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(Continued from Chapter 11)

Roy stretched his legs out in front of him, cradling the frosted glass containing a fresh, cool drink on his stomach before he took another sip. The kids from three families were almost in a state of riot on the front lawn, still experiencing the release of pent-up energy after the three-day train ride from Central that five of them had just experienced. Those who spent the greater part of their year in the city were always like this, the first couple of days after arriving at their country home on the hill. It was as though the clear, fresh air of this wide valley both energized them and served as a safety valve.

Whatever the case, the children could be very loud sometimes. Their parents were lucky that both the front and back yards of the Mustang house were so big, and contained so many pursuits that the kids could do outdoors. If the youngsters had stayed indoors, the adults would need to wear earplugs.

“Trish, don’t you think you should have changed into slacks first?” Ed called to his daughter, as she knelt by the flower beds along the front of the yard. She and her younger cousin, Meisy (named by Alphonse both after her mother and, rather bizarrely, after Maes Hughes), had just embarked on a spring planting of flowers in a border around the yard. Meisy was dressed quite sensibly, in a pair of overalls, her two black braids hanging down her back and out of her way. Trish, on the other hand, wore an impractical white dress, while her golden hair constantly tumbled over her shoulders and got in her way.

“Let her decide for herself, Ed,” Winry admonished from the patch of grass across the yard, where she sat cross-legged (wearing slacks herself), fixing a couple of automated animal toys for three of the other kids. “She’s old enough now.”

Trish pushed her hair back from her face yet again as she sat up straighter, looking over her shoulder at her father on the porch. It was hard to believe that such a composed, elegant teenager could have been produced by either Ed or Winry, Roy thought, but there it was. His oldest boy, Hugh, certainly seemed to enjoy her company. The fourteen-year old wasn’t doing any planting himself, but he hovered beside Trish and Meisy, offering suggestions.

Trish said, “I didn’t think we’d be planting today, dad. But I’m not going to make Meisy do all the work now that I’m here. We’ll clean the dress if it gets dirty, that’s all.”

“It’s hardly got any green streaks on it,” Hugh offered helpfully. As Trish looked up at him and smiled, his face tinged to deep pink under his shock of jet black hair.

Roy and Ed shared an amused glance. “You don’t suppose, someday…,” Roy murmured.

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Ed laughed. “Unless he meets some sophisticated girl one day out there in Central.”

Roy snorted. “He’s too shy when he’s in the city. He’s a real bookworm. He seems to fit in a lot better here.”

“That’s just because it’s exotic. He’d probably think differently if he lived here all the time.”

“Let’s try an experiment, then,” Roy drawled. “I’ll leave him with you in the fall. He can do his final year of school here instead of in Central.”

“And miss his last year at the Alchemy Academy? I bet he wouldn’t like that.”

“I’m sure you could give him a much better grounding in the hard mechanics.” Roy took another sip of his drink. While Ed had never regained his ability to do internal alchemy just by clapping his hands, having permanently bargained it away in exchange for his brother’s body, he had worked hard over the years to retrain himself with physically drawn arrays. But of course, that wasn’t the main reason for Roy’s joking suggestion. He knew very well how his son adored Ed’s daughter. He just hoped there wouldn’t be heartbreak for him down the line.

Still, heartbreak as well as happiness were both a part of living one’s life, weren’t they?

“Ouch!” Winry burst out, dropping her wrench on the grass and sticking a cut finger into her mouth. “Well, that was no good. I just broke the part. I’ll have to go get another – “

But before she could say any more, Roy’s other son, the tawny-haired Christopher, clapped his own hands and touched the metal horse Winry had been working on. With a bright flash, the two-foot high toy was apparently fixed.

“No fair!” twelve-year old Lizzie, Ed’s other daughter, scolded immediately. She was an almost perfect replica of her mother at the same age, right down to the fascination with mechanical things. She picked up the wrench and brandished it at Christopher. “You’re not supposed to cheat and do everything with alchemy, you know.”

“I don’t do everything,” Chris said defensively. “Just things that need to be done in a hurry. I want to play with the horse.”

“But fixing it is just as fun,” Lizzie pronounced authoritatively.

“No it isn’t. It’s boring.”

Ed’s one son, Dennis, sandwiched in age between Trish and Lizzie, now interjected. “Well, it’s fixed now. You can help mom finish the cow, Lizzie. Chris and I will go play with the horse, and you can bring the cow when you’re done. Okay?”

“Oh, all right,” Lizzie pouted, but turned almost immediately to the other metal body as Dennis and Christopher took the horse to the back yard. Lizzie enjoyed working with her mother better than playing with the boys, anyway. She was already pretty good with automail.

Roy checked for the remaining two children: his own black-haired eight-year old girl, Jeannie, and Alphonse’s nine-year old Seth. He found them almost immediately, by the bird bath near the front drive, splashing each other and laughing.

Kids. Never a quiet moment.

But never mind that. There were other things to think about, and Roy returned to the subject he and Ed had been discussing just a few minutes ago. “So,” he said. “Another couple of years. Have you decided what you’ll do yet?”

Ed shrugged. “No. Winry and I have talked about it a lot, but I still don’t know. I keep feeling like the kids will be too young.” He glanced over at Roy. “Aren’t you worried about that? I mean, your Jeannie will only be – what – ten? That’s about the age I was when dad disappeared. That’ll be pretty hard on her.”

“I know,” Roy nodded. “We actually didn’t even plan to have three kids; she was kind of a surprise. If Chris had been our last, he’d have been fourteen by the time I originally planned to go. So I don’t know. I may drag it out a bit longer. This helps, of course,” he added, sweeping a hand across his face. Alphonse and Mei, with their medical knowledge, had helped both him and Ed develop alchemy that would alter their appearance so they looked their real ages. “I think Riza even forgets sometimes, if she lets herself. We’ve been making our plans the last couple of years, as we always intended, but I’m thinking of asking if I can stay seven more years instead of two.” Roy shifted in his chair. “She actually might not let me. She may get too uncomfortable as I watch her grow old without growing old myself. It’s…harder than I thought it would be, to make final plans. Harder than either of us thought.”

“I know what you mean.” Ed smirked over at him. “Do you even remember what you really look like?”

Roy chuckled, running a hand through his seemingly grey-streaked hair. He’d even followed Ed’s and Al’s example and had taken to wearing glasses the last five years, though he really didn’t need to. “Oh, I let myself get a glimpse now and then,” he smiled. “I just do it when Riza’s not around. I don’t want to remind her, when she sometimes feels a few aches and pains.”

They watched the kids at work and play in companionable silence. Through the open front door in the middle of the porch, they could hear Al, Mei, and Riza laughing together as they fixed the big lunch that had become a tradition on the first full day after the arrival of the Mustangs and of Al’s family back from Central each summer.

Presently, Roy wondered, “Have you heard from him lately?”

Ed didn’t have to ask who he meant. “Oh, he sent a letter a while back. He’s been up in Drachma for a couple of years, but he was going to swing over to Xing after he sent the letter. He said that when we’re ready, he’ll be there.”

“Cryptic as always,” Roy nodded. “I don’t know how in the world he’ll know when I’m ready, since I’m not sure myself.”

“I sometimes think he spies on us. And then, other times, I think he’s just got a good sense of how our minds work. I might figure him out eventually. After a couple hundred years, maybe.”

Both men looked up at the sound of a creak in the doorway. Alphonse, properly aged, stood framed there, smiling at his brother and his friend. “Lunch is ready,” he said. “There’s lots, so I hope you’re hungry.”

“Great, Al,” Ed said. “I’m always hungry; you know that.” He called out into the yard, “Time to come in, everybody!”

“But mom and I are just getting started!” Lizzie complained, emphasizing her point with a screwdriver.

Ed grinned at his two companions and got out of his chair. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll do some negotiating here.”

Roy stood, and briefly watched as Hugh held out a hand to help Trish stand up. (Meisy could apparently get up off the grass on her own. But she didn’t notice the absence of a helping hand, being earnestly preoccupied, as always, with her own tasks.) Hugh observed, apparently entranced, as Trish carefully wiped a few blades of grass off her skirt. The boy was right: there weren’t too many green streaks.

Ed was now crouching by the toy metal cow, admiring his daughter’s handiwork while Winry looked on in pleasure.

It had been a good eighteen years so far. Some day this would have to come to an end, Roy thought, but not yet. Not quite yet. He was madly in love with his wife, and he adored his children to distraction. Whenever he thought of the kind of life he might have led if his lover and friends hadn’t come looking for him, all those years ago, he simply shuddered. He had made a point, almost every day they’d been together, of thanking Riza for persuading him to come back and help her create all of this.

She had known better than him. But then again, she had always been wiser than he was. When at last the time came to move on, he would face his long life ahead with a strength and grounding he’d never otherwise have had. And it would all be because of Riza.

It had, he decided as he turned into the doorway of his full, noisy house, been worth every moment.
* * * * * * *

They hopped a train and headed west, deciding to test a theory. And sure enough, they had hardly gone more than three stops beyond Risemboul before Hohenheim stepped, smiling, into the booth they’d reserved for themselves.

“Aha!” Ed exclaimed. “So you have been spying on us.” Roy and Alphonse grinned as they looked back and forth between the two.

Hohenheim laughed and sat down, tossing a backpack into the cupboard above his seat. “I haven’t, actually,” he said. “I just had a hunch it was almost time. I was planning to meet you at Roy’s house, if you must know, so you can see I’m off by a day.”

“Actually you’re not,” Al said. “We left a day earlier than we’d planned. We gave our families time to get on the road to Central, to go spend time with everyone there and get some distance from us, but then we decided we didn’t want to wait any longer to be on the road ourselves. So if we hadn’t done that, you’d have been right on time.”

Hohenheim surveyed each of them in turn as he settled in. All three had now released the alchemy that had given them an appearance of appropriate age, and they looked very much the same as the day Roy had come back to the house after his attempt to run away. Even Al had retained much of his former youthful appearance, even if his shoulders had broadened slightly. He might have grown another inch, if that, but that was all.

For the first time in almost thirty years, all of them had ventured once more into the world as their true selves.

“So,” their elder and mentor remarked as he pulled off his jacket and leaned back in his seat. “Where exactly are we headed?”

“We don’t actually know,” Roy said. “We thought we might let you decide where you think we should go first.”

“I only want to travel for a couple of years, though” Ed put in. “So I’d rather not cross any oceans this time, if you don’t mind. I’ve got an alchemy laboratory I’ve set up near West City, and I really want to work on some things there.”

“And I’d like to visit Xing at some point,” Roy said. “I want to go through their historical records and see if I can find any evidence of my ancestors who came from there.”

“I might go with you to Xing when you do go,” Al said. “Mei and I only got there once, and I’d like to see it again.”

“But for now,” Ed said, “we want to spend time together. And with you. If you don’t mind, dad.”

“What else am I here for?” Hohenheim smiled. “But I don’t have any specific destination in mind either. So I think I’ll use the decision device that I often use, when I’m trying to make up my mind.”

The three of them waited as he dug into a pocket, curious to see what mysterious tool he would produce. After a moment, he brought out a coin, and quickly flipped it in the air. As he caught it on the back of one hand, and slapped his other hand over it, he said, “So let’s say that heads is the north-west axis, and tails is east-west. We’ll keep narrowing it down once we choose between the two.”

“That’s it?” Ed laughed. “That’s the way you decide?” He grinned at his father, who smiled broadly in return, and for a moment they looked very much alike.

“Why not?” the man said. “Unless I had something important in mind – like finding Father and trying to thwart him – I had all the freedom and time I needed. And that’s what all of you have now. So what’s it going to be? Heads or tails?”

“Heads,” said Ed.

“Tails,” said Al.

And as the brothers began to bicker between the two choices, Roy laid an arm along the sill of the window and grinned at his youthful reflection in the glass. Hohenheim had been right, he decided. This was going to be a great adventure, and he was really looking forward to it.

FIN


 
 
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