“All right,” Edward says, eyeing Van Hohenheim with approximately twenty percent less mistrust than usual as they approach the bar. “You behave yourself.”
“You don’t have to, Dad,” Alphonse says idly. If Edward is holding his arm tighter than is strictly necessary to support Alphonse’s atrophied muscles, Hohenheim’s younger child doesn’t seem to mind. “We missed out on a whole childhood of parental embarrassment; I think it might be nice to catch up.”
“You fall and hit your head again, punk?”
“No, Brother, I did n—get your hands out of my hair!”
“I’m looking for the bump!”
“There is no bump, because I didn’t hit my head!”
“Then why are you bein’ all crazy?”
Hohenheim holds the door to the bar open for them and gestures. “Go ahead, boys.”
It’s hard to tell if they actually hear him, or if the physical course of the bickering just happens to lead them through regardless.
“This place doesn’t look too crap,” Edward says. “And it’s got people who don’t look like hobos in it—that’s always a good sign.”
“We’ve been mistaken for hobos before,” Alphonse says, and Hohenheim’s heart squeezes a little; Trisha would never have let them range the country getting holes worn and burned and sliced through Edward’s bright red coat; if he’d been there—
“Shut up, Al.”
“And since when are you a pub connoisseur, Brother?”
“Since I said so—since when do you give your big brother so much sass?”
“It’s only because I love you so much,” Alphonse says, and Hohenheim can actually see Edward’s heart melting as his eyes soften and his scowl fades.
They sit down at the bar; Alphonse slides onto the stool between his father and his brother. Edward slings his right elbow onto the counter and seems surprised when the impact jolts up his arm. Hohenheim had thought that Alphonse had already begun watching the other patrons, soaking up the sounds and smells and currents of air, but before Edward’s face can resolve its tumult of emotion, Alphonse has reached out and very gently touched the back of his brother’s hand.
You never needed me, Hohenheim thinks. Things would have been different, yes; better, perhaps; but all you ever needed was each other. Edward nudges his shoulder against Alphonse’s, and Alphonse nudges back. Trisha, you taught them how to love without reservation—how to love fearlessly and entirely, hearts and souls. I wish I’d let you teach me that. I know you tried.
He hasn’t told his sons that he’s dying. Edward would rage, and Alphonse would go quiet, and, for once, now that all the important things are said and done with, they’ve settled into such a happy medium volume that he doesn’t want to disturb it. For once, they are actually acting like a family, however odd and disjointed a family it may be. He has been a weight on their minds for years, almost for the length of their lives, and he doesn’t want his death to be a burden.
It’s strange, though—being the only soul left. It’s strange being the only voice in his own head. After the first century or so, he’d sorted himself out of the maelstrom again—he identified himself and solidified his sense of being; he gained some measure of, if not control, at least organization… but now he’s alone. Now he is truly alone for the first time in hundreds of years.
It’s very quiet inside of him. His thoughts seem to echo; he imagines shadows in the eaves and cobwebs in the corners. His ruminations are extraordinarily clear and just a little bit too loud.
I would have died for you, he thinks, and it’s remarkable that the boys can’t hear him. If I’d been there, I would have given everything; I would have exchanged it all to keep you safe. Do you know that? Would you believe me if I told you? The world could fend for itself, whether or not the Homunculus was my mistake to rectify—you are my sons, and for you I would have torn down the sky and smothered the stars.
“You get one drink,” Edward is saying. “For fuck’s sake, Al, you think I trust that bastard at the Gate to have kept your liver in working order? You get one drink, and then we see how it goes.”
“See if I hold your hair back tonight,” Alphonse says.
No, they never needed him. And they don’t need him now. And he’s glad of that, because he doesn’t know if his solitary soul could bear to hurt them any more.
A shadow falls; Hohenheim turns.
“Good evening,” Roy Mustang is saying, mostly to his sons—mostly to Edward, although he shifts his gaze between the two of them. “I should have anticipated that you would somehow know to pick this bar.”
“What the hell’s wrong with me picking this bar?” Edward asks, bristling instantly. “It’s new. Figured it’s less likely to give Al a staph infection. Fuck off anyway—I finally get my life away from you, and now you’re stalking me?”
“I most certainly am not,” Mustang says.
Standing so straight-backed that he bears the mark of the military even in a gray waistcoat and a tie, Mustang towers over Edward and Alphonse where they sit, but the sheer ferocity of Edward’s glare balances the power. Hohenheim was never very good at following others’ instructions after he earned his freedom and discovered his own imperative; sometimes he wishes he hadn’t quite so distinctly bequeathed that to his offspring. In Alphonse, it developed into thoughtful independence, but in Edward it became a pillar of absolute defiance.
Colonel Mustang is silent and blank-faced for a moment, and then he says, “It would really be terribly kind of you to select another bar.”
“I don’t have to be nice to you anymore,” Edward says, hackles rising.
“‘Anymore’, Brother?” Alphonse says. “You’ve never been—”
Mustang looks harried for half a moment before he clears his face of any expression—the lapse is so brief Hohenheim genuinely wonders if it was a trick of the light. “How about if I say ‘please’?”
Edward arches an eyebrow. “You can try it.”
Mustang clears his throat. “Please.”
Mustang fixes a pitiable look on Edward’s only weakness. “Alphonse?”
“I’m sorry, Colonel,” Alphonse says. “Now I’m curious why you’re so desperate to get us out of here.”
Mustang looks at him for a moment, eyes bright and unrevealing, before sighing and settling on the barstool next to Edward. “I’m glad to see your stint in the military has done nothing to assuage your authority issues.”
Edward scowls. “Yeah, well, maybe you didn’t earn my obedience.” He glances around and cranes his neck, trying to peer into the back room. “Jeez, what does the savior of the known world have to do to get service around here?”
The woman emerging from the back, who is wearing an evening dress, a mink stole, pearls, and a wicked smirk, says, “Bitch a little louder.”
“You’re looking staggeringly beautiful, as always, Madame,” Mustang says.
“You’re sounding pathetically unconvincing, as usual, Roy,” the woman says. “Did you make some friends?”
“No,” Edward says. “If I’d known he was gonna be in this joint, I would’ve picked a different one. It’s just that we’re socializing my dad.” Hohenheim’s old, old heart thrums with the syllable—dad-um, dad-um, dad-um. “Y’know, like a dog.” Surely these two young men are the most wonderful children in the vast reaches of the universe. Surely the universe would explode if it had to contain anything more miraculous than Alphonse’s sweetly sharp-boned face and Edward’s perilous grin. “I figure maybe if he meets some people, he won’t just mope around our place all the time.”
“It’s not moping,” Hohenheim says, not expecting that he’ll be heard.
“We really don’t mind,” Alphonse says, patting Hohenheim’s arm lightly. “I think you’re very helpful, Dad. Especially since Brother has such a housework vendetta.”
“Even though it’s unfair to resent many of the tasks just because he can’t reach them.”
“This is Edward Elric,” Mustang says, “his brother Alphonse, and his father, Van Hohenheim. The nation is deeply indebted to all of them.”
“Oh, really, it wasn’t any trouble,” Hohenheim says.
“Maybe a little bit of trouble,” Alphonse says.
“If you’re so fucking indebted, I should get more severance pay,” Edward says.
“This is Madame Christmas,” Mustang says.
The woman lays a hand on his head and musses his hair with sadistic thoroughness.
“His mother,” she says. “More or less. This ingrate tends to wish it was less.”
“That’s preposterous, Madame,” Mustang says, hopelessly fighting to flatten his hair. “I thank my lucky stars for your generosity every day of my life.”
“Don’t lie to your more-or-less mother, Roy.”
“Most days of my life when you’re not humiliating me in public.”
“Well,” Madame Christmas says, and—ah. This is where Colonel Mustang learned what Edward rather impolitely calls the smug-piece-of-shit smirk. “Why don’t I get you gentlemen a drink?”
It’s difficult to say what counts as a ‘long time’ in the winding course of Hohenheim’s unnatural life, but it has been several years since he sat and watched his children, and he… missed it. The regret hits him hard and coldly, like a stone fist to the center of the chest—he wants more time. He has had all of the time in the world, too much time, more time than any man should ever be granted, and now, at the end, it is simply not enough.
They grew up while his back was turned. He doesn’t want to lose any of the rest of it; he wants to see it all. He wants to watch Alphonse’s face fill out to its proper dimensions; he wants to watch Edward struggle and scramble and find a purpose other than alchemy—which he will, because he has his father’s resilience and his mother’s hope. Hohenheim wants to bear witness as they find their feet, find themselves, build new lives, become the wondrous men that they were born to be.
But he won’t, now. He can’t even give them that.
It’s funny, or something like amusing, or something like a flicker of laughter in his lungs, that Trisha was the only one who gave him her heart instead of her soul, but she is the voice he hears most clearly.
You loved them, she says. You always have; you always will; and deep down, they know it. Let that be enough.
He will appreciate this. He will savor the little moments, the tiny things, the smiles and gestures and conversations that he gets. He will be here while he can.
Halfway into the second beer, Edward has pushed the glass aside to make more room for drawing transmutation circles on the bar. He’s talking a bit too loudly, and his waving hands are slightly imprecise, but his eyes are sharp, his arrays are flawless, and his words have Roy Mustang utterly enthralled.
Well, something like enthralled.
“No,” Mustang says. “That’s not—it’ll fall apart; the crossbar—”
“It won’t,” Edward says. “You’re probably not even using that stupid line in your head when you clap your hands. Get rid of it. Simplify.”
“It is simplified. Berthold Hawkeye’s original array took up a… lot of space. It was a thing of beauty, of course, but—”
“Beauty’s not the point,” Edward says.
“You have the aesthetic sensibility of a gnat, Ed.”
“Yeah, fuck you and your aesthetic sensibility. Look, you’re wasting a lot of the potential of the hydrogen—”
Alphonse raises his thin hand to cover a yawn, and Edward’s attention is fixed on him immediately. “You okay, Al?”
“I’m fine, Brother,” Alphonse says. “Just a little tired.”
Edward’s whole face crumples. “Let’s go home.”
Alphonse laughs dryly. “It’s really—”
Mustang swivels on his barstool and raises a hand. In second a young man with dark hair and spectacles stands before him, saluting crisply.
“Sergeant,” Mustang says, “would you mind driving Alphonse home?”
“Hello, Sergeant,” Alphonse says.
“S’up,” Edward says.
The young man’s heels meet. “Sir.” He lowers his arm and smiles. “Hi, Al; hi, Ed. Hi, Mister Hohenheim.”
“We don’t need a ride,” Edward says. “We can just walk.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Mustang says, “until you’ve finished destroying my life’s work.”
Alphonse catches Edward’s right shoulder before he can attack anyone. “It’s really all right, Brother. I’d like to catch up with the sergeant. I’ve been meaning to ask him about Aerugo.”
Edward frowns, Alphonse blinks, and gradually Edward’s grip on the edge of the bar relaxes.
“Well,” he says. “Well—fine. I’ll just… have another drink and make Colonel Dumbass here wish he’d never been born, and then I’ll be home, okay?”
“Of course, Brother,” Alphonse says warmly. He slides down off of the stool carefully, gingerly putting his weight on the brace that circles his arm like a manacle. The sergeant steps forward and reaches out to steady him, then withdraws his hands and goes pink as Alphonse waves him off with a smile. “See you later, Brother. See you later, Dad.”
Edward watches until the sergeant has escorted Alphonse all the way out the door.
“I fuckin’ worry about that kid,” he mutters.
“Sergeant Fuery is an agonizingly safe driver,” Mustang says.
“I guess that’s something,” Edward says. He chews on his lip and glances over the arrays again. “Right, back to how much you suck.”
Hohenheim is still marveling two hours later. All he did was offer a bit of input on the debate about the array—hesitantly, of course; to say that Edward does not take criticism well, especially from him, would be understating matters a bit—and… Edward looked at him differently. His son looked at him differently, pensively, considering what Hohenheim had said, and… then Edward conceded the point. Edward agreed with him. Hohenheim can’t remember the last time that happened but for their tacit shared beliefs that Alphonse is a miracle and Trisha was a saint.
For a moment, the light in Edward’s eyes was something like respect—something almost like admiration.
“Children,” Madame Christmas says to Hohenheim in her raspy cabaret singer’s voice, grinning at him as she tops off his glass. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, eventually just have to pick your battles and pray.”
“I think I picked all the wrong ones,” Hohenheim says.
“I bet you did all right,” Madame Christmas says.
The beer tastes quite nice, but it feels a bit stale in his stomach. “I’m afraid I really didn’t.”
“If your boy’s anything like mine,” she says, “if he hated you, he’d cut you out, and that would be the end of it. If he’s angry, it’s because he wants to hate you, but he can’t.”
“He’ll never forgive me,” Hohenheim says, watching Edward swipe his hair back and hunch lower over the quick-slashing lines of his array.
“He doesn’t have to forgive you in order to love you,” Madame Christmas says. “Hey, chin up. You look like a guy who’s got a hell of a lot of stories to tell.”
Hohenheim wonders if he should lend her his bifocals. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly bore you after you’ve been so kind.”
“Kind?” Madame Christmas says. “I liquored up your underaged boys because I know Roy’ll get me out of trouble again if anybody reports it. He’d better; he’s the one who won’t let your kid leave.” She lights a cigarette, folds her arms on the counter, and grins. “How ’bout a story while we wait for them to get bored?”
Waiting for Edward to get bored could take years. Hohenheim mulls it over.
“I don’t know that any of mine are entertaining,” he says. “Even in Ankaia, I didn’t realize the lighthouse was collapsing until after I was out of it, and it was the reassembly process afterwards that was difficult…”
It has been a very, very long time since Van Hohenheim was capable of getting a hangover. He tries to savor this feeling, too.
He does not succeed.
“Social time,” Edward says that night. “C’mon, old man; it’s for your own good.”
Hohenheim turns a mournful gaze on him. “Can’t it wait five more minutes?”
“Oh, God,” Alphonse says, levering himself up onto the brace, and his arm quavers. “You two are related.”
“No damn way,” Edward says. “It’s all just freak genetic coincidence. I was immaculately conceived. I—”
“You were not,” Hohenheim says. “I remember the night your mother and I—”
“Social time!” Edward screams so loudly that the neighbors bang on the wall.
“Well,” Roy Mustang says, sliding into the seat next to Edward. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“You’ve got two choices,” Edward says. “One, you shut up and buy me a drink. Two, I publish an instructional guide teaching people how to do Flame Alchemy better than you.”
“Blackmailing an officer of the Amestrian military,” Mustang says, clicking his tongue. “That’s a felony, you know. What would you like to drink?”
“Don’t care,” Edward says.
Mustang stands to look into the back room and then sidles around behind the counter. “That sounds like a challenge, you know.”
Alphonse’s smile is… mischievous. “Please do try to concoct something Brother won’t drink. I think it would be very educational.”
Mustang—winks. Mustang winks at Hohenheim’s younger child, and then Mustang smirks at the glorious creature that was a wide-eyed, gum-mouthed new life first.
And then Mustang starts up something that looks almost like one of those silly prestidigitation ‘magic’ shows, twirling bottles and splashing liquor so that it arcs and twinkles in the light. The ambient noise of the bar quiets somewhat as people start to notice the display, start to murmur; Edward has eyes only for Mustang’s deftly whirling hands, and his head jerks back and forth to follow their progress.
Scattered applause greets the moment Mustang sets down the last of the liquor bottles and pushes a colorfully completed glass to Edward.
“What’s in it?” Edward asks slowly.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Mustang says. “But I can promise you that there isn’t any milk.”
Edward flashes a sharp-toothed grin and lifts the glass. “In that case, bottoms up.”
“Hello, Sergeant,” Alphonse says.
“Hi, Al,” the sergeant says.
“I really do appreciate you going out of your way like this,” Alphonse says.
“It’s nothing, really,” the sergeant says. “If I wasn’t doing this, I’d just be twiddling my thumbs—” He lowers his voice; Mustang has just drawn Edward into another argument about some ‘unscheduled demolition budget’ from many years ago. “—watching the colonel flirt with your brother.”
Hohenheim attempts to be surreptitious about staring at Mustang and his son now. Is this what qualifies as flirting these days? Good heavens. The world is well and truly doomed, and this time there’s nothing he can do about it.
Alphonse smiles at Sergeant Fuery, and Sergeant Fuery smiles at Alphonse.
“Can I give you a hand?” the sergeant asks.
“Oh,” Alphonse says. “If it isn’t any trouble, I… could I lean on your arm? Just a little bit, or Brother will panic, but it is a bit tricky getting around the tables…”
“Goodnight, Sergeant,” Hohenheim says. “I’ll see you soon, Alphonse.”
“’Bye, Dad,” Alphonse says brightly.
They hobble off together, with the sergeant’s arm looped through Alphonse’s, supporting his elbow; with the sergeant’s other hand hovering like a shy white moth over Alphonse’s back.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Edward is saying.
“I should be so lucky,” Mustang says. The only way to describe his position on that barstool is as an artful sprawl—he has an elbow on the bar and his jaw resting on his hand, one leg drawn up to hook his heel in the rung of the stool, the other stretched out before him. Hohenheim has spent enough time observing human beings to know that calculation and practice are what have made Mustang’s position look elegant instead of sloppy. “Guess what I said.”
“You said ‘Yes, sir, thank you, sir, let me lick your boots, sir, ooh, is that a promotion in your pocket or are you just happy to see me, si—’”
“You wretch. No. I said—” Mustang runs a hand over his face and laughs weakly. “I said, ‘If the only part of government you’re interested in is fussing about curtains while repatriation applications pile up, I hear the emperor of Xing is looking for a new concubine.’”
Edward’s mouth drops open. The silence—well, Edward’s silence, which is an isolated bubble in the bar but so rare that it’s startling—stretches on for a long moment. Mustang glances at his drink, then back at Edward, and clears his throat.
“You did not,” Edward says, faintly at first but gathering strength. “You did not.”
Mustang smiles ruefully. “I did. I swear I used to have a higher tolerance for the side-effects of bureaucracy, but these days… I think I picked it up from you.”
It is then that Edward’s whole body combusts with laughter. It takes him almost two minutes to rein himself back in, by which time there are tears in his eyes.
“You,” Edward says to Mustang, “are batshit crazy.”
“I think I learned that from you as well.”
“Fuck off. You’re having me on anyway; you didn’t really say that to a Lieutenant-fucking-General.”
“I did. Lieutenant Hawkeye kicked me so hard under the table that I thought for a moment that she’d actually broken my shin.”
Edward seems to be frighteningly pleased about the idea of Colonel Mustang being in physical pain. “I still don’t believe it. What’d the bastard do?”
“He stared at me,” Mustang says. “I don’t think he believed it either. I’m not sure I believe it yet; I’m still waiting to be summarily demoted. That was awful of me, wasn’t it? Not just awful—stupid. That was stupid of me. Jeopardizing everything for the sake of a rejoinder is… well, Riza’s going to have my head once she’s found a suitable pike to mount it on.”
Edward becomes fascinated with the condensation on his glass. “About—the lieutenant. Are you and she…?”
“What?” Mustang asks. “Attached? Only at the hip. She is my best and oldest friend, and even if I was in love with her, I’m not a quarter of the man she deserves.”
It quite suddenly feels like there is a large shard of glass lodged in Hohenheim’s lungs.
“Huh,” Edward says, doodling in the condensation with a fingertip. “Always just kind of… figured… you’d… get married and have stupid smug kids and get a herd of dogs.”
“A pack of dogs.”
“A what-the-fuck-ever of dogs.”
“That would be like marrying my own right hand,” Mustang says. “Which would make the sex essentially just masturbat—”
“Stop right there,” Edward says, “or you’re getting this drink in your face, you sick fuck.”
Mustang bursts into laughter so bright that he looks startlingly young.
“Go home, Ed,” Mustang says.
“You go home!”
“I have some business matters to discuss with Madame Christmas. You’re drunk, Ed.”
“You’d know if I was. Well, your father would; he’d be prying my hands off of your ass.”
There is a pause. Hohenheim looks at Colonel Mustang, who darts a concerned glance at him.
“Ah,” Mustang says, “I may be slightly tipsy. Social drinking, you know. Sneaks up on you.”
Edward’s eyelids are sinking. “You’re… a bastard.”
“That I will not even begin to deny,” Mustang says. He slides an arm under Edward’s shoulders, and Hohenheim stands off to the side, trying to determine whether he’s needed to help.
Mustang jostles Edward gently, balancing his weight, and half-carries him out to the car at the curb.
You’ve never needed me, Hohenheim thinks as he trails them. You’ve always found people—the Curtises, the Hughes family, this bewildering colonel of yours, so many other friends… You’ve always found people to provide the things I was not here to give you. Should I resent them for filling in the spaces that I left? I find only that I’m relieved. All I ever wanted was for you to be happy, for both of you to be happy—did you know that?
Mustang helps a groaning Ed into the backseat of the car and holds the door open for Hohenheim, smiling thinly.
“I’ll cover your tab,” he says. “Sergeant Fuery will see you home.”
Edward’s mumbling voice emerges from the darkness. “Guess you’re not too much of a bastard sometimes.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” Hohenheim says. “Goodnight.”
When he glances out the back windshield, Mustang is standing on the curb with his hands in his pockets, watching them go.
“You’re crazier than your kid,” Madame Christmas says the next night, and they both know which child she means. “You’re crazier than my kid. What the hell did you mean, your stories aren’t entertaining?”
“I suppose they’re not really stories to me,” Hohenheim says, adjusting the coaster underneath his glass. “They’re just… things that had to be done.”
Madame Christmas crosses over to Colonel Mustang, holds out her cigarette, glares him down, and returns once he’s sighed and lit it with a snap of his fingers.
“Mama’s boy,” Edward says gleefully.
“And he’d better not forget it,” Madame Christmas says.
“We were both mama’s boys, Brother,” Alphonse says. “And we’re still her boys, really—everything we’ve done, we did thinking of what she would want for us.”
Hohenheim has never been a particularly physically affectionate man, especially with the children. Perhaps he might have learned, if he’d only had the time—if only the time had been his to have.
In any case, this powerful urge to wrap Alphonse tightly into his arms feels strange—like a warm, soft coat that doesn’t quite fit the breadth of his shoulders.
He’s also rather concerned that a hug might actually break the boy in two. As a child, Alphonse looked sturdier than he does now; Hohenheim doesn’t voice his unsolicited opinion, but he understands the way Edward watches Alphonse like a hawk during meals. He’s a beautiful boy, beautiful like his mother, with her compassionate tapered eyes and her easy smile and her open heart, but he’s still so terribly thin. It’s difficult for Hohenheim to sleep most nights now that he knows his hours are finally numbered—hasn’t he slept enough?—and he often hears Edward scuffling around the apartment, hard-step, soft-step, well past midnight. Alphonse is right: Hohenheim and Edward very alike in some ways, whether or not his son will ever acknowledge it, and that’s how Hohenheim knows that Edward is up fretting about Alphonse’s fragility. He knows, too, that Edward would pour his own blood into Alphonse’s veins if he thought it would help.
Alphonse, on the other hand, sleeps like a cat—constantly, blissfully, in a patch of sunlight whenever possible. He says he doesn’t think he’ll ever get bored of waking up.
“Yeah, well,” Edward says. “I guess we did okay.”
“I’d say you did more than that,” Mustang says.
Edward scowls at him. “People who can’t tell the difference between the newt and the chameleon don’t get opinions.”
“It’s not my opinion,” Mustang says. “It’s a fact.”
As Edward predictably begins to argue, Madame Christmas turns to Hohenheim again.
“They’re stories to me,” she says. “Damn good ones. You ever thought about writing them down?”
Hohenheim thinks about it now.
“I’m significantly older than I look,” he says, adjusting his spectacles, “and—do you know—I don’t believe I’ve ever transcribed anything that wasn’t primarily alchemical.”
He thinks about it a little more. It’s gotten a bit dull in the boys’ apartment lately, now that Alphonse is filling out university applications, and Edward is filling out applications for professorships, on the grounds that he is “fucked if he’ll pay some two-bit lab rat with some overpriced equipment to try to teach him all that shit”. And Hohenheim had thought, before Trisha, that he’d tried almost everything there was to do in the world, but once again he has found something entirely new.
“It can’t hurt to make an attempt,” he says.
Madame Christmas blows out a curl of smoke and grins.
Writing turns out to be… difficult. Hohenheim isn’t sure whether he knows too many words, and angling among them for the right ones is what gives him pause; or whether the vocabularies of a half-dozen languages simply aren’t enough to encapsulate a life. When they head out for ‘social time’, he brings his notebooks and lays them all out carefully on the bar.
“I’m going to go sit with Sergeant Fuery,” Alphonse says when two dark-haired, straight-backed men step through the door.
“What?” Edward says. “Why? Don’t you love me anymore?”
“Yes,” Alphonse says, carefully getting to his feet, “which is why I’m going to get out of the way of you swooning over Colonel Mustang.”
Edward’s face goes violently red. “‘Swoon’—?”
“I think he’s good for you,” Alphonse says. “And I think you’re good for him. And the sergeant had a doctor’s appointment yesterday, and I want to ask him how it went. I’ll just be across the room, Brother.”
“It’s a big room,” Edward says.
“And you’re a big idiot,” Alphonse says warmly. He reaches out, slender little hand trembling slightly, and knocks his knuckles against Edward’s chest.
Edward seizes his brother’s hand like a striking snake, clutches it, and then slowly half-smiles and lets it go.
“Just across the room, Brother,” Alphonse says softly, and he hobbles over to the table by the door where Sergeant Fuery has started fiddling with a small radio.
“There’s gonna be a draft,” Edward mutters. “If he catches cold because of this, I’ll kill him.”
“That seems a bit counterproductive,” Hohenheim says.
Edward stares for a moment like he’s forgotten who Hohenheim is. Then he tilts his mouth into a smile.
“I kinda think most of life is,” he says. “It’s hard to figure out which exchanges are gonna be worth it in the long run.”
“We can only do our best,” Hohenheim says.
Edward’s smile twists. “Guess so.”
Roy Mustang swaggers over, drops onto his usual stool next to Edward, and slaps a newspaper down on the bar. “Tonight,” he says, “I am getting very drunk.”
Edward scowls at the colonel’s carefully neutral expression. “I hate that I can’t even tell whether you mean that in a good way or a bad way.” He snatches up the newspaper and snaps it open. “Wh… oh, you did not.”
“I did,” Mustang says, and the grin cracks through the mask. “It doesn’t fix anything, but it—helps. It helps. I need a drink; I’ve earned a drink—”
Edward hands the newspaper off to Hohenheim. The front-page article is headlined ISHVALAN CITIZENSHIP BILL PASSES PARLIAMENT, and it’s subtitled Bill’s champion Col. Mustang declares “It’s curtains for the old regime”.
“You are a bastard,” Edward says, laughing giddily now. “You’re the craftiest, craziest, ballsiest bastard I have ever met in my life.”
“I didn’t have anything to lose,” Mustang says, moving around behind the bar and sorting through the whiskeys.
“Bullshit,” Edward says.
“Touché,” Mustang says. “I had everything to lose.” He pours himself a shot with unsteady hands; amber sloshes onto the bar. “But I kept thinking that nothing worth doing is easy. And that if they discharged me on the spot, I’d just—get a place on the Cretan coast and write my tell-all memoir, and recommend in so many words that they go fuck themselves.” He slugs the shot, shakes his head, clears his throat, and picks a brandy bottle from the row of them on the shelf. “Ridiculous. I thought I was going to go into cardiac arrest at the podium and drop dead; it was—fucking glorious, is what it was.” He knocks back the brandy, sets down the glass, and stutters out a laugh. “God, if every day could be this good—”
“You’d be an alcoholic,” Madame Christmas says, coming up behind him and laying an arm around his shoulders. “You did a good thing, kiddo. And damn, was it gutsy this early in the game.”
Mustang looks Edward in the eyes as he says, “It was inspired.”
Hohenheim hopes he has enough time to write down the story still unfolding.
Mustang has clenched his fist in Edward’s sleeve and is beaming at him like there’s no one else in the room and nothing else in the universe. “You know the best thing about being drunk?” he asks.
“What?” Edward says.
“Everything,” Mustang says.
“Like hell,” Edward says. “You’re gonna fall on your face if you try to stand up, and your vocabulary’s at, like, twenty-five percent right now.”
“And I’m already nauseous,” Mustang says placidly, “which means I’ll be vomiting at least twice before I can get some very broken sleep. But I don’t care. Tonight is perfect. This bar is perfect. This drink is perfect.”
Hohenheim would have something to say about that if he wasn’t pretending to pen his magnum opus; Colonel Mustang is currently nursing some mediocre scotch.
“You’re perfect,” Mustang says, and Edward’s breath catches and doesn’t come loose.
Hohenheim looks intently down at the page as his son fists both hands in Colonel Mustang’s collar and makes a soft noise of surrender into a clumsy kiss.
When he thinks it might be over, he glances up. It’s not over yet, although Edward’s hair is going to be a rat’s nest by the time the night is out, and Colonel Mustang’s shirt will need ironing.
Hohenheim gazes out over the rest of the bar instead, and at the little table by the door, Alphonse is resting his head on Sergeant Fuery’s shoulder. They look like they’re talking softly, and the sergeant is running his fingers over and over through Alphonse’s hair.
Hohenheim thinks that maybe this is a story they will have to write themselves.
Perhaps they know. Perhaps they’ve guessed. They certainly look like they’re standing at a funeral as Hohenheim hefts his suitcase and smiles at his sons.
“You don’t have to go, Dad,” Alphonse says. “We like having you around.”
“You don’t need me here,” Hohenheim says.
“So what if we don’t need you?” Edward asks sharply. “You ever think maybe it’s what we want?”
Hohenheim sets down his suitcase and shoulders on his coat. He straightens the collar; it always gets flipped. “You’re busy,” he says. “I just get in the way of your lives now. And that’s all right, Edward; that’s how it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to let go of you when the time comes. Truthfully, I think this is the one part of parenthood I’ve gotten right.”
Alphonse smiles sadly, and Edward scowls.
Hohenheim opens the door, and—and they’re standing side-by-side as its shadow falls across them, and—
And he will not make the same mistake twice, even if it’s easier that way.
“The two of you,” he says, “are the most important thing I have ever done. I wish I’d realized that a long time ago. If you believe nothing else of me, believe that I have always loved you, and that I am the proudest father in the whole of the world.”
He can say that with some authority given how much of it he’s seen.
Edward’s eyes spark, and Alphonse folds himself into Hohenheim’s arms before there’s time to pick up the suitcase.
“I love you, Dad,” he whispers. “And I know that Mom does, too.”
Edward’s hug is more of a grip. Hohenheim thinks, though, that he will be able to savor having bruises on his ribs.
“I still hate you,” Edward hisses. “I still fucking hate you, Dad.”
Hohenheim kisses their foreheads, and he shuts the door behind him.
Beneath the bed they transmuted for him, they will find a manuscript. He doesn’t much mind what they do with it; the story is theirs now.
It’s funny, or something like amusing, or something like a flicker of laughter in his lungs, that he barely even realized he was watching his children fall in love.
But he was there. And this time, he thinks that might just be enough.