A/n: A little AlMei oneshot for Izilen's Christmas gift! Many thanks to you, dear, for also being my beta.
Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no profit.
A year after his arrival in Xing, Mei could say with certainty that her feelings were no longer a projection of childhood fantasy. She only said it once aloud, and only to herself, and only to test the feel of the words as they left her mouth:
I am in love with Alphonse Elric.
There were none of the predicted symptoms, no swoop in her gut, no dizzying of her mind—on the contrary she felt much better afterward, as though a great pressure had been relieved from between her lungs. The trouble was that her attraction went largely unnoticed. His obliviousness (which would be endearing, were it not so frustrating) somehow outweighed her initial forwardness, and whether he felt anything at all for her was a mystery. They had become close over his two years of recovery, a long chain of letters marking the progress that ultimately compelled him to meet her in Xing for the first time. Since then, only closer. He was attentive and eager and hung on her words, at first to fulfill his role as student, and then just because.
At times she would catch him looking at her in an odd way, only for him to ask some scholarly question moments later. He wore his feelings openly in his expression, but they were at times difficult to interpret. If he had made any second assessment of their relationship, he was keeping it to himself. But still, Mei wondered.
She wondered in the restaurant where they had stopped for a bite en route to the southernmost border of Xing. It had been hours since they had anything to eat or drink, and was so hot that a group of schoolchildren had successfully fried a chicken egg on the sidewalk out front. They sat side-by-side at the counter, on stools so cramped that their knees bumped together every time they moved.
The waitress, a solemn-faced woman with her hair drawn back in a tight bun, had their orders on the counter in just a few minutes. With Xiao Mei's help Mei devoured her plate at once, but he took his time. He always ate this way, pondering each tiny bite like experimental data, occasionally commenting on the texture or flavor or something else she hadn't paused to consider. Often this left her waiting half an hour or so for him to catch up, but she didn't mind. His appreciation was something she admired, if only because she understood the toll he'd paid to get here.
He asked about the archeological dig they had passed on their way to the restaurant, and she filled in the waiting time with conversation about the country's first known civilizations. Eventually they got to talking about the ancient writing system, whose differences from the modern system she explained while he attempted to write the characters out on a paper napkin.
"I can't believe how much you know about this huge country," he said at the end. "I feel like I don't know half as much about Amestris. Although everything in the books turned out to be wrong, so maybe that's for the best."
Mei shrugged and finished off her second glass of water. Sweat had plastered her fringe to her forehead and the sides of her face, and she sensed that she was still losing fluids faster than she could replace them.
"I just love to read, that's all."
The waitress appeared to refill Mei's glass, and raised her eyebrows at him as she poured water from the jug.
"You've got one smart girl," she said, but he shook his head.
For a long moment Mei thought he was discounting the waitress's assumption. He swallowed his bite a little quicker than normal, leaned in toward over the counter as if about to divulge some secret, and said, "Not smart, brilliant. Incredible!"
The woman whistled low. They both made a show of glancing slyly at Mei like she couldn't hear them.
"Then you're even luckier," said the waitress.
"You have no idea. I'd be lost without her."
Mei hid her smirk behind the brim of her water glass, glad her face was too flushed from the heat to blush.
She wondered a year later in a dressing room of Emperor Ling's capital city palace, when after ten minutes of struggling with the endless buttons of her dress, she stuck her head into the hall in search for help and spotted him lurking by a wall-display of ancient vases. Being of an ever-altruistic nature, he agreed without understanding the challenge and slipped into the room, only to gasp at the number of fasteners when he spotted her back's reflection in the mirror. Her cause was legitimate. Mei had gotten halfway up the small of her back before the task became too cumbersome. But as he sidled behind her and carried on with it, she couldn't help feeling just a little self-conscious.
"There's at least a hundred. Maybe more," he said in a strange awe, almost daunted, and she felt his breath between her shoulders like she felt his fingers grappling with the buttons at her waist.
Mei chuckled and crossed her arms over her chest to keep the front from slipping down. Standing directly in front of the mirror, she could watch him work, his head bowed and tongue poking out in concentration.
"Just think, someone had to sew each one by hand," she said.
"Oh, I've got the better job. No doubt."
To fill the silence as he worked, she gave him an abbreviated history of the annual banquet's cause and traditions. When he'd climbed all the way up to her shoulder blades, she gathered her hair up in one hand, pulled it over to one side, and dipped her chin to give him a clear path. One by one he fit each button snug in its hook, tugging gently at each stop, taking care not pinch her by accident.
Mei stared down at her feet and told him the names of the governmental figures who they would meet, and what each of them did, and did not question his silence until she glanced up and saw his expression. He was not listening, but he was clearly thinking hard. His face had turned pensive, almost reverent, brows together and eyes fixed somewhere around the nape of her neck. He lingered on the last button. Then he looked up and, catching her eye in the mirror, dropped his hands.
"You look nice, by the way," he said.
She wondered after reading his letters from Rush Valley. He had returned home for the first time since Ed and Winry's wedding to celebrate the arrival of their first baby, leaving her at home to carry on with their joint research. Mei didn't mind the extra work (she loved it, in fact), but there was a certain gap in her every day that had not been there before. And she wondered, because he seemed to have it, too, whether he knew it or not.
These letters were nothing like the ones they had sent almost four years ago, when they were planning his first trip to Xing and his education in Alkahestry. He went on for pages each return, unapologetically detailing all of his observations and private thoughts.
I missed you today. Winry asked me to run out for groceries, and when I was looking for tomato paste, I spotted a jar of that sesame sauce we cooked last year (that we had over rice because Zampano and Jerso ate all the noodles. Do you remember?). I didn't even know they sold it here! For some reason I put down all the groceries I was holding to pick it up and read the label, and it really made me miss you. Isn't that silly? Well, even if you don't think so, the lady who caught me grinning at the jar of noodle sauce probably thought it enough for the both of us...
His voice was so profound that Mei pictured him writing it in Ed and Winry's little kitchen, ankles hooked around the rungs of the chair and chin propped up in one hand. The only thing more surprising to him than how much he missed her was that the sentiment always struck him at odd times. Not so much while working as during mundane tasks, while in a lull in conversation or when he lay down to go to sleep at night.
Mei wondered because it was the same ache that she carried with her in his absence. She could see it in his letters, him working it out in the same way that he ate—slowly, mulling over every word and feeling in his head as they passed on to the page, bite for bite. She did not allow herself the luxury of hope, but trusted in his intuition the same way she always had. Whatever the truth, she was sure that he would not only find it, but accept it and live by it. But she did wonder. After all, he had not always signed his name with love.
She wondered as she paced up and down the train platform with Xiao Mei chasing her heels. As if her anxiety were not hovering at an uncomfortable level, she had finished her book during the train's hour-long delay and was left with no means of self-distraction. After twenty minutes of watching her walk, an old man sitting nearby cleared a space on the bench and told her to sit before she triggered his vertigo. The second Mei's backside touched the seat, however, a train whistle sounded and she stood up so fast that the man jumped.
The train rounded the corner into the station and took far too long to come to a complete stop. The car doors opened and the passengers spilled out all at once in a montage of coats and luggage and screaming children. Mei was momentarily caught up in the flow, pushed along by hundreds of people moving in the opposite direction, unable to single him out until she heard his voice from behind. She turned, jostling the passers-by, and spotted him waving frantically from the bench that she had abandoned minutes before.
Mei fought her way back to the bench and stopped a pace short when he hopped down from his post. He had set his suitcase aside and started toward her, but hesitated at the same time as she. For a long few seconds he just looked at her, as if he were running her up against the mental image he had kept for his months away. Mei became acutely aware of the feel of her limbs, of the tightness in her chest that was not her childhood crush, but something much more resilient.
"Mei," he said, at last, and carried it with a great weight.
A moment later she gasped as he crossed the short distance and pulled her into a hug. At first she tensed, more surprised by his decisiveness than anything, until she attuned to the tenderness of his touch and hugged him tighter. He laughed and cradled her head in one hand, answering her years of wondering with an unequivocal yes.
"It's so good to see you," she said, smiling against his chest. "Oh, Alphonse."