Unity Night, 1700 Hours
“Breda! Hey, Breda!” When this gets no immediate response, Havoc knocks on the side of the desk that borders Breda’s corner: come in please, Second Lieutenant. “We better hurry up if we want to hit the Dry Dock before it fills up and all the pretty girls are gone.”
Breda raises his eyebrows and fails to look up from the paper he’s signing. “Guess you’d better go, then.”
“- hey! Aren’t you coming?”
“Not this year.”
Havoc’s brow furrows suspiciously. “You’re pulling my leg.”
“Can’t make it.” Breda slides the signed page into the pile on his desk, taps the pile together, sticks it in his carrel, and stands up. “Sorry, Havoc, I’m busy.”
“No way you’re going all the way back to South just for the day!”
“I think Lieutenant Breda’s setting a good example, sir,” says Falman, looking up from his paperwork with the kind of approving expression he usually reserves for well-balanced accounts. “I’m sure his parents will be happy to see him for the holiday.”
“I’m not going back to South,” says Breda, reaching down for his backpack.
“Well, then what?”
Breda shrugs again, slings the pack over his shoulder, and heads out from behind the desk towards the door. Over his shoulder, he says, “My girlfriend’s ma invited me to Unity Dinner with them.”
“Girlfriend?” demands Havoc, but Breda is already out the door, whistling.
Havoc stares after him for a moment, then appeals to Falman and Fuery: “Did anyone know he had a girlfriend?”
“No, sir,” says Fuery, blinking.
“None of my business, sir,” says Falman dourly.
“None of your business, Havoc,” says Mustang, from his desk in the back, but he’s looking sour-faced too, which means that he didn’t know.
Hawkeye doesn’t say anything, which is about as per usual, and knowing Hawkeye, probably means that she did.
Havoc collapses back into his seat and runs his hand back through the mop of his bangs, extremely aggrieved. His wingman has abandoned him; his plans for the evening are ruined, thanks to Second Lieutenant Killjoy. It’s no fun going drinking on Unity Night alone , you look like one of the no-family lonelies drowning their sorrows instead of a confident good-looking fellow who’s out playing the field by choice. He scans the room. His eyes pass over the Colonel, Hawkeye, Falman . . .
He stops. Starts to smirk.
Fuery pushes his glasses up his nose, and blinks some more. “Yes, sir?”
“What are you doing for Unity Night?”
Fuery’s family is all up north; there’s no way Fuery’s getting up there and back again to report to work the day after, and if Fuery had a girlfriend, Havoc is pretty sure they’d all know about it.
“I – ah, I was planning on a quiet night at home,” says Fuery, looking wary.
“I thought so,” said Havoc. “How about you come out to the Dry Dock with me instead?”
“I’m not really much of a drinker, sir –”
“It’s Unity Night, Fuery! You don’t want to spend it sitting home alone!”
Fuery doesn’t actually want to spend Unity Night sitting home alone. Havoc can tell. “Well –” he says, starting to weaken.
Falman coughs. “Sergeant Fuery – I apologize, I meant to mention it earlier. My sister’s having a small Unity Night dinner tonight, and she was mentioning something about an overabundance of food. If you’d like to join us, I’m sure she’d be pleased to have you.”
“- oh,” says Fuery, breaking into a smile. “Yes, of course – if it wouldn’t be an imposition I’d be –” and then he stops and shoots Havoc a guilty look, as well he should, in Havoc’s opinion. And how did Fuery get to be a fifty-year-old man without passing twenty-five, anyway?
“You’d be welcome to join us as well, sir,” says Falman, belated but dutiful.
Havoc stares at the Family Values Twins – out of the corner of his eye, he can see his superior officer smirking, which is pretty much the icing on the cake – and then pointedly shoves himself to his feet and heads for the door. He pauses on the threshold just long enough to announce, “No one here knows how to celebrate a holiday,” before concluding the stomping-out process.
There have to be a few members of his squad who haven’t gone home for the night yet. It can be kind of weird drinking with your direct subordinates, especially if you have the bad luck to get shot down and they happen to witness it, but at least Yevgeny and Garrett know how to have a good time.
Unity Day, 0500 Hours
“Aren’t we supposed to have off today, sir?” asks the new transfer, freezing and miserable even in his fur-lined military-issue black coat.
Major Miles glances at him and raises his eyebrows over his snow-vision goggles. “We do. Drachma doesn’t. That’s why we volunteered for guard duty today.”
“I didn’t volunteer!”
“Sure you did,” says the Major, with a nasty grin. “Remember yesterday in the mess hall?”
Henschel thinks about it. He remembers yesterday in the mess hall. He remembers cracking a joke – much too loudly, in hindsight – about the Major’s carefully trimmed sideburns. He had been pretty sure Miles wasn’t there.
“I volunteered,” he agrees, with a sigh, and shifts his position for about the fifth time. His rifle strap is digging into his shoulder. “Sir.”
Miles reaches over and slaps him on the back, not gently. “Good man.”
Silence falls. Henschel, already deep in the dirt, considers not breaking it, but hell, they’re out here for another six hours; it’s going to stretch a lot longer if they don’t talk. “Sir?”
“Why did you volunteer to work the holiday?”
It becomes pretty obvious pretty fast, from the quality of Miles’ silence, that this line of inquiry is not welcome. Henschel gulps, and amends the question: “I mean, sir, why are you out on guard duty and not working with the Major General?”
“The Major General’s gone home to visit her family.”
“She has?” says Henschel.
The Major grins again; this time, at least, the joke doesn’t seem to be at Henschel’s expense. “She goes down every year. Seems like there are some pressures even the Queen of Briggs can’t resist.”
Henschel tries to conjure up a mental picture of a human being formidable enough to compel Major General Olivier Armstrong to leave Briggs for a family reunion. His imagination does not seem to be equal to the concept. “I think I’m glad that I’ve never met the Major General’s family, sir,” he says fervently.
“If you’re lucky,” says Major Miles, briefly distant, as if recalling a traumatic memory, “you never will.”
Henschel nods so hastily he bangs his chin on the parapet of Briggs’ northern wall.
Silence falls again; then, abruptly, Miles says, “Sergeant, about your other question . . .”
“Where you were stationed before, I bet the senior officers didn’t do guard duty, right? Thought they were too good for that kind of thing?”
“Get those ideas out of your head,” says the Major, looking out across the whiteness at the small, still dot of the Drachman fort across the border. “Here at Briggs, we all guard the wall. Scratch that – we are the wall.”
Henschel is pretty sure that the stones that they’re standing on are, in fact, the wall. All the same, he remembers a hundred off- duty hands flying up in perfect unison to salute the Major General as she walks through the mess hall, and thinks he might have something of an idea of what Miles means.
“Yes, sir,” he says, and adjusts his rifle again. It’s going to be a long holiday.
Unity Day, 0700 Hours
Sergeant Denny Brosh’s head is aching and his tongue is unpleasantly fuzzy, and these things didn’t matter when he was asleep a second ago, but now he’s awake and overall that’s a lot less fun. He’s not sure what exactly woke him up; however, his memory has just reminded him that it’s a holiday and he can go back to sleep, so it probably doesn’t really matter. Maybe a tank rolled by. Maybe the trumpeters for the parade are practicing early. Maybe –
“HOW DELICIOUS!” The voice is coming from downstairs, but it resonates far beyond the normal capabilities of standard sound vibrations. It booms through the whole house. It is horrifically familiar. “THESE BISCUITS ARE TRULY WONDERFUL, MRS. BROSH!”
In less than ten seconds, Denny Brosh is out of bed, down the stairs, and skidding into the living room where his mother is offering Major Alex Louis Armstrong a refill on tea.
First Lieutenant Maria Ross – the evil rat, the treacherous sadist, his partner and superior officer with whom he is never going out drinking again – is smirking at him over her own cup.
Denny glares back, which might be more effective if the hangover, which he thought for a second he’d left behind in his panic, hadn’t just caught up to him again. He clutches the door lintel and tries to look steady. “Good morning, sir,” he says, through gritted teeth, and attempts to send Ross a screaming telepathic message, WHAT THE HELL IS THE MAJOR DOING HERE?
“Morning, Brosh,” says Ross. Maybe she has in fact developed telepathy skills, or maybe he is just that easy to read, because she adds, “Your mom was nice enough to give us breakfast after we brought you home.”
“Yeah,” says Denny, “uh, thanks, Mom. What time did –”
“We got you here about half an hour ago,” Ross fills in, looking totally chipper and completely one hundred percent awake, which is so not fair, it is the least fair thing in the world when he knows she drank at least twice as much as he did last night. “You should’ve told me you’re such a lightweight, Brosh. Lucky for you I ran into the Major on his morning run or I would’ve had to leave you there.”
“The Major . . . carried me home,” says Denny, horror continuing to rise. The fact that the Major is not wearing a shirt has just come up and clocked him on the back of the head. This wouldn’t normally be something he would take too much notice of – the Major is all too unfortunately often shirtless in the line of duty – but the Major is not usually shirtless in Denny’s living room. In front of his mom.
In – and now Denny realizes that maybe he didn’t notice this before because his brain was trying to protect him, which, good job, brain, but some jobs are just too much for it to handle – tiny jogging shorts.
“Well, I helped,” says Ross cheerfully, whom he is never forgiving, not in a million years, not ever.
“It was no trouble!” declaims the Major, his moustaches and forelock waggling in kindly generosity.
Ross takes a gulp of tea. “Good thing your mom’s an early riser, or I would’ve felt a lot worse about barging in like this.”
“Ha, it’s not exactly my choice of schedule,” says Mrs. Brosh. “You know what the kids are like on the holidays,” and Denny notices for the first time – the hangover is making him slow – that all five of his siblings are clustered in a knot next to the Major, staring at his visibly bulging muscles in utter fascination.
“Mom,” says a bright-eyed Jenny, taking advantage of the pause in the conversation, “hey, Mom, can Mr. Armstrong stay for lunch? Can he please?”
“I want to see how much he eats!” says Bob, who is not known for tact. “I bet he can eat a whole chicken!”
Benny says, “Are you kidding, I bet he can eat five!”
“Well,” says his mom – without even looking at Denny to see that he is shaking his head frantically to signal no, no, because his mom is sometimes completely cruel like that – “we’ve certainly got plenty of food, and there’s always room for a few more around the Unity table – ”
To Brosh’s eternal and everlasting relief, the Major sighs and shakes his head also. “I am touched by your invitation,” he informs them, and clasps a hand to his chest. “But alas, I owe a duty to my family to return to them. The traditions of our Unity Day celebration have been passed down in the Armstrong family for generations!”
They’ve been passed down in every family for the past few generations, but nobody points this out. “Well,” Brosh says, trying to not to sound too relieved – and not doing a very good job of it, probably, because Ross behind Armstrong’s back is visibly trying not to crack up – “if you have to go, Major, I mean, it’s a shame. And I really appreciate you getting me home. But of course, the Armstrong traditions –”
“Mr. Armstrong!” shrieks Jenny. “Mr. Armstrong, you won’t leave before you do the trick with your muscles again, right? Please?”
“Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?” chorus Benny and Bob, in unison.
“Of course not!” cries the Major, sparkling, and springs out of his seat with a mighty bound.
Denny buries his face in his hands and promises himself that if he lives through this morning without dying of embarrassment, he is going to spend all holidays from now on at home with his family, like a good boy, and never, ever go out drinking again for Unity Night again.
Unity Day, 0900 Hours
“On this day, as together we celebrate our great country, unique among the nations of the world in its history, in its independence, in its strength – on this day, I am overwhelmed by my pride. Not the pride I feel in being your Fuhrer, but rather my pride in simply being a citizen of this country – a pride we all share, as we all work, combined strength, united souls, towards the greatness that has been our nation’s destiny since it was founded. That is the pride I feel –”
“I still think,” says Mrs. Bradley, coming up behind the Fuhrer with a dove-gray tie, “that ‘united souls’ is a little flowery, dear.”
King Bradley coughs and turns away from the mirror to face his wife. “Possibly,” he tells her, “but you know it’s too late once I’ve memorized something. If I leave it out, the rest of the speech will go straight out of my head.”
“Well, never mind.“ Mrs. Bradley hands her husband the tie, and then leans forward to kiss his weathered cheek. “It doesn’t really matter, I can’t imagine anyone listening to you and not being inspired. You have one of those voices. It’s very unfair.” He settles his arms around her and starts to slide his hands down, and she steps back and raps his cheek smartly with two fingers, where she’d kissed it. “None of that now, we have to be out the door for the parade in ten minutes. Really ten minutes, not a minute more, or we will be late. And Selim still hasn’t got his tie! Now where did I –”
“That would be this tie?” says the Fuhrer, holding up the garment in question.
“- Yes, yes it would. Why did I give it to you? Don’t you laugh, you terrible man! All you have to do is give a speech and look dignified, I’m the one who has to get you that way. All right, here’s the tie, now where’s Se-”
“I’m here!” Selim slides out of the shadow of the doorway and grins up at her.
Mrs. Bradley beams back down at him. “How are you always where I want you?” She kneels down and starts fussing with the tie and his collar, tutting to herself. “Now of course I’m all thumbs, that’s what being in a rush does –”
Selim is used to these ministrations, and only fidgets very slightly. “I’m sorry,” he says, repentant, and glances over at the Fuhrer. “I thought I heard something weird downstairs so I went to go see.”
“Our little sentry.” King Bradley’s tone is indulgent. “Find anything, son?”
“Nothing important,” says Selim, and abruptly turns wide anxious eyes to Mrs. Bradley. “We’re not going to be late for the parade, are we?”
“I know how much you like sitting on top of the float!” His mother laughs. “Don’t worry – we’ll be right on time, and everyone is going to be so proud of how much you’ve grown over the last year. Almost as proud as we are – isn’t that so, King?”
“I think it would be hard to be as proud as we are,” says the Fuhrer solemnly. He reaches down and ruffles his son’s hair with a large hand, and Mrs. Bradley lets out a cry of dismay.
“Oh, now look what you’ve done! Just one minute, I’ll be back with a comb –” She jumps to her feet and heads out of the room, leaving the boy and the man alone together.
“Well, son,” says King Bradley, “why don’t you tell me what you think of my speech?”
“I heard it before when you were writing it,” says Selim, and smiles. “I like the part about united souls.”
Unity Day, 1030 Hours
Pinako Rockbell is in the middle of making chocolate-chip pancakes when she hears the banging on the door.
“Dr. Rockbell! Dr. Rockbell, are you in?”
Pinako rolls her eyes, takes a deep breath, and shouts up the stairs, “WINRY!”
“I’m coming, I got it!” Hasty footsteps skid down the stairs and through the hallway. Pinako takes her time about sliding the last pancake off the griddle, and then ambles after them to see what the fuss is all about.
Winry is still in her pajamas; it’s a holiday, after all. That’s why Pinako’s been letting her hang about upstairs sleeping late instead of having her help with the pancakes. You’ve got to do something nice for the kids every once in a while. (That, and, though Winry would never admit it, Pinako can tell it’s got her a little down that those two brothers couldn’t make it out this year.)
“It’s Joe-down-the-street,” she says to Pinako now, blinking.
Pinako recognizes perfectly well that it’s Joe-down-the-street, who shuffles his feet in abashed panic like he’s still ten years old instead of the hulking teenager he’s mysteriously become. “And what’s got you out?” she demands, pinning him through her glasses. “Shouldn’t you be home helping your ma?”
“Well – it’s Arn,” says Joe.
“Ma told him to take the roast out of the oven for her.”
Pinako closes her eyes. She can see all too clearly where this is going. “Yes?”
“He thought, with the automail and all, he wouldn’t need an oven mitt and –”
Winry does not have Pinako’s long experience, and thus has not been as well able to prepare herself for this revelation. Someday, Pinako thinks, she’ll learn. “What,” she says, blankly. “He did . . . what? He put my automail in the oven?”
“He didn’t think the heat would bother him,” says Joe, managing to shrink so he looks smaller than Pinako despite being about three times her height. “Seeing as the arm’s made of metal, and it was just for a minute, he reckoned –”
He is interrupted by a full-blown shriek. “I can’t believe – there are nerves in there! There are delicate parts! And he only got it installed fourteen months ago, he hasn’t even fully adapted to it yet! I – ARGH!” Winry slams the door in Joe’s startled face, to satisfy her feelings, and then storms back up the stairs.
“Winry,” Pinako calls after her, “don’t forget to put some clothes on when you’re getting your kit!” She opens the door again. Joe-down-the-street is still standing there hopefully, doing his best to project apologetic vibes. “You go tell your ma and Arn that we’ll be right over,” she says. “And don’t let Arn do anything else to that arm!”
“He’s soaking it in water now,” mumbles Joe. “Is that all right?”
“Might not be for cheap, low-grade automail,” says Pinako. “Good thing Rockbell automail’s fully waterproof. Don’t listen too much to my granddaughter, Joe, Arn’s automail’s going to be fine. Now, the arm underneath might’ve taken some damage, but we’ll fix that up.”
“Thank you, ma’am!” Joe breaks into a relieved smile and then pauses, sniffing the air. “- oh,” he says, wilting again. “Are we pulling you off your Unity breakfast?”
“Yes,” says Pinako, who doesn’t believe in sugarcoating. “Never mind.” She grins, and drags out her pipe from her pocket. “We’ll charge you an extra fee for service on the holiday, that’s all. Now get!”
Pinako heads back into the kitchen. She’ll cover up the pancakes, and put what’s left of the batter in the icebox; it’ll keep, or it won’t. Regardless, it’s not like they can’t have chocolate-chip pancakes any day of the week. Unity Day’s just a day, after all.
Winry reappears in the kitchen, dressed in her coveralls – Pinako suspects she just threw them on over her pajamas, but never mind – with her kit over her shoulder. She’s still fuming, but she’s had enough time to cool down that she asks, “We’re not really going to charge an extra service fee, are we?”
“Of course we’re not,” says Pinako, lighting her pipe. Mrs. Allison can’t afford it now that she’s down to one household income, and they both know that. “Doesn’t hurt to put the fear of it into young Joe, though. Teach him and his brother to be a little more careful.”
Winry sighs, acknowledging the truth of this, and props her elbows on the counter, blonde brows knitted. “Granny, why do people do such stupid things sometimes?”
Pinako’s spent over sixty years pondering this very question, and has yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. She drags on her pipe. “Well,” she says, finally, “tell you one thing for sure – whatever stupid thing Arn did, those two brothers are probably off doing worse.”
Unity Day, 1100 Hours
The lights are off and the hallways quiet throughout most of Eastern Headquarters. Colonel
Mustang’s office is a notable exception.
“Lieutenant,” says Mustang, looking up from his stack of papers; there are circles under his eyes. “Do you remember what happened to the notes on the Tenma ca–”
“Riza!” Lieutenant Rebecca Catalina bursts into the doorway, stylish coat flying dramatically behind her. Hayate, startled, jumps out from under Riza’s feet and starts barking. “I called it, I totally called it! I knew you would be here, I knew it, because you are a lunatic, and –”
Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye looks at Rebecca. Then she looks at her superior officer.
“- sir,” says Rebecca, skidding to a halt and snapping a very belated salute. Her carefully shaped eyebrows shoot high in the air, as she readjusts her plan of attack to account for his presence. “Permission to point out that it’s not legal to make your subordinates work on Unity Day, sir!”
Mustang looks like he’s not sure whether to laugh or to call her out for insubordination. “Permission not granted, Catalina!”
“We have a lot to cover, Lieutenant,” Hawkeye says, perfectly calm. (It’s Rebecca in the mess hall, but not in her office; they might all be wearing civvies, but that doesn’t change the protocol.) She bends down to put a hand on Hayate’s head, and the dog stops barking.
Second Lieutenant Rebecca Catalina, Commander of C Squadron and second-top-rated sniper in the Eastern Command Center, rolls her eyes at her and addresses Mustang again. “Permission to kidnap your lieutenant for her legal holiday, sir!”
Mustang glances over at Hawkeye, who is unhelpfully not making any particular expression. “We know for a fact,” he remarks, “that Haraldson and his bandits are planning to be out of the country and back to Aeruga within four days.”
Hawkeye says, “Lieutenant, I can let you know when my day off is next –”
Rebecca doesn’t let her get any further than that. “Riza,” she says, changing tacks yet again. Her voice goes pleading as she leans forward and rests her elbows on Hawkeye’s desk. “Riza. I don’t think you understand how important this is. My mother demands that we bring someone new for her to feed at Unity Dinner every year. Demands it. My older brother is bringing his new boyfriend. My sister is bringing her new boyfriend, and his kids. My little brother has managed, don’t ask me how, probably by lying about Mom’s cooking, to talk half his squad into coming. If I don’t bring anyone –” She lets her voice trail off dramatically, allowing her audience to imagine the horrors in store, and straightens.
The corners of Hawkeye’s mouth are twitching very slightly. Satisfied, Riza turns back to Mustang, smacking her heart dramatically. “It’s a matter of family honor, sir!”
Mustang looks at Hawkeye.
Hawkeye looks at Mustang.
(Hawkeye, as far as she knows, has no family living. Mustang never goes back to Central for Unity Day; Unity Night is his foster mother’s busiest time of year. They have spent the last three Unity Days in this room. Around thirteen hundred hours, they take a break to walk Hayate. Around seventeen hundred hours, Mustang usually orders a pizza, and they spread it out across the main desk, careful not to stain Falman’s neat sets of files. By around nineteen hundred hours, they usually have a solution to whatever problem has been furrowing their team’s brows for the past week, but they take their time over the pizza, waiting until the parades are done and the roads are clear and most of the city is ambling home full-bellied from their grandparents’ or aunts’ or uncles’. Then they turn out the lights; Hawkeye salutes at the door; they head back to their apartments, in separate directions.)
“Heh,” Mustang says, finally. “Well. If it’s a matter of family honor –”
“Are you sure?” says Hawkeye. “There’s a lot here.”
“With the traffic like it is, it’s not as if Haraldson’s going anywhere today,” Mustang says, suddenly decisive, and sits up straight. “Enjoy your Unity Day, Lieutenant. I’ll take care of the rest of that.” He nods at the papers still on her desk.
Rebecca needs no more encouragement; she dives for Hawkeye’s arm, pulling her up. “Come on, Riza! South Street’s closed for the parade, it’s going to take us forever to get there unless we start now.”
Hawkeye allows herself to be pulled up, tolerantly. Hayate looks up at her – this usually means he’s about to get a walk – and she shakes her head. She looks back up at Mustang, with a small smile. “Happy Unity Day, sir,” she says.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” says Rebecca, tugging Riza towards the door.
“Why not, Catalina,” says Mustang, propping his chin on his folded hands.
“Leave the damn office, sir,” says Lieutenant Rebecca Catalina. Her free hand flies to her forehead in another smart salute, and then she and Hawkeye are out the doorway. Hayate whines, and Mustang stands up.
“Lieutenant,” he calls, “you forgot your dog!”
Hawkeye’s voice floats back down the corridor. “I’ll be by to pick him up later, sir! Please make sure you do finish that paperwork!”
“Riza!” shrieks Rebecca – Mustang can hear that clearly – and then something that sounds very much like, “For god’s sake, you deserve each other!”
Mustang does laugh, at that, and settles down to his paperwork. (It’s a good thing he knows without asking by now what Hawkeye likes on her pizza.)
Unity Day, 1200 Hours
It hasn’t rained in the past week, but anyone passing through the slums today is likely to re-emerge onto the main roads of the town with mud on their feet and the bottom of their trousers. The man with the scar on his face currently sloshing his way through the alley knows to expect this; he doesn’t expect to find the narrow alleyway blocked by an argument.
“You’re mean, you’re mean, you’re mean!” The child shouting in the middle of the street is probably around six years old. (A significant age, thinks the man with the scar.) His fists are clenched and his eyelids are screwed shut, but his hair is as white as that of the young woman with him – his mother, presumably – who stares at the boy with helpless frustration in her wide red eyes.
“Eytan, we have to go,” she says, with the the weary air of one who has said this approximately fifty times already, and can only hope that the fifty-first will be the one that takes. “Your uncle’s expecting us.” She shoots a quick apologetic look over at the man with the scar, and takes the boy’s arm, trying to shuffle him further over.
“It’s always boring there,” says Eytan, mutinous and unmoving. “I want to see the parade! It’s not fair! Ana and Maryam are going!”
“Ana and Maryam don’t have mothers to tell them differently.” The woman presses her palms into her forehead, with the familiar gesture of an incipient headache. “We don’t go to the parade. Eytan. We don’t.”
Eytan does not look impressed with this line of debate. “There’s going to be fireworks,” he informs her, clearly considering this the ultimate word in the argument, and the woman shuts her eyes. There are any number of things she might say. But they’re not things a six-year-old would (or, perhaps, should) understand.
The man with the scar hesitates a moment before stepping forward. The woman opens her eyes again and their gazes meet, briefly. Then the man with the scar crouches down to look the child in the eye.
“Eytan,” he says. “Fireworks are for celebrating. Aren’t they?”
“Uh-huh!” says Eytan, nodding vigorously.
“Do you celebrate things that are wrong?”
Even a six-year-old knows the expected answer to this question. Eytan, however, is not ready to give up this easily. He glowers back at the man with the scar. “It’s just a parade!”
The scar does not impress Eytan; most of the adults he knows are scarred in one way or another. The grave immobility of the scarred face does. The man is talking to Eytan like Eytan is a grownup, which is something Eytan sometimes thinks he wants, but now isn’t so sure he likes. “It’s a parade for something that is wrong,” he says, his voice low and rumbling like the sound of the military cars as they drive around the slums on patrol. “If you know that it’s wrong and you still go to the parade and you still cheer the fireworks – what does that mean?”
The boy stares back at the man for a moment, and then folds his arms and humps his chin down on his chest, looking away.
This means he has lost, and they both know it. Eytan still wants to go to the parade. But somehow the man has made it so he can’t admit it.
The woman, too, tears her gaze away from the man. “Eytan,” she says, “will you come to your uncle’s?”
Eytan makes a small, grumpy noise, and suddenly storms off down the muddy alley in what – presumably – is the direction of his uncle’s house. The woman goes hastily after him, but pauses to look back at the man with the scar. “Thank you,” she says.
The man doesn’t say anything, just turns his head and continues down his way past the crowded tenement buildings, ignoring the drips of water trickling out from doors and grates and windows. Wet feet do not concern him over-much.
He is going to a small building at the end of the street that is not officially a temple. Officially, there are no temples of Ishvala in Amestris, and no priests. The man who owns the building happens to make it open, at certain times of the year, and happens to keep certain supplies on hand; that’s all.
The place is full, and the man with the scar waits patiently for his turn to take a large pitcher of water from the cistern in front to a small room in the back. Most people enter one at a time. Most of them look tired and ragged, and many are old; some of them are children, and these are generally solitary too, and all of them older than six. The people who come here don’t have places of their own, not houses or apartments or even tents by the river. They leave with empty cups and pitchers, and sometimes they look more eased than when they came, and sometimes they don’t.
Eventually it is the man with the scar’s turn to have the room to himself. He kneels down over the small grate set into the floor that will allow the water to flow back into the earth.
“You hated this custom, brother.” The sound of his own voice echoes strangely in the small stone closet. “Why waste precious water on the dead, you said? Save it for the living.”
Deliberately, he lifts the pitcher with his tattooed right arm, steadies it with his bare left hand, and tilts it over the grate. “If you didn’t want this,” he says, as the water flows out – he has made very sure that the pitcher is full – “you should have lived.”
He has been saying this often, in the silence of his own mind. He thought it each time he walked away, stiff-backed, from a countryman or woman who offered him shelter and a chance to rest for a while. He thought it when he reached out with his brother’s arm, and used it to kill an Amestrian alchemist. If you didn’t want this, you shouldn’t have – if you didn’t want this, you should have been the one to –
He hasn’t said it aloud before today. Perhaps the water will get his brother’s attention.
And perhaps it won’t.
His mismatched hands hold the jug steady until all the water is gone. Then he rises and walks out. An old woman totters past him, clutching her jug of water in shaking and determined hands. She doesn’t look at him as he goes by. In this place, his scarred appearance is nothing to take note of, and neither is the anger printed, unchanging, on his face.
Unity Day, 1310 Hours
“And what does the sign say?”
“It says you’re closed.”
“Exactly,” says Izumi Curtis. Her arms are folded and her face is set in a sternly intimidating expression – not her most intimidating expression, not by a long shot. She saves that one for bears and the military and idiot students. But daunting nonetheless.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bryant is obstinate. Mr. Bryant is also new to the neighborhood, and while he has heard about Izumi Curtis, the butcher’s invalid wife, he has not yet heard about Izumi Curtis, master alchemist, who threw that teenaged idiot who tried to break into the Yemi house all the way across town into the mayor’s flowerbed. “But,” he says, “I’m sorry, but I really have to say, this is terrible business practice. Surely you must realize that some people might need meat unexpectedly for Unity Dinner.”
“Surely you must realize that some people might enjoy a chance to celebrate their own Unity Dinners without being interrupted by idiots,” Izumi says, a dangerous glint in her eye. “It’s not our job to cater to idiots, Mr. Bryant.”
“Yes, but –” says Mr. Bryant, and then blinks as Izumi’s hand flies up, her fingers closing around a fast-moving streak of silver. “Ah – Mrs. Curtis, is that a knife?”
“My husband would like me to carve the roast,” says Izumi sweetly. The smile that appears on her face is one or two degrees more intimidating than the stern look. “Our guests are getting hungry. Are you going to go home?”
Mr. Bryant opens his mouth again, and Izumi slams the door in his face.
When she’s satisfied that there isn’t going to be any more irritated banging on the door, she heads back into the kitchen, cheerfully tossing the knife up and down in her right hand. “Sorry about that! There’s one every year.” She shakes her head, bemused. “You’d really think they’d learn.”
The elder Mr. Curtis winces and looks away from the flying carving knife. “It always makes me nervous when you two do that,” he sighs. “I keep thinking you’re going to put your eye out.”
Sig looks vaguely sheepish, but Mrs. Curtis says, “Now, dear, you know they’re both trained for that kind of thing. I’m sure they wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t safe.”
Mr. Curtis rubs the bridge of his nose, under where his bifocals sit. “Of course I know that, dear, it just makes me jumpy seeing it.”
Izumi laughs, grabs the knife back out of the air, and sits down at the head of the table in front of the steaming roast. “I hope everyone’s ready to eat by now.”
“It looks delicious, as usual.” Mrs. Curtis has to reach up to pat her son on one massive shoulder. (No one’s quite sure where Sig got his size, but it wasn’t from either of his parents; they’re both closer to Izumi’s height than Sig’s. Mrs. Curtis tends to blame it on a legendary Drachman general somewhere far back in her ancestry.) “You two outdo yourselves every year.”
Sig looks pleased under his black beard and Izumi smiles, her hands a blur above the table as she slices through the beef. “We’re always happy you can make it. Cooking for just me isn’t much fun.”
“Cooking for just you is just fine,” Sig contradicts her.
“Oh, my!” Izumi laughs again. “Sig, are you sure you want to say lovey-dovey things like that in front of your parents?” She bats her eyelashes up at her husband, and they take a moment to smile soppily at each other.
Mr. Curtis coughs and rubs at his glasses. For a moment, he could have sworn the steam from the roast was forming itself into an enormous heart. Admittedly this happens all the time around Sig and Izumi, but he still finds it vaguely unnerving. “What about young Mason, where’s he this year?”
Sig returns his attention to his father. “Off at his uncle’s – big family celebration. He should be back tonight before you leave, so you’ll get a chance to say hello.”
“Oh, good,” says Mrs. Curtis, pleased, and then, reminded, “Speaking of apprentices, do you ever hear from those two boys that were here – what was it, three years ago? No, it must have been more – time does fly when you start getting old!”
“Ed and Al?” Izumi and Sig exchange a glance; this time, it is not at all soppy. They haven’t heard much of anything from Ed and Al these past few years, except for some very disturbing rumors. “Well,” Izumi says, “you know how kids are. They never call, they never write. I’m sure we’ll hear from them when they need something.”
“They were nice boys,” says Mr. Curtis. “We liked meeting them. You should ask them if they want to come back for Unity Dinner sometime. It was a nice thing, having –” and then he breaks off into a coughing fit, because Mrs. Curtis is kicking him under the table. They might say to each other how nice it was to have children around for the holiday – but how heartless a thing to say to their son and his wife, and how easily misinterpreted. They’re fond of Izumi, and while they may be wistful over certain things, the last thing they want to do is to cause her any distress. “Having those boys here,” he concludes awkwardly, as Sig’s hand reaches over to cover Izumi’s free one.
“If you do hear from them,” says Mrs. Curtis, “will you tell them we were thinking of them?”
“Of course,” says Izumi, her smile still cheerful, and sets down the knife. “There, done – everyone dig in!”
Unity Day, 1350 Hours
“Orange. Grape. Um, banana –”
Ed groans and presses his hands into his stomach. “Stop it, stop it! You’re making me hungrier!”
It’s impossible to get last-minute train tickets the day before Unity Day, or the day after
Unity Day, but on the holiday itself the trains are nearly empty – a tip they’d gotten from Lieutenant Breda. Unfortunately, so are the staff compartments, meaning that all the lines are prone to enormous delays, which was a detail the lieutenant had forgotten to mention.
“Okay,” Al says, with a sigh, “so we can’t do Name That Fruit and we already named all the elements too . . . how about I Spy?”
“Around here?” Ed says, scowling out the window. “I spy with my little eye a sheep. I spy with my little eye another sheep. The fun never stops.”
“Okay, how about Would You Rather?”
Ed looks sulky, but he doesn’t say no, which is good enough for Al. “Okay, would you rather . . . be at Teacher’s with Mr. Curtis’ roast and the mashed potatoes, or be at Granny’s with the chocolate-chip pancakes?”
“Al, you jerk! What did I tell you about talking about food?”
The benefit of traveling on Unity Day is that there’s no one else in the train compartment to object to the brief sparring match that this sets off. It takes a few minutes for a conductor to notice the sound of thumping and come pound on the door of the car. “Hey, you kids! What the hell are you doing in there?”
“Sorry!” calls Al, slinking back onto the bench. “We’ll be quiet!” Ed pauses to alchemically smooth out the dents that have appeared in a few of the seats, and then flops back down across from his brother, with a dramatic sigh. Ed does not take well to boredom.
“Brother, the train’s not moving now,” Al offers, after a moment. “You could probably read.”
“All my books are packed,” complains Ed. “By the time I get to the luggage compartment and back the train’ll start moving again and the books’ll just be there mocking me. You are so lucky not getting carsick.”
“Ummmmmm.” Al taps his fingers together, fidgeting. “Okay, what about the question game?”
“I really hate that game! I’ve always hated that game.”
“Yeah, but Winry’s not here,” Al wheedles, “and you only hate it because Winry always beats us.”
“Uh, no way! Dammit, Al, when did you get to be such a liar? You remember Resembool last winter? You beat Winry almost every time.”
“Well, anyway, brother, you shouldn’t be a sore loser,” Al says, all virtuous dignity; when this gets no response, he slumps down in his seat. “I kind of wish we were there now,” he says, like a confession.
“Whatever,” says Ed, who would never in a million years admit to the same wish. He aims a light fraternal kick at his brother’s metal leg. “Isn’t it going to be way better when we’ve got our real bodies back? And you can actually eat dinner? Think about it – roast turkey and Granny’s cobbler and . . . dammit, now I’m hungry again!”
“That one wasn’t my fault, brother!”
“Well, anyway, if this stupid train would get moving,” Ed says, glowering out the window at the scenery as if it is personally responsible for the delay, “we’ll be one step closer to all of that. We could have our bodies back by this time tomorrow, maybe, if this lead turns out to be – hey!”
Al jerks his gaze over to the window. “Huh, what is it?”
“You know how they said over the intercom we were stalled because of track repair?”
“Well,” Ed says, leaning further out the window, and points up to the front of the train, where a group of men in bandannas have surrounded the front car, “I think maybe they were lying.” He turns and flashes a sudden grin over at Al. “This trip just got a lot more interesting, little brother!”
“Brother, maybe we should –” says Al, but he’s too late; Ed’s already pushed open the window and launched himself through, with a showy somersault. He hits the ground running and bounds up to the small congress in front of the train like an excitable red kangaroo. The wind carries his voice back in through the window – “Hey! Hey you up there, you’re bad guys, right?”
A loud clank echoes through the train compartment, as Al slaps a metal hand into his metal forehead before pulling out his chalk to draw a set of the alchemical symbols. He’s got to transmute the window into a door large enough for him to follow.
Unity Day, 1430 Hours
“My mom,” Bido says wistfully, “used to make this really amazing apple crumble thing.”
“My family always ordered takeout,” Martel says. “But it was really good takeout, you know? And then we’d have the annual family darts tournament.” She leans her head back against the wall. “I kicked my brothers’ asses every year.”
“My brother always kicked my ass,” says Dolcetto. “Didn’t ever think I’d miss that smug face.”
Greed stares at them all and crosses his arms in front of him. “What the hell, guys? What’s with the whinemobile trip down memory lane all of a sudden?”
“Well, you know, it’s the holiday,” mumbles Bido. “You start thinking about your family, I guess. It gets you kind of down.”
Greed frowns over at his chimerae. He’s greedy for all their loyalty, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t have it, because, let’s face it, he is the awesomest. They don’t need to be missing anyone else. “Come on,” he says, flipping himself abruptly to his feet. “Let’s cut the maudlin. We’re going out.”
“Out where?” asks Martel warily.
. . . Greed hasn’t really thought that part out yet. Fortunately, Greed is often prone to strokes of genius. “To the movies,” he announces, grabbing his sunglasses.
“But Mr. Greed,” Dolcetto says, “the movie theater is in a pretty ritzy part of town. Bido can’t –”
Bido tugs awkwardly on his lizard tail, currently sprawled out in plain view over the floor, and then shuffles it back under his raggedy cloak. “You guys should go,” he mutters. “I mean, it’s okay, I don’t mind staying behind.”
“Ahhh, whatever,” says Greed, dismissing this objection, and uses one finger to flick the sunglasses onto his nose. “We’ll go to a horror flick, yeah? If anyone notices they’ll just figure he’s dressing up, gotten all into it. Anyway –” He grabs the fur-lined collar of his vest and pops it higher, grinning. “It ain’t like they’re gonna be looking at any of the rest of you, with me around.”
“Ooooh, yeah,” says Martel, snickering. “They’ll think Mr. Greed’s a big movie star going incognito. Gonna sign any autographs?”
“You bet I am! I’m Greed the Avaricious! Money, women, and fame – they all –”
“ – belong to you,” chorus Dolcetto, Bido and Ulchi, and Ulchi adds, “But save some for the rest of us!” Greed’s grin broadens. Faded memories of parents and siblings can in no way compete with the famed Greed charisma, baby; his guys are still his guys.
“I’m not a big fan of horror movies,” rumbles Roa, looking faintly nervous.
Roa is generally ignored; the chimerae are starting to get enthusiastic now, energy chasing away nostalgia, just like Greed figured it would. “So what’s playing?” Dolcetto asks Bido, who tends to read the paper more reliably than the rest of them.
Bido stops fussing with his cloak and fidgets his fingers together instead. Bido’s always a little twitchy, Greed figures it’s gotta have something to do with the lizard half. They’re zippity little bastards, right? “Okay, okay, let’s see, there’s the one about the wolf-man, that’s got –”
“Oh, no way,” interrupts Martel. “If we’re going to a horror flick, I wanna be scared. If we see a movie about a wolf-man I’ll just be thinking about him peeing on one leg the whole time like Dolcetto.”
“Well, the other really big one right now is the one about the opera stalker –”
“Stop, stop right there, oh, we are definitely seeing that one,” says Ulchi, suddenly starry-eyed.
“Why?” Martel blinks at him. “It’s a pretty girly movie, for a horror flick.”
“Yeah, but that girl who plays the opera singer, you don’t understand, I have been following her career forever, she is incredibly hot –”
“Which means if we go see that one you’ll spend the whole time crooning about how gorgeous she is and won’t let any of the rest of us enjoy the movie?” says Martel, disgusted. “No thank you!”
“There’s one that’s been getting a lot of buzz that has a bloodsucking stalker and a wolf-man,” offers Bido, in the tones of a peacemaker.
“Seriously, I don’t like horror movies,” says Roa, louder this time.
Dolcetto laughs and slaps him on the back, ignoring the ox-chimera’s glare. “Don’t worry, big guy, if you get scared I’ll hold your hand –”
“Children, children!” Greed holds up his hands like a paterfamilias, and they all fall silent, varying levels of smirks on their faces, appreciating the joke. Oh, he loves his guys. “It doesn’t matter, right? If there’s a couple different movies playing – well, we’ll just have to see all of them.” He winks. “Why not be a little greedy?”
They all laugh at that, and fall into line behind him as he leads them out the door.
Unity Day, 1520 Hours
“Sister,” says Amue reproachfully, as Olivier Mira Armstrong takes her knee off of her little brother’s back, “you could show some more –”
“Proper triumph!” suggests Strongine.
“Nobility in triumph,” says Amue, firmly.
“Sparkling!” chirps Catherine Elle, which, it must be admitted, is a large component of what they are discussing – at least, according to the Armstrong traditions.
Alex Louis does not contribute to the discussion, except to lie on the floor and groan. As all of his younger sisters have recently taken their turns in similar positions, they can’t really object to this.
“It’s not that we mind that you win the family wrestling competition every year,” says Amue. “You are the eldest; it’s only right. But do you have to look so bored every time? It’s as if you take it for granted, sister!”
“Gloating might be better,” says Strongine glumly, and Amue promptly takes her slightly smaller sister by the elbow and sends her flying across the room.
“Our family’s tradition of generosity and nobility in victory has been passed down for generations! Armstrongs never gloat.”
“I must beg to differ, sister!” protests Strongine, pushing herself back to her feet. “In my studies of the Armstrong alchemical diaries, I have found that many a past Armstrong has delighted in gloating over less enlightened alchemists when they scored an academic point –”
“Now, children,” says their mother, without looking up from the newspaper, “there are many different ways of living up to the Armstrong traditions.” She coughs, and adds, in an audible undertone, “God only knows there are enough of them.” (All Armstrongs – by marriage or not – have difficulty with the concept of ‘sotto voce’. Fortunately the Armstrong sisters are used to ignoring this kind of comment from their maternal parent, and therefore don’t take much note.)
“I’m only saying, Olivier,” Amue says, returning her attention to her eldest sister, “would it be so difficult to make at least a small speech over Alex’s fallen body? To strike a pose, taking pride in your victory, and therefore rendering proper respect to the defeated?”
Olivier snorts. “Respect for that pantywaist?” She strides over to the fireplace, stepping on Alex’s back as she goes – Alex, who had been just starting to lift himself up, collapses back onto the ground – and stands in front of it, her back to her sisters, feet set apart and hands shoved in her pockets. At the very least, it makes for a suitably dramatic Armstrong silhouette. “If you’re sick of losing in the wrestling contest,” she says, without looking over her shoulder, “I could just stay up at Briggs next year –”
“No, sister!” cries Amue and springs up in distress, tears bursting from her eyes.
“No, sister!” cries Strongine and clutches the sofa for balance, accidentally splitting the sleeve-seams of her party dress.
Alex Louis mumbles something weakly from the floor; it’s mostly indecipherable, but from the woeful sparkles radiating from his head, it seems reasonably fair to translate it as “No, sister!”
“But sister!” cries Catherine Elle, “if you don’t come down for Unity Day, I’ll never be able to hear anything about your wonderful handsome subordinate?”
Olivier laughs. “I wouldn’t set your cap for Major Miles, little sister –”
“Not Miles,” sighs Catherine Elle, her eyes going dreamy. “The handsome one. Mr. Buccaneer . . .”
As Alex wheezes something incomprehensible from the floor, the Armstrong family patriarch coughs and says, “There, Olivier, you see? Your family would be far too grieved if you didn’t come down next year. Now – Catherine Elle, did you bring down the cannons and the trombones?”
“Then we are ready,” her father declaims, and stands up, his shirt bursting off his chest, “for the traditional Armstrong family Parcheesi tournament!”
Unity Day, 1630 Hours
“What happened to him?”
“Hell if I know,” Dr. Knox says, and glares through his glasses at the man who’s just appeared across from him. “And who the hell are you?”
The other man shrugs and offers up a sheepish grin, blinking foolishly behind his own pair of too-small glasses. “Just a curious bystander?” he suggests.
“Funny thing,” Knox says, “we don’t get a whole lot of those in the morgue.”
“Hmmmm. Good point.” The man considers this, putting a hand up behind him to smooth down his blond ponytail. His voice placid, he remarks, “I could be the murderer coming to eliminate the evidence.”
Knox snorts, unimpressed, and jerks his chin towards the corpse. “You’d need to be swinging a hell of a meat cleaver to have done that.”
They both turn to look at the soaked pieces of what was once a person on the table: elbow severed off from the arm severed off from the torso, divided into neat slices like someone’s dinner roast. Knox has had a job to do, cleaning off the parts to examine them; they’d spent a few hours floating through the sewers before bobbing up in some unfortunate general’s backyard pool. You’d better believe a couple of privates got pulled to take care of that fast, Unity Day or not.
After a moment of contemplation, the blond man offers, “Actually, a meat cleaver isn’t really sharp enough to have done that.”
“I know that,” Knox snaps. “I’m a damn surgeon. It was a figure of speech.”
“Ah,” says the other, apologetically, and strides over to peer down at the corpse. His face doesn’t register any particular discomfort at the gory sight of a dismembered human being – no more than Knox’s does. “Do you work with a lot of dead bodies, doctor?”
Knox hasn’t worked on a live patient since Ishval. “No,” he says, heavy on the sarcasm, “I’m just here as a tourist same as you.”
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
“Once or twice.” Knox shrugs. It’s some other poor bastard’s job to clean up the streets of Amestris; they’re just paying Knox to poke at the corpse. “They call them Barry the Chopper copycat killings, but Barry never did work this neat in his life. Well, that guy did use a meat cleaver.”
“Are the bodies like this always found in the sewers? Coming from underneath Central?”
“Look,” says Knox. His feet are cold – it’s always cold in the morgue – and his lumbago is acting up, and he wants to finish up here and go back to his empty house. “I’m not in the mood to play twenty questions. It’s a holiday, right? Go celebrate somewhere. Else.”
All this gets him is another befuddled blink from behind the glasses. “A holiday?” echoes the man, bemused. “Really? What holiday?”
Knox points over at a cheery sign in sparkly colored paper taped over the door to the morgue’s bureaucratic front office, currently dark and empty: HAPPY UNITY DAY!
“Unity Day . . .” The man taps the side of his head, as if trying to dislodge a memory, and then brightens. “Oh, yes! That new national pride holiday they started up after the Wellesley Conflict. I forgot we were still celebrating that. What do we do?” He looks politely eager, as if he will promptly run out and perform whatever celebratory directive Knox gives him.
Knox debates the merits of pointing out that Unity Day has been an Amestrian national holiday for the past hundred years, and decides it’s not worth the effort or aggravation. “We don’t do anything. I come in and take the overtime pay. If it’s a heartwarming holiday family story you’re after –”
He has to break off again, because, quite abruptly, the man’s mild amber eyes have started to well over with tears. “What the hell is it now?” demands Knox, thoroughly exasperated.
“I’m sorry – when you mentioned family, I did remember about Unity Day,” says the blond man, pulling out a handkerchief and blowing his nose. “Tricia – my wife – loves holidays. She used to decorate the whole house, and . . .”
“Then why aren’t you bawling on her shoulder?”
“I will be.” The man blows his nose again and wipes his eyes, apparently utterly unself-conscious about crying in front of a stranger. “Once I deserve to go back to her. Them. My family.” His gaze settles back on the corpse as if it holds the answer to his marital problems, which would have to be some damn funny marital problems, if so.
Then again, Knox doesn’t have much room to talk. He hunches down his chin and glares down at his shoes. The left one is seaming apart slightly at the toes, which explains why his feet are cold. He hasn’t bought new shoes in a long time. He never remembers to, without someone to tell him that his old ones are falling apart.
“Yeah,” he says finally, aware that he sounds bitter and not much caring, “good luck with that.”
Unity Day, 1700 Hours
“Hughes, I know you’re at your house, so was it really necessary to call through the private military line?”
“Says the guy in the office on a national holiday. Don’t tell me you’re actually doing work?”
“Heh. I was planning on working on the Haraldson case, actually, but then Fullmetal ran into the guy trying to hijack a train to get him out of the country – ran into him fairly hard, from what I hear. So that one essentially solved itself.”
“Yeah, try and tell me you had as much fun with your cute little arsonist as I did with my adorable family over here – Elicia, want to come say Happy Unity Day to Roy?”
“Happy Unity Day, Roy!”
“Happy Unity Day, Elicia. Having a good holiday?”
“You want to put your dad back on now?”
“Hughes, your two-year-old daughter just called me ‘Roy’.”
“I know, man, she said a whole sentence! I tell you, she’s talking better than any of the other kids in her play group –“
“That’s great, but don’t you think she should be learning to talk to adults a little more respectfully?”
“Of course we’re teaching her to talk respectfully to adults! It’s soooooooo so cute, she calls the mailman Mr. Mail and the milkman Mr. Milk – ”
“— what, so I don’t count?!?”
“What do you think? - oh, hang on, Gracia’s getting on the line.”
“Happy holiday, Roy!”
“Hi, Gracia! How’d the party go this year?”
“Really well. Elicia helped with the pie –”
“By which you mean she got flour all over everything.”
“Exactly. Now it’s all over but the washing up, which of course we’re putting off by calling you. Is Riza there? I’d like to wish her happy holidays.”
“Really? Where is she?”
“From what I understand, surrounded by happy couples and bright-eyed young cadets –”
“- Maes, you could just ask for the phone, you don’t have to gra–”
“Okay, come on, Roy, what’s the story? Where’s Hawkeye? Don’t tell me a dashing young officer stole her away from you?”
“Ha ha. In a manner of speaking. Do you remember Lieutenant Rebecca Catalina?”
“Uhhh. Don’t think we ever met, but I heard the name once or twice back in Ishval – wasn’t she the sniper with the great – uh, very flattering uniform? - now Gracia’s saying she went out for drinks with her and Hawkeye when we were in East on vacation . . . so why wasn’t I invited, huh?”
“Gracia was probably sick of listening to you talk, and I don’t blame her.”
“It sounds like you weren’t on the guest list either, Roy . . . and speaking of vacations, when are you coming up and celebrating Unity Day with us?”
“Ask me again when I get transferred to Central.”
“We’re going to hold you to that. Not that you should complain, let me tell you about the food that Gracia made for the party, I mean, seriously, it’s –”
“Seriously, I really don’t need the whole description – just a moment, I think that’s my pizza.”
“. . .”
“Happy Unity Day, Lieutenant Colonel.”
“Hawkeye! I heard you got kidnapped.”
“. . . in a manner of speaking. I accepted a friend’s invitation to lunch.”
“Good for you! Have a good time?”
“I did, thanks. It was a big party, though, and the cadets were very energetic.”
“Hah! You mean they weren’t all starstruck to be chowing down with the Hawk’s Eye? Did you have to sign anyone’s tactics homework - okay, tell me later, Gracia’s getting on the line.”
“Riza, I’m glad we caught you!”
“Hello, Gracia. How was your Unity Dinner?”
“Great, and I hear you actually got one too, for once? You can pass my congratulations along to Rebecca for prying you away from your desk. Or you could just say hello to her for me.”
“I’ll do that. How’s – is that Elicia I’m hearing?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s her all right – she’s been pretty overstimulated today. Lots of people. We’d probably better go put her down for her nap. Happy holidays, Riza – we’ll see you both here at Central one of these years, won’t we?”
“I hope so. Happy holidays, Gracia.”
Gracia glances over to see if Maes wants the phone back before she hangs it up, but he’s already picked up the wailing toddler and started bouncing her in his arms. She sets down the receiver on its stand and goes to stand behind her husband, slipping her arms around his waist.
“She was amazingly good for most of the day,” he says, pitching his voice over Elicia’s crying. “I was pretty impressed with her for not breaking down when your uncle Ivan came over and did the cheek-pinching thing.”
“Well, she’s a people person,” says Gracia, “like her dad.”
“And patient as he-heck like her mom.” Maes transfers Elicia to his left arm, and half-turns to grin at his wife. “I wouldn’t want your uncle Ivan pinching me on the cheek. Come on, cranky baby, you ready for a nap?”
Elicia shrieks one more time, “Want more UNITY DAY!” and then subsides into sulky, hiccupping sniffles.
“I know how you feel,” says Maes, and kisses her on top of her head. “Back to reality now, right? It’s okay, kiddo. There’s always next year.”