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Stigma

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“I’m sorry I can’t be more help, Alphonse.” Roy set another box on the to sell stacks by the door. It wasn’t as if he would be needing much up north. “And I’m sorry I’m not being a better host.”

“That’s okay, Sir,” the boy was quick to assure him. “I’m just glad I caught you before you had to leave.”

It was strange seeing Alphonse so small and young, and dressed so much like his brother. Painful and sweet all at once. “I have some tea that isn’t packed yet, if you would like a cup. I need a break anyway.” At his nod Roy left the boxes and walked over to the sink to fill the kettle.

Alphonse had said he was going around to all his brother’s friends. Trying to piece together a life and a sibling he no longer knew. Roy watched the boy now as he looked around the nearly empty apartment. He wasn’t sure how to tell him that he and Edward hadn’t exactly been what most would call “friends.”

“I’m afraid Fullmetal and I didn’t have much chance to speak toward the end there.”

“Not at all?”

“We ran into each other just before . . . everything. Long enough to exchange a few words and—say goodbye.” He left out that he wasn’t sure how much Edward had trusted him at that point. The knowledge that his own tendency to keep secrets might have damaged whatever relationship they had had still ached.

“But you worked with him, right?” Al pressed. “With us.”

“More or less.” He turned away to answer the kettle and set the tea to steeping. “It was more like I kept track of you two and occasionally exchanged words when Fullmetal could be bothered to report in.” It felt like such a wasted chance, now. The loss of something that had never been.

Alphonse went quiet, seeming lost in thought. Roy reminded himself that however hard the loss was for him, it must be ten times worse for the young man in front of him. Al had woken up to find not only his brother gone, but the last five years of his life missing.

“We were searching for the Stone, weren’t we? The Philosopher’s Stone. That’s what everyone has said.”

“Initially. Yes.” Roy found a couple cups that weren’t yet in boxes and poured the tea. “And I believe you found it, or something close. But he wouldn’t have used that. Not in the end.” At Al’s questioning look, Roy smiled. A sad, fond smile. “He couldn’t have. Too much death and suffering attached to it.”

“But Sir, then what did—”

He had started to reach for the cup Roy held out but then froze, staring at the older man’s hand.

“Alphonse?” Roy set the tea on the counter. “Is everything all right?”

“What?” The boy jerked himself out of his sudden trance and blinked at him. “Oh. Yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry.”

Roy frowned. “You don’t look fine.” In fact, he looked downright spooked. “Have I said something to upset you?”

“Oh—no, Sir. It’s . . . not that.”

His eyes slid back down, seeming drawn to Roy’s hand. Or—no. His wrist. Roy had pushed his sleeves up while he was working and the mark on the inside of his wrist was currently visible. He lifted the arm and held it out in a silent question.

Al looked away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. That’s rude of me. I shouldn’t intrude.”

“No—please. Say what’s on your mind.” Roy hadn’t given the mark much thought in years, having had other things to worry about besides finding his hypothetical soul mate.

“It’s just—I guess I’m a little confused, Sir.”

“Yes?”

“Your—your soul mark. I thought—I was always told that it marked the person you were meant to marry.”

Roy glanced down at his mark with a half-smile. “That’s what they say. I’m not sure how much it’s worth. Not everyone finds their other half.”

Alphonse chewed his lip. He looked—worried? Upset? Apprehensive in some way, but Roy couldn’t place it.

“Well—then—I guess I just don’t understand. How—I mean, you—you’re—”

Now he was starting to get worried.

It must have shown on his face because Al suddenly grimaced, looking contrite. “I’m sorry, Sir! I know I shouldn’t intrude. It’s just—it’s just—”

“Please,” Roy said as gently as he could while frantically trying to make sense of any of this. “Tell me.”

Al bit his lip again, then walked over and knelt to open his trunk. From it he pulled an old, battered journal. It wasn’t the one Roy had occasionally seen Fullmetal writing in; this one looked, if anything, even more abused.

“Brother and I. . . .” The boy stood before him, holding the journal like a shield. “We . . . recorded our marks. When we were little.” He opened the journal and flipped through the first few pages, then shoved it at Roy as if he didn’t want to give himself time to think twice.

Roy took the journal out of reflex. Part of him wanted to do anything but look, but his eye couldn’t help but fall on the page. His heart pounded in his ears as he took in the childish scrawling.

It was a clumsy rendition, but drawn with a meticulous attention to detail. Enough that Roy immediately saw that the mark depicted here was the exact mirror image of the one on his own wrist.

“Did Brother ever say anything?” Al was saying. “Did he . . . had he ever seen. . . .”

The world around him had come unmoored. Roy stumbled over to the nearest stack of boxes and sank down.

Had Fullmetal ever seen his soul mark? The uniform covered it most of the time. But there had been times over the years when he’d taken the jacket off at the office, or pushed his sleeves up for one reason or another. Had Edward ever been there on those occasions? Had he seen?

Would he have said anything, if he had?

Roy thought back, tried to remember if there had ever been a day when his young subordinate had acted oddly. If there had ever been a change in his behavior. Edward had always been so mercurial, it was hard to say. He’d thought the young man might have been harboring a crush in the last year or so, but had there been a shift? Some line he could draw as “before” and “after”? He couldn’t be sure.

“I guess, since Brother lost his arm, you couldn’t have seen his,” Alphonse continued. “But—I’m sorry, I know this is really intrusive of me, but—I still don’t understand.”

Roy raised his head. He felt like he was sunk into a fog. “I’m sorry—? No, Alphonse, you’re fine. It’s all right.” Nothing felt all right.

“It’s just. . . . “ The boy rubbed the back of his neck and spoke to the floor. “Well . . .” he mumbled. “You’re . . . a man.”

Roy stared at him. Then dropped his head to his hands and laughed. It had a bitter, half-crazed sound even to his own ears. “I’m sorry,” he said when he could catch his breath. “I’m sorry, Alphonse. It really isn’t funny.” He wiped his face and looked up. “But this is how it goes for some of us. A lot of people don’t like it—some say that it must be a mistake or a perversion of the marks somehow—but this is how it is. For some of us. And I had always suspected—all but known—that this is how it would be for me.”

He looked down at the journal page, and then at his own mark. “There’s really no mistaking it, is there,” he said, more to himself. “No mistaking it at all.”

Alphonse had moved away, and a moment later a cup of tea appeared in his field of vision. He accepted the cup and watched as the boy perched on one of boxes next to him.

“So it just . . . happens like that, sometimes,” Al mused. “Two men, instead of a man and a woman.”

“Or two women.” He sipped the tea. “It . . . it can make things difficult. I’ve heard of people deliberately scarring or otherwise obscuring their marks so no one would know their soul mate is of the same gender.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t wish that kind of stigma on anyone. Certainly not Ed.”

“I see.”

He rubbed his thumb over his mark. “I don’t know if your brother ever saw this. I don’t know that he didn’t. But . . . if he did . . . I can understand why he might not have said anything.” He handed the journal back.

Al sat and looked at his brother’s juvenilely rendered mark for a long time, sipping his tea.

“I guess . . . a soul wouldn’t really be male or female, would it?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Well, if we’re body, mind, and soul, then gender would be in the body and the mind, right?” Al looked up at him and smiled. “I never thought about it before, but it’s in what our bodies look like and how we think of ourselves. Right? The soul is energy, and energy wouldn’t have a gender.”

“I . . . suppose not.”

Al finished his tea and hopped off the box. His smile said that as far as he was concerned, the matter was now settled.

His hand closed around Roy’s wrist. “Don’t worry, Sir,” he said. “I’ll find him. And I’ll bring him back.”