X X X X X X
Once the flurry was done, the ring oohed and ahhed over, hugs given and photographs taken and snacks offered and passed around, Gracia retreated to the kitchen of her house, her fingers pressed against her mouth. Her eyes stung with tears but she couldn't let them fall, not yet. That would be later tonight, in her room, where she could muffle them in her pillow. For now, she needed to present the face of a proud mother to her daughter over her engagement.
Gracia knew she should have expected this day – in fact, she had – but she hadn't realized how much it would affect her, seeing Elicia with Randolph. Her daughter had definitely grown up, far past her childhood crush on Edward Elric (that one carried on even after his wedding to Winry, much to Gracia's amusement and Winry's horrified laughter), far beyond her fascination with Roy Mustang and her trips to Xing, to interview the Emperor and travel the countryside with Alphonse and his wife, Mei. That Elicia had chosen an Amestrian boy, one with broad shoulders, dark hair and eyes concealed behind a pair of glasses, wasn't lost on Gracia, though she wouldn't bring it up to her daughter.
"If you knew," she whispered to the memory of her husband, "how beautiful she is."
"Mom?" Elicia pushed into the kitchen. "What are you doing?" Smile firmly in place, Gracia turned to her daughter, drinking in, again, the sight of this vivacious young woman. Dressed in a simple tulip skirt with a button down blouse, her short, wild hair only partially tamed with a pair of mother of pearl combs, Elicia cocked her hip against the counter, raising her eyebrow pointedly. "You're staring."
"A mother is allowed to stare at her daughter." Gracia caught hold of Elicia's hand, running her thumb over the plain, delicate ring. It suited her daughter, who would think something gaudy would get in the way. "Especially when her daughter's just announced her engagement!" Pulling Elicia closer, Gracia hugged her tight, laughing softly. "Your Dad…"
"Daddy would be looking for a pistol to chase Randolph off. Probably hiring the Elrics as bodyguards or something." Elicia patted her back before leaning out of Gracia's embrace, though she took her hand, giving it a squeeze. "Maybe asking Winry to make a mechanical chastity belt."
"Oh, come on, Mom! Dads never believe anyone's good enough for their little girls. And Winry's told me about Daddy at my birthday party with the gun."
Gracia had to nod and laugh. "Your father was definitely a character." She smoothed a stray strand of hair back against Elicia's temple. "He loved you, very, very much."
With a bittersweet smile, Elicia nodded, cupping her hand over Gracia's. "I remember that much." She took a deep breath. "Randolph wanted to know about Daddy. I told him what I could, and so did Al, when we were in Xing. But he'd like to know more, if you don't mind."
"Really?" Gracia felt a swell of warmth for her future son-in-law over that. "I'd be happy to tell him – well, as much as I can." There were some things she still couldn't talk about; Maes's assassin, and its self-destruction in front of Roy, Riza and Ed; why Maes had been killed in the first place. The sorrow two young – well, not so young any more, but still – men carried, for Maes's involvement with their lives and why it cost him his. Roy's own guilt, about not being able to act. No. She couldn't talk about those things. They weren't her stories to tell.
"That's all he wants, Mom." Elicia tugged her hand, leading her back into the living room.
Randolph turned as they entered the room, a brilliant, crooked smile lighting his face. He pushed his glasses up his nose with his forefinger. "I hope you don't mind, Mrs. Hughes. I was looking at your photographs." He gestured to one, of a pretty blonde holding a girl in her arms, both of them laughing. "I know this is Elicia."
"That's Winry Rockbell. Al's sister-in-law." Elicia laid her hand on Randolph's shoulder. "That was at my third birthday party."
"I'm sure you'll get a chance to meet Winry soon, Randolph." Gracia joined the children at the mantelpiece, adjusting one of the frames to give her hands something to do.
"She'll probably grill you worse than Al did." Elicia rolled her eyes. "She considers herself my big sister."
Gracia gasped mockingly. "As if you didn't love going to Rezembool to spend time with her!" With a hint of wicked grin, she added, "Unless you were really going for a chance to see Ed."
"Mom!" Elicia groaned. "Randolph doesn't want to hear about that!"
Obliging, he looked between the two women. "Ed?" Gracia didn't think Elicia would hear the end of this soon, if the twinkle in Randolph's eyes was any indication.
"Ed. Winry's husband. Maes more or less adopted Ed, his brother Alphonse, and Winry when they were kids." Gracia picked up a framed picture, turning it to Randolph, showing off a wedding party consisting of that trio, a little old woman, an aged dog and Elicia.
"That's Al from Xing." Randolph took the frame, turning it to keep the glare off the glass. "Honey, you were such a cute little girl."
"Wasn't I?" Elicia mugged for him. "I was the only flower girl Ed trusted. Well," she shook her head, making the stray hairs fly around her face, "that's what he said."
Setting the frame back on the mantelpiece, Randolph gestured toward another photo, another wedding – her own. Maes, resplendent in his dress blues. Gracia took the frame off the mantle, smiling in fond remembrance of that day, of her agony over choosing her dress for her marriage. The pale blue dress she wore had sprinkles of tiny white flowers at the collar and hem and she wore a little scarf to hide the mark Maes had left on her neck the night before. "Ed could be tactful once in a while," Gracia said, handing the photo to Elicia.
"And Mr. Hughes?" Randolph looked up from the picture to her.
"Oh, yes. Maes was tactful when he wanted to be. He was far better at it than Ed, but never quite as good at it as Roy."
As Elicia chuckled at the description, Randolph smiled. "How did you meet, Mrs. Hughes?"
Gracia pressed her fingertips to her mouth for a second before replying. "We grew up in the same neighborhood, almost. We attended the same school – Maes was a year ahead of me. I didn't know him well, just that most everyone liked him. He fit in with everyone, made everyone comfortable. I always thought he was rich, because he bought his lunch daily, never brought it from home. He almost always bought the same thing, too, an apple and a wedge of cheese from Mrs. Thiry's store.
"When he was eleven, his mother died and his father couldn't deal with the pain. He started drinking." Gracia had to stop for a few seconds, remembering what Maes had told her of that time in his life. "He drank away all their money, and Maes had to take care of himself. He went away to live with some friends of his mother's family, and I didn't see him again for five years. I didn't even recognize him when he came back!" She laughed shortly. "He'd been a gawky boy, all arms and legs and skinny body. His nickname was 'Walking Stick'. But he'd grown."
"Moo-oom!" Elicia made a face. "Don't make calf eyes!"
Arching her brows, Gracia said tartly, "I'm allowed to make calf eyes."
"You definitely are." Randolph looped an arm around Elicia's back, resting his hand on her hip. It seemed like a practiced move. "So, how did you meet the second time, when Mr. Hughes returned?"
Gracia set the frame back on the mantelpiece. "Well." She stroked a strand of hair back off her cheek as she smiled in remembrance. "There was a little street fair. A sort of a block party. There was one every year, with games for the children, and drinking for the adults. There was a dance later in the evening, and everyone went to it. Well, there was also a cake walk. I baked an apple pie for the cake walk – mostly in hopes it would attract the attention of Marvin Hamblish."
"Marvin Hamblish?" Elicia repeated, horrified. "Mo-om! I could've been Elicia Hamblish! That's terrible!"
"Hey." Gracia fixed her daughter with a frown. "Marvin was an absolutely wonderful young man. He had his own car."
Groaning, Elicia clapped a hand to her forehead. "Oh, Mom. You were swayed by a car?"
"It was a nice car." Gracia poked Elicia in the ribs, making her daughter dance sideways. Before Elicia could protest again, Gracia went on with her story. "So, I baked a pie. Well, two, really, I had to make sure it tasted okay. And it did. So I took it in to the cake walk and put it out with the other baked goods. It was the only pie. I was terrified that no one would even want it. And."
"And?" Randolph asked when she paused.
Gracia smiled. "I saw a blue uniform but didn't really pay much attention. There were a few police officers who lived in the neighborhood. They were always around, just like everyone else. Always there." She shrugged, laughing softly. "So I was hanging around the cake walk, watching the cakes. Watching when someone would win one of the cakes and take it away. And my poor, lonely pie, sitting there, all by itself." Sweeping her hands into the air, Gracia laughed. "And then, it was down to my pie and some banana muffins that Mrs. Baumholser made. Someone came up behind me and said something about the pie. And I turned around and," her mouth tilted up in a smile. "It was Walking Stick."
"You didn't really call Daddy that!"
Rolling her eyes, Gracia ducked her head. "I did! But he laughed and…and then he won my pie."
Randolph chuckled. "That, Mrs. Hughes, is a good story."
"It is, Mom." Elicia wrapped her arms around Gracia, squeezing her tight. "It's a great story." She kissed Gracia's cheek.
Hugging Elicia, she gave her a quick kiss. "I'm glad you liked it." She released her daughter, turning to Randolph. "And now, for an old family tradition."
"Hugging?" His smile was tentative, though he started to open his arms to her.
"No, Randolph!" Gracia took a few steps back, pulling something out of her dress pocket, raising the camera. "Pictures!"
"Mom!" Elicia cried.
The flash caught Randolph with his eyes wide and hands half-raised, Elicia with her mouth open to shout, and a glimpse of Maes, grinning almost approvingly from a picture frame behind Elicia's shoulder.
X X X X X X