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tobu ishi

Jaybird


There are distinct problems involved in the return of someone you haven't seen since you were both children.

There are, of course, the obvious ones, such as resentment for having stayed away so long, and anger at the way he'd taken your piece de resistance and gotten it shattered to bits, and the small bitter disappointment of cracking an old private joke only to be met with a blank stare, and realizing that he's forgotten all about it.

But there are also the more unexpected ones, such as—for example—the matter of privacy. In her own defense, she honestly hadn't meant anything by it. When last he and his brother had stayed here, there had been bloody stumps to tend, and nerves to tweezer out and staple one by one into a network of fine silver wires, and little opportunity for luxuries like privacy between you and a boy who couldn't trim his own nails or his hair or pour himself the last of the tea without the teapot lid falling off and spilling the copper-brown liquid all over the bed.

After this unexpected return, she'd half-slipped into the old routine, which included checking up on him to see if he was all right before she went to bed. Unfortunately, he had gotten into new habits during the years of travel, and one of them included a bath before bed, in the quiet moments just before sunset when Al usually went out to watch the colors settle over the horizon, drinking deeply of sight and sound with the last senses he possessed.

Thus it was that Winry slipped through the door into the dimly lit room as quietly as a whisper, in case the room's occupant was already asleep after his long journey, only to freeze in her tracks as she got a good look around and noticed that Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist, was standing in the middle of the room with his back to her, his golden hair cascading loose and dripping-wet over his shoulders.

And that he was completely, spectacularly naked.

Etiquette doesn't quite cover situations like this one. Higher brain functions, which might have helped with the question of what to do, were scattered like bowling pins in that first shocked instant. More instinctual urges took advantage of that breach in defenses to send her eyes wandering over curves of warm skin and the smooth shift and pull of muscle beneath. A few rays of sunset light had slipped through the closed curtains, illuminating the softly curved line of his neck, sculpted shoulders and back and—

Short-be-damned, this was not the skinny boy who'd left home years before.

-and a strangled "meep" squeezed its way out of her throat. He flinched and half-turned, and spotted her standing petrified in the doorway. Ed's yell of surprise and horror finally freed an embarrassed shriek from Winry's mouth. He dove swiftly for the towel hanging over the back of the chair, nearly knocking his pan of bathwater all over the floor.

The argument that followed, hissed furiously under their breaths and growing steadily in volume as he cinched the towel tightly around his waist, was spectacular enough to rival her welcome earlier that day.

"What the hell are you doing here?!"

"Coming to check on you, idiot, how was I supposed to know you were prancing around naked as a jaybird?!"

"I do not prance! I was taking a bath!"

"In your ROOM?!"

"I'M USED TO BATHING IN MY ROOM!!"

"WELL I'M NOT USED TO NAKED PEOPLE IN MY HOUSE! ESPECIALLY YOU!!"

This was not entirely true. When they were small children, Pinako or Trisha had sometimes bathed them together; but there was a distinct difference between sharing a bathtub with scowling skinny three-year-old Ed with soapsuds in his hair, and sharing one with—with—wow. There went her train of thought.

Outside the door, Al and Pinako waited in the hall for the storm to subside. It ended with a red-faced and huffy Winry slamming the door behind her and stomping away, ignoring grandmother and friend's startled and amused faces, as a red-faced and huffy Edward slumped onto his bed and ran through his full vocabulary of poisonous epithets under his breath.

The next day, Ed thought to beat the system by going outside to use the shower spigot on the back wall of the house, usually reserved for hosing down equipment and occasionally the dog, while Winry was inside working on automail. He would have done better to stick with Plan A; she remembered that it wasn't a good idea to barge into Ed's room now, but had no qualms about taking a brief break from work to play in the yard with Den.

The dog bounded happily across the yard the minute the door opened. The girl got about two steps outside before she looked to see whom her pet was gleefully greeting, and why the boy being greeted was yelling bloody murder at the world in general.

This time the row was earsplitting from the get-go, and accusations of deliberate exhibitionism and voyeurism flew like stones. Only the presence of Den kept Winry from raining tools on the hapless alchemist; only the knowledge that Pinako would kill him kept Ed from clapping his hands to the side of the house and bringing the doorframe down on her head. Ironically, the force with which she slammed the door as she fled the scene nearly did that anyway.

That evening, he had the revolutionary idea of bathing in the actual bathroom. Simply letting her know what he was going to do hadn't occurred to him yet, and he was half convinced this was all deliberate anyway. Sadly, by now the bathroom was the last place she expected to find him.

On the bright side, Winry could now laugh forever at the mental image of Ed relaxing blissfully in the tub with the wiring of his automail stumps protected under several layers of plastic bags from the local supermarket. He looked, to put it kindly, incredibly stupid. On the not-so-bright side, Ed would now cringe forever at the mental image of opening his eyes to a snickering, staring Winry.

False conclusions and battle lines were quickly drawn, and the confrontation led to both of them grumpily repainting the woodwork in the thoroughly soaked bathroom. Winry complained the whole time about missing several hours of working on his automail. Ed fumed silently, wielding a paintbrush with vicious one-handed gusto.

Fortunately, the near-destruction of her bathroom was enough to convince Pinako to intervene. A brief talk with her granddaughter was enough to decide that the girl wasn't doing this on purpose. A slightly longer talk with a blushing alchemist told her the rest of the story. When she was done having a good laugh at his expense while he shrank into his chair, she made a few rather sensible suggestions.

By the third day, Winry had taken to waving a hand through doorways before she entered them if she wasn't sure where Ed was, in case he had taken it into his head to try bathing in the middle of the living room rug. Most of the day was spent holed up safely in the workshop, puttering with finishing touches. Finally, though, the time came, and a smiling Pinako shooed her off to fetch him, to prepare to reattach the automail.

Knocking lightly on his bedroom door, she waited nervously outside.

"C'mon in!"

Well, at least he wasn't—she stopped and stared as the door swung open. Ed grinned back at her from under dripping bangs. Murphy's law had struck again; he was halfway through his daily bath, standing in the middle of the floor with the same pan-of-water-on-a-chair setup that had started this mess.

But this time, he was still wearing a pair of light-blue boxers.

"I'll be done in just a second," he said, wringing out a flannel over the pan. "Mind waiting?"

"N-not really," she said, stunned and still staring. And then a giggle slipped out of her, at the absurdity of it all, and his laughter joined hers as she walked into the room and flopped down on the bed, and things were all right again.

There are distinct problems involved in reintegrating someone into your life. There are clashes, and missteps, and adjustments necessary on both sides. But a reminder here, and a few precautions there, and a general dose of compromise can work wonders. And in the end, laughter makes a fine patch as well.

After all, as far as true friendship goes, few things are truly irreparable.