“I’d forgotten how fucking terrifying she is, Al,” was the first thing Ed whispered down the phone to him when he answered the call to Mustang’s office. They had arranged the timing carefully in advance given that Al flat-out refused stay in the barracks without Ed, and rotated through hotels irregularly to avoid anyone noticing his peculiar sleeping and eating habits.
Paranoid? Perhaps, but it was a precaution that had served them well over the years.
“I take it the journey was all fine then?” He asked brightly once he’d finished laughing at his brother; aware as always that no military line could be considered secure. That was alright, though – he and Ed had perfected the art of talking with careful absences. When he asked about the journey (ostensibly for Ed to visit their ‘alchemy teacher’ for a break in light of her upcoming wedding anniversary, while Al remained behind to give his testimony regarding Tucker) he was really asking about Nina. It was all in the tone.
“Met Mason at the station alright – Teacher’s having a bad patch again, Sig’s got her on bed rest. Likes her present, although I though she was going to stab someone, by which I mean me.” Translation: Teacher would be of no use in the mind of anyone listening in, Nina was settling in well, and soon someone would have to face the wrath of Izumi Curtis; housewife and new mother.
Al remembered that wrath all too well, and he had never done anything to truly incite it. The closest they had come had been when Teacher had realised what they’d done, and trapped them in a wall to demand an explanation; even then, it hadn’t been aimed at them, not really.
Once they cracked and told her what they were on the other hand… Well, Al just consoled himself with the knowledge that any damage she may one day do to his father wouldn’t be lasting.
“How’re things with you?” Ed asked; he spat the words out like shards of glass. To anyone eavesdropping, it would have sounded bizarrely callous from Ed, who was widely known as a doting brother – a reputation that had been spread almost as quickly as his gift for alchemy, and still baffled Ed. His brother had spent too many years being considered unknowable and distant and grouchy to get used to the idea that people other than Al might understand him.
It was lucky Al did understand him, he mused. Otherwise he might be offended by his brother’s show of temper. It wasn’t that his brother resented asking how he was – he resented that he wasn’t there in person to simply know.
“The Fuhrer is considering assigning a guard to all of the active state alchemists,” Al told him, amused despite himself. It would be disastrous if Ed really was given a protective detail, but he couldn’t deny that the picture it conjured made him laugh. “Please don’t aggravate anyone more than usual, brother.”
“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean, Al? I’m the people’s alchemist, everyone loves me – it was in that trashy tabloid Havoc loves, so it must be true. And don’t think I don’t notice you avoiding the question – I want to know how you are, not the latest gossip from Colonel Bastard.”
Al drew in a deep breath, held it in his chest to feel the way his ribs expanded, before blowing it out. It was warm enough to leave a film of condensation on the receiver – they still hadn’t managed to figure that one out.
“I wish I could just give a report and let that be it,” Al said – the like you would have been obvious to anyone. Ed, who had helped raise him, who had been the only constant thing in his life, was not just anyone.
“Well there had to be at least one perk to this military fuckery,” he said, voice going truly soft in a way that was so painfully rare. Al remembered how gentle his brother had been, before; how rounded at the edges. There had been too many years and so much pain since then – and Ed had, despite Al’s best efforts to share the burden, borne the brunt of it, at least in the beginning.
“And speaking of military fuckery,” Ed rallied. “How’s Mustang treating you? He remembers you don’t actually work for him, right? Him and Hawkeye, they’re not trying to shackle you down with all their bureaucracy and shit?”
Ed couldn’t have known that Mustang had reappeared with Hawkeye at his left shoulder before he started speaking, but his timing was as uncanny as always. Al couldn’t help the warm fondness that crept into his voice, even as Mustang’s face contorted in an expression of exaggerated offense and Hawkeye shook her head ruefully.
“They’ve been really supportive, brother,” he said reassuringly. “I think Hughes misses having you around though – he keeps making pointed comments about how Gracia’s cooking is excellent for growing boys.”
He managed to pull the phone away from his ear in time to avoid the inevitable bellowing. Two hundred years, and Ed was still sore that he’d stopped ageing at the beginning of his growth spurt – Al probably shouldn’t have found it as funny as he did.
Mustang held out a gloved hand for the phone, waiting not-quite-impatiently for Ed to run out of steam, and let them say their goodbyes. Al handed over the phone, aching a little as he did.
It wasn’t the longest they had been separated, not even close. They had spent nearly a decade at opposite ends of the country in the early eighteen-hundreds with their only communication sporadic letters; but that had been by choice, when they were still obsessively searching for information about their father, the Gate, and homunculi. Now, they had spent years without being apart for longer than a day, and Al felt empty without his brother’s solid presence at his side.
Maybe Pinako was on to something when she accused them of being too dependent on each other.
“Fullmetal,” Mustang greeted bluntly, before barrelling on, “are you still planning on catching a train back tomorrow?” Mustang, Hawkeye, and Havoc – and now Armstrong and Hughes – were the only ones that knew the real reason Ed had gone south. While Mustang may not quite have mastered the Elric art of communicating solely through things they didn’t say, he was intelligent enough to speak around the topic of Nina on a military connection, and fairly skilled at reading between the lines besides. He was silent for a moment while Ed replied. He frowned slightly.
“And how long should that take?” He asked. Ed’s answer was short, and even through the distance and the crackling line, Al could hear his irritation. “Alright, but I’m afraid you’ll have to return immediately after. Yes. Yes. Thank you, Fullmetal, I had no idea. See you in two days.” A look of surprise flashed across his face at whatever Ed said – Al could hear the rough concern in Ed’s voice, and smiled to himself. His brother talked a big game, but Al knew full well he would never forgive himself if anything happened to Mustang or his team.
“I will,” he said, voice gentling. Hawkeye, who was stood close enough to hear what Ed was saying, smiled warmly across the room – Al caught her eye and nodded back. Ed still struggled to express himself on any subject that wasn’t academic, particularly to people with any measure of authority.
But he was trying.
“Your brother said he’s planning to stop at Rush Valley on the way back,” Mustang said, voice tightly controlled in a way that meant he was fishing for information and not too worried about being caught at it. Al hummed an affirmative. He didn’t enjoy needling the colonel in quite the same way Ed did, but he did indulge from time to time.
“Why is your brother stopping at Rush Valley? I thought he had a mechanic already.”
“Oh, he does. But his automail needs regular maintenance between tune-ups, and that means supplies, and everyone knows Rush Valley has the best on the market. They have to keep the prices down, too, or else every workshop in the whole place would go out of business. Besides, he’ll probably pick up a couple of gifts for Winry and Pinako while he’s there.” They had never had a problem paying for Ed’s automail, and Ed was always happy to let the Rockbells test new ideas on him; despite that, they knew that Ed had always been given a substantial discount. They hated feeling like they were in anyone’s debt, so they’d starting picking up presents whenever they went travelling to the outer edges of Amestris. To start with, it had been purely practical – samples of a new titanium alloy from Aerugo for Pinako, rare Cretan medical texts for Sara and Yuri. But after several years, they had just started… sending things they liked.
After Ishval, for years, Al found himself turning to Ed each time he found a new medical journal, mouth already forming around a question before he remembered.
Do you think they’ll like this one?
He would have felt worse, if he hadn’t caught Ed doing the same thing – if they hadn’t locked eyes over antique surgical tools with identical mischievous smiles that slid from their faces like water as it hit them all over again. That Sara wouldn’t laugh as they presented her with ebony-handled saws, insisting with all the wide-eyed innocence they could muster that it was the very latest in medical equipment, that there was nothing this sophisticated when they were young. That Yuri wouldn’t spend hours with them on the floor of the study, ink smudged up to his wrists as he scrawled out their translations of texts they’d happily taken off the hands of people that never put in the effort to read them.
That Winry would grow up with none of it. With a house and a workshop too big for two; with parents that were never coming home because he just wasn’t fast enough. As always, Ed had tried to take responsibility for what had happened, but the truth was he’d been halfway across the city – Al had been on the next street.
He’d told himself that he could step outside for a minute; that the Ishvalans didn’t appreciate an alchemist in the same building, never mind the treatment room, even if all he did was purify water and sterilise equipment. He’d told himself that a minute or two of sun would do him good, away from the crying and the blood stains that he would have to lift from the floor soon before the flies got in. He’d been playing assistant for four days and nights without pause while the Rockbells took it in turns sleeping – he’d thought that time away would clear his mind. Yuri and Sara had agreed, had all but shoved him out of the door, and he hadn’t returned until he heard the screaming.
Ed had been the one to find him, hours later. He couldn’t remember anything from the time he’d careened back into the building to see Yuri and Sara on the ground, their souls already gone. It was, ironically, the closest he thought he’d ever come to being asleep.
Ed had also, he found out later, been the one to contact Pinako; the military considered the couple traitors. Even if any of the brass had known of their deaths, it was unlikely they would bother with contacting next of kin. Somehow, he’d arranged transport for the bodies back to Resembool. They’d missed the funeral, hadn’t made it back for another year, long after the Fuhrer had recalled the state alchemists.
Winry had asked them, just once, if they could bring her parents back. Beneath his skin, Al had felt hundreds of souls come bubbling to the surface, power sparking at the question. As though he didn’t know what would come of trying. As though two hundred years of a half-life had taught him nothing. As though he had somehow forgotten the horrific wrench of his own soul, called up for exchange. But the worst part – the absolutely awful part – was that when he looked at Ed, he could see his own thoughts and stupid plans reflected back.
Running over their circle; where was the mistake, how could it be corrected, what could they give this time. It had only lasted an instant. They both knew the circle wasn’t the problem, that all the souls they each had to offer – that were willing, that wanted to help – wouldn’t be enough.
They’d tried to explain it to her, and Winry had nodded and never asked again.
It was a long time before their gifts to her stopped feeling like apologies, like bribery.
“Alphonse?” Mustang sounded like it wasn’t the first time he’d called his name – there was concern buried in his voice. Alphonse shook himself a little and managed a weak smile.
“Sorry, Colonel,” he said. “I was lost in thought. What were you saying?” Mustang exchanged a worried glance with Hawkeye.
“I asked if you would be comfortable with us assigning a couple of guards for you until your brother gets back? The killer has only targeted state alchemists so far, but the two of you are very well known throughout East city and the surrounding area – after what happened to Tucker, I don’t want to take any chances.” Al fought to hide a frown – he hadn’t even considered that he might be a target as well as Ed. It hadn’t registered as a concern; the odds of this killer being able to hurt him, even if they got close enough to try, were slim to none.
Apart from that, he hadn’t realised that Mustang held enough sway to order a protective detail for an uninvolved civilian. He couldn’t risk having anyone follow him around for any length of time. That was just asking for someone to notice something.
Of course, he couldn’t come out and say that. He pulled a face – horrified, humiliated, but quickly smothered. Completely genuine, and (he hoped) almost exactly the face he would have pulled as a real teenager, when he still believed that he and Ed could do anything at all. The sort of expression that Mustang would expect of the Elric brothers. As though the idea of needing guards was embarrassing, as though he was afraid of them snooping through his research, as though he was still just a child that thought he was immortal.
Instead of an immortal that barely remembered being a child.
“It would only be temporary,” Mustang hurried to assure him. “Just while you’re out and about, until we catch him.”
“And how long will that take?” He asked, channelling Ed – impatience and righteous anger, though not at them, not when this truly wasn’t their fault. But the fact remained that the only thing the military police knew about this killer was that he had a scarred face.
Al wanted to tell them to take a walk around the outskirts of any major city, to wander through the slums. To ask them how many scarred faces they saw. To ask how many of those faces were their fault.
“You know we can’t say for sure, Alphonse,” Hawkeye said; rational, reasonable Hawkeye. “There’s a chance that the colonel’s presence will be enough to draw him out and encourage risks, especially after Tucker, but we can’t be certain. And when Edward gets back, you will both be possible targets. The last thing we want is to put you two in danger.”
“You aren’t putting us in danger; we do that pretty well ourselves,” Al said, and Mustang grimaced.
“Don’t remind me, please.”
Al was silent for a moment; he thought over Hawkeye’s reasoning.
“What about you, Colonel?” He asked. Mustang blinked.
“What about me?”
“Will you be having a guard detail?” Alphonse put as much innocent concern as he could into his voice, although he was sure he already knew the answer. There were very few people Mustang would trust with his own safety, and no doubt he was planning on instructing at least one of them to watch over Al - and Ed, when he returned. Mustang exchanged a brief glance with Hawkeye.
“I won’t be going anywhere without a member of my team,” he said finally; though he watched Al’s face carefully, he wouldn’t quite meet his eyes. Al scarcely breathed, focusing everything he had on keeping his expression flat. “In the meantime, Armstrong has volunteered to stay with you, along with a couple of second lieutenants that will be acting as protection for you both.” Al didn’t say that he was far more capable of protecting himself than a couple of soldiers that didn’t know a Flamel from a matrix. He just hunched his shoulders, gritted his teeth, and nodded.
Suddenly, he found that he regretted laughing at his brother earlier.
“We also wanted to request that you stay in the barracks, at least until Ed gets back,” Mustang said briskly. He held up a hand to halt the rush of protests already leaping to Al’s tongue. “I know it isn’t what you prefer, but just for a couple of nights. It’ll make it that much harder for this killer to get anywhere near you.”
Al thought about what Ed would say in reply, then very deliberately didn’t say that.
“Easier to find me, though,” he said finally. Mustang pressed his lips together, and didn’t answer. Hawkeye didn’t flinch – she was far too disciplined for that – but she did straighten slightly, muscles locked.
“Please, Alphonse,” Mustang managed, voice tight. “I don’t want to rely on the hope that he won’t find you, or that he won’t go after you because you aren’t a state alchemist yourself. Your brother would make my life Hell, for one.” His smile was rueful, and disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That was the least of what Ed would do, but Mustang probably didn’t need to know that.
Not that it mattered. Al would be fine. He didn’t have a choice.
“Fine,” he agreed, pushing himself reluctantly to his feet. He held out a hand for the dormitory key he was sure Mustang had already put aside for him. Mustang didn’t do him the discourtesy of pretending not to understand; he dropped the key into Al’s palm immediately.
Al bounced in in his hand a couple of times.
“See you tomorrow I guess, Colonel, Lieutenant.”
He nodded to them both without looking up, and left.