Gracia Hughes stared down at the teacup in her hands. Moments ago Roy had left the house after a final check on the children. All three of them. He was always considerate that way, realizing that it just wouldn´t be right to tuck his niece and nephew into bed without including Maes’ daughter. It made Gracia’s heart ache to see the man treat her daughter in a fatherly way. Elicia clearly admired Roy a great deal, and Gracia wondered if her sweet little girl would remember much about her lost father as the years went by, or if Maes Hughes would fade to a few faint memories, a man who would not be there to scare away her admirers and boyfriends, a man wouldn´t be there to watch her grow up, or walk her down the aisle.
She wondered who would.
“Aunty?” Jiao Lan’s quiet voice dispelled the quiet and Gracia looked up, automatically banishing all signs of her dark thoughts from her face, just as she did when her daughter was up and about. Young children didn´t need to be burdened with the worries of adults.
“Why aren’t you sleeping, sweetheart?” she asked, already used to being called aunty by the girl and her brother.
Jiao Lan looked guilty for a moment at being out of bed, but when Gracia smiled in reassurance and patted the couch beside her, the girl quickly came closer and sat beside her.
“I can´t sleep,” the little girl admitted.
Mother instincts taking over, Gracia offered to make some hot chocolate, and the child looked up hopefully. It only took a few minutes for the well practiced woman to provide the promised hot drink and some blankets to snuggle into. Soon enough both of them were settled on the couch, the Xingese child silently drinking the hot chocolate.
“Aunty?” her hesitant voice called out.
It still amazed Gracia how insecure the girl sometimes appeared around older women when she seemed to do just fine with men. If this continued, she would have to speak with Roy about the matter, but right now all she did was send an encouraging smile towards the girl.
“What is it, honey?” she asked when the girl didn´t speak up after a few seconds, but looked rather confused. “Is there something bothering you?”
Jiao Lan nodded slowly.
“Aunty Riza said something I don´t understand,” she admitted, and Gracia waited patiently for the girl to continue. “When Uncle Jean, Breda, and Kain acted so strange about the new year’s kiss, she said that ‘it doesn´t have to be a lover’s kiss’” the girl quoted, and then looked up at Gracia. “What did she mean by that?”
Oh boy. The girl had obviously been paying more attention than they thought she was.
Although she had expected her own daughter to ask such questions sooner or later, Gracia was stuck. She had no idea how to answer, since she had no idea how Roy would prefer his niece got her first insight about different, more mature relationships. Well, there was no helping it. Both she and Roy encouraged curiosity, and now she had to acknowledge it.
But of course the girl would get a suitable, age appropriate answer.
“Well,” Gracia started and mentally thanked Hawkeye for her relatively harmless choice of words. She shuddered at the thought of how Ed, Havoc, or Breda could have phrased the same concept. After thinking about it for a few seconds, she decided that the best course might be to start on the unfamiliar word itself. “A lover is someone very special.” Then, seeing the confused look Jiao Lan sent her way, she added, “I´m not saying friends and family are not special, honey. Each person is in their own way. But a lover is someone you share a very special bond with. Someone you plan to marry one day, and who you want to make happy, and who makes you happy in return. ‘Lover’ is just an adult name for that person. When it´s a man, he is usually called a ‘boyfriend’, while a woman is called a ‘girlfriend’. And later when lovers are married, they become husband and wife.” She did not want the girl running around asking people about their lovers.
She waited for Jiao Lan to contemplate this. Then the girl slowly nodded again, and Gracia dreaded the question she feared was coming next.
Roy’s niece did not disappoint and promptly asked, “And a lover’s kiss is different? How?”
Knowing how curious the girl could be, Gracia hadn’t really expected to satisfy her with easy answers. Still, this was one situation in which Gracia didn´t enjoy being right.
“Uhm….” The woman blushed a bit. No way was she going to explain sexuality to a child this young. She would have to relate it to something the child was familiar with. “When you have someone who´s dear to you, you like to hug them, don´t you?” Looking at the girl, she waited for the nod before she continued. “And you give your friends kisses on the cheek on new year so you will stay good friends. But I´m sure you also like to kiss them when you see them, as a greeting, or when you feel like it, don´t you?”
Again, the girl nodded, then added, “But Ze Ren always says, kisses are ‘ew’.” She pouted. “He doesn´t like them.”
Now the housewife had to bite her lip to not laugh out loud. “I´m sure he likes them too, but just doesn´t want to say so. It´s something boys do sometimes,” she assured the girl, who frowned and then shrugged.
“What about a lover’s kiss?” Clearly, the child was getting impatient.
“Hush, I´m getting to that.” Gracia said when Jiao Lan started to fidget in her seat. “When you have a lover, you really like to kiss them, and you have your own special way to do that.” She hesitated for a moment but then decided it wouldn´t hurt to add a bit more of an explanation. “That´s why Uncle Jean and the rest of the men acted so strangely. Because that kind of kiss is only for your special one, so it wouldn´t be right to share it with someone else.” No way was Gracia going to explain sexual preferences to Jiao Lan at this age.
Thankfully, the girl´s face lit up in understanding.
“Oh!” she said, and Gracia smiled satisfied.
Until the frown reappeared on Jiao Lan’s forehead.
“What kind of kiss is that special kiss?” Roy’s niece wanted to know, and Gracia felt the urge make a very un-ladylike noise.
“Well…” She took a deep breath. “When you have a lover, you can also kiss them on the cheek like you do with your friends, but often, you will kiss them on the mouth.” Or other places. Not something a child needed to know. The housewife could feel her face heat up again. It really had been quite some time since a man shared her bed. Gracia mentally scolded herself for letting her mind slip into the gutter, and silently watched as the girl next to her thought about what she had said.
“So, you kiss them on the mouth when you feel they are the special one?” Jiao Lan asked again.
Hopefully, Mustang had not been foolish enough to kiss various women in front of his niece. If he had, he was going to regret it dearly. Still, Gracia went for the safe answer.
“Usually, yes. And when you have a partner, you like to kiss them more than just once. You do it again and again,” Gracia added in case Roy had in fact been careless in his niece’s presence. That hopefully ruled out all thoughts of Mustang’s possible flings being ‘the special one’, though she seriously doubted the man would be careless enough to carry on that way in front of the children. “But it´s not only kisses. You treat a lover differently too, to show them how much you like them.”
Gracia was quite certain that the girl was satisfied with this answer, until Jiao Lan piped up with another question.
“So, when you like someone very much and you think they are the special one, you kiss them very often on the mouth.”
Gracia was a patient woman, so she nodded and smiled.
“And that’s the one who makes you happy, and who you make happy,” Jiao Lan concluded. Then the girl looked at Gracia, and there were still questions visible in those dark eyes.
“It´s just one person?” The girl asked. “That special one?”
Now the woman was getting uncomfortable. Her mind ran over all the questions Jiao Lan could ask. Did the girl wonder about Gracia? Why she was alone? What had happened to her husband? Then she mentally scolded herself. That was ridiculous. There was no reason for Jiao Lan to ask this. She knew that Elicia’s father was in heaven with Jiao Lan’s mommy, so there was no reason for her to link this to the current discussion.
Then another thought dawned on her, but once again, Gracia reminded herself of the situation. Surely Roy would not be foolish enough to bring various lovers over to his house. When they had talked the other day, he unequivocally stated that he had no intention of doing so. Sure, he was an active, healthy man with active, healthy appetites, but as far as Gracia knew, he didn´t act on them in front of the children. He probably visited his lady friends at their own places when his niece and nephew were staying with Gracia. Of course she didn´t know for sure, but the thought hit pretty close to home. Would Roy leave the restaurant this evening with a woman he met there?
Jiao Lan’s voice brought the lonely woman back to reality, and with a slight pang of guilt she realized that she had no right to question Roy on this matter. The children were not affected by this part of his life, and it was none of Gracia’s concern.
“Yes, usually it´s just one person.” The smile she offered the girl was a bit forced when she thought about her absent husband, and the years she spent as a single mother. “Sometimes, if you are very lucky, you’ll find more than one partner to share in your life. But that doesn´t happen often, since finding someone like that is really, really rare and special.” Thinking back, Gracia remembered that fateful day her husband had left for work. The atmosphere had been tense for weeks. Maes had known that what he was doing was dangerous, but he still had left, to do what he had to do. And she had let him go. “So someday, when you meet your special one, make sure you do everything you can to keep them safe, so that they will be with you always,” she added.
Maybe it wasn´t completely appropriate to say something like this to a child, but without hesitation Gracia would tell her own daughter the same thing. She couldn´t bear the thought her sweet girl standing in front of grave, another widow with a fatherless child, if saying something now might prevent it.
Jiao Lan looked at her, eyes big and wide at the woman’s serious tone. Then she looked down into her half filled mug of lukewarm chocolate, her mind full of what she had seen when she turned from the midnight fireworks toward her uncle.
They were going to be very late. And Winry’s sense of style was the reason.
The flustered automail mechanic just couldn’t decide on a satisfactory outfit for their midnight dinner with friends. When Ed urged her to just throw on something comfortable, she’d looked at him like he’d grown a second head, and proceeded to explain that it wasn’t every day she got to go out on the town, and she planned to take full advantage of it. She had tried on just about everything she’d brought with her to Central, but wasn’t satisfied with her choice of clothes no matter how much her two friends reassured her that she looked fine. Even Al was unable to convince the girl that she looked good, and Ed’s opinion definitely didn’t count since it was obvious he’d say anything if it meant getting to the restaurant – and the food – as quickly as possible.
As a last resort, Al had gone to fetch Havoc in to offer his opinion of Winry’s latest ensemble. Given the Second Lieutenant’s track record with women, Ed didn’t hold out much hope for their making it to the restaurant anytime soon, but it was worth a shot. Al soon returned with the older blond, and both Ed and Al quickly whispered that whatever he had to say, it had better be good.
Winry finally ventured into the living room in her current fashion selection.
It was obvious that Havoc obviously had no idea what to say, so he settled for staring at her. The mechanic arched up an eyebrow, and Ed held his breath.
“Uhm….” was all Havoc had to say. Ed was just calculating exactly how low the probability of their getting fed before next Silvester was, when Havoc added a low whistle. “Wow,” the Lieutenant finally got out.
Ed felt like groaning. He could see Al attempting to stifle a similar sound. That had to be the dumbest thing Havoc could possibly have said. At this rate, the sun would be coming up by the time they -
Winry blushed and smiled, pleased. Turning towards the Elrics, she sent them are ‘See? That´s how you do it right’ look and moved toward the door to pick up her jacket.
Both brothers looked at each other, clearly questioning the woman’s mental state.
“That’s all she wanted to hear?” Ed hissed quietly. It would have taken him millennia to guess that.
Al shrugged, clearly just as clueless as his older brother, but Havoc chuckled. When he received glares from both the younger men, he quickly lifted his hands defensively.
“Hey, after enough failed dates, you learn what to say and what not to say!” he defended himself.
That actually made sense.
Discussion over. Edward was just grateful that they were finally on their way, and that Winry hadn’t brought more clothing with her, not for the lack of trying. Sometimes physics proved to be a very good friend. There was simply no way for a simple suitcase to contain more than its natural capacity.
The Pearl Liang’s atmosphere was comfortable and enjoyable. Leaning back into his seat, Ed hummed as he took a sip of the plum wine they had ordered. Next to him, even Falman appeared relaxed. One seat further down, Winry was having a very lively conversation with Hawkeye about something only women understood. The usually stoic Lieutenant had left her professionalism in the office and was not only dressed casually, but also visibly enjoying whatever she and Winry were discussing.
Sitting next to Hawkeye, Breda and Havoc had finally stopped tormenting Fuery, only because their victim was nearly passed out. The constant teasing had prompted the timid sergeant to drink a lot more than he might have planned. Currently, he was leaning against the seats cushions with closed eyes. For a moment Ed wondered if he had finally fallen asleep, but then his bleary brown eyes opened. Immediately, with no small amount of glee, his colleagues handed him another glass of wine, which the young sergeant stared at before carefully taking a sip. Carefully, because it appeared that he was having some difficulty finding his mouth. Ed was quite frankly surprised he had not yet spilled any of his drinks.
On Fuery’s other side sat Danny Brosh, who was quite helpful in keeping him propped up. While not part of Mustang’s team, Ed had been pleasantly surprised to find him and Maria Ross waiting at the restaurant for them. Between the two partners, Al was seated. The younger Elric was quietly talking to Ross while both of them occasionally cast covert glances around the table. Then, between Ross and Falman, was the one person whose gaze Ed found himself avoiding whenever he caught himself staring.
He was unbelievably relieved at the seating arrangements. Maria Ross was effectively, though unwittingly, preventing Al from talking privately to Mustang, for which Edward was grateful. He definitely did not want to know what might come out of that particular discussion. Edward himself was saved from having to interact with Mustang by Falman, who was only too happy to keep a polite and inconsequential conversation up with his commanding officer.
But as the evening slipped away, Edward knew his respite would not last much longer. Winry and Hawkeye were in their own little world. Fuery was too wasted to talk, and Breda and Havoc too occupied with making it worse. Denny was pretty much out of range on the other side of the table, and leaning in to talk to Al or Maria meant giving Mustang the opportunity to include himself into that discussion.
That left two discussions Ed did not want to join.
So he took another sip of the wine and indulged himself with some of the snacks the wait staff occasionally replenished for them.
He almost jumped when beside him, Falman rose to his feet and excused himself. Leaving the space between Edward and Mustang empty. Instantly, the Bastard slid over.
Damn. For a moment, the blond alchemist wondered if Mustang had ordered his subordinate to leave, but he could hardly blame Falman for needing to piss. Probably. Although…
“You´re not drunk, are you?” The older alchemist quietly asked as he leaned down so Ed would hear him. The blond looked down at his wine glass and contemplated just acting drunk.
Then he sighed. That wouldn’t help the situation at all.
“No,” he answered, and found himself wondering if that would have been a better course of action than staying sober.
His caught sight of Fuery trying to place his own index finger on the tip of his nose and failing miserable.
“Good,” Mustang said, and the man’s slender fingers slipped around Ed’s arm. “We need to talk.”
He pulled Edward up, and the blond barely caught himself before he started to loudly protest the treatment. Attention was exactly what they didn’t need for this discussion. Ed quickly placed his glass on the table before he was dragged away, outside into the cold night air.
One more chapter and then this part of the ‘verse is finished ^^ But since it will have to wait till January at least, I wish all of you a happy New Year! ^^