It was finally over. Roy Mustang found himself, nearing the middle of the night, finally at the doors of his own house. He had survived another promotion ceremony: now he was offically Major General Roy Mustang. And he was starving.
No matter how many times he went through the motions, or how many times he had to sit through the same bloody speeches, Roy never got used to the feeling of starvation that followed each ceremony. It was an exquisite pain: the physical sensation of someone jabbing a knife through his guts mixed with the emotional pain of watching others indulge themselves and expecting him to be grateful for the honor of enduring whatever torture they could devise for the hours the banquet lasted.
"Banquets," Roy muttered to himself, as he threw open the door, "Should involve eating. Being the guest of honor should entail getting the largest portions." He frowned as he stepped through the entry hall, kicking off the military-grade boots and hanging his coat on the rack. He also grabbed one of the lanterns that he kept in the hall: if Alphonse was sleeping, then turning on the electric lights would be cruel. Besides, he thought, The light's more mellow. It won't wake me up as much.
He added another complaint, as he padded down the hall, "If the generals enjoy talking that much, why don't they choose someone other than myself to do so? Why don't they offer a speech more to their liking? Why did they need to keep me two hours after the banquet had officially ended!?" Roy stopped, and peered into one of the side rooms. It was a practice room: reinforced concrete, strong enough to withstand his fire. Which meant that his kitchen was at the other end of the house: a good seven rooms away. He sighed, and continued on.
"And I refuse to accept their excuse that it's tradition for the guest of honor to speak while the main course is being served!" Few individuals knew that Roy Mustang enjoyed a good rant, in the privacy of his own home. Venting kept it much easier for his mask to remain in place when one of said generals came to call. Otherwise, there would have been a mass promotion several years ago, when a certain ancient and decrepit Lieutenant General had decided that it was a good idea to taunt the Flame Alchemist. Roy had barely restrained himself from using his alchemy to clear out the entire top ranks, and leap ahead by fiat.
Not that he would be helped, of course. He already had a reputation as an 'unstable subordinate.' Just thinking about that designation was enough to cause his entire body to clench. Of course a brutal tyrant would consider him an 'unstable subordinate.' Just because Roy Mustang refused to sit back and watch his nation dive headfirst into atrocity...
His thoughts stopped, as Roy found himself in a gallery. He didn't pay attention to the priceless works of art that had been gathered there: his concern was that the gallery was at the opposite end of the house from the kitchen. Somehow, while he wasn't paying attention, he had gotten lost.
Lost, he thought wryly, In my own house. I thought that I had gotten past that stage. It took him a moment to get his bearings, and another to plot an alternate route to the kitchen. This time, he decided not to think about the banquet. At least, not until he had actually gotten something to eat. His stomach rumbled in protest: ranting was an outright exercise, and he couldn't muster the energy on an empty stomach. Which would have been his fault, if the generals had let him eat, instead of...
"Argh!" Roy found himself in a study. His study, to be precise. Which was in the middle of the house, and had not been anywhere near his chosen path. "Enough!" He began storming through the rooms, one right after another, which resulted in him getting more hopelessly lost than ever. But, it let him vent, which was what he really wanted. Finally, he burst into the kitchen, a rant about just what he would do to the entire bloody lot of generals, who were always laughing at his progress... when he stopped short.
There, in front of him, on his own table, was a feast fit for a king. Lit candles shed a mellow light over the whole affair, and Roy found himself nearly floating to the food, so enticing was the smell. Just before he sat down, though, he felt a pair of arms encircle his waist, and a comforting weight press itself into his back. He smiled at the whispered, "Congratulations, Major General."
Then the arms let him go, and he sat down. "Thank you, Alphonse. But... you really didn't need to do this."
"I-I know." The boy crossed over to Mustang's right side, a faint smile on his face. It was then that the older man noticed that Al was wearing an apron over his pajamas, of all things, and that he was panting slightly. Probably due to the sheer amount of work that he had done. "But you said that banquets never gave you enough, so I thought that you might appreciate this."
"I do." Roy quickly nodded his thanks, and dug into the food with a ferocity that did homage to just how badly he had been starved. He nearly burned his tongue, so hot and fresh was the meal, but the simple pleasure of eating was enough to make up for it. His eye closed in his enjoyment, and before he could open it again, he felt two soft hands on his shoulders.
He had to fight a whimper as they rubbed. "I'm glad... I like seeing you this way."
"Oh?" Roy's shoulders tensed as Al rubbed a little too hard, but before he could say anything, the grip softened. "You're... really good at this."
The answer was a smile and a laugh. "It feels so normal. It's... homely." Roy rolled his shoulder, trying to get Al to go lower, and the boy obliged. "Brother never took care of himself, so I had to make sure that he relaxed. My armor didn't really feel anything, so I had to learn how to read his reactions. Even now... it's a good thing to know."
Roy's voice was low. "I thought that you didn't remember anything."
"Oh! U-um... well..." The hands clenched on Mustang's shoulders, and Al stammered, "W-well... it's just that... I remember bits and pieces. Personal things, little things that we could do without thinking. Like... massaging, or some snatches of conversation. Little things," he stressed.
The older man took another large bite, the better to hide his concern. He didn't mind that Al had told a small lie: that was to be expected, especially from something so personal. What did concern him, though, was the fact that he was hiding something else. So, he decided to wait, and see if Al would drop a hint by himself.
It didn't take long. When he saw that Roy wasn't going to be saying anything soon, Al piped in, "I'm really proud of you. I mean, I knew that you were getting promoted and all, but actually knowing that it's official... it's nice, isn't it?" Roy took another bite, which prompted Al to say, "What do you think? It's not too spicy, is it?"
It was all the Flame Alchemist could do to keep from snorting. "It's delicious, of course."
"Good." At the pause, while Roy was taking another bite, Al chimed, "I tried my best. I couldn't find the usual spices, so I had to try something new. I... I've never tried this combination, so I was afraid that I used too much, so-"
His speech was stopped cold by Mustang's fork dropping against his plate. His hands had gone nerveless, and his face was a study in horror. Slowly, he turned, his one eye focused on Alphonse. He had guessed, now he needed to know if he was right. "Al... what's wrong?"
"Eh? Oh... n-nothing! I was just..."
"Don't lie to me, Alphonse." There was just a hint of hurt to that voice, and Roy appeared quite concerned. "I don't like silence, and I can understand why you don't, either. But this... you always wait for a response before you continue. Something's scared you. What is it?"
For a long moment, the two stared at each other; slowly, Alphonse sank into the chair next to Roy, and cupped his head in his hands. "A-are you sure... that you want to know? It's not-"
"It is. I need to know." If it had been anyone but Alphonse, or if the situation had been anything but that, Roy would have congratulated himself on getting through another emotional barrier: to have actually touched something personal. As it was... he was bracing for the worst.
"W-well..." Al pondered how to continue, but in the end, he blurted out, "I was working on the arrays again, and I was thinking about what you said earlier; trying a seven-point circle with the Binding array. Well, when I put them together, I compared them with some of the notes... and it wouldn't work: it wouldn't bypass the exchange. I... I didn't want to accept that all of that work had been for nothing, but there it was! A dead end... nothing of what I did could actually be used." He slumped against the table. "No good... it's the fourth time I've hit a wall, and each time, I feel that Brother's slipping away. But this time..."
He looked up, gray eyes wide and tear-filled. "I heard him."
That hit Mustang full-force, and he could barely manage, "Are you sure?"
For another moment, the two stared at each other, and then Al collapsed, sobs seizing his body and breaking his voice. "N-no... I didn't! I thought I did, but there was no one else there! So... so... I started talking to the transmutation array. I started asking questions, and I was expecting answers! I thought I could hear Brother laughing at me, calling me an idiot for not being able to do anything. He... he said that he didn't need a stupid brother like me. He said that, if he had known that I couldn't do this, then he wouldn't have given up his body. He... I..."
It seemed like such a natural motion: Roy Mustang stood up, then kneeled in front of Alphonse, both arms open. The boy half-stumbled, half-fell into the embrace, and for a long moment, he could do nothing but cry. But, slowly, as Roy rubbed his back and muttered reassurances into his ear, the younger Elric started calming down. Finally, he whispered, "He said... that I was disgusting. He hated me wasting the past five years. He... he didn't want me to be with you. He said that I was pathetic, needing you. And then... then..." The words were barely choked out. "He said that you'd just leave me. That you were just using me, like you used him."
"Roy... is there... something wrong with me?" The blond head tilted up, so that the boy was looking directly into Mustang's eye. "Am I... going..." He couldn't finish the sentence.
Roy knew that there were two ways he could answer. There was his typical answer; the manipulative kind, where he would promise to take care of the individual, offer hope and counsel that, on the surface, seemed like a good idea... And then there was the right way. The honest way. The one that he hadn't really used for a long time. The only one that was worthy of Alphonse. "You are. It was really only a matter of time. You've locked yourself into your research; you've become a hermit at a time in your life that you should be enjoying yourself. You're obsessed with returning your brother. That goal is a good one, but you can't keep this up. I can't believe that you've kept yourself isolated for five years! Your brother managed to keep his mind because you were there to ground him." Roy's tone became lower, more urgent. "You need to trust someone, Alphonse. Let someone into your life! Don't end up like your brother!"
There was a long period of silence, as the boy considered these words. In that moment of silence, Roy thought to himself, Congratulations. You've managed to single-handedly write yourself out of his life in the act of begging to let you help him. What he needed was a shoulder to lean on, you jerk, not a snide comment or a command. And did you have to bring up his worst fears? His brother would kill you if he found out.
Silently, Alphonse distangled himself from Roy's arms, and he stood up. "I'm... sorry. I'll be returning to Rizenpool tomorrow. Thank you for putting up with me for this long." He started walking towards the door, shaking his head.
Not this time. Not again. "Alphonse." When he saw that the boy wasn't stopping, he added, "Stop. Please."
To his amazement, Al really did stop, though he didn't turn to face the older man. Seizing the moment, Roy said, "I meant everything that I said earlier. I want to take care of you, I want for you to enjoy yourself and to experience life the way your brother wished for you to. I... don't want you to leave without knowing that."
Roy found himself staring at the younger man's back. He knew, in the pit of his stomach, that Al was just thinking of an appropriate parting shot, something scathing in response to his carelessness. He also knew, with absolute certainty, that he deserved it. That's why he was shocked when Al slowly turned around. "Would you... leave me? Are you just using me?"
"No." The response surprised Roy almost as much as it did Al: the older man was no stranger to hard partings, and he knew that he'd adjust. Eventually. So why was he holding on? "Earlier, I might have brought myself to. But... I can't. Not anymore. I won't let go until you do."
It took him a moment, with his one eye, to see that Alphonse was twitching, emotional pain twisting through him like a knife. More than anything, Roy wanted to stand up, walk over, and protect the life before him, to soothe the angel and make him smile again. But... he couldn't move. For all of his calm and precision, he couldn't risk causing pain to Alphonse again. So, he fell on his hands and knees, head bowed to the ground in a gesture of farewell. Finally, quietly, the boy whispered, "Prove it."
"What?" Roy's eye widened at the sudden change of pace, and he found himself unable to say anything else, or even to push himself up from his position.
The boy spun around, and took a step forward. "I need to know. I need to know that you won't leave me, that you don't just want to take me and throw me away." His eyes were hard, even with the tears seeping out of them. "I need... to know that my brother wasn't speaking to me. That I'm going to be okay. That... I'm not stupid for wanting you!" That last line was delivered with a tone of desperation, as though Alphonse was still wrestling with the words he had heard.
There was a long pause, where Alphonse was afraid to say anything more, and Roy was busy taking in what was said. Then, still staring at the ground, Roy whispered, "Two days."
"Eh?" This time, it was Alphonse's turn to be surprised.
Then Roy looked up, and the Smirk was on his face. He was confident again, even if he was gazing longingly at the boy. "It will take me two days to get everything ready. By the end of that day, I promise, there won't be any doubt in your mind."
"You're... making fun of me." Al's objection was only half-hearted, though: he wanted to believe the older man's words so badly.
"I'm not. If you are giving me another chance, then I won't waste it." He got up to his feet, and the Smirk softened. "I won't do anything that you don't want me to, that much is true. But if you want me to convince you... then I will." He didn't need to add the guarantee: Roy Mustang never messes up twice. So saying, he sat back down, and reached for his fork. "Until then... won't you join me?"
"Um..." Hesitantly, Al took a few steps forward, and asked, "Are you sure it's all right?"
"Of course." He took a large bite for emphasis. "Everything will be all right, Alphonse."
"Right." Al smiled. "Congratulations, Roy Mustang." I trust you. I want you to win me.
An answering smile from Roy. "Congratulations, Alphonse." I will not let you down.