Title: Poultry Problems
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Al primarily, Ed indirectly, and a cantankerous barnyard fowl.
Setting: Shortly after the boys try to resurrect their mother.
Summary: After the transmutation, Al uses his absence of sleep to guard against a peculiar menace.
Disclaimer: They belong to the genius of Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: In my story "Tanked", I made a passing reference to a certain creation of my own, named Buck. I promised to further acquaint readers with him, and this is that story. (Alas, the boys' dilemma is based on a little too much personal experience.)
It was the still, dark hour before dawn, and the only sound to be heard was the distant twittering of a night bird. A crescent moon hung low in the sky, casting a silver sheen over the dew that drenched the grass of the Rockbells' backyard.
Alphonse Elric could see the large dewdrops that had condensed on his own cold armor, as well; but he couldn't feel the damp and the chill.
More than a week after the transmutation, that was still something he was trying to get used to.
He was sitting against the side of the house, next to a rain barrel beneath the window of his and his brother's room. Edward was up there now, hopefully asleep, oblivious to Al's absence - and his own pain. Even when sleep did give him respite from the still-fresh torment of his missing arm and leg, it was often torn from him by nightmares, and he would panic if he woke to find that Al wasn't at his side. That was the risk of Al's outdoor vigil before the dawn each morning, but thankfully, Ed hadn't noticed yet.
Metal scraped slightly as Al turned his head (or rather his helmet, he remembered with a pang) to scan the grass and trees and hedges of the yard. Was it only a trick of his strained and restless mind, or could he see a little better in the dark now? Maybe it had something to do with not physically having eyes at all.
The awful mysteries of how he could see - or hear, or speak, or even move - were just a few of the questions he had been trying not to dwell on as he sat alone in the dark. Thoughts piled one upon another far too easily now, unsifted by the refreshing filter of sleep, and he would have gone crazy if he didn't keep a tight rein on his mind through these long, lonely nights.
At least this private mission he had set for himself gave him something else to concentrate on.
A small movement at the corner of the garden shed drew Al's attention, and he was instantly alert. Peering into the darkness, he caught the gleam of one beady orange eye that stared back at him balefully.
"Here we go again," Al muttered, rising to a crouch in readiness for quick action. "You know I'm ready for you."
His opponent in the shadows responded with a loud cluck.
Buck the rooster was the lord of Aunt Pinako's henhouse. He was a large bird, and quite handsome as chickens go, with glossy feathers of red and green and gold. Considerable evidence suggested he was also intelligent to the point of deviousness.
Furthermore, he happened to be Ed's nemesis... and now, by association, Al's as well.
The brothers' bad relationship with Buck went back as far as they could remember. Encounters with the unfriendly rooster had often left them nursing pecks and scratches when they came to play with Winry, and the hostilities only escalated while they were living with the Rockbells.
To be fair, it was a home they were lucky to have; even if Pinako was rough around the edges, she was a close family friend they had known all their lives. In many ways, she had already helped to raise them since their father went away, and after the loss of their mother, she cared for the grieving boys as devotedly as her own granddaughter.
All things considered, Ed had just one complaint about the arrangement - and that was Buck. (Who, incidentally, he called something else that Al wasn't allowed to repeat.)
For the most part, Pinako's chickens were alright. The hens stayed near their own patch of ground by the coop at the opposite side of the yard, rarely venturing any farther than the front porch. More to the point, they provided a plentiful supply of fresh, tasty eggs, which was generally Ed's only concern with them.
But Buck didn't seem to be any sort of ordinary fowl. Even by poultry's standards of pomposity, he was exceptionally vain, and he had a great love of the sound of his own voice - which, unlike his beautiful feathers, was not a cause for pride. It sounded like a rusty pump that was being slowly and painfully strangled to death.
His one misguided virtue was an admirable sense of duty. He took his daily task of announcing the morning very seriously, and was always on the job well before sunrise. There was just one problem with this dedication: he wasn't content to crow from the top of the chicken coop, or the garden fence, or even the front steps.
Instead, his self-appointed post was the lip of the rain barrel that stood directly under Ed and Al's bedroom window.
Personally, Alphonse hadn't minded the avian reveille so much. He had always been an early riser anyway, and his fondness for animals of all sorts made it hard for him to be angry at a bird that was just doing what its instincts told it to do.
What he did rather mind was Ed's swearing and throwing things out the window.
It was a trivial nuisance which, due to the stubbornness of everyone involved, developed into a ridiculously contentious issue. Ed suggested an increasingly drastic range of solutions, from caging the vociferous rooster at night, to having Winry design an elaborate drainpipe system that would eliminate the need for the rain barrel, to actually cooking Buck - but Pinako was rather protective about her chickens. In particular, Buck was her prized village-fair blue-ribbon winner, and whatever made him happy was apparently alright with her.
Denied support from Pinako, Ed even resorted to illicitly fashioning a slingshot. The result of this was tallied at half a dozen broken flowerpots and a severe tongue-lashing.
In the end, the only countermeasure Ed managed to get away with was the randomly-throwing-things option, and that annoyed Al. He didn't enjoy trudging barefoot across the wet grass every morning in search of his shoes, which Ed had discovered made convenient projectiles.
The problem was still unresolved when they went away with Teacher to Dublith.
To Ed's delight, the only chickens to be found there were the plucked carcasses in the Curtis' butcher shop - but other woes awaited them. Over the exhausting course of the training that followed, there were times when Al would gladly have traded that ordeal for the mere irritation of Buck's crowing. Still, it mostly kept them too busy to even think about the feathered fiend back home. (Well, except for their sojourn on Yock Island, where Ed claimed to have repeatedly dreamed about Buck. Roasted, with mashed potatoes.)
Nor did the boys give Buck a thought when they returned to Resembool. Without even letting Pinako and Winry know they were home, they went straight to their own empty house, their minds consumed with the forbidden plan that would tear their lives and their bodies apart.
Only later was Al aware of Buck again, in the small hours of the morning after that terrible night. During their absence, unthreatened by sundry defenestrated objects, the rooster had happily repossessed his post on the rain barrel... and the triumphant crow he belted out nearly an hour before dawn seemed especially loud.
Ed was too groggy from medication to really wake up then, but he had tossed painfully in bed. He almost uttered the sort of frustrated groan he used to when Buck awakened him, but instead the sound only came out as a hurt whimper, and it broke Al's...
Well. Al didn't actually have a heart anymore, in the strictly literal sense. But his soul ached at his brother's distress; and after he came to terms with the bewildering realization that he was incapable of sleep, he resolved to put that trait to use.
For Al's sake, Ed had given up his right arm. The very least Al could do in return was spend a portion of his ever-wakeful nights ensuring the sleep Ed needed to heal... and that was the reason he sat alone outside before the sunrise, guarding a rain barrel against the cunning advances of a rooster.
More than ever now, Ed's battles were Al's too - even if the adversary was nothing more than a dumb bird.
2010 Jordanna Morgan