Chapter 1: Chapter 1
* * *
Of all forms of caution, caution in love is the most fatal. – Unknown
* * *
His dress uniform had been freshly laundered and pressed, the creases knife sharp. His medals, badges and ribbons were carefully cleaned, his buttons and shoes polished mirror bright. His hat had been professionally cleaned and reshaped for his head and he'd spent time at the barber yesterday, neatening up his hair and moustache. He intended to prove his worth to her tonight. She'd managed to put him off before but now, she was free and ripe for the plucking.
"You can see why she'd want me, don't you?" He straightened the sleeves of his shirt, checking his sleeves in his reflection. Soon, he'd be in his dress blues. For now, the workman's shirt did an excellent job of camouflage. "We would make an excellent match." The mirror reflected him back, showing him the bed behind him, a woman sprawled across it. "No, you don't have to speak. It's enough that you understand, what we had this evening was just a passing thing." A smile touched his mouth. "I can't really have you talking to all your friends about me, either. But I doubt you would. You're a very intelligent girl." Turning, he cocked his head, studying the young woman. "It's too bad we didn't meet under different circumstances."
Going to the bed, he began wrapping her up in the blanket. It would make it so much easier to carry her. This part of town, no one would even notice. He needed to hurry, though, if he wanted to make it home in time to finish getting dressed for the function.
Before covering the woman's face, he took one final look. Her lovely hair was almost the perfect shade of ash blond though her roots were showing through. "I really am sorry we met like this." He studied her staring eyes. "But I'm sure you understand why things had to be this way. I couldn't let her find out about you, now, could I? What kind of impression would that make on my courtship?"
Her body weighed him down for a few seconds but he adjusted her weight in his arms. "Come along, my dear. This won't take much longer.
"I have a date to keep tonight, after all."
* * *
Alphonse winced automatically, hunching his shoulders at Breda's tone of voice. "What has he done now?" He hoped it wasn't too bad. It wasn't often they actually came to these types of parties but the word had come from General Riza Hawkeye that the Fullmetal Alchemist would be in attendance. And while Edward would've grumbled and fussed and whined and carried on for days if Fuhrer Mustang ordered him to attend, he stared at the orders from Hawkeye and gave in with just a weary sigh.
"He nearly incited Mrs. Pendergrast to a riot." Breda, wearing the stars of a captain on his dress blues, shook his head. "Of course, it's her own damned fault. She brought that little fluffy dog of hers," his lip curled in distaste, "stashed in her purse, and it popped its head out at Ed."
"Oh." Well, that didn't sound too bad, Alphonse thought, but Breda wasn't finished.
"Ed asked her if she'd brought it for the cook to serve," the meal was high Xingese, "and Mrs. Pendergrast had to be hauled off by her husband." A very slight pause. "Major Pendergrast."
Alphonse's palm had already made connection with his forehead.
"Wait, there's more." Breda obviously enjoyed being the bearer of bad tidings. "Ed shouted after her, saying he'd be happy to take care of the appetizer – and the damned dog jumped out of her purse and ran to him. When the major came to rescue 'Poopsy'," his distaste rose again and Alphonse understood, at least slightly, why – who, in their right mind, would name a dog 'Poopsy'? – "the dog bit him." Alphonse heard sheer, utter glee but he understood it. Pendergrast was a bullheaded bastard – and that just wasn't his brother's voice in his head saying those words. "I think your brother was taking the dog to the kitchen, last I saw."
Shaking his head, Alphonse wondered how he'd be able to frame his apologies. Pendergrast was just high enough up in the military rankings that his fussing could have repercussions. Not that Edward would pay much attention to those, no, but Riza…Alphonse really didn't want the general angry at his brother. She didn't always play fair. "Where is Ed?" If he could get his brother to return the dog and say he was sorry, maybe that would do the trick or at least defuse the situation enough that it wouldn't wind up in a report on Riza's desk.
"Don't worry." The smile wreathing Breda's face could only be described as evil. "It's been taken care of."
"What?" Alphonse glanced around, not expecting to see his brother carrying the dog back as a peace offering. Instead, he spotted a blond head that for an instant made him think – "General Hawkeye's here?"
"Nope." Breda popped the 'p' as he snagged a champagne flute off a passing waiter's tray. "Better." That evil smile tilted toward Alphonse and he felt a chill run down his spine, a warning that maybe he should collect his brother and just run like hell. "Winry Rockbell's here."
* * *
The kitchen was relatively quiet, after all the ruckus out in the main floor. All right, so he'd caused some of it. Edward couldn't help but snicker at the memory of that fat ass' Pendergrast's face when the dog snapped at him. It really was funny, the way the big man had backpedaled away from the little yellow dog currently sitting on Edward's thigh and pawing at his chest. "A'right, a'right," he grumbled, reaching for another strip of chicken and offering it to the mutt. "I'll share."
The little dog gobbled up the meat, licking its teeth and lips afterward, its head tilted to one side then the other before it pawed at his chest again. Edward gave it a scowl that did nothing to deter the mutt but this was his chicken, dammit. Okay, so he'd share, but the dog wasn't getting every single piece! He'd asked the Xingese cook to make it special, something that wouldn't be served out there on the floor, the sweet and spicy chicken Edward remembered from Xing and the provinces Ling had dragged Al and him through. He was a little surprised the dog would eat it. The hot peppers were enough to make him sweat but the mutt just swallowed the chicken whole. "Bet you're gonna be fun tomorrow," Edward told it, reaching for his whiskey glass.
There was a foot in the way.
Edward blinked at the foot. As feet went, it was kind of nice, in a shiny patent leather shoe that reflected his glove. A delicate ankle rose above the top of the shoe, attached to a calf that disappeared into a frothy dress hem in dark grey. Edward found himself admiring a trim waist and hands and wrists gloved almost to the elbows. His gaze lingered for a split second on a well-displayed pair of breasts though somewhere, deep in his brain, something warned him that maybe he'd better move. He wasn't sure why just yet, perhaps that second sense that had done him so well in the past in his battles. But the whiskey he'd consumed made his reaction time sluggish, so his eyes wandered the rest of the way up a slender throat to a pair of burning blue eyes, set in a face framed by cornsilk hair.
That second sense clamored for him to move, run, slap his hands together so he could melt the floor beneath him but Edward was frozen, staring up at her. He couldn't even feel the dog pawing at his chest any more.
"Don't you have anything to say, Edward?" The steel whip in her voice lashed at him before he could react and he gaped, unable to reconcile this woman with the girl he'd left behind so long ago. "Idiot." Her foot scooted the glass out of his reach. "Are you aware who the Pendergrasts are?"
The little dog on his thigh turned around in reaction to Winry's voice, its ears flipping forward and back. Its fluffy tail wagged a little uncertainly and Edward felt almost the same way as he figured the dog did. At least neither of them had peed in fear yet. "I know he's a gassy bag of hot air." He offered the dog another piece of chicken, pleased his hand didn't tremble. He could feel Winry's fury, like the air preceding a thunderstorm.
"That gassy ball of hot air owns the biggest sulfur mine in Amestris, Edward. Even you should know why sulfur is important. Especially you, being an alchemist."
Lightning crackled overhead, about to strike. "What's it matter to you? You're not part of the military. He is. He's an asshole and a blowhard and it's not my fault his dog likes me better." Okay, that last rejoinder was weaker than Edward liked but true.
"And he controls the prices of the sulfur in his mine." Above his head, Winry folded her arms. Edward tried not to glance up to see what sort of effect that had on the bodice of her dress. "That means he can charge the military whatever he wants for sulfur and the military – and therefore, the people of Amestris – would have to pay it."
"Since when do you care about that kind of thing?" Edward eyed the glass beyond her foot, wondering if he could snatch it up before Winry stomped that heel of her shoe on his hand or head. Too bad the little mutt wasn't more of distraction. If it was like King, the Wonder Dog, it'd fetch him the glass without spilling a drop.
"Since I'm a citizen of Amestris and my taxes go to pay for the sulfur in the sulfur mines that asshole Pendergrast owns!" Winry swooped down, grabbing the string tie at his throat and pulling. "And you, Edward Elric, are going to go apologize to the man and give him back his damned dog!"
Even without a wrench in her hand, Winry was scary. The problem was, Edward realized, he was already pretty numb from the whiskey he'd drunk earlier. Oh, he could still function – could almost talk normally, even – and walk and, if he had to, dance with some woman that his brother pointed out to him. But that stupid sense of self-preservation was completely gone. That had to be it, right? There was no other reason for him to reach up and push her bangs out of her eyes with a gentle forefinger, wishing it was one she'd made, and say, "You're really pretty when you're angry."
The storm in her eyes raged at the compliment. "You're drunk."
Edward smiled in response. "Just a little."
Her fingers fisted tighter on his tie and she gave him a shake that made his head spin. "You stupid idiot."
The dog whined, cowering between Edward's ribs and his left forearm. "Quit scarin' the mutt, Winry. If he pees on me, I don't know if I c'n get the stink out."
Mouth twisting, Winry released his tie, straightening and taking an abrupt step backward. "Get up, Ed. Give the dog back to Mrs. Pendergrast. Apologize to Major Pendergrast. Then go home before you fuck anything else up."
"But I just got my chicken." Edward pointed at his plate, nonplussed to see the mutt gobbling down the rest of his meal.
"Now, Edward." The order lashed out.
With a muttered grumble about sharp-tongued women, Edward heaved himself to his feet. The floor tilted as he stood and he grabbed for the kitchen rack, pleased he didn't pull anything over or knock anything down. Now vertical, he wasn't sure if he could pick up the mutt without collapsing.
"I thought you were just a little drunk."
Edward had to fight to keep from cringing at the vitriol in Winry's voice. "You try standing up that fast sometime," he growled back, snapping his flesh fingers at the dog. He wondered absently what he'd done with his gloves. Right, pocket.
Winry bent down to pick up the dog, tucking it against her chest as she stood up. Edward squelched a flare of jealousy at the dog. "I just did." She pointed with her free hand toward the door. "Go. Apologize to Major Pendergrast."
"The man's a dick, Winry." Edward swayed from side to side, just a little bit, still trying to get his bearings on that sloping floor. Had it been tilted when he'd first come into the kitchen? "He's always been a dick. Saying I'm sorry to him is like," he couldn't think of any suitable to compare it to. "I'm not apologiz – Ow! Fuck! Ow! Winry!" Her fingers – her very strong fingers, her very hard fingers – clamped around his ear and she pulled him along with her.
"You are not embarrassing the military tonight, Edward." Edward wished that low growl of Winry's didn't sound so sexy right now. An erection would wreck havoc with walking. "You are not embarrassing General Hawkeye. You are not embarrassing your brother. You are marching up to Major Pendergrast and, so help me, you're going to grovel if that man wants you to grovel." She spun around so fast, Edward wasn't sure he didn't lose his ear in the process. Shoving the dog into his senseless arms, Winry pushed him through the kitchen doorway and toward the ballroom. The hallways and corridors sped by, the walls blurring, exacerbated by the alcohol Edward had consumed.
Unfortunately, being clear-headed didn't seem to be his plan for the evening, even if he had proclaimed his sobriety earlier. "Winry, stop!" Stubborn, Edward planted his feet in the carpet. Winry still managed to slide him along for about a meter before he leaned sideways, nearly tumbling to the floor. The dog leaped out of his arms, yipping at its mistreatment. "I feel sick."
Winry's eyes narrowed. "I thought you weren't drunk."
"You're jerkin' me 'round an' I'ma dizzy." Edward didn't think he was glaring at her the right way. Maybe because he wasn't looking in her eyes, he was staring at her breasts. He brought his gaze up. "Jus' lemme rest here a minute." The wall seemed sturdy enough and Edward reached out a hand, letting his weight fall against the flat, unmoving surface. "An' I'll do whatever you want." He meant it, too. All she had to do was let him stand there and get his equilibrium back and Edward wouldn't even argue. He'd do whatever damned thing Winry wanted because he owed it to her, a thousand thousand times over. I should know that number.
Huffing, Winry folded her arms, obviously having no idea what that did to the bodice of her dress. Edward couldn't help but sneak a peek. He realized he wasn't being quite as sneaky as he'd thought when a firm hand cupped his chin, pulling it up. "Are you staring at me?"
There was no good answer. Edward knew that. Hell, even the mutt knew. "What if I was?" Belligerent, maybe that'd work, right? "I'm a man, Winry. Men look."
Oh, definitely the wrong thing to say. Her darkened eyes narrowed to slits then Edward was sitting on the floor, probing his aching jaw, the mutt yapping and dancing in reaction to him falling almost on top of it. "Not at me, you don't."
Her words rolled around in his brain and finally connected to what he'd said, just before Winry'd slugged him. "Do, too." Edward realized he sounded like a sulky kid.
"What makes this different than any other time, Edward?" Her voice came from somewhere far above him.
Edward crawled to the wall, using it to prop himself up. His head still spun from Winry's punch but he was pretty sure he'd deserved it, if not for tonight, well, there were other times. At least it wasn't a wrench to his skull. Winry's question still rang in his ears and he knew he should answer it. Winry hated it when he didn't answer questions. "Nothin'." He let his head slide along the wall until he could see her face. "I always looked, Winry. Jus' din't want you to see. Nobody else, neither." Grinning, Edward rubbed his jaw. "Guess it worked on you, huh? Even if it din't on anyone else."
Confusion warred with anger, nearly winning. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
The dog crawled back in Edward's lap and he stroked its silky fur absently, rumpling its ears. "Nothin'. I'll take the mutt back to Pendergrast. I'll make nice. I'll grovel so he won't raise the prices on his sulfur and pass the bill on to the citizens." Edward realized he was staring at Winry's ankle. Oh, well. It really was a nice ankle. "I'll be good. I won't embarrass the military."
There was a long pause that made Edward consider looking up. Winry might have an expression on his face he didn't want to see. Her ankle, on the other hand, didn't give him an exasperated look, didn't roll its eyes, didn't flip its hair. Just stood there, in its pretty patent leather shoe and silk stocking. A long sigh rippled out from above him. Edward still didn't look up. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you."
Edward's lips thinned. "I'm not your problem, Winry." He wished his whiskey wasn't still on the kitchen floor. "I haven't been your problem for a very long time."
The air crackled around his head like a lightning strike. "You're right, Edward, but you're my problem tonight."
The mutt whined, poking its sharp little nose under Edward's arm. He put a finger to his lips. "Shh. Yer scarin' the dog."
The temperature in the corridor got noticeably cooler. "I don't know why I bother."
He let out a long sigh. "You don't have to, Winry. Go on back to your life, 'kay?" Edward risked a look up, offering her a smile that was only partially fueled by the whiskey in his system. "Me an' Al've been okay. That's what you wanted to know, right? We're doin' fine." He hoped he didn't sound desperate but decided he didn't really care. He and Al had made their decisions a long time ago. Winry had made hers. They lived separate lives that just didn't intersect any more.
"You've been fine?" Winry scoffed. "That's not what I hear from Riza."
Edward dropped his gaze back to her ankles. "She doesn't know everything." Ruffling the dog's fur backwards, he made a clucking noise at it. "Does she, little guy?"
A sharp huff erupted from Winry. "She knows enough."
Raising his eyebrows, Edward glanced toward her face. "I do my job. I live my life. I'm okay, Winry. Don't you have a husband to get back to?" The hall had stopped swimming enough that he could attempt standing and, clutching the dog to his chest, Edward pushed off the wall and to his feet. He was pleased he didn't waver in place but managed to stand upright. "I mean, I don't want anyone to start any rumors." Chucking the dog under the chin, he started walking toward the ballroom. He raised his hand, wagging it over his shoulder at Winry.
With any luck, he wouldn't see her again this evening.
* * *
Alphonse sighed, seeing his brother. Edward sprawled halfway across a table, head pillowed on his crossed arms. Men and women were working to clean up the hall and his brother was passed out, oblivious to it all. "Ed," he sighed, patting Edward's shoulder. "Come on, wake up. It's time to go home."
"I'm not asleep." One eye canted open, rolling up to focus on Alphonse. Slowly, Edward straightened, his forearms sliding over the wooden table top. He took a deep breath and let it out again. "I'm not drunk, Al."
"You couldn't have proved it by me, Brother." Alphonse dropped his hand from Edward's shoulder, his mouth tight.
"That was earlier." Edward smiled suddenly, a sharp, malicious baring of his teeth. "I had to apologize to that ass, Pendergrast. Couldn't be drunk for that." Shoving the chair back, he got to his feet.
Alphonse wasn't surprised that his brother didn't sway or show any indication he'd been drinking earlier. Edward's ability to hold his drink could be legendary except there weren't that many people who knew he could and did have a head for whiskey. Alphonse blamed Fuhrer Mustang for that one. Once he and Edward had returned from all the missions the military had set them on, the Fuhrer – then simply a brigadier – insisted on indoctrinating them to the world of manhood. Edward had sneered – "Like we didn't get that in Xing."
Xing…Alphonse's heart hurt to think of Xing. It had been fascinating and strange and oh so foreign. Hohenheim's - Dad's - influence had made Xing's healing alchemy what it was. It was weird thinking that, even now, that they were direct descendents of the man who'd taught the Xingese their alchemy. Due to their coloring, like their father's, not to mention Ling's favor, they were treated as special guests of the country. Alphonse didn't really want to think about how favored they had been, not any more.
"Brother." He swallowed down the words he wasn't sure he wanted to say, not when someone might be listening. It had been easier when they were children, even when they had been traveling Amestris, searching for the Philosopher's Stone.
"Winry talked to me." Edward snorted, pushing the chair back up under the table. "Well, she slapped me." His metal fingers, concealed by a glove, traced a bruise just visible along his jaw. At Alphonse's sigh, he waved off the concern. "I deserved it, Al."
Whatever he'd expected Edward to say, that hadn't been it. The best Alphonse could mutter in response was his brother's name. "Ed."
He shrugged, turning to face Alphonse. "You warned me." Edward squeezed Alphonse's shoulder. "And I didn't listen then." His hand fell away as he walked toward the exit. "I'm tired, Al. Let's go home."
Alphonse followed his brother out of the hall. Stopping at the coat check, they claimed their jackets and went down the stairs, out into the winter night. Edward shivered, tugging his collar up more tightly around his neck. Alphonse glanced his way. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." The corners of Edward's mouth tipped up. Alphonse had to look at the street, hiding his reaction to his brother's bittersweet smile by hailing a cab. "Hey, Al?"
"Yes, Brother?" He nodded as the cab pulled up to the curb, making sure the driver knew that, yes, they wanted to hire the car. Alphonse opened the back door, waiting for Edward to get inside, then slid in after him. Giving the address for their hotel, Alphonse settled back in his seat, arranging his jacket over his legs for warmth. He wondered if Edward was going to finish whatever it was he'd been about to say and glanced at his brother, eyebrows lifting.
Edward leaned his elbow on the windowsill, his cheek resting on his fist. "Hmm?" That sad grin still lingered on his face. "Oh." It brightened just a bit. "Didn't Winry look beautiful tonight?"
There was only one answer to that question, as much as it hurt to say. "Yes. Yes, she did."
* * *
East City sat near enough to the eastern border of Amestris to be considered its vanguard for any invasions, not that many countries would be foolish enough to cross the Eastern Desert to attack Amestris on that flank. The desert was even a better barricade than the north, with its wall of mountains. General Grumman had retired from his post in the east to allow younger heads – namely, his granddaughter, General Hawkeye – to prevail. The relationship wasn't something that the general populace were aware of – nor, truth be told, the military, something that seemed like a good idea at the time. Riza thought there still had been a very good reason for that deceit. For one thing, she hadn't wanted to be treated any differently from any other soldier.
Of course, she hadn't been, not until Roy made her his adjutant. Then, it was quite different. Riza knew she had been granted the right to not only watch Roy's back, but also make sure that, should he ever stray from his chosen path, she was to take him down. So far, there'd been no reason to do it, much to her relief. Riza thought the man was totally exasperating but he also was hers. His arguments to move Amestris toward a democracy might have confused the public but the voting thing was going better. Maybe someday, and Riza hoped it was within her lifetime, things would be the way Roy had dreamed they should be.
Until then, she had her own work to do, including reviewing the reports that had come in from her staff. Later, she could call Roy, find out how his day went, listen to him complain that she was in the east and he was in Central City and that needed to change, just as soon as possible. Personally, Riza thought it would be a good idea for the change. Their daughter needed both parents, after all, and Riza was considering making this her last tour of duty.
"General, sir, here are the reports you wanted." First Lieutenant Sciezca came through the doorway, a stack of folders tucked against her breast. Behind her glasses, her expression was tight, a warning in and of itself.
"Thank you, First Lieutenant." Riza accepted the folders, tapping them on her desk to align them. She didn't want to open them, knowing already what was inside, but it was part and parcel of her job. Still, Riza spared a fleeting thought to Roy's reaction to the sight of reports on his desk. Knowing what was inside these folders made it that much more difficult. Realizing Sciezca remained in front of her desk, Riza turned her attention to her first lieutenant. "What is it, Sciezca?"
"I just wanted to let you know Captain Breda called, sir, to say that the function went well." Her fingers twitched around each other.
"And?" Riza raised her eyebrows, not missing that telltale sign of agitation.
"Um," Sciezca shoved her glasses up on her nose, obviously stalling for time. "Edward Elric and Major Pendergrast had an…altercation, sir. But," she hastened to add, "Edward apologized and the Major was okay with it. Sir."
Wondering just what Edward had done this time, Riza decided she really didn't want to know, even if it was her job. She'd hoped that, by insisting the Elrics attend the function, maybe they'd reconnect with Winry, whom she'd also made sure was invited to attend. Sciezca didn't mention any of the codes involving that particular trio which Breda would've used, so it was safe to assume her little ploy hadn't worked.
A little noise drew her attention to the present again and Riza nodded at the first lieutenant. "That will be all." She heard Sciezca close the door behind her.
Entertaining the 'what if' thought if her plan had worked didn't complete her tasks for the evening. Riza put aside thoughts of her younger friends and steeled herself, opening the top folder. The pictures were underneath the typewritten reports, as specified in the military regulations. Riza never thought she'd be so thankful for the simple things. Reading the reports didn't take completely away the impact of the photographs but at least they lessened it somewhat.
Riza didn't allow her knuckles to whiten, didn't allow any outward expression of distress when she flipped to the photographs after reading the report. All homicides or suspected homicides were reported to the military. There were times when Riza wished she didn't have to look at these reports but understood that fresh eyes sometimes led to cases being solved. It didn't make it any easier. She knew there were some who considered her a hardened killer for what she had done in Ishbal but it was one thing knowing why she took a life and another to see the aftermath of another person's handiwork.
The first file was relatively simple and the murder already solved, not that it changed the fact Riza stared at the body of a relatively young woman, bludgeoned to death by her husband. According to the report, he believed his wife had been cheating on him and took action. There was no word in the report as to whether the woman had actually had an affair. Riza sighed softly, setting aside the report. The husband was in jail and awaiting trial though he continued to protest that he was in the right, despite laws against abuse.
The second file was more straightforward though no less disheartening, as was the third. Riza wondered again why she waited until the end of the day to review these reports. Did it make going home to her daughter that much better? Or had Roy rubbed off on her in subtle ways, making her postpone the horror as long as she possibly could?
The fourth report made her frown – another woman, this time found in an alley. Her body had been there for a few days, tossed in with the trash. No one had come forth with a missing person's report to match her and Riza idly wondered who she might be. There were no identifying marks on the woman, beyond what her killer left behind. A case of strangulation, the ligature marks on her throat indicating a cord had been used. One shoe was missing, though there were indications the body had been moved to the trash pile from somewhere else and the shoe might have come off in transit. Her clothing indicated she didn't have much money, which might mean she came in from the countryside, trying to find work. A pang ran through Riza at the thought this young woman would go unnoticed, unclaimed, unknown, buried in a pauper's grave with no one to mourn her passing.
The photographs didn't tell any more of the young woman's story, just that, maybe, she might've been pretty when she was alive. Long, pale hair fanned out behind her skull, a pair of heavy gloves covered her hands. Her face was swollen and discolored from the strangulation.
Riza sighed, closing the file. There were still more files to go through before she went home this evening and Maizy was waiting. Picking up the next file, she opened it, determined to get through these last few files before she went home.
* * *
"So, why didn't you tell me, Al?" Edward glanced over at his younger brother, seated behind the driver of the cab they'd hired.
"Well, her clinic is here in East City." At Edward's snort, Alphonse went on. "Because by the time Captain Breda pointed her out to me, it was already too late." Alphonse didn't turn his attention from the scenes passing by on the other side of his window. "The captain said you'd pissed off the major," he waved his fingers at Edward's hissing his name. "If you hadn't done that, maybe she wouldn't have come after you."
Edward folded his arms, jaw jutting like he was getting ready to face down Winry over his automail. That reflexive memory led to others and he shook his head, trying to clear it of anything dealing with Winry Rockbell.
Alphonse, though, proved again that Elric telepathy was faulty at best. "I think Winry was angrier even than Major Pendergrast." He turned then – of course – and Edward stubbornly stared at the passenger's side window. "I didn't even get a chance to talk to her, Ed." He hated it when Alphonse' voice turned wistful. "Is she doing all right? Is she happy?" Alphonse hesitated but for such a short time, it almost seemed a pause for a quick breath. "How is her son?"
"We didn't exactly exchange small talk." The words came out cold and bitter and Edward tightened his jaw again.
Sighing, Alphonse leaned back into his seat. "I suppose not, if she was yelling at you."
"Hey, I did what she asked. I was a good dog." Edward spat those words.
"Brother." Another sigh but Alphonse said nothing else, shifting his position and making the leather seat squeak.
Edward didn't respond, continuing to glare out the window. Catching sight of a blond woman, her head tilted back to look at the man with her, he wished Winry hadn't looked so nice tonight. Or smelled so good. Maybe that her eyes weren't so amazingly brilliant when she was furious with him.
Wishing, Edward reminded himself sternly, got him nowhere. Best put Winry Rockbell out of his mind.
* * *
A guy and a girl can be just friends but at one point or another one of them will fall for the other, maybe temporarily, maybe at the wrong time, maybe too late or maybe, just maybe...forever.... Unknown
* * *
How could something so simple go so wrong? He paced, chewing on the cuticle of his right thumb. It had seemed so fleeting but often, things were not as they seemed.
She was, in a word, beautiful. He remembered the first time he'd seen her – how she had moved, like a morning sunbeam flitting across the room. Her gaze had swept over him and it seemed as if an electric jolt surged through him, leaving him weak and gasping. And then she spoke and he felt his world would never be the same. This woman – this amazing creature – was like no other woman he'd met before. Whenever their paths crossed, as surely they must, considering his family's holdings and both her chosen profession and ties to the military, his heart rate increased, almost as if he had entered a battlefield. When she glanced his direction, his body stirred in ways it hadn't since he was a teenager. His wife had failed to bring him to such a state of arousal for years. But she – she put him off. She had a boyfriend, then a husband and always, always her career.
She didn't seem to understand what he could do for her, what ways he could further her research and studies. She put him off with clever words and phrases, and a show of propriety that could only be feigned. She was a woman, after all; they were known to tease and lie to get what they desired. He just hadn't figured out what he could offer that would bring her to him, not yet, at least.
An idea crossed his mind, one so spontaneous and perfect, it nearly sent him staggering back into the bed. A smile crossed his face. Yes. That would be an excellent idea. She'd owe him then and wouldn't be able to resist any more.
"William? Are you coming to bed?"
He ignored his wife, ignored the little squeaky bark of her dog.
"All right then." Her voice fluttered over his shoulder, like the wings of a moth. "Good night."
Yes, it was far too late tonight but tomorrow, tomorrow he'd put his plans in motion.
* * *
Water dripped somewhere in the house.
Winry turned her attention from the automail limb on her workbench. The sound came again, like a dripping faucet into a stopped up sink. Had she left the water running? "Grant?"
When her son didn't answer, she pushed back from the bench. Another drip. Winry walked into the hall. "Grant, where are you?"
Light spilled through the open door at the end of the hall. Shading her eyes, Winry took a few steps, her feet splashing through the water on the floor. The light nearly blinded her but she still took a quick look down, her breath catching at the sight.
Blood ran along the hallway, drenching the wooden floor, staining her feet crimson. Her breath catching, Winry clutched at her chest. "Grant?" Her voice failed her, barely coming out loud enough for Winry to hear. "No, please." She forced her legs to move through the sucking liquid, hating the way it clung to her feet. "Grant!"
The dripping grew louder and Winry followed it, using the walls to keep herself upright. Her breath came in gasps as she stepped through the maw of the doorway, into that brilliant light. "Grant?"
"You have to help him!"
Something glittered in front of her. Winry recognized Alphonse's voice coming from the suit of armor, Edward cradled against the chest plate. Blood soaked through the makeshift bandages wrapped around Edward's leg; dripped through his fingers clutching where his right arm should have been and onto the floor. The room was flooded with it, scarlet flowing everywhere, lapping up her ankles to her knees, her knees to her thighs. "Winry, please! I think Ed's dying!"
She slogged across the room, fighting her way through the deluge. The blood thickened as she walked, as if she'd churned it into butter. "He'll be okay, Al." Be okay, Ed. Struggling to reach them, Winry saw Edward sliding out of Alphonse's grip. "Hold onto him, Al!"
Alphonse tried but the blood made everything slick. His fingers slipped and Edward dropped out of his arms, floating for a few seconds on the surface of the blood. "Ed!" Winry grabbed for him, managing to snag his left arm and haul him to her. She held his back against her chest, feeling his heart beat hard enough to rock her. "Ed. Edward!"
His face went under and Winry tried to pull him back up. "Ed! Ed, wake up and help me!" She screamed at his weight, fighting against gravity and the weight of his unconscious body.
The light was back, sudden as the sun after a cloudburst. Winry lifted her hand, blocking enough of it to see Edward and Alphonse, dressed in Amestrian blues. "What…what's going on?"
Edward rolled his eyes, turning away from her. "It's time for us to go."
"Go?" Winry felt trapped, unable to move. "Go where?"
"Ishbal," her mother said, her smile brilliant.
"You be a good girl, Winry. We'll be home as soon as we can." Dad ruffled her hair before pulling his hat on, tugging at the brim to straighten it.
"No." Winry reached out for them, her fingers brushing over the hem of Mom's dress. "Mom! Don't go to Ishbal. You'll die there!"
Her dad turned around but it was Alphonse who asked, "You told us not to die, remember?" just before vanishing.
"Mom? Dad?" Winry spun around, the light filling the room, wiping out her ability to see anything else. "Al! Ed!"
"They're all gone." Pinako and Den stood next to her. Smoke spun up from her grandmother's pipe. "Sorry, kiddo."
"Why?" Winry heard her voice break. "Granny, why does everyone leave me?"
"Because," Den said, as her body faded from view, Pinako's form curling away like the fragrant pipe smoke, "you're not worth sticking around for."
The scream ripped out of her throat, swallowed up by the light. Winry grasped at the air, begging for it to bring them back. The floor beneath her shook, knocking her off balance, sending her sprawling. Somewhere, in the distance, she could hear the Elric brothers laughing. "No," she whispered, her throat too hoarse to shout. "Don't leave me here alone. Don't – please - "
Somehow, that voice reached her. Winry opened her eyes, seeing a blank wall of white. Her heart pounded, her fingers clenching in the sheets of her bedding. The rank scent of sweat flooded her nostrils. Sitting up with a gasp, Winry scrubbed her forearm over her face. "It's okay, Grant." She wished she sounded more sincere. "Just a nightmare."
Winry could just see the frown on her son's face as he climbed over the rumpled bedding. "You were crying." When she opened her mouth to protest, Grant scowled more deeply. "I heard you."
"I'm sorry." Winry wiped her eyes with the heel of one hand while reaching for her son with the other. "I didn't mean to wake you."
Grant let her pull him close, his frown not lessening. "You did." He snuggled against her, draping an arm over her stomach. "You had a nightmare?"
"Mmm." Winry pressed a kiss into her son's tousled, chestnut hair. "It was just a bad dream, honey."
Craning his neck to look at her, Grant asked, "Did you get chased? I get chased in my nightmares."
"No, no one chased me." Winry squeezed Grant's slender shoulders. She didn't want to tell him about her dream. She didn't want to guess why Geoffrey hadn't appeared in it, since he'd left her, too. Do not think about it. "We should both try to go back to sleep, huh?" She couldn't see the alarm clock from her bed but from the way the light shone through the crack in the curtains, Winry thought it was still very early in the morning.
Grant rubbed his cheek against her chest. "Tell me a story." He leaned his head back, a delighted smile breaking across his face. "Tell me about the Fullmetal Alchemist. Maizy said he's here in East City! Do you think I could meet him?"
Words froze in her throat. Winry didn't know how to answer Grant any other way than to say, "We'll see, honey." She kissed his forehead. "We'll see."
* * *
Morning seemed to come earlier, rather than later, considering the time of the year. Pitt barely managed to cover a yawn, waving an apology at the two women seated across the small café table from him.
"Late night, huh?" Paninya cupped her chin in the heels of her hands, elbows on the table. Her face seemed brighter almost than the morning sun, peeping over her shoulder through the frosted glass of the window. Pitt wondered if he should get more sleep or he was really that poetic in the morning.
"Mrs. Jackson had her baby last night." Winry, sitting next to Paninya, answered for Pitt. Her stern blue eyes turned back across the table, pinning Pitt in place. "Which is why I didn't have an escort to the military function."
"You can complain to Mrs. Jackson," Pitt said, picking up his teacup and blowing judiciously on the steaming liquid. "Or her daughter, who wasn't inclined to wait any longer."
Paninya pursed her lips. "Awfully close to Longest Night for a baby. Bet Mrs. Jackson's glad she came out now."
Winry rolled her eyes. "Paninya, don't start with that superstition again."
"It's not a superstition!" Paninya elbowed Winry in response to her loud, unladylike snort. "You saw Millie's baby back in Rush Valley. Born on Longest Night," she leaned across the table, her voice dropping to a spooky whisper, "all covered in hair. When Millie tried to nurse, the baby bit her." Nodding, Paninya said, "Born with teeth."
Winry groaned aloud. "The teeth and the hair all fell out within a week, Pitt."
Sniffing, Paninya went on, lowering her voice deliberately to make it sound spookier. "Her first meal was her mother's milk and her mother's blood."
"Paninya!" Winry slapped her hands on the table. "That's not what happened."
"Is too." Giving Pitt a broad, slow wink, Paninya picked up her teacup, slurping from it loudly to cover up any more of Winry's protests.
Folding her arms, Winry scowled at her friend. Her good nature won out before very long and she sighed, rolling her eyes one final time at the idea of a blood sucking baby. "I'm still angry at you, though." Her gimlet gaze crossed the table and Pitt felt that sinking sensation in his stomach.
"You. Because I didn't have an escort last night, Major Pendergrast," at his name, Winry's eyebrow twitched violently, "decided he should 'take care' of me."
Pitt sucked in a sympathetic breath. "Wasn't his wife there?"
"She was too busy looking for her dog – yes," she nodded at Pitt's shocked expression, "the woman brought a dog to a military function! And he thought that meant he could just," Winry shuddered, fury darkening her eyes. "The man is all hands. And I had to smile at him – just smile – because of his stupid sulfur mines! Worse yet," her expression somehow darkened even more, "I had to convince Ed to go apologize to them."
"Wait, Ed?" Paninya half turned in her seat. "You didn't tell me Ed was there. Was Al there, too?"
Right on top of Paninya's questions, Pitt asked, "Edward Elric?"
Winry's scowl deepened and she crossed her arms again. "Yes, Al was there. No, I didn't talk to him. Yes, Edward Elric."
Paninya pouted, folding her arms in a mirror image of Winry. "I didn't even know Al was in town!"
"Neither did I." Winry sounded a lot less disappointed and a lot more cool than Paninya about the idea of seeing – and talking to – the Elric brothers.
"Trying to have a pleasant breakfast, here." Pitt waved his fork over the scrambled eggs and sausage in front of him. "Before I have to go in to work?" He gave Winry a pointed look and, much to his surprise, she slumped back in her chair, her lower lip sticking out much like Paninya's pout. If they had any idea how similar they could be some times, Pitt thought, and ended that musing right there. He wasn't about to start another squabble.
Paninya, on the other hand, sometimes didn't know when to leave well enough alone. "So." Her expression turned sly. "How exactly did you convince Ed to apologize to that major?"
The unfamiliar sound, Pitt realized, was Winry grinding her teeth together. "How do you think?"
Leaning her elbow on the table, Paninya cupped her chin in her hand, raising her eyebrows at Winry.
"Don't be disgusting." Winry's lip curled in disgust.
Paninya snickered. "You have such a gutter mind."
"You." Paninya poked her. "I was thinking you threatened him. Like usual. You obviously thought I meant something else."
Pitt choked on his tea, setting the cup down hastily to thump his chest with his fist as Winry's hot glare turned on Paninya. Paninya gazed back, as calm as Winry was furious. "Are you okay, Pitt?" she asked, turning to him and letting Winry fume.
He coughed, nodding and wiping his eyes with his napkin. "Winry," he managed to say, when he got his cough under control again, "did you bother telling Ed or Al about Geoffrey?" From her glare, Pitt almost wished he hadn't asked. Still, curiosity prompted him to ask.
"Why should I?" Winry all but growled her own question back at Pitt.
"Because they'd probably want to know?" Paninya spread her hands in apology. "Winry, they're your best friends."
She said stiffly, "Were. Were my best friends."
Pitt wasn't sure if he was disappointed or not that Winry didn't go on to say that he and Paninya were her best friends now. Paninya met Pitt's gaze, giving him another slow wink before saying, "Al always asks about you."
"Al's being nice." Winry wasn't bending at all. There was a dull, angry flame in her eyes that Pitt didn't remember seeing before, even when Paninya or he had brought up the Elrics in the past. What had happened now, he wondered. Or was it just seeing them again, after Geoffrey left her and Grant with just a letter to explain why? "He's always nice."
Pitt pointed his piece of toast at Winry. "But you didn't talk to him."
"Too busy yelling at Ed, probably." Paninya showed Pitt a sunny grin despite Winry's glower.
"You should've talked to him, Winry."
"We don't have anything to say to each other, Pitt." The finality to the tone of her voice surprised him. "Whatever we had to say was years ago." Paninya started to interrupt but Winry raised a hand, stopping her. "Al asks about me because he's Alphonse Elric and he's one of the nicest men in Amestris. If he'd really wanted to know," her brow furrowed and Winry looked toward the window and the street outside the café.
"Now I just feel bad for bringing it up," Paninya grumped when Winry didn't say anything else.
"It's okay." Winry offered them both a quick, albeit fake, grin. "C'mon, Pitt. We need to get to the clinic." She pushed her chair back, dumping some sens on the table for a tip.
"Ah, duty calls. Hopefully, I'll be able to squeeze a nap in between appointments today." Pitt winked at Paninya.
"Just say you have a lunch date with me." Paninya patted his arm. "You can sleep through it, I don't mind."
"She'll draw on your face." Winry sniffed.
Paninya grinned, completely unabashed. "I only did that once. And you have to admit, it was funny."
"Not when I had to speak to the automail mechanics to get my mastership!" Winry sounded almost normal again, Pitt thought. "I walked in with my face all red from scrubbing."
"You still got your master's title," Pitt and Paninya said at the same time.
The scowl got lost in her reluctant grin. "Not from any of your help."
Paninya bumped her shoulder into Winry's. "It was a help! Kept you from freaking out too much before you went in to give your talk. You were too busy concentrating on getting the ink off your face."
Eyebrow twitching, Winry said, "Oh, it's so much better to be freaking out because of a spiral moustache on my face than it is on how my talk might go over."
"You still got through it just fine and look at you now, running your own automail shop with a clinic attached." Pitt puffed out his chest, hooking a thumb back at himself. "With me as a partner. What more can you ask for?"
That made her laugh, however softly, and Winry nodded in agreement. "Nothing. I have you two and Grant and my clients. That's enough for anyone."
Pitt thought it wasn't quite enough for Winry but kept those thoughts to himself. She was back in a decent mood and he didn't want to be the one to spoil it for her. Let thoughts of Edward Elric or Major Pendergrast do that.
* * *
Sunlight beamed through the window, landing in a splash on the nicked tabletop, half-covered with a newspaper and breakfast dishes. Edward absently rubbed at his right shoulder, wishing the heat in the military apartments worked better. No matter where he went, if it was cold out, the radiators never seemed to work properly. If he had a clue what he was doing, he'd try to fix them using alchemy, but he never seemed to have time to do that kind of research. Well, that and it seemed he rarely was in one place long enough to really worry about the radiators.
Of course, now that he and Alphonse were back from Xing, they might wind up staying in East City for a while. It depended. Being on a military contract might not be too many steps above being a military dog, but at least he and Al were still doing something for their country. They could even make choices about assignments they'd accept – not that there'd been many they'd turned down. Somewhere along the line, it had become less about what he and Alphonse wanted and what they thought might be best for the people. Edward couldn't put a finger on when that happened – maybe when Fuhrer Bradley made hostages out of Winry and Mustang's men. Maybe before. But neither he nor Alphonse wanted to see people hurt, so they went where the military asked them to go.
The corners of his mouth turned down at that. He didn't regret the choice he and Alphonse had made, all those years ago. They'd talked it over – long, late night discussions, hell, they'd even included Winry in some of them. She hadn't understood it all then, why they still felt the need to search for a way to get Edward's body back to normal. He blinked at the newspaper, not really seeing it. Instead, a vision tugged at his memory, of a dove grey dress and a pair of furious eyes. "Oh, hell."
Slumping back in the chair, Edward covered his eyes with his metal hand. Winry had been at that stupid function last night. Now, far too late, he remembered arguing with her. Remembered her slapping him. That explained the bruise on his jaw this morning. "Fuck." Why hadn't General Hawkeye warned him that Winry was going to be there? Oh, right. The woman was a sadist. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." He'd been drunk and Winry had been right there to witness it.
Hell, maybe it wouldn't have mattered, Edward cajoled himself. If he'd known Winry and her husband, what's his name, right, Geoffrey, were going to be there, he probably would've wound up passed out on the floor of the kitchen, rather than just drunk with that stupid dog standing in his lap.
Edward didn't like to think about the past and what might have beens. You couldn't change the past, after all, you just had to make the best of it and try to do better in the future. That didn't stop him from knocking his metal knuckles against his skull repeatedly at his own stupidity. Winry had lost all capacity to forgive the dumb things he and Alphonse had done when they were younger. She didn't understand – maybe she couldn't understand – why automail wasn't a substitute Edward had wanted. Why Alphonse was so driven to find a way to get Edward's limbs back. Why in the hell it had really seemed like such a great idea, traveling to Xing along with Ling and the bean girl as envoys from Amestris.
His metal fingers moved, drumming softly on the table. Edward snorted, shaking his head. All their trips away from the comfort of home, the hardships they'd endured, the friendship and family they'd lost - it wasn't enough of a sacrifice. There was no equivalent exchange for Edward's limbs, just opportunities missed for something he'd realized he'd wanted even more than his own arm and leg back, far too late to do anything about it.
The food on his plate didn't look good any more and Edward pushed it away, his stomach turning foul with the regrets storming through him. He swallowed convulsively, managing to keep his breakfast down. He'd need the fuel for his body to face General Hawkeye this morning. Eye unconsciously twitching in response to the order that had been slipped under the hotel room door sometime during the night, Edward frowned at the handwritten note, half-buried under the morning paper. The general had heard of last night's encounter with Major Pendergrast. Breda, Edward figured, since the man had been representing Hawkeye at the function. She also had other issues to discuss with the Elric brothers, and wanted them both at her office. Edward tugged his pocket watch – a reminder of the collar and leash he'd once worn – from his pocket. They had forty minutes to make it to HQ and Alphonse wasn't even out of bed yet.
With a resounding sigh, Edward pushed his chair back over the uneven floor, making it squeal. He stretched himself to his feet, hands reaching for the ceiling, back arching enough that his stomach showed beneath his a-line undershirt. Twisting his body from side to side, Edward warmed up a little bit before crossing the room to his brother's door. Automail made a great knocker and he rapped his knuckles on a wooden panel, making it boom. "Get up. We've got a meeting."
Behind the door, Alphonse grumbled something inarticulate. Probably swearing at him. Edward was pretty sure Alphonse hadn't had enough to drink to have a hangover but, then again, he hadn't been paying that much attention to his little brother. The second time, he knocked louder. "C'mon, General Hawkeye will shoot us both if you make me late."
"Don' care." The two syllables filtered through the door, along with the sound of bedsprings squeaking. "Go without me."
Edward tried the doorknob, grimacing when he realized it was locked. "Al, we don't have time for this." He could pick the lock, kick down the door or use alchemy. None of the ideas seemed appealing. Well, kicking the door down was always good but as flimsy as the military hotel doors were, he'd probably put his foot through it rather than kick it open. "Get up before I do something you'd hate."
"You're already doin' it."
"Hnng." Edward glared at the door. He really didn't want to transmute the lock and he wasn't sure where any of his tools were. "I'll kick the door down, Al."
"I'll make you fix it," came the muffled response. "Or pay for it." That was definitely a gloat.
Edward managed to count to three. "Fuck it." Spinning, his left leg snapped, the blade of his foot striking the door. The resultant crash sounded better than any applause. Still standing on just one foot, his automail leg bent, Edward smirked.
One bloodshot eye glared at him from under the ugly hotel blanket. A hand wormed its way free of the sheets to flash an obscene Xingese gesture. "You're so dead."
"You have to get out from under those blankets first." With a little flourish, Edward twisted his ankle prior to straightening his leg. His knee froze at a forty-five degree angle.
"Cut it out!" Alphonse flung a pillow at Edward, making him dodge. Edward over-compensated, arms windmilling as he tried to stay upright in a battle against gravity. Gravity won, dragging him down to the floor and knocking the breath out of him. "Brother!" Alphonse yelled and winced. "God, can't you stop that squeaking? It's cutting through my brain."
"Uh," Edward grabbed his shin, trying to force his leg to straighten. The gears whined. He tried to make his leg bend. The hydraulics groaned. "Well, fuck!"
"Can you just lie there quietly?" Alphonse moaned, pulling the covers over his head.
With a nervous laugh, Edward rolled onto his back. "Hey, Al? Alphonse?"
Alphonse sighed, slamming the blankets off of him as he sat up abruptly. "What is it, Ed?"
He pointed at his leg. "It's not moving."
"Not moving?" Alphonse looked at his leg, at the door and back at his leg. Edward decided he really didn't like that smile on his brother's face. "I guess that means we're going to see Winry, doesn't it?"
Edward stared blankly at Alphonse, any argument he thought of giving vanishing from his mind. "Oh, no. Hell, no. She's not even my mechanic any more!" Alphonse's grin grew even more wicked. "No, Al! She'll – she's already mad at me. She'll kill me."
"And then you won't be squeaking and disturbing my sleep." Alphonse got out of bed, practically humming as he pulled some clothes out of the dresser. "And it'll make life easier for General Hawkeye. It's really a win-win situation, Brother. For everyone." He managed to avoid Edward's flailing hands. "Try not to make too much more noise, Ed. We may have downstairs neighbors." With that, Alphonse left him on the floor, heading for the bathroom.
Edward groaned, thumping the back of his skull against the floor a few times. "Fuckity fuck fuck."
* * *
Moving on is a simple thing, what it leaves behind is hard. - Dave Mustaine
* * *
"I hate to bother you, Rocky." Doug Bloodworth interrupted Winry's thoughts, bringing her focus back to the here and now rather than the plans for the new automail hand waiting to be assembled on her work bench. Glancing up, she saw the receptionist leaning through the doorway of her shop room, his face twisted in a grimace. "You've got a visitor."
From the tone of Doug's voice, Winry knew it wasn't anyone she really wanted to see. "Who?" A wild thought insisted Edward had found his way to the clinic but that would be crazy, right? Unless Riza told him where I am. "I don't have any appointments this afternoon, do I?" She flipped through her calendar, just to make sure.
"It's not an appointment. It's a madhouse." Doug slipped inside, partially closing the door. "A reporter from the newspaper is here." He paused, taking a breath. Winry wondered if it was for dramatic effect. "He's here, too."
With no further explanation, Winry was forced to ask, "He?" Ed?
"Major William Pendergrast." Doug raised his hand, not quite fast enough to stop Winry from snapping the pencil between her fingers in two, sending flinders flying.
A flush ignited her face though Winry would be hard pressed to say whether she was embarrassed at breaking the pencil or furious that Pendergrast came to the clinic in pursuit of her. From the way her heart thudded in her chest, she'd believe the latter. She didn't even want to guess why he'd brought a news crew. "Did you tell him I've got appointments?"
Doug nodded, his riotous blond hair bobbing around his round face. "I offered to let him talk to Doc but he's insisting on you." His chancy smile melted off his face under the heat of Winry's gaze. "What do you want me to do?"
Drumming her fingers on the table top, Winry considered her options. There weren't any, not with a news crew in evidence. God, why won't the man leave me alone? It wasn't like Pendergrast had been a client – Winry'd had a few of them fall in love with her, too, though she'd managed to escape that without any real harm. She refused to think about Edward, though her memory of the way he'd stared at her last night surfaced. When he'd realized who she was, something had gleamed in his eyes, something shuttered away before she had a chance to recognize it.
"Rocky?" Doug's tentative call reminded her she still had to deal with Pendergrast.
Winry inhaled deeply, blowing out the air in a rush in an attempt to loosen up her suddenly tense body. "What's Pitt doing? Can he go with me?"
"Doc was finishing up with a patient but I'll get him if you want." Doug hesitated in the doorway, reading her expression. "I'll get him. Give me two minutes." At her lowering brow, he waved his hands. "Fifty seconds." He darted out of the doorway, leaving Winry glaring at the top of her desk.
Letting out her breath again, Winry rose from her chair. If Pendergrast was going to force her hand, she'd need to be ready. No mechanic, after all, ever got out of working with automail without getting greasy. She nodded her head, deciding if Pendergrast wanted a mechanic, he was going to get one, in all her greasy, coveralled glory.
* * *
The glare on Riza Hawkeye's face was one that Edward Elric never, ever wanted pointed in his direction. Unfortunately, that spotlight stare was focused on him. He stiffened his spine, not ducking like a scolded school kid. "It's not my fault the dog liked me better."
General Hawkeye's eyebrow twitched up.
"Brother," Alphonse mumbled from where he stood beside Edward.
"I understand," Hawkeye finally spoke, her words drier than the Eastern Desert, "that you did make an apology to Major Pendergrast." She picked up the papers in front of her, tapping them on the desk to straighten them out. "You also returned the dog."
Edward leaned heavily on the crutches he'd transmuted out of the wrecked door, since Alphonse had been too busy laughing his ass off to offer to help. "Wasn't like I could keep the mutt." From the way her fingers tightened around the pages, Edward realized Hawkeye hadn't actually finished speaking yet. "Sorry."
"You understand that your actions might have had repercussions, am I correct, Edward?"
Gah, why did she have to sound like Master Izumi? Except without the whole knuckle cracking, teeth baring thing? "Yes, ma'am."
"And yet you got drunk, insulted an officer in uniform, stole a dog belonging to said officer and generally made a nuisance of yourself at a military function."
When she said it like that….
"Not to mention," Hawkeye's eyes flicked to his makeshift crutches, "damaged your automail."
Edward all but howled, stabbing a crutch at his little brother. "That was this morning when I couldn't get Al out of bed!"
"Brother, inside voice, or I will kick that crutch out from under you." Alphonse had that 'don't fuck with me' tone to his voice. Normally, Edward wouldn't care but this time, he grumbled something similar to an apology and thumped the tip of the crutch back on the floor.
Hawkeye finished shuffling her papers, laying them on her desk and lacing her fingers on top of them. "As your normal mechanic is in Rush Valley and, at the present, I am not allowing you leave to go there to get a repair, you will be cooperating with Mrs. Rockbell to have your automail repaired and tuned. I would advise you to not shirk off about this, Fullmetal."
The use of his military name made Edward wince. Hawkeye rarely called him by that, only when she wanted his complete attention. Obviously, she wasn't going to let him slide, not that Edward expected her to in the first place. Hawkeye was a firm one for taking care of business and as long as the Elric brothers were assigned to her – even in their current, non-military capacity – she would make sure they toed the lines. Even if it killed Edward to do it. "Yes, ma'am." He just managed to make the words come out as something other than a sigh.
"First Lieutenant Sciezca has already made an appointment for you, Edward, and a car is waiting out front, as I doubt you'd be able to get to the clinic under your own steam at this point." Her expression seemed completely cool but Edward was sure he caught a wicked glint in her eyes. "Mrs. Rockbell will let me know if you don't show, Edward, as if the damage you've done to your leg would allow you to pass up the opportunity to have the premiere automail mechanic in the East work on you."
Definitely a wicked glint. No wonder that bastard got his work done – Hawkeye would've shot him in the balls if Mustang didn't do what she told him to. Grating out, "Yes, ma'am," Edward jerked his head at his seated brother. "Al will make sure I get there – and back – in one piece." Surely his brother wouldn't let Winry completely destroy him, right? What the hell was he thinking? Al'd feed him to the wolves if he thought that'd get him back in better standing with Winry.
"C'mon, Brother." Yeah, Alphonse was definitely gloating. "Let's get you to Winry." As he opened the door to the anteroom outside Hawkeye's office, he said, "I'll try not to let her beat you up too much." Edward was sure he heard a snort come from Hawkeye's office but by the time he glanced over his shoulder, she was bent over her desk again.
They took their leave of Sciezca, Edward barely hearing Alphonse thanking her for providing them a car. His thoughts were too busy chasing around ideas of escaping East City before he had this appointment with Winry. It didn't help that his brain kept supplying images of what she'd looked like last night - god, she was beautiful - and that nagging voice in his head whined about how stupid he'd been, all those years before. Edward was considering shoving a cotton swab in his ear to shut the voice up when Alphonse grabbed his arm.
"The car, Brother?"
"Oh. Yeah." Clambering awkwardly inside, Edward stared holes in the back of the driver's head while Alphonse made polite, if abrupt, conversation. The drive to the clinic wouldn't take much time. Edward wished he could tell the driver to take the long way around. The thought of seeing Winry again, so soon after making a complete idiot of himself last night, made him squirm. What was worse, it was over his automail. Edward groaned out loud, covering his eyes with his metal hand.
Next to him, Alphonse shifted, making the leather car seat squeak. He opened his mouth, closed it again, finally sighing before he spoke. "I'm nervous, Ed."
He gaped and Alphonse glared back, though behind that façade of irritation, Edward could see just how this was affecting his little brother. Making a noncommittal grunt, he picked at a loose string on the hem of his glove. Nervous didn't even begin to cover it on his end.
"I don't want her to hate us," Alphonse went on, achingly soft. "I know we hurt her."
Edward grunted, twisting the string around the knuckle of his forefinger.
"Brother?" Alphonse turned on the seat, looking at Edward through his bangs. "Why did we let this happen?"
There were probably a million reasons why – maybe some that didn't even leave the blame directly at their feet. Even if Edward was pretty sure it was their fault. What had Winry done but devote a good part of her life to taking care of them? And how had they repaid her for that care? Continually disappearing. Not making a real effort to stay in touch – well, not before that bastard Bradley threatened her life – and once he wasn't a threat to Winry any more, they'd fallen right back into old habits. Al and he had traveled around Amestris; journeyed to Xing as royal guests; nosed around Drachma and studied with the Ishbalans in the Eastern Desert. It hadn't all been for fun, hell if a lot of it wasn't tedious work and, despite everything they'd learned, there still had been no way for Edward to get his body back to normal. Still, they'd cut Winry out of it, first with the thought she'd want to stay close to Rush Valley and finish out her apprenticeship, then that she had her clients and what would they say if she ran off to wherever for a year or more? By then, it was too late, and there was an invitation to a wedding waiting in East City.
Alphonse, at least, had been brave enough to attend the wedding. He'd refused to go – ha, look at that, another way to hurt Winry – out of his own stupid spite and jealousy. In fact, Edward remembered that day because Al was a lightweight and couldn't hold up his end of the drinking after the wedding. He'd spent most of the following day cleaning up after his little brother, who was sure he was going to die. "At least I gotta see Win'y an' tell'er good luck," Alphonse had sobbed in between burying his head in the toilet.
The car stopped as Edward tugged at the thread, blinking in slight surprise when his glove split at the seam. "Because," he said, seeing an expanse of grey metal through the tear. Alphonse got out of the car, coming around to open Edward's door, too. Edward took a deep breath, arranging his crutches so he could get out of the back seat of the vehicle. The ramp leading up to the clinic were salted in case of bad weather and, under their boots, the halite cracked and popped under their weight. Alphonse caught Edward's elbow, offering a bit more stability.
Edward could just make out people through the window in the door, a flash of dawn-hued hair making him hesitate even as Alphonse reached for the doorknob, twisting it open. The jangle of bells on the door nearly covered up his answer to his brother's question but Edward got it out anyway. "Because we're idiots."
* * *
"So, how much longer is this going to take, Bill?" The reporter from the East City Times tapped his pen on his notepad.
"It's William." William adjusted the hang of his uniform, running a thumb over his blond moustache to smooth it. "Major William Pendergrast." He turned toward the desk, studying the man standing behind it. The receptionist smiled back, a quick nervous grin that faded when Pendergrast asked, "Where is Mrs. Rockbell?"
"She has appointments, Major." The young man picked up a file, tapping it against the counter to level the papers inside. "She has to rearrange her schedule to see you."
Of course. He should have thought of that sooner, called ahead, made arrangements with this man, yet still kept his plan enough of a secret that Winry would still be surprised. William schooled his face to placidity, even though his hands tightened inside his gloves. She should make her arrangements more quickly. He'd speak to her about that later, after she accepted his proposal.
A door opened, the sound coming from the left of the counter, and a man stepped out. Wiping his hands on a rag, he shoved that piece of cloth into the pocket of his jacket. "Hello, Major Pendergrast." Nodding, he stepped around the counter. "David. It's good to see you again."
"Hey, Doc Renbak!" The reporter straightened and the two men exchanged cordialities. "That potion you gave me for Bernell worked like a charm, just like you said."
"I'm glad to hear it. I was going to call you if I hadn't heard from you in a couple of days." Renbak leaned an elbow on the counter, obviously prepared to shoot the breeze.
"Far be it for me to interrupt your conversation," William said, looking down his nose at the smaller man, "but where is Mrs. Rockbell? I am aware she's on a schedule but so are we."
"She wasn't expecting you, Major." The doctor didn't move from his relaxed stance. "And I'm sure you understand Winry's in high demand."
The reporter nodded, as if such information was common knowledge. "Your clinic has a contract with the local government, doesn't it, Doc?"
Renbak made an agreeable sound. "We do have outside providers as well but our biggest grant was set up through General Hawkeye." The door swung open again and Renbak straightened. "That has more to do with my partner than me, though. Winry's automail skills are considered superb."
"Flatterer." Winry rubbed her gloved hand over her forehead, smearing grease across her skin. It resembled a bruise. "I'm sorry I made you wait, gentlemen." Walking across the room, she stripped off one of her gloves, tucking it into a pocket. "What can I do for you?"
Why couldn't she have been dressed more nicely? She looked common in that outfit, especially with her hair contained under a laborer's bandanna, her coveralls smudged and stained, one knee adorned with a patch. William realized they were all looking to him for his answer and managed a tight smile. "Mrs. Rockbell, I have come to you today to offer a pledge of money and services, from the Pendergrast Sulfur Mines." He wanted to rub that streak of grease off her forehead, his hand twitching in reaction to it. "My company wants to help support you, and Dr. Renbak, in your endeavors in this community." The bank check appeared in his hand and William presented it to Winry with a flourish.
"This is generous." She took it by the corners, passing it on to Renbak almost immediately. "Grease." Rubbing her fingertips together, Winry leaned against Renbak's shoulder, her eyebrows arching. "Very generous, Major Pendergrast."
A low whistle escaped the doctor. "That is quite generous." He raised his head, smiling at William. "Thank you very much, Major."
"Just wanting to do my part to help," William said as the reporter scribbled notes. "Those less fortunate than myself are deserving of the care that you can offer." He wished a photographer had been sent out, too, but perhaps that could come at a later time, when Winry wasn't so inappropriately dressed. "I am hoping this will be the first check of many more to come, offering your clinic some stability. I know you are working off of military grants and whatever you can bring in. I want – Pendergrast Sulphur – wants to help you with that."
What was the flicker that crossed Winry's face? He didn't have time to read it but something in her eyes made her seem harder, harsher, than before. That was not what William wanted to see. He wanted her to be softer, more receptive, but perhaps she wore this expression for the reporter. It could be Winry held herself this way so that no rumors might be started. William applauded her that cleverness. He and his wife might know their marriage was a sham but it wasn't something William wanted bandied around in the daily paper.
Winry turned to the receptionist, absently pushing her hair back, looping it around her ear. Her face transformed with the coming of a smile, more brilliant than all the stars in the sky. Blood rushed under William's skin, making him feel flushed and warmed. Perspiration collected under his arms and his throat went dry. Even filthy as she was, she drew the eye, encouraged him to touch her, his fingers barely grazing her shoulder.
Startled, Winry turned almost slowly to face him. Her eyes glittered, her mouth twitched. Before she could move or even speak, the sound of bells hanging from the door chimed, a gust of cold air spilling into the building.
" –idiots, that's why."
At that instant, Winry's expression changed. She jerked out from under William's hand, shoving past him, leaving a handprint on his uniform. Fist planted on one hip, she shook a finger at the pair standing in the doorway. "What the hell are you doing here?"
The pair of young men were immediately identifiable. William felt his lip curl in reaction to the sheepish grin of one of them. "Edward Elric," he breathed, making that name sound like a curse.
* * *
You have to forgive to forget, and forget, to feel again. – Unknown
* * *
Winry's question made Alphonse wanted to sink into the floor. He knew a few different transmutations that would allow him to do it. Why did this have to be so difficult?
Beside him, Edward bristled. "It wasn't our idea."
"Oh," both fists jammed into her hips now, "and you're coming here with broken automail?" On those last three syllables, Winry's voice grew sharper. "I am not your mechanic, Edward Elric."
He snapped back, all teeth and fury. "You think I don't know that? Try telling it to Hawkeye. She ordered me here!" He stabbed his crutch at the doorway, in an approximation of wherever General Hawkeye might be in East City.
Alphonse offered a wry smile to Pitt, who nodded in return. Great, Major Pendergrast – Alphonse would recognize that white-blond hair anywhere, after last night – was here, too, and some guy scribbling notes like crazy in a pad. That didn't look so good. "Winry," he called her name, using his most gentle voice, anything to calm her down before this escalated any farther, "it really isn't what it seems."
Those crackling eyes turned his way and Alphonse was hard pressed not to take a step back. He still remembered that wrench pounding on his armor and wondering just how his brother survived Winry's attacks. Right now, forget the wrench, she'd beat them to death with Ed's crutch. "How does it seem, Alphonse?" Though the question sounded sweet enough, the sharp lines around Winry's mouth and her fisted hands told so much more.
Before Alphonse could take a breath to answer, Edward hobbled forward. He and Winry glared at each other, the air around them fairly popping and sizzling. Alphonse opened his mouth and closed it again, not sure what he could say, when he heard Edward's voice, low and soft, a bare whisper of words. "Please, Winry."
Her jaw tightened then and, with a gesture far more imperious than any Ling had ever made, Winry pointed at a closed doorway. "Ed, go in there. I'll be with you in a minute. Al, there are papers you'll need to fill out. Doug, get them for him." Turning away from the Elrics, she swept back over to the small knot of men at the desk, an empress in her domain. "Major Pendergrast, again, I appreciate what you've done for our clinic. As you can see, I have an emergency."
"Actually, Rocky?" The young man behind the desk gave her a bland smile in reaction to whatever look she turned his way. "He's your next appointment. A First Lieutenant Sciezca called him in…Edward Elric."
Her shoulders stiffened but Alphonse could see her expression didn't change from its 'this is an imposition but I'll handle it professionally' mask. "He's still an emergency." She forced a smile, turning to the major. "Thank you again, sir, for the generous donation from Pendergrast Sulphur Mines." Winry stuck out a greasy hand. The major blinked at her gesture and shook it.
Alphonse caught sight of Pendergrast's thumb, sliding low down over Winry's knuckles and back up. "Mrs. Rockbell, I would like to discuss further how Pendergrast Sulphur can offer assistance to your clinic." He tore his gaze away from Winry to look at the man taking notes, raising his voice to say, "I believe this could be the start of something mutually beneficial."
"Don't worry, Bill," the man said, tapping his pen on the pad. "I got it." He smiled cheekily. "Mrs. Rockbell, Dr. Renbak, I'd hate to take up any more of your time." His gaze drifted to Alphonse, giving him a once-over that Pendergrast didn't miss. Pendergrast's mouth turned more sour. The note-taking man, a reporter, maybe, waved his notepad at Winry. "Though, Mrs. Rockbell, I'd love to sit down with you and discuss the Fullmetal Alchemist."
Winry pulled free from Pendergrast's grip, leaving behind a smear of grease on his glove. "Oh, that's a boring story." Her eyes glittered, giving lie to the words. "You'd do better to talk to his brother, Alphonse. He's the one with all the dirt."
"Sorry," Alphonse raised his hands, shaking his head. "Military secrets. I'd be shot if I told you."
The man chuckled. "Gotcha." His sharp eyes watched Winry as she nodded once more at Pendergrast then turned to Pitt, saying something to him that Alphonse couldn't quite catch. "Even if it does look like there're a few stories going around here." Before Alphonse could react, he said, "Well, Doc, Mrs. Rockbell, Major, I need to get back to the paper so I can write this up." He pulled a crumpled hat out of a deep pocket and shoved it on his head. "Should be in this evening's copy, tomorrow morning's at the latest." Nodding to each of them, he waved a farewell and walked out the door, the chimes ringing him through.
"Here are the papers, Al." He coughed at having a clipboard slapped into his chest. "Ed's handwriting is too hard to read." Why was it Winry always looked the same, fists planted on her hips, a furious scowl on her face? Because Brother and I are idiots, Alphonse reminded himself, not for the first time. "Major Pendergrast, again," she turned back to the man, "thank you for your generosity." Her face softened. "As you can see, I do have a problem. Pitt, why don't you and Doug check the calendar and see when we can set up a time to meet with Major Pendergrast? Something that works for all of us?"
"Sure, Winry." Pitt moved around behind the counter. "How's that sound, Major?"
Winry spun back to Alphonse. "Well? What are you waiting for? Get in that room and tell your brother to get undressed." She tilted her chin up in that particularly defiant manner she had. "I'm going to get my tools." Skirting the desk, Winry went through another door, closing it behind her.
Surprised she hadn't actually slammed the door, Alphonse fumbled the clipboard around, rubbing his chest where the metal clip had bit into him. "Pen?" he asked the young man behind the desk.
"Sure thing." The young man offered up the pen and a wry smile. "You have to forgive Rocky. It's not been," his eyes skirted sideways, toward Pendergrast and Pitt, now at the end of the counter, Pitt pouring over an appointment book. "Um, she's…"
"That's the soonest Mrs. Rockbell could meet with me?" Pendergrast's question grated out. Alphonse turned toward the man glaring at Pitt.
"I'm sorry but she is one of the highest rated mechanics in East City." Pitt's bland smile and little shrug did nothing to deflect Pendergrast's ire. "As you can see."
The man took a deep breath and Alphonse thought for a second he might explode but Pendergrast surprised him by unclenching his fists and inclining his head. "So be it, Dr. Renbak. I'll be happy to meet with you and Mrs. Rockbell that date and time." His cool gaze swept over the desk clerk and lighted on Alphonse. "Mr. Elric."
Pendergrast turned on his heel, military sharp, and strode out of the clinic. The chime of the bells had barely time to silence before the door behind the desk swept open. "Good. He's gone." Winry's jaw tightened. "Alphonse, have you finished filling out those papers?"
He squeaked, "No?" and got an eye roll for his answer. "I'll get them done while you check out Brother, Winry."
"Oh, no." She pointed a wrench – where in the hell had she pulled it from, Alphonse wondered, horrified – his way. "You get in that exam room, too."
"Ahhh…Brother's a big boy, Winry. I'm sure you can," Alphonse's words trickled off at the way the wrench reflected the overhead lighting. "Okay." He hurried to open the door for her. Why were so many women Edward and he knew so scary, anyway? It had to be an inverse ratio or something. At least Paninya only threatened with the knife and the cannon Dominic had built into her leg; too many of the other women they knew were of the 'beat first, question later' frame of mind. And that included Winry. Not, Alphonse amended as he followed her into the exam room, that he and Edward didn't deserve it from her.
Edward sat on the exam table, down to his a-line undershirt and, Alphonse was pleased to note, a pair of shorts instead of just underwear. Edward must have transmuted his trousers. Taking the effort to be at least somewhat presentable to Winry was a good sign. At least, Alphonse hoped it was a good sign. Please, let it be a good sign.
Winry set her toolbox down on a low bench with a clattering thud. Straightening, she fished a glove out of a pocket of her coveralls, pulling it on as she studied Edward's leg. "What did you do to it?"
Edward reacted almost as if shocked, teeth glittering and eyes wide. "Uh…"
"He kicked down the door to my bedroom this morning." Alphonse settled into the uncomfortable chair across from the table, positioning it so he wasn't staring right at his brother's crotch.
"Winry asked. Were you going to tell her?" Alphonse arranged the clipboard and started filling out the paperwork.
After a hesitation of what seemed far too long, though it might've been a quarter of a second, Edward shouted, "Yes!"
"Just hold still, so I can get you fixed up and out of here." The set to Winry's shoulders and her mouth told Alphonse this really was a bad idea. No matter how much he'd teased Edward about going to Winry, she didn't want to see them. "Before I start working, you do know that you should go to your regular mechanic. I don't know this style of automail." There was a lot that remained unsaid in that sentence. Alphonse wasn't going to be the one to bring it up. "I could do more damage than good."
Edward swallowed noisily. "It's…it's okay, Winry. Whatever you can do…" Folding his arms, he tried to maintain a furious expression. "Hawkeye insisted I come here, instead of going to the mechanic in Rush Valley I'm using."
If Winry noticed that slipup, she didn't say anything. Alphonse busied himself with the papers, trying to ignore the feeling that his ribs were squeezing his lungs so tight, he couldn't quite breathe. Winry didn't seem to be having any problems, studying Edward's leg at different angles, though her movements were not as fluid as Alphonse remembered. She tried to bend his leg, only to grimace. "I'm going to have to remove the plates of your knee."
"Sure, Winry." Edward shifted on the table. "Do I need to do anything?"
"You're fine." The distant tone of her voice was nearly as damning as her lack of reaction to anything once they'd entered this room. Winry's work was both quiet and efficient, the former exactly what Alphonse expected but the latter, well, Winry had never, ever been silent while working on Edward's automail. She chided, she yelled, she heaved out exaggerated sighs of disgust. This automaton of their friend creeped Alphonse out. As he watched, Edward's expression went from nervous to dismayed to outright seething anger.
This was not going to be good.
Winry spoke without raising her head from where she sat on a little rolling stool in front of Edward's knee. "I don't know where you've been going, Ed, but whatever your mechanic has been charging you is too much."
Flinging himself upright, Edward nearly kicked Winry in the face. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Jerking back out of reach, Winry set her hands on her thighs. "It means you've got a substandard mechanic who's using inferior material for your knee joint, not to mention the rest of your leg." She didn't even raise her voice, just said it matter of factly. "You could have had Mr. Dominic or Mr. Garfiel recommend a mechanic to you. Someone who," Winry grimaced, picking up one of the plates to Edward's knee, "knew what he or she was doing."
"Oh, oh!" Edward leaned off the table, shaking a metal finger in Winry's face. "Those two old farts wouldn't tell me anything. 'Solidarity between mechanics!' They weren't about to give me any good references, told me to go find my own mechanic if I wasn't going to see you or Pinako."
"Brother," Alphonse said, knowing Edward wouldn't hear him. Winry might, and might take pity and not kill Ed, but that was always a chance Alphonse wasn't sure he wanted to take.
"No, Al, let him say it." Winry stood up, the stool spinning away from her at the force of her movement. "Go ahead, Ed. Say whatever it is you're dying to say."
"I didn't want to go to another mechanic!"
Well, that was a surprise, Alphonse thought, glancing at Winry for her reaction.
She shrugged. "That was your choice, not mine."
Edward gnashed his teeth, fingers digging into the padding on the top of the table. "Because I figured that was what you wanted."
"What, for you to go parading around with substandard automail? Why would I want that for anyone?" There was the fire, though still banked, not nearly at the intensity level Alphonse expected from Winry. "I hear about the trouble you get yourself in to."
"If you don't want to hear, don't listen," Edward snarled but before he could finish speaking, Winry raised her voice.
"I don't want to but my clients tell me. My friends tell me. The only people who don't tell me about what the two of you are doing," her glare switched between them, "are you."
"We didn't think you'd want to know," Alphonse said, realizing his grip on the clipboard was wrinkling the papers.
"You're the only ones." With a sigh, Winry tossed the knee plates onto the workbench, making Alphonse wince at the clatter. "Al, at least, came to my wedding before the two of you vanished." She nodded at Edward. "Granny told me you were in the hospital the day Grant was born but you didn't have time to come see me."
"Brother?" Alphonse knew Winry had to be telling the truth from the way Edward flinched and glanced away from them both.
"And," Winry went on, "that was it. You," she hesitated, focusing on her fisted hand, which she opened slowly, as if releasing something to the air. "Disappeared after that. Except everyone felt the need to tell me everything you two were doing – oh, I heard you had gone to Mr. Garfiel looking for another mechanic. Paninya always tells me when you're in Rush Valley." A breath. "She's here in town, and I'm sure she'd like to see you, Al. Pitt, too. You guys saw him, right?"
"Yeah." Edward had turned back as she spoke, glancing at her, then dropping his gaze again. "Winry," he choked, then tried again, still sounding rough, "don't blame Al. Okay? He's missed you a lot." When Alphonse tried to chime in, Edward held up his hand and Alphonse subsided, falling back into his chair with a thump. "I've missed you. But you moved on. You…started dating a guy and got engaged and married and we missed out on that. That was our fault."
Winry at least gave the impression of listening, her arms loosely folded across her stomach, hands empty of anything that could be used as a weapon against an Elric. Alphonse hated how exhausted she looked, as if this little impromptu meeting had worn her out. "How much did you know about what was going on in my life, Ed?" She glanced over. "Al?"
Edward stammered out something unintelligible. Alphonse said, "I heard about Grant from Paninya, like you said. General Hawkeye kept us informed, too, at least for some things. I guess you figured that out, huh? Because they stopped talking about you a couple of years ago."
Her fingers drummed on the opposite forearms. "That was after Granny died."
"We…heard." Alphonse wanted to reach out to Winry, pull her into a hug. She seemed so brittle right now, so distant, even though she was in the same room.
Painfully, Edward said, "Hawkeye told us after we came back. We were in - "
"Xing. I know. I tried to find you." Winry shrugged, as if the memory didn't hurt. "I sent a letter." She took the few steps across the room, ignoring the way the brothers stared at her. Picking up a tool, Winry twirled it absently in her fingers. "I guess you didn't get it."
Would Ling have intercepted a letter from Winry, Alphonse wondered? Did it get lost in the Eastern Desert or at sea? Why hadn't General Hawkeye followed up with it? Because, a little voice said in his mind, by then you'd stopped asking about Winry. It hurt too much to know anything secondhand and at the same time, he'd drank down every bit of information he'd gotten. "Winry, we didn't know. I promise you."
"If we'd gotten a letter, we'd have come back." Edward, mouth turned down, shifted uncomfortably on the table. "We've gone to see her grave."
"It's a nice stone," Alphonse offered. "Granny Pinako would've liked it." That sounded pretty stupid. Even Edward gave him a sharp look.
Winry pointed her screwdriver at Edward's knee. "I can fix that or I can make you new automail. It's up to you." Her smooth, chill expression would make Olivia Armstrong jealous. "Granny'd like that you visited. She always bragged on you to anyone who'd listen." Her brow furrowed then smoothed out again. "Grant and I picked out the stone."
"I'll need something to get around on, huh? Crutches…" Edward made a face.
There was something wrong with what Winry'd just said and, at first, Alphonse wasn't sure why. "Winry, why didn't Geoffrey help with the stone?"
"I'll fix this up so you can walk. Don't run or get into any fights, not until it's replaced." Winry tapped the cupped metal that approximated a kneecap, making it chime dully. "Geoffrey didn't help because he wasn't around." The corner of her mouth curled up but what she offered Alphonse wasn't a smile. "He left."
"Damn it!" Edward's growl rumbled around the small room.
"We didn't know," Alphonse murmured, wishing he could hold her, be a lightning rod for her pain. He thought if he reached out to her, though, he might come back with a bloody stump.
"He left you and your kid? Where is he?" Edward nearly vibrated off the table in his need to go beat someone up.
"It doesn't matter." The dull surprise in her eyes was swallowed up again by that icy façade. "We're divorced. I can take care of Grant. Granny left me some money and the clinic's doing well." Winry said it casually, almost as if she didn't know them. Like she was reciting something to a pair of strangers. "We're okay." She tapped the knee plate again. "So, Ed, what will it be? Do you want new automail? Or for me just to fix what you've got now?"
"Nng, woman, like there's any choice?" Edward's attempt to pretend everything was back to normal fell flat. He couldn't keep the aggravated look on his face. "If I say I want new automail, does…does that mean you'll be my mechanic again?"
* * *
William couldn't believe it. Those two puppies came in off the street and completely wrecked his plans. How was it that alchemist could garner so much attention from Winry? He hadn't missed the looks Elric had shot her last night, the way his gaze had followed her around the room, or the amount of liquor Elric had put away.
Edward Elric could hamper his plans, unless he could get him out of the way. Think, William, think!
The thought came clear, like a glint of sunlight on ice, and made William smile.
* * *
Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute. – Josh Billings
* * *
"Nng, why wouldn't she answer?" Edward kicked a trash can, sending it flying. At least Winry had fixed him up enough that he could move. Afterward, she'd gone through the entire process of measuring him for new automail. Edward thought it was one of the more awkward and humiliating experiences in his life. He'd never considered it before but with everything Winry told them, and the fact that she wasn't smiling or yelling or joking with him while she was taking the measurements, just made it feel incredibly weird.
"Brother, didn't Winry tell you to take it easy with that automail?" Alphonse sighed from behind him. "Pick up the trash and fix the can."
Grumbling, Edward picked up the can. "I just wish she'd answered me." He thumped the can, trying to straighten out the dent without alchemy. With a grunt, he forced the dent out. Gathering up the trash, he pitched it into the can. "I hate that Winry thought we didn't care."
Alphonse grabbed a stray newspaper page, balling it up and throwing it hard enough to make the trash can ring. "I wonder why that letter didn't get to us."
They exchanged a look though neither of them spoke aloud. Being guests of the emperor of Xing didn't mean that they had any special rights. If Winry's letter had been intercepted, they'd never know. Had one of Ling's advisors kept the letter from reaching the brothers? Ran Fan? Or Ling himself? Even if Ling, in his own way, had liked Winry, if only because he found her attractive and thought flirting with her was a good way to get under Edward's skin, the homunculus inside Ling's body had been slowly taking over and gaining ground, no matter how hard Ling fought it. Greed would have no qualms about destroying a letter that might take the alchemists away from his side prior to his giving them leave to go. Edward shook his head minutely. It didn't matter in the long run. They hadn't received the letter and it had damaged their…well, whatever it was they had with Winry.
"Why would he leave her?" That was the other question plaguing him.
The corner of Alphonse's mouth jerked, almost like it had a hook caught in it. "I don't know, Brother." He shoved his hands deep in his trouser pockets.
It was another thing they didn't need to say. They'd left Winry, too.
* * *
Captain Heymans Breda hated being called out for this sort of thing. He hadn't been interested in joining Investigations. He preferred knowing what was going on from behind those scenes. Still, when the meeting with the military police was cut short by an urgent phone call, he'd offered to go out to the site so Hawkeye could continue working – not to mention, contact Fuhrer Mustang about what was happening.
The photographer moved around the room, snapping pictures. Each time the flashbulb went off, the room lit up in a garish shade of blue; not quite like that lightning shade of certain types of alchemy. The weird light turned the bloodstains a lurid shade of purple. The flash tinted the body's skin to the blue of shadowed snow.
Another man moved around the room, making notes and sketching diagrams as he paced. Breda hoped he'd get a chance to see those notes. He'd make sure to ask for them.
"Not too much stuff. These guys," the note taker tapped a suitcase with the toe of his shoe, "they travel light."
Breda grunted in response.
"Wonder if they've done this elsewhere." The note taker – Detective Gerdello – used the end of his pencil to scratch at his hairline, leaving behind a streak of graphite on his broad forehead.
"S'pose that's your job to find out," Breda said.
Gerdello peered at him over his glasses, reminding Breda of Hughes for a second, then the resemblance was lost. "I understand you know the two men who've rented this room."
"They're currently assigned to my boss."
"Hmm. But according to my notes, they're not actually military?" Gerdello flipped through his notepad. "Military attachés?"
The general, unvocalized title for the Elric brothers was 'trouble', but Breda wasn't going to actually say that. They couldn't exactly help bad news being attracted to them like a magnet to Ed's metal limbs, but it would really help if they could just stay low for once. "Yeah. They don't have any military ranking." Any more, at least, and Al had never joined the military.
"Interesting." Gerdello made that word sound anything but.
You don't know the half of it, Breda thought, turning his attention to the body displayed on the bed. There really wasn't any other word for it. Someone had gone to some effort to pose the woman. She'd been put in a position of subjugation, pillows used to prop her up so her ass was in the air and her face buried in the mattress. Tools were scattered around the body, the head of a screwdriver protruding from between her legs. Her blond hair was spread over her back and framed her skull. Fingerless work gloves wrapped around her hands.
Of course, the hotel manager had no idea how the woman had gotten in the room or who might've put her here. It was pretty obvious someone had been horrified at the sight. The stink of vomit still lingered. That would've been the maid, Breda thought, and almost wished her cleaning cart was handy enough to find something to take the stench out of the air.
Gerdello tapped his pencil against his lips. "So, do you know where the men who rented this room are now?"
"What the hell?" Edward's voice rose in disbelief in the hall. Breda managed not to wince, mentally thanking his years at chess, poker and Go for remaining impassive under Gerdello's stare. Those brats had the worst timing, ever.
"Sounds like maybe they've come home, huh?" Gerdello smiled, turning toward the door.
"This is our room! What the hell is going on? Why can't we go in?"
"Brother," Alphonse chided, somewhere between aggrieved and soothing.
Gerdello left the bedroom, Breda following close behind. Why couldn't the brothers still be at the Rockbell clinic? "Let them in, sergeant," Gerdello said.
"Thanks." Edward snarled the platitude. He stood inside the doorway, Alphonse slipping in behind him. Despite their very evident similarities, there was no way one could be mistaken for the other. Edward slouched through life, hands shoved in his pockets, a stick usually hanging out of his mouth. It was a wonder he'd never taken up smoking. Edward's prickly temper, as well as his stunning lack of height, remained legendary. Alphonse, on the other hand, was smooth as water, polished and poised. He was more than a head taller than his brother, with a slimmer build. If Edward was a bad-tempered, little feist mutt, Alphonse was one of those weird Xingese cats, with the claws to match.
Edward was even showing his teeth now. "Nice of you to let us into our room." He craned his neck, nose wrinkling as he caught the scent. "What's," he waved a hand in front of his face, "going on, anyway?"
"Allow me to introduce myself, gentlemen." Gerdello's smile hadn't left his face. "Detective Paul Gerdello, of the East City military police."
"Yeah?" The hackles started bristling.
Alphonse all but rolled his eyes. His "Brother," did little to mollify Edward. "I'm Alphonse Elric, Detective, and this is my brother, Edward."
"Yes, I've heard of you." Gerdello made it sound as if the brothers were out and out murderers.
Edward's eyelids drooped, the corners of his mouth turning down. "We haven't heard of you." Alphonse's hiss did nothing to contain Edward, who went on, "And no one's bothered telling us what's going on in our room."
"Actually, I was hoping you might be able to explain that." Gerdello turned, beckoning for the brothers to follow.
Breda made a low noise, deep in his throat.
"Something wrong, Captain?" Alphonse looked his way.
Edward froze in the bedroom doorway. His hands clenched the jamb hard enough that Breda was sure he heard the wood scream. "What the fuck?"
Alphonse whipped back around, almost before Edward got out the first syllable. He took a step closer, peering over his brother's shoulder. For a quarter of a second, maybe less, they were frozen there, faces paling, eyes widening. Edward coughed, covering his mouth with one hand, clutching his stomach with the other. Alphonse inhaled deeply, his mouth thinning. "Detective Gerdello, you don't think we did that to that poor woman."
Gerdello shrugged. "She is in your room."
Upper lip twitching, Alphonse said, "And that's a presumption of guilt."
"You said it, Mr. Elric, not me." Pencil gesturing toward the woman, Gerdello said, "Mind telling me what this is all about?"
"I don't know." Alphonse wrapped his arms around himself, as if trying to seek some comfort that way. "Why don't you tell me?"
The end of the pencil went in Gerdello's mouth as he flipped his notebook back a few pages. "Last night, you, Mr. Elric," he shifted the pencil to the side of his mouth, as adroit as any smoker, "were seen arguing with a Mrs. Winry Rockbell."
Edward slid down the wall, wrapping his arms around his legs, his face pressed against his knees. Breda figured he was gonna puke any time now.
Somehow, Alphonse managed to sound only faintly impatient. "What about it?"
"Well, as Mrs. Rockbell is a well-known figure in the area, maybe you two were afraid you'd get in trouble, doing her like that. But this girl," Gerdello waved his notebook toward the bedroom, "why, she's just a prostitute, right? Who'd care if she went missing."
Silence ticked by for a good five seconds before Edward tilted his head back, swallowing hard enough his larynx bobbed. "You think I did that because of Winry?"
Edward exploded off the floor, Breda hard pressed to catch him before he attacked Gerdello. Dammit, why'd the brat have to be so heavy? "Ed! Chief! Calm down."
Alphonse stepped between his brother and Gerdello, blocking out Breda's sight of the detective's oily smile. "Be very careful what you say, Detective." From the back, his jacket wrinkled, showing the tension in his shoulders.
"Let go." There was a tone to Edward's voice Breda had never heard before. Edward jerked free, taking a step to join Alphonse. Right hand swinging up, his automail whined at how tightly Edward clenched his fist. "If you think we'd do anything to hurt a woman -"
"Chief." Breda growled, trying to regain control of the situation.
"It's all right, Captain." Gerdello scribbled a few more notes in his pad. "It just makes me think I need to invite you two to come down to my station, so we can have a little discussion."
"Maybe you want to invite Winry down, too," Edward snapped. "At least we'd know she was safe."
Alphonse half turned, the stillness on his face indicating more than anything he might have said, that he hadn't thought of Winry possibly being in danger. "Brother," he murmured, his hand falling on Edward's shoulder.
"You didn't think that?" Edward glanced toward the room, shaking his head. "Dammit, if something happens to her - "
"Nothing's gonna happen to her, Chief. I'll talk to the General, get Mrs. Rockbell some protection." Breda dared Gerdello to naysay him.
The brothers exchanged a look. "I'm not going anywhere until I know Winry's okay." Edward's chin jutted out.
"Me either, Detective." Alphonse's jaw flexed.
Gerdello sighed. "Fine, fine, you can call her from the station -"
"You don't get it, do you? We're not going anywhere except to wherever Winry is and then she's coming with us." Edward bared his teeth. "No offense, Captain, Detective, but we can protect her better than you can."
"You don't want to argue with us about this, Detective." The knife blade smile Alphonse turned Gerdello's way was nearly sharp enough to scare Breda. "Trust me."
* * *
This just didn't seem to be her day.
Winry stared at the man standing in the doorway to her work room. "I beg your pardon?" Her fingers started aching and she tried to relax her grip on the light weight socket wrench. It was too bad this detective was yanking so hard on her chain.
"The Elric brothers are under suspicion of murder," he repeated.
"Ed and Al?" The detective took a reflexive step back from her work table and Winry decided she liked that. What idiot in his right mind would think the Elrics would kill someone? "I think you've got the wrong suspects. In fact, I know you've got the wrong suspects." Winry dismissed the detective by turning to the wall and the schematic of the automail hand she had pinned to it. "Not sure why you're telling me, anyway."
Winry caught him chewing his lower lip out of the corner of her eye. When he realized she was looking, he snapped, "Because they insisted they weren't going to the station without you."
"Me?" Scoffing, Winry waved her hands. "I'm not going to the police station with the Elrics." The 'or you' should have been clearly understood from her reaction.
The detective straightened. "I don't think you understand, Mrs. Rockbell."
Winry very carefully set down her socket wrench. It wasn't all that long ago that she would've considered throwing it at the man. "No, I'm afraid you don't, Detective. I'm not going anywhere with the Elric brothers, particularly not to a police station. I'm a very busy automail mechanic and have orders to fill and clients to see. I do not have time to go anywhere. If you have questions, you can ask me, now, before my next client comes in." She fished her fingerless gloves out of her pockets, sliding them on. The detective glanced at the gloves, taking a longer, appraising look at her. Winry bristled at his audacity. "What?"
"Mrs. Rockbell, the Elric brothers are concerned about your safety." His expression changed, though Winry wasn't sure how to read it. "Frankly, I think they might have good reason to be. I would like you to come to the station with us."
"Look, Detective, I don't have time for riddles." Winry only managed to keep from shoving a finger in his face by slamming her fists on her hips.
He sighed. "Your life could be in danger, Mrs. Rockbell. I don't know any plainer way to say it than that."
The air seemed to leave Winry's lungs with a whoosh. A part of her laughed uproariously at the idea but another part remembered Scar and that alley; her parents' death; a stellate scar on Ed's stomach that was replicated on his back. Grant. For a few seconds, the room was tinged in red and Winry could hear nothing beyond the pounding of her own heart.
When she raised her head, she found the detective watching her the way she might watch a feral dog. Winry smiled and that seemed to make him even more nervous. "Then we'll need to get my son, too." When the man opened his mouth, she cut him off. "Right now."
* * *
Riza had chosen the café not only for its close proximity to the military headquarters but also because there was always at least one delicious soup on the menu. And, after today, she felt like she needed warming up. The fact that the café had a tiny fireplace, lit with a crackling fire, felt like a bonus. Of course, there was always the problem of it being popular with both military personnel and hangers on. Riza knew she could trust personal staff not to tell tales. That didn't necessarily carry over to the general populace.
That didn't stop her from relaxing a tiny bit as she took the chair across from her friend, accepting the waiter's suggestion of hot tea to drink though she did request a glass of iced water to go with it. Across from her, Rebecca Catalina pretended to study her menu, but her dark eyes kept flicking over the top of the pages to Riza. At least she had the decency to wait until the waiter walked away from the table before pouncing.
"So, what's the situation?" Rebecca was nothing if not to the point.
"Besides the Fullmetal Alchemist picking a fight with the owner of a sulfur mine?" Riza couldn't hide her irritation behind a lunch menu. Maybe a few stiff drinks. No, that was Roy talking in her head, If she let him in there, Riza knew she'd be ringing him up when she returned to the office. Which would mean neither of them would be doing their jobs and, despite being separated by kilometers and alone in their offices, they might wind up committing scandalous deeds. And I don't think Sciezca could handle that.
Rebecca clicked her tongue. "Is that all?"
No, it wasn't, but Riza was not going to dish that information, even in a crowded café. Reporters seemed to lurk around, waiting for rumors to expand on for their papers. Edward and Alphonse getting taken to the police station for questioning – and dragging Winry in on it – was not something she was going to share in public. Maybe not even behind closed doors at the military HQ. "Mm." That was certainly a noncommittal answer. "I'm attempting to patch up a relationship."
That made Rebecca's mouth purse. "Oh, ho, ho." She leaned back in her chair, eyes alight with the promise of gossip. "What has your darling husband done now?"
With a cool blink, Riza allowed her friend to consider that statement. "Nothing."
The waiter brought them warm bread with herbed butter, offering to refresh their drinks. Busying themselves with the food until he had left their table, neither woman spoke until Rebecca asked, "Nothing?" She sounded so disbelieving.
Riza fixed her with a gimlet eye. "Nothing." And it was a severe distraction, too. Locking the office door and indulging in a little telephone sex was starting to sound better and better. Roy had made the offer to come to East City for Longest Night but Riza overruled him, saying it was best he remain in Central. Even if Maizy missed her father and Riza missed her lover – that little tingle between her legs could easily become a throb, if she let it. Riza ignored the sensation, forcing herself to concentrate on the matter at hand – it was best they stay in their current locations, at least for the time being.
"Well, that's your problem then," Rebecca said, inadvertently adding fuel to the fire. She took a bite of her bread, all but purring. "Deelish."
Riza just managed to refrain from rolling her eyes. "I'm talking about Winry Rockbell."
"That automail mechanic?" Rebecca licked her fingertips clean of melted butter. Riza could see the mischievous bent in her friend's smile and wondered if the waiter was watching from behind her. Rebecca was far too flirtatious and man hungry, even after all these years. Regardless, it made for a good cover. "Who are you setting her up with, someone working for your husband?" Her smile broadened. "That cute little Kain? He's got the tightest butt."
"Please." Riza glared back. "Fuery prefers men."
"He does? No wonder I couldn't get a rise out of him." Pouting playfully, Rebecca wriggled in her chair. "Your adjutant?"
"Breda's seeing someone already. Before you ask, no, not Kain."
The pout got bigger. "Havoc?"
"I'm starting to wonder why I think I can have any type of serious conversation with you." Riza wiped her fingers clean on her napkin.
"Aww, I'm listening." Batting her eyes, Rebecca leaned an elbow on the table, pillowing her chin in her cupped hand. "So, you're trying to set up the automail mechanic."
Put that way, it just sounded sordid. "Not set her up, repair a relationship."
Rebecca wagged her head. "Eh, same thing. So, dish. Tell me more about the mechanic. I hear she's smart and beautiful." She twined a curly lock around her forefinger. "Smart, beautiful women can have just about anything they want."
The comment brought a bittersweet curl to Riza's mouth. "I think all she ever wanted was a family." She met Rebecca's gaze. "And the military seems to have had a hand in taking her family away from her almost every time. I feel it's time to make a change to that and give her family back to her."
Releasing the lock of hair so it bounced, Rebecca let out a long sigh. "Riza, honey, I really think you need to stop reading so many romance books."
* * *
I have friends in overalls whose friendship I would not swap for the favor of the kings of the world. – Thomas A. Edison
* * *
Paul Gerdello cursed the day that an idiot had stuck a dead body in the Elric brothers' hotel room. He'd been content to go about his life without ever having met those two, despite how famous they were and even knowing his daughter would be upset he didn't get her an autograph. Teenagers and their crushes.
Pencil rolling from one side of his mouth to the other, Paul flipped through his notepad. Any second now, he'd need to get up and talk to one of these three. For now, he'd put them in separate interrogation rooms, the brothers cooling their heels in one with Captain Breda and Mrs. Rockbell in another with her son and a friend who'd been at Mrs. Rockbell's apartment. It wasn't that he believed the brothers had anything to do with the murder of that poor woman in their hotel, no, not unless they'd somehow made it secretly from their assignment in Xing to East City on a regular basis. The timing just didn't work out. Sure, they could've had an accomplice but as tight as those two were, Paul didn't think it could be the case. His instincts told him the brothers had nothing to do with the murder and that someone else was trying to frame at least one of them. It would have to be someone close enough to know that the eldest brother, the Fullmetal Alchemist, had an argument with Mrs. Rockbell last night at the military function.
Paul took his pencil out of his mouth, glaring at the notepad. After seeing Mrs. Rockbell, it was pretty obvious the murderer had a thing for her. Well, it wasn't like it hadn't been obvious before – whoever the killer was, he fixated on blondes and dressing them up in approximations of Mrs. Rockbell's work clothes. Paul had considered it some sort of fetish – not like he hadn't seen plenty of those before – but Mrs. Rockbell had this murderer's attention and not in a good way. The posing of the body in the Elric's room showed the killer was escalating, his fantasies evolving and becoming more elaborate. Paul wasn't sure whether he should thank or curse the Elrics for that. At least Mrs. Rockbell's partner had plans to close up the shop for Longest Night so he could be with his family out of town. That meant a couple less people to be concerned about protecting, with both Dr. Renbak and the clinic's receptionist out of the way.
"Guess by the Elrics coming to town, it could lead to a conviction." Sighing through his nose, Paul pushed his chair back from the desk. The wheels squeaked and he reminded himself he needed to find some grease soon, before the wheels froze up or something. Stretching his back as he stood up, Paul considered who he should speak to first.
Mrs. Rockbell. She seemed at least a little more sane than the Elric brothers. Besides, alchemists were just…weird. Forcing aside the cold chill that ran down his spine, Paul turned to the desk sergeant. "Hey, Banner. I'm gonna be in talking to Mrs. Rockbell. We got someplace I could stow her kid and the babysitter?"
Banner glanced at the papers strewn over her desk in what, to her, had to be logical piles. No officer touched those papers unless he or she was willing to lose a hand. "Interrogation five is open. I'll put that down for in use for you, Gerdello."
He waved to show he'd heard, picking up his jacket and debating whether he should put it on. After some minor deliberation, he left it off, checking his wallet to see if he had that photo of Gladys and Terrence tucked inside. His kids smiled, holding wooden pistols. Terrence sported a black eye. Paul snorted at their proud grins. That gum band pistol war had gone on for almost a week a couple of summers back. All the neighborhood kids were in on it. Terrence and Gladys worked together for a change and helped their team win the battle. To hear them tell it, they single handedly won the war and the deeds and daring do grew with each telling.
Well, if nothing else, the picture usually relaxed parents somewhat, though Paul never told his kids that he used it for that. Hell, they probably didn't even know he carried it in his wallet. Tucking the photo back inside, Paul gathered up his pencil, pad and his case file, slouching off toward the room where Mrs. Rockbell waited.
Rapping his knuckles on the door, Paul opened it and went inside. "Mrs. Rockbell." He tried on a charming smile, thinking the woman didn't look any less heated than she had when he'd brought her to the station. Her son sat on a chair next to her, her friend – Miss Paninya Dhiri – across the table. All three looked at him as he entered the room, the friend and the boy openly curious. Mrs. Rockbell's flat expression and crossed arms radiated her extreme dislike, though Paul wasn't sure if it was because of the circumstances, being in an interrogation room, being told that she was in danger or all of those things mixed together. "I was hoping we could have a little talk."
Mrs. Rockbell's brows furrowed.
"I've arranged for your son and Miss Dhiri to wait in another room, if that's all right."
Miss Dhiri stood up, the sound of her feet falling to the floor louder than usual. Paul managed to not glance her way but wondered if she was equipped with automail. It would make sense, her obvious closeness with Mrs. Rockbell. "C'mon, Grant." She offered the boy her hand. "Let's let this guy talk to your Mom, huh?" With the boy's hand in her own, Miss Dhiri turned her button black eyes to Paul. "Where are we going?"
"There's another room, just down the hall." He backed up, opening the door.
"Mom?" The boy looked at Mrs. Rockbell.
"It's okay, Grant. Go with Paninya." Mrs. Rockbell smoothed her son's reddish brown hair, giving him a smile that wiped all concern from her face, making her seem almost a different woman. "I'll come get you once we've finished here." It was a promise to her son, Paul realized, and a warning to him.
Miss Dhiri lifted her eyes toward the ceiling in reaction. "Where is it you want us to go, Detective?"
"Room five." He gestured out into the hall and waited for the younger woman and the boy to exit the room. They started down the hall, opening the appropriate door and entering the room. Paul nodded once to himself, gesturing to one of the officers. "Murphy, see that they get something to drink and eat if they want it, in room five."
"Gotcha, Gerdello." Murphy nodded, heading down the hallway to check it out.
Paul leaned against the door jamb. "Mrs. Rockbell."
"Detective Gerdello." Her expression had settled, somewhere between businesslike and impatient. Of course, in his experience, those two often went hand in hand. "I hope you can explain why you believe I'm in danger."
Paul considered for a half a second, tossing his first interview idea in favor of a second. "I can but I'm going to need you to come with me." He beckoned her out of her chair.
Mrs. Rockbell narrowed her eyes but rose, pushing her chair back under the table with exaggerated politeness. When she stepped out in the hall, she glanced automatically toward the room her son was in though, to her credit, she didn't even make a move in that direction. "So, where are we going?"
Gesturing for her to precede him, Paul guided her down the hallway to interrogation room ten. He opened the door for her, thinking that this job really didn't surprise him at all anymore when Mrs. Rockbell stiffened just inside the door.
"Winry!" The Elric brothers spoke in chorus, the smaller one nearly spinning his chair back into Captain Breda in his haste to get to his feet. "Are you okay?"
The other brother was on his feet, too, his fingers clenching and unclenching. "We were worried about you, Winry. You don't…" Alphonse Elric shook his head hard, looking away from her.
"I'm fine." Funny, Mrs. Rockbell didn't sound fine. There was a hollow quality to those words and Paul could practically feel her vibrating.
"Why don't you go in and have a seat, Mrs. Rockbell?" Paul wondered if he'd have to push her into the room but finally, she did take a stiff step inside, then three more to reach the table. Edward Elric righted his chair, offering it to her and she settled gingerly as if it might break when she sat down. The elder Elric hovered for a few seconds then moved around to the other side of the table, all but falling into the empty chair. Neither brother seemed to notice anything but the woman in the room. Oh, there was definitely a story here. "I'm sorry I had to bring all of you in." The only one who didn't start at the sound of his voice was the captain.
"Didn't stop you from doing it." Edward jammed his hands in his pockets, slumping in his chair like a kid half his age.
"Chief," Captain Breda said in warning.
Paul waved them both off. "I had my reasons. You see, that girl in your hotel room wasn't the first one we've found around the city."
Mrs. Rockbell's head came up then, her eyes flaring like blue torches. Ouch. That looked like Paul'd hit a wound. "Girl?"
"It's not like that, Winry!" Alphonse waved his hands.
Edward's slump became even more pronounced. "Yeah. She was dead."
Mrs. Rockbell came halfway out of her chair at. "Dead? What do you mean, dead?"
Opening the folder, Paul laid the photographs taken at the crime scene on the table. "Just what it sounds like, Mrs. Rockbell."
"Hey," Edward snapped, reaching for the pictures only to get his hand smacked by the folder. Gnashing his teeth, he clenched his fists, the whine of gears and hydraulics loud in the close room.
"What is this?" Mrs. Rockbell already had one of the photos in hand, a frown creasing her brow. "This isn't…"
"We came back to our hotel room after seeing you, Winry," Alphonse said, stretching his arm out across the table, offering her a hand to hold. He withdrew it when Mrs. Rockbell didn't take it. "We found…her."
"No, we found him." Edward jerked his chin at Paul. "And Breda."
"She…" Mrs. Rockbell swallowed, her gaze darting up and back to the picture. "She looks like me."
Paul laid out a few more photos. "They all do, Mrs. Rockbell. She's not the first woman murdered here in East City but she's the first one to give us any hint of what's going on."
The women in the pictures were posed, too, with the same fingerless work gloves Mrs. Rockbell had been wearing earlier. Tools were used as implements of rape, protruding from mouths and vaginas and rectums, clamps and pliers tightened around nipples or lips or ears. Mrs. Rockbell covered her mouth with her hand. "This is," she choked, swallowed and tried again. "Horrible."
"I agree." Paul took the remaining chair since it seemed like Captain Breda was content to stand. "I know you Elrics had nothing to do with the murders, even with the unfortunate woman in your bedroom. Not because of your stunning history with the military," Paul could almost hear Gladys shrieking in his head about him needing to be nicer to her heroes, daddy, "but because the timing is off. There's no way the two of you could have traveled here from your most recent post to kill all these women, not without someone seeing you."
Edward leaned his chair back, balancing on two legs. "Maybe we're that good," he grumbled, yelping at his brother's head slap.
Paul allowed himself the faintest smirk possible. "Mr. Elric. Your reputation precedes you. There are people here in East City who would not only recognize you but proclaim it to every newspaper reporter in town that you were here and up to something nefarious."
"So…we're free to go?" Alphonse asked as his brother growled.
"Not yet." Gathering up the photographs, Paul tapped them together to straighten them out and placed them back in the folder. Turning in the chair, he studied the profile of the shaken woman next to him. "Mrs. Rockbell, who do you know who's interested enough in you to take his frustrations out on another woman in this manner?"
* * *
"Okay." Detective Gerdello nodded at them all. "Thank you for your help. I'll send officers to take you to your safe house."
Winry slumped across the table from them, head hanging like she was exhausted. Her white-knuckled hand clench told Edward that wasn't really the case. He could almost feel her fury, like that weird electric tingling before a lightning strike or just after he touched his palms together to transmute something.
"I've already talked to General Hawkeye." Breda interrupted before Gerdello could make it out the door. "She wants the Elrics and Mrs. Rockbell's family brought to her residence."
When had that happened? Oh, yeah, Breda had left the room an hour or so…or so – Edward winced, getting to his feet and cracking his back – ago, must've happened then. "Gerdello, you gotta get better chairs for these rooms. I think my ass is broken."
Winry slammed her fist on the table, her chair skittering backward and running into the wall. "Stop making jokes, Ed! Women died because of me. Tell me how that's funny." She glared at him as if it was his fault.
"It's not, Winry!" Edward leaned forward, snarling back. "You think this doesn't hurt me? Hurt Al? Damn it, what if something had happened to you? How do you think we'd feel?"
"Nothing! You wouldn't feel anything!" she howled.
He reeled, falling into his chair, feeling like he'd been sucker punched. A buzzing sound filled his ears and Edward could only stare up into Winry's furious face. Next to him, Alphonse pointed across the table, but Edward couldn't understand what his brother said. Winry answered Alphonse, her shoulders heaving, her eyes full of…she was blurry, what the hell? Edward swiped at his eyes. "Al. Al! Leave it." He got up, patting his brother's shoulder, marveling at how tense Alphonse was. Offering Winry a smile, Edward nodded. "If that's what you think, it's okay." He turned Alphonse to guide him out of the room. "C'mon, Al."
"Brother?" The plaintive hurt in Alphonse's voice almost made Edward crumble.
He closed his eyes against it, opening them again. "Come on, Al." He managed to say it lightly, chivvying his brother past Gerdello and out into the hallway. There were MPs everywhere, peering into the hall and out of doorways. Edward kept his smile in place, his hands on Alphonse's shoulders, pushing him along. The sooner they got out of here, the better.
"Grant!" Edward knew that voice, spotting a familiar, dark-skinned woman popping out of a door.
"Mom!" A blur dashed down the hall, colliding with Alphonse and bouncing off again. The boy gathered himself to dart around the brothers and Edward's mouth dropped open.
"Hey," he blocked the kid's path with an arm. "Are you Grant," what the hell was his dad's name, anyway?
"Let me go! Mom needs me!" The boy hauled off and kicked Edward in the shin, howling in shock.
Edward winced in sympathy. The kid kicked his left leg.
"Grant, what did I tell you about kick – oh." Paninya caught up to her charge, her dark eyes wide. "Al? Ed? I didn't know…"
Grant shoved past Edward, running into the interrogation room. "Mom!" His cry rang out.
"We didn't either," Alphonse muttered. He glanced away from Paninya, avoiding her hands. "Winry probably needs you."
"Al," Paninya whispered but he was already off, striding down the hall. Biting her lip, she turned to Edward, questions written across her face.
He shrugged. "Winry hates us. You should know that." Edward sighed, refusing to look back toward the interrogation room. "Keep an eye on her, Paninya."
"And what are you going to do?" She waved her arm at the still-open doorway. "Just leave her alone?" Grabbing Edward by the collar of his shirt, she hauled him down the hallway. "You are not doing this to her again!" Paninya hissed.
"She doesn't want anything to do with us!" Edward growled back, jerking free of her grip.
"Because you hurt her. And Geoffrey hurt her and her parents left her and her grandmother died – oh, Ed." Paninya fell against the wall with a thump, half-covering her eyes with her hands. "Winry's scared, don't you understand? If she can keep anyone from getting close to her, then she won't get hurt." Shaking her head, Paninya said, "This is Winry, Ed, and she needs you and Al. If someone out there really wants to hurt her, are the two of you just going to walk away?"
There really wasn't any answer to that besides, "No." Dragging a hand through his bangs, Edward showed all his teeth in a nasty glower. "Go…go get Al, all right? I'll try to talk to Winry."
Face brightening, Paninya started to embrace him. "Oh. Sorry." Patting the air, she said, "Thanks, Ed. Really. You don't know…" her smile trembled. "You don't know how much she needs you guys." Before Edward could answer, she'd already spun on her heel, darting down the hall.
"Damn it." Edward wished he could punch the wall, kick another trashcan, do something to relieve the tension thrumming through his body. He wasn't a little kid any more, to scream at the top of his lungs, but it was so damned tempting.
"Yo, Chief." Breda stopped next to him, his hands shoved in his pockets. "I'm gonna call for a car for Mrs. Rockbell. Do you want a separate one?"
"Nah." Edward waved off that suggestion. "We're all going to the same place, right? We'll suck it up." Taking a deep breath, he turned toward the open door, where Gerdello still stood. Edward wondered how much they might've shocked the detective then mentally thumped himself in the head. Police got to see everything. This was probably a regular spat to Gerdello. Absently, Edward slapped Breda's shoulder. "Wish me luck."
"You're going back in there?"
Edward wagged a hand in the air, concentrating on his breathing. Master Izumi had always said to control his temper, he needed to breathe. Edward wasn't sure how well that worked – Master's temper always seemed terrible but maybe that was just because it was directed at Alphonse and him all the time. Her fury blew over pretty quick and she forgave. Winry hadn't held many grudges when they were younger. Her temper was kind of like Master's, fire and brimstone then grumbling and forgiveness. She'd even done what Edward had never been able to, make peace with Scar. It hadn't been forgiveness, no, but Winry had shown that she could move beyond her personal hurt and anger. "Hope you're still able to do that," he muttered.
Gerdello opened his mouth to say something but Edward shook his head, sidling past the man and into the little room. The ugly green room, with its walls scarred from seat backs being slammed against them, paint peeling raggedly up near the ceiling, a table, marred with rings left over from coffee and cigarette burns and who knew what else wasn't where he would've chosen to do this. Winry looked over her son's head as Edward entered the room, her eyes cold as the Briggs mountain range. Grant turned as well, letting Edward get a good look at the boy.
That downward tilt to his mouth was all Winry, as were the steely blue eyes. Edward thought the boy's jaw had Winry's same stubborn clench, too. His chestnut hair, his straight, slim nose, those had to have come from his father. Edward pulled the chair out that Gerdello had been sitting in earlier, dropping into it. "Hi, Grant. I'm Ed."
Grant leaned against his mother's knee, obviously suspicious.
"My brother and me, we grew up with your Mom. She was our best friend when we were kids."
"Howcum I haven't seen you before?" Grant jutted his chin out, shaking his head when his bangs fell into his eyes.
"Because we've been away for a long time." Edward reached into his pocket, pulling out his pocket watch. He set it on the table between them, tapping the Amestrian State Seal emblazoned on the cover. "See, when my brother and I weren't very much older than you, we did something really stupid. We thought we were doing the right thing but it turned out all we did was hurt ourselves and the people who cared about us. And because of that, because I wanted to make things right again, I joined the military."
Eyes flickering from the watch to Edward and back, Grant started to reach for it and hesitated. Edward nodded. "It's okay. You can pick it up, Grant." The boy glanced back at Winry for confirmation.
She dipped her chin and Grant snatched the watch off the table. He turned the watch over in his small hands, tracing the seal. "This means you're a State Alchemist." Curiosity dragged his gaze up from the watch to Edward. "Doesn't it?"
"Mmhmm." Edward laced his fingers together on top of the table. "Since I was in the military, I had a boss. I hated him but he was just doing his best to keep me and my brother safe and help us finish our…quest. But his boss was a bad guy, Grant, a very bad man, and the boss of them all was terrible. The bad guy used one of my dearest friends as a hostage – do you know what 'hostage' means, Grant?"
Grant considered and slowly nodded his head, setting the watch back on the table. "S'when someone says he's gonna hurt someone else if you don't do what he says."
"You're a smart kid." Returning Grant's brilliant smile, Edward glanced at Winry. Her expression seemed more sullen than enraged now. Still not good enough. "My friend, she got away. Not because I was smart but because she was – she figured out a way to trick the bad guys and she escaped." Edward inhaled slowly, hearing Izumi's voice in the back of his head, telling him to master his breathing and he could master anything. Tell that to his heart, thumping wildly in his chest. Swallowing, Edward picked up the threads of his story. "So, she was safe but I never could forget, that for being my friend, someone might try to hurt her again."
Winry's head came up, her eyes narrowing sharply. Edward kept his focus on Grant. Kept his voice level. Kept breathing. "Do you know what a conditioned response is, Grant?" When the boy shook his head, frowning, Edward said, "It's when you learn to do something so it's not something you really think about. Like," he tried to come up with a comparison that would work for a six year old boy, "you come home from school and your mom has a snack for you. On the days you don't have school, you still get hungry for that snack. Your body has been conditioned to want your snack. Understand?"
Grant's face puckered up as he thought about it. "Yeah," he said, though he sounded dubious.
"Okay. Well, because the bad guys wanted to hurt my friend just because she was my friend, I did something dumb. Even after the bad guys were taken care of, I didn't think my friend was safe." Edward hesitated, thinking. "No, I didn't feel like I could make sure she stayed safe. And she meant a lot to me and more than anything, I didn't want for her to get hurt."
A sound came at the door and Edward glanced back, seeing Alphonse and Paninya. His brother's eyes and nose were red. Edward gave him what he hoped was a smile before turning back around. "Grant, this is my brother, Al. Al, this is Grant."
Gravelly-voiced, Alphonse managed to get out, "Hey, Grant."
Grant pursed his lips, twirling the end of the watch chain around his fingertip. "Hi."
"I was telling Grant a story, Al, about why he doesn't know us." Edward turned back to the boy. "I told you I didn't want my friend to get hurt, remember?" When Grant dipped his head in a nod, Edward went on. "At the same time, I'd made a promise to my brother and he'd made one to me to fix all the messes we'd made. So, even though we cleaned a couple of really big messes, when we didn't fix a couple of small ones, we decided we should go looking for help elsewhere. And we were dumb, because we didn't ask our friend to help us." Edward's throat felt tight and sore from talking so long.
"Why didn' you?" Grant asked the question for his mother, even if he didn't realize it.
This time, Edward looked beyond Grant to Winry. "Because I didn't want my friend to ever be a hostage again."
"Neither did I," Alphonse whispered.
Winry's eyes glittered though she glanced away too quickly for Edward to read her face. He took another breath and went on. "The thing was, Grant, I thought my friend would understand all this without ever telling her. I thought she'd understand that I was scared for her, and was just doing what I thought – what we thought – would keep her safe, while we were trying to clean up all those other messes. Because everybody else knew the way I felt about her," Edward had to stop for a second, his throat closing. He coughed, loosening it enough to go on. "I figured she knew, too."
"Knew what?" Winry's question was strange, and tight, almost breathless. Grant swiveled his head to look at her.
"That she was everything we had of home." No, that wasn't it, but it was, too, just not all of it. Damn it, his throat tightened up again. Edward swallowed, hating that Winry had gone blurry. He blinked hard, clearing his eyes. "Grant, what's the safest place in the world?"
The boy whipped back around, bangs sliding in his questioning blue eyes. "Home."
"Why's it safe?"
"'Cause Mom's there."
"Do you love her?"
Grant didn't hesitate. "Yes!"
"And where she is, you know that's home." Edward couldn't risk looking away from the boy now. His heart pounded so loud in his ears, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to hear Grant's answer.
"Yes!" Grant looked at him like he was crazy.
Maybe he was. "That's…that's how Al and I feel, too, Grant." His voice broke. Edward attempted to take a deep breath but it seemed like his lungs had closed up, too. "We miss our home. We miss your mom."
Alphonse whispered, "We love you, Winry."
Edward swallowed hard, daring to look past Grant to his mother. Damn it, she was all blurry. Why was she blurry? He needed to see her face when he said, "I love you, Winry." He needed to know if maybe, she'd think about forgiving him.
There was a sob. No, that had to be bad, Edward thought, rubbing fitfully at his eyes to clear them up enough so he could see. "You idiot." Just as he raised his head, something crashed down on his skull, sending Edward sprawling out of the chair. Where the hell had she hidden a wrench? he wondered, a triple image of Alphonse hovering over him.
"That has to be the stupidest excuse I ever heard, Edward Elric! Grant, put down his watch. He's probably going to need it to get into the military hospital. Al, get out of my way." There was a shuffling sound. "Now."
"Eep!" Edward felt his body slithering sideways without him even telling it to.
"Mom? Why'd you hit him?"
"I'll tell you later, Grant, now come with me," Winry said. Edward was pretty sure those were her legs stepping over his stomach. He wished she was wearing that swishy grey dress instead of coveralls. Winry snapped, "You what?"
He'd wished out loud? "Oops?"
Winry swam into focus over him, her hair swinging down to frame her face. "Get up, Edward, unless you want Detective Gerdello to set up a cell for you to stay in." Her lip curled though there was a hint of…laughter, maybe, in her eyes. "Maybe that'd be better for you anyway."
"'m up, 'm up!" Edward shoved against the floor, managing to get somewhere, even if he wasn't quite sure where. Just how hard had Winry hit him, anyway? Paninya's helping hands dragged him to his feet and Alphonse folded Edward's fingers around his watch case.
"You don't take wrenches to the head very well any more, Brother." Alphonse hauled Edward's arm around his shoulders, half-carrying him out the door of the interrogation room.
They made it into the hall, Edward regaining his balance after a couple of steps. Paninya gave him a broad wink and a thumb's up as she darted after Winry and Grant. The ringing pain from the wrench didn't stop what Edward knew had to be building up to a huge, stupid smile. "S'been a while."
"You might get one again if you don't hurry." Winry frowned back at them as she plucked Grant's jacket from a hallstand. "It's getting colder outside and it's starting to snow."
Alphonse and Edward exchanged grins. "Yes, ma'am!" Alphonse chimed, pulling Edward along a little faster.
Now, at least, Winry knew how they felt. She wasn't ignoring them or turning them a cold shoulder. It didn't mean she'd forgiven them but maybe she'd hear them out. Edward wriggled free from Alphonse, letting his brother surge ahead. There were things he wasn't sure how to tell Winry or even if she'd want to know – things that happened in Xing, why he wasn't sure if he'd ever want to return to that country. "Bossy," he grumbled, grabbing his jacket and slinging it over his shoulders.
"You need someone to boss you around." Winry wrapped a scarf around Grant's neck. The little boy looked wide-eyed from his mother to the Elrics.
Alphonse nodded seriously, including Paninya and Grant in on the joke. "He does."
"Al!" Edward tried to cuff his brother, only to smack his hand into the wall when Alphonse dodged. "You're supposed to be on my side!"
"Oh, no, I've been boss of you long enough." Alphonse offered Paninya his arm. As she cheerfully threaded her arm through his, he added, "Someone else can order you around for a while." At Edward's snarl, Alphonse leaned down to Grant. "Don't let him scare you, Grant. Your mom can take him."
"I know." Grant tilted his head back, gazing at Winry.
She smiled, ruffling his hair. "Are you ready to go visit Maizy and Miss Riza, young man?" He nodded enthusiastically. "So am I."
"Me, too." Paninya tucked into Alphonse's side. "I'm ready to get warm. My ports are aching. I can't believe you were in Briggs, Ed. How did you stand it?"
Before Edward could come up with an answer, Breda interrupted them. "Car's ready, chief. I called the General and she's waiting for you." As they started to file past, Edward noticed Breda's aborted hand gesture and paused beside him. "Guards have already been posted on the grounds, Ed. I talked to Gerdello while you were busy with Mrs. Rockbell and he knows what to do."
"Thanks, Captain." Edward let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding.
A curt nod was Breda's answer. "The general said you'd have back up, too, if it came down to it."
"Back up, great." Edward followed his brother and the women down the stairs of the police station, Breda close behind. Snowflakes fell thick and heavy, the lowering clouds and the blanket of white on the ground reflecting the street lamps and headlights, making the street brilliant. Rolling his shoulders, Edward tried to relieve the tension in his spine. The combination of thick snow and what it might hide and Winry and Grant out in the open made him antsy. Trotting down the steps, he floundered through the snow, already up to his calves. With a muffled curse, Edward caught up to his brother as Alphonse opened the door of the car for the women. Paninya knocked her boots against the running board before sliding into the back seat. Grant followed her.
"Honey, stand on the hump, so we can all fit." Winry flipped her bangs out of her eyes, snowflakes in her lashes as she turned to the brothers. "Those pictures…."
Alphonse squeezed her elbow. "It's okay, Winry."
Fists clenching, Edward growled, "No one's gonna lay a hand on you."
Her gaze went distant for a split second and Edward wished he knew what that meant but, before he could open his mouth, Winry nodded. "Mm, I know." A cheeky smile brightened her face. "Between Riza's guns and that mortar of Paninya's, no one's getting near me." Ducking her head, she got into the car, admonishing her son about getting his feet on the seat.
"You're sitting back there." Edward shoved Alphonse after Winry, not wanting to risk being stupid enough to bring her wrath down on his head again. He kicked some of the snow off his own boots, sliding into the front seat with Breda squeezing in beside him.
"We're ready," Breda said and the driver glanced in the mirror, easing the car out onto the road. At this time of night, there wasn't much traffic in East City, not that there ever really was.
After a few tense minutes of quiet inside the car, a hand touched Edward's ponytail. Grant's voice piped up over his shoulder. "Your hair's almost as long as Mom's."
"Grant!" both women exclaimed, though Paninya's laughter nearly choked her.
"Yeah, presents a good military presence, too," Breda muttered.
Edward snapped back, "I'm not military any more! Besides," he warmed to his subject, "Major General Miles has long hair. So do both Hawkeye and Armstrong."
"First Lieutenant Sciezca's grown her hair out, too, Brother," Alphonse offered helpfully, "so you fit right in with the women of the Amestrian military."
"Nng!" He was wedged in too tight to spin around and punch his brother. Not to mention, Winry's kid was in the way. "I like my hair!" Edward hunched in his seat. Not pouting, though, no, he wasn't pouting. Even if Breda was giving him a sidelong look and Winry was…laughing? Edward didn't risk looking back but, somehow, that sound made it seem less like a frigid winter night.
* * *
Maizy sat up in her bed, tugging at the ruffles on the wrist of her nightgown. "When's Grant coming?"
"He'll be here soon, sweetie." Riza smoothed the warm comforter in place. "Tomorrow morning, you'll wake up and find him here."
Looking up at Riza through her silky black bangs, their daughter resembled Roy so much. "Why can't I wait up for him?"
Riza stroked Maizy's hair off her face. "Because it's time for you to go to bed. Look, Hayate's already asleep." Curled up on the cushion at the foot of Maizy's bed, Hayate twitched his ear but otherwise didn't react to his name. "You should sleep, too. You're tired." She tapped Maizy's nose, trying to hide a grin when the little girl's dark brown eyes crossed. "See?"
A bell sounded deep in the bowels of the house, making Hayate raise his head and bark. Curly tail wagging, he got up, rushing toward the door. "It's Grant!" Maizy shrieked. Blankets and pillows flying, she raced after the dog. Impetuous, like her father, Riza thought as she followed her daughter to greet their guests.
The thick rugs swallowed up the sound of their footsteps, even Maizy's heavy tread as she ran. She'd stop running at the stairs, Riza knew, and go down them more cautiously. Riza was thrilled that neither her dog nor her daughter were likely to take a tumble. They were both certainly old enough to know better. And Maizy wouldn't be able to open the door herself. Even if she tried, Kain or Rebecca were there to keep her from making that mistake. Reaching the top of the sweeping staircase, Riza couldn't help but smile at the sight of her daughter going down the stairs on all fours, backwards. As if she felt her mother's gaze, Maizy raised her head, giving Riza a gap-toothed smile. Her leading foot hit the floor and Maizy pushed off the stairs. Already at the door, Hayate let out two precise barks, alerting the household even if the buzzer hadn't.
The weight of her pistol tucked in the small of her back made Riza comfortable. It seemed impossible to think of a time when she hadn't been armed. The fact she was now a general didn't deter her from carrying a gun. There were times when she might still need to protect herself or those around her. Like now.
She had wanted Winry and the Elrics to come here for Longest Night, but for a completely different reason. Riza hadn't been lying to Rebecca earlier today; she did want those three to repair their friendship. For once, Riza suspected, the Elric brothers wouldn't protest her plan. Winry, on the other hand, had been carrying a chip around on her shoulder and, in the past, hadn't even been willing to talk about the Elrics, much less meet with them.
Riza didn't like that she hadn't noticed the resemblance to the dead women and Winry. While she'd never been involved in Investigations, she did like to think of herself as clever. It took someone else to point it out to her and that Winry had been made a target, under her nose, in her city, made Riza want to put a bullet in the bastard who'd killed those women. That the killer had escalated into involving the Elrics meant he knew far too much about the trio from Rezembool.
The killer had made a mistake, though, and a big one: the Elrics would give their lives to protect Winry. It wouldn't matter that Winry hated them, The brothers' devotion to her reminded Riza of something from the stories she read to Maizy. Or your devotion to Roy. Riza allowed herself a faint smile at that. Perhaps it had been best Edward needed a mechanic while here in East City and no real coincidence Winry lived here and could work on his leg. Riza was not someone who often considered fate but this time, she'd try to help by offering it a little push.
The size of the room didn't swallow the laughter from the group in the doorway, instead, it seemed to amplify it. Edward lay on the floor in a position of submission, Hayate perched on top of him, his tail a blur as he licked Edward's face. Snow tracked in from shoes and boots on the marble tile and dripped off of jackets. Grant, in Winry's arms, giggled at the sight of Edward brought down by a dog while Alphonse tried to assist Winry's friend, Paninya, out of her coat. Maizy squatted next to Edward's head, her piping voice ordering Hayate, "Off! Off!" to no avail, while Kain and Rebecca slipped on long jackets for a quick walk outside to check the perimeter, Breda offering to go with them.
"Hayate, off." Riza's firm, clear voice made her dog jump, though he still sat next to Edward, his tail still waving. "Maizy, why don't you run to the kitchen and make sure Hawley has something warm for everyone to eat." Her daughter was nearly as obedient as her dog, though she flashed a pout at Riza before trotting off. "Everyone, take off your coats and come inside where it's warmer. Grant, you've gotten so big!"
The little boy smiled shyly but leaned his head against his mother's shoulder, obviously not wanting to let go of her yet. Winry rolled her eyes at Riza, who grinned with a mother's understanding of sudden shyness. "Grant, you need to get down so we can get our coats off." Prying her son off her hip, Winry set him on the floor and started unbuttoning his jacket. The boy, Riza noted, seemed to be fascinated by Edward and Alphonse, looking between the two of them curiously.
"General," Edward nodded at her, "if you don't mind, Al and I'd like to take a quick look around the grounds."
Alphonse chimed in, "Before Captain Breda, First Lieutenant Kain and Captain Catalina come back inside."
Winry began unwinding Grant's scarf as if that might hide her trembling hands. Riza gave her a lingering glance before turning to the brothers. "Yes, that's fine." She added, in an attempt at levity, "Do not track in any more snow than is necessary."
Edward rolled his eyes as Alphonse bobbed his head, saying, "Yes, ma'am." The brothers opened the door, Edward grumbling in irritation over the brisk wind before they disappeared outside.
Paninya Dhiri, Winry's friend, nodded a greeting at Riza. "Thanks for letting us stay here, General."
"Please, Paninya, call me Riza. We're all friends." She gestured toward the kitchen. "You three look cold and I asked Hawley to have something ready when you arrived. Why don't you go on in and get warmed up with some soup and hot chocolate?" Grant started after Maizy only to have Winry remind him his shoes needed to come off first. With a grunt, Grant dropped to the floor on his butt, tugging his shoes off. In stocking feet, he slipped and slid across the marble floor, determined to reach the kitchen.
"Hey, don't run!" Winry started after her son, shaking her head. Paninya shrugged at Riza and followed behind them both.
By the time the door opened again, letting in both a flurry of snowflakes and the men and Rebecca, Winry's family had disappeared upstairs with Maizy and Hayate to settle in for the night. Riza ordered them into the kitchen to discuss what they'd learned. "What is it, Edward?"
He turned back to her, a frown pulling at the corners of his mouth. "I promised Winry no more secrets. After today," he shook his head.
"She'd probably want to know," Alphonse finished his brother's thought.
"She's exhausted." Riza clasped her hands behind her back, absently taking a parade rest stance. "I know it's been stressful for all of you today, too, but you're far more accustomed to being in danger than she is."
Alphonse corrected her, "Not seeing someone we love in danger."
Nodding, Edward glanced past Riza again before returning his gaze to the table and the bowl of soup in front of him. He took a deep breath. "We made some traps outside. Basic things, we used the same kind for trapping rabbits when we were kids."
"We know where the traps are," Rebecca piped up, "but I wouldn't want to be walking through the yard without a map."
"Especially with the snow coming down." Breda took a sip of his soup, giving his hot chocolate a look that Riza deciphered as wanting to add something a little stronger to it.
"Here, General." Kain offered Riza a piece of paper, a rough map of her yard marked with the location of each trap. "Just in case."
Riza reviewed the paper, adding a mental note to make sure the children didn't get outside before anyone else. She could only imagine Maizy or Grant getting caught in a trap and the Elric brothers blaming themselves. Worse, how she and Winry might feel about it. "Thank you, Kain." Turning her attention to those seated around the table, she went on. "I'd like to set up a patrol, just to be on the safe side. Even if it isn't common knowledge that Winry and Grant are here, I'd prefer no one enters the grounds without our knowledge."
"On it, General." Breda took a pull at his chocolate. "I took the liberty of assigning guards for the block's perimeters. They'll rotate every couple of hours – it's too cold for anyone to be out there any longer than that. We'll," he included the Elrics in his nod, "take the property and interior."
With a faint smile, Riza said, "I guess I don't need to tell you what to do. What's our rotation schedule look like?" Once the logistics had been hammered out and the meal finished, Rebecca and Fuery went to take the first watch. Riza held back Edward and Alphonse. "Does Winry have any idea why this is happening?"
Alphonse exchanged a quick look with Edward. "When we came to the clinic today, Major Pendergrast was there with a reporter. He gave a lot of money as a donation from his mines."
Edward glowered. "Winry told the detective Pendergrast follows her around."
A faint whirring sound made Riza glance down, realizing Edward's fists were clenched and his automail protested the abuse. "Follows her around, how?"
"Creepy." Alphonse wrinkled his nose, his arms loosely crossed on the table in front of him.
Edward shoved his empty soup bowl away. "She said he's always pawing at her, despite him being married."
Alphonse leaned across the table, snagging Edward's full chocolate cup and taking a slurp of it. "Winry doesn't like it."
"I don't like it," Edward growled.
"You're just jealous." Alphonse smiled sweetly at his brother's gnashing teeth.
Wondering why Winry had never mentioned this to her before, Riza decided she'd have to take it up with her friend. "Enough." She didn't have time to let the brothers' squabble escalate, even if, under other circumstances, it might be amusing to watch. "Did Detective Gerdello decide what he was going to do?"
"Put the major under watch." Edward flung himself back in his chair, making it rock on two legs. "Like there isn't any way to get around that."
"Pendergrast has never been in a combat situation," Riza said in reminder.
"He stuck a body in our room without anyone noticing." Edward gave her a sharp-toothed smile. "He's good enough to sneak around."
"No one was watching for him then." Finishing Edward's chocolate, Alphonse set the cup down and leaned his chin in his palm. "But that still doesn't mean he won't give his guards the slip."
Riza wouldn't let them drag themselves down. "We're still better than he is."
Edward slapped his palm on the arm of his chair. "Damn straight we are, General." His eyes narrowed to golden slits, meeting Alphonse's own feral gaze across the table. "And we're not letting Winry down again."
* * *
That is part of the pleasure of friendship: trusting without absolute evidence and then being rewarded for that trust. – David Shore
* * *
Winry woke with a start, heart pounding in her chest, breath coming in short, soft pants. Her darting eyes caught sight of something and she inhaled sharply, realizing a second later that what she'd taken for the shape of man was nothing more than a chair, her borrowed housecoat thrown over the top of it. Winry sat up, the blanket sliding down around her hips. A tension headache pulled a singing wire between her temples and the base of her skull, sending tiny shock waves down her spine. I'm getting old. Winry licked dry lips, wishing for a carafe of water on the bedside table, instead of a book of Xingese fairy tales.
Getting out of the bed, she shuffled bare feet on the cool floor. The carpet helped dispel the cold but Winry wished for her slippers, for her bedroom, for that damned water jar she kept next to her bed and had since living in Rush Valley, over a decade ago. The low-level fury that had kept company with fear in her stomach stirred again, reminding her until the killer was caught, it wasn't safe for her to go home. That didn't mean she had to do without her clothes. Winry decided she'd have to make an excursion later today to her apartment to collect some things. She certainly wasn't using anyone else's toothbrush or borrowing underwear from Riza to wear. Not to mention, Grant was a boy and little boys, frankly, smelled. He'd need new clothing and his toiletries, too, before he became nothing but a stinkball.
All of Paninya's things were at the apartment, too. Winry didn't trust sending anyone there for their stuff, so she'd have to brace herself for an argument to go to the apartment. She was willing to accept an escort but wasn't going to let someone go in her stead. The idea of one of the men pawing around in her underwear wasn't one Winry would entertain. Besides, men had terrible taste and would never pick out appropriate clothes for her or her son.
Opening the door to the bedroom, Winry checked the hall. The window at the far end seemed brilliantly lit, the outside light almost as bright as day, but clear and cool. Winry remembered the sunlight bouncing off the snow in the Briggs Mountains, how she thought she might get a headache from it. As if in a dream, she found herself drifting down the hall to look out the window, the glass icy under her fingertips. When she pulled her hand away, her pads left halos of condensation behind before fading.
Snow fell in flurries, the street lights reflecting off the surrounding white. It was amazingly bright outside, even though she couldn't see very far from the amount of snow still falling. The chill of the window made her tighten her housecoat around herself, not that it seemed to do much good. Winry knew she should make her way to the kitchen and get a glass of water but, for this instant, it seemed like she was frozen in place.
Memories swirled, slow and sticky in her mind, of being trapped by the sudden blizzard up in Briggs. Of the mining tunnels and, later, hiking through the snow in an attempt to find someplace safe. Of Lior, and Rose, and finding Mr. Hohenheim there.
"What are you doing up?"
Winry wondered why she wasn't surprised to hear Edward's voice behind her. "Looking at the snow."
She could feel him back there, as if the heat of his body offered a faint, summer warmth. That didn't mean she'd look over her shoulder. "What are you doing up?"
"I just came in from patrol."
"So you're going to bed?" If she concentrated, Winry thought she could almost make out Edward's reflection in the glass, divided up by the wooden frames around the panes.
"Eh." A hesitation then, the faintest breath of a sentence. "I figured I'd keep watch here."
"There's not that much to see." Winry stepped aside. "A lot of snow."
"Yeah, it's hard to see anything outside." Edward didn't move any closer to her but she could just catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye. His damp bangs clung to forehead. His cheeks and the tip of his nose were pink in the light coming in from the window. He shivered exaggeratedly. "I don't like the snow any more."
"How's your automail?" The question came out automatically, the sound of it familiar in the air between them.
Another pause, this one full of wordless surprise before Edward flexed his elbow then his knee. "Okay." Winry saw Edward's reflection open its mouth then close it again.
"The weight of it is bulky, isn't it?" This really wasn't the conversation she wanted to have. Winry wasn't sure she wanted to talk to Edward at all, not until she'd had a chance to thoroughly digest everything Alphonse and he had said earlier today. Not that Al'd really said all that much but they'd both told her enough to make her regret a lot of the nasty things she'd said to them.
"It's not as good as yours." Edward said honestly, without any hesitation. "You knew that, though. No one makes automail as good as yours." He plowed on. "I was never sure if I could trust it in a fight. The composition is different. The movement is decent but it's never seemed as fast." He drew closer, now beside her, though Edward didn't even glance her way. "Man, it's really coming down out there."
"We'll be snowed in for Longest Night." Winry let out a sigh at the idea. She really wanted her own clothes and things from her apartment.
"Eh, it won't be so bad. There's plenty of food in the pantry and the radiators and fireplaces all work." Obviously, Ed didn't see a problem but then, Winry couldn't remember him having more than a few items of clothing at any given time. And, being an alchemist, he could probably transmute whatever else he needed. Al might've gotten a clue – maybe. Who knew how hygienic he'd be after having been armor for so long, though Paninya, who had a nose like a hunting hound, probably would've said something if he hadn't. "If the power gets cut, we'll all huddle up in one room and stay warm." He shrugged.
"I'd like to get some of my stuff from home." Winry didn't mean it to come out cross but from Edward's sharp glance her way, it must have.
"So we'll go get it."
"How, walk?" Winry waved a hand at the window. "How deep is the snow out there already? East City isn't used to this kind of weather. You and Al would have to transmute the roads clean and," they could do that, yes, "that's not fair to the rest of the people in town, is it, me getting to my apartment, while the rest of them are stuck inside?"
Edward leaned his flesh shoulder against the window frame, shoving his hands in his trouser pockets. "If it comes to that, we could probably make snow plows." He turned his face to the window. "You're right, it's not fair that some people will get stuck. Should get the way to the train station and the hospital cleared, at least," he mumbled. "Everything else will be closed for Longest Night."
Winry gave his arm a long, frank look. "It would be nice to have some tools, too."
He responded with an eye roll and spoke in the bantering voice Winry remembered so well. "Geeze, you don't want much, do you? All the streets cleared, your tools, your stuff. Next you're going say you want your machine shop, too, and I bet the general isn't going to let you bring that here." Edward touched his metal fingers to the glass, the soft 'clack' reminding Winry that, sometimes, no matter what, you don't get what you want. "Hey," he said softly, in a completely different tone of voice. "I wanted to tell you something."
Edward probably wanted her to look at him, too. Winry kept her eyes on the snow outside. "What?"
"I," he shifted his weight, restless. "Come on. I want something hot to drink. It was cold as hell out there." Waiting only long enough for her to turn around, Edward started down the hall and toward the staircase. Winry reminded herself she'd planned on getting a drink of water anyway, intending to follow him, but Edward waited at her doorway. "Unless you want," he tilted his head in at her bed.
The darkness hid whatever heat hit her cheeks at Edward's comment. "No. No!" She coughed. "I woke up because I was thirsty." At least it was the truth.
"So we'll both get something to drink." Edward gestured for her to walk with him, not moving until she nodded.
Winry decided she didn't want to think about that sudden, warm light in Edward's eyes.
* * *
Snow. Roy Mustang decided, right now, at this time, he particularly hated snow. Sure, it was beautiful the way it covered everything in a gorgeous blanket of white but it really fucked with his travel plans. He had been slated to arrive at the East City depot over six hours ago but, because of the freak blizzard, the engineer had stopped the train because travel would have been dangerous. And then, once the storm blew over enough that movement was possible, the snow was too deep on the tracks. Roy had used alchemy to vaporize the snow and dry the tracks – couldn't let the water freeze into ice – and thus, they eventually arrived in East City. He'd told Riza over the telephone earlier that he would call when he arrived. Now Roy was glad he'd told her he wouldn't be able to get away until Shortest Day so she wouldn't be worried about him traveling in the storm.
That didn't stop Havoc from staring discontentedly at the snow piled up to the platform in the train station. "Boss," he said.
"I know, Havoc." A car wasn't going to make it anywhere except into a floundering mess. Roy remembered Master Hawkeye's ancient draft horse almost longingly. Horses could go where cars couldn't, not, he supposed, that it mattered as he could burn them a path to the mansion. It would just be a damned cold thing to do.
"Guess Breda could rig up a snow plow and get the Elrics to help." Havoc coughed after blowing out a stream of smoke from his cigarette.
"If they're out of jail." Roy personally thought a little jail time would probably do Edward some good. His one-time subordinate was still a mouthy brat. Alphonse, on the other hand, didn't deserve to be put in jail, but would probably go along with it if his brother was stuck there.
"C'mon, boss." Havoc kicked at a pile of snow on the train platform. "The Elrics are okay."
Roy made a noise that could be taken either agreeably or not, more concerned about getting into a nice, warm bed with his nice, warm wife than the whereabouts of the Elric brothers. They were able to take care of themselves, as proven by the way they kept turning up, like stray mutts, every time he turned around. Riza, on the other hand, well, he needed her and Maizy like the oxygen in the air and he'd been separated from them both for far too long. "Damn."
"Don't worry, Boss. We'll get you and Hawkeye together soon." Havoc gave Roy a leer.
"Don't make me put you back in the wheelchair, Havoc." Roy flexed his fingers. They were cramping from all the snapping he'd done earlier. "Just because Alphonse healed that one time doesn't mean he'll do it again."
Havoc grinned around the butt of his cigarette. "Ahh, you'd miss my company, Boss." He stepped to the edge of the platform, kicking snow out of the way with his huge feet. "So would the General, if I wasn't there to back you up." Glancing over his shoulder, he added, "And pick up the stray girls who are disappointed you're actually married and a faithful husband."
A flat stare was his response. "We need a car. I'm not walking through this snow with luggage."
"Right." Havoc flipped the butt of his cigarette out into the drifts. "I'll see what I can find." He hesitated. "Still want to surprise the General?"
Roy looked up at the still-falling snow. "I'm not sure we have much choice, Havoc. As late as it is, no matter whether we call her or hire a cab, we'll still be a surprise."
"Cab it is." Havoc obviously wasn't any more keen about waiting around in the snow than Roy was and loped away to hale a driver.
* * *
Now that Edward had Winry's undivided attention, he wasn't quite sure what to do with it. The kitchen, at least, was warm, and the kettle full of water so he could make tea. Winry sat at the table, a glass on the table in front of her. She'd picked through the ice box with the ease of long familiarity, which made Edward wonder just how much time she spent here in General Hawkeye's mansion. He'd barely known how to find the place once he and Al hit town, as opposed to knowing where the military HQ was.
"So, what did you want to tell me?" Winry broke into his thoughts, making Edward turn around in time to see her tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
No earrings, he thought, dropping his gaze in hopes she wouldn't be able to read it. "Oh," Edward forced a smile in his voice. "It's…."
Winry toyed with the glass in front of her, picking it up and taking a sip before setting it back down. "Did you really miss me?"
The question stabbed through him, hurting worse than the piece of rebar he'd landed on top of after his fight with Kimbley. "Yes." The word sounded like it was torn from his mouth. Edward leaned against the counter next to the stove, his hands shoved in his pockets. "There was a time when I wouldn't have even realized it. I had too many other things on my mind to think about you, missing you." His smile was bitter as he raised his head. "And then you were the leash to my collar, with the Fuhrer holding us both and it was all I could do to keep from thinking about you. Kind of ironic, huh? When you showed up in Briggs, that made it worse." Seeing her frown, Edward held up his hands before Winry could protest. "I failed you again but you turned that around to our advantage. You came up with the idea of running with Scar. You escaped Kimbley and the Fuhrer and you were safe."
"Why didn't you tell me this before?" Winry traced a water ring on the tabletop.
The kettle started pinging, steam pouring out of the spout. He swung it off the flame, turning off the burner. The fire sputtered and went out as Edward poured the boiling water over the tea leaves, releasing the spicy scents of cinnamon and cloves, mixed with the sweet smell of apple peels. Setting the teapot on the table, Edward opened cabinets until he found two cups and discovered the honey pot, sitting on the counter nearest the sink. He placed a cup in front of Winry. "Because by the time I felt like I could tell you, you'd already found Geoffrey. I tried to be happy for you, Winry, but I felt like I was an idiot, thinking you'd wait. Even though I'd never asked you to and I had no reason to believe you would. I didn't want to get in the way of your happiness."
Winry startled him with a rude noise. "If you'd wanted me to be happy, you would've come to my wedding. You would've made time to see me in the hospital the day Grant was born."
Edward snapped his mouth closed, rather than leaving it to dangle open. Turning away from her abruptly, his hands clenched into fists, his eyes squeezed shut. Damn it, why did it have to hurt so much? Why was it so hard to say? "Winry," he tried, "I-I didn't want to stand in the way of your happiness." He bit his lip, staring down into the sink. A little stain near the drain seemed to wink back at him. "Dad left us because he wanted to find a way to be with us. I didn't get that for a long time. Still seems pretty stupid to me," Edward barked out a laugh, "but I'm not much better. I left trying to find a way to become whole. And all I did was leave pieces of myself behind." He had to tell her this looking into her eyes, if she'd let him. He couldn't hide.
Pushing back from the counter, he made his way to the table, standing next to Winry's chair. She tilted her head, frowning up at him. No. This wouldn't work, either. Edward hooked his foot around the rung of another chair, pulling it closer and dropping into the seat. "We were in Xing a lot of the time we were gone. Ambassadors. Envoys." He snorted. "That's what they called us. There to make sure Greed didn't decide he wanted to take over the world. Ling did a pretty good job of keeping him in check. Ran Fan…helped." Edward swallowed, the sweet scent of the tea cloying. He could tell Winry this. "Ling wanted to invite you to come. He knew…Al and I weren't as happy in Xing as we could be. And he wanted Ran Fan to have the best automail. Greed…wanted everything. Didn't want us to leave when our time was up. Still under military orders, though," he laughed again with little humor, "never thought I could say it was a good thing. Ling let us go. He didn't want to. We were his only friends but he knew we wanted to go home. For all the differences in alkhestry, it still couldn't give me back my arm and my leg. You could." Edward made himself meet Winry's eyes. "But when we got back to Amestris, you'd already gotten engaged."
"That wouldn't have stopped me from building your automail."
Edward knew Winry had to be purposefully dense about this. "I didn't want you to build my automail. Wait! I mean…yeah, that was part of it, Winry, but I wanted you to help put me back together, too. I." He wanted to take her hands. Instead, he laced his fingers together, keeping them between his knees. "I needed you, Winry, but you'd found someone else. And in my head, it wasn't supposed to be like that. You weren't supposed to marry him. Grant…Grant should've been our son."
Her eyes widened but before Winry could open her mouth, Edward rushed on to fill the empty air between his sentences. "I left. Again. I couldn't wish you happiness because," his hands freed themselves in spinning gestures, "and Al and I went to Aerugo. We went to Drachma. We went back to Xing. Anywhere that wasn't Amestris because if it was, I might've done something incredibly stupid. Stupider." Why wasn't she saying anything? "Xing…Ling was disappointed we didn't bring you back with us. He wanted – wants – automail introduced to his people, so they don't think Ran Fan's a freak."
That got a reaction, Winry bristling up in defense of her beloved metalworks. "Just because someone has automail, it doesn't make that person a freak!"
"Yeah. Ling thought if you could come and teach some of his mechanics about automail, they could make it, too." Edward realized he should pour the tea but would need to strain the loose leaves out. Busying himself with the drawers and cabinets again gave him a break from talking. He could feel Winry fuming behind him and almost smiled at how familiar it felt. Finding a tiny mesh sieve, Edward set it on Winry's cup and poured her tea. Winry switched the sieve to his cup and Edward filled it, too, then emptied the sieve into the garbage. Sitting back down, he continued his story. "He…Ling…yelled at us a lot when we got back to Xing for not bringing you with us. And he did what he could to make us feel better about it but it wasn't the same." How could it be, a foreign country where he and Al had never really felt welcome, except by three people?
Winry stirred honey into her tea, her attention focused on the cup. The soft clinking of the spoon striking the sides of the cup rang like a death knoll in Edward's mind. "How is Ling?"
Relief flooded Edward at her question, nearly sending him sprawling across the table top. She was still talking. Listening. "He's…" There was no good answer to that. "He's still fighting Greed. Sometimes they work together. Ran Fan hates Greed but he's won over some of the counselors." He accepted the spoon and honey from Winry, absently sweetening his tea. "They," could he tell her? He shot her a glance through his bangs. "They have a baby."
Her head came up then, eyes widening. "What?"
Edward wrapped his hands around the cup, the heat of the tea inside warming his suddenly cold fingers. "Ling thought it would…help. Make him seem a little…more human. Even if Liang isn't actually his blood." That last part came out in a rush and he almost winced reflexively.
"Ed?" Winry studied him through the steam rising from her tea. "You guys told me Ling couldn't father kids."
"No. The homunculus…it did something to his body." Made Ling immortal, with all the conditions that came with it. He couldn't father children. Edward wondered, not for the first time, how his own father had managed it but then again, Hohenheim was literally made of different stuff than Ling's homunculus. "That doesn't mean Ling couldn't have sex." Edward waved his hands. "Sorry!"
"Oh, please." Winry fixed him with a lemony glare. "Like I didn't hear worse from Granny and Mr. Garfiel." Her brow remained creased as she put together the pieces of the puzzle. "Ed…is the baby yours?"
He exhaled slowly. "Liang has eyes like mine and Al's."
Winry's eyes narrowed even more sharply. "Ed."
"I…I don't know, Winry." There. He'd said it. "Maybe. Maybe Liang is Al's son. We don't know for sure." Picking up his cup, Edward started to drink from it and set it back down. "It…Ling came to us both. We…should've said 'no'. Ran Fan doesn't like me much anyway but Ling convinced us all – hell, it might've been Greed." Edward realized he'd pushed his chair away from the table and was on his feet. "We were all…" Did he want to say they were all drunk? About that weird incense Ling had burned? "Together." That didn't sound any better. Shoulders hunched in reflexive memory of a wrench slamming down on his head, Edward risked a look Winry's way.
"You left your son in Xing?"
That hadn't been what he'd expected her to say, though, from the storm cloud crossing her face, Edward knew he'd pay for yet another mistake. "Liang is Ling and Ran Fan's child."
"But he might be yours or Al's." Oh, yes, Winry was angry.
"No one in Xing has eyes our color – not anyone who'd be able to approach Ran Fan." Not anyone who'd try to have sex with her and live, at least. Edward leaned his hands on a chair back. "Alkhestry was involved – the Xingese healing alchemy. Ran Fan didn't want to go through all that a second time." Not with him, anyway. Al, she at least tolerated. Ling probably would've been happy to try that all over again. Edward hoped some of the images in his head were alcohol or drug inspired and not things that actually happened. With Alphonse and Ling in the same room, Edward knew it could've gone either way.
"You left him behind." Those words fell like pellets into a metal bowl. Each one made Edward flinch inwardly.
"Yeah. It wasn't really our choice, Winry." He closed his eyes, gathering himself. "You keep saying he's mine or Al's son but – if Geoffrey had wanted Grant, could you let him go?" He met her eyes on those last few words, watching anger and realization bloom in equal parts. "Liang is Ran Fan's son. She wasn't going to let him go with us." The smile Edward offered tasted like ashes. "We didn't even see him again after his naming ceremony."
"But," a lost expression settled in on Winry's face, "didn't you want him?"
Head dropping forward, Edward's bangs barricaded him from Winry's gaze. "Yes." The affirmation clung to the air around him. "But Ling wanted Ran Fan's child, too, and we were the only ones he trusted." Someone else might have gone after the throne, using the baby and Ran Fan as a way to get it. "At least, he trusted us 'til Liang was born." Edward thought he understood why. If they didn't have a chance to get attached to the baby, he and Alphonse wouldn't want Liang. For Edward, it wasn't so much that he wanted a baby at all but Alphonse…Al was a different matter. "It really was time for us to leave Xing," he whispered, hands clenching on the chair back.
"It's been hard for you, hasn't it?" Edward could feel Winry's eyes on him as she asked the question. "Both of you."
"Yeah." Forcing his fingers to release the wood, Edward sat in the chair again, gathering his cup and thinking the tea had gotten too cold to drink. "Al especially. He's ready to settle somewhere." He put the cup aside, leaning his cheek in his palm. Exhaustion wrapped around him like a blanket and Edward let his eyelids droop.
"What about you?" Through his lashes, he could see Winry, fingers pressed against the tabletop, watching him. She was so still, Edward wasn't even sure she was breathing.
"I'm tired." Crossing his arms on the table, Edward used them for a pillow. "And scared." He opened his eyes, blinking at Winry. "'Cause I don't want anything to happen to you." Edward rallied, reaching over and stroking the fringe of bangs away from her forehead.
"Shh." Edward grinned at her exasperation. "I'm dreaming."
Winry rolled her eyes. "I'm going back to bed." Pushing back her chair, she got to her feet and retied the sash of her housecoat. "I'll dream there."
"You're not going to sleep in the kitchen, Ed." Her voice buzzed pleasantly around his ears.
"Edward. Get up." A pause. "Don't make me put snow down your shirt."
He whined, pushing his feet against the floor to scoot his chair out from under the table. "I'm comfortable."
"You won't be. Get up and sleep in a bed." Winry stood with a fist planted on her hip, pointing with her other hand.
"Hnn." A stupid grin wouldn't leave him alone and Edward wondered if there was still some whiskey left over in his system from the night before. "You gonna tuck me in?"
He recognized that tone of voice, wondering if Winry had a wrench hidden somewhere in her nightclothes. Wondered absently what kind of nightclothes Winry was wearing under that dressing gown. Quickly decided that thought wasn't one he should consider very long. "Ahh." Edward scrubbed his hand under the hair at the back of his neck, trying not to sneak a peek at her body. Seriously, it was gorgeous and he was an idiot for never telling her that.
As if she could read his mind, a slow flush rose from the neck of Winry's robe, pinking her cheeks and making her eyes snap. "Edward."
Grin widening, he held up his hands. "I'll be good and go to bed."
Whatever reply Winry was about to make was swallowed up in the sound of bells. Edward grabbed her shoulders, spinning her back to the table. "Wait here." His finger almost touched her lower lip but he jerked it away. "I mean it." Raising his voice, Edward shouted, "Al! Al, get up!" as he charged toward the back door of the mansion. Fear and rage surged through him as he ran through the hall, hearing footsteps behind him. It took a ragged second of fumbling to get the door unlocked and Edward stepped out into the snowy predawn, the cold making him shiver. "Tch!" No jacket – at least it wasn't nearly as cold here as it was in Briggs. Edward pulled the door closed, considering transmuting it so it couldn't be opened, then deciding not to waste the time. That bastard was in the trap and Edward wanted to get Pendergrast as far away from Winry and Grant as possible.
Edward plowed through the snow, faintly hearing the door open and close behind him. Al would be coming along to back him up and that thought pushed him to greater speed. The soft snow dragged at his legs but Edward discarded the idea of transmuting it into steam as he rounded the corner of the house. He could just make out someone dangling from a spring trap. Wolfish smile cutting across his face, Edward charged ahead, screaming, "Got you, bastard!"
The man swung at the end of the rope, almost folded at the waist, arms trapped against his side. Over his head, a bell jangled, the alarm to let everyone know the trap had been sprung. Edward felt a new, different chill running down his spine at the furious face hanging above him, suddenly glad that Mustang couldn't get his hands together to clap. If the bastard could direct flames from that position, Edward knew he was in a shitload of trouble. "Damn it, Fullmetal, what sort of game are you playing?"
Before Edward could get his mouth working, Havoc shouted, "Oi! Chief. I'm down in the hole."
What the hell was Winry doing out here? Just in her housecoat? Edward whirled, roaring. "Didn't I tell you to wait inside?"
The punch almost seemed to come out of nowhere, sending Edward sprawling across the snow. He slid almost to the base of Mustang's trap, his metal shoulder scraping across the wood. Stars danced in his eyes for a few seconds and Edward wondered who'd actually taught Winry to hit like that. "Ow…"
"You jerk!" Winry shook her head at him. "This is my life, remember? You don't get to tell me to wait. Not any more."
"Damn it!" Using the spring pole as a brace, Edward stood up, forcing his eyes to focus on the furious woman in front of him. "I was trying to keep you safe."
Winry took two steps closer, stabbing her finger into Edward's chest. "That's not your job."
He grabbed her hand – that hurt. "The fuck it is, Winry! It's always been…I've never," the fury drained out of him abruptly, leaving Edward feeling hollow inside, "never wanted to see you get hurt. That's…that's why the Fuhrer picked you to be my hostage."
"Can't you two talk about this later?" Mustang shouted. "I'm freezing my balls off."
"I'd like to get out of this hole," Havoc called, "before I'm buried in snow."
Edward snapped, "You could stamp down the snow and climb out," ignoring Mustang for the moment. "Will you just go inside, Winry?"
Her mouth flattened. "No."
"Nng!" Dropping her hand, Edward pressed his palms together, feeling the familiar surge of power swarming up through his body. He touched the spring pole, making it bend down to the ground, then transmuted the earth next to the pit Havoc was stuck in. Havoc yelped as the soil swelled, carrying him up and out of the hole. "There."
"I'm still tied to the damn pole, Fullmetal." Mustang's voice somehow managed to be colder than Winry's. Edward considered just leaving him like that – whatever happened wasn't going to be good – but Havoc flipped a knife out of his pocket, slicing through the ropes.
Edward's yelped protest went ignored. Mustang rubbed his fingers against each other and turned, his eyes narrowing at the sight of his target. Hands prepared to slap together, Edward felt a bubble of impatience rising up in his stomach. Couldn't the bastard hold off until after Winry's stalker was caught?
He squawked when Mustang grabbed him by the front of his shirt, almost hauling him up off the ground. "Explain to me what the fuck all these traps are doing in my yard, Fullmetal, or so help me - "
"For me, all right? He and Al did it for me."
Nonplussed, Edward swiveled his head, wondering that Winry had spoken up at all. She glared at Mustang, blue eyes crackling like lightning.
Mustang growled, deep in his throat. "Someone could have warned us." He clung tight to his rage.
"I didn't know you were coming," Edward spat back as he jerked free.
"Neither did I, s-sir." Winry's glower dared them to say anything about her teeth chattering.
Edward was up to that dare. "Can we get inside? Winry's not dressed for this weather." He wasn't about to say it was dangerous for her to be out here. She'd throw him into one of his traps. If he was lucky.
"We're discussing this inside the house, Fullmetal." Mustang offered Winry his arm as he waded through the snow to her. She tightened her arms around herself, her face set mulishly, and Mustang flung his hands in the air, slogging past her.
Havoc looked from Edward to Winry, who turned her face away. With a shrug, Havoc waved at Edward. "Oi. I'm going in. Don't stay out too long."
Edward sighed, stirring fluffy flakes with his exhalation. "Winry, let's go inside, okay?" He shifted his weight from side to side. Snow soaked through his trousers and, now that the adrenaline had worn off, he realized he'd charged outside barefooted. "You're shivering." Maybe humor might work. "You don't want to spend Longest Night sick in bed, do you?"
With a twitch of her fingers, Winry brushed her hair away from her face. "You really did all this." Her chin jerked at the traps. "For me."
"Yeah." Edward wanted to shout at her, that of course it was for her. For Grant. But shouting didn't do much good. Sometimes, he wished he'd learned that lesson sooner.
Winry lowered her head, wrapping her arms around herself again. She spoke so softly, Edward almost didn't hear her. "I…missed you guys."
Snow swirled around them as Edward stared at her, dumbfounded. "Winry."
She held up a hand, letting him know there was more she had to say. "I missed you a lot. All the time. I didn't let myself dwell on it, though, because I knew you had things you had to do, important things. And after you got Al's body back, and saved Amestris, after doing so many amazing things, I thought maybe you'd stay." Snow caught in her hair, the flakes melting and darkening the strands in tiny patches.
Winry shivered and Edward took a step closer then another when she didn't protest. "Al wanted me to get my arm and leg back."
"I know." She nodded jerkily. "But you didn't. You still have automail and you still didn't come home."
Edward hated the way her voice quavered. "Winry, stop. It's not because of you. We…we're idiots, all right? The dumb boys you always told us we were." He was close enough to lay his hands on her shoulders. "It was like we expected nothing to change – you'd always be at the house in Rezembool, waiting for us with Granny and Den." Winry shivered under his palms. "Idiots." Hands sliding across her back, Edward hugged her close. She stiffened, her crossed arms a barrier between them. "You were never the reason we didn't come back." He kissed the crown of her head, breathing in the scent of her hair. Honeysuckle, metal, machine oil…home..
Winry flung her arms around him, burying her face in the crook of his neck. Her body heaved in his arms. A sob escaped her and Edward tightened his grip. "No, Winry, please…don't cry."
"Dummy," she sniffed. "Happy tears are okay, remember?"
Larynx bobbing, Edward couldn't speak, only managing to hum out, "Mmhm!" in agreement. The snowflakes melted in his lashes, making his vision blurry. "We," his voice cracked and squealed and Edward swallowed hard, trying again. "We need to go back inside."
Winry unwrapped her arm from around Edward's waist, using the heel of her hand to wipe her eyes. "I am k-kinda cold."
"Me, too." Edward blinked a few times until Winry came back into focus. "Al's probably wondering if we've frozen to death out here." Loosening his grip, he tilted his head to peer into Winry's eyes. "Okay?"
She dropped her gaze, raising it again after a second. "Mm." The thin sliver of a smile brightened her face. "Let's go."
Edward couldn't help his answering grin, a huge smile, as he tucked Winry up against his side. "Yeah. And after that," he groaned, realizing, "I'll talk to the bastard. Damn it, why'd he have to spring one of my traps? I just wanna go to bed." He broke the snow back to the house for Winry as best he could, thinking they both needed to get warm and dry, soon. "Nng!"
Alphonse opened the door as they reached the back stoop. "Winry? Brother, what were you thinking, taking her out there dressed like that?" He flung a thick towel around her shoulders, pulling her inside.
"Me?" Edward barked out. "She followed me! I told her to stay in the house, where it was warm!"
"Fullmetal, I expect a report, right now." Mustang speared him with a gimlet eye, barely appearing from under messy hair and his own towel.
"Roy, I've told you." Hawkeye let out a sigh. "Let Edward rest. He's already taken his watch. And it's not like you didn't deserve it." Her voice sharpened. "You could have called and let us know you were coming in today."
Edward barely kept his glee under control at the sight of Mustang recoiling from his wife. "I wanted it to be a surprise," he said, hurt. "For you and Maizy."
"And, after me telling you that Winry was being stalked, you still didn't call?" Riza arched her eyebrows. "You knew she was staying here, as well as Edward and Alphonse, but you didn't consider they might want to make sure she remained safe?"
"She's got you there, Boss," Havoc said from under his own towel. "Not like either of us got hurt or anything. Hey, is there anything hot to drink?"
"Ed made tea earlier." Winry let Alphonse rub her hair dry.
"Tea's good. Coffee with a shot of whiskey's better. Warm us all up." Havoc nodded. "I'll go get some started."
"I got hurt," Mustang sulked, shooting Hawkeye a look from under his damp-stiffened bangs. "Important parts of me got hurt."
"Oh, please." Edward made a face. "You were caught around your waist." He accepted the towel Hawkeye offered, giving her a nod of thanks. "Those 'important parts' are still good."
"You don't know. They might've been pinched or bruised by the pull of fabric - "
Winry pointed at Mustang. "I don't want to know. Al, thanks." She shivered in her damp dressing gown. "I need to borrow some other clothes, Riza. These are too wet to sleep in."
Nodding, Riza gestured for Winry to come with her. "I know it's strange wearing someone else's clothes but I think I can find something else for you."
"It's weird," Winry admitted, as the two women walked out of the foyer. "I want to go back to my apartment tomorrow. Grant, Paninya and I need some of our own clothes."
"We'll see," Riza's voice floated back, the rest of the conversation becoming unintelligible.
Mustang flung his towel at Edward. "From that stupid grin on your face, Edward, I'm guessing that Mrs. Rockbell has decided you're a little less despicable."
Edward flashed Mustang an obscene Xingese gesture. "I guess I ought to thank you for that. If you hadn't been stupid enough to spring the trap, we wouldn't have gone outside."
Before Mustang could retort, Alphonse, interrupted. "If you two are done flirting," he said, not backing down from the two heated glares thrown his way, "I bet Havoc has that coffee ready."
"You'd know all about flirting with men, Al." Edward waved off his brother's snort. "Al can fill you in – it's about time for your watch, right? And," a sly grin built on his face, "that'll give Paninya a chance to rest up. Unless you're going after Havoc next."
"Oh, please. He looks too much like you and who wants that? I mean, besides Ling." Alphonse's grin turned wicked. "Or Winry."
"If you two are finished," Mustang growled.
The brothers gave him matching irritated looks. "Close eno -" Edward sneezed. "Damn. I need to get dry." He wagged his automail hand in the air as he left the foyer. "Night, bastard."
The staircase to the guest rooms on the second floor seemed too impossibly long to climb. Edward set his foot on the first riser, sighing. He could transmute his clothes dry, that wasn't a problem – well, maybe it was. Edward hated admitting he was tired but after everything that had happened today, the sheer act of climbing stairs to tumble into a bed seemed to be beyond him. He leaned his head against the wall, his arm propped on the railing, intent on gathering his strength, and –
"What are you doing?"
Edward jerked awake, blinking hard. "Whuh?"
Winry folded her arms again – didn't she know how it made her boobs perk up? "You're just standing there." Her mouth pursed. "Were you asleep?"
"Nn…yeah." He laughed, embarrassed. "Guess so." He pointed at the stairs with his chin. "Just seems like a long climb and I'm tired."
She plucked at his shirt, nose wrinkling. "And damp. Who was telling me I'd get sick? You need to get dried off and warmed up."
Edward craned his head back, deciding there were too many stairs to climb. "Hnn!" His legs gave out abruptly, not quite on purpose, and he landed on the stairs, shirt half-pulled off by Winry's hold on it. "Think I'll sleep here, 'kay?"
"You're wet. And cold." Bossy as always, Winry struck a familiar pose. "Get up and get dried off."
For an answer, Edward pressed his palms together, touching his shirt and trousers. Steam billowed up, clouding the air, and he waved his hands at it in an attempt to disperse the moisture. "There," he coughed, breathing some in. "All dry." He glanced up to see Winry's face, bright red. "What?"
"Uh…" She glanced sideways. "Um."
"Don't…don't do that again, okay?" she squeaked out.
"Huh?" Edward thought maybe a staircase could be a good place to sleep. The runner was soft, after all. "Why?"
"Because." Winry's tongue seemed all tangled. "Because you were naked!"
"Huh?" He didn't remember being naked – oh. "During the transmutation? Huh. Al never said anything." Of course, Alphonse was a guy, guys didn't care much, not to mention, little brother. His mouth went on before his exhausted brain caught up. "Did you see anything you like?"
Winry rocked back, hissing, and Edward wondered if he was going to be beaten within an inch of his life. Dammit, he really had been hanging out with the bastard prince for too long. "Edward." The way she clipped his name into two distinct and separate syllables meant he was in for it.
That didn't mean he wouldn't try to brazen it out. "Well? Did you?" Edward lolled back on the stairs, figuring if he relaxed, wherever she struck, it wouldn't hurt as much.
"Your hair's still damp." Winry sidestepped the question.
Like Edward was going to let it go. "You didn't answer me." He caught hold of the hem of her dressing gown – a different one – and gave it a tug.
He knew he was playing with fire. "You did, didn't you." Grinning, he swept his gaze up her body, much like he had the night of the military function. This time, Edward knew for sure he'd get that irritated glare directed right back at him. He only hoped he wouldn't get a kick to the ribs. "It's okay. I like everything I see."
Winry sighed. "You're such a brat." Edward watched as she sank down on the step above him, her knees on her elbows, cupping her chin in her palms.
"It's the truth," he muttered past his surprise, getting a crick in his neck by looking back at her.
"Well, everyone knows you're a brat."
"You're still sidestepping my question."
"Mnn." Winry reached out absently, tweaking a strand of Edward's hair. "You should go to bed."
He took it as an invitation, leaning his cheek against her thigh. "I'm comfortable here."
"You can sleep on a staircase?" Casual disbelief coated her words.
"Slept leaning against Al for a long time. This carpet's warmer and softer." Edward closed his eyes. "So are you."
"Hnnf." A pause. "I should go to bed."
"Okay." Edward smiled faintly. Whatever Winry wanted, Winry got. She was stroking his hair, so that meant he was supposed to stay still. Right? "Go to bed."
"Shh." Winry's fingertips petted his temple. "Sleeping."
* * *
Chapter 8: 8
…and there is no greater disaster than greed. – Lao-Tzu
The headlines of the East City Times screamed about the record snowfall in the city. The radio reported nothing but warnings on the snow, that everyone should stay inside or go out as little as possible, and be careful of ice. So far, no power lines seemed to be down, but more snow was possible, despite the faint hint of sunshine making the snow outside glow brilliantly.
William read through the paper a second time, gritting his teeth. He found no record commemorating his contribution to Mrs. Rockbell's clinic. There was nothing to indicate anyone had even noticed.
Flinging the paper across the table, William watched the pages flutter, covering his breakfast like snow blanketing the ground outside. "Where is it?" He grabbed a handful of pages, scanning them, seeing nothing regarding the alchemist, his brother, or a body. Shredding the paper, William flung the bits in the air, scraps falling around his wife's shoulders and into her coffee. "Why isn't it here?"
His wife flinched at each piece of paper fluttering onto her. "What isn't there, William?" Her words trembled, like her hand, as she reached for her cup of coffee.
He touched her hair and she dropped the cup back on the saucer with a 'click'. Sifting through the strands, William wondered when it had started fading from the rich auburn it had been when they'd first met. Silver threaded through the red, fading and dulling it. William twisted his fingers, making his wife's mouth open in silent protest. Tears spangled her lashes, bright as morning dew.
"The headlines." William gave her head a shake. "Where are the headlines?" Shoving her face into her plate, he turned away from her. "I gave her everything. Everything. My money removed every obstacle from her path and she doesn't even notice. What does she see? That Fullmetal bastard. An alchemist. He's never had any hardship, never had to work to achieve anything. Travels around the country and beyond." Sneering, he glanced at his wife, at the food dripping off her face. She froze as she realized William was watching her.
He threw a napkin at her face. "Clean yourself up." Sighing, William ruffled the hair up on the back of his neck. "I don't understand. Why can't you be like Winry? She's so vibrant. So knowledgeable."
Her face relatively clean, she cleared her throat, a quiet little bark of a sound. "What's going to happen to me, William?"
"You?" He waved a hand. "You'll retire to the country. The air is better suited for you, I think. I'll make arrangements for you to leave." The soft noises of her rearranging her silverware reminded him of the bell on that damned dog's collar. "Where is Poopsy?"
Her shoulders tensed. "He ran away."
"Did he?" William took two strides across the room to grab her chin, forcing her to look up at him. "When did that happen?"
"Y-yesterday. Before it started snowing." The words twisted her mouth into funny shapes.
He squeezed her chin tighter. "You didn't tell me."
"I – Will-em, you're hurt-ing me."
"Why didn't you tell me? Didn't you think I'd want to know? I bought you that dog, remember?" Her skin under his fingers blazed white. "It was a special gift. Why did you let it run away?"
"I di'n't!" Her mouth was twisted in a funny 'o' shape.
"Then why isn't it here?" William dug his fingernails into her soft skin.
William shoved her, sending her sailing backward in her chair. She squealed as she crashed on the floor. "Ran away. Ran away! I don't believe you!" He stood over her. At least the red under the back of her head stained her hair back to its original color. She squirmed between his legs, her face screwed up. Her fingers came away blushed from the blood spreading across the floor. "That dog was too stupid to run away, just like you. Where is it?"
"Gone!" She grunted when he stomped his heel into her thigh.
"Gone!" Her eyes widened as William raised his foot again. "I swear, he's gone!" Tears flooded her eyes, streaming through her crow's feet.
"Why'd you let him go? Where'd he go?" He stomped again, hearing her scream. It wasn't enough. It'd never be enough. But she had to learn that his possessions stayed his.
The noises had been going on for some time, though not quite loud enough to drag Edward from his sleep. Soft shuffling sounds, faraway clatters, whispers – none of that seemed quite worthwhile of his attention. Besides, he was caught up in a dream he really liked, surrounded by a warm, familiar scent. He wanted to bury his face in his pillow and just ignore the faint hint of dawn.
"That has got to be the most disgustingly cute thing I've ever seen."
Mustang? What the hell was the bastard doing in his dream? Edward rooted his nose deeper into his pillow. If he ignored the bastard, maybe he'd go away.
Giggles erupted around him, making Edward wonder what was going on. But sleep! Uninterrupted…okay, so it wasn't being uninterrupted any more. He clung to it tenaciously. Seemed like it'd been a long time since he'd slept so well.
"On a staircase? Fullmetal, please tell me you got her to a room – ouch!"
More, louder giggles and another complaint from Mustang. Edward gave up his dream, slitting one eye open. Mustang and Hawkeye stood on the floor at the foot of the staircase, two kids, still in pajamas, giggling next to them. The little girl had her head craned back, obviously laughing at her mother smacking her father on the back of the head, if Hawkeye's upraised hand and Mustang's wince meant anything. The little boy watched Edward closely through squinched up eyes.
Grant. Maizy. Edward's sluggish morning brain supplied the kids' names. Winry. Winry! He sat up, fighting off the thing cover his shoulders. "Where's Winry?" Hadn't she been sitting with him? Oh, fuck. Where was she?
"In bed," Grant piped up. He pointed at Edward. "Why're you wearin' a lady's housecoat?"
Edward jerked at the thing on his shoulders, realizing that he'd been using Winry's housecoat, half as a pillow, half as a blanket. "Uh."
"Yes, Edward, please explain that. Particularly when Mrs. Rockbell was last seen wearing said housecoat." Mustang showed that smirk that always made Edward want to punch him. Hard.
Instead, Edward offered Mustang a toothy smile in return, stretching his arms above his head and using that momentum to get to his feet. He was mature enough to ignore the Fuhrer bastard, after all. Waving a lazy hand at the children, he said, "Not in front of the kids," and, tossing the housecoat over his shoulder, turned and started back up the stairs. The brilliance outside caught his attention and Edward paused on the landing, blinking at the expanse of white beyond the window. "Hey, Mustang. Snowball fight after breakfast. I'm handing you your ass." Before Mustang could reply, he'd raced up the rest of the stairs, the cheers of the kids echoing in his ears.
The pencil scribbled across the paper, a wriggling line of words. Paul Gerdello leaned back in his chair, the springs squealing in protest at the movement. He tapped the eraser against his mouth, flipped through a few pages of his notebook. Sometimes, if you looked back at earlier impressions, it gave you a clue you missed the first time. Paul popped the pencil in his mouth. Didn't seem like his luck was running good today.
Sighing, Paul turned to a blank page, doodling a flower, followed by a sketch of his coffee cup. That reminded him it needed to be refilled but the swill here at the station almost wasn't worth drinking. He wondered what his family was doing now – playing in the snow? The kids were still young enough they might like it. Too bad there weren't more hills in town, so they could go sliding.
"Hey, Gerdello, didja hear? There're some alchemists in town, cleaning the streets." Murphy rapped his hairy knuckles on a corner of Paul's desk. "They've made some plows, too, following up. Man, it's gonna be a mess when all that snow melts. We're gonna be hip deep in mud."
Paul grunted in response, thinking his daughter would probably be trying to find flowers to throw in the alchemists' paths. "That's nice of them."
"Yeah." Murphy leaned his hip against the desk. "I thought alchemists were supposed to be scary and shit. That seems kind of normal, you know? Something a neighbor would do for you."
"Takes all kinds." Paul stuck his pencil back in his mouth, rolling it from side to side. He tapped his desk, drawing Murphy's attention when the man started to walk away. "What's the word on our guy? Pendergrast? Did the team call in yet?"
"Last call was everything's quiet at his place." Murphy snapped his fingers a couple of times, reaching into his pocket. "You did get a call from the military hotel. Something about a package?" He passed over a scrap of paper. "The manager wants a call, soon as you can. Something came in for one of those guys in the murder room."
"Could've given me this earlier, Murphy," Paul shouted after the man, getting an obscene gesture in response. Grumbling under his breath, he smoothed the rumpled piece of paper, squinting at the numbers. Was that a four or a nine? Getting up, he hesitated, reaching back to grab his notepad. Pencil firmly between his teeth, Gerdello made his way to the telephone banks. If he was lucky, Pendergrast had taken another step down the path to the noose and one little telephone call might confirm it.
Murphy waved at him about a half hour later. "What's up?"
Gerdello flopped into his chair, the springs groaning. "Something I gotta go do." He sighed, frowning at the top of his desk and the papers stacked upon it. "That's gotta be something weird, though."
"What?" Murphy took a slurp of coffee.
"Eh, nothing. I'll see you when I get back." Gerdello hauled himself to his feet. Tucking his notebook in his pocket, he made his way to the coathooks, picking out his heavy jacket. He dreaded going out in the snow, even if the roads were cleared. Alchemy wasn't natural. What if the snow suddenly reappeared? With a mental shake, he went to the car park to meet up with the sergeant driving him to the hotel. He'd see what the package was, first – the manager was too busy to speak to him, something about a rush of customers – and the young woman Gerdello had spoken with couldn't say anything about the package.
Soon enough, he'd know what was waiting at the hotel. And then, he'd contact the Elrics about it. Even if it did mean calling up General Hawkeye on Shortest Day.
"I'm so tired." Edward dragged through the last bit of snow, eyes half-closed, looking ready to fall asleep on his feet.
Alphonse twitched. "This was your idea, Brother."
"Not mine!" He waved his right hand, the automail squealing softly. Stopping midwave, Edward stared at his wrist as if it had suddenly turned traitor. "Shit. More maintenance."
"I thought that's what you wanted, Fullmetal. Be sure and have her grease your pole while you're at it." Mustang somehow said it without sounding gloating. It didn't stop Edward from swinging around, thrusting that metal fist in the Fuhrer's face.
Alphonse decided he was too tired himself to get involved in this ongoing battle and continued up the walk to the General's house. Since he'd been rousted from the nice, warm bed he'd been sharing with Paninya this morning by the sound of the alarm bells from Edward's trap, he'd been using alchemy. First, to get rid of the traps, so Hayate and the kids could go outside and not be so wound up during the day. Then, because of his brother's brilliant idea, he, Edward and Roy had been clearing the streets of East City of snow.
And they couldn't just melt the snow, no, that would lead to ice. It had to be vaporized and Alphonse wasn't sure if that might meant there'd be more snow later or not. Havoc, Rebecca and Breda had rigged up some plows for some of the streets but the main thoroughfares, including the roads to the train station and the hospital, were cleaned of snow. Alphonse was pretty sure he didn't want to see the fluffy white stuff again for a while. Summer. High summer. Rush Valley even seemed like a good place to be right now.
Of course, the beautiful young woman swinging the door open, welcoming him home with her brilliant smile might not be so bad, either. "Al!"
"Hi, Paninya." He mustered an answering grin, looping his arm around her shoulders.
Despite her slender build, his lover was strong, and didn't seem to notice the extra weight except for a cheerful huff of air. "Tired?"
"You have no idea. I think Brother and Roy are going to have a fight in the front yard, too." Alphonse pushed the door closed. "They can have it. I'm cold. And hungry." His stomach growled, almost as loud as Ed's usual rumble. "And I feel like a bath." Alphonse gave her a look. "And maybe a nice nap afterward."
"You do know Ed promised the kids a snowball fight?" Paninya chortled at his expression. "I guess you didn't."
Alphonse swung back to the door, reaching for the knob. "I'm going to kill him. Forget Roy. That's my brother. I call dibs."
"Oh, no, Al." Paninya grabbed his elbow. "Save that passion for later. Let the Fuhrer deal with your brother...and the kids…and Winry." She gave him a smile that warmed most of him very nicely. "You can work out your problems with me." There was no innocence in that leer.
Alphonse felt something else heat up at the implications. "Well," he began.
The door slammed open, a gust of wind chilling Alphonse where he stood. "Out of the way!" Roy shouted, shoving Al and Paninya ahead of him.
Alphonse barely had time to right himself so he wouldn't crash into Paninya, seeing a hand made of snow reaching through the door. "Ed!"
His brother's evil cackle rang through the foyer. "Take that, you bastard!"
Everything froze at that whip crack voice. Cautiously, Alphonse raised his head, seeing Riza on the staircase, Winry a few steps above her. Maizy and Grant stuck their faces against the banister railings, grins looping up in delight at the snow hand reaching for Roy. Alphonse heard Roy sing song, "Someone's gonna get it," not quite under his breath.
"Snow does not belong in the house." Riza took two steps down. "I would thank you to remove it immediately. And clean up any drips and mud tracks on my floor." The slightest pause. "Now."
"But Mo-ooom," Maizy wheedled. "Snow!"
"Snow belongs outside," Grant said, a scowl on his face.
"Snow!" Maizy hopped down two steps to reach her mother. "We can go out and play, huh?"
The expression on Riza's face would've made Alphonse's heart stop if it was directed at him. Fortunately, his brother was outside and therefore oblivious. "Yes. Yes, Maizy, that's an excellent idea. Take your father and Alphonse with you."
"What? Wait! This wasn't my idea!" Alphonse yelped.
Riza's response was to look down her nose at Alphonse. Beside him, Roy shuffled his feet. "Yes, dear," he sighed. "Come along, Alphonse. All alchemists are being punished today."
"But I did good! I cleaned streets!" Alphonse set his jaw stubbornly. "Riza, this isn't fair. Blame the idiots, not me." He ignored Roy's hiss of disgust and Paninya's snicker.
"Oi. There's a snow thing in the way," Havoc called from outside the house.
"And it's melting, Edward." Riza came the rest of the way down the stairs, far too fluid for Alphonse to call it a rush. "I want it removed from my foyer."
"Yeah, okay," Edward called from outside, and Alphonse caught a whiff of ozone and that weird, bell-like tone that accompanied his brother's alchemic transmutations. The hand retreated out the door – not without making a grab for Roy, who cursed and slipped in a puddle on the marble floor. "Oops!" Not surprisingly, Edward didn't sound at all apologetic.
Roy picked himself up, growling. Maizy finished her run down the stairs to plow into her father, still on the floor, laughing in delight. "Snow, Daddy! Let's go play in the snow. Mom said."
Paninya tweaked Alphonse's bangs. "I guess fun times first then fun times later?" Her smile broadened into a leer.
"You're on my team, right?" Alphonse gave her his best pleading eyes.
"Where else? I have to save that cute butt of yours." She patted it and laughed at his expression. "C'mon, Al. Let's go whip up on your brother."
"Gladly." Alphonse smiled at Grant as he joined them tentatively. "You want to be on our team, Grant?"
"No!" Maizy's face twisted. "Grant's on my team."
"Why?" Grant stuck out his lower lip. "Maybe I want to be with Paninya."
"Then she can be on my team, too!"
"And then who would you throw snowballs at?" Grant wanted to know.
Maizy considered, her face still formed in a pout. "Daddy!"
"Oh, no, no, I'm on your team, sweetheart," Roy reminded, setting his daughter on the floor so he could get up. "Unless," he flashed a smirk toward Riza, eyebrows wagging, "I'm on your mother's team and I don't have to play in the snow."
Riza didn't rise to the bait. "You're playing in the snow. Go on, get outside." She made a shooing motion. "Take Hayate with you." Considering for a split second, Riza added, "Make sure you clean up the yard afterward. Do not leave any towering castles of snow, Roy. Alphonse, be sure to tell Edward."
"Like he'll listen," Paninya took Grant's hand and led him to the mud room, grabbing outerwear for them.
"He will if Winry's going outside." Alphonse gave her a charming, albeit wicked, smile. Winry cocked a cool eyebrow up in response.
"Oh, yes, we all know how Edward will react to that." Roy's grin wasn't charming at all.
"Shut up, Roy." Winry didn't even bother looking his way, her steady gaze focused on Alphonse.
"Are you gonna come play, too, Aunt Winry?" Maizy ran to the stairs. "C'mon! It'll be fun. You can be on me and Daddy's team."
"Oh, yes, please, Winry, do be on our team." The way Roy's teeth glittered at that idea reminded Alphonse of Greed's smiles. He had to shake off a shudder.
Winry wagged a finger at Roy. "I have to make pies for later tonight. If you want apple pie, you'll have to understand I'm not playing in the snow."
"And I'll need help in the kitchen, too." Riza gave Winry a proprietary look. "If we're all going to eat tonight. You can have Rebecca in Winry's place."
"I heard that, Riza!" Rebecca hollered in the door. "I'm not some second place, fill in the gap type!"
"You can't cook anyway, Rebecca," Riza waved off that protest. "You might as well stay outside and watch the children." Her gimlet eye focused on Roy. "All of them."
Winry rubbed her chin, her brow furrowing. "Is it…a good idea for Grant to be outside?" She looked from Riza to Alphonse. "I mean…I just get worried."
"It'll be okay, Winry. We won't let him out of our sight." Alphonse couldn't resist, brushing his fingers across her cheek, slipping a strand of her hair back behind her ear. Huh. No earrings. He wondered if Edward had noticed, forgetting that thought when he realized Winry was smiling at him. Unable to stop the grin spreading over his own face in return, he said, "I promise, nothing will happen to him."
"Not with three alchemists, two sharp shooters and a young woman with a cannon in her knee, no." Riza patted Winry's shoulder. "Let him have some fun. It'll wear him out for later."
Grant protested loudly. "I'm not gonna be worn out! It's Longest Night! I'm gonna stay up and hear all the stories and drink Great Granny's cider!"
"All the stories?" Roy disappeared into the mud room long enough to grab jackets and boots. "Here, Maizy. Can you put these on yourself?" He handed her the boots and, at her affirmative hum, turned back to Grant. "I'm not sure if you're allowed to hear all the stories."
"How about most of the stories?" Paninya offered. "I'll bet Ed and Al have some good ones from Xing. Don't you, Al?"
"I," Alphonse felt his smile falter. "I heard some good ones." He wondered if his voice sounded strange to anyone else. A warm hand touched his shoulder and Alphonse looked to see Winry's concerned frown. "Ran Fan told them to me." He wondered at her expression and forced a little grin in response. "But if we're going to have a snowball fight, I guess we'd better get out there, huh, Paninya?" Giving Winry's fingers a quick pat, Alphonse went to his lover, wrapping his arms around her waist. She giggled, rubbing her nose against his jaw. "Fun times now, fun times later," he whispered in her ear.
"Eww." Grant crinkled his nose. "Mom, make them stop!"
"Why? I think it's sweet." Winry followed them to the door. "You have fun." She looked at Roy and Maizy. "You, too."
"Oh, I'm planning on thrashing Fullmetal," Roy gloated, rubbing his hands together.
"Dad! Play nice, like Mom always says!" Maizy tilted her indignant glare up at her father, tugging at his pants leg.
"Yes, sweetheart," Roy said through his teeth. He poked at Alphonse's shoulder. "Help me, Alphonse, and I'll give you whatever you want. A seat in the senate, your own county, you name it."
"Daddy!" Maizy socked him in the thigh, making him hop on one foot. "Mommy says not to bribe people!"
Paninya flashed Alphonse a grin as Roy groaned and limped into the yard full of drifts. "Hey, bastard!" Something whizzed across the lawn, striking Roy in the chest and sending him into a bank of snow. "Thought you'd like to see what I did with that spring trap you tripped last night." Edward's pleased grin at his transmuted catapult turned into a look of horror as Roy rose out of the snow, fingers flexing. "Hey! No fire! Ah-ah-ah!"
Alphonse sighed, slapping a hand over his eyes. "Paninya, Grant, Maizy, tell me when it's over so I can scrape up the ashes of my brother for burial later."
The telephone rang repeatedly at Winry's shop, making William wonder where she might be. It didn't seem she had a personal telephone, according to the operator, who couldn't find a listing for her under her name. He'd called the shop the first time around nine o'clock, when the radio announcer reported that alchemists were clearing the streets of snow. William later found the radio on the floor, shattered in pieces. "Did you do this?" He pointed at the flinders. "I needed this radio!"
His wife didn't answer. "Stupid cow." She still lay on the floor next to the table. Something would have to be done with her. The snow made it more difficult. Unless it started snowing again, he'd leave tracks. He could put her in the basement but she would eventually need to be moved from there. It would be best to deal with her now.
William considered dressing her then decided against it. His wife didn't deserve to wear clothing like Winry's. She'd been nothing but a drain all these years, siphoning off his money and his youth. Winry would understand, William knew; she wouldn't be like his wife. She would bring him back from the brink.
The window drew his attention again and William, with a long look out of it, realized why. The recently cleared roads offered him a better view of the world outside his home and the sight of a military police officer patrolling the street. That in and of itself wasn't unusual. Mayhugh Drive was a regular beat for the police and it would be considered strange not to see an officer walking the street at some point during the day. William couldn't remember ever seeing an officer on the street three times in less than two hours, though, and never could he remember an intense fascination with his own home. The officer outside stared openly at Pendergrast House.
William thought back to the other views outside his windows this morning. He'd glanced out the window from the bedroom – had he seen a flash of blue uniform then? Was his house – was he – under surveillance?
"This won't do." He smoothed his thumb over his moustache. "It won't do at all." William turned to his wife, studying her. She was no help. If she was still alive, he could call the hospital for an ambulance and use that confusion to slip away. Dead, she was no use whatsoever. If he contacted the hospital now, it would lead to questions of a nature he was not prepared to answer. If she'd fought back, perhaps he could say there had been a burglar, surprising them at breakfast, but William didn't fancy bruising himself, even for an alibi. Wounds gathered in the heat of battle were one thing. Deliberately inflicting pain on himself another.
Of course, that still left him with the problem of getting out of this house. He needed something to happen, something big enough to distract the officer and his neighbors – Mrs. Colbertson was such a nosy nellie – and allow him to slip away without being noticed.
William stared at the wall as he considered plans, discarding this one and that one, too risky, too noisy, too dangerous. The gaslight in front of him urged him on.
"Oh. Yes. How simple." He smiled. "I'll be in the basement if you need me," he told his wife as he passed her by. "Working. Don't bother getting up." The humor in that statement made William chuckle. "I think you'll like this," he called back, opening the door to the basement. Cool air swarmed out, almost like a ghostly embrace. "It'll all end with a bang."
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. – Paul A. Baldwin
* * *
"Is this some kind of joke?" Paul picked up the lidded basket, unlatching it to stare at what was inside.
"You tell me, Detective Gerdello." The hotel manager shrugged rounded shoulders. "A kid brought it in late yesterday, just as the snow started. I wasn't here," he added quickly, "otherwise, I'd have told the kid to take it back. My staff's been taking care of it but it's got to go."
"I can see where this could cause you some problems." Paul opened the lid. The little yellow dog popped its head out, ears flipping back and forth. "You say this came addressed to Edward Elric?"
"Yes, sir. Don't know why anyone would send a dog." The manager waved a hand. "With leash, bed, food, bowls – seems like someone cared about this animal."
Paul offered his fingers to the dog to sniff. "That's a lot of stuff for one kid to carry."
"I'll have someone take it to your car."
"You took the Elrics away yesterday, the dog goes wherever they are." The manager nodded, as if that was the end of the argument. "I can't keep it here."
With a heavy sigh, Paul latched up the basket. "Great. Full time detective, part time delivery service. Have one of your staff get the crap in the car. I'll take the dog." Yet another thing he'd never live down if his daughter found out. She'd love a little mutt like this one.
* * *
The heat of the kitchen had drained her. Still, Winry hesitated before stepping outside. Even with coat and scarf, and hat pulled over her head, the wind found little openings and gaps in her clothes where it could sneak inside. Hearing yells from the side yard, Winry trudged around the corner of the house. The sight awaiting her stopped her in her tracks, making her mouth drop open.
Alchemy had sculpted the huge drifts of snow into two opposing castles, one decorated with fangy creatures, the other with artistic sweeps up the walls like flames. Winry knew she'd never seen this many kids in the mansion's yard before but all ages were out there, running through the snow, pitching snowballs at each other and screaming. A catapult flung a batch of snow toward the flame castle, making those inside it shriek. Winry could just make out Edward shouting something and Roy's heated response, though the words were lost in the wind and screams of the kids.
"You look like you want to play."
"A-ah!" Winry started at Alphonse's voice, wondering how he'd managed to sneak up on her like that. "Al!"
His grin was pure Elric evil, letting Winry know he'd planned on scaring her. "Winry!" he said, pitching his voice to match hers. "So, are you going to play?" Alphonse gestured toward the two castles. "All of this could be yours, you know. Roy and Ed both want you on their side. For pretty much the same reason, too."
"Oh, really." Winry wrapped her arms around herself. "I don't think Roy wants to sleep with me."
Alphonse snorted. "You'd be surprised." At her look, he waved his hand. "Forget I said that. But really, you're the bone of contention, here. Roy wants you on his side to piss off Brother. Brother…well." That grin deepened. "He does want to sleep with you. But I guess he did last night, huh?"
"Al!" Winry punched him in the shoulder, making him yelp and dance sideways. "Were you spying?"
"You two were so cute on the stairway…did you share your robe on purpose or did he steal it?" Alphonse ducked out of range of her second punch, snickering.
Threatening him wasn't as much fun as actually landing the blow. "Why do you want to know? So you can tease him about it later? Wait, have you already said something to him? Geeze, you two!"
Alphonse held up his hands in supplication. "Me? No. Roy? Yes. Grant was the one who wanted to know why Brother was wearing a woman's housecoat." At Winry's groan, he continued, his smile widening. "Roy wanted to know why it was your housecoat."
"He would. He's a brat, too." Winry glared at what was obviously Roy's castle, as if she could melt it from the heat of her stare. "I can't believe he'd say that in front of my son."
"Then you should join Brother's team and strike a blow."
Winry gave an exaggerated shiver. "Too cold. I can't believe Paninya and Ed are still out here." She couldn't see a chestnut head anywhere in the kids playing in the yard, even by standing on her toes and craning her neck.
"Brother promoted him to 'captain of the fort'. Grant's taking it seriously." Alphonse pointed over her shoulder, guiding her line of sight. "See? Up there. With Ed."
"And the catapult."
"And the catapult. Don't worry, Brother's mostly aiming for the walls of Roy's castle."
"Yeah," Winry sighed, "it's that 'mostly' I'm worried about." Shrieks erupted as the catapult launched again, snow scattering across the site. Kids yelled at being struck by the powdery stuff, grabbing up handfuls and forming balls to pitch back. Roy bellowed something, appearing at the base of his castle and gesturing. Maizy stood next to him, hands on her hips. Mr. Havoc took the time out to light up a cigarette while Mr. Breda stepped back away from Hayate, nearly stumbling into a castle wall. "This doesn't look good."
"Uh, oh." Alphonse nodded toward Edward's castle. His brother hung over the wall, catcalling something at Roy. Behind him, Paninya and Miss Catalina scanned the 'enemy'. "I think it might be a cease fire?"
Winry gave Alphonse a look. "With Ed and Roy involved?"
"Right. What was I thinking." Alphonse took her hand, leading her further away from the upcoming battle. "Let's get out of range, huh?"
They sheltered under a tree, the branches bare of snow. Winry figured the brothers and Roy had gathered up as much snow as they could to make the castles and have left over for the actual battle. Alphonse leaned against the trunk of the tree, keeping hold of her hand. The wind caught the voices of those on the battlefield, whipping them away. Still, Winry could see Edward and Roy facing off, Grant and Maizy at their sides. She wondered who might be working the catapult now and hoped Paninya might've been chosen for such a weapon of war. Then again, Paninya didn't exactly have a cool head. "I don't suppose I can convince you to take over Ed's castle, can I?"
"Nope!" Alphonse squeezed her hand. "It's Grant's castle. I'm not getting involved in taking away your son's command."
"I guess he'd thank you for that." Winry leaned her shoulder against Alphonse's arm, not surprised when he adjusted his position to wrap that arm around her, tucking her against his side.
"From what I can tell, Grant's a good kid, Winry." His gentle smile tugged at her heart.
Winry took a deep breath. "Oh, it's starting!" Snowballs wheeled out of all hands, the catapult launching another batch of snow into the air. Kids shrieked and yelled, running through the wind as it whipped up what loose snow remaining in the piles. Pitching her voice so Alphonse could hear, Winry said, "I like to think he's a good kid. He wants," she hesitated then plowed on, "Grant wants to learn alchemy. He grew up listening to his dad and Roy tell stories about it. Roy's been giving him some books to read - not those things you and Ed read as kids." Winry shook her head. "I can almost understand these books."
"Hey, you're smart." Alphonse nodded, his eyes on the battlefield before them though, from the tone of his voice, he was very far away. "Smarter than both Brother and me."
"Took you long enough to realize it." Winry said it lightly.
Glancing at her sidelong, Alphonse said, "I think I've always known it. Well," he flapped the hand on her shoulder, "once I was intelligent enough to realize I knew it. Boys aren't always very bright, Winry."
"Ha! You're not telling me anything I don't already know." She brushed at her bangs but the wind blew them right back into her eyes.
"We shouldn't have left you."
That wasn't expected.
"I mean…I know we all talked about it. I thought…I was too proud to leave well enough alone. I wanted Brother to get his arm and leg back, so much, I didn't think what us leaving again might do to you." He squeezed her shoulders. "I'm sorry, Winry."
Before she could clear her throat to speak, Alphonse went on, sounding almost desperate. "Brother – we both missed you. After…after you got married, Brother would stare at his arm sometimes, fold his fingers in then relax them. It took about a month before he stopped drinking." There was a faint hint of dark humor to that which made Winry frown and turn her attention fully on Alphonse. "He stopped. Mostly." Alphonse grinned weakly. "I don't think he's ever gotten over you, Winry."
If this was when she was supposed to say she'd never gotten over Edward, Winry didn't know if she could. She had, after all. Sort of. Maybe. Winry shifted her weight, somewhat uncomfortable. Geoffrey didn't say that he thought she loved anyone else when he left, just that marriage and fatherhood wasn't what he'd expected it to be. He'd written a few times since he'd left them, even sent Grant a book on alchemy he'd found in a bookstore. "I don't know what to say, Al."
Alphonse chuckled. "It's okay. He'd probably want to kick my ass for telling you that."
Winry reached up to cover his fingers with her own. "Al…Ed told me about Liang."
There was a hush, as if even the war in front of them had caught wind of their conversation. "Really?" Alphonse sounded strangled.
"I." Alphonse pressed his free hand against his eyes. "Yeah. So am I, Winry. I'm not sure Ling will let us back into Xing. It was a little scary toward the end, before we left." His mouth took on a grim slant. "He may be our friend." There was a faint hesitation and he went on. "But he and Ran Fan wanted Liang. I don't think…they'd stop at much to keep him safe."
"So what do you plan on doing now?" Determined to change the subject, Winry gave Alphonse's fingers a tight squeeze.
He grinned, less bittersweet than before. "Watch Brother dance around you. That ought to be good for a few laughs. Take Paninya down to meet Master Izumi. I think they'd like each other. Get to know Grant, if you'd let me."
"Let you? Al, someone's going to have to teach him alchemy besides Roy Mustang." Winry wagged a finger at Alphonse's nose. "Or your brother. Someone with a little bit of common sense."
"And you think I'm that person?" Alphonse scoffed.
Winry nodded. "Mm! I like to think you are." She patted his chest. "You're a good man, Al. You and Ed both are. I should've realized something happened. You two wouldn't have let me down if you'd known about Granny."
Alphonse wrapped both arms around her, holding her tight. Winry thought he might have kissed the crown of her head but it was hard to tell with the hat in the way. Together, they watched as both Roy and Edward went down under swarms of kids and snowballs.
* * *
The explosion rocked Mayhugh Drive, the heat enough to flash melt some of the deep snow around Pendergrast House. Flames licked up at the sky, eerily blue then changing to red and yellow. Mrs. Colbertson tried to call in a report to the military police but the telephone lines were down. She said words that polite older women shouldn't know but said behind the backs of idiots who thought that sort of nonsense, finding out her gas line was down, too. Probably for the best. From those flames and the explosion, she thought maybe there was a gas leak. She didn't want the fire to travel into her house, after all.
But too bad for Mrs. Pendergrast. Such a sweet woman. Devoted to her husband. At least there weren't any children. Mrs. Colbertson tightened her mouth. Major Pendergrast's parents had been lovely people. Their son, not so much. Mrs. Colbertson still thought he might've been the reason her cats had kept going missing. She'd finally given up on keeping them. The heartbreak of not knowing was too much.
The boy had joined the military too late to take part in the quelling of Ishbal. Mrs. Colbertson entertained the thought that if he'd been a bit older, maybe he wouldn't have come home from Ishbal and her cats would've been avenged. Perhaps that was too harsh but she was an old woman and allowed at least a few unkind thoughts.
"I wonder what might've set that off," she asked the air, staring out the window at the flames.
"The same man who killed your fucking cats."
Mrs. Colbertson couldn't move fast enough to avoid the blow.
* * *
It is difficult to know at what moment love begins; it is less difficult to know that it has begun. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
* * *
Edward's stomach rumbled loud enough that it seemed to echo around the mud room. Hayate, hearing the strange sound, barked, dropping into a play bow and wagging his tail. "Ah," he waved his hand at the dog. "Hush."
"Guess you're wishing it was after dusk, huh, Chief?" Havoc grinned knowingly.
Checking to see if the kids were in the room, Edward patted his stomach. "This bites. I'm starved. Whose idea was it to start a tradition where you don't eat all day?"
"The Ishballans, for one," Breda said, standing as far away from Hayate as he could get and still be in the same room. Undressing from winter gear seemed to be going slow, as if he was reluctant to bear any part of his body to the possibility of the dog getting close to him.
Edward waved a hand. "Pfft. We're not Ishballans."
"No, you're a mess. I don't understand why you didn't use alchemy to dry your clothes before coming inside." Leaning against the door jam, Winry shook her head at the current inhabitants of the mud room.
Mustang looked down at his hands then at Winry. "I must be suffering from Edward's hunger." Pressing his palms together, he started to touch his clothes.
"Oh, no no! I don't want to see that!" Edward raised his hands to ward off the sight of Mustang's body. "You do that elsewhere."
"What's wrong, Chief?" Havoc wriggled his boot at Hayate, making the dog prance and bounce.
"Transmuting clothes makes them disappear." Winry offered the room a smug grin. "Ed probably doesn't want to be scarred by the sight of Roy's body."
"No offense, Boss?" Havoc wagged his cigarette Roy's way. "I agree. I don't need to see anything more of yours than what's normally exposed by daywear."
"I'll have you know, it's a fine sight to see." Roy huffed at Edward's raspberry. "Even if some of you have no appreciation for a fine body."
"Now you just sound like Armstrong," Breda called out from his corner.
"A-aah!" Edward waved his hands. "No! I don't want to see that! Nobody wants to see that!"
"Hey, Edward?" Kain Fuery stepped around Winry and into the mud room. "There's a call for you. A Detective Gerdello?" He yipped when Winry grabbed for him.
"What did he say, Mr. Fuery?" She gave his arm a slight shake.
Pulling away carefully and adjusting his glasses, Fuery cleared his throat. "All I can say is he wanted to speak to Edward."
"Not me," Alphonse sighed.
"You're just not as notorious as your brother," Mustang said, chuckling at the obscene gesture Edward thrust his way.
"I'll be there in a minute, Second Lieutenant." Edward kicked off his wet shoes, forgoing transmuting his clothes. He wanted to know what Gerdello had to say and, from her tight features, Winry was going with him. "Al?"
"Yeah." Alphonse shook some of the snow off his jacket, deciding it was too wet to wear inside the house proper. Toeing his boots off, he left them under his jacket. "Coming."
The trio followed Fuery through the halls to the telephone banks of the house. Though small, particularly considering the banks in Central City, there were still five telephones on the wall. Edward picked up the receiver resting on a shelf, a notebook and pencil tucked in a cubby hole beneath the telephone itself. "Calling to congratulate me on cleaning up your town, Detective?"
"Ah, Mr. Elric." Gerdello sounded even oilier over the telephone than in person. "That was your idea?"
Edward glanced at Winry. "Not entirely." He turned the telephone receiver a little so she and Alphonse could catch something of the conversation. "I'm sure there's a reason you're calling today."
"And you are correct. I got a call earlier about you, from the hotel manager. Seems someone left you a package yesterday. I wondered if I could drop it off to you at the General's house, as it's not something that can wait around for you to come get it."
"What kind of package?" Winry and Alphonse exchanged worried looks. "It isn't something gross, is it?" Edward asked.
"I suppose that depends on your taste. The manager was a little put off by it."
Edward raised his eyebrows and Alphonse nodded. Winry, after a few second's hesitation, bobbed her head as well. "Yeah, sure, bring it by. It's Shortest Day, though, you'd better hurry if you're planning on getting home for your feast tonight."
"Oh, don't worry about me, Mr. Elric. With the roads cleared, I'm sure I'll have plenty of time to get to the General's mansion and back home again before my family sits down to eat." Without saying anything more, Gerdello rang off, leaving Edward holding the receiver.
"What do you think it is?" Alphonse tapped his fingertips together, the way he did when he was nervous. "You don't think it's something the killer sent you?"
"Ed?" Winry's eyes went wide.
He replaced the receiver in the cradle, waving off their worries. "Nah. If it was something bad, he wouldn't be so secretive about it. And probably would've just come by here and dragged me down to the station. Whatever he's got, he'll bring it by here in a little while, right? Damn, but it was cold out there." Edward sniffled, rubbing the tip of his cold nose with his flesh knuckle. "I want something hot to warm me up." He realized he was looking Winry's way and jerked his gaze elsewhere. Quickly. Before anyone noticed. He sniffed again.
"Handkerchief, Brother." Alphonse pulled one out of a pocket, shoving it in Edward's hand.
"Riza was working on a pot of mulled cider when I came outside." Winry tilted her head back, taking a deep breath. "Don't you smell it?"
"I do. I want some." Alphonse offered Winry his elbow, grinning when she slipped her hand through the crook. "Are you coming, Brother?"
They were smiling at him. Edward grinned back. "Let me get dried off. That bastard Mustang and his army shoved snow where there shouldn't be any."
"I didn't need to know that." Alphonse scowled.
Winry managed to squelch a chuckle as Edward went on. "His kid shoved snow down the back of my pants! What is she, four? Five? She shouldn't be touching me like that!" He pointed at Fuery. "And you, Second Lieutenant, where were you during all this?"
Fuery didn't even flinch. "Manning the telephones, like General Hawkeye asked me to."
"Hnph." Edward shoved his lower lip out. "Damn it, I'm cold. I'm getting some dry clothes on before Gerdello gets here with that package. And then some cider." He stalked past his brother and Winry, ignoring their snickers. He even managed to keep up the stomping until at least the end of the hallway, knowing they couldn't see his grin.
* * *
Paul Gerdello had never had an occasion to visit the General's mansion. He'd seen it before – no one who lived in East City could avoid that. It sat atop a hill, surrounded by an iron and stone fence. Snow frosted over the rising land, making it look like something out of a story or a moving picture. Paul wondered that the trees seemed to have escaped the snow. Even the highest branches were devoid of white stuff. The driveway remained clear, though the high wind already sent drifts scouting across the blacktop. The car made it up the incline, Paul studying the snow, wondering how it had all been cleared without tracks being left in that expanse of white.
"Guess the alchemists started here, Gerdello?" Sergeant Wilson glanced over at him, her eyes flickering down to the basket in his lap.
"That'd be a good guess." Paul tugged gently on the dog's ear, the silky fur soft against his calloused fingers. The brick house rose ahead of them, more utilitarian than eye catching. There was a military feel to it, with its stern façade, the windows staring down at the city below like a general eyeing his troops. Wilson stopped the car on the loop of the drive as Paul settled the dog back in its basket. He handed off the basket to the sergeant, getting into the back seat of the car for the rest of the items for the mutt. With a wheeze, he balanced a bed, bowls and dog food on his hip and kicked the car door closed. "Let's get this over with."
The double doors were carved wood with multiple leaded glass windows. A brass knocker in the shape of a lion stared at Paul as he lifted the ring. "Think anyone will actually hear this?" He banged it down, wondering if the metal on metal rang clearly through the door. Beside him, Wilson shifted the dog's basket on her hip. They waited, Wilson hunching her shoulders against the chill. Paul peered through the windows. He wondered where another door might be and whether anyone might hear them if they knocked there.
As he considered walking around the building, the door opened, a quizzical face appearing in the crack. "Hello?"
Paul couldn't help his surprise at seeing General Hawkeye answering the door. "General? I'm Detective Gerdello. This is Sergeant Wilson. We're here to see Edward Elric."
"Oh. Yes, Fuery told me you'd be coming." She opened the door wider. "Please, come inside. It's cold out there, isn't it? Would you like some mulled cider?"
"Thank you, General but this is a business call." Paul waited for Wilson to go inside. The general closed the door tightly behind them. He noticed her shifting her jacket around her body, not surprised at the glint of a pistol being holstered. "I'm sure this is difficult for you."
She smiled faintly. "I'm rather accustomed to difficulties, Detective." A black and white dog trotted across the matching marble floor, tail wagging. Its ears flicked and it raised its head, sniffing, its nose taking it right to Wilson. The basket rattled, scratching sounds erupting from it. "I'm afraid to ask what's inside the basket."
"A dog, ma'am," Wilson said, before Paul could open his mouth.
"Sent to the hotel for Edward Elric." Paul shrugged as the dog popped its head out of the basket, tongue lolling. It shifted its paws on the rim of the basket, staring down at the black and white dog.
"Hayate is good with other dogs."
"Mm, don't know if that thing is." Paul made a face. "Maybe we'd better get it to Mr. Elric?"
The general nodded. "Come with me." She led the way through the house, down a hall and around a corner. The sweet smell of cider perfumed the air. In Wilson's arms, the little dog seemed to be panting a little less. Noise erupted, a cacophony of voices all talking at once. Paul saw the general's shoulders rise and fall in a sigh. "It gets like this when my husband and Edward are in the same city." Paul shifted the dog stuff in his arms as the general pushed open a swinging door. "Edward, Detective Gerdello is here to see you."
" – Can't believe you had your daughter shove snow down my pants!" The blond man pointed an automail finger across the room at someone with his back to the door. "Oh." Elric grinned in a sickly way. "Hey, General."
"Roy, is what Edward said true?" General Hawkeye's voice turned to ice. The little dog whined and ducked back into its basket.
"Now, Riza." The Fuhrer of Amestris got to his feet, spreading his hands. "It wasn't exactly like that."
"Down the back of my pants," Elric said, an evil glint in his eyes.
"Really, it was innocent." Fuhrer Mustang offered a hand to his wife.
She ignored his hand, tucking her own behind her back. "I'm not sure I believe you. Where are the children now?"
"With Al, Paninya and Winry. Safe hands." Elric craned his neck, trying to see past the various heads, finally getting to his feet and starting around the table.
"Detective Gerdello, Sergeant Wilson, this is my husband, Roy Mustang. Whether he'll remain my husband throughout the night stands to be debated." General Mustang's steady, cool stare was enough to make Paul feel like he should take a few steps out of range.
"Riza!" Mustang gave her a look best suited on the face of a three year old who'd lost a lollipop.
"Edward?" General Hawkeye gestured at Paul and Wilson.
"Oh. Right. Sorry, Detective." Elric finished making his way around the table. He made a face at the things in Paul's arms. "That…looks like a lot of stuff."
"Detective Wilson? If you'd do the honors." Paul nodded at her. Her smile a little weak, Wilson lifted the basket lid, the dog popping its head out instantly.
Nonplussed, Elric blinked. "The hell?"
"Another dog?" The burly man at the table reacted harshly, skidding his chair back and nearly toppling it.
"Breda, this thing's too little to even bite." Elric scooped the mutt out of the basket, chucking it under the chin. "Are you looking for some more Xingese chicken, fella?" The dog panted, wagging its tail, ears fluttering back and forth.
"You know the dog?" That wasn't expected.
"Yeah. This is what," Elric's eyes went wide. "Oh, fuck."
"What is it, Edward?" General Hawkeye's expression went stony. Fuhrer Mustang went from being a kowtowing husband to the leader of a country.
"This is Mrs. Pendergrast's dog." Elric's jaw tightened. "I'm betting Major Pendergrast didn't send him." Passing the dog off to General Hawkeye, he grabbed the dog's things out of Paul's hands, dropping it to the table. He shook up the container of food, checked the bottoms of both bowls, ripped up the padding in the bed. "Here." A scrap of paper between his fingers, Elric's face turned cold. "Damn it." Before being asked, he handed over the paper to Paul.
"Detective Gerdello!" A short man with glasses appeared in the doorway. "I'm glad to have caught you. There's a telephone call for you, sir."
"A call?" He raised his eyes from the note, wondering who the hell would be calling him here? "Who called me?"
"Your commander, sir." The man glanced toward the fuhrer and the general, waiting for their nods. "It's regarding Major Pendergrast."
"What?" Elric snapped.
"At approximately thirteen hundred hours, Pendergrast House exploded. It's believed to be a gas leak based on the damage." The man adjusted his glasses. "It isn't known if there are any survivors."
* * *
"Isn't this something." Rebecca checked the sight on her rifle. "Longest Night celebration and we're preparing for a war."
"Could be worse." Havoc clenched his unlit cigarette in his teeth. At Rebecca's disbelieving look, he nodded. "Could be stuck out in the cold watching, rather than inside the house. That's bad."
Rebecca set her rifle down next to the window. "I should've known. Riza's parties never really are. She's always got something going on." Wrinkling her nose, she rubbed her hands on her slacks. "Usually it isn't a killer."
"No?" Havoc wagged his cigarette to show he was paying attention. "I've never been involved with something like this unless there was a killer. Did she tell you about the time the skull-headed guy that was just a suit of armor was hitting on her?"
Pretty eyes about to pop out of her head, Rebecca shook her head slowly. "That sounds like a proper Longest Night story, even."
"We may have to save it for another night, though." Havoc checked the speed loader of his pistol.
"Yeah. That's what I thought." With a sigh, Rebecca picked up a handful of bullets for her own pistol.
* * *
"I am not going to sit in an enclosed room all night with the kids." Hands firmly planted on her hips, Winry dared them to say anything different.
"It would be safer, Winry." Roy almost retreated from that furnace hot glare. "Or not."
"No one is asking that, Winry." Riza recognized her impotent fury. "But if anything happens, you and the children will retreat to a safe room and stay there until you're advised it's okay to come out."
"Riza will be with you." Roy couldn't be oblivious to her glare. "Someone will need to protect the children." He hadn't said Winry needed protection, despite the obvious. "The house," he went on, "was designed with bolt holes in case of emergencies."
"You see?" Riza tapped the wall next to the fireplace. "It sounds fine. But," she took Winry's hand, laying it against three bricks in succession, "there's a hidden passage." The wainscoting next to the fireplace slid aside, revealing a small brick staircase. "The steps are steep and we'll need to take a light." Riza indicated the lantern on the mantelpiece. The wainscoting slipped closed again. "It's automatic."
"That's clever." Winry didn't bother hiding her admiration. "Where does the staircase go?"
"There are tunnels throughout the house," Riza said. "We'll go to the basement and from there, take another bolt hole, if necessary, to get out of the house safely. That will take us to the stable."
"There's a telephone line in the stable, separate from the line the house is on. Get to the stable, call the military police. Do not," his expression stern, Roy pointed from Riza to Winry, "return to the house, no matter what."
"Yes, dear," Riza grumbled.
"I mean it, Riza."
She hated that look on his face. "I can take care of myself. And you."
Damn. He had her there. And from that smirk, he knew it. "You're right."
* * *
Alphonse flopped onto the bed, the sigh escaping him sounding as if the world itself had crushed him.
"It'll be okay." Paninya sat next to him, rubbing his chest. "I mean, how is this guy going to figure out Winry's even here?"
Looking at her through the fringe of his eyelashes, Alphonse raised an eyebrow. "Riza's Winry's sponsor? They're often seen together? It's well known they're friends and if Winry's not at her place, this would be the next logical place for her to go? Not to mention, Grant and Maizy are best friends. I'd think it'd be obvious a mother would take her child wherever her child felt safe."
"Geeze." Paninya blew out a puff of breath. "You thought about this way too much."
Alphonse managed a hint of a smile. "Yeah, well. I'd rather be thinking of other things."
"Fun times later, right?" She grinned.
"You have no idea."
* * *
Hearing that piping voice, Edward chewed a little harder to clear his mouth and straightened from where he'd been peering out the window. "Yeah?" he mumbled, trying to hide his sandwich behind his back.
Grant stood there, frowning at him. "Are you eating?"
"No!" Edward scowled, hoping to intimidate the boy.
"You're eating! You're not supposed to eat 'til after eight o'clock tonight!"
"Yeah? What happens if I do eat?" Caught out, Edward leaned against the wall, taking a healthy bite of his sandwich.
"It's bad luck for the new year!" Grant waved a pudgy finger.
The admonishment didn't slow Edward down. "You tell that to my stomach." He shoved the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, thinking Grant had inherited Winry's bossiness.
"You're an alchemist! You shouldn't be hungry!"
Edward blinked a few times. Considered. Chewed. Swallowed. It still didn't make any sense. "Huh?"
"Dad said alchemists were amazing!" Grant shoved out his lower lip in an excellent example of a pout.
Oh. "Oh." Edward glanced out the window again. Snow. More snow coming down. Mentally, he sighed. Tomorrow was going to suck. "Grant, alchemists are people, too. I mean, we can do some stuff that seems amazing, but it takes energy out of us." He realized Grant didn't quite understand him. Great, how did Master explain this? Had she actually explained it? "Okay. You know how you run, right?"
Grant nodded, his expression suspicious.
Edward 'ran' his fingers along the windowsill. "So, you're running. And you're running. And you suddenly stop. How do you feel?"
The suspicion grew, along with Grant's prodigious frown.
"You're tired, right?" Edward waited for the tentative nod. "And when you're tired, what does that mean?"
"I dunno." Grant shrugged.
"It means you've used up some of your body's fuel – like food or water – and your body wants to replace it. Now, imagine running all afternoon. Do you think your body would want something to eat and drink afterward?"
Grant seemed to think that over. "I guess."
"Well, today, I ran all over East City, using alchemy to clear the streets. Then, I came back here and built your castle, remember? That took a lot of fuel from my body. And I played with you and helped you win the battle, right? So that used up more fuel. Not only am I tired, I'm really hungry and thirsty. So I made myself a sandwich to go with the hot cider Haw – General Hawkeye made." Reminded of that very thing, Edward picked up his cup and drank. The cider was cool after so long but still tasted good. "So that's why I'm willing to risk bad luck to eat."
Nose wrinkled, Grant stared up at Edward. "But Dad said alchemists are heroes!"
Well, hell. Edward wasn't sure how to respond to that. "Grant, did your dad know any alchemists?"
"Mm!" He nodded once, a dip of his chin.
"That bas – I mean, Fuhrer Mustang?"
"Nn-nn. He knew the Fullmetal Alchemist. Dad said he was a hero, 'cause he did things for the people that a lot of other alchemists wouldn't."
For a few seconds, Edward wondered if he'd heard Grant right. How had Winry taken that, hearing her husband praise him to their son? Had it hurt her? Had she walked out of the room when Geoffrey talked about alchemy and heroes? Edward wondered if she'd ever argued with Geoffrey about saying something like that. It seemed weird to think that Winry's husband might've taken up for him. Creepy weird. Snowfall in summer weird. "Your father said that?"
"Yeah!" Grant beamed. "See? Alchemists are heroes."
His mouth ran away with him. "Does your mom think that, too?"
"Do I think what?"
Edward flinched. Of course Winry would appear to hear him ask that.
"If alchemists are heroes." Grant obviously needed training in 'guys stick together.'
Winry ruffled her son's hair, smiling down at him. The expression she turned on Edward wasn't quite as pleasant. He felt relieved that it was more confused than outrightly hostile. "Huh?"
"Dad said alchemists are heroes." Grant pointed at Edward. "He took food outta the kitchen and ate it. He shouldn't'a done that, huh, Mom?"
"You ate?" Winry's eyebrows twitched.
"Just a sandwich." Defensive. "It's hard work, clearing all the streets in East City. Like you asked." Yeah, good, Ed, just antagonize her by reminding her of that. "Not that it's gonna do much good, the way the snow's coming down now." He jerked his chin toward the window.
"Stop trying to change the subject, Ed."
Was Winry laughing? Edward glowered. "I'm not! I'm just saying. I cleared the streets once, I'm not doing it again." He folded his arms. That was that. Oops, that would've worked out better if he hadn't had a part of a sandwich in his hand.
"But you oughtta! That's what alchemists do!" Grant's scowl rivaled his own. "Tell him, Mom. The Fullmetal Alchemist would do it."
Oh, yeah, she was laughing. "You think it's funny?" Yet another stupid question, numbskull.
Too busy laughing to actually speak, Winry fell back against the wall, clutching her stomach. "Ye-hee-es!"
"Nng." Edward spared her a glare before squatting in front of Grant. "Hey. Your dad told you about the Fullmetal Alchemist. What's he look like?"
"He's tall," Grant raised his hands over his head in emphasis. Edward's eyebrows twitched. "And he's strong! All muscles." A vein pulsed in his forehead. "And he's amazing!"
"S-sounds like Major Armstrong." Winry snickered.
"Hnf. Grant, did your mom ever say anything about the Fullmetal Alchemist?" Grant screwed up his face. "Like, when your dad was telling you these stories?"
"Um." Grant shot Winry a look. "Dad didn't tell them when Mom was around."
"Ahh." Rocking back on his heels, Edward smiled. "Yeah. That explains it." And he hated that guilty look on Grant's face. "I bet it's okay, though, huh, Winry?"
"Except for the fact your dad got it wrong, Grant." Winry bent over, laying a hand on her son's shoulder. "See, the Fullmetal Alchemist isn't very – "
"Don't say it!" Edward snapped.
"Muscular." She stuck the tip of her tongue out at him. "And I know this because I grew up with him."
"Nuh-uh." Grant shook his head, curls flipping on his forehead. "Dad would've said!"
Winry shrugged in defeat at that one.
"Grant, you can read, right?" At his indignant nod, Edward held up a finger. "Library. I know there's one here with current history, right? The bast – Mustang's ego wouldn't be satisfied unless there was book or two here."
"I know!" Grant grabbed Winry's hand, giving it a tug. "The library's this way." He led them on a quick trip to the ground floor. Edward finished off his sandwich and cider on the way, wiping his hands clean on his trousers.
The room was everything he expected; two floors, nothing but shelves, a rolling ladder, a few well-placed chairs, a fireplace and lots of windows. The smell of leather and paper tickled his nose as he inhaled deeply.
"Don't get lost." The dry tone of Winry's voice snapped him out of it.
His expression sour, Edward slouched to the nearest shelf. "Be helpful if there was a catalogue. Who knows where I'll find a recent history book."
"You could try the bookstand." Mustang's rich voice curled down from the upper level. "And next time, knock when you come in. You might've been interrupting something.
Edward waved a hand dismissively. "No one cares."
"Just because my wife isn't in the room with me doesn't mean I didn't have an assignation planned."
"My son is here with us, Roy," Winry used her 'mommy tone.' Edward glad it wasn't directed at him.
Roy peered over the railing, nonplussed. "Hello, Grant."
"Hi, Uncle Roy."
"I can't believe you let Grant call him that," Edward grumbled.
"Get your book." Winry pointed at the stand.
"What is it you're looking for in particular, Edward?" He could feel Mustang's eyes burning a hole between his shoulder blades.
"Recent history, like I said." Edward just managed not to flip a particularly obscene gesture at Mustang. The book on the stand was opened to a page with a picture of the man himself being elected Fuhrer. Rolling his eyes, Edward flipped to the back of the book, looking through the notations. He remembered someone saying his picture was in a history book. With luck, he wouldn't be standing next to Armstrong. Grant would never believe it.
"Why?" Mustang sounded curious.
"Because Grant has some misguided notions about the Fullmetal Alchemist," Winry said. Edward ignored the laughter in her words. "He's tall and muscular."
"Tall?" Mustang snorted.
"Shut. It." Edward didn't even bother raising his eyes from the printed page.
Winry wasn't finished. "…and heroic and all things pure and good!"
"Mom!" Grant sounded pissed.
Edward knew he was. "Winry!" Okay, she was still damn cute when she giggled like that but did she have to giggle like that at him?
Mustang leaned even farther over the railing. "Winry, Geoffrey never actually saw Fullmetal, did he?"
"Dad did, too! He knew the Fullmetal Alchemist." Grant's lower lip poked out.
"A-ah!" There was something about him in the book. Marking the index page with his finger, Edward flipped to the first mention. "'…youngest State Alchemist…given name of 'Fullmetal' because of his automail limbs, right arm and left leg, respectively…' Ha." No picture but a mention of the bastard, of course, discovering this young talent and recruiting him to the military.
"Grant, your dad didn't know the Fullmetal Alchemist. They never met." Winry spoke gently. Edward glanced up in time to see Grant jerk away from her.
"Dad was friends with him!"
Ouch. Edward winced at the outrage in Grant's words, not sure what to do now.
"Grant," Roy climbed down the ladder steps to the ground floor of the library. "Your mother's right. Your father didn't know the Fullmetal Alchemist."
"You're both wrong!" Grant's voice wavered, indignant and shrill. He took a step farther away from Winry, who bridled.
"No. They're right, Grant." Edward picked up the book, carrying it to Grant. "Look. See? You can read this, right?" He tapped his metal forefinger on the page. "That's the Fullmetal Alchemist. That's me."
Eyes wide, Grant stared at the page, at Edward in his red coat, dulled to grey in the black and white photograph. Havoc stood behind him, leaning against a car, cigarette dangling from his fingers. Alphonse, still in armor, was on the other side of the car. Breda and Falman were there, too, though the photographer had focused in on Edward. The others weren't quite as clear. Underneath were the words, The Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward Elric, with members of his military command.
"That's not true!" Grant slapped the book out of Edward's hands, sending it spinning across the floor. "You're not the Fullmetal Alchemist!"
"Grant!" Winry reached for her son.
Expression belligerent, he took another step away from her. "That book lies. It's not the truth! Dad wouldn't lie to me!"
"What's going on in here?" Hawkeye stepped through the doorway, a pistol half-hidden behind her hip.
"Grant's having a temper tantrum." Winry took a breath. "Grant, you need to apologize to Roy and Riza, and to Edward."
"Grant," Edward figured he had to try, "ask General Hawkeye who I am."
Lip trembling, Grant asked the question.
"Edward Elric." When Edward spun his fingers, indicating she needed to go on, Hawkeye went on. "The Fullmetal Alchemist. Retired from active duty in the military four years ago, he and his brother, Alphonse Elric, were assigned as diplomats to the court of Emperor Yao Ling in Xing."
Okay, so maybe that was a bit much. "See, Grant? You don't think General Hawkeye would lie to you, do you? And your mom wouldn't." Oops. Maybe not a good thing to say, since Winry'd never told Grant she knew him and Alphonse. "Or Paninya. She'd never say something that wasn't true to you, would she? You could ask her. She'd tell you." Edward picked up the book, smoothing a bent page. "Your dad must've really thought alchemy was cool, huh? It is cool. But you understand, alchemy's a science, right? Scientists can't believe in lies. You can have hopes and dreams and be an alchemist but you have to search for the truth.
"The truth is, I'm the Fullmetal Alchemist. Everyone here in this house will tell you that. They're not lying." Edward closed the book, holding it against his chest.
"Grant, honey," Winry offered him her hand. Her son took it, though slowly, so very slowly. She drew him to one of the big chairs, sinking into the cushions and settling Grant on her lap. Arms wrapping around him, Winry rocked back and forth, gave him a kiss on the top of his head. Grant wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, reminding Edward of Winry all over again. "Your dad and your great-granny used to talk about alchemy and automail all hours of the day and night. I didn't listen. I was too busy. But your dad was really excited to find out that Granny and I knew the Fullmetal Alchemist. He always wanted to meet Ed." Something inside him shriveled up, hearing Winry say that, even though she didn't even glance his way. "But Ed and Al were in Xing, like your Aunt Riza said. It's a long, long way away, so your dad never met them. Your great-granny, though, she liked to tell stories about Ed and Al, and her stories were so good, if you didn't know them, you'd start thinking you did.
"I think that's what happened with your dad. He heard so many stories about the Fullmetal Alchemist, back in Rezembool, and he wanted to share them with you. So he told them to you, because your great-granny wasn't around to tell them, and I couldn't. If your dad said he knew Ed, well, he did. He knew Ed through your great-granny and all Ed's friends in Rezembool." Her expression soft, Winry nuzzled Grant's hair. "Maybe someday, you can introduce your dad to Ed. I know your dad would like that, a lot."
Grant quavered out, "Really?"
Edward had to clear his throat twice before he could answer. "Sure. I mean," he jerked a thumb at his chest, managing a cocky grin, "who wouldn't want to meet a hero, huh?" Mustang coughed then yelped. Edward caught a glimpse of Hawkeye withdrawing her foot and had to hide a smirk.
"Okay, Grant?" Winry pulled his chin around so he had to look at her.
He pursed his lips and dashed a hand over his eyes. "Yes, Mom."
"And what do you say to Uncle Roy and Aunt Riza?"
Grant sighed as if the world was ending. "I'm sorry I threw the book."
"I understand, Grant. There are days when I feel like throwing books, myself," Roy said.
"And to Mr. Elric?"
"Ack! Mr. Elric?" Edward waved the hand not full of the history book. "No, no. Ed's fine."
Winry narrowed her eyes at him. The door burst open before she could say anything more, Havoc standing within the frame. "Trouble."
"Where's Maizy?" Hawkeye's face changed from doting aunt to warrior as she spun.
"Al's got her and Paninya. Waiting on you, General, up in the room."
Edward realized he'd moved to Winry's side, plucking Grant out of her lap and setting the boy on his hip. "C'mon, Winry. Time to go."
"The fastest way would be the ladder." Mustang jerked his chin at the library steps. "Fullmetal, I'll need you here."
Gritting his teeth, Edward knew the bastard was right. Winry and Grant would go with Riza, and Paninya and Al were already upstairs. He couldn't help but think of Scar, with Winry dangling lifeless from his arm. "Winry."
She touched his cheek, calloused fingers sketching a quick caress over his jawbone. "It'll be okay." Taking Grant, she set him on the ladder. "Climb on up, honey. I'll be right behind you."
"What's going on, Mom?" Stubborn, he clung there, not moving.
Edward didn't know what to say but Winry smiled, patting Grant's back. "Just like Mr. Havoc said, Grant, there's trouble. We have to be prepared for it, remember? Now, up the ladder."
Hawkeye made to follow them both, pausing long enough to kiss Mustang, hard. "Don't be stupid."
"That's what Fullmetal's for." Mustang gave her that dumb smirk.
Before Edward could snap back, Havoc cleared his throat. "Trouble, Boss?"
Mustang nodded. "Right." That didn't stop him from watching Hawkeye's first few steps up the ladder before he shook himself. "Report, Havoc."
"Captain Catalina saw something outside during her rounds. Tracks." Havoc spoke as he led the way out of the library. "Looked like someone tried to jimmy the lock to the cellar."
"We transmuted it so the lock was solid." Edward couldn't help his own smirk. "All the locks except for the back door with the mud room and the front door."
"Yeah, don't know how long or how frustrated he got, but he didn't like it." Havoc nodded at Edward's ingenuity. "Good thing that door didn't have any glass in it."
Mustang considered. "What about the basement windows?"
"More alchemy." Edward felt good about that, too. "Al and I transmuted the basement walls. The only way to get through the windows now is if you can transmute them."
"Clever." Mustang gestured at Havoc. "What else?"
"Nothing else yet, Boss. Catalina's watching the front door, Breda's on the back. Fuery's already called the police. With the snow, it's gonna take them a little time to get here."
"We're on our own, in other words." The smile that spread across Mustang's face might've frightened someone else.
Edward answered it with one of his own. "Just the way I like it."
* * *
William stared at the brick wall in front of him. He'd broken out a window at ground level only to smash his hand against what felt like concrete behind it. His knuckles bled for a little bit but the was more an irritation than an impediment. The door he'd tested couldn't be kicked down, much less unlocked. There had to be a way inside the house but William was beginning to wonder if someone was trying to push him in a particular direction for his entrance.
Whatever their plans were, William wasn't going to follow them. No. He had his own schemes. The fact that the military seemed to be stationed around the general's mansion wouldn't thwart him. It made it more interesting, a challenge, and how often had he actually been challenged? His wife had never provided anything of that nature, nor had his neighbors. Mrs. Culbertson had been a prying old biddy but nothing of any consequence. The Elrics would be locked in jail while Winry would be on his arm. It would be perfect.
Of course, first he had to reach her. William blew out a gusty breath, the plumes whipped away by the wind almost instantly. The bitter cold bit through his clothing, finding gaps and taking advantage of them. If he didn't discover a way inside the house soon, his fingers would be too numb to pull the trigger of the pistol hidden in his pocket. Not that he planned on using it, not unless someone got in his way. Winry was meant to be his, William knew it. They had a connection, one that would soon be realized by everyone in East City. He would show her off to the world as his wife, parade her around in the finest clothes. She would be splendid with him and she would realize that so very soon.
William stomped his feet. For a second, just one, he wished he was an alchemist. It would make entering the house so much easier. Less destructive. Well, it couldn't be helped, after all.
Dynamite was easy enough to procure for a man who owned and operated mines. He'd kept some in the basement of his house, stored away in case of need, and finally, the need presented itself. It had only taken a few sticks, along with opening the flues of his gas lines, to cause the explosion at Pendergrast House.
Having no doubt that General Hawkeye would have ordered extra guards around her mansion, William had carried a few sticks with him when he sneaked from his own house. It lacked the finesse and personal touch he preferred but when dealing with the possibility of a pair of alchemists, William thought erring on the side of caution might be the best way to precede.
Shielding the cord and his lighter from the wind, he managed to strike a flame, setting it to the cord. It sparked and hissed, nearly going out before catching. The spark sped up the cord and William set the stick of dynamite in the window frame before slogging through the snow as quickly as he could. He managed to get behind the shelter of a tree trunk before the dynamite went off, bricks, mortar and snow sailing by.
A scream caught his ears like a musical chord and William stepped out from behind the tree, making his way through the steaming debris as it sank into the snow. The wind whipped around him, sucking the smoke out of the hole and whirling it away with the powdery snow. Peering inside, he couldn't help but smile. The room was smaller than expected, no, a tunnel – a rabbit's warren, he realized – and his explosion had forced part of an outer wall inside, capturing the escaping rabbits. "Ah, Winry. I'm so glad to see you."
Even covered in dust, pocked with bruises and scrapes, she glowed with an ethereal beauty. Fire blazed in her eyes, as rich and warming as that blue heat that had risen from his house going up in flames. Winry couldn't stand, no, her leg was bent under her at an unusual angle, but she managed to push a little boy behind her, despite his attempts to keep hold of her clothes. "What do you want?"
His focus on Winry, William did take notice of the two women and the other child in the bolt hole. One of the women scrabbled across the roughened floor and William could just make out the butt of a pistol, buried in some loose rubble. The other, dark-skinned woman lay still, blood seeping from a gash on her forehead. The shrill wail of the girl child got caught by the wind and whipped away.
"I've gone through a great deal of trouble so we can be together, Winry." William climbed into the hole. She shook her head at him, face scrunched up. It amazed him how adorable she could be. "My wife is gone, I've destroyed my house. I suppose you could say I attacked the general." He waved a hand toward Hawkeye, so desperate to reach her pistol. Something seemed wrong with her legs, too, but William ignored that to grab the gun, pulling it free and waving it in her face. She froze, eyes narrowed and blazing. "I know this woman is your friend, Winry, but I'm afraid I can't leave her behind to tell anyone who I am." He cocked the pistol.
"Put down the gun!" Winry tried to reach for William. He could see her out of the corner of her eye. The little boy clutched at her, tears streaking through the dirt on his face. "Don't shoot her!"
William knew better than to take his eyes off of Hawkeye, his most immediate threat. The woman was renowned as a sharpshooter and probably tucked guns into her garters. "I really have nothing against you, General."
"No!" The brick fragment crashed into his shoulder, rocking William. "Don't shoot her!"
"It's the only way, Winry." He dodged the second missile she threw. "Don't worry, we'll be out of here soon, you won't have to worry about any of this. I'll take care of you."
"Hey, jerk! Drop the gun, now." Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the dark-skinned woman, now sitting up and smiling through her bloody mouth. "Mine's bigger."
The brats shrieked and cried, the cacophony ringing in his ears. William tightened his finger on the trigger of the gun. The women wouldn't expect him to actually fire. They never did.
The blow slammed into his ribs like an enormous fist. Pain lanced through him as he crashed into the far wall. He whooped, trying to catch his breath, hunched over in agony. William could barely hear the cheeping voices over the ringing in his ears. His arm ached so he couldn't hold the gun, his fingers loosening on the butt no matter how he tried to hold onto it. Turning his head, he saw a tell-tale tendril of smoke rising from the dark-skinned woman's knee. Who the hell installed a cannon in a woman's leg?
Blue light suddenly ignited the tunnel, a hole appearing through the ceiling above them. William could just make out figures through the light, though the ringing in his ears kept him from understanding anything being said. This wouldn't do. His pistol wouldn't hold anyone at guard. He reached into his pocket, mind made up. His numbed hand could still hold onto the dynamite sticks he had remaining. William plucked the lighter out of his other pocket, striking it so the flame blazed up and lit the fuses, right up next to the blasting caps.
Through the buzzing in his ears, William thought he heard someone yelling. He ignored it to smile at Winry, her expression wreathed in fury. "All for you," he told her, wagging the sticks at her.
When the blue light and the wall swallow his hand and the dynamite, he screamed.
* * *
Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending. – Maria Robinson
* * *
Midnight had long come and gone before Detective Gerdello and the military police completed their investigation and hauled Major Pendergrast away. Alphonse was glad the detective didn't argue about meeting with the women at the hospital. Neither he nor Roy had been willing to listen to arguments that Riza and Paninya were 'just fine.' Edward would've told Gerdello off if he'd wanted to make Winry wait to see a doctor. The kids themselves were in a bad state, trembling and crying, though physically better than the adults.
Grant had it worse than Maizy, who at least had one parent she could cling to. Alphonse and Edward had done what they could for the little boy but they were strangers. Roy wound up with both kids, trying to comfort them while he, himself, looked like he needed the same sort of attention.
The doctors on duty assured them the women would be all right. The reassurance wasn't the same as being able to see for yourself and Alphonse paced the hallway in an attempt to burn off the twitchy feeling his earlier adrenaline rush left behind. Edward stared at the door of Winry's room, as if he wasn't sure what he should do. It was different, Alphonse thought, waiting to hear about the women. How many times had he sat vigil for his brother? Why, despite the knowledge that Riza and Paninya would be fine, that Winry would probably be sent home soon, did it hurt more?
The creak of a door caught their attention, Roy setting both kids on the floor. He stood as a nurse wheeled Riza out of the exam room. A bandage looped around Riza's wrist, that arm in a sling. The wounds on her face had been dressed and another bandage wrapped around one of her ankles. Still, the sight of her smile made Alphonse weak in his knees, even if it wasn't directed at him.
Roy knelt next to her, taking her good hand. "You're all right?"
"Just a few sprains and some new battle scars." Riza pulled her hand free to touch his cheek then gathered Maizy up against her side. "I'll be fine."
"You'll read me a story when we get home?" Maizy asked, hopeful.
"I think Mommy's going to bed when we get home." Roy glanced up at the nurse. "It is all right for her to leave the hospital?"
"She'll have a headache and pulled muscles," the nurse said, "but Dr. Radcliff said it's fine for her to go home."
"He said I'd rest better there." Riza pulled a face as if considering that statement clearly for the first time. "Are you sure I can't stay here, Nurse?"
"If you want," she began only to be overrun by a chorus of, "No!" from Roy and Maizy. The nurse gave Riza a 'what can you do' shrug. "I think you've been overruled, General."
Riza sighed. "I suppose I would sleep better in my own bed." She wagged a finger at Roy. "If someone lets me."
"Be sure and let her rest, Fuhrer." The nurse gave him a stern look that made Roy wrinkle his nose but nod.
"I will." He straightened up, dropping a kiss on the crown of Riza's head. "What about Miss Dhiri and Mrs. Rockbell?"
Grant crowded close. "Where's my Mom and Aunt Paninya? Can I see 'em?"
The nurse smiled at him. "Soon, sweetie. They've been asking about you." She turned the wheelchair over to Roy. "Your mom may have to stay in the hospital a little while, though."
"Why?" Grant grabbed the nurse's skirt, giving it a tug.
"Well, sweetie, your mom's leg is broken. Broken legs take time to heal."
"But I don't want her to stay here. It's cold." Grant glared up at the nurse, as if that would solve the problem.
"Um, Nurse?" Alphonse raised his hand to get her attention. "I might be able to help out with that."
She cocked an eyebrow, curious.
"Really." Edward's anxiety betrayed itself in the way he snapped out the word. "He can. He's a healing alchemist. Maybe you've heard of him – Alphonse Elric? Bet you've heard of the alchemist who cured a spinal cord injury so the soldier could return to active duty. Al's given a few talks to the East City doctors before."
"He's right," Alphonse said. "I know Grant would like his mom to come home with him tonight." Grant nodded his solemn agreement. Alphonse added, a bit more stern, "And so would we."
* * *
The flurry broke through the haze of drugs flooding Winry's system. She made her eyes focus, hearing a familiar voice and seeing a blur of gold in front of her. "Ahl?" Gah, her tongue. Was that really her tongue or was it a dry hunk of meat layered in her mouth?
"It's okay, Winry." It sounded like he was smiling. Or maybe that was the morphine. Winry couldn't quite tell. "I'm gonna do some work on your leg, okay? You don't want to stay in the hospital, do you?"
"Mr. Hooze gon' take me home," she managed to say.
"Nng! She's out of it if she's talking about Hughes."
"I'm here, Winry. So is Grant."
"Mom?" Her son's tearful voice cleared away some of the fog.
Winry blinked a few times, managing a grin for her son. "It's gonna be okay, Grant." His face came into view and she gave him a one-armed hug. "It looks worse than it is."
"'m scared, Mom." He pressed his damp face into her collarbone. "They said you couldn't come home. Where am I gonna go?"
"Son, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to let go of your mom, okay?" Winry recognized the doctor's voice.
"It's okay, Grant." She kissed his forehead. "You'll be with Aunt Riza and Uncle Roy."
"Don't worry, Grant, your mom's coming home with all of us." Edward sounded so determined. "Right, Al?"
"Right, Brother. Now, Winry, this is going to feel a little odd." Alphonse patted her shoulder before picking up a pen from the chart at the end of her bed. He sketched a transmutation circle on her skin. "Because it's Xingese alchemy, I can't just clap my hands together to make the circle. It works differently."
"I don't understand, what are you doing?" The doctor moved around to Alphonse's side of the bed.
His sunny smile became knife sharp. "Trying to heal my friend, Doctor." Alphonse nodded across the bed. "You can hold your mom's hand, Grant. It might make her feel better."
"'Kay." Grant grabbed her hand, giving it a squeeze. "Wow!" He yelped, distracted by the blue brilliance of Alphonse's alchemy.
Winry squeezed back though her gaze drifted up over her son's head. Edward met her gaze, holding it steady as the bones in her leg knitted back together.
* * *
When he was allowed to enter her room, Paninya had a bandage wrapped around her head. Her eyes still sparkled. "East City's pretty exciting," she said as Alphonse took her hand, giving her temple a careful kiss. "Snow and crazy guys?"
"It isn't always like this." Alphonse looked her over. She didn't seem to be in too bad of shape. "At least, that's what I hear. I've been kind of out of the country for a while."
"Yeah." Paninya squeezed his fingers. "You should make plans to stick around. This kind of excitement is wearing on a person, you know? If you don't have someone willing to take care of you."
Grinning, Alphonse raised her hand, kissing her knuckles. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere."
* * *
They needed two cars to haul them to the mansion and, in Edward's opinion, it took far too long for them to get back to the place. "This isn't Briggs! There shouldn't be this much snow."
"Just give me Grant, Brother," Alphonse grumbled, holding out his arms.
The kids had konked out almost before they were settled in their respective cars. Edward could just make out Maizy's head bobbing against Havoc's shoulder as he carried her in. That bastard Mustang had an arm wrapped around Hawkeye. Edward thought, without some malicious glee, that Mustang probably wouldn't be quite so noisy for the next couple of days, at least until Hawkeye healed up some.
"Oh. Sorry." Edward let Winry help him pick up Grant. "Oof!" The kid weighed as much as Old Man Nedobeck's prize bull. How the hell could something this tiny be so heavy? Passing Grant over to Alphonse, Edward made sure his brother had a good hold of the boy before relaxing his grip. Winry'd kill him if he dropped her son.
"Mom?" Grant asked muzzily.
"It's okay, sweetie. We're home. I'll tuck you in soon." She made a shooing motion at Alphonse, who followed that Catalina woman as she helped Paninya up the walk to the house.
"Okay, uh," Edward hated that his face felt hot and blurted it out. "Look, I don't want you to walk." Before Winry could protest, he said, "Al said you should stay off your leg, right?"
"What, you're going to carry me?" Winry rolled her eyes.
"Yeah." Why did he feel like a kid again? "Don't be so stubborn." Edward beckoned her closer. "Come on. I'm freezing my ass off out here. Grant's not the only one who needs tucked in."
Winry stopped just short of laying her arm around his shoulders. "I think you're too old to be tucked in."
"Who said anything about me?" Before she could react, Edward scooped her up, getting his balance under her extra weight. "Kick that door closed, will you?"
With a snort, Winry used her good leg, the car door slamming under the force of her push. "You think I need to be tucked in?"
"Hnn." Edward grinned, ignoring the irate note in her voice. "Maybe even kissed good night."
"Edward!" Winry thumped her fist on his shoulder.
"What? You don't think Grant would like a good night kiss? – Ow! Winry, that's my ear!" Edward glared at her for the shriek. "Don't make me drop you."
Winry stuck out her lower lip. "Al'd kill you if you did."
"Yeah, and your son would hate me more than he already does." Edward turned sideways to get through the door, ignoring Winry's protest of, "He doesn't hate you." "Thanks, Fuery."
"You're welcome, Ed. How are you, Miss Winry? I mean, beyond the obvious?" Fuery closed the door behind them, locking it.
She broke off a yawn, apologizing. "They put me on morphine at the hospital for my leg. I still feel funny."
"It's been a really long night for you, hasn't it?" Edward snorted at Fuery's inadvertent play on words. "Oh!" Fuery nodded. "I won't keep you. I did walk your dog, Ed. He's asleep in the kitchen with Hayate."
"Thanks, Fuery." Something else to think about, that dog.
"The Fuhrer and the General have already gone up to bed."
"Ow, woman, why are you so violent!" Edward gnashed his teeth.
"Why are you such a brat?" Glaring back at him, Winry suddenly turned her head away, using her free hand to point at the stairs. "My bedroom is up there, on the second floor."
"Of course. I should leave you in the den down here – ouch! No hair pulling, woman!"
"If you don't want your hair to be used as a leash, don't grow it so long."
Edward grumbled, shifting her weight in his arms. "I'll remember that when I want you to do something for me." He'd never admit it, carrying her up the stairs, but Winry was heavy. In trying to learn that Xingese healing alchemy, he'd had to study bodies. Winry's trim figure was nothing but packed muscle, making her weigh more than a woman who didn't work metal might.
"Second door on the right."
"Yeah, yeah. Anybody ever tell you you're bossier than a Xingese emperor?" He turned sideways again, to get her through the open door.
"Since I don't know many people who know Xingese emperors to compare me to, no." Winry squirmed. "You can put me down now, Ed."
"Al said for you to stay off the leg." Edward carried her to the bed, setting her down on it. "There. I suppose you have a nightgown or something around here?"
"I can get my own nightgown." Winry sulked.
Edward wondered if she had any idea how cute it made her look. "What did I just say?" he nagged, not about to let her know.
With a roll of her eyes, Winry pointed. "Third drawer. On the left."
Fetching the nightgown, Edward felt both relieved and disappointed it wasn't all silky and lacy and stuff. "Here."
"I'm not changing with you in the room."
"Pfft. As if I haven't seen it all before. Yours, even."
Eyes narrowing sharply, Winry said, "We were kids. It doesn't count."
"Naked's naked." Edward knew the cheeky grin was pushing it but flashed it anyway.
Winry opened her mouth to snap something off at him when someone rapped on the door. Alphonse pushed inside, Grant snuggled in his arms. "He wanted to make sure you're okay and say good night." When the little boy squirmed, Alphonse set him down. Grant stumbled to the bed, almost asleep on his feet, but managed to climb up on the mattress and wrap his arms around Winry.
She smoothed his curly hair. "Good night, Grant." He sighed, eyes drifting closed. Winry smiled down at him, rubbing his back. "Are you asleep?"
"Nn-nn!" Grant snapped his eyes open and struggled to sit up. "I wanna say something." He pointed at Edward. "You used alchemy to stop that bad man." His finger swung to Alphonse. "You used alchemy to make Mom better." His scowl reminded Edward of Pinako's glower. "You guys are heroes, just like Dad said."
Damn it, why was his throat clogging up? "Thanks," Edward managed to get out.
"Thank you, Grant." Alphonse, at least, almost sounded normal.
"Night, Mom." Grant puckered up his entire face for Winry's good night kiss, complaining he wasn't a little baby any more, then thudded off the bed and toward the door. He stopped just inside it, turning to stare at Edward. "I guess," he said grudgingly, "you really are the Fullmetal Alchemist. Night." He flapped a hand at them and went out the door.
Alphonse trotted to the bed, leaning his knee on the mattress and kissing Winry's forehead. "I'll make sure Grant gets to his bed. Night, Winry."
"Night, Al." She hugged him.
"Hnn? Oh." Edward waved as Alphonse left the room.
"Ed, go to bed. You're asleep on your feet."
He blinked at Winry's warm voice. "Don't wanna. If I go to sleep, I might wake up and find out this is a dream." His eyes drifted closed and Edward jerked them open again, determined to stay awake. "Already did that enough times."
"It's not a dream."
"You sure?" He yipped in surprise at the pillow hitting his face, fumbling at it. "The hell?"
"Shut up." Winry pointed at the floor. "You can sleep there."
Edward whined. "The floor?"
"You slept on the stairs last night."
Okay, she was right about that but still. "The floor?"
"Chair, floor. Make up your mind quick, Ed, before I tell you to leave." Shaking a finger at him, Winry added, "If you snore, you're out of here."
"I don't snore." Indignant, Edward dropped the pillow onto the carpet. "Do I at least get a blanket?" He grinned, remembering. "Or your housecoat?"
"Gah. Why did I think this was a good idea?" Winry rubbed her temples.
Taking advantage of someone often meant striking when your opponent was distracted. Edward knew that all too well. Two long strides took him to the side of the bed and he bent down, capturing Winry's face between his hands. A question built in her wide eyes but before she could ask it, Edward leaned in and kissed her. He stroked his thumbs across her cheeks before backing away. "There. I don't usually get to do that in my dreams."
Cheeks flushed, Winry pointed at the pillow he'd dropped. "Go to sleep."
"Hnn." Edward patted a yawn. "Stay off that leg. If y'want anything, wake me up." There was an afghan folded on the window seat and Edward took it, shaking out the folds and wrapping it around his shoulders. Sitting on the floor, he pulled off his boots, setting them out of the way. He took his hair out of its ponytail before thumping his pillow and lying down. "Forgot to tell you." Edward rolled onto his side, facing her bed.
Her shirt pulled halfway up, Winry froze. Her eyes narrowed as she yanked it off, picking up her gown and jerking it over her head. "What?"
Edward knew better than to ask if she always wore such pretty bras. Comments like that could get him brained. Reaching around behind herself, Winry twisted and Edward figured out she'd unhooked her bra. That scrap of fabric slipped out of the arm of her gown. He realized he was staring when her glare deepened. "Sorry." His cheeks reddened but Edward managed to not turn away. "I got you some new earrings in Xing."
Her eyes softened. "You did?"
"Hn. In my luggage." Edward pushed himself into a sitting position.
"Would you rest?" Winry's glare turned full force on him again. "You can show me tomorrow."
Considering, Edward nodded. "Yeah. You're right." He lay back down. "Night, Winry. Pleasant dreams."
Edward thought he heard her say, "This time, they will be," before he drifted off to sleep.
* * *