It was said, sometimes, that the best men never lived to tell their tales, but had them recited within novels, and in the memories stored inside of every heart that they had touched throughout their years. It was also said that while his body might perish, the good a man had done would never truly die, but would rather exist in the frames between seconds, in slivers of being, in smiles and laughs and pictures, in medals resting upon counters and gleaming here and there when kissed by light. A good man would have a thousand stories of valor to recount, but a great man would have none; instead, others would tell them, murmuring to one another while the subject of their discourse rested cool within the ground.
Her tears had dried to salt months before. The first days of spring had come and gone, rolling past on eddies of air, and with them had drifted seeds and pockets of scattered warmth. There were flowers blooming in Gracia's garden, heads of daisies and hyacinths pushing up through the tough, rain-starved soil, and the hours of sunlight were lengthening like the yawns of a creature growing steadily more tired. By then, noon had passed, and the lackadaisical moments following seemed to fashion a gilded world in which the sun painted everything golden and the medals and other assorted minutiae within the house took on a new weight, a gravity of glinting life and substance that the darkness of winter could never quite capture.
When Winry visited the new house of Gracia Hughes during the spring, she felt as though she were walking throughout a microcosm of collected moments, visions hanging eternally outside of time and mind. The desks and tables were covered with pictures and various little objects, as well as Elysia's toys. Each piece of paraphernalia was something to Winry, a resonance in its own right, a story detailing some part of how Maes Hughes had lived and loved. The girl wondered, occasionally, how Gracia managed to live in such a haunted world, but when she had once been bold enough to ask, the woman had merely smiled sadly and replied, "You learn to love the spirits. He's not with us, not wholly...but his smile is in every picture, and his uniforms are still hanging in the closet. You can either cry forever...or you can begin to smile back."
Grief, and healing. Winry knew Gracia's sorrow-tinged eyes had voiced a sentiment that her lips had failed to echo, possibly for fear of its bluntness: make peace with your own losses.
I have, she wanted to say, and thought she should have said in retrospect.
Gracia had left to purchase groceries, entrusting Elysia to the care of Winry for the day. The little girl lay sprawled out on the floor, sketching pictures with brightly coloured ink, tracing looping figure-eights all over the white paper, and Winry sat on the couch, hands folded in her lap, echoes of life residing all around her. Elysia hummed, brokenly and without a noticeable tune, and Winry found herself thinking that if he had been here, then he would have proclaimed her a star singer, "for sure"...but he was not here, and the girl Elysia had proudly dubbed her "older sister" could think of nothing to say, so she sat in silence, feeling like the most dead thing in the lively house. It was a feeling which didn't lend itself well to the sunshine and the serenity of the vernal world, so after a time she arose and excused herself for a moment, hoping that stepping outside might give her a chance to breathe without the boulders of memories crushing her lungs and suffocating her thoughts. On the way out, she paused to run her fingers through Elysia's fluffy tufts of dark blonde hair, and when the girl giggled encouragingly, Winry held her close in a brief hug.
Once outside, Winry glanced back, making sure not to go so far as to be unable to keep an eye on the child. She stood on the porch, adjusting and tightening her high ponytail. A thin film of perspiration coated her face and shoulders, but being an automail mechanic, she was accustomed to dealing with the heat. Old boards creaked beneath her sandaled feet, and the rickety screen door thumped nonchalantly once she had released it; hinges and wood bounced to form the heartbeat of the coming summer. Winry strode forward to the front of the porch and discarded her sandals, effortlessly kicking them off before resting her elbows on the wooden border enclosing her surroundings.
The relaxing ambience of the day caused the girl's chin to incline downwards as she took a moment to bury her face in the space formed by her arms; if it hadn't been for Elysia, Winry might have allowed herself a little sleep, but the child needed to be looked after, even if she was remarkably well-behaved. The spring atmosphere distilled all life, and the world became a water colour painting of bright, glossy, flat hues. If anything was lively, it was the breezes which rustled the leaves intermittently, combining with the shadows to add just enough chill to keep Winry from nodding off entirely.
When she noticed movement nearby, she assumed that some birds had gathered for a feast, and to that end, she did not look up. It was only when Winry heard the sound of someone clearing his throat that her attention was snapped out of the surreality of her mood; instantly, she raised her head, gazing in the direction of Gracia's garden and blinking incredulously. Her elbows lifted from the porch border; she quickly replaced them with her anxious, tapping fingertips.
"Who's there?" she asked without meaning to, but really, she should have known. Maes Hughes had befriended a lot of men, but who would've been most likely to visit him or his widow? Winry swallowed and wiped the sweat from her neck and face, suddenly self-conscious of her presentability. Her years as an automail mechanic had taught her that adults were often customers, and as her grandmother would have been the first to say, one couldn't be a slob in front of customers. Once her compulsive instinct had passed, Winry padded over to the steps and walked down them, again glancing back at Elysia, who now seemed to be napping blissfully on the carpeted floor.
Roy Mustang did not answer her question. At first, he did not even look up. He stood at the far end of the garden, mostly obscured by the massive holly bushes, single eye lowered and thoughtful, and his hands were fisted into the pockets of his dark pants. It was still strange to see the man out of uniform, looking comfortable and cool in his breezy white shirt, dark hair artfully mussed. He appeared so much less formal when freed of the navy blue outfit which tinted his shadowy eye. Now, his shoulders were no longer as stiff and rigid looking; instead, they slumped casually as he regarded the "For Sale" sign: crass smears of splotchy red ink on chipped white wood; really, why hadn't someone taken the thing away already? The house had long since been bought and paid for...
"Maes always did want to move out to the country again," said the man, not looking up. "Away from the hustle and bustle of Central. Away from noisy streets and city life. He said that after the war had ended, he would hang up his uniform for good and take Gracia and Elysia out to some rural place." A dark eye rose as he turned to look at Winry. "I imagine he had somewhere like this in mind. He would have liked it here."
Winry nodded. Sheaves of untidy blonde hair brushed her face. "I know he would have."
She couldn't quite bring herself to look the man in the eye. No hostility remained in her heart; time had faded it to nothingness, but she still felt awkward being around this man when no one else was present. Riza and Gracia were comforting feminine presences, lacquer to coat and placate social situations, but stereotypical though it may have been, a part of Winry's mind neatly categorized girls as "friends", boys as "friends who sometimes imitate mules and apes, and who must therefore be accordingly chastised with wrenches", women as "mother figures", and men as either "father figures" or "enigmas". Hughes had been the former. Mustang was the latter.
"It's still strange for me to think of him as gone." He reached up and pushed a spray of dark hair away from his face, pausing to lightly swipe a fingertip across the bone next to his missing eye. He must be hurting far more than he lets on, Winry thought, suppressing a sympathetic wince. In this case, his hurt was twofold: a pain in the nerves and a pain in the intangible parts of his being. Winry knew from personal experience that the second sort of pain could never fully heal.
"And for that matter, it's still strange to consider how times have changed. The war reached an apex and ended. A tyrant fell. The country is now being ruled by a group of people instead of a single leader...and I'm not sure where to go from here." He laughed. "You might say that, anyway. Not that I'm really complaining. It's probably better this way. It'll be a fresh start, after all. I always did love the light, the attention...I wasn't so unlike your Fullmetal, once. But those days are gone, as is my youth."
Winry pushed her own insecurities aside and looked at her unexpected companion, facing him while forcing boldness into her bright blue eyes. "So what are you going to do now?" she asked, quietly.
"Who knows?" He shrugged. "Maybe irony will get the better of me and I'll end up living out my friend's dream." For the first time, he really seemed to look at her, as though they were on the same level and seeing the same sights. "He helped me to the top, and now I'm the only one around to enjoy his hopes. Maybe I'll spend the rest of my life here, with the trees and the sunshine and the quietness." A heavy pause followed. "Maybe I'll finally do away with that damned uniform."
Winry knew the implication, even though he was kind enough not to remark upon it. "You learn to love the spirits," Gracia had said. "You can either cry forever...or..." She shook her head, and the ponytail swished against her neck. "I...know how you feel." It was so hard to say the words, to drive the strangling lump from her throat. It would have been easier to hide in silence, to let the stiff moment pass and be swallowed by the flow of time, but this man's grief was shared by her, and Hughes had loved them both. It was only fair of her to reach out, to commiserate, to fight her own demons and put the ashes of the past to rest beneath a melancholic unity.
Roy had killed her parents, and once, that would have made him a monster...but monsters were for children lying in their beds, not for a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood.
"I know how you feel. Sometimes I can barely even remember my parents' faces..." She reached up, touching her own visage, pushing her fingers in and making soft indents as though her flesh had become putty. The skin was hot, like the blood beneath it; her blurry eyes simmered with tears. "...but I miss them so much. The stories, the laughter, the touches...everything I see in the pictures, the images, but I miss the other things which filled out those frames." She guessed the subject was a volatile one for both of them, but the words needed to be said. "I guess that's what mourning is all about, though, isn't it? Being sad about what's happened, but also accepting it and learning from it for the future, and holding onto whatever memories you have."
He smiled tiredly. "I thought I had finished with the mourning."
So did I, she wanted to admit.
"I don't know that a person can ever fully finish...not when the memories are everywhere. Not when the people you love are still smiling back at you." The tears trailed down her cheeks, one after the next, but her white grin held tight while each salty droplet rolled down the curve of her chin. "And Mr. Hughes did love holding all those smiles forever, didn't he?"
"I'm sorry, you know."
"Huh?" She knuckled her eyes fiercely, trying not to make such a scene in front of someone who was still an acquaintance at best. "What—?"
"I'm sorry for what I did while in Ishbal. I'm sure you know that; I'm sure I've said it to you before. But I think I ought to say it again. A man can do terrible things in the name of his uniform—his leader, his service, his country. Then he spends the rest of his life going crazy or chasing penance. Maes never wanted to go to war, to die young, and he never thought himself the sort to be a hero, not really...but he was buried with honours and medals. He even passed me in rank on the way."
He looked away; Winry watched him to run his fingers through his hair as though he had been wearing a hat recently. The small actions of his fingers made him look agitated, but his tone was steady, and he sounded calm.
"I put on that blue suit because I wanted to do something right. In the end, I did, and I guess that's what I should focus on. Nevertheless...it's important that you know the extent of my penitence."
"I know," she affirmed, wiping her cheeks. As much as I can ever know. I can't ever completely understand...but... "I do know, and I'm thankful." She wanted to say more. You had difficult decisions to make. You couldn't have possibly done everything right. No one's perfect. So much to go through... but the words never came, though her mouth did open to gum soundless syllables, and not once did she sob aloud. Why? she wondered. Why was her throat so dry, so parched? Was it merely the heat? Why was it that she could shake with the urge to speak, but her voice dissipated into some pathetic echo? So young, she thought to herself. So young, and still so foolish, and utterly incapable of appreciating the horrors of the world.
Maybe she would never make her own personal peace...but people like Maes Hughes and Roy Mustang—and Edward, as well—had achieved something greater: a peace for all. In the face of such an accomplishment, Winry felt so impossibly youthful and banausic as to be stricken into awed silence.
The world was not black and white, good and evil. An infinite array of colours birthed everything and gave it an even more infinite array of life, and Winry felt as though the metaphorical wool had been plucked away from her eyes, increasing her scope of vision exponentially, but the years-long transition from childhood to a budding adulthood had left her feeling strange, like a person awakening from a stupor. If she had missed so much previously, then what more might she be missing with every day that passed?
"Say hello to Gracia for me when she gets home."
Winry looked up, catching sight of the back of her companion's head as he turned to leave.
She wanted to say something. Anything. A "goodbye", or a "thank you", or just a "have a good day," but even in the sweltering heat (or maybe because of it), her words were frozen—all sounds like blunted chips of ice filling her throat, and seemingly in an instant, Roy was gone. The afternoon thrummed with bees, buzzing in a makeshift heartbeat that would last until twilight replaced it with the hovering flickers of fireflies.
A breeze chilled the sweat which had covered Winry's face, threatening to blow the last remnants of her tears away, and before she knew what she was doing, she was running through the yard, hair coming undone, air cool on her skin, dirt filling the grooves between her toes. Then, she was beneath the shade of the porch; she stopped to grab her sandals, but she did not pause long enough to let the blur solidify into something meaningful. Instead, she kicked the soil from her shoes, slowing her pace so as to lope across the carpet, and within minutes, she was at the closet, opening it, gently tugging the uniform that lay within, tracing the weave with her fingernails. She would have pulled it out completely, would have rubbed the fabric against her cheek, but she didn't want add wrinkles, nor darken the blue expanse with the slickness upon her face.
"Thank you," she murmured, regaining her words at last. The first sob finally broke free of her trachea. She held the clothing as though it were a security blanket she had treasured as a child, sobbing quietly and hoping she didn't wake Elysia. One thank you given to the darkness, and unheard by all ears: gratitude for freedom, gratitude for teaching, gratitude for so many intangible discoveries which had come together as the impeccable mosaic of a single mind.
An adult mind.
Hands trembling, she released the uniform and closed the door, mouthing the two tiny words again and again. After a time, the shivers met a cessation, and Winry smiled fondly, aware that the knowledge she had gained over the years would give her the strength to do so again and again.
A body could go, but the clothing that had once adorned it would remain, telling stories of the life it had witnessed—whether one of a soldier...or one of a doctor. At the end of the day, it was more than mere stitches; it signified an occupation, a way of life, and sometimes a cause of death...or a cause worth dying for.