Sorry for the long delay, but I got stuck with a slight case of writer's block at several points and I wanted this chapter to be as close to perfect (at least in my mind) as I could make it. This chapter holds a special place in my heart. A lot of people in my family are or were in the military at some point, so I've been to a number of military funerals.
Chapter Four: Funeral Games
There was a distinct chill in the air. The sky stretched overhead like a sheet of metal - overcast and grey. The threat of rain whispered in the breeze, rustling leaves and stirring up the feelings of loneliness in the heart.
It was somehow fitting, Roy thought as he watched the countryside scroll past the window of his private car. It was like the world itself was in mourning, grieving the loss of one of its children.
The car was suffocatingly quiet. Riza said nothing as she drove, her eyes carefully turned forward as she led the procession of other cars behind them. Roy stared out the window, pointedly trying not to acknowledge the black hearse in front of them.
He had no desire to look at the morbid black vehicle. It conjured up too many painful images and thoughts. He didn't want to see the flag-covered casket it carried through its tinted back window, or be reminded that inside that box lay the remains of a fifteen year old boy.
He didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to think about the unfairness of life, the cruelties of fate, or the fact that it should be him riding in the back of that hearse in a silk lined coffin.
Carefully looking to his right, Mustang surreptitiously watched the silent figure beside him. A jolt of pain went through him at the sight, his heart aching with guilt.
Alphonse Elric lifelessly stared out the other side of the car. He hardly seemed aware of where he was or what he was looking at. His eyes were distant and filled with a sadness so hopeless Roy had to look away for a moment to compose himself before he was able to look at the boy again.
Al was dressed in a somber black suit that'd arrived just the night before with a short note from Gracia Hughes. I hope this fits. The poor boy shouldn't have to go to his brother's funeral wearing nothing but his own skin. If you or he need anything else don't hesitate to call. Give Alphonse our love and condolences. Signed, Gracia and family, it'd said.
Roy had had to wait almost twenty minutes until he finally trusted his treacherous emotions enough to pull the suit from its box and give it to the grieving boy. It had then taken all of his resolve to keep said emotions in check when the boy had seen it and promptly burst into tears. It was for Roy possibly the single most heartbreaking sight he'd ever seen.
Mustang was actually surprised he'd been able to coax Al off his office couch long to put on the suit and attend Edward's funeral. Since the day of that fateful attack on Central Headquarters, Al had spoken barely five words and eaten nothing more than a few spoonfuls of soup Roy had managed to get in him. But that was it.
Roy was starting to truly worry. There were dark circles under the boy's eyes and his skin had taken on a slightly ashen hue. He was thinner too, having not eaten anything since his brother returned him to his original body. Roy knew if Al didn't start eating on his own soon he would have to step in and take measures to make sure the boy didn't starve himself. Al's face was becoming gaunt and had a dull, washed out look to it. His skin seemed stretched over his cheekbones, like it'd somehow been shrunk tight.
If Roy didn't know better, he would have almost said Al was wasting away before of his very eyes…
It was no wonder the boy looked so terrible really, Roy told himself. For the last two days Al had done nothing but grieve his older brother's passing. He still remembered with heart-wrenching vividness the look in the boy's eyes when they'd arrived at the funeral home that morning.
Because of the increased threat of rebel attacks, it'd been too dangerous to allow a wake or even several days of mourning for the young alchemist. With so many military personnel in attendance, there'd been concerns Fullmetal's funeral might become a rebel target. After all, if the Red Brigade was strong enough to launch a full scale attack on Central Headquarters, how much effort would it be for them to attack a small funeral?
And so, barely even two days after his untimely death, Edward Elric was to be laid to rest.
It had been a small reception. There hadn't been any priest or minister - Ed never had believed much in that type of thing. There'd only been a small group of family and friends. Because of aforementioned rebel attacks, there'd been no time to wait for the Rockbells to come, leaving Alphonse as Ed's only surviving family member there. Although surrounded by friends and close acquaintances, Roy knew how alone the boy must have felt standing there beside his brother's coffin.
He'd stayed beside him the entire time. Even when Gracia Hughes (accompanied by her husband and little daughter) had rushed up to Al and pulled the boy into a comforting hug did he leave Al's side. Many would have thought someone of his status would have tried passing the boy off onto someone else - not wanting to deal with the boy's grief anymore himself. But he refused to. Alphonse was his responsibility. Al was his charge, and he wasn't about to abandon the boy now. He owed him too much. Whether it was from a sense of responsibility or guilt (or some twisted combination of both), Roy Mustang saw the boy as his own. And no one - not even Gracia Hughes with her motherly hugs and soft words of comfort - was going to take Al away from him. He'd already lost one Elric brother. He wasn't going to lose the other…
Ed had looked almost peaceful laying in his silk-lined coffin, his dark eyelashes gently pressed to pale white cheeks. Despite the blood and grime covering the boy the last time Roy had seen the young alchemist - while he'd laid there dying in his arms - Ed's face was now clean. His hair had been washed and carefully braided the way Ed had so often worn it in life. If Roy hadn't known better, he would have almost said Ed was sleeping. But he knew better than think that. The boy lay there much too still to just be sleeping…
As a soldier befitting a military funeral, Ed had been dressed in a crisp blue military uniform. Roy had found the sight disquieting. It seemed wrong somehow. Ed had never worn a uniform in all his years of service. He'd always refused to wear what he'd called the military's 'collar.' He might be a dog of the military, but that didn't mean he had to dress like one, he'd said. For some reason, Roy had always respected him for that. But now, laying there in a small oak coffin, it seemed someone in the military had had the last say and made sure Edward Elric would be buried and remembered as one of their own - regardless of what the young alchemist might have had to say about it.
At least - Roy had thought with a hollow sense of consolation - above that formal blue uniform the boy's familiar red coat had been draped over his body like a blanket or some kind of mantle of honor. Over the years, the coat had become as distinctive a trait of the Fullmetal Alchemist as Ed's blonde hair and gold eyes. It would have been wrong not to bury him with it, Roy had thought with a pang of sorrow.
Roy felt tears sting the corners of his eyes at the memory, and only by looking away from the boy beside him was he able to regain control of his treacherous emotions. He couldn't break down, he kept telling himself. He had to be strong. Al needed him to be strong...
He still remembered the look on Al's face as they'd stood beside Ed's coffin to greet those that'd come to pay their final respects to the Fullmetal Alchemist. It was like only a part of Al was actually there - the rest of him locked away in some world of grief only he knew. Even when Gracia Hughes had drawn him into a tight embrace and murmured soft words of comfort in his ear, did the boy seem to come back to himself. As others came up to offer their own words of condolences, Al had remained quiet and passive, his eyes shining with unshed tears, but Roy was sure he'd never seen anyone's eyes ever look so hollow and… dead before.
Roy was brought out of his thoughts as the car slowly came to a stop. Looking out the window, he saw that they'd finally arrived. A field of clean cut grass stretched out before him - lined by neat, evenly spaced rows of dull white gravestones.
Taking a deep breath Roy began to open the door, but then stopped and glanced over his shoulder. Al hadn't made any move to get out. He just sat there, blankly staring out the other side of the car.
Roy had to force himself to find his voice. "Al?" he softly called.
The boy still didn't answer. He seemed oblivious to the colonel or anything else.
"Al?" Reaching out Mustang put a hand on the young boy's shoulder. That seemed to finally startle Al out of his thoughts. His bleary eyes slowly swiveled away from the window to look at Roy. Roy felt his throat constrict at the sight of the boy's grief-hollowed eyes. "Come on, Al," he softly urged. "We're here…"
Al nodded and slid across the seat to follow the colonel out his side of the car. Al said nothing as Roy shut the door behind them and emptily stared out across the quiet graveyard. Behind them, the rest of the funeral procession pulled to a stop and other people began getting out of their cars. In front of Mustang's car the hearse idled dolefully, its mournful cargo visible through its tinted back window.
As people began drifting towards the dug up area of ground several dozen yards away, six men stepped towards Hawkeye, Mustang, and Al.
Armstrong, Hughes, Havoc, Breda, Fulman, and Fuery were all dressed in formal military attire, their faces solemn beneath dark blue caps. Not saying a word, they moved to the back of the hearse and gently slid the flag draped coffin out from inside it. Positioning themselves three to a side, the six hoisted their sorrowful burden up onto their shoulders and began moving towards the cluster of people gathered in the distance. Roy, Hawkeye, and Al silently fell into step behind them.
Roy walked with bowed head as they made their way towards the gravesite. If the situation had been different, he would have probably been one of Ed's pallbearers himself. But he refused to make Al walk behind his brother's casket with no one else there to stand beside him. That would have been too cruel.
Al silently walked beside Mustang and Hawkeye. He hardly seemed aware of where he was. Grief-laden eyes stared ahead, past his brother's coffin, into the distance. It was like Al couldn't bring himself to acknowledge the sorrowful procession he was a part of.
Finally coming to the site, the six lowered Ed's coffin onto a metal stand positioned over the rectangular hole that would soon become the fifteen year old alchemist's grave. With bowed heads, they then stepped back to join the rest of the group gathered around the small gravesite.
Besides those in Mustang's outfit, the Hugheses, and Major Armstrong, several other military people were in attendance. Standing together off to Mustang's left were Lieutenant Maria Ross and Sergeant Denny Brosh. Both their faces were shadowed - hidden beneath the brims of their military caps; but Mustang thought he saw a silent tear streak down Maria Ross's cheek as the six pallbearers stepped away from Ed's casket. Behind them, dressed in civilian clothes with her head lowered, was the quirky little librarian Roy remembered Hughes once telling him he'd found to work in Investigations after Central's Military Library burned down. Sheska, her name was, if he remembered correctly…
Behind them, several yards away, stood seven uniformed soldiers. Each had a rifle in their hand and stood at attention in a solemn line. Another soldier stood off to their side, a trumpet in his hand.
As the small group of mourner waited, another figure stepped forward. Roy didn't know who the man was, but by the stripes on his military jacket he saw that he was a second-lieutenant of some sort.
The man slowly came to stand at the foot of Ed's coffin and turned so that he was facing the rest of them.
"We come here today to honor Edward Elric, State Certified 'Fullmetal' Alchemist," the man began, his tone low and formal. "It is on behalf of the Fuhrer King Bradley that I bestow upon Edward Amestris's Gold Combat Star and its highest award, the Medal of Honor, for his bravery and heroic deeds in the course of battle."
He stepped towards Al - Ed's only surviving family member there. "Please accept these on behalf of the country of Amestris along with its heartfelt condolences," he said, and held out two velvet boxes.
Al silently took them, his head bowed low. Roy couldn't see Al's face through the boy's bangs, but he saw the way Al seemed to clutch Ed's awards to him as if trying to somehow reach out through them and regain some small piece of his older brother.
Drawing another box from his pocket, the officer opened it and presented it to the grieving boy. "As a State Alchemist, Edward upheld the Alchemist's code of service and loyalty to the end. He will be missed."
Sitting in the box's velvet lined bottom was Ed's silver State Alchemist watch.
Roy felt his heart clench with a renewed rush of grief. His throat tightened dangerously, but he managed to fight back the sting of tears burning the corners of his eyes. He had to be strong for Al…
Al silently took this third box and held it to his chest, bowing his head over it.
His job now complete, the officer stepped away. As two other men moved forward and began to lower Ed's coffin into the ground, the soldiers that'd been standing at attention several yards away stepped forward.
The one with the trumpet slowly raised the instrument to his lips and began the opening bars of Taps.
"Present!" one of the armed soldiers yelled as the trumpet continued to sing its mournful tune.
In perfect unison, the seven soldiers raised their rifles to their shoulders and aimed into the air.
A deafening blast echoed across the cemetery.
Beside him, Roy saw Al flinch at the sound - the boy clutching Ed's awards and silver watch closer to his chest. Behind him, Mustang heard several muffled sobs over the haunting melody still playing in the background. Gracia Hughes and Major Armstrong were now openly crying - tears falling freely down their faces - while several others had their heads suspiciously lowered and hidden from view behind their cap visors. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Havoc surreptitiously reach up and wipe a hand across his eyes. As always, Hawkeye remained stoic although her eyes were unusually shiny and damp.
Another round of gunfire sliced the air.
Al was now half hunched over the things in his arms. Despite the boy's bangs, Roy saw tears begin to bead along Al's clenched eyelashes, as if he was fighting to hold in his despair.
As the seven gun honor salute took aim and fired their final volley, the men that had lowered Ed's coffin into the ground approached with shovels and began scooping mounds of dirt into the hole. A series of hollow thunks echoed out of the alchemist's grave as the clods of dirt hit the top of Ed's coffin.
Roy was sure he'd never heard such a terrible sound in his entire life.
"Mama," Elysia Hughes' tiny voice spoke up. She gently tugged at her mother's skirt. "Why are they burying Ed? Papa said he was looking for something important. How's he going to find it if they bury him?" She turned and looked up at her father. "Papa, how's Ed going to find what he's looking for if they bury him?"
Despite his own resolve to keep from breaking down, Roy saw his friend's already strained expression shatter like a piece of glass. Maes quickly hid his face behind the brim of his cap but Roy saw several tears streak down his cheeks and his shoulders begin to shake. Gracia Hughes and several other attendees promptly dissolved into tears at the girl's innocent question.
"Papa? Papa, why are they burying Ed? You said he had something important to find. He can't look for it if they bury him. You have to stop them, papa. Make them stop."
Tears streaming down his stubbled face, Hughes bent down and scooped Elysia into his arms, muffling his daughter's plaintive cries into his shoulder. He hugged her almost desperately to him, as if trying to reassure himself she was still there and alive unlike the boy he'd come to see as a son now laying under a thin layer of dirt.
Unable to stand Elysia's confused cries and the sight of his older brother's coffin being slowly buried anymore, the floodgates of Alphonse's grief finally broke. The boy's shoulder began to shake, his entire body quaking with the force of his grief. Tears spilled from his eyes and bathed his cheeks in long, salty tracks.
Roy felt his heart break at the sight. No longer caring what anyone else might think, the colonel reached out and drew Al to him, steadying the younger alchemist against his side in a strong, one arm embrace.
Al leaned into him, lost in his sorrow. His painful sobs echoed across the cemetery as he clung to Mustang as if he was the only thing tethering him to reality.
Holding the boy close, Mustang struggled to think of something to say - some words of condolence or comfort. But he could think of nothing that could possibly alleviate the poor boy's pain. All he could do was pull Al closer, offering him a silent pillar of support on which to grieve. He desperately wished he could join the boy in his grief -to openly mourn the fifteen year old alchemist now laying under a thin layer of dirt - but he fought back the tears. He had to remain strong for Al.
"Come on, Al," he softly whispered, and began to lead the grieving boy away, his arm still protectively wrapped around Al's shoulder. There was no reason to make Al suffer anymore by watching them finish burying Ed.
Al gave no resistance, his tear streaked face bowed to his chest. He heavily leaned against the colonel as if he no longer had any strength to stand on his own. Ed's awards and silver watch were almost desperately clutched to his chest, as if they were somehow Al's last connection to his dead brother and he feared releasing his grip on them.
Roy felt everyone else's gaze follow him and Al as he led his young charge away. He could feel the sympathy in their eyes - the sorrow. As Hawkeye fell into step beside them, the small group of mourners began to break up and drift back towards the line of cars.
Helping Al into the car, Roy gave one last look back towards the men filling in Ed's grave. Watching them scoop shovel after shovel of dirt into the dark, rectangular hole, Roy felt his throat constrict. He saw his vision momentarily blurred.
It was so wrong… It should be him in that grave right now, not Ed. Ed had been so young, so full of life. He'd only barely begun to live…
"Colonel?" Hawkeye's voice drifted to him from behind. Her voice was unusually strained and laced with concern.
"I'm fine," Roy murmured. Bowing his head so his military cap hid his face, he ducked inside the car, sliding in next to Al. He refused to look up and meet Hawkeye's eyes as she sat behind the wheel and glanced in the rearview mirror. Reaching over, Roy once again pulled Al into a comforting one armed embrace. The boy willing leaned against him, burying his face in the colonel's side. His hollow sobs echoed through the car's otherwise silent interior.
As Mustang hugged the boy close he momentarily wondered if he was really trying to comfort Al, or himself.
Looking up, Roy softly murmured, "Let's go…"
The car sputtered to life, and they pulled away.
Hugging Al's sobbing form closer, Roy glanced one last time out the back window. The cemetery was now almost completely empty except for the two men filling in Ed's grave. Their shovels moved back and forth, back and forth; scooping up dirt and depositing it in the hole. It was so rhythmic, so sad…
He continued to watch them as Hawkeye pressed the accelerator and the two men began to fade into the distance.
And as they turned a bend that would lead them out of the cemetery back to the main road, a lone tear slipped down Roy Mustang's face and disappeared into the dark fabric of his uniform…
To Be Continued...
This chapter was actually suppose to be twice as long, but I decided it might be better if it was cut in two. Plus, I didn't want to leave everyone waiting any longer for an update.