Fullmetal smells like blood and steel, even freshly-showered and laundered towel wrapped around his shoulders. The bruises on his cheek are very dark against his pale skin. One long jagged slash runs from the edge of a prominent collarbone and disappears somewhere under his thin black shirt.
Roy holds out the steaming cup of coffee to him, and is rewarded by a brief glance from darkened yellow eyes. It takes a moment for Fullmetal to let go of the towel and reach for the cup. Even then he does not drink, but bends his face over it, breathing in the steam.
Outside, the rain is falling.
“I’ve sent someone to fetch your brother,” Roy says. His voice sounds strange to his own ears, oddly rough. It takes effort to find his normal smoothness. “He should be here soon.”
Fullmetal’s blond head does not lift or turn. Against the edges of the cup, his fingers knead gently.
“You could not have done anything else.” The words come before Roy can stop them, and then he decides that this, perhaps, is the wiser choice. Fullmetal argues with his choices more often than not, but he still listens, and that is something. “As you are so fond of pointing out, we are neither gods nor devils, none of us. You did what you could.”
His words feel as though they fall flat. One of Fullmetal’s thin shoulders rises and dips briefly, in a half-shrug. Irritation flares through Roy, a stray spark that touches tinder to flame.
“Aren’t you the one who always insists that the only way to do things is to face forward and keep walking? Where’s that pride of yours, Fullmetal? I’m disappointed in you.”
Pale lips thin into a slash; Fullmetal huddles in on himself like an abandoned cat in the rain. The jab registers only as a brief flash, which just as soon fades.
Before he can break off his words and retreat back into himself, Roy drops smoothly to one knee, grasping the boy’s face. Those flat eyes do not meet his for long; within a heartbeat they look through him, straight into something years distant. He waits.
“I’ve killed animals before,” Fullmetal says at last, his voice very thin. “Did I ever tell you? The first month of training Al and I went on … our teacher took us to an island and left us there to learn survival. ‘To train the spirit, first train the body.’ That’s what she always believed.” His breath hiccups for a moment, then smoothes out. When he closes his eyes and opens them again, they are amber, and too calm.
“I used to apologize for catching fish. Now, it’s like it doesn’t matter.”
“It matters,” Roy snaps, instinct overriding caution for a bare moment. He thinks, and remembers: a desert city, a frightened boy (two of them, oh, two of them) with a gun, and the smell of blood and liquor heavy on the chilly night air. “A human life or an animal life, they both have meaning to them.”
“And all it takes is one knife, and that’s all,” Fullmetal says, still looking straight at Roy with those hollow cold eyes. The fingers of his automail arm tremble, as though feeling still lingers in those metal joints.
“… do you know, I swear I can still feel it all over me, but when I look, it’s not there.”
“Blood is like that,” Roy says quietly, and lets go of Fullmetal’s face. The boy’s head drops forward and hangs there, like a doll whose strings have been cut.
Someone knocks at the door, and he pivots sharply on his heel and it’s three strides to the door, which he yanks open. Havoc is there, and Alphonse hovering behind him. It should be a strange that a suit of armor can have such an expressive face, but because it is Alphonse, Roy does not question.
Perhaps, in his mad gamble to keep his little brother close, Fullmetal gave that suit of armor more life than he originally thought.
Roy steps aside, and the moment Alphonse sees Fullmetal on the couch, he shoves past, with an absently-murmured excuse me. He crosses the room in two steps and is down on his knees beside Fullmetal before he stops moving. The boy responds to Al’s presence by turning, slowly, until his forehead is pressed against the outward jut of the armor’s chest.
“Brother,” Roy hears Alphonse breathe. “Oh, no, it’s all right, don’t–”
It’s the first time he’s ever heard Alphonse use such language; that it’s for Fullmetal makes it even stranger.
The dynamics of the moment feel skewed to Roy: it takes him a moment to realize that it’s because the control has somehow slipped from him. When he had planned for this eventual scenario, he had not expected things to spiral out of hand so rapidly–had, perhaps, relied too much on Fullmetal’s natural resiliency to pull him quickly out of the shock and faster into ordinary grief.
In retrospect, he concedes that it was a foolish thing to leave to chance, and wonders at how old guilt can flare up again, so new. Conflict follows the Elric brothers like an obedient dog, and Fullmetal never does anything by halves, and Roy only thinks thank god it didn’t happen in the field.
“Think the Boss’ll be okay?” Havoc asks, around his ever-present cigarette. He peers around Roy, looking at the brothers. Alphonse how has one broad hand against the back of Fullmetal’s skull, and the tinny echo of his voice has died to a low murmur. Roy sighs.
“He will be, eventually,” he says. “Fullmetal never fails to pick himself up in the end.”
“Maybe,” Havoc says, then takes his cigarette in hand so he can exhale a burst of sharp hot smoke. The eyebrow he raises at Roy is not quite sardonic, but there’s a knowing weight to its slant. “I’ll come back and pick ’em up tomorrow?”
Roy does not sigh or make any sign of relief, but he does incline his head, faintly. “Thank you, Lieutenant.” He waits until Havoc has sauntered down the stairs and gotten back into the car before he closes the door. For a moment he continues to stand, facing away, and then turns to look.
Alphonse is looking back at him, and there is nothing to be read in the blank set features of the armor–but something about his posture speaks of gratitude. Fullmetal himself now has a cheek pressed to the cool breastplate, heavy-lidded eyes downcast. He huddles, not like a little boy, but a very old man, as though the weight on his shoulders keeps his entire body pressed down.
“I’m afraid my guest room has only one bed, and it isn’t quite large enough to accommodate you, Alphonse,” Roy says. The armor-boy’s head lifts, and tilts just so; it’s amazing, the amount of human body language that metal body retains. “However, there are spare blankets, should you want them.”
It gets him a quick nod–Alphonse’s substitute for a worried, fleeing smile. “Thank you, Colonel,” he says, then gives a nudge with the hand braced against Fullmetal’s back. “Brother, come on. You’ll feel better if you rest.”
Fullmetal lifts his head slowly, and it’s a moment longer before his eyes meet Roy’s own. Just for a moment, the boy rallies, as though trying to reach for a scrap of normalcy, then lets it go with a faint sigh. “We’re imposing,” he notes, in a voice that carries only a faint dull edge to it. “Sorry.”
Roy doesn’t even pause as he turns and walks towards the stairs, trusting that Alphonse will guide Fullmetal after him. “What are you talking about?” he says, as he ascends. “It’s not imposing if I’ve ordered it.”
Normally, the implication would garner him some snarled response, all of Fullmetal’s prickly, aggressive personality shaped to stab back. This time, however, he hears the boy snort derisively, without any follow-up. Both of the Elric brothers remain otherwise silent as Roy leads them down a dark hallway, and opens a door for them. “I’ll bring your blankets,” he says.
Alphonse nods again, polite to the last. “Thank you,” he says again. “Colonel Mustang, it’s very kind of you to put up with us like this.”
He waves his hands dismissively. “I’m not completely heartless, Alphonse, no matter what you’ve heard,” he says, with his eyes on Fullmetal the whole time. The boy doesn’t respond, but at least he’s let go of his brother now, and stands apart, solid on his own two feet. After a moment, as though sensing Roy’s gaze, he turns and musters up a faint smirk.
“Nice place, Colonel,” he says. Some of the mocking is back in his voice, which comforts Roy more than any mumbled assurance. “Is this how much they pay you for sitting pretty and getting us to do your dirty work?”
Though there’s no extra edge to Fullmetal’s words, Roy is careful in how he responds. “Nothing is free, nor is it cheap, Fullmetal,” he says. “Just because you’re always haring off on your own adventures and never see me at work doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
“According to Lt. Hawkeye, that’s not the case,” Fullmetal says, but he’s already stepped into the guestroom, and the drawstring pajama pants Roy scrounged up from somewhere to go with the towel hang low on his skinny hips. “She says that if she’s not there to keep an eye on you, you’ll just slack off.”
“Lt. Hawkeye has her own duties to attend to, separate from mine,” Roy says, over his shoulder, as he heads down the hallway to the linen closet. “She’s not with me all the time, and the work still gets done.” He pulls the top two blankets down and walks back to the brothers, handing his burden to Alphonse. “Neither is she my keeper. You’ll do well to remember that.”
Fullmetal makes a face at Roy, under his brother’s arm. His face is still too pale and drawn, with shadows cut deeply into his eyes, but he no longer looks so close to breaking. “Everyone knows who’s the real one in charge between the two of you,” he said blandly, “especially Lt. Hawkeye.”
“Brother!” Alphonse hisses. It’s hard to imagine that a voice echoing in that large metal body could whisper, but Alphonse pulls it off well. Roy figures he’s had more practice than he’s really wanted. Fullmetal simply shrugs and stares levelly back, and through the solid wall of shadow in his eyes, there’s a spark of challenge.
This once, Roy lets it burn out unanswered. “You should get some sleep,” he says. “Goodnight, Edward, Alphonse.”
Perhaps it’s the sound of his real name in Roy’s voice, or just at all–but he sees Fullmetal’s golden eyes go saucer-wide and his still-rounded face slackens in surprise. Alphonse mutters some sort of answer, then carefully herds his brother into the room, closing the door gently behind them. Fullmetal watches him narrowly the entire time.
“The Colonel … he’s being awfully nice, isn’t he?” he hears Alphonse say through the closed door. Roy tells himself he will not eavesdrop, and remains exactly where he is. It’s important for Fullmetal to understand this night–that, occasionally, even a superior may step off his pedestal and act as a … friend.
All his promises, all his offers, will mean nothing if he’s not met halfway.
Fullmetal sighs, and the sound is slow and heavy with thought. “He is,” the boy says, grudgingly. “Probably was afraid I’d do something stupid if he sent us back to the dorms.” The sound of pacing, then, like the prowling of some restless creature. “Ah, the lucky bastard, getting a place like this, while we’re stuck with those stupid cots.” There’s a loud thud, the sound of a body hitting the bed.
Alphonse chuckles, and there’s relief in the sound. “Brother, try to be more gentle with someone else’s belongings.”
“He gets paid more than we do, he can afford a little wear and tear on his stuff.” Another long pause, and then, “Al–today, I–”
“Whenever you’re ready to talk, Brother, I’m here.” Alphonse’s tone books no nonsense, and. There’s a creak of armored joints, echoed by the faint groan of bedsprings pressing down. “Until then, try to sleep, all right?”
Behind the door, Fullmetal makes a small sound of assent. Cloth rustles, like blankets being unfolded. Roy smiles, to himself and the dark house, then heads down the hallway to his own room.
Someone is screaming. For a moment, he thinks he’s dreaming of the war, striding untouched through the battlefield as bodies writhe to crisped ashes in his wake.
Then the coherent part of his brain kicks in, and he recognizes the voice: Fullmetal. Down at the end of the hallway, the boy is shrieking in the mindless rhythm of unconscious fear. Beneath that is Alphonse’s voice, worried and growing louder with each repetition of Fullmetal’s name.
Roy swings his legs over the edge of his bed, then hesitates for a moment. Fullmetal’s screaming has tapered a bit, loosing some of its volume, and for a moment he believes that Alphonse has everything in hand–
–there’s a loud, echoing thud, like furniture being slammed against the wall. In an instant Roy is on his feet, snagging his robe as he goes and shrugging into it as he strides down the hallway. Alphonse is still trying to soothe his brother–Brother, Brother, calm down, it’s me–while Fullmetal’s screaming dies down to animal moans, and the scrape of movement against the wall.
When he opens the door to his guest bedroom, he finds Fullmetal tucked in a ball of limbs both fragile and steel, his face pressed sharply into the far corner. There’s a set of fresh gouges in the white plaster, but Fullmetal’s automail hand is tucked in his armpit, out of sight. Alphonse kneels a short distance away, one hand outstretched; he turns to look at Roy when the door opens. “Colonel!” he half-rises, then glances back at his brother. “I’m sorry, we’re–”
Roy drops to a crouch beside him, watching as Fullmetal shivers and twitches, burrowing against the wall as though it would eventually open up and swallow him. Alphonse can’t seem to decide whether to watch him or Fullmetal, but finally settles his strange eyes on Roy, and the hand that braces his armored weight tightens.
“The last time he did this,” Alphonse says, in a breath Roy almost misses, “was the night after … after that.”
He doesn’t elaborate. He doesn’t need to. Roy thinks about a pale still child swathed in stained bandages, barely breathing under thin sheets.
A low sharp sound tumbles from Fullmetal’s throat, and his head drags against the wall, as though seeking something. Despite himself Alphonse surges forward again, his hand stopping a few bare centimeters from Fullmetal’s shoulder. “Oh, Brother–”
Roy rocks back onto his heels, then up onto his feet, crossing his arms over his chest. Even though Alphonse’s armored bulk brings his shoulder almost up to Roy’s waist, he somehow wears his age like a heart on the sleeve. He’s pleading with his brother now, in a low voice, though he still does not make contact.
It’s not working at all. Kindness is a prickly and strange thing, and it comes in more forms than people tend to consider. Alphonse is too gentle to consider any way but his own, and thus Roy takes the initiative himself.
“Fullmetal!” he snaps. In his voice are years of command, honed to a single stabbing point.
The sound of his voice has the effect of a whip crack; Fullmetal’s entire thin body jerks, and he peels away from the wall like a shot. Almost immediately, he crashes into his brother’s bulk, and though Alphonse rocks, he does not fall; instead, he catches his brother and holds on. Golden eyes flash up to Roy’s face, and to his relief, he sees Fullmetal there, awake and aware and snapping.
“What?!” he snaps, already scrabbling up and out of Alphonse’s arms. “You stupid colonel, can’t you leave me in peace for one night?!”
Roy raises an eyebrow at him, and decides not to tap his foot to make the point. “Fullmetal,” he says, “you are in my house as a guest. I don’t think it’s possible for me to leave you alone entirely.”
Embarrassment flickers across Fullmetal’s pale face. He stands on his own two feet, but there is a slight sway to his balance, as though he is favoring the metal leg. The expression on his face is both ridiculously young and too old, and more familiar than Roy cares to admit.
Another memory: blood on Fullmetal’s face, and the high sharp heaves of his breathing as he scrambled out from under deadweight and caught himself against a wall to keep from falling. Layered on that is the sound of metal fingers clawing desperately at that wall, leaving long shallow gouges.
Beyond that, as well, linger the ghosts from his own dreams. And Roy knows, with old knowledge burned deep, that nothing he says will make it “better” for Fullmetal. In the end, the boy only finds a duty to himself and his brother; to tell him “you were only acting under orders” will cheapen it.
When the Elric brothers remain silent, though, he feels compelled to say, “No one will censure you for what you’ve done.”
Fullmetal’s arms rise up and curl around himself; it’s an oddly childish gesture, and his expression becomes pained. The initial burst of awareness seems to have faded from his eyes, turned inwards; he holds himself like a man barely able to stand. In the dim lighting, his bruises and the half-visible slash down his chest are luridly exaggerated, parodies of injury.
They speak simultaneously, and fall silent together. Fullmetal’s eyes close for a moment, and he draws in a shuddering breath, the fingers of his automail hand flexing around the ball of his shoulder. After a moment, Alphonse stirs and rises up, still on his knees, and it’s strange, seeing this tall, bulky suit of armor move so diffidently, like he’s afraid his brother will somehow shatter. Roy bites back a snort at the thought: the Fullmetal Alchemist is many things, but breakable is not one of them, even now.
It takes a moment, but then Fullmetal rallies himself and looks up again. This time, he meets Roy’s eyes without flinching, dark and cold, but not entirely unquenched. One more memory, on this night of recollection–this time of the boy-child who’d glared at him across his desk, newly-named and raw in countless places.
At the very beginning, Roy had wondered if someone so small and impulsive could ever make it far. Now, meeting Fullmetal’s gaze, he thinks that, perhaps, the boy’s gone farther than even he imagined, and all when he was looking elsewhere.
“I will not say it gets easier. Every single time, it’s a human life you’re taking into your hands, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.” For a moment, he hesitates, and then makes the choice to reach out, and put his hand on Fullmetal’s thin, bony shoulder. He feels the instinctive flinch and chooses to ignore it. Suddenly, he is very aware of Alphonse’s strange eyes resting heavily on him, and he thinks, Handle with care.
He can and has, many times before, handled a Fullmetal bubbling with protective anger. In this moment, he realizes he is not certain he can handle Alphonse Elric half as well.
There’s a moment’s pause, and then he hears the creak of artificial joints; Fullmetal’s metal arm uncoils slowly and lifts, the fingers opening and closing slowly. The boy stares at those fingers of his like they belong to a stranger, like something peculiar and rare. Roy wonders, fleetingly, if this was how he looked, after these limbs were installed.
“I–” Fullmetal says, before his voice grows thick. He has not yet grown into eloquence, but he is better than a year before. “I–ki–I just–”
“You killed a man,” Roy says, simply. Both Fullmetal and Alphonse flinch at this, but Fullmetal takes a deep breath and squeezes his hand into a tight fist, his jaw set in a scowl. “You didn’t mean to, but it still happened.”
“It was so stupid!” Fullmetal explodes, and rips away with sudden, flash fire force; he yanks away from Roy’s hand on his shoulder, from Alphonse’s instinctive start forward, and drags the real hand through his hair, leaving it in clumped disarray. He pauses, like a philosopher on the edge of new human discovery, then slumps. “It was so stupid. It didn’t even have to happen, and–”
Nervous energy vibrates in him like a plucked string. Then, slowly, Fullmetal raises his head and looks Roy directly in the face, and says, “Colonel. You said I wouldn’t be in trouble about this.”
Roy weighs his answer carefully. “I said that no one would censure you. There is a difference.”
Fullmetal does not back down, though unease flickers in his eyes. Alphonse rises, though, a looming presence over his brother’s shoulder. Like large men, he has always been very aware of his size, and Roy does not doubt that he is using that to his advantage. “Colonel,” he says, in his quiet voice, “what do you mean?”
The moment hangs with awkward suspension, and Roy forces himself not to break eye contact with Fullmetal when he answers. “You’re a famous figure in the military, Fullmetal. You’ve traveled enough to realize that you will be recognized by those you would otherwise have nothing to do with.” He braces one hand against the ground and rises to his own feet, keeping his hands loose by his hands. “I have people looking into the man’s background. I don’t believe you’ll have any trouble with the repercussions.”
Another sharp flash goes through Fullmetal’s eyes, and he sees the sudden new tension that runs through him and his brother, as though the two are grounded by the same live wire. Roy waits.
“So, you’re saying,” Fullmetal grinds out slowly, “that because I’m a dog of the military, because I’m some kind of goddamned celebrity, it’s okay? That I can kill a man without having to worry about the consequences–”
“I didn’t say you won’t have to worry, Fullmetal,” Roy says. “There will be a formal investigation, and you will be called in for questioning. However, I doubt you have much to worry about from the military.” Absently, his naked fingers rub together. “It’s more your own thoughts that you’ll have to guard yourself from.”
“What do you mean?” Fullmetal tenses, eyes narrowing to slits. “You’re awfully confidant about that, Colonel.”
Roy shrugs–barely more than a tensing and relaxing of his shoulders; even out of uniform and in old worn clothes, he carries his dignity well. “There have been rumors,” he said. “The Fullmetal Alchemist is well-known for being a friend to the people, despite being a dog of the military.
“You’re right, in that you’re a celebrity, in your own way. There are people who will do anything to be a part of someone else’s brilliance, no matter what it takes.”
It takes a moment for the weight behind his words to register, and Roy knows the moment they do; Fullmetal’s expression goes ice-cold, and he hears Alphonse make a sound of surprise–though how that works, when the armor cannot breath, Roy isn’t sure. Fullmetal’s automail fist curls and begins to shake a little. It takes a moment for the boy to calm himself, and he breathes very slowly in, then out, before he speaks.
“That’s an awfully convenient excuse, isn’t it? Colonel?” Fullmetal’s voice is dull and heavy, like unpolished steel. It does not match the razor-edge of his gaze, stabbing through until it comes dangerously close to breaking open that final, old secret. “To say that some crazy stalker chased me down, until I was forced to fight him off in self-defense. Who’s going to buy a piece of shit story like that?”
“Believe it or don’t, Fullmetal. It’s your choice.” Roy does not break eye contact, not at this most important moment. Part of him thinks he can’t look away, not now; Fullmetal’s gaze holds a power of its own, one that could be refined and enhanced with time, like so many of the boy’s other strengths. “However, the more widespread your fame becomes, the higher that possibility.”
Then he pauses, and studies the tenseness of Fullmetal’s posture, glances up to Alphonse’s impassive face. More gently, he adds, “You have over a dozen eye-witnesses who saw the fight, Fullmetal. Not a single one of them would say it was unprovoked.”
Seconds tick by. Roy counts them, and knows it’s not enough to say that; it was not enough for him, either. You were only following orders. It wasn’t your fault, not really.
Fullmetal’s hands tighten to fists. “He was still a person,” he says, staring flatly at Roy. “Whatever he was trying to do, he was a living person. Until–”
His eyes close for a moment. Roy looks at his pinched face, and wonders if he himself looked the same way, long ago–and then knows he did.
“That’s why I said you’ll have to guard yourself from your own thoughts,” he said quietly. He takes his chance and looks away from Fullmetal’s face while those eyes are hidden, and turns to the door. The desire to look over his shoulder drags his feet, to see if the mirror of himself is still there, drawn across Fullmetal’s–Edward’s–face. On his pale skin, the bruises stand out sharply, as though separate from the rest of him.
In the end, Roy does not look. He wants to say it’s respect for Fullmetal’s privacy, but the heavy drag of his feet hold the memory of watching another man walk away, and his own wavering hesitation, years ago.
Alphonse’s voice stops him, this time: “Colonel.”
He puts his hand on the doorknob first before he answers. “Alphonse.”
“I believe you,” Alphonse tells him. There are times where Roy suspects that Alphonse has them all deceived with the layers he can infuse within a single statement; this is one of them. “Good night.”
Fullmetal is silent. Roy turns the doorknob and opens the door.
“Good night,” he says.