Roy Mustang was not a superstitious man. He was an alchemist, after all, and that meant that every phenomenon had a logical, rational explanation. What was the use of good-luck charms, after all, when enough skill and patience could work wonders?
So, when his latest conquest offered him a pen as a memento to remind him of her, he was skeptical. Why do they always get sentimental? Still, he accepted it with the charm and grace that had characterized his entire career. "Certainly," he purred, "I'll treasure it." An out-and-out lie, but then again, most of the relationships tended to end that way. It was better to end it with a lie and a smile than to get entangled.
The woman, who was pretty, in a doll-like way, smiled. "It's a good-luck charm." Her voice was growing wistful now, a clear sign to Roy that he needed to leave soon, before the woman grew too attached to him. "I got it from Xing only a few days ago. Then I met you..." Her voice trailed off before she continued. "You probably won't even remember me in a few days, but you could use some good luck anyway. Just... try to think of me from time to time, okay?"
Roy offered an easy smile, one that came to his face far too often. "Of course. Thank you; your thoughtfulness is... touching." He kissed her hand. "Good bye."
Then he was gone, and the woman knew in her heart that he really would forget her. But, for a moment of bliss... she thought the parting was worth it.
It was the following day: a Monday, and a perfect example of why everyone in the military detested that day more than any other in the week. The paperwork had seemed to multiply over the weekend, and the Flame Alchemist couldn't force himself to attack them. After all, he mused, More will be dumped on my lap just as I finish these. There's no end to these insufferable reports. His appearance was disheveled, as well: he no longer mustered the effort to look presentable for military affairs. Ever since he had lost his eye, he had stopped caring about trying to advance. General Hakuro had stated, in no uncertain terms, that he would finish his career as a Brigadier General. Possibly less, if the old man could find a charge to drop on him.
So, instead, he contemplated the pen he had received. It was... a pen. Apparently carved out of a green gemstone, with all metallic parts covered in gold. Probably gilded, Mustang frowned, As are most things of apparent value in this world. Still, it wrote well, and the cool exterior was surprisingly comforting to him.
"Sir!" It was Lieutenant Hawkeye, the expression on her face clearly implying trouble for the slacking Brigadier General. "The reports are due in three hours. It would be best to complete them immediately." The obvious threat, that she would be upset if the reports were not completed, went without saying.
Mustang frowned as she left. He hadn't heard her come in, and the fact that he couldn't see out of his left eye meant that he needed to be more careful in the future. An upset Hawkeye was quite hazardous, even to someone such as himself. He considered himself lucky that she wasn't the jealous sort: if she were to take offense at his ways...
Still, he leaned back in his chair, and gazed at the pen once more. Good luck, indeed. He scoffed, silently. An angry Hawkeye is NOT...
"Yes, Lieut... Alphonse?" Mustang stood up. That was certainly an unexpected surprise: Alphonse had never joined the military after he regained his body, and he hadn't really kept up with Mustang thereafter. The fact that he had showed up, and that Hawkeye had let him pass, meant that he had something important to say.
"Five years is too long to keep out of touch, Alphonse." Mustang tried to put on a disapproving mask, but only partially succeeded. He had missed the Elrics, to be honest: Edward had provided enough chaos to keep Mustang on his toes, and Alphonse had proven remarkably insightful and caring to the other members of the military. If he were the sentimental type, Roy would almost say he cared for the Elrics... so when he considered that they were obviously avoiding him... "You look much better."
And he meant it, too. Alphonse looked his age, a youth nearing twenty, with dark blond hair and steel-gray eyes. The hair, Mustang noticed, had grown out into a braid, much like Edward's had been. He wasn't wearing leather, though; he settled for plain work clothes. There was something about him that worried the Brigadier General, however... besides the obvious lack of his brother, Alphonse seemed on the verge of tears. That was something he would never have expected: Alphonse never cried for himself, which meant that something had happened to someone he cared about. Considering the dark bags under his eyes and the obvious effort it took him to remain on his feet... it had to have happened some time ago. But what was 'it'?
Alphonse offered a small smile. "I look better... But you don't. Not really."
Mustang placed the pen down, and circled his desk. "That doesn't matter at this point." He stopped in front of the teenager, then added, "What happened, Alphonse? You disappear, your brother goes to find you after he talks with me... and then you avoid me for five years." He couldn't help but look concerned. "That isn't like you."
The youth's smile faded. "N-no, it's not. It's just that..." He frowned, obviously unwilling to continue.
It took Mustang a second to realize where the hesitation came from. He had to peer over the boy, He's much taller than Full Metal was, too. It's hard to believe that they are brothers, but he saw his entire military unit very obviously busy right in front of his door. Reports were in hand, pens and pencils scraping furiously, and not a bit of actual work was being attended to. They hadn't worked so hard in five years; it was obvious that they were trying to listen in. He cleared his throat. "Lieutenant Hawkeye?"
"Yes, sir?" The fact that her voice had the slightest edge to it, and that she had appeared just a little too quickly... meant that she had been listening in, too.
"Kindly make sure that the soldiers' energy is properly channeled."
She offered a salute. "Yes, sir!"
"One more thing, Lieutenant."
"Sir?" Hawkeye seemed genuinely surprised at another request.
Mustang gazed at Alphonse, then smiled softly. "Clear my schedule. Those reports will have to wait."
Hawkeye nodded, pleased at Mustang's tact. She offered another salute, and said, "Very good, sir." Then, as she shooed the other soldiers away, and shut the door, Alphonse smiled gratefully. He had, after all, forgotten just how good Mustang was at reading people.
"So, Alphonse... why did you want to see me?" Roy was careful to keep his voice entirely neutral. He couldn't appear too interested or nervous, or that would put Al on edge.
"Actually..." Al considered his words carefully. "I... I was hoping that you could help me."
"Help you?" Mustang leaned his head on the back of his hands. "It took you some time to decide that you needed my help."
"I know..." There was the subtlest sound of a whine in that voice. "But... I thought that I could do it by myself. That, if I studied hard enough, that I could find some way to... to..." Tears were beginning to form in his eyes. It was at that moment that Mustang guessed the truth.
"Alphonse... in order to get your body, did your brother..." A dumb nod from the boy, and Mustang sighed. "Is he still alive?"
That brought a sigh from Al, who leaned into the cushions on the couch he had claimed. "I... really don't know anymore. A few years ago, I knew that he was, but... I'm not sure anymore. I mean, if he could have found a way back, then he would have already found it, wouldn't he? He... he..."
Roy sighed. He had also forgotten something: the fact that both Elric brothers tended to hoard guilt and doubt. Mustang had stood by and watched as the older brother allowed that guilt to consume him; to be honest, he had amplified that guilt, and channeled it into avenues that would aid his own career. Now that he knew what the price of that meddling had been... he wouldn't play the same game with the younger Elric. He stood up, and walked over to Al. "Full Metal won't let anything stop him."
"In all of the years I knew him, he never gave up. On anything, and especially not on you." Mustang smiled softly, and sat at the other end of the couch from Al. Thankfully, Al had sat on the right side, so Roy didn't have to turn his face in order to look at the boy. "Don't you remember that?"
"No... I really don't." Al seemed to deflate with this acknowledgement, fixing his gaze on the floor. "I... don't really remember anything about him. I don't remember anything after we tried to bring Mother back." He looked up at the black-haired man. "That's... one of the things that I wanted to ask you."
"What your brother was like?" Mustang smirked. "He was an obnoxious brat. I still believe that he hated me, and he didn't show concern for many people. He was volatile and furious, exploded at the merest suggestion that he was short or a child... and he loved you more than anything."
Al smiled, wistfully, and Mustang noted that the younger Elric, like the older, was predictable in what he wanted. Still... the Brigadier General added, "He turned half of the continent upside-down trying to find a way to turn you back. I knew that he would succeed, but... It would have been better if he could have found another way. Thinking about the long-term effects of his actions was never his strong suit."
During his entire discourse, Roy had allowed his gaze to gaze out the window, as he reminisced about the bundle of fire and energy that had blazed into his life and then, apparently, disappeared just as suddenly. Therefore, he was quite surprised when he heard Edward's younger brother sniffling. He could pick out a "It was all my fault. If I had been stronger, then my brother wouldn't have... he wouldn't have needed to... he'd still be..."
Contrary to popular opinion, Roy Mustang was quite skilled at dealing with emotions. Sorrow and grief, two states that many soldiers found themselves in, were a specialty of his, and that's why he wasn't surprised at all when he found his hand resting on Alphonse's far shoulder. "It wasn't. He would yell at you if he heard that you were blaming yourself for what he did."
"I don't know." Alphonse offered a sad smile. "He must hate me, now." A shudder ran through Alphonse's body, as he contemplated that possibility.
At least, he did, until the hand on his shoulder tightened. "You aren't listening to me, are you?" Mustang was getting perturbed: Edward had difficulty listening to him, and that trait had apparently passed down to the younger brother. That was one of the reasons that their relationship had never gotten past the 'superior-subordinate' stage... despite Mustang's wish to the contrary. He didn't want to see that happen to Al, either.
"Huh?" Alphonse's eyes snapped up, gray eyes staring into black ones.
"I told you that your brother loved you more than anything else in the world. Do you think that I'm lying to you?" There was just a hint of danger to that voice, one of the subtle voice modulations that Mustang had mastered years ago. Using that tone of voice was sufficient to encourage subordinates to be elsewhere, and even those who had gotten used to it still found themselves on-edge when Mustang's voice changed.
For Alphonse, however, it was an entirely new experience. "N-no, Brigadier General! It's just that..." He lowered his gaze, thrown off his guard.
He didn't get an opportunity to finish that thought. In that moment, Mustang saw just how vulnerable Al still was, how much he needed someone else to lean on. The fact that he, the 'bastard Colonel' that Al's brother had constantly yelled about, was the first one to be trusted... it was endearing. So, he silenced Alphonse with a finger to the boy's lips: they were soft, and if Mustang rubbed them just a little, that was just his grip adjusting. Of course. "He also felt guilty for what happened. He blamed himself for everything: your body, your lost potential, everything. That's part of the reason he went around the continent. He couldn't stop until he made that up to you."
"But... that's stupid! It was just as much my fault as his! He wasn't the only person that was guilty..." Al's voice trailed off, unsure of how to continue. The fact that his lips were actually quite sensitive, and that he was speaking around Mustang's finger, didn't help matters.
"Yes, it was. That argument would continue late into the night, sometimes, and whenever the two of you were bored. He still never accepted your version of events, though."
"H-how did you..." Al's mind was whirling. Surely, if he got into arguments with his brother, they'd do so in private, wouldn't they? How, then did Mustang know?
A low chuckle, and Roy adjusted his grip, letting his hand reach under Alphonse's chin and push up, so that the teenager had to look at his eyes. "Your brother claimed, at various points, that I knew everything, that I had a vast network of spies, and that I had the ability to read minds." The smirk widened. "Suffice to say that I have my ways." He did not mention, of course, the fact that Alphonse's facial expressions were an open book: most of the five years must have been spent in semi-isolation, and he hadn't learned to mask his emotions that well.
A small part of Mustang's mind began screaming, He's yours, now! Just offer to help him, and he'll follow you anywhere! If he's half as good as Full Metal was, then he'd be an important addition! You could keep him for years, the perfect servant for boosting yourself!
As those thoughts ran through his mind, Mustang's grip tightened. The pressure increased, until Al gasped, "Brigadier... General... what's the matter?"
At the look of pain on Al's face, Roy released his grip, and jumped to his feet. A slight shudder ran through his frame: old habits were hard to break, and it was true, Alphonse would be an excellent servant for him. But the thought of using a boy to further ambitions that were no longer in his reach, of tearing innocence and good faith apart until only cynicism remained... he couldn't bring himself to that cruelty. It was still tempting, and that fact sickened him. The fact that he had caused pain to Alphonse...
"Roy... are you all right?" Worry was evident in Al's voice. He had always been sensitive to the emotions of others, and for something to cause Mustang to react so violently...
It took a moment for Roy to collect his thoughts. Then, he turned around, a smile forcing itself onto his face. "I don't know if I can help you. I will likely never advance beyond this rank because of what I did. It might be best for you to find an alchemist that's better on the research end. I hear that the Department of Alchemic Research has some promising leads." Better to end with a lie and a smile...
There was a long moment of tension, as Alphonse measured Mustang's reaction. Then, to Roy's amazement, he released a sigh of relief. "I was afraid that you were going to use me. Winry... told me about you. She didn't have many good things to say." The last line was delivered almost apologetically. After a moment, Al continued, blushing slightly, "I know that... you may not know everything that Brother and I did. But... maybe you'd know where to start. And, maybe, you could help me with my alchemy. I really can't trust anyone, but if I don't, then I don't think I'll be able to continue with my research, and..."
Roy held up a hand, to stem the tide of words. "To sum it up... you want to live with me."
"Eh!?" Alphonse's blush deepened. "Was it... really that obvious?"
The smirk returned, but it was softer this time. "Yes, it was. You are quite a bit like your brother... easy to read and predict, but still capable of surprises."
Alphonse sighed. "You're making fun of me."
"Quite the contrary." Mustang walked up to Alphonse, and patted the younger alchemist on the head. "A little bit of chaos is a good thing."
What surprised him was the fact that Al leaned into the touch, a smile on his face. "Does that mean... you'll take me in?"
An answering smile from the Flame Alchemist. "For now. Since I can no longer advance in the military, it would be best for me to accomplish some good in this life." He didn't mention the fact that the prospect was actually quite appealing to him: his life had been largely barren for the past five years, despair crushing him at every turn. Perhaps... some youthful energy would be a good change of pace.
As soon as those words were uttered, there were three sharp raps on the door. Hawkeye's voice called, "Brigadier General? It's urgent."
The two alchemists looked at each other in confusion, then Mustang walked up and opened the door. "Yes, Lieutenant?"
It was a testament to the impact of the news that even Hawkeye couldn't quite contain her reaction: her eyes were shining brightly, and a small smile had crossed her lips, despite her best attempts to contain it. The four other individuals that had stuck with Mustang: Fury, Havoc, Breda, and Farman; were far more ecstatic. A loud cheer could be hear echoing in the hallway just outside the door, and Havoc and Fury were actually dancing with delight. Hawkeye's salute was somehow more crisp, more perfect, as she stated, "General Hakuro has suddenly fallen ill. The doctors state that his chances of recovery are slight, sir."
A slight smirk from Mustang. "That is hardly good news. The misfortune of a General is a cause for mourning, Lieutenant."
"I know, sir. The good news is that he has recommended you to Parliament for advancement."
The impact of the news was like a hammer hitting Mustang in the stomach, but he felt elated and energetic at the same time; far closer to his normal self than he had been in years. It was as though the world was changing before his very eye, and the possibilities were absolutely limitless. "You are certain of this?"
"Yes, sir. We decided to wait until Parliament's decision arrived before we informed you." She offered a sealed envelope, then saluted once more. "Please, sir, open it where we can see."
It was with trembling fingers that Mustang broke the seal, and tilted the envelope into his cupped hand. He felt something fall into his hand, but a paper fell out, as well. He quickly scanned over the text: effectively, it asked him whether he would accept the position or not. He placed it to the side, and gazed at the other object.
There were two, actually. Two stars, fashioned out of gold. Pure gold, not the gilded stuff that had characterized the reign of King Bradley. The room was completely silent, a reverent hush as Mustang slowly placed one star on each shoulder. As he looked up, a smile on his face, there was another cheer. The cheer was spontaneous, heartfelt, and possibly the loudest sound that Mustang's office had heard in five years.
Before it faded away, Mustang began looking for a pen or a pencil, anything to write his acceptance. After a brief moment, he felt one being pressed into his hands, and he looked to the side to see Alphonse there, a brilliant smile on his face even as tears were streaming down his face. "You... left this on your desk. Congratulations!" And he hugged Mustang before the older man could say anything else.
For a long moment, the Flame Alchemist regarded the pen in his hand, then he signed the acceptance letter and gave a reassuring squeeze to Alphonse.
For the first time in a long time, the world once again seemed ripe for the winning, and now he had another motivation for winning it. Even Roy Mustang, master of controlling his own emotions, couldn't quite stop the gleam of a tear in his one eye. He smiled. Good luck, indeed.