The wind whipped up the hillside, carrying little bits of ice in its clutches. It tore the remaining leaves off the trees, sending them racing along ahead of it, like rabbits running before a hound. The wind caught the young woman’s hair, pulling it free from the barrette that held it in place, making strands lash her face. She winced, trying to smooth hair out of her eyes, blinking hard. She turned her back to the gusts, letting them blow over her and subsequently destroy her attempts at containing her hair. With a little sigh, she reached up and undid the barrette, letting her hair stream down. The wind promptly blew it up over her head but she turned into the wind, heading farther along the hill, letting the icy breeze carry her hair past the side of her face.
It seemed fitting, visiting the cemetery when it was like this. Winry Rockbell stopped to steady herself, her gloved hand falling on a tombstone to keep her balance. The ground wasn’t slick yet but if the weather reports were right, an ice storm would be moving in later today. The ice crystals carried by the wind cut into what little skin was bare and Winry grimly wished she’d brought a hooded jacket. She clutched her bouquet of flowers tighter, making her way further along the hill.
Somehow, she wasn’t surprised to see another person standing at the gravesite, though her lips thinned at the sight of his silhouette. Winry couldn’t really remember the last time she’d seen him; the funeral? No, surely she’d seen him after that but it was all a hazy blur. Winry remembered shouting, the crash of something breaking, the feeling of her heart being ripped to shreds and his eyes, welcoming her accusations and accepting all the blame, the same way he always did.
As if he could feel her approach, he straightened to a standing position, his head turning just a bit though not nearly enough to meet her eyes, just enough to acknowledge her presence. The wind dragged at his long brown jacket and his hair, set in a messy ponytail, whipping the tails of both around relentlessly. Winry could tell by the hunch in his shoulders that the weather was making his ports ache and an unexpected wave of sympathy washed over her. She said nothing, knowing that Edward would take it badly. Instead, she knelt next to the stone, sliding the stems of the flowers into the vase. The storm would freeze them, she knew, but for this instant, the red and white petals brightened the grey granite.
Winry touched the letters that formed his name, her eyes closing briefly at the almost physical ache welling up inside her. The cold stone seemed to freeze all the feeling in her fingertips but she couldn’t stop herself from tracing the letters. It was a compulsion, as if by touching those letters, she’d be able to connect to him, to Alphonse, even if Winry knew it to be a lie. The dead didn’t rise nor did they have anything more to do with the living. They were just gone, like Mom and Dad, Auntie Trisha and Mr. Hughes. Beside her, Edward shifted his weight, obviously not sure whether he should remain or not. Winry half expected him to turn and walk away and was surprised that Edward stood there, waiting for her to finish her own communion with his brother.
When she rocked back away from the stone, he said gruffly, “Those flowers won’t last the storm.”
“I know that.” Winry folded her arms around herself, trying to stave off the chill, though she wasn’t sure at this point if it was from the approaching storm or the young man standing next to her. “But I couldn’t come and not leave him flowers.”
Though she’d spoken mildly, Edward’s shoulders rose and his head lowered, as if he expected her to throw a wrench. “Yeah,” he said finally, when Winry figured he wasn’t going to say anything at all, “yeah.”
The cool ground seemed to be leeching the warmth from her body and Winry shivered, getting to her feet. The wind buffeted her again, flinging her hair around and she hunched against it, closing her eyes again. She could almost hear Alphonse’s laugh but the wail of the wind blew it out of her head. “Ed,” Winry said, not even sure if he could hear her.
“Yeah?” He still wouldn’t look at her, his gaze turned toward the stone.
“I’m cold, Ed. Let’s – let’s get something to drink, okay?” Winry didn’t know why she needed this, couldn’t quite fathom it, but she knew she didn’t want to be alone and didn’t want Edward to be by himself, either. She watched as he seemed to weigh his decision carefully then, with a heaving sigh, he nodded.
“C’mon.” Edward indicated she should follow him with a jerk of his shoulder, not even glancing back to see if she would.
He led her into the wind, the icy flakes cutting into her skin but Winry wasn’t about to complain. She trained her eyes on Edward’s back, following his shoulders, remembering when she thought they’d gotten so wide, so strong. How long ago had that been, she wondered, unable to dredge up the memory. Al had been alive then, trapped in steel, but still alive, and Ling…Winry shook her head, not wanting to go any farther down that path of pain. How many people she cared about had been lost to one war or another? Her gaze took in Edward’s form, striding along in front of her, and Winry wanted suddenly to reach out to him, to pull him back.
Instead, she tucked her hands deeper into the pockets of her jacket, forcefully trying not to remember her time in the Briggs Mountains, either. The cold wind seemed determined to bring up those memories and Winry close her eyes tight for a few seconds, wanting to push them as far away as she could. Still, they loomed, fever bright, and Winry had to shake her head against them. In Briggs, she’d still loved Ed.
Forcing herself to move faster, Winry thought it ironic that she now followed him again, at least briefly. How many times had she chased after Edward Elric? Now, she only wanted to know why she’d asked if he’d wanted to get something to drink, to get warm.
Edward hesitated at the bottom of the hill, the wind whipping his hair around his head. His head turned but still, he didn’t look at her, his focus somewhere in front of his shoulder, as far as Winry could tell. “Where do you want to go?” he asked and even the gusts of wind weren’t enough to hide the flatness in his tone.
Winry caught up to him and, if he wouldn’t look at her, she didn’t have to look at him, right? “I have a hotel room, Ed,” she said diffidently. “It’s out of the wind and we can get something to drink from the café.”
He nodded abruptly, as if being invited to a hotel by a woman was commonplace and for all Winry knew, it was. She bit her lower lip to keep from screaming at him and instead, followed his example, hitching her shoulder at him to indicate he should come along. She felt a shock of surprise to realize he was, trailing along behind her, head lowered – against the wind? So he didn’t have to look at her? – hands shoved deep in his pockets. Winry led him through the streets of Central to her hotel, the wind sometimes strong enough to nearly shove them off their feet, the ice particles like tiny needles against uncovered skin.
The entrance to the hotel felt like a furnace after being so long outside and Winry thought she’d gone deaf without the roar of the wind pressing against her. Behind her, Edward hung his head and she didn’t wait to see if he’d still follow, moving into the hotel to the front desk. No one had left any messages – no one knew she was here, but Winry figured that if any of her friends had thought about it, they would’ve known where she’d be on this date, the anniversary of Al’s death – and Winry headed for the stairs and her room on the third floor of the hotel. Edward trailed behind, a silent shadow, the sound of his uneven steps on the treads still familiar, after all this time.
Arriving on the third floor, Winry unlocked the door to her room, stepping inside. She started unwinding her scarf, setting the dripping fabric in the bath, and hanging her coat up next to the radiator. She turned that on, holding her hands over it to let the warmth seep into her palms, glancing over her shoulder to see Edward still hovering in the open doorway. “Come in, Ed. Get warm.”
He hesitated but obeyed, closing the door behind him, and Winry watched as he rested his hands against the wooden frame for a few seconds. She turned away before Edward caught her staring. Moving to the newly installed telephone, Winry thought that having one in her hotel room was a marvel that she could learn to live with, especially when she could call downstairs and request that food and drink be brought up to her room. While she ordered coffee and two bowls of soup, Edward slowly came into the main area of the room. He still had that hangdog look to him and Winry thought if he didn’t get out of that wet jacket, he could get sick. She wondered if she cared then answered the question as the words came out of her mouth, almost of their own volition, “Ed, take off your coat. You won’t get warm in that wet thing.”
He flinched again, as if she’d struck him with more than words, but unwound the scarf from his neck before shrugging out of the jacket. Winry glanced over her shoulder at him then turned fully to face him, slack jawed. He looked…thin. Not emaciated but on his way to it. Winry murmured her thanks into the telephone receiver and replaced it in its cradle. As if unaware of her scrutiny, Edward raised his flesh hand, rubbing at the anchors for his automail arm, then let his hand fall back to his side.
“Sit, Ed.” Winry heard the softness of her words and marveled at them. “Sit down before you fall down.”
Obediently, he folded himself onto the little sofa, his hands on his knees, his gaze, Winry guessed, somewhere between them. He shivered once then quieted, but Winry could see past his messy hair to the hectic spots of color on his cheeks. With a little exasperated sound, she tore the blanket off her bed, moving to stand in front of Edward. Stubbornly, he refused to look at her and she wanted to shout but instead furled the blanket up and out, wrapping it around him. “Honestly, Ed. You can’t want to kill yourself.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Winry wished she could bite them back. Edward’s head came up; his teeth showed in that particular snarl he got sometimes but it wasn’t nearly as frightening as it had been in the past. This time, it seemed weak, like an afterthought more than an actual reaction to her words. Instead, he slumped a little in her blanket, reminding Winry of the little boy he’d once been. “Why not?” he creaked out. “No one wants me any more.” He snorted, his voice a little louder though no less rusty. “No one cares.” Edward shot her a heated look though the fire in his eyes seemed more like embers than actual flame. “You don’t have to be nice to me, Winry. You don’t have to pity me or take care of me.”
“Yeah,” Winry said, managing, for Al’s sake, not to sound bitter, “I do have to. You’re his brother, still. And you were my best friend.”
Edward made a sound of derision. “I was never that good of a friend to you, Winry.”
The sound of her palm contacting with his cheekbone was loud in the close room. Edward’s head snapped sideways from the force of the slap and he didn’t turn back. Winry could see his throat move and his hand lifted to knuckle at the corner of his mouth. “See, Winry? I’m just as much of an asshole now.”
She clenched her teeth, wondering if Edward was trying to goad her into hitting him again. Going into the bathroom, Winry picked up a towel, running water onto it. That Edward still remained huddled under the blanket on her couch told more than he probably wanted her to know. She crossed the room, standing in front of him. Determined not to look at her, he kept his eyes directed on the floor but Winry wasn’t taking that any more. She caught his chin, gently pulling it up, though she had to tighten her grip when Edward attempted to jerk free. “Hold still, Ed. I’m not going to hurt you…again, I mean.” Winry dabbed the wet towel at the trickle of blood in the corner of his mouth. “I’m sorry. I had no right to hit you.”
Edward growled and shifted then quieted, letting Winry work. His eyes remained downcast but flicked up at her regularly. Winry said nothing in response to his looking at her, too dismayed by the changes she found in him. His cheeks were hollow and the beginnings of a beard prickled her fingers. Dark circles drooped under his eyes. He smelled sour, as if he hadn’t bathed in a while and Winry, bracing her hand on his shoulder briefly, felt the sharpness of the bones under his skin. She wondered when he’d last taken care of himself but realized she knew the answer – it had been at least a year ago today.
A knock sounded at the door and Winry turned away from Edward, hating herself for the little bubble of relief that rose in her body. “Coming,” she said, and picked up her purse, counting out a tip quickly as she walked. When she opened the door, a young man wheeled a cart inside the room, glancing at Edward out of the corners of his eyes and trying not to stare. Winry handed him a tip and shooed him back out the door, closing it behind him. “Feel free to help yourself.” She tried on a smile as she faced Edward but he was focused on the cart of food. From the expression on his face, Winry guessed it had been a while since he’d eaten. “Go on, Ed.”
He took the bowl of soup and held it in both hands for a bit and Winry couldn’t help but wonder if he was trying to warm his flesh hand. Finally, Edward picked up a spoon and began eating, slowly, at first. Winry poured a cup of coffee for both of them, setting Edward’s cup down close enough to him that he could reach it easily. She seated herself at the little desk the hotel provided, sitting sideways in the chair and sipping her coffee, savoring the warmth it provided.
Edward abruptly finished his soup, the spoon clattering inside the bowl and he stared down into it. “Thanks, Winry,” he mumbled, his appreciation barely carrying to her.
“You’re welcome.” Winry wished that they could go back to the way things were before, the simple give and take of their conversations, fraught with bad moods, cursing and yelling, but she knew that wouldn’t happen.
Edward fidgeted with the bowl as she watched, turning it in his hands, then finally placed it back on the cart. He picked up the coffee and took a gulp of it, his face tightening for an instant as the heat of the liquid burned his mouth. He took a couple of cooling breaths through his mouth before attempting a more cautious sip of the coffee.
Lowering her gaze to her hands, Winry rubbed her thumb across the rim of the cup. The stone on her left hand winked and she stared at it, not allowing herself the luxury of that memory. Still, like so many memories today, it rose unbidden: Al’s laughing eyes, suddenly turning serious, catching hold of her hand and sliding the ring onto her finger. “Marry me, Winry,” he’d said, squeezing her fingers lightly, leaning in to kiss her, and Winry remembered flinging her arms around him, holding on to him so tight.
It hadn’t made a bit of difference. She couldn’t hold him tight enough to keep him from leaving her. Biting her lip, Winry set down her coffee cup a little harder than she meant to, the liquid sloshing out over the rim and onto the back of her hand. With a hiss, she cradled her hand against her chest, standing up and going into the bathroom to run cold water over it before it scalded her. The water raced over her skin but Winry could see the pink discoloration through the stream and knew she’d be dealing with a little pain until the burn healed.
She heard the door open and close before she could almost turn around. Taking a deep breath, Winry told herself she wasn’t disappointed, that she’d almost expected it. She bit her tongue, thinking that the prickling in her eyes was because of the day, of the pain she was in from burning her hand. A sob heaved out of her. Why had she thought it would be any different? Fisting her burnt hand, Winry slammed it into her reflection, sending the glass tinkling into the sink. Blood dribbled from cuts on her knuckles and Winry stared at it, letting it drip onto the reflecting shards.
The door opened and Winry lifted her head, the shattered reflection showing her multiple Edwards coming into her room, a little grey bucket in his hand. They all gazed at her, their eyes widening at the sight of the destroyed glass and Winry couldn’t help but bark out a laugh, letting her head droop forward as if it was too heavy to hold up. Exhaustion and anger vied for the right to take her over and she didn’t know which one would win.
A soft clatter came from beside her and Edward said, “You idiot! What were you thinking?” A hand reached into her field of vision and Winry let Edward take her wrist, too stunned to react, her gaze trailing up his arm to see a flash of his old anger. Edward made a grumbling sound that changed to a hiss when he got a better look at the damage. Without further comment, Edward thrust her hand under the water again, using his thumb to gently rub over the torn skin on her knuckles.
Winry stared dumbly at his hands while Edward cleaned her self-inflicted wounds. After his initial outburst, he remained silent. He was more considerate than Winry expected, plucking little splinters of glass from her skin, massaging soap into the abrasions, keeping her hand still when she yelped and tried to pull away. Edward was still strong, no matter what, and Winry finally relinquished all control of the situation to him.
“Done,” Edward said, after what seemed like a long time. Winry realized she sat on the closed lid of the commode and that Ed perched awkwardly on the edge of the tub. Her hand sported bandages around the knuckles. She couldn’t remember where they came from and wondered if Ed had called down to the desk. “You need to lie down, Winry.”
Her hand snatched at his sleeve, holding tight. “You’re not leaving.” Winry knew she’d meant it as a question but it came out as a reedy voiced plea.
Edward swallowed and shifted his weight. “I shouldn’t,” he mumbled.
“Please, Ed. I really don’t want to be alone today, of all days.” Winry didn’t release her grip on his sleeve. A tremble ran through her and she hoped she wasn’t going to start crying again.
He stood up, though Winry realized he didn’t try to shake her off. Blowing out a soft gust of air, Edward said, “Why don’t you get cleaned up and I’ll order some more coffee. Or tea?”
Winry could see his eyes flick to her though she couldn’t read their expression beneath his shaggy bangs. She nodded in response, afraid if she spoke, she’d sob.
“Tea.” Edward bobbed his head then closed his fingers lightly over hers. “I’ll stay,” he added.
Winry slowly let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding at Edward’s statement. She tightened her grip on his sleeve, thinking the fabric felt as worn out as she did. Swallowing, Winry leaned her cheek against Edward’s forearm.
He flinched at the contact but he had no other outward reaction at first then, tentatively, his free hand came up, landing on the crown of her head in an awkward pat. Winry felt Edward’s fingers smooth over her hair before his hand fell away. “I’ll get you something to wear,” he said and, at that offer, Winry released his sleeve. Edward moved slightly away from her, turning on the water in the bathtub. He plugged the drain after testing the temperature with his flesh fingers. “Get cleaned up,” he repeated, as the water began to rise in the tub. Winry heard Edward mumble something else but he turned and walked out of the bathroom before she could ask what he’d said.
The door remained slightly ajar and Winry could hear the faint rustle of Edward’s search through her things. A part of her knew that some women would be scandalized to have that happen but this was Ed and it wasn’t like it meant anything. Still, when he returned, rapping lightly on the door and causing it to swing further open, Winry found herself embarrassed that a pair of her panties spilled out between his fingers. Edward didn’t look her way as he set the clothes next to the sink, not even tossing her a glance as he walked back through the door.
“Leave.” Her voice cracked and Winry tried again. “Leave the door open, Ed.” She didn’t want him to go without her knowing it.
Edward hesitated, his hand on the knob. He turned his head, an acknowledgement of her words, though he still didn’t meet her eyes. “I’ll close it when room service comes, all right?” Stepping through the opening, Edward pulled the door slightly to, offering Winry some privacy.
She undressed as the tub filled, her thoughts spinning in her head, so chaotic she couldn’t even get a handle on them. Winry let them twirl, losing herself in the repetitive motions of brushing her hair and pinning it up to keep the ends from getting wet. She slipped into the tub, the heat of the water immediately pinking her skin. Winry closed her eyes, letting her back slide down, her chin barely above the waterline as she turned off the faucet with her toes. The warmth enveloped her but Winry still felt cold, as if a block of ice was at her core and nothing would melt it. She pressed her injured hand over her mouth, tears leaking from her closed eyes. She managed to keep her sobs quiet, not wanting to alert Edward to her misery. It wasn’t like he didn’t have his own to bear.
At some point, Winry heard a knock at the outer door and Edward closed the bathroom door on the way to it. Winry could just make out some words exchanged and the soft creak of the service cart entering the room. The outer door closed again and the sound of metallic knuckles tapping on her door alerted her. “Tea,” Edward told her through the thin wood and Winry sat up to finish her bath.
She walked into the main room a few minutes later, her hair still pinned up on her head, her skin still rosy from the heat of her bath. Edward sat on the little sofa, as if he’d never actually moved from it, another steaming cup in his hand. A second rested on the desk, along with her bowl of soup, which Winry was surprised still remained hot. She shot a glance at Edward, thinking that he might’ve reheated it with alchemy. It wasn’t like Alphonse hadn’t done the same thing with her coffee when she was working late in the night. Swallowing hard, Winry sat at the desk. The fragrance of her tea and the soup tickled her nose and she wished she felt more hungry.
Forcing herself to eat meant she didn’t have to actually talk to Edward and that, more than anything, made Winry pick up her spoon. She stirred her soup, taking a small sip of it. The rich broth rested on her tongue and Winry wished it didn’t taste like ash in her mouth. She swallowed convulsively, coughing when the liquid went down the wrong pipe. Edward started up at the harsh sound. A spurt of surprise ran through Winry at the concern that was suddenly evident on his face, in his eyes, before she waved him off, getting control of herself. Edward settled back down on the sofa though his gaze remained trained on her while she ate, something that caused her discomfort when she’d glance up from her meal. While he didn’t exactly meet her eyes, he wasn’t looking away, and Winry could feel his stare like a weight on her flesh. It made her skin prickle and twitch and Winry suddenly wondered why she’d asked Edward to come to her room.
The realization came like a blow. Need. Winry needed someone who knew Al as well as she did and Edward was that person. He was the one who could share her mourning, who would understand why she still wore Al’s ring. If only, Winry thought wistfully, but shunted that wish aside.
Winry finished her soup, letting the spoon clatter into the empty bowl. Exhaustion settled around her like a shroud as she finished her meal and, while Winry knew it was bad manners, she suddenly wanted to curl up in her bed and sleep. A part of her remembered she’d felt like this before, shortly after she’d gotten the news that Al had been killed. All she’d wanted to do then was sleep, though Winry thought she really couldn’t even call it that. She’d closed her eyes to hide from the world.
Turning her gaze wistfully to the bed, Winry made her decision. Her hands moved to her head, pulling the pins to let her hair fall down. “Ed,” Winry said as she stood, “you can stay if you want.” The mattress sank slightly beneath her when she sat down and Winry pulled at the blankets fitfully, rucking them up and crawling beneath them. She rubbed her cheek against the crisp, cool cotton of the pillowcase, running her thumb over the band on her finger. Pressing the stone to her lips, she whispered, “Good night,” to Alphonse.
And heard Edward mumble back, “Night.”
* * *