Here's the end everyone! Thanks so much to all of you who were kind enough to leave comments on this story. It helped me along in finishing it, and I'm terrible at finishing things, so it's a minor miracle of sorts. The chapter title is from the poetry of George Gordon, Lord Byron.
Chapter 15: All that's Best of Dark and Bright
Dust motes danced and dipped in between rays of bright afternoon sunlight, sunlight that was only slightly muted by the the layers of dirt caked on the wide window panes, dirt that probably had been there for years, collecting, unnoticed and untouched, by the all too absent-minded shop owner. The dust--like windblown snowflakes-- shifted, gathered, and fell: alighting here and there on various shelves of books, drawn, like bees to flower petals, to their all-too-alluring spines and covers, seeking union, joining. Books and dust, it seemed, went hand and hand, and the shop was overflowing with books: on shelves, on random tables, even in stacks on the bare floor--some so tall that they were a hazard, a trap just waiting to be sprung on some unsuspecting customer. Stacks so high that they listed, swayed, and it seemed at times that a single dust mote more would be enough to topple an entire column, pitching it to the ground. Leather covers, clothed in uniforms of grimy gray film, went on, for row after row, as far as the eye could see, all the way to the back of the shop, rendering its very walls invisible. The smell of all that leather and dust--ancient, decaying, molding--to some, would be appalling, but to Edward, who had grown up in libraries surrounded by nothing but old alchemy books, it smelled familiar, right, soothing.
It smelled almost like home.
Edward sat on the sill of the shop's large picture window, a book opened and abandoned by his side, watching the retreating figure of his brother as he made his way up the cobblestone street. The sureness of his brother's gait made Edward smile: no more grayish pallor, no more coughing blood. It was wonderful to see Alphonse so healthy, rejuvenated. It made everything that he'd gone through--Xing, the emperor, the effort, the running--all worth it. Edward smiled as he thought of how changed Alphonse was from Xing, how energetic--well, not entirely changed, as he remembered that Alphonse was just in here, giving him a good dressing-down for slacking off on the job.
"Brother, if you don't stop reading books all day and start working, you're going to get fired, just like Sheska."
"Don't worry, Al, Mr. Tattenborough's out to lunch, and he always takes an hour and a half. Besides, have you seen some of the alchemy books in here? Remember when were we looking for stuff on Xingian alchemy--well, that old Codger has a whole section back there! Can you believe it? The man is a miser for hording all this gold. I swear, when we leave here, I might just have to 'accidentally' take some of this stuff with me."
"What? It's not like he uses these books personally. He trades them for money. Some of his patrons live as far away as Drachma and he only deals with them through correspondence. Like black market books or something. Besides, if I did take something, it's not like I would get in trouble. Though I don't think Russell Tringham would like having another theft charge on his personal record."
"Ed, you didn't. . ."
"What? Don't you dare lecture me, Al; you know Tringham deserves it. He stole my identity--twice."
Alphonse shook his head, reproachful. Edward thought a change in subject was in order: "So, how did tutoring go today?"
Alphonse's expression immediately brightened, and Ed mentally congratulated himself on the way he had managed to deftly maneuver the conversation away from himself. "Oh, it was good, brother. The Sparling boys are going to be very talented alchemists one day--especially the older one. He reminds me a lot of you when you were little. He's only seven, but you should have seen this animal statue he made in the backyard today--it was just like that time you made that horse for mom." Alphonse was beaming, and Ed basked in the glow of that happy smile. Alphonse--gentle, patient, smart--had taken up tutoring alchemy for extra money, and Ed thought that his brother may have just found his true calling.
"I'm glad it's going well for you, Al. I couldn't do it--I don't have the patience. And it doesn't hurt that the Sparlings are loaded. A little more money and we'll be able to pack up and leave soon."
Al nodded, but his expression fell a bit. "It's too bad, though. I kind of like being this close to Dublith, and I like the kids I'm teaching--a lot."
Ed merely nodded. He made a mental note to talk to Al later about their current situation. Perhaps, maybe--just maybe--it might be okay for Al to stay near Dublith for a while longer, but as for him and Roy. . .
Well, for now they needed to keep moving.
"Well, I'm going to get going, brother. I'm supposed to tutor the Donovan kids tonight at seven, and they're kind of a handful. I thought I might go ask teacher for some tips or something."
"You might want to be careful with that, Al. I don't think the Donovan kids' parents would appreciate you leaving their kids on an island for a month by themselves with just the elements."
"Stop being so melodramatic, Ed. I can't believe how you still go on about that after all these years. . ."
Edward shifted his position on the window seat, stretching. His head swivelled toward the mountain of books stacked on the ground beside him. He was supposed to be cataloging them, making sure they were properly entered into the stock ledger, yet he just couldn't seem to get motivated. "You're going to get fired. . ." Alphonse's warning echoed in the back of his head, but he turned a deaf ear to it, allowing his thoughts instead to wander into more pleasant, greener pastures. Roy. Without realizing it, a large, preoccupied smile had crept its way up his face, and he was lost to all thought of the outside world. That is, until a large, jarring knock on the window pane jolted him firmly back into reality--
Edward found himself staring into the hooded face of Mustang, who was hovering, a smile on his face, just on the other side of the window. It was like he had simply materialized, formed from the very alchemy of his own imagination. Edward's own smile widened. "What are you doing here?" he practically yelled, so Mustang could hear him through the barrier of the glass. No answer, but instead Mustang left the window, and Edward assumed he was coming around to the front of the shop. The door creaked open and slammed shut. Before Edward even had a chance to get up, Mustang was there, and there was a look on his face--dreamy, wistful, slightly yearning, even--that kept Edward rooted to the spot.
"Don't move," whispered Mustang.
"You look just like you did in the painting. I saw you in the window like that from the street, and I couldn't help but think of it. . ." Edward looked down at himself, and he realized Roy was right: he had been sitting, one leg bent and his hand propped up on his knee, head turned and staring out the window--just like his pose form Chiaro's portrait. He had been completely unaware of it until Roy had pointed it out.
And then there was that look on Roy's face: covetous, yearning, desiring. . .
Edward was up and off the window sill before he knew it--his arms around Roy, mouth questing, hungry. Hunger was the right word for it: these were kisses born out of starvation, of denial. The pile of books by the window toppled and fell. Edward didn't spare them a glance. Alphonse was wrong, it wasn't reading books on the job that was going to get him fired--
Edward felt Roy wince under the assault and promptly drew back, remembering. "Uh, sorry. How's the teeth?"
Mustang rubbed his jaw, hands scraping over newly-grown dark stubble. "Still sore."
"I can't believe you made me pull them out."
"It was necessary, and you know it. They would've checked the dental records, and it needed to be as real as possible. A couple of my teeth, some hair, some fingernails--well, in the end it was a small sacrifice. And those arrays you picked up from Doctor Wong did a great job of numbing the pain."
Edward's eyes darkened into an unsure shade of bronze. He stepped back, out of Mustang's embrace. "I can't believe I almost fucked up that night. . ."
"Edward--don't," Mustang's voice was firm, commanding, a voice that would brook no argument. "You fought like a tiger that night. It was amazing, really. If we did the whole "Flame v. Fullmetal" contest today, I think you would probably end up kicking my ass."
"But we almost didn't make it to the basement in time, to the stupid tunnel under the Broglio; it almost all caved in--"
Mustang grabbed him, seemed almost on the verge of shaking him. "Stop. We made it and it's done now. And I don't regret anything. Not anymore." Mustang allowed his voice to trail off into a whisper, eyes softening. "And I don't want you to regret anything, either--promise?"
"Promise." A small smile managed to return to Ed's face. "So--you think if we did the whole contest thing now--I would really win?" His tone was teasing: a slow, edging return from the gloom that had been threatening to settle in.
"Maybe," Mustang replied in his own teasing voice. "But what I'm most interested in is that little whip trick you pulled--I think I wouldn't mind seeing that again." A sexy, dangerous smirk appeared on Mustang's face.
"Oh, would you now?" Edward's lips had curved up into their own insinuating smile, ravenous, with lots of teeth. The big, bad wolf. "I think I might be able to arrange a private demonstration later. Say--around seven o'clock?" Mustang quirked an eyebrow, and Edward clarified: "Al made a point of saying he would be out tutoring then. I've noticed that he's made it a point to mention exactly when he'll be out of the house lately. . . I think he's doing it as a courteous for the both of us."
"And to prevent his retinas from being seared out of his eye sockets--"
Edward playfully slapped the side of Mustang's grizzled face with his flesh hand. "Don't be an ass. He's my brother and he's just trying to give us some space. Did you see the look on his face when I showed up in Dublith with you in tow--it was kind of a shock."
"Not as big a shock as when I showed up in Aquroya--and you nearly killed me."
"Don't whine--you shouldn't have snuck up on me wearing a mask like that. It was unexpected."
"Finding that painting of you in Xing was what was unexpected. By the way, you owe that painter friend of yours a case of Amestrian Whisky."
Edward looked offended. "I can't believe he told you about that bet--that man has a one track mind: booze and paint. Still, I suppose I owe him more whisky for this than I'll ever actually be able to repay in my lifetime. By the way. . . what did you do with that painting?"
A small, fleeting look of regret flitted across Mustang's face. "I left it locked up in my library in Central. I suppose, according to my will, it will go to Elysia now."
"That's too bad," said Edward.
"Why is that?" asked Mustang, genuinely confused.
"Because, it was a really good painting."
Mustang lifted his hand to Edward's face--the same face (hell, the same look) from the portrait. Gold eyes of fire. No wonder he'd always been attracted to fire, to flame. It burned, yet at the same cleansed. It was volatile, hard to control. It consumed, engulfed. And it was so very hypnotizing to look at. . .
"I don't need the painting," whispered Mustang with complete confidence. "Because I have what I want: the real thing."