If Roy Mustang were to be honest with himself, he would acknowledge that in the moments after he woke up to find Van Hohenheim leaning over him, he genuinely believed that the recent blow to the head had sent him into a decades-long coma, and that Edward Elric was there in his hospital room to mock him the second he woke up. Luckily for him and his dignity, he realized in just a few seconds that Hohenheim had several distinctive features that differentiated him from the man his son might become. What’s more, Roy had also actually met Hohenheim, and had spent the entire day with him.
Pushing himself to his feet and gratefully accepting the hand that Hohenheim held out for him, Roy looked around and assessed the situation, trying to figure out what exactly had happened to him. From his surroundings, he’d say that he had been thrown against the wall when Scar had blown up the street. The creatures that Fullmetal and Hohenheim had told him were called Homunculi were gone. Judging by how much smoke still hung in the air, he had only been unconscious for a few moments.
“Status report!” he called out, nodding his thanks to Hohenheim. “Is everyone alright?”
One by one his men responded, pulling themselves up from where they had all collapsed. Hawkeye materialized by his side, mostly unharmed except for a few scratches, and managed to look disappointed, as if it were Roy’s fault that he had been unconscious long enough for her to start worrying. He raised an eyebrow at her, trusting her ability to know everything about him all the time to tell her that he was begging to be considered a victim in this situation.
That crisis handled, he turned his attention to his men, trying to gauge the extent of their injuries. Fullmetal, funnily enough, was right next to him, having been blown in the same direction as Roy and apparently Hohenheim. Roy considered for a moment whether he should wonder why Hohenheim had assisted him instead of checking on his own son, but decided that he didn’t really want to know. Instead, he gave the boy a once-over of his own, noting that he had a bruise next to his left eye, but otherwise seemed in fairly good health.
Satisfied with this, and assured that none of his men were injured, Roy called them all around him.
“It appears that this fight is getting out of hand,” he began. “The Homunculi, as we know, are very powerful, but it seems that we cannot safely fight them and Scar at the same time. I suggest that from now on, everyone without alchemy make a tactical retreat. Guns will most likely not be very effective, and I don’t want anyone getting hurt unnecessarily.”
Ignoring the complaints around him, Roy reminded his men that he was a Colonel and they had to follow his orders with respect. Luckily, this declaration quieted some of the complaints, though they were replaced with muffled laughter. That didn’t matter, though. As long as his men were out of range and safe, Mustang didn’t care how much they laughed.
As they cleared out at last, taking the now legless armor that housed Alphonse with them where he would be safe in the hours before Ed could restore him, Roy turned and noticed with a complete lack of anything even resembling surprise that Riza was still by his side, gun drawn and eyes daring him to even try sending her away. He grinned at her, allowing her to fall into step beside him as Hohenheim led the way towards where he said Scar and the homunculi had headed after the explosion.
For a few moments, he and Riza walked in companionable silence, watching the matching gaits of Edward and his father. The boy was slightly behind Hohenheim, trying his best to hide the fact that he was craning his neck to stare up at him.
“Do you think he’s noticed?” Riza said suddenly.
“Who?” the Colonel asked innocently, hoping that she wasn’t going with this where he thought she was going.
“Ed. Do you think he’s noticed how his father is acting towards him?” Riza clarified, turning towards him sharply to let him know that his avoidance tactics wouldn’t work.
Mustang let out a sigh, resisting the urge to run his hands through his hair. It wouldn’t do for Ed to notice this conversation, so the less he did to draw attention to himself the better. Of course he knew what Hawkeye was talking about. Hohenheim had barely acknowledged Ed all day. From what Roy could tell, in the time between when Hohenheim had showed up that morning and now, the man had yet to speak to, speak about, or even look at the boy, though he had exchanged a few words with Alphonse. Even when Roy had been forced to hold Ed back from punching his absentee father in the face, Hohenheim had barely blinked, opting to instead ask Hawkeye a question about Scar’s last known location.
“Of course he’s noticed, Lieutenant,” Roy said at last, avoiding Hawkeye’s gaze in favor of studying the back of his unruly subordinate. “How could he not?”
Riza simply hmm’d in response, turning her own gaze to the boy as well. Besides the angry outburst that morning at the appearance of Hohenheim, Ed had been fairly quiet, watching his father almost expectantly, and masking the hurt that had been building behind his eyes with an expression of boredom. Most would have been completely fooled, as Fullmetal wasn’t quite such a bad actor as many gave him credit for, but Roy knew where to look when he wanted to know if Edward was upset, and the pain that had been growing in Edward all day had started seeping through the cracks so much that the Colonel hadn’t even had to try.
In all honesty, Roy didn’t want to know how Ed would respond when the pain got to be too much for him to ignore. The breaking point had to come at some point, and Roy was completely clueless as the whether it would manifest itself in a violent tantrum or a serious accusation or something completely separate.
Knowing that the same concerns weighed down his Lieutenant, Roy walked quietly, noticing only on the periphery that they had yet to find any evidence of either Scar or the Homunculi.
As evening approached, Hohenheim finally stopped, having turned into one last alleyway to check for signs of fighting. He turned to Mustang with a sigh, clearly disappointed, and held out his hand.
“It looks as though we will not find them today. Thank you for your help, but I will have to be going, as I’m on a tight schedule. Perhaps our paths will cross again someday.”
Roy shook Hohenheim’s hand mutely, caught off guard by the sudden dismissal. The man was attempting to be polite, but Roy couldn’t help but let his eyes wander towards Edward, who was watching the exchange with a dangerously blank expression. Roy opened his mouth to say something- anything that would compel Hohenheim to give his son any kind of acknowledgment, but the man was already turning away.
Fullmetal stood alone at the end of the alleyway, head turned down as his father’s footsteps echoed around the small space.
“…Look at me.”
If Roy hadn’t been watching him, he would have missed the fact that Fullmetal had spoken at all. Somehow, Hohenheim heard him, and stopped walking as he reached the end of the alleyway, though he did not turn around.
“Look at me,” Ed said again, a little louder this time, raising his head to stare at his father’s back, a defiant expression balanced precariously on his face.
Hohenheim said nothing, did not even move, and Roy had a miniature panic attack because he suddenly realized that he and Hawkeye were stuck directly in between the two, and there was no way to give them privacy without making a big show of walking past Hohenheim and out of the alley.
Ed kept his eyes leveled at Hohenheim, words growing louder as he gained confidence in his accusations.
“Do you think you can just show up like this?” the boy yelled, the look of distain solidifying into something almost believable. “Do you think you can just come back and then leave again without even looking at me? Did you think that I wouldn’t notice, that I wouldn’t care that you spoke to Al but won’t even acknowledge me? I know that Al deserves more than I do, but you didn’t even stick around long enough to find that out, did you?”
Silence reigned for a few moments as the echoes of Ed’s words dissipated, and yet still, Hohenheim did not turn around. From the strange angle that Roy was seeing him at, the man seemed to be staring quite intently at a spot somewhere across the street. Somehow, Roy doubted that he was seeing anything he was looking at.
Ed, on the other hand, could see just fine, and a sort of understanding seemed to come over him as he realized that Hohenheim felt no obligation to him or guilt on account of what he had caused him to suffer. He hovered, briefly, in a space of confusion, not seeming to be able to fathom how someone his mother had once loved could be so cruel. Then, wilting, he let the confusion slip into something more desperate.
“Just…look at me,” he repeated, visibly restraining himself from running towards his father in a frantic bid for some sort of reaction. “You don’t have to say anything, you don’t have to stay, you can just leave and you never have to think about me or Al or mom ever again just…if I matter to you at all, if I’m worth anything, LOOK AT ME!” he broke off, the sudden outburst having pushed him to a point on the edge of tears, hands shaking and teeth digging into his lip to keep it from trembling.
‘To you,’ Roy wanted to say. ‘You’re supposed to say, “If I’m worth anything to you”’.
But he kept silent, because it was not his place to speak, or to correct the horrible words that Ed had let slip.
Hohenheim shifted, briefly, looking away from the other side of the street in favor of staring at his toes, and Roy could see that he opened his mouth in an attempt to speak, before decidedly closing it, and walking away and out of the alleyway, leaving his pleading son behind once again.
If it hadn’t been for Riza, Roy would have attacked him. He had felt rage before. Had felt it when Riza revealed the nature of the research her father had left her. Had felt it in the first few days of Ishval. Had felt it when he stood in front of Hughes’ grave and listened to Elicia’s cries. But never before had it been this potent, this directed, and he wanted nothing more in that moment than to hurt Hohenheim as badly as the man had just hurt his son- his son, whom he had abandoned before and now had abandoned again. But just as he raised a gloved hand to snap, his loyal Lieutenant rested a placating hand on his arm, pressing down until Roy was forced to drag his attention back to Edward.
Fullmetal swayed, slightly, in place, as he watched his father walk away from him. For a moment, his hands clenched and his eyes grew hot with anger, and Roy thought that he wouldn’t have to attack Hohenheim after all because Edward would exact revenge himself, but the next moment the anger was gone, and the boy’s fists unclenched and fell motionless at his sides as Edward lowered his gaze so that his bangs covered the pain that was so obviously clouding his eyes.
Mustang noticed absently that Riza was looking at him, and was turning to match her gaze when he heard an unexpected thump, and he realized that Fullmetal’s legs had given out on him, landing the boy in a crumpled heap on the ground. A quick glance at the Lieutenant told Roy that she expected him to do something about that, and he could only watch helplessly as she herself left the alleyway and left the space to them alone.
Roy hovered to the side for a few moments, hesitating on how he should approach this problem. He didn’t know anything about comforting kids! Even if Edward was precious to him, part of the way he had arranged their relationship was so that none of that intense affection would ever have to be expressed, or acted on in any obvious way. He wasn’t cut out for this type of thing.
For the thousandth time, Roy wished that Hughes were still alive and there to guide him.
At last, having felt that standing to the side was beginning to get awkward, Roy lowered himself to his knees in front of the grieving boy, then cursed himself mentally for not being able to plan farther than that.
“Why does it hurt?” Edward said suddenly, interrupting the Colonel’s internal panic attack with the unexpected question. Roy studied the back of his bowed head, unsure of what he was referring to.
"Why does it hurt…” Ed continued, as though he could sense the Colonel’s confusion, “…even though I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t care anymore. It shouldn’t hurt anymore. I shouldn’t…I shouldn’t still want him to love me.”
Ah, so that was it. Roy let himself smile, briefly. This, at least, he understood.
“It’s because he’s your father, Fullmetal,” he started, feeling confident in the idea but perhaps not in the way he should express it. “A father is supposed to love his child. To a certain extent, all of us understand that, even if our fathers never show any intention of following through with that.”
Edward didn’t make any attempts to show that he had heard or understood the Colonel’s words, and so, hoping to provide some sort of understanding, Roy continued.
“I don’t think my father loved anyone in our family,” he said gently, treading lightly around a subject so painful to him that he had never even worked up the strength to tell Hughes about. “In fact,” he added with a humorless laugh, “I think everyone would have been ecstatic if he had up and abandoned us all.” He trailed off, hoping to at least get some response. It didn’t seem as though the kid wanted to make any comment on his words, but for the moment it seemed that he was listening, so Roy pushed forwards.
“It’s funny, you know? I would have given anything to get far away from my father, but every time I saw him, and I think if I were to see him again today, there would still be a part of me that begged him to love me the way he was supposed to. I’d still hold out hope that somehow it was a misunderstanding, or that there was some sort of explanation.
“I don’t think that that’s necessarily a very healthy feeling to have, but it’s a natural feeling, and I’m not ashamed of it. You can’t decide to stop caring about your family. If you were able to do that, you’d end up just like Hohenheim. The fact that this still hurts you just shows that you’re capable of loving people who might not deserve to be loved. All you can do with that is rely on people who will love you in return enough to protect you from those who don’t.”
He was rambling now, he knew, but there was something about this that was very important. It was suddenly very important to him that Ed understood whatever it was his rambling was trying to get at.
“Ed, I-” he began, intending to continue on the random train of thought he had been going down, but stopping suddenly when the boy in front of him drew in a shuddering breath and moved to push himself into more of a sitting position, still facing the ground and leaning his weight forward on his hands, but matching Roy’s own position of resting on his knees.
“Will you-” Ed started, his voice hitching dangerously. “Will you look at me?”
Mustang was struck speechless for a few moments at the true implications of his subordinate’s request. Him, Roy Mustang, look at him? Look at Edward in the way the boy had just begged his father to? To love him the way Hohenheim had not?
He wondered briefly if he was capable of that sort of love.
As soon as the question crossed his mind, though, he thought back to the rage he had felt when Hohenheim had walked away, and of the relationship built off of emotional deception that he had so carefully crafted between Fullmetal and himself, and he realized that the question he should be asking was not whether he was capable of such a love, but instead whether he was capable of expressing the fierce love that had been there all along.
Letting his face soften into his first genuine smile all day, Roy cupped his hand under Ed’s chin and tilted his face towards his own, brushing a thumb gently over the bruise from earlier that day as he wiped tear tracks from his precious child’s cheeks.
“Every time,” he assured him, then enveloped the boy in his arms as Edward let himself fall forwards into the embrace, choked tears giving way to open sobs as Roy whispered promises into his ear.
Years later, after Roy had carried the sleeping form of his spent and exhausted subordinate who was sort of now his son out of that fated alley and into the car that Hawkeye had managed to pull up nearby, and after Hohenheim had once again shown his face in Mustang’s office only to be politely but threateningly asked to please leave and never come back, Fuhrer President Roy Mustang would receive a strange question. Some over-enthusiastic journalist, who had somehow gone through all of Fuhrer Mustang’s official photos, wanted to know whether there was a reason that whenever former state alchemist Edward Elric was in the frame, the young Fuhrer would be looking directly at him instead of at the camera.
Fuhrer Mustang would, in what would become a surprisingly famous reply, simply state, “there is a reason for that,” and then move on to answer another question.