The hours pass in a blur.
Trisha doesn't know when the sun rose; she doesn't know when the three of them collected themselves enough to make it back to the house. She doesn't know how she's going to be able to handle this new, horrifying information—
(doesn't know how Edward and Alphonse have lived with it for so long)
—and how in the world is she supposed to continue on as if she isn't going to die?
Edward has let his sleeve fall back into place, and Alphonse has secured his helmet back onto his body, but nothing is the same. She can hear clearly how Al's knees and feet clank loudly as he crosses the wooden floors, and the noise is far too hollow; she can see how Edward—who has, every day of his life, been right-handed—does every action with his left, so as to feel what he is holding…
Everything makes too much sense, now, and she wonders through her shock and grief how she could have possibly missed these things before.
None of them have gotten much sleep (can Al even sleep at all every time she's been in their room at night he's been awake), but she doubts they will try to get any now…not after what has just transpired between them…
Al trails into the kitchen and pulls out some leftover food to reheat…and something twinges, deep inside Trisha. She crosses the room quickly, putting a hand on his arm to stop his movements. "Don't worry about this—I'll cook. You just sit down, all right?"
Al makes a noise, as if he wants to object…but Ed punches his back with his automail hand (the sound echoes through the kitchen, strange and foreign and more terrifying than it should be) and mumbles something about talking in the other room for a minute. Alphonse reluctantly complies.
This leaves Trisha alone in the kitchen for a few precious seconds, and she means to boil the potatoes but instead finds herself collapsing against the counter. She's alone at last, but still she is unable to come to terms with it all. The soul binding…the—the automail…
(Somewhere, vaguely, she remembers Pinako saying that the surgery is the most painful there is. And Edward has two limbs made of steel…has two ports and two surgeries and there must have been so much blood—)
The water is boiling merrily now, as if to spite her, but she pays it no heed as she continues to stare at nothing, gently banging her head into the cabinet. Pinako's even said…she refuses to attach automail to anyone under seventeen…says they won't be able to handle it…
(Her sons have always defied all odds, but in this case, she'd give anything for them to be average.)
They're suddenly back in the room, now, and Edward is collapsed in a kitchen chair while Al carefully approaches her, collecting the chunks of potato and dropping them into the water. The food leaves marks on his gloves, but he pays no notice to them as he picks up the spoon and begins to stir.
This is so wrong.
"You can't eat," she says, and it's not so much a question as a statement of what she'd give anything to make false. "Because—because you don't have your proper body."
Edward shifts behind them but says nothing; Alphonse does not reply for several seconds—"That's right."
"And you can't sleep, either, can you?" Her voice is rising in volume, but she finds that she does not care as she looks up into what should be his eyes. "That body doesn't let you sleep?"
He ducks his head, breaking their eye contact to stare intently at the potatoes. "Or—or smell, or feel…"
She chokes out something that could be a sob or a scream or a bout of mad, hysterical laughter. Her little boy. The one who always eats so much, always is able to shovel down more food than his brother… The one who loves to take naps, sleeps late whenever possible and looks forward to dreams… The one who goes out of his way to give people hugs, snuggles close to her just to feel the warmth and comfort of another human being…
(This is so wrong.)
"Really, it's—it's okay," he says, but his voice cracks, and Trisha doesn't believe him for a second. (Her Al always tries to make everyone else happy, putting others before himself.) "I've gotten used to it…and we're always looking…"
"I'm gonna fix it, Mom." Edward's voice sounds from behind them, and both Trisha and Al turn to see something like determination on his face. (And if it's mixed with madness…well, who can blame him?) "I—I'm not gonna stop searching until Al is back to normal…"
And looking at the fire in his eyes, in his clenched and badly-shaking hands…she doesn't doubt him for a second.
Breakfast, as it is, passes uneventfully. Edward and Trisha eat in silence while Alphonse only watches…
(She can hardly stand it, but she knows it will only hurt him worse if she lets on. So she says nothing.)
And when they're finished, as they bring their dishes to the sink and drop them in soapy water, Edward turns to his brother; his face is suddenly, barely, full of hope.
"You know, Al…there is that one thing…if you're both careful…"
Al jerks and stares at his brother before his gaze wanders to Trisha. He is silent for several seconds before his voice emanates from the armor—
"If there was anything to risk it for…I think…I think this would be it."
(And if pain flashes through Edward's eyes and releases itself in a badly-stifled sob, Trisha and Alphonse both pretend not to notice.)
They're in the living room, now, and Alphonse has taken off his helmet, sitting down on the couch. Edward is hovering nearby, his face a mask of pain and terror and hope all at once…
"We think…well, we've never tried, but…" Al heaves a deep breath that supplies him no oxygen and continues, "We think…if someone touches my blood seal, I'll be able to feel it."
She can only stare at him for a moment, not quite understanding. "You—if you don't want to, it's okay," Al continues quickly. "I don't know what it'll do, if the oils in your skin will ruin the circle or…" He trails off, and Edward flinches harshly. But then he continues, bravado that isn't quite convincing in his voice, "I'm willing to risk it. I—I don't think I can handle this any longer…"
He falls silent, but Trisha understands; she walks forward, slowly, carefully, and looks inside the armor to find that small circle inscribed in her son's blood. She reaches out (she can't smear the circle that'll kill him—she doesn't know anything about alchemy but she knows this much) and hesitates for a moment longer before gently touching her fingers to the edge.
The sob that emanates from her son is the most heartbreaking thing that she has ever heard…even after this long night of despair.
(All she can think is that she can't let it end this way.)
"Edward, you know that if you don't let me in, I can open the door myself. Please…we need to talk."
He does his best to ignore his father's voice on the other side of the barricaded door (the alchemy isn't perfect—his hands shook terribly drawing the circle, and he was far too distracted while activating it—but even so, it gets the job done) as he buries his face more insistently into one of Elysia's pillows. He can't talk to Dad right now; he can't, because…
Mom is dead. Mom isn't alive anymore…
He wants to blame Dad; he wants to blame the Rockbells; he wants to blame the God Mom mentions on occasion but in whom he has never truly believed…
(He thinks that would change—forever—if only God could bring Mom back.)
He doesn't answer his father, and both of them are quiet for several seconds before the older man sighs. There is a loud crackling of red alchemy (why is it red all his and Al's transmutations are blue) and then his father is there, shutting the reformed door behind him.
Ed does his best to ignore him, but he is only five years old and the other is so much older. Right now, all he needs is comfort in any form he can get it… So he swipes furiously at the tears on his face even as more fall to replace them, and then he reluctantly looks up at his father.
(He's crying as well…and it scares Edward more than he's willing to admit. Dad is strong and brave and the smartest person ever—or so he thought—but if even he…)
"We've worked out the counter-circle," he says, looking lost for a second before carefully sitting on the bed, a good distance away from Ed. "We'll be able to send you—"
"I don't want to go back!" he blurts out, and even if he doesn't completely mean it—because he misses Mom more than he can describe and all he wants is to see her again—it's too late to take it back. But when they finally return, he'll just have to wait until she...she...
(He sees his father's hand reaching tentatively forward, as if to comfort him, and he buries his face back into the pillow.)
"It doesn't have to happen," Dad says, and there is a moment's pause before he feels his father's large hand on his back. (It's shaking, just like him.) "When you activated that array, you created an...alternate timeline..." He sighs. "It's very complicated, and I'm sure you don't care about the details. All you need to know is that Trisha—Mom—doesn't have to die. You can save her..."
He falls silent and does not speak again, and Edward finally lifts his head, turning to look at his father. Suddenly, the despair that had filled his mind has vanished; hope shines through in the form of Dad's words. Mom will be okay! If Dad is telling the truth (why wouldn't he he's Dad, of course he wouldn't lie), then—
"How do we do it?" he asks after several seconds, barely containing the excitement in his voice. "What do we do?"
"You just need to find me, back at home," Dad says, and he heaves a sigh of relief for some reason that Ed does not understand. "In my study—the desk—in one of the drawers, there should be a little book full of names and telephone numbers. Just call them and ask if they've seen me—can you do that?"
Ed nods immediately, burning the information into his mind. It's surprisingly simple, he thinks; why did this fail here, in this timeline? All they have to do is call Dad's friends—he'll have to be somewhere in the country…
And once they find Dad, he'll come home because Mom is right—he isn't gone forever. He just had to go away for a little while because he had important adult things to do, but he still loves them and always wanted to come back.
Everything will be okay. We just need to find Dad.
He makes a sudden noise that could either be a laugh or a sob and lets go of the pillow at last. He flings himself instead toward his father, wrapping his arms around his neck and letting his tears stain his shoulder. (And if Dad is clearly surprised, takes several seconds to embrace him back, Ed does not care.)
We can fix it. And suddenly, nothing else matters anymore.
Ed finds himself in the study some time that afternoon.
The three of them haven't spoken much, not since Mom touched Al's blood seal… (Ed has never dared to try it, to risk his brother's life for such fleeting comfort…because if he was wrong, and the array smeared and Al was gone, he didn't think he'd be able to live with himself.)
(But Al is capable of making his own decisions, and he was right—if there's anything that is worth the risk, it's feeling his mother's touch one last time.)
But he knows this can't go on forever. Especially after last night…he needs to look at the circle, analyze Hohenheim's notes (he hates that man so goddamn much) because he doesn't deserve to stay here. He deserves exactly what he's doled out for himself—an eternity in Hell, trying to fix the wrongs he has committed…
If this experience has taught him anything, it's that his own life is absolutely forfeit if it means returning Alphonse's.
So he finally ventures into the study, where the array is still drawn out in chalk and papers are strewn haphazardly around the outside. (He and Al used to spend hours in here…) He crouches down to collect the papers into something like a neat pile, glancing at the circle and taking care not to step inside of it. He's never seen one quite like it before…but then, he's never heard of alchemy doing anything like this, either.
Just like that bastard…design an impossible transmutation that puts them into a situation like this.
He thinks he recognizes several of the runes, though, and even if he has no idea how they coordinate to make the transmutation work, it's a start. So he settles down on the floor (not the desk—never the desk) with the sheets and sheets of notes and begins to read.
Al and Mom apparently find their way upstairs sometime later…whether they are looking for him or deciding to look at the array themselves, Ed does not know. (All he knows, at the moment, is that he needs to reverse this circle…because no matter how much he wants to stay here, forever, he knows there's another pair of Elric brothers who deserves to spend these last precious months with their mother. Especially if there's no way to change what happened...)
But this array is complex—impossibly complex—and he's barely made any progress on drawing out the counter-circle when his brother and mother find him. "Edward?" His mom walks in, skirting the edges of the circle as she comes up next to him. "What are you doing?"
"We can't stay here," he mumbles to his notes, unable to look up at her. "And this is really, really advanced stuff—Mustang won't be able to reverse it himself. We shouldn't be here...your sons deserve to be here..."
Al makes a sort of noise that might have been in agreement (or might have been in defeat), sitting down next to him and pulling a smaller copy of the array toward him. Their mom is silent for a moment, before she reaches forward and pushes the notes down and away. "I was talking with Al about this, when we were downstairs..." She sighs. "Everyone always says you two are like night and day, but really, you're so similar that it's starting to scare me."
Al's helmet clanks as he looks up, and Edward finally tears his gaze from the notes. "You are my sons," she says, and Ed watches the tears as they well in her eyes. (Why can't he do anything right? He can only ever ruin those he loves...) "You will always be my sons—I don't care what has happened, or what will happen, or any of that. No matter what happens, I will always love you."
(And suddenly, Ed feels something inside him snap.)
He pulls her into a hug, tight and desperate and more free than he has before—after all, there's no need to hide his automail anymore. She reciprocates without a second thought, petting his hair in the way he forgot he loved and whispering that it's all going to be okay, because they're both such strong boys who have grown up so well and she is so proud of them and don't you ever forget that, all right? No matter how hard things get in the future.
"You—you don't hate me for what I did? To you and—and to Al..."
The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them, and he hears Al make a noise of dissent from behind him (he's told Ed over and over again that he doesn't resent him for what happened, but the terror in the back of his mind has never truly disappeared), but before he can say anything, Mom has responded, louder this time, so Al can hear as well. "Sweetie, how could I ever hate you for that? You were young and alone and I—I failed you...there's nothing for me to be upset about. You've done your best since the very beginning...nobody can be angry with you for that."
He's heard that from so many people, so many of his friends who have tried to convince him that he's not the horrible person he's sure he is...but it never meant as much, coming from them. Granny and Winry didn't understand...not really...because even if Winry's parents died in Ishval, it's not the same...
But now, hearing it spoken by the one person he never thought he'd see again...
He thinks that maybe, maybe, he might finally be able to let go of some of the guilt.
They are quiet, for a time; Al has not moved from behind Ed, and Mom does not loosen her grip, only stroking his hair in silence as he refuses to admit that there are tears leaking from his eyes. He thinks he should say something, but he has no idea of what...
"It's funny," Mom says suddenly, clearly attempting to make her voice cheery. He is broken from his thoughts, looking up at her in confusion, waiting for her to go on. "When you were younger...you always said you'd never let your hair grow long, because it'd look like a girl's. But now..." She yanks gently at his braid, laughing just a bit. "When was the last time you cut it, hmm?"
Al laughs as well, and Ed thinks there's more humor there than he's heard in the last two days. It's such a stupid thing, but maybe that's what they need right now. After the weight of last night's conversation...after all the lies and... "You always said you thought it'd look good long," he answers, smiling a bit. "Also, I got lazy."
Mom and Al laugh outright at this, and Ed allows his smile to grow wider as they fall again into silence. This...this is how it should be. The three of them, sitting together as a family...without any worries or fears...he thinks this is (what he'd give anything to have forever) where true happiness lies.
(And, if only for a moment, he allows himself to believe that this is reality.)
But all at once, there is a great red light surrounding them, so different from the transmutations he knows. Lost in his thoughts, Ed realizes too late that it's the same light that the Homunculus Greed used to regenerate in Dublith, and he's quickly come to associate such a color with negative effects...
And for good reason. If Greed is in with those people he met in the Fifth Laboratory...
Without a second thought, he pushes his mother away, harshly, to get her away from the effects of the transmutation, because he and Al can handle whatever this is but he refuses to put her in danger. (He won't let her die for a third time.) The trance they had found themselves in is shattered; Mom is yelling, screaming for them, but the transmutation is only encapsulating him and Al; now that Mom is farther away from both of them, she is clearly not being affected.
(He realizes suddenly that the array that brought them here has—somehow—been reversed.)
Al seems to have realized as well, for he is yelling this to their mother; the terror on her face lessens only slightly, though, and her arms are reaching out toward both of them as the reaction intensifies. Ed knows he only has seconds before they are gone and she is lost to them forever...
All at once, there are so many things he needs to say to her. I love you and don't worry, everything will be fine... (Even thoughts of other things—the Rockbells, telling her to stop them from going to Ishval—waver on the edges of his mind, but he knows there's no time to say any of this anymore.)
So he can only reach back toward his mother as she grows ever-fainter, screaming for her like he has not in years, and refusing to blink as he watches her slowly fade from his sight...
And then, finally, there is nothing but blackness.
Al is upon him the moment he and Dad open the door.
"Brother are you okay what's wrong why wouldn't you let me in? I was so scared and Winry wouldn't tell me why you were sad and—"
Ed is nearly knocked over by the force of his brother's hug, only stabilizing himself by catching himself on Dad's legs. "I'm okay," he says quickly, because he can feel Al's tears staining his neck and he can't stand to see his little brother cry. "I just—just—"
He can't come up with a suitable lie to tell his brother, because he knows Al can't find out about Mom (he's the older brother he has to protect him) but he has no other explanation as to why he locked himself in Elysia's bedroom for three hours. But Dad jumps in, kneeling down next to them and patting Al gingerly on the shoulder. "Ed was in trouble, Al. He ran off at lunch, you remember that, right? We had to put him in—in time out, because he wasn't supposed to do that. And I went in to talk to him, to make sure he doesn't do it again."
Al looks up, glances between the two of them, and Ed does his best to look contrite. It's not a perfect story, but Dad is a very good liar...hopefully Al believes it.
"Everything's fine now," he assures him at length, when Al still doesn't look convinced. "Really, Al, we just gotta get back to Mom and everything'll be okay again! Dad even said they got the circle done!"
"Yeah, that's what Mister Roy said!" Al said, his face lighting up at the change of subject. "He and Mister Armstrong are drawing it in the living room now—and Dad'll activate it, right?"
Ed does not know the answer, but their father nods, a small smile slipping onto his face. "That's right. I'll be able to send you home just as soon as you're ready to go."
Al's grin looks genuine even through his tears, and Ed relaxes, because that means he believes their story and everything will be okay. (Even if he hates lying to his brother, Ed can't even imagine the look on his face if he found out that Mom is dead...so he knows this is the only option.) "Hey, where's Winry? Gotta say good-bye, right?"
"She's in the kitchen with Mrs. Hughes," Al says brightly, pulling him that way by the hand. "They're making dinner for the—the older us, for when they get back."
Everything will be okay. Winry and the Hugheses are already making plans for when they get switched back...and Dad and the others wouldn't try the circle unless they're absolutely sure it'll work, right? Al won't be sad, because he and Dad fixed everything... So Mom will be okay and Al won't ever have to know...
When they enter the living room, Roy and Armstrong are nearly finished drawing out the circle in chalk on the wooden floor. "Hey, kid," Roy says, grinning over at Ed rather uncertainly. (Ed wonders vaguely why he almost seems unsure of how to talk to him, when he talks to his fellow adults just fine.) "You all right? We're about done...just want your dad to check it over..."
Dad is already crouching down next to the circle (only a few feet across between the couch and the fireplace, but very complex. Ed can't hope to understand it), inspecting the runes and the lines. "Yes, this is right," he says after several seconds, nodding and standing up. "Edward, could you go get Winry and the Hugheses so we can finish this up?"
He nods quickly and rushes into the kitchen, allowing a huge grin to form on his face. "Winry! Mister Hughes!" he yells, causing them all to turn to him in alarm.
"Ed?" Winry runs toward him, her eyes wide in surprise. "Ed, is everything okay?"
"Yeah!" he says, and he doesn't think he's smiled so wide since they came here. "Dad says we just gotta find him, back home, and everything'll be okay! And they just finished the array!"
"That's great!" Mr. Hughes says, walking over from his place by the stove and ruffling Ed's hair. "You guys are gonna be swapping back, then?"
"Yup!" He laughs, because that's what Mom likes to do to his hair too (she'll be okay she has to be okay) and he'll be seeing her very soon. "Just wanna say goodbye..."
Winry laughs (but Ed can suddenly see tears in her eyes...he doesn't understand) and takes him by the hand, leading him back out toward the living room. "Well, I bet you want to get back home, huh?"
He does, because he misses everyone so much and he can't wait to see Mom again...but he can't stand to see Winry sad. And even if this Winry is much older than him, that doesn't mean they're not friends... So he stops walking, pulls her into an alcove before they reach the living room, and asks, "Winry, why're you sad?"
She only stares at him for a moment before laughing—the sound's not happy, though, and Ed only furrows his brow further and tilts his head. "Really, Winry, what's wrong? I don't like it when you're sad..."
She laughs again, louder and more hysterical than before as she drops to her knees to be at his eye level. But she says nothing for several seconds; she only looks down at him for a moment as tears leak from her eyes...and just before Ed asks again, she says, "So you—you can save Auntie Trisha?"
"That's what Dad said," he replies, looking at her in confusion. "We just gotta find him when we get home, and then he'll be able to fix her..."
"That's...that's good..." she says, and it's obvious she's attempting a smile. "So...could you tell my parents something for me? Please?"
"Can you tell them—can you please ask them not to go to Ishval?"
Ishval? Ed isn't sure where that is...doesn't know why Winry doesn't want them to go...but her eyes are wide and spilling more and more tears down her cheeks...he can't possibly say no to her. "Sure, yeah..."
"Or—or even, because they'll say no," she continues quickly, her hands balling into fists, "just tell them...when the military asks them to leave, please...they need to leave..."
Why would the military be involved...? Ed still doesn't understand what she means, but if that's what Winry wants, that's what he'll tell Auntie and Uncle Rockbell. "Yeah, I'll tell them. But why...?"
Winry doesn't answer; she only pulls him into a tight hug. "Hey, Winry...it'll be okay...I'll tell them not to go to—to Ishval, and everything will be okay..."
"Yeah...it will..." she agrees slowly...and when she pulls away from the hug, she is smiling despite her tears. "Let's get going, all right? I'm sure Al's wondering where we disappeared to..."
Soon enough, they're in the living room with everyone else. Winry's still wiping her eyes, but her tears have slowed; Al looks worried about her but does not have time to ask. All the adults are standing back several feet from the circle, staring at them as if drinking in their appearances. Elysia is in her mother's arms, staring at Ed and Winry...
"Are you ready to go?" Dad asks quietly after several seconds of silence, and Ed nods, giving Winry's hand one last squeeze before stepping carefully into the circle. He doesn't understand it, so he doesn't have to worry about accidentally activating it...but he still steps gingerly around the chalk, so as not to smear anything.
Winry is hugging Al, now, maybe even tighter than she was hugging him; Ed doesn't understand, but he thinks he knows better than to ask. Nobody says anything, but Maes ruffles Al's hair on his way toward the circle; Mister Armstrong is crying; and Roy has a strange look on his face that Ed doesn't understand. Nobody says anything until Al has stepped inside the circle as well, and Dad steps forward, looking at both of them for confirmation to activate the array...
"Take care of that brother of yours, all right, Ed?" Roy says suddenly, and Ed can only stare at him before nodding slowly. He doesn't know Roy very well; he's barely talked to him, especially compared to all the others. But his face is deadly serious, and that's what everyone else has always told him, too. So the answer comes easily—
"I will, don't worry, Mister Roy."
He snorts loudly, and Mister Hughes laughs outright, but Ed has no time to ask why. Winry and Mrs. Hughes are waving, and Al is nodding to Dad; the array lights up a bright red all around them.
Within seconds, everyone else is gone.
When the blinding red light finally fades and Trisha blinks the stars from her eyes, her boys are gone.
(Just like they were two days ago.)
Then, she had been utterly terrified, knowing nothing of what was going on and thinking only of how to get them back. Now, she knows exactly what has happened, and that it will only be a matter of seconds before her younger set of sons returns to her...
But instead of the relief she should be feeling—because all of this is finally, finally over—she only feels terribly empty. Her conversation with Ed and Al—the ones who are so broken that she didn't even know how to start fixing them—was cut short...did not have a chance to properly resolve before they were ripped away.
There are so many things she wishes she could have told them, because even if she assured Edward that she could never blame him for any of this, and Alphonse knows she loves him no matter what he looks like, there is just so much left unsaid. She wants to tell Ed that he's grown so much, that surely he'll soon be taller than her and Alphonse. (And even if she's not sure it's true, she knows he needs to hear it.) She wants to tell Al that the armor isn't as frightening as he clearly believes it to be, that it's him and that means it could never be anything but the kindest, gentlest thing in the world...
She wants to tell them both that she believes in them, that she's sure they'll find an answer, that they will find peace and happiness in their lives before long. She wants to tell them over and over how much she loves them, how proud she is (because these things are so vast and indescribable that saying them once will never convey what she's trying to tell them) and how much everyone else loves them, too. After all, how could they not? Her boys may not be perfect, but they're clearly trying their hardest to be good.
She can't fault them for that, and she's sure that nobody else can, either.
The light fills the room again, a blood red that she recognizes easily as her husband's transmutations. (She only allows herself a moment to hope, because it's impossible and she knows that he is long gone.) She does not flinch away, does not step back. This array is not meant for her; it does not pose her any danger...
And after a few seconds, Edward and Alphonse are there, fully conscious this time, looking around the room with wide, frightened eyes.
"Ed? Al?" she says softly, catching their attention immediately. Alphonse is the first to reach her, letting out a sob as he embraces her with all the power he possesses. Edward is not far behind, and though he is crying as well, his are not hysterical sobs like those wrenching themselves from Al's throat. But his grip is only tightening as she hugs them both back...
He knows. Alphonse does not.
It is so clear to her, in these few seconds, that she is momentarily struck speechless. Edward...is never this quiet. He's saying nothing, only gripping her dress like his life depends on it, like terrible things will happen if he lets go...
(He found out what might happen and kept it from his brother, did his best to protect Al in the only way he could. Here, now, she realizes that as much as her sons have grown over the years...they really haven't changed at all.)
"Are you guys all right?" she asks quietly, unwilling to break the silence but knowing the necessity of doing so. After a moment, Al nods into her chest. Ed doesn't move, doesn't say anything...but she thinks he will be as well.
"I missed you..." Al mumbles, not looking up, his grip shaking a bit as he tries to hug her tighter. "They wouldn't let us call you and Winry wouldn't tell us anything, or Mister Roy or Mister Hughes or..." He dissolves into sobs again, unable to say anything else. She rubs his back, humming quietly, because she knows he will be okay once he calms down. He is upset, yes; of course he's upset; he was stranded in a strange place with people he didn't know for more than two days, and that is a lot to take in as a four-year-old boy.
But he is strong; she knows that, undeniably, now. He will be all right.
Edward makes a noise, as if he wants to say something but doesn't know how. She does not interrupt; after several seconds, he says, "We...we gotta find Dad, okay? He said we gotta...there's a book..."
Something jars Trisha about this, but it takes her several seconds to realize. "Dad—Dad was there?" she asks carefully, barely daring to hope. He's not dead? But then why has he been away for so long? "In the future, you saw Dad?"
"Yeah," he replies readily, looking up at her at last. "He was—he had to talk to some alchemists in Central. But he said we gotta find someone who knows where he is so he'll come home..."
She nods after a moment, her mind reeling...but she knows she can't let her sons know how much this has affected her. (Why would he stay away for so long after everything that happened—why did he not come home for more than ten years?) "Well, let's start dinner, and then we'll look for his book, all right?" She smiles at them, hoping they don't see through the calm facade. Alphonse does not look ready to loosen his grip on her, so she hoists him into her arms (he's small, so much smaller than he will be—she cannot possibly let that happen), waits as Ed attaches himself to her skirt, and makes her way out of the study.
They'll be all right...she knows this because it must be so. She's always known that her boys are good people, brave and strong...and now, she knows it for sure. This experience...she will never forget it, she knows, but she can't let it ruin her...(because if she becomes weak, she knows exactly what will happen.)
Alphonse is lying down upstairs—he is understandably exhausted, and while he was loath to detach himself from Trisha, she promised him that she would only be downstairs if he needed anything. After tucking him in (into the bed they made for his older self, never used), he was asleep within seconds.
Now, downstairs, chopping salad and waiting for the pasta to boil, she feels a gentle tug at her skirt. She looks down to see Edward, his face downcast, and immediately puts down the knife. "What's wrong, honey?"
"In the future...I...I found out some stuff," he says, very quietly, so she can barely hear. She crouches down to talk to him better, putting a hand on his shoulder and causing him to look up. "I just wanted to find out what was gonna happen, because you're sad so much and I wanted you to be happy but—" his voice catches for a moment—"I messed it up..."
That's why they activated the array? She realizes that she has not thought about how or why this happened, was too wrapped up in getting to know her older sons...but this makes sense—a frightening amount of sense, in fact. But that is not the current problem, and she can't dwell on it..."You didn't mess up anything, Edward," she promises, smiling at him. "In fact, it's a good thing this happened, right? This way, we know what could happen, and now we just have to fix it."
His eyes widen and his mouth drops open a bit as he stares back at her. "Like you said, we just need to call Dad and tell him to come home," she continues. "Everything will be okay, I promise."
"You're not upset with me?" he asks, tentatively, as if frightened of the answer. Trisha laughs a bit.
"Of course I'm not...you haven't done anything wrong. Just don't do any transmutations without me or Dad there anymore, okay?"
"Okay!" His face is splitting into a grin, now—the one that's too wide for his face, the one that Trisha has always loved. (Fifteen-year-old Edward didn't wear it once.) "I'm gonna go find Dad's people book, is that okay? Then we can start calling his friends after dinner!"
She laughs, outright this time, and reaches out to ruffle his hair fondly. "Of course."
The seconds tick by, tortuously slow, as Maes and the others wait for the elder Ed and Al to return to their proper time.
The transmutation seems to have gone off without a hitch; Hohenheim does not look concerned, and Roy says that this is what happened when they arrived, as well; there were several seconds in between...
But as these few seconds pass, Maes can only assume the worst.
Irrational but no less terrifying: the transmutation fails. There is a rebound, and those boys lose even more than they already have...or they simply do not reappear at all.
Unlikely: they come back none the worse for wear...shaken up, of course, but otherwise fine. Nothing terrible has happened to them... (Ha. Maes doubts it. Those boys love their mother far too much...)
Most likely (and the most terrifying): they find their way back, but they are shattered beyond repair.
His mind has always worked too fast; in certain situations, it could mean the difference between life and death, and he is grateful for it. But here, now...when there is nothing he can do but wait...it is not so much a blessing as a curse.
Finally, finally, the seconds (that feel like hours) are spent, and the transmutation fires up for a second time; soon, two figures he knows so well are standing in the living room. Maes takes in the sight of them quickly; Ed's eyes are wide and hugely red; Al's posture is terrified and defensive...
(In all the years Maes has known them, he doesn't think he's ever seen them so vulnerable...and he immediately thinks that the worst has come to pass.)
But ever so slowly, they seem to realize where they are and who is surrounding them. Their backs are to Hohenheim—in hindsight, Maes realizes that this is probably a very good thing—and the first person they see is Winry, standing only a few feet before them. The rest of them seem frozen in time, waiting for the Elrics to move, for them to say something (to do anything to prove they're all right, because Maes isn't so sure). And after several more seconds, they are rewarded; Ed stumbles forward, reaching out toward Winry silently, and engulfs her into an enormous hug.
Winry seems as surprised as anyone but returns the embrace readily, rubbing Ed's back as he attempts to control his sobs. (Maes thinks it's probably because of some semblance of pride, but they all are far beyond that. The boy has every right to cry all he wants.) Al simply collapses to the ground, curling into himself and looking for all the world like a little boy whose universe has just fallen apart...
Before Maes even knows what he's doing, he is crouching by his side, punching his shoulder to get his attention (hugs are useless here, but he wishes so desperately that he could reach this poor boy), and smiling gently as he looks up. Somehow, even though Maes cannot see his expression, he can imagine it; that four-year-old face reflects perfectly onto the large, threatening visage he now wears, and the older man can clearly see the lost, desperate expression he cannot show the world.
"Hey, it'll be all right. Everything's all right..."
A sob echoes out through the helmet, and Al flings his arms around Maes. The metal bites into his skin, but Maes returns the hug without a second thought. After all, who is he to deny the boy something he so obviously needs...?
He watches as Hohenheim carefully approaches them, and raises an eyebrow. Al has not been so verbally abusive toward their father as his brother has, but Maes is sure there is resentment there... (He knows he wouldn't blame the boy if there was...and neither would Hohenheim.) He says nothing to the other man, though, and he steps inside the circle—scuffing the edge to ruin it—and puts a tentative hand on his son's metal shoulder.
The boy freezes, apparently trying to place the voice; when he isn't able to recognize it, he releases Maes and turns slowly, looking up into his father's eyes for the first time in twelve years.
Maes isn't sure what he is expecting, does not know either of them quite well enough to gauge how they will react...
(Once it happens, he realizes he shouldn't have been surprised.)
Al is suddenly on his feet, his armor trembling violently as his hands clench into fists. He seems struck silent for a few seconds as they only stare each other down; the clanking drowns out everything else and makes Edward turn, though Al blocks his brother's view of their father; Hohenheim says nothing, only waiting for his son to react...
Finally, he speaks, and as he does his fists jerk spasmodically, as if he has to force himself not to throw a punch. "What the hell...do you think you're doing here?"
His voice is broken but venomous; Maes doesn't think he's ever heard the boy so angry. Ed lets go of Winry's hand, walking forward and opening his mouth—
But then he sees who Al is talking to and freezes as well. Hohenheim only stares at both of them, his eyes impossibly sad, taking in what his sons have become...
(Because even if they are surely the same people as the young boys who were here minutes ago—with the same mannerisms and the same voices and the same personalities—they are still so different than they once were, and Maes is sure this is tearing Hohenheim apart.)
(After all, the Edward and Alphonse he knew first were the young, innocent boys made entirely of flesh and blood. For the rest of them, it has been the opposite...and while this experience has been terrible for all of them, Maes knows it must be the worst for Hohenheim.)
The three of them only stand there for several seconds, each clearly waiting for another to break the silence; nobody else moves, only watching them with bated breath... At last, Hohenheim opens his mouth, looking up at Alphonse with pain clear on his face—
Before he can say anything, though, Ed's face contorts further, and his right fist is flying out of nowhere, punching his father straight in the jaw and sending him crashing to the ground.
Everyone else in the room flinches as one, but Hohenheim only picks himself up slowly, massaging his jaw and looking back at Edward with a solemn look on his face. (Maes realizes that it is a testament to Al's current temper, that he does not rebuke his brother for such a thing.) "I deserved that," Hohenheim says, his eyes steady as he looks over at his older son. "I know I deserved that."
This, clearly, is not what Ed is expecting; he takes a step back, his eyes narrowing as he stares up at his father, clearly looking for some sort of trick. After a beat of silence, he shoots back with—"Al's right. What the hell are you doing here?"
"Your father is the one who figured out how to reverse this, Ed," Maes says carefully, walking to stand between the boys and their father. "The rest of us had no idea how to do it—without him, you'd—"
"We would have figured it out ourselves!" Ed roars. Maes hears Elysia whimper to his right, but he knows Ed wouldn't appreciate it if he was told to quiet down—"We were looking at the array when that bastard reversed it! If—"
"You wouldn't have activated it."
Hohenheim's voice is low but no less audible, and Ed pushes past Maes harshly to stand nose to nose with his father. (He's several inches shorter, but the unadulterated rage makes him look bigger than he really is. In this moment, Maes does not want to be on Edward Elric's bad side.)
"Of course we would have! We didn't deserve to stay there, with—with Mom—and she found out what happened, so she was going to try and find you so you could get your ass back home and save her—but clearly it didn't work—"
"It might have worked," Hohenheim says. "We have no way of knowing whether it—"
"We're here, aren't we?" Ed flings his arm behind him, toward the rest of the room before returning his attention to his father. "If Mom didn't die, do you really think—"
"The Trisha you met...the Edward and Alphonse who were here with us...they were from a different timeline. An alternate universe, you could say." Ed opens his mouth, looking outraged; Al makes a strange noise deep in his throat; but before either of them can articulate their thoughts, Hohenheim continues, "When that array was activated, the timelines split. For all we know, that other family could be growing up happy right now. But what happened here has already passed; it can't be changed now."
Ed's mouth only hangs open slightly for a moment, staring at Hohenheim; and suddenly, Maes feels like he is intruding on something far too personal. They're talking of Trisha Elric, a woman they love so much but whom he has never met; they're talking of a life they could have lived, in which he and Roy and everyone else would have no part, but which Ed and Al would give anything to have...
(He shouldn't be here. None of them should be here...this is far too private a conversation to carry on in front of an audience.)
But before he can leave the room, herd everyone else into the kitchen and close the door to give them the space they need...Ed roars in fury and stalks off, letting himself out the front door and slamming it shut behind him. Al follows without a second thought, not sparing a glance for those left in the living room; Hohenheim leaves as well, only pausing to mutter an "I'm sorry" to Maes before the door is closed behind him as well.
The silence in the room is heavy, but nobody breaks it; nobody even thinks of heading out after them...
(Maes disregards Hohenheim's apology, because he knows there is no need for it. Apologizing for your sons' actions when they have just returned from one of the most traumatizing experiences of their lives...a few harsh words and punches thrown are the least of their worries right now.)
They have not broken, as Maes feared, but both boys are teetering on the edge...
He can only hope the strength he's always known them for will be able to pull them back together before it's too late.
The book is old and thick, but things like this have never stopped Ed. He's rushing through dinner, eating as fast as he can so he can start calling people faster. After all, the faster he calls Dad's friends, the faster Dad will come home, right? And they can't take any chances—
"Sweetie, it's okay. It's not going to happen tomorrow," Mom says, smiling at him from across the table. (Al is still asleep upstairs, so they're keeping some of the spaghetti warm for him in the pot.) "The—the older you said we've got almost a year."
He isn't willing to take any chances, though...especially where Mom is concerned. "We gotta find Dad," he insists, shoveling a meatball into his mouth and nodding decisively. (And pointedly ignoring the bottle of milk next to him, of course.)
"What did Dad tell you?" she asks suddenly, putting down her fork and frowning over at him. "I know the other you had some trouble finding him, but..."
"He said you...you died," he mumbles the last word, because saying it aloud might make it more likely to happen. "And he didn't come home until after...he couldn't fix you because you were already..."
Mom is quiet for several seconds. "Well...I got very sick. That's what happened...and your older selves didn't start looking for Dad until then. So we should be okay, because I'm not going to get sick for several more months."
He wants to believe her; he does. But what if she's wrong, and she gets sick tomorrow? What if it's already too late? He needs to save her, because he can't even imagine living without Mom, but what if...
He only narrows his eyes further, eating even faster than before. We gotta call Dad's friends. Only when Dad is home will he feel safe again.
(And he thinks Mom will only be happy again when he comes back, too.)
He's flipping through the book while Mom puts the dishes away, looking at all the names and numbers. (There are a lot of them...more than he expected.) Some of them are crossed out, but Ed isn't sure why; is Dad not friends with them anymore? Why would he—?
When he shows these to Mom, though, she only gets a strange look on her face and says, "I...I don't think we need to try and call those people. They must have...changed their phone numbers."
(Ed thinks she isn't telling the truth, but she must have a good reason, so he doesn't ask.)
He starts with the first name that isn't marked out, pulling down the phone from the kitchen receiver and standing on a chair to dial the numbers. Mom glances over and opens her mouth to say something to him, but when she sees that he's already calling people, she only laughs a bit and shakes her head. Ed grins over at her, listening to the phone ringing and waiting for something to happen...
Finally, someone picks up, and an older lady's voice says, "Armstrong estate, Mary Waters speaking. How may I be of service?"
What? "Uh...can I talk to Mister Philip Armstrong, please?" He tries to make his voice sound polite (something Mom says he's never been very good at), but he isn't sure he knows what's going on. Why is a weird lady answering the Armstrongs' phone...?
There is a pause on the other line. "What do you need to speak with him about?"
"He's friends with our dad," Ed replies promptly. "I'm trying to find him, and Mister Armstrong's phone number was in Dad's book..."
The pause is longer this time. "Let me ask him, okay? I'll be back in a moment." Ed makes an affirmative noise, and then he hears her put the phone down and walk away. He waits impatiently, bouncing on his toes while he waits for someone to come back...
Finally, a deep, booming voice sounds from the other end, so loud that Ed almost tumbles right off the chair in surprise. "Hello, child! How may I help you?"
"Uh...are you Mister Armstrong?" It's definitely not Miss Waters, but Ed checked, and there aren't any other Armstrongs in the A section of the book. (Well, there was one that was scratched out, but Mom said not to worry about those, so...)
"Indeed I am!" His voice does not decrease in volume, and Ed wonders suddenly if he's related to the Mister Armstrong he and Al met in the future...because both of them like to use their outside voices...inside. "Mary said you need my assistance in finding your father? What is his name?"
"Van Hohenheim," he says slowly, because he's always stumbled over the syllables, but he won't let himself mess up when he's talking to an adult. "Have you seen him? Do you know where he is?"
"Van Hohenheim...?" The man seems to ponder this for a moment, and Ed almost leans forward in anticipation, as if they're standing right in front of each other. "Very tall with blond hair and glasses? That the one?"
"Yeah!" he says, his grin growing hugely wider. Is it really going to be this easy? Does Mister Armstrong know—?
"I'm sorry, son, I haven't seen him since my military days," the older man says, his voice sorrowful. "It's been at least ten years since our last meeting...I wouldn't have any idea where he is now."
"Oh..." Ed deflates all at once, his face falling. "Well, can you call if you see him, please? And ask him to come home?"
"Of course," Armstrong says, his voice still loud but much kinder than before. Ed lists off his phone number, and then they say their good-byes. He hangs up the phone and slouches down into a sitting position. Mom looks over when she realizes he isn't talking anymore; when she sees him sitting on the chair, she hurries over, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"You knew it was going to take more time than that," she says, smiling. (It's the not-quite-happy smile Ed has grown to hate, because it means Mom isn't okay...and if she isn't okay, then he isn't either. He has to find Dad.) "Look, there are tons of names in Dad's book—I'm sure someone knows where he is. You can't give up after just one person, right?"
He nods slowly, because she's right, isn't she? (Of course she is—Mom is always right.) So he stands up again, grabbing the book off the counter and finding the next number, pulling the phone down and spinning the dial.
We're gonna find Dad. Ed doesn't care if he has to go out and get him himself—if that's what it takes to get him home (and keep Mom safe), then that's all right with him.
The phone is ringing, now, and his heart swells in anticipation. Maybe this person will know where Dad is. And if he doesn't, maybe the next person will.
After all, Dad hasn't just disappeared out of the country...he has to be somewhere.
Al comes downstairs somewhere during the C's...and in all that time, Ed has had no luck with Dad's friends. The best results he's seen so far have come from an old man named Mark Burton, but he saw Dad nearly two months ago, and then only briefly.
"If I had to guess, boy, I'd say he's been spending a lot of time in Central. But that's a big place—I'm sorry, but I don't know what else to tell you."
Ed had resignedly thanked Mister Burton and hung up. He's right, after all; Central is a huge city with tons of people, and knowing that Dad is there somewhere really means nothing to him right now.
"What're you doing, Brother?"
Al's sleepy voice breaks him from his musings, and Ed turns to see him rubbing his eyes, clutching a blanket. "Who's on the phone?"
"I'm looking for Dad," he says, waving the little book toward his brother before bending over it again, marking off the newest disappointment. "Gotta call all his friends to find out where he is..."
"Can I help?" Al walks forward quickly, tugging the book out of his hands quickly and looking at all the names. "We just gotta call all these people, right?"
"Yeah," Ed says, slightly miffed that he just took the book without asking or anything...but it's true that his throat is starting to hurt from all this talking. He definitely wouldn't mind letting Al call people for a bit. "I just hung up with Missus Christmas, so you should start with Mister Clearwater..."
"Okay!" Al jumps up onto the chair, tugging his blanket behind him and pulling the phone down.
"If they don't know where he is, tell them our phone number in case they see him," Ed says quickly. "And be real polite, that's what Mom said."
"I know, Brother," Al says, rolling his eyes at him as he carefully reads the phone number. "I'm good at being polite. You're just really, really bad at it."
Ed laughs and punches his brother's shoulder lightly, hopping down and heading into the living room, where Mom is reading. She looks up when he walks in, smiling hopefully and marking her page as he sits down. "Any luck, honey?"
He shakes his head, but he's not going to let himself get upset yet; after all, there are twenty-three more letters to go through before they're out of people, and Dad has lots of friends. "Al's calling them now, 'cause my throat hurts."
Her face falls in sympathy as she puts an arm around his shoulders. "Let me know if you want me to start calling, all right? I know you want to do this yourself, but it's a big task..."
He shakes his head quickly, though, because he and Al need to do this. After all, Mom does so much for them all the time—cooking and cleaning and making sure they're okay and making them feel better when they're sad...they need to do something for her, too. "We can do it. We're grown-up enough!"
She laughs (he loves the sound so much) and ruffles his hair. "My little man, so grown up...soon, you'll be bigger than all of us, and then what will I do with you?"
Mom makes them stop at eight, because it's getting late and people aren't going to want to talk on the phone—after all, they're going to be going to bed soon, just like you, and everyone will still be there in the morning. So Ed grudgingly marks off the last name he called—Missus Sandra Dirk—and leaves the book by the phone for tomorrow, finishing his nightly chores quickly and crawling into bed.
(He hasn't realized how tired he is until now...but it's been an enormously long day—was it only this morning that he found out about the danger Mom is in?—and all he wants to do is sleep. So he resolves to wake up early in the morning to start calling again, because the faster they call people, the faster they'll find Dad...and the faster Mom will be happy again.)
With these comforting thoughts, he quickly drifts off to sleep.
Al insists he starts the next morning, pouting and clenching his fists in annoyance until Ed gives in. Instead, he helps Mom with the breakfast dishes, cleaning the kitchen (it's a chore he hates doing, but it's not quite as bad when he's doing it with Mom) and listening to Al talk to all the different adults.
It sounds like he's having no more luck than they were last night...Ed supposes he should have expected that, but that doesn't mean he can't be upset about it. After all—as they start in on the few E's in the book—they're slowly running out of options...
(He's trying to stay optimistic, because they're not even halfway through the book yet, but that doesn't mean he can't be scared.)
They're finished before Al's calls are up, so Ed decides to sit at the kitchen table, watching his brother bounce on his toes, waiting for every line to connect...and then watching the dismay flood his face when this newest person says they haven't seen Dad.
Mom is there too, but it looks like she's thinking very hard; her eyes are looking ahead but not focusing on anything, and her mouth is turned down into something that's not quite a frown...
Finally, Al hangs up his last call (A Missus Ellis who has, apparently, not seen Dad in almost four years) and passes the book to Ed, squirming up into Mom's chair and sitting on her lap. It seems to break her out of her reverie, but only barely; she runs her fingers through Al's hair almost absent-mindedly as she continues to look far away.
"You boys know I love you, right?"
The question comes out of nowhere, and Ed jumps as he makes his way over to the phone. "Yeah," he says, turning to look at her worriedly. "We love you too!"
Al nods his fervent agreement, craning his neck to look up at her. "Mom, you okay? Everything's okay, right?"
"Yes, of course," she says after a moment, looking down at Al and smiling. "Just thinking of the boys I met when you switched places...you grow up so well, both of you. I just love you so much..."
To Ed's horror, he thinks he can see tears forming in Mom's eyes. He drops the book on the phone chair, hurrying back over and hugging her as best he can. "Mom, everything'll be okay, promise...we're gonna find Dad, right?"
He feels her nod her agreement, though a few tears drip down onto Ed's nose. "I know it will...I just...worry too much..."
Ed hugs her tighter, burying his face in her chest. He doesn't understand exactly what she's upset about—because it seems like what will happen to her isn't the problem—but he has to try and make her feel better, right? After all, that's an equivalent exchange—it's what she does for them, so they should do it for her, too.
(And he hopes that once Dad comes home, she won't have to cry at all, because she'll never be sad again.)
"Dad? Daddy! Is that you?"
An hour or so later, Al's shrill, excited voice carries from the kitchen, out the open window and into the garden. Ed and Mom only stare at each other for a moment before abandoning the weeds, rushing back inside.
Major General Grumman is not having a particularly good day.
Stationed at the Eastern Command Center, it's his job to keep Central abreast of all the developments in Ishval...the conflict is only growing, though, and he isn't sure there's any way this can end well. Dozens are dying every day...even if he has been in the military all his life, he knows he'll never get used to such things, and the numbers simply make him nauseous.
But that isn't what he needs to focus on right now...at least, not directly. His current appointment is an acquaintance he hasn't seen in many years but who doesn't seem to have changed at all; Van Hohenheim is seated heavily in the chair across the desk, rubbing the bridge of his nose, and Grumman is sure there's more going on that he isn't saying.
(Maybe it's his business to know, and maybe it's not, but that doesn't mean he can't wonder.)
They're nearly finished—Hohenheim just needed to ask him several questions about the conflict in Ishval (specifically the body count...which Grumman doesn't understand but sees no reason to keep hidden), and now he looks like he is preparing to go.
The phone on his desk rings suddenly, loud in the heavy silence of the room, and Hohenheim gestures for him to take it, standing up and wrapping his coat around his shoulders.
"Thank you very much for your time...may I contact you if I need anything else?"
"Of course," he says immediately, both out of courtesy and because he wants to figure this man out. The last time he saw Van Hohenheim was at least ten years ago, but he hasn't aged a day since then. How this is possible, he has no idea...but he's always loved a good puzzle.
He picks up the phone as Hohenheim lets himself out and waits patiently for the operator to connect whomever it is, but she only says, sounding rather bemused—"There's a little boy on an outside line asking to speak to you...he said he's looking for his father, and that you might know where he is..."
Well...this is unexpected. But he isn't tied up, and if he can find a legitimate distraction from the paperwork, why not? "I'm not busy—go ahead and connect him."
There is silence on the line for several seconds as the operator works, and then a click. "Hello?" Grumman says, trying to make his voice sound kind. After all, he is a grandfather...such things should come easily to him...but he doesn't want to scare the boy. "This is General Grumman."
"Hello," a voice replies, rather uncertainly, and damn but he is young. Grumman's sure he can't be any older than five as he continues—"You're—you're not busy, are you? The lady said you're really important and I shouldn't be bothering you..."
"No, child, I'm not busy," he says, smiling despite himself. "She said you need help finding your father? I'll do my best...what is his name?"
"Thank you," he says, and his voice is rushed and intensely relieved. "His name's Van Hohenheim...he's got your name in a book, so—"
"Van Hohenheim?" he repeats, the pit dropping out of his stomach.
"Yeah," he says, sounding hopeful. "Do you know where he is?"
He's struck dumb for a moment, only staring at the chair the man had occupied before his gaze travels to the door. "I'll—I'll be right back. Wait just a moment." And before the boy can reply, he has put the phone carefully onto his desk and dashed out the door.
Hohenheim is several seconds ahead of him, but Grumman is running; he makes his way through the mess of people that has always occupied Eastern Command, searching for that head of strange blond hair that is taller than most...
And after a moment, he sees him, nearing the front door in his old brown coat and battered suitcase. "Hohenheim!" he calls, several feet behind him, causing many to turn. He has a bit of an eccentric reputation, though, and people soon dismiss him, leaving him to his "antics." Usually, that is what he'd be doing, but in this case... "Hohenheim, wait!"
The man turns, looking confused, as Grumman finally catches up with him. He only grabs his arm, though, wheezing out air through his mouth, and pulls him back the way they came. "General, what's wrong?" Hohenheim asks, clearly concerned. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, yes," he says immediately. "I just got a phone call...and he was asking for you."
Hohenheim stops dead in his tracks, and as Grumman looks up at him, his eyes have narrowed and his back is rigid. "Who is it?"
"A little boy, says he's your son," he replies quickly, staring up at him and wondering at his reaction. "He's waiting on the line now—you need to—"
His face transforms, suddenly and completely; he says nothing, but his eyes are wide, and he sweeps past Grumman, leading the way back to the office. And once they're inside, he almost runs to the telephone, glancing toward Grumman for permission before picking it up. "Hello?"
Even from several feet away, Grumman can hear the boy clearly. "Dad? Daddy! Is that you?"
"Alphonse?" Hohenheim says, and his face shows only surprise as he drops his suitcase, gripping the desk with his free hand for support as his balance wavers. "Alphonse, how did you get General Grumman's phone number?"
"It was in your people book—but listen, you gotta come home, okay? Brother says you have to—and Mom—"
Hohenheim looks completely confused as he listens for several more seconds; then, another voice, quieter, sounds from the earpiece, too quiet for Grumman to make out, and his face crumples in pain. "Trisha..."
He listens for several more seconds, not moving, showing no more emotion...but slowly, he begins to nod. "I need—there are a few things I need to wrap up here, in East City, but I'll head home right after. Should be there within three days. Is that—?"
(Another childish voice, indignant and loud, and Grumman finds himself grinning. A brother?) "No, Edward, I promise everything will be fine. Nothing is going to happen in three days." Another pause. "I—I love you guys, too. See you soon." And then he is hanging up the phone, sighing heavily and running a hand through his bangs.
"The Missus getting impatient?" Grumman guesses, smiling a bit. It is absolutely not his place to ask, but he sees no harm in it. After all, if Hohenheim has a wife and small children at home, he shouldn't be away for too long...
Hohenheim almost laughs, picking up his case again. "My sons, rather...but I really should be getting home. I've been gone for too long..." He takes a step toward the door, but pauses. "Thank you..." Grumman is sure the words are heartfelt as the man bows slightly to him. (He thinks he sees tears glistening in his eyes as well.) "I—I haven't talked to them in so long...I almost forgot..."
He chokes over his words and falls silent, but before Grumman can reply, Hohenheim is gone.
Roy knows they need this, that the Elrics need to get themselves sorted out before they return to the house...but that doesn't mean he can't worry.
For years, he's done his best to seem detached from them...but that's an act, done mostly to protect them from the unwanted, prying eyes of his superiors. Ed keeps such a high profile on his own; the last thing Roy wants to do is attract more attention to him. After all, the military brass is a dangerous group—they would use the boys' talents for their own gain without a second thought.
But in truth, he cares about those boys like they were his own sons, and seeing them so damaged is more painful than any wound an enemy could inflict upon him.
As the minutes stretch into an hour and there is still no sign of any of them returning, he glances around the room, assessing the damage. Winry is collapsed onto the floor, and Gracia is with her, rubbing her back and whispering things Roy can't make out. Maes is collapsed into an armchair, his head in his hands...Armstrong is sitting on the couch with perhaps the most serious expression Roy has ever seen on his face...
This...this is so disgustingly wrong, and he can't believe it was allowed to happen. All those boys have ever wanted is to see their mother again, even though they knew it to be impossible...but—
Seeing her again after so long and then being forced to give her up—believing they didn't deserve to stay there...that, surely, is worse than anything else they have endured. Roy doesn't remember his parents—they died when he was barely starting to crawl—and he knows he doesn't understand the Elrics' situation. But the fact that Edward thinks so lowly of himself...
(He'd give anything to make their lives right, because if anyone deserves it, it's them... But he doesn't even know where to start.)
Finally, finally, the door knob turns, and Ed and Al enter the apartment again.
(Hohenheim is nowhere to be seen. Roy doubts that he will return.)
Looking at these boys, Roy finds it impossible to know what Al is feeling right now, even after all this time spent working with him... But Edward is showing enough emotion for both of them: his mouth is downturned in a frown so deep that it looks physically painful as he slams the door harshly behind him.
(The redness of his eyes and the trembling of his hands reveal more than he would ever willingly show.)
Winry—Roy barely knows her, only by reputation, but she's the closest thing the Elrics have to family right now—is upon them within seconds, and it looks like she's trying to decide between hitting them and hugging them as they turn to look. Eventually, she settles on simply standing there, her face a mask of anguish, asking—"What the hell did you think you were doing?"
Ed doesn't seem to be able to find an answer; he only shakes his head, walking past her and collapsing onto the couch next to Armstrong. Al stands by Winry for a moment, clearly unsure of what to do...everyone is looking at either him or Edward, waiting for something to happen...
(Roy can't bear to look at Alphonse for too long, though. Before, he had known the armored helmet wasn't his true face, but he had never seen a photograph of his human body; he had no idea what he is supposed to look like. After this experience, though...he can barely stand it, because all he can see is the ghost of that little boy standing where Al is now, staring around with wide golden eyes and wondering what in the world he is supposed to do.)
(After all, he's only ever been a child.)
Maes—wonderful man that he is—takes control, standing up and rubbing his face for a moment before saying in a falsely cheery voice—"Gracia's got dinner ready! Let's go eat, yeah? I'm sure we'll feel better afterward..."
And even if Roy isn't sure it's true—and he thinks Maes knows it as well—he stands up with the rest of them, heading into the kitchen to help set the table.
Dinner is a quiet affair. Roy might even call it awkward, especially because Al is simply sitting there, watching them all... He realizes that for as long as he's known these boys, he's never known them outside of a professional setting. He's never eaten a meal with them, never just sat and talked about nothing like friends do...
He's not their father—knows they wouldn't appreciate it if he considered himself as such—but he can't help but feel the need to shelter these boys, to try and protect them from the horrors they haven't met yet. But he's realizing that those are few in number (no matter how terrible), because Al can't eat and they all know it, but it's obviously killing Edward to eat dinner in front of his brother. Roy sees him glance toward Al every several seconds, guilt clear on his face...
(They've been living like this for almost five years.)
Nobody asks them how the conversation with their father went; it's not their place, and they clearly don't want to talk about it. Even Elysia seems to notice that something is off, because she sits quietly at her place between Winry and Gracia, eating without saying a word and only sending the occasional glance toward Edward.
She doesn't know what is happening, doesn't realize the weight that has fallen on all of their shoulders—and suddenly, Roy almost wishes to be young again, to be innocent of the true horrors of the world. Elysia is three years old, younger even than the Elrics they met for that short period of time...
"Uncle Ed?" she says suddenly, breaking the silence and causing everyone to look up in surprise. Ed jumps terribly, looking toward her with wide eyes. "Are you okay? Why are you so sad? Did something happen?"
Ed stares at her like a deer in headlights before shifting his gaze to Maes, obviously at a loss for words. But how can any of them possibly explain this situation to her? Elysia is so young...and though she is bright, she's no genius like the Elrics...she wouldn't understand...
Maes clears his throat, glancing at Ed for permission before saying slowly—"You...you know how you have a Mommy and a Daddy, Elysia?"
She nods, beaming at him. "Well...Uncle Ed and Uncle Al...their Daddy, Mister Hohenheim, had to go away when they were about your age, and they haven't seen him in a very long time. And their Mommy had to go away too, but she isn't going to be able to come back. So they're just feeling sad right now, because they miss their Mommy and they're very confused about their Daddy, because he hasn't been able to live with them for so long."
Her face falls, looking in concern over toward Ed and Al. "Is your Mommy nice? Is that why you miss her?"
Ed's face is shielded by his bangs (Roy thinks it likely that he's holding back tears), but he nods slowly, saying nothing. "Well," Elysia says, her face brightening, "do you want to share my Mommy? She's nice too! That way, you can be happy!"
Al shifts beside Ed, but before he can say anything, Ed has lifted his head, obviously doing his best to smile at her. "Sure, I think we'd like that. But Winry has to share your mom and dad too, okay?"
She nods immediately, beaming at him before tugging on Winry's hand. "Big Sis already shares Mommy and Daddy!"
Winry laughs, patting Elysia on the head. "That's right. I guess we're all just a big family now..."
Somehow, the trance seems to be broken; though Ed is still quieter than Roy has ever seen him, he seems more alive, answering Winry's questions in a low tone rather than ignoring them completely. Roy finds himself smiling about this, despite himself. They'll be okay; he realizes this now. Those boys...they're so strong, despite (or maybe because of) the Hell they've been through...
(It's a different brand than what he himself has experienced, but Roy knows it's no less terrible...and they lived through all of it before their childhood was even allowed to end.)
Maes is wearing a relieved smile, and Armstrong has regained some of his boisterous personality that he seems so empty without. Roy allows himself to relax, though he knows this is far from over...because maybe (hopefully), everything will turn out all right.
(Hohenheim's story, his warnings and conjectures and predictions, never leave the back of his mind...and as he returns to work the next day, he resolves to keep a closer eye on the brass as they move ever closer to the apocalypse.)
The man seems to have fallen off the map.
Roy knows that Maes has done some checking into the archives, looking for a man named Van Hohenheim...but nothing turns up...at least officially. Roy knows there are at least four books in his study that bear the man's name (and several are decades—if not centuries—old)...but there are no birth records, no marriage records (suddenly, the lack of a common name between him and the Elrics makes sense), no...nothing. It's as if, to the military, Van Hohenheim has never existed.
But he listens and learns, and is more careful than he has been in the past, because he's sure he can't trust anyone in the upper echelons except Generals Grumman and Armstrong. (He's had no correspondence with her in years, but Alex has assured him that she would never have a part in such things...and going off what he knows of her, Roy thinks he's probably right.) But two generals in the whole of Amestris are few in comparison, and with next to no information about these monsters or how they are going to attack...
It's been a week since it all happened, and everything is starting to return to normal. Edward has returned to his loud, raucous self (in public, at least...Roy has no idea what happens when he and Al are alone. He resolves to take them both out somewhere soon, just to talk), and his transfer to Central has gone more smoothly than he had hoped. Falman is hiding out with the murderer Barry the Chopper, waiting for orders; Hawkeye, Havoc, and Fuery are spread out over the more populated areas of Central, keeping an eye out for these damned Homunculi; Breda is on hand, ready to be anywhere at a moment's notice if Roy needs back-up...
He thinks furiously of Hohenheim's vague explanation, and wonders whether he's going to decide to be of any more help or if they're going to have to figure this out for themselves...because he refuses to put his subordinates' lives on the line any more than they already have themselves.
(Then he thinks that maybe he should send Ed away on leave, force him to return to Resembool for a few days just to relax...because the dark circles under his eyes belie the exuberant exterior he always tries to uphold, and Roy is sure Alphonse is no less exhausted, mentally.)
Everything seems to be in order that afternoon as he finally allows himself to relax in his office. There are several men at the desks before him (strange, unknown. He knows he should trust them, but he just can't) diligently working on paperwork, and though Roy has a large stack of unfinished filing before him, he really doesn't feel like working on it. So he's just about ready to call "Elizabeth" and check up on the "shop," make sure everything on the outside is still running smoothly...when there is a loud knock on the door.
"Colonel Mustang has a delivery from General Grumman in Eastern Command, Sir," a young, male voice calls through the door. (Roy can almost hear his rigid back and shaking hands. Must be a new recruit.)
"Come in," he calls back, settling back into his chair more comfortably as a man (sure enough, far too young to be anything but straight out of the academy) opens the door with some difficulty. The package in his hands is large...
Just about the size of a chess set.
"Thank you, Corporal," he says, accepting the package easily and nodding to the boy. "That'll be all."
"Y-yes sir!" The boy salutes quickly, his heels snapping together, and as soon as Roy waves his hand, he is gone.
Later that night, in the privacy of his own home, he finally opens the package.
It is indeed a chess set, accompanied by a note hastily scrawled in the general's handwriting—
Received this from an old, mutual friend you saw recently and thought you might appreciate it more than I. Perhaps you'll be able to improve your record!
He sends his regards and promises to stay in touch. Mentioned that he'll be visiting home for several days next week and hopes for a family reunion, but after that should be making his way to Central.
Roy allows a smile to slip onto his face, rereading the letter to be sure before removing the chess set. Surely, the old man is talking about Hohenheim...
So he removes the pieces one by one, unscrewing the bottom to check for messages. And sure enough, there are nine: eight are drawings, and another is a note—one drawing is in the black king, and the rest he finds in the black pawns. The note, scarcely a scrap of paper, reads—
These are the Homunculi. Greed may be gone; I cannot tell, but if he appears again with a different face, I will contact you.
It's too dangerous to meet in person. They know my face, and you are a target. Watch yourself.
The image found in the king's piece is the spitting image of Hohenheim—so much so, in fact, that for a moment, Roy can only stare. But he trusts the Elrics' father...and, after all, he had said one of the Homunculi was his "blood brother"...
(And though he isn't entirely sure what that means, he supposes it doesn't matter right now.)
The other seven are not so much of a surprise—drawings of various people with their names printed underneath them. Lust. Gluttony. Envy (note: shapeshifter. Watch yourself). Wrath—the Fuhrer—how is it that he isn't even surprised? The only one that gives him pause is Pride—Selim Bradley? The face drawn carefully onto the small piece of paper is undoubtedly the Fuhrer's son, but Roy has met the boy; he had no idea...Selim seemed just like any other child...
He shakes his head and crumples the slips of paper before burning them, singeing the images into his memory as he does so. He'll have to send the Elrics to Resembool next week—that much is obvious. Clearly, either Hohenheim has something he needs to tell them, or they have yet-unfinished business from last week...
They won't be happy about it, but this needs to be resolved...one way or another, because Hohenheim is a key player in whatever is unfolding across the country, and to survive, they need to be able to trust him.
He packs the set away, planning to take it out again when this is all over.
The Elrics venture to Resembool, and then to Briggs...and he loses contact with them soon after. He tries not to worry, because at this point it's been at least a month and they've definitely recovered...but that doesn't mean he can't be concerned.
After all, he knows both Scar and Kimblee are journeying north as well...and he isn't sure which man is more dangerous.
(Especially as the Promised Day approaches, slow and steady, like a viper waiting to strike.)
He knows Lust is dead; he knows the identities of the other six Homunculi, and knows the face of their leader. He knows, idealistically, how to defeat them...
But in practice, he knows, it will be entirely different...
And he only hopes that they are all up to the challenge.
Months later, when the Promised Day has arrived and Hohenheim returns to fight...Roy trusts him completely. And judging by the way his sons are fighting alongside, they do as well.
(And after it's all over, when Alphonse has been returned to his body and everything is right in the world again...he thinks he would give anything to see Hohenheim's face, because he can imagine the relief and the happiness but he's sure the real thing is so much more. Even if the battle has drained him—so much, in fact, that Roy is sure he doesn't have much time left—Hohenheim is surely the happiest he has been in years.)
When he receives the notice of Hohenheim's death, he ventures to Resembool for the funeral, because surely, without this man...this country would be reduced to dust.
The cemetery is sparsely populated that morning; Pinako Rockbell is there with Winry and the Elrics, and a few older people from town...but he, the Hugheses, and Major Armstrong are the only ones who travel from Central. And even though nobody else seems to mind, even though Roy is sure the man would have hated a large event...
He can't help but feel that Hohenheim has been cheated, in a way...because if he had not been so strong, so brave and so selfless to take on that inhuman monster nearly single-handedly...
There are no dates on the headstone (and Roy wonders suddenly just how old the man was), but it is next to Trisha Elric's; hers is old and worn but well taken care of, with a beautiful wreath of flowers adorning the base.
He thinks that, here, Van Hohenheim might finally find some happiness.
(And if he sees tears in Edward's eyes, in Alphonse's—he can cry again and Roy doesn't think he's seen anything so beautiful as those two boys returned to the flesh—he does not mention it.)
Before he returns to Central, he pays a visit to the graves, alone. He's not entirely sure what he's doing there, but he feels like he should thank them...for bringing up such strong boys, for being the parents Edward and Alphonse still miss terribly, even after so long...for everything.
He stands there silently for several minutes, not speaking, because he can't possibly piece together the words he needs them to hear. He can't possibly express his gratitude...
So he only claps gently... Soon, another wreath adorns Trisha's grave, and then there is a matching one for Hohenheim.
Without another word, he turns and leaves the cemetery behind.
A few weeks later, when Ed returns to Central to finalize his resignation and officially detach himself from the military...Roy offers for him to come over for dinner. Suspiciously, reluctantly, the boy (man) agrees.
He pulls out the chess set after they eat and asks if he wants to play. Ed laughs (his smile is hugely wide, almost too big for his face. Roy's never seen one like it) and says he's shit at that game; Roy wouldn't want to waste his time.
Roy decides that this suits him a bit too well.
(But if the idea of strategy, of war, is so foreign to the boy now...if he has finally found peace, at home, with his brother and the memory of his parents...he finds that he can't slight the boy for it.)
After all, that's where Edward Elric has always belonged.
Three days pass in a flurry of excitement and eager anticipation.
Trisha knows that Van will not care, but she finds herself compulsively cleaning; she puts away the beds her older sons had used with some difficulty (after all, Ed and Al are far too small to be moving mattresses right now), straightening pictures and dusting every horizontal surface, tidying up the kitchen and the living room and bedrooms. It's stupid of her, but it's better to do this than nothing as they can only wait for his return.
Ed is antsy, looking out the window every chance he gets and glancing at Trisha almost constantly, as if to make sure she is still all right. She doesn't know how many times she has assured him that she feels fine; there is no sickness in town yet; they have plenty of time...but he doesn't seem able to stop worrying.
(She's not sure she can blame him. Especially after what she saw of her older sons...)
At long last, the third day arrives, and Trisha bustles around as long as she can before she finally collapses into an armchair in the living room. She'd start a fire, but it's the middle of the summer; she would sweep, but she's already done that twice.
She's called the Rockbells, told them that the transmutation has reversed and that Van is coming home... (Sara answered, and the grateful sobs that choked her voice tell Trisha that she knew. Edward must have told her and Pinako what happened when they came yesterday for...for what? For automail repairs? She realizes she never found out what had ailed her son...)
(Ed demanded he speak on the phone with Sara for a moment, and Trisha complied, rather bemused. He ordered her not to go to—to Ishval? Winry, in the future, doesn't want her parents to go to the small state in the east... Trisha knows there have been some skirmishes there, but why would the Rockbells be called in...?)
(Edward looks very serious about it, though, and he's the one who has spoken to Winry...so she doesn't question it, and decides to wait for time to take its course.)
But now she's sitting in the living room, out of things to do and simply waiting... Ed and Al find their way in soon after, climbing up onto the armrests and holding tight to her, as if such a grip will make their father come home faster. She laughs, asks if they're all right with just sitting and waiting...but they assure her in no uncertain terms that they are, so they simply fall silent, waiting for the inevitable.
Finally, sometime that afternoon, there is a knock at the door.
Trisha doesn't remember much after that; she remembers Ed and Al rushing to the door faster than she's ever seen them run, yanking it open and flinging themselves at their father as he attempts to step over the threshold. She remembers following after them at a slower pace, smiling broadly as Van laughs and picks both of them up into his arms, carrying them inside...
Edward is talking and Alphonse is talking and there is a strange buzzing in her head that sounds a bit like euphoria, like something she hasn't felt in far too long because he was gone but now he's back and surely, everything will be all right now. They're in the kitchen, and she's putting the kettle on while Ed and Al tell their father of the transmutation, of how they traveled to the future and met him there, and how they're so happy he's back because his older self made them promise to find him—
(Ed says nothing about the darker things, even though Trisha can see that he wants to...if only to keep his father from leaving again. But she's sure he won't...and she'll have to talk to him later, anyway, about everything. Even if Edward found out about her death, that is only the tip of the iceberg...and she has to thank Mustang and the others for doing their best to keep everything else from them. She can't even imagine...)
But there is no time for thinking of such things now. They have succeeded. They found Van and called him home, and she knows, now, for sure, that in that other future, only a terrible combination of worst-case scenario and tragic circumstances caused such horrors...
Now, all of that has been averted, and we will be all right.
Al is running up to her, now, tugging on her skirt and telling her to come over to the table because we haven't seen Dad in so long and he said he's missed all of us and aren't you happy he's back now? The grin on his face, on Ed's as he climbs up into Van's lap (he flinches, like he always has, but he quickly relaxes, and she thinks he might be getting better), is infectious, and soon, the four of them are laughing together, hugging and never letting go like the family they always have been...and now will have the chance to be.
She knows she will never forget the boys she spent two fleeting days with, the Alphonse who has lost almost everything and the Edward who has nearly driven himself mad trying to return it...she will never forget them, because she did not lie when she said that they are her sons. She loves them, so much, just as much as the boys who are with her now...but she is so immensely glad that they have changed the future, in this time and place. Knowing what would have happened...
They are so assuredly her sons, and she is their mother (because the adoration clear on Edward's face, in Alphonse's voice, was so obvious that it makes her want to tear apart the universe if only to make their lives right again)...but she can do nothing for them now. She is here, and they are there, and all she can do now is pray that they will find the answers they need. She doesn't think she's felt so powerless in all her life...
But they are Edward and Alphonse Elric, sons of her husband (the strongest and bravest man she's ever known), and she is sure everything will turn out all right. She saw the determination in their eyes, saw how sure they were of defeating the demons that have overrun their lives...
She will live, here; she will not die, and she will watch her sons grow up into the men she now knows they will be. She will live, but she will remember the time when she did not...
She will move on, but she will not forget.
(She owes them that much, after all.)