Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
— William Blake, Proverbs of Hell
The sky was blue.
…to inform you…
It shouldn't be, he thought.
…the National Alchemist…
Alphonse blinked, and tore his gaze away from the windows. The cup of tea in his hands had grown cool, but still he clutched the cup, blinking again. The sun's light was warm on his skin, a gentle caress.
It was all wrong.
Warrant Officer Fury stared down at his cup, as well, his eyes large behind the round frames of his glasses. Next to him, Second Lieutenant Farman shifted uncomfortably, his gaze fixed on Winly. She hadn't spoken since they had knocked on the door. She'd stood on the threshold, staring, her blue eyes wide as she took in their formal attire, the caps they'd removed, and the polite, sorrowful nods they gave Alphonse as he got up from the desk to join Winly.
…the line of duty…
"We're sorry if this is an intrusion," Farman finally said, his expression kind. Winly was clutching a screwdriver in one hand, a bolt in the other, perched on the edge of the chair. Farman exhaled slowly. "Formal procedures would be a telegram, but…"
"I know," Alphonse told him. "And…I…we appreciate you coming all this way."
"We served with both of them, for a long time," Fury replied. "A telegram wouldn't have been right."
"It's…" Winly's stutter caught the three men off-guard. They fell silent. She was shaking, slightly, and the screwdriver rattled against the arm of the chair. "It's not," she stated, quietly but emphatically. "It's not." Winly turned large blue eyes on Alphonse. "Al…it's…"
"I know, Winly," Alphonse said, but couldn't find any other words.
He reached out, and Winly recoiled, shaking her head. She dropped the bolt and screwdriver, and buried her face in her hands, sobbing. Alphonse watched for a second, then got up from his chair. Kneeling down beside her, he opened his arms and she fell into them, crying. Alphonse hugged her tightly, twisting in place to look at the two men on the sofa, their eyes averted.
"Please," he whispered, just loud enough to be heard over Winly's sobs. "We have the space. Stay here tonight and head back in the morning."
"We wouldn't want—" Farman started to say.
"I insist," Alphonse replied. "There's a train an hour past dawn, but you'd have to leave just before dawn to make it, walking. Stay until the noon train," he said, running a hand up and down Winly's back. She nodded her consent into his chest. "It's not an imposition."
Fury stood. "I'll…I'll make dinner," he offered. "I feel like I should do something."
Winly sobbed harder, suddenly, and Alphonse gave Fury a grateful smile. Farman stood as well, scratching the back of his head.
"I'll chop some wood," Farman said, and pulled off his coat, leaving it over the arm of the sofa. With a small wave, he stepped outside, while Fury left to poke around in the kitchen.
"Al," Winly moaned.
"I know," Alphonse said, and wondered when it would hit him, too.
His brother and the General were dead.
Dinner was quiet, kept alive only by Farman and Fury exchanging small anecdotes. Fury spoke about his sister's wedding, and Farman managed to lighten the mood with wry observations of the assignment he'd been on for the past month. The numb feeling was momentarily replaced with soft laughter and casual conversation, masking the emptiness they all felt. The places at the ends of the table were left alone; Granny Pinako's spot, and where Edward always sat. Alphonse stared down at the fork in his hand, noting the grease under his fingernails from helping Winly, and repeated the words.
My brother and the General are dead.
After dinner, all four assisted in cleaning. Alphonse wasn't surprised they'd finished the entire meal. Fury was a damn better cook than Winly or Alphonse, and anything was better than Edward's idea of cooking, which usually involved alchemy. Most of Edward's attempts had gone wrong, but to such a magnificent degree that Alphonse and Winly couldn't fault him for his enthusiasm. Alphonse frowned, drying the last plate and handing it to Winly.
It can't be happening.
Alphonse helped assemble the blankets and extra pillows, opting to sleep on the sofa despite Fury's protests. His room – the room he'd always shared with Edward, when they were home together – suddenly seemed too big, too empty. Farman and Fury said their goodnights, carrying their small packs into the room, and shut the door behind them.
"Goodnight, Al," Winly whispered, and hiccupped. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, and before Alphonse could say anything, she fled into her own bedroom.
Alphonse trudged down to the sofa in the main room, and laid down, watching the dying embers of the fire.
It can't be true.
Alphonse woke at dawn, cringing at the bright sunshine creeping over the window sill and battering him on the eyelids. Yawning, he sat up, remembered, and sank back down again. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe.
Just as quickly, he roused himself, knowing Winly needed him. He pushed back the covers, rubbing at his unruly hair and stretching as he padded up the stairs to Winly's room. Tapping softly at the door, he waited, and pushed it open.
Winly was standing by her dresser, staring down at her wrench. She gave a guilty start when she looked up, and dropped the wrench on the dresser top. It fell with a clatter, and she jumped a little to the side.
"Sorry," she muttered. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she sniffled. "Al…" Winly sagged, suddenly, and made a vague motion with her hands. "I didn't love him enough, did I?"
"What?" Alphonse was floored. In five steps he was in front of Winly, wrapping her in his arms, and she clung to him almost as tightly as he did to her. It felt good to have a body sometimes, but just then Alphonse wished he were armor again. Then Winly could crawl inside him and fill up the empty space within his ribs.
"I didn't," she repeated, her voice muffled against his shirt. "If I did, I would've gone with him, wherever he wanted, but—"
"Your business, your life is here," Alphonse replied. "He knows…knew…that, and so do I. You can't travel around, and—"
"—Maybe I should've," she said. Her short fingernails dug into Alphonse's chest, hard enough to leave marks. "He didn't like being here, staying still, with nothing to do or see or read…I wasn't enough. If I had been, he'd be here, and safe, and—"
"—You couldn't keep him safe," Alphonse told her, burying his face in her hair. "I couldn't, you couldn't, no one could."
"Even Mustang," Winly said, almost bitterly. "How could he do that! He's…" She choked back a sob. "He's…"
"He wouldn't." Alphonse heard his own words, and halted, Winly's grasp forgotten as he considered it more carefully. General Mustang had, in some way or fashion, for some reason, combusted the room he was in, with the center of the fire being Edward Elric. A terrible alchemical accident, the formal words said, but…Alphonse frowned, and strove to return his attention to Winly, first. "Winly, Brother doesn't belong in one place."
"He still never talked to me," Winly moaned. "Wouldn't tell me what he was do—"
"—Some of his assignments, he couldn't," Alphonse reminded her. "That doesn't mean he loved us any less—"
"—But I got so mad sometimes!" Winly shook her head, rubbing her nose against Alphonse's collarbone, and it once again shocked him how much taller he'd grown in two years. Winly sighed, and carefully stepped back. "When he left, I was glad." She tensed, and when Alphonse didn't react, she relaxed slightly, fingering the hem of her shirt. "But I didn't mean I wanted him gone, forever. I just…I just wish there were some way…something I could've done, I feel like I didn't do enough…If I could just figure out what it was, go back, get him back, and undo it—"
Winly looked up, and shrank back suddenly. Alphonse realized he must have a face like a thundercloud at her unwitting implications. He took a long breath, letting it out slowly before he spoke. She'd never entertain such notions, but it wasn't his favorite topic.
"Let's…" Alphonse cast about for a distraction. "Let's go make breakfast for the officers, before they leave. And we…we need to find out about arrangements."
"Arrangements," Winly echoed, uncertain.
"Brother is…was…a National Alchemist," Alphonse explained. "They may have a space for him in—"
"No," Winly snapped, fire lighting in her eyes. "He comes back here, to stay by your mother and Granny Pinako."
It's just a body, Alphonse wanted to say, and glanced down at his own hands. No, it's not just a body. It may be a shell, but if it's all I have left…he nodded, and Winly grabbed the wrench off her dresser.
"Fine, Al," she said, her chin high. "Let's make breakfast and make sure those men know what Ed's family wants."
Alphonse sighed, looked down at his hands again, and followed her from her bedroom.
The two officers came downstairs not long afterwards, and Alphonse gave them towels and showed them where everything was in the bathroom. He busied himself making breakfast, while Winly sat in the chair that faced the front door. She had her wrench in her hands, and clutched it tightly, her face drawn in tired lines. She was waiting for something, but since Farman and Fury had come downstairs, she hadn't spoken or even looked up.
"Winly," Alphonse called, softly, not wanting to startle her. "Breakfast…"
"I'm not hungry, Al," she answered in a listless voice.
"You need to eat," he beseeched, coming up behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. It still amazed him that he could do that, sometimes, to feel the scratchy material of her overall strap, the soft cotton, and her muscles, beneath it all. He pressed gently with his fingertips, feeling her exhaustion radiating up through her skin. "Please."
"In a little bit," she said.
Alphonse was quiet, hoping she'd say more, or that his presence would convince her that 'a little bit' had passed and she would be ready to eat. When she still didn't move, he sighed, and pulled away. He curled his fingers into fists, wincing as his fingernails dug half-moons into his palm. So many years of not feeling a damn thing, and now he felt like he was encased in that armor again, feelings devoid, numb, a piece of him missing despite the fact that he could look down and see himself, whole, complete.
I am not complete.
He set out four plates, with forks, knives and spoons, though he wasn't sure if all the utensils would be needed. It was a ritual, and he ran a finger along one spoon, straightening it. An alchemical reaction of the most ancient kind: sitting down to eat as though filling the stomach could replace the gap in one's heart. Alphonse sighed, hearing a distant rumble. He hoped it wouldn't be thunder; storms made his loneliness ten times worse. The lightening and thunder reminded him of his brother, raging through with no regard for anything but his goal. Alphonse was the rain, following along behind, alternately furious and gentle as needed.
I could handle the rain, Alphonse told himself, and set out a plate heaped with bacon. But I don't want to hear thunder.
"Breakfast is ready," he called, keeping his voice pitched high, to force a natural cheer he didn't feel.
Winly came to the table. Her hand was raised, the wrench pressed against her stomach, as though holding herself in with its iron strength. Farman and Fury joined them, dressed down in their white shirts but wearing their formal blue pants.
Again, the meal was quiet, except for anecdotes and small talk. Farman had just begun relating who had transferred to whose command, when Winly's head lifted, and she turned to stare intently at the front windows. Catching the movement, Alphonse turned as well, wondering what she'd heard. After a second, the distant rumble shifted from the sound of thunder to the sound of a car engine. It grew louder, then came to a halt, turned over once more, and stopped.
Alphonse frowned, almost certain Winly didn't have any patients until the afternoon. Wiping his hands on his napkin, he pushed his chair away from the table and went to answer the door.
"Good morning, Alphonse," Captain Hawkeye said. She smiled at him, but there were lines on her face that echoed Winly's. Her hair was longer, pulled into a neater bun, but her uniform was neatly pressed, always impeccable. "I'm sorry to disturb you. I've come to retrieve Officers Furman and Fury." She glanced past Alphonse to see Fury and Farman coming to their feet by the table, and one of Hawkeye's eyebrows twitched. "I didn't realize—"
"It's okay, ma'am, please come in." Alphonse pulled the door open wider. Warrant Officer Thompson, Hawkeye's petite assistant, was standing behind the Captain. "Warrant Officer," he said. She smiled, tightly, and gave him a small bow in return. "We were just sitting down to breakfast, and there's plenty," he told the two women. "Have you eaten? You're welcome join us."
"We don't have a great deal of time," Hawkeye said. "I'm here—"
"There's a noon train," Winly said, and Alphonse started, not prepared to hear her interrupt so bluntly. He flushed, glancing at Hawkeye, but the Captain merely checked the time on the wall.
"We need to catch the morning train," she said, demurring, again with that preoccupied smile. "The matter is urgent. Gentlemen," and the greeting was a command.
"I'll get our things," Fury said, and Farman nodded absently, his gaze fixed on Hawkeye. She nodded once, almost imperceptibly, and Farman saluted as well.
The gesture seemed wildly inappropriate in a house's living room, Alphonse thought, so far removed from the city and the military, and yet strangely comforting for all its relative insignificance. He found himself filing that gesture away with the silverware, drawing the familiar close about him to stave off the words waiting in the pit of his stomach.
My brother and the General are dead.
Winly began clearing the table, offering little in conversation. Alphonse was about to join Winly when Hawkeye caught his eye, and jerked her head in a subtle motion towards the backdoor. Intrigued, Alphonse nodded, joining her on the back porch.
Hawkeye was silent for a long time, watching thunderheads roll above the green fields in the distance.
"Twelve years," she said, and sighed. She was quiet a little longer, and turned to Alphonse with that calm yet determined look he'd grown to know so well. She had to tilt her chin to look up at him, and she flashed him a quick smile before straightening. "I'm heading to Soswell, on the premise that the General should be returned to Central with an honor guard of his staff. We will also bring Edward with us, as well. Have you and Miss Rockbell discussed—"
"Ma'am," Alphonse said, very slowly, narrowing his eyes at Hawkeye. "Is there some reason you didn't say that you would be bringing the remains?"
"I meant—" Hawkeye's eyes went wide, almost imperceptibly, and one corner of her mouth twitched. "No, that's not what I meant," she admitted.
Alphonse took a deep breath, then a second, and suddenly the porch was tilting at a crazy angle. Hawkeye said something, sharp, in his ear, and he gasped again. He opened his eyes, seeing the porch railing under his hand. His other hand was locked with Hawkeye's.
"Alive," he choked out, hopeful.
"I don't know," she whispered, and let go of his hand. "I'm sorry, Alphonse," she muttered. "I didn't mean to get your hopes up. But it was definitely not an accident."
He brushed himself off, and gave her a pointed look.
Hawkeye stared out across the fields again, then lifted her hand and snapped her fingers, just once. "I have known the General - Roy - for more than half my life," she said, still not looking at Alphonse. "And in all that time I have never once known him to wear his gloves while sleeping or eating. He does not wear his gloves lightly, nor as an accessory unless he sees reason."
The world was still tilted awkwardly, and Alphonse struggled for breath. Her implications… "You think—"
"I know," Hawkeye said, firmly. "We have had many meetings in the officer's barracks when I accompanied him on assignments, over the years. The most relaxed one could expect from the General is for him to wear his work shirt and a pair of khakis. The very least, he'd leave his jacket in his room." She smiled, a memory or private joke lighting her features. "The General may not dress down as a matter of practice, but his natural formality does not necessarily include the array of his title."
Alphonse blinked, trying to sort through his own memories. Most of the times he'd seen the General, the man was on duty, and the gloves were either present - or in a pocket within quick reach.
"But Edward," Alphonse said, and just as quickly bit down on the rest of his words. Hawkeye stared at him levelly.
"If you honestly believe the General would ever do anything to truly endanger…" She didn't finish. There was no need. She turned away, her eyes glittering in the midmorning, and walked back into the house.
Alphonse nodded, his decision already made, and followed her in. Farman and Fury were by the front door, and Winly was wiping the kitchen table clean. She sniffled, and wiped her eyes, smiling weakly when she saw Alphonse reappear behind Hawkeye.
"I'm coming with you," Alphonse said.
Hawkeye stopped abruptly, her neck stiff. He could see the rise and fall of her shoulders before she slowly turned to face him.
"I've got to get something," Winly whispered to no one in particular, and fled the room.
Alphonse's baffled gaze followed her figure as she ran out the door, up the stairs. Then he saw Hawkeye's regretful face, and suspected it was the cause of Winly's flight. No doubt Winly's retreat was to make sure her own complaints would be aired when Alphonse's attention wasn't divided.
Hawkeye turned measuring eyes on Alphonse, and his heart came up in his throat, plummeting the second she lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry, Alphonse," she murmured. "But this is a military assignment. You're a civilian."
"I'm a member of the family," he replied. "If this involves my brother—"
"We'll make sure to bring him home," Fury said, subdued.
Alphonse frowned. That wasn't good enough. "But—"
"No, Alphonse," Hawkeye repeated.
It was the tone of voice she often used in the second before drawing her gun, and Alphonse wasn't surprised to see Mustang's remaining staff lean away from her nervously. There was a long silence, filled only by Fury's nervous shifting from foot to foot, at Hawkeye's side. She looked around the room, taking in the fireplace, the sofa, the bench covered with notes and appointments and orders to be filled. Hawkeye sighed, and closed her eyes, the closest to visible defeat she'd ever allow.
"I'm sorry," she said gently. "I wish I could. But the rules are clear. Missions like these do not allow family members to accompany the assigned officers."
"I know," Hawkeye said. "Your brother is most unusual in that regard, as is…was…the General. I don't have that kind of leeway, now." She paused, and her expression softened, for just a moment, then returned to its firm, cold lines of her position. "I'm sorry. Please give my regards to Miss Rockbell."
"Captain," Farman said, saluting. Hawkeye paused, and he gave her an abashed look. "Do we have a few minutes? I didn't have a chance to straighten the bedroom we borrowed."
"Make it quick, Second Lieutenant," Hawkeye said.
Alphonse remained by the kitchen table, dumbfounded, distantly registering the conversation behind the furor in his mind. If Edward had been murdered, he didn't want to be at home waiting for the news. He wanted to find the person, wrap his hands around the person's neck, and strangle them slowly and painfully. Death by fire is not my brother's rightful end, he thought, and could only stare as Hawkeye strode from the house.
"You've grown," Thompson said, leaning back and giving him a quick smile. He towered over her, Alphonse noted, and he wasn't wearing shoes either. "I'm terribly sorry," she added. "I'll miss your brother. We all will." Then she, too, left.
"It was an honor to work with your brother all these years," Fury said quietly. "He was a good alchemist…and a good person."
"So was the General," Alphonse murmured.
"Thank you again for your hospitality. And please tell Miss Rockbell I'm…we're…" Fury swallowed hard, ducking his head, and removed his glasses, wiping them with quick, jerky movements. Putting them back on, he gave Alphonse a sorrowful look, then left as well.
Farman's light tread sounded in the doorway, and he gave a small bow and tight smile to Alphonse. "You know, National Alchemists are considered a branch of the military," the man observed. He was buttoning up his coat, but didn't seem to be a in hurry. "People underestimate the importance of having the right sponsor, however. It's a political thing, I suppose." He smiled again, that enigmatic look he seemed to have learned from working with Hughes. "Take care, Alphonse, and I'll see you soon."
"Right," Alphonse said, the man's words slowly sinking into his numbed brain. "See you…" He started to turn it into a question, but the door was already shutting behind Farman, and Alphonse was alone in the room.
It was the sound of the car engine that woke Alphonse from his stupor. He looked around the room, recalling Farman's odd words, and bolted up the stairs. He doubted there was much chance two military officers would have come down to breakfast without making up the beds. It just wasn't a likely event, and he pounded past Winly – just coming out of her own room – and threw himself around the corner into the room he shared with Edward.
He stopped in the middle, not sure what he was looking for, or what he'd find.
A sign, he thought, desperately. Something.
"Al," Winly whispered from the door, and pointed.
There was a simple note sitting on the dresser, and Alphonse picked it up with shaking hands. Flipping it open, he scanned it.
Major General Cameron retires in two weeks, and has returned to Central for the duration of his duty. North Patterson, no. 17. His chess skills are rivaled only by one.
Alphonse paused, and read it a second time. He took a deep breath, swallowing hard before looking up at Winly. "I'm going to Central," he told her, calmly. "I'm going to become a National Alchemist."
The room was perfectly silent for nearly twenty heartbeats, and Alphonse began to relax. Winly hadn't responded, her face frozen in the moment of comprehension, her mouth just slightly open. She drew in breath, and Alphonse instinctively tensed.
"Al!" Winly exploded into the room, grabbing the note. She read it, shook her head, and read it again. "What is this supposed to mean?"
"I'm not sure, but I'm going to find out." He hesitated, then plunged ahead. "I think this is the guy who can help me become a National Alchemist."
"Edward studied for months for his exam," Winly said, starting to ball the letter up. Alphonse grabbed her wrist, holding her tight enough to make her squeak. "Al! No! You're not going!"
"I am," he said.
"Ed hated being a National Alchemist! He was a dog of the military, and he—"
"Kept doing it once he no longer had to," Alphonse pointed out. He smoothed the letter, and tucked it into his jeans pocket. Winly gaped, scrambling for the wrench in her back pocket, but Alphonse grabbed her wrists again, easily holding her hands away from the weapon. She wriggled, spitting furiously, and Al sighed. "Please, Winly," he said.
"But Edward would," she moaned, then shut her mouth into a hard line. She tugged on her wrists one more time.
He let go, stepping back warily before he headed to the closet where his own suitcase waited for the day he'd join Edward again. Immediately Winly was beside him, grabbing the handle of the case and trying to jerk it away from him.
"Al, don't," Winly begged. "This is madness. You can't just up and go become a National Alchemist."
"Brother studied, and missed one question," Alphonse reminded her. "I had a perfect score. I can do this."
"It's Captain Hawkeye's job, not yours," she protested.
"It's my brother!" Alphonse threw the suitcase on his bed and flipped the top up. Going around Winly, he began pulling clothes from his dresser and throwing them on the bed. "If that doesn't make it my job, nothing does."
"But to be a National Alchemist, Alphonse, that's—" She halted, deflating. "Alphonse…please." Her voice dropped to a tiny sound, hesitant and scared. "Don't leave me again."
He sighed heavily, and pulled out a second pair of jeans, tossing them onto the bed. Catching Winly from behind, he wrapped his arms around her neck, and she put her hands on his forearms, holding him there. "I'm sorry, Winly. But I have to go. I think Hawkeye thinks they might be alive, and if not, they were murdered. Either way, it wasn't an accident. And I'm almost positive she's taking the staff not as honor guard, but as investigation."
"Alive? Or murdered…" Winly twisted in Alphonse's arms. "But that's—how—not—"
"I don't know," Alphonse admitted. "But I can't go if I'm not military, and if I go by myself as civilian, they won't be allowed to tell me anything. And I refuse to be out of the loop, if it means I'm missing information that would help me find out the truth."
She tried one last time. "Still, if they're going, I know they'll—"
"Not good enough," Alphonse said, and kissed her on the forehead. "I love you, Winly. You're my only family left. I would stay if I could…but this is my brother." He pulled away, and began rummaging through his desk, pulling out the alchemical notes from years ago. He hadn't saved all of them, but he figured a refresher on the train might be a good thing.
"I know," Winly whispered, then laughed, hollowly. "Neither of you will ever really stay in one place, will you."
"We will," Alphonse said, but part of his mind was already running through the things he needed to take, while pushing away the practical part that said he was jumping to conclusions with little basis in fact. "And besides," he added, stuffing the books on top of the clothes and shutting the suitcase with a bang. "We always come home again."
"Yes," she said, waiting until he'd turned to face her. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. "Go on, then," she whispered in his ear. "You're right…I don't mean to be selfish, but I don't…I don't…" Winly pressed her face against his neck, and clung fiercely for several heartbeats, until he wrapped his arms around her, bending over to bury his face in her shoulder. "Go find our brother, and bring him back safely."
"Winly," he warned, not wanting to mislead her with false hopes. Hawkeye's second guess, of murder, was the more likely event. "There's the chance—"
"You're the Elric brothers, world-famous alchemists for the people," she said, slowly disengaging. She sniffled, and blinked furiously a few times, then lifted her chin. "The two of you always do the impossible. I'm not going to hope, though," she confessed, her voice softening. "I'm going to…I'm going to…just…surprise me, okay?"
"I'll do my best," he promised, and kissed her on the cheek. "I…walk me to the station?"
"No, Al," Winly murmured, ducking her head. "Just go, before I come to my senses and tie you down and beat you into a pulp for even considering this crazy idea."
Not sure what to say, Alphonse grabbed his cloak and picked up his suitcase. Winly kept her head down, and he paused in the doorway, memorizing the room, the morning light in her hair, the indentation on the blanket where his suitcase had lain. Then he turned and left, and Winly's quiet sobs followed him all the way to the door.
He kept busy waiting for the noon train by rereading their notes from years before, amused at how quickly it all came back. Alphonse dragged a fingertip across his brother's childish scrawl. He tried to focus on the words, and not the memory of his brother's glare at the textbooks, puzzling out the harder concepts at the heart of alchemy.
The train could not come fast enough, and having arrived, could not depart fast enough. Minutes and miles, stretching out…Alphonse was startled at the hard seat, the swaying motion he'd never felt in six years of accompanying Edward back and forth across the country.
The rumbling of the tracks under his feet reminding him of thunder. He was tempted to count the distance between the rails, as though it would tell him how far he had to go to reach the center of the lightening strike.
Alphonse stared up at the brownstone, and straightened his cloak. He ran a hand through his hair, certain it was sticking up again as it always did. He'd once teased Edward that perhaps if he grew his hair long, too, he wouldn't have to deal with the cowlick. Edward had come after him with a pair of scissors, and the two had tussled, laughing, until Winly had broken it up with the ever-handy wrench. Alphonse sighed, giving up on his appearance after a four-hour train ride, and made his way up the steps to knock on the door.
It was opened by an older woman, perhaps a few years younger than Granny Pinako had been when she'd died. The woman gave Alphonse a puzzled but pleasant smile, waiting to hear what he had to say. He said the first words that came to his mind.
"I'd like to play chess with the General, ma'am."
Her face dissolved into a wreath of wrinkles as she smiled, and she pulled the door open wider. "Come in, young man. The General is in the parlor. He's been expecting you. You can leave your suitcase here, and would you like me to take your coat?"
"Thank you," Alphonse said, divesting the cloak into her hands and straightening his gray shirt before stepping into the house's front room. "Sir?"
"Alphonse Elric," a kind voice said, gravelly with age. The man sitting by the fire looked to be in his nineties, but his eyes were sharp. There was a chessboard on the table beside him, with several moves already made. "I understand you have need of a rapid movement from pawn…" He smiled, and picked up one of the pieces off the board, twirling it in gnarled but deft fingers. "…to knight."