The Winged Serpent
FMA-side Sequel to "That Blasted Red Stone"

By Icka! M. Chif

Unless I grip the Sword, I cannot Protect you.
While gripping the Sword, I cannot Embrace you.
-Bleach manga #5, 'Rightarm of the Giant'

"Sir!!!" Lisa Hawkeye's alarmed voice jolted Roy Mustang out of the book he was reading. A stretch of the local train tracks had been damaged in a minor accident, leaving them stranded in a remote area of the country until the next morning for repairs. While outwardly, he cursed the delay, privately he was enjoying the impromptu respite.

Finding a local bookshop with a decent selection of alchemy texts had just been an additional bonus. Although he'd yet to locate the shopkeeper of the store, the Winged Serpent.

He looked up to see what could have alarmed his second in command so and found himself being squashed into the ground by the blond woman. A large hay cart rumbled past, minus both horse and rider as it swerved erratically down the street.

"Sorry about that sir." She apologised briskly, rising off of him, a small bundle in her arms. Her tone softened as she spoke again. "Are you all right?"

The boy in her arms looked up and smiled at her with a relieved expression. "Sankyuu." The child said softly, something in the high reedy pitch catching the Flame Alchemist's attention.

He frowned, inspecting the child as he rose to his feet, hand absentmindedly brushing his clothing off. Hawkeye noticed his attention and continued to hold the boy, who seemed quite content to be held without a fuss. The boy was about three or four, a bit on the stocky side with blond hair, leaning towards the bronze rather than the gold side of blond. Clothes were clean and well mended, the boy was obviously taken care of. Eyes the colour of red amber watched him calmly, but for some reason, he got the feeling of recognition in them.

As if the boy knew him, even if he did not know who this boy was.

"AL!" The cry came from up the street. A man with long red hair came barrelling towards them, dressed in a green apron. A shopkeeper from the looks of him.

"Da!" The kid grinned, holding his arms out. The man scooped the boy from Hawkeye's arms, cradling him to his chest as he murmured into the boy's fine hair. The boy's father then. The boy seemed to be doing more to calm the father than the father was calming the boy.

"Thank you." Relieved gold eyes looked up at them. "Thank you very much for-" The words trailed off as the relief was replaced by stark terror, then a fierce determination as the boy was shifted away from them, the posture turning defensive.

Mustang found himself staring. It had been almost four years since he had seen those eyes, but he knew who this man was beyond a shadow of a doubt.

"Fullmetal?!"

"Who?" Edward, for it was unmistakably the elder Elric, said frostily. "I'm afraid there's no one in town by that name." He had grown, not much but enough so that they were nearly looking at each other eye to eye. The hair was coppery red and longer, pulled into a low ponytail at the back of his neck in the air of someone who had just never gotten around to a haircut. The clothes were simple, an off white shirt tucked into simple pants with a green apron over it. Gloves still covered his hands, making it impossible for him to tell if the automail still lay underneath.

Gold eyes, partially hidden by the loose red hair and a pair of glasses, Hughes' glasses, he realised with a shock, glanced warily around them and Roy realised that they were attracting attention from the local villagers. Hawkeye stepped forward to protest and Roy held his arm out, stopping her.

"My apologies, I thought you were someone I knew." He said briskly. He was rewarded with Edward's posture loosening slightly. Roy held up the book he'd been glancing through. "Perhaps you may know whom I might purchase this from?"

"That would be me." Edward straightened, shifting the boy to rest on one hip. "William Elricson, proprietor of the Winged Serpent. This is Alphonse."

"A pleasure to meet both of you." Roy smiled. He'd never seen Alphonse when he was human, but the resemblance to Edward was unmistakable. The boy was either the younger Elric, or Edward's son. The latter bringing up several interesting questions about just exactly what Edward had been up to the past four years. "Roy Mustang. This is my associate, Lisa Hawkeye."

Hawkeye raised an eyebrow at him, but played along. "Nice to meet you."

"The pleasure is mine." Edward bowed slightly, then escorted them into the recesses of the store. "This way, please. You're both military?"

"Yes." He agreed, following them into the store, Edward's right leg hit the wooden floor with more weight than his left. An automail leg. If this 'William' wasn't Edward, he'd eat his coat.

He looked around the shelves, seeing the store in a new light. Fullmetal's touch was obvious now that he knew what he was looking at. The shelves and books were well taken care of, as evidence of one who loved books. Incomplete arrays decorated the end caps, serving as both decoration and directories for those familiar with Alchemy. Subjects were labelled at the top for those who weren't so inclined. Banners hung from rafters, adding colour in contrast to the dark shelves.

Much time and effort had gone into the care of the store. "This is an excellent shop. You're interesting in Alchemy?"

Edward shrugged as he walked behind the counter, setting Alphonse down on a stack of papers with some drawing materials scattered on it. Obviously the child's play area of choice. Alphonse ignored the papers in favour of peering curiously at them over the counter, ducking below it every time he saw them looking in his direction. "My father dabbled a bit. I'm not involved with it."

"Pity. You look like you would have some skill in it." This brought a muted flash of something hot to the gold eyes, but it was quickly shuttered way. The infamous Elric temper had been tempered somewhat.

Dealing with a child would do that. A giggle from the boy made him smile, catching the usually stoic Hawkeye silently playing with Alphonse, trying to 'catch' him with her gaze. Edward noticed as well, shaking his head slightly at their antics with a bit of a smile. "Would you like me to wrap the book for you?" He inquired.

"That won't be necessary." Roy said quickly, pulling out his wallet and paying for his book.

"Stay for dinner?" Alphonse spoke up, his voice suddenly not quite so child-like. Roy glanced down at the toddler, then up to his guardian, who had turned a rather interesting shade of pale.

"I'm sure they're quite busy, Al." Edward corrected, his voice sounding hollow as he patted Alphonse's head.

"Not that busy." Roy smiled to himself, feeling bereft of one of his favourite pastimes, Elric baiting. "Perhaps we could treat you to dinner at one of the local eating establishments?"

"We won't take no for an answer." Hawkeye added jauntily, a muted sparkle in her eye. She wasn't going to let the Elrics slip through her fingers without a fight either.

"I..." Edward glanced between the two of them with a caged, trapped look. It wasn't until the red-head glanced down into the firm pleading gaze of his brother that he lost he internal argument. "We couldn't possibly intrude like that." Edward sighed, his teeth gritted together in what would have been a pleasant expression if it weren't for malice behind it. "Why don't you have dinner with us? As a thank you for saving Al from the hay cart."

"An offer we couldn't possibly refuse." Roy agreed smoothly. "Right, Hawkeye?"

"Right, sir." The barely suppressed smile was smug in it's glory.

"Yay!" Alphonse cheered, running around the counter to dance around them and hug Hawkeye's legs. "Yay! Yay! Yay!"

Edward rolled his eyes. "I'll be back in just a moment, need to close shop." He muttered darkly, stalking towards the front of the shop.

"C'mon!" Alphonse tugged Hawkeye's hand. "I'll show you where we live! You can see my colouring books..." He rambled on, the vocabulary much higher than a normal toddler's, from what Roy could tell from his admittedly limited experience with young children. Hawkeye smiled, apparently content to be pulled along by the beaming child. They made a cute picture.

Roy followed them slowly, keeping an eye on Edward as the former alchemist locked the door and turned the sign around before following them back, muttering darkly all the while. Probably something about the fact that they had trapped him into this.

Not that Roy was going to complain about the results.

Alphonse led them to the back of the bookstore, where a comfortable living quarters resided. It was small, mostly a combination kitchen and living room, but it was obviously well used and loved. A staircase in one corner lead to what was most likely the bedrooms on the second floor.

"Make yourselves at home." Edward directed, not quiet sarcastically, but walking on the edge, as he took off the green apron and hung it on a peg in the wall by the door. "We're having curry stew, if you don't have any arguments."

"Sounds wonderful." Roy agreed. He debated a moment, then removed his the outer blue coat of the uniform. It was warm enough in the room that he did not need it and from the looks Edward was giving him, the military clothing only served to make their host uncomfortable.

The wide-eyed look that Edward gave him before busying himself with the pots on the stove was worth it. Idly, Roy tried to remember the last time Edward had seen him out of uniform and found himself forming a blank. Ah, well.

"Anything I can do to help?" He inquired, hanging the admittedly heavy coat on a peg next to Edward's green apron. Hawkeye gave him an amused look, then turned her attention back to Alphonse, who was showing her the various drawings he'd been working on recently.

"I've got it." Edward waved him off, lifting the lid off of a simmering pot and giving a quick stir, sending the scent of curry throughout the room. "Grab a seat, make yourself at home."

Roy did so, finding himself unordinary pleased to watch Edward be... well... domesticated. He wasn't even aware that Edward knew his way around a kitchen.

Of course, four years -was- a long time.

Edward cut and chopped vegetables while Roy idly described the latest news in Central and the East. He kept his tone neutral, like he was giving the information to anyone who asked. News was often harder to get out in the rural areas of the country, much less second hand instead of third, forth or fifth hand. The red-head began to relax as they talked, unwinding enough to ask questions and make observations.

By the time dinner was served, spicy stew in wooden bowls with chunks of bread that smelled like the bakery down the street, the atmosphere around the dinner table had lightened considerably.

At least until Alphonse asked how Elysica was doing.

Edward froze, like a cat confronted by a pack of wild hungry dogs. Alphonse gave Edward a funny look, as if his brother was behaving strangely. "She must be taller than I am now, 'Niisama." He said calmly, in that not-a-child's voice. Edward looked like was about to keel over dead.

Roy took pity on him, at least for the moment. "She's growing up to be a lovely girl." He said calmly, directing his answer towards Alphonse as Edward twitched slightly. "Her father would be proud."

Alphonse grinned back, curry painting his childish cheeks before he continued eating and babbling at Hawkeye about the horse behind the blacksmith's house. Roy caught Edward's eye. "Edward-"

"Not. Now." Edward ground out, his gloved hands clenched into fists, nearly crushing the spoon he was using in his grip. "After we eat."

Roy nodded, acquiescing, for the moment. The subject changed to safer things again, but he kept a weather eye on Edward. The former blond looked like he was struggling to relax, maintain an normal front in front of his brother, but Roy could see the signs of panic in him. He almost wondered what Edward would do, if he poked him like he used to. Would he still jump and leap around like an irate kitten?

Or would he do something different?

Hawkeye kicked his ankle with her boot, effectively cutting off that train of thought. He smiled pleasantly at Edward's suspicious growl and worked at diligently cleaning his bowl like a good boy. It had nothing to do with the fact that the sooner they finished their food, the sooner he could get answers to his questions, of course.

Edward finished his food and cajoled Alphonse into eating the last few bites of his own while he gathered up Hawkeye and Roy's dishes, taking them to the sink to soak. A pot of tea had been brewing while they had been eating and he brought that to the table, pouring them a cup while Alphonse took his dirty dishes to the sink. "I'm afraid I'm out of coffee." He apologised, sitting back down. Alphonse climbed up into his lap and Edward absentmindedly washed his brother's face and hands with a rag, Alphonse wrinkling his nose as he did so.

"Tea is lovely, thank you." Hawkeye accepted the cups and added a small amount of sugar from the bowl in the centre of the table before passing it to Roy. Alphonse snuggled with his brother, curled up and trusting as only the very young and very innocent can. Edward ran his hands through Alphonse's fine blond hair, obviously struggling with the topic. Roy made up his own cup of tea and waited, realising this wasn't the time for teasing.

"When was the last time you practised Alchemy, Colonel?" Edward finally asked. Roy almost corrected him on his rank, but realised that he would probably always be Colonel to Edward.

"A few days ago." He admitted.

"Big or little?"

"Decent. Just an explosion or two." Roy shrugged, exchanging a look with Hawkeye. She gave a small shrug back.

Edward nodded, as if coming to a decision. "Alphonse?"

"It's okay, 'Niisama." Alphonse grinned up at his brother, patting his brother's larger chest. The small blond rested his feet on his brother's legs, leaning over the table with his palm outstretched, like he was telling Roy to stop. Roy blinked, then tentatively reached across the table, brushing Alphonse's tiny palm with a finger tip.

Alphonse FLARED. Roy jerked his hand back as the small boy's eyes glowed a bright steady red, geometric patterns glowing all over his body. Edward helped his brother sit back down, curling up against his chest again, his golden eyes soft.

"Holy..." Roy breathed as the red glow faded from Alphonse. The boy yawned, a faint light coming from his mouth before he slumped against his brother, boneless and asleep. He looked younger than he had moments before, in a way that had nothing to do with his lax sprawl.

Edward just held him protectively, one hand stroking his brother's hair again, giving Roy the time he needed to process. He realised, with a touch of shock at the retrospect, that Alphonse had clung to both Edward and Hawkeye, but had managed to avoid touching him. Edward had asked when the last time he had done alchemy was, which meant that the glow was a reaction to alchemical energy. If Alphonse was touching Edward, Fullmetal was no longer practising alchemy.

This far from the city, there tended not to be a lot of alchemists either.

"How?" He finally questioned. The last time he had seen the Elric brothers, Edward had fifteen and Alphonse had been a suit of armour. It had been just before their guests from another world had left, the Elrics gaining them along with the Philosopher's Stone. Edward and Alphonse had just vanished after that, leaving behind a terse note and Edward's watch. Roy had done some searching afterwards, but had to stop due to lack of time and other duties.

"I had Saguru ask Kitty about the stone he was searching for in his world, while we were researching ways to return them." Edward said softly, leaning back in his chair. "Evidently the stone he was looking for, 'Pandora', had slightly different properties than our Philosopher's Stone. When held up to the moonlight, it dripped an elixir that granted immortality. I didn't pay much attention to it at the time, since the Philosopher's Stone has similar legends of immortality."

"I thought your stones had merged." Hawkeye said thoughtfully, cradling her tea in her hands. "Kitty's Pandora and our Philosopher's."

"They did." Edward nodded tiredly. "And I didn't adjust for that. When Al got his body back... he was about the age of a three month old. I had to wrap him in silk to carry him, but it took a week before I could touch him without him glowing. It... hurt him."

Edward tugged his gloves off, removing the right hand first. "He grows slightly faster than a normal kid, but every time he comes in contact with alchemy, he de-ages. The more energy used, the younger he gets." He held his left hand up, flexing his fingers, the skin flowing easily over the tendons and muscles of his once automail hand. They had gotten his arm back. "It'll be useful when he gets older, but right now I've just got to get him to an age that he won't end up in diapers every time it happens."

A Living Philosopher's Stone. Roy's mouth went dry as the connotations of such a discovery sunk in. Wars had been fought over less, a walking, living battery and power amplifier. It was the discovery of a lifetime.

If you didn't mind destroying Alphonse in the process. He noticed the steely look in Edward's eyes and realised that Fullmetal would not only die before he prevent that from happening, he'd kill to keep his brother safe. And somehow, Edward killing to save his brother was worse than Edward dying over it. Under that fire of his, Edward always had had such a noble spirit, such a will to help people. Roy had tried to keep the worst of it away from Edward, but he hadn't been entirely successful. A failure, on his part.

Roy had a lot of failures and things he wasn't proud of in his life.

"You were correct, when we first met." Roy said quietly, taking sip of his tea. It was slightly bitter, but not bad. A local variety probably. "There is no one named 'Fullmetal' here."

"Thank you." Edward inclined his head. "But it's not like you'll remember it anyway. There's an amnesiac drug in your tea."

Roy's mouthful of tea ended up sprayed across the table. Hawkeye looked with alarm into her own cup.

Edward howled with laughter, tears forming in the corner of his eyes as he cradled the still sleeping Alphonse with one arm. He rubbed his eyes with hand, the chuckling eventually dying down as they cautiously relaxed at his reaction. "Gotcha, ya bastard! I'm kidding, I'm kidding..." He grinned at them, gold eyes sparkling with merriment. "-But I could have. Just because I'm no longer an Alchemist doesn't mean I'm defenceless, Colonel."

"So I see." Roy said dryly, setting down his tea cup. Alchemy was more than arrays and spells, it was potions as well. And Edward had never been a slouch when it came to research, he could slip something worse than a memory-loss potion in their tea and they'd never know. Edward snickered as he reached across the table and grabbed Roy's tea, taking a sip of it. Alphonse flopped sideways as he did so, snoring slightly.

"Nothing harmful there." Edward assured him again, setting the cup down and offering his hand to Hawkeye. She shook her head, a slight twist to her lips that said she trusted him against her better judgement when he said that he wasn't poisoning them. Edward grinned and nodded back, picking up his own cup and taking a smug drink from it as he sat back in his chair. There were other ways to drug them without drugging himself of course, but both he and Hawkeye politely refrained from mentioning that.

Edward shifted the boneless child in his lap to a more comfortable position as they talked, like equals for once. Time and maturity had done little to soften the sharpness of Edward's tongue, but it was countered by patience and a wicked sense of humour. The lack of a library and other Alchemists around hadn't dulled his keen intellect either and Roy found himself enjoying their verbal spars on a completely new level. Edward could take as well as he gave, without flailing around like a pissed off cat like he had when he was younger.

Of course, it was rather hard to do that with a slumbering child in your grasp. Which may have been why Edward held on to Alphonse. Or perhaps he merely accustomed to it. The Elric brothers were always seen together.

Time slipped through his fingers and before he realised it, it was almost midnight, all three of the adults hiding yawns into their hands. Hawkeye began making leaving noises and they all rose, Edward escorting them to the door of the shop, Alphonse drooling on one shoulder. Roy paused at the door, looking at the boy he had known and the fine man he had grown up to be. "May I visit again some time?" He asked quietly. Hawkeye pointedly turned her back to them, looking around the streets for trouble, granting them some privacy.

Edward looked back at him, the weight of things unsaid and missed opportunities pressing around them. Edward closed his eyes, shaking his head. "I don't think that would be wise." He said softly, a touch of regret in his tone as he reached up, one hand cradling the fragile curve of the back Alphonse's skull.

Fullmetal was still a well known name in the Military, there were people who would jump at the chance to find him again, use him for their own twisted purposes. Or use him against Roy. And Edward had Alphonse and the Philosopher's Stone to protect now, he couldn't afford to be tracked down for the sake of an old friendship.

Roy nodded, stifling the pang of disappointment this brought. "Thank you for dinner." He said instead, reaching up and touching the red hair that spilled over Edward's shoulder. A bit intimate, perhaps, but he had often wondered if the long strands of hair felt as soft as it looked.

Edward gave him a slightly crooked smile, resting his hand over Roy's and giving it a squeeze, their fingers briefly lacing together. "Thank you." Edward said softly, and it wasn't just for the company tonight. "Stay safe."

"You too." He nodded, stepping backwards into the moonlight. Hawkeye immediately fell into step with him with crisp proficiency. She shot Edward a quick nod.

"Keep him outta trouble, will ya?" Edward drawled, leaning against the door, insolent like he used to be. "He's a real troublemaker, you know. Take your eyes off him for an instant and you never know what he's up to."

"Of course." Hawkeye's lips twitched in a very definite smile. She waved and began to escort Roy away. Edward watched them go for a while, then stepped inside his shop, locking it up behind him. Roy noticed curtains in some of the windows around them shifting, people spying on the Military personal visiting their book keeper until late at night. He briefly wondered what sort of rumours and speculation Edward was going to have to deal with in the morning.

"I Am Not-" Roy said with a great amount of dignity. "-A Troublemaker."

"Of course not, sir." Hawkeye agreed amiably. It was the same sort of expression she had when Fury tried to convince her that Black Hayate had eaten his latest reports. The kind that said 'pull the other one, it's attached to a grenade pin'.

He made a thoughtful noise, looking up at the stars overhead. "Still... there's nothing wrong with ordering the occasional rare books from a new favourite book store, is there?"

"Nothing that I can see, sir." She agreed. "I'm sure Armstrong would be more than pleased to pick them up should he be in the area in a few months."

Roy nodded. "An excellent idea." Armstrong would probably welcome the opportunity to see how the Elrics were faring as well, the large blond man had been worried about them after their disappearance.

As long as he played this with caution and intelligence, there wasn't any reason why he couldn't have a little bit of fun teasing Edward.

Besides, how else was he supposed to make sure that Edward and Alphonse were doing well?

-fin-