Chapter: 1. Doppelgänger
Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist
Pairing: Roy/Ed, Roy/Al, Ed/Al, Ed/Hei
Word Count: 5,986
Warnings: massively major SPOILERS for original FMA series and "Conqueror of Shamballa"; language; underage sex; violence/a bit of gore
Summary: “I want to learn Flame Alchemy,” Alphonse says. Maybe Roy has some snow in his ears, or maybe his age is catching up in a hurry; perhaps the four years of seclusion have damaged his comprehension of human speech, or his ruined eye is leaching energy from his other senses. “You what?”
Author's Note: Items of note about this fic:
1. The original prompt was "learning to be loved." About ten thousand words in, I accepted that that was pretty much just an excuse for letting the plot bunnies feast on my flesh.
2. A number of characters make smaller appearances, including a side pairing, but I didn't want to over-tag, so they can just be a surprise. \o/
3. Extra-super-special-awesome thank you to eltea for all of her help, especially in the final chapter; her suggestions were critical, and her support always is. ♥
4. The ways I've stirred the Shamballa pot should hopefully be fairly self-evident; I didn't try to force in a long explanation for any of the various potential butterfly-effect catalysts. As you will see, I had enough problems as it was. XD
5. I'm serious about the underage warning. (Wow, thanks, FMA. :'D) And about the language warning. And there's violence!
If you're still on board with this thing, knowing all that…
Look at Ed's face. LOOK AT IT. I love canon.
There is no such thing as tourist season in the tundra wasteland of the North, and Roy is not expecting a visit from the Guilt Trip Committee until the roads have thawed, so the knock at the door takes him aback. He’s seriously considering the possibility that he’ll have to greet a very genteel grizzly bear (and is holding his sharpest skinning knife just in case) when he opens the door.
The last thing he would have anticipated is a boy—a boy in a scarlet coat, snow-dusted but unmistakable, like a splash of familiar blood. Roy’s whole body teeters between nausea and paralysis for a long moment, and then he registers the hair, the eyes—long, tawny ponytail whipping like a pennant, bangs wet from the snow and plastered to a face on the verge of frostbite; gray-brown eyes he remembers because his brain, shocked and staggering after the horror in the basement, let his idle hands lift a framed photograph. Edward must take after their father, then.
Roy has come to appreciate the nigh-on-uninhabitable permanence of Northern winter. His body is invariably trying to freeze and die, and he has to work constantly to sustain it instead. His fingertips are almost always numb, and so is his heart; the drifts that suffocate his outpost cabin are stiflingly silent, as is the pain. It’s quiet here. It’s safe.
Well, it was.
“General,” Alphonse Elric says over the screaming wind.
“I’m not,” Roy says. “I’m just a soldier. I gave u—”
“You’re a commander,” Alphonse says. “It’s not a rank. It’s an identity. You can’t give up who you are.”
He is being lectured by a child in his doorway during a blizzard. Even now, Roy had been stupid enough to think that he’d escaped that kind of absurdity for good with this tactical retreat.
“What do you want?” he asks.
And then he can’t take it. He can’t take standing on the threshold with the fireplace’s smoky heat against his back, turning the flakes that try to dart in around him into tiny splatters on the floor. He can’t take watching Alphonse Elric’s skinny shoulders shake, watching his whole body sway when a gust pulls at the tails of that terrible coat, watching his eyes drip wind-torn tears that freeze on the blotchy round cheeks. He can’t take letting Alphonse continue to stare at him like he’s equal parts foreign, fascinating, pathetic, and wrong.
Most days, Roy Mustang believes in all honesty that he’s a monster. But sometimes that’s not enough to make him cruel.
“For heaven’s sake,” he says, reaching out and grasping one scarlet lapel. “Come in before you turn into an Elric-cicle.” A puddle has already begun to swell around Alphonse’s feet by the time Roy slams the door. “You’re not even dressed for the snow, you—”
Who are you calling so little you came on the second thrust because I was ‘so goddamn tight’ that your famous willpower failed?
Only the first time! It was unexpected! Either sue me for it or shut up about it.
Why don’t you shut me up, Colonel?
Alphonse is looking at him with typical Elric prescience—the sharp, eerie, unnatural instinct that his brother always had. Maybe they both did, and the armor concealed it, like it hid their mother’s eyes, their father’s talent, this soft toffee-colored hair and a determination colder than the deadened world outside. Whatever the case, Alphonse has it, too: the ability to look, and to understand. Roy feels naked and raw and insufficient under that gaze. He came around on a lot of quirks, but he never warmed to this.
“I want to learn Flame Alchemy,” Alphonse says.
Maybe Roy has some snow in his ears, or maybe his age is catching up in a hurry; perhaps the four years of seclusion have damaged his comprehension of human speech, or his ruined eye is leaching energy from his other senses. “You what?”
“I’m going to find Brother,” Alphonse says plainly. It’s snowing outside. Snow is cold. I will track down and recover the boy who vanished from the face of the planet almost half a decade ago, whom everyone quite reasonably assumes is dead. “And when I do, I’m going to need the most powerful weapons I can get.” His head bows, and it’s the first time his gaze on Roy has wavered. “My Teacher passed away, and I wandered around for a while after that, investigating and practicing. I learned a lot of things, but you’re the only person who can teach this to me.”
“I don’t use alchemy anymore,” Roy says hollowly.
Alphonse looks up and blinks at him. Then he sets his suitcase down, saunters nearer, and kneels at Roy’s feet. “You don’t have to use it. Just teach me. Please, sir.”
All of Roy’s internal systems have gone haywire. “I’m not going to instruct you in a branch of alchemy that killed hundreds and left others—”
“Fine,” Alphonse says, rising fluidly, crossing to a chair, and peeling off his sodden coat. “Then I guess we’ll have to sit around discussing the weather until spring.”
Roy can’t do this. He can’t.
He doesn’t have a choice.
He moves to take the coat, carefully, and hangs it on the door of the wardrobe. His hands shake as he lifts the damp jacket from the narrow shoulders, tugging on the cuff to free the wiry arm. All flesh. All warmth. This is not Edward. He has to remember.
“I expect you to be in fine conversational form,” he says, draping the clothing over the back of the chair, smoothing out the wrinkles, angling the wettest portions towards the fire. Alphonse’s mouth curves; he can hear that he’s won. “In the meantime, we had better get you warmed up.”
Alphonse wears a white undershirt. Blessedly, the snow hadn’t soaked through to that yet, but the garment’s tight enough that even without translucence, Roy can see the outlines of the boy’s developing muscles, the protrusions of his ribs. The wet ponytail draggles down over his shoulder. There are arrays inked on the palms of his gloves, which he slides off with delicate, loving care.
This is what Edward purchased with his sacrifice. This is the price.
Edward was still naïve enough to think that battles have an end—that the attainment of a goal is a conclusion, a completion, a close.
Roy recognizes the look in Alphonse’s eyes. An identical fire smoldered deep in Edward’s every time he trudged one step closer to his brother’s restoration. The Elrics cannot give up who they are, and they are warriors. I will find him or die trying is not an idiom to the Elric brothers; it’s an oath.
There’s a reason alchemists access the power of their world through circles rather than lines. The universe is continuous and repetitive. Nothing essential has changed.
Al can’t sleep.
It’s warm enough, huddled in the General’s extra blankets in front of the fireplace, but the stones are too hard, and his body is too soft. He wants to think this body is too soft, but he doesn’t quite know…
He has to ignore the white-winged moths that flutter just outside his memory. Someday he’ll catch them all and hold them close, but until that day arrives, there’s nothing to be gained from grasping at figments out of reach.
Al casts a cautious glance at the General and then crawls over to his suitcase; quietly he lays it on the floor and pops the latches. He takes out his photograph album and curls up in front of the fire again, settling the book in his lap. He tried to explain it to Winry once, but it’s something he can’t articulate—the frustration of seeing the truth, of knowing the facts, and of being intellectually unable to reconcile them with what’s in his head. He isn’t used to problems that his brain can’t solve, given adequate time and energy, but this is a canyon he can’t bridge. This is a door that’s been barred to him, and no amount of ingenuity will force the lock; he’s tried.
Auntie Pinako is good at keeping pictures fresh and clean. She’s laid some kind of thin, clear film over the ones in the album that she and Winry put together for him, which he loves, because it means that he can touch them. He can touch his brother’s face. He can mesh the memories he does have with the sort of extrapolation that alchemists are famous for, and with his eyes shut and his senses straining, he can almost feel his brother’s skin.
It’s sad, sometimes, watching Brother growing frame by frame—his hair lengthens, his jaw sharpens, his eyes deepen but never dull. The armor is always beside him—which makes some small, not-quite-accessible part of Al’s heart go warm—but Al feels like he’s been lost to time. Like they were running together, and he fell; he dropped behind, and he’ll never quite catch up. He’s disjointed. The world skipped forward without him.
Don’t get too comfortable, Brother, he thinks at the unmoving grin. Wherever you are.
The General’s bed begins to creak softly just before six. He’s twisting, trying to roll over, although he’s still faced towards the wall; momentarily, his shoulders begin to shake.
“No,” Roy Mustang mumbles. “No!”
Then there’s silence and stillness except for his harsh breathing. After a few seconds, that calms, too.
The General sits up, his knees rising to meet his chest. He leans forward over them and rubs the heel of his hand at his remaining eye, and then that eye flicks sideways towards the fireplace.
Al’s spine prickles. He swallows.
General Mustang smiles at him, wearily. His right hand finds the eyepatch on the nightstand, and he ducks his head to secure it expertly. Why does he always wear it if he’s usually alone?
“Are you hungry?” the General asks, sliding out of the bed. “I could go for some breakfast.”
Al rises, puts the photograph album back in his suitcase, folds the blankets, and lays them on the foot of General Mustang’s bed. The General is looking at him as he finishes—amused and bemused both. Al can almost see the memories playing behind the eyepatch; a different Elric brother would have huffed and thrown the blankets at his head, gritted out a grudging Thank you, agreed to breakfast on the condition that it was made to his standards (not that they’d be high).
“Good morning, General,” Al says. “I hope you slept well?”
He wants to be his brother’s successor. He will not be Ed’s ghost.
It’s strange, Al thinks for the hundred-thousandth time as he sits down to breakfast with a man who knew a different him. He was dragged into the Gate, and everything vanished; then he woke up, and everything had changed. For a while, he thought he was exactly the same as he’d been the night they tried and failed to bring Mom back (and coming to terms with that, alone, was… He spent two days locked in the Rockbells’ attic, and he would only relive them for one thing in the world).
But he isn’t the same. There’s a break. It’s a hairline fracture, but he can feel it when he searches with his fingertips.
There are things that he does subconsciously. He used to turn his head to look at things instead of shifting his eyes. He feels small sometimes—too low to the ground. There were a few days early on where clothes seemed vaguely unnecessary, and he kept startling at the sensation of sunbeams on his back. He still has the insomnia; he still flinches when people touch his neck; and he still enjoys eating virtually anything, because flavors never combine quite the same way twice.
He does not enjoy eating the General’s ‘breakfast’.
“It’s porridge,” the General says at his expression. “We ate it during basic training. It builds character.”
Al prods the mucus-like surface with his spoon. “In that case, my current character will have to do.”
The General laughs, and Al looks up in surprise. Up until now, Roy Mustang and laughter did not seem to be acquaintances, let alone friends.
“Here,” the General says. He gets up to rummage through one of the few cabinets and returns with a short glass bottle full of amber liquid. “It’s maple syrup. I promise I’m not trying to poison you.”
“I know that,” Al says, experimentally drizzling a little bit of this new elixir onto the inedible goop.
The General is quiet for a while, watching him test the waters, lick his lip, contemplate, and add a great deal more syrup to the mix.
“Flame Alchemy, huh?” the General says when Al has deemed the concoction tolerable. “I’m afraid I don’t have my gloves anymore.”
Al doesn’t believe him. But it doesn’t matter.
“That’s all right,” he says. “I picked up a pair in Central.” He blinks at the General. “It’s very odd having people you’ve never met give you things, saying that they owe you favors you don’t remember. Useful, though.” He gets another spoonful of porridge down. If nothing else, it is hot, and it’s dense enough that he can practically feel it insulating the walls of his stomach. “General,” he says, “why are you punishing yourself?”
Roy Mustang pulls a face. “That bad? We can make a trip to North City this weekend and buy some eggs.”
“No,” Al says. “Well—yes, it’s that bad. But what I meant was… Why are you out here? It’s either a sulk or a penance, and either way, you picked a pretty miserable spot.”
The General runs a hand over his face, and it’s covering his mouth as he mutters something that sounds suspiciously like “whole damn family.” Then he sighs.
“My basic existence is complicated,” Al says. “I can handle it.”
The General gives the thin, tired smile he seems to favor. “Touché. I… there were a lot of factors, to tell the truth. I meant to stay. I meant to see it all through. It was difficult, not having been able to save Selim, but… I’ve seen children die before. I’ve cut them down myself. That, in isolation, I could have dealt with, moved on from; the Lieutenant was going to be my eyes. But General Hakuro has always had it out for me, and when he smelled the blood in the water, he sunk his teeth in. The fact is that I killed the Führer. Another fact is that I was an ambitious officer on a meteoric rise through the ranks. Were those two facts intertwined? That depends on who you ask. Hakuro asked the right people. He cast umbrage in the right places. And finally I… got sick of it. Of the damned politics. To find out, on top of everything, that your brother was just… gone… was…” He swallows and tries to smile again. “I snapped. And not in the way that makes a spark.”
There’s a photograph in the album of the General lighting birthday candles at the Hughes family’s house. The man in the photograph looks young and smug and contented, with a blur of orange caught in mid-flare around his elegant hand. If you squint, you can make out Ed in the background, rolling his eyes.
The General clears his throat and nudges the bottle of syrup with a fingertip.
“To be specific,” he says, “General Hakuro said something nasty and untrue about your brother, and I went for his windpipe. It was incredibly stupid, and I realized by the time I had my hands around his neck that it wouldn’t even make me feel better, but by then the damage was done. Being an officer is about control—controlling your troops, controlling yourself—and I’d demonstrated that I didn’t have it anymore. So I… took a break.”
Al looks at him. The General looks back.
“You took a break,” Al says.
The General nods.
“A four-year break,” Al says.
The General winces.
Al leans forward across the table. “What exactly did Mister Hakuro say about Ed?”
The General takes the maple syrup bottle and stands to return it to the cabinet. “I think perhaps we should start your training,” he says.
Roy’s head hurts.
He has, by no fault of his own, adopted Alphonse Elric. But this isn’t the Alphonse Elric he knows, or the one that knows him; it’s the same soul routed through a different life. This is an Alphonse without Edward, and he’s not the same. He’s colder, quieter, shut-off. He’s accustomed to acting alone; he lacks the easy brightness and the open-minded trust. He has twice the determination—one dose for each of them. Behind the sweetness and the smiles, Roy thinks he might be merciless.
There was almost nothing that the Elrics wouldn’t have done to save each other, but they’d set out limits. They’d drawn those lines together, just like they’d sketched out the array in the basement of that house. And they’d taught one another to love so fiercely that their hearts were full and tender—even Edward’s, underneath the barbed wire and the ostentatious DANGER signs.
This is an Alphonse who has been bereaved of the most important person in his life, and Roy thinks that this Alphonse might kill to get him back.
First, however, this Alphonse has to get through Flame Alchemy training without setting his hair on fire.
“If they don’t fit you,” Roy says of the gloves that sag and wrinkle on the boy’s slender hands, “they’ll be a hazard, not a help.”
Alphonse frowns adorably down at the fabric, which Roy can barely look at and doesn’t want to touch. “And I wouldn’t be able to use mine with them on, of course. I suppose if we tailored these, I could imbrue my arrays on the palms… I read that the Crimson Alchemist just tattooed his directly onto his skin.”
“The Crimson Alchemist was a murderer,” Roy says. He does not mention that Alphonse was almost one of Kimblee’s victims, or that Hakuro is not the only member of the military whose jugular vein has borne Roy Mustang’s fingerprints. “We can think for a while about how we want to approach the matter of the gloves. You’re right-handed, correct?” Alphonse nods, and Roy goes fishing in the Civilization Drawer for a pen. Alphonse has set two chairs opposite each other and is perched on one of them, holding out his hand, by the time a writing implement surfaces. As he takes Alphonse’s little hand in his and begins to draw, Roy thinks that he does not envy the Elrics’ mother having to raise two geniuses at once.
Assiduously, ardently, unsuccessfully, Roy tries not to think of Edward. Alphonse packs for a trip the same way his brother did—one set of clothing, two pairs of underwear, and as many books as the suitcase will hold; Alphonse’s only noticeable additions are a photograph album and a box of chalk—which means that the red coat encroaches at the corner of Roy’s eye no matter where he turns. The Elric brothers are built alike, too; Edward’s flesh hand was thicker and tougher, scarred and calloused, tantalizingly rough against Roy’s stomach, his throat, his hips, but the shared genes took a common shape.
This Alphonse retained the patience. He waits until Roy releases his warm fingers before flexing his hand and then holding it up to the light.
“That’s all?” he asks.
Roy musters a smirk—the first in a long time. “Alphonse,” he says, “that is barely the beginning.”
The grin the younger Elric flashes is so reckless and familiar that Roy’s heart clenches tight.
Alphonse is already starting for the door with the box of matches. “Come on, General,” he says. “I need your help.”
He doesn’t. Not really. He’s an Elric.
The hardest part is keeping the match out of the wind long enough to strike it; fortunately, last night’s storm has given way to a milky-skied reprieve, at least for these first few hours after dawn.
“Darn,” Alphonse says as the first match flares and then immediately goes out. He tries a second, turning his back towards the wind. “Darn.” And a third, with his hand cupped around it. “Darn.”
Roy steps over and positions himself between the next gust and the fourth match, which necessitates looming over Alphonse and spreading out his coat.
This match manages a feeble flame. Alphonse’s eyes light up. Roy blinks, and then his coat is on fire.
“I’m so sorry!” Alphonse wails through his hands for the sixth or seventh time as Roy kicks a bit more snow onto a few remaining embers.
“It’s really all right,” Roy says. “I was expecting some kind of disaster, and this was relatively manageable. I believe that the first time I tried it, I ignited a tree, and you can’t tear that off and toss it in the snow.”
“I’m so sorry,” Alphonse says.
“It was a bit of an ugly coat anyway,” Roy says. He considers the portion of the nearest drift that he used to put out the flames, and then he moves over to Alphonse and takes the boy’s shoulder. “Here, I have an idea.” He pulls them both into a crouch. “See if you can use the array to change the composition of the snow first, and then we can move on to air.”
Alphonse manages to lower his hands; his cheeks are still shot with pink. His lip is wobbling, but after a moment, Roy realizes that he’s not about to cry; it’s that his teeth are chattering.
“Or,” Roy says lamely, “we could go inside. When we head down to the city this weekend, we need to get you a new coat.”
Alphonse clutches at the current article. His fingertips are reddening to match it, which is a bad sign. “Another coat, maybe. Not a new one.”
“Of course,” Roy says. He scoops up a handful of snow in his mitten. “See if you can separate this into hydrogen and oxygen, and then we can work in the fireplace while you defro—”
His hand is empty.
“Oh!” Alphonse says delightedly. “I like that. And if I was plotting out a path with concentrated oxygen—”
“You’d guide the flame,” Roy says.
The sunny grin is glorious and gutting at once. “Away from you this time.”
“Preferably,” Roy says. He tugs on the ponytail and promptly hates himself for it. “Let’s get inside; I’ll make you some tea.”
“And I’ll fix your coat,” Alphonse says.
Roy gathers it out of the snow, motioning to Alphonse not to hold the door, which would let the heat escape. He can’t do this. He can’t. He can’t let himself chart the similarities; he can’t drag Alphonse into the void that Edward left, even though—especially because—he’ll fit the basic outline. Alphonse is an innocent child who needs someone to center his world around. Roy can’t take advantage of that. Edward is gone, and the possibility of his being gone someday was always a condition of their relationship. Sometimes Roy thinks it’s most of the reason they had a relationship at all—the prospect that time was short, and they had to take what they wanted while they could have it.
It doesn’t matter that Alphonse, in the flesh and blood, has molded himself into an almost-double. It doesn’t matter that the differences are appealing, are interesting, are piquing parts of Roy’s brain that went into hibernation up here. It doesn’t even matter that Alphonse seems to be giving back.
It would be a heinous disrespect to all three of them if Roy let this progress.
It’s fine. The North has taught him a great many things, and Alphonse was right—he’s been away for four years, toiling daily to reestablish the self-control.
He’s going to craft Alphonse into the finest Flame Alchemist the world has never yet seen in nightmares, and then this bright-eyed creature of light and fury is going to raise hell or go there to bring Edward back.
Thinking of it that way, the future hasn’t looked so good in… well, four years. All Roy has to do is not fuck up, and everything will fall into place.
Fine. Good. Excellent.
Alphonse’s hair is every bit as silky as his brother’s always was. It’s finer, though, and Roy can see the ends curling just a little as they dry where he sits in front of the fireplace. Silhouetted by the flames, he looks… soft. Sweet. Warm. Peaceful.
He looks like temptation incarnate.
Al actually rather fancies the hardtack piled with salted pork and slices of cheese which Roy assembles for lunch, unlike the abomination that apparently passes for breakfast in northern outposts. Then again, it’s possible that his tastebuds have frozen. He hadn’t really noticed the cold last night—he acknowledged it, accepted it, fixed his sights on his destination, and trekked until he arrived. It’s strange and a little bit scary how the cold helps you to forget about it by numbing the toes and fingers that it wants to take away. Al wonders if there are other killers out there who can stay so silent. He’s been told that the world tended to find new and exciting ways to grow more and more perilous for the two of them when he and Brother were traveling, but they banded together and barreled through. He understands that that was sort of their trademark; a man he met named Sergeant Bloch apparently still calls steeling one’s nerves “Elricking”.
Al wonders, though, if they were afraid. He wonders if he did everything in his power to keep Brother safe. By the sound of things, he must have, but it’s difficult not knowing. What if there was more he should have done? What if there are things he should feel guilty for?
But that, in its way, is why he’s here. He’s set his mind on success. Nothing is going to stop him his time. Nothing is going to keep them apart.
He nibbles at the edge of another isosceles triangle of hardtack, turning the subtle tang of the cheese over on his tongue. He brushes absently at some of the crumbs he’s dropped on the table, and the General says, “Don’t bother.”
“I guess you probably don’t have to worry about ants, do you?” Al asks.
Talking to the General is very interesting—like assembling a puzzle from tiny pieces that have warped over time and don’t always match up, trying to make a design he’s never seen and that no one will describe. The group at Central who had been his “team” refer to him as though he had some kind of terminal illness—and perhaps, to General Mustang, that’s what ambition meant. The beautiful blonde Lieutenant took Al aside, looked him in the eyes, and said “Take care of him.” Then she brought him a binder of copies of his brother’s old reports, reasoning that “Even if they don’t help you remember, maybe they’ll help you feel close to him.” He likes the one who tells him he’s a man now (“not to mention much less intimidating without the, y’know, glowing red eyes and spikes”) and always offers him a cigarette despite the glares, but Lieutenant Hawkeye is Al’s favorite by far.
The reports helped him get a handle on both Brother and the General, as much as that’s possible with two complex, capricious, and extremely sarcastic human beings. There was a section of a later one that rallied and solidified the wispy clues he’d been collecting from the photographs, though, if nothing else. Brother had scribbled out a terse description of events in a small Eastern town, including the words Al showed extrodinary valor, courage, figurative-guts, &tc., which makes him both vaguely proud and vaguely terrified that he’s not that special anymore. The portion underneath was even more enlightening.
The then-Colonel’s handwriting looked smooth and measured, especially juxtaposed with Brother’s hasty scrawl: Much as I am glad you both demonstrated typical heedless chutzpah and nonetheless returned alive, when I specify a “thorough” report, I anticipate, at the very least, a lack of abbreviations.
Al could imagine them sliding the folder under one another’s doors at intervals, both of them simultaneously irritated and intrigued.
Your head may be extremely fat, Ed wrote back, but the world doesn’t revolve around it yet. If you want more, ask. Stupid.
The last is particularly cutting, the Colonel noted. Shall I take your suggestion as a broader philosophy in my dealings with you?
There was an inkblot on the first letter of Ed’s reply, which Al read as a rare hesitation. You slut.
How dare you speak to a superior officer that way, the Colonel fired back. I’ll have you court-martialed for this insolence.
I’ll make it up to you later, Ed wrote, and that was where the conversation ended.
“I will say that for the North,” the General remarks, swilling his tea. “I don’t think I’ve seen an insect since I arrived.”
“Except for me,” Al says, grinning at him.
The General smiles, stands, and takes Al’s empty mug. “You are most definitely not an insect, Alphonse. A puppy, if anything.”
Al’s cheeks go hot, and he understands better than ever why Brother was fixated on the man before him. The bright-dark eyes and the smooth movements and the perpetually-sardonic twist to that alluring mouth certainly wouldn’t have hurt matters, but Brother was never an aesthete and couldn’t have become one quite so fast. It’s more that the General has a maddening talent for backhanded compliments—for saying several things at once and punctuating their multiplicity with an ambiguous smile. To someone like Ed, that would have been every bit as addictive as it was infuriating. Ed must have thrived on the repartee, on the give-and-take, on the little victories and the little humiliations that they made up to each other later as they liked.
There are still a lot of things Al doesn’t understand. He’s struggled for four years to work out how to be someone who both is and isn’t the boy that the people around him know. If it’s so difficult to be one person, how can the General have been so many?
“When I’m finished with your coat,” Al says, slipping out of his chair, taking it up, and confirming that the char marks are reparable; “can I chew on your shoes?”
The General tries and fails to keep a straight face. “If you wish. I was going to propose a bit more Flame Alchemy instruction, but my bootlaces do look delectable.”
That’s it. That’s the secret—the strategy. That’s the silver bullet, the endgame, the masterstroke. Roy Mustang is incredibly charismatic, but he’s never insincere. He teases, but he doesn’t try to hurt. He’s basically decent and exceedingly dangerous.
Alphonse Elric likes those odds.
He sits cross-legged in front of the fireplace, and the General joins him to touch up the array on the back of his hand; the combination of melted snow and frenetic activity smudged the ink. The General has long, strong fingers and thick eyelashes that dip when he concentrates.
Al remains completely still until he finishes. He likes the way the General’s fingertips feel against his hand. He likes the way the General’s gaze lingers on his cold-cracked knuckles and his fingernails. He likes the way the General’s body heat seeps through his clothes and smolders on his skin.
The General draws up one knee and rests his elbow on it, gesturing to the low-burning fire with his free hand. “See what you can—”
It’s really very simple, but Al doesn’t want to tell the General so in case it offends him. Instead, he flicks experimentally at the air above the fire a couple times, shifting its molecules, gauging their weight. Then he builds a series of corkscrews up into the chimney, and the flames soar in twirling ribbons.
“You Elrics,” the General says faintly after a moment. “You’re all inhuman.”
“You’re just a good teacher, General,” Al says, shifting so that the firelight will gleam on his eyes.
The General levers himself up, clapping Al’s shoulder once. “Play with that a while, and tomorrow we can take it outside. You’ll have to learn how to adjust to different wind speeds and weather patterns—the molecular ratios alter depending on the humidity and various other factors, and obviously that changes the way you direct the flame. Otherwise, you end up accidentally lighting outhouses on fire, and I can promise you that those are somewhat awkward to explain.”
Al bites his lip, hard. “I’m… sure that was a hypothetical example for my benefit, sir.”
The General smiles thinly. “You’re a quick learner, Alphonse.”
Dinner, after Al has made tendrils of fire encircle the pot in the fireplace several times, is an extremely rudimentary soup that’s rather good despite its simplicity. Apparently the General just believes in starting out the day with the gustatory equivalent of thumbscrews, and the successive meals are allowed to be pleasant.
They settle down as the world goes dark outside. The General writes in some kind of logbook—what he’s logging, Al cannot fathom; perhaps it’s the daily temperature or the degree of whiteness of the snow—and Al takes up one of the alchemy books he hasn’t quite worked through. It’s primarily about how to work details into existing arrays, which is what he needs; he’s never had quite the finesse that Brother did with the little things.
He’s so absorbed in the particular angles and sigils that delineate perfectly sharp corners that he’s startled when the General starts preparing for bed.
“Were you comfortable there last night?” the General asks when he glances up. “It looked like you hadn’t slept.”
Al pauses tactfully and slants his gaze at the floor. “It’s… I don’t want to be a hassle. It’s fine.”
There’s a pang of guilt in the pit of his stomach when the General smiles, but it’s small.
“You’re welcome to share the bed if you like. I’d offer to trade with you, but my back isn’t what it used to be. I’m afraid it’s a toss-up as to whether I might snore.”
“You didn’t yesterday,” Al says, shedding the coat and then the jacket, darting his eyes back and forth. “Are you sure it’s all right?”
“Of course,” the General says.
The General’s pajamas are a dark green flannel that makes his skin look like porcelain. He lies facing the wall and leaves the eyepatch on.
Al curls up next to him, putting two inches between their spines. He feels deeply trepidatious, slightly ashamed, and intensely triumphant.
Tomorrow. Not yet.
Al dreams that he is the other Alphonse—not the one in armor; the one who’s Elsewhere, with Ed. He dreams that he’s lying in a bed, his eyes a little hazy, his hands clenched on the covers and slightly pale. Ed is sitting at the bedside, leaning back in the chair, his legs crossed at the knee and his arms folded over his chest. He’s smiling faintly, and he’s so… wonderful. He’s wonderful.
“I can’t believe you,” the other Alphonse says. Some part of Al thinks that he shouldn’t understand the words, but he does. “Becoming a rocketry prodigy is one thing—I mean, I did that, too, so it makes sense. But—medicine?”
“It’s just science,” Ed says airily. “It’s all just science. And anyway, we’ve got a long way to go. Don’t start trusting me now, Alfons.”
“I’ve always trusted you,” Alphonse says—every Alphonse says.