My very first AU fic, though it's not too AU
My very first AU fic, though it's not too AU. It could fit around the end of either the anime (although Roy has both his eyes) or the manga, but not the movie (in other words, Ed and Al never ended up in our world). The story would presuppose that the great political and alchemical problems, in either the manga or anime, have been resolved, so the principal characters would be living fairly normal lives by this point. But Al was still in the armour, until the moment that triggered this story.
Chapter 1 – Reclaiming Life
"Here you go, Alphonse," Roy said, pushing open the door. "This will be your room. And as I said before, feel free to stay as long as you want. In fact…," he hesitated, searching the young man's face, "I hope you'll consider this your home in Central. You can live here permanently, as far as I'm concerned."
Al stood beside him in the doorway, surveying the large bedroom with its double bed, dresser and armoire of polished cherry wood, desk, bookcase, and spacious closet. He looked around for a long time in silence, making no response at all, but at last he turned his large, grey – unbearably sad – eyes upon his host.
"Thank you, general," he murmured. "I haven't had a chance to think that far ahead. But I'm really grateful that you're helping me like this."
'If anything happens to me, will you take care of him? You have to mean it. You have to promise.'
"You can count on it, Al," Roy told his new housemate. "Any time you need me, for any reason, all you need to do is ask."
"Thank you," Al repeated. He bent to retrieve the two suitcases he'd set down on either side of him, but Roy had already picked one up. Al preceded the man into the room and, dropping his case beside the bed, sat on the edge of it. The mattress was very high – in fact, it might have been too high for him to sit on easily, if he were as short as his brother had been. His extra height had been one of the things that had surprised Roy , now that the boy had his human body back. The colour of his eyes had been another one.
Al ran a hand back and forth over the thick, tweedy, dark red surface of the comforter piled on top of the bed, and he smiled a little. "I think this is going to be very comfortable," he said. His voice, at least, was not a surprise, though it was still a novelty, hearing the warm, human timbre infusing his words instead of the old metallic echo.
Roy went to the window, just to the right of the bed, and set the other suitcase beneath it before drawing open the plain brown curtains with a soft swish of fabric. The afternoon sunlight streamed in, a wide strip of brilliance across the ornate carpet he'd bought while in East City , with its repeating red and green pattern of flowers and birds. "The bed should be comfortable," he smiled in return. "It's brand new. I got the best one I could find. I thought you deserved it after all those years sleeping in strange beds or under…the…stars…"
Wrong thing to say, and he realized it immediately. As he turned back toward the bed he saw the spasm of anguish pass across Al's features before the boy could stifle it. Al averted his drawn face, closing his eyes, his throat working soundlessly.
"I'm sorry," Roy murmured, putting a hand on his shoulder. He knew how his young friend needed the sensation of touch, as he continued to settle into his newly restored body. "I'm sorry I reminded you."
"It's okay, general," Al whispered, voice shaking. "It's not like we're never going to talk about him. Actually…I couldn't stand that."
"I know. Neither could I." Roy moved around and sat heavily on the bed beside the young man. "I think we have to get used to the idea that it's going to hurt when we think of him, but we should never try to keep ourselves from talking about him. That would be worse. It would hurt us – and it would dishonour him."
Al nodded, sniffling. He pulled a handkerchief from his shirt pocket, and wiped his eyes. As he folded it up again, he said, "Can I ask you a question, General Mustang?"
"Of course. And please, Al…why don't you start calling me Roy? I was Ed's boss, not yours, and we've been through enough by now that I think – I hope – we're good friends at this point, and don't need to be formal."
'You're the only one I know I can trust. I know I've never really admitted it before, but I'd trust you with anything. Even my life. And most of all my brother's life.'
"Okay. Roy . Maybe that's the answer to my question, then."
"Why you're doing this. I mean, I'm grateful and everything, but I never expected this sort of help from you." Al lifted wide, earnest eyes to the older man's face, searching it uncertainly.
"Well…like I said, we've been through a lot together, and I kind of started thinking of you boys as…," Roy shrugged awkwardly, "…as family, I guess. It's been a long time since I… Anyway, I enjoyed starting to feel as though I could be like family to some of the people I cared about. Then I lost Maes…and now Ed…"
Dammit, now his voice was shaking too, and there were even tears, and he was supposed to be strong, be a shoulder for Al to cry on, not start blubbering himself! Roy blinked rapidly, jaw set, staring at the fists clenched in his lap, determined not to let the tears really get started. But he didn't dare speak again, not yet. The first crack in his voice and he'd lose control, and that wouldn't help Al at all.
A hand crept into his field of vision, taking one of his fists, opening the fingers, and placing the handkerchief there. He clutched it tightly, knowing it was hopeless, and the tears burst through the dam and began flowing of their own accord, in streams down his cheeks. He glanced at Al's face and saw that the boy was crying too now, the grief screaming from his desolate eyes.
Roy put his arms around his companion and pulled the slender form close – telling himself that it was only because the boy needed the physical contact after all this time – and they wept together. "I'm so sorry, Al," he whispered. "So very sorry."
"Why did this have to happen?" Alphonse mourned, his shoulders shaking. "Why now, after everything we'd been through? Why did Ed have to go and die?"
'Why are you asking this now, Edward?'
'Oh, no actual reason. I realized I should have asked you a long time ago, just in case. Only a formality, really.'
Roy deftly chopped the chicken breast into chunks on the cutting board, while Al stirred the heavy kettle of soup with a wooden spoon. The boy leaned over the pot and breathed slowly and deeply, eyes closed. Then he did it again, as he absorbed the rich aromas: the mellowed sweetness of caramelized onions and carrots, the sharp bite of celery and tang of parsley, the smooth chicken-scented body of the broth.
So many years without smelling anything! And now, after the sudden transformation two weeks ago that had restored his body, whole and functional and even appropriately aged, Al tended to walk around sniffing everything, like a little dog. In addition, of course, to running his hands over the surfaces of most of the things he passed.
It tended to take a long time, these days, to walk a block with the kid.
Though as he looked past the boy now, toward the sink, at the darkened window above it that overlooked the back yard, Roy admitted he'd been inspired to notice things in the last few days that he hadn't paid attention to for a long time. Watching Al rub the petals of a rose between fingers and thumb this afternoon when Roy had shown him the garden, and seeing the bliss on the boy's face as he encompassed the soft texture and the fragrance simultaneously, had made the man stand and look around the garden as though he'd never seen it before.
A large, rectangular herb and vegetable patch just behind the house gave way to a lush lawn, bordered with raised beds of flowers. He'd always had someone else do the planting and landscaping, but…maybe he'd start putting his own hand in occasionally. He could only imagine how Al would react to the green, earthy smell of newly-dug dirt. Chuckling to himself, he'd speculated that he might never get the kid inside again.
Now Roy gathered the chunks of chicken into his hands and, with a tilt of his head, motioned for his young helper to make room. He lifted the pile over to the pot, and lowered his hands to drop the chicken in. "You're going to love the smell when this heats up," he smiled.
He just hoped the chunks weren't too solid for Al's stomach to handle yet. The boy had hardly eaten at all, the first couple of days he'd had his body back, but that was understandable considering the circumstances. When things had calmed down a little, though, he'd tried to eat a normal, solid meal after everyone insisted he needed to get some nourishment. Then he'd been horribly sick with stomach cramps for hours afterward. It was Pinako Rockbell, newly arrived with Winry for the State funeral, who had reminded everyone that Al's body had essentially been fasting for a very long time, and would have to work slowly and gradually back up to solid food.
Since then, everything he'd eaten had been strained or pureed or mushed, and the most solid thing he'd eaten, late in the second week, had been necessarily (but criminally, to Roy 's taste) overcooked pasta. The food had helped the boy's gaunt body begin to flesh out, but still Roy had observed Al's frustration steadily growing at the mushy diet. So now that Al had moved out of the hotel where he'd been staying with the Rockbells, and had escaped Pinako's eagle eye, his new host decided to see if he could introduce something more solid.
Once they had composed themselves after their mutual breakdown earlier this afternoon in the bedroom, he had asked, "What do you say we try some chicken chunks in a broth for supper, and see how well your stomach handles it?" The shining gratitude in Al's eyes had been his reward.
Now Roy added, "We'll still heat the chicken longer than normal, to make sure the chunks are as tender as possible. And I chopped them smaller than I usually do." He grabbed a spoon, dipped it in and took a sip, then grabbed a pinch of salt from a small bowl on the counter and tossed it into the broth.
"It doesn't matter," Al responded fervently. "Even those soft cubes of carrot have got me excited."
Roy laughed, and went to set the table while Al continued stirring. And breathing.
Just as the soup was done, and Roy had brought the pot to the table to begin ladling their supper into a pair of wide, plain white soup bowls, a knock at the door heralded an unexpected visitor. He heard the door open, and leaned back far enough to see Lieutenant Hawkeye peering into the long front hallway. "Come on in, Hawkeye!" he called. "We're just about to have some soup. I'll get another bowl."
The woman walked down the hall and paused in the doorway to the kitchen. She must have gone home from the office before coming here, because she'd changed out of her uniform into plain navy slacks and a white shirt, and had released her hair to hang down her back, confined loosely with a clip. She surveyed the little domestic scene, the boy sitting at the polished wooden table and the man standing with soup pot in one hand and a ladle in the other, and she smiled.
"I'm not planning to stay, sir. I just wanted to see how Alphonse was settling in. How are you doing, Al?"
He smiled back at her. "I'm doing fine, lieutenant. General Mus – I mean Roy – he's got a very nice house, and a beautiful garden. I'm sure I'm going to like it here."
"Good. I thought you'd probably enjoy the garden. It's the envy of everyone in the neighbourhood. And you know something, general…" Hawkeye paused significantly.
"Yes?" Roy regarded her suspiciously, knowing the deviousness behind that overly wide-eyed expression on her face.
"It seems to me that this house very much feels the lack of a kitten or two."
Yep. Devious. But as Roy looked down at Al, to see the boy's eyes brighten despite all efforts to appear impassive, he smiled as he continued portioning out the soup. "I believe you're right, lieutenant," he nodded. "What do you say, Al? After we get back from Risembool, should we get a couple of kittens?"
"Are you sure?" the boy asked carefully, watching the older man's face, the merest hint of wariness in his eyes.
He'd been like that for two weeks, Roy realized with a pang. Pleasant and cooperative, accepting everyone's sympathy but never quite asserting his own desires, never quite committing himself in case it led to yet another loss. It was going to take a long, long time for him to heal.
'He's always been the strong one, you know. But if something ever happens, you'd pretty much need to become his big brother. Because that's when he'd need a brother, more than ever.'
"I'm very sure," Roy answered. "I think you'd enjoy having a couple of kittens for company. This house has been too empty for too long. I hope you'll help me finally bring some life into it." Al made no answer, lowering his eyes to the steaming soup, and breathing in the aromas as they drifted up from the bowl.
"Well," Hawkeye said, "I just wanted to say hello, and see how you were doing. I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow, Alphonse, or else at the train station the next day. Have a good evening."
"See you later, lieutenant," he replied softly, still breathing, eyes closed.
Leaving Al to start in on his soup, Roy accompanied Hawkeye to the door, following her outside and shutting it behind him. He leaned back against it, eyes wandering over the small front yard with its border of low hedging. There was still some light in the western sky, though the sun had now sunk below the horizon. To the east, however, the first twinkling stars had begun to appear. "The kid's still pretty subdued," he commented quietly. "We both had a bad moment just after he arrived, but we seemed to get through it."
"I just hope he can get through the next few days too," the woman sighed.
Roy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. A sweet, growing smell permeated the cool evening air, and he wondered if he should bring Al outside to sample it. Not tonight, he decided. Maybe tomorrow. Though he'd have other things on his mind by this time tomorrow.
"Tomorrow's going to be toughest of all," Roy said, "going through the boys' dormitory room and cleaning out all of Ed's belongings. I'm glad Winry and Pinako will be there. If he breaks down, I doubt I can help him, but they're like his family, so that should make some difference."
Family. Every part of this tragedy seemed to revolve around that. And he – he – was somehow supposed to take the place of Alphonse's big brother? How would he ever do this?
A touch on his arm brought his attention back to his companion. He could see the warm compassion in Hawkeye's gaze even in the dim light. " Roy , you're doing fine. One day at a time, isn't that what they say? That's how Al's getting through this, after all. And don't think you can't show your own grief either. I think he'll be more comforted knowing you're grieving, than he would if you never showed anything."
Roy nodded, remembering the shared sorrow earlier in the afternoon, and how both he and Al had seemed briefly cleansed by it, even lightened somehow. "I suppose you're right," he answered. "We'll get through tomorrow – and then the week in Risembool when we take Ed's body back – and maybe once we get back to Central, we can finally start sorting things out and find a way to go on from here." He cast a sidelong smile at Hawkeye. "I'm sure the kittens will help."
"Yes," she agreed, with more than a trace of smugness, "I'm sure they will."
He almost expected Al to be finished the soup by the time he returned to the kitchen, but the boy seemed to have learned a lesson from the last time he'd tried solid food. He wasn't even halfway through his bowl, and sat chewing something with intense concentration when Roy slipped into his own chair.
"Got some chicken there, do you?" the man asked.
Al nodded. "It's pretty soft, but I'm making sure everything is chewed really well. And it's such an interesting thing."
"Chewing. I never paid attention to it before. But you have all those tastes and different textures at once…" He fell silent again as he lifted another spoonful to his mouth, and slowly sipped a mouthful of the broth.
Roy noted how the boy's hand trembled very slightly as he raised the spoon. Al could manage all the basic movements, but his muscles were understandably weak and uncoordinated. It took a lot of effort to control them when more precise actions were required, and the strain always began to show toward the end of the day as he grew tired. Still, he was better than he'd been two weeks ago, when he'd barely been able to hold a spoon, let alone guide it to his mouth. His body was remembering its old skills very quickly.
They ate in companionable silence, talking only occasionally. Al decided not to have a second bowl, even though there was plenty of soup left in the pot. "I want to make sure it's going to digest without any problems," he explained. "It feels good so far, but I don't want to push it yet."
"If that sits all right through the night," Roy suggested, "maybe I can make you some oatmeal for breakfast, and add some softened apple chunks."
Al once again lowered his eyes to his empty bowl. "I'm not sure I'll be able to eat anything tomorrow," he murmured, brows drawing together.
Roy put a hand on his forearm. "You'll get through it. We'll all be there to help."
Shortly afterward, although Al gamely tried to participate in the kitchen cleanup, it was clear that he'd finally consumed almost all his reserves of energy. As he tried to gather up the utensils from the table, he fumbled them with unsteady hands, and they clattered all over the floor. Roy whirled around from his place at the sink, in time to see the boy drop back into his chair and cover a suddenly white face.
"I'm sorry – I'm so sorry!" Al cried.
In two strides, Roy was at his side, going to one knee beside the chair. He put a gentle hand on Al's hair. "Hush, Alphonse. There's nothing to apologize for. You're exhausted – I should have realized that."
"But I – but I dropped – "
"It doesn't matter. I'll get them later. Right now, we're putting you to bed."
He helped the boy to his feet and guided him to the staircase in the hall. Then, realizing that Al would never manage to climb all those stairs in his exhausted state, he stooped, picked the young man up in his arms, and carefully carried him up. It almost frightened him, how light Al was, how fragile, still. Roy wished with all his heart that the boy hadn't insisted on journeying back to Risembool so soon.
Al's head fell against his chest as they climbed. "This used to be me," he murmured, "carrying Ed when he'd been injured. He'd hate that I'm so weak now."
Roy shook his head. "He'd love that you had your body back, and were learning to use it again."
He carried Al all the way into the bedroom, laying him on the bed. He began to get the room ready for the night, pulling the curtains shut while Al managed to drag one of the suitcases onto the bed, rummaging for the new set of pajamas Winry had picked out for him. Even going as slowly as he needed to, it didn't take long before the youngster had changed, visited the bathroom (being a bit more steady on his feet after sitting for a minute), and crawled into bed.
"I was right," he smiled, his eyes already closing, "this bed is very comfortable…"
"Good. Then have a good sleep, Alphonse, and you'll feel a lot better in the morning."
Roy hovered nearby, watching as the boy sank irresistibly into slumber. Al's lashes fringed down over the dark circles under his eyes, the flush on his cheeks only serving to accentuate the pallor of his skin. They'd have to be careful about overdoing it from now on. Still, in mere moments, the boy's breathing had settled into a slow, healthy rhythm. Keep increasing the bulk of his diet and giving him as much sleep as possible, and he'd continue to grow stronger.
Roy pulled the bedroom door half-shut as he left, leaving a lamp burning on a small table in the hallway to make sure Al would still be able to see a little light if he woke up. Then the man went back down the stairs (noting that squeaky step that he'd now have to fix), and returned to the kitchen to finish up the dishes.
When he had washed the last bowl, setting it to dry with the other dishes on the rack beside the sink, he decided to go to bed early as well, since he'd found the day pretty draining himself. The next few days would likely be just as exhausting as this one – in fact, tomorrow would undoubtedly be worse – so he'd better stock up whatever emotional energy he could, in preparation.
But he didn't quite get the long, undisturbed sleep he'd hoped for. After only a couple of hours, he woke from a vaguely disturbing dream to hear the muffled sound of crying from the bedroom next door. He rolled onto his back and laid there, gazing indecisively up at his dark ceiling for several moments. A sliver of moon gradually appeared through a gap in the curtains, and he watched the thin line of white light creep across the far wall above his desk. Still the sound continued, and at last he threw back the covers, pulled on a robe and, absently tying the belt around his waist, ventured into the hallway.
When he elbowed Al's door open a little further, he could see in the lamplight slanting in from the hall that the boy was still asleep. But the light gleamed from dampness on his cheeks, and he continued to cry in his dreams, softly and steadily, head tossing back and forth, fingers clutching convulsively at the covers.
After hesitating again, fighting against his own sorrow, Roy sat on the bed and pulled the blanket partway down, then carefully drew the youngster into his arms as he leaned back into the pillows. Al settled against him with a sigh, and he laid his cheek against the boy's ruffled brown hair, closing his eyes. Within moments, Al's uneven breathing began to steady, and slowly the crying stopped.
"You're safe, Alphonse," Roy whispered, the tears rising again in his own throat. "You're safe. I've got you."
Safe. In a way that, despite all the man's efforts, Edward had not been safe, though cradled in the same way his brother now was, in Roy Mustang's arms. Participant in a massive battle against rogue alchemy that had drawn in all the greatest alchemists in Central, felled in the end by a stray bullet – a bullet! – lying in the general's arms, the lifeblood draining from him as he saw his brother's armoured body, caught in the powerful alchemic forces swirling all about them, fading away and transmuting at last into human form, into Al's real, human body.
Dying. And smiling.
'Good,' he had whispered, the last words he ever spoke. 'Good. Oh, Alphonse…'
"Ed," Roy whispered, brushing his lips against the younger brother's hair as he wept. "Oh, Ed."