((A/N: This story takes place after CoS, so if you haven't seen it, I don't recommend reading any further for reasons of spoilerificness. It follows the series timeline, but does diverge a bit from the movie (mostly in the sense that Ed and Al remain in Central instead of going back to Europe).
Warnings: I should point out that there is going to be a lot of Hurt/Comfort in this story... only, not so much with the comfort part. Mostly just the Hurty, actually... more so than my other fics, I think. Beware of gore, angst, and death, as always.
"He's not going."
"Yes, he is."
"I don't want him to go."
"Unfortunately, Edward, it rarely matters what you want." Mustang turned away from him, curtly signaling that he was done speaking with him. He turned his only remaining eye to the throng of soldiers scrambling around the military vehicles and bellowed, "Havoc! Get those guns loaded onto the truck. Make sure that everyone is ready to go! Let's move it!"
Ed shouldered his pack a little more securely, feeling confined in the military uniform that he only rarely wore. It smelled vaguely of mildew from being stuck in the back of his closet for so long, and the dark blue cloth was stiff. "He's not going," he insisted.
"I'm not having this conversation with you again," Mustang sighed, walking away as he continued watching his men work, making sure that everything was done correctly. His single eye was sharp and intense, focused entirely on the battle preparations being made before him as he spoke. "He's a dog of the military now, just like we are, and he's bound to serve his country. This is war and we all must do our part, Fullmetal."
"But he can't go to war!" Ed shouted, following after him, "He's just a kid!"
"He's not a kid. He's nearly seventeen and he's seen as many battles as you have. He passed the State Alchemy exam with higher scores than anyone in the past century, including you. He's no worse off than any other soldier here; in fact, I'd say he has the advantage." He turned from Ed again as he climbed up into one of the trucks. "Get going, men!" he shouted to the enlisted peons rushing around them like a swarm of ants, "Two minutes before departure! The Drachmans aren't going to hold off their invasion to wait for us to get our shit together, so step on it!"
"But Mustang—" Ed tried again desperately.
"Ed, it's not your decision and I don't have the time or patience to deal with you right now," he snapped, seating himself next to Major Hawkeye in the front of the truck. "If you have a problem with it, take it up with your brother." Mustang slammed the door shut without waiting for a reply.
Ed clenched his fist, glaring at his Fuhrer's blind side, half-wanting to tear the patch off of his smug face and punch him in his empty eye socket.
...He was right, though.
Ed needed to try and talk to Alphonse again, to see if he could change his mind. There was still time before they left for the border. Al didn't need to go into battle. He was still too fragile. He needed to be protected, not tossed into a war that had nothing to do with him. The country of Drachma could care less about Alphonse Elric, whether or not he was a soldier... or a State Alchemist for that matter.
He craned his neck and peered through the crowd, trying to find Al's lanky frame among the soldiers piling into the trucks. There he was. Ed jogged toward him, waving.
Alphonse looked over, saw him, and cringed.
The sun was just coming up over the horizon, a soft glow of yellow spilling over the frigid countryside in a slow wave. The thin sunlight soaked into the brambles and tree-trunks that spotted the open field, but then was filtered out and died almost completely where the trees grew thicker, leaving only pale, infrequent splotches of the buttery color on the cold dimness of the forest floor.
The leaves were falling quickly now as winter crawled nearer, littering the ground with multicolored piles, though the colors were muted somewhat by the frost that had gathered on them during the night. The first snow of the season would soon fall. The eight-hundred soldiers—all of them packed into the forty-six roaring, rumbling trucks that crashed along the overgrown, unpaved road—could only hope that winter would hold back just long enough for them to fight this battle without the added difficulty of snowfall.
The interior of the trucks had been fairly quiet for the past several hours. The caravan had been on the road since mid-morning the day before and many of the soldiers were dozing while they could, snatching a few hours of sleep in preparation for what they would face today. Some of them curled against one another for warmth or leaned-back-to-back on the cramped benches, trying to pretend that they weren't as uncomfortable or as terrified as they actually were.
Other soldiers were wide awake, elbows propped on their knees, lips pressed against their fists as they fingered their holy beads and prayed quietly. Their eyes were closed, their minds in a haze of piety as they waited for the trucks to stop and announce their arrival. They licked their dry lips and wondered which of their comrades—the men and women sitting beside them—would not make it home.
Roy was one of the few in the truck that chose to abstain from both prayer and sleep, finding both endeavors to be futile this late in the game. They had less than an hour before they arrived at their established base-camp—a mere ten miles from the border—so what little sleep he'd be able to get in that time wouldn't be much help... and God—if He existed—had been deaf to Roy for his entire life, whether or not he prayed for His guidance.
Hawkeye's voice stirred him from his dark musings and he smirked at her. She, Breda, and Havoc had been switching off driving all through the night and the shift had come back to her several hours ago--but she still seemed to be going strong.
"Sleep is for the weak," he scoffed, sitting up a little straighter to stretch out his stiff back muscles.
"I'm weak, I'm weak..." Havoc groaned from his seat behind Hawkeye, burrowing under his uniform jacket and scooting a little closer to Breda so that he could lean his head on his shoulder. Breda, also awake, tolerated it with an eye-roll. Havoc had already loudly decided that—out of Roy's staff—Breda made the best pillow and should therefore do his brotherly duty and share a bench with him in the front of the truck.
Fuery and Falman were sharing the bench behind Roy, both of them sleeping lightly, occasionally shifting or briefly opening their eyes before finding sleep again. Edward and Alphonse were also in this truck—which was discreetly in the middle of the caravan, so as to not attract attention if the Drachmans decided to ambush them before they got to camp... Roy was Fuhrer, after all, and he had to proceed with some caution—but they were in the back compartment with the rest of the troops, as there was not enough room for them in the front. Roy could see them through the parted folds of canvas that separated the two compartments. Edward was deeply asleep, snoring against his brother, his arms wrapped around him tight, eerily possessive even from the depths of sleep.
Alphonse was awake though, his light brown eyes staring expressionlessly at the opposite wall of soldiers, lost in his thoughts. He looked uncomfortable and worried, but Roy knew that it wasn't the upcoming battle that was furrowing his brow so.
Roy sighed and turned back to face the road, looking at the truck in front of them and the tired soldiers he could see through the canvas-shrouded dimness within. Hawkeye heard the sigh and glanced over her shoulder at Ed and Al, somehow—as she often did—instantly knowing his thoughts.
"Is Ed doing any better?"
Roy took a slow, frustrated breath through his nose. "Not according to Al, no."
"...Have you talked to him about therapy?"
"I've discussed it with Alphonse, but I don't think he's brought it up to Ed yet. Al thinks it's a good idea, though... I don't know how much more of this he can take."
Hawkeye nodded, understanding. She was one of the few, outside of Alphonse and Roy himself, who really did understand.
Edward was having some problems lately. Unfortunately, Ed was the only one who didn't seem to see them as problems.
Years ago, after Edward had returned Al to his body and disappeared into the void—where he had apparently spent a couple of years in another world, a fact that still made Roy's mind reel a little—Al had been so lost without him. And then after he had finally returned, exhausted and battered as he helped fight off the invasion that had come from that Other Side, Al had clung to him as if his very life depended on it. Ed had reciprocated the needy affection, his role of guardian and big brother exponentially amplified by Alphonse's inability to remember anything that had happened since his soul had been bound to the suit of armor. Al was suddenly years younger and Ed was only too happy to take care of him.
After a while though, with Ed's constant coaxing, Al had started remembering things again. And now, over four years later, Al's memory had fully recovered and he was blossoming into a strong, independent young man. He had joined the military, passing the State Alchemy Exam with flying colors and earning himself the title of Dual-Life Alchemist for his ability to infuse pieces of his soul into the objects around him, creating golems that he could control with his alchemy.
It had been one of Roy's most rewarding tasks as Fuhrer to give him that title, and he'd thought that his heart would burst with pride when he'd signed the document to make it official. Both of them now, these boys that he had seen grow into adulthood, had made something of themselves. They were men now, and they had a bright future in the military.
Al's future was especially bright; he was quickly becoming one of Roy's favorites in the ranks. He was hardworking, loyal, brilliant, and knew how to take an order without question while still maintaining both dignity and integrity. Roy was so pleased with him that he was already thinking of giving him a promotion, in spite of how green he still was and how it would make the Parliament wag their tongues about favoritism.
Well, let them talk.
...And Roy knew that it was far, far too soon to be thinking of such things—he hadn't even been Fuhrer for a full year yet—but he already saw the makings of a great leader in Alphonse, and he would be overjoyed to pass on the title of Fuhrer to him if he wanted it.
It might just be a pipe dream, but just thinking about Alphonse carrying on his legacy made Roy smile. But then he quickly frowned again as his thoughts returned to Edward.
Unfortunately, though, as Al continued to gain confidence in himself and forge his own path, Ed continued to cling. Alphonse was actively trying to have a separate identity from his big brother—a perfectly normal thing for him to want to do, Roy thought, after so many years of living in Ed's shadow—but Edward just couldn't let go. At first, Al had been mildly annoyed by it and frequently asked Ed to just leave him alone, but after a while it became clear that his fraternal neediness wasn't just from habit or nostalgia. It was something much deeper than that that bordered on neurosis.
Roy had ignored it at first, thinking that Al would be able to handle it... but things were getting steadily worse. The more that Al tried to loosen Ed's hold on him, the tighter Ed clung. Fullmetal had been very firmly against Al joining the military, wanting him to just stay home and live off of Ed's own stipend...
But Al was an Elric, and history showed that the Elrics were a restless bunch. Needless to say, Alphonse had gone against his brother's wishes and taken the Alchemy exam.
Edward had gotten near-hysterical when he'd found out that Al had "sold his soul again so soon after getting it back"—as he had frantically put it—in an anxious display that completely shocked Roy, to say the least. Ed hadn't just been upset, he'd been terrified. That was when Roy realized that this situation had grown into something that needed to be dealt with—swiftly and delicately.
What really drove the point home though was the incident in the shooting range. Al's gun had backfired during a training session, lancing his hand with second-degree burns. The burns hadn't been that bad, but seeing his brother get hurt had sent Ed into a violent kind of panic-attack that moved Hawkeye to make him sit down and put his head between his knees for fear that he'd faint. Even Al, who even then had sworn to him that the injury was really very minor, could not calm him for several minutes.
The experience had been very unsettling for all parties. Hawkeye had quietly confided to Roy later that his behavior smacked loudly of shellshock. Perhaps all the horrifying things that he'd been through in his life had finally caught up with him, she suggested. Ed was fine for the most part, but when it came to Al it was clear that his perception had become warped over the past few years. Ed's worst nightmare was losing his brother and, since Al was made of fragile flesh again instead of tempered metal, that scenario seemed frighteningly likely to him. And so, out of love, fear, and a twisted sense of responsibility, Ed sought to shield Al from anything that could possibly harm him.
Frustratingly for Alphonse, just about everything was a potential danger in Ed's eyes.
Alphonse had finally come to Roy personally a few months ago, at his wits' end for what to do about his brother. This had gone beyond Al wanting some personal space; Ed's behavior was starting to scare him. It was clear that Ed's problem was something that he needed to work out with a psychiatrist, and Roy recommended several specialists in the military to Al... but, as of yet, it didn't seem that Al had summoned the courage to actually talk to Ed about it.
Roy rubbed his temple, his fingers brushing against his eye patch. Well, there was no use in worrying about it right now; the battle on the horizon needed to take precedence in his mind. Maybe this excursion, Al's first real mission, would help to remind Ed that he really could take care of himself—whether or not he was made out of iron at the moment.
"They're strong kids. They'll work it out," Hawkeye consoled, reaching over and laying a tender hand on his thigh as she drove. He smiled and took her hand in his. She was right. The boys had hit a rough patch, but they'd be okay.
"...Hmph. Helluva way for us to spend our honeymoon, isn't it?" Roy teased, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles. "Gunpowder... destruction... It's all so romantic, I can hardly contain myself."
"I dunno, Boss," Havoc piped up again, having apparently given up on sleep, "I don't think that I can envision you two having a honeymoon anywhere but a battlefield. This seems right up your alley. You two are freaks."
Hawkeye laughed good-naturedly and reached back behind her seat to punch him in the shin. Roy knew that she wasn't really named "Hawkeye" anymore, but he couldn't bring himself to call her anything else after so many years... even "Riza" didn't really sound right unless they were alone together. Luckily, she didn't seem to mind that he still called her by her maiden name.
He let his smile deepen as he leaned his head back against the seat. She was such an amazing woman. Why it had taken him so long to admit it to himself—and to her—was a mystery in hindsight. It had taken a bullet to the head, a long recovery, and a long seclusion in the mountains to remind Roy how precious life was--and that near-deadly epiphany had forced him to look at her differently... and now he could not see her any other way. For the first time in his life, Roy Mustang was madly in love.
He could almost hear Maes Hughes in his head, joyously cackling about it from beyond the grave. Damn Roy, took you long enough!
Hawkeye was just so perfect for him. She didn't care that this long, tedious drive to the border was technically their honeymoon. She didn't even mind that they most likely weren't going to have a real wedding ceremony beyond when they had gone down to the courthouse with witnesses to sign papers and make it all legal. She even seemed to prefer it this way. For her, she was a soldier first and a wife second, which was just fine with Roy. He felt the same way. And it wasn't because they loved each other any less—no, not at all... Roy could light bonfires in an ice storm with his love—it was just because they were both married to Amestris first and foremost, and their duty to their country preceded any duty that they had to one-another, and they both understood and respected that.
And that's why they were here—all of them—to defend their shared bride against those who would harm her.
The trucks ahead of them slowed to a stop and Hawkeye followed suit. Roy leaned over and kissed her as she unbuckled her seat belt.
They had arrived.
Alphonse ducked under a naked tree branch that crookedly outstretched over the path that the soldiers in front of him had forged. Ed followed close behind, but—Al noted with mild amusement—he was short enough to walk under the branch without needing to duck. He almost pointed it out—if only to distract his brother from his current fit of overbearing concern—but instead he just sighed and kept walking.
"You can leave if you want," Ed was saying, keeping his voice low so that the soldiers hiking behind them wouldn't overhear. "I'll cover for you until I can get away too, then we can hitchhike to Resembool."
"Brother, we can't do that..." Al sighed, not wanting to argue anymore.
"Sure we can, it'll be simple! We can just—"
"I am not going AWOL, Ed."
"I'm just saying—"
"Leaving in the middle of a mission is a felony. I'm staying, okay? This is my job. It's your job, too."
"Ed!" Al barked, stopping in his tracks so quickly that his brother nearly ran into him. "You need to stop this."
"Stop what? You don't need to be here, this isn't your fight!"
"This is my fight! It's everyone's fight! This is our country, isn't it?" Ed's face darkened as Al spoke, his worry clouding over with frustration—as it often did lately when Al defended himself. Alphonse turned away from him with a harsh sigh and started walking again. "I joined the military to serve Amestris, Brother, and that's what I'm doing. This is my calling, my duty. Please don't stand in the way of that."
Ed was quiet for a few beats. Al could almost feel him stewing behind him, boring holes into his back with his formidable glare. After a moment though, Ed stormed forward, rudely brushing past him to walk in front of him.
"Sometimes you sound just like Mustang, you know that?" he spat, not looking back.
"Thank you! I take that as a compliment!" Al shot back, then smiled to himself grimly as he saw Ed's shoulders tense in disgust. Ed knew that he meant it.
Things between Mustang and Edward had gotten even more tense than usual since Al joined the military. Ed blamed Mustang for Al's newfound outlook on life and made no secret of it. The fact that Alphonse genuinely liked Mustang and looked up to him only served to aggravate Ed further... and then, on top of that, the way that Mustang was actively encouraging Al to be more independent made Ed absolutely hate him. Frankly, Al was afraid that it was going to come to blows...
Edward just wanted Al to just follow him around and do what he wanted all the time, like he used to. And that had been fine years ago, when they'd needed to be a strong, inseparable team in order to complete their quest and find the Philosopher's Stone... but those times were over, and they needed to integrate themselves into normal life now. Alphonse knew that they could both make a good living as State Alchemists, doing research—perhaps even teaching, a thought that Al was very partial to—and occasionally serving in active martial duty when the country needed it. They had a future here. And Mustang had been so pleased when Alphonse had expressed interest in State Alchemy as a career instead of just a way to get research funds and information, the way Ed saw it. Ed didn't take this seriously, but Al did. This is what he wanted for his life and he couldn't give that up just because it made Ed nervous.
Everything made Ed nervous these days, though. Alphonse could barely leave their shared apartment without getting the third degree. He was treating him like a child, something that he had never done before when he was in the armor. True, being made of flesh and blood did make Al more vulnerable, but that didn't mean that he was helpless and needed to be protected every second of the day. He was just as gifted in alchemy and martial arts as Edward and, though it had taken him some time to remember it all, he had fought alongside him in battle dozens of times.
He was a man, not an infant, and all he wanted was for Ed to let him be a man.
Al sighed, watching his brother's blond head disappear as he moved further up in the line of soldiers—probably to go harass Mustang and let off some steam.
But Ed wasn't being like this intentionally... Al knew that, even if he had to keep reminding himself of it to keep from getting too angry at him. Ed was afraid, terrified of losing Al. It was almost like a phobia. It gave him nightmares that awoke him, screaming, in the middle of the night. Then he'd crawl into bed with Al and hold him tight, often crying against his shoulder, saying "You're okay, Al. You're okay, you're okay..." over and over again like some kind of ritualistic chant. Ed would never talk about what was in these dreams, but from his fits of panic afterwards Al felt that he could safely assume that they were about him.
The first several times these screaming nightmares had happened, Al had been deeply scared for him. Now that it was becoming more and more frequent occurrence, though, he was almost used to it. Not to say that he wasn't still afraid for his brother's state of mind... but the fear had settled down in the back of his mind like a dull throbbing in his thoughts instead of something that occupied his every waking moment.
Maybe Ed was just badly adjusted. He and Al hadn't exactly had the best childhood, but Al at least had had the chance to re-live some of it. It was almost as if he'd had two childhoods and remembered them both vividly, and from that unique perspective, he could see where Ed was coming from. If Al hadn't been gifted with his second chance, he knew that he would probably still be clinging to Edward the way that Edward clung to him... but, still, that didn't mean that it was healthy.
Ed needed help. This was all too much for him and Al could visibly see that his constant worry and fears were starting to wear on him. Mustang had given Al a list of therapists that they might contact to get Ed some counseling... but Al had chickened out every time he'd tried to bring it up, convincing himself that Ed would be fine on his own, that he would come to terms with things eventually and let up a little...
But things were getting worse rather than getting better and Al had to finally admit to himself that Ed wasn't going to be okay without outside help.
...After they got back to Central, Al promised himself with a sigh, they would talk about it.
A sudden crack of gunfire startled Al from his thoughts and his had flew to his gun in an instant. The soldier directly in front of him cried out and fell backward against a tree, clutching his arm. Al caught sight of a shadow amongst the ice-laden plants beside them and fired a single shot. The shadow went down in a crash of foliage.
Every soldier in the company drew their weapons and fell completely silent as they waited for any other sign of movement from the forest beyond the trail.
Alphonse looked up to see Ed barreling toward him. He blew past the wounded soldier in his rush to get to him, nearly knocking him over. His eyes were wide and his face had blanched in the grip of terror. He took Al's arm frantically and looked him over for any sign that he'd been hurt, all traces of his previous anger and frustration vaporized in this sudden explosion of worry.
"Are you alright? Are you hurt? I-I heard guns go off and—"
"No, I'm fine, Ed," Al assured him quickly, trying to shake him off as he stepped over to his wounded ally, who was still leaning up against the tree he'd stumbled into, nursing his bleeding arm—Thompson was his name, if Al was recalling it correctly. It looked as if the bullet had only grazed his shoulder, but he certainly looked in pain.
"A-are you sure?" Ed queried shakily, his breath coming and going in half-panicked bursts, his hand tightening almost painfully on his arm. "Take your jacket off, lemme see..."
"Ed, I said I'm fine. Please calm down."
"Did you fucking see how close to you that was?" he exploded, gesturing at Thompson with one frantic hand. "You see what I mean?! This is exactly why you need to get out of here!"
"Thompson!" Mustang barked as he came back down the trail to see what had happened. He stopped in front of the solider and took in his wound with a quick glance. "Can you still shoot, Private?" he asked after a cursory beat.
"I think so, sir," Thompson responded with admirable strength, managing a smile.
Mustang smirked back at him, beaming. "Good, then tape it up and walk it off."
The Fuhrer turned his sharp eye to the Elric brothers. In a bare moment, he saw how tightly Ed was gripping Al and how frightened he still looked—even though a good quantity of that fright had transformed into hatred the moment that Mustang came into view. His brow furrowed. and he shot Alphonse a dark look that hit him like a silent order: You need to talk to him. Soon.
Al swallowed and nodded once. Mustang returned his quick nod, knowing that he understood, and turned to the shadow that Al had shot through the trees.
"Drachman scout," he announced to his men as he crouched down beside the body, a dark-haired youth that couldn't have been any older than fifteen. Al's bullet had caught him in the forehead and had blown out the back of his skull like a party favor. "Young. Too young. He must have panicked when he saw us and just started firing. Who picked him off?"
"I did, sir," Al answered, standing at attention.
"Ah, Major Elric. It isn't easy shooting under-pressure at a target you can barely see. I'm impressed."
Ed made a choked, disbelieving sound in the back of his throat and Mustang frowned at him again, but Al's heart still swelled at the rare compliment. Mustang stood up and started back toward the front of the line.
"Keep an eye out for any more scouts, men," he ordered. "Two eyes, if you have them."
The company tittered a little at his self-deprecating joke and fell in line, but Al could practically feel his comrades' heightened alertness. Ed stuck even closer to him than he had before, his eyes darting around nervously and he continued to grip Al's arm, ready to throw him to the ground and shield him at any sign of a threat.
The team hiked on.