Title: Stepfather
Author: Jordanna Morgan (librarie@jordanna.net)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: G.
Characters: The Elric family, from the viewpoint of…?
Setting: An AU in which Trisha Elric didn’t die.
Summary: The Elric brothers’ stepfather-to-be has his work cut out with Ed.
Disclaimer: They belong to the genius of Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: This story is the first in what’s shaping up to be a series of “Things That Never Happened” one-shots. I generally don’t write AU twists like this, but FMA definitely has a way of inviting it! Several plot bunnies have resulted, with varying length, style, and mood. (This installment is written from a first-person perspective for a very good reason, so if you don’t care for that, don’t let it discourage you. Others will be written in the usual third-person format.)

 

Stepfather

 

After Hohenheim was declared legally dead, I waited six months before I popped the question to Trisha… and she said yes.

I was more relieved than I like to admit, even though she was reconciled to the idea that her first husband wasn’t coming back. She didn’t want to talk about it, but apparently there was something wrong with him physically. She thought it was the reason he left—and she believed it really had killed him by now. She was ready to move on.

I was more than ready to have her. I had been for five long years, ever since I saw her beautiful face at the door the first time I came looking for Hohenheim.

Becoming an instant father, on the other hand…

“Mom, Ed’s climbed out the window—he says he’s gonna run away!” Alphonse’s voice yelped from the top of the stairs.

The romance of the evening died a quick and ugly death. Trisha flinched out of my embrace, looking up at me with a kind of embarrassed alarm, and I sighed.

Of course, I should have known Edward was spying on us. Convinced as he was that I was trying to steal away his mother, he never let me out of his sight. I could just imagine his reaction when he saw the ring.

“I’ll go get him,” I volunteered wearily, and looked up at Al. At least he was on my side. “You want to come help me track him down?”

“Yeah!” he exclaimed, much too gleefully, and ran to get his jacket.

It was all a game to him. He thought my problems with Ed were the funniest thing in the world.

Trisha rose with gentle worry in her eyes. “Are you sure I shouldn’t…?”

“No. I need to do this. Really.” I squeezed her shoulders. “I’ve got to work this out with Ed somehow.”

She didn’t look very reassured, but she nodded, and I gave her a quick kiss.

As I put on my coat, Al came skipping down the stairs. He followed me out into the cool autumn evening, and the front door was barely shut before he turned his big, bright eyes to me under the porchlight, grinning eagerly.

“Ed said you asked Mom to marry you. Is it true?”

Looking at his excited face, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. “Yes.”

Alright!” he crowed, pumping his small fist, and bounded ahead of me down the hillside.

For whatever reason, Al liked me as much as Ed disliked me. I’d never understood why their reactions were so different, because I tried equally hard to win them both over. Al had been quick enough to accept me, letting me play games with him, talking to me about things that were on his mind; and later, fascinated by my alchemy, he wanted to learn all about it. With Trisha’s permission, I started teaching him.

But Ed never had warmed up to me—and even though I was sure alchemy intrigued him just as much, he refused to have anything to do with it. I often wondered if that was because of me, or his father, or both of us.

At least I was sure Ed wouldn’t run very far. In a little place like Resembool, a ten-year-old who hadn’t been away from his mother for one night in his life wasn’t exactly going to lose himself. Al knew where he was likely to go for a sulk, so I let him take the lead, swishing through the long grass under the moonlight.

No, I wasn’t worried about finding Ed. What bothered me was the question of how to make peace with him, once and for all.

I had to ask myself again if I was honestly ready for this.

A part of me still argued that I was too young to be a father to children Ed and Al’s age. I always countered that Trisha was just as young to be their mother—but even though she was hardly more than a child herself when she married Hohenheim, she had borne and raised those boys, learning the art of parenthood from the ground up. It was something very different to come along years later, an ambitious young man from the city who knew nothing about kids, imposing myself on their already-established lives. Even after the five years it took for my relationship with Trisha to reach this point, I needed to prove to them that life with me would be better than the life they had lived without me… and it was hard when I sometimes still wondered that myself.

I wanted to make both Trisha and the boys happy, but it was a fact that my plans and responsibilities would complicate things. Uprooting them from their quiet rural village to sprawling Central might only be the start of the upheaval awaiting them. In spite of the joy I saw in Trisha’s eyes when she consented to be my wife, I was still fighting with the question of whether I had any right to make their lives change so drastically for me, when I was willing to give up so much less.

All I could do was trust Trisha’s judgment in saying yes.

She certainly didn’t want me because she needed a man’s influence in the household. Even on her own, she had done a fine job of raising her sons, and there was nothing she could have done differently to prevent the way Ed felt toward me. I’d simply tripped over some serious Daddy Issues… because his anger and distrust had to trace back to Hohenheim’s leaving them. I knew that.

I just didn’t have a clue how to fix it.

We tracked Ed down at the first place Al thought to look, a gnarled old tree that stood alone in the middle of a neighbor’s field. He was perched in a crook of the branches, curled up tightly and shivering in the night air—and the only reason he didn’t see us coming was because his back was turned in the direction of the house. I felt pretty sure that was a deliberate statement on his part.

As it was, Al’s exclamation of “See, there he is!” was Ed’s first warning of our approach. He flinched and turned sharply to glare down at us, his burning gold eyes and tense, agile body making him look almost frighteningly feral.

Leave me alone!” he snarled, with unmitigated fury in his voice.

Beside me, Al simply folded his arms and scowled up disapprovingly at his brother. “Why do you have to be so stupid about this? Why don’t you want Mom to be happy?”

“Just shut up, Al! You know what’s gonna happen.” Ed shifted his scowl from his brother to me. “He’ll leave, just like Dad did. You think Mom will be happy then?”

“He’s not gonna leave us!” Al gazed up at me with those impossibly big, trusting eyes, and then shot Ed another reproving look. “Just because he’s an alchemist, that doesn’t mean he’ll be like Dad.”

Even in the patchy moonlight that filtered through the foliage, I could see Ed rolling his eyes defiantly.

I’d had enough of being argued over as if I wasn’t there, so I put my right hand on Al’s shoulder. “Go home and tell your Mom we found Ed. I want to have a man-to-man talk with him—and then we’ll be back.”

“I’m not—!” Ed started to protest, but I cut him off with a short gesture of my left hand.

“Go on, Al.”

Al had obviously hoped to see me fight it out with his brother, so I was almost surprised when he practically snapped to attention. “Right!” he chirped, and turned briskly, trotting away across the field.

I watched Al for a moment, and then looked up at Ed. He glowered down murderously at me.

First things first; if we were going to have a man-to-man talk, we needed to meet each other on the same physical level. I wasn’t going to let Ed have the psychological advantage of being ten feet above my head.

So I took off my coat, draped it over my arm, and cautiously climbed up into the tree.

Ed watched me grimly. If this had been an ordinary day, he would have been making snide comments about my slow and clumsy progress, but my proposal to Trisha had pushed things far beyond his usual level of contempt for me.

When I reached the branch he was sitting on, I paused to catch my breath, and threw my coat into his lap. “Here. Your Mom will have my hide if I let you catch a cold.”

With his eyes locked on mine, Ed deliberately dropped my coat over the side of the branch. It fluttered to the ground below.

“If I do get sick, and she blames you, then maybe she won’t marry you.”

Ah, the wonders of a ten-year-old’s logic. I sighed and lowered myself into a sitting position, just beyond his arm’s reach. “What do you want, Ed? I’ve done everything I can think of to show you I’m on your side.”

“Try giving up alchemy and quitting the military,” Ed muttered—but the very way he said it showed that he knew how I felt about that.

“I’m sorry, Ed. Since I met the three of you, a part of me has actually wished I could… but that’s the one thing I can’t do. I have a job to finish, and a promise to keep. But just because I’ve already made one promise, it doesn’t mean I can’t make another: to love and take care of you boys and your Mom.”

“You can’t keep both those promises,” Ed ground out. “You will leave, and you’ll hurt Mom all over again.”

“I’m not going to leave—”

Abruptly I caught myself, considering the terrible vagaries of duty. That was one promise I didn’t dare make… but in my case, it still wasn’t the same thing Ed was afraid of. At least, not quite.

“But if I ever do have to go away, it would only be for a little while. I’ll come back,” I insisted… refusing to even think about the possibility that I might one day come back in a coffin.

The boy folded his arms resentfully. “Sure. That’s what he said, too.”

My patience was starting to wear thin, and I sighed. “You know, Ed, it’s about time you stopped comparing me with him—and for that matter, it isn’t healthy for you to go on hating a man who may very well be dead now.”

I hope he is!”

The savagery of the outburst almost made me lose my balance on the branch. I winced and stared sadly at him, trying to figure out what to say to that kind of hatred.

“I guess I can’t really blame you for feeling like that,” I said quietly at last. “But Ed, listen to me: I’m not him. Whatever his reason for leaving was, it’s a reason I don’t have. There’s nothing in the world I want more than to stay with you and your Mom and your brother—and that’s not going to change.”

Stay,” Ed repeated bitterly. “That’s a good one. If Mom marries you, we won’t even get to stay here where our home and our friends are. You want to drag us off to Central City.”

The words were another painful blow, and there was nothing I could do to rationalize away my guiltiness over that point—especially because taking my family-to-be away from Resembool wasn’t just a practical matter for me. There were pages from my past that I had never even shared with Trisha. The more time I spent in that village, the more danger I felt of those terrible things coming out… and if they did, I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t lose the woman I loved.

“Being in Central is part of my job,” I said simply. “But you boys will have plenty of chances to come back and visit your friends here. Besides, growing up in the city will give you and Al opportunities you’d never have otherwise.”

“Like becoming a dog of the military, with a pocketwatch for a leash?”

I didn’t allow myself to wince at that. Obviously, Ed had been listening to Pinako Rockbell.

“That, or anything else you want to be.” I forced a slight grin that I didn’t really feel. “Anyway, Al doesn’t seem to think alchemy is such a bad idea.”

“Al is dumb. Before you were around, he was even dumb enough to want Dad to come back.” Ed’s fists clenched. “Who’d ever want that guy back, if he didn’t even care enough to be here that time Mom was sick and nearly died?”

A chill crept through my veins at the memory of Trisha’s illness. I was in Central when it struck her, but after the doctor telephoned me, I all but defied my superiors to take leave and rush to her side. On that endless train journey to Resembool, I resolved that if she survived, I’d never let her go… and when the time was right, I’d ask her to be mine.

And later—more than a day after I arrived, when she was struggling through the worst of it, she asked that the boys be taken from the room for a few minutes. The things she whispered to me then, the promise she asked me to make…

I took a deep breath. “I cared enough to be here, Ed.”

The boy flinched, his expression screwing up with an anger and hurt that didn’t even seem to have a real focus anymore.

“She asked me then to promise her something,” I continued. “I promised that if something did happen to her… I’d take care of you and Al.”

Ed’s temper finally boiled over. With a wordless snarl, he scrambled to his feet and launched himself to the next branch. He started climbing, as if his one thought was to climb as far from me as he could. I watched him keep going until the branches beneath him grew precariously thin.

“Ed, stop! Those branches are going to—”

It was too late. Wood splintered like a gunshot, and Ed plummeted.

There was no time for alchemy; I swore and instinctively stretched out one arm to catch him, gripping a branch with my other hand to steady myself. I reached just far enough, and his weight crashed into me, knocking the breath from my lungs and dragging my unbalanced body over the edge.

Something hit my head on the way down, and for an instant, the stars above were impossibly bright.

 

“C’mon, wake up… You can’t do this… You can’t die on me!”

A stinging slap landed on my left cheek, jolting my eyes open. There was an unrelated pain in my head that was on its way to topping the worst hangover I’d ever had, and I ached all over. The first deep breath I took made me wince. Bruised ribs for sure

When my eyes finally focused, I saw Ed staring down at me in the moonlight, pale and terrified.

“You’re not dead?” he squeaked… followed by an audible gulp.

Maybe it was the concussion, but that seemed like the funniest thing I’d heard in my life. I started laughing—even though it didn’t do my ribs any good.

“You’ve been waiting five years for an excuse to do that, haven’t you?” I half-groaned between chuckles, carefully sitting up. I felt the back of my head with my fingers; there was a nasty bump and a trace of blood, but apparently nothing too serious.

The joke eluded Ed. He looked at me suspiciously and stood halfway up, hands braced on his knees, ready to bolt if my good humor suddenly wore off. “Are you okay?”

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to live.” Cradling my smarting cheek in my hand, I regarded Ed’s uneasy expression, and let out a longsuffering sigh. “We’ll just pretend that never happened.”

Ed relaxed slightly, although he still looked guilty and a little confused. In his childish worldview, I was still The Enemy, and The Enemy wasn’t supposed to give him a break—unless, of course, it was a break in the arm. He straightened and stared at the ground, shuffling his feet.

“Sorry,” he murmured at last.

That one word clearly took a monumental effort, and it was almost lost in the chorus of crickets from the hedge at the border of the field… but the apology was there nonetheless, unforced and unexpected. He glanced up at me sheepishly through his mop of gold hair, furtively looking for my reaction.

I would have shaken my head wryly, but I wasn’t quite sure it wouldn’t fall off, so I just gave him a weary smile as I climbed a little unsteadily to my feet. “Apology accepted. Now stop being a brat and come home. I could use an icepack.”

With that, I picked up my fallen coat, and slowly started walking in the direction of the house—and to my surprise, Ed silently fell into step with me. Not behind me, of course, because that would have been conceding too much. But he walked beside me, just close enough for his shoulder to brush against my sleeve every now and then.

Maybe this was going to work out, after all.

In the end, we both only wanted the same thing, and that was for Trisha and Al to be happy. We just had different ideas of how to accomplish that. There would be disagreements and arguments and compromises for years to come, if not for the rest of our lives. I knew this wasn’t going to be our last battle… but maybe battles don’t always constitute a war, after all.

“You’d better not expect me to call you Dad,” he muttered at length, completely out of the blue, with grudging resignation in his voice.

Even in a tacit admission of defeat, Ed was still Ed. I choked back a laugh, and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Not at all… Let’s just stick with Roy.”


© 2010 Jordanna Morgan