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Wallpaper


Just before the man's knuckles connected with the door again, a voice drifted from out the apartment, flat and unwelcoming: "It's open."

The words weren't an invitation—not with the tone that declared so plainly their speaker wished nothing more than to be left alone—but General Mustang took them as one anyway, closing his hand over the round brass of the doorknob and twisting it open.

It was dark inside, but he'd been informed that wasn't unusual; the curtains here had been drawn ever since their purchase last month, the little light able to creep in around the edges causing sun and shadows to play along the wall in shades of gold and grey. The man lingered in the doorway, waiting for his eyes to adjust enough so that he could make out the shapes of furniture in the dimly-lit room: an overstuffed chair in the corner, and a long, low table spread out before the couch. Bookshelves, neatly cared for, lined the wall, spines of their contents facing outward in even rows.

"Alphonse-kun?" Roy asked, carefully, as he set the thick envelope that he'd brought upon the nearest open surface. With luck, it would be found long after the General had gone—much too late for the boy to point out that the money within was an excessive amount.

"In here," came the reply after a moment, and Roy turned toward the source of the words, picking his way to the apartment's single bedroom.

He hesitated at the door, lingering in the open frame—because something about the form that he could glimpse lying splayed and motionless across the bed caught at the ragged edges of a wound that had just begun to scab.

And suddenly, with an intensity of emotion that Roy thought he'd left behind years before, the man was reminded of the scene as he'd found it that night: Alphonse's skin, perfect and whole, pale against the smears of crimson made by blood not his own; a new body trembling with exhaustion, too drained by the transmutation to possess the strength to move; the younger Elric crying softly on the ground as what was left of his brother grew cold less than a meter away.

With a sharp pang of realization, the General wondered how badly Fullmetal would be struck by the contrast between the optimistic, polite young boy that he'd known and the lifeless indifference that suffused the newly-flesh limbs of the figure in the bedroom.

And when Alphonse's head lifted from where it lay buried face-down in the white fabric of the pillow, those bronze eyes, dark with the shadows of the room, fixed unwaveringly upon him, Roy was suddenly aware of the fact that this wasn't at all the same child who'd have been prompt to answer the door for a guest or chastised his brother for being inhospitable.

"Hello, General," came the response at last, weary and strained. "What can I do for you?"

"Don't trouble yourself," Roy answered evenly, tone designed to dismiss the suggestion without so much as entertaining it. "I'd been meaning to pay a visit, is all." There was a moment during which intent charcoal eyes watched the boy's pale face meaningfully. "To see how you were settling."

He received a weak smile in response, wan in the poor lighting, and Alphonse stirred at last to take part in the conversation, rising reluctantly to a sitting position. "Everyone's been fantastic," the boy told him. "I'm not sure how I'd have managed, otherwise—Lieutenant Havoc helped me get moved in, and after that people kept stopping by with things they thought I'd need."

The smile grew a little more fragile as Roy stepped closer to it, moving to stand beside the bed. "Winry especially. She said it wouldn't do any good for me to stare at blank walls all day, so she brought a bunch of pictures to frame, and she and Schieska-san put up wallpaper." There was a pause; Alphonse swallowed audibly. "It looks nice," the boy said quietly, sounding as though his heart was breaking.

Roy hesitated only a fraction of a second before replying. "It does."

And when the next words followed, barely loud enough to be heard, the General was surprised by the force behind them. "I think," Alphonse whispered, "That maybe you should leave." The last word caught uncertainly. "Please."

The wave of sympathy that rose up to meet the boy's plight was strong enough to take him by surprise, and Roy couldn't quite keep his eyes from softening as he watched the newly-made form on the bed tremble with suppressed emotion. "Very well," he agreed, and turned to go. "This month's benefits are on the counter; I'll see that someone stops by later to have you sign for them."

He only took two steps.

"General," the boy gasped, and the noise stopped Roy cold; it sounded as though some awful secret were being wrung from that pale throat. A glance over his shoulder revealed Alphonse's head was bowed, hair that had originally been short beginning to grow out from lack of attention. It didn't obscure the boy's eyes—not yet—and below the bangs, the General could just make out the raw pain etched into those lovely features.

Fleetingly, the man wondered whether this was how Alphonse would actually have looked, or if the carefully wrought attractiveness spoke of how much Edward had cared for the boy. He closed the steps between them once more, expression schooled into blankness. "Yes?"

Somehow, it wasn't surprising when those newly-formed hands reached compulsively to clench in the fabric of his uniform. "I miss my brother," Alphonse said, in a very small voice.

And Roy remained silent, moving only to set one hand carefully atop that lovely bronzed hair.

Because to that, there was nothing he could say.