I hope this letter finds you well, or at least finds you with a solution to the Tarren Bridge issues close at hand (or even failing that, a good mug of coffee in such proximity). I hope when you next visit Ishval you are impressed with the work currently being done here; I think we are all agreed that Eastern Command's recruitment of more civilian engineers has improved the standards of the reconstruction efforts a great deal.
Miles pauses to smile, turning his pen between his fingers. She'll like that. His wife has never missed an opportunity to take a swipe at the Engineering Corps and sometimes it's hard not to agree with her.
I struggle even more to convey the scale of the changes to this place. I know to the people who come in from East City or New Optain or Central, or even from some of the nearer rural towns, we are still living in quite alarmingly primitive conditions, but to see such life and vibrancy in these once shattered and deserted streets is almost enough to give credence to stories of the miraculous.
Our priestly friend continues well, as always. There is talk of establishing some sort of localised assembly- similar to the old hierophantic council, as I understand it, but not restricted to the priesthood- and he has been trying to stay well out of the matter but will no doubt end up elected to it as surely as he ended up a schoolteacher apparently without meaning to.
Scar- Miles still cannot quite think of him as anything else- claimed to be no sort of man for teaching, but seemed to be doing a fair enough job with religious instruction for some of the older children. There had been no little upset at first over boys and girls learning the same curriculum in a mixed class, but there are still few enough adolescents to make gender segregation impractical and there's at least a growing acknowledgement that some of the old ways are better left in the past.
Our major project at the moment is restoring and developing links to the rest of Amestris. The roads have been greatly improved from the state they were left in after the military withdrawal but are still not substantial enough for full trade traffic. I am told we are to expect much better railway service within the next year, although the current thrice-weekly service along the Riesembul line is, as I am sure you remember, enough of a godsend when our tobacco stores start to drop. The last time I met with General Mustang he gave a rather hazy-eyed monologue about a trade route across the Great Desert to Xing- I think I will leave that to him and this rumoured young emperor.
I wish that I had a camera and any kind of skill in the darkroom to be able to show you the things I cannot describe. There is a fortnightly market in a little square two streets away from my lodgings- not just the produce coming in from the farms but things that people have grown in their gardens, crafts out of backrooms and the stirrings of real industry. The hospital is doing very well indeed, and plans to extend its premises are already underway. The great mural in the temple courtyard should not properly be photographed but it is breathtaking; a retelling of the story of the exile and the return, with much space yet to fill...
Miles has never been a wordsmith but Carin seems content enough with what he can tell her, even when he takes pages over descriptions that fall pitifully short. He wishes frequently, selfishly, that he could find some way to draw her down here permanently, however much her workload in the north. His pen slips, staining his fingertips with ink.
However great this work is, I still miss you every day we are apart; if our friend is ever to persuade me to pray I know at least what I will ask for. Tell me that the snow is two feet deep outside the door already, tell me how the icicles hang from the gutters and your breath freezes in the air. Tell me about the ice in the river and the dogs' cold noses and the tracks of snow shoes. I will sleep these warm nights dreaming of the dark winter and of you.
The coin slows, glints, turns midair and drops back down into Greed's palm, and he examines it disinterestedly, leaning back on the cushions with a sigh.
"Your Maj," he calls, "would you rather be a tiger chimera or a wolf chimera?"
"Tiger," Ling answers instantly from the other side of the room. "I look good in stripes."
Greed rolls the coin between his fingers. "Would you rather eat rotten bean curd or potatoes dipped in-"
Lanfan clears her throat extremely loudly and when Greed turns his head both she and Ling are bent over their desks again.
"Some of us have work to do, Greedy One."
"And some of us are really bored."
Lanfan dips her brush carefully into the inkwell in front of her. "How are you coming along with your calligraphy?" she asks coolly. Greed makes a face.
"Fine." It's not his fault the Xingese writing system seems to exist specifically to make him miserable. Speaking the language isn't too hard, especially after sharing his head with Ling constantly thinking in it, but it doesn't sound anything like the way you're supposed to write it down. Unfortunately, such civilised arts seem to be a part of how the Emperor's husband should behave. Greed would rather have just learned to play the fucking flute.
"I hear you have made the progress of a six year old child." Lanfan gives him a sideways, disturbingly evil smile, and Ling chuckles.
"I just don't feel like working on it at the moment." Greed looks up at the ceiling again and in a few moments the sounds of shuffling paper and brushes resume. On the other side of the door he can hear one of the guards cough and another one shushing him, and the floor below there are hurried footsteps, a muffled laugh. The imperial study is normally the quietest place in the palace but with so many people around there's always a little noise. He pays close attention to all of it. Any emperor draws no small amount of enemies and Greed is not letting anyone take his people away again.
"Come and sit by me," Lanfan says, much more softly, and Greed shrugs, picks himself up and crosses the layered rugs towards her. Ling's head is still bent but Greed can tell he's watching them, his hands moving very delicately across the paper on his desk. Greed sits down cross legged beside Lanfan and she hands him an open book, the pages dense with text.
"Not trying to get me tangled up in matters of state are we, sweetheart?"
Her face looks quite serious but he knows that little quirk at the corner of her mouth. "I have been thinking of taking on a secretary."
"You know I dated a secretary about a century ago." Greed tips the book up in his hands to make it easier for Lanfan to read and winks exaggeratedly at Ling over her head; the emperor has given up all pretense of not watching them now, a broad, easy smile on his face. "She was great fun, though you could really put her to shame when you-"
Lanfan clears her throat again and goes quite pink into the bargain. Ling, who has started shuffling closer in that way he seems to think is subtle, giggles. Greed reaches over and slides his fingertips across the back of Lanfan's wrist very gently; the brush in her hand trembles almost imperceptibly.
"You should care more for the business of governance," she says, but there's no great heat to it. She gives him another sideways glance, of quite a different sort.
"Oh, I do," says Greed, shifting his eyes only to watch Ling slide a hand up Lanfan's other arm. "You know just how much I care."
Breda reaches over carefully to set down Havoc's pint in front of him as the man chews thoughtfully on a toothpick.
"Got any fours, Ross?"
"Go fish," she says nonchalantly, taking her cider out of Breda's hand. Havoc peers intently at the pooled deck in the middle of the table, as if he'll be able to see through the tessellated dragon pattern to the card rank on the other side.
"Tonight going to be your lucky night, Havoc?" Breda smirks, settling back into his chair and picking up his cards again.
"I'll beat you both someday. Law of averages."
"Well you're still a pretty average Fish player," Ross says with a snicker. Havoc sniffs and picks up a card, making a face as he turns it over.
The Spyglass & Kettle is a little bit out of Breda and Ross's way, though Havoc's flat is only a few streets over, but it's worth the usual frantic dash for the last trolleybus. The little pub is clean and simply decorated and has the best ale selection in East City, and it's usually nice and peaceful even on a Friday night. Breda takes a grateful sip of his Dublith Brown and reexamines his cards- they're a mixed bag but nothing he can't work with.
"Got any fours, Havoc?"
Havoc makes a disgusted face and unhappily pries two cards out of his hand. "I was supposed to be recovering from this week," he says sulkily.
"Don't remind me," Maria says, taking a very purposeful swig of her cider. "We should set up a hose in the office or something. Got any tens?"
"Oh they'd probably enjoy that somehow," Havoc says darkly. "No, I don't. Um, go fish."
"Can we please talk about anything else?" Breda suppresses a shudder. Their average workday is filled with quite enough of Mustang and Hawkeye making eyes at each other and pretending they're not sneaking off to fuck in the break room on their "lunch hour" without anybody needing to bring it up outside the office too.
"We could try to work out how Fuery managed to get a girlfriend?" Havoc suggests, taking the toothpick out of his mouth to take a drink.
"A truly intellectual puzzle." Ross snorts. "Brosh tells me he's seeing someone these days too, I haven't decided whether to believe him yet."
"Hah, you're just bitter, Havo."
Havoc grunts noncommittally. "Any Jacks, Breda?"
Breda pulls the Jack of Spades out from his hand and passes it over. "You should go back to smoking more often, it improved your temperament."
"Hey, hey, I have to take care of myself." Havoc shifts uncomfortably and reaches behind himself to unhook his walking stick from the back of his chair, propping it up against the table instead. He doesn't need it very often these days but it's still a quiet reminder to all of them. "Especially if Fuery, Brosh and Falman are ahead of me." He glances around. "We should go to a pub with more women in it."
"There probably were more women in here before you started turning up. Twos?"
"Go fish," Havoc says, though it sounds uncannily similar to 'fuck off'.
"Such a surprise that two charming gentlemen like yourselves are both still single," Ross says drily, giving her cards a considering look as she takes another drink. "Queens, Breda?"
"Got me," he says, handing over two, and she grins broadly before laying a set of four down on the table.
"So what was that about averages?"
"I'm just really worried about not doing it properly and Henry not getting enough to eat, or eating wrong, or-"
Gracia swallows a laugh and leans back in her armchair, phone against her ear. "I'm not sure that a baby can eat wrong, Winry, and he'll let you know if he's hungry."
On the other end of the line and several hundred miles away Winry sighs. "Tell me it's normal to worry like this."
"You are the first woman ever in the world to have any problems breastfeeding," Gracia says, her straight face lasting a few seconds before she laughs. "Of course it's completely normal, though I think Maes did enough worrying for the pair of us when Elicia was born."
Winry gives a little chuckle of assent. "I've been making Ed run all the errands," she says rather darkly. "Anything to get him out of the house for five minutes."
"I would say I'm sure he'll calm down eventually, but…" Winry outright laughs at that and Gracia sits forward a little, glancing over her shoulder to check on Elicia doing a jigsaw puzzle on the kitchen table. "Has the midwife been helpful in getting you started?"
"Oh she's been great, and like I said there's no problems getting him to latch on. He's just really easily distracted." Gracia hears a muffled clang in the background. She's sure the shop could have managed without Winry for a little longer, but she isn't going to say it.
"As long as it doesn't hurt you should be fine. I had horrible trouble with Elicia at first, little madam really didn't want to co-operate-"
"Mum, are you talking about me again?"
Gracia puts her hand over the receiver and glances over her shoulder again. "Only nice things, sweetheart." Elicia, jigsaw piece in hand, looks deeply suspicious. "It's only Winry, she already knows far too much about you."
"Oh!" Elicia slides out of her chair and comes trotting over towards her mother, suddenly all smiles. "How's the baby?"
Gracia takes her hand off the receiver and smiles. "Want a word with little madam?"
"Go on then, before Henry wakes up again."
Elicia grabs the phone gleefully in a way that's altogether too familiar, almost curling around it. "Hi Winry!"
Gracia picks up her mug and walks back into the kitchen, making a half-hearted attempt to straighten the pile of her papers that's taking up the half not occupied by jigsaw pieces. Maes's military pension would still be enough for them to live on if they were careful, but she can hardly sit around the house all day staring into the empty spaces and there's much more to both of their lives than just surviving. She likes her job more than she'd expected to, likes the daily rhythm of the office and seeing even the small amount of difference she can make taking shape in the wider world.
"Um, I think I want to be a vet, or maybe a lawyer," she hears Elicia say. "Or maybe work for the city like Mum and make sure the streetlamps get lit and the trams aren't horrid to sit on and stray dogs don't bite babies."
Her daughter has a fairly high opinion of one transport planner's power, although the trams are cleaner these days. Gracia sets her mug down in the sink, looking out of the window into their neighbour's garden, full of tentative tree saplings just coming into blossom.
"I still think it looks more like a bear."
"Oh shush." May starts to carefully unwind the string from another zongzi, propping one foot up on her knee. They're far enough south at the moment that it barely gets cold at all at night, although Mr Jerso and Mr Zampano still insist on sleeping under blankets as they are right now. Astrology is always a good excuse for keeping Alphonse awake though.
"They should surely at least make it the Emperor, the Empress and their husband now. Concubines are just distasteful." Alphonse lets his hand drop from pointing out the constellation and chuckles and Xiao Mei, curled up and half asleep on his stomach, makes a disgruntled little noise at the disturbance.
"I am sure His Imperial Majesty would consider the idea," May says, trying not to laugh. "But a bear- a bear makes very little sense." She gestures with the unwound bamboo leaf in her hand. "The three enclosures are the powers of humankind, of the government, of alkhestry-"
"And the mansions are the powers of the earth and the spirits, that come and go with the paths of the moon. I remember." Alphonse reaches over to break off the narrow end of her zongzi and in the silvery starlight she can see he's smiling as he puts it in his mouth. "It still looks more like a bear."
"You are a very stubborn student, Alphonse Elric." May tries to keep her voice as strict and serious as possible, and scoops out a little of the sweet red bean paste onto her finger.
"And you a very patient teacher for putting up with me."
"I may tire of you very shortly," she huffs around a mouthful of zongzi.
"Won't you at least allow me to demonstrate my gratitude?"
May laughs at that completely involuntarily, snorting through the rice and bean paste in her mouth, and when she rolls over towards him Alphonse waggles his eyebrows, setting her off again.
"Xiao Mei would be scandalised, Mr Elric," she manages at last, gasping.
"But your royal highness, your humble servant beseeches you," he says in Xingese and then laughs so hard Xiao Mei falls off his stomach with an angry squeak. There's a sudden half-growling snore from the little camp below and May puts another bit of zongzi in Alphonse's mouth to keep him quiet.
"But seriously," Al says once he's finished the mouthful, "you know I pay attention," and he lifts his hand again, gesturing for her to follow it. "See- the horn of the dragon, and its neck and heart and tail, the root, the winnowing basket-" he squints "-and the rooms of the east. The dragon is creation in alkahestry, the power for healing and new life."
"And the guardian of the dawn and the spring. Perhaps your ears are not entirely full of wax."
"I do hope you intend to give a better account of me to your mother and the Council when we get back to Chahua."
"You might find ways of-" she searches for the Amestrian word "- mollifying me by then."
"Now that is a study I can really focus on." He rolls over onto his side to face her, Xiao Mei clinging doggedly to the front of his shirt this time, and tucks one of her braids behind her ear with delicate care. May bites her lip, both of them suddenly serious. "I'll do my best, Princess."
It really is difficult to resist the temptation to stare right back at Henry. He has a little blue wooden elephant clutched in one hand and is staring at Paninya with an intensity he can only have inherited from the Rockbell side of the family.
"How do I get him to smile at me again?"
Ed, still up to his elbows in dishwater, sighs wearily. "He isn't a performing animal. Henry only smiles at people if he likes them."
"He liked me on Monday." Paninya gives the kid's shoulder a little tickle; he wriggles appreciatively but doesn't break his searching gaze.
"He's a growing boy, probably improved his standards since then." Ed lifts a suds-covered saucepan onto the draining board and blows his hair away from his nose.
"Your daddy is a cruel man," Paninya informs the baby, and he waves his elephant in what she is happy to take as a gesture of agreement. The afternoon sunlight is pouring in through the kitchen window and across the room, glinting off the dishes and pans on the draining board. She perches on a corner of the table, hoisting Henry up against her shoulder. Ed glances at them as he reaches for another plate and grins.
"Lucky I haven't taught him to vomit on command yet."
"You'd never throw up on your Auntie Paninya, would you sweetpea?"
Henry gives a noncommittal gurgle, thumping his elephant against the side of her neck. He's a sweet kid, really, even-tempered enough to put both his parents to shame and- if Ed and his stacks of child development books are to be believed- already a clever little thing. She'd never given babies a great deal of thought before, but he's soft and solid and warm in her arms and really very decent company for someone who's only been around a few months.
"Do you want to come over to the shop with us?" Ed asks. "Little feller will want some grub soon."
Paninya shrugs. "Might as well." She left Lucia with their own stack of washing up back at home, but it's her turn anyway and what with one thing and another Paninya hasn't seen Winry for quite a while. Garfiel-Rockbell Mechanics & Automail seems to be gathering more customers by the day, and even with a husband at home managing things a new baby doesn't give anybody much free time. Ed finishes drying off his hands and lifts a mass of folded fabric from the back of one of the dining chairs, wrapping it around himself in some mysterious way to form a Henry-sized sling. Paninya shifts the kid down from her shoulder and when Ed reaches for him Henry waves his arms gleefully.
"How's the best-looking baby in Amestris doing then?"
"Well that's good to hear." Ed kisses his son on the forehead and tucks him carefully into the sling, raising his eyebrows when Henry thumps him in the chest with the elephant. "Hey, I think I preferred dogs, kiddo." Henry puts the elephant in his mouth and Paninya slides off the corner of the table, following Ed as he heads out into the hall.
"Can we stop by the bakery? I left Lucia with most of the housework and I feel like I should get her something to apologise."
"Ah, you should have dated a woman who was into automail." Ed lowers his voice to a stage whisper, clasping a hand over Henry's ear. "Always grateful just to get a screw."
Paninya makes a disgusted face and mock-punches him. "Ugh, and look where that attitude got you, Elric."
Ed looks down at his son again, face broadening into a grin. "Wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
"I'm just not sure how workable that would be in the long term."
Roy glances at her over the top of the report in his hands. Riza has one hand wrapped around her mug of tea and the other is idly tracing a pattern on the map spread out over the kitchen table. The heating in the flat has been playing up for the last week and she's got her uniform jacket around her shoulders for warmth, her new Major's pips gleaming.
"We don't need it to be long-term, it's an interim measure until we can get more funding out of Central."
She raises her eyebrows. "Just like South City was a temporary encampment until they made bigger inroads into the Aerugan border." When Roy opens his mouth to object she shakes her head and smiles. "If it really doesn't have to hold long I'd be all for it but there's no guarantee that our budget will be increasing in the future, and I don't think Ishval needs to carry on sharing in the Amestrian tradition of half-baked, jury-rigged infrastructure."
"But they do need to irrigate their fields properly. Sooner rather than later."
"They do." Riza sighs and rakes a hand through her hair. Under the jacket she's wearing one of his shirts with the top button undone, showing the pale skin below her collarbone. Roy clears his throat and looks back down at the engineers' report, the carbon-copied pages already a little smudged.
"If the project's properly staggered we'll have more time to lean on Grumman and at least do the later stages properly." He steals a glance at her again. "Poor infrastructure is bad for the economy, which is bad for government coffers in the long run. It's a simple enough argument, and if we keep pushing the trans-desert railway as an excuse I'm sure money can be found somewhere to put into Ishval."
"True. And I should think we've had enough of water mains bursts for a while," Riza says, trying rather unsuccessfully to flatten her hair back down again. There had been a veritable rash of them in East last winter, old pipes cracking in the extended cold and HQ tied up for weeks shepherding the populace around bowsers and guarding the damn things overnight. Riza drains her mug and gestures towards him with it. "More tea?"
"Wouldn't say no." Roy glances over at his watch as she fills the kettle. It's almost two AM but they need to finalise this by the end of the week. When she's lit the gas and put the water on to boil Riza comes over to stand beside his chair; she runs one hand through his hair and he slides his arm around her waist.
"We'll find something," she says very softly, her fingers tracing the curve of his ear.
"All in a night's work," Roy says and leans his head against her side, breathing in the rough, soapy smell of her clothes. There's silence, the city night pressing at the kitchen window, and he can hear the dull rhythm of her heartbeat. Riza breathes out slowly and he slides his hand up her back as she bends to kiss him. Her lips are soft and she tastes like the sweet tea she drinks, like the packet of biscuits they finished an hour ago, like safety, like home. Her fringe falls across his forehead.
"There's ink on your nose," she says eventually, nuzzling it slightly with her own.
"Mmhmm." He lets her steal another kiss.
"And the kettle's boiling," she adds regretfully. Her little sigh ghosts across his lips.
Riza straightens slowly but before she steps away Roy catches her hand sliding back through his hair and turns his face into it, his cheek pressing against her palm. He closes his eyes and feels her fingertips moving almost imperceptibly across his skin. Her voice is warm and quiet.