"Well, Al, I think you're ready to see the secret of the array." Roy presented the young man with a piece of paper decorated with not only an array, but also an explanation encoded around it.
Al took it eagerly.
"You'll have to burn this when you finish, so commit it to memory," Roy warned.
"Yes, sir," Al said, already mesmerized.
Roy didn't let the paper leave his house, so Al nearly became a houseguest for the week. He'd decoded most of it by the third day, but was still trying to work out the nuances of what it meant. At the end of the week, Roy quizzed him, and was convinced the kid knew as much as there was to learn from it. His work as Al's teacher was nearly finished. From here, it was just fine-tuning, which Al would learn with practice. He would be a bystander.
Roy put his hand in his pocket and pulled out an old pair of gloves. He handed them over to Al without a word. Al took them from him a bit in awe.
"These…these are your gloves," he said, looking at Roy uncertainly.
"Are you saying they won't fit?" Roy asked, intentionally misunderstanding his hesitation.
Al swallowed, and put them on. They fit just fine. He looked back at Roy, his eyes wide. "Do you…do you regret what you did? For my brother and me, I mean." Al almost never mentioned the day that had changed Roy's life as irrevocably as his own brush with the Gate as a child. But he needed the reassurance this time.
Roy looked at him, considering thoughtfully. His eyes and face revealed very little about his thoughts, and today was no different.
He'd gotten word that his subordinate was tearing up the streets again. When he arrived on the scene, the MPs didn't know where Ed or Al had run off to. They suggested he follow the explosions. He'd had time to stew on how frustrating Fullmetal was for never telling him about these things in advance, before his fruitless search yielded a red coat disappearing into an alley nearly five blocks away.
By the time he'd arrived…Ed was no longer standing. Evidence of the duel was everywhere – Ed literally tore up the streets when he got into altercations. The other occupant of the alley (besides puddles, a pile of trash, and an old broken table) was armed, dressed all in black and had impossibly pale skin. Roy halted, one hand on his gun and the other poised to snap. His challenge was met with a smirk, as the homunculus tossed aside the spear – Ed's spear, Roy realized suddenly. That was when he saw the blood, and he lost his patience. He blew up the table with enough force to leave only ash as debris – but he maintained enough control to shield both Edward and himself from the blast. Flame alchemy demanded a coolness and control that could not succumb to the heat of the moment.
The homunculus was startled, but not damaged. "My work here is done," the taunting voice claimed, before disappearing onto the rooftops.
Roy ran over to where Ed was slumped, not even propped up against the wall. "Ed! ED!" he called, but got no response. Ed had been skewered with his own transmuted spear, and was leaking a dangerous quantity of blood. "Hold on, Fullmetal," Roy said, getting more worried by the moment. He felt for a pulse, and was alarmed by just how weak it was. "Damn it! I can't lose you. Don't you dare – "
He looked up, foolishly hoping that help would appear in the entrance to the alley. Where were the MPs when you needed them? He looked down at the young man. Ed was small enough, maybe he could pick him up…. Shifting his shoulder to get a grip on the teen, he realized the futility of that plan. As his hand went to support Ed's back, he touched sticky wetness. He sucked in his breath, realizing just how deep Ed's wound was. He was cut clean through. And that automail arm was quite the deadweight; Roy didn't know if he'd be able to manage both that and the leg.
Time was running out, and Roy didn't see any way to save the boy. He'd seen enough mortal wounds before to recognize how tenuously Ed was clinging to life. If they were in a hospital, maybe, but here on a deserted street, Ed was bleeding out, and there was nothing he could do. Roy growled. That was not an option. He was not going to face Al and tell him his brother was gone. What would Ed do? He'd pull off some crazy alchemy and save the person –
And that's when Roy realized there was still one option remaining. Without pause, he drew the transmutation circle he'd learned long ago but never used. It was darkly funny that Ed had lost enough blood for him to use it this way, but he didn't pause to think. He formulated a quick plan, and then crossed the line into forbidden alchemy.
Ed's not dead yet, he told himself as he activated the array….
"No, Al. I'll never regret that," he said at last. "But I would have always regretted it if I'd done nothing but watch your brother's life ebb away."
Al nodded in understanding. "Thank you, for everything." He took a deep breath and focused, giving the gloves a tentative snap. The spark did not startle him, but he did nothing with it. Then he turned to the drawing of the array, and the notes he'd made this week, and very deliberately set them on fire. He watched the smoke rise in the air with determination. "I will use your gift to protect Ed, and others who need it. I promise. I will not let the military twist this."
Roy smiled. "I hope you can keep that promise."
Alphonse shrugged. "I try to keep my promises."
From what Roy knew of Elrics, they were surprisingly good at that.
Ed came to visit not long afterwards, in a rather hectic, dark mood. "We can't stay long," he said, and Mustang believed him. He'd never brought his wife along before. "How's the studying going, Al?" he asked his brother.
"I think I've got it now, but there's a lot of control I'm still working on."
"Show me," Ed insisted. "After all, I'm funding this research, aren't I?"
"I wouldn't want to waste your allotted funds, surely," Roy murmured, smirking at the young man. He kept forgetting that Ed had grown up. It was so easy to think of him as the young teen he'd known all those years ago.
Most of the flammable materials in Mustang's house had been burned over the past month, and the ones that remained were not slated for destruction. So, Al led them outside and transmuted a target in the lawn. He pulled out the gloves, and snapped…and the target went up in flames.
Ed gave him a funny look, his mouth hanging open a bit. Realizing what he was doing, he snapped out of it. "That's great, Al. You can try it on the dog next."
Al gave him a withering look, but it was nothing compared to Winry's. "Edward!" She pulled a stake out of Roy's garden and whacked him on the head with it.
Now it was Roy's turn to stare, dumbfounded. "Edward, remind me never to upset your wife."
"It's necessary, to keep this knucklehead in line," Winry said affectionately, as Ed rubbed the growing lump ruefully. "But you don't have to worry; it's only for family." Al gulped.
"Yeah, yeah, we're not staying long, though," Ed reiterated. "We're going to Risembool, because Granny finally sold the house."
"Yeah, she wrote to me," Al said. "I'm…I'm glad she agreed to move out there, finally." He knew Winry had missed her grandmother terribly, and that not wanting to leave her was the main reason she'd hesitated to marry Ed.
"I'm just glad she found someone to buy the house," Winry said. "I thought for sure no one would want it after we'd used it as an automail shop for all those years. But one of our friends from Rush Valley came to visit, and just fell in love with the town. He couldn't get over how green the place is."
"It is a beautiful part of the country," Roy admitted. "I'm sure your grandmother will find it hard to leave."
Winry frowned. "It's just…that's always been home."
He watched the familiar guilty look creep onto Edward's face. Something more, sacrificed to fulfill his dream. He wondered if there would be anything left, if they reached their goal. A disturbing thought.
"Well, we'd better get going," Ed said.
"Oh no you don't," Winry stopped him. "You're not getting out of this that easily."
"You do it," he whined.
"Fine." She turned to his brother. "Al, you're going to be an uncle."
Al just blinked; it took him about five seconds to figure out what she was saying to him. Then his face lit up and his eyes went wide. "That's wonderful! When?"
"About half a year," she told him.
Roy took a step back, letting Al congratulate his brother and sister-in-law. He felt more than ever that he was intruding on their family, but he also knew that Ed would not appreciate what he had to say about this. Best to save that discussion for a time when Winry wasn't present. Despite her earlier reassurance, he knew he'd get hit for that one. He was polite until they left, all the time reassuring Al that they'd stop in Central on the return trip, so he could see Mrs. Rockbell.
Roy put his cup down, looking out at the sunny Central street. "Your father has an heir again," he said quietly, not looking for a response.
"Alchemy is such a strange tool. It can do so much good, and yet…"
"Like any tool, it depends upon the person who wields it," he said, repeating an old argument between them. Her eyes flicked to the holster at his belt, but she said nothing. "If anyone is responsible enough to wield Flame Alchemy, it is Alphonse Elric. The boy is very careful not to hurt anyone."
"He's not a boy, Roy." The small café was not very busy at this time in the afternoon; he missed the bustle of activity that he remembered from when he used to visit this place more often.
He sighed. "When did they grow up?"
"Years ago. The time flies."
"But I'm standing still," he murmured, looking down at his drink. Somehow, it was easier to look anywhere but at her. "I was able to draw it for him as if it were yesterday."
"Roy," she said, and he looked up suddenly. Her face was kind, but her eyes were so sad. "I told you when you began training him – I do not regret showing you."
A smile ghosted his face, and he fought a losing battle to hide it. The side of his mouth twitched a few times, and he finally said, "You were the first girl to take her shirt off for me, did you know that?"
Her eyes narrowed, and suddenly it was easy for him to look at her, and he no longer hid the smile. "We were both so young then."
"Yes," she agreed, "We were."
Al was nervous and distracted all through the next week. "I don't know why my brother hasn't called yet. How long do you think it will take to pack up Aunt Pinako's things?" he asked for maybe the third time.
"They'll be here soon enough," Roy said tiredly. "You need to focus on what you are doing."
Al looked at him blankly. "No one's ever had to tell me to focus on alchemy before."
"Perhaps you've never worked on such tricky stuff. If even the smallest thing goes wrong here…"
"No, I have," Al said quietly. "Human transmutation is finicky, too, and I was only ten then."
"But you had your brother around to correct your mistakes. If you decide to blow up my house, there's nothing I can do to stop you," Roy pointed out.
"Sorry, sir, I'll stay focused," Al said contritely. Secretly, Roy was thankful that he'd had Al to instruct, and not his brother. Teaching Ed the art of flame alchemy was just asking for trouble; he doubted he would have survived the ordeal.
Speaking of confronting Ed…the opportunity arrived two days later. Al went to their hotel as soon as they arrived in town, and Roy got himself invited over that evening. Mrs. Rockbell's eyes were as keen as ever, but she was showing her age. He understood why Ed and Winry didn't want to leave her alone in Risembool. Waiting until Winry was ensconced in a conversation with her grandmother, he pulled Ed aside.
"We need to talk, Edward," he said in a low voice.
Ed looked up, surprised. "What's wrong now? It's nothing Al did, is it?"
"Al's fine. But I want you to tell me what you think you're doing."
"What do you mean?" He was genuinely confused.
Roy looked back pointedly at Winry through the door to the next room. "Children?" he asked.
"Well, when a man and a woman love each other very much…"
"Cut it out, Ed, I'm being serious. What the hell made you think that kids would be a good idea?"
"Look, bastard, I don't see what makes you think this is any of your business," Ed said heatedly, while managing to keep his voice down. "I don't have to justify myself to you."
"No, perhaps not. But when your children become terrorist targets, you're going to have to justify yourself to Winry."
"Maybe I thought that it wasn't fair to make Winry wait around for me to fulfill all my goals all the time, okay? Did you ever think of that? She wanted a family, and her grandmother isn't getting any younger. She wants to see great-grandbabies, to know Winry is happy and has a family of her own. I can't wait to live until Amestris is fixed; I have to keep living while I try to fix it. What's so wrong about that?"
"There is nothing wrong about having a family, Edward. But you have to know that you are putting them at risk. You can't be naïve about this." He looked away, taking a deep breath. "It's one thing to leave behind a widow. Orphans are another matter."
Ed looked like he couldn't decide whether to be pissed off or horrified. "Look, Al will look after the kid if anything happens to me, okay? And I know my family will be targets, but Winry would have been a target whether I married her or not. I can't let fear rule my life. I appreciate your advice, I really do – but not in this case. I can't make the choices you did."
Now it was Roy's turn to look wary. "What do you mean?"
"C'mon, you don't think people figured out why you never took your best friend's advice? You thought you couldn't afford to have a wife until you got to the top. But that's not the only way to do things."
"When did you figure that out, Ed?"
"I asked Mrs. Hughes about it, before I proposed to Winry. I thought she'd understand."
Roy clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. "Just be careful, Ed. Your personal life is no longer personal when you take public office."
"Thanks for the warning," Ed said, trying to be polite, clearly aware of who was in the next room. "But if that's all you had to tell me this time…"
"Come over before you leave Central; there's something more I want to discuss with you." Ed was still looking skeptical. "Don't worry, it's not personal."
Ed turned to go back into the other room. "Oh, and Ed?" He looked back over his shoulder. "Congratulations. I hope the kid takes after your wife."
Ed smiled. "Me too."