Chapter 1: Through the Back Door
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“You can use the back door.”
Truth’s words rang in Ed’s ears as he staggered, nearly falling onto Al. “Whoa.” He passed his hand - his flesh hand – over his forehead, breathing out. “That was something.”
Something amazing. Something incredible.
Ed wrapped his arms around Al’s shoulders, deeply inhaling his little brother’s scent. Al needed a bath. But he could actually have a bath. It didn’t matter that he smelled weird. “We’re back.”
“Brother?” Al broke in. His voice sounded so different, no longer metallic, not ringing off the hollow inside of a suit of armor. “I don’t believe we’re in the same place we were before.”
Opening his eyes, Ed slowly turned from where he knelt behind Alphonse.
A city surrounded them, ash grey except for strange columns Ed recognized as smoke. There were bright flashes of fire scattered around. Overhead, a trail of grey arced across…it wasn’t a sky, what the hell was it? – before vanishing abruptly. Somewhere, Ed couldn’t quite pinpoint where, he could hear voices shouting, though he couldn’t make out the words.
None of the details he’d registered seemed familiar.
“Damn it.” Ed squeezed Al’s shoulder, reminding himself wherever he was, he wasn’t alone. But it still begged the question:
“Where the hell are we?”
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Chapter 2: Aftermath
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The soldier seemed to appear from nowhere, his gun at ready, but lowered when he realized. “What are you doing here? Never mind, you need to get out of here, now!”
Winry heard the words, though they sounded distorted and strange. Her heart thudded a hollow rhythm in her chest, leaving her with a feeling she couldn’t even begin to describe. Was her heart finally shattered with Ed’s disappearance?
Someone touched her arm, Sciezca, Winry remembered, was here too, though that thought seemed to come from a distance. Maybe this is what happened when a person had a mental breakdown.
Tilting her head back, Winry stared at the contrail of smoke, fading already. Ed had left behind his strange prostheses, a harried, “Thanks,” a crashed machine and a trail of smoke to show he’d managed to return to Amestris, only to leave it again. It wasn’t enough. There were things she’d wanted to say to him, and now she’d never get the chance.
Winry started, realizing someone had been repeating her name for some time by the worried tone to it. She blinked, lowering her gaze, finding a man she thought she’d recognized from previous meetings, though she couldn’t really place him. “Yes?” Her voice sounded hoarse and strange to her own ears.
“Glad you’re still with us, miss. I need you to come with me.” Not even waiting for a salute, he gathered Winry and Sciezca, like a hen did her chicks, guiding them through the rubble. “It’s a really good thing you hadn’t left yet, Miss Rockbell. The chief said you’ve got medical training, and there are some folks here who need it.”
Winry nodded. She’d get through this. There were other people who needed her, not just the Elric brothers.
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Chapter 3: Reminders
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The contrail of smoke, a reminder of the brothers’ last journey in Amestris, was fading overhead when Roy finally managed to land the balloon. Climbing out, his knees felt weak, and he held onto the basket to keep from falling. “Hell,” he murmured to no one in particular. He wasn’t looking forward to what might happen next.
“Sir!” Hawkeye’s familiar voice cut through his thoughts and Roy swiveled, finally spotting her as she moved toward him through the remainder of a building. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, Captain.” Roy ran his fingers through his hair, wishing he could put some of this off and sleep for a few days. “The Elric brothers are gone.” Surprised those words hurt, he tried to retreat behind a mask of stoicism.
Hawkeye paused in front of him, her own expression shuttered. “I suppose you’ll need to let Winry know.”
Miss Rockbell, Roy thought, deserved so much more.
He nodded. “I’m fine, Hawkeye.”
The tiny flicker in her eyes told him she knew he was lying. “Yes, sir.”
Roy took a deep breath, letting go of the basket. “Let’s go.” He took a step and Hawkeye fell into place behind him. “Report, Captain.”
“The invaders have been repelled, and we have taken prisoners of those left behind. There are casualties. Some of our men have sustained injuries. Havoc is trying to locate Winry so we will have some medical expertise available. There is als - ”
Roy held up a hand, effectively cutting her off. He turned, frowning. Hawkeye’s eyebrows rose in curiosity. “I heard something.” Closing his eye, Roy forced himself to listen. Had someone shouted his name? He strained, cupping his hands around his ears no matter how stupid he looked. Beside him, he heard Hawkeye shifting her weight, the soft ‘snap’ as she released her pistol from its holster to make it easy to draw. “There.” Roy started off in the direction of the yell. Skirting the rubble left from one of the attacks, Roy nearly fell, startled at the sight before him.
“I didn’t think you’d hear me!”
His knees went weak again. “Edward? Alphonse? How?”
“Hell if I know,” Edward snapped, “but Al needs help.”
Alphonse added weakly, “Brother needs medical care.”
“Hawkeye, find Havoc. And Miss Rockbell.” Roy pulled his jacket off, handing it to Edward. He promptly wrapped it around his brother, pulling Alphonse’s stick-like body against him.
However it had happened, Edward and Alphonse were back, and Roy knew this would change everything.
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Chapter 4: Under Any Circumstances
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Roy turned away from the scene, two brothers, huddled together. It was so right, and so very, very wrong. It was like everything he knew had been completely distorted, as if a mirror had been warped and he’d been looking into a funhouse glass.
“What happened to them up there?” Hawkeye asked, her voice low enough it wouldn’t carry past his shoulder.
The exhaustion he’d felt earlier was coming back with a vengeance. Roy knew whatever had happened when the brothers had disappeared to the other world, there was no way Alphonse’s body could have become so emaciated in such a short amount of time. And Edward’s right arm – his flesh right arm – was proof both brothers had been affected. “I don’t know.” He hated saying those words out loud, after having the answers for so many other questions.
There was a clatter, the sound of rocks skittering across the ground, and Hawkeye’s hand went to her pistol. Her stance relaxed as Havoc appeared, leading two young women through the rubble. “I hear there are some people needing help, boss,” Havoc called, “and I brought the help.” Winry Rockbell followed in his wake.
“Winry,” Hawkeye reached out her hand, to protect the younger woman, or hold her back.
“Winry?” Edward yelped behind Roy. “What the hell are you – fuck!”
“Brother, stop, you’re hurt!”
“Ed? Al?” Winry pushed ahead of Havoc. Roy stepped aside rather than attempt to stop her, ignoring the look Hawkeye shot him.
He’d learned the hard way to never get between Winry and those brothers, no matter what the circumstances, even when there were more things wrong than right with this particular pair of Elric brothers.
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Chapter 5: Lost and Found
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“What in hell are you doing here?” Ed raged at the girl striding up to him, her eyes alit with fury. He tried to stand - fuck, that hurt – and realized he wasn’t getting up before she reached them.
“I could ask you the same thing!” she shouted back and oh, hell, were those tears? Her face twisting up, she dropped to her knees in front of him, staring at him, searching him – through him – with those too-knowing eyes of hers. “What happened to you?” she whispered, and Ed wondered the same thing. Something about her looked different, changed from just seeing her a couple of weeks ago. Winry looked older, weary, and there was a pain all too evident in her eyes he’d only seen after she’d faced Scar for the first time.
“You’re supposed to be safe, at home!” he blustered to cover up his confusion, squeaking in surprise when she flung her arms around him, squeezing him tight. “Gack! Can’t breathe, Winry!”
She let go, rocking back on her knees, studying him through those damned tears. Ed forced himself to remain still, even though he wanted to shout at her, that she ought to be back home and safe, and why was she in this weird place, anyway? But she glanced sideways at Al, and her mouth dropped and her eyes opened wide. “A-Al?”
Ed wrapped his good arm around his little brother’s shoulders, beaming in pride. He wanted to say, ‘See? I did it,’ but why bother bragging? Al grinning at her, that ought to be clue enough, right?
“W-what happened to you?” Winry cupped his cheeks. “You…look…you….” She dropped onto her knees, her hands falling onto her thighs. The lost look on her face cut into Ed’s heart like a knife. “Who…who are you guys?”
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Chapter 6: Cold Comfort
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The hospital room was quiet, and stank of disinfectants. Al wriggled his nose against the harsh scent. The cotton sheets felt nicer under him than the rough grit in that weird, underground city. It seemed so strange, being in this bed, smelling the smells, being able to feel and hear and really see things again. He would’ve liked to have done without the I.V. in his arm – the needle hurt - but at least they were someplace civilized while they figured out what exactly was going on.
From the next bed over, Brother growled. “Damn it.”
Al couldn’t blame him. Truth had let them leave its hall with his body, and Ed’s arm, but they hadn’t gone home. Colonel Mustang had an eyepatch, and First Lieutenant Hawkeye was a captain. And Winry…no, better not to think of those sorrowful eyes right now.
Al tried to relax enough to think. He’d never been one to believe in the fantastic tales of other worlds and alternate dimensions, but it was the only clue he had to where they were now. Guards at the door, a room with barred windows – as if that’d really stop a pair of alchemists, but Al knew he was in no shape to leave this hospital room, even if Brother wanted to go. And Al had no doubt his brother didn’t want to stay here. But if they didn’t, they might not get their questions answered, or find a way back home.
“Damn it, why did I trust the fucker?” Brother asked, his voice so low, Al almost didn’t catch it. He wanted to answer, but he didn’t have a clue what to say.
Having his body almost felt like cold comfort, since he wasn’t home to share the joy with the people he loved.
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Chapter 7: Equivalent Exchange
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Ed stared through the windows of the door, at the shapes of the guards outside it. The antibiotics and pain killers weren’t doing enough to numb his mind. He could still picture himself ripping out the I.V.s and charging through the door, except Al wouldn’t be able to follow him, much less back him up.
Wherever Truth’s ‘back door’ had sent them, it had to be hell. Everyone looked almost right, but none of them were. Mustang’s eye patch had made him wonder at first glimpse of it, and, later, he’d realized Hawkeye wore captain’s insignia. And then Winry and Sciezca had shown up with Havoc. His heart felt like it would leap out of his throat at the sight of Winry, in that strange place. Wherever they were, Ed had known it wasn’t safe, not as safe as Rezembool. It had taken Winry’s abrupt hug to clue him in she was wrong, too – not from the hug, but the earrings studding her ears, earrings she’d given him in Briggs, earrings he knew were tucked deep in his pocket. And then came her realization, and the joy Ed had glimpsed in her tearing eyes as she’d hugged him turned to horror and dismay.
His fists clenched, the ragged nails of his right hand cutting into the soft skin of his palm. Ed squeezed his fingers tighter, welcoming the pain. Truth had played them again. Equivalent Exchange didn’t work in its mind. “Damn it, why did I trust the fucker?” He didn’t even realized he’d asked the question out loud until it hung in the air around him. There was no real answer, only the pain of knowing he had.
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Chapter 8: In the Hallway
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The hospital hallway seemed extraordinarily quiet, compared to the thoughts running around in Sceizca’s head. Winry sat next to her, her head bowed, elbows on her thighs, her laced hands between her knees. Corporal Mustang paced in the hall, a measured cadence of steps that didn’t show the agitation he’d displayed earlier, and Captain Hawkeye spoke softly to the two guards watching the Elric brothers’ room.
She wished she had a clue what was going on. First Lieutenant Havoc had been guiding them back when he got word someone needed medical attention. After that, it all seemed a blur. Sciezca remembered the excitement she’d felt, spotting Ed behind a pile of rubble, and after that, nothing went right. Winry had run to greet him with another hug, maybe not noticing what Sciezca had – Ed’s right arm wasn’t automail any more. And Al…Al looked like someone had starved him for years. There was so much wrong, Sciezca didn’t even know how to go into it.
Corporal Mustang stopped in front of Winry. She raised her head, and Sciezca wanted to cry at the lost expression in her friend’s eyes. “I’m sorry to ask this, Miss Rockbell,” Mustang spoke in a tight voice, “but…it’s obvious from our questions and the medical tests, they’re not homunculi. The Elric brothers are going to need care. I’m afraid of leaving them here. The military has never had good luck watching over those boys. Somehow, I think the same may hold true for their dopplegangers.” He took a breath, holding it for a few seconds, then letting it out. “I hate to impose, but I believe they would do better outside of a hospital setting.”
“You want me to take them home with me.” Winry wasn’t asking.
“I’m sorry,” Mustang said, “but I think it’s for the best.”
Winry nodded jerkily. “As soon as Al – they’re stable enough to travel.”
He knelt in front of her, taking her lax hands in his own. “I won’t let you go without guards. Even if I don’t believe these boys would do any harm, I won’t take chances with your safety.”
Exhaling slowly at that, Winry nodded again. “Thank you, sir.”
Mustang patted her hands. “I know this is asking a lot of you, Miss Rockbell. You do have the right to refuse this request - ”
He barely got out the final word. “It’s all right, sir!” Winry managed a smile. “I’m curious about them, maybe as much as they’re curious about all of us. Besides, if he’s anything like,” she swallowed, but the tiny smile remained in place, “Ed, he’ll need work done on his automail.”
Sighing, Mustang said, “Yes, you’re very likely correct, Miss Rockbell.” Giving her hands a final pat, he rose to his feet, turning to Captain Hawkeye. “With your leave, Captain, I’ll arrange for guards and transportation for Miss Rockbell and the brothers to Resembool.”
“Permission granted,” Hawkeye told him. Before he could walk off, she added, in a slightly different voice, “If you intend to assign yourself as one of the guards, be careful.”
Mustang grinned at Hawkeye. “Of course, Captain. I won’t let you down.” Saluting her, he waited until she saluted back before spinning on the ball of his foot and striding away.
Sciezca ducked her head to pretend like she wasn’t watching the emotions play out on Hawkeye’s face. All of this was beyond anything she’d expected, when Winry asked her to come to Central City. But mysteries were interesting, and, even if the military wouldn’t pay for her ticket, Sciezca thought maybe she should go with Winry, too. If nothing else, maybe she could provide moral support.
Now, all she needed to do was to talk Winry into it.
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Chapter 9: Discussions
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Opening the door to the guarded hospital room, Riza Hawkeye stepped inside. Alphonse looked slightly better now that the doctors were taking care of him. Edward had been cleaned up and bandaged. His wounds didn’t soften the cold light in his eyes. “Edward. Alphonse.”
“Captain Hawkeye.” Edward sounded as guarded as he appeared.
“Corporal Mustang –“
Edward made a sound of surprise. “Corporal? Really?”
“He took a demotion,” Hawkeye said, not intending to sound as snappish as she did. “Corporal Mustang and Major Armstrong are returning to the underground city, in hopes of locating any information as to how the two of you appeared there.”
“You won’t find anything,” Edward started to fold his arms. The tug of his I.V. made his brow furrow, but his hands fell into his lap. “Maybe some traces of alchemy.”
Alphonse took a deep breath. “We’re from another world, Captain Hawkeye. It must be similar, since you recognize us, and we recognize you.”
“And we were tested for being homunculi.” A sneer crossed Edward’s face.
“Rather than keep you in Central,” Riza went on, “you will be escorted to Rezembool, along with Miss Rockbell.” She didn’t like thinking how Winry would cope with these two imposters but the decision, at least, was sound. “You’ll leave as soon as Alphonse is able to travel.”
Not surprisingly, Edward’s feigned nonchalance didn’t extend to his brother. He glanced at Alphonse, worry creasing his brow. “All right.” The words came out reluctantly. “If Pinako and Winry are willing to put up with us, we’ll go there.” Turning his gaze to Riza, he added, “Don’t worry, Captain, we won’t run away. We might need the military’s help to get us back home again.” His mouth twitched. “If someone can clue us in on how to do it.”
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Chapter 10: Telephone Call
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Winry refused to foist Elrics on her grandmother – particularly the wrong ones – without warning. A telephone call wasn’t her first choice, but it was the fastest way she could let Granny know.
Telling Granny she’d seen Ed, that he and Al were gone, hurt. Winry had to bite down hard on her sorrow. She pushed past it anyway. “Granny, I’m coming home, but I’m not coming alone. I’ll have a military escort, and Sciezca may come, too.” It felt like her heart had been frozen, and jagged chunks of it were lodged in her throat and beneath her breastbone. “And you won’t believe it, but Ed and Al will be coming, too.”
There was a long pause. Finally, her voice tired, Granny asked, “Does the undertaker need to meet us at the station?”
“What? No! No. It’s…they’re…they’re alive.” Very true, Ed had felt so warm when she’d hugged him, and she’d smelled sweat and fear, blood and metal. His cheek had brushed against hers, and Winry thought she’d heard him whisper her name. Squeezing the bridge of her nose, Winry drove off the memory. “They’re not…quite the same. They’re…Elrics. Just…not…the ones we know.”
Silence answered her for a bit, giving Winry a chance to get herself under control. Granny sounded relieved. “You’re not making any sense, girl, but I think you’re saying you’re bringing a pair of boys home with you.”
“Good thing I read that clue right.” Her grandmother cackled. “When?”
“When the doctor says Al’s safe to travel.” As emaciated as he was, Winry half expected the hospital to keep him for months.
“Let me know before you leave, so I can get some rice for Ed. It’ll be a nice welcome home for him.”
Winry bit her lip to keep from sobbing. Some welcome home.
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Chapter 11: Simple Requests
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“He’s going to be a handful,” Winry overheard someone say while walking back from her telephone call to Granny.
“What clued you in to that?”
She identified them as doctors from their uniforms. The pair huddled together over a chart at the nurse’s counter down the hall from the Elric brothers’ room. Perhaps she would’ve walked on, but she caught the word ‘shrapnel’ and hesitated, remembering how bloodied Ed had been when she’d first seen him.
“From the x-rays, it almost looks like he had automail, then somehow regrew his arm.” The first doctor shook her head.
“People aren’t lizards,” the second doctor scoffed.
“I’m not so sure about that.” The woman doctor leaned close and Winry lost their conversation as she hurried back to the Elrics’ room.
If Ed had automail shrapnel in his body, it needed to be removed. And who better to remove it than the surgeon who installed it in the first place? Pushing past the guards and into the room, she grabbed the footboard of Ed’s hospital bed. “I need to know how you got your arm back, Ed. And I need to examine you.”
He stammered, his face flushing bright red, as Al’s laughter turned into a coughing fit. Winry moved around the bed to absently pat Al’s back, though she didn’t take her eyes off of Ed. When Al was settled and comfortable again, with only a vague comment about leaving the room that Ed snarled at him for, she repeated, “Now.”
Sighing, Ed dumped his head forward, his bangs shielding his eyes. Winry climbed onto the corner of Al’s bed, rubbing his leg through the blanket. Al purred in response.
“Please, Ed,” she said quietly, prepared to wait him out.
Al shook his head. “Winry always gets what she wants, Brother. Tell her.”
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Chapter 12: Tell Me a Story
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Ed didn’t think telling Winry would be hard. He’d always planned on explaining everything that had happened during their travels, at least to her, when it was safe to do so. But never in a setting like this; a hospital, in a mirror world, where things weren’t quite the same as home. It would’ve been around the kitchen table in Rezembool, maybe in front of the fireplace, and Al and he would’ve traded off when one of them got hoarse. And the old hag and Winry would’ve drank down every word of what they’d said.
He wasn’t sure how to even explain what had happened now. Where had their worlds taken different paths? Winry…she looked older. The bastard was missing an eye – and a fucking corporal. How many other things were off in this world?
With a sigh, Ed glanced at Al, glad, at least, that they were here together. Imagine if one of them had wound up here alone.
“Go on, Brother. Tell her.” Al smiled, encouraging despite his eyelids drooping, and Ed figured his little brother would be asleep within a few minutes.
“Yeah, yeah.” He made himself smile in return before turning to Winry. “I was pinned down, during the fight with the homunculi.” Licking his lips, Ed made himself go on. “That shrapnel in my left arm…it pinned me to a wall. And Al and Mei,” Winry’s head tilted and she frowned, just a bit, letting him know she didn’t have a clue who Mei was. “She’s a Xingese alchemist with a crush on Al.”
Waking up enough to protest, Al mumbled, “Hey,” giving Ed a scowl weak as a kitten. “She liked you first! Don’t forget to tell Winry that!”
He grinned. Some things made all this worth it.
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Chapter 13: No Tears
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Winry listened as Ed explained about the battle beneath Central City in his world, Al’s soft snores providing counterpoint to the story. She felt like her eyes should swallow her face. Al – her Al – hadn’t remembered anything about how Ed had gotten his body back. It was almost as if Al had remained in some sort of pocket of time, without aging. This Al, Winry already knew, had all of his memories – and his proper age. Now she also knew Al had actually given up his soul to return Ed’s right arm to him.
“It was like watching Al vanish again,” he mumbled, “when he…”
While Ed regained his control, Winry turned her attention to Al. How could someone so frail be so determined? She knew the Elric brothers would do anything for each other, lay down their lives, if necessary. Death was something she wasn’t sure they even understood, at least not in regard to one another. Ed – the Ed of her world – had given up himself to send Al back to Amestris. It was the only real explanation for his disappearance. She wondered suddenly if Ed and Al had wound up in the world of these two brothers. There was no clue, no way to trace a path to where they’d gone this time, just a remainder of a smoke trail, against a false sky.
“Winry?” Blinking at Ed, she was surprised at his horrified expression. “You’re not going to cry, are you? We’re okay! You – you’re not supposed to cry! Not - !” He snapped his mouth shut, eyes wide and deeply pained. Ed hung his head, hiding behind his bangs. “Damn it!” he whispered.
Lowering her voice, Winry breathed, “What?”
Ed’s larynx bobbed as he clenched his fists. “I promised her, no tears unless they’re happy.”
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Chapter 14: Similarities
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“I don’t want anyone but the old hag working on me,” Ed grumbled, folding his arms best he could with the IV in place.
The doctor standing over him was adamant. “The shrapnel needs to come out now, Mr. Elric. Do you have any clue what metal poisoning could do to your body? Postponing the surgery will cause even more damage to your body. You should have been taken into surgery the minute you arrived.”
Ed knew why he hadn’t; his visible wounds were enough to worry about. And Al. Who watched the argument with weary, but laughing, eyes. “He’ll have the surgery, doctor,” Al said, nodding his too-large-for-his-body head.
Shooting a scowl Al’s way, Ed reluctantly agreed and the doctor made notes on the chart at the end of his bed. “If something goes wrong, I’m blaming you,” he told his brother as the doctor left their room.
Al grinned. “You’ll be fine, Brother.” Turning that sunny smile at Winry, he said, “Tell him!”
Winry shook her head slightly, surprised. “I’m sorry. I was thinking.”
“About what?” Even though he could guess the answer, Ed couldn’t help but ask.
“Ed would’ve done anything to avoid surgery.” Winry shrugged slightly. “He’s…he was terrified of needles.”
Ed scoffed. “There’re things a lot worse than needles.” A faint, teasing grin slipped onto his face. “Like you. With a wrench.”
Winry’s surprised expression twisting into a scowl and Al’s sudden laugh stretched Ed’s grin into a goofy smirk. For all the different things in this world, there were similar things, too.
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Chapter 15: Discussions II
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“So, Ed’s going to have the surgery,” Sciezca said, digging through her salad with a fork, as if excavating for a nugget of gold buried in the greens.
“Mm. He agreed to it after Al yelled.” Winry smiled faintly at the memory before sobering. “They’ll do it tomorrow, so he and Al can recuperate together before we go to Rezembool.”
Sciezca found something worth eating, spearing it with enthusiasm. “I’m surprised the military’s letting them go.”
Picking up her cup, Winry sipped her coffee. “Why wouldn’t they? It’s not like they’re any threat.” She kept to herself that Ed was often a threat, regardless of what condition he might be in.
Sciezca abandoned the salad, pushing the bowl aside and leaning across the table. “I can’t wait ‘til we’re in Rezembool! I want to know everything about their world.” Though she tried to keep her face schooled, Winry couldn’t help a twitch, enough to make her friend’s eyes widen behind her glasses. Sciezca lowered her voice even more to ask, “They told you something!”
Winry shook her head. “No, not really.” It wasn’t a lie. Sciezca wasn’t really interested in alchemy, or fighting, after all. Aliens, yes, and Winry wondered if she’d brought up that idea to Miss Riza or Mr. Mustang yet. She’d want to know more about the other world’s books.
“They must’ve said something, for you to make a face like that.” Sciezca wagged her fork at Winry. “Tell me!”
She shrugged. “They miss their home.” Winry realized she didn’t want to say anything else about it. Ed had let her in while he was talking, not just giving her fragments of clues that added up to nothing. It was different, almost heady, to hear everything.
It seemed selfish, but Winry didn’t want to share that yet.
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Chapter 16: Painkillers
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Alphonse could practically see Edward shaking off the effects of the anesthesia after his surgery. His brother’s face went from smooth, almost like a wax sculpture, to frowning, though it was a gradual thing. Propped up in his own bed, Al watched over his brother’s journey from unconsciousness to drugged consciousness.
“It’s okay, Brother.” Al resettled himself in his bed. While Ed had been in surgery, he’d convinced his nurse to start his physical therapy. His whole body ached, in a different way than it had been previously. “I’m here, you’re here. You had surgery. Remember?”
Ed’s eyes drifted his way and Al grinned at the size of his pupils. “nnNNn?”
“Winry said they had to remove a lot of metal. They left that anchor bolt in your collarbone, though. Something about not wanting to weaken the bone. You’re going to be in a lot of pain.”
“Nng!” That sounded more like his brother, looked like him, too, with the furrowed brows and tight mouth.
“Don’t worry, Brother. I’m sure a nurse will be happy to take care of your sponge bath…and your catheter.”
Eyes snapping even wider, Ed let out a piteous moan, making Al snicker to himself. Until Ed got a clue he was teasing, this was going to be too much fun.
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Chapter 17: Wake Up Call
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You can take the back door.
Truth smiled at him and Ed couldn’t help but remember the teeth and eyes of the homunculus known as Pride. The shadows in Truth’s hall seemed to be whispering. Ed frowned. “Why can’t we go back the way we came?” he shouted, though it seemed to come out a bare croak.
“You want to regain what you’ve lost, right, al-chem-ist?”
“I have it! My arm.” He raised it in defiance.
“And your brother’s body.”
Al looked up at him, a scrawny, sad-eyed creature, with armor strewn around his naked form.
“Yeah! Al’s body and soul, joined together again. I give up my alchemy.” Ed gritted his teeth as Truth’s smile somehow widened. “It’s equivalent exchange!”
“Yes.” Truth drew out the s in a sibilant hiss. “Use the back door.”
The massive, dark double doors opened, and Ed caught sight of flashes beyond them, vivid colors. Somehow, he smelled Rezembool and sheep, and Winry’s apple pie. But everything changed as he and Al were pulled through the opening. A cold wind wrapped around them, chill black hands, grasped at them, a weird, whistling sound making Al cry out.
And Ed heard Truth’s voice, trailing behind them, “Equiva-lent ex-change, al-chem-ists,” before everything twisted terribly. He screamed at the feeling of his body being disbursed through the hall of memories, seeing images from his past, the world’s past, life itself passing by in thin ribbons. Al’s birth; the first time he’d looked into Winry’s eyes, the warmth in his father’s eyes - bastard! - the sound of his mother’s heartbeat, and his own echoing that familiar drumming noise.
And then, a horrible, fanged thing, reaching for them and Ed pressed his palms together, and nothing happened nothing happened nothing hap –
“Wake up! Wake up, Brother!”
Ed dragged his eyes open with a moan. “Fuck,” he whispered. “That was a bad one.”
“Another nightmare?” Al’s concern floated over from the next bed.
He didn’t want to talk about it, but, “Yeah,” puffed out of him.
“It’s okay, Brother, we’re safe. And we’re together.” Al seemed determined to cheer him up.
Rolling his head to the side, Ed dragged out a tired smile. “We’ll be okay,” he agreed, though he couldn’t help but wonder if the things he saw this time were memories, or warnings.
X X X
Chapter 18: Chance
X X X
Roy knew he was taking a chance going to the Elrics’ recovery room, but he felt it his duty to check on Edward after his surgery. It came as some little surprise Miss Rockbell wasn’t waiting outside the room, or in the room with the brothers, but he supposed even her stalwart nature wasn’t always up to providing round the clock care, especially when there were competent medical staff available.
The guards were people the brothers might’ve found comforting if they’d been in the room rather than standing outside of it; First Lieutenant Ross and Master Sergeant Brosch. They saluted him, regardless of the lack of stars on his collar. He saluted back, feeling somewhat ridiculous doing so, and entered the room.
The smell made him wince. Roy didn’t particularly care for hospitals and the scent was enough to make him want to turn around and leave. The faint tang of urine – Edward’s bag needed emptying, as did Alphonse’s – antiseptics that didn’t quite mask the stink of death, the slightly foul scent of talcum powder, which should smell clean and fresh, but when rubbed over skin to help prevent bedsores and chafing, took on another whole connotation rather than the beginning of a new life.
As if realizing someone was in the room, Edward’s eyes dragged open, and he peered at Roy owlishly. Pain showed despite whatever medications they’d put him on, and he muttered a low, “Ouch,” as he moved.
“Stay down, Edward.” Even as the words left his mouth, Roy wasn’t surprised to see a flash of defiance and Edward struggled to sit up. Roy didn’t help, knowing Edward would reject it.
It took two tries, but Edward sat up, listing to one side and picking at the bandage cover the I.V. in his arm. “Whaddaya want?”
X X X
Chapter 19: 1,000 Yard Stare
X X X
Roy couldn’t help but stare, unblinking, at Edward. “Say that again,” he murmured, the words not making any sense inside his head. It was like they were dried peas, rattling around in a giant, empty pot, making noise, but nothing else.
Somewhere during their talk, Edward had woken a bit more, had straightened up on the bed. Despite the medications and painkillers, he appeared lucid and a damned sight more calm than Roy would be in his situation. “I’m not an alchemist anymore,” he repeated.
“What do you mean?” Realizing he gripped the bed railing, Roy forced his fingers loose. It took a great deal of effort, and his hands ached afterward. “Ouch. You can’t just stop being an alchemist.”
Edward shrugged. “I made a deal with Truth. I traded my ability to do alchemy to get Al’s body back.” His hard gaze softened as he glanced toward Alphonse. “Just like he offered his armor body to get my arm back.” Flesh fingers twitched as a reminder.
“It’s not quite the same,” Roy tried to say but Edward fixed him with a glare.
“Equivalent exchange must not work the same way in your world, then.”
Roy found he had nothing to say in response.
X X X
Chapter 20: Thoughts Of
Roy's alone with his thoughts.
X X X
The rain kept falling, drumming on his head, beating against his back. Roy blinked and the world shattered and reformed itself from the water on his lashes.
He stepped off a curb and into a puddle, pausing for a second there, with the cold spring water rushing around his ankle. The shock cut through his thoughts for a second, clearing them, and he stepped out of the puddle, shaking his foot and slinging water everywhere.
The Black Horse Tavern was open, the doors gaping to reveal the interior, nearly as dark as the animal that gave the place its name. Roy made his way inside, pausing at the door in an attempt to wipe his shoes clean. Squelching across the wooden floor, he knew he left puddles behind that someone would have to clean up. The piano was still out of tune, and was still being played just as relentlessly by a man who always seemed to be seated in front of it, two glasses, one for tips, the other for his ever half-empty drink, above the soundboard. Roy ignored the musician, such as he was, to make his way to the bar. Climbing onto a stool, he hooked his icy feet in the rungs and tapping his finger on wood, stained over the years from spills of various sorts.
Basima appeared, her rich coloring suggesting a different nationality than Amestris, her smile fading at the sight of puddles forming under Roy’s wrists. “Roy-boy, you need to shed that coat! Get dry!” She slipped out from behind the bar, catching his arm and tugging him along with her. Her accented chatter did little to soothe away his thoughts, but the room she thrust him into, with the promise of dry clothes to follow, helped.
The room was small, barely large enough for two people, with a small wood-burning stove keeping the air warm. Plush chairs and a tiny table, with a narrow, glass-fronted curio cabinet made up the contents of the room. Roy pulled off his coat absently, letting it drop into a heap on the floor, untying his laces and setting aside his shoes and socks. He’d dry them in a few minutes, a simple transmutation, but right now, he really wanted a stiff drink, and hoped Basima would return with one shortly.
Edward is not an alchemist. Roy couldn’t wrap his mind around the enormity of that idea. That someone could give up alchemy – give it away, as if it was a gift – was something he’d never even considered. Pulling his ignition glove from his trouser pocket, Roy studied it, the transmutation circle woven in the threads. Give up alchemy. He shuddered, not just from his sopping wet clothes.
He wanted to know why these Elric boys had wound up here. It had not yet been time to ask, but Roy was a master at waiting out his opponents. And if these two were here, where were the Elric brothers of this world? Had they somehow passed each other along the way, getting caught up in each other’s passages home? Were they just as confused as these two young men seemed to be?
A knock brought him out of his thoughts, Roy startled into saying, “Come in.”
Basima entered the room, clothing draped over her arms. “Here, clothes for you, Roy-boy.” She smiled. “It’s been a long time since you’ve dropped by the Black Horse, but we’ve been expecting you.” Hidden under the clothes she’d laid out was a bottle of whiskey, a tumbler resting on top of it. “Compliments of the owner.” Setting the bottle on the small table, Basima pressed her palms together. “The room is yours until you decide to leave. I can take your clothes, if you’d like.”
Roy shook his head. “You’re too kind, you and the owner, both. Thank you. I won’t be here for very long today.”
From Basima’s arched brows, Roy knew she didn’t believe him, but she made no mention of it. “If you need anything,” she indicated a bellpull with a flourish. “Please let me know.” With a saucy grin, she exited the room, pulling the door to behind her.
With a long sigh, Roy began removing his wet clothing, hampered by the chill in his fingers that seemed to go all the way to his elbows. The cold made him fumble with buttons, but he persevered. Water had soaked through everything, and the idea of clothes he didn’t have to transmute dry was too appealing to pass up. Basima had even supplied underwear and fresh socks, though he’d have to dry his shoes. For now, Roy poured himself two fingers of the whiskey and settled in front of the stove, his cold feet pointed at the heat.
Edward Elric had disappeared four years ago, leaving behind a brother who should’ve been fifteen, and instead was ten, with no memories of the time spent traveling around Amestris with his brother in an attempt to get their bodies back to normal. Roy had felt no reason to explain to Alphonse everything that had happened – Edward surely had his reasons for the transmutation that dragged him out of Amestris and returned his little brother to the world as a living child. Roy had entertained thoughts even Edward, despite his genius, had no idea what he’d done, but there’d been no way to question him, and Alphonse remembered nothing prior to the brothers’ attempt at human transmutation. Izumi Curtis, the brothers’ alchemy teacher, might have been able to shed some light on the subject, but she refused to speak to Roy. That left him with only his own thoughts, and some vague reports Edward had deigned to complete while he was a dog of the military.
The two boys, hidden in the bowels of a private hospital, were not the boys Roy remembered. He could see the similarities, but he had the feeling those only ran along the surface. What, he wondered, could he learn from this pair? He admitted to himself, at the sight of them, his heart had felt as if it had stopped, and plummeted to his toes. That, perhaps, their return might be a way to rectify everything that had happened in the past eight years. But these two boys weren’t the ones who’d be able to offer him absolution.
Blinking, Roy realized he’d finished a little over a third of his bottle. Flexing his fingers, finally warm, he turned his gaze to the flames inside the stove, dying out without fuel. Roy got to his feet to add a few pieces of wood, stirring them with the poker until they caught. Settling back in his chair, he considered his options, of which there were far too few.
Miss Rockbell, he thought, would be the person to speak with regarding the brothers. Despite everything, she was still the one Alphonse had always turned to, and these two boys would be returning to her home in Rezembool. She would be willing to talk to him about the Elrics, Roy knew, even if the subject would forever be as painful as others they never spoke of. Roy paused, studying the color of the whiskey in his glass, wondering if, in the other world, someone else had murdered Miss Rockbell’s parents; or perhaps, they might still be alive. It was not a question he would bring up himself. There were too many others that might be more important and need answering.
Finishing off his glass, Roy pulled himself to his feet. The room wavered for a second, then steadied. Roy tugged his ignition glove down over his hand, focusing on his clothing and snapping his fingers. It was as if the room existed for just that instant inside a bubble of heat, flash-drying the clothes and dispersing the liquid into the air as steam. Roy sighed, and changed clothes again. With any luck, the rain would have moved on while he was thinking.
Leaving the room with a couple of thousand sen notes tucked under the bottle and the borrowed clothes neatly folded, Roy made his way back into the main part of the tavern. A cool, damp breeze blew in through the open door, effectively cutting through the smell of cigarette smoke. The piano, for a change, was still and quiet, and lurked in the corner like a frightened dog waiting on its master. Roy started through the bar, hearing his name. He had to turn farther than a sighted person to catch who’d called for him, hiding his shock at seeing Hawkeye rising from a table to catch up to him.
“I heard you were here,” she said, when she was close enough to speak to him without shouting.
“I’ve spoken with our visitors.” Even here, Roy was loath to say their names out loud. “There is interesting news.” They fell into step as they walked out of the bar. Outside, rain continued to fall in a fine mist, and gave Roy the fanciful image of walking through a cloud. “It seems,” he lowered his voice, “Edward gave up his alchemy to give Alphonse back his body.”
Hawkeye nodded once, though her furrowed brow spoke her concern regarding this information. “I suppose I’ll need to speak to them again prior to your leaving for the East.”
“It might be for the best, Captain.” Roy realized Hawkeye had angled them toward a waiting car. He opened the door for her, not surprised to see Havoc in the driver’s seat.
“Hey, Chief.” Havoc gave him a lopsided grin. “Planning on taking a ride with us tonight? I understand we’re having a bull session with Major Armstrong.”
Roy considered for a split second, sliding into the seat next to Hawkeye for his answer.
X X X
Chapter 21: Waking
X X X
Alphonse drifted awake slowly to the murmur of low voices. He couldn’t quite make what they were saying, but Brother was talking to Corporal Mustang. Strange, to think he’d taken a downgrade. Alphonse wished Brother would ask why but maybe he already had. He’d ask later, when he was completely awake.
It was nice in this stage, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. His body didn’t ache quite as much, though the I.V. threading antibiotics medications and saline into his veins burned sometimes. At least he was able to pee, even if he was using a tube to do it. The doctors had been very quiet while examining him, though Alphonse had caught things like, “Organ failure” and “surprised he’s still alive” when they crept across the room to discuss him.
He’d prove to them he’d be okay. He had to. Alphonse planned on walking from the train station to the Rockbell house, once the doctors agreed to let them leave. Even if it hurt, he’d do it, because it had been a promise he’d made to himself. So what if everything was crazy, the Rockbell house was home, no matter what, and….
Tears blurred his vision, though he blinked them back, refusing to cry. Winry, he tried to tell her, across the universe and beyond Truth’s hall, we’re okay. We’re alive. And we’ll come home to you. I promise.
The sniffle broke free by itself, and Alphonse whispered, “Ouch,” pretending to fumble at the I.V. He couldn’t complain, not really, not with the situation they were in, when who knew what had really happened back home after they’d gone to Truth’s hall.
X X X
Chapter 22: Curiosity
X X X
It hadn’t been difficult to sneak into the hospital, really, not for someone with her background. And the rumors were far too tantalizing for her to pass up. So she’d slipped in through a back door, dressed in her whites, and made her way through the corridors, studying a chart closely as she moved through the halls.
One woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform drew no attention from either guard, though Clara did notice a pretty blonde sitting in the corridor, who watched her with some little curiosity as she went into the room.
She was taken aback for a few seconds at the sight of them both, particularly Alphonse. How could he have gone from being so huge to being this frail creature of skin and bones? And Edward…
Picking up Alphonse’s chart, Clara began reading about the blend of medicines and nutritious liquids going into his body, as well as the information on what was being expelled. The chart said nothing about how Alphonse came to be in this condition. Shooting a glance at Edward’s bed, she knew he’d be next to useless for information. Even from here, she could see the marking on the I.V. bottle, letting her know he was under morphine’s spell.
The pretty blonde outside might know something. Clara wondered if the information might be shared, or whether it was a risk, asking any questions. The more she didn’t know, the easier it was for someone to figure out she really didn’t belong here.
Shaking her head, she set the chart back in place, laying her hand softly on Alphonse’s ankle through the blanket. He winced in his sleep, and Clara whispered, “Ouch,” pulling away. “I guess you can’t tell me anything either.”
She’d have to risk coming back to satisfy her curiosity.
X X X
Chapter 23: Treasure
X X X
Winry sat in the hospital lobby, lost in thought. She twisted and turned everything Ed had told her around in her mind, about the final battle in his world, about going to collect Al on Truth’s plane. About how he’d given up alchemy to get his little brother back.
She’d put it out of her mind as much as she could while eating with Sciezca, but now it all washed over her again, begging for her analysis, dragging her into what ifs and curious scenarios. If these two brothers were here, did that mean the Ed and Al from her world were in theirs? What would they think of it, she wondered? Would they be surprised to see Mrs. Curtis, since Ed had told her she was alive? Would they wonder about the Xingese prince and princess, fighting alongside the Amestrian alchemists? She barely dared let the final question circle the others in her mind: Would Ed and Al want to come home from the other world, or would they be happy where they were, as long as they were together?
Somehow, Winry thought, that was the important thing – the brothers were together, no matter what world they were in. It didn’t stop the pang deep down inside her heart, but it eased it, maybe a little. They’d gotten what they’d wanted, finally, the thing that had been driving them since the stormy night when they’d tried to bring Auntie Trisha back to life. Both sets of brothers had each other, at least.
But where did it leave everyone else? Winry put aside any thoughts of her feelings, considering her doppelganger in the other world. It had already been days since these Elric boys appeared in the underground city. If time passed the same in the other world, and Ed and Al were there, would they even bother to go to Risembool to let her doppelganger know they were alive? Surely, if all the people were there insisting they go, they would at least consider it, right?
Groaning, Winry buried her face in her hands. Despite everything, she was beginning to believe she’d gotten the better of the deal. Even if they weren’t exactly the same two boys she’d grown up with, they were genuinely happy to have her here in Central City with them. She tried to remember the last time she’d felt welcomed into the brothers’ lives in the manner these two had accepted her presence.
Winry wished it didn’t hurt so much to think it, but, I envy you, she told her counterpart in her head.
Sitting around wasn’t getting her anywhere, though, and Winry took a deep breath, pushing all the thoughts to a compartment. She plastered a smile on her face as she stood up, and, as she walked through the halls to reach the brothers’ room, it actually became a real one rather than faked. However long she had with these two, she’d accept it, and make the most of it. When they were gone, she’d wave her farewells. But until they left her, Winry would treasure every second she spent with them.
X X X
Chapter 24: Discussions III
X X X
“A journal?” Winry cocked her head to the side.
“Yeah. It’ll help me out if you could get me one. I’ll,” Ed trailed off. Would he be able to pay her back? Well, he’d figure out something. “If they don’t cost too much.”
“I think I can afford it, Ed.” Her fond smile warmed him more than he wanted to admit. “Al, do you need anything?”
Al roused himself. “A kitten!”
“No cats!” Ed pointed at his little brother. “Especially not in a hospital.”
“But a kitten would make me feel better.” Al pouted, shaking his long hair out of his eyes, and when it didn’t stay back, shoving at it weakly. “Or a haircut.” He glared at a particularly stubborn piece of hair, hanging down alongside his nose. “People are going to think I’m you, Brother, and who’d want that?” He made a face. “You’ve got terrible taste anyway! All that red and black!”
Winry made a sound, so soft Ed almost didn’t catch it. He did see her expression change, too quickly for him to be able to read it. “Hey! I dress badass,” Ed snapped playfully.
“Probably because you wanted people to see you,” Al said, as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “and not notice the huge suit of armor.”
Ed protested. “It wasn’t that!”
“You wanted all the attention for yourself! Vain, Brother!”
“That, either!” he howled.
Not even bothering to hide her grin, Winry asked, “What was your reason then, Ed?”
Ed snorted, “Isn’t it obvious? Badass colors get the blood pumping!”
“Makes you a target,” Al muttered.
“Well, you won’t be wearing those clothes to go to Rezembool,” Winry said, “either of you.”
Shuddering, Al said, “I wouldn’t want to! Bad enough everyone thought I was the Fullmetal Alchemist; if they thought I was Brother, too?”
Ed noticed another flash of something from Winry as he snarled, “There’s nothing wrong with my clothes! You have no taste!” Why were her eyes tightening like that?
“I have plenty of taste! There aren’t extraneous scary things on my transmutations! And I picked out Winry’s earrings! Remember, she said you shouldn’t choose!”
Ed brushed off that insult. “What does a girl know about taste?”
“Enough to know what I like.” Ed wondered if he was going to get smacked with a wrench, but Winry was fighting to keep her mouth in a straight line, despite her folded arms and frown. She went on, “I’ll be picking out your clothes. Who knows what Mr. Mustang would get for you guys.”
“He has good taste,” Al grumbled.
“Hmph! And I’ll get someone to cut your hair.” Reaching over, Winry tweaked Al’s long bangs, glancing toward Ed.
“My hair’s fine,” he said threateningly.
“It’s too long, Brother. And it’s not in style! No one wears their hair like you do,” and Al’s expression went too sly, “except Winry.”
Ed grabbed a pillow, heaving it at his brother, who couldn’t dodge the missile. “She does not! She’s wearing her hair like Captain Hawkeye.”
“Long hair is for girls!” Al shouted around the pillow, “unless you’re gonna grow a beard, like Dad!”
Considering throwing his remaining pillow, Ed decided to use his voice instead. “Fuck that! I’m not going to look like the old man!” He didn’t want to look like Hohenheim any more than he already did. Besides, he wasn’t sure he could grow a beard. He barely even had to shave at this point.
The door opened abruptly, a nurse pushing through the guards’ protests, almost as if they weren’t even there to make them. “This is far too loud,” she said, fixing Ed with a gimlet eye. “You’re both supposed to be resting.”
Ed rolled his eyes. Al hugged the pillow, leaning his chin on it. Winry answered the nurse. “It’s part of their healing,” she said tartly, “and they’re both high spirited young men. They’re fine, not hurting each other or pulling stitches. It’s good for them!”
The nurse gave Winry a look as if to say she was crazy. “They’re disturbing other patients.”
“I don’t know who. There isn’t anyone in the next two rooms on either side of this one. “I know, I check daily. They’re under military supervision, and they’re healing nicely, according to their doctor.”
“And who are you?” The nurse’s face pinched in on itself as she questioned Winry.
“I have permission to be here, from both of them,” Winry nodded at Ed and Al, “Captain Riza Hawkeye and Doctors Steubing and Whitsell. And I’m Ed’s automail mechanic, and helping Al with his physical therapy.”
Ed didn’t bother hiding his growing smile as Winry gave the nurse what for. The nurse’s face practically turned itself inside out from her frown as Winry concluded with, “You can ask at the station, I have permission to be here, and I’m keeping an eye on them. They’re doing nothing to harm themselves, or each other, and were fine before you came in.”
The nurse sniffed, her stiff posture telling more than Ed was sure she wanted about how much she’d like to chase Winry out of the room, and probably send Al and him into medically induced comas. But she took the chart off the end of Al’s bed, probably to make sure Winry was telling the truth, eyeing them all over the top of it. Ed leaned back against his one remaining pillow, feeling like whistling. Al grinned into the pillow Ed had thrown at him, his eyes dancing above it. And Winry drummed her fingers on the end of Ed’s bed frame, waiting for the nurse to finish her review.
“All right,” she finally said, as if the words were being dragged out of her mouth. The nurse replaced Al’s chart, giving Ed another look. He returned it smugly. The nurse said nothing else, leaving the room as abruptly as she’d come into it.
“You were great, Winry!” Al said, eyes shining.
“Eh,” Ed wasn’t quite so eager to praise her, “she’s just being her bossy self.”
“Hn!” Winry tilted her chin up. “See if I get you a journal now!” Despite the threat, her smile let Ed know he was in the clear.
“Just get him normal clothes, Winry. That’s punishment enough!”
Ed growled, hefting his remaining pillow. “You want another one of these in the face, Al?”
“All right, you two!” Winry wagged her finger. “You really ought to rest for a while. If I leave, do you think you can do that? Or do you need another babysitter?”
Al fought back a yawn. “We’ll be fi - ” he squeaked the end of the word, his yawn winning the battle.
Patting Al’s leg, Winry next turned her attention to Ed. “What about you?”
“I’ll rest,” Ed grumbled. “And I won’t argue with the nurse.”
“Good. I’ll see you both later.” She waved as she walked out the door.
Ed sighed as the door closed behind her, somehow not surprised by Al’s soft laugh. “She’s as strong as our Winry!”
“Yeah.” Ed scooted down in the bed, rolling onto his side to look across at Al. “She told me a little bit about what happened here, with us. Them.” It still seemed weird to think about. “While you were asleep.”
“Really?” Al focused on Ed, for the moment all weariness gone. “What did she say?”
“That Ed disappeared, about four years ago, bringing back Al’s body.” Ed grimaced. “I don’t know what he did, but Winry says Al, that Al, was a kid. It was like his soul had never been attached to armor. He didn’t remember anything that happened after Ed and he tried to bring their mom back.”
“I was a kid? Again?” Al wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Where did Ed go?”
Ed shrugged. “Winry said Al and she were about the only people who thought he was still alive.” He took a breath. “The other Ed appeared in that city, like we did, she said, but he and Al both left it.”
“Yeah,” Ed muttered in response to Al’s plaintive question, “that’s what I’d like to know.” He met his brother’s eyes, rejoicing again there were eyes to meet, and an expressive face, rather than a steel helmet. “Winry couldn’t tell me.” She’d raised her slim shoulders in a shrug when he’d asked, her wistful smile enough to twist his heart right out of his body.
“Then we have to find someone who can.” Determination rang in his brother’s voice. “When we go home, we should bring them back here.”
Ed shook his head wryly. “I figured you’d say that.”
“It’s only right.” The scowl furrowed Al’s face. “If we can go home, so can they. We just have to figure out how to make that happen.”
“We will!” It wasn’t just a promise to Al. Ed didn’t want Winry to be alone, waiting for them in their world. You’re not going to cry over us, he told her. We’re going to come home and be together again.
X X X
Chapter 25: Dress Up
X X X
Ed curled his lip at the sight of the clothes Winry had chosen. “Brown?” He shook out the jacket, holding it up. “This looks like something the old man would’ve worn.”
“Just put the clothes on, Brother.” Al made a face back when Ed sneered at him. “They’re nice clothes! Winry wanted us to look good.” He paused, glancing down at himself. “Well, you’ll look good. I’ll look like a scarecrow.” Grumbling, “And I have to ride in a wheelchair,” Al started unbuttoning his shirt.
“I heard Mustang’s driving us to the train station.” Ed tried to get Al’s mind off the wheelchair.
Al shrugged. “I’ve ridden with Colonel Mustang before.”
“That was back home, and he had two good eyes.”
He looked stricken. “Oh. Yeah. Do you think we can ask someone else to drive us?”
The door swung open as Al asked his question, Winry walking through. “Aren’t you dressed yet? And you hate the way I drive.”
Ed had to ask, “You drive?”
“Of course!” Frowning, she gestured at the clothes. “You need to get dressed, or we’re going to miss our train! Do you need any help, Al?”
“Brother can help me once he stops complaining about you buying him brown clothes.” The smug expression on Al’s face made Ed remember his little brother beaming as he got his big brother in trouble with Mom.
His body automatically flinched in learned response, and Ed was surprised when Winry’s brow creased for a second, then smoothed out. That haunted look vanished from her eyes when he caught her gaze and she gave him a glare instead. “Well, that’s what you’re going to wear. Now, get dressed, or I’ll strip you and dress you myself!” Spinning, she left the room, Al staring after her.
“Brother, what was that?”
“Something to do with her Ed and Al,” Ed sighed, realizing he’d blundered into it foolishly again.
X X X
Chapter 26: Undercover Blues
X X X
Packing to leave the hospital took very little time, considering. Relief flooded Ed at the release – he’d come to hate those pale green walls, and guards outside the door. He wished Al could’ve walked out of the building, but even with a pair of crutches and someone to steady him, he was too weak for a long walk, so he rode a wheelchair. Getting him from the train station to the Rockbell house wasn’t something Ed really wanted to contemplate. What if he got recognized? What if Al did? Right now, he felt edgy with the need to get out of Central City, to get back to that yellow house on the hill, where maybe he could take a few deep breaths.
If no one recognized them.
“It’s easy, Ed, just wear a hat. Tuck your hair down the collar of your shirt when we get to Rezembool.” Winry’s common sense approach made him twitch – but Mustang shoved a hat on his head and that was that. “I told Granny we’d need someone to pick us up at the station, so she arranged for the Nedobeck’s to bring their dogcart for Al.”
Another similarity – the Nedobecks raised sheep, like most of Rezembool, back home. And it’d be a two and a half day trip by train to get from Central to Rezembool. At least Mustang – or Hawkeye, someone – had arranged for a private room on the train. Ed knew Al wasn’t up to sitting on a bench for the entire trip, and Winry’d always complained about her butt falling asleep.
Hawkeye’d only assigned Mustang as a guard, and he was dressed in civilian clothing, but that huge-assed eyepatch made him stand out anywhere. Maybe people would notice him, instead of Al in a wheelchair. Ed wondered if Dr. Marcoh could repair however much damage that patch covered, and decided maybe he shouldn’t ask. Instead, he’d wonder at how polite Winry and Mustang were to each other. Winry was always polite to people older than her, well, to almost anyone who wasn’t an Elric, or a stupid Xingese prince, or a little pickpocket from Rush Valley. But even Ed could feel a tension between them.
One more weird thing to puzzle over. Maybe he’d set Al on it, to find out just how Winry knew Mustang, and why they acted the way they did. Al’d be good at it. Who could look at those huge eyes and not spill their guts?
Ed wrinkled his nose. No, no gut-spilling, even in the most figurative sense of the word. He’d had enough of that in Bashool.
“Are you done dressing yet?”
Mustang’s voice cut into his thoughts, and Ed nearly flashed him an obscene gesture – but they had a train to make. Tugging the hat down a little further over his eyes, he took one last look around the room. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready to go.” Reaching over, he bumped his fist against Al’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”
X X X
Chapter 27: Leaving Central
X X X
“I wish I could go with you.” Sciezca glanced at the two young men, one in a wheelchair, the other standing next to him, with Corporal Mustang watching them. Captain Hawkeye had nixed Sciezca going to Risembool, and didn’t give a reason.
Winry gave her friend a hug. “I think you’d do them better staying in Central,” she said, again. “You’re the one who’s best able to find the books they need, to figure out a way to get them home.”
Disappointment showed in the slump of her shoulders and her lowered head. “But…I have so many questions I want to ask them! Aren’t you the least bit curious about the differences in their world and ours?”
Corporal Mustang shot them a sharp glance and Winry waved her hands. “Lower your voice!” she hissed at Sciezca, who panicked.
“I just get so excited…I’m sorry!” She bowed nervously.
Winry didn’t think any harm was done despite Sciezca’s foolish outburst. No one even turned and glanced their way. It didn’t mean people weren’t listening, though, and Winry had learned that all too well. “It’s okay.” She hoped. “Look…it’s better if you’re here, really.” It was going to be hard enough explaining it all to Granny. Ed…still looked like Ed, regardless. A little harder, maybe, and definitely taller. Al, on the other hand.
Sciezca hadn’t realized she wasn’t paying attention, rattling on about unique opportunities and embracing the strangeness and, lowering her voice even more, maybe this could prove her theory about aliens.
Winry was saved having to answer by the conductor’s shout of, “All aboard!” and the bell ringing on top of the train. Giving Sciezca another hug, she said, “If I need you, I’ll call.”
But deep down, she knew she wouldn’t.
X X X
Chapter 28: Mistakes
X X X
Riza strode quickly through the train station, a military duffle thrown over her shoulder, despite her civilian clothing. She passed the bag off to a porter, showing him her ticket, and gave him a tip to make sure the bag got on the train.
Her leave approval had come in late last night, a phone call from Breda alerting her that the signed document was on her desk. “Seems strange, you going without us,” he’d said, and Riza couldn’t help but agree. She trusted Roy, up to a point. He had, after all, hared off to Briggs, taking a demotion when the country needed strong men and women to lead it. He hadn’t even had the decency to tell her to her face what he was doing, just left her with a note, and eventually, a terse letter outlining where he was, and hoping she’d forgive him. It was her own foolish pride that let him go, instead of hunting him down and dragging him off the mountain, pride and pain, and anger at him throwing away everything they’d worked so hard to build since Ishbal. She knew she’d played her own part in it. Even helping him recover didn’t quite make up for the shrapnel that took his eye, shrapnel she hadn’t calculated for when she’d shot Archer. So they’d both been fools. Rather than doing what they’d always done, draw strength from one another, they’d drifted apart, and wound up in this situation, not speaking, alone, when they could have been forging ahead together.
She’d made up her mind, not telling Roy, just requesting her leave. There had been too many foolish mistakes made over the past decade, and Riza wasn’t going to let the appearance of these Elric brothers be the catalyst for another one.
X X X
Chapter 29: The World According To
X X X
“Let me get this straight.” Edward looked as if he wasn’t sure he could believe what Roy was saying. “You demoted yourself, and went to Briggs? Because of me. Rather than following your own ambition, and helping to fix the government and helping the citizens?”
When put like that, it sounded very self-indulgent.
“What did Captain Hawkeye say about this?” The expression the young man wore reminded Roy of someone who’d caught a whiff of a bad odor. “Tell me she tried to talk some sense into you!”
“She did. But after I recovered,” Roy said slowly, “I needed time to think. Briggs seemed the best place.”
Making a disparaging noise, Edward folded his arms. The jacket he wore hid the fact the right arm was weak, and not as muscular as the left. “Briggs is the best place to freeze your balls off. I don’t know about anything else.”
“I killed the Fuhrer. His son died in my arms. And then I faced Archer, who’d come back from what seemed like the dead in a nearly complete automail body.” Roy took a breath. He couldn’t say the bullet that took his left eye had ricocheted out of Archer’s metal body, and had come from Hawkeye’s gun. It wasn’t just that he’d gone to Briggs because of Edward, but also because Hawkeye had changed after his recuperation. They’d gone from compatriots, to living closely together during his healing period, to their realization he’d survive, and didn’t blame her – though she blamed herself. It seemed easier to take himself out of the picture for failing to save a child, and putting his adjutant in such straits.
Edward shook his head, saying almost to himself, “I need a tutorial to get through all these differences.”
X X X
Chapter 30: Difference
X X X
Riza was accustomed to sitting quietly and waiting on her target. Now, despite not having a weapon at the ready, she took her time observing the trio sitting diagonally from her. Right now, Alphonse slept, his still-too-thin body stretched across the bench seat, his brother’s new jacket thrown over him. Edward and Winry sat next to each other, conversing in low tones. If she looked out of the corner of her eye, she could also watch Corporal Mustang, who stared at the trio, his expression unguarded. She knew that dull glint in his eye, having seen it before. He was considering how much of this matter was his fault, what he could have done to prevent it. Possibly what he could do to make it right.
“There’s something very different about them,” Roy said quietly, as Edward grinned at Winry.
“You’ve noticed it, too?”
He turned so he could actually see her. “It would be difficult not to.”
Riza nodded, her gaze drifting back to the trio. It wasn’t just that this Edward was taller than Winry, instead of shorter, or Alphonse’s coloring - and current condition - was so very different. “Their attitudes,” she said suddenly.
“Look at Edward.” Riza nodded across the way. His smile had somehow gotten impossibly huge, and he was laughing with Winry. Alphonse woke and complained they were too loud, making them laugh harder. The joy surrounding them, despite their circumstances, was an amazing contrast considering the boys she knew before.
“Maybe they didn’t have the same trials our Elrics did,” Roy said.
Riza turned her head to look out of the window, giving them their privacy. “Or maybe they’re made of different stuff altogether.”
X X X
Chapter 31: Sorrow in Her Eyes
X X X
Alphonse watched his brother, sitting across from him on the train bench with Winry. He saw what he often did when observing them together – their ease with each other, their closeness, which to him always went beyond mechanic and customer. Even though this Winry was older, she was still Winry. She laughed the same and smiled the same, and her joy was amazingly beautiful, just like always, and even Ed had to see that, despite what he always tried to keep hidden.
There had to be a solution to let her stay happy, Alphonse thought. One that would keep the smile on her face, and wipe away the sorrows keeping secrets in her eyes. He and Ed just needed to put their heads together, and they’d come up with a way to bring her Elrics back to her world, when they went home to their own.
Alphonse knew Ed would agree with him, that there needed to be an equivalent exchange. They couldn’t leave Winry here alone and go home to their Winry. This Winry needed her Elric brothers just like theirs did, and was waiting for them, too, so they couldn’t leave her without doing something for her.
They’d have to do the research to make it happen, but when had that ever stopped them? Maybe it would be hard, but they’d figure something out. It wouldn’t be right for joy to be one-sided in their world, and for sorrow to fill this one.
X X X
Chapter 32: Homecoming
X X X
Den’s ears raised and she let out a curious bark from her favorite place on the porch. Pinako wiped her hands on a greasy towel, pushing through the screen door that squealed and popped as she went through it. The people walking up the path made her smile, an absent space in her heart slowly filling with the sight of her granddaughter and the two boys with her.
“Welcome home,” she called in her scratchy voice, delighted at the sight of answering grins from the boys. But Al looked so strange, thin and weak, and Ed…he was taller than Winry. Pinako hmphed. “It’s about time you decided to grow, you pipsqueak!”
Later, she’d figure out what was masquerading as joy in Winry’s eyes. For now, she’d enjoy Ed’s screeching, and the sight of her three kids, finally home and together again.
X X X
Chapter 33: Over Dinner
X X X
The meal was amazing, even if Al couldn’t eat everything he wanted. Pinako had been surprised when Ed had turned down rice, but had gone on to fix a wonderful dinner. Granny Pinako’s stew, Winry’s apple pie, fresh milk from the Nedobeck farm, lemonade – it all combined to make something that felt so much like home it was all Al could do to not break down over the table. He managed to keep control of himself, though. There’d been enough sorrow lately.
Al finally pushed back with a sigh, patting his stomach. It really was rounded, and he hoped he hadn’t eaten so much to make himself sick. Ed didn’t seem to be in any better shape, spoon still dangling from his mouth, a sated expression in his eyes. Captain Hawkeye had finished earlier, just a few crumbs left over from the pie on the plate in front of her. Corporal Mustang set down his fork, wiping his mouth delicately. Winry was busy cutting a slab of pie for Ed. Over in the corner, Den gnawed on a bone Pinako had fished out of the stewpot, and Pinako was sipping at a cup of coffee that smelled good. Now, if it only tasted as good as it smelled.
“So,” Pinako said, “you boys come from some sort of a mirror world?”
It had been a weird discussion, explaining where they were from, and how they’d gotten here. Pinako had been fascinated by the differences in Al, that he was, as she said, “Old.”
“It’s a lot like this one,” Ed said, picking up his fork and cutting off the tip of his pie. “Really.” He took his bite of pie, moving it around his mouth. “Some changes, though.” He shot a look at Captain Hawkeye and Corporal Mustang, then turned his attention back to his dessert. “I guess how Al got his body back is different, too.” His expression taking a distant cast, Ed cut off another piece of pie, though he didn’t eat it. “Winry said…said your Ed disappeared, and Al came back as a kid. Ten years old, right?”
Pinako nodded. “Rose brought Al back to Resembool,” she said, “brought him home. He never gave up trying to find a way to bring his brother back.” She nodded to herself.
Winry stared ahead, without seeing what was in front of her. Maybe she saw images of the other two Elrics, Al didn’t know. “Ed gave up Amestris to get Al’s body back. And then he gave it up again, to save us all.” She lowered her head and smiled, a bittersweet curve of her mouth. “He’d better take good care of that automail. I spent a long time working on it.”
Al reached across the table, touching the back of Winry’s hand to get her attention. “What if they’d asked, would you have gone with them?” He couldn’t even begin to imagine a world without Winry in it. How could they have left her behind?
She didn’t answer immediately, obviously considering the question, and finally said, “I don’t know. It’d mean leaving behind everything I know, for,” Winry spread her hands, raising her eyes to meet Al’s. “I think you and your Winry spent a lot more time together than I spent with Ed and Al from here. I didn’t see them for four years, and then I traveled with them for a little while, until…” Her voice trailed off and she shook her head. “When I found out they were in trouble with the military, I went to try and warn them, and wound up getting captured by Mr. Mustang and his men.” Winry rubbed her wrist, lost in thought. “They spent the night here, and then it was the last I saw of them, at the train station the next morning, until Rose brought Al home.”
Al tried to piece together what Ed had told him with this new information.
Corporal Mustang cleared his throat. “In the midst of everything, I didn’t tell you, Miss Rockbell. I was with them before they left our world. Alphonse was trying to get Edward to stay, and asked, ‘What about Winry?’” Her head came up and she focused on Corporal Mustang. If he felt any discomfort, he didn’t show it. “Edward held up his arm,” Mustang lifted his own in demonstration, “and said, ‘Tell her she makes the best automail ever.’”
Pinako snorted. “She already knew that.”
“It’s still nice he’d say it.” Winry didn’t sound defensive, more resigned, Al thought.
He glanced sideways at his brother, who frowned, staring at the empty plate in front of him. Wondering if Ed was thinking about home, or Winry, or was even paying any attention to the conversation at all, Al decided it wasn’t really his business, or not enough to bring up in this room. He knew Ed had seen Winry before they went to fight in Central City. He hoped his brother’d said something better than ‘you make the best automail’ before he left. If he hadn’t, Al thought he might have to hit him.
“Do you want them to come back?”
Al realized Ed was the one who’d asked. How weird was it he’d voiced the question Al had been thinking about? Maybe not so strange.
“They won’t be able to,” Corporal Mustang said. “Edward went to the other world to close the gateway, and I destroyed it on this side.” He glanced sideways at Winry. “I should have told you earlier, Miss Rockbell, but…”
“It’s okay.” She shrugged but her smile faded abruptly. “Wait, if the gate’s closed, how are you guys going to get back to your world?”
“I don’t think Truth sent us the same way,” Al said softly.
Ed’s expression tightened. “We went through what I thought was Al’s door, since I gave up my alchemy to bring him home.” Al noticed Winry wince at that word, and gave her a tiny smile. “Truth must’ve sent us here.”
“We’d have to perform human transmutation to see Truth again.” Al traced the grain of the tabletop with a forefinger. “Unless we can come up with another way to do it.”
“I gave up alchemy as my toll.” Turning his head, Ed fixed Al with a glare. “You’re not risking yourself to get us back to Truth.”
“But you want to go home, too,” Winry said, and they both looked across the table at her. “I mean…she’s waiting for you!”
The realization this Winry didn’t have a reason to wait any more made Al feel sick.
X X X
Chapter 34: Over Breakfast
Pinako talks, Roy listens.
The smell of ham cooking roused Roy, dragging him along like a leash out of his bed and down the hall to the kitchen. It was empty, except for Pinako Rockbell, who still worked the stove, frying ham and pancakes in a pair of skillets.
“Have a seat, Corporal,” she said over her shoulder, “and before you ask, everyone else is outside. That garden needed weeding, and the kids volunteered to do it.” The old woman cackled. “It’s hard work, but the vegetables are worth it.” She nodded at a pot on the stove, and the scent of coffee suddenly filled Roy’s nostrils.
He inhaled all of the wondrous smells, and poured himself a cup of the coffee, adding a dribble of milk for color, then sat at the table. A few seconds later, a plate with a slab of ham and a stack of pancakes appeared in front of him. “Syrup’s there,” Dr. Rockbell said.
“This is,” Roy wasn’t sure how to thank her. He couldn’t remember a meal someone had prepared for him specifically, in a warm kitchen. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Corporal. Eat up. There’s work to be done. Once you wash your dishes, come join us outside.” Dr. Rockbell set the skillets aside and grabbed a cup of her own coffee, sitting in the chair across from him. “You know,” she said, “Winry told me what you did for those boys in Central City.”
Roy blinked at her across the table, his fork halfway to his mouth, syrup dripping off of the pancake. “Dr. Rockbell?”
“Even if they’re not our kids, they’re good ‘uns.” She sipped her coffee, her beady eyes studying him. Roy had the feeling those eyes didn’t miss much.
“There is, of course, always the possibility they aren’t what they seem to be,” he said.
“I think you’d’ve known by now if they weren’t.”
Roy ate a few more bites of his breakfast. “How do you feel about them, Dr. Rockbell?”
“Me?” The faint curl of her mouth told Roy she was expecting the question, despite her raised eyebrows. “I suppose…I think they’re good boys. That their family misses them, back in their world. I think they’re confused, but they’re doing what they’ve always done, going forward. They’re going to find a way to get back to their home, and their family, and we’ll either help them or stand in their way. Me, I’m gonna help them, because it’s the right thing.”
“The military,” Roy began cautiously.
“The military wouldn’t want these boys, now, would they?” Dr. Rockbell got out of her chair, taking her cup with her.
His heart squeezed in his chest. He knew how many sons Dr. Rockbell had lost to the various wars Amestris had participated in. Her husband had passed young. Her only living relative was Winry, now outside the house with two boys she should’ve grown up with, two boys who cared about her.
“You’re thinking awfully hard, Corporal Mustang.” The dry tone of her voice caught his attention.
“I’m thinking that sometimes, people deserve happiness, Dr. Rockbell.”
The old woman winked at him. “Everyone deserves a chance at happiness, Corporal Mustang. Even if they think they don’t.” She added over her shoulder as she walked out of the kitchen, “Don’t forget to wash those dishes.”
Roy looked down at his plate, frowning slightly at the smear of syrup left behind.
Chapter 35: In the Garden
Roy still has more chores to do.
Roy stepped outside after cleaning up from breakfast, following the sounds around the house to where Alphonse, Hawkeye and Dr. Rockbell were working in the garden. Well, Hawkeye and Dr. Rockbell were, Alphonse sat on the ground, the black and white dog asleep in his lap. From the women’s laughter, Alphonse had said something amusing, and Roy felt for a few seconds as if he was interrupting. Still, he cleared his throat. “Is there something I can do?”
Dr. Rockbell glanced in his direction. “The green beans won’t pick themselves, Corporal.”
Rolling up his sleeves, Roy joined the women in the garden. Hawkeye handed him a bucket and he began stripping beans off the vines.
“Al? Do you know how to clean string beans for cooking?” Dr. Rockbell called.
“Yes! We grew them back home.”
“When you fill the bucket, Corporal, dump it out on Al so he can clean the beans. I’ll cook them up later.”
Alphonse let out a protest. “I’m not a dumping ground, Granny!”
The old woman cackled. “Close enough.”
They argued, with Alphonse’s voice getting higher pitched the longer he fought with Dr. Rockbell. Roy tuned them out. The monotony of picking the beans allowed his thoughts free rein, though they kept jumbling up with the fact he was here, again, in the Rockbells’ home, with the Elric brothers. There were too many things wrong with this, and Roy expected something to happen.
He blamed his distraction for the slowness of his reaction to the absence of Edward and Miss Rockbell, though he realized he hadn’t even heard Edward’s voice this morning.
When he asked, Alphonse piped up with a shrug. “You missed them, sir. Ed’s automail was making a sound,” he rolled his eyes. “Winry dragged him off to check it out.”
Chapter 36: Tune Up
Ed tries to explain his automail to Winry.
“I’m not used to this kind of automail!” Winry removed the grill plate to peer into the workings. “What is it?”
“Northern-weight automail.” It was weird explaining it to Winry, of all people, but Ed would do his best. “When Al and I went to Briggs, my automail stopped working in the middle of a fight. I found out there’s an automail designed for that kind of cold.” It had felt like his bones were freezing, and his balls were retreating up into his chest, but Ed wasn’t going to tell Winry that. “Winry came to Briggs to replace them for me.” He wasn’t going to talk about Kimbley, or her being a hostage, either. “Over the past three years, I guess I’ve seen a lot of her.” Oops. Maybe he shouldn’t have said that out loud.
She raised her eyebrows. “You’ve been in that much trouble?”
“Uh…” There really wasn’t a good way to answer that question. First Scar trashed his automail, then there was the fight at Lab Five, then Greed trashed his automail, then the fight with dumb Ling’s dumb retainers, then there was the second fight with Scar – no automail trashing, but Winry found out Scar killed her parents. Ugh – then Briggs, and back to Rezembool. And now he felt bad. “I guess? We traveled together for a while.” From Central to Rush Valley and back again, and Al had taken her from Briggs to Liore. “But, yeah, I got into some fights.” He swung his flesh leg. “Guess that’s familiar, huh?”
Her attention back on his leg, Winry nodded. “This is really amazing, Ed! Did she tell you anything about it?”
He’d been trying to warn her about Kimbley, and trying not to think how nice her hair smelled. “Uh, it’s got a higher carbon ratio, so it doesn’t conduct the cold as well. And it’s lighter than my old leg.”
Winry tsked. “Her studies are different than mine. I can see some of the things she’s done, and I recognize a lot of it, but there are other things…” Her voice trailed off as she continued tinkering inside his leg.
“Her automail saved my life, more than once.”
She raised her head. “Why are you telling me?”
“Because,” Ed mumbled, unable to look away from her face, “I bet he never told you that, and I bet yours saved his life, too.”
Winry blinked at him, her eyes wide, then she dropped her head, color shading her cheeks. “Mr. Mustang said,” she began, and sighed. “I guess not. I asked Ed once to come back ho – to Resembool,” she said. “And he said he wouldn’t.” Remembered hurt, muted but still lingering, echoed in those words. “He wouldn’t have gotten Al’s body back, though. I guess it was selfish of me to even think that. But we’d…they’d been through so much already.” There was that hesitation, almost as if Winry thought her pain wasn’t equal to the brothers’. Ed clenched his jaw, wishing he could thrash his counterpart. How badly had he treated Winry to make her feel so worthless? No matter what Mustang said about that ass’s words when he left Amestris, it wasn’t enough, not for the hell Winry had to have put up with.
“Sorry,” he grated out.
Huffing, Winry tapped his ankle with the socket wrench, making Ed hiss and the metal ring. “You idiot. It’s not your fault. Don’t be sorry.”
“It may not be my fault, but it’s his!” Ed snapped. “And he…I…I didn’t always treat Winry too well.” He admitted it, reluctantly, but it was there. Out in the open. Even if this wasn’t the right girl, she was still Winry.
“You had your reasons,” Winry shrugged. “So did he.” Picking up a pair of needle nose pliers, she traced the wiring inside the lower part of Ed’s leg. “You both made promises to get Al’s body back. That’s important, Ed.”
“Even if! I mean. I should’ve – he should’ve! Gah!” Thumping his fist on the exam table, Ed tried to restrain himself. It was all so stupid. “I don’t know his reason, Winry, but…I tried really hard, Al and me, both. We wanted to keep you safe. We didn’t in the long run. You did that yourself, came up with the idea on how to get away.” Winry’s face twisted up. “I guess that’s something else that didn’t happen, huh?”
“I did leave you guys,” she said slowly. “I went with Riza back to Central City before you - Ed and Al - went back to Liore. I had some stuff I needed to do there. And then Sciezca and I came back to Resembool. I knew Ed and Al would be coming back home, and the military was looking for them, so Sciezca and I went to warn them.”
The military was looking for them. Well, that sounded familiar, even though the idea of Sciezca and Winry as friends was kind of weird to think about. Tempted to ask how they’d met, Ed decided it didn’t matter. It was another one of the hiccups between the worlds. For all he knew, his counterpart or Al’s introduced them, or maybe even Mustang or Hawkeye had. For all his attempts to keep Winry away from the military back home, this world’s Winry seemed to know of most of Mustang’s staff, at least by name.
“Then we all came back, and your dad was here with Granny.”
Ed jerked his head around to her. “The old man?”
Winry nodded. “Ed was pretty upset about it. He punched Mr. Hohenheim when he was flirting with Miss Ross.”
“Ross? Maria Ross?” Ed gaped at her, trying to figure out why Second Lieutenant Ross might’ve made it to Rezembool. Punching the old man, yeah, that sounded like him, but Ross? In Rezembool? Maybe that wasn’t the point of the story, anyway. They were talking about Winry, not…not people who should’ve never been in Rezembool. “Forget that, Winry. I mean, about Ross. You did what you needed to, right? And you’re safe. That’s the important thing.”
“Thanks, Ed.” Winry began putting the metal sheath back together, using a squirt can to oil the hinges and screws as she did. The familiar sensations, as well as the soft grumbles from Winry, almost lulled him, but Ed kept his focus on her, on the motions of her hands. All too similar.
“You’re welcome,” he said finally, as Winry fitted the grill back in place.
She raised her head, turning to him then, and smiled faintly in response as she tightened the screws holding the grill in place. “All done!” The note of satisfaction rang in her voice, and Ed smiled in response to it. “I think I should take a trip up north, now. I want to study Northern-Weight automail.” Getting to her feet, Winry stretched her back and her arms, and Ed was quick to turn his eyes away, gritting his teeth.
It didn’t matter that this wasn’t his Winry. She looked like her and smelled like her, and his body still reacted stupidly to her. “So,” he gulped as his voice cracked and slid up an octave on even that one syllable, “uh, what now? Are you going to go up to Briggs immediately?”
Winry glanced over her shoulder at him, giving him a mocking smile. “No, of course not.” She turned around, lacing her fingers and pushing her hands out in front of her to stretch the muscles in her upper back. Ed made sure his eyes weren’t focused on anything that might get him called a lecher, though he had the feeling Winry wasn’t paying that much attention, since she glanced toward the window. When she spoke, she sounded distracted. “I mean, why would I want to leave now?”
Ed followed her gaze, spotting Al outside, the sound of his laughter carrying inside the house. “He is pretty amazing,” he mumbled.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Ed,” Winry said, walking past him and heading toward the door. “You’re both pretty amazing.”
Staring after her, Ed snapped his mouth shut, hating the sensation of his cheeks heating up. “I’m not short!” he snapped finally, hearing her laugh as he trotted to catch up to Winry.
Chapter 37: Sunburn
Alphonse has a sunburn.
“I’m not delicate!” Al groused when Pinako suggested he move back under the porch awning, to get out of the sun.
“You may not be.” She picked up his arm, pressing her thumb into the soft skin of his forearm. The white pressure spot came back pink. “Your skin is. You’re starting to burn.”
With a huff, he obeyed, letting her help him up onto the porch, thinking that it was better than being in the hospital. Still, once Pinako left him there in the shade, Al investigated his skin with his fingers, hissing at the proof he’d gotten a burn. “Ed’s gonna pitch a fit.”
Nothing to be done about that, though, unless he wanted to roll his sleeves down and hide the burn. With a mental shrug, Al leaned his head back, watching as Pinako, Corporal Mustang and Captain Hawkeye continued working in the garden. It was a homey scene, he thought, and then, maybe uncharitably, that it would do the Corporal some good, the mindless work in the sun.
The squeal of the screen door opening alerted him, and Al glanced back, smiling at the sight of Winry coming through it with a tray laden with glasses of lemonade. Ed followed behind her, carrying a tray of sandwiches, one of them shoved in his mouth.
“Lunch,” Winry sang out, balancing the tray to hand Al one of the glasses. “Come and get it before Ed eats everything!” She carried the lemonade to the garden to pass it out.
“Will not,” Ed said, the words muffled with the bite of sandwich in his mouth. His eyes narrowed. “You’ve got a sunburn, Al!”
He ignored Ed. “How was your tuneup?”
Ed flushed, kicking Al’s thigh lightly. “Shut up!”
Al gloated at his brother. He was so easy.
Chapter 38: Kneading Bread
Country life is different than military life.
Beans and ham cooking together didn’t have a delicate scent, but the smell of it drifting past Riza’s nose made her mouth water. She took a deep breath, and turned her attention back to the dough in front of her, the flat, smooth texture of it stretched out on the floured counter reminding her of her childhood, when she’d helped knead bread for meals. She’d learned to stuff it with dried fruit and meats, in an attempt to stretch the meager meals in her household.
Folding the dough into thirds onto itself, Riza flattened and rolled it. She sealed the dough, and put it into the oiled loaf pan, laying a clean tea towel over the top of it and the pan she’d previously filled. Dusting her hands in the sink, she turned to Dr. Rockbell. “Is there anything else I can help you with, ma’am?”
“You can call me Pinako,” she said, lifting the lid to the beans and stirring the pot. The smell of them perfumed the air in the kitchen. “And no, I can’t think of anything else you can do. Relax, if you’d like.”
Riza leaned her backside against the counter, folding her arms. “I’m not quite sure I know how,” she admitted.
“I’m sure it will come to you,” Pinako said, giving her a grin. “Go for a walk. Take the Corporal with you. The river is nice this time of year.”
“Is it.” Riza wasn’t surprised at the twinkle in the old woman’s eyes. “Well, I suppose I could take your dog for a walk. And maybe take the Corporal with me.”
Pinako’s grin was telling as Riza left the kitchen. She ignored it, trying to find Mustang. Not because of any matchmaking on Dr. Rockbell’s part, but because they should reconnoiter.
Chapter 39: Sharpest Cut
Roy's busy peeling potatoes.
Peeling potatoes was not a task Roy expected to do outside of KP. Still, here he was, dumping peeled potatoes in a bucket of water. The smell of beans and ham drifted by, teasing his nose. The scent reminded him that his hard work helped feed the people in the Rockbell house, even if he wasn’t sure he should be here.
Prickles of doubt swarmed over him, the distraction making the paring knife slip and cut his thumb. Roy popped it into his mouth, sucking at the wound, the half-peeled potato rolling across the ground.
“You dropped something.” Hawkeye’s voice caught his attention, and he glanced toward her out of the corner of his eye.
“Cut myself,” he grumbled around his thumb, taking it out and squinting at it. The cut seeped blood, and he thought it was fitting that he’d bleed out in front of this house, after causing so much misery to its inhabitants.
Hawkeye took his hand, twisting his wrist to survey the wound, ignoring his whine. “You’re such a baby,” she said dismissively. “It’s barely bleeding.”
“That doesn’t stop it from hurting.” Unable to meet her eyes, Roy reached for the potato. The grass kept it relatively clean, and he was sure the Rockbell women would wash the tubers before whatever the next step was.
“Get up, Corporal,” Hawkeye said.
“Get up. We’re going for a walk.”
“But I’m peeling potatoes,” Roy protested, even though walking sounded like a good idea, especially if there were trees shading their path, because he was sweating like a pig.
“The potatoes will keep.”
Hawkeye wasn’t teasing him, was she? Roy peered up at her. “All right,” he said, tossing the potato back in the pail, and putting the paring knife on the stool. “Let’s walk, Captain.”
Chapter 40: Washing Up
Winry's busy in the kitchen after dinner.
Dusk crept across the land, slowly turning the greens of Resembool to purples and greys as the sun set. Winry finished washing the dishes, watching as the world outside the window grew slowly darker. Supper had been good, easier than the previous night’s, with Mr. Mustang and Miss Riza seeming to have a little less friction between them. Al was quieter, and his sunburn obviously bothered him already. Ed had worn his ‘I told you so’ expression, and Granny prescribed a baking soda paste over the worst burns, not that Al was really too sunburnt. She just didn’t want to take any chances, considering how tender Al’s skin was.
“I guess it was lucky you weren’t burnt worse, boy,” Granny had said, poking Al lightly with the mouthpiece of her pipe as he slathered the paste over his forearms. “You ought to go to bed soon, let that take effect.”
“But it’s early,” Al had whined, losing the effect when he yawned immediately afterward.
Ed mother-henned Al into bed, then came back down to the kitchen, picking up the dishtowel and wiping the plates dry. Winry could feel the heat off of his body, so close to hers, and wondered at her dry mouth. Had her counterpart felt this way, whenever Ed did unexpected nice things? “You don’t have to do this,” she said, mentally wincing when her voice cracked.
“It’s part of the chores, isn’t it? The old hag cooked, Al set the table, you and I clean up afterward.”
Staring down into the soapy water, Winry wondered again if the girl in the other world had any idea how lucky she was, having these brothers for her friends.
Chapter 41: In The Cool of the Night
Riza's watching the stars.
Riza sat on the steps of the porch, staring up at the sky. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen so many stars, or even had the time to actually notice them. Out on the lawn, Black Hayate bounced in the long, green grass, while Winry’s dog, Den, watched the younger dog from the porch. The old dog ignored Hayate’s exuberance, though she had firmly put him in his place when he tried to play with her earlier. Den did have to warn Hayate off of Pinako Rockbell’s chickens with a firm bowling over that left Hayate on his back and cowering at Den’s fierce display, but at least he knew now that the chickens were off-limits.
Of course, that didn’t matter much at night. The chickens were at roost, and the cool weather kept away the worst of the biting bugs, something Riza appreciated. She remembered the insects that buried into skin and left welts when they bit from Ishbal all too well; not to mention the bitterly-cold nights where she’d watch from her tower, waiting to see if any of the Ishbalans might try to attack the campsite.
Shaking her head to clear it of the memories, Riza reminded herself she’d escaped Ishbal. Others hadn’t been so lucky. Some of her comrades had returned to the green fields of Amestris in a box. Others hadn’t made it through the last battle, with either the homunculi or the strangers from the other world. And some, she thought, hearing voices inside the house, were still trying to find their places in a world like their own, but oh so different.
It was lucky, she thought, they were so easily hidden out here in the country. Riza didn’t want to think what the current government might do, if it found out the Elrics were alive and here in Resembool. As it was, knowledge of their arrival – and their whereabouts – had been kept a closely guarded secret. She hoped it would stay that way while they figured out what they were going to do next.
Chapter 42: Discussions IV
Roy finds out more about this Edward, whether he wants to or not.
Roy stood in the doorway to the den, seeing Edward sprawled across the sofa, a book in his hands. The young man glanced over the book, a slow, sly smile curling his mouth. “So, bastard,” he said, “how was your walk with Captain Hawkeye?”
His eye narrowed. “How did you know?”
“Pft. It’s not that big of a house.” Edward swung his legs off the sofa, the sound of automail hitting the floor louder than the noise from his flesh foot. “Besides, the old hag was cackling about setting you up.”
“She did, did she?” Entering the room the rest of the way, Roy took the chair across from the couch. “Did she say anything else?”
“That if you got lucky, it might yank that stick out of your ass.” Pinako’s voice startled Roy, making him jerk and turn toward the older woman. She smiled from her place in the doorway he’d just vacated, and disappeared down the hall.
Attempting to keep from pouting, Roy looked at Edward. Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t Edward, falling off the couch with hysterical laughter and his pounding on the floor. “Oh, shut up, you ass,” he growled, folding his arms and crossing his legs.
Getting himself under control, Edward sat up. “What’s wrong? You can dish it out but you can’t take it?” The wicked grin on the young man’s face itched to be removed, and Roy wished his gloves weren’t tucked into a drawer in the patient’s room.
“No, I’m just surprised you had an idea what ‘getting lucky’ meant,” Roy said, letting his voice take on an oily quality.
“Hnn!” He waved his hand. “Soldiers like to talk. They told enough stories.”
“But you’re still a virgin?” Hey, if Edward could laugh, Roy could go in for the kill.
Edward’s mouth twitched. “Why do you want to know? Looking for more differences between me and that idiot?”
Idiot, that was an interesting choice of words. Roy smirked in response, deciding to let Fullmetal sweat it out for a while.
Chapter 43: Nightmare
Pinako and Edward have a talk.
“You can use the back door.”
Edward stood in front of Truth, hands fisted, his jaw clenched. “We did!” he snarled. “Look what happened!” Swinging sideways, he pointed a trembling finger at the mess in the center of the transmutation circle, a creature that hissed and gurgled, blood suddenly spurting out of its incomplete skin as it tried to move. “You see what happened!”
“That’s not my fault, al-chem-ist,” Truth said, showing its teeth in a half-moon smile. “You made your decision to attempt human trans-mu-ta-tion.”
He whipped back around to the Truth. “Not at that cost! Nothing like that should be alive,” he snapped, “nothing should be made to feel that kind of pain!”
“Ed?” The tremulous voice plucked at his nerves, dragging Edward back to look at the creature.
This time, he recognized those blue eyes in the flesh-wracked skull. “No.”
“You can use the back door,” Truth hissed in his ear.
“Fuck you,” Edward growled, whirling, his forearm stiffened in preparation to strike a blow, but there wasn’t anything there, just an ever-expanding field of white.
“Ed, I hurt,” Winry cried, “why does it hurt so much?”
“Winry, I,” Edward spun back to her, kneeling at the edge of the circle. He bit his lip, wanting to help her, not sure what he could do. “It won’t hurt,” he whispered. “It’s not going to hurt any longer, I promise.” Swallowing hard, Edward pressed his hands together, the transmutation circle burning in his mind. He closed his eyes, dropping his hands to the edge of the transmutation circle. Lightning flared up, the light of it blinding him to everything but the being in the center of the circle. “Winry, I’m sorry,” he whispered. “So sorry!”
He jerked, nearly falling off the edge of the couch. “Wh-what?” Clutching at his chest, Edward gasped, trying to catch his breath. “Shit. Shit!”
“Bad dream?” Pinako’s voice creaked nearby, and Edward trembled, hearing the faint echo of Truth’s laugh in her words.
“Yeah. Thanks for waking me, Granny.” Inhaling deeply, Edward forced the air to fill his lungs, holding it before he let it out again. His heart still banged around in his chest, and if he closed his eyes, he saw that transmutation circle again, and Winry, and – “Fuck.”
Pinako fetched him a glass of water while Edward dug his fingers deep into his sweat-damp hair. “Here,” she said, shoving the glass into his face. “Drink this.”
Edward obeyed, the water washing away the sour taste in his mouth, moistening his throat. It made his stomach churn for a few seconds, along with the memory of Winry’s eyes in that thing’s skull. Gulping down some more water, he let out a sigh, leaning back and letting the couch cradle his spine. “Damn it.”
“Bad one, huh?”
“Yeah. Really.” He peered out her from one eye. “Did I wake you?”
Waving him off, Pinako said, “Old women don’t sleep much.” She took the seat across from him. “Want to talk about it?”
Edward shook his head. “Not really.” With a short laugh, he said, “Anything else you want to ask?”
“Now that you mention it.” Her smile flashed at him across the dim room, and Edward had to remind himself that Truth only appeared in its hall, and in his worst dreams.
“Yeah? So, what do you want to know?” Edward gave her his best, cockiest grin in return, belying his current distress.
“Actually, you’re a lot younger than our Ed would be. And Al, he’s a lot older.”
“Yeah.” Edward set the glass down. “We don’t know why.” Sighing, he went on. “Winry told me about your Al, and how he came back so young. That had to be really weird for him. His brother not being home, Winry being so much older.”
“He took it pretty well, considering.” Pinako used a lucifer to light up her pipe. Smoke streamed around her head in a lopsided halo. “I don’t doubt it bothered him, though. I know he missed Ed.”
“Yeah.” He knew how much he missed his little brother when they were traveling separately. “I guess when I transmuted myself this last time, I tapped into whatever your Ed and Al were doing in that underground city.” Rubbing his chin, Edward thought about that. “If that’s how we got here, it’s gonna make it hard to get back home.”
“You’ve got people waiting for you,” Pinako said.
Edward nodded. “Yeah.”
“She’s waiting for you,” Pinako said, and her eyes glinted behind her glasses.
“I made a promise to her.” Raising his head, Edward met those mischievous eyes. “I made a promise to everyone; that they’d get to see Al’s smiling face. I’m going to keep it.”
Pinako cackled. “I don’t doubt you will, boy.”
“Good to know you believe in me, no matter what world,” Edward muttered, not quite under his breath.
“Oh, I know how you are, Ed, or at least how he was. There’s that stubborn pride, just like your dad.” Her grin widened at Edward gnashing his teeth. “Your dad was a good man.”
“He abandoned Mom and us.” He glared in remembrance. “That old man…he should’ve stuck around. If he had.” Well, there wasn’t any reason to go into that. “He and Al spent a lot of time together.”
Pinako chuckled. “Sounds similar. He took off when you were here, and Al followed him, even though you – well, he – freaked out.”
“Winry said the old man was here.” And flirting with Ross. Edward really didn’t want to think too hard about that. The other Hohenheim must’ve been even more of a freak than the old man. “Guess you guys were friends, huh? Same as back home.”
“He was a good man,” Pinako repeated. “A good friend to me. And a good husband to Trisha.”
“She still died alone, wanting him to come home.” Edward blew the air out of his lungs. “Can we talk about something else? I mean…you’re not freaked by the military being in your house.”
Pinako puffed the pipe, clouds rising out of her mouth. “They’ve been here before, too. Hawkeye and Mustang are all right, for who they are. It’s hard having him here, especially, but he made his amends. As long as Winry’s all right with him, that’s what matters.”
“What?” Edward perked up. “Mustang? What do you mean?” He leaned his elbows on his knees, inclining his body forward. That weird tension between Mustang and Winry, that he’d never had a chance to ask either of them about, Pinako had to mean that, right?
The old woman hesitated, eyeing him for a second. “What do you know about Winry’s parents’ deaths?”
“They were doctors, working in Ishbal during the war. Their clinic took care of people on both sides, Amestrians and Ishbalans.” Edward held his breath for a second, making sure that no one was listening. He didn’t know what this Winry knew, or even if this part of history was different, too, as so many other things had been. “One of their patients, a scarred Ishbalan man, attacked them. He was…hurt, badly.” It didn’t make it right, even now, but Edward could almost understand Scar’s reasons for attacking. He’d been out of his mind with pain. “The military found Uncle Urey and Auntie Sarah a few days afterward. Their patients were gone, back to hiding. You and Winry got the telegram…Al and I came by to play, and Winry.” Edward remembered it, and even that memory of her pain made him shake his head. “She told us. But I didn’t know – she didn’t know, either – who killed her parents until a lot later. An old Ishbalan woman told me that she knew Uncle Urey and Auntie Sarah, and who killed them.”
Pinako exhaled slowly, smoke trickling out of her mouth. Edward cocked his head at her, realization coming slow. “It…didn’t happen that way here, did it?” he asked quietly.
He wasn’t sure if Pinako was going to say anything more for a minute, then she began telling him a story, about how Winry had found out who killed her parents. About a pair of Ishbalan boys, who told her after she’d befriended them. About how Winry fought with her feelings, and how she’d cried in Pinako’s lap at the idea that a man she considered to be good could be the one who killed her mom and dad. And Edward listened, his mouth growing dry and his fists clenching so hard, he could feel his nails cutting into his palms.
“No.” The protest came out weak and strained, and Edward shook his head. “He wouldn’t.”
Pinako gave him a long look. “Men in war do what their superiors tell them to do.”
“But they weren’t hurting…they were helping!” Edward couldn’t seem to catch his breath at the idea that Mustang had pointed a gun and – “They weren’t military doctors. They volunteered! They were helping everyone!”
“Ed. Edward!” Her sharp voice cut into his thoughts. “Winry has made her peace with this. You need to, too. Don’t disturb her with it.”
“Oh, I won’t, Granny,” he promised.
“And leave the Corporal alone, too. He’s tried hard to keep her safe, and keep the boys safe, for her and me, too. He did his best.” Pinako pointed the mouthpiece of her pipe at him, wagging it for emphasis. “You leave him out of it, Edward, and don’t bring it up to Winry, either. I mean it. They’ve both been through enough grief over this. I don’t want to go through it again, just because things were different on your world, and you have a misplaced sense of honor for a girl from this one.” The whip snap in her words let Edward know she wasn’t kidding around.
“Yes’m,” Edward grumbled, shifting around on the couch. “I won’t bring it up,” he added reluctantly when Pinako raised her eyebrows at him pointedly.
“Good. Keep it that way.” She studied him for a little longer, and then said, “She must be a lucky girl, your Winry back home.”
“Huh?” Feeling like he was a couple of steps behind her, Edward cocked his head.
The old woman climbed out of the chair, sauntering toward the door. “You must love her a lot,” she tossed over her shoulder as she left the room, leaving Edward with his mouth hanging open, unable even to form a coherent response.
Chapter 44: Go To Sleep
Something's wrong, but Ed's not talking.
Al woke at the sound of the door opening. Ed crept through the doorway, pushing the door closed behind him. He leaned his forehead against the panel, letting out a sigh.
“What is it?”
Ed jerked. “You’re awake?”
Yawning, Al nodded. “Almost.”
“Go back to sleep, Al.” Ed passed around the end of Al’s bed, dropping onto his own. He took off his shoes, setting them aside, and shucked out of his clothes. Al watched as his brother dug his fingers into his hair before lying down, another sigh escaping him.
Al rolled over onto his side. “Ed, did something happen?” What could’ve happened, he wondered, in the time it took for him to go to bed and Ed to come upstairs?
“No, Al, just…” Ed exhaled, shaking his head. “Maybe…we got off luckier in our world, is all.” He rolled over, so he faced away from Al, pulling the blankets up close to his neck.
Al frowned, thinking someone owed him an explanation, but for now, he’d let his brother pretend to sleep, and force it out of him tomorrow.
Chapter 45: Morning Chores
Al's still trying to figure out what's going on.
Morning found Ed digging around in the basement, hauling out the lawn mower and sharpening the blades. “What are you doing?” Al peered at his brother, a bacon and egg sandwich in hand.
Ed turned his attention away from the lawnmower blades to give him a look.
“Okay, I can see what you’re doing, but why?”
“The grass needs mowing.”
Al turned slowly in place. “It does?” It looked about the same length as always, to him; lush and green, with a few wild flowers studding the lawn like brightly-colored jewels. “Since when?”
“Since I decided.” Ed went back to scraping the whetstone over the blades.
“Okay,” Al said, dubious. “Well, I got lucky today.” He smiled as Ed shook his bangs back out of his eyes to stare at him. “Winry promised to make me a pie.”
Ed leaned his elbow on the frame of the push mower. “Did she?”
“Mm. I can’t wait!” Al’s grin faded when Ed didn’t seem to be as excited. “Really, Brother, what’s wrong? You’ve been acting weird since you came to bed last night.”
Before Ed could answer, another voice interrupted. “I was told you were outside, willingly mowing the lawn,” Corporal Mustang said. “I had to come and see for myself.”
“You could be useful, too,” Ed snapped. “There’s a lot of work to be done around here. The eggs need to be collected, and the weeds in the garden need to be pulled. Don’t think you get to slack off when Pinako’s feeding you.”
Corporal Mustang blinked once, spreading his hands. “I’ve offered to beat the rugs today,” he said, a little cold. “Does that pass muster?”
Ed’s expression remained dark but he turned his attention back to the lawnmower. “Yeah,” he muttered.
Al gave Mustang a tiny shrug and apologetic smile, wondering just what the hell had happened last night, and how soon he’d be able to pry it out of his brother.
Chapter 46: On a Walk
I used the following prompts for this story: "Lucky'Green" from the Live Journal community, Fanfic_Bakeoff*, and "Any, any, breaking a heart doesn't stop it" from the Live Journal community, Comment_Fic.
*The story is longer than the word count allowed for Fanfic_Bakeoff. A much shortened version was posted there.
Winry inhaled deeply, tasting the sweet scent of mown grass. She knew she’d have green stains on her bare feet later, but right now, she didn’t care. The warm, damp strands clung to her skin as she walked down to the road.
“Hey, wait up.”
She glanced over her shoulder, smiling slightly, surprised, and somehow not, that Ed was jogging up to her. “You’ve been busy today.” Winry raised her foot, wagging it from side to side, showing him the grass sticking to it. “And you got Mr. Mustang to weed the garden.”
Ed’s mouth twisted a little bit, but all he said was, “He needed something to do.” He walked beside her, his hands shoved in his pockets, head down, lower lip poked out. Winry glanced at him sideways, wondering what was going through his mind. Ed usually blurted things out, unless he was keeping secrets, but right now, he seemed lost in thought.
It was strange, Winry thought, Ed walking next to her. She was used to trailing after him, begging for him to slow down, to wait up, to let her come along. Her doppelganger was lucky, beyond lucky, she thought, having these two young men for friends. “What’s wrong?” she asked finally, tired of Ed’s silence.
Startled, Ed shot a look her way. “Nothing!” he said, insistent, scowling at her, but something lurked in his eyes. No matter what, Ed had a terrible poker face. Guilt, anger, both of them and something more glittered in his gaze. “Nothing,” he repeated, glancing sideways, so she couldn’t see his eyes. “Just…things are different here.”
“I know.” Winry locked her hands behind her back. The breeze that tousled her bangs carried the smell of sheep on it, and the sounds of dogs working the sheep. It smelled – sounded – like home, and the sound of an automail limb, working the way it was supposed to, providing support for the person wearing it; that just added to the day as far as she was concerned.
Orange and yellow lilies bobbed in the ditches, butterflies and bees flitting around them. Winry paused to pick some of the flowers, gathering a bundle together. Ed watched her for a few seconds, then joined her, pulling some of the purple clover, too, and the tall dandelions that grew in the ditch. Bees buzzed around their heads as they chose their bouquets, a yellow butterfly diving at Ed’s hand when he reached for one of the flowers.
“Hey,” Ed protested, waving it off.
“It likes you,” Winry laughed when the butterfly returned.
“Yeah, it can have another flower,” he grumbled, shooing the butterfly again.
Winry cut off across the fields, heading for a familiar hill, one that overlooked the river. Ed caught up to her, though he hesitated at the gate of the cemetery, letting Winry lay the bouquets she’d picked on her parents’ graves. She knelt between the stones, closing her eyes, wishing she could tell her mom and dad how she felt right now, with Ed and Al back, and so very different than the boys she knew. Hearing the soft clank and whirr of Ed’s automail, she opened her eyes, watching as he put flowers down on Auntie Trisha’s grave. His face was so open, so easily read – full of regret and sorrow, and he laid his hands on top of her gravestone. “It looks familiar,” he said softly, turning away from the stone and scanning the cemetery.
“I guess a lot of things do, huh?” Winry tilted her head toward him.
A faint smile flickered. “Yeah.” Ed walked over to her, squatting next to her, his elbows on his knees. He stared at the stones in front of them. “How did you go on, when you found out your parents died?” he asked, quietly, wistfully.
Whatever might have been bothering him, that question wasn’t what Winry expected Ed to ask. “Well,” she said slowly, considering her answer, “I was young. It hurt, knowing they weren’t coming home. You and Al were there…some days. Some days, you weren’t, but I always had Granny and Den.”
“And automail.” Ed nudged her with his elbow, and she caught a glimpse of the corner of his mouth curling up.
“And automail,” she agreed, smiling. “But Mom and Dad, they were strong people! I needed to go on, for them. For all the people they could’ve helped.”
Nodding, Ed touched the petal of one of the flowers. “You’re strong,” he said. “Maybe stronger than me and Al.”
“No, I’m not!” Winry shook her head, but Ed pointed at her.
“You are. You’re a strong woman, Winry. You’re always cheerful, you’ve always got something good to say about everyone.” Ed spread his hands. “You’re amazing.”
“I’m not,” Winry said, shaking her head, looking back at the stones. “I’m not any stronger than you guys. You know it as well as I do – you have to keep moving forward. Your heart might be broken, but it doesn’t stop beating.” She started at the feeling of Ed’s hand on the top of her head, rubbing her crown.
“Yeah,” he whispered, leaning his shoulder into hers, “you’re stronger.”
Chapter 47: Questions
Roy has questions for Al.
Looking up from his book, Al nodded at Corporal Mustang, trying to keep from wincing at the sight of that eye patch. “Yes, sir?”
Corporal Mustang entered the den stiffly. “Do you know what’s wrong with your brother? Have I done something to irritate him?” Dryly, he added, “More so than normal?”
“I’m not sure, sir.” Al marked his place in the book with his finger, sitting up a little more and waving the corporal into the chair across from him. Uneasy with the idea of discussing whatever was bothering Ed without knowing what it was, Al didn’t want to say more. “He hasn’t told me yet.” That much was the truth.
Crossing his leg, Mustang peered at Al. “I didn’t suppose I would be so lucky as to find out what is bothering him so easily.”
Al sighed. “I really don’t know, sir.”
“Ah, well.” Offering a faint smile, Mustang got to his feet. “I’ll leave you to it, then, Alphonse.”
“Thank you, sir.” Al watched the corporal left the room before opening his book again, even though he knew he wouldn’t get any more reading done today.
Chapter 48: Discussions V
Al finally gets Ed to talk (sort of) about what's bothering him.
The cut grass had stained Ed’s flesh foot green. It seemed so weird to Al, that for a few seconds when he noticed it, that’s all he saw.
At the tone of his brother’s voice, Al smiled. “Nothing, just your foot. It’s green.”
Ed snorted. “I’ll take a shower, if it’s bothering you.”
“Well, you are kind of rank.” Waving a hand in front of his nose, Al felt Ed’s glare. That hadn’t changed, at least. “What’d you do all day, after you finished mowing?”
Collapsing onto the bed opposite of Al’s, Ed lay crosswise on it with his head almost hanging over the edge. “Went to the cemetery with Winry,” he said distantly.
Al imagined what it would look like in spring, the flowers blooming, the grass so green, the marble stones gleaming like pearls. And Winry, this older Winry, and his brother. He couldn’t help but ask, “What did you talk about?”
Ed shrugged, looking at Al upside down. “Nothing…Mom. Her parents.” His mouth curled down.
Sitting up, Al realized he had some sort of clue. Lucky for him Ed was so expressive. “What about them?”
He shook his head. “Nothing, Al, don’t…I can’t talk about it.” Ed’s lips thinned, and Al knew his brother did want to talk about it. Whatever Ed had found out, it was eating him up inside.
“Can’t?” Al glanced toward the door to their room, open a crack. He lowered his voice. “Or won’t?”
“I made a promise.” Ed’s jaw jutted stubbornly.
Well, that was that…at least to Ed actually saying something. But he had tells and Al knew them all. “It has something to do with Auntie Sarah and Uncle Urey,” that much was evident, “and Winry,” and Al considered, thinking back to the way Ed had been acting all day and who’d borne the brunt of his bad mood. “And Corporal Mustang.”
Ed hissed, his eyes narrowing sharply. “Leave it, Al.” He curled his spine, his feet hitting the floor hard as he stood up and stomped out of the bedroom.
Al knew a lot more than he did before, just not all of it. If Ed wasn’t going to tell him, that meant he had to ask someone else. Rubbing his chin, Al went through his options, and made his decision. If Ed wasn’t going to say anything, Pinako Rockbell would tell him, he was sure of it.
Chapter 49: Discussions VI
Riza and Roy have a talk about his day.
“What is it, Corporal?”
Roy turned a little farther when he realized, again, he couldn’t see out of his eye. Habit engrained was harder to let go of than anything. “Ah, Captain,” he murmured, even though he’d known her voice. “Come to check on me?”
“You’ve been,” Hawkeye’s hesitation was so slight, only someone who knew her very well would have recognized it as such, “non-communicative all day.”
“Is that a polite way to say ‘sulking’?” Despite everything, Roy knew he could get away with teasing her.
Hawkeye narrowed her eyes. “If you wish,” she said. “However, it isn’t very,” another of those pauses, “productive.”
“I beg to differ, Captain. I weeded the garden, collected eggs, and helped clean out the chicken coop.” The smell was one he didn’t want to experience, ever again. And Roy wasn’t sure he’d even want to look at eggs, much less eat them. “Did you ever consider how lucky we are, to be part of the military? We don’t have to grow our own foods, butcher our own meat.” Not that he was squeamish, not after everything he had done in the past, but there was something quite different about watching Pinako Rockbell pull the entrails out of a chicken body.
“I meant about getting the Elrics back to their own world.”
Roy reached under his patch. “I’m not sure what sort of research can be done.” The headache he’d been developing all day went from the back of his skull all the way up to his ruined eye socket. Rubbing it helped soothe the pain a little bit. “I don’t think it can really be done here.”
“Back to the underground city?” Hawkeye asked, sounding wary. Roy didn’t blame her.
“I am afraid so. It’s where these Elrics appeared, and the others vanished. If there are any clues, that will be where we’d find them.”
Riza prodded him. “But?”
“But,” Roy tilted his head back, hearing laughter somewhere in the house, “I’m not sure they’d want to leave Resembool at this point.”
“And Winry,” Hawkeye said, speculative.
“And Winry,” Roy agreed.
Chapter 50: Knowledge Can Hurt
Summary: Al finds out Ed’s secret from Winry.
Disclaimer: Do I look like a Holstein to you?...wait, don't answer that!
Al took a deep, appreciative breath, then broke out coughing. The wind had shifted and instead of breakfast, he smelled sheep on the early morning. Shaking his head, he leaned back on the porch steps, stretching his bare feet toward the dew-spangled grass.
Den nosed under his arm and Al obliged her, rubbing her ears. Her face seemed greyer, he thought, and tried to remember just how old she had to be. If Winry had gotten Den when she was six, and she was…older than Ed now, then Den had to be absolutely ancient. Den sighed, leaning into his shoulder. “You’re a good girl,” he murmured to her.
The screen door opened with a squeal and popped closed, and a pair of bare feet appeared on his other side, far more delicate than his brother’s. Al took a second to admire Winry’s ankles before letting his head drop back, looking at her upside down. “Good morning,” Winry said, smiling at him.
“Don’t you think it’s a little early to be outside?” She squatted next to him, crossing her arms on top of her knees.
“Granny said it would be good for me to get some sun.” Al wriggled his bare toes. “I can’t stay out too long, though. If I get another sun burn, Ed’ll kill me.”
Winry barely managed to stifle her snicker. “I doubt he’d kill you.”
“No, he’d just fuss enough to make me wish I was dead.” Al’s grin faded as Winry studied his face. “What?”
She reached out, ruffling his bangs, and Al leaned into the caress, thinking surely Den must feel like this when he rubbed her ears. “Your hair. It’s like Ed’s. And your eyes, too.”
“Your Al had different coloring.” Al had seen the photos tacked to the wall – a version of himself he didn’t quite recognize, one with grass green eyes and sandy hair.
“Yeah.” Winry took her hand away, but settled next to him, her shoulder bumping into his. The heat of her at his side warmed him more than the sun. And Winry smelled even better than breakfast.
Al turned his face to the morning sun, closing his eyes against the light. Even that wasn’t quite a protection against the brilliance; orange and red streaks painted the inside of his eyelids where the sunlight struck them. He considered his morning so far – Ed’s restlessness waking him off and on throughout the night, until the greying of the room they shared released Al from his bed and into the house. Pinako was no good with anything until after her first pot of coffee – the same as home – and answered him in grunts and pointed him toward the door when he’d cautiously pressed her with the most oblique questions as to Ed’s mood. She had managed to give him a warning about the sun but turned back to her skillet and the sausage and eggs frying in it before Al could take advantage of that second of clarity.
Now, though, he had another source next to him, and Al barely opened his eyes, glancing sideways at Winry through the fringe of his lashes. Den butted his hand, the force of her reminder that he’d stopped petting her startling him into a laugh.
“Your dog is pushy.” Al stroked Den’s head again, but reached for Winry’s hand with his other. The calloused fingers and palm had to be the same, and Al thought their Winry had the same small hands. Her knuckles were knicked and scarred. Al rubbed his thumb over them slowly, savoring the sensation of mountains and valleys under his touch.
“What?” Winry asked again, more gently.
“Brother,” Al tested the thought in his mind before speaking it aloud, and changed his tack. “Brother said you took him to the cemetery yesterday.”
“Mm.” Winry stared over the green grass, suddenly seeming far away from him.
Al could almost feel the distance between them. “I think,” he said, “there’s another difference in our worlds.”
“There are so many of them, Al.” Now Winry turned back to him, the corner of her mouth turning up. “What’s one more?”
Licking his lips, Al said carefully, “This one is bothering Ed. A lot more than the others.” He turned more to face her, reaching for her other hand so he could hold both of them. “I think it has to do with your parents.” He hesitated. “And Corporal Mustang.”
Something flickered in Winry’s eyes. “How did her parents die?” The question came out so low, Al might’ve missed it if he hadn’t been looking at her.
“An Ishbalan man killed them,” he said. Just the barest facts, no mention of how Scar had helped save Amestris. How Winry and he had traveled with the Ishbalan and his companions. That wasn’t what Winry needed to know right now – and not really what Al wanted to talk about. “How did they die here?”
“They were killed,” Winry said, her mouth taut and eyes narrowed. “A soldier was ordered to kill them, and he…he followed the orders he’d been given.” The faintest of tremors shook her cold hands.
Al chaffed Winry’s fingers between his own, knowing he couldn’t offer much in the way of heat. Even warm as it was outside, because he was still so skinny, he felt cold. Winry’s words floated around in his mind, and he connected them with Ed’s grumbles yesterday, coming to a conclusion that forced him to straighten so sharply, his back cracked in protest. “Winry.”
“I don’t want to talk any more about it, Al.”
“But,” he looked over his shoulder, toward the house where the killer of Winry’s parents slept as far as he knew, under the roof of the two people who should be his worst enemies. “Winry.” Letting go of her hands, he wrapped her in a hug, leaning his face into the crook of her neck. She sat, stiff and strange and cold, so cold, and Al wondered how she’d found out, if their counterparts had told her, or Corporal Mustang had – no, he wouldn’t, Al was sure of it – and just how many more mines they were going to trip over in this world, and its differences from their own.
Den whined, licking Al’s cheek, and he realized the damp on his skin wasn’t just from Den’s tongue. Wiping his eyes, Al swiped his hand over Den’s head, trying to comfort her. At least she’d let him, though Winry gave him a look he wasn’t sure he could define. She wiped his cheek with her thumb. “Al, I love my parents. I always will. But war.” Turning her face from his, Winry stared toward the sun again. “War makes good people do bad things. You have to understand that, and think of them as good, no matter what. It’s circumstances, not…who they really are.”
Al tightened his arms around her, swallowing down his own pain, and hoping, back home, their Winry wasn’t alone.
Chapter 51: Over Breakfast II
Summary: Breakfast was harder this morning.
Breakfast felt strange and sullen, like a thunderhead brewed over the table. Winry claimed a need to work, and disappeared rather than eat. Intercepting the anguished look Al sent after her granddaughter, Pinako made a note to talk to Ed, who didn’t show up at all. Mustang and Hawkeye both remained quiet, eating doggedly, and Al eventually focused his attention on them.
Pinako decided she didn’t want to play poker with Mustang. He remained cool to the rising tension and heated looks Al shot his way. He was the one to break the silence, his laconic drawl visibly setting Al further on edge when he asked, “Is there a problem, Alphonse?”
“Yes,” he said, as intense as only a teenager could be. “I can’t believe – understand – you and Auntie Sarah and Uncle Urey!”
Hawkeye’s eyes narrowed and Mustang favored the skeletal boy with a long, cool gaze. Al didn’t drop his eyes, his jaw clenching. The muscles under his skin jumped and twitched. “It was war,” Mustang said finally, “I’m not sure if you or your brother would understand.”
“You’re right,” Al growled, sounding remarkably like his brother, “I don’t. They were innocent.”
“No more innocent than the Ishbalan families I destroyed,” Mustang said. “All in the name of protecting Amestris. Do you understand that, Alphonse?”
His teeth gritted audibly, his finger clenching too tightly on his fork. Pinako thought Al’s knuckle bones might cut through his skin. “This isn’t pleasant breakfast talk,” she said, cutting between them with her words. “The war has no place at my table.”
“Of course, Mrs. Rockbell.” Mustang inclined his head to her. Al, though, stared at her as if she’d hurt him. Well, she could live with that. Whatever Al had done to Winry made for what the boys called Equivalent Exchange.
Chapter 52: Man or Monster
Summary: Winry considers men, and monsters.
Winry reached into the closet, taking a sweater out and pulling it on. Since she’d talked with Al earlier, she couldn’t seem to get warm. Even the sunlight reminded her of winter, despite how green everything was outside.
She understood their curiosity – they were Elrics. They had to know everything. It was the way they were made. No matter how similar this world was to their own, the differences had to make the boys crazy with wanting to know about them all.
Rubbing her eyes, Winry reminded herself they didn’t know, they couldn’t have known – they couldn’t understand what she’d been through, how she’d learned to deal with how her parents had died. How much loathing she’d had to work through to see the man who’d killed her parents as just that – a man following orders, not a monster who’d taken the two people she’d loved the most from her. If she had hated Roy for her parents, she should have hated him for taking the Elrics, too, and Winry had come to realize that the military was the best shot the boys had for getting their bodies back.
“Winry?” Ed’s voice. Raw and rough and, Winry thought, hurting. His mismatched steps let her know he entered the room, drew closer to her. She could feel the warmth of his body behind her, his breath on the back of her neck. Heard Ed shift his weight from side to side before he stroked the top of her head. “I’m sorry.”
Apologies from Ed were rarer than four leaf clovers, like snow in the summer. The words should’ve been sweet as music but made Winry shiver. She picked at the sweater, and wondered at how the day seemed so cold now, when it had been warm just a few hours ago.
Chapter 53: Cornered
Summary: Roy reminds Ed of a few things, like wanting to go home.
“Edward, I need to talk to you.”
He turned slowly, eyeing Mustang as he climbed off the porch steps. “What do you want?”
“I realize you’ve been made aware of my part in the death of the Rockbells.” Mustang’s voice didn’t change, remaining as flat and level as always. How the fuck did he do that? Didn’t it tear him up inside? How the hell did he live with himself with all that blood on his hands? Either of him?
Edward folded his arms, rocking back on his heels. “Yeah, so?”
“Either you were unaware of that fact in your world, or there were more differences. However, it doesn’t change that I, and the military, are probably still your best way of returning to your home.”
He flashed his teeth, furious at the implications. Put on that fucking collar in another world and maybe get home, he thought, or blow the bastard off, and take care of Al and learn to live here, with this Winry. But there was a girl waiting for them, one he’d promised to make cry tears of joy. Edward thrust his hands in his pockets, feeling the smooth bits of metal there; Winry’s earrings. The cool metal warmed under his fingers.
This was fucking Baschool, again – Edward had no choice but to trust someone when he wasn’t sure he should. He ground his teeth together, flexing his fingers. He couldn’t take Al with him this time; his little brother wasn’t strong enough. And Winry.
“Fine,” Edward snarled. “What do you need me to do?”
Chapter 54: And Yet
Summary: Pinako and Winry have a talk.
Winry sat at the workbench, staring at the automail leg in front of her. A part of her was dissecting the limb dispassionately, while another part of her wished she could compare it to Edward’s leg. The changes her doppelganger had made to the limb made her want to use them in this leg. She remembered the variations the northern weight automail had but it wasn’t as good as having it in front of her to look at and study.
And yet, she didn’t want to talk to Edward right now. When he’d visited her in her room, she’d barely been able to speak to him. If Alphonse knew, Edward had to, too. His apology more than anything told her that.
Shivering, Winry pulled her coveralls tighter around her body. She just couldn’t seem to get warm today, and it seemed like it would’ve been such a gorgeous day, too.
“Are you going to stay down here all day?” Granny’s voice drifted down the staircase, followed by the sounds of her steps on the risers. “You didn’t eat breakfast, and it’s past lunch. You know that piece you’re working on isn’t a rush job.” Her hands, gnarled and warm, landed on Winry’s shoulders, giving her tight muscles a squeeze. “You know it’s not those boys’ fault,” she said.
“I know,” Winry agreed softly. Turning around, she let her clasped hands fall between her knees. “Granny, how different could their world be?”
“Different enough, girl,” Granny said. “But enough is the same. Those boys are still Ed and Al.” She patted Winry’s hands.
And yet, they were so different, too.
Chapter 55: Theatre Music
Summary: Edward tells Alphonse of his plans.
The warmth in the house made Alphonse drowsy, lulling him into a light doze. He thought he could hear conversations going on throughout the house, but none of them pertained to him, so he drifted instead. Somewhere, a radio played, and he recognized the opening theme music for Gold Star Theatre, a faint smile crossing his face at the familiarity of it all.
Edward’s mismatched steps intruded, though Alphonse didn’t open his eyes yet, not until his brother asked, “Al?”
“Mmm?” Sleepily, he looked up at his brother through his lashes.
“Are you awake?” Edward squatted next to the sofa.
“Kinda,” Alphonse mumbled, setting aside the book he’d been looking at. He blinked a couple of times, clearing the sleep from his eyes, and realized Edward wasn’t actually looking at him. “What did you do, Ed?”
“Nothing,” he muttered, though his mouth turned down. “Except.”
“Mustang’s taking me back to Central.” Edward sighed, sitting down next to the couch and leaning his back against it.
“We’re going to Central?” Alphonse narrowed his eyes.
Edward’s shoulders tensed. “Not you. You’re going to stay here with Winry and Granny, and recuperate.” Turning to Alphonse, he said, “I need you here, Al. I can’t…can’t take care of you where I’m going. And it won’t be for long. I promise. But it’s probably the best way to find a way for us to get back home.”
Alphonse struggled to sit up, letting Edward help. Even that little bit of effort left him lightheaded for a few seconds, but he managed to glare at his brother anyway. “You’re going alone?”
“With Mustang,” Edward grated out.
“I know what he did.” The words hung between them.
“It’s not the same as Scar.”
“Nope.” His expression dark and cold, Edward said, “It’s worse.”
Chapter 56: Last Word
Summary: Roy and Riza ‘discuss’ his plans to take Edward back to Central.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Hawkeye asked.
Roy mentally winced at the tone of her voice. “I’d like to think so.”
“Taking Edward back to Central? There are better ways of handling him, don’t you think?”
“I’m not trying to ‘handle’ him, Captain,” Roy said, folding his arms. “I intend on taking him to the underground city, and letting him loose there.” He stared at his wavering reflection in the old silvered mirror across the room. “He won’t be able to find a way back to his world here in Resembool, after all.”
“And this isn’t because of Winry’s parents?”
“No, not at all.” It wasn’t a lie. Roy didn’t care that this pair of Elric brothers had found out what the other two had already known. The distress it had caused Miss Rockbell, on the other hand, that was unconscionable. “Will you go with us, or stay with Alphonse?”
Hawkeye exhaled slowly, the tension leaving her body. “A part of me believes I should go with you, to make sure you and Edward don’t come to blows. But you’re not nearly as hot-headed as he is.” Her eyes narrowed at him. “Warm-headed, maybe.”
The short, sharp laugh burst from him at that comment. “So, you’re saying you’ll stay here and protect Alphonse?”
“I have the feeling you might need me, but.” The corner of her mouth quirked. “I believe the best work I can do would be here for the time being.” Hawkeye’s expression became stern. “You must take care with Edward. He is a very different young man than the one we know.”
“I am very aware of that, Captain. That has been made perfectly clear, on more than one occasion.” Roy couldn’t help a faint smirk.
“Be careful, Roy.” But Hawkeye always got the last word.
Chapter 57: Invitation
Summary: Ed needs to talk to Winry.
Disclaimer: If I owned any of this, Greed would probably still be in Ling's body.
The tread on the steps warned her. Winry didn’t need to look over her shoulder to know Edward was coming down the stairs into the basement. She could picture him in her mind’s eye, his head bowed, hands tucked into the pockets of his pants. Setting down the metal piece she was sanding, she waited for him to speak.
“Winry, can I talk to you?”
There it was; the opening. Winry knew she could ignore him, or tell him to go away, and he might even do it, but a part of her wanted to know what he was going to say.
“I brought you your dinner.” There was a soft clatter of a tray being set on the table behind her. So his hands hadn’t been in his pockets. “Granny said you haven’t eaten all day. You know you have to keep your strength up. I can’t be worrying about both you and Al. Besides,” Edward took a breath, “I’m going to have to ask you to do something really important.”
Curiosity got the better of her, and Winry turned around. “What?”
“Eat first.” Giving her a tiny smile, Edward sat down in one of the chairs, waiting for her to join him at the table.
Winry stretched her way out of her work chair, pretending not to notice the way Edward’s eyes followed the arch of her body. Taking off her bandana, she tucked it into the pocket of her coveralls and sat down across from Edward. The smell of fresh food, still steaming, made her stomach growl, and Winry ducked her head to hide her blush at the noise. “Sorry.”
Edward waved off her apology. “You haven’t eaten all day. It’s okay.”
Picking up a fork and knife, Winry cut into the thick slab of mutton on her plate. “I can listen while I eat,” she said.
He took a deep breath. “I’m going back to Central City with Mustang.”
That was nothing like what Winry had expected him to say, even if she hadn’t really been expecting anything in particular from Edward. “Are you sure?”
Edward pushed his chair back, getting up and pacing back and forth on the other side of the table. “He’s right; it’s the best way of us figuring out a way to get back home.” He glanced sideways at her, then away, barely time enough for her to realize he’d looked over. “Al’s not up to the trip, not without a lot of coddling, so he’s going to stay here.” Stopping, Edward laid his hands on the back of his chair, actually facing her. “I wanted to ask you to take care of him for me.”
There was something in the way he phrased that statement, but, “Of course,” Winry said, without even bothering to think any more about it. “But is he going to be willing to stay here without you?”
Inhaling deeply, Edward said, “I talked to him about it. He understands.” The corner of his mouth twitched and his eyes rolled. “He said I’m to be on my best behavior.”
“Do you even know how to do that?” Unable to stop herself from asking, Winry grinned when Edward snorted.
“I’ll be polite as I can,” he said, waving her off. “And try not to pick fights. And listen.” From the glint in his eyes, Winry knew Edward was actually planning on doing these things, no matter how much he’d rather do otherwise. “I’ll be fucking mature about it.”
“You really do want to go home, don’t you?”
The words hung between them for a few seconds, finally making Edward smile, albeit weakly. “I want to see all their smiles when they see Al again.”
“He’ll be strong,” Winry said, thinking of how Alphonse had looked, all skin and bones and staring eyes.
“Yeah.” His eyes were focused elsewhere, on something Winry couldn’t see. Probably the faces of the people from his home world, even if they were similar to those here. Shaking himself out of it, Edward turned his attention to her. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s all right.” Winry smiled at him for his apology. “There are people waiting for you!” Edward studied her for a long minute, opening his mouth, then closing it again. Winry frowned as he muttered something under his breath, turning partially away from her and starting for the stairs. “Ed? Did you say something?”
He stood there, at the foot of the risers, the muscles in his back and shoulders clenching. It took a few seconds before he spun around to face her. “Come with me,” he blurted out.
What had he said? Covering her mouth, Winry stared at him. “Ed.”
“Please.” Edward took a half-step forward, his expression pained. Pleading. Winry couldn’t remember ever – not since childhood! – seeing Ed like that. “I – I need someone to ground me.”
“I don’t know about your Winry, Ed, but I don’t know anything about alchemy!” she tried to laugh, shaking her head.
“But you know me.” Edward finished his journey to the table, leaning his hands on it. “You’re my best friend.” He gave her a tight grin. “And I might need you to keep me from killing that bastard.”
A part of her was dismayed by the idea, though Winry still felt flattered that Edward cared enough to actually extend the invitation. “When are you leaving?” she said, playing for a little time so she could decide her answer.
“Not sure.” Scrubbing fitfully at the back of his neck, Edward grimaced. “Within a few days. Maybe tomorrow. It depends on how Al is; how soon Mustang wants to leave.” As if he realized she was stalling, he nodded. “You don’t have to tell me now. I just.” Sighing, Edward dropped his hands, his whole demeanor slumped. “I want someone I trust with me.”
“Oh.” Winry realized she’d released that soft puff of a sound when Edward glanced at her, his expression hopeful. “I…I should…think, Ed. I can’t just make a decision like this without talking to Granny.”
He nodded, his face changing too quickly for her to read. “Yeah, I understand. Let me know, though, okay? I mean, I’ll have to get three tickets, instead of two, and tell Al you’re coming with me.” Edward’s smile was surprisingly gentle.
“I will, Ed.” Winry made herself meet his eyes, trying to hide her shock at what she thought she saw there.
Edward’s cheeks flushed and he grumbled something, turning on his heel. “I’ll see you,” he said, starting up the staircase.
Winry couldn’t help but watch him go. As his feet vanished on the upper risers, she let out a shaky breath, lacing her fingers together and pressing her hands against her mouth. She didn’t want to think about Edward’s invitation, and how he’d looked at her. What he’d actually said, with words and eyes and demeanor. “He loves you,” she whispered to her doppelganger. “Not me.” But it was hard to even think that, when he’d been looking at her the way she’d sometimes dreamed her Ed would.
Damn it. Going to Central City seemed like such a bad idea, but how could she say no now?
Chapter 58: Discussions VII
Summary: Ed tells Al about his conversation with Winry.
“You did what?” Alphonse stared at his brother, his mouth flopping open.
“Asked Winry if she’d come with me to Central.” Edward laced his fingers behind his neck, his jaw clenched. “I – first I asked her to stay here with you!”
“And then?” He raised his eyebrows.
“And then,” sighing, Edward dragged his hands over the top of his head, thoroughly mussing his loose hair, “and then I asked her to come to Central.” He didn’t raise his head; gaze seemingly focused on the floor. “I don’t know why, Al.”
His brother couldn’t be that stupid, could he? Alphonse wondered, then thought, yes, yes, he could. “Well, she can help you with your therapy.” This time, Edward’s head shot up and he frowned through his bangs, cheeks flushing. Okay, maybe his brother wasn’t quite as blockheaded as he seemed. “Your arm, dummy.”
“Oh.” Ed fisted his right hand, almost wonderingly. “Yeah, she can.”
“And Granny will make sure I get stronger.” Alphonse made a fist, too, reaching across to bump it against his brother’s. “And you can call me with what you find. It’ll be okay.”
It made Edward grin, at least a little bit. “Yeah. We’ll be fine.”
Alphonse lay back in his bed, adjusting his pillow and turning onto his side. “You know, it’ll be nice not having you around, fussing over me every second.”
“I don’t fuss,” he grumbled.
Rolling his eyes, Alphonse tucked his hand under his pillow. “Oh, please.”
Edward pouted, but nodded his head in a jerky agreement. “All right,” he muttered, then spoke with more conviction. “You stay here and fatten up.” He grinned when Alphonse sputtered. “And I’ll work with,” his hand spun, finger lazily pointing toward the room where Corporal Mustang was sleeping, “and Winry to figure out a way for us to get back home.”
“Ed?” Alphonse bit his lower lip. “What if…what if there’s no way for us to get back?”
He pointed across the space. “Don’t say that. I – we made a promise!” Finger shaking, Edward hid behind his scowl. “We’ll get back home.”
“That was your promise,” Alphonse reminded, ignoring the deepening glare from his brother. He settled onto the bed a bit more comfortably. “When are you leaving?”
“That’s up to Mustang.” The springs squeaked as Edward adjusted his position on his bed. “Go to sleep, Al. I’ll be here tomorrow morning.”
“I know.” Yawning, Alphonse closed his eyes. In his mind, he saw a yellow house, a dog barking, a pretty blond girl running down the porch stairs with tears in her eyes. An old woman, laughing. A woman with thin braids and a firm mouth, her husband behind her.
Their family, waiting for them to come home.
Alphonse smiled, and drifted off to sleep.
Chapter 59: Morning Wake Up
Summary: It's time for breakfast. Again.
Disclaimer: Arakawa and me, we're just this close! Except for that fact that she doesn't know who I am and all....
Edward stared at the only thing in the great expanse of white in front of him – a sitting figure with no features other than a broad smile. “Time? Time for what?” he asked, “what the hell is this about, anyway?”
“Time to get up!”
Alphonse’s voice? What the…oh. Edward’s eyes snapped open and he stared at the ceiling overhead for a few seconds, adjusting to this life rather than the dream that was already shredding itself in his memory.
“C’mon, Brother, rise and shine,” Alphonse teased.
Edward rolled over, showing his brother his back. He pulled the light-weight blanket up closer to his ears. “Don’t wanna.”
“Granny’s frying sausages and potatoes for breakfast.”
That sounded good. And now that he’d been alerted to it, Edward recognized the aroma of fried food; onions, the spicy sausage the Nedobecks made, potatoes, all cooking in the same skillet. His stomach groaned in protest at the same time his bladder kicked in, and Edward knew he wouldn’t be long for the bed, no matter how much he wanted to – what? Hide in it? Not face Mustang or Winry? Like he’d turn tail now.
Moaning, he pushed off the mattress, swaying slightly, bangs hanging messily in his face. Alphonse, in comparison, was already dressed, face washed, hair combed, dressed, crutches at hand. “C’mon, Ed,” he said, and smiled wistfully. “It’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Edward grumbled as he set his feet on the floor. “How hard could it be, anyway?” He tried not to think how much he knew this sucked, for everyone involved. If he ever saw that stupid Truth guy again, he was giving that grinning face such a punch. Grabbing his clothes, he headed for the bathroom. Maybe a shower would clear his head.
Chapter 60: Kitchen Wisdom
Summary: Winry tells Pinako about Ed's invitation.
Disclaimer: This person does not own these characters.
Winry had been distracted since yesterday, but Pinako didn’t blame her. There was a lot to take in, and a lot of misery dredged up again, with those boys being here. Still, Pinako had to admit, her yard and garden looked better than it had for some time. Ed seemed determined to make everything just so, and bullied Mustang into helping when he was likely to mope around somewhere. For that alone, Pinako thought he deserved a thanks from her.
That was another matter, though, and one to consider at another time. Right now, she focused on Winry, who stirred the potatoes in the skillet, sausages sitting on a plate on the stovetop and covered with the skillet lid to keep them warm. “So, what is it, girl?”
Winry didn’t bother looking, no reaction of surprise at all. “Ed asked me to go with him to Central City.”
Pinako almost wanted to chuckle, but bit it down. Her granddaughter had endured enough pain in her short life, and this version of Edward Elric shouldn’t be allowed to contribute to that. “What was your answer?”
Glancing back with a shrug, Winry said, “I don’t know why he’d ask.” She sounded almost cross that he’d put her in the middle of this decision.
Her granddaughter couldn’t be that dense, could she? Pinako snorted, shaking her head. “You can’t say you don’t really know.” She waited until Winry turned away from the stove, a familiar fire burning in her eyes.
Winry folded her arms, mindful of the greasy utensil in her hand. “I’m not the girl he knows!” she said, her voice low.
Pinako gave her a wry smile. “Aren’t you, though?”
Her eyes widened, and Winry turned back to the skillet, her back stiff.
Yeah, some things still had to be said.
Chapter 61: Hard Work If You Can Get It
Summary: Ed needs something to do. Maybe working on the roof is it.
Disclaimer: Yo ho, yo ho, not a pirate’s life for me! That way leads to law suits.
Happy birthday, Yuuki! ...even if it is a few months late.
The day simmered by, as far as Ed was concerned. He still didn’t want to be anywhere near Mustang, his hands clenching into fists when he even thought about what the man had done to Winry’s parents. Yeah, the Mustang back home had done some major destruction, too; he was well aware of that. Following orders was the lot of military personnel, but it didn’t mean Ed had to like how that particular order had been carried out. He didn’t want to talk to Al about it, and certainly not Mustang or Captain Hawkeye. The topic was off-limits with Winry, and the old hag had probably said everything she wanted to about it. That meant Ed had to stew in his own juices.
It also meant he needed to take his frustrations out on something. Physical labor worked, which was why he was up on the roof, checking for the loose shingles and hammering them back in place. It was harder to stay angry up here, he thought, being away from everything down below. It still didn’t mean he wasn’t going to think about it, but not having to see the bastard’s face helped. Of course, that didn’t mean when Mustang and Captain Hawkeye ventured out to start pruning one of the apple trees, under Pinako’s sharp eye, that Ed wouldn’t watch them.
He wondered briefly where Al was, then decided it was best his little brother stayed away from pruners and croppers. When Pinako sent a beady glare his way, Ed went back to hammering. Finishing the south side of the roof, he scrambled up to the crown, straddling it for a few minutes to admire the view. How could he ever want to leave behind this world? Sure, nothing much happened in Rezembool, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t an amazing adventure out there, just waiting to happen.
Ed started with a yelp, fumbling with his hammer. He glared over his shoulder at Winry. She stood on the ladder, peering up at him. Not to mention, her. “What do you want?”
“I brought you something to drink,” she said tartly, “but if you’re going to be rude about it.”
“No, no, I’d love a drink. Sorry!” Ed swung his leg over and carefully scuttled down, thinking of the crabs Al and he had hunted back on Yock Island by the way he moved. Reaching the edge of the roof, he held out his hand.
Winry wrinkled her nose as she offered him a glass, beaded with moisture and full of iced tea. “You stink.”
“I’ve been working,” Ed reminded her, and quaffed half of the glass in what felt one swallow.
“Uh huh. From the way your hammering stopped, I figured you were spying.”
Having the grace to flush up, Ed glanced sideways. “Not on you,” he said the first thing that came to mind.
“I haven’t been outside working,” Winry said, nodding pointedly toward the apple trees.
Ed buried his nose in his glass so he didn’t have to answer her immediately. When he finished draining his glass, he set it aside, making sure it wouldn’t slide off the roof. “Hey,” he said, “have you been up here?”
Winry frowned. “What do you mean?”
Offering her his hand, Ed made a beckoning motion when she stared at it in surprise. “Come on up. You should see this.”
She carefully set her hand in his, and Ed gave it a squeeze before pulling lightly. Winry came up the rest of the way, her free arm waving around as she tried to get her balance on the steep slope of the roof. “Easy!” Ed laughed, and caught her around the waist until she was steady. He let go of her once she was ready, hoping he wasn’t blushing. “Here,” he said, relieved his voice didn’t crack. “Come on up.” He showed Winry how to climb to the crown of the roof, glancing back to make sure she was following. A determined expression on her face, she climbed after him, blowing out a puff of air once she reached the top. Ed balanced lightly, a foot on either side of the crown. “Look how far you can see,” he said softly.
Winry shifted her weight cautiously, her hands held out to her sides, but her eyes were wide and staring as she took everything in. “Oh,” she said, just as quiet, twisting her body so she could see. Far off in the east, tiny clouds of white ambled across a hazy green sky, chivied by an aggressive little black and white lightning bolt – someone was moving sheep from one pasture to another. To the south, they could just make out the river, and to the west, the train tracks glinted and a smoke-stack furled out in a stream of candy floss before the whistle announced the train’s arrival into the Risembool station. “This is amazing,” Winry said, joy lighting her face.
“Yeah, those trees we climbed when we were kids don’t quite measure up to being on top of a house,” Ed said, shading his eyes with both hands. “No leaves,” he added.
“No,” Winry said, and Ed heard her shifting her position on the roof. “I’ll remember this, Ed.”
“I think,” Ed said softly, “that traveling around is in my – our – blood. I love Rezembool. It’s home.” How long had it taken to realize that, too? Major Armstrong had said it, and the old hag, too, but Ed couldn’t remember when he’d actually thought, ‘Yes, this is home’. Maybe when he was traveling with Greelin, Lion King and Donkey Kong, and showed up in Rezembool to hide out? Maybe when he’d nearly died, in Baschool? Mentally shaking his head, Ed went on. “But there are times when it isn’t enough, and I know there’s a whole world out there, waiting for me to explore it.”
Winry’s voice was light as his. “I never really expected Ed and Al to come home and stay here. I mean, I never really thought they’d make this their home. They weren’t…made for such a small town.” There was a pause. “Even if they did come back to Amestris, I don’t even know when I’d find out, or when I’d see them!” Her bittersweet laugh made Ed’s heart fracture, and he ducked his head, staring at the roof under his feet.
She’d said before she didn’t know if her Elric brothers would come home; whether they’d want to since they had each other. Ed couldn’t imagine what it would be like, to be so separated from Winry as to not need her in his life. After all, his counterpart had automail; who would take care of it if Ed was in a different world? His stomach twisted at the idea of those Elrics being in his world, and how they might treat his – damn it – Winry. The image of them ignoring Winry – and then, Winry’s reaction, with a larger-than-normal wrench.
“What are you laughing at?” Winry asked.
“Ah! I mean. Nothing!” Ed rubbed the back of his neck, not daring to look at Winry for fear he’d give everything away in his face. “Look, I’m done up here. Are you ready to go down?”
Her eyebrows knitted together for a few seconds, then Winry sighed, her brow smoothing out. “I know you’re lying, Ed,” she scolded, “but if you don’t want to share it with me.” Voice trailing off, she carefully stepped onto the slope of the roof. Ed followed her, ready to grab her if she started sliding. He grabbed his tools, waiting until Winry was on the ladder before carefully pitching them onto the thick grass below. The sack of nails he tucked into his pocket, waiting to climb down until Winry was on the ground. As he picked up the tools, he saw something else in the grass. A hand touched his shoulder, and Ed jerked upright, startled. “Thanks,” Winry said, “for showing me what it was like up there.”
“You’re welcome, Winry.” Ed took a deep breath, hoping his cheeks weren’t pinking up. “Um. Here.” He pushed the yellow flower he’d plucked out of the grass at her. “I, uh, picked it by accident! When I was grabbing the hammer.” It really was true.
Winry’s mouth dropped open slightly as she stared at the flower. Ed hoped she’d take it; he felt stupid holding it out there. “Th-thanks, Ed,” she stammered, and plucked the yellow daisy out of his numb fingers. “I’d better get inside. I need to start working on dinner.” Her grin was a little confused, Ed thought, maybe embarrassed, but she took the flower with her when she went inside the house.
Ed jerked his eyes away from her, turning his attention to the apple trees, neatly pruned down. Pinako would take care of Mustang and Captain Hawkeye. Al was doing better. He could almost walk the length of the house without a crutch any more. And he, himself...damn it.
He missed her.
Chapter 62: Telephone Call
Alex Louis gets a call from the East and Roy Mustang.
“Alex Louis! Telephone!” Katherine’s voice rang through the halls. “Alex Louis! It’s a Corporal Mustang!”
Alex Louis came out of the music room, hearing his little sister’s voice. He hurried down the hall, accepting the receiver from Katherine. “Thank you, my dear,” he said, and she dimpled, and walked away. He waited until she was out of immediate earshot, and raised the receiver to his ear. “Armstrong here.”
“Major, thank you for taking my call.” Flame’s voice sounded tinny and distant, and the line crackled then cleared.
“The pleasure is mine. I understand you have taken some leave? Is it going well?”
“I’m in a bucolic area, Major,” Flame said, “and I will be returning to Central City shortly, with a companion or two in tow. I was wondering if your household might be willing to put up a few ‘guests’, without the military being aware of it.”
That piqued his interest. “What kinds of guests, Flame?” Alex Louis asked, his moustache twitching.
“I believe it would be easier to show you rather than explain over the telephone lines, sir. If we could meet...”
“I’m sure something could be arranged, once you’ve arrived in Central.” Alex Louis considered Flame’s companions, and the matter of secrecy that must be involved, as the call came through on his home line, rather than through the Investigations office. “Are you in the East?”
“Yes,” Flame sounded curious.
“As you come through on the train line, if you could stop off in East City, and pick me up a salami from the Ereday Butcher Shop, I would be greatly appreciative.”
Flame’s voice went distant. “Ereday,” he repeated.
“Yes. The butcher there makes the best salami.”
“Will do, Major,” Flame said. “And thank you.”
The line went dead in Alex Louis’s hand. “Hmm,” he said, wondering who might be traveling with Flame, and realizing he’d find out soon enough.
Chapter 63: The Edward Problem
Al and Winry talk about Ed.
He looked so different, thought Winry, though maybe her Al would’ve grown up to look something like the young man sitting on the stoop with Den. That was another thing – Den liked him. Yet another mystery, in among so many others. This was not the boy Den had known all her life, but she seemed at ease with both of these Elrics.
Alphonse twisted slightly at the sound of her step. “Hi,” he said, and Winry’s breath almost caught at the sight of his smile. “Wanna sit with me?”
How could she refuse? Winry curled up on the steps next to him, inhaling his scent. Alphonse smelled good; a little sweaty, but he smelled like sunshine and life, not cold steel, or like a little boy.
“Ed said Corporal Mustang wants to take him to Central,” Alphonse said, not looking at her, but reaching over for her hand. Winry gave it to him, marveling in the sensation. His skin still felt like a baby’s, despite the calluses developing from the physical training he was going through. The changes in his body weren’t visible day-to-day, but Winry didn’t doubt if she went to Central, the next time she saw him, he’d look like a new man. “And he asked you to go, too.”
“Yeah.” Winry squeezed Alphonse’s hand.
He squeezed back. “You should go with him.” Before she could open her mouth, he said, “Ed’s an idiot, but he’ll listen to you. Mostly. More than he’ll listen to Corporal Mustang.”
“I’m not the alchemist who can help him.”
Alphonse smiled. “No, you’re his friend.”
“I’m not the one he has the crush on,” Winry said softly.
“You still mean a lot to him,” Alphonse said. “It doesn’t matter what world we’re in.”
Winry still wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
Chapter 64: Insubstantial as Smoke
Winry's waiting for Ed and Al to come home.
A lot of people asked for what was happening in the manga-verse. I wasn't planning on writing anything for it, but Winry had other ideas. This story takes place during and after the Promised Day eclipse in the manga storyline.
“Winry!” Pinako reached out for her as she sat up, clutching at her chest.
“I-I’m all right, Granny,” she coughed, trying to catch her breath. Heart beating like a frightened bird, Winry tried to breathe deeply. Adrenaline still rushed through her body in response to what had just happened, whatever it was – she didn’t know for sure, but her soul - ! “Are you okay?”
“Fine, girl.” Pinako squeezed her shoulder, hard enough to make Winry wince.
“What the hell happened?” Sergeant Kakato asked, helping Pinako to her feet, then offering his hand to Winry.
“I don’t know,” Pinako said grimly, “but I bet it has something to do with that coup in Central.” She hobbled to the radio, obviously still under the effects of the…the eclipse, Winry decided; it had something to do with this. Tuning the radio back in, she turned the volume up so they could hear what was happening.
The announcer was still with Mrs. Bradley, and describing the aftereffects of whatever had happened. “…seems to be citywide,” he was saying, “but whatever happened, everyone seems to be okay.”
“Farther than citywide,” Pinako growled as Winry twisted her hands together, sinking onto the couch. Den lay her head in Winry’s lap, and she petted her, thinking that this, at least, was normal. But if this strange thing had happened here, almost on the edge of the Amestris border, what had it been like in Central?
“Ed,” she whispered, and closed her eyes tightly, listening as the announcer talked about what was happening, that the Fuhrer had reappeared and was alive, but the fight continued to rout the dissidents.
“The troops are rallying around the Fuhrer, who’s fighting an unknown invader…”
That didn’t really tell them anything, but the soldiers exchanged glances, muttering in military terms that Winry didn’t understand. ‘Flanking maneuver’ and ‘feint’ and ‘drawing him out’ – they were just words without meanings to Winry. Pinako’s scowl deepened, and that was what Winry was waiting for. She didn’t know what was going on, didn’t want to ask, and feel stupid, but her grandmother’s frown told her what she thought she needed to know for now.
“What are you doing, Hohenheim?” Pinako whispered, and Winry had to close her eyes at the trembling emotion in her grandmother’s voice. She wondered the same thing about Ed and Al. Were they all right? Had they felt the eclipse, too? Swallowing hard, she thought of the last time she’d seen them both; Ed’s stupid request that she make a pie and keep it warm, because they’d be coming home soon; Al waving at her as the military train took her away from the desert surrounding Lior. They’d promised her they wouldn’t die.
Day passed into night passed into day and before she realized it, things were almost back to normal, except for the stupid nightmares that left Winry breathless and sweating and shaking in her bed. That the Elrics hadn’t bothered to call didn’t mean too much during the sunny hours, but when she sat up in her bed, her arms wrapped around her legs, shaking in the middle of the night, Winry wished they’d do something to let her know they were okay. She wanted to hear Ed snort in disbelief when she argued with him about how wonderful automail was, and listen to Al crooning to Den when he rubbed her belly. Both of the boys home, and safe, and whole, the way they were supposed to be.
The news of Fuhrer Bradley’s death traveled faster than anything else. Everyone in Risembool talked of it; Winry figured everyone in Amestris talked about it. When she called Rush Valley to talk to Mr. Garfiel, it was the second thing out of his mouth, the first being to ask her if she was all right. “Granny’s fine, I’m fine,” Winry wasn’t about to share her nightmares with him, “everything’s good here.” They talked a little bit about the Fuhrer, but not about that period when everyone had blacked out. No one seemed to want to talk about that at all.
“What about those Elric boys?” Mr. Garfiel asked.
Winry hated that she couldn’t tell him anything.
The telephone rang, and Winry started to reach for it, but Sergeant Kakato stopped her with a shake of his head. Pinako rolled her eyes, but grabbed the receiver. “Rockbell Automail,” she said. A frown settled on her brows. “This is Pinako Rockbell.”
Den whined, and Winry tapped her thigh, calling her dog closer. She rumpled Den’s ears, cocking her head, trying to listen to the voice coming through the telephone line.
“Yes,” Granny said, her frown deepening. “Yes…you’re sure? I see, Colonel. Thank you,” her voice crackled, “thank you for calling and letting us know.” Replacing the receiver in the cradle, Granny laid her hands on the table, her head bowed.
Winry bit her lip, clenching her hands tight enough her nails cut into her palm. “Granny?”
“I’m sorry, Winry.” Granny turned to her, grey eyes cloudy with unshed tears. “The boys are gone.”
The next few days were nothing but a blur, lost in a fury of rage and tears. Winry remembered vaguely Sergeant Kakato holding her while her grandmother injected her with something that knocked her unconscious. When she woke, nothing had changed – or maybe it had. The two soldiers were gone, called back to their unit in Briggs. And spring definitely hung in the air, moist and warm and fragrant with flowers. Shepherds moved their flocks to the spring pastures, their dogs guiding and chasing the sheep, and lambs frisked in the sweet young grass.
Winry stepped outside on a dewy morning, a bunch of flowers in her hands. Den walked with her as they made their way along the dirt road, heading for the stone gates of the cemetery. Even in the distance, Winry recognized him, Ed and Al’s dad, sitting next to Auntie Trisha’s grave.
Den hung back, growling, her ruff raised and her tail low, and Winry made her stay behind as she approached the man. The air cooled around her, making her shiver as she drew nearer to Mr. Hohenheim. “Sir?”
He raised his head, slow, almost like stone come to life. “Ah,” he said, and his rusty, grating voice sent prickles down her bare arms. Still, Winry forced herself closer. “Miss Winry.” Mr. Hohenheim’s skin looked faded and patchy, and bits of it flaked off in a way Winry had never seen before. Still, he smiled at her, a weary, wistful smile, and she bit her lip to keep from screaming at how much it reminded her of Ed’s grin. “I’m sorry,” he said, “Ed wouldn’t let me sacrifice myself,” he breathed, more skin flaking away, leaving behind – Winry had to avert her eyes, her mind not willing to deal with what she saw there. “I offered.”
“I know.” She did. “Ed’s too stubborn.” Winry could feel his eyes resting on her, and dared to glance at him again. Heart clenching at the warmth and sorrow in his gaze, she had to lower her head again and hide from what she saw in his eyes.
“Yes,” Mr. Hohenheim chuckled, “too stub,” a pause, “born by far. I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you more. I know you’re worried.”
Winry didn’t argue with him that she was beyond worried, just studied the grass between her feet. The flowers in her hand seemed to weigh too much to hold on to, even.
“But,” he went on gently, “they’re still alive, Edward and Alphonse. I promise you. And wherever they are, they’re trying to come home so they can see your smile.”
Her head jerked up at that, and Winry leaned closer, searching his face. “How?” she squeaked, “how do you know? Mr. Hohenhiem?” She reached for his shoulder, her hand stopping midway as she realized his eyes had closed, and his cheek nearly flaked away. “No,” she whispered, taking a step away. It was too dark, and deep, and she couldn’t look, spinning around so she didn’t have to see the hollow place inside what was left of Mr. Hohenheim’s body.
“Winry,” his voice seemed to come from far away, “never give up hope. They’ll come home to you.”
She whirled back to him, flowers slipping from her hands to fall to the grass. “Mr. Hohenheim? Sir?”
Nothing, no one answered this time.
Pinako supervised the burial, paying for it out of the money that Ed had given her so long ago for his automail surgery, and, after saying her words over the grave of the man she’d known most of her adult life, she took Winry’s hand, giving it a hard squeeze. “You know if he said they’d come home, all we have to do is wait.”
Winry swallowed hard, but nodded. After all, they’d promised they wouldn’t die. All she had to do was hold up her end of the bargain. “I guess…I’d better be ready with an apple pie for them anyway.” Maybe not today, but someday, soon, she expected to see them, walking the road to get to the house. Finally coming home. And days like these would seem as insubstantial as smoke then.
Chapter 65: Discussions VIII
Winry and Roy don't talk about her invitation to Central City.
Winry stopped on the stairs, spotting Roy Mustang at the same time he raised his head. Their gazes met for an instant; his dropping first. Winry licked her lips; ran a hand over her bangs, then continued the rest of the way down the stairs and into the living room.
“I understand you may be coming to Central with us,” he said without preamble.
She took a breath and held it for a few seconds. “I’m thinking about it.”
Roy made an abortive gesture, and Winry chose to interpret it as an invitation to join him. With only the slightest hesitation, she did, though she chose her own chair rather than sitting next to him on the sofa. “I suppose you don’t want my advice.”
“Not really, Roy.”
He nodded, lacing his fingers together. “I suppose I don’t really have much reason to offer it.”
Winry sucked her lower lip between her teeth. “My decision is my own to make,” she said, firmer in her answer than her knotting stomach might normally allow.
“Of course, Miss Rockbell, as it always has been.” Roy pushed up off the couch. “I’ll leave you to your decision making, then.” With a nod of his head, he left her in the living room, chewing her lip as she wondered how her decision would impact all of them.