In retrospect, Ed should have known it was a stupid idea. Winry had told him; hell, Winry was still telling him, had told him just this morning while holding his hair out of his face as he was, rather pathetically, puking his guts out. He should've known that just because he'd made it to Xerxes once didn't mean that crossing the desert to Xing couldn't turn out to be a disaster. And a near-fatal one at that. That everything she'd warned him about would come back to bite him in the ass. It was a combination of sheer luck and a whole lot of determination on the part of Winry and of Jerso that he wasn't currently six feet under in some sandy hole with scorpions chewing on his shriveled-up hide.
And Winry was never going to let him forget it.
At any rate, here they were—he, Winry, and Jerso, crowded, damp, and irate—in some leaky shack of a backwoods clinic, in some muddy one-horse outpost at the outskirts of Xing while a storm raged outside. And they were stuck here for what could be a matter of weeks until the one road out of town wasn't flooded, meaning that they'd probably wind up missing Ling's coronation anyhow. Not to mention Ed was still too damn sick to get out of bed.
Needless to say, this was almost hilariously far from what he'd envisioned when he'd told Winry before they'd left Amestris that this whole ordeal would be "like a vacation." And she wasn't going to let him forget that, either, anytime soon.
At the moment, though, Winry was slumped over on the sagging mattress, her head near Ed's hip, fast asleep. Her hair, loose, tangled, and lighter than usual from weeks in the desert sun, spilled onto the blanket and obscured her still-sunburned cheeks, and poofed forward a bit where it fell in front of her nose and mouth with each slow, even breath. Idly, Ed picked up a strand of it and twirled it in two fingers, listening to the rain hammering the tin roof above them and marveling at the fact that Winry could sleep through it.
"She's still runnin' herself ragged worryin' about ya, kid," Jerso's voice rumbled from his spot on the threadbare couch in the corner of the small room. Ed started a bit; he'd been sure Jerso had been asleep, too. His eyes had been shut, chin resting on his expansive chest, but he was currently regarding Ed a raised eyebrow. "For her sake, ya better get yourself healthy again."
Ed looked from Jerso to Winry to Jerso again, and nodded, guilt as well as a bit of residual nausea twisting his gut. "Working on it," he said.
"'S it true what she said a few days back? 'Bout the two of you bein' engaged and all that?"
And again, for the umpteenth time today, Ed's stomach lurched, but this time it had nothing remotely to do with nausea. He'd nearly forgotten about that.
He gulped, but managed: "You mean on the way into town, or did she mention it some other time?"
Jerso smirked. "No, I mean on the way into town." He regarded Ed with amusement. "What's the matter, kid? You look like ya just swallowed a bug."
Ed fidgeted a bit and glared at the sheets covering his knees—well, knee, he amended, as his eyes met the empty space where his left should be. Of course the automail wasn't attached; it hadn't been for days and he knew that, but it was always unnerving to see it gone. Winry hadn't even begun to discuss when she'd be able to fix the damage to the port, let alone when he could have his leg back. And Jerso might be as good a bodyguard as any, but if they were ambushed somehow…
And he couldn't rule it out. Not once word of Li's death reached the Capitol. Li may have been a minor prince, but a prince he'd been nonetheless; a prince who'd just been beaten out for the throne and whose family could well be enraged enough to take it out on the new emperor's Amestrian friends. Though Ling would understand better than anybody the harshness and unpredictability of the desert, an entourage of three Amestrians and one Xingese that happened to result in the death of said Xingese did not exactly paint them in a positive light. Rumors would spread. Technically, Xing and Amestris were allies, but if they didn't watch their step, both now and when they reached the Capitol, the fallout of one stupid accident could be catastrophic for both nations. He felt a dull pounding somewhere behind his eyes, and pressed the heels of his palms into them, letting out a long breath.
Talk about a diplomatic nightmare.
"So the prospect of married life bothers ya that much, huh?"
Ed's head snapped up. "Huh?" he blurted, rather unintelligently. Then, when he remembered what they'd been talking about, "…Oh." He fidgeted again. "Shut up."
Jerso shrugged. "Suit yourself." He made a vague gesture at Winry. "Think this one's a keeper, though, if ya ask me."
Ed grimaced. "Yeah, well, I didn't ask you."
Jerso just chuckled.
He hadn't given much thought to Winry's word choice on the day in question—at the time, he'd been out of his head with fever, the driving rain like icy needles on his skin, being carried like a ragdoll against Jerso's chest while he fought to keep his eyes open. Even though Winry was barely a few feet ahead of them, he could barely make out her words over the din of the storm as she raced across one of the two rickety wooden bridges that were the town's only entrances: Help, please help us, my fiancée needs a doctor, he's very sick…
Looking back, Ed supposed he could understand her reasoning—like it or not, it was basic human psychology. Add a romantic element of any kind into any situation, and you'll get people's attention. My fiancée needs a doctor sounded more impressive somehow, more dramatic, than my friend needs a doctor or even my boyfriend needs a doctor.
And whatever he was to Winry, he was glad it warranted a stronger word than friend or boyfriend, even if she'd been dramatizing. It had worked, too. Minutes later he'd been brought to this place and tended to, which wound up saving his life.
But the thing was?
He'd never proposed to her.
Sure, his whole half-of-your-life-half-of-mine speech had been genuine. That had begun as some blurted-out, last-ditch effort to quit beating around the bush long enough to ask Winry to wait for him, and not to see other people while he was gone. But it had morphed into something else entirely, and they both knew it. He still wasn't quite sure what yet, but he guessed it was his own damn fault if she translated what amounted to I want to spend the rest of my life with you to I'm going to marry you. Especially after the…events…of the few nights following his return from Creta. He'd knocked on the door, and then she was in his arms, and then before he was quite aware what was going on they were kissing, and…well.
One thing led to another. Fast.
And it had all felt right in a way that few things in his life ever had.
His gaze had drifted to Winry again, and he must've been staring, because Jerso was chuckling again.
"Y'know, you could try minding your own business," Ed snapped.
"I could," Jerso said, raising an eyebrow. "But it's damn near impossible to tune the two'a you out. It's like somethin' outta one of those radio soap operas, except at all hours'a the day, what with the way you stare at each other all sappy whenever ya think the other one a' you's not lookin'." He paused. "That's when you ain't bickerin' with each other, of course. Ain't never seen an engaged couple at each other's throats all the time like that, I gotta say."
"We're not engaged!"
Jerso snorted. "Not so loud, loverboy. Let Miss Rockbell catch some shuteye before you start pukin' all over everywhere again."
"We're not engaged," Ed grumbled.
"Whatever you say, kid."
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. I'm going back to sleep." Making sure to jar his leg port as little as possible, Ed turned himself so that he was facing away from Jerso, and hiked the blanket up around his face, wrinkling his nose a bit at the strong mildewy smell of it. The whole process took him an almost embarrassingly long time to complete. It didn't help that his arms felt like noodles, or that Jerso's prediction about pukin' all over everywhere might not be too far off with the way his stomach kept flip-flopping at the slightest movement he made. He'd only just been switched from an IV to solid food—if you could call transparent broth and mushy rice solid—this morning, and he'd hadn't exactly done a stellar job keeping it down. Hyperthermia was obnoxious like that. They'd been out of the desert for over a week now, and even here in Xing's borderlands it was the rainy season, and legitimately cold. But apparently his body never got the memo. Even though he wasn't as ill as he has been, he still had one hell of a stubborn fever and had been spending days lying flat on his back trying to stave off waves of dizziness and queasiness, especially whenever Winry tried to examine and tinker with his leg port.
Winry deserved a freaking medal for her role in all of this, though, as far as Ed was concerned. And so did Jerso, for all that he could be a real smartass. The young woman who ran the clinic, Lien, was kind and generous, but not especially helpful owing to the fact that she was both hugely pregnant and had no assistants at the moment. Her husband ran the general store at the other side of the village, and her only assistant had left two weeks before to purchase supplies from the nearest larger town but could not return to the village because the rain had flooded out the roads.
The net result? The majority of Ed's caretaking was left to Winry, the only available person with any medical knowledge to speak of. Due to the village's close proximity to the desert, Lien certainly knew how to treat patients of hyperthermia and heat stroke—they called it desert ague here— and had the necessary equipment on hand: the IV, the glucose drip, the fever pills, and a light, moveable basin for bathing. But at eight months pregnant, it wasn't like Lien could do much more than direct Winry and Jerso as they lifted Ed in and out of the cool baths, cleaned him up and changed the sheets when he gave into his nausea, and in essence monitor Ed 24/7 to ensure that he wouldn't take a turn for the worse. Which, apparently, could happen very quickly if they weren't careful, especially when the fever had overstayed its welcome.
Then of course, Lien knew nothing about automail. And that was exactly what had gotten them into this mess in the first place, hadn't it?
Well, that and the unpredictability of the damn desert.
Winry was certainly right about one thing in all this. Ed didn't really have to make this trip. Of course he wanted to see Al again, and see how he'd gotten on with the chimera research, and it would've been a nice surprise for Ling if he'd shown up to the coronation. But as far as Amestrian-Xingese relations were concerned, there were dozens who'd have fit the bill just as well as he had.
But when the Colonel—well, now it was the Brigadier General, wasn't it—had called him up in Risembool with the offer to fill the position of diplomat and honored guest, as a gesture of good faith in the coronation of the soon-to-be-emperor Ling Yao, Ed had known beyond a shadow of a doubt that he'd be going. His trip to Creta had turned out to be a complete failure. Over a year's worth of in-depth investigation of Cretan alchemy—as well as a return to Milos for the same purpose—had turned up a whole lot of nothing. In fact, he'd spent more time than anything doing virtually the same thing that he'd done in his days as a State Alchemist, sticking his nose in where it didn't belong, causing a whole lot of trouble, and managing to help (as well as piss off) a few people in the process. He'd gotten himself a reputation in Creta, but no valuable leads to speak of. And he'd had to return home empty-handed.
Of course, he'd been thrilled to see Winry, but he'd whiled away the two months after his return feeling aimless, useless, and, more than anything, restless. Winry herself had plenty to do—she'd learned all she could from Garfiel, and rather than try to immediately open up her own place, she decided she'd take time to save some money for a down-payment, as well as apply her talents where they'd be most sorely needed, and that was at home. There were plenty of brilliant automail engineers in Rush Valley, more than enough to fill the demand. But that wasn't so in the rural East, plenty of whose citizens still bore the scars of Ishval. And to put it bluntly, Granny wasn't getting any younger, either.
But Ed didn't know what to do with himself. Sure, he researched, when he could, but he only had access to so many materials, and now that he wasn't technically employed, it wasn't easy to muster the funds to travel to the major libraries in Amestris. So in the meantime, he worked odd jobs—herding and even shearing sheep for some of the neighbors, and minding the desk at Risembool's grocery store on the weekends. It was nice in a way, he supposed, especially when all it really took to melt away the day's tedium and frustrations was a smile from Winry.
But damn it, he wasn't even twenty years old yet, and even though he may not be the Fullmetal Alchemist anymore, he sure as hell wasn't ready to settle down anytime soon.
Just because he wasn't military anymore, though, didn't mean he hadn't kept in touch with his ex-commanding officer—more with scattered letters and telegrams than with actual visits to Central. Completely reconstructing the government of a nation from practically the bottom up while keeping the entire civilian population none the wiser was demanding nearly all of Mustang's attention. But in the midst of the process, an almost staggering number of military operatives and agents, as well as some deserters, who had been forcibly turned into chimeras under Bradley's command had come forward. Mustang had been keeping him posted on both the growing numbers as well as any information that said operatives were willing to give on the transmutation process. It was apparently traumatic enough, though, that even Jerso was pretty reluctant to talk about it—that made something Ed's gut twist hard when he thought of Nina.
Part of this exchange of information, however, had been the humiliating admission that after a year and some change in Creta, he had turned up nothing substantial. It was almost like filing all those empty reports every time he'd returned from yet another bogus lead on the Philosopher's Stone. Mustang had even sent back a snide reply in a telegram—
Well—STOP—Doesn't this sound familiar—STOP—Old habits die hard don't they Elric—STOP…
But Ed did know that Mustang tacitly understood Ed's frustration, and growing sense of restlessness.
Because as soon as an official envoy from Xing showed up—an envoy consisting of one lesser princes of Xing, one Li Feng, as well as an unnamed Amestrian who had been sent along as a companion—to cordially invite an honored guest of the Amestrian government's choosing to the coronation of His Excellency the Emperor Ling Yao, Ed had gotten a phone call.
Upon Mustang's recommendation, Ed made the trip to East City to meet up with this unnamed Amestrian—Jerso, who had been selected due to the fact that being part-toad made the desert an easier trek for him than most, and also as a gesture to the Amestrian government to ensure that there would be no foul play on the journey back to Xing.
One conversation with Jerso over coffee later—while a rather sunburned Prince Li Feng had sat scowling and sipping tea in a corner— and Ed had made up his mind. According to Jerso, Al was faring better than he was in terms of chimera research, and along with Mei, himself, and Zampano had begun to develop a theory involving the utilization of alkahestry to distil human and animal souls into temporary physical vessels. Ed still knew nothing of alkahestry—he'd been hoping to leave that to Al while he investigated the forms of alchemy that the West had to offer, but he'd been disappointed to find upon closer that Cretan and even Milotian alchemy did not differ much from the alchemy he'd studied growing up, and that the chimera transmutation process was more or less the same as well. But if Al had made some sort of discovery? Well that made one of them. And even if he couldn't do alchemy himself anymore, he'd be damned if he wasn't there to help in some capacity.
That aside, he was the perfect candidate for the journey. As Mustang had explained it, this sort of thing was a delicate but routine maneuver of international diplomacy. In this case, each nation would provide one individual with some title or repute, and with a third party in place as an arbiter of sorts (and in this case, a guide who had made the trip before), the journey to Xing would be made; the coronation witnessed and friendship between the countries cemented. However, both candidates selected for the journey would ideally be what Mustang had called "empty medallions," or people who held showy or impressive-sounding titles, but titles that were in essence meaningless. In other words, those with no true value to either state. The trek across the desert was brutal and sometimes deadly, both countries knew, and if there were to be any casualties along the way, it would be best if the loss would not be a crippling blow to either government.
For Xing, a lesser prince qualified, particularly an embittered one who'd been vying for the throne, and who needed a sound reminding from His Excellency (and half-brother) that he'd better know his place now that he'd lost his chances at the throne for good.
And for Amestris…
Mustang had been right to call Ed up with the offer, because he really was a perfect candidate. With time, the Fullmetal Alchemist would fade from the minds and imaginations of the citizens of Amestris, but it hadn't quite happened yet. And those present hadn't forgotten his role in the Promised Day. However, he was a civilian, and frankly, he was of absolutely no worth to the government any longer. But thanks to Ling, the citizens of Xing would certainly know his name, and Amestris sparing one of their heroes to make the notorious desert journey all in the name of the country's friendship would look like a magnanimous gesture.
Telling Winry, though? That was the tough part of all of this. He'd been anticipating some sort of explosion from her, so he had waited to break it her until the next day after he'd returned from East City. Mustang had said to be prepared to have an answer within the week. Winry was no fool; she'd known something was up from the moment he'd gone to East City to visit some "old friends," but had said nothing and let him go. The atmosphere between them when he returned was friendly, but strained—they both knew she was waiting for him to spit out whatever it was he had to say. So the afternoon following his return, Ed had brought it up as casually as he possibly could while he was washing dishes, and Winry was drying.
And he should have known that just because Winry didn't have any wrenches on her person or within the immediate vicinity that he wouldn't get out of this unscathed. Because hardly three seconds after the words had left his mouth, the tip of a wet dish towel had snapped him, whip-like, full in the face. He dropped the stack of plates he'd been holding; they shattered at his feet as he grabbed at his stinging nose and cheeks with sud-covered hands and squeezed his eyes shut. "Gah—ow—what the hell, Winry?"
When he finally managed to open them again, she'd wheeled around to face him, fixing him with an utterly furious glare, one hand on her hip and the other still brandishing the dish-towel, menacingly. Well, Ed thought, ruefully, eyes watering and still holding his nose, let it never be said that pretty girls in aprons can't be intimidating as hell…
"You're leaving again?" he'd expected her voice to be shrill, argumentative, but instead, it was quiet. Dangerous. Barely restrained.
"Winry…" he began, in some attempt to sound placating, or maybe just not to get himself whipped in the face again.
"You leave for a year," she continued, "more than a year, barely bothering to contact me more than once every several months and leaving me up nights worried sick about you sometimes…" Anger was finally beginning to break through her voice, making it shake. Her fist clenched around the towel. Ed was tempted to back up a step. "And then you come home for two months," she added, voice rising, "Two months, and now you're leaving again?" She gestured around her with both hands, the towel cracking menacingly in the air. "What is all this to you, anyway, Ed? Some kind of pit stop?" Ed could see angry tears forming in the corners of her eyes. Something in his chest clenched.
He took a step towards her now, put his hands over her shoulders. "Winry."
He half-expected her to pull away, but she didn't. Instead, she looked up at him, anger now replaced by a kind of tiredness. "Your nose is bleeding," she said, putting her hands over his and turning to pull him towards the kitchen table. "Come on."
Ten minutes later, with the very same dish towel wadded up under his still-throbbing nose, Ed had explained the situation in its entirety and was doing his utmost (and failing miserably) to warm Winry up to the idea of his departure. Her first objection, logistically, had to do with his automail.
"Desert sand is gonna be hell on your leg, Ed," she said, her back turned. She was putting on a pot of coffee, and Ed suspected that she was keeping herself occupied (and looking away from him) so that she could keep her temper in check long enough to discuss this rationally. "And believe me, I'd know. Rush Valley's in the canyons, and you wouldn't believe the damage that sand can do, or the pain it'll cause if it embeds itself inside the nerve connectors. Not to mention the heat that a hunk of steel attached right near a major artery can generate…."
Ed waved a hand. "I made half the trip with twice the automail before, and I was fine. I had a horse to keep me up out of the sand, and guides who knew what they were doing, and I will this time, too."
Winry turned and set a coffee mug down on the table in front of him, a little too hard—some sloshed over the side and onto the worn tabletop. "You heard the stories when we were kids. We both did. People head into the desert and don't come back. It happens all the time. Even without automail."
He took a sip of the coffee. It tasted burnt. "Well Lan Fan made it with her arm, and Al made it too, didn't he?"
"Only after waiting two damn years to make sure that he was strong enough to stand a chance," she snapped. "And believe me, I'm not thrilled that he ever went, either." Finished with her coffee and out of excuses not to face him anymore, Winry flung her apron across the back of her chair and sat down hard, clutching her mug and frowning.
Ed decided to switch tactics. "Look. I talked to Jerso, and he thinks that Al could really be onto something."
Winry took a gulp of her own coffee. "Well that's great. And when he's done all the research there is to do over there, he can get his ass back home and show it to you." She wasn't looking at him again.
And suddenly Ed was quite sure that this wasn't about the desert anymore. At least not per se. "Winry?" he said, after a moment.
"I thought the whole reason you went West and Al went East was because of the automail anyways," she said, softly. Her head was ducked slightly now, her bangs hung in her eyes.
"Well that was one of the reasons," he conceded. Now he wasn't looking at her either, but at the surface of the coffee—bubbly, muddy brown. Of course, he'd told Al that that was the main reason, at least out loud, but they both knew that Ed couldn't very well be trained in alkahestry.
But now that Al actually had a lead…
Maybe Ed could only sit and watch, but he'd give damn near anything to feel like he was doing some sort of good, somewhere. He reached across the table, and set his hand, still a bit tacky with his own drying blood, over Winry's. "I'll be fine."
"I know you will." She looked up, abruptly, at his touch. There was a hard glint of challenge in her eye. "Because your mechanic will be going with you."
To be continued…