A/N: It's the end! La la la la la! This is the first time I've ended a multi-chapter fic! Me so proud! (Did I mention I suck at endings? ... You've been warned...)
The Joys of Growing
First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye was by nature a very tactful person, graceful in social propriety and utmost politeness in all situations. There was rarely a time when she could not find the diplomatic thing to say, or diffuse a situation with her cool head and her ever-present sense of knowing and sensibility.
Yet there was at least one time when she had to bite her own tongue to supress her own utterly improper desire to break into hearty laughter. And sitting at her living room table across from a sniffling Winry Rockbell as she tearfully retold each sad and ironically hilarious piece of her odd and melodramatically tragic story over a dwindling cup of mint tea, the need to simply giggle at the prospect of it all was far too tempting.
Her sense of pity for the girl and her situation, however, kept her amusement in check, and stopped her inward laughter at simple understanding smile.
"And so you didn't want to visit a doctor?" Riza asked, trying to sound unobjective.
"No!" Winry blurted out, snapping back into an embarassed shift, "Well... doctors... might be a guy... and..." She jerked her head to the side averting her gaze with severe embarassment.
Of course she wouldn't have, Riza thought to herself, No girl with a reasonable sense of pride would have wanted to come out to a complete stranger with such an embarassing situation. It was probably fortunate that she could find a trusted female before she completely regressed into paranoia. She had to wonder, though, why on earth she hadn't been told about this before.
"You live with your grandmother, I understand, Miss Rockbell?"
"You can call me Winry. Yes, I do."
"Winry, yes," The woman tapped a finger against the handle of her teacup pensively. She wondered what kind of life she was leading at home. Certainly her grandmother wasn't an unattentive gaurdian, seeing as Winry had grown into a relatively well-balanced intelligent young woman. Perhaps it had simply slipped her mind, or it didn't occur to her that she was unaware of the facts of life. Perhaps she had tried giving the facts, but young Winry simply drove them out without paying much attention.
Well, however the fact had been overlooked, it made no difference that it had been as such, for now the responsible second in command whose responsibilities usually consisted of defending the Colonel with her sharp aim and occasionally badgering him into paperwork, was left to give all the explanations to a twelve year old girl, which was, in her opinion, the most challenging of tasks.
So, it came to pass that over a full pot of tea, and several medical textbooks which Riza kept for occasions in which she would need first aid reference, the essential facts were fully and uninhibitedly disclosed to Winry Rockbell for the first time. Many blushes, strange metaphors, and disgusted expressions later, they both found themselves somewhat exhausted and relieved at the same time.
"So..." the girl breathed, "I'm not gonna die?"
"Not on account of this. All you need to do is take care of yourself and bear with it. It's just another one of those silent wars we women have to wage on our own." Hawkeye cooly explained as she filled her guest's teacup with the last of the tea.
"And it dosen't happen to boys?"
"Unfortunately, no. Nothing of the sort."
Winry leaned back in her chair with a pout.
"Stupid boys. They'll never know what it's like." She folded her arms, the invisible chip on her shoulder becoming apparent as she tallied this on her list of things to hold against the male sex.
"That may be so. But men do have their own worries that we may never understand," Riza replied, and decided to leave it at that. Spending the time she did with other men, especially the infamous skirt-chaser, Roy Mustang, she had come to conclude that perhaps it was best to try to leave the male mind as one of those mysterious enigmas piled up beside UFO's, the Sasquatch, and the usefulness of stiletto heels. Oftentimes she did wonder, how with such a constantly base mindset, they could even have the capacity to learn alchemy. But she left her unanswered wonders to trust in character, for even with the vast differences that became more apparent the more she learned, the men in her life were still good people, trusted comrades, and close friends.
"I suppose they do." Winry mused, playing with the edge of a napkin listlessly, "I guess I'll jsut never understand boys. Ed and Al are..."
"Yes?" Riza encouraged when Winry paused in hesitation.
"Well, that's rather clear."
"I mean... it used to be so easy to talk to them and understand them," She paused realizing that all possible reasonings were blatantly obvious, but felt compelled to finish her statement somehow, "Even back when we were little, there were times when Ed would say things like, 'That's for babies' or 'I'm too old to play girly games'. And Al would follow him, because you know they're stuck like glue."
"That is very true." Riza commented, her mind playing with the image of a miniature suit of armor being pasted to the alchemist's side like an extra appendage, and she had to curb her laughter for the second time.
"Sometimes... Sometimes I worry that maybe we'll grow out of each other. And just forget," Riza raised an eybrow very slightly, suddenly interested a little more, "I'm so worried that maybe now we've grown out of it for real. Maybe our old friendship was just a temporary thing. Maybe we just don't belong together anymore..." Winry stared dismayedly at her lap, long past her initial embarassment, now just gloomy at the prospect she was laying out and consequently desiring more chocolate. Riza simply smiled in an undramatic, but subtly warm and wise way, and replied,
"I don't think so. You may have both gone through your phases, and you may have had your disputes, but no relationship is perfect. Everyone gets angry or unreasonable."
"You don't, Miss Haw- Riza."
"You'd be surprised sometimes. Even Al has his moments, am I right?"
"I suppose that's so..." Winry thought this over. Even the eternally sweet and patient all could have fits if provoked. The difference between he and his brother was that even when he had the most selfish of outbursts, or followed Ed on the stupidest of reasonings, he always came back to humbly admit it and apologise. Edward, on the other hand, had pride that took expertise, and often physical violence to defeat. Which is probably why Winry probably didn't worry so much about keeping ties with Alphonse, although there were times when she mournfully worried losing both brothers.
"I don't think you need to take on such worries right now, Winry. Just take care of yourself, and take it easy on those two. If I know anything about men, they're more helpless than they appear," This comment triggered a relieved giggle from Winry, "I think you three will be fine. The strongest friendships will stand the test of time."
Gaining resolve, Winry sighed, and glanced at the wooden framed clock, as a thought suddenly dawned on her, noting the time.
"Miss Riza, don't you have to work today?" She asked, suddenly growing uncomfortable at the thought that she had inconvinienced the loyally resposible lieutenant.
"Actually, by coincidence, I have the day off today," Riza replied, as she began to pick up the saucers and spoons, and Winry offered to help. Well, that explained why she was out of uniform so late in the morning. Winry hadn't noticed before when Hawkeye was decked in the standard issue no-nonsense uniform, without any stray frills, but she was actually very pretty, and even feminine. While her clothing wasn't in the least showy or even especially colorful, the gentle pastels and white of the perfectly pressed outfit she chose reflected her inner warmth, her amiability behind her signature sensibility.
"I hope I'm not keeping you from anything," Winry worriedly inquired, picking up her spoon and setting it on the teatray to carry to the sink.
"Don't think of it; you're no trouble," the woman responded easily, as she quickly maneuvered the dishes through their cleaning and drying stages with practiced skill, "I was just going to run a few errands, and perhaps-"she paused for a moment rolling a lock of her short hair between her fingertips, "Perhaps get my hair cut."
Winry had also noticed that Riza's once boyishly short hair had grown out into a youthful bob, ending just below her chin.
"Oh, no. Don't do that!" Winry protested, "Your hair is lovely like that. Really, it is!"
"Thank you for the compliment. However it's impractical. I have some difficulty managing tasks, as well as handling firearms when it's in my face like this." She set away the last of the china.
"You should tie it back," Winry offered excitedly, "It would look very nice on you. I could style it for you."
"No, you don't need to-"
"Please?" The girl stood with her hands clasped, "It would be the least I could do to thank you for helping me."
Somehow, the poor puppy look had an unusually strong effect that day, and Riza was convinced to have her hair styled by the young mechanic, who by stroke of luck, happened to have several hairpins in her pocket at the time.
"All done!" She declared proudly, directing Miss Hawkeye's gaze toward a mirror. Riza wasn't at all used to dressing herself up, nor was she perfectly comfortable with the notion of complimenting something applying to herself, but she managed to thank Winry, and tell her it looked nice.
"I imagine you don't get many opportunities to do things like this." She commented casually, trying to keep the conversation from centering on herself.
"That's true. It's not much fun alone, and Ed stopped-" She cut herself short.
Riza Hawkeye was a polite person who never pried, or inquired about any subject that could bring about embarassment or an unfortunate faux pas. However in this one moment, she was secretly curious.
"Yes?" She asked, trying not to sound in the least bit prying or eager.
Winry opened her mouth as if to say 'Nothing', but slowly melted into a grin as she explained.
"When Ed was little, his hair wasn't as long as it is now, but it was still pretty long for a boy. He hated getting it cut and tried to avoid it. Attatchment issues, or something," She shrugged a little, moving the story along, "Since he was my nearest friend, and I didn't know a lot of girls, he was the one I would usually play... beauty salon with." She smirked a little bit more.
"That's not totally uncommon," Riza replied calmly, noting that there were times in every childs life when they played one strange game or another.
"But the thing is, we played it a lot. And he actually requested it," Winry was fully grinning now, in fuzzy fond remembrance, "Pretty princess, or tea party. He'd play them all, and secretly love it. He always returned to playing in the mud like nothing happened, but I always knew the whole time, that all along he truly enjoyed frolicking down our stairs in feathers and a tiara singing 'Look at me! I'm all pretty!'."
Now, Riza was a very collected woman. However, in this moment, her mental image of Edward Elric, the proud and undoubtedly masculine FullMetal Alchemist, going through his strange toddler crossdressing phase and skipping in a tiara and pink feather boa while announcing 'I'm all pretty' had her previous image of the adhesive Alphonse indubitably defeated.
And she, in spite of herself, laughed.
She laughed very, very hard.
She laughed so hard, in fact, that she leaned back in her chair, hugging her sides, pressing Winry to worry as to whether she would be alright or not. She apologized, and tried to excuse herself between breaths, as she wiped tears from the corner of her eyes, but she somehow couldn't get over the absolute tickle of the thought that now plagued her mind. She'd found some odd tidbits on Mustang before; Even more disturbing and unspeakable anecdotes from Havoc's past, however this was one time, she believed, that she may never look at her comrade the same way again.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have told you." Winry apologised, handing Riza a tissue with which to wipe her eyes.
"No. No, thank you. Don't worry about that. That was just-" She covered her mouth for a moment and collected herself, "That was an interesting thing to know."
Winry giggled as well, and the two shared a moment of trust, and secret scandal, that only they could share the humor of.
"Thank you for everything," Winry declared, bowing slightly with her small bag of supplies, compliments of Riza, in hand.
"It was no trouble," Riza replied happily, shifting her grocery bag in one arm, in front of the produce cart by which they both stood, "I have a few more errands to run. I trust you can find your way safely back to the Elrics?"
"Yes ma'am!" The young blonde replied, in a peppy salute. It wasn't a moment after they said goodbye and were about to leave their seperate ways, that Winry noticed a familiar head of black hair, whose owner was leaning confidently against a nearby brick surface, chatting with a vivacious young woman.
"Oh. The Colonel has the day off today too?" She wondered out loud.
"Yes, he does." The woman behind her responded, ready to turn and leave, when she saw the young blonde girl was walking as if to greet her aquaintance.
She had approached the colonel, and his targeted catch of the day, when she noticed the smirk (Lecherous smirk? Possibly) that sat upon his face as he charismatically complimented the woman and teased her with his best charmingly witty comments. Something about all she'd learned about men in the past 24 hours just seemed to add up, and something about this flirtatious devil's wicked wiles just didn't sit right with her.
Just as he was serenading her with his smooth voice declaring that her sandy blonde hair was comparable to the hue of the most calm and perfectly radiant sunset, there was an interuption- a small body between the two, and a young ferociously confident girl who looked up at the poor woman and declared with fire in her eyes,
"Don't believe anything he says! He just wants you for your body!" And stormed off as quickly as she appeared, in a cloud of newound self-empowerment and some (however twisted) sense of feminism.
Colonel Mustang, at one of his rarest instances in life, found himself utterly dumfounded, and as he searched his surroundings for words, he could have sworn he noticed his first Lieutenant's undoubtedly amused smirk, before it disappeared behind a cart of watermelons.
"Ed. Al. I'm home," The young mechanic declared, knocking once on the door, then tentatively pushing it open, to encounter something of a surprise.
There was no pile of garbage and discarded laundry blocking the path of the door as it opened, and the entire flat, in fact, seemed surprisingly, almost sparklingly, tidy.
"Welcome home, Winry." Alphonse declared with a hint of aprehensiveness and relief in his voice.
"Al-, what did you-"
"Well, we thought about what you said and well... I'm not sure what you meant about everything, but it seems that we haven't been the most understanding, or attentive of hosts," He scratched the back of his helmet, "So we decided to fix this up and make things more comfortable for you."
Alphonse's ever-present adorableness, and the brothers' sudden change of heart was enough to put a lump in the girl's throat. She bit her lip, and looked around the room where it was obvious they had made an effort to repair the damage, regaurdless of what the cause of their quarrel had truly been.
She scanned the room, and was about to inquire as to the elder Elric's wherabouts when she saw for herself, wrapped in a white apron, and wielding a spatula with his one good hand. He turned to face Winry and attempted a smile.
"Um... Welcome home... Winry," He greeted, shifting a little, and looked at the floor before continuing, "I-" He looked up at Alphonse for reassurance, and twisted his boot into the floor, "I'm sorry about before and... whatever I did that made you so upset."
"And...?" Alphonse encouraged.
"And... I promise to stop doodling in your textbooks when I get bored?"
Edward sighed, and lifted his head, only to drop it dejectedly again, "I'll- I'll try to be more understanding."
"Ed, you don't have to-" Winry was interrupted,
"-Now come on. We're having lunch."
The girl sat herself at their table, a little embarassed that she had the brothers so worried over something that wasn't such a big deal, but ultimately relieved and amazed at their willingness to repair everything. The lunch was plain- cheese melts- as Edward, in spite of his advanced alchemy skills, still lacked in the culinary finesse department, however, as the three of them sat (Only two of them eating) and chatted happily, forgetting their worries and becoming, for this moment, truly happy and at peace with each other, it was perfectly delicious.
"Ed," Winry spoke to Edward over a sink of dishes.
"You remember those games we used to play when we were little?"
"Like what? Tag? Hide and Seek? The ultimate mud war?" He shuddered a little at the last one, triggering bitterweet memories of having one of the most enjoyable afternoons of his life, however torn down from his pride by the knowledge of having been mercilessly slaughtered by a girl with wicked mudball tactics.
"I mean, the beauty salon games," She reminded him.
Had he been holding something breakable, he might have dropped it in momentary mortification. As though painfully, he meakly managed, a "... yeah."
"That was fun, wasn't it?"
Edward was hesitant to admit it.
"All the way up until you started saying you were too big to play it." She recollected, calmly, amusedly.
"Yeah, well that's-"
"What do you say, Ed?"
"Let's play it once more. For old time's sake?"
Stuck between a rock and a Rockbell, the hesitant alchemist had no other choice, but to accomodate his eccentrically nostalgic friend. The armored brother acted as assistant, and although he hated to admit it, that afternoon, they all thoroughly enjoyed themselves in the silly game of memory lane, and the FullMetal Alchemist had positively fabulous nails.
The brothers Elric stood and waved on the train platform, watching as their good friend and trusty mechanic grew smaller and dissappeared into the distance, waving cheerily all the way.
"Well, Al. Shall we go?" Edward ask, his hands thrust casually into his pockets.
"Mm." Responded the taller brother with a brief nod.
They paced the sunny streets, Ed flexing the fingers of his newly repaired Automail, and discussed the passed incidents in retrospect.
"Winry is kind of wierd, but she's a cool wierd," Ed mused, resting his hands behind his head, "I guess we'll just never figure her out completely."
"But it would be nice if we could do things like this more often." Alphonse offered, staring forth with his always unchanging expression.
"Longer visits with Winry. I don't think I realized until just then how much we've grown apart. But it's also so fun to get back into old things. I want to be sure that we don't ever become unfamiliar with eachother."
"Yeah. Me too." Edward mumbled as they walked into HQ.
"This is from Winry," Alphonse told Hawkeye politely as he handed her the tiny parcel.
"Thank you Alphonse," She responded politely accepting the gift, which turned out to be a nice navy colored hair clip. The gift made the lieutenant glance downward at the smaller brother, at which she immediately jerked her glance away in order to avoid unwanted incriminating smirks. (The little 'secret' Miss Rockbell had told her was still fresh in her mind, and she was somehow still finding humor in it.)
"Something wrong, Lieutenant?" Ed asked, perplexed.
"No, nothing. Nothing at all," She replied with the slightest of smiles, as she hurriedly walked off to laugh to herself in an empty hallway.
"That was wierd." Ed muttered, shrugging it off, and heading the Mustang's office to drop off his report, and pick up the folder of frivolous papers that the Colonel had cooked up for him. When all was said and done, and the brothers gave their greetings and goodbyes, they left the headquarters once again.
"Looks like you've got some quite some homework, brother," Alphonse commented.
"Yeah. That guy has nothing better to do than to give me the hardest time he can."
"Surely it's not just that, Brother," Alphonse chided like he was so used to doing.
Edward listlessly flipped open the beige folder he'd been given and flipped through the useless contents, until one slip fell out and fluttered to the cobblestone ground.
"What is that, Brother?"
"Hm." Was all Ed replied, shrugging as he picked it up. He curiously read the paper, with growing confusion, shock, and utter surprise.
'This Certificate indicates that Edward Elric has pledged to volunteer six hours of community service to the East City orphanage. The city thanks you for your concern.'
"... THE HELL!"