End of the Bargain
Author's Note: This one-shot is in honor of cocoamint, who had the luck of being my 300th reviewer in Array of Sacrifice, and Sera and Tails, who's been an extraordinary reviewer thus far. Tails' prompt was a to write drabble with Hohenheim, Alphonse and Ed set in Amestris. This was quite a challenge, believe you me... I'd never written Hohenheim before, so I've no clue how well I captured his character... and the piece was getting so long that I didn't even see it ending. But finally, the end magically came to me early this morning.
And so, five or so months after the due date, I finally have this finished.
I hope you are not disappointed.
Soft clacks on the checker-patterned tile floor, steady and measured like a wind-up metronome. Footsteps.
He wasn't hurrying.
Light from the open rooms he passed lit his face and struck his glasses in an eerie rhythm, on-off-on-off-on…still on…
Where on earth was this room, really? 354, and he hadn't even left the one hundreds yet… but just as well, though. He could use the time to think.
On second thought, perhaps it was better not to.
(Thinking leads to speculation, speculation leads to thoughts he'd rather not have, and these thoughts would only cause him to remember those other days, how much better and easier it was back then, and of course that would bring him to how life had screwed him over. Or had he been the one to ruin it all? He wasn't all too clear about that, but he felt believing otherwise was probably healthier.)
Two-hundreds, finally. Was it just him, or was this building simply immense? Didn't look it from the outside, but appearances can deceive. (He should know.) They built them so big these days… Of course, he remembered that back then they were bigger. More inefficient, true, too grandiose and extravagant, but also a lot less austere. Despite the reality of slavery, it was… much more happy. Although maybe it was unfair of him to expect a simple, nondescript Amestrian hospital to measure up to the Xerxes' emperor's summer palace.
There wasn't much to compare, really.
He wasn't very good at distracting himself. And his feet certainly weren't quickening their pace. He knew this for a fact, because he had looked at his watch and timed his steps accordingly. The soft tick of the second hand – he could hear it still – resounded throughout his head with each stride he took. Empty space.
Rushing would also not change what he'll find, he knew. If he'd wanted to hurry, he should have started a long, long time ago.
…Odd numbers on the right, so the room must be to his left. His eyes peered at the tag on each door.
The handle clicked at his touch. The door opened smoothly, unceremoniously. No squeak, no protest at being opened.
If only everything could be so easy.
A boy he knew he should recognize raised his head, and a glad smile – Trisha's – spread across the round, open face. "You came!" he exclaimed, hastily setting aside the book in his lap. His hands seemed uncertain of what to do with themselves, and eventually settled stiffly on either side of him, looking as if at any moment they might move and fly away.
The man met the sincere hazel eyes and, despite not having seen the child since he was small enough to be held in his arms, knew instantly how remarkable his youngest son was. Not for how handsome he was – though he certainly was that – nor for how intelligent; although surely the spark in his eye and the book on the bedside table could only attest to the fact. But he didn't look or sound surprised in the least to see his father standing there, as if his presence was only to be expected.
And that, Hohenheim felt, was truly something incredible.
He smiled gently, marveling how he felt completely at ease with this boy he'd never really met. "I'm sorry I couldn't come earlier. Lieutenant Hawkeye only told me that you were here two days ago."
Alphonse's eyes widened, and Hohenheim noticed with amusement that his hands fluttered about like agitated butterflies as he spoke, frail and pale. "Oh, it's okay! Please sit down! Did you find us okay? Are you hungry? I can tell the nurse to come and get us something if you are. Do you want some water?"
He chuckled under the barrage of questions. "Thank you, Alphonse, but no need to bother anyone on my account," he said, and sighed comfortably as his large frame melted into a padded metal chair. "Good chair," he complimented it contentedly. "Nice room you have here," he remarked, louder, looking around.
Al shrugged. "It's okay." He leaned forward, hands poised lightly on the bed as if eager to get him to stand, except his legs were stubbornly, silently still. "How are you? Where were you when Hawkeye called? How did she know to find you?"
"Coincidence, really," he replied, placing his hands on his knees and sitting up straight. "I happened to pass her on the street in Central several days ago, and she told me to stay in the area."
"Oh," his son let out slowly, and stared down to his lap. "So it was just… coincidence…" he cut himself off and looked up anxiously. "Not that I'm not glad that you're here!" he exclaimed, clearly worried about having somehow offended.
He gave a smile to show it was all right, privately thinking that he'd given up the right to be offended long ago. "I'm glad I'm here too, Alphonse. Now tell me, how are you?"
Alphonse's naturally smiling face almost glowed. "I'm fine," he said in what was surely a gross understatement. "It's good to be me again."
"I can imagine," Hohenheim said with a smile. "How long are they keeping you in here for?"
"At least two more weeks to make sure everything's all right," the boy answered. "They were really worried because I was so thin when I came in and couldn't stomach anything – but I finished half my dinner last night, so I really think I'm getting better." His smile was contagious. "I can't walk yet, not even with help, and it's still hard to pick things up or do anything with my hands, but I can learn to do these things at home, I think."
"As long as…" He caught himself. He didn't really have the right to say anything anymore. "That's great, Al. Just don't push yourself too hard."
Al made a face. "Everyone tells me that. You'd think I was Brother."
Hohenheim laughed. "They're worried about you. And they probably know that you'd do anything to get out of that bed."
Al's smile faded, and he looked down at the covers over to his left, near his bedside table, where a tawny head was nestled in the crook between two limp arms, one made of automail.
Hohenheim's heart skipped a beat.
"Not anything," Al said softly.
"How is he?" the man asked, more quietly.
"Out like a log," Alphonse said affectionately, still gazing at his brother, not quite answering. "Don't worry about being too loud. Brother hasn't slept properly for ages. He'll wake up when his body lets him – which will be a while." He looked up. "You'll still be here?"
He fought not to swallow. "I will."
"Good. I think…" the boy paused for a moment. "I think he should get to see you. He'll be happy, I think. Even if he doesn't show it."
"He usually doesn't," he replied, a tiny bit of humor coloring his voice. "Not that I don't understand, of course."
"He's pretty immature sometimes," Al said, shaking his head, "but he's grown up a little. I don't think he'll attack you this time."
"I hope not," he said, giving into a smile.
"Then again, you can never tell with Brother. I wouldn't stand too close if I were you." Despite a spark of amusement, his eyes said he wasn't entirely joking.
"I'll keep that in mind." He waited, and then asked again, in a tone that was as gentle as he could make it, "How is he really, Al?"
Alphonse stared at his motionless legs for a long moment.
"He doesn't do alchemy anymore."
He was taken aback. "What?"
"Brother says that now that I have my body back, there's no need for alchemy. He said that alchemy is what caused this whole…" he searched for a word, then settled awkwardly on "…mess. So now he doesn't want to have anything to do with it. He doesn't even like to hear people talk about it." He stopped, then said in an almost whisper, "He wants to turn in his watch."
Hohenheim frowned. "That doesn't sound like him."
Al nodded vigorously. "That's what the Colonel said too. But Brother yelled at him when he asked, and then he said Brother has the right to do what he wants now that he doesn't need the military anymore." He paused. "I don't think he believed what he was saying though."
Hohenheim inclined his head. "That's probably true." Although he'd only met him a few times, Ed's commander had seemed very perceptive, and considering how long Ed had served under him it was only reasonable to assume that he wouldn't be easily fooled by Ed's antics. "You know him the most, Al. What do you think about this?"
Al looked down again as he considered the question. "Brother loves alchemy. He loves the possibilities, the challenge, even the rules of it. I think…" His eyes widened, and he spoke slowly as he raised his head, "…I think the only reason he'd stop doing alchemy is if he couldn't."
Hohenheim gazed back steadily, his face expressionless. "Do you think that's possible?"
Biting his lip, Alphonse answered softly.
"I don't know."
He stayed for lunch.
They made a sort of improvised picnic on Al's bed. Hohenheim used a thin colorful blanket he'd found in one of the cabinets as a makeshift tablecloth, and once the nurse had come with their food and left they whipped it out on the bed and sat on it (Hohenheim had to bodily pick Alphonse up, as the latter couldn't on his own), feeling slightly daring. They weren't quite so adventurous as to set Al's bowl of soup on the bed, however - Al protested that as long as they were both careful nothing would spill, but Hohenheim thought it best not to tempt fate - and as a result Alphonse had to constantly reach over Ed's head to the bedside table every time his hands tired or he felt like taking a rest, which inevitably meant that after a while the yellow strands collected several miscellaneous vegetables, as well as the odd piece of chicken. At first Alphonse had worried the constant jostling (as well as his clumsy attempts to clean the soup-drenched hair) would disturb his brother's rest, but when Edward started snoring softly they figured it was all right.
"So then Brother just sat there, covered with flour and honey, and I was so busy laughing that I didn't notice when the kitten inside my chestplate got out – the poor thing was so scared that it jumped on Ed the moment it could, right on his shoulder. Ed was so surprised that he just stood there in shock, and then it started licking the honey right off his nose!" Al laughed aloud at the memory. "His face was priceless!"
Hohenheim laughed with him. "Sounds like a mess."
Al nodded, eyes sparking with humor. "And that's why baking with Brother when he's distracted is not a good idea," he concluded, setting the bowl on the table one final time. He'd eaten so little that Hohenheim had worried, but his son reassured him that it was normal, and in fact better than the day before. At least today I can pick up the fork without getting tired, he had said with a shining smile.
…Hohenheim didn't quite know what to make of that.
"I'll remember," he smiled, feeling a strange sense of contentment flow over him. There was no place he'd rather be than right here with both his sons.
Alphonse suddenly sniggered again. "His face…!" he burst out.
Groan. Yawn. Then, slurred mumble.
"…What are you blabbering on about, Al?"
Al froze, shooting a slightly panicked glance at Hohenheim. "I'm… talking to Dad… about… stuff."
Rustle as the flesh arm stretched and again settled contentedly beneath a pink cheek.
Then, a sudden stop.
"Wait," the voice was significantly more coherent this time, "what was that, Al?"
"Talking to Dad, Brother," he answered again, sounding slightly annoyed.
The golden head jerked up suddenly, and for the first time since they met at the Rockbells', Hohenheim met eyes as fiercely yellow as his own.
Ed seemed to weigh several responses. Finally he let out, cautiously, "Van Hohenheim?"
He didn't care that his son called him by name. Really, he didn't. "That would be my name, Ed."
"…The fuck are you doing here?"
"Visiting you boys, as it happens," he answered tranquilly. "I heard congratulations were in order."
"No thanks to you," Edward snapped back sharply. "What the hell made you think you have a right to come see us?"
"Brother," Al interjected sternly, "stop being a jerk. Just because you don't want Dad here doesn't mean I don't. This happens to be my room, remember."
Ed looked incredulous. "This asshole fucking abandoned us, fucking left Mom, shows up only after everything turns out okay, and you want to have a nice little chitchat with him? What the hell are you on, Al? Should I tell Kimbley to come over for a cup of tea, too?"
Al crossed his arms. "That's going too far, Ed," the other boy said firmly. "Dad's nothing like Kimbley."
Ed looked away. "Whatever." He hesitated, then looked vaguely at the air in Hohenheim's direction and mumbled stiffly, "Sorry."
He smiled thinly. "Don't worry about it."
After a moment, the boy yawned and jerked his head to shake the sleep away, yellow locks dangling against his neck, when a puzzled frown suddenly appeared on his face. His hand rose slowly to thread through his hair, where it soon encountered something large and very not hair-like.
He pulled it away and stared at it for a couple of bewildered seconds.
"Why do I have tomatoes in my hair?"
Alphonse fell asleep in the middle of a conversation about Xingan literature. Edward gently tucked him under the blankets, looking rather tired himself.
Hohenheim watched him silently.
Ed leaned back in his chair, spent. "He's going to run me to the ground someday," he grumbled softly under his breath, but his eyes were fond and warm as he gazed at his little brother.
And for the first time, Hohenheim truly understood how his eldest had taken up the role of both parent and brother. Those eyes, that face, that wry little complaint that didn't mean a thing…
It was all Trisha's.
He smiled sadly. "You've grown up, Ed."
The boy tensed, as if he'd forgotten Hohenheim's presence, then forcibly relaxed.
"It's been a while," he said shortly, not looking at his father.
"It has," he agreed.
Ed didn't offer up a response. For once, he seemed rather uninterested in continuing the conversation with Hohenheim, whether with thinly-veiled insults or straight up accusations.
And when he thought about it, Hohenheim thought he knew why.
"What did it take from you?" he asked abruptly.
…The look on Ed's face was a priceless mix of astonishment, horror, and something that in an alternate universe might have passed for awe, but Edward quickly masked it with a look of irritation. "...The fuck?"
"The Gate, Ed," he repeated patiently. "What did it take in exchange for Al?"
Gold glared into gold.
"Nothing," the boy finally replied straightforwardly. "My array was perfect. I knew what I was doing."
Hohenheim looked on quietly. "You have the habit of being rash, Edward."
"You have the habit of leaving family behind, Dad."
His son would never know how much that stung. "You and Al did fine on your own," he replied mildly, heart aching. "Really, Edward, I would have thought you'd have gotten over it by now."
"You bastard-" Ed started shouting furiously, but then suddenly stopped to cough hoarsely, covering his mouth with a shaking hand. It was a cold, harsh noise, and struck Hohenheim as oddly ominous.
"Ed!" he started forward, but the boy quickly raised his hand up to stop him.
"I'm fine," he squeezed out in between the coughs that racked his small frame, "just got… something caught… in… my throat… what's that look for?" he asked irritably, noticing that Hohenheim was staring at the hand he was still holding up. "Do I have something on my -" he shut up as he pulled in his hand and saw what was steadily dripping down to his wrist.
Hohenheim's eyes quickly flicked over to meet Edward's perturbed gaze. "You're sick," he said, stating the obvious because he knew that otherwise his bullheaded son would simply ignore it.
"I have a cough. So what?" Ed dismissed uneasily, glaring into Hohenheim's eyes. "I'm completely fine, Hohenheim."
The man didn't reply, instead craning over the bed to pick up Alphonse's tray from the bedside table. As he rose to pull it back, however, the ceramic bowl tipped over dangerously, and he had barely the time to call out Ed's name in warning before it toppled and started falling right over the sleeping Al.
A second later, a large hand had been transmuted out of the wall, neatly catching the bowl and its spilled contents.
Hohenheim sighed in relief, then calmly picked up the bowl and with a touch of his hand, returned the wall to its original condition. "So you can transmute after all -" he said, turning to look at his oldest son -
Ed had dropped to all fours on the floor, gagging on air, yellow strands of hair dripping with sweat. A pool of blood was gathering neatly on the floor, and the bony shoulders - Hohenheim had never realized how small and fragile they were - trembled, struggling valiantly against gravity.
"Edward!" he cried out in alarm, quickly getting to the boy's side. "Edward!"
Ed took a long, gasping breath, forcing his body to calm down. He wiped his mouth with his hand and shakily sat up, shooting Hohenheim a look that was either full of hate or full of fright. Or maybe a mix of both.
"Of-of course I c-can transmute, y-you ass… asshole," he managed weakly.
"What did the Gate take, Edward? Tell me and I'll try to fix it," he said urgently.
Faint, ironic laughter. "It hasn't taken a th-thing, yet."
"Then this…?" Hohenheim gestured vaguely at the bed, the blood, Ed's sheet-white face.
The boy looked at him quietly, as if making a decision.
"It's taking my life."
For some reason, Hohenheim found it hard to breathe. Missing parts, he could stand. Misarranged organs, he could do something about. But this… this blatant loss of his son's life…
He had always known he would outlive any children of his. But so early…? Like this…?
"W-why?" he asked desperately.
Ed looked away. "I wanted to see Al," he replied simply. "I couldn't let it take me away without seeing that he was okay."
Hohenheim closed his eyes, trusting that the boy wasn't seeing how much he was… affected. "How long do you have?"
Careless shrug. "Don't know. A good couple of years, I think. Enough to make sure that Al will be okay, and that the Gate's keeping its end of the bargain."
"And you're… fine with that?" he said unbelievingly, having expected his son to fight, to struggle, to do everything in his power to defy fate… where was the famous stubbornness?
"It sucks," Ed replied frankly. "I hate that I'm losing to that bastard Truth." He looked at his brother, expression soft yet unreadable. "But as long as Al's back in his body, I don't really care."
"Why avoid alchemy?"
Ed shrugged uncomfortably. "Every time I transmute… I can see the Gate. And I'd rather…" he swallowed, then put on a courageous show of bravado, "rather not see the smirking son of a bitch until I absolutely have to."
Hohenheim only nodded tightly, not knowing how to reply. Silently he helped Ed up to a chair and covered him with a thin blanket, eyeing the boy's shivers with concern. The latter had been reluctant to accept his help, but too weak and unsteady on his legs to truly protest the aid from his father.
"Dad?" Ed said sleepily, eyes unwillingly fluttering shut.
"Make sure Al's all right… after, okay?"
Long, aching pause.
"I'll take care of him. I promise."
The next day Alphonse woke up like he had every morning since he'd regained his body - with Ed's smiling face being the first thing he saw.
"How're you doing, Al?"
He grinned back. "I think I'm ready to start walking today."
His brother's eyes twinkled. "That's great, Al. So you slept well?"
"Like a log," answered Alphonse. "You?"
"Well, when your snores didn't keep me up, pretty damn well."
"You're such a liar, Brother! I don't snore!"
"That's what you think, Al," Ed teased merrily. "I'm the one who has to listen to it every night."
"Liar," Al repeated huffily. He yawned and stretched, then stopped as he suddenly remembered something. His eyes searched the room, and when they didn't find their target they went back to Ed. "Brother? Where's Dad?"
Ed shrugged noncommittally. "Left, I think."
"Oh," Al said, and didn't quite manage to cover up his disappointment. "What happened?"
"We talked for a little while," Ed answered, ignoring Al's incredulous expression, "and then he had to leave. Said he'd be coming to check up on us more often now though," Ed said, his expression strangely unreadable.
Al looked down bitterly, knotting his fists. "So what does that mean? Another ten years?"
His brother gazed out the window and didn't reply.
Forgive me, little brother.