The flat over the flower shop was a quiet place, and after living among her noisy, vibrant people for so long, even as an outcast, it felt unutterably strange to Noah. Simply sitting in the empty armchair, neither speaking nor spoken to as her unexpected guardians went quietly about their business, and hearing nothing but the muted bustle of the street was a new and peculiar experience. The evening light there was perpetually tinted blue with a sense of the lamented past, but it shaded into a weak hopeful gold in the morning. After her first few days there, Noah suspected this had to do with who was home when.
The evening was Edward's time, the only time he was really home at all after having slipped quickly out the door before dawn lit her first tentative lamp. She'd followed him, that one time, on part of his daily wanderings; but after he went pelting off without warning to follow a stranger's car, she'd had a terrible time finding her way back to the flat again. Nearly turning up an alley filled with leering youths in khaki jackets whose eyes followed the dark nape of her neck as she turned on her heel to retrace her steps had been enough for her, and she stayed home from then on.
If there was any light and joy in the little apartment, it was in the morning, and it came from Alfons. Compared to Edward, who charged the apartment with heavy, uneasy energy from the moment he opened the front door, Alfons' presence was gentle, unobtrusive. She could lean back in her adopted chair and close her eyes, and hardly notice the light flutter of his existence as he puttered through the rooms, straightening knickknacks and books on the shelves, making breakfast, humming something slightly tuneless.
He was not nearly as fascinating as Edward, whose presence shivered and resonated and sent off otherworldly echoes. Indeed, he was hardly noticeable at all, and so it took her a few days to realize how unusual that was, compared to the usual clamor of humanity, and how soothing. He was like a living embodiment of the quiet in the apartment, with only a few sour little shivers at the edges, now and then. If ever someone was peaceful in his own skin, it was Alfons Heiderich.
He didn't talk much, and she was relieved by the fact. She'd never been much of a talker. Edward talked, but his words were energetic fireworks, or shudders of homelessness, or prybars, always demanding to know. Alfons' words skimmed lightly over the surface of the silence, never quite interfering with it as they exchanged a sort of mostly-unspoken understanding across the breakfast dishes. Little questions, of no great import. Fond comments on their mutual mystery, absent and wandering as usual. Jokes, set forth hesitantly, with an innocent hopefulness to them.
He was trying to put her at ease, and she appreciated that.
He thought she was in love with Edward, and she didn't see a need to disabuse him of that notion. It meant less questions asked all around. In any case, they both knew she slept in a tangle of blankets on the sofa. Both rooms had been offered, but Edward's was steeped in too many nightmares to allow for comfortable sleep, and the peculiar little shivers that slid around Alfons were intensified in his room, as if concentrated there—and she'd found herself not wanting to look closer at either, gently declining the kindly-meant offers.
Alfons knew she was Romani, a "gypsy, but he didn't seem to mind. Noah sometimes wondered if anything fazed him, besides Edward's occasional more impressive eccentricities.
Most days were passed in relative silence, until Alfons left for his own work in the early afternoon. Without Edward's dynamic energy to stir the waters, it was easy to relax. She read, sometimes—there was no shortage of books, another something new to her—or paged through the illustrated encyclopaedia of the world that they'd borrowed a few volumes at a time from Gracia. Turning a page once after reading on Austria, she found the word automail penciled lightly in the margin between its alphabetical neighbors, and wondered.
Some mornings Alfons was more talkative than others. She'd been deep in a dense little novel for most of that morning, trying not to stumble over the longer words she'd never learned, though if she pressed her palm to the page she could sometimes draw out a sense of them, lingering there from the last reading. Alfons had been glancing at her unusually often as he went about his small morning routines, leaning out into the sunshine to water the flowers in their deep windowsill tray and closing his eyes to enjoy the warmth of the sun on his face. It had been a particularly quiet breakfast at first, her mind still on what she'd read, trailing off into the little corners and pockets of memory that had come with some of the borrowed words, but he seemed to take her distant expression for loneliness, and spoke up as he reached across the table to pour steaming coffee into her mug.
"You must miss your friends," he said, a gentle nudge in the direction of conversation.
Noah let her gaze slide away from him to the patch of bright sky out the window, the flowers nodding at the sill. "They never liked me," she said, softly, deftly avoiding the implication of loneliness. She did not miss their jabber and arguments and rivalries and high buzzing strident thoughts, but she missed their music. She missed it terribly, sometimes.
"Oh," Alfons said, looking dismayed, and set down the coffee urn with a little thump. "So... " he ventured, "why did they bring you along? To sing?"
She shook her head. "My voice is awful." A note of ruefulness slipped into the words. It was not quite true, but she was not up to her peoples' high performance standards by any means.
"Well... what, then?" he asked, masking his curiosity with a smile at her evasiveness. Noah glanced at her napkin, which she had been unconsciously pleating into folds between her fingers.
"Fortune-telling," she said. It felt like a small confession, gently prised free. "And dancing."
"Dancing?" A spark of interest lifted his pale eyebrows, and he set down his fork. "I've never seen a gypsy dance."
She held her tongue at the term, sipping from her mug to hide the wrinkle of a frown. He meant no harm. She wasn't sure, by now, if Alfons was capable of meaning harm to anyone.
The coffee was very black, a little too strong. She set down the mug and busied herself with milk and sugar.
"Would you?" he asked, after she had gotten it to her liking and taken another, longer sip. Looking at him over the rim of the mug, she let her blank confusion show, and he laughed sheepishly. "Dance, I mean."
"Here?" she asked, with a skeptical glance at the shelves of books and the neatly set table, with its little blue porcelain eggcups undoubtedly borrowed from Gracia. She imagined how her fellow Roma would have laughed at Alfons, and his shy requests, and his boiled eggs with salt and butter and a little spoon to crack the shell.
"Please?" he was asking, plaintively.
She frowned. "I don't have any music."
"What kind do you need?"
He was as eager as a child. She couldn't help a small smile. "Drums," she said, thinking back carefully. "And guitar, and a fiddle would be best. But mostly drums."
The smile he gave her in return was gently mischievous. "Drums?" he said, and reached out a hand to drum his fingers lightly against the edge of the table, the rapid staccato drumroll of a parade in muted miniature form.
It surprised her so much that she laughed outright, and shook her head at him. "Slower," she said, picking up the little spoon meant for her egg and rapping it lightly against the edge of her plate. "The rhythm gallops... so. Louder and then softer. You see?"
He nodded, his smile blossoming into a grin as he copied her, beating out the staggered tempo on the table with the fingertips of both hands. He had a light touch for it—she wouldn't have expected to be drawn into the dance by him, of all people, but there was a spirit to the rhythm he was making, solitary tap-tap that it was, and it was enough to lift her out of her chair. A sense of being a rising bubble was floating up in her, as it always did when she heard drumbeats.
The skirts of her borrowed dress swayed around her, and her arms rose lightly into an arc above her head. She spun around once slowly, settling into the pace he was setting, and began to dance.
As her body fell into the familiar movements, it washed over her all at once how she'd missed this, and with the realization came a surge of delight at feeling her feet nimbly following the old patterns across the floor. Her hair floated out around her as she turned, her braids swinging, and she flung out her arms and forgot, for a moment, where she was.
It took her a moment to notice that Alfons had stopped drumming, but her feet faltered for the lack of a beat, and she descended out of her cloud and turned to find that she was not the only one who had forgotten herself. Alfons' fingers lay awestruck-still on the table, and he was watching her with eyes that sparkled with wonder.
"It is beautiful," he whispered, and then caught her puzzled look and blushed scarlet, looking away. "I... I heard it was," he mumbled.
Noah nodded, and wondered what to make of this. It was not quite as surprising as his drumming. She had, at least, suspected. "Thank you," she said, and sat again, tucking her skirts down tightly around the chair.
The meal was finished in silence, but after they stood to clear away the dishes, he paused halfway through handing her the last stack of plates, biting his lip.
"Would you tell my fortune?"
She set the plates down and circled the table. "If you like," she said, calmly. Compared to the roiling mess of most people's minds, Alfons' gentle presence would be a pleasure. "Give me your hand," she said, holding out both of hers, fingers curled as if about to accept a cup.
He offered his hand hesitantly, palm-up, like most people about to receive a fortune. It didn't matter to Noah how she held it; the reading came through the same. Carefully, she folded her hands around his—
The rush of images was stronger than she expected, and though she had already detached from herself in her dive into him, she distantly felt her eyes widening and a little gasp rushing into her lungs as it struck her. Running in the streets of Munich with the shouting boys and a woman at the door drying her hands on a checkered apron, and here was the tree he loved and there was the neighbor's horseless carriage and a first ride in it and the wind in his face and lying on the roof looking up at the stars, and Father died so quickly no one saw it coming and the tears, and the loneliness, and smiling faces and rolled-up sleeves and working late into the night and things falling into place with clicks and explosions and being an adult now, and coughing hacking the bits and pieces rattling in his chest like a broken engine—
She dropped his hand as if it had burned her, and recoiled from him, wide-eyed. The sour tremors lurking around him were more visible than ever, growing and writhing. Noah couldn't think how she'd managed to see so little of them for so long.
How could he remain so peaceful, knowing what he did?
He was watching her in confusion and dismay, probably waiting for the usual proclamations of moons in June and true love just around the corner. She'd forgotten what a game these fortunes were to his people.
"Y... you're dying," she whispered, unable to help herself.
The look he gave her was shocked—not the shock of someone who has received an unwelcome prediction, but the horror of someone whose closest-guarded secret has been found out entirely. A startled breath sucked into his throat, rasping slightly, and exploded out again without warning in a deep, hacking cough.
He pressed his palm hard over his mouth to stifle it, as if he could smother it away. She stretched out her hands to him, helpless as he stumbled a step back and leaned heavily against the table, his shoulders hunched as his body fought to expel everything wrong inside him and tore itself open a little more in the process.
Bewildered and needing to help him, somehow, Noah rushed to the pitcher of clean washing water and dipped a cup into it, holding it out dripping in both hands. He fumbled a grip on it and raised it to his lips, managing to gulp a mouthful, his eyes squeezed shut.
A few last dry coughs escaped him, and the fit ended.
Fingers trembling, he drank deeply once more and gave her back the cup, still leaning weakly on the table with his free hand. She accepted it silently. Words, always only casual acquaintances, failed her entirely now.
After a moment, Alfons raised his head, and those blue eyes were no longer gently plaintive, but filled with raw pleading.
"Don' t tell him," he said, the hint of a rasp still in his voice. "He doesn't need to know."
"I won't," she whispered, and meant it. There was enough pain in Edward Elric already without adding this burden to the rest. "Alfons... "
"It's all right," he said, getting back to his feet. His walk across the floor was slow, as always, but it was the first time it had ever seemed weary. Pausing in the doorway, he glanced over his shoulder at her, and gave her a faint smile. "I should have known. You were bound to be as good at fortunes as you are at dancing." He swallowed, paused again. "I... think I'm glad."
The door closed with a soft click behind him. Noah felt the weight of their secret settling onto her shoulders, black doves coming in to roost, and wondered if the cold shivers had passed a little from him to her, and if that was why he was glad.
A few less birds to coo in his ear on the quiet sunlit mornings.
Looking down at the water left in the cup in her hands, she saw a wispy thread of scarlet swimming among the crystal. Her lips curled, and she crossed to the window in a few rapid strides, slipped the catch and flung the casement wide.
About to pitch the hateful stuff into the street, she stopped to think. Then she tilted the cup, and poured it carefully in among Alfons' bright-faced marigolds and daisies. They bobbed gently under the clear stream.
Noah stood looking at them for a long time.
Then she let the cup fall from her hands. A few heads in the street below turned at the sound of shattering porcelain, but by the time they traced the line up from the little white starburst on the cobblestones, the window was already closed, and the dark-haired girl who had stood behind it had faded out of sight, folded into the new silence within.