End of an Era

Alphonse glanced up from his reading as a particularly bright flash of lightning outside shone through the window and momentarily brightened the room. He mentally frowned and counted slowly to himself for about eight seconds before a loud boom of thunder assaulted him and shook the window panes.

His mind strayed from the alchemy text he'd been reading as he idly thought about shockwaves created by lightning—the rapid heating of air, then the explosion after it expands and compresses the air immediately around the heated area.

As a large metal suit of armor, Al both feared and dismissed storms like these. Because he was tall and made of metal, he was a great target for lightning; especially out in open spaces. This usually made him nervous if he and his brother were out together. The lightning probably wouldn't destroy him, but if Ed was too near...

The clock on the wall chimed and Al glanced at it. Five o'clock. Ed was supposed to be back by now... He'd left around two o'clock to have some meeting with Colonel Mustang. He'd said that he shouldn't be any later than three o'clock.

He glanced at the phone, wondering if perhaps he should give Central Headquarters a call. It wasn't unheard of for brother to have long meetings with the colonel, but he usually knew in advance if they were going to be long; and, if he didn't, then he usually called to let Al know he'd be later than planned.

If Ed was still at Central Headquarters, Al was pretty sure he would have called. That led him to believe his brother must have gotten stuck out in this horrible storm. Feeling indecisive, he closed the book, stood up, and walked over to the window. The rain was beating hard against the thick glass and if he wasn't so worried about Ed, Al probably would have found the sound soothing.

Al scanned the world outside the window and through the rain. In good weather, they'd probably have another three hours of daylight. Today though, it was already dismally dark with the low, black clouds, and Al had a suspicion Central City would see 'night' in another hour or so.

Folding his massive metal arms across his chest, Al wondered if this would end up in brother staying overnight at Central Headquarters, or even with Colonel Mustang. It had happened before; not very often, but it had. And Al was glad that the colonel was willing to let his brother stay with him at such times.

He glanced back at the phone.

But Ed always called...

Al tapped his fingers nervously against his hollow arm, making small and empty sounding 'tongs' as he did so.

Brother was late. Brother hadn't called. Brother could be caught out in this horrible storm. Brother might still be at Central Headquarters. Brother might be in trouble. Brother might get irritated at being checked on if everything was okay. Brother might appreciate the concern if he was in trouble...

The thoughts crashed in on him as he tried to decide the best course of action. To call or not to call. Ed had often accused him of being overprotective; it had been that way the first time he'd stayed over at the colonel's house for the night. He'd mostly been worried that one or the other would kill each other, but they had both survived.

It hadn't been brother's first choice, he'd been assured of that several times; yet, over the last year, Al thought that Colonel Mustang and his brother were really starting to get along well. They fought a whole lot less, and Al even thought that perhaps they quarreled more because of habit than anything else.

There was another flash of lightning, followed almost instantaneously by a loud clap of thunder, and Al made his decision. He'd call. Better Ed be irritated at him for checking up on him than something being wrong and him not knowing.

Walking over to the phone, Al was about to pick it up when the door suddenly opened and Ed came barging inside. The sound of the driving rain was louder for a moment before he shut and locked the door behind him.

Al almost blurted out, 'Where have you been?!' but he didn't. Instead he stayed quiet and watched as his brother stood there with back facing him and forehead pressed against the door.

His braided hair was slightly messy and soaked. His long red coat was a darker color than usual due to the rain, and a small puddle of water was starting to form around his brother's leather boots. In short; Ed was completely sodden.

Yet, that wasn't what prompted Al to hold back his words. It was his brother's body language. It was the slumped shoulders and the heavy breathing. It was watching him step slightly away from the door and bringing his gloved hands up to his face. It was the soft sniffle that was only slightly muffled by the fact that he was turned away from Al.

"Brother...?" Al asked slowly. Ed was usually upbeat and held a 'never give up' attitude. It usually took something big to bring his brother down like this. Their mother dying, the fateful transmutation, the incident with Barry the Chopper... in those cases, his brother had let go of the brave and upbeat façade.

Taking a deep breath, Ed stood up straight and turned around. "Sorry, just getting my breath from running in that storm!" he said cheerfully—a false cheerfulness. Al knew his brother. When Ed really smiled, it filled his whole face. His eyes sparkled with mischievous laughter at those times; but not today.

Today only Ed's lips smiled. His words held a forced cheerfulness, and his eyes were red and slightly puffy. They did not smile, or sparkle, or dance; instead, they looked warn and haggard, and they radiated a deep pain that Al didn't know if he could understand.

Ed walked quickly past him and into the one bedroom they shared. Al heard the sound of banging and thumping as something heavy was picked up and thrown on the bed. Next came the sound of drawers opening roughly.

Feeling worried and curious, Al walked to the bedroom door and stared inside. Ed was pulling the few clothes he owned out of the dresser and into his suitcase. Books and papers were also being stuffed inside the worn suitcase in almost a frenzy.

"What's going on, brother?" Al asked.

For almost a full minute there was no answer, then Ed said, "We're leaving, Al. We're..." The hurried packing slowed, then stopped. "We're..." he started again, then trailed off. A long pause, then, "We're going away... Getting out of Central... Getting away from..." Another pause. "...people..."

"People?" Al asked, not satisfied with that answer. It wasn't often that his brother held things back like this.

The packing began again in earnest. "Yeah, people, Al. So go get your stuff packed so we can leave," Ed said briskly.

Al watched his brother's back for a few more moments. He wanted to tell him to put something dry on, or even alchemize the water out of his clothes, so that he wouldn't get a cold, but he had a feeling the response to such a suggestion wouldn't be welcome, so he turned and went to pack up the few books and papers he wanted to take with him.

On the fifth floor of Central Headquarters, Riza Hawkeye walked slowly down the hall toward her commanding officer's office. Most of the staff had gone home and the hall was quiet, and for that she was glad; it gave her time to think.

An hour before, she'd seen Edward Elric leave Colonel Mustang's office. No one else had noticed—they'd all been too busy—but she had noticed. He had walked out of the office, closed the door, and leaned back on it as if he was out of breath and needed to rest. His eyes were wide in shock and he blinked rapidly. She'd watched him swallow a few times, rub his eyes, then start to walk away from the office, only to turn around and stand before the door again. He'd raised his fist to knock, wiped his eyes again, then ran his gloved fingers through his bangs before violently kicking a hole in the colonel's door.

The bustle only paused for a moment as secretaries and other military personnel looked to see what had happened. All they saw was Ed stomping toward them with his head bowed as if he was going to plow through them. The onlookers moved quickly out of his way, then went about their work. Angry rants from Edward Elric were old news. They happened all the time.

Only, Riza was sure this wasn't an everyday thing. Something major had happened in that office—she knew that because Ed didn't cry easily, and she knew that he'd been crying. The fact that Colonel Mustang came out and fixed the door himself was another indicator of the severity of what had happened.

She'd offered to get someone else to fix it, but he'd waved her off. He'd even dismissed the civilian secretaries who'd also offered to get someone to fix it for him. Normally he would suck up the attention and shamelessly flirt with them, but not today. When he was finished, the colonel retreated to his office and that's where he'd been since then.

Riza stopped at his door and looked up and down the quiet hall. It was amazing what a difference an hour could make.

Raising her fist, she rapped sharply on the door, then opened it and walked inside. Colonel Mustang was flipping through a few files. When he found the one he wanted, he opened it and glanced at the papers until he found the one he was looking for. Glancing up, the colonel waved her over, then handed her the paper.

"I need that signed by both Drill Sergeant Hall and Lieutenant Colonel Fladanstine." His voice was brisk and businesslike. She glanced at the document and noticed a small sticky note berating the two men for not being sure everything was in proper order before they sent it to him.

She glanced at him as he began stacking folders neatly on the corner of his desk. There were no smiles today. No smug remarks about finding their mistakes. No boasting about how thorough he was. Today, he was all business.

He stopped when his hands rested on the folder he had taken the paper from, then he handed that to her as well, and growled, "Take that with it. I don't want it cluttering up my desk." He didn't look at her; he simply held the folder up for her to take.

She took it, slipped the paper inside, then said quietly, "Permission to speak freely, sir?" She rarely had to ask to speak her mind, but he was so on edge today that he might just jump on her for the breach of conduct.

The colonel paused, then continued cleaning up his desk. "Permission granted." He sounded reluctant, as if he already knew what she was going to say.

"What happened between you and Edward?" Riza usually wasn't one to gossip or pry into business not her own, but the look on the boy's face had haunted her, and she felt compelled to ask.

Again he stopped, and this time he looked up at her. His eyes were sharp and his face held a sternness to it that she hadn't seen for many years. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but that's classified."

They stared at each other for a long time. Nothing was ever 'classified' to her. He always told her because she was completely loyal to him. In short, she knew he was lying. Riza raised an eyebrow and he knew he'd been caught. He swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down, and she thought for a moment he was going to let the lie stay.

Instead, he said in a quieter voice, "It's nothing you need to know... In fact, it's probably better if you don't know."

Riza thought about that for a moment. It was something private between him and Ed; something that would be better for her not to know. She had a feeling that it might be something that could get one or both of them in trouble if anyone else knew... But he knew she would never tell his secrets.

He glanced away and inspected his desk, then stood and pulled on his heavy, black trench coat. She watched as he grabbed his umbrella, walked to the door, pulled it open, then stopped and said quietly, "I ended something before it could bring negative repercussions." He paused, then added even more softly, "It was a mistake."

Riza eyed his back and thought about what he'd said. It sounded like he and Ed... But no, that couldn't be what he meant. If Ed was female, then she might believe it—yet the colonel wasn't so stupid as to get involved with one of his own—but... Ed? No... The gender, the age, the fact that he was the colonel's subordinate... She just couldn't believe it, yet there was nothing else that he could mean...

"Which was the mistake?" she asked, feeling a little weak with her thoughts. "Starting it... or ending it...?" His hand tightened on the door and for a moment she held her breath, waiting for the answer; then, without a word, he walked out of the office and closed the door behind him.

Al walked half a step behind his brother and listened idly to the sound of the pouring rain against his metal body, to the people walking by, and to the cars as they splashed through puddles, honked, and filled the air with the sound of the engines.

Despite the rain, downtown Central was a busy place, though Al supposed it was because everyone was getting off work and it was Friday night so people were going on dates and things like that.

Ed stopped at a crosswalk and Al stepped up beside him. "I thought you said we would probably stay here for a couple of weeks," Al said, and watched as Ed shrugged. Overall, his brother had been unresponsive except for body gestures, telling him what to do, and answering a few questions. Something was wrong, and Ed wasn't telling him. Al felt hurt and left out, but he couldn't force Ed to tell.

The light changed and they crossed the street. "Brother... if you won't use an umbrella, don't you think that you should put the hood up on your coat?" Ed's answer to this was to ignore the question entirely.

Al felt a little put out at Ed's behavior. He didn't want to talk; didn't even want to look at him... Al had a feeling his brother knew that Al could see right through his fake smiles; yet, for some reason, Ed seemed to think he needed to put on a mask...

"When will we come back to Central?" Al asked, trying to wheedle more information out of Ed.

"Never!" Ed snapped, then put a hand to his face, rubbed at his eyes, then combed back his bangs with his fingers.

"Never is a long time..." Al murmured, watching his brother closely. Ed's eyes were now on the ground as he walked.

They stopped at another crosswalk and Ed said, "It's just you and me, Al... There's no one here to come back to..."

Al mentally frowned at this. Had there been someone to come back to before? Someone Al hadn't been aware of? He glanced from his brother to the other side of the street and said, "Look, there's Colonel Mustang."

The colonel was standing there under his umbrella and staring fixedly at Ed. Al looked down and watched as his brother's head slowly lifted. Ed's hair, previously hanging down with water pouring off of it, now stuck to his forehead and cheeks as he looked ahead.

Stepping forward a little, Al looked down at his brother's face. His eyes, still red and swollen, looked determined and serious. His lips set in a tight line and when the light changed, they started across the street.

Al glanced at the colonel and noticed the man wasn't looking at them any longer, but was now staring straight forward. He tightened his grip on the suitcase he was holding. Something had happened... and whatever it was had to do with Colonel Mustang... He wanted to grab him and demand answers, but didn't.

Instead, as he was passing, the colonel put a hand out and Al stopped. Looking over, he saw the colonel fold up his umbrella and heard him murmur, "For him..." before walking away.

Al looked at the umbrella for a moment before hurrying to catch up as Ed neared the sidewalk. Suddenly, Ed stopped and slowly turned to look back the way they had come. In that moment, Al saw the raw pain that was eating his brother inside.

Ed's face was one of tormented pain and anguish. His lip quivered and his eyes were liquid. When he blinked, fat tears trickled from the corners of his eyes and mixed quickly with the pouring rain. The look lasted only a second, then Ed turned back and stepped onto the sidewalk.

Al stepped after him, but stopped again by himself and looked back at the colonel. He was just getting to the corner they'd just left. Stopping, Mustang turned slightly to look in their direction. He wiped the water from his eyes and ran his fingers through the wet hair that was now plastered to his forehead. A frown pulled his lips down and his eyes seemed sad, but that was all Al saw before the colonel turned way and walked on.

In confusion and frustration, Al hurried back to Ed's side and opened the umbrella above him. They walked a few paces before Ed stopped and stared up at the umbrella in confusion.

"Where did you get that?" he asked; perplexed.

"Uh..." Al stuttered, reflexively looking back the way the colonel had gone. "The colonel..." Al began, but Ed cut in.

"I don't want anything from that bastard!" he snarled, then jumped up trying to grab the offending umbrella.

Al held it higher and said in a chiding tone, "Brother, it's pouring. You'll catch a cold!"

Scowling, Ed looked from Al to the umbrella, then said, "Fine, but I want to hold it."

Feeling a little hesitant, Al gave Ed the umbrella. Snatching it roughly, his brother trudged off through the mass of people as fast as he could, yelling for Al to hurry. Following behind, Al tried to make sense of all that had happened in the last hour, but when they got settled on the train, Al decided to put it out of his mind. If Ed wanted to tell him, he would. Yet, as his brother fell asleep on the bench, hugging the umbrella to his chest, Al had a feeling Ed would never tell him.

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