The blond flew past Hawkeye’s desk without a glance for her, entering the General’s office without permission. Roy didn’t look up from his papers, far too used to these intrusions. Aside from Hawkeye no one seemed to think that knocking was the proper behavior to have when they wanted a word with the General.
“Roy?” questioned a timid voice. “Are you busy?”
Work was set aside and Roy smiled smoothly up at the boy. “That depends on who’s asking. Right now, I’d say no.”
A few seconds later, Roy received an armful of clingy blond. It might have been a little strange that he wasn’t surprised by this behavior that would have appeared unusual to others. “What’s wrong, Alphonse?”
The words were mumbled into the fabric of his uniform but they were still clear enough, “I’m real, right?”
“Of course,” cautiously replied Roy.
Al wouldn’t move for the next five minutes, hands clenched into Roy’s uniform and head against his chest to breathe his scent. The man was patient, settling back in his chair and ruffling Alphonse’s hair until the boy left his lap on his own, looking guilty but calmer.
“I’m sorry for barging in on your work. I’ll…I’ll go now.”
“What happened? Another blackout?”
Al looked at the ground and nodded. “I hate that. It feels like I’m leaving…dying. I was just trying to mow the lawn and I just…left. I missed out an entire hour. I have no idea what happened but I was inside the house when I came back to myself. I never know what I do when I blackout like that.”
“I told you before it’s nothing to worry about,” replied Roy, resting his elbows on his desk. “There seems to have been some slight damage done, but it doesn’t affect you in any other way, does it? It’s fine. You don’t do anything bad, you just forget about it.”
“I know. I just don’t like it. It’s scary.”
“Scarier than being a soul bound to an armor?”
It had meant to lift Al’s spirits a little, but the boy actually nodded. “The armor never tried to get rid of me the way this body seems to be trying to do.”
“That’s ridiculous,” snapped Roy. “ It’s yours, it can’t be trying to get rid of you. Stop worrying yourself over so little.”
Hawkeye knocked at the door at that moment. “Sir, you have a meeting in five minutes.”
Roy stood and gathered his papers, mentally going over a list of topics to address at the reunion. “I’m sorry, I have to go. We’ll talk tonight if you want. Go home and have some ice cream.” He had an after thought and added a warning, “Don’t empty the whole container this time.”
“Okay.” Al stood aside to let the man pass. The latter paused long enough to ruffle the blond hair before going on his way. Alphonse watched the military man retreat and sighed, cuddling in his coat. Yeah, he’d go home and pretend everything was fine when nothing was.
Al was already asleep when Roy finally escaped the meeting to return home. After a light meal, he washed the dishes – there was a bowl stained with traces of chocolate left by the sink indicating Al had followed his suggestion – and headed upstairs. The General left his uniform and joined Alphonse in the large bed, loosely throwing an arm over the boy’s chest. It was a way for him to eventually be aware of it when Al got up at night to go brood by himself. The boy’s obsession about not bothering anybody with his problems was irrational. There was a reason Roy allowed Al in his bed every night, and it was mostly to watch over him and make sure he had his rest.
Roy slept a few quiet hours before he was disturbed by the growing cold in his arm. It brought him back to consciousness, very slowly. The arm that had previously been resting over a warm body had been moved, now lying perpendicularly to his body.
Roy yawned and squinted, noticing the reading lamp had been turned on. So Al hadn’t left the room then. “What are you doing, Alphonse?” As his eyes became used to the light, the man realized that the boy looking at him didn’t have grey eyes, but gold. “Oh, Edward. What are you doing here?”
“Working, duh,” grumbled Ed, pointing at the books he had installed on his pillow.
“And you thought my bed was the best place for this?”
“It’s warm here. I like that.”
“Sleeping else where. He doesn’t know I’m here,” explained the boy. “You want me to leave or something?”
“Just wondering. You can stay until he comes back then.”
“He’s fine, don’t worry,” said Edward absently.
“I was afraid he was gone to brood. Sleepless nights aren’t good for him.” Roy propped himself up on an elbow. “It’s hard not to worry about the two of you to begin with. You have a knack to get into weird situations.”
“Suppose we do,” grumbled the blond, more interested in his books than anything else. Roy didn’t bother him further for the time being, dozing a little as he idly watched Edward work with concentration. “He was scared again by a blackout today,” finally admitted the man. “He says it feels like dying.”
Edward sighed. “Yeah, I know. I’m trying to figure it out. I want to make it perfect. It isn’t good if he’s always afraid he’ll drop dead one day. You told me he’s confused afterward too.”
“That’ s right. He’ll stare into mid air for a while like he doesn’t have a clue where he is.” Roy trailed his hand over Ed’s shirt, reaching the long free hair and playing with it. “What are the chances I’ll never see you again after that one?”
“Fairly high I suppose. But I have to do it. It’s fine. I messed up, I’ll pay whatever the price is to give him a second chance at a real life.”
“You should let him know the truth about what happened and what you’re doing.”
“No!” Only then did Edward look at Roy, furious. He always grew angry when the man dared to suggest this. “You breathe a word of it to him and I’ll kill you! Let him believe what he believes now. It’s good enough. He doesn’t need to worry any more. I’ll fix it…then maybe I’ll leave…it doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me.”
“Don’t be a prick.” Ed shrugged. “We went over this before. He comes first. Always.”
“As you wish.” Ed’s frown didn’t go away until Roy promised, “ I won’t tell him.”
Edward worked until the first hours of the morning, when the sunrays began to invade the room and chase the shadows. Then the books were safely pushed back under the bed, where Al wouldn’t think of looking. Alphonse couldn’t know. Edward wouldn’t allow it.
“I’ll have a quick shower and leave,” announced the blond, sitting on the edge of the bed and eying the cold floor disapprovingly.
Ed’s arm was caught in a firm grip. He looked down at the owner of the hand that restrained him. “Are you sure you don’t have a little time?”
“I have to go before Al comes back. It’s shower or sex, I don’t have time for both.”
The man let go and stretched in the bed, purposefully pushing the sheet off his nude upper body. “Do as you wish,” he drawled, very aware of the lingering gold gaze.
“I hate you, bastard.” Still, Ed gave up on the shower. “I’m having a shower next time though.”
“Alright.” Roy pulled Edward to him, already tugging on the black shirt. “Hurry out of those clothes then, if you don’t want your little brother to find out…”
When Roy came home from work, Alphonse was in the living room, looking at pictures. They were all from the time he had been an armor and almost all of them had been taken by Hughes. Of course, that meant Elicia was on practically every picture as well.
Roy fetched himself coffee and sat on the couch to drink it, looking down at the pictures covering the floor in a bright mosaic where red and grey were dominant.
“I’m glad Hughes liked pictures so much,” started Alphonse, speaking out his thoughts. It was a habit Roy encouraged. “ They’re the only proofs left of what happened. It’s a little hard to believe I’m in a real body now. Back then…I believed it would happen, because I trusted Niisan, but I thought I’d be happier about it. At least then…it’s true I forgot some things, but I never really felt like I was about to disappear. I knew I was there and real. Most of the time anyway.” He considered his hand, flexing his fingers simply to feel his muscles move underneath the skin. “This is what we wanted, but I didn’t want it like this. Not at that price.”
“Don’t beat yourself over it, Alphonse.” These conversations had been repeated quite often in the last few weeks. It was a good thing Mustang could be very patient.
“You keep saying that. Why do you think I shouldn’t? I don’t like how it all turned out. It’s just not fair. And even after all of Niisan’s hard work, there’s still something wrong with me.”
Roy sounded bored at this point. “I said there’s nothing wrong with you. Give it a little time and those blackouts will most likely fade.”
“I hope. I want Niisan’s alchemy to be perfect. He’s the best, right? He must have done it right. It’s just me.”
“Your brother would have a fit if he heard that,” smirked Roy.
“He would,” agreed Al, gazing at a particular picture featuring Edward is all his angry glory. Somebody had probably made the mistake of teasing him. “He always says everything is his fault. He never lets me have a role. It’s like I was his victim. He didn’t have to do all the things he did. I wish he hadn’t.”
“He did them for you.”
Al pushed the pictures aside. “But that’s what hurts the most.”
For once, it was Edward who surprised Roy, sneaking up on him while he was sitting on the couch, reading by candlelight. “So this is what you do when Al is asleep and I’m not around, huh? You snoop in my books?”
Roy managed not to display any surprise. Edward was more and more like a ghost every time, to the point he could go unnoticed like this. “I’m an alchemist as well. I have a certain interest in such things.”
“You’re a good liar. But yeah right.” Edward yanked the precious books away from Mustang. “ You’re trying to find the hole in my reasoning, the detail that’ll show I’m wrong. Well guess what, it doesn’t exist. My theory is perfect. I’m a better alchemist than you and you know it. You can’t help it, so cut it out. You’re only getting in the way. Grow up and admit it, shesh.” The boy looked like his old self right then, a fist planted on his hip and a contemptuous curl of his lips saying just how highly he thought of Roy’s alchemy skills. But his old self didn’t have such dull and tired eyes.
“Because you would let go of Al without fighting?”
Edward scowled and firmly refused to meet Roy’s eyes. “You can’t help,” he repeated, the cold of his eyes reaching the rest of his expression.
The worst was, it was entirely true. Roy had indeed been following Edward’s work all these months, without finding anything wrong. He wasn’t even sure he understood everything. It was complex, more complex than anything else he had ever studied in his life.
“For not being as smart as me? Heh, you’re forgiven.” Again, it was so much like Ed, and at the same time, it wasn’t. It felt as if he knew this is what he should say, yet couldn’t find the will to truly mean his own words. The blond stretched, pulling sharply at his automail. “I wish I could have gotten rid of this thing. It’s so annoying. I think it would need repairs soon, but I won’t have a chance to take care of that.” Edward dropped on the couch and flipped the pages of his book, changing the subject. “Go do something else. I’m in a tricky spot and I don’t want you to distract me.”
Roy stood. “I’ll be in the kitchen fixing something to eat. Call if you need anything.”
Edward didn’t answer. He wouldn’t call; he didn’t need Roy’s help.
The man silently stared at the boy a few painful moments, wishing an answer would be forthcoming. None came, so he turned and left the room. It didn’t even need to rain for him to be useless.
Alphonse disliked rainy days. Partly because Ed disliked them too, and partly because stray animals always had a hard time on such days. He couldn’t be there to pick up all of them. At least he could save this one. It was small and its fur was golden, or seemed to be. The mud made it hard to be sure what color the fur under it was. At any rate, it was lively, mewing and hissing while Al held it clearly under the rain until it was clean enough to be accepted under his coat. The kitten definitely liked his new location better.
Al tugged his coat’s hood lower and moved on. He still had a thing or two to buy before heading home it seemed. Cat food was the priority. He was just pushing the door to a grocery store when somebody called out.
When Al turned to look, it wasn’t because he had thought somebody had called him, but because hearing that name still made him search for his brother. However, it was indeed to him the shout had been addressed; two boys were hurrying in his direction. Alphonse did not recognize them until they threw their hoods back.
“I didn’t know you were still in Central.”
“I’m not Edward.” Al uncovered his face. “I’m Alphonse. Hi, Russell, Fletcher.”
“Alphonse-?” Russell quickly recovered from his initial surprise. “You look awfully like your brother.”
“Yeah well, I kind of stole his clothing style,” smiled Al. “Many people have trouble seeing a difference unless they look at my face. My eyes aren’t the same color at all for starters.”
“So you don’t wear the armor anymore?”
“Oh, I don’t need to anymore,” evaded Al.
“So then, how is Edward? I’d like to meet him if possible.”
The smile on Al’s lips wavered a little. “I’m sorry, Russell, that’s not possible. He’s not here anymore.”
That made the taller blond pause and hesitate. It wasn’t hard to see what Alphonse was implying, with his now shaky smile. “You mean…he’s dead?”
Alphonse didn’t like that word. But that was the truth, wasn’t it? So he just nodded. “Six months ago. You’re kind of late to talk to him.” He tried to strength his smile, but it remained weak. “What are you two here for?”
“Mostly looking for new books,” finally replied Russell. “ I wondered if there wasn’t anybody Edward could refer me to as teacher as well. Learning alchemy on your own isn’t the easiest thing.”
Alphonse knew that very well. “Sorry, I don’t think there’s anybody. Well, I’m sure Major Armstrong would be honored to teach you, but he’s very…scary. Not because he’s mean, not at all…but he’s kinda….special.” Al made a strange face. “I wouldn’t recommend him unless you’re immune to sparkles.”
“You don’t want to know.” Al managed to smile for real this time, picturing the major’s glee at accepting students. His smile suddenly twisted in a small grimace of pain. “Ow, stop biting!” The kitten mew and Al took it out of the protection of his clothes, trying to find a way to hold the animal without letting it bite him. “Well, I’m sorry, I have to go. I have a kitten to take care of.”
“Cute!” chirped in Fletcher. “Does it have a name? My brother won’t let me have any animal…”
“Maybe I’ll call him Edo. He keeps biting me and he won’t stay still.”
“He is fairly small too.”
Roy was going to have a hard time trying to convince Al to let this one go.
Once again, Edward had hitched the kitchen, books and notes covering the dinning table while snacks rested on a nearby plate, in case Edward got hungry. It made Roy’s heart sink to notice Ed had less and less interest in food, or anything else. He didn’t even speak of showers anymore. All he cared about were his books and his research. Everything else - including Roy – were merely distractions he irritably chased away. Today at least Edward had been talkative and relatively friendly, offering Roy several grins in the last two hours.
“You never told me exactly what happened.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“All I know is what Alphonse told me and he didn’t seem very sure of it himself.” Edward ignored him, inciting the man to launch in a complete explanation “ The plan was to send back Sloth and recover his body, correct? Somehow, something went wrong and she died, or the gate refused her. You hid the problem from us and decided to use yourself as sacrifice. Alphonse doesn’t know that you had difficulties at the end and didn’t complete the process. None of us knew.” The man’s dark eyes unfocused as he summoned memories. “We buried your broken automail, since it was the only thing left from you. Alphonse was freaking out and I took him in since I seemed to be the only one able to speak some sense into him. I’m not sure why he trusts me.”
“Because he thinks I used to trust you,” grumbled Edward. “That’s enough of a reason for him.”
“Did I what?”
Edward shrugged, but five minutes later he offered a half answer, “I trust you now.” Reflecting on his own words, he sighed and spoke lowly. “I was going to send her back and get Al’s body. Then I would have transferred Alphonse’s soul from the armor to his body. It might have taken another tool on me, but I was ready for it. But then…I know it wasn’t her. I know.” Roy heard the sharp intake of breath Edward took to try and calm himself. “ But…she was begging. She begged me not to send her back. She begged me not to do it to her…again. I don’t know how she could not be my mother and still have her voice, her eyes…I hesitated. And you know what she did? She killed herself.”
Edward sagged in his chair, hiding his face in his hands. Roy wanted to come forward and touch him, take him in his arms and kiss his distressed face, but he knew Edward well enough to know he would be brutally pushed away if he tried such a thing. The General remained where he was, waiting for Edward to go on.
“ I don’t…she just…I didn’t have any other choices. I didn’t have anything else to offer and it had to be done immediately. Things didn’t even happen like I expected. They just…it’s like they considered the deal was over and Al’s body was lost just like Sloth was. I had to fight them. I did what I could.” Roy was startled by the sound that rose. It took him a minute to recognize it as a laugh. A rough, humorless laugh. “ It’s funny, I never would have thought I’d go through the same desperation as back then. But it was just the same. I was struggling to save my little brother, ready to give up anything, everything, to get him back. I managed to fuck up twice in a row. I was such a mess.” Edward looked at the ceiling, uncomfortable but wishing to finish his tale. “It took me days to realize I still existed, in a way. I was just in time to be aware of my own funeral. I was so damn scared. I needed to let somebody know, just to make sure I wasn’t insane.” Edward laughed again. “I’m still not sure I’m sane.”
“If you’re not sane, then I’m not either,” The man’s footsteps made no sound on the floor. He bent and lightly encircled Edward’s shoulders, playfully lapping at Ed’s right cheek. “ I’m believing everything you’re telling me and I’m helping you keep the secret and fool everybody.”
The boy did not react to the mark of affection, merely grunting and going on with his work. It still was something that he allowed Roy to touch him. That too was changing fast. Edward was less and less welcoming of any physical contact, no longer tempted by sex or affection.
Edward nearly jumped when something mewed by his foot. He glanced down and found a kitten. His face lightened slightly. “Let me guess, Alphonse brought that one in?”
“Indeed. I couldn’t convince him to let it go.” Roy paused, observing Edward closely. “He called him Edo because it’s a feral little thing that does whatever it wants.”
Ed’s smile faded and he went back to whatever he had been trying to draw, etching circles, lines and symbols in black ink. It looked far too elegant to kill.
“I’m glad you trusted me with your secret,” suddenly spoke Roy. He didn’t know how much more time he would get to spend near Edward. It was better to say everything now and have less regrets this time.
“Are you really?” Edward didn’t turn around but he stopped drawing for a few moments. “Maybe telling you was just as cruel as telling him would be. I’m sorry. I fuck up, over and over again. But I’ll end it. I won’t be making any more mistakes. Ever.”
Roy tightened his embrace without a word. Edward let him.
Every time Winry came to visit, she spoke of plans to open a new Rockbell automail shop right here, in Central . They never actually did anything about it; they were only words. Alphonse suspected Winry did not wish to live in a town that had seen the death of people she had known and liked. And - although she never said a word about it - she was still uncomfortable in Roy’s presence. The man seemed to feel the same and it was how, more often than not, Alphonse and Winry ended up walking in the lively streets by themselves, making plans that would never be.
It was inevitable, when one took a walk with Alphonse, that their course would eventually lead them to the cemetery. It wasn’t conscious, but he always did it. Winry had the same compulsion though, so neither was surprised when they found themselves in front of the fence.
Alphonse came so often he could find his way to his brother’s grave without looking. A total of fifty-three steps forward, and sixty-nine to the right later, they were there, staring at a tombstone shaped like the flamel. The name was on the crown, a few words were etched in the right wing and the dates were on the left one. It was pretty and made of marble – Al wouldn’t take anything less fancy. It was a work of art Alphonse had poured his heart and soul into making as perfect as humanely possible. Still, he would have preferred to never have to do this.
They didn’t say much. Words couldn’t convey what they were feeling – they had tried before – and they knew they already shared the pain. In a way, Winry was also their sibling. She had lived her childhood with them, and although they had not seen her as often in Edward’s last few years, they had known they had a home at her side.
Alphonse wondered why he had so much trouble addressing any kind of prayer for the soul of his deceased brother. It just felt ridiculous, like talking to a rock. Was it because he was still in denial? Or was it because Edward had never been religious and that prayers wouldn’t be something he’d want? Maybe because Edward had believed a grave didn’t mean much - nothing more than a hole in the ground to hide your bones. Al couldn’t see meaning in it either when there wasn’t even a bone in there. That was how it was when you played with alchemy. They had only been able to bury the automail arm.
They left slowly, both buried in their own thoughts. They had to make an effort to find the energy to move on, Winry summoning a fake smile to comment that Alphonse seemed to have grown a little. They made all the appropriate ‘I bet Edward would be furious’ comments until they did smile for real, even though they were smiles with little joy.
It was hard to go to work every day when his mind wouldn’t leave the house, wondering if Alphonse was going to be okay, if he was going to have any more blackouts, wondering what Edward was doing and when would be the next time they saw each other. Sometimes dark marks showed up under Roy’s eyes, attesting to his frequent sleepless nights. He had told Edward sleepless nights were bad for Alphonse, but he himself had his fair share of them. He could hardly sleep when Edward was there – every time could be the last – and sometimes he couldn’t tear his gaze away from Alphonse’s sleeping face, musing at how alike and how different the boys had always been.
Roy had spent entire nights remembering things Edward had said, things he had done, things they had done together. Things that would never happen again. There were times when Roy couldn’t help but nudge Al closer, trying to pretend Edward was there despite his guilt at using the younger Elric like this. It was only worse when Alphonse was aware of it and cuddled back silently. Roy didn’t want pity. He wanted…he wanted Edward.
Riza noticed how tired Roy was but nothing she said got through to the man, not even her threats. He would only smile and she wouldn’t understand why. She didn’t know. She couldn’t help. Nobody could. These days, the lady often found herself forced to repeat twice to catch the General’s attention. There were only two words – two names – that immediately stirred his attention, no matter how sick he felt or how empty his eyes were.
“General, Alphonse on the phone for you.”
Roy snatched the phone from Hawkeye’s desk. “Yes?”
“I think I found it. I think I’ve got it right, finally.”
“Edw-“ Roy realized Riza was three feet away and cut himself. “Yes, and what do you need?”
“I made a list. It’s hidden under the bed, with the books. I need all that as soon as possible.”
Roy felt chilly suddenly. He placed a hand on the edge of the desk to steady himself. “…alright.”
“Okay? It’s important Roy, don’t fuck up. I have to go, Al’s about to wake up from his nap. See you.”
Hawkeye was pretending she had not heard anything, but she couldn’t have missed what he had said. He felt the need to tell her, “It was about Edward.” Right, so he was heading back to his office when he had been interrupted. The General had just made it to the doorframe of his office when Riza spoke again.
“You shouldn’t speak about him in the present,” she said, a little harshly. “Edward is dead. By speaking of him like he was still alive, you are inciting Alphonse to do the same. He has to accept his brother is gone.”
Dead? Edward isn’t dead. That’s just what he made you all believe. That’s why he hides.
Roy couldn’t spill the secret. He’d promised to help and not say a word that first night, when he had woken up and found Edward looking at him. Roy had firstly thought it had been a ghost…which it might as well have been, considering how little he saw of Edward. He was the only one who knew the truth and he couldn’t tell anyone. It would only make things worse in the end.
So instead, Roy nodded to the lady’s words dumbly, though it saddened him that she was wrong. Riza had always known everything about him, yet she couldn’t see the real reason of his trouble this time. It was too unthinkable, that Edward had somehow survived but was hiding from them all while he made the last preparations. Riza wouldn’t have understood why Roy did what he did. He didn’t know either, at that.
Roy didn’t want to lose Edward. But he was going to help him die anyway.