Alphonse knows that his brother is a sore loser. That's the reason he gives for tagging along each time Ed and Mustang set up their black and white battlefield. It would be a shame if the future Fuhrer got himself killed over something as trivial as a chess game.
While his older brother sends a pebble skittering down the street in front of them, Al lifts a fallen leaf to his nose and breathes in the scent of yesterday's rain. Autumn air is golden, Al decides, slipping the leaf into his pocket; the same color as Brother's eyes. He inhales again and he can taste it at the back of his throat golden-brown, perhaps.
As soon as he realizes that he's falling behind, Alphonse runs to catch up to Edward, who has been carefully measuring his steps since Al left his view. Early evening's deepening light casts elongated shadows at their backs. The younger boy refrains from mentioning that his shadow is a head taller.
Central Headquarters is nearly deserted when the Elric brothers enter. A few overtime stragglers dot the corridors, but they are otherwise alone. The door of the Colonel's office stands open as if welcoming them and Al smiles at the sight of the man himself, toying idly with a black knight as he waits.
The sound of the boys' approaching footsteps prompts Roy to get to his feet. He greets them at the door, a gesture that Edward disregards entirely. There is a fond annoyance in Roy's expression as Ed sweeps past him, and dark eyes linger on the blonde's figure a few seconds longer than they ought to. Alphonse notices but doesn't speak; the hand that rests in the center of his back, ushering him inside, holds both his attention and his tongue.
Roy subtly lifts his coat from its hanger to place it on an unoccupied chair. It's an open invitation for Al to sit down, one that's made every day but never taken. Al does grab the coat, though, and wraps it around his shoulders as he leaves Roy's side to settle at his brother's feet.
Mustang's office always grows chilly in the time between winter's first approach and the middle of December when the heating finally kicks in.
Alphonse used to stretch out his neck like a swan while Roy snapped his fingers beneath the boy's chin to drive away the cold. Al would laugh until his throat ached, trying not to go cross-eyed as he watched the glow of sparks that danced just out of sight. It was Ed who put his foot down the day Roy singed the side of Al's neck, but it had been the Colonel's initiative to start locking his gloves in a desk drawer each time the Elrics came to visit.
Al pulls thick fabric tightly to his sides and rests his cheek on his brother's leg. Automail may not make a comfortable pillow, but this way Ed can thread his fingers through Al's hair without catching strands of it in metal joints. Alphonse finds that he can follow the game with his eyes closed. Gentle petting means that Edward is contemplating his next attack. His hand will bear down slightly on Al's scalp whenever he makes a particularly brilliant revelation, and lift once he's ready to move.
It isn't until Ed tries to twine his brother's close-cropped locks around his finger that Al knows it's Roy's turn. Then the younger boy cracks open an eyelid to catalogue the Colonel's shifting expressions. It requires a careful eye to notice them at all, but Alphonse has had a great deal of practice; Roy at his quickest takes twice the time Ed does to assess the board.
Each round can consume anywhere from thirty minutes to seven hours. Tonight, it's an hour and a half until Roy makes his familiar declaration of "Checkmate, Fullmetal" and Ed's hand snaps into a fist.
As Roy begins to set his pieces back on their squares for the final match, he casts a glance at the younger Elric. "Would you care to play the winner tomorrow evening, Alphonse?" he proposes casually, as if by that one question he weren't shattering the routine they've carried out for months. Ed sucks in his breath with a loud whoosh that seems to echo inside of Al's head. They both know that in all his bouts with the Fullmetal Alchemist, Roy Mustang has never lost a game.
Roy stands waiting for them at the door and forgets to take down his coat. Ed pulls up a third chair, flipping it around so he can sit with his legs straddling the back.
"Are you sure you don't mind, sir?" Al asks.
Roy simply closes his eyes in a smile and guides the boy to his seat.
As much as Al would like to turn his full attention to the chessboard, he finds it impossible to concentrate with his brother fidgeting two feet away. It isn't long before Ed is on his feet, looking out the window, flipping through a book that lies open on the Colonel's desk, picking lint from the rug. Al doesn't notice him leaving until Edward slams the door in his departure.
Alphonse wonders if it's possible to drown in paving stones; they shine black as the surface of a lake in winter. Streetlights cast wavering reflections along the road, so many sticks of melted butter dribbled across his path.
Sometimes I think I'd like to be part of the rain, Al had mused as he watched fat beads of water slide down the window against a backdrop of darkening sky.
Why? Roy asked him. Their chess game was long finished, the board neglected and still strewn with fallen players.
The question surprised Al, but his thoughts slipped from him easily. I could fall all over the world and feel everything at once. A shiver tripped down his spine at the idea.
Roy rubbed his chin with two fingers and gave a little snort. Everything but me. You had better stay here until it stops. I'll walk you home.
Al had made sure to tuck the edges of the Colonel's coat around his sleeping form before leaving the man's office.
Al wishes that Roy could walk him home. They would hit the hotel and keep on going, hop a train to Risembool, find a house near the Rockbell's But Roy has an ambition and Alphonse has Edward, anchors with which neither will easily part.
Al heaves a sigh and tries to watch the puff of air leaving his lips, but there's nothing to see. Soon, each breath will take form in a cloud of white. Children will start snowball fights in the street, running in giddy fear when they accidentally mar a blue uniform with powdery remains. Roy will light fires behind grates and ask the Elrics to stay for tea.
When Al reaches the hotel, a golden glow peeking from beneath the door of their room reveals that his brother is still awake. He enters quietly but without caution, as if returning so early in the morning were a natural occurrence.
Edward is quiet too. He sits on the couch staring at his folded hands, and his voice is a soft, controlled growl. "Where have you been?"
"With Colonel Mustang," Al replies smoothly, keeping his eyes on Ed as he leans back against the door.
"Doing what?" When Ed meets the younger boy's gaze, his own is burning in accusation. His knuckles are white.
Alphonse shrugs. "Talking, mostly."
A nervous laugh escapes Al's lips. "And playing chess," he adds quickly. "But you already knew that."
Ed opens his mouth to speak, snaps it shut again, and shakes his head. "Who won?" he asks.
"Well, the Colonel, of course," Al answers, raising his eyebrows.
Ed blinks. "Of course."
A dead silence settles between them. Edward seems to slump into the couch cushions. Alphonse scuffs at the floor uneasily with the toe of his left shoe. Al is about to say something when Ed stands, back turned in his brother's direction. "I'm going to bed," he announces, and he's left the room before Al can stop him.
The next evening, Al's head is in Roy's lap, and Roy's fingers are buried in golden locks.
"Checkmate, Fullmetal," he declares before the game has even started.
Edward doesn't acknowledge the words. He simply moves his first pawn forward with determination in his eyes. When Mustang wins in seven moves, Ed doesn't shout, shake, or even flinch.
"Oi Al," he says instead. "Get up here and let Colonel Shit take the floor for once."
Alphonse scrambles to his feet to see his brother's face more clearly. Ed is forcing down a smile, but one corner of his mouth keeps twitching like it's ready to jump up and run away. Al sits down in Roy's chair, warming his back on the man's lingering body heat, and sets up his side of the board with a grin.
And because his brother is being a surprisingly good sport about all of this, Alphonse lets him win.