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(Continued from Chapter 10)

It was Mei who first alerted them. Sometimes, as she and Alphonse worked together in Roy’s garden, she’d take a break and sit on the fence, gazing through a gap in some of the bushes on the southern perimeter, watching the fields to the south of the hill on which the house stood.

And that was why, on a clear morning two days later, she saw the two riders while they were still a considerable distance away. They rode in a rather relaxed way up the small road on the eastern edges of the grass fields, obviously not in a big hurry.

Hohenheim and Havoc stood with Al and Mei at the fence for a few minutes, to make sure that these were the riders they’d been waiting for. But finally Hohenheim remarked, “I’m glad I didn’t bet you any money on this, Jean,” and Havoc laughed.

Al immediately dashed down the hill to find someone with a phone. In just a few minutes, he had called the Rockbell/Elric house on the other side of the hills, with a single terse message: “Get over here. They’re coming.”

And this was how it happened that when Roy and Riza dismounted and tethered their horses to a rail on the edge of the drive, and walked hand-in-hand into the house, they found not only a crowd waiting for them, but a feast as well.

But before the feast could get underway, there were a few other little matters to be taken care of first. As Roy followed Riza into the kitchen where everyone waited, Havoc grabbed him by the front of his shirt and slammed him against the wall by the door.

“Mustang – damn you – what the hell were you thinking? Do you know what you did to us, taking off like that? Don’t you ever do anything like this again, you bloody idiot! And as to this,” he pulled a legal document out of his pocket – the deed to Roy’s house in Central, as it happened – and began to rip it up into little pieces, “this is garbage. I don’t want it and I resent the hell out of you for foisting it on me without talking to me first. This is what I think of your stupid idea.” And to punctuate his point, threw all the small pieces into the air.

As they fluttered slowly to the ground, like a little blizzard in his kitchen, Roy favoured his friend with a raised eyebrow. “Got it out of your system now?” he wondered.

Havoc grinned. “I’ve been saving up that speech for days.”

Roy laughed softly and pulled him close. “I’m sorry, Jean. I’m really sorry.”

“Sorry is just fine,” Ed said, coming forward with a baby riding in one arm, “but the question is what you’re going to do now.” His eyes glinted. “Because if we have to come after you again, Mustang, we’re going to lock you in the basement to keep you around. Don’t think we can’t find a way.”

Roy looked around at the group of people in the big kitchen: Pinako on a chair at the head of the table, sharp eyes fixed on his face; Winry sitting beside her, giving him a warm smile as she tinkered with a screwdriver on the bottom of his toaster: smiling Alphonse with his arm around Mei, standing near the window; Ed by one of the counters with baby Trish, both regarding him with the same suspicious stare; Armstrong looming near the back door, already dabbing his eyes with emotion at the reunion – and Hohenheim, leaning against the ice box, arms folded and face expressionless.

Roy met the man’s calm eyes, and swallowed. “I guess I’m going to need your help, aren’t I, if I’m going to stick around?”

And both Ed and Al gave great whoops of delight, while Armstrong and baby Trish both burst into copious tears.
* * * * * * *

There was a little bit of good-natured arguing as Riza explained the plan while they ate. At first there was some protest at Roy only promising twenty years, until he pointed out that Riza had only suggested fifteen. And then the Elric brothers joked about what to do to make Roy look older as the years passed.

But for the most part, Roy was content to let Riza do most of the talking, and even he was surprised at some of the permutations she had already put into her design for their future. For one thing, she had decided that they would live in Central for seven months of the year, and then return here, to his new house, for the other five.

“I thought you might want me to sell this house,” he murmured.

“No. I really like it,” she said. “And I think your first impulse was right. You’ll need somewhere out of the way, that you can always return to.”

“That’s how I did it,” Hohenheim nodded. “I have a couple of houses I own, which always get willed to my latest ‘descendant’.”

“Which is you yourself,” Roy said.

“Naturally. I go away every few years, and then come back. And as the generations in the area grow older, it’s easier for them to see me as the son of the person who had been there a few years before. I’ve owned one house, out west, for almost four hundred years.”

Roy took a sip of his tea. “That was how I was planning to do it here. I thought maybe in ten years I’d go off and buy a house somewhere else, and come back here later.”

“And now, of course,” Riza covered his hand with hers, “you’ll have a family, and descendants, who will always be there for you.”

“And I believe I can assure you, Commander,” Armstrong pronounced, “that you will always have a home with the Armstrongs, through all the generations. We would pride ourselves on giving you a secure home to retreat to, whenever you might need it.”

Roy clasped Riza’s hand and looked down at his plate. “The thing is…though I’m glad I’ll at least get to know my descendants…or the Armstrong generations,” he added, his eye briefly flashing with a humorous glint, “I just don’t know how they’ll make up for not having their mother – or great-grandmother – around any more. Or my friends.”

Riza pressed the back of his hand against her cheek and closed her eyes. Havoc murmured, “I wish we had some kind of solution for that, Roy, so you wouldn’t feel so alone. But I guess that’s been the whole point of this all along, hasn’t it?”

Hohenheim said, “I know I’m not family, and you don’t know me particularly well at the moment…but at least I’ll be a friend who will always be with you.”

“And,” said Al, setting his cutlery carefully down beside his plate, “so will I.” Every eye turned to him as he picked up his napkin and dabbed his mouth with it.

Roy spoke into the stunned silence. “Alphonse…you can’t be saying…”

Al smiled at him. “I thought maybe this was a good time to mention it.”

Riza met Hohenheim’s eyes, remembering their conversation during breakfast on the train. But neither had time to say anything now, before Ed burst out, “Al, that’s just crazy! There’s no way you’re like Roy, or like dad.”

“Ed, think of it,” his brother said earnestly. “They got the way they are by making several trips to the Gate, or having big experiences there. And what about me? My body spent more than four years there.”

“But you didn’t take yourself there. And your soul was here. I mean,” Ed insisted, “you were pretty much a passive victim most of the time. If anyone should have ended up immortal because of all the activity they did at the Gate, it really should be m – “ And he stopped, his mouth open, as the full implications of what he’d been about to say hit him. The colour drained from his face.

Winry gave a little gasp. “Ed…?” she whispered apprehensively.

“How long have you known, Al?” Hohenheim asked.

“Almost since the day I got my body back,” he answered. “Maybe a few days after that. I started figuring out that I wasn’t feeling weird just because I was trying to get used to feeling and tasting and smelling things again. There was something else going on, and it didn’t take long to figure it out. I knew about you, after all.” He glanced at Mei. “We did some gentle testing over the years, and Mei has other ways of detecting something like this if she knows what she’s looking for. So we confirmed it a long time ago.”

Ed stammered, “But…but you’ve been growing. You’re changing. You’re not staying the same, like dad is. And you – you never said anything -- ” He fumbled blindly and reached for Winry’s hand.

Hohenheim said, “I was a young man, too, when I was changed. My theory is that you grow to your full maturity, and then it stops you from going farther than that, because if you went farther you’d be starting to deteriorate. So I’ve always thought Alphonse would keep growing for a few years more before he stopped.”

“You’ve…always thought…then you knew about this? You knew, and you didn’t tell us – him?” Ed demanded. Slow patches of pink and then red began to creep into his cheeks. “How could you stay away and not warn us? How could you do that?”

“Remember, I took a couple of years to recover after the battle with Father,” the man replied, unperturbed. “And then,” he glanced at Roy, “I had another person to watch first. I suspected he’d need my help long before you would. I wasn’t sure if he’d guess, and once he’d guessed, how long he might stay around before he ran. Alphonse was inexperienced enough that I wasn’t even sure he’d realize it had happened to him too. And you…,” he looked back at Ed. “I knew that if it had also happened to you, you wouldn’t detect it.”

This struck Ed like another sharp blow, and his chair pushed back with a loud scrape as he leaped to his feet and hurled himself from the room. Winry was right on his heels as he dashed down the hall, and almost immediately the others could hear fierce whispering that seemed to be coming from the library.

Pinako got off her chair, glaring at Hohenheim. “You could learn to be a bit gentler with your own son, you know. And you,” she glared in turn at Alphonse, “could have picked a more careful way of telling him. At least take care of the baby till one of us comes back.” She stalked out of the kitchen and down the hall after the young couple.

Hohenheim ran a hand over his hair and sighed. “I never do things right with him, do I?”

“I guess I should have talked to him in private,” Al said glumly. “I just thought,” he shrugged, “that Roy might be glad to know he’s going to have some of his friends with him through the years.”

“I am,” Roy said. “But it’s…,” he glanced at Riza, whose hand he still held, “very hard, coming to terms with all the implications. I guess you know that. But Ed’s never even guessed about this, before today. I don’t know what he’ll do.”

“My belief,” said Armstrong, “is that he’ll do what he always does: learn to endure and work with the circumstances he finds himself in.”

“So Mei,” Riza said, “how have you handled this? Knowing that Alphonse will be young and go on long after you’re gone?”

The Xingian girl smiled brightly at her boyfriend, and laid her head on his shoulder. “Al-sama is a very special person,” she said. “I knew that from the very beginning. I’ll be with him as long as he wants me to be. We still have many things to explore together.”

“Yes,” Al agreed firmly, “we do. And we’ll decide how things will go, as we go along. We might decide to do the same things you and Riza are going to do. And we’re definitely going to have kids too. We’ve always wanted to build a supportive family.”

“This is really weird,” Havoc remarked. “We’re talking like immortality is some kind of curse. When most people actually think of it as something to wish for.”

“They’re just not thinking,” Roy shook his head. “If they thought it through, they’d realize that unless all their friends or family are granted immortality too, it really is a curse.”

“It can be,” Hohenheim agreed. “And if you don’t train and prepare yourself, it really will be. But it can be a great adventure too.”

“I hope,” Roy said gloomily, “that I can figure out how to think of it that way. Right now, I just can’t.”

“That’s what we’re going to work on together. You, me, Al, and probably Ed. Though Al seems to have become pretty philosophical about it already. And we’ll still need to confirm whether or not Ed is going to experience the same thing.”

Roy felt Riza squeeze his hand, and he favoured her with a wry smile. It was all still pretty overwhelming. In fact, it felt as though he’d exchanged one sensation of being overwhelmed for another, and that nothing had really been solved. But one thing was different now: she was with him. She knew everything, and she was with him. Whatever else would happen in his long future, she was here now. Otherwise, he thought he might just end up running again.

After a few minutes, Al decided that maybe he’d better go talk to Ed too. Mei took over the supervision of the bassinette on the end of the table, in which little Trish was now napping. The rest of the group also stayed at the table for a while, picking at their food and talking about what their next step would be.

“Roy, I was going to suggest,” Hohenheim said, “that you take that vacation you had planned, and spend a month with me as I helped you get a bit settled about all this. However,” he glanced toward the door, from which they could still hear the murmur of voices from down the hall, “I think maybe I’d better stay with Ed for a while first. Will you manage for a few weeks on your own?”

Roy nodded. “I’ll carry on as I’ve been doing for the past five years. I’m still a consultant for the new department that Riza is running, so I’m sure she can find plenty of work for me to do.”

“And we’ll be planning a wedding too,” Riza said.

“We’ll all chip in with that,” Havoc said cheerfully. “It’ll be like old times, planning a covert operation.”

Roy and Riza looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Maybe not quite like that,” Roy grinned, “but yes, it’ll be fun putting it all together. I don’t think we should wait very long, so maybe it can’t be as big as it would otherwise have been.”

“That,” Armstrong said, “will not be a problem. If you want a large wedding, as befits the former Commander of Amestris, the Armstrong family would be proud to volunteer the ballroom at our family estate. And much of the preparation could then be handled by our experienced catering staff. That way, the wedding could be held soon, but could still be as elaborate as you wish.”

“That’s a thought,” Roy nodded. “We’ll talk about it and let you know.”

After a while, he decided maybe they could occupy themselves by doing the dishes. He insisted that the women remain at the table with their tea, while the men did the work. Havoc did the washing, Roy and Hohenheim did the drying, and Armstrong put the dishes away. As the latter reached without any difficulty up to the highest cupboard shelves, Roy glanced back at Riza with a smile.

“We should keep him around,” he said, and she laughed.

They passed the afternoon this way, in casual conversation, enjoying each other’s company. Eventually the Elric/Rockbell contingent returned, but Winry’s strained face and red eyes, along with Ed’s stoic refusal to talk about the thing that had made him flee the room, meant that they only talked about casual things. Riza asked questions about the general neighbourhood, since she now planned to live here for a part of every year, and the Elrics and Rockbells were glad to fill her in. But Roy noticed how often Al glanced anxiously at his brother, as though keeping an eye on him. And how often Ed smiled back at him, as though trying to reassure him. The same dynamic they had always exhibited as they protected each other during any crisis they had faced.

It wasn’t until early evening had arrived, and the group had had another light meal together, that Roy saw Hohenheim take Ed out to the front porch to have a little talk. In the meantime, Winry fed Trish, the others cleaned up the supper things, and those were going to return back to the Rockbell house got ready to leave.

Eventually Roy followed Hohenheim and Ed out onto the porch. By now it was dark outside, but the moon was full, and the two figures were clearly visible as they stood at the front rail, looking out into the front yard. Hohenheim glanced at Roy, and remarked to his son, “I’ll let you think about everything for a while, Edward. Go home with Winry and the others, and I’ll talk more with you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sure,” Ed said. He leaned on the porch rail and didn’t look back as his father went into the house.

Roy took Hohenheim’s place along the rail. A quick glance at his companion showed the same stoic, apparently calm face Ed had presented to everyone for most of the afternoon. But he, perhaps better than anyone in the house, had some idea what Ed must be feeling right now.

“You know,” he said, turning his gaze out to the front yard again, “in a way I feel like this is somehow my fault. If I hadn’t come to the Rockbell place and dangled the possibility of becoming a State Alchemist in front of you…maybe you wouldn’t have kept ending up back at the Gate.”

A pause. “But I had already been there, remember?” Ed reminded him. “The night you came to the house was the night that I lost Al’s body. I had encounters with the Gate twice that night alone. You didn’t prompt me to do that.”

Roy considered. “I suppose that’s true. So maybe this was inevitable. I’m still sorry, though. I wish this hadn’t happened to any of us.”

He heard Ed move, and glanced over again, to find the young man leaning sideways against the rail, arms folded across his chest, just looking at Roy. Ed regarded the older man in silence for a long moment. And then he shook his head and chuckled, slowly, as though in spite of himself.

“What’s so funny, Ed?” Roy asked, mystified.

“You are, Roy. Always trying to take the blame for whatever goes wrong in your friends’ lives.”

Roy smiled wryly. “I do tend to do that, don’t I?”

“You do. But you know…I think that maybe that’s something you’re going to have to let go of.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s made your life kind of hard, the past few years, because you felt so responsible, and felt like you had to fix everything that had gone wrong for everybody. But don’t you think that that could get really old, year after year after year?” Ed turned back to the rail, leaning both hands on it and gazing up at the moon. “I think we’re all going to have to learn to let things like that go – you and me and Al. We’ll probably go crazy if we don’t.”

“I hadn’t though of that. But you’re probably right,” Roy mused. “I suppose I can’t still be blaming myself for things if they happened two centuries earlier. There’s got to be an end sometime.” He frowned bleakly. “Two centuries…I hate the sound of that.”

“I know. So do I.” Ed straightened, and squared his shoulders. “But I guess this is how things are going to be now. Dad says there’s a small possibility that I didn’t end up in the same condition as him, or Al and you. But I think we both know that there’s no way I escaped the same fate, after all the times I ended up at the Gate, and all the bargaining I did. So I’m in the same boat as you. And we’re going to have to learn how to live this way or go completely nuts. I just…I can’t stand the thought…Winry…and Trish…” He turned his head away.

“I know, Ed. I know. For what it’s worth…any help I can give along the way, you know I’ll do it.”

“I know. Thanks. And ditto for you.” Ed looked upward, toward the moon, stretching his right hand up toward it. He pulled back his sleeve and regarded the metal of his arm, gleaming bright silver in the light. “It might have been nice if this…immortality or whatever it is…would have regenerated my arm, though. I wonder if it does that sort of thing.”

“I’d rather not try to find out,” Roy answered drily. “I actually suspect that it does. But,” he added as Ed glanced over in surprise, “I still don’t think your arm would be regenerated. Because you had already bargained it away. You might say it was part of a separate transaction at the Gate. And it wasn’t going to undo that transaction. This is, of course, purely theoretical.”

“Yes. Interesting.” Ed frowned, and Roy could almost see the wheels starting to turn in his companion’s head. “That might be worth studying.”

Studying, Roy thought. The thing that serious alchemists did best. There had never been enough time to learn all the things he himself had wanted to discover. But now…

Ed turned to him and managed an uneasy smile. “I guess it’s kind of disloyal, to Winry and Trish, to look forward to having the time to learn things like this. I should watch myself.”

Roy’s and Ed’s minds had always run along much more similar lines than they had ever admitted. But Roy didn’t mind admitting it now. “Not at all, Ed,” he said. “We’re going to give all the years we can to our lovers and our families. But it’s like you said – we have to build some defences too, to keep ourselves from going mad. And we’re alchemists. We live to study. I haven’t done nearly enough of it, and I’m going to keep it as one of the things I look forward to. In fact, you and Al are so good at it that I’d like to work with you, sometimes at least. I could learn a lot, I think. And maybe I’d have some things to teach you too.”

“It’s a deal. Who would ever have thought…”

“I know what you mean.” Roy glanced over his shoulder, through the living room window. “But for now, I think our families are waiting for us. We’ll talk later, okay?”

The relief on Al’s face as Ed walked into the room was palpable. Ed gave him another reassuring smile, this one more genuine than any he’d exhibited so far, and then he went to Winry and his daughter, picking up the little girl and cradling her in one arm as he planted a kiss on Winry’s forehead.

Roy found Riza at his side immediately, and reached for her hand.

“Everything all right?” she asked quietly.

“Yes,” Roy said, surprising himself. “I think everything is going to be all right.”

“Good. Then tomorrow we can decide when we should head back to Central.”

“The sooner the better,” Roy told her. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

(Continue to Chapter 12)
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