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sol 1056

The Restraint of Desire

chapter 8. content
part 2 of The Contraries Arc

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.—William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

Alphonse ran a hand through his hair and stared at the mess. It was his normal routine, to try and then give up; despite Winly's comments, it never seemed worthwhile to bother. He'd always have a cowlick; his bangs would always flop down in his face. And most likely, he'd always be three years younger on the outside than he was on the inside.

For that matter, he could be fifty with a ring of sixteen grandchildren playing around him. He could have medals down to his kneecaps as the veteran of eight wars. His brother would still act like Alphonse was eleven.

He sighed, and thought about shaving his head.

No, then Ed would just treat him like a bald eleven-year-old...who shouldn't be trusted with a razor.

But it was a bright winter day, and the wind wasn't beating too hard against the windows, and Al couldn't see reason to do more than be amused. He clomped across the bedroom to check his suitcase one last time, and closed the lid, catching the clasp.

Edward was already out and about, doing whatever Ed did before going on a trip. Al had often thought Ed's random errand running prior to departure was a way of ramping up for the trip itself, as if going on a number of smaller jaunts were the best way to get in the mood.

Throwing on his cloak, he checked the room one last time before carefully making his way downstairs. Farman was waiting by the front desk, sipping coffee and reading the local paper.

"Morning, Halmos," Farman said. "Your brother's probably at the carriage pick-up point by now."

"How's the General doing? Any better?" Alphonse signed the registry, and paid the last of his hotel bill.

"A little, but not from the way Captain Hawkeye acts. I think she's got a guard on his door more to keep him in than anyone else out." Farman folded up the newspaper and stuck it under his arm. "Except, of course, your brother. He's been found in Mustang's room several times now, and each time it's because they're arguing."

"Really?" That was news to Alphonse; he'd figured Ed was out getting into trouble, not visiting the General he so vehemently decried at the drop of a hat. "You mean my brother's yelling and the General's just laughing." Alphonse was relieved when Farman picked up his suitcase; walking was still a careful action. He'd not sprained anything since he was a small child, and he made a note not to do it again.

"Actually, no." Farman shrugged, stepping out into the daylight. A car stood at the curb, and he opened the door for Alphonse, then set the suitcase on the back seat. "From what I heard from Fury, they were equally noisy about the topic."

"The General? Noisy?"

"Apparently they have radically differing opinions on some guy..." Farman chuckled softly, pulling the car away from the curb. "Can't remember the name. Something unpronounceable. Wrote a theory, theorem, thesis...Name starts with a J, I think."

Al made a wild guess. "Jeziorski's Thesis?"

"That's it! Your brother was yelling about him being a quack."

"Oh. Yes. Brother doesn't agree with one of the assumptions that the properties of..." He glanced at Farman, and shrugged, ruefully. "It's rather academic, and I imagine of no interest to any but an Alchemist."

"Of which they both are," Farman acknowledged. "Fury reported he was half-afraid Captain Hawkeye was going to resort to shooting them both. She was making comments about how it had worked for her dog."

"Great." Al sighed: one more thing for his brother to rant about on the train ride home. "When are the rest of you heading back?"

"The General's leaving this evening with First Lieutenant Havoc, and I'll be going with them. Captain Hawkeye will be returning later, with two of the investigators from the Youswell headquarters. Her report is due in a week."

"Tonight..." Alphonse pondered that, and then thought of whether he wanted to be trapped in a private train-room with his brother and the General at each other's throats about some guy who'd been dead for two hundred years. On the other hand... Alphonse smiled; the decision was easy.

At the carriage stop, he instructed Farman to wait, and changed the reservation to the same time as the General's departure. Finding his brother lurking at the carriage station's coffee stand, he hustled Edward into the car and directed Farman to drive them to Hawkeye's hotel.

"But I thought your reservations," Farman began to protest, but he cut off abruptly. In hindsight, Al realized Farman hadn't seemed that surprised.

In the back seat, Edward scowled and hunched down, arms crossed.

No, brother, Alphonse thought, pleased. You can't fool me that easily, and furthermore, if you try, I'll call you on it.


Somehow Al wasn't that surprised when Mustang acted completely nonchalant – and even a little annoyed – at the idea of traveling back to Central with Alphonse and Ed on the same train. He sighed, nodded as if granting vague permission, and returned his attention to the papers across his lap.

And for a moment, Alphonse had the distinct impression Mustang had thrown a switch, turning something off, something indefinable. The room felt colder, as a result, and he bowed politely before exiting Mustang's hotel room.

In the room's small sitting room – the mirror of Hawkeye's, down the hall – Havoc was waiting. When Al stepped out, Havoc just grinned and pulled out a deck of cards. Soon Al was knee-deep in a game of gin rummy with Havoc, who was ostensibly relaxing in the sitting room of Mustang's hotel room.

Farman joined the game when he relieved the local enlisted man acting as guard; all of them knew Mustang had his gloves back. There was little they'd be able to prevent that he couldn't handle just as well. They were there mostly for show, and mostly because there really wasn't much else to do in Soswell once a national weapons smuggling ring had been thoroughly busted. It made shopping a bit anti-climatic, certainly.

By mid-afternoon, they were back at the carriage station, but took two separate carriages at Edward's hissed insistence. Alphonse didn't see reason to argue with his brother about it, not when he'd already pushed several of Ed's buttons in rearranging the return trip without consultation.

At Hyle, they disembarked from the carriage just as their train pulled into the station. Farman saw them across the crowd, waving, while he assisted Havoc down from the General's carriage.

"They're not going to be able to carry their luggage," Edward announced, but he seemed to be thinking out loud. He didn't make a move to help, but stared at the three men with an inscrutable expression.

Alphonse realized with a start that those were the first words Ed had uttered since they'd gotten in the carriage; they were both too exhausted, still, to do more than drowse on the bumpy ride back. Al glanced over at Mustang, who had waved Farman away and was stalking towards the train, only a slight limp apparent. Nor did it miss Alphonse how Havoc stared after Mustang with an odd expression, but it was gone when Havoc turned to wave towards them, as well. And then, blissfully ignoring Mustang's disgruntled expression – Havoc invited the brothers to ride with them.

On the train, settled into a private room with the General and his two staff-members, Alphonse brought out the book he'd carried all that time. He perused the notes in his brother's awkward scrawl; over the top of the book, he kept a watchful but discreet eye on his brother.

Edward had drifted back into sleep almost as soon as the train pulled out of the station, twisted sideways on the seat in a position that gave Al a neck cramp just looking at him. Opposite Edward, Mustang sat by the window, arms crossed, his expression both weary and somehow sad.

The train's wheels clattered underneath and unless Al wanted to raise his voice – which would wake Edward up, no doubt – there was little chance of asking the General what was on his mind. Two hours passed, until the train pulled into a rest stop for a half-hour at the halfway point from Hyle to Central. Mustang refused to get up, insisting he was fine; Edward hadn't woken.

"Halmos," Havoc said, and grinned, jerking his head towards the door. "Root beer? Or real beer?"

"The real thing," Alphonse grumbled. He got to his feet, swaying a bit as feeling came back into his legs, and gratefully accepted Havoc's help maneuvering in the tight corridor.

Outside in the darkening winter night, Havoc bought them both a beer; they sipped in the station's café and stared out the windows. Finally Havoc shifted, brought out a cigarette, and lit it. He sat back with a sigh.

"I think things are about to go back to normal," he said, quietly.

"You don't say that like it's a good thing."

"Before you came in search of us," Havoc replied, glancing sideways, "did you talk to anyone else? About...personal stuff?"

"I saw Mrs. Hughes. She said the General had been...keeping to himself." Alphonse decided that was the most diplomatic way of phrasing it.

"Yeah." Havoc sighed, and stubbed out the cigarette, though he'd barely taken more than a drag. "Yeah. Back to normal. Well, except for your silver watch."

Alphonse smiled, wry. "I really don't think I should quit until I've had a chance to speak to General Cameron. At least, that's what I've decided."

"Sounds like a more of a non-decision," Havoc commented.

"Maybe." Al shrugged and finished off his beer just as the train's boarding whistle sounded. "But General Cameron was what got me here, so I owe him at least an explanation."

Havoc nodded, downing his own beer before following Alphonse back to the train.

The final three hours passed in complete silence, but it gave Alphonse time to think.


The train arrived in Central at dawn to find Breda waiting on the platform. The group was silent, half-asleep; Havoc spoke to Breda in a quiet undertone while Farman loaded the luggage into the back. Mustang was the last of the group to join them, walking slowly, favoring his injured leg. He climbed into the back seat first, however, followed by Havoc.

"Where are you staying?" Breda asked Alphonse. Edward yawned and climbed into the back of the car. Al paused, and smiled.

"Gracia Hughes," he said, and then glanced at the car, and back at Breda.

"Jean thought as much," Breda replied, and scratched his head. "Yeah...the transportation officer said this car should be fine. The operative word being should." He chuckled.

"Let's hope it doesn't die too soon," Alphonse replied, neutral. Breda was giving him a bland look, and he could only hope he'd correctly intuited what Havoc and Breda had been discussing.

"We'll have to see," Breda allowed, and opened the front passenger door for Alphonse, helping him into the car. "You'll have more room to stretch that foot out."

"I'm not an invalid," Alphonse grumbled, more for the sake of his brother's ears. Breda just laughed and shut the door.

Central, that bustling metropolis at the heart of the nation, was oddly subdued in the early morning light. Dawn's gray and gold colors turned the streets to gold and the sandstone buildings to copper, sketching silvery outlines across the whitewash so many used to mask the humble origins of the architecture. Alphonse sighed and hoped he was doing the right thing.

When the car pulled up in front of the Hughes' house, Mustang and Havoc made no move to get out. Breda helped Alphonse retrieve his suitcase from the trunk, and Edward took it, hustling Alphonse before him up to the door.

Alphonse knocked, trying to surreptitiously stand so he could see the military car in the corner of his vision.

Gracia opened the door, took one look at Edward, and nearly shrieked. She leapt forward, wrapping her arms around him. Edward started, then hugged her back, just as tightly.

Down by the sidewalk, the car had pulled forward a few feet, and stopped. It died, started up again, and then died. Alphonse smiled to himself, accepting a hug from Gracia.

"You're alive, oh, my, you're both alive, you're safe," Gracia babbled, then Alicia appeared on the stairs, in her pajamas.

"Brothers!" Alicia streaked past her mother to throw herself around Edward's waist; her head just came up to his chest. "Mommy and me were so worried and we heard that you were—"

"I'm fine now," Ed assured her, dropping to his knees to hug her closely. "You've gotten so big," he added, choking a little when she tightened her arms around his neck. "Hey, hey, don't cry..." He petted her hair and gave Alphonse a bewildered look.

"Don't I get a hug?" Alphonse pretended to look indignant, while Gracia laughed and kept her arms around him. It was as though she couldn't stop checking that both he and Edward were safe, were really there...but then, she'd lost enough in her life, he figured. They all had.

"Uh...ma'am?" Breda stood on the lower step, his hat in his hands. "Our car seems to have died. Could I borrow your phone to call headquarters?"

"What?" Gracia frowned at him, but nodded. "Of course you can use our phone. Who else is with you? It's cold. Come inside and wait in the warm."

"It's First Lieutenant Havoc and General Mustang and myself," Breda replied. He had an odd look on his face like he was playing at formality – an expression out of place on the usually jovial man, but Gracia picked up on it immediately.

Of course, Alphonse thought; this is Maes Hughes' wife. She's no dummy.

"It's not an imposition, and I insist," Gracia said, opening the door wider. "I'll make coffee. Alphonse, would you go to market and pick up some pastries?"

"He can't go," Edward replied. "He's got a badly sprained ankle...I'll go." He didn't sound the least bit reluctant.

"I'm going!" Alicia caught Ed's hand, clinging to it fiercely.

"Get dressed," Gracia replied, and a second later Alicia was gone, screaming her insistence that Edward wait for her.

"I think she's got a crush on you," Gracia observed to Edward, who turned bright red and mumbled something incoherent. She laughed. "It's okay, dear, I'm not going to shoot you. And..." She glanced sideways at the family portrait over the mantle, in the living room. "...I won't throw knives, either."

"That's some consolation," Edward admitted; he grinned, abashed. Alphonse settled into the comfortable chair, letting Gracia fuss over his ankle and accepting the footstool.

"The General's got a bad wound in his leg," he told her, in an undertone. Edward, meanwhile, was yelling up the stairs to Alicia that he was leaving with or without her. Gracia fluffed up the pillow behind Alphonse, and bent over to hug him one more time. Tears glittered in her eyelashes, but she only smiled.

"The news has been rather sparse," she said. "We'd only heard that your brother and Roy...the General...were safe and alive."

"Mrs. Hughes," Havoc said, coughing politely for the interruption.

When Gracia stood up, Havoc gave her a rakish grin, and suddenly found himself with an armful of Gracia. He looked startled, then pleased, letting go only when Mustang stepped through the door, took one look, and practically growled. Havoc backed away from her with an amused expression.

"I'm so glad you're all safe," she said. She turned toward Mustang, took a step forward, and halted.

Suddenly the front parlor was tense, the silence too much. It broke momentarily when Alicia pelted down the stairs, gave Mustang a quick hug, and bolted out the door screaming for Edward to wait. In her wake, the silence was twice as overwhelming.

Alphonse noted the peculiar tensions, and the way Gracia didn't quite look Mustang in the eye, but she seemed to be waiting. After a pause, Mustang sighed and stepped forward, bending a little to kiss her on the cheek. His eyes opened wide when she hugged him, too, and for a moment he looked confused and a little scared...then his eyes closed, and he buried his face against her shoulder, his arms wrapped around her waist.

Breda, Havoc, and Farman didn't move, although Farman let the front door gently shut behind him. After a moment, Gracia and Mustang separated. Both appeared affected, but Mustang covered it with a smile. Alphonse thought for a moment that the General looked quite young when he smiled in that way, and he realized it was the same smile he'd seen on Mustang's face when Edward had passed out on the way down the mountain.

So that's how it is, Alphonse thought, putting it all together. Or perhaps, that's how it was...but what he saw made him suspect that what was had come to an end. Something had righted itself, and for a moment, he could see in the General the man Mustang must be when not in uniform. It was a remarkable transformation. But by the time everyone had been seated in the living room, the General's usual lazy smirk had reasserted itself.

Gracia made coffee, bringing the pot and cups to the living room with Farman's assistance. Her delighted listening made even the most mundane aspects of the past week into something amusing, although Alphonse noted he wasn't the only one glossing over details. What they did say was enough for Gracia; she praised Mustang's quick thinking in the fire, laughed when Alphonse admitted falling down the light-shaft, and cried quietly when he spoke of Creighton taking Edward with him.

The front door swung open at that point, revealing Edward and Alicia with arms full of pastry bags. Gracia launched herself off the sofa, and hugged Ed again. He gave Alphonse a puzzled look over her shoulder, until her almost-incoherent babbling resolved into amazement that he'd been so close to death after all that.

"Oh, ma'am," Edward protested, but it was futile; they could all see that. Gracia smoothed down his face and brushed his bangs out of his face. It was odd to see her, normally so poised, losing her composure – let alone repeatedly. Ed shrugged, embarrassed. "I'm fine. It's okay, now."

"Yes, yes," Gracia said, laughing – but perhaps that choked sound was both laughter and more tears. She brought Edward into the living room, and summarily settled him on the sofa right next to Mustang.

The two barely noted each other, and while waiting for the military car to come get them, neither spoke directly to each other. But Gracia kept the conversation light, with Farman and Havoc helping. Alphonse watched, listened, spoke when he needed to, and turned it all over in his head.


The car didn't arrive for an hour, after which Alphonse excused himself to call General Cameron, who apparently had already received word that Alphonse was in town. Al had a feeling he shouldn't have been so surprised, let alone at the man's gravelly voice inviting him to dinner at the Officer's Club.

"Oh, and Alphonse, come by my house beforehand. A half-hour to catch up, and then we'll go to dinner."

"Dinner's really not necessary, sir," Al replied, flattered nonetheless.

"Your first assignment, young man, and a successful one. It should be celebrated. Good day, Halmos."

"Good day, sir." Al hung up, and grinned at the phone, then picked it up and called the General back. He had a favor to ask.


It became day of resting, visiting with Alicia, interspersed with three phone calls to an excited Winly. With all four on various extensions in the house – and Alicia on her mother's lap talking into the phone at the same time – it was more like a party than a phone call. If Winly had been there in person, Alphonse thought, it would have been like a family reunion, or as close as he could imagine one. Being at the Hughes' might as well have been visiting family, given that he'd been there the night Alicia was born. Seeing her was like seeing the years wrapped up into a cheerful living package, with her father's green eyes and her mother's smile.

Al poked his head into the living room where Ed and Alicia were both reading on the sofa. Edward had picked up the latest Alchemical Journals when he'd gone for pastries, and Alicia was propped up next to him, reading one of her stories. Alphonse paused, watching the blond braid fall forward across Edward's shoulder as he leaned to study a word in Alicia's book before telling her how to pronounce it, and then explaining what it meant. The two fell silent, and Alphonse cleared his throat.

"Al?" Edward looked confused. "Where are you going?"

"I've got to see General Cameron," Al replied. "Please let Gracia know I'll be having dinner with him, so there's no need to save me any leftovers."

Ed's eyes narrowed, then he grinned, magnificently pleased. It was quite obvious what he'd concluded, and Alphonse stifled a sigh.

"Who's General Cameron?" Alicia put a finger on her place in the book, and gave Alphonse a curious look.

"He's my boss." Alphonse ignored Ed's sharp glance.

"Oh. Your commanding officer," she replied, and went back to reading.

Alphonse nodded, fighting a grin at Ed's startled expression; he grabbed his coat and left, shutting the front door softly behind him. The General's driver was already at the curb, and Alphonse got into the car with a grateful smile. He'd been sorely tempted to tell his brother that he had every intention of staying a National Alchemist, with the requirement that he travel again with his brother.

Going along is the only way to keep Edward out of trouble, he mused, but tossed that notion. If he traveled with Edward, the trouble would only end up twice as big.


"Ah, my knight," General Cameron greeted him.

The fire was low in the fireplace, and Alphonse took a moment to add more wood, stoking it for a few moments. It gave him a chance to gather himself together, and he brushed off his hands before sitting in the leather chair opposite the General. A half-played game of chess sat on the table between the chairs.

"You're still playing the same game, or is this another one?" Alphonse studied the finely-carved wooden pieces, jet against pale.

"The same. Now that my best rival is back from the dead," General Cameron replied. He leaned back, steepling his fingers and giving Alphonse a measuring look. "You've accomplished what you wanted."

"I did." Alphonse brought out the silver watch, and rubbed his thumb over the raised emblem. "And I...I learned that I don't really like staying at home as much as I had thought I did."

"I see."

"And..." Alphonse sighed, and unhooked the watch from his belt. "I realized that I don't want my brother...I don't want him feeling..." The watch clattered against the wood. "But I'm also in your debt."

"Yes." General Cameron was silent for a moment, then he smiled.

"Do you..." Al couldn't help but smile in return; he liked the old man, and he had a feeling understanding General Mustang was key to understanding General Cameron, or perhaps it was the other way around. Either way, it felt right to speak honestly. "I'm guessing you have something in mind."

"I do, young knight," Cameron said, and chuckled. "I retire in a few days, and your commission will be transferred to someone else. However, I'd like to suggest you for a specific position."

"Which is?"

"Working as the personal assistant to General Wimmer."

Alphonse opened his mouth, thought twice, and gave General Cameron a baffled look. "I have no idea what that would entail, sir."

"Paperwork, young man," Cameron said, then his smile turned rather sharp. "And a set of very good ears."

"Ah." Alphonse realized what Cameron was saying between the lines, and realized what a compliment it was that Cameron knew he wouldn't need to explain further. The decision, once he knew that, was simple. He nodded. "I'm ready."

"Good." Cameron put a hand on his cane. "I'll tell my wife we're off to dinner." He accepted Alphonse's assistance standing up, then straightened, his hand gripping the cane firmly. He winked, his smile almost conspiratorial. "Or perhaps I owe you, Alphonse. You're getting me out of the house on Officer's Wives' night."

"Sir?"

But Cameron merely smiled.


Alphonse let himself into the house, as quietly as he could manage. It was after Alicia's bedtime, and if his last visit were any indication, Edward had probably spent an hour reading to her...or was still up there, while she fell asleep on his shoulder. Gracia looked up from her chair, and set her book aside, rising with a smile to help him out of his coat.

"Did you have a good dinner?" She hung up the coat, and led the way back into the living room, resettling herself with the afghan across her legs.

"Wonderful." Alphonse sat on the sofa, then leaned back, sprawling with a sated grin. She laughed, and he wrapped his arms around his stomach, groaning. "I ate so much. I'm lucky General Cameron is retiring, or I'd be as big as a house if he insisted on this after every mission."

"You could use some meat on your bones," Gracia replied, winking. "You're a beanpole."

Alphonse thought of his brother's nickname, and chuckled.

"I'm glad you had a good time," Gracia continued, and Al realized Edward's light step was descending the staircase. She picked up the afghan and the book, and stood. "It's been a long day, so I'll see you in the morning, Alphonse."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, and accepted a kiss on the cheek.

"Edward," she said, as well, and Al looked over to see Gracia doing the same to Ed. "Don't stay up too late, boys."

Al knew he looked as rueful as Ed, but Gracia seemed amused. It wasn't until her bedroom door had closed upstairs that Ed turned on Alphonse, hands on his hips.

"I owe a debt to General Cameron," Alphonse said, forestalling any preliminary attack from Edward. The trick of a successful battle, he knew, was to get in the first words, and then ride out the rest with patience and fortitude.

"You've—" Edward blinked, clearly caught off-guard. He'd probably been prepared for any of a number of arguments, but for some reason hadn't expected that one. And he knew Alphonse's greatest weakness was his sense of obligation; if Al felt he had a debt, there was no way around it, over it, or even through it. Edward deflated a little, and stepped forward to sink into the chair Gracia had vacated. "But..."

"I know, but I owe him."

"So when do you leave?" Edward asked in a small voice. "Have you called Winly? She's expecting..."

"I'll call her and invite her to come to Central," Alphonse said, though he'd not had that idea until just that second. "I won't be a field agent."

"You won't?" Edward frowned. "What else is there to do?"

"Assistant to General Wimmer, it appears."

"He's in the research branch." Edward's frown deepened, and turned almost sour. "That's...a lot of...paperwork." He might've been saying the job involved drinking milk.

"Yes. Probably." Alphonse didn't bother to add that he'd assisted Edward with enough reports, over the years.

"And General Cameron's in the management division for field agents," Edward continued. His gaze had grown sharp; he'd figured out something didn't add up. "Transferring a commission between divisions isn't common."

"So I was told."

"But if you stayed in the management division, you'd be working for..." Ed's lip curled, and he shrugged, leaning back in the chair with a lazy smile. "General Wimmer's alright. Never had a problem with him myself, but I hear he's very particular on paperwork. And a micromanager."

And that's different from my brother, how? Alphonse just nodded, keeping his thoughts to himself. He had a different goal in sight. "I don't think I'd mind working for General Mustang, though."

"Mind? Are you crazy?" Edward seemed to realize there were two sleeping people upstairs, and dropped his voice quickly. "Working for him is like...he's unbearable. Wasn't watching me have to suffer through that for—"

"You didn't seem to be suffering when I found you two days ago."

He could've broken the delicate silence with the snap of his fingers; it wouldn't have taken even a solid clap. It stretched, paper-thin, between them.

"That's different," Ed finally managed.

"How?" Alphonse kept his voice neutral. "If you're—"

"We're not." Edward leaned his head against the chair's high back, and stared into the dying embers of the living room's fireplace. "Assignment's over. Not trapped in a room with him anymore, so it's not like we..." He shrugged.

"You were really just pretending to get along?"

Ed's voice was dull. "I guess so."

Oh.

Alphonse was tempted to drop the subject. He had no doubt that his brother would be bothered if Mustang had summarily ended the somewhat odd, if tense, working relationship they'd forged. Edward could handle many things, and had, but he'd never taken rejection very well. He'd just push up his sleeves and—

Hunh?

"Brother," Al said, a bit surprised, "that's it?"

"What? What's it?"

"I mean, that's all? The General said something and you're just..." He chose his words carefully. "Giving in?"

Ed's eyes opened wide, then narrowed into something dangerous. He scowled, and seemed to think for several minutes. "He always twists everything until you can't help but find yourself agreeing with him." Ed shot a look at Alphonse, challenging Al to find him at fault for that.

"When I came to Central to meet General Cameron," Al said, carefully picking a different mode of attack, "Gracia told me you took Mustang out on his birthday."

"General Mustang."

"Mustang." Al met his brother's annoyed look straight-on. "He told me to call him that."

"He did?" Ed blinked, then glowered, muttering under his breath, "that bastard."

Alphonse waited.

"He's so..." Edward made a face. "That's it. Someone's gotta wipe that smirk off his face."

"Doesn't look like too many are trying." There was a double meaning in that, but Alphonse knew his brother wouldn't register it until he'd calmed down.

"Yeah, but I'm Edward Elric," he proclaimed fiercely. "I've taken on plenty of impossible tasks." He came to his feet and strode from the room. A second later he appeared in the hallway, shoving his arms into one of Hughes' old coats. "Don't wait up."

"Sure, brother...but one thing, before you go?"

"What?" Ed scowled at the length of the coat sleeves, trying to push them up his arms. He glanced through his bangs at Alphonse.

"Take those with you," Al replied, pointing to two brown paper bags sitting by the wall, just inside the archway between the living room and the entrance hall.

Ed looked confused, but picked up the bags, giving him a puzzled look once he'd investigated the contents. When Alphonse just smiled, his brother made a face and shoved a bag into each coat pocket. Alphonse waited until the door had shut; then he leaned back, clasping his hands over his stomach, still enjoying the post-dinner bliss and memories of chocolate and ice cream for dessert. Tomorrow, he'd get up early and present himself at headquarters to find out more about the process of transferring his commission. But in the meantime, he could enjoy knowing that everyone he cared about was happy – or would be, once his brother had knocked some sense into Mustang's head.

And that made him smile. He doubted Fullmetal and Flame would ever be peaceable; he made a note to warn Gracia. He climbed to his feet, limping a little as he made his way to the fireplace to dampen the fire down for the night. Setting the poker in the stand, he stood up only to find himself staring at an old picture, half-hidden among the photographs of Alicia, Maes, and Gracia scattered across the mantel. Holding his breath out of care or perhaps reverence, Al took down the photograph, tilting it to see it better by the light of the reading lamp over the chair.

It was Roy Mustang and Maes Hughes, much younger. Hughes grinned at the camera brightly, while Mustang held his hat under his arm and looked mildly annoyed. Alphonse could imagine him snapping at Hughes to stop fooling around and be serious for once – and perhaps the pun was apt. Al had often seen Mustang finger's ready to snap while on the phone with Hughes, as though fire could travel down the lines to zap Hughes into getting to the point.

He chuckled, and set the picture back on the mantel. Gracia had begun it, knowing her husband's best friend was lonely...and alone. Alphonse had never understood quite what made the men such close friends, for two with so different temperaments, but he had sensed during his first visit that Gracia had felt the lack of her husband in Mustang's life almost as acutely as she missed it in her own.

Well, my friend, Alphonse thought to the picture, the smiling face of a younger man than he'd known, and the annoyed-amused smirk of a face he'd practically grown up around... I guess I've finished what Gracia started.

He tapped the picture once, then turned off the light, heading for the guest room. At the door, though, he looked back at the large family portrait over the fireplace. It had been taken when Alicia was six months old; he had a wallet-sized version, somewhere at the house in Reisensburg.

"We'll make sure he's okay," Alphonse promised the portrait. "We'll make sure they both are." He smiled into the darkness, and made his way to bed.