cruelty of boys (that's no way to say goodbye)
He is leaving tomorrow. (He is going back, although in Mei's head it's always leaving because she is the one who is staying back and he goes home and she won't see him for who knows how long.) He is leaving tomorrow and he has his suitcase packed (packed in that maddeningly neat way of his – because Mei loves his neatness, and it also drives her mad) and Ling is throwing a banquet, of course he is, in honour of his going away after four months of study in Xing.
Alphonse appreciates the honour of the banquet, the company, mostly. Mei watches him talk to everybody and his expression is a bit more open than it usually is, or so she thinks, and he craves the attention for once, or so she imagines: travelling back to Amestris is a long and lonely thing and Alphonse might be stocking up friendly voices and affection, to get him through the journey.
Mei wants to believe she knows him well enough that she knows all of this, suddenly, just by looking at him.
He insists on revising the night before he goes away. Even after the banquet. He insists on studying a bit longer – asks politely if Mei is too tired. Even if she were, she would say “no”, she would shake her head like now and just say “no”.
The ritual stays intact, even if it's the last night. Mei doesn't think of it as a ritual, that sounds too formal, too cold. She thinks about the word “habit” and that feels more familiar, more intimate, maybe more than she is really entitled to. She prefers the word “patterns”, it's more like her, and more in their line of work. Alchemy and patterns. And the patten is this: the way Alphonse places his notebook by his side, carefully, the pencil, too. He always rolls his sleeves up a bit, but never above his elbow, and his air of complete concentration, that cleverness pushing from inside, gleaming in his eyes, and it's almost like he is frowning.
These are the things Mei is going to miss (the things Mei is preparing herself to miss, now, before he has even left), the little things, specially the tiniest. Specially the way his voice sounds, a bit higher and so calm, when he says Ah whenever he understands what Mei is trying to teach him. And he always understands what Mei is trying to teach him. She feels a bit like crying, just thinking of the silence that voice of his is going to leave behind.
`Are you okay?´ Alphonse asks, because Mei is making a face, caught up in the idea of all the months she is going to spend not hearing that clever voice, or not watching him roll his sleeves before they start studying. And of course he would notice it, that face she is making, because he notices everything, even when he chooses to pretend he doesn't. And Mei knows this about him too.
`Yes?´ Her voice is small.
`Are you sure you are not tired?´ He asks gently.
Mei shakes her head and that is it, they start studying.
He does it like it's nothing. Like it's natural. Habitual (again that word, Mei thinks).
They are halfway it, reviewing the basics of her teachings. They are talking about earth, the richness of it, the generosity of it, and the Elrics theory of pushing the boundaries of equivalent exchange and how Xing alchemy could benefit from that as well, and that's when Alphonse leans into her – Mei is beginning a sentence, But see, the Earth - and kisses her.
The casualness of it.
She would be bothered by it, if she had time to think about anything apart from his mouth and the soft and strange feeling of his lips, as if made of a fabric she had never known before, and she is oddly aware of his hand, palm down, resting on the floor as he leans in, very close to her knee and it's as if Mei could feel the warmth of that hand so close, even if they weren't touching. The details escape her, even as he is kissing her (he is kissing her, isn't he? Her limited – non-existent – experience at least allow her to think This is a kiss; the touch of his mouth against hers is so soft, so light, she could very well be imagining it). The details are impossible to set down: she is not think how Alphonse tastes, for example; she is seeing herself as if outside her own body, she sees herself, kind of ridiculous, all tense and sitting uptight, while Alphonse bends to reach her, his left hand curved and lightly resting on her shoulder – a detail that escapes her too, she won't remember his hand on her shoulder.
And then he is not kissing her anymore.
What? Mei wants to ask when he breaks the kiss – not so much breaks it as its it finish on its own natural way, because it's like Mei could kiss back, it's not like the shock would ever let her kiss him back just now. Yet she wants to ask What? and then she wants to ask the thousand questions that she has and that go after that one.
But then Alphonse glances at the clock, makes a big gesture of glances at the clock and says: `Look at how late it is! We'd better wrap up here. Will you come to see me off tomorrow? Thank you for the lesson. Good night, Mei.´
(and his voice is kind of sweet when he says her name, which only makes it all more confusing)
He says all of that without waiting for Mei's reply; he says all of that and gathers his things (his carefully placed notebook, Mei thinks, above all things) and gets up, gets on his feet and smiles at Mei in that almost-mysterious non-committal way he has of smiling sometimes, yes, he smiles like that at her and he leaves the room.
Just like that.
He leaves. He leaves before leaving – and after kissing her, Mei is sure that was a kiss, short as it was, or maybe just a brushing of lips, it's bewildering not knowing the difference; Mei wonders, Did she do something wrong? She should have kissed him back, she is sure, but she didn't know how, or maybe she was very bad at it and Alphonse doesn't want to kiss her again, or see her again, or study alchemy with her ever again.
For a moment of complete adolescent bafflement Mei is sure Alphonse is never coming back again, she is never seeing him (or his rolled-up sleeves or his frown of concentration) again.
In the morning (and by now Mei's dramatic moment of I'm never seeing him again has somewhat subdued) she and Ling go to see Alphonse off before he gets into his coach and travels so far away for such a long (and longer because of indefinite) time.
`Alphonse, that was not fair,´ Mei starts, trying hard to keep her voice from cracking, and her eyes from getting all watery and humiliating, but she is not sure she can because he is leaving. `Last night- Because now you're leaving and-´
Alphonse puts his hand on top of her head.
`I know,´ he says, as calm as anything. Mei could almost really hate him. `I know it wasn't fair.´
`Alphonse...´ she repeats, like his name is a luxury she will not have again in a long time, a fruit out of season for a while.
He runs his fingers through her hair.
`I'll come back soon. I promise.´
Mei tries to catch his hand with hers but he's already withdrawn and she feels stupid, specially because now Alphonse is looking at her almost amused - the nerve! Mei thinks but then he sees underneath that amusement something like fondness, like Alphonse is really fond of her, like the kisses wasn't a joke but it actually meant something, Mei is not sure what, and she is not sure she believes it but for a moment she can see it there.
`I could have stalled him, you know,´ Emperor Ling tells her, because Mei is still looking at the spot in the horizon where the coach disappeared. `If you asked me. I could have come up with some national crises and close the borders and Alphonse would have been stuck here longer. You would have liked that, uh?´
`Don't tease me!´ Mei protests and connects a mock (but powerful) punch to the Emperor's shoulder.
She is the only person in the kingdom who could inflict such violence on the Emperor without raising the alarms among his personal guard.