"So how long has it been?" Havoc frowned, leaning back against the kitchen counter, arms crossed.
"Four weeks, more or less," Roy answered, not lifting his eyes from the cutting board.
"And there's been no reaction in a whole month?"
"It's not a problem," Roy answered shortly. "Yuen said it would take time."
"He said two weeks," Havoc reminded him, "and it's been twice that long. Aren't you going to do anything?"
"I," Roy said, stepping past his guest and lifting the pot lid to check the boiling potatoes, "can't do a thing. So I'm going to keep on not doing anything." He set the lid back, blinking away the warm steam.
"You could talk to the doctor about it, you know."
"I could, but I'm not going to. I don't think that's my call any more. It's Al's."
"And what does he say?"
Roy returned to the cutting board, leaning both hands on the edge of the counter, staring at the two tomatoes on the board beside the knife. "He's not saying anything now, and I'm not pressing him. We both know what this means, and I think he's started to resign himself to the thought that it didn't work."
Havoc shifted, running a hand over his spiky hair. "There's got to be something else you can do. I just can't imagine…"
"I know you can't," Roy retorted. "But for Al's sake, it's about time you did. Time we all did." He picked up the knife and began slicing the tomatoes into wedges. "Or you could, you know…" the knife paused halfway into a tomato as he cast a pointed glance at the other man, "…just stop thinking about it so much."
Havoc met his gaze, one eyebrow raised. Roy could almost see him resisting the urge to say, "Well, you were the one who told us about this in the first place." But one of the reasons they were such good friends was that Jean knew, most of the time, when it was important to keep pushing and when it was better just to shut up in the face of his friend's irrational demands.
The other man did allow himself a grimace of regret, but nodded, "Yeah, I suppose you're right. It's just…too bad, that's all. He's going to miss so much…" Havoc straightened as the back door opened. "Oh. Hey, Al. That's a lot of green stuff." He peered into the large ceramic bowl of herbs the young man carried. "You sure you know what all that stuff is? Not planning to poison us for dinner, are you?"
Al snorted. "Of course I know what everything is. We don't grow anything poisonous in our herb garden." He added, eyes sparkling, "We keep those plants on the other side of the yard. And we hardly ever mix them up." Then he stared into the bowl. "I think I might have picked too much, though."
"Don't worry, we can dry a lot of it," Roy said, scooping the tomatoes into the salad bowl. "It's almost time to start drying most of what's out there, anyway. It won't be long till the weather starts turning."
Al set the bowl down beside the cutting board. The bouquet of aromas was so rich it was almost dizzying. "We can sprinkle some of this rosemary on the potatoes when they're done." He twirled a small rosemary branch between two fingers before dropping it back into the bowl. "And the basil will go fine in the salad. I'll hang up the rest in a minute." He walked past Havoc to the window, gazing into the yard where Hawkeye had almost finished picking flowers for a table centerpiece.
Roy watched him for a moment. His young housemate's shoulders, silhouetted against the late afternoon sunlight outside, were still strong and broad, arms and legs just as sturdy. Maybe, the man thought, maybe there will at least be enough hormones to… He wrenched his thoughts back to the present. He couldn't lecture Havoc unless he was going to live by the same rules himself. Time to move on. Even if…
"So Jean," he said, "what do you think of that new gym they installed in the east wing?"
"Breda's already checked it out," the other man said, wandering over to join Al at the window. "He says it's got all the equipment you could ever need. Al, you're going to love it. We can spar there sometimes if you'd like." A pause, as though waiting for an answer. Then Havoc shrugged and continued. "Anyway, Breda and I are thinking of detouring through there a few mornings a week on our way in to work."
"Just so long as it's got a shower," Roy remarked, and Havoc snorted.
"Don't worry, we're not idiots. We don't plan on coming straight from the gym to the office in our wool unif – "
Roy glanced over as his friend broke off in mid-word. With the two figures at the window outlined in light, it was hard to discern what it was that might have cut Havoc off. But then the man turned to face him, face seemingly frozen, eyes wide.
"Uh, Roy, I just, uh, remembered something I need to do outside," the other said. He glanced at Al, eyes moving downward, and then looked pointedly back at Roy. "Gotta, uh, tell Hawkeye something. Be right back." Again his eyes moved downward, this time his chin following suit. Pointing? He cast another determined look at Roy, then quickly exited into the yard, the door slamming behind him.
Roy wiped his hands on a towel, frowning. The guy was an idiot sometimes, whatever he claimed. Though there was usually a reason when he behaved oddly. What in the world could have –
He halted at Al's side and his eyes widened as Havoc's had done. The young man stood stiff and unaware of his companion, hands clenched at his sides, gaze fixed unmoving on something outside the window. Roy's eyes darted back and forth in alarm, as he tried to discover what might have triggered the shortness of breath and the fine line of moisture along Al's upper lip. But there appeared to be nothing out there, at least nothing dangerous. Havoc had already walked across the grass to the far end of the yard, and Hawkeye continued bending over to cut more flowers to put in her basket.
Yet Al was as alert and on edge as Roy had ever seen him. Every line of his body simply shouted tension. And why had Havoc…? At last, the man allowed his eyes to follow the path Jean's gaze had taken, moving downward.
He couldn't entirely suppress his gasp as his eyes flew back to Al's face, then out to the sight outside the window. Havoc had turned at the far end of the yard and now just stood there, arms folded, gazing back at the window. Knowing what Roy had just seen. But he might as well have been on the moon, for all Alphonse knew.
For the kid's gaze remained locked on the figure of Riza Hawkeye, bent over the flowers with her scissors. Riza in her tan slacks and white shirt, sleeves rolled up, pulled-back hair fanning over her shoulders and upper back like a fine veil of sunlit gold. Her forearms lightly tanned, strong, the hands so capable with guns and yet still able to handle flowers with delicacy and grace. She bent over again, scissors in hand. The slender waist enclosed in a narrow belt…the swelling curve of her hips…the straight lines of her slacks making her legs appear so long…
A wave of red, primal rage swept through Roy's mind, engulfing, almost obliterating his consciousness. For three seconds it rushed through, carrying him with it, as tumultuous as a tsunami, as irresistible as the compulsion to breathe. And as it passed, it jolted him until every nerve was left taut and tingling, every muscle primed, every drop of racing adrenaline at the ready. The knife was just two steps away. It would be so easy, so inevitable, to respond to the insistent, primitive impulses and slit the throat of his rival, his enemy, the threat to the urgent imperative that screamed through his blood and radiated from every pore, every nerve: Mine, Mine, MINE!
But every man with any life to him had experienced the same thing, and every civilized man controlled this urge, letting it pass, recognizing it for what it was. Roy, too, was a civilized man, and this was Al. His dear little brother Alphonse, who recognized – who really, finally, truly recognized in every possible way, with every possible sense – all the deepest qualities of beauty.
Roy set a soft hand on the young man's shoulder, and felt the startled jump beneath his fingers. He leaned over and murmured in Al's ear, "She is absolutely gorgeous, isn't she?"
Al whirled around so quickly it was a wonder he didn't dislocate something. "Roy – I – I," he stammered, cheeks coloring, breath coming in quick gasps. "I don't – it's not what – please don't – I didn't mean – I – "
Roy just smiled. The red tide had receded as swiftly as it had arisen, and already his heart had filled with gladness. "It's okay, little brother," he said softly. "It's completely natural." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Riza straighten, lifting the basket of flowers and turning toward the house.
The young man closed his eyes, taking a breath, and when he opened them again, he managed a wry smile. "Sorry," he muttered. "It's just – this is going to take some getting used to. Now that it seems to be, well, back…" Then his eyes sparkled again and he flashed a mischievous, very Elric grin. "And yes – she's gorgeous. About time you noticed."
Roy laughed, accompanied by the sound of footsteps, and then the opening of the door.
"I think I've got enough to fill the vase," Riza began.
"Wait!" Al blurted. "I mean," he averted his eyes, his cheeks flaming, "I think I need to ask Jean something. Back in a minute!" And he rushed past the woman and out the door with such speed that a few strands of her hair lifted as he raced by.
Riza turned back to Roy, raising her eyebrows. "Something wrong?" she wondered. "He looked upset."
"There's not a thing wrong," Roy smiled, moving back to the counter near the cutting board, and leaning back against it. "And he wasn't upset, at least not in any way you're thinking of. Let's just say…he noticed you out the window. And when I say 'noticed'…"
She regarded him, frowning, for a couple of seconds until again her eyebrows shot up. "I…see," she said, a light color creeping up her cheeks. "Well, that makes things…interesting."
"Is it going to be a problem? I think Jean and I can help divert his attention and get his mind on other things during the dinner, until he gets used to this." Roy glanced out the window and saw Havoc now standing with Al, a hand on his shoulder, speaking quietly to him. Good man. Despite all his talk about those magazines, he was as experienced as any of them. "But if you feel uncomfortable," Roy added, turning his attention back to Riza, "and if you'd rather not stay for dinner this time, I'll understand."
"There won't be any problem at all. " Riza stepped to the counter on the other side of the sink, laying the basket down. "And think how Al would feel if I suddenly left. He'd know why, and he'd probably never be able to look me in the eyes again. Better to behave as though I don't know anything. After all." she added, "I've occasionally encountered cadets with the same problem, and we've all gotten through the experience just fine."
"I know you have. You do have a way of letting them feel they haven't been noticed until they get control of themselves again."
"All women have to learn to do that," Riza smiled. "The same way you men have to learn your own little tricks. Al will be fine over dinner, and so will I." She grabbed the vase waiting beside the sink and poured water into it. "And in a day or two, he'll probably have noticed that classmate of his instead, and I'll be out of the picture. Then you'll have to think of Fletcher, and start teaching him how to handle a rival who is also a friend."
Like I'm the one to teach that sort of thing, Roy thought wryly, remembering his own reactions of just a few moments ago.
"Besides," Riza went on, beginning to separate the flowers in the basket, "I doubt it's me particularly that he's reacting to. I was just the first convenient woman who happened to be around when things finally woke up."
No, thought Roy, the breath tightening in his throat, I really don't think that was the reason.
He watched her strong, competent hands as they lifted flowers one by one out of the basket, snipped the ends of the stems at an angle, and placed them in the vase. He'd always admired her sense of colour and proportion.
Riza continued talking as she arranged the blooms, pausing occasionally to peer at her handiwork and make an adjustment. She didn't seem to have noticed that he had stopped answering. Or maybe she had. Maybe this was one of her own little "tricks." She remarked briskly, "What's important is that, from the sound of it, the fix has finally worked. I suppose you should call Doctor Yuen and let him know, and that will probably be an end of it." She tucked some strands of hair behind one ear. "I'll try to remember to remind you tomorrow."
As though she would forget. She never forgot anything important. Sometimes he felt as though he'd be completely lost in a fog without her.
"Still, Roy," Riza said. "I'm so glad he's finally back to normal." She glanced up, smiling, "That's got to be a big relief – what?" Another frown. "Roy? Is something wrong?"
For a moment he couldn't reply, but could only gaze at her, staring into her wide amber eyes, so deep he'd often thought he could drown in them. He stared the way he'd always wanted to, the way Alphonse had been doing just moments ago. She gazed back, meeting his eyes, the lines of her face softening. Her hands stopped moving, resting lightly on the remaining flowers in the basket.
About time you noticed, Al had said.
"Riza," Roy croaked, and then cleared his throat. "Would you…that is…" He pressed unexpectedly clammy palms against his pant legs. "I was just wondering…what you were doing Saturday night."
She lowered her gaze to the basket. The fresh, light perfume of the flowers wafted up from between her fingers. Her lips turned up slightly and she murmured, "What do you think?"