Journey to the Past

BY : Cha's Aegis
Category: Fullmetal Alchemist > Het - Male/Female
Dragon prints: 539
Disclaimer: Don't own anything in the FMA universe. Some chick in Japan does. Make no money on my stories either.

Morning came very early to the Hughes household.

Maes reluctantly releases his hold on Gracia as she slips from the warmth of their bed to go shower first. He remains dozing for a few minutes until he finally drags his body out of bed to make it before preparing a clean set of clothes for himself as Gracia emerges from the bathroom. He then takes his turn in the shower, returning minutes later. He finds Gracia dressed in her day clothes and finishing styling her hair.

Crossing over to one of the two windows he opens the drapes to gaze out over the backyard at the early morning skies brushed with vibrant pinks and reds. Gracia joins him, wrapping her arms around his waist as he embraces her by the shoulders and leans in to kiss her deeply.

“Is there a lot left to do for the party, honey?” he asks, pulling back moments later.

“No,” Gracia shakes her head. “After helping me clean the house yesterday, the kids prepared most of the ingredients I need for the roast and side dishes, so I only have to cook everything.”

“At least you don’t have to bother with appetizers or dessert since some of our guests are bringing those,” Maes comments.

“They didn’t have to, but it’s nice they’re going through the trouble” she replies before letting the comfortable silence stretch out.

“The sky has a lot of red in it,” he observes. “Probably going to rain again.”

“It would’ve been nice having dinner outside, but it can’t be helped,” Gracia sighs. “At least we’re not having a lot of guests, so it won’t be crowded inside.”

“Yeah,” Maes nods. “I’ll get Ed and Al to help me bring the table up from the basement and clean it off. We can open the sitting room doors and place the table end to end with the dining room table. It’ll be enough to seat everyone comfortably. We’re just going to have to rearrange the sitting room a little.”

“We were probably going to have to do that anyway. I don’t think the current arrangement will accommodate everyone comfortably.” After another pause, she asks, “Did you finish setting up those surprises for Kisa last night?”

Grinning mischievously, he nods.

“As terrible as it sounds, it was a bit of a blessing that Winry attacked Kisa. Everyone was too occupied to notice what I was doing.”

“Thankfully she wasn’t seriously injured,” Gracia shakes her head. “Now we just have make Winry stop feeling guilty over it.”

“Don’t worry, Kisa will take care of it,” he assures her, leaning in to kiss her again. Straightening up again, he asks, “Do you mind if I wake up the kids while you start breakfast?”

Eyeing Maes, she suspects he’s got something up his sleeve.

“Give me a chance to wake Elicia first.”

“Let me wake her up. I need her as my little helper,” he smirks deviously.

“Alright,” Gracia concedes with another sigh, recognizing another father/daughter bonding prank. “I’ll go get started in the kitchen.”

“Thanks, honey,” Maes grins.

He swoops in for another kiss before releasing her to follow her out of the room. As she continues downstairs, he heads into Elicia’s room.

“Wake up, sweetie,” he urges, leaning over her bed and gently shaking her shoulder.

It takes a couple of tries before she’s fully coherent.

“G’mornin’, daddy,” she yawns and rubs her eyes.

“Do you want to help daddy wake the rest of the house with a prank?”

Becoming even more alert she smiles and eagerly nods.

“Okay, go get washed up and dressed.”

She hops out of bed to gather her clothes from the dresser while he disappears out the door. Minutes later he meets Elicia back in her room and briefly outlines the plan, which naturally she loves. He then hands her the tools she needs before leading her into Ed and Al’s room.

Maes is relieved both boys are wearing tank shirts and boxers. Gracia would not have been happy with him if Elicia learns the differences between boys and girls before she’s ready.

Silently he points to a spot at the foot of the beds in front of the dresser. The little girl nods and moves into place holding a saucepan in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. He positions himself between the beds and extends his arms. A pitcher full of ice water now hovers high above each peacefully slumbering Elric’s head before he nods to his daughter.

Taking a deep breath she bangs out a random rhythm while singing the national anthem of Amestris at the top of her lungs.

“O’ Amestris! With a salute and proud sigh! To your banner way up high…!”

The boys react instantly with identical gasps.

Ed bolts upright while Al pushes up from the mattress just as Maes simultaneously tips the pitchers over, emptying cold water and ice onto them. Elicia promptly drops her spoon and pan to cover her ears like her daddy instructed, knowing little big brother would say words she’s not supposed to hear.

“Gah!” Al yelps, sputtering at the cold water and ice cubes cascading down his skin.

“What the fuck!” Ed howls then launches into a long, incoherent blue streak that leaves Maes’ ears ringing.

Moments later Winry appears in the doorway, still dressed in her pajamas and her hair bed tousled.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, taking in the entire scene in sleepy eyed confusion.

With her ears still covered Elicia giggles. Ed and Al practically dance off to the side of their beds, shaking off the cold water. Meanwhile, Maes bites his lower lip in obvious amusement while holding two empty water pitchers.

Winry rolls her eyes in annoyance at their childish antics.

“Will you knock off the profanities!” she yells at Ed.

Dripping, Ed stops to glare at her while pointing at Maes.

“See how foul your language becomes when ice water is dumped on you!”

“What’d you do that for?” Al scowls at Maes.

“To wake you up,” he quips.

“What a shitty ass thing to do, Hughes!” Ed snarls.

Winry cuts off any further ranting by clocking him hard with a pillow.

“All right! Enough already with the cursing! Your overreacting woke everyone else up from a sound sleep!” she yells.

“Overreacting?!” Ed protests. “To getting awakened in the most obnoxious way possible?”

Winry’s reply cut off by Kisa’s husky voice.

“What’s going on?”

She stiffly shuffles in to stand by Winry. Wearing her usual attire of Maes’ old shirts, she too is sleepy-eyed and sleep tousled while looking around trying to figure everything out.

“Nothing bad,” Winry nervously answers. “Just boys being boys. Well, I’ve got to go the bathroom. Excuse me,” she races out the door.

Kisa blinks in confusion. Maes sighs heavily while pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration and the dripping boys share a look. Elicia finally drops her hands from her ears.

“We woke up Big Little Brother and Little Big Brother!” she giddily declares, waving her arms in emphasis. “I sang the national anthem while daddy poured ice water on them!”

Amused, Kisa observes two scowling young men now scrounging around for their clothes while Maes grins at them.

“That was quite the wakeup,” Kisa grins at the little girl.

Elicia giggles and rushes over to hug her.

“Good morning, Kisa!”

“Good morning to you as well,” Kisa replies, returning the hug.

“I’ve got to help mommy,” Elicia excuses herself as she lets go.

Rushing over, she grabs her saucepan and spoon before trotting out the door. Kisa’s smile drops.

“Was it something I said or was it just my presence that chased Winry out?”

“It’s not like Winry doesn’t like you,” Al reassures awkwardly. “She’s still upset and doesn’t know you at all. She’s not trying to be mean…”

“I know,” Kisa cuts him off with a smile. “I’m not offended.”

“I’m going to talk to Winry,” Ed grumps, stalking for the door.

“Didn’t everyone keep trying to reassure her all night?” Kisa asks, stopping him in his tracks. “She probably needs to hear it from me. Besides,” she smirks. “You really should get some clothes on.”

Ed blushes through his glare and snatches up his clothes.

“I’m going to change if Winry’s out of the bathroom,” he sullenly mutters while disappearing out the door.

Al rolls his eyes and shakes his head while pulling the wet sheets off from his bed and piling them on the floor.

“I’ll go talk to Winry,” Maes sighs softly.

“Will it really be anymore successful?” Kisa arches a brow. “Besides, if everyone keep pushing, she’s going to think we’re blaming her because it keeps getting brought up. The problem is as long as she keeps avoiding me, she’s going to believe I blame her.”

“But if Winry keeps avoiding you, how are you two going to talk?” Al asks in confusion while moving to strip Ed’s bed.

“By cornering her,” Kisa grins mischievously. “But I’ll need help since I can’t move that fast.”

Catching on, Maes grins back.

“It may take all of us, but we’ll need to trap her in a room with no escape.”

“That means a room with only one door and no windows,” Al muses thoughtfully. “Not many places in the house like that.”

“Except the pantry,” Maes automatically replies.

Realization lights up both their faces as they grin mischievously at each other.

Kisa sighs heavily and shakes her head.

“It’s wrong on so many levels, but I have to agree with it.”

Maes chuckles before stepping over and kissing her forehead.

“How’re you feeling?”

“My hip is stiff and my shoulder a little sore, but I’m fine,” she smiles up at him.

“Good,” he nods then nudges her towards the door. “Go get dressed. Al will clue Ed in on our scheme and I’ll monitor things downstairs and try keeping Winry in the kitchen as much as possible.”

With a nod she goes to her room. Minutes later she steps out, intending to head downstairs at the same time Winry emerges from her room.

“Excuse me,” the older girl offers with a nervous smile before attempting to move around in escape.

Without thinking, Kisa hooks her cane onto the nearby banister and blocks her path. Winry stops dead in her tracks, but refuses to look at her. Kisa steps forward and surprises Winry by wrapping her arms around her shoulders and giving her a hug, ignoring the older blonde’s obvious discomfort.

“There’s nothing to forgive, but I forgive you anyway,” Kisa quietly states.

Taken aback, Winry blinks in confusion while trying to process her words.

“Why?”

“Why not?” Kisa shrugs while still holding her. “But if it makes you feel better I can try whacking you in the head with my cane,” she teases. “I don’t really want to and can’t put much force into it. Besides,” she smiles softly. “I’d like to put this behind us because we’re wasting time becoming friends. That is,” she hesitantly adds. “If you want to.”

Winry gapes in shock before a relieved smile slowly spreads on her face.

“I’d like that,” she laughs, returning the hug.

“That just sucks,” Ed mutters to Al from where they surreptitiously observe the girls through the crack in their door.

“Didn’t you want Winry to stop blaming herself?” Al asks, utterly baffled.

“Yeah, but I wanted to see if we could lock her in the pantry.”

Al glares at his brother before painfully elbowing him. Grabbing him by the collar, he drags him back into their room and quietly closes the door to give the girls some privacy.

“Did I hurt you yesterday?” Winry worriedly asks, pulling back to scrutinize Kisa.

“I did get a really good bruise on my hip and my shoulder is sore,” Kisa reluctantly admits. “But it’s nowhere near as bad as when I first got injured.” Seeing Winry looking guilty again, she insists, “It was a bad circumstance. We should move on from it so we can help Aunt Gracia with the party.”

Winry considers it again before smiling and nodding.

“Alright.”

Returning her smile, Kisa unhooks her cane and both start walking down together. Winry patiently waits as the younger girl slowly navigates each step and can’t help noticing the missing fingers of the left hand gripping the cane, silently wondering how she got injured.

“Is there any way I can help you?” Winry asks.

“No,” Kisa shakes her head. “I just have to work through this. And please don’t think it’s because of what happened yesterday. It’s the poor weather. It got cold last night and that’s probably what’s making me stiff today.”

“I didn’t think it was that cold,” Winry muses.

“It’s warmer in Azambra,” Kisa smiles as she pauses to rest midway down. “Very humid and tropical, so to me this weather is much colder even though we’re heading into May.”

Winry nods in understanding while Kisa starts moving again. Moments later they enter the kitchen together, chatting. Maes and Gracia look up in pleased surprise. Elicia immediately rushes over to hug both girls.

“So you finally talked?” Maes asks as Elicia releases the girls to return to her mother’s side.

“I had to threaten Winry with my cane. Apparently turnabout is fair play,” Kisa quips.

Winry laughs with them before saying, “Kisa forgave me and wanted to move on so we can become friends.”

“That’s wonderful,” Gracia smiles. Looking at Kisa she asks, “How are you feeling?”

Kisa doesn’t immediately answer as Winry insistently and gently guides her by the arm to the table and forces her to sit down.

“You sit. I’ll help with breakfast.”

Ignoring Kisa’s irritated frown she joins in preparing breakfast. Shaking her head, Kisa looks at an amused Gracia.

“I’m fine, aunt. Just a little stiff and sore. What do we have left to do before the party?”

“Let’s discuss it when the boys join us,” Maes suggests.

Kisa nods and they all continue chatting while breakfast is readied. It isn’t long before Ed and Al join Kisa at the table. Soon they all migrate to the dining room since the table is much larger and the conversation grows livelier.

Maes finds it interesting how it becomes boys versus girls sometimes. Well, mostly the girls versus Ed. Ed tried winning his brother’s support, but Al refuses on the principle Ed started picking on the girls first. Then it became Al and the girls versus Ed.

When he notices nearly everyone is done eating, Maes wipes his mouth with his napkin before speaking.

“Okay,” he states, attracting everyone’s attention. “We’ve got a lot to do and need all hands on deck to finish early. Since it’s likely to rain again, the party will be indoors.” Looking at Winry and Elicia sitting to his left, he states, “It goes without saying you two will be helping Gracia in the kitchen.” Looking over to his right at Ed and Al sitting on the other side of Gracia, he adds, “I’ll need you both to help me bring up the spare table from the basement and rearrange the sitting room.” Finally looking at Kisa on the other side of Winry, he states, “You can go sew or read while we get things ready.”

“What?” Kisa’s eyes widen in surprise. Recovering she protests, “I can’t sit around and be lazy while everyone else is working!”

“You’re still recuperating and the guest of honor. It’s inappropriate for the guest of honor to be helping,” Maes smiles at her fondly.

“He’s got a point there,” Al smiles directly across the table from her.

“You busted your ass yesterday helping Gracia clean the house then prep a lot of the ingredients she needed for today,” Ed points out.

Winry nods in agreement at Ed sitting right across from her before looking at Kisa.

“By the sounds of it, Elicia and I will be more than enough help in getting dinner ready.”

“Yeah, you should take it easy, Kisa,” Elicia eagerly agrees, leaning forward to see around Winry to look at Kisa.

Overruled and blushing in embarrassment Kisa promptly falls silent, pretending to listen while they discuss what should be done first. However, Maes and Gracia can tell she’s upset. Glancing over at her husband, Gracia notes the look in his eyes. He nods slightly, silently acknowledging he’ll talk to the girl later.

Having worked out their battle plans, Gracia, Winry and Elicia clean up from breakfast while Maes leads the boys into the basement and Kisa quietly disappears.

After giving Ed and Al their instructions, Maes returns to the main floor searching for her. He doesn’t find her in the sitting room, but immediately notices her sewing is completely gone.

Proceeding to the second floor he notices her door is open. Entering her room he sees her sitting in the wingback chair, gazing out the window and watching the clouds roll in. Easing onto her bed he silently watches her profile, waiting patiently for her to acknowledge him as the minutes stretch out. When she doesn’t, he sighs heavily into the stillness.

“The whole point of today is so you can enjoy yourself. You already knew tonight’s dinner is a sort of welcoming party to get to know everyone better. You shouldn’t be working on your own party.”

The silence stretches out again. She continues gazing outside until she quietly responds.

“I don’t feel like I’m doing enough. I disappeared on Ed yesterday when we were supposed to be helping Aunt Gracia prepare dinner.”

“But even you can’t deny that everyone needs to step away and be alone for a bit to deal with certain things,” he gently reasons. “And you helped out a lot yesterday. Besides,” he smiles warmly. “You should think of today like a birthday party. No one sets up their own party. Enjoy it like it’s your birthday.”

He frowns at the strange look on her face. It’s a cross between wistful and a stricken, regretful grimace. Before he can ask she speaks in an even quieter voice.

“I never celebrated my birthday. Kyo always did, but not me.”

Out of the corner of her eye she can tell he’s flabbergasted, but doesn’t dare look at him. Taking a deep breath she elaborates further.

“You need to understand, uncle, that as much as I loved my parents, they never loved me. Only my brothers and sister.”

He watches her head dip down slightly in shame as her gaze falls to her lap.

“Mother and father never saw much value in me since Kyo was their true baby. I was an extra mouth to feed, the troublemaker and good for nothing nuisance. When it was our birthday I had to help with the preparations, wrap his presents and serve the food then clean up. He didn’t. His friends were invited to join the party. I didn’t have any to invite because I wasn’t allowed to have friends.”

Smiling fondly, she raises her eyes to look outside again.

“Kyo and our brothers always snuck me presents. I just had to hide them well because if my parents or Kyoko found them, they’d say I was selfishly taking advantage of them and I’d have to get rid of them.”

She pauses to take a deep breath.

“My value had always been measured by how well I took care of my brothers and the house,” she reluctantly admits. “But it was worth it. They made life bearable and kept me going. Rarely did my parents and Kyoko acknowledge my efforts, but my brothers always did,” she smiles fondly.

Sighing, her smile drops again.

“It’s hard to just take it easy. I’ve felt so worthless for so long because there wasn’t anyone left to take care of. And I can’t shake the fear mother will appear and scold me for sitting here, doing nothing before beating me until I can’t move.”

Maes watches a stray tear race down her cheek.

“I’m trying so hard to escape those feelings despite the freedom to breathe I have now, but I still feel like I’m failing no matter what I do.” Attempting to smile, she adds, “One of my biggest regrets is I never managed to win my parents over before they died. I wish that just once they were glad I was their daughter instead of blaming me because I wasn’t born Kyo’s identical twin.”

Unable to resist any longer, Maes swiftly rises to his feet and gently pulls her up into a fierce hug before she can react.

“Your parents were foolish not to realize what a precious jewel you are. I’d be proud to have a daughter like you,” he softly declares into her hair. “You have more than proven what an extraordinary person you are and, if you give me a chance, maybe one day I can prove it.”

Kisa doesn’t answer, but just as fiercely hugs him back, clinging to the back of his shirt for dear life and trembling as she struggles not to cry.

“It’s okay to cry,” Maes chuckles in light admonishment while stroking her hair. “You hold far too much in.”

“I’m not sure I can stop if I start,” her muffled voice shakily admits into his chest. “And I’ve done too much crying lately.”

“You should allow yourself to grieve properly,” he sighs wearily, kissing the top of her head. “It’ll eat you up inside if you don’t. Even Izumi has told you it’s okay to grieve.”

Kisa doesn’t say anything. She continues clinging to him, struggling against her surging emotions. Maes considers pushing her, but decides against it. Silently he reminds himself that when she’s ready she’ll deal with her pain.

“Just go along with it and relax,” he suggests when he senses she’s calmer. “Besides, you’re going to need all your energy to deal with the incoming crazies,” he teases.

Kisa can’t resist laughing softly before pulling out of the hug.

“All right,” she reluctantly agrees with a soft smile.

“Do you need anything?” he asks, watching her settle back into the chair.

“No, thank you,” she shakes her head. “I can manage if I do.”

Maes sighs softly at her stubbornness.

“We’ll come get you when lunch is ready.”

“Okay,” she nods.

Leaving her room, Maes returns downstairs to see how things are going. Entering the kitchen he finds Ed and Al taking a break drinking some water to soothe their throats from all the coughing.

“Seriously, Hughes, you need to seal and insulate the basement,” Ed grouses as the older man joins them at the table. “There’s enough dust down there to plant crops.”

Maes laughs while Al smirks.

“We brought up the table after dusting it off and just have to oil it,” Al informs him.

“How is Kisa?” Gracia asks in concern.

“Yeah, she seemed pretty upset earlier,” Al comments.

“Kinda hard not to notice,” Ed arches a brow at his brother and earning an irritated scowl in return.

“She’s okay,” Maes reassures them. “Where’s Elicia?”

“I just sent her and Winry upstairs to ready extra linens in case we have overnight guests due to the weather,” Gracia informs him.

“Good,” he sighs softly in relief. “I don’t want her to hear this.”

Without further delay he stuns them with a brief explanation of what Kisa shared with him.

“That’s terrible how her parents treated her,” Gracia looks in dismay at her husband. “Now I understand why we had such a difficult time convincing her to allow us to buy a few things for her. It also makes me glad we’re having this party. It’s the least we can do since she’s done so much for us.”

Smiling tenderly, Maes reaches over and takes her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“We’ll do what we can to make things right for her from now on,” he reassures her. “But it’s also good thing we’re springing a few surprises on her tonight.”

“Surprises?” Ed frowns in confusion.

“A couple of presents,” he grins at the boys. “I found out Azambran custom considers refusing a gift an insult to the giver. And since it didn’t feel right just throwing a simple dinner party when she came here with almost nothing it made sense to get her a couple of gifts. Then I mentioned what we were doing to the others and they decided to bring her gifts too.”

“I wish I knew,” Al states in mild annoyance. “Winry and I could’ve brought Kisa something.”

“I didn’t know about it either, little brother, and I’ve been here longer,” Ed grouses while scowling at Maes. His expression turns thoughtful as he asks, “When is everyone supposed to start arriving?”

“Dinner is at six,” Gracia answers. “We deliberately didn’t set a specific time for the party in case anyone wished to arrive early due to the weather.”

Chewing on his bottom lip in thought, Ed turns to Al.

“If we finish oiling the table fast and help Winry get everything else set up, we might have time to run out and get Kisa something,” he suggests to his younger brother. “There’s a new department store that opened up nearby and we could probably find something there.”

“I’ll drive you,” Maes offers. “You’ll get caught in the downpour otherwise.”

“Sounds good,” Al nods.

“C’mon, Al, let’s hurry and get done,” Ed suggests.

Al nods again and follows his older brother into the dining room. Leaning in, Maes kisses Gracia.

“I’ll go help them,” he informs her. “The sooner we leave, the earlier we can get back.”

“Take extra money with you,” she suggests. “The kids just came off a trip and weren’t planning on a spontaneous shopping trip. You can cover the difference if they come up short.”

“Great idea, honey,” Maes nods before rising to his feet and leaving the room.

Within two hours the sitting room is rearranged and the dinner table is set. After chasing all three teens upstairs to get ready for their outing, Maes finds his wife in the kitchen.

“The kids will be back down in a bit so we can get going. Is there anything you need me to get while we’re out?”

“No, thank you,” Gracia shakes her head. “Elicia and I will have lunch ready when you return.”

“But, mommy, I wanna go too!” Elicia protests.

Amused, Gracia pauses in thought for a moment before speaking to her daughter.

“Well, you have a choice, Elicia. If you go, you’ll have to skip your nap and go to bed at your usual time, regardless if we still have guests. Or you can stay and take a nap and stay up past your bedtime to enjoy the party longer.”

Maes watches his daughter in amusement as she considers her mother’s offer.

“I’ll stay, mommy,” Elicia decides with a definitive nod.

Pleased with her daughter’s choice Gracia smiles since she’s certain it’ll be raining by the time Maes and the kids return.

Within minutes Maes loads the kids in the car. Earlier Ed and Al only told Winry they wanted to go shopping for a gift for Kisa. However, now that they’re alone, the three males clue her in on the real reason, sharing what Kisa told Maes.

“It must’ve been hard for Kisa growing up,” Winry sadly comments. “I noticed she got really quiet, but I thought it was just because she got outvoted.” Looking over at Maes from where she sits in the front seat, she asks, “What is a good present? I don’t know enough about her to begin to guess.”

Maes contemplates the question while making a right turn on the next street.

“Well, we got Kisa a sewing machine and a stand for it,” he finally answers. At her questioning look, he explains, “She seems to really enjoy sewing. She even made a dress for Izumi Curtis during her stay in Dublith. But, honestly, she’ll appreciate anything you get her.”

“Yeah, but if it’s Azambran custom to consider refusing a gift rude, I don’t want to get something she’ll feel she has to accept even if she doesn’t like it. I want to get her something she’ll like,” Winry frowns in thought.

“She really seems to enjoy reading and is eager to learn,” Ed muses thoughtfully from the backseat.

“Figures brother’s double is an insatiable knowledge buff too,” Al rolls his eyes.

Ed playfully nudges Al while laughing with Maes and Winry.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Maes chimes in. “Kisa has a few family photos. They were the ones she gave me for safekeeping when I escaped Azambra. I didn’t think of it sooner, but a photo album or frames would be useful.”

“Great idea, but how about a blank journal?” Winry suggests.

“A journal?” Al asks, echoing the others’ confusion.

“Yeah,” she shrugs, looking over her shoulder into the backseat. “Obviously Kisa is reluctant to talk about certain things. I mean, no one would’ve found out how her parents treated her if it hadn’t come up, so maybe it’d be easier on her if she can get some of her thoughts and feelings out by writing them down?”

“That’s a good idea,” Maes nods in approval. “A nice pen set would be a good complement.”

They continue discussing ideas as Maes pulls the car to a stop in front of the Central Mercantile Department Store. Once inside they wander along the glass display cases for a couple of minutes when a sales clerk approaches.

“Good afternoon,” the pretty redhead smiles in greeting. “May I be of assistance?”

“We’re throwing a ‘welcome’ party for the newest member of our eclectic family and these three would like to get her a present,” Maes explains, gesturing at the teens surrounding him.

“Certainly,” the salesclerk nods. “Do you have anything specific in mind already? If not, can you tell me more about her so I can offer some suggestions?”

Maes nods and describes Kisa before sharing some of the ideas they’ve come up with so far.

“Very good suggestions,” she nods in approval when he finishes. “Please step over here where we have our writing sets.”

She guides them a few steps to a case with a variety of pens and patiently waits while they examine the selection.

“I would like to look at that one more closely, please,” Al points to a fountain pen set made of mahogany accented with mother of pearl.

With a nod, the salesclerk steps behind the counter and pulls out the velvet-lined box, setting it down in front of him. Picking it up in his hands he takes a moment to examine it.

“I really like it,” he smiles at her. Looking at the others, he reasons, “Even if none of us gets Kisa a journal, she might want to write Master.”

“Good choice. I’m sure Kisa will like it, Al,” Maes agrees. “Can you hold off on ringing it up until we’ve seen the other selections?” he asks the salesclerk.

“Certainly, I’ll set it aside,” she nods, placing the lid on top and taking it in hand. “If you’ll follow me, I’d like to show you the photo frames and albums next.”

The redhead leads them to another counter devoted entirely to photo frames and albums.

“We don’t sell journals, but there is a bookstore across the street where you may be able to find some if you’re still interested,” she explains while they examine the selection. “I’d like to also suggest hair accessories as an option,” she adds, capturing their complete attention. “I personally know a couple of Azambran women and they sometimes liked to wear combs and clips to keep their hair neat when they remove their scarves indoors.”

Winry considers it.

“May I see them? I’m not liking the albums or frames.”

“Yeah, I don’t really like them either,” Ed agrees.

“This way,” the salesclerk smiles, gesturing with an open hand.

She leads them down to another display case. Winry’s eyes wander the selection before she looks at the redhead again.

“May I see the set in the far back corner?” she asks, pointing off to the right of case.

“This one?” the salesclerk asks, resting her hand on a wood box.

“Yes,” Winry nods.

The others crowd in a little closer while she examines an intricately carved set of five rosewood hair combs of varying sizes. Each is accented with colorful glass beads.

“I’ll take them,” Winry decides.

“Certainly,” the redhead smiles. “Is there anything else you’d like to see?” she asks Ed when the others look at him expectantly.

“No, thanks,” he answers. “I’m not seeing anything I like, so I’ll wait to see what the bookstore has.”

“All right. I’ll ring these up for you.”

The sales clerk tallies up the items and, as Gracia predicted, Winry and Al come up short. Ed starts pulling out his wallet to spare the two further embarrassment when Maes stops him.

“Don’t worry, Ed, I’ve got this.” Handing the woman the money, he asks, “Can you also have these gift-wrapped while we go across the street?”

“Yes, sir,” she nods. “We should have them ready by the time you return.”

“You didn’t have to pay for it, Hughes,” Ed grouses under his breath as they exit the store into the drizzling rain.

“We’ll pay you back,” Winry adds as they trot across the street.

“We just have to wait until the bank opens on Monday,” Al nods.

“Don’t worry about it,” Maes waves off as they enter the bookstore. “I should’ve mentioned giving Kisa presents ahead of time. It’s my fault for putting you guys in the awkward position of feeling like you have to.”

None of them are able to come up with a good counter. Plus, knowing how stubborn the man is, they tacitly decide it’s not worth the trouble arguing. Splitting up, they browse the shelves trying to find something Ed might like to buy for Kisa.

“Hey, Ed?” Winry calls out to him from where she stands in front of a section of books marked, ‘Home Crafts.’

“Yeah?” he answers from another row close by.

“What about getting Kisa her own sewing book?”

“Nah,” he waves off while his eyes roam the shelf he’s browsing. “She doesn’t read the one I checked out nearly as much as the history book,” he explains. “Hey, Hughes, does Kisa have any other interests?”

Coming from around the corner, Maes joins them.

“Well, I don’t know of any hobbies aside from the sewing,” he muses thoughtfully. “She cooks well, but it doesn’t seem to be something she loves to do. She’s mentioned how her father was head of the Merchant’s Guild, so she knows a lot about business.” Pausing in thought, he adds, “I was surprised she already knew enough about Amestrian law to ask what the charges against her were when she was arrested.”

“That’s not much help, Hughes,” Ed states giving him a flat look. “Law and business books are boring and if she knows about that shit already there’s no point in giving her something like that.”

“How about a history book?” Al suggests, joining them. “She’s been reading the one you got her a lot.”

“It’s the same as the business and law books,” Ed rolls his eyes. “The one I checked out for her is pretty comprehensive. By the time she finishes it she’ll be pretty knowledgeable on Amestrian history.”

“Well, that kills my suggestion,” Winry sighs coming over to them. “I was going to suggest a history book on Azambra.”

Maes becomes thoughtful.

“Why not a book on Xerxes?” At their puzzled expressions, he explains, “She told me her family descended from Xerxian slaves who weren’t there when it disappeared. One of her brothers learned to read and speak Xerxian and taught her and Kyo.”

Ed considers it before walking over to the clerk behind the counter.

“Hey, can you show me what you’ve got on Xerxes?” he asks.

The clerk nods and takes him to a different part of the store.

“That’s impressive Kisa knows Xerxian,” Al turns to Maes. “I wonder if she can teach me.”

“Why would you want to learn a language from a lost civilization?” Winry frowns in confusion.

“Because it’s interesting,” Al shrugs. “And why should the language be lost forever? At least something should survive history.”

“Kisa would probably be more than willing to teach you if you ask,” Maes grins. “C’mon, let’s go see how Ed’s doing.”

Al and Winry follow him over to the counter to find Ed already there, idly flipping through a book on Xerxes. Next to him on the counter top is a small stack of books. Al reaches out and picks one up and starts flipping though it.

“If we weren’t getting these as gifts, I’d buy them,” Al comments.

“Yeah,” Ed nods absently before closing the book. “Kisa will probably appreciate them more right now. Plus, we’ve got enough research of our own without exploring Xerxes history.”

Winry picks up another book from the stack. Opening it, she realizes it’s a blank journal. She looks at Ed in confusion.

“I thought it was a good idea,” he explains with a shrug. Looking at the clerk he states, “I’m buying the books and journal. Can you gift wrap them too?”

The clerk nods and takes the books to another clerk to wrap while he rings up Ed’s purchases.

As they wait Maes comments, “Kisa will love all your gifts, but you didn’t really have to get her anything.”

“It’d look bad if the bastard brings her a gift and I don’t,” Ed waves off. “I’ve got a rep to protect as the People’s Alchemist.”

Winry rolls her eyes while a grinning Al playfully shoves Ed’s shoulder.

Ed pays for the books and the clerk returns them gift wrapped as requested, he tucks them inside his coat before they dash back across the street in the now steady rain to the department store. Soon they’re piled back in the car heading home.


Around noon Kisa finally emerges from her room. Gracia just checked on her, instructing her to come downstairs for lunch.

Slowly descending the staircase, she silently admonishes herself for sitting still so long because her hip stiffened up. Although, part of it is likely due to the weather since the temperature dropped further inside the house, leaving her feeling chilled.

When she almost reaches the foyer at the bottom landing, a knock on the front door captures her attention.

“I’ll answer the door, Aunt Gracia!” she calls out.

“All right,” Gracia’s voice drifts back in acknowledgement.

Opening the door, Kisa is pleasantly surprised to find Roy and Riza standing on the stoop.

“Please, come inside,” she invites while stepping off to the side. “It’s nice to see you both again,” she adds, closing the door behind them.

“Nice to see you as well,” Roy smiles at her.

“It’s good to see you too, Kisa,” Riza adds.

Kisa notices the small black and white dog in her arms.

“This is Black Hayate,” Riza introduces, as if reading her thoughts.

The young blonde holds out her hand for the dog to sniff and smiles when he eagerly licks her fingers. Riza then places Hayate on the floor as Gracia and Elicia to join them.

“I’m glad you two made it with no problems,” Gracia smiles at them.

Dropping to her knees, Elicia giggles while eagerly petting Hayate.

“I’m sorry if we’re here early, but the district Roy and I live in tends to flood quickly, making it difficult to drive,” Riza apologizes while shrugging out of her coat with Roy’s help.

“I thought it was best if we come early or we might not have made it at all,” Roy adds, removing his coat as well and draping over his arm with Riza’s.

“Maes mentioned he’d call and suggest you both bring an overnight bag just in case,” Gracia nods. “Did you?”

“Yes,” Roy acknowledges.

“Good. Maes took Winry and the boys out on a last minute errand. Since it seems they’re running behind I thought we’d go ahead and have lunch. You’re welcome to join us,” she offers.

“Certainly,” he agrees.

“Yes, please,” Riza nods. “I also brought deviled eggs as an appetizer.”

“Thank you, Riza,” Gracia replies gratefully, taking the proffered bag from her.

“May I take your coats to hang in the laundry room to drip dry?” Kisa offers holding out her hand.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it,” Roy declines. “But you may take these instead,” he states, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers.

Kisa gapes in surprise at the beautiful orchids in her hands before looking at him in confusion.

“Since you’re the guest of honor, it only makes sense you receive flowers,” he smiles.

“Thank you,” she blushes, smiling in pleased satisfaction.

“Let’s go eat,” Gracia suggests with a smile while turning to head down the hallway with a giggling Elicia trailing behind with Hayate.

Still blushing, Kisa follows after them. Riza and Roy walk together until he veers off abruptly to briefly duck into Maes’ study. Moments later he steps into the kitchen, heading straight to the laundry room to hang up their coats before returning to join the others at the table.

“You seem to be walking worse than the other day,” he observes minutes later to Kisa while they eat. “I thought you’d be moving better by now.”

“Big sister Winry thought Kisa was little big brother,” Elicia eagerly pipes in before Kisa could answer. “She tried hitting Kisa and Kisa used her cane to keep from getting hit, but fell,” she explains solemnly. “So big sister was upset ‘cause Kisa got bruised, but they made up this morning,” she finishes happily.

“To make up would mean I was mad at Winry, I wasn’t because it was an honest mistake,” Kisa gently corrects the little girl with a smile.

“Why did Winry try hitting you?” Riza asks in confusion while Elicia considers what the older girl said. “Even if she thought you were Ed, that’s not enough reason to hit you.”

“Winry thought Ed was playing a prank and involved uncle,” Kisa sighs while scratching behind her ear in embarrassment. “She didn’t believe him when he told her about us looking alike. After she and Al arrived I was in the sitting room cleaning up my sewing when she apparently saw me. Then she got upset at the perceived joke.” She shrugs, sheepishly admitting, “Had I been in the kitchen with everyone else she might not have reacted the way she did.”

“Big sister would’ve tried deciding who was the real little big brother!” Elicia giggles.

“Probably,” Kisa laughs with her. Becoming a little more serious, she suggests, “It might not be a good idea to keep telling everyone this story.”

“Why?” she looks at the older girl in confusion, cocking her head slightly to the side.

“Winry felt bad afterward, right?”

“Winry was really upset,” Elicia nods slowly.

“And even this morning she was trying to avoid me, thinking I was mad when I wasn’t,” Kisa gently reminds her. “I had to force Winry to listen long enough just to tell her I wasn’t mad, but that I forgave her anyway.” Arching a brow, she asks, “How do you think she’ll feel if we keep bringing it up? Even teasingly?”

Elicia doesn’t take long to answer.

“Winry would be upset and feel bad again.”

“I think you’re right,” Kisa nods again. “It actually was funny how Winry confused me for Ed, but if it’s going to make her feel guilty again we should probably not keep mentioning it.”

“That’s a good idea,” Gracia agrees. “No matter what we said, Winry still felt very guilty.”

“I understand and would’ve felt the same way if it were me,” Kisa smiles. “We all know she wasn’t being malicious and it was an honest mistake. We just need to help her not dwell on it by moving on.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I like it better when Winry is happy,” Elicia nods enthusiastically.

“We all do,” Gracia smiles fondly.

Riza notices Hayate heading into the laundry room.

“Looks like he needs to go outside,” she observes, starting to push her seat back from the table.

“Can I take him outside?” Elicia eagerly asks.

“It’s fine with me if it’s okay with your mother,” Riza smiles.

“Yes, you may,” Gracia replies before her daughter can ask. “But you have to put your raincoat and galoshes on and ready some towels to dry him off when you both come back inside.”

“Yes, mommy,” Elicia acknowledges before racing out of the room.

Minutes later she returns with her raincoat on and her galoshes in hand, heading straight for Kisa.

“Can you help me put these on?”

Kisa smiles in answer, adjusting herself sideways in the chair. Setting the little girl onto her lap, she helps pull one bright blue boot on at a time before easing her down and helping her get her yellow coat and rain hat on.

Once ready, Gracia hands Elicia an umbrella and ushers her into the laundry room towards the back door.

“Stay out of the squishy parts of the yard,” she warns her daughter.

“I will,” Elicia promises.

As Gracia returns to her seat, Riza observes, “You’re really good with children, Kisa.”

“I’ve had lots of practice,” Kisa smiles. “I was the de facto babysitter in the family. My four oldest siblings were married and three of them had children, so I took care of my nieces and nephews for as long as I can remember. Some since they were born.”

“Didn’t Kyo get roped into babysitting?” Roy asks out of curiosity.

“No,” she shakes her head. “The boys weren’t expected to help. In Azambra, girls take care of the children.”

“I’ll be honest, I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around that old way of thinking,” Riza admits.

“Understandable, but it’s simply what I was born into,” Kisa shrugs. “I was lucky because Kyo really liked taking care of our nieces and nephews. So we’d trade places. I’d do his homework while he babysat and if our parents or sister caught us, we’d say I was helping him with a tough problem.”

She pauses to grin at their chuckling before continuing.

“Our three oldest brothers didn’t care and thought it was funny while the other two followed Kyo’s example because they didn’t feel like doing their homework either. Our parents couldn’t really say anything about it.”

The three adults chuckle again while Elicia noisily reenters the laundry room. Gracia rises from her seat and goes to help her remove her coat and galoshes and dry off Hayate. Mother and daughter enter the kitchen at the same time as Maes and the kids, causing the sound level to increase exponentially from everyone exchanging the usual greetings and barbs.

Kisa quietly rises from her place at the table to make room for the others so they can have lunch. Entering the sitting room she flicks on the light as Riza and Hayate trail behind her.

“It was getting a little too crowded in there for you too, huh?” Riza asks, settling next to the girl on one of the sofas now angled near the fireplace while Hayate curls up at her feet.

“A little,” Kisa smiles. “Besides, I’ll only be getting in Aunt Gracia’s way since she won’t let me help with anything. This way I can hear the door if anyone else arrives early.”

Both look up when Roy walks in.

“I thought you’d stay with the others,” Riza observes as he settles on the other side of Kisa.

“Watching Maes and Fullmetal eat is not my idea of entertainment,” he rolls his eyes. “It was getting too crowded in there.” Noticing Kisa pulling her shawl tighter about her shoulders, he asks, “Would you like the fire lit?”

“Not if it’s comfortable for everyone else,” she declines with a shake of her head. “I’m not used to the climate yet, so it’s been feeling cooler to me than anyone else.”

Roy looks over at Riza who shrugs.

“It is a little cool.”

Nodding, he rises to his feet and steps over to fireplace. Opening the gate and flue he places a couple of logs in the rack. Stepping back, he pulls on a plain white glove and claps his hands. Extending his left hand he guides a controlled stream of flame right for the logs, igniting them.

Riza notices Kisa gaping in surprise.

“Is this the first time you’ve seen anyone perform alchemy?”

Kisa shakes her head slowly before drawing her attention away to look at Riza.

“Winry badly damaged my cane when she tried hitting me and Ed fixed it. He clapped, but touched it. Roy explained alchemy, so I know it’s versatile, but I obviously didn’t grasp the concepts very well,” she explains in amazement.

“You clearly understood the concepts, you just needed to see alchemy in use,” Roy states, settling back into place next to her.

“It’s further proof I have a lot to learn about the world,” she cocks her head slightly to the side. “As it were, Ed was kind enough to checkout a book for me on the history of Amestris from the library and in reading it I quickly realized how little I actually know.” Musing thoughtfully, she adds, “I’ll probably also have to get a book on the political structure of Amestris to fully understand how this country functions.”

“That’s some intensive research you have planned,” Roy arches a brow.

“Not really. In living out the rest of my days in Amestris, I should learn everything I can about my adopted homeland. It’s the same in business,” she explains further. “When going into a new venture it’s important to learn as much as possible about all aspects. Otherwise it’s possible to cripple the business before it has a chance to begin.”

Kisa pauses briefly to collect her thoughts before continuing.

“There are a lot of things about the Amestrian government I’m curious about. I’d like to understand how a military government has been able to function so well for so long. Typically, military based governments only last as long as the life of the dictator. There are exceptions throughout history, but on average the longevity is limited. Amestris has not only continually functioned as a military government for centuries but also expanded its borders. Uncle explained how the current government is trying to move more toward being a democracy. However, at the moment, I’d say it’s a bad idea to switch too quickly.”

“Why would you think that?” Riza cocks her head in curiosity.

“Well, on the one hand the position of Fuhrer is traditionally obtained via promotion and approval of the upper ranks,” Kisa answers. “That means anyone enlisted potentially has a chance of becoming Fuhrer. Switch to a democratic government where a civilian could become Fuhrer and there will be a lot of unhappy career military who may not want to lose the chance at power.”

Kisa briefly pauses to shift into a more comfortable position.

“On the other hand, there is a civilian population that had seemingly limited political power and very little experience to guide them on wielding the new powers a democracy will give them. Chances are good the new leaders could botch things or become corrupted. It’s unlikely, but that’s what I see from my current perspective. So I’d like to gain a better understanding on how the current political system works because it could drastically alter my perception.”

“It might,” Roy nods. “However, it’s more likely going to show you why it’s better to push for a democracy now.”

With that opening they fall into a deep discussion about the political workings of Amestris. Roy and Riza alternate explaining how the system evolved and developed. They explain how much of it was thanks to the manipulations by the homunculi with Kisa asking questions to clarify specific points. Their conversation becomes quite involved as they move on to making comparisons to the political structures of other countries.

Eventually Maes, Ed and Al join them. Winry and Elicia continue helping Gracia and occasionally taking turns to bring out snacks and refreshments to the sitting room.

The boys try participating in the conversation, but can’t contribute much due to their own limited knowledge of politics and general lack of interest in the subject. Maes is the only one able to keep up.

“Why don’t you guys talk about something interesting like alchemy?” Ed finally groans in bored frustration.

Leaning back against the sofa to partially drape an arm on the back while resting an ankle across his knee, Roy smirks.

“Okay, Fullmetal, why don’t you and Al share some of what you learned while traveling abroad?”

“Hey!” Ed snaps. “That’s playing dirty since Al and I haven’t had a chance to discuss our trips yet!”

“It’s not like we were learning any deep, dark secrets, brother,” Al tries soothing. “We traveled to learn what we could about alchemy practices in other lands.”

“You’re not helping any, little brother,” Ed bites out irritably.

“That must mean Fullmetal’s trip wasn’t as fruitful as Al’s,” Roy goads.

Ed twitches before snarling, “I learned lots of things, bastard.”

He launches into sharing details of his trip. It isn’t long before a knock on the door signals the arrival of another guest. Maes rises to his feet and opens the door.

“Glad to see you gentlemen could make it,” he cheerfully greets Falman, Breda and Fuery.

“Yeah, we weren’t sure if we were going to have to swim our way here,” Breda smirks. “Where do you want this?” he asks, opening the top flap of a satchel to show Maes a wrapped box.

Glancing into the sitting room, Maes notes Kisa is too busy watching Ed and Roy pick at each other in amusement.

“I’ll put it with the others,” he quietly informs Breda, taking the satchel in hand.

“I brought some cider for the other non-drinkers,” Falman states, holding up a large bottle.

“Please take it to Gracia in the kitchen. You can also take Breda’s and Fuery’s coats and hang them in the laundry room while you’re at it,” Maes instructs him.

“Certainly,” Falman nods and takes the other’s coats while Maes disappears briefly into his office.

Meanwhile, Fuery and Breda step into the sitting room, exchanging pleasantries with everyone. They settle onto the lounge, joining in listening to Ed and Al take turns detailing their trips.

It isn’t long before Armstrong, Sheska, Maria and Denny boisterously arrive together, bringing desserts and discreetly handing Maes more wrapped gifts. They come just in time to hear the story about Al nearly becoming a Xingese prince because of May Chang’s crush on him.

“I feel cheated in not getting bean girl for a sister-in-law,” Ed ribs, causing everyone to laugh.

“It was a very near thing if I’d been caught,” Al blushes furiously. “It’s not that I don’t like her, I just didn’t love her that way. And she was too caught up in her fantasies not to realize it.”

“Well, she had your wedding already planned,” Maria points out.

“And how many kids we were going to have,” Al rolls his eyes, prompting everyone to laugh. “Once I made it into her room and after nearly an hour of just trying to get past her gushing about how romantic it was for me to sneak in and woo her, I finally got her to start listening. It took all night, but she finally realized she didn’t really love me either.”

“After a lot of heartbroken crying, right?” Denny asks knowingly.

“Yep,” Al sighs. “But once she calmed down, she saw reason. That was the easy part; the hard part was avoiding scandal. It was nearing daybreak and I had to get back to my room. It wasn’t easy because I had to climb over to another part of the third floor using different balconies and climbing plants while the sun was rising over the horizon. I just barely made it in time.”

Having finally joined their guests at the beginning of Al’s tale, Gracia teases,  “Maybe Maes was encouraging the wrong brother to marry when you already had a willing fiancée.”

“I’m too young to get married!” he protests over everyone’s laughter. “And she’s a lot younger than me! She was too young to get married too!”

“Then it’s a good thing you weren’t in Azambra or you would’ve definitely been married,” Fuery teases.

“That isn’t correct for boys,” Falman informs him. “Only girls are expected to marry, or at least be betrothed, by a certain age. Males can be almost any age.”

“Is that true, Lady?” Breda incredulously asks Kisa.

“Yes,” Kisa nods, shocking those not familiar with Azambran custom. “Most girls are arranged into marriage prior to puberty and those who aren’t will meet with a matchmaker continuously until a successful match is made,” she explains. “The marriage often takes place when the girl is thirteen. That’s considered the age of adulthood and the earliest it can legally take place. Boys can be entered into an arranged marriage, but as Vato said, they can also be at any age to marry. They have more of a choice.”

“Does that mean the groom can be considerably older than the bride?” Sheska asks in surprise.

“Correct,” Kisa nods. “It’s not uncommon for a man to be in his sixties marrying a thirteen-year-old as long as he can provide for her. That typically only happens if the groom is a widower looking for a second marriage.” Blithely she adds, “I had a cousin who was married like that and her stepdaughter was thirty years older.”

Noticing everyone gaping, her face flushes a deep red.

“I thought it was creepy too,” she sheepishly admits. “But my cousin’s father felt it was a good match. By legal rights she could’ve protested the arrangement, but breaking the contract would’ve shamed her family. She was aware of the law, but chose not to protest unlike a lot of girls who didn’t know because their families deliberately kept them in the dark.”

“Were you arranged in marriage?” Al asks in curiosity.

“Yes.”

“So your parents at least made you aware of all your options in case you changed your mind?” Winry asks.

“Not at all,” Kisa shakes her head, surprising her. “But they also didn’t count on all of my brothers hating the cousin I was betrothed to. They encouraged me to protest.”

“You were betrothed to marry young? And to a cousin?” Armstrong asks incredulously.

At Kisa’s nod a strange expression crosses his face. Nearly everyone else groans in dismay, knowing what’s coming next.

“Let’s go check on dinner, Elicia,” Gracia states while hurrying her daughter out of the room.

“I’ll help!” Sheska and Winry simultaneously declare, tripping over each other in their rush to follow.

“It is inconceivable to steal a child’s youth away to marry them off before they can live!” Armstrong declares, ignoring their departure. “It is unfair to impose the heavy burdens of family in the prime of one’s life!”

Maria and Denny try inching toward the nearest door to escape, but are thwarted by Armstrong focusing on them.

“Starting a family should be done in maturity and with the chosen one you love! Wouldn’t you agree, captain and second lieutenant?”

Cowering slightly, the two partners frantically nod their heads in appeasement.

“It should be a joyous time!” Armstrong throws his arms out in emphasis. “Not a matter of obligatory expectation!”

Ed and Al had immediately taken refuge behind the sofa they were sitting on, hoping not to be noticed. Meanwhile Breda and Fuery developed a sudden intense interest watching the rainfall outside through the windows.

“Azambrans have been following that custom for generations, lieutenant colonel,” Falman makes the mistake of pointing out.

“Well, some traditions should not be maintained!” Armstrong indignantly declares, crossing his arms across his massive chest. “Some traditions should fade out through the generations!”

Shaking his head at the spectacle, Maes merely sighs and rolls his eyes.

Riza turns from Armstrong to look at Kisa. The young blonde appears to be struggling. She covers her mouth with her hands while moisture pools at the corner of her eyes.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Kisa pulls her hands away to answer in a strained voice as a couple of tears leak from her eyes. “I’m trying hard not to laugh.”

“You really do find it funny then?” Roy arches an incredulous brow.

Deliberately not looking at a still ranting Armstrong, she regains more of her composure to nod.

“It’s hard believing anyone is like that,” she explains with clear mirth.

“So you’re not offended?” Roy prods. “Armstrong is basically condemning Azambran customs.”

“No,” she replies. “He’s correct. Our customs are archaic and detrimental to women. He is just being…” She pauses in thought before smiling. “He’s just being a little too colorful in his dissention.”

“That’s a very polite way of putting it,” Riza smirks.

“Indeed,” Roy murmurs in agreement.

They resume watching the others unsuccessfully attempt to end Armstrong’s rant.

“There are times to forgo following traditions because of pride! It is how society advances! The Armstrong family line has proudly followed tradition for generations, but some were abandoned as the times and social mores changed! Take inspiration of how proud and strong we are today despite those changes!”

Armstrong whips off his dress shirt to flex his proud muscles to the irritation and groaning dismay of the others. Much to Riza and Roy’s amusement, Kisa twists away slightly to stuff a fist into her mouth in a desperate struggle not to laugh.

Having noticed, Denny misinterprets her reaction.

“Look what you’ve done, Armstrong! You’ve upset Kisa!” he gestures at the poor girl.

“What?” Armstrong asks in confusion, pausing in his demonstration.

Seeing a golden opportunity, Ed and Al exchange a mischievous look and straighten up from their hiding place, fully aware Kisa really isn’t upset.

“Congratulations on shooting off your mouth, Armstrong,” Ed points out sarcastically, standing behind the sofa with his hands on his hips.

“Kisa is barely learning our culture and it’s like you’re condemning her upbringing,” Al scolds.

“But I didn’t mean to upset her,” Armstrong desperately explains.

“Azambrans consider their traditions as a means of staying connected to their ancestors,” Falman blithely explains. “Criticizing such deeply held beliefs could be considered extremely offensive.”

Sitting back, Maes enjoys the show immensely, but it’s proving very difficult to not laugh out loud.

“I’m sorry,” a contrite Armstrong apologizes while looking worriedly at Kisa.

Incapable of answering, she buries her face in her hands. With barely restrained humor, Maes rises to his feet and places a soothing hand on Armstrong’s massive bicep.

“Kisa has already forgiven you,” he solemnly reassures Armstrong. “She’s not as deeply entrenched in those archaic traditions as her parents. Keep in mind she’s adjusting to all these new changes. To spare her further embarrassment, why don’t you go down into the cellar and pick out a couple of nice vintages for dinner? You always select the perfect complement.”

“Certainly,” a subdued Armstrong nods. “If you’ll excuse me.”

With her hands clasped over her mouth, Kisa watches in amusement while he leaves the room. Having moved to peer after him through the door, Maes signals when Armstrong is far enough away, allowing her to burst out laughing. Ed and Al can’t resist laughing with her while Maes, Riza and Roy look on in amusement, leaving the rest of the room confused and baffled.

“She finds Armstrong’s antics funny,” Maes explains through his chuckles. “When she first met him, she thought his behavior was a prank and was merely exaggerating.”

Incredulous, Denny points in the general direction Armstrong left.

“There’s no way anyone can exaggerate that!”

Falman crosses his arms and nods in agreement.

“Maybe not, but it was really funny seeing Armstrong believe he upset Kisa,” Al grins.

Finally catching on, Breda and Fuery snigger in agreement.

“That was a bit cruel of you boys to feed that misconception,” Maria frowns in disapproval.

“Did you really want Armstrong to continue unchecked?” Riza arches a brow. “He got as far as removing his shirt.”

Maria opens her mouth to reply, but promptly shuts it as realization lights up her eyes.

“Damn, you’re right,” Denny murmurs.

“I’ve never seen anyone so out there and bombastic like that,” Kisa recovers somewhat with a cough. “Almost seems unreal.”

“He’s real all right,” the rest of the room simultaneously choruses.

They all dissolve into laughter as Armstrong reenters the room.

“Excuse me, but Gracia requested I inform you dinner is ready.”

Rising to their feet, they all start filing into the dining room. Armstrong steps over to where Kisa waits for her turn.

“I must apologize if I insulted you,” he states sincerely.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” she warmly smiles up at the large man. “I agree with much of your opinion.”

She pauses briefly to think of how to explain her reaction instead of admitting the truth.

“It’s been an active few months and I’m barely getting comfortable in my new home. It’s taking longer than it should, so I apologize for reacting so strongly.”

“Please, there is no need to apologize,” Armstrong assures her, holding up a placating hand. “Shall we consider things even between us then?”

“Yes,” she smiles again as Maes calls him over to his seat at the table.

“Nice save,” Roy mutters just loud enough for her to hear.

“Indeed,” Riza nods in approval, having witnessed the exchange too.

Kisa merely grins as they’re directed to their places and settle in at the table.



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