Title: The Next Best Thing
Written for: yixsh, on LifeJournal, for "Transmute Fluff"
Rating: General audience
Pairing: Roy/Ed (but not romantic)
Time Line: Animeverse, the evening when the brothers found Hohenheim at Risemboul
Disclaimer: The usual; I don't own these characters nor profit from them
"Brother -- I'm staying with him!"
"But Al – "
"Let's go, dad."
With those words, the towering suit of armour grabbed hold of the man's hand and stalked toward the porch steps. Hohenheim Elric had time only for one quick, startled glance over his shoulder before he was dragged away by Alphonse his son, into the darkness of evening beyond the reach of the light from the Rockbell home.
Roy watched Edward step into the doorway, a hand still half-lifted, stricken eyes following his brother's departure. For an instant it looked as though he might rush after the two of them.
But his jaw tightened, brows lowering, as he snapped, to nobody in particular,
"Fine. Let him go, then. I can do this on my own." He turned to head inside, but jerked to a halt and changed course, stomping back outside instead, across the porch and down the front stairs. With a single scowling glance toward where he had seen his brother disappear with their father, he whirled on his heel and stalked grimly out of the porch light, in the opposite direction.
Roy's chair scraped as he pushed it back and stood with a sigh. A long shadow angled across the porch as Hawkeye emerged through the door. "Where did he go?" she asked. Obviously the little altercation had been visible from inside as well as out. "I'll bring him back. It's not safe for him out there alone right now."
"No it isn't. But I'll go, and keep him from doing something stupid." When she appeared ready to protest, Roy held up a hand to forestall her. "Stay here, Lieutenant. He's already angry with me. We might as well not draw you in too." He flashed her his sidelong smile and sauntered down the steps, merging in his turn with the night darkness.
But the night wasn't, in fact, as dark as it appeared from the porch. A half moon rode high in the sky, revealing the rise of land behind the house, a grassy slope patched with clumps of trees. Roy's feet scythed through the grass with a soft swish as he made his way in the direction the boy had gone. He didn't think Ed would go far, even angry as he was; the kid was unlikely to forget the possible dangers after everything he and his brother had recently been through. In fact, there he was, just up ahead. Though he stood, like an idiot, on a rise overlooking a steep drop straight down to the river valley far below. He really must be upset.
Roy braced himself and drawled, "Making yourself a convenient target, Ed?"
Predictably, the other spun around, crouching, hands poised just inches apart, ready to clap. Until –
"Oh. It's just you," Ed said, straightening up. Despite the moonlight shining on him like a spotlight, the scowl darkened his face, brows casting his eyes into shadow. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I'm making sure you're all right."
"I was till you arrived. You can go now." The youngster turned back to his survey of the valley, folding his arms firmly across his chest. "I'm fine on my own," he muttered.
Which carried more than one meaning, given what Roy had just witnessed. "Look, Ed, you really can't stay in the open like this. You never know who's lurking out there, ready to attack. Come back to the house."
"I'm not going anywhere. If you're scared, go back yourself."
Roy swallowed a stab of irritation, reminding himself of what the boys had endured lately, being hunted across the country by military and homunculus alike. And there had been that confrontation earlier today between Ed and Roy himself, in which Roy had foolishly lost his temper and things had almost escalated out of control.
Follow that with the discovery that a long-absent father had waltzed back into his sons' lives, apparently expecting them to behave as though the sorrows of the intervening years hadn't happened, and Ed had good reason to be more than a little irritable.
'Well, at least,' the man thought wryly, 'those are the latest excuses, anyway.'
But clearly, his subordinate wouldn't be going back to the house with him, and if he tried to insist, there'd be another big argument. Yet he couldn't leave the youngster alone out here, so the only other recourse was to stay with him. Ed was really going to love that.
"Actually, Ed." He tried another angle. "I didn't come just to check up on you. I came...," he hesitated, "because I think you're afraid you're going to lose your brother. But you're not. I want you to believe that."
Again Ed turned on him, face suffused with rage. "And how could you possibly know that? How dare you poke your nose into family business that doesn't concern you? Is that what he told you to say – the two of you out there on the porch, plotting?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You've been out there with him all evening. You've been looking for him since the day we met you, four years ago. What are you doing now – toadying up to him to get his help pushing you closer to the top? Once you've got him in your pocket, you can drop me and Al, can't you? Leave us to the military to dispose of, and never be bothered with us again."
"That's outright insulting, Fullmetal," Roy snapped. "Do you honestly think I'd just hand you over to the authorities when it would be a virtual death sentence? Can you still believe that of me, after today?"
"I don't know what I think about you any more."
The man forced himself to take a deep breath. The youngster was just upset, saying whatever he thought would hurt the most. He didn't mean it. Hopefully. "Ed, you disappoint me," Roy said, as calmly as he could through the irritation. "You usually think more clearly than this. I talked to your father about alchemy only, and I doubt I'll see him again after tonight. I'm much more concerned with you and your brother."
"Why should I believe that?" the boy demanded.
"Don't you understand that I've been behind you all the way, in everything you and Al have done the last four years?"
"Oh yeah," Ed sneered. "As long as it pushed your precious career, you were all for it. The great Flame Alchemist, the rising star who discovered the prodigy."
"Trust me, Ed," Roy drawled, "if my career were the only thing I was thinking of, I could have advanced myself much more quickly by not having to babysit a high-strung teenager and his brother."
Yet again the youngster turned upon him angrily. But a clump of earth gave way beneath his metal leg and he jerked back, his foot stepping into empty space. Even as Roy leapt forward, Ed's arms windmilled frantically, fighting the inexorable tilt backward. Roy saw his face for a split second in the moonlight, wide-eyed with horror, before he went over the cliff with a sharp cry.
The glove was already out of its pocket, its partner dropping unheeded to the ground. Roy yanked it on and yelled, "Get ready, Ed!" He snapped his fingers, creating a billowing burst of flame just behind and below the falling boy. A gust of hot air rushed outward from it in a great wave. It wasn't enough to hold Ed up, but it thrust him forward, against the cliff wall. If he could keep his head, he had material to work with there.
Roy fell to his knees at the cliff's edge, heart beating wildly in his throat as he peered into the blackness below. There should be something – something – by now, even if it was the sound of a body crashing onto the jagged rocks at the base of the cliff.
At last – there it was! The familiar blue glow of activated alchemy, almost blinding as it flared in the darkness. Roy sagged in sick relief. The glow was lower down than he expected, though; that automail weighed more than he thought, and Ed had fallen farther than he should have. But the man's quick, imperfect act had at least given Ed the chance to catch himself, and to create the rough steps that now began shaping themselves out of the cliff wall. Roy leaned over as far as he dared, and snapped again, setting up a few small, softly-burning flames that would help light the younger alchemist's way back to safe ground.
It took a while for him to climb, even with such help as Roy could give. The "steps" in the rock were more like notches, and he had to stop a couple of times to deepen them after nearly losing his grip.
"You're very close," the man called softly. "Just a few more steps. Almost here." He received no reply, but could see the bright hair drawing steadily nearer. Once or twice he caught a gleam of eyes turned upward, seeking out the next notch in the rock.
Just a couple of feet more. Roy braced himself and reached down. "Take my hand, Edward. You're right here." The golden head lifted, and his breath caught. Ed didn't even seem to see him, the boy's eyes wide and glazed, unfocused. "Ed...take my hand. Please." Roy forced his voice to stay calm despite the hard beat in his throat.
Closer...closer...a few inches...and finally. He had him. Two hands met, and Roy heaved Ed up the final distance and crawled, almost dragging him, safely away from the edge.
The youngster collapsed against him, and Roy's arms closed tightly around the suddenly shaking body. Ed's face pressed against Roy's chest, hands clenching the man's uniform like claws. Still he didn't speak, but huddled there, shivering, the heaving breaths shuddering through him.
"Ed...it's all right," Roy murmured. "You're safe now. Though that was a pretty narrow shave, kid."
He used the word deliberately, hoping it would goad a little life into his companion, but to his dismay, all that returned was a faint whisper, "So tired. I'm just...so tired."
And it was true, Roy suddenly realized. The struggles of the last few months – especially the recent days, escaping the destruction of Liore and then being hunted by the military – all of this was finally taking a toll on the boy. And watching Al walk away with Hohenheim had probably been the last straw.
"Of course you're tired," Roy answered, his throat tightening dangerously. "But you're home for a while. You can rest. I'll divert the attention of the military away from you, and you can take some time to get your strength back." He quashed an impulse to stroke the youngster's hair.
"But...why?" Ed mumbled. "You'll wreck your career if you're not careful."
"I told you. Using you to further my career wasn't the reason I helped you become a State Alchemist. Not really."
"Then...why did you do it?"
"I did it because I believe in you, you idiot. I really do. And that's all. Though of course," the man smiled in the dark, "it would never have done, to let you in on that, would it?"
Ed managed a faint laugh. "You really are a bastard, Colonel. You know that?"
"Yes I am, when I need to be. And it spurred you on to try harder and harder, didn't it?"
Silence. Ed finally seemed to be taking hold of himself, as the shivering began to subside. The tight clutch of his hands on Roy's uniform gradually loosened. But still he didn't pull away. "I suppose," he said at last, "it did help sometimes."
"Of course it did. And I'm not going to stop cracking the whip till you achieve your goals. You get that, Fullmetal? You're too close now, to stop."
"I just...don't know if I can face going on alone." Once again the hands tightened, as Ed took a gulping breath that could have been a sob.
"You won't be alone," Roy assured him. "I know what it's like to feel that way, but you have a lot of support. You won't be alone." This wasn't good. The youngster just wasn't bouncing back as he usually did.
"How could you know how it feels?" Ed mumbled in protest. "You've got Hughes, and he's not going to walk away. But Al – Al – "
Roy's breath choked off in his chest as the reality hit him yet again: Maes Hughes, cut down on a city street, taken away from everyone who depended on him – everyone who loved him –
But Ed didn't know about that. He deserved to be told for his own sake, and he deserved to know that his superior officer intimately understood how he felt right now. But...but Roy just couldn't do it, not tonight when the young man was so fragile. And it was still so painful to talk about anyway, and the last thing Ed needed to deal with tonight was his colonel's own grief on top of everything else.
"Ed, try to think more clearly." Roy swallowed hard, shifting his thoughts resolutely. "Having a father is like a fairy tale for Al. He doesn't remember those early years as clearly as you. So he needs to be able to talk to Hohenheim for a while, to get the fairy tale out of his system." Then again, Roy thought – though he wouldn't dream of mentioning it – there were times when Ed really needed a father, himself. Again the man had to put down the urge to stroke the boy's hair.
"And...what if he doesn't?" Ed mumbled against his chest. "Get it out of his system, I mean."
"After the last four years – after everything you've been through together – can you really believe for one minute that Alphonse would leave you? Come on, Ed. You behave like an idiot most of the time, but you're not usually that stupid."
"Hey!" There it was at last, that little hint of fire in Ed's voice, that sign of self-will re-igniting. "Who're you calling stupid, you bastard?"
"Relax," Roy laughed quietly. For the second time that evening, a wave of relief washed over him. "It's better than calling you sho – "
"Don't even say it." There was the slightest hint of a smile in the words. Ed shifted a little, and Roy adjusted his arms so that the boy's head rested more comfortably against his chest.
"I'm serious, though. Your brother will never leave you, no matter who tries to persuade him. You have nothing to fear, even from your father. I hope you can believe me."
"I suppose I can try," Ed murmured. "And you're right...Al and I have been through a lot...we could only depend on each other, all these years..." He took a long, slow breath and whispered, "I should get up, but...I'm so tired..."
"No need to get up yet," Roy whispered back. "You're safe now, and I'm not going anywhere. Let yourself rest, for once. I'll keep watch." He hadn't taken his glove off yet; that should be protection enough.
Another slow, deep breath, and Ed's body relaxed further, his gripping hand at last loosening completely and sliding down Roy's chest.
They sat together on the grass in the dark, the man cradling the boy in his arms as stars wheeled slowly across the sky above them. How far they had come, Roy reflected, since the night of storms when he had come here looking for Hohenheim Elric and had found, instead, a suit of armour with a soul attached, and a small, terribly injured boy lying feverish and in pain on a sick bed.
Their paths had circled and circled around each other ever since, finally leading them back to their starting place for one last encounter. At least, Roy suspected it would be their last. They would separate again tomorrow, each driving himself to make a final push toward his ultimate goal. And while he had every confidence that Ed would succeed (the kid simply wouldn't allow any other outcome), Roy wasn't sure that he himself would survive what was to come.
And so he let the time go by, savoring the silence and peace as his young protégé slept in his embrace. He smiled a little at the sudden realization that after he had finally achieved his long-time goal, and had met Hohenheim Elric at last – it had been Edward he had followed off the porch, in the end. He allowed his thoughts to wander in remembrance over the past four years, until he heard quiet footsteps approach, and saw the shape of Lieutenant Hawkeye blotting out the starry background above.
"Is he all right?" she asked.
"Yes. He's sleeping."
"Don't you think it's time to come in?"
Roy's fingers moved lightly on Ed's back. "Yes," he sighed. "I suppose it is." He shifted the boy's weight, but Ed remained limp against his chest, slumbering so deeply that the movement had no effect on him. Instead of waking him, Roy maneuvered himself until he was on his knees, then got to his feet with great care, lifting Ed up with him. It was true: the automail made the boy much heavier than his trim, lithe form would suggest. "Can you get my other glove?" Roy nodded toward the cliff edge. "But be careful. The footing isn't secure."
After stuffing the second glove into his pocket, Hawkeye led the way back to the house, where light still shone from every window on the main floor despite how late it was. She murmured over her shoulder as they drew nearer, "It's probably time to leave for our lodgings in the town. We'll want to get whatever news we can in the morning, before we decide our next move tomorrow."
"Yes, we'll go as soon as I have Ed settled," Roy agreed.
As he entered the main room behind his Lieutenant, he saw that Broche was still sleeping – head, shoulders, and arms splayed across a table – but that Ross had woken up and was now huddled with Winry and Czieska on a couch near the stairwell. But their giddy laughter broke off as they saw him, and Winry leapt up immediately, gasping in alarm.
"Ed! Oh no! What's happened, what's wrong?"
Hawkeye began, "It's nothing, he's just – "
"Wait, Lieutenant," Roy interrupted. He met Winry's eyes, reading her thought, and assured her softly, "I didn't do anything to him. He's fine. He just fell asleep while we talked, that's all."
She searched his face guardedly, looking for the lie. He really didn't blame her, after how things had gone today... and after other things in the past, which would always cast a heavy shadow between the two of them. But at last, reluctantly, the girl nodded. "All right," she said, "I'll show you his room," and darted up the stairway. Czieska made as though to follow, but Hawkeye put a restrictive hand out and shook her head.
Roy took the stairs slowly, placing each foot carefully to prevent unnecessary jarring that might disturb Ed's sleep. By the time he had reached the top of the stairs and found the open door to the dark bedroom, Winry had pulled back the covers on the bed inside. As the man gently laid Ed down on the sheets, she fumbled with the lamp on the other side of the bed. He could hear her trying unsuccessfully to strike a match.
He caught a gleam of light from the hallway, reflecting on the glass of the lamp. "Let me," he said quietly, and snapped his fingers. Instantly the wick caught and began to burn with a soft glow.
"Thanks," she murmured, setting the lamp on a small table by the head of the bed. As Roy worked the boot off one of Ed's feet, she started on the other. He waited till she'd finished, then pulled the cover up to the boy's shoulders. Winry whispered, "I wonder if we should undo his braid. He sleeps with his hair loose."
"It would probably disturb him," Roy said. "I'd rather we just let him be."
He felt her staring at him, but he didn't look up. "Was he...really upset?" she asked. "Because of Al and his father?"
Roy smiled. "He'll be fine. Things will look better once he's had a good sleep. He's very strong." The man reached down with his ungloved hand, and brushed a lock of hair out of Ed's eyes with light fingers. Slowly the smile faded. "So young, to have lived the things he has," Roy whispered, his throat constricting. "Younger even than I was when..."
He caught himself, remembering where he was, and who was with him. So many things to regret, he thought, as he reluctantly lifted his face to meet Winry's wary gaze. So many things that could never be made right.
Tomorrow, someone would finally tell Ed about Maes Hughes' death: probably Winry, or perhaps Czieska. And tonight's brief rapport would be completely obliterated. Ed would hate him then, for hiding the news this long.
Again Roy brushed gentle fingertips across the golden hair, the backs of his fingers trailing down the boy's cheek. Ed's breath checked for a moment, before he subsided with a little sigh, his face turning toward Roy, head nestling more deeply into the pillow.
Time to go. He didn't belong here. Couldn't belong here.
Roy put on his well-worn smile, the heedless, mocking half-smirk he had used for so long to hide his true face. He cast the smile, beneath downturned lashes, at the girl on the other side of the bed. "I'd say I've done my turn for the evening," he drawled. "I'm sure you're more than capable of restraining him now. Do tell him not to run off and do anything when he gets up, won't you, Miss Rockbell? We'll have news by then that will probably help him decide where he and Al should go next."
"So...Al will go with him? You're sure?"
He stepped away from the bed and started for the door. "Of course he will. He knows Ed needs a constant babysitter. And you can tell Ed I said that; I'm sure it will help him wake up in the morning."
"Colonel Mustang!" A breathless, half-choked call, as though it had burst from her lips of its own accord. "Are you – do you want to – "
Roy stopped halfway through the doorway, a hand on the jamb. He murmured over his shoulder, "Take care of him, Winry. For as long as he lets you. Good night."
Hawkeye waited for him at the bottom of the stairs. "Ready to go now, sir?" she asked.
"I'm done here," he said, and led her from the house.