It must have been the sunset reflecting off of Alphonse Elric's metal surface; armor could not actually blush. But as one blonde eyebrow climbed on her normally impassive features, Lieutenant Hawkeye could have sworn that the face on the hulking figure beside her was a bit redder than usual around the cheekbones.
Well; if he had had cheekbones, that is...
"A present? Ah. And she will be turning—?"
Armor did not squirm either, any more than it blushed. Probably... well, possibly not. "Sixteen. So I, um, really wanted to get her something sort of special, you know... since she's done so much for u-us and... It's just that I've, well, Ed and I – we haven't bought many presents for people since – in a long time, anyway..." Al's slightly hollow voice positively echoed with embarrassment but he bravely soldiered on; and Hawkeye had to suppress a smile at the careful 'us' in the previous sentence.
"...and, uh, anyway... what do most sixteen-year-old girls want?"
Roy Mustang's Second considered replying with 'Boys, usually', but she did not normally regard herself as an unnecessarily cruel person. "Hm." She took a sip from her cup of coffee, setting the cup back on the table and tapping at the handle with one nail; it made a faint ringing sound. "Sixteen is a very important age; I must commend you on taking such care in picking a present," she said with the slightest of smiles, thinking hard.
Tink tink tink went the fingernail against porcelain; Al fidgeted. "Um. What did you want when you were sixteen?" he ventured nervously.
"A 9-millimeter Barrington Automatic with a custom grip and a tailored holster," Hawkeye responded without hesitation; she blinked. "And perhaps a pony. However, unless Miss Rockbell has changed considerably since I last saw her, that sort of gift might not be appropriate."
The animated suit of armor beside her shuddered in agreement, clanking slightly; a loose screw rattled in one shoulder. "She does enough damage without giving her firearms."
They were sitting at a small cafe inside the bounds of Central City's military complex of buildings, one that was fairly used to seeing the Elric brothers at one time or another during the week. It was close to the library, the food was decent if you didn't mind plain faire, and (being also right next to one of the alchemy students' practice areas) the sight of a hulking figure in full plate mail was hardly enough to make the counter-help bat an eye. Most of the day's customers had either gone home or had not yet straggled out for dinner – the place was popular with those who did not want to settle for the base cafeteria's policy of 'what you don't know probably won't kill you' – and for the most part the cafe was deserted.
Two cups of coffee steamed on the table; idly Lieutenant Hawkeye wondered just how many undrunk cups had cooled in front of Al's silent figure over the years (it seemed wasteful, but he had bought the coffee himself and she assumed that his cup was there simply to keep her own beverage company). Shrugging slightly, she steered her attention back to the topic at hand. "A present... Has she ever mentioned anything in specific that she might like? Something that appeals to her particular tastes?"
The table creaked as Al leaned forward carefully on one elbow; she could almost see him frown. "Well... When she was nine, she tried to get her grandmother to outfit her with a pair of automail wings, but I don't think that's exactly what you mean, is it?" His voice was rather shy, and Hawkeye contemplated her memories of being sixteen for a second or two. Had she gone through the same awkward stage? Her father had been in the military; her life had revolved around the military ever since she could remember, and at sixteen she had been far more interested in increasing her accuracy on the firing range than in dates, boys and birthday presents.
...which explained a lot, she supposed, about how difficult she was finding it to answer Al's question.
"Al? Perhaps you should ask someone else, someone with a better frame of reference?" Hawkeye felt a trifle guilty. "I'm afraid I'm not much help to you—"
There was a long scrape and a brief flash of metal-on-pavement sparks as the younger of the Elric brothers slowly leaned back, armored feet scraping the flagstones beneath the table. "Who? I figured since you were a gi—um, a woman, you'd be my best bet...?"
Who indeed... ah. Of course. Hawkeye smiled.
"Well, you might consider asking Hughes, Al-kun; after all, he does have a daughter—"
"Flowers," said Hughes that evening with a flourish of hands as if he were about to make a humongous bouquet appear out of nowhere. "Pretty girls LOVE flowers. Don't they, Alicia-chan?" he crooned at the little girl who was currently clambering on Al like a pigtailed mountain goat. "Careful—"
"I won't let her fall," murmured Al from his cross-legged place on the floor, prudently supporting a miniscule foot as it slid down his breastplate; with the ease of long practice, he tilted a bit to keep the Mighty Conqueror of Mount Alphonse from impaling herself on one of his shoulder-spikes. "Do girls really like flowers, Alicia-chan?" he asked as a second foot came to rest on his large hand.
"Dah-da-DAAAAAAAAA!!! Dah-DAA-dah-di-DAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!" Alicia-chan was too busy providing her own soundtrack to reply. Standing with one hand planted proudly atop her conquest's head she struck a suspiciously Roy Mustang-like pose, proud chin in the air and her other hand on her hip. "Cancel all board meetings! Bring me my REPORTS!" she proclaimed to the world at large, and Al fought back a snicker.
Her father looked at her suspiciously. "Sweetheart? Has Uncle Roy been telling you stories again?"
Mount Alphonse's champion snapped her fingers imperiously at her father. "MINISKIRTS!" she announced to all and sundry; Hughes groaned.
"She's always like this after we take her in to see the Colonel," he apologized to his visitor, hauling his offspring down; the four-year-old latched onto her father with all the agility of a spider-monkey and clambered up onto his shoulders. "I had to leave her there for about an hour while I ran down a couple of leads, and, well... 'Licia-chan? Sweety? What do you think Al-kun should get for his girlfriend's birthday?"
It's an interesting fact that a haunted suit of armor can indeed sputter with embarrassment at the word 'girlfriend'; however, Roy Mustang's head of Military Intelligence merely waved off Al's protestations as his daughter clutched his hair and settled comfortably into place. "Well?"
"Ummm... Does she set things on fire too?"
"No, kitten, except for being a mechanic she's mostly normal. So how about flowers?"
Hughs' daughter screwed up her small face in thought, knocking her father's glasses a little askew as she leaned forward to prop her chin on his head. "Flowers are pretty... Do mech'nics like coffee?" Her father looked a little dubious, but she hugged him tightly across the forehead and announced, "You can give her flowers AND coffee, Al-kun. And a miniskirt too... Daddy, what is a miniskirt?"
The Intelligence officer ground his teeth together audibly. "Something you'll never wear, 'Licia-chan, because if you do I'll have to neuter all the teenaged boys in the city. AND Roy Mustang; I'll find enough knives somehow. Honest to God, that's the last time I leave my child unsupervised in the office... The man has no idea how to deal with a little girl's tender, precious intellect—"
"Coffeeeeee! Yay! With sugar in it! One spoon, two spoons, three spoons, four spoons—"
And meanwhile, over the hills and far away...
You know, it sucks to be sixteen. Or almost sixteen, anyway, especially if you don't know what to do about it. Winry Rockbell carefully tightened a side-clamp on her workbench's vice as she tinkered on a bit of automail. And brooded. Lots.
Well, why SHOULDN'T I brood? She swore as her screwdriver slipped a bit and jammed itself into the tender skin of her thumb. "#$%! $#%!ing $%!!"
Her grandmother listened from the doorway, scowled darkly, and shook her head at her grand-daughter's language. "Wrong." She repeated the comments using correct grammar, suggested an alternative pronunciation of one epithet and then shrugged at Winry's hmphed response. "And that last word would sound better if you stretched it out a bit. Young women these days... what are they teaching you in school? You didn't pick up those words from anybody with a decent imagination—"
"Grandmother, they don't teach swearing in school." Irritably the blonde went back to tightening down her screws; the metal pinged beneath her hands in protest.
"I don't know why not; it's not like what they teach is of much use anyway... A good mechanic needs a good vocabulary."
"#$%. $%&&!! #$$."
"Good; that's much more creative. Keep at it." The older woman wiped machine-oil from her hands on her apron, wandering into the room and peering over her grand-daughter's shoulder. "Now what's the problem? And don't say 'Nothing'," she added sharply as the girl opened her mouth with a mulish expression on her face.
"N—Fine, fine. It's just..." Winry hedged, fidgeting with the screwdriver; she shoved a straggle of hair back behind one ear for the umpteenth time that morning and tucked the screwdriver there along with it, swiveling around on the bench to stare at her grandmother with an exasperated sigh. "I don't really KNOW what's wrong, it's just—everything; this place, being stuck here, nobody my age around to talk to—"
"There's the Vincenza's girl from down the valley, I saw you nattering away with her just yesterday; and that little Dorcas from the next vale over, and Bethany and her sister—"
Pinako's grand-daughter's scowl deepened. "All they want to do is talk about boys and what they're wearing to the harvest festival next week and, and stupid things like that. Nobody thinks about anything besides livestock and breeding and who's going out with who, as if there was anyplace around here to go—" Winding down, she bit her lip and flopped dramatically back on her elbows against the table beside the workbench. "I'm... bored. Bored, bored, bored, Grandmother. All we ever see out here are patients who just want us to do their work and get them out of here as fast as possible – grungy old soldiers who either treat me like a little girl or leer at me when I'm working—"
(Her grandmother suppressed a somewhat appreciative grin; she remembered the last 'leering' incident, which had resulted in a torque-wrench being applied in a fashion for which they were not generally designed. It had been quite effective.) "Those 'grungy old soldiers' pay our bills, you know; we can't rely strictly on Ed-kun's lack of a sense of self-preservation to put bread on the table," she suggested mildly. She had something of a clue as to what was bothering her grand-daughter, and if the mention of either of the Elric boys had the expected effect...
Bingo. Winry opened her mouth, shut it, opened it again and sputtered briefly...
"Ed or Al?" inquired her grandmother, not unkindly. "If it's Ed, I'd say he's a bit too focused to be much fun. Al, on the other hand – well, you may have to wait a while, but I'm sure he'll be worth the—"
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Mmhmmmm. Well, in that case, I'm sure you won't want to take some of your usual birthday money and go for a visit to Central, will you?" There, thought the older woman with satisfaction. She had wondered when something like this would pop up. Come on now, Winry-chan; nibble at the bait. If I want great-grandchildren someday I'd better start the ball rolling now or it'll never happen—
The girl turned away angrily, shoving her hair back again; the screwdriver behind her ear tumbled out and headed floorward, only to be snatched up before it ever made it to the tiles (Winry respected tools; it was people that gave her a pain). "Why would I want to visit them anyway?" she muttered. "All they ever do is get into trouble and mess up all my hard work, and they hardly ever write and besides who knows how long he'll be stuck like that..." Her grumbles trailed off into things best left unheard and she hunched over the bit of circuitry she was working on, a cloud of adolescent funk practically visible above her head.
Pinako Rockbell smirked quietly to herself and made her way to her own workbench. That should do the trick, she thought smugly as she picked up a pair of wire-strippers.
Weaponry, flowers, coffee and a miniskirt; just wonderful. And a pony, unless I was hallucinating hearing Lieutenant Hawkeye say that. Asking for advice sounded so reasonable when I thought of it... It was Day Two of the Great Gift Hunt, and Al clanked moodily down the halls leading towards the dorms and his and Ed's room, trying (and failing) not to think of Winry in a miniskirt.
.... Okay, let's think about something else. ANYTHING else. I don't need that sort of thought while I'm still like this. Something might break. He fiddled with the loose screw in his shoulder worriedly.
Great. He was no nearer figuring out a present than before, and her gift had to be off in the mail tomorrow or it wouldn't get there on time. And Brother's not helping much, either. When I asked him what HE thought we should send her, he just looked blank and muttered something about rabies vaccinations. Sometimes I think he needs to get out more.
Stomp, clank, stomp, clank. Sometimes it was useful being a large suit of animated armor—when you were in a bad mood, absolutely nobody got in your way. You could just wallow in depression, glare out at the world through your eyeslots and stalk your way from one black mood into another that was just a bit deeper and darker, and not a living soul would dare to interrupt...
"Ah, there you are, Al-kun. A word with you, if I may?"
...except for Colonel Roy Mustang, of course.
The man had oozed out of the shadows, all starched uniform and smiling black eyes that missed nothing and gave as much back; Al wondered almost superstitiously if the man had some secret trick hidden up his sleeve that allowed for teleportation – you never saw him arrive, he was just there when he wanted to be. "—yes, Colonel?"
Mustang fell into step with him; he slowed down carefully as always, matching his stride to the smaller man's. "I was wondering if you had seen your brother anywhere lately? I believe he has a report due..."
Privately Alphonse Elric thanked the fates that (just this once) his face couldn't give him away. "No... not for a while. He was working on it when I saw him this morning, so maybe he's at the library?" In all actuality this was correct; Ed had been working on his report, if you could call 'thinking out loud about ways to avoid turning it in at all'. "He could be in one of the labs, I guess..."
"Hmm. If Edward-kun put half the effort into his reports as he does into his research, my work would be a trifle less complicated." The colonel shrugged slightly, a small smile on that smug, contained face of his. "I'm not complaining," he assured Al with a wave of one white glove; "I wouldn't dream of interfering with Fullmetal's methods—"
(Right, thought Al, biting his nonmaterial tongue.)
"—especially since they seem to produce such interesting results... Ask him to stop by my office later when you see him though, will you please? I have a few questions to ask regarding as to why the entire township of Theutosburg might wish to want to burn him at the stake; there have been several riots... Ah well; one can't make an omelet without incinerating a few eggs. Thank you." With a nod, the colonel turned to go down one of the hallways leading back towards the major offices. He paused for a second at the turn, however, looking back casually. "Oh, and by the way, Al-kun?"
"Huh? I mean, yes sir?"
"Jewelry's almost always welcome, you know."
??? Al jumped.
As if continuing a previous topic of conversation, Roy Mustang nodded genially. "In my experience it's the rare young lady that dislikes something that glitters or shines." His dark eyes glittered a little wickedly on their own as he regarded the junior Elric sibling. "Something to remind her of you, something she has with her all the time—"
"R-right... It's, uh, from both me and my brother, though—" Erk. How the hell did the man know these things?
"Oh, of course."
Al had the sinking feeling that he wasn't fooling anybody; he had given up some time earlier on fooling himself. He also found himself wondering if soul-transmutation allowed for headaches. "Thanks," he muttered sheepishly.
"Any time, Al-kun." With another little smile, the Flame Alchemist continued on his way, another mission accomplished.
Much thought and quite a few hours later...
...Alphonse Elric was getting desperate. They had to get something off in the mail on the following day or they were BOTH screwed, and not in an automail or armorial way. Winry had a nasty streak in her when she was disappointed.
And besides, he really did want to send her something nice—
—despite a certain lack of ANY HELP WHATSOEVER FROM HIS BROTHER...
Al was beginning to wonder rather wistfully what it was like to be an only child. Not that he wanted to be an only child, of course, he wouldn't trade Brother for anything in the world, but—
"...'and draw it thus, as a triple-circle array of sixteen points diverging therewith in the...' Who the hell came up with this piece of... and the stupid things not even diagrammed, just described..." Edward Elric had always had a bad habit of reading out loud when a particular paragraph wasn't making sense. Considering the pile of moldy texts that he had managed to dredge up from one of the First Library's more obscure storage rooms, this was no big surprise; some of them had thriving silverfish-farms going on inside their tattered bindings and Al was certain that at least at one point he had heard faint chittering noises coming from one of them. Could books have mice?
"... frigging idiots and their 'states of matter'... Pythagorean... How the #$%! could alchemical base-metal levels relate to musical theory?" SLAM! went a book-cover. Something squeaked faintly and made rustling sounds as it scurried for cover.
"Mmm?" Ed grabbed another tome, flipping it open until he reached a bookmarked area. "'Huh; this might be promising... 'and the third Stone is called Lapis Animalis. This Stone is the true Aurum Potable, the true Quintessence which we seek, and no other thing else in this world but this Stone'... What the hell was Hollandus smoking when he wrote this?—-What?"
Alphonse shifted a little. He couldn't properly lay back with his hands clasped behind his head, so he had to make do by fashioning a sort of massive backrest of pillows in the join of his bed and the wall. "Brother, did you think any more about what we should send to Winry for her birthday?"
Ed had his feet propped on a stack of books by now, holding his current volume-of-choice over his head and scowling up at it. "Huh? Uhh... Nmph... 'and when your red Powder is fluxed, pour it into the Mould, it will be a precious Stone, red as a Ruby, clear and transparent...' This guy was on drugs, that's all there was to it; must've been the Mercury fumes..." He turned a page.
If Al could have rolled his eyes, he would have. Not that he objected to Ed's hard work – far from it – but the word 'obsessed' had been invented with his brother in mind. He mulled over the advice that Roy Mustang had given him earlier; for some reason it was bothering him. "'Something that shines; something that she has with her all the time'..."
"Sounds like her wrench," mumbled Ed distractedly as book-dust fell onto his face. He turned another page.
"You know, that battered old wrench she's had since she was a baby. The one she sleeps with."
Al blinked. ???
"Well, it's shiny and she keeps it with her all the time..."
The lights that made up Alphonse Elric's eyes brightened slowly. He sat up with a clank. "—Brother? Do you think you could help me with something?"
"....'coagulates forthwith the Stone'..... Mmph? Sure; what?"
Al tugged at one of the heavy leather gloves that covered the metal structure of his large hands; the plate-mail pieces gleamed dully in the room's dim light. "How hard would it be to transmute the tip of one of my fingers into an engraver's chisel?"
His brother's dusty face looked slightly baffled. "Easy; why?"
"I have an idea..." His other hand reached up to fiddle with the loose screw in his shoulder again; inside, Al was beginning to smile a slow, shy smile. And for once he was glad he couldn't blush.
"Okay, Winry-kun, sign right here – Oh, and happy birthday – Here's your package."
It was two days later that the small, heavy parcel arrived at the Rockbell residence. Winry stood on her porch, frowning at the scrawled return address (calling it 'chickenscratch' would have been a compliment to the writer and a grave insult to all chickens). "About time," she muttered; behind her Pinako surveyed her grand-daughter's expectant posture with an amused little smirk.
"Why don't you open it?" The older woman moved around the room, clearing away crumb-strewn plates and gathering dirty glasses. The party had been small and lively, but Winry's face had occasionally turned a little wistful as she glanced towards the doorway for two guests that undoubtedly would not show up. "It's from Ed and Al, isn't it? I still think you should go see them—"
Ripping noises and a busy I'm-ignoring-you silence were her answer; she chuckled and reached for a broom. "After all, you still haven't said what you're going to do with this year's birthday-money. Why not? You could go shopping for some new tools... Come to think of it, we could use a new set of—"
An indrawn breath halted her sentence; Pinako stopped sweeping. "Winry? What's wrong?"
"N-nothing..." The girl's voice was a little muffled, and she stayed turned away from her grandmother, her hands full of something clutched tight. After a long moment she spoke: "Grandmother? Would you really not mind it if I went to—to Central City? I mean, not exactly to see them or anything, just... Would it really be okay?"
Now what on earth did they send her? Pinako Rockbell blinked, curiosity stirring. "Of course not, girl. You can go down and buy your ticket in the morning if you'd like."
"Okay..." Slipping past her grandmother quickly, too quickly for the woman to see what she held, the young mechanic headed for the stairs and her room. "I, um, I'll just go pack now..."
"Winry? What did they send you?" her grandmother called after her as she ran up the steps.
"Just a new wrench..."
The elderly woman stared at her grand-daughter's closed door. "Must've been a really nice wrench..." She returned to her sweeping, wondering vaguely whether her future great-grandchildren would have gold eyes or blue-grey ones.
Much, much later that night, Winry Rockbell lay sleeping. The moonlight touched her quiet face with gentle fingers, stroking away the stresses that turning sixteen had added to her day. Turning on her side, the girl muttered something incoherently and clutched her particular version of a teddy-bear tightly to her body in her sleep.
The moonlight flickered through the room, glinting off the handle of the packed suitcase beside the door, ready to go as soon as the sun rose. It picked up silver-gilt highlights in the girls hair, ran faint shadows from the thin curtains across the floor and reflected back in mirror-brightness from the shiny new wrench she held in her hands.
It was of excellent make, that wrench; manufactured by the top custom toolmaker's shop in Central City and undoubtedly a fine piece of work. But its maker hadn't been the one to add the carefully-engraved rose that twined around the inscription running the length of its span:
'To Winry Rockbell on her 16th Birthday from Edward and Alphonse Elric as a token of our friendship. Some things can never be broken.'
The maker hadn't added the single metal bolt that centered the wrench, either. It was of a darker, cruder alloy than the tool itself, carefully filed down flat so that it wouldn't obstruct the graceful flow of steel. With the easy familiarity of a true mechanic, Winry had recognized the bolt; hadn't she seen it enough times on Al's shoulder while he sat watching her as she worked on his brother's arm?
'...as a token of our friendship.'
The girl turned over again, smiling in her sleep as she clutched the wrench even tighter. It had been hard for her to get to sleep that night; she was really looking forward to her trip to Central in the morning.
'Some things can never be broken.'
There were people she needed to see.