I procrastinate, therefore I am.

And yay time skip!

Ever since the release of recent chapters in the manga, I hereby deem this fanfic to be slightly AU. But unless you've been up-to-date – or spoiled, you won't know how or why.

But while Riza went up the stairs to the balcony and met Roy and his violin there, her father stayed in the dining room where he sat with Roy's parents talking about more important matters than violins and birthdays.

"This is a bribe, General Mustang," said Nicholas Hawkeye, staring at the wad of money beside his glass of water.

"It's not. It is simply a gift from a friend to another. Perhaps 'gift' wasn't the word I was looking for…I think it's more like 'financial assistance'…"

"We are not destitute little peasants you can just take pity on and expect to support you when you rise through the ranks, remember that. We can get along just fine…"

"I'm just trying to help – "

Arthur rose from his chair as he spoke, but he slowly sat back down when Olivia quickly reached out for his hand, gripping it tightly. The two of them traded looks before the woman of the manor spoke.

"Arthur, please. And Nicholas, you need a better job. Being a stay-home alchemist doesn't cut it at all, even if people do come to you every now and then to have things repaired and tip you well. It's just not enough…"

"Maybe you could – "

Nicholas Hawkeye shook his head adamantly. "Don't even think about recruiting me into your army, Arthur. You know better than that. Anyway," he went on more steadily and less heatedly, "what is with the sudden offer? I know you're richer than I'll ever be…"

Holding up a hand, the general interrupted. "Don't say things like that. And, I was about to suggest something else. I know you aren't very fond of the military." Arthur let out a long breath and took a swig from his glass. "Sometimes…sometimes I wish I had a different line of work, you know."

The three adults were silent. The alchemist twiddled his thumbs, obviously itching to ask why the general even bothered to join the military, but decided that clamming up was a much better option.

"Listen," said Arthur, "take the money. I am not doing this because I pity you, it's because I really care about you and Riza – there's a difference. Is that so wrong? And what would I gain from bribing you? If anything, I'd sure gain a swift kick in the pants and a sanction from my superiors. I'm not like that." He shoved the bills towards Nicholas, who only grinned crookedly.

"You'll be giving that to me too when I start training your boy, anyway."

"That's over a year away, and Roy won't be your apprentice forever!" Arthur blurted out.

"We'll get by just fine, don't worry so much about us," his comrade replied calmly. "Besides, you're raising four kids; you'll need more 'financial assistance' than we do. Speaking of which…when Regine and Roy came to wish Riza a happy birthday, your daughter mentioned something about throwing her a party on her next birthday. I appreciate the gesture, but…"

This time, it was Olivia who answered. "The same reason why Arthur wants to help you, of course. It's the least we could do for you. And, Riza deserves to enjoy her childhood. I think of this as helping you out. I mean, I can't imagine taking care of our children without Arthur…"

The aforementioned man reached out and squeezed her hands when she shuddered at the thought. Nicholas couldn't help feeling the slightest twinge of jealousy, and heard the sound of a piano being played, which briefly brought him out of the loop and back into the distant and yet not so distant past, when Perenelle was still alive, and their family was still complete…

"You know, it's been a long time since anyone was this nice to me," he whispered, gazing at the money in front of him as though expecting it to talk.

The Mustang couple remained silent. But Arthur quickly broke the dramatic moment by saying loudly, "You three aren't going to get anything eavesdropping like that. It's quite unladylike."

The music emanating from the living room came to an abrupt halt, and they could hear footsteps as the two youngsters joined the girls who had been listening to the conversation. Victoria and Elizabeth began nudging each other, and Regine cleared her throat, ready to speak up for her siblings.

But Nicholas stood up, which saved them from the trouble of explaining – for now.

"Thank you for your help. I really mean it. But Riza and I must go…we're going to see my father-in-law."

"You can show your appreciation by taking our gift, all right?" said Olivia gently. Dropping her voice, she whispered, "You don't have to do everything by yourself."

The alchemist nodded, and beckoned his daughter to follow him as they left the Mustang family. "Thank you again. I'm more than sure we'll see each other again soon. Fate has its ways of bringing people together, whether they like it or not."

Riza barely had time to wave goodbye to Roy and everyone else before she walked away as well.

When the front door closed behind their visitors, Victoria let out a sigh of relief.

"You're not getting away that easily," Arthur reminded them. "Now, what were you all doing, eavesdropping like that?"

"It is always a pleasure to see my favorite son-in-law, and of course, my granddaughter. How long has it been since your last visit? My goodness, it's been quite a while, hasn't it…"

"I am your only son-in-law…Colonel – oh, is it Brigadier General now?"

Brigadier General Grumman, who was responsible for Perenelle's Amestrian heritage, smiled, reaching down to pat Riza on the head. "So you've noticed?" he asked, gesturing to the thick golden bar on one of his shoulders with his other hand. "Anyway, you two are always welcome. I just hope you would visit more often. After all, my life doesn't revolve around the military."

Though he already had a grandchild, Grumman didn't look too much like the part. In fact, he was only several years older than Arthur Mustang, reaching his fifties first. His hair had already begun to recede, and bits of gray showed up in it and his mustache. Adjusting his glasses, he glanced down into the girl's head as though looking for lice. "Hmm…that's a shiny new clip you've got there. Was it a gift?"

She nodded before turning her attention toward something on the coffee table. Figures of varying shapes and sizes were lined up in two neat little rows facing each other on a checkered board, but Riza knew better than to touch.

"You wouldn't believe who gave it to her," said Nicholas, as Grumman offered him a seat on the large, comfortable sofa. "A little boy named Roy Mustang. Do you – "

"Ah, Mustang!" exclaimed Grumman, laughing. "Major General Arthur Mustang, that reminds me, has been flying through the ranks lately. But really, he's a good one, and he still manages to make time for his lovely wife and children. They're nice folk, the Mustangs. Anyhow, Arthur's been bragging about his son – yes, Roy – who's quite the little alchemist. He's also told me about how – "

"I'll be his alchemy instructor?" his son-in-law cut him off. "I assume he already told you."

The older man smiled and clapped Nicholas on the back with the stamina of a younger lad. "Not even the military is free of gossip. But seriously, how have you been doing lately? And why are we all standing around here for? Have a seat, both of you! Would you like some juice, perhaps something to eat?"

Nicholas shook his head as he sank into the sofa with his daughter. "No, I'm just…here to say hello. Oh, and in case you forgot, Riza turned eight a few days ago."

"How could I forget?" said Grumman. "Actually…I sort of lost track when I didn't see you. I thought her birthday was much earlier…but I didn't forget, really. Happy birthday, my dear."

He turned to a cabinet and unlocked it with a key he kept in his pocket before extracting a large package. As he hefted it, he saw the girl from the corner of his eye still surveying the pieces on the table. In fact, Riza was turning over one of the white pieces in her little fingers…

But Nicholas was quicker.

"Those are your grandfather's; don't go touching them like that. You know better," he chastised her gently. Before she could obediently return the figure to its proper place on the checkered board, Grumman reached them again, but didn't seem to be annoyed at all, especially as Riza managed to replace the piece in its correct location. He presented the gift to her before staring down at the board.

"Have you ever played chess, little one?"

She truthfully shook her head, and Nicholas added, "She's not exactly the chess type."

"Chess is a very interesting game," said Grumman, nodding. "Not much athletic prowess needed here, not when the only part of your body that'll be moving would be your hand. Brute force and violence have no place here, unless you could consider this violence." He selected the queen from the white ranks and flicked a black pawn with it. "That's called capturing."

"And the one who gets the most pieces wins?" asked Riza curiously.

"No, this is not all about simply taking your opponent's pieces. It's so much more than that. You can win the game even if you have only one left – provided that it's the king. The king is the most important…oho, look at me, I'm rambling again." Grumman chuckled and replaced the queen and the pawn.

"Riza is only eight years old. She's too young to learn chess," Nicholas said. "Listen, I think it's about time we left. Thank you very much for having us…and Riza, what do you say?"

"Thank you, Grandfather," she said, reaching up to give him a kiss on his cheek. "You'll teach me how to play chess next time, right?"

He laughed and patted her head again. "Of course, of course! And honestly, Nicholas, eight is a good age to teach her. Do it while she's young…"

Dropping his voice, Grumman added in his son-in-law's ear, "Try to loosen up a bit, will you?"

Roy sighed, shutting The Do's and Don'ts of Basic Alchemy with a loud, dusty snap and coughed as he accidentally inhaled a bit of dust. After that, he placed the book on top of another three to his right and leaned back.

That was the last of the alchemy books in their immense library. He wanted to impress Mr. Hawkeye by having a good stock knowledge of alchemy, but he felt like it still wasn't enough. Riza's father was a real master of the art, and he probably wouldn't be amazed; much of the information Roy managed to gather were basic principles and theories that Mr. Hawkeye surely knew like the back of his hand.

Maybe he could just keep on practicing…but he had done so much of that. The boy knew that he had to be aware of what he was doing instead of simply doing it over and over again, so he had locked himself in the library for an hour or so and completely lost track of time as he perused book after book. Roy was even positive that he had already reread some volumes…

He found the ancient grandfather clock by following the sound of its ticking. It was already half past ten, and the wide, open windows showed nothing but a black sky strewn with stars. A cool breeze blew in, gently lifting the curtains and bringing with it a nightingale's song.

Alchemy, Roy knew, was both a science and an art. It worked with the balance of nature, always creating only enough, never too much or too little – that was the law of equivalent exchange. To obtain, something of equal value had to be lost. Because of it, people had power over their surroundings, manipulating anything around them as they desired. It was like magic; except that magic could never be coherently explained. Besides, magicians never revealed their secrets; it would spoil everything. Alchemy, on the other hand, was still a wonderful tool no matter how many times people explained it.

But unlike alchemy, the beauty of the sky, the birdsong and the world in general couldn't be explained as easily. The world wasn't perfect, but that didn't stop it from being so beautiful. Its pulchritude knew no bounds – and indeed, there were some things that didn't need any intervention from alchemists. Life, for one, could never be manipulated; it was taboo.

It didn't need to be manipulated anyway; life was perfect the way it was – imperfections and all.

As he stood before the window, Roy could almost feel himself growing…growing from a roguish boy to a young man whose eyes were finally opening to reality. Maybe alchemy couldn't do everything – like catch falling stars, bring back the dead and make inanimate objects human – but it could sure do a lot.

And for a moment, he wondered if Riza could see, hear and feel the same things he did right now. That was something else alchemy couldn't do – arrange a fateful meeting between the two children and, slowly but surely, intertwine their paths together.

When he opened his eyes, Roy Mustang was thirteen.

He glanced around his bedroom as though expecting it to have warped in his sleep – which it didn't. However, over the years, his room did change, albeit gradually. The box that held all of his toys was rarely opened now, and it became more of a second table to hold all kinds of books, writing materials and various objects made from alchemy when his shelves became crowded. His desk became more cluttered as the years went by and he continued studying alchemy – among other things – on his own. More medals, certificates and other merits began covering the walls.

There was a knock on his door, which was now more closed than open to give the young alchemist his privacy. He got out of bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and scratching his head. A quick glance in the mirror told him that his hair was a mess, but he never really cared too much about it anyway.

The door opened and his father entered, grinning from ear to ear.

"Well, you're a man now, son. Happy thirteenth birthday," said Arthur almost wistfully as he gave Roy a hug. The major general was all dressed up in his military regalia, and when he broke away, he added, "Everyone's waiting for you downstairs. Better get dressed."

Roy frowned. Sure, it was nice that he was finally thirteen, which meant officially entering apprenticeship under Mr. Hawkeye, but did his mother and sisters really have to throw him a huge party – which always meant getting "dressed for the occasion" as they always put it? But he obliged, and Arthur left to give his youngest offspring a little privacy.

The tuxedo was not overly flamboyant; it was actually a simple thing that was all black except for the bright red bow tie and the white undershirt. But Roy still thought it was unnecessary, and decided against fixing his hair as well. Sure, he combed it a bit, but managed to retain the slightly messy look. It was too much trouble, and besides, it would be all over the place eventually, as the day went on.

He walked down the stairs, feeling like a groom ready to meet his bride – or more aptly, a model sashaying toward his audience, which was comprised of three young ladies waiting for him at the foot of the staircase, even more dressed up than he was.

"There he is, our little man – actually, he's not so little anymore."

"Happy birthday!"

"So, how does it feel to be thirteen?"

"I feel hungry," Roy complained. "And I'm not going to a wedding or anything." He tugged at his bow tie.

Regine giggled. "You can eat during the party; you woke up really late, you know. But we already have some early birds."

"Really?" Their youngest sibling raised his eyebrows. "Who?"

"Happy birthday, Roy Mustang, and today's the day."

The rather scratchy voice was all too familiar. Mr. Hawkeye suddenly appeared beside the girls, grinning from ear to ear. Seeing him smile was somewhat strange; there was something about it that suggested he had a scheme brewing in his head that would involve watching Roy mess up.

"I want to see how you've improved after all these years…and I want to see it now, while this place isn't crowded. Come on, boy, I've got the chalk, but I haven't got all day."

Roy felt as though his feet were moving of their own accord as he went down the last of the steps and followed the alchemist into the living room, where Riza sat on the sofa, perusing yet another family photo album – thankfully, one that had no baby pictures of him, if Roy remembered correctly. She glanced up briefly, but said nothing.

He felt a short stick of chalk being pressed into his hand. "Your father said he doesn't mind having chalk all over the floor; I can imagine, since you probably drew all over it," said Mr. Hawkeye. Pointing to a bag of something at his feet, he added, "I have in this bag one of my wife's family heirlooms. Unfortunately, I broke it some time ago while doing some cleaning – it's a precious Ishbalan vase. Your job is to fix it. Now, draw your array first."

The youngest Mustang nodded, sat on his knees and did as he was told as Riza and his sisters looked on. It didn't take him long, and Mr. Hawkeye's eyes widened when he heard his would-be apprentice say, "Done."

"Be careful," said the alchemist, as he crouched down and upended the bag slowly onto the transmutation circle. Several huge shards of porcelain, followed by many small ones, tumbled onto the lines sketched on the floor. He made sure that all the pieces were within the circle before standing up again.

Roy instantly remembered the broken vase he had "fixed" seven years ago. The warped thing was still perched on their fireplace, looking more like porcelain fire than a vase. But this was no time to be reminiscing about his first attempt at alchemy, so he sat down, placed his hands on his transmutation circle, and closed his eyes as the first rays of light began emanating from the drawing. This was it – the outcome of this transmutation would decide if he was good enough to be Mr. Hawkeye's student or not. He didn't even want to think about what would happen if Riza's father saw no improvement in his work…

It felt like eternity had passed when a hand clamped down on his shoulders. "Open your eyes, boy." Then again, it also felt like only a second.

He did as he was told – and found himself staring at a beautiful vase with two handles and intricate sceneries from Ishbalan culture painted onto it. The vase sat on his array, and everyone – including his parents, who had probably come while his eyes were shut in concentration – stared at it in a circle around the circle. Victoria whispered to Elizabeth, and he realized that Riza was with them now, the album abandoned on the coffee table.

Mr. Hawkeye was the first to break the silence, and his words made Roy's heart sink and vanish completely.

"Hmmm…that vase had only one handle when I accidentally bumped into it."

"I'm sorry!" the boy spluttered, scrambling to his feet and gaping at his work. "I…I didn't know…I thought some of those pieces were another handle…" His onyx eyes darted about, finding his parents, his sisters, Riza Hawkeye…he silently pleaded with all of them to forgive him, to at least consider…

And then Mr. Hawkeye did the very last thing Roy had expected him to do.

He laughed.

"What – "

"Can't you take a joke, boy?" he asked in between guffaws. His daughter smiled; she had obviously been in on this as well. "I was only kidding. You restored that vase to its former splendor. Instead of having you make something, I decided to have you fix something. Especially since I remembered that story your father told me when you first told me you wanted to be my apprentice, the one about the first vase you tried to fix. Seven years was more than enough for you to work on that.

"So congratulations. You will start learning under me next week. Be prepared, because it will most definitely be different from studying on your own, and this is my birthday gift to you. You have a lot of potential, Roy Mustang. Don't let it go to waste."

Roy saluted. "Yes, sir."

"Thank you, thank you so much for taking in my son to be your apprentice," Arthur said, shaking hands with Mr. Hawkeye as though it was their first meeting all over again. "He was starting to run out of things to learn on his own…"

The alchemist smirked and pulled his hand away; Arthur Mustang had quite a firm grip, and it seemed to have gotten firmer. "Don't thank me. I wouldn't have offered to teach him if he didn't show any promise."

"Well, Roy is a smart kid," said the major general, beaming. "And I'm proud of him." He ruffled Roy's hair, making it even messier.

"And it goes without saying that I am proud of him too," agreed Olivia. "Nicholas, it's so nice of you to give up some of your time and energy to teach him alchemy – I mean, whatever else he needs to learn."

"I'll be paid anyway," Mr. Hawkeye reminded the couple, winking. Turning to Roy, he said, "Just don't forget to show up on Monday, all right? If you don't, consider your apprenticeship terminated."

"I won't forget, I promise." He looked at Riza, who had been smiling ever since her father had revealed his little joke.

That was her prettiest smile yet.