He knew intellectually that the desert had been hotter, had been the most unrelenting heat he had ever trudged through. No shade, no water, no respite, and an immortal body that tired but would never die of it. Still, as sweat beaded along his forehead and threatened to slide down into his eyes, he thought Rush Valley this afternoon was giving the Eastern Desert a run for its money.
Perhaps it was the bustle of people, all just as sweat-slicked as he but seeming carefree about it, who crowded the streets and the automail shops. Perhaps it was the shine of sun-heated metal and the sizzle of soldering guns. Perhaps it was just that the town had changed since he’d walked these streets with Pinako, and when the local watering hole wasn’t where he remembered it, he cursed the passage of time like an old grandfather.
He turned in a little circle, trying to decide his path, when a cackling coffee-brown blur raced by him on automail legs, dress flying out behind her. He thought suddenly of little Winry, and of Edward and Alphonse, and felt a sudden painful surge of doubt—Should I really have left? Will they be all right? Will they ever forgive me?—but clamped down on that train of thought before it could begin. If every mischievous child in the world was going to remind him so wrenchingly of his own, then perhaps he should avoid them.
“Come back here! Paninya!!”
The shout, followed by an awkward squawk and an uncomfortable thud, drew his attention back to the street. A teenaged boy, tall and stretched-thin by a growth spurt, lay sprawled in the dust where he’d tripped, cursing under his breath. Hoenheim bent to help the boy to his feet. “Were you meant to be looking after her?”
“More like meant to be strangling her,” the boy spat, wiping dust from his face with a knobby wrist and smoothing his shock of dark hair. “She stole my wallet, the little wretch.” Then the boy turned to look at him (in the eye, heavens he was tall for a child, would Edward and Alphonse ever be this tall like their father?) and smiled with an incongruously pert little mouth. “Thanks for the help.”
Hohenheim blinked, and gave something like a smile in return. “Are you all right? You’re a little banged up.”
The boy looked down at himself, a scraped knee below his cutoff trousers, scraped palms; he lightly touched his chin, feeling out the little gash there. “I’ll be fine, I guess. I’m always tripping over something. I’ll just have to go back to the shop before I go after my wallet.”
“You’ll grow out of the tripping,” Hohenheim assured him, quite suddenly eager to share this bit of wisdom. I’ll go back, if I can, when the boys are older. Teenagers. I can deal with teenagers, I think. “Are you an engineer?”
“Apprentice,” the boy replied shyly, and there was something sweet in the demure tilt of his head. “You’re not from around here, are you? I’ve never seen you before.”
“You’re right...I haven’t been here in many years, I’m afraid I’m a bit lost. There used to be a pub on the corner up there...”
The boy frowned a little, perplexed. “Well, there’s never been one there as far as I know, but my master’s shop is just next door to one. I’ll show you the way.”
The pub was buzzing with chatter and laughter, a little more crowded than the one he remembered, but at least it got him out of the sun. He nursed a pint at the bar for as long as he could make it last, barely tasting it, and trying not to think about Pinako as a fiery young woman, or about Trisha, or about his sons. Instead, he thought a lot about nothing, and a little about the boy. Hohenheim hadn’t gotten his name, just watched him retreat into the automail shop to patch himself up. “I’d come join you next door if I could,” he’d said, “but even if I had my wallet, they know I’m underage.”
Hohenheim didn’t recall age mattering very much back when he was here last, but he supposed the world had changed since then. For instance, the young couple sitting together on one side of a booth just at the corner of his vision. They kept themselves decent, barely, but the shameless youthful love niggled at him, made him remember things, made his skin warm. He was an old, old man, but a young, young husband, and he buried his nose in his pint.
Some time later he stepped out into the heat again, less fierce now that the sun was slipping below the horizon. The boy was standing propped against the doorframe of the automail shop next door, and smiled, shy and pleased, when he saw Hohenheim.
“I thought, you being an out-of-towner, you might need a place to stay. My master’s away for a couple of days, so we’ve got a spare bed.”
Hohenheim took in the carefully posed way the boy slouched, the long lashes that shaded his hopeful eyes; he’d changed into a thin shirt that clung to his frame, dark trousers held up by thin suspenders. He’d tended his scrapes, and was spotlessly shaven (or maybe he was too young yet for that, he couldn’t be, too young to drink but he must at least be old enough to shave). “Are you sure your master would approve of you putting up a stranger for the night?”
“Tell me your name, then you won’t be a stranger anymore.”
“Call me Theophrastus,” he told the boy with a sigh of defeat and a little quirk of the mouth that might be like a smile.
The boy’s Cupid-bow lips turned down a little. “That’s a mouthful. Can I call you Theo instead?”
“If you like.”
He smiled again, and held out a hand. “My name’s Garfiel. Now we’re not strangers anymore—so come on in and make yourself at home.”
Garfiel proved to be a good cook—much better than Hohenheim himself had ever managed—and he carried dinner conversation mostly by himself. They talked about automail (which Hohenheim still knew very little about, but was good at pretending), and Garfiel’s passionate belief in the importance of aesthetics as well as functionality, customer service as well as skill. They talked as Garfiel washed the dishes and Hohenheim dried, the old man finding it both strange and pleasant to spend such a domestic evening with someone so unlike Trisha. And after the dinner dishes were put away, Hohenheim clapped his hands and rubbed the palms together.
“Well, Garfiel, I can’t just take advantage of your hospitality without repaying you somehow.” The boy’s eyes widened just a fraction, and fixed on Hohenheim’s. “Is there anything around here that needs fixing? Or in the shop?”
Garfiel’s brows furrowed into a confused little vee. “Fixing?”
A few hours later Hohenheim had repaired a picture frame (with a photo of a slightly younger, smiling Garfiel and a stout middle-aged woman wielding a soldering gun), a splintered drying rack, a rather complex caliper, and a small army of fraying automail wires. Garfiel was suitably impressed. “I’ve never seen an alchemist who didn’t need to draw one of those circles,” he complimented, in a tone just shy of cooing. “You must be pretty special.”
“Oh, I'm just an old bookworm,” Hohenheim protested in a tone just shy of flirtatious. He cleared his throat abruptly to nip that right in the bud. “And I’m afraid it’s nearing this old bookworm’s bedtime.”
“Right, of course,” Garfiel sputtered, a little flush of pink tingeing his cheeks. “You can have my master’s room, it’s this way.”
The room was pleasantly (if plainly) appointed, as the rest of the flat above the shop had been; light wood and cool-colored linens, perhaps to counter the heat of the Valley. Garfiel lingered at the doorway, making those shy eyes again. “The bathroom’s just down the hall, and there’s extra towels in the closet in there.... Is there...” He paused, meeting Hoheneim’s eyes. “Is there anything else you need?”
Kiss your Daddy goodnight, boys, it’s time for bed!
Do you need anything, Honey? A cup of tea?
Goodnight darling, sleep well.
“No,” Hohenheim answered softly. “No, I’m fine, thank you. Goodnight, Garfiel.”
The late morning sun woke him, slipping through the chinks in the curtains and shining insistently against his eyelids. He dithered a bit over getting dressed versus borrowing the worn but clean robe hung on the back of the bedroom door, but the robe would be much too short on his frame, so he pulled his clothes on and wandered out. He found a covered plate in the kitchen with a note beside it. Beneath the cover was a generous helping of scrambled eggs and bacon, still lukewarm; the note declared that Garfiel had set out early that morning to retrieve his wallet, and would Hohenheim please eat some breakfast and make himself at home until he returned?
Breakfast, at the very least, was tempting, and Hohenheim set to.
The breakfast dishes were long done when Hohenheim heard the shop bell ring. Feeling awkward but surprisingly pleased, he descended the stairs into the shop to greet his young benefactor. “Did you manage to get your—” He paused, momentarily baffled, then hurried forward to catch the boy before he fell.
A viciously blackening eye, a split lip, blood on his face and on his clothes and his breathing wasn’t quite right, might have some broken ribs, Hohenheim thought as he half-carried Garfiel to the back of the shop.
“I’m okay, I’ll be okay,” the boy kept assuring him, but let Hohenheim help him onto an exam table, sat compliant and breathing raggedly as the Western Sage ran broad, careful fingers over his face and his sides and his limbs, testing, cataloging.
“What happened?” Hohenheim murmured, probing a bit of swelling around the boy’s ankle. “You didn’t just trip this time.”
Garfiel shrugged. “Got into a fight on my way back from Paninya’s,” he answered dully, eyes lowered.
Frowning, Hohenheim thought suddenly of Edward, of the mischievous streak he’d already been showing, of the little hints of temper. “A fight, hmm? Let’s get this shirt off you.”
“I’ll be fine, you don’t have to—”
“You know, in Xing they practice a sort of medical alchemy, called alkahestry. I’m rather good with it, but I have to see what I’m doing.”
A moment’s hesitant pause, and then Garfiel lifted his arms gingerly. Hohenheim pulled the shirt off him, scowl deepening at the sight of the mottled bruises peppered along the boy’s ribs and skirting the ridges of his hips. “Must’ve been some fight. This might feel odd, just bear with it.” Then he lay his palms against the boy’s sides, high along his torso, feeling the hitch of breath beneath his fingers. A crackle of energy, a little focused power just...there, and he slid his palms downward in a sweep of the bruises and the damaged cage of bones beneath.
Up close and shirtless, the boy was less lanky and more muscled than Hohenheim had thought; rapid growth had pulled him thin like taffy, but the corded muscles of his shoulders and his chest tensed as the alchemy sparked over his skin and beneath. Slowly, as bones mended and bruises lightened, Garfiel’s breathing steadied. Satisfied, Hohenheim let the energy dissipate, palms coming to rest just at the crest of the boy’s wide hips. He’ll fill out fast, once he stops shooting up like a weed, he thought. Broad shoulders, too. If I know anything about automail engineers, he’ll be all muscle when he’s grown.
“That’s...pretty neat,” Garfiel managed, running his tongue over the split in his lip. Hohenheim took the boy’s chin in one hand, touching the fingers of the other to his swollen eye.
“It comes in handy.” Another crackle of red energy and the swelling was already going down, the split lip mending. The boy’s eyes were dark and a little fearful—not of Hohenheim, or it didn’t seem so, but of what he couldn’t tell. Then Hohenheim realized abruptly that he was standing between the boy’s spread knees, peering into his face as wounds mended under his fingers, and thought he might have an idea of where the boy’s expression had come from.
He bent to wrap his fingers around a swollen ankle, and Garfiel fidgeted a moment before going still again. Yes, Hohenheim was beginning to understand, and tried rather pointedly to ignore the bulge of the boy’s trousers as he mended strained muscle and ligaments.
“Theo,” the boy said, trembly and hoarse.
He isn’t really a boy, Hohenheim thought. Young, yes, but.... “Garfiel,” he murmured, straightening, and caught his eyes again. “Is this what the fight was about?”
Garfiel swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing. “What do you mean?” he asked, but his voice wobbled a little and he blinked furiously.
Gently, gently, what am I doing, Hohenheim moved close between the boy’s parted thighs and gathered him against his chest. “The world is…a difficult place sometimes. Love who you love, and keep your head high. It won’t always be this way, and...” He paused to make sure his voice was steady. “True love is always worth it. When you find it, don’t let go, not for anything.”
The boy pressed his face into Hohenheim’s broad shoulder, clung to him with an engineer’s strength, breath fast and catching in his throat. “Theo,” he choked out again, and pressed close, trembling chest and urgent hips and that Cupid’s bow mouth all tucked against the warmth of Hohenheim’s body.
Wide, calloused fingers fitted themselves against the back of Garfiel’s neck, tracing soothing circles in the dark hair at his nape; the other hand Hohenheim let slide along the boy’s gently curled spine, fitting firmly into the small of his back. The boy nudged closer still, sucking in a breath as their hips met, the ready hardness of youth against the reluctantly stirring groin of a man who very much missed his wife, and Hohenheim let out a slow breath against the boy’s hair.
“I’m sorry,” Garfiel murmured against his neck. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” the old man soothed, voice a little rough as his throat worked. He dropped his hand lower, fitted his palm against the boy’s pleasantly rounded bottom, tugged him a tiny bit closer. “It’s all right, Garfiel.”
The boy moaned, the sound vibrating against Hohenheim’s skin and through his chest; Garfiel wrapped his long legs around the old man’s frame, heels pressing into the backs of his thighs, and rocked his hips hard.
Hohenheim had taken male lovers before, and women too; in the endless years he’d wandered so far, he’d tried just about everything he could think of to quiet the voices in his head, to distract from the endless span of time ahead of him. They all paled next to Trisha, nothing would ever match Trisha, but it was like riding a bicycle; the boy thrusting his urgent erection into Hohenheim’s groin was young, and troubled, and hurt, and had a very very charming mouth, and who was one old sinner to deny a growing boy a little something special? So he took a moment to give the boy’s rear a little squeeze (and Garfiel let loose a high little warble at that, it nearly made him laugh, Good Lord, don’t laugh at him now) and then smoothed warm fingers along his trembling thigh and then between them to tug open the fly of his trousers.
Garfiel went still, shivering, nose pressed into Hohenheim’s shirt collar. He panted quietly against the worn-soft fabric as those warm fingers, broad and calloused, dipped into his underwear and scratched through the dark patch of hair there, palmed his leaking cock, ghosted lower over his tightening balls. “Theo,” he rasped.
Gently Hohenheim drew the boy’s cock out, wrapped his fingers firm around it, gave a little tug. The boy jerked in his arms with a shocked, choked cry, and pressed hard into his hand. The old man stroked a thumb up the throbbing vein on the underside, circled the head; Garfiel gripped him harder, fingers digging into his back. One light stroke, two, and Hohenheim fell into a rhythm as the boy babbled his pleasure into heated air between them, tipping his head down with forehead pressed to Hohenheim’s chest.
“Your hands are...so big...” Garfiel observed, breathless, as he watched the ring of fingers slide along his cock. This time Hohenheim did laugh, softly, and placed a quiet kiss against the nape of the boy’s neck. “F...faster,” the boy breathed, and the old man obliged him.
Garfiel’s spine curled back as he thrust his hips forward, and a low groan slid up from his throat as he exposed it; Hohenheim shuddered, rather enthralled by the honesty of the sound, by the lack of pretense. The boy’s chest heaved, shiny now with sweat, and he tore a hand from where it was fisted in Hohenheim’s shirt to finger his own nipples, taut and rosy pink. He feels no shame, Hohenheim thought vaguely, his brain a little bit fuzzed by the spectacle before him. Even with an old man like me. What a gift he’ll be to someone, someday.
He was jerked back out of his thoughts by a low cry, “yes,” the boy urged him, “yes...” and he picked up the pace, seeing the boy’s furrowed brows and the straining muscles of his abdomen. “Theo, Theo, Theo...!” as his body arched sharply and his mouth dropped open and his cock throbbed in Hohenheim’s hand, and he came in ribbons across his own stomach.
Hohenheim stroked him gently ‘til he was spent, softening, and swallowed hard to push down the crackle of arousal through is own limbs at the sight of the boy so lax and flushed. Then Garfiel blinked a few times, looked at him, and slid abruptly off the table to his knees. It seemed like between one pounding heartbeat and the next, the boy had disappeared from his arms and had torn his trousers open; his cock sprang out, hard as a diamond now and flushed dark with blood. Hohenheim stared down in surprise, trying to process this turn of events, and Garfiel winked up at him rather saucily before opening that pert mouth and closing it confidently around Hohenheim’s erection.
He couldn’t help the needy sound that tore from his chest in that moment; his neglected cock, which so missed his wife, was more than happy to take solace in the searing humid heat of Garfiel’s mouth. Hohenheim let one hand drop to muss the boy’s black hair, gripped the edge of the exam table with the other, and closed his eyes in unexpected bliss.
He was an old, old man, but he’d been missing his wife and the boy was so surprisingly good at this, pressing him to the roof of his mouth, scraping with the barest edges of teeth, snaking fingers into his trousers to fondle his balls, that it wasn’t long before he tensed a hand against the boy’s head and grunted out a warning before coming, shocked and throbbing, in Garfiel’s mouth.
He must have practice, he must have done this before, Hohenheim thought as he came slowly down, blearily watching the boy suck him dry and swallow with relish. Then his knees just wouldn’t hold him up anymore, and he sank to the floor, letting Garfiel tuck himself against his chest.
“You seem like the wandering type,” Garfiel murmured against his throat, “so I know you won’t stay. But thank you, for today. Let me make you dinner. And come back and see me again, the next time you wander through, don’t be a stranger.”
“Don’t be a stranger,” Pinako used to tell me. And I wasn’t, I went to see her in Resembool. And I found Trisha. My Trisha.... Wait for me.
“I’ll try,” he answered quietly, and Garfiel sighed, and shyly nosed inside his collar to kiss his neck.