
“I didn’t set out on this path to find destruction,” Al said, his voice tainted with sorrow. “But I can’t unlearn this. The knowledge is in the world now. All I can do is try to direct it as best I can.”
Roy turned. Alphonse sat quietly with his hands folded into his lap, his wide eyes looking up at Roy. Help me, he didn’t say. Roy groaned. He’d never been able to stop trying to look after the Elric boys, not from the moment he’d first heard a child’s voice coming from that empty suit of armor. “If you think this is the right decision,” Roy said, “I’ll back you, Alphonse.”
Al smiled, his eyes sad. “Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Roy said, sitting back down at his desk. “There’s a few details that need to be worked out.”
“Many, I should think,” Al said, and waited.
“Will you accept students from the military?” Roy asked. “This is important. Your brother is right; we’ll have to fight the military over this. It’ll be easier if some of their people can be trained in these new techniques.”
Al shrugged. “There are good people in the military. I won’t rule someone out on that basis. I reserve the right to choose my students, though.” His voice turned steely. “If anyone tries to make me teach a student I don’t care to teach, I’ll close the school.” He cocked his head. “But for the moment, I’ll trust in the treaties that say that Amestris won’t use alchemists on the battle field.”
Roy nodded uneasily. “We can discuss location and teachers later. The curriculum will be entirely at your discretion. There is one more thing, though. I warn you, your brother won’t like it.”
Two days later:
Ed was exhausted. He’d spent the last two days talking to practically every person in the entire Ministry, almost down to the coffee boys. He slumped at his desk, rubbing his eyes.
“Sir?” a youngish man said, walking into his office with a sheaf of papers. He was some sort of junior undersecretary, Ed was pretty sure. He vaguely remembered meeting the man. Now, if only he could remember his name...
“Call me Ed,” he told the man, almost by rote. He’d repeated that spiel a hundred times. “Sorry, what’s up?” he asked.
“Er,” the man said. “You’re Edward Elric, right? You’re-”
“-the Fullmetal Alchemist, yes,” Ed said, sighing. “Or I used to be, anyway. Why?”
The other man shook his head. “No, it’s just that- you wrote War and the Founding of Amestris, didn’t you?”
Ed looked at the man more closely. Slowly, he started to smile. “Yeah,” he said, surprised. He'd been famous as the Fullmetal Alchemist, but no one ever recognized him for his work as an adult. “That was my first book. It was based on my dissertation research.”
The man smiled back, and relaxed a little. “I wasn’t sure you were the same Edward Elric!” he said. “I just wanted to tell you that I loved that book. Your analysis of the Aerugian Separation Wars was brilliant, and your scholarship was meticulous. It was the basis for parts of my own thesis, so, thank you.” he paused. “Although, I had never realized that the scholar Edward Elric was so young!”
“Why don’t you give me a copy of your thesis sometime?” Ed asked. “I’d be interested to read it.” It was true. After the Promised Day, after alchemy, Ed had been haunted by the way the homunculi had manipulated the people of Amestris. He’d wanted to understand, and he’d found his answers studying history, and politics, and everything he could find to learn about the way that human beings function in the aggregate. He’d almost been surprised to find that the studying was satisfying in its own right.
“Really, sir?” the other man said, breaking into a grin. “I mean, Ed. Yes, I’d be honored to hear what you think of it, if you really want to read it.”
“Is that the only reason you came in here, though?” Ed nodded to the papers, as if to say are those for me?
“Oh, right, sir! Er, Ed!” He handed the papers to Ed. “These are your newest briefs. I’ll just get out of your hair.”
“Thank you,” Ed said, with his first real smile in two days. He began reading through the briefs.
Roy was sipping a cup of coffee when his door banged open.
“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Ed screamed. He crossed the room in two steps and stood in front of Roy’s desk.
Roy looked up at him, fighting the impulse to flinch. “What is it?” he asked, mildly.
Ed looked like he was fighting the urge to strangle Roy with his bare hands. “What?” he snarled, his teeth bared. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice? I’m the Minister of the fucking Interior, you asshole, if it happens in Amestris, I KNOW!”
“Ah,” Roy said, resigned.
Ed stared at him, his gold eyes gone molten, his body shaking with rage. “How could you do this?” he asked, his voice cold. “I trusted you. You fucking bastard, I trusted you and you did this again!”
“Ed,” Roy tried, carefully. He was pretty sure that the only time that Ed had ever been this angry, the stupid bastard had gone on to curb stomp a god. “Ed, calm down and listen to me-”
Ed screamed, and swung a fist in the direction of Roy’s face. Roy did flinch then- only to find Ed pinned suddenly by Breda and Havoc, one on each side of him.
“Hey, Chief,” Havoc said, trying for casual, “You want to tell us what’s going on here? I mean, we’ve all wanted to punch the boss in the face now and again, but-”
“Fucking LET ME GO!” Ed shouted through gritted teeth. He struggled against Breda and Havoc, but didn’t break free. He probably could have, Roy reflected, but not without hurting them. “LET ME GO!” Ed screamed, louder this time.
Suddenly, Al’s voice broke into Ed’s screaming. “Brother?” he said, from the doorway. “Brother, stop it.”
“Al,” Ed said, teeth still bared, voice dangerous. “Did you agree to this?”
“Yes, Brother,” Al said. “I didn’t mean for you to find out like this. I was trying to work out how to tell you, but you’ve been so busy we haven’t talked, and it never occurred to me that you’d find out from your job...”
Ed sagged, his head bowed. Suddenly, Havoc and Breda were holding him up, not holding him back. Al pulled out a chair, and they dropped Ed into it. “Okay,” Ed said after a moment, his voice eerily calm. He tidied his clothes and stood up, not looking at Al.
“Brother,” Al said, earnestly, “The State Alchemist program isn’t what it used to be. It’s not even part of the military anymore. It’s okay! I mean, it’s what you wanted, right? I’m in the civil government, and I get to have my school. This just... makes things easier.”
Ed turned, and looked his brother up and down. He reached out, pulling at the silver chain he found on Al’s hip. The watch came out into his hand, and he stared at it for a long moment. Suddenly, he dropped it, pulling his hand away as if he’d been burned. Ed turned away and walked out of the room.
There was a stunned silence. Finally, it was broken by Al. He dropped into a chair, his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking. Roy came around his desk, ignoring a Havoc and Breda who looked horrified by the whole situation. Roy put a hand on Alphonse’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” he told him.
Al’s hands dropped, curled into loose fists. His cheeks were dry, but his eyes were red. “Brother always has to be so dramatic,” he said, softly.
“He’ll calm down,” Roy offered. “We knew he wouldn’t be happy about this.”
“I didn’t think he’d look at me like that,” Al said, morose. “Like I’d betrayed him.”
Roy didn’t have anything useful to say to that.
“Well,” Al said, after a moment, “I’d better go after him.” He smiled at Roy, and was gone.
Al eventually found him sitting at the fountain, staring into space. “I’m sorry, Al,” he said, “That was out of line. I probably owe Roy an apology, too.”
Al sat down next to him. “I’m sorry I didn’t just tell you, Brother,” he said. “I knew you wouldn’t be happy about it.”
Ed nodded. “I worked so hard to get rid of that watch,” he said, quietly. “To see you with one chained to you...” he trailed off. “So, you’re a State Alchemist, now, huh?” he said, trying for a weak smile.
Al nodded. “The treaties about alchemists make it really difficult for the government to employ one otherwise. I could have opened my school on my own and had the administration’s unofficial backing, if I had wanted to stay independent. This way, though, the school is part of my duties as a State Alchemist, and the expenses come out of my research budget.”
Ed nodded. “I know things have changed,” he said. “And you’re an adult. You can make your own decisions. You’re probably smarter than me, Al,” he said, smiling, “I’m sorry if it seemed like I didn’t trust your judgment.”
“It’s alright, Brother,” Al said.
“So,” Ed asked, “What are they calling you?”
Al colored a little. “The Life’s-blood Alchemist,” he said.
“Life’s-blood? Really?” Ed blew out his breath. “That’s morbid as all hell.”
“I know,” Al said, mournfully. “It’s not inappropriate, I guess.”
“Mustang better not go around calling you ‘Life’s-blood’ now,” Ed said, scowling.
Al shrugged. “I think he only called you ‘Fullmetal’ all the time to remind everyone that you weren’t just a kid. He never used to call the other State Alchemists by their code-names.”
Ed snorted. “So why does he still do it?” he asked.
“To annoy you,” Al said, matter-of-factly. Ed smiled. He relaxed, leaning back. Suddenly, he winced. Alarmed, Al catalogued Ed’s appearance, and noticed for the first time the way his right hand was cradled gingerly in his lap. “Brother!” he said, reaching for the hand. “You’re hurt!”
Ed drew back. “I’m okay, Al,” he said. Al ignored him, and pulled Ed’s hand out to examine it. It was bruised and bleeding. Al spread the digits gently, trying to check for broken bones. “I punched a wall,” Ed said, sheepishly. “Don’t worry, the wall’s fine.”
“Oh, Brother,” Al said, sighing. “What am I going to do with you?” He touched his fingers together, and then laid them on Ed’s hand. There was a crackling of blue lightning, and the worst of the open wounds closed.
“Thanks, Al,” Ed said, flexing his hand. “Little Brother,” he said, his face suddenly serious, his eyes locked with Al’s. “I want you to make me a promise.”
“What, Brother?” Al said, concerned.
“Al and Sara,” Ed said. “You have to promise to me not to take them as students. Once they’re adults, they can make their own choices. But until they’re of age, I don’t want you to so much as hand them an alchemy book. Do you understand?”
Al was taken aback. “Brother?” he asked, his voice small. “Do you hate alchemy that much?”
Ed smiled sadly. “No, Al,” he said. “I don’t hate it. But I don’t trust it, either. Alchemy... hasn’t been kind to our family, Al.”
“No,” Al said. “I guess it hasn’t. I promise, Brother.”
“Thanks,” Ed said. He stood up, flexing his hand again. “I’ll teach at your school, if you want me. I’ll be pretty busy, but I should be able to fit in a class here and there.”
Al nodded. “Good,” he said. “My students should learn not to trust alchemy.”
I bet you thought that Ed's "latest book" (as mentioned in the first chapter) was about alchemy. Nope- Ed is a political historian now, as much as he bothers to be anything but a husband and father. He still studies alchemy, too, but he keeps his books in a locked box at the post office, and not in his house.
Ed still has words to say to Roy. That will come later. Ed is pretty calm at the end mostly because he likes his brother more than he likes Roy.
Also, Al is an atom bomb. Poor guy.
Chapter 5: Bears
"Children!" Winry called, standing at the door, "Lunchtime!" There was no answer.
"Al! Sara!" she tried again. "Time to come in for lunch!" Still, no response.
Winry scowled. She crossed her arms and took a deep breath. "Alphonse and Sara Elric, if you don't stop ignoring me and get your butts inside this house in the next five seconds, I will NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CONSEQUENCES!" She crossed her arms. "Five!" she shouted, menacingly. "Four! Three-"
Two small blond shapes suddenly materialized in front of her. "Inside and wash your hands," Winry said, pointing imperiously. "And use soap, both of you." Al rolled his eyes, and he and his sister went inside. "And use the sink in the bathroom, Alphonse, not the surgery," she added, as he walked away, "That one's for surgery and it has to be kept clean!"
"I know, Mom!" he called back on his way to the bathroom.
Behind her, Mei started giggling. “Shh!” Winry said, smiling. “They can sense weakness.”
“You sound like my grandmother,” Mei said, her eyes twinkling. “You have a very commanding voice, just like her! I should pay attention- I will need that voice in a few years.”
“It takes a lot of time and effort to develop,” Winry agreed, grinning. “I got in a lot of practice on Ed when we were growing up.”
Mei laughed. “I can only hope that our children will be less high-strung than Edward was!”
“I think I’m out of luck on that one,” Winry said, throwing up her hands. “But I guess I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to make babies with Edward Elric.” She walked into the kitchen to set the table for lunch.
“I am grateful that Alphonse is so much calmer than his brother,” Mei said, following her. “Knowing Edward the way I do now, it’s hard to believe that I ever had a crush on him!”
“Oh, ho!” Winry said, setting out plates. “You had a crush on Ed? When was this?”
“Before I met him,” Mei said, matter-of-factly. She took a stack of napkins from Winry and started laying them out. “I kept hearing all these stories about the Fullmetal Alchemist. He sounded so brave and handsome and exotic! I made up all these stories in my head about how he would be my Amestrian prince, and carry me back to Xing to help me save my clan. I was very young and foolish.”
“Yeah, that sounds like a dream someone could only have before meeting Ed,” Winry said, dryly.
Mei laughed. “Exactly! I was so angry the first time I actually saw him. He was pinned to the ground, screaming and swearing and covered with blood. He was nothing like I’d imagined him.”
“And shorter than you imagined, too, I bet,” Winry said, smirking.
“Yes!” Mei dissolved into a fit of giggles. “Fortunately for both of us, I’d grown up a little before Alphonse came to see me again in Xing.”
“Ah,” Winry said, waving a finger, “But you didn’t even have to settle! Alphonse really is brave and handsome and tall. And he’s even a prince now, I guess, since he married you!”
“A consort, actually,” Mei corrected. “But alchemists are like princes, here in Amestris.”
“I guess,” Winry said, shrugging. She smiled. “I never cared about him being a prince or an alchemist. I just wanted Ed, home and safe and happy.” She shook herself. “Al!” she shouted. “Sara! If you’re playing in the sink again, neither of us is going to like what happens. Finish with your hands, and get in here!”
Mei smiled at her. “That is what I always wanted for Alphonse, too,” she said.
They had sandwiches and fruit and chopped vegetables for lunch. Winry finished her food and looked around the table. Al and Sara were fighting over who was going to get the last carrot stick. Mei sat at the table, smiling and nursing Trisha.
“Greedy, greedy baby,” Winry said, smiling nostalgically. “Can I get you anything else, Mei?”
“More water?” Mei asked, nodding to her empty glass.
Winry picked it up and walked into the kitchen. “I was always thirsty too, back when I was nursing my little monsters!” she said.
“We made you thirsty, Mommy?” Sara asked, when she came back in the room.
“Well, I had to make milk for you, didn’t I?” Winry said, smiling. “Just like Auntie Mei makes milk for little Trisha. It’s hard work, and you needed lots of milk so you could grow huge!” Winry hugged her daughter, feeling the small body against her.
“I’m not huge,” Sara said, stubbornly, squirming away from her mother. “Brother is the huge one.”
“Yeah,” Al said, “You’re a tiny little shrimp, Sister.”
“You’re a big gorilla,” Sara said, shoving him. “And I’m a little dragon that breathes fire, so your stupid fur burns up.”
“Yeah?” Al said, shoving her back. “Then I’m a huge dragon that can stomp you flat!”
“And I’m the big mama bear that eats you both all up!” Winry said, and growled at both of them, doing her best Ed impression.
“Mooooom,” whined Al, “You can’t eat us.”
“Who says I can’t?” Winry argued, her hands on her hips.
“You can’t eat us ‘cause we’re your cubs!” Sara said.
Winry laughed. “I guess that’s right. Well, little bear cubs, it’s a good thing that I just fed you, or Mei might have to worry.”
“Why should I worry?” Mei said, airily. “I am the seventeenth royal sister of the Emperor of Xing. I am a master of the Purification Arts, and a skilled warrior. I’m not afraid of bears or dragons.”
“Auntie Mei doesn’t have to worry anyway,” Sara said, rolling her eyes. “She’s our Auntie, and baby Trisha is our cousin. So they must be bears, too! And bears don’t ever eat other bears.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Winry said. “Now, both of you take your plates into the kitchen. It’s almost time to listen to Daddy’s broadcast.”
“Brother!” Sara said, jumping up, “Daddy’s going to be on the radio! I almost forgot!”
“I didn’t,” Al said. “You’re just dumb.”
“Am not,” Sara said, punching her brother’s arm. “And I’m faster than you, too!”
She took off running into the kitchen, and Al followed her. Winry got down the wireless and started fiddling with the knobs.
“They are announcing his new position with the government?” Mei asked.
“Yes,” Winry said. “Then the reporters will probably ask him some questions. Everyone in Resembool is excited about it! Probably the rest of Amestris doesn’t care, though.”
Finally, she got it tuned to the right channel, in time to fill the room with Roy Mustang’s velvety bass voice. “-tireless worker for the people of Amestris, but he needs to look after his health and his family. Replacing him in as the new Interior Minister will be Edward Elric,” he was saying.
“That’s Daddy!” Sara squealed, running headlong into the room. “That’s Daddy that’s Daddy that’s Daddy!”
“Shut up, Sister, I’m trying to listen!” Al said, saving Winry the trouble. She still shot Al a don’t-tell-your-sister-to-shut-up look before turning back to the radio. Ed was speaking now.
“It was a great honor to be asked to serve in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. I believe that together, we can make a big difference for the people of Amestris,” Ed said, his voice coming from the speaker. It sounded strange through the radio. Tinny and scratchy, but also... different. It was like a stranger’s voice. Winry’s heart ached, wishing that she had him here with her now, worrying about what would come in their future.
They listened until Ed stopped taking questions, and then kept listening as the reporter gave commentary. He didn’t seem to have anything very useful to say. As far as Amestris was concerned, apparently, nothing that Ed Elric had done since the age of sixteen was worth talking about. Winry reached out suddenly and snapped the radio dial to off.
“Mom!” Al protested.
“They were done,” Winry said. “And you two have your afternoon chores, and I have an arm to work on.”
“I think he did well,” Mei said, as the children ran off. “I would not have thought that Edward could be so diplomatic.”
“It’s all those years standing next to Roy Mustang, I suspect,” she said, ruefully.
“Are you going to work on your automail now?” Mei asked, a sleeping Trisha cradled in her arms. “May I watch? It sounds fascinating.”
“Sure,” Winry said, smiling. “I love company, and I’m always happy to talk about automail.”
Mei sat in the rocking chair, watching Trisha scoot around on the living room floor. Winry's voice floated down from upstairs, where she was putting Sara to bed. "I gave my love a cherry that has no stone," she sang. "I gave my love a chicken that has no bone..."
Mei smiled, listening to her sister-in-law sing nonsense to her niece. She reached down and picked up a toy that had fallen next to her foot. She held it out to little Trisha. //Do you want the fishy?// she asked. //You should eat it right up, most precious of little girls!// Trisha burbled, and snatched the toy with her fat little fists.
"Aunt Mei?" little Al said, from where he was sitting on the couch with a book. "Is that how people talk in Xing?"
"Yes," Mei answered, looking up. "Well, it is the most important Xingese language. There are many regional languages, but the one I was speaking is the common tongue, which is spoken by educated people."
"Does Uncle Al speak it, too?" the boy asked, curious. "It sounds really cool."
"Yes,” Mei said. "It was very hard for him to learn, but he speaks it well now. Most of the time!”
Al seemed to consider that. “Do you think you could teach me to speak it too?” he asked. “Baby Trisha will speak it, won’t she? So Sara and I should learn, too, so we can play with her.”
Mei laughed. “I think Trisha will learn to speak Amestrian if we speak Amestrian to her. But I would be happy to teach you to speak my language anyway!”
“But not right now,” Winry said, coming down the stairs. “Because right now is bedtime.”
Al looked over at her, and opened his mouth to whine at her. “Ah-ah!” Winry said, cutting him off. “Teeth brushed, clothes changed, in bed, ten minutes. You can do language lessons with Aunt Mei tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mom,” Al said, and headed up the stairs.
Winry sighed, and flopped herself onto the couch. “Wine,” she said. “The time for tea has passed, and we are well into the time for wine. Are you in, Mei?”
Mei shrugged. “If you like,” she said, affably. She’d just nursed Trisha, and while she didn’t often drink, she was happy to share a glass with Winry. “I don’t think I’ve ever had Amestrian wine,” she said.
“Didn’t Mr. Garfiel even try to get you drunk when you visited us in Rush Valley?” Winry asked, getting up from the couch and heading for the kitchen.
“Oh, no!” Mei called. “Your Mr. Garfiel was such a perfect gentleman.”
“The two are not mutually exclusive,” Winry observed, emerging with a bottle and two glasses. “Although I guess he’d prefer to get Al drunk, of the two of you.” She grinned.
Mei covered her mouth, smiling. “Mr. Garfiel would never do any such thing!” she scolded.
“I don’t know,” Winry teased, her eyes sparkling. “Al is just his type. All tall and broad-shouldered and pretty.” She grinned. “I’m lucky; I’ll never have to worry about him trying to poach Ed from me. He’s much too short for Mr. Garfiel’s taste.”
Mei grinned back. “Big sister!” she said, laughing, “You’ll never have to worry about anyone trying to steal Ed from you. No one else could handle him!”
Winry laughed, and poured a glass of red wine. She handed it over to Mei. “I broke him in young. No one else has my advantages that way.” She flopped back on the couch with her own glass. She raised it in Mei’s direction. “To us,” she said, “And our everlasting patience with our difficult men. And don’t try to tell me Alphonse isn’t difficult, Mei. He’s just as stubborn as Ed; he’s just quieter about it.” She drank.
Mei raised her cup in acknowledgment, and sipped at it. She shrugged. “Are you frightened for Ed?” she asked, suddenly. “I’m so very frightened for Alphonse. Winry- we haven’t told you this, but part of the reason we left Xing is that Alphonse was afraid that the Emperor would try to make him use his alchemy to hurt people. He was starting to speculate about certain theoretical uses for it, and Alphonse thought... he thought it was time to come home.”
Winry took a deep breath, and let it out. “I want to say that Ling’s a good man, and he wouldn’t actually do anything like that, but who knows? Power does strange things to people, and I never knew him that well in the first place.” She sipped at her glass. “I’m frightened for Ed too,” she admitted. “Ed, as a politician? He’s got a good heart, Mei. Every problem he can’t solve- every person he can’t save- it hurts him, even if he can’t show it. I’m afraid that working in the government will break his heart. Or worse, that it will make him hard. I’m afraid that Roy doesn’t understand what he’s asking of Ed, or that he doesn’t care.” She turned aside, looking off into space. “Dammit,” she growled. “Those boys better get back here soon. I got tired of waiting for them a long time ago.”
Trisha yowled, and Mei picked her up and dandled her over her knee. “Will it be difficult to move your business from Resembool?” she asked.
Winry shrugged. “Yes and no,” she said. “I’m not going to be able move the surgery, but it’ll be easier just to get privileges at one of the hospitals in Central anyhow. I understand that’s how automail mechanics usually do it in the big cities. The machine shop would be difficult to move, but I think I’m just going to take my most delicate equipment with me and replace everything else. I’d like this workshop to stay usable- and we’re not selling the house or anything.”
“You want this to be a home still,” Mei said, softly, bouncing her daughter up and down.
Winry nodded. “Wherever we go in Central,” she said, “That’ll be our home. But Resembool will always be home, too.”
Mei found herself tearing up. “Shen Province is still my home. I miss everyone there so much!”
“I’m sorry, Mei,” Winry said. She set down her wine glass, got up, and came over to where Mei was sitting. “I know we’re not the same as the people you’re missing,” she said, putting an arm around Mei, “But we’re your family now, too. And it’s okay to talk to us about it if you’re feeling lonely or homesick.”
Mei smiled. “I know,” she said, gathering Trisha and Winry into a hug. “I’m so happy to be here with you.”
I’ve been thinking of this as my Bechdel Test Pass chapter, but actually, this fic passed back in chapter 1 when Mei and Winry were talking about Winry babysitting Trisha. Regardless, it’s about time that the ladies got some stage time.
Mei thinks that Winry is singing nonsense, but actually, she’s singing a riddle song.
My son addresses his older sister pretty much exclusively as “Sister”. I think it’s adorable, and having little Al do the same thing makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.
Chapter 6: Apologies
Riza leaned back in her chair, massaging her neck. She had spent the afternoon in her study, going over the press reports from the West. Roy was going to have to go out there next week, and she wanted a good idea of what he was stepping into. What he and Ed were stepping into, she corrected herself. The riots were officially Ed’s problem now, too.
The phone rang. It was the personal line; only Roy or his immediate staff ever used it. "Hello," she said, answering it.
"Hawkeye," Roy said. His voice sounded tired.
"Mustang," she returned, waiting for him to explain his reasons for calling.
"I'm not sure whether the Elrics are going to be staying with us tonight," he said, formally. "Well, Ed at least. I just wanted to keep you informed."
Riza could hear the tension in his voice. "Are they going back to Resembool?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said, frustrated.
"What happened?" she asked, because there wasn't any doubt that something had.
"Ed found out about Al's appointment," Roy said, his voice flat.
Riza froze. "You didn't tell him?" she asked. "He found out on his own?"
“I thought Al would talk to him about it,” Roy said defensively. “We were going to tell him, but he found out before-”
“You’re an idiot, Mustang,” she told him.
“He overreacted!” Roy argued. “It was like he was a teenager again. He was being completely irrational. There were good reasons to make Al a State Alchemist, and he wouldn’t even listen.”
“Did you explain any of those reasons to him?” Riza asked. “Before he found out that his brother was carrying a pocketwatch, I mean?” Roy was silent. “You’re both idiots,” she said. “You and Al. But you should know better.”
“That’s not fair, Riza,” he protested.
“Ed’s spent his whole life trying to protect Al,” she said. “You understand that, Roy. How would you react if someone walked up and told you that I’d been assigned as the personal assistant to the Fuhrer?”
Roy was quiet on the end of the line. “I guess I knew that,” he said, eventually. “I just... hated to add it on top of everything else Ed has going on right now.”
Riza sighed. “It’s not kindness to keep someone in the dark,” she said. “I’d’ve thought you would have learned that by now.”
“You’re right,” Roy said, resigned.
“Of course,” Riza answered.
“Will you-” he started.
“If the Elrics come here, I’ll tell them you want to talk to them,” she finished for him.
“Don’t-” he started again.
“I won’t let Ed do anything he regrets,” she assured him.
“Riza...” he said, quietly.
“I know,” she said.
“I better go talk to Mustang, huh?” Ed said, sighing. He looked up at his little brother, standing there in his weird-looking Xingese clothes. He’d felt so angry before. Now, he just felt tired, and a little sad. “I think I’m getting old, Al,” he said, suddenly.
Al laughed his clear, light laugh. “You’re only twenty-eight, Brother,” he said. “You have your whole life ahead of you.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve got two or three lives behind me already,” Ed said.
Al was quiet for a long moment. “I know what you mean,” he said.
“What time is it?” Ed asked, archly.
Sheepishly, Al took out his new watch to check the time. Ed reached for it. It was heavy in his hand, the embossed symbol familiar against his fingertips. In a practiced movement, Ed pushed in the catch, popping the watch open. He stared for a long moment at the inside of the watch case.
“Brother?” Al asked, his shoulders tense.
“The case,” Ed said. “It’s clean.” Al looked confused, and Ed suddenly realized that Al had never seen the inside of his old watch. He’d never wanted to share that burden with his little brother, who had surely had enough burdens to carry then. “My watch,” he said, trying to explain. “I never showed you. I engraved the case, as a reminder to myself. I put the date we left Resembool on it.” The date they’d burned down their first home, he didn’t say.
“Oh,” Al said, quietly. “I wondered why you kept it sealed,” he added, after a moment.
Ed shrugged. He noted the time, and then closed the watch and handed it back to Al. He smiled suddenly, and it was a poor reflection of the joy he felt in his heart.
Al looked back at him, still confused. “Brother?” he asked. “Why are you smiling?”
“Because you’ve got no reason to engrave anything there,” he said, grinning like an idiot. “It’s late. I’ll deal with work tomorrow. Let’s go back to Mustang’s and con him out of a dinner.”
Al smiled back at him, and it was still the best thing in the world. “Alright,” he said.
Ed walked into the Prime Minister’s apartments with one arm slung over his brother’s shoulder and a grin on his face. Riza was sitting on the couch, reading some reports. She looked up as they entered. “Hello,” she said, looking over her reading glasses.
Ed wasn’t sure what to make of that. Roy was one thing, but he definitely didn’t want Hawkeye pissed at him. “Hi,” he said.
“Riza, can I use your phone?” Al asked. “I need to call Mei and discuss some things with her.”
“It’s in the study,” she told him.
“Thanks!” he said, smiling, and ducked out of the room.
He left an awkward silence in his wake.
“You talk to Roy today?” Ed asked, his smile gone, sitting uncertainly down in one of the Mustangs’ ridiculous armchairs.
Riza looked amused, and pulled off her glasses.
“Yeah, okay,” Ed snapped, before she could say anything. “I was an idiot. I know it.”
She raised an eyebrow.
Ed jumped to his feet, pacing the room. “I should have known better,” he said. “I mean, fuck, I’ve known that bastard for a decade and a half, and I know better. He’d cut off a leg before he betrayed a subordinate, I know that.”
Riza leaned back in her chair.
Ed whipped around to face her, running his hands through his hair. “And Al! Roy keeps talking about what a genius I am, but I swear, Al makes me feel stupid. And what, I was going to second-guess him?”
“Ed,” she said.
“I know it was childish,” he protested. “I just-”
“Edward,” she said, her eyes flashing. “Sit down.”
Ed found himself sitting.
“Are you staying for dinner?” she asked, mildly. “Roy told me that he’ll be in late tonight, so I should let the cook know that it’s not just the two of us.”
Ed stared at her.
“Ed,” she said, smiling. “You lost your temper. You didn’t hurt anyone. You didn’t destroy anything. Really, by Elric standards, you were a perfect gentleman about this.”
He rolled his eyes. “My temper was never that bad,” he argued.
Riza smiled. “Roy wants to talk to you,” she said. “I suspect he wants to apologize. I sincerely hope that Al already did.”
Ed let out all his breath. “I couldn’t even think,” he said, his voice small. “I saw Al’s name on that list, and...” he trailed off, his eyes wide.
Riza just nodded. “I know,” she said, simply.
When Roy got home an hour later, they were playing pinochle in the dining room. Roy stood in the doorway for a moment, just watching them. At the end of the hand, Ed got up and walked into the living room with Roy.
“Ed,” Roy said, running a hand through his hair, “We should have told you.”
“Damn right,” Ed answered, crossing his arms. They were quiet for a long moment, standing there with each other. “You’re such a bastard sometimes,” Ed said.
“I guess I am,” Roy said, sitting heavily down on the couch. He stretched his arms out and leaned his head back, closing his eyes. “I keep hoping that Riza will train me out of it, but no luck so far.”
“Al and I need to go back to Resembool,” Ed said, sitting down on the other end of the couch from Roy. He kicked Roy’s knee with a right foot that was lamentably clad in a dress shoe rather than a combat boot. Roy’s head shot up, and he squinted at Ed.
“What was that for?” Roy complained.
“Do I need a reason?” Ed asked, and bared his teeth.
Roy rolled his eyes. “Are you and Al headed back soon?” he asked.
Ed stared belligerently over at Roy. “Why, Mustang? Eager to get rid of us?”
“It’s just that I miss having sex with Hawkeye,” Roy answered, grinning viciously. “She gets all inhibited when you’re here.”
Ed flinched. “Don’t say things like that!” he groaned, rubbing his eyes with his palms.
“Mustang,” a feminine voice said, floating in from the dining room. Her displeasure was obvious. “You do realize that I can hear you, don’t you?”
Roy’s face went pale white. “Ed,” he said, whispering. “How’d you like a drink out? I’m buying.”
Ed cracked an eye at Mustang. “Back door,” he suggested.
They ran for it.
Riza rolled her eyes.
“Should we go after them?” Al asked, alarmed.
“No,” she said. “They’ll be back before long. Shall we switch to rummy?”
Al shrugged. “I hope Roy doesn’t get Ed too drunk. They’re supposed to be important public officials now. Think how it would look in the papers!”
Riza shuffled the cards, neatly making a bridge and sliding the deck back together. “No, Roy will buy them a few drinks and then they’ll sneak back here. He isn’t completely irresponsible.”
Al reached for his hand as Riza dealt it. “It’s so strange to see you and Roy like this,” he admitted. “You were always...” He searched for the right word. “The adults,” he finally supplied, sheepishly.
“You’re adults now, too,” Riza observed, drawing a card. She swapped it for a card in her hand.
“Did he ever act like this back then?” Al asked. “Being silly, and running off to have fun? It seems impossible.”
“You never saw him with Hughes,” Riza said, sadly. “After Maes died...” She shook her head.
“I’m glad he and Brother aren’t fighting,” Al said, drawing another card.
Ed came home with Roy buzzed but not drunk. They ate dinner and discussed arrangements for moving their families from Resembool. Finally, they went to bed. Ed had been asleep for maybe twenty minutes when Al went to his room.
“Brother?” he called, softly.
“Nngh,” Ed said, into his pillow. He blinked, and looked at Al blearily. “What, Al?” he asked. “Y’okay?”
“Can I sleep with you, Brother?” Al asked. Riza had said that Ed’s nightmares were worse when he was under stress, and worse when he was away from home. Al had no intention of leaving his brother alone with his demons tonight. He’d hurt Ed enough today.
“Nnnh?” Ed asked, questioning. Then he shrugged, and scooched over on the bed. “‘Kay,” he said. “‘F’you want.”
“Thank you,” Al said, and laid down on the side of the bed Ed had vacated.
“Whatever,” Ed said. “G’back to sleep, Al.” With that, he flopped onto his back, his eyes closing.
Al watched him in the dim light filtering through the window. His hair was down, and it stuck out in funny directions. Al reached back to touch his own hair, still tied at the base of his neck. Maybe he should cut it, he thought. In Xing, growing it out had seemed the appropriate thing to do. It had been the style for men of the court, and Al's hair and eyes and skin had made him enough of an outsider there already. Here, though, it made him feel like he was trying to be Ed. He groaned and shifted, trying to get comfortable.
Ed stirred. He reached out a hand blindly, poking Al in the face and groping his way up to the top of Al's head. Ed patted him. "Sleep," he said, groggily. "S'okay, Al. Go t'sleep."
"Sorry, Brother," Al whispered, and closed his eyes.
If Ed woke that night, Al didn't hear him.
Winry waited for Ed and Al's train with uncustomary impatience. She'd waited for a lot of trains over the years. In the early days, she'd never known whether that train whistle would bring the Elric brothers to her door or not, and so she’d never waited at all. She'd just marked the sound and gone about her business. Since she and Ed had married, he'd started telling her what train he intended to be on, and she usually went to the station to meet him. When she went, she carried a book or played with the children or talked to passers-by. Ed would make his train, or occasionally he wouldn't, and Winry didn't worry much either way. Today, though, she couldn't seem to keep still. "It's late," she said, sourly.
"You should complain to Edward," Mei advised, smiling. "Isn't transportation one of his responsibilities now?"
Winry scowled. "Ed was late for his own wedding; I doubt he's going to do much for the punctuality of the rail system."
Mei laughed. On her back, Trisha burbled happily, watching the platform with her big, yellow eyes.
Winry peered down the track, looking for a sign of smoke. "Mei?" she said, suddenly. "Are you okay with this? Al being a State Alchemist, I mean."
Mei looked surprised. "Why wouldn't I be? Isn't it supposed to be an honor, in this country? And it will help him accomplish his goals."
Winry leaned back on the bench, crossing her arms. "They used to call them 'Dogs of the Military'," she said, sadly. She pitched her voice low. "And we know they only existed so that the homunculi could use them for their own plans. It's just hard to think about Al being involved in all that, even if things have changed."
Mei shrugged. "The homunculi are dead," she said, bluntly. "And Alphonse is no one's dog."
Winry frowned. "I know all that," she sighed. "I guess I'm just worried for no reason."
In the distance, a whistle sounded. Winry jumped to her feet, trying to get a view of the oncoming train. She and Mei waited as the train pulled in, slowed and stopped. A few people began unloading baggage, and then two figures stepped out of the passenger cars. "Ed!" Winry called, her heart leaping in her chest. "Al!"
"Winry!" Ed called, grinning. He closed the distance between them, lifting her easily up into the air.
"How did everything go?" Winry asked as he set her down.
He leaned down and kissed her, his strong fingers threading through her hair and curling around her waist. She wrapped her arms around his neck, feeling the tension in his body.
"Are the kids at school?" he asked as he pulled away, his voice almost shy.
"Mmhm," she said, nodding.
He leaned in again, pulling her into a hug. "Missed you," he whispered into her neck, too quiet for anyone else to hear. She nodded, and held him tight.
After a long moment, he breathed, and she could feel his body relax. Dropping a kiss on Ed's cheek, she turned to Al. He was holding little Trisha in his arms, his expression blissful. "Welcome home, Al," she said, smiling.
"For another week," Ed said, ruefully. "That's how long we can afford to spend packing. As it is, I'm going to be spending hours on the phone to my office every day." He grimaced.
Winry nodded, not trusting herself to speak. When Ed had brought this idea up, she'd been unquestionably supportive. She didn't regret that. Ed needed this, and Winry wanted nothing so much as to have him whole and happy. Still, the idea of leaving Resembool behind, of taking her children to Central to raise- it made her sad.
"It'll be strange leaving Granny's house empty," Al said, putting voice to her thoughts.
"I know," Ed said, swinging his suitcase as he walked toward the car.
"Well," Winry said, finding her own voice again at last, "We better enjoy today, then."
Today, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Japan after a week away from my own spouse and children. I felt for Ed in this chapter.
Chapter 7: Graves
Winry stepped away from the house, looking it up and down. She resisted the urge to run back inside, to check everything over for a fourth time.
“Everything’s packed,” Ed told her, looking at her with a bemused expression on his face. “The house is shut up, and the Nedobecks promised to look in on it from time to time. It’s okay.”
Winry rolled her eyes and swatted him. “Don’t go assuming you know me, Edward Elric,” she said archly. She picked up her bag.
“Mama!” Sara called from further up the path. “Daddy! Come on! You’re going to get left behind!”
“We better follow orders,” Ed said. “C’mon, Winry.” He took her hand as they walked down the path to the rest of the family.
“Daddy!” Sara called as they got close. “Carry me?”
“I don’t know, Sara,” Ed said, dubiously. “You’re a big girl now. You have to use your legs or they might fall off.”
She glared at him. “That’s not true, Daddy.”
“What do you think happened to me?” Ed asked, with wide-eyed sincerity.
Winry whacked him on the head with her hand. “Not funny,” Winry said. “The kids believe you when you say that sort of thing!”
“No we don’t,” little Al said, as they walked down the lane. “At least I don’t. Sara might, but she’s still a baby.”
“No, Trisha’s the baby!” Sara protested.
“That’s true,” Al said. “I’ll carry you if your daddy won’t, Sara.”
“Yay!” she said, grinning. “Thanks, Uncle Alphonse!” She ran to him. He picked her up and tossed her onto his shoulders.
“Augh!” Ed said with mock anguish. “I’ve been replaced! My own daughter doesn’t love me anymore!”
Sara stuck her tongue out at him. “If you carried me, then I’d still love you,” she said.
The adults all broke into laughter. “She’s your daughter,” Winry said, when she could manage to talk again.
“I am not the only one with a temper in this marriage,” Ed pointed out, gravely.
“You are well-suited to each other in that way,” Mei said, dryly.
Al grinned. “If she was really like Winry, though, she would have thrown something at Ed.”
“Al,” Winry said, rolling her eyes, “I haven’t thrown a wrench at anyone in at least-”
“-Five days,” Ed interrupted.
“That doesn’t count,” Winry protested. “I was trying to throw that wrench into a box!”
“It still hit me and not the box,” Ed said, grinning. “I’m lucky I wasn’t killed.”
They crested the hill of the graveyard. “Let me down, Uncle Al!” Sara cried, wiggling furiously. “I want to be the first one to say hi!” Al set her down, and she and little Al raced up the hill.
“Who is she saying hi to?” Al asked, curious.
“My mother,” Winry said. “She wants to talk to everyone, but she especially likes to talk to Mom because they have the same name.” It was strange to think that she’d barely been older than Sara when her mother had died.
“Huh,” Al said, thoughtfully. The adults walked into the graveyard more sedately. Sara was already sitting cross-legged in front of the grave marked “Sara Rockbell”, so they headed in that direction first.
“Mama!” Sara said, as they got close, “I’m telling Grandma about how I’m going to go to a new school and everything! And I’m going to miss Sen and Emily but I’m going to make a million new friends in Central!”
“Here,” Winry said, and handed her a bouquet. “Do you want to put Grandma’s flowers down?”
Sara took the flowers and laid them in front of her, chattering all the while about the pretty flowers, and her new school, and the new dress they’d bought.
“Can I put the bouquet on Great-Granny’s stone?” little Al asked, quietly.
Winry nodded. “Here,” she said.
Granny’s grave was only three years old, and it was just a little higher on the hill than Sara and Urey’s plots. Little Al climbed the hill and laid the flowers down quietly.
Alphonse watched him go. “I wasn’t here,” he said, sadly. “I thought she’d be here forever, and then she was just gone.” He looked over at Winry and Ed. “I’m sorry,” he said, and Winry thought he might cry. “I should have been here!”
Winry reached out to him. “It’s okay, Al,” she said. “You wrote. She loved your letters.”
Ed nodded, ruffling his brother’s hair. “Every time one of your letters came in the mail, she gave me shit about not writing back in the day. Like oh, at least Al knows how to put pen to paper.” His voice shifted at the end into a high-pitched approximation of Granny’s voice.
Winry snorted. “Then she’d say, of course, it’s probably because your brother is tall enough to see over a writing desk.”
“I am not short!” Ed complained. “Not anymore! And I was twice the size of that wrinkled old hag!”
“Edward!” Mei said, scandalized. “You can’t talk about your grandmother-in-law that way! It’s disrespectful!”
Winry shrugged. “That’s how they talked to each other when she was alive. If Ed suddenly started being respectful, she wouldn’t even know who he was.” She knelt down and laid another bouquet on the stone marked Urey Rockbell. “Hi, Mom, Dad,” she said, quietly. “We’re here to say goodbye. We won’t be visiting for a while.” She paused. “I’m going to miss it here in Resembool, but we’re still moving forward, I guess.” Ed squeezed her shoulder, and she reached up to take his hand. She was quiet for a long moment, listening to Sara chatter away. Then she turned, and Ed helped her to her feet.
They walked up to Granny’s grave. There was a wrench sticking out of the ground next to the stone. “I helped dig her grave,” Ed said softly, speaking to Al. “It took forever, and I thought, this is the sort thing I would have done with alchemy before. But I was glad that I had to dig it by hand.”
“She never liked alchemy much,” Al said, nodding.
Winry walked to the stone and knelt down.
“I already told her everything,” little Al said, impatiently. “You don’t have to explain to her.”
She reached out and hugged him. He squirmed a little, but let her hold him. “I miss her a lot,” she told him, using the words she knew her son wanted to say. “She always took care of me, since I was even younger than Sara. I wish she wasn’t gone.”
Little Al nodded, ducking his head into her shoulder. After a long moment, he pulled away, and ran across the hill.
“Winry?” Mei asked. “May I leave something here?”
Winry stood, startled. “Of course, Mei,” she said.
Mei stepped forward, and laid down a small, flat box. “It is the custom in my country to leave gifts for the dead,” she explained. She knelt down, and bowed to the grave stone. “Granny Pinako,” she said, “I wish I had known you better. You always made a place for my Alphonse to come home to, and- and-” She started to cry. Al went to her side, stroking her hair gently. He pulled Trisha out from the wrap on Mei’s back.
“Hi, Granny,” he said, holding her, “This is my daughter-”
That was as far as he got. Cradling Trisha in his arms, he sank to his knees, his shoulders shaking. Ed was there suddenly, his arms around his little brother.
“Mama?” Sara said, taking Winry’s hand. “Is Uncle Alphonse okay?”
“Yes, honey,” Winry said. She reached down and scooped Sara up. She was too large and heavy to carry comfortably, but she settled Sara against her hip. “He’s just sad because Great-Granny Pinako never got to meet Trisha.”
“Oh,” Sara said. Little Al remembered Granny, but Sara probably didn’t. She’d been so young when Granny died.
“I’m sorry,” Al said, getting to his feet. He wiped his eyes, tear-filled red mixed with gold. “I don’t mean to be so sentimental.”
“It’s alright,” Winry said, and she and Sara hugged him. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Ed was quiet as they walked across the hill to their parents’ graves. Winry handed him the last two bouquets, and he laid them down on the stones. The two brothers stood side-by-side, Ed with his hand on Al’s shoulder. After a while, Ed turned away.
Mei came forward with two more small boxes. At a nod from Al, she laid the boxes down. “Honored mother-in-law,” she said. “Honored father-in-law.” She looked long at Hohenheim’s grave. “I never forgot that you tried to sacrifice yourself for Alphonse,” she said. “You were very brave and good, just like your sons.” She jumped back to her feet, ducking her head. Al wrapped an arm around her waist, kissing the top of her head.
As the rest of the family walked away, Winry lingered by the graves. “I think this is the right choice for him, Aunt Trisha,” Winry said quietly. “You know Ed. He wasn’t going to be happy out here forever. This is just the newest beginning for us. Don’t worry, I’ll look after him.”
As they left the cemetery, Sara turned and waved. “Goodbye, grandmas and grandpas!” she called. “We’ll be back to visit soon!”
Goodbye, Resembool, Winry thought.
Ed watched Winry as she stared idly out of the window of the train. Sara was sitting a row ahead with Al and Mei, talking their ears off. Little Al was sitting to Ed’s right, reading a book. Winry was lost in thought, the sunlight from the window haloing her face. She was so beautiful, Ed thought. He loved her pale hair and her blue eyes. When Sara had been born, Winry had expressed a momentary regret that this child hadn’t had Ed’s striking yellow eyes. Ed, for his part, had been secretly pleased that his daughter would have eyes like her mother.
He loved the fact that Winry still wore the earrings he’d given her, all these years on. He hadn’t ever given her more earrings, of course, because six holes in her ears was still enough. Even so, he loved the quiet statement that those earrings represented. She had missed him. She had thought of him, even when he left her behind. She had never given up on him, then or now.
He loved the plain silver band she wore on her finger. If it had been left up to Ed, he’d’ve given her the biggest diamond he could find, or at least something with a cool pattern. Winry, though, had reminded him that she was a mechanic, thank you, and if he gave her a ring with a big, stupid rock on it, it would get caught on things. She wore a plain band because she worked with her hands. Ed loved that she was her own woman, loved that she stood up to him, loved that she never let him run her over, no matter how much he fumed or shouted or sulked. She was his equal, and he couldn’t imagine being married any other way.
He reached out and took her hand. He loved that, too- the way it fitted into his; her strong, slim, calloused fingers curling around his own larger, softer hands. She turned to him, smiling. “Ed?” she said.
Ed felt helpless. All these years, and every time he tried to explain to her how he felt about her, his head was filled with a rushing sound and his throat went dry.
“Ed?” she asked again, amused. “Are you okay?”
He leaned down and kissed her, his right hand brushing her cheek and then threading through her pale, silky hair. When he pulled away, his face was hot. He stared at her helplessly.
“Oh, Ed,” Winry said, fondly. “You’re such an idiot sometimes.”
He didn’t protest; just smiled at her.
She pulled him close. “I love you, too,” she whispered in his ear.
26 hours of travel=lots of writing time=quick update.
Chapter 8: New Spaces
Edward took Winry’s hand as they got out of the taxi. “This is it,” he said, tentatively. He watched her face as she stood up and surveyed their surroundings. “What do you think?” he asked.
She looked pensive, narrowing her eyes.
“It doesn’t have to be here,” he said, nervously. “If you don’t like this house, we could find somewhere else. I mean, not right away, they already moved all our boxes here, but we could take some time to find a place, and then-”
“It’s fine,” she said, interrupting him. “I mean, it looks okay.”
“Okay?” he said, growing a little irritated. “Do you like it or not? I mean, pick one!”
“I just got here, Ed,” she snapped at him. “At least let me look around before I have to make a decision.” She turned to help Al and Sara out of the car.
“Fine, fine,” Ed grumbled. He walked around to the trunk and pulled out two of the cases there.
Al came around the other side and grabbed the rest. “She’ll like it,” he told his brother, smiling. “Just give her a minute, and don’t argue with her.”
Ed hefted the cases. “Yeah, like you know anything about it,” he grumbled. “Your wife doesn’t argue with you.”
Al laughed. “Only because I’m willing to admit she’s right before she starts!” he said, following Ed to the door.
Ed fumbled in his pocket for the key. Al reached for the knob. “It’s open,” he said, a little surprised.
Ed frowned. “Wait here,” he told Winry, and set down the cases. Ed walked into the house cautiously, his body tense. He began checking rooms for intruders, preparing to defend against an attack if he had to.
“Hello, Fullmetal,” a voice said, as he ducked his head into the kitchen.
Ed relaxed. “What the hell, Roy?” he asked, irritably. “Come on inside, everyone! It’s just Roy being an idiot.”
Roy leaned back in his chair at the kitchen table, his hands behind his head. “I had a few minutes to spare today, and I thought I’d come welcome you all to Central. That’s no reason to be rude to me,” he said, grinning smugly. “It’s not my fault you’re so paranoid.”
“Yeah, and how would you react if you thought someone had broken into your house?” Ed pointed out. “At least I didn’t set anything on fire.”
“Uncle Roy! Uncle Roy!” Sara interrupted, running into the room. She jumped on Roy, covering his face with kisses.
“Hey!” Roy said, folding her little body in his arms. “Sara-bear! Did you like the train ride?”
Ed rolled his eyes, but said nothing else. He might have objected to the relationship that Roy and Riza had developed with his kids, but he saw that wistfulness in their eyes when they looked at Sara and Al. They hadn’t had their own children, and probably never would. It was a small enough thing to let them be Uncle Roy and Aunt Riza, if that’s what they wanted.
Sara chattered at Roy about the train ride, gesturing wildly with her arms. “Hello, Uncle Roy,” little Al said, entering the room.
“Good to see you, Alphonse,” Roy said, disengaging himself a little from Sara. “Riza sent these for you, by the way.” He handed over a small stack of books tied with string. “She thought you might enjoy them.”
Little Al grinned, untying the string. “Thanks, Uncle Roy!” he said. “Tell Aunt Riza thanks too!”
“He’s as bad a bookworm as you were at that age, Fullmetal,” Roy said, with a small smile.
“Pff,” Ed said dismissively. “Like you would know. You never met me until I was eleven.”
“He’s right, though,” Winry said, entering. “Roy! We didn’t expect to see you!” She leaned down to embrace him, patting Sara on the head.
Roy kissed her on the cheek. “A pleasure to see you as always,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been meaning to thank you for letting me steal your husband away from Resembool.”
Winry thwacked Roy gently on the head. “You didn’t steal him,” she said, rolling her eyes. “We decided to come.”
“Ow!” Roy said, in mock anguish. “You can’t thump the Prime Minister of Amestris!”
“That’s not what Riza says,” Winry answered, grinning smugly.
Ed shrugged. “I long ago gave up trying to get her to stop hitting people,” he told Roy, his voice resigned. “She’s just a violent soul by nature- ow!” he finished, as she socked him in the arm.
“You and Riza should come for dinner once we’re settled in,” Winry said, smiling.
“Of course,” Roy said.
“Yay!” Sara said, twisting around in his lap to give him another kiss. “You can bring me presents!”
“Good to know what my role in this relationship is,” Roy said, dryly.
“Hi, Roy,” Al said, ushering Mei into the kitchen. “You remember my wife Mei, right?”
“Mr. Mustang,” Mei said, bowing a little.
“Of course I remember Princess Mei Chang,” Roy said, bowing back to her. “Although you’ve grown up since I saw you last. And is that Trisha, that I’ve heard so much about?”
“Would you like to hold her?” Al asked, grinning.
“Yeah!” Roy said, grinning charmingly. “Hand her over.”
Mei loosened the baby carrier and pulled a wiggly Trisha out. Roy put Sara down next to him, and took Trisha onto his lap, making silly faces at her. Sara leaned over, laughing along with Trisha.
Ed rolled his eyes again. “You’ve gone all soft, Mustang,” he said. “I remember when Al was born, you were terrified you were going to break him.”
“That’s not going soft,” Roy said, sticking his tongue out at a now-giggling Trisha. “That’s competence. You’re just jealous that you don’t have my way with children.”
Ed smirked. “It’s not my fault that women apparently have no judgment when it comes to you, Mustang.”
Winry smacked him again.
“Ow!” he said, rubbing his head. “What was that for?”
“That was on Mei’s behalf,” Winry said, firmly. Beside her, Mei smiled. “For implying that her daughter has no taste.”
Roy smiled, bouncing Trisha on his knee. His eyes were soft around the edges. “I really do have to get going,” he said, looking back up at Ed. “When can I expect to see you back at the office, Fullmetal?”
“Tomorrow,” Ed said, sighing.
“Good,” Roy said, kissing Trisha on her head, and handing her back to Mei. “We’ve got the Western situation to deal with, and it can’t be put off any longer.”
“I know,” Ed said. “Believe me, I’ve been on the phone with my staff about it all week.”
“You have to give me a hug and kiss before you go, Uncle Roy!” Sara interrupted, stubbornly.
“I’d better do that then,” Roy said, breaking into a smile. “Hug, and kiss.” he said, hugging her and kissing her on the top of her head. “Alright,” he said, straightening up. “I’ll see you all later.”
Winry sighed as he left. “We’ve got a lot of unpacking to do,” she said, morosely.
“I can’t believe how much stuff we accumulated,” Ed agreed, making a face.
Al looked around the empty room thoughtfully. //What do you think about this place?// he asked Mei. //I like the big room in the middle. It would be useful for practice.//
//I’m not sure,// she said. //It’s so far from the house. It would be better to have the school close by- we don’t want to spend all our time traveling.//
Al nodded, thoughtfully. “Mei?” he asked, switching to Amestrian. “Do you like the house? Are you okay living with Ed and Winry?” His eyes went wide. //I know we talked about it before,// he said, in Xingese, //But I want to be sure. We could get our own house, if you wanted. We don’t have to live with Ed.//
//Silly Alphonse!// Mei said, smiling at him and coming close. //I am used to living with other people! If it were just you and me and Trisha, I would be lonely. Besides,// she said, slyly, //I know how much you miss your brother. You will be happier being close to him.// She tilted her head up to him.
He leaned down and kissed her. Ba ba ba ba ba, Trisha squealed, from her vantage point on Mei’s back. Al smiled, and patted her fuzzy head. //You always say that I worry too much about things,// he said, looking down at Mei’s large, dark eyes.
//It is true,// she answered, reaching up to run her fingers across his long hair. //It is what made you such a difficult student! You could never stop thinking long enough to feel.// She smiled at him.
“I got the hang of it eventually,” he said softly, kissing her again.
“Something closer to the house,” she repeated. “But not too close. I suspect that our alchemy school will be noisy.”
Sara couldn't sleep. The new room was too big, and the shapes of all the shadows were strange and frightening. Mom had read to her and hugged her and said good night, but Sara was still awake, her eyes wide in the darkness. She pulled her blanket up, frowning. Pulling her blanket around her shoulders, she got up out of the bed. She felt the thrill of doing something that was forbidden- she'd be in trouble if Mama or Daddy caught her out of bed so late. As quietly as she could, she snuck out of her door, poking her head into the hallway.
No one was there. Sara snuck down the hallway, holding tight onto her blanket. She froze as she approached the hallway leading to the living room. She could hear a voice coming from there. Slowly, she poked her head around the corner.
In the living room, Uncle Al was singing to baby Trisha. Dance to your daddy, my little lassie, he sang, his tired voice rumbling. Uncle Al was walking around the room, doing a funny rocking-dancing step while he sang. Dance to your daddy, my bonny girl. You shall have a fishy in your little dishy. He turned his back as he walked. Sara bolted across the opening, her heart thumping. You shall have a fishy when the boat comes in, Uncle Al sang. Good. He hadn’t noticed her.
She poked her head around the corner again, watching her uncle. Uncle Al had always been a fairytale to her. Her daddy told her stories about him, and showed her pictures, but he hadn’t been real. Not until he had been real, of course, and even then he still seemed like a story. He was married to a beautiful princess, and he wore strange clothes, and he could do magic. Holding her breath, she pulled her head back, and continued her quiet progress down the hallway.
When she got to the door, she turned the knob very, very slowly, as slowly as she could manage. As soon as the door cracked open, she heard a faint clicking sound, and saw a faint light go out. She crept in the room, closing the door behind her. “I know you’re awake,” she whispered loudly. “I saw your light on.”
Al sighed. “What do you want?” he asked, propping himself up in bed. In the darkness, Sara could just make out the outline of the book he’d been reading.
Sara bit her lip, pulling her blanket tighter around her shoulders, trying to figure out a way to explain that wouldn’t get her mocked for being a baby.
“Whatever,” Al said, scooching over on the bed. “Come on.”
Sara scrambled up into the bed, tucking herself into Al’s covers. “Thank you, Brother,” she whispered.
“Whatever,” Al repeated.
Sara stretched her legs and wiggled her toes. “What book is that?” she asked, after a minute.
“One of the ones Aunt Riza gave me,” he told her, setting the book to the side of his bed. “It’s about someone who builds a flying machine, and goes all around the world.”
“Brother?” Sara asked. “Tell me a story?”
Al shifted, turning in bed. “Fine,” he said, eventually. “What story do you want?”
“Any story,” Sara said. “I like your stories.”
Al shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “Uh... Once upon a time, there was a king. The king had a son that he loved a lot, but he had to leave him...”
Sara listened as the king’s son had adventures, and found his father, and lost him again. By the time Al finished the story, she was finally sleepy. “Thank you, Brother,” she said, her voice fuzzy.
Al leaned back. “Go to sleep, Sister,” he said.
I’m very sorry. I couldn’t help it. Roy Mustang with babies was too tempting to write. Note that he’s way more comfortable around kids at this point than he was once upon a time. Age and exposure has mellowed the man a little.
I have Mei wearing Trisha in a mei tai, a traditional Chinese baby carrier. It’s basically a square of cloth with four straps coming off the corners. Mei mostly wears her on her back because, hey, convenient. I’ve never described this in the story proper because the context hasn’t come up, but if you were curious…
Chapter 9: What They Do
Amestris had been created by the relentless annexation of its neighbors. In the beginning, it had started with the city-state that was now Central. From there, the people of Central had reached out with bloody fingers and absorbed their neighbors. The North had been the first to be assimilated; the East (and Ishval) the last. Amestris was a patchwork country; the remnants of dozens of countries and cultures blended into a whole.
That's what Ed had written about in his doctoral thesis. In practice, it meant that people in different parts of Amestris sometimes had different standards for appropriate behavior. Fortunately for Ed, he'd been practically everywhere there was to go inside the borders, and was conversant in these differences. Before he went to meet with the Western delegates, he left his jacket and his tie behind. He unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, and rolled up his sleeves to the middle of his forearms.
"Ed Elric," he said, offering his left hand to shake as he entered the conference room. “Out from Resembool.”
“Tom Warner,” the leader of the group said, taking his hand. “Felback.”
Warner’s hand was rough from work, and Ed knew that he was taking the measure of Ed’s own hands. Westerners didn’t have much patience for city boys, but Warner would find the callouses of years of weapons training on Ed’s palm. Ed might be a scholar, mostly, but his hands weren’t soft. “Felback?” Ed asked. “You don’t know Ren Barstow, do you?”
Warner looked surprised. “You know Ren?” he asked.
Lucky break, Ed thought. He nodded. “I was in Felback oh... coming on nine years ago. He put me up for a while.” For two or three weeks, in fact, while Ed had been trying to track down a lead on some alchemy books. Barstow owned a popular bar and library- which is to say, his establishment was both a library and a bar. The West could be a weird place. “How’s he doing these days?”
“Still holed up in the Salamander,” Warner said, his eyebrows raised.
Ed laughed, and sat down. “He always said that there wasn’t any reason to leave- not when he had booze, books and women all at one convenient location!” Ed’s intention here was to put the delegates at ease, and to convince them that they might be able to trust someone in Central. Half the problem, as far as he could figure it out, was that no one in the middle of this mess was willing to so much as talk to anyone else.
Warner shrugged. “The Salamander was hit hard in the riots,” he said. “No more booze, and half his books got burnt.”
Ed nodded, his face turning serious at the news. “That’s why you’re here,” he said. “So that we can figure out a way to keep that from happening again.”
“That’s easy to say,” one of the other delegates put in, “Minister Elric.” He put an unpleasant emphasis on Ed’s title.
Ed looked over at the man. “You are?” he asked, bluntly. Westerners in general didn’t like people who didn’t say what they meant. Ed had enjoyed that about the place, and it might give him an edge in these negotiations. Ed was good at saying what he meant.
“Riku Fielding,” he said. “Rodhof.”
“You’re right, Fielding,” Ed said, raising his eyebrows, “It’s easy to say. That’s why I came here looking to back up the government’s words with some actions. Do you want to hear what I’m offering, or do you want to argue about my job title?”
It had started with a drought. The drought had caused food shortages. Then, the whole situation (as far as Ed could discern) had been mismanaged by a local government used to paying attention to its own interests and ignoring its people. As people started to get hungry, they got restless and then angry. Three weeks ago, the whole thing had exploded into four nights of rioting that had started in some of West City’s factory districts and spread like wildfire across the region. That in turn had sparked separatist movements- there was talk of parts of the West seceding. There were lists of political demands forwarded to the government. Finally, Roy had gathered together the leaders of the largest dissident groups, put them in one room, and told Ed to find some kind of solution. Lucky me, Ed thought sourly.
“Look,” Ed continued, after a grudging silence from Fielding, “When it comes down to it, your basic problem is that you don’t want your kids to starve. I can assure you that Mustang’s government doesn’t want your kids to starve, either. Can we start with that? Let’s ignore all the rest of it for a moment, and focus on that.”
“He’s got a point,” Warner said, after a long moment. Fielding glared at him. “What?” Warner said, defensively. “If he’s got an idea to get food to our people, shouldn’t we listen to it?”
“He’s just trying to trick us. This is Mustang’s dog we’re talking to here,” Fielding said, nastily.
“Bow wow,” Ed put in, dryly. “You’re right. I’m Mustang’s faithful hound. Can you see the collar?” Ed grinned, pointing at his neck. “If you’ve been paying attention at all, though, you’d realize that Mustang’s not the one who’s been screwing you all over. I’m here to try to fix West’s fuck-ups.”
Fielding glared at him. “So this is just another Western problem, is it? I should have expected that attitude from some pampered Central lapdog.”
Ed breathed, biting back a snarky comeback. More snark was not what this conversation needed. “Your kids,” he said, finally, slowly enunciating every word. “I am trying to keep your kids from starving. You are Amestrians as well as Westerners, which means you’re my problem. Stop insulting me for five minutes so we can figure out how to fix this together.”
“Riku,” Warner said, “Shut up and let Elric talk.”
Mei weighed the knives in her hands, feeling the familiar heft of them. Her hands flicked out, and the knives flew unerringly to their targets on the opposite wall of the room.
“You know,” Alphonse said, coming up behind her, “I think half the reason I figured out blended alchemy is so that I wouldn’t have to use the knives anymore.”
“You were an adequate student,” Mei said, turning to face him, a smile on her lips. He always played this game of trying to sneak up on her; he never succeeded. “These Amestrian alchemists will probably be much worse than you were. Do you think they’ve been trained to fight at all?”
Alphonse smiled. “Probably not,” he said. “It’s been twelve years since our last real war. People don’t need to know how to fight so much anymore. It’s nice, isn’t it?”
Mei sniffed. “You and I were both taught to train the body and the mind at once. Working with only the mind is just lazy!”
Alphonse laughed, ducking carefully inside the range of the knives in her hands. “You had to learn how to fight so you could protect yourself against assassination,” he said, smiling down at her. “I spent my childhood trying to keep my brother from getting himself killed. Wouldn’t you have wanted to have a childhood where no one was trying to kill you? I think it would have been nice.”
“If no one had been trying to kill me, I would never have gone to Amestris,” she pointed out, looking up into his beautiful golden eyes. “I would never have met you.”
“That’s true,” Alphonse said, nuzzling her neck. “What do you think I would have been doing, if Mom had never died?”
“Raising sheep,” Mei said tartly, leaning into him.
“Maybe I would have been a doctor,” Alphonse said, thoughtfully. He leaned further down, his lips brushing against the base of her neck.
Mei swatted him. “We have work,” she admonished him. “The school opens next week, and we have much to do.”
“Then what are you doing in here throwing knives around?” Alphonse asked, straightening up and smiling at her.
She scowled at him. “I was testing the target placement. This is where we will teach combat skills. Even if we don’t teach the students hand-to-hand combat, they will need to learn knife throwing if they are to practice alkahestry.”
Alphonse walked over to the wall, pulling the knives out of the targets. “Perfect,” he commented, awe in his voice.
Mei blushed. There were moments when Alphonse made her feel as though she were miraculous. “You should be working on your lesson plans!” she scolded him. “We agreed that we would discuss them tonight!”
Alphonse tossed the knives back to her. On reflex, she caught the handles between her fingertips. In one smooth motion, she tucked them back into her clothes.
“Mine are almost done,” Alphonse said, smiling boldly at her. “I think the rooms are as ready as they’ll get before the furniture comes tomorrow. We’ve already gotten responses from almost all of the students.” He stepped closer to her, his face turned sly. “And we have another hour and a half until we promised Winry that we’d be back to take care of the children.”
“Oh?” Mei asked archly, playing at being obtuse. “Did you come in here to spar, then? We’ve just gotten the mat laid down.”
“If you want,” Alphonse said, grinning. He twisted suddenly into a sweep that would have knocked her off her feet, if she hadn’t jumped in time.
She hadn’t been serious about sparring. Once they started, though, Mei began to enjoy herself. She felt out of shape, her body still healing from giving birth. It was good to move again, to revisit skills that she had too-long let grow cobwebbed. Alphonse- stronger than her, and almost as fast- could have beaten her quickly given that she was out of form, but he showed no interest in doing so. He danced around her in a flurry of gold skin and hair, glancing off of her strikes only to fly away and return.
It was a glorious dance, but Mei’s steps faltered. She was still unused to the changes in her body from the pregnancy, and she didn’t account for the new and strange weakness in her abdominal muscles. She attempted a flip and stumbled halfway through, falling to her knees. Alphonse stopped his kick a fraction of an inch away from her head. It should have caught her around her midsection, if she had landed the flip. “Mei?” he said, dropping to the ground and gathering her into his arms. “Are you okay?” He checked her anxiously for injuries.
“Yes, Alphonse,” she said, smiling. “I’m just out of practice! We should spar more often; I wouldn’t want our students to think that we don’t know what we’re doing.”
“I don’t want you to push yourself,” he said, still worried.
Mei smiled. She loved the way Alphonse tried to protect her. “It’s sweet of you to be concerned for me,” she told him. “But it’s alright. I just need more exercise! I should have been working harder, but with the trip from Xing, and working on the school...”
Alphonse pulled her closer. “You know, Mei,” he said, quietly. “I couldn’t do this without you. Thank you.”
“Silly,” Mei said. “This is our work. How could I not give all of myself to it?”
“I’m lucky to have someone to share the work with,” Alphonse said, smiling at her.
“Yes,” she sniffed. “You are. Now- we should go finish our lesson plans!”
“Alright,” Alphonse said, and offered her a hand up.
“The symbology of alchemy is both vital to transmutation and irrelevant to it,” Alphonse said, turning to his class. He looked out at the roomful of students. His stomach clenched. It occurred to him that he’d never taught anyone anything before, and that he hadn’t really even attended school for very long. What did he know about how to be a teacher? “Why do you think I say that?” he asked, quieter than he meant to.
One of the young men to his left raised a hand. “Master Elric, sir,” he said, perplexed. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
A young woman towards the back of the classroom spoke up before Al had the chance to respond. “He’s talking about equivalent symbological notations,” she said, her tone impatient.
Al nodded. “Er... yes,” he said. “Exactly. Different alchemists can express the same physical principles with different notation. This is why, for example, Amestrian alchemists use Old Xerxian when writing alchemical arrays, but Xingese alkahestrists use Old Xingese characters. The principles are identical, but the execution is different.” He turned to his blackboard, picking up chalk. He sketched a series of symbols. “What does this signify?” he asked.
There was a long silence. Al colored a little. He didn’t have a good handle on how hard to make his questions; it was the first week and he felt like he kept losing the students.
With a sigh, the woman in the back raised a hand. “It’s the symbol for a phlogisticated nitrous acid,” she said, not waiting to be called on.
Al nodded. “Thank you, Miss-”
“Hendricks,” she supplied, her arms folded. “The cross signifies the acidity. The vertical halved circle denotes a nitrous rather than a vitriolic or marine acid, and the barbed triangle crossed represents phlogistication. Upright, not inverted, which would be dephlogistication.” Her tone dared him to tell her she was wrong.
Al tried to repress a smile. Her hostility seemed very familiar to him. “Exactly,” he said. He leaned over and sketched another symbol, all sweeping lines and crosses. “This is what the Xingese use to represent the same element,” he told them. “They have an entirely different underlying symbological structure. In Xerxes, they used another set of symbology altogether.” He quickly sketched a picture of an ant, curled with its legs down. “Probably because Amestrian alchemy derives directly from Xerxian alchemy, many of the Xerxian animal symbols are still used here.”
“Like the salamander in flame alchemy,” Hendricks interrupted tartly, an eyebrow raised.
“That’s correct,” Al said mildly, not rising to the challenge in her tone. Her attitude was starting to remind him of a little of Brother in his more defensive moments. “The salamander symbol is probably Xerxian in origin. Actually, flame alchemy is a good example of the point I’m trying to make. How many of you are familiar with that array?”
A few of the students raised hands. As famous as the Flame Alchemist had been, it had been some years since he had practiced actively. Al proffered the chalk. “Does anyone remember the array well enough to draw it? Carefully,” he warned.
As he expected, Hendricks jumped up. She took the chalk from him and went to the board. Her circle was perfectly round, and she was quick and sure at laying out the array. Al nodded when she was done, and she stepped to the side, not sitting down.
“What do you think would happen if you were to activate the array?” Al asked.
Her mouth twisted. “Boom,” she said.
Al smiled. “Exactly. There are elements of the array which represent forces that only the Flame Alchemist holds the code to. Without a full understanding of the symbolic elements of the array, at best the array wouldn’t work.” He clapped his hands, transmuting the board clean of the array. He turned to the class. “At worst, it would rebound on the alchemist who tried it. This is the point that I’m trying to make to you: symbology is a vital component of a successful transmutation, but there isn’t a single set way to represent any particular transmutation. This is also why the study of symbology is so vital to alchemy. Transmutation arrays must be fully understood in order to be successfully executed.” He stopped, having reached the end of his argument. The class just stared at him. “Er...” he continued. “Perhaps... it’s time for a break?”
The students filed out of the room. Before Hendricks could leave, Al called her name, motioning her over to him.
“Master Elric?” she said, gathering up her notebooks.
“You don’t have anything to prove here,” he told her, smiling slightly. “And even if you did, I’m not the one you have to prove it to.”
She stiffened. “I don’t know why you’re telling me that,” she said, her expression sour.
Al laughed. “I’m sorry!” he said, immediately, before she could get really angry at him. “I don’t mean to laugh at you. It’s just that you reminded me of my brother suddenly.”
Her face went from stormy to incredulous in one instant. “I remind you of the Fullmetal Alchemist?”
Al supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that she knew that his brother was the famous alchemist. “He didn’t get the name Fullmetal just from the automail,” he told her. “He was always so much trouble when we were young.” He smiled. “I know that there aren’t many female alchemists, so you probably feel like you have to show everyone why you belong here.” Hendricks looked embarrassed, and Al knew that he’d hit the target on that one. “But not to me. Did you know that both of my alchemy teachers were women?” He smiled, and clapped his hands. The board cleaned itself of the rest of his scribblings. “Just try to relax and focus on learning.”
Al went to the desk, and started sorting through his notes for the next lesson. Hendricks stood there for a long moment. “Yes, Master Elric,” she said, finally. Al looked up at her. “Thank you,” she said, a new sense of purpose on her face. Ducking her head in a bow, she retreated from the room.
Al smiled, watching her go. Maybe I do know something about how to be a teacher, he thought.
Winry nodded to the guard at the door and went on inside. A fresh-scrubbed sergeant was there waiting for you. “Hello,” Winry said, and waved. “I’m Winry Rockbell.”
“Master Sergeant Perry,” he said. “Fuhrer Armstrong sent me to walk you in.”
“Nice to meet you,” Winry said, smiling. She shouldered her toolbox and followed him down the hallway to the office of the leader of Amestris. She tightened her grip. Nervousness would get her nothing here.
Fuhrer Olivier Mira Armstrong was sitting at her desk as Winry came in. She looked up, dismissing Sergeant Perry. “Thank you for coming,” she said.
Winry returned the other woman’s steely gaze without challenge. “Of course,” she said. “I’ve done lots of work for the military. I hate to say it, but you’re our best customers.” She smiled wryly.
“I was pleased to hear that you’d moved into Central,” Armstrong said, standing. “You do excellent work.” She nodded, sternly. “I liked what I saw on Edward, all those years ago.”
Winry laughed. “That was over a decade ago, Fuhrer Armstrong! I hope I’ve improved since then. I was still an apprentice then, you know.”
Armstrong nodded. “I was primarily impressed by your more recent resume, or I wouldn’t have called you in. You have quite the reputation.” She shrugged. “It was also convenient that you already possess the necessary government clearances due to your husband’s work.”
Winry nodded. “Would you like me to meet with the patients now?” she asked.
“Of course,” Armstrong said, standing. “You don’t like to waste time, I see. I approve.” She led Winry at a brisk pace to a private car, and on toward the military hospital. “These are the medical files,” Armstrong said once they were in the car, handing her a few folders. “I imagine you’ll want to look them over before you meet with my men.”
Winry took them. They gave her almost no information about the patients themselves, which she guessed was another security measure. All she was given was that there were three patients- one man missing a foot, another missing an arm to just above the elbow, and a third missing a leg up to mid-thigh. She finished reading the details around the time they arrived. “The prospects look good for automail surgery, if that’s what they want to do,” she offered. “I’ll be able to judge better after I see them, of course.”
“Of course,” Armstrong echoed, brusquely. She led Winry into the hospital.
They stopped at the room of the man missing his leg- a Major Barrows, who was a scarred, bald man impatient with his incapacity. Winry examined the wound. It was ragged. “We’ll have to take another four or five inches off in order to install a port,” she warned him. “Your surgeons preserved as much of the leg as they could, but we’ll need a clean and even surface for an automail port.”
“Whatever you need to do to make me walk again,” Barrows said, looking intensely at his Fuhrer.
Winry sighed. “I have to warn you that it’s possible that even with the automail, you might not be able to return to active service.”
He looked startled, afraid. Winry had seen that fear over and over again with her patients- automail was their hope that nothing had changed, that their lives could go on as they always had before. When they were faced with a reality full of endless physical therapy and jerky limbs and periodic pain, some of them couldn’t handle it. She tried to give them fair warning, at least.
“I’ve seen people with automail legs,” Barrows said cautiously. “They could walk, even fight, just like before.”
Winry nodded. “That’s certainly our goal,” she told him. “And there’s every possibility that you’ll achieve that. But it’s impossible to tell the extent of the nerve damage before installation, and that could affect performance. Also, younger patients are usually better able to retrain their neural connections to control the automail.” She smiled at him cautiously. “I’m not trying to tell you there’s no hope. I’ve seen plenty of men your age get almost the same functionality out of their new limbs that they had before. More, if you’re interested in combat modifications!” She caught herself smiling dreamily, and returned to the subject at hand. “But you should be prepared for every eventuality.”
“Of course,” Barrows said, nodding gruffly. “I’ll make it work,” he said, looking steadily at Fuhrer Armstrong. She nodded, and led Winry out of the room.
The second man was much younger, a second lieutenant introduced to her as William March. He had light brown hair, a five-o’clock shadow, and a nervous look to him.
“Hello,” Winry said. “My name is Winry Rockbell. I’m an automail mechanic. Fuhrer Armstrong asked me to consult with you about your foot.”
“Hello,” March said, baring his ankle for her to look at.
Winry checked it over. “Lieutenant March,” she started, “To be honest with you, for this sort of injury, automail might not be right for you. An ordinary prosthetic could let you function well enough to get along. Automail surgery is very painful. It might not be worth it just for a foot.”
March looked uncertain. “Could I be restored to active duty without the automail?” he asked.
“Probably not,” Winry admitted. “But you could function perfectly well in civilian life.”
“He’ll have the automail,” Fuhrer Armstrong declared.
Winry turned to Armstrong and glared. “He has to make that decision,” she said, firmly. “I won’t perform the surgery unless I’m satisfied that he really consents!”
“I want it,” March said, his voice steady. His eyes never wavered from his Fuhrer. “If that’s what it takes to return to my duties, then I’ll do it.”
As they left the room, Winry turned to Armstrong. “I’m going to speak to him again without you present,” she told the Fuhrer. “I was serious; I won’t do the surgery unless I know that he really wants it, and not just because you told him to do it.”
Armstrong snorted. “He’s one of my men,” she said. “He’s not afraid of a little pain. Talk to him all you want- he won’t change his mind.” She strode through the next door, not holding it open for Winry.
Winry stood shocked for a moment as she walked through the door. “Major Miles!” she said.
“Colonel, now,” Miles corrected her, mildly. He looked odd to her without his glasses on. His red eyes were tired and drawn with pain. Otherwise, he looked much as she remembered him. His hair was just as white. He had, perhaps, more wrinkles around his eyes.
“Colonel Miles asked for you specifically,” Armstrong said, her hands clasped loosely behind her back.
“I needed an automail mechanic, and I’d heard you were in Central,” Miles explained. “Elric’s new job, and all.”
“I’m glad I could do your work,” Winry said. “May I take a look?” she asked, nodding to the stump of his left arm.
“That’s why you came here,” Miles said, shifting to give her a better vantage point.
Winry inspected his injury. “It looks good,” she declared, finally. “You’ll need a new elbow obviously, but your shoulder is salvagable. That’ll make everything much simpler- the port for an upper arm is a much less extensive surgery than having to rebuild an entire shoulder joint. It’ll mean a substantially shorter recovery time.”
“Good,” Miles said, nodding. “When will we talk about designs for the arm?”
“The surgery is the first step,” Winry told him. “I’ll build your arm while you’re healing from the port installation. I won’t be able to fit the arm until that’s done in any case.”
Miles nodded again.
Winry bit her lip. It wasn’t really any of her business, except- “How were you injured, Colonel Miles? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“It’s classified,” he said, stiffly.
“Sorry,” Winry said, flushing with embarrassment. “I won’t bring it up again.”
“It was an assassination attempt,” Armstrong said, suddenly. “These men were all wounded defending their Fuhrer from an attempt on her life. That is why it is vital that you do everything necessary to restore them to their duties; they can’t be spared.”
Miles looked up at his Fuhrer, a now-familiar intensity burning in his eyes. Winry wasn’t exactly sure what it was that made men look at Olivier Armstrong like that. Maybe, as a civilian, she’d never understand. Restoring wounded men, though- that was something that the Rockbells knew a lot about.
“I’ll do everything possible,” she promised.
The snarky comeback that Ed was biting back in the first part was: “I’m not a lapdog, Fielding- I’m a hunting hound. How long are you going to keep playing doe?”
You get a ton of Alphonse in this chapter. I didn’t really mean to have him invade Mei’s segment, but I was writing slices of “what the characters do”, and what Mei does at the moment is so wrapped up with Al that I couldn’t really make it work without him (or without making it a copy of Al’s segment, which I’d already written).
The other reason that Al frequently beats Mei when they spar is that Al has loads of experience fighting someone who is much smaller than him.
When Al says that both of his alchemy teachers were women, he means Izumi Curtis (of course) and also Mei, who taught him alkahestry.
Winry’s last name is actually Elric. She goes by Winry Rockbell here because she still uses that name professionally. If she were meeting someone socially, though, she would probably introduce herself as Winry Elric. Or just Winry.
Armstrong became the Fuhrer a few years ago, after Grumman died of a sudden heart attack. Technically, she is the leader of Amestris, and Mustang is her Prime Minister. The actual politics of the situation are far more complex.
Chapter 10: What Love Is
Winry woke to the sound of the shrill ringing of her alarm clock. Ed was still curled warm around her, and she had to pull herself out from under him to reach the clock. He grumbled as she hit the switch and pulled her back into the bed, settling himself back into sleep. “Ed,” Winry said. “Ed! Wake up!”
Groggily, he pried open his eyes. “Too early,” he complained, folding her close against his body. “Go back to sleep.”
Winry suddenly realized that she was stuck. Ed had her nearly immobilized; she could wiggle a little and move her hands, but not enough to pry herself free. “Ed!” Winry complained, but he didn’t let her go. “Ed, I have to get up.” He snored gently into her shoulder. “Fine,” she said, firmly, “you asked for this, Ed.” She pulled herself up enough to kiss him, long and deep. She ran her hands along the lean muscle of his stomach and sides. This, Ed was awake enough for. He moaned, returning her kiss, moving against her fingers. She reached around, skimming her hands up and down his back, pressing herself against him. He pulled her tighter, nuzzling her neck. She dipped her hands under the waistband of his shorts, grazing the sensitive skin of his thighs. Ed gasped and reached up to cup her face with his hands.
Released, Winry jumped out of bed.
“Winry!” Ed whined, groaning with frustration.
“I have to get up for work,” she told him airily. “So do you, actually. And it’s your day to take the kids to school.”
“Winry,” he complained darkly, reaching for her.
“What, Ed?” she said, feigning innocence. She stayed well out of his reach. “Did you want something?”
“Dammit, woman!” he growled.
“Next time, let me go when I tell you to,” she said, smirking. “I have to be in surgery in an hour. I’m doing Colonel Miles’ port installation today.”
“Yeah?” Ed said, propping himself up on his elbows, all trace of irritation gone from his face. “How is he doing?”
Winry shrugged. “You should remember what it’s like,” she said, pulling clothes on. “Of course, your arm was a much longer and more complex procedure than his will be. His humerus is in excellent shape; I’ve got every hope that we can be in and out with only two or three anchoring bolts. You’ll get Al and Sara breakfast?”
“Yeah, of course,” Ed said, shrugging.
“Thanks,” Winry said. “I’ve got the consult for another port installation in the afternoon, too, so Mei said she’d pick the kids up.”
“Good,” Ed said, stretching, “I’ve got my meeting with the Westerners then.” He grimaced.
“At least they’re still talking to you,” Winry said, sympathetically. She brushed her hair out quickly, twisting it up and clipping it on the back of her head. She needed it out of her way today.
Ed made a face. “You look like Hawkeye with your hair like that,” he said.
“What’s wrong with that?” Winry asked, looking around for socks. “Riza’s beautiful.”
“You’re beautiful,” Ed said, reaching out and grabbing her waist as she walked by. He pulled her down and kissed her. “Kick ass today, okay?”
She ruffled his hair as she stood up. “You too, Ed,” she told him.
Al sat in the living room, rocking Trisha quietly. She usually woke up too early, and it had become the routine for Al to get up with her and let Mei sleep. He missed sleeping in sometimes, but he enjoyed the quiet early mornings with his tiny daughter curled against his chest. He hummed aimlessly to her, thinking about his lesson for the day, and about whether he had clean clothes to wear, and about whether it was his turn to cook dinner that night. Thinking about dinner, though, reminded him of last night’s meal, and Ed complaining about how frustrated he was dealing with the Western delegates. Al frowned, a mixture of guilt and anger roiling in his gut. I don’t want to fight for you; I want to fight at your side, Ed had said. But in this fight, it was Al who got his school and his pocketwatch, and Ed who had had to uproot his family for a job he hated.
Al’s train of thought was interrupted by the sound of Winry padding down the stairs. “Good morning,” she said, softly. “I’m making coffee; do you want some?”
Al shook his head. “Good morning, Winry,” he said. “No, thanks. I’ll get some tea later.”
She nodded, and ducked into the kitchen. Carefully, Al relocated himself into one of the chairs around the kitchen table. “You’re up early,” he observed.
Coffee started, Winry put a couple of pieces of toast in the toaster. “I’ve got surgery today,” she said. “It’s Colonel Miles’ arm, actually.”
Al nodded. “I would tell you good luck, but I’m sure you won’t need it!” he said.
Winry smiled. “Granny always said that luck was for people too lazy to put in the hard work.”
“Winry?” Al started, not sure how to ask what he really wanted to know, “It’s been two months now. How do you like Central?”
Winry shrugged. “I like the hospital facilities. They’re so nice, and I don’t have to do any of the cleanup! I miss all the trees and fields in Resembool, though. I’m not used to being around so much city all the time.”
Al frowned, holding Trisha close. “I’m sorry to take you away from Resembool,” he said.
“Hey, Al,” Winry said, looking concerned, “What’s the matter? Are you upset about something?”
“It’s just... you and Brother. You’ve done so much for us- it seems like too much!” Al ducked his head. He was still terrible at keeping his emotions from showing on his face, and he hated it sometimes.
Winry smiled. “It’s okay, Al. We’re just happy to have you and Mei here with us.”
Al nodded. “We’re happy to be with you,” he said. “Mei likes you a lot, Winry, and we love being around Al and Sara.” He tried to smile, but he was stopped by that roil of emotion in the pit of his stomach.
“But you’re still upset,” Winry observed. “Al, you can talk to me if something’s bothering you. Don’t feel like you have to hold everything inside all the time- it’s bad enough that Ed does it.”
Al trembled. “Winry, we weren’t back a week, and he changed his whole life just to help me. I didn’t want that!” He held himself still, the words pouring out of his mouth. “Brother gave everything for me. His right arm, his childhood, his alchemy. His leg, which he didn’t even try to get back. I never wanted him to give up anything else for me, not ever again. I certainly didn’t want him to sign himself over to the government again.”
Winry put a hand on his arm, ignoring the sound of the toast popping up. “He didn’t even discuss it with you before he made up his mind, did he?” she asked, with the air of one realizing something for the first time.
Al nodded. “He doesn’t have to keep protecting me,” he said, and there was more hurt and anger in his voice than he meant her to hear. “I tried to tell him that.”
Suddenly, Winry laughed. “You two,” she said, softly. “You’re just the same. He does everything he can to take care of you, and you’re sitting over there, upset because you want to look out for him too.” Al felt his face grow hot. “You need to talk to him, Al. I know you’ve been apart a long time, and you two are still feeling each other out, but he’ll listen if you explain it to him. Okay?”
“Your coffee is ready,” Al pointed out, leaning into Trisha’s soft little head.
“I mean it, Al,” Winry said, her eyes narrowing. “Talk to him. Soon.” Winry punched his arm.
“Ow!” Al said. She hit hard. “Fine, Winry! I will. Don’t hit me.”
“Good,” she said, getting up to get her coffee. “I’m glad you’re willing to listen to reason.”
When the alarm went off for the second time, Ed got up and dressed. He meandered downstairs, his tie and shoes in hand. Little Al and Sara were there already, sitting at the kitchen table eating oatmeal.
“Hey,” Ed said. “You got yourselves breakfast already.” He looked desperately around for coffee, and was relieved to find that Winry’d left some in the pot for him.
“Brother made it for me!” Sara told him. “He put raisins and brown sugar in it, just like Mom does.”
Ed poured his coffee, looking around for the sugar and cream. “Hey, Al,” Ed said, smiling at his son. “Thanks for looking out for your sister like that.”
Al shrugged, embarrassed. “I was hungry,” he said. “It wasn’t a big deal. I made enough for you and Mom, too.”
Ed peered into the pot on the stove. “Mom’s gone already- surgery this morning. But thanks.” He spooned some out for himself and rummaged for the brown sugar and raisins. He liked it sweet, just like Sara did. “Are you ready for school?” Ed asked, sitting down at the table.
“Almost,” he said. “Mom gave me lunch money last night, and our satchels are already packed.”
Ed wasn’t surprised to hear that his son had not only checked his own bag, but also checked his sister’s; Al was a responsible kid. Ed nodded, taking a bite of his breakfast. “How do you like the new school?” he asked. Al was always so quiet. It was hard to tell what he was thinking at times, and Ed was still not sure how he was taking the move.
Al shrugged again. “It’s bigger, and there are more teachers. I like the library.”
“We’ll take you to the big Central library soon,” Ed promised him. “You’ll like it. I thought it was impressive as all hell, the first time I saw it- and I wasn’t much older than you then.”
“That sounds okay,” Al said, scooping the last of his oatmeal out of the bowl. “I’m gonna go grab some more things for school, okay?”
“Fine,” Ed said. “Just don’t take too long. We have to get going in the next five minutes, okay?”
“Okay,” Al said, impatiently, as he left the room.
The older, larger Al passed Ed’s son in the hallway and made his way into the kitchen. “Good morning, Brother,” he said, shifting Trisha into her little chair at the table.
“Al made oatmeal,” Ed offered. “Little Al, I mean.” He grinned. “You know, I didn’t consider how confusing it was going to be when I named him that.”
Al laughed. “I guess it wouldn’t be a problem if I hadn’t come back from Xing,” he pointed out.
“It’s worth the confusion,” Ed said, smiling. He laughed, suddenly, and reached over to mess with Al’s hair. “God, Al! I’m still surprised every time you walk into a room. You were gone too long.”
“Brother-” Al said, and his face was serious, suddenly. It put Ed on edge. “Brother, how is your job?”
Ed laughed then, unsure why Al was bringing this up. “It’s a pain in my ass at the moment, but at least there’s an end in sight on this Western problem. I’m meeting with them again today. Why do you ask?”
Little Al reappeared. “Dad?” he said, “We need to go, or we’ll be late.”
“Have a good day teaching the babies, Al,” Ed told his brother, pulling his shoes on. “Sara, honey, grab your bag.” Little Al handed her satchel over as she put on her own shoes.
“Good luck at your meeting, Brother,” Al said, his face strangely melancholy.
Ed frowned. “Thanks, Al,” he said, making a note to himself to have a more serious talk with his little brother sometime soon.
Ed was well on his way to spending his lunch break working again. He was reading his way through another stack of the seemingly endless briefs that kept him up to date on the internal affairs of the country. He needed subordinates who could help him with this, he reflected. The problem was that he didn’t know yet whose judgment he could trust, and so he didn’t trust anyone. He needed to take some of his time to vet and assemble a team. If he could just get through this damned Western crisis-
With no knock, the door opened. Ed was yanked unceremoniously out of his reverie, and had almost shifted up into a combat stance before he registered who it was coming in. “Hello, Brother,” Al said, smiling softly at him.
“Hey, Al,” Ed said, relaxing. “What are you doing over here? Aren’t you supposed to be teaching now?” Something was definitely up with Al; he wasn’t in the habit of just showing up at Ed’s office with no reason, and he’d been... weird this morning.
Al shrugged. “Mei teaches in the mornings, and it’s still over an hour until my first class. I thought you might like lunch.” Indeed, he was holding several white boxes. “I went to one of those new Xingese restaurants,” he said, grinning.
Ed rolled his eyes. “They’re not exactly new, Al,” he said. “They started opening after the railway was finished, and that was what, six years ago? Seven?” He reached for a box, inspecting the contents.
“Their food is really terrible,” Al said, cheerfully. He handed Ed a second box full of rice and sat down on his couch. “No one in Xing eats anything like it; they just cook like that for Amestrians.”
“So you keep saying,” Ed grumbled, but he was still smiling. “But I like it anyway. Thanks, by the way- I think I was about to forget to eat. I’m fucking buried here.” He gestured at the pile on his desk with some irritation.
Al’s face fell. Too quickly, he ducked his head, inspecting the carton he was opening.
“Al,” Ed said, sighing. “What crawled up your ass today?”
Al started, and then laughed. “You’re so vulgar, Brother,” he observed.
Ed raised his eyebrows. “If you wanna see vulgar, Al, I can show you vulgar-” He grinned like a maniac, reaching his hands up slowly-
“Ed!” Al protested, covering his eyes against the threat of... whatever he thought his big brother was about to do.
Ed laughed, and punched Al lightly on the arm. “You’re so easy to mess with,” he told him. “Now, seriously, Al, what’s got you so upset lately? I mean, I know we’ve barely seen each other the last few weeks. You’re not mad at me or anything, are you?”
Al looked startled. “No,” he said. “That’s not it at all.”
“Then what?” Ed asked. “Is it something with the school? Or the State Alchemists’ Board? I can intervene with them if I have to.”
Al shook his head. “No, it’s nothing like that.”
Ed furrowed his eyebrows. “It’s not Mei or Trisha, is it? You guys seem so happy-”
“Ed,” Al said, with some exasperation. “Brother, shut up and let me talk to you!”
“Ah,” Ed said, just coming to the realization that he’d been babbling. “Okay. Sorry.” He shut his mouth, waiting.
“Brother,” Al said, after a long moment, “I know you didn’t want to take this job.”
Ed shrugged. “That’s okay, Al. You’ve got your school open, and the backing of the Ministry, and that’s what we wanted, right?”
Al’s face went stormy. “It’s not okay!” he protested. “You uprooted your whole life, Ed. I didn’t ask you to do that!”
“Al,” Ed said, not sure how to answer. “It’s fine. I thought we talked about this-”
“I promised myself!” Al interrupted, his voice cracking high with anguish. “I promised myself that it would be enough, that I’d never make you sacrifice anything for me again!”
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Ed laughed. “That’s a stupid promise,” he said, bluntly. “You never stop sacrificing for the people you love, and they never stop sacrificing for you. That’s what love is. And you’re still my brother, Al.” Ed flushed. Somewhere in the back of his head, Ed could hear himself screaming to the Truth to take his heart, take anything, just give his brother back. He’d meant it then. He still meant it today.
Al stared at him. His face broke into a slow smile. “Are you trying for equivalent exchange, Brother?” he asked. “You give yourself to someone, and just expect them to give everything they have back?”
Ed shrugged. “Equivalent exchange doesn’t apply to human beings, Al,” he said, looking away, uncomfortable with all this emotion. “You can’t expect that kind of trade; you just hope. Al-” he continued, “It’s okay. You don’t have to feel bad about me taking this job; it was our choice to make; mine and Winry’s. I think it was the right choice.”
Al reached out and touched Ed’s face with the very tips of his fingers. It reminded Ed suddenly of the months right after Al had gotten his body back, when he’d been desperate to touch everyone, everything around him. “How about this for equivalent trade then, Brother?” Al proposed, his lips quirking up slightly. “I stop feeling guilty about your moving to Central, and you talk to me about it the next time you think you should rearrange your life for me.”
Oh, Ed thought, with sudden, dawning realization. He flushed again. It had never occurred to him to discuss his decision with Al. He’d just done as he’d always done- acted as he thought best for the two of them, especially for Al’s benefit. But Al wasn’t a child anymore. He didn’t need Ed’s protection the same way he once had. “I’m sorry, Al,” he blurted out. “I won’t do that again, I promise.”
“Okay,” Al said, smiling. He leaned back into the couch. “Are you going to eat your fortune cookie, Brother? I’ll take it if you don’t want it.”
“Sure,” Ed said. “But give me the fortune.” Al cracked the cookie open, and fished out the slip of paper, handing it over. “Look around yourself, the answer is nearby,” Ed read. “Does that make you ‘the answer’, Al?”
Al sighed. “I don’t have the answers,” he said. “I wish I did.”
“Still,” Ed said, thoughtfully, “Thanks for lunch.”
It occurs to me that I might mention that Riza’s last name is Mustang now. As you may have noticed earlier in this story, however, most people who know her well still call her Hawkeye.
Writing IC Ed with his kids is hard. I’m having to come to peace with the fact that he acts totally different around his kids than he does with other people (mostly, he’s much nicer to them than he usually is). I defend myself on the grounds that Ed was never an adult interacting with kids in the series.
I don’t entirely agree with Ed’s definition of what it means to love someone, for the record. But it’s very him.
There will be Mustang and Hawkeye in the next chapter. I tried desperately to write some Roy here, but he just wouldn’t fit in yet. And Hawkeye is seriously in need of some screen time. I have yet to write a segment that focuses on her POV in any real way. This is a travesty!
Chapter 11: Politics
It’s been a little while since I posted a chapter. After so many frequent updates, I bet you were thinking “Man, I bet she’s not obsessed with FMA anymore, or might possibly have fallen off a cliff!” Fortunately, neither of those is the case. I just moved house, felt weirdly compelled to write Torchwood/FMA crossover, and had to spend a bunch of time plotting and researching this particular chapter. I had to make up a plausible political system for Amestris, you see, and then I got all into it. I apologize in advance for the ridiculous length of the after-notes for this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Roy sipped his coffee, taking time to savor the taste and feel of it. It really was excellent coffee, and he saw no reason why he should rush his enjoyment of it.
“Are you going to contribute to the discussion, Prime Minister, or are you going to drink coffee all day?” Edward asked him, sourly.
Roy smiled a little, taking another unhurried sip. If Ed was going to barge into his office a full thirty minutes before the cabinet meeting, before Roy had even had his coffee, he deserved what he got. “You really should try it sometime, Fullmetal,” he said, because he knew it would annoy Ed. “Ellen has a gift.”
Ed rolled his eyes. “Yeah, Mustang,” he said, irritated, “Except I’m a lot more interested in the labor provisions of this treaty than in your damned coffee.”
“I’m not going to discuss it before the meeting,” Roy informed him. He knew what Ed was unhappy with, and unfortunately, there were larger issues at stake. Ed would just have to fight it out with the other ministers, so that they could come up with a solution that pissed all of them off equally. Roy smiled. “Please, Ed,” he said, with deliberately infuriating coolness, “The rest of the Cabinet will be here in minutes. We can talk about it then with all parties present.” He hid his smirk in another sip of heavenly coffee.
Ed glared at him as he leaned back in his chair, the vein in his forehead bulging. Really, it was the little things that made life worth living, Roy reflected. He supposed he should be mature enough to stop baiting Ed like this, but it was so difficult to resist temptation. It always felt like old times to him, this almost-hostile banter with Ed. Ed really was older and more mature now, though. As Roy watched, Ed breathed, calmed himself, and was a picture of relaxed attentiveness when the rest of the cabinet ministers began trickling into the conference room. Only the barest of glares in his direction betrayed Ed’s irritation with him.
Roy set down his coffee and greeted his ministers appropriately, shaking hands and smiling. They took their seats around the room. Reverdy Pickering, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, sat to Roy’s left. He was an elderly gentleman who’d spent years as Bradley’s ambassadors to Aerugo and Creta successively. He had the experience and brains for the job, but Roy had never been able to pin down his politics. Still, he’d shown no sign of selling Roy out to the pro-military factions yet.
To Pickering’s left was James Hamilton, the Minister of the Treasury. Roy had recruited Hamilton out of the military. He’d been a quartermaster when he’d been in the service. He was also bright, and had earned a degree in Economics from Central University before he joined up. In choosing all his ministers, Roy had had to choose between experience and a past free of Bradley’s corruption. In Hamilton’s case, he’d chosen the younger man.
Next to him was Carl Randolph, the Minister of Justice. He had been a judge in a backwater town in the South when he’d come to Roy’s attention. Every judicial official further up the ladder had been too entrenched in Bradley’s puppet judiciary to be any use to him. Roy had picked Randolph because he had the training for the job and a record of doing what he thought was right even when his superiors told him to do otherwise. There was a reason he’d been in that backwater town, after all.
On his left was Toshi Redfield, the Commerce Minister. Redfield was a tweedy, unemotional man who breathed business. He was a weasel, but he had fingers in all the right pies. He’d been the choice Roy thought least likely to stab him in the back. Politically, at least; it had been a few years since Roy had had to worry about anyone doing it literally.
Falman was seated next to Redfield. Being the only ex-military officer that Armstrong and Mustang both trusted, he had the unenviable task of serving as Minister of Defense. His main job was to serve as Roy’s official liaison with the Fuhrer in her military capacity. Falman always seemed to look nervous these days. Roy felt bad about that, in his more charitable moments.
At Roy’s right hand was Edward Elric, the still-new Minister of the Interior, younger than Hamilton by nearly a decade. Even with the black three-piece suit and red tie, he looked more like a student than a high-ranking bureaucrat. Roy knew that several of the men around this table had questioned his judgment in appointing Ed. He’d handled the recent crisis in the West better than anyone had hoped for. Still, men like Pickering and Redfield were loathe to trust someone so young and, as far as they were concerned, untried.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Roy said, encompassing the table with a smooth smile. “I trust you all received your copies of the current version of the treaty?” There was a murmur of assent; Roy could see the green Confidential folders around the table. “Well then,” he said, “Thoughts?”
As Roy expected, Hamilton and Randolph stayed out of it. Nothing in the treaty touched on their departments too directly, and they were all too happy to sit back and watch the other men argue. Falman stayed quiet, too. He and Roy would be meeting with the Fuhrer later about the military implications of the treaty, so there was no need for Falman to get involved today. No, today, the fireworks were going to be between Ed, Redfield and Pickering.
“The tariff schedule in this treaty is completely unacceptable!” Ed was protesting. “We’re already losing manufacturing jobs to Aerugo; if this goes into effect, we’ll start hemorrhaging them to Creta too.”
“You’re concerned about jobs, Elric?” Redfield said. “We need to open up trade with our neighbors, or our economy will stagnate. If you want jobs, you should support this.”
“I want jobs in Amestris,” Ed snapped back. “And there are at least three major manufacturing centers in the West that will probably pack up and move to Creta if we make it cheaper for them to do so. Do we really want to destabilize the Western economy like that? They’re still rebuilding from the riots.”
Pickering spoke, his voice deep and gravelly. “We need to make some guarantee of good faith with Creta,” he said. “Some tangible benefit to them. We have been shaking our swords at our neighbors for so long that they do not trust us when we hold out a hand of peace. The change in the importation tariffs will accomplish that.”
“Maybe,” Ed said, crossing his arms. “But we’re going to have a hell of a fight from Labor on our hands if it stands as is.”
“Labor fights everything we do,” Redfield said, a little snidely. “I know you have sympathies in that direction, Elric, but we can’t base everything we do on what will satisfy the unions.”
“I don’t give a shit about the unions,” Ed growled. “I care about people being able to feed their families.” Ed sighed, running a hand through his bangs. He seemed to recognize that he’d gone a little too far, let himself get a little too emotional. “Look,” he said, “It’s also a matter of public opinion. The Westerners are going to see this as a personal attack, and the bleeding-hearts here in Central will have a field day about how this is just another example of government not giving a fuck about the common man. And I know our illustrious Prime Minister likes to think that he’s got the Progs sewn up, but I’ve already heard rumblings of opposition there; it’s not just Labor. Don’t forget that the damned thing has to get through Parliament, and there’s an election next year.”
Falman picked that moment to get involved. “Ed has a point,” he said, his voice quiet. “The Fuhrer keeps the Dragons pretty firmly in line, but even some of them are grumbling. And who knows what the ConCos will do.”
Redfield rolled his eyes. “The Dragons and ConCos don’t care about tariffs,” he pointed out. “In fact, if we change that provision, we’ll have the them both screaming bloody murder, and rightfully so.”
Hamilton spoke up. “I think we could keep the them happy if we spin it right,” he said. “They care about fiscal responsibility. They’ve got no love of unions, but if they think that it’s necessary-”
“None of this matters,” Pickering said, brusquely, “This is all internal bickering. We should be focused on what the terms mean for our relationship with Creta, and whether the Cretans will accept what we’re offering.”
Roy watched them debate, playing close attention to the interplay. In looking for men to serve as his cabinet ministers, he could have chosen people who backed him. Instead, he had quite deliberately chosen men who cared about their areas of responsibility more than they cared about him. It made for loud meetings.
The second time he heard an argument repeated, Roy decided that the discussion was over. His Ministers were good men, but they were- to a man- stubborn bastards, and it was Roy’s job to see the big picture here. “Gentlemen,” Roy said, interrupting a heated comment by Redfield. “You all make compelling arguments, and I think we can find some middle ground. Reverdy is right; we need to make some concession to Creta. The tariff change is our best option, both for our businesses and for our foreign policy. However, we can’t afford to ignore the impact on the Western economy. Edward, speak to your people, and come up with a proposal that will mitigate the effects of the new tariff schedule without interfering with the treaty terms. We can attach the proposal as a rider to the bill when Parliament sees it; hopefully, that will mollify Labor some.”
Redfield sighed. “The Dragons will hate that. They’ll fight it.”
“They’ll have to be satisfied with the treaty,” Roy said, firmly. “If we can keep Labor on board, we’ll have enough votes to confirm the treaty even with the rider attached. There won’t be a hell of a lot they can do about it.”
“If you can keep Labor on your side,” Ed pointed out, sourly.
“Hey,” Roy said, smiling, “Give me a little credit. They’re still voting with us so far, aren’t they?”
His ministers picked up their papers and left. Ed lingered, holding his attaché case a little awkwardly in his left hand. “I’ll have that proposal for you by late tomorrow,” Ed said. “Is that soon enough? I know this has to go to vote soon.”
“It should be,” Roy said. “You should double-check with Riza, though. She’ll know all our deadlines. We’ll be negotiating with the Fuhrer later today, though, so that will delay things on our end some.” Roy paused. “Riza told me to ask you if you’d like to do dinner sometime soon,” he added.
Ed looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “You’re coming to our place, though. The kids have bedtimes, and if we drag them out to your stupid mansion, they’ll be up all night.”
Roy smiled. “That’s fine,” he said. “Tomorrow night, perhaps?”
“Thursday,” Ed said, darkly. “I’ll be sleeping off an all-nighter tomorrow night. Some of us work around here,” he grumbled.
“I’ll look forward to it,” Roy said, with a smirk. He wasn’t lying, though. It was always a pleasure to be with Ed’s family- the surprisingly sensible woman he’d married, his frighteningly bright children. It was the closest he and Riza would ever get to being surrounded by family, he thought, ruefully.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ed answered. “That’s Al’s night to cook. I’ll tell him you’re coming.”
Havoc looked up from his desk to see the cabinet meeting breaking up. Ed was the last of the ministers to trail out of the room, his attaché case slung over a shoulder. Havoc grinned. “How’d it go, Chief?” he drawled, leaning back in his chair.
Ed rolled his eyes. “Ask him,” he said, gesturing to the conference room with a thumb. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn my Ministry upside down for his Excellency in there.”
Mustang emerged from the conference room, smiling slightly as Ed went. “I made a major concession for him,” he said, smiling slightly, “And he acts like I’m running him ragged.”
Havoc laughed. “You knew what you were getting into when you offered him the job,” he said, with no sympathy. “You’re meeting with the Ishvalan delegates in ten minutes,” he reminded Mustang, “And the Fuhrer at one. Is there anything you need for either meeting?”
Mustang sighed. “Dig up a couple copies of the budget for the Ishvalan region,” he said. “And I’m afraid there’s no helping the meeting with the Fuhrer.”
“I’ll have it ready,” Havoc told him. “I’ll also have lunch for you after your meeting with the Ishvalans.”
Mustang grimaced. Havoc knew without being told that the boss wouldn’t be hungry after that meeting. Whatever- he’d still get a damn sandwich, and he’d eat it, too. He could play tormented war veteran when his well-being wasn’t at least sort-of Havoc’s responsibility.
“Once you’ve got the budget ready, carry this over to the Fuhrer’s office for me, alright?” Mustang offered Havoc his papers. “It’s the newest version of the treaty. She’ll want to look it over before we meet.”
“Can do, boss,” Havoc said, with a lazy civilian salute. He grabbed his cane and made for the records room.
He called a page to him as he walked, sending the kid off to make sure that the conference room was ready. Meetings with the Ishvalans started with tea- Amestrian tea, because it was supposed to be a symbol of hospitality- and ended with a toast. Havoc had found a source for Ishvalan halmi, which should be a nice surprise for the delegates.
Once he’d dealt with the papers the boss needed for that meeting, he headed across the city to the Fuhrer’s office. The old HQ building had been torn down after the Promised Day and turned into a park. The new civil and military government complexes had been built on the outskirts of the city on opposite sides. This was probably symbolic of the new separation of the governments or something, but Havoc was mainly aware of it as a 45-minute drive that was a pain in his ass several times a week. He loaded the treaty papers into a locked attaché case and drove.
His life was a little surreal sometimes, he considered. He personally visited the military leader of Amestris on a regular basis. If you’d told him he’d be doing that when he was 18 and just entering the Academy, he’d’ve laughed. Of course, he considered sardonically, if you’d told him that he’d also be the half-crippled personal secretary to the Prime Minister, then he probably would have stopped laughing.
Still, better half-crippled than all the way.
Havoc delivered his papers to Armstrong personally, as he always did, unlocking the case in her presence and passing them over. She took them without comment and waved him away. Havoc drove back, figuring that he’d make it there shortly before Mustang’s meeting with the Ishvalans was due to break up.
“Anything explode while I was playing messenger boy?” Havoc asked Ellen as he came back into the office. He meant it figuratively, but literally was always a possibility, the boss being who he was.
“The MPs from Kassel and Magdebool are demanding to meet with Mr. Mustang,” she told him. “I told them that he was already in a meeting now, but they insisted on waiting.” She nodded to the outer chamber, where they left people to wait when it suited them.
“I’ll take care of it,” he told Ellen, and stumped into the other room.
One of the men stood up as Havoc entered. “We won’t be put off!” he told Havoc, belligerently. “We demand that Mustang hear our complaints!”
“Hi,” Havoc said, smiling affably. He sat down heavily in one of the chairs, rubbing his leg. The cripple thing was handy if you wanted to get people off-guard. No one was willing to be all that rude to a wounded man. “What do you need to talk to the Prime Minister about? He’s pretty busy today, but if it’s important, we might be able to work you in. Jean Havoc, by the way,” he said, extending a hand.
Fifteen minutes later, Misters Lewis and Maginnis were mollified and on their way, and the Ishvalan meeting was finishing up. Havoc waited until the delegates had gone, and then cornered Mustang.
“Lunch,” he said firmly, handing Mustang his sandwich, “And your schedule for the rest of the day. And can we do this sitting down, boss? My leg is killing me.”
It wasn’t actually that bad, but the boss looked like he needed to sit for a minute. He always came out of meetings with the Ishvalans acting... unsettled. Mustang took his sandwich and sat down. His lips curled up in a small smile. “Where did you get that Ishvalan booze?” he asked. “The Ishvalans were suitably impressed. So was I, actually.”
“The halmi?” Havoc asked. “I have my sources. I can get you a bottle of your own if you want.”
“I might take you up on that,” Mustang said. He took a bite of the sandwich. It was the lunch Havoc usually got for him- partly because it was quick and Mustang almost never got a real break for lunch, and partly because he could eat it without a fork and knife. The boss could handle silverware, but that kind of fine control was hard on his still-scarred hands. If Mustang didn’t have to eat in front other people, Havoc spared him the pain.
“You have an hour until your meeting with the Fuhrer,” Havoc told him, stretching his legs out. “Falman’s driving over with you, so that you can discuss terms with him before the meeting. Any idea how long it’ll take? I have various people who want a minute with you, but I haven’t scheduled any of them.”
Mustang smiled grimly. “You know how it goes with our illustrious Fuhrer. We’ll have to worry about it if I still have time after my meeting. Hey, could you get me some flowers to take with me? Something that says ‘maidenly beauty’, preferably.”
Havoc grinned. “I didn’t know you were in the mood to piss her off,” he said.
The boss shrugged. “She gets flustered when I give her flowers,” he said. “I can use flustered today.”
“Your funeral, boss,” Havoc said, smiling. “And I’ll schedule the others for two hours after your meeting with the Fuhrer. If you’re bringing her flowers, it’ll be a short meeting.”
He had the bouquet in Mustang’s hands when he left with Falman- azaleas, white lilac and baby’s breath.
“Flowers?” Breda asked, looking up from his desk as they went.
“For the Fuhrer,” Havoc explained, grinning. “Apparently he’s in the mood for pain today.”
When Mustang reappeared several hours later, he had a black eye and a grin on his face. “Prep these to send to Parliament,” he said, dropping his case on Havoc’s desk with an air of satisfaction. “Ed should have his proposal for you by tomorrow, so they need to be ready to go out on Thursday morning.”
“Congrats,” Havoc told him, taking the papers. “Glad to see you’re still alive!” he called, teasing, as Mustang sailed back into his office.
Havoc waited. After a moment, Mustang stuck his head back out of the office, grinning and holding a bottle filled with a silvery liquid. “I should have known you’d come through for me, Havoc!” He said. “You and I are toasting with this once the treaty’s confirmed, alright?”
“Any excuse for a drink, huh, boss?” Havoc said. 18-year-old Havoc wouldn’t have known what to make of this, he reflected. 18-year-old Havoc had been a country boy, already a sharp shooter, and secure in what the future of the military would bring him. He would have been pleased about Becky and the kids; he would have been horrified by the cane. And he would have been completely bewildered to see 36-year-old Havoc joking with the de facto leader of Amestris.
“When the drinks are this good, definitely,” Mustang said, and grinned as he ducked back into his office. 18-year-old Havoc had never met Roy Mustang, either, Havoc thought, smiling.
“We’ve got Resembool and Liore,” Breda said, pointing at the chart.
“That’s no surprise,” Hawkeye said, frowning. “They’re our base. If we didn’t have them, that would be something to report.”
Breda sighed. “The North is mainly Dragon territory; we’re not going to have much luck with them.” He started marking off squares.
“We need to focus on the West and South,” Hawkeye said. “Those are our Labor MPs, and they’re going to be the ones on the fence. We’ve got Felback at least; we can build on that.”
Breda grinned suddenly. “Do you ever wish we could send you out there with a pistol to persuade them?” he asked.
Her lips quirked up in a dry smile. “It would be simpler,” she admitted, with a touch of wistfulness.
“So, Felback," Breda said. "What are we doing about Labor in general?"
Hawkeye pulled a folder out and handed it to him. “This is Ed’s proposal.”
Breda flipped it open, looked at it. “Kid’s savvy,” he said, after a minute. “The tariff change is a major setback for Labor, but this is a huge concession to the bargaining power of the unions. The Dragons and ConCos will hate it, but the Dragons won’t cross Armstrong en masse, and she doesn’t give a damn about unions as long as she’s got her military concessions.”
“And the day we get the ConCos to back one of our votes is the day that hell freezes over, so we had already counted them out,” Hawkeye added. “So all we have to do is get the Labor MPs to recognize that this is in their self-interest and act accordingly, and try to convince our Progs not to desert us on principle.”
“You say that like it’s going to be easy!” Breda said, grinning. “If this job has taught me anything, it’s that MPs make worse herd animals than cats do.”
“At least they’re not dogs,” Hawkeye pointed out, her lips twisting upwards.
Breda scowled at her. Everyone seemed to think that his distaste for dogs was so hilarious. “Let’s divide and conquer,” he suggested. “We’ll figure out who’s probably going to be on the fence, and then I’ll go talk to some of them, and you’ll talk to the rest.”
They worked on their diagram of Parliament for a little while, each placing a red, green or yellow on which MPs they thought were yes, no or undecided. Breda liked working with Hawkeye, he reflected. She was perceptive and meticulous. Breda himself was perceptive and slapdash, so they made a good team.
When they were done making their individual marks, they circled every MP that wasn’t solid red or solid green, putting special emphasis on the yellow ones. “I’ll take Shillaker,” Breda said, pointing. “He’s a crotchety old bastard who doesn’t trust women, so you won’t get far with him.”
“I’ll take Colman,” Hawkeye said, studying the map. “He’s status conscious; it’ll stroke his ego more to meet with the Deputy PM than the Chief of Staff.”
“Take Morrison too,” Breda suggested, grinning. “He’s always had a fondness for blondes.” Hawkeye shot him a look. “Hey!” Breda said, raising his hands, “If we can use his weaknesses against him, all the better for us, right?”
“Fine,” Hawkeye said, a little acid. “You should at least chat with Markham and Baldwin. They’re from the East old boy’s club, and a word from you will go a long way toward appeasing our base.”
Breda groaned. He hated that kind of schmoozing. Still, she was right, as usual. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Good point.”
“I’ll take Winterton and Simon as well,” Hawkeye declared. “They’re sensible, as MPs go.”
“You always appeal to the sensible ones,” Breda observed.
“It’s a gift,” Hawkeye said, with dry humor.
“I’d better take Merriman and Ashley,” Breda said, without further comment. They were in the group that felt that Riza Hawkeye would be better staying at home and cooking the Prime Minister’s dinner than serving as his Deputy. They were idiots, of course. Hawkeye was a terrible cook.
Hawkeye nodded, a sardonic look in her eye. “Beckett, Sutton, Marley, Carter and Tillett for me,” she decided. “Samuel, Addison and Messer for you.”
“Deal,” Breda said. He took one last look at the map. “See you on the flip side, ma’am,” he said, throwing her a lazy salute.
She rolled her eyes. “Come back with your shield or on it,” she told him.
Riza tallied the votes carefully as they came up. Anfeldin- against. Bellin- for. Brasov- against. Dublith, Dettleback, East- for. Eben- against. Eckenbool- for. Edelback and Egver- against. From where she sat- just behind him and to the right- Roy’s tension was palpable. This treaty was Roy’s brainchild- the piece of diplomacy that would cool the increasingly hot relationship between Amestris and its Western neighbor. He’d been working on it for months, and it came down to this vote. Liore- for. Lockau- against. She wanted to reach out to him, to stroke the tension out of his neck, to run the tips of her fingers through his short, dark hair.
This was a full session of Parliament, though. Here, she was Roy Mustang’s Deputy Prime Minister, not his wife. Magdebool- for. Mannviller- for, and she’d worked for that one.
Roy shifted in his seat, waiting for the moment when the vote would tip- enough votes for or against that the outcome was clear. Her gaze flicked up to where Jean was sitting at Roy’s left. He smiled, a little sardonically, as if to say yeah, I know- the boss is pretty worked up, huh?
Riza smiled back at him, and made her tallies. Resembool- for. Rittsteg- for, thank you, Breda. Rodhof- miraculously for. Ruckem- against, but that was no surprise.
The vote tipped on Tierling. For, and the last vote they needed for the majority. Riza could see Roy relax, the tension bleed out of his body. Without being able to see his face, she could still see his barely-suppressed smile of relief. To her left, Jean grinned unabashedly at her. We win, he was saying.
There was a small party in Mustang’s office, afterward. Roy smiled and laughed, shook hands, threw his arms around peoples’ shoulders. Riza held herself off to the side, watching. Edward was here, grinning wolfishly as he downed a shot of the Ishvalan liquor that Roy had been passing around. Breda and Havoc had their arms around each other, singing what they had declared to be a victory song. Redfield and Hamilton were off to the other end of the room, having some sort of spirited discussion.
Suddenly, Pickering was next to her. “Madame Mustang,” he said to her formally, his voice low and rumbling. “I didn’t quite think that your husband would succeed in this. To get the Fuhrer, the Ministries, the Parliament and the Cretans all together in the pursuit of peace? Remarkable.”
“It is an impressive accomplishment,” she agreed coolly. “It took a great deal of hard work.”
“Of course,” Pickering said, smiling. “By the way, tell Mustang for me- I like what he’s made of that Elric boy.” He nodded to her, and moved off.
It was curious phrasing, that, but not wrong. It was Roy’s greatest gift: he made people, without ever realizing he was doing it. He’d done it to Jean, who had been a not-too-bright farmboy, and was now a trusted aide, the man you went to if you needed anything. He’d done it to Falman, who had been too afraid to hold a gun, but was now the man who brave enough to hold the gate between the military and Amestris’s people. Now he’d done it to Edward, who had abandoned the active life of his youth in favor of his books and his family. Roy had seen the adult Edward’s brilliance, his stubbornness, his principles, and known that he could use them. For Roy’s own goals, of course, but mostly for the good of the country.
Roy had made her, too, of course. She caught him looking at her from across the room, his dark eyes shining at her.
They didn’t get home until late. Roy greeted their security detail by name as he always did, and bade them a good shift. Then, at last, they were alone.
Roy kicked off his shoes, and flopped down on the couch. “Long day, huh?” he said.
“You’re not going to fall asleep on the couch, are you?” she asked him, letting an air of disapproval creep into her voice.
He reached out, caught her wrist and pulled her down on top of him, curling one hand around her waist. “Thank you, Riza,” he said, his voice velvety and dark. He smiled, and it wasn’t the charming smile he put on for the cameras and the politicians. It was quiet, and small, and shy, and just for her.
“There really isn’t enough room on this couch for the two of us,” she pointed out, practically.
He reached up and unfastened the clip from the back of her head. Her hair fell in a curtain around his face, and he smiled, breathing her in. “This was a victory,” he said, quietly, his mouth resting against her neck.
“It was,” she agreed. She shifted a little to the side so that she could, at last, run her fingers through his hair, massaging his scalp.
“Sometimes it feels like there are no victories,” he said, and his voice was naked. “We’re just wading through mud, trying our damnedest to find the best path through. But today- today was a real victory.”
She leaned over and kissed him gently on the forehead. “Yes,” she said, softly. “Now get up and get ready for bed before I have to carry you,” she told him.
“Riza,” he said, pulling himself upright, “You’ve always carried me.”
She smiled then, and kissed him. “Go to bed, Roy,” she told him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and did so.
Labor/Progs/Dragons/ConCos are the four major political parties in Amestris at the moment. The Dragons (Amestrian Nationalist Party) are the mainstream conservative party with a strong pro-military bent. The ConCos (Constitutional Coalition Party) are more extreme conservatives who are very concerned with social/moral issues. Labor (Amestrian Worker’s Party) and Progressive (Progressive Alliance for Amestris) are on the more liberal end of the spectrum. Labor is a more socially conservative party although they’re quite liberal when it comes to government intervention in the economy. The Progs are Mustang’s party, and are in an uneasy alliance with Labor, which is sort of Ed’s party if he were political enough to have one.
You didn’t really need to know any of that, but that’s what you get for reading author’s notes: insight into my excessively detailed worldbuilding for post-manga FMA.
In Ed’s case, he’s quite literally a stubborn bastard, what with Trisha and Hohenheim apparently not having been married.
Halmi is stolen from Cap’nHoozits’ incredible story, Sons of the Desert. Highly recommended. Cap’nHoozits made up Ishval so I didn’t have to.
If it wasn’t obvious, Roy’s hands are messed up from Bradley sticking swords through them back in the day. Thanks to alchemy, he can still use them for pretty much everything, but they ache and get clumsy and weak. Roy ignores this when it suits him, so it’s not something that most people around him are even aware of.
I debated long and hard about what role Riza would take in the government. Typically, the answer would be none at all, what with her being the PM’s wife. However, I didn’t like the idea of her not being involved, or of her having a strictly unofficial role. Riza’s main focus has always been being at Roy’s side, helping him achieve his goals. I actually didn’t think she’d have married him if it meant that she couldn’t be that to him anymore. I finally decided on Deputy PM, because in many parliamentary governments, it’s a quasi-official position with no real power of its own. I figured in Amestris, that the Deputy PM only exists to be the PM’s right hand, which is Riza all over. She would not, however, become the head of the government if someone were to finally succeed at shooting Roy in the head.
Fun facts: all the names of the MPs in this story come from a list of British MPs from 1929. Also, the last names of all the cabinet ministers were taken from past US secretaries of their respective departments. In general, I’ve been naming everyone in the Ministries after people who served in the corresponding US Departments. The Amestrian place names are taken from various German gazetteers and then mutilated.
I probably have all the political stuff out of my system with this chapter. Still, there’s got to be someone out there who has been dying to read an FMA fic involving tariffs and union bargaining rights.
Chapter 12: Flow
Alphonse enjoyed cutting potatoes. He liked the feel of the knife in his hand, and the way the flesh of the potato parted under it with a wet shick, and the way a lump of potato could be reduced to regular chunks of food. The rhythm of it was comforting and pleasantly physical. He raced himself sometimes- going as fast as he could and still keep his fingers away from the blade of the knife, the muscles of his hands and arms moving fluidly to the task.
The knife itself was interesting to him. He’d trained with blades since he was a child, but mostly for fighting. He liked being able to use a blade to create something- dinner for his family, in this case- rather than to kill or harm. Al hummed happily, finishing the potatoes and moving on to the ginger. He could have switched to a smaller knife, but he didn’t. The larger knife was comfortable in his hand, and he could use it for most purposes. He swiftly pared the papery outer skin off the ginger, and began mincing it.
Mincing was particularly fun, Al thought. Mincing involved such tiny, precise cuts of the knife. He controlled the pressure and angle of the blade perfectly, slicing the fibrous root into tiny slices, and then into tiny pieces. His knife flew across the cutting board, his off hand darting in and around the knife and the ginger.
He was slicing the green chiles, taking care to touch them only with the tips of his fingers, when he realized that he wasn’t alone in the kitchen. “Oh!” he said. “I didn’t see you come in.”
“I didn’t want to disturb you,” Roy Mustang said, his voice faintly amused. “I was a little afraid you’d cut yourself if I startled you.”
Al felt himself blushing. He felt a little silly for enjoying cooking as much as he did, especially because it was supposed to be a woman’s job here in Amestris. “No,” he said, “It’s okay. I never cut myself, really. Almost never.”
“What are you making?” Roy asked.
“Nothing much,” Al said, shrugging. “Potatoes and peas, and some cauliflower, and some... er... fried things.” He scraped the minced chile into a small bowl. “They don’t have a name in Amestrian, but they’re good, I promise.”
“I didn’t know you knew how to cook,” Roy said.
“I learned out East,” Al said. “I guess after those years in armor, I was just really interested in food! It’s a lot like alchemy, really. Transforming one thing into another, you know? And I already knew how to handle knives.” He smiled. “You can cook, too,” Alphonse pointed out.
Roy laughed. “Not like you do, obviously,” he said. “My foster mother made sure that I could cook a steak and a potato, but that’s about as fancy as I get.”
Al flushed again at the compliment. “This isn’t a very fancy dinner,” he said. “It’s just vegetables and gravy.”
“What spices are you using?” Roy asked, holding up the bowl that Al had dumped his ground spices in earlier. “This smells amazing.”
“Um,” Al said, “Spices from out East. Coriander, and cumin and hing- I don’t know the Amestrian word for that, if there is one. And amchoor, and haldi. Oh! And fennel.” He set his potatoes to boil, and then reached for his cast iron pot.
“Where did you even get these?” Roy asked. “Did you bring them with you?”
“Some of them you can get at the Xingese shops,” Al said. “Some of them I brought with me. I figured it’s a special occasion, cooking for you and Riza, so I didn’t mind using them.” He smiled shyly down at Roy, and scooped some of his clarified butterfat into the hot cast iron.
Roy didn’t answer. He just leaned against the counter and watched with interest as Al toasted cumin and fennel seeds, sliced tomatoes and crushed garlic and shelled peas. It was unnerving to be watched like that, but Roy seemed comfortable in the silence. Al reached out with his other senses, feeling for his family. There was Mei, with the tiny knot of qi that was Trisha. Even after Trisha’s birth, it was still difficult to sense them separately at times; they were so closely connected. There was Riza, so guarded. She and Roy were the same, that way. Little Al and Sara were next to her, their small wells of qi flowing easily into each other and into Riza. There was Winry, qi flowing through her like water in a river. She was so happy, so grounded. It was no wonder, Al thought, that she’d been able to be home for him and Ed, all those years when they’d been traveling.
And there was Ed, who felt like a well of golden fire to Al. Even without trying, Al was better attuned to Ed’s qi than anyone else’s, even Mei’s. He usually knew where Ed was in relation to him now, even when he wasn’t concentrating.
The spices in his pot popped and sizzled, releasing a delicious aroma. Swiftly, Al tossed in the water and the tomato, and then the potato as he judged it to be soft enough. Letting that simmer for a little while, he turned to the bowl on the counter.
“What’s that?” Roy asked, curious.
“Moong dal,” Al told him, draining the water out of the bowl. “Er, Moong beans. Hulled ones. You can get them from the Xingese grocery these days; they’re supposed to be good for the digestion. These have been soaking since this morning, so they’re soft. I’m going to pulp them and then fry them. They’re really good!”
“Would you like me to mash them for you?” Roy offered. “I’ve got no idea what you’re doing with the rest of this, but I could mash beans.”
“Thanks,” Al said, smiling. He handed over the bowl and the masher. It was still strange to him to see Roy in these domestic contexts. He couldn’t imagine Flame Colonel of his youth offering to help in the kitchen, but it didn’t seem to bother the Roy Mustang who was in front of him now. “You seem so relaxed,” Al blurted out, reaching for his precious dried tamarind. “Since I knew you before, I mean.”
Roy laughed. “Well, there’s not an evil conspiracy to destroy the country anymore, and no one’s seriously tried to kill me in ages. It mellows a man out.”
“Riza mellows you out,” Al guessed, slyly.
Roy smiled, a quiet little smile. “She probably does,” he admitted. “You’re the same as you always were,” he observed.
“I like to think that I’ve gained some wisdom as I’ve gotten older!” Al said, smiling. He diced the tamarind and put it on to boil in a little water.
Roy shrugged, leaning into his task. “You were always wise,” he said. “Your brother was brilliant, but you were wise.”
Al ducked his head to hide his blush. He began grinding spices for the fritters. “I don’t know about that,” he protested.
Roy just smiled. “How’s the school going?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Al said, smiling again. He opened the icebox to check on his yogurt. “Sometimes it seems like they’re really learning, and other times, I just don’t know how to reach them. I sort of want to call Teacher and ask her how she did it!”
“Maybe you should,” Roy advised. “It might help just to talk about it.” He grinned. “Really, though, you can’t do worse than most alchemy masters- there’s a long history in alchemy of teachers doing their damnedest to make sure that their students never learned anything. The fact that you actually want to share your knowledge is a good start.”
They worked together in companionable silence. Al started a pot of oil heating up, messed with his potatoes and gravy, checked on his rice. Roy diligently ground beans into paste. Al was finishing the tamarind sauce when his brother swept into the room.
“When’s dinner?” he asked. “The crowd’s starting to get restless out here.”
“Ten minutes,” Al advised him. “I just need to fry these, um, bean things. You can tell them to set the table.”
Ed scowled, looking into the pot. “You cook such weird food!” he said.
Al laughed. “You don’t cook at all, so I don’t think you should complain!”
“He’s got you there,” Roy put in, smirking.
“Go get them to start setting the table!” Al told Ed before he could round on Roy. “Ten minutes, like I said.”
“Fine, fine,” Ed said.
Al ran back and forth to the kitchen, carrying out bowls and pots and spoons. Finally, he had everything out on the table, and he took his seat. Everyone sat politely, looking to Ed and the head of the table. Ed raised his glass. “Cheers!” he said.
“And welcome to our guests!” Winry added, nodding to Roy and Riza as they clinked glasses around the table.
“They’re not our guests,” Sara protested. “They’re our Uncle and Auntie!”
“If they’re not guests, does that mean I can make Roy help with the dishes?” Ed asked, smirking.
Winry narrowed her eyes at him. “No,” she told him, firmly. “Dig in, everyone,” she advised the rest of the table.
“What is all this?” Riza asked, politely, looking over at Al.
“Potatoes and peas in spiced gravy,” he said, pointing to the big pot. “I like to spoon it over the rice. There’s also a yogurt sauce for it, if you want. Um, and roasted cauliflower, and bean fritters in yogurt and tamarind sauce.”
“You never put any meat in your stews,” Ed complained, spooning a heaping serving onto his plate, and passing the pot around.
Al smiled. “You eat enough meat, Brother. It’s not good for you to have too much. Besides, there’s plenty of protein in the fritters.” He reached out with his chopsticks and plucked a few of them off the platter.
“Did you learn to cook this way in Xing?” Riza asked.
“No,” Al said shaking his head. “I know how to cook some Xingese dishes, but Mei’s better at that than I am. I learned to cook from a man in a country called Barata. They don’t really eat any meat there, not even eggs!”
“Weird, like I said,” Ed put in, but he was smiling.
Mei reached across the table and thwacked him on the head. “You should be respectful!” she scolded him. “Most Amestrians would never get to eat food like this. Besides, Alphonse worked hard to cook our dinner.”
Al grinned, and ate a bite of cauliflower. “Don’t worry, Mei,” he said, with a deliberately long-suffering sigh. “Brother doesn’t know how to be respectful. I’m used to it.”
“I’m glad you gave us forks,” Roy said, nodding to the chopsticks that Al and Mei and the children were using. “I’ve tried to use those before, but I’ve never gotten the hang of it.”
“We have!” Sara put in. “Auntie Mei taught us! It’s easier to eat Uncle Al’s food with them than with forks, too.”
Al shrugged. “The fritters are less messy this way,” he agreed.
“Aunt Mei’s been teaching us lots of things about Xing,” Little Al said, speaking up for the first time.
“He asked her to teach him some Xingese,” Winry explained.
Little Al nodded. “Do you want to hear some, Aunt Riza?”
“Of course,” Riza said, smiling, as she put a piece of potato into her mouth.
Little Al straightened up. “Nǐ hǎo, hěn gāoxìng jiàn dào nǐ,” he said, carefully polite. He relaxed “That means ‘pleased to meet you’,” he said, proudly.
“You’re learning fast,” Al said. “Much faster than me. I was pretty stupid at learning Xingese when I first started.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit!” Mei protested. “Xingese is a very difficult language for Amestrians. You were a very good student.”
She beamed up at him, and Al felt himself melt a little inside, the way he always did when she looked at him like that. “Wǒ ài nǐ,” he told her, softly.
She blushed bright red. “Alphonse,” she said, happily.
“Why didn’t you make any bread, Al?” Ed complained. “If I had some rolls, I could throw them at you two.”
Al looked up in time to see Winry smack Ed. “Don’t be rude,” she told him. “Besides, I think they’re cute.”
Al smiled. Around him, he could feel the flow and pulse of life.
Al walked back briskly from the market, the cartons of ice cream cold through the paper sack he had wrapped them in. When he’d left, everyone was in the last stages of nibbling on their dinner, talking and laughing. They’d discussed the signing of the new treaty, which Roy and Ed had described in increasingly improbable terms. Sara had talked at length about her school, and Winry had started talking about her new practice, and the hospital, and her patients.
Al had suddenly thought that ice cream would be perfect, and excused himself to run down the block and pick some up. He smiled. The night air was just the right amount of cool, and it felt wonderful on his skin. Tonight had been wonderful in general, he thought. His brother’s family was noisy, but there was so much love there. For a group of orphans- him and Ed, Winry, even Roy and Riza- they had done a good job learning to build a family.
Suddenly, the calm of the night was broken by a loud crashing sound, not too far distant. Al heard someone scream, and there was shouting. Al frowned down at his ice cream. Then he turned, and ran in the direction of the noise.
The first thing Al saw was the back end of a car, and a pile of bricks where the side of a house used to be. He forced himself to be calm, noted the skid marks- the car must have taken the corner much, much too fast and crashed into the wall at full speed. Had there been anyone in the house? Al reached out. There was the driver. Al could just see him with his eyes, the steel of the car wrapped around him. His qi was muted, flickering. There, there, there- three more muted wells of qi somewhere in that mass of crushed brick, all twisted with fear and pain, one flickering.
“Sir,” a policeman said, and Al could hear sirens in the distance. “I’m going to have to ask you to step back. It isn’t safe.”
Al snapped his awareness back into the mundane. “I’m a State Alchemist,” he told the man, and he fumbled his watch out as an afterthought. “There are three people trapped under there. I can help.”
“Three people?” The policeman said, confused. “How do you know?”
“Three people plus the driver,” Al said, and handed his ice cream over to the policeman. “Is an ambulance on its way? The driver is pretty badly injured, and at least one of the people inside is too. I can get them out, but they’ll need medical attention right away.”
The policeman looked down at the brown package in his hands as though it had sprouted there. “Yes,” he said. “An ambulance is on its way.”
“I do know a little medical alchemy,” Al said, calmly. “But I suppose we’ll have to see.” He took a deep breath, gathered himself. He focused on the wounded masses of qi inside the building. He visualized his array, and put his hands together. There were the lines of energy that connected him to the wounded people and to everyone. There was the energy flowing through the earth, waiting to be directed. He activated the array, held it for a moment, and released it to fly along the ley lines into the building. Metal rearranged itself.
Al clapped. Brick moved.
Al clapped. Four enormous glass spheres formed, rose up on great glass pillars and then dropped, ever so gently, to the ground.
Al clapped. The glass dissolved, and four wounded people lay on the pavement in front of him, surrounded by the debris from the house, the car.
Al opened his eyes. The driver was gasping, impaled by the steering column of his car, which had been neatly sheared off and transported with him. His breathing was clear, though, and Al thought he had a chance of living if Al could transmute his wound closed after the doctors pulled it out.
There was also a woman, who was still covered by a fall of bricks. Next to her, bruised and groaning and pulling themselves up, were a little girl and a teenaged boy. “Mom!” the boy cried, anguished, and started pulling bricks off the fallen woman.
Behind Al, the sirens grew louder. “Careful,” he told the boy, and knelt down. Gently, he lifted the bricks off, feeling for the flow of qi in the woman’s body. He wished he’d spent more time paying attention to the medical applications of alkahestry. He could close a wound, but her injuries weren’t so obvious. The woman gasped, and he could feel her flicker under his hands, her qi growing weaker. “Hold on,” he told her, fear taking hold in his heart, “The ambulance is almost here! Just hold on, okay?”
The little girl started to cry, calling her mother’s name. “Mom,” the boy whispered, pulling his sister close, and it was too much for Al. He knew what it was like to lose a mother. He didn’t want anyone else to have to know it too, not if he could do something about it. He reached out again, concentrating as hard as he could, trying desperately to find what was wrong. In desperation, he clapped, transmuting kunai out of the ground.
“What are you doing?” the boy cried.
Al ignored him. He threw the knives into a perfect five-pointed circle around the woman’s body, hoping that they would help sharpen his focus. It was probably just in his mind, but it did help. There- in her belly- she was bleeding. Al reached out, activated the alkahestric circle, and he could feel the bleeding stop. Her qi was still weak, but it stopped flickering. He breathed.
“What are you doing to my mother?” the boy shouted again, and Al looked up to see the policeman holding the boy back.
“It’s okay,” Al said to him. It must have looked terrible, Al realized, him holding knives over the injured woman’s body. “I was helping her. She’s still very injured, but I think she’ll live now.”
The boy ran to his mother’s side, holding her hand, tears running down his cheek.
The ambulance arrived a little bit after that, and Al stayed to help them with the driver.
“Who are you?” the policeman said to him in a hushed voice, after the driver was packed away to the hospital. He was still holding Alphonse’s package of ice cream. It was beginning to drip, Al noted, regretfully. “I’ve never seen alchemy like that before.”
“I’m Alphonse Elric. The, um... Life’s-blood Alchemist.” He felt ridiculous, calling himself that. “I’m glad I was here. That woman would probably have died if she’d been in there much longer.”
“Yeah,” the policeman said, his face dumbfounded.
“I’d better get going,” Al said, taking the package back. The ice cream might be salvagable, he told himself, heading towards home.
Al being attuned to Ed’s qi is why he showed up to Mustang’s office so quickly in chapter 4. He can’t sense emotion, exactly, but he knew there was something wrong with his brother.
Little Al is supposed to be saying “Hello, pleased to meet you”. Al is telling Mei that he loves her. The “Xingese” in this chapter comes straight out of Google Translate. I know twelve languages, and none of them are any kind of Chinese, so if it’s wrong I wouldn’t know. :P
Chapter 13: Coffee and Tea
Ellen was heading to Mustang’s office when Ed arrived for his weekly briefing with the Prime Minister.
“I’ll just take that in to him,” he said, plucking the cup of coffee out of her hand with a charming smile.
She rolled her eyes, but let him go. “You do that, Minister,” she told him.
He pushed open Roy’s door, taking a long, lingering sip of the coffee as he did so. “You’re right,” he said. “Ellen really does have a gift- this is incredible.”
Roy looked up from his desk, his eyebrow cocked. “Is that my coffee, Fullmetal?” he asked.
“It’s my coffee now, Prime Minister,” Ed said, grinning as he took another sip. He supposed he should have matured past picking fights with Mustang. Apparently, he hadn’t.
Roy sighed, stood up, and walked around his desk. Suddenly, he clapped his hands and dropped to a crouch. “I’d like it back, if you don’t mind,” he said, with a smile.
The floor rose up under Ed, grasping. He danced nimbly out of the way, coffee held high. “You’re going to ruin your office like that,” he pointed out, cheerfully. “The transmutation marks will never come out.”
Roy grinned, and touched the wall. Damn- he must have clapped while Ed was evading his last attack. Ropes of wood paneling snaked around Ed, holding him fast. Roy walked up and took his coffee back, sipping it as he clapped and de-transmuted his office.
“It’s no fair using alchemy when I can’t,” Ed complained.
“Who said I fight fair?” Roy said, sitting back in his desk chair with his coffee. “I fight to win. I thought you knew that by now, Fullmetal.”
“You’re so full of yourself,” Ed said, flopping into a chair with a grin.
Roy sipped his coffee. “So you have observed before,” he said. “What’s got you in such a good mood this morning?”
Ed stretched, putting his hands behind his head. “Life is good,” he said. “I have a brilliant wife and great kids. I mean, my job is shit and my boss is really annoying, but I try to look on the bright side.”
“Have you seen the Times?” Roy asked, tossing a copy in Ed’s direction. “Your brother’s little adventure made the front page.”
Ed frowned and reached for the paper, all his playfulness vanishing. Life’s-Blood Alchemist Saves Four, the headline read. There was a picture, which Ed recognized from Al’s State Alchemist file. Ed had supported the move to make the register of State Alchemists public knowledge, but it was irritating now. Alphonse Elric, the Life’s-Blood Alchemist, the caption read. Ed skimmed the article. It contained several eye-witness accounts of the incident, with far more detail about what Al had done that Ed really wanted to have on the public record. “Publicity,” Ed said, frowning.
Roy didn’t say anything; just nodded, his eyes dark and careful. It was nice that Ed usually didn’t have to spell things out for the man. Roy Mustang might be a manipulative bastard, but he was no one’s idiot. Well, maybe Hawkeye’s, Ed amended. But no one else’s. “There’s nothing we can do about it now, I guess,” Ed said. “Either Armstrong’s paying attention or she isn’t.”
“Oh, she’s paying attention,” Roy said, taking another sip of his coffee. “Believe me when I say that there’s always someone paying close attention any time the name ‘Elric’ comes up.”
“I didn’t realize we still merited that kind of treatment,” Ed said dryly. “Before I came to work with you, it’d been years since I did anything interesting, and Al’s been off in another country for ten years.”
Roy just smiled. “You painted a permanent target on yourself when you walked into Central HQ to take the exams, all those years ago,” he said. “Actually, I always assumed that was what the red coat was about- a figurative representation of a bullseye.”
Ed laughed. “Maybe,” he admitted. “Mostly, I just thought the color red was badass.”
“Well,” Roy said, “You were twelve at the time. I suppose certain... lapses in taste might have been expected.”
“Keep your eyes and ears out, okay?” Ed said, not rising to that conversational bait. “If the military is going to make some kind of move, we need to know.”
Roy sighed. “I do think you’re being a little bit paranoid, Ed. Even if Armstrong realizes the potential applications- which she might not- it’s not currently legal to use alchemy on the battlefield.”
Ed snorted. “I think you’re living in a damned fairytale if you think that means the Amestrian military won’t do it anyway.”
Roy narrowed his eyes. “I think I know something about the evils that the Amestrian military is capable of, Fullmetal,” he said. “But she’d have to deal with the public as well. She may run the military, but things have changed in the last ten years, and not just in the government. People don’t trust the military like they used to, and they’re wary of letting another Ishval happen. The army’s still powerful, but it’s not all-powerful.”
“We’ve gone up against all-powerful before anyway,” Ed said, crossing his arms. “Let’s just both tread carefully, here, okay? The State Alchemist program is under my watch, and so is Al’s school. Even if we leave my ‘paranoia’ out of it, I still don’t want the military anywhere near my Ministry’s affairs.”
“Of course,” Roy said, lacing his fingers together thoughtfully. “This isn’t entirely bad, you know. It’s good to see a State Alchemist in the news for using his alchemy to help others. Public opinion and all.”
“I guess,” Ed grumbled.
He proceeded to give Roy his weekly briefing about the state of affairs of the country. The rebuilding in the West continued; The Strong-Arm and Flowing-Water Alchemists were in Pendleton building aqueducts and irrigation infrastructure. There were fuel shortages throughout the North, which were only likely to get worse as winter set in. He discussed crop yields in the South and East, and the ongoing instability in the Liore region. Roy took it all in, his hands pressed together as he considered the issues.
“We’ll have to divert fuel from our reserves,” Roy said, finally. “We can’t let people go without heat, not with winter coming. Hopefully, the Cretan treaty will let us start to import more oil; otherwise, we might have to consider instituting a rationing system.”
Ed grimaced. “It’s not going to be pretty if it comes to that,” he said, considering.
Roy nodded in agreement. “In happier news, the tenth anniversary of the Ishvalan Accords is coming up.”
Ed smiled. “Ten years of Ishvalan self-rule,” he said. “Congratulations.” Ishval wasn’t independent; they were still considered part of Amestris. But they had their own Parliament, and they kept their own borders. It had been enough to keep the peace.
“I’d like you to go to Kanda for the celebration,” Roy said.
“What?” Ed asked, surprised. “Why?”
“There should be a representative from the central government there,” Roy said. “You’re the Minister of the Interior; it makes sense that it be you.”
Ed shook his head. “No, I mean, why aren’t you going? Ishval has been your main project since... well, since the Promised Day. You were the one who worked for the Accords in the first place. Don’t you want to go to the celebration?”
Roy smiled, but his eyes were sad. “You know that the terms of the Accords forbid any licensed State Alchemist from entering Ishvalan territory, right?”
“Yeah,” Ed said shrugging. “But it only applies to currently licensed State Alchemists. Which means that Al can’t go, but it’s got nothing to do with you. You gave up your license when the program demilitarized, and that was years ago.”
“There was a corollary to that provision,” Roy said. “It was never put into writing. They requested that the Flame Alchemist never again set foot on Ishvalan soil. I gave my word that I wouldn’t go back, and I haven’t broken it yet. So- you have to go in my place.”
Ed felt the sting of old frustration, of old anger. He wanted to argue that it wasn’t fair, but he knew that it was the least the Ishvalans could have asked for as justice for the Flame Alchemist’s crimes. Still, he wished that it were possible that someday, it could be enough, that Roy and Riza could count their debt to the old war paid. “Yeah, okay,” he said, not voicing his thoughts. There was no point to discussing the subject, and it would only cause Roy pain.
Roy smiled. “Good. We’ll discuss it again before you leave for Kanda.”
Ed shrugged, and started gathering his papers in preparation to leave. “If that’s everything...” he said.
“For today,” Roy said, ruefully.
The kettle whistled, and Winry pulled down the cups from their place on the shelf. It wasn’t her kitchen, but she still knew where everything was.
“Just put those on the tray,” Gracia advised, pulling the kettle off the burner. She pulled the lid from the teapot, checked that the infuser was in place, and poured the boiling water in. She put the lid back on, and slid a cozy over the pot.
Winry did as she was told. She put the tin of cookies she’d brought on the tray as well, right next to the sandwiches that Gracia had made. “Into the living room?” she asked.
Gracia nodded, smiling, and put the teapot on the tray. “If you don’t mind,” she said.
“How have you been?” Gracia said, once they were settled, with the tea poured and a biscuit each on their plates. “It’s been too long since we got together.”
Winry smiled. “It has,” she agreed. “We’ve been fine! Everything’s been so busy since we came to Central. I guess I knew it would be, with Ed’s job and all, but things have picked up for me, too.”
“You’re a very good automail engineer,” Gracia said, smiling softly. “It’s natural that people seek you out, especially now that you’re more conveniently located.”
Winry shrugged, blushing a little. “I guess,” she said. “Oh, would you like to see some of my designs? I brought them this time, like you asked.”
“Yes, of course!” Gracia said, setting her teacup down. She cleared the tray to the side. “Here, you can lay them down on the table.”
Winry coaxed the drawings out of the carrying tube she’d brought, unrolling them carefully. “This is an arm I’ve been working on- it’s transhumeral, as you can see, but we’re trying to save the shoulder joint.” She went on, pointing out little details. Gracia hmmed and nodded and smiled, encouraging her to talk about her work. It was a nice change. Usually people wanted her to shut up about it, instead- unless she was visiting Rush Valley, of course. Winry warmed to her subject; she pointed out the articulation in the opisthenar, the small but sensitive extensors, the subtle function of the brachialis.
After a while, Winry switched to a new drawing. “This is for Ed,” she said, smiling shyly. “It’s a surprise. He’s taking a trip out East soon, into the desert, so I’m designing him a leg that won’t be so uncomfortable there. He told me that the last time he went out there he almost got burned around his ports!”
Gracia smiled. “You look out for him as well as you can, don’t you?” she remarked.
Winry blushed. “It’s just that steel is so conductive,” she babbled defensively. “I was thinking of doing a carbon fiber shell, like Northern automail, and then a flexible sheath to keep the sand out-”
“It’s alright,” the older woman told her, “I did the same for Maes, when I could. It must be a comfort, being able to help Edward like that.”
Winry relaxed. “I sometimes wonder if I’d have been as good an engineer if Ed hadn’t lost his limbs,” she admitted. “When we were little, it was how I got to sleep at night if I was worrying about him and Al- I’d work on his automail in my head. I’ve always liked designing automail, but designing for Ed is-”
“Special,” Gracia supplied, smiling gently. She was so graceful; Winry had always wished in vain for that kind of feminine poise. Where Gracia was quiet and well-mannered, Winry was loud and opinionated.
Winry looked down at her drawing, imagining the design made real in metal and carbon, imagining it lying next to her in bed in the morning at the end of her husband’s leg. She reached down, brushed the vellum gently with her fingertips. “Yeah,” she agreed. She shook herself. “Sorry, Miss Gracia,” she apologized, smiling. “I don’t mean to be so sentimental!”
“That’s alright,” Gracia said. “So, how are little Al and Sara doing? Has Al read his way through the Central library yet?”
Winry laughed. “No, but you should have seen his face when Ed and Al took him there for the first time! He was daunted for about the first five seconds, and then I could just see him calculating how long it would take him to read every single book in the place. He’s so much Ed’s son.”
“But with a sweeter temper,” Gracia observed.
“God knows where he got that from,” Winry said, smiling. “Maybe it skipped a generation from Aunt Trisha, because he didn’t get it from either of us.”
“I hear things about Sara from Elicia, of course,” Gracia said. Elicia picked Sara up from school twice a week, so they saw each other regularly. “She seems to make friends like breathing, that one.”
“Which she also didn’t get from us!” Winry said, grinning.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Gracia said. “I saw Edward and Alphonse make a lot of friends here in Central. And I hear stories about you in Rush Valley, with all your customers.”
“Ha!” Winry laughed. “Ed mostly offended people here,” she argued, but she didn’t mean it. Gracia was right- even as rude and thoughtless as Ed could be, a lot of people had still come together to help him over the years. “Anyway, how is Elicia doing?” Winry asked. “I know you were a little concerned about her grades the last time we spoke.”
Gracia laughed, and then she sighed. “It’s hard to believe sometimes that she’s fifteen already! And she doesn’t think I know anything. I’m fairly certain that she’s involved with some boy, but she won’t talk to me about it.”
“Maybe I could talk to her,” Winry offered. “She might listen to me.”
“It’s hard for daughters to open up to their mothers about some things,” Gracia agreed. “If it’s not a bother, Winry, it would ease my mind. You needn’t feel like you have to report to me, either- I trust you to give her good advice.”
“You just have to promise to talk sense into Sara when she gets to be this age,” Winry said.
“If she lets me,” Gracia agreed, smiling, sipping her tea.
When they finished their tea, Winry helped Gracia take the dishes back to the kitchen. “Are you busy next week?” she asked.
“I’ll be helping with some fundraising for the Foundation then,” Gracia said. “But surely, I can make time for tea.”
“Oh, right,” Winry said. “We’re supposed to go to the ball, aren’t we? I still need a dress.” Winry mostly hated going to balls, especially in Central- she always felt so much like a country bumpkin- but she made an exception for the Hughes Foundation charity events. Gracia worked hard on them, and besides, the Foundation did a lot to help Central’s kids.
“I’m sure you’ll look lovely no matter what you wear,” Gracia told her, rinsing the tea-pot and putting it on the sideboard.
Winry smiled, and picked up her bag. “Maybe I’ll pick up Elicia and Sara from school today,” she said. “I’ve got a little time this afternoon, and I might be able to get Elicia to talk to me.”
“Alright,” she said. “Take care, Winry.”
“You too, Miss Gracia,” she answered, embracing the older woman.
Gracia smiled at her as she waved her goodbye.
The newspaper in Central really is the Times. I picked that name out of the air, and then went picking through the manga to find out (there are shots of a newspaper during the Ross/Barry the Chopper bits) and sure enough, it’s called the Central Times.
I totally stole the word opisthenar from Chapter 3 of vanillavinegar’s Next Contestant. Not that it’s made up; it’s a valid anatomical term, but I had never heard it before. When I saw it there, I knew that one day, it would be mine. Today is that day.
Chapter 14: Lessons
“Describe to me how you’d fix this,” Ed said, holding out a doll with its head broken off. Al recognized it as one of Sara’s. He set the doll gently down on the table in front of him.
One of the students- Dan Rutherford, Al noted- raised a hand. “Well,” he started, awkwardly, “first, I’d have to figure out what material it’s made of.”
Ed stepped back, motioning him to come up and look at it. Rutherford came up, and poked at it. “Wood,” he announced. “And some kind of organic fiber for the hair, and wool for the dress.”
Ed looked up at the class, who were busily scratching away at their notebooks. “Stop that,” he snapped at them. “Put the damn notebooks away. What I’m teaching you today, you need to know in your heart, in your gut. If you have to look at a notebook to remember it, then we’re all screwed.”
Al smiled as he watched his students scramble to comply. Catherine Hendricks- predictably, she was always contrary- raised a hand. “Sir,” she said, “what exactly are you teaching today?”
“Listen and you might find out,” Ed shot back, his teeth bared. “Wood,” he said, pointing at Rutherford. “What next?”
“Er,” Rutherford said, “I’d inscribe the circle. Do you want me to do it?” he said, pulling out a piece of chalk.
“No,” Ed said, shaking his head. His braid swung from side to side as he did so. “Just describe it to me.” Al thought it was funny that Ed had chosen to braid his hair this morning. He almost never wore it that way anymore.
“A circle, hexated,” Rutherford offered, gesturing in the air. “Carbon in the top right hexate, oxygen in the lower left. Notation for celluloid carbon structure in the hexate under carbon, symbols for hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur in the other three hexates, crossed and barbed.”
“And then?” Ed asked, crossing his arms expectantly.
“Activation,” Rutherford said. “Analysis of the precise proportions and structures of the components, deconstruction, and then reconstruction into the new, repaired shape.”
Ed reached into his pocket, pulled out a small tube, and picked up the doll. He squeezed a little bit of what Al now realized was glue from the tube onto the neck of the doll, and then fit the head over the neck. “Or,” he said, “You could just do this.” He set the doll down gently. “Not all problems should be solved by alchemy.”
Rutherford colored, and sat down gratefully when Ed motioned him to do so.
“That’s not a fair test, sir,” Battley said, raising a hand. “Of course we thought of alchemy first; this is an alchemy school.”
“It wasn’t a test,” Ed said, seriously. “It was a demonstration. You are all alchemists. You live, breathe and dream alchemy. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be any good at it. Believe me, I know.” He smiled, ruefully. “So when you have a problem to solve, you think of alchemy then, too. It’s too easy to start thinking that your world is bounded by it, that it has all the answers to all possible problems.”
“It has the answers to lots of problems,” Hendricks argued. “If you had fixed that doll with alchemy, it would be repaired much better than you could do with glue. The head and the neck would be a single piece again; far stronger than it is the way you did it.”
“When I was fifteen,” Ed said, looking evenly back at her, “I was visiting a family outside Rush Valley when a storm came up. Thunderstorms out there can be incredible- wind, and rain and lightning like you’ll never see in Central. Just after the storm came up, a woman who lived there went into labor. Her baby was coming, earlier than anyone had expected, and there was no way we could get her to the doctor in town. We rode out to bring the doctor up to the house, but the bridge across the ravine had been destroyed. Give me the solution to that,” he said, challenge in his eyes.
“Rebuild the bridge with alchemy,” Patera said.
“We tried,” Ed said, a little wistfully. “The span was too long. It crumbled.”
“You could have put supports in,” Welsbach suggested.
Ed crossed his arms. “The river at the bottom of the ravine was moving too quickly for the density of the stone. It would have washed the supports away immediately.” Al remembered the wind, the water, the shouted discussion with his brother over the roar of the rain.
“You could have moved rock from the cliff sides to support the gap,” Hendricks offered.
“Not without starting an avalanche,” Ed pointed out.
“What did you do, then?” Battley asked.
“Nothing,” Ed said, extending his hands helplessly. “State Alchemist, they called me. Genius. Prodigy. Human weapon.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t do anything except stand outside the birthing room and hope. For all the power of alchemy, we’re still helpless before the natural laws of the world.” Al remembered that helplessness, remembered the fear and the hope.
“Were they okay?” Rutherford asked, breaking the stillness of the room. “The mother and the baby?”
Ed grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “They were fine. My wife, Winry, delivered the baby. Me? I was useless.” He shook his head. “This doll,” he said, picking it up. “It’s a minor thing. Fix it with glue, or fix it with alchemy, what’s the difference? But we alchemists, we don’t stop thinking in transmutation circles. There are some things that can’t be solved with alchemy, and more things that you should never try to solve with it.”
“You’re talking about human transmutation,” Hendricks said.
“Among other things,” Ed said, his eyes dark. “Alchemy can do good in the world. But an alchemist who starts to believe that he’s a god can become a monster.” His lips curled. “I’ve seen it. Have you heard of Shou Tucker?”
“The Sewing-Life Alchemist,” Battley supplied, warily.
“You know your history,” Ed said, nodding to him. “He used his own daughter as the raw materials for a chimera transmutation.” His voice was raw, choked. “I was useless then, too. No amount of alchemical knowledge could undo what had been done to her.”
And then she was dead, Al thought, and she was completely beyond our reach.
“It’s easy,” Ed said, “to start believing that we alchemists have power in this world. It’s easy to start thinking that we have the power to tinker with lives. To think that, if you only study hard enough, if you only learn more, then you can counter the currents that flow through the world.” Ed lifted a hand, hesitated, and then reached to his chest. “I want you to understand that I know what I’m talking about,” he said. He undid the top button of his vest. “My teacher tried to tell me this, tried to explain that only pain comes from that kind of pride. I wouldn’t listen.” His hand moved down, unbuttoning the vest. He reached for his collar, unbuttoned his shirt. Al startled, unsure what his brother was doing. Ed didn’t generally like having his shirt off in front of people, not anymore. “Maybe if I show you, you’ll remember better than I did.” Ed shrugged his clothes off and stood naked from the waist up in front of the class.
“This is the least of what happens to idiot alchemists who think that they’re gods,” Ed said, his voice quiet. His face was downcast, and his shoulders were back, giving the class a good view of his body. Even for Al, who had seen his brother naked before, it was striking. The class recoiled at the sight of his brother’s scars. Al catalogued the familiar map of their adventures together: there were the sword slices he’d suffered in the Fifth Laboratory, there the slash of Greed’s claws from Dublith, there the large, puckered wound where Ed’s arm had been impaled on the Promised Day. Even more prominent were the ropes of scar tissue across the join of his arm; still pink, after all these years. Little bits of metal glinted where parts of the old automail port hadn’t been able to be removed. Al still couldn’t look at that scar without feeling a mix of love and fear and grief. It was physical proof of his older brother’s love for him, written in pain on Ed’s body. The arm had been returned, but the scar remained.
Then there was the scar that Al hadn’t been there for. He remembered the first time he’d seen Ed with his shirt off, after the Promised Day. Brother? he’d gasped, horrified. What happened to you? Ed had smiled weakly, and turned so that Al couldn’t get a clear view of the scar anymore. Nothing, he’d said. It doesn’t matter, Al. I’m fine now. It had taken him weeks to pull the story out of Ed- the fight, the explosion, the transmutation of his own life force, the months spent in a back-alley clinic in North City. Ed had lived, but the scar was horrific; a mass of twisted and striated tissue that knotted the lower left part of his chest.
If you looked carefully, you could see transmutation marks etched into the scar tissue on his shoulder and belly.
“I was lucky,” Ed said, quietly.
“Lucky?” Patera blurted out. “How is that lucky?”
Ed laughed, and reached for his shirt. “I could be dead,” he said, bluntly. “I could have gotten someone else killed.” He pulled the shirt onto his shoulders, putting his arms through the sleeves. “I could have become a monster like Shou Tucker,” he said. He smiled, darkly. “Do you know that my daughter is just the same age that Nina Tucker was when she was transmuted?”
The class was silent.
“Alchemists have an obligation,” Ed said. “To the science, to respect its limits. To themselves, not to be consumed by pride. To the people, most of all, to use what power they have for the good of others. Remember this. Never forget it.”
The students filed out for the lunchtime break with none of the usual chatter. Ed pulled on his vest and tucked in his shirt. “How’d I do?” he asked, laughing humorlessly.
“I didn’t expect you to be quite so visual,” Al observed, walking to the front of the room.
“I didn’t intend to do that,” Ed said. “But they were all just staring at me like morons. I wanted to get through to them. I mean, this ought to be good for something.” He swept a hand towards his body, turning his face so that Al couldn’t see his eyes. “It’s not exactly true, of course- I mean, I should have showed them my leg if I really wanted to show them what happens when you’re an idiot with alchemy. I just figured that this would look more impressive.”
Al looked down at him. “I think you made an impression, Brother,” Al said. Suddenly, he reached out and pulled his brother into his arms, holding him tightly for a long moment.
"Ack!" Ed said, struggling. "What the hell, Al? Have you been taking Armstrong lessons?"
"I love you, Brother," Al said, smiling fondly as he let Ed go.
"Yeah, yeah," Ed said, flushing with embarrassment. "I love you too, okay?"
"I know," Al said.
Just thought I’d mention that when I say “the months spent in a back-alley clinic in North City”, I’ve totally got Hiate48’s story Critical Care as my head canon for that time.
Actually, Sara is 5 and Nina is supposed to have been 4. But, close enough. Besides, Sara is little for her age.
In writing this, I started flipping through the manga for examples of Ed being hurt badly enough to require medical attention. It’s a really startling number of times. Even if Ed heals well, he’s still got to be a mass of old wounds. I mean, bits of you don’t get impaled (like Ed did twice) without incurring really ugly scars, and he was constantly breaking ribs and getting cut up.
Chapter 15: Dancing
“I don’t have anything on my face, do I?” Winry asked, peering in the hallway mirror. “Or on the back of my head or something?” She twisted, trying to get a look at herself. “I hate these things. I always feel like everyone’s looking at me!”
Mei smiled. Winry was dressed in a red beaded dress that fell to her calves. It accentuated her curves, which was a little unfashionable, but very flattering on Winry’s figure. Her blonde hair was gathered on her head, stray tendrils falling around her face. “You are beautiful,” Mei told her. “It’s only natural for people to look at you. And you haven’t got anything on your face.”
Winry sighed. “You look beautiful,” she said, looking over at Mei with a smile. “Your hair is so pretty. It’s just like ink, and it looks lovely in those braids.” She frowned at herself. “Mine is just unruly. I can never get it to do anything interesting.”
“It looks great,” Edward said, coming into the hallway. “Is she done worrying about what she looks like, Mei?” he asked. “Oh, you look nice, too.”
“I think she was just getting started,” Mei said, archly.
Edward smiled, leaned down, and kissed Winry tenderly. “You look amazing,” he reassured her, softly. “Red’s always been my favorite color.”
Mei smiled again. Even Edward could be romantic sometimes. It didn’t hurt that he was dressed in his very best- a vest and tailcoat, a tie, and his gold hair brushed to shining and pulled back in a high ponytail. He looked like a prince to Winry’s princess, ready to sweep her away.
There was a step, and Mei turned around to see Alphonse fiddling with his cufflinks. Mei smiled. Edward made Winry very happy, but Mei had definitely gotten the handsomer of the two brothers. Mei was willing to admit that Edward was- perhaps- better-looking than she’d given him credit for on their first meeting. Alphonse, though, was every bit as handsome as she’d imagined him when he was still bound to the armor. Where Edward was lean and sharp, Alphonse had an exotic, aetherial beauty that never failed to make her heart beat faster. She looked up at him, and gasped. “Alphonse!”
“You cut your hair!” Edward said, behind her.
Alphonse looked sheepish, running a hand through his now-short hair. “I thought it would look better with the tuxedo,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about cutting it anyway.”
Edward laughed, and came up, ruffling his brother’s hair. “I like it!” he said, grinning. “It looks like you again. I thought the long hair was weird.”
“It made me look too much like you, Brother,” Alphonse agreed, laughing. He looked over at her. “Do you like it, Mei?” he asked, shyly.
She blushed. “It looks really handsome!” she told him.
He smiled, and it made her feel all fluttery. //I am lucky that such a beautiful flower is willing to grace me with her presence this evening,// he said, softly, switching to court Xingese.
She blushed even harder. Edward laughed. “What the hell did you say to her, Al?” he asked. “She’s gone all beet-colored.”
Mei turned to him and glared. “Nothing an unromantic bean-boy like you would understand!” she snapped.
To her irritation, Edward laughed. “That’s bean-man to you, bean-girl,” he said.
Winry smacked her husband on the arm. She really did do that a lot, Mei reflected. “Maybe you should be asking Al for tips,” Winry said, narrowing her eyes at her husband. “Some women like romance.”
Edward grinned unrepentantly. “Some women aren’t crazy gearheads, too,” he said.
//If we let them, they’ll do this all night,// Alphonse commented to Mei, his voice full of amusement. //I sort of suspect Brother of having a thing for Winry when she’s angry.//
Mei giggled, and looked up at Alphonse. They glanced at Edward and Winry, now arguing more seriously, and then at each other again. They both started laughing helplessly. When they finally got hold of themselves again, Edward and Winry were staring at them.
“What?” Edward demanded.
“Nothing,” Alphonse said, his face a picture of innocence. “Shall we go? We don’t want to be late.”
Mei glanced back nervously up the stairs to where Trisha was already asleep. Elicia would take good care of her, Mei reassured herself. And if someone should decide that an unimportant Imperial niece was worthy of assassination, the house was already under guard because of Edward’s position.
Alphonse held Mei’s hand while Edward drove them to the ball. It made her feel like a teenager again, instead of a woman married five years with a baby. When they arrived, Alphonse helped her out of the car, too, smiling down at her, his yellow eyes shining. “We don’t get the chance to do this very often anymore,” he observed softly. “It’s nice to be here with just you.” He brought her hand to his lips, laying a kiss on her knuckles.
Mei smiled, trying to make it look coquettish rather than childish. “It’s nice to be here with you, too, Alphonse,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the dancing!” she added, cheerfully. “Amestrian dancing is fun.”
“I’m looking forward to the buffet,” Edward put in, loudly.
“Everyone already knew that,” Winry observed, and let herself be dragged toward the door.
There was a doorman checking invitations and announcing people as they entered the ballroom. “Minister Edward Elric, and his wife, Mrs. Winry Elric,” the doorman called, as Edward and Winry entered.
Alphonse handed him their invitation, and patted her hand where it rested on his arm.
The doorman glanced at it, and called out “Her Imperial Highness, Princess Mei Chang, and her consort, Alphonse Elric, the Life’s-Blood Alchemist.” She outranked Alphonse, of course. It seemed unfair to her sometimes. Alphonse could spend his life doing work that would change the world, but she would still outrank him because she’d been sired by a man she’d never even spoken to.
The ballroom that Alphonse escorted her into was lavishly decorated. So were the inhabitants. It made Mei conscious of her own gown, which stuck out among the Amestrian fashions. It wasn’t Xingese exactly; more an Amestrian seamstress’s dream of a Xingese gown than the article itself. It made her feel out of place, caught between one world and another and not properly present in either.
“Would you like to dance, Princess?” Alphonse said, breaking her out of her reverie. He was smiling, and his eyes were laughing. She laughed as he caught her in strong, warm arms and carried her out onto the dance floor. There, they were silent together for a while, caught up in the rhythm of the music and the dance.
“Mei?” Alphonse said suddenly, his soft, tenor voice rumbling where her head rested on his chest. //You really do look beautiful tonight,// he said. //It’s nice to get the chance to see you outside of the school.//
//We have been working too hard lately, I think,// she agreed. //But you do see me outside of the school,// she said, and she reached up to kiss him. //You saw a lot of me outside the school yesterday morning,// she added, slyly, her confidence in the inability of anyone else in the room to speak Xingese making her bold.
His cheeks colored, and he leaned down to kiss her back. Mei leaned up and into Alphonse’s embrace. Somehow, his feet kept them dancing in time with the music, but only their ability to sense qi prevented them from bumping into other couples on the dance floor. As they pulled apart, Mei flushed, warm from the kiss and the memory of long, pale limbs twined with her own.
The next song was a fast one, and Mei and Alphonse danced that one, too. That sort of dancing always reminded Mei a bit of sparring- the athleticism of it, the flow of energy between partners, the trust. Alphonse was a capable partner for both. He and Mei came off the dance floor laughing and in need of water and a minute to sit down.
Mrs. Hughes came up as Alphonse was off getting them drinks. “Hello, Mei,” she said, seating herself across the table. “I’m so glad to see that you and Al were able to come.”
Mei didn’t know the older woman well. She had been to their house a few times with her daughter, Elicia. Mei knew that Winry visited her regularly, and saw her as a cross between an older sister and a surrogate mother. She knew that Alphonse cared for Gracia, and felt that he owed her a debt of gratitude. She also knew that Gracia’s husband had died long ago, murdered by the homunculi. Mei knew that Alphonse still felt deep sorrow over his death, and that Edward, predictably, felt guilt. “It’s a very nice party,” Mei said. “I always enjoy the dancing.”
“I could see that!” Gracia said, smiling. “You and Al make such a lovely couple on the dance floor- and off of it. I’m so glad that he’s found someone to be happy with. He had such a terrible time of it, for so many years.”
“I know,” Mei said, thinking with shame about her own part in that. “To be honest, I never thought he’d want to see me again after the Promised Day. I was so surprised when he sent word saying that he wanted to come to Xing and study with me.”
“He came to see Elicia and I before he left,” Gracia told her, gently. “He was so excited to be traveling and learning new things. He was excited to see you again, too- although I admit that I didn’t expect him to marry you!” She smiled, and it was clear that it wasn’t an unwelcome surprise.
“Alphonse didn’t expect that either,” Mei said, shyly. “Neither did I. I had such a silly crush on him when I first knew him, but then- things happened.” Things like the Promised Day, and Alphonse begging her to help him commit suicide. Confused and terrified and cowed by his fear for his brother, she’d done it. After that, after seeing Edward pull Alphonse from the jaws of death itself, her daydreams about handsome blond princes had seemed so much foolishness. She had set them aside, and worked on ensuring her clan’s survival through the succession conflicts. “And I was still so young, then. He was with me in Xing for two years before-” She blushed. Before the night when Alphonse had pulled the alkahestry scroll she was reading away from her, taken her face in his hands and kissed her, his yellow eyes round with fear and hope. She’d resolutely thought of him only as a friend until that moment, embarrassed by the rose-festooned fantasies of her childhood. Two months later, he’d gone to the Emperor for permission to court her. “-Before we started courting,” she finished, lamely.
Gracia patted her hand. “Sometimes, the most unexpected things are the sweetest,” she said. “It must be an adjustment for the two of you, living in Amestris again. If you need anyone to talk to, I want you to know that my door is open. I suppose I adopted the Elrics long ago, and you should consider yourself part of that family too.”
“Thank you kindly,” Mei said, and she meant it.
When Alphonse got back with food and drink, she held his hand and fed him bits of shrimp and puff pastry. They watched, laughing, as Edward and Winry danced one of the scandalous new Western dances, Edward throwing Winry over his back and under his legs with ease. Alphonse danced with Gracia and Riza and Winry. Mei danced with Roy and Edward and Alex Armstrong. When they left to go home, Edward and Winry were just drunk enough to be giddy as Alphonse loaded them into the car.
//It feels strange sometimes,// Alphonse said, suddenly, as they drove into the darkness. //All this. I would never have guessed that I’d end up here.// He was smiling.
Edward stuck his head in between the two front seats. “Are you two speaking that weird foreign language again?” he asked.
“It was a nice evening, Brother,” Alphonse said.
“Mrs. Hughes throws a good party,” Edward agreed, grinning as he flopped back onto the seat next to Winry.
//I’m glad I ended up here with you,// Mei said, shyly.
Alphonse’s smile widened into a grin. “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said.
Winry was on him as soon as they got their bedroom door shut behind them.
“I like it when you wear a tuxedo,” she growled at him, and then she had him up against the wall and was pulling at his tie.
Ed groaned. “It’s times like these,” he said breathlessly, “That I don’t mind being married to an aggressive, crazy gearhead.”
Her lips twisted. She knew he was just trying to rile her; she always knew. “If you keep talking like that,” she said, nipping his neck, “I’ll take your leg off and hide it from you for a few days. Maybe that’ll teach you to be polite about my work.”
“You wouldn’t do that to me,” he said, grinning, letting her pin him as she worked her way down into the hollow of his throat.
“Don’t test me, Edward Elric,” she said, and smiled. She pulled his tie completely off, tossing it carelessly to the side. “You should know what I’m capable of.” She pushed him onto the bed and jumped on top of him.
“Yes, I do,” he said, and then groaned as she leaned down and bit his exposed collarbone. He bucked against her, the sensuality of it overcoming him. Not for the first time, he wondered exactly why he was so turned on by assertive women. It certainly couldn’t be the lure of the exotic.
“One of the things I like about you in a tuxedo,” Winry announced, her weight uncomfortably, pleasurably settling over his groin as she leaned into his chest, “is getting you out of a tuxedo.”
“You and buttons,” Ed complained, without any real sincerity. She was working her way down his chest, undoing the tiny buttons of his shirt and the larger buttons of his vest, her fingers soft and cool against his skin. He arched into the contact, wishing that she’d finish with the damn buttons already and move on.
Finally, she had his chest exposed, but made no move to actually remove his shirt, vest or jacket. “Pretty,” she commented, smiling, looking down at him.
Suddenly, Ed was thinking of Al’s students staring at his naked body, horror in their eyes.
She noticed the change in his mood immediately. “Ed?” she said, dropping to his side, her head propped up so that she could look down into his face. “Are you okay?”
“Sorry,” he said, frowning. He’d been having a good time; he hadn’t meant to mess it up.
He started to sit up, but Winry pushed him down, looking closely at him. “What is it?” she asked, with a tone of voice that made it clear that she wasn’t going to let him pretend nothing was wrong.
He frowned deeper, trying to figure out how to ask what he wanted to ask. “Does it ever bother you?” he said, finally, not meeting her eyes. He gestured tentatively to his chest.
Her face wrinkled with confusion. “Does what bother me, Ed?” she asked. “I thought I made it clear that I liked the tux.”
“No,” he clarified. “I mean-” he touched his chest, brushing his fingertips over the scars at his shoulder and on his belly. “This. Does it ever bother you?”
“Your scars?” She ran a hand over the skin of his belly.
Parts of the scar were numb, and other parts were over-sensitive. It always felt strange to have someone else touch it. He sighed. “Al’s class,” he said, and didn’t elaborate. Winry knew him well enough to follow what he was thinking about.
She leaned down and kissed him, lingeringly, tenderly, with none of the urgent heat she’d had a moment ago. “You’re alive,” she whispered as she pulled away.
His heart lurched. He looked up, brushing a thumb across her cheek to check for tears. “I’m sorry,” he said, unsure why he was apologizing. For all those years of worry, perhaps. For bringing it up again, certainly.
“I’m not,” she declared, firmly. “Corpses don’t scar, Ed. If I had a magic lamp, maybe I’d wish for you never to have had to suffer like that.” She put a hand firmly on his belly now, tracing an old sword slice with her fingertips. “But we don’t get magic. We have to live with the world as it is and move forward. You lived. You got Al’s body back. You came home to me. It’s enough.” She looked down at him, shifting her position just enough to put the length of her body against his. “And I meant what I said before,” she growled.
Ed breathed, and relaxed into a grin. “I’m still wearing the tuxedo,” he pointed out. “Mostly, anyway.”
“Not for long,” she promised.
If you don’t like Al/Mei, you’re really just out of luck this chapter. I would be sorry, except I’m not. Solace yourself with the Ed/Win.
I actually agree with Mei about Alphonse being prettier than his brother.
Mei and Al got married when she was 19, and started dating when she was 16. She’s 24 now. Al is 27.
Mei’s name is still Mei Chang. It’s not traditional for women in Xing to change their names on marriage, and Alphonse didn’t care whether she changed it or not (besides, Mei Elric sounds weird). Al was, however, adopted into the Chang clan on marrying her. His name in Xing is technically something like Alphonse-Elric Chang.
I used to do live-steel choreographed combat shows, and when we went out to clubs, we totally did sparring on the dance floor in lieu of actually knowing how to dance.
Chapter 16: Departure
Little Al was curled up in his favorite place- upstairs, in the funny little nook created by the turn of the stairwell and a poorly placed window. It was hard to see into unless you were specifically looking for it, and even harder to get into if you were adult-sized. It had a little ledge to sit on and a nice view of the front walk. Al liked to sit there and read. He also liked it because it was a fairly good spot to hide from his family when he wanted to.
It wasn't that little Al didn't like his family. Mom and Dad were way more interesting than any of his classmates' parents (even if Dad was kind of a dork). Uncle Al and Aunt Mei were cool; they were always teaching him new things. And Sara was okay as little sisters went, he supposed. But sometimes, the sheer noise got to him a little bit. Everyone was always screaming and laughing and arguing, and it made little Al just want to curl up in a safe, quiet place where no one would bother him.
Just now, he was hiding from the impending party. (Impending was a good word. He'd read it in one of the military dramas that Aunt Riza had dropped off on her last visit, and he was using it anywhere he could just now). The party was also okay. He liked Trisha alright, for a baby, and it was kind of awesome that they were going to get to be there for her very first birthday party. Still, Mom had been running around all day making people clean things. Even Aunt Mei, who was usually quiet and sensible, had been lecturing everyone for hours about what would cause good luck and bad luck for Trisha’s birthday. The last time Mom had told him to clean something, he’d done it and then run off to his nook.
Little Al heard the sound of a car arriving. He craned his head over to the window, looking to see who was here. As he watched, the door of the taxi opened. Miss Gracia got out, Elysia at her side. Al flushed. Elysia was wearing a dress in a light orange-y sort of color, and he could see how it made her eyes look even greener than they usually did. He could feel his cheeks getting a little hot, and he ducked back away from the window. It was cool that Elysia was going to be here, he guessed. At least he’d have someone to hang out with besides the grown-ups.
There was another car, and little Al knew who was in this one immediately. Only Mr. Armstrong drove a car that was that big and covered with moustaches. Mom tried to say that they were embellishments, which little Al guessed was sort of true in that they were embellishments of moustaches. Mr. Armstrong pulled his car into the drive and unfolded himself from the driver’s seat. He was pretty much the biggest person little Al had ever seen, with the possible exception of Mr. Curtis.
Aunt Riza and Uncle Roy were the next to arrive. They brought Mr. Breda with them. Little Al considered going downstairs, but he figured he’d have a chance to talk to Aunt Riza later, and once he stopped hiding, he wouldn’t be able to get away again. He liked it when Aunt Riza came to visit, though. She came to their house less often than Uncle Roy did, which was funny because he was the Prime Minister, not her. Then again, maybe that meant that Dad was right about Uncle Roy being a lazy bastard and making Aunt Riza do all his work.
Just as Mr. Breda disappeared from little Al’s view, Major Ross and Warrant Officer Fuery drove up, followed close behind by Mr. Darius and Mr. Heinkel. Little Al wondered whether they were going to do any tricks for the party. Mom and Dad said that they worked in the circus for a long time, and they knew how to do all kinds of cool things.
“Al?” a voice called, pulling his attention away from the window. It belonged to the only person in the whole world who didn’t call him ‘little Al’. Al tucked himself further back into the nook, hoping that Uncle Al wouldn’t notice him.
“Don’t worry,” Uncle Al said, a smile coloring his voice, “I won’t tell Brother and Winry about your hiding place. But the guests are here, and you should come down for dinner.”
Little Al sighed. “Okay,” he said, pulling himself carefully out of the nook. “Promise you won’t tell?” he asked.
“Promise,” Uncle Al said, smiling. “Everyone needs a place of their own.”
Ed leaned back in his seat, watching the room. Al and Mei sat in the front of the room, passing a squirming Trisha between them. Ed looked down into his wineglass, closing his eyes against the prickling of tears. Al did that to Ed. Al was strong, and smart, and happy, and Ed was so damn relieved that he hadn't fucked his little brother up permanently. Ed could never erase the suffering he'd caused Al in their youth, but at least Alphonse was whole and well now. Whole, well, and a father, and a husband, and a fucking alchemical genius. Even if Ed had turned his back on the science, he was still proud of his brother's accomplishments.
The bean-girl was okay too, he supposed. She made Al's eyes light up every time she walked into a room, and Ed guessed that had to count for something.
Across the table, Armstrong was presenting Trisha with a small wooden duck, a teether which had apparently been passed down the Armstrong line for generations. Ed wondered, suddenly, whether the Armstrong line would end soon, with all its enormous and sparkling traditions. Alex Louis, the only son, had never married. As much as Ed was glad to be spared brain-melting visions of Armstrong’s sex life, he did wonder why the man had never been involved with anyone, not in all the years Ed had known him. Was it Ishval, Ed wondered? Did he, like childless Roy and Riza, consider his life to have ended back in that desert, and all his remaining years forfeit?
Roy and Riza were sitting to Ed’s right, their hands clasped together under the table. Even now, with their relationship legitimized, they were slow to show affection in public. Roy’s attention was on Al and Mei and Trisha, and his face was closed. If he felt sparks of envy or pride, Ed couldn’t see them. Riza, for her part, was watching the older children running around the periphery of the room. Ed knew that she was probably also scanning for exits and sight lines. Even now, she still considered herself Roy’s bodyguard. Ed assumed that she had a gun somewhere on her person. Her expression was soft and wistful as she watched little Al and Elysia run by, though. Ed wished, and not for the first time, that the world wasn’t so damn unfair.
Havoc and his brood were at the other end of the table- they’d arrived late, predictably. The three older Havoc children were currently running around with Elysia and Al and Sara, and the youngest was held loosely on Rebecca’s hip as she ate her dinner. Havoc was chatting with Breda, his body language as relaxed and easy as it always was. Just to Havoc’s right, Ed could see the head of his cane where it rested against the table. It brought his thoughts back to the unfairness of human existence. Ed sipped his wine, thinking about a world where he, Ed, had a perfectly good right arm despite all his sins, and yet Havoc still walked with a cane. Equivalent exchange my ass, he thought, morosely. Nothing more than an idiot human’s attempt to impose order on the untameable chaos of the world.
Winry thumped his neck. “Ow!” he said. “What the hell, Winry?”
“Stop moping,” she ordered him, her voice pitched low. “It’s a birthday party. You’re not allowed to go off by yourself.”
“I didn’t!” he protested. “I’m here.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Technically,” she said. “Now go kiss your niece or something; it’s her birthday.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?” Ed asked. “It’s not too late. There’s room on the train.”
Winry rolled her eyes. “But it is too late for me to pack. Some of us like to wear clothes, Ed.”
“Still,” he insisted. “We could buy clothes when we get there.”
“We also have these things I like to call children, Ed,” she pointed out. “They might miss us if we suddenly disappear.”
He frowned and pulled her close, tucking her head under his chin.
“I know you’ll miss us,” she said, more softly. “We’ll miss you too. Be safe, okay? I know that Roy likes to paint Ishval as all happy-lovey these days, but I read the news. No getting yourself blown up.”
“I’ll do my best,” he said. “No promises.”
“And make sure you do the maintenance on your leg,” she said. “The sand’s going to be hell on the mechanisms, even with the silk sheath. And you better not get into a fight with it, Edward Elric, because it’s a precision piece of delicate machinery, not some stupid club!”
“Alright, alright!” he protested. “If you were coming with me, you could make sure I did my maintenance,” he wheedled, trying one more time.
She rolled her eyes again. “Children,” she repeated. “Who are in school. Clients. Our house not blowing up because the stupid alchemists in the household left an experiment out. Have fun in Ishval, Mr. Minister of the Interior.”
The whistle blew, and Ed reluctantly stepped onto the train. “I’ll be home soon!” he promised, leaning out of the door.
“You better!” she yelled back at him, waving.
My unofficial title for this chapter is “Two Introverts at a Party”.
Ed really does love and respect Mei. He’s just a jerk to her on principle a lot of the time.
It’s been raining for three weeks here, with nary a ray of sunshine. It makes me melancholy and reflective, so that’s what you get.
Chapter 17: Ishval
Ed wasn’t sure how many trains he’d traveled on in his life. The one time he’d tried to estimate (when he’d been bored, on a train), his best guess was in the thousands. Still, he’d never traveled on a private train before. It was a completely different experience. The seats were soft, and he swore the train itself was quieter, too.
When he arrived in Kanda, he was greeted by singing children. That was a new experience, too. There were crowds of people waiting to see him arrive, and a be-ribboned platform, and flags flying the silver hawk of Ishval. Ed put on his politician face, and smiled and thanked the children, and waved at the crowd. His politician face was pretty good- it ought to be, too. He’d been watching the Bastard since he was twelve, after all.
He climbed the platform. Waiting for him there was an impossibly tall man wearing a finely embroidered tunic, one of those striped sashes that Ed had been told was called a chuva, and a hood.
“Doishteve na Ishval, Edward Elric,” the man said, and his deep bass voice was the voice of old nightmares.
Ed forced himself not to react. He smiled, and held out his hand. He did not dwell on the fact that the large, strong hand that the other man offered could destroy him in a moment, if it chose.
“Thank you for the kind welcome, khorovar,” he said, for the benefit of the crowd and the press. “It’s an honor to be here, on the tenth anniversary of Ishvalan self-rule. I’m pleased to be able to celebrate with you, and to look forward together to decades more of peace and cooperation between Ishval and Amestris.”
He waved, and smiled, and the crowd cheered. When he looked up at the man next to him, Ed could just see, under the hood, the x-shaped scar across his eyes.
Scar invited Ed to dinner, and Ed figured it was bad politics to refuse the provincial governor of Ishval. Besides, they had things to talk about.
Scar’s house was a modest building in the middle of a cluster of houses. They mostly appeared to contain Scar’s relatives, who poured out of the various houses to get a look at their Amestrian visitor. It was weird to see Scar as part of this large, sprawling family, with a wife, and children, and cousins, and all the teasing and screaming and laughter that you might expect. The nameless Ishvalan had always seemed like he had been carved from desert sandstone rather than born.
Nameless no longer, of course. “Andakar Ruhad, khorovar of Ishval,” Ed said when they were alone again, his voice dry. “Pleased to meet you.” He hadn't seen Scar since the Promised Day, and the most time they'd spent together had been when Ed was fighting for his life. Ed had been told about the turnabout transmutation circle, and Scar’s part in organizing the Ishvalans. He had heard Winry and Al’s stories of the time they spent with Scar before Liore. He clearly knew nothing about this man, however, who was beloved by his family and had lived quietly and in peace for the last twelve years.
Scar poured tea, offering Ed a cup. “I, who was once nameless, seem in my old age to be accumulating names at an alarming rate,” he agreed. “Though that particular one was mine long ago. I threw it away into the desert, but my family caught it, and kept it safe for me, and returned it to me when they found me again. I wasn’t at all certain that I could accept it back, but they were quite adamant that it wasn’t my choice to make. Names have a way of lingering, whether one wants them to or not. I think you may know something about that, Fullmetal Alchemist.”
Ed nodded, his expression wry. “I’m not an alchemist anymore,” he said. “Still godless, though, by the way. Some things don’t change.” He sipped his tea. It was strong, and sweet, with undertones of mint.
“I was pleased to hear that you and your brother survived the Promised Day,” Scar said, his face as impenetrable as it had always been.
“I didn’t think you had,” Ed said, bluntly. Until a week ago, he’d believed that Scar had died fighting Bradley, somewhere under the old Central HQ. It wasn’t until his final briefing before leaving for Kanda that Mustang had finally clued him in.
“I didn’t,” Scar said, his face serious. “That man destroyed himself with pain and rage, and I was the ghost that was left.”
Ed felt a sudden stab of anger. “You’re still the man who murdered the Rockbells,” he said, not caring that he was being cruel.
But Scar didn’t look angry- just sad. Accepting. “Yes,” he said. “Just as I am still the son of Turyan and the brother of Mattas, and am now the husband of Rada. I have been born three times, and I bear all my lives’ sins and blessings.” He paused, his face solemn. “But there is no sin I regret more than those first murders.” He looked over to Ed. “Is Miss Rockbell well? I think of her often.”
“Mrs. Elric, now,” Ed pointed out.
“Of course,” Scar said, nodding.
Ed wasn’t sure whether that meant he’d heard that they’d married, or that he’d known they would, from back in the day. “She’s great,” he said. “I told her you were here, by the way. She... had a message for you.”
Scar looked surprised. Ed wasn’t sure, but he thought there might be a little apprehension there, as well. He nodded, waiting.
Ed looked down into his teacup. “She said to tell you that she was glad you stopped murdering people. And that she was even gladder to find out that she was right, that there was a reason her Mom and Dad saved your life.” He gripped his cup harder. “That’s it.”
When Ed looked back up, Scar’s face was buried in his hand. His shoulders were shaking silently, and there were tears leaking out from under his fingers. Ed stared. Then he picked up Scar’s empty teacup and carefully refilled it from the pot on the table. He held out the cup, tapping Scar lightly on the elbow.
Scar gathered himself. He took the teacup carefully from Ed’s hand. “Edward Elric,” he said, wryly, “I fear you are not worthy of the woman you married.”
Ed laughed. “No,” he said. “I’m really not. “
Ed had dinner with Scar’s family, which was incredibly weird. The food itself was a spicy meat stew served over something that looked like rice but wasn’t. Scar’s wife brought it to the table, and then took her seat to Scar’s left, directing all the children to sit and be still.
With a cautious look in Ed’s direction, Scar held out his hands palm up, and bowed his head. When he spoke, his voice was muted, humble. “Thank you, O Ishvala,” he began, “for the food on our plates. Thank you for the skill of our hands to prepare it. Thank you for the strength of our countrymen, whose labors brought this food to our markets. O Ishvala, thank you for the guest at our table, whose steps you have guided to our home. He is a blessing, O Ishvala, for our house and for our nation. Thank you, O Ishvala, for the breath that we still have in our bodies, for Your infinite mercy, and for Your love, which flows in all our hearts. Shtaret n’Ishvala.”
“n’Ishvala,” the other people around the table echoed.
Ed swallowed his discomfort, and nodded awkwardly at the other people around the table as the prayer finished. Scar’s wife- Rada, he had mentioned, earlier- began serving the food. No one started eating, though, even though some of the younger children were staring at their plates hungrily.
“Children,” Scar said, while Rada served. “This is Edward Elric. He is the Interior Minister for the Amestrian government, which means that he is responsible for all of Amestris’s internal affairs. It is a position of great importance and trust.” He turned to Ed. “This is my wife, Rada, and my children- Mattas, and Winry, and Besa, and our youngest, Turyan. My eldest daughter, Danika, is in East City at university.”
“Winry?” Ed said, surprised.
Scar nodded, but did not comment. When everyone had been served, he picked up his fork. This was apparently the signal to dig in, and all the children did so with relish. Ed joined in. The food was spicier than he was used to, but well-seasoned.
“Is it time for questions, Papa?” the oldest girl- Winry- asked, after everyone had had a chance to eat for a while.
Scar nodded, and looked over at Ed. “It is the tradition at our table to make time for the children to ask whatever questions they think of,” he explained. “You need not answer any question that you do not wish to answer.”
“I get to start,” Mattas said, bossily. “I’m the oldest. Minister Elric, if you’re in charge of Amestris, are you in charge of Ishval, too?”
Ed set down his fork, and wiped his mouth. He always felt weird talking to other peoples’ kids. He hadn’t understood children even when he was one. “Sort of,” he said, awkwardly. “Ishval’s pretty independent, politically. Also, Ishval has always been the Prime Minister’s personal project. But essentially, it falls under my Ministry, yes. That’s why I was picked to be the government’s representative at the celebration here.”
“My turn!” Winry announced. “Why did my name surprise you?”
Ed looked at Scar. “It’s my wife’s name,” he said. “I think you were named after her.”
The little girl blinked at him with her red eyes. She turned to Scar. “Really, Papa? Is that true?”
Scar nodded. “It is,” he said, looking back at Ed.
“Is she nice?” Winry asked Ed, curiously.
“Yes,” Ed said. “And brave, and wise.”
Later, sitting on the porch with more tea, Ed stared into the distance. The desert was beautiful. He felt as though he could see for miles, and the setting sun bathed everything in orange and red.
“So I’m a blessing,” he said, evenly.
“A good man in a position of authority is always a blessing to his country,” Scar said. “Are you a good man?”
Ed laughed. “Who the hell knows?” he said.
They sat in silence for a time, watching the sun and the trees and the rising moon.
“I am grateful that I did not kill you when I had the chance, Edward Elric,” Scar said, looking off into the distance.
Ed snorted. “Not for lack of trying,” he said.
Scar just nodded. “Mustang saved both of us that day,” he said.
Ed sipped his tea. “Nobody guided my steps here, by the way. Except maybe Mustang, and he’s definitely not Ishvala.”
Scar shrugged. “Ishvala guides the steps of all good men,” he opined. “Even Mustang’s, though I could not bring myself to believe it for many years.” He smiled. “I did not mean to challenge your unbelief with my prayer. I hope you will forgive me my poor hospitality in that regard.”
Ed shrugged. “I can forgive you for that,” he said. “I can never forgive you for killing Winry’s parents.”
“No,” Scar agreed. “The only ones with the power to forgive that crime are beyond our reach. I can never atone; I can only try to move forward as the sort of man who would never have killed them.”
They were quiet again. In the distance, a bird began to squawk, its call raucous and chaotic. Ed thought about himself at fifteen, desperate to make Scar pay for the pain he’d caused the woman that Ed had loved even then. He thought about that woman binding Scar’s wound, her heart so much stronger than Ed’s ever could be. He thought about his own crimes, which could also never be erased. “That’s this whole celebration, I guess,” Ed said, watching the sun disappear below the horizon. “Ishval and Amestris will never forget, but we move on.”
This chapter qualifies as fanfiction of fanfiction- nearly all the cultural detail on Ishval is taken (with permission) from Cap’nHoozits’ story, Sons of the Desert. I also grabbed a couple of her OC’s, and all sorts of things about Scar, including his original name. I knew from the second chapter of this story that I wanted Ed to go to Ishval at some point. After I read SotD, Cap’nHoozits’ Ishval became the only one I could imagine.
I have, for months, had Scar in the back of my head saying Doishteve na Ishval, Edward Elric. It’s nice to have it out on the page now.
Chapter 18: Peace
Al turned to his blackboard, quickly sketching a transmutation circle. “Can anyone explain to me how the angle of the hex directs the energy of the transmutation?” he asked, his chalk hovering over the board.
Rutherford raised his hand. “The hex is composed of two Golden Triangles,” he said, hesitantly. “Usually the Golden Triangle is used in pentate designs, but-”
The door at the back of the room opened with a bang, and two military officers entered the room.
“Mister Elric,” the first one said, his face stony, “The Fuhrer requests and requires your presence.”
Hendricks jumped up. She put herself between Al and the soldiers, Al noted. “You can’t just walk in here and drag Master Elric away!” she protested.
Al smiled. “It’s alright,” he said, putting a hand on Hendricks’ shoulder. “I’m not being arrested or anything. Right?”
The taller one- a captain- stood with his hands behind his back. “We’ve been ordered to escort you to the Fuhrer’s office,” he said. “That is the extent of what we’ve been told.”
Al set down his chalk. “Let me get my coat,” he said, mildly.
Mei met him in the hallway. “Alphonse-” she said, her voice full of worry.
Al leaned down and kissed her. “If I’m not home in a few hours, you should let Ed know that he’ll need to pick the kids up from school,” he said. That was nonsense, of course, and Mei would know it. Ed was in Ishval right now, and it was Mei’s day to pick the kids up anyway.
Mei nodded unhappily. “Alright,” she said. “I’ll take care of it.”
Al pulled his coat on and followed the soldiers out the door.
Al had never been to the new Central HQ. It was a sleeker, more modern building than the old one. The grounds sprawled less than the old building, too- but then, half the point of the old building had been to obscure Father’s underground lair. The new headquarters didn’t need to take up as much space.
The soldiers- Captain Chaffee and Lieutenant Cascavel, Al finally got them to admit- led Al up into the large office in the center of the building. There were no windows.
A secretary offered to take his coat, and Al surrendered it. At the desk, Olivier Mira Armstrong sat, her fingers steepled in front of her face, regarding him closely. She was as physically imposing as ever, despite the way that her hair had silvered. “Have a seat,” she ordered him, indicating the chair across from the desk.
Al sat, smiling congenially. “Hello again, Fuhrer Armstrong,” he said. “I haven’t seen you for a very long time.”
“Alphonse Elric,” she said. “In the flesh.”
Al raised a hand, stretching out the fingers as he rotated it. “Yes,” he said, and smiled again.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush, Elric,” she said. She threw a newspaper in his direction. Al could see that the lead story was about his own involvement in that car crash some weeks back. “I’m hearing impressive things about you. I want you to come work for me.”
“I already have a job,” Al said, mildly. “I like it, actually. I don’t really see what sort of offer you could make that would tempt me.”
Armstrong leaned back, resting a hand on the sword that she wore at her side. It seemed more like habit than a purposeful threat, but Al stayed aware of it all the same. He let his perception wander, cataloguing the locations of the other people close to the office. If people started converging on his location, he’d know.
“I’d like you to come work as a military advisor to my office,” she said.
Al appreciated her directness at least. He smiled. “Why would you want me as a military advisor?” he asked. “I’ve never been in the military. My brother might be more help to you there.”
She snorted. “Your brother decided to run off to the country and play house for a decade,” she said. “You apparently spent the time reinventing alchemy. There’s no question that it’s you I want.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think I can help you. I’m happy with my position in the civil government.”
She frowned. “It was always a mistake to demilitarize the State Alchemist program,” she grumbled.
Al didn’t like where this conversation was going- but then, he hadn’t liked it from the beginning. “I wouldn’t have become a State Alchemist if the program was still military,” he said. “I have no intention of becoming a human weapon.”
She looked at him hard, her blue eyes icy. “You’re already a weapon whether you want to be or not,” she said. “It’s only a matter of who fires you, and where.”
“I thought Amestris was at peace,” Al said, keeping his tone pleasant. “Besides, don’t we have treaties that forbid the use of alchemists on the battlefield?”
“Drachma threatens to crush us at any time,” Armstrong snarled. “They think we’re weak- and they’re not wrong. The State Alchemists were a major tactical advantage over them. Mustang’s an idiot to think that we can keep the peace without the threat of alchemy against our neighbors.”
Al had nothing useful to say to that, so he said nothing at all.
Armstrong laughed darkly. “What is it about Mustang, that his people are so damned loyal to him?” she said, crossing her arms. “I’ve never managed to turn one of you to my side. Not even Falman, the poor bastard.”
Al looked at her thoughtfully. “The same thing that makes your men so loyal to you, I think,” he said, smiling. “The both of you never expect anything from your men that you aren’t already doing yourself- and you usually expect the impossible.” Al might disagree with the Fuhrer, but he still admired her greatly.
“Don’t try to tell me that that Eastern pantywaist taught you to do the impossible,” Armstrong scoffed.
“No,” Al said, regarding her carefully. “That was my brother.” He stood, brushing off his loose, Xingese pants. “I know you don’t like people who don’t say what they mean, Fuhrer, so I’ll be blunt: I won’t fight for you, no matter what. Alchemy wasn’t meant to be used as a tool of war. I won’t kill with it.”
Her face was tense, unreadable. “That’s a coward’s argument,” she said, disdainfully. “Maybe you’ll change your mind when Drachma’s breathing down your own neck.”
“Perhaps,” Al said, evenly. “But that’s certainly my answer right now. May I go now?”
There was a long moment when he wasn’t sure what she was going to say. “Get out of my sight,” she snapped, finally.
When Al was clear of Central HQ, standing on the side of the road with no ride home, he finally let out a breath that he hadn’t known he was holding.
“Dammit, she can’t just kidnap you from your school!” Ed protested, his voice tinny over the phone. “Do I need to come home, Al?”
“Of course not, Brother,” Al told him, sighing. “You’re overreacting. She didn’t kidnap me; she just sent two soldiers to pick me up. It’s not like they could actually have forced me to go if I didn’t want to.”
“Be careful, Al,” Ed said, and Al could hear the fear in his voice even over the long distance. “Look, I think maybe you should talk to Teacher.”
“I don’t want to bother Teacher over something like this,” Al protested. A quaver sneaked into his voice at the end. He was twenty-seven years old, and a master alchemist by most peoples’ standards, but he was still scared of her. Besides, he’d never told her about his plans for an alchemy school. She might be angry at him over it, and he didn’t like to think about it.
“Man up,” Ed told him, unsympathetically. “You know she’d have good advice for you. After she beat you up on principle, anyway.”
“You’re only saying that because you’re in Ishval right now, and she won’t be able to get at you,” Al accused, mournfully.
Ed laughed. “Damn straight,” he said. “But I’m still right.”
Al sighed again. “You probably are,” he admitted. “I’ll call her.”
“Good,” Ed said. “Al-” He broke off, and there was silence for a moment. “Look after everyone, okay, Al?” he finished.
“Of course I will,” Al promised. “Look after yourself, too, Brother.”
When she returned to her office in the afternoon, she found Roy Mustang sitting in an armchair with two MPs pointing guns at him and a pleasant smile on his face.
“Fuhrer Armstrong,” he said, with his most charming, annoying manner, “You should really notify your staff that I’m not a hostile threat. It seems as though this happens every time I visit you without an appointment.”
She sat down at her desk. “I’ll do that, as soon as I want them to stop treating you this way,” she said sharply. “What are you doing here, Mustang? Don’t you have a government to run?”
“Perhaps we should discuss it in private,” he suggested.
Irritably, she waved the MPs away. They put up their weapons and saluted her as they left. “What the hell do you want?” she asked, bluntly.
The smile was gone from Mustang’s face. “I hear you had Alphonse Elric here to chat this morning.”
“I don’t know what business that is of yours, Mustang,” she said, folding her arms.
“He’s a State Alchemist,” Mustang said. “He does work for me. I was curious as to what the office of the Fuhrer might want with him.”
“What do you think?” Armstrong said. This posturing annoyed her.
“The program was demilitarized for a reason,” Mustang said, his face absent of his usual irritating smugness. “And it’s illegal to put an alchemist in uniform. Were you thinking of trying to bend those rules, Fuhrer?”
She stood, holding her hands loosely behind her. “It’s my responsibility to look out for the long-term welfare of this country. If Drachma were to come for Amestris with any seriousness, how long do you imagine we could withstand them?
Mustang nodded. “The only possibility for long-term safety is diplomacy,” he said.
She spun. “Diplomacy?” she said, laughing. “You mean appeasement.”
“We’re more useful to Drachma as a trading partner than as a subject nation,” Mustang snapped back. “It’s in their own self-interest to leave us alone, as long as they don’t think we’re a threat.”
“I’m not sure the Drachmans see it that way,” Olivia said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “We’re a hair’s thickness from a declaration of war, Mustang. Diplomacy isn’t going well. They want our farmland, and they think we’re an easy target. Quite frankly, we need every weapon we can get.”
Roy frowned. “Dammit, Armstrong, I told you that my office should be handling those negotiations.”
She went cold. “Don’t condescend to me, Mustang,” she snarled. “I was dealing with the Drachmans when you were still screwing around at the Academy. They respect me, and respect is everything to them. Don’t think that you could have averted this because you talk so very prettily.”
“It might still be able to be averted,” Mustang said, urgently. “Bring me in.”
She glared at him. “You don’t give me orders,” she snapped. “The position of Fuhrer may be diminished, but I’m still the leader of this country, and you’re just a replaceable politician.”
Mustang raised his hands, tilting his head just slightly to bare his neck- a gesture of submission. “I’m not trying to give you orders, dammit,” he growled. “I’m just trying to help.”
She turned back to look at him. “We may not have the luxury of leaving our most potent weapons on the shelf much longer,” she said.
Mustang’s expression went sardonic. “I fought for a country where we wouldn’t use those weapons,” he said. “Alchemy is too dangerous to be used on the battlefield. No one should have the kind of power that we alchemists wield over life and death.”
Armstrong spun around, facing him. “Every soldier wields that power,” she argued. “If Drachma came over our borders, can you really tell me that you wouldn’t put your gloves back on?”
“I’m not a soldier anymore,” Mustang said quietly, his mouth set in a tense line.
“Like hell you aren’t,” she scoffed.
Mustang smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “And here I thought you would have taken the opportunity to remind me what a terrible excuse for a soldier I was,” he joked.
Armstrong ignored him. “Do you think that being a human weapon was harder than being a regular soldier?” she asked, her tone vicious. “We all kill, Mustang. That’s what war is about. We get our hands dirty so that the people back home can live their lives in peace. The only difference between you and a regular grunt was scale.”
“I know that,” Mustang said, barely audible. Even Armstrong was perceptive enough to know that he was thinking of Hawkeye. He coughed, looking away. “I don’t want to live in a world where one man can snap his fingers and destroy a city,” he said, finally, finding his voice. “And Alphonse Elric isn’t a soldier. I won’t let you make him into a killer like us.”
Armstrong laughed humorlessly. “He told me the same thing,” she said. She stood, her hand on the sword at her hip, looking out the window. “The hell of it is,” she said, “I agree with you. But no one ever gets exactly what they want, Mustang.”
“Bring me in,” he repeated, but it was supplication now. “We’re not at war yet. We might be able to fix this still.”
She stared at the skyline, wishing that she was still under the crystal-blue skies of Briggs. “I’ll send over the files,” she said. “You don’t say a word to the delegation without my say-so.”
“Agreed,” he said. “As long as you stay away from Alphonse.”
“For the moment,” she said.
And.... plot! Just when you thought it was going to be chapter after chapter of fluff.
I think it’s very easy to make Olivier into a villain; she’s such a crazy-intense character. In real life, of course, there are very few villains- there are mostly just people that are trying their best and failing, or that have good intentions that have gone horribly wrong, or that you disagree with. I was trying very hard to walk that line with her in this chapter. She and the Elrics disagree. I’m not certain who’s right.
As a warning, I only intend to do a few more chapters of this fic. I also have a few ideas for little stories set in this continuity (I have one idea for Ed-as-a-grad-student and another involving Ed and Al’s kids a few years down the line) but I think I’ll be ending this particular story fairly soon. I’ve said most of what I wanted to say with it.
Chapter 19: Late Nights
Al couldn’t sleep. Mei was warm next to him, and for a moment, he wanted to wake her up, to beg her for comfort. He sighed. She needed her sleep, and there was nothing so important that it justified disturbing her at this hour. He turned, unable to get comfortable, and finally pulled himself out of bed. He went downstairs and wandered into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
He felt her before he saw her, her qi tickling at the edge of his consciousness. “Winry,” he said. “What are you doing awake?”
“I heard someone up,” she said, yawning. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t one of the kids. Are you alright?”
He tried to smile. “Fine,” he said.
She laughed. “You’re a terrible liar, Al,” she said, sitting down at the table. “Since we’re having tea, I’d like to point out that there’s a packet of cookies on top of the fridge. In the back.”
With a small smile, he pulled the cookies down. He had already known where they were. Al was the tallest one in the Elric household, and the others had a tendency to hide things right at his eye-level.
Winry opened the cookies and pulled one out. She pushed the package in his direction. “What’s wrong, Al?” she said. “Is it about your meeting with the Fuhrer? Ed and Roy aren’t going to let her force you into anything you don’t want to do.”
“It’s not that,” Al said, pouring hot water into teacups. He handed one to Winry, and sat down with the other, poking at the infuser with his spoon. “I can’t stop thinking about what she said to me,” he said, finally.
"That she wanted you to be a human weapon?" Winry asked, tentatively.
"Sort of," Al said. "I was thinking about that. I've fought people lots of times, but I’ve never taken a life.”
Winry frowned, looking into her teacup. “That time with Scar- Ed told me then that my hands weren’t for killing. I don’t think your hands are for killing either, Al. You’re the kindest man I know. I don’t want to see you become a weapon.”
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” Al said, and his voice was softer than he meant it to be. “I can sense life, Winry. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to reach out and-” He lifted a hand, reaching. “-And snuff it out,” he finished, dropping his hand. “The thought of it makes me sick. If I killed someone with my remote alchemy, I’d feel them die. That flame would just gutter out and... and be gone.”
“Al...” Winry said, putting a hand over his, her eyes large and blue as she looked up at him.
He pulled his hand free. “But what if she’s right, Winry?” he said, looking down. “If there’s a war, then is it fair to let other people fight to protect me, if I could fight but won’t?”
“There isn’t a war,” Winry said, frowning. “You won’t have to make that decision, Al.”
“There might be,” Al said quietly. He pulled the infuser out of his cup. He’d let it overbrew; it would be bitter when he drank it. “Brother would never do it. He’d die before he’d kill someone.”
Winry looked like she might cry. “Yeah,” she agreed. Ed had proven that point in Baschool.
Al sipped, and the tea was as bitter as he expected it to be. “I can’t help thinking... if there was going to be a war, and I did a big transmutation- say, if I killed five thousand people at once- and it made them too scared of us to continue their attacks, would I have really saved lives?” He didn’t look at Winry. He blinked, looking down at his tea. “Then I think about all the people we know in the military- Major Ross, and Lieutenant Brosh, and Lieutenant Fuery, and the rest. They all have families at home. Those five thousand people would all have people at home, crying because their son or- or brother was never going to come home. And how could I do that? Even if it meant fewer Amestrians would die, or fewer people altogether, how could I raise my hand to kill people who had never hurt me, just because they wearing the wrong uniform?” He tightened his fingers around his teacup. “But if I refused to fight, and then twenty thousand people died, would that be my fault?”
“Al!” Winry said, sharply. She reached out and turned his face up so that he was looking at her. “No,” she said, more softly. “Al, no. No more talking about... about killing people like that, okay? I don’t care whether there’s a war or not- you could never do something like that.”
“I could,” he said darkly. “I have the power to do it, Winry. It wouldn’t even need to be flashy- I know medical alkahestry. I could reach into their bodies and clot the blood where it was going into their hearts or brains. They’d just fall over dead.”
Winry slapped him. His head snapped to the side, his cheek stinging- Winry was never one to pull her punches. When he turned back to look at her, she was glaring at him, tears in her eyes. “No,” she repeated.
Al’s face grew hot, tears threatening as a pressure behind his eyes and in his throat. He looked down. “I can’t not talk about it forever,” he said, his voice choked. “I know Brother thinks that I’m innocent, but I’m not. I know what my alchemy can be used to do. I can’t pretend that the possibility isn’t there. Even if I wanted to, Fuhrer Armstrong wouldn’t let me.”
“I don’t care,” Winry said, fiercely. “If you even think about doing something like that, I’ll- I’ll kick your ass, Alphonse Elric!”
She looked more afraid than angry. Al said nothing, but gathered her into his arms. He reached out with his senses, looking for the comfort of feeling his family near him. He felt for the farthest-out first. Ed was too far away for Al to feel his presence, and Al missed him. Upstairs, he felt the cool fire that was Mei, muted in sleep. Trisha was a tiny bundle of light curled against her mother. Al had a hard time telling little Al and Sara apart, but there they both were, sleeping upstairs.
And there, next to him, was Winry. Her normally easy-flowing qi was knotted up with fear, and worry, and- and-
Al gasped. “Winry!” he exclaimed, without quite meaning to.
“Al?” she said, wiping the tears from her cheeks as she pulled away.
A grin spread slowly across Al’s face. “Winry,” he said. “Your qi. It’s bright.”
Winry looked confused. “What does that mean, Al?” she asked.
“Brighter than usual,” he said, still grinning. “Especially here.” He laid a hand on her belly, exquisitely gentle. “You and Brother are having another baby.”
Winry’s eyes were wide with shock. “Really?” she said. “Are you sure?”
Al nodded. “I probably didn’t notice before because it’s still so small, but I was focusing on you just now. There’s no question. Mei could probably do a better job of guessing how far along you are.”
Suddenly, Winry couldn’t stop smiling either. “Don’t tell the kids yet, okay?” she said. “I want Ed to know first.”
“He’ll be so happy,” Al said. “New life is always a blessing.”
Winry hugged him tight, her qi incandescent with positive emotion. Al held her- his sister, his best friend- and didn’t think about the arithmetic of lives.
Ed curled against her in the darkness, his breath warm on her collarbone, and his hand heavy on her belly. “Ed?” she whispered.
“Mmm?” he said, lifting his head.
“I was just wondering whether you were awake,” she said.
He smiled up at her, his pale eyes almost glowing in the dimness. “Can’t sleep,” he admitted.
“I missed you when you were in Ishval,” she told him, shyly. She had. These days, when he was gone it left an Ed-shaped hole in her life.
“I missed you too,” he said. He leaned up and kissed her with surprising urgency. “Couldn’t stop thinking about you there,” he added. He was quiet for a long moment. “I passed on your message,” he said.
Winry nodded. “What did he say?” she asked.
Ed shifted down and kissed her belly. “He cried,” he said, his voice a little choked. “Then he told me that I wasn’t worthy of you.”
Winry frowned. “That’s not a nice thing to say.”
“Probably true, though,” Ed murmured against her skin.
“No it isn’t,” Winry said, indignantly. “Don’t underrate yourself, Ed. Or overrate me,” she added.
“He named his daughter after you,” Ed told her.
Winry started. “What, really?” she asked.
Ed nodded, his nose brushing against her skin. “Kind of took me by surprise.”
“Huh,” she said. “Funny to think about him having a daughter.”
Ed laughed. “He has this whole family. It was really weird. But... I’m happy for him. I mean, I don’t think anything excuses what he did, but... I’m sort of glad that he has family again. It makes me have hope for Ishval.”
“You made it sound beautiful there when you were telling us all about it,” Winry said. “Was it really?”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “Scary at points, but beautiful. Everything’s still being rebuilt. It’s kind of cool that I get to be part of that.”
Winry smiled, a little smugly.
“What?” he said, looking at her expression.
She grinned. “I knew you liked your job,” she said. “I was glad when you decided to take it. I know you liked living in Resembool, but I think you were starting to get bored, even if you wouldn’t admit it to yourself.”
“Whatever,” he mumbled, grumpily. He nuzzled her side with his nose.
Winry squeaked. “That tickles!” she protested.
“Good,” he said, and nipped her with his teeth. Winry squeaked again, and Ed laid a trail of light kisses across her abdomen. “You’re amazing,” he said, shyly.
Winry flushed. “It’s not like I’m really doing anything, Ed. The baby just keeps growing regardless.”
Ed grinned. “Our baby,” he insisted. “You’re amazing.”
She smiled shyly. “At least you didn’t say ‘awesome’,” she teased. “Or ‘badass’.”
“Oh, you’re those things, too,” Ed said. “So’s the baby. Totally badass.”
He was quiet then, his arms around her and his face resting against her belly. She reached down and stroked his hair. Being pregnant was always a little terrifying. She was already worrying about the birth and living with a new baby and how they would make time for three and everything. Ed, though, didn’t seem scared at all. It was comforting to her. No matter how much she worried, she trusted him to make it all alright.
“Winry?” Ed said, his voice small. “I love you. So much. You know that, right?”
Winry smiled. “I know it,” she said. “I love you too, weirdo.”
Ed looked out at the lights of the city. They stretched as far as he could see, twinkling in the darkness. Central wasn’t nearly as big as some of the cities in Creta or Drachma, but it was big enough.
Behind him, there was the creak of a roof tile. Ed startled, dropping into a combat stance before he realized what he was doing.
“Brother,” Al admonished him, “Be careful. You’ll slip if you don’t watch out.”
Al was right, of course. Ed spider-crawled carefully to a more stable position on the roof. Al stepped lightly across the tiles and sat down next to him.
“What are you doing up here, Al?” Ed asked.
"I noticed you were on the roof," Al said shrugging.
"How-" Ed asked, and then stopped. “Oh,” he realized. The Dragon’s Pulse. “Could you tell it was me?” he asked, curious. “I thought it was just sort of like- look, there’s somebody, but you couldn’t tell who.”
“You can only tell who it is if you know the person very, very well.” Al shrugged again. He closed his eyes. “I can sense there’s Winry, and she’s sleeping. And there’s Mei, and Trisha. They’re asleep, too. I can’t really tell Al and Sara apart, but one of them’s awake still. Probably Al; he likes to stay up and read.” He looked away. “So I knew you were awake, and up here, and I wondered why.”
“I like the roof,” Ed explained. “Watching the city lights is neat.”
“The lights are pretty,” Al agreed.
“It always looks like the world goes on forever,” Ed said, smiling ruefully.
Al nodded. “Do you miss traveling, Brother?” he asked.
Ed smiled wistfully. “A little,” he said. “When I’m gone, though, I miss Winry and the kids. It’s hard to enjoy it much without them. I thought- maybe the kids were old enough, we could do a little traveling with them along, but with the new baby coming...”
Al smiled. “Still,” he said. “It’s really cool that you and Winry are having another baby.”
Ed grinned helplessly. “Yeah,” he agreed. “It’s pretty cool.”
Al stared off into space, his arms wrapped around his knees. Ed watched him, wondering what he was thinking about. Ed had gotten comfortable with Al in the months since he’d returned from Xing, but there were still moments like this, when Al seemed to be a thousand miles away and completely unreachable.
Ed poked Al’s shoulder. “What’re you brooding about?” he asked.
Al turned to him, his eyes serious. “Brother,” he said, “the Fuhrer wants to talk to me again.”
Ed cocked his head, looking at Al. “Do you need help telling her to go to hell?” he said.
Al wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I’m not sure I should,” he said.
Ed froze. “What are you saying, Al?”
Al frowned, looking as unhappy as Ed had ever seen him. It looked wrong on him. Al could be smiling or serious, but never miserable. “Things are getting bad with Drachma, Brother,” he said. “I’ve been talking to Roy about it. He thinks that there could be a declaration of war in the next couple weeks, if nothing changes. Of course, if things change the wrong way, then...” He trailed off. “Brother,” he said, his voice small. “If I did what the Fuhrer wants me to do, could you forgive me?”
Outrage boiled under Ed’s skin. He stood, his hands balling into fists. “What the hell, Al?” he asked. “What are you thinking? You can’t go to war.” He glared at his brother. “What, do you want to go kill whoever the Fuhrer tells you to?”
Al scrambled to his feet, staring Ed down. “I don’t want to kill anybody!” he shouted. “You and Winry, you’re so certain that I shouldn’t even be thinking about this. This is what my alchemy can do, Ed! I have an obligation to use that power as best I can, whatever that is, and you can’t just tell me not to think about it!”
Ed glared at him. “You can’t kill anyone, Al!” he insisted. “You rescue stray cats, for fuck’s sake. You couldn’t kill anyone.” But it was a stupid argument to make, and he knew it.
Al knew it too, clearly. His face was set, his eyes hard. “Half the people we know are soldiers,” he said. “They’re still good people. And if there’s a war, how could I let them go off and fight when I could help?”
Ed looked up at his younger brother. The stupid jerk had grown taller than him years ago. “They’re not asking you to be a soldier,” he protested. “They’re asking you to be a weapon. Why don’t you ask Mustang how well that turned out last time? Or better yet, ask Armstrong!”
“Brother-” Al cried, and then trailed off into a scream of frustration. He clapped his hands, and hand-shaped platforms rose up out of the ground. Al stalked off the roof, the platforms melting behind him as he walked.
“Al!” Ed shouted, watching his brother leave. “Dammit, Al! Where the hell are you going?”
Al turned, and Ed suddenly realized that there were tears on his cheeks. “Why can’t you help me, Brother?” he cried.
That was that. Ed tensed and took a running leap off the building. He was fairly sure that he could reach the nearest of the half-melted platforms. He wasn’t going to let Al just walk off, not after that. It took him a split second, though, to realize that he’d misjudged the distance. Somewhere, Al cried out. Before Ed could slam into the ground, an enormous hand rose up to meet him, cushioning his fall. Ed lay on the platform for a moment, breathing hard.
Al was there, suddenly. He clapped his hands, and the platform lowered them gently to the ground. “Are you alright, Brother?” he asked, prodding Ed. “Why did you do that? It was stupid.”
Ed sat up, feeling himself gingerly. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Not sure what came over me.”
“Don’t do that again,” Al ordered him. “There’s no need for you to take idiotic risks, not anymore.”
Ed nodded. He looked away. “Tell me how to help, Al,” he said, softly.
Al curled in on himself, looking miserable. “I’ve been afraid since I learned how to do this kind of alchemy,” he said, wretchedly. “I can’t stop thinking about... about how I could become a weapon. I don’t know what I should do, Brother. It’s not so easy to just say ‘you shouldn’t kill’, or ‘alchemy shouldn’t be used for that’. Soldiers kill to protect people, and don’t I have a duty to protect life? I ran from Xing because I didn’t want the Emperor to use me to fight his battles. But this is my home- if there’s a war, isn’t this my battle?”
Ed nodded. “I’m sorry,” he said, putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I didn’t realize this was bothering you so much.”
Al looked down, his hands cradled in his lap. “I know you don’t know the answers to my questions,” he said.
“I guess not,” Ed said. “But I do know this, Al- you can’t kill people. I know you. It’ll eat you up inside.” He paused, frowning, looking his brother over. “You understand too much what it’s like to be the one who’s left behind when someone dies.”
“I should be stronger than that,” Al protested. “I should make my decision on the basis of what’s right, not what I want.”
“Sometimes, it takes more strength not to kill. I said that to Kimbley once.” Ed paused. “He wasn’t impressed,” he admitted.
“He was a psycho,” Al pointed out.
“True,” Ed said. He sighed, looking off into the distance. “Yes,” he said, finally.
Al looked at him, confused. “What?” he asked.
“Your question,” Ed said, feeling his cheeks flush with embarrassment. “You’re my brother, okay? And that’s it.”
Al smiled shakily. “Okay,” he said.
I’m not sure how obvious/important this is, but there's meant to be several days’ gap in between each of these sections.
I was talking to my husband about this chapter, and he insists that Al is, and I quote, “a big softy”, and would never purposely kill anyone no matter what. I’m not so sure.
Chapter 20: Into the North
Izumi was sharpening knives when the phone rang.
“Curtis Meats,” she said as she picked up the phone, her voice pleasant.
“Hello, Teacher,” the voice on the other end of the line said.
Izumi laid her cleaver down carefully. “Al?” she said. “You never call. Is everything alright?” She’d only even seen Al once since he’d come back from Xing, and that had been months ago.
“Um... yes, I guess,” Al said. He sounded nervous. “How are things in Dublith?”
“About like they have been,” she said. “Mason’s boy has been sick the last few days, but it doesn’t look like anything serious. Why are you calling?” Best to get straight to the point. She pondered train schedules in her head, wondering idly if she was going to have to make an emergency trip to Central.
“It’s nothing wrong with anyone,” he assured her. “I mean, not like anyone’s hurt or anything. And Brother’s back from Ishval, and nobody tried to kill him, so that’s good.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said, wondering where he was going with this.
There was a deep breath on the other end of the phone. “Istartedanalchemyschool,” Al blurted out, all in one go.
Izumi parsed the utterance carefully. “You started an alchemy school?” she said, half in disbelief and half in uncertainty that she’d understood him.
“Yes,” Al confirmed, hesitantly.
For a long moment, there was silence on the line. “Why would you do an idiotic thing like that?” she asked, finally.
“Um,” he said, with an eloquence born of fear. “I learned to do some... um... stuff. With alchemy. In Xing. New stuff. And I thought I should teach it to people.” He paused. “That’s sort of why I wanted to talk to you. The stuff.”
“Do I need to come out to see you in person, Al?” she asked, sternly.
Al’s panicked “No, Teacher!” was gratifying. It was good to know that she hadn’t lost her touch. Still, she probably should go up to visit them sometime soon. It was hard to tear herself away from Sig and the shop, but it had been a long time since she’d seen the boys, or their wives, or their children.
She sighed. It made her feel a little old to think about her boys having children of their own. “I hear you’re a State Alchemist,” she told him. She’d seen the story about him in Dublith’s paper. “They’re calling you the Life’s-Blood Alchemist now, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Al said, quietly. That was a sore point, evidently. “Teacher?” he said, his voice small. “Why did you always hate the military so much? You were so angry at Brother when you found out he’d become a State Alchemist.”
She laughed. “Besides it being the corrupt tool of a homunculus?” she said.
“To be fair, you didn’t know that at the time...” Al pointed out, delicately.
She leaned against the counter. “I saw what they did here in the South,” she said. “They way they just kept fighting Aerugo, even when there was no point to it. Young men and women kept going away to war and coming back maimed- when they came back at all. It just seemed so senseless.”
“Were you ever even tempted to become a State Alchemist, Teacher?” Al’s voice was strangely intense.
“No,” she said firmly. “They would have made me into a weapon. They would have pointed me at their enemies and I would have killed who they wanted me to kill. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want it for you or your brother either. That idiot’s just lucky that he was never really ordered into combat in those years before he found out about the homunculi.”
“He was ordered to kill,” Al said, his voice soft and serious. “After we found out about the homunculi. They were using Winry as a hostage, and they ordered him to help Kimbley carve a crest of blood at Briggs.”
“He didn’t do it,” Izumi said, not asking. She had heard many stories about the brothers’ travels, but she’d never heard this one. Ed probably didn’t like talking about it.
“Kimbley ended up carving the crest without him,” Al told her. “Brother nearly got himself killed.”
“Ed was never going to last in the military,” Izumi said, sighing. “There’s no room for a soldier who won’t kill. He was an idealistic child.”
“I know,” Al said. “We were both so young. And stupid.”
Izumi picked up the meat cleaver she’d been sharpening, and wiped the oil carefully from the blade. “Anyway, I didn’t want to be a soldier. I wanted to be a housewife,” she said. “What do you want for yourself, Al?”
There was a long pause. “I’m not sure,” Al said. “I want the people I love to be safe. I... I want to use what I’ve learned to help people.”
“Well,” Izumi said, picking up another knife, “You’d better do that, then. And don’t screw it up.”
Al stared at his knees, covered with loose black Xingese pants.
“Would you like some tea?” Riza asked, gently.
Al shook his head. He’d drunk more tea lately than he knew what to do with. It seemed to be his friends’ first response to his unhappiness: brew him some tea. Al suspected that his problems were a bit beyond what a cup of hot leaf juice could fix. “I’m sorry to disturb you at home,” he said, awkwardly.
Riza smiled. “It’s not a problem,” she said, leaning back in her armchair. “What did you want to talk about?”
Al looked at his hands. “I heard that Drachma shelled Eckenbool,” he said.
Riza nodded. “They’re moving troops on Randin as well,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the Fuhrer plans to make her declaration of war tonight.”
Al nodded. “She wants the State Alchemists to join the military again.”
Riza pursed her lips. “Roy will fight her on that,” she said.
Al’s hand went to his hip. He pulled out the watch, its hex-and-dragon warm against his fingertips. “Brother came and talked to you once,” he said awkwardly, “years ago. About Ishval. He told me some of what you told him.”
Riza looked down. Al could see the way her body tensed up, just slightly. “Yes,” she said.
“What’s it like?” he asked. “To kill someone?”
He almost expected her to slap him, like Winry had done. To protest. To tell him to stop thinking about things like that. She did none of those things, of course. She looked up at him, her brown eyes quiet and sad. “Not as hard as it should be,” she said. She straightened in the chair, her stance no longer casual. “The first few times, it’s horrifying. You have nightmares afterwards; you throw up, you question yourself. After that, it just becomes work. Their faces blur together no matter how hard you try to remember them all.” She paused. “I did try. It occurred to me that I might be the only one left to remember them.”
“If it was me,” Al said, “I would never see their faces at all.”
Riza nodded. “That kind of power is a terrible burden to bear,” she observed, with the tone of someone who knows from experience.
“I have to make a choice,” Al said. “Mei doesn’t understand why this is so hard for me, not really. Ed and Winry don’t understand why there’s even a choice to make.” He stared at his hands. “Brother says that he’d forgive me if I went to war, but I don’t know if that’s true.”
“Your brother has always had a blind spot where you were concerned,” Riza said. “I think that he’d forgive you, if you felt that you had to go.”
Al nodded, tentatively. “How do I decide?” he said, his voice small. “What’s right?”
“I may not be the best one to ask,” Riza said, cocking her head to one side thoughtfully. “I’ve spent much of my life wishing that I could have made different decisions than I did.”
Al looked at her carefully. “That’s why I thought I should ask you,” he said.
She looked up, looking him in the eye. “I think that you know what you should do,” she said. “It’s just that you’re afraid. It’s okay to be afraid, Alphonse. I was, too. Every time.”
The side of his mouth quirked up. “You never seemed like it,” he said.
“A sniper’s hands have to stay steady,” she told him, her eyes sad.
It felt strange to be out of uniform.
Roy didn’t usually feel that way. It had been several years since he’d resigned his commission, and he’d long since accustomed himself to civvies. Besides, as a politician, a suit and tie were their own sort of uniform. But he was sitting in the back of a troop transport surrounded by young soldiers in field blues, and it felt strange to be the only civilian there.
Well- not the only civilian. Across from him sat a tall man wearing a black turtleneck, his face covered by a hood and a mask. His gloved hands were held loosely across his knees. Roy didn't speak to other man; and he wouldn't have answered if Roy had. None of the soldiers on this transport would be able to give away any clue to the man’s identity.
They arrived in camp, and Roy escorted the masked man into the camp's only permanent structure. They were met by a uniformed soldier who led them silently into an empty room. The door was locked behind them, and Roy knew that there was only one key.
"Thanks for coming, Fuery," Roy said, turning to the soldier.
Fuery saluted, a smile on his face. "The Fuhrer told me that you requested me, sir."
Roy smiled back. "We needed someone to run the communications equipment, and we needed someone whose loyalty was unquestionable. You met both requirements."
Fuery blushed, but he looked pleased. Roy turned. “You can take the mask off now, Alphonse,” he said.
Al threw his hood back and pulled the mask off, shaking his short, tousled hair out. “Hi, Fuery,” he said, shyly.
Fuery looked surprised. “Hi, Alphonse,” he said. “I didn’t know it was you that Mr. Mustang was bringing.”
“Good,” Roy said. “We tried to keep it quiet. Do you know when she’ll be here?”
“In a few hours,” Fuery said. “That’s her best guess on when they’ll get into the target area, based on what we know about troop movements.”
Roy looked sideways at Alphonse. “Unless you can give us better intel...” he suggested.
Alphonse shrugged. “They’re still too far away,” he said. “I can only sense a few miles out, and even then... I’ve got no way to separate everyone out.”
“That’s what our observers are for,” Roy said. “You’ll have enough information to separate by location when the time comes.”
Alphonse nodded, and sat himself down. “I’m kind of hungry,” he said. “If there’s any food. I should probably eat now... before.” He trailed off. He looked horribly uncertain of himself, his long limbs suddenly awkward and ungainly.
“The room’s stocked with food,” Roy offered. “Or should be. I requested enough for a few days if necessary.”
Fuery nodded. “I made sure everything was just like you asked for,” he said.
They ate, and then they waited. Fuery made awkward conversation, but Alphonse mostly stayed silent, threading his gloved fingers through one another idly. Roy played out scenarios in his head, trying to prepare counter-strategies for possible enemy moves. He didn’t bother considering the possibility that Alphonse might not be able to do what he’d promised to do. This was, after all, the man who’d once trapped himself in a prison with Pride. Roy didn’t doubt his resolve. “Are you ready?” Roy asked.
Alphonse didn’t answer for a long moment. Then- “Hmm?” he said, looking up. His gold eyes were distant, and his voice was unnervingly dreamy. “Sorry- I was feeling for the Drachmans. I think they’re almost into the target area. They like to march in columns. It’s like a river of light.” His eyes narrowed. “I think they’re afraid,” he said, his voice even more quiet. “Their qi is all roiled up. It could be anger, but I think it’s fear.”
Fuery nodded, slowly. “You’re always afraid right before a battle,” he said. “You don’t know who’s going to come back with you, or if you’ll make it back at all.”
Alphonse looked away. “She’s coming,” he told them. “I can recognize her, anyway.”
Roy nodded, and reflexively checked over his suit. There was no point; she was going to look at him like something she’d scraped off her shoe no matter how carefully he was dressed.
A few minutes later, the door opened, and Olivier Armstrong stepped through. “Good,” she said. “You’re here. Are you ready?”
“I’m ready,” Alphonse said, standing.
Fuery was already at the bank of comm equipment. “Everything’s ready here, too, sir,” he told her.
“Good,” Armstrong said with a sniff. She glanced at Roy. “And it’s not as though you need to be ready for anything. Why are you here again?”
“It is my plan,” Roy pointed out mildly. Roy knew why he was here, though, and it wasn’t just for tactical support on the fly. Roy was here because Alphonse was. I wonder if he’ll have a killer’s eyes by tonight, Roy thought.
Alphonse closed his eyes. “I can see them,” he said. “There’s a large group in a column. It’s fuzzy around the edges, of course. Some of them are moving around the column.” He paused. “They’re stopping. It’s not quite in the target zone, but not far out.”
Fuery flipped a switch and one of the scouts confirmed. “They’ve called a halt,” the soldier said. She gave their position, describing the location of the enemy soldiers as closely as she could. “They’re five miles away from Ossak,” she informed them. There were perhaps fifty thousand people living in Ossak, Roy knew. They couldn’t afford to let the Drachmans do what they’d done at Randin.
“I’m moving our men in,” Armstrong said, picking up a comm set. “Are you ready, Elric?”
Alphonse nodded, not opening his eyes.
“Fourth unit, move in,” Armstrong barked into the comm. “Quietly.”
“I see them,” Alphonse confirmed. “Tell them to stay in pairs. The grouping will make it easier for me to keep them separate from the Drachmans.”
“Fourth unit, stay in pairs,” Armstrong confirmed. “Fuery, get me a line to the Tsar.”
“Yes sir,” Fuery said.
A few moments later, a young man’s voice came out of the handset. “Fuhrer Armstrong,” it sneered smugly. “To what do I owe the honor?”
“Tsar Alexey,” Armstrong said, formally. “I see that you’re marching troops toward one of my cities.”
“Fourth unit’s in place on the ridge around the enemy,” the scout said in Roy and Alphonse’s ears.
“And you will be unable to stop me, just as you were at Randin,” the Tsar declared. “My father was a fool to be afraid of you, Armstrong.”
“I see them,” Alphonse whispered. His eyelids fluttered, and Roy could see that his eyes were rolled back in his head. He raised his hands and put them together, completing the circle.
“You are a fool to underestimate me,” Armstrong snapped. She gestured, and Fuery relayed the command: Fourth unit, break cover.
Alphonse spun, sweat breaking out on his forehead from the effort of what he was doing. He twisted, and gestured. “I have them,” he whispered, his eyes still half-closed. He was trembling. “Now. Soon. I can’t hold it forever.”
“Fire,” Armstrong cried, into the microphone that Fuery handed her.
Alphonse’s head snapped back.
“The transmutation’s going off!” the scout cried. “There’s blue light everywhere! Shit, the new weapons are working! The enemy soldiers are-”
“Tsar Alexey,” Armstrong said, “I’ll give you a moment to communicate with your troops- the ones who are still capable of communicating. They’ve just been ambushed by a few of my men, who are carrying new weapons: alchemic devices that can be activated by regular soldiers. Right now, you will find that most of the men in your army are trapped in individual alchemically-created prisons. We could as easily have killed them all. Call a retreat now, or we will follow through.” She spat the words, and Roy knew how much she hated this sort of tactic.
Alphonse’s muscles were clenched tight, sweat rolling down his forehead, his gold hair plastered wet against his face.
“You bitch,” the Tsar hissed. “You’re lying.”
“Like hell I am,” Armstrong said, coldly. That was only partially true, of course. The men who’d appeared outside the area that the enemy had been lured into were carrying dummy weapons- that little refinement had been Roy’s idea, disguising the source of Alphonse’s remote alchemy. “You're the one marching on my city, Tsar Alexey. You're lucky I'm showing this much mercy. Call the retreat, or your men die.”
There was a long moment of silence. His heart heavy, Roy watched as Alphonse brought his shaking hands together.
“Last chance, Alexey,” Armstrong hissed. She reached out a hand to signal.
“No!” the Tsar said. “Yes. I will call my men back.”
Alphonse made a low, sobbing sound. He pulled and twisted, directing the alchemic energy.
“The walls are falling,” the scout confirmed. “They’re retreating. They’re falling back. Fourth unit is pulling back to cover.”
Alphonse looked like he might be about to collapse. Roy took him by the elbow, and guided him to a chair.
“I’ll be in Drachma in a few days,” Armstrong said. “We can discuss the terms of a peace treaty then.”
Fuery disconnected her. She turned to Alphonse. “It would have sent a stronger message to have killed them outright,” she sniffed. “But this is good enough.” She looked down her nose at Mustang. “You have the mind of a weasel,” she told him, and swept out of the room.
Alphonse finally relaxed, slumping back in his chair. He opened his eyes. “I didn’t have to kill anyone,” he breathed. Roy could see tears in his eyes.
“It was a good plan,” Roy told him. “Hopefully, the threat of that kind of alchemic power will be enough to make them think twice about invading us.”
Alphonse nodded. He looked completely exhausted- the result of having to hold so many things in his mind at once, of channeling so much power. Roy wondered if anyone else would ever be able to learn to do what Alphonse could- the Fullmetal Alchemist would have been able to, if he could still transmute. Roy didn’t think he could.
Alphonse rubbed his eyes. “I’d like to go back to my family now,” he said. “If I can.”
It was past two in the morning when he got back to the house, but Ed was waiting for him. “Al,” he said nervously, looking over his brother as though afraid he had broken somewhere.
Al smiled. “I’m okay,” he said, softly.
Ed looked him in the eyes, searching. “Are you?” he asked.
Al smiled, and it was easier than it had been in months. “Yes,” he said. “I’m fine.”
Al could see the tension go out of his brother. “Let’s get you back to Mei, then,” Ed said. “She’s missed you.”
“I’ve missed her,” Al said. He hung his coat up, and walked up the stairs.
Note that Riza says that she wishes that she “could have made different decisions”, not that she wishes she *had* made different decisions.
This chapter kicked my ass. I even have an entire 1000 word scene where Izumi comes to visit that I just threw on the cutting room floor (it’ll probably get edited and posted later as an extra), and each of the segments got substantially re-written at least once until I had it where I wanted it. Not to mention the time I spent worrying it around in my head. Whine whine, moan moan.
The next chapter is the last one. I may post things from this universe here in the future as it occurs to me to write them (this is a near certainty, actually), but I’m done with the main thrust of this story. Insofar as this story has ever thrusted.
Riza came instantly awake when Roy snuck into their bedroom. She always did, no matter how quiet he tried to be. She tensed, taking stock of where she was and assessing possible threats. Roy froze, letting her process his presence. Finally, she relaxed. “Roy,” she said, her voice rough with sleep. “You’re home.”
Roy kicked off his shoes and unbuttoned his shirt. “At long last,” he said. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
She sat up. “What happened?” she asked, seriously.
Roy climbed into bed. Riza was warm and soft, and he folded himself against her. “Good news,” he said. “The Tsar retreated. They’re talking about a peace treaty.”
Riza nodded, taking him into her arms, running her fingers gently through his hair. Roy closed his eyes, drinking in the smell and the feel of her. He still couldn’t believe, sometimes, that he was allowed this kind of joy. “And Alphonse?” Riza asked, hesitantly.
Roy tensed. “He was... terrifying,” he told her. “I wouldn’t have believed that a human being could be capable of what he did. If the Drachmans knew what had really happened there, they’d’ve been surrendering even faster than they did.” Roy leaned into the hollow of Riza’s neck. “He didn’t have to follow through,” he told her. “No one died.”
Riza sighed, her breath ruffling his hair. “Good,” she said. “The possibility scared him. I think he’s more frightened of what he can do than anyone else is.”
Roy nodded, his lips brushing her neck. “It looked for a moment like the Fuhrer was going to give the order to kill. I wasn’t sure whether he was going to do it or not.”
Riza buried her nose in his hair, tightening her arms around him. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m glad we didn’t have to find out.”
“Did I miss anything here while I was up north?” he asked her.
She snorted. “The Dragons tried to ram a few things through Parliament while you were gone, but Breda and I were able to deal with them.”
“Hmph,” Roy said, grinning. “There’s a reason I made you my Deputy PM. Anyone who thinks it was just because I was sleeping with you ends up unpleasantly surprised.”
“You did offer me the job before I actually started sleeping with you,” she pointed out, curling her fingers around the sensitive skin at the back of his neck.
He hummed, arching into her. “I suppose that’s true,” Roy agreed. “Mind you, I might be a little fuzzy on the details of that. Perhaps we could recreate the event?”
She raised an eyebrow. It was her Oh, you think you’re smooth, do you? expression. She used it on him often. Roy pulled back, leaning on his pillow as he looked into her eyes. “I missed you,” he said. “I’ve gotten accustomed to having you at my back.”
She nodded. “I’m always at your back, Roy,” she said. “No matter how far away you are.”
The contraction hit, and Winry’s world dissolved into whiteness and pain. She might have screamed, if she had had that much energy left.
“Jie jie,” Mei said, stroking her hair away from her face. “You have to push. It’s time. The baby needs to come out.”
Winry whimpered. I can’t, she wanted to say. It hurts! But somehow, her tongue was tangled up, and she couldn’t speak.
“I know it hurts,” Mei said, as though she could hear Winry’s thoughts. “But I can’t do anything more for the pain without making it too hard for your body to push. You have to do this. You’re strong, Winry! You’ve done this before. You can do it again. You’re almost there.”
I’m not. I can’t. It hurts, and I’m so tired. Just make it stop hurting, just for one minute- Winry grunted, and pushed Mei’s hand away weakly. She didn’t want to be touched, didn’t want Mei telling her what to do. Shut up, she thought, crossly.
The next contraction hit, and she struggled to breathe through the pain, to get purchase on it and use it-
“Good!” Mei said. “There it is, Winry! The baby’s head!”
Winry felt as though her body might explode, as though she could rupture and die if there were any more pressure. She collapsed forward onto the bed, shaking and whimpering. Mei reached out to stroke her hair, and Winry pulled away, shaking her head. She didn’t want to be touched.
“You’re almost there,” Mei said, matter of factly. “Your cervix is a little swollen; that’s why it hurts so much. But it’s okay. You’re almost done. Just a little farther, okay?”
The contraction hit. Winry screamed this time, cried. Mei put a hand on her shoulder. “Try not to scream,” she said. “It wastes your energy. Push!”
Shut up, Winry thought. Don’t tell me what to do. SHUT UP. She gritted her teeth, pushing herself up to her hands and knees. She pushed, and if she was so much as breathing, she didn’t know it.
The contraction subsided, and Winry collapsed.
“You have to keep pushing!” Mei said, urgently. “You have to get the baby out, Winry, right now!”
Wha-? Winry thought, confused. She couldn’t push. There wasn’t a contraction. Why did Mei want her to push right now?
Gracia put a hand on her hair. “The baby’s partway out, and the cord’s pinched,” she said. “You have to push now, Winry!”
Winry tried. She marshaled the nearly exhausted resources of her body, and pushed as hard as she could, ignoring the frantic movement of the other women around her. At long last, a contraction started. Winry grabbed onto it, pushing everything she had into the wave of pressure and pain and compulsion.
Somewhere, something gave way. Winry could feel the baby’s body slip out of her, everything easy now that the head and shoulders were free. She collapsed, curling weakly in on herself, delirious with relief.
There were more contractions, and the afterbirth, and then it was over. Winry was too exhausted to move, or think, or do anything. She was vaguely aware of Mei and Gracia cleaning her up, making her comfortable, covering her with blankets.
“Do you want to see your baby?” Mei said, shyly.
Winry cracked her eyes open. Gracia was holding the baby, still slick with blood and whitish goo. Winry found herself absurdly concerned for Gracia’s blouse. She reached out, and Gracia placed the baby carefully on Winry’s chest. Winry gasped, holding the baby close to her breast as Gracia wiped the blood off with a soft cloth. The baby’s hair was black- it would be weeks before it came in pale- and its eyes were muddy as they blinked up at her. “Ed,” Winry finally croaked out. “Get Ed.”
Mei jumped up. “I’ll get him,” she said, smiling. “As long as he hasn’t fainted.”
Gracia sat down on the bed next to Winry. “You were amazing,” she said, stroking Winry’s hair gently.
Winry looked down at the baby, and tears pricked in her eyes. “I miss Granny,” she said. “She was with me for Al and Sara. It’s not fair that she’s gone.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Gracia said. “It’s not. But you still have the rest of us.”
Winry shifted the baby, offering it her nipple. After a sniffling moment, the baby latched on, sucking greedily. Winry smiled, and tears spilled out of her eyes. “So beautiful,” she said, stroking the baby’s hair.
“Winry?” Ed said, standing in the doorway.
Winry looked up. He was shaky, and pale, and as handsome as she had ever seen him. “Ed,” she said. “Come- come see your baby.”
“Is it a girl or a boy?” Ed asked, coming to her side.
Winry laughed, feeling a little high. “I don’t know!” she said. “I didn’t think to look. Do you want to?”
Ed grinned, and nudged the baby’s leg aside. “Boy,” he announced, laughing. “It’s a boy. Al gets a baby brother.”
“So does Sara,” Winry protested.
“I know,” Ed said. “But- it’s good to have brothers.”
Winry leaned into Ed’s side, watching the baby nurse. “I love you,” she said.
Ed shook. “Winry,” he breathed. “You’re- you know- it’s-”
She laughed again, looking up at him. “Right. Awesome. You’re still such a kid, Ed.”
Ed blushed, shutting his mouth.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to name him?” Gracia asked.
“Um,” Ed said, awkwardly.
“We were thinking,” Winry said, slowly. “If it’s okay with you, I mean-”
“We were thinking about naming the baby Maes, if it was a boy,” Ed explained.
Gracia laughed. “He would have loved that,” she said, her eyes glistening. “If that’s what you want to do, he would have been so honored.”
“No!” Mei said, glaring at him, “You are overthinking this! Most of the detail in an alkahestric circle is inscribed on the kunai. It combines with the inscribed circle, and with the flow of energy in the world-”
“I know that,” Al protested. “You don’t have to tell me how basic alkahestry works.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “I do if you act like you’ve forgotten it.” She smacked his shoulder for emphasis.
“Look,” he said, “I’m just saying that if we alter the curve of the third pentate, that we might see a more efficient energy transfer-”
“It doesn’t work that way!” She told him. “You can’t alter the basic circle; its entire purpose is equilibrate, if you change it, it’d destabilize the energy flow-”
He shook his head. “That might be true generally, but with the alchemic modifications-”
Ed leaned into the door of the study. “Aren’t you two done arguing yet?” he said. “Listen to Mei, Al- you’re wrong about the third pentate.”
Mei grinned. “Ha!” she said. “Edward agrees with me.”
“You can’t alter the pentates unevenly,” Ed continued. “If you want to alter the third, you have to balance on the fifth.”
“You can’t alter the circle at all!” Mei insisted.
“Altering the fifth really will destabilize it!” Al argued.
“Will the three of you alchemy freaks shut up?” Winry said, poking her head in. “We can hear you from the kitchen!”
“As soon as you shut up about your new automail designs!” Al put in, grinning. “How long did you spend talking about Brother’s new leg at dinner last night?”
Winry blushed. “That is not the point!” she insisted, brandishing a finger at her brother-in-law. “Maes is upstairs asleep, and if you wake him up, I will wrench you.”
Ed grinned. “I’m right about the fifth,” he stage whispered. “You’re being a stubborn dumbass, Alphonse.”
“Brother!” Al growled. “There’s no need to be a jerk about it. Why can’t you be nice?”
“Why don’t you make me?” Ed whispered again, still grinning. “I’d like to see you try.”
With a frustrated yell, Al jumped on his brother, trying to immobilize him in a lock. Ed was too slippery, though, and they scrabbled on the floor of the study.
“Edward!” Mei said, kicking him in the side to get his attention “Leave Alphonse alone!”
“Hey!” Ed called, “Don’t think I won’t hit a girl!”
“Stop fighting!” Winry protested, trying to make herself heard over the sound of squabbling. They ignored her. Winry’s eyes narrowed, and she put her hands on her hips. She took a deep breath. “The three of you will shut up and stop fighting or so help me I will drag you apart and put you in corners at opposite ends of the house!” she bellowed, her lungs at full capacity.
Mei, Al and Ed stopped where they were, staring at her. In the distance, they could hear a baby start to cry.
“Edward Elric,” Winry hissed. “Your child is crying.”
Ed had the sense to look embarrassed as he pulled himself out of the pile. “I’ll just go check on Maes,” he said. He hurried out of the room with a last nervous look at Winry.
Al grinned from where he was lying on the floor with an arm wrapped around one of Mei’s shoulders. “Do you want help with dinner?” he asked.
Winry glared at him. “Dinner’s ready,” she said. “You can help Al and Sara set the table.”
“Come on, Mei,” Al said. “You can argue with me about arrays later.”
“Hmmph,” Mei said, brushing herself off. “Hopefully by then you’ll have recognized your mistake.”
“I’ll consider it,” Al said, grinning, as they headed for the dining room.
“I think that’s cleared enough,” Ed said, pulling a charred board to the side.
Al put his hands on the ground, thinking. “I’ll just have to account for the increased quantity of carbon in the soil,” he agreed. He stood up, walking outside the staked boundary that would become the foundations of his new home. Al smiled. “Are you ready, Brother?” he asked, taking a visual inventory of the materials that were stacked at the center of the marked-off area.
Ed shrugged. “I don’t see why you need me to help,” he said. “Can’t you just clap your hands and be done with it?”
“Maybe,” Al said. “But- I want this to last, Brother. And it’s complicated; I don’t want to mess it up because I couldn’t hold every last nail in my head. It’s better to draw the array.”
“If you say so,” Ed said, picking up the sharp stick he’d brought to carve the array. “You didn’t need me to help, though, Al. I told you, it’s fine for you to build the house yourself.”
“You helped me design the array,” Al insisted. “You should help me draw it, too.”
Ed shrugged, and started drawing the circle just outside the marked boundary. On the other side, Al drew his curve segment. Ed knew without checking that his part of the circle would match Al’s- perfectly, seamlessly. They walked together around the perimeter of what was going to be Al’s new house, carving runes and drawing lines.
Ed tried not to think about the last time they’d drawn an array together. He and Al had been so happy then- hopeful and certain that everything was going to turn out well; that they’d see their mother again soon. Ed shuddered, connecting a line. This was just a simple construction array, he reminded himself.
He looked up, and caught Al looking back at him. There was a strange wistfulness in Al’s eyes, and Ed suddenly wondered- for the first time- if Al was sad that Ed wasn’t an alchemist anymore. Both their lives had been consumed by alchemy, once upon a time, and Al had continued down that road. Ed, though, had leapt off the path and gone looking for another life. Ed wondered if Al missed him there, walking just one step ahead of him.
Al dropped his stick, and surveyed the circle. “I think it’s ready,” he said. “We better go get the girls.”
“I’ll go,” Ed said. “You inventory the raw materials again. We don’t want to risk a backlash because there wasn’t enough source to work with.”
Al nodded, and Ed made his way down the hill and across the field that separated the Elric and Rockbell houses. It was spring, and there were starting to be flowers, waving in the light breeze. As he approached the house, Ed could see little Al and Sara running after each other in the yard, and Winry hanging up laundry by the house with Maes tied to her back in one of those weird Xingese devices. She caught sight of him as she turned, and waved.
“Is it time?” she asked, nervously.
Ed nodded. “The array’s ready to activate. You and Mei should come if you want to see it.”
“Mei!” Winry called, turning so that her voice carried up into the house, “It’s time! Come on! Al, Sara- come on if you’re coming!”
“Give me a minute!” Mei called back, grumpily. She waddled out onto the porch, one hand resting on her swollen belly and the other hand leading a wobbly Trisha along. “I walk so slow right now!”
“I know,” Winry said, sympathetically. “It really sucks.”
“Idiot men,” Mei grumbled. “Getting us into this.”
Ed resolved to stay the hell away from that conversation.
The group of them trooped over the field. Al and Sara talked excitedly about what the new house would be like, pulling a burbling Trisha along between them. Mei and Winry discussed pregnancy and the havoc it could wreak on the sacroiliac joint. That last probably came of having two medically-minded women in the family, Ed reflected. Other families probably managed to have less technical discussions about the aches and pains of pregnancy.
Al was waiting for them on the hill. He stood tall and somber next to the charred old tree that had always been like a tombstone for the old Elric place. Al stepped over to them and took Mei in his arms, smiling and kissing her. Ed smiled too, watching them. He held Winry’s hand firmly in his.
“Alright, everybody,” Ed said. “Stand well back from the array. You ready, Al?”
Al smiled, and stepped away from Mei. “Come on, Brother,” he said, holding out a hand.
Ed laughed. “I’m probably the one person in the world who can’t help you with this, Al. What gives?”
Al flushed a little, and Ed wasn’t sure why. “I just- I want you with me, Brother,” he said, and Ed knew that Al, too, was remembering the last array that he and Ed had drawn here, so many years ago. “I want it to be different this time,” Al said, too soft for anyone but Ed to hear.
Ed paused, stock still, and then nodded. “Okay, Al,” he said. “If you want.”
Al positioned himself just outside the north end of the array, and Ed took up a position ninety degrees apart from him. He knelt down, touching his fingers to the array.
He would have felt something once, he thought. Power thrumming, waiting to be released. Now, there was nothing except the rough feel of dirt and grass under his fingertips. Ed watched as Al reached down and touched the array. Blue lightning crackled along the array, tearing the materials inside apart and reforming them. In front of him, a house grew up, the parts and pieces of it whipping around and remolding themselves, and Ed felt... nothing. The blue lightning passed over and through his hands as though they weren’t even there. Finally, the blue light died away. Ed looked up, and smiled. There, in front of them, was a two-story house with an attic. The sun shone on the new glass.
“Brother?” Al asked, breaking Ed’s reverie, “Did you put the dragons into the design?”
There, twisting under the eaves were two twined Xingese-style dragons picked out in wood.
Ed grinned. “I wondered if you’d notice that little tweak to the plans,” he said.
“Ed!” Winry said, smacking him on the arm.
“What, woman?” Ed protested. “I thought Mei would like them. They can be like a reminder of home for her.” He grinned again. “Besides, they’re badass.”
“They are cool-looking,” little Al piped up.
Mei shrugged. “And it is true that members of the Xingese Imperial family will be living here,” she said, smiling. “And dragons have long been the symbol of the Imperial House.”
“I don’t know about the Imperial House,” Winry said, “But I think this house is beautiful.”
There was Mei, Alphonse thought, closing his eyes. She was brilliant with life, and looking at her made him want to laugh and cry at the same time. There was Winry, and the tiny knot of qi that was Maes. There were Al, and Sara, and Trisha, who seemed always to be in orbit around each other.
And there was Ed, who always burned brighter than anyone else. Al opened his eyes to see Ed next to him.
“You okay, Al?” Ed asked.
Al smiled. “I love you, Brother,” he said.
Ed laughed, and reached up to rub the top of Al’s head with his right fist; the one that was beautifully, gloriously flesh. “You are such a sap,” Ed said, grinning. “We better go check the house out, to make sure that it’s not going to fall down on us.”
“Sure,” Al said, and stepped into the house.
Well, thanks for going on that magic carpet ride with me. It was fun hanging out ten years in Ed and Al's future. Thanks for all the lovely reads and comments that y'all have sent my way over the course of the 63k words that makes up this sprawling piece of fluff-with-worldbuilding.
I have a few more things kicking around in my head for this universe (a little more Ed-the-politician is one) and I'm sure they'll appear at some point, so see you then.