Disclaimer: FMA doesn't belong to me. (Maan, it's been so long since I've posted a new story that I'd forgotten what that important 'd' word was for a minute!)


Notes: I spent so much time angsting over this story. I wrote it, and my computer lost it. I still had the first few pages worth, but have spent the last two weeks trying to put together the rest of it to an acceptable standard. I'll never be as fond of this version as I was of the first, lost one, but I'm glad that I made the effort to put it back together. Thank you so much to my LJ friends for all the commiseration and encouragement you offered when I lost the original – you prodded me to try to get it back instead of abandoning it completely.

"The Strength to Smile" by Dailenna

It was later – much later, when the battle was over, and they were all recovering from their wounds – that Riza Hawkeye finally recognised the woman who had been helping them behind the scenes. The rotund woman who called herself Madame Christmas always wore such luxurious dresses and coats that it could be imagined she lived a life of privilege, if one didn't know the bar where she worked. The girls in her pay were just as well attired, their hair waved fashionably over lightly-rouged cheeks, furs slung around their elegant necks. No indeed, Riza had entirely lost the woman from her memory for quite some time.

After a particularly good rehabilitation session, the nurse watching her said that she was allowed to visit her friends in their own hospital rooms for a little while, but if she became too agitated, she'd have to come back and calm down. The nurse herself – a pleasant, if a little too strict – woman perhaps ten years older than Riza – would accompany her, to make sure there weren't any unforeseen accidents.

Riza's whole body was overstressed by the ordeal it had just been put through, but she was by no means unable to walk. Unlike Feury, still recovering from a severed femoral artery (he'd kept pressure on the sword wound inflicted by Wrath upon his confrontation, but had nearly bled out before paramedics had arrived to help), Havoc, finally installed into a wheelchair (he hadn't been happy when he discovered the recoil from his gun dent the chair skidding back, mid-battle), and Alphonse, whose human muscles were weak and atrophied from disuse (he'd been as helpless as a babe the day it was born, when his body returned from the Gate, gaunt and emaciated), her legs could hold her for at least half an hour standing and walking before they began to shake and need rest. Her legs weren't the real problem. It was her shoulder that had prompted the hospital to keep her for further observation.

The fight had been long and brutal, and she hadn't had more than the occasional catnap between moving from one place to another, trying to stay off the Homunculi and Father's radar. Avoiding all military personnel added to the feeling of being closed in and hunted, because if so much as a lowly soldier reported having seen them, the higher ups would have fallen down upon the rebellion with all haste, dismantling all of their hard work with a few well-placed bullets.

So, when it came to the final showdown, the whole group was tired and weary, and all that kept them going was adrenaline. Rather than openly confront the seemingly-immortal creatures that ran their country, they had gone first to the underground base of operations out of which Father had initially worked. Edward had given them directions to the place when he arrived in Central, having just undergone a battle with Pride and Gluttony. The mention of the duo had caused Riza to clench her teeth, remembering both the bruises Gluttony had left around their neck when she first encountered him, and the cut Pride had sliced across her cheek in the show of power he had given when she saw the creature behind the innocent façade he maintained. Edward reported a merging of the two, resulting in what could simply be explained as a rather famished demonic child, and said that although he had found a way to destroy Pride alone, the merging of the two had complicated things. He would have stayed to fight the creature and find its own weakness, he had said, but it had disappeared into the night with a rather purposeful glint in its many eyes. The Xingians had led them this far after it, until its force had become too close to the others in the area, and although they could pinpoint several different Homunculi in the city, they could not tell which was which.

With a nonchalant warning, Edward, ever direct in his approach, led the rogue Homunculus Greed, the Xingian Prince's guards and a pair of chimera to Headquarters. Mustang had tried to stop him, but the grin Greed had given – along with an assurance that he didn't let his people die needlessly – had accompanied Edward's wave goodbye as he ignored the Colonel's protestations. Riza had wondered where Alphonse was. The brothers had worked separately before, but she was so used to the sight of Alphonse's towering suit of armour beside his older brother that it seemed odd for them to be apart, especially when Edward was heading into certain danger. His younger brother would surely never let him go to battle alone.

And so she, Mustang, Feury, Breda and the newly-appointed Second Lieutenant Hayate traversed the slimy sewers, avoiding all contact with the wet, slippery walls and the rushing flow of sewerage between walkways, and emerging, finally, into quite a large room filled with all sorts of machinery. The plan was to destroy everything they could that would potentially aid the Homunculi in regenerating, for though it was Father who made them, this was the place that each of them had gained their bodies, and the harder it was for more of them to appear, or to be recreated, the better.

They had known that any place important to the enemy would be guarded, and were somewhat suspicious when nothing blocked their way. Either the place was less important than they had first suspected, or they were being led deeper into a trap, where it would be harder for them to fight their way out. Riza had felt the familiar sensation of being watched from the shadows for only a moment before three large, violet eyes opened in her own shadow, staring up at her. A giant mouth filled with gleaming teeth grinned as she stumbled back, raising her gun even through she knew it was useless.

"Feury, the flash-bangs!" she'd yelled, and promptly shielded her eyes and ears from the blast of light and sound. Nevertheless, the vibrations shook through her whole body, and she saw the light shine through her eyelids. When she opened her eyes specks danced before her, and she shook her head to clear her senses.

"I may not be able to see you, Miss Hawkeye, but I can still smell you." The voice was neither the charmingly childish lilt of the Führer's adopted son, nor the questioning tone of the half-witted creature known as Gluttony. Instead it was a high-pitched mix of the two that sounded as though it bordered on insanity, and when Riza spun to meet the face of Selim Bradley, she couldn't help but notice the manic gleam in his eyes, as they stared right past her in temporary blindness.

The creature stepped forwards, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth in a lizard-like manner, as though he was tasting the air. And then all of a sudden, he took two long steps at a run, and launched towards her, teeth painfully clamping down on her shoulder as he landed, driving her down to the ground. A pained shriek escaped unwittingly from her throat as she grappled with him single-handedly, and it seemed that fire was coursing through her body, radiating down from her shoulder, all across her back and down one side of her right arm. The other side was eerily numb.

Nevertheless, after what seemed a century of agony, the weight of the Selim/Pride/Gluttony creature no longer pressed down at her. She could hear it screaming, and when she looked over, left hand grasping at the portion of her arm missing a bite too big for any ordinary child's mouth, she realised he was covered in flames from head to toe. What had begun as a scream from the Homunculus (or would it be a Homunculi, seeing as it was two of them?) turned into high-pitched laughter. Gunshots echoed through the small facility one after another, and the Homunculus staggered, pausing in its laughter as its regeneration capabilities tried to keep up with the wounds being inflicted upon it.

She hadn't seen the end of the fight. While she was still conscious, she busied herself trying to slow the stream of blood flowing from her shoulder. It wasn't as bad as it could have been – her arm wasn't completely severed – but feeling as though those teeth, and needles and knives, and all sorts of sharp things were sticking into her arm was no comparison to still being able to take part in the rebellion. There had been yelling. Talk of ambulances and the job at hand. Breda's voice had gone missing for some time, and electronic fizzling soon followed by crashed and breaking sounds took the place of the Homunculus' screams. She didn't remember when those had stopped, but when they did she heard no further noise from him. Riza assumed Pride and Gluttony's Philosopher's Stones had been destroyed. As the laboratory was ransacked by Feury – he was the more technologically knowledgeable, and thus the most able to destroy the machines so they couldn't easily be put back together – Roy stroked her hair, and said in a shaky voice that she was going to live. She remembered smiling and thinking he was being silly – she wasn't bleeding that badly. But she couldn't be sure that she wasn't, for of course the blood loss was making her giddy and light-headed.

From what she heard on the odd occasion that one of the group was able to visit another's room, Roy himself had carried her out of the sewers in an attempt to be heroic, with Hayate whining piteously at his heels. She'd been given into the care of the paramedics Breda had fetched, and the others had gone on to meet with Havoc, where he was watching over Mrs. Bradley for them.

She had yet to find out the rest of the story – everyone had their own explanation, and no-one had seen the whole battle from start to finish – but she did know that as far as Edward and Roy were concerned, it was a success. She had overheard conversations between her various nurses and doctors that seemed to say Amestris was in a state of panic. A particularly satisfied Olivier Milla Armstrong had popped in to visit for a few minutes, with news that most of the higher ups were running around like chickens without their heads, and it was a relatively easy task to convince their subordinates that none of them were fit to take the missing Führer's place. Without Father and his promises of immortality, a lot of them felt bereft of all options. There had been more than one suicide, because obviously life wasn't as important if they couldn't have it forever.

"That Mustang upstart of yours is going to lament all this time wasted in hospital, if he doesn't get a move on," Olivier had said. The smile playing along her lips belied the snap in her tone. She may have held a grudge against him, but Olivier had a good sense of character, and Riza was certain that underneath all of her grumbling, the other woman thought that Roy Mustang might actually make a good leader. Or at least a plausible leader. Olivier raised one blonde eyebrow. "It is unfortunate that you were caught in that accident with the shotgun. New type of bullet, was it?"

Riza had nodded blandly, thinking that if she'd managed to avoid such an early injury she could have prevented her comrades' hurts as well. "That's right."

Olivier knew very well it hadn't been a shotgun accident. She didn't know exactly what it had been, but the accident was the story being put about, so that no-one would connect Riza Hawkeye with the recent happenings. Similar "accidents" had been invented for the others' wounds too, placing them nowhere near all of this political fuss. Heedless, Olivier went on, musing about the odd shape of the wound and the likelihood a shotgun would have such an effect until Riza reiterated that the new bullet must have had something to do with it.

Now, finally able to visit some of her friends, Riza flexed the fingers of her right hand experimentally. The reason she'd been kept under such close supervision for so long was the nature of her injury, and the way in which it had been dealt with. Her doctors were trying to make sure that the procedure had worked to their standards, and to her own. With no idea of how well the surgery would work, they'd had a backup plan which could still be enforced with a little work, if something went wrong; it wouldn't be as satisfactory an option as the initial surgery, but it was better than the alternative.

The nurse hovered anxiously by her bed as she slid her feet into a pair of hospital slippers, and walked beside her, ready as an emergency support if something happened. Riza though it quite impractical at the moment, but she knew she might have need of the woman on the walk back, should she stay out for too long. For now, however, Riza's stride was as energetic as it had ever been.

She stopped by Alphonse Elric's room briefly. She didn't know how or when it had happened, but the boy in the hospital bed was certainly not the suit of armour she was accustomed to seeing. She'd been told of his condition by others when they visited her, and had heard much from Winry when the girl wasn't talking about the wonders of automail, but nothing prepared her for the sight of the ragged, bony boy lying in the bed. She knew she couldn't have found the wrong room, for who else would fit such a description? Contrary to her expectations, his brother wasn't there in the room, and neither were any of the flock of visitors she'd been assured he received daily. Riza was somewhat relieved to find him alone, because she knew the unexpected weariness that could accompany too many visitors, and this way she would be able to talk with Alphonse instead of being rushed along straight away. She had a fondness for the young boy.

"Lieutenant Hawkeye," came the familiar voice, as his eyes caught onto hers. "Winry said you weren't allowed to get your heart-rate up, because the doctors still don't know how your automail will react."

Riza felt at the automail shoulder with her left hand as Alphonse's gaze moved on to the shining metal, reminding her it was there. Automail had been a part of Amestrian life for a long time. They acted as a prosthetic for people who had lost their own limbs, but rather than remaining immovable and awkward as wooden prosthetics did, they moved with the same flexibility and ease as a normal arm or leg – provided the mechanic had the skill to make it so. An automail port was grafted onto the end of the incomplete arm or leg soon after the accident that severed the limb. Nerve endings were attached to the port in such a way that when the automail replacement was installed, the electric signal sent by the brain along these nerves was transmitted into the automail. It often took years for a person to get used to the difference between moving their flesh limbs and moving their automail limbs, but with time it could be as though they had never lost their arm or leg.

A difficulty then arose when a person's limb was not entirely severed. Although automail could transmit these electric impulses from the brain, blood and muscle could not pass through or over the mechanics due to the damage they could cause the wiring, and the issue of accessibility for maintenance to the automail. This meant that if a person's leg was partially damaged, instead of applying automail only to the damaged sections, the remainder of the leg would have to be removed. Someone in Rush Valley, a friend of Winry's, had been working on a new type of automail; a sort that could be attached just as a joint, or a filler of muscle, that allowed blood to pass through the mechanics in small, vein-like tubes attached to the flesh limb on the other side that had previously been unable to survive on the other end of an automail insertion. Instead of only having nerve endings run into this new automail to provide the energy for movement, the automail used the energy as it passed through to the flesh on other side, connecting with the corresponding nerves on the other side, and thus enabling the extremities to retain their movement. Muscles that had been damaged could be joined to a mechanical equivalent, instead of having to be removed and replaced. The mechanical muscle worked with the natural muscle in a tit-for-tat ratio, pulling just as hard as it was pulled.

These partial-automails provided a great opportunity for people to keep their own arms or legs, but whereas the port of an entire limb was placed easily in a static position, and thus didn't need to be flexible itself, and could have a quick connection, partial-automail was intended to be installed anywhere on the body, even in places that required movement. In joints, particularly, this created some problems, because what was initially made to be a static port had to be able to stretch and curve as the surrounding skin and muscles moved. The mechanic had solved this problem by using the flexibility of the body itself as an aid, and giving the port joints of its own.

This revolutionary piece of technology meant that instead of having to have the rest of her arm amputated and an automail replacement attached, Riza still had her own elbow, her own hand, her own fingers. She still had her own armpit, as insignificant as it seemed. The remains of the joint in her shoulder had had to be removed, to prevent infection or fracture of the bone, but the muscles in her chest still stretched across to her arm instead of stopping at a cold, metal port. The curved port in her shoulder was only small, and accommodated a partial-automail about the size of a clenched fist. It allowed her arm to continue to work normally, having replaced only what had been taken away in that one bite. Blood pumped through just as efficiently as it ever had, and other than some stiffness, she hadn't noticed much else different about her arm or hand.

The reason her doctors had kept her under observation for the time-being was that this new partial-automail was so far untested on humans, and they didn't know how well the tubes guiding the blood could hold, or if they went to all of the necessary places. The mechanic insisted that he'd tested them with other liquids – including pigs' blood, he claimed – and were safe, but the doctors were as of yet unconvinced. Everything else about the inner workings of the partial-automail could be found on an entire limb model; it was the mix of her blood into the works that had everyone twitching to see if the system held. If it didn't, Plan B was to fully amputate her arm and give her a whole automail limb. In the privacy of her own mind, Riza was content with the partial-automail – getting used to a whole arm would take too long, and she'd be ineffective in the time it took to master it. The time it would take her to get used to this partial-automail was supposed to be much shorter, and she could tell it was so already. Her own muscles were still doing just as much work as they were before, and apart from a sluggish response, her fingers still seemed to move adequately. She wasn't able to raise her elbow further above waist height without difficulty yet, but she was on her way.

"They won't know how it will react until they test its capabilities," Riza replied in a matter-of-fact manner.

Her nurse frowned disapprovingly at her, holding the expression long enough to be sure she noticed before pulling a seat from the side of the room to rest beside Alphonse's bed, so Riza could sit down. There was no use in wasting energy she'd likely want later, so Riza took the seat thankfully.

The nurse said she had something to attend to outside, and would be back in a little while. She added a pointed message that Riza wouldn't be allowed to stay for long, because Mr. Elric needed to rest, and pulled the door behind her, leaving a small opening.

"I suppose this is an improvement then?" Riza asked when she turned back to Alphonse. She couldn't help but notice the way his cheekbones protruded, and his chin drew into a sharp point. The only part of Alphonse that didn't look thin and wasted away were his round eyes, which just made the rest of him seem small in comparison.

Alphonse paused momentarily – there were some things that their little group couldn't mention in other company, and that wariness translated into a hesitance to talk about it with each other as well, sometimes. Finally, he said in a guarded tones, "Brother says I've filled out a bit since I've been here, but they haven't been feeding me as much as I'd have expected. I'm somewhat relieved, though, because I think this body isn't used to having a full stomach."

A commiserating smile made its way onto Riza's face as she considered the truth of that comment.

His eyes rested on hands thin and spindly. They looked as though they could break if someone shook his hand too hard. Riza didn't think there was any fat left on his body. If this was a better condition than the one he had arrived in, she was sure she didn't want to know what he had first looked like. Alphonse Elric was not a boy who was meant to be thin, and Riza was certain he wouldn't look healthy until he had some fat on his cheeks, and a colour to his skin other than the sallow tinge that lay there now.

"They've cut my hair and nails, too. I expect I looked quite wild at first, but now . . ." He looked up, an expression of wonder on his face. "I can feel things, Lieutenant. I can taste, and smell, and my voice doesn't sound like I'm speaking through a tin phone, and I might not be able to walk or do much yet, but in time I will be able to, and instead of looking at me like some strange freak, people will see me for me." The effort of such a speech seemed to wear at him, but the smile on his face had such a feeling of triumph that Riza couldn't help but mirror it.

"It's odd to think that no-one you've met in your travels would recognise you," she said.

Alphonse's face lit up at the idea. "Then, I'll have to go back and introduce myself to them all for the first time, again." He went on, talking about where he'd go in such a way that made Riza wonder whether the search for the Philosopher's Stone was the only reason he and his brother travelled, or if he'd discovered a love for the journey along their way. "–and then after I've been there, I want to go to Xing! Mei Chan says that the noodles they have there are better than stew, no matter what brother says, so I want to taste them for myself. And have you read about the Imperial Gardens? Only so many people are allowed to see them each year – not including the Emperor and the gardeners, of course–"

It was at that time that Riza's nurse made her presence known from the doorway. "That's long enough. If you want to visit another friend, you can, but young Mr. Elric needs to have his rest."

Although somewhat irritated by the interruption, Riza could see the sense in it, as Alphonse's posture had slowly sunk back and down further into their conversation, and now he rubbed weakly at his eyes with one hand.

"Colonel Mustang is only two rooms down from mine," he ventured. "I can hear Brother shouting from there when Winry makes him visit – she says it puts the Colonel in good spirits. It sounds like it does, too, because I'm certain most of the laughter I heard after Brother's last tirade was his."

Riza said she would visit the Colonel, and stood, telling Alphonse to get better before bending to give a swift kiss to his forehead. There was a moment in which she thought her affection for the boy may have become too maternal, but then he smiled sweetly and bade her take care of her shoulder.

"I don't understand how a child could go through such an ordeal and bear no resentment for his parents," the nurse said when she and Riza left. "They've neglected him so much, physically, but from his speech and thoughts, they obviously educated him well enough. It's good that he has friends, for how else could he keep his spirits so high?"

Riza agreed, taking note of the story that had been given to Alphonse's condition for future reference, but the nurse didn't notice Riza's preoccupation; she wasn't expecting much of a response from the stoic woman. "He's such a lovely boy that all of the staff here have taken a liking to him. And here we are, this is – oh!"

They had stopped outside the door to Roy Mustang's room rather than walking right on in there, for the room appeared to be full already. Madame Chistmas, in all of her splendour, sat on one side of the room, an amused expression on her face as she watched the three other women there alternatively fussing over and joking about Roy. A book lay open on Roy's lap, forgotten in the friendly atmosphere. All four visitors were dressed up, as stylishly as could be, and the three younger women were each looking beautiful in a way as different from the others as water was to sand, and sand was to grass.

"Creta was lovely," gushed the blonde with the pinched nose, "but it is wonderful to be home again. At least, it would be if we still had our shop." She looked pointedly, and rightfully, at Roy, expression changing from a coy smile to an exasperated pout in the blink of an eye.

Madame Christmas' shop had been – or so Riza was informed, amidst much spluttering, stuttering, and exchanging of glances from one subordinate to another – a delightful little bar that attracted a small crowd of loyal patrons. During the final stages of preparation for their little battle, the shop had finished up business with quite a bang. The distraction provided time for Roy to escape the military tail keeping an eye on him, and some of those following him had been so upset about losing him that they had gone to pieces, quite literally.

Now, Roy let out a protesting squawk and cleared his throat. "I did say that I'd buy you a new one. When I'm out of hospital I'll come and help you find a new place to set up. If you're so impatient I can wire the money, but I really would like to be there to make sure you're getting a good deal."

Madame Christmas gave a hoarse laugh. "And what do you know about real-estate, Roy-boy?" The girls tittered in response, one going so far to tickle Roy under his chin playfully.

Roy wrenched his head away, and was in the act of turning to Madame Christmas with a sharp retort when his gaze fell on Riza and her nurse, standing in the doorway. "Hawkeye!"

Four heads turned to look at her curiously, and Riza squirmed inwardly at suddenly being the centre of attention. "I came to see how you were doing, sir." She could feel their gazes flickering towards the metal automail that was now a part of her arm.

"I'm well," he said amicably. For a moment he shuffled around so that he was sitting up straighter, and took the slouch out of his shoulders. "The lung was reinflated as soon as possible, and other than a few scrapes I'm fine. There's some pain when I cough or sneeze, but otherwise the medication takes care of it all. I don't need anywhere near as much as I used to, either."

The brunette snorted, then covered up her mouth and nose in a mix of embarrassment and hilarity. Roy took the time to shoot her a glare, and the redhead languidly looked up at Riza, saying, "Don't let him kid you – he's still so full of drugs he doesn't know what he's going to say until it comes out of his mouth."

Riza noticed with amusement that Roy's face had a hint of petulance before he smoothed it over, and he looked at her calmly. "It's not that bad. Really."

There was a slight scrape of chair legs against the floor as Madame Christmas stood up, surprisingly graceful in her movements for a woman of her stature. "We've been here long enough, girls. It's time we were off." She cast a sharp glance at each of the women in the room, seemingly spurring them into action.

A chorus of "goodbye!"s sounded off as each woman gathered her coats about their shoulders and picked up her handbag. Stepping to the side of the room to let them past, Riza couldn't help but notice that as Madame Christmas' business-like gaze fell on her, her mouth softened with the hint of a smile. Finally, the woman left with them, issuing a brief command to Roy to not take too long in getting better, and Riza was left alone in the room with him. Her nurse must have disappeared off to somewhere else again, ostensibly to give the patients their privacy – Riza suspected the nurse just wanted to be elsewhere, not having to take care of troublesome patients.

The seats Madame Christmas and her girls had been sitting in were now scattered haphazardly around the room, and Riza busied herself moving them to the sides, where they were usually kept, so that if Roy tried to get out of bed he didn't trip over one of them.

"I want to thank you," she said quietly, half carrying and half pushing one chair along, "for getting me out of the sewers."

"I had to get you out quickly," he said after a moment's pause. "The chances of your wound getting infected if you stayed down there, with all of that garbage . . . Who knows what could have happened?" Riza noted that he avoided mentioning that too bad an infection in an already serious wound could have killed her.

When she sat down in the last chair left, he was running his fingers over the pages of the book in his lap. "Have you had many visitors?" she asked, easing her shoulder into a more comfortable position.

A smile flicked up the corners of his mouth. "We don't see each other often any more – not all at the same time – so they thought they'd come and have a small reunion, while I was sitting still for long enough to pay them attention." He tapped his fingers on the book, then, as though making up his mind, slid it across his lap towards her.

Riza took the book curiously, and saw that it was really a small photo album, just big enough for two photographs on each page. The place it was opened to was almost a third of the way through, and she looked at the four pictures for quite some time, taking in each detail. The first photograph was of a train, stopped at the train station. Half of a straw hat had edged into the side of the image, but otherwise the platform seemed deserted. The next photograph showed a small Xingian boy standing in front of a building. He couldn't have been more than three, but the expression on his face seemed much older: he had a wary, overly-serious appearance that seemed to mirror all of the terrible things he had seen. The third photograph had the Xingian boy standing with three older girls. Their Amestrian colouring and too-wide smiles set them apart from the miserable Xingian boy, drawing the girls together, but setting him apart.

The final photograph had a fashionable woman standing next to the boy, her hand on his shoulder. The woman was unmistakably a younger, slimmer Madame Christmas. The image made Riza blink in surprise, evoking a childhood memory she hadn't recalled in a long time. She had been in the kitchen, having spent the morning helping the maid with the cleaning, and when she emerged an unfamiliar woman's voice had reached her ears, saying, "He's got more brains than I had expected, and I'd prefer they were put to good use than left to mischief in my house." Soon after that, the conversation had moved on to tuition fees, and little Riza hadn't had much interest in such things, and had stopped paying attention.

"I forgot that she was your mother," she said truthfully.

"Foster-mother," Roy corrected, and she looked up to see a fond smile on his face.

Flipping through the pages slowly, Riza saw the little boy and his foster-sisters grow up bit-by-bit. A cheeky glint began to form in those sorrowful eyes, and she momentarily came to a stop at the first photo where he wore a smile – he must have been five or six, by the size of him. She was about to turn the page when the embarrassed grin worn by the Roy in the bed beside her prompted her to look again at the picture she had just skipped over. What she had assumed were four girls in dresses proved, on closer inspection, to be three girls and one delighted little boy unaware of the potential mortification such an exploit could cause later in life. After an instant of private amusement, she turned the page without a word and noted the relieved slump Roy adopted.

The photographs of the happy Xingian boy continued to be plentiful until he reached a roughly teenaged size. Every now and then he would appear in a few images at a time, followed by an absence of a page or two. Riza supposed that this was about the time he began taking alchemy lessons, and the photographs would have been taken when he returned home for the holidays.

Eventually, there were no more pages to be turned, and Riza closed the album and slid it back into Roy's waiting hand. "Despite all of this, Madame Christmas doesn't seem the sort to keep sentimental records," she told him.

He gave a nod of agreement. "The photographs were taken by a helper at the shop. He was always fond of us. I remember when Madame and my foster-sisters weren't watching he'd give me Xingian apples, because I missed my old home." A reminiscent moment made his eyes glaze over. Riza hadn't heard him talk about Xing when they were young. She found herself wondering what age he was when he was brought to Amestris. The only reason she already knew he came from the distant country was because he had said as much when she shyly asked him. His tone of voice had discouraged further questions, and little Riza had left her father's student alone for a while after that.

An interruption provided itself in the form of Riza's nurse returning, another nurse right behind her. "Come on, Miss Hawkeye, it's time you were back to your room," the woman said from the doorway.

The unfamiliar nurse strode in past her, taking up the chart at the end of Roy's bed. "You've had a lot of visitors today, Mr. Mustang. It's time you got some rest." She was black-haired, sharp-eyed, and must have been ten years older than Riza's nurse. Roy sighed despondently at her words.

Having been a part of two very strict regimes, Riza thought the military was the more preferable of the two. In the military, she was able to do her work and clock out in the evenings, and so long as she followed the military guidelines, no-one questioned what she did after hours. The hospital was an entirely different matter: she was told when and what to eat, how to sleep, how long she was able to get exercise, and in what way, and she was sure that there would be many more things to take into consideration that she hadn't discovered yet. She was relieved that she only had to spend another few weeks in the hospital, and was sure Roy felt the same. She couldn't help but feel a flash of pity for Alphonse Elric, whose condition would surely keep him here for months to come.

"When I'm allowed to move around, I'll come and visit you," Roy called cheerfully as she left.

Riza turned back, ignoring the insistent tug of the nurse on her arm. "Don't hurry the recovery process and injure yourself any further," she told him sternly. She caught his pleased wave and finally gave in to the exasperated woman beside her.

As she sat on the side of her bed and slid the hospital slippers off her feet she couldn't help but think of who Roy Mustang could have been if he were raised in any other house. Foster homes and orphanages were known as what some considered a necessary evil. The number of children who came out of such places more scarred than they had been on their arrival was too high. It was as though these children having no family to stand up for and protect them made them fair game for all sorts of terrible treatment that otherwise would have been punished. With no-one to complain to about such a thing, they were often left to their own devices, to break or spoil from the things bullies – both young and old – thought they could get away with.

Of all people, Riza would not consider Madame Christmas the motherly type. To take children into her house and care for them seemed like the actions of a completely different person, but if she hadn't taken Roy in, would he still be that wretched little Xingian boy, staring blankly into people's souls, or could he have become something else? Something that didn't carry those he cared about out of danger, laugh with family, or wave cheekily to a friend? Of all of the things he could have been, he had come along this path, and become a healthy, sound individual.

Madame Christmas may not have been her first choice for a good person to grow up with, but it seemed that it hadn't done Roy any harm. Riza was glad for how he had turned out, and the goals his life had prompted him to adopt. Most of all, she was glad he grew up happily, and for the smiles that Madame Christmas had been able to give him.