There was no train line to Xerxes, direct or otherwise, so Winry rode the train as far as it went and waited in the ruins of Ishval for Miles to come pick her up. The wind blew and stung her eyes. It was nothing but dust and sand in the wind -- and still she kept her eyes open. When she blinked, she saw flashes of flames and ash. A lie. She had never been here before.
It was relief when Miles arrived, even if the inside of his car was somehow even hotter than the desert heat outside. Winry was glad she'd decided against wearing shorts. She would have stuck to the leather seats for sure.
Miles helped her load the basics of her automail creation and repair gear in the back of the car. Many of the Ishvalans who survived both the War and the Promised Day were in need of automail. Winry's place was among them; it was what she should do, it was what her parents would have done.
Those that wished to rebuild Ishval and believed it could be done had settled in Xerxes, where some of their people already lived and there was enough stone to build five towns. They would not have settled in Amestris for all the gold in the world. Winry could not fault them. Blood was not so easily repaid.
There was a hard line to Miles' shoulders. She expected it to fade as they drove away from Ishval, but it didn't. If anything, it worsened as they neared Xerxes. Eventually, she asked about it.
"The Emperor of Xing is here," Miles said. "I know we owe him for the Promised Day, but we don't owe him this much."
Winry knew she wouldn't like the answer, but she still had to ask. "What does he want?"
"At least half the desert," Miles said. He looked sideways at her. "Including Xerxes. I was hoping you could talk to him."
Winry nodded. She hadn't talked to Ling in the five years since the Promised Day, but she could at least try to talk to him.
The rest of the drive was spent in silence. Winry watched the scenery unfold through the window. Sand turned to dune turned to sand turned to dune turned to sand. She traced the outline of the horizon on the window glass. Slowly, little by little, the city started appearing on the horizon. The ruins of Xerxes mixed with the buildings of the Ishvalan refugees.
Winry's automail was next to the surgery, which was next to the funerarium. She spent the rest of the afternoon setting up. There was no point in talking to Ling while still grimy from the road.
Ling came to see her the following morning.
They exchanged a few pleasantries -- Winry asked Ling to tell Lan Fan to come get an automail check-up, Ling asked for news of the Elric brothers. Eventually, they ran out of innocuous things to say.
"You're already Emperor of Xing. How can you be so, so greedy!" Winry waved wildly with her wrench – she was tempted to hit him as she would Ed, but that might cause a diplomatic incident.
Ling's expression remained the same, but pressure built up behind Winry's eyes. The desert wind pulled hungrily at the edges of her flesh. Ling smiled and spread his hands.
The pressure built up even sharper and Winry hit him in the face with the wrench – so much for that diplomatic incident. "Don't give me that. That was five years ago."
There was an awkward pause. Just as Winry was about to ask him to say something or leave -- she had work to do -- he got up and left.
Winry went back to her work. It was easy to let everything fade away into the work. When she was working automail, right there in the gears and mechanisms, it didn't matter if she was in Resembool or Rush Valley or Xerxes.
Lan Fan came in. She had brought two cups of tea. She drank first one, then the other as Winry finished her work. Finally, Winry was done. It wasn't that Winry didn't want to see Lan Fan, but maintenance took a backseat to triage.
It was in the late afternoon when Winry could finally turn her attention to Lan Fan. Winry hugged her. Lan Fan took half a second to return the hug, out of surprise.
"How have you been?" Lan Fan asked.
Winry shrugged a shoulder and directed her to the fold-out bed -- she'd start by checking the back-facing part of the interface, that was always the hardest part to reach for anyone and so the part most likely to be in need of repair.
Lan Fan took off her shirt and laid down on the bed.
"What about you? How's life in Xing?" Winry inspected the interface. It seemed fine, but Lan Fan had put on some muscle and there was a slight, but still noticeable discrepancy, between the flesh and metal arm.
Winry talked to Lan Fan as she worked on the interface. She knew from experience there was no reason in the world that would convince Lan Fan to take something to dull the pain, but that didn't mean Winry couldn't do her best to keep her mind off things. The tent flap rustled. Lan Fan tensed.
"You alright?" Winry asked.
Lan Fan nodded tightly.
Winry continued working.
"Wrench," Winry said, holding out her hand. It was a reflex from Rush Valley; Garfiel had taken a new apprentice, a girl who still needed to work on the theory before being allowed to practice.
Someone gave her the wrench. Once she was done using it, she looked up to thank the person who'd given it to her. "Thank you, Scar."
"That's not his name," Miles said. "I don't know what his name is, but that's not it."
"It is to me," Winry said at the same time as Scar expressed the same sentiment. Agreeing with him never got less weird.
Winry shrugged and turned back to Lan Fan. It didn't take Winry long to finish reattaching the arm. Lan Fan barely even flinched. She stood up immediately, hugged Winry with her other arm and left her alone with Miles and Scar.
"Don't look at me," Miles said. "I'm only here because our mutual friend wanted to be, and he's technically still a wanted fugitive."
There was a pause. Winry kept staring at Scar. She barely noticed when Miles rolled his eyes and left, leaving her alone with Scar and a picture folder on the table.
"Your parents would be proud," Scar said.
There had been a time she would have been angry to hear him say this, but it had been too long a day and she was too tired. "I know. What do you want?"
"I want you to give me automail arms," Scar said.
"Why?" Winry asked.
"I mislike alchemy." He pulled his sleeves up, exposing the alchemical tattoos there.
She touched the tattoos on the arm closest to her. "This arm all you have left of your brother."
Scar picked up the picture folder from the table and offered it to her. She took it, but didn't open it. She had a feeling she already knew what was inside.
"I want my brother to be buried whole," Scar said.
Winry was right, then. She didn't need to open the folder to know what was inside. Scar left while she looked away. This she could be angry about. Did he think she could not understand? Did he think she would say no? How dare he.
Winry started packing her gear for the night. The desert had the unfortunate habit of getting into everything and clogging the mechanisms. Hum. If she wanted to give Scar automail, she'd need more synthnerve cabling, this roll wasn't fine quality anymore, it'd do for leg automail, but not for anything involving precision on the user's part, like fingers.
It was a week before Winry saw Ling again. In that time, she wrote Paninya a letter to tell her how very much she missed her and that she might just seduce Lan Fan if Paninya didn't join her soon. Paninya's reply was delivered by Ling himself. He smiled too big, even for Ling, and the edges of it were strained. Lan Fan was lurking in the shadows somewhere nearby.
"It's tiring, being an emperor," he said, balanced back in a chair with his feet on the table. He hadn't even bothered with a hello, just barged right in and propped his feet on the table. Being Emperor hadn't done anything for his manners.
"So now you're a mailman." She pushed his feet off the table and he let her, which was how she knew something was really off.
"Couldn't even if I wanted," he said. He smiled. It was a decidedly un-Ling-like kind of smile; there were too many teeth showing and they were too sharp. "It's Greed."
The air tensed like electrical wire stretched to the breaking point. All Winry could think was is he fucking with me?
Ling folded his arms on the table and put his head on them. "It's not that he's back. It's that he's not not back."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Winry said.
"Me neither. He used to be a person, then he died and now he's a feeling -- just greed. Took me a while to notice. I'm not as selfless as I like to think." Ling sighed. "I liked him much better as a person. Where are the alchemists when you need them?"
Winry poked the top of Ling's head. "Wait here."
He waved a hand over his head.
Finding Scar wasn't complicated, if one knew what to look for and Winry, no matter how much she wanted to pretend otherwise, knew what to look for. He had kept his brother's notes -- of course he had. Winry brought notes and Scar back to Ling.
"These will help May," Scar said. He held the original of the notes out to Ling.
Ling took them slowly. On anyone else, it might have been reverent, but that wasn't Ling's style. He tossed them a salute and a smile; the smile was pure Ling. "Don't think that means I'm not claiming this land for Xing."
Once they were alone, Winry turned to Scar. "I'll do it."
"It'll be long and it'll be painful, but I'll do it."
He nodded again.
"I won't do both arms at once." Her ethical spine would not let her leave him with unusable arms, not when he was a wanted fugitive, not even if he might beat Lana Fan's record for acclimation.
He nodded a third time.
"I'll do it, but you have to do something for me first." She shook her head. "No, that came out wrong. I'll do it, but please do something for me first."
Scar nodded again. There was a pause, silence made even heavier by the howling wind outside. Winry stared at him. She would not be the one to ask first.
"Tell me how my parents died," Winry said. She refused to look away.
"I have told you before that there is nothing that can excuse what I did," Scar said. He would tell her, she knew, but for now he was trying to be kind. She didn't know how to feel about that.
"I just want to know," Winry said, voice choked in her throat. "Please. I just want to know."
He told her. When he was done, he left her alone with her grief and her tears.
The next day, once she was finished with consultations for the day, she took a deep breath and marched over to the house he was sharing with Miles. She made enough noise getting there that when she knocked it was Miles who opened the door, blinking uncertainly at her in the desert sun. He looked different and more than just a little like an owl, with his hair dishevelled, his clothing in disarray and his glasses gone.
"Is he here?" Winry asked. It was probably best not to call Scar Scar in front of Miles, he seemed to take it personally.
Miles nodded and let her in.
She found Scar in the yard behind the house. He was looking at his hands like it was the last time he'd see them. She supposed it almost was.
"Hey." She sat down next to him.
He acknowledged her presence with a nod.
"Surgery's busy, but they have a free spot tomorrow first thing. If you still want to do this, it has to be then."
"I do," he said.
She passed him the schematics she'd worked on for his arm. The early stages had had many variations on traditional Ishvalan symbols etched on the outer casing, but eventually she'd stopped to trying to find something that would fit him. None of them fit, because he wasn't a tasteful etching kind of guy. He was an efficient and streamlined kind of guy.
He took the schematics from her and looked at them. He nodded.
She stood. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."
She did, in fact, see him the next day. She started with his brother's arm and set down the interface, but not the automail yet. Better to leave it heal for a time first. Once she was done Winry helped Scar go to his brother's funeral.
She returned from the ceremony -- it had been her, Scar and the priest -- to find Paninya waiting with Miles for both of them. Ling was perched on a boulder next to them, a touch of sharpness in his smile, and Lan Fan stood at his side. A child Winry had built a new hand for three days ago was kicking a ball around with her friend.
The sun was shining bright above and Winry, in her dusty overalls and with her sweaty hair, felt at peace.