He arrived at Tremalchio's around one thirty, like his appointment book instructed, in a navy blue coat that seemed carefully civilian enough for 'late lunch'. He hadn't made the appointment; the appointment had been made for him, and while mysterious engagements appearing on his calendar was not in and of itself unsual, it was not Hawkeye's disciplined, sharp handwriting, nor Havoc's lazy, loopy scrawl. It had rung a bell but not quite loudly enough. For that reason, and because, to be honest, he was curious, he had come. Just in case, his gloved hands were hiding in his pockets.
In the end it was an unnecessary precaution though, because as soon as his lunch date came in he knew that this was who he was waiting for. Unexpectedly in a little yellow sundress, brown sandals; walking with a dressed-up tomboy's over-careful gait, the paranoia of one not used to wearing a skirt. Had a haircut recently too, he noticed vaguely. Her short hair had been feathered around the edges, looked decidedly more feminine for it.
His, Roy reminded himself belatedly. It was not fair to the boy to get tripped up by what he looked like, especially not when he had avoided it for so many years already.
"Hello, Alphonse," he said softly, as the teenager approached his table.
"Good afternoon, sir. May I sit?" He nodded, and Alphonse slid carefully sideways onto the chair across from Roy, again, obviously not used to an open flap where pants should be.
"How is he?" Roy asked. It was unsettling to be alone with Edward's brother. From the first time he had layed eyes on them, he thought he could count only a handful of times when Alphonse had spoken to him without his sibling present.
"Better," Alphonse said with a sweet smile. "He's complaining about the food now."
"That sounds like Fullmetal."
"Yes," Alphonse said. "I figure, if he's well enough to whine he's well enough to be alone a few hours."
Roy nodded. Edward had been committed to Central Hospital, a couple blocks down, ever since the transmutation. Despite all the odds, the brilliant brat had done it. As Roy understood it (what little he understood of what he'd seen), in the end, Edward had simply walked into chaos and wrested his brother away from it—at extreme cost to himself. That was what made it all the more sad, Roy thought privately. The two of them had been through a nightmare fairy tale not even Drachman writers could have devised, and the universe cursed them by stopping one step short of the damned happy ending.
"Brother's actually in the doghouse, I wouldn't have been with him this afternoon anyway," Alphonse went on. He did not elaborate.
"Oh? I do find that SO hard to believe." Roy asked.
Alphonse tried to supress the laugh but got it caught in his nose, wound up snorting. His voice was only a shade off from how it had sounded in the armor—less tinny now, slightly more enunciated. Still high and childish. Who knew, in this case, it might just last the rest of his natural life.
"Well? What happened?" Roy probed. Damned if he wasn't going to push a little, at least. He got the feeling Alphonse had brought him here to do that, after all, he was known for it—sometimes people wanted a good kick in the ass, and Alphonse certainly seemed sensible enough for that.
"Winry happened," Alphonse said simply, as if that explained everything, though his mouth immediately became a hard, thin line. Alphonse seemed to have a problem hiding emotion since regaining humanity. He over-expressed to a fault.
"I see." Roy said. "How did Fullmetal earn his wrench mark this time?"
"...can we not talk about this, actually?" Alphonse fidgeted with the tips of his new haircut, looking even girlier than ever. "It's not really relevant."
A waitress came and Roy ordered them drinks; nothing hard because Alphonse looked like a minor and he was technically working. The new government was a mercurial creature, and it paid to be awake and aware. Crises small in the morning could sometimes threaten the entire country by four. The sooner they finished the democratic elections, the better. He was tired of being a general for a military that didn't know what to do with itself.
He was tired in general.
"Alright," Roy said, folding his arms. "Well, what can we talk about, then? In fact, I know. How about we start with what I'm doing here?"
"Having lunch," Alphonse said matter-of-factly. "With me."
Alphonse looked up. "Do you not want to?"
Roy blinked. "It's not a question of wanting...I'm just wondering why you took such pains to arrange this."
Alphonse smiled again, a little more forcefully this time.
"I enjoy your company, sir...I've missed seeing you around."
Roy gave him a look.
"Alphonse, we've been acquainted for how many years now? Five? Six?"
"Seven," Alphonse corrected primly.
"Well, I've put up with that many years of your brother's bullshit already; I am not about to start putting up with yours, now!"
Alphonse flinched visibly at the curse word, by all appearances a darling young thing in a sundress cowering from an intimidating man's verbal assault. For the first time, Roy looked around the restaurant and saw people, other people, other people staring at him. He gave an apologetic wave. Thought he saw one lady in a bridge circle turn up her nose, an ugly expression on her face.
"Alphonse, do you know what this looks like!?" he hissed, belatedly aware of it himself.
"I do indeed, sir." The wicked little thing replied. "Tremalchio's is only a date spot at night, but we're still being noticed."
Roy harrumphed. 'Noticed' was right. Older guy, barely disguising his decorations with a plain coat; teenaged girl—person, bare-legged and seated across from him, leaning in whenever he spoke. Not technically illegal, but still not the most popular sight.
He had half a mind to stand up and claim Alphonse as his child, make it all better.
Alphonse beat him to it, snaking out a hand and catching his wrist before he could rise.
"Alphonse, I'm sorry, but whatever you're playing at, it's going to have to stop, we can talk somewhere else-"
"General. Look at me."
"Look at me."
Alphonse stood up, spread his hands and legs apart. Brought up his chest. Roy gritted his teeth and tried not to look, tried not to think. This was the last thing on earth he wanted to be doing.
"I'm a girl now, sir," Alphonse said needlessly, arching his (her?) back just a little harder. Small breasts, like twin fruits on the vine, swayed gently with the movement. Bound? Unbound? God, Edward would probably bash his brains in for THINKING about it. "And it's not going to get any better. People are going to have to accept that. I did."
He (she?) said it like an endorsement, though there was a note of anxiety marring the delivery.
Roy simply stared, the way he sometimes couldn't help and never wanted to admit. He had always thought of Alphonse as a boy, even when he was nine feet tall and girded with spikes, but the menacing armor had rather a lot to do with that. Short and supple, in a daisy-colored sun dress that picked up some of the yellow in his dusty-blonde hair, it was impossible not to notice the breasts, the soft hips. The milky little thighs. Even wearing jeans, Alphonse was shaped like, god help him, a beautiful woman, and there was a mean part of him that couldn't help appreciating it.
Is that what this is all about? Did he notice? Roy thought rapidly. I didn't mean it! He knew the boy (for some reason) seemed to take stock in his opinion. He would hate for Alphonse to lose a hero because he was too shallow to see past the exterior.
The waitress arrived then, interrupting what could have been an even more awkward moment with ice cream and sassafrass soft drink floats. Roy leeched onto his like a life-line, found a better place for his eyes in the bottom of the glass.
Alphonse sat down.
"I'm not saying I can't accept it, Alphonse," he tried slowly, unnerved again by the curve of those full lips, the tops of breasts (definitely UNBOUND!) peeking out from the sun dress. "I'd just like to see you consider the options...don't give up hope yet..."
Grey eyes grew momentarily stormy.
"I have considered my options," Alphonse said curtly. "Do you remember how I grabbed your wrist?"
Roy blinked. "Huh?" Alphonse, apparently sensing a slow learner, took the liberty of doing it again. Slender fingers grasped his hand surprisingly firmly, and stern eyes bored directly into his skull. He thought he could feel the looks from surrounding tables too, and it made him no happier. If worst came to worst, he supposed he might be able to temporarily burn some oxygen from the air and get away, but...
"I grabbed your arm, and you were sweating." Alphonse said. "I could feel it against my skin. CAN feel it, right now." He ran his fingertips over the inside of Roy's wrist; making Roy shiver. Alphonse was right. This contact was making him nervous.
Lowered his head. "Do you know what that means to me, General, to feel something? To feel anything at all?"
The Elrics had a talent, Roy had found over the years, of robbing him of things to say. He shook his head instead.
"No, Alphonse," he managed softly. "I don't think anyone can know."
The answer seemed to please Alphonse. He deigned to release Roy.
"I did, after all, spend most of my formative years in the armor," he said softly, soft enough the surrounding tables couldn't hear. "It's not like I got to experience being a boy for very long. I hadn't even gotten to puberty...I don't think I can even remember what it felt like, having a—having the other equipment. So this is not so different. I honestly don't mind one bit." A lie, though a rehearsed one. Alphonse sounded like he had repeated it so often, he had made himself believe it.
"But your brother doesn't feel that way," Roy concluded, starting to understand, and Alphonse's expressive face twisted into a snarl. Pretty mouth soured into a frown.
"No," Alphonse said lowly, "he's blaming himself. Again. He always does this, always has, he never lets me take any responsibility-" Stopped, sucked in a breath. "He wants to try it again."
Roy nodded slowly, sadly. He wished he could say he was surprised.
"I was there, sir." Alphonse said suddenly, vehemently. He looked up and there was a terrible light in his eyes, remembered madness written plain across his face. "Do you know what happened to maul him like that?" Roy shook his head. It had all been sheer madness to him, the open slit of Other in the middle of the air—colors that tasted and scents you could see and creatures that babbled and gibbered despite lacking mouths.
Alphonse continued. "We had given it back everything, all the things that Father stole—the Stone, the homunculi, everything—and all he wanted—all WE wanted was my body, and it wouldn't even give us that. So he held it open, sir. He pushed me back and he put himself in the way and he told it—the Gate, that thing—he wasn't leaving until he got what he'd came for."
Alphonse gave a hollow, bitter laugh.
"He never lets me help him, even when it's helping myself."
"You saved him, though," Roy pointed out. "You carried him out."
"Yeah," Alphonse said dully. "Fat lot of good it did. You want to know what he fought about with Winry, this morning? Said he wasn't going to have that right leg amputated...said if he had to whack it off, he might as well call the Gate and have it do it instead." Another harsh laugh. "He honestly thinks he's going to trade that to fix me."
Roy sucked in a breath. "They are amputating, then?"
Alphonse gave him a sorrowful look. "Yes. They did the best they could but," his voice caught. "They say the bones are just crushed to powder. At the very least, he'll never use it again; at this rate it's more likely just to turn gangrenous. And that's what happened just one time he got in the way of that thing closing. Can you imagine what would happen if he went to it again, what would it take this time, his arm, his eyes, his liver, his heart? I can't allow that, General. Not ever again."
Alphonse wiped at his eyes with the back of his hands, and that's when Roy realized he was crying.
"It's just a game to it...whatever it is," Alphonse said angrily. "I heard it speak to me, in my mind, when it sealed me to this—to MY body. It said it was giving us everything we've ever asked it for, all rolled up into 'one neat little package'." Small fists thumped against the curvy chest, indictment. "Our mother, my body..."
He broke into a sudden, rueful smile, gave a sobbing laugh. "Mother always used to say I took after her. Only now it's more literal."
Again, Roy was at a loss for the right words. There were no right words for this. None of it was right.
"Anyway," Alphonse said determinedly, blinking hard, almost as if he were willing the tears to dry. "I'm taking steps to keep him from making contact again. For now I think we're okay—he's got his arm off, and I'd notice if he was trying to draw anything—but the long term..." He drew a deep breath. "I have to convince him I like myself this way. That I'm honestly, truly happy. I don't know if he'll believe it—if he'll ever believe it—but I can try, can't I?"
Alphonse was looking up at him, and those wide eyes were so disarming, so needy, that Roy couldn't bring himself to say no, Edward would not give up—he knew it and Alphonse damn well knew it, they both knew the thing that formed the core of Edward's self was his drive, his inability to give up. Still. He just couldn't.
"What must I do?" he said instead. Tired. He was so tired, these days.
Alphonse gave him a brief, and gorgeously genuine, hint of a smile.
"Have lunch with me," Alphonse said. "Take me out some place. So he'll think I'm getting on with life. You're a ladies' man, aren't you? And well, I'm a lady."
He had worried that was coming. "Alphonse, I hate to burst your bubble, but I'm really not what everyone—"
"That's okay," the boy—no, girl—shook her head. "Because I'm not either, am I? It's all for appearances." She offered up her hand. Roy heisitantly took it.
It was warm.
"Just lunch. Nice conversation. That's all you have to do."
Grey eyes, anxious again. "Please?"
Roy twined his fingers with hers.
"So how are you going to break it to him?" he asked later, as they left the cafe. The hostess had given him some decidedly dirty looks when they paid, no doubt for the waterworks Alphonse had exhibited. He'd left a sizeable tip, but the damage was done. He would never be welcome there again.
"Hmm..." Alphonse mused. She was putting one foot in front of the other slowly, watching the rise and fall of her skirt with a scientist's eye. Soon, she would have her method perfected.
"Hopefully, I won't have to say anything," she pronounced finally.
"Really," Roy replied skeptically.
Alphonse shrugged. "A lot of the nurses eat around here, a lot of them gossip. I saw one of brother's when I came in—Carmen, Carmichael? He has a weird name. Anyway, I have no doubt he'll say something." She rolled her eyes. "He's been carping at brother all week about setting me up with him. Asked if I was dating Havoc, for pete's sake. He drove me ONCE."
"Hey, Havoc is a great guy!" Roy felt obligated to protest, and Alphonse laughed. She had a beautiful laugh.
"I know, but it was just so ludicrous, I didn't know what to think. Winry was ready to maim him, I think..."
Roy gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Apologetic.
"You know you'll have to tell him eventually."
"Yeah, I know. He's pretty dense without me to think for him." Alphonse offered in a cheerful voice, but there was that tell in her face, a hard, guilty twitch.
They arrived at the hospital and finished exchanging pleasantries, made idle small talk about 'next time'. Roy still wasn't sure there would be a next time, but he did know that if there was, eventually there would be another summons cobbled neatly into his day planner; and when that happened, he would be helpless but to answer.
They both knew it. There was nothing more to say.
"Well, guess I should be going...have to go see if he's burned the place down yet!" Alphonse said with false cheeriness. Pulled out of his grip. Roy let her hand go.
"You're going to break his heart, you know," Roy called softly.
Alphonse turned to him, light eyes large and luminous. The late afternoon sun caught her hair and set it on fire. In the dying light of late autumn, it looked like a higher shade of gold.
"No," she said, with a fire in her eyes that he thought he remembered—once upon a long time ago, in a different sweetheart face.
"I'm going to save his life."