BITTERSWEET

Disclaimer: I don't own FMA, I just like to play around in its world and annoy the canon characters for a while. As well as tug at your heartstrings.
Author's note: I just started reading The Girl WithThe Dragon Tatttoo by Stieg Larsson (HIGHLY recommended that you read it). Little scraps of stories began intruding on my conscious mind when I was barely into chapter one. They got so demanding I had to put the book down and fire up Word Pad.
Warning: This might make you shed a few tears. First series animeverse with some manga overtones.
Beta du jour: Took-baggins

She was crying, loudly enough he could hear it from the bottom of the hill as he made his way homeward, tired from another long workday. The sound became louder the closer he came to home, it buzzed against his eardrums like a persistent house fly. He found himself squinting his eyes against the noise, as if that would that would restore the quiet.

Her tricycle had toppled over, taking her with it when she tried to make too sharp of a turn on the gravel drive at the side of the house. She'd fallen hard and scraped her left arm from wrist to elbow, so his three year old daughter sat wailing in a puddle of misery for someone to come and get her.

The kitchen window was open right over her head, and the racket had to be splitting the ears of anyone who sat at the table inside, but no one came to her rescue, even when she ratcheted up the volume for a few seconds. Her mother thought she was too spoiled and chided him if he picked the little girl up at the first wail. "Alphonse." she would scold her husband in an exasperated and long suffering tone, "you must stop coddling her, or she will never learn to get back up and dust herself off."

His wife used to smile when she said that, but the smiles had become grim slashes on her mobile face of late. She'd also taken to giving him the cold shoulder for a few days and he'd tried to ignore his daughter each time she cried, but it was so hard to ignore weeping children, especially his. Tears made his 'father senses' tingle and filled him with an almost irresistible urge to protect and comfort, they would only be this young once, after all.

She was the youngest and his favorite. She knew this instinctively and wrapped her father around her dainty little finger whenever she could get away with it. The girl took a shuddering breath, her cries stuttering almost to a halt before resuming, her soft cheeks were reddened and damp from weeping for hours, she sounded so completely miserable. He'd already decided to give in when she whipped her head around at the sound of his footsteps.

"DADDY!" She drew a quick breath and wailed in a voice so incredibly forceful from such small lungs. It vibrated in the afternoon air like a command and he did as she ordered when she held chubby arms out to him. A knife twisted in his heart at the sight of the bloody scrape that marred the pink perfection of her porcelain skin. Minor injuries were a fact of life for children, he and his brother had collected more than their share of scrapes, cuts and bruises, but it seemed so wrong when it happened to his offspring.

He went down on one knee and scooped her up to set precariously on the other leg. "What's wrong, sweetie?" He crooned softly in his best Daddy will fix it tone of voice while taking a clean handkerchief from a shirt pocket to dab away her tears. She told him with many hitched sobs as to make what she said almost impossible for any adult to understand, but after six children, he was well versed in 'toddler-speak' by now.

He whispered softly to her and kissed her over heated forehead several times before her cries slowed to sobs and hiccoughs. Fat tears like jewels still decorated her cheeks when she smiled again, an event which started small and spread across her little face like a shout of joy. It filled his heart with matching gladness when she abruptly beamed at him, her perfect little milk teeth shining like fairy beacons.

Because her smile, at once so familiar to his eyes, like a landmark, reminded Alphonse of him.

The missing one, the prodigal, the lost boy who's disappearance left a brother-sized hole in his heart. Four of their other six children resembled his wife, although two did have his chestnut hair and deep brown eyes, but she was different, a throwback to her paternal grandfather. Her hair was so pale it was almost like white candy fluff the day she was born, but it darkened as she aged. It was never cut other than the odd trimming of split ends, and now a shimmering fall of gold poured over her shoulders. But it was her eyes, at first a muddy, indeterminate color when she arrived in this world, they changed eventually to a startling yellow which glowed softly like an oil lamp after the night closed in.

After he first noticed it, he was so overcome as to go out to the old barn and cry real, unashamed tears until the tightness in his chest eased. Afterwards, he sat quietly in the straw, hugged his knees, and listened to the horses munching hay and nickering softly in their horse language to one another. Eventually, he got to his feet and saddled the fastest, the very dark one he called Black Beauty and rode it at a hard gallop around the narrow country lanes.

The sun was setting when he finally pulled up at the crest of the highest hill and looked down upon the valley of the Rain River. The quiet village of Risembool lay beyond and it drowsed in the sunlight like it always had. The river flowed obediently between its banks like it always had (except during the fall rains when it occasionally burst its confines and ran wild). He had a minor epiphany then, at the sight. No matter what upheavals he'd suffered, the village, the river, the fields and home would always be there and waiting for him.

He dismounted then and walked his spent mount home and both had cooled out by the time booted feet and metal shod hooves crunched on the gravel drive between the barn and the house. While he rubbed the house down and brushed it, the rhythm handling the curry comb made his mind wander back to those days, the days he'd spent searching for his brother. He'd looked underneath every rock and behind every tree in Amestris while he tracked down even the barest whisper of a possibility of a rumored sighting of his lost sibling. The wars were over and he crossed the borders into Creta, Ishbal, and Aurego, working odd jobs for just a few coins, or a meal to fill his belly.

Six hard months of back-breaking and dangerous labor in the coal mines of Youswell brought him enough scratch to buy passage with a trading caravan crossing the Great Eastern Desert to Xing where he encountered enough adventure to last him a lifetime. Yet he came up empty handed even in that history haunted country. Even if he'd found love and a pretty wife who taught him her country's alchemy and so much more, he hadn't located hide nor hair of him.

Exhausted and demoralized, he returned home to Risembool, hand in hand with his spouse, her belly already swelling with a new generation of Elrics. He stretched out on the bed he used to sleep in before he'd gone to Dublith with Teacher and slept for hours, his dreams black like fear and red like fire. She would be there when he woke up with startled cries, her delicate little hand cool and comforting on his forehead. He felt like he had a chronic fever that would ebb to a threatening whisper, but it never went away completely.

She was well trained in the healing arts and she tried, oh gods she tried to fix him. But this wound went far too deeply for even her to reach. But in time, a hard shell formed over the ache, like when the body tries to isolate an infection. On certain days, like his birthday or the anniversary of their mother's death, or the day Fuhrer Bradley was assassinated by the now-exiled traitor Mustang, the shell cracked and then broke. The pain would pour out like the first longing agony of his absence all over again, and Alphonse would howl in anguish, a burning face buried deep into his pillow. He wanted to suffocate himself in the goose down, just enough so he could go to sleep and never wake up to the task of sealing the white-hot pain back into its cage where it raged like a wild thing.

Over time, the reminders of upsetting events lessened gradually, and he felt more able to present the face of a sane Alphonse Elric to the outside world, Oh, hello there, how are you? I'm just fine, and you? It no longer bothered him that except for the occasional tingling sensation, a part of his psyche had gone completely numb.

A girlish spout of giggling brought him back to the present, what had he been doing? Oh, yes, ignoring his wife's wishes and coddling his youngest daughter. After all, she was his favorite, wasn't she?

Even if he had to force himself to love her, even if the sight of her smiling like this made the monster inside his soul growl like he'd poked it with a sharp stick. Even when she

The loose gravel meant no one could sneak up on him and even rubber sandals crunched loudly enough on the drive. Alphonse stood up with his arms full of happy daughter and with a great effort; he pasted a convincing smile on to his face to greet the newcomer with. "Hello, Winry."

She'd changed into a long, floaty blue dress, the fabric cut and sewn into simple lines which suited the automail engineer best. Frills and ruffles would have just looked ugly on her, until she got irritated enough to just take a sharp knife and cut them off. A covered casserole dish of dark brown stoneware was in her hands, her contribution to the once-a-week evening meal she shared with the Elric family.

"Auntie Winly!" his daughter squealed with delight, mangling her name as young children do. She loved the beautiful blonde woman, because Winry indulged her too. Scattered among the dolls and pull toys in her play box was a miniature tool kit which she occasionally pulled out when she wanted to pretend to "fix" toy automail affixed in place of missing limbs on her older brothers' action figures. Alphonse half suspected his daughter had deliberately maimed the lumps of plastic solely to get Winry to fashion miniature arms and legs from curious metal scraps. Not that his sons minded, after briefly shedding tears, they were delighted their toys had gained limbs with a greater range of motion than the originals.

"Hey there, Al." Winry juggled the stoneware pot on one arm so she could give him a sisterly punch on the shoulder; it was affectionate, but he could feel the force behind it. He never challenged her to an arm wrestling match for this reason, for fear she would beat him like she defeated the men each year at the Spring Lamb Festival. She was alone now; Den was gone, buried lovingly behind the house under a fragrant mound of bluebells which blossomed madly each spring. The years had even taken her grandmother, Pinako who fought age with a grim determination but finally succumbed to it one night in her sleep. Alphonse had read the eulogyat her funderal, and halfway through, he'd joked it was a good thing Death had come for her when she wasn't looking. Otherwise Pinako Rockbell would have sent the grim Reaper on its way after a severe "wrenching". The words sounded clumsy and heartless when they tumbled gracelessly, like young puppies, from his lips, but the entire village had come to see her off on her journey to the other side. Everyone at the old graveyard laughed heartily, their grief forgotten for a moment among the grey stones.

His wife hadn't even known she was pregnant at the time and Alphonse comforted himself in the weeks and months that followed by imagining the old woman's spirit had taken refuge inside the growing fetus, so deciding what to name the new baby was a relatively easy task nine months later.

"Hello, Pinako, did you have a little accident?"

"Yeah! I crashed my trike and hurt my arm, see?" The momentary pain was forgotten while the little girl showed off her "owies" and the paint scraped off her tricycle, a hand-me-down from her oldest brother. Alphonse had brought it home from a rare trip to Central as a first birthday gift for his oldest child. It once a crisp red and white with chrome handlebars, but each succeeding child had added dents and lost a little more paint with each passing year. The matching plastic tassels were lost long ago, while the white rubber handlebar caps were held on more with tape and hope, and the leather seat was cracked. Alphonse kept meaning to get a lambs wool cover on before a tender behind got poked with a sharp metal spring, but he never seemed to get around to it.

His second youngest child, a boy that was the spitting image of him when he was that age came out the side door, letting it bang shut behind him. "DAD! He called breathlessly, his face reddened and chestnut hair standing up at odd angles; he must have just come from a hasty after play bath. "Mom said to tell you dinner is ready - oh hi, Aunt Winry!" All of Alphonse's kids liked Winry because she showed interest in what they were doing, how they felt and their opinions about world events, even if that world didn't stretch further than the borders of Risembool. Or maybe it was the sight of the stoneware pot in her arms; the kids showed a sharp appreciation for good food and Winry really was an excellent cook.

He set Pinako down and she ran for the door, laughing and whooping, his son chattering nineteen to the dozen to Winry who listened with an expression of rapt attention. She would have been a good mother, but despite the occasional date with one of the men in the village, she remained resolutely single. Alphonse knew Winry was waiting for him to come home, she would deny it of course, but he could see the yearning hidden in the back of her blue eyes. He recognized the look because it matched the one in his own.

Alphonse turned his back on the house and walked slowly to the edge of his property, as was his habit. Every night before dinner, he would stand on the brow of the low hill and gaze out over the road which led to Risembool. After his wife quizzed him, he would swear up and down it was just to clear his mind before the evening activities of dinner, and washing up, followed by bath and story time for the children before he and his wife tucked them into their beds for a night of recharging batteries. Alphonse never could tell if hed really convinced her, or if Mei-Chan just decided to hold her tongue and keep the peace.

Every evening, his eyes yearned to see a familiar figure on that road, but each evening, the road remained stubbornly bare. The only traveler he saw on as the night drew in was a fox slinking across it with a bundle of feathers clamped tight in its jaws. It stopped briefly and looked up, as if it knew he was watching, the fox favored him with a mocking gaze as if to say you're wasting your time before it bounded across the last few feet into a wheat field. The road curved sharply left just past the field and the shadow of anyone approaching would grow long and black before its maker walked into view.

A shadow did appear this time, bobbing up and down, it moved in fits and starts along the road, Alphonse suspected it was just one of his neighbors returning from some errand in the village and his feet were already moving and turning to carry his body back to the house. He stopped, turned uncomfortably at the waist to see just who it was, although he didn't know why he was so curious. But the shadow was moving wrongly, like the person behind it was limping, perhaps someone had been thrown from his horse and might need assistance. Reluctantly, as if they much rather preferred to be set beneath the kitchen table, his feet re-oriented themselves until all of his body faced the road.

A figure came into view, a limping figure, he could see, but the setting sun was almost directly behind it and it washed out any distinguishing features. Alphonse had to wait until it came a few feet closer and the sharp curve and the tall wheat blocked the suns rays enough for him to make out blond hair and a brown coat. He couldn't see the face as the head was hanging down as if the walker was exhausted.

The figure stumbled once and a sympathetic gasp burst, unbidden from between Alphonse's half parted lips. The man, he could see it was clearly male, spread arms to catch itself in a series of stuttering steps. Alphonse took one step forward and then another, he was halfway down the slope before he knew it. Only one person would know to come back to this place, the very spot where he and Edward had burned down their family home, the scorched foundations which he lovingly rebuilt with alchemy.

The man down on the road raised his head to look up at him, and Alphonse's heart burst open at the sight of yellow eyes in a so very familiar face. His eyes misted over and he impatiently knuckled the tears away, but they wouldn't clear and he stopped to let them close against the stinging that made them water. Alphonse was afraid to open his eyes, what if the road really was empty, gleaming like a ribbon of promises not kept? He stood there in the tall grass, silent and breathless.

"A - Al? Alphonse? Is that really you?"

The man in the road was still there, and Alphonse's heart started racing, his blood boiling so hard he heard it roaring in his ears. Twelve years, twelve long years after returning home, he'd watched, waited; and yearned. Alphonse felt he'd lived a lifetime apart from the world, he'd married, fathered children, and started a career while living only half in reality. He opened his mouth to speak, but his throat was suddenly constricted and only a rusty croak came out. He closed his mouth and swallowed hard, ran his tongue over dry lips and tried again to form the word he'd waited for twelve years to speak. It did not come easy, it didn't want to come at all as it was so rusty with disuse, and he feared his tongue no longer knew how to form that word.

"Brother!"

Fin.

Author's note: I really should have ended with Al, Winry and the kids going into the house for dinner, but I can't let the possibility of even a somewhat happy ending pass.