notes: In English, we are most familiar with the word ménage from the phase ménage a trois, as a wicked, illicit term for a threesome. However, the phrase literally means 'a household of three,' and that is all the word ménage truly means -- household.
The first rays of dawn were just peeking in through the east-facing windows of the kitchen when Al padded in, sleepy-eyed, from the bedroom.
He suppressed a yawn, wincing in the clear light, and went to pour himself a kettle full of water, and put it on the stove to boil. There was—he squinted into the crockery pot—still tea left, and satisfied that he wouldn't have to suffer any caffeine-less ordeals this morning, he leaned against the edge of the counter, waiting for the water to boil.
This early, and without tea, he found his thoughts moving at a slow pace, with occasional soft fades between moments of consciousness. He didn't mind. The kitchen was a little chilly, the floor cold against his bare feet, but the stove radiated heat, and early morning sunlight slanted in through the windows. He heard the faint chirp of birdsong, quickly overwhelmed by the rising whistle of the kettle.
It was just him and the cool morning air and the kitchen and his tea, and as much as he loved his family, Alphonse Elric wouldn't have traded these moments alone for anything. He smiled as he picked up the kettle and poured himself a mug of tea, quickly setting it back down on the stove to stay hot while he steeped and drank the first cup.
The hot tea woke up his mouth and his stomach, and after a few minutes the caffeine began to wake up the rest of him. He glanced up at the softly ticking clock; quarter to six. At least half an hour before he had to start making breakfast, he calculated, and went back to communing with his tea in peace.
Around six o'clock he heard a stumbling thump in the hallway, and smiled around his tea. He got up to turn the heat up on the kettle again, and to get out a mug and the coffee for Winry.
However, it wasn't a grumpy young blond woman who stumbled into the kitchen, but a yawning, bleary-eyed little boy. The cause of the stumbling was easily explained; the boy was dragging his blanket around with him, wrapped around his neck, and it kept catching on things and pulling them over.
"Terry?" he said with some surprise, setting the kettle back down again. "What are you doing up at this hour?" A quick glance showed he hadn't lost track of things; it was still only a little after six.
"Papa?" The word was interrupted by another yawn, and Terry pulled the blanket over his shoulder.
"Something wake you up, squirt?" Al smiled, crouching down in front of the boy and ruffling his hair.
"Whacking blue dragon," Terry said plainly.
"Huh?" Al blinked at the kid. Okay, that was a little inexplicable, even at this hour of the morning. "Did you have a bad dream?" he asked, brow furrowing with worry.
"Uh-uh," Terry said, shaking his head. His messy brown hair tumbled into sleepy golden eyes, and Al smiled as he smoothed it back again. Terry folded back the blanket to reveal an armful of stripey black and gray kitten. Its cover blown, the kitten immediately began to purr noisily.
Al laughed, and reached out to take the cat from the little boy's arms. "I see," he said. "Zebby, you silly kit, if you want to be fed, come and find me, don't bother the kids. They can't feed you anyway."
After petting for a moment, he put it aside, and turned back to Terry. "You should probably go back to bed," he said, "or your mama will worry, won't she?"
Terry nodded, covering another yawn. His eyes were closing sleepily, and he swayed on his feet. Smiling, Al picked him up, draping the blanket over his own shoulder for safe carrying. He immediately stumbled and had to bite back an exclamation; Zebby had an unerring instinct for getting under the feet of anyone trying to carry things.
With a lot of foot-shuffling and whispered words that barely managed to stay in the civil range of things, Al managed to maneuver Terry back to his bedroom and tucked him back in. He dropped the blanket back over Terry, nudging one corner towards the boy's hand until in his sleep he registered its presence and grabbed.
Al straightened up, nearly tripped over the kitten again, and had to make a quick grab to scoop her up before she could jump back onto the child's bed and wake him up again. "Oh, no you don't," he muttered. "You're coming with me. I guess I'd better feed you, or you'll roust them all out of bed, and I'll have a kitchen full of kids. Ah, for such a small cat, you're such a lot of trouble."
Still talking softly to the kitten, he made his way back to the kitchen, where he dropped Zebby onto the floor and began poking through the cupboards for the cat food. When the proper food-noises were being made, Zebby seemed in no hurry to bother the kids; the other cats also came peeling in from wherever they'd been sleeping in the house. Two more cats, one black and one rusty brown; at least one unaccounted for, either outside or too lazy to get up for breakfast. Al left another bowl for him.
A tick-tacking of nails on the floor heralded the arrival of Erwin, the brown-and-white German shepherd who spent the night sleeping by the couch. The cats all gave him disdainful glares, but kept on eating; they knew Erwin wasn't allowed to chase them indoors. Mealtimes were cease-fires on all fronts. After gulping down his food, Erwin came and sat by the front door; bracing himself for the shock of cold morning air; Al let him out for his morning exercise. One of the many nice things about living out in the country again, Al thought, was that they could let their pets loose without a leash and not have to worry about the neighbors complaining.
Pets fed, Al glanced at the clock and decided it was time to start feeding people. The kids would sleep a while longer, but some people had to think about getting up for work. He got out the frying pan with vague thoughts of pancakes, but when he went to look, they were low on flour, so he switched to eggs instead. Someone would have to go shopping soon, he noted, and began marshaling excuses why it wouldn't be him. There were some advantages to staying on top of things, namely that you had a head start on getting out of the way.
Eggs were frying busily in the skillet when Winry stumbled in, bumping against the doorframe on her way in as per usual. Al smiled, and carefully stayed turned towards the stove so she wouldn't see; there was a reason he'd expected early morning crashing noises to be followed by her.
"Good morning, Winry," he said with humor as she flopped down at the table.
"Morning," Winry grunted in return. "Don't see what's good about it."
"Eggs and sausage," Al said promptly, maneuvering a fork under one of the yolks so he could flip them. The delicious smell of cooking eggs floated out from the pan, and Al had designs on the cold sausage lying in wait for their turn. He stole a nibble from the end of one, not minding that it was cold, not minding at all. He could feel that it was cold, he could taste the salty flavor on his tongue, he could smell the eggs in the pan, feel the heat wafting up to strike him in the face.
It had been six years and these things still never ceased to amaze him. Although they usually made sure that chores and labor were divided up equally, Alphonse always ended up making breakfast for them all.
"Sausage," Winry said, coming up to peer over his shoulder. "Bacon?" she said hopefully.
Al shook his head regretfully. "Sorry, it's frozen," he said. "I can thaw some out for you, if you really want it," he offered.
"Nah." Winry draped herself over his shoulders, and yawned in his ear. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of her morning breath, not overpowering but not fun either, but couldn't keep from smiling. He shrugged back a little, not to push her away but to tuck himself under her arms more tightly, and could feel her amused humm vibrating through his collarbone as she settled her chin on his shoulder and watched the eggs cook.
Footsteps sounded in the kitchen doorway, and Winry lit up, untangling herself from Al and turning around as Scieszka appeared in the doorway. "Good morning, Winry, Al," she said, the last word ending on a squeak as she valiantly repressed a yawn.
"Morning, Scieszka," Winry said happily, and went over to wind her arms around the brunette's neck. Morning breath obviously did not bother Scieszka, Al thought as he watched them exchange a deep, lingering good-morning kiss. He grinned to himself, and looked back at his eggs. The first panful were done, so he flipped them out onto a plate and set it on the counter, tipping the first batches of sausages into the pan instead. Winry came over and snagged the plate, eating the first egg with her bare hands, while Scieszka went to get plates and forks and the orange juice.
"Do you have any orders to fill today, Winry?" Scieszka asked as she set the table. Winry nodded, mouth too full to talk, but she carried the plate over to the table.
"Uh-huh, a few. Mostly just working on old projects," Winry said around her eggs. "Won't even have to open until noon. What about you?"
"Oh..." Scieszka waved a napkin around, nearly knocking off her glasses with it. "Some bookkeeping that has to be done, but I don't need to go into the office for that, I can just copy it down here."
"That's good," Al said. He turned the sausages over. "Say, what do you think about a picnic lunch? It looks like it's going to be a beautiful day. We can take the kids out, and when you have to go open the shop, Winry, we'll keep them out from underfoot."
"Today?" Scieszka made dubious noises. "Isn't your teacher supposed to come and visit in a few days? Maybe we should hold off and have the picnic then instead."
"No reason we can't do both," Winry replied.
They made small talk like that, keeping their voices hushed with the ease of long practice; Winry and Scieszka kept most of the conversation going while Al kept part of his attention constantly on the food, and part of his attention listening for noises from the bedroom. Even when Winry and Scieszka were full, he kept on comfortably cooking, building up piles of sausages and eggs for the hungry mouths to come.
Sure enough, at a quarter to eight there was a thump and then a crash from the bedroom, like the noise of someone falling heavily out of a bed and dumping over the nightstand on the way down. Al smiled again, and bit down on his own share of the eggs.
Ed staggered in before too long, with his usual zombie-face on. He stopped in the middle of the kitchen and looked around at the three of them, with a bleary squint.
"Well, it's about time you're up," Scieszka told him cheekily. "We were beginning to wonder if you were going to sleep in like the other children."
Ed blinked at her, then narrowed his eyes. He tromped over to the breakfast table—whatever grace he might normally possess was completely absent at this hour of the morning—and pounced on Scieszka, sending her chair tipping back precariously as he dove down and kissed her thoroughly, aggressively, and with great attention to detail.
She was laughing breathlessly when he let her up for air, glasses askew, grabbing onto his shoulder to keep her chair from tipping the rest of the way over. "Not one of the kids," he proclaimed smugly.
Even Winry was giggling by that time. Al waved his spatula at them. "Why don't I get a good-morning greeting like that?" he said.
"I don't want a good morning greeting like that," Winry was quick to put in, when Ed focused on her next in line.
"Didn't offer, your morning breath stinks," Ed said, and stifled a yawn. Then he licked his lips and sniffed. "Sausages. I taste sausages. And eggs. Where are they?"
"Here, brother," Al said with some exasperation. "Honestly, you're useless in the morning."
And then the kitchen was filled with giggling that was much too high-pitched to have come from Scieszka or Winry. They looked over to see two shining blond heads, two sets of hazel eyes, and two identical I-caught-Mama-and-Papa-doing-something-naughty grins.
Al and Winry exchanged a look, and sighed simultaneously as Scieszka jumped to her feet, blushing. "What are you two doing up so early?" she exclaimed, as she went over to scoop up the smaller of the blonds and ushered the other towards the table. "Especially you, Sara! Did you get your little sister out of bed, Peter? And where's your brother?"
"Big Brother's still sleeping," Sara lisped. Scieszka settled the two-year old down in her high chair, and levered the older-by-a-year Peter into the booster chair beside her.
"Zebby woke him up," Peter informed her seriously, "so he went back to sleep again."
Al raised an eyebrow. "And how would you know what it was that woke Terry up early, Peter?" he asked the boy dryly. "You wouldn't happen to know how Zebby got into his room so early in the morning, would you?"
Peter looked absolutely chagrined, and Sara burst into shrieks of laughter again. "Papa knows, Peter!" she cried, jabbing him in the arm. "I told you he would!"
"That's because your papa is smart," Ed said, and he reached over to ruffle Peter's honey-gold hair. "We have magical see-through-walls powers, didn't you know?"
Peter sank down until his nose was beneath the level of the table. Scieszka laughed. "Should I go get Terry?" she asked of nobody in particular. "I'm sure he can't have slept through this racket..."
"I'll go get him up," Winry replied, getting up from the table. "You just get some food into these two before they get up to even more trouble."
Sitting down at the table with his own plate heaped high with eggs, Al couldn't stop smiling. Nothing could be more different from his quiet, peaceful morning contemplation than this menagerie, but he wouldn't trade it for the world.
With kitchen, dishes, and kids all cleaned of breakfast and drying, Ed and Winry had disappeared into the den, and Al found himself on the living room couch with one of his notebooks and a mug of tea, and a cat or three to keep him company. Outside, Al could hear the muffled shrieks of laughter, and frequent, joyful barks. The noises faded or grew louder as the kids ran around and around in the house, or maybe ran down to the road. Al couldn't keep the smile off his face, hiding it behind his mug as he devoted himself to his book. No doubt eventually one of them would come running inside in tears or stormy anger, with a "she hit me" or "he won't play fair," but he would deal with that when the time came.
Across the room from him, Scieszka had settled herself in, with a newspaper and a pad of paper that looked like it had come out of the laboratory. As Al watched, she folded the paper aside and pulled the pad in front of her, bending close to it as she began to write.
"A letter to your mother?" Al asked conversationally. Scieszka looked up at him in some surprise, then smiled and nodded.
"Yes," she said. "It's been a few weeks, so I thought it was time to let her know how things were going. I thought she'd like to hear about Terry starting school." She frowned at the paper, a slight hint of melancholy creeping into her expression.
Al let his voice gentle, tempered by sympathy. "Did you ever get a response back to your last letter?" he asked gently.
He was pretty sure she never had; he was usually the one to sort through the mail, after all. Business letters—letters from Central, or from the military, which Ed always ordered him in an annoyed voice to burn, but he always made sure to check them first for anything important. Letters for Winry, from customers or other engineers asking technical mechanical questions as obscure as any of the similar queries that came for Al from his research counterparts at the University. Scieszka didn't get much business mail—it mostly went to her shop—so anything addressed to her, or to Ed, was usually personal. Al would have remembered a letter that was addressed from her mother.
Scieszka sighed, shoulders rising and falling. "No," she said sadly, and flipped the sheet of paper over. "I was hoping she would answer this time, but she didn't."
"I'm sorry," Al said quietly, and Scieszka shrugged a little, starting to write again.
"I'm not," she said. "I mean, I am. I wish she could just accept us—accept me this way. But I won't regret my family, not even for her."
"She's still your family," Al pointed out seriously. "She's your mother. She shouldn't shut you out like this. Not if it means shutting out her own grandchild."
"Until she's willing to accept all of her grandchildren, it doesn't matter," Scieszka replied. She toyed with her pencil, expression abstracted. "You know, sometimes I envy you guys. It's almost—easier. You don't have to worry about what your mother thinks of your living situation."
Al's first reaction to that was a strong denial. It was much better to have a live mother, even if that mother was estranged, than a dead one. But then he thought about it some more. What would he and Ed have done if their mother had turned away from them, horrified or revulsed by the love they had built for themselves, for each other? What would he do if his mother was alive, but denied her sons?
The seconds were ticking by, and Al shook himself out of his thoughts. "I'm sorry," he said again, painfully aware of how little he could say that would really help Scieszka. When it came down to it, Scieszka chose her family and her children over her mother. He only wished she didn't have to make that choice. "I really am."
"And I said, I'm not." Scieszka was back to writing, her expression calm and determined once more. "This is where I belong. Sooner or later, she'll have to accept that."
Al hoped that was the case. He hoped even more devoutly that Scieszka and her mother would be reconciled before her mother's illness carried her away from her daughter entirely. That would be the worst of all fates, he thought; for your mother to die, knowing to the last moment that you could never make things right between you. He found himself standing, and crossed to stand behind Scieszka, laying his hands on her shoulders. She turned her head and smiled up at him, as he rubbed lightly, offering what comfort he could.
It was a beautiful smile, and Al understood why his brother could be so entranced by it. It was the smile of a person with a sweet and giving heart, a person who wasn't afraid to give love or accept it, in any form. He leaned forward and pressed his chest to her back, wrapping his arms around her and settling his hands over hers.
"Don't forget to write about Ed's last disastrous cooking attempt," he murmured in her ear. She giggled a little at the memory, shoulders shaking under her arms, and moved their hands to write some more.
Tranquility never lasted long in the Elric household. Al had been aware, in the back of his mind, of Ed and Winry talking in the study, but it wasn't until their voices began to rise with frustration and annoyance that it really caught his attention. He met Scieszka's eyes, and she made a face that exactly reflected his own feelings. Just as well the kids were entertaining themselves outside, not that they hadn't seen this show played over a hundred times already.
"Edward, you overbearing ass!" Winry shouted, and a moment later she burst through the door and stalked into the living room, eyes glowing with fury. Al made sure to keep himself harmless and out of the way of her wrath, because in just a minute—ah. Here came Edward, fuming and annoyed, though not in a true temper just yet.
"What? What exactly is the problem?" he yelled at Winry's back, and she whirled around to face him. "It doesn't matter who her father is, she's still an Elric. El-ric, you understand?"
"She's also my daughter, you chauvinistic prick!" Winry yelled back. "Who's to say she's not a Rockbell, too? Why should it always be the male name that gets attached to the kid, like she's some kind of property of yours?"
"What, so she should be property of yours instead?" Ed snapped back. "You aren't pitching a fit about how Peter gets enrolled into the stupid school!"
Scieszka caught Al's gaze, and rolled her eyes in a meaningful way. Al had to smother a laugh; he was almost tempted to tell the two of them to get a room, before they got wound up enough to jump each other. Still, Winry didn't seem to be—Whoops. Here came 'deadly projectiles' mode.
She groped behind her on the bookshelf and grabbed a hardcover tome—Al winced, recognizing one of his theology textbooks—and flung it with devastating accuracy at Edward's head. "Don't even try to change the subject!"
Ed snatched it out of the air six inches in front of his face and slammed it down on the table beside him. "I am not changing the subject, you're just being hysterical! If he's an Elric then so is she! D'you want them to grow up thinking they're not brother and sister?"
"I am not being hysterical!" This time Winry flung one of her wrenches at him with deadly force; he had to duck a little and deflect it with his forearm. Scieszka jumped a little as it thumped on the table next to her, and Al scowled at it. This was really too much. "It was my mother's name, and you don't even care, because you're a—"
"—An insensitive prick," Al interrupted, standing quickly from the couch and sliding the mantelpiece clock out of Winry's reach before she could grab it to throw, "an overbearing ass, a chauvinistic idiot, and an immature jerk, we know all this, Winry, but please don't destroy the house trying to beat sense into his head."
"Hey," Ed objected heatedly. "Whose side are you on, anyway?"
"Actually, I'm afraid I'm with Brother here," Al said, and the apologetic tone couldn't really conceal the quiet resolution behind it. "It wouldn't feel right for our children to be separated by different names. Not everyone would understand."
"Argh!" Winry threw up her hands in exasperation. "I should have known you'd take his side!"
"Hey, look, just because you're..." Ed started to say, before he was interrupted.
Scieszka coughed, fiddling with her glasses. "Please, you two, settle down," she said in a quiet voice. "Terry's just now enrolled for this fall, it'll be two more years before we even have to sign Peter up. We don't have to decide anything just now."
"Oh, you!" Winry whirled on Scieszka, scowling fiercely. "You don't have to let them walk all over you, you know!"
Scieszka could only smile helplessly, and shake her head, because she really had no idea how to explain it to Winry. "Winry..."
"You can stand up for yourself once in a while!" Winry shook her head fiercely, blond hair flying everywhere. "It won't kill you!"
Scieszka sighed. "Winry, it isn't like that," she said softly, stepping forward and gathering Winry's wrists in her hands. The blonde stilled, face lowering, set in a stubborn scowl, but she didn't pull back.
Scieszka caught Al's eye for a moment, pleading, and he nodded firmly. Taking a firm grip on his brother's jacket, he dragged them out of the room, planting them in the den and swinging the door shut.
"She's being unreasonable," Ed grumbled, wriggling free of Al's grip. "It's just a name, damn it, why's she making out like it's a matter of life or death?"
Al sighed, and sat down on the den couch, wishing he'd brought his notebook with him. They'd probably be confined to this room until Winry calmed down, or the kids came in demanding lunch, whichever came first. "I agree with you about the names, Brother, but still," he said, "you shouldn't take Winry's feelings so lightly."
"I'm not trying to take them lightly," Ed said irritably. "I just don't see what the big deal is. She wanted to name her daughter after her mother, well, she did. If she wants, we can even put down her name as Sara Rockbell Elric, just so long as she's honestly an Elric. That's our mother's name. What more does there need to be?"
"It isn't just that," Al replied. "It's that—Well, you know that Winry doesn't have any siblings, and since Auntie Pinako passed away, well... she's the only Rockbell around now. She wants to continue a tradition of Rockbell women in Risembourg, to carry on her grandmother's business."
"Oh." Ed sat down on the couch next to his brother, the annoyed scowl smoothed out by a look of concern, though a hard line stayed between his eyes. "But how does she even know that Sara will want to be an automail engineer when she grows up? Maybe she'll want to be a librarian, or a merchant, or a schoolteacher, or a, or a..."
Al sighed again. "She doesn't, but that's not the point," he said. "It's just the way she feels that's important."
"I guess you're right." Ed tilted his head back, to stare at the ceiling. "Jeez, you'd think that knowing her all my life, and living with her for the last five years, I'd understand the way she thinks, but no."
"As long as one of us understands, Brother," Al said mildly, and Ed turned his head to grin at him.
"Well, as long as I've got you around, Al, I'll be fine."
Al tilted his head to the side, letting his humor surface. "And what do I get in exchange for being your interpreter, Brother?" he inquired casually.
"Ho?" Ed's grin widened, and he pushed himself off his position on the couch, turning over to climb onto Al's lap, resting his arms on the couch back on either side of the young man. Al smiled and raised his hands to settle on either side of Ed's hips. "Did you have something in mind, Al?" Ed whispered.
"Well, for a start," Al stated, rubbing a thumb along the seam of Ed's pocket, "I never did get my good-morning kiss."
"It's still morning..."
They hadn't gotten more than a few seconds, however, before the familiar giggle interrupted them. Ed froze, and Al groaned, letting his head thump back against the back of the couch. "Why am I not surprised?" he muttered. Ed buried his face in Al's shoulder, wrapping his arms over his head as if to hide himself.
Sara and Terry were hanging onto the edge of the door; Terry looked perfectly serious as usual, but it was Sara who was giggling, with the all-too familiar "I-caught-Mama-and-Papa-doing-something-naughty" grin on her face. "Sara, go help your mother," Edward said, his voice somewhat muffled by Al's shirt.
"I already did," Sara said. "She said to go play with Papa Al, because Mama and Mama needed some alone together time."
"Oh yeah?" Ed lifted his head and yelled through the open door. "Well, maybe Papa and Papa need some alone together time too, did you think of that?"
A faint laugh came from farther into the house, and Ed groaned, dropping his head back against Al's shoulder. "She's still mad," he muttered. "She definitely did that on purpose..."
"You're paranoid, Brother," Al told him, but sighed, and pushed Ed over to flop in an ungraceful heap onto the couch beside him. "But probably right."
"Papa," Terry said later that afternoon, leaning over the arm of the couch with his arms folded. "What does Mama Scieszka do for work?"
"Huh?" Ed looked up from his text, and at the boy through his glasses. "Why do you ask?" he said curiously.
A little shrug, a little foot-shuffling. "Amery asked," he said, referring to the daugher of the family that lived a few miles down the road. They met occasionally, when their families ranged far enough afield, and Winry had high hopes that they would become friends. "Her papa is a lawyer. She wanted to know what my mama and papa did for work, and I told her my mama makes automail, but I realized I don't know about Mama Scieszka."
"Oh. Well. Your mama co-owns a used bookstore in town," Ed told him. "Together with Mr. Ravi, they buy old books from people who don't want them any more, and sell them to new people who do."
Terry was silent for a moment, perhaps boggling over the concept of a book that someone wouldn't want any more. "Mama Scieszka is a bookstore-worker?" he said in a questioning tone.
"Well, she owns half of it, but yeah, she does work there during the week." Ed smiled. "She works very hard to keep it going."
Terry considered this for another moment, then asked, "What does Papa Al do for work?" Through the door into the laboratory, Al looked up to hear his name mentioned, but when there was no immediate call on his attention, he returned to work.
Now Ed grinned outright, a combination of amusement and older-brother pride. "He works in research and the development of alchemical theory. Important people at Central University send him questions and problems, and he figures them out, and sends the answers back."
"Oh," Terry seemed vastly impressed by this. "Papa Al is an important person?" he asked in an awed voice.
Ed chuckled, shooting a glance through the doorway at the lab. Al was studiously keeping his eyes on his work, but his cheeks were turning red. "Yes, that's right. Papa Al is a very important person, and a very smart person, too, no matter what he might say about it."
Terry nodded, golden eyes wide. "What about you, Papa?" he asked. "What do you do for work?"
Here Ed stumbled, awkwardly. Al looked up again, listening with interest. "Oh, well," Ed said awkwardly. "Right now I'm not really—I mean, I used to be a National Al—I don't do that any more, but a few years ago, I worked for the mili—" He bit his tongue at the look of incomprehension on his son's face. What did National Alchemists or the military have to do with this little boy? Nothing, if Ed had anything to say about it, and he did. He met Al's eyes, through the doorway, and his brother gave a quick shake of his head. Yeah. Maybe someday, he'd explain everything. But not today.
He sighed, and held out a hand to beckon Terry up onto the couch with him. After a moment's hesitation, the boy did, and Ed pulled him close and put an arm around him. Terry tolerated the cuddling patiently. "Well, right now I take care of you guys," he said with a trace of wry humor in his voice. "And, um, I help your mothers and your father with their work, even though I don't get paid for it. And I do stuff around the house."
Terry nodded. "Amery's mother does that, too," he said, drawing conclusions to himself. Then he looked up at Ed. "Papa, does that mean you're a housewife?" he asked seriously.
Ed choked, eyes bulging as he stared at his son. In the laboratory, Al started laughing so hard he fell over his workbench.
Ed remained in a bad mood from the incident all afternoon, especially as Winry came in to see what the fuss was, and once Al had explained the matter to her, she too laughed herself sick at Ed's expense. He set himself stoically to ignore it, but once Scieszka got home, Winry of course regaled her with the whole story, and he had to put up with two sets of girlish giggling, not to mention the little grin on his brother's face he could feel even when he wasn't looking.
The worst part, Ed thought moodily, was that there wasn't even anything he could really do to distract himself, no projects he could work on or immediate research that he could bury himself in to prove the assertion wrong. With the kids down for their afternoon nap, he couldn't even really absorb himself in caring for or playing with one of them. He picked up his discarded book instead and moved to the den, barricading himself around with some of his old favorites and glaring angrily at anyone who tried to interrupt.
So he was a little between jobs right now. So what? With their three incomes together, not to mention Ed's savings and pension, they were hardly hurting for money. If they were, he'd have figured something out, but they weren't, and somebody had to be at home all the time to take care of the kids, anyway. True, Al mostly worked at home, and Winry's shop was nearby, but Ed understood better than most what it meant to a child to have someone there and available all the time.
And after all the hell he'd been through in his teenage years, he damn well thought he'd earned a break. Admittedly, he'd never really given a thought during that time as to what he'd do afterwards, but continuing to work for the military was obviously out of the question, and for someone of his... somewhat unusual employment history and dubious fame, there wasn't much else work available for an ex-dog of the military.
Or rather, there was, but none of it suitable for a husband and father. Ed scowled at the page in front of him. Those damn letters—
"Ed, we're out of flour," Winry announced, poking her head in the door. "And butter, and cheese, and Peter's cookies, so somebody has to go shopping. Oh, and Scieszka was thinking of making meatloaf for dinner tonight, so also pick up—"
Ed came up from behind his book-barrier with a growl. "Why do I have to go?" he demanded. "I went last time, and the time before that, and to lug back your shipment of machine oil, too. Send Al, or go yourself."
"Al's busy," Winry informed him, "and I spent all day in the shop, while you've just been lounging around on the couch. There should still be money on the dining room table, so get going."
"I have not been lounging!" Ed snarled, clutching his book defensively. "I've been doing research."
"Sure, Ed," Winry snorted as she left back into the living room. Her next sentence was a bit jumbled, but one word drifted back to him: "...housewife..."
"I am not a housewife!" Ed howled, with as much fury as he had ever reserved for the word "short." He stormed out of the den into the living room, glaring after Winry, who didn't even stop laughing. "The Fullmetal Alchemist is not a housewife, dammit!"
"Brother!" Al reproached him, jerking his head towards the bedroom where the kids lay napping. Ed controlled his volume with an effort, though it didn't abate his ire. "No matter what you call it, Brother, the fact remains that you're the one who doesn't have a job. It won't hurt you to help out around the house, you know."
"It isn't my fault that I don't have a job!" Ed exclaimed, turning on his brother. "Nobody wants to hire an ex-dog of the military, and you already know I can't work for the University like you do—"
Al sighed. "Brother, we're not going to have this argument again right now," he said wearily. "Even so—"
"Even so, there are still things you could do," Scieszka spoke up, coming in to see what all the noise was. He glared, but didn't interrupt her. "It would do you good to get out of the house, Edward. You don't have to—but don't you think it would be good to try?"
"It isn't good for you to do nothing but sit around all day," Al added. "You weren't meant to sit still for this long, Brother. You know we love you, but sooner or later not doing anything'll drive you crazy."
"And drive the rest of us crazy in the meantime," Winry said, rolling her eyes. "Seriously, Ed. You're climbing the walls, around here."
"I never said I wasn't willing to work!" Ed exclaimed, turning from one of his lovers to the other with indignant rage. "But there's nothing I can do!"
"Even for the ex-military, there are still plenty of people that would fall all over themselves to accept your help, Brother," Al said. "What about that article in the newspaper, the one you were going on and on about last week? The one about the new railway they're laying to West City, for the trains with the new engines?"
"Yes, those!" Winry was nodding vigorously. "Wouldn't you love to be a part of that project, Ed? It would be like making history!"
"Winry, you know I can't do that," Ed protested. "I would have to go on-site—at least to Central—for God knows how long at a time—"
Winry and Scieszka exchanged a glance, and somehow that made Ed's temper flare any further, to see them forming an alliance between them. "It would be good for you, Edward," Scieszka said encouragingly, and Winry added, "It's not like we'll curl up and die if you leave for a while, Ed. We'll manage fine—"
"YOU WANT ME TO JUST UP AND ABANDON MY KIDS?" Ed exploded into a full rage. "WHAT KIND OF WORTHLESS FATHER DO YOU THINK I AM?"
Winry and Scieszka fell silent, aghast. They'd seen Ed annoyed, and grumpy, and cranky, and irritated, and even angry, but this kind of towering fury was something they'd never been confronted with before. Ed trembled from head to foot, hands held out to the side, restrained by sheer force of will from breaking something, and his eyes were wild. Al immediately got up from his seat, crossed the room, and put his hands on Ed's shoulders. "Brother," he said, cautionary.
"I won't abandon them," Ed said, rounding on Al, shrugging his hands off. "No matter what. No matter how good the reason sounds at the time, d'you think they'd understand? Why their father is gone and won't come back? D'you think they'd forgive that, for anything?"
"Brother!" Al grabbed Ed's shoulders more firmly, glad that he was still the bigger of the two, and shaking him once. It served to get Ed's attention focused on him, at least. "None of us are Mother," he reminded him. "We won't get sick and die if you leave us. And none of us are alone."
Ed took a deep breath and let it out, making a visible effort to calm down. He lowered his head, and unclenched his fists. "I won't leave," he muttered. "No matter how good the reason seems. I'll stay."
A noise from the far wall made them look over; a couple of blond heads were peering around the doorframe, eyes wide and frightened. Without a word, Winry went over to take charge of the children, herd them back into their rooms.
"Edward," Scieszka put in softly, concerned. "I—I can understand your feelings, but you can't throw away your whole life for the sake of staying in one place—"
Ed interrupted her with a fierce shake of his head. "This place is my life," he said, tone low, but equally intense. "This house and the people in it."
"This house is too small a world to contain you, Brother," Al said quietly. "We won't smother you, or let you stifle yourself for our sakes. I won't let you do that. Not any more."
"I won't leave," Ed repeated, faintly. Al sighed, and pulled his brother into his arms, hugging him fiercely.
"You will leave," he pronounced with certainty, "one day, you'll leave. But you'll come back again. No matter what, you'll come back again, and we'll be waiting for you."
The knock came in the middle of the afternoon, and Ed was at first inclined to ignore it. He was in the middle of a very good passage, after all, and it couldn't be that—"Someone get that!" he called irritably as the knocking continued. In fact, it was getting louder, harsher.
"I can't leave the stove," Al called in from the kitchen, and "I'm busy!" Winry yelled from the workshop. Scieszka didn't even answer, and Ed growled as he thought she must be too engrossed in her own book to even register the disturbance. The knocking only continued, until the door was rattling in its frame, and Ed flung aside his book with a muttered curse, levering himself off the couch. Erwin rose from his corner and stalked over to Ed's side, growling softly at the intruder.
Flanked by Erwin, Ed stalked over to the door. He hadn't even gotten a chance to look through the small window—whose idea had been to put it there in the door, anyway?!—when a sharp clap and crackling noise alerted him as to who exactly was on the other side of that door, and that he'd better not delay in getting it open.
He yanked the front door open just before Izumi could transmute it. "What are you doing here?" he snarled up at her. "You said you weren't coming until tomorrow!"
"I'll come when I want to come, you punk, now get your manners screwed in and invite us in," Izumi snarled back. She pushed forward; Ed knew better than to try and stop her, and he only nodded a greeting at Sig the big man followed his wife through the door, grunting a hello.
Erwin crept forward, snarling, ready to defend his home against the intruders—until Izumi stopped short and glared down at him. The snarl transmuted abruptly into a whine, and the German Shepherd hared off for Winry's workshop with his tail between his legs, clearly knowing when discretion was the better part of valor. "Coward," Ed muttered under his breath.
"Where's my babies?" Izumi yelled as she entered the living room, pulling off her overcoat. A chorus of young voices answered her, chanting "Auntie Izumi! Auntie Izumi is here!" Children tumbled out of every corner of the house, abandoning whatever game had been absorbing them in favor of this new, much better distraction. Izumi tossed her coat over her shoulder, and Ed made a dive for it as children swarmed over Izumi, dark and blond heads alike.
"Did you bring me anything? Did you?" Peter cried, clinging to Izumi's leg. "Auntie Izumi, come see what I made!" Terry fussed, tugging at her arm. "Auntie Izumi, Auntie Izumi," Sara chanted, still captivated enough by her presence that she hadn't immediately thought of some new diversion for her.
"You are so spoiling them," Ed accused, taking Sig's coat as he handed it over silently and going in search of a free coathook.
"Somebody has to do it," Izumi said smugly, gathering Peter in her arms and hefting him over her head. He squealed, and laughed as she spun him around, then handed him off to her husband in order to do the same with Sara. "Oh, look at you, you're getting so big!"
"Sensei, what are you doing here?" Al trailed out into the living room, still in an apron and holding a pair of cooking tongs. "I thought you weren't coming until tomorrow."
Sig answered, since Izumi seemed fully absorbed by turning Terry upside down. "We took the red-eye last night instead of staying in a motel," he grunted. "Is it all right if we spend the night here?"
"Of course, we can put you, uh..." Something from the kitchen distracted Al, and he vanished back that way for a minute, reappearing with a fork in place of the tongs. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were going to be here, I'm not sure there'll be enough for everyone."
"I'm sure it will be fine," Izumi answered, unperturbed. "We ate the food they served on the train, even if it was no good. And aside from that, Ed will just have to not eat like a pig for once."
"Hey!" Ed objected sharply.
Scieszka trailed out into the living room then, and deftly deflected Peter from pulling down Izumi and Sig's coats from the hook. "That's rude, Peter," she said. "Wait until Auntie Izumi is ready to give you your present. What are you doing in the area anyway, Mrs. Curtis?"
"I mean, you were just out here two weeks ago," Ed snorted, "and then the week before that. You can't possibly have that many holiday weekends. What's your excuse this time anyway?"
"Oh," Izumi said vaguely, pulling mysterious parcels out of her pockets and distributing them among the children. "There was this cow."
Ed and Scieszka exchanged a look. "Cow?" Scieszka hazarded.
"Yes, this, uh... needed investigating..." Izumi was clearly not paying attention at all. Sig was deadpan as a brick.
Ed rolled his eyes. Scieszka barely stifled a giggle.
Since Al cooked, Winry was on the roster to clean up. Scieszka volunteered to help her, and in short order the girls had shooed everyone else out of the house. Whether that was to get them out from underfoot, as Winry claimed, or to make sure there would be no witnesses if they chose to do inappropriate things with soapsuds, as Ed suspected, nobody really complained.
There was still plenty of light, the soft summer afternoon giving way only reluctantly to evening. Al settled on the porch, Erwin beside him and a book in hand he didn't seem terribly interested in reading; he was content just to watch the scene and the sunset, and feel the gentle evening breezes against his skin. The children did their best to make their guests feel at home by playing their favorite 'jungle gym' game with Sig, namely the one where he was the gym.
Ed, meanwhile, found himself pacing back and forth between the tree swing and the porch, trying to work up the nerve or the stomach to do this. Izumi must have seen his restlessness, because she came over to sit down next to him. Not pressuring, just waiting.
Ed took a deep breath. "I'm glad you came," he said. "I've been wanting to talk to you about something."
Izumi gave him an expectant look. "About the kids?" she asked.
Ed nodded, but didn't continue immediately. Instead, the two of them watched the children playing, climbing up and down and over the very-forbearing Sig.
"They're good kids," Izumi said softly, watching them. "And every inch Elrics."
"I know." Ed sat down, and put his head in his hands. "That's the trouble."
Izumi sat beside him, as well. "Does this have anything to do with the little treasure Terry was so proud to show me this afternoon?" she asked him.
Ed sighed. "You saw it," he said, "his array? He was drawing them all over the walls a week ago. We had to give him some chalk and a space on the floor."
"Ah." Izumi readjusted herself on the swing, looking comfortable. "So the little tyke's discovered alchemy. I'm not surprised, considering whose son he is."
"I'm not surprised either," Ed said. "Well. I am a little. He's only... God. He's only five."
"Wasn't that how old Alphonse was, when the two of you started practicing alchemy for the first time?" Izumi asked, spearing him with a sharp glance.
"Yeah." Ed hunched his shoulders. "Yeah, it was."
Izumi waited a beat, but Ed was not forthcoming. "Well, what's the problem?" she said. "From what I've seen, the kid's a bombshell of talent. If you and your brother train him he could be brilliant. Aren't you proud?"
Ed laughed, but the sound was strained. "Proud? God. Yes, I'm proud. I'm also terrified, Izumi."
"Why?" Izumi tilted her head to the side.
"Why? Why? You even have to ask me that?" Ed's hands clenched in his hair. "Look at what alchemy did to me and my brother. I don't even need to be telling you this. Look at what it did to you. I don't want that any child of mine to walk that path."
He stopped, and swallowed hard, before continuing. "Just thinking about it makes it hard to breathe. He's only five and he's already got most of Hogan's Elements memorized. What'll happen next? I jump a foot in the air every time he claps. I don't want what happened to my brother, to happen to him. Never. Again."
Izumi sat back, silent for a moment. At last she said, "What are you planning to do, then? Forbid him from practicing alchemy? With Alphonse's work, and your own research, that won't be easy. He'll never understand why you won't want him to do what his fathers are doing."
"I know." Ed tugged sharply at his hair. "I don't know what to do. I haven't got any idea. Al doesn't either. We don't know what to do. Alchemy nearly destroyed us, Izumi, but it's a part of us, like our skin, like our own eyes. We couldn't stop doing it any more than we could stop breathing. We can't stop Terry from discovering it either, it's in his blood. If what you say is true, then someday he might be an even greater alchemist than either of us. But what if that means he feels greater pain, too?"
Ed ran down. For a long moment neither of them spoke. On the lawn, Sara shrieked, and Peter tackled Terry to the ground, where the two of them wrestled. Al was watching them too, Ed noticed, and wondered if they both had the same expression on their face.
Izumi said, "There's nothing good or bad about alchemy itself, Edward. You know that perfectly well. It's a tool; in the right hands, it can be a powerful force for good, just like in someone else's hand, it can be a dangerous weapon."
"It can be dangerous even if it's not a weapon," Ed said. "You can make the worst mistake of your life thinking all the while that you're doing a great thing."
"That may be so," Izumi said softly. She sighed. "I don't know why you asked me, Ed. I'm not your parent. I'm not anybody's parent."
"You're the wisest person I know," Ed replied.
"Don't be a fool," Izumi snorted. "I'm figuring things out stumbling around in the dark, just like the rest of you."
"You've always known what's right and what's wrong, even when we didn't know it ourselves," Ed said. He looked up, and met Izumi's eyes for the first time. "We weren't wrong when we chose you to be our teacher."
Her own eyes were dark, full of old pain. It made Ed wince to see it, but he didn't back down. "I'm not sure of that," she said softly. "The most important thing I had to teach you, I couldn't."
He looked away. "That wasn't your fault," he said. "We made our own decision."
She turned her hand palm upwards, as if letting something fly away. "There's your answer, Edward," she said. "You can't make choices for your children. You can't strangle their mistakes before they happen, without also strangling them. The best you can do is love them, teach them all you can, and hope that they turn out all right. That's the pain of being a parent."
Ed rested his forehead against his knees. "I don't know anything about being a parent," he moaned. "I just want my children to be happy."
"Hm." Izumi regarded Ed's curled-up form for a minute, and a smile tugged at the side of her mouth. "Edward, what are your memories of alchemy like, from your own childhood?"
"Huh?" He blinked up at her, uncurling slightly. "Oh... I don't know. It was always something we just... did. And then..." He trailed off.
"Before then," she said. "What were your memories of alchemy like, before your mother died?"
"Happy," he answered immediately.
"Well, then." Izumi leaned back, obscurely satisfied. Ed gave her a confused look, so she let the small smile escape her. "Don't die."
"Huh." Ed paused, and thought about that for a minute. "Huh," he snorted. "So that's your advice? 'Don't die'?"
"That's damn good advice," Izumi intoned. "You wanted it, now you've got it. Don't be an ungrateful kid."
"I am not," Ed began, but he never finished. Peter came barreling over to them, Sara hot on his heels, Terry trailing after, yelling something about dessert and marshmallows and could they start a fire to toast them please please please Aunt Izumi? And Izumi laughed, and pulled Sara into her lap as Ed grabbed Peter in mid-fling. "Hey, don't kill Aunt Izumi, you little monsters," Ed yelled. "You want a fire? In the middle of summer? What, are you nuts?"
"It might be nice, brother," Al called from the porch. "But we should wait for Winry and Scieszka."
"Hear that?" Ed told his children. "Go bother your mothers. They know where the marshmallows are, anyway."
Willingly enough, the children pelted off into the house. Al shook his head, laughing, and opened his book at last. Izumi raised an eyebrow at Ed.
"Now, what were you saying?" she said, in a teasing tone. "You aren't what?"
Ed stepped backwards into the yard, arms held out for balance as he turned in a circle on his toes. "Ungrateful," he said. And laughed.