Central City's Headquarters was a hive of activity from sunup until far into the night, halls swarming with officers and orderlies, all of them talking at once. The cacophony doubled just before any holiday, but on the day before Valentine's, the noise managed to triple as the predominantly male personnel began to panic. It took something special for one raised voice to turn any heads on that particular day, but Hughes managed without breaking a sweat. It was something of a gift.
"Please?" he repeated, lacing his hands together in desperate prayer. "You're my only hope!"
"Don't!" Ed yelped, alarmed, and eyed Hughes with a kind of horror as the man paused in the act of dropping to his knees right there in the hall. It was bad enough being trailed by a whining Intelligence officer to begin with--if Hughes made any more of a spectacle of himself, Ed would have to either hide or run. And Hughes had longer legs. "I thought you had a babysitter," he grumbled, knowing he was about to cave and knowing that Hughes knew it, too.
"We did," Hughes admitted, his face turning beatific with innocence as he manfully didn't crow his triumph aloud. "But she came down with that stomach flu that's been going around, and we couldn't find anyone else on such short notice. And you said you didn't have a date or a girlfriend--and you're the only one we'd trust!" he added quickly as Ed's face clouded over. "Alicia adores you. She'll be so happy if we tell her you're coming...."
"All right, all right," Ed muttered, rolling his eyes only a little as Hughes lit up and punched air in victory. "And I could've had a date if I'd wanted one," he felt compelled to add, daring Hughes to contradict him.
"Oh yes, the Fullmetal Fanclub," Hughes said with a grin, shaking his head. "You'll be as bad as Mustang in a few more years."
"Who'd want to?" he snapped, though Hughes had hit upon it exactly. The girls who made eyes at him only knew him by reputation; he was a name to them, not a person, and it made him feel sufficiently weird about the whole thing that he wanted nothing to do with it. And then there was Mustang, but that was a whole different kettle of fish he had no intention of opening.
"Hey, hey! I was kidding! And anyway, he's not that bad," Hughes added, his earnest look unfeigned. He might even have added something more, but the very person in question turned the corner just up ahead, marching past with a nod for each of them, Havoc in tow.
"Cancel that," Roy said shortly as they passed, not looking over his shoulder. "Something came up."
Havoc actually looked worried for a moment. "Not that thing with--"
"No," Roy said, sounding amused, and something made him turn his head to nail Hughes with a look. "I have a date with a very special lady tomorrow."
Hughes 'eeped' as Havoc sighed miserably, but Ed just turned and stomped away, his mood soured all over again. Of course Mustang had a date--it was Valentine's Day after all. A man like the Colonel was hardly going to be sitting home alone. Not that Ed cared. Really.
"Do you think he heard us?" Hughes stage-whispered, jogging a few strides to catch up.
So what if he had? "I rest my case," Ed growled, swearing again that he'd erase Roy Mustang from his mind if it was the last thing he did. Or at least before he lost any more of his mind than he already had.
What had he been thinking?
Roy allowed himself one glance at Ed's rapidly retreating back before shrugging it off and returning his attention to Havoc's report. It wasn't like Edward was jealous of Roy's time--although a man could dream. Probably Ed just didn't have a date and was taking it personally that Roy did.
Even if Roy's date happened to be with the daughter of his best friend, who was still young enough to want her hair in pigtails. And Hughes was getting even sneakier in his old age...this time, his friend had turned Gracia loose on him.
'Please, Roy,' she said. 'Just one night to ourselves,' she said. 'It'd mean a lot,' she said. All of it in that diffident tone of voice Hughes had never quite mastered for all his sneakiness, the one that said she knew she was asking a lot, old friends or no, and she knew that even Roy, who'd always come through for them in the past, was sure to crush her last hope before her eyes, but she'd soldier on bravely, really.
If that woman ever decided to run for office, he'd be calling her 'Fuhrer' inside a year.
Babysitting on Valentine's Day. What was the world coming to?
"Oh, dear," Gracia murmured, covering her lips with a guilty hand. "You asked Ed?"
"Roy said yes?" Hughes couldn't help it--picking his jaw up, he threw his head back and laughed. "No wonder he looked at me like that!"
"Well, I guess I'll have to call him and tell him we don't need him after all...."
"You used your secret weapon, didn't you?" Hughes accused fondly, and Gracia's cheeks pinked as he grinned. "Like anyone could resist you anyway."
"It seemed important," she said with a sniff, trying for a tone of lofty dignity that broke down when she giggled at Hughes' theatrical cowering. "Still, he's going to kill me, you realize. If he shows up and finds Ed here...what?"
Hughes' jaw dropped again, but his amazement melted into a toothy grin that alarmed even Gracia. Sweeping her into his arms as if asking for a waltz, he gazed down into her eyes with utter adoration and a truly conniving smirk. "I," he stated proudly, "have the most brilliant wife in the whole world."
Then he danced her around the living room until they were both breathless with laughter, and only then did he explain.
"Are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" Al asked as Ed was getting ready, even though he knew the answer. He wasn't sure which stung the most--that his brother didn't want him around, or that Ed was lying so badly about it.
"Oh, no, I'll be fine," Ed waved him off breezily, his back turned to the bed where Al sat. "She's one little girl. How much trouble could she be? Don't answer that."
"We've watched Alicia before," Al reminded, emphasis on the 'we.'
"There are four days no sane person should go anywhere near children. Christmas, Halloween, Easter, and Valentine's Day."
"Because of all the excitement?"
"Because of all the candy," Ed replied darkly, shuddering a little as he pulled a shirt on over his head. Black, of course, but a nicer one than usual. Al wondered for a moment why Ed was getting dressed up to go to Hughes' house, but maybe his brother was trying to make a good impression on Gracia. She seemed to have decided they needed mothering, and Ed had yet to convince her otherwise. Al hadn't even tried.
"Still. I could go for you, if you want," Al offered meekly, giving up on trying to convince his brother to let him tag along and aiming for second-best--company of any sort, even Alicia on a chocolate high. "I mean, you could still find someone to go out with--"
"Like the Colonel?" Ed snarled then froze, going red and then white and red again as he whipped back around to paw through the closet. That was interesting. "After all," Ed added quickly and a little too loud, "it's not like he doesn't have enough of them to choose from, if that's all you care about. I mean, sure, I could if I wanted to, but--"
"Well, you've certainly gotten close with one," Al cut him off, reminded of the other thing he wasn't happy about. "The one you've been sneaking around on the phone with?" he prompted when Ed just gave him a blank look. And all right, so maybe it wasn't serious, but Al didn't even know her name. They'd always told each other everything, though, so what had changed?
It wasn't exactly comforting to see Ed grin back, not when it was that grin. Wide and smug and positively wicked, it was the one usually reserved for when Ed had something to hold over the Colonel's head. Only this time it was aimed at him.
"Oh, her. Actually, she'll be here any moment. How do I look?"
Al gaped, or he felt like he ought to be gaping, and Ed always knew, so it counted. He couldn't be serious....
"Brother!" Al yelped as Ed continued to grin. "You can't take a girl to Hughes' house! You're supposed to be watching Alicia! He'll kill you!"
"So I look good, right?"
Ed snickered as Al grabbed his head and moaned, visions of dismembered Edwards flashing before his eyes. Which meant that Winry would kill whatever Hughes left of his brother for messing up the best auto-mail she'd ever created. It was unreal. Ed had always been a little reckless, but he'd never been stupid.
Before he could try to talk Ed out of it, a knock on the door froze him where he sat. Too late--someone had come to fetch Ed and bring him to this mystery girl, or maybe it wasn't a civilian at all and she'd come to find Ed herself, or maybe someone had pulled enough rank to get her admitted on a pass, or--
"Right! I'm off," Ed said as he grabbed his coat. "Call if you need anything, and I won't wait up. Bye!"
Wait...Ed wouldn't wait up?
Ed didn't pause even a beat, throwing the door open and darting past a familiar shape. Barely a second later, Al heard him take off at a dead run, his boot heels clattering down the hall and fading into the distance.
Which left him staring at Winry, who was giving him an almost predatory smirk though her cheeks were tinged the faintest pink. She'd dressed for the occasion in green and gold, her hair swept up almost like Hawkeye's, and she looked...incredible.
"Thank you," she said, cheeks darkening a little more, and if Al could have blushed as well, he would have.
Which wouldn't save Ed when Al got his hands on him, but maybe he'd go easy on his brother after all.
"You what?" Ed yelled from the kitchen, and Hughes and Roy winced as one, Hughes with better reason.
"I'm really sorry," he babbled, though Roy noticed Hughes hadn't let go of his arm. "I had no idea she'd asked you, or I wouldn't have asked Ed, and we each told Alicia, and she's got her heart set on having you both here. You couldn't argue with that face, could you?" he added, gesturing down with his free hand to where Alicia was beaming up at him expectantly.
She probably got it from her mother.
"All right," he grumbled, "I'll stay. But you owe me, Hughes."
"Uncle Roy, Uncle Roy!" Alicia crowed, jumping up and down. He was still sighing as she took off for the kitchen, and he heard a crash and an undignified squawk as Ed was slammed with a hug and squealed at by a child who'd had far too much sugar already.
Hughes shrugged sheepishly. "I know, I know--"
"And then I'm going to kill you, if Fullmetal doesn't beat me to it," Roy added, eyes glinting.
"Hey! I don't know what you're complaining about," Hughes protested in his best hurt manner. "Neither one of you had dates, so I set you up with the most charming girl I know. And I know you'll both be on your best behavior," he added with a few glints of his own, "so what's the problem? You and Ed can be polite to each other for a few hours without permanent injury, and who knows? Maybe you'll decide you can stand each other's presence after all."
Roy thought about that for a few moments, and then he thought about reaching for his gloves. "You didn't."
"It wasn't me! It was her, I swear!" Hughes cried, backing off with hands upraised--but he was grinning, Roy could tell. Lovely. Hughes had noticed he had a certain...fascination with Edward, and this was the result. Crisping was too good for the man.
"If you're getting me in trouble," Gracia warned as she emerged from the kitchen, "you'll be cooking your own dinners for a week."
Gracia was a very pretty woman, but pretty was all she'd ever be--the first time Roy met her, he'd expected a knockout after weeks of listening to Hughes gush, but his friend saw her through the eyes of love. Tonight, though, she was stunning, and as amusing as it was to watch Hughes go stupid over his wife, he couldn't resist needling the man a bit.
"Well, now that my date's here," he announced loudly and made as if to cross the room and offer a now-blushing Gracia his arm. Hughes practically clotheslined him before he took three steps, and his friend grinned fiercely as the kitchen door opened on Ed and Alicia.
"You're looking too high, old man," Hughes taunted, a thread of mischief in his voice. "Your date's down there. The short one."
Ed jumped and turned interesting colors before Alicia let go of his hand and dove shrieking for Roy.
"Kill you slowly," Roy muttered through his teeth as he forced a grin and braced for the impact. Eventually Alicia would figure out that hugging wasn't a contact sport, but what did he expect from Hughes' daughter?
"Behave, boys," Gracia warned, and she was looking at them when she said it, not Ed. And then she giggled, which probably meant that Hughes was giving her the same 'who, me?' look that Roy was. "I left the phone numbers of the restaurant and the theater on the ice box, and I just went to the store, so make whatever you like for dinner. She can have a little leeway on her bedtime tonight, but don't let her talk you into anything. And no more candy! We'll be back before midnight," she added, fingers brushing Roy's arm as her look changed from stern to fond. "Thank you both so much. You're lifesavers."
"Our pleasure," Roy offered gallantly, and Ed didn't even protest the 'our.'
"Well, we'd better go before we're late--or my best friend tries to steal my girl again," Hughes added mock-suspiciously. "Come on, Alicia, give mommy and daddy a kiss!"
"Daddy!" Alicia agreed, and after a revolting amount of affection had been freely distributed to all and sundry, Roy was left with an over-excitable young girl and a scowling Edward Elric. The scowling Edward, at least, was routine enough to be ignorable.
Ignorable was good, though. If he was ignoring Ed, then he wasn't making a fool of himself or Ed uncomfortable, and that for Hughes' scheming. All he had to do was ignore Ed for the next six hours, and he was all too sure it would be mutual.
Too bad Alicia had other plans.
"That should do it," Havoc said, joining Hawkeye in peering around the corner of the dorm's empty halls. Without Hawkeye to lead her in past security, the Rockbell girl wouldn't have gotten very far, but now their part was almost done. They could see the door the Elric brothers shared from where they stood, and it opened after a moment so that Winry could drag Alphonse out and away, the latter not protesting very hard at all. Mission complete.
"You left the car for them?" Hawkeye asked, not looking over her shoulder.
"Parked out front."
"You left the right car for them?"
"Hey, I'm a professional!" he insisted, wounded. "And besides, the brat would kill me if I screwed this up. I thought about tinkering with it to strand them somewhere nice," he admitted, "but I didn't think they needed the extra help."
"Good. Your improvisations often need work."
Havoc sagged, giving her his crushed look until she turned her head just enough for him to catch the hint of her smile. Squaring his shoulders, he preened with a jaunty grin until he got her to roll her eyes, and then he nudged her gently with an elbow.
"So, hey...you want to go somewhere? Drinks, maybe?"
One brow arched coolly, but he wasn't so much intimidated by the slow once-over she gave him as flattered. If she'd intended to say no, she'd have said it already.
His grin was a little sheepish, but it was no use trying to trick a woman who saw right through the Colonel's machinations every time. "Not exactly," he admitted, and the smile he got in return was both approving and intrigued.
"Well...I suppose I wouldn't mind a drink."
So far so good. Greatly daring, he offered his arm.
Greatly amused, she accepted.
Before it could get ridiculous--him not looking at Ed, Ed not looking at him--Alicia made a beeline for Ed and latched on to his arm. "Are you going to show me alchemy now? You promised."
Ed actually flinched from the question, though he covered quickly with a strained laugh. "Uh, I think your dad would have something to say about my doing that when he's not around...."
"But Uncle Roy's here, and he's an adult," Alicia pointed out reasonably...implying, of course, that Ed wasn't an adult. Gold eyes speared him with a warning glare, but Roy confined himself to a challenging smirk. He'd promised Hughes, after all. Best behavior. And besides, it never took much to wind Ed up in the first place.
"That's right, Uncle Roy. Why don't you have him show you?" Ed asked sweetly.
"He's not allowed," Alicia said with a pout, briefly turning soulful eyes on Roy as if gauging his willingness to break the rules while the parents were away.
"Not allowed?" Ed parroted, staring between the two of them in surprise.
"Daddy says it's his house, so he's the only one who gets to burn it down," Alicia recited word for word, peering up at Ed hopefully.
Roy crossed his arms over his chest, one finger pointing briefly at the girl hanging off Ed's left arm before he curled it away. Ed snorted.
"Likely story," the younger man muttered under his breath, but there was a faint grin lurking at the corners of his mouth, and Roy wondered if it had anything to do with his covert explanation. He didn't often let Ed in on the joke, true, but there wasn't often much to joke about when they met. It was always report and crisis with them, with an occasional side-order of blackmail and counter-offer.
Sometimes he wondered when the job had twisted him enough that he found it attractive that Ed gave as good as he got. Mostly it wasn't worth worrying about.
"All right," Ed said with a sigh, glancing back up at Roy as if looking for reprieve. "But I'll need...uh, stuff."
Stuff? Roy quirked a lazy brow, but Alicia didn't seem to notice the vagueness at all.
"I've got stuff! Come on! You can see my new toys, and the books mommy got me, because I'm going to be an alchemist just like Uncle Roy when I grow up!"
Ed allowed himself to be dragged, but he looked utterly terrified. In a moment of temporary weakness, Roy took pity on him.
"It's a ninety percent chance she'll become a diva," he called after them, smirking as he heard Alicia ask Ed if he wanted her to sing for him.
Ah, children. It was so wonderful to have none of his own.
Drinking in the vision of loveliness across the table from him, Hughes smiled with a contented sigh. Everything was perfect--the wine, the flowers, the soft lights and his gorgeous wife looking like a goddess come to earth, smiling just for him. Life just didn't get any better than this.
He even said so, and Gracia dimpled at him adorably.
"I know," she said, sliding her hand across the table and lacing it with his own. "It's wonderful, Maes...and it's just the two of us."
"That's right...just you and me...alone...." He could get lost in Gracia's eyes, especially when they looked at him like that. That soft, special look that took him hostage and stenciled 'mine' across his heart for good measure. And he'd like nothing better than to prove that to her. There was just one thing.... "Ah, I think I'll make a quick call home--just to make sure Roy's still in one piece," he added quickly, because of course he trusted them with his daughter--but they wouldn't know what her favorite food was or how to get her to eat her carrots or how to read her favorite story with all the right voices, like the really squeaky one for the knight and--
And Gracia was smiling at him, but her hand had tightened on his until he knew better than to try and get away.
"Just stay where you are," she said lovingly, "and I won't have to hurt you."
Ed honestly didn't mind cooking, and he was sufficiently entertained by Alicia requesting spinach like it was some kind of treat--Hughes must really hate spinach--that he went along with the entire menu plan. He just didn't know how he'd gotten roped into doing all the work.
"Uncle Roy isn't allowed," Alicia said firmly when he suggested the Colonel pitch in, and Roy's innocent look set his teeth on edge. Never mind that it looked positively eerie on that smirking face--Roy only looked that blameless when he was up to something.
"So what are you allowed to do around here?" Ed demanded, glaring at the man leaning by the doorway.
Roy made a great show of considering it, tipping his chin up and staring thoughtfully at the ceiling, one brow arching mildly. It wasn't until Ed found himself staring at the bared line of Roy's throat that he realized the Colonel usually watched everyone through his lashes, tall or...not-so-tall. But since Roy wasn't that tall himself, it gave the impression of never having to look up at anybody.
"Well," Roy said at last, cocking his head to one side with a faint smile. Ed almost thought he was imagining it, but it didn't go away when he blinked. "They let me help move a couch, once."
Ed snorted, everything becoming clear. He'd eat his alchemy primer if Roy couldn't cook quite satisfactorily, but he sensed Gracia's hand in this. The person who wouldn't feel welcome in her house probably didn't belong in civilized society in the first place--but that didn't mean Roy wasn't taking advantage of it for all he was worth. He was tempted to let the man get his own damn dinner, but then Alicia would be upset, and that brought him right back to Roy and his shameless advantage-taking. Of course.
"All right," he said, tossing a quick sneer at Roy to let the man know he'd been figured out. "He can't cook." Roy's lips quirked, almost a challenge, but the Colonel was too smart to give Ed that kind of leverage. Damn it. "But he can help with other things. You both can," he added quickly before Alicia could pout.
"What kind of things?" Roy, far more cautious, asked.
"Alicia here can help me wash the spinach. You can find us a colander and some pots and pans. After that, we'll see."
Roy fetched and carried with good grace, which fit with what Ed suspected of the man. The Colonel would always try to get out of work if he could, but he didn't waste time complaining about the unavoidable. Or it could be that Alicia made all the difference. Hughes had probably wrested a promise to 'play nice' out of the man like Gracia had done with him, because even when Ed's requests got downright ridiculous, Roy only smiled at him with a look in his eye that promised revenge.
"Will there be anything else?" Roy asked as he handed Ed the requested glass of water, topped with exactly three and a half ice cubes.
"Hmm...let me think...."
At the kitchen table, Alicia looked up briefly from the cookbook she was studying and offered, "Daddy sometimes rubs mommy's shoulders when she's cooking."
Ed felt his face prickle hot and then cold, and though his stomach felt like his wish for the floor to open up under him had come true, he could tell by Roy's speculative smirk that it hadn't.
And the man didn't have to look like he was considering it, damn him. Mustang would do anything to get a rise out of him, he knew that--but if the Colonel knew he could get that kind of a rise out of Ed...it wouldn't be pretty, to say the least.
Still, it had to be a demon that possessed his tongue when he turned back to the stove, saying, "No, that's all right. I'm sure your dad knows what he's doing with his hands, but this guy...?"
He'd expected another veiled comeback from the man, maybe an escalation in the oddly relaxed war they'd been waging since Hughes and Gracia left--he wasn't expecting a sudden sense of presence at his back, the soft whisper of cloth a bare second's warning before Roy's voice sounded practically in his ear, breath warm against his cheek.
"Would you like to find out?"
Keep stirring. He had to keep stirring things, and he would not jump at the shock of it, or show how much it affected him. "Not in front of the K-I-D," he shot back blithely, determined not to let the man get to him.
"Are you going to kiss?" Alicia asked from the table, and some little part of Ed was very interested in how quickly Roy put distance between the two of them at the question. Not to mention in the vehemence of the reply that matched his own as they shouted together.
Alicia lost interest in them almost immediately, but Ed still couldn't look at Roy for a good ten minutes, and by then, dinner was ready. He managed to sound normal as he was ordering Roy to set the table, and that helped--by the time they all sat down to eat, he'd almost gotten past it. The Colonel had just been reacting to someone actually calling one of his bluffs--it wasn't embarrassment over anything he'd actually wanted to do, because Mustang didn't want to, and even if he did, he didn't get embarrassed over things like that.
Alicia dug into her spinach first, and Ed went right for the main course, but Roy sampled a little of everything, his brows arching higher with each bite. "This is excellent," he offered at last, and he sounded pleased but not surprised--not ostentatiously surprised, anyway, his voice earnest rather than mocking.
Ed found himself wanting to preen, and it took a moment's reflection to realize it was probably the first time Roy had ever complimented him without an ulterior motive. Well...it was possible the man wanted seconds, true, but Ed was prepared to let that slide.
"Thanks," he said, and he almost growled at himself because he sounded like he ought to be blushing even though he wasn't. This time.
Roy hummed something at him and kindly declined to notice, which made him feel a bit better. And then the Colonel glanced up and speared him with the same sort of look he'd given Hughes in the hall yesterday, appraising and just the slightest bit admiring, as well. "So...where is Alphonse tonight?"
Reminded of his most recent triumph, Ed forgot his embarrassment and grinned.
Winry was an excellent driver, but Al expected that. Anything that had to do with machines came naturally to her, the way alchemy did to his brother. And speaking of Ed, Al very strongly suspected the car was his doing as well--there weren't many vehicles that could accommodate Al's height and breadth, and most of them were in the motor pool at Headquarters. Which hinted that Ed hadn't done this alone, and that...well, that worried him. Bad enough when Ed was working alone, but let him join forces with anyone legitimately sneaky, and...it didn't bear thinking about.
On the other hand, it kept him from thinking about this.
He couldn't keep his eyes on the road like he'd planned--they kept sliding over to Winry, but the comfort he usually took in her presence was subsumed by a jittering of raw nerves. He couldn't pretend even to himself that this was anything but a date, and he was excellent at pretending. He'd told himself for years that he might actually have a chance with her, only now it looked like he'd done such a good job of fooling himself, he'd fooled her too.
Which could be bad, because the one thing he didn't want to do was disappoint her, but he had no idea what she wanted, what she expected from the night. He didn't even know what they could do together--Not like that! he shouted at himself, never so grateful he couldn't blush--because all the usual date things just wouldn't work. Dinner, for instance, would be a joke, although he suspected that watching Winry eat would be as pathetically satisfying as, well, pretty much anything she did. Watching her tinker with auto-mail had been known to keep him spellbound for hours.
But it wasn't just the stuff that required an actual body that worried him. Something as simple as going to the theater would be awkward at best, because people were sure to look askance at a beautiful girl and an armor freak. In fact, they'd get those same looks anywhere they went.
Which maybe explained why they'd just turned onto the road that would take them out of the city entirely, the houses and bright lights falling away as night opened up around them. This time he looked over at her openly, and she smiled back and patted his arm before returning her attention to her driving.
"Don't worry," she said, "I know where I'm going."
She sounded so completely certain, he could only trust that she meant it in all the ways that mattered.
Wonder of wonders, Roy helped with the dishes as well. Sort of. If taking them from Alicia and putting them in the drain rack counted. Since Ed hadn't really expected that much, he decided to chalk it up as a victory and enjoy it while it lasted.
Ed almost allowed himself to hope that Alicia would be just the littlest bit tired by now, but she jumped down from the chair he'd fetched her and grabbed them each by a hand, bouncing on her toes. "Can we play now? Please?"
"What did you want to play?" Roy asked, and Ed breathed an unconscious sigh of relief. After all, Ed was the one who'd spent an hour amusing her with stupid alchemy tricks--it was Roy's turn.
"Dress-up!" Alicia crowed, bouncing again. "You can play, too!"
Ed knew his eyes had just gone very wide, but he managed not to whimper through sheer willpower. After all, she had to be talking to Roy, right?
"That sounds like fun," Roy said smoothly, and Ed felt a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Of course, I'm already dressed up...."
Head whipping towards the man, Ed glared at Roy's reasonable smile, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "You're in street clothes." And he looked...very good in them, especially without that bulky uniform jacket and maddening pants, but...that wasn't the point.
"Yes, but I'm usually in uniform, so being out of it counts."
Their eyes dropped as one, looking to Alicia as the deciding vote. It would have been funny if Ed's instincts weren't screaming that it was imperative he not be the only one horrifically embarrassed this time.
Wide-eyed, she stared at them both for a minute, blinking sweetly up at Roy before turning to Ed with a smile. If he didn't know better, he'd say the two of them were in close telepathic communication and that he'd just been had.
"You can still dress up," she told him consolingly, but Ed didn't feel any better.
"Uh...I don't think Hughes' clothes would fit," he tried, ignoring the brief headshake Roy gave him. He knew what he was doing, damn it--
"That's okay--you can wear mommy's!"
Blushing so hard it hurt, Ed's eyes jerked up to Roy's to find the man smirking, that speculative look from before returned and gone evil.
"One word out of you...." Ed warned, but it was really too late.
That smirk was practically an entire soliloquy in itself.
While Al trusted absolutely that Winry had a specific destination in mind, he hadn't expected it to be a spot on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. He felt a half-second's trembling fear that she'd pulled over so they could have a talk, but that didn't explain why she'd taken the keys from the ignition and opened her door, climbing out with only an encouraging smile for explanation.
Part of him wouldn't have minded hiding in the car, but Winry was more than capable of dragging him out if it came to it, and he wanted to keep whatever dignity he could manage for as long as possible.
By the time he climbed out as well, she'd opened the door to the backseat and was dragging something out, something that looked like the biggest picnic basket Al had ever seen. He was going to feel really weird if that was what it turned out to be, though, because while he was excellent at pretending things were normal, it quietly occurred to him that there might be times when going through the motions just wasn't good enough. Not for them and not for him.
"Here," Winry said abruptly, thrusting the basket at him with a devious grin. "Hold this."
Like he'd ever been able to tell her no. He shifted the basket awkwardly in his big hands, but strangely enough, it wasn't nearly as heavy as he'd expected, though something did clink faintly inside. Even after she'd locked up the car, Al somehow found himself carrying the basket as Winry cut across the road and hopped over the shallow ditch between the verge and a low stone wall being pried apart by vines.
"Uh...I don't think we should...."
"Don't worry about it," Winry assured him, waving him over. "We have permission. Just come on!"
It was almost funny, watching a girl dressed for dancing clamber over a wall and go marching across a field, but Winry had the knack of doing ridiculous things so purposefully you never noticed the absurdity. Al followed and didn't question, even when she decided they had to climb a hill before she was satisfied.
"Perfect," she announced, fists on her hips, and nodded once when no argument was forthcoming.
When she took the basket from him and started pulling things out, he promised himself he wouldn't second-guess her again.
First came a quilt that she shook out over the grass, one he remembered from her old room in the town where they'd grown up. A lantern and a thermos were set aside at the edge of the blanket, but the last thing she pulled out drew his curiosity like a magnet.
"Is that a telescope?" he asked, and she grinned up at him as she folded her legs beneath her, patting the quilt at her side.
"It's not very powerful, and I haven't finished the tripod for it yet, but I've been experimenting with lenses, and...well, I remembered how much you liked looking at the stars. I thought you might like a better look."
"You made it?" he asked, deeply impressed. There was just enough light from the waning moon to see her blush and shrug before she gestured meaningfully at the blanket once more.
"Yes. Now sit! You can try it out and tell me what needs improving."
He did sit at first, gingerly, worried about what his armor would do to the old quilt as he shifted, but it was easier to look up at the stars if he lay down. And of course it was only natural that Winry lie down beside him, though his arm couldn't be the softest pillow. All that metal certainly had to be downright chilly, in fact, but her sigh was perfectly content when he curled his arm around her, the two of them passing the homemade telescope back and forth.
"Thank you, Winry," he said softly maybe an hour later, looking up at the scattered spill of stars through naked eyes. Body or no body, he couldn't imagine anything more perfect than this.
Winry giggled at him. "I'd watch that, if I were you," she teased. "You're thanking me for being impatient and sneaky, after all."
Al laughed, but he pulled her closer, and she didn't mind. "That's right. For being you."
Even the sound his armor made when she whacked his chest was funny after that, and they laughed themselves giddy and didn't let go.
Ed sat on the couch with his arms folded over his chest and glowered at the wall. Life as he knew it was as good as over, and he had only himself to blame. And Hughes. Oh yes, he definitely blamed Hughes. That spawner of evil.
He felt the couch dip beside him, but he wasn't going to look. He was going to stare at the wall. Saying nothing. Except that Roy was staring at him, and it was driving him crazy waiting to hear what the man had to say.
Very slowly he turned his head, spearing the Colonel with a flat look as Mustang gave him the once-over. The man's lips kept twitching as if a raucous laugh was just dying to get out, but there was far too much mischief in Roy's eyes. In fact, he looked like he was considering an attempt at the yawn-and-embrace thing on sheer principle. Which meant Ed would have to kill him.
Funny how the little things could make any situation bearable.
"Well...at least you're still in your own clothes," Roy said after a moment, a thread of strangled amusement clear in his voice.
"That. Doesn't. Help."
And it didn't, it really didn't. Yes, he was in his own clothes, and maybe basic black did go with everything, but not with pearls. Not on him. And not with...with....
Makeup. Rather too much of it, and not just in the sense that any amount of makeup on a guy was too damned much. He looked a little like a china doll--he refused to think 'clown'--with bright circles of blush on both cheeks and eyelids weighed down by mascara and shadow. It'd help if Roy would stop looking at him entirely--the way the man was staring at his mouth made him want to lick his lips from sheer nerves, but then he'd have to taste the stuff that was circling his mouth, and he wasn't that much of a masochist. Really.
"Very striking," Roy said, eyes fixed on Ed's lips as his shoulders began to shake silently. "Did Alicia help you with that?"
"You are so dead if you breathe a word of this to anyone," Ed promised, fuming.
"Wouldn't dream of it. Hmm...I think you've smudged it a bit," Roy added, and Ed stared in horror as Roy reached for his face, too stunned at the sheer audacity of it to strike the man's hand away. He just sat there, numb, as Roy's palm cupped his jaw, thumb smoothing lightly over his lower lip in a strange...gentle....
Roy's dark eyes glittered at him from far too close, though the man hadn't moved any nearer. Just being in the same room with him was too close, and he looked so serious, and not in any way Ed could take exception to. He looked like he wanted to kiss Ed, and Ed was pretty sure he looked like he wanted to be kissed, and even the fact that he was wearing makeup and pearls couldn't quite shame him out of the idea entirely.
And then Alicia tripped in, stumbling over the rolled-up cuffs of one of Hughes' old uniforms, narrow-brimmed dress cap falling down to half-cover her face. The turned-back sleeves of the heavy blue jacket all but covered her hands, but Ed wasn't particularly surprised to see her wearing an old pair of her mother's white gloves. Some meticulous draftsman had taken what looked like a black crayon to them sometime in the past and carefully sketched an authentic-looking and completely unusable Array onto the backs of each, and that didn't surprise him either.
"Huey!" Alicia shouted from underneath the hat, with a level of cold imperiousness in her voice that did manage to startle Ed. "Where's the coffee?!"
Ed forgot all about his own ignominious state and snickered into his fists.
Alicia struck a pose and snapped her fingers.
Jumping about a foot, Ed stared at the little girl as a tiny but impressive explosion wreathed smoke over her head, her smug grin giving him the shivers. And then he glanced over at Roy, who had one of his gloves on and his hand carefully just out of Alicia's line of sight, grinning tolerantly.
"Has anyone told you you're worse than Hughes?" Ed grumbled, folding his arms again and huffing his hair out of his face.
"Madame," Hughes said as he held the car door open with a bow, "your castle."
"Thank you, kind sir," Gracia giggled as she took his hand and stepped out, letting him pull her tight to his side as he shut the door behind her. Resting his cheek briefly against her hair with a happy sigh, he dipped his head when she turned her face up to give him an affectionate kiss on the cheek, and then something a little friendlier. It was probably a good thing all the neighbors were asleep--he got teased about being a lovestruck teenager enough as it was.
She pulled away with a last soft brush of their lips, and he grinned down at her for a moment with his brow pressed to hers, both arms wrapped around her shoulders with her hands on his hips. "We should do that again," he said, so she stood on tiptoe and kissed him a second time. Eventually they had to stop because they were laughing too hard, but that was almost as good as the kiss. "Er, that too. Often. But I meant tonight," he said, chortling at her pleased expression. "I've missed having one of my favorite ladies all to myself."
"In that case, we'd better not alienate the only reliable babysitters we've ever found," Gracia reminded, pulling him towards the front door. "If they've survived her after all the chocolate she had this afternoon, maybe we can lure them back again sometime."
"I'm sure she was a perfect angel," Hughes declared staunchly, but he quickened his step regardless. Not that he didn't think Alicia had been a perfect angel, but Roy wasn't getting any younger, and Ed had all that metal weighing him down, and if he found them both tied up in the pantry, well, they wouldn't be the first.
Opening the door, he was greeted by the sight of a perfectly clean and non-destroyed house and two alchemists sitting on opposite sides of the couch, each engrossed in a book. Hmm. On the whole a relief, if a disappointment. He'd hoped they'd at least be talking to each other after six hours of enforced contact, but occasionally these things took time.
"We're back!" he said unnecessarily, keeping his voice down since Alicia had obviously been put to bed. Which made them three up on every other babysitter they'd ever had. Obviously, he needed blackmail material and a lot of it. Fast.
"I see that," Roy drawled, smiling at Gracia and not at him, he noticed. "And how was your evening?"
"Wonderful," Gracia said as Hughes helped her out of her coat, and then she went over to give Roy a peck on the cheek. Devious woman. Damn, but he loved her. "Thank you so much. You don't know how long it's been since we've been able to go out with just the two of us and not worry. You've both been just fantastic about this."
"Ed was the real genius," Roy said modestly, ignoring Ed's betrayed look. "I just supervised."
"Oh, no," Ed purred through gritted teeth, "I couldn't have done it without her Uncle Roy."
"Well, you must have made a great team," Hughes interrupted swiftly, "since I--" He stopped, frowned, took another deep breath and eyed Roy. "Do I smell smoke?"
Roy looked as innocent as a babe as he shrugged. "Ed cooked."
"Hey!" Ed snapped, and...hmm, was there a reason he looked rosy-cheeked and freshly-scrubbed? For that matter, had his lashes always been that long?
"Well, we'll be going," Roy said as he stood, leaving his book on the coffee table and giving Gracia an answering kiss as she giggled at them. "Do you still want a ride back to the dorms?" he asked Ed.
"Are you going to insult my cooking again?"
"I'll think about it," Roy murmured on his way to the door, pausing only when he drew abreast of Hughes.
"Slowly," he reminded in a purr that had convinced braver men to join a nunnery. Just in case.
"I'll see you on Monday," Ed agreed, glaring daggers at Hughes, who clutched his heart and gave them a sad look until the door closed behind them. Well, at least they were united in their desire to do him harm....
"It's too bad the other plan didn't work out so well," Gracia said with a wistful sigh, picking up their books and glancing absently at their titles. "They really would make a cute--"
She squeaked suddenly, and Gracia almost never squeaked. He nearly rushed over to demand if she was hurt, but she was staring at the spines of the books in her hand, red-faced and covering her mouth to keep from laughing aloud.
Ed had been reading one of the gag gifts Roy had gotten him years ago, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Roy was reading The Joy of Cooking.
"Ed!" Hughes breathed in sudden realization. "Roy called him Ed!" Roy didn't even call him by his first name very often, and they'd known each other a dog's age.
Grinning wickedly, he tiptoed back to the front door and set his ear to the thinnest paneling, holding his breath as he listened for all he was worth.
"Maes Hughes!" Gracia hissed at him, but he waved her quiet when he heard the laughter in her voice.
This was far too good to pass up.
Oh, but he would. He definitely would.
Roy cleared his throat as he shrugged into his coat, waiting for Ed to do the same. He hadn't actually asked Ed if he wanted a ride home before he made that comment inside--he'd just wanted to get them out of there before Hughes could ask them to watch Alicia a second time. Looking after her for an hour or two while her mother ran errands just didn't compare.
"I'm going that way if you want a ride," Roy said after a moment, watching Ed settle his coat on his shoulders and pull his braid out from under his collar. It bothered him a little that he was still struggling with the urge to kiss the younger man, but not as much as it would have a day ago. Ed hadn't exactly run screaming, after all.
"Might as well," Ed grumbled with a sideways glare. "You owe me anyway."
"Do I, now?" He earned a growl for that, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. "You have to admit, the books were a nice touch."
"It'd serve him right if he makes something out of it," Ed said with a calculating smirk. Roy expected that to be the end of it, really--by Monday, they'd be back to their old routine of snapping and sniping, business as usual--but Ed fiddled for a moment with his cuff and glanced up at Roy through his lashes, daring him to say anything. "That wasn't actually so bad," he admitted grudgingly, and then he just stood there as if waiting for Roy to mock him.
Roy couldn't blame this one on the job. He'd always found courage unreasonably attractive.
"No," he said slowly, "it actually wasn't."
He didn't know who moved first, but the step he took was met and matched, and though he found himself hesitating when Ed did, Ed never quite turned away. Roy leaned over almost in slow motion, mesmerized by solemn gold eyes, and if that strange moment on the couch hours ago had been a fluke, this was a promise. He felt the faintest tremble in Ed's left hand as it slid up his shoulder and settled at his nape, and warm breath feathered his cheek as Ed tipped his face up, lips already parted for that first moment of--
Both of them jumped as it suddenly went dark, and then the lights came on again--and off, and...Roy straightened with a jerk, realizing Hughes was flashing the damned porch light like some concerned father letting his daughter know it was time to come inside.
Both of them growled in unison, especially when they heard faint but recognizable laughter from behind the closed door. "I'm going to murder him," Roy snarled, and Ed growled louder, and then--
He recovered quickly when Ed's hand fisted in his collar and jerked him off-balance, but though instinct made his hand snap up to wrap around Ed's wrist, he didn't wrench free or tighten his grip beyond the point of comfort. After all, Ed was dragging him toward his car, and that was just where he wanted to be. For a start.
Unreadable gold eyes flashed over Ed's shoulder when Roy let his hand drop, giving Ed free--if temporary--rein, but he thought they understood each other quite well. And if they didn't...well, they were neither of them very happy with being patient, but they were both quick studies. There were worse things to be.
"It isn't technically Valentine's Day anymore, is it?" Ed demanded as they reached the car, and Roy paused as he fished for his keys.
"Not by twenty minutes," he said. "Why?"
"Sappy people give me hives," Ed snapped, and then he dragged Roy down in earnest, refusing to be distracted.
Keys fell to the grass with a muffled jingle, but Roy was far too busy to care.
End Notes: Uh, because they're a tradition! It should be said that Chira's evil influence knows no bounds, and that Mephisto-Sakki's dislike of the holiday prompted me to save the kiss until the day after Valentine's, heh, and that I really suck for not having this finished on time. Bah! Oh well, I'll do better next time...really...