It's raining when she comes to you. Her blouse soaked through and clinging offers a glimpse at the swell of her breasts above the laced edge of her bra. You swallow a wave of guilt for noticing. Extending out from beneath a brightly coloured slicker, a small hand clutches her skirt. Alicia huddles close to her mother, blinking from the spill of light fanning across the step.
You don't ask why Gracia's here at such an hour. The rings shadowing her eyes and the heavy book in her pale hands are answer enough.
She begs you, but you refuse to help her. You send her home after a night spent with her curled close, waking each time she woke, feeling the sting of tears each time she made that broken sound. She was so warm in your arms, the faint scent of her lavender soap so familiar. Missed.
She doesn't visit for weeks after that. At first you think she's angry, but when another week passes by without even a telephone call, you have Hawkeye check library records.
Gracia's been to the main branch every single day, squeezing around the regulations by using her old badge from when she worked as a switchboard operator.
She's not proud of her first attempts at transmutation. Nearly all alchemic textbooks have an aspiring student create one of the most basic objects: a cup. Her ninth attempt is still lumpy and off-center, pinched and sagging at the top, looking as if it had been made by conventional means and there'd been an accident on the pottery wheel.
Five more cups and she throws what she deems the newest catastrophe across the room.
I'll never be able to do this, she says. He'll be a mess.
She looks at you pleadingly, but you say nothing. Don't offer what she wants of you. This will be her choice, not yours.
You don't have the heart to tell her that even if she can transmute a cup as beautiful as the ones in her grandmother's tea service, that the thing she plans to create will still be a twisted, misshapen failure.
She wouldn't believe you anyway. No one who sets out to do this thing ever does.
You pick up the pieces, draw an array to break it down into its base elements again and place the chalk in the centre of the table.
Once again, she starts with a triangle.
It's not the first night this week that she's invited you for supper. You have Havoc drive you. It's a favour these days instead of an order.
Didn't think you still had a reason to go over there, Havoc says, gaze flickering to you in the rearview.
You smirk and look out the window. Maes had been the one to tie you together and even someone like Havoc had puzzled that out. Implying something, First Lieutenant?
No si- Havoc clears his throat. No.
Good, because I wouldn't want any rumours flying about that my days as a bachelor are numbered.
The next day, the rumours are already circulating. By the time they find their way back to Gracia's ears, she's flustered, asking you in a hushed voice what people will think. Loving you while Maes was alive had been easy, but after, there'd been no way to explain to friends and neighbours that she didn't love her husband any less for going straight into your arms.
You kiss her cheek, hand her a new book, and try to keep the sorrow out of your smile. It's been nearly two years, you say, and what 'they' think has always been irrelevant.
When you're gathering up your coat and she asks you to stay, you almost say no, an excuse already forming on your tongue. But when she takes your hand in hers and smiles that sultry smile of hers before tugging you towards the stairs, you follow.
You watch her undress, and it isn't until she's standing before you in nothing but her undergarments and stockings that you go to her.
It's been a long, long time since you've felt her touch like this. She's not shy, not gently exploring like the first time you'd made love and Maes's wide hands had swept over the both of you.
She's beautiful above you and you can't find the words to tell her so. Her hair is longer than you have ever known it to be, tips brushing against your chest as she slowly rocks herself against you. You pretend not to notice the wet shine on her cheeks before she drops down low and buries her face against the slope of your neck.
For a moment, when you're both sweat-slick and sated, the pound of your hearts echoing between each harsh breath, you feel complete.
Moments pass, but you stay until morning.
You're greeted by the smell of chocolate hanging in the air.
Following it to the kitchen, you find her sitting with Alicia perched in her lap. There's a freshly baked cake on the table, steam rising from a missing slice. The cake is dramatically lopsided, half-melted frosting piled thick on one side to try and hide the defect.
It's just like cooking, Roy, she says. Ingredients to prepare, a recipe to follow, and enough improvisation to draw on my strengths and make it my own.
You're staring at the delicate, cut-crystal cakedish you know she didn't buy when Alicia waves at you.
Want a piece? Alicia asks you. I helped mommy bake it!
Sure, honey, you say, and sit down at the chair that has been yours since you'd helped them move in to this house.
Alicia slips off her mother's lap to fetch you a plate and some silverware. Her eyes curve like her father's when she smiles.
You're sure it's delicious, but it tastes like ash and ruin in your mouth.
It's delicious, sweetie, you tell Alicia when she wriggles her way into your lap instead. The next bite you take is extra big.
It's the eve of Maes's death when she decides it's time.
You take Alicia with you to the cemetary. She behaves for a while, but when you stay too long staring at her father's grave, she starts to fidget. You can't leave though, not yet, and Alicia strays, winding along the neat rows of headstones and picking the tiny flowers that sprout among the grass. When she's gathered enough, she makes a bracelet of them. You're there long enough that she makes one for you, too.
She holds your hand as you leave.
Mommy's going to come tomorrow, isn't she?
Yes, you say, although you think that might not be true.
I wish you were my daddy, Uncle Roy.
That something lodged tight in your chest swells dangerously, crests, ready to break and drown you. You force it down and help Alicia up so she can walk along a low stone wall. Why's that?
If you were, maybe mommy wouldn't be so sad all the time.
How do you know she's sad?
Alicia hops down by herself when the wall ends. She points out a pebble shaped like a heart and shrugs her shoulders. Just do.
You pause at the gate to offer Maes yet another apology.
Hawkeye asks with a look what you've done when you show up at her door and plead for her to watch Alicia. You shake your head slightly, and Hawkeye's lips tighten before she puts on a smile and crouches down. It isn't until she's calling over Black Hayate to greet their guest that you realise she's wearing a different shade of lipstick, a nice pair of pumps, and that a handbag is ready beside the door. You thank her an extra time before she waves you away.
Returning to the house, you find what you had least expected.
Gracia sits in the living room, her hands folded in her lap, her head bowed. The room is dim, no lights on except in the kitchen, but it's clear that she's breathing, alive, and you rush to her, taking her face in your trembling hands. She's in a different dress but there's no blood, and she has both legs, both arms, both eyes.
You didn't go through with it, you breathe. You sink down beside her, relief weakening your legs, and you pull her into a crushing embrace.
Your relief evaporates when you see the shadow stretch long into the room.
You force yourself to turn and look. Again, you don't find what you expect.
The homonculus stands there whole, not a jumble of limbs and organs, guts exposed and slippy. Outside of the bedroom, Maes's face looks naked without his glasses.
You ask the question before you think to hold your tongue. There's something close to jealousy twisting viciously inside your chest. You need to know how she accomplished this without a Philosopher's stone. How she succeeded where you had failed.
I've been under a lot of stress, she says. She puts her face in her hands. It's always affected my cycle. I thought- I thought the feedback from the circle had finally triggered my monthly.
Your brow draws tight in confusion. Understanding comes to you slowly.
I didn't have it in me to kill it. Not even when I knew from the instant it opened its eyes that it wasn't our Maes. Oh, Roy, what have I done?
You lock her in the closet where it's too dark for her to draw an array, and seal the door to its frame with alchemy.
You lead it outside. Shaking, you take one guilty, selfish kiss.
It screams as it burns.