sky dark

Better Living Through Alchemy

chapter 25.

His tiny eyes darted back and forth and between his fat, sausage shaped fingers he rolled the brim of a battered bowler hat. Round and round it went. Luludja watched him from behind the partially curtained doorway at the back of her parents’ small grocery store. He was round, but that didn't make him jolly. His rounded stature might have been suited to a jovial nature once, but his swine-like eyes only held a dull luster and his tongue moved out of the gap in his face that served as his mouth.

He had no neck, but yet still managed to turn his head. He abruptly leaned close to a bin of potatoes and inhaled deeply, mumbling to himself the entire time. His threadbare coat and luster-less shoes bore witness to the fact that this gentleman wasn't going to be helping the family coffers this evening.

With a sigh she pushed aside the beaded curtain and strolled into the shop proper. Her hands were on her hips, her long dark hair falling carelessly over her shoulders and down her back. She even had on the little black top her mother so hated, but she was wearing her big skirt. How was she going to flirt,(Not that this man was worth a flirt) if she didn't have the proper attire?

He didn't notice her at first. He was making small sounds that made the hair on the back of her arms raise up, and still he was ogling the potatoes. If she didn't drive him out soon it was likely he might start stuffing them into his mouth or pockets, and she couldn't have that. Her father often warned her about handouts.

"Hey Mister, you have to buy those before you drool on them," she said. "No one will want them with your spit all over them... are you listening to me?"

He turned to look at her then, and something happened; she wasn't sure what, but he suddenly glowed. It wasn't bright and shiny, like a glowing person should be, it was rather dark and it looked red. His face, so dull and lax only moments before, burst into the most amazing grin and his eyes, which she had thought to be transplanted straight from a sow, lit up, like a million suns come to life.

Luludja took a half step back then gasped as her wrist was engulfed in one massive fist, and the little round man, the little jovial round man, spoke.

"Lust!" he cried in glee.

Edward Elric strolled into the room like he owned the place. And for all intents and purposes, he did. He'd already been at the receiving end of an admiring Ms. Bloom, (who told him his beard was the best thing since sliced bread, but maybe not in those words) and was ready to take on the world yet again.

The 'world' of course, was twenty-three boys and their eagerness to go out and inflict alchemy on an unsuspecting world.

The first on the scene, naturally, was Tom Pine. He came bouncing in and glanced up at Edward, who was sitting at his desk, and then Tom promptly ran into another desk when he couldn't tear his eyes away.

"You ok?" the Professor called from the front of the classroom.

"Uh, yeah, I'm fine," Tom said, embarrassed, and negotiated the rest of the trip to his desk without incident.

"What did you do for break?" the Professor asked as Tom got settled.

"We went to see my cousins," Tom said, trying not to look directly at the professor.

"Did you have a good time?" the Professor pressed, being unusually chatty.

"Yeah," Tom said, fumbling with his notebook so he didn't have to look up. "It was great."

When the expected congratulatory comment about his beard, (therefore reaffirming his passage into adulthood) was not forthcoming, Edward let the boy be, glancing down at his own notes.

Tom piped up after a couple of minutes of silence.

"Did you have a good time on break, Professor?" he asked across the empty room.

"Yes I did," Ed said, looking back up quickly, grinning. Waiting, hoping for Tom to notice anything different about him.

"That's good," Tom said, quickly dropping his eyes again.

Ed kept looking at him, and then slowly lowered his eyes back to his desk, glancing up only once to see if Tom might speak again but he didn't.

It wasn't long before the sound of footsteps and the murmur of voices brought fresh hope. The classroom door swung open, spilling gray uniforms into the room. Edward looked up and half smiled to see three of his gang of four making their triumphant return. Daniel was in the lead. He stopped at his desk, and stretched and yawned, dropping a notebook onto it. The top button of his uniform was undone and his hair was a bit of a mess. Eric immediately folded his lanky frame into his own desk and Duffy looked toward Ed and halted in his tracks.

Daniel caught Duffy's sudden halt of movement and looked toward the big desk, too.

"Hello," the Professor said, "I hope you're all rested up because I have some big plans for this quarter."

Neither boy said anything, in fact they looked at each other, and then they both looked at Eric, who was now also drawn to the spectacle at the big desk.

Seth took this opportunity to slip in, and take up his desk behind Daniel's. He peered around them, to see what they were all wordlessly gawking at, reaching up to adjust his glasses.

"Don't tell me that by some miraculous chance you were all struck dumb over the break," the Professor said into the silence. "There is no way I could be that lucky."

The gauntlet had been thrown.

"Nah," Daniel drawled, "we're trying to figure out why there are caterpillars mating on your chin."

"We're too young for Sex Ed class, Professor," Duffy added.

"Did you transmute it there? Was it an accident?" Seth asked.

"My grandpa has whiskers like that," Eric offered.

The professor bristled, all the way from his chin to top of his head. He set his jaw, or at least it seemed he set his jaw; it was too difficult to tell because his chin was behind a wall of brown fuzzy camouflage now. He laced his fingers together, elbows on his desk and lifted an eyebrow that while it's color didn't match the hair on his chin, was kind of like an accent and didn't clash or anything.

"So it's going to be like that, is it?" the Professor said with a little smile.

Eric, Seth and Duffy all darted a nervous glance at Daniel. They were his lackeys, this was true, but in the same context they wanted badly to be on the Professor's good side; because he was just cool like that.

It was then that Richard and Boyd wandered in, talking about the upcoming football season, and Richard stopped so suddenly Boyd ran into this back.

"Whoa, Professor, you grew one of those beatnik things my dad wants to disown my older brother for!" Richard gushed.

Finally! Vindication! Proof he had finally tread into the adult world! Yes, yes! Recognize his coming of age... wait...

"Beatnik?" the Professor asked.

"All the 'free-thinkers' have them," Richard confirmed.

"Free thinkers?" Edward repeated. It seemed there was a world out there, and somehow he was missing out.

"You don't want nothing to do with them," Daniel said. "They're going to be the ruination of society." This was Daniel's father talking.

There was a general murmuring of agreement from around the room and Ed felt his eyebrow twitch.

"I think that's a bit of over generalization," he said to quell the uprising in the making, "there have been several groups of people out to ruin civilization, and it hasn't worked yet. I know: I use to be a member of one of them, just like all your fathers."

This, of course, was blasphemy. But they weren’t quite sure why it was blasphemy, and while they milled over a good comeback, the bell rang. Everyone begrudgingly took their seats as a few stragglers came flying in the door and provided unintentional entertainment by trying to kill themselves while trying to get into their respective seats.

It was just as well. The last thing he needed was a debate on just what Ed thought of the military. Said military he was once a member of, said military Roy still believed in. No, he didn't need a discussion on that.

He glanced up to see twenty-three sets of eyes trained on him. It always made him stand a little straighter, but in reality they were trained on his chin and that eventually sunk in. He might as well field the questions and get it over with. Why was everyone so resistant to change? He pointed at the first hand in the air.

"Did you razor break? My dad gets whiskers when his razor breaks and he doesn't go get a new one right away. My mom says she can do it with tweezers, that always makes him go get a new one."

They weren't whiskers. It was a beard, a beard! He wasn't a beatnik either, he just wanted to look older! Was it a crime he wasn't aware of?

"They aren't whiskers," he said, not meaning it to sound as defensive as it came out. "It's a goatee," he reasoned. "And no, my razor isn't broken," he finished.

"It's a goat?" Daniel gleefully leapt in. "So it's not caterpillars, it's a goat," he confirmed.

"It's a goatee," Seth corrected.

"Beatniks have them," Richard chorused in.

"I didn't know we were charged for thinking, why do beatniks get to think for free?" Duffy asked.

"No, no, no," Daniel said, "that is not what it means."

"What does it mean then?" Duffy asked.

"It means you're loose," Daniel explained.

Everyone checked the fly on their pants.

"No, not that either!" Daniel said, rolling his eyes.

Ed had folded his arms by now, and was leaning back in his chair, watching the rest of the class come to terms with new and innovative things, such as his beard, in an open air debate which was in the style of the so called 'free thinkers' they were trying so hard to avoid.

"Well, you know the professor; we've all heard those stories by now," Richard supplied.

"Pop quiz!" Ed yelled.


"She eats twice a day, I brought all the little cans. Thank you so much for watching her. This is her mouse; she plays with it before dinner but after lunch. This is her collar, she wears it when she goes outside but when she comes in she likes to relax. I know it's a bit immodest because she is a lady, but what can I do? She likes what she likes. This is her water dish, please change it frequently and always dump out any old water in it before adding fresh water. She doesn't like it mixed. These are her treats, I try to get healthful treats, so I read all the ingredients. These are better than the last ones I tried. I give them to her, but only a few, once a day," he looked at First Lieutenant Colonel Pharr anxiously.

"It will be fine, Al," Clayton said, giving him a slap on the back. "She's a cat and she'll do her things, I'll even let her sleep on the bed with me if she wants."

Al wasn't sure this was any kind of treat for Sophie, but he finally bent over and set her on the floor. She dashed away and slid under Clayton's couch.

"She's just checking the place out," Clayton placated at Al's distraught look. "Go and have a good time. Come on Al: you've been plotting this for years.

"Not years, ok maybe years," Al said. "Where are you going to put Sophie's box? You'll have to show her where you put it."

"I'll show her! You're going to be late meeting up with your dream woman worrying over where your cat does her business! Go on already," Clayton laughed.

"Alright, alright, I'm going," Al cast one more look toward Clayton's couch before he allowed himself to be ushered out the door.

It was a bit of a blow to his burgeoning male ego that Riza had to drive the car. It only reinforced the fact that he still believed everyone thought of him as the twelve-year-old boy he'd once been; and it heightened the fact that his elder brother now supposedly knew how to drive. At least according to Ed.

As the scenery passed, Al let his mind wander back to the last conversation he'd had with his brother before leaving on what he through, (hoped, dreamed, prayed), would be a life altering experience.

Brimming with all sorts of good news, Ed had taken it upon himself to call and inform his little brother just how exceedingly well his vacation had gone.

"I can drive now," he crowed into the receiver.

"That's great, brother," Al congratulated, (and tried to suppress the surge of jealousy at the satisfaction in Ed's voice), "it sounds like you had a good time."

"It was fabulous, Roy bought me a car," Ed added.

"The General brought you a car?" The only mode of transportation the General had ever bequeathed on Al was a bike, and that was ages ago, when he was still a child. "What kind of car?" Al forced out, hoping it didn't sound like an angry hiss. And angry, jealous hiss of the sort he was far too old to be hissing. Why should he be upset? After all, Ed was the General's... boyfriend...husband—something like that. Al hadn't worked it out yet.

"Well... I don't know," Ed confessed, his voice dropping a bit. "But it's a convertible, it has a back seat and everything."

"How can you have a car and not know what type it is?" Al asked. "Surely the General let you pick it out, (I didn't get to pick out my bike), or did you buy the first car you saw? You're very impulsive like that," Al said, lifting his nose even though Edward couldn't see it.

"It was the car we rented when we were at the lake," Ed countered. "I didn't bother with the details. I'm sure Roy knows a good car when he sees it. He bought it because he taught me to drive in it."

"So are you driving it to the academy now?" Al said, because if he didn't keep up the polite conversation he'd hang up and go sulk.

"Well no," his brother said, "it's not running at the moment. You've read a lot of books on engines; I've only studied rockets. I was hoping you could come visit me and help me out."

"The General bought you a non-working car? I find that a little hard to believe. I thought you said you learned to drive in it, so it must have been working at some point. What's wrong with it?" Al asked.

"I drove it into the lake," Ed muttered, "but it totally wasn't my fault."

"I don't think driving a car into the lake qualifies as knowing how to drive," Al said, feeling a smile creep over his lips. Really, he was becoming so petty! He should be ashamed of himself. He would make up for it. "I suppose I can come down there in a couple of weeks, I have my own trip planned you see," now he could launch into his impending dream-vacation details and Ed would be obliged to listen.

"I grew a beard," Ed cut him off. "Two weeks, do you really have to wait that long? I really wanted to get it up and running. It's just sitting under a tarp in the driveway now. Roy almost ran the sedan into it the other night because he forgot it was there. Did you hear me about the beard? Everyone thinks it's great."

Al could interpret Ed-on-nese easily enough. What he meant when he said 'everyone thinks it's great' was actually 'no one really likes it, or everyone is picking on me. I need you to validate my beard growing talents, because that's what I really called you for'. He was a bit miffed Ed was jumping on his chance to gush about his own trip, so he sniffled into the phone.

"You with a beard makes me think of Dad," he said. "In fact, eerily so. You say the General likes it?"

"...I don't look like Dad...hang on." Al could hear Ed lower the receiver and footsteps moving away quickly. He heard the creak of a door. Ed usually called him from the phone on the bedside table, so the door creak would mean he was going into the adjoining bathroom. There he would look in a mirror and come back and argue with Al on his Dad-like appearance. He heard returning footsteps and the sound of the receiver being lifted again.

"Had to go to the mirror and double check?" Al asked cheerfully.

"Shut up," Ed hissed. "I'm not wearing it like he wore it, I have it all trimmed to just around my mouth and chin. It looks nothing like his beard did. He was just shaggy and unkempt. I have an appearance to maintain, I am a teacher, you know."

"I wasn't implying anything, brother," Al said neutrally. "What does the General say about it?"

"He said it made me look older," Ed stated.

What 'he said it made me look older' really meant was 'I badgered him until he gave in and said what I wanted to hear'.

"Well I'm sorry I can't come down for a bit," Al said, studying his nails, refusing to stroke his brother's wilting beard ego, "Riza and I are going on a trip."

"Where are you going?" Ed asked immediately. Not ’Congratulations, you have now reached adulthood and you're dating the woman of your dreams!’ or ’I'm happy for you Al, it's what you've always wanted!.’ No, instead, it was Ed the big brother and his 'What? How can you possibly date by yourself? And I should be there to chaperone your every move, because you are still twelve!’ voice.

"To the country. Riza picked out a nice bed and breakfast," Al said, his eye twitching.

"Oh, well, that sounds nice. Riza picked it out? How long will you be staying?" Ed asked in a 'politely trying to access the situation and be really nosy' sort of way.

"A long weekend," Al said vaguely. "Marilyn will be taking care of Hayate for us and Pharr is watching Sophie." Al would give details; just not any Ed actually wanted to hear.

"Al, you know there is the talk that boys usually have with their fathers," Ed started a bit lamely. "And while I'm not your father, I am your closest relative and I'm not sure anyone else has had the talk with you."

He wasn't...he was!

"I've already had that talk with First Lieutenant Pharr," Al rushed out. "And I thought I was going to have it with the General, but he wussed out. "

"Pharr? That womanizing letch gave you the birds and the bees talk?! What was Roy thinking?! When? When did he do it, I swear Al, I'm coming to East City and kicking his ass if he filled your head with crazy-assed ideas! Tell me Al, tell me what he said to you!"

"It's better than having it with my brother!" Al snapped, and then promptly slapped his hand over his mouth.

There was a long silence on the other end.

"It would be embarrassing!" Al tried to reason. "Ed, think about it from the other way around, what if I was trying to give you the sex talk?"

There was more brooding silence for a moment, then a little clearing of the throat.

"Ok," Ed agreed, "I see where you're coming from."

Al knew that Ed resented his other life. Not actively or openly; he didn't resent Al, he'd never do that. But all the things he missed, all the times he wasn't there when he imagined Al needed him. Ed didn't forgive himself easily for that. Distance was their enemy now, that Al couldn't be there to see his brother's face, or let his brother see his own. Ed had spent to long looking at his reflection in armor. Al felt guilt about being in the East while his brother was in Central. Ed had given up so much for him.

"As soon as I come back, I'll come out to visit with you for a while, we'll fix your car," Al said. "I really want to see you drive it."

"Ok," Ed said brightly, happy to let Al sidetrack him. "Have a good time while you're there. I guess say ‘hi’ to Riza for me."

"I will," Al assured him, smiling.

"Ed said to tell you hi," Al said, causing Riza to turn and look at him. A smile touched her lips and she nodded, turning her attention back to the road.

"I hope he's doing well," she said. "I'm sure with Roy's venture into politics things can be very hectic for him."

"He seems to manage ok," Al shrugged. "He says he can drive now. He even has a car. I'm planning to spend a couple of weeks with him soon."

"He can drive?" Riza said, her tone neutral, she tightened her grip on the steering wheel.

"I didn't say he could drive well," Al said with his own small smile, "supposedly the only place he's driven was into a lake. His car no longer works, so I've been appropriated to help him fix it, because you know brother, taking it to a mechanic is like showing throat. If he can't do it himself... he has me do it."

Riza laughed then and it made his skin tingle.

"I made you an itinerary," she suddenly said. "It's in the glove box. I know how you like to have things planned out, and while I think it might do us a world of good to be spontaneous, I didn't want you to be caught flat-footed. Take it as a guideline instead of a plan."

Al opened the glove box, pulling out a small notebook with a neat roadmap folded inside of it. He opened the map up and noted the precise circle and marginal notes that might be places of interest. There was a time schedule duly noted in the journal in her tight script. He snapped it shut and put it back in the glove box.

"Let's try this spontaneous idea you had," he said. "I know it's a stretch for me, but I'd really like to see if I'm cut out to be impulsive."

She laughed again and nodded.

"Agreed," she said. "Start thinking about what sort of place we should stop at for dinner."

Thinking about what sort of place to stop for dinner? But there were so many variables to consider! First and foremost, what would she like to have? And he was caught flatfooted out on the open road in a part of the country he invariably had visited at some point in the past, but never with the thought in his mind to check out the local eateries. He didn't eat at the time and Ed was happy to eat any old thing! What to do for dinner?!

"This might be harder than I thought," Al mumbled.

"Your highness," the man at the door bowed graciously and Ling swept past him in a rustle of silk and aroma of jasmine.

Otto closed the door and followed the prince down the front hall of his house. The Prince made the predictable left hand turn into the sitting room, the flopped gracefully into the large and decadent leather chair. He sighed heavily and looked broodily toward the bar.

Otto was an indulgent man, especially in the presence of such fine looking Xingian nobility, so he made his way to the bar and paused with cordial glass in hand.

"It must have been more than a passing fancy for you to still be so very put out by it," he said causally, then picked up his bottle of very fine cherry liquor and poured a shot.

"I don't know what you're talking about," the prince said huffily. "I'm merely giving you the honor of a visit. There is precious little to do in this country outside my diplomatic duties. At least you know the proper way to indulge my hedonistic tendencies."

"Ah, but poaching is still poaching," the older man smiled. "And it's not as though I blame you, as you just said, I exude hedonism. But your prey was already well trapped before you set your eyes on it. Be content that you might still make a friend of him, all it takes is a respectful distance."

The prince narrowed his eyes a bit, then flopped his head back and draped his arm across his forehead.

"It's hard not getting my way, I am a prince you know," he said in his ever practiced whine. "I'm a fine catch. I bring to the table my good looks, not to mention wealth and power and a whole country to bow at your feet. What is not to like?"

Otto came over and offered the glass, and Ling reached up and closed his long fingers around its bulbed shape.

"There now your highness, it's not as bad as all of that," he reassured, moving to sit on the divan across from where Ling was draped like a silk throw across his best chair. "There will be other alluring conquests quite worthy of the royal glance."

"But none of them will be him," the prince grumbled.

"Do you still visit with him?" Otto asked, enjoying the elegant display of sprawled young male across his chair. "Do the two of you still spar?"

"No," the prince said sullenly. "I haven't seen him in a while. I thought it best to lay low and let things cool a bit. The General seems an even-tempered sort, but one can never be too careful with fire. And Edward himself made it clear we were to be friends, and nothing but that. He actually gave me an ultimatum, me," the prince said, just to clarify what a gross misstep of boundaries Edward had made.

Otto templed his fingers and rested them just under his chin.

"You have to respect his rules, I know, I know, quite troublesome when the commoners get uppity," he said with a wave of his hand to stall Ling's sudden scowl and opened mouth. "But if you do want to have his friendship, and I think you'd be a fool not to, you have to respect his request. I'm sure he would do you the same courtesy. I honestly think he enjoyed and valued your friendship."

Ling swirled the liquor in his glass a moment, before touching it to his lips and tilting his head back. He down the shot in a fluid motion, then licked his lips and let the lip of the glass rest against his chin.

"You know," the prince said slowly, "there is another Elric."

Otto's eyebrows rose.

"Surely you don't mean Alphonse? Really your highness, you're quite insatiable. I would think it poor sport to make Alphonse the object of your intentions when it's very clear you prefer his brother."

Ling grinned then, in his easy way, making him look boyish as well as mischievous.

"I don't mean for that, but as a way to get back in Ed's good graces, perhaps," the prince held up his finger. "The younger Elric is quite interested in pharmacy, the Xingian form of their alchemy. He won't tell me why exactly, but I think I can make an educated guess."

"And the reason you weren't helping him before?" Otto asked.

"Edward's request, but I think I can put that behind me now," Ling sat up, swinging his legs off the arm of the chair and putting his feet on the floor. "I think that just the effort might be worth something... and perhaps it's a way to make amends, not that amends need to be made," he clarified a bit haughtily. "A good faith gesture."

"Of course," Otto said, the corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement. The prince missed his friend and wanted him back, but he was too regal of course to come right out and say it.

The terror of the first days faded amidst the realization that this might be something more. There was some innocuous charm to this thing when its moments of lucidity were gone. The giggling that erupted from its mouth, the way it sucked on it's sausage like fingers, the way it looked to her with it's tiny black eyes, seemingly pleading for approval.

She'd come to the conclusion it was not human, it couldn't be. Not with its stamina, its appetite, it's very presence. There was something there that was an imitation; but it could be seen that it was faked. It was like fool's gold. The packaging was right but the content was all-wrong.

When she complained of hunger, he brought her food. When she complained of cold, he brought her clothes, when she complained of sleeping under the stars he brought her to a house. He made her wait, there in the back yard; crouching behind a stone birdbath. The birdbath was tall and elegant, it had a large dish shaped like a flower resting atop its pedestal and it was scratchy when she leaded against it. Where she came from, this was a sort of luxury scoffed at; who had money to waste giving birds a bath? It was lunacy how some people foolishly flitted away their money. Her papa often scoffed behind the backs of some of their more affluent customers. It was clear these idiots didn't deserve their money, since they made it off the backs and labor of the working class, such as himself.

As she crouched there in the gathering dark, the stone bird bath picking at the sleeve of her sweater she wondered why she did not run? Why did she not just flee now, while he as there in the house, doing things she's didn't know, (but perhaps suspected). When he appeared in the back door and waved, grinning from ear to ear she jumped up and hurried toward him. She reached for his hand when he extended it and he drew her into the house.

They came in through the back door. There was a little mudroom there, and she glanced at several pairs of rain boots, in varying sizes, all lined up next to the wall. The door of the mudroom led into a kitchen. She released his hand as she walked in, her eyes traveling the clean white lines of the counter. There was a stove there with the type of burners that used gas, not wood, and there was a large icebox. There was a sturdy table, also painted white with a bright splash of blue tablecloth thrown across it. There was a running board and china hutch against the wall behind the table. Inside it were clean, unchipped dishes, all lined up beside one another, like children in their Sunday best lined up for inspection.

"It's alright to be in here?" Luludja said, aware the hem of her skirt was dirty and her shoes were muddy from the all walking they had done.

"No one else is here," the round man grinned. She pointedly ignored the dark stains on his black clothes. She couldn't tell what they were, and she had no idea what he'd been eating, (for he'd eat anything), to cause those stains on his lips and around his mouth.

She ventured cautiously to the door of the kitchen and saw a small sitting room there. A large comfortable chair and ottoman dominated one corner of it; there was even a newspaper that had been dropped in the seat of the chair; left there until the owner could return to reclaim his place. There was a desk at the other end; it had a blotter and a pen stand. The carpet on the floor was dark gray.

"Where did they all go? Do they know we are in here?" Luludja asked, stepping into this room, feeling very much an intruder because the room was so personal. It was tailored to the usual occupant of the chair.

"They went away," the round man said, and rubbed at his large belly. "They don't care who is here now," he said.

"When they come back, we will get in trouble for being here," she warned him. Because sometimes he was so much like a child. She didn't feel the need to look out for him, she really didn't, but she would feel bad if she didn't warn him about the consequences of his actions.

"They won't come back," he told her, "they are never coming back. This house is yours now."

"Ah, that can't be right, someone is bound to notice," she said, walking through the room and into the small hallway. There was the front door of the house, on the other side the opening to a much larger living room and a set of stairs leading up. She looked up them for a long moment, then back at the man who trailed her, watching her, looking for praise and approval.

"They aren't upstairs?" she asked, pointing.

He shook his head no.

"You’re sure?" she said, narrowing her eyes a bit.

"I'm sure," he chortled, then drummed his fingers on his chin. "There were five, but now there are none, I'm sure," he told her. "I can't smell any more," he added.

She walked across and looked into the living room. Two couches sat facing one another, a dark wooden table between them. There were lamp tables and doilies, knick-knacks and bookcases. There was a chest with a few toys sitting beside it. There were throw rugs on the floor and real curtains on the windows. There was a large, tall radio, the type she'd only seen in a catalog, sitting placidly under one window, a doily covering it's domed head.

She then steeled herself, clenched her fists and turned to the staircase. She marched up it, and paused to look out the front window at the top of the stairs. She could see the street, the cars and a bike lying at the top of the drive. She looked down the hallway. There were framed pictures hanging and a rub that ran the whole length, right down the middle. The knocks on the doors were glass, but clean and see through. Everything was white and pristine. She moved slowly, paused, and put her hand on the first door knock. She breathed deep for a moment, then turned it and threw it open quickly.

It was a bedroom. There was a bed under the window, it had a pale pink quilt and some pillows with pink embroidery on them, it was a name but she didn't look too closely. There were a few books on the floor, and a notebook. There was a magazine, open and lying next to the books. There were shoes at the foot of the bed and a sweater lying over the back of a chair that sat at a vanity. Luludja backed out and pulled the door closed. The next bedroom had bunk beds and toys. Trucks and ships, soldiers and circus animals. She didn't linger there, but instead fled down the hall. The last room was appropriately adult. A large central bed, dresser and vanity, pictures on the wall, books and magazines on the side table.

To the far side of this room was another room, a walk through into a bathroom. Her curiosity won over and she went there, pausing in the walk through that served as a large closet. She touched the dresses and sweaters there. The fine heavy winter coat, the blouses and silks. Even the shoes lined up on the floor beneath them were all leather and heavy canvas. Her toes pressed against the thin cloth sides of her own shoes; they were still damp, and her toes were cold.

"It's all yours now," the round man said. "Everything to do with as you please."

"They'll want it, when they come back," she said again, her voice no longer quite so convicted.

"They will never come back," the man said again. "It's all been left for you."

"Why?" she said, turning to look at him. "Why would they do that? They don't know me, I am nothing here."

"You said you didn't want to sleep under the stars, and so I got this for you," the man said. "We may not be here long, but while we are you can sleep in here and this can be your place. What they wanted, it doesn't matter. We are stronger like this; we don't have to be humans. Lust, don't you see? We can have anything, I will give you anything."

She turned her face from him quickly. He wasn't talking to her anymore, only to what he thought he saw, and what woman who proudly wear the name of such a cardinal sin? When he was like this, she was just stay quiet until the spell would pass, and then he would fall back into his stupor where she preferred he stayed.

She pulled the coat off the hanger and slipped it on. It was thick and warm; it smelled like lavender and was a deep burgundy. She stroked her hand down the front and the back up to the collar. Such a color looked good on her, she knew. She turned from him to continue into the bathroom, there was a full-length mirror there on a stand.

It did look good on her.

The woman could obviously afford a new coat, if she took this one. Just the look of the house was proof enough for that. She'd heard about places like this, from the other girls in her neighborhood. The girls who were maidservants and cooks. The ones who told of the low wages and long hours and the condescending tones of the women whom they worked for. They never got fine coats like this one, no matter how many hours a day they spent in virtual slavery to women who threw money away on stone bird baths.

"Do you like it?" the man said in his little hopeful voice, standing in the doorway of the bathroom, he'd pulled his bowler hat off again and he fingered the brim nervously. Luludja smiled and did a twirl, the tail of the coat floating out around her.

"Yes," she said. "I like it very much. I like this house."

"When we go from here, I'll get you a better one," the man promised.

"Where is it we are going?" she asked, coming to a stop, watching the coat tails settle around her legs.

"Central," the man answered firmly. "We have to go back there so you can be made again," he finished.

"Made again?" Luludja asked. "What does that mean?"

"It means we need to find an alchemist," the man said, then he disappeared from the doorway and Luludja would have followed him if the closet hadn't stopped her again. She let the coat fall off her shoulders to the floor and reached up and closed her hands on a silk blouse. There were so many things to try on; it might take all night.

The car whipped off the road with a hard right and came to a stop in gravel parking lot just inches from a wooden post set there to designate a parking space. Both occupants sat still and silent for a moment.

"If this is unsatisfactory we can try further down the road," the male said finally.

"No, I think this might be the last stop between here and our destination," the female said. "And they don't serve dinner, they are a bed and breakfast, let's keep that in mind."

Alphonse Elric sat forward a bit and peered out at the wooden shack with the broken sign. This is definitely not what he would have picked for an evening out with Riza. But at each eatery they had passed, he'd somehow convinced himself there was a better one, just down the road. What if they had stopped at the first one they'd seen, but then seen a better one after they'd gotten back on the road to continue their trip?

This is why spontaneous decision-making was so disastrous. Hadn't he learned anything at all from the examples his brother had set?

Riza undid her seat belt and looked at her hair in the rearview mirror. Al began to pat at his own hair, and then he unstrapped his seat belt and smoothed his shirtfront. They looked at each other for a long moment, before simultaneously reaching for the door handle and opening the car doors at the same time. They both got out and shut the door in sync and their feet made identical crushing sounds on the gravel as they approached the front door of the shack.

To his very much surprise the smell that curled around his nostrils as he reached for the door handle was delicious.

Riza gripped his elbow and he turned to look at her.

"I think your spontaneity may have paid off," she said.

Al pulled the door open, shook his head with a half smile.

"Good or bad, this can't be accredited to me, it was your desperate turn of the wheel that lead us here," he laughed as they stepped in.

"I was triggered by the loud growling of your stomach," she returned.

"Is that what that was?" Al returned, "I thought that was the car engine." He paused, "Ok, that was lame," he shook his head and nodded at a woman in a white apron who was carrying plates across the room.

"You two just sit anywhere," she called, "I'll be right with you."

Al gave a quick look around, then guided Riza over to a booth situated under a window. There were paper menus on the table, curled on the corners and spotted with grease and possible samplings of the meals. He glanced up and saw Riza scanning the menu she had picked up, curling her upper lip a bit as she read. It was... adorable. Not the mention the fact that her hair was down, and had been so for the entire trip.

He'd been too wrapped up in planning how to be spontaneous to appreciate the car trip fully. Leave it to him to detail the enjoyment right out of a thing. Maybe Winry was right, he was to anal.

It was decided, (mostly by Riza), that they would have fried steak and vegetables, but when the waitress came, Riza nudged Al beneath the table with her foot and it prompted him to order for both. They pushed the menus aside then and sat facing each other, just like they'd often done in her office. But here they were on equal terms and there was no blue fabric shield of protocol to follow.

"I'm really glad we decided to do this," he started nervously, lacing his fingers together as his hands rested on the tabletop. "I think this will be better for us in the long run. I mean getting away from everyone where we can concentrate on each other. I know there are probably some residual doubts you have, and I hope to take this opportunity to put them to rest."

He studied the tabletop hard. That was to formal, wasn't it? He was talking to a potential lover, not writing up a proposal for funding. No matter how determined he was, he always got in his own way. He thought too much. That was his problem. He just thought himself right into neat little ruts, and when he tried to get out of the ruts, he realized he'd worn them so low that the walls where just too high for him to climb. And so he would sit, in the bottom of his rut, stewing and wondering if he'd ever make his way out. Riza probably considered him hopelessly dull. He would consider himself dull if he were forced to spend hours on end with him. Ed never said he was dull, but Ed was his brother, and biased in these matters. Ed figured, because of the blood relationship he had no choice but to endure Al's dullness, because that was how families worked. Ed was obsessed with family togetherness, sometimes a little too much.

When he dared to glance up, Riza was smiling at him. A funny little smile, and he quickly rifled though his flip chart of Riza facial expressions and came up blank. He was too busy trying to decipher what this smile might mean; it could mean any number of things. His overwhelming dullness had made her catatonic! He was being a simpering twelve-year-old; she was thinking how hilarious it was going to be to lower the boom on him and tell him she was doing this to save him the humiliation of dumping him at the office. He startled when she reached over the table and laid her hands on top of his.

"Alphonse, we're here to enjoy ourselves, yes?" she said. "I appreciate and understand what you are saying, I even agree with you on the need for us to concentrate on each other," she rubbed her thumbs over the backs of his hands. "I am touched that you are trying so hard to please me. But I want you to enjoy yourself, too. How are we to truly get to know one another if one of us is so afraid to be themselves? I think it's presumptuous of me, but I think I can guess some of your fears. I thought I had been demonstrating that some of them are groundless. I'll just try a little harder. We have three days ahead of us, let's make the most of them together."

He nodded, looking at the way her hands covered his. So, some of his fears were groundless. He really wished she would elaborate on which ones. It would be so much easier for the checklist in his mind if he actually knew what he could check off. He was interrupted as the food arrived. The matter of eating was nothing. He was an Elric, after all, and there were family standards to uphold. They were both eager to be back underway, so the stop was made brief, because the car was also a good place to talk.

"I hear there is a farm nearby that rents horses and has an extensive riding trail," Riza said after the tires were firmly back on the highway. "I imagine I'm rusty, I haven't ridden for some time; but I thought that might be fun," she glanced over at him. "Have you ridden before?"

The truth of the matter was, he had. Though not in the usual style. When he was armor, he had ridden horses. He'd fallen off, or been dumped off. Once he was rubbed off against a tree. But it wasn't any struggle for him to get back on the horse. The old adage, 'if you fall off a horse, you get right back up', didn't quite apply to him; because when he fell off of didn't hurt. So yes, he'd ridden a horse, only somehow he felt he'd cheated.

"I've ridden before," he said. "Ed and I sometimes rode on rented horses between towns. Once we hired a cart and I drove," this was a bit of pride for him.

"Oh good," Riza said. "Then let's do that, I think it will be relaxing and a good way to take in some of the countryside."

"We'll definitely do that," Al said. "Also star gazing, do you like to star gaze? I love to star gaze. I picked it up when brother and I use to travel a lot. I read extensively on the subject as well. I can show you all the constellations. It's a good time of year, the bit of crisp in the air makes them all the brighter."

"I'd like that," she said. And sincerely, she would. It wasn't lost on her that Alphonse might indeed know more about stars than even the most skilled astronomer. He had many years of being awake when the rest of the world slept, with only the night sky as a companion.

"I think our turn off is up here," Al suddenly said, a tinge of excitement in his voice. He was unfolding the map and tracing the route that she had highlighted with his finger. It would be good to be there. It would be the official beginning to what would hopefully be the rest of their lives. It startled her to think of it in those terms; but that is how it had come to be in her mind. She had to know, and soon, how the rest of her life was to be played out. It was ironically enough, Alphonse’s own hesitant confessions and eager courting that made her realize she had a rest of her life.

It was time she went about living it.